Labor Day Throwback: What to do with all that surplus wine?

The Labor Day weekend has just passed here in the United States and the wine grape harvest is picking up steam. This is always an exciting time of the year, but there is also anxiety this time around because in some cases the tanks are still full of wine from earlier vintages and the new crop, even if it is not unusually large, presents a series of problems.

Recent reports suggest that there is a lot of bulk wine available here in the U.S. market. Even bulk Cabernet Sauvignon is a tough sell because of over-supply. The surplus problem seems to be even worse in Australia, which suffers from many of the same problems as other global wine regions plus the consequences of lost sales to its previous top export market, China.

This situation reminds me of a Wine Economist column from pre-pandemic 2019 that still seems relevant today. Australian readers should read “Shiraz” in place of “Cabernet Sauvignon” to make more sense in your particular situation.

Six Things to Do with Surplus Cabernet Sauvignon Grapes

Wine Economist / July 30, 2019

The wine grape harvest is just around the corner in California and Washington State and, while that’s a great time of the year, it will present economic challenges to some winegrowers. There’s going to be an awful lot of Cabernet Sauvignon harvested this year. Most of these grapes are contracted, but some will be looking for buyers and it might not be so easy.

Cabernet has been the top choice for new plantings for the last several years and it is easy to understand why. It is a noble grape and can make terrific wine. Consumers love it, so growers have responded enthusiastically. The problem, as has been noted here before, is that wine demand generally has slackened just as new supply is reaching the market. For a few years at least there is likely to be a surplus of Cabernet Sauvignon in many regions.

In fact, the surplus is already here, or at least that’s how I read the recent reports from Turrentine Brokerage. Turrentine data show the highest level of Cabernet on the bulk market for many years. Add the 2019 harvest to the current market and you have a problem — not for everyone, but for those who are left with unsold grapes or wine.

Econ 101 Meets Yao Ming

What do you do when you have too much Cabernet? Econ 101 suggests price adjustment — cheaper grapes, cheaper wine, and so on. But there are limits to this strategy, especially since the lower price tiers of the retail market are in decline.

Export sales are another Econ 101 solution and certainly there is an opportunity here, especially if President Trump succeeds in talking the dollar’s exchange value down. But the president’s trade wars have had an offsetting impact on wine exports.

Countries that compete with us in the export markets, notably Australia and Chile, have aggressively sought out free trade agreements to boost sales. The U.S. has recently taken the opposite strategy. U.S. wines are therefore a tough sale today in many export markets including especially China, where Australian and Chilean wines find great success.

Yao Ming, the Chinese basketball legend, has trouble selling his signature Napa Cab back home because of 93% tariffs imposed in response to the Trump administration’s policies. If Yao can’t sell Cab in China, there is not much hope for the rest of us. Export markets are unlikely to absorb very much of the surplus Cab. Other options?

Searching for alternatives, I consulted the most recent Nielsen market figures in the current issue of Wine Business Monthly and found a few ideas to consider if you find yourself holding excess Cabernet this year.

#6 Two Words: Red Blends

Red blends are a useful market category because you can blend away unfashionable or surplus grape varieties without consumers necessarily noticing what’s up. Syrah and Merlot are not as popular as they once were as varietal wines, for example, but blend them together, call the result a Red Blend, and consumers snap them up. Cabernet blends would be very competitive at the right price. This market segment is fairly large but, unfortunately according to the Nielsen data, its growth has stalled a bit this year. That means we need to think about …

#5 Three Words: Sweet Red Blends

See “Red Blends” above but add some residual sugar.  I don’t have a lot of personal experience with these wines, but I see them everywhere. 19 Crimes, which tastes sweet to me, has a successful varietal Cabernet Sauvignon, so this is not uncharted territory. Even better, why not try …

#4 Rosé of Cabernet

Rosé is the fastest growing market segment in the Nielsen table. A lot of that Rosé comes from France, to be sure, but the market is large and fluid.  Picked at the right time, Cabernet makes a nice Rosé and in fact there are a great many produced both here in the U.S. and around the world.

As I noted here earlier this year, there are tricks to the Rosé trade to consider. Rosé is not that easy to make, since color is a concern, and can be tricky to sell because consumers prefer the most recent vintage and demand seasonality is a factor, too. If you like the idea of Rosé of Cabernet, then I think you will also like …

#3 Sparkling Rosé of Cabernet 

Take two fast-growing categories — sparkling and Rosé — make the wines from Cabernet  and you are ready to go. The only thing that could be better is …

#2 Canned Sparkling Rosé of Cabernet 

… because canned wine is also a thing (watch for a report here in the near future) and it is growing fast. Have you seen all the new canned wine displays in the supermarkets? Don’t dismiss canned wine too quickly.

Canned sparkling Rosé of Cabernet leverages three hot trends to use up your excess Cab. It is a perfect storm of wine. What could be better? And while you have the mobile canning equipment hooked up, you might consider …

#1 Canned Sparkling Cabernet + Black Currant Spritz


I am paying more attention to the canned wine displays and one thing I note is that canned wine spritz is generally right beside the other canned wines. These seem generally to be mixtures of wine, fruit flavors, and carbonated water. They sound refreshing and they have less than half the alcohol of regular wine. A Cabernet and Black Currant spritz sounds drinkable to me on a hot day, but you might prefer blackberry or some other fruit flavor that’s great, too..

