Book Review: Best White Wine on Earth

Stuart Pigott, Best White Wine on Earth: The Riesling Story. Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2014.

I was surprised when I saw that Stuart Pigott had titled his new book on Riesling “Best White Wine on Earth.” Best white wine? If you know Pigott or have followed his work you have to guess that the original title was “Best Wine on Earth.” Someone must have talked him into the more limited claim — or maybe I’m wrong and there’s a red wine that he thinks is better than Riesling.

But I don’t really believe this. I run into Pigott every few years when he comes to Seattle to serve as master of ceremonies at the Riesling Rendezvous meetings that Chateau Ste Michelle and Dr. Loosen organize and his passion for this wine is beyond question. He writes about Riesling a lot on the web and in books, but it has been a while since he’s published a book in English (he lives in Germany these days). You can see that he wanted to make up for lost time here.

Rodney Dangerfield of Wine

The book is just crammed with information, opinions and interesting ideas that will reward the diligent front-to-back reader and also the enthusiast who likes to dip in here and there. The book’s organized in three main parts. The first two chapters tell you just about everything you might want to know about Riesling the grape and the wine, including a rather thorough break-down of where the aromas, textures and flavors come from and why.

Along the way you will take the Stuart Pigott Acid Test, learn the truth about sulfur, cork and screw-caps and encounter documentary evidence that good Rieslings once commanded higher prices than first-growth Bordeaux wines. I’m sorry for Riesling’s diminished status (think of it as the Rodney Dangerfield of wine), but I have no complaints about price — Riesling is one of the great bargains of the wine world today and I take advantage of that fact whenever I can.

Tour of Planet Riesling

The book’s core is a tour of Planet Riesling, which you would expect to begin and end in Germany, but it doesn’t. One of Pigott’s themes is that Riesling really is a global phenomenon, with fine wines of different styles being made in many parts of the globe. So we begin in the American northeast — New York, Ontario and Michigan. There are stunning wines being produced here and I appreciate Pigott drawing attention to them. Next stop is the west coast — Washington, Oregon, British Columbia and California.  The section on the “Great Riesling Desert” is especially clever — who would think that great Riesling would come from the arid vineyards of Eastern Washington? But they do and Pigott explains how and why.

The tour continues in Australia and New Zealand then on to Austria and finally Germany. Well, actually Germany is not the very last stop because it is followed by a chapter on “Riesling’s Lone Rangers” that goes east (Eastern Europe) and south (Chile, Argentina and South Africa).

It is hard to complain about coverage in a book that spans so much territory, but I wish there had been room for more detail about Chile and South Africa here. I’ve had some stunning wines from both places, especially the South African Rieslings from Elgin (shout-outs to Paul Cluver, Spioenkop, and other Elgin Valley wine farms).

The Top 100 List

Wine enthusiasts love lists and Pigott feeds this thirst in the very last chapter that presents the author’s global Top 100 Rieslings divided into groups of 20 by style with a final listing of the best extreme “Riesling Blade Runners.” But before he lists his Top 100 Pigott gives us a shopping list. What are the best Rieslings that you can buy for less than $15 or £10?

You will probably not be surprised to know that six of the ten value wines are from Washington State (three from Riesling specialist Pacific Rim, two from Chateau Ste Michelle plus Charles Smith’s “Kung Fu Girl”),  two are from Germany (the Leitz “Eins-Zwei-Dry” and “Dr. L” from the Loosen Brothers) and one each from New York (Red Newt Circle) and Ontario (Cave Spring Niagara).  Germany may be Riesling’s motherland, but it is clear that America is its successfully adopted home, especially when it comes to the quality/price ratio.

The Power of Positive Globalization

There’s a lot of particular things to like about this book, but as someone who has written extensively about globalization (see my 2005 book Globaloney for example), one of the things that I like best is Pigott’s general attitude toward the global spread of Riesling culture. Rather than doing as some would and finding fault with this or that he embraces the opportunities the global mix creates. He does this specifically in a section titled “What is Positive Globalization and How Can You Do It Too?” but really it’s infused throughout the enterprise.

Do you have to love Riesling as much as Stuart Pigott to enjoy this book? Of course not! But his enthusiasm is contagious and its hard to read this without feeling that familiar urge to run to the wine shop and come home with a few bottles to explore. Riesling of course — after all, it’s the greatest white wine on earth.

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Surefire holiday gift idea: this book plus one of the wines mentioned in it.

This book makes me thirsty  for more than wine. I’ve heard through the grape-vine that John Winthrop Haeger is working on a book about dry Riesling around the world. Can’t wait to read it when it’s finished.

Brave New World on Planet Riesling

No joke: Idaho Riesling

I’ve been writing about the problems of marketing misunderstood and misunderappreciated wines for the last couple of weeks and before I leave this subject I want to take time to give you a brief report from the Riesling Rendezvous conference hosted by Chateau Ste Michelle and Dr Loosen in Seattle last month.

