Wines & Vines: A Global Perspective on Regional Wine Identity

The December 2014 issue of Wine & Vines is out and it features the usual mix of interesting and informative articles. This issue includes a preview of the sessions scheduled for the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium in Sacramento at the end of January, a “Best of 2014″ collection, a guide to building an urban winery and much, much more.

Great stuff — the wine industry is lucky to be served by top notch professional publications like Wines & Vines, Wine Business Monthly, Harpers Wine & Spirits, Beveragedaily.com,  Meininger’s Wine Business International, The Drinks Business and  other useful and informative publications.

Wines & Vines has for some time now included content from Practical Winery & Vineyard, which is edited by Don Neel. This month Don chose an article that I wrote for him last year to be featured in the combined publication. It is called “A Global Perspective on Regional Wine Identity: Think Global, Drink Local.”

The article is based on a presentation I made to a gathering of wine makers in Southern Oregon. Some of the remarks are aimed specifically at this under-the-radar region, where some great wines are being made, but I think many of the conclusions I draw are more general. I invite you to click on the link and read the column along with the other Wines & Vines articles.

Fear Beer? Sometimes the Best Wine is a Beer (or a Cider)

The theme of the Wine Industry Financial Symposium this fall was “Let the Good Times Roll,” but the news stories that came out of the two-day gathering were as much about potential threats as golden opportunities.  “Wine has nothing to fear but beer itself” is a typical example.

Connect the dots

No individual speaker focused specifically on craft beer and cider, but it’s fair to say that they were the 300-pound gorillas in the room. The reporters present picked up on a comment here and a mention there and effectively connected the dots. Let the good times roll? Or roll out the “beer” barrel? Hard to tell which was the stronger message.

I was one of the dots along with UC Davis dean Robert Smiley and others.  I spoke about the trends I have observed traveling the world in the past year and one of them is the rise of craft beer and cider and their growing incursion into the wine space. I see it everywhere and the people I meet are often surprised that it is a widespread phenomenon. I thought it was just something that’s happening here is a common response.

As if to illustrate my point, the post-conference reception featured a number of nice wines from Napa area wineries plus a Napa-based craft brewer who was pouring three or four interesting products. Can you guess what many of the wine people were drinking? You guessed right if you said that it was beer.

The price is right?

Which makes sense because sometimes the best wine is a beer (or a cider). That’s not just a fact of life, it’s also the title of a chapter in my next book, which is set for release next fall. The book is called Money, Taste & Wine: It’s Complicated and it’s a collections of essays, rants and raves about the crazy business of wine.

The gist of the chapter (and part of my remarks in Napa and also later in London at Wine Vision 2014) is that inexpensive generic wines can be pretty uninspiring in a world where  upscale consumers look for distinctive products like they find at Whole Foods and see on Food Network shows. For about the same price as that generic wine you can purchase a really distinctive craft beer or cider.  And while the best wines can cost hundreds, the top of the craft beer category is not that many dollars above the middle market. The relative cost of really distinctive products versus generic plonk can be much less for beer than for wine.

In other words, if you want to feed your terroirist soul, you might find craft beer or cider a very cost effective alternative to wine. Obviously I develop this idea more thoroughly in the forthcoming book chapter, but I think you probably get the idea already. Just go to an upscale supermarket and stare at the beer case and cider shelf for a while.  You may be impressed by the sophisticated products you see and the reasonable (compared to wine) prices they fetch.

I’m especially taken with the new ciders I’ve encountered. Ciders come in many types — blends, single variety, oak-aged and so on. There are even ice ciders that, like ice wines, are made from naturally frozen fruit.

No need to fear beer …

Beer and cider also have a number of supply side advantages over wine. Because grains and apples can be stored for months you can make batch after batch of beer and cider pretty much continuously through the year. With wine you get one shot at fermentation and that’s it. This gives beer and cider more production flexibility and permits small lot seasonal experimentation, too.

So should wine “fear beer” as the story headline suggests? No, but wine needs to take these products into account and respect them as strong competition. Honestly I don’t think craft beer and cider are threats, but I do see them as challengers. If we don’t want to lose customers to these innovative products, we need to up our game and make sure that wines at key price points have the quality to compete.

