Wine Book Review: Adventures on the China Wine Trail

chinaCynthia Howson & Pierre Ly, Adventures on the China Wine Trail: How Farmers, Local Governments, Teachers, and Entrepreneurs Are Rocking the Wine World. (Rowman & Littlefield, 2020).

I remember my first taste of Chinese wine very well. My university student Brian brought a bottle of 1999 Changyu Cabernet Sauvignon back from his study abroad semester in Beijing. It didn’t really taste much like Cabernet, but it was the smell that really got me. “Ashtray, coffee grounds, urinal crust” was the tasting note I found on the internet. Exactly. Quite an experience.

The second taste was not much better. Matt, another student, found a case of Dragon’s Hollow Riesling in a Grocery Outlet store in McMinneville, Oregon. He gave me a couple of bottles that I tried (but failed) to serve at a student tasting. The smell (something rotten?) got in the way of tasting and the wine went down the drain.

I learned two things from these tastings. First, maybe my students were out to kill me! And second, Chinese wine had a long way to go.

And a long way it has come, too, in only a few years. That’s one of the messages of Cynthia Howson’s and Pierre Ly’s fast-paced new book, Adventures on the China Wine Trail. Howson and Ly, partners in life as well as wine research, might have been initially attracted to Chinese wine by its peculiar taste and unexpected existence. But as they have immersed (I nearly said marinated) themselves in the wine, the people, the geography, and the culture they have discovered so much more, which they enthusiastically share with their readers.

Adventures on the China Wine Trail works on many levels. It is in part the record of the authors’ personal journeys and it is interesting to travel with them as they lug their seemingly-bottomless wine suitcase from place to place. The authors have an amazing mastery of the detail of the people and places, food and wine. It’s almost like being there.

In fact, the book works as a travel guide as well wine journey account, providing information of where to go, what to do, where to stay, and so on. But beware: Howson and Ly aren’t your typical tourists, so while they do take us on a walk along part of the Great Wall, this is only because they took part in a wine conference quite close by. They still haven’t seen the famous Terracotta soldiers despite spending time in that region.  They couldn’t pull themselves away from the wineries. Maybe next time, they sigh.

More practical advice appears in the closing chapters. Where should you go to buy or drink excellent Chinese wine if you visit China? They have recommendations for you. And when will you be able to enjoy Chinese wines (good ones, not the drain-cleaner stuff) at home? Sooner than you think, they say.

Some of the wines are already here, including the $300 Ao Yun that Pierre bought at a Total Wine in Washington State. But that is just the iceberg’s tip and if you are reading this in London or Paris you may know that Chinese wines are no longer the shocking discovery that they were just a few years ago.

And how are the wines? They vary in quality, just like wines from any place else. But many of them (more each year) are excellent and even distinctive. I know this both because Howson and Ly tell us about the wines and also because Sue and I have been fortunate to share some of their Chinese finds — including that luxury Ao Yun.

There’s a final layer to the story that I can’t forget. Howson and Ly are both professors and serious scholars. Although the book doesn’t read like an academic treatise, it has a serious purpose. The authors began their study of the Chinese wine industry wondering where it might lead? Could wine possibly be the basis of sustainable rural economic development? Or was it an alcoholic dead end in terms of a greater purpose?

Chinese wine’s journey has been anything but simple or smooth and continues today. It will be a long time, I suspect, before we know for sure how the story will end. But as for economic development, Howson and Ly have overcome their doubts. Wine in China is the real deal, whatever specific shape it takes in the future. All the hard work of the farmers, government officials, teachers and entrepreneurs we meet in the book has succceeded in building a viable industry.

So here’s my tasting note:  Adventures on the China Wine Trail is a fast-paced journey through the world of Chinese wines that will appeal to readers who love wine, China,  travel, or who just looking a good adventure yarn. Highly recommended.

Wine Book Launch Today: Discover Hungarian Wine

Our good friends, Charine Tan and Matthew Horkey of Exotic Wine Travel, are launching their fourth wine book today: Discover Hungarian Wine: A Visitor-Friendly Guide, available for pre-order via their Kickstarter website.

Sue and I have crossed paths with Matt and Charine in typically exotic places — Tbilisi, Georgia; Iasi, Romania; Carcassonne, France — and we have come to value their judgement and to admire their creativity, energy, and commitment. They bring these qualities to their wine guides, which are written to help independent travelers (and travel dreamers, too) get the most out of their experiences.

Hungary is a great choice for their latest book. Hungarian wines were once celebrated as among the best in the world. Then a perfect storm of crises changed everything. Phylloxera, war, depression, war, communism, post-communism struggles, and emergence into an increasingly competitive wine world. It is amazing that Hungarian wine survived. But it did.

More and more visitors are coming to Hungary (many on those ridiculously popular river cruises) to discover the culture, history, music, and food of this unique land. And they are discovering the wines, too. But this is unknown territory for most visitors (and most wine consumers generally), so they need a sympathetic guide to get the most out of their experiences and that’s where Matt and Charine come in.

“The book will offer practical information that help visitors to learn about Hungarian wine, shop for Hungarian wine, enjoy Hungarian wine, and most of all, feel empowered to explore Hungarian wine,” said Matthew Horkey.

“The Exotic Wine Travel’s guidebooks are always written and designed with one goal in mind: to help wine lovers and travelers save time and money by helping them to skip or shorten the trial-and-error process of finding the wines they like. We always aim to produce a guidebook that we wished we had when we first visited a wine country,” said Charine Tan.

