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.

(Republic of) Georgia on my mind: Wine tourism’s future in the “Cradle of Wine”

In a few days Sue and I will be jetting off to the Republic of Georgia for the first United Nations World Tourism Organization Global Conference on Wine Tourism.We have been trying to learn all we can about Georgia and its wine and wine tourism industries in preparation for the trip. I thought you might be interested in three of the resources we have found especially useful.

Taber’s Final Frontier

George Taber spent the best part of a year circling the globe collecting wine tourism experiences that he chronicled in an entertaining 2009 book called In Search of Bacchus.  Most of the places Taber visited would be on any globetrotter’s wine tourism map — Burgundy, Bordeaux, Tuscany and so on — and his reporting and first person accounts are very interesting. Taber waited until the final chapter to veer off the conventional road map to visit Georgia, which he calls wine’s “final frontier.”

Taber had a great time in Georgia, the “Cradle of Wine,” 8000 vintages and counting. He loved the people and culture and was fascinated by the wine, reporting on the traditional wine-making process using big clay jars called Qvervi (which are buried in the earth as shown below) to ferment and store the wine until ready to drink.

Taber comments on consumption patterns as do most who write about Georgian wine. A rule of thumb, he notes, is to allow for two or three liters of wine per person at a supra banquet or celebration, where tradition requires that guests drain their glasses after each toast.

When celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain visited Georgia (see video above) he also cited high alcohol consumption and complained of frequent hangovers, although this might be Bourdain being Bourdain as much as Georgian tradition. I will let you know what I find out.

Wine Tourism as Economic Developmentqvevri1

My wine economics colleague Kym Anderson visited Georgia a few years after Taber to analyze the wine industry’s potential as an engine of economic development. His 2012 report, Georgia, Cradle of Wine: the next “new” wine exporting country? (pdf), makes good reading.

Anderson found the wine market quite segmented. Most of the large domestic demand was satisfied by basic traditional wines, a surprisingly large proportion being home-produced. Industrial production of wine for export to former Soviet countries made up a second market segment. Rising quantities of wine are made for export to other markets (including US, Canada, UK, etc), where quality expectations are different than the Russian market and production adjustments necessary.

A recent report lists Georgia’s five largest export markets as Russia, Ukraine, China, Kazakhstan and Poland although there have been substantial sales increases (albeit from a low base) to Germany, the UK, and Canada.

Anderson clearly sees potential for Georgian wine exports if industrial and agricultural upgrading continues, but he is especially interested in wine tourism, which he sees having potentially greater  impact on rural incomes and employment. Georgia’s decision to host the UNWTO program is consistent with this priority. International tourism is an important income source for Georgia and wine tourism has growth potential.

Anderson makes a number of specific recommendations for upgrading hospitality and winery facilities to make them more appealing to wine tourists. We will be interested to see what progress has been made in this regard in the short time since Anderson’s report.

Back to the Future of Winefeiring

Natural wine proponent Alice Feiring seems to have found her “tribe” in Georgia. Her 2016 book For the Love of Wine is an entertaining, informative and deeply personal account of her encounters with Georgia wine and wine-makers.

Feiring is taken by the naturalness of the Qvervi wine-making process and the dedication of those who kept this tradition alive during the long Soviet wine winter. Whereas Anderson’s concern is economic development, Feiring worries more about the soul. She sees Georgia’s past as a path to a better, more soulful future.

But she worries these traditional wines are threatened by a new foe — those US, UK, and EU markets that seem to demand “me too” wines made in an international style with lots of additives and manipulation. For Feiring, Russian communism and international capitalism are “twins separated at birth” in the sense that each destroys the essence of wine in its own way.

Feiring’s mission is to support those who seek to make high quality traditional wines. But there are problems. The Georgian domestic market for such wines with their necessarily higher price compared with home production is not large enough to support the craft industry, which means that buyers must be found in other countries.

Feiring’s tribe needs to grow to support the wines she treasures. The natural wine movement is growing in part due to her determined efforts. Perhaps wine tourism will convert visitors to natural wine (and Georgian wine) ambassadors.

That is a sip of what I’m learning and a hint of the sorts of questions we hope to explore. Georgia is definitely on my mind!

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We appreciate everyone who helped us prepare for this trip including the officials and staff at the UNWTO and the Georgia National Tourist Administration plus Mariam Anderson, Prof. Kym Anderson, Nino Turashvili, Viktoria Koberidze, Irakli Cholobargia, George Akhalkatsi,  and Hermes Navarro del Valle.

