Wine Tourism Grows Up: A Visit to Washington’s Chateau Ste Michelle

chateau-ste-michelleI am in Kennewick, Washington today and tomorrow to speak at the Washington Winegrowers Association 2018 Convention & Trade Show.  Tomorrow I’ll share some thoughts about wine premiumization in the “State of the Industry” session, but today’s focus is wine tourism. I’ll give a global perspective on wine tourism as part of a program on  “The Business Side of Your Tasting Room.”

Grape Expectations?

Increasingly the tasting room’s business is not just pouring samples, selling wine, and promoting wine club memberships. Although winery visitors clearly expect to taste wines and perhaps tour the winery or walk vineyard paths, they often come expecting (or hoping for) something more.  That’s because sophisticated winery visitors don’t only visit wineries. They have many interests and develop expectations based upon their broader experiences. Wineries that want to attract these visitors need to step up to meet rising expectations.

Wine tourists and their rising standards have always been a priority at Chateau Ste Michelle, Washington state’s largest wine producer. When the current Woodinville production facility was constructed in 1976 the choice was made to locate it close to the Seattle population center, a few hours’ drive from the vineyards on the other side of the Cascade Mountains. The winery was built on the grounds of Hollywood Farm, the old Stimson Estate, and the main building was designed to closely resemble an iconic French chateau.

“The Chateau,” as we call it hereabouts, celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2017 and used that opportunity to give its visitor center a major renovation. Sue and I first visited this facility shortly after it opened in the late 1970s, when it was one of the most welcoming wine tourism destinations we found. But as the years have flown by a lot has changed. The number of visitors has increased and they have become more numerous, more diverse in terms of their wine knowledge  and also more sophisticated in terms of their expectations for a tourism experience. Inevitably, the tasting room itself had to change, too. And it has.

When I say that the wine tourism experience here has “grown up” I mean more than that it has matured and is now able to accommodate more visitors. One element of the growing up is to accommodate more diversity of tourist expectations and experiences.  The result is a textured program with many layers of opportunities.

For first time visitors, for example, the free (free!) tour and tasting is available as it has been here for as long as I can remember.  Visitors can upgrade their experience at the tasting room bar, where a variety of elevated tasting options are available for $10 to $15 per person — a bargain by Napa Valley standards.r-919411-1320418583-jpeg

Are You Experienced?

Winery visits in the old days were focused on tasting (and hopefully buying the wines) — a transactions approach. Now the state of the art is about relationships and creating opportunities to draw visitors more closely into the winery and its story so that they become both long term patrons and active brand ambassadors. I wrote in Around the World in Eighty Wines about the huge variety of experiences on offer at the Napa’s Robert Mondavi Winery and Chateau Ste Michelle has programs to match.

The Chateau Ste Michelle wine experience menu includes the above mentioned tours and tastings and moves on to a special small group single-vineyard and limited release tasting ($30 per person or $25 for winery club members), Cabernet-themed food and wine pairing experience ($100/$85), a”Sensory Sojourn” workshop ($65/$55), and a wine blending experience ($125/$95).

Small groups can also arrange to attend a sparkling wine seminar and tasting with food pairings ($55/$45), an opportunity to taste older vintage of Washington Bordeaux blends and Riesling wines ($55/$45), or grab a chance to learn how to blind taste like a Master Sommelier ($125/$95).

It is also possible to schedule visits to the Col Solare Bottega, where Red Mountain wines  produced in partnership with Tuscany’s Antinori family can be sampled, or a visit to the Enoteca, which highlights wines from Ste Michelle Wine Estate’s wineries and partners in Washington, Oregon, California, and around the world. I was pleased to see some famous Torres wines from Spain on the shelves when we visited. SMWE imports and distributes Torres wines in the U.S. as it does for Antinori, New Zealand’s Villa Maria, and French Champagne house Nicholas Feuillatte among others.

Bottom line: visitors cannot help but be impressed by the beautiful, welcoming grounds and imposing chateau facility and the delightful array of programs on offer. No wonder about 300,000 of them come each year both to visit the winery and to attend outdoor concerts on the big lawn behind the visitor center. Chateau Ste Michelle was conceived as a destination winery that’s what it is today.

