Celebrating Milestones for Canada (150 Years) & Canadian Wine (37 Vintages)

Milestones. Do they mark how far you have come on a journey? Or do they tell you how far you’ve left to go? Both, I guess, which gives them a (wine) glass half full / half empty quality that invites contemplation.

Canada and Canadian wine have reached important milestones recently and I think there is something to gain in contemplating them in tandem.

O Canada!150

2017 is the 150th anniversary of Canada’s confederation — a significant milestone in its national history. The past 150 years have not always been easy. Canada has been rocked both by external events (world war, global depressions, financial crises) and domestic social and political conflicts, too.

Canada’s version of federalism gives even more autonomy to its provinces than U.S. federalism gives to its states. The balance between federal and provincial interests has not always been smooth and tensions among the provinces (and even within them) and their people and cultures have not always been easily reconciled.

Canada has somehow negotiated these challenges and emerged, on its 150th birthday, in an admirable state — prosperous, generous (especially regarding refugee immigrants) and widely respected. O Canada, indeed!

Indeed, Canada is even celebrated today on Broadway, where the Tony-winning musical “Come From Away” draws audiences to consider the remarkable response of one Canadian town the unexpected arrival of refugees, in a way, from the September 11 terrorist attacks. (Prime Minister Justin Trudeau traveled to New York to see the show — his special guest was someone named Ivanka Trump!)

150 years is an important milestone, but nobody thinks Canada’s story is over. The future is sure to be full of challenges as the road twists and turns, rises and falls. But Canada and Canadians can look forward to the journey with confidence.

O Howard Soon!howard-soon1

July 24, 2017 is another important milestone. It is the day Howard Soon retired as Master Winemaker for Sandhill Wine in Kelowna, British Columbia, after an amazing 37 vintages. Soon is the dean of Canadian winemakers and this milestone is reason enough to celebrate his amazing career and Canadian wine, too.

The grandson of Chinese immigrants, Soon initially took his biochemistry degree from the University of British Columbia into the brewing industry before making a fateful pivot to wine, working his way from quality control to assistant winemaker to winemaker for Colona Vineyards, one of Canada’s largest wine firms.

The Canadian wine industry has changed dramatically over Soon’s remarkable winemaking tenure as it faced market challenges that are both external (increased competition from the United States after the NAFTA treaty) and domestic (the lack of a true “Canadian” wine market because of strong provincial control over alcohol sales). Soon has played an important role in helping the industry to weather the storms by setting a course to higher and higher quality.

When Sue and I first visited Vancouver many years ago the sommeliers refused to serve Canadian wines — they simply wouldn’t do it. It was an over-reaction because there were some good wines even back then, but an indication of their poor reputation These days, however, there is obvious pride in the wines all around and they are proudly featured and served.

Soon and his winemaking colleagues have both changed Canadian wine for the better and they have done something even more difficult — they have changed the way Canadians think about their wines. Quite an achievement.

Soon’s most recent project, Sandhill Vineyards, is in the vanguard of the quality movement (Sandhill appears in my next book Around the World in Eighty Wines). It was founded twenty years ago with the idea to feature terroir through a series of small production single-vineyard wines.soon

Soon has received virtually every recognition that Canadian wine has to offer and he reaches the retirement milestone at the top of his game. His signature 2014 Howard Soon Sandhill red wine was recently named #1 red wine of the year in the All Canadian Wine Championships.

(Signature wine is right — the label bears Howard’s actual signature!)

The wine is special. Grapes from the Phantom Creek Vineyard were co-fermented in the proportions found in the vineyard — a field blend! — then aged in new French and American oak for 22 months. Critic John Schreiner calls is a “triumphal achievement.”

Howard Soon and Canadian wine have come a long way but they both seem to have arrived at this mile post with enthusiasm to move forward to reach new goals.   Sue and I had dinner recently with Howard and his wife Wendy. Howard told us he plans to spend more time with Wendy and their kids and grand kids.

But the same drive that has pushed him to this milestone seems likely to carry him ahead to new challenges and adventures. Great winemakers like Richard Peterson and John Duval, to name just two, seem to move from one mile-marker to the next, always looking forward. It will be interesting to see where the wine road takes Howard Soon!

The Next New Zealand? Reflections on Cyprus Wine Industry in Transition

pafos“Cyprus wines? Not really sure I have ever had one. Do they make much wine in Cyprus?”

