Back to the Future of Armenian Wine

The mission of Boston-based Storica Armenian Wines is to introduce U.S. consumers to the pleasures of Armenian wine and they seem to be off to a good start.

Just last week, for example, Wine Bible author Karen MacNeil‘s Instagram #TasteWithKaren webinar featured Vahe Keushguerian, founder of Keush wines, for a tasting of three of his Armenian traditional method sparkling wines. One of them, the Keush Origins, was our Open That Bottle Night 2021 wine. A delightful wine from an unexpected source, made from indigenous grapes that we’d never before experienced. A great introduction to Armenian wine.

Armenia’s Deep Roots

We are only now getting to know Armenian wine a little but, but already I can see that this is a topic full of fascinating puzzles and paradoxes. Wine in Armenia is both very old and very new.  Landlocked Armenia’s latitude is a bit too low, but its high elevation compensates and creates a sort of grape vine Eden. It is impossible to prove, of course, but Armenia just might be the place where Vine Zero was born, the ultimate source of the vitis vinifera grapes that fill most modern wine bottles today. The oldest known evidence of a working winery was found here.

Armenia’s neighbor Georgia shares some of this history and sometimes calls itself “the cradle of wine” (Armenians like to say they are the “birthplace of wine”) and I rather naively assumed that, because we have visited Georgia and tasted many of their wines, that this might give me a head start in understanding Armenia and its wines. But that’s not how it worked out at all.

No Escaping It

Wine is inescapable in Georgia. It is integral to the national identity. Home-production is so important that it has taken a while for commercially produced wine, most of it aimed for export markets in the former Soviet state markets, to attract a critical mass of local consumers.  Georgia is now investing to develop new markets in China, Europe, and North America in order to reduce their dependence on former-Soviet state exports.

Wine grapes are inescapable in Armenia, as near as I can tell from my research, but wine maybe not so much until quite recently. The World Atlas of Wine estimates at more than 80% of wine grape production goes to make brandy, the national drink.

The wine sector is relatively small, according to this source, with about 50 wineries in 2018, 30 of which only appeared in the last ten years, driven in part by investment from members of the vast international Armenian diaspora and technical “flying winemaker” expertise.

Armenia’s wine past is a mixed bag, as I’ll explain below, but its future is simply irresistible according to winemaking superstar Alberto Antonini. He rates his Zorah project in Armenia (along with his Otrona project in Argentine Patagonia) as the most interesting opportunities in today’s wine world.

Stalin Did It

Why was there so little attention to wine in its birthplace? It is complicated, of course, but one line of reasoning traces the situation back to Stalin’s Soviet Union. The Soviet system was all about exploiting the efficiencies of division of labor to generate maximum output with scarce resources. Thus was Georgia (Stalin’s birthplace and source of his favorite wine) selected to supply wine for the Soviet bloc while Armenia was assigned to specialize brandy production despite the fact that good wine was made in both countries.

That Armenian brandy is excellent and has been compared favorably to Cognac might make Stalin’s policy credible, but the impact on Armenia’s wine sector remains. The production and market structures established in the Soviet era have been slow to change, but change they have and the wines that Storica is introducing to the U.S. market is part of the story.

Terroirist’s Territory

Sue and I enjoyed our OTBN selection of Keush Origins sparkling wine, a traditional method blend of indigenous grape varieties: Voskehat, the most-planted white grape, and Khatoun Kharji, a grape variety that is rare even in Armenia. Sourced from 60-100 year old vines planted at 1800 meters above sea level. An extreme wine with character and finesse. It was an impressive start our Armenia research.

Next in line was Zulal Voskehat 2019, a dry white wine with medium body, good balance, and a very interesting finish, which evolved as we enjoyed the wine with pasta primavera. Vineyards planted on volcanic soils at 1400 meters in the Vayots Dzor region near the Azerbaijani border supplied the grapes for this wine.

Zulal, which means “pure” in Armenian, is a project founded in 2017 by Vahe Keushguerian’s daughter, Aimee Keushguerian. The focus is on indigenous grape varieties and own-rooted vines so old that they pre-date the Soviet era. They are, I suppose, a pure expression of Armenia’s wine past but made using modern cellar practices. It is part of a movement to bring wine back to the center of Armenian culture.

Areni, named for its home village in Vayots Dzor where evidence of the world’s oldest known winery facility was discovered, is said to be Armenia’s signature grape variety and, based on our sample bottle of Zulal Areni 2018, it is a sound choice. Grapes from vines at 1400-1750 meters elevation (wow!) were vinified in stainless steel to produce a fresh, medium-bodied red wine that one tasting note placed somewhere between Pinot Noir and Sangiovese, although I think it is something all its own. We enjoyed the spice and plummy flavors, which went especially well with our dinner of chicken and sautéed spinach with peanut sauce. A keeper for sure.

There is a Zulal Areni Reserve, which is aged for a year in used Caucasian and French oak, that we are setting aside to share with our Armenian-American friends Z and G. It will be a great pleasure, when the pandemic clouds have finally passed, to share with them this is wine as well as a Keush Blanc de Blanc traditional method sparkler. I am confident it will be worth the wait.

Armenian wine has a lot to offer and these first tastes are just the beginning. The Keush and Zulal wines are a fascinating introduction to the Armenian wine renaissance.

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WorldWineRegions.com has created a fascinating website with interactive maps of the world’s wine regions. Here is a link to the map of Areni in Vayots Dzor. Zoom in and out to see both the vineyard areas and the overall terrain.

OTBN 2021: Open That Bottle of Armenian Wine

We celebrated Open That Bottle Night (OTBN) 2021 on Saturday with a pandemic-mode Zoom gathering of the usual suspects. We shared stories, honoring the tradition, and felt good about being together even if we could not also share the particular bottles of wine we brought to the party. Next year. Fingers crossed!

Usually the wines we select for OTBN are a backward glance. They remind us of people, places, or events that live in our memories and are released when glasses are poured. This year was different. Sue and I recently received samples of wines from Armenia from Storica Wines, an Armenia wine import company.  We’ve never been to Armenia. Never tasted the wines. OTBN was our excuse to pop the first cork, look ahead not behind, and imagine a future Armenian adventure.