Since the consumer segment that is interested in low alcohol products is growing, I can see how this trend might persist.  Something to consider.

Seems Like a Stretch?

Bottom line. The U.S. industry is going to need to find uses for its  excess Cabernet Sauvignon if the potential surplus materializes. These examples are ways to take advantage of the small number of growing wine market segments. If it seems like getting Cab products into these segments is a stretch, then it shows how much more pressure there will be on the traditional product markets.

I hope the market can absorb all the Cabernet that’s coming its way. Fingers crossed.

Perfect Pairings? Rogue Creamery Cheese Meets El Dorado AVA Wine

Wine and cheese are a popular pairing (there was even a national Wine and Cheese Day last month), but pairings like this can be a tricky business. Sometimes the cheese overwhelms the wine and sometimes it is the other way around. What you really want is a combination that makes both the wine and the cheese taste better. It is not an easy thing to do.

A Match Not Made in Heaven?

I remember a student tasting a few years ago that went spectacularly wrong. We were tasting through some wines from the Beaujolais region of France starting with a fresh Nouveau,  then a nice Beaujolais Villages, and working up to a couple of the Cru Beaujolais wines. The point was to understand how very different the wines from a particular region can be. It is an interesting project that you might want to try yourself in November when the fresh Nouveau vintage is released.

The problem was that a couple of students brought along some cheeses that their parents suggested would go nicely with wine in general. I don’t remember what the cheeses were, but when the students tasted them along with the Nouveau — which can sometimes be a bit metallic, if you know what I mean — well, it was a disaster. I think the accidental lesson the students took away was that they never wanted to taste wine and cheese together again. Yuck!

Rogue Creamery Cheeses

I had high hopes for the Rogue Creamery cheeses and El Dorado AVA wines that Sue and I organized a couple of weeks ago. The wines and the cheeses were great on their own. How would they match up?

Rogue Creamery is known for its award-winning blue cheeses. How would the different varieties pair with the different wines? Our sample box included pairing suggestions by Cheese Emissary and Certified Sommelier Marguerite Merritt. Here is a list of the cheeses we tasted along with notes from the maker:

  • Bluehorn Blue: After extended cave-aging, each wheel is soaked in red wine made from organic, biodynamic Syrah grapes from Southern Oregon. The wine’s bright berry/plum notes enhance the fruity flavors naturally found in the cheese; soaking lends a distinctive reddish-purple blush to the rind.
  • Rogue’s Mary Cheddar: Organic rosemary leaves go into the vat during the cheddar cheesemaking process to create this delightful, herbaceous cheese with woodsy, lemon-pine flavors.
  • Oregon Blue: Rogue’s signature blue cheese has a rich, creamy texture and a savory-sweet finish.
  •  Smokey Blue: This American original is cold-smoked for many hours over Oregon hazelnut shells, which infuses the cheese with unique aromas of barrel-aged vanilla, bread pudding, and candied bacon. You’ll taste spicy-sweet flavors of honey, apple, and nectarine, plus a mild “blue” finish.
  • Rogue River Blue: Fudgy and rich with hints of pear brandy, vanilla, toffee, truffle, and fig, this aged blue cheese is made seasonally each fall and wrapped in Syrah grape leaves that are soaked in pear spirits.

El Dorada AVA Wines

We were not very familiar with the wines from the El Dorado AVA. It is one of the many California regions that get less attention than they probably deserve simply because of the focus on Napa and Sonoma counties. But a lot is going on in this region, which is located more or less an hour east of Sacramento and an hour west of Lake Tahoe in the Sierra Foothills.

The vineyards benefit from higher elevation with many located between 1000 and 3500 feet. Mountain vineyards often produce elegant wines with higher acidity, which is what I was especially looking for in this case. That brightness, I figured, would play nicely with the creamy, tangy saltiness of the Rogue Creamery cheeses. Here is a list of the wines I picked for the wine plus cheese experiment, following the Rogue somm’s recommendations as well as I could.

  • Edio Vineyards estate-grown Albarino El Dorado AVA 2022. Suggested pairings: Oregon Blue or Smokey Blue
  • Starfield Vineyards “Hope Rising” El Dorado white Rhone blend 2022. Suggested pairings: Mary’s Rogue Cheddar or Oregon Blue
  • Lava Cap Cabernet Franc El Dorado 2020. Suggested pairings: Bluehorn Blue or Rogue’s Mary Cheddar or Smokey Blue
  • Miraflores Winery Estate Syrah El Dorado 2019. Suggested pairings: Bluehorn Blue Rogue River Blue
  • Chateau Rieussec “Carmes de Rieussec” Sauternes 2005. Suggested pairing: Rogue River Blue.

The El Dorado AVA winemakers don’t limit themselves to one or two “signature varieties,” which made this experiment a bit more fun.  The winery association website lists 44 red wine grape varieties and 29 white varieties.  That is a lot of choice! That said, I admit that I cheated a bit with a final wine. I couldn’t resist grabbing a Sauternes from the cellar to pair with the Rogue River Blue. It is a classic combination.

