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.
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.
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.
If you find this interesting you might want to check out De Long’s Wine Map of Italy – beautiful and informative.
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.
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.
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!
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.
Thanks to Tom Wark for letting me about this product.
Jamie Goode, The Science of Wine: From Vine to Glass 2/e. University of California Press, 2014.
Jamie Goode’s 2005 book on The Science of Wine is one of my favorites — I’ve read it from cover to cover twice and I dip back in all the time to research specific topics. It seems like there is always more to learn and I enjoy Goode’s teaching style.
I was excited to receive a copy of the new edition and to see what’s new in this important field and how much of a revision the new book represents.
Vineyard to Cellar to Your Glass
The basic organization of the earlier edition is preserved. We begin “In the Vineyard,” move on “In the Winery” and finish with “Our Interaction with Wine” (these are the titles of the main sections of the book — I have copied the Tables of Contents of both volumes below for your reference.
Once you drill down, however, the extent of the revisions become clear. New chapters replace some of the old ones (the chapter on GM vines is gone, with a new one on Phylloxera and ungrafted vines in its place) and there is much new wine in the old chapter bottles as Goode identifies new issues, reports new research, and brings in new perspectives.
Goode was still working his “day job” as a science editor when the original book appeared. Since then he has embraced wine writing as a full-time occupation and this book reflects his more intense focus as well as the many wine industry people he has met in his global travels. His interviews with them contribute to the analysis throughout.
Substitutes or Complements?
One thing that hasn’t changed from the first edition (a legacy of Goode’s editor days) is his clear and interesting writing style, even when things get quite technical, as they sometimes must in a book like this. One of Goode’s go-to methods is to identify an issue and then pick it apart by asking questions and answering them. Simple, but effective. You always know what he is talking about and why. Clear, direct — a good model for writing on any topic.
I read the second edition over the course of a couple of long air flights and like the first edition it held my interest all the way. But I think it will be especially valuable as a reference book that you pull off the shelf as you try to answer troublesome questions or get up to speed on research quickly.
Both books are valuable, but does the second edition replace the first or complement it? I’m not sure. I was going to give my first edition away, but now I’m thinking about keeping it, since some issues in the old volume are not discussed in as much depth in the new. And I think it will be useful on some issues to compare and contrast the two volumes to analyze how Goode’s thinking (and the research that backs it up) changed over time. Highly recommended!
Innovation is a hot topic in the wine industry these days. While some wine brands can depend upon their traditional markets, messages and products, many producers find themselves under increasing attack from “the crafts” — craft beer, craft cider and craft spirits.
One advantage that these alcoholic alternatives seem to possess is the heightened ability to adapt, evolve and excite — to innovate in various ways that keep customers coming back to see what’s new.
How wine got in this situation is a long story that I will tell another time and whether wine should even enter the innovation wars is something that is hotly debated. Some new wine products have been criticized as “pop wines” that debase and therefore threaten the whole product category — not a view that I endorse, but I can understand the concern behind it.
So I was very interested in looking at innovation during my visit to Portugal and I found it in many different forms. I thought you might be interested in a little of what I discovered.
Port: No Wine Before Its Time
Port, which is arguably Portugal’s signature wine, is an example of a wine category that is both timeless and highly innovative. Timeless in the sense that Port wines have in many ways remained much the same for several centuries. White Ports, Ruby Ports, Tawny Ports — in fundamental respects these are the same today as they were 100 or 200 years ago. Almost nothing is as traditional as Port, with its stenciled bottles and historic brands.
This is a plus and also a minus. The plus of course is brand recognition — only Champagne was a stronger brand than Port from a name recognition standpoint. But it’s a minus, too, because that brand, like Sherry, is wrongly associated with one-note sweet wines. Like Rodney Dangerfield, they sometimes don’t get the respect they deserve.
And it is a minus because the traditional Port wine styles are exercises in patience in a very impatient world. Tawny Ports must be held by the maker until they are mature in 10, 20 or even 40 years. That’s a lot of time to wait with the investment time clock running. Vintage Ports need time, too, but this time the buyer is expected to patiently wait for the wine to mature.
Time is Port’s friend because of what they do together in terms of the quality of the final product but, from an economic and market standpoint, time is also an inconvenient enemy and seemed to limit Port’s potential in the postwar years.
The answer to the time problem was an innovation that appeared in 1970, when Taylor Fladgate released their 1965 Late Bottled Vintage (LBV) Port. LBV has the character of Vintage Port but is ready to drink when released, not 20 years later. It was not quite the Chateau Cash Flow killer app of the wine world, but it certainly breathed new life into the Port market at a moment when this was especially welcome. Some say that LBV saved the Port industry and I think this might be true.
