No One-Liners in Wine

King of One-Liners: Take my wine ... please!

Jon Fredrikson likes to say that there are no one-liners in wine. He isn’t saying that there aren’t any one-line jokes (take my White Zinfandel … please!) but rather that nothing in wine is cut and dry. Wine is always complicated — always this and that, too —  so generalizing is a dangerous practice.

I was reminded of this twice during our recent California expedition. The first time was by Jon Fredrickson himself, who stated the case very well in his talk at the Unified Wine and Grape Symposium in Sacramento (North America’s largest wine industry trade show and seminar series).  His dynamic analysis of how the wine market is evolving was widely reported in the press.

Winery of the Year

At the end of Jon’s report he always names a “winery of the year” and for 2011 it was DFV Wines of Manteca, California. DFV (for Delicato Family Vineyards) has its roots in the decision of Italian immigrant grape grower Gasparé Indelicato to try his hand at winemaking in early post-Prohibition California. His grandson, Chris Indelicato, has been CEO since 2004 and many other family members populate the company’s org-chart.

DFV sits in the #10 position in the Wine Business Monthly Top 30 American Wineries league table for 2011, producing more than 4.5 million cases. DFV owns more than 10,000 acres of vineyards (quite a change from Gasparé Indelicato’s first farm). But it is the business’s dramatic growth, not just its large size, that drew Jon Fredrikson’s attention and, well, everyone’s attention. “Delicato” was all that I heard in pre-announcement speculative conversations.

Gnarly and Twisted

You have probably seen Delicato wines on store shelves, but they are just the tip of the family business iceberg. Other DFV brands include Bota Box, Twisted, Gnarly Head and many more. I usually think of the DFV wine portfolio in terms of good value wines and I think this good value accounts for the company’s success.

But saying that a wine is a good value sometimes imposes a subconscious ceiling on perceived quality and distinctiveness. I admit that I tend to think of DFV wines as good, but not necessarily great. That’s because I sometimes forget Jon Fredrick’s line about one-liners. Good value doesn’t rule out distinctivenes — wine is too complicated for that.

On the Old Silverado Trail

This point was driven home to me for the second time as I stood at the tasting room bar at Black Stallion Estate Winery on Silverado Trail in Napa Valley — DFV’s newest venture, which it acquired just a couple of years ago. The winery itself resists being a one-liner as it is both historically significant (as an equestrian center) and an architectural beauty.

We drove by the winery a couple of years ago (on our way to a Stags Leap AVA event) but didn’t stop.  We were impressed with the BSEW Cab at a tasting back home (it is a larger production wine that is widely distributed), so we came back to try the small production (4000 total cases) wines sold only at the winery.

Imagine my surprise to learn that the same company that makes Botta Box also makes a $150 red blend called Bucephalus. I’m interested to see what happens as the Indelicato family’s winemaking knowledge and resources are focused on this relatively new enterprise — perhaps even more distinctive wines like the Rockpile Zinandel that was my tasting room favorite?

I expect there will be lots of interesting wines to taste and things to say as DFV and Black Stallion continue to develop. But don’t expect to hear any one-liners.

Malbec & Maradona: Wine and History in Argentina

Ian Mount, The Vineyard at the End of the World: Maverick Winemakers and the Rebirth of Malbec. Norton: 2011.

Malbec and Maradona

The most stunningly creative student paper I’ve received in more than 30 years as a college professor was written by a first year student enrolled in my introductory International Political Economy class. We were studying Argentina’s latest financial crisis and she analyzed the situation not just through facts and figures but rather by telling the story of Diego Maradona, the legendary soccer player who achieved great success on the global stage but succumbed to the pressures, stresses and temptations that came with it.

Maradona is always measured against Pele, the Brazilian star who is often proclaimed the greatest soccer player in history, and every talented young Argentinean forward is compared to  him (Messi is only the latest “next Maradona”). But an air of tragedy is unmistakable despite Maradona’s heroic achievements. This same air, my student wrote, hangs over Argentina’s politics and economy, and then she proceeded to analyze Argentina’s political economy history in detail in  terms of the Maradona story. It was, in both conception and execution, a brilliant analysis.

Ian Mount’s new book on Argentinean wine, The Vineyard at the End of the World, is also brilliant and in much the same way. Like my student’s paper, it can be read at several levels. It is, first and foremost, a history of the Argentinean wine industry from its roots with the Spanish explorers to its current spectacular flowering.

Although Argentina has been a major wine producer for literally centuries, it has only arrived on the global stage in the last ten years. Within Argentina its long history is heavy baggage that sometimes weighs it down. For the rest of the world, however, Argentina is a new discovery and the lack of prior experience of and attitudes toward its wines has arguably been an advantage.

Mount fills us in on the history and serious readers will appreciate the added depth this gives to the appreciation of the wines themselves. It also provides an interesting contrast to neighboring Chile and its wines, whose history is perhaps better known. But that’s only the beginning.

