Extreme Wines: Idaho?


When the writers of “The Muppet Movie” tried to think of the most extreme, the most ridiculous source for wine to use in this scene with Kermit, Miss Piggy and an obnoxious waiter played by Steve Martin, their minds somehow turned to Idaho. Idaho wine — what could be funnier (and indeed it is a funny scene)? So I guess Idaho wine is a suitable entry in the Wine Economist Extreme Wine files.

The Undeserving

But I don’t think Idaho deserves its problematic place in the cinematic history of wine. Why not? Well, first of all, there are funnier places for wine to come from. Wine is produced in all 50 U.S. states, so in choosing Idaho the Muppet writers missed the opportunity to make fun of other states like North Dakota and Nebraska or Arkansas and Mississippi. (I would suggest Minnesota and Wisconsin, but I’ve had perfectly good wine from both states.)

That’s the second reason why the Idaho line is confusing. Not only does Idaho make wine, it actually produces really good wines, including some quite outstanding ice wines. To someone who knows the wines of the region, there is nothing funny at all about the idea of an Idaho wine. (There is something funny, on the other hand, about Steve Martin’s skimpy waiter costume).

This meditation on the topic of Idaho wine is provoked by the receipt of a new book about that state’s wine industry, Idaho Wine Country by Alan Minskoff with photographs by Paul Hosefros (Caxton Press, 2010). It’s a beautiful book and a very interesting read. I’ve been following Idaho wines for some times, but I was still a bit surprised at how much has changed in recent years.

Surprising Terroir

I appreciate that wine grapes don’t automatically spring to mind when you think of Idaho. Idaho, isn’t that where all the spuds come from? Yes, it’s true: the license plates still say “famous potatoes.” You’d think they’d make vodka in Idaho instead of wine. And they do.

But Idaho isn’t all potato fields or Rocky Mountain slopes. While there are several regions that produce wine, the main area is the Snake River AVA in the southern part of the state, which has everything you might look for in wine growing region. It has a moderate climate where tree fruit and grapevines both thrive. And the Snake River, too. Grapevines famously love to overlook water. This region has a great deal in common with the Columbia Valley AVA in Washington, but at an altitude of 2900 feet it is a little like  Mendoza, too.

Early grape plantings were the usual cold climate suspects like Riesling  and these varietals still do fine, but global climate change has benefited the area immensely and warm climate varietals are now commonly planted including Chardonnay, Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah.

Idaho Spuds?

To a certain extent the modern history of Idaho wine is the story of Ste Chapelle Winery, which is by far the largest winery in the state and the fifth largest producer in the Washington-Oregon-Idaho region. Ste. Chapelle is to Idaho as Chateau Ste. Michelle has been to Washington: the early trailblazer, the dominant producer by volume, a leading advocate of quality and a key factor in the expansion of the entire industry. It is hard to imagine that we would be talking about Idaho wine today (or even joking about it) without Ste. Chapelle.

Ste. Chapelle was basically a collaboration  between winegrower and winery owner Dick Symms and legendary winemaker Bill Brioch beginning in the 1970s. Symms and Broich  lasted only a few years as a team, but made a reputation for high quality despite surprisingly high volume (more than 100,000 cases). Their legacy stands tall today, both the winery (now owned by Ascentia Wine Estates, which also owns Columbia Winery and Covey Run, Buena Vista Carneros, Atlas Peak and  Geyser Peak) and the growing Idaho wine industry.

Idah0. No joking, it’s not just spuds any more.

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Thanks to my old friend Jim Thomssen of Home Federal Bank for reminding me about Idaho’s interesting wines.

Where are they now: Bill Broich has retired from full time wine making duties, but he still has the wine bug. He and his wife, Phyllis McGavick, own McGavick Winery and donate 100% of their proceeds to charity! You can find them on Facebook.

Extreme Wine: The Worst?

What’s the worst wine in the world? Not the worst type of wine, varietal or style (these are matters of taste and degustibus non est disputandum here at The Wine Economist). And let’s rule out the worst idea for a wine, too, because Miles’s dump bucket cuvée from the film Sideways (shown above) is the clear winner.

No, I’m talking about the worst professionally made (amateur efforts are another category), commercially sold wine — the wine with the most serious objective flaws that was released to the market despite its potentially reputation-ruining qualities?