The recent remodel has made it possible to expand the offerings to wine tourists so that they can custom-tailor a visit to get the experience that they seek.  Is this a model for the wine industry generally? No … and yes.

The No is easy. Most wineries don’t have the scale of production, volume of visitors, and the financial resources to make the sort of investment we see at Chateau Se Michelle possible. Only a few wineries around the globe can provide this level of service. In the last year of our travels, for example, I think only four wineries in Spain were at the same level: Freixenet, Codorníu, Torres, and Marqués Riscal.

But, Yes, this model is important for the industry to consider. Smaller wineries can offer a smaller range of experiences that are closely linked with locale, their history, and identity. Many visitors will appreciate the taste of authentic engagement as much as they do the wine itself.

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Congratulations to Chateau Ste Michelle on their 50th anniversary and wonderful new visitor center. Special thanks to Lynda Eller and Linda Chauncey for their hospitality during or visit and to Hermes Navarro del Valle for his insights.

Wine Tourism Challenge: Giving City Visitors a Taste of the Wine Country

The most famous explanation of international trade is David Ricardo’s Theory of Comparative Advantage. England can make both cloth and wine and so can Portugal, but they will both gain if England specializes in cloth and trades it for Portuguese wines on the basis of each country’s relative efficiency of production.

Divine Will?

There are other trade theories if you aren’t satisfied with Comparative Advantage. One of my favorites is what you might call the Divine Will theory of trade, which holds that God distributed people and the stuff they want and need much differently so that they would be forced to trade or else do without. And trade, the theory holds, brings people together peacefully as Divine Will intends.

I hesitate to invoke Divine Will, but it certainly is true that the wine trade throughout history has been driven in part by the fact that population centers where wine is consumed and vineyard regions where wine is produced do not always coincide.

Getting the wine to consumers is a technical (and, because of taxes and other regulations, legal) problem that has been solved for better or worse over the centuries. The vast wine wall at your local upscale supermarket may not prove Divine Will but it certainly is an impressive achievement.

The growing industry of wine tourism, however, turns the problem on its head. Now the issue is how to get people to the sometimes far distant vineyards so that they can enjoy the experience. Back when wine tourism was just about cellar door sales this was a relatively modest problem, but today wine tourism is an important industry with economic multiplier effects that extend beyond the tasting room.

How do you give consumers a taste of the wine country experience if they are unable to get to wine country itself?

Real and Virtual Reality at Brancott Estate

I discovered one possible solution in an interesting article on the VeeR VR Blog. Marlborough’s Brancott Estate, which is part of the Pernod Ricard wine empire, partnered with Found Studio to create an experience of the “Red Shed,” named for the estate’s famous big red building that is the program’s home base (see video above).

Virtual visitors don VR headsets and can explore the vineyards and the shed and — in a rather remarkable innovation that I have not yet tried — actually sense something of the wines through scents that the headset releases at key moments. This prepares participants for the “real” reality experience of tasting the wines that follows the VR exploration.

This is obviously a pretty complicated way to bring wine country to the city or anywhere else and at this stage it probably risks becoming as much or more about the technology as the wine itself. But it also has the potential to surprise and delight in magical ways. Is this the wine tourism of the 4-D future? Probably one aspect of it and a glimpse of what the future might hold. Stay tuned — this could be pretty interesting.

Woodinville Wine Cluster

We found a second very interesting approach in Woodinville, Washington, which is located a short drive from Seattle and is a major wine tourism destination. There are precious few vineyards here (a few demonstration vines in front of Chateau Ste Michelle and a small Pinot Noir and Chardonnay vineyard at Hollywood Hills Vineyards). But there are more than 100 wineries and tasting rooms, forming a rather impressive wine industry cluster and wine tourism opportunity.

