Groot Expectations: Is South Africa #1 for Wine Tourism?

P1070944Sue and I returned from our visit to South Africa with many strong impressions and great memories.  Maybe the single thing that struck us the most is this: the Cape Winelands are a wonderful wine tourism destination. The best we have ever visited? Perhaps!

And this is important because wine tourism is now widely seen as playing a critical role in the industry. It is not just a way to sell wine at the cellar door (with direct sales margins), although that can be important to the bottom line. And it is not just a way to fill hotel beds and restaurant tables, although that is clearly important from an economic development standpoint.

A Sophisticated Industry

Wine tourists are also wine ambassadors, who carry a positive message back home with them. They sell the place, the people, the food, and of course the wine. That’s why Australia is betting so heavily on wine and food tourism to turn around its image on international markets. My friend Dave Jefferson of Silkbush Mountain Vineyards has recently called for more attention to promoting wine tourism in South Africa and I think he’s on the right track.

The South African wine tourism industry is very sophisticated as you might expect with people like Ken Forrester and Kevin Arnold involved. Forrester has made his restaurant 96 Winery Road a key element in his winery’s business plan and Arnold says that he sees filling hotel beds as a primary objective.  If the hotels are full of wine tourists, he is justifiably confident that his Waterford Winery will get its share of the business. They are two of a growing list of South African wine producers who have invested in the wine tourism strategy.

The variety of wine tourism experiences is striking ranging from vineyard safaris at Waterford to a stately home visit at Antonij Rupert to luxurious spa facilities at Spier. We loved the lush gardens at Van Loveren in Robertson and the warm Klein Karoo feeling at Joubert-Tradauw in Barrydale.  The opportunity to sip Riesling during a children’s theater performance in the forest at the Paul Cluver Estate in Elgin was memorable.  There is always something new around the corner.

Our photo collection from this trip seems to have an equal number of images of beautiful scenery and mouth-watering plates of food. I think wine tourists will be struck both by the physical beauty of the Cape Winelands and by the high quality restaurants that a great many of the wineries feature.Jordan lunch

A  Sticky Experience

The splendid winery restaurant opportunities in South Africa may come as a shock to many Americans who are used to touring at home since in the U.S. the rule seems to be that food and wine should not mix – at least not at wineries. That’s wrong, of course, but the result of America’s archaic alcohol regulations.

I think the restaurant at Domaine Chandon may be the only one of its kind in Napa Valley, for example. And of course in some states including New York wine sales in supermarket settings are forbidden. Wine and food — a dangerous combination!

One key element of the wine tourist business is to create an experience that makes visitors slow down, stop and take a a little time to let the impressions sink in – a “sticky” experience if you know what I mean. Vineyard and winery tours can do this and various sorts of specialized tasting and pairings experiences work, too, but maybe nothing is quite as effective as the opportunity have a great meal  in a fabulous setting along with the wine you have just sampled.

The list of great winery restaurants in South Africa is very long – some of the highlights from our brief visit are Jordan (where Sue enjoyed the beet salad above), Diemersdal,  Stark-Condé, Lanzerac, Glen Carlou, La Motte, Kleine Zalze, Fairview and Durbanville Hills (the view shown in the photo at the top of the page  is of Cape Town and Table Mountain at sunset as seen from the Durbanville Hills restaurant).

So what are the keys to being a wine tourist in South Africa? Well, first you have to get there, of course, and I think many people wish that there were more direct flights to Cape Town. Our SEA-LHR-CPT route on British Airways was long and tedious as you might imagine, but pleasant and efficient by contemporary air travel standards.

Wine Tourist Checklist

Once you are on the ground, will  need a couple of essentials. Here is my short list.

First, a rental car with a GPS unit. You can do a little wine touring without a car, of course, booking one of the many day tours out of Cape Town. The historic Groot Constantia winery is actually on one of the routes of the hop-on hop-off tourist bus that shuttles visitors to all the main scenic location. But renting a car opens many more doors. The roads in the Cape wine region are mainly quite good and and the region itself is fairly compact, so driving is certainly an attractive option.

South Africa drives on the same side of the road as Britain and Australia but the adjustment if you have to make it is relatively easy. You will need the GPS because many of the wineries are a bit off the beaten path and while GPS units all have their quirks, they are extremely useful here.

Second, buy a Platter’s Guide as soon as you hit the ground in Cape Town. You can get a physical copy or a digital subscription, but be sure to get a Platter’s Guide.  Most people will buy this guide for its ratings and recommendations of the current release wines of just about every South African producer, which we found very helpful even if subjective ratings need to be used with care. But the wine ratings are not the whole story.

I especially like Platter’s  for its detailed factual information about each winery, which I see as a necessary prelude to a successful visit — plus the practical contact and visit details, including GPS coordinates. Many wineries are on unnamed roads, so it is necessary to have the latitude and longitude coordinates and Platter’s data is very up to date.

These resources, plus a sense of adventure and a curious nature, are the essential equipment for a successful South African wine tourist trip (common sense helps too — as the sign at Groot Constantia says, don’t feed the baboons!).

If you would like to go beyond the basics, I heartily recommend Tim James’s excellent 2013 book Wines of the New South Africa, which provides more depth and detail concerning the history of South Africa wines, the grape varieties, the regions and many of the wineries. I studied this book before our trip and the effort paid off.

