Thanksgiving: American Wines for an American Celebration

Thanksgiving is the distinctively American holiday and we are happy to share the idea of a day of appreciation with other nations. A festive meal is generally part of the Turkey Day plan and so the question always comes up, what wines should we serve?

America: Beyond the Usual Suspects

There are many good choices depending upon the components of the meal, but we tend to lean towards American wines here at The Wine Economist office. And as Jancis Robinson and Linda Murphy’s recent book American Wine reminds us, we do not need to limit our choices to wine from the “usual suspect” states and regions. While most of America’s wines are produced in California, most of America’s wineries (by a small majority) are in other states!

Wines & Vines reports that the United States boasted more than 7400 wineries in 2012 and of those about 3500 were located in California. The Californians made a vast majority of the wines measured in either value or volume, but there are active wineries in all of the states and so lots and lots of  “local wines” for anyone wanting to support the local industry.

Most of us have tasted wines from California, Washington and Oregon and while some wines are surely better than others, it is clear that the best are world class products. Perhaps fewer have sampled wines from further down the list: New York, BC, Virginia, Texas and so on. What is the state of the art of wine in these states and regions?

Well, I have tasted many New York, Ontario, B.C. and Michigan wines at Riesling Rendezvous and other tastings and I can attest to the high quality of the best wines. Idaho with 50 wineries doesn’t make this list, but we tasted many outstanding wines when we visited there in October.

An opportunity to sample the wines of Missouri, for example, or Oklahoma does not frequently present itself. Most of the wineries are small and rely mainly upon cellar door sales. Very few make it into the broader distribution channels. It is a rare treat to be able to taste them.

Great American Wine Festival

Which is why we motored down to Portland recently to join the fun at the Great American Wine Festival, an event organized to coincide with a wine tourism conference. I’ll paste a list of the wine regions represented and the specific wines that they poured at the bottom of this column.

The event presented a cross section of American wine ranging from regions with high name recognition  (Sonoma County, Santa Barbara) to others that would be better known to wine historians than to contemporary wine consumers (Maryland, for example, plus Virginia and Missouri).

How were the wines? Well, first a couple of caveats. No one is going to send a bad wine to an event like this even if some questionable wines are made. And I might have cheated a little bit — there were too many wines to taste them all so I let the winery recommendations from Jancis’ and Linda’s book steer me to particular labels in many cases.

Wine Thanksgiving

And as with any tasting, we liked some of the wines better than others. But I would say that overall the quality of the wines we tasted was impressive and they can make us proud of American wine. There was something to enjoy at each table and several of the wines really surprised and delighted us.

Choose well, Americans, and your local wine (or in any case an American wine) will be the highlight of your Thanksgiving table — something we all can give thanks for!

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Thanksgiving update: Our wines were

Appetizers: NV Domaine Ste Michelle Columbia Valley  Brut sparkling wine

Turkey dinner: 2006 Boedecker Cellars “Stewart” Willamette Valley Pinot Noir

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Here is a list of wines presented by the regional wine groups present at the Great American festival. Click here to see all of the participants, including individual winery representatives not on the list below. Thanks to the Great American Wine Festival for their hospitality and to everyone we met at the tasting. Keep up the great work!

COLORADO WINE

Boulder Creek: 2011 Cabernet Franc

Canyon Wind Cellars: 2012 Anemoi Apeilotes

Carlson Vineyards: 2012 Cougar Run Dry Gewürztraminer

Colorado West: 2012 Elks Gewürztraminer

Ruby Trust Cellars: 2011 Gunslinger

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COLUMBIA GORGE WINEGROWERS ASSOCIATION

Cathedral Ridge Winery: 2010 Cabernet Reserve

Cathedral Ridge Winery: 2012 Riesling

Jacob Williams Winery: 2012 Chardonnay

Jacob Williams Winery: 2009 Syrah

Memaloose Winery: 2011 Cabernet Franc

Memaloose Winery: 2012 Trevitt’s White

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IDAHO WINE COMMISSION

Cinder Wines: 2012 Dry Viognier

Clearwater Canyon Cellars: 2009 Renaissance Red

Koenig Vineyards: 2010 Syrah

Ste. Chapelle: Soft Huckleberry

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Livermore Valley Wine Country

