Book Review: Robinson and Murphy on American Wine

Jancis Robinson and Linda Murphy, American Wine: The Ultimate Companion to the Wines and Wineries of the United States. University of California Press, 2013.

I’m in Sacramento this week for the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium, the largest wine industry gathering in the Western Hemisphere. I came for the informative seminars of course but it’s the trade show that really takes my breath of away. Hundreds of exhibitors and thousands of products and services — wow! It makes me reconsider my vision of wine in America.

Wine isn’t just about bottles and corks and retail shelves and its not just California, either. The American wine industry is broad and deep, spanning the continent and reaching into almost every imaginable type of business and walk of life. Looking across the trade show floors (two of them because there are so many exhibitors) provides a dramatic vision of what wine in this country has become.

American Wine, the beautiful and informative new book by Jancis Robinson and Linda Murphy, has the same breath-taking effect. No matter how you think of American wine, this book shows you that there is more to it than you ever imagined.

Drilling Down Deep

The main text is organized around geography, as you might expect, starting with large national regions, then the wine producing states (with California getting the lion’s share of  the page count), then regions within states, AVAs, sub AVAs and so on.  As the authors drill down, they pass through many layers that include geography and geology, history, industry, viticulture, producers, personalities and finally the wines themselves.

As a test I worked my way though the Sonoma section in detail and it was an amazing experience to have all these dots connected so seamlessly and well and illustrated with beautiful photos and useful maps. By the end, after taking in all of Sonoma’s regions and AVAs, I felt that I had a much more nuanced understanding of this complicated and important region and its unique characteristics.

One of the things that I like best about American Wine is that it takes its title seriously and attempts to do for the entire country what it obviously does for California. You would expect the major producing states like Washington, New York and Oregon to get detailed treatment here and they do. But you might not expect detailed analysis of Colorado, for example, with its rapidly emerging industry, or Missouri with its important viticultural history. Indeed, every state makes wine in one way or another and every state gets serious consideration here. (Alabama and Mississippi get just a paragraph each, it must be said, but maybe that’s not a surprise).

A Bit Overwhelming

By the end of the book I felt a bit overwhelmed, and not just by the vast landscape of detailed information. It was more of an emotional response. American Wine helped me re-imagine America as a country where wine is deeply embedded in history and culture and widely embraced.

Wine consumption is still low in America if we judge by European standards, and wine still struggles to overcome the legacy of Prohibition. American Wine recognizes these challenges, but it projects an inspiring vision of wine today that suggests how it might evolve and develop in the future.

While no single volume can possible satisfy all interests (I’m sure my friend Karl will wonder why New Jersey didn’t get the attention he believes it deserves), I think this American Wine lives up its “ultimate companion” subtitle. Highly recommended.

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American Wine is the second new book Jancis Robinson has published this season. Wine Grapesco-authored with Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz, came out just before the holidays. It’s a magisterial survey of global wine viewed through more than 1300 grape varieties. Writing just before Christmas, I declared it the best gift a wine enthusiast could hope to receive. Now you can add American Wine to the list.

Only one thing could make Wine Grapes better (apart from a lower price, of course) — access to a searchable electronic version. Jancis says they are working on it, but it’s not a simple task with a book of such size and complexity. Fingers crossed that we see it before too long!

The Scrooge Report: Holiday Wine Gifts

No wonder economics is called the “dismal science” — sometimes our rigorous analysis threatens to spoil everyone’s fun.

Take holiday gift-giving, for example. The conventional wisdom is that “it is better to give than to receive” and while there is some merit in this if everyone gives (so that everyone receives), I think you can probably see the collective action problem here. Only an economist (or maybe an excitable child) would point out that, strictly from a material accumulation point of view, there are real advantages in being on the receiving end!

A Badly Flawed Process

But it gets worse because some economists suggest that it may be better not to bother with gifts at all. Don’t give gifts, give cash. Or, better yet, keep the cash and spend it on yourself. Gift-giving itself is a badly flawed process. This Scroogish sentiment is in part the result of Joel Waldfogel’s famous article on “The Deadweight Loss of Christmas.” Waldfogel concluded that Christmas, for all its merriment, was actually welfare-reducing because recipients do not generally place a value on gifts that is as high as their cost. They end up receiving stuff they would never have purchased with their own money.

The cost of giving gifts exceeds the benefits, so gift giving is an economic drain. Dismal, huh?  Here’s how it works.

Your aunt paid $50 for the sweater that she gave you. How much would you have paid for it? $50? $45? $40? Well, the fact is that you had the option of buying it for $50 and didn’t, therefore you must not have valued it at the full amount. So its value to you is probably  less than what your aunt paid. But how much less?

Economists seem to agree that the best case scenario is that there is about a 10 percent average loss in gift-giving, which I call the “Santa Tax,” although the “yield” as reported by survey respondents varies a good deal. The National Retail Federation estimates that Americans will spend more than $550 billion on holiday gifts in 2012. If the deadweight loss rate is just 10 percent, that would be a $50+ billion Santa Tax this year. Yikes!

There are many problems with this way of calculating holiday giving gains and losses. It is pleasing to give gifts, of course, and this should be taken into account. But how much would you be willing to pay for the pleasure?  And would your pleasure have been less if you had just given cash? The efficiency loss might be less with a cash gift, but perhaps the pleasure of giving (and thus the incentive to give) would be diminished, too.