 Lucky Survivors

Malbec is a second theme, which is understandable because Malbec is king in Argentina right now. Malbec from Argentina has been one of the hottest product categories in the U.S. wine market is the past few years. But today’s Malbec (like Maradona) is a lucky survivor of Argentina’s booms and busts – a lot of Malbec was grubbed up during the market swings and swirls. It makes me appreciate wines (like one of our favorites, Mendel Malbec) that are made from the surviving old vine blocks.

More than anything, however, this is a history of Argentina itself told through wine, making this a book that deserves a very broad readership. Based on my previous research, I knew that Argentina’s politics and economics were reflected in the wine industry, but I didn’t know how much. Come for the Malbec, stay for the politics, economics and personal stories of those who succeeded or failed (or did both) and try to understand the country and people of Argentina.

Significantly, the book ends with a sort of Maradona moment. In terms of wine, Argentina has won the World Cup with Malbec, although the country must share the glory with international consultants (like Paul Hobbs and Michel Rolland) and foreign investors and partners (too numerous to mention). But for all its strengths the industry is still somewhat fragile, struggling to overcome the problems of the domestic wine market that it still depends upon and the domestic economy in which it is embedded.

After decades of “crisis and glory,” Mount sees a  bright future for both Malbec and Argentina. Let’s hope he’s right and the Maradona moment passes.

Ian Mount’s new book is a valuable addition to any wine enthusiast’s library. Mount provides a strong sense of the land and people of Argentina and the flow of history that connects them. Argentina is unique, as Mount notes early on, in that it is an Old World wine country (in terms of the nature of its wine culture) set in the New World, so that its history is broadly relevant and deeply interesting.

I studied the Argentina industry before going there last year, but Mount taught me things I didn’t know in every chapter. I love Laura Catena’s Vino Argentino for its account of the history of wine in Argentina told through the Catena family story and now I’m glad to also have The Vineyard at the End of the World for its broad sweep and detailed analysis. They are must reading for anyone with an interest in Argentina and its wines.

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Another Malbec-Maradona connection: Diego Maradona is most famous for a play that has gone down in soccer history as “the Hand of God” goal.  It was in a 1986 World Cup quarterfinal match that Maradona illegally struck the ball with his hand and scored the winning goal – an offense that was clearly visible to everyone in the stadium except the officials. Must have been the Hand of God, not Maradona, I guess.

Now (or very soon depending upon the release date) there is  Hand of God wine. We tasted Hand of God from the barrel when we were in Mendoza earlier in the year and we enjoyed the wine even if Maradona had nothing to do with making it. I suppose the name honors the importance of wine and soccer to Argentinean society and the struggles that both have endured. (Maradona’s team beat England in that famous game, so I wouldn’t look for big Hand of God wine sales in the U.K. market. Just saying …)

Special thanks to Jon Staenberg (proprietor of  Hand of God) and Santiago Achaval for letting us sample this wine!

Illusive Progress in Wine Advertising?

A lot of money, talent, and technology goes into advertising today, but is the product really better than in the past? For your consideration (and winter holiday fun) we present three television wine commercials from past and present. All feature celebrities along with increasing levels of money and technology. The wine gets better as we move along,  but does the quality of the message? What do you think? Cheers!

Thunderbird: Not quite like anything I’ve ever tasted

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Paul Masson Chenin Blanc: Yummy

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Legendary wine (and acting)

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I know, I know, you were hoping for one of those famous Orson Welles commercials for Paul Masson. Well, you can find them and more on YouTube.com. Click on this link for a selection.

Is Carmenere Chile’s Next Big Thing?

Can Carmenere be for Chile what Malbec has become for Argentina — a game-changing wine that opens up new markets and upgrade perceptions in old ones? That’s the question I asked at the end of my last post.

An Unlikely Curse

Chile has earned a reputation for good value Cabernet, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc; this good reputation is ironically an anchor holding the industry back as it attempts to move upmarket. It will be quite a struggle to get consumers to pay more for established varieties of Chilean wines in the UK and US. New markets and new wine varieties may be the key to future success.

This is where Carmenere comes in. Carmenere is a variety that once produced famous wines in Bordeaux. But when vines were replanted after phylloxera, Carmenere was phased out because of its succeptability to a disease called coulure, which reduces yields. It thrived in phylloxera-free Chile, where it was mistaken for Merlot, an error only corrected in 1994. It is still unclear how many of Chile’s Merlot vines are really Carmenere.

Carmenere is a niche product here in the United States. If you take varietal Carmenere and blends together they account for about 0.2 percent of Nielsen- measured U.S. off-premises wine sales. Concha y Toro is the leading brand followed by Santa Rita and Root 1. By comparison, Chile has about a 2.7% overall share of the measured U.S. market by dollar value, so Carmenere is still quite small, but not insignificant. Total sales of all Chilean Carmenere and blends are less than the dollar value of revenues from Concha y Toro’s 1.5 liter Cabernet Sauvignon alone.

The first Chilean Carmenere that I remember seeing here in the U.S. was a line of wines called Oops, playing up the Merlot-Carmenere mix up. Here’s a nice Chilean Merlot … oops! It’s really something else! I remember trying a bottle and while the label was memorable it didn’t do much to establish Carmenere or Chile in my mind as a quality wine segment.

