Are there too many American Viticultural Areas (AVAs)? Or not enough? Herewith a modest proposal for maximizing the benefits of American wine appellations.
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.
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.
The 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 Wine. I 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.”
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.
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.
A couple of years ago the China Alcoholic Drinks Association announced that it was working on a new wine ranking system to help guide Chinese consumers to the best wines and best values. A recent newsletter from Rob Geddes MW reports that things are moving forward quickly.
Geddes says his China sources indicate the new scale will soon become a national standard. He should know. As an important actor on the Australian wine scene — his annual book of wine ratings is the gold standard when it comes to Aussie wines — Geddes naturally spends a lot of time in China. China is Australia’s largest export market and Geddes has helped develop the market there through his tastings and seminars.
Much of the discussion about the China ratings system focuses on the fact that it uses a 10-point scale for maximum clarity rather than the 20-point or 100-point scales commonly used elsewhere. I think the real news is that this is moving toward a national rating system that would potentially assign an official score to each wine on the market taking into consideration, it is said, Chinese tastes, cuisine, and culture.
I can’t imagine that happening anywhere else in the world. I guess it is part of a movement to a wine industry and culture with distinctly Chinese characteristics. What do you think?
The new Chinese scale makes me think about wine rating systems generally. There are all sorts of scales in use. Geddes (along with South Africa’s Platter’s Guide) use a five-star system. Gambero Rosso rates Italy’s wines on a Tre Bicchieri (3-glasses) scale that mirrors Michelin’s three-star restaurant ratings. And of course Robert Parker is famous for the 100-point system he helped make so popular.
What’s the best wine rating system? Glad you asked! Here is a vintage Wine Economist column from way back in 2008 that tries to answer that very question. Cheers!
People turn to wine critics to tell them what’s really inside that expensive bottle (or that cheap one) and how various wines compare. Some critics are famous for their detailed wine tasting notes (Michael Broadbent comes to mind here) that provide comprehensive qualitative evaluation of wines, but with so many choices in today’s global market it is almost inevitable that quantitative rating scales would evolve. They simplify wine evaluation, which is what many consumers are looking for, but they have complicated matters, too, because there is no single accepted system to provide the rankings.
I’m interested in the variety of wine rating systems and scales that wine critics employ and the controversies that surround them. This blog entry is a intended to be a brief guide for the perplexed, an analysis of the practical and theoretical difficulties of making and using wine ranking systems.
Wine Rating Scales: 100-points, 20-points, Three Glasses and More
The first problem is that different wine critic publications use different techniques to evaluate wine and different rating scales to compare them. Click on this image to see a useful comparison of wine rating systems compiled by De Long Wine (click here to download the pdf version, which is easier to read).
Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate, the Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast all use a 100-point rating scale, although the qualitative meanings associated with the numbers are not exactly the same. It is perhaps not an accident that these are all American publications and that American wine readers are familiar with 100-point ratings from their high school and college classes.
In theory a 100-point system allows wine critics to be very precise in their relative ratings (a 85-point syrah really is better than an 84-point syrah) although in practice many consumers may not be able to appreciate the distinction. Significantly, it is not really a 100-point scale since 50 points is functionally the lowest grade and it is rare to see wines rated for scores lower than 70, so the scale is not really as precise as it might seem. (Any professor or teacher will tell you, there has been both grade inflation and grade compression in recent years and this applies to wine critics too, I believe.)
The 100-point scale is far from universal. The enologists at the University of California at Davis use a 20-point rating scale, as does British wine critic Jancis Robinson and Decanter, the leading global wine magazine. The 20-point scale actually corresponds to how students are graded in French high schools and universities, so perhaps that says something about its origins.
The Davis 20-point scale gives up to 4 points for appearance, 6 points for smell, 8 points for taste and 2 for overall harmony, according to my copy of The Taste of Wine by Emile Peynaud. The Office International du Vin’s 20-point scale has different relative weights for wine qualities; it awards 4 points for appearance, 4 for smell and 12 for taste. Oz Clarke’s 20 point system assigns 2, 6 and 12 points for look, smell and taste. It’s easy to understand how the same wine can receive different scores when different critics used different criteria and different weights.
A 20-point scale (which is often really a 10-point scale) offers less precision in relative rankings, since only whole and half point ratings are available, but this may be appropriate depending upon how the ratings are to be used. Wines rated 85, 86 and 87 on a 100-point scale, for example, might all receive scores of about 16 on a 20 point scale. It’s up to you to decide if the finer evaluative grid provides useful information.
Decanter uses both a 20-point scale and as well as simple guide of zero to five stars to rate wines, where one star is “acceptable”, two is quite good, three is recommended, four is highly recommended and five is, well I suppose an American would say awesome, but the British are more reserved. Dorothy J. Gaiter and John Brecher (who write an influential wine column for the Wall Street Journal) also use a five point system; they rates wines from OK to Good, Very Good, Delicious and Delicious(!).
The five point system allows for less precision but it is still very useful – it is the system commonly used to rate hotels and resorts, for example. ViniD’Italia, the Italian wine guide published by Gambero Rosso, uses a three-glasses scale that will be familiar to European consumers who use the Michelin Guide’s three-star scale to rate restaurants.
Which System if Best?
It is natural to think that the best system is the one that provides the most information, so a 100-point scale must be best, but I’m not sure that’s true. Emile Peynaud makes the point that how you go about tasting and evaluating wine is different depending upon your purpose. Critical wine evaluation to uncover the flaws in wine (to advise a winemaker, for example) is different in his book from commercial tasting (as the basis for ordering wine for a restaurant or wine distributor or perhaps buying wine as an investment) which is different consumer tasting to see what you like.