A book launch is like a grape harvest — it sets in motion the process that eventually fills our glass with delight. Looking forward to a great Hungarian wine vintage from Matt and Charine. Cheers!

What’s Up in Walla Walla? Wine Tourism

downtownwallawallaWalla Walla has become an important wine center and an exciting place to visit, but it wasn’t always that way. When Sue and I first came here years ago you could count the wineries on one hand and Main Street, which really was the main street of the town, was strictly for locals and their everyday needs. If there was a destination address on Main Street it might have been Brights Candies or the historic theater across the street.

Walla Walla’s business was agriculture back them –wheat, peas, and the famous sweet onions — and the banks and suppliers that farmers need to get along.  A state prison and prestigious Whitman College — an unlikely combination — were the urban anchor bookends.

The farms are still there and still very important and so are the prison and the college, but what draws thousands of tourists to Walla Walla today are wineries and vineyards.  Sue and I paid a quick visit to the valley in the middle of the week shortly after Labor Day and here’s what we found.

Urban Wine Village

Although the buildings look the same from the outside, downtown has been transformed by wine tourism. It is possible to spend a few days enjoyably tasting wine just by meandering up and down Main Street and its tributaries, without every getting into a car or walking too far from your hotel.

Winery tasting rooms line the streets along with restaurants, cafes, tourist shops … and Brights Candies.  Strolling on a weekday afternoon watching people sitting at sidewalk tables sharing bottles of wine presents a scene that could not have been imagined twenty years ago.  As the sun went down, lights and music came up and people of all ages appeared — seniors, families with children, college students. Lots of dogs, of course. A nice mix.

With so many tasting rooms in just a few blocks, product differentiation is important. Cayuse, the ultimate local allocation-list cult wine, is famous for having a brightly painted tasting room  … that never seems to be open. How exclusive is that? Other wineries keep their doors open as much as they can because direct-to-consumer sales and wine club commitments are critical to their economic sustainability.

One tasting room featured wine slushies as a way to stand out in the crowd. Kinda like a Slurpee at 7-11, I guess, but with alcohol from the wine base. Didn’t try it but I wouldn’t entirely rule it out on a 90-degree August day. Something for everyone.

Slowly then Suddenly: Critical Mass

A successful wine tourism sector requires a critical mass of visitors, tasting rooms, accommodations, food, and drink, which have all slowly and then suddenly come together on Main Street. Or at least that’s how it feels to us, and this is backed up by a 2019 economic impact study (pdf here).

Although many of the visitors surveyed indicated that they first came to Walla Walla ten or more years ago like us, nearly a quarter only made their initial visit in the last two years  (see table II-11). And they returned because there is so much to do, see, and taste. Impressive.

Even the prison gets some love. We stopped to taste at The Walls, which is named for the prison walls that are just a short distance from the winery.  The wines were powerful but elegant — a difficult balancing act — even the “Concrete Mama” Syrah (another reference to prison walls). Sue was especially fond of a Tempranillo from The Rocks district called “Wonderful Nightmare.”

Rioja to Walla Walla

The newest wine tourism destination is south of town near the Oregon border — Valdemar Estates.  The winery facility opened just a few months ago, but it is already getting hundreds of visitors each day. The winery is the project of Jesus Martinez Bujanda Mora, the fifth generation of his Spanish winemaking family, who has planted a flag here in Walla Walla.

The winery and tasting room are stunning, with stylish contemporary Spanish flair, but I think visitors come for a unique experience. They can taste Valdemar’s Walla Walla and Red Mountain Syrahs — with additional wine offerings in the pipeline. But there’s more because Valdemar’s Spanish wines are also available. And you can taste them, comparing old world and new, in the best possible way, gazing out over vineyards with plates of tasty fresh-made tapas to pair with the wines.

Delicious tapas and fine wines — no wonder that visitors are attracted to Valdemar Estates. And the winery seems committed to becoming part of the community, advancing the region and not just their own wines and business.

Love Me Like the Rocks

It will be interesting to see how this project develops, especially as a new center of gravity develops in Walla Walla.  Wineries and tasting rooms are just about everywhere in this area — Main Street, out at the airport, near the Blue Mountains, in the vineyards south and west of town, too.  But there’s one area that hasn’t seen much development … yet.

Some  great wine comes from the rocky vineyards across the state line in Milton-Freewater, Oregon, including iconic Reynvaan and Cayuse, but not many visitors head this way. Is this the next frontier for Walla Walla wine tourism? Come back next week for our closer look at the future of The Rocks.

Wine Book Review: Redrawing the World Wine Map

atlasHugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson, The World Atlas of Wine 8th edition. Mitchell Beazley, 2019.

The notion that we must redraw the world wine map comes up a lot. Climate change is redrawing the map — you’ve heard this before, haven’t you? And I’ve written about how globalization is redrawing the world wine map. And money — changing consumer patterns across the globe and among generations — is changing things, too.

The Great Convergence

The idea that we must redraw the wine map is easy to talk about, but actually doing it turns out to be devilishly difficult. But that’s the task that Hugh Johnson, Jancis Robinson, and their team of expert collaborators set for themselves in the revisions that produced this 8th edition of The World Atlas of Wine. It’s quite an achievement.

Robinson discusses the challenge in her introduction to the weighty volume. A couple of decades ago it seemed like wine was on the path to global homogenization, she writes, with wine production everywhere converging on a few marketable varieties and even fewer popular styles. I think the rise of efficient international bulk wine transport put a premium on sameness — more market opportunities if your Chilean wine can seamlessly substitute for California or Australia juice.

