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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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.

Wine and the British Sunshine Tax

If you stroll around London for a while you are likely to come across a scene like the one shown here. An old building with its windows bricked up. Sometimes it’s one or two windows.  Sometimes they are all covered over. No sunlight gets in.

Ain’t No Sunshine …

The reason the owners decided to keep the sun out was the window tax, an attempt by 19th-century government in England and then later in Scotland to tax the rich in a manner less invasive than an income tax.

What could be better than a window tax?  Big houses with many windows were indicators of wealth and simply counting the windows (with exemptions for the humble cottages of the poor) an arbitrary straight-forward way to assess tax liability.

This was an era when revenue-craving governments were willing to go to almost any length to raise funds through specific excise taxes — think about the advice to “declare the pennies on your eyes” in the Beatles tune “Taxman” (see below for music video). Rather than one big tax source, dozens of smaller excise taxes were imposed.

The Taxman Cometh

But the tax authorities didn’t count on quite how much the English hated to be taxed and, obviously, many of them were willing to wall-up their windows and contentedly sit in the dark in order to escape the despised taxman’s assessment.

This bit of fiscal history is prompted by what might be considered by some to be a new tax on sun light, but this one collected via wine instead of windows. Galileo famously said that wine is sunlight held together by water, so what better way to tax sunshine than through wine. Or at least that’s what some people are saying, according to a recent article in the Financial Times.

Britain is slowly adjusting to its post-Brexit status and part of that means transitioning away from EU rules on the taxation of alcoholic beverages. Under EU regulations, which are still in effect, still wines and fortified wines are taxed in three bands according to alcohol by volume (abv), with sparkling wines in a further higher-rate band.

Let the Sunshine In?

Britain’s chancellor has proposed a new 27-band system with the rate rising every half percent of abv.  The complexity of the plan suggests high compliance costs, don’t you think, and would seem to invite a certain amount of gaming of the system. The abv of that wine in your glass may or may not be the same as the number of the label — a certain amount of rounding up or down often takes place — and this will matter more if fine-grained tax consequences are at stake.

I’ve heard that the chancellor’s office says that it is really just one band with 27 steps., not 27 bands. Good to know.  I’m sure that makes compliance much simpler!

Some members of the British wine trade go further, asserting that this amounts to a “sunshine tax.” The argument is that producers in sunnier regions like Australia can’t help producing riper grapes that yield higher abv levels while wineries in cooler climates, like the Mosel, naturally produce wines with lower abv.

This is true to a certain extent, although wine producers certainly have their secret ways of increasing abv when they want to and reducing it when that makes sense. No one in California brags about de-alcoholization, for example, but people tell me it happens all the time. Part of a batch of wine goes through a process to extract alcohol, they say, and is then blended back into the tank to bring the percent of abv down.

One winemaker friend talks about using “Jesus units” to accomplish the same end more directly. This process involves water and a hose. The result turns water into lower alcohol wine. A miracle!

Australian producers are particularly upset. Australia and the UK have signed a free trade agreement which will modestly reduce tariffs on Aussie wines exported to Britain. The “Sunshine tax,” which would apply to most wines from Oz, more than offsets any advantage from the new agreement.

Let me know if you see any wineries bricking up their windows. They might do that if they don’t want the world to see how they are lowering the alcohol levels in their wine!

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Wine Book Review: Three Faces of Malbec

Laura Catena and Alejandro Vigil, Malbec Mon Amour. Catapulta Editores, 2022.

Laura Catena and Alejandro Vigil have written a fascinating new book about their favorite wine grape, Malbec. If you know that they are from Argentina and associated with the famous Catena Zapata winery, this connection will seem natural, since the roots of Malbec run through this territory and, I guess, through the authors, too.

Three is a number that is full of tension because it defies a casual “either/or” classification, and it is significant that  Malbec Mon Amour is built around a number of threes. There are, first of all, the book’s three protagonists: Catena, Vigil, and Malbec itself. They mix and relate in complicated ways over the course of the book’s 200 or so colorful pages.

Then there are the three sides of Malbec as presented here. First is Malbec’s history in France (hence “mon amour), which casts a bright light on the importance of Malbec in Bordeaux’s early development. Then comes the history in Argentina, which is a bit of a roller-coaster ride (and hence typically Argentine, if I can say that). And finally there is Malbec’s history with the Catena family, since family is paramount here.