Wine Vision Takeaway Messages

Click on the image above to view my interview with BeverageDaily.com editor Ben Bouckley at Wine Vision 2014.

I’m back from Wine Vision 2014 and reviewing my notes in search of the most important takeaway messages. Not an easy task in this case, because the content stream was so rich and varied. Not sure whether the best ideas came from the formal program or casual conversations. That’s a sign that the organizers did their job of assembling a critical mass of thinkers and doers from inside and outside the global wine trade.

Many of the points that participants found particularly useful focused on new or emerging trends. Lots of discussion of new consumers (millennials, for example), new marketing opportunities (direct-to-consumer both generally and via in-home “meet the winemaker” type events), and new competitors within the alcoholic beverage category, some of which are so “innovative” that they seem poised to “jump the shark” into oblivion.

We were informed and entertained by presentations on what to do and — more critically — what not to do in social media relations (lots of cringing at the dumb things that smart people can do on Twitter and Facebook). And we were introduced to packaging and label innovations, including my first experience with Amorim’s new “twist off” Helix cork stopper/bottle package. Something for everyone at this conference.

 Big Bang Theory

My presentation probed four powerful forces that have shaped the wine world of today — the “big bang” of global wine production that has redrawn the world wine map, the new “lingual franca” of wine, which now defines the competitive landscape, the forces of disintermediation that have changed the game from monopoly to monopsony, and the “new wine wars”realignment of interests within the wine business.

Reading through press coverage and Twitter comments, I find that different people focused on different elements of my presentation, which is probably as it should be. In the video above, for example, BeverageDaily.com editor Ben Bouckley drills in on the importance of authenticity and the new wine wars and, in response to a question, I highlight LVMH wine chief Jean-Guillaume Prats‘ comments about sustainability. Lots of interesting ideas in the air.

UK Wine Trade at the Crossroads?

Wine Vision disappointed me in only one respect — not what was said but what wasn’t. In the run-up to the event I suggested that this was the perfect time and place for an open discussion of power dynamics in UK supplier-retailer relations. The Tescogate financial scandal seems to have nothing to do with the wine trade, I wrote, but it has created an opening where a discussion of power in the UK wine world might be usefully and openly engaged. As a recovering liberal arts college professor, open discussion is in my blood, so naturally I wanted to see it happen here.

But it didn’t happen and perhaps it never will. I tried to open the door in my presentation, drawing a parallel between UK wine retailers and Amazon.com in terms of power dynamics. But no one really jumped at the opportunity and in any case I was whisked off the stage before anyone could comment or ask a question. Time was up, I guess.

Pernod Ricard UK chief Denis O’Flynn attempted to suggest that supplier-retailer relations were at a “crossroads,” but without any more success than I had.  A panel on supplier-retailer relations managed to almost entirely avoid the topic. Interesting! It felt like a “Voldemort” moment (“he who must not be named,” for those of you who are not Harry Potter fans).

Race to the Bottom?

Maybe, as a friend suggests, it was just British politeness — must not say anything that might make someone uncomfortable. Or maybe it was, as the wise Adrian Bridge suggested, simply that nothing was going to change. Might be better to invest energy in areas where progress is possible. He’s probably right and I’m probably wrong.

But I really think that something has to change.  Retailers cut price to increase market share (in the process training consumers to think of wine as just another 3-for-£10 commodity). Then they push suppliers for lower costs to restore margins before another round of price cuts kicks in. The fact that the UK Treasury’s excise tax share of the transaction has increased so much only makes matters worse, eroding margins and accelerating the downward spiral spin.

The UK wine business is caught in a dangerous race-to-the-bottom cycle and it isn’t going to turn around unless and until something changes. Is it impolite to talk about this? Denial, as I like to say, isn’t just a river in Egypt.

I’m on the “State of the Industry” panel again in January at the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium in Sacramento. Look for further commentary there.