Cool is Hot

I won’t say that the convergence has stopped, but there’s been a reaction to it that focuses on differences and highlights indigenous grape varieties and traditional wine-making styles. Climate change and scientific research have altered wine’s physical domain, pushing grapevines into unexpected places. Tasmania and England are hot, attracting lots of attention and investment, precisely because they are cool — cool-climate, that is.

It might once have been possible to think about wine in terms of old world and new world, but today’s map is more of a tapestry, with global elements interwoven with exciting local developments. How can this dynamic be captured in a wine atlas? There are a couple of obvious approaches and I think Johnson and Robinson have chosen the best and most difficult one for this book.

The Great Revision

So how do you redraw a world wine atlas? One approach I have seen to updating a big book makes heavy use of text boxes and call-outs. The bulk of the text gets a once-over-lightly revision, while the new material is patched into using the boxes. This makes the new material easy to spot and updating the book the next time is basically updating the boxes. This saves time and money, but the result is necessarily uneven if only because some topics need a lot of updating and others less so, but the editorial format often calls for equal numbers of box opportunities.

Much harder to do — so hard with a 400+ page book that it is almost crazy — is to rewrite everything taking the dynamic elements fully into account. That, of course, is what we have in this 8th edition. The changes are not always obvious because they have been seamlessly integrated, but they are there on every page.

Literally Redrawing the Map

Inevitably, this process means that the maps at the core of any atlas have to change. All 230 of them (!) have been updated as necessary and 20 new maps drawn (plus new 3-D maps and soil maps). Seven regions get their own entries for the first time: Cyprus, Lebanon, Israel, British Columbia, St. Helena (Napa Valley), Brazil, and Uruguay. 

You might think the challenge of a 416-page atlas is to fill the space, but the reality is just the opposite. There’s an emphasis of economy and selectivity throughout. Each entry is a delicate balance of breadth versus depth and, while those with specialized interests may be frustrated, I think on the whole it works pretty well. That said, I’d love to see even more detail about China (which was allocated an addition page in this revision), since the wine world’s center of gravity is slowly shifting in that direction.

Bottom Line

The new 8th edition of the World Atlas of Wine is a great achievement. Highly recommended.

Three Perspectives on Canada’s Okanagan Valley & Its Wine

Every time Sue and I visit the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia, Canada we find something new that makes us rethink what we thought we knew about this beautiful (and somewhat still undiscovered) wine region. Here are three perspectives taken from the field notes from our July 2019 visit for the B.C. Wine Grape Council Enology & Viticulture Conference.

#1 Follow the Money

If you drive around the long, narrow valley you cannot avoid the impression that there is a lot of recent investment in the wine sector here. So many pretty vineyards and stylish wineries, many with ambitious restaurants and hospitality venues. Where is the money coming from? And how is it being spent?

There is no simple answer to this question. There are two large players working to build the regional brand and a lot of smaller operations, some well-financed by outside money while others look like classic family wineries.

The big players are Andrew Peller Limited and Arterra Wines Canada. Peller has wineries in both Ontario (including Thirty Bench, Wayne Gretzky Estates) and British Columbia (including Calona Vineyards, Sandhill, Red Rooster). Calona Vineyards was established in 1932 at the end of Canada’s prohibition era.

As you might guess, the early focus was not exactly fine wine, but Peller has moved successfully into the quality era. Sandhill’s founding winemaker Howard Soon built a flagship brand of single-vineyard wines that seems intended to mark Peller’s path into the future.

pinArterra has a complicated history, but is headed the same direction. It was already a going business when I first encountered it years ago as Vincor, which owned a collection of  wineries in Canada and elsewhere including Hogue Cellars in Washington State and New Zealand’s Kim Crawford.

Vincor was purchased by Constellation Brands, which both developed the wineries and expanded the distribution network to include other Constellation wines. Constellation sold the Vincor operations (retaining Kim Crawford, of course, part of its continuing effort to redefine its business model) to the Ontario Teachers Pension Plan in 2016.

The resulting firm, Arterra, still distributes some of the Constellation wines including Woodbridge by Mondavi, Ruffino, and Kim Crawford, as well as wines from its iconic Canadian wineries including Jackson-Triggs, Sumac Ridge, Inniskillin, Nk’Mip Cellars (in  partnership with the Osoyoos Indian Band), and See Ya Later Ranch.

Large wine companies always draw suspicion because of their ability to throw their weight (money) around. But I think they are useful because they can have the breadth and scale to promote the regional brand better than other groups with fewer resources can do.

sevenThe Okanagan has benefited from several waves of outside investment in vineyards and wineries over the past 25 years. City money from Vancouver, oil money (now in shorter supply) from Alberta. Chinese-Canadian and mainland Chinese investment, too.

Our group stopped at Le Vieux Pin on the Black Sage Road near Oliver. The winery’s owners are Iranian. Their talented French winemaker,  Severine Pinte, crafts wines that are all about elegance and balance and it is easy to fall in love with them, especially over an improvised lunch of gourmet deli-sandwiches. Mary McDermott, one of our hosts and the winemaker at Chinese-owned Township 7, brought her delicious sparkling wine to complete the feast

Perhaps the most exciting new project we saw is Phantom Creek Estates.  Bai Jiping and his family are investing C$50 million in vineyards and C$50 million in a showstopper winery on the Black Sage Bench. The vineyard was already well known (it supplied grapes for Sandhill) and now the big facility on the hill, with its 120 seat restaurant and hospitality space, is nearing completion. When it opens in September (by appointment only during the phase-in) it will provide a destination winery in the south of the valley to book-end famous Mission Hill in the north.