Craft Wine? Craft Beer’s Innovation Edge (and What Wine Can Do About It)

battlePeople in the wine business tend to look at each other and see rivals like in the old Mad Magazine Spy vs Spy comic strip. In the battle for shelf space, consumer attention or critical praise, it usually seems like it is wine versus wine.

But hardly anyone lives by wine alone and these days the biggest competition is often less from other wineries (or wine regions) than from other products like craft beer, craft cider and craft spirits that have captured consumer imaginations. The battle for shelf space is real, but its not the only battle.

Keys to Craft Beer’s Success

Craft beer in particular has enjoyed great success in recent years and many of us see the unexpected fall in demand for wines priced at $8 per bottle and below here in the United States as one consequence of the craft beer boom.

Craft beer has many advantages. The margins can be great, for example, and you are not limited to one vintage per year. You can crank out new batches every week or so and it is possible and even desirable to experiment with seasonal recipes or riffs on classic styles from around the world.

Innovation is hot on the craft beer aisle, with literally dozens of different styles, blends and mixes that are constantly rotating in and out of the market. It is kind of fascinating. Wine comes in a world of assorted grapes and styles, too, but innovation tends to take the form of unusual wine brands or packaging, for example, more than experimental products.

Rocky Wine: Don’t try this at home!

Jamie Goode wrote about the time that Randall Grahm experimented with adding “minerality” to his wine by tossing some rocks to the barrels. There was an interesting effect, Grahm said. The stones added “far more complexity and greater persistence on the palate.” But the health department shut the operation down.

Winemakers are like brew-masters in that both groups are constantly experimenting and trying new things, although not all of them are as extreme as Randall Grahm’s rocky vintage. The brew industry seems to be more open to the commercialization of these products.

Maybe wine can bring more of these experiments to market in small or large lots to add another layer of complexity and interest?  Well, what about the barrels themselves? Barrels come in many types and are used in a variety of ways in wine.There is a history of product and process innovation both with barrels (think Gaia in Piemonte) and without them (the current popularity of unoaked Chardonnay).

Barrels are a source of innovative inspiration in other parts of the beverage market. I have seen oak-aged ales and ciders and I have seen spirits that were aged in sherry barrels, for example. Working with barrels has always been a legitimate if sometimes controversial variation on wine tradition. Maybe we can do more with them?

Jacob’s Creek Experimentscab

Jacob’s Creek, the Australian winery that is part of the Pernod Ricard empire, has released two new wines that explore this notion. They are called Double Barrel Cabernet Sauvignon and Double Barrel Shiraz. The wines are first aged in traditional oak and then they get a relatively brief second aging in used spirits barrels — Irish whiskey for the Cab and Scotch whisky for the Shiraz.

The idea isn’t to make the wine taste like booze — if you want to taste whiskey (or whisky) the obvious thing to do is to taste whiskey (or whisky) — but as with  oak barrels in general, you use them to see what subtle influences they bring to the finished product.

Sue and I were invited to participate in an experiment with these wines and so we received bottles of the two Double Barrel wines plus samples of each wine before the whiskey barrel treatment. We sampled the wines last week with Jacob’s Creek winemaker Ben Bryant via video link-up.

It was interesting to compare the “before” and “after” wines. The “after” Cab (made from grapes sourced from Coonawarra) was richer on the palate than the “before” wine  — the biggest difference was more texture than flavor. The delicious Barossa Shiraz was more dramatically transformed and our clear favorite of the two (I think the Cab simply needs to age a bit longer and both wines were probably still a bit shaken up from shipping).  I thought I could detect a subtle Scotch whisky influence in the Shiraz, but I suspect that was the power of suggestion. In any case it was an interesting experience.shiraz

“I thought this might be just a gimmick,” Sue remarked when we were finished with the tasting. But she concluded that the whiskey/whisky barrel aging did make the wines more interesting and different without fundamentally altering their identities. Something new — which is just what many (but not all) wine consumers are looking for.

The Next Big Thing?

So are whiskey barrels the next big thing in wine? Should you rush to try to corner the market on used Bourbon barrels just in case? (Too late — Fetzer makes a Bourbon barrel-aged Zinfandel called 1000 Stories.)

No. But these wines are an interesting addition to the menu, don’t you think? I see them as a thoughtful attempt to experiment within the tradition of wine much as the craft beer producers have been doing in their space.

Winemakers have long experimented in the privacy of their cellars and labs. Barrel tasting with a winemaker never fails to uncover something out of the ordinary. It would be interesting to see more of these products reach the market for us to try and to provide wine with an even more dynamic presence.