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The issue of supplier-retailer relations isn’t just about Tesco, but the fact of Tescogate puts that firm, the world’s largest wine retailer — in the spotlight. Dan Jago, the head of Tesco’s wine department, was originally scheduled to speak at Wine Vision, but withdrew when he, along with other department heads, was suspended pending the investigation. (It is now rumored that Jago will leave the company.) Laura Jewel MW, the head of Tesco’s wine development program, stepped in to replace him but  a week after the conference she seem poised to leave Tesco to take a position as UK and Europe director of Wine Australia. As Jancis Robinson said on Twitter, “Who’s left at Tesco?” Good question. Maybe some of the UK insiders at the conference knew about these upcoming changes and so avoided any situation where they might have to comment? Pure speculation.

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Thanks to Wine Vision for inviting me to speak! It’s a  well-organized and very successful event — worth the long flight from Seattle to London. Thanks to participants and fellow speakers for making this such an interesting and worthwhile conference.

Wine Vision, Tescogate and Shifting Wine Market Power

Wine Vision, the CEO-level global wine conference to be held in London next week, looks like it will be an unusually interesting gathering because of the issues that have risen to the top of the wine industry agenda as a result of the recent Tescogate scandal.

A School for Scandal?

Tescogate? The scandal, for those of you who don’t follow UK retailer news, is that the big supermarket chain Tesco is reported to have used various financial manipulations to overstate its earnings by a whopping £250 million.  The value of the company’s stock has come crashing down and high-level heads have rolled. Investigations continue.

Tescogate has changed perceptions of this big retail chain among investors, consumers and regulators.  A “word cloud” of web references to Tesco today might look much different from the innocent image above  that I found on the internet — maybe more like this one, which was created to display public opinion about bankers a couple of years ago. What do you think?

Inevitable Wine

Wine inevitably enters the Tescogate story because Tesco is the world’s largest retailer of wine and, although the wine program is not at the center of the investigation, the scandal has prompted many in the trade to give voice to long-held concerns. Their complaint is not so much accounting fraud as near as I can tell as a pattern of unequal relations between retailers and suppliers that is not just limited to Tesco and probably not just limited to wine either.

The issue is power and it is something that was already part of my planned Wine Vision presentation when the Tescogate news first broke. I’m still trying to decide exactly  how much attention to give it in my talk. A number of factors have shifted power in the global wine industry — away from those who make the wine in favor of those who can sell it. It’s not the first time that it has happened and its not just a wine thing, either. Because the wine gets sold a lot of people are happy for now with the situation. But power is power and you’ve got to pay attention to who has it, what kind and how it is used. Fill in your favorite Machiavelli saying here!

The Rules of the Game

In my other life as a university professor I have often written about power. Power comes in many forms. Hard power is the ability to impose your will. Soft power is about influencing the environment in which choices are made. Relational power comes from your resources versus those of your opponent. Structural power comes from the organization of the system — the rules of the game — and the leverage that results.

Tesco and other large-multiple retailers can be seen to have all of these types of power, but structural power is probably the most important. They write the rules of the game to an important extent. Because they are the gate keepers to the retail shelves, they really don’t need to throw their weight around to get lower prices and other benefits from suppliers. The suppliers will fall over themselves to make sure they stay in the game.

Wine suppliers in many cases drive down their own margins because they are afraid that someone else will do so first to grab scarce shelf territory or private label bulk wine sales.

An Opportunity for Dialogue

Concerns among suppliers are not new, but there is a sense that people were previously afraid to speak out and the Tescogate scandal has created an opening where the issues of producer-retailer power (and not just about Tesco) can be more safely and openly discussed. And that’s a good thing.

The Tescogate  chatter has brought the concerns and frustrations of the wine suppliers to the fore and there is a lot to be learned from listening to the discussion. But then what? It looks to me like Wine Vision is shaping up an interesting place to see how the conversation unfolds because of the people on the program (including Tesco’s Laura Jewell MW) and the people in the audience.

If there is every going to be an opportunity for an open discussion of the (un) balance of power in the wine industry, this will be it.

Valpolicella Revisited: What’s the Story?

