The Wine World Comes to Walla Walla

OK, so The World — the whole world! — is not really coming to Walla Walla, the lively wine town in Southeast Washington State, but the city and AVA are hosting two events that promise to draw participants from far and wide. Sue and I will be attending both, so we thought we’d fill you in.

The World of Syrah

2014 is the Walla Walla AVA’s 30th birthday and they are marking the occasion with a three-day program called Celebrate Walla Walla Valley Wine: The World of Syrah on June 19-21, 2014. Click on the link for details.

Walla Walla Syrah will be explored through a series of tastings, talks and dinners.  The inclusion of winemakers from outside the region (including Gary Mills from Australia’s Jamsheed winery) gives the event a global flair, but it must be said that the Walla Walla industry is pretty globalized itself, with influences and investment from the world over.

The Long Shadows winery, for example, features famous partner/flying winemakers from around the world, each of whom makes one wine in a distinctive style from Washington grapes. Michel Rolland, John Duval and Armin Diel are among the international winemakers here.

Some of the best known resident names in Walla Walla wine are international, too, such as Giles Nicault, Jean-Françoise Pellet, Marie-Eve Gilla and Christophe Baron. Walla Walla in intensely local and extremely global at the same time — just what I like!

Sue and I are fortunate to be part of a media group that will go behind he scenes to visit the vineyards, meet the wine people and get to know both the region’s Syrahs and its other wines as well. We are looking forward to the experience.

Wine Economists in Walla Walla

The American Association of Wine Economists will be in town June 22-25 for their annual meetings and we are looking forward to a lot of interesting papers and presentations. I expect to greet fellow wine economists from every continent except Antarctica at the meetings!

Click here to download the conference program, which includes dozens of presentations, a lecture on the region’s terroirs by geologist Kevin Pogue, a panel discussion of U.S. wine market regulation and a festive dinner at the Long Shadows winery.

The World of Syrah and the wine economists back-to-back meetings looks like a great opportunity for me to catch up with the wine’s global-local dynamic and for the world to take a closer look at this dynamic region. Look for future columns about what I learn.

Sniff, Swirl & Soak? Hanoi’s Healthful Red Wine Baths

bath2It seems like the news is full of reports about the health effects of wine consumption and, given the impact that 60 Minutes’s broadcast of “The French Paradox” segment (see below) had back in 1991, I think we need to take them seriously, both from a pure health standpoint and because of their possible economic impacts.

Heart Disease, Tooth Decay

There have been a number of recent studies that seem to contradict the finding that red wine consumption has clear health benefits — bad news for wine drinkers.

But then a Spanish-Swiss team found that red wine discourages tooth decay, which pushes the need back toward the plus side for wine.

And now this. Ali Hoover, The Wine Economist’s chief Hanoi correspondent, has discovered that wine is not just good for you when you drink it, it is even beneficial when you just sit in a tub of it.

Clinical Trials?

Or at least that’s the claim made by this Vietnamese spa, which features a red wine bath treatment along with its other services. Ali has not tried the wine bath yet, but I suppose it is just a matter of time before she takes the plunge. Check out the list of health benefits she found on the spa’s menu. Fight cancer, stroke, diabetes and high cholesterol and get long life and beautiful skin in the process. Who could resist and the price is right at about $20 for an hour’s soak.

Ali verified that the wine is the local Vang Dalat, which I suppose adds to the authenticity of the experience.  No tasting notes so far, or sitting notes either. I have tried the Vang Dalat white wine, but I only drank it and didn’t sit in it. No experience with the red wine at all. I’m not sure if all the health claims are supported by scientific evidence. Early days in this important research. We’ll keep you informed! Who knows — could be the next big thing!

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Special thanks to Ali for this discovery. Readers: please comment with details if  you’ve taken a wine bath!

Enthralled by Wine Wars! Jerry Lockspeiser’s Review

I was surprised to discover a nice review of my books Wine Wars and Extreme Wine penned by Jerry Lockspeiser when I checked the Harpers.co.uk website this morning.

