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.

Soaking & Poking: Italian Wine Tourism Fieldnotes

Wine tourism is a big business and an interesting one, too, because there are so many variations. Sometimes it seems like the choice of wine touring experiences is almost as big as the choice of wines themselves. Here are fieldnotes from two wine tourist venues in Northern Italy that illustrate different approaches.

Soaking and Poking in the Asti Hills

When we visit wine country I like to stay with winemaking families when I can rather than in upscale commercial establishments. I find that I can learn so much more about the local wine industry talking informally with the people who farm the grapes and make the wine.

This approach corresponds to the social science research method of  “soaking and poking.” You immerse yourself in a topic (or wine region), soaking up as much detail you can,  and poke around, asking a lot of questions. Pretty soon the really important questions start to reveal themselves and that’s when the magic happens.

There are many vineyard agriturismo options in Piedmont and we decided to stay at Il Milin, a farm house agriturismo just seven minutes drive from Asti but a world away from the bustle of the city.

Il Milin sits on the Rovero family farm, which includes 20 hectares of vines, 5 hectares of orchards and vegetables, a winery, a distillery, a restaurant and even the little chapel shown here. Il Milin sits halfway up the hillside, looking across the valley and up to scenic San Marzanotto. There are comfortable double rooms and two small apartments, good food and of course the friendly people who always are the key to success. Michela Rovero was our genial and helpful hostess who looked after us when she wasn’t herding her lively three-year-old triplets; her husband Enrico is the winemaker for this multi-generational family business.

Rovero produces about 100,000 bottles of wine each year from estate-grown grapes. Italy is the principal market, but Germany and Switzerland are important, too. The quality of the wines is recognized in Italy — Rovero is typically awarded “two glasses” out of three in the Gamberro Rosso guide, which is a very good grade indeed. I don’t think they are distributed here in the United States. The distillery is very active, producing an extensive range of grappa and brandy.

One highlight of our stay was a meal at the family restaurant, which is generally open only on weekends. Enrico’s mother prepared a menu of regional dishes that Enrico paired with Rovero family wines. It was the perfect way to learn about the wines — tasting them with the local Monferrato cuisine while talking with the winemaker about wine, wine markets and his plans for the future.  So you want to know what we ate, of course. OK, here’s the menu.

  • Two types of typical Piemontese salami crudo
  • Small puffed pastries stuffed with local cheese
  • Fried zucchini flowers
  • Soft herbed cheese
  • Salad of shredded chicken and radicchio in balsamic dressing
  • Zucchini and basil flan in an intensely rich Parmesan cream
  • Torta di fagiolini (green beans)
  • Tagliolini (thin, flat pasta) with peas and zucchini
  • Veal and roasted potatoes in a Barbera sauce
  • Panna cotta, bonet (chocolate panna cotta), and hazelnut cake

And the wines that complemented the meal:

  • Rovero Baptista (Riesling Italico)
  • Rovero Villa Drago (Sauvignon Blanc)
  • Rovero “La Casalina” (Grignolino D’Asti)
  • Rovero Spanase’ (Barbera D’Asti)
  • Rovero Nebbiaia (Nebbiolo Monferrato)
  • Rovero “Gustin” (Barbera D’Asti Superiore)
  • Rovero Rouve (Barbera D’Asti Superiore aged in French oak)
  • Rovero Brachetto (frizzante red dessert wine)
  • Rovero Calasaya (fortified Barbera D’Asti)
  • Rovero Ampolo Reserva 1998 (grappa made from Barbera)
  • Rovero Brandy (aged in barrel for 10 years)

I enjoyed the fact that the Rovero wines are the wines that people make to drink in Piedmont and not just the wines they make to sell abroad. It was especially interesting to taste the five variations on the Barbera theme that you will find on this wine list. Barbera is an amazingly versatile canvas for a creative winemaker like Enrico Rovero to work with.

Il Milin was low key and intimate, the perfect wine tourism experience for the enthusiast who wants to become immersed in a local culture, with opportunity to digest the day’s wine activities and reflect upon how past and present connect. It represents my favorite model of wine tourism. But there are alternatives.

Valle Isarco Highlights

Room with a View

We only had one day for our visit to Valle Isarco in Alto Adige, so the Asti methodology of “soaking and poking” wasn’t really feasible. We went for “highlights,” which is a good strategy when time is limited. I guess we took this to an extreme this time, staying at Ansitz zum Steinbock, an historic hotel and restaurant perched high above the valley in the village of Villandro, a short but steep and winding drive from Chiusa, where we were visiting the local wine cooperative (another highlight).

Elisabeth was our hostess and guide (her family owns the inn). She told us that many guests return year after year, staying for a week enjoying the comfortable facilities, the beautiful Tyrolean scenery and the food and wine. It was easy to see why.

Because the hotel had just opened for the season, the restaurant’s selections were limited. The full menu wasn’t available, only a set meal for guests. As you can see below, we did not suffer. (Much gasping was heard as each course was presented and consumed; the high elevation had nothing to do with it).

  • A melon foam (spremuta) with culatello (local prosciutto)
  • Lasagnette with fresh vegetables and pesto
  • Roast lamb, green beans with speck, celeriac puree, and bok choy
  • Millefoglie with raspberries and blueberries, yogurt cream, and house-made apple sorbet
  • A selection of local cheeses with dark honey and very intense mustard jam

Elisabeth knew that I was especially interested in Kerner, the region’s “invisible wine,” so she brought out a fantastic bottle of Abbazia de Novacella Kerner Praepositus 2010, one of the best white wines in Italy according to the Gambero Rosso guide. Walking the village, talking with people and enjoying the food and wine turned out to be good preparation for our meeting the next day with Peter Baumgartner, the President of the Valle Isarco cooperative (who happens to live in Villandro).