Many readers of this column would probably say something similar when asked about Cyprus wine, but the person I was talking to was a bit different.

I spotted him on the Lufthansa flight from Frankfurt to Seattle and remembered that he sat in front of me on the earlier Larnaca-Frankfurt leg. He did business in Cyprus and traveled there a lot, he told me. Drank wine there, too. But Cyprus wine? Not so much.

Mostly he drank the less expensive import wines while he was in Cyprus — wines from Spain, Chile or Australia. Maybe he tried one from Cyprus, he thought, but mainly he stuck with the value import wines.

In this respect my new friend’s consumption pattern reflects the Cyprus wine market in general. When Cyprus entered the European Union back in 2004 its ability to protect its domestic wine industry from cheaper imports was greatly diminished — imports account for about two-thirds of Cyprus wine sales now — and a new wine regime began to emerge.

Regime Change 101vasilikon

Unable to compete with very efficient international value wine producers, Cyprus had no choice but to reconfigure its wine sector to move up the quality (and price scale). And while Cypriot wines are not expensive by American standards (a bottle of truly excellent Vasilikon Xynisteri dry white wine cost less than $20 at a seaside restaurant in the tourist district — what a steal!) they are necessarily priced above the imports.

This was my first visit to Cyprus, but not my first experience with the types of changes that Cyprus wine is experiencing. My native Washington State, for example, had to make the quality leap in the 1960s when the “California Wine Bill” was passed by the legislature in Olympia and cheaper California wine flooded into the local market. The forced upscale move was the best thing that every happened to the wine industry here.

New Zealand faced the same sort of situation in the 1980s, when the collapse of their protected wine sector forced a dramatic economic course correction. Imports flooded in, foreign investment came, too, and a new export-oriented quality wine industry emerged. New Zealand today has the highest average export price of any country for still wines — an amazing achievement.

I found a similar story in Canada, which was forced to liberalize wine trade with the U.S. when the Nafta agreement was signed in the 1990s. In order to be competitive winegrowers in the Okanagan had to replace their hybrid vines with vitis vinifera — an expensive investment. But the results have been amazing.

The transition from volume to value is never easy and is always controversial (my South African friends can attest to this). Not all firms or regions will make it through the process successfully (there is a “survivor bias” to the data), but the success stories are compelling. This is the world that Cyprus wine has entered.

Revolutionary Vanguard

promara

Revolutions always have a vanguard. As is often the case, some winemakers took the first steps to higher quality before market conditions made this a necessity and we visited several of these pioneering wineries (see complete list below). One that stands out in my mind is Vouni Panayia Winery in the mountains near Pafos, which was the first private regional winery in Cyprus.

Vouni Panayia was founded in 1987 by Andreas Kyriakides, who had previously worked in the enology and viticulture section of the Department of Agriculture and so had a good understanding the Cyprus wine sector. He and his family set out to achieve quality at a time when quantity was still a strong factor and to do it using indigenous grape varieties at a time when international varieties were in vogue.

Kyriakides bet on his vision of the future and the family’s efforts have paid off. Sue and I were impressed with the deep red  Yiannoudi, which went so well with the roast lamb at lunch, and the delightful dry white Alina (made with Xynisteri variety). The white Promara (indigenous Promara variety)  was fantastic — a desert island wine candidate!

Going Native?

Vouni Panayia Winery might have helped start the quality revolution in Cyprus, but they have had plenty of help. The movement is advancing rapidly today and seems to be ready for the next challenge: gaining greater traction (and higher prices) in the domestic and carefully chosen export markets.

My first thought when I tasted some of the wines was that Xynisteri could be the key to this next stage — it is a delightful dry white wine that would appeal to Sauvignon Blanc drinkers. That first bottle of Vasilikon Xynisteri was followed by several others of that variety from various producers and we never had one that wasn’t delicious.

wine

This observation led, of course, to the idea that indigenous varieties should be the prime focus for both red and white wines. Vouni Panayia certainly makes a strong case for the indigenous grapes of Cyprus.

I still believe in the Cypriot native varieties, but as we tasted more and more wines I realized that Cyprus winemakers can do wonders with some of the international varieties, too. Maybe a hybrid strategy is called for.

