The Name Game: Porto, Napa Diplomacy and the Fortified Wine Dilemma

portoThe Association of Port Wine Companies roadshow passed through Seattle recently and Sue and I were fortunate to be invited to attend the Porto and Douro Wines Tasting, a ceremony initiating several local wine trade representatives into the Confraria do Vinho do Porto, and a festive dinner hosted by the winemakers.

The events, which involved wines and representatives from eleven Port houses, had two main purposes. The first and most obvious was to introduce or re-introduce local restaurant and trade people to the Porto and Douro wines and to establish or renew relationships. In other words, this was a sales call and I will talk about this aspect next week. But first I want to discuss a secondary purpose: economic diplomacy.

Protecting the Brand

Champagne and Porto have two of the world’s most valuable regional wine “brands.” Sparkling wines are made all over the world, but Champagne can only comes from the Champagne region of France. Ditto Port wine and the Porto region.

When producers in other regions use these terms generically, they potentially dilute or devalue the brand. It is easy to see why this might be a problem. Trade treaties have enabled Champagne and Porto to assert their intellectual property rights here in the U.S., but with pre-existing commercial use “grandfathered” in. Thus Gallo legally sells inexpensive Andre’s California Champagne and Fairbanks Port.21344

Not all of the grandfathered brands are high volume value wines. Prager Royal Escort  Port, made from Napa Valley Petite Sirah grapes, sells for $90 per bottle for the current 2009 vintage release. It may not be real Porto Port, but it is a wonderful wine.

Champagne, Port and the other key regions would obviously like to see there brand rights more strictly enforced and they hoped to accomplish this as part of the big Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership Agreement (T-TIP) that has been in negotiation between the U.S. and the European Union for some time.

Shifting Political Winds

But the political winds have changed directions (in case you haven’t noticed) and big trade agreements are now pretty much off the table. The incoming Trump administration seems more likely to dismantle existing trade deals than to encourage new ones. The political environment in Europe is no sunnier.

Even a fairly straightforward trade treaty with Canada nearly collapsed at the last minute when officials in the parliament of the Belgian region of Wallonia raised objections. Reminds me of The Mouse that Roared.

Facing this political roadblock, the Porto producers have turned to the art of persuasion — diplomacy. Thus the photo above, which shows George Sandeman at the October 27 Confraria induction ceremony in San Francisco where Boyd Family Vineyards, Freemark Abbey, Jessup Cellars and Schweiger Vineyards were welcomed into the Brotherhood of Port to honor their commitment to respect the traditional use of the Porto brand.

The Napa-Porto Connection

Napa Valley Vintners was also recognized for their work to protect place names. Napa has particular interest in this issue because the Napa brand itself is very valuable and, like Champagne and Port, is at risk of being diluted in various ways. It is no accident, therefore that the Joint Declaration to Protect Wine Place Names and Origins,  which an increasing number of regions are embracing, is also called The Napa Declaration on Place. Porto and Napa were founding members of this initiative.

I asked George Sandeman (the handsome fellow in full Confraria regalia in the photo above) about the situation and he noted that “Napa producers switched away from Champagne on a voluntary basis long ago.  Now nobody in Napa Valley produces Champagne, even though they legally may do so according to US law (those grandfathered in the 2006 Wine Accords).  The producers in Napa have made that change as a show of respect to the Champagne region.”

“There has been discussion for several years of doing the same for Port,” he continued, “and now the first handful of Napa producers voluntarily made a switch away from the term “port” to something else, even though they weren’t legally compelled to do so.  It was a sign of respect to Porto and the Port producers, but also an acknowledgment that it is important to “walk the talk” when it comes to respecting and protecting winegrowing place names.”

Not Port: The Name Game

One problem that the makers of Port-style wines face is “the name game” — how to describe their products and market them without using the forbidden terms. It is a tricky business. Poking around our little cellar, for example, I found two examples of winemakers who make interesting wines and work hard to stay inside the lines.mfw

Hedges Family Estate, for example, makes very small quantities of wine from traditional Port grapes (plus a little Cabernet Sauvignon in the example we have). The back label clearly identifies itself as “Fortified Wine,” which accurately describes the process and is one possible generic descriptor of these wines. Unfortunately, the terminology also emphasizes alcoholic strength and not everyone will see that as a positive.