I guess I am calling for the broader commercialization of what you might call “craft wine.” Fresh ideas, small lots, variations on the traditional themes but with some added flair. Not for everyone, that’s for sure, but the craft beer and spirits boom shows that there are many consumers who are interested in a more dynamic concept and some of them are being drawn away from wine.

Beer has made an effort to learn some of the secrets of wine’s strong appeal. I think those of us on planet wine should return the compliment. Done thoughtfully, innovations like Jacob’s Creek Double Barrel can help wine compete with beer for the palates and pocketbooks of today’s consumers — and do it without undermining the fundamental idea of wine.

Craft Beer Raises the Stakes: PicoBrew

There is even more competition coming from the craft beer world! Earlier on the same day as the Double Barrel tasting I attended a presentation by Bill Mitchell, the CEO of a start-up company called PicoBrew, and angel investor Karl Leaverton.gfc_pico_productimage_1

PicoBrew uses advanced technology to allow home brew-masters to create their own professional-quality craft beers, either using their own recipes or those provided by other users or famous craft breweries. Quality, precision and control are selling points, but so is convenience — the magic happens in a sleek web-enabled counter-top brewing appliance. Wow.

But making distinctive beer is only part of the attraction. PicoBrew uses the web and social media tools to allow home brewers to share their discoveries and their stories. Seems to me that the sort of person who would have a geeky interest in fine wine might fall in love with the advanced DIY possibilities of this product.

Beer has made big strides from the bad old days of the 1970s. Cider has surged and craft spirits are very hot. Wine, as I have written before, needs to up its game to compete in this dynamic market environment, but do it without sacrificing the fundamentals that make wine so special.

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Thanks to Jacobs Creek and Vanessa Dones at the thomas collective for inviting us to participate in this web wine tasting event.

Now in Paperback: Extreme Wine

The paperback edition of my 2013 book Extreme Wine has been released, taking its place with the hardback, e-book and audio-book versions. Now there is really no excuse for not having a copy of Extreme Wine with you wherever you are!

They say that you can’t judge a book by its cover, but people do it all the time, which is why wine producers give so much attention to their label designs. Extreme Wine‘s paperback design is even more attractive than the hardback — there is something about the way the colors come through on the paperback that makes the package “pop.”

Lighter, less expensive and even more beautiful — Extreme Wine paperback has it all. Talk about shameless self-promotion!

Groot Expectations: South Africa Wine Report

P1070420South African wine is not as well known as it should be (and soon will be) here in the United States, which is both surprising and not. You might think that South Africa would have a higher profile given its long history and large wine production, for example.

Cape winemakers produced about 10 percent less wine than Chile in recent years, about 10 percent more than Germany and about four times (!) the total wine production of New Zealand (according to OIV statistics).

That, my friends, is a lot of wine. Given those figures and how ubiquitous Kiwi, German and Chilean wines are, you might expect to see a South African wine on every shelf or nearly so.

South Africa Surprises

But numbers aren’t everything in this case. South Africa produces a lot of wine and much of it is consumed at home or shipped off to Europe, the traditional export market for more than three hundred years.

The lack of a strong presence in the U.S. market is due to this and to other factors. The South Africans like to say that Americans don’t seem to know very much about geography and I think this is true although not exclusively a Yankee trait.

Some Americans are surprised to learn that South Africa is a country and not a region, for example, but even my friends who follow soccer and therefore know that South Africa is the country that hosted the 2010 World Cup are often surprised to learn about South African wine.

The Invisible Wine

Ignorance is therefore one reason why South African wines are not better known but there are others. South Africa reentered the global wine market in the 1990s, which in retrospect was a critical moment for the world of wine. Australia, New Zealand, Chile and Argentina all had “coming out” parties within the span of a few years. It wasn’t always easy to get noticed with so much new wine on offer.

Easy to get lost or forgotten — ask Bulgaria, which had previously had an important presence in UK supermarkets! South African wines were among the replacements in the UK, but had less success in the US market, which is structurally difficult to penetrate and hotly contested by both domestic and international firms. Add to that logistics issues and some early problems with consistent quality and you can begin to see why South Africa got off to a slow start.

But times have changed and Sue and I wanted to see how South Africa was changing, so we flew to Cape Town where I gave the keynote speed at the NedBank VinPro Information Day program, a meeting of more than 500 wine industry leaders, and tried to learn as much as we could in a short (three week) period of time.

