Life Among the Vinos: Making Sense of Wine’s Rival Tribes

snowThe idea that society’s big open melting pots have been replaced to a certain extent by narrow, closed tribal silos is no longer novel, but it is very important. Are we becoming a culture of isolated tribes with fundamentally different beliefs and norms? If so, wine must have its tribes, too.

Snow’s Two Cultures

C.P. Snow’s observation that the intellectual world had  divided into two tribes was shocking in 1959. His essay on “The Two Cultures” (pdf here) argued that science and humanities were increasingly alienated, speaking different languages, thinking in isolation.

Each tribe could exist on its own, I guess, but what about society? How could an increasingly technological society survive if science is not tempered and informed by values and a deeper understanding of the humanity it is meant to serve?  How can the humanities be relevant without an understanding and appreciation of science and technology? These were relevant questions and they are even more relevant today as artificial intelligence advances.

“Between the two a gulf of mutual incomprehension—sometimes (particularly among the young) hostility and dislike, but most of all lack of understanding,” he wrote. “They have a curious distorted image of each other. Their attitudes are so different that, even on the level of emotion, they can’t find much common ground.”

Mutual incomprehension — that sounds familiar. Today, of course, the incomprehension is compounded by digital technologies that permit and even encourage us to only interact with “friends” within our own tribe and to read only news that reinforces our tribal dogma. We hear what we want to hear and see what we want to see.

Life Among the Econ

Axel Leijonhufvud’s 1973 essay on “Life Among the Econ” presented a serious critique of the economics profession and its tribes, the Micros and the Macros, in a satirical form. What if alien anthropologists stumbled into a university economics department, he asked? What would they see? What would they think?

The answer is not so much different from Snow’s two cultures and my idea of tribes, but Leijonhufvud focused on their beliefs or religions. The Micros idolize the supply-demand market cross and build worshipful totems (“modls”). The Macros have nothing whatsoever in common with the Micros except that they worship a Macro-cross (IS-LM) and build rather extravagant modls of their own.

“Some Econographers disagree with the bleak picture of cultural disintegration just given, pointing to the present as the greatest age of Econ Art. It is true that virtually all Econographers agree that present modlmaking has reached aesthetic heights not heretofore attained. But it is doubtful that this gives cause for much optimism. It is not unusual to find some particular art form flowering in the midst of the decay of a culture. It may be that such decay of society induces this kind of cultural “displacement activity” among talented members who despair of coping with the decline of their civilization. The present burst of sophisticated modl-carving among the Econ should probably be regarded in this light.”

historyLife Among the Vinos

Wine has its tribes, too, and many have observed that the divisions between them and mutual deafness among them are a growing concern.

I wrote about some of the Vinos tribes in my book Wine Wars.  I was inspired by Thomas Pinney’s masterful A History of Wine in America (Vol. 2: From Prohibition to the Present, University of California Press, 2005).  If you want to understand how wine in America got the way it is, this is the best general reference I have found.

Pinney devotes the last section of the book to what he sees is a fundamental battle for the idea of wine in America. It is a conflict between Wagnerians and Martians, he says.

Song of the Wine Maidens

The Wagnerians are inspired by the ideas of Philip Wagner, a Maryland journalist, viticulturist, and winemaker who was especially active in the years that bracket the Second World War. Wagner believed that wine should be an affordable part of ordinary life and a constant companion at mealtime.  Pinney writes that

Wagnerians are always delighted to have a bottle of superlative wine, but their happiness does not depend on it, nor are they so foolish as to think that only the superlative is fit to drink. Their happiness does depend upon wine each day … good sound wine will not only suffice. It is a necessary part of the daily regimen.

Wagner founded Boordy Vineyads and was well-regarded by wine people from coast to coast.  He is an important figure in the history of American wine, according to Pinney, and one whose idea of wine lives on in many forms.

Wagner promulgated his populist vision by promoting the so-called French Hybrid grape varieties on the East Coast and elsewhere. I think he wanted America to be Vineland (the name given it by the Viking explorers), a country covered with grapevines and abundant with honest, respectable wine. This is easier said than done, however, as Pinney’s history makes clear.

My Favorite Martian

Martians are inspired by Martin Ray’s idea of wine. Whereas Wagner was disappointed that America lacked a mainstream wine culture, Martin Ray was upset that the standard was so low in the years following the repeal of prohibition.  He persuaded Paul Masson to sell him his once great winery in 1935 and proceeded to try to restore its quality with a personal drive that Pinney terms fanatical.

