Shifting Perspectives on Idaho Wine

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The view down toward the Snake River from Bitner Vineyards

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We spent a weekend in the Idaho wine country last month and I’m still trying to make sense of the experience. It seems like every time I think I know what Idaho wine is I shift my ground a little bit and see something new and usually something different.

So the view keeps changing. Rather than trying to ignore this problem, I thought I’d make it the theme of this column.

Snake River Valley Views

Let’s start with the natural elements. The main vineyard area in Idaho winds along the Snake River and some of the views are spectacular — the photo above taken from Bitner Vineyards shows one of the best.

The vineyards reach down towards the river and the slope is key both because these  hillsides provide a natural solar-collector effect (the area is called Sunnyslope), but also because cold air drainage is an important factor in preventing frost damage to the crop and freeze damage to the vines.

The view shifts when you move along a few miles. This region is a high desert plateau. A lot of the land is pancake flat, ideal for many crops but not necessarily wine grapes, especially given the cold issues. Rainfall is surprisingly sparse here so access to irrigation water is key.

Although Idaho shares borders with both Washington and Oregon, there’s no question that its wine industry is more Columbia Valley than Willamette Valley. This might seem obvious since the Snake River joins the Columbia River on its way to the Pacific Ocean, but it’s mainly because they share that dry plateau feature.

No sense looking for a “signature variety” in Idaho as they do (in Pinot Noir) in Oregon. No, Idaho is more like Washington — lots of grapes can thrive here (in the right spots) and lots of interesting wines are possible. A blessing from a winemaker standpoint and a bit of a curse from a marketing point of view. Riesling to Tempranillo and lots of options in between.

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Looking down to the plateau from Sawtooth Vineyard

Big Dog Ste Chapelle

From an economic point of view, on the other hand, Idaho is a world of big and small without too much in between. This is also a bit like Washington state wine, where Ste Michelle Wine Estates (including Chateau Ste Michelle, Columbia Crest, 14 Hands and other wineries) dominates making more than half of all the state’s wine. Ste Chapelle is the big dog in Idaho to an even greater extent producing a total of about 300,000 cases of wine under the Ste Chapelle label plus other brands.

Ste Chapelle is part of the Precept Wine group these days, having been bought and sold several times since it was founded in the 1970s as the U.S. wine business went through consolidation and then financial crisis. I think there is a sense that the stability that Precept can provide is welcome after some years of drama. The largest privately held wine company in the Pacific Northwest, Precept controls half of Idaho’s vineyard acreage (variously estimated at 1200-1500 acres) in addition to its assets in Washington and Oregon.

Ste Chapelle makes several lines of wine. Their “soft” (read sweetish) wines are technically well made and perfectly in line with current sweet red and moscato-style market trends. The soft red and a soft pink wine with a subtle huckleberry flavor are the top selling wine SKUs in the state, crowding out the California “usual suspects.”

Ste Chapelle also makes smaller (but still substantial) quantities of dry wines, including 40,000 cases a year of an off-dry Riesling that nearly stole the show at Riesling Rendezvous this year. And they produce Precept’s wildly popular Chocolate Shop and Almond Roca wines at their facility.

Limits to Growth

If Idaho is the land of the big it is also a world of small. From 300,000 case Ste Chapelle we drop sharply down to 12,000 – 15,000 case Sawtooth (also a Precept Wine brand) and Greg Koenig’s operation of about the same capacity, where he makes his own products as well as those of four other wineries including Bitner. That’s a big gap between #1 and the rest in terms of size and market penetration. Not too many of the remaining 40+ wineries in the state have total production as high as 5000 cases.

What limits growth? Well, you have to sell what you make, so market demand is an obvious factor. But I got the strong sense from several winemakers that they could sell more if they could make more. Vineyard capacity is a real roadblock.

While they were glad to be able to purchase fruit from the Precept group’s 400 acre Skyline vineyard, they needed even more. Land surveys indicate that there are many good sites that could contribute to the industry’s growth if only new investors would enter the region.

Made In (But Not of) Idaho

If Idaho has not attracted as many wine growers as it needs, it certainly has attracted wine makers who see this area as a good place to live and to work. A number of small urban wineries have sprung up as wine enthusiasts from other regions are attracted here and others who have left to establish careers elsewhere return home.