Santa Tax Wine Edition

Then we can argue about the size of the Santa Tax. Is 10 percent about right … or do you suspect (as I do) that it might be much higher, especially when you are buying gifts for people who are much older or younger or who have very different tastes or needs from your own? Have you ever received a gift that was 100 percent deadweight loss? If you are honest you probably have. But it’s the thought that counts, isn’t it? How big a Santa tax is too much?

Which brings us to the wine part of the problem. Doesn’t it seem like the Santa tax is probably even larger for wine gifts than for many other things? Most of us have experienced the deadweight loss when a bottle of wine that we’ve paid good money for doesn’t turn out to be worth what we’ve spent. So it is no surprise that the loss rate might be even worse when other people are doing the buying (and giving) for us.

Giving wine as a gift is risky (unless it is someone you know very well) because there are so many different choices and individual tastes differ so much. There are lots and lots of good wine  gift choices, of course, but it is easy to get caught in the Santa tax trap. I’m sure that a lot of holiday wine gifts miss the mark badly.

Maybe that’s why wine enthusiasts receive so many “wine gizmo” gifts instead of wine — but those gadgets are subject to the Santa Tax, too.  The New York Times‘s William Grimes recently complained about this problem.

Across the land, Christmas trees spread their fragrant branches over packages containing monogrammed Slankets, electric golf-ball polishers and toasters that emblazon bread slices with the logo of your favorite N.F.L. team.

But for some reason, the culture of wine and spirits provides especially fertile ground for misbegotten concepts like these. Year after year, it yields a bumper crop of inane but highly giftable innovations like wineglass holders that clip onto party plates, leather beer holsters and octobongs, the most efficient method yet devised for eight college students to consume a keg’s worth of beer simultaneously.

Tyler Colman, writing on his Dr Vino blog, singled out gifts of fancy automated corkscrews for particular criticism. You can probably think of some high Santa tax wine paraphernalia that you’ve either given or received yourself.

Beyond the Octobong: Wine Economist Gift Guide

OK, I suppose the octobong is out, but some of the wine gizmos that Grimes reviews in the article are sort of weirdly fascinating. I guess I can see why they are given as gifts (even though you might never spend your own money on them). So where does that leave us when it comes to wine gifts?

My first bit of advice is simple: don’t give a bottle of wine to friends or relations, share it with them. There is something about a shared experience that transcends a simple commodity transfer. (From a technical economics standpoint, I think sharing adds  some “public goods” elements to the deadweight loss equation that can cushion the Santa Tax loss). Trust me, from an economic theory standpoint, sharing is the way to go.

In fact the more I think about it the more I believe that sharing rather than giving is the key. Sharing a bottle of wine rather than just giving it may seem a bit selfish and is certainly more expensive (since time as well as money are involved), but sharing changes the game from transaction to relationship and this seems to me to be the essence of both the holidays themselves and wine, too.

More Gift Advice (and Shameless Self-Promotion)

Back to giving and receiving. Best gift to give a wine enthusiast? A copy of the new paperback edition of Wine Wars, of course. (Shameless self-promotion never takes a holiday).

Best wine gift to receive? It’s gotta be Wine Grapes by Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and Jose Vouillamoz — the brilliant 1242 page survey of 1368 wine grape varieties. So many grapes, so much information, such beautiful illustrations. This jeroboam-sized book will provide years of detailed research use (including very cool DNA analysis of wine grape origins!) and hours and hours of simple browsing pleasure for any curious wine geek.

Weight? Yes, quite a lot of it; 6.8 pounds shipping weight according to Amazon.com (although my copy feels light for its size). Deadweight loss? Forget about it!

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Click here to view a pdf of Waldfogel’s original article, which appeared in the December (of course) 1993 issue of the American Economic Review. The illustration is of a certain Mr. Grinch, who may or may not have been an economist.  Happy holidays everyone!

Grape Transformations: Oregon Origins

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I had a hidden agenda when I visited McMinnville, Oregon a few weeks ago. Ostensibly I was there to talk about my new book at Linfield College and to the local Rotary Club. Those events were great but I would not have been happy if I hadn’t done one more thing: return a minor piece of Oregon’s  wine history to its rightful home.

“To Nick, Cheers for all the years — past & future. David Lett, Christmas 1989.”

That is the inscription I found in a second-hand bookstore copy of Vintage Timelines, a neglected classic book that Jancis Robinson wrote over twenty years ago. The idea of the book was to select a group of the world’s greatest wines and examine how different vintages have evolved (and would be expected to continue to evolve) over time.  The research required Jancis to taste trough verticals of each great wine (research is such a drag!) and compare notes from previous years to create complex and quite fascinating graphical timelines.

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Darn few American wines were good enough (in terms of their ageing potential) to make the cut and only one wine outside of California — the Eyrie Pinot Noir Reserve made by David Lett. Lett planted the first Pinot Noir vines in the Willamette Valley and he, along with the group they call “the Pioneers,” set Oregon wine on its present course.

Nick’s Back Room

The Nick in the inscription is almost certainly Nick Peirano of Nick’s Italian Cafe. Lett’s audacious egg was incubated and eventually hatched by the Pioneers and others over countless discussions in Nick’s back room. I’ve loved owning the book, but felt it didn’t belong to me. I needed to take it home and give it back. But to whom?