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So, what’s the story? That’s a question that Sue and I frequently ask each other after a tasting or winery visit. We’ve learned a lot, tasted interesting wines, met fascinating people. But what’s the takeaway message?

Sometimes it’s a fairly straightforward choice but to be honest I think we live for the complicated narratives– the experiences that really make us sit down and think. What is the story!? Our recent visit to the Valpolicella region was like that. We didn’t find a story — we found a lot of them and the other members of our merry media band — Mauro Fermariello, Michelangelo Tagliente, Michelle Williams and Mads Jordansen — who shared the same experience with us, found many different stories, too, and different ways of telling them.

(Click on the names above to see our colleagues’ work. Mauro Fermariello’s video, which I have embedded above, is a particularly striking account of our journey.)

We’ve already told several of the stories we found in earlier columns and  I’m using this final post to fill in some gaps and sum up. What are the stories? Here are three of them chosen to say something about the winery business models we encountered.

The San Rustico Story

Let me start with San Rustico, a winery with a long history that it wears proudly and gracefully. As you can see in Mauro’s video, the tasting room is decorated with artifacts that give a sense of the past. Touring the cellar we were struck by the wooden grape drying racks, key to Amarone production, that spoke to us of time and tradition. Great atmosphere.

A visit to the winery is a warm and friendly experience here — very personal. Sort of like tasting wine with a family friend in a farmhouse kitchen. And while the wines honor tradition they do not seem especially  trapped in it. Wines are made in two ranges and Amarone in particular in several styles.

One wine we tasted for example was made to appeal to new world export markets, a bit sweeter and with more new oak  (60 percent of the winery’s 170,000 bottle annual product is sold outside of Italy). The premium Gaso Amarone, on the other hand, is made in the traditional style. It was delicious — our favorite glass in the line up.

The two brothers who are responsible for San Rustico (one works in the vineyard and the other in the cellar) have purposefully focused on their traditional production base, limiting output while looking outside the region for sales.

Sartori di Verona

History is also a strong theme at  Sartori di Verona, but the business strategy is much different. Andrea Sartori is the fourth generation of the Sartori family to lead the winery and he has taken it in a different direction from San Rustico. Actually (and this fits into the theme of this column), Sartori’s strategy involves moving in several directions at once.

Go big or go home is one part of the story. Seeking the resources needed to expand production, Sartori entered into an agreement with the Cantina Colognol cooperative in 2000 that gave it secure access to 6200 acres of vineyards in the Valpolicella and Soave regions. This base allowed a three-fold expansion of production necessary to fill an increasingly export-oriented pipeline. About 80 percent of production is exported today. The well-regarded Banfi firm imports Sartori into the U.S. market.

At about the same time that the volume push began a super-quality brand was also established. Sartori partnered with consulting winemaker Franco Bernabel, who began to work with both vineyards and cellar practices, raising quality and drawing out the characteristics of the different vineyard terroirs. Four years later, in 2006, the I Saltari line of super-premium wines was launched. Sartori has also expanded its reach beyond the Veneto, establishing relationships with Cerulli Spinozzi in Abruzzo and Feudo Sartanna in Sicily. There’s also a partnership with Mont’Albano, a pioneering organic estate in Friuli.

Sartori reminds me a bit of the Mondavi strategy of years past. Mondavi moved upmarket with Opus One and also mass market with the Woodbridge wines. The story did not end happily for everyone, as Mondavi went public to raise expansion capital and eventually lost control of the business (wine giant Constellation is the current owner).  The stories differ here: there’s no indication that the Sartori strategy will have anything other than a happy conclusion.

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The Cesari Story

One of our favotie stops was at Cesari. We loved the wine, the people and the story.  The fact that we like the wines is perhaps not an accident. The U.S. is a prime export market for this winery and it is not impossible that the style was evolved over the  years with American tastes in mind — rounder, fuller wines, but still striking the authentic classic notes.

The Americans in our group were all familiar with the Cesari brand so I was a little surprised when someone told me that it is not as well-known within Italy. The strong export focus makes it different even among wineries (like those above) who sell more than half their production abroad.