Many of their wines are clearly Idaho products, but we tasted a number of them that were made from grapes imported from Washington, Oregon and even California. The practice of using out-of-state or region grapes or juice is not that uncommon in the Pacific Northwest. Oregon’s largest winery, King Estate, brings in fruit from the Columbia Valley for its NxNW wines, allowing them to produce a more complete portfolio of wine varieties and styles. And the  Pamplin Family Winery in the Willamette Valley is one of several that make high quality Bordeaux blend wines using Columbia Valley fruit. And of course most of the grapes used in Seattle-area wineries are trucked over the mountains from Eastern Washington.

Necessity (and limited local grape supply) dictated the use of non-Idaho grapes in some cases, but we met several winemakers who cited passion for a particular style of wine as a driving force. I did a University of Puget Sound alumni program at the Mouvance Winery tasting room while we were in Boise and enjoyed their Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris wines made from the fruit of the family’s own vineyard in Oregon. Pinot passion drives this project and so Idaho grapes just won’t work.

What should we think about Idaho’s cross-border wineries? Well, just like everything else in Idaho wine it depends on your point of view. They certainly do contribute to the critical mass of winemaking that the industry needs to move ahead and clearly help foster what I see as a vibrant emerging wine culture (more about this next week). But I also picked up understandable concern that their efforts didn’t contribute as much as some would like to building the local industry from the ground (the vineyards) up.

Where is Idaho wine headed? My thoughts next week.

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Thanks to everyone who met with us during our Idaho visit. Special thanks to Jim and Melissa Thomssen, Ron Bitner, Greg Koenig, Gregg Alger, Maurine Johnson, Moya Shatz Dolsby, and the Idaho Wine Commission. Thanks to Sue Veseth for the photos.

Telling Australia’s Wine Story the Old School Way

“Restaurant Australia” (the subject of two recent columns) was not the only attempt to re-brand Australian wine that we experienced at Savour Australia 2013. Other groups are busy getting the message out in their own ways using both high tech and “old school” approaches.

We encountered two memorable statements that deepened our understanding and appreciation of Australia and its wines. One had wine-making families tell their stories up close and personal. The other let the wine itself do the talking. Together with the Restaurant Australia campaign they made a compelling case. Here are the details.

First Families 

Sue and I were fortunate to be invited to a dinner hosted by Australian First Families of Wine and it was an eye-opening experience. The First Families are principals in twelve family-owned Australian wineries that together span the continent’s history, wine regions, and styles.

The member wineries are: Brown Brothers (based in Victoria, founded in 1885), Campbells Wines (Rutherglen, 1870), d’Arenberg (McLaren Vale, 1912), de Bortoli Wines (Victoria and New South Wales, 1928), Henschke (Eden  Valley and Adelaide Hills, 1868), Howard Park Wines (Western Australia, 1986), Jim Barry Wines (Clare Valley and Coonawarra, 1959), McWilliam’s Wines (several regions, 1877), Tahbilk (Victoria, 1860), Taylor’s Wines (Clare Valley, 1969), Tyrrell’s Wines (Hunter Valley and other regions, 1858), Yalumba (Barossa and Eden Valley, 1849 — oldest of them all!).

Founded in 2009 (dark days for Brand Australia) this is an exclusive club, as Graeme Lofts explains in his history of these wineries, Heart & Soul: Australia’s First Families of Wine. What do they have in common? Australia, of course, and family ownership plus the longevity to be able to offer a vertical tasting of at least 20 vintages. Some are very large and others relatively small, but they are all top quality producers with a multi-generation point of view.

AFFW

They are all export focused, too, and so naturally worry about how their wines in particular and Australian wines more generally are viewed by global consumers, especially those in China and other growing markets. James Halliday writes in the book’s foreword that “The underlying rationale for the formation of Australia’s First Families of Wine was the realization that export markets had either lost sight of or had no way of knowing about Australia’s rich history, its diverse regional and wine styles, and the fierce personal commitment of the best winemakers to the production of high-quality wines true to their variety and geographical origin.”

Medium and Message

The idea was to provide counterpoint to the stereotype of Australian wines abroad, according to Halliday. “The wines have none of the corporate or industrial aroma attached (no matter how unjustly) to the brands produced by the largest Australian producers.”

