The Judgment of Paris and Napa Valley’s Road Not Taken

A journalist recently asked me to comment on the impact of the famous 1976 “Judgment of Paris” tasting of California and French wines. The California wines were very competitive, according to the scores given by the panel of French judges, and wines from the Napa Valley actually topped both the Cabernet and Chardonnay lists. Amazing.

Time magazine reporter George M. Taber was the only journalist in attendance and his exclusive story about the unexpected American victory was a shot heard round the world. His 2005 book, Judgment of Paris is worth reading and even re-reading today.

What if … ?

Would Napa Valley have grown and developed if the Judgment of Paris had not taken place? Well, yes, I answered, there was already a good deal of momentum stimulated by, among other things, the successful opening in 1966 of the Robert Mondavi Winery, the first major new winery in the valley since Prohibition.

In fact, local residents were already concerned about the masses of wine tourists clogging local roads and highways and over-whelming winery facilities back in 1972 when a KPIX Eyewitness News reporter paid a visit to see what was happening. Click here or on the image below to watch the vintage video report.

And there was already international attention, too. Domaine Chandon, the Yountville outpost of the famous French Champagne house Môet Chandon, opened in 1973, three years before the famous Paris tasting.

On the Road Again

So the Napa Valley was already on the road to big things even before the Paris tasting. But just about everyone agrees that the international recognition changed things.

It changed things for Napa and for California, but the impact didn’t stop there. Towards the end of his book, George Taber takes a bit of a global tour, showing us how the world of wine broadened as the result of a number of forces including, of course, the new perspective on New World wine that the 1976 tasting provoked.

Second Thoughts?

Revisiting the Napa Valley years after the Paris tasting, to gather insights for his 2005 book, Taber could see the result of the intense focus that his astute reporting helped create. There was growth, for sure, and lots of new investment, both domestic and by a long list of international wine luminaries including, of course, the Rothschilds who partnered with Robert Mondavi in 1978, just two years after the Judgment, to build Opus One.

Taber was concerned about how the boom was unfolding. Enormous wealth, vanity vineyards, trophy wines. “The Napa Valley unfortunately became another proof of the maxim that nothing succeeds like excess.” And a good indicator of excess, he proposed, was the price of vineyard land. Warren Winiarski paid about $2000 per acre in 1970 for the first Stag’s Leap vineyard, Taber reported.  In 1999 the owner of Far Niente winery paid $100,000 an acre for a 42-acres vineyard, which seemed like a lot. Francis Ford Coppola raised the stakes just a few years later, paying $300,000 an acre, a jaw-dropping price at the time.

Now, of course, $300,000 an acre for Napa Valley vineyards is not noteworthy or exceptional. $300,000 to $500,000 per vineyard acre (adjusting for the value of any production or housing assets) seems to be the norm, with some particular parcels going for even more.  The excess that Taber saw 20 years ago has not diminished.

Money, Taste, and Wine

Naturally this is reflected in the wine. Not all of it, of course, but it is easy to see a pattern. The focus in Napa is increasingly on its signature grape variety, Cabernet Sauvignon. I am sure this is about taste — the best Napa Cabs I’ve tried are really good — but it is also about money, I think.

Cabernet is the grape of Bordeaux, too, and some people are happy to pay much more for Cabernet than they would for Zinfandel, which was once widely grown in the valley but now not-so-much. Sky-high land prices require high grape prices which mean high bottle prices for the wine. King Cabernet is the surest bet, many believe, and so it increasingly carpets the valley floor.

Many of the wines are really distinctive — Sue and I have tasted some real stunners! — but some of them taste the same to my amateur palate. I call them Napa Valley Red Wine. Maybe this is true of all wine regions, even the great ones? In Napa they often sell for more than $100 a bottle and seem to satisfy the thirst of buyers looking for the taste of Napa.

They Think I’m Bragging

I am not the only one who is concerned about how the wines of Napa Valley have changed and how the flood of tourist dollars and investor wealth has led to excess. But whenever I bemoan certain aspects of the Napa wine industry environment to international audiences, they think that I am just bragging. All those tourists and fancy restaurants! All the celebrities and trophy wines! Such economic success and pure opulence!

Napa Valley is a dream to international wine visitors, and for foreign winery owners who long for their own Napa moment, their own Judgment of Paris. Who can blame them?

But what if the Judgment never happened? If you know the story, you can appreciate that it could easily not have taken place (of the results could have turned out differently).  Napa Valley would still have grown the thrived, I think, but it would be different today. What might it look like? Come back next week to see what might have been … and is.

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Thanks to Tony Correia for his help nailing down vineyard valuations. Thanks to Silicon Valley Bank’s Rob McMillan for his help locating the KPIX video, which was originally featured in a very memorable post on Rob’s blog.

Dry Creek Valley and Napa Valley’s Road Not Taken

Last week I wrote about the Napa Valley and the Judgment of Paris. What would Napa look like today, I asked, if the Judgment of Paris hadn’t happened? Or if California wines had not done so well in the famous Paris blind tasting?

I think Sue and I stumbled upon a possible answer a few weeks ago when we were in the Santa Rosa area, where I spoke at a meeting of the Allied Grape Growers. The alternative history of Napa — the road not taken — is there for you to see … and it is very appealing.

If you want to know what I mean, set your GPS for the Dry Creek Valley.

A Tale of Two Valleys

Dry Creek Valley?  Comparing DCV with the Napa Valley is crazy from a quantitative standpoint. Napa had about 46,000 vineyard acres and around 420 wineries in 2013 according to American Wine by Jancis Robinson and Linda Murphy. DCV is much smaller, with about 9300 acres and 65 wineries according to the same source. It is a real apples and oranges comparison for sure.