Cesari was founded in 1936, during a particularly turbulent period for wine in Italy and Europe. Many private firms failed and cooperatives went bankrupt. Some of the wineries that emerged (or simply survived it) were led by supremely talented entrepreneurs. This sprit in part drove Cesari to push dramatically into global export markets in the 1970s and guides them today to produce the distinctive wines that are needed to attract discerning customers.

I’ve embedded a Cesari video above to give you a sense of the winery and its vision and also to show you how effective they are in telling their own story. Story-telling is almost as important as wine-making when it comes to the business of wine today. Fascinating that the global market’s demands appear here, don’t you think. And I agree with the narrator — all kidding aside, the wines really are good.

Eight Million Stories?

Years ago there was a U.S. television series about life in New York City called “Naked City” that closed each week with the line “There are eight million stories in the Naked City — this has been one of them.” (Scroll down to see a video clip.) There may not be eight million stories in Valpolicella but there are sure a lot of them. Some, like the three above, about different business models and different historical evolutions. Others, like my earlier posts, are about wine tourism, weather problems and  the difficulties of establishing and maintaining a luxury brand for the region in an increasingly competitive marketplace.

There are very personal stories too, like two of my favorite wineries (Zyme and Secondo Marco) that exist today more or less because of family issues that caused a younger generation to start out in a different direction. Reminds me a bit of the story of Robert Mondavi and  the family disagreements that led to the founding of his eponymous Napa Valley winery.

Lots of stories and not enough time or space to tell them all. Maybe that’s what makes a wine region really great. I realize that wine marketers are attracted to the idea of a silver bullet story — a signature grape variety, an iconic brand or rock star winemaker — that can make a region’s reputation in a single stroke. There are good examples for each of these strategies, but I have my doubts about this as a general theory. Maybe real strength comes from diversity and not from a monolithic approach?

I’m glad there are millions of stories to tell and not just one because that means a world of different and distinctive wines … and job security for story-tellers like me! Thanks to everyone who made our Valpolicella visit so rewarding.

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Here is a list of the wineries we visited during our Valpolicella tour. See if you can identify each one of them in Mauro’s video. At the end of the list I have embedded a bit of the old “Naked City” television show for those of you too young to have seen the original. Cheers!

Wineries we visited in Valpolicella:

Valentina Cubi, Fumani

Scriani, Fumani

San Rustico, Valgatara

Terre di Leone, Marano di Valpolicella

Villa Cordevigo and Villabella, Cavaion Veronese

Casa Vinicola Sartori, S. Maria di Negrar

Cantina Valpolicella Negrar, Negrar

Monteci, Pescantina

Cesari, Cavaion Veronese

Zýmé, San Pietro in Cariano

Santa Sofia, Pedemonte

Secondo Marco, Fumane

Salvaterra, San Pietro in Cariano

A Field Guide to Prosecco’s Many Faces

P1090234Prosecco sales here in the U.S. are surging — up 34% in the first half of 2014 according to one report. At 1.27 million cases, the U.S. is now the #3 export market for Prosecco trailing only the UK and Germany.

Quantity is one thing, but quality is often something else entirely. Last week’s column talked about Prosecco’s upmarket move and the premiumization pyramid that lies at the heart of the strategy.  Is premium Prosecco real or just a marketing gimmick?

Mionetto’s Impressive Line-up

We tasted the wines from three producers during our quick business trip to the Veneto and if there is truth in wine, then premium Prosecco is real.

Our first stop was at Mionetto, a large producer that is the U.S. market leader with their popularly priced, crown capped “IL” Prosecco line of wines. “IL” is great fun and has attractive packaging — we like it a lot — but it doesn’t especially strive for upmarket status. But wait, there is more …

We tasted through several Mionetto wines that showed the true potential for premium Prosecco wines. We started with Prosecco made from organic grapes – the idea came from the growers not the marketing department — that was perhaps the most effective presentation of an organic wine that I have seen. This wine should appeal both to enthusiasts seeking something different and to dedicated green wine fans. The wine, the messaging, the packaging — they all come together in a very impressive way.