Corked and Screwed

In terms of a single vintner economic impact, it was probably the 1985 David Bruce Chardonnay that George Taber talks about in his excellent book To Cork or Not to Cork? David Bruce is known today as a maker of fine Pinot Noir but back in the 1980s their Chardonnay was a big hit. A hit, that is, until the 1985 vintage was plagued by massive incidence of cork taint that almost destroyed the winery by ruining the reputation of its most important wine and effectively drove it out of the Chardonnay business.

Turns out the faulty corks had been rejected as tainted by Robert Mondavi and the cork importer sold them off to David Bruce rather than having them destroyed or sent back to Portugal.  A big economic hit indeed. But I need to rule out cork taint for this extreme wine competition because it is so utterly unexceptional. Virtually everyone who bottles wine with cork will experience cork taint — 3-5 percent loss is the figure usually cited.

Bad Wine Uncorked

I had the opportunity to understand what really bad wine is like last week when I attended a professional wine faults workshop organized and taught by Amy Mumma, director of the innovative World Wine Program at Central Washington University (profiled in this recent Yakima Herald-Republic article) .

Amy’s background is in biochemistry and wine business and this gives her an unusual ability to detect and analyze wine flaws and advise wineries (something that the legendary Emile Peynaud was famous for).  To steal a line from Ghostbusters, Amy is the answer to the question “who ya gonna call?” when something goes wrong with your wine.

Amy led my group of about 50 wine professionals through a tasting of twelve wines that illustrated different fundamental flaws ranging from what was probably a simple shipping problem (“cooked” when its shipping container got too hot) to a palate-destroying example of a badly corked wine. When retailers are suspicious that a wine on their shelves may be faulty, they call Amy and, if the problem is bad enough, she buys the bottles for use in her classes. All of the flawed wines we sampled were purchased through normal retail channels.

Worst of the Worst

The worst wine we sampled was a real dog (no offense to canines intended). It was a Columbia Valley Merlot plagued by the thankfully rare combination of reduction, oxidation and Brettanomyces.  It looked bad, smelled bad and tasted (gasp!) horrible.  Certainly one of the worst wines I’ve ever tried. Why in the world would anyone put their label on this wine and send it into the marketplace to represent them?

Drawing upon her science background, Amy was able to explain to us how this awful combination of defects occurred, but the question of why anyone would try to sell it remains. Ignorance? Incompetence? Arrogance? Cash flow demands? Hard to say. Some wine flaws (like the “cooked” wine) can happen after wine leaves the maker’s control, but many of the flawed wines on retail shelves were already in bad shape when they left the warehouse. No excuse for this. Reputation is critically important in the wine business and it is established (or destroyed) one bottle at a time.

You May Not Want to Know the Answer

Amy’s class was great — she’s a wonderful teacher — and gave us a lot of useful tools for detected and understanding wine flaws and for dealing with related trade and consumer issues. Amy answered all our questions but one: who made these awful wines? She kept the makers secret, so I can’t report them here (although I have a guess concerned one particularly  nasty white wine that was clouded with silky black strands of dangerous bacteria).

What’s the worst wine you’ve ever tasted, I asked Amy. You may not want to know her answer.

The worst wine ever sampled smelled and tasted like somebody urinated in a tin can of clams.  Seriously.  Absolutely disgusting.  It was a process of putrification caused by high levels of bacteria and was a Washington State Cab Sauv.  And it was at retail price in wine shops. I think some of the worst have been high levels of mercaptans or those with excessive ethyl acetate that you can’t even get near your face without your eyes watering.

I’m trying to imagine who would sell a wine like that!  I wonder what consumers thought when they brought home the bottle and pulled the cork? I imagine that some of them probably thought the wine was supposed to taste like that. You can scratch that customer off your mailing list!

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Watch for a future post on the World Wine Program at CWU, a unique approach to educating wine business professionals.

[Note: This post is part of an occasional feature on extreme wines. Extreme wines? You know, the cheapest, the most expensive; the biggest producers, the smallest; the oldest, the newest and so forth.]

Access Denied [in Afghanistan]

According to Jancis Robinson’s website The Wine Economist is an “unusually meaty blog [that] looks at wine issues more seriously and cerebrally than most.” To serious and cerebral you can add a new adjective … dangerous!

It has come to my attention that anyone trying to read The Wine Economist in Afghanistan receives the following message instead of this site’s typical meaty prose:

“Access Denied (policy_denied)
This Page is Blocked as per the policy of ATRA”

ATRA is the Afghanistan Telecom Regulatory  Authority. I suppose they are reacting to the Kabul Wine Report published here a few weeks ago, which reported on illicit wine sales in the Afghan capital and provided tasting notes for some of the blackmarket wines on offer. It’s part of the Extreme Wine series and provides a peek into an unlikely (but apparently quite active) market for wine.