But the two winegrowing regions are not so different in other ways. George Calvert Yount planted the first Napa vineyards in 1836 and Charles Krug established the first commercial winery in 1861. The first DCV vines were planted a bit later, in 1869, by George Block, who with Alex Colson established the first winery a few years after that. Wine was a growing business in both valleys by the 1880s.

Prohibition took its toll on the wine industry in general and it took a long time for growth to return. The Robert Mondavi Winery, for example, was the first significant new Napa winery since Prohibition when it opened in 1966. David Stare’s Dry Creek Vineyards was the first post-Prohibition DCV winery when it opened in 1972. Both valleys were moving ahead by the time of the 1976 Paris tasting.

Both valleys have grown and changed over the past 50 years, but in different ways that take many forms. The city of Healdsburg, for example, has nice places to stay and to eat, but seems to have retained its comfortable small-town feel. The local baseball team — part of a summer college-level amateur league — are the Prune Packers because the valley floors hereabouts were once as carpeted with prune trees as they are today with grape vines.

You can find Napa-style luxury in Healdsburg (see this and this as examples) but you can also have the sort of experience that Napa offered years ago, too, but is harder to find there today.

95 Years in Dry Creek Valley

Driving through Dry Creek Valley with its narrow, quiet roads contrasts with the traffic on Napa’s Highway 29 (or even the usually quieter Silverado Trail that runs parallel to it on the other side of the valley).  Sue and I had only a few hours available, so we picked two wineries that we wanted to visit for different reasons:  Sbragia Family Vineyards and Pedroncelli Winery

Pedroncelli Winery is a multi-generation story. Julie Pedroncelli St. John’s great grandparents, Giovanni and Julia Pedroncelli, started the business in 1927 (making this year the winery’s 95th birthday). Nineteen-twenty-seven? You are correct: it was during Prohibition. The business was selling wine grapes to home winemakers, who were allowed legal production of 200 gallons of wine per year for non-intoxicating family consumption.

Zinfandel was the mainstay at the beginning and still probably the wine that Pedroncelli is best known for. But this steady theme hides constant change. The first Cabernet Sauvignon (first for the winery and for Dry Creek Valley, too) appeared in 1965 and now a full range of wines is produced, totaling about 50,000 cases a year. We enjoyed all the Pedroncelli wines, but Sue was particularly taken by the distinctive tastes of the different Zinfandels.

Julie explained that each of the wines was connected in some way to the Pedroncelli family, and the way its history is intertwined with that of Dry Creek Valley. A lot has changed in 95 years and Pedroncelli has worked hard to adapt to the changing natural and economic environments.

Dry Creek Valley Roots

Ed Sbragia, the superstar winemaker best known for his award-winning Beringer wines, established his eponymous winery in Dry Creek Valley, not Napa as you might guess, because it was an opportunity to return to his roots. Sbragia’s grandfather immigrated from Tuscany and settled near Healdsburg, where he planted a vineyard, of course, to Zinfandel grapes, which he both sold and used to make wine for the family. Ed Sbragia grew up working in that vineyard and I guess it put him on the path that led to Beringer and fame and then back to the Dry Creek Valley, too.

Adam Sbragia, Ed’s son, worked with him at Beringer and is the winemaker here. Kevin Sbragia, another son, runs the hospitality side of the business. It really is a family affair. We met with Kevin and with Steve Cousins, who is the winery CEO.

The wines reflect Ed Sbragia’s complicated journey. There are Cabernets and Chardonnays from Napa Valley fruit, as you might expect, including one Chardonnay that might remind you of the one that was named Wine Spectator Wine of the Year at Beringer. There are also wines from the Sonoma Valley, including a Zinfandel made from grapes that Ed’s father Nonino planted (and Ed worked) and another from a vineyard his uncle Italo planted.

The wines were excellent, as you would expect, and noteworthy for their balance and freshness. We were drawn to the wines made form the varieties that you’d expect to find in a field blend in this region. Sue was particularly taken with an old-vine Carignane from the Forchini’s vineyard.

Sbragia Family Vineyards shows one path that Dry Creek Valley has taken — sort of a hybrid of Old Dry Creek and upscale Napa Valley. But I think the taste of Dry Creek comes through clearly. Adam Sbragia has created a $25 red blend (imagine that, Napa Valley!) called Home Field. This video gives a sense of the project’s purpose — and a taste of Dry Creek Valley, too.

What If …

So what if the Judgment of Paris never happened. Napa Valley might have ended up looking a bit like Dry Creek Valley, with lower land and bottle prices, fewer tourists than now, and perhaps more diversity in wine grape varieties.  It would be a different Napa Valley — that’s for sure — but a very appealing one.

In the meantime, this thought experiment provides a useful lesson. There are many very interesting winegrowing regions in Napa, Sonoma, and Mendocino Counties and beyond  that will reward wine enthusiasts who want a taste of what might have been.

You’ve just got to take the road not taken.

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Thanks to everyone at Sbragia Family Vineyards and Pedroncelli Winery for this hospitality.

Apologies to Wine Economist subscribers who received a fragment of this column in their email in-boxes a couple of weeks ago. It was what they call in finance a “fat finger” problem. I was trying to schedule the text and keep working on it, but my fat fingers hit the wrong button and it went live. I took down the post quickly, but couldn’t do much about the resulting email but apologize. Sorry!

Flashback: Lawyers, Wine, and Money

Recent Wine Economist columns have reflected on the Judgment of Paris and its impact on the Napa Valley.  I couldn’t help myself thinking back to 2010 and the column below, which I present here as a “flashback.”  Where do “lawyers, wine, and money” come into the Napa picture? Read on to find out.

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Stag’s {Stags’} (Stags) Leap

Originally published April 4, 2010.

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

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

Money, Wine and Lawyers

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

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

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

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

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

Lawyers, Wine and Grammar

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

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

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

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

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

Challenges Old & New

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

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

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

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The title of this post reminded me of a Warren Zevon song.