Opulence and a German Bet

We then moved up the pyramid to a single vineyard “Rive di Santo Stefano” DOCG Prosecco and into the “Luxury” series of wines, then reaching the summit with the Mionetto Luxury Cartizze DOCG. The luxury wines really were opulent both in the glass and to the eye. Very impressive. Will wines like this some day challenge Champagne? No future tense needed — I think they already do so, providing that memorable feeling (isn’t that what Champagne is really all about for most people?) at a more attractive price point. Here is a list of the Mionetto wines we tasted with links to more information about them.

An interesting sidebar to the Mionetto story is that the Italian firm was purchased a few years ago by Henkell, the German sparking wine producer, and everyone worried that the usual layoffs and cost-cutting measures were in store. Instead the new parent company kept all hands on board and hired more workers while investing in plant modernization and expansion. They are betting on the premium future of Prosecco and based on the “cards” we tasted it seems they have a winning hand.

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A Different Prosecco: Sorelle Bronca

Sorelle Bronca is a very different enterprise that illustrates Prosecco’s many dimensions. A small firm run by two sisters, all its wines are organic. Total production is much smaller than Mionetto, but the wines are perhaps equally diverse in the experiences they present the curious wine enthusiast.

We tasted through several excellent organic DOCG Proseccos and some still wines, too, including a white blend featuring the Manzoni Bianco grape and a Colli di Conegliano DOCG Riserva “Ser Bele” red blend of Cabernet Franc, Cab Sauvignon and Merlot (Bordeaux grape varieties have long been planted in the Veneto) that received Gambero Rosso’s  top “3 glasses” rating. Red wine from Prosecco-ville? Maybe. Really great red wine?  Apparently yes. I didn’t see that coming.

The “normal” Proseccos we tasted here were delicious as was the Sorelle Bronca Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG Particella 68  made from grapes from a specific vineyard bloc. But the hit of the tasting was Sorrele Bronca Valdobbiadene Prosecco DOCG “Difetto Perfetto” Sur Lie. Difetto Perfetto? Defective and perfect at the same time? Well, yes. This cloudy wine (see photo) had its secondary fermentation in the bottle not the pressurized tank as is typical for Prosecco. Then it was left on the lees for a period and then not disgourged, so the lees were still there.

Cloudy, a bit like a hefeweizen beer. I think “foggy” is the best word — look at the photo. Unfiltered, but not Difetto in my opinion. The first taste was just the wine, taking care not to disturb the lees at the bottom of the bottle. Good! Then we shook up the bottle and tasted it all together. Wow! Even better, Sue and I agreed.  Champagne-like but still clearly Prosecco without the strong leesy taste you might expect because the sur lie period was so short.  And quite an interesting mouth-feel. A Prosecco to surprise and delight. What fun!P1090311

A Bisol Mosaic at Venissa

We spent the night in Venice and set out the next day to visit Venissa, the ambitious vineyard project of the Bisol family that is located on an island in the Venetian Lagoon (see next week’s column for a full report). The Bisol Prosecco house is behind Venissa and as part of our visit Matteo Bisol arranged for us to taste several of his family’s wines along with dinner at the restaurant.

Usually, Matteo said, he would serve just one Bisol wine as part of a multi-course / multi-wine tasting menu, but he decided to use the opportunity to show us many difference faces of Bisol and Prosecco. It was quite an experience.

We started with the classic Bisol “Crede” Prosecco DOCG  2013  (“Crede” refers to the marine limestone subsoil of the growing area) that we have tasted before here in the U.S. A premium and traditional DOCG Prosecco.  Next, in a silver-clad bottle, was Bisol noSO2 Prosecco Extra Brut 2012 . NoSo2 — no sulfites — in the “natural wine” style.

Bisol Relio Extra Brut 2009  came next, made from the Glera grape commonly used in Prosecco but using the classic method (secondary fermentation in bottle not tank). Different from the Sorelle Bronco sur lie wine — the Champagne style yeastiness more pronounced.

