The [Sometimes Slow] March of the Kiwi Terroirists

slowhorseLast week’s column looked back to the concerns about terroir and geographical designations a few years ago when Sue and I visited New Zealand to gather material for my book about globalization, Globaloney. There was frustration and anxiety about how to delimit the Kiwi vineyards and concern that things weren’t moving fast enough.

The people in Hawkes Bay were so frustrated that they took  matters in their own hands, creating and trademarking the Gimblett Gravels region! Well, the good news is that progress is at last about to be made on the policy front although the promise of progress hasn’t stopped winemakers from trying to speed things along through their own branding strategies. Here’s a quick report.

The Slow Horse Theory

My friend Woody says that justice rides a slow horse and, if that’s true, then the new Kiwi geographical indicator policy must be just indeed. It certainly has been slow in coming!

I was struck by a recent Decanter article about New Zealand geographical indicators for wine.  “Ministers said …that they would put into practice the Geographical Indications (Wine and Spirits) Registration Act – first passed as long ago as 2006 but yet to enter into force.” The  reason for the rush to get the law implemented is a concern over international competitiveness.

‘The act will set up a registration scheme for wine and spirit geographical indications, similar to the trademark registration scheme,’ said New Zealand Trade Minister Tim Groser.

‘Being able to register wines and spirits geographical indications here will make it easier for their users to enforce them in New Zealand.
‘It will also make it easier for our exporters to protect their geographical indications in some overseas markets.’

Since the New Zealand industry is very dependent on exports, it makes good sense to bring Kiwi practices into line with the global rules of the game.

The move was ‘warmly welcomed’ by generic body New Zealand Winegrowers, whose CEO Philip Gregan said: ‘It will equip the industry with the tools to protect its premium brand from misappropriation or misuse, as well as help secure market access in some regions.

‘It’s a big step forward for the industry.’

A Bill to amend the Act will be introduced to New Zealand’s Parliament later this year, and the Act is expected to be passed by the end of 2015.

Paul Goldsmith, New Zealand’s Commerce and Consumer Affairs Minister, noted that some consumers are prepared to pay a significant premium for wines from certain New Zealand geographic regions.

“The reputation of New Zealand wines must be jealously guarded if we are to continue growing our wine exports.

“The ability to register geographical indications under the new Act will help our wine industry promote and protect its premium brand from misappropriation or misuse by overseas producers, as well as secure access in certain markets which require government-recognised geographical indications.”

Good idea. But what took so long?  I found an analysis of the situation on the Baldwins intellectual property law website which provided useful background. Apparently passing the geographic indicator act back in 2006 wasn’t enough — it is also necessary for the Governor General to issue an Order in Council, which was not done (as was the case with a previous geographical indicator act from 1994).

I have not been following this situation, so perhaps there have been very good reasons for the long delay in implementing the GI act. As I noted last week, some think that it might be premature to set down strict boundaries or worry that appellations in general have gotten out of control.  But clearly the NZ wine export sector’s needs are now being given priority. With a little luck they can begin to use the new system next year. Slow justice I suppose. I’d appreciate comments from those in New Zealand who are directly affected by the change. Are there issues here that don’t show up in the news stories?

Marlborough Pioneer Brancott Estate

I hope the geographical indicator law, when it is finally implemented, will provide New Zealand producers with the protections and processes that they need. But in the meantime terroir grows in importance every day in the global market as upscale consumers look for markers of integrity and authenticity in everything they buy. Wines of origin designations don’t guarantee these qualities, but they are a way to signal intent to buyers.

Smart Kiwi producers are doing their best to exploit terroir both in bottle and as brands, a fact that was clear when we were invited to participate in a digital wine tasting of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc organized by Pernod Ricard’s Brancott Estate.

Brancott Estate is the pioneer Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc producer. The photo at right shows Frank Yukich planting the first Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc vine at the Brancott vineyard in Marlborough in 1975. If  you look closely you can see he is “fertilizing” the vine with a silver coin and irrigating it with Champagne.

The Yukich family’s company, Montana Wines, eventually changed hands and current owner Pernod Ricard rebranded it globally as Brancott Estate a few years ago. I suppose the Montana brand wine was never going to be an easy sell here in the U.S. where a wine from Montana can have more than one meaning, but Brancott Estate is a hit, hence our digital tasting.