First Taste of Armenian Wine

Wine has a very long history in Armenia just as it does in neighboring Georgia. Armenia calls itself the “birthplace of wine,” while Georgia fancies itself the “cradle of wine.” Georgian wine, as I have written here, is getting lots of attention just now. Perhaps Armenia will be next? That’s a question we will discuss in more depth in a future column. The focus for today is our OTBN discovery.

The particular wine we opened is the Keush Origins Brut traditional method sparkling wine. It is made from native Armenian grape varieties: 60% Voskehat and 40% Khatouni. The grapes come from 60 to 100-year old ungrafted vines grown at over 5000 feet elevation in the Vayots Dzor region. Does that get  your attention. Extreme wine!  Voskehat is Armenia’s most important white grape variety and is used to make many styles of wine. Khatouni seems to be relatively rare, even in Armenia. I couldn’t find a listing in the encyclopedic Wine Grapes volume.

Wine Gets Personal

Wine is about people as much as grapes and that’s true in this case, too. The Keush Origins Brut was one of the Armenian wines highlighted by our friends Dr. Matthew Horkey and Charine Tan in their handy book Uncorking the Caucasus: Wine from Turkey, Armenia, and Georgia,  so it was satisfying to imagine that we were tasting it for the first time with them.

Matt and Charine were impressed with the Keush Origins wine they tasted — it was the first release of this wine. But it is easy to tell that they were also quite taken with its maker, Vahe Keushguerian. who is profiled in the book. Keushguerian, in turn, is obviously taken with Armenia and its wine industry’s potential. They write that

Vahe is committed to reinvigorating Armenia’s wine culture. By using DNA technology to identify grapes found in abandoned monasteries and villages, then cultivating those grapes in his nursery, Vahe and his team have been rediscovering historic wine grapes and bringing them back to life.

We will have more to say about Armenian wine’s past, present, and future in a few weeks when we’ve had time to open the rest of the sample bottles.  In the meantime, what about the Keush Origins OTBN sparkling wine?

Wine’s Superpower

Well, no one comes to the Wine Economist website for wine ratings or tasting notes, but we enjoyed the Keush Origins Brut from Armenia quite a lot. Dry, of course, and mouth-filling. Easy to drink and enjoy and paired very well with cheese, meats, and Sue’s home-made focaccia. Looking forward to opening the other Armenian bottles in our small stash.

Let me close with some reflections on OTBN 2021. Open That Bottle Night 2020 was the last in-person gathering we had before everything closed down last year and distancing and isolation defined social relations. We hesitated a bit about shifting the meet- up online. A Zoom OTBN might honor the tradition, which is important to us, but it wouldn’t be the same. In the end we decided to move ahead and see what would happen.

And I am glad we did. Wine brings people together — that’s one of its superpowers — and it did so again even if we couldn’t actually share the wine, only a screen, some stories, and good company. I was surprised at how much this moved me and am grateful to our friends for making this possible.

Here’s the wine list from OTBN 2021. Thanks to Dottie and John for inventing OTBN and keeping its flame alive. Cheers!

  • Tempus Cellars 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon, Walla Walla
  • DePonte Cellars 2014 Pinot Noir, Oregon
  • Opus One Winery 1989, Napa
  • Chengyu-Moser XV Winery, 2017 Rosé of Cabernet, Ningxia, China
  • Keush Origins Brut, Armenia

Keush Origins Brut is imported by Storica Wines. 

Anatomy of Georgia’s Wine Export Surge

Exports of wines from Georgia (the country — the cradle of wine — not the U.S. state — the cradle of Coca Cola) have surged in recently years, a fact that is both well-deserved and timely. Georgia deserves the increased recognition of its wine sector both because it really is the cradle of wine, with literally thousands of years of history, and because the wine industry and government have invested heavily in recently years to raise standards and promote products in key markets.

Ticking All the Boxes

Georgia wine’s success in 2020 is especially timely because travel and tourism — another important Georgian industry — has been hard hit by the global coronavirus pandemic. Ideally the wine and the tourism industries work together to generate needed income, especially in rural areas. Georgia is sort of running on one cylinder this year, so wine’s boost is especially appreciated.

Sue and I visited Georgia in 2016 and we were impressed by the friendly people. beautiful scenery, striking crafts and culture, delicious food, and excellent wine. We recently re-immersed ourselves in virtual experiences of Georgia through the third annual Ghvino Forum  and a “Georgian Wines 101” trade tasting of six Georgian wines expertly led by Taylor Parsons with special guest winemaker Iago Bitarishvili of the iconic Iago’s Wines.

My particular focus for the Ghvino Forum was a presentation by Tornike Kodrzaia, Head of Research at TBC Capital on the economics of Georgian wine. Wine is important culturally in Georgia (a fact that a recent film Our Blood is Wine makes very clear), but it is also a key element of the economy.

A Complicated Situation

Kodrzaia presented data that showed the Georgian wine sector to be a complex mosaic. A survey of large- to medium-size wineries, for example, revealed high financial returns — about twice the average for Georgian businesses in general, he said. That is incredible. It would be interesting to dive deeper here, to see if the same is true about smaller wineries and if the returns to growers are also positive.

Georgian wine is not a single thing, so it is important to understand its components. Home production was very high during the Soviet era and is still large, especially compared to other countries we have visited. The foundation of Georgia’s high per capita wine consumption is wine made at home or by friends or family, although Kodrzaia noted that commercial wine sales have increased in the domestic market.

Georgian’s prefer white wine — and it is easy to see why if you sample a fine Chinuri, for example. But traditional export markets prefer red wine, so that is a production focus. Russia and the CIS markets demand semi-sweet red wines, which Georgia produces in abundance. Uncertain political relations, however, are behind a movement to diversity export markets and reduce dependence on Russia.