I think I’ve heard that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing and apparently this post was just informative enough to show up on the censors’ radar. Or maybe it was just too serious and cerebral!

Extreme Wines: Most Expensive Vintage?

[This post is part of an occasional feature on extreme wines. Extreme wines? You know, the cheapest, the most expensive; the biggest producers, the smallest; the oldest, the newest and so forth.]

2009 is by most accounts the most expensive Bordeaux vintage on record. Quite an achievement during a global economic slowdown! Jancis Robinson quotes some amazing prices for the en primeur wines:

Le Pin €1,050
Ausone €800
Cheval Blanc €700
Haut-Brion, Latour €600
Lafite, Margaux, Mouton €550
Yquem €540

Other’s People’s Wine

These prices are per bottle — except that no real bottles exist yet. The 2009 vintage is still in barrel and will stay there for several more months. Since Bordeaux wines are almost always varietal blends — and since the blending won’t take place until the wine is bottled — it is fair to say that the people who are paying these big prices can’t be completely sure what they are buying. They base their purchases on … on what? On faith (in the winemakers), on trust (in the critics’ judgments) and, of course, on speculation, since much of the action at this stage is to lock up hot wines for profitable resale later.

John Maynard Keynes once compared speculators to people who bet on the results of the “people’s choice” beauty contests that were popular in his day. The trick wasn’t to pick out the most beautiful entrant, but rather to  identify the one that other people would vote for. So making the bet was a matter of guessing what other people would think other people would do and playing the odds. That’s Bordeaux en primeur in a nutshell.

How did prices rise so high with the world economy in such a fragile state? There are many theories. Here are four.

(Another) Vintage of the Century

The first theory is quite simple. 2009 was an extraordinary year and the wines are (or will be) spectacular.  Wine enthusiasts will forever regret it if they don’t purchase this vintage, even at high en primeur prices.

This theory is supported by the rave reviews of many wine critics. Perhaps it really is the vintage of the century in Bordeaux, although it must be said that vintages of the century seem to come around pretty frequently these days — their schedule is more like the World Cup than Haley’s Comet.

The China Theory

A second theory is that the high prices of these wines reflects the full emergence of Asia as a market for fine wine.  I’m not sure what to make of all the chatter I heard during the en primeur tasting circus, but the scuttlebutt is that American buyers failed to show up in the usual numbers, but they were not missed because of the demand from China, both direct purchases and London houses buying for eventual Hong Kong resale.

One fact that supports this theory is the huge gap in prices between the top trophy wines and the rest of the Bordeaux market. It is said that Asian buyers want to purchase only the best, most famous wines (rather than looking for bargains or good value further down the list). I don’t know if this stereotype is true, but the stratification in price indicates a disproportionate demand for the top wines, which is consistent with the China theory.

Auction Theory

Another article by Jancis Robinson suggests that the Bordeaux winemakers and their agents are using strategic techniques to try to boost prices, dividing them in tranches, for example, a popular practice in financial markets. Tranche is French for a slice and it is a word that moved from financial jargon to everyday use during the economic crisis, when we all learned how Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDOs) were sold off in “slices” that allowed people to convince themselves that their sub-prime mortgage investments were safer than they turned out to be.

Bordeaux wine is sold in tranches, too, with the price of the first slice used to set the standard for the second.  This year, Robinson reports, the first tranche was ridiculously small, creating leaving excess demand and therefore forcing more buyers to weigh in for the second tranche (or risk not getting any wine), which was priced at €100 per bottle more than slice #1 in some cases.

(Wine fact: Tranche is also a winery — and a good one —  Tranche Cellars in Walla Walla.)

Cost-conscious wine drinkers can only hope that the Bordeaux merchants do not start reading the technical economics literature on auction theory, where they would likely find other ways to manipulate the market to squeeze out higher prices.

The No Theory Theory

A final theory is really no theory at all. It holds that the idea that Bordeaux 2009 (broadly defined) is the most expensive Bordeaux vintage ever is a misconception. There are about 8000 Bordeaux producers according to reports I’ve read recently and only about 400 of them take part in the en primeur market. The total production of “first wines” by these makers is surprisingly small. I think it is fair to say that 90 percent of the market’s recent attention is focused on less than 10% (by volume) of the wine produced in Bordeaux.