Mosquito Fleet Winery makes a fortified wine called Griffersen Reserve from Touriga Nacional grapes . As with Hedges, the term “Port” is carefully avoided on the package. Small print on the back label describes the product as “dessert wine,” emphasizing sweetness and the after-dinner occasion instead of alcoholic content or production process. This is accurate (at the winery you are served a taste in a small dark chocolate cup– yum!), but is obviously also vague and somewhat limiting as a category.

If you called either of these wines Port they would be easy for consumers to understand. The diplomatic initiative to protect the Port producers’ brand would be more effective if someone could find a generic term that works as well for these wines as “sparkling wine” does for wines made in the Champagne style and method. The lack of such a term means that honest efforts to respect Porto’s rights in theory frequently fail in practice. While Hedges and Mosquito Fleet won’t call their wines “Port” nearly everyone else does when they refer to them.

What’s the best way to honor and protect the Port brand while also allowing U.S. producers to identify and successfully market their own fine wines? The name game continues.

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Seems like Shirley Ellis could solve the Porto name game dilemma.

 

What’s Ahead for the Wine Economy? 2017 Unified Wine & Grape Symposium

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Sue and I are looking forward to the 2017 Unified Wine & Grape Symposium, which is set for January 24-27, 2017 in Sacramento, California. The Unified Symposium is the largest wine industry gathering in North America, drawing as many as 14,000 people for the sessions, trade show, and gatherings.

This year’s conference features a number of interesting sessions, some of which are presented in both English and Spanish. I will paste the program below for your inspection. Three sessions particularly caught my eye this year.

And Now For Something Completely Different200x200

Eric Asimov, the New York Times‘ wine critic, will give the luncheon address on Tuesday January 24. I am thinking that Asimov’s talk will be a bit different from the 2016 lunch speaker — Fred Franzia!

Fred didn’t pull many punches in challenging his audience and gave us a lot to think about. I expect Asimov’s take to be completely  different, but equally challenging.

Stephen Rannekleiv of Rabobank and Damien Wilson of Sonoma State University will present an analysis of “The Global Market for Wine” on Wednesday afternoon and I will certainly be in the audience. What a big topic! I’m looking forward to seeing what particular trends they pick out and how they see the wine economy developing given all the economic and political changes going on.

State of the Industry

The “State of the Industry” session will go live at 8:30 on Wednesday morning and I will be back as both moderator and speaker. The program is always interesting and draws a huge standing-room-only crowd as the photo above shows.

Joining me this year are three terrific speakers: Nat DiBuduo of Allied Grape Growers,
Danny Brager from The Nielsen Company and Glenn Proctor of Ciatti Company. I’ll be interested to hear what Nat, Danny and Glenn have to say about the wine industry in 2016 and what’s ahead for 2017 and beyond. They really know their stuff — should be a terrific session. Hope to see you at the Unified. Cheers!

Unified Wine & Grape Symposium Program

Tuesday January 24

7:30 am – 6:30 pm Registration

11:30 am – 1:30 pm Keynote Speaker Luncheon
Eric Asimov, New York Times, New York
Separate Registration Fee Required

2:00 pm – 4:00 pm Sauvignon blanc: Vine to Bottle (includes tasting)
Joint Grapegrowing & Winemaking Breakout Session

2:00 pm – 4:00 pm Focus, Focus, Focus: Listen to Learn
Marketing/Public Relations Breakout Session

2:00 pm – 4:00 pm Finding Value in Sustainability
Business/Operations Breakout Session

4:30 pm – 6:30 pm Welcome Reception

Wednesday January 25

7:30 am – 5:30 pm Registration

8:30 am – 11:00 am State of the Industry
General Session

9:00 am – 6:00 pm Exhibits Open

1:00 pm – 2:15 pm Not Your Ordinary Yeast: Using Innovated Strains and Fermentation Techniques to Increase Wine Quality and Drive Wine Styles
Winemaking Breakout Session