China has emerged as an important market for Georgian wines, but the Chinese prefer dry red wines over the semi-sweet products. Chinese consumers are drawn to the story of Georgian wine — its long history and Silk Road associations– as well as its quality. Many Georgian Wine Houses have opened in Chinese cities to tell the cultural story and promote the wines.

Rising Tide in the U.S. Market

The United States export market is growing quickly from a small base, with above-average prices.  Over 800,000 bottles were exported to the U.S. through October 2020, for example, a substantial increase from 678,000 in 2019 and less than 200,000 in 2014, when the current surge began. The average ex-cellar price of exports to the U.S. was $5.11, according to Georgian statistics, more than double the export price for China and CIS countries. So you can see why the U.S. market is a focus.

Georgian wine is exceptionally diverse, so it will be interesting to see which of its many facets shines brightest in the U.S. market. Natural wine is a growing market niche and many Georgian products can fly that flag proudly. But many of the traditional producers are quite small, so critical mass is an issue. Iago Bitarishvili is an immensely important producer, for example, but only 5000 bottles of his amber Chinuri were made in 2019 according to the data we received.

Georgia is home to literally hundreds of native grape varieties, which creates a kaleidoscope of interesting choices for some consumers and a confusing blur to others. (Sue suggests an initial focus on red Saperavi and perhaps also white Chinuri — excellent wines that buyers will not be afraid to try to pronounce.) Many of the wines are hand-sells, however, which makes Covid closures of restaurants and wine bars in many areas an additional challenge. The six wines that were included in the Georgian Wine 101 tasting were made from these grape varieties: Tsitska-Tsolikouri, Kisi, Chinuri, Tsolikouri-Otskhanuri, Tavkveri, and Saperavi.

But Georgia, Georgians, and Georgian wine have survived these thousands of years because of their determination, commitment, and resilience, so they are unlikely to be defeated by these temporary challenges. We look forward to learning more and Georgia and its wines and to witnessing their continued export growth.

Georgia’s Lost Eden

Just as I was putting the final touches on this column a friend wrote to tell me about a new Georgian wine he sampled over Thanksgiving and really enjoyed. The project is called Lost Eden Red Blend and it ticks many of the boxes needed to break through in the crowded marketplace. It is a blend of 100% Saperavi from several vineyards — I’m guessing the marketing folks thought “red blend” would be more approachable that Saperavi. The wine is made by an 11th-generation (!) winemaker. The packaging is unique, don’t you think? You will remember this wine if you try it and like it.

The wine is “semi-dry” with 15.4 g/l residual sugar and 13% alcohol. 4500 cases made. Suggested retail $18.99. It is a type of wine we tasted and enjoyed in Georgia and that is popular here in the U.S. where many consumers talk dry and drink sweeter. The wine is modern in style, according to on-line documents, but pays its respects to tradition by blending in a portion of wine made in the traditional qvevri method of clay vessels buried in the ground.

Some of my friends will be disappointed that a wine like Lost Eden gets attention. They would like Georgia to be known in the U.S. exclusively for its traditional qvervi wines. But Georgia is a small country that punches above its weight in the wine world by leveraging all of its many advantages, including some high quality sweeter red wines.

We haven’t tasted the wine, but we have sampled the story told on the website, which draws on the people and country, their culture and history, and of course the food, too, including the iconic supra feast. Georgian wine is complicated, as noted above. This is only one side of Georgian wine, but one that seems likely to spark greater interest in the wine and the country in general.

Georgian wine is on the move. Let’s see where it goes next!

Book Review: Wine & the White House

Wine and the White House: A History by Frederick J. Ryan, Jr. (White House Historical Association).

wh2President Trump doesn’t drink beverage alcohol and neither does Vice President Pence, and yet wine is a constant at White House state dinners and similar events.  What’s served is nice wine, too, according to records found in this rather fascinating new book.

A state dinner for French President Macron on April 24, 2018, for example, included Domaine Serene Chardonnay (Oregon), Domaine Drouhin Pinot Noir (Oregon), and Schramsberg Cremant Demi-Sec sparkling wine (California).

Apart from the Prohibition years (when, if there was wine in the White House, it wasn’t served in public settings), wine has always been a White House staple and having your wine served at a state dinner has been the ultimate celebrity endorsement.

Wine and the White House is a big book (more than 400 pages), beautifully produced, generously illustrated, and full of information. It is not a book to read from cover to cover, but rather something to dip into and enjoy. There are wine-driven profiles of each president in one section, an examination of the White House collection of wine glasses, decanters, and other wine paraphernalia,  and even surveys of the different wine regions (and some of the producers) that have featured at White House events.

The author, Frederick J. Ryan, Jr., is Chairman of the Board of the White House Historical Association, a perch that gives him access to important source material. He was Assistant to the President under President Reagan, the founding CEO for Politico, and is currently the Publisher and CEO of the Washington Post. 

This book was created with a diverse audience in mind. There are sections on wine basics, for example, for history buffs who might not know a lot about wine. And there are other sections to guide wine people who might not have brushed up on their American history in a while. And, of course, there is a lot of material that both wine people and history people will find new and interesting. You can pretty much open any page at random and find something you are happy to look at or read.

The chapters that I like best focus on the wines that presidents served to their guests at state dinners and similar events.  There are menus going back to 1877, for example, with relatively complete data (including reproductions of the actual menus) starting with the Eisenhower White House years. I’m interested in these documents because they give a sense of how Americans and their leaders thought about wine in the postwar years and how those attitudes evolved.

f4758b03499942eadac83252f0119173Fine wine meant European wine in the 1950s. Eisenhower’s guests were only very occasionally served anything else. A typical Eisenhower state dinner started with Dry Sack Sherry, Spain, and then moved on to  Chateau Climens Barsac, France, and what is listed as Beaune Greves Burgundy, France. Pol Roger Champagne, France, brought the evening to a close. There were variations, of course, for particular guests. German Rieslings for Chancellor Adenauer and Lafite for Winston Churchill.