Many will disagree, but it seems to me that the simple three or five stars/glasses/points systems are probably adequate for consumer tasting use while the 20- and 100-point scales are better suited for commercial purposes. I’m not sure that numbers or stars are useful at all for critical wine evaluation – for that you need Broadbent’s detailed qualitative notes. Wine critic publications often try to serve all three of these markets, which may explain why they use the most detailed systems or use a dual system like Decanter.
In any case, however, it seems to me that greater transparency would be useful. First, it is important that the criteria and weights are highlighted and not buried in footnotes. And I don’t see why a 20-point rating couldn’t be disaggregated like this: 15 (3/6/6) for a 20-point system that gives up to 4 points for appearance, 6 for smell and 10 for taste. That would tell me quickly how this wine differs from a 15 (4/3/8). Depending upon how much I value aroma in a wine and what type of wine it is, I might prefer the first “15” wine to the second.
Wine and Figure Skating?
So far I’ve focused on the practical problems associated with having different evaluation scales with different weights for different purposes, but there are even more serious difficulties in wine rating scales. In economics we learn that numerical measures are either cardinal or ordinal. Cardinal measures have constant units of measurement that can be compared and manipulated mathematically with ease. Weight (measured by a scale) and length (measured in feet or meters) are cardinal measures. Every kilogram or kilometer is the same.
Ordinal measures are different – they provide only a rank ordering. If I asked you to rate three wines from your most preferred to your least favorite, for example, that would be an ordinal ranking. You and I might agree about the order (rating wines A over C over B, for example), but we might disagree about how muchbetter A was compared to C. I might think it was a little better, but for you the difference could be profound.
To use a familiar example from sports, they give the Olympic gold medal in the long jump based upon a cardinal measure of performance (length of jump) and they give the gold medal in figure skating based upon ordinal judges’ scores, which are relative not absolute measures of performance (in the U.S. they actually call the judges’ scores “ordinals”). Figure skating ratings are controversial for the same reason wine scores are.
So what kind of judgment do we make when we taste wine — do we evaluate against an absolute standard like in the long jump or a relative one like the figure skating judges? The answer is both, but in different proportions. An expert taster will have an exact idea of what a wine should be and can rate accordingly, but you and I might only be able to rank order different wines, since our abilities to make absolute judgements aren’t well developed.
This is one reason why multi-wine social blind tasting parties almost always produce unexpected winners or favorites. The wines we like better [relative] are not always the ones we like best [absolute] when evaluated on their own.
Ordinal and cardinal are just different, like apples and oranges (or Pinot Gris and Chardonnay). Imagine what the long jump would look like if ordinal “style points” were awarded? Imagine what figure skating would look like if the jumps and throws were rated by cardinal measures distance and hang time? No, it wouldn’t be a pretty sight.
Economists are taught that it is a mistake to treat ordinal rankings as if they are cardinal rankings, but that’s what I think we wine folks do sometimes. I’ve read than Jancis Robinson, who studied Mathematics at Oxford, isn’t entirely comfortable with numeric wine ratings. Perhaps it is because she appreciates this methodological difficulty.
Lessons of the Judgment of Paris
Or maybe she’s just smart. Smart enough to know that your 18-point wine may be my 14-pointer. It’s clear that people approach wine with different tastes, tasting skills, expectations and even different taste buds, so relative rankings by one person need not be shared by others. This is true of even professional tasters, as the Judgment of Paris made clear.
The Judgment of Paris (the topic of a great book by George M. Taber – see below – and two questionable forthcoming films) was a 1976 blind tasting of French versus American wines organized (in Paris, of course) by Steven Spurrier. It became famous because a panel of French wine experts found to their surprise that American wines were as good as or even better than prestigious wines from French.
A recent article by Dennis Lindley (professor emeritus at University College London – see below) casts doubt on this conclusion, however. Read the article for the full analysis, but for now just click on the image above to see the actual scores of the 11 judges. It doesn’t take much effort to see that these experts disagreed as much as they agreed about the quality of the wines they tasted. The 1971 Mayacamas Cabernet, for example, received scores as low as 3 and 5 on a 20-point scale along with ratings as high as 12, 13 and 14. It was simultaneous undrinkable (according to a famous sommelier) and pretty darn good (according to the owner of a famous wine property). If the experts don’t agree with each other, what is the chance that you will agree with them?
Does this mean that wine critics and their rating systems are useless and should disappear? Not likely. Wine ratings are useful to consumers, who face an enormous range of choices and desperately need information, even if it is practically problematic and theoretically suspect. Wine ratings are useful commercially, too. Winemakers need to find ways to reduce consumer uncertainty and therefore increase sales and wine ratings serve that purpose.
And then, of course, there is the wine critic industry itself, which knows that ratings sell magazines and drive advertising. Wine ratings are here to stay. We just need to understand them better and use them more effectively.
This column’s title is a bit misleading. Mateus Rosé never really went away, so how can it return? But the brand is rebooting, changing with the times, which gives us an an excuse to consider this iconic Portuguese wine and the Rosé wine category it helped create.
Wine Discovery Mode
Let’s zoom back five decades to an era when U.S. consumers were in Wine Discovery mode. What were they looking for? Well, many things, but as the 1971 Mateus Rosé commercial above suggest, one side of wine’s appeal was its exotic nature. Could wine really transport you to romantic places? Of course!
Mateus Rosé is an important part of the evolution of the wine world — so important that it has its own entry in the Oxford Companion to Wine. I included this humble wine in my book Around the World in Eighty Wines. Pink, sweetish, slightly fizzy, Mateus was created by Fernando van Zeller Guedes in 1942, aimed initially at the Brazilian market, but its export domain soon reached around the world, including especially the U.S. and Great Britain.