Although the public face of the conference was the sell-out Sunday Grand Tasting on the grounds of the Chateau in Woodinville, the real work took place at the waterfront Bell Harbor Conference Center on Elliott Bay. What did we learn about life on Planet Riesling (as Stuart Pigott calls it)?

Small Worlds and Big

Well, its a big world after all — that’s the first insight. We tasted spectacular wines from many corners of the globe and regions of the U.S. and Canada. But it is a small world, too, as global quality standards have risen due in part, I think, to the international exchange of technical information that Riesling Rendezvous and its partner conferences have promoted. The gap between Old and New Worlds has closed dramatically.

You might have enjoyed the scene at the two formal tastings, where about 300 of us sat in front of 20 glasses each of dry Riesling on the first day and off-dry Riesling on the second. We tasted the wines blind and then, one by one, members of the expert panel commented on the wines and tried to place them in terms of origin — Old World or New? Cooler climate or warmer site? Particular time (vintage) and place?

Sometimes the experts were spot on, but I think the organizers might have selected the line up of wines to make the point that Planet Riesling is changing, so sometimes (more often than not, I believe) they were fooled. Fooled, generally, by unexpected quality from an unexpected source, which is a nice way to be surprised.

Ooohs and Aaahs

There were ooohs and aaahs, for example, when one wine was revealed to be from Elesko Winery in Slovakia. Wow, none of us saw that coming, probably because we didn’t have Slovakia on our radar. I remember tasting a few crisp, delicious white wines from this region when I taught in Prague, but beer, not wine, is probably the first thing that comes to mind (despite Austria’s obvious presence) when you think Central Europe.  Very impressive.

Tim Atkin, who moderated the off-dry tasting (John Winthrop Haeger handled the job for the dry wines) seemed to take special pleasure in revealing that a wine that had been firmly placed in the Mosel region by a panelist was in fact made by Ste Chapelle of Idaho (part of the rapidly rising Precept Wine group).

How many cases do you make, Atkin asked Marueen Johnson who represented the winery, probably imagining the sort of hillbilly Idaho wine industry that the old Muppet Movie scene (see below) suggested? Forty thousand cases came the reply. Wow, that’s lot, Atkin said obviously surprised (and that’s just Riesling — total production tops 100,000 cases for this, the largest winery in Idaho). It’s a brave new world on Planet Riesling when fine wines can come from such unexpected corners of the globe.

Two Directions at Once

Further evidence of how the Riesling map is changing was provided by two new Chateau Ste Michelle Riesling wines: Anew Riesling, which seeks to broaden the Riesling base, and Eroica Gold, which aims for a more classic style and promises to deepen interest in this category.

Anew, with its elegant bottle (which reminds me of a graceful off-the-shoulder gown) and subtle flower label seems to enter the market as a wine targeting  women, who of course make up the majority of wine drinkers and, for reasons that I’ll explain in a future post, a disproportionate part of the Riesling base. Off-dry but not too sweet,  it makes a tasty aperitif — a nice way to end of day of work and start the evening. Coming from the creators of the hugely successful 14 Hands wine brand, this is a wine that could convert Pinot Grigio drinkers to Riesling fans.

Seafood

Inevitable Seattle Food Porn

Eroica Gold is the newest project of the Ste Michelle – Dr. Loosen partnership and it builds upon and expands the very successful Eroica Riesling line. Eroica has a hint of sweetness and can often be purchased for $20 or less (I’ve seen it at Costco for about $15) — very good value for money and often listed as one of America’s best Riesling wines.

Eroica Gold is riper, botrytis influenced, and, at $30+, more expensive. It aims to take American Riesling consumers to the next stage. Hopefully it will both communicate to American consumers what they might find in European wines and also represent the New World effectively to the Old.

Inevitable Seattle Food Porn

The conference ended with a festive reception at the Chihuly Garden, a blown glass fantasy highlighting the work of Northwest art icon Dale Chihuly, which I mention only because it gives me an excuse to include this “food porn” photo of the seafood buffet. Ahi tuna, smoked salmon, oysters, shrimp, and crab. What a treat!

Riesling may be misunderstood and there certainly are problems to be worked out, but on that warm afternoon in Seattle, with Riesling in my glass and smoked salmon on my plate, life on Planet Riesling seemed a pretty sweet place to be.

Fifty Ways to Sell Your Misunderstood Wine

Last week I wrote about two “misunderstood” or maybe “misunderappreciated” wines — Riesling and Oregon Pinot Gris — and the conferences that Sue and I attended where the problem of marketing them was discussed. This week I report on those discussions and try to draw some conclusions.

Identity Crisis

So how do you get consumers to buy wines that they don’t necessarily completely understand or fully appreciate? Well, perhaps predictably the discussions at both the Oregon Pinot Gris Symposium and Riesling Rendezvous turned early on to the idea of a cool motto — the “Got Milk?” killer tagline for their respective wines.

This always seems to happen when wine people get together to talk category marketing despite the fact that there are darn few generic marketing slogans that have had much impact on sales (how many can you think of?) and even fewer when it comes to wine. I used to think that this discussion was simply a waste of time, but now I recognize that the function is not so much to bring in consumers as to give wineries and distributors a rallying cry.  No harm in that, so long as the slogan isn’t offensive, and it might even be useful.

Chateau Ste Michelle CEO Ted Baseler proposed “Right On, Riesling!” and that seems fine — certainly better than the vaguely suggestive “Riesling: Just Put It In Your Mouth” that one break-out group played with for a while during a discussion of how consumer perceptions change when they actually taste different Riesling styles.

Similarly, the Oregon group settled on “Oregon, Get Your Gris On!” for a summer campaign, which I prefer to “Fifty Shades of Gris,” which may be more descriptive of the wide range of styles of Oregon Pinot Gris, but is a bit too reminiscent of the title of a recently popular erotic novel.

Radar Love

Fortunately, the discussions soon turned to what I see as more substantive ideas. Riesling Rendezvous panelist Blake Gray (of The Gray Report) offered the very useful suggestion that efforts to bring new wine drinkers into the Riesling camp should perhaps be secondary to strategies to get consumers who already know and like Riesling to drink more of it.  Riesling is already on their radar, so they are your best prospects for increased sales.

This idea is particularly relevant for Riesling because research reported at the conference suggested that Riesling lovers don’t focus on their favorite wine with quite the intensity as Sauvignon Blanc followers, for example. I’ll bet this is true for Pinot Gris consumers, too.

So how do you do that? Well, I’m not quite sure (although I have ideas — I think the Summer of Riesling project is terrific), but the point is that it is a different problem than trying to convert consumers who don’t currently drink Riesling either because they don’t know it yet or because they were unhappy with a previous Riesling experience. Current drinkers are known knowns, as one former Bush-era official might have said. The non-drinkers have many unknown unknowns and that’s a different problem.

There Must Be 50 Ways

But even if increasing consumption by current buyers should be the number one priority for both Riesling and Oregon Pinot Gris, that doesn’t mean that the rest of the market is unimportant. So how do you win them over? Well, it seems to me that the examples of Ernst Loosen (in the Riesling group) and David Adelsheim (at the Oregon Pinot Gris symposium) are instructive. Ernie and David have worked tirelessly to promote their wines. I can’t imagine how many times they (and their colleagues at other wineries) have poured the wines, told the stories, answered the questions and then gone on to do it all again.

There isn’t any one way to build a market for a misunderstood or misunderappreciated wine — no silver bullet as we say in the U.S. And it’s not really rocket science either, despite what that mashed up Einstein photo above seems to suggest. There must be 50 ways (or 500), but they all seem to boil down to hard work that is done one glass and one consumer at a time (leveraged by whatever peer-to-peer social media effects you can muster and of course beneficial media attention). Unite behind whatever rally cry works for you, residents of Planet Riesling and people of Oregon Pinot Gris, because there really is strength in numbers, and get on to the hard work.

Do Think Twice (About Price)

But this still leaves the problem of price which, as you may remember from last week’s column, is the sticking point for Oregon Pinot Gris. The difficulty of raising price is seen by at least some Oregon producers as an obstacle to raising quality and assuring a sustainable future.

Raising price, especially in the face of rising costs, is a problem all right, but not exclusively a problem for Oregon Pinot Gris or even for wine. Many business sectors struggle to find a way to pass on costs to distributors and final purchasers, as a recent “Schumpeter” column in the Economist magazine makes clear.

Many businesses, the Schumpeter columnist writes, have prices but not a pricing strategy or, if they do, it is determined at a low level in the business structure (perhaps because selling stuff isn’t always given a high priority compared with making stuff or organizing the business). Sometimes prices are “eye-balled” based on intuition rather than carefully calculated or strategically set.

It wouldn’t be fair to pick on Oregon Pinot Gris when it comes to pricing strategy, since this is a general issue, but it is probably true that improvements could be made. Purchasers generally see Pinot Gris in the context of other Oregon wines, especially Pinot Noir, so that a joint pricing strategy is probably necessary to account for the complex complement and substitution effects.

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The British economist economist John Maynard Keynes famously took an interest in the pricing of Champagne in the bar at the Cambridge Arts Theatre where his wife, the Russian ballerina Lydia Lopokova, often danced. As chair of the theater’s board, Keynes would have  to help fund the inevitable operating deficit, so anything that increased revenues was highly desired.

Keynes wanted to nudge patrons to move up to the better Champagne on the bar menu, where profit margins were higher. His strategy? Not to cut the price of the good stuff in an attempt to sell more, which he had reason to think wouldn’t work because of inelastic demand. And not to raise the better wine’s price, which was sure to make enemies. Instead he pressured the bar manager to raise the price of the ordinary product, thereby lowering the relative cost of the upgrade to the better Champagne that he suspected many patrons secretly desired.

Marketing Misunderstood (and Misunderappreciated) Wines


How do you market misunderstood wine? That was the question posed at two otherwise very different wine industry symposia that Sue and I attended in recent weeks.

Although neither meeting arrived at a definitive solution, I think I begin to see the outline of an answer as I compare the two situations and start to connect the dots.

Gris: The Other Oregon Pinot

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The Pinot Gris gathering

The first gathering took place amid barrels and cases of wine in the cellar room of Oak Knoll winery near Hillsboro, Oregon. The common thread that united the small group that assembled was Oregon Pinot Gris.

The first Pinot Gris vines in the United States were planted by David Lett at The Eyrie Vineyard, so Oregon has a legitimate claim to this wine, which is hugely popular in its Italian Pinot Grigio identity, but still not as widely embraced when presented as Alsace- or Oregon-style Pinot Gris.

The wines themselves can be wonderful and distinctive and Jo Diaz is helping to organize a movement to make Pinot Gris Oregon’s signature white wine (to complement Pinot Noir, the signature red). But there are problems to overcome.

The first is consistent quality, which is obviously key. Oregon Pioneer David Adelsheim told the group that the variability in quality, which was once shockingly high, is now thankfully reduced. Although there may not be a distinctive “Oregon style” there is far more consistent quality. Good news.

Misunderappreciated Quality

Perhaps because of this quality, the wines sell very well. When Paul Gregutt asked the wine makers if they sell out of Pinot Gris, a great many hands were raised. Much of this action is in the tasting room and it seems that tasting is believing. They come for the Pinot Noir, but when they taste the Gris (at half the price of the Noir and sometimes less), they walk out clutching bottles. Sounds like a success story.

But that’s also the problem, too, Adelsheim noted. Pinot Gris sells very well in the $15 to $20 price range, but there are precious few PGs that break though the $20 glass ceiling. My calculations (based on very limited data) suggest that a $15 Oregon Pinot Gris is not hugely profitable when sold directly and less so when sold into the 3-tier system at a discount. Low profitability puts a glass ceiling on quality, according to some of the winemakers present, who believe that additional research and investment in viticultural and winemaking practices could make Oregon PG as great in its own way as Oregon Pinot Noir.

Consumers misunderstand Pinot Gris — or maybe I should say they misunderappreciate it (if that is indeed a word). They love it, but they don’t appreciate its quality (maybe it is the Pinot Grigio curse?) and won’t pay prices that would power the category to new heights. That’s what we heard in the Oak Knoll barrel room. What is to be done?

A Riesling Rendezvous

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300 participants x 20 dry Rieslings each = 6000 Riedel glasses

The second gathering started on the grounds of Chateau Ste Michelle in Woodinville, moved to the Bell Harbor Conference Center on Elliott Bay and concluded (lavishly) at the Chihuly Gardens at Seattle Center. Riesling Rendezvous gathered together Riesling makers, drinkers, distributors, sellers and critics from just about everywhere on what master of ceremonies Stuart Pigott calls “Planet Riesling.”

Winemakers (and their wines) came from seven U.S. states (Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho, Michigan, New York and New Jersey) and seven  countries (Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States) .  France was missing in action (Planet Riesling sans Alsace? Incroyable!), but they made a big appearance at the last Rendezvous three years ago and so perhaps can be given a pass this time.

(Riesling Rendezvous is part of a three year rotating series of international Riesling gatherings with the other meetings taking place in Germany and Australia. This was the fourth edition of Riesling Rendezvous and my third.)

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Mike with Ernie Loosen

Riesling Rendezvous is organized by Washington State’s Chateau Ste Michelle, the world’s largest producer of Riesling wines, and Germany’s Dr Loosen. Ernst Loosen is perhaps the world’s foremost, most enthusiastic and hardest-working proponent of Riesling. And he makes some damn good ones, too.

So what’s the problem with Riesling? Well the issue, which has been discussed at each of the four meetings of this group, is that most consumers misunderstand the wine and the issue is usually sweetness. Riesling is fascinating because it comes in such a vast array of styles — I almost run out of dimensions when I try to explain all the aspects of Riesling, but sweetness seems to be the focal point.

Rieslings come in all shades of sweet from not sweet — as dry as you can get — all the way over to intensely sweet (but usually balanced by acidity).  What you think of Riesling may be determined by your first sip and for many people that sip was uncomfortably sweet (especially if you weren’t expecting it).

So Riesling (like Sherry, another misunderstood wine) is held to be guilty of criminal sweetness until proven innocent. And many consumers, convinced by what they have heard or believe, never give it a fair trial.