The prices of the top wines have gone through the roof, but what about the region as a whole? You don’t have to have a theory to appreciate the fact that the makers of ordinary Bordeaux wines do not share the status or benefits of the trophy wines and are probably feeling the pain of hard times like so many winemakers around the world.

Bordeaux 2009 might be extreme in two ways: most expensive and biggest gap between top and bottom!

Extreme Wine Report: Wine in Kabul

I’m starting an occasional feature on extreme wines. Extreme wines? You know, the cheapest, the most expensive; the biggest producers, the smallest; the oldest, the newest and so forth.

The first report comes from one of the least likely places to find wine: Kabul, Afghanistan. It is unlikely because Afghanistan is a Muslim country and Islamic Law is not very wine-friendly.  Wine is pretty much the last thing you think of when someone mentions Kabul. But there is it, as a recent Time magazine story makes clear.

The Wine Economist’s Chief Kabul Correspondent (codename K.W.) sends this report on the wine scene there, including a rough and ready shopping guide, firsthand market (and black market) analysis and … tasting notes!. Here’s the report.

Note: This is a report from The Wine Economist’s Chief Kabul Correspondent, “K.W.”  All names have been changed. Click here to read a recent Time magazine article on nightlife in Kabul.

In Kabul, if you know the right people you can have them use their security clearance to get wine, beer and spirits from one of the military bases or the UN. Unfortunately, I have not been able to utilize such resources. My wine supply comes through slightly less direct channels and is only available at night when the streets of Kabul are sufficiently dark.

Afghanistan is an Islamic country but is also home to thousands of foreign workers who very much enjoy winding down the evening with some type of alcoholic beverage. The legal technicalities with respect to alcohol are consequently rather vague. At times, the Afghan National Police Force sweeps through the restaurants frequented by foreigners in Kabul and seizes their supply of alcohol. These “raids” only happen every once in a while and it is largely assumed that they are simply a way of maintaining a supply for their own consumption. At other times, it seems to be legal for alcohol to be consumed by foreigners but not by Afghans. For this reason, my Afghan coworkers from my day job at an NGO are hesitant to join me at the bar I manage at night.

All of this ambiguity means that when the bar runs out of red wine and our normal supplier is on leave in Dubai, Hamad (the bartender) and I are forced to find alternate sources.   Hamad and I jumped into his car and after I came to terms with the fact that the seat wasn’t going to slide back from the fully-forward position it was in we were on our way. Hamad floored it out onto the main road, with Bollywood beats on full blast and the windows down – Hamad puffing on a cigarette. Traffic can get pretty bad in Kabul but that depends on how good you are at weaving and playing chicken with on coming traffic. I had about a thousand dollars in twenties wadded up in my pocket.

On Flower Street, named after the displays of bright, plastic flowers in front of nearly all of the stores, we went in a spoke with a man behind the counter who wore a Mona Lisa grin. You would think that buying something out of the black market would mean you could get it for cheap. Not so much. After trying very unsuccessfully to haggle the price down I handed over a little over half the money in my pocket and we got back in the car and waited, with the trunk just barely open. The Afghan National Police has a bigger presence on Flower Street than anywhere else I’ve seen. When the time was apparently right three guys ran out of the store with four cases of beer and a case of Tajikistan vodka wrapped up in black plastic bags, dumped them in the trunk, slammed it shut and ran back into the store. The engine had been running and we took off only to be stopped behind another car right next to three Policemen.

If I get caught buying alcohol it gets taken away, they pretend to make a big deal out of it and then they send me on my way. If Hamad – an Afghan – gets caught buying alcohol he gets taken to prison where he could stay for years if he is unable to pay a several thousand dollar fine. A flashlight scanned our faces for an uncomfortably long period of time as the policeman holding it took a long, thoughtful drag of his cigarette. Traffic cleared, Hamad shifted into gear and I watched the policeman in the rear view mirror look passively back to his friends.