I must say I enjoyed this experience quite a lot, but in a different way from our Asti immersion therapy. Not everyone has the luxury of time that we had with the Rovero family. Going for the highlights isn’t the same as soaking it all in, but it is a way of learning. Perhaps one reason wine tourism is so popular is that there are so many ways to approach it.

I’m going to keep working at this wine tourism thing until I figure out the perfect way to do it.  Yes, I know. It’s a dirty job, but someone’s gotta do it.

For a more comprehensive comparison of wine tourism strategies, see George M. Taber’s 2009 book, In Search of Bacchus: Wanderings in the Wonderful World of Wine Tourism.

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Full disclosure: we were not “comped” our stays in Italy nor was I paid to write about these experiences.

Against the Tide: Globalization vs Italy’s Indigeneous Wines

The tide I’m talking about is the globalization of the wine market and I frequently hear that its ebb and flow bring in the main international wine grape varieties and the styles associated with them and wash out unique local wines. There is a grain of truth to this — one winemaker explained it to me this way. If I make poor but distinctive local wine and can’t sell it, I can blame international market forces (and not my own lax wine making) and just plant Merlot. Classic cop-out, he said.

This maybe true, but it isn’t the whole story. There is also the pipeline effect. Global markets create big pipelines that need to be filled and sometimes it is easier to fill them with a few standard wine varieties and styles than with hundreds of different small production wines. (The current movement to ship wines in bulk — in big 25,000 liter containers — and bottle in the consumer market reinforces this trend.)

And of course the demographic of wine consumption is changing, too (the who, what, where, when, how and why) with more new consumers who face a steep learning curve that sometimes works against wines that lie outside the mainstream. There are lots of pressures on winemakers today and globalization is certainly one of them.

Arguable Premise

But I’m not sure that the premise of the argument is correct. Although the wine market is much more global than in the past, it is still surprisingly local compared to many other industries, with most production sold in the country of origin. And although it is easy to spot increasing consolidation within the wine industry, it remains remarkably fragmented compared to most other international businesses.

And, to keep the momentum going, while it is easy to look at the wine wall and see acres of Cab and Chardonnay (and other “international” varieties) from all around the world, it is just as easy to note how very many distinctly local varieties are present.  It is sort of a macro-micro thing. If you look at the wine industry in terms of Rabobank’s very cool map (above) of international wine trade, it is easy to see the world defined by those big international flows, but if you look at it in terms of DeLong’s even cooler Wine Map of Italy (below), for example, the persistence of local wine markets becomes clear.

Like a Coat of Paint

We explored this global-local tension during our recent trip to Italy to attend the meetings of the American Association of Wine Economists in Bolzano. Italy is far and away the world’s largest wine exporting nation according to Global Wine Markets Statistical Compendium data, with average exports of 1,861 million liters during 2007-2009 period. France and Spain are second the third with 1,379 million liters and 1,292 million liters respectively. Australia is a distant fourth in the data set with an average of 782 million liters for the two year time period.

So, if the global tide argument holds, you would expect Italy to be covered like a layer of paint with endless hectares of international variety wine grapes. And, of course, there is a lot of Merlot, Cabernet and Chardonnay to be found in Italy along with other international standard varieties like Sauvignon, Riesling and Pinot Noir. But what stands out when you think about Italian wine is the success of indigenous wine  varieties and styles. Italy makes and sells international varieties, but the indigenous wines are what define it as a wine country.

Support Your Local Winemaker

Sometimes this success is driven by export markets (think about the popularity of Chianti and Sangiovese) but there are many successes that are really quite local in scope and stand as delicious counterexamples to the the incoming global tide theory. Let me give you three examples from our Italian fieldwork (Pignoletto, Lacrima di Morro and Ruché) saving a fourth case study (Kerner) for  a more detailed treatment in my next post.

Pignoletto is a dry white wine grown only in the hills outside of Bologna. “Lively, crisp, aromatic” is how Jancis Robinson describes it in her Guide to Wine Grapes. Pignoletto is distinctly Bolognese — grown there, made there and I think that every last drop of it is consumed there, too, since it goes so well with the rich local cuisine (almost as if they evolved together … which I guess they did).  It would be hard to beat the simple meal of salumi, cheese and bread that we had with a bottle of Pignoletto frizzante at Tamburini‘s wine bar in the Bologna central market.

Lacrima di Morro d’Alba is a distinctive red wine from the Marche region. Robinson describes is as “fast maturing, strangely scented.” Burton Anderson says that it is a “purple-crimson wine with … foxy berry-like odor and ripe plum flavor.” Apparently it fades very quickly, but it is distinctive and intense while it lasts.  It sure stood up to the very rich cuisine of Ferrara when we visited our friends in that city. We were fortunate that the restaurant owner guided us to this wine from the Mario Luchetti estate.

Ruché comes from the Piedmont and we stumbled upon it by accident (which I guess is how we usually stumble …). We were attending the annual regional culinary fair in Moncalvo, a hill town half an hour north of Asti. Thirteen “pro loco” civic groups from throughout the region set up food and wine booths in the central square and sold their distinctly local wares to a hungry luncheon crowd.