Even worse in a way is the fact that some people who like sweeter wines are confused when they chance into a dry Riesling. Is that Riesling? Not what I expected. The opposite confusion can confront the dry Riesling fan who ends up with a bottle of off-dry to sweet wine.

It isn’t always easy to tell sweet from dry from the information that you find on the bottle, although the sweetness scale created by the International Riesling Foundation (an organization that came out of the first Rendezvous meeting) certainly helps.

Research presented at the conference suggests one final problem. The people who love Riesling the most (perhaps because they appreciate its diversity) apparently also appreciate the diversity of wine generally. They drink Riesling, of course, but not with the single-minded resolve of, for example, Sauvignon Blanc fans, who come back more frequently to their favorite wine than do Riesling’s core consumer group.

As with Pinot Gris, the problem isn’t life threatening, just frustrating. Riesling, in fact, has been a hot wine category in the U.S., but growth has faded a bit recently and the momentum shifted elsewhere. That seems to make everyone on Planet Riesling nervous.

Misunderstood Riesling. Misunderappreciated Oregon Pinot Gris. What is to be done? A further report on the discussions and perhaps the outline of a strategy in the next post.

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Thanks to both the Oregon Pinot Gris group and to Riesling Rendezvous for allowing us to participate. Thanks to Sue Veseth for the photos.

A Tale of Two [Wine] Tastings

Maybe next year ...

Two completely different wine tastings in the same week. What a study in contrasts! A brief report and intepretation.

A Student Tasting

The tasting for my “Idea of Wine” class at the University of Puget Sound was designed to introduce my students to serious wine tasting on a student budget. I wanted them to be able to taste and analyze some good wines while spending no more than about $20 each. Twenty bucks isn’t an every day budget for a student (or most of the rest of us), but it’s within reach and opens up many possibilities.

The wine of choice was Riesling for a number of reasons. First, Riesling often sells at a discount to its intrinsic value (that’s just my opinion) because people are confused, afraid and uninformed about it. Second, it is a real terroir wine that can capture a sense of place. And finally Riesling allows many different expressions, so it’s just plain interesting. Not everyone loves Riesling as much as I do, but you can’t criticize it for being boring!

We tasted through six wines, moving from dry to sweet to very sweet and from Old World to New World and back again. The comparative tasting format was new to the students and they embraced it enthusiastically. Every student found a favorite wine and many were surprised at their choices. Several students admitted that they thought of themselves as dry wine drinkers and yet were smitten by one of the off-dry wines like the St Urbans-Hof with 37 g/l of residual sugar (see complete list of wines below).

The Eiswein (Icewine) was the popular choice, as it often is at these tastings, in part because it came as such a complete surprise to most students and in part, I suppose, because we had studied how its is made, which is a fascinating process.

The wines were interesting, the students fearless in their tasting note comments and the discussion was lively. A great evening!

Student  Tasting: First Flight

 Lucien Albrecht Riesling Reserve Alsace France 2009

 Long Shadows Poet’s Leap Riesling Columbia Valley, Washington 2010

 Chateau Ste Michelle Eroica Riesling Columbia Valley, Washington 2010

 Student Tasting: Second Flight

 St Urbans-Hof Riesling Mosel Valley Germany 2010

 Chateau Ste Michelle Harvest Select Riesling Columbia Valley 2010

 Schloss Koblenz Eiswein Rheinhessen Germany 2009

Open That Bottle Night Tasting

The second tasting was at a wine dinner and it could not have been more different in terms of the setting, the participants and the wines themselves. It was the Open That Bottle Night dinner that Rosemary and Ken graciously (and that’s exactly the right word) host. Open That Bottle Night (OBTN) was created  13 years ago by wine writers Dorothy J. Gaiter and John Brecher as a wine-lover’s holiday that is celebrated on the last Saturday in February.

OTBN is an opportunity or maybe just an excuse to bring out those bottles that you’ve been saving for a special occasion and enjoy them. But, as I have written before, it’s not just about the wine.  It is also an occasion to release the memories those special bottles hold, which is really the part that I like the best

Most of my students aren’t yet ready for OTBN, but they’ll get there — and probably much sooner than I did. They are new to wine and haven’t had time to acquire many liquid memories. The group that gathered at Rosemary and Ken’s was more seasoned and the bottles somewhat beyond a typical student budget. Lots of memories to share!  And then there was the extraordinary food that Rosemary created for us. Quite a memorable evening.

Remains of the OTBN tasting

 Open That Bottle Night 2012 Tasting
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Champagne Bruno Pailliard Premiere Cuvee Rose NV

Champagne Perrier -Jouet Brut NV

Jean-Marc Pillot Montagny Premier Cru “Les Gouresses” 2008

Tantalus Old Vines Riesling Okanagan Valley 2008

William Hill Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve Napa Valley 1997 (magnum)

Shafer Relentless Napa Valley 2002

Cedar Creek Estate Cabernet Sauvignon  Okanagan Valley 2007

Conterno Barbera D’Alba Cerretta 2009

Vina Almirante Pionero Maccerato Albarino Rias Biaxas 2009

Porto Rocha Porto Colheita  1982

Chateau Tirecul La Graviere Monbazillac Cuvee Madame 1996

Compare and Contrast: Jaded Palates?

