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!

Prosecco Market Competition Bubbles Up

The Prosecco market here in the United States continues to evolve rapidly.  Prosecco has surged in only a few years from a little-known type of Italian sparkling wine to the phenomenon we see today. Amazing!

Once upon a time what Prosecco that you might find on store shelves was pretty basic stuff — or it seemed that way at the time. I remember recommending Prosecco to my university students for their commencement celebrations — they’re all good, I’d tell them, you don’t have to spend more than you can afford.

They are all pretty much still good, but Prosecco is more nuanced now and I encourage friends to explore the Prosecco Pyramid, starting with DOC wines at the base, moving up to DOCG and the Rive wines, and topping out with wines from the magic mountain of  Cartizze. The amazing thing is that top-tier Prosecco often costs less than baseline Champagne — something that students (and many others) can appreciate.

This year has seen the birth of Rosé Prosecco DOC — a pink blend of Glera and Pinot Nero grapes — which adds another facet of Prosecco to think about and enjoy. Recently we’ve received three sample shipments that show how the market for Italian sparklers is evolving. Here is my report.

The Prosecco Battlefield Expands

Chances are that there are many different Prosecco brands available on the shelves of your local wine shop or upscale supermarket, but odds are very good that you will find La Marca and Mionetto. They are top sellers in part because consumer enjoy the wines, but also because they are easy to find.

La Marca is an interesting case because its great success is powered by production scale and distribution muscle. We drove by the big La Marca factory a few years ago when I was giving some lectures at the famous Conegliano wine school and were suitably impressed.

La Marca is a second-level cooperative, we were told — a cooperative of cooperatives. I could be wrong but think that the smaller cooperatives make and supply the base wines, which then undergo secondary fermentation in La Marca’s big autoclaves.  The result is the popular sparkling wine in the familiar bottle with the sky-blue label.

You see La Marca everywhere here in the US because it has a distribution partnership with Gallo, the world’s largest wine producer. How do I know this? Well, Gallo is so big that it has its own UPC “zip code.” Look at the UPC on the back of a bottle of La Marca and you’ll see that it begins with 85000. That’s Gallo-ville’s neighborhood. Any wine with that kind of UPC is either made by or distributed by Gallo.

La Marca and Gallo are a tough competitors, so I am interested to see how a new contestant fares in the Prosecco battleground: Ca’ Furlan Prosecco DOC. The wines are the result of a partnership between winemaker Alessandro Furlan and U.S. wine firm Regal Wine Imports. Priced at $11.99 for both the Ca’ Furlan DOC Extra Dry Cuvée Beatrice and the Ca’ Furlan Prosecco DOC Rosê Cuvée Mariana, the wines are intended to compete head-to-head with La Marca, Mionetto,  and other market leaders. Plans are to import about 70,000 cases of the Prosecco and 7500 cases of the Prosecco Rosé.

We were impressed by the Cuvée Beatrice when we paired it with duck rice for dinner recently. Sue especially enjoyed the peach notes that emerged as the wine warmed up a little. Is there room in the mainstream market for another attractive Prosecco brand? Well, the market is growing so  I’d say there is still time to join the party. But it is a very competitive environment — wines need to have quality, value, and strong distribution to succeed.

Celebrity Prosecco (and the No Carb Option)

Celebrity wine is a thing (a big thing, actually), so it is no surprise to discover the wine shown at the top of this column, Bellissima Prosecco DOC Brut, the new Christie Brinkley project.

The celebrity connection is modest on the bottle label (“Con Amore, Christie Brinkley”) but it is unavoidable elsewhere. “Bellissima by Christie Brinkley” proclaims the QVC.com  offer, “sip and savor these pours from the celebrated model, actress, & entrepreneur.”

Shopping channels like QVC have become big time wine outlets. A search for “wine” on the QVC website brings up celebrity offerings from Christie Brinkley and Martha Stewart, a couple of Food Network celebrity chefs, and a variety of Vintage Wine Estates packages including some from Shark Tank star Kevin O’Leary a.k.a. Mister Wonderful.

I try to have an open mind about celebrity wines. Sometimes the link to a famous person is more than just vino-exploitation. When NFL great Drew Bledsoe started his eponymous winery in Walla Walla, for example, it seemed to be a sincere effort to connect with the town where he grew up and much of the wine community rallied around him and his project. The wines were really good right from the start and Bledsoe has made good on his commitment to help the region grow.

So sometimes the stars align such that a celebrity wine makes good and makes sense. But this doesn’t happen all the time, so there is always a nagging suspicion that, as Kevin O’Leary might say, it’s really all about cashing in for the m-o-n-e-y.

