Tre Bicchieri: A Journey Through Friuli Wine in Three Glasses

Tre Bicchieri — three glasses.  Those are important words if you are interested in Italian wine. The Michelin Guide gives up to three stars to the top restaurants in France and around the world and perhaps for that reason Gambero Rosso magazine’s Vini d”Italia gives up to three glasses to Italy’s finest wines.

For the 2015 edition the editors surveyed 2042 wineries and evaluated 20,000 wines. Just 423 (about 2 percent) received  the tre bicchieri rating.

Friuli Venezia Giulia punches above its weight in the Gambero Rosso rankings with 27 tre bicchieri awards listed in the 2015 league table including wines from three wineries that I mentioned in my last column: the Rosso Sacrisassi 2012 from Le Due Terre, the Sauvignon 2013 from Tiare, and the Sauvignon Ronco delle Mele 2013 from Venica & Venica.

The quality of the Friuli wines is high and rising and deserves greater attention. We visited three wineries (the “three glasses” of this column’s title) that impressed us both for the three glasses-worthy wines and also for the different ways they are advancing the reputation of the wines of this region.

Rooted in Nature: Borgo San Daniele

We first learned the story of Borgo San Daniele in my dog-eared copy of Slow Wine 2014, which awarded the winery its “snail” designation for giving particular attention to the values of the Slow Food movement (I wrote about Slow Food in my Globaloney books).

It is the philosophy of Slow Food that tradition and nature are best preserved if they are valued in the marketplace and so the Slow Food and Slow Wine movements seek to identify producers of traditional and natural products and then draw wider attention to them. There was a special room set aside for Slow Wine producers at the Italian Trade Commission’s  Vino 2015 symposium in New York City earlier this year, for example, and it was always buzzing.

Borgo San Daniele fits right into the Slow Wine philosophy. Mauro Mauri and his sister Alessandra inherited vineyards from their grandfather in 1990 and have spent the last 25 years renewing the land and the vineyards and developing wines with a quite distinct local identity that reflects their own gentle but determined personalities. We were fortunate to be able to stay at the winery, meet Alessandra, and taste the wines with Mauro.

The Borgo San Daniele wines have an extraordinary reputation in Friuli — restaurants and wine shops that are lucky enough to get a few bottles display them proudly. Only a few different wines are made, each from specific varieties or blends and each from a particular place. The land, not demand, limits production and when it is gone it’s gone. Vineyards are 18 hectares in total, according to Slow Wine, and about 14,000 cases are produced.

Each of the wines we tasted was distinctive and memorable, but the Arbis Blanc and Arbis Ròs stand out. Arbis Blanc, from the grassy San Leonardo site in Cormons, is considered a defining Friulian white. It is a field blend of Sauvngnon, Chardonnay, Pinot Bianco and Friuliano, with subtly integrated Slovenian oak. Arbis Ròs is 100% Pignolo from the Ziris site in Cormons. It was one of the two best Pignolo wines (along with Rodaro Paolo) that we tasted. Mauro served us the 2009 Arbis Ròs from magnum and it was simply stunning.

I desperately wanted bring home a bottle of Arbus Ròs to lay down and see if Maruo was right that it would continue to evolve and start to develop Asian spice notes in 8-10 years. But the standard bottles of this wine were long sold out and I didn’t think I could get one of the few remaining magnums home successfully. So there is just the memory of  Mauro, Alessandra and the Arbis and other Borgo San Daniele wines. Their personalities (which I think come out in the video at the end of this column) are so distinct that I am sure the memories will last.

 Tradition and Innovation at Rodaro Paolo

 Slow Wine brought us next to Rodaro Paolo and to meet the very intense and focused Paolo Rodaro himself, the 6th generation of his family to make wine in this region since 1847.  The current winery makes about 16,000 cases of wine from the 57 hectares of estate vineyards (40 hectares on the hillsides).  The vines are split 50/50 between red and white grapes, an increase on the red side (Pignolo, Schioppettino, Reofsco) over the years as climate change has improved the ability to ripen these grapes.

Slow Wine told us that the entry-level wines are a bargain for the quality (and we tried them a few days later over dinner at a simple country trattoria across the street from the winery). But we came to learn about the Romain wines.

Paolo Rodaro is committed to bringing out the very best of the traditional local wines that he produces and he intensely channels this desire through experimentation and innovation (evolution, not revolution), with some quite spectacular results. The flagship Romain wines, for example, are the result of an experiment in drying red wine grapes before pressing and fermentation. Paolo observed the beneficial effects of “appassimento” air-drying of Picolit and Verduzzo Friulano grapes for sweet wines. Would air-drying also bring out intensity and character of some of the red wines?

The answer we found in our glasses is a clear yes. Drying very ripe red grapes for 3-4 weeks through the “surmaturazione” process (versus 3-4 months for the white grapes) achieved maturity, concentration, and balance. The resulting wines are dry and therefore high in alcohol but extraordinarily balanced and capable of significant aging. These were some of the best red wines we have ever tasted and it was an honor to discuss them with the man who made them.

The discussion was very personal — as when we tasted with Mauro at Borgo San Daniele.  Both men make a statement about themselves and their idea of Friuli through the wines they put in a bottle. Both limit the production of the wines that make the strongest statements — Paolo released just a few hundred bottles of some wines each year and makes them only in years where conditions are ideal. We felt fortunate to leave with a bottle of 2009 Refosco Romain. My tasting notes rave about the depth and elegance of this wine and I can’t wait to taste it again in eight or ten years (a timetable we negotiated with Paolo, who encouraged us to wait even longer).

The personal touch extends to the label design shown here, which was created by Paolo’s daughter Giulia when she was 5 years old. It looks like a curling vine, but it is really an abstract representation of the family home’s wrought-iron gate.

Returning to Roots: Bastianich

It would be easy to dismiss Bastianich  as just another celebrity winery. Lidia Bastianich and her husband Felix fled their home in Istria (just across the Adriatic from Venice) during the dark days after the Second World War, eventually making their way to the United States where they slowly worked their way up in the world using food as their ladder. A restaurant (Bounavia) arrived the same year as a son, Joseph.

Lidia Bastianich is now a celebrity chef with cookbooks and a PBS cooking series to her credit. Joseph is a celebrity in his own right — business partner of Mario Battali in several famous restaurants, former judge on MasterChef USA and now host and judge on MasterChef Italia. It would be easy to say that the Bastianich winery in Friuli is just another example of a celebrity using wine to cash in on transitory fame.

But it isn’t true. In fact, against all odds, I think the first sentence you find on the Bastianich website holds true: “The Bastianich winery, founded in 1997, strives to understand the history and culture of Friuli-Venezia Giulia and take it to a new level.” Sue and I toured the vineyards and winery with Wayne Young, an American who has been with the project since the first vintage in 1998 and is very much part of Friulian wine society (he sits on the board of the Coli Orientali Consorzio, for example).

It was clear in talking with Wayne that although the Bastianich owners are American, the winery and its wines are not just Italian but Friulian through and through and that to the degree that celebrity comes into play, it is an asset that is used to try to draw attention to the region.

Take the wines, which is the right place to begin. Vespa Bianco and Vespa Rosso are the flagship “tre bichiere-class” products  (Vespa is Italian for “wasp,” inspired by the swarms of wasps that descend at harvest time) and they are authentic blends of local grapes that will introduce many wine drinkers to the wine styles of this region. We’ve enjoyed Vespa Bianco many times over the years, but never the single-variety Plus (from old vine Friuliano planted near Buttrio) and the Calabrone (Italian for “hornet”), a blend of Refosco, Schioppetino, Pignolo and a bit of Merlot. All the Schioppettino and some of the Refosco are air-dried before vinification.