Tasting Notes

Sue and I were joined by “research assistants” Bonnie, Richard, Chloe, and Joel. We tasted casually (no OIV protocols were followed!) and tried to determine our (1) favorite cheese, (2) favorite wine, and (3) favorite pairing.

How did the experiment go? We were all happily surprised by how interesting and delicious the experience was. We had high expectations, but the reality was even better than we imagined.

Each Rogue Creamery cheese was distinct, but without going to any “jump the shark” extremes. Sue was especially impressed by the subtle herbiness of Mary’s Cheddar and the gentle smoke of the Smokey Blue.

Of course, the El Dorado AVA wines were all different, but there were common threads of bright acidity, which you expect from mountain wines, and great balance. The result, when the wines and cheese were tasted together was a real festival of flavor. The wines generally made the cheeses even more interesting and the cheeses elevated the wines, too. It was just what you want from a pairing. Fun, delicious, thought-provoking.

Classic Combinations

Joel was particularly fascinated by the combination of the Starfield Vineyards white Rhone blend and the Rogue’s Mary Cheddar. He liked the wine well enough on its own, but he liked it even more when taken with the cheese. The Bluehorn Blue, which had been soaked in Syrah, came alive with the Miraflores Estate Syrah. The Lava Cap Cabernet Franc was drew praise from Richard and Chloe for its ability to pair with the cheeses.

Sue thought the classic Oregon Blue was the most versatile, pairing well with several of the wines.  The next day, she used the Oregon Blue to top steamed green beans from the garden — another excellent pairing!

I enjoyed the whole experience and especially perhaps the pairings with the Edio Vineyards Albarino and the Cabernet Franc. But I admit my very favorite was the classic pairing of the Rogue River Blue and the Chateau Rieussec Sauternes.

Wine and cheese? It is hard to generalize because there are so many possible combinations. But this time we nailed it. A great way to celebrate national wine and cheese day!

Wine Book Review: Challenging Change in the Wine World and Beyond

Caro Feely, Cultivating Change: Regenerating Land and Love in the Age of Climate Crisis (2023).

They say that time changes things. But sometimes you have to change them yourself. I think of this saying, which I originally heard attributed to Nelson Mandela, whenever I read Caro Feely’s books.

Time and Change

South Africa-born Feely along with her husband Sean and their daughters made the audacious choice to leave their lives in Ireland and move to Saussignac in Southwest France, purchase vineyards, and begin the continuing adventure that is Chateau Feely. The move was all about change. New country. New language. New culture. New business. New joys and triumphs. New tensions and lots of stress.

Caro Feely has documented her changing world in a series of books starting with Grape Expectations in 2012 and continuing through the “vineyard series” to Saving our Skins (2014) and Glass Half Full (2017). Cultivating Change can be read on its own or as a continuation of the vineyard series.

Like Feely’s previous books, Cultivating Change works on several levels at once through her very personal account of life at Chateau Feely (some parts are so personal that I feel like I am reading her diary). Readers come to understand that it is hard to unravel the threads of life — family, business, community, nature. I was originally attracted to Feely’s books by their analysis of the business side of a family winery in France. And then I got caught up in the challenge they undertook to move from conventional to organic and now biodynamic  viticulture. These threads are strong, but only part of the story.

Time Has Come Today

Time is a central theme in Cultivating Change. Time’s accelerating pace affects everything. Friends and family grow older and sometimes grow apart. The daughters are suddenly grown up or nearly so. Time changes things and fast time creates a sudden urgency that pulls at all of the book’s threads. Sometimes you have to change things yourself, as the saying goes, and Caro Feely finds herself compelled to take action, a fact that is complicated by the covid pandemic.

Readers will find the account of the impact of climate change on wine growing at Chateau Feely particularly interesting. The urgent need for change to fight change has spurred Feely to become an activist, so we learn of her expanding role as an advocate for progressive vineyard practices.

Feely needs allies to help cultivate the changes she seeks and fight those she opposes, so we sense her anger and disappointment when she discovers some obvious alliances breaking down. More than once in the book we encounter wine sellers who have the potential to educate consumers about winegrowing and advocate for progressive practices who just don’t seem to take the matter seriously.

I thought of these scenes from the book when I was following up on a reference from Giovanna Prandini, the founder of Perla del Garda winery. Her note led me to an importer and wine subscription program here in the Seattle area called Iola Wines.  Iola Wines, which focuses on women winemakers and environmentally progressive wineries, would seem to be the sort of ally that Caro Feely might want. I was a little surprised (and then not so surprised) to find the “small world” fact that Chateau Feely wines are part of the Iola wine program.

One final change to note. The wine world is changing and so is the world of books. Cultivating Change is the first of Feely’s books to be self-published. Once upon a time, self-publication was thought of as the “vanity press” for books that no “real” publisher would touch. But those days have gone, especially in the world of wine books, as more and more important authors choose a disintermediation strategy and go DtC.

It’s a new set of challenges for Caro Feely and I am not sure where she finds the time for everything she already does, but I am glad she still makes time for her books. Interesting. Informative. Inspiring. Highly recommended.