I had never heard of Ruché and honestly didn’t know what it might be until I happened upon the stand of the Castagnole Monferrato group. They were cooking with Ruché, marinating fruit in Ruché and selling it by the glass — they were obviously very proud of their local wine. I had to try it and it was great. Suddenly I saw Ruché everywhere (a common experience with a new discovery) and enjoyed a bottle at dinner in Asti that  night. “Like Nebbiolo,” Jancis Robinson writes, “the wine is headily scented and its tannins imbue it with an almost bitter aftertaste.” An interesting wine and a memorable discovery.

I think we all have these great “ah ha!” wine experiences when we travel so why am I making such a big deal about these three wines? Well, that’s the point really. Distinct, truly local wines are commonplace in Italy. What is in some ways the most global wine country is also perhaps the most local. Global and local exist side by side and if they don’t entirely support each other all the time, they aren’t necessarily constant, bitter enemies, either.

The key, I think, is local support of local wines and wine makers. That’s why these three wines have survived and sustained themselves.  I don’t think “me too” wines are capable of gathering local support.

Why does this come as such a surprise to us in the United States — why do we so easily swallow the idea of the unstoppable global tide. It is, I suppose, a legacy of prohibition, which destroyed many local wine cultures in the U.S. Wine today continues the difficult task of recovering from prohibition’s long lasting effects.

Are There Really Local American Wines?

So are there American wines that are local in the same sense of Pignoletto and Ruché? Sue asked that question as we drove out of the Asti Hills and headed north. I don’t know, I replied. Maybe. Petite Sirah is kind of a California cult wine, but it isn’t local in the same way as these Italian wines.

Here in Washington State we seem to have a thing for Lemberger, which sells out in the tasting rooms of the wineries that make it and seldom shows up outside the region. It’s an Austrian grape, but it has made its home here. Can you think of any other wines like this? Please leave a comment if you have a suggestion!

Perhaps we buy the global tide argument because it is so foreign to us? I think it would be interesting if we imported more than Italy’s wines — perhaps we could share their idea of really local wine, too.

Malbec World Day 2011

The first Malbec World Day is Sunday, April 17, 2011 and we are gearing up for it here at The Wine Economist. Plans include juicy steak and fresh asparagus along with a bottle of Malbec from Argentina.

But which one? We tasted many wonderful wines during our recent trip to Argentina and each one provokes a memory. Difficult to choose.  I went down into the cellar and grabbed a handful of likely suspects and asked Sue to make the choice.

Remembering the Alamos

Wine is good, but wine and a story (if it is the right story) is much better. That’s one reason people spend time and money on wine tourism — to get the story behind the wines and meet the people involved in their creation. In the end, Sue’s selection for Malbec World Day was all about the story.

The Alamos Selection Malbec (far right in the photo) reminds us of a dinner in Buenos Aires with our friends Scott and Janice. The parrilla’s gruff waiter grew impatient with our attempts to navigate his menu, so he just threw it away and got us to tell him what we wanted. Then he sorta threw that away too and, inspired by what the grill master did best, covered the table family-style with just what we would have ordered in the first place if we only knew how to do it. He recommended the Alamos and we went with that and were not disappointed.

OK, so maybe he was not so grumpy after all.

The Alamos story is wonderful to remember, but is it our celebration wine? No. Not because of the wine, but because of the story, which is more about our grumpy but lovable waiter and the delicious experience he provided and not quite enough about Malbec wine.

Catena Zapata?

Next up is the Catena Malbec. It conjures up the memory of our visit to Bodega Catena Zapata, which Laura Catena was kind enough to arrange for us. It was a memorable experience that included tastings of both the Luca and Catena Zapata wines with their respective winemakers. The Malbecs and other wines we tasted that day were among the very best we had in Mendoza (or probably ever will have anywhere).

So is the Catena the choice? No, but only because we might rather have a Luca wine, since that is Laura Catena’s personal winery and we owe her so much for helping us with our visit. The only Luca wine in the cellar right now is the Beso de Dante, which is a Malbec blend. As good as it is, perhaps we need a pure Malbec to celebrate its world day.

Maybe Mendel?

The Mendel Malbec is a different story. Sue was originally drawn to this winery because there are Mendels in the family and she thought we might be related. No family connection, alas, but our visits with owners Anabelle Sielecki (in Buenos Aires) and Roberto de la Mota (in Mendoza) were very warm and helpful. We learned so much through them about both Mendel wines and also the economics, politics, wine and people of Argentina.

So it this Sue’s choice? No, she said. The wine is great and the meetings unforgettable, but the story is too personal for an “official” holiday like Malbec World Day. Save the Mendel for birthdays and anniversaries. Hard to argue with that sentiment.

So that leaves the Achaval-Ferrer as Sue’s Malbec Day choice — but not by default. The story of our visit to this winery is, more than any of the others, about the wine itself and so the perfect choice for this celebration.

An Intense Experience

The tasting begins: Sue took this photo of Julian, Mike, Scott & Janice at Achaval-Ferrer.

Santiago Achaval was called away to the U.S. for a marketing meeting (something we obviously understand here at The Wine Economist), so his assistant Julian organized a special tasting for us where we sampled each of their Malbec wines from both barrel and bottle and then tasted each of the component wines of the Quimera blend alongside the finished wine. Visitors stared at us in wonder as the table filled with bottles and glasses.

As a special treat, Santiago had arranged for us to taste barrel samples of the Hand of God wine that he is making in partnership with Jon Staenberg (who kindly introduced me to Santiago for the purpose of this visit). This made the visit all the more memorable.

I cannot imagine a more intense examination of Argentinean Malbec terroir, which makes the Achaval-Ferrer our perfect wine for this year’s Malbec World Day celebration!

Bodegas Salentein: World Class Wine Tourism in Mendoza

Arriving at the hospitality center and Killka art museum.

We came to Bodegas Salentein because I wanted to see the state of the art in wine tourism in Argentina. Wine tourism is a big and growing business and I wanted to gauge its development here in Mendoza.

Wine tourism is increasingly important on both sides of the market. Many consumers look for ways to deepen their wine experience by visiting the places, meeting the faces and developing a personal relationship with wine. Producers have much to gain, too. Wine is a relationship business and meeting consumers, distributors and wine critics at the winery is an effective way to make or maintain these connections. Direct (and full price) cellar door sales are a priority, too, as well as the opportunity to exploit other revenue streams ranging from t-shirts and corkscrews to space rental for special events like weddings and conferences. (George Taber’s book, In Search of Bacchus, is a highly readable examination of this global industry.)

Bodegas Salentein provides the most complete wine tourism experience that we found in the Mendoza region. It is a world class operation and a tribute to the “if you build it they will come” school of thought. As you look at the photos here, imagine how empty the landscape would have appeared just a dozen short years ago and what a miracle it is that thousands of wine tourists now flock here each year to visit Salentein and the other spectacular wineries that followed in its wake.

Arrivals/Departures

You approach Salentein, located in the Valle de Uco about 90 minutes by car south of Mendoza city, by driving up the long  entry road shown above. You arrive at the main hospitality center, which contains a reception center, gift shop, restaurant and Killka, a spectacular modern art museum built to display part of the owner’s collection.  Another beautiful building, the  “Chapel of Gratitude,”  is just down the road.

The winery.

Incredibly, you have not yet arrived at the winery. To get there you pass through the reception center and walk down another dramatic lane (this time through a vineyard) to arrive at one of two wine production facilities on the property.  The photos here don’t really do justice to the experience, so I have embedded a short video below that includes some aerial footage  — scroll down to check it out.

The winery’s architecture is even more impressive than the museum’s, especially inside, where winemaking is organized around the “cathedral of wine” barrel room, laid out like a cross around a mosaic compass rose. Entering the vast space, you really do feel like you are in a cathedral.  I could hear the click, click, click of our friend Scott’s camera as he tried to capture every line and curve of the stunning building’s architecture.

Posada Salentein completes the package with a 16-room inn and gourmet restaurant that serves creative cuisine paired with estate wines. It is hard to image a better way to visit the Valle de Uco than to stay here among the vines and to exploit the restaurant menu to answer burning questions such as “how does Malbec go with fresh local trout?” (Perfectly, as it happens, based on our experience.)

The inn and restaurant.

Bodegas Salentein hosts 25,000 to 30,000 per year according to Lorena Cepparo, who heads the Hospitality and Tourism Business Development department. Salentein is a destination winery that is high on the hit list for every Valle de Uco wine tourist (O. Fournier is another “must see”  in the area.)

Dutch Treat

The typical “day tripper” experience, according to Lorena, involves a tour, tasting of three wines and lunch at the restaurant — an appealing combination.  But the basic package is just a start and can be customized in many ways depending upon the particular interests of visitors.  International visitors come from the winery’s main export markets: the U.S., Brazil, Canada and the Netherlands.

The Netherlands? Well, yes. Lorena explained. The winery’s owner is Dutch (Salentein is the name of a Dutch estate) — click to visit Mundo Salentein, the ambitious Dutch website.  And Holland’s Princess Máxima is from Argentina, Lorena said, so the Dutch are understandably crazy about all things Argentine. Who can blame them?

It seems to me that Bodegas Salentein sets a high standard for wine tourism here in Mendoza and, as the first destination winery built in the Uco Valley, it has inspired others to try to match or exceed their facilities and services. Bórmida & Yanzó, the local architect firm that designed Salentein, has gone on to create an incredible collection facilities here (click on the link to see what I mean).  The contrast between their cutting edge architecture and the starkness of the high desert vineyards makes wine tourism here a unique experience.

But Wait … There’s More

I went to Bodegas Salentein looking for a wine tourism story and I found it. Salentein is an audacious bet on the wine tourism concept in the the relatively remote Valle de Uco.

But as I talked with Loren, COO Andrés Arena and legendary (for his work at Catena Zapata) winemaker José Antonio Galante, I began to realize there there is much much more to Salentein than the beautiful buildings and sophisticated visitor experience. Especially now that the talented Galante is on board as winemaker, Salentein’s ambition continues to soar.

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Bodegas Salentein from John Stevens on Vimeo.

Thanks to everyone at Bodegas Salentein for showing us their facilities and answering all of our questions. Special thanks to Andrés Arena, Chief Operating Office, José Antonio Galante,  Chief Winemaker and Lorena Cepparo, Chief of the Office of Hospitality and Tourism Business Development.

Extreme Wine: A Certain Idea of Malbec


One of my goals in coming to Mendoza was to add to my collection of Extreme Wine stories (yes, I’m working on another book). I was thinking that the story would be the Great Malbec Boom, one of the most extreme regional wine surges in recent years.

The Malbec boom may still make my extreme wine list, but a fellow wine economist suggested a different entry: Tempus Alba‘s  ambitious project to create an extreme wine, one that uniquely captures the essence of Malbec.  Here’s the story of Vero Malbec.

One Hundred Years of Winegrowing

The Biondolillo family has been in the winegrowing business in Mendoza for more than 100 years. This means that they have lived through booms and crises, both in the wine industry and in the Argentinean economy more generally. Aldo Biondolillo, who holds a Ph.D. in Economics from the University of Minnesota, is the third generation to make a living this way. His sons Leonardo and Mariano are in the family business, too, and there is a very young fifth generation in the wings (if you look closely you can see their fingerprints on the wine label in the video above). Theirs is the kind of business that necessarily looks to the long run.

When Aldo began the Tempus Alba project in the 1990’s he was looking for a way for his family to continue the winegrowing tradition well into the future. He knew that they couldn’t live on grape sales alone and becoming a bulk wine producer would be a dead end road. Commodity pricing — of grapes or bulk wine — often puts an emphasis on cost more than quality – and there is always some one who will charge less.  Economic theory teaches that product differentiation is key to escaping the commodity trap. But how?

Aldo’s project is ambitious: to create not just another good Malbec, but a different idea of Malbec.

His method is to isolate the purest or perhaps just the best Malbec vines in the region from among the many different clones that have been planted here over the years. The goal is to identify the truest clones and, in the long run, to make them available to other wineries who could join a circle of producers making unique wines – unique in terms of the particular grape clones and then unique once again as expressions of their respective terroir.

In Malbec Veritas?

And so Aldo and family began, planting 800 different Malbec cuttings in the Mother Block. The 800 vines were narrowed in stages to 589 vines and then finally 20 by teams of experts. After 10 years of hard work, the project’s first commercial Malbec was made in 2007.

It is called Vero Malbec (vero is Italian for truth, although the letters are also the initials of Aldo’s grandchildren). The Biondolillo do not claim that it is the original Malbec brought over from France or The One True Malbec. It is their version of the truth, seen from their family’s particular 100 year perspective.

Everyone knows that I don’t rate wines or give tasting notes, but I found the Biondolillo’s version of the truth very appealing (as have a number of wine critics). It will be interesting to see how this wine develops over several vintages. It will be even more interesting if Aldo’s dream of a winemaking circle evolves, so that a group of Mendoza winemakers adopt the Tempus Alba clones and produce their own unique wines, perhaps along the lines of the Coro Mendocino project that I wrote about a while back. (Hmmm … they could call it Vero Mendocino!)

Our visit to Tempus Alba’s beautiful winery in Maipu was informative in several respects. First, It was interesting to see a project that is at once so scientifically ambitious (the labs and the clones)  and, through the winemakers’ circle idea, so socially progressive. Although there is a lot of plant science employed here, however, the work to narrow down the cuttings was done using nose and palate, not by sequencing grape  DNA.

I accused Aldo of being an empiricist in his search for true Malbec and someone in the group said, “Well of course … he’s an economist.” Aldo and I reacted in the same instant, “No, no, no!” we said in unison, shaking our fingers. We know that most economists are more comfortable with theories that with facts. (It is an old saying in economics, for example, that a theory cannot be refuted by facts – only by a more appealing theory will do the job). Wine theories are well and good, but it’s what’s in the bottle that really counts.

Stop and Think

I was also fascinated by the visitors to Tempus Alba. The other wineries we visited in Mendoza were fairly remote and sometimes difficult to find; most had guarded gates meant to restrict entry to those with pre-arranged tours. Tempus Alba’s winery is in the Maipu valley,  an area with lots of wineries and a good many backpacker hostels. The courtyard was filled with the rental bikes of the 20-somethings who travel from winery to winery as long as they can manage to stay upright. The action in the restaurant and on the deck overlooking the vineyard was young, lively and fun.

I’m not sure the 100+ per day biking visitors (a big wine tourist number by Mendoza standards) buy much wine, but they appear to have a great wine experience – almost a unique one it seems to me. The self-guided tour shows them the winery, teaches some viticultural science, and even exposes them to the family’s “dogma” or guiding principles. Then it is up to the sunny deck to taste the wines and have a bite to eat. Many will be untouched and just enjoy the good wine, food and company, but some will stop and think, and that seems to be the idea behind Tempus Alba’s whole approach.

Is Tempus Alba’s Vero Malbec really unique? I won’t judge the wine, but certainly the idea is completely different and a potentially important addition to the rich mosaic of  Mendoza wine.

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Update: Leo Biondolillo writes

“Answering your question of Is Tempus Alba’s Vero Malbec really unique? in my personal opinion, every wine is unique or every good wine must be unique… that is the magnificent wine world.”

Vino Ogopogo: Wine Tourism Okanagan Style

We recently returned from an “extreme wine” research trip to the surprising Okanagan wine region in British Columbia (click here to read part one of the series).

Surprising? Well, many U.S. wine drinkers find the very idea of Canadian wine surprising (ice wines apart), which is understandable since only a handful of wineries have successfully navigated the process to get distribution south of the border. The wines themselves hold many surprises, if you can find them.

And then there are the wine tourism opportunities. Wow! For a lot of people, this will be the biggest  surprise of all.