He did it, too, making wines of true distinction — wines that earned the highest prices in California at the time.  His achievement was short lived, however. A winery fire slowed Ray’s momentum and he finally sold out to Seagrams, which used a loophole in wartime price control regulations to make a fortune from the Paul Masson brand and its premium price points, starting a trend of destructive corporate exploitation that forms a central theme in Pinney’s book.

The Martian view, according to Pinney, is that “…anything less than superlative was unworthy, that no price could be too high, and that the enjoyment of wine required rigorous preparation.”

Two Ideas of Wine

The tribes of Martians and Wagnerians have two very different ideas of wine and it is a shame that one needs to choose between them, but that’s how tribes sometimes works. It seems to me that wine could and should be both a daily pleasure and an opportunity for exceptional expression. The good isn’t always the enemy of the great. But many people see it that way, including Pinney, who reveals himself to be an ardent Wagnerian and expresses concern that the Martians have won the battle for wine in America.

The people who write about wine in the popular press largely appear to be Martians, who take for granted that anything under $20 a bottle is a “bargain” wine and who routinely review for their middle-class readership wines costing $30, $40, $50 and up. Even in affluent America such wines can hardly be part of a daily supper. They enforce the idea that wine must be something special — a matter of display, or of costly indulgence. That idea is strongly reinforced by the price of wine in restaurants, where a not particularly distinguished bottle routinely costs two or three times the price of the most expensive entrée on the menu.

“No wonder, Pinney concludes,” that the ordinary American, unable to understand how a natural fruit product (as wine undoubtedly is) can be sold for $50 or more a bottle, sensibly decides to have nothing to do with the mystery.” So these tribal divisions have serious consequences for the wine industry.

Wagnerians and Martians are not the wine world’s only tribes. Come back next week for my report on the Terroirist and the Naturalist tribes.

Napa Envy? What’s the Secret for Emerging Wine Region Success?

american_airlines_boeing_707_model_aircraft_kits_1bcd6855-5d3b-43ac-b7e9-e4ce13ea59df_largeW.W. Rostow’s famous 5-step theory of the “Stages of Economic Growth” seemed to present a blueprint for less-developed countries thirsty to move up in the global economy league table.

The key step — “take-off” — invoked the image of a powerful modern jet airliner (probably a Boeing 707 back in 1960 when the theory appeared) rising from the runway and soaring into the bright blue sky.

The reality for those who followed Rostow’s map was problematic because his analysis was based on the experience of a previous generation of soaring economies and both the conditions on the ground and the global market environment were often very different. Take-off proved frustratingly hard to achieve and the mistakes were costly both in dollars and in missed human development opportunities.

The Limits of Imitation

Sue and I have visited many emerging wine regions and they all seem to be looking for a blueprint like Rostow’s and for the jet engine that will propel their own take-off into the global wine market’s stratosphere. Everyone wants to be the next Napa (or fill in the name of your favorite successful wine region).

A lot of energy is spent (and probably wasted) trying to emulate the success of one particular emerging wine region that started to soar more than thirty years ago and hasn’t slowed down since. That region is New Zealand and the key to its take off is widely seen to be its choice of a signature grape variety to rally around — Sauvignon Blanc.

New Zealand’s growth is stunning, to be sure, but I argue that its take-off was the product of particular local and global conditions that are unlikely to be replicated in quite the same way today. There are also unintended consequences to consider. The stunning success of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc has cast a shadow over other NZ regions and wines that deserve more market attention than they typically get.

The Road Not Taken

The signature winegrape varietal take-off strategy is simple and appealing in theory, but difficult and even dangerous in practice. So what works? How do emerging wine regions get up to speed in the fast-paced global market?

My sense is that each case is special and each road different. The only common characteristic I have noticed is quality, which must be found in every bottle or glass. You only have one chance to make a first impression, they say, and reputation is always on the line. With quality much is possible, even if it is not easy or automatic. Sans quality nothing much seems to work.

But that’s a pretty vague road map, so my senses perked up when I heard Jamie Goode talk about the stages growth for new wine regions at a recent British Columbia Wine Grape Council conference and trade show in Penticton, BC.

From Surprise to Enlightenment

Goode has been just about everywhere in the wine world and based on this experience he proposed a five stage evolution (not revolution) development pattern. Surprise comes first, he said. Local winegrowers are surprised when they find themselves making halfway decent wine. Incredible! Maybe this wine thing is possible.

parisCuriosity comes next as dozens of grape varieties and wine styles appear followed by Imitation of famous wine regions and their wines. Imitation leads to Over-Confidence, in Goode’s taxonomy. I suppose this is when those “Judgement of Paris” type events are organized where you elevate your region to the same stage as Burgundy or Bordeaux.