So how do the First Families make their case? Not by relying on flash websites and streaming video, as effective as they can be. If the medium is the message, those media might send the wrong message about these fine wines.

No, in fact, they do it the hard way, the old school way. The families (all of them, or at least representatives of each and every one) travel to key markets and host dinners and events like the one we attended. There is real wine in real glasses, real people tell their stories and make their case. These are family wineries, you see, and family is always personal. So the message is personal and the medium must be the same.

I was impressed by the commitment. There were no empty First Family places at our dinner despite the group’s recent return from a grueling round of more than a dozen events in East Asia. The show must go on, as they say in the theater, and they seemed to draw energy from their audience, their mission, and each other. Quite an experience!

Yalumba Museum Tasting

The second effort to define Australian wine was necessarily even smaller and more focused, but the impact may still be substantial. Yalumba’s proprietor Robert Hill Smith (who was also at the First Families dinner) invited a few of us to The Old Lion Cellar & Tunnels  in Adelaide to take part in a special tasting of museum wines.

Our meeting was only the 24th in a series that began in 1977. Initially the focus was internal, I’m told, to let Australia’s young winemakers taste some of the very best wines across both time and space and be informed and inspired by them. A sure cure for “cellar palate” complacency!

P1060465Gradually the focus has evolved and it was clear that our tasting was meant for export — to leave a strong impression on Savour Australia 2013′s international delegates. And it (plus Robert Hill Smith’s engaging personality and a bit of excellent cuisine) certainly did the trick. Scroll down to see the list of wines we sampled.

Australia Three Ways

Restaurant Australia aims to use the power of modern media to cast a spell on consumers that will entice them to experience Australian food, Australian wine and … Australia! It targets the big global stage and seems well suited to its role.

Australia’s First Family of Wines is a more  personal experience that lets a dozen families speak for the nation’s fine wine. It’s a different stage (an intimate theater versus a huge IMAX screen) and a different audience, but powerfully effective because of that.

The Yalumba tasting, for those of us lucky to experience it, is the ultimate personal experience — a conversation where the wines literally speak for themselves, telling stores of the past and present with implications for the future.

Taken together, these efforts make a strong statement about Australian wines! Here — because I can’t resist sharing them — are the wines of the Yalumba tasting. Enjoy!

Riesling

  • Pewsey Vale “The Contours” Eden Valley Riesling 2002
  • Pewsey Vale Eden Valley Riesling 1973
  • Yalumba Riesling 1938

Viognier

  • Yalumba “The Virgilius” Eden Valley Viognier 2010
  • Yalumba “The Virgilius” Eden Valley Viognier 2007
  • Yalumba “The Virgilius” Eden Valley Viognier 2003

Chardonnay

  • Giaconda Estate Vineyard Chardonnay 2010
  • Vasse Felix Heytesbury Margaret River  Chardonnay 2008
  • Heggies Vineyard Reserve Eden Valley Chardonnay 2006

Shiraz — Eden Valley

  • Henschke Hill of Grace Eden Valley Shiraz 2006
  • Henschke Hill of Grace Eden Valley Shiraz 2004
  • Henschke Hill of Grace Eden Valley Shiraz 2002

Shiraz – Clare Valley

  • Jim Barry “The Armagh” Shiraz Clare Valley 2006
  • Jim Barry “The Armagh” Shiraz Clare Valley 1994
  • Jim Barry “The Armagh” Shiraz Clare Valley 1989

Cabernet Sauvignon

  • Vasse Felix Cabernet Sauvignon 2010
  • Vasse Felix Cabernet Sauvignon 2004
  • Vasse Felix Cabernet Sauvignon 2001

Cabernet Sauvignon & Shiraz

  • Yalumba “The Signature” Barossa Cabernet Shiraz – The 3 Amigos 2004
  • Yalumba “The Signature” Barossa Cabernet Shiraz – A. “Eddy” Waechter 1992
  • Yalumba “The Signature” Barossa Cabernet Shiraz – A Harold Yates 1966

Fortified

  • Yalumba Shiraz Port No. 9 1922

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Special thanks to Robert Hill Smith for including us in the museum tasting. Thanks as well to the First Families, especially Victor De Bortoli, Prue and Stephen Henschke, Chester Osborn of d’Arenberg and Tom Barry.