I love maps, but I could not find a wine atlas of South Africa here in the U.S. As we were leaving the Cape area Cobus Joubert gave us a lovely Cape Winelands wall map that he has produced and I wish I knew about it before we came. It is an impressive and beautiful document with a map of the wine regions on one side and basic information about the wineries (including those critical GPS coordinates) on the other. Not essential, I suppose, but very useful and very desirable and it is a great addition to my collection.

What if you can’t travel to South Africa? Then I guess they have to get their wines to you. I’ll talk about the new wave of export plans that will make South African wines more widely available in the U.S. market next week.

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P1070630I am known to love the braai, South Africa’s national feast. Meat grilled over wood coals, salads and veggies, wine and friends. Can’t beat it. Nothing brings South Africans together like a braai.

Special thanks to Albert and Martin at Durbanville Hills, Meyer at Joubert-Tradauw and Johann at Kanonkop for inviting us to join their braais!

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.

Extreme Wine Experience: Barossa’s Rockford Wines

rockfordWine is about stories and relationships and the experience that wineries provide their clients — buyers, visitors and wine club members — is very important. Wine tourists, for example, provide direct economic benefits in the form of hotel occupancy, restaurant business and of course cellar door and wine club sales.

More than the sum

But wine tourists and club members are more than the sum of their direct sale parts. They can ideally also become brand ambassadors for individual wineries and their regional associations.

One of wine’s major advantages over other fashionable beverages is its ability to capture a real sense of time and place and to connect people, product and producer in personal ways. You can add the wine experience to the list of strategies that successful wineries actively manage.

One of the great aspects of my job is that it allows me to survey different approaches to wine experience in many countries (Sue and I are in South Africa this month, for example, being wine tourists for a while  before I speak at a conference here). Today’s column is the first in a short series on Extreme Wine Experiences based on fieldwork we did in Australia a few months ago.

The Rockford Experience

Our first stop is Rockford Wines on Krondorf Road near Tanunda in the Borossa Valley. The wines we tasted were extremely good (including the iconic Basket Press Shiraz, of course, and the much admired sparkling Black Shiraz), but that’s not what made this an extreme wine experience.

The winery itself has a sense of place, with the shady trees, rustic stonework, corrugated steel roofs and very much still in use pioneer-era vintage equipment in the shed and cellar. Very atmospheric both outside and in, where fireplaces were lit to take off the chill. There’s a comfortable personality to the place that reflects the personality of the founder and winemaker, Robert O’Callaghan, who was nice enough to spend some time with us.

The Stonewallers

The members of the Rockford wine club are called Stonewallers and the name is significant on several levels. The winery has plenty of rustic stone walls, which I suppose is the obvious reference. But the Stonewallers are more than parts of the scenery — they are meant to be and seem to feel themselves to be a part of a family or perhaps the solid foundation of the operation.

Membership is limited as it often is in such cases, and wines are allocated. But, as O’Callaghan explained to us, the point of the club is to reward long-time supporters of the winery and to cultivate a long term relationship rather than to cash in on short term sales. You need to purchase from the winery for a number of  years before you might be invited into the club and then it is the persistence of your commitment rather than the size of the transaction that is rewarded.

An Inherited Trait?

Some folks of relatively  modest means are members, for example. We were told of families who saved up a little at a time over the year so that they might splurge at Christmas on their allocated half-dozen bottles of festive sparkling Black Shiraz.  The club stood by members having temporary fiscal troubles. And, yes, there had been some talk about whether Stonewallers could bequeath their memberships to favored heirs.

We happened to visit on the afternoon of one of the regular Stonewaller lunches, where members are invited to dine (at their own expense) in the winery and to enjoy the wines, the food and the company of fellow members. Back at our vineyard bed and breakfast (Blickinstal, on Rifle Range Road in Bethany) that evening we found that the other guests had come some distance in the middle of the week for the specific purpose of attending that luncheon.  There was a very strong sense of belonging among these folks, with one couple — the newest Stonewaller initiates — still almost giddy at their good fortune.

You can just imagine what ambassadors they must be, with their insider tales and first person accounts, and how well they must represent the wines and the winery to others. The atmosphere thus created seems to extend to wines not on the allocation-only list.

The O’Callaghans seem to have created a destination winery in an unlikely location half way up a dusty road a few kilometers outside of Tanunda. The thing that makes it extreme is that everything — the place, the values, the commitment to long term relationships — is at once so perfectly calculated and so completely authentic.

This is a place that knows what it is and seems to draw together people who wish to share — through wine and fellowship — those characteristics. So that’s extreme wine experience lesson one: wine and family. What’s next? A history lesson.

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Thanks to the O’Callaghans for spending time with us. Thanks to Diana Phibbs for steering us to this fascinating experience.

Developing a Market for Chinese Wine: Tourism and Education

Here is the final post in the series on the Chinese wine industry by Cynthia Howson, Pierre Ly and Jeff Begun. It has been very revealing to see aspects of China’s wine industry through their eyes! Thanks to all three for so capably filling this space while I have been away. I hope to persuade them to give us brief reports of their future research fieldwork.