The 1976 Paris tasting is credited with putting Napa on the world stage. If it worked for Napa, how can it fail for everyone else who tries it?

Real Confidence is Goode’s final stage and I am not sure exactly what he means by this but I know what I think it is. Know thyself. Make wines that are yours, not copies of others, that stand on their own, drawing on the practices and influences of others, but not imitating anyone else.

This is a pretty good description of how wine regions evolve, but the stages it proposes are not strictly limited to wine. I’ll bet most artists and musicians go through phases like this before they gain (if they do) the confidence to be themselves. Mozart may have been born a mature musical genius, but the rest of us have to thrash around as best we can until we figure it out.

Significantly, there isn’t a “take off” stage here, which I think is probably a good thing because it avoids the signature varietal dead end and other false trails. Goode’s analysis doesn’t provide much of a road map for an emerging wine region to use to plot their course, only to evaluate where they have been. But then Rostow showed us that road maps can lead to the wrong destination if the terrain has shifted, so maybe this invitation to self-analysis is as good as it gets.

Confidence Game

The stages of growth idea came up again during the Q&A session. You’ve visited British Columbia several times. Where are we in your theory? Which stage of growth best describes us?

Goode thought about this a bit. Between 4 and 5, he said. Between Over-Confidence and Real Confidence. Interesting! That made me stop and think, too. Sue and I have been to the BC wine country many times over the years. Where does the region stand today? Come back next week to find out the answer.

The Trouble with Being King of the Hill

mappa-collio

For a long time Collio and its neighboring regions in Italy’s upper right-hand corner have been King of the Hill when it comes to Italian white wines. It started in the 1960s when Collio, which had long been known for its excellent hillside terroir, abolished the old share cropping system, which favored quantity over quality, and got a head start on many competitors in the adoption of modern temperature-controlled white wine fermentation practices.

Exceptional grapes were combined with winemaking techniques that preserved fruit and aromas. The results were some stunning mono-variety white wines — Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and native varieties, too — that established the region’s reputation.

The Trouble with Hills

As I noted last week, Sue and I have been coming to Collio since 2000 and the wines have gotten more and more interesting — strength built on strength. But the trouble with being King of the Hill is that you must constantly defend your position against determined competitors and this has been Collio’s challenge.

Collio’s distinctive terroir is impossible to copy, but other wine regions have worked hard to reel in Collio’s early lead in vineyard and cellar practices. Now there are excellent white wines from many regions of Italy north, south, east, and west. Some of the Vermentino di Gallura wines we tasted recently in Sardinia, for example, were absolutely world class.

And of course there are competitors from all over the world to be considered starting of course with New Zealand, which was only a fly speck on the world wine map back in the 1960s. There is a lot of competition today for the title of King of the White Wine Hill.

Grape Expectations

Collio’s challenge is ironically made more difficult today because of its focus on mono-variety wines. Pinot Grigio was easy to understand in the early days compared with wines identified by appellation. That was an advantage. But today there are Pinot Grigio (and Sauvignon and Chardonnay) wines from all over the world and the Collio brand is perhaps overshadowed in New World consumer minds, which often focus on grape variety more than region.

The focus on grape variety unexpectedly puts Collio in directly competition with New Zealand, California, Australia, France, and a host of other regions. The advantage of a hilltop position is diminished. The fact that Friulano, the region’s signature native wine grape, has been serially rebranded (Tocai, Tocai Friulano, Friulano) under orders from the intellectual property police hasn’t helped.

So Collio is facing increased competition from other parts of Italy and other parts of the world. There is also more competition within Friuli itself. We heard reports of massive new plantings out on the plains that threaten to flood the market with cheaper wines and drive down precious margins. They won’t be Collio appellation wines, but they will still compete. Yikes!

Collio Bottleneck

There are as many responses to the the increased competition as their are growers and producers. One important initiative is Collio Bianco, a signature white wine blend that producers hope can help establish the region’s brand more concretely in consumers minds. Think Collio (not just the grape varieties) for exceptional white wines .

bianco

The official definition of Collio Bianco has evolved. Once this wine was a simple field blend. Then it because a loosely regulated blend of native grape varieties that was noteworthy for its lack of distinctiveness. Kitchen sink wine, made with leftovers not used in the favored varietal bottlings.

More recently Collio Bianco was been defined as a white blend made from just about any mixture of native and international grape varieties. The idea is to give winemakers freedom to make the very best wines and have them bear the Collio label and fly the region’s flag.