Carmenere Comes to Britain

Fast forward to 2010. Wines of Chile launched a big campaign in the key UK market called  Carmenere: made for Curry.  It was apparently quite successful, winning the prize for “generic promotion campaigns” at the International Wine Challenge Awards. The idea was to link Chilean Carmenere with Indian food (generically called “curry” in the UK), which is Britain’s most popular ethnic food category, and hope that Chicken Tikka Masala would do for Carmenere what Argentinean steak has done for Malbec.

But a big Carmenere tasting report in the July 2011 issue of Decanter raises some doubts about the quality of the wines, which is obviously a key factor in the strategy. Chilean Carmenere is a “work in progress” according to one of the panelists. Others suggested that Carmenere’s best bet is in blends (especially with Syrah), not as a varietal wine. None of the 132 wines tasted earned Decanter’s top 5-star rating and only 6 received 4 stars. Eight-six wines were “recommended” and 35 were named “good value” (Chilean good value — of course!).

[By comparison, a June 2010 Decanter tasting of 255 Argentinean Malbecs produced four 5-star, twenty-one 4-star and 131 three-star "recommended" ratings.]

Interestingly, the panel suggested that the “overt, oaky, alcoholic, heavy-bottle wines” were made to appeal to the U.S. and South American markets and lacked the balance they’d need to find favor in the U.K. The tone of the review was not as dark as I am probably painting it here, but the conclusion was clear: there was nothing revealed in those 132 bottles that would fundamentally alter Chile’s reputation.

Curry and Carmenere in the U.S.A.

The Curry and Carmenere campaign was so successful in the UK that Wines of Chile brought it to the U.S. earlier this fall and we were invited to participate in a blogger tasting. Sue and I asked two of my “Idea of Wine” students, Marina Balleria and Mike Knape, to join us.  Marina and Mike both studied abroad in Chile and brought local wine knowledge to the table as well as excellent critical thinking (and tasting) skills.

 We concluded that Curry and Carmenere is not a ridiculous idea (Mike reported a “perfect” bite with one of the wines and an onion empanada with a curry sauce), but not all the matches were equally successful. In any case, curry doesn’t have the same significance here in the U.S. that is does in the U.K. Even if Carmenere hit a home run with curry that wouldn’t automatically open up a very large U.S. wine market segment.

We found the alcohol and oak that the Decanter tasters noted, but Marina suggested that oak is part of what she expects from Chilean red wine, so this was a positive feature for her — a defining style. One of the bottles was heavy indeed — 1084 grams according to our scale, the heaviest bottle I’ve encountered since I started keeping track.  Not exactly in keeping with the “Chile is good for you” environmental theme. Most of the wines were more interesting when re-tasted the next day.
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 So what did we decide about the critical question — is Carmenere the special one that will lead Chile into the next phase of its wine market evolution? Not yet — I think that’s the answer. We didn’t find the distinctive style and consistent quality that we were looking for although there were some we really liked (and — sorry! — thought were good values).
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Project Carmenere is still under construction. When will it be finished? This is hard to say. Malbec wasn’t built in a day, although the Malbec boom, when it came, developed very quickly. Carmenere’s story may be the same — or maybe the time has passed when hot new red varieties can make wine drinkers swoon.
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Either way I think it will be tough for Chile to achieve its 2020 goals but I think they need to try. Carmenere may be Chile’s best bet and I look forward to tracking its progress.

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Here are the wines we tasted for the Curry and Carmenere event. Thanks to Wines of Chile for inviting us to participate and thanks to Mike and Marina (see photos above) for their insights.

Blogger Tasting Wine List

1- Emiliana Natura Carmenere 2010 / Colchagua Valley 100% Carmenere SRP: $16.99

2- Casa Silva Los Lingues Gran Reserva Carmenere 2008 / Colchagua Valley 100% Carmenere SRP: $22

3- Santa Rita Medalla Real Gran Reserva Carmenere 2008 / Colchagua Valley 100% Carmenere SRP: $19.99

4- Montes Alpha Carmenere 2008 / Colchagua Valley 90% Carmenere, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon SRP: $24.00

5- Carmen Gran Reserva Carmenere 2009 / Apalta Valley 100% Carmenere SRP: $16.99

6- Santa Carolina Reserva de Familia Carmenere 2009 / Rapel Valley 100% Carmenere SRP: $19.99

7- Concha y Toro Marques de Casa Concha Carmenere 2009 / Peumo Vineyard, Rapel Valley 100% Carmenere SRP: $20.00

8- Haras de Pirque Cabernet Sauvignon / Carmenere 2007 / Maipo Valley 40% Cab. Sauv., 37% Carmenere, 13% Cab. Franc, 10% Syrah SRP: $13.00

Grape Transformations: Oregon Origins

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

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

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

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

Nick’s Back Room

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

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

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

A Remarkable Story: David Lett (and the Pioneers)

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

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

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

Olympic Gold

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

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

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

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

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

Malbec: The Film! [A World Premier]

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Boom Varietal: The Rise of Argentine Malbec. A film by Sky Pinnick (Kirk Ermisch, executive producer). “Southern Wine Group presents a Rage Productions documentary,” 2011.