The Kennedy years saw the the range of wines broaden (more Rieslings and Soave, for example), but generally within a classic old world frame. Noteworthy: increasing presence of American wine (especially Almaden and Inglenook) and I noted Lancer’s Rosé from Portugal served at a luncheon for the Danish Prime Minister. Inglenook “Pinot Chardonnay” appears several times, a reminder that Chardonnay was still little planted in California in the 1960s and often went by this now-forgotten name on bottle labels.

LBJ’s White House dinners embraced American wine wholeheartedly, a trend that has continued. It is as unusual today for an international wine to be served as it was 70 years ago to see a domestic bottle on the table. The White House wine people were ahead of consumers more generally, especially early on, in their willingness to serve American wines to important guests.

It is also interesting to note that the range of American wines, once the trend got started, rather quickly moved beyond California (although that state’s wines still dominated). White House wine selections make a statement and it seems that this is intentional at least some of the time. Can you guess which president first served Texas wine or Michigan wine? Washington and Oregon have joined California as White House regulars.

Wine and the White House is a book that it would be fun to give or to receive.  Pour a glass of fine Madeira (a wine that Jefferson bought by the pipe according to a reproduction of his inventory sheet) and enter this unique world. Wine and history pair very well indeed.

Book Review: The Wines of South Africa

gi_157779_newsimage_vcsprasset_1603936_157779_a1e0438a-e7e6-4421-b354-a406a5fa9579_0Jim Clarke, The Wines of South Africa (The Classic Wine Library) Infinite Ideas, 2020.

Conventional wisdom holds that books with titles that begin “The Wines of …” are organized around what I call the “Three Ps” of wine: the people and their history, the places (geography, climate, terroir), and the plants (most important grape varieties). Good wine books provide interesting and informative accounts of each “P,” but the best ones find a way to rise above orthodoxy to give readers a taste of what really makes a particular region special.

Jim Clarke’s book on South Africa’s wine industry does just that and it is why I recommend it to you. Clarke is U.S. marketing manager for Wines of South Africa and that puts him in an excellent position to analyze South Africa’s wine sector. It is an important book and I encourage anyone interested in South Africa or global wine to read it, but it is not (and does not try to be) definitive for two reasons. First, Clarke wisely chooses to highlight selected wineries in each region rather than trying to cover them all. Balance is key — breadth can be the enemy of depth in this as in so many things. So you will want to have a recent edition of the Platter’s Guide for maps and comprehensive coverage of working wine cellars.

The pace of change is the second limitation. History is moving at warp speed these days — have you noticed? — and it is impossible for books to keep up, even if like this one they are hot off the presses.  Clarke tells the people story though his account of the twists and turns of South Africa’s wine history, which is necessarily intertwined with the country’s history more generally. One inevitable theme here is the importance of turning points — people and events that caused conditions to suddenly change, with effects that sometimes take years to fully unfold.

Balancing Act

2020 looks to be a year of turning points for South African wine. South Africa’s wine sector has for some time been balancing uncomfortably on an economic knife’s edge.
Some producers who go for high yields are able to coax out profits in most years despite low prices in bulk wine markets. Those who restrict yields and aim for higher quality achieve it — the best of the wines are simply spectacular — but often fail to earn prices high enough to produce profits. For at least part of South African wine, quantity pays better than quality. And many wine growers in both camps fail to earn sustainable returns.

Clarks explains this situation very well and the reader can sense his optimism going into 2020. Maybe this is a turning point moment when the country’s wines will finally achieve the widespread recognition (and higher prices) they need and deserve. I am optimistic about this, too.

But 2020 has turned out not to be that kind of turning point year. Instead it has been a year of disasters — the coronavirus pandemic, the global recession, and South Africa’s harsh national policies that have twice shut down domestic wine sales and once stopped export shipments, too. Wineries on the economic margins, many still recovering from severe drought, have been hard hit. A shake-out seems  likely and some wineries that went into 2020’s recession in weak condition will have trouble coming out the other side.

Follow the Money

The problem remains profitability more than wine quality and the collapse of global tourism flows adds one more woe to the pile. South Africa is a wine tourist dream, as Clarke suggests in a brief chapter on this topic, but it will take some time for wine tourists to return to the Cape Winelands in large numbers.

Who is going to lead South Africa’s wine sector out of the perfect storm it is caught in? As Clarke’s analysis makes clear, there is no shortage of institutions and organizations that aim to lead the industry in one way or another. A lot of people  — including a new group called Save SA Wine — are working very hard to limit the current damage and build a stronger foundation for the future.

I am not an insider, so probably I am wrong, but from my outside perspective I’ve always thought that the key must be Distell, the country’s largest private wine producer. Cooperatives, which are enormously important producers in volume terms, are unlikely to be able to lead the charge to boost prices in export markets, but Distell’s interests and those of the high quality wine sector in general are more closely aligned.

If Distell with its great scale and scope doesn’t do it, I don’t know who can or will. But I keep waiting for Distell to execute a sustained and ambitious strategy and make its big move. So far I’ve been disappointed.

Time Has Come Today

Time moves quickly in a crisis. The unfortunate facts of 2020 do not diminish this book’s relevance. In fact it is even more important now for us to understand South Africa wine’s underlying strengths amid significant challenges. And it is important to understand the stories of people and history that Clarke tells so well. South Africa has experienced turning points before and moved through them, drawing upon deep wells of strength and resilience.

Clarke captures South African wine’s bright promise, which we hope will shine through the current storm clouds. Excellent book. Very readable. Highly recommended.

Allegro con Brio: Celebrating 20 Vintages of Eroica Riesling

eroica

“Eroica” is the name given to Beethoven’s third symphony. It is a wonderful work, both elegant and powerful. And it was written to make a statement. First performed in the year 1804, it was meant to rally listeners to oppose the forces of tyranny.

“Eroica” is also the name given to Riesling wines made by a partnership between Dr. Loosen of Germany and Chateau Ste. Michelle of Washington State. “Eroica” is celebrating its 20th vintage this year, which is a good moment to think about how it began, how it developed, and what it means.