Celebrity creates barriers that can only be overcome by performance. These are authentic wines and the intent is to take them to the next level while respecting tradition.  Celebrity  also opens some doors for the wines and the region. This is literally true with Orsone, the Bastianich restaurant, taverna and B&B down the hill from the winery which is worth a trip even if you (gasp!) do not care about wine. The menu at Orsone gives respect to local culture while also giving an occasional nod to New York.

We asked the chefs to choose our meal and the sommelier to pair Bastianich wines with each course with a predictably delicious result. My primo course was a burnt wheat orecchiette that honored the tradition of Italian peasants making one final pass through the fields after they have been burnt in the fall, looking for every last bit of wheat, no matter how scorched. Quite an experience.

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So what do these three wineries have in common? A commitment to authenticity, which they have developed in distinctly different circumstances. The three families approach Friulian wine from very different angles and tell its story if very different ways. Tasting these wines and learning about the makers gives a sense of the journey that Friulian wine has taken and the road that lies ahead to greater global appreciation in the future.

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Many thanks to Alessandra, Mauro, Paolo and Wayne.

I found videos of the three wineries featured here and I thought I would share them to give you a taste of Friuli wine. Enjoy!

Borgo San Daniele

Rodaro Paolo

Bastianich

 

Friuli Revisited: Surveying Collio’s Changing Winescape

It has been more than  a dozen years since our last visit to Friuli. Friuli-Venezia Guilia is tucked up in Italy’s upper right-hand corner, north-east of Venice, north-west of Trieste, bordered by the Adriatic Sea to the south, Austria to the north and Slovenia to the east. It is sometimes awkwardly lumped together with Trentino and Alto Adige as the Italian Northeast.

Friuli is a cultural mixing bowl with influences from all its sides. It is also a beautiful region with great wines. Why did it take us to long to return?

Lucky Day: Cantina Aperte

Our last visit was memorable. We happened to arrive at  Venica & Venica, well-known both for its wines and its hospitality, on Cantine Aperte Day, which is the one day of the year when many otherwise private cellars throw open their doors and welcome swarms of enthusiasts. It was a lucky day for us because we met so many wonderful people and tasted some memorable wines. Later we moved from the Venica B&B to to La Subida close by the Slovenian border and used it as a base to visit Udine, Cividale, San Daniele, Gorizia, Trieste and Aquileia.

As much as we enjoyed our visit to Friuli I wondered if we would ever return. There are so many interesting regions in Italy and the world, so many distinctive wines. But the pull of Friuli was strong and so we pointed our rented Fiat 500 in the direction of Cormons. We wanted to revisit some friends and wines, but “what’s new, what’s changed” were the questions on our minds.

We spent half a week at  Borgo San Daniele in Cormons, one of the best wineries in the region and a comfortable base of operations, before following the recommendation of our friends Zari and Greg and shifting to another wine estate,  Il Roncal, just outside of Cividale del Friuli for the final few days. (See below for some wine tourism notes.)

Super White: Tiare Sauvignon Blanc

When we visited before we were struck by the stunning white wines of the region and later attended some “SuperWhites” events in the U.S. designed to inform American wine enthusiasts about this under-appreciated part of Italy and draw attention to the stunning wines. We enjoyed many wonderful wines on this trip, too, including the memorable Ronco delle Cime Friuliano at the expanded and updated Venica & Venica.

But the highlight on the white side of the wine ledger was probably an impromptu visit to Tiare and the opportunity to taste a wine that had been named the best Sauvignon Blanc in the world. Best in the world? Those are big words and I don’t really know if it is even possible to settle such a claim with certainty, but the Sauvignon Blanc that we sampled (from the following and possibly even better vintage) was unquestionably excellent.

And it might not even be the best wine that Tiare makes. Roberto Snidarcig, the owner and winemaker, was even prouder of another Sauuvignon Blanc called Empìre that showed subtle oak, channeling France more than New Zealand.  And he smiled when Sue and I tasted his Pinot Noir, a pet project that showed real character and finesse.

Pinot Noir? Well, yes, as I said Friuli is a mix of influences from France and Austria and of course the indigenous Italian  grapes like Refosco, Friuliano and Ribolla Gialla.  The ebb and flow of global and local influences shows itself in many ways.

Bastianich, for example, is a project that American “Del Posto” and “Eataly” entrepreneur-restaurateur Joseph Bastianich (son of the remarkable chef and cookbook author Lidia Bastianich and business partner of the irrepressible Mario Batali) launched in 1997 to make the wines of the region and to introduce them to the U.S. and other markets.  The wines are good enough that Italy is today an important market, too. You may think of Bastanich as a showman — he was until this season a host/judge along with Gordon Ramsey on the U.S. Masterchef (he hosts Masterchef Italia now), but I can assure you that the wines are the real deal and not just a show.

Market Forces: A Region in Transition

White wines no longer steal the show in Friuli. It isn’t that they have declined in quality, only that winemakers have turned their attention to sparkling wines and back to reds, too. There have always been good reds made in Friuli, as we were reminded at Venica & Venica when we were served a stunning Merlot from the 2001 vintage that had been lost in the cellar and recently rediscovered. Clearly the best Collio reds can age! Climate change is partly responsible for the increased interest in red wines. Red wine grapes are a more reliable bet today than they were 50 years ago, I was told. The rising interest in indigenous red grape varieties such as Refosco, Schioppettino, and Pignolo is also a factor.

Market forces are another reason for the shift in direction and economics is a powerful factor in Italy, which cannot seem to extract itself from a long-term recession. Back in the old days the Bank of Italy could devalue the lira and temporarily restore competitiveness when the economy slowed down. But now Italy is a euro country and competitiveness must come the hard way — though internal reforms — rather than from exchange rate adjustment. These are difficult times for everyone including wine and we heard through the grapevine that many vineyard properties are for sale. Financial security is in short supply.

Hence a shift toward fast-selling sparkling wines because the Prosecco production zone extends into Friuli. The town of Prosecco is actually a suburb of Trieste although  the zone of DOCG production is in the Veneto, south-west in Conegliano-Valdobbiadene. Pinot Grigio is a reliable money-maker, too. Costco’s Kirkland Signature Pinot Grigio, its best-selling white wine, is from the Friuli Grave zone. Follow the money in times like these.

The marketability of Prosecco and Pinot Grigio put pressure on the indigenous wines that I am always keen to discover.  Some wine makers we met with were concerned about the region’s identity slipping away a bit, especially the very high quality Collio and Colli Orientali zones where we spent most of our time. The marketplace for wines (Italian wines, wines in general) is crowded and very competitive. Tough to get and hold consumer attention! Difficult, too, to earn that all important quality premium. A strong regional identity isn’t the solution to this problem, but it can be part of it. Need to make a statement.

My next column will profile three wineries that are making such statements in very different ways. Circle back for details.

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I can’t end this overview of our Friuli expedition without a few comments on the wine tourism experience. Sue and I just love this region for its physical beauty and cultural importance, great food and wine, and the warm hospitality of the people. It is an exceptional wine tourism destination, well-known to Italians, Germans, Austrians and the Swiss, but mainly undiscovered by Americans. Put it on your list.

We were the only guests at Borgo San Daniele in Cormons (they have three nice rooms in the winery compound), so we had the place all to ourselves at times and enjoyed our stay very much. We had breakfast in the kitchen each morning and came back at one point to discover the sleepy cat shown here who may have come in through the window and obviously made himself as comfortable as we did.

Il Roncal was a different experience but one that we would also recommend.  More rooms, more visitors, lots of activity on this hilltop estate overlooking the vines. A group of German bicyclists passed through one day and several family groups took full advantage of the outdoor meeting areas. Our room was elegant. The private tasting featured local delicacies paired with each wine, which was a real treat.