1:30 pm – 3:30 pm Looking Forward: How Grapevine Clean Plant Strategies Can be Improved
Grapegrowing Breakout Session

1:30 pm – 3:30 pm The Global Market for Wine
Business & Operations Breakout Session

1:30 pm – 3:30 pm Making the Most of Your Message: Building a Bridge Between Winegrowing, Marketing & PR to Effectively Reach Today’s Consumer
Marketing/Public Relations Breakout Session

2:30 pm – 3:45 pm Eggs, Uprights, Puncheons and More: Making Your Best Wine in Unusual Containers
Winemaking Breakout Session

4:00 pm – 6:00 pm Regional Wine Tasting

6:15 pm – 8:00 pm UC Davis Viticulture & Enology Alumni, Students, Faculty and Friends Reception

Thursday January 26

8:00 am – 4:00 pm Registration

9:00 am – 4:00 pm Exhibits Open

9:00 am – 11:30 am Adapt or Go Extinct: Removing Barriers to Our Industry’s Success
General Session

9:00 am – 10:30 am Presentada en español (Presented in Spanish)

Tecnologías de vanguardia para la producción de uva y elaboración de vino
Sesión General en español

Leading-edge Technology in Grapegrowing and Winemaking
Spanish General Session

10:45 am – Noon Presentada en español (Presented in Spanish)

La decisión inteligente de utilizar material de propagación limpio
Sesión en Español de Viticultura

The Smart Decision of Using Clean Plant Material
Spanish Grapegrowing Breakout Session

10:45 am – Noon Presentada en español (Presented in Spanish)

El Arte de Encontrar el Balance Ideal de un Vino
Sesión en Español de Enología

The Art of Finding a Wine’s Ideal Balance (Sweet Spot)
Spanish Winemaking Breakout Session

11:30 am – 1:00 pm Hosted Buffet Luncheon

1:15 pm – 3:15 pm Cooperage Alternatives
Winemaking English Tour

1:30 pm – 3:30 pm Presentada en español (Presented in Spanish)

Alternativas de Tonelería
Tour en Español de Enología

1:15 pm – 2:15 pm FSMA – Food Safety Modernization Act
Winemaking Breakout Session

1:15 pm – 3:15 pm Beyond the Tasting Room: Marketing Your Wines Today
Marketing/Public Relations Breakout Session

1:15 pm – 3:15 pm Vineyard Mechanization: Moving to the “No Touch Vineyard?
Grapegrowing Breakout Session

1:15 pm – 3:15 pm To Grow or Not to Grow: While the Common Wisdom Is That Growth is Good, is it Really? And if it is Good for You, How to do It?
Business & Operations Breakout Session

1:15 pm – 3:15 pm Mechanization
Grapegrowing English Tour

1:30 pm – 3:30 pm Presentada en español (Presented in Spanish)

Mecanización
Tour en Español de Viticultura

2:30 pm – 3:30 pm Beyond the Bottle:  Packaging Innovations for Winemakers
Winemaking Breakout Session

Talking About My Generation: Wine Spectator Turns 40

WS111516_CoverUS.indd“Don’t look back,” Satchel Paige said, “something might be gaining on you.” That’s probably good advice in most circumstances, but sometimes it pays to glance over your shoulder to get some perspective on the present and inspiration for what’s ahead.

That’s what Wine Spectator magazine has done in their November 15, 2016 issue, which celebrates their 40th year. The very first issue was dated April 1-15, 1976.  A lot has changed since then. The magazine has changed, the wine world has changed, and we have all changed, too.

Start at the Beginning

The editors confront all this change in many interesting ways. Several illustrated features that look back at memorable wine world events and trends in each decade and provide interesting profiles of the important personalities who shaped the industry and our perception of it.

Publisher Marvin Shanken and the senior editors provide personal reflections and a gallery of covers captures the dynamic wine world through colorful images. Harvey Steiman’s contribution is an intriguing essay on “The Future of Wine.”