The column is titled “Jerry Lockeiser is enthralled by the wine business insights of Mike Veseth.” Wow!

Thanks to Jerry for his kind words and gentle critique. Click on the link above to read the review.

 

Mostosa the Debt-Slayer: Exploring the Native Wine Grapes of Italy

Ian D’Agata, Native Wine Grapes of Italy. University of California Press, 2014.

I really didn’t think there was much left to be said about wine grape varieties after Jancis Robinson and her team published Wine Grapes, their magisterial analysis of 1365 different grape varieties. (There’s a nifty Kindle version of this 2012 volume available now for you e-Book fans.)

Been There, Done That?

So I was skeptical when this big book arrived in the mail — it looked like a lot of pages and text given that the subject is just one country, even one as viticulturally complicated as Italy. Was there really enough new and interesting to justify adding a volume like this to my already-groaning wine bookshelf.

Well, I am pleased to say that I was wrong to be such a skeptic and that I find Ian D’Agata’s just released book to be detailed, interesting and original and I recommend to anyone interested in Italian wines or the topic of native wine grapes generally. It is a seriously fascinating read.

The book begins with two chapters that set the stage then drills down through the layers  starting with major grape groups and families (familiar names to most of us), moving on to major native and traditional grape varieties (less familiar names here), “little known” (not lesser or minor) grape varieties, and then by a brief chapter on “crossings.”

Italy Beyond the Usual Suspects

Suspicious of how much there might be to learn, I started with three grape varieties that I know pretty well and have written about, Pignoletto from Emilia-Romanga, Lacrima from Marche and Piedmont’s Ruché. Reading through the entries was a humbling experience because there was so much more to know about these grapes and the wines produced from them than I ever imagined.

The grape variety entries are detailed and very personal, which makes them a pleasure to read, with notes about specific producers and occasional specific wine recommendation. The notes on the major grape varieties such as Sangiovese and Nebbiolo are particularly detailed and informative, as you would expect, but what about the less-known grapes?

Well, there are dozens of them analyzed here, so I decided to try to narrow the focus be reading only the entries for grapes from Emilia-Romagna —  I am somewhat less ignorant of this region than other parts of Italy because I lived for a time in Bologna when I taught at the Johns Hopkins center there.

Mostosa the Debt-Slayer

The list of little known grapes from this area was still very long and in some cases just a few rows of vines remained.  D’Agata treats each carefully and occasionally pleads for someone to step in and save a promising grape variety from extinction. Obviously one purpose of the book is to raise awareness of these grapes and the wines made from them and to support those who seek to preserve them.

My favorite “lesser known” grape variety? It has to be Mostosa, so named it is said because of the large quantities of must (mosto) that it produces and the large quantities of wine that result. A productive grape, you might say, and perhaps for that reason is sometimes associated with a wine known as Pagadebit (debt-payer).  Fine wine or Chateau Cash Flow? I’ve gotta get back to Bologna to find out.

D’Agata’s book caught me by surprise and has earned a place on this skeptic’s wine book wall. I can’t wait to take it with me to Italy and let it guide me to some fascinating new experiences.

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If you find this interesting you might want to check out De Long’s Wine Map of Italy – beautiful and informative.

Here’s That Rainy Day: Wine Touring in Porto

I had one free day during my recent visit to Porto and as much as I wanted to go up the Douro to the vineyards, a  torrential downpour kept me in the city. So I set out to see what sort of wine tourism experience Porto had to offer and I learned a lot. Here is my report.

Sign of The Don

There is much to see and do in Porto itself, but serious wine tourists need to cross the bridge spanning the Douro and enter Vila Nova de Gaia where the Port houses are found lined up along the river and up the hillside.

The riverside was brightly decorated — a welcome touch given the weather — and featured many of  the small boats that traditionally transported the wines from the vineyard areas down to the city, where they are aged and blended and sent to market. The wines are moved by more modern means today, although there is still a gala race, with much honor to the Port house with the winning boat.