World Tour Update: VinPro and the Unified Sympoisium

The “Wine Economist World Tour” (my calendar of talks and book signings) is starting to fill up and the end of January 2014 looks like a particularly interesting couple of weeks. Lots of frequent flier miles — and maybe a bit of jet lag, too!

On January 23 I will be in Somerset West, South Africa to give the keynote at the Nedbank VinPro Information Day program. VinPro is a key service organization for 3,600 South African wine producer members. It strives to both represent the wine sector and to further its development. I’m pleased to be invited to speak to South African growers and producers at this important event.

Fast forward a few days and I will be in Sacramento, California at the Unified Wine and Grape Symposium, the western hemisphere’s largest wine industry gathering speaking in two of the sessions.

On Tuesday, January 28 I will be moderating an afternoon panel on “Using Data for Better Decision-Making.” The premise is that you can’t manage what you don’t measure and many in the wine industry would benefit from a more systematic approach. Here is the official description of session.

This session will explore how to use data to better understand and run your business. Presentations will include operating and financial benchmarking data and how these data can be applied to your business for improved decision making. Attendees will hear how benchmarking data are gathered and analyzed, and what it means. A winery and a grower representative will provide examples on how they started measuring various forms of data, what tools they acquired or developed, and lessons learned. They will also share best practices and identify the biggest problem areas for good data measurement and use. The session will end with key takeaways to consider in implementing better data tools for your business.

Then on Wednesday I will be one of three speakers, along with Jon Fredrikson of Gomberg, Fredrikson & Associates and Nat DiBuduo of Allied Grapegrowers of California, at the “State of the Industry” session (Extreme Wine readers will recall that I wrote about this event in Chapter 6).

The State of the Industry session will provide a comprehensive look at every aspect of the wine industry, from what’s being planted to what’s selling. This 2½ hour session features highly regarded speakers and delivers incredible value for attendees who need to understand the market dynamics of the past year and are seeking insight into the market trends that will define the year ahead.

My job will be to bring a global perspective to the discussion. It’s an honor to share the stage with Jon and Nat, who have both earned the respect of those of us in the industry. Looking forward to hearing their remarks!

Hope to see you in Cape Town or Sacramento or any of the other stops on the world tour!

Anatomy of Australia’s New Wine Strategy

Click on the image to view one of the Restaurant Australia videos.

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In my last column I talked about Australian wine’s plans to re-brand itself on the global market through an integrated food-wine-tourism campaign called “Restaurant Australia.”  Delegates to Savour Australia were treated to four specially produced videos  (click on the image above to see one of them) that introduced the concept and, not coincidentally, also introduced the chefs and purveyors who would be providing some of our (delicious) meals over the next few days.

Beyond Sensory Overload

The audience seemed to pause, slightly stunned, after each video. At first I thought that it was just sensory overload. And it was. The stunning images presented on the big screen with rich surround sound was an intense experience, to be sure. The fact that we experienced it all again later, meeting the chefs, tasting the produce– that was intense too.

But now that I am back home and reflecting on the experience, I think that perhaps we also paused for a different reason. The whole purpose of our gathering was wine. We had journeyed long miles to Adelaide to see and hear Australia tell its wine story. But where’s the wine?

Yes, wine and a winemaker appeared in each video, but they seemed a bit of an add-on rather than the featured element of the message. What would happen if you left out the wine ? Nothing much else would change. Is that the way we want people to think about Australian wine — an afterthought in the grand “Restaurant Australia” concept?

Now There’s Your Problem

Obviously not — and it would be a mistake to judge the marketing campaign by a few introductory videos. But, as I thought about it, I began to recognize that it was related to a bigger problem.

One of the chapters in Extreme Wine is about wine and modern media — I call it Extreme Wine Goes to the Movies — and it concludes in part that wine’s inherent sensuousness seems to be difficult to translate to video. Yes, wine famously unlocks all the physical senses and a few of the mental ones, too. But it is an experience good. Like fly fishing and some other things you might be able to think of, its more fun to do than to watch someone else do.