Chilled in its distinctive dark bottle (shaped, it is said, like a WWI army flask), with the image of the Palace of Mateus prominently displayed, it was a a post-war phenomenon. I’ve read that it was a favorite of Queen Elizabeth. A quick internet search yields photos of rock legend Jimi Hendrix chugging a half-bottle of Mateus. It was at one point the best-selling imported wine in the U.S. market.
Still Crazy After All These Years
Mateus sold 3.5 million cases in 1978, accounting for an incredible 40% of Portuguese wine exports. Mateus dominated the market of that day the way that Yellow Tail ruled in the 2000s. Even now, when the global wine market Mateus helped create is crowded with big brands, it sells 20 million bottles a year in 120 markets. Still crazy popular after all these years.
Today we are told that consumers want Rosé wines that are dry dry dry and pale pale pale. Classic Mateus didn’t fit that profile at all and yet the style still found an enthusiastic following. Maybe wine drinkers are more diverse in their tastes than popular opinion has it? A Portuguese friend tells me that he sneaks Mateus into blind tastings, where it surprises even professionals with its appeal.
Mars and Venus
The rebooted Mateus, branded Mateus Dry Rosé in the U.S., introduces this iconic wine to a new audience without ignoring consumers looking for a nostalgic experience. The label is silver now, with the Palace of Mateus much smaller. The packaging shows off the pink color. The bottle is clear with an elongated neck, which makes it a bit more elegant. If the old bottle was from Mars (think WWI army flask) the new bottle is from Venus, don’t you think?
Mateus Dry Rosé is made from Baga and Shiraz grapes (Baga is an indigenous Portuguese variety). It is dry according to the tech sheet — just 4 g/l of residual sugar — but fruity, so that first sip tasted sweeter to us than the rest of the glass. Sweetness is subjective, so you may find it drier or sweeter than we did.
50 Shades of Pink?
Will Mateus Dry Rosé dominate the marketplace the way the original did? No, that’s simply not possible. Too much competition — thousands and thousands of SKUs in the market these days. But it has the qualities that can make it a very successful wine brand. The color may not be the pale pale pink we are told is best, but have you looked at the Rosé section of the wine wall recently? As this photo (below) from a tasting of Loire Rosé wines suggests, there are many shades of pink on offer and different buyers will seek out different hues.
Rosé was a hot wine category going into the coronavirus crisis and if it is still hot as we exit lock down then the rebooted Mateus Dry Rosé is ready to take its place on the wine wall and in the hearts of pink wine drinkers.
Sue notes that one of the great things about Mateus back in the day was that the empty bottle made an attractive candle-holder. Hey Boomers, what did you do with your empty Mateus bottles? Just FYI you can buy vintage bottles on EBay!
“American wine drinkers seem much less cost-conscious ” (than their British cousins) according to a recent column by Jancis Robinson on good wines for coronavirus lock down era. There is truth in this, but it isn’t simply that Americans don’t care about cost. British supermarkets trained their customers to look for “3 for £10” bargains for wine and many other things. That’s something they now regret.
Many American wine drinkers learned the opposite lesson. Unsure why seemingly similar products are sold for wildly different prices, they act as if guided by the idea that higher price always means better quality. Many dismiss value wines as a category and stubbornly purchase more expensive bottles that they might not like as much.
This seems like a good time to challenge the myth that the only good wines are the expensive ones. Last month the Wine Economist opened the “Ten Under $10 Challenge.” Readers were invited to nominate widely-distributed wines retailing for less than $10 that they would recommend to others for shelter-in-place enjoyment.
The Challenge is inspired by New York Times wine columnist Eric Asimov’s column on “15 Wines under $15: Inexpensive Bottles for Stay-at-Home Drinking.” Fifteen bucks is a good target, but given the dire economic news, many readers will want to step down a shelf on the wine wall. What can you do for $10?
Bargain Wine Resources
The search for really good $10 wine is not new and the undisputed expert on the topic is Jeff Siegel, who for many years has published the Wine Curmudgeon $10 Hall of Fame. Each year Jeff reviews the list, adding a few new wines and dropping a few off the list, often because of availability issues. You might want to consult the Hall of Fame the next time you go shopping for good wine at a good price.
George Taber’s 2011 book A Toast to Bargain Wine is an another good resource even if the passage of time necessarily leaves it a bit dated. I like that Taber includes two recommendation lists for each wine type: $10 and less ($15 for sparklers) and then “splurge” selections that are just a bit more. Taber drank a lot of mediocre wine so that you won’t have to. Take advantage of his sacrifice.
You can see the complete list of nominated wines by consulting the Comments list on the original column. You will find an amended list below. I added a few nominations that came in via email and social media and I deleted a couple of wines that, while clearly good value, seemed either to be limited distribution or the result of special discounts and therefore not what we were looking for here.
Who, What, Where?
There are several interesting things about the wines on the list. Many readers reported both what they paid for the wines and where they bought them. Does it surprise you to know that Trader Joe’s, Total Wine, and Costco were frequently cited? These are retailers that make an effort to provide moderate cost wines and so they attract shoppers looking for good value. Supply (of good value wine) creates its own demand, as Gresham would probably say.
Imports account for about a third of the wine sold in the U.S. market, but they make up a larger share of the reader list. Why? A complicated question, but one factor is that many of these value wines are made to be competitively priced in the domestic markets of the producers. And prices abroad, as travelers frequently observe, can be much lower than prices here in the U.S. As a result, many foreign producers have become experts at hitting the low price target.
Take the Casa Santos Lima Red Blend Portugal that I nominated last month. It sells for just $5.99 in my local Costco and has a very large and enthusiastic following. How can they do it? Well, the fact that Costco has a lower wine mark up than most other stores is one factor — Costco can afford to do this because their customers pay membership fees.
How Do They Do It?