There are many exceptional restaurants in the area including a homey new osteria at La Subida with great food and wine. The staff built a fire in the outdoor fireplace for us one night when thunder, lightening, and a heavy rainstorm chased all the other diners inside. What atmosphere! trota

We had to return to Al Giardinetto in Cormons and it was as spectacular as we remembered. The food is wonderful, but the wine stands out in my memory. Our host pulled many corks, showcasing limited and unusual wines that we would not otherwise have been able to taste. A glass of this, a half glass of that, you might find this interesting, it was great as he shared treasures of the cellar with the guests.  And the total cost was much less than we might have paid for a single bottle of wine in other circumstances. A real wine lover’s restaurant.

Two other meals stand out among many. We stopped for lunch Alla Trota in the little village of Pulfero near the Slovenian border in the beautiful Natisone valley. We sat out on the patio overlooking the Natisone river that produced the trout on our plates. I went over the top with tagliatelle with a smoked trout ragu followed by  roasted whole trout and then apple strudel along with this jug of local wine.

salepepeThe next day we found ourselves in an even tinier town at lunchtime. Not many dining options in little hillside Stregna and when we asked at the door we discovered that Sale e Pepe‘s kitchen was closed for a thorough cleaning. What to do? Well, the chef said, just because we can’t use the stove doesn’t mean we can’t fix you lunch. And so we enjoyed the rather spectacular salad, cheese, charcuterie and dessert shown here accompanied by one of the region’s best red wines from Le Due Terre.

Did I mention warm hospitality before? Now you know what I’m talking about. Obviously we need to return when the kitchen is cooking on all its burners. Must be spectacular!

Circle back for a profile of three wineries that really caught our attention. Cheers!

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Thanks to everyone who hosted and helped us during our week in Friuli. Special thanks to Michelangelo Tagliente for his advice.

Rediscovering Collio’s Iconic White Wines

 

Collio, the beautiful wine region in Italy’s upper right-hand corner near Slovenia, along with its neighbor Colli Orientali del Friuli, is one of our favorite places to visit and makes some of our favorite wines, too.  We’ve been there three times and each visit has revealed something new.

Flashback to 2000

We were lucky on our first visit in 2000 because we stayed at Venica & Venica, a top producer that was just getting started developing its hospitality program.  We happened to arrive on Cantine Aperte day when all the wineries in the region were open and welcoming guests. Ornella Venica gave us the key to our room and handed us a map. Get going, she said, You have a lot of work to do today! And so we did. What fun.

A few days later we moved to a rustic cabin at the Sirk family’s La Subida. The cabin was great because we could eat at the famous restaurant when we wanted to but also use our little kitchen to create our own meals. This gave us the chance we were looking for to explore the markets and try even more local delicacies.

The wines we found were a revelation — mainly white wines with a few reds (notably Merlot) mixed in. We were especially drawn to Sauvignon (as they call Sauvignon Blanc here), which had a fascinating brightness and precision. We found ourselves on a beautiful island of great white wines in what seemed like a vast sea of Italian reds.

Fast Forward to 2015

Somehow it took 15 years for us to return to this part of Italy, but we finally found an opportunity when I was invited to give some talks at the Conegliano wine school in 2015.  This time we stayed at BorgoSanDaniele in Cormons and then, at the urging of friends, at Il Roncal in Cividale del Friuli. It was not Cantine Aperte day, alas, but we visited a number of memorable wineries, which I wrote about in articles for The Wine Economist.

A lot had changed in 15  years. Revisiting Venica & Venica we discovered a much expanded winery and an ambitious winery resort hospitality complex.  The region was growing into its potential as a wine tourism destination. We tasted more sparkling wines than on our first visit, a reaction to the changing market conditions created by Prosecco’s success. And we encountered more (and I think better) red wines. Climate change at work, we were told.

We still loved the Sauvignon wines (including one from Tiare that had recently been named the best such wine in the world), but this time we were drawn to the native grape varieties, especially Ribolla Gialla, Malvasia, and Tocai Friulano among the white wines and the various varieties of Refosco among the reds.

Enjoy Collio Experience 2019

We vowed not to let so much time pass between visits to this region, so we were delighted to receive an invitation to participate in the Consorzio Collio’s  Enjoy Collio Experience 2019.  We took part in the activities of a press and trade tour and I spoke briefly for a roundtable discussion on sustainability.

We stayed at the elegant Castello di Spessa, which includes vineyards, winery, golf course, restaurants, rooms, and of course a castle all just a few minutes from Cormons. Giacomo Casanova lived here at one point and his name and image are everywhere.

The focus of this event was clearly on Collio, so we were able to explore its special terroir in more depth (see Stephen Quinn‘s excellent video above) and get to know the wines and winemakers at blind tastings led by Richard Baudins and through winery visits, dinners, and other events.

What stood out in these experiences? Well, we were attracted to certain producers we didn’t know before including Primosic, Gradis’ciutta, Livon, Bracco, and Ronco Blanchis. (A tasting of 12 vintages of Friulano at Ronco Blanchis, which has a very special terroir, was memorable.) And we had an opportunity to learn much more about the region’s designated white wine ambassador, which is called Collio Bianco.

Once upon a time Collio Bianco was a simple field blend, but then it evolved into a sort of kitchen sink wine. Winemakers took their native white wine leftovers and mixed them up. I am not sure it was a really bad wine, but it didn’t represent the best that could be done.

Starting in the 1990s, however, there has been a determined effort to remake Collio Bianco into the region’s flagship wine. Winemakers were given more freedom to blend their best grapes in order to produce distinctive white wines that are brilliant when young and have the potential to evolve over time.

The Collio producers are so proud of their Collio Bianco that we devoted one complete morning to blind-tasting 24 of the wines from different producers in different parts of the region, made with different combinations of native and international varieties, and from a number of different vintage years.

How were the wines? And why is Collio Bianco important to the region’s future? Good questions! Come back next week for analysis.

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Video credit: Magic soils of Collio from Stephen Quinn on Vimeo.

Many thanks to the Consorzio Collio for inviting us to participate in Enjoy Collio Experience 2019. Special thanks to Klementina Koren and Matteo Bellotto for their help and hospitality. Cheers to all the Collio winemakers and international journalists we met along the wine road. We hope to see you again!

Which Wine? Navigating the Retail Wine Wall’s Fluid Map

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What’s the best way to organize supermarket products to facilitate consumer purchases? Over in the canned vegetable aisle, the system is pretty simple. All the canned green beans there. All the canned corn here. Easy to find what you want. Easy to compare.

Over in the breakfast cereal aisle an entirely different geography applies. The corn flakes are found here, there, and elsewhere, not all in one spot. That’s because most of the products are organized by producer. All the Post cereals here, all the Chex products over there.

Thousands of SKUs?

I have been trying to figure out what works best for wine for quite some time, but I am still a bit stumped. The wine wall, the name I have given to the space where wines are put on display, probably has the greatest number of SKUs of any single section of an upscale grocery store. You will find 1000-2000 in many stores today and the big box alcohol superstores like Total Wine and BevMo have about 5000 wine choices at any given time.

So much choice! Consumers need all the help they can get to navigate this crowded retail archipelago.

Canned Veg + United Nations

I used to think that I knew the wine wall map and I wrote about it in my 2011 book Wine WarsThe domestic wines are often arranged like the canned veg aisle — all the Zinfandel here, all the Pinot Noir there. Imports are mapped like the United Nations. France, Italy, Germany, and so on. Sometimes groups of countries get lumped together (Spain + Portugal, Chile + Argentina). I have seen the entire southern hemisphere reduced to a couple of shelves. Ouch!