That’s why there are surprisingly few films where wine plays a really central role. There are a few excellent ones (Sideways fans please put down your pitchforks!) but you’d really expect there to be far more than I found in my research. Food, on the other hand, seems to be something that video can capture very well. Does watching someone drink wine in a movie make you thirsty? Maybe. Does watching a celebrity chef eat a delicious dish make you hungry? You bet it does!

Hungry?

No doubt about it. Wine’s magic is difficult to capture on the silver screen (or that little screen on your tablet or smartphone). That’s why we have Master Chef but not Master Enologist.  There are rock stars in wine, but they don’t generally transcend the wine category the way the foodie celebrities increasingly do.

Wine Porn versus Food Porn

My foodie friends are always taking X-rated “food porn” photos of the the plates they are served at fancy restaurants. But my wino buddies generally don’t bother to snap “wine porn” images of their glasses (although I admit to some G-rated bottle/label shots myself).

Assume that I’m correct about this for a moment (or, better yet, grab a copy of Extreme Wine and read a more detailed account, which uses Sideways to show why really powerful wine films are so rare). Given video’s undeniable importance in communications today, what is wine to do? Well, one answer is to do what Australia wine seems to be doing, which is use what works (the foodie side of the campaign) to drive the message.  They call it “Restaurant Australia,” but I have a better name.

Strongest Brand in the World?

I call it The Italian Way. What region has the strongest generic wine brand? Well, here in the United States I would say that it is Italy (although France can make a claim because of Champagne’s powerful brand). Americans love everything about Italy — the food, the people, the art, the scenery, the food again, and now with the new Fiat 500, even the cars.

Americans love Italian (or sometimes Italian-style) coffee. And they love Italian wine. Just the fact that it’s from Italy gives it an automatic advantage at supermarkets, restaurants and wine shops.

It seems to me that “Restaurant Australia” aims to get Americans to love warm, friendly Australia in the same way that they have always loved warm, friendly Italy. A good idea? Yes. But not easy to do. If it was easy to achieve Italy’s reputation, everyone would do it. But it is worth trying. Australia has authenticity in its favor — it really is warm and friendly and the food and wine you can find there really are great– and that’s worth a lot.

Is it the only way to re-brand Australian wine? No — tune in next week for my report on another approach to this problem.

Two New Wine Guides: The Hedgehog and the Fox

Two new wine guides have appeared just in time for the holiday wine-book-gift-giving season. Informative and interesting, they present us with two very different ways to think about wine and buying it. Perfect for a comparative review!

The Wine Curmudgeon’s Guide to Cheap Wine by Jeff Siegel (a.k.a. The Wine Curmudgeon) 2013 (also available as Kindle e-book).,

Complete Wine Selector: How to Choose the Right Wine Every Time by Katherine Cole, 2013.

These books remind me of the parable of the hedgehog and the fox that served as the inspiration for one of Isaiah Berlin’s best known essays. The fox knows many things, the story goes. But the hedgehog knows One Big Thing!

The Complete Wine Fox

Complete Wine Selector is the fox in this story.  Gosh, it sure does deliver on its promise to be complete. There is just so much useful and interesting information packed these 250+ pages. Sue and I were both impressed.

And it really does focus on choosing wines, providing both general principles and specific recommendations. Cole builds the book around the idea that people should learn about styles of wine and not just focus on varietals, appellations, etc . The ten wine glasses on the book cover represent the ten wine styles that she analyzes in the book, including crisp, lean whites; rich full-bodied whites; light, refreshing reds; sparkling wines and rosés; continuing down the list until we reach fortified wines.

The idea of thinking about wine in terms of style is very useful even if it is not really new. Hugh Johnson stakes a claim to it in his foreword to the book and I have seen many restaurant wine lists that focus on style versus grape or country of origin. There is even a chain of stores called WineStyles organized along these lines.  Cole’s comparative advantage is in the execution of the wine styles strategy, taking us from general principles to specific wines and wine recommendations very effectively.

The final pages of the book present more general background information, such as how wine is made, how it should be served and stored, good places to buy it and so on. Interesting and good to have, but the stories behind those ten glasses on the cover are what you are here for. Like the fox of the famous fable, this book knows many things and organizes them in a way that will delight many readers.