P1090870There were five wines in the tasting flight, starting with a low alcohol Sauvignon Blanc called Flight Song and moving on to the mainstream Brancott Estate wine that is widely distributed here in the U.S. Then we climbed up the wine ladder from Stoneleigh Latitude (Stoneleigh is a sister winery to Brancott) to Brancott Estate Letter Series and ending with the Brancott Estate Chosen Rows (tiny production — not currently available in the U.S. market).

We tasted the wines in the company of Sue’s parents Mike and Gert with Brancott winemaker Patrick Materman as our virtual guide via a web link. The low alcohol Flight Song, made from early-harvest grapes, was not a favorite, but the popular Brancott Estate bottling was well received with its classic Marlborough flavors and aromas. A good reference point for the wines that followed.

The Stoneleigh Latitude Sauvignon Blanc is made from vines planted in Marlborough’s “Golden Mile,” where river rocks carpet the vineyard floor capturing the sun’s heat. Stoneleigh focuses exclusively on wines made from this one vineyard area. This wine, my favorite of the flight, displayed unexpected minerality on first taste and rich fruit when re-tasted an hour later and then the next day.

The Letter Series wine came exclusively from vines in the original Brancott vineyard (and not a regional blend) while the Chosen Rows (my second favorite) was sourced from a selection of the best rows of vines from Brancott. It was noticeably more serious and elegant — and more expensive. It’s s shame that it is made is such limited quantities because it might change some minds about Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. I hope I have an opportunity to taste it again.

Strengthening Brand Marlborough

Together these wines demonstrated, just in case anyone had doubts, that Marlborough’s particular terroirs show themselves in the wines and that Pernod Ricard and the Brancott team are committed to making these wines and telling terroirist stories to go with them.

Focusing on the vineyard level with a particular brand isn’t the only way to tell the story, but it’s one way to do it until a more formal system of geographic indicators is in place. And even when sub-regional designations are improved, the vineyard-level story will be powerful and relevant.  The time is ripe for a terroirist take on New Zealand wines and producers are ready to rock and roll.


Here is a march to accompany the [slow] implementation of the New Zealand legislation. Perhaps you have heard it before?

Book Review: Oz Clarke’s History of Wine in 100 Bottles

Oz Clarke, The History of Wine in 100 Bottles: From Bacchus to Bordeaux and Beyond. Sterling Epicure, 2015.

It was a brilliant idea. Select 100 items from the massive collection of The British Museum and then present them, one at a time and in chronological order, to create “A History of the World in 100 Objects.”

Simply Irresistible

It was an instant hit with history-hungry Britain. Never have the artifacts of the British  Museum’s collection been so closely studied and appreciated by millions! And of course the use of physical objects of various sorts was perfect because, as we all know, we are living in a material world and so telling the story of civilization through material goods is simply irresistible. You can see a list of the objects here and briefly view each one in the 5 minute video below.

In another brilliant move, the organizers did not present the series on the television or the internet as you might expect but via one-hundred short  15-minute BBC Radio 4 broadcasts starting on January 18, 2010 and ending on October 22 of that year. Neil MacGregor, the museum’s director, wrote and narrated all the episodes.

The combination of rich language plus fertile imagination inspired listeners to seek out information about the objects  through all available means including visits to the British Museum (which must have been one of the goals of the enterprise). Watch the video and click on the website link — maybe the hundred objects will fascinate you as they have so many others.


100 Bottles of Wine on the Wall

Oz Clarke takes something of the same approach to the history of wine in his new book and the result is very appealing indeed. Clarke’s challenge is to tell the story of wine in 100 short, punchy, chronologically-ordered episodes. Some of the chapters are about actual bottles as promised by the book’s title (1964, for example, is a jug of Gallo Hearty Burgundy), but most are the stories of people, events or forces that shaped significantly the world of wine.

Thus 1855 is the Bordeaux Classification of that year and 1863 is Phylloxera. 1965 marks the invention of bag-in-box containers and 1976 the famous Judgement of Paris.  The story begins with the invention (or was it a discovery?) of wine in about 6000 BC and concludes with Rudy Kurniawan’s wine fraud conviction in 2014.

I think there is something here for all wine-lovers to enjoy and appreciate, although I understand that some will criticize the entries for being too brief  (more of the 2-page landscape given to each entry goes to images than to text) and others will find fault with the particular entries chosen and not.  Regarding the depth of analysis, I think you have to accept this for what it is and, like the BBC/British Museum project, see this as an invitation to further study rather than a much too brief final chapter.

Regarding the topics the Clarke included versus those left out, I think it is inevitable that people disagree about what’s most important — and maybe there’s fun in arguing about it a bit. I was pleased that many of the people, events and forces that I have written about here on The Wine Economist and in my books were important enough to be included in Clarke’s book.  I’ll gladly defer to him where we might disagree because after all it is his book not mine, but I was happy that we agree in so many areas.