Before we had finished letting out our sighs we had made a few turns and were stopped in the middle of a dark, dirt road ready for our next purchase – the main reason for our trip. Hamad sent a text and we waited for about two minutes before two dark figures with boxes under their arms appeared down the street walking towards us. The two men shifted their eyes at us. After the greetings, a quick series of questions which neither side answers, I broke open the boxes to see what we were getting. Right then I felt I was in the scene of the movie where the mobster checks the trunk to make sure “the goods” were all in order and accounted for.  I looked down, half expecting to find some sort of vastly illegal contraband and instead found “Calvert Varietals” a French Cabernet marketed towards an international market, and then Sutter Home California Cabernet. I pointed at the Sutter Home and told one of the guys he should be the one paying me to take it off his hands. The joke didn’t really go over. Wine snobbery, even in jest, isn’t really understood here. We didn’t have enough money for all of it so some of the Sutter Home found its way back into dark alley wine supply to await its next nervous, desperate wine-starved foreigner.

I was reminded of the last wine purchase we made, an unusually large order of 72 bottles, all of a relatively drinkable and non-threatening Merlot, my favorite varietal. One customer, for some reason eager to expound his wine knowledge upon a 24 year old behind a bar in Kabul, expressed his distaste with the selection. “Merrrllot?”, he exclaimed, “Is that really all you have? I think I’ll stick to Becks”. While opening his bottle of beer I had wondered at how the reputation of one of the worlds greatest wine grapes had been tainted all the way out here. There was a chance that the customer knew what he was talking about and that his owns tastes led him to prefer other types of wines over what he reasonably assumed was a run-of-the-mill example of the often-times poor crafting of Merlot. There was also a chance that having tried a good amount of mediocre Merlot in the 1990’s the customer developed his own aversion to the grape that has continued to this day. More likely than not, this customer – an American – saw a movie and perhaps some snippets of Merlot criticism in the media and decided to use the outside influence to help guide him down the sometimes overwhelming path of wine selection, which is not unreasonable. After finishing a fervent defense of the grape (in my head), I took a sip and remembered that fewer people wanting to drink Merlot meant that there would be more for me.

Most of the bar patrons know better than to ask for a specific type of wine beyond red and white. In fact, most patrons of the bar know better than to ask for wine in the first place. That said, nearly every week we have a different red wine on the shelf and you never know, this could be the week when it’s drinkable before rather than after those rum and cokes. Recently we’ve had a decent supply of a South African white which is decent, especially now that the summer is swinging into gear and most everyone chooses to sit out in the garden at a picnic table. Red will typically be either Italian or French with the occasional American, Australian and Spanish bottles as well. As I cringe at the blown out fruit I have to remind myself that much of this wine has been sitting in giant metal shipping containers for months, seeing some of the worst transportation conditions possible.

How did this wine get here? For the most part, deals are cut with distributors or directly with producers and larger shipments are flown in on large cargo planes, destined for Embassies, the UN, the military bases and perhaps one or two influential individuals or groups. But what about my handful of cases in the alley? My guess is that occasionally, cases find their way off the pallets while waiting to be trucked off to the bases. Somebody’s cousin has a friend who’s brother knows somebody who once mentioned to Hamad the bartender that he may be able to get him something. Most of the wine I see is fairly recent, usually 2008, but every once in a while I see something like the dateless Barolo we had a few bottles of the other day with its yellowed, ripped labels and corks that indicated at least decade. What channels had those bottles gone through to eventually find their way to the bar?

When Hamad and I get back to the bar “Alain”, the rather stereotypical Frenchman is relieved to see the cases under our arms. Most of the customers are there for the Heineken or the Jim Beam but occasionally I see hopeful eyes peruse the bottles of wine behind me, looking for something that has not already disappointed them. In general, you are forced to ask the question, “why is this wine in Afghanistan in the first place?” The answer, more often than not, is revealed with the first unfortunate sip. That said, there is always the hope of finding that diamond in the rough, a glass of which will make you forget that when your last bottle of Tuscan red was fizzing in your glass, you shrugged your shoulders and decided to take a sip anyway.

Kabul Tasting Notes:

Calvert Varietals, Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 Vin Pays d’OC France

When the back label, in English, tells you that this bottle is good with everything from burritos to Satay beef your hopes tend to whither just a bit. A cooked nose (perhaps literally, given the way it was likely transported here), not unpleasant in taste but lacking in body and length.

Dona Beatriz, Rueda Verdejo, 2007 Spain

Very promising and interesting nose with several layers of red to dark-red fruit laced with deep roses. Unfortunately, it seemed watered down, completely lacking in taste.

Torregaia Negromaro Salento Indicazione Geographica Typica Italy

Bright fruit in the form of moderately high acidity. Dried cranberry followed by a small hint of cluster rot – as if the grapes were caught in an early rain while still too young and the vintner left them on the vine to try to get them a little riper.

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