The story itself is presented in three ways, to continue the theme. First there is the straight text, clear and well written. Illustrations — photos, charts, water-color pictures — illuminate the text and can be read on their own. Finally, super-imposed along the way is a dialogue between Catena and Vigil that puts the situation in a personal context.

The book works at several levels and becomes more detailed and technical as the story unfolds. The final sections, which examine in some depth the particular regions and vineyards in Argentina is real wine-geek stuff. Except that the scientific tension is broken by a Catena-Vigil conversation about art, music, family, and even food.

Malbec Mon Amour has a lot of moving parts, Does it hold together? Sue is the resident expert on design here at The Wine Economist and she gives a positive review. The pieces fit together and make sense — rewarding to study and a pleasure as a casual read.

Malbec Mon Amour is a worthy addition to your wine bookshelf — a shelf that includes two other noteworthy works by Laura Catena: Vino Argentino and Gold in the Vineyards. Wait … does that make three books?

Three cheers (of course!) for Malbec Mon Amour! 

What’s New (and Not-So-New) in Port Wine

I was binging on YouTube videos from Kevin Zraly’s 2009 “60 Second Wine Expert” series when I stumbled upon his take on Port wine. Sue and I are fans of Port, so I was a little disappointed to see Zraly reinforce some of the attitudes that hold back the growth of the Port market. Port? Complicated to understand and you should really only think about drinking it when your kids are asleep, it is cold and snowy outside, you have a warm fire in the fireplace, and a loyal dog at your feet. That was the  Zraly video’s advice on Port.

This isn’t how I think of Port and it isn’t a picture that is really helpful to Port producers who want to draw consumers into the Port experience. Maybe talking about Port in a beat-the-clock 60 second video doesn’t do it justice. What are Port producers doing to get their message out?

Taylor’s Port Season

There is no particular season for Port at the Wine Economist household — different types and styles of Port lend themselves to different occasions year around. Summertime backyard meals, for example. seem to begin with our favorite White Port spritz, often featuring Taylor’s Chip Dry. Taylor’s and its parent, the Fladgate Partnership, have put all their chips on the Port market — they do not make any other styles of wine, which means they need to expand the perceived Port-drinking windows beyond Zraly’s snowy snowy night.

As you can see from their recent promotional video, Taylor’s has declared “Port season.”  Fun, festive, romantic, a glass of Taylor’s LBV Port seems to make any occasion special. The trick, of course, is getting that first glass poured so that people can see what they have been missing.

New Looks and Old

They say that you can’t judge a book by its cover, but everyone does it all the time. You eat (and drink) with your eyes first, the ubiquitous “they” also say, so it isn’t surprising that Port producers are tweaking their packaging in many ways to try to catch consumer eyes.

Graham’s Six Grapes Reserve Port is versatile and delicious — Sue like’s it with dark chocolate “cat’s tongue” treats. Symington Family Estates, which owns the Graham’s brand, has freshened-up the presentation with a redesigned bottle that tweaks the presentation in subtle ways to give a more premium look and feel.

Down the road at Taylor’s you can find both old and new packaging efforts. The new is the Chip Dry Portotonic, a White Port Spritz in a can.  Pretty radical for Port! At the same time, Taylor’s has launched a series of special Reserve Port packages that invoke Port’s long history by drawing on bottle designs from the past. The most recent edition is called “The Mallet,” Here is the history behind this unexpected bottle shape.

At the beginning of the 18th century, bottles were hand blown and bulbous in shape. They could not be laid on their sides and were therefore unsuitable for long term ageing. Instead, they were used mainly to convey the wine from the wine merchant’s cask to the consumer’s table. Because bottles were expensive, they were re-used and often displayed the crest or initials of their owner.

As the 18th century progressed, bottles became taller and more cylindrical.  The early bulbous ‘onion’ shape gradually evolved into a more elongated, straight-sided bottle with a longer neck.  The first stage in this evolution was the appearance of the ‘mallet’ shaped bottle which had become well established in England by around 1730.  Like their predecessors, the first ‘mallet’ bottles were squat in shape.  Their sides were often tapered towards the shoulder rather than completely parallel. However, by around 1750, the ‘mallet’ bottle had developed a more cylindrical form.  This Limited Edition bottle is inspired by the ‘mallet-cylinder’ bottle from that period, the immediate predecessor of today’s cylindrical wine bottle.