For example my chapter on “Extreme Wine People” in Extreme Wine highlights a number of individuals who transformed the idea of wine in one way or another. Almost all of them make Clarke’s list including Robert Mondavi (1966), Angelo Gaja (1968). David Lett (1975) and Nicholas Catena (1994). I highlighted Montana’s Brancott Estate in Wine Wars because that’s where the first Sauvignon Blanc vines were planted in Marlborough, New Zealand. Sure enough, that’s Clarke’s entry for 1983,  And world’s highest vineyards (in the Salta region of Argentina) appeared in the first chapter of Extreme Wine and as the entry for 2006 here.

Here’s a selection of other chapter entries to whet your appetite and give you a sense of the variety of topics presented: Pompeii (79 AD), Tokaji (1571), Constantia (1685), Dom Perignon (1690s). Chianti (1716), Louis Pasteur (1860), Vega Sicilia (1915), Mateus (1942), Emile Peynaud (1949), Robert Parker (1978), Canadian Ice Wine (1991) and China (2011).

The History of Wine n 100 Bottles is fun and informative — a great gift for your wine enthusiast friends and a colorful addition to any wine bookshelf.

By the way, if you are interested in projects like these, you might also want to read Tom Standage’s 2006 book A History of the World in 6 Glasses. The glasses, in chronological order, are filled with beer (in Mesopotamia and Egypt), wine (in Greece and Rome), spirits (in the Colonial Period), coffee (in the Age of Reason), tea (the British Empire) and Coca-Cola (in the American Century). There’s a seventh glass that represents the future. What does it hold? Water, of course.

My Hidden Agenda

I was keen to get a copy of Oz Clarke’s book when it was published because I’ve started work on a project that has something of the same flavor. Although  Money, Taste and Wine: It’s Complicated won’t be released until August, I’ve been at work for some time now on the next book in the series, which I’m calling Around the World in 80 Wines. Don’t you think that’s a great title? My challenge is to write a great book to go with it!

I wanted to see what Oz Clarke would do with his hundred wines and, while I can’t fault his use of the BBC/British Museum model, that’s not the way that I’m headed. Clarke and the BBC make a journey through time and I’m traveling through space — around the world, with 20 stops (chapters) and 80 wines. Some chapters search out and find a single most significant wine story wine while others reveal a treasure trove of different wines — or search and search and come up empty. How annoying!

But journey’s don’t reveal their significance all at once or in carefully measured doses. They ebb and flow like life itself and that’s what I’m going to try to capture. I’m sure that some will second-guess my choices and want more depth here and less there but, as with the BBC/British Museum’s series and Oz Clarke’s new book, I think you’ll find the result worth the effort. — fun, interesting. Maybe even irresistible!


Sorry, I couldn’t resist.

Unintended Consequences: How the U.S. & Canada Accidentally Destroyed Wine

At one point in Kym Anderson’s new book about the Australian wine industry he reflects on what can be done to shorten that country’s current wine slump and to get things sailing again on an even keel. One of his suggestions caught my eye:

“Governments need to keep out of grape and wine markets and confine their activities to generating public goods and overcoming market failures such as the free rider problem of collecting levies for generic promotion and R&D.”

This is more than the simple Adam Smith “laissez-faire” idea. Anderson’s book clearly demonstrates the law of unintended consequences — how well-meaning government policies sometimes have had unexpectedly negative side-effects. No wonder he recommends a cautious approach to wine and grape policy.

I was reminded of this when I was researching the history of the Canadian wine industry for a recent speaking engagement in Ontario. I was struck by Canada’s experience with Prohibition in the 20th century, how it differed from the U.S. experiment, and how both ended up crippling their wine industries but in very different ways. Here’s what I learned.

How U.S. Prohibition Crippled the Wine Industry

The great experiment in Prohibition in the United States started in 1920 and lasted until 1933. The 18th Amendment outlawed the manufacture, sale or transport of intoxicating beverages, including wine. Most people assume that the wine industry collapsed as legal wine sales and consumption fell and this is partly true but not the complete story. Commercial wine production almost disappeared, but wine consumption actually boomed.

How is this possible? There were three loopholes in the wine regulations outlined in the Volstead Act. Wine could still be produced and sold for medical purposes (prescription wine?) and also for use in religious services (sacramental wine). This kept a few wineries in business but does not account for the consumption boom, which is due to the third loophole: households were allowed to make up to 200 gallons of wine per year for “non-intoxicating” family consumption.

Demand for wine grapes exploded as home winemaking increased (but not always for strictly non-intoxicating purposes). Total U.S. vineyard area just about doubled between 1919 and 1926! But the new plantings were not delicate varieties that commercial producers might have chosen but rather grapes chosen for their high yields,  strong alcohol potential and ability to survive shipping to eastern markets.

Thus did Prohibition increase wine consumption in the U.S. but it also corrupted the product by turning over wine-making from trained professionals to enthusiastic  amateurs working in often unsanitary conditions. The home-produced wine sometimes had little in common with pre-Prohibition commercial products except its alcoholic content.

Americans drank more wine during Prohibition, but it was an inferior product. No wonder they dropped wine like a hot stone when Prohibition ended. That’s when the real wine bust occurred and it took decades to fully recover. Do you see the unintended consequence in this story? But wait, there’s more …

How Canadian Prohibition Crippled Its Wine Industry

Prohibition started earlier (1916) and ended earlier (1927) in Canada and took a different fundamental form. With support from temperance groups, consumption of beer and spirits (Canada’s first choice alcoholic drinks) was banned as part of war policy with the stated intent of preserving grain supplies for vital military uses. Consumption was forbidden, but production of beer and spirits was still allowed for export, which accounts for the boom in bootleg Canadian whiskey in the U.S. in the 1920s.

Neither production nor consumption of wine was included in Canada’s ban on alcohol, although wine sales were limited to the cellar door. What made wine different? Maybe grapes were not as vital to the war effort as grains, although John Schreiner cites the political influence of the United Farmer’s Party in his account of this period in The Wines of Canada. Wine became the legal alcoholic beverage of choice for Canadian consumers and production boomed. By the end of Canadian Prohibition there were 57 licensed wineries in Ontario (up from just 12) to serve the big Toronto market.

Wine sales increased 100-fold, according to Schreiner, but “It would be charitable to describe the quality of the wines being made in Ontario during this period as variable,” he writes. The market wanted alcohol and set a low standard of quality, which many producers pragmatically stooped to satisfy. No wonder wine production collapsed at the end of Prohibition as consumers went back to spirits and beer.

Unintended Consequences

Thus did government policy in both Canada and the United States create wine booms during their respective Prohibition eras, but the worst kind of booms: bad wine booms. Quality suffered as quantity surged. It is no surprise that consumers turned away from wine once other beverages were available. It took decades for these industries to recover.

Both the Canadian and U.S. wine industries are vibrant and growing today, having recovered from the crippling effects of poor quality wine. But they both are still hampered by other policies — especially regarding distribution and sales — that date back to the end of Prohibition. Economic policies can obviously have unintended effects and the shadows they cast can be long indeed.

No wonder Kym Anderson is skeptical about government interference in the Australian industry. Prohibition is an extreme case, to be sure, but such cases clearly show the unintended consequence potential that exists even with other seemingly harmless proposals. A cautious approach makes sense.


You can read more about both the Australian booms and busts and also Prohibition in the United States in chapter 6 of my 2013 book  Extreme Wine. Look for a review of Kym Anderson’s book in an upcoming Wine Economist column.

Eyrie Vineyards’ 50th Anniversary: Credit Where Credit is Due

eyrie50Is 50 years a long time in the wine business? Not by some standards. The Antinori family dates  its wine production back to 1385, which is Old World old. Klein Constantia in “New World” South Africa can trace it origins to 1651. Bodega Colomé in Argentina was founded in 1831. By these standards, 50 years is the blink of an eye.

Wine goes back many years here in the United States, too, but 50 years is a significant span of time. Fifty years is more of less the complete history of wine in Oregon, for example, and a round number anniversary like this is worth recognizing.

And so it was that Sue and I motored to Portland on February 22 to honor the 50th anniversary to the day of the first Pinot Noir and Chardonnay vines to be planted in the Willamette Valley (at a temporary nursery that David Lett established near Corvallis). The Letts found their ideal vineyard site in the Dundee HIlls in 1966 and the first Eyrie Vineyards vintage was produced in 1970.

Taking Credit

The Oregon wine industry has blossomed extravagantly since those first vines were planted and there is much credit to be taken and given, too. The video I have embedded below gives a sense of how much the early Oregon wine pioneers struggled and how they supported each other. They weren’t struggling to divide the pie among themselves back then because there wasn’t any pie to fight over. It was Oregon versus nature and against the world.