My only real criticism is that the graphic design sometimes seem to overwhelm the book’s content, although I acknowledge that some readers (especially those under 30 years of age) will disagree. Trying to fit content into design-determined boxes sometimes results in text that is hard to read. And sometimes images seem to just fill a designed illustration space rather than usefully illustrate a key concept. On the other hand many of the graphics (such as the detailed wine label illustrations) are really good, so perhaps I am being too picky (Sue didn’t object to the design at all).

I loved Cole’s previous book on biodynamic viticulture in Oregon. I’m happy to have her new wine guide on my bookshelf!

The Hedgehog Curmudgeon

Jeff Siegel’s new book is the hedgehog. Although Jeff knows as much as any fox about wine, his book digs deep into a single topic — his One Big Thing — cheap wine. Like Rodney Dangerfield, cheap wine “can’t get no respect” and Siegel aims to change that.

Some people treat cheap wine as if it were a contagious disease, but not Jeff Seigel. He knows that bad wine (of any price) is a curse and good wine, especially if it doesn’t cost an arm and a leg, is a blessing.  Cheap wine today is the best in history. Celebrate!

The table of contents gives you an idea of how the story is developed.

  • Why cheap wine matters
  • Cheap wine’s long and winding road
  • The revolution in cheap wine
  • Understanding cheap wine
  • How to buy cheap wine: The basics
  • How to buy cheap wine: Advanced course

There is a lot to like in this book — lots of fascinating stories. I like the strong sense of history that comes through and the appreciation that the rise of quality cheap wine was in a way the triumph of technology and business competition over entrenched attitudes among consumers and industry politics that resisted change. This book is about more than cheap wine, you see, although Siegel takes care never to stray too far from his hedgehog focus.

There are many twists and turns on the path that Siegel chooses and, as I look at my notes, his hedgehog touches on a lot of topics that Cole’s fox also explores. No surprise there, I suppose — they inhabit the same wine forest even if they focus on different elements of  it. Both are interesting books that you should consider if you are looking for wine guide that wants to shake up your way of looking at things!

Restaurant Australia: Re-Branding Australia (and Australian Wine)

Click on the image to see a “Restaurant Australia” video.

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I’m back from Australia, where I spoke at Savour Australia 2013 (click here to view my presentation). The purpose of Savour Australia was to re-launch Brand Australia wine on the global market by bringing together about 700 domestic and international delegates and rolling out an integrated marketing plan that combined Australian food, wine and tourism.

Savour Australia was quite an intense and impressive global gathering and I am still trying to process all my experiences both at the conference and in independent travels (scroll down to see a brief list of extreme wine moments). I’ll be analyzing what I think I’ve learned over the next several weeks.

Food Stars, Porn Stars, Rock Stars

“Restaurant Australia” is the proposed new brand and you can perhaps best appreciate how its elements connect by clicking on the image above and watching the short video that appears. The basic idea is that food and wine have become much more important tourism drivers. Nature (think Grand Canyon) and culture (think Italian Renaissance art and architecture) are still important draws, but increasingly travelers seek out fine wines, great restaurants and cult foodie experiences. Then they become brand ambassadors, spreading the word across the internet and around the world.

This sea change should not come as a surprise. As I wrote in Wine Wars, this is an effect of the growing popularity of foodie television shows and networks, like the insanely popular international Top Chef and Master Chef series and the rise of foodie celebrities such as Jamie Oliver, Nigella Lawson, Anthony Bourdain and so on. Seriously, food stars get more exposure than porn stars and are sometimes more popular than rock stars (“rock star” being the gold standard for pop culture status).

The food’s the thing, don’t you know? The Australians are smart to realize this and to try to recast their image around it.

Shrimp on the Barbie

But they don’t start the process of re-branding with a clean slate (or clean plate, I suppose). For many people here in the United States, Australian cuisine is defined by Crocodile Dundee and Outback Steakhouse. Paul Hogan, the actor who portrayed the famous Crocodile Dundee character in the films, was featured some years ago in an Australian tourist campaign that generated the memorable line “throw another shrimp on the barbie.” Australian food (and culture generally) is warm and generous, if not particularly sophisticated according to this approach. A good image then (and Australians sure are warm and generous), but not especially useful now. The game’s changed.