But maybe a bigger factor is this. The supermarket wine space in Portugal is intensely competitive and very low prices — two or three euro per bottle! — are common. Portuguese producers in these markets learn must keep costs down or they will quickly fail. Costs add up quickly when foreign producers navigate their way to U.S. retail shelves, so this very low initial cost base is important.
Can American wineries make good, inexpensive wine? Yes, of course. There are lots of examples both on the list and on your store shelves. I held my breath waiting for a Bogle nomination to come in, for example. They are one of the California producers that is known for a good quality-price proposition.
Same with the Chateau Ste Michelle Dry Riesling. I can sometimes buy this wine for less than $6 a bottle at the supermarket. A steal! I was at a Riesling Rendezvous blind tasting a few years ago that brought together Riesling producers from all over the map. When this wine and its price were revealed, the Ste Michelle winemaker received a standing ovation. The Chateau, as we call it hereabouts, is the world’s largest producer of Riesling wines.
The U.S. is in the value wine game, for sure, but there is no denying that the domestic market center of gravity has shifted up a shelf on the wine wall. So more attention is given to upscale wines. That said, don’t ignore the fact that the portfolio of winery assets that Gallo is in the process of purchasing from Constellation includes a number of value brands. Gallo has done very well indeed with Barefoot. It will be interesting to see what they do with these new brands once the M&A dust settles.
Finally, I was pleased to see some overlap between the reader nominations, Jeff Siegel’s Hall of Fame, and George Taber’s list. It demonstrates both that consumers know what they are looking for in good value wine, but also that this is a vast space with thousands of choices. Something for everyone? Almost. Everyone has a friend of two or won’t consider drinking a lower cost wine. That leaves more for the rest of us!
Nominated Wine List
Ok, here’s the Ten under $10 reader list (apologies if I accidentally left off your nomination or had to edit it for the reasons cited above).
Angeline California Chardonnay
Barnard Griffin Rose of Sangiovese
Bogle varietal wines
Caleo Salice Salentino
Cantine Colosi Biano Grillo Sicily Italy
Casa Santos Lima Red Blend Portugal
Chateau Ste Michelle Dry Riesling
Chopo Jumilla Monastrell
Clean Slate Mosel Riesling Germany
Danzante Red Blend (Tuscany)
Domaine du Mistral Plan de Dieu Rhone Rouge
Domaine St. George. (California)
Castilla Syrah 2018 Spain
Hedges CMS red blend, Columbia Valley
Jules Larose Blanc de Blancs Brut Sparkling Wine France
Kia Ora Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc
Kirkland Signature Malbec
Kirkland Signature Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc
La Nervera Blanco 3L BIB
Les Parcelles Marc Dupas Loire Sauvignon Blanc
Lindeman’s Bin series
Magic Box Red Blend Spain
Mascota Vineyards Rose
Martin’s Pick Up Australia Cabernet Sauvignon
Mas Fi Cava
Matua Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough
McManis Family Vineyards Petite Sirah
Monte Antico Toscana Rosso
Mont Gravet Carignon Vieilles Vigne France
Mont Gravet Cotes de Gascogne Rose France
Quinta do Gradil, Mula Velha Riserva (Portugal)
Oxford Landing, Australia.
Penfolds Koonunga Hill Shiraz-Cabernet
Saladini Pilastri Pecorino from Offida DOC
San Gregorio Single Vineyard Las Martas Garnacha
Sauvignon Republic Sauvignon Blanc, New Zealand
Trader Joe’s Pinot Grigio 3L BIB
Trader Joe’s reserve Cabernet Sauvignon Columbia Valley
Trapiche Broquel Malbec
Upper Left Cabernet, Columbia Valley
Vaga del Oragon gran reserva
Vina Falernia Pedro Ximenez Elqui Valley, Chile
Yalumba Y-series Viognier
The Envelope, Please …
So what wines are on the Ten under $10 list? Well, wine is very personal, so I think each of us will have our own list based on individual tastes and local distribution and pricing limitations. I invite you to name your own winners. In this spirit, here is The Wine Economist personal list to get the ball rolling.
Barnard Griffin Rose of Sangiovese
Casa Santos Lima Red Blend Portugal
Chateau Ste Michelle Dry Riesling
Clean Slate Mosel Riesling Germany
Kirkland Signature Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc
Matua Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough
McManis Family Vineyards Petite Sirah (or the Viognier!)
Monte Antico Toscana Rosso
Yalumba Y-series Viognier
Wait, that’s only nine wines. I thought this was Ten under $10. Well, to be honest, I just can’t make up my mind. I guess I’ll just have to open a few more bottles — and the list gives me lots of options to explore and I think that’s the point. I hope you will experiment, too, and that you have found this exercise informative and that it will inspire you to enjoy the good values that the wine world offers us all.
“California’s Cabernet Glut Deepens” is the title of W. Blake Gray’s recent Wine-Searcher column, reporting on the Vineyard Economics Symposium discussion of current market trends. It makes good reading, with its useful mixture of threatening dark clouds and potential silver linings.
California (and Washington, too) was over-supplied with wine in tanks and vines in the ground before the coronavirus crisis hit. The lock-down booze-buying surge in March and April made a dent in the wine lake (a net increase in U.S. sales after considering lost on-trade sales). But there is concern that overall sales will fall once the second shoe drops and the impact of the recession is fully felt despite the eventual return of bar and restaurant activity.
Cabernet was the focus of a boom because it is the most popular red wine variety and can sell for a premium, especially in the Napa Valley. It seemed like it was impossible to go wrong planting a few more acres of Cabernet, so plant we did. Economists see moral hazard in situations like this. Moral hazard is the notion that if you don’t think that an otherwise risky bet can fail, you will take more risk and make bigger bets.