The achievements of David Lett and his pioneer colleagues (many of whom were in the room with us on February 22) received early international recognition at 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 international recognition of the achievement.

Tasting through wines from five decades (see my list of the wines below) it was easy to understand what all the fuss was about. Even the oldest Pinot Noir (1972) was still bright and full of evolved character. The wines were noteworthy for their strong sense of identity and that some of the wines from more difficult (more Burgundian?) vintages seemed to especially shine over the years.

It’s also worth noting that the older Chardonnay and Pinot Gris wines were stunners, too, so that Pinot Noir was not the whole show at all. David Lett was building them to last back then. It was especially interesting to taste the clear connection between the 1977 Estate Pinot Gris and the 2004 wine made from the same grape vines 27 years later. Eyrie was the pioneer Pinot Gris producer not just in Oregon but in the United States. Bravo Eyrie!

Giving Credit

The wine boom in the Willamette Valley in particular and Oregon in general didn’t happen all at once and wasn’t any single person’s creation. One of the things that I most appreciated about Jason Lett’s remarks as we tasted through wines from five decades was how he was careful to share credit starting with his mother Diana and father David, then to his vineyard and winery crew and on, as we moved from wine to wine, to all those who played a part in the story (or at least as many as possible). February 22 was Eyrie’s day, but not Eyrie’s alone.

Oregon today is so much different form where it was 50 years ago. It was a rare treat to be able to talk with some of the people who have guided the transformation and to taste and share something of the past, present and future of this vibrant industry.

The collective achievement must be beyond the imagination of all but the most optimistic of the pioneers. They and those who stood on their shoulders have created a relatively small wine region with a global reputation that continues to attract both the attention of and investment from around the world. The recent Oregon vineyard boom suggests that the story if far from over.

Looking Ahead

What does the future hold for Eyrie Vineyards? An interesting balance of continuity and change. There are plans for a new winery up in the vineyards where it perhaps should have been all the time. But the building plans are designed to retain many of the peculiar characteristics of the original building, which was a turkey processing plant before it became a famous winery.

The vineyards will change but stay the same, too. Phylloxera has finally found its way to the original vines, which are losing vigor but still making great wines. The Letts will delay replanting the  original vineyards with grafted vines as long as possible, using fruit from previously unplanted sites to supplement existing sources. Expect the classic grape varieties plus Trousseau Noir and more Melon de Bourgogne and Pinot Meunier.

Congratulations to Eyrie Vineyards and to everyone who is part of their continuing story! Scroll down to see the wines we sampled on February 22, 2015. Here’s a video about the Oregon Pioneers and their sons and daughters, too. Enjoy.


The Wines

The wines were presented in several flights organized by decade, starting with the oldest (the 1970s) and moving forward. I have rearranged the list of wines below according to wine grape variety for easy reference. Each flight included a Pinot Gris, a Chardonnay and two Pinot Noirs. The 2000s flight was followed by the 2012 single vineyard Pinot Noirs and finally we toasted the 50th anniversary with a sparkling wine that Jason Lett made especially for this event. Ever forward looking, Lett began this anniversary project (and this wine) in 2009.

Eyrie Pinot Gris

1977 Estate

1983 Willamette Valley

1991 Willamette Valley

2004 Original Vines

Eyrie Chardonnay

1973 Estate

1984 Estate

1995 Estate

2002 Estate

Eyrie Pinot Noir

1972 Estate

1976 Barrel Reserve

1980 South Block Reserve

1986 Barrel Reserve

1992 South Block Reserve

1998 Estate

2005 Estate (Jason Lett’s first Eyrie wine)

2007 South Block Reserve (David Lett’s final Eyrie wine)

Eyrie Single Vineyard Pinot Noir

2012 Sisters Vineyard

2012 Outcrop Vineyard

2012 Rolling Green Vineyard

2012 Daphne Vineyard

2012 Original Vines

Eyrie Pinot Meunier Rosé Brut Nature Sparkling Wine


Thanks to Eyrie Vineyards and the Lett family for inviting us to this celebration. Good luck and best wishes for another 50+ years!



Silver Anniversary Celebration: How Wine Has Changed Since 1989

Robert Parker, Parker’s Wine Buyer’s Guide (New Edition 1989-1990). Simon and Schuster, 1989.

Our friends were married in 1989 and recently celebrated their silver anniversary with a dinner party where almost all of the wines were 1989s from their cellar (plus a few bottles from their children’s birth years). What a treat! I’ll paste a photo of some  of the wines we enjoyed at the end of this post to give you an idea of what a great time we had.