There is often a sort of Siberia over in the corner for “other” wines, sweet, fortified, alcohol-free, kosher, organic, and so on. Sparkling wines from wherever are all collected together in one place, something that is often true of Rosé wines, too. Alternative packaging rates its own section with box wine and now also canned wines holding forth. You will also find smaller wine displays here and there in the store — near the cheese, meat, fish, and deli counters, for example. Wine, wine, everywhere. Organized chaos!

QWERTY and the Wine Wall

There are lots of variations on this canned veg – United Nations system, so your favorite store is probably a bit different. But does the general outline sound familiar?

This is the hybrid system I know best, but I don’t think it works very well. It is a bit like your computer keyboard. The QWERTY layout is familiar, but inefficient. It was originally designed to slow down users in order to prevent them jamming the mechanism. Now it is the industry standard.

Here’s one problem with the standard system. If you want to browse Pinot Noir wines, for example, you need to visit a number of different locations (Pinot Noir, for domestic wines, plus France, and New Zealand and maybe also Chile, Australia, and others if the store’s selection is strong). You can waste a lot of time and effort tracking down your Pinot choice.

Of course this doesn’t matter much if all you want to do in find the 1.5 liter bottle of Barefoot Moscato you buy every week. Find it once and you are set for life.

The RAM Wine Wall

You can imagine my surprise, then, when Sue and I recently visited a new store, part of a national supermarket chain that takes wine seriously, where all our experience navigating the wine wall was rendered useless. I wonder if this the result of marketing research or just an accident?

We were looking for Chilean wines, not an unreasonable thing to search for, and we never found them if they were there. Apart from a big bunch of Cabernet Sauvignon in one spot, the general organizing principle seemed to be RAM. In computer talk that means Random Access Memory and the wines seemed pretty random to me — no United Nations, not much canned veg. There was a section for Local Wines, but looking there we stumbled upon the Port. There are lots of Ports here in the Puget Sound area, but none of them are the source of Port wine.

Who would find the RAM system helpful? Not someone who knows what she wants. But maybe it was designed for the overwhelmed consumer who is content to browse for something with a clever or colorful label. I know that a lot of wine is purchased this way and that brands, including some private label brands, work hard to attract these customers. I never knew it would come to this!

Alphabet Wine

A recent visit to a local alcohol superstore (again looking for Chilean wine) revealed a system that is the opposite of random, but still pretty difficult to navigate.  The basic canned veg – United Nations approach prevails at the store we visited, but in a different way. Italy and France have their own sections, of course, and are also organized by region, which I find helpful. And other wine producing nations get their UN seats, too, but not all of them. Chile, for example, and South Africa are represented, but not all in one place.  Instead their wines are mixed in with individual grape varieties on the canned veg principle.

Chilean Carmenere was relatively easy to find — we stumbled onto it next to the Malbec section. But Chilean Cabernet, Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot Noir were found in the long aisles for those varieties along with producers from around the world. The wines were organized alphabetically by brand name! Wow, I didn’t see that coming. If you know the brand and the grape variety you are golden (and, I must say, staff was happy to help us when we asked), but if you don’t know the details and you want to browse the different Chilean Pinots, you are pretty much out of luck.

(The store website can help here, giving you the current stock of your store and the location. It is not seamless, but it works.)

Like a Rolling Stone?

Canned veg, United Nations, RAM, ABCs. What’s next? The Dewey Decimal System? With so many wines to choose from and such complicated ways of organizing them, it is no surprise that many shoppers don’t buy wine or buy it only on special occasions.

And maybe it is no surprise either that some of the stores that sell the most wine are the ones that keep it simple like Trader Joe’s and Costco. Costco, which sells more wine than any other U.S. retailer, intentionally limits the number of wines available at any moment, changes stock frequently, keeps prices low, and uses a very simple system. There are more expensive wines and less expensive wines. There are red, white, pink, and sparkling wines. Go for it.

It’s the Rolling Stones system, really. You can’t always get what you want at Costco, in terms of a particular wine, but you can usually get what you need. The wine flies out the door.

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I keep track of wine walls with unusual geographical patterns. One of my favorites was at a now-defunct discount supermarket in our neighborhood. The wines were displayed according to price. Less than $3, $3 to $5, $5 to $7, and so on. Since price is such an important factor in supermarket wine purchases, and since most buyers have a specific price comfort zone, this system made some sense.

Another local store features a lot of Italian wines and since Italy is so diverse in terms of regions and grape varieties, organizing that single section presents a challenge. The current strategy, which appeals to wine geeks like me, is to mimic the map of Italy itself on the wine wall.  Piemonte is upper left, Friuli and the Veneto upper right. Tuscany has a big section near the middle. Sicily lower left. Puglia lower right. Beautiful!

Please feel free to use the Comments section to talk about your experience with the wine walls in your area.

The Cabernet Boom and Its Discontents

Our recent trip to the Napa Valley provokes two columns: this one about the Cabernet Sauvignon boom and next’s week’s about Zinfandel’s uncertain future.

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What winegrape variety comes to mind when I say “Napa Valley …”? There are lots of possibilities. Chardonnay. Merlot. Sauvignon Blanc, of course! Hey, Larkmead makes a tasty Tocai Friuliano.

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But I’ll bet that your “fill in the blank” answer was Cabernet Sauvignon and there are several good reasons for this. Cabernet is a noble grape and many of the world’s great wines are made from it or with it. American consumers are in love with this winegrape variety. Cabernet Sauvignon has recently overtaken Chardonnay as America’s #1 favorite.

Cabernet is #1

According to recent Nielsen data taken from the August 2018 issue of Wine Business Monthly, sales of Cab wines totaled more than $201 million in the most recent 4-week period, up 3.9% from the previous year. That compares with $190 million and 0.5% growth for Chardonnay, which has for years topped the league table.  Next in line but far behind, is Pinot Gris/Grigio ($96 million / 1.3% growth) and Pinot Noir ($82 million / 2.6%). The fastest-growing category is Rosé, as you might have guessed, with 67% growth on a relatively small $22 million sales base.

Consumers love Cabernet Sauvignon and growers love it, too, because they see it as a potential solution to the their financial squeeze. The costs of land, labor, equipment, and supplies keep rising, but the prices of many grape varieties have been stagnant, putting pressure on profits and, in some cases, generating rivers of red ink.

The Cabernet grape price premium can be substantial according to the 2017 California Grape Crush Report. Cabernet grapes fetched $700 per ton on average in Lodi, for example, compared with $552 for Merlot and Chardonnay. A ton of Cabernet sold for $2209 on average in Mendocino county, $2352 in Lake Country, and about $3000 in Sonoma County.

Premium Prices

Napa county topped the list with an average Cab price of $7,421 per ton. That average translates into a $70+ bottle price using the one-percent rule of thumb. And that’s the average. The very best Napa Cab grapes from exceptional sites sold for $10,000 per ton and more. Lesser Cab grapes sold for less, of course, but still generally for more than other grape varieties. Cab Rules.

And it’s not just a California thing. Cabernet is now the most-planted winegrape variety in Washington state, too, with 62,200 tons harvested in 2017 compated with #2 Chardonnay’s 39,300 tons.  The overall average price of Washington winegrapes was $1200 per ton, with Cabernet selling at a significant premium at $1500-$1600 per ton.

No wonder more and more Cabernet is being planted wherever it might possibly grow successfully. Jeff Bitter, recently appointed President of Allied Grape Growers, presented the results of the 2017 California Nursery Report at the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium meetings in January. Bottom line: Cabernet is big and getting bigger.

The Nursery Report provides insights about what grape varieties are being planted or grafted, which foretells shifts in winegrape production a few years from now when the vines are productive. The 2017 report showed that 72% of new vines were red varieties with only 28% white. Cabernet vines accounted for an incredible 37.4% of all new vines followed by 19.5% for Pinot Noir and 16.7% for Chardonnay.