The Bellissima line-up includes Prosecco DOC Brut and Prosecco Rosé DOC, both made with organic grapes, and white and pink “zero sugar” sparkling wines, the white made with organic Glera grapes and the pink with Pinot Grigio grapes. Organic, vegan, zero-sugar, zero-carbs, celebrity endorsement — lots of boxed ticked here and online comments suggest that some diabetic drinkers are happy to find a wine with the carb numbers they are looking for.

That got me thinking — how does a zero (less than 0.5 g/l residual sugar) wine compare with Prosecco? A typical Prosecco Extra Dry product has about 12-15 grams per liter residual sugar which translates into less than  2 grams per glass. The Bellissima Brut has 6-7 g/l or less that 1 gram of residual sugar per glass, which means a lot fewer carbs than a glass of fruit juice, for example, and only a little more than the zero-sugar products. All the Bellissima wines come in at 11.5% abv.

Our tasting team did a comparison tasting of the Brut and Zero-Sugar sparkling white and we found both very drinkable. The Prosecco Brut was softer with more fruit, the Zero-Sugar was happiest paired with a charcuterie plate Sue prepared. Both seemed like they could stand on their own in the market even without a celebrity or wellness connection. Although I guess it defeats the idea of zero-sugar, I think I might like the zero-sugar wine best in a Bellini cocktail.

Italy Beyond Prosecco

If you are a fan of Formula One auto racing you will have seen that the victory celebrations now feature drivers slurping from huge bottles labeled “Ferrari.” You might assume that this is wine from the famous Ferrari racing team, but you would be wrong. Ferrari Trento is an important producer of sparkling wines in the Italian north-east and this is a reminder that there is much more to Italian sparkling wines than Prosecco.

While Prosecco is made from Glera  grapes using the method of secondary fermentation in autoclaves, Trento DOC wines and Franciacorta feature familiar Chardonnay and Pinot Nero (Pinot Noir) grapes and classic secondary fermentation in the bottle.

We recently sampled Cantine Monfort Cuvée ’85 Trento DOC Brut, for example. A blend of 90% Chardonnay and 10% Pinot Nero secondary fermentation using the classic method, it is a different animal from Prosecco and a reminder that Italy’s treasure house of wine includes a wealth of sparklers worth exploring.

Gosh, this is a delicious wine. Makes me realize I need to pay more attention in the Trento DOC wines and the other great sparkling wines Italy has to offer.

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Here is an Entertainment Tonight segment about Christie Brinkley’s Prosecco. BTW I know many readers will associate Brinkley with swimsuits, so I wonder if you think the wine label, which refers to Botticelli’s famous painting of Venus, is somehow swimsuit-inspired? What do you think?

Wine, Stagflation, and the Risks of the Bottleneck Economy

The New York Times headline warned of fears of a bottleneck recession in Germany. Other headlines in  the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, and elsewhere noted the impacts of production and distribution bottlenecks on specific industries.

Although the parallel is flawed, it is impossible for those of  us of a certain age not to think back to the 1970s when shortages and bottlenecks created the unwelcome phenomenon of “stagflation” — a stagnant but inflationary economy.

Last  week I wrote about the many bottlenecks inside the wine sector that make this a particularly interesting and difficult business. Today’s column steps back a few paces to look at the bottleneck economy itself and how its outside force impacts wine.

Yes, We Have No Bananas

The most obvious effect of bottlenecks is scarcity and higher cost.  As I noted last week, ocean shipping bottlenecks both push up the cost of container shipments and result in shortages of the relevant products. Some shortages are transitory — the goods are delayed but they still eventually arrive — but other times the rising shipping cost makes delivery of the products uneconomic.

Long lines at petrol stations were a bottleneck result in the UK recently. The problem was a shortage of tanker truck drivers. There was enough gas I understand it, but too few drivers to get it where it needed to be. As soon as consumers caught a whiff of a theoretical shortage, of course, they all rushed to fill up their tanks at once, creating an actual shortage. The government has plans to mobilize some army drivers to help deal with the situation if it persists.

Boris Johnson’s administration advises that rumors that Christmas will not arrive this year due to a general shortage of lorry drivers are exaggerated. Good to know.

Domino Effects

Bottlenecks in one sector often spread to related markets like a row of dominos falling one by one. A noteworthy case of this has happened in the UK, for example. Unseasonably slack off-shore winds this summer resulted in lower than expected electricity production from wind turbines, which shifted demand to generation plants fired by natural gas. This pushed the spot price of gas to very high levels, making the production of fertilizer suddenly uneconomic and forcing some fertilizer plants to shut down. Wind-gas-fertilizer. Got that?