1989 and All That

To paraphrase a famous football coach, wine isn’t like life, it is life, so wine and life’s celebrations are natural partners and our very small gift to the happy couple was an autographed copy of the 1989 edition of Robert Parker’s Wine Buyer’s Guide.  I hope that what the book says about how wine has grown and changed over the last 25 years will inspire them to consider how their relationship has deepened and matured like a great wine!

I couldn’t part with the book without looking at it myself — just a quick glance to see what Parker wrote about and how — not the detailed analysis of the individual winery and wine entries that would yield the greatest insights. Here’s what I found.

What’s changed since 1989? Well, you won’t be surprised to know that prices have done up. Parker rates each wine with a point score out of 100 (his signature rating system) and an alphabetical price indicator. A = Inexpensive (less than $8) to E = luxury (in excess of $50).  The 1984 Ridge Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon receives 96 points and a D ($25-$50) for example. The Heitz Martha’s Vineyard Cab cost only C ($15-$25) — I should have put some of that away!

It is interesting to see how the world wine map has broadened in 25 years. The sections on the Wines of Western Europe is very complete, as you would expect, with France, Germany, Italy Spain and Portugal well represented.  A section on The Best of the Rest includes Australia (of course), and briefer discussions of Argentina, Bulgaria, Chile, Greece, Hungary, Lebanon, New Zealand, Switzerland,  the UK and Yugoslavia.

It would be hard to make a list like this today without including Austria, South Africa and China. Brazil, India, Israel and several other countries would also claim a place in the lineup.

American Wines Everywhere

What about North America? Well it is there, of course (sans Canada, alas), wedged between Europe and the Rest, with about 250 pages of text compared to nearly 550 for Europe. That’s not a bad page count ratio when you consider how much more wine the Europeans produced then and how tiny the US industry was by comparison.

California got 210 of these pages followed by Oregon with about 30 pages. Parker has a particular interest in Oregon wines and is a partner with his brother-in-law at Beaux Frères (Parker does not review these wines because of understandable conflict-of-interest concerns).

I was interested to see what Parker had to say about Washington wines back in 1989, so I turned quickly to the chapter on Other American Viticultural Regions (other than California and Oregon that is). Connecticut, Idaho, Maryland, Massachusetts, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, — the list goes on, wine seems to be everywhere in America  — Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas, Virginia and then finally Washington!

Washington: Lingering Doubts, Encouraging Signs

“While I still have doubts about the overall quality and potential for Washington state wines,” Parker writes on page 843, “there are some encouraging signs …”.  Not exactly a ringing endorsement, but probably how many wine people saw the situation at the time. California was obviously important. Oregon, too, because of its Burgundy-like prestige.

Washington? Still needed to prove itself, which I think it quickly did. Washington is now the nation’s #2 wine producer in quantity and challenges California in many areas in terms of quality and reputation. But not in 1989.

In a very brief guide to the state’s best wines, Parker found no Outstanding Chardonnays and just one excellent producer (Hogue). Arbor Crest, Columbia, Chateau Ste Michelle and Zillah Oakes made the cut as Good Producers of Chardonnay.

The best Cabernet Sauvignons? Chateau Ste Michelle’s post-1983 Reserves earned them an Outstanding recommendation. The Chateau’s regular bottling was rated Excellent along with the Columbia “Red Willow” Cab and wines from Latah Creek, Leonetti and Woodward Canyon. Six wineries received the Good score, including Quilceda Creek, which is since earned cult wine status.

While we know that Parker thought the 1985 Pinot Noir Reserve from The Eyrie Vineyards in Oregon was worth an 89 score and cost a C amount, we have no numerical rating or tasting note data on any individual Washington wine at all.

Much has changed since 1989 as Parker’s book  makes clear, but a lot has stayed the same, too. Many of the great wine producers of the world have aged and developed as gracefully as the 1989 wines we had with dinner. New wineries, regions, styles and varieties have emerged. Wine was great in 1989, as Parker’s guide tells us. It is even better now, don’t you think!


Extreme Wine Experience: Bottled History at Seppeltsfield

P1060537Wine can be many things — geography, geology, culture, even poetry (according to Robert Lewis Stevenson). So it is no surprise that wine experiences — the real time, real life phenomena that leave such indelible impressions — can take many forms, too.

History in a Bottle

Wine is or can be bottled history, for example, and connect us not just with each other but with people and events from the past.  Sometimes this is purposeful as in collecting wines from particular years to commemorate marriages, births and other special events. But sometimes the historical narrative goes deeper. Wine as bottled history is what we sought when we visited Seppeltsfield winery in the Barossa valley and we found that and a good deal more.