China’s 10-Point Scale: Wine Ratings with Chinese Characteristics

chinasaleA couple of years ago the China Alcoholic Drinks Association announced that it was working on a new wine ranking system to help guide Chinese consumers to the best wines and best values.  A recent newsletter from Rob Geddes MW reports that things are moving forward quickly.

Geddes says his China sources indicate the new scale  will soon become a national standard. He should know. As an important actor on the Australian wine scene — his annual book of wine ratings is the gold standard when it comes to Aussie wines — Geddes naturally spends a lot of time in China. China is Australia’s largest export market and Geddes has helped develop the market there through his tastings and seminars.

Much of the discussion about the China ratings system focuses on the fact that it uses a 10-point scale for maximum clarity rather than the 20-point or 100-point scales commonly used elsewhere. I think the real news is that this is moving toward a national rating system that would potentially assign an official score to each wine on the market taking into consideration, it is said,  Chinese tastes, cuisine, and culture.

I can’t imagine that happening anywhere else in the world. I guess it is part of a movement to a wine industry and culture with distinctly Chinese characteristics. What do you think?

The new Chinese scale makes me think about wine rating systems generally. There are all sorts of scales in use. Geddes (along with South Africa’s Platter’s Guide) use a five-star system. Gambero Rosso rates Italy’s wines on a Tre Bicchieri (3-glasses) scale that mirrors Michelin’s three-star restaurant ratings. And of course Robert Parker is famous for the 100-point system he helped make so popular.

What’s the best wine rating system? Glad you asked! Here is a vintage Wine Economist column from way back in 2008 that tries to answer that very question. Cheers!

Wine By the Numbers

February 9, 2008

Rating the Wine Rating Systems

People turn to wine critics to tell them what’s really inside that expensive bottle (or that cheap one) and how various wines compare. Some critics are famous for their detailed wine tasting notes (Michael Broadbent comes to mind here) that provide comprehensive qualitative evaluation of wines, but with so many choices in today’s global market it is almost inevitable that quantitative rating scales would evolve. They simplify wine evaluation, which is what many consumers are looking for, but they have complicated matters, too, because there is no single accepted system to provide the rankings.

I’m interested in the variety of wine rating systems and scales that wine critics employ and the controversies that surround them. This blog entry is a intended to be a brief guide for the perplexed, an analysis of the practical and theoretical difficulties of making and using wine ranking systems.

Wine Rating Scales: 100-points, 20-points, Three Glasses and More

winescales.jpgThe first problem is that different wine critic publications use different techniques to evaluate wine and different rating scales to compare them. Click on this image to see a useful comparison of wine rating systems compiled by De Long Wine (click here to download the pdf version, which is easier to read).

Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate, the Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast all use a 100-point rating scale, although the qualitative meanings associated with the numbers are not exactly the same. It is perhaps not an accident that these are all American publications and that American wine readers are familiar with 100-point ratings from their high school and college classes.

In theory a 100-point system allows wine critics to be very precise in their relative ratings (a 85-point syrah really is better than an 84-point syrah) although in practice many consumers may not be able to appreciate the distinction. Significantly, it is not really a 100-point scale since 50 points is functionally the lowest grade and it is rare to see wines rated for scores lower than 70, so the scale is not really as precise as it might seem. (Any professor or teacher will tell you, there has been both grade inflation and grade compression in recent years and this applies to wine critics too, I believe.)

The 100-point scale is far from universal. The enologists at the University of California at Davis use a 20-point rating scale, as does British wine critic Jancis Robinson and Decanter, the leading global wine magazine. The 20-point scale actually corresponds to how students are graded in French high schools and universities, so perhaps that says something about its origins.

The Davis 20-point scale gives up to 4 points for appearance, 6 points for smell, 8 points for taste and 2 for overall harmony, according to my copy of The Taste of Wine by Emile Peynaud. The Office International du Vin’s 20-point scale has different relative weights for wine qualities; it awards 4 points for appearance, 4 for smell and 12 for taste. Oz Clarke’s 20 point system assigns 2, 6 and 12 points for look, smell and taste. It’s easy to understand how the same wine can receive different scores when different critics used different criteria and different weights.

A 20-point scale (which is often really a 10-point scale) offers less precision in relative rankings, since only whole and half point ratings are available, but this may be appropriate depending upon how the ratings are to be used. Wines rated 85, 86 and 87 on a 100-point scale, for example, might all receive scores of about 16 on a 20 point scale. It’s up to you to decide if the finer evaluative grid provides useful information.

Decanter uses both a 20-point scale and as well as simple guide of zero to five stars to rate wines, where one star is “acceptable”, two is quite good, three is recommended, four is highly recommended and five is, well I suppose an American would say awesome, but the British are more reserved. Dorothy J. Gaiter and John Brecher (who write an influential wine column for the Wall Street Journal) also use a five point system; they rates wines from OK to Good, Very Good, Delicious and Delicious(!).

The five point system allows for less precision but it is still very useful – it is the system commonly used to rate hotels and resorts, for example. ViniD’Italia, the Italian wine guide published by Gambero Rosso, uses a three-glasses scale that will be familiar to European consumers who use the Michelin Guide’s three-star scale to rate restaurants.

Which System if Best?

It is natural to think that the best system is the one that provides the most information, so a 100-point scale must be best, but I’m not sure that’s true. Emile Peynaud makes the point that how you go about tasting and evaluating wine is different depending upon your purpose. Critical wine evaluation to uncover the flaws in wine (to advise a winemaker, for example) is different in his book from commercial tasting (as the basis for ordering wine for a restaurant or wine distributor or perhaps buying wine as an investment) which is different consumer tasting to see what you like.