On the Wine Tourist Trail

Wine tourism has become big business as enthusiasts seek closer links to their favorite wineries, wine producers try to make more high margin direct sales and the hospitality industry has embraced the wine tourism trend. George Taber has written a fascinating book, In Search of Bacchus, that surveys the global wine tourist scene and gives a sense of the industry’s rising profile.

Wine tourism is a naturally appealing — even if you omit the wine! — because vineyards and wineries are often located in areas of real scenic beauty. But wine tourism in many areas has been slow to develop because vineyards are agricultural zones often  lacking in the expected tourist infrastructure and amenities. And at some point as more people arrive there is tension between farming and tourism. The debate over the Napa wine train captures some of this problem.

Vino Ogopogo

The Okanagan wine region in British Columbia has a decided advantage over most winegrowing regions. Usually the wine comes first and then the tourist infrastructure slowly develops. It’s the other way ’round here. The Okanagan region has spectacular scenery with four season sports and recreation opportunities that have long attracted visitors. At the center of it all is beautiful Lake Okanagan, a long narrow north-south body of water that feels like a fjord and has just about everything a tourist might desire, including a resident Lake Monster named Ogopogo.

Wine grapes are known to love to look down on lakes and rivers and so do people, of course. So the Okanagan developed its tourist infrastructure long before the current wine boom (which I’ll discuss in an upcoming blog post). We benefited from this timely development on our trip, staying right on the lake at the Summerland Waterfront Resort in Summerland, B.C. and enjoying meals made from regional ingredients at Local, a restaurant just next door. Sipping wine in the evening with the fireplace roaring, looking out across the lake to the vineyards on the Naramata Bench — well wine tourism does not get much better than this.

Raising the Stakes

As this region’s wine industry developed from the 1990s on, many wineries made very significant investments in wine tourist facilities — partly, I think, because of the need to compete with and complement the amenities already here in order to attract tourist business.

Direct sales of the kind that wine tourists provide are extremely important to wineries in this region. Every wine maker I talked to noted the cost and difficulty of getting distribution in other Candadian provinces to say nothing of entering the U.S. market. Direct sales are therefore key and tourists from Vancouver in the west, Alberta in the east and the U.S. down south are a big part of that business.

Burrowing Owl Estate Winery in Oliver a good example of a B.C. destination winery. Perched on a hillside, it is a beautiful facility in a great location that includes the winery, a tasting room, restaurant and an inn with a swimming pool. A must stop on the wine tourist trail, they count on cellar door sales to move most of  their substantial annual production.

Wine economics note: tasting room fees are still very low in this region — amazingly low for anyone who has visited Napa Valley lately. Most of the wineries I visited offered free tastings for a limited number of wines. At Burrowing Owl, a $2 donation was encouraged — the money goes to the a nature conservancy group.

Top of the World

The ultimate wine tourist destination in the Okanagan Valley must be Mission Hill Winery. Inspired by Robert Mondavi’s iconic winery in Oakville, Mission Hill sits atop a peak and looks out over the lake. The winery is stunning, with an entry arch that immediately made me think of the Mondavi winery and a soaring bell tower. Everything inside is strictly first class, too, including comprehensive tours that end with sommelier-led tastings from your souvenir Riedel glass.

As beautiful as the building is, I don’t seem to have taken any photos of it. I guess I couldn’t resist the view (shown above) looking down over vineyards to the lake below. I wasn’t alone: members of a photography club were buzzing around like bees making images of the vineyards, grapes, rose bushes, bell tower and, inevitably and unintentionally, each other.

Mission Hill is the cherry on the Okanagan wine tourism cake. Altogether, this wine region is quite a treat and sure to grow in popularity as the word gets out. We’ll be back — possibly staying at one of the guest ranches in the area, horseback riding in the morning and wine touring in the afternoon, or perhaps taking advantage of vineyard lodgings like the ones at Working Horse Winery.

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This is the second of my “extreme wine” reports on the Okanagan wine scene. Watch for the final post (on the region’s future) in a few days.

Stags Leap Through the Looking Glass

This week I’m reporting on my research expedition to Napa Valley, where I attended the Stags Leap District Winegrowers Association Vineyard to Vintner’s (V2V) event and ventured “through the looking glass” to consider the past, present and future of wine.

My last post ended with a question: Stags Leap was still an emerging region when I visited in 1980, but it was already attracting a great deal of attention and international investment. Would the influx of big money into the Stags Leap District destroy its great wines or would the terroirists managed to save them? Here’s what I found out.

Follow the Money

The big money certainly arrived and you can see it today in the wonderful facilities that the wineries have created.

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars was a tiny one-building operation when I visited there 30 years ago. Now that original structure with its oak doors is Building 1 on an expanded campus of facilities that includes a vast arched barrel room and a network of tunnels for barrel storage (I’ve heard these called wunnels — wine tunnels). Everything is sleek and custom made for entertaining clients and visitors as well as making wine.

The barrel room at Stag's Leap Wine Cellars is gently curved like a barrel stave. The barrels are stacked five deep.

Warren Winiarski is responsible for these changes, but he doesn’t own Stag’s Leap any more. He sold out in 2007 to Italy’s Antinori family. I’ve read that he figured he could trust the Antinori to uphold his vision of wine.

The Antinori partnered with Ste Michelle Wine Estates (SMWE) of Washington State, who they trusted because of their successful joint venture on Red Mountain, Col Solare. (SMWE is owned by Altria, a corporation that also owns Phillip Morris and U.S. Smokeless Tobacco.)