#2 Creative Destruction

Climate change is an issue here as it is almost everywhere else in the wine world, and it may provide an interesting “Back to the Future” moment for this region. Hybrid grape varieties dominated here until the 1990s, when increased import competition fueled by the NAFTA trade agreement forced growers to upgrade their plantings.

Not all the hybrids were removed, however, and one of the questions during the Q&A session was whether there was any future for these grapes and the wines that are made from them? The knee jerk answer would be no — not much  market value in these vines any more. Better to move on to more consumer-friendly vinifera vines. But this might be a rush to judgement.

2359-sperling-vineyards-sperling-vineyards-old-vines-f-2017-27258The day before we attended a talk by Greg Jones, the world’s foremost viticultural climatologist, on the impact of climate change on wine around the world and in British Columbia. One of the points he made was that hardy hybrids can be very useful because of their ability to span a range of climate conditions (compared with the more narrow growing windows of some vinifera grape varieties).

That thought was in my mind at lunch the next day when someone said that Sperling Vineyards was pouring their Old Vines Foch Reserve, made from vines planted in the 1960s. We already had the delicious Sperling Old Vines Riesling in our glasses (vines planted int he 1970s in the same vineyard as today’s Tantalus), so we snagged more glasses and tasted the Foch.

It was terrific. Different, as hybrids are, juicy, aromatic. Nothing like the last Maréchal Foch I tasted years ago, benefiting no doubt from improved vineyard and cellar practices. And maybe climate change, too? Dunno.

The Sperling Foch is exceptional and it is dangerous to generalize from exceptional cases, but it made me reconsider the viability of hybrids. Given climate change threats, I said in my reply to the question, maybe we need to change the way we think about hybrids — something that is happening in Europe according to a recent Decanter article.

Are hybrids the bad old days to be forgotten or are they part of our heritage that we need to remember and maybe turn to once again? Hybrids aren’t the answer to climate change– there isn’t any one answer — but maybe they can be part of the adjustment process.

vanessa#3 The Undiscovered Country

There is a lot going on in the Okanagan Valley, but it is just one of nine designated wine regions in British Columbia. There are smaller but active wine groups on Vancouver Island, the Gulf Islands, the Fraser Valley, the Kootenays, Lillocet, Thompson Valley, Shuswap, and the Similkameen Valley.

The Similkameen Valley is next on our list. Rugged, rocky terroir — not much of what you might call dirt in some places for a vine to take root. And it’s warm, too — more heat units than Napa. When Howard Soon retired from Sandhill (and collected the Order of Canada honor) he linked up with Vanessa Vineyards so that he could explore the possibilities of this  unusual terroir.

We’ve tasted some of Howard’s Vanessa wines and also those from nearby Clos du Soleil and they are simply fantastic.  Similkameen Valley — must be a magical place. Can’t wait to go there.

And for the present visiting these regions is the surest way to find the wines, at least for those of us in the U.S. market. Distribution in the U.S. is limited and very hit-and-miss. I searched the Total Wine website for Romanian wine and found a dozen different wines, many of them available at the nearest store. A search for “Canada wine” turned up three Icewines ranging in price from about $25 to nearly $80 per slender bottle with only one (the most expensive, of course) available locally.

I hope things will change and some of these wines become more available here, but I don’t have to tell you that the politics of international trade are hotly contested these days. For the moment, the best way to taste and acquire these wines involves going to the source.

The good news is that a visit is richly rewarded. There are winter sports venues nearby, but the best times for wine tourism are probably spring through fall when the winery hospitality rooms are geared up for visitors. Sue and I spent a memorable early fall weekend at a lakeside resort in Summerland back in 2010. Here is a report of our wine tourism experience.

The Okanagan Valley is on the move when it comes to wine in more ways than one. It will be interesting to return in a few years to chart the changes … and sample more of these exceptional wines.

Tundra Red? Tundra White? Reimagining Wine in Canada & the Okanagan Valley

OKSue and I were recently in the Okanagan wine region of British Columbia, Canada, for a winegrowers conference. We had a great time — smart people, exciting discussions, interesting wines. Lots to see, hear, and learn.

If you haven’t visited yet, this region should be on  your wine tourism radar. The Okanagan Valley is about 5 hours by car (or a short plane flight) from Seattle or Vancouver. A bit out-of-the-way, but so are Napa and Walla Walla and that hasn’t stopped you.

Reversed New Zealand?

The Okanagan is sort of like an reversed image of New Zealand. New Zealand is a rugged island surrounded by water, oriented north to south, with constantly changing wine terroirs as you move from one place to another. Endlessly fascinating if you have the time to explore.

The Okanagan, on the other hand, is rugged land that surrounds deep lake waters oriented south to north, with constantly changing wine terroirs as you move from place to place (and one side of the lake to the other).

Great place for a casual visit, but more serious study is richly rewarded. The Okanagan even has a legendary sea monster — Ogopogo. Not sure if the Kiwis can top that.

Pinot Noir and Riesling are here in the cooler spots, a bit of Sangiovese and lots of Syrah there, Tempranillo and Cabernet around the bend, Pinot Gris in many places. Even Sauvignon Blanc, which is appropriate since some of the winemakers hail from New Zealand.

More Than You Might Think

Many of our friends are surprised that there is wine (and very good wine) in the Okanagan. When they think of British Columbia their thoughts turn to cosmopolitan Vancouver or rugged wild Vancouver Island (which has wineries, by the way). Wine? Do Canadians even make wine?