Concannon Vineyard: 2010 Conservancy, Cabernet Sauvignon

Garre Vineyard & Winery: 2009 Primitivo

John Evan Cellars: 2010 The Paracelcian, Cabernet Sauvignon

Las Positas Vineyards: 2009 Casa de Vinas, Cabernet Sauvignon

Little Valley Winery: 2010 Tempranillo

Longevity Wines: 2012 Livermore Valley, Chardonnay

McGrail Vineyards & Winery: 2010 McGrail Reserve,Cabernet Sauvignon

Murrieta’s Well: 2012 The Whip, White Blend

Nottingham Cellars: 2011 Casa de Vinas, Petite Sirah

Retzlaff Estate Winery: 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon

Tamas Estates: 2010 Double Decker Red (blend)

Wente Family Estates: 2012 Morning Fog, Chardonnay

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 MARYLAND WINE

Basignani: 2007 Lorenzino Reserve, Cab Sauvignon, Cab Franc

Big Cork Vineyards: 2012 Chardonnay

Big Cork Vineyards: 2012 Late Harvest Vidal

Boordy Vineyards: 2012 Dry Rose, Merlot, Cab Franc, Cab Sauvignon, Syrah & Petit Verdot

Boordy Vineyards: 2010 Cabernet Franc, Reserve, Eastern grown Cabernet Franc

Crow Vineyard and Winery: 2012 Barbera Rose, Barbera, Vidal

Elk Run: 2011 Syrah

Knob Hall Winery: 2012 Willow, Traminette, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Vidal Blanc

Knob Hall Winery: 2011 White Oak, Chardonnay, Traminette, Vidal

Old Westminster Winery: 2012 Chardonnay

Sugarloaf Mountain Vineyard: 2010 EVOE!, Cab Franc, Petit Verdot, Merlot, Cab Sauvignon

2011 Columbia Valley Viognier

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MISSOURI WINES

Hermanhoff Winery: 2010 Vidal

Les Bourgeois Winery: 2011 Premium Claret

Montelle Winery: 2012 Chambourcin

Montelle Winery: 2012 Dry Vignoles

St. James Winery: 2009 Norton

St. James Winery: 2012 State Park Seyval Blanc

Stone Hill Winery: 2012 Chardonel

Stone Hill Winery: 2011 Chambourcin

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OKLAHOMA GRAPE GROWERS & WINEMAKERS ASSOCIATION

Chapel Creek Winery: 2012 Oklahoma Tempranillo

Chapel Creek Winery: 2011 Oklahoma Norton

Coquelicot Vineyard: 2010 Estate Sangiovese

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SANTA BARBARA COUNTY VINTNERS’ ASSOCIATION

Dragonette Cellars: 2012 Sauvignon Blanc Happy Canyon

Dierberg/Star Lane: 2011 Dierberg Chardonnay

Fess Parker Winery & Vineyard: 2012 Fess Parker Santa Barbara County Chardonnay

Foxen Winery: 2012 Pinot Noir

Hitching Post: 2008 Hitching Post Pinot Noir Perfect Set Sta. Rita Hills

Lafond Winery: 2011 Pinot Noir AVA Sta. Rita Hills

Lucas & Lewellen: 2008 Cabernet Franc

Refugio Ranch Vineyards: 2010 Barbareno, Santa Ynez Valley – Syrah / Petite Sirah

Santa Barbara Winery: 2012 Chardonnay AVA SB County

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SOUTHERN OREGON WINERY ASSOCIATION

Agate Ridge Vineyard Ledger-David Cellars

Cliff Creek Cellars Plaisance Ranch

Deer Creek Winery RoxyAnn Winery

Del Rio Vineyards & Winery Serra Vineyard

Devitt Winery TesoAria Vineyard & Winery

EdenVale Winery Trium Vineyard & Winery

Kriselle Cellars

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VIRGINA WINE

Barboursville Vineyards: 2012 Viognier Reserve

Rappahannock Cellars: 2010 Meritage

Rappahannock Cellars: 2012 Viognier

Tarara Winery: 2012 Nevaeh Red

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THE WINE ROAD NORTHERN SONOMA COUNTY

Alexander Valley Vineyards: – 2009 CYRUS

Alexander Valley Vineyards: 2010 Sin Zin

Silver Oak Cellars: 2009 Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon

Stonestreet Winery: 2011 Gravel Bench Chardonnay and Broken Road Chardonnay

Trione Vineyards and Winery: 2012 Russian River Valley Sauvignon Blanc

Trione Vineyards and Winery: 2010 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

Twomey Cellars: 2011 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

Imaginary Guides to Washington Wine

Taste Washington bills itself as the nation’s largest single region wine and  food gathering. This year it was bigger and better than ever. Bigger — two days instead of one — with 225 wineries (out of the roughly 700 in the state) pouring about a thousand different wines. A great opportunity to survey Washington wine and taste food from more than 60 local restaurants.