Developing a Market for Chinese Wine: Tourism and Education

by Cynthia HowsonPierre Ly and Jeff Begun

Like many sectors of Chinese economy, the wine industry is growing at breathtaking speeds and we were excited to spend a month finding out how it’s happening. Our last posts talked about how China is developing distinct terroirs and the arrival of world class wines, but there’s more to the industry than the best tasting wine. It’s not just the huge production (now 6th in the world), or the arrival of awarding winners like Jiabelan and Silver Heights. It’s the bevy of chateaux, wine museums, resorts and tourist activities that seem to be popping up faster than customers can fill them. Are there really consumers to justify the small European town at Changyu AFIP? What about the entire roads lined with just-opened wineries and resorts in Ningxia, where a long vine separates lanes and signs are shaped like wine bottles?china3a

Recently, Mike wrote about the “amenities gap” in Yakima, Washington, where some say there aren’t enough restaurants and hotels to attract visitors, but there aren’t enough tourists to attract investment. But in China, investors seem more than happy to tolerate some empty hotels and restaurants as they anticipate (and promote) future demand. Of course, each new business or infrastructure project helps provincial governments to achieve very high economic growth targets, so the environment for investment matters. But it’s not enough. The seeming promise of an insatiable and growing consumer market in China continues to draw investors from around the world. (The documentary, Red Obsession, shows a China passionate about buying and making expensive red wine and it’s easy to forget that most Chinese people never drink wine, and many others add Sprite).

An Insatiable Market? Developing a Taste for Wine

Industry experts and winemakers repeatedly told us that the Chinese consumer market is bigger than they can satisfy and it continues to grow. But, they are also concerned about marketing to average consumers, people developing a taste for wine when most still prefer spirits (baijiu) or beer and serious wine lovers tend to be biased toward imports. For the winemakers, of course, there are always concerns about a stable and consistent grape supply. High quality wine is a notoriously costly and long term investment, so it’s not surprising that young wineries are not yet profitable. The search to define a style that will distinguish a Ningxia cabernet sauvignon and the ability to coordinate wineries toward the development of appellations is still in the earliest stages. What is unusual in China is that there are resorts and wine clubs when the wines may be largely unknown or difficult to find.

Of course, many resorts and clubs are beautiful, but not yet full or profitable. The crowds have yet to arrive, but investors seem confident enough to continue building. So, what is binding construction companies, real estate moguls and foreign wine merchants in their faith in the Chinese wine market?

There is something to be said for accessing the largest market in the world. Indeed, the most famous wineries have no trouble attracting crowds for their tours and it is worth noting that the tasting at the end of the tour is not an important part of the experience. Some people skip it. Others seem to find it amusing. We appreciated the insight of one expert, who told us that when the tasting seems deemphasized, it’s probably not the best part of the tour.

The picture here is the Changyu Wine Culture Museum on a typical day. The museum is packed with tourists, attracted to the beaches of Shandong Province for the summer holidays. On another tour, we invited our taxi driver to join us. Although more of a beer drinker, he told us about the founder of Changyu Winery in 1892 and took his own pictures in the museum.   china3b

So, unlike other wine regions in the world, the infrastructure for wine tourism is appearing in China before the actual tourists. And, the tourists may be willing to come when they are not (yet) wine drinkers. We saw photo shoots with blushing brides and families learning about wine tasting, but what struck us was the number of people who were interested in wine even though they claimed not to like the taste of wine.

Of course, true connoisseurs aren’t left out. They will find wine clubs where they can not only blend their own wine, but actually pick and crush their own grapes before fermenting their own wines. Meanwhile, for families looking for something to do on the weekend, there are day trips where grandparents can play mahjong under a beautiful trellis and kids can pick grapes, run around, and at one wine chateau, they can even play drums or a game of foosball in the wine bar.   Indeed, wine tourism in China has something to offer for everyone.

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.

On the Wine Trails of Italy (with the Michelin Man)

Michelin Green Guide Wine Trails of ItalyMichelin Guides, 2013. Cynthia Clayton Ochterbeck, editorial director; Maura Marca and Carlo Vischi (in collaboration with Debora Biona), contributing writers.

I love visiting Italy, meeting the people and trying to speak the beautiful language. I’ve spent more time in Italy than any other country outside the U.S. (thanks in part to a stint teaching at the Johns Hopkins Center in Bologna), so I’ve learned a lot about the food and  wine and always look forward to going back to learn more.

I have accumulated far more than my fair share of Italian touring guides, which I enjoy reading  before, after and during each trip. The publication of Michelin’s new Wine Trails of Italy was the perfect excuse to dig out some of my favorite guides and compare them to this new one.

Bring In the Usual Suspects

Standard operating procedure for a trip to Italy at The Wine Economist office involves collecting together a number of timeless references — the usual suspects. I always start with Burton Anderson’s classic The Wine Atlas of Italy & Traveler’s Guide to the Vineyards, which somehow manages to be informative and relevant more than 20 years after its publication (it was the Veuve Clicquot Wine Book of the Year for 1990).

Anderson’s wine atlas paired with the most recent edition of Gambero Rosso’s Italian Wines guide is usually enough to get me started. Anderson gives the broader context and Gambero Rosso shows me what’s new. Connecting the dots is up to me. The Italian Wine Guide from the Touring Club of Italy is another indispensable (if now somewhat dated) companion.