Intense and Extreme

It was quite an intense (and extreme) experience as we visited 30 wineries, talking with owners, winemakers and export and marketing executives. I will paste the list of wineries at the end of this post to give you some idea of who we met and where we went. This was Sue’s first visit; I was here in 2012 to open the Nederburg Auction (click here to read about that visit and to see all the columns about South Africa).

A lot has changed in just a short period of time and I will be writing about what I learned in the next few Wine Economist columns. Perhaps the biggest change I found was in a clearer sense of direction.

When I visited two years ago many winemakers knew that they needed to explore new paths (entering or reentering the US market was the most common topic of conversation but perhaps that’s because of my American roots), but when and how were usually questions without answers. They had some idea of what had not worked in the past, but no clear sense of what to do differently this time.

Great Expectations

Fast forward to our many conversations this year and the change is dramatic. Many perhaps most know what they want to achieve and they have developed clear strategies to get them there. The plans are not all the same (nor should they be) and they probably won’t all succeed (that’s the wine business for you), but there is a certain confidence as they put their best feet forward. We were impressed!

Next week I will tell you more about our reasons for optimism about South African wine. And then, since I am an economist, some necessarily dismal science perspectives since wine is such a difficult game and dark clouds and silver linings are difficult to separate.

Finally, we want to tell you about a few of the extreme wine people we met on this trip. Wine is a people business as most of you already know and it is the people of South African wine who are the greatest reason to be optimistic about its future.

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The image at the top of the page is a painting of four seasons of wine at Klein Constantia Estate.

Here is a list of most (but not quite all) of the wineries and winemakers we visited on this trip. Special thanks and deep appreciation to everyone who took time to meet with us!

Groot Constantia

Klein Constantia Estate

Cape Point Vineyards

Lanzerac Wine Estate

Glen Carlou

Paul Cluver Estate

Spioenokop Wines

Iona Vineyards

Joubert-Tradauw

 De Wetshof Estate

Excelsior Estate

Springfield Estate

Van Loveren

Durbanville Hills

DeGrendel Wines

Diemersdal Estate

Fairview Winery

De Toren Private Cellar

Jordan Winery (Jardin in the U.S.)

De Trafford Wines

Warwick Estate and Vilafonte

Waterford Estate

Backsberg Wine Esate

Stark-Condé Wines & MAN Vintners

Rupert & Rothschild Vignerons

Anthonij Rupert Wines

La Motte

Kanonkop Wine Estate

Pawn Star Wine


It’s been a busy week so far. My new book Extreme Wine has just been released. Sue and I traveled to Portland, Oregon for the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association trade show where I autographed 75 copies of Extreme Wine in 75 minutes before we ran out of books.

And now Wine-Searcher.com has published my latest column on fine wine investment. Click here to read the article, which is called “Pawn Shop Solutions for Wine Investors.”

My column has an unexpected “hook:” a 2010 episode of the U.S. television show “Pawn Stars” that featured a bottle of 1921 Dom Perignon. You’ll have to read the article to get the whole story, but basically I use this example as a way to talk about how investing in wine is different, in terms of financial economics, from other types of investments. It’s an unlikely approach, but I think it works.

We so often hear about the benefits of wine investments or the problems with it in only a very general way. I’m interested in doing more serious comparative analysis, while keeping the mood light. If you’ve seen the show “Pawn Stars” you know that you can actually learn a lot of history through its often funny “reality TV” stories. My column also comments and reports on some recent trends in wine investment.

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Hope you’ll check out my column. Here’s a photo from the Portland book event. Great to see all of independent booksellers (God bless them!), publishers, authors and volunteers (bless them, too) in Portland.

P1060854

Twenty Dollar Bill Wines

My new book Extreme Wine is now officially available and Wine-Searcher.com has just published an excerpt, so you can get a sense of the book’s style and content, both of which will be familiar to regular Wine Economist readers.

The editors at Wine-Searcher picked part of Chapter 4, which is titled “The Invisible Wine” and deals with wines that are for various reasons so scarce (or in some cases so ubiquitous) that they are nearly invisible. I probe a number of extremes in this chapter, but the editors asked to reprint the section on “Twenty Dollar Bill Wines.”  Here’s how the piece begins …

Twenty-dollar-bill wines don’t really cost twenty dollars, so you can put your wallet away. The name comes from a joke that is popular among economists and therefore essentially unknown to the rest of the world. The joke goes like this.