My heart wants indigenous variety wines that are not found anywhere else in the world, but my pragmatic head says that Cypriot winemakers should make the best wines they can out of other grapes, too. We had wonderful Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon. Why not? So long as native varieties are not forgotten. The quality of the best of these wines is so high that I think they will thrive.

The Next New Zealand?

So, to return to the headline at the top of the page that I teased you with, is Cyprus likely to be the next New Zealand — a small, almost forgotten wine-making island that makes the transition from volume to value with spectacular success?

It is not a ridiculous question. Back in the mid-1980s not many could have imagined much less boldly predicted the amazing growth that New Zealand has achieved in the last 30 years. That same conversation (Do Kiwis make wine?) that I had about Cyprus at the start of this column could have been about New Zealand wine back then.

That said, Cyprus is not likely to be the next New Zealand. No one is. New Zealand’s unexpected success was the product of global market conditions that don’t exist in exactly the same way today due to the rapid expansion of wine production in other New World nations. The market space that New Zealand has been able to fill doesn’t exist in the same way for other wine exporting countries any more.

But Cyprus doesn’t have to be the next New Zealand to be successful. Wine-makers on this small island have great potential and if they can only work together to realize it in domestic and international wine markets, that will be good enough.

Maybe in 30  years we will ask if some other country has the potential to be the next Cyprus? Wouldn’t that be delicious!

2017 Cyprus Wineries Visited

Ezousa Winery

Nelion Winery

Tsangarides Winery

Tsiakkas Winery

Vasilikon Winery

Vlassides Winery

Vouni Panayia Winery

Zambartas Winery

Look Through the Rainbow: Cyprus Wine’s History of Boom and Bust

rainbow

We were sitting in the sleek, modern Vlassides Winery tasting the wonderful wines of Sophocles Vlassides and hearing his strong views on wine, Cypriot wine, and his own ambitious winery project, when it started to rain.

Weather can be complicated in these mountains and soon the sun began to shine through the showers creating first a simple rainbow, then a richer multicolored arc, and finally a pair of rainbows nestled together. From our winery perch we could see both ends of the rainbow (where pots of gold are said to rest) firmly rooted in the vineyards below.

Rainbow, vineyard, pot of gold — what a perfect metaphor for Cyprus wines, I thought. But the sharply analytical Sophocles Vlassides (who studied winemaking at UC Davis as a Fulbright Scholar) popped my mental bubble. Rainbows are pretty, but we were really looking at the wrong thing. If you want to understand Cyprus wine today, don’t look at the rainbows, look through them to the mountain across the valley.

If you look through the rainbows on Sue’s photo above you will see the remnants of dozens  of terraces that once were planted to vines that, along with hundreds of similar vineyard areas, formed the basis of the great Cyprus wine boom.

The Surprising History of Cypriot Wine

I had never tasted a Cypriot wine before we arrived in Pafos for the Cyprus Wine Competition. You might not have tasted one either because most of the wines are consumed in Cyprus these days and only a trickle enters export market pipelines. But this wasn’t always the case.

Cypriot wines were once well known and some even famous in European wine circles according to the Oxford Companion to Wine‘s history. Pliny the Elder, the Roman “Robert Parker,” praised them, for example. Cyprus fell under Venetian influence for a time and its  wines circulated widely. I have a reproduction of a book called Wines of Cyprus by Giovanni Mariti that was written to explain Cypriot wine to international consumers. It is dated 1772. and was first published in Florence.wines-of-cyprus

Commandaria, Cyprus’s signature sweet wine, commands an important role in the country’s wine history. Indeed, Wines of Cyprus talks of little else. Along with Tokaj, Vin de Constance and a few other treasured sweet wines, Commandaria was a “King of Wines and Wine of Kings.” Ironically, my book was written during the period of Ottoman rule when the Cypriot wine trade and the industry itself slowly declined in importance.

Cyprus came under British administration between 1878 and 1960 (so UK electrical plugs are needed and autos drive on the left side of the road). Cyprus “sherry” became an important export during this period — we saw a few old bottles at the Cyprus Wine Museum in Erimi Village — but this trade has faded away, too.

Look Through the Rainbow

A variety of circumstances led to a boom in production and export of cheap basic wines and grape must concentrate (some of which was reconstituted and fermented as British wine) in the years after the British exit.  The grapes to make these wines (international and indigenous varieties) came from the vineyards we saw (and many others like them) when we looked through the rainbow at Vlassides.  Yields might have been high in those days, but it is pretty clear that production costs were high, too. No machine harvesting on steep terraced slopes.