What is Italy Anyway?

But it is impossible to visit Italy and to taste Italian wines because, well, what is Italy anyway? Mario Batalli once said that there is no such thing as Italian food, there are only the many regional cuisines of Italy and I think that this remark holds for Italian wine, too.

So inevitably I search for regional wine touring guides to match my focused travel itinerary. Hugh Johnson edited a series for Mitchell Beazley called Touring in Wine Country that included handy volumes on Northeast Italy and Northwest Italy (as well as Burgundy, the Mosel and other regions). I love these guides, which focus on wine towns and wine trails, with excellent advice on hotels, restaurants, wine and food shops, and of course wineries. Meaty, but just compact enough to fit into a day pack or car glove box.

I still pull out these Mitchell Beazley guides when I’m putting together a trip, but they haven’t been updated in nearly 15 years and the specific information they provide is now stale, even if much of the general advice remains relevant.

More Maps, Please

So where does the new Michelin guide fit in? Well, the format is attractive as you might imagine from a publisher with so much travel guide expertise.  The volume is narrow, deep (more than 500 pages) and packed full of information. The first 50 pages are filled with Wine 101 information (how to taste, what temperature is best, how to extract the cork, etc.) that does no harm even if it will do little good for seasoned readers.

A general introduction to Italian wine serves as a preface to wine regional wine itineraries, which vary in length from just a few pages (for the Aosta Valley and Liguria regions for example) to about 50 pages for Tuscany.  Obviously it is impossible to provide a truly comprehensive guide to any Italian wine region in such tight quarters, so this is an exercise in leaving things out. If you are OK with the deletions, then you’ll be happy with the guide.

Detailed maps were the first thing left out in the Michelin guide and this annoyed me at first, but then I realized that it would just be impossible to include all the necessary maps in such a brief volume. You’ll need to buy driving maps (Michelin maps, presumably) if you want to follow the routes. But, a few more maps would be useful if only to help see how the various wine routes are related. Better maps would be my #1 request if these books are ever revised.

The Michelin Touch

Each chapter begins with a quick overview of the region, its wines and the grapes the wines are made from. This is followed by suggestion wine route itineraries presented in a format that will be instantly familiar to anyone who has ever used a Michelin guide. These travel narratives are followed by a data section that lists tourist contact numbers, identifies the regional wine cellars and presents brief but well written  profiles of selected wineries. A very short list of accommodations brings the chapter to an end.

Compared to the other wine tourist guides on my bookshelf, the Michelin guide provides more non-wine information — a fact that puzzled me at first. But I guess you can’t live by wine alone, even in Italy, and knowing more about the cultural tourism elements is surely worthwhile, Indeed, I stumbled across some information that I wish I had known on my last trip to Alto Adige! I suppose that it just makes sense for a Michelin wine tourist guide to draw heavily on the core knowledge base of the main Michelin guides.

Bottom Line

Bottom line: Not a perfect wine tourist guide to Italy, but a very good compromise and a useful addition to the day pack. More depth and detail would be great, but obviously impossible given the scope of the guide.  A wine guide that ignores food seems just wrong (especially in Italy), but I suppose there are apps (or other guide books) for that. It’s a good volume to use in concert with other travel resources.

I still nurture a small ray of hope that Mitchell Beazley will revise those old wine touring guides or that the Touring Club of Italy will come out with a new edition of their guida, but until they do this Michelin guide will help fill the void.

Is Craft Beer the Next Big Thing in Wine?

Is craft beer the next big thing in wine? No — not if you’re asking if wineries are going to start putting in tanks for IPA (India Pale Ale) alongside their racks of expensive french oak barrels.

But yes — maybe — if you are thinking about things in terms of market spaces. The wine market space and that of craft beer are increasingly overlapping as craft beers infringe on wine’s turf (and low alcohol wines threaten to do the same for beer). And if the common battlefield isn’t huge at this point, it is certainly growing and warrants attention.

Anatomy of Craft Beer

A Craft beer producer, according to CraftBeer.com, the Brewers Association website, has three essential qualities:

  • Small: Annual production of 6 million barrels of beer or less.
  • Independent: Less than 25% of the craft brewery is owned or controlled (or equivalent economic interest) by an alcoholic beverage industry member who is not themselves a craft brewer.
  • Traditional: A brewer who has either an all malt flagship (the beer which represents the greatest volume among that brewers brands) or has at least 50% of its volume in either all malt beers or in beers which use adjuncts to enhance rather than lighten flavor.

Although by definition craft beer producers are relatively small, the market category has made a lot of news recently because of its rapid growth, both in terms of number of retailers who carry craft beers and total sales. Rapid growth from a small base — sound familiar?

It’s the growth that gets your attention. Remember Moscato? It surged from a small market niche to become the next big thing and is according to one report is now the third best selling (by volume)  white wine varietal in the U.S. after Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio and ahead of Sauvignon Blanc. Is craft beer the next Moscato?

The Next Moscato?

I put the question this way because the particular beer that provoked this post was actually made with Muscat grapes. It was a 12 ounce  bottle of Midas Touch from Dogfish Head Brewery. that I bought for $3.50 at the Metropolitan Market up the street.