Comparing the two tastings is difficult because they were so different. One obvious difference between the two tastings was price, although it wasn’t as important a factor as you might guess. Some of the wines were much more expensive than others, but it wasn’t the price that made them interesting or not. Wine, especially when shared with friends, produces a certain magic that does not have much to do with market price, although the opportunity to taste rare wines and vintages is certainly enticing.

Perhaps the biggest difference between the two tastings was that the students seemed to talk much more about the wine than did the OTBN group. Ron and I puzzled over this a bit. There were more wines at the OTBN dinner and more wines that might be thought to provoke discussion. Why wasn’t wine a more dominant conversational theme?

Is it possible that the OTBN tasters are jaded — experiencing diminishing returns to new wine experiences? I certainly hope not! That would be counter to my theory of increasing returns to wine knowledge — the more you taste or know the more you want to have and benefit from new experiences.

The answer, I think, might lie in the food — and not just the fact that Rosemary’s braised lamb shanks were far better (and more distracting) than the fish-shaped snack crackers I supplied to the students.

Wine and food are meant to go together (except in certain U.S. states including New York where it is illegal to sell wine and food in the same retail space!). The wine and food in turn embrace a certain civilized sociability, so maybe it is no wonder that art, music and literature filled the air even more than wine talk. Or at least that’s my theory.

If I am right, then Open That Bottle Night is less about how wine tastes than it is about what wine (and food and friends) make us think and feel. And that perhaps is wine’s real magic.

Civilized sociability

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Extra special thanks to Rosemary and Ken for hosting the OTBN dinner. Thanks to new friends Jody, Kathleen, Paul and Tom and old friends Bonnie, Mary, Richard and Ron. And thanks as always to my students for all that they teach me each year.  Here is Rosemary’s menu for OTBN 2012.

Kale salad with pine-nuts, sultanas and prosciutto with white balsamic vinaigrette and amaretti crumble

Lamb shanks braised in Dunham Three-Legged Dog red wine with pureed white beans and gremalata

Palate cleanser of raspberries in Prosecco gelee

Selection of extraordinary cheeses

Cookies and biscotti

Is Malbec Washington’s Next Big Thing?

Celebrate! April 17 is Malbec World Day

Every year Seattle magazine publishes a list of Washington’s top wines and wineries and identifies an “emerging” wine variety to highlight and promote. This year it was Grenache and there are some great Grenache and Southern Rhone-style Grenache-blend wines made in Washington state, so I think this was a good choice. The wines we sampled at the Taste Washington Grenache seminar were delicious (see list at the end of the post).

The Big Freeze

But Grenache, as good as it can be here, is probably pretty far down the list in the search for The Next Big Thing in Washington wine. There is only a tiny bit of it planted and I don’t think there are any “old vines” left (old vine Grenache is said to produce more complex wines). Grenache was more widely planted in Washington wine’s early days, but the vines didn’t survive the hard winters that strike the Columbia Valley every few years. Now, with greater attention to vineyard location and management practices, Grenache is making a welcome comeback.

Grenache is an up-and-comer and there are great wines being made already,  but as it is probably best viewed as the Next Next or Next Next Next Big Thing until more and older vines are on line.

But what about Malbec?

When you say Malbec everyone thinks Argentina and, since I’ve recently returned from doing fieldwork in Mendoza, naturally so do I. But what about Washington Malbec? Seattle magazine named it their hot wine variety in 2009 and so I decided to use this year’s Taste Washington event to evaluate the Malbec status quo. (Click here to view a video of last year’s Taste Washington Malbec seminar.)

Mendoza del Norte?

Argentina makes distinctive Malbec wine and there is good reason to think Malbec might do well here in Washington, too. Mendoza and the Columbia Valley are both basically deserts (the Andes and Cascade mountains respectively provide rain shadow effects) where irrigation is a necessity. Both areas get plenty of sunlight although I think vineyard elevations are higher down south.

There are many patches of Malbec planted in AVAs from Lake Chelan to Yakima Valley to Snipes Mountain, Red Mountain and Walla Walla. Statistically Malbec is the fifth most-planted black grape variety after Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Cab Franc and ahead of Sangiovese, Pinot Noir and Lemberger (according to Washington Wine Commission data).

The vines are relatively young, reflecting Washington’s comparative youth as a quality wine producer. Most of the wines I tasted were made with grapes from roughly 10 year old vines, but I know there have been recent plantings that should begin to appear in forthcoming wine releases.  Argentina has some old vine Malbec (80 years and more) in Luján de Cujo, but a lot of the vineyards (especially those in the Uco Valley) are about the same age as Washington’s.