Free the Wines! Open that Bottle (or Jar?) Night 2023

Opening a bottle of wine is an occasion. Think about the rituals, traditions, and specialized equipment associated with wine and the act of drinking it. I love the traditions, but sometimes finding the right occasion to pull a cork can be a problem.

We all have a few bottles of wine that we think of as special in some way and that require a special occasion to be released. But, for various reasons, that special occasion never seems to come around and so the bottles sit, gathering dust. What a shame!

Dorothy J. Gaiter and John Brecher identified the problem way back in 2000 and created an annual holiday they call “Open That Bottle Night.”   OTBN falls on the last Saturday in February (February 25, 2023 this year). That’s when all those wines we’ve been meaning to open (but haven’t found the right occasion) are released for us to enjoy.

OTBN is our favorite wine holiday. You can read about some of our experiences through the years as reported in Wine Economist columns.  Are you going to celebrate OTBN 2023?  If so, what wines are you going to liberate from their glass prisons?

Sue is organizing our modest celebration this year and, while I can’t reveal the wines she has chosen just yet, I can tell you that her plans include several small bottles and one jar. A jar?  Yes, a jar. Not a jar of wine (although that would be interesting, too), but a jar of something else that, in the spirit of OTBN, needs to be opened, and what better occasion than this!

Best wishes to you all and Happy OTBN. We’ll report on our celebration in a few weeks. In the meantime, use the comments section below to tell us your plans.

We Are All Terroirists Now: A Tale of Three Distinctive Terroirs

There is a chapter in my new book Wine Wars II: The Global Battle for the Soul of Wine that’s titled “We are all terroirists now” and makes the case that the sense of place that I call terroirism is a powerful force in the world today.

All terroirists?   Really? Terroirists (not to be confused with terrorists)? Well, I admit it might be a bit of a stretch, but how often to do find Richard Nixon, Karl Polanyi, John Maynard Keynes, and Joseph Schumpeter all referenced in a wine book? You might disagree with where I take the argument and what I have to say about wine and terroir, but I guarantee you will find the ride interesting.,

This much I think we can all agree upon. Sometimes the power of terroir is undeniable. The sense of a particular place is so strong that special wines just have to be made to serve as both tribute and showcase. Herewith three nominees for terroirist tribute.

To the Heights

Artesa Elevation Block Estate Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2019, Mount Veeder, Napa Valley

The Raventós Codorníu family, famous for their excellent Cava wines, came to California to make sparkling wines and Codorníu Napa, situated in the Los Careneros district, opened to much acclaim in 1991. But there was more than bubbles on their mind and a sister winery was born in 1998 to make still wines, too. Artesa is Catalan for “handcrafted” and that focus hands-on was the guiding principle.

When it came time to think about renewing the original vineyard plantings, focused attention was drawn to one particular vineyard high on the hill — so high that it had a complex terroir all its own. It was, in fact, so elevated that it was technically in the Mount Veeder AVA. Maybe the original Pinot and Chardonnay could be replaced with Cabernet to make a really special terroirist wine?

And so the project began, with careful attention to matching specific blocks to just the right Cabernet clones. Sue and I were lucky to be able to taste the result on a video link with winemaker Ana Diogo-Draper and we were just amazed by the layers of flavor and the super-long finish. Complex, balanced, lively — what a great wine — nothing at all like the generic “Napa Valley red wine” that I have often criticized.

Artesa’s elevated Cabernet makes the terroirist case in every way. And there is more to come. When they renewed the Elevation Vineyard they also planted Tempranillo! Can’t wait to taste that, too!

The Original

Bonterra The McNab, McNab Ranch Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2020, Mendicino Country

If you look closely at the label of this wine you will see a group of sheep. The McNab Ranch, an east-to-west box canyon up in Mendocino Country, was a sheep ranch before the folks at Bonterra looked closely at its vineyard potential. It became one of the original American biodynamic vineyards and helped propel both biodynamics and Bonterra ahead.

I hesitated a bit in pulling the cork on this wine because it is a 2020 — kinda young as with all three wines discussed here — and because it is one of the last wines to be made from the original McNab vines. It’s time to renew the vineyard, my Bonterra contacts report, and it will be interesting to see what the next generation of vines produces.

The guiding principles will be the same, I’m sure, but as in the Artesa case, this is an opportunity to exploit the complexities that nature presents. I hope we have a chance, in a few years, to taste this lively, complex, fascinating wine again alongside the next generation of Bonterra McNab Ranch wines.

In the meantime, however, this McNab is the OG — an original in several respects and a fascinating vision of terroirist wine.

Show Horse

Trothe Cabernet Sauvignon 2019, Horse Heaven Hills

The Andrews family have been farming the land in the Horse Heaven Hills area of Washington state for four generations. First came drylands wheat then eventually other crops and then, back in the 1970s, the first grape vines. That’s a long time ago in Washington wine terms, and it perhaps suggests the sort of generational thinking that has guided the Andrews family operations.

The Andrews were growers not winemakers, so their grapes were blended together with other grapes and turned into the wines that powered the Washington industry grow over the last several decades. At some point, the current Andrews generation probably began to wonder how wine made from the best of their grapes would compare with top wines from Washington? California? the world? It’s a natural question to ask. Only one way to find out.