Although Midas Touch probably wasn’t made with wine drinkers strictly in mind, it is certainly being marketed to the wine space as the videos below will show you and I have to say that its complex aromas and flavors (plus wine-like 9% alcohol by volume) made it a beer that can stand up to many wines in a sip by sip comparison.

The brewery says that “This sweet yet dry beer is made with ingredients found in 2,700-year-old drinking vessels from the tomb of King Midas. Somewhere between wine and mead, Midas will please the chardonnay and beer drinker alike,” and I can’t really disagree. I found it very pleasing (and not overwhelmed by the addition of saffron as you might expect), although this is clearly a matter of taste. Sue was less impressed, saying that it didn’t taste like beer and wouldn’t be her choice over wine.

Midas Touch is not a typical craft beer, but it demonstrates pretty well what craft beer is capable of doing in competition with wine.  It is a complex and interesting beverage that pairs well with food — just like wine. It tells a story that draws in the consumer and deepens the attachment — just like wine.

New and Improved!

Innovation is a hot topic in the beverage business these days and craft beer presents more opportunities for innovation and product development than most wines if you are aiming at that market segment. Midas Touch, based on an ancient recipe using exotic ingredients — is an example of how far the innovations can go.

Interestingly, complexity comes at a lower relative price with craft beer than with wine, which is something to consider. The difference between the lowest and highest priced grocery store wines is huge — sometimes a factor of 50 or more — with $2-3 per bottle equivalent for a 5-liter Franzia box at the low end and $100 or more at the top is not unusual at an upscale supermarket.

By comparison, the exotic product premium for craft beers is relatively low. The Midas Touch was a bargain at $3.50 or about $7.00 per 750 ml bottle equivalent in the sense that it was not very much more expensive than basic beers and ales.  I have to admit that it was a lot more interesting to drink that a lot of $7 wines that I have tasted even if, like any particular wine, it is not necessarily to everyone’s taste.

And even the most exotic cult beers (like the locally fabled Pliny the Elder) can often be found for $10-$20. So the Screaming Eagle craft beer equivalent can be purchased for the price of a good but not exceptional bottle of wine. You can see how that might attract the attention of some wine drinkers, especially young ones. And I guess it has.

Wine’s Counterattack?

A lot of the attention has been focused on alcohol levels. Some craft beers are even more potent than the 9% abv Midas Touch, which puts the beer in ballpark of wine.  Certainly high octane beer should be treated like wine and sipped (wine glasses are often recommended) not gulped.

But not all craft beers are this boozy and in fact I think that their lower alcohol levels (compared with wine and spirits)  can be a competitive advantage when you look at the market that way.

The trend towards lower alcohol wine (like the 5.5% abv line of wines that Gallo recently launched in the British market)  might be seen as wine trying to capture some of the beer market through product innovation.

Craft beer drinkers often display the same sort of insane devotion and geeky attachment that we see in wine enthusiasts and there are even interesting beer tourist destinations like Bend, Oregon — an old mill town that is home to 14 craft breweries within easy walking (or stumbling) distance of each other along the Bend Ale Trail, which attracts some of my university students as a Spring Break destination.

Midas Touch

So craft beer has a lot in common with wine and maybe a couple of advantages. With these products more widely available and a growing customer base that is ready and willing to experiment, I think it is plausible and wine and craft beer will increasingly share market space and must take that competition into account.

Will some wineries take the next logical step and start brewing small lot beers? Well, it isn’t a crazy idea where regulations permit it. Compared to wine with its single annual harvest, beer is a Chateau Cash Flow business. Breweries can operate pretty much year round as one batch it bottled and another fills the tanks.

Cash Flow Ale? Maybe that’s how beer-drinking Midas got his golden touch!

Red Mountain: Think Global, Drink Local

Red Mountain is Washington’s smallest AVA and perhaps its most distinctive. This compact patch of dirt (see larger map below) has produced the grapes for some of the state’s most celebrated red wines. There’s a real sense of place in the wines according to critics, so the “drink local” part of this post’s title makes sense. But think global?

Well, yes. The wine world is very interconnected; international influences are surprisingly common and take many forms. A visit to Red Mountain (Sue and I were joined by research assistants Bonnie and Richard) revealed two of globalization’s many local faces.

The Italian Job: Col Solare

You might not expect to find one of the legendary names of Italian wine here on Red Mountain, but as you motor up Antinori Drive towards the beautiful winery at the top of the road the association becomes clearer. Col Solare (Italian for Shining Hill) is a joint venture of Tuscany’s Marchesi Antinori and Washington State’s Ste Michelle Wine Estates (SMWE). There has to be a story. Here it is.

It must have been about 20 years ago that Piero Antinori came to America, looking for a wine-producing partner. He wasn’t interested in making an American super-Tuscan. He wanted to do what he thought America did best: Cabernet. So, as the Ghost Busters used to say, “who ya gonna call?” if you want to make great Cabernet? The answer was obviously André Tchelistcheff, the legendary wine maker at Napa Valley’s Beaulieu Vineyards and consultant to many important wineries (including Chateau Ste Michelle).

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Where in America can I make distinctive Cabernet? Tchelistcheff knew what advice to give because in fact he had already given it to his nephew Alex Golitzin who founded Quilceda Creek winery, which makes some of Washington’s highest-rated Cabernets. Tchelistcheff’s advice to Antinori was much the same and resulted in the partnership with Ste Michelle Wine Estates and the Col Solare winery we see today.

The first wines, starting with the 1995 vintage, were made with grapes sourced from several Columbia Valley vineyard sites and produced at a nearby SMWE facility, but eventually the focus on Red Mountain grew stronger and the showcase winery was finished just in time for the 2006 crush. The estate vineyards radiate like the rays of the sun on the hillside below the winery.

The partnership has grown since that first step. SMWE is now the sole importer of Antinori wines into the U.S. market and in 2oo7 the two partnered again to purchase the Judgment of Paris champion Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. Quite a successful partnership — you’ve got to believe that Tchelistcheff earned his consulting fee.

Col Solare is interesting to me because of the global-local connection. The wine is Cabernet-based, as Antinori wanted, but with a distinct Red Mountain twist, which means that it includes a little bit of Syrah in addition to the usual Bordeaux suspects since Syrah does so well here.

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Col Solare is an impressive achievement. Everyone we talked with on Red Mountain seemed glad to have them there. SMWE and Antinori are good neighbors, good customers for the local growers and good advocates of Red Mountain and its wines.

Red Mountain isn’t a first class wine tourist destination yet — the infrastructure needs further development and another couple of winery tasting rooms wouldn’t hurt either — but Col Solare is already a destination winery and worth the trip.

The Swedish Solution: Hedges Family Estates

Another destination Red Mountain winery, Hedges Family Estates, shows a different aspect of the local-global connection. Tom Hedges is a local boy, who grew up in the Tri-Cities area before the region became known for wine. He studied international business at the University of Puget Sound and then at the Thunderbird grad school in Arizona. I guess you could say that he got into the wine business through the side door — through the business side. Here’s how the Hedges website explains what happened next. 

In 1986 … Tom and Anne-Marie created an export company called American Wine Trade, Inc., based out of Kirkland, Washington State; they began selling wine to foreign importers. As the company grew, it began to source Washington wines for a larger clientele leading to the establishment of a negociant-inspired wine called Hedges Cellars. This 1987 blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot was sold to the Swedish Wine and Spirit Monopoly, Vin & Sprit Centralen, the company’s first major client.

So you could say that Hedges Cellars was created to satisfy a global demand. Soon Hedges was breaking ground on his Red Mountain estate. Today Hedges is the largest family winery in Washington and was instrumental in establishing the Red Mountain AVA.

It really is a family operations. Tom and his French-born wife Anne-Marie are proprietors, brother Pete Hedges makes the wines, Tom and Anne-Marie’s daughter Sarah is assistant winemaker and son Christophe is director of sales and marketing. The wine portfolio ranges from the Hedges Red Mountain estate wine (a Bordeaux blend, but with a bit a Syrah) to the popular CMS blends and the House of Independent Producers wines.

Taken together I think Col Solare and Hedges Family Estates show the local-global nexus at its best, bringing international attention and expertise  to local wines and taking those wines to global markets. We are often told that globalization suffocates local enterprise, but these wineries show that it can, in the right circumstances, breathe life into them.

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I can’t leave Red Mountain without mentioning two other stops we made that day. It was about time for lunch when we finished our visit to Col Solare and that can be a problem since I don’t think there are any restaurants on Red Mountain.  But we had planned ahead for a picnic and so we headed to Fidélitas, where we bought a bottle of Charlie Hoppes’ delicious Semillon and dined out on the patio overlooking the vineyards. Turns out we didn’t need to bring food — Charlie had arranged for a local barbeque food truck to be available for weekend visitors like us — nice touch!

Our next stop was the world’s best vineyard tour. Michael and Lauri Corliss (of Corliss Estates) had arranged for us to meet Mike McClaren and James Bukovinsky, who were working in one of  the Corliss Red Mountain vineyards just up the road from Fidélitas  supervising  the mid-October harvest. We spent the best part of two hours with Mike and James, visiting every nook and cranny of the complicated site, learning about the careful matching of grape variety and terroir and tasting the perfectly ripe fruit. A real taste of Red Mountain.

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Thanks to Bonnie and Richard for their able assistance. Thanks to Wysteria Rush and Marcus Notaro at Col Solare and Tom Hedges and Deborah Culverhouse at Hedges Family Estates. Thanks to Michael and Lauri Corliss and Mike McClaren and James Bukovinsky for their hospitality.

Photos: (1) Col Solare winemaker Marcus Notaro (in his  classic Inter “Roberto Baggio” jersey), (2) the view down Red Mountain from Hedges, and (3) Mike, Tom and Richard in discussion at Hedges. You can see how tiny Red Mountain is on the map below.

Story Hour at the Wine Bloggers’ Conference

We are just back from the 2012 Wine Bloggers’ Conference, which was held this year in Portland, Oregon. It was a big event, with a sell-out 350 registered participants and about 40 more on the wait list hoping to get in. Randall Grahm gave one of the keynote addresses and Rex Pickett (author of Sideways and Vertical) gave the other. I was a moderator in a wine blogging workshop.