Carbon dioxide is a by-product of the production of fertilizer from natural gas, so CO2 supplies fell. CO2, in turn, is important in the food industry and in wine production, too, so shortages and disruptions appear there. Thus did calm winds plus natural gas bottlenecks cause British food security to diminish.

Changing Commodity Composition

Have you been out shopping for a new or used car recently? Cars today are really computers that happen to have wheels and can haul people and their stuff. The current very serious shortage of microchips is therefore a limiting factor on the production of both autos and all other the equipment and gadgets where computer chips are needed.

Shakespeare warned that for want of a nail a kingdom was lost. If he were writing today, he might pivot to microchips and car sales. With new cars in short supply, the prices of used cars have sky-rocketed.

One side-effect of such bottlenecks is a change in the commodity composition of production. If you don’t have enough chips to produce all the cars you’d like, how do you handle it? It make sense to reduce production of low profit vehicles and reserve the chips for high profit sales, which means pickup trucks and some SUVs in the US.

Another strategy is to reserve production for key customers where there is a long term commitment and cut back on other sales. In short, the bottlenecks affect what is produced, how much, who gets it, and at what price.

The Price Also Rises

Inflation is always a concern in the bottleneck economy and you can sense how nervous economic leaders around the world are as they sort through different measures of inflation and ponder whether specific price spikes will moderate as time passes or form a critical inflationary mass that, by altering expectations, becomes self-sustaining. If economic policy-makers react to inflation fears by jamming on the brakes, stagflation could result. That’s what happened 40 years ago and there is concern that history could repeat.

Should the short-term inflation burst endure, we would normally expect higher interest rates and changing foreign exchange rates to follow. Interest rates might rise as central banks act to push prices back down, but it seems more likely to me that the market will first push interest rates higher and then central banks will follow along. Just a guess.

A combination of higher interest rates (which tend to increase currency value) and higher inflation rates (which push in the opposite direction) make forecasting exchange rate movements even more problematic than usual.  The US dollar’s value has risen recently, for example, as higher interest returns seem to have overcome concerns about higher inflation. Stay tuned.

Just in Time vs Just in Case

How should wine producers react to all this news? Many will simply tune it out but, as I like to say, denial isn’t just a river in Egypt. Ignore the shifting economic sands at your own risk.

One bit of practical advice is obvious: give serious thought to how exposed your business is to the various direct and indirect bottlenecks in your sector and take appropriate action. At the very least, starting moving from just in time to just in case sourcing if you can.

Beyond that, it would be a good idea to do a quick bottleneck risk audit. How much are you exposed to potential problems? And what about your customers and suppliers? One lesson this situation teaches us is that risk anywhere in the product chain is a potential problem everywhere in the product chain.

What about the big macro risk of stagflation? I don’t see things getting that bad yet, but stagflation puts economic policymakers in a bind and none of them really has a lot of room to maneuver right now. That’s why everyone is so jumpy about the inflation threat and why the recent IMF warnings are taken seriously. As Bette Davis said, fasten your seatbelts.

A Modest Proposal for American Viticultural Areas

Are there too many American Viticultural Areas (AVAs)? Or not enough? Herewith a modest proposal for maximizing the benefits of American wine appellations.

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Whenever a  list of newly-approved  American Viticultural Areas is released I find myself shaking my head in disbelief. Bah humbug! You see, I’m a true dismal science Scrooge and so my first reaction is always to think about the economic value of the new designations and sub-designations.

Only a few American appellations have substantial economic value in the sense that a bottle of wine is worth more if the magic name appears than if it doesn’t.  Napa is a good example of an AVA that pays. 

Many if not most AVA designations add little monetary value and sometimes they might actually subtract value generally by confusing consumers who wonder what it all means and how one is different from another.

Not (Just) About Money

It took me a long time to get over my focus on money and to think about other factors. In many cases the goal of an AVA is simply identity — the desire to be something particular in a generic world. There might be a bit of FOMO (fear of missing out) in that, too. I get that. We live in the Age of Identity in many respects. Why should wine be different?

Another result if not a goal can be solidarity, since having an AVA application approved is not an easy thing and requires wine growers to work together.  Once they’ve worked together to create an appellation, perhaps other opportunities to cooperate can be found, too. That’s not a trivial thing.