A special bottle shape was created to further distinguish this wine from others on the shelf. What do you think?  The longer, thinner neck requires a special cork. Choosing this bottle (it is a voluntary program and the special bottle is not required) is a commitment to promoting the region’s brand as well as the individual producers’ products.

One Blend to Rule Them All?

Our hosts arranged for our press group to taste 24 examples of Collio Bianco. Vintages ranged from a 2013 (Primosic Klin  — it was spectacular) to several 2018s (bottled earlier than usual especially for Vinitaly and maybe not at their very best when we tasted them).

Some of the blends focused on the native grape varieties. Gradis’ciutta, for example, presented a Friulano, Malvasia, Ribolla Gialla blend.  Others producers combined native and international grapes. Venica & Venica’s Tre Vigne blended Friulano, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon. Ronco Blanchis blended Friulano, Malvasia, Sauvignon, and Chardonnay. Marco Felluga’s Molamatta combined Friulano, Pinot Bianco, and Ribolla Gialla. It was, as you might guess, a pretty interesting experience, especially since we tasted the wines blind.

The Weight

The question now is what is Collio Bianco and can it bear the weight of expectations? The wines we tasted showed high quality but, given that they come from different producers, sub-regions, and vintages using different grape combinations, we struggled to find any other defining characteristic. And I guess that was the point of the exercise. Only after the fact did I realize why the tasting was titled “Characterized by not being characterized.”

So Collio Bianco wines have quality and they are diverse. Each is a bit different from the rest and consumer experimentation is richly rewarded. This is surely something, especially since the wines from some other regions sometimes seem to all taste alike. But is it enough? I’m not sure.

The good news is that many Collio producers recognize that the challenge of being King of the Hill and they have determined that quality and distinctiveness is the right response. The region also benefits from a consorzio organization with strong leadership and, just as important, pretty good follower-ship — not something that we always find. The greatest mistake would be to rest on past accomplishments, ignoring the competition’s gains,  or to think in terms of quantity instead of quality. That’s the fast track from the top of the hill to the bottom.

The Beginning of the End of the Old World Appellation System?

“Some New World regions are adopting European-style AOC rules,” the Italian journalist I met in Sardinia explained, “Do you think this is an important trend?”

“No. Just the opposite. I think the Old World appellation system is under attack and will need to change to survive.”

He looked at me like I had dropped down from Mars. This was clearly not the answer he was looking for, but I think it is true. I wasn’t able to explain my logic very well in the rush of the interview, so let me try to explain here.

We Have Met the Enemy …

New World wine appellations are geographical indicators that specify a wine’s origin and help differentiate a region’s products. Some of these designations are very valuable (Napa and Sonoma, for example) in terms of price premium. Others are of little economic value, but can sometimes be useful in other ways that I don’t have time to explain here.

The Old World appellation system starts with designation of origin and adds to that a system of rules that restrict grape choices, blend components and ratios, viticultural practices, and other factors. AOC rules can literally fill a book as Jancis Robinson shows us in the classic video above.

AOCs (and Italian DOCs, Spanish DOs, etc.) evolved as essentially protective structures based on the experience in Champagne, which was the model for the current system. (I wrote about this in my book Money, Taste, and Wine). The first goal was to protect regional reproducers from fraud by outsiders passing off their imitation wines as the real thing.

The second goal (and the reason for such detailed regulation) was to protect quality producers in the region from neighbors inside the region who might cut corners and sacrifice quality to increase profit while benefiting from the regional “brand”.

Very high yields, for example, might increase a particular winery’s profit, but the lower quality dilutes the value of the appellation to all others. It is a cut-throat situation. “We have met the enemy and he is us” describes this element of the AOC program.

So AOCs seek to defend the regional brand from threats from the unscrupulous both outside and inside the region. Today, however, there are two powerful forces that threaten this system and will force it to change. Indeed it is already changing.

Shifting Center of Gravity

The first force is the global market, where the fastest-growing segments and categories are not closely aligned with the AOC system and where the premiumization syndrome is strongest. American consumers have shifted their market’s center of gravity to higher price points, but not higher prices for the same products. They will pay more than before but the product has to be differentiated and appealing. So innovation, which is not a strong point of the AOC system, is increasingly important.

Sue and I saw this when we visited the Valpolicella region a few years ago. The AOC system basically provides opportunities for Valpolicella wines, Ripasso, and Amarone in ascending order of retail price (I am leaving out details to simply, but you get my drift).

We met producer after producer who responded to this situation by creating proprietary blends of grapes that were “downgraded” to IGT status (because the blends don’t strictly adhere to the rule book), but upgraded in terms of price because of their effective branding and high quality. These new IGT wines were designed to fit price points created by premiumization that were not easily attainable with existing AOC products.

There is nothing new about the IGT movement — remember when super-Tuscans were controversial, which feels like a very long time ago? But the IGT trend, which basically slips out of the AOC handcuffs, has gathered unstoppable momentum. We see these wines everywhere now — France, Italy, Spain, everywhere. And some of them of fantastic. AOC? We don’t need no stinkin’ AOC?

In a sense the rise of these “super-” wines represents a shift in mentality that is worth noting. If the AOC system if defensive at its core, the IGT movement is entrepreneurial, seeking out new opportunities and breaking rules to get them.

Climate Change Challenges

The AOC system can withstand these market forces, although some regions will find it in their interests to adapt as Chianti did in the face of super-Tuscan success. But a second force is harder to ignore and will be even more threatening in the long run: climate change.

AOC rules are often promoted as an evolutionary pinnacle. We’ve had hundreds of years to figure out what grapes and blends are the very best for our terroir and here they are laid out in the rule book! Best of the best. You cannot improve upon the AOC rules.

It is a nice argument, but what happens when the terroir changes due to new climate patterns? The answer is that the wines need to adapt and evolve to remain at the peak, which is hard to do if the rule book doesn’t change. AOC standards need to evolve with the climate or become irrelevant or, worse, counter-productive.

Bordeaux Adapts

Some Old World regions already see the writing on the wall, as Jane Anson reported in Decanter earlier this year. Bordeaux and Bordeaux Superieur producers now are able to experiment with “accessory grape” varieties that may better withstand climate change than the traditional (and designated) grape varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

“The red grapes for trial,” Anson reports, “will be Marselan, Syrah, Zinfandel and Arinarnoa. In white, Liliorila, Chardonnay, Petit Manseng Blanc and Chenin Blanc will be tested.” A recent VinePair article called this “a small revolution,” but I see it as something bigger and this is just the start.

Anson’s article continues,

Veronique Barthe of Chateau la Freynelle, who is working on the project with the Bordeaux and Bordeaux Superieur Union, told decanter.com this was not a form of sacrilege.

‘We are not trying to make 100% Syrah in Bordeaux, but to test which grapes work best on which terroir in the region with the intention of introducing them only if they offer real quality,’ she said.

This sounds like exactly what a winemaker should be doing, don’t you think? “When the facts change, I change my opinion. What do you do?” according to Keynes. When the climate changes, what will the AOCs do?

So the AOC system is under attack from the inside by IGT wines and from the outside by climate change. The system will adapt, but it won’t be the same. We can debate whether this is a good thing or not (I’m on the good thing side), but it is going to happen. And that’s what I wish I had time to explain to that Italian wine journalist.

Small is Beautiful? Scratching the Surface of Pennsylvania Wine

pa-wine-blog-1_image

Pennsylvania wine? Do they make wine in Pennsylvania? Is that even a thing?

These were the sort of comments we often heard when Sue and I told friends and family that we were going to try to learn a little bit about Pennsylvania wine while we were in the Valley Forge area for our nephew’s wedding. Even some of the Pennsylvania natives we met were caught by surprise.

A Wagnerian Vision

Most people equate U.S. wine with California, which makes some sense because that state has the most wineries (more than 4500 according to the January 2019 issue of Wine Business Monthly) and makes about 90% of the nation’s wine. But there are actually more than 10,000 wineries in the U.S., so there are more wineries outside of California than in it. There are wineries in every single state and the District of Columbia, too (urban wineries are also a thing).

Wine’s wide domain is a triumph of the vision of Philip Wagner, the founder of Maryland’s Boordy Vineyards, which I wrote about in my book Wine Wars  in a chapter called Martians and Wagnerians.  Wagner imagined  America as a country where wine was made everywhere and consumed everywhere and while his vision hasn’t been fully realized the raw materials are there to see for anyone with a little curiosity.

Pennsylvania, for example, has 285 wineries, which puts it in 6th place in the U.S. wine league table based on number of wineries (not volume of wine) after California (of course), Oregon, Washington, New York, Texas, and Virginia.

1683 And All That

There are at least two ways to look at the history of Pennsylvania wine and both are revealing. Jancis Robinson and Linda Murphy highlight the date 1968 in their excellent survey, American Wine.  That was the year that the Pennsylvania legislature passed the Limited Winery Act, which gave wineries the right to sell directly to consumers and through a limited number of retailers, avoiding the requirement to use wholesalers and the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board’s monopoly stores.