We are just back from the BendFilm Festival in Bend, Oregon — an unlikely trip for a guy who sees about one new movie a year. The special occasion? The world premier of a documentary about the Malbec boom, Boom Varietal by filmmaker Sky Pinnick.

Simply Irresistible?

A film? About wine?. How could I resist?

Well, actually I might have been able to resist driving 6 hours from Tacoma to Bend for the premier since the track record for wine films is so mixed. Mondovino is a classic, of course, but it sure is long (or does it just seem that way while you’re watching it?) and it’s kinda annoying, too? So damn earnest! (“Le vin est mort” and all that.)

Then there’s Bottleshock, the film that’s loosely based on the famous “Judgment of Paris” tasting of French versus California wines in 1976. The film is a lot of fun (the opposite of Mondo?) but just as annoying since almost every single detail is distorted for dramatic effect or commercial purpose. The best way to watch Bottleshock is to forget that there really was a Paris tasting and enjoy the pure theater of the thing.

A Feast for the Senses

So which way would Boom Varietal go — earnest but annoying like Mondo or annoyingly commercial like Bottleshock?

Well, incredibly it is not annoying at all. In fact, it is completely enchanting. The first five minutes are a feast for the senses. The film captivated me, drawing me into the world of Malbec and the people and places associated with it.

The land and people of Argentina are the stars of this film, especially the winemakers. Executive producer Kirk Ermisch, CEO of Southern Wine Group, no doubt used his industry connections in Argentina to make the film possible, but he commendably resisted the temptation to make this a promotion piece for his business.

Typecasting? Dismal Scientist?

I went to Bend knowing that I had a bit part in the film. Sky and his wife and collaborator Shea Pinnick interviewed me me in my office last spring as they were trying to stitch together the video pieces to tell a coherent story. I’ve been writing about Argentinean Malbec for several years and obviously worrying about its future. My role, I thought, was to be the classic “dismal scientist” and wonder aloud if today’s silver lining isn’t really surrounded by a deep dark cloud. And that’s what it seemed to be when I viewed the film’s “teaser” (see above) a couple of weeks ago.

So imagine my surprise as I watched the film for the first time. I wasn’t dismal at all! Sky was able to capture my enthusiasm for Argentina and Malbec and my cautious optimism about its future in the world of wine. If Argentina’s Malbec industry falters (and that’s always  a possibility in this uncertain world) I think it will be because of factors that are beyond the control of the winemakers — especially inflation and exchange rates.

I was also surprised to see myself on the screen so frequently. I think this is because Boom Varietal tells the story of the land, the people and the markets. A wine economics story! No wonder I had such a good time at the premier.

Beyond Malbec Boom?

I enjoyed this film and even learned a few things from it, but I had to keep reminding myself that this is a film about Malbec, not Argentinean wine more generally. Although the focus on Malbec is understandable and even appropriate for a U.S. audience (Malbec represents abut 2/3 of Argentina’s wine exports to the U.S.), one thing I learned from our trip to Mendoza earlier this year is that Argentina is Malbec, but not just Malbec.

If Malbec boom becomes Malbec bust (and I’m not predicting it will), then Argentina will be glad that it produces many other fine  wines, both red and white. Search for Argentina among the Decanter World Wine Awards results and you will see what I mean. Maybe what lies beyond Malbec boom is not Malbec bust but a growing appreciate of Argentinean wine more generally.

But whatever happens I think Argentina will be thankful that Malbec vaulted them onto the world stage in the first place. An incredible story! Thanks to the makers of Boom Varietal for telling it so well.

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Thanks to Sky and Shea Pinnick and to Kirk Ermisch for their hospitality while we were in Bend and for inviting me to participate in this project in the first place. I wish them every success with their project.

Grape Transformations: Piemonte’s Twin Tornados

This is the second in a series on people who have revolutionized the way the world thinks about wine or a particular wine region. This post takes us to Italy’s Piemonte region, famous for its Barolo and Barbaresco wines.

Two winemakers stand out here. Many of you have probably already guessed the first name: Angelo Gaja, who is associated with the transformation of Barbaresco. The second name? I’ll leave you in suspense for a few paragraphs. See if you can figure it out.

Gaga for Gaja

Angelo Gaja changed the way the world thinks about Piemonte wine (and to some extent Italian wine in general). Joe Bastianich (writing in his book Grandi Vini) says that Gaja is “the most famous Italian wine producer in the world” (this may come as news to the Antinori and Frescobaldi families, but I’m sure Joe knows what he is talking about). Barbaresco was seen as the plain little sister of sexy Barolo until Gaja changed everything.

Exactly what Gaja changed and how is a matter of opinion, although the achievement is clear. Bastianich looks to the vineyard, the development of particular vineyard sites and the production of “cru” single vineyard “terroir” wines. He also praises Gaja’s efforts to travel the world promoting his wines and the other wines of the region. The power of Gaja’s personality is clearly part of the story here.