The Cyprus export boom collapsed in two stages according to the industry people we talked with.  Competition from cheaper New World producers such as Chile and Australia crowded Cypriot wine out of some markets. The collapse of the Soviet Union drained dry previously reliable Eastern European markets for basic wine. The Cypriot bulk wine boom went to bust.

A Quality Revolution

The movement from unmarketable quantity to desirable quality began in the 1980s, according to the Oxford Companion, led by the “Big 4” producers: KEO, SODAP (a cooperative), ETKO and Loel. Change accelerated after 2004 when Cyprus joined the European Union. Subsidies to cheap wine exports ended and uneconomic vineyards like the one we saw were grubbed up.

The contrast between past and future was clear to see as we talked wine with Sophocles  Vlassides at his modern facility tasting the tense, structured wines that he makes from international varieties (perhaps reflecting his UC Davis training) and indigenous varieties, too.  Sue and I took home a bottle of his excellent Syrah and Panos Kakaviatos, who was in our media group, opted for an unexpected Sauvignon Blanc.

What is the state of the Cyprus wine industry today? Are there pots of gold at the vineyard rainbow ends ? Or have I stretched this metaphor a bit too far? Come back in two weeks (after Independence Day) for observations and analysis.

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In the meantime, here are some rainbows for you to ponder.

 

Back to the Future? First Impressions of Wine and Wine Tourism in Cyprus

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Cyprus is known for many things: culture (fantastic archaeological sites), cuisine (haloumi, the wonderful grilling cheese), international politics (the ongoing dispute with Turkey over the island itself), and tourism (beautiful beach resorts).

Cypriot wine? Probably not on your radar for reasons I will explain in next week’s column. But that wasn’t always the case. Commandaria, a wonderful sweet wine, was once treasured throughout Europe along with Tokaj, Sauternes, and Vin de Constance. Cyprus Sherry was popular, too, and bulk wine exports once found their way to Russia, the UK, and elsewhere.

Cyprus wine today? Not much seen outside of Cyprus. But that might be changing. Stay tuned.

Pafos: Cultural Capital of Europe

Sue and I came to Cyprus as guests of the Cyprus Tourist Organization to attend the 10th Cyprus Wine Competition in Pafos and spend several days exploring wineries and wine tourism opportunities. This is the first of several columns that report what we learned from this fascinating experience.

Our first day in Pafos was spent recovering from jet lag and taking in a few sights. It was a short walk from the luxurious Almyra Hotel  where we stayed to the archaeological park (a Unesco World Heritage site!) where we saw beautiful mosaics featuring wine-swilling Dionysus (how appropriate) and saw the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra was setting up for a lunch concert.

Wait! The Berlin Philharmonic? Yes. Pafos is a European Capital of Culture for 2017 and there is a fantastic line-up of events planned for the year. The concert was sold out, so we couldn’t stay, but we could hear the music quite clearly from the balcony of our hotel room. A sweet introduction to Cyprus!

Cyprus Wine Industry Symposium

It was back to business the next day. I gave a keynote speech to a Cypriot wine industry symposium that also included speakers from OIV, local university research projects, and the head of the wine competition.  Panos Kakaviatos, who was part of our group of international visitors, has written about this event and the Cyprus wine industry more generally on his blog Wine-Chronicles.com — you should check it out.

I spoke about the lessons that can be learned, both positive and negative, from successful wine regions and several of the points I made seemed to strike a chord with the Cypriot winemakers. Here’s a quick summary of the key take-aways.

Competition versus Cooperationc1

Wine is a very competitive business, but one lesson I have learned is that successful wine regions find ways to set aside retail competition to a certain degree in order to cooperate to build reputation and the regional “brand.” Cooperation is the key, both among wineries and also with local and regional tourist and government authorities.  There really is strength in numbers.

This simple point seemed to resonate with many people in the room who commented about it later that day and when I talked with them later in the week, too. Everyone seemed to believe that Cyprus wine players need to learn to work together more effectively and to build the public-private partnerships that are so useful in other wine regions.

I sensed that there was pent-up frustration about the lack of teamwork. My goal in giving talks like this one isn’t so much to tell people what to do as to give them something to think about and if my remarks stimulate some thought and eventual action in this regard I will be very satisfied.