Pennsylvania wineries would be relatively small and use only Pennsylvania grapes, but they could be economically sustainable because of their favorable market access. Pennsylvania already had grapes — it was the #4 table grape producing state. Now a wine industry could begin to emerge.

Robinson and Murphy only briefly reference Pennsylvania’s much longer wine history, which is discussed in greater depth in Thomas Pinney’s A History of Wine in America (Vol. 1, From the Beginnings to Prohibition). Here 1683 is the critical date. That’s when Andrew Doz planted a vineyard for William Penn. The European vines soon died, alas, but not before creating a natural hybrid with a native variety, which was named Alexander and became the basis of America’s first commercial wine production. Benjamin Franklin was an enthusiastic proponent of the Pennsylvania industry both here and abroad. Wine runs deep in Pennsylvania.

Finding Wine at Penns Woodspennswoods3

We only had time to visit one winery (now that really just scratches the surface), but a well-informed friend helped us choose a target that she thought would tell us something about Pennsylvania wine’s past, present, and future potential. So we pointed our rental Hyundai Santa Fe toward Chadds Ford and Penns Woods Winery.

Italian wine importer Gino Razzi decided he wanted to make wine, not just sell it. He started in 1997 with Symposium, a Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, which received 95 points from Wine Spectator. This success prompted a search for the ideal Pennsylvania location — not too far from his business in Philadelphia — and in 2000 he purchased and re-named the Smithbridge Winery in Chadds Ford. An additional vineyard was developed 20 miles northwest near Coatesville. The first Penns Woods wines appeared in 2004.

Penns Woods produces 4000-4500 cases per year depending upon Mother Nature’s generosity, selling most of it directly at the historic country house tasting room and to wine club members. About 20 percent is allocated to on-premise and retail accounts, where there is strong demand.

We visited on what started out as a sleepy Saturday morning, but things soon heated up. Seated tastings took place on the covered patio, where small groups can learn all they want about the wines and the winery. A bride party suddenly arrived and headed to a long table out in the meadow where concerts and other events take place. These guests purchase wine by the bottle or glass without the guided formal tasting. The bride and her friends seemed to be having a wonderful time and we had a great time, too.

Penns Woods make a large range of wines and wine styles from dry to sweeter and from the European grape varieties that William Penn struck out with to hybrid varieties that were once the only game in town hereabouts. So, for example,  we tasted Pinot Noir (a recent experiment that showed nice spice and good potential) and also Chambourcin, a French-American hybrid that we learned was a favorite of Carley Razzi Mack, Gino’s daughter and business partner.

We were especially fond of a distinctive 2016 Gruner Veltliner from a Bucks County vineyard and a 2015 Cabernet Franc Reserve from 30+ year old vines.

Small is Beautiful

Penns Woods impresses us on many levels. First, the people we met at Penns Woods know who they are and what they want to be. That means a strong focus on quality in all the winery’s products and operations. They are also firmly rooted in their region and they appear to want to nurture relationships with their customers as much as they nurture the vines themselves. Penns Woods represents Pennsylvania very well.77541

What’s the future? Well, I think the adage that “small is beautiful” might apply here and perhaps to Pennsylvania more generally because of the way that the wine laws steer the market.  Success isn’t measured only by scale but also by the quality of the wines, the quality of the relationships the wines help build, and the satisfaction that these things bring.

We have only scratched the surface of Pennsylvania — lots more to taste and learn. American wine is nothing if not diverse and I am sure this is true of Pennsylvania. Impossible to generalize based on just a couple of wines and wineries. But this much I can say:

Penns Woods and other Pennsylvania wineries are helping fulfill Philip Wagner’s dream of a healthy, civilized America covered with vines, filled with wineries, and populated by wine-loving citizens.  Isn’t it about time you made a visit to a Wagnerian winery near you? Cheers!

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Thanks to Rachel Kuehn, sales manager at Penns Woods Winery, for taking time to answer all our questions. Special thanks to Denise Gardner for her good advice.

Congratulations and thanks to Anna and Jeffrey, who exchanged vows on a rainy day in Valley Forge. Your celebration gave us an excuse to scratch the surface of Pennsylvania wine!

Ten Years of Open That Bottle Night

Photo OTBN2009By Sue Veseth, Contributing Editor

In 2009, a group of people with a love of wine and connections to the University of Puget Sound decided to celebrate Open That Bottle Night. Our wines on that February evening included a sparkling wine and a Cabernet Sauvignon from Washington State, a classic Bordeaux, a Chateauneuf du Pape, a California port-style wine, and a Sauternes. The only “rule” of our gathering was that each participant had to bring a story with his or her wine.

At that first OTBN dinner, we knew we were on to something exciting. Open That Bottle Night was an opportunity for our core group — Mike and Sue, Ken and Rosemary, Ron and Mary, Richard and Bonnie — to get together to share wine, food, and, stories.

OTBN logoOver the years, our OTBN celebrations have included additional friends. A few times, one or two people from the core were unable to attend because of work or family needs. Some years, we met at someone’s home for an elegant dinner. Other years, we met at restaurants (with our own wine, of course). We even held potluck dinners for OTBN.

We have toured the world on OTBN, with wines from Washington State, Oregon, California, Arizona, Okanagan Valley in Canada, France, Italy, Spain, Germany, Portugal, Hungary, China, and South Africa.

The rule of wine-and-a-story is still the centerpiece of our OTBN. As expected, most of the wine stories have included special people: My mentor (or parent or boss or friend) gave me this. This was my engagement (or wedding) wine. This wine is from the birth year of my child. We visited with the winemaker at this winery. A wine merchant we trust recommended this wine.

Photo OTBN2019By coincidence, but not by design, our wine selections and stories have complemented each other. This year, with a decade of OTBN experience, a theme of “firsts and lasts” developed with our wines:

  • Sorelle Bronca Brut Prosecco — Mike thought this was the last bottle in his stash of this beautiful Prosecco, but there may be another one or two.
  • La Grande Dame Champagne Brut 1989 — For Ken, the Champagne “was the last of a four bottles I bought from a London wine merchant soon after moving there in 1992. They were the most expensive bottles of anything we had bought up to that point but as you know, I was always on the lookout for the 1989 vintage because Rosemary and I were married that year. Of course, I wish now that we had bought more.”
  • Ramsay Mouvedre 1995 Napa — For Ron, this wine “represents the last bottle of booty Mary and I brought home from our twice annual trips to Napa from 1991-2002. We always brought home to Connecticut some of our favorite tastings from these trips, and this bottle is the last of those souvenirs.”
  • DiStefano Cabernet Sauvignon 1999 Columbia Valley — This was the last bottle from the first full case of wine that Bonnie and Richard purchased. “I think we were all surprised that a Washington Cabernet had held up so well,” Richard said. “That bodes well for our collections!”
  • Andrew Will Sorella 2007 Horse Heaven Hills — For Ron and Mary, this wine was a “first” because it is their favorite Andrew Will wine. It also was the last bottle in a case of Sorella they purchased when it was released.
  • Chateau de Beaucastel Chateauneuf du Pape 2014 —This was the first bottle of the first case of wine that Bonnie and Richard purchased on a futures basis. Maybe not quite ready to drink but a double-first!
  • Dow’s Vintage Port 1994 — This was the first bottle out of a case Ken bought in London. “I have been eager to try it but decided to wait until its 25th birthday to try the first bottle,” he said.
  • Armagnac Napoleon J. Dupeyron Condom c. 1955 —Sue liberated this bottle from her parents when they down-sized. Jacques-François Ryst of Ryst Dupeyron said it dates from about 1955.

“I find it uncanny and wonderful how each year a collective story emerges from our individual wine contributions,” Ron said. “In vino veritas — and narrative!”

At a time when we lament that we are glued to our devices for interaction with family, friends, and colleagues, Open That Bottle Night gives us an opportunity to gather together to share, talk, eat, and drink. The beauty of OTBN is that your event can be as over-the-top or as modest as you want; it’s yours. Even better, the evening reinforces and strengthens long-standing friendships.

Misunderstanding Romanian Wine


It is easy to misunderstand Romania and its wine industry.

Romania is a very old culture but a surprisingly young nation-state. The Great Unification of 1918 finally brought all the historical provinces together under one roof a hundred years ago, an act that Romanians celebrated on December 1, their Great Union Day.

Contemporary Romania is even younger, dating to the end of the Soviet era in 1989. It entered the European Union in 2007 — another important date. Romania is a country with deep roots and vigorous new growth. It is both very old and very new, a work in progress (like the rest of us).

It is tempting to view Romanian wine as both old and new, too. Wine has been made in Romania for six or seven thousand years and the culture both embraces wine and consumes it with gusto.

Romanian wine today is also a work in progress and Sue and I learned as much as we could about its current status and future prospects when we spent a week there last month. We participated in the International Wine Competition Bucharest (held in Iasi this year) and I gave a lecture to students and faculty at the University of Agricultural Sciences and and Veterinary Medicine.

King of Wines

73205One particular Romanian sweet wine — Grasa de Cotnari — has an important place in wine history. Grasa de Cotnari, Tokaji of Hungary, and Constantia of South Africa were once the most celebrated wines in the world. King of wines, wines of kings, they were the kings of the hill in a world where luscious sweet wines were treasured above all others. Time have changed, however, and wines like these no long rule as they once did.

The thing about Romanian wine is that just when you think you understand it, you discover that there’s another layer and you have to start over.  Sue and I wanted to taste a few Romanian wines before our trip and I hit pay dirt at a local Total Wine store where I discovered several wines made by Cramele Recas, one of Romania’s largest producers (and a Total Wine Winery Direct partner). Two were international varieties (Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir) and two were native Romanian varieties (Feteasca Negra and Feteasca Regala). All were inexpensive — typically $5.99 per bottle or $5.39 as part of a Winery Direct six-bottle purchase.

The Recas wines were clean and well made, with good acidity and varietal character. We shared some with our neighbors, who were surprised at the Pinot Noir given its price. The Recas winemaker has lots of experience producing commercial quality wine at affordable prices. He divides his time between Recas in Romania and a winery in Australia that you might have heard of. It’s called Yellowtail.

But Wait … There’s More

So Romanian wine is cheap but pretty good — a bottom shelf bargain. Is that right? Well, yes it is, but as soon as we arrived in Iasi we discovered another layer. There has been a very strong movement to higher quality since the end of the Communist era and especially since Romania joined  the European Union and opened its doors more widely to international competition.

The semi-sweet wines that were a mainstay during the Soviet era remain popular. Sugar can be used to cover up a variety of wine flaws, and so sweet wines are often suspect, but we tasted some that were well-made and delicious.  Many producers make both dry and semi-sweet versions of their wines to satisfy the diverse consumer audience. I don’t think these sweetish wines will or should go away, but dry wines are clearly the future and a lot of effort is going into their production.

But which dry wines? Romania is fortunate to have a wine grape treasury that includes a number of indigenous varieties that make distinctive, delicious wines. In the right hands, Feteasca Regala (white), Feteasca Neagra (red) and Busuioaca de Bohotin (rosé) produce exciting wines, for example, and there are other promising varieties.  I admit that my prejudice is for the native grape varieties and not the international varieties that you see everywhere, but it is important to have an open mind.

davinoWe spent a day in the Delau Mare region near Bucharest, which is known for its excellent red wines. Our last stop was Davino, which was Romania’s second privately-owned winery (S.E.R.V.E. was the first). We tasted the Purpura Valahica, which is made from Feteasca Negra clones specifically selected for the local terroir. It was terrific — a wonderful example of just the sort of terroir wine I had my heart set on finding. Romanian grapes, Romanian soil, Romanian wine-maker, even Romanian oak.

But then we tasted a Cabernet Sauvignon and it was wonderful, too, and impressed me even though I was not really interested in international grape varieties. And then came the Domaine Ceptura Rouge — Cab, Merlot, and Feteasca Negra. It was a fascinating fusion. Bottom line: Romanian wine does and should focus on its native varietals, but in an open context that allows winemakers to make the best wines they can.

No One-Liners in Wine

The wine that fills Romanian glasses represents an interesting mixture of past, present, and future, dry and sweet, native and international. No wonder it is hard to pin it down. But that’s not all. Home-made wine is very important in terms of total consumption and I understand that some of this is made with the hybrid grape varieties that were introduced here after phylloxera.

The popularity of the home-made stuff is a bit of a problem, since it can be so different from commercial production using vitis vinifera grape varieties.  Convincing thrifty buyers to pay more for a very different product is a challenge.

The Romanian case reminds me a bit of the challenge that U.S. winemakers faced in the 1930s when Prohibition finally ended. Home-made wine production had surged dramatically during Prohibition, encouraged by a loophole in the law that allowed limited home wine production. The quality of the wine was, um, variable and its taste is how consumers came to think of wine, which is perhaps why they focused more attention on beer and spirits. It took decades to fully overcome that memory.

Jon Fredrikson always says that there are no one-liners in wine, so perhaps this multi-layer aspect is what makes Romania akin to other regions, not different from them. But the tendency to be misunderstood is particularly powerful in Romania based on our experience. Resist any attempt to over-simplify the country or its wines!

What lies ahead for the Romanian wine industry? The future looks bright, but there will be headwinds. Come back next week to learn more.