Gray reports that there are rising bulk wine surpluses and falling prices. That sure thing turned out to be a fallacy of composition. What was true for an individual grower (profitable to plant more acres of Cab so long as everyone else holds steady) was not true when everyone planted more Cab. No wonder Allied Grape Growers President Jeff Bitter (that’s Jeff in the cartoon image above) told growers at this year’s Unified Wine & Grape Symposium meetings that it is time to pull out marginal vines.
But the fallacy of composition can apply to grubbing up, too. If everyone else is going to pull out Cab vines, the logic goes, then I’m better off keeping mine in the ground. But if no one pulls vines, the bust gets deeper. Fortunately there is evidence that some vines are coming out. But, as Gray’s report suggests, the problem persists.
Agricultural markets (and sometimes financial markets, too) go through cycles of boom and bust. The Turrentine Wine Wheel of Fortune captures very well the cycles in wine. People are often surprised by the cycles because moral hazard or the fallacy of composition blinds them to the evidence that was always hidden in plain sight.
What winegrape variety comes to mind when I say “Napa Valley …”? There are lots of possibilities. Chardonnay. Merlot. Sauvignon Blanc, of course! Hey, Larkmead makes a tasty Tocai Friuliano.
But I’ll bet that your “fill in the blank” answer was Cabernet Sauvignon and there are several good reasons for this. Cabernet is a noble grape and many of the world’s great wines are made from it or with it. American consumers are in love with this winegrape variety. Cabernet Sauvignon has recently overtaken Chardonnay as America’s #1 favorite.
Cabernet is #1
According to recent Nielsen data taken from the August 2018 issue of Wine Business Monthly, sales of Cab wines totaled more than $201 million in the most recent 4-week period, up 3.9% from the previous year. That compares with $190 million and 0.5% growth for Chardonnay, which has for years topped the league table. Next in line but far behind, is Pinot Gris/Grigio ($96 million / 1.3% growth) and Pinot Noir ($82 million / 2.6%). The fastest-growing category is Rosé, as you might have guessed, with 67% growth on a relatively small $22 million sales base.
Consumers love Cabernet Sauvignon and growers love it, too, because they see it as a potential solution to the their financial squeeze. The costs of land, labor, equipment, and supplies keep rising, but the prices of many grape varieties have been stagnant, putting pressure on profits and, in some cases, generating rivers of red ink.
The Cabernet grape price premium can be substantial according to the 2017 California Grape Crush Report. Cabernet grapes fetched $700 per ton on average in Lodi, for example, compared with $552 for Merlot and Chardonnay. A ton of Cabernet sold for $2209 on average in Mendocino county, $2352 in Lake Country, and about $3000 in Sonoma County.
Napa county topped the list with an average Cab price of $7,421 per ton. That average translates into a $70+ bottle price using the one-percent rule of thumb. And that’s the average. The very best Napa Cab grapes from exceptional sites sold for $10,000 per ton and more. Lesser Cab grapes sold for less, of course, but still generally for more than other grape varieties. Cab Rules.
And it’s not just a California thing. Cabernet is now the most-planted winegrape variety in Washington state, too, with 62,200 tons harvested in 2017 compated with #2 Chardonnay’s 39,300 tons. The overall average price of Washington winegrapes was $1200 per ton, with Cabernet selling at a significant premium at $1500-$1600 per ton.
No wonder more and more Cabernet is being planted wherever it might possibly grow successfully. Jeff Bitter, recently appointed President of Allied Grape Growers, presented the results of the 2017 California Nursery Report at the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium meetings in January. Bottom line: Cabernet is big and getting bigger.
The Nursery Report provides insights about what grape varieties are being planted or grafted, which foretells shifts in winegrape production a few years from now when the vines are productive. The 2017 report showed that 72% of new vines were red varieties with only 28% white. Cabernet vines accounted for an incredible 37.4% of all new vines followed by 19.5% for Pinot Noir and 16.7% for Chardonnay.
Cab Pipeline is Full
If you combine Cabernet with other varieties that are often blended with it (such as Merlot, Malbec, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot), they account for over 42 percent of all new California vines. I am not sure what the composition is of the vines they may have replaced, but I suspect the disproportionate emphasis on Cab and Cab blending grapes represents a significant net increase in future production.
Cabernet’s dominance is noteworthy, but the upward trend in Cab plantings is part of the long term trend that Benjamin Lewin MW described in his 2013 book Claret & Cabs: The Story of Cabernet Sauvignon. Zinfandel, not Cabernet, was the most-planted winegrape variety in the Napa Valley in the decades following Prohibition.
Zin was thought to make the best Claret, according to Lewin, which of course is interesting because Claret is the name the British gave to Cab- and Merlot-based Bordeaux wines. Ridge made a “Claret” in 1981, for example, from Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and Carignan and I’ll bet it was delicious!
Cabernet Sauvignon was a minor player on Napa’s wine scene, Lewin notes, although it made some historic wines including the great Beringer Cabs of the 1930s and the Beaulieu Georges de Latour Private Reserve wines that André Tchelistcheff made between 1938 and 1973.
The Napa Cab boom really picked up speed in the 1970s as new quality-driven wineries (think Robert Mondavi) focused on Cabernet. The Judgement of Paris in 1976 put Napa Cab firmly on the wine world’s radar.
No wonder new investment flooded into Napa Valley and Cabernet plantings expanded rapidly, both in Napa and California generally. Now the steady rise has accelerated, taking on some boom-time characteristics. The cycle of higher Cab prices, higher vineyard valuations, and increased Cabernet plantings continues.
Cycles and booms are a common characteristic of agricultural and financial markets, both of which I have studied. There are two things I have learned about the booms. First, they are driven by internal logic that seems bullet-proof from inside the cycle. People (like me) who try to call turns often end up looking like Chicken Little fools. So don’t expect me to forecast a Cabernet bust!