A non-economist walks into a bar and says excitedly to the bartender (who is an economist). ‘Wow, this is my lucky day! I just found a twenty-dollar bill on the sidewalk in front of your bar!’ The bartender takes a long look at the fellow, who is waving the bill in the air. ‘No, you didn’t,’ he says. ‘Yes, I did!’ replies the customer. ‘See, it’s right here!’ ‘Can’t be—you’re wrong,’ the economist-bartender coolly replies. ‘You’re ignoring rational economic theory. If there had been a twenty-dollar bill on the sidewalk, someone would have already picked it up. So it is logically impossible that you could have found one.’

‘But look—here it is!’ the customer exclaims. ‘Look, buddy,’ the bartender says, turning away, ‘What do you think I’m going to believe—your bill or my theory?’

The joke of course (sorry, but economists always explain jokes, even the obvious ones) is that economists tend to believe their theories even when they can clearly see refuting evidence with their own eyes. You would think that this makes economists different from regular folks, but in the case of rare wines, we are all pretty much the same.

There are many ‘cult’ wines that are famous for being impossible to buy. They are so scarce, the story goes, that they are all invisibly absorbed by the lucky few folks who years ago gained access to the wine-club distribution list. No one else ever gets a shot. They are as rare as rare can be. I call these the twenty-dollar-bill wines because if you saw one (at a wine shop or on a restaurant wine list), you would probably rub your eyes. Impossible! How could that be? Must be a mistake (or maybe a fake!). If they really had that wine for sale, they would already have sold it.

Now the dirty little secret of these wines is that they are sometimes quite reasonably available, but the myth of impossible scarcity is maintained because that’s how myths work and because no one can believe their eyes. …

Click here to go to Wine-Searcher.com to read the rest of the selection.

By the way, if you still think of Wine-Searcher only as a website that provides information on particular wines, their ratings, prices and availability (see this search for Opus One, for example), then you need to think again because the editors have created a really exciting website with news, features and a wide range of other wine enthusiast information.

There’s more to Wine-Searcher than the searcher part, so you should check it out. (And, yes, they do also publish my column on wine investment, so I have filed this post under “Shameless Self-Promotion.)

Thanks to Wine-Searcher for publishing the Twenty Dollar Bill wine excerpt. Enjoy!

No Snifferati or Spitterati: Extreme Wine Countdown

I’m counting the days and hours until the October 7 official release day for my new book Extreme Wine.  But I have a secret: I think some of the online retailers are already selling and shipping it. Check it out.

One of the fun things you get to do in the final stages of producing a book is to ask a few people to read your work and, if they choose, to write a “book blurb” for the back cover.

After all the hours hunched over a keyboard, it is great to finally hear what people think! We managed to squeeze in six blurbs from extreme wine people on five continents.  Hey, I guess that bit in the subtitle about “searching the world” isn’t just a marketing line!

Extreme Wine Blurbs

This book is not for the snifferati and spitterati. It is an incredible and balanced study of the extremities of the wine world and wines of the world. Veseth even found our 600 bottles of extreme wine made in South Africa.
— Emil Den Dulk, owner, De Toren Private Cellar, South Africa

Extreme Wine is a must-read for wine lovers and people in the wine industry. It helps me to look at the industry from various unique angles. I found myself jotting down idea after idea while reading the book—of which many are now part of my plan for promoting Grace Vineyard in China. Highly recommended!
— Judy Leissner, CEO, Grace Vineyard, China

Congratulations to Mike Veseth for his outstanding book on the global wine world. It takes a very creative mind and a keen eye to see the center from the ‘extreme’ edges without distorting reality. It is a book that grabs you from the very beginning and once you start reading, you can hardly leave it before reaching its end.
— Aldo Biondolillo, Tempus Alba, Argentina

A provocative, engaging, and seriously entertaining journey covering all the vineyards under the sun. Mike Veseth provides a delightful sensory experience that will greatly increase the reader’s enjoyment of wine.
— Cobus Joubert, Maison Joubert, South Africa

Extreme Wine is as broad as it is fascinating, with Mike Veseth’s always perceptive insights into what makes the world of wine tick. His book is a must read for all of us who eat, sleep, and breath the rich and wonderful life of wine, and it opens its hidden extremes to the novice who might otherwise wonder why we find it so immensely rewarding.
— Bartholomew Broadbent, CEO, Broadbent Selections, United States

Thanks to Mike Veseth, readers will discover and understand the philosophy that leads each producer to create his or her own wines. All our family is very proud to be considered ‘extreme wine’ people!
— Giuseppe and Rafaella Bologna, owners, Braida Winery (maker of Bricco dell’Uccellone), Italy

Positive Early Reviews!