Many will disagree, but it seems to me that the simple three or five stars/glasses/points systems are probably adequate for consumer tasting use while the 20- and 100-point scales are better suited for commercial purposes. I’m not sure that numbers or stars are useful at all for critical wine evaluation – for that you need Broadbent’s detailed qualitative notes. Wine critic publications often try to serve all three of these markets, which may explain why they use the most detailed systems or use a dual system like Decanter.

In any case, however, it seems to me that greater transparency would be useful. First, it is important that the criteria and weights are highlighted and not buried in footnotes. And I don’t see why a 20-point rating couldn’t be disaggregated like this: 15 (3/6/6) for a 20-point system that gives up to 4 points for appearance, 6 for smell and 10 for taste. That would tell me quickly how this wine differs from a 15 (4/3/8). Depending upon how much I value aroma in a wine and what type of wine it is, I might prefer the first “15” wine to the second.

Wine and Figure Skating?

So far I’ve focused on the practical problems associated with having different evaluation scales with different weights for different purposes, but there are even more serious difficulties in wine rating scales. In economics we learn that numerical measures are either cardinal or ordinal. Cardinal measures have constant units of measurement that can be compared and manipulated mathematically with ease. Weight (measured by a scale) and length (measured in feet or meters) are cardinal measures. Every kilogram or kilometer is the same.

Ordinal measures are different – they provide only a rank ordering. If I asked you to rate three wines from your most preferred to your least favorite, for example, that would be an ordinal ranking. You and I might agree about the order (rating wines A over C over B, for example), but we might disagree about how much better A was compared to C. I might think it was a little better, but for you the difference could be profound.

To use a familiar example from sports, they give the Olympic gold medal in the long jump based upon a cardinal measure of performance (length of jump) and they give the gold medal in figure skating based upon ordinal judges’ scores, which are relative not absolute measures of performance (in the U.S. they actually call the judges’ scores “ordinals”). Figure skating ratings are controversial for the same reason wine scores are.

So what kind of judgment do we make when we taste wine — do we evaluate against an absolute standard like in the long jump or a relative one like the figure skating judges? The answer is both, but in different proportions. An expert taster will have an exact idea of what a wine should be and can rate accordingly, but you and I might only be able to rank order different wines, since our abilities to make absolute judgements aren’t well developed.

This is one reason why multi-wine social blind tasting parties almost always produce unexpected winners or favorites. The wines we like better [relative] are not always the ones we like best [absolute] when evaluated on their own.

Ordinal and cardinal are just different, like apples and oranges (or Pinot Gris and Chardonnay). Imagine what the long jump would look like if ordinal “style points” were awarded? Imagine what figure skating would look like if the jumps and throws were rated by cardinal measures distance and hang time? No, it wouldn’t be a pretty sight.

Economists are taught that it is a mistake to treat ordinal rankings as if they are cardinal rankings, but that’s what I think we wine folks do sometimes. I’ve read than Jancis Robinson, who studied Mathematics at Oxford, isn’t entirely comfortable with numeric wine ratings. Perhaps it is because she appreciates this methodological difficulty.

Lessons of the Judgment of Paris

paris2.jpgOr maybe she’s just smart. Smart enough to know that your 18-point wine may be my 14-pointer. It’s clear that people approach wine with different tastes, tasting skills, expectations and even different taste buds, so relative rankings by one person need not be shared by others. This is true of even professional tasters, as the Judgment of Paris made clear.

The Judgment of Paris (the topic of a great book by George M. Taber – see below – and two questionable forthcoming films) was a 1976 blind tasting of French versus American wines organized (in Paris, of course) by Steven Spurrier. It became famous because a panel of French wine experts found to their surprise that American wines were as good as or even better than prestigious wines from French.

A recent article by Dennis Lindley (professor emeritus at University College London – see below) casts doubt on this conclusion, however. Read the article for the full analysis, but for now just click on the image above to see the actual scores of the 11 judges. It doesn’t take much effort to see that these experts disagreed as much as they agreed about the quality of the wines they tasted. The 1971 Mayacamas Cabernet, for example, received scores as low as 3 and 5 on a 20-point scale along with ratings as high as 12, 13 and 14. It was simultaneous undrinkable (according to a famous sommelier) and pretty darn good (according to the owner of a famous wine property). If the experts don’t agree with each other, what is the chance that you will agree with them?

Does this mean that wine critics and their rating systems are useless and should disappear? Not likely. Wine ratings are useful to consumers, who face an enormous range of choices and desperately need information, even if it is practically problematic and theoretically suspect. Wine ratings are useful commercially, too. Winemakers need to find ways to reduce consumer uncertainty and therefore increase sales and wine ratings serve that purpose.

And then, of course, there is the wine critic industry itself, which knows that ratings sell magazines and drive advertising. Wine ratings are here to stay. We just need to understand them better and use them more effectively.

References:

Dennis V. Lindley, “Analysis of a Wine Tasting.” Journal of Wine Economics 1:1 (May 2006) 33-41.

George M. Taber, Judgment of ParisCalifornia vs. France and the History 1976 Paris Tasting that Revolutionized Wine. Scribner, 2005.

The Road to Wine Wars II (and a 30% Discount Offer)

My new book Wine Wars II will be released in just a few days on July 1, 2022, and so. in the spirit of shameless self-promotion, let me remind you that you can order Wine Wars II in paperback or e-book format from Rowman & Littlefield, Amazon.com, and other online and bricks-and-mortar book sellers.

Rowman & Littlefield is offering a 30% discount on Wine Wars II publisher-direct purchases for a limited time. Scroll down to the bottom of this page for details.

Tantor Media will release the audio-book version of Wine Wars II (read by Jonathan Yen) on July 19, 2002. It will be available everywhere audio books are sold. Ten hours of fascinating stories about where global wine is going and how it got there.