The program was also better in a way that will make sense to Wine Economist readers. It seems to me that the Washington Wine Commission made even more of a point to help and encourage participating wineries to tell their stories and to promote their products. The pre-event messages were more focused and the two-day format meant that the wineries could give attendees more personal attention, which is key to relationship-building. This has always been the goal, of course, but I sensed an even more clearly directed effort this year, which I applaud, and I hope it pays off.

Turning the Tables

My first exposure to Taste Washington put me on the other side of the tasting table, pouring the wines of Fielding Hills Winery for my good friends Mike and Karen Wade. Although I wasn’t able to taste many other wines, I think I had the best view of the event because the people came to me — and it is meeting and talking with the people that is probably the best part (no offense to the food and wine).

So how do you actually taste Washington? You can roam around randomly, sniffing and swirling, but I think it is best to have a strategy. Last time around I tried to taste every Washington Malbec I could find to compare with the Argentinean wines I had tasted in Mendoza. Fascinating!

My Imaginary Guides

This year I decided to try to see Washington wine by imagining that I was new to the region but far from new to wine and looking at the state’s industry through these particular eyes. My imaginary guides? David Schildknecht and Benjamin Lewin. They weren’t there to guide my in person, but I used their recent writings to steer my path. Here’s what I think I learned.

David Schildknecht is The Wine Advocate’s new reviewer for Washington State, replacing Dr. Jay Miller who has moved on to other pursuits.  Schildknecht has written for Robert Parker’s celebrated wine journal since 1989 and I have especially appreciated his reviews of German and Austrian wines. He made two visits to Washington in 2012, literally starting from the ground up to master his new turf by touring the vineyards in the company of geologists!

Benjamin Lewin visited Washington in September 2012 to gather information for his forthcoming book Claret & Cabs: The Story of Cabernet Sauvignon, the sequel to In Search of Pinot Noir. Lewin’s Washington stop was part of his project to taste Cabernet Sauvignon and Claret (or Cab blend wines) from all the most important wine regions of the world. Lewin is nothing if not ambitious and the resulting book is quite spectacular.

I admire Lewin’s sharp analytical approach and his fluid writing style and I frankly envy his skill as a wine taster. Look for a review of Claret & Cabs closer to the May 1, 2013 official publication date.

I decided to make Schildknecht and Lewin my guides since they were both essentially experiencing  Washington for the first time and because their backgrounds and approaches are so different. Surely I would get an interesting view by putting Lewin’s lens in front of one eye and Schildknecht’s in front of the other.

Consulting the Guide Books

I know what Lewin thinks because I’ve got a review copy of the book. Schildknecht’s views are not yet fully stated [and perhaps never will be -- see note below -- because a new reviewer was assigned to Washington on the day this post was published]. Wine Advocate has only published a selection of his reviews of individual Washington wines and wineries — an additional tranche of reviews has been promised for some time, but hasn’t yet appeared. Included in the so-far unpublished list are wineries that account for a majority of Washington wines — Chateau Ste Michelle, for example, Columbia Crest and many others.

I don’t think we will really know Schildknecht’s views until all the reviews have been released and even then it might take a few years to see how the pieces fit together. Fortunately, he has published an essay that tries to sum up his reaction to Washington and its wines and I have found that very useful (it is behind the sturdy Wine Advocate pay wall, however, so you’ll need to purchase a subscription to read it).

Lewin and Schildknecht both seem to be confused or perhaps appalled by Washington’s untidy ad hoc system of AVAs, so they mainly ignore them and focus on vineyards and wineries rather than regional designations.

The Signature Varietal Issue Once Again

David Schildknecht

 They both address the issue, which I raised last week, of a signature varietal. And while the Washington industry is officially neutral in this fight (we’ve tried signature varietals before and the results haven’t been pretty), Lewin and Schildknecht don’t hesitate to state their choices.

Washington is all about Cabernet and Merlot says Lewin (who coincidentally is writing a book about Cabernet and Merlot), although he seems to think that adding Syrah to the blend can be a good thing. It’s all about Cabernet and Syrah, says Schildknecht, although you can tell that he really wishes that he could make a stronger case for Riesling.

The problem with Washington Riesling, according to Schildknecht, is that Washington can make extremely good wines at affordable prices. You can get maybe 80-90% of the quality of top German wines for a low price (my numbers not his), so who is going to pay the substantial extra cost to get that last 10%? No one, he moans. So Washington Riesling is doomed to arrested development.

The Diversity Issue

Schildknecht also seems concerned with the division of labor in Washington wine, where wine growing is one specialization and wine making and marketing another. Most of the world’s great wine is estate wine, he says, where the two functions take place under unified control. The Washington non-estate practice of blending from different sites and different appellations to add complexity and diversity feels like a compromise to him, even when the results are very good.

Lewin is more concerned about clones. He notes that a great many of the Cabernet vines are the same or similar clones, especially the earlier plantings, so that clonal diversity is very limited in making the wine, meaning that cross-region blending is needed to add complexity to the wines.

Washington Originals

Both have nice things to say about Washington wines. Schildknecht highlights the freshness and authenticity of the wines at their best. He wonders why Washington wine makers waste their time talking in terms of Old World models when they are creating an original product. He writes that

 I have no compunction about drawing analogies to specific Old World wine types when I think these apply – and for the benefit of those (very much including yours truly) for whom these are the most familiar points of reference. But virtually all of the most exciting wines I tasted for the present report display personalities and styles whose like I haven’t encountered outside Washington, and that is precisely what their producers and promoters should wish for.

Lewin locates some of this distinctiveness in his comparison of Cabernet and Merlot. Usually, he notes, you add Cabernet to Merlot to give it depth and structure. In Washington, on the other hand, it is Merlot that is the gutsier grape and Cabernet that perhaps needs a little punching up. Maybe this is due to Washington’s distinctive growing climate (large diurnal variation, longer sun-filled days) and perhaps this accounts for Washington Merlot’s signal success in the pre-Sideways Merlot boom days.

Why Not Syrah?

Both authors seem to wonder why Syrah isn’t more often included in Cabernet blends? Is the idea that Washington winemakers must adhere to “Bordeaux blend” orthodoxy preventing them from making the best and most interesting possible wines?

Lewin and Schildknecht are very interesting on their own and you can perhaps see that piecing them together raises some questions and starts to answer questions, too. What did I learn with the two of them as my imaginary guides to Taste Washington? Come back next week to find out.

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My comments here only scratch the surface of what Lewin and Schildknecht have to say about Washington wine, but this hopefully gives you some insight into their fresh perspective on the region’s wines. (I hope I haven’t misrepresented them in my brief summaries.)

Thanks to the Wine Appreciation Guild for letting me have a sneak peak at Benjamin Lewin’s new book. I’ll post a full review in a few weeks.

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Update 4/2/2013 An email from Wine Advocate arrived this morning announcing a new reviewer for Washington wines, Jeb Dunnuck.  It will be interesting to find out his take on Washington wine.s

Against the Tide: Globalization vs Italy’s Indigeneous Wines

The tide I’m talking about is the globalization of the wine market and I frequently hear that its ebb and flow bring in the main international wine grape varieties and the styles associated with them and wash out unique local wines. There is a grain of truth to this — one winemaker explained it to me this way. If I make poor but distinctive local wine and can’t sell it, I can blame international market forces (and not my own lax wine making) and just plant Merlot. Classic cop-out, he said.

This maybe true, but it isn’t the whole story. There is also the pipeline effect. Global markets create big pipelines that need to be filled and sometimes it is easier to fill them with a few standard wine varieties and styles than with hundreds of different small production wines. (The current movement to ship wines in bulk — in big 25,000 liter containers — and bottle in the consumer market reinforces this trend.)

And of course the demographic of wine consumption is changing, too (the who, what, where, when, how and why) with more new consumers who face a steep learning curve that sometimes works against wines that lie outside the mainstream. There are lots of pressures on winemakers today and globalization is certainly one of them.

Arguable Premise

But I’m not sure that the premise of the argument is correct. Although the wine market is much more global than in the past, it is still surprisingly local compared to many other industries, with most production sold in the country of origin. And although it is easy to spot increasing consolidation within the wine industry, it remains remarkably fragmented compared to most other international businesses.

And, to keep the momentum going, while it is easy to look at the wine wall and see acres of Cab and Chardonnay (and other “international” varieties) from all around the world, it is just as easy to note how very many distinctly local varieties are present.  It is sort of a macro-micro thing. If you look at the wine industry in terms of Rabobank’s very cool map (above) of international wine trade, it is easy to see the world defined by those big international flows, but if you look at it in terms of DeLong’s even cooler Wine Map of Italy (below), for example, the persistence of local wine markets becomes clear.

Like a Coat of Paint

We explored this global-local tension during our recent trip to Italy to attend the meetings of the American Association of Wine Economists in Bolzano. Italy is far and away the world’s largest wine exporting nation according to Global Wine Markets Statistical Compendium data, with average exports of 1,861 million liters during 2007-2009 period. France and Spain are second the third with 1,379 million liters and 1,292 million liters respectively. Australia is a distant fourth in the data set with an average of 782 million liters for the two year time period.