My first thought was my friend Scott Chambers, a professor at Linfield College and a friend of both Nick and the Lett family. He’d love to have the book, I thought, but it didn’t really belong to him any more than me. Maybe Jason Lett, David’s winemaking son who is carrying on the Eyrie tradition and building upon it? Yes, that would make sense.

But then I learned about the Oregon Wine History Project at Linfield College and that sealed the deal. They were pleased to add my copy of Vintage Timelines to their archive as a document chronicling the Eyrie Reserve’s early international recognition as well as the role of Nick’s back room in the region’s early development. Jeff Peterson, Director of the Linfield Center for the Northwest, accepted the book and both Scott and Jason supported the decision.

A Remarkable Story: David Lett (and the Pioneers)

David Lett is one of my heros and I am including him in my “Grape Transformations” list of people who have changed the way people think about wine or wine regions. He was certainly instrumental in the transformation of Oregon from a place known for fruit and nuts rather than grapes to a region frequently mentioned in the same breath with Burgundy.

Lett’s story is remarkable. Trained at UC/Davis, he came north looking for terroir where he could make Pinot in the Burgundian style. The first Pinot vines were planted in 1965; 1970 was the first Eyrie Pinot vintage.  After one or two false starts he hit paydirt. Great wine.

But from Oregon? Rainy old Oregon probably seemed like the last place on earth to make world class wine in the 1970s.

Olympic Gold

Then came the Wine Olympics of 1979. This was a competition, sponsored by  the French food and wine magazine Gault Millau, that featured 330 wines from 33 countries tasted blind by 62 judges. The 1975 Eyrie Pinot Noir Reserve attracted attention by placing 10th among Pinots. A stunning achievement for a wine from a previously unknown wine region.

Robert Drouhin of Maison Joseph Drouhin, a Burgundy negociant and producer, was fascinated and sponsored a further competition where the Eyrie wine came close second behind Drouhin’s own 1959 Chambolle-Musigny. Thus was Eyrie’s reputation set (and Oregon’s, too). It wasn’t long before Domaine Drouhin Oregon (DDO) was built in the same Dundee Hills as Eyrie’s vineyards — a strong endorsement of the terroir and recognition of the achievement.

The Pioneers founded the Oregon wine industry, but now the torch has been passed to a group that you might call the Sons [and Daughters] of the Pioneers. Some of them appear in the video at the top of this post (don’t be discouraged by the poor audio at the start — it gets better quickly). I’ll have something to say about this group in an upcoming post.

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Special thanks to Scott Chambers and Jason Lett for their hospitality during our stay in McMinnville.

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Update 11/16/2011: You might be interested in Katherine Cole’s recent piece on the 50th anniversary of wine in Oregon — it includes a nice annotated chronology of the wine industry.

The Rodney Dangerfield of Wine


Petite Sirah is the Rodney Dangerfield of wine. Like the famous comedian, this grape variety “can’t get no respect.”

For a long time nobody really knew much about Petite Sirah (PS), except the fact that it produced “the biggest, toughest, brawniest red wines in California” (according to The New Connoisseurs’ Guidebook to California Wine & Wineries). It’s true identity was a hotly disputed mystery. DNA tests finally settled arguments about its parentage — it is the Durif grape from France, a combination of the Peloursin and Syrah varieties discovered by Dr. Francoise Durif in the 1880s when he was searching for solutions to Syrah’s powdery mildew problem.

PS: The Prohibition Grape

It never caught on in Europe, but PS was quickly embraced in California and South America, where it thrives. Many of the early California vineyards included Petite Sirah along with Zinfandel and other heat-loving varieties and it figured prominently in field blends. If you’ve tasted Ridge Lytton Springs (71% Zinfandel, 21% Petite Sirah, 5% Carignane in the 2008 blend) or Frog’s Leap Napa Zin (80% Zinfandel, 19% Petite Sirah, 1% Carignane in 2008) you have some idea of what I’m talking about.

Petite Sirah took center stage during Prohibition. Most people don’t realized that wine consumption in the U.S. actually increased during “The Great Experiment,” through bootleg sales, of course, but mainly because millions of families took advantage of a loophole that allowed up to 200 gallons of legal homemade wine per household.  Rough, tough Petite Sirah grapes survived the long railroad trips necessary to get the grapes to home winemakers across the country. Bootleggers liked it, too, according to Jim Lapsley’s Bottled Poetry. Petite Sirah could make a wine so strong and deeply colored, Lapsley writes, that illegal sellers could stretch it out without fear of detection by adding up to 20% water! (I am tempted to make some sort of lame “water into wine” joke here, but it don’t want to be sacrilegious.)

So valuable was Prohibition Petite Sirah that in 1934 PS vines accounted for 4400 of Napa Valley’s 11,000 vineyard acres! The total for all of California was 7,285 acres in 1938. Petite Sirah went into decline again in the postwar years, as winemakers realized that it was not really Syrah after all as some supposed and moved in other directions. The spike in the 1960s and 1970s in the chart above is driven in part by the increase in generic jug wine sales (think Gallo Hearty Burgundy). A lot of the “Burgundy” in those blends was really Petite Sirah.

Do you see the “I can’t get no respect” angle here. Poor, misunderstood, mislabeled Petite Sirah.

But Petite Sirah is experiencing a renaissance today as a varietal wine as well as a blending component. PS vineyard acreage is up as is the number of wineries making varietal PS.  There is even a very dynamic advocacy group called PS I Love You that promotes the wine.