A Tale of Two Glasses

Paperback, e-book, audio. Wine Wars II is everywhere!

Wine Wars II updates and extends the most important arguments I made in the original Wine Wars and then adds a new set of chapters on Wine’s Triple Crisis. Each “flight” or set of chapters ends with suggested wine tasting so you can consider the arguments using all your senses. What fun!

Here is a brief excerpt from chapter 1 “A Tale of Two Glasses” for your reading pleasure. It talks about the origins of Wine Wars and the development of Wine Wars II. I think it is interesting that the road to Wine Wars II began with a winery visit about forty years ago, when the problems facing the wine business and the economy more generally were a lot like those we confront today.

HOW I STUMBLED INTO THE WINE WARS

People often ask me how I became a wine economist, an economist who studies the global wine markets. The answer is rooted in a particular time and place. Sue and I were still newlyweds, taking a low-budget vacation in the Napa Valley back in the day when that was still possible. We were headed north on the
Silverado Trail late on our last day, pointed toward our economy motel in Santa Rosa, when we decided to stop for one last tasting.

The winery name was very familiar, and I had high hopes for our tasting. If I had known more about wine back then, I would have recognized this as one of the wineries that kicked French butt in the 1976 Judgment of Paris wine tasting. We pulled off the road and went in to find just the winemaker and a cellar rat at work. No fancy tasting room back then, just boards and barrels to form a makeshift bar. They stopped what they were doing and brought out a couple of glasses. If I knew more about wine back then, I would have been in awe of the guy pouring the wine, but I was pretty much in the dark. So we tasted and talked.

I started asking my amateur questions about the wine, but pretty soon the conversation turned around. The winemaker found out that I was an economics professor. Suddenly he was very interested in talking with me. What’s going to happen to interest rates? Inflation? Tax reform? He had a lot of concerns about the economy because his prestigious winery was also a business and what was happening out there in the financial markets (especially interest rates and bank credit, as I remember) had a big impact on what he could or would do in the cellar. Wineries, especially those that specialize in fine red wines, have a lot of
financial issues.

In addition to the initial investment in vineyards, winery facilities, equipment, and so forth, each year’s production ages for two or three years, quietly soaking up implicit or explicit interest cost as it waits to be released from barrel to bottle to marketplace. The wine changes as it ages, but the economy changes, too. It’s impossible to know at crush what market conditions will be like when the first bottle is sold. Wine economics is a serious concern. Few winemakers are completely insulated from the business side, and sometimes the economy can have a huge effect on what winemakers get to make (if they have the resources to stick with their vision) or have to make (if they don’t).

And so a famous winemaker taught me to think about wine in economic terms and to consider that supply and demand sometimes matter as much as climate and soil when it comes to what’s in my wineglass. I should have known.

Although my interest in wine and economics merged on that Napa day, it sat on its lees for a long time, as I waited for an opportunity to link my personal passion with my professional research agenda. The two naturally converged a few years ago when I began writing what turned out to be a four-volume series
on the global economy. My 2005 book Globaloney: Unraveling the Myths of Globalization includes a chapter called “Globalization versus Terroir,” my first attempt to write about wine economics for a general audience. Globaloney argues that complex global processes shouldn’t be reduced to a few simple
images. Globalization and food are more than just McDonald’s, for example, and globalization of wine isn’t just McWine.

The wine chapter in Globaloney gave me confidence that I had more to say about money, wine, and globalization, so I launched a website called The Wine Economist (WineEconomist.com), where I could work out my ideas in public, make connections, and develop a wine voice. After several years and nearly
200,000 words of blog posts, The Wine Economist evolved into the first edition of this book.

THE ROAD TO WINE WARS II

I wasn’t sure if anyone would want to read about the business of wine, but I was wrong. Wine Wars was warmly received by both critics and readers. It turns out that while wine is good, wine and a story is even better, and stories about the business side of wine can be very interesting. A number of wine industry readers have said that Wine Wars helped them connect the dots and see things more clearly. Consumers, who have no particular business connection, say they just like knowing the backstory of their favorite drink.

I’ve spent the last decade on the wine road speaking at wine industry conferences around the world and learning more about wine and the people who make it. It is a tough job, but someone has to do it, and apparently I am that lucky someone! I have recorded my impressions and experiences in hundreds of columns on The Wine Economist.

Wine Wars has been joined by three other books that continue my analysis of global wine: Extreme Wine (2013); Money, Taste, and Wine (2015); and Around the World in Eighty Wines (2017). Wine Wars celebrated its tenth birthday in 2021, and that occasion made me stop and think (as round-number birthdays sometimes do).

The powerful forces that I identify in Wine Wars are still important, but they’ve changed in ways both big and small. Environmental and demographic shifts, for example, re now much more clearly understood as wine industry challenges. There is a lot to think about and to write about. And so I have written this new book, Wine Wars II, which updates the first edition and extends its argument to address wine’s global crisis.

In a way, this journey has brought me back to that dark cellar on the Silverado Trail in Napa Valley, the great wines we sampled that day, and my “aha!” moment when I realized that wine and economics are a perfect pairing. I’ve learned much more about wine and wine economics, and I appreciate now more than ever the many challenges that the world of wine faces. But I remain an optimist, as I show in this book. I still have grape expectations.

 

Red Mountain: Think Global, Drink Local

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

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

The Italian Job: Col Solare

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Swedish Solution: Hedges Family Estates

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bottoms Up: The Bargain Wine Revolution

taberGeorge M Taber, A Toast to Bargain Wines: How innovators, iconoclasts, and winemaking revolutionaries are changing the way the world drinks. Scribner, 2011.