The wineries, following the production model set by Chateau Ste Michelle in the 1970s, truck grapes or grape juice over the Cascade Mountains from the Eastern Washington vineyards and make and package the wine close the market rather than close to the farms. Fast, efficient, refrigerated transport helps assure high quality raw materials and excellent final product. Some of the wineries are showcases like Chateau Ste Michelle while others are working spaces in the warehouse district. Taken together they made a successful industrial cluster.

Tasting rooms began to spring up alongside the wineries when, a few years ago, Washington law was changed to allow wineries to have off-site sales rooms in addition to their traditional cellar door facilities. Wineries based in the Yakima Valley, Red Mountain, the Walla Walla Valley, and elsewhere rushed to open tasting rooms in Woodinville, creating the wine tourism destination you see now.

Sue and I were accompanied by our friend Hermes Navarro del Valle, who is an expert on the global tourism industry with a special interest in wine tourism. It was interesting to see Woodinville through his eyes. We began our visit at Chateau Ste Michelle, which has recently opened a new visitor center that I will talk about next week.

Then we moved on to two of the several small wine tourism clusters, each of which features cafes or restaurants as well as a selection of tasting rooms. We stopped for lunch, for example, at The Bistro at the Hollywood Schoolhouse, a casual, friendly place with good food and a nice wine list.  Then we walked a few steps to visit one of the half-dozen or so nearby tasting rooms. I wanted Hermes to taste the wines of Amavi and Pepperbridge from Walla Walla. especially and Amavi Syrah and the Pepperbridge Trine, which is one of the “Around the World in Eighty Wines” selections.

Hermes was excited by the possibilities he saw.  If a tourist could get from Seattle to Woodinville, there were lots of eating and tasting options — easy to spend a day here learning about the wines. But he quickly focused on the problem of local transportation — getting around between and among the different winery and tasting room clusters was going to be problem. There needed to be some sort of shuttle that would circulate around the wine routes, he said. A good public-private investment for the local government, Hermes thought.

We glimpsed how that might develop when we moved on to a nearby cluster for our next visit. This space is anchored by a popular wine-themed restaurant called Purple and featured eight or nine tasting rooms with more just across the road.. We started at Fidelitas, which is one of our favorite. The tasting room manager turned out to be Will Hoppes, son of winemaker Charlie Hoppes, so we felt very much at home. Fidelitas is located on Red Mountain and we enjoyed sampling wines from the estate vineyard as well as Quintessence and Champoux vineyards.

As we settled into tasting we started chatting with another visitor, Mark Pembrooke, who is CEO of W3 Tours and may be the solution to the local transportation bottleneck that Hermes diagnosed. W3 Tours provides a variety of winery shuttle services in the Walla Walla Valley and Mark was in Woodinville working on a project to expand his shuttle services here.

If the shuttle service is successful it will take cars off the roads, easing the congestion that we have seen on peak weekends, and help tourists get the most out of their time. Mark said that he was grateful for the support of several wineries who benefit from his service in Walla Walla and have supported the expansion to Woodinville. Hermes was impressed with the entrepreneurship and suggested the next step: discount coupon books to encourage visitors to spend more time and money in the tasting rooms.252494_172be_feb17_3740

We had time for two more tasting room visits and I selected Brian Carter Cellars and DeLille Cellars, which were conveniently located on the other side of the compact parking lot from Fidelitas and next door to each other. They represent very different ideas of Washington wine, which is what I wanted Hermes to see and taste.

Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordeaux blends like the poplar D2 and elegant Four Flags Cab are what DeLille is known for while Brian Carter likes to source a diverse range of grape varieties s to make blends that often pay tribute other regions.

Hermes was particularly taken with a Brian Carter wine called Corrida (Spanish for bullfight), a blend of Tempranillo, Graciano, and Garnacha from the Columbia Valley. The wine was balanced and had great character. A fine way to end our tour.

Wine Tourism Cluster Advantages

We were able to experience something of the variety that Washington wine offers both in terms of terroir and varietal character in just a short span of time and space. And there were about 100 other opportunities available for our  next visit.