And so was born the Trothe project. Ray McKee, the former head red wine maker for Chateau Ste Michelle, was brought on board to craft the wines. He had been buying the Andrews’ fruit for years and appreciated the distinctive terroir and its potential. The current release is getting a lot of deserved attention and I understand there are more wines in the tiny pipeline. It will be interesting to see what comes next as the particular terroir of the Andrews estate is explored to make Trothe wines.

Wine Labels and their Discontents

They say that you can’t judge a book by its cover, but people do exactly that all the time. You probably shouldn’t judge a wine by its label, either, but in fact labels can be quite powerful by making a favorable first impression and then, once that initial sale has been made, establishing a memorable identity.

Take a few minutes to examine the range of labels the next time you are at your favorite wine retailer. Note the ones that stand out and make a positive impact and those that seem to blend into the background.

My favorite is the label for Frog’s Leap Winery in Napa Valley. John Williams was working at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars  when he and Larry Turley started making wine in a facility that once served as a frog farm supplying San Francisco restaurants. Frog’s Leap, which sort of combines Stag’s Leap and Frog Farm, was an unlikely name for a winery, but Chuck House’s famous label design makes an indelible impression, don’t  you think? And the elegance the label suggests reflects the elegance of the wine — a perfect match. A great wine label even if you don’t know the back story.

Brussels Rules the Back Label

A lot of time and money is spent getting the front label just right (imagine how many focus groups were consulted for the 19 Crimes label and associated marketing material!), but these days the real action in around back. Starting January 1 of this year the European Union is implementing regulations to require wine labels to display some basic nutritional information and allergy alert disclosures, plus a QR code linked to full nutritional and ingredient information. Consumers who want to know what’s in the bottle will have access to that information via their smart phones.

The wine industry has long resisted pressure to provide more information about what’s in the bottle. Here in the U.S., most of the information that wine producers are required to list on their labels is actually quite negative — alcoholic content, for example, a sulfite disclosure (a negative because most people don’t understand sulfites and therefore assume that it must be problematic), and a required government health warning.

This is not much information for the legions of consumers who study the nutritional labels of other kinds of products that they purchase. A skeptical person might assume that, if the things wineries do list are negative, the things they don’t list must be event worse. W. Blake Gray has recently argued that U.S. wineries should embrace more detailed product labeling if only because the real story about nutrition and ingredients is more positive than many consumers suppose. I think Blake is probably right.

For Better (or for Worse)?

One of the wine market niches that has been growing recently is the “better for you” category that pitches its wine as being healthier than other wine products because of what it doesn’t have — sulfites, sugar, higher alcohol levels, and so forth. Buyers must imagine that other wines are packed with chemicals and as sweet as Coca Cola, and perhaps some of them are.

Sue and I found ourselves testing wines from a Prosecco producer a few months ago and were struck by the careful positioning of two of their products. One was their standard Brut Prosecco, the other a special Zero Sugar wine clearly aimed at the “better for you” market. They were nice wines, to be sure, but you can probably guess what we found when we tracked down technical sheets. The residual sugar in the two wines was essentially the same — zero — as you would expect from wines fermented to complete dryness.

Clearly the wines were aimed at different consumer groups. But does the “better for you” brand make consumers think the rest are “worse for you?” Is there a better way to shape perceptions of mainstream wine?

Too Much Information

What would happen if a winery put complete product and nutritional information on the back label? Would consumers take one look at the calories and additives and run screaming to the beer aisle? Or would they take in the information (or not — the way they do with other types of products) and still make a purchase? Like Blake Gray, I think the information might be a plus, but at the very least it wouldn’t be much of the negative.

Why do I think this? Not because I have some special insight into consumer minds. It’s just that I have seen what has happened with Stella Rosa.

Stella Rosa is one of the fastest growing wine brands in the United States. The wines, imported from Italy, are sweetish low-alcohol products (like some of the traditional Moscato D’Asti). The alcohol is so low — as in the wine label shown here — that labeling must follow both TTB rules (sulfites, government warning, etc) and FDA rules (ingredients, nutritional info panel, etc).

This makes for a fact-filled back label, as you can see, especially when the producer also provides descriptive text (in both English and Italian), a sweetness scale (so that buyers looking for sweeter wines know what they are getting), and even a gluten-free tag. I don’t how many buyers read the label closely, but the information is there if you are interested.

Significantly, the story Stella’s back label tells is not a shocking one. The calorie and carb counts, for example, are less than for a serving of orange juice — a fact that the cautious buyer who studies this label is likely to appreciate. Sulphur dioxide is included in the list of ingredients, but labeled as an antioxidant. That takes a potential negative and gives it a positive spin.

Machiavelli’s Rule

Maybe the Stella Rosa label is a case of too much information, but it is where the regulatory road is taking wine, so you might want to give it some thought. American wine producers tend to resist calls to add information to labels, but maybe some advice from Machiavelli applies: it is better to do willingly what you will otherwise be compelled to do. And taking the initiative allows the opportunity to shape the result.