So they are surprised to learn that wine is not just a thing in Canada, it is an important thing. According to the annual industry review issue of Wine Business Monthly, there were 745 wineries in Canada at the start of 2019. British Columbia tops the table with 317 wineries followed by Ontario (242), and Quebec (130).

Since wine is made in all 50 U.S. states, you won’t be surprised to learn that Canadian wine also comes from Nova Scotia (21 wineries), New Brunswick (15), Saskatchewan (9), Alberta (5), Prince Edward Island (4) and Newfoundland & Labrador (2). Manitoba? No wineries … yet!

Changing Times

Years ago Sue and I were visiting Vancouver and tried to order an Okanagan wine from the list at an upscale restaurant. The waiter refused to take the order on account of his assessment of the wine’s low quality (we ended up with something from France as I recall). I think the wine was made from hybrid grapes, which was the norm for years and probably accounted for the waiter’s negative review.

I cannot imagine having a similar experience today. The best of the wines today are made to a high standard and local chefs are keen to pair them with their farm-to-table menus. Sue and I were fortunate to attend a promotional dinner in Seattle where B.C. chefs (plus Seattle’s iconic Tom Douglas) paired Okanagan wines with local seafood.  Terrific.

Tudra Red? Tundra White?

How you see the Canadian and British Columbia wine industries depends on your point of view. If you take the global perspective, for example, you see only Icewine, Canada’s most valuable wine export.

B.C. Icewine is so good that I think it is actually worth its high price, but it inevitably defines Canada as a cold, dark place (the grapes for Icewine are harvested in the dark of night, frozen on their vines). What else could Canada possibly produce? Tundra Red? Tundra White?

This narrow perspective is even true here in the Seattle area, not so far from the Canadian border. The sight of a B.C. wine on a store shelf (apart from Icewine) is rare indeed. We have a distorted view of Okanagan wine because, Icewine aside, production is aimed at the domestic market and exports are limited.

The Rivals?

The perspective shifts inside Canada, where Ontario and British Columbia are seen as strong rivals for consumer hearts, minds, and dollars. Or at least that’s the impression I got from a CBC radio interview that my Canadian friend Joel sent me a few years ago. Click here to listen (do it — really — it is hilarious). A discussion of BC vs. Ontario wines quickly degenerates into name-calling and worse. I didn’t realize that it was meant as satire until Joel clued me in.

In fact, however, Ontario and B.C. wineries have bigger enemies than each other. The challenge, in my opinion, is help make the pie larger rather than worrying about how it is divided. The Canadian market is highly regulated, especially at the provincial level, so selling wine can be as difficult as making it. This is changing, but for now the scale of most Okanagan Valley wineries is relatively small, limited to a certain extent by their cellar door and local market demand.

Take a Closer Look

Now zoom in closer to the Okanagan Valley and neighboring wine regions. What you see are confident winemakers working diligently to understand their varied terroir and take their wines and wineries to the next level.

When I first heard that local groups were busy proposing sub-appellations in the Okanagan Valley I scratched my head in puzzlement. Hardly anyone outside of Canada has even heard of the Okanagan. Shouldn’t you be building the big Okanagan Valley brand instead of dividing it into smaller and smaller regions and sub-regions with little apparent economic value?

I am still suspicious of the movement to make every wine region as complicated as a map of Burgundy terroirs, but I appreciate that local wine industry leaders feel they are ready for that next step. It seems a little crazy from my U.S. perspective, but the U.S. market isn’t (yet) extremely relevant to Okanagan producers. That could also change — some of the winemakers at the Seattle dinner were looking for U.S. importers. Fingers crossed they made the connections they were seeking.

Things are changing fast, so perhaps these perspectives will converge. Come back next week for our take on where B.C. wine is today and where it might be heading.

Napa Envy? What’s the Secret for Emerging Wine Region Success?

american_airlines_boeing_707_model_aircraft_kits_1bcd6855-5d3b-43ac-b7e9-e4ce13ea59df_largeW.W. Rostow’s famous 5-step theory of the “Stages of Economic Growth” seemed to present a blueprint for less-developed countries thirsty to move up in the global economy league table.

The key step — “take-off” — invoked the image of a powerful modern jet airliner (probably a Boeing 707 back in 1960 when the theory appeared) rising from the runway and soaring into the bright blue sky.

The reality for those who followed Rostow’s map was problematic because his analysis was based on the experience of a previous generation of soaring economies and both the conditions on the ground and the global market environment were often very different. Take-off proved frustratingly hard to achieve and the mistakes were costly both in dollars and in missed human development opportunities.

The Limits of Imitation

Sue and I have visited many emerging wine regions and they all seem to be looking for a blueprint like Rostow’s and for the jet engine that will propel their own take-off into the global wine market’s stratosphere. Everyone wants to be the next Napa (or fill in the name of your favorite successful wine region).

A lot of energy is spent (and probably wasted) trying to emulate the success of one particular emerging wine region that started to soar more than thirty years ago and hasn’t slowed down since. That region is New Zealand and the key to its take off is widely seen to be its choice of a signature grape variety to rally around — Sauvignon Blanc.

New Zealand’s growth is stunning, to be sure, but I argue that its take-off was the product of particular local and global conditions that are unlikely to be replicated in quite the same way today. There are also unintended consequences to consider. The stunning success of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc has cast a shadow over other NZ regions and wines that deserve more market attention than they typically get.