The role of AVAs in creating or strengthening identity and solidarity made me think of a little-known political-economy theory called the North Dakota Plan. The creator was the famous economist  John Kenneth Galbraith and the idea was this. The nation-state is a good thing in part because it gives its citizens sovereignty, which is important as we now realize from the way that it is highlighted in the current UK Brexit policy debates. More states would mean more sovereignty and more benefits. OK so far?

The North Dakota Plan

But sovereignty is troublesome because one state’s sovereign actions can sometimes threaten another state’s sovereignty and, in worst case scenarios conflict and even war break out. How can the world maximize the good of sovereignty while minimizing the bad of war?

The solution, Galbraith proposed back in 1978, tongue firmly in cheek, was the North Dakota Plan. Divide the world up into dozens of nation-states each about the size and shape of North Dakota. North Dakota is more or less a rectangle, if you haven’t looked at a map recently, so the new borders wouldn’t necessarily take into account geography or demographic patterns. They’d be completely arbitrary.

There would be lots of small states — so lots of Presidents, Prime Ministers, Foreign Ministers, and sovereignty. But each country would be too small to have much of an army or navy, so conflict would be limited. Their focus would have to be more on how to live together, since their ability to meddle in other countries’ business would be limited.

I think I recall a variation on the theory where each country would be given one small nuclear device to deter enemies. The idea was that no one would ever use their nuke because, with it gone, they would be defenseless. Peace would reign supreme.

To the best of my knowledge no one ever took Galbraith’s modest proposal for a world of North Dakotas seriously, which is probably just as well. But it inspires me to propose my own satiric plan for American AVAs, which you can probably already guess,

North Dakota AVA System

Why not maximize the number of AVAs by covering the wine country map with hundreds and hundreds of them in arbitrary shapes and sizes.  I’d shape them like pieces in a jig-saw puzzles, but you can have squares or triangles if you prefer. Each one would have a name, of course, and an identity.  More AVAs, more identity, everyone is better off. What could go wrong? 

Each would face a challenge, too, which would require solidarity to solve.  With completely arbitrary borders — unlike the border lines today that are sometimes determined by a mixture of terroir and politics– geography could not be relied upon to make an AVA distinctive. The growers and winemakers within each block would have to work together to create a real identity — a common blend, style, or signature wine grape variety, for example. They’d have to work to make the AVA mean something because, otherwise, it would be just another meaningless, soon-forgotten shape on the map and name on the label.

The Thing About Modest Proposals

The thing about Modest Proposals is that they are not always what they seem. The most famous Modest Proposal — Jonathan Swift’s suggestion that impoverished Irish parents should eat their starving children — wasn’t intended to encourage murder or cannibalism. It was meant to shock readers into recognizing the harsh and heartless treatment of Ireland’s poor and the dire conditions they experienced. It worked, too, waking up English citizens to the reality of their government’s Ireland policies.

John Kenneth Galbraith’s North Dakota Plan probably reflected his experiences as a diplomat in the Kennedy administration (he was US Ambassador to India). He knew that big, powerful states were no guarantee of peace and prosperity — in fact, they were often just the opposite (think Cold War mutually-assured destruction). His North Dakota thought experiment flipped reality in search of a better solution to world problems.

No one would seriously consider my “North Dakota” plan for AVAs. It is ridiculous. But this is what American wine could more or less look like in 30  years if current trends persist. It won’t happen all at once, just a couple more AVAs here and there. But it will add right up all the same and then, well, there you are.

Maybe AVAs were the best way to establish identity back when there were only a few of them — remember that the very first AVA granted back in 1980 was not Napa (it came a few months later) but Augusta in Missouri. Maybe today, when the AVA count is in the hundreds, there are better paths to follow. If not, then the future could be a jig-saw puzzle world of wine.

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Wine jig-saw puzzles can be quite entertaining if done right. Check out the wine and spirits puzzles that Rebecca Gibb MW has created at Bamboozled Games!

Just to show that I am not a complete Scrooge, here’s a musical tribute to names, songs, and dreams. Enjoy.

Rediscovering Ruchè, One of Italy’s “Invisible” Wines

rucheThe coronavirus pandemic has paused The Wine Economist’s usual travel and speaking schedule and while I don’t miss the chaos of international air travel I do miss the opportunity to meet interesting new people and the chance to discover wines made from indigenous grape varieties that often don’t get the attention they deserve.

At this time last year, for example,  we were visiting Sardinia and Friuli, two regions of Italy that are especially known for their indigenous wine grapes. Some of these wines are pretty readily available here in the U.S. — Cannonou di Sardegna is a good example. You can find good examples if you look around at bit. But others are much too local to get much outside distribution — you sometimes need to go to the source to try them. Vermentino di Gallura and Carignano del Sulcis are examples, also from Sardinia, of wonderful wines that you may not easily find.