All four of the tasting rooms we visited were warm and friendly and staffed by people who knew their stuff and could answer questions confidently. We appreciate their time and generous hospitality.  The individual wineries and tasting rooms are working hard to build their markets and establish a successful wine tourism industry here.

Problems remain, of course. Traffic congestion on peak weekends can remind a visitor of Napa Valley, for example, and there is room for more hospitality infrastructure, too. And it might be possible that Woodinville has exceeded critical mass and there are now too many tasting rooms competing for the same customers for all of them to be successful. I will be interested to see if a new cluster appears in Seattle’s historic Pioneer Square neighborhood where Browne Family Vineyards is opening a tasting room nearby to The Estates Wine Room.

But you could see Hermes thinking that this might be a useful model for other parts of the world — Mendoza comes to mind — where the wineries and vineyards are far from town and distance limits the growth of the wine tourism industry.

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As I noted above, our visit to Woodinville began with a tour of Chateau Ste Michelle’s new visitor center. Come back next week for details.

Video credit: Brancott Estate – ‘The Red Shed’ VR Experience from Found Studio on Vimeo.

Around the World in Eighty Wines Wins Gourmand International Wine Book Prize


9781442257368My new book Around the World in Eighty Wines has received the Gourmand International 2018 award for best U.S. book in the wine and spirits tourism category and will now compete for “Best in the World” with winners from other countries. The global gold, silver, and bronze medals will be announced this May at award ceremonies in Yantai, China.

The Gourmand International awards are important and I have been fortunate to be recognized in the past for best U.S. and bronze medal “world’s best” wine history book (Wine Wars, 2012), world’s best wine blog (WineEconomist.com, 2015) and world’s best wine writing (for Money, Taste, and Wine: It’s Complicated, 2016).

Here is the list of international champions in the wine and spirits tourism category:

logo_awardsAustria – Kulinarische Tourismus und Weintourismus (Springer)
Canada – Les Paradis de la Biere Blanche (Druide)
China – Compass to the ocean of wine (Zhejiang S/T) 9787534179549
France – Des Vignes et des Hommes (Feret)
Georgia – Georgia, Miquel Hudin (Vinologue)
Germany – Seewein, Wein Kultur am Bodensee (Jan Thorbeke)
Portugal – Vinhos & Petiscos (Caminho das Palavras)
Scotland – I love champagne, David Zyw (Freight Books)
Singapore – Cracking Croatian Wine, Charine Tan, Dr Matthew Horkey
Switzerland – Randos bieres en Suisse Romande, Monika Saxer (Helvetiq)
USA – Around the world in 80 wines, Mike Veseth (Rowman & Littlefield)

croatianI am especially pleased to see that Cracking Croatian Wine by Charine Tan and Dr. Matthew Horkey is also on the list. Sue and I met Charine and Matt at the 2016 UNWTO global wine tourism conference in Tbilisi, Georgia and we like and admire them a lot. Their books are valuable additions to the resources available to wine tourists in particular and wine enthusiasts generally.

I don’t know who will be named the “best in the world,”, but I appreciate this recognition. Good luck to Charine, Matt, and all the other national champions in all the categories.

Trickle Up Wine Economics and the Big Wine Market Squeeze of 2018

trickleYou’ve probably heard of “trickle down” economics. It’s the theory that if you give money to the rich it ends up benefiting those who are not so rich as the wealthy spend or invest their money and create incomes and jobs for others.

Trickle Up and Down

Trickle down economics is controversial. Not because it is crazy to think that the rich spend or invest their funds; the question is how much actually gets down to the bottom of the economic pyramid? Mega-rich Scrooge McDuck, my favorite childhood cartoon character, didn’t spend much of his money at all, so very little of it trickled down to others.

Although it might initially seem counter to the laws of fiscal physics, it is also possible for money to trickle up. In my studies of Italian economic history, for example, I discovered that the wealthy families of Renaissance Florence sometimes successfully enacted a trickle up policy.

There were some situations where the working class found themselves tapped out and disgruntled. The economy stagnated and social tensions heated up — a dangerous combination. So the rich found ways to get cash into the pockets of the poor, which they spent immediately and, by the end of the month, the coins were back in the hands of the rich where they started, the markets were churning away steadily, and peaceful social relations had been restored. Priming the pump, we used to call it. Enlightened self-interest at work!