Red and white are the traditional colors of Port, but recently some makers have innovated to try to get the attention of younger consumers who have as little interest in their notion of grandfather’s Port as they do in their stereotype of granny’s Cream Sherry. Croft Pink Port and Quinta de Noval Black Port are examples of this innovative trend.
Pink Port is made in a Rosé style, with less skin contact and therefore fewer grippy tannins than Ruby Port. The Croft website is fully of cocktail ideas so perhaps this is a Pink Martini killer wine? Richard Hemmings, writing on the JancisRobinson.com website, makes the wine sound like an excellent option for the many Moscato lovers in your life.
97g/l RS, 4.2g/l TA. Raspberry juice, bubblegum, pink apples and fresh strawberries. Sweet and full on the palate, good concentration. Well balanced and smooth, creamy texture with a mouth-watering burst of fruit on the finish. Very good, not massively complex but a worthy product. (RH)
Noval Black is more traditional in style and color, with more of the tannins than the Pink. Less complex than my favorite LBVs, but interesting. I agree with the website’s chocolate pairing suggestions, although I haven’t tried any of the cocktail-type recipes. Here is Hemmings’ take on Noval Black:
Ruby reserve in style, with an average age of 2-3 years old. Aimed at younger consumers, as the flashy website attests! Fruity, jammy, figs and dates. Sweet and supple, with a glacé cherry flavour and a simple, satisfying style. (RH)
Product versus Process Innovation
So far I have focused on product innovation but I haven’t mentioned process innovation and that is a mistake ,as I learned from a winemaker during my stay in Porto.
George Sandeman of the famous Port & Sherry family invited me to taste through the Ferreira line of wines and Ports and of course the Sandeman Ports. How could I resist? Even better, we would be joined by Luis Sottomayor, Porto Ferreira’s award-winning winemaker.
The bottles and glassware filled the big table as we began to taste through the Casa Ferreirinha wines then the Ferreira and Sandeman Ports. The wines were eye-opening. From the most basic wines selling for just a few Euro on up to the super-premium products they were well-balance, distinctive and delicious. Not all the Portuguese wines that make it to the US market have these qualities.
I have a star in my notebook next to the entry for the Casa Ferreirinha Vinha Grande Red 2010, for example. A blend of classic Portuguese grape varieties from two Douro regions, it spent twelve months in second the third use oak. Easy drinking, soft tannins, nice finish, classy, well-made. Cost? About Euro 10. in the home market or $19.99 in the US.
“Delicious” I wrote next to the note for the Casa Ferreirinha Quita Da Leda Red, which comes from an estate vineyard just 1 kilometer from the Spanish border. It is the product of a small winery located within the company’s larger facility. Spectacular wine, special terroir, I wrote. US price is $64.99 and worth it.
As we tasted through the Ports I started to talk about innovation — Pink, Black and so on. Sottomayor stopped me in my tracks. If you want to really understand innovation in Portugal, he said, you have to look beyond new products to the work that is being done to improve the process in the vineyard and the cellar. This is where the real gains are, as seen in the table wines I had just tasted and the Ports I was about to sample.
Taste this LBV, Sottomayor said. The LBVs we make today are of the same quality as the Vintage Ports we made 15 years ago. And the Vintage Ports are that much better, too. New products are part of the story of Portuguese wine innovation, but improved winegrowing and winemaking are just as important now and probably more important in the long run. Lesson learned!
I came away from the tasting described above both richer and poorer. Richer because Sottomayor’s lesson about innovation will save me some money — as much as I enjoy Vintage Port and will continue to buy it, I now have LBV centered on my radar screen and it sells for a good deal less.
And poorer? Well, Sandeman and Sottomayor set up a little experiment for me, first letting me taste their 10-year old Tawny Ports and then the 20-year-olds. We like the 20s, George Sandeman said, because you can taste where they’ve been (the 10-year old wines) and also where they are going (the 40-year old Tawny that I tasted next). The tension between youth and old age makes the 20-year old Tawny particularly interesting, he said.
And I am sad to say that I could taste exactly what he was describing. Sad? Yes, because 20-year old Tawny costs a good deal more than the 10 and for the rest of my life I am going to be paying that extra sum!
Congratulations to George and Luis on the great ratings that their 2011 Vintage Ports have received! And thanks to them and to Joana Pais for their help and hospitality.