Matt Kramer, writing in his book Making Sense of Italian Wine, tells a different story. For him Gaja’s contribution was in the cellar even more than the vineyard, where he introducing an international style to the wine by using small French oak barrels (Gaja also controversially introduced international grape varieties to the family’s vineyards).

Gaja’s second and perhaps even greater achievement, Kramer suggests, was to charge outrageous prices for his wines. “While few people know about wine, everybody’s an expert on money: Could this Gaja … really be worth that much money? The sheer chutzpah was captivating and so, too, it turned out, were the wines.”

Gaja became a role model for Piemonte and perhaps for aspiring winemakers throughout Italy.

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Barbera, Bologna, “Braida”

As much as I admire Angelo Gaja, enjoy his wines and respect his innovations, he is not alone on the Piemonte “grape transformations” podium. The second “tornado” is someone who did for democratic Barbera what Gaja did for aristocratic Nebbiolo. The achievement may be even greater.

Nebbiolo, the noble grape that is responsible for the great Barolo, Barbaresco and Langhe Rosso wines, is far from the most planted Piemonte grape. It has the best reputation, but perhaps because it ripens so late and requires specific site characteristics to excel, it is not as widely planted as you might imagine. There is 15 times more Barbera than Nebbiolo in Piemonte.

Barbera! Making this humble everyday wine respected  and even fashionable today is a signal achievement. This is the claim to fame of the late Giacomo Bologna of “Braida” winery in Rocchetta Tanaro, just a few miles from Asti.

Barbera is not finicky like Nebbiolo — it will grow pretty much wherever you plant it in Piemonte, both where it produces outstanding grapes and where quality is not so high. There was not much of a premium for quality grapes in the early postwar era when wholesalers would buy indiscriminately and lump them all together. Giacomo Bologna thought he could do better and set out to achieve excellence beginning in the 1960s, when Gaja was also picking up steam.

The old Barbera was nothing special, but focusing on specific sites with old vines and low productivity, engaging in aggressive cap management and aging the wines in small French oak, Bologna was able to create both a new Barbera wine and a new image of Barbera wine. The top wines, including the famous Bricco dell’Uccellone, redefined the region and jumpstarted the quality wine movement.

Another “Braida” Revolution?

We visited Braida in June when were in Italy for the wine economics conference in Bolzano. Nadine Weihgold led us on a tour of the winery, pointing out the many ways that Giacomo Bologna’s vision and plans have been fulfilled since his untimely death by his wife Anna and his two children Raffaella and Giuseppe (both of whom are enologists).

We tasting the single vineyard wines and then Ai Suma, an extreme version of Bologna’s idea of Barbera that is only produced in special years. These are wines of distinction and reputation and so popular in Italy that a surprisingly small amount leaks out to the rest of the world.

Giuseppe Bologna happened to pass through on his way to the barrel room and, hearing the wine economics conversation, sat down to join us. “Is there anything else you’d like to taste?” Nadine asked? Embarrassed and apologetic, I confessed I wanted to follow these great wines with their vivacious but less prestigious little sister – La Monella, the frizzante Barbera that was the company’s first success. A simple wine, but with style and quality.  Were they offended? No, just the opposite. Grinning with obvious pleasure, Giuseppe went to work, corks started to fly and soon were we chatting away in mixed Italian and English.

Ai Suma might be literally the summit of Giacomo Bologna’s mountain, but his son Giuseppe has his own dreams and plans — and they include Pinot Noir. Pinot is a blending grape in this part of Italy, but Giuseppe has hopes that it might some day learn to stand on its own as Barbera has. He called for a barrel sample and the wine was very interesting — not an imitation of Burgundy, Oregon or New Zealand, but something different, still developing, full of potential.

Pinot Noir in Barolo-ville? Giuseppe Bologna must be nuts. But then they probably said that about Giacomo Bologna and Angelo Gaja back in the day.

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This video has nice images of Giacomo Bologna and family and tells the winery’s history very well (I think you can catch the gist even if your Italian is a little rusty). The first video features Angelo Gaja telling his own story. Cheers!

Grape Transformations: Mondavi and Catena

Karl Polanyi’s classic 1944 book, The Great Transformation presented a theory of how the Industrial Revolution transformed much the world. Polanyi proposed a complex paradigm of acting (economy and technology) and reacting (politics and social movements) forces that combined to shape history.  It is a must read (but not always an easy one) if you are  looking for Big Ideas in an era of disruptive change.

This Changes Everything

I’m working on my own theory of  “Grape Transformations,” which will be an occasional series here at The Wine Economist. I’m not interested in fads and trends. I want to understand instances where a person or small group fundamentally changed the nature of wine or the way that a type of wine or wine region is perceived.