So, if the global tide argument holds, you would expect Italy to be covered like a layer of paint with endless hectares of international variety wine grapes. And, of course, there is a lot of Merlot, Cabernet and Chardonnay to be found in Italy along with other international standard varieties like Sauvignon, Riesling and Pinot Noir. But what stands out when you think about Italian wine is the success of indigenous wine  varieties and styles. Italy makes and sells international varieties, but the indigenous wines are what define it as a wine country.

Support Your Local Winemaker

Sometimes this success is driven by export markets (think about the popularity of Chianti and Sangiovese) but there are many successes that are really quite local in scope and stand as delicious counterexamples to the the incoming global tide theory. Let me give you three examples from our Italian fieldwork (Pignoletto, Lacrima di Morro and Ruché) saving a fourth case study (Kerner) for  a more detailed treatment in my next post.

Pignoletto is a dry white wine grown only in the hills outside of Bologna. “Lively, crisp, aromatic” is how Jancis Robinson describes it in her Guide to Wine Grapes. Pignoletto is distinctly Bolognese — grown there, made there and I think that every last drop of it is consumed there, too, since it goes so well with the rich local cuisine (almost as if they evolved together … which I guess they did).  It would be hard to beat the simple meal of salumi, cheese and bread that we had with a bottle of Pignoletto frizzante at Tamburini‘s wine bar in the Bologna central market.

Lacrima di Morro d’Alba is a distinctive red wine from the Marche region. Robinson describes is as “fast maturing, strangely scented.” Burton Anderson says that it is a “purple-crimson wine with … foxy berry-like odor and ripe plum flavor.” Apparently it fades very quickly, but it is distinctive and intense while it lasts.  It sure stood up to the very rich cuisine of Ferrara when we visited our friends in that city. We were fortunate that the restaurant owner guided us to this wine from the Mario Luchetti estate.

Ruché comes from the Piedmont and we stumbled upon it by accident (which I guess is how we usually stumble …). We were attending the annual regional culinary fair in Moncalvo, a hill town half an hour north of Asti. Thirteen “pro loco” civic groups from throughout the region set up food and wine booths in the central square and sold their distinctly local wares to a hungry luncheon crowd.

I had never heard of Ruché and honestly didn’t know what it might be until I happened upon the stand of the Castagnole Monferrato group. They were cooking with Ruché, marinating fruit in Ruché and selling it by the glass — they were obviously very proud of their local wine. I had to try it and it was great. Suddenly I saw Ruché everywhere (a common experience with a new discovery) and enjoyed a bottle at dinner in Asti that  night. “Like Nebbiolo,” Jancis Robinson writes, “the wine is headily scented and its tannins imbue it with an almost bitter aftertaste.” An interesting wine and a memorable discovery.

I think we all have these great “ah ha!” wine experiences when we travel so why am I making such a big deal about these three wines? Well, that’s the point really. Distinct, truly local wines are commonplace in Italy. What is in some ways the most global wine country is also perhaps the most local. Global and local exist side by side and if they don’t entirely support each other all the time, they aren’t necessarily constant, bitter enemies, either.

The key, I think, is local support of local wines and wine makers. That’s why these three wines have survived and sustained themselves.  I don’t think “me too” wines are capable of gathering local support.

Why does this come as such a surprise to us in the United States — why do we so easily swallow the idea of the unstoppable global tide. It is, I suppose, a legacy of prohibition, which destroyed many local wine cultures in the U.S. Wine today continues the difficult task of recovering from prohibition’s long lasting effects.

Are There Really Local American Wines?

So are there American wines that are local in the same sense of Pignoletto and Ruché? Sue asked that question as we drove out of the Asti Hills and headed north. I don’t know, I replied. Maybe. Petite Sirah is kind of a California cult wine, but it isn’t local in the same way as these Italian wines.

Here in Washington State we seem to have a thing for Lemberger, which sells out in the tasting rooms of the wineries that make it and seldom shows up outside the region. It’s an Austrian grape, but it has made its home here. Can you think of any other wines like this? Please leave a comment if you have a suggestion!

Perhaps we buy the global tide argument because it is so foreign to us? I think it would be interesting if we imported more than Italy’s wines — perhaps we could share their idea of really local wine, too.