Cab Pipeline is Full

If you combine Cabernet with other varieties that are often blended with it (such as Merlot, Malbec, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot), they account for over 42 percent of all new California vines. I am not sure what the composition is of the vines they may have replaced, but I suspect the disproportionate emphasis on Cab and Cab blending grapes represents a significant net increase in future production.

Cabernet’s dominance is noteworthy, but the upward trend in Cab plantings is part of the long term trend that Benjamin Lewin MW described in his 2013 book Claret & Cabs: The Story of Cabernet Sauvignon. Zinfandel, not Cabernet, was the most-planted winegrape variety in the Napa Valley in the decades following Prohibition.

Zin was thought to  make the best Claret, according to Lewin, which of course is interesting because Claret is the name the British gave to Cab- and Merlot-based Bordeaux wines. Ridge made a “Claret”  in 1981, for example, from Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and Carignan and I’ll bet it was delicious!claret

Cabernet Sauvignon was a minor player on Napa’s wine scene, Lewin notes, although it made some historic wines including the great Beringer Cabs of the 1930s and the Beaulieu Georges de Latour Private Reserve wines that André Tchelistcheff made between 1938 and 1973.

The Napa Cab boom really picked up speed in the 1970s as new quality-driven wineries (think Robert Mondavi) focused on Cabernet. The Judgement of Paris in 1976 put Napa Cab firmly on the wine world’s radar.

No wonder new investment flooded into Napa Valley and Cabernet plantings expanded rapidly, both in Napa and California generally. Now the steady rise has accelerated, taking on some boom-time characteristics. The cycle of higher Cab prices, higher vineyard valuations, and increased Cabernet plantings continues.

Stein’s Law

Cycles and booms are a common characteristic of agricultural and financial markets, both of which I have studied. There are two things I have learned about the booms. First, they are driven by internal logic that seems bullet-proof from inside the cycle.  People (like me) who try to call turns often end up looking like Chicken Little fools. So don’t expect me to forecast a Cabernet bust!

The other thing I have learned is that Stein’s Law always applies in the long run. Named for the famous economist Herb Stein, Stein’s Law is says that if something cannot go on forever … it will end. And I think that Cabernet prices cannot go on going up forever (especially with new plantings on the rise) any more than housing prices could defy gravity forever a dozen years ago, no matter how how much rising prices might seem baked in the cake at any particular moment.

That doesn’t mean that the boom must inevitably be followed by a bust — there are many possible adjustment patterns as Kym Anderson’s analysis of Australia’s winegrape cycles shows. In the meantime, Cabernet is crowding out other grape varieties, including those Zinfandel vines that were once the pride of Napa Valley winemakers. That’s where we are going in the next column.

Sue and I came to the Napa Valley with Zinfandel on our minds. Circle back next week to find out what we learned.

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The Boom Varietal image above comes from a 2011 Sky Pinnick documentary of the same name about Malbec, which is sort of the Cabernet Sauvignon of Argentina. I was pleased to be part of the cast for this award-winning film. The film talks about the rise of Malbec in Argentina and the understandable concern that the boom could go bust (Argentina has a history of boom and bust).

 

Wine Economist Year in Review & Looking Ahead to 2016

Past and Future - Two-Way Street Sign2015 was a busy year here at The Wine Economist and 2016 is shaping up to be pretty interesting, too.

Looking Back at 2015

In January I spoke in the “State of the Industry” session at the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium in Sacramento. Then we left for New York City where I spoke at “Vino 2015,” a conference and trade show organized by the Italian Trade Commission.

North to Alaska: I traveled to Juneau and Anchorage to give talks and do a fund-raising wine dinner for the World Affairs Council chapters in those cities. Then it was east to Boise, Idaho to speak at the Idaho Wine Commission annual meeting. Both Anchorage and Boise were surprisingly warm, but …

It was really really cold in Ontario when I visited in March to speak to the Winery & Grower Alliance of Ontario meetings, but the people were warm and it was a great experience. Then a quick trip to Walla Walla to talk about wine industry at a regional business summit.

South to California in May, to speak at the Ramona Valley AVA symposium, then a fund-raiser for the Admiral Theatre Foundation in Bremerton along with my friends from Hedges Family Wines. Sue and I were delighted to be invited to the 50-year retrospective tasting of Oregon’s Eyrie Vineyards in Portland, too.

Italy and a Few Surprises

June’s highlight was lecturing at the Conegliano Wine School in Italy and visiting with winemakers in the Veneto and Friuli.While we were in Cormons I got word that around the globe in Yantai, China the Wine Economist had received the Gourmand International prize for the “Best in the World” wine blog. Incredible.

Back home it was north again in July, to speak at the British Columbia Wine Institute annual meetings, then south to Napa Valley to talk at the California Association of Winegrape Growers summer conference.

Two books came out in the fall, my newest volume Money, Taste, and Wine: It’s Complicated and the paperback edition of Extreme Wine. 

We visited Barboursville Vineyards while in Virginia to meet with Luca Paschina and we were lucky to able to meet up with Marc Hochar in Richmond and taste some older vintages of Lebanon’s Chateau Musar on the same trip.

I spoke at the Seattle meetings of the Academy of International Business and then flew to Milan to participate in a discussion on sustainability organized in conjunction with the big SIMEI trade show there.

The year ended on a high note when we learned that Money, Taste, and Wine will receive the Gourmand International award for the year’s best wine writing in a U.S. book. As the U.S. winner it is a finalist for the “Best in the World” award to be revealed in Yantai, China in May 2016.

What’s Ahead for 2016?

The travel schedule is coming together for 2016. I am looking forward to going back to Sacramento at the end of January for my fifth year moderating the “State of the Industry” program at the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium.

A few weeks later we will head to Napa where Sue and I are on the faculty for the Professional Wine Writers Symposium.

Then it is north to Anchorage for another World Affairs Council fund raising program before returning to Walla Walla for the big Reveal Walla Walla trade auction.

It looks like we will be going to Portugal in May to speak at a conference organized by Wines of Alentejo and later to Seattle for Riesling Rendezvous, an international conference sponsored by Chateau Ste Michelle and Dr Loosen.

That’s what’s on tap for 2016 so far, but the year is still young. No wait — it actually hasn’t even started yet. Who knows where the wine rivers and roads will take us.

That’s the look back and ahead. Hope to see you somewhere on our travels in 2016. In the meantime, cheers to all! And have a great New Year.

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Sometimes I feel like I have been everywhere in the wine world to speak to wine industry groups, but the truth is … I’m not even close!

Valpolicella Revisited: What’s the Story?

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So, what’s the story? That’s a question that Sue and I frequently ask each other after a tasting or winery visit. We’ve learned a lot, tasted interesting wines, met fascinating people. But what’s the takeaway message?

Sometimes it’s a fairly straightforward choice but to be honest I think we live for the complicated narratives– the experiences that really make us sit down and think. What is the story!? Our recent visit to the Valpolicella region was like that. We didn’t find a story — we found a lot of them and the other members of our merry media band — Mauro Fermariello, Michelangelo Tagliente, Michelle Williams and Mads Jordansen — who shared the same experience with us, found many different stories, too, and different ways of telling them.

(Click on the names above to see our colleagues’ work. Mauro Fermariello’s video, which I have embedded above, is a particularly striking account of our journey.)

We’ve already told several of the stories we found in earlier columns and  I’m using this final post to fill in some gaps and sum up. What are the stories? Here are three of them chosen to say something about the winery business models we encountered.

The San Rustico Story

Let me start with San Rustico, a winery with a long history that it wears proudly and gracefully. As you can see in Mauro’s video, the tasting room is decorated with artifacts that give a sense of the past. Touring the cellar we were struck by the wooden grape drying racks, key to Amarone production, that spoke to us of time and tradition. Great atmosphere.