Jesus is at the top of my list, of course, since he changed water into wine, the ultimate grape transformation. And there is a reason that we call think of this as a miracle. As the always insightful Ken Bernsohn reminds me, inertia is a very strong force in the world of wine (and elsewhere). This is obviously true in the vineyard itself, where years are required to “turn the supertanker” from one grape variety to another. It is also true in the marketplace, where a visible iceberg of wine drinkers interested in trying new things sits atop an invisible bulk of consumers with preferences and habits that are frozen in place (most of them drink no wine at all).

So it really is a miracle (although not in the “fishes and loaves” class) when wine makes a big turn. What are some important examples for my Grape Transformations file?

The Julia Child of Wine

Julia and the Mondavis at the Smithsonian

Let me begin with Robert Mondavi, if only because I discuss his case at some length in Wine Wars. Here’s how the section on Mondavi begins …

I like to say that Robert Mondavi tried to do for American wine what Julia Child (public television’s “French Chef”) tried to do for American cuisine: revolutionize it by convincing Americans that they could not just imitate the French but maybe better them at their own game.

Julia Child succeeded, although not by herself of course. American cuisine was transformed by her books and The French Chef, which aired from 1963 to 1973. She changed the idea of food in America. American ingredients, French techniques. Bring them together and cooks could be chefs.

Robert Mondavi did the same thing for wine. He was convinced that American grapes and Old World techniques could produced world-class wines. And he was right. When the Robert Mondavi Winery opened in Oakville in 1966, it was the first major new investment in Napa Valley in decades and it changed everything (not by itself, of course) and paved the way for a distinctly American vision of fine wine that coexists today along with a Gallo-tinted image of mass-market wines.

Mondavi wasn’t alone and he didn’t do it by himself, but I think it is fair to associate Robert Mondavi with the Grape Transformation of American wine. Quite an accomplishment.

The Mondavi of Mendoza

I think of Nicolas Catena as the Robert Mondavi of Mendoza, although I admit that the similarities only go so far. Catena transformation of Argentina’s wine industry is perhaps even more significant because previous winemaking baseline was so low.  Laura Catena tells the story in a very personal way in her excellent book, Vino Argentino. She explains how and why Argentinean wine changed in terms of her family history.

A broader and more detailed account is due for publication in a few months — Ian Mount’s brilliant The Vineyard at the End of the World (I’ve just finished reading an advance copy — watch for a review here nearer the publication date). Placing Nicolas Catena’s accomplishments in a broader context, as Mount does, changes the Catena story a bit and raises new questions, but does not alter our view of the transformative force he helped launch.

I admit to prejudice in this matter because of the courtesy we were shown when we visited Mendoza and visited with Catena and Luca (Laura Catena’s project) winemakers. Nicolas Catena has a PhD in economics and was a visiting professor at UC Berkeley when visits to Napa winemakers (and a meeting with Mondavi) transformed his idea of what New World wine could be. It was a special treat when, during our winery visit, I was given the opportunity to browse for just a moment through Catena’s personal collection of economics texts.

No Plan B

Accept for the sake of argument that Mondavi and Catena belong on the Grape Transformations list. What can we learn generally from their two specific cases? Something, I think, but n=2 is a small sample size so we shouldn’t press too hard. Robert Mondavi and Nicolas Catena have little in common in terms of personality from what I have read. Catena seems be as pensive as Mondavi was outgoing. Both were driven, I suppose, and perhaps that’s the critical factor.

Both took big risks and that seems like an important characteristic. And I think that they both felt that they had little choice but to take risks, although for different reasons and from different perspectives. Mondavi left the family business and forged out on his own relatively late in life. He didn’t have a Plan B — his new winery had to succeed.

Nicolas Catena, on the other hand, unexpectedly ended up with the family business (ruining his plans for an academic career). But Argentina’s wine markets were in a funk — export was the only route open and he (and those who worked for and with him) had no choice but to remake the wine and the business if they were to avoid collapse. No Plan B here, either.

Finally, it is interesting that family is such as powerful theme in both stories, too, and this is something I will try to explore a bit more in future posts. In both cases the transformations that they led began as internal revolutions, dramatic changes within the family way of doing business, and rapidly spread outward.

The family theme continues today. Laura Catena is now the face of the family business even though she still maintains her “day job” as an ER doctor in the San Francisco area where her family lives.  The Mondavi sons carry on the family business tradition, but not of course the actually family business — Constellation Brands purchased the Robert Mondavi brand back in 2005.

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I have a couple of “Grape Transformation” stories in mind that I will share in future posts. In the meantime, I hope my readers will use the Comments link to give their thought on this idea and suggest names for the list of people who changed the idea of wine.

What’s Red, White & Green? Wine Packaging Greens Up

What’s red and white and green all over? Wine, naturally. And naturally Oregon wineries are in the green forefront — a fact that was reinforced at a recent Wine Wars book talk.

The Difference Between Water and Wine

Forty-eight  alumni came out on a beautiful August evening to attend an event at the Boedecker Cellars winery near downtown Portland.  That’s a testament to the old saying “Water keeps people apart, wine brings them together.” Urban wineries are a growing trend and Steward Boedecker and Athena Pappas have located theirs in a cool 1950s building across the street from the Pyramid Ales brewery. (Stewart is a Puget Sound alumnus, so Boedecker is on my growing list of  alumni wineries.)