Changing Hands

Stag’s Leap is not the only winery in the district to be acquired big business. Chimney Rock is now owned by The Terlato Wine Group, a company that owns several notable U.S. wineries and is a major force in wine distribution (they represent Gaja and Santa Margherita wines from Italy, for example).

Pine Ridge Winery, which produced its first vintage in 1978,  was acquired by the Leucadia National Corporation in 1991, which also owns Archery Summit in Oregon but is is best understood as a diversified holding company investing in manufacturing, telecommunications, oil and gas drilling gaming, entertainment and real estate activities.

So the big money did in fact come to Stags Leap and the many of the wineries they created are rather grand – as far from the simple cellar that I visited 30 years ago as can be imagined.

The Economic Factor

Dinner at Stag's Leap Wine Cellars

Economics dictated the large scale and luxurious feel of many of today’s Stags Leap District wineries. Winemaking is capital intensive, so it is important to produce in volume. Stags Leap AVA Cabernet Sauvignon (necessarily limited in supply by the AVA’s tiny size) is often therefore produced alongside higher volume “Napa Valley” wines, for example, and Chardonnays from Carneros grapes in order to get volumes up to an economic level. Nothing wrong with that.

The plush feel of the wineries themselves, with plenty of space for entertaining, events and on-site culinary staff, is a product of the practicalities of distribution. Direct sales – to cellar visitors and wine club members – yield more revenue than restaurant and retail sales that must make their way through the tortuous and costly three-tier distribution system. So it is important to build and establish direct-sale personal relationships and to provide appropriate winery facilities.

One winery’s wine club manager told me that nearly 70% of sales came through this direct channel. Wow! That’s a lot of revenue and worth a substantial investment. So it is important to both make good wine and to create a memorable winery experience. Understandable.

But what happens to the wine in the process? Is there so much focus on image and marketing that the wines themselves are an afterthought?

The Mondovino hypothesis

My answer, based on an intense weekend in Stags Leap, is that it ain’t necessarily so. Sure, we tasted a couple of wines (I won’t name the makers) that seemed like they were made to catch the attention of critics more than to capture a sense of place, but for the most part the wines we sampled seemed to be authentic variations on a Stags Leap theme. And the winemakers we talked to spoke with conviction of wine made in the vineyard, not the advertising agency.

Can big multinational money coexist with an authentic idea of wine? Yes, at least in Stags Leap. (Robert Parker goes further — he seems to think that the Antinori/Ste Michelle money and technical attention might actually restore the  faded — according to him — glory of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars.)

So the way I framed my question — money, business and globalization versus terroir — was plain wrong. Money, marketing and multinationals doesn’t guarantee great wine, but it doesn’t make it impossible, either. Wine is too complicated for that.

The pessimistic Mondovino hypothesis that the wine business inevitably destroys wine itself doesn’t always hold. I’m not saying this is true everywhere, but I am quite sure that the somewhereness of Stags Leap has survived these 30 years.

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Thanks to the Stags Leap District Growers Association for inviting us to attend the Vineyard to Vintner program. Thanks as well to Russell Weiss (Silverado), Mark Smith and Jim Duane (Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars), Elizabeth Vianna (Chimney Rock), Tim Dolven (Steltzner), Jeff Virnig (Robert Sinskey) and Michael Beaulac (Pine Ridge) conversations and help in various ways.

Wine Economist in Wonderland

Alice entered Wonderland by jumping down a rabbit hole. I got there by walking through this doorway.

It happened 30 years ago and inside the door I met a famous winemaker who was as interested in economics was I was in wine. The result of our chance conversation was my fascination with wine economics and, ultimately, this blog.

Through the Oak Door

This is not an ordinary door. It is made from the planks of a huge oak cask. I rediscovered it a few days ago when I visited Napa Valley to attend the annual Stags Leap District Winegrowers Vineyard to Vintner (V2V) seminar, tasting and celebration.

The Stags Leap AVA can understandably be viewed as Wonderland by wine lovers. It is famous for its distinctive Cabernet Sauvignon wines, including some of the ones that did so well in the famous 1976 Judgment of Paris commemorated in George Taber’s excellent book of that name and the more recent somewhat dubious but nearly always entertaining film, Bottle Shock.

I was in Stags Leap at the invitation of the growers association to attend the events and to consider how wine has changed in 30 years, using the terroir of this region as my test bed.

One Side Makes You Grow Larger …

It was hard to know how Stags Leap and its wines would develop when I first opened the door thirty years ago.  There were a lot of indications that the area might turn into what some critics say the whole of Napa Valley has become — the over-commercialized Disneyland of wine.

Although it was only really “discovered” as a winegrowing area in the early 1970s, a lot of money was already focused on Stags Leap when I made my first visit. Clos du Val (first vintage in 1972) was the result of a collaboration between American businessman and wine industry investor John Goelet and Bordeaux winemaker Bernard Porter. It was just the sort of thing that gives Mondovino fans screaming nightmares.

Chimney Rock Winery (1980) looks like a South African Cape Dutch estate because its founder Sheldon “Hack” Wilson made his money selling Pepsi Cola in South Africa. He was the largest volume Pepsi bottler in the world at one point, according to my copy of James Halliday’s Wine Atlas of California.