Discovering Invisible Wines

These intensely local wines are a special treat and I wrote about them in a chapter called “Invisible Wines” in my book Extreme WineI cited three wines from Italy — Pignoletto from the vineyards around Bologna, Lacrima di Morro d”Alba from Marche, and Ruchè di Castagnolo Monferrato in Piemonte.

As I wrote on The Wine Economist in 2011, we discovered Ruchè (prndounced ROO-kay) by accident. We were attending the annual regional culinary fair in Moncalvo, a hill town half an hour north of Asti. Thirteen “pro loco” civic groups from throughout the region set up food and wine booths in the central square and sold their distinctly local wares to an enthusiastic luncheon crowd. As I reported then,

“I had never heard of Ruchè and honestly didn’t know what it might be until I happened upon the stand of the Castagnole Monferrato group. They were cooking with Ruchè , marinating fruit in Ruchè and selling it by the glass — they were obviously very proud of their local wine. I had to try it and it was great. Suddenly I saw Ruchè everywhere (a common experience with a new discovery) and enjoyed a bottle at dinner in Asti that  night. “Like Nebbiolo,” Jancis Robinson writes, “the wine is headily scented and its tannins imbue it with an almost bitter aftertaste.”

Tenuta Montemagno

Sue and I were excited to re-live our Ruchè discovery when we were contacted by Tenuta Montemagno and offered the opportunity to taste their two Ruchè wines, Nobilis and Invictus. Sue prepared a special meal (see note below) and we pulled the corks.  The Nobilis brought back many memories. A juicy, light bodied red wine, it had the distinctive aroma of roses and the mix of red fruit and warm spices on the palate. It was great with Sue’s signature veal meatballs.

And then  came Invictus, made from riper grapes, vinified dry (2g/l compared to 1 g/l for Nobilis) with a bit more alcohol (15.5% versus 15%).  A fuller wine, Invictus is what I call a philosopher’s wine — something you might want to sit with for a while so you can appreciate how it develops in the glass.  Recognizably Ruchè, but a different experience.  Fascinating. Memorable.

No one comes to The Wine Economist for tasting notes, but here is a video note that captures some of what we found special about these wines. Watch closely and you will see that this seasoned reviewer is surprised (at one point nearly at a loss for words) at what’s in his glass and is keen to learn more. That’s Ruchè.

Tenuta Montemagno is devoted to the tradition of these wines in addition to their Grignolino, Barbera D’Asti, and Barolo reds.  The white wines include Sauvignon and Timorasso, another  indigenous grape variety that I need to learn more about the next time we are in the neighborhood. But maybe I won’t have to wait that long. The winery is working to get its products into wider distribution in the U.S. market and I hope they succeed so that more people can discover their “invisible wine.”

The Priest Did It

Today Ruchè is nearly invisible — you won’t find it unless you make an effort. But it could have been much worse. Like some other indigenous varieties, Ruchè fell from favor and was on the road to commercial extinction. It was saved starting in the 1960s by one man: the parish priest.

As Ian D’Agata explains in the chapter on Ruchè in his recent book Italy’s Native Wine Grape Terroirs, Don Giacomo Cauda, Castagnole Monferato’s town priest, was obsessed with Ruchè, studied it, collected specimens from scattered small plots,  and promoted Ruchè as the region’s signature wine. Ruchè di Castagnole Monferrato received DOC recognition in 1987 and was elevated to DOCG in 2010, putting it up among the elite of the Italian wine world. A long climb from near-extinction to the summit in just 50 years.

The Oxford Companion to Wine reports that there were about 100 hectares (247 acres) of Ruchè in all of Italy in 2010. Not a lot, but a viable amount that I hope will grow. Now the challenge is to assure the economic success of Ruchè and invisible wines like it, which is why I encourage you to seek them out, both at home and when you (eventually) travel. You will enjoy the experience, of course, and help support local wines.

Thanks to Tenuta Montemagno for providing Nobilis and Invictus for us to taste for this column. I hope Sue and I can visit you in person once the pandemic crisis has passed.

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These wines really want to be paired with food and so Sue made one of my favorite dishes which, although it comes from a different region of Italy, proved to be an excellent match. A few years ago we spent an entire day cooking and eating with Bologna’s famous Simili sisters  (see this New York Times article by William Grimes about these celebrated chefs). They had closed their cooking school and were experimenting with personal classes in their apartment. Try the Tenuta Montemagno wines with the Simili sisters’ veal meatballs in Port sauce.