For better or worse, Outback Steakhouse’s popularity has reinforced this idea of Australian food culture. Outback is a meat and potatoes kind of place, although I see they now also feature grilled chicken “on the barbie.” It’s signature menu item is a “bloomin” deep fried onion appetizer. Tasty, I bet,  but not really haute cuisine.

So the Australians have their work cut out for them and the videos we saw at Savour Australia (and the great food and wine we enjoyed there) suggest that they have both great raw materials to work with and a sophisticated understanding of the story-telling necessary to make their strategy work. Click here to view videos from Savour Australia, including four stunning chef-centered  “Restaurant Australia” themed videos.

Terroirist Revenge Strategy

I’m a big fan of this approach, as I told my Adelaide audience, because it fits very well into the analysis I presented in Wine Wars. I didn’t have Australia in mind when I wrote that book, but its argument fits the great land down under very well. Australian wine has experienced the double-edged sword of globalization and the problems of over-simplified marketing messages (these are the “Curse of the Blue Nun” and the “Miracle of Two Buck Chuck” of the book’s subtitle).

Now, I think, they need to channel their inner terroirists and tell a more sophisticated story that draws upon, to use a catch phrase of the Restaurant Australia campaign, the people, places and produce of their land. (People, place and produce is not a bad definition of terroir).

Will it work? Will “Restaurant Australia” be able to launch Australian wine on a new path? Come back next week for more analysis.

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Australia 2013: Memorable Moments

Herewith a few memorable moments from our trip, some of this will be featured in future Wine Economist columns.

  • A festive wine dinner with Australia’s First Families of Wine, an association of Australian producers who are doing their level best to change the way the world sees Australian wines.
  • A fabulous tasting of Australian wines from the Yalumba Wine Museum (I guarantee you will be jealous when you hear about the wines we sampled).
  • Wine writer and broadcaster Michael Hince and his wife Amanda  invited us to a dinner in Melbourne where they showed off wines from Victoria. It was a really spectacular demonstration. Wow! You can read Michael’s account of the wines and the dinner here.
  • Great hospitality during our time in the Barossa Valley, with memorable visits to Rockford, Torbreck, Hentley Farms and Charles Melton.
  • My wine economics colleague Kym Anderson gave us a memorable tour of his Adelaide Hills region (highlights: Ashton Hills Vineyards for the Rieslings and Pinot Noir and Hahndorf  Hill Winery for Gruner Veltliner and Blaufrankisch) and sent us to Seppeltsfield winery in Barossa, where we happily immersed ourselves in Australian wine history.
  • Tasting and talking with Peter Althaus at his Domaine A winery near historic Richmond, Tasmania (and staying at Tara’s Richmond Farmstay).
  • The fabulous family-style long-table winemaker lunches at Savour Australia. Outstanding food, wine and conversation.
  • Working (not just attending) the Wednesday “Grand Tasting”. Prue and Stephen Henschke let me pour their fabulous wines (including Hill of Grace)  for about 90 minutes so that I could see the conference and the delegates from the other side of the table.  What a treat!

The Economic Origins of the Kosher Wine Conundrum

Wine Economist reader Rob Meltzer has been searching for drinkable kosher wines (and trying to understand why he wasn’t finding them)  and he has been kind enough to share his observations with me along the way. I found his methods rigorous and his analysis fascinating, so I asked him to summarize his research for publication here. Thanks to Rob for sharing his results with other Wine Economist readers!

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During the past year or so, I’ve tasted nearly 90 kosher wines priced between $20-$120 from the United States, Italy, Spain, Chile and Israel. My goal has not been to find the best kosher wines, but rather to determine whether kosher wines exist which could replace non-kosher fine wines in my cellar. From my days living in Northern California, I retain my passion for California reds, but I would prefer to keep exclusively kosher wines. Equally, I wanted to determine which kosher wines I could, with clear conscience, serve to guests in my home.

There are two primary determinants of kosher wines. First, the winemaker must be Jewish. Second, all kosher wines that are served in restaurants and catered events must be “mevushal,” which means that the wine has been boiled before being bottled. If you look at a bottle of kosher wine, you will see “mevushal” specifically referenced. Fine kosher wines exclusive for home consumption can be “non-mevushal.” The “P” next to the kosher symbol denotes that the wine may also be consumed during Passover.