A visit to the winery is a warm and friendly experience here — very personal. Sort of like tasting wine with a family friend in a farmhouse kitchen. And while the wines honor tradition they do not seem especially  trapped in it. Wines are made in two ranges and Amarone in particular in several styles.

One wine we tasted for example was made to appeal to new world export markets, a bit sweeter and with more new oak  (60 percent of the winery’s 170,000 bottle annual product is sold outside of Italy). The premium Gaso Amarone, on the other hand, is made in the traditional style. It was delicious — our favorite glass in the line up.

The two brothers who are responsible for San Rustico (one works in the vineyard and the other in the cellar) have purposefully focused on their traditional production base, limiting output while looking outside the region for sales.

Sartori di Verona

History is also a strong theme at  Sartori di Verona, but the business strategy is much different. Andrea Sartori is the fourth generation of the Sartori family to lead the winery and he has taken it in a different direction from San Rustico. Actually (and this fits into the theme of this column), Sartori’s strategy involves moving in several directions at once.

Go big or go home is one part of the story. Seeking the resources needed to expand production, Sartori entered into an agreement with the Cantina Colognol cooperative in 2000 that gave it secure access to 6200 acres of vineyards in the Valpolicella and Soave regions. This base allowed a three-fold expansion of production necessary to fill an increasingly export-oriented pipeline. About 80 percent of production is exported today. The well-regarded Banfi firm imports Sartori into the U.S. market.

At about the same time that the volume push began a super-quality brand was also established. Sartori partnered with consulting winemaker Franco Bernabel, who began to work with both vineyards and cellar practices, raising quality and drawing out the characteristics of the different vineyard terroirs. Four years later, in 2006, the I Saltari line of super-premium wines was launched. Sartori has also expanded its reach beyond the Veneto, establishing relationships with Cerulli Spinozzi in Abruzzo and Feudo Sartanna in Sicily. There’s also a partnership with Mont’Albano, a pioneering organic estate in Friuli.

Sartori reminds me a bit of the Mondavi strategy of years past. Mondavi moved upmarket with Opus One and also mass market with the Woodbridge wines. The story did not end happily for everyone, as Mondavi went public to raise expansion capital and eventually lost control of the business (wine giant Constellation is the current owner).  The stories differ here: there’s no indication that the Sartori strategy will have anything other than a happy conclusion.

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The Cesari Story

One of our favotie stops was at Cesari. We loved the wine, the people and the story.  The fact that we like the wines is perhaps not an accident. The U.S. is a prime export market for this winery and it is not impossible that the style was evolved over the  years with American tastes in mind — rounder, fuller wines, but still striking the authentic classic notes.

The Americans in our group were all familiar with the Cesari brand so I was a little surprised when someone told me that it is not as well-known within Italy. The strong export focus makes it different even among wineries (like those above) who sell more than half their production abroad.

Cesari was founded in 1936, during a particularly turbulent period for wine in Italy and Europe. Many private firms failed and cooperatives went bankrupt. Some of the wineries that emerged (or simply survived it) were led by supremely talented entrepreneurs. This sprit in part drove Cesari to push dramatically into global export markets in the 1970s and guides them today to produce the distinctive wines that are needed to attract discerning customers.

I’ve embedded a Cesari video above to give you a sense of the winery and its vision and also to show you how effective they are in telling their own story. Story-telling is almost as important as wine-making when it comes to the business of wine today. Fascinating that the global market’s demands appear here, don’t you think. And I agree with the narrator — all kidding aside, the wines really are good.

Eight Million Stories?

Years ago there was a U.S. television series about life in New York City called “Naked City” that closed each week with the line “There are eight million stories in the Naked City — this has been one of them.” (Scroll down to see a video clip.) There may not be eight million stories in Valpolicella but there are sure a lot of them. Some, like the three above, about different business models and different historical evolutions. Others, like my earlier posts, are about wine tourism, weather problems and  the difficulties of establishing and maintaining a luxury brand for the region in an increasingly competitive marketplace.

There are very personal stories too, like two of my favorite wineries (Zyme and Secondo Marco) that exist today more or less because of family issues that caused a younger generation to start out in a different direction. Reminds me a bit of the story of Robert Mondavi and  the family disagreements that led to the founding of his eponymous Napa Valley winery.

Lots of stories and not enough time or space to tell them all. Maybe that’s what makes a wine region really great. I realize that wine marketers are attracted to the idea of a silver bullet story — a signature grape variety, an iconic brand or rock star winemaker — that can make a region’s reputation in a single stroke. There are good examples for each of these strategies, but I have my doubts about this as a general theory. Maybe real strength comes from diversity and not from a monolithic approach?

I’m glad there are millions of stories to tell and not just one because that means a world of different and distinctive wines … and job security for story-tellers like me! Thanks to everyone who made our Valpolicella visit so rewarding.

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Here is a list of the wineries we visited during our Valpolicella tour. See if you can identify each one of them in Mauro’s video. At the end of the list I have embedded a bit of the old “Naked City” television show for those of you too young to have seen the original. Cheers!

Wineries we visited in Valpolicella:

Valentina Cubi, Fumani

Scriani, Fumani

San Rustico, Valgatara

Terre di Leone, Marano di Valpolicella

Villa Cordevigo and Villabella, Cavaion Veronese

Casa Vinicola Sartori, S. Maria di Negrar

Cantina Valpolicella Negrar, Negrar

Monteci, Pescantina

Cesari, Cavaion Veronese

Zýmé, San Pietro in Cariano

Santa Sofia, Pedemonte

Secondo Marco, Fumane

Salvaterra, San Pietro in Cariano

Prosecco Bubbles Upmarket: The Premiumization Pyramid

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Our stay is the Prosecco region of Northern Italy was short but very intense. It left us impressed with the work going on there to refine Prosecco’s image and to raise quality so that Prosecco will be on the lips (both figuratively and literally) of consumers who seek a premium sparkling wine. It is a tale told in three acts.

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Wine (not water) makes history at the Conegliano wine school.

Act 1: The School for Wines

First was a visit to the Scoula Enologica di Conegliano, Conegliano’s famous wine school, which was founded in 1876 . It was then and is now an important center for the scientific study of enology and viticulture. The school’s impact through its graduates and research extends throughout Italy and in fact around the world. To give just one example, Romeo Bragato, who might be said to be the father of winemaking in Australia and New Zealand, trained at Conegliano.

We toured the original school building, visiting the first professional tasting arena, and then moved on to the famous test vineyard, the teaching winery and the ultra-modern labs. We met professors devoted to training the next generation of winemakers and scientists diligently addressing a range of important winemaking issues.

It’s clear that the school is a very strong force in assuring quality in Prosecco (it is here where the DOCG panels meet to verify wine quality) and to see that the bar is raised higher and higher. We brought home a few bottles of the school’s wine including an IGT Incrocio Manzoni 6.0.13 made from the Manzoni Bianco grape variety developed here and a Conegliano DOCG still Prosecco called Celebre. Can’t wait to try these wines when they’ve had time to settle down from the trip home.

Act 2: The Prosecco Pyramid

Our next stop was lunch at Antica Osteria di Via Brandolini in Solighetto with officials of both the Conegliano school and the Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Consorzio.  The main topic of conversation (when we were not distracted by the menu of outstanding local dishes) was the program to establish a hierarchy of Prosecco wines that consumers can understand and that will draw them in and allow them to effectively explore premium possibilities.

The Prosecco production zone is very large, including parts of both the Veneto and Friuli, and the growing conditions and wine qualities vary a good deal. You can get cheap and cheerful Prosecco wines and also sophisticated products. The Consorzio’s plan, which I think it a good one, is to help buyers understand the different quality levels by creating a sort of premiumization pyramid.