Cocktail Hour for Port 

Although it is hard to top a glass of Port by itself, there is no denying that it also makes a great base for cocktails (as the White Port spritz example shows). The combination of great flavor and lower alcohol (compared with spirits) is very appealing.

Graham’s Blend No. 12 Ruby Port has been introduced to fill this market niche and it comes in this colorful bottle, which hints at the fruit flavors to be found within. The idea is to appeal to consumers who don’t drink Port but are interested in experimenting with cocktail beverages. As Vicky Symington notes,

It has been great to see people explore the Graham’s range after discovering port through the Blend Nº5 White Port, often in a port & tonic. We are confident that Blend Nº12 will also resonate with people who don’t typically drink port – be it as a delicious and approachable straight serve or mixed in a long serve.

The Classics Endure

I admire that Port can both change and endure. It adapts to satisfy each generation as it emerges, but doesn’t forget who it is. That’s something we can all appreciate.

So I wasn’t completely surprised when Sue announced her choice of a wine to pair with dessert for Thanksgiving:  Sandeman 30 years old Tawny Port that we received as a gift on a visit to Porto. The back label advised to pour the wine into large glasses and let it sit a short time to allow the aromas to unfurl themselves.

Your patience will be rewarded, the label advised. And it was! Cheers to Port wine and Port lovers everywhere.

An Economic Theory of Thanksgiving Wine

Thursday is Thanksgiving Day here in the United States and many of us will gather with family and friends for the holiday feast. If you have been invited to share Thanksgiving with others (and if you are interested enough in wine to be reading this column), then you must confront a perennial problem: what wine should  you bring?

Deadweight Loss?

Why is the choice of a gift wine an economic problem? Well, it isn’t much of a problem if you plan to drink it all yourself. Then you should just buy what you like — but don’t expect to be invited back next year!

Since the point will be to share the wine with other guests, the choice is more difficult because just as you can’t be sure exactly what dishes will be served, you cannot be certain what wines the other guests will like the best.

There is a pretty good chance that you will experience what economists call a “deadweight loss” which is more or less where the benefit that the guests derive from your wine is less than what they’d have gained from a simple cash transfer.   The story (which is possibly true) is told about the time Malcolm Forbes threw himself an extravagant birthday party where the guests were served some of the rarest, most expensive wines on the planet. Forbes went from guest to guest pouring the evening’s show-stopper wine. Finally he came to Warren Buffet. Wine? said Forbes with a smile. No thanks, Buffet replied. I’ll take the cash!

Warren Buffet understood the concept of deadweight loss and wanted nothing to do with it!

The Problem of Other People’s Money

The problem is asymmetric information. You know your own preferences and budget situation pretty well and so you have a fairly good idea of what you are giving up when you buy an expensive bottle of wine as a gift. But you don’t know the preferences of the other guests very well or whether they would prefer your wine or a simple cash payment to be spent on something else. You can’t be sure that their gain is greater than  your loss.

This leads (I hope you are following along) to the conclusion that you are most efficient when you spend your own money on yourself because you can fairly well calculate both the gain and the opportunity cost. You are less efficient (in terms of deadweight loss) when spend your money on others. You are even less efficient when you spend other people’s money on yourself. And you are hopelessly inefficient when you spend others people’s money on other people. What do you think?

So it would seem like the most efficient thing to do would be to decline that dinner invitation and stay home with your wine. How sad! No wonder economics is called the “dismal science.”

It’s Not About the Wine

But here’s the notion that saves the day. Thanksgiving is not really about the wine (or the turkey or the green bean casserole), it is about the sharing. Thanksgiving is more public or communal good than private good. And so, if you do it well, the particular elements of Thanksgiving including the wine will play a secondary role to the general warmth of the shared experience.

I used to get frustrated when wine wasn’t the centerpiece of gatherings, some of which were actually organized to celebrate the wine. But then I got over it. Wine is doing its job when it makes everything else better. Don’t you agree?

This fact changes a bit how you might approach your choice of a Thanksgiving wine to share. Cost is nearly irrelevant. Picking a wine that draws undue attention to you (and  your fine taste or great wealth) almost defeats the purpose.  A modest wine that makes everyone smile — maybe something with bubbles? — will serve very well. And then you can concentrate on what Thanksgiving is really about.

That said, no one will complain if you bring a nice Port, Madeira, or Sauternes to savor at the end of the meal.

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Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. Enjoy the wine and the feast and most of all each other!