Because I was asked to talk about Wine Wars with particular attention to Chapter 14’s topic, wine and the environment, I titled my presentation “What’s Red and White and Green All Over.” Portland is a good place to give a talk like this because it is so close to the wine country and its citizens are so environmentally minded. Green wine is big in these parts.

Green wine is made in the vineyard, of course (the organic or biodynamic viticulture choice), and part of it is made in the cellar (especially regarding water use and re-use, which is a significant issue almost everywhere). I’ve seen estimates that it can take as much as 120 liters of water to produce a single glass of wine if you follow the product chain from start to finish. Wow! That’s a big environmental factor.

And finally there’s green wine packaging.

Weighing the packaging options: Jen, Allison, Mike and Brad.

The Weigh In

With the help of two volunteers, Jen and Brad, I demonstrated some green and no-so-green wine packaging options.  The differences in size, weight and perceived quality were astonishing. Here is the tale of the scale.

  • Standard 750ml bottle filled 1320 grams
  • Standard bottle empty 578 grams
  • Prestige bottle empty 844 grams (46% heavier than standard bottle)
  • Eco bottle empty 476 grams (82% of the weight of standard bottle)
  • Ultra-eco bottle empty 444 grams (the blue bottle in the photo — 77% of standard bottle weight)
  • PET bottle empty 56 grams (the yellow bottle in the photo — less than 10% of the standard bottle weight)
  • Tetra-Pak 1 liter container empty 40 grams (less than 8% of standard bottle weight)

The Tetra-Pak is more efficiently produced and recycled and saves over 90 percent of shipping weight compared with the standard bottle, an amazing saving of resources all along the product chain.

I predict that much of the wine we drink every day will eventually be delivered in eco-containers. Just as many consumers seem to have gotten over their prejudice against screw caps, I think we’ll come to accept eco-packaging as an appropriate delivery system for the ordinary everyday wines that make up more than half of all wine sales.

Animated winemakers: Athena Pappas and Stewart Boedecker

Fine Wine versus Vin du Jour

But what about fine wine? Well before my visit to Boedecker my answer was that the eco packaging choices were pretty limited – lightweight glass was about all I could recommend since the most extreme eco choices (Tetra-Pak, for example), are not appropriate for medium- or long-term storage. They are for vins du jour – the wines you buy at 3pm and open at 5pm (which make up the bulk of total wine sales, of course).

But Stewart surprised me by explaining that he had found some innovative ways to cut Boedecker’s environmental footprint without sacrificing the quality of the delivered product.

How about re-using wine bottles the way we used to collect and reuse soda bottles? The idea of recycled wine bottles is very appealing, but the practical problems of collecting used bottles, cleaning, sorting and distributing them are hard to overcome. But Stewart told me about a California firm (I think he was talking about Wine Bottle Renew) that has tackled this project with success, using high tech scanners to sort the bottles (a key and previously prohibitively labor intensive process).

The money and resources saved by not having to melt down and recast the glass are considerable, Stewart said, and the delivered glass is both cheaper than new, it is also actually cleaner (an obvious concern).  He’s sold on recycled bottles and it is easy to see why – a trend to follow for sure.

Riding the Keg Wine Wave

Boedecker is also riding the keg wine wave, which is another eco-packaging movement. Wineries deliver 20-25-liter kegs to restaurants and other “on-premises” establishments to fill “wine by the glass” orders with no waste. It makes a lot of sense to eliminate as much of the packaging as possible for wine that will move so quickly from barrel to glass.

But keg wine is currently mostly a local phenomenon because of the logistics of recycling and reusing the kegs, which is the key to the whole enterprise. So I was surprised to learn that Stewart was selling Boedecker wine kegs in New York City.  They ship the wine in bulk to New York where a local partner handles the keg operation.

What a great idea! It opens up a distant market, is good for the environment and is good for the wine, too.  Kym Anderson recently explained to me that shipping in bulk versus shipping in bottles can actually result in better wine because the liquid mass of the wine (up to 25,000 liters in the case of ocean container shipments) is more temperature stable than cases of wine in bottles. Cheaper, greener, better quality — a winemaking trifecta!

Bulk shipping and local “bottling” into kegs is kind of a return to U.S. wine market practices in the 1930s, where California winemakers would ship bulk wine across the country in railroad tank cars. Local bottlers would market the wine, usually under their own brands rather than the name of the wine producer. This practice ended in World War II when the Army commandeered the tank cars and wineries were forced to bottle (and brand) themselves and ship cases of wine in box cars.

Will keg wine take off and take us back to the future of wine? Stay tuned.

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Thanks to Stewart and Athena for hosting the alumni event at their winery. Thanks as well to Brad Boyl, Rainier Aliment, Renee Kurdzos and Allison Cannady-Smith for all they did to make this event a success.