How Does Wine Trickle?

Under certain conditions it is possible to experience a trickle down effect in wine markets. When grape harvests are unusually bountiful and grapes therefore cheap, it is possible for a winery to have more quality wine than they need for a particular brand or line of wines. They could of course simply cut the bottle price and sell the extra wine that way, which is what you learned in Econ 101, but price and reputation are closely associated in the minds of many wine consumers, and it is difficult to raise price back up in the future if you cut it now because expectations have change. This is sometimes called an example of economic hysteresis.

So the wine trickles down, either in the form of a second label or through bulk market sales. Trickle down bottom line: the surplus of good wine can trickle down to lesser wine market tiers when the conditions are just right. In recent years a whole industry has developed to take advantage of structural surpluses and trickle down situations. The rise of “asset lite” wine businesses (which own a brand, but no land or production facilities) is predicated in part on the ready availability of wine supplies.

This Time is Differenttrickleup

This time is different. As a recent Rabobank report makes clear, Wine’s Big Three global producers (France, Italy, and Spain) all had significantly short harvests this year and many other major producers had similar experiences either in 2017 (some parts of California) or 2018 (drought will dramatically limit production in South Africa). The tight global market will be felt mainly through squeezed margins, but other impacts may be felt.

A global wine shortage renders trickle down opportunities scarce, for example,  but creates the right condition for  trickle up wine economics. Here’s how it works. The shortage is going to raise wine prices in some categories and put the squeeze on those who are used to selling them. They’ll need to give priority to wine markets where margins are higher and can better absorb the rising costs.  In Spain, for example, this may mean favoring exports over the domestic market.

At some point basic bulk wines will cost too much to go into the boxes and budget bottles where they found homes in the past. To the extent that quality permits (and this is an uncertain factor), they will migrate up to wines selling at a higher price point. And the wines that would have gone there will migrate up a bit, too, as grape demand shifts up  and the effort to preserve and protect margins moves along.

Or at least that’s what the Law of 100 suggests. This is a rule of thumb that holds that you take the cost per ton of wine grapes and divide by 100. The result is the bottle price necessary to make wine production economically sustainable. If shortage pushes the effective tonnage price up far enough, the grapes need to be used for a higher tier of wine.

If the more costly wine cannot trickle up in one way or another, then tighter margins will likely trickle down. Many links in the value chain get squeezed in this process, but wine producers with the greatest ability to substitute and avoid higher costs and shortages face fewer potential difficulties. Brands built around specific grape varieties (versus flexible blends) and narrow appellation designations with limited alternative sourcing options are more vulnerable.

Price and Quantity

How will the Big Squeeze and the trickle up game affect wine price and quality? Well, costs will certainly squeeze margins and higher prices may result, but as I’ve just noted, there are some ways to mitigate that. One of them is to sacrifice quality, so that will be an important thing to watch as grapes migrate to higher price points.

This could be a serious issue for wines at the bottom of the shelf. Some of my wine friends have told me privately in the past that they believe the stagnant market for some of these wines is due in part to a decline in quality — which they often blame on cheap bulk imports used to preserve margins.

The economic impacts of the Big Squeeze could extend to the vineyard real estate market as well. Look for some of asset lite business to try to purchase or lease more vineyards to assure future grape supplies. This is not a new trend — it has been going on for a while in the Napa Valley, for example — but it is likely to accelerate.

It is obviously too soon to tell exactly how the big squeeze will play out — especially on the global markets — but these are some of the forces and patterns that I will be watching for.

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The Wine Economist will pause next week so that I can concentrate on my role as moderator and speaker at the “State of the Industry” session at the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium in Sacramento. Hope to see many of you there.

Mother Nature Strikes Back: The Big Wine Market Squeeze of 2018

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I’m busy getting ready for the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium, which takes place in Sacramento later this month. It is the biggest wine industry meeting and trade show in North America, with over 14,000 attendees expected for the event’s three-day run from January 23 to 25.