A False Start

The idea of a German-Washington Riesling nexus goes back a few years As I wrote in a 2010 Wine Economist column titled “Rielsing’s Rising Tide,” German wine producers played an important role in Washington wine’s modern development.

The Langguth family has been making wine in the Mosel for over 200 years. F.W. Langguth … became interested in international expansion in the early 1980s …  The success of Washington Rieslings from Chateau Ste Michelle and other producers caught Langguth’s attention and soon plans were under way for a major investment.

Langguth and local partners developed Weinbau Vineyard (now part of Sagemoor Farms) on the Wahluke Slope and built a $5 million 35,000 square foot state of the art winery in Mattawa. The winery was the second largest in the state at the time, behind only Chateau Ste Michelle’s big Woodinville facility.

The project lasted only a few years, alas, for reasons that I discuss in the 2010 column. But the winery and vineyards survived and helped accelerate the development of the Washington wine industry. Chateau Ste. Michelle, already an important Riesling producer in the 1980s, is now the largest maker of Riesling wines in the world. And Eroica is the flagship.

The James Brown of Wine

Winemaker Bob Bertheau tells the story that, on only his second day working at Chateau Ste Michelle, he found himself walking vineyards with Ernest Loosen of the famous Mosel winery Dr Loosen. Loosen was looking for a New World partner to help build global momentum for Riesling wines. I think of Loosen as the “James Brown of Wine.”  James Brown is famously “the hardest working man in show business” and Ernst Loosen works just as hard to make the world appreciate Riesling wine.

The partnership between the two companies is embodied in the friendship that developed between the two winemakers, which is easy to see and appreciate when the Riesling world gathers in Seattle every few years for Riesling Rendezvous.

Desert Island Wine

Many people are surprised when I tell them that Riesling is my desert island wine. If had to choose just one kind of wine to drink on a hypothetical remote island, it would be Riesling. Why? Because of its noble quality, of course, but more than that because of the great diversity of styles and expressions that Riesling offers. (People who dismiss it as simply sweet apparently don’t know what they are missing).  To paraphrase Dr. Johnson, a person who is bored with Riesling is bored with life.

It is appropriate, therefore, that Eroica is not just one wine but several.  In the beginning there was Eroica, an off-dry Riesling that raised the bar for Washington Riesling in terms of quality and also price. No one hereabouts was accustomed to paying more than $20 for a bottle of Washington Riesling. The fact that the wine is still around — and still commands a premium price — speaks to its ability to change perceptions.

There was a sweet wine, too. If you’ve ever had a TBA Riesling, you will understand why this was necessary.  Eroica Single Berry Select Riesling raised the bar again.  And eventually Eroica Gold appeared, made in the style of a German Gold Capsule Auslese Riesling. Richer, balanced, with a hint of Noble Rot. Delicious.

Eroica at 20 Vintages

Chateau Ste Michelle invited us to celebrate Eroica’s 20 vintages with them and sent us four Eroica wines that, along with Eroica Gold, make up the current line up. Tasting through the wines was a fascinating experience. The ice wine (Chateau Ste. Michelle & Dr. Loosen 2016 Eroica Riesling Ice Wine 266 cases, $60 SRP) was a thing apart, of course. A delicious example of a sweet wine with texture, aroma, layers of flavor, and balance. Residual sugar is 33% but of course this is beautifully balanced by lively acidity. Grapes harvested at 47 brix. Memorable experience in the same way as a fine Sauterne. I smile just thinking about it.

The other three wines are variations on the classic Eroica theme. We compared the current release (Chateau Ste. Michelle & Dr. Loosen 2018 Eroica Riesling  10,000 cases, $20 SRP) with an Eroica with some bottle age (Chateau Ste. Michelle & Dr. Loosen 2011 Eroica Riesling   60 cases, $35 SRP — Aged Eroica re-release program). Riesling can develop in wonderful ways and even a few years can make a difference. Sue preferred the freshness of the 2018, but I liked the development of the 2011. Both were delicious. Seriously, you should buy some Riesling to put down for a few years if you haven’t done this before.

The final wine (Chateau Ste. Michelle & Dr. Loosen 2016 Eroica XLC Dry Riesling 515 cases, $45 SRP) was fermented in wooden vats, aged on the lees for a year, and fermented dry. It is an idea that Loosen got from a wine his grandfather made years ago. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but was pleased with the elegance and balance. The special treatment added nuance, but didn’t distort the fundamental Eroica characteristics. Interesting. I don’t consider Eroica a sweet wine at all, but this drier version will surprise many Riesling deniers.

The main Eroica release is widely distributed, but the Ice Wine, XLC, and Gold can be harder to find. Here is a link to the CSM Eroica store.

Beethoven’s Eroica is a masterpiece that has been a source of inspiration for more than two centuries. Eroica Riesling was meant to inspire, too, and after 20 vintages we can taste the delicious result. Allegro con brio?  Yes, indeed.

Thanks to Chateau Ste Michelle and Dr Loosen and congratulations to Ernst, Bob, David, Lynda, and everyone else who’s been in the mix for 20 vintages of Eroica Riesling.

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If you haven’t listened to Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony recently, this performance is for you. The first movement is marked “allegro con brio,” of course!

 

Holiday Flashback: How the U.S. and Canada Almost Destroyed Wine

patriotic_pourThese are tough times for many people in the wine industry, especially those who depend on bar and restaurant sales for much of their income. The restrictions necessary to address the coronavirus pandemic have had many unintended consequences.

The wine industry has been shut down before and took decades to recover. But the story isn’t exactly what you might expect. This special holiday week flashback column takes us back to 2015 to tell the story of how, in very different ways, the U.S. and Canadian governments almost destroyed their respective wine industries.

The U.S. government is considering imposing 100% tariffs on some wine imports from Europe, an act that would hurt both European producers and many in the U.S. wine trade, too. The unintended consequences of acts like this are serious business.

Have a happy and safe 4th of July holiday.