Silverado Vineyards (1981) — a beautiful winery with a beautiful view — unintentionally reinforces the Disneyland theme because the family of Walt Disney built it, starting with a vineyard purchase in 1976 and continuing today.

It was easy to imagine in 1980 that this trend would continue — and the wines would suffer — as more money flooded into the tiny Stags Leap area.

… And the Other Makes You Grow Smaller

But capital is not always blind (to paraphrase Walter Bagehot). Some of the early Stags Leap investors were the sort of people I have labeled terroirists who value wine for its somewhereness.

I suppose that Dick Steltzner would fit into this group. An experienced viticulturalist, he planted what might have been the first vineyard at the base of the Stags Leap palisade in 1965, finally making his own wine at Steltzner Vineyards in 1977.

Warren Winiarski, the guy who won the red wine competition in the 1976 Paris tasting with his Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon, strikes me as a terroirist, too, although perhaps he was just a stubborn, philosophical wine perfectionist. So all the pieces were in place for a battle for the soul of Stags Leap wine.

And Now Which is Which?

Looking back to 1980, it seems like it could have gone either way. Globalization money and media creating Coca Cola wine … or the revenge of the terroirists, preserving the distinctive quality of Stags Leap.

How did the story turn out? Check back in a few days to find out what I think I learned from my fieldwork.

Stag’s {Stags’} (Stags) Leap

The Stags Leap District Winegrowers Association has invited us to their  V2V (Vineyard to Vintner) program later this month and we are looking forward to the event.

I have a particular interest in the Stags Leap District. My study of wine economics can be directly traced to a conversation with one of this area’s leading winemakers in his cellar many years ago. I’m looking forward to this focused opportunity to learn more about the Stags Leap District today and see what has changed since my last visit.

Money, Wine and Lawyers

The first stage of my research to prepare for the Stags Leap trip took an unexpected turn that reminded me of Warren Zevon’s song “Lawyers, Guns and Money.” Most stories of famous wine regions are about places, faces and wine. They start with places (the terroir), then move to faces (of the famous winemakers who helped establish the region’s reputation) and end with the wines themselves.

Stags Leap AVA certainly has the terroir. The district, about six miles north of Napa on the Silverado Road, is marked by a 1200 foot vertical basalt palisade that is both landmark and a source of the particular soil and microclimate that helps define the district. The growing season is longer in Stags Leap than in other parts of Napa Valley, with bud break coming two weeks earlier. The grapes ripen more slowly during their longer time on the vine, which seems to have a positive effect.

Stags Leap has it famous wine faces, too. The most notable is Warren Winiasrski of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. A former lecturer in Greek at the University of Chicago School of Social Thought, he was one of the early movers in Stags Leap. His second vintage, a 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon, was declared the red wine winner at the famous 1976 “Judgment of Paris” wine tasting that Steven Spurrier organized to test California wines against the French originals.  (You know about this event if you’ve read George B. Taber’s excellent book on the subject or seen the fictionalized film version, Bottle Shock.)

(Incredibly, the winning wine was made with grapes from three year old vines — infants! Unfortunately, according to my sources here, the vineyard was not in the Stags Leap District but rather farther north in Napa Valley. It established the winery’s and the region’s reputations at once.)

There is even a hallmark Stags Leap style — “perfumey fruit” according to Bruce Cass, although not every wine is made in a way that highlights this.

Lawyers, Wine and Grammar

So where do the lawyers come in? Well, the first thing I did when I started this project was to grab my copy of James Halliday’s classic Wine Atlas of California. Halliday devotes seven pages to Stags Leap places and faces and its distinctive Cabernet Sauvignon wines. But he begins his report with the most controversial part of the AVA’s history: its name and the legal battle over the the valuable intellectual property rights (IPRs) associated with it.

The area takes its name from the legend of a prodigious jump that a stag (or maybe several stags) took on the palisade while fleeing hunters. Warren Winiarski naturally included this colorful reference in the name of his winery, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, when he founded the operation in 1972.

But so did Carl Dounami, who started founded Stags’ Leap Winery just up the road, also in 1972.  Two wineries, two strong personalities — they battled for years over the right to the Stag’s / Stags’ Leap name. More than an apostrophe separated them, of course, although any grammarian can tell you that where the apostrophe is placed makes all the difference.

The right to label your wine with some variation of Stag’s/Stags’ Leap had obvious economic advantages and both winemakers wanted clear title to the designation. The IPR battle reemerged and intensified when the AVA was formed and its geographic lines drawn.

Clashing economic interests made the process of choosing a name and drawing AVA lines particularly contentious, according to Halliday. The compromise name — Stags Leap (no apostrophe anywhere, purely plural, nowhere possessive) settled the legal squabble, leaving the real task clear: making great wine.

Challenges Old & New

The old wine economics story of Stags Leap was about intellectual property. The new one — the one I want to explore when I visit later this month — is how the winegrowers are dealing with the current economic challenge and will respond to the future ones.

The current challenge, of course, is the continuing economic crisis, which has hit some upscale producers especially hard.

The future challenges? The future is hard to predict, but I’d suggest globalization (with its many threats and opportunities) and climate change, which would seem to be an especially scary prospect for a micro-region like Stags Leap.  But maybe I’m missing an even bigger story? I guess I’ll have to go there and find out!

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Here’s Warren Zevon performing “Lawyers, Guns and Money.”  Feel free to sing along, adding wine and grammar references as necessary. Enjoy!

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