Wine Tourism Leverage

Since we were visiting as guests of the tourist authority, I spent a little time talking about how important wine tourism can be, not just to sell wine, but to create brand ambassadors who will carry the story of your winery and region with them when they go home. Cyprus has the raw materials — excellent wineries and world-class tourism infrastructure. Leveraging these resources through wine tourism seems like the logical next step.

But it will take work (and teamwork) to accomplish this. One winemakers told me frankly that no wine tourists came to his winery. Plenty of tourists visited — they stopped by, tasted wines, and made purchases. Indeed, his winery could not survive without the tourist trade.

But they are not wine tourists, he said. The haven’t come to this part of Cyprus because of the wine.  Creating real wine tourism, where wine drives the agenda, that’s a challenge.

One Wine to Rule Them All?

Readers of this column already know the I am skeptical of the idea that every region needs to have a “signature variety” of wine. Napa has Cab, Argentina has Malbec, New Zealand has Sauvignon Blanc. We need to put all our chips on one grape variety to power our wine industry, too. That’s the conventional logic and I have my doubts.53994_lg

As it happens, Cyprus is having its own “signature” wine discussion just now and so my comments got some attention. Commandaria (a.k.a. “the world’s oldest wine”), we were told, was the key to raising the international profile of Cypriot wine.  The Cyprus wine people we talked with were convinced about this. Commandaria will lead the charge and the other wines will gallop behind to victory.

The “internationals” in our little group were unconvinced by this strategy and hopefully our comments were helpful even if we really didn’t change anyone’s mind. Commandaria is a sweet wine, we said, and sweet wines are a small category and a tough sell around the world today. Port struggles to get traction. Commandaria faces a steep climb.

The thing about Commandaria is that it is unique to Cyprus and has a distinguished history. But I am not sure that the wine is well known outside of traditional markets and so selling it requires expensive consumer education resources, which might more effectively deployed elsewhere.

It might be better to have another wine lead the way, one that fits into a more popular market segment. Xinistera, for example, a delightful dry white wine with instant appeal.  More about this is future columns.

Everyone Loves a Winner

Finally, I noted that many wine regions use wine rankings and competition results to promote their wines. Consumers are drawn to lists and ratings like the Classification of 1855, for example, or the Wine Spectator Top 100. I suggested that Cyprus had some work to do to get the word out about its finest wines in this way.

The wine competition we came to Pafos to attend, for example, seemed to be a Cypriot secret. It was difficult to find any mention of it on the internet. And the results from previous  years were nearly impossible to find. A missed opportunity to cultivate interest by promoting the best that Cyprus has to offer.

It didn’t take long for this message to sink in and for action to be taken, which is great. I am hoping that the 2018 wine competition will more thoroughly publicized and that the wineries will be able to leverage the results more forcefully, both in domestic and export markets.

In the meantime, the 2017 Decanter World Wine Awards results have been released and 78 Cypriot wines received recognition. That’s a great opportunity for the Cyprus wine industry to blow its own horn and for consumers to begin to learn about the excellent wines made on this beautiful island.

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Greetings and thanks to everyone we met on our brief visit to Cyprus. Special thanks to Maria, Panos, Per, Jean-Claude, Dimetri, Georgios, Patrick, Pambos, Mary, and Nektarios. (More thanks to come in future columns.) Come back next week for an analysis of the state of the Cypriot wine industry today and the unexpected history behind it.

Questioning the Conventional Wisdom About the Spanish Wine Industry

riscalThe conventional wisdom is that Spain is an Old World wine country (along with France, Italy, Portugal, etc.) and it is easy to see why. First there is geography. Old World = Europe. QED. End of discussion.

Old World Wine

Then there is the matter of wine culture. One of the characteristics of Old World wine countries is that their per capita consumption levels, once very high, have been falling for decades. Spain’s per capita consumption today is less than 20 liters per person, for example, but was more than 100 liters a head in the 1890s and more than 60 liters per capita as recently as the 1980s.

Finally there is the obvious factor of age. Wine has been made in Spain for a very long time. It was hard not to think “Old World” when we were in the Toro region, for example, to visit Pagos del Rey winery. Gnarly goblet-trained Tinto de Toro vines (the local Tempranillo variety) looked as old as centuries and some of them really were since phylloxera never invaded these vineyards. At the winery we were served “young wines” made with grapes from”only” 70 year old vines. Vines as old as 130+ years provided grapes for the senior wines. Amazing.

