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.

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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.

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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

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

Washington’s Invisible Vineyard: Yakima


There’s a section in Extreme Wine, my new book that’s due out in October, that examines the Invisible Wine phenomenon. Invisible Wines? Not invisible in the sense that they can’t be seen with the naked eye, but invisible as in extremely overlooked. They’re right in front of you, big as life, but somehow they just don’t show up on the radar.

Oldest, Biggest, Best?

The Yakima Valley is Washington State’s invisible vineyard. It is the state’s oldest AVA (celebrating its 30th birthday this  year), it has the largest vineyard area and is the chosen source of raw materials for many of Washington’s most celebrated wines.

And yet if  you ask people outside the region (and some locals, too) about Yakima wine  you can get a blank stare. The most famous Yakima probably has nothing whatsoever to do with wine — Yakima Canutt, the celebrated Hollywood stunt man — you saw him in Stagecoach and Ben Hur and dozens of other films– check out the highlights video above.

Sue and I have spent a good deal of time in the last year learning about Yakima wine. I walked the DuBrul Vineyard with Kathy, Kerry and Hugh Shiels last July and then returned with Sue and a crack research team (Richard and Bonnie) to get to know the Red Mountain AVA in October. We attended seminars that highlighted two sides of  Yakima Valley’s story at Taste Washington in March.

And then just recently we were invited a special tasting of Yakama AVA wines in Seattle that featured presentations about the region’s special winegrowing advantages, particularly the long growing season, the long days of sunlight during that season, the advantageous aspects (south-facing slopes) and the soil profiles that have resulted from complex geological combinations of volcanic eruptions, the Missoula flood and more.  It was a very useful seminar. I’ll paste the tasting menu at the end of the post so that you can get  a sense of how diverse the wines from this region really are.

Past and Present

Winegrowing in the Yakima Valley is much older than the AVA’s 30 years. The first wine grapes were planted in 1869 by a Frenchman named Charles Schanno but the real beginning was just a little over 100 years ago when Willliam B. Bridgman laid down vineyards. Todd Newhouse of Upland Estates makes a tiny amount of ice wine from some of the Muscat vines that Bridgman planted in 1917. Tasting this wine is like sipping history — a pleasure on many levels.

The region has received international recognition. Tuscany’s famous Antinori family built Col Solare in the Red Mountain sub-AVA in partnership with Chateau Ste Michelle, for example, and Jancis Robinson singles out Yakima for its Lemberger vines in the Oxford Companion to Wine. (Kiona and Thurston Wolfe are two of my favorite Yakima Lembergers.)

The Amenities Gap 

So why is the Yakima Valley invisible or at least less well-known than you’d expect based on the quality (and quantity) of the wines made from its fruit. There is no single answer, but the amenities gap is the most commonly cited concern.

Everyone moans that the Yakima Valley needs more upscale hotels, resorts and eateries and I suppose this is true, but there is a circular reasoning problem. You won’t get the investment until a critical mass of visitors appears and you won’t get the visitors until the amenities are there for them. Someone has to break the cycle and while the new Walter Clore Wine & Culinary Center is a welcome addition it isn’t enough by itself. Fortunately I’ve heard rumors of possible new initiatives that might jump start the development process. Fingers crossed.

But I don’t really think that the amenities gap is the real problem and while I would certainly welcome more lodging and dining choices in the Yakima Valley, I don’t this this alone will transforms the region’s reputation. There are other factors that are more important and they make me wonder how concerned we should be about Yakima’s invisibility.  Come back next week for my analysis.

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OK, maybe film stunt men like Yakima Canutt are invisible too — you  see their work, but never know who they are. I guess that might make the two Yakimas (the valley and the cowboy) very much alike. Hope you enjoy the video.

Thanks to the Barbara Glover and Wine Yakima Valley for inviting us to a tasting of Yakima Valley wines at Wild Ginger in Seattle (if I was trying to make you jealous I would tell you about how well the 2004 Cóte Bonneville tasted with Wild Ginger’s Fragrant Duck). Special thanks to Wade Wolfe and Kerry Shiels for sharing their knowledge of the valley with us.

Forty Years of Domaine Chandon

I’d like to raise a glass to toast Domaine Chandon on the occasion of its 40th year. Domaine Chandon was a bold idea back in 1973 and it has grown to become both an iconic producer of sparkling wines in Napa Valley and an important element of the American wine industry.

According to Wine Business Monthly, Domaine Chandon is the 25th largest wine company in the U.S., producing 625,000 cases in 2012.

Humble Beginnings? Global Reach!

I’d like to say that there were humble beginnings back in 1973, when the winery began, and I’m sure there were, but it is a hard case to make. Honestly, they had audacious ambitions right from the start.

Domaine Chandon was part of Möet & Chandon’s early strategy to dominate the global market for sparkling wine by both promoting their signature Champagne and simultaneously establishing wineries in the most important regions including Australia, South America, and the United States. If someone was going to make and sell “champagne” around the world, why not the Champenoise themselves?  The master plan continues today — Chandon has recently broken ground on a major winery in Ningxia, China.

It is difficult to over-state the importance of Domaine Chandon at the time of its founding, which was only a few years after one important milestone — the opening of the Robert Mondavi winery — and three years before another — the famous “Judgement of Paris” wine tasting. Chandon was the first French-owned sparkling wine producer in the U.S. and a strong statement about both the potential of California to make quality wines (at a time when many Americans still doubted this) and the confidence of the French that Americans would drink them!

Soup and Dessert

One of the reasons for Chandon’s big impact is that the winery was conceived as something more than just a production facility.  A destination winery was constructed to allow the story of the wines and their makers to be told effectively (more than 250,000 visitors now come to the Yountville facility each year).

Wines, wine-making, history — all that was needed to complete the experience was great food and this was provided by étoile Restaurant, the first (and so far still the only) fine dining restaurant located within a Napa Valley winery.

No wonder people came by the droves and then came back and back again as lifelong ambassadors for both Chandon and for Napa Valley.

Sue and I have great memories of our early visits to Chandon in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I hate to admit this, but although we loved the wine it was really the restaurant that kept us coming back — especially for chef Philippe Jeanty‘s famous puff-pastry-crowned cream of tomato soup (which you can still enjoy at Bistro Jeanty  in Yountville) and the luscious chocolate desserts.

Fred’s Friends

Fred: Count Frederic Chandon

One of my favorite memories of Domaine Chandon involves a mystery that I uncovered back in the 1980s. I was rummaging through the wine bins at our local Safeway and I came across a colorfully decorated bottle of a still wine — Rosé of Pinot Noir — by a producer identified as Fred’s Friends.

I was a bit suspicious because the price was so low ($1.99), but I bought a bottle and took it home only to discover that it was delicious both as an aperitif and paired with salmon. Yum. We shared our discovery with friends Michael and Nancy and together I think together we bought every bottle that the local Safeway stores had in stock. It was our perfect summer wine.

We were happy to enjoythe wine, but who was Fred and were we his designated friends (and why was he “dumping” this nice wine under a made-up label at a bargain price)?

I guessed the wine’s real maker because the fictional winery’s location was Yountville. Who in Yountville would have enough Pinot Noir around to make a pink wine like this and then be able to sell it for such a bargain basement price? Only one possible answer: Domaine Chandon. Sure enough I was right.

I found  a crude black and white image of the original label (see above — probably made from a faxed document) on a trade-mark registration website and I uncovered more details about the origin of the still wine in oral history archives at Berkeley.

Our first couple of years when we started, we were making wine at Trefethen. Our deuxieme taille, the last cut on our press, we’d never use for sparkling wine. Yet when you get to that last cut, as a still wine you have the appearance in the mouth of a little bit more body because there’s more tannin in the wine, and the acids are a little less so it’s a bit softer.

We thought, “Gee, this is really pretty nice wine just to drink as it is .” I forget now why, but we decided we wouldn’t just put it on the bulk market, which is what we do today. I think it was partly because we were making sparkling wine, but it was going to take three years or so before it was ready to drink, so we thought, “Let’s have a wine that we could enjoy ourselves.” So we bottled some of that- -a thousand cases or so.

Came time to sell it and we were just going to sell it to friends of the company and employees. Michaela Rodeno, who was then our v.p. of marketing and communications, came up with the idea of Fred’s Friends. I guess it was shortly after Fred Chandon had been here on a visit. He’s a very charming person. He took us all out to lunch, the whole group; we had about twenty people working then. As I recall at that time, he had promised which he later delivered on- -that after we had sold a million bottles, everybody would get a trip to France. Everybody was quite intrigued with that; I’m talking mostly about people on the bottling lines, et cetera. So Michaela just came up with the idea of calling it Fred’s Friends.

Beyond Fred’s Friends

Fred’s Friends disappeared after a while, but the idea of making fine still wines with some of the wonderful raw materials on hand did not. Chandon’s still wine program today is strong and, as the attractive label indicates, has escaped from the anonymous Fred’s Friends shadows. Sue and I met Domain Chandon’s still winemaker Joel Burt at IPNC a couple of years and visited him in Yountville earlier this year.

Barrel tasting with Joel was fantastic, sampling the Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier at different stages and with different oak treatments. The Pinot Meunier was especially interesting because the wine changes so much during its time in barrel and then bottle.

While most of the wines Joel makes are from grapes you would naturally associate with a sparkling wine house, he also makes a bit of Cabernet Sauvignon, leveraging the fact that Newton Vineyards is part of the LVMH family and so some great Cab grapes are available. Total still wine production is between 15,000 and 19,000 cases a year, mainly five different Pinot Noir bottlings (9000 cases altogether) then Pinot Meunier and Cab (about 4000 cases each) and Chardonnay (about 2100 cases).

Chandon’s still wines were an unexpected discovery. Much more serious and refined than Fred’s Friends, of course, but just as surprising ..  and delicious!

Domaine Chandon has grown up to fill the big shoes that its founders envisioned.  At 40 years, has it entered middle age? I don’t think so. Maybe 40 is the new 30. In any case, I sense that the dynamism is still there and the ability to surprise and delight remains as well.

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Thanks to Joel for his hospitality during our visit to Domaine Chandon. You’ll see him in this video, which showcases all the elements of the Domaine Chandon experience.

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