My first stop was Quinta do Noval, where I took refuge from the rain and tasted through the wines while drying out. I have to say that there cannot be a better way to warm up than this! No tour or museum or sophistical wine tourist presentation at this stop — just nice wines, friendly and well-informed staff.

My next stop was Sandeman, one of the oldest and best known Port houses.  You see “The Don,” the famous Sandeman logo, everywhere in Porto. Founded in 1790 by George Sandeman, a Scottish wine merchant, Sandeman has interests both in Portugal (Port) and Spain (Sherry). The Don’s distinctive outfit pays tribute to both sides of the business — the Spanish hat paired with the cape worn by university students then and  now in Porto (I saw them myself on exam day). If you thought the logo was a tribute to Zoro, think again.

Tree Ages of Port

The wine tourism experience at Sandeman begins as you enter the house, which feels and smells exactly like what it is — a great old warehouse where wines wait patiently in their barrels, often for decades, for the moment when they will be bottled and go to market. Very atmospheric, immediately communicating a sense of time and place (much like the vintage tv advertisement below).

The first stop once you’ve come through the great doors is a colorful museum dedicated to Sandeman’s great success in branding and marketing. The Don must be one of the most distinctive and instantly recognizable trademarks in wine and the museum tells the icon’s story from the first images in 1928 through the present day. It’s an art exhibit at heart, but with a commercial agenda and it is interesting to see how the images and messages evolved over the years.

Next came the tour through the big building. The young woman who guided us was dressed as The Don, of course, but she was more professor than student as she made sure, though example and strategic repetition, that we all understood the nature of the different types of Port — Vintage, LBV, Tawny and so on — how they are made and how they are best consumed. She was very skilled at bringing her students into the story.

Wine Tourism Keys

Walking through the barrel rooms was like walking back in history (which is what we were doing, I suppose), but this is a working operation not a museum and we would have seen the cellar hands going about their business if it hadn’t been Sunday. The tour ended with an opportunity to taste a couple of wines at long tables adjacent to the cellar door sales room and gift shop.

I spent some time talking with a family from Tokyo who were making a European tour and had spent three days in Porto, enjoying experiences like this. Each of the Port houses seems to tell its story in a different way, some focusing on their history, others on the production process. Many, like Sandeman and Graham’s, offer a variety of tasting experiences in addition to the basic tour. Port pairing seminars (cheese, chocolate) are popular, for example, as well as opportunities to taste Tawny Port blends of 10, 20 and 40 years or more. Something for everyone and a satisfying experience even on a sunny day, I’ll bet.

What should a wine tourism experience do? I think of wine as a relationship business and a winery or tasting room visit succeeds when it helps establish new relationships and deepen or renews existing ones. From the tourists’ point of view, it should be enjoyable and informative — and of course offer the opportunity to taste new wines or to share familiar ones with traveling companions and provide stories to tell the folks back home.

From a producer viewpoint, the goals are to get visitors to slow down and absorb the message and this of course requires that there actually be a coherent message presented (too often it seems the objective is simply to attract numbers of visitors). Cellar door sales and wine club memberships are obviously important, too, but only come if the first goals are met.

The Sandeman experience and others like it in Porto succeed from both standpoints. Certainly there was clear and coherent messaging on my tour — about both Port the category, Ports (the various types of Port wines) and the Sandeman brand in particular. (How can you miss that when your tour guide is costumed like the company logo?) When it works it really works. No wonder the major Port houses have invested so much in wine tourism as a way develop their international brands.

Little Frenchie: A Culinary Side-Trip

Soon it was lunchtime and I could not really expect to top the meal I had the day before at Vinum, the great restaurant up the hill at Graham’s, so instead I went for the distinctive meal of Porto: the Francesinha or “Little Frenchie” sandwich.