The other thing I have learned is that Stein’s Law always applies in the long run. Named for the famous economist Herb Stein, Stein’s Law is says that if something cannot go on forever … it will end. And I think that Cabernet prices cannot go on going up forever (especially with new plantings on the rise) any more than housing prices could defy gravity forever a dozen years ago, no matter how how much rising prices might seem baked in the cake at any particular moment.
That doesn’t mean that the boom must inevitably be followed by a bust — there are many possible adjustment patterns as Kym Anderson’s analysis of Australia’s winegrape cycles shows. In the meantime, Cabernet is crowding out other grape varieties, including those Zinfandel vines that were once the pride of Napa Valley winemakers. That’s where we are going in the next column.
The Boom Varietal image above comes from a 2011 Sky Pinnick documentary of the same name about Malbec, which is sort of the Cabernet Sauvignon of Argentina. I was pleased to be part of the cast for this award-winning film. The film talks about the rise of Malbec in Argentina and the understandable concern that the boom could go bust (Argentina has a history of boom and bust).
Six Things to Do with Surplus Cabernet Sauvignon Grapes
The wine grape harvest is just around the corner in California and Washington State and, while that’s a great time of the year, it will present economic challenges to some winegrowers. There’s going to be an awful lot of Cabernet Sauvignon harvested this year. Most of these grapes are contracted, but some will be looking for buyers and it might not be so easy.
Cabernet has been the top choice for new plantings for the last several years and it is easy to understand why. It is a noble grape and can make terrific wine. Consumers love it, so growers have responded enthusiastically. The problem, as has been noted here before, is that wine demand generally has slackened just as new supply is reaching the market. For a few years at least there is likely to be a surplus of Cabernet Sauvignon in many regions.
In fact, the surplus is already here, or at least that’s how I read the recent reports from Turrentine Brokerage. Turrentine data show the highest level of Cabernet on the bulk market for many years. Add the 2019 harvest to the current market and you have a problem — not for everyone, but for those who are left with unsold grapes or wine.
Econ 101 Meets Yao Ming
What do you do when you have too much Cabernet? Econ 101 suggests price adjustment — cheaper grapes, cheaper wine, and so on. But there are limits to this strategy, especially since the lower price tiers of the retail market are in decline.
Export sales are another Econ 101 solution and certainly there is an opportunity here, especially if President Trump succeeds in talking the dollar’s exchange value down. But the president’s trade wars have had an offsetting impact on wine exports.
Countries that compete with us in the export markets, notably Australia and Chile, have aggressively sought out free trade agreements to boost sales. The U.S. has recently taken the opposite strategy. U.S. wines are therefore a tough sale today in many export markets including especially China, where Australian and Chilean wines find great success.
Yao Ming, the Chinese basketball legend, has trouble selling his signature Napa Cab back home because of 93% tariffs imposed in response to the Trump administration’s policies. If Yao can’t sell Cab in China, there is not much hope for the rest of us. Export markets are unlikely to absorb very much of the surplus Cab. Other options?
Searching for alternatives, I consulted the most recent Nielsen market figures in the current issue of Wine Business Monthly and found a few ideas to consider if you find yourself holding excess Cabernet this year.
#6 Two Words: Red Blends
Red blends are a useful market category because you can blend away unfashionable or surplus grape varieties without consumers necessarily noticing what’s up. Syrah and Merlot are not as popular as they once were as varietal wines, for example, but blend them together, call the result a Red Blend, and consumers snap them up. Cabernet blends would be very competitive at the right price. This market segment is fairly large but, unfortunately according to the Nielsen data, its growth has stalled a bit this year. That means we need to think about …
#5 Three Words: Sweet Red Blends
See “Red Blends” above but add some residual sugar. I don’t have a lot of personal experience with these wines, but I see them everywhere. 19 Crimes, which tastes sweet to me, has a successful varietal Cabernet Sauvignon, so this is not uncharted territory. Even better, why not try …
#4 Rosé of Cabernet
Rosé is the fastest growing market segment in the Nielsen table. A lot of that Rosé comes from France, to be sure, but the market is large and fluid. Picked at the right time, Cabernet makes a nice Rosé and in fact there are a great many produced both here in the U.S. and around the world.
As I noted here earlier this year, there are tricks to the Rosé trade to consider. Rosé is not that easy to make, since color is a concern, and can be tricky to sell because consumers prefer the most recent vintage and demand seasonality is a factor, too. If you like the idea of Rosé of Cabernet, then I think you will also like …
#3 Sparkling Rosé of Cabernet
Take two fast-growing categories — sparkling and Rosé — make the wines from Cabernet and you are ready to go. The only thing that could be better is …
#2 Canned Sparkling Rosé of Cabernet
… because canned wine is also a thing (watch for a report here in the near future) and it is growing fast. Have you seen all the new canned wine displays in the supermarkets? Don’t dismiss canned wine too quickly.
Canned sparkling Rosé of Cabernet leverages three hot trends to use up your excess Cab. It is a perfect storm of wine. What could be better? And while you have the mobile canning equipment hooked up, you might consider …
#1 Canned Sparkling Cabernet + Black Currant Spritz
I am paying more attention to the canned wine displays and one thing I note is that canned wine spritz is generally right beside the other canned wines. These seem generally to be mixtures of wine, fruit flavors, and carbonated water. They sound refreshing and they have less than half the alcohol of regular wine. A Cabernet and Black Currant spritz sounds drinkable to me on a hot day, but you might prefer blackberry or some other fruit flavor.
Since the consumer segment that is interested in low alcohol products is growing, I can see how this trend might persist. Something to consider.
Seems Like a Stretch?
Bottom line. The U.S. industry is going to need to find uses for its excess Cabernet Sauvignon if the potential surplus materializes. These examples are ways to take advantage of the small number of growing wine market segments. If it seems like getting Cab products into these segments is a stretch, then it shows how much more pressure there will be on the traditional product markets.