PS Renaissance: Why Now?

Why Petite Sirah now? Well, one reason is that it is different at a time when a lot of wines taste the same. Many of the old PS vineyards survive, so old vine PS is available, which is a special treat. Sue and I enjoyed a bottle of 2005 Arger Martucci Petite Syrah made from 140 year old Calistoga vines for our last wedding anniversary. That’s not an experience you can get with many other wine varieties.

But there is more than longevity to Petite Sirah. I asked Julie Johnson of Tres Sabores to explain the appeal and here’s what she said.

The old timers planted PS because they loved it and it happened to blend particularly well with Zinfandel.  That’s why I planted it:  a really old timer shared with me that he remembered it being planted on our property long, long ago.

I’m determined to continue making PS in an open and fruit forward style—some versions have gotten quite alcoholic and leathery  (not unlike Zinfandel) but I think that people are loving the depth and zest that the grape puts forward (sort of like Syrah +). … But in general, I think it’s a perfect wine for the rather amazing charcuterie and “all things from every animal” cuisine that’s so the rage right now.

People are discovering that it can be made without terribly extracted tannins as well so that helps the pairing—even with cheese.  At the winery–I offer guests a tasting choice–they can taste PS with a rich chocolate (70% +/-) cookie/cracker (not very sweet, nice texture) or a lovely piece of salumi. It’s kind of fun for people to delve into why aspects of each food pair well.   My main source of PS is up in Calistoga.  Dry farmed and always in need of a major taming of the crop —I love it.

A Certain Smile

Another reason for the PS Renaissance is that makers of this variety have come out of the closet, so to speak, and begun to celebrate the grape and their wine through the PS I Love You advocacy group and events like Dark & Delicious, which was held at the Rock Wall winery in Alameda, California a few weeks ago. I couldn’t attend the big tasting (I was in Argentina), so I asked my  good friend Lowell Daun to fill in for me. Here is his report.

If turnout is any indication, I think Petite Sirah production will have to get back to the 1970s numbers – the place was not easy to find, the weather was abysmal, tickets cost $63, yet the place was absolutely packed! I would estimate between 800 - 1000 people participated. And of the many wine tasting events I’ve attended, this group seemed more enthusiastic than any I’ve seen. And it wasn’t a “drunk-fest”, rather oenophiles whom seemed to know what they were looking for,enjoying and analyzing.

“Accidental Pairings” was my assumption upon finding some unusual wine-food combinations set throughout the Rock Wall facility. In retrospect, I think the organizers are too smart to have not had some design as to where each winery and food purveyor were located.  … Many chocolate pairings made sense, but I was surprised to find wonderful cupcakes worked with the wines, too. The most unusual food being paired with P.S., was spicy bacon and almond caramel popcorn, by HobNob Foods, set next to Tres Sabores’ pouring station. As it turned out Tres Sabores poured my favorite wines and the spicy bacon-almond-caramel popcorn was my hands-down favorite food, and they paired perfectly!!

In addition to hands-down favorite, Tre Sabores, other very interesting pourings were: Biale’s Punisher, Clayhouse, Rosenblum’s Rock Pile, Silkwood, Aver Family and Cecchetti.

Lowell did have one reservation. A health professional, he was concerned about all the purple smiles he saw at Dark & Delicious — Petite Sirah is famous for its ability to stain tooth and tongue. Is PS a threat to your tooth enamel?  Click here to read the 30 Second Wine Advisor on red wine and your teeth.

I think that all this proves that Petite Sirah really is the Rodney Dangerfield of wine — and I mean that in a good way. It may not be The Next Big Thing, but that’s not the point. Different and not to everyone’s taste, but with a large, loyal and growing fan club, that’s Petite Sirah.

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Thanks to Jo Diaz of Diaz Communications for information about the PS I Love You program and for the charts above. Thanks as well to Julie Johnson for her comments on PS and to Lowell Daun and Miller Freeman III for representing The Wine Economist at the Dark & Delicious tasting.

Washington Wine’s Identity Crisis

The title of the seminar was provocative: “In Search Of: Washington’s Singular Style.” Moderator Bruce Schoenfeld of Travel + Leisure magazine wanted to talk about regional wine identity. What does “Washington wine” mean in the wine glass and to consumers in the marketplace?

Schoenfeld’s search for a definitive Washington wine identity was cleverly conceived (I have pasted the details of the seminar including the list of wines we tasted at the end of the post). We began by tasting wines from three regions with clear identities: Chablis, Ribera del Duero and Barolo.

An Identity Crisis?

These wine regions have strong brands, if you think of it from a business angle. Does Washington have a strong brand in this sense or does it suffer from an identity crisis that limits its market potential? Well, there are many ways to try to answer this question and Schoenfeld deftly guided the discussion to consider several of them.

Can Washington wine be defined by grape variety?  Well, not exactly. Over the years Washington has embraced and then abandoned a string of “defining wines” from the varietal standpoint. First it was Riesling, then Merlot, then on to Cabernet Sauvignon and now Syrah and soon maybe Malbec (the featured “emerging variety” at last year’s conference) or Grenache (highlighted this year).