Sacramento Dreaming

There’s a lot to see and do at the Unified. The trade show itself is fantastic, with the full range of wine industry goods and services — from tractors to raptors to bottles and corks to finance and insurance — on display. The seminars are especially interesting this year. Gina Gallo will kick off the program with a much-anticipated keynote address at the luncheon on Tuesday.

Other sessions will look closely at wine-growing and wine-making issues, including a special program on Cabernet Sauvignon, which is the hottest thing there is in California wine these days. There are several parallel programs in English and Spanish, A very timely addition to the program this year is a series of seminars on preparing for and dealing with emergency conditions. Lots to see, hear, and learn.

I will be speaking at and moderating the “State of the Industry” general session on Wednesday morning. This will be a very intense session, featuring analysis by Danny Brager (The Nielsen Company), Steve Fredricks (Turrentine Brokerage), merger and acquisition expert Mario Zepponi (Zepponi & Company), and Allied Grape Growers’ Jeff Bitter. You really don’t want to miss this session — or any of the others.

Mother Nature Strikes Back

What’s ahead for the U.S. and global wine industries in 2018? Looking back at my notes from previous “State of the Industry” sessions, I see that in 2016 I suggested that the wine market looked very good … if the economic clouds on the horizon stayed away. They did and it was a good year for wine. In 2017 I proposed that the issue was more political than economic – lots of political uncertainty with the Brexit vote, Donald Trump’s new administration, and upcoming elections in France, Germany and elsewhere. If the political system can hold together, I speculated, it could be a good year for wine.

I might have been right at the time to focus on politics, but in retrospect it is clear that the real threat to the wine industry wasn’t economic or political … it was Mother Nature herself. 2017 (now extending into the 2018 harvest in the Southern Hemisphere) will be the smallest global wine grape harvest in a generation and, in some areas, the smallest since at least 1945.

Wildfires, both in California and in Portugal and Spain, are the iconic image of the year, but they are not the only or even the principal cause of the global grape squeeze. 2017 produced a perfect storm of different challenges in different places. Heat here, drought there, frost, freeze, hail. Sometimes it seemed like everything that could go wrong did. The impact on the global market will be significant. In fact, as I will explain next week, it could be game-changing.

Winegrowers are no strangers to bad weather or unfavorable conditions. What makes 2017 different is the fact that so many regions were affected during the same growing season – that’s what is causing the Big Squeeze. Typically small harvests in one region of the world are offset at least to some extent by abundant harvests elsewhere. This time was different – most of the world’s important wine growing regions were hit at once, albeit by different factors.oiv

The Biggest Losers

The biggest wine producers were also the biggest losers. OIV harvest estimates released on October showed a global reduction in wine production of about 8 percent compared with 2016 (see pdf here). Italy, France, and Spain – the three largest producers accounting for about half of global wine production – were down 23 percent, 19 percent, and 15 percent respectively.

There were only a few bright notes among major producers. Argentina’s 2017 harvest, for example, was 25 percent greater than in 2016. But the 2016 harvest, while good in terms of quality, was very small and not a really good point of comparison. In fact, Argentina’s 2017 crop was much lower than harvests in 2013, 2014, and 2015.

South Africa’s 2017 harvest was relatively good, up 2 percent from 2016, putting South Africa just ahead of Chile and behind Australia and China in the OIV wine league table. But the good news has not lasted. The 2018 harvest that will begin in just a few weeks looks to be the smallest in years due to very dry conditions through the growing cycle.

If you add the small 2018 southern hemisphere harvest to the northern hemisphere’s weak 2017, you get a dramatic shock to the global wine market environment – a sharp decline of 10 percent or more in global wine grape production.

What are the implications of this Big Squeeze? Your Econ 101 professor taught you that shortages cause prices to rise and that certainly in in the cards. But the wine economy is complicated, so it should be no surprise that the Big Squeeze will have complicated impacts. Come back next week for analysis.