Vertical (Not Necessarily Sideways)

I’ve been reading Vertical, Rex Pickett’s sequel to his novel Sideways, which was the basis for the 2004 film Sideways that changed the world of wine. The rise of Pinot Noir in recent years and the slump in Merlot sales is often attributed to the Sideways Effect.

I didn’t read Vertical for pleasure (I’m more of a non-fiction kinda guy) or to evaluate it as a work of literature (my colleagues over in the English department will breathe a sigh of relief). I wanted to see if Pickett would do it again – create a scene or storyline with the potential to connect with wine enthusiasts and change the way they think about wine.

Dump Buckets & Dunk Tanks

What sort of scene would that be? Well Sideways the film had a number of memorable moments. (I’ll focus on the film Sideways here rather than the novel since I think people are more familiar with the film.)  Some are famous for being outrageous, like the scene where Miles has just received bad news about his book project and self-medicates his depression with wine – tipping a dump-bucket full of secondhand wine over his head and face, soaking his clothes and getting a lifetime ban from that particular tasting room. Yuck! If  you’ve seen the movie I guarantee you remember the sequence.

Vertical has its share of outrageous scenes, including a reprise of the dump bucket experience. There are several other scenes with a high Yuck! Factor including one where we learn what happens when you take too many Viagra pills all at once and another, set at the International Pinot Noir Celebration in McMinnville, Oregon, that features a dunk tank filled with Charles Shaw Merlot and two  over-sexed (there’s a lot of sex in this book), matronly wine lovers determined to get “sideways” with Miles.
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Getting Personal About Wine

I loved the dump bucket in the Sideways film, but that’s not the scene that created the Sideways Effect. It was this one, of Miles and Maya on the back porch, talking while Jack and Stephanie were getting “sideways” in the bedroom.

Miles and Maya are chatting about wine and why they love it and about Pinot in particular, but they are really talking about themselves, don’t you think? They are really talking about who they are and who they want to be and the words they use to talk about wine express something deeper that goes to what it means to be a human being.

Who doesn’t sometimes feel fragile, like Miles, and need a little TLC? Who wouldn’t want to grow and change, as Maya suggests in the concluding part of  the scene (not shown in this brief excerpt), even if it means eventual decline?

Who indeed? It seems to me that almost anyone can identify with the longings expressed here indirectly through wine. And so the Sideways Effect was born as some people projected their longings onto Pinot Noir and others just went along for the ride.

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It’s Not About the Wine

Did I find a similar game-changing scene in Vertical?  Well, no. There are some scenes that make you stop and think, that make you reflect a bit on life, but most of them come late in the book, after a whole lot of sex, drugs and Pinot Noir, and they don’t really have very much to do with wine. I would give away the plot of the book if I told you more, so I will draw a line here.

A Vertical movie, if they make one, will certainly be feature a lot of wine (especially Willamette Valley Pinot Noir), but I don’t think there will be a Vertical Effect on the wine markets to rival the Sideways Effect.

But why did I think there would be? After all, Sideways wasn’t really about wine, it was about people and relationships — as you can plainly see from the movie trailer I’ve inserted here.  Sideways just happened to strike a chord with wine lovers. Pickett builds on that chord in Vertical, as any sequel author does, but it’s not and never really was really about the wine.

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By the way, there is a Japanese version of the film Sideways — have you seen it? It’s set in Napa Valley, not Santa Barbara. Frog’s Leap and Newton are the featured wineries and Cabernet Sauvignon, not Pinot Noir, is the wine obsession.

To the best of my knowledge this film did not produce a Sideways Effect in Japan. Why not? Well, for one thing it focused on wines that were already well-known and popular in Japan, so it was using the wine to sell the film not using the film to change the way people think about wine.

Besides, I think, the Japanese version is even less about the wine and lacks that critical back porch scene. They did keep the dump bucket, however, as you can see in the trailer that I’ve inserted above.

Stag’s {Stags’} (Stags) Leap

The Stags Leap District Winegrowers Association has invited us to their  V2V (Vineyard to Vintner) program later this month and we are looking forward to the event.

I have a particular interest in the Stags Leap District. My study of wine economics can be directly traced to a conversation with one of this area’s leading winemakers in his cellar many years ago. I’m looking forward to this focused opportunity to learn more about the Stags Leap District today and see what has changed since my last visit.

Money, Wine and Lawyers

The first stage of my research to prepare for the Stags Leap trip took an unexpected turn that reminded me of Warren Zevon’s song “Lawyers, Guns and Money.” Most stories of famous wine regions are about places, faces and wine. They start with places (the terroir), then move to faces (of the famous winemakers who helped establish the region’s reputation) and end with the wines themselves.