The Seppeltsfield winery was founded in 1851, very early in the Australia’s wine history. The Seppelts were Silesian immigrants with ambitious plans to develop the region’s economy. Wine grapes and then a winery and a village and so on. A visit to Seppeltsfield today is an opportunity to experience this history in several ways.

Seppeltsfield wears its history proudly. The wooded picnic area by the car parks feels like it has been there for a long time, a sense that is reinforced as you walk into the winery complex, with old buildings decorated with elaborate ironwork grills that reminded Sue of New Orleans.

A Cascade of Wine

You can visit Seppeltsfield and just taste wines at the cellar door bar and the people we saw doing that were certainly having fun, but the programmed tours and tastings seem to be the way to go here. The Heritage Tour, for example, takes you through the restored family home where the Seppelts lived (tight quarters by modern standards, despite their wealth). A short walk across a creek-spanning bridge leads to old vineyards, warehouses (including one where a Master Chef episode was filmed) and — my favorite part of the trip — the old winery itself.

Built in 1888, the “gravity flow” winery cascades down a steep hillside. The grapes were delivered up top and the finished wine surged out the bottom with labor-saving gravity performing much of the hard work in between. Gravity flow wineries are always interesting but it is the scale of the this facility that got my attention — 120 big open top fermentation tanks reached from the bottom of the hill to the summit, connected by all manner of pipes and valves. At the time of its construction it was one of the world’s largest and most modern wineries! Now, over 125 years later, it remains an incredible sight.

The winery remained in use for a century (imagine that) until finally time and perhaps also deferred maintenance caused it to be shuttered. Restored and improved (the tanks are now lined with stainless steel) under the current ownership, the big wine plant is back in use, producing both the small quantity of Seppeltsfield still wines that are for sale at the winery and larger quantities of wine made under contract for other wineries. If the vineyard is the soul of a winery, the production facility is its heart and this heart is back at work pumping out both wine to fill the bottles and also revenues to finance the expensive plans to restore Seppeltsfield’s historical facilities.


A Taste of History

The Heritage Tour let me see history, then we were offered a chance to taste it, too. Who could resist? Up the stairs we went to the second level where a barrel of fortified wine was kept for every year of the winery’s history since the 1880s. Many people don’t realize the quality and importance of Australia’s great fortified wines and this room with its deep aromas stressed the long history.

Would we like to have a tiny taste of wine from our birth years? Yes — who could resist — but Sue and I were born in the same year so we proposed to share a taste of our vintage and then to honor Sue’s father  back in Virginia by sampling his year — 1921. It was kinda of a scam to allow us to taste two vintages, I know, but it worked and we loved it. Wines this old are very different creatures as you might expect, but the taste of history was dark, rich, profound, moving. Quite an experience.

Seppeltsfield h0nors its own history by each year releasing a small amount of 100 year old fortified wine. We tasted 1913 (significant to economists like me as the year the Federal Reserve System was founded in the U.S.) and considered how much has changed and yet remained the same.  (Note: The Seppeltsfield website offers for sale a small quantity of 100 ml bottles of fortified wines dating  back to 1880. Not cheap, but probably priceless to the right person.)

We didn’t have time to sample all the experiences that Seppeltsfield offers. A tasting that features small plates paired with various styles of fortified wines was certainly tempting. And I’d love to return in the summer to enjoy the outdoor areas and the crowds that are drawn to them. But it is the history (and those great fortified wines) that I will always remember.


Thanks to Chad Elson for showing us around Seppeltsfield during our visit and providing the historical context for all that we saw and tasted. Thanks to Kym Anderson for sending us to Seppeltsfield to learn about Australian wine history first hand.

Invisible Vineyards & the Division of Labor Theory

Last week I wrote about the Yakima Valley AVA, which I described as Washington’s invisible vineyard. Why doesn’t it get more attention? I considered the “amenities gap” theory and concluded that it was at best a partial explanation. This week I dig a bit deeper into the issue.

Division of Labor Theory

The romantic idea of wine is a tiny vineyard farmed by a rugged individual who makes wine right there on the spot. We call this an estate winery and for better or worse the conventional wisdom holds that its it the model for quality wine. There are estate wineries in Yakima, but they are the exception rather than the rule.