Wine Economist World Tour 2018 Update

wtHappy New Year to all. The Wine Economist World Tour is back on the road in 2018. I’m looking forward to speaking at regional wine industry meetings in Washington, Idaho, and Colorado, plus the big national meeting in Sacramento.

Here are World Tour stops for January and February 2018.

January 2018

  • The World Tour comes to Grand Junction, Colorado where I will be speaking at the VinCO Conference & Trade Show January 15-18. I’ll be giving three talks: “Secrets of the World’s Most Respected Wine Regions,” “The Future of Small Wineries,” and “Around the World in Eighty Wines.” Looking forward to meeting everyone and learning more about the Colorado wine industry.
  • Unified Wine & Grape Symposium. January  23-25, 2018 , Sacramento California. I will be moderating and speaking at the “State of the Industry” session on January 24. It looks like this year’s discussion will be especially interesting and informative. I hope you can attend.

February 2018

  • Washington Winegrowers convention and trade show February 6-8, 2018 in Kennewick, Washington. I will be speaking at the “State of the Industry” session on the morning of February 7.
  • The Idaho Wine Commission’s annual meeting will be on February 13-15 in Boise.  I will be speaking about global trends and local impacts on the morning of February 14.
  • Local meets global: I’ll talk about “Around the World in Eighty Wines” from the vineyard point of view at a special evening meeting of the Tacoma Garden Club  on February 21, 2018.

Hope to see you at one of these events or somewhere else down the wine road in 2018.

Field Notes from a Visit to Madeira: The Island Where Old Barrels Go to be Reborn

justinos

Madeira is a Portuguese island off the coast of Morocco, a short 80 minute flight from Lisbon. When it was discovered in 1419 it was uninhabited, but now a quarter-million residents plus hundreds of thousands of tourists fill the island.

Madeira is famous for soccer (the Funchal airport is named for native son and Real Madrid striker Cristiano Ronaldo), its beaches, gardens, and mountains, too, which rise more than 1500 meters above sea level. And wine, of course.

I had been vaguely aware of Madeira (“Have some Madeira my dear”) for some time when I had the good fortune to read a terrific book called Oceans of Wine by David Hancock that opened my eyes to Madeira’s unexpected wine history (America’s founding fathers toasted the signing of the Declaration of Independence with Madeira) and unique production technique, where heat and long barrel-aging play important roles.

There followed a number of memorable Madeira experiences, which I recorded in my book Around the World in Eighty Days. Sue and I twice enjoyed a 1875 Barbieto Malvasia Madeira wine at the end of great meals at The Herbfarm restaurant in Woodinville, for example, and we shared a special bottle of Broadbent Madeira with her parents and their neighbors on another occasion.

Calling My Name

I could hear Madeira calling my name, but the opportunity to visit did not present itself until a few weeks ago, when Sue suggested that we add a long weekend in Funchal to a trip to Madrid and Porto, where I spoke to groups of local wine producers about U.S. market export opportunities.

Tourists come to Madeira for many reasons. The big draw seems to be the beach scene and the coastline near Funchal is lined with busy resort hotels. Others are attracted by walking and hiking opportunities in the beautiful mountain areas. Funchal is also a cruise ship port, so hundreds of tourists flood into town each day and disappear back on board each night at dusk. They find the attractive market, the beautiful gardens, and lots of cafes and restaurants.

Sue and I stayed at a small hotel just behind the cathedral, which put us right in the mix of tourists and local residents and just a short walk from Blandy’s, one of two Madeira lodges we visited during our stay. Blandy’s was founded in 1811 and has been throughout its history a family-owned business. A few years ago it partnered with another family firm, the Symingtons of Porto, to create the Madeira Wine Company, which makes and markets several Madeira wine brands.

1957

Madeira Wine History

Our tour of Blandy’s gave us a sense of the rich history of Madeira wine. The upper floors of the lodge were uncomfortably warm for us, but the barrels of wine seemed pretty happy there. The reason for the heat, if you don’t know the story, is that many years ago some Madeira producers noticed that the wines they sent abroad seemed to be transformed by the time they spent in hot ship holds.