DOC Prosecco forms the base of the pyramid — the vast majority of Prosecco wines you will find fall into this category. Next up are the DOCG Prosecco Superiore wines from the Congegliano Valdobbiadene zone — an area stretching basically from Conegliano to Valdobbiadene, which includes some spectacular hillside vineyards. The Consorzio has applied for the this area to be designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Look at the video at the top of the page and you will see why.

DOCG wines are not necessarily better than individual DOC wines (just as IGT wines are not necessarily inferior to those with more prestigious designations), but they are held to a higher certified standard. One of the goals of the premiumization push it to help consumers understand the difference between DOC and DOCG (unfamiliar concepts to most Prosecco drinkers in America who think mainly in terms of brands) and to encourage them to look for and to try the DOCG wines.P1090240

The next step is to focus on terroir in the form of certain “grad cru” vineyard areas known as “Rive” in the local dialect. There are 43 designated Rive in the Conegliano Valdobbiadene zone and the idea is that they are very different from each other in terms of soil, aspect, altitude and the individual wines reflect their distinct terroirs. Terroirst wines, if you will.

At the top of the premium pyramid sits Cartizze DOCG. The 106 hectare Cartizze zone is one of the most valuable vine patches on the planet with valuations in the neighborhood of €1 million per hectare (just under $500,000 an acre)! The Cartizze wines are meant to be the ultimate Prosecco experience — products for consumers with a taste for luxury sparkling wines in general and Prosecco in particular.

The hierarchy provided here is very useful — starting with the DOC and DOCG concepts and going a couple of steps beyond. Easy concepts for Europeans to understand, but it will take some effort to make them part of the New World consumer’s lingua franca.  And of course it is necessary for the wines themselves to meet the quality expectations.P1090224

Act 3: In Vino Veritas

Which brings us to Act 3 and the wines themselves. We were fortunate to be able to taste three sets of Prosecco wines. Luigi Galletto, Sue and I visited a large producer — Mionetto — and tasted through the top line of wines available in the U.S. market. Then we visited a smaller producer specializing in organic wines — Sorelle Bronca.  Finally, Sue and I were fortunate to sample wines from Bisol at a tasting arranged by Matteo Bisol at his Venissa restaurant.

In vino veritas they say and in this context we might take it to mean that marketing and messaging are one thing, but the wines will tell you the truth. Is there truth in Prosecco’s premiumization push? Come back next week for our report.

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Thanks to everyone who made the Prosecco part of our Veneto giro such a rewarding experience. Special thanks to Professors Luigi Galletto and Vasco Boatto, Giancarlo Vettorello, Director of the Consorzio, Giulia Pussini, the Consorzio’s communications officer, Alessio Del Savio, Managing Director of Mionetto, and Matteo Bisol of Venissa.

The video at the top of the page was produced by the Consorzio and features several people we met during our stay. It tells the story very well and I think you will understand most of the points even if you are not fluent in Italian. I like the scenes in the original school building, including the old tasting room, the vineyard scenes and the explanation of the production process, which features secondard fermentation of the base wines in the pressurized autoclave tanks. The natural images of the Rive and the Cartizze zone give you a strong sense of the beauty of the zone. Enjoy!

Extreme Wine: Vineyard Edition

P1030341When I started working on my book on Extreme Wine  (due out in the fall) I asked Wine Economist readers for ideas. Who are the most extreme wine people, for example? I received many nominations but one particularly caught my attention.

It came from a California winegrower who asked that winegrowers (although not him/herself) be included on the list. Everyone says that wine is made in the vineyard — and some growers go to real extremes to make that happen — but it is the wine makers who get all the attention.  The Pisoni family was cited as an example. Fruit from Pisoni Vineyards goes into some of the best wine in California, although only a little of it is bottled under the Pisoni name.

Good point. A quick search on Robert Parker’s website turned up a long list of Pinot Noir and Syrah with the Pisoni Vineyards designation (Parker calls it a grand cru vineyard in one review).  The 2008 Pisoni Estate Pinot earned the highest score (98/100), but all the reviews were strong. Clearly there’s something special about this vineyard and the people who farm it.  I visited several extreme winegrowers in 2012 (most recently on Red Mountain). Here are three that illustrate different sides of the extreme winegrower phenomenon.

Serendipity

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As luck would have it, at about the same time I was having this extreme wine people conversation I received an invitation from Wine Yakima Valley to participate in a program they were organizing to help wine enthusiasts get to know several of the most noteworthy (read “extreme”) vineyards in the Yakima Valley AVA (which celebrates its 30th birthday in 2013). A perfect opportunity for me to do some extreme vineyard / wine grower research!

The Vineyard Tour Series highlighted the work of  four outstanding growers at Red Willow Vineyard, DuBrul Vineyard, Upland Estates and Boushey Vineyards. What a great opportunity. Each of these vineyards is famous for the quality of the wines made from its fruit and each is discussed in Paul Gregutt’s valuable book, Washington Wines & Wineries: The Essential Guide.

Gregutt knowingly breaks down Washington wine into grapes, AVAs, wine makers and wine growers. Boushey is one of his “grand cru” designates while Red Willow and DuBrul make “premier cru” in the top 20 list.  All these vineyards have interesting stories, but the DuBrul program was the best fit for my schedule.

Tough Love

I ended up spending a hot July afternoon at DuBrul, walking the vineyards with Hugh, Kathy and Kerry Sheils and gaining an appreciation of the unique terroir. This is how the Sheilses describe their site:

Our DuBrul Vineyard is situated on a basalt promontory with sweeping vistas in all directions.  The steep rocky south facing slope is composed of dissected terraces comprised of coalesced alluvial fan deposits primarily from the Ellensburg Formation.  The soils in the vineyard are made up of relatively thin loess (wind-deposited silt) over the more coarse-grained alluvial fan deposits.  The volcanic ash and heterogeneity of the rock types within the Ellensburg Formation add to the complexity of our terroir.

It’s hard land — literally. I think I remember Hugh saying that the spacing of the vines was partly determined by the lay out of the previous apple orchard there. The land was too equipment-busting tough to cultivate any other way, so they were forced to accept what they had to a certain extent. Wade Wolfe laid out the vineyard and Stan Clarke advised on the winegrowing — that’s as good a combination as you can get in Washington State.

The grapes are in high demand and are sold to only a few carefully selected customers — if you see the DuBrul Vineyard designation on a wine label you can expect something pretty special. So special that some of it is reserved for Cote Bonneville, the estate wine that Kerry makes.  The wines get high marks from the critics. At $200 the top of the line Cote Bonneville Du Brul Cabernet Sauvignon is the most expensive Washington State wine.

But DuBrul Vineyard isn’t about the money, it’s about the place and the particular geological forces that shaped it over the millenia and that shape what’s in your wine glass today. And, of course, it’s about the extreme wine people who have nurtured it.

History in a Bottle

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The first thing you see when you approach Larkmead Vineyards, which is located in Napa Valley up the road near St. Helena, are the 120 year old head-trained Tocai Friuliano vines planted in a block between a house and the road. Man, that’s history, I thought, as I surveyed these gnarly old vines and imagined the tenacity of the owner and the commitment to a less-than-fashionable Napa Valley variety.

I was right about the history, but wrong about the commitment to Tocai. Turns out the Tocai vines were kept through the years  in spite of  negligible market demand because they made such a darn fine hedge in the summer. Completely blocked out the road and its noise! Only in recent years did the winemaker decide to make lemonade out of the lemons. Now the unusual wine quickly sells out its tiny production each year.  (I was too late to try the most recent vintage. Sigh … maybe next year).