The problem is that none of the wine identities have stuck, so Washington must seem a bit schizophrenic to outsiders who pay attention to these things. Washington Riesling, the first attempt to define the state’s wine identity,  can be great here, but it is a white wine and red wines get most of the attention in the wine world today. Young wine regions like Washington want that attention, so Riesling fell off the radar despite its high quality and strong sales.

Multiple Identities

Merlot was The Next Big Thing and Washington Merlot can be great, too. Washington makes some of the best Merlot in the world, Jancis Robsinson once wrote, sending hearts hereabouts fluttering with excitement. But, so what? she added. Merlot isn’t a serious wine, or so some  say, and the search for that defining variety continued.

Cabernet Sauvignon was next up and Washington has produced more than its share of 95+ point Cabs. But Napa Valley seems to have the Cab identity locked up. First rate Washington Cabs sometimes sell for half the price of second-tier Napa products. That Napa reputation seems to be invincible.

So now Washington wants to show off its Syrah wines, and they can be wonderful, too. But the damn Aussies have messed up the Syrah bonanza. I think it is easier to make quality Syrah in Washington today than it is to sell it. So the search for a wine identity goes on.

A Certain Style

Maybe it’s not a grape variety that defines Washington wine, Schoefeld suggested, but a style of wine. Bob Betz agreed in principle, suggesting that Washignton wines at their best combine Old World structure with New World fruit — a tag line that a lot of us in the audience liked, even if it might be difficult to communicate to consumers.

Tasting through the Washington wines (from Riesling to Merlot, Cab and Syrah), Schoenfeld asked the panel and audience, “Can you tell that this is a Washington wine — does it have the Washington style?” He certainly thought so, but I never saw more than half the hands go up.

This was a pretty serious  winemaker, consumer, trade and journalist audience. They’ve tasted a lot of wine and a lot of Washington wine. All the wines Schoenfeld selected were interesting, but did they individually or collectively outline a Washington style? I didn’t think so. I’ve tasted wines similar to these from other regions and I have tasted very good Washington wines with completely different styles from these. I don’t claim to be a skilled wine taster (which might for once be an advantage since I am on a par with many consumers in this regard), but I can’t find a definitive Washington style.

What did I conclude from this interesting (and delicious) investigation? Having a successful regional wine identity is an advantage in the marketplace, but Washington doesn’t have one. Bob Betz may be right about Old World structure and New World fruit, but I don’t think wine style is easily understood by many consumers.

No Strong Identity. No Crisis Either.

Grape variety is easy to understand and communicate, but that leaves the question which one? If I had to choose, I would select Riesling on the basis of market penetration. Chateau Ste Michelle is the largest producer of Riesling wines in the world (yes, the world!). More Riesling grapes were crushed in 2010 (33,500 tons according to USDA data) than any other Washington variety. Washington Rieslings  (including the widely distributed Eroica, Poet’s Leap and Pacific Rim wines) can hold their own with the best in the world. What more do you want in a wine identity?

But there’s that status thing (red trumps white) and many of Washington’s iconic producers don’t make Rieslings, so focusing on this variety to the exclusion of others would in some ways be counter-productive in terms of regional identity.

So where does that leave us? Washington may lack a strong wine identity but I don’t think it has an identity crisis. Better no single identity than a bad one (think Brand Australia). Better to produce many types and styles of good wine and simply celebrate that!

[Thanks to the Washington Wine Commission for inviting me to attend the Taste Washington seminars.]

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Taste Washington Seminars / March 26, 2011

In Search Of: Washington’s Singular Style

Moderator:
Bruce Schoenfeld (Travel & Leisure Magazine)
Panelists:
Bob Betz MW (Betz Family Winery)
Shayn Bjornholm MS (Washington State Wine Commission)
Sandy Block MW (Legal Seafoods)
Drew Hendricks MS (Pappas Brothers)
Wines:
2008 Louis Michel “Montée de Tonnerre” 1er Cru Chablis, FR
2004 Bodegas y Viñedos Alion, Ribera del Duero, Spain $70
2001 Cavallotto “Riserva Vignolo” Barolo, Piemonte, Italy $75
2009 Chateau Ste. Michelle/Dr. Loosen “Eroica” Riesling, CV $24
2007 Hightower Cellars Merlot, CV $28
2007 Abeja “Reserve” Cabernet Sauvignon, CV $80
2007 Cadence “Ceil du Cheval” Blend, RM $45
2008 Betz Family Winery “La Serenne” Syrah, YV $50
2008 Cayuse Vineyards “En Chamberlin” Syrah, WWV $65

Getting Serious About Washington Wine

“Wine is not a serious subject. Its point is to give pleasure.” This is what Jancis Robinson says in the opening segment of her BBC series on wine.

It is pretty obvious that Paul Gregutt (author of Washington Wines & Wineries: The Essential Guide 2/e; University of California Press, 2010) didn’t get the message because he seems to take wine pretty seriously and manages to do so without sacrificing pleasure. The new edition of his book is a serious analysis of Washington wine that is seriously interesting.

Wine for Nerds?

Is there an audience for serious wine writing? Certainly Jancis Robinson must think so, despite her disclaimer, since her books and articles are so comprehensive. Gregutt knows this audience, too. When he begins chapter 4 by saying “If you are the type of person who delights in reading through every scrap of information on the back labels of wine bottles …” he must be aware that this description will apply to nearly every one of his readers, of which there are sufficient numbers to justify a second edition of this book just three years after the appearance of the first.