The Dry and the Sweet

Following this we were served Bisol “Eliseo Bisol Cuvee del Fondatore” Millesimato 2001 – Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay grapes, classic method. Italian Champagne, you might say (if such language were permitted) with Pinot Blanc taking the place of Pinot Meunier in the grape blend.  Note the vintage date! Quite spectacular.

The last sparkling wine of the evening was the opulent Bisol Cru Cartizze DOCG -- from the prime Cartizze zone. I felt fortunate to taste wine from Cartizze both here and at Mionetto. A friend had warned me that Cartizze would be too sweet but I found both wines dry and well balanced. Prosecco, like Champagne, can be and is made in different degrees of dry and sweet and some styles are more popular than others in particular markets.

The final wine was sweeter but still very well balanced and it came as a complete surprise. It was Bisol Duca de Dolle Prosecco Passita – dessert wine made  with air-dried grapes like a white Recioto, but aged in a modiied solera system you find with some Sherries. A unique experience — different from any of the other wines from this region we tried and not exactly like any other sweet wine, either. Matteo wanted to show us the variety of Prosecco expressions and he certainly succeeded.

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Final thoughts? The Prosecco mosaic caught me by surprise — Prosecco is not one thing, but many things and hopefully consumers who start with cheerful wines like the Mionetto “IL” bottlings can be persuaded to move up the Prosecco Pyramid to the DOCG and Rive wines and perhaps even summit with Cartizze and beyond to some of the truly unique wines we were fortunate to be able to sample. Thanks to the everyone who hosted us and to the Conegliano Valdobbiadene Consortium for arranging the winery visits. Next time: the story of Venissa.

What’s Ahead for Amarone? Looking Beyond This Year’s Soggy Vintage

P1080942It is a soggy vintage in Valpolicella and the Veneto generally. Rain, rain and more rain on through harvest. This is problematic and also a bit ironic for wines like Amarone, Ripasso della Valpolicella and Reciotto that are defined by dry not wet — that are made with grapes carefully air dried for weeks or months before being made into wine.

Not that all the news is bad — some winemakers told us that grapes from higher elevations and steeper hillsides held promise for good quality. Others noted that the old fashioned looking pergola-trained vines were doing better (better air circulation) than the conventional Guyot-trained vineyards.

Lots of concern about mildew and rot, and some grapes, like the ones pictured here, were almost blue, we were told, from Bordeaux mixture spray (an approved organic anti-mildew treatment) they had recently received.

(See the photo below to gauge the rainy season’s impact on the first of the white grapes being harvested — probably mechanically — for use at a high-volume winery.)

That’s Where the Money Goes!

Amarone and Ripasso are key elements of the  upmarket Valpolicella premiumization strategy. Although the more popularly-priced wines of the region — Valpolicella, Valpolicella Classico, Valpolicella Superiore — are often delicious, they are light in body and even sometimes in color in a world that seems to be searching for deeper, richer wines. Luxurious Amarone, made from those air-dried grapes, fits the bill very well and has established a strong global following. When I told my friends I would visit Valpolicella, “Amarone!” was the uniform initial response.

Ripasso, which is made by refermenting “ordinary” Valpolicella on the pressed skins left over from Amarone, also has a strong following among those who see it as a more affordable “baby Amarone.” It is sometimes a better wine and might even be a more profitable wine for some producers, but you can’t make Ripasso unless you have made Amarone, so they are joined at the hip.

Amarone and Ripasso are the money wines of Valpolicella, even if a bottle of good Valpolicella Classico Superiore is difficult to beat paired with mushroom risotto. High prices are an imperative here because of high costs — high vineyard valuations (€400,000 per hectare in some areas, we were told), high grape tonnage prices, and expensive long aging periods in tank, wood and bottle before release. Plus the obvious volume losses that come from the air-drying process.

Yes We Have No Amarone (in 2014)

This makes the rainy vintage even more problematic. Quantity will be down for those producers who carefully sort through the grapes, but quality is likely to suffer, too. How much? Enough to drag down price? Enough to damage the wines’ and region’s reputations?