A couple of early reviews are already in. Click here to read Ken Umbach’s comprehensive Amazon.com reader review. Booklist and Library Journal have also published favorable reviews, which I will copy below. Thanks to everyone who takes the time to write a review or leave a comment!

No wine-making or wine-selling professional can afford to ignore Veseth’s blog, which illuminates wine’s often murky economics. Here he expounds on wine’s outliers, revealing those wines that have unusual histories, are particularly expensive or cheap, or are made under the most difficult conditions. Taking what could be an esoteric subject and making it compelling for any wine drinker, Veseth probes the best and worst that the world’s vineyards produce. He chronicles booms and busts, relating how Prohibition actually became a boon for vineyards as home winemakers of the era snapped up grapes by the case for cross-country shipment. Explaining the impact of international currency markets, he documents how Australia’s strong dollar has dampened exports. Veseth also details why the cheapest wines aren’t necessarily the worst nor the most expensive the best. Surprisingly, celebrities’ involvement in winemaking has produced some bottlings that transcend the media status of the vineyards’ owners. Not just for geeky wine snobs.
— Booklist

Veseth (Wine Wars), who blogs at the Wine Economist, takes readers on a whirlwind tour of the world’s wines in the titular superlatives. Readers may be familiar with French wines, but get ready to explore Canada’s Icewine (made from grapes frozen to 17 degrees Fahrenheit). These highly concentrated wines (popular in Asia) sell for prices ranging from $50 to $500. Veseth discusses how Prohibition (1920–33) impacted the wine industry (most wineries went out of business) as well as loopholes in the Volstead Act that allowed four million gallons of wine to be legally produced in 1925. The most expensive wine should be no surprise to readers: Bordeaux 2009. What’s the worst wine? Veseth writes, “That’s easy: look down!” Wines can be judged by their prices, with the cheaper wines located at the bottom of the wine shelves. Veseth asserts that celebrity wines such as those made by Yao Ming, Martha Stewart, and Paul Newman don’t necessarily harm the “real wine” industry and, in fact, encourage wine drinkers to try new varieties. VERDICT History buffs and adventurous wine drinkers are sure to find interesting tidbits about the industry and encounter new wines to hunt down. Highly recommended.
— Library Journal

 

Extreme Wine Oregon: Big & Small, Old & New, North & South


I’ve spent a lot of time in Oregon in the last year or so — there is a whole chapter in my soon to be released book Extreme Wine  about the extreme wine people I met at last year’s International Pinot Noir Celebration. But Oregon has a lot of extreme wines and extreme wine people with stories that deserve to be told. Herewith a very brief survey of some of the Oregon extreme wines and people that we’ve encountered in the past few months.

P1050635Extremely Old Oregon Zinfandel

Lonnie Wright is one of the key  figures in the Columbia Gorge AVA that spans the Washington-Oregon border along the Columbia River. He has been instrumental in the development of the vineyards in this region. I am not sure where this part of the Oregon wine scene would be today without Lonnie’s wine-growing and vineyard management expertise.

Lonnie appears in this column not because of a vineyard he planted, however, but because of one he brought back to life: a vineyard of 100+ year old Zinfandel vines that produce a special wine for his The Pines 1852 label. The story is that stone mason Louis Comini came from Genoa to help build the locks on the Columbia River. He stayed in The Dalles when the job was done, helping out at the local Catholic church. The vineyard, planted in the late 1800s, was his work.

I thought I knew what an Old Vine Zin vineyard looked like from my visits to Sonoma, but this one bears no resemblance to the gnarled vines I saw there. It gets cold in this part of Oregon and in the old days the vines were cut off at the ground so that they’d be protected from freezing temperatures by a blanket of  snow. The roots are ancient and gnarly, but the vines not so much as you can see in this photo and in the video above.  Lonnie found this vineyard and recognized its potential. The old vines and the wines that come from them are a tribute to his extreme persistence and sense of history.

P1060171Extremely Old World Oregon Wines

Phelps Creek Vineyard is also in the Columbia Gorge AVA, a short drive from Lonnie’s old vines, but a world apart. Bob Morus began this extreme project in 1990 when the first blocks of Dijon clone Pinot Noir were planted (Lonnie helped lay out the vineyard, Bob tells me). The slopes are steep, the aspect dramatic and the view of Mount Hood is spectacular.

Bob has a pretty extreme view of what his vineyard and winery can accomplish — and ambition to make wines that can not just stand up to the Willamette Valley wines that get all the attention, but to Burgundy, too. He was able to entice Alexandrine Roy of the famous Burgundian wine-making family to become involved with the winery, eventually becoming Director of Winemaking.