Gregutt’s book is unusual in that it is neither a coffee table photo album nor a wine tourism guidebook (the two most popular formats for northwest regional wine books). Rather it is a comprehensive resource for anyone interested in the continuing development of the Washington wine industry. Gregutt takes us through the history of Washington wine followed by a detailed analysis of the terroir (Washington’s AVAs), the grape varietals (with recommended producers for each wine type) and the most important vineyards (what a great idea). Then and only then does he begin a survey of wineries. The message is clear: wine is made in the vineyard before it is made in the cellar and there is a lot to know if you want to understand it.

The focus is clearly on AVAs, vineyards and wineries — the constants of Washington wine –  not individual wines that can change from vintage to vintage, although an appendix contains Gregutt’s “Top 100 Washington wine” lists for the last few years for those who want to know more specifically what to look for on shop shelves.

What’s New?

What’s new in the second edition (and is it enough to justify replacing your copy of the first edition)? Well, there is a great deal of new material reflecting the fact that the Washington wine industry has experienced so much recent growth.  There are new AVAs, of course (Snipes Mountain and Lake Chelan) and many new wineries (now up to 650+ for the state). Gregutt has doubled the number of vineyards (a top twenty list) and wineries (about 300 in this edition), making this volume far more comprehensive in this regard than the first edition.

I’d say the additional and updated material easily justifies a new edition. And, with the way things are changing, I suppose a third edition will be needed in a few years.

One aspect of the book that is sure to be controversial is the way Gregutt has organized his analysis of the most important wineries in the state. If this were a wine tourism book, I suppose he would have organized them by regions or wine roads and provided tasting room hours and so forth. But he didn’t and that’s a good thing, since the internet is the best place to find that sort of often-updated information.

Instead, Gregutt organized the wineries into four categories, starting with “five star” superstars that both produce great wines but also provide important leadership, moving down through four stars, three stars and then a “rising stars” category.  Where you put a winery in this taxonomy is necessarily problematic, since each of us might use different criteria or weigh the same factors differently. Hence the potential for debate.

Some ratings are surely uncontroversial (Leonetti and Quilceda Creek are superstars, of course), but others are likely to generate discussion. Gregutt is interested in the wines, of course, but also the wineries’ impacts on the Washington wine industry, so the huge Chateau Ste. Michelle appears in the five star list alongside tiny Fielding Hills – each very important to the Washington industry, but in very different ways.

Hedges Family Estates and Corliss Estates (two wineries owned by University of Puget Sound graduates) receive four stars, but I think you could make a case for “promotion” to the top group. For Hedges it would be based upon its leadership in development of the Red Mountain AVA and promotion of Washington wine abroad. For Corliss, it is the single-minded commitment to the highest vision of excellence — an attempt to redefine what Washington wine can be. Four stars or five? Such questions are pleasurable recreation for wine nerds like me.

More for Wine Nerds?

The success of Gregutt’s book has me wondering what other products wine nerds might be willing to buy. Hopefully, of course, they’ll want copies of my book when it comes out in 2011, but maybe there’s an even broader market for wine nerd products.

De Long’s periodic table of wine grape varietals (see below) is a great wine nerd item. I can spend hours looking at it and thinking about the different relationships it proposes. Excellent! De Long’s regional wine maps are great, too.

And then there are wine games, like Winerd the Game shown above. Winerd has a colorful playing board (decorated with faux wine labels), 276 quiz cards and includes a blind tasting test component. Pretty nerdy and probably pretty fun, too, since it has a strong educational component and people always seem to enjoy learning about wine.

I actually have a sealed Winerd game box on my game shelf. Nerdy, yes — and I’m sure it will be fun to play when I eventually get around to it. But apparently I’d rather be drinking wine (and reading nerdy books like Paul Gregutt’s).

The Trouble with Wine Porn

Not for everyone.

Sometimes I have doubts.  Here at The Wine Economist we seem to be interested in what you might call everyday wines. Not that you necessarily drink them every day, but they are generally available and you can buy them if you can afford them. It’s a matter of choice. Everyman wines might be a better term if it didn’t sound just a little bit sexist.

Wine Porn

But much of the wine world seems preoccupied with impossibly expensive or incredibly rare trophy wines. A lot of attention is given to stories, ratings, tasting notes and images of wines that only a lucky few of us will ever have an opportunity to taste.

I’m tempted to call this wine pornography,  mirroring the well-documented phenomenon of food porn. Stare if you like, drool if you must, but never, never  touch!  (I didn’t coin the term; I found it in Jancis Robinson’s “Wine Porn of the Highest Order.“) The whole Bordeaux en primeur phenomenon strikes me as borderline wine porn, if only the soft-core kind.

Wine porn may be a harmless vicarious thrill for the most part, but like pornography generally it can be a problem when people become compulsively attracted to it. I’m worried that all the fuss that trophy wines receive really does divert us from the excellent Everyman wines on offer and the problems and delights of everyday wine life.

Broadbent to the Rescue

Well, thank goodness for Michael Broadbent. I realize that this is an unlikely thing for me to say at this point because it would be easy to make the case that Broadbent is one of the inventors of wine porn. As the director of the wine department at Christie’s auction house in London, he certainly helped create the winner-take-all economic environment that fuels the wine porn industry now.