Yes, I know it is hard to change. If it ain’t broke, don’t fit it, the old saying goes. But, looking at wine sales trends, maybe the way we communicate wine is broke! More on this topic in next week’s Wine Economist newsletter.


Speaking of bad wine labels … apparently Decanter magazine used to give awards for the worst wine labels and an Oregon winery had the distinction of winning the prize twice! Here is one of the winners (or losers, depending on your point of view), a Cabernet Sauvignon called “Chateau Mootom.” Mouton. Cows. Moo. Get it? Neither do I, but it made me smile.

Where? What? Why? Interrogating Lugana DOC

The Consorzio Tutela Lugana DOC launched a major effort this fall to raise their region’s profile among consumers here in the United States. It’s a big job — Lugana’s name is not familiar to many fans of Italian white wines here in America.

Some consumers may think first of Logano not Lugana  — as in NASCAR star Joey Logano! And the market for both Italian wines and wines in general is crowded. It’s a tough market to break into.

But Lugana’s initiative is worthwhile. The wines that we have tasted so far are excellent quality, well-priced for today’s market, and have much to offer curious wine enthusiasts. Lots to talk about. But first we need to address some questions: Where? What? Why?

Where is Lugana DOC?

The Lugana DOC zone is anchored by beautiful Lake Garda in north-central Italy — a very good thing since grape vines are known to like to look at water and the lake influence is beneficial in many ways.

The eastern part of the zone is in the Veneto region, which is one reason Lugana wines are easy to find in Verona’s cafes and restaurants. If you had a nice glass of white wine at a bar in Verona it was probably Lugana, I’m told. The larger western part is in Lombardy. The DOC is diverse not just in terms of local political borders but also in terms of geography and micro-climates. Lugana has a whole lot going on!

What are the wines’ grape varieties?

Lugana DOC wines are made from the Turbiana grape variety, which is a name you might not have seen before. Turbiana, according to Ian D’Agata’s Native Wine Grapes of Italy, is a variant of Trebbiano di Soave, which is the source of Verdicchio, the famous white grape of Marche and — again according to D’Agata — Italy’s finest native white grape variety. Noble heritage indeed!

The thing about Turbiana/Trebbiano/Verdicchio, D’Agata says, is that it adapts so well to its specific growing conditions and, while the grape vine DNA suggests a strong linkage, the wines themselves can take on many different profiles.

Why are the wines special?

All of which helps explain why the Lugana DOC wines are worth a second look. Depending upon where the vines are planted in terms of soil types and especially elevation and distance from the lake, the resulting wines can take on many different personalities although, as Sue notes, they share a strong family resemblance.

We learned a lot about the factors that shape Lugana DOC from an unusually well-organized and informative webinar for the U.S. market, which was hosted by Alessandro Torcoli, direttore of the Italian wine journal Civiltà del bere. Each producer was given a few minutes to explain what made their wine special — what gave it the specific character found in the glass. It was sort of a pointilist experience because, taken all together, the different specific elements painted an attractive picture of the whole — of Lugana DOC.

What makes Lugana interesting to us, having learned a bit about it and tasted several wines, are its many faces. The wines are different depending upon distance from the lake, for example, and elevation, both of which are associated with differences in soil profile among other things. Some Lugana wines are made from a single vineyard, but many are blends that seek a balance of opposing forces. The Lugana Riserva wines are aged, some in tanks others in wood of various sorts, often with extended time on the lees.

Variations on a Theme

We enlisted Wine Economist Research Assistants Bonnie and Richard to help us understand the Lugana wines tasted on their own and with food (Italian meats and cheeses along with Sue’s famous minestrone soup) and the results were quite interesting. We tasted three wines and each told part of the story.

The Pilandro, which was Sue’s favorite, is a classic representation of Lugana DOC, blending wine made from grapes from two distinctly different vineyard sitess. The wine spent 6 months ofnthe lees in steel tanks. It was complex with nice minerality — a great start to our tasting program

The Pasini San Giovani is also a two-vineyard blend — one very close to the lake and the other about 7 km away. It was a balance of power and freshness that we really enjoyed.

The Selva Sapuzzo is a different idea of Lugana — a Riserva from the 2018 vintage, it is built to age, the grapes were sourced from the oldest vines on the estate. The wine spent three years on lees in stainless tanks. This wine gives real meaning to the idea of a riserva.

We had another Lugana Riserva last night — a 2018 from Tenuta Roveglia — and were struck by its refinement and the subtle notes of hazelnut on the finish. So interesting … and great with the dinner we prepared. Lugana wasn’t on our radar at all before we started this project and now we can’t wait to pull each new cork. It makes we wonder — what else are we missing? Wine in general and Italian wine in particular has so much to discover.

We are still working our way through our selection of Lugana wines. They remind me of a vinous version of Brahms’s Variations on a Theme by Paganini.   There is a lot here to explore. I hope the Lugana DOC producers are successful in their quest to introduce American consumers to these delightful wines.

San Felice Vigorello and the Rise of the (Super) {Super} Super Tuscan

San Felice, the distinguished maker of wines from the Chianti Classico, Brunello di Montalcino, and Bolgheri, is celebrating the release of the 50th vintage of Vigorello, their iconic super-Tuscan wine. Vigorello was the first super-Tuscan from the Chianti Classico region when the 1968 vintage appeared and it remains a signature wine today.

No Badges Needed

Super-Tuscan wines were radical departures from the norm when they first appeared. They were “Badges? We don’t need no stinking badges!” kind of wines. The orthodox approach was to follow the rules of the Chianti or Chianti Classico appellations and formulate a traditional blend of wine grape varieties. Break the rules and your wine couldn’t wear the famous appellation designation, a significant disadvantage in the market of the day.

Breaking the rules meant giving up a valuable trademark, in effect. Relegated to a lower market division, your wine would have to stand on its own and not rely on the regional reputation for support. It took a bold (and confident) winery to take the risk.

But it paid off, at least for the best wines, and helped create a whole new market for IGT wines in Italy, where winemakers have more freedom to make wine and more ability to create and promote their own brands. Italian wine has improved enormously in the last fifty years and the super-Tuscan-driven creation of the IGT wines (and the constructive competition they have provided to the DOC and DOCG wines) is an important part of the story.

So what radical step did the San Felice winemakers take back in 1968. Well, you won’t believe it. They released Vigorello as a 100% Sangiovese wine. A mono-varietal Sangiovese. I am not sure that there is anything that would seem less radical today, when wines defined by grape variety are commonplace. But it was a big deal back then.

Revolution and Evolution

Free of DOC shackles, Vigorello evolved over the years much as its fellow super-Tuscans did. Cabernet Sauvignon was added to the blend in 1979, for example, and Merlot came on board, too, in 2001. Sangiovese, Cabernet, Merlot — that’s pretty much what you think of when someone says super-Tuscan today.

But that’s not San Felice Vigorello today. We opened a bottle of the 2018 vintage to have with Sue’s classic Tagliatelle al Ragu (we lived in Bologna when I taught at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies center there and developed a taste for the region’s rich cuisine). Sue took a sniff and sip and her eyes opened wide. Wow, she said, this isn’t what I expected.  Lighter and brighter and more interesting that the usual super-Tuscan wine. The finish went on and on and on.

The reason for the striking difference was not hard to track down. Sangiovese, the defining grape of Tuscany, was completely missing from the blend (it was actually removed back in 2011), replaced by a rare grape variety closely associated with the San Felice winery: Pugnitello.

Small Fist, Big Impact

Pugnitello? Don’t be embarrassed if you’ve never heard of it. According to Wine Grapes, the standard reference for such things, Pugnitello is “a rare variety of unknown origin rescued in 1981 by researchers at the University of Firenze …”. The name means “small fist” the scribes the compact grape clusters. Some believed it was Montepulciano, but DNA analysis ruled otherwise.

The potential for Pugnitello was obvious from the beginning and San Felice quickly planted it in their experimental vineyard, where rare and endangered varieties are cultivated, and then into larger vineyard spaces. Thirty years after its discovery, Pugnitello was introduced as the backbone of  Vigorello. Quite a story!

Super Duper

So Vigorello is unique — kind of a super-super-Tuscan if you know what I mean. But is Pugnitello the key? There are lots of factors that go into the making of an iconic wine. How much is San Felice’s Pugnitello responsible for the wine’s success?

Fortunately, there was a way for us to find out. Since 2006 San Felice has made a necessarily small amount of 100% Pugnitello wine (the beautiful label is shown here) and we were fortunately to receive a bottle. We opened, sniffed, and sipped and it was “wow” all over again. Complex, delicious, a wine that really tells a story. One of the most enjoyable wines we’ve tasted this year. And the perfect foundation for Vigorello. We aren’t the only Pugnitello fans. It is easy to sense Ian D’Agata’s enthusiasm in the Pugnitello entry in his Native Wine Grapes of Italy.

So there are several reasons to join San Felice in their celebrations this year. Fifty years of Vigorello, the first super-Tuscan from Chianti Classico and the innovative Pugnitello are both worth an enthusiastic cheer.

This rule breaking thing has really paid off for San Felice. Badges? You can leave them at the door.

Dry Creek Valley and Napa Valley’s Road Not Taken

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

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

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

A Tale of Two Valleys

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

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

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

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

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

95 Years in Dry Creek Valley

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

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

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

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

Dry Creek Valley Roots

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

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

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

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

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

What If …

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

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

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


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

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

Wine Book Reviews: “Dragon Vine” and “Vine and Prejudice” (a Scienza)

Here are two brief out-of-the-ordinary wine book reviews for your late-summer reading pleasure: “Dragon Vine” (or “Dragonvine”) and “Vine and Prejudice.” Special thanks to guest-reviewer Pierre Ly.


Steven Laine, Dragon Vine (iUniverse, 2022). Reviewed by Pierre Ly.

Carmine Cooper had never planned to take over the family winery. But when his father dies in a wildfire during harvest season, he puts his Master’s degree in architecture on hold to finish the vintage and decide whether to sell the winery. Having already lost his Chinese mom earlier in life, Carmine is the only one left to take care of his little sister Ava.

Steven Laine’s novel, Dragon Vine, begins in the terrifying but now sadly familiar context of the deadly wildfires that regularly affect California wine country. The turning point in Carmine’s life would be hard enough to deal with as it is, but it’s about to get much worse as he discovers his father’s outstanding debt and a land dispute with a disgruntled neighbor, faces ICE investigations, and, last but not least, San Francisco Chinatown gangs get involved!

There are many things I enjoyed in this book. First, the author takes the time to develop several key characters’ personalities and back stories. He does so in stages, never giving it all away at once, which kept me eager to learn more. Second, I enjoyed how Laine uses various elements of the story, often via dialogues, to educate readers about wine. Carmine’s journey lends itself naturally to show how difficult a business making and selling wine is. Experts and members of the wine trade will recognize many things, while readers less familiar with these issues will learn about them through Carmine’s eyes. After all, he’s a newbie himself, thrown overnight into the high pressure situation to run a winery, and we feel for him as he continues to learn the hard way.

As the story develops, we even learn about the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco Products and Firearms, and also about how ICE raids affect wineries. Here again, the chosen characters help weave these topics seamlessly into the story. More surprisingly, we learn about wine tasting, sommeliers, and wine sales from a prominent Chinatown gang member, Jessica, a wine newbie herself, seeking a new profitable venture. Many readers will enjoy rolling their eyes along with Jessica as she discovers wine speak, tasting notes, and more. I especially liked the important part played by her Coravin, the device that allows you to preserve your nice wines in the long run by pouring small glasses without opening the bottle. I use one myself, and had never thought of how organized crime could take advantage of it.

The book is structured around 58 short chapters and goes back and forth between several separate story lines before connecting the dots. One of them is more separate than the others, and it could almost form an independent short piece of historical fiction. It is set in imperial China between 235 and 210 B.C., during the reign of China’s first emperor, and serves as a backstory for an ancient grape variety.

Throughout the first part of the book, I must admit to being a little impatient to see how the distinct story lines would eventually connect. The lengthy development of the imperial China story, while interesting and fun for its own sake, does delay the development of the central thriller plot a little. But I pushed myself to accept the author’s approach and stuck with it. My patience was rewarded once the dots started to connect more explicitly and the rhythm accelerated. Despite my early doubts about the length of the imperial China chapters, I found the aha moment very satisfying when Laine connects this back to the central plot.

The last two-thirds of the book are fast-paced and action-packed. The author excels at building vivid scenes made for TV, and his passion for the wine industry and the people that make it shines through. Overall, I greatly enjoyed this book and recommend it to wine enthusiasts and fans of thrillers and family drama.

Reviewer Pierre Ly is professor of international political economy at the University of Puget Sound and co-author with Cynthia Howson of Adventures on the China Wine Trail. 


Atilio Scienza, Vine and Prejudice: Fake Science and the search for the perfect grape. Forward by Stevie Kim. Illustrated by Miriam Ferrari. Translated by Richard Hough. Mamma Jumbo Shrimp publishers, 2022. Reviewed by Mike Veseth.

Someday, perhaps, there will be a distinct word for writing about the science of wine and vine that we will call a “Scienza.”

This thought is provoked by a San Francisco newspaper review of Richard Brautigan’s book Trout Fishing in America. “… there is nothing like Brautigan anywhere,” the review suggests. “Perhaps, when we are very old, people will write “Brautigans,” just as we now write novels. Let us hope so.”

Well, there is nothing quite like a Scienza either, as represented by this new book, Vine and Prejudice. Like a Brautigan, it is a short paperback with relatively short chapters (Brautigan’s are shorter than Scienza’s or just about anyone else), each telling a story that builds, sometimes directly sometimes obliquely, towards the point, which might not be exactly what you expected.

Trout Fishing in America, for example, talks a lot about trout, but it is more about America. Vine and Prejudice talks a lot about science and viticulture, but it is really more about how people think of wine than the wine itself. That said, a Scienza, like a Brautigan, is by its nature open to interpretation. Different readers, stimulated by the contents, will walk away with different insights and conclusion.

My reading of this Scienza, for example, is especially shaped by the chapters that address the role of science in society. The world is like a sculpture — how you see it depends upon how you choose to look at it. You can stand in one place as see only one side, for example. Or you can move around, taking in many points of view and seeing many sides and angles.

Professor Scienza is clearly of the “walking around” viewpoint. The scientific perspective is very important and must not be ignored, but it isn’t enough by itself. He is deeply concerned, however, by recent anti-science and “fake” science trends and, I suppose, the possible reaction to them. Science has become part of the culture wars in some places, blunting its benefits.

Scienza makes this concern relevant to his wine-lover readers in many ways, but perhaps especially by discussing the role of science (and anti-science) in the history of phylloxera, the controversial status of hybrid grape varieties in that history, and the strong prejudice against hybrid varieties today. As you may know, some argue that hybrid varieties will be more and more important as the wine industry copes with climate change. It is important, therefore, that the science of the situation be considered.

A Scienza is not as easy to read as a Brautigan — the Professor is a professor, after all, and discussions of science are necessarily technical at times. At the end of the day Scienzas and Brautigans make us think and re-think and avoid prejudice against science and other things, too.