It was great to meet so many wine bloggers and to get a personal sense of the vast virtual community of wine enthusiasts who read, write and comment on the web.

Beyond Hegemony?

The conventional wisdom is that the days of traditional media’s hegemony in the world of wine are numbered (if not already passed) and that younger wine enthusiasts will increasingly draw their influences from social media (blogs, Facebook, Twitter and so on) and not Robert Parker or Wine Spectator.  The future of wine media might not be blogging, according to this viewpoint,  but wine blogs are part of the evolutionary process.

No one really knows if this is true or not, of course, and many wine bloggers secretly suspect that their readership is made up mainly of other wine bloggers. But the theory is just plausible enough to make wine blogging and a big conference like this difficult for the wine industry to ignore. So I was interested to see who would show up to try to develop relationships with the wine bloggers and how they’d go about it.

The list of wine industry groups in Portland is quite long. Here, for example, is a list of the official sponsors. And then there were other industry groups, wine producers, public relations firms and individual  Oregon wineries who had hospitality suites or organized pre- or post-conference events.

Grand Sponsors

Premier Sponsors

International Wine Night

Event Sponsors

Partners

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Story Hour: High Oregon Art

Why did all these industry groups converge around the bloggers? Well, people might think that the wine business is about bottles and corks (and it is to be sure), but it is really about relationships and, more than that, it’s about story-telling. The wineries, wine businesses and regional wine groups were in Portland to tell their stories to the story-tellers and then hope that the message would spread. The fact that they would invest not insignificant resources to be at the conference says something about the importance of relationships and narratives in the wine business.

There are lots of ways to tell a story and some were certainly more successful than others. The Oregon wine industry did an excellent job by embedding their wines firmly in the culture of the region, giving the bloggers a sense of the values that the wines are meant to represent.

I’ve inserted above the short video that King Estate produced to be shown at the awards banquet, which they sponsored. It gives a good impression of the Oregon story generally as well as the particular philosophy of the King Estate family. Take this as an example of the high art of wine story telling (even though the wine itself plays only a cameo role in the video).

You can only imagine how effective it was when the video, which introduced the faces, places and values, was followed by the actual food and wine and the real people who made them. It and the other messages that Oregon producers and the Oregon Wine Board scripted cannot but have left a strong impression on the attendees. Bravo.

Rich Narratives: Wine Story Tasting Notes

Winebow, an important wine importer and distributor, also showed great story telling skills. Winebow’s sessions showed off two faces of their import portfolio very effectively.

The first program focused on the wines of Argentina (they import several brands including Bodega Catena Zapata and Bodegas Nieto Senetiner). Each wine was paired with a tasty bite and a story about the wine and food of the region. The variety of Argentinean wine was showcased along with the food and even the culture (we were treated to Tango dancers). The combination encouraged us to slow down and listen, think and talk about the wines and the country. If the story is that yes, Argentina is Malbec and steak (and this is a wonderful combination), but it is also much more, then I think it was told very well indeed.

The second Winebow session was about “Off the Beaten Path” wines and it showed off the depth of Winebow’s portfolio. I think it was my favorite part of the conference. Sheri Sauter Morano MW led us in a tasting of  seven wines that most of us had never tasted before and that many consumers would hesitate to try because of their unfamiliar names or place of origin. As I have written before, wine is ironically one of the least transparent everyday products and the uncertainty about what is in the bottle is a limiting factor in wine sales and wine enjoyment.

Sheri focused on the story-telling aspect. She had us taste the wines “blind” and asked us to think about how we would describe them and tell their stories to readers. What reference points (in terms of more familiar wines or other qualities) could we use and how might we distinguish their signal qualities? The “reveal” provided additional information about each wine and challenged us: How could we tell the wines’ stories in a way that would resonate with readers and allow them to have the same interesting and enjoyable wine experience? I thought this was a brilliant approach and I hope some of the bloggers embrace it to introduce their readers to new wine varieties and regions.

Food Truck Wine?

Wines of Chile is another skilled story-teller. I have worked with them on several projects and have always been impressed with their commitment to developing their brand message and their focus on social media strategies. They invited us to a participate in a pre-conference tasting that was a sort of moveable feast. About 20 of us boarded a double-decker London bus and visited three local venues (including an iconic Portland gourmet food truck cluster) where small plates of food were paired with particular Chilean wines. It was a very effective way to feature the wines and an opportunity  to provide detailed and relevant information.

Taking all of the events together, including pre- and post-conference events and the chaotic “live-blogging” tasting events, I think most  New World and Old World wine regions were represented in one way or another. Who has missing? I’m not sure I saw any wines or literature from either Austria or South Africa but I admit they could have been there and I just missed them. And of course if would be impossible for all the different wine regions of France, Italy  or Spain to be present, but the national industries were well represented by the groups that did attend.

Bloggers need stories to tell and the wine industry needs story-tellers. No wonder everyone got on so well together at this conference.

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Thanks to all the sponsors who made the Wine Bloggers’ Conference possible. For more information I recommend Tom Wark’s  assessment of the conference. I agree with Tom about most things, especially the value of real person-to-person face-time versus Facebook and Twitter.