I hope the market can absorb all the Cabernet that’s coming its way. Fingers crossed.
Are you the sort of person who looks at every new garment to see where it’s made (and of what material) and studies the nutritional information on the back labels of the groceries that you buy? Me, too, although I don’t claim to be consistent in these investigations and I am sure that I miss a lot.
FDA Meets TTB
Many people take an intense interest in the products they buy, especially food and drink since they go into our bodies. Calories per serving, along with sodium, carbohydrates, and protein, are important to many people.
It is interesting – and maybe a problem – that wine and other alcoholic beverages are for the most part exempt from nutritional reporting. Wine labels must tell consumers alcohol by volume and warn them of health dangers, but not display ingredients, calories, or other factors that are required for juices, sodas, milk, and other beverages.
This label from a bottle of Stella Rosa wine is an exception to the current rule — calories, carbs, and so forth are clearly listed. Why? As I understand it the reason is that because Stella’s alcohol is just 5% abv (below a 7% regulatory threshold) it is regulated by the FDA as food (nutritional facts) as well as by the TTB as alcohol (government health warning). (Note that the product is described as “partially fermented grape must!”)
Label of the Future?
I am not sure that anyone buys Stella Rosa because of the nutrition information (it is one of the hottest wine brands today), but maybe the lack of such information is already affecting sales of wines in some market spaces. Consumers purchase a lot of different products and they don’t really need to buy anything that doesn’t take responsibility and own its list of ingredients and nutritional profile.
I believe that wine, beer, and spirits will eventually be required to list their ingredients and nutritional data. I wonder what would happen if wine were to take a voluntary step and be more transparent now as a way to shape the narrative? I know there are some who think transparency would backfire – consumers would turn away if they knew what a bottle of wine really contains or how many calories are in a serving a Chardonnay. But look at Stella’s sales …
White Claw, the ridiculously popular alcoholic seltzer product, has a nutrition label, too, and it is clear that it uses this to its advantage by exactly hitting the critical “100 calories per serving” number.
Limiting Label Clutter
There are several areas where wine could improve its transparency and I’ve been learning how technology can help. QR codes have the potential to lead consumers to sites where they can satisfy their thirst for more information, for example. I think everyone has a QR code reader on their smartphone, although I am not sure how many people use it.
The Treasury Wine brand 19 Crimes has had success with its special augmented reality app that consumers focus on the labels to animate the 19 criminals, so we know that consumers will use apps to get more content about wine in some cases. Perhaps this is a way to be more transparent and accountable without filling the back label with even more boilerplate.
Giving consumers access to useful information doesn’t have to be very intrusive. For example, Italian DOCG wines and South African Integrity & Sustainability Certified wines feature simple codes that allow individual bottles to be traced back to the producer.
Ferret Out the Fakes
Blockchain technology has the potential to improve transparency and accountability in ways that can be important to the wine industry in the long run. People always think of Bitcoin when I mention blockchain, but it is important to understand that Bitcoin is an application of blockchain, not the technology itself.
It is an oversimplification, but I like to compare blockchain to those tracking codes we use for package delivery. Everyone who touches the package scans in information, which is attached to the package record you view on line. You can see where the package is at any particular moment and — hopefully — track it down if there is a mistake. Airlines use this technology now to track checked bags and I am always relieved to know that my suitcase full of wine is safely in the hold of my jet as we take off.
The difference with blockchain is that it isn’t just about location. All sorts of information can be attached to the record, which can be analyzed in many ways.
Thus a simple but very useful application of blockchain is to verify the authenticity and provenance of the sort of fine wines that are sold at auction — and to help ferret out the many fakes. A company called Everledger, for example, developed a system to use blockchain to verify the provenance and authenticity of diamonds and colored gem stones and is applying it to wine as the video above shows.
To Authenticity … and Beyond!
Everledger and others who are working in this space use blockchain and other sophisticated technologies to assure the authenticity of wine and other applications in wine are sure to be found because the blockchain blocks can record many types of information.
In response to the Porto Protocol and other initiatives, for example, many wine companies are working to reduce their environmental impact. Blockchain technology can collect this information all along the wine product chain, potentially allowing interested consumers to quickly assess the climate change impacts of their wine choices.
And that’s just the start. I have argued that wine companies need to own their supply chains when it comes to climate change and sustainability. Many companies focus on their own actions plus those of their grape suppliers. But wine’s product chains are pretty long in this day of efficient bulk wine shipments and Made-in-China glass.
This Changes Everything?
I can imagine a blockchain ledger that tracks useful information all along wine’s complex product chain and programs that would allow consumers and others to analyze and evaluate it. And, of course, wine is just one product where such a system would be welcome.
I’m not saying the blockchain and other technologies will change everything, but I will say this: transparency and accountability are only going to become more important in wine as consumer expectations evolve and wine is held to the same standard as other consumer goods.
We might think wine is special — and it is in many ways — but we shouldn’t assume that it is immune to the forces that are making transparency, accountability, and technology more important every day.
Războaiele Vinului, the Romanian version of my book Wine Wars, has received the prestigious Gourmand award for best wine book translation at a gala ceremony in Macau.
Congratulations to the Romanian team who made this volume possible including especially Cătălin Păduraru, Lucian Marcu, and Radu Rizea. Here is a photo of Cătălin, me, and the world’s largest copy of Războaiele vinului taken in Iasi last fall.
And thanks to Gourmand for this recognition of my Romanian friends’ efforts. I am grateful to Gourmand for previous awards including Best Wine Blog (for The Wine Economist in 2015) and Best Wine Writing (for Money, Taste, and Wine in 2016).
My colleagues Pierre Ly and Cynthia Howson interrupted their research in China to journey to Macau to receive the Gourmand award. Here is a photo of Cynthia on the big Gourmand stage.