When I ask Washington winemakers why they started making varietal Malbec they usually say that it was because the wine was too good to hide in a blend and, while I don’t dispute this, I suspect Argentinean Malbec’s market success did not unnoticed.

Malbec was originally planted here to use as a blending grape — Malbec is one of the five classic Bordeaux varietals along with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cab Franc and Petit Verdot. Seven Hills released a what I think was the first varietal Malbec (from very young vines) in 2001, but most other makers restricted it to blends until more recently.

Price and Cost Differences

If Washington and Argentina share certain aspects of geography, they differ tremendously in terms of production cost and retail price. There are precious few Washington Malbecs below the $20 price point. The most frequently observed Malbec price at Taste Washington was $28 and many more were priced above than below this figure. Reininger’s 2007 Walla Walla bottling was the highest priced Malbec on the published listing at $51 and I think that the Eliseo Silva was the cheapest at a listed $10.

Argentinean Malbecs can be found at all price points from about $10 up, but they are biggest in the sub-$20 arena. In other words, Washington and Mendoza compete in the Malbec market, but exactly not head-to-head.

Cost differences account for some of the price difference. Malbec is in short supply at the moment in Washington (only 1100 tons were crushed in 2010 compared with 31,900 of Cab Sauv). Malbec is Washington’s most expensive wine grape according to USDA average price data. Malbec cost $1,540 per ton on average in 2010, putting it ahead of Cab Franc ($1,325) and Cabernet Sauvignon ($1,297).

Malbec is in short supply in Argentina, too, but land and labor costs are a lot less there. High quality Malbec costs 5-6 pesos per kilo in Argentina these days and good quality costs 4 pesos (both figures have risen significantly in the last two years).  At an exchange rate of 4 pesos per dollar and figuring 5 pesos per kilo, that converts to about $1100+ per ton, a lot less than in Washington.

Taste Washington Malbec

There was a lot of Malbec at Taste Washington, mostly from small producers.  Nineteen wineries listed Malbec on the program but I think there may be nearly 100 different Malbecs made in this state by the 700+ large and small registered wineries.

I am not an expert wine taster (which is why you won’t find wine ratings on this website), but I sampled enough quality Malbec in Argentina to begin to understand it a little. In general I found the Malbecs at Taste Washington to be very good representations of the varietal, with well integrated oak in most cases, and able to reflect the different vineyard terroirs. I think they compete very well with the Mendoza wines in the same price ranges, which is a high complement.

My favorites, for what it is worth, were from Fidelitas, Gamache, Hamilton Cellars, Nefarious, Reininger, Saviah and William Church. Special marks go to Hamilton Cellars for making Malbec in three styles: Rose, straight Malbec and a Malbec-heavy Bordeaux blend.

So is Malbec Washington’s Next Big Thing? Not yet — not until there are more vines on line and Chateau Ste. Michelle or  Columbia Crest get into the market and help develop it. Interestingly, Columbia Crest’s newly-appointed chief winemaker, Juan Muñoz Oca,  is Argentinean and Columbia Crest recently released it’s first Malbec — maybe that’s a sign! I’m looking forward to finding out.

Cost is still a big issue and perhaps Washington cannot compete with Argentina at the key price points. But in terms of quality? Yes, it could happen. Malbec could be Washington’s NBT.

[Thanks to Sean Sullivan and Guillermo Banfi for help tracking down Malbec grape prices in Washington and Argentina respectively.

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Taste Washington Seminars: Washington’s Emerging Varieties: Grenache Panache
Presented by Seattle Magazine

The rising popularity of this new-to-the-Washington-scene grape variety in recent times is a boon for wine drinkers.  Seattle Magazine recognizes that Washington State’s offerings with this amazing grape are truly delicious, having awarded it Best Emerging Varietal in their 2010 Best of Washington Wine Awards. Bob Betz MW, an admitted Grenache fiend, will join Seattle Mag’s wine columnist Shannon Borg and an esteemed panel as they help you discover why our region’s Grenache offerings are fast becoming some of the New World’s most distinctive and respected.

Moderator:
Bob Betz MW (Betz Family Winery)
Panelists:
Shannon Borg (Seattle Magazine)
Brian Carter (Brian Carter Cellars)
Sara Schneider (Sunset Magazine)
Sean Sullivan (Washington Wine Report)
Wines:
2008 Milbrandt Vineyards “The Estates” Grenache, WS $25
2009 Maison Bleue “La Montagnette – Upland Vineyard” Grenache, SM $35
2008 Darby Winery “Stillwater Creek Vineyard” Grenache, CV $45
2009 Betz Family Winery “Besoleil” Grenache, YV $50
2007 Brian Carter Cellars “Byzance” Red Wine, CV $30
2008 Syncline Wine Cellars “Cuvée Elena” Red Wine, Columbia Valley $35
2008 Rôtie Cellars “Southern Blend” Red Wine, WA $35

Questionable Taste [in Wine]

A review of Reading Between the Wines by Terry Theise (University of California Press, 2010).