Unintended Consequences: How the U.S. & Canada Almost Destroyed Wine

March 17, 2015

At one point in Kym Anderson’s new book about the Australian wine industry he reflects on what can be done to shorten that country’s current wine slump and to get things sailing again on an even keel. One of his suggestions caught my eye:

“Governments need to keep out of grape and wine markets and confine their activities to generating public goods and overcoming market failures such as the free rider problem of collecting levies for generic promotion and R&D.”

This is more than the simple Adam Smith “laissez-faire” idea. Anderson’s book clearly demonstrates the law of unintended consequences — how well-meaning government policies sometimes have had unexpectedly negative side-effects. No wonder he recommends a cautious approach to wine and grape policy.

I was reminded of this when I was researching the history of the Canadian wine industry for a recent speaking engagement in Ontario. I was struck by Canada’s experience with Prohibition in the 20th century, how it differed from the U.S. experiment, and how both ended up crippling their wine industries but in very different ways. Here’s what I learned.

How U.S. Prohibition Crippled the Wine Industry

The great experiment in Prohibition in the United States started in 1920 and lasted until 1933. The 18th Amendment outlawed the manufacture, sale or transport of intoxicating beverages, including wine. Most people assume that the wine industry collapsed as legal wine sales and consumption fell and this is partly true but not the complete story. Commercial wine production almost disappeared, but wine consumption actually boomed.

How is this possible? There were three loopholes in the wine regulations outlined in the Volstead Act. Wine could still be produced and sold for medical purposes (prescription wine?) and also for use in religious services (sacramental wine). This kept a few wineries in business but does not account for the consumption boom, which is due to the third loophole: households were allowed to make up to 200 gallons of wine per year for “non-intoxicating” family consumption.

Demand for wine grapes exploded as home winemaking increased (but not always for strictly non-intoxicating purposes). Total U.S. vineyard area just about doubled between 1919 and 1926! But the new plantings were not delicate varieties that commercial producers might have chosen but rather grapes chosen for their high yields,  strong markets.

Thus did Prohibition increase wine consumption in the U.S. but it also corrupted the product by turning over wine-making from trained professionals to enthusiastic  amateurs working in often unsanitary conditions. The home-produced wine sometimes had little in common with pre-Prohibition commercial products except its alcoholic content.

Americans drank more wine during Prohibition, but it was an inferior product. No wonder they dropped wine like a hot stone when Prohibition ended. That’s when the real wine bust occurred and it took decades to fully recover. Do you see the unintended consequence in this story? But wait, there’s more …

How Canadian Prohibition Crippled Its Wine Industry

Prohibition started earlier (1916) and ended earlier (1927) in Canada and took a different fundamental form. With support from temperance groups, consumption of beer and spirits (Canada’s first choice alcoholic drinks) was banned as part of war policy with the stated intent of preserving grain supplies for vital military uses. Consumption was forbidden, but production of beer and spirits was still allowed for export, which accounts for the boom in bootleg Canadian whiskey in the U.S. in the 1920s.

Neither production nor consumption of wine was included in Canada’s ban on alcohol, although wine sales were limited to the cellar door. What made wine different? Maybe grapes were not as vital to the war effort as grains, although John Schreiner cites the political influence of the United Farmer’s Party in his account of this period in The Wines of Canada. Wine became the legal alcoholic beverage of choice for Canadian consumers and production boomed. By the end of Canadian Prohibition there were 57 licensed wineries in Ontario (up from just 12) to serve the big Toronto market.

Wine sales increased 100-fold, according to Schreiner, but “It would be charitable to describe the quality of the wines being made in Ontario during this period as variable,” he writes. The market wanted alcohol and set a low standard of quality, which many producers pragmatically stooped to satisfy. No wonder wine production collapsed at the end of Prohibition as consumers went back to spirits and beer.

Unintended Consequences

Thus did government policy in both Canada and the United States create wine booms during their respective Prohibition eras, but the worst kind of booms: bad wine booms. Quality suffered as quantity surged. It is no surprise that consumers turned away from wine once other beverages were available. It took decades for these industries to recover.

Both the Canadian and U.S. wine industries are vibrant and growing today, having recovered from the crippling effects of poor quality wine. But they both are still hampered by other policies — especially regarding distribution and sales — that date back to the end of Prohibition. Economic policies can obviously have unintended effects and the shadows they cast can be long indeed.

No wonder Kym Anderson is skeptical about government interference in the Australian industry. Prohibition is an extreme case, to be sure, but such cases clearly show the unintended consequence potential that exists even with other seemingly harmless proposals. A cautious approach makes sense.

Wine Book Review: Laura Catena’s Gold in the Vineyards

catenaLaura Catena, Gold in the Vineyards: Illustrated Stories of the World’s Most Celebrated Vineyards (Catapulta Editores). Illustrated by Fernando Adorneti (Caveman).

Nicholas Catena had to make a choice. His chosen career as an economics professor? Or the family wine business,  Bodega Catena Zapata, which was threatened, along with the rest of Argentina’s wine sector, by shifting and unstable economic currents?

Prof. Catena met Robert Mondavi during a spell as a visiting professor at UC Berkeley and then made his choice. He gave up the academic life and went back to Argentina inspired by Mondavi’s determination to make New World wines as good as the best the Old World could offer.

I suppose that Prof. Catena’s daughter Laura must have faced a career choice, too, at some point. Pursue a career as a medical doctor in the United States, where she studied at Harvard and Stanford and raised a family? Or return to Argentina to advance her family’s vision of wine excellence and help guide the business through more turbulent times? Tough choice. Impossible to do both. But both is what she does. Amazing.

She is an author, too, and a good one.  Sue and I enjoyed her 2010 book Vino Argentino and took it with us on our first trip to Mendoza. We learned a lot about the development of the Argentina wine industry from this book and it helped us meet people, too, when Sue would ask winemakers to autograph the sections of the book where they appeared. Big smiles! There are even a few recipes — Dr. Catena’s chimichurri  often features (along with Mendoza Malbec) on steak night.