Bob generously met with us twice this year, first in March when we tasted a vertical of the Estate Reserve Chardonnay and then again in July, when we sampled a vertical of the Cuvee Alexandrine Pinot Noir at the winery overlooking the vineyards. The wines were elegant and Burgundian in their ability to capture both place and vintage. Really delicious and a great reminder that extreme Oregon Pinot extends beyond the Willamette Valley.

P1060309Oregon’s Largest Winery

King Estate Winery is Oregon’s largest wine producer, but its estate vineyards lie just south of the the Willamette Valley AVA line, so most of its wines carry the more general “Oregon” appellation. King Estate has four main wine lines, the flagship  King Estate Domaine wines made exclusively from estate fruit,  the Signature wines that add purchased grapes to the mix, the wildly popular Acrobat wines and a line called NxNW made from Columbia Valley fruit. Pinto Gris is the top seller and the winery’s flagship wine.  Wine club members have access to special bottlings and single vineyard wines. The beautiful hilltop winery is bursting at the seams with activity.

We met with executive VP Steve Thomson to talk about King Estate’s marketing program (and especially its recent move into the Chinese market) and its plans for the future. Elizabeth Allcott introduced us to wine club members at a wine pick-up party that was going on during our visit. And we enjoyed talking both wine and wine economics with assistant winemaker Derrick Thoma  (both of Derrick’s parents are economics professors — his father Mark is the guy behind the influential Economist’s View blog).

King Estate is large by Oregon standards, but not a megawinery by any means. It is extreme in many ways, but perhaps most notable for its commitment to sustainability, which seems very deep, and its focus on hospitality. We perceived a strong sense of identity and purpose, but also a dynamic feeling appropriate to a rapidly evolving wine region. The winery experience is very well designed and the opportunity to taste estate wines along with locally-sourced food products (many from the estate itself) at the well-regarded winery restaurant is a treat. We will remember for a long time the dinner we enjoyed on the deck overlooking the vineyards with a bottle of 2002 King Estate Domaine Pinot Noir.

The Biodynamic Frontier

We were in Southern Oregon recently — I spoke at a regional wine industry symposium and we attended an event called World of Wine Festival, the premise of which is that you can find a world of wine in this part of the state. And you can! It was great to meet everyone and taste the wines. We found time to visit two wineries that showed two very different wine extremes.

Bill and Barbara Steele were not looking to make wine when they bought a big plot of land in the Applegate Valley. They wanted to pursue their passion for sustainable agriculture and sought out farmland that had been abandoned for many years. Once they found their dream farm, they let the land speak to them (not literally — they did a lot of scientific testing) and what it told them was that it wanted to be a vineyard and farm, with Rhone grape varieties covering most of the territory (distributed according to soil types and heat unit measurements) with a fallow pasture, some vegetable gardens and a stand of hazelnut trees. And, of course, a winery called Cowhorn Vineyard and Garden.

Cowhorn might be the only biodynamic vineyard in Southern Oregon (biodynamics is much more common up north) and it could be the largest integrated (grapes plus other agricultural produce) biodynamic farm in the U.S. (Click here to see the master plan of the estate.) Ironically, biodynamics is notable in grape farming, which movement founder Rudolf Steiner did not specifically address, than in the broader farming community that he intended to influence).

It was great to see the Steele’s bush Grenache vines and to learn about their passionate attachment to their land and commitment to sustainability and natural winemaking generally. Oh, and the wines are extremely delicious.

Pioneers on the Southern Oregon Trail

Just down the road from Cowhorn we came to Valley View Winery and it provides this column’s final extreme. Mark and  Michael Wisnovsky’s family are the second generation to farm this land and they seem to have a special relationship with it. They take care of the land and the land takes care of the family. Wine entered the mix in 1972 when their father planted vines and started the first winery in these parts since prohibition. Modern pioneers! They named it Valley View after a winery that was established by pioneer Peter Britt back in the 1850.

Valley View has one foot in the past — we brought home several bottles of a delicious 30th anniversary Pioneer Label 2005 Merlot with a label as close as government regulations allow to the earlier wines.  But the other foot’s in the future. Mark showed us a line of wine called Rogue Red that has proved popular in Oregon (he does bottle signings at Costco) and will soon show up in Washington and other states. It’s larger volume than the other wines and aimed at the growing market for red blends. Our friend Charles walked out with a case of Rogue Red.