The Search

The methodology of comparison was this: first, my friends and I tasted kosher wines within specific grape types to find the best within each category of grape for red and white. Most of the tastings were “blind.” Food pairings were always the same and the food was always kosher. The “best” kosher wine in each category was then compared to a non-kosher wine in the same category. By way of example, we tasted about ten kosher sauvignon blanc wines from various countries and in various price levels, and determined that Covenant’s 2012 Red C was really most drinkable.  Curiously, both the Red C and the runner-up were non-mevushal. (Red C seems to be going for a “hip” level of quasi-kosher; the label read “non-mev” instead of the usual “non-mevushal” statement.)

Red C was then compared to Honig’s Napa Valley 2012 Sauvignon Blanc. However, as drinkable as Red C was, it also did not compare well with the Honig, or other sauvignon blancs we tasted that day. (The tasting also included Domaine Serge Laloue Sancerre (France), Cloudy Bay (New Zealand) and Buitenverwachting (South Africa). The Chilean sauvignon blanc we tasted was so unremarkable it didn’t even make it to the tasting notes.

I also went to a number of public wine tastings of kosher wines. I quickly grew tired of having sub-standard product shoved at me, while the philanthropic donors who sponsored most of these events for charity rolled their eyes in ecstasy over glasses of brownish sludgy merlot at $120/bottle that would never be confused with a 2007 Duckhorn.

Failure and Success

I never did find a kosher red wine that seemed satisfactory in terms of both quality and price for the quality received. We had particularly poor luck with Israeli maker Barkan. Its Cabernet Sauvignon was an entirely undrinkable product. We tried everything from allowing it to breathe uncorked, to decanting, to the magical blender-aeration method, without any success. In fact, several of my tasters told me that Barkan normally tastes like that, and they couldn’t understand my complaint. If they are to be believed, they were regularly drinking something without complaint that tasted like vinegar. Poor quality vinegar, at that.

The best whites were non-mevushal. For what it’s worth, if I were interested in stocking only kosher wines, I wouldn’t buy non-mevushal wines, leading some to question the inclusion of non-mevushal wines in this survey. Surprisingly, the mevushal white table wines which scored consistently high in terms of quality and price-appropriateness came from Italian wine maker Bartenura.  Bartenura wines aren’t great, and they won’t be replacing my Napa and Sonoma bottles any time soon. Nonetheless, since they aren’t expensive, they could easily fill out the low end of the cellar quite nicely as a sort of kosher two-buck Chuck. Several of the Spanish cavas were equally good (try En Fuego, as an example of a drinkable Spanish Cava).

An Economic Vicious Cycle

I have several observations from all this. First, boiling wine is never going to be good for the product. Red wines seem particularly vulnerable to damage. The best reds and the best whites were not boiled. Second, the hindrance to a good kosher wine industry seems to be a marketing and economics problem; the percentage of people who drink kosher wines exclusively is very, very small. If you don’t or haven’t compared kosher wines to non-kosher fine wines, you probably don’t know what you are missing and you are unlikely to demand better product. Third, since the available offerings are small, people who really want kosher wine will buy and drink what is offered. Many times, the pricier red wines were found improperly racked at wine stores, and covered with dust. I suspect that the combination of wine-making methods and poor or improper storage explains the poor table experience. I’m also assuming that the boiling precludes proper aging after bottling.

One of the challenges being confronted by kosher wine makers is to find a way to make kosher wines mevushal by some other acceptable heating method that does not damage the wine. While I think this will ultimately solve the problem, the real issue is one of economics. Rather than make a wine that will satisfy the very small market of kosher wine drinkers, the wineries should focus on making fine wines for the broader market, while incidentally achieving the kosher designation. Just as kosher food products are mixed in to the non-kosher product at supermarkets, the day needs to come when Red C is found in the California whites section, not a kosher section. If you don’t keep kosher, you don’t go to that aisle and you would never see or try the product. I have yet to meet anyone who doesn’t keep kosher who heads to the kosher wine section first. Enlarging the market should naturally create the capital necessary for experimentation of new methods. There is no reason why a kosher wine should not be outstanding. While the industry is moving toward that grail, it’s not there yet.

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