Initially they thought that the rough movement of the ocean was the key, but they eventually learned that it was the heat that helped the wine oxidize in a particular way that made it both delicious and gave it long life. Madeira wines today spend years in old barrels (no new oak flavor is imparted) in warm rooms and the results are just as striking as they were in Jefferson’s day.

The high acidity of the base wine keeps Madeira fresh through its maturation process. Although we think of Madeira as a sweet old wine best paired with Christmas cake, Madeira ranges from dry to sweet and invites extended study — characteristics it has in common with Sherry wines.

New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov recently released his very personal list of 2017’s most memorable wines. A Blandy’s 1992 malmsey was highlighted. It was unforgettable, he said. We enjoyed the wines we tasted at Blandy’s, including the fresh and lively 1957 Bual pictured here.

Past and Present

A visit to Blandy’s is all about history, tradition, and romance and I think it should be on every tourist’s must-do list. A visit to Justino’s is a completely different experience. Justino’s once had a lodge in central Funchal like Blandy’s but they moved their operations to an industrial park outside of town a few years ago where the romance level and visitor head count are much reduced in exchanged for increased production scale and efficiency. (Blandy’s also has a modern production facility located away from town).

1999Winemaker Dina Louis showed us around the facility and helped us taste through the wines. The barrel room was again the center of the visit, but this time it wasn’t the heat that got our attention but the age and condition of the barrels themselves.  Both firms employ teams of coopers not to build barrels, as you would expect in a winery somewhere else in the world, but to keep ancient barrels in use, lending distinct character to wines. Madiera wineries scour the world looking for really old barrels in which to age their wines.

There is something about the old barrels and their individual histories and characteristics that Dina Luis finds fascinating and she spoke movingly about a particular barrel that contains her dream wine. Is barrel terroir a thing? Dina convinced us that particular barrels imparted particular subtle influences and made us really want to explore this idea more deeply.

Sue and I stumbled across a project that was underway where used Irish Whiskey barrels were imported and used to age Madeira wine for an Irish client. Then the wine is bottled the barrels will be sent back to Ireland to be filled with more Irish Whiskey — each product lending character to the one that came before. Apparently this sort of barrel fusion is part of the tradition in Madeira, where sailing ships would stop and fill their empty barrels (which previously contained other wines or spirits) with Madeira wine.

Champagne, Madeira, and a Resolution

As we toured Blandy’s and Justino’s and tasted the wines I couldn’t stop myself from finding parallels between Madeira wine and Champagne. Nobody would confuse the two wines in a tasting, but they do share several characteristics. Both begin with acidic base wines, the acidity necessarily to retain freshness through the production process. (Conventional table wines are made in Madeira and we tried as many as we could, but only found a couple that we liked — I think it must be difficult to find balance with such high acid levels).

The base wine for both Madeira and Champagne is then manipulated through an extended process — a second fermentation in the bottle for Champagne and long, hot barrel-aging for Madeira. The art of blending is important in both cases, too, with non-vintage multi-year blends most common. We like to say that wine is made in the vineyard, but these wines are both really made in the cellar.

Madeira’s ability to age makes it special, although we tasted lovely 3-year and 5-year wines, too. The oldest Madeira on my personal tasting list remains that 1875 Barbieto, but the 1934 Justino’s that Dina Luis let us sample is just as memorable.

Sue and are very lucky — our travels this year took us to Cyprus, where we tasted Commandaria — one of the oldest wines in the world — and to Madeira, where they make wines than can last for more than a century.  We found unexpected wines in Spain, Portugal, and Argentina, too. But you don’t have to travel so far to discover new wines — globalization brings a world of wine to your neighborhood shops.

What’s the takeaway here? The world is full of interesting and delicious wines and maybe we ought to try a little harder to take advantage of this great diversity. Seek out new wines from new places and then circle back to under-appreciated old wines from old places. That sounds like a worthy New Year resolution!

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Many thanks to António Filipe for helping to arrange our visit to Blandy’s and to Bartholomew Broadbent for doing the same at Justino’s.