And then there’s his writing. Gosh! Broadbent’s tasting notes are extraordinary. Some, dare I say,  are voluptuous! My glasses steam up when I read them. But it turns out that he shares many of my distinctly non-pornographic concerns about wine.

Broadbent recently published his 400th consecutive monthly column for Decanter magazine and he used the occasion to talk about the state of the wine world, very much focusing on Everyman and her wines. “My feeling is that consumers have never had so much choice but they have never been so confused,” he said. ‘”The whole world is making a good standard of wine today and they need some guidance.”

The Perfect Disguise Below

This embarrassment of riches sounds like good news, but Broadbent is concerned that the democratization of wine has created a power vacuum that big players will rush to fill. “Big business seems to be taking over and I don’t like the way things are going,’” he says. He’s concerned about the fate of small producers.

Head-spinning number of choices

Well, I certainly agree with Broadbent’s premise. Globalization has spread wine and wine expertise around the world. The discipline of global markets is slowly driving technically flawed wines from the market place (some still hang on, justifying their existence on the basis of low price or disguising their flaws as terroir).   More wines, from more places, with a higher overall quality standard: good news for Everyman.

But globalization really has created problems. More choice is good, but only up to a point. Some times too much is too much, especially as wine draws in new consumers.  The Constellation Brands study of American wine buyers found that 23% of potential buyers were “overwhelmed” by the choice and frequently walked away empty handed. Broadbent’s right about the confusion factor.

Globalization has changed the problem from making good wine to distributing and marketing it. Here (especially in distribution) large firms really do have an advantage, but this is not a new thing. Power in the wine world shifted to those who could manage distribution long ago — with the introduction of the railroad system in France in the 19th Century.

Beyond Wine Porn

Broadbent is concerned that the corporations will destroy wine as they try to simplify it for the mass market. This is contrary to their own business interests, of course, since people pay more for distinctive products. Building a wine portfolio ladder that starts buyers in Two Buck Chuck territory and leads them up to a higher (or at least more expensive) shelf only works if wine’s diversity is preserved.

Dumbing down to create a simple flat wine world is economic suicide as much as it would be an aesthetic tragedy of the commons. But these are desperate times for some large wine businesses and desperate CEOs do desperate things, so I do not rule this out absolutely.

I guess I am more optimistic about the future than Broadbent, even if I share his concerns. I think there is a pretty large middle ground between the bland corporate wine that worries him and the spicy wine porn that troubles me. This probably suggests that the state of wine today is quite good!

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Congratulations to Michael Broadbent on his 400th Decanter column and his extraordinary life in wine.

Wanted: Retail [Wine] Therapy

I know that it is not easy to make good wine. And wine can be difficult to sell, too. But apparently buying wine is even harder.

That ’70s Wine

At least that’s the word from some top wine critics. Lettie Teague’s column in this weekend’s Wall Street Journal was ostensibly about that 1970s favorite, Pouilly-Fuissé, but much of it was actually a gentle rant about the difficulty she experienced in trying to buy a few bottles for a tasting. Seems the specialist wine merchants she contacted just didn’t have much in stock. She had to work pretty hard to put together a reasonable sample.

Is it just a Pouilly-Fuissé problem? Maybe, but Teague reported much the same experience a couple of weeks ago when she tried to put together a tasting of wines  from Washington state. Teague’s merchants carried just a bottle or two of Washington wine, same as that 70′s wine. That’s all we need, they told her. No one cares, they said.

What do Washington wines have in common with the French? I used to think it was latitude but now I know — you can’t buy them in New York! (BTW word of mouth evidence suggests that Washington wines might be easier to find in New York than Teague’s article indicates.)

Mind the Gap

I know there are many factors at work here including New York’s peculiar retail wine regulations, the dollar-euro exchange rate and especially the recent “flight to safety” among wine sellers who seek to minimize inventory in a very uncertain market.

America’s byzantine interstate wine trade regulations are part of the problem, too. I’ve often looked across the pond to Britain and imagined how great it would be to have a unified wine market (without dozens of state and even local regulatory regimes). Wine is easier to sell in Britain because of this and so I’ve always thought that it was easier to buy, too. I guess I forgot my own frustrated wine buying experiences living in London a few years ago, when I tried to find interesting U.S. wines to share with British friends;  pretty much all I could find in my local drinks shop was bottom shelf generics.

I was reminded of this by one of Jancis Robinson’s recent Financial Times columns where she vented her frustration about trying to buy just a bottle or two of very good wine for dinner. You can buy vast quantities of cheap and cheerful wine as Tesco, she said, and of course you can purchase many of the finest wines on earth by the case and have it delivered to your door the next day. But what if you just want one bottle of something a notch or two above the supermarket category?

Yes, you can do it, she said, but it isn’t easy. And then she listed the five British merchants that she thinks fill the bill. Five! Ouch. “… this list is just about it – in a country of 33.4m wine drinkers,” she moaned. The gap between BOGOF Tesco and a case of Chateau Lafite is bigger than I thought! Robinson cites the increasing dominance of the big supermarket chains as a critical factor driving the specialist wine merchant out of business. Tesco, of course, is now the world’s largest wine merchant and 70% of British wine comes from a supermarket shelf.

Decanter published an article last year (in the 2009 California supplement) bemoaning the fact that so few American wines are available in the UK. Bottom and top are easy enough to find, but nothing much in the vast middle. They cited a number of factors including American winemakers’ resistance to the deep discounts needed to make export sales, high British retail margins and the incompatibility of American wine styles and British palates. Whatever the reason, it seems that British wine buyers are surprisingly under-served when it comes to America’s diverse wine array.