George Taber knows something about how seemingly small events can sometimes turn the world of wine upside down. He was the Time magazine reporter who covered the famous 1976 “Judgment of Paris” tasting where top French wines were matched against California Cabs and Chardonnays in blind tastings evaluated by famous French critics. The New World wines held their own and even took the top prizes in both red and white categories. Thus was a fermenting revolution recognized and encouraged.

Now the issue isn’t so much Old versus New as it is Expensive versus Cheap and Elites versus Masses. Taber sides with a democratic vision of wine and this book is a celebration of the fact that there are more drinkable bargain (less than $10) wines in the world now than ever before. The glass is more than half full. Drink up!

What to Drink (for $10 or Less)

Taber’s celebration comes in two parts. The second half of the book is a bargain wine buyer’s guide. Taber provides top 10 lists of his favorite “$10 and less” wines and wine brands sorted by grape variety and region. He also recommends a couple of splurge wines in each category for good measure.

My, what a lot of inexpensive wine George Taber must consumed to write these recommendations. Bottoms up, indeed!

Here’s what I mean. The section on blush wines highlights 10 wines including a $3 Oak Leaf White Zinfandel (from Wal-Mart) and a $6 Riunite Strawberry White Merlot. I assume that Taber tasted the big selling Sutter Home White Zin and found it wanting since it does not appear on the list, but he doesn’t list all the wines he tried in each category, only the best ones, nor (and this would be particularly useful) the really really bad ones to steer clear of.

Revolution from Below

The first half of the book makes the case that maybe you should take bargain wines more seriously (and not just because of the current economic situation). Taber sets out to undermine the conventional wisdom about wine. Maybe wine judges are as confused as the rest of us. Maybe taste is so subjective that your opinion really is all that matters. Maybe (gasp!) bottles and corks are a pointless anachronism when it comes to everyday wines and you should reconsider your prejudice against “box wines,” which have changed a lot since you tried them in college.

My favorite chapters are the profiles of the iconoclasts who are leading the wine revolution. Taber’s reporting skills are put to good use in telling the tales of Fred Franzia (the godfather of Two Buck Chuck) and John Casella (the father of Yellow Tail wine).  Both wines changed the world in important ways and it is interesting to have their stories told so effectively and to be able to see these two phenomena side-by-side.

The final chapter (before the buyer’s guide) examines China. Will it too change the wine world? Maybe – that’s the answer here. China is still a work in progress and perhaps it is too soon to draw many conclusions. Taber does a good job pulling together different trends and facts.

What’s a Bargain?

One of the ironies of this book comes from the fact that Taber needs to define what he means by “bargain wine” and value (like taste) is pretty subjective. He draws the line at $10, which is a good thing I believe since this allows him room to include a lot of pretty good wines in his lists and not just focus on extreme values. Ironically, however, a $10 wine is classified as “premium” and sometimes “super-premium” here in America. The majority of American wine drinkers think of a $10 wine as a splurge.

I have friends who are afraid to try a $10 wine because they fear that they will be able to taste the difference and be forced to turn their backs on the $6 wines they’ve been enjoying for years.

I wonder if wine snobs will be annoyed by George Taber’s book? After all, with this book Taber seems to suggest that democratic wines deserve the same respect as those Judgment of Paris aristocrats. Me? I’m just grateful that he’s done the dirty work of tasting and sorting all those really inexpensive wines so that I don’t have to! Bottoms up!

Malbec: The Film! [A World Premier]

Boom Varietal: The Rise of Argentine Malbec. A film by Sky Pinnick (Kirk Ermisch, executive producer). “Southern Wine Group presents a Rage Productions documentary,” 2011.

We are just back from the BendFilm Festival in Bend, Oregon — an unlikely trip for a guy who sees about one new movie a year. The special occasion? The world premier of a documentary about the Malbec boom, Boom Varietal by filmmaker Sky Pinnick.

Simply Irresistible?

A film? About wine?. How could I resist?

Well, actually I might have been able to resist driving 6 hours from Tacoma to Bend for the premier since the track record for wine films is so mixed. Mondovino is a classic, of course, but it sure is long (or does it just seem that way while you’re watching it?) and it’s kinda annoying, too? So damn earnest! (“Le vin est mort” and all that.)

Then there’s Bottleshock, the film that’s loosely based on the famous “Judgment of Paris” tasting of French versus California wines in 1976. The film is a lot of fun (the opposite of Mondo?) but just as annoying since almost every single detail is distorted for dramatic effect or commercial purpose. The best way to watch Bottleshock is to forget that there really was a Paris tasting and enjoy the pure theater of the thing.

A Feast for the Senses

So which way would Boom Varietal go — earnest but annoying like Mondo or annoyingly commercial like Bottleshock?

Well, incredibly it is not annoying at all. In fact, it is completely enchanting. The first five minutes are a feast for the senses. The film captivated me, drawing me into the world of Malbec and the people and places associated with it.

The land and people of Argentina are the stars of this film, especially the winemakers. Executive producer Kirk Ermisch, CEO of Southern Wine Group, no doubt used his industry connections in Argentina to make the film possible, but he commendably resisted the temptation to make this a promotion piece for his business.

Typecasting? Dismal Scientist?

I went to Bend knowing that I had a bit part in the film. Sky and his wife and collaborator Shea Pinnick interviewed me me in my office last spring as they were trying to stitch together the video pieces to tell a coherent story. I’ve been writing about Argentinean Malbec for several years and obviously worrying about its future. My role, I thought, was to be the classic “dismal scientist” and wonder aloud if today’s silver lining isn’t really surrounded by a deep dark cloud. And that’s what it seemed to be when I viewed the film’s “teaser” (see above) a couple of weeks ago.

So imagine my surprise as I watched the film for the first time. I wasn’t dismal at all! Sky was able to capture my enthusiasm for Argentina and Malbec and my cautious optimism about its future in the world of wine. If Argentina’s Malbec industry falters (and that’s always  a possibility in this uncertain world) I think it will be because of factors that are beyond the control of the winemakers — especially inflation and exchange rates.