My Francesinha started with thin layers of cheese on the plate, which was topped with white bread and then roast pork, sliced ham, a bit of chorizo, more cheese, another slice of bread, more cheese, and then a thin reddish beer-based sauce (think enchilada sauce and you will be in the ballpark).

Because I apparently am  not a very good judge of these things, I went over the top and ordered the deluxe version which added a fried egg and a plate of french fries. It was wonderful in the way that Canada’s famous poutaine (french fries, cheese curd, gravy) can be wonderful and I didn’t have room for anything else (except a little Port) for the rest of the day.

I had a great time, learned a lot, met some interesting people. I promise I will get to the Douro vineyards next time, but I wouldn’t miss touring the Port houses for anything.  The variety of experiences available if you visit several houses provides something for everyone, from Port novice to seasoned connoisseur.

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Thanks to George Sandeman for his hospitality while I was in Porto and his help with this project. I found this YouTube video that captures a bit of the Francesinha experience. Would I eat it again? Yes, but I’d choose the traditional beer to go with it rather than the red wine I enjoyed at my riverfront restaurant, which claimed to have the best Franceshina in town.

Silver Anniversary Celebration: How Wine Has Changed Since 1989

Robert Parker, Parker’s Wine Buyer’s Guide (New Edition 1989-1990). Simon and Schuster, 1989.

Our friends were married in 1989 and recently celebrated their silver anniversary with a dinner party where almost all of the wines were 1989s from their cellar (plus a few bottles from their children’s birth years). What a treat! I’ll paste a photo of some  of the wines we enjoyed at the end of this post to give you an idea of what a great time we had.

1989 and All That

To paraphrase a famous football coach, wine isn’t like life, it is life, so wine and life’s celebrations are natural partners and our very small gift to the happy couple was an autographed copy of the 1989 edition of Robert Parker’s Wine Buyer’s Guide.  I hope that what the book says about how wine has grown and changed over the last 25 years will inspire them to consider how their relationship has deepened and matured like a great wine!

I couldn’t part with the book without looking at it myself — just a quick glance to see what Parker wrote about and how — not the detailed analysis of the individual winery and wine entries that would yield the greatest insights. Here’s what I found.

What’s changed since 1989? Well, you won’t be surprised to know that prices have done up. Parker rates each wine with a point score out of 100 (his signature rating system) and an alphabetical price indicator. A = Inexpensive (less than $8) to E = luxury (in excess of $50).  The 1984 Ridge Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon receives 96 points and a D ($25-$50) for example. The Heitz Martha’s Vineyard Cab cost only C ($15-$25) — I should have put some of that away!

It is interesting to see how the world wine map has broadened in 25 years. The sections on the Wines of Western Europe is very complete, as you would expect, with France, Germany, Italy Spain and Portugal well represented.  A section on The Best of the Rest includes Australia (of course), and briefer discussions of Argentina, Bulgaria, Chile, Greece, Hungary, Lebanon, New Zealand, Switzerland,  the UK and Yugoslavia.

It would be hard to make a list like this today without including Austria, South Africa and China. Brazil, India, Israel and several other countries would also claim a place in the lineup.

American Wines Everywhere

What about North America? Well it is there, of course (sans Canada, alas), wedged between Europe and the Rest, with about 250 pages of text compared to nearly 550 for Europe. That’s not a bad page count ratio when you consider how much more wine the Europeans produced then and how tiny the US industry was by comparison.

California got 210 of these pages followed by Oregon with about 30 pages. Parker has a particular interest in Oregon wines and is a partner with his brother-in-law at Beaux Frères (Parker does not review these wines because of understandable conflict-of-interest concerns).

I was interested to see what Parker had to say about Washington wines back in 1989, so I turned quickly to the chapter on Other American Viticultural Regions (other than California and Oregon that is). Connecticut, Idaho, Maryland, Massachusetts, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, — the list goes on, wine seems to be everywhere in America  — Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas, Virginia and then finally Washington!