Stags Leap AVA certainly has the terroir. The district, about six miles north of Napa on the Silverado Road, is marked by a 1200 foot vertical basalt palisade that is both landmark and a source of the particular soil and microclimate that helps define the district. The growing season is longer in Stags Leap than in other parts of Napa Valley, with bud break coming two weeks earlier. The grapes ripen more slowly during their longer time on the vine, which seems to have a positive effect.

Stags Leap has it famous wine faces, too. The most notable is Warren Winiasrski of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. A former lecturer in Greek at the University of Chicago School of Social Thought, he was one of the early movers in Stags Leap. His second vintage, a 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon, was declared the red wine winner at the famous 1976 “Judgment of Paris” wine tasting that Steven Spurrier organized to test California wines against the French originals.  (You know about this event if you’ve read George B. Taber’s excellent book on the subject or seen the fictionalized film version, Bottle Shock.)

(Incredibly, the winning wine was made with grapes from three year old vines — infants! Unfortunately, according to my sources here, the vineyard was not in the Stags Leap District but rather farther north in Napa Valley. It established the winery’s and the region’s reputations at once.)

There is even a hallmark Stags Leap style — “perfumey fruit” according to Bruce Cass, although not every wine is made in a way that highlights this.

Lawyers, Wine and Grammar

So where do the lawyers come in? Well, the first thing I did when I started this project was to grab my copy of James Halliday’s classic Wine Atlas of California. Halliday devotes seven pages to Stags Leap places and faces and its distinctive Cabernet Sauvignon wines. But he begins his report with the most controversial part of the AVA’s history: its name and the legal battle over the the valuable intellectual property rights (IPRs) associated with it.

The area takes its name from the legend of a prodigious jump that a stag (or maybe several stags) took on the palisade while fleeing hunters. Warren Winiarski naturally included this colorful reference in the name of his winery, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, when he founded the operation in 1972.

But so did Carl Dounami, who started founded Stags’ Leap Winery just up the road, also in 1972.  Two wineries, two strong personalities — they battled for years over the right to the Stag’s / Stags’ Leap name. More than an apostrophe separated them, of course, although any grammarian can tell you that where the apostrophe is placed makes all the difference.

The right to label your wine with some variation of Stag’s/Stags’ Leap had obvious economic advantages and both winemakers wanted clear title to the designation. The IPR battle reemerged and intensified when the AVA was formed and its geographic lines drawn.

Clashing economic interests made the process of choosing a name and drawing AVA lines particularly contentious, according to Halliday. The compromise name — Stags Leap (no apostrophe anywhere, purely plural, nowhere possessive) settled the legal squabble, leaving the real task clear: making great wine.

Challenges Old & New

The old wine economics story of Stags Leap was about intellectual property. The new one — the one I want to explore when I visit later this month — is how the winegrowers are dealing with the current economic challenge and will respond to the future ones.

The current challenge, of course, is the continuing economic crisis, which has hit some upscale producers especially hard.

The future challenges? The future is hard to predict, but I’d suggest globalization (with its many threats and opportunities) and climate change, which would seem to be an especially scary prospect for a micro-region like Stags Leap.  But maybe I’m missing an even bigger story? I guess I’ll have to go there and find out!

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Here’s Warren Zevon performing “Lawyers, Guns and Money.”  Feel free to sing along, adding wine and grammar references as necessary. Enjoy!

Wine Festivals Uncorked

jancis

Jancis Robinson and Wine Economist Mike Veseth at the IPNC. Wine Festivals draw celebrity wine critics, who taste, talk, sign books, pose for photos and lend credibility to the event.

Wine festivals have become big business. So big that the Wall Street Journal publishes a guide to upcoming festivals in each Friday’s edition. Click here to see their online August festival listing.There are lots of different wine events, but I’m not talking about charity wine walkabouts here, where you make a small donation, get a few drink tickets and visit tables where random bottles of donated wine are poured. The modern wine festival is a lot more focused and sophisticated and designed to engage wine enthusiasts on a different level.

International Pinot Noir Celebration

The International Pinot Noir Celebration (IPNC) in McMinnville, Oregon is a good example of the state of the art in wine festivals today. Sue and I attended the grand tasting last Sunday (a chance to sample dozens of Pinot Noir in a beautiful but hot outdoor setting), but the real deal for serious Pinot lovers is the full three day festival. For a fee of about $900 per person (not including lodging) you spend your days in tastings, seminars and vineyard tours and your nights under the stars at grand dinners.