It’s pretty easy to tell that Terry Theise isn’t an economist. The unofficial motto of economics is  degustibus non est disputandum, which is generally translated as “there’s no accounting for taste.” Taste is an individual matter, everyone is different and everyone’s entitled to their opinion. Accepting tastes as given is where economics begins.

Who Ya Gonna Call?

Terry Theise is worried about where a radical idea like this might lead. He sees taste as a slippery slope. You start with degustibus and pretty soon you start thinking that all ideas of taste are equal. If all tastes are equal, then it is obvious that majority should rule and, in any case, in the marketplace majority frequently does rule.

Since the taste of the masses tends toward the least common denominator McWine taste, the train of thought that starts with degustibus ends in a train wreck of poor taste and mediocre standardized quality. Accepting taste as given (instead of constantly questioning it) means giving up on taste. Someone’s gotta do something to stop this — who ya gonna call? Terry Theise!

I met Theise at the 2008 Riesling Rendezvous conference at Chateau Ste Michelle. He organized and moderated an end-of-the-day workshop on Old World Riesling Terroir. He was as complex, intense and interesting as the 15 German and Austrian wines we tasted. These were some of the most memorable wines (Hirsch, Nikolaihof, Josef Leitz and Dönnhoff) I have ever sampled presented in flights intelligently designed to help us drill down into the idea of terroir.

Almost Too Intense

Theise was so intense, so totally into what he has doing, that there were a couple of points where I just couldn’t stand it and had to take a break outside to catch my breath. At times his propensity to extended navel-gazing (in both English and German) was more than I could take, too.  But I always came back, drawn to the wines and the strong sense of place that each displayed and to Thiese’s addictive if sometimes irritating passion.

This book has the same intense energy and the same ability to frustrate — I like it a lot in small doses. Too much at a time and I feel overwhelmed.

Much of the book is a defense of elitism regarding wine — an attitude that I term Martian (after Martin Ray) using Thomas Pinney’s terminology (see Wagnerians versus Martians). Theise wants to “remystify” wine, for example. Attempts to make wine “accessible” so that the masses can understand and appreciate it have the bad effect of dumbing down consumers and dumbing down the wine.  Don’t de-mystify, Theise argues, educate and elevate.

Curse of the Blue Nun

It’s Theise’s business to sell wines, mainly German and Austrian Rieslings and some grower Champagne, and you can appreciate why his commercial experience would cause him to resist sacrificing authenticity for accessibility.  I’ve written about how the boom in simple cheap German wines in the 1970s nearly destroyed the industry (see Curse of the Blue Nun). If it could happen to Riesling, once the undisputed Queen of white wines, it could happen to any wine. To all wines. You see the problem.

So I could practically hear Theise moaning over my should as I wrote my last blog post on the Democratization of Wine. Making wine easier and more accessible? That’s the road to Hell.

And yet I think Theise and I could easily find common ground (especially if we opened a bottle of Dönnhoff as we talked about it). At one point in the book Theise backs away a bit and looks at the debate about wine from a broader perspective. There are some who believe that globalization has improved wine, he says, and they are right.  And there are others who fear that globalization will ruin wine. And they are right, too.

The rise of the global market for wine has raised the floor on wine quality, but has it also lowered the ceiling? Theise knows that the rising floor doesn’t need any help to sustain itself — the market will flush out flawed wines without his assistance. But someone’s got to keep the ceiling from collapsing and those great Rieslings and other unique wines from disappearing into the McWine vat.

Revenge of the Terroirists

It’s a matter of taste, of course. You might think the rising floor is great and that the ceiling is plenty high enough. Others might disagree. Well, if we can’t agree about taste, Theise writes, at least we may be able to agree about diversity and the need to preserve a great diversity of different wines.

I agree with Theise about the rising floor and I acknowledge that markets’ rationalizing tendency. But I am more optimistic than he is. I’m optimistic because the same global markets that allow for mass-production of wine also create the opportunity for small, quirky producers to find markets for their artistic output. (Josko Gravner is a good case in point.)

It’s not either/or. The market doesn’t either destroy small producers or preserve them, it does both. Finding a healthy mix is what we need to be concerned about.

I’m also optimistic because I believe that the the active force of globalization of wine has produced a reactive force that I call terroirism in my new book (watch for it in 2011). The terroirists will keep us from forgetting about the heights wine can reach and the diversity that wine can attain, even when we find ourselves reaching for ordinary everyday wine on Tuesday night.

Terroirists are key to the diverse future of wine. And Terry Theise is the über terroirist.

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