I was also surprised to see myself on the screen so frequently. I think this is because Boom Varietal tells the story of the land, the people and the markets. A wine economics story! No wonder I had such a good time at the premier.

Beyond Malbec Boom?

I enjoyed this film and even learned a few things from it, but I had to keep reminding myself that this is a film about Malbec, not Argentinean wine more generally. Although the focus on Malbec is understandable and even appropriate for a U.S. audience (Malbec represents abut 2/3 of Argentina’s wine exports to the U.S.), one thing I learned from our trip to Mendoza earlier this year is that Argentina is Malbec, but not just Malbec.

If Malbec boom becomes Malbec bust (and I’m not predicting it will), then Argentina will be glad that it produces many other fine  wines, both red and white. Search for Argentina among the Decanter World Wine Awards results and you will see what I mean. Maybe what lies beyond Malbec boom is not Malbec bust but a growing appreciate of Argentinean wine more generally.

But whatever happens I think Argentina will be thankful that Malbec vaulted them onto the world stage in the first place. An incredible story! Thanks to the makers of Boom Varietal for telling it so well.

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Thanks to Sky and Shea Pinnick and to Kirk Ermisch for their hospitality while we were in Bend and for inviting me to participate in this project in the first place. I wish them every success with their project.

Wine Economics: Coming Full Circle

My new book, Wine Wars, will be officially released next month; it tells the story of the battle for the future of wine (the Curse of the Blue Nun, the Miracle of Two Buck Chuck and the Revenge of the Terroirists) starting  in Napa Valley, where my interest in wine economics began, and ending  back in the same place 30 years later. Here’s a brief excerpt from the book.

Back on the Silverado Trail

People often ask me how I became a wine economist, an economist who studies the global wine markets. The answer is rooted in a particular time and place. Sue and I were still newlyweds, taking a low-budget vacation in the Napa Valley back in the day when that was still possible. We were headed north on the Silverado Trail late on our last day, pointed toward our economy motel in Santa Rosa, when we decided to stop for one last tasting.

The winery name was very familiar and I had high hopes for our tasting. If I had known more about wine back then I would have recognized this as one of the wineries that kicked French butt in the 1976 Judgment of Paris wine tasting. We pulled off the road and went in to find just the winemaker and a cellar rat at work. No fancy tasting room back then, just boards and barrels to form a makeshift bar. They stopped what they were doing and brought out a couple of glasses. If I knew more about wine back then, I would have been in awe of the guy pouring the wine, but I was pretty much in the dark. So we tasted and talked.

I started asking my amateur questions about the wine, but pretty soon the conversation turned around. The winemaker found out that I was an economics professor. Suddenly he was very interested in talking with me. What’s going to happen to interest rates? Inflation? Tax reform? He had a lot of concerns about the economy because his prestigious winery was also a business and what was happening out there in the financial markets (especially to interest rates and bank credit, as I remember) had a big impact on what he could or would do in the cellar. Wineries, especially those that specialize in fine red wines, have a lot of financial issues.

Besides the initial investment in vineyards, winery facility, equipment, and so forth, there is also the fact that each year’s production ages for two or three years, quietly soaking up implicit or explicit interest cost as it waits to be released from barrel to bottle to marketplace. The wine changes as it ages, but the economy changes, too. It’s impossible to know at crush what things will be like when the first bottle is sold. As Bill Hatcher (of Oregon’s A to Z Wineworks) likes to say, from an economic standpoint the only person who is crazier than a winemaker is his or her banker.

Wine economics is a serious concern. Few winemakers are completely insulated from the business side and sometimes the economy can have a huge effect on what winemakers get to make (if they have the resources to stick with their vision) or have to make (if they don’t).

And so a famous winemaker taught me to think about wine in economic terms and to consider that supply and demand sometimes matter as much as climate and soil when it comes to what’s in my wineglass. I should have known. Fully a third of the ferociously difficult Master of Wine exam (the MW designation that appears after the names of many famous wine experts) deals with business and economic issues.

Coming full circle — returning to the Stags Leap District and to that same cellar 30 years later —  gave me a strong appreciation for how wine has changed in the past and will likely continue to evolve in the future. I hope I have captured that understanding in Wine Wars.

Adam Smith’s Winery

I came full circle in another sense last weekend, when Sue and I crossed the Cascades to work on the bottling line at the Fielding Hills Winery in East Wenatchee. Mike and Karen Wade use the great fruit from their Riverbend Vineyard in the Wahluke Slope AVA to make wine at their small production facility perched high on a hill overlooking the Columbia River.

The very first Wine Economist blog post was an account of my initial visit to the Wade’s winery and the fun Dave Seago and I had helping out on the bottle line that year. I was struck by the productivity of the bottle crew (particularly since some of us were “quality testing” the wine as we worked) and I compared it to Adam Smith’s famous pin factory example of the benefits of the division of labor. (It is a little known fact that Adam Smith is both the Father of Economics and also the Father of Wine Economics.)

Arriving at the winery on Friday, I was very pleased to discover that the Wades were celebrating their tenth year of handcrafted production with a T-shirt that actually listed the twelve bottle line work stations.  The twelve tasks are:

  1. Bottleunboxer
  2. Sparger
  3. Fillerdeupper
  4. Corker
  5. Wiperista
  6. Foilplacer
  7. Foilmeister
  8. Wiper
  9. Labelista
  10. Boxfillerupper
  11. Tape Gunslinger
  12. Palletizerist

Adam Smith could not have organized the assembly line any better (or come up with more creative titles).