The festival attracted winemakers from Oregon, California, Washington, Canada, France, Austria, Australia and New Zealand — quite an international lineup in a recession year.

I’m told that about 400 people attend the big festival — many of them come back year after year — and I would guess that another 300 or so came to the grand tasting on Sunday, so the festival’s total budget must approach a  half-million dollars. More than enough to pay the expenses of wine critics and celebrities (like Jancis Robinson above).

What’s In It For Me?

It is interesting to consider what brings all these people together? Yes, yes, I know that it must ultimately be about buying and selling wine, but that doesn’t fully explain it. No wine typically changes hands at events like this and there are probably more cost effective ways to market wine, from the supplier standpoint, and cheaper ways for consumers to fill their glasses, too. So what’s really going on?

One reason winemakers travel so far to attend these festivals is to communicate with other producers and to taste and compare their wines. Although I still don’t fully understand it, I have observed a subtle kind of dialogue when winemakers taste together. Information about taste, technique and status are all transmitted in the glass. Professors go to conferences and communicate by reading papers. Winemakers go to festivals and taste each others’ wines. It is easy to see who has the more sensible approach to intra-industry communication.

I suspect that there was a lot of producer dialogue at the Pinot festival because the wines that we tasted did not have much in common except the genetic pedigree of the grapes used to make them. Although the world wine market is moving to a lingua franca based upon grape varietal labeling (Chardonnay not Chablis, Pinot Noir not Burgundy) it is very clear that wines made from Pinot Noir grapes can have extraordinarily different textures, flavors and aromas. depending upon who makes them, how and where.

The Old World naming system (based on place not varietal) sure has its merits in the wineglass where terroir is actually experienced — too bad it works so poorly in the cluttered supermarket aisle when wines are bought and sold.

I met more than one winemaker who told me basically that she came to Oregon to prove something — to prove that good Pinot Noir could be made in X  where X = Oregon, Austria, California, Australia — fill in the place — only Burgundy has nothing to prove.

Hemispheric Exchange

A good deal of business gets done whenever producers come together, as you might expect. Partnerships, consulting services, distribution agreements and so forth are frequently arranged.  The McCrone vineyard wines made by Ken Wright Cellars and Ata Rangi are a good case study of the sort of  connections that probably could only happen in face-to-face meetings at a wine festival.

Don and Carole McCrone

Don and Carole McCrone

Don McCrone is a distinguished retired politics professor turned distinguished active winegrower. His vineyard outside of Carlton, Oregon  produces amazing fruit, which winemaker Ken Wright turns into a wonderful single-vineyard bottling. Don and Carole McCrone met the  winemakers from New Zealand’s famous Ata Rangi winery at IPNC a few years ago and were encouraged by them (while tasting each others’ wines, no doubt) to scout out vineyard properties in Martinborough.

Now the McCrones spend half of the year in each hemisphere supplying grapes to both Ken Wright and Ata Rangi for “McCrone Vineyard” wines. Are there any other winegrowers with vineyard designated wines in both hemispheres? It is an extreme example of the sort of cross-fertilization that can happen behind the scenes at major wine festivals.

Relationships not Transactions

I think that the most important function of wine festivals is to establish and build relationships. I always say that wine is good, but wine and a story is better. Wine and a relationship (even a superficial one with the grower, the winemaker, or other wine enthusiasts) is best of all. Doug Tunnell, winemaker at Oregon’s Brick House, explained to me that he brings his wines to IPNC every year to maintain contact with the people who attend. I got the impression that it isn’t so much about selling wine as honoring  relationships.  I think elite makers recognize that investing in relationships with customers (and with wine critics and journalists and all the others who attend these events) pays dividends down the road. Winemaking and relationship-building both require a long-term perspective.

The fact that many people come back to IPNC year after year suggests that they value the relationships, too, both with the producers and with each other. I have written that wine always tastes best when it is shared with others who enjoy and appreciate it. This may be especially true with festivals like IPNC, which tend to attract participants who are especially focused on a particular wine or region.

What I Think I Have Learned

So here is what I think I have learned from my fieldwork at wine festivals so far, both at IPNC and elsewhere, on both sides of the table, both pouring and receiving wine.

Wine festivals aren’t really about the wine, they are about the people, the conversations and the relationships. The role of the wine is to bring the people together and to give them something to share in a way that is impossible to recreate electronically.

Wine, or really the sharing of wine,  is a personal  relational experience in an otherwise increasingly impersonal transactional world.  That people seem to appreciate this sort of experience (and seek it out, even at high monetary cost and even in a deep recession) suggests something about its scarcity, don’t you think?

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