Why Can’t a Wine Be More Like a Book?

It occurs to me that the situation facing wine buyers today is a lot like book buying was twenty years ago. It was easy to find best sellers and trashy paperbacks. And specialist shops catered to particular interests at a price. But much of the vast book supply was very difficult for buyers to access.

And then came Amazon.com, of course. And now the world of new and used books is only a click away.

Wouldn’t it be great if there were an Amazon.com for wine? That would be one “killer app,” as they say. But I don’t think it is going to happen, at least not soon. Amazon.com announced plans to start selling wines online a couple of years ago, but nothing seems to have come of it and it is easy to see why.

Although bottled wine does share many of the attributes that made books Amazon.com’s initial target market, there are a number of discouraging negatives to consider. Wine is heavy and costly to ship compared to books.  A books doesn’t care if the weather is hot or cold while it is in transit, but your half-case of Chianti surely does. And of course there are the legal barriers that restrict interstate shipping at every turn.

I’m hoping that someone will come along with that Killer Wine App that makes fine wine buying as efficient as shopping for books, but until then I think that retail [wine] therapy will remain a source of frustration, not relief, for at least some of us.

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Jancis Robinson’s column in Saturday’s Financial Times suggests that wine books share some of the same distribution frustrations as wine. She reports a trend towards self-publication of specialist wine books.

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!

Oregon Pinot Noir: Peaks & Valleys

A quick getaway to Portland provokes a post about Oregon wine’s highs and lows.

Cheers for All the [Peak] Years

I was browsing through the wine books at Powell’s, Portland’s famous bookstore, when I came across a used copy of  Vintage Timelines, a 1989 book by Jancis Robinson. The idea of the book was to select a group of the world’s greatest wines and examine how different vintages have evolved (and would be expected to continue to evolve) over time.  The research required Jancis to taste trough verticals of each great wine (research is such a drag!) and compare notes from previous years to create complex and quite fascinating graphical timelines.

It’s a great book for wine lovers (despite its 1989 date) and valuable to me because of the particular wines Jancis selected for the study.  No New Zealand or South African wines, for example. The recent history of their great wines was too brief in 1989 to permit long-term analysis.  Just five Australian wines made the cut (led by Penfolds Grange Hermitage, of course).  Seven California wines are listed and just one from the rest of the U.S. — David Lett’s Eyrie Vineyards Pinot Noir Reserve, the wine that put Oregon on the world wine map.

JR's Vintage Timeline for the Eyrie Pinot Noir Reserve

There is an inscription in the book. “To Nick — Cheers for all the years — past & future. Dave Lett, Christmas 1989.”  Needless to say, I bought the book as both a research tool and a personal souvenir. It’s a good reminder of Oregon Pinot Noir’s humble origins and the high peaks it has climbed. Oregon’s wine industry is just a little over 40 years old, yet is is often  mentioned in the same breath with Burgundy because of the quality of its best Pinot Noir wines, like David Lett’s Eyrie Reserve.

Whole Foods Letdown

So I was feeling pretty good about the Oregon wine industry when I stopped off at Whole Foods, about a block away, to survey their selection of Oregon wines.  As I entered the store, however, I ran smack into a display of Oregon Pinot Noir priced at … wait for it … $9.99.  That’s about ten dollars less than the usual price for an entry level Oregon Pinot. The wine was produced by Underwood Cellars, a second label of Union Wine Company, which also makes King’s Ridge. The fruit was sourced mainly from Southern Oregon — the Umpqua and Rogue Valleys — not the Willamette Valley where Eyrie and most of the other famous Oregon Pinots are made.  The bargain price was a real shocker.

Oregon is a high cost wine production area. Even higher than  Burgundy, I think, because many of the vineyards there  have been in family hands for years and land costs are often not explicitly considered in calculating cost (an economic mistake, of course, as any Econ 101 student will tell you). That’s not the case is Oregon, where it is hard to ignore the cost of capital.

A study using 1999 data put the average cost of Willamette Valley Pinot Noir at $12.79 per bottle (see Oregon Viticulture edited by Edward H. Hellman for the details) and more recent proprietary data I have seen puts cost in the same range or higher. $9.99 might or might not be a sustainable price for a wine made from Umpqua Valley fruit, but  it certainly isn’t a  sustainable price point for Willamette Valley wine.  If the price of entry level Willamette Valley Pinot  were to reset from $20-$30 down to $10-$15 … well I think the Willamette River would bleed red ink. Click here to read a recent article from Wines & Vines about the Oregon situation.

Boom and Bust

The quality of Oregon Pinot Noir is higher than ever, I believe, but the industry’s economic health may be falling. Oregon (and New Zealand) rode the Sideways Pinot boom for several years, expanding vineyard plantings repeatedly because it seemed like the demand for this wine would never be satisfied.

Now the recession is here, Malbec is  hot, the new Pinot vineyards in Oregon, New Zealand, Chile and elsewhere are all coming into production at the same time and prices are tumbling. Bargain Pinot Noir is a fact of life for now. It will be interesting to see where the market resets when supply and demand eventually find their new balance.

In the meantime, I guess there’s only one thing to do. Drink more Pinot Noir!

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