616jvwlqdml._ss500_Dr. Catena’s new book, Gold in the Vineyards, is very different from Vino Argentino. At first glance you wonder if it is for adults or children? The answer (typical, I suppose, for Laura Catena) is probably both. The reason this question comes up is that the book is lavishly illustrated with colorful drawings and cartoons that make it look a bit like a children’s book. And Dr. Catena tells us that she was actually inspired by the illustrated books she loved as a child.

I think this book might be a good way to introduce young people to the world of wine, but adults are the main audience and they will find plenty to enjoy (and learn) here. Each of the 12 chapters tells the story of a famous wine producer, starting with Chateau Lafite Rothschild and Tuscany’s Antinori and ending with Catena Zapata, with stops along the way that include California (Harlan Estate) and Australia (Henschke’s Hill of Grace) along with other global icons.

Each chapter tells a story in words and pictures and includes interesting infographics, too.  What do the chapters have in common? What is the moral of the story (books, especially children’s books, need to convey a message)?

Looking back through the chapters I find three threads that run through the text. The first is the power of place. Dr. Catena is a terroirist, as you will know especially from her discussion of Catena Zapata’s Adrianna Vineyard. The second thread is the power of family, because the wineries that appear here all drew strength from their family bonds.

The final thread is the power of women in wine — Dr. Catena dedicates the book to the women in her family from her great-grandmother Nicasia to her daughter Nicola. Although women do not feature prominently in the first chapter on Lafite, they are inescapable throughout the remainder of the book. Women have often struggled to gain authority and recognition in the wine industry, so this empowering message is welcome and important.

Gold in the Vineyards entertains, informs, encourages and inspires. Highly recommended for young and old alike.

Wine Book Reviews: Vino, Économie, Le Guerre & Leonardo’s Vines

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Four wine books with intertnational twists for your reading consideration.

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Alessandro Torcoli, In Vino Veritas: Praticamente tutto quello che serve sapere (davvero) sul vino. Longanesi.

Billy Joel tells us that wine is a simple thing. A bottle of white? A bottle of red? Perhaps a bottle of Rosè instead? Alessandro Torcoli wants us to know that wine is actually complicated, but not so complex that we can’t enjoy it. And that’s a good thing.

Torcoli is editor of Civiltà del Bere, a leading Italian journal of wine and culture, and an aspiring Master of Wine (there are no Italians on the current list of MWs — incredible!).

I am not fluent in Italian (or French, either — see below), but wine is a universal language and that plus some extra effort allowed me to read and enjoy Torcoli’s new book, In Vino Veritas. My efforts were well rewarded.

In Vino Veritas, as the subtitle promises, provides the reader with “pretty much everything you need to know (really) about wine,” which is to say that it is a survey of the most important topics in wine. I might be wrong, but I imagine that the book came out of Torcoli’s MW studies and represents his thoughtful reflections on the world of wine. Two things especially impressed me about this book.
First, the writing style is so fluid that it is a pleasure to read even, as I noted above, when struggling a bit with translation. Some of this is no doubt because it is written in Italian, which is a beautiful language. But it is possible to write poorly in Italian, too, so most of the credit must go to Torcoli, who is a poet as well as wine expert.

Although Torcoli’s book has global reach, analyzing both old and new world wines, it is written for an Italian audience and so uses Italy and its wines as the reference point. I didn’t realize how important the shift in perspective (from France in many cases) would be and how much it would help me understand and appreciate both Italian wines and those from other places.

This is an enticing book with much to offer both novice and professional. Highly recommended.

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Jean-Marie Cardebat, Économie du vin. La Decouverte.

Jean-Marie Cardebat is a wine economist who teaches at the University of Bordeaux. Although my French is only a little better than my Italian, I found this book accessible because it draws on both the language of wine and the lexicon of economics.

Prof. Cardebat’s book is an introduction to the economic analysis of the wine industry and successfully straddles a certain kind of line, telling economists about wine and wine people about economics without leaving either group behind.

Because of this the book’s organization is very different from that of a standard wine guide. Forget about the typical arrangement based on grape varieties and wine regions. We start instead with the determinants of the supply of wine and move to demand, the market structure, and price, drawing on relevant data and published research along the way.

The tone becomes much more analytical in the final chapter, perhaps because this is where Cardebat’s own research is most relevant. Well written and clear with many fine passages (although understandably not as poetic as Torcoli’s essays). A worthy addition to your bookshelf. You might also consider James Thornton’s American Wine Economics, for an American perspective on the topic.

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>>><<<Attilio Scienza & Serena Imazio, Sangiovese, Lambrusco, and Other Vine Stories. Positive Press.

The third book on this list is provided in English translation of the original Italian, which is helpful since its topic can be dauntingly technical.

I have had the pleasure to be on programs with Prof. Scienza in both the New York and Italy and to appreciate that he is quite a legendary figure in viticulture research. It is easy to see why.

This book analyzes the origins of and the relations between many of the most important indigenous Italian grape varieties using DNA analysis. An important topic, to be sure, but it can be quite technical and somewhat tedious for the novice like me.

So it is significant that Scienza and Imazio interweave the stories of the vines with human stories, drawing upon history and archaeology to help understand how the vines and the wines developed and how they gave us the wines and grapes of today.

One of my favorite chapters explores the family tree of Moscato and Malvasia. Along the way we are introduced to Zibibbo, which the authors compare to a sailor who has a son in every port because this somewhat obscure grape was instrumental in the evolution of so many other wine grape varieties.

We also learn about Leonardo Da Vinci’s personal vineyard in Milan, which still exists and has been somewhat miraculously reconstructed. How do they know what grapes were grown then and are therefore planted again now? Elementary, dear reader. DNA analysis — plus some human detective work that would make Sherlock Holmes proud. We can say with confidence that Leonardo favored sweet wine. Sweet wine? Perhaps that is part of the secret of the Mona Lisa’s mystical smile.

Hard to resist a book with so many fascinating insights.

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Christophe Lucand, Hitler’s Vineyards:How the French Winemakers Collaborated with the Nazis. Pen & Sword History, 2019.

Originally published in French as Le vin et le guerre (Wine and War), the English translation’s title really grabs your attention. Hitler’s Vineyards? Hard not to pull it down from the shelf to learn more.

This isn’t the first book I’ve seen about wine and World War II. One of my favorite wine books of all time is Wine and War: The French, the Nazis, and the Battle for France’s Greatest Treasure by Donald and Petie Kladstrup. It tells the story of how French producers walked a delicate line, trying to preserve their wines and vines during the Nazi occupation. The Kladstrups are wonderful story-tellers, so this is a book that is hard to put down.

Lucand’s detailed historical analysis of wine during the Nazi Occupation of France is fascinating, too. Nazi forces purchased truly enormous quantities of French wine from all regions and of all qualities at prices well above the market and shipped it all back to Germany. The money to buy the wine came from the exorbinate fees that Germany charged the French government for the costs of occupation. So French money bought French wine for German drinkers.

Although I am sure the wine producers had mixed emotions about these transaction, the fact is that the high-priced sales were welcome since large stocks had built up in the pre-war years. And, Lucand tells us, the occupiers worked to improve vineyard operations in order to keep the wine flows going.

When the clouds of war finally cleared, Lucand explains, the French wine industry was transformed from an inward-looking business to an export-oriented giant. Fascinating. Detailed, well-written, and controversial, Lucand’s history of France and its wine during the Nazi Occupation is an unexpected treat.

Second Thoughts about the Wine Wizards of Oz

The Wizards of Oz” (see below) appeared on The Wine Economist a dozen years ago in  February 2008. It looked to Australia for insights about what might be ahead for the wine industry. I’d forgotten all about this old column until it started getting  “hits” recently, which caused to me give in another look.

The basic idea was that what’s happening in the global wine market sometimes happens in Australia first or most clearly. I think this might have been one inspiration for my book Extreme Wine, which argues that the best place to see the future of wine is at the edges, where change is happening fast, not in the more stable center.

Re-reading this column makes me think how quickly things change (Fosters?) and how much some things persist. Do you think the argument stands the test of time? I am not sure how far I would push it now and maybe I pushed it too far then, too, but the climate change and ecological limits analysis still seems timely.

Let me know what you think in the comments section below (or tell me in person if you are attending the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium in Sacramento). Here’s the 2008 column as it appeared then.

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The Wizards of Oz (February 19, 2008)

20_australian_wine_industry_segments.jpgWhen I think about the future of the global wine market, my thoughts frequently stray to Australia because that’s where I see so many current trends originating or being most effectively exploited.

Export driven marketing strategy? That’s Australia. Branded varietal wines? Everyone talks about Gallo and Constellation brands, but who has done it better than [Yellow Tail]? Foreign market penetration?  The Aussies again, replacing the French as the strongest competitor in the British market and a strong presence in the United States.

Australia even wins the prize for the most sophisticated national wine strategy. Click on the image above to see a representation of the latest Australia wine strategy, which divides the market into twenty (20!) key segments where Aussie wines can compete.

Australia’s Boom and Bust

No doubt about it, if you want to learn about wine economics and integrated wine business, you should look to Australia. But that doesn’t mean that all is well down under. As I have written in previous posts, Australia has experienced a roller-coaster of wine market problems. First it was the problem of over-supply, which pushed prices down to unsustainable levels. And then, just when it seemed like things couldn’t get worse, they did and the early signs of wine shortages began to appear, which caused me to declare that the era of cheap wine was coming to an end. In each of these cases, trends that I see in many places now were first apparent in Oz. No wonder that I’m starting to view Australia as my leading indicator of global wine market trends.

This makes the news in Jancis Robinson’s column in Saturday’s Financial Times particularly sobering (not a good word for wine lovers). Robinson’s article suggests that Australia has hit ecological limits to the production of cheap wine. Water is scarce and expensive and this means that the cost (and therefore price) of bulk wines like [Yellow Tail] must rise — from A$0.40 in 2006 to A$1 in 2007 according to the article. That’s not quite a leap from unsustainable to unaffordable (the A$ is about 91 US cents today), but it presents a completely different business model. More to the point, however, the price rises exist because costs are high and the product is in short supply. Robinson is optimistic that Australian winemakers can compete and even thrive in the new market environment, but adjustment won’t be easy.

Robinson reports that Fosters has started sourcing some of its Lindeman’s brand from its vineyards in Chile (for the British market) and South Africa (in the U.S.). This continues the practice we have seen in the U.S. for some time for short-supply Pinot Noir. U.S. brands like Pepperwood Grove and Redwood Creek frequently contain Chilean and French wines respectively. Now, Robinson reports

There is much talk, though not much evidence, of basic bulk wine being imported into Australia from southern Europe, South Africa and South America to fill the so-called “casks” (boxed wine) and the cheapest bottles and flagons for the bottom end of the domestic market, prioritising export markets for such inexpensive Australian wine as the brand owners can afford. Australia has swung from famine to feast and back to famine in terms of its wine supply recently and bulk wine imports are nothing new. I remember encountering a director of one of Australia’s largest wine companies looking very shifty round the back of some fermentation vats at Concha y Toro outside Santiago de Chile in the mid-1990s.

Ecological Limits?

Now the problem here is not that the Australians are passing off foreign wines as their own. The wines I have seen have been clearly labeled and the few cases I know about where winemakers have tried to fool the public (some years ago in New Zealand, as I recall) ended badly for the dishonest producers. They were punished pretty severely in the marketplace when their tricks were revealed.

No, my concern goes more to the heart of the problem. Maybe Australia’s ecological constraints are a short term problem that will disappear. Maybe it is an Australian problem with no implications beyond the land of Oz. Maybe ready supply from Australia wannabe producers in South America, South Africa and Europe will always be there to fill the gap.

But that’s a lot of maybes and economists are trained to get nervous when it’s maybe this and maybe that. We know that the effect of climate change on the wine industry is real. And we know — or at least I think I know — that Australia has often been a good indicator of emerging trends in global wine. If this is the case, then we are indeed about to enter a new wine world, one where the natural constraints on wine production may be about to become as important as marketing strategies.