We came to Larkmead for the history (although not specifically for the Tocai Friuliano). Larkmead got into my head when I first read Jim Lapsley’s history of Napa Valley wine, Bottled  Poerty. The legendary Andre Tchelistcheff identifed the “big four” quality wine producers in the valley when he came to work here in 1938: Beaulieu (Tchelistcheff’s new employer), Beringer, Inglenook and … Larkmead.

Larkmead? I knew the wines were very good, but I didn’t appreciate the historical significance. I needed to find out more.

My curiosity was especially piqued because of what I knew about the other three wineries and the way that they fell into corporate hands and met different fates. Perhaps the saddest story (but with a happy ending) was Inglenook, which went from producing some of Napa’s best wines to being a lowly jug wine brand. Only recently, after years and years of effort, has Francis Ford Coppolla managed to bring the estate, its vineyards and the Inglenook brand back together to make excellent wines. Congratulations to him on this achievement.

We tasted with Colin MacPhail and Sonny Thielbar and enjoyed the wines quite a lot. But what I liked even more was the sense of history. Although everything about Larkmead is up to date, there’s a very strong sense of of identity here. The people at Larkmead know what they are –the stewards of the land — and who they are, too.  After talking, tasting and thinking a bit I realized that several generations of extreme wine people were necessary to preserve these vineyards and to sustain a particular vision of wine through all of Napa’s ups and downs. The Tocai vines that first caught my attention aren’t central to all this (as I secretly hoped), simply an unexpected reminder of how hard it can be for a vineyard and winery like this to stay true to itself.

Extreme Vineyard PersistenceP1040105

We visited Anne Amie Vineyards twice during our Willamette Valley expedition (I taught a class for the University of Pinot at the International Pinot Noir Celebration) — first to attend a casual food and wine reception and then again for a “magical mystery tour” seminar and luncheon.

We’ve been to this place on many occasions, starting about 30 years ago when it was called Chateau Benoit (after the founding family). We liked the wines then, especially the sparkling wines as I recall, and it has been interesting to watch the place evolve as the region’s wine industry developed. Much has changed. We called it Chateau Benoit (pronounced Ben-OYT) when we first visited because that’s how the founders said it, but I understand it morphed into a French-inflected Chateau Ben-WAH later on. And it 1999 it became Anne Amie when Robert Pamplin bought the operation and named it after his two daughters.

More than the name has changed — Pamplin has invested much energy into developing Anne Amie’s Pinot Noir program as you might expect in Oregon — but much has remained the same, including some of the original vineyards (which is where this story fits into today’s post). As we drove up the long road to the hilltop winery, we passed the original (1979) block of Muller Thurgau vines that produced the grapes that went into the wines we tasted on our very first visit.

It has taken a good deal of persistence to maintain these vines because they have faced a lot of challenges. The first is economic — there’s not much of a market for Muller Thurgau here in the U.S. It might make economic sense to pull them out and put in a more marketable variety.

And then there’s nature. The bottom of the hill gets pretty cold in the winter and these old vines sometimes suffer. And I think I remember that they’ve been hit with Phylloxera, but nursed along rather than grubbed up as you might expect.  I like the wine that is produced from these grapes — crisp and clean — but more than that I appreciate the extreme perseverance that is behind it. This particular Muller Thurgau vineyard is singled out for special mention in Wine Grapes by Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and Jose Vouillamoz and it is easy to see why.

These three vineyards only scratch the surface of extreme winegrowing, but I hope they make the point that my anonymous correspondent suggested. If wine really is made in the vineyard as we all like to say then we ought to honor and celebrate wine growing as much as we do wine making. Here ‘s a toast to the growers! Cheers!

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Thanks to Barbara Glover and Wine Yakima Valley for inviting me to take part in their vineyard program. Special thanks to Hugh, Kathy and Kerry Sheils for answering all my questions and sharing their wine growing experiences with me. More thanks to  Colin MacPhail and Sonny Thielbar at Larkmead and to Ksandek Podbielski at Anne Amie. Happy New Year to all!

Photos: Old vine Tocai block at Larkmead, Hugh Sheils at DuBrul, those old 120 year old Tocai vines once again, and the view from Anne Amie looking down the hill at the Muller Thurgau block.

Wines, Vines, War, Peace and Troops in Afghanistan

Members of the 2nd Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, patrol a grape vineyard with members of the Afghan National Army in Char Shaka, Kandahar province, Afghanistan, on April 28, 2011. (U.S. Army photo by Pfc. Justin A. Young)

I don’t really understand why wines and vines are so frequently associated with conflict.

Wine and War

Glancing at my bookshelf, for example, I find Wine & War by Don & Petie Kladstrup, which is about the Nazis in Bordeaux during the Second World War. Then there’s  Wine, War & Taxes by John V.C. Nye, which examines the Anglo-French wine trade in the 19th Century. Olivier Torres’s The Wine Wars tells the story of the Mondavi  “invasion” of the Languedoc. (And of course there’s my own Wine Wars, which examines tensions and conflicts implicit in the globalization of the wine market.)

These are all books that show how human conflict in other areas inevitably reveals itself in wine. I guess that’s the wine-war connection.

Wine and Peace

What about wine and peace? Perhaps the most famous “peace wine” story is Vino della Pace,  which is made in Cormons in Italy’s northeast corner. This region was devastated in World War I and then again in the Second World War. In a hopeful post-war gesture that I wrote about in Wine Wars, the local cooperative collected vines from all over the world and planted them in a special vineyard. They use the grapes to make Il Vino della Pace or the wine of peace.

The hope is that the people of the world can find a way to coexist as harmoniously as the grapes that make the wine in your glass. To see the vineyard and taste the wine as Sue and I did during a visit to Friuli a few years ago can be a moving experience.

Vines, War and Peace in Afghanistan

So you can understand why I was moved again recently when I read about a program that Washington State University’s Viticulture and Enology program  has developed to help U.S. troops in Afghanistan avoid conflict through a better understanding of the importance of the vine in that country.

Afghanistan is not an important wine-producing country, but grapes are a major crop (as they are in Iran, for example). “Forty-eight percent of the fruit-bearing land in Afghanistan is dedicated to grapes,” according to WSU. “Much of the crop is grown for personal consumption as table grapes and raisins, not for commercial use. Because most Afghan vineyards have higher rates of fungal disease, yield is typically low,” which means the grapes that survive are particularly precious.

Michelle Moyer, a WSU statewide viticulture extension specialist, has developed a presentation for the national eXtension Grape Community of Practice (GCoP) that offers troops a general introduction to vine biology, how grapes are grown, potential threats to grape production and specifics of Afghan grape production. An organization of 87 grape production professionals from 31 states and Ontario, Canada, the GCoP will distribute Moyer’s presentation to its members at universities and government agencies for their troop training efforts.

“Specific information on Afghan grape production is important for developing cultural and production sensitivity in deploying U.S. troops,” Moyer said. “Grapes are the leading horticulture crop for Afghanistan, but their production systems are not like those U.S. citizens would be accustomed to seeing.

Troops learn to be sensitive to water rights issues that might affect grape production. They also learn what an Afghan vineyard looks like, which might seem obvious but is not. The vines are not necessarily trained along the neat post and wire trellises familiar in the U.S.. Instead they are likely to grow up around the through trees, as they do in nature. Or they may be “bush” or head-trained like the vines in the photo above. Easy for an untrained eye to mistake an Afghan vineyard for something else.  Troops also learn about the high market value of raisins and why farmers might be especially protective of them.

“By providing information regarding what our troops might encounter while on the ground in Afghanistan, we can reduce the likelihood of a negative impact on production for this very important crop,” she added. “This sensitivity is critical in rebuilding economic and agricultural stability that is necessary for the overall long-term stability of a country.”

Congratulations to Michelle Moyer and her colleagues for creating this innovative program that will hopefully encourage peace and understanding through viticulture.