Pennsylvania: Sue and I have just returned from a family wedding near Valley Forge, Pennsylvania and we found just enough time to scratch the surface of this surprising wine region. Watch for an upcoming report.
Sardinia: Sue and I are in Porto Cervo, Sardinia this week. I am speaking at the Porto Cervo Wine & Food Festival and we will meet as many winemakers and taste as many wines as we can and report our findings here. This is our first trip to Sardinia and we are excited to learn about the island and its wines.
Collio: We’ll be in Northeast Italy at the end of the month participating in the Enjoy Collio Experience program. I will be part of a roundtable discussion on economic sustainability along with Marco Colognese (The Espresso Guides), Robert Princic (Gradis’ciutta), and Roberto Felluga (Russiz Superiore), moderated by Rosaria Amato (La Repubblica).
What’s further down the road? It looks like British Columbia and Chile this summer. Perhaps our path will cross yours somewhere along the wine road?
The Wine Economist will pause while we are on the road and return very soon. Cheers!
Wouldn’t it be cool if you could travel back in time and tweak events just a little so that the past’s future (our present) would be better? That was the idea behind Steven Speilberg’s hit 1985 film “Back to the Future” and its many sequels.
Scientists are not optimistic that this time-bending strategy would work. They question whether a souped-up DeLorean sports car is the ideal time travel vehicle. And they warn of the dangers of changing history even a little. It’s dangerous to tinker with the past because of potential unintended consequences further down the road.
Tweaking the Judgement of Paris?
As I wrote in last week’s column, the present in Napa Valley is intensely focused on Cabernet Sauvignon, crowding out winegrape varieties like Zinfandel and Petite Sirah that once dominated vineyards here. What if we could go back to 1976 and alter the famous Judgement of Paris so that Napa Cabernet wasn’t the surprise victor of that France vs California taste-off? What would Napa Zinfandel be today if Cabernet Sauvignon didn’t so completely over-shadow it?
Zinandel, once the numero uno wine grape variety in the Napa Valley, now accounts for only about 5 percent of vineyard acreage. Petite Sirah is just half a percent. But some of the wines that are made tell a fascinating “back to the future” story of what could have been.
Sue and I met with two devoted Zinfandel producers, Julie Johnson of Tres Sabores winery in the Rutherford district and Bob Biale of Robert Biale Vineyards in the Oak Knoll district to learn more about Zinfandel’s present and its potential future.
The Curse of Big Zin
Julie Johnson dry farms 40+ year old Zinfandel vines in a foothill vineyard niche that is shaded from the afternoon sun. The wine is aromatic, balanced, medium-bodied, with delicious fruit and spice. Such wines are not easy to grow or make, Johnson told us, and selling them is also a bit of a problem.
Recent Nielsen data reported in the August 2018 issue of Wine Business Monthly shows how far Zinfandel has fallen in terms of retail sales. Zinfandel is the 11th most popular varietal wine on the Nielsen list, wedged between Riesling and Syrah/Shiraz at bottom of the table. White Zinfandel outsells red Zinfandel by a substantial margin. Ouch! That really hurts.
Zinfandel buyers often expect big, ripe, boozy Zin, which is not a style that’s on the Tres Sabores radar. Store shelves are peppered with California appellation Zinfandels that are dark and strong (and sometimes a little sweet, too). They are the market’s idea of Zinfandel.
Wines like this sell in part because they can fit into the popular red blend or dark red category pretty easily. But the Tres Sabores Zin is a horse of a different color and many restaurant wine programs hesitate to take on wines like this, despite their quality, because they differ so dramatically from what they think consumers expect from a Zinfandel wine. The idea of Zinfandel with finesse is fading fast.
All In on Zin?
And so you have to be pretty committed to go all in on Zinfandel as Robert Biale Vineyard has done. Sue and I met with Bob Biale at his beautiful winery and tasting room in the Oak Knoll district. Bob’s father Aldo and the family’s heritage as winegrowers are the inspiration for the business, which makes 15 different Zinfandel wines as well as other varietals including a surprising Greco Bianco we were served directly upon arrival.
Bob is devoted to preserving Napa’s Zinfandel DNA through many efforts, including especially his work with the Historic Vineyard Society, which seeks to identify and preserve producing vineyards that are 50 or more years old. Tegan Passalaqua, who specializes in single vineyard old vine Zinfandel at Turley, is also active in this group.
A few of these historic vineyards provide grapes for Biale’s wines, such as the Valsecchi Vineyards Carneros Zinfandel we tasted. There’s just an acre or so of 100-year old vines, Bob told us, and they produce just 95 cases of wine. But the wine is very special — elegant and balanced like all the Biale wines. Fantastic. Seriously, some of these old vine Zinfandel wines made me think of elegant Pinot Noir. I wonder if these wines would age like a fine Burgundy? Hmmm.
Occasionally Biale is able to persuade a grower to plant a bit of Zinfandel when it is time to renew a vineyard rather than the more certainly profitable Cabernet . Maybe the site just isn’t right for Cab. Or maybe the winegrower has been influenced by Bob’s obvious devotion to the wine and its history. Doesn’t matter — with a little luck these could be the historic vines of the future.
Back to the Future?
I don’t think I can manage the Marty McFly trick and rewrite the past, so the legacy of the Judgement of Paris is safe. Napa is Cabernet Sauvignon territory and the valley has developed around the production and sale of luxury wines. The history of the pioneers and their Zinfandel and Petite Sirah is there, however, hidden in plain sight and ever-threatened by the Cab boom.
Maybe it had to be that way, but it is interesting to imagine an alternative universe where Zinfandel’s heritage is honored and celebrated to a greaert extent. I am glad that there are people like Julie Johnson and Bob Biale who are keeping the old vines and their memories of Napa days long past alive for us to taste today.