Washington: Lingering Doubts, Encouraging Signs

“While I still have doubts about the overall quality and potential for Washington state wines,” Parker writes on page 843, “there are some encouraging signs …”.  Not exactly a ringing endorsement, but probably how many wine people saw the situation at the time. California was obviously important. Oregon, too, because of its Burgundy-like prestige.

Washington? Still needed to prove itself, which I think it quickly did. Washington is now the nation’s #2 wine producer in quantity and challenges California in many areas in terms of quality and reputation. But not in 1989.

In a very brief guide to the state’s best wines, Parker found no Outstanding Chardonnays and just one excellent producer (Hogue). Arbor Crest, Columbia, Chateau Ste Michelle and Zillah Oakes made the cut as Good Producers of Chardonnay.

The best Cabernet Sauvignons? Chateau Ste Michelle’s post-1983 Reserves earned them an Outstanding recommendation. The Chateau’s regular bottling was rated Excellent along with the Columbia “Red Willow” Cab and wines from Latah Creek, Leonetti and Woodward Canyon. Six wineries received the Good score, including Quilceda Creek, which is since earned cult wine status.

While we know that Parker thought the 1985 Pinot Noir Reserve from The Eyrie Vineyards in Oregon was worth an 89 score and cost a C amount, we have no numerical rating or tasting note data on any individual Washington wine at all.

Much has changed since 1989 as Parker’s book  makes clear, but a lot has stayed the same, too. Many of the great wine producers of the world have aged and developed as gracefully as the 1989 wines we had with dinner. New wineries, regions, styles and varieties have emerged. Wine was great in 1989, as Parker’s guide tells us. It is even better now, don’t you think!

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Like a Tax Cut for Wine Producers: ShipCompliant’s New AutoFile

I used to complain that the federal income tax is really three taxes in one. First comes the actual tax dollars that you have to pay. The time and trouble of record-keeping and so forth is the second tax and the third is the cost of preparing and filing the returns (or having others do that for you).

The Tax Tax Tax

I used to do everything by hand and sometimes the opportunity cost of the time I spent was almost as large as the check I wrote. Then came tax preparation software such as Turbo Tax and that cut the time cost quite a bit. Then the ability to import financial data directly into the tax program made things  better. Finally, free and efficient electronic tax filing arrived — modified rapture!

I’m still not a very happy guy when I am doing my income taxes, but I appreciate the fact that the process is more efficient now so that I can spend my time doing other productive things like writing this blog.

The Wine Regulation Tax

Imagine if you still had to do your taxes by hand, but that you had to do them for 40 different tax systems! The combined compliance costs would be an enormous drain on productivity. It would be tax tax tax forty times over. Yikes!

This is more or less the situation for any winery that is trying to do direct-to-consumer business in the 40 states that allow this activity. Each state has its own rules and regulation and each requires regular reporting , payment and so forth.  Although most of us imagine that the logistics of shipping are the main barrier to direct-to-consumer wine sales, the compliance costs are significant business barriers. They are like a tax on direct wine shipments and sometimes high enough to discourage wineries from entering the inter-state direct-to-consumer business at all or to limit it to just a few states.

Like a Tax Cut?

Which is why I was interested when ShipCompliant introduced its new AutoFile product yesterday. AutoFile has the potential to vastly reduced the amount of staff time devoted to multi-state direct-to-consumer wine sales compliance and to make multi-state operations more feasible. ShipCompliant estimates that a medium-sized winery shipping to all 40 states would need to file about 600-800 annual, quarterly, bi-monthly and monthly regulatory reports and tax filings in the course of a year, costing hundreds of staff hours. Their program does for compliance what Turbo Tax, account downloads and e-File did for my income tax experience.

You still have to pay the taxes and fees, of course, but reducing the costs of record-keeping and filing almost seems like a tax cut to me. AutoFile and products and services like it are small but import steps to make the dysfunctional US direct-to-consumer wine market a bit more efficient, which benefits both wine producers and consumers.

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Thanks to Tom Wark for letting me about this product.

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