Wine Tourism á la Français

My colleague Pierre has returned from visiting his parents in Toulouse and he brought with him the May 2012 special wine tourism issue of La Revue du Vin de France,  which features “Les 35 meilleurs circuits du vin.” Since I’m working on the wine tourism chapter of my next book I couldn’t wait to dig in.

So what are the 35 best wine tourism destinations? Well, given the French readership of La Revue it should be no surprise that 29 of them are in France itself. I’m sure that if Wine Spectator were to pick out the best wine touring routes there would be an American bias (out of practical concern if nothing else) although it might not so extreme as this French case.

Tour de France

I sensed a diplomatic hand at work in making the selection as virtually every important wine region in France is singled out in one way or another. I think you could organize a Tour de France-style bicycle race from these wine tourism suggestion (Le Tour typically touches every corner of France). If you did, I suppose you’d want to stock up on Boisset’s Yellow Jersey wine, made in tribute to the great race  – the plastic container fits neatly in your bicycle’s water bottle cage.

Even Paris makes the wine tour list. You might wonder at this because vineyards are not frequently seen on Parisian hillsides, but that’s not why wine tourists go to Paris. It’s the shops and wine bars that are the attraction here. 

So La Revue directs you to visit Galeries Lafayette in the IX arrondissement to see the magnificent collection (“12000 bouteilles en cave”) of Bordeaux wines there.  Other shops are recommended for unrivaled access to wines from Burdundy, Champagne and Languedoc and imported wines, too, from Germany, Hungary and Spain.

Follow the Wine

Although the idea that Paris is a wine tourist destination felt wrong at first, I can see the attraction. Follow the money, Deep Throat said. Follow the wine is good advice, too, and sometimes the best collections of wine are far from the sunny vineyard slopes (but close to where the money resides).

I am particularly interested in La Revue’s selection of wine tourism destinations outside of France. I expected to see Napa Valley on the list; Napa is the second largest tourist destination of any kind in California (after Disneyland) and so certainly the largest wine tourism center in the United States. But it didn’t make the La Revue cut.

Easy to understand, I suppose. When the French visit the United States they may not be thinking of wine. New York, Miami, Los Angeles and maybe Los Vegas — these are the most common European tourist targets I have heard. American wine country is a bit off that map. Or at least it is off La Revue’s map for 2012.

Porto in Portugal did make the list, however, along with Tuscany, Vienna, Geneva, the Rhine Valley and Cape Town, South Africa. Cape Town is a spectacularly good choice for wine tourism, of course, and any list of the top global wine destinations would have to include Tuscany and Germany.

But the competition for the final spots must have been pretty fierce and it would be interesting to know how Vienna and Geneva beat out New Zealand, Australia, Chile and Argentina (not to mention Napa and Sonoma). There are many amazing wine tourist destinations and choosing just six outside of France (or choosing just 29 inside France) is necessarily difficulty and controversial.

Economic Impact

Wine tourism is a big industry here in the U.S. The Wine Institute estimates that 20.7 million tourists visited California wine regions in 2010 and spent $2.1 billion.  An economic impact statement prepared in 2008 by Stonebridge Research for the Napa Valley Vintners association estimated that wine tourism accounted for more than 10,000 jobs in Napa Valley alone (about as many workers as in all the wineries and vineyards combined) with total payroll of more than $250 million.

The direct wine tourism impact on the county was estimated at more than $700 million for 2008. The economic impact is spread over hundreds of small businesses — wineries, of course, wine tour companies, hotels, restaurants, wine and food shops and so forth.

Although it doesn’t make the French magazine’s list, Napa Valley is the industry leader in many ways. Surely many wine tourism programs around the world have been inspired by Robert Mondavi’s example, which from the start aimed to create an experience, not just a wine tasting or buying opportunity. It’s all about story-telling. Wineries use tourism as an opportunity to tell their stories, which visitors weave into their lifestyle narrative.

The Accidental Wine Tourist

The 2006 Oxford Companion to Wine’s “wine tourism” entry suggests that Old World wine tourism development has been quite uneven. Wine tourists were long welcomed and accommodated in Germany’s Rhine and Mosel River Valleys, for example. But in France …

In France, wine tourism was often accidental. Northern Europeans heading for the sun for decades travelled straight through burgundy and the northern Rhône and could hardly fail to notice vineyards and the odd invitation ‘Dégustation–Vente’ (tasting–sale). (And it is true that a tasting almost invariably leads to a sale.) Wine producers in the Loire have long profited from their location in the midst of châteaux country, and within an easy Friday night’s drive of Paris.

Bordeaux was one of the last important French wine regions to realize its potential for wine tourism. The village of St-Emilion has had scores of wine shops and restaurants for decades but it was not until the late 1980s that the Médoc, the most famous cluster of wine properties in the world, had a hotel and more than one restaurant suitable for international visitors. Alexis Lichine was mocked for being virtually the only classed growth proprietor openly to welcome visitors.

Now, as this issue of La Revue indicates, the French are catching up!

There Must Be 50 Ways

So what is my bottom line? Wine is good, I tell my friends, but wine and a story is better. Wine tourism is about finding that story and making it first-person. There must be fifty ways to do this (La Revue gives us at least 35) and while visiting vineyards and wineries is the most obvious form of wine tourism I guess it isn’t the whole story.

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