In general the Washington State model is that there is a division of labor between farming the grapes and making the wine. The vineyards hereabouts are often large and supply grapes to many different wineries. The advantages of scale are tempered with the ability to give special treatment to particular blocks, rows, and sometimes specific grape vines within the larger vineyard.

Exceptional Exceptions

Betz Family Winery and Brian Carter Cellars  are both extreme and typical at the same time. Their wines earn the highest praise, but I don’t think they own any vineyards at all — they “outsource” the grape growing to others (although I think they are far from “laissez faire” in their relations with their winegrowers.) There is no indication that their wines suffer from the lack of “estate” status and probably benefit from the specialized system that has evolved.

Côte Bonneville is an instructive exception to the rule. Kerry Shiels makes the wines from grapes grown by her parents Hugh and Kathy at their iconic DuBrul Vineyard. But only a fraction of the grapes go into the estate wines — the majority are sold to a short list of wineries that are happy to feature the DuBrul Vineyard name on their labels.

Thurston Wolfe is another exceptional example. Wade Wolfe, who has inherited Walter Clore’s place as the valley’s leading viticultural authority, relies upon winemaking skill and an unchallenged knowledge of the region’s vineyards. He makes wines that have a cult-like following despite their lack of “estate” designation. An estate vineyard provides only a small proportion of the winery’s fruit — the rest is purchased.

Famous Names

Many of the most famous names in Yakima Valley such as Boushey and Red Willow are vineyards, not wineries, famous for the quality of their fruit and the dedication of their owners.  But they don’t produce a drop of wine themselves. This model has been very successful and accounts in part for the growth of the Washington wine industry since it is possible to start a new winery, a capital intensive commitment, without also having to develop equally capital intensive vineyard properties. If wine is really made in the vineyards, then Washington wineries with access to these Yakima vineyards start the game with a real advantage.

But the division of labor has also contributed to Yakima’s invisibility. More attention is given to Walla Walla and Red Mountain (a Yakima AVA sub-appellation), for example, in part I think because the estate winery model is more typical in these areas, helping them to achieve a stronger reputation.

(One consequence of the division of labor is that many wineries blend across regions, which they could not do with an estate wine, drawing upon fruit from different vineyards, rather than focusing on expressing a particular terroir. Some critics argue that something is lost in this process, even though the wines may be very good or objectively even better than similar single-vineyard products. And because the vineyards may not all be within the Yakima AVA’s strict boundary, their wines often carry the broader Columbia Valley appellation.)

Westward Ho!

This division of labor was shaped early on by Chateau Ste Michelle’s decision to build its showcase winery in rainy Western Washington, in Woodinville just a short drive from Seattle, rather than in the more distant Yakima Valley where the grapes are grown It must have seemed like a peculiar choice back in the 1970s, but it has turned out to be a brilliant move in terms of the development of the wine industry. (Ste Michelle makes its white wines in Woodinville — the freshly pressed juice is rushed to the winery by tank truck — while the red wines are made in the wine country itself).

Because wine is an industry that seems to develop in clusters, one result of the Ste Michelle strategy has been to help create a vibrant wine production zone in the Seattle area, with literally hundreds of wineries, all far from the vineyards that supply them. Even wineries that have no production facilities in the Seattle area see the wisdom of setting up tasting room operations to facilitate direct sales to the critical mass of wine tourist consumers that the cluster has encouraged.

There are wine clusters in the Yakima Valley, too (especially around Prosser and on Red Mountain), but they are obviously smaller than on the west side of the Cascades and are less successful in generating critical mass. This is changing, however. A number of new investments are in the works including Ste Michelle’s decision to convert its Snoqualmie brand facility in Prosser into a home for its spectacularly successful 14 Hands wines. This might be the cornerstone investment that really starts things moving.

Is This a Problem?

Yakima is sort of a middle sister. Not as big as the Columbia Valley of which it is an integral part but huge compared to the sub-AVAs like Red Mountain and Rattlesnake Hills that live within it.  Some producers choose the broader designation for their wines while others prefer to focus on the more local name. Yakima, which is key to both the big and little, is left to spend Saturday night alone at  home. How sad.

But I think this is the wrong way to look at the situation and so I am glad that the Yakima Valley wine folks are choosing to use the occasion of their 30th birthday to celebrate what and who they are, focusing on the wines, vineyards and the people who make and tend them.

It is only a bit of an exaggeration to say that there would be no Washington wine industry without the Yakima Valley. The next time you pull the cork of a Washington State wine you might stop to consider the invisible vineyards that are responsible for the liquid in your glass.


Here’s my favorite example of the division of labor (and how not to do it!).


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