Confusing the Issue

John Kenneth Galbraith famously argued that the conventional wisdom is always wrong and there is something to be said for that in this case if we think of Spain in terms of its wine industry instead of its location, wine culture or aged vines.

One of most interesting stops on our recent tour of Spanish wine regions, for example, was at Marqués de Riscal in Elciego.  This is one of the oldest wineries in the Rioja region, although you might not realize it as you approach town, your eyes distracted by the post-modern Frank Gehry-designed winery hotel that sits on the hill above the historic cellars. Fantastic.

The winery was founded in 1858, which makes it old, but not much older than the “New World” Charles Krug winery in Napa Valley, which dates from 1861. Wine is much older in Spain than California, but the wine industry perhaps not as much.

Pagos del Rey, for example, is part of the prominent Felix Solis group, one of Spain’s most important wine producers. Their inspiring true story of how a mom and pop wine operation grew to grand dimensions reminded me of the Gallo family in the United States. But Gallo is actually older — starting out in the post-prohibition 1930s — while Felix Solis’ roots date to the 1950s.

It’s a New World After All

The modern Spanish wine industry is relatively young (much  younger than those Toro grape vines). Some might argue it was re-born in 1986, when Spain entered what is now the European Union, and began to compete head-on with wine from France and Italy. Competitive pressures, plus EU wine market reforms and adjustment aid, helped Spain’s wine industry reinvent itself for the 21st century.

The result is in some respects a New World wine industry in the Old World.  Spain is not unique in this, but it is a very good example of the successful transformation of the wine sector.  Bodega Finca Constancia in Otero is a perfect illustration of where this path has led. Founded in 2001 by the Gonzalez Byass group, it features beautiful vineyards (including several experimental blocks developed along with a university research team) and a state of the art winery that hugs the ridge line, blending into the landscape.

The wines at Finca Constacia are impressive, deftly balancing tradition and transformation. We saw several examples of this fusion during our time in Spain.  Bodegas y Viñedos Viña MayorGrupo MatarromeraBodegas Manzanos, Torres, and Campo Viejo were particularly striking, each in its own way. And the wines in all these cases display that special quality that we often call “authenticity” today, although I prefer “integrity.” (Why? Long story — I will save it for another time and place.)

Conventional Wisdom Risks

The conventional wisdom sees the adoption of international styles and techniques as the way forward, or at least one important path, and I think this is correct, which is one reason I am so optimistic about Spain’s wine fortunes. But I think it is possible to go too far in pursuit of wines that will seem familiar to global market consumers — so I urge due caution.

A few years ago I was invited to participate in a seminar on Spanish wines in the U.S. It was a great experience and I learned a lot, but there was one rather shocking thing that happened that is relevant here. At the end of the first day some of the local sommeliers went out to dinner with our seminar leader and a six pack of Spanish wines from various regions and varieties, all made in an international style (stainless steel, a bit of new oak, etc.)

They returned the next morning and were more than a little subdued. It seems that they had played that “blind tasting” guessing game with the wines and, well, they really couldn’t tell them apart, even with a little cheating. The producer of the wines, it seems, had sacrificed integrity for marketability through international style.

They were nice wines — you  wouldn’t hesitate to drink them —  but it was hard to see why you would choose them over other wines on the market. It is important to make wines for today’s consumer, but not to forget the old world qualities that make them special.1982

Old World Revisited

Santiago Salinas made the argument in a different way when we visited him at Bodegas Montecillo, which is part of the Osborne wine group.  Santiago had arranged a tasting of his Gran Reserva Seleción Especial wines from the 1975, 1982, 1999, and 2001 vintages (1982 was a stellar year in Rioja and we tasted it from a magnum, so this was a treat).

He wanted us to see Rioja’s history by tasting wines made when blending of grape varieties was more important than it is at some houses today and before the impact of climate change was so strong. The wines were more subtle and elegant when, after some years in barrel and bottle, they were finally released, Santiago suggested.

The old wines were wonderful the way that old Burgundy can be wonderful and Santiago’s point was clearly made. Hopefully today’s wines will taste this good when they are thirty or forty years old, but maybe they won’t. Maybe we will find that something has been lost along the way and so perhaps we should be working hard to prevent that.

I am not one who thinks the the most important quality of a wine is its ability to age well, but a tasting like this provides valuable context and a warning not to push the conventional wisdom further than is wise.

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Special thanks to Santiago Salinas and Marina Garcia for their hospitality.

Eight Flavors of American Wine? Reflections on Sarah Lohman’s New Book

51svceuoerl-_ac_us160_Sarah Lohman, Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine. Simon & Schuster, 2016.

Sue and I have been reading Eight Flavors, a fascinating new book by Sarah Lohman about food products that have transformed the American palate. Once exotic, now they are ubiquitous. Can’t imagine American cuisine without them.

This Changes Everything?

Lohman passes on coffee, chocolate and a few other “usual suspects,” she says, because they have been examined in great depth by other authors. Fair enough. So what are her eight flavors?  They are: Black Pepper, Vanilla (which replaced rose water as a flavoring), Chili Powder, Curry Powder, Soy Sauce, Garlic, MSG (the umami flavor), and the most recent addition, Sriracha

Each chapter presents the history of the flavor along with elements of Lohman’s  personal investigation and a handful of recipes, too. In its approach and deft writing syle Eight Flavors reminds me of another of my favorite food books, Lizzie Collingham’s Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors. rogue_sriracha_stout__32156-1423592442-451-416High praise!

The story of Sriracha is particularly interesting to me because I have watched as this product and its intense flavor have moved from “ethnic” to mainstream right before my eyes. Once upon a time I found Sriracha mainly at Vietnamese restaurants, but now it is everywhere: in ketchup, potato chips and popcorn, jerky, candy canes, lip balm, cans of baked beans, a special Big Mac sauce, and even craft beer (the Rogue brewery makes a Sriracha hot stout beer). Amazing.

Readers are treated to a personal tour of the huge California factory where Sriracha is made, which is also amazing. What’s the next big flavor? There are several possibilities, but Lohman thinks that pumpkin spice might become flavor number nine.

I haven’t seen Sriracha wine yet, but I suppose it is only a matter of time.There is a version of Sriracha from Colorado that is flavored with Ravenswood Zinfandel! Searching the web I discovered someone who added Sriracha to a glass of red wine (not a total success) and an innovative wine-Sriracha pairing event (looks like it sold out).

What About Wine?

Eight Flavors got me thinking (which usually means trouble) about wine. Are there eight flavors that have entered the world of wine and transformed it the way that chili powder and soy sauce have changed food in America? Not particular wines or wine brands (although it is difficult not to think that way), but flavors associated with the wines?

Here are a few half-baked ideas that I have come up with to get things started. I invite you to comment on my choices and to suggest wine flavors of  your own.

Lemonade. This flavor is suggested by the great success of Gallo’s Thunderbird wine in the 1950s. Thunderbird took flight when a Gallo salesman noticed customers adding lemon drink mix to white port, giving it a fruit flavor that appealed to the American palate of that generation and was so successful that it provided a solid financial foundation for Gallo’s growth. Although Thunderbird fell out of fashion in most areas, the market for fruit-flavored wines has hung around in various forms (Google “fruit-flavored wines” and you will see what I mean). You might think of the many Sangria-style wines as falling into this category, too. Authentic Sangria shows that fruit flavoring done right can be delicious indeed.

Red Coke.  Cola drinks are typically sweet, with balancing acidity, a nice fizz, and served ice cold. Riunite Lambrusco was developed to be “red coke” for the American market — sweetish, fizzy, low in alcohol. It was for many years the best-selling imported wine in America. Riunite on ice, that’s nice — or at least that’s what millions of consumers said. If you are of a certain age you might remember Cold Duck wine, which is still produced under the André California Champagne label. (Canadian readers might recall “Baby Duck” wine.) This cold, soft flavor, or something like it, can be found in a  host of “chill-able” red wines today.

Butterscotch. I am sure you have already guessed that I am talking about a particular style of Chardonnay that partly fueled the Chard boom, then fell out of favor, and is now experiencing a renaissance in some circles. Buttery, slightly sweetish with lashings of oak, this was the taste of the 80s and 90s. That flavor transformed wine more than you might think. It helped introduce Americans to inexpensive Australian wines, for example, and it created a revolution in American vineyards. Fifty years ago there were only a few hundred acres of Chardonnay vines is all of California. Now it is probably the most-planted white wine grape and Chardonnay outsells all other varietal wines, red or white (although Cabernet Sauvignon is catching up).412bv6vgcoxl-_sx258_bo1204203200_

Silver fizz. After reading science editor turned wine writer Jamie Goode’s new book I Taste Red  I have come to understand that taste is complicated — it is hard to separate color, texture, aroma and flavor. They are all mixed together and it is probably impossible (or at least counter-productive) to deconstruct them the way that wine tasting notes often do. With this mind, I want to propose “silver fizz” as a flavor — the flavor of Prosecco and wines like it, which are sweeping through the wine world today much as Siracha has done over in food world. Is the secret the way that Prosecco (or Cava? or Champagne?) tastes, or how it makes you feel? And does it even matter which it is?

Vino Exceptionalism?

Four flavors — it is a start. Somehow I don’t feel like I have captured that transformative dynamic as well as Lohman did with her food flavors. Is it because my choices are poor? In that case, I would appreciate your critique and suggestions.

Or is it because wine is different? Is wine somehow more rooted in traditional methods and flavors and less able to accept or be changed by outside influences? If so, is that a good thing?

See, I told you there would be trouble. Instead of answers I seem to have questions. Typical!

Book Review: Patrick Comiskey on the Untold History of American Rhône

516ssktyc4l-_ac_us160_Patrick J. Comiskey,  American Rhône: How Maverick Winemakers Changed the Way Americans Drink. University of California Press, 2016.

“My name is Mike and I drink Syrah.” “Hi, Mike,” the members of the group reply in unison.

That’s pretty much the way the meetings begin every Thursday night when my chapter of Syrah Drinkers Anonymous convenes. Some members try to hide their Syrah-drinking habit from family and friends, only “coming out” at the meetings. Others are more open, but cautious nonetheless. Everyone remembers the terrible shaming of people who drank Merlot during the Sideways years.

A Success Story

If you take the long view, Syrah and the other Rhône wine grape varieties are an amazing success here in the U.S. and most of Patrick J. Comiskey’s terrific new book is devoted to this story. Comiskey tells his readers pretty much everything about the grapes (including the “curious case” of American Petite Sirah) and traces their long and fascinating U.S. history.

Comiskey’s account highlights key figures (Randall Grahm, Steve Edmunds, Sean Thackery, Manfred Kankl) and key producers and regions (Tablas Creek, the Walla Walla Valley) as well as the story of the influential Rhone Ranger movement.a-a-732-ds-1

Comiskey really knows his stuff — deep research is apparent here — and he writes with a fluid style, so learning about American Rhône is a real pleasure. You don’t have to like Syrah (you don’t even have to like wine!) to enjoy this book and to learn from it.

Biggest Loser

American Rhône is a success, but Syrah has the blues. The latest Nielsen Company data (as reported in Wine Business Monthly) indicate that Syrah/Shiraz sales are down 11.1 percent in the last year in the sales channels that Nielsen monitors. That’s the biggest decline of any segment and comes after several years of falling demand. (The overall U.S. wine market increased by 4.9 percent in the same period.)

Syrah/Shiraz is now just the sixth best-selling red varietal wine in the U.S. market after Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Malbec and Zinfandel. These figures cause my fellow Syrah Drinkers Anonymous members a good deal of distress, although we take comfort in the fact that Syrah is often a component in “Red Blend” and Rosé wines — two market segments that are experiencing booming growth.

What happened to Syrah/Shiraz? Well, that’s the subject of my favorite part of Comiskey’s book (the section is called “Irrational Exuberance”) where he closely examines the complicated domestic and international forces that turned Syrah’s boom into bust. People often talk about Syrah’s decline as if it were all Yellow Tail’s fault, but that’s over-simplified.

Wine Spectator’s Matt Kramer predicted that Syrah would be the next big thing back in 2003, and it looked like he was right for a while until the bottom fell out of the market. Yellow Tail does figure in Comiskey’s analysis, of course, along with Southcorp/Penfolds, two Roberts (Mondavi and Parker) and, inevitably, Sideways. This chapter alone is worth the price of the book to anyone who is interested in wine market trends or history.

American Rhône is a terrific book, well-written and informative. It deserves a place on your wine bookshelf. Highly recommended.

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This is the final Wine Economist column for 2016. See you next year! In the meantime, here’s a Lone/Rhone Ranger blast from the past. Hi-yo, Silver. Away!