The Road Not Taken

The signature winegrape varietal take-off strategy is simple and appealing in theory, but difficult and even dangerous in practice. So what works? How do emerging wine regions get up to speed in the fast-paced global market?

My sense is that each case is special and each road different. The only common characteristic I have noticed is quality, which must be found in every bottle or glass. You only have one chance to make a first impression, they say, and reputation is always on the line. With quality much is possible, even if it is not easy or automatic. Sans quality nothing much seems to work.

But that’s a pretty vague road map, so my senses perked up when I heard Jamie Goode talk about the stages growth for new wine regions at a recent British Columbia Wine Grape Council conference and trade show in Penticton, BC.

From Surprise to Enlightenment

Goode has been just about everywhere in the wine world and based on this experience he proposed a five stage evolution (not revolution) development pattern. Surprise comes first, he said. Local winegrowers are surprised when they find themselves making halfway decent wine. Incredible! Maybe this wine thing is possible.

parisCuriosity comes next as dozens of grape varieties and wine styles appear followed by Imitation of famous wine regions and their wines. Imitation leads to Over-Confidence, in Goode’s taxonomy. I suppose this is when those “Judgement of Paris” type events are organized where you elevate your region to the same stage as Burgundy or Bordeaux.

The 1976 Paris tasting is credited with putting Napa on the world stage. If it worked for Napa, how can it fail for everyone else who tries it?

Real Confidence is Goode’s final stage and I am not sure exactly what he means by this but I know what I think it is. Know thyself. Make wines that are yours, not copies of others, that stand on their own, drawing on the practices and influences of others, but not imitating anyone else.

This is a pretty good description of how wine regions evolve, but the stages it proposes are not strictly limited to wine. I’ll bet most artists and musicians go through phases like this before they gain (if they do) the confidence to be themselves. Mozart may have been born a mature musical genius, but the rest of us have to thrash around as best we can until we figure it out.

Significantly, there isn’t a “take off” stage here, which I think is probably a good thing because it avoids the signature varietal dead end and other false trails. Goode’s analysis doesn’t provide much of a road map for an emerging wine region to use to plot their course, only to evaluate where they have been. But then Rostow showed us that road maps can lead to the wrong destination if the terrain has shifted, so maybe this invitation to self-analysis is as good as it gets.

Confidence Game

The stages of growth idea came up again during the Q&A session. You’ve visited British Columbia several times. Where are we in your theory? Which stage of growth best describes us?

Goode thought about this a bit. Between 4 and 5, he said. Between Over-Confidence and Real Confidence. Interesting! That made me stop and think, too. Sue and I have been to the BC wine country many times over the years. Where does the region stand today? Come back next week to find out the answer.

What’s Ahead for Romanian Wine?

cotnariSue and I did our best to learn all we could about the Romanian wine industry during our visit to participate in the International Wine Competition Bucharest in Iasi, but inevitably we only scratched the surface. Romania is a diverse country with a complicated wine industry. Impossible to understand with confidence on the basis of just a few days.

A Wine Region in Motion

So we are operating on first impressions, not detailed analysis, but first impressions can be important. One strong impression was of dynamism. It was hard to resist the enthusiasm of the people we met and their sense that Romanian wine is on the move, reaching new and higher levels.

Indications of this ambition were all around us, but perhaps most clearly visible when the competition crew took a break to visit the Cotnari region. We got a late start getting out of Iasi because the morning’s judging session had gone into over-time (one of the juror groups — mine! — moved much slower than the rest). So the light was fading by the time our coach rolled into Cotnari.

S.C. Cotnari S.A. is one of Romania’s largest wineries and we saw its name everywhere during our visit — on the wines, of course, on banners at lunch, and as sponsor of a wine, food, and music festival in the square in front of our hotel. The big sign above the winery shined like a beacon as night fell.cotnari

Cotnari was founded in 1948, during the collective era of Romanian wine, rebuilt in 1968, and then taken private in a management buyout in 2000. Cotnari dominates the region it is named for, with 1360 heactares of vines. Several ranges of wines, focusing on native grape varieties, are produced starting with box wines and ending with library selections of Grasa de Cotnari wines called Vinoteque.

Thinking Big

The winery was impressive for the breadth of production as well as the sheer scale (our hosts were proud of the rows of big stainless steel tanks we saw). The visitor facilities, which seem to cater to groups, caught our attention. The restaurant was buzzing when we arrived, with live traditional music and generous servings of local dishes (sarmale — yum!) to pair with the Cotnari wine.

The people at Cotnari clearly think big, which is important. But we saw more evidence of dynamism before we entered the restaurant door. Our first stop was actually another winery with a similar name: Casa de Vinuri Cotnari . The Cotnari House of Wine is much  younger than its big brother — founded just a few years ago in 2011 — but represents the next generation of wine here. I say this not just because it focuses exclusively on quality native-variety wines, but also because it is a project of the next generation of the family that runs Cotnari — founded and developed with their parents’ support.

tanksCasa de Vinuri Cotnari is a work in progress, with modern facilities build over and around an old cellar where the barrels are still stored. Walking through the construction site, the ranks of huge stainless steel tanks glimmered in the moonlight. There is scale here, too, with 350 hectares of vines, but clear focus on upscale market opportunities.

Sources of Dynamism

Sue and I were fortunate to learn about several other wineries — Domenile Averesti, Licorna Winehouse, LacertA Winery, Davino, and the exciting Mierla Alba project — that are leaders in various ways of the dynamic movement we sensed. Based on the wines we tasted and the people we met, it is hard to resist the feeling that Romanian wine is on the move.

What accounts for the dynamism? No single factor, of course. Clearly there is a sense that there are opportunities to be seized among those inside the wine bubble. But there are also important investments coming from ambitious individuals and firms outside the domestic wine scene and outside of Romania, too.

Romanians and Italians have a lot in common (you can hear it in the language) and that extends to wine. Vitis Metamorfosis, a leading Dealu Mare region premium wine producer, is an Antinori family wine project.

The European Union is also an important part of the story.  We were frequently shown shiny new tanks and bottling equipment, for example, and our hosts said simply “EU” and smiled. Money from the EU, meant to help modernize the Romanian wine industry and make it more competitive, has funded a fair number of these projects.

Inevitable Headwinds

What factors could push back the rising tide of Romanian wine? Based on first impressions, here is a briefly list of things that I would worry about. The domestic market is intensely important for Romanian producers and it is never easy to guide consumers to more premium products. The fact of high consumption of home-produced wine combined with increased imports makes the local market a tough competitive environment (no wonder Cotnari makes sure their name is everywhere!).

I am not sure how important exports are at this point because the domestic market is so large, but eventually they will be a factor and then Romanian producers will need to be even more concerned about establishing “Brand Romania” and making sure that there is a high overall level of quality since one bad bottle can ruin reputation for everyone.

I won’t open the subject of what “Brand Romania” could or should be, but it is fair to say that building it will require a good deal of cooperation and teamwork. And this is one area where there are obvious challenges. Indeed, every time we asked about teamwork among wine producers or regions we were met with a sad shaking of heads. Hasn’t happened. Not going to happen. It is a shame, they said.

Everyone knows that it is important to work together, but making it happen is still a problem, we were told. Why is cooperation so difficult? It is hard to say and I am sure it is a complicated situation that goes beyond first impressions. Some have written that the stubborn independence of Romanian wine producers is an understandable reaction to the bad old government collective days. But no one we talked with saw that as the source of the problem.

If everyone looks out only for themselves, who looks after the big picture? That’s a question still seeking an answer, but not a uniquely Romanian question. We’ve visited many wine regions where producers are still trying to figure out how to work together toward a common goal instead of arguing over what that goal might be or just turning their backs.

Sue and I are optimistic about Romania’s success. Excellent wines, smart, determined people. We raise our glasses to the future of Romanian wine!

Misunderstanding Romanian Wine


It is easy to misunderstand Romania and its wine industry.

Romania is a very old culture but a surprisingly young nation-state. The Great Unification of 1918 finally brought all the historical provinces together under one roof a hundred years ago, an act that Romanians celebrated on December 1, their Great Union Day.

Contemporary Romania is even younger, dating to the end of the Soviet era in 1989. It entered the European Union in 2007 — another important date. Romania is a country with deep roots and vigorous new growth. It is both very old and very new, a work in progress (like the rest of us).

It is tempting to view Romanian wine as both old and new, too. Wine has been made in Romania for six or seven thousand years and the culture both embraces wine and consumes it with gusto.

Romanian wine today is also a work in progress and Sue and I learned as much as we could about its current status and future prospects when we spent a week there last month. We participated in the International Wine Competition Bucharest (held in Iasi this year) and I gave a lecture to students and faculty at the University of Agricultural Sciences and and Veterinary Medicine.

King of Wines

73205One particular Romanian sweet wine — Grasa de Cotnari — has an important place in wine history. Grasa de Cotnari, Tokaji of Hungary, and Constantia of South Africa were once the most celebrated wines in the world. King of wines, wines of kings, they were the kings of the hill in a world where luscious sweet wines were treasured above all others. Time have changed, however, and wines like these no long rule as they once did.

The thing about Romanian wine is that just when you think you understand it, you discover that there’s another layer and you have to start over.  Sue and I wanted to taste a few Romanian wines before our trip and I hit pay dirt at a local Total Wine store where I discovered several wines made by Cramele Recas, one of Romania’s largest producers (and a Total Wine Winery Direct partner). Two were international varieties (Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir) and two were native Romanian varieties (Feteasca Negra and Feteasca Regala). All were inexpensive — typically $5.99 per bottle or $5.39 as part of a Winery Direct six-bottle purchase.

The Recas wines were clean and well made, with good acidity and varietal character. We shared some with our neighbors, who were surprised at the Pinot Noir given its price. The Recas winemaker has lots of experience producing commercial quality wine at affordable prices. He divides his time between Recas in Romania and a winery in Australia that you might have heard of. It’s called Yellowtail.

But Wait … There’s More

So Romanian wine is cheap but pretty good — a bottom shelf bargain. Is that right? Well, yes it is, but as soon as we arrived in Iasi we discovered another layer. There has been a very strong movement to higher quality since the end of the Communist era and especially since Romania joined  the European Union and opened its doors more widely to international competition.

The semi-sweet wines that were a mainstay during the Soviet era remain popular. Sugar can be used to cover up a variety of wine flaws, and so sweet wines are often suspect, but we tasted some that were well-made and delicious.  Many producers make both dry and semi-sweet versions of their wines to satisfy the diverse consumer audience. I don’t think these sweetish wines will or should go away, but dry wines are clearly the future and a lot of effort is going into their production.