Mike and Karen’s daughter Robin was one of my university students and they have been very generous with their time, teaching me how the wine business works in practice to supplement my theoretical background. So I was pleased to join the volunteer bottling crew again this year, 243 blog posts after that first visit.  The Smithian division of labor allowed us to bottle 291 cases (that’s 3492 individual bottles) of Cabernet Franc between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m., when we finally ran out of wine to bottle.

The Wine Economist has come along way from that first post and the Wades and Fielding Hills have come a long way, too, from their first tiny vintage ten years ago. Although production levels are still relatively small (about 1200 cases this year, up from 800 when I first visited), their reputation is large and growing.

When Paul Gregutt surveyed Washington’s 600+ wineries for the second edition of his authoritative book Washington Wines & Wineries he awarded five stars to just twenty wineries. Fielding Hills made the five star list, as it did in Gregutt’s first edition, joining much larger producers like Chateau Ste. Michelle and famous wineries like Betz Family, Leonetti, Woodward Canyon and Quilceda Creek. Nice company to be in.

Coming full circle. It’s what winegrowers do — the conclusion of each vintage is also the start of the next. I guess it’s what wine economists do, too.  It is a good feeling to circle back and start out again!

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Photos by expert Foilplacer and master Boxfillerupper Sue Veseth.

Now Playing in Napa & Mendoza: Wine and a Story

Wine is good. Consumed in moderation it can even be good for you. But wine and a story is better. Wine famously stimulates all the physical senses (sight, smell, taste, feel and even sound if you touch glasses). But wine a story unlocks your curiosity and imagination, which are arguably the most powerful senses of all.

Recent initiatives in both Mendoza and the Napa Valley suggest that the power of a good wine story is undiminished. Herewith two brief reports.

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The wines of Argentina have been big winners in North American wine markets in recent years. Argentinean Malbec is the wine category that has experienced the fastest off-premises sales growth according to Nielsen data.  To the displeasure of many, I have found this trend worrying. Not because of the wine, but because of the story.

The story that is most frequently told when it comes to Argentinean wine is about value. For example, Alamos Malbec (the best selling brand in this market segment in the U.S.) is a $12-$15 wine that you can buy for just $8-$10, according to my street-smart friends. What could be better than that?

Well, it is a good story, but there may be problems.  Chile was branded as a value producer back in the 1960s and has found it hard to shake that label. Consumers expect to spend less for Chilean wine and so producers have struggled at times to squeeze more from less — not an easy thing to do with worldwide competitors breathing down your neck. I would feel better about the future of Argentinean wine if the mainstream narrative was a bit more complicated and less value focused.

So naturally I applaud the efforts of Área del Vino and Wine Sur to draw out the story of Argentinean wine and create a narrative with greater upscale potential. Their just-launched website is called Wine Sur: My Wine Stories and it invites local producers to tell their own stories, creating a colorful mosaic of images.

Not all the stories submitted so far are very memorable — some do a better job than others of giving a sense of the people and places that are the wine’s origins. One that I especially like is from Winery Alto Cedro for its Desnudos wine. Family heritage is at the heart of this story and local art is highlighted, too.

Altocedro Our idea was to relate the Cedar Tree for two reasons: the first is that we are 4th generation of Lebanese descent in Argentina and for us the Cedar is a sacred tree. The second is that in our land of La Consulta, we have more than 27 old cedars planted in the middle of the vineyard.  Desnudos is a tribute and collection of female nudes made by Mendocinean artists that illustrate various crops where we release this wine.

The Trivento Eolo Malbec’s story evokes terroir and highlights history.

Eolo received from Zeus the power to evoke or annul the winds. He governs them with absolute dominion, seizing and liberating them, engendering great changes in the heavens, on earth, and at sea. The Keeper of the Winds was seduced by the refuge at the northern edge of the Mendoza River in Luján de Cuyo, a traditional winegrowing area in Mendoza. The EOLO vineyard, planted in 1912, is defined by its relationship to the river. Soil, wind and water –in conjunction with man– have cared for these vines over generations. The result is the authentic expression of Malbec.

My Wine Stories is a small effort, but a useful and encouraging one. The stories are very brief (meant to be short enough to be used in social media, where attention spans are apparently particularly short ). Hopefully they can be expanded and set into a broader context so as to contribute to a more complex narrative of Argentinean wine.

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California’s Napa Valley is much more advanced when it comes to telling its story. Robert Mondavi built a great winery, but I think he was even more influential as a story-teller. His story was that the New World (California/Napa/Mondavi) could compete with the Old World on equal terms. The famous 1976 “Judgment of Paris” completed the story by having French experts rule in favor of California wines.

Napa Valley has a great story and one worth frequent retelling. The Napa Valley Museum in Yountville is hosting an exhibition called “Art & Wine: Expressions of an Industry” through October 31 that does this very well. According to press materials it highlights “all things wine-related outside of the bottle” including the packaging and promotion of wine through displays of wine labels, cookbook photography, totes, wooden wine boxes, bottle tickets, decanters, corkscrews, heraldic banners, vintage posters, portraits of vintners and winery architecture. More than 100 objects are on display.

This is a very Mondavi-esque idea. Robert Mondavi tried to elevate the image of California wine by associating it with art, music, architecture and fine food. All it would take to complete the classic Napa story would be a link to the Judgment of Paris … and maybe something to nosh on. Well, OK, here it is.

Additionally, we are featuring the Judgement of Paris Revisited in conjunction with the closing reception of Art & Wine. The reception features a conversation with Warren Winiarski and Jim Barrett, moderated by George Taber commemorating the 1976 tasting revelation that brought worldwide prominence to California, and Napa Valley wines. This program is just $20 for members and $45 for non-members. Stag’s Leap and Chateau Monelena  wine and hors d’oeuvres will be served.

What a great event and what a great way to tell the Napa Valley story! A great model for other wine regions to consider as they try to develop their own stories or look for strategies to communicate the ones they already have.