Invisible Wine … Revealed

The main theme of Ralph Ellison’s classic novel Invisible Man, according to one plot summary, “is the invisibility of the underdog. As the title suggests, the main character is invisible because everyone sees him as a stereotype, not as a real person. While the narrator often bemoans his state of invisibility, he comes to embrace it in the end.”

If we think of invisibility this way (and not the more literal  spooky H.G. Wells way) then I suppose that Kerner is an  Invisible Wine.

Son of Frankenwine?

Kerner is a hybrid wine grape – a cross between noble Riesling and very humble Schiava Grossa, also known as Trollinger in Germany and Vernatsch in its native Alto Adige region of Italy, where it mainly produces inexpensive everyday  red wines for local consumption.  Kerner is a relatively recent invention, first bred in 1969 according to the Oxford Companion to Wine, and named for Justinius Kerner, a 19th century poet and song-writer with a particular affinity for wine.

Justinius Kerner

Hybrid grapes have the same reputation as movie sequels. They are frequently profitable and sometimes very enjoyable, but never as good as the original. There are exceptions to this rule (both for grapes and for films) but in general the stereotype holds. Kerner is often viewed as a Riesling sequel, having many of the qualities of Riesling, but with higher yields and better frost resistance.

Critic reactions to Kerner are mixed. Jancis Robinson, like me a big Riesling fan, writes that “The large white berries produce wines commendably close to Riesling in flavour except with their own leafy aroma and slight coarser texture.” She calls it a “great success story.” Oz Clarke is less enthusiastic, writing that “It is one of the better modern crossings … which perhaps is not saying a great deal.” You see what I mean about stereotypes.

There are about 3700 hectares of Kerner in Germany, far behind Riesling (22,000 hectares), Muller Thurgau (13,000 hectares) and Sylvaner (5000) among white grape varieties but still a considerable amount. While varietal Kerner wines are made in Germany (some quite good, according to Robinson), I suspect most of the grapes are destined for “invisible” inclusion in various blends, which is what happens to hybrids.

A Different Story in Italy

Peter Baumgartner

The story is quite different in Alto Adige, that part of Italy that was Austrian before the First World War and exists today as a semi-autonomous region with both German and Italian (as well as Ladin) as official languages. This is the home of Kerner’s parent, Schiava/Vernatsch, and Kerner is embraced here for what it is, not as a Riesling sequel or substitute. The Valle Isarco (or Eisachtaler in German), which follows the Isarco river up into the Alps,  is the main Kerner region and here, freed of stereotypes, it achieves something quite special.

We were fortunate to have a private tasting of the wines of the Cantina Porduttori Valle Isarco (a.k.a Eisacktaler Kellerei) in Chiusa. Peter Baumgartner, a local banker who is the cooperative winery’s president, explained the winery’s business side (look for an upcoming post on cooperatives in this region) and guided us as we tasted the wines.

Cantina Valle Isarco specializes in white wines (Baumgartner plans to phase out the remaining reds in the portfolio): Sylvaner, Muller Thurgau, Veltliner, Traminer Aromatico, Pinot Grigio, Pinot Bianco, Chardonnay, Sauvignon, Riesling and of course Kerner. Production is about 1 million bottles a year and the market is mainly local: 50% in Alto Adige, 40% in other parts of Italy with most of the remaining 10% exported to Germany and Switzerland. Wines are produced to hit several price points starting about about €6 for the entry level and moving up from there.

The Cantina makes four Kerner wines starting with the entry level wine (which we did not taste) and moving up through the premium Artisos series, a limited edition Sabiona Kerner (made from grapes from the Sabiona Monastery vineyards) and ending with a deliciously sweet Kerner Nectaris Passito made from late-harvest grapes left to dry and concentrate their flavors on straw mats in the manner of Amarone.

Wine Wisdom from Charles Barkley

I once heard the sports philosopher Charles Barkley say that a particular basketball player was successful because “he plays like himself” instead of trying to be someone else.  I think the Kerner wines made by the Cantina Valle Isarco are interesting (and apparently successful, too) because they “play like themselves” — they seem to be made to be themselves and not an imitation, substitute or sequel for something else.

In fact, they are among the very best white wines of Italy. Or at least that’s what the editors of the Gambero Rosso guide seem to think. My 2007 Vini d’Italia guide lists three Kerner wines (from Cantina Valle Isarco, Manfred Nössing-Hoandlhof and Abbazia di Novacella) among the 282 wines from all of Italy receiving the highest “three glasses” (tre bichierri) award. That’s a disproportionate achievement for an invisible wine from a tiny Alto Adige valley.

Kerner shows that local wines can excel if local markets embrace them and that even invisible wines can sometimes shine in the spotlight if they follow Charles Barkley’s sage advice.

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Cooperatives have a bad reputation in the wine business. Some of the worst wines in the world are made by cooperatives that favor quantity over quality. But, as we have seen here, some of the best wines are also made by cooperatives. High quality cooperatives are unusually prominent in Alto Adige. Why? How? These are questions I’ll try to answer in my next post.

Thanks to Peter Baumgartner for his generous hospitality during our visit to Cantina Valle Isarco and also at the opening reception of the AAWE meetings in Bolzano.

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