Mark said that he would love it if everything happened right  there on the farm — the grapes, the wine, the tasting room, all right there in Applegate Valley.  But Mark and family recognized the need to look outward (even to Costco) to seize market opportunities while still  respecting their history and the region’s heritage. Rogue Red is successful part of that extreme wine balancing act.

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Thanks to everyone who made these visits so interesting: Lonnie and Sierra, Bob and Becky, all the folks at King Estate, Bill and Barb, Mark, Chris and Allison. Special thanks to research assistants Bonnie and Richard.

Washington’s Invisible Vineyard: Yakima


There’s a section in Extreme Wine, my new book that’s due out in October, that examines the Invisible Wine phenomenon. Invisible Wines? Not invisible in the sense that they can’t be seen with the naked eye, but invisible as in extremely overlooked. They’re right in front of you, big as life, but somehow they just don’t show up on the radar.

Oldest, Biggest, Best?

The Yakima Valley is Washington State’s invisible vineyard. It is the state’s oldest AVA (celebrating its 30th birthday this  year), it has the largest vineyard area and is the chosen source of raw materials for many of Washington’s most celebrated wines.

And yet if  you ask people outside the region (and some locals, too) about Yakima wine  you can get a blank stare. The most famous Yakima probably has nothing whatsoever to do with wine — Yakima Canutt, the celebrated Hollywood stunt man — you saw him in Stagecoach and Ben Hur and dozens of other films– check out the highlights video above.

Sue and I have spent a good deal of time in the last year learning about Yakima wine. I walked the DuBrul Vineyard with Kathy, Kerry and Hugh Shiels last July and then returned with Sue and a crack research team (Richard and Bonnie) to get to know the Red Mountain AVA in October. We attended seminars that highlighted two sides of  Yakima Valley’s story at Taste Washington in March.

And then just recently we were invited a special tasting of Yakama AVA wines in Seattle that featured presentations about the region’s special winegrowing advantages, particularly the long growing season, the long days of sunlight during that season, the advantageous aspects (south-facing slopes) and the soil profiles that have resulted from complex geological combinations of volcanic eruptions, the Missoula flood and more.  It was a very useful seminar. I’ll paste the tasting menu at the end of the post so that you can get  a sense of how diverse the wines from this region really are.

Past and Present

Winegrowing in the Yakima Valley is much older than the AVA’s 30 years. The first wine grapes were planted in 1869 by a Frenchman named Charles Schanno but the real beginning was just a little over 100 years ago when Willliam B. Bridgman laid down vineyards. Todd Newhouse of Upland Estates makes a tiny amount of ice wine from some of the Muscat vines that Bridgman planted in 1917. Tasting this wine is like sipping history — a pleasure on many levels.

The region has received international recognition. Tuscany’s famous Antinori family built Col Solare in the Red Mountain sub-AVA in partnership with Chateau Ste Michelle, for example, and Jancis Robinson singles out Yakima for its Lemberger vines in the Oxford Companion to Wine. (Kiona and Thurston Wolfe are two of my favorite Yakima Lembergers.)

The Amenities Gap 

So why is the Yakima Valley invisible or at least less well-known than you’d expect based on the quality (and quantity) of the wines made from its fruit. There is no single answer, but the amenities gap is the most commonly cited concern.

Everyone moans that the Yakima Valley needs more upscale hotels, resorts and eateries and I suppose this is true, but there is a circular reasoning problem. You won’t get the investment until a critical mass of visitors appears and you won’t get the visitors until the amenities are there for them. Someone has to break the cycle and while the new Walter Clore Wine & Culinary Center is a welcome addition it isn’t enough by itself. Fortunately I’ve heard rumors of possible new initiatives that might jump start the development process. Fingers crossed.

But I don’t really think that the amenities gap is the real problem and while I would certainly welcome more lodging and dining choices in the Yakima Valley, I don’t this this alone will transforms the region’s reputation. There are other factors that are more important and they make me wonder how concerned we should be about Yakima’s invisibility.  Come back next week for my analysis.

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OK, maybe film stunt men like Yakima Canutt are invisible too — you  see their work, but never know who they are. I guess that might make the two Yakimas (the valley and the cowboy) very much alike. Hope you enjoy the video.

Thanks to the Barbara Glover and Wine Yakima Valley for inviting us to a tasting of Yakima Valley wines at Wild Ginger in Seattle (if I was trying to make you jealous I would tell you about how well the 2004 Cóte Bonneville tasted with Wild Ginger’s Fragrant Duck). Special thanks to Wade Wolfe and Kerry Shiels for sharing their knowledge of the valley with us.