A thin veneer of confidence about quality masks some real concerns and fermenting disagreements. Bertani, one of the big players in the game, announced that they would pass on Amarone  Classico this year rather than accept lower quality. A producer  I cannot name revealed during our visit that he had that morning signed a contract to sell off his Amarone wines to the bulk market rather than release an inferior product under his own label. No Amarone, maybe no Ripasso, no money wine this year … for some.

How can someone just walk away from their money wine? Well, the first answer is that wine is agriculture and Mother Nature often makes the call for you (something that growers in Valpolicella already know since they live an area with frequent sporadic catastrophic hail storms). A deeper reason is that for some producers a year without Amarone might actually be a good thing. The Amarone boom of recent years was always worrying to those of us familiar with busts. Maybe a year without Amarone would help rebalance supply and demand?

Declaring a Vintage? Or Not …

P1090059Given the soggy year and what may well be a substantial inventory over-hang, a case might be made for treating Amarone like Port and “declaring” a vintage in the best years while focusing on other types and styles when quality is in doubt. Amarone, like Vintage Port, is a luxury product and you can see the logic of not wanting to undermine its reputation.

Given the choice, I think some producers would give the “Vintage Amarone” idea  a try although others would prefer a half-way measure — none of their finest Amarone, but maybe still produce some lesser wines.  Hmmm … I wonder if that would really work?

But expanding the focus beyond Amarone to other wines might have some benefits apart from the obvious one of supporting quality. More attention to the conventional Valpolicella wines would be welcome if the broad trend I sense of a shift to lighter and more balanced wines is correct. And then there are the innovative IGT wines that I talked about in a recent column.

When I asked one winemaker why he was making a proprietary IGT wine in addition to his DOC and DOCG traditional products, he replied honestly that it was an upmarket thing — he wanted to have something that wasn’t Amarone or Ripasso for his Valpolicella customers to move up to.

Lots of room for great wines in this category, without the restrictions of the DOC rules. Lots of opportunity for interesting products in “non-vintage” years.

Life without Amarone? Impossible?

But passing up on the money wine in off years is a luxury that not everyone can afford.  We saw many new and impressive wineries that may well have been built on the expectation of Amarone-style returns. If the business model is built on Amarone, a bad year (which would be a year without Amarone) could be devastating.

And some wineries are so closely identified with Amarone that skipping a vintage is nearly unthinkable for them. Take the cooperative winery in Negrar — Cantina Valpolicella Negrar. This is where Amarone was born in 1936 when the cellarmaster lost track of a tank of Recioto (in theory a sweet wine made from air-dried grapes), which fermented dry by accident instead of the yeasts being stopped with some residual sugar remaining.  A catastrophe — except that it was really good. Not bitter “Amaro” but smooth and dry “Amarone.”

Negrar makes many wines today under its own label and the premium Domini Veneti brand, but for obvious reasons its identity is tied to Amarone. It is difficult to imagine that it could pass on an Amarone vintage for any reason and so certain tensions are inevitable between those who for one reason or another cannot or will not miss an Amarone vintage and those who for different reasons are willing to take the risk.P1090036

Victim of Amarone Success?

Our visit to Cantina Valpolicella Negrar showed their focus and continuing commitment to Amarone.  A line of single-vineyard wines, Domini Veneti “Amarone Espressioni,” were presented at lunch.  The five wines  were as different as their origins — I liked the wines from higher elevation vineyards the best, although I think I might actually prefer the multi-vineayrd blend that I tried with dinner the next night.

So what’s in the future? More rain, if past is prologue, but it is difficult to say beyond that. Valpolicella is in a way a victim of its own success. Great wines that earn a premium in the market — no doubt about it. But also expensive wines that play in a very competitive luxury wine league along with heavyweights like Barolo, Brunello and Barbaresco. Finding the right solution is no simple matter.

The people we met are smart and while they will disagree about how best to move forward I’m pretty confident that they will find a way to sustain the good thing that they have got and maybe even kick it up a notch as they have done in the past. In the meantime, pray for a break from the rains!

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