But which dry wines? Romania is fortunate to have a wine grape treasury that includes a number of indigenous varieties that make distinctive, delicious wines. In the right hands, Feteasca Regala (white), Feteasca Neagra (red) and Busuioaca de Bohotin (rosé) produce exciting wines, for example, and there are other promising varieties.  I admit that my prejudice is for the native grape varieties and not the international varieties that you see everywhere, but it is important to have an open mind.

davinoWe spent a day in the Delau Mare region near Bucharest, which is known for its excellent red wines. Our last stop was Davino, which was Romania’s second privately-owned winery (S.E.R.V.E. was the first). We tasted the Purpura Valahica, which is made from Feteasca Negra clones specifically selected for the local terroir. It was terrific — a wonderful example of just the sort of terroir wine I had my heart set on finding. Romanian grapes, Romanian soil, Romanian wine-maker, even Romanian oak.

But then we tasted a Cabernet Sauvignon and it was wonderful, too, and impressed me even though I was not really interested in international grape varieties. And then came the Domaine Ceptura Rouge — Cab, Merlot, and Feteasca Negra. It was a fascinating fusion. Bottom line: Romanian wine does and should focus on its native varietals, but in an open context that allows winemakers to make the best wines they can.

No One-Liners in Wine

The wine that fills Romanian glasses represents an interesting mixture of past, present, and future, dry and sweet, native and international. No wonder it is hard to pin it down. But that’s not all. Home-made wine is very important in terms of total consumption and I understand that some of this is made with the hybrid grape varieties that were introduced here after phylloxera.

The popularity of the home-made stuff is a bit of a problem, since it can be so different from commercial production using vitis vinifera grape varieties.  Convincing thrifty buyers to pay more for a very different product is a challenge.

The Romanian case reminds me a bit of the challenge that U.S. winemakers faced in the 1930s when Prohibition finally ended. Home-made wine production had surged dramatically during Prohibition, encouraged by a loophole in the law that allowed limited home wine production. The quality of the wine was, um, variable and its taste is how consumers came to think of wine, which is perhaps why they focused more attention on beer and spirits. It took decades to fully overcome that memory.

Jon Fredrikson always says that there are no one-liners in wine, so perhaps this multi-layer aspect is what makes Romania akin to other regions, not different from them. But the tendency to be misunderstood is particularly powerful in Romania based on our experience. Resist any attempt to over-simplify the country or its wines!

What lies ahead for the Romanian wine industry? The future looks bright, but there will be headwinds. Come back next week to learn more.

Wine Book Review: Getting Up to Speed on Romania, Bulgaria, and Moldova

gilbyCaroline Gilby, MW, The Wines of Bulgaria, Romania, and Moldova.  (Infinite Ideas/Classic Wine Library, 2018).

Sue and I are heading off to Romania in a few days for the 2018 International Wine Contest Bucharest, which will be held in Iasi, Romania this  year.  I’ve been searching for a good book to get me up to speed.

I hit pay-dirt with Caroline Gilby’s new survey of Bulgaria, Romania,, and Moldova. I have only read the Romanian section so far, but I am very impressed. (Gilby says that it is important to read about all three countries because their histories are quite different and inform one-another. I will catch up with Bulgaria and Moldova on the flights to Iasi.)

Gilby’s book has answered many of the questions I had about the Romanian wine industry and given me some new topics to explore while we are there. I like books that make me question and think and this volume really does the job.

Wine books about particular countries or regions often follow a fairly standard format. History, climate and terroir, grape varieties, regions, producers, wines. All these important topics are covered very well in Gilby’s book. But there’s a lot more, too.

The evolution of the Romania wine sector has been punctuated by a number of important events. Phylloxera is one that is common to many regions, of course, and it is noteworthy that many local grape varieties were replanted and therefore preserved while others were replaced with international varieties.

Wines made from international varieties are popular in Romania, while wines made from the indigenous grapes get more attention abroad, where another Sauvignon Blanc is nothing new but Feteasca Regală can be something to get excited about.

The communist era and its collapse have left Romania a real puzzle that I hope to begin to unlock during our short visit. Wine is old in Romania, for example, but the wine industry is surprisingly young, with many important projects dating from just the last 20 years.

Romania’s vineyard area is quite large, but the average plot is tiny. There are more than 800,000 winegrowers, for example, who have less than half a hectare planted to  vine on average. This is a legacy of the collective farm system, where families had tiny plots to farm for themselves. Putting together large enough vineyards for commercial farming has been a struggle, but progress is being made.

International influences extend beyond grape varieties. There are flying winemakers, of course, as there are everywhere these days, but also a good deal of investment from abroad. It is not every country that can count both the Antinori family and also Pepsi Cola as important participants in the wine sector’s development.

Romanians drink a lot of wine (in fact, they have been net importers for the last few years), but they are not always the target market for new projects because much of the domestic consumption is of home-made wine (this reminds me of Georgia). The new winery projects, with higher quality but also higher costs, have to compete with both home-made wine and cheaper imports from Spain and elsewhere.

mv

Hence a focus on exports to the EU and beyond, which is where we come in, I think, because my book Wine Wars analyzes the forces driving the global wine markets and some in Romania think it can be useful in thinking about strategies for their next step.  They commissioned a translation of Wine Wars titled  Războaiele Vinului  or “War of the Wine.” I’m flattered by the attention and pleased to help out.

I’ll give a talk about Romania and the wine wars  at the university in Iasi in addition to our work at the IWCB wine contest and some cellar and vineyard visits. Should be a good trip! Looking forward to meeting everyone and learning more about Romanian wine.

In the meantime, let me recommend Caroline Gilby’s new book. The stories she tells about Romania are fascinating. She writes with style and authority.  I’m very impressed and looking forward to learning more as I read about Bulgaria and Moldova.