Although I appreciate all the essays and features, I admit that my favorite part of this issue is the reproduction of the very first Wine Spectator that is included with the magazine.  It is impossible to resist the temptation to compare the 288-page current Wine Spectator with its 11-page ancestor. A lot of the change in wine can be seen dramatically just be looking at these two publications side-by-side.

1976 and All Thatwinespectatordebutissue

Many of my friends read Wine Spectator for its wine reviews and ratings — they start at the back of the magazine, not the front — but the 1976 issue provides very little in the way of consumer guidance. It was more of a wine trade publication, filled with news and features not wines and scores. The page one headline, for example, was “Hearings set to define ‘estate bottled’ wines,” something of more interest to industry readers than consumers.

“California wines win high awards” is the lead article on page 10 and, since it was 1976, the year of the Judgement of Paris, I expected to read about the now legendary triumph of California wines over their more famous French rivals. But the Paris tasting was on May 24, 1976 — more than a month in the future when this issue hit the streets.

The awards that Wine Spectator reported here were those given at the Oenological Institute’s International Wine Awards in London and the big California winners were Inglenook and Italian Swiss Colony, both then owned by the United Vintners. The 1972 Inglenook Petite Sirah received the highest mark of any American wine while several Italian Swiss Colony wines were awarded silver medals. Italian Swiss made no vintage-dated wines at the time, according to the article, something that set them apart from most of the wines judged in this international tasting.

It’s a Corker!

Wine Spectator today is filled with advertisements — especially the 40th anniversary issue, which features many colorful full-page tributes by industry supporters. Not many ads in the 1976 issue by comparison. My favorite is “It’s a Corker! from Paul Masson,” which highlights the real cork stopper in the “new generic magnums” of Burgundy, Chabils, and Sauterne.

Other ads promoted Concannon’s Muscat Blanc, Ambassador’s Colombard Rosé, Voltaire’s Zinfandel and Chenin Blanc (Voltaire was a Geyser Peak Winery brand), B&G, Sebastiani, and Llords & Elwood (“makers of ultra-premium, award winning champagne, table wines, sherries and port”).

Wine Spectator today features both more advertisements and very different ones. Wine ads dominate, but you will also find those bought by non-wine companies that seek to promote their lifestyle products to the affluent readership base.

Back to the Future

A lot has changed since Wine Spectator #1 and Harvey Steiman’s essay sums it up very well. Back in the day when Steiman first discovered his interest in wine the world was much simpler. Baby boomers understood that Old World trumped New World and pretty much nothing could beat France (Bordeaux for reds, Steiman writes, and Burgundy for whites).

The boomers’ challenge has been to broaden their understanding of wine (more countries and regions) and to deepen it, too, learning about more varieties and styles. We have come a long way, but Steiman thinks there is still a long way to go for us to fully appreciate,  embrace and enjoy the wonder and diversity that wine promises.

Talking About Generations

He is optimistic about the future, pinning his hopes in part on the Millennials, who are undisciplined in good ways and more open to new places, faces, and experiences. Starting from 2016 instead of 1976 and with Millennial attitudes, the sky could be the limit. Fingers crossed.

I think Steiman is right about this, but it is important to appreciate (as I am sure he does) that the generational shift is not the whole story. Generational categories sometimes hide as much as they reveal. We think of baby boomers as driving the wine boom in the U.S., for example, but don’t forget that most boomers don’t drink wine and a great many of them consume no alcohol at all. Sometimes the changing patterns within and across generational groups are as important as the differences between them.

It is important to put wine in context. The world of wine in 1976, as represented by that first issue, was pretty closed. If you look at recent Wine Spectator issues, on the other hand, you can see that it is not just wine that has changed but our idea of wine and how we relate to it, which I believe reflects changing social patterns generally, and not just about wine. For readers of Wine Spectator, wine is not just a drink but part of a sophisticated lifestyle, which is why food and travel are featured so prominently in the magazine and celebrities make frequent appearances, too.

Congratulations on Your (and Our) Success

Wine has been a success in the United States because it has become more and more relevant to the way that consumers live their lives now. As the cultural context continues to change, wine will need to find its meaning and its place. The fact, which Steiman highlights, that wine is not one thing but a great many, gives us confidence that the best days are still to come.

Congratulations to everyone at Wine Spectator for a great 40 years of telling wine’s tale. Looking forward to the next chapter in your (and our) story.

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Second Thoughts on Wine Strategies for Georgia, the Cradle of Wine

127895The Republic of Georgia is a wine economy in transition from its former status as a main supplier of wine to Russia and the former Soviet countries to an emerging position with sales in these markets plus Western Europe, North America and Asia.

Conventional Wisdom?

Last week’s column reported on the main sectors of the Georgian wine industry and presented a working hypothesis I developed before our recent trip there. Home production of wine for family use is very important in Georgia and crowds out the commercial product to a great extent, so the focus is on exports. But what strategic focus is best: which wines and which markets?

The traditional markets in Russia and the former Soviet nations represent the past, I hypothesized. The future? The most distinctive element of Georgian wine today are the high quality natural qvevri wines that have been much in the news recently, but is that too small a niche to support the industry? And production of these wines is very limited in any case.

So by process of elimination, I said,  Georgia needs to focus on what’s left — distinctive indigenous grape variety wines made in a clean international style that can compete in global export markets like the U.K., U.S. and Canada.

That is a conventional idea, I noted at the end of last week’s column, and I am generally suspicious of conventional wisdom. Georgia is an unconventional wine country, so I needed to learn more. I’m still trying to make up my mind, but I think my hypothesis was both right and wrong, too. Here is my report.

Orovela Saperavi: Export Onlyimage_2408901_full

If you want to see what the future of Georgian export wines in the international style might look like consider Orovela. But don’t look for these wines in Georgia — they are strictly for export and are essentially unknown in their country of origin. You can, however, find them in the United Kingdom at Waitrose stores and Whole Foods and in restaurants, too, where they are possibly the most successful Georgian wine in the market.

Current exports to the U.K., the U.S. and other markets are fairly small at 40,000 bottles, but there are plans to ramp up quickly to 200,000 bottles and then a million bottles in a few years. That’s big by Georgian standards.

The name, Orovela comes from a traditional plowing song, but the project is as contemporary as can be. Brothers Giorgi and Vasili Sulkhanishvili saw an opportunity for Georgian wine exports, began investment in 2000, and rolled out the brand in 2004. There is one red wine, a Orovela Saperavi,  and Oro chacha, which is Georgia’s signature grape spirit (think grappa). oro5-160x284

Quality was a key factor right from the start and this has paid off. Jancis Robinson declared the 2004 Orovela the best Georgian wine she ever tasted, for example. A search of the Waitrose website reveals that the Saperavi is a “buyer’s choice” selling for £16.79. Vasili told us that the wine is available in selected East Coast markets in the U.S. and sells for $30-$35 in shops and perhaps $100 in restaurants.

The packaging of both the wine and the chacha is beautiful and effective in communicating the wine’s origin and story. Orovela is a completely professional project, carefully designed and tightly focused, reflecting, I believe, the brothers’ international drinks industry experience.

Orovela isn’t the only example of an international-style wine made with Georgian grapes for export markets. We visited both Chateau Mukhrani and Telavi Wine Cellar and were impressed with the substantial investment and obvious commitment to quality.

The idea that Georgia could be successful in global markets with wines like these is certainly valid.But is it the best strategy for the industry? These markets are insanely competitive and effective product differentiation is critical. Are these wines different enough (there is little room for “me too” products) and can that difference and the quality be communicated effectively as Orovela has done?

Back to the Future?p1110808

I wasn’t prepared for what I discovered when we started tasting natural qvevri wines and meeting the winemakers. The wines varied a good deal, of course, but many of them were simply stunning and not at all the rustic products that I imagined. Wines from Gotsa Family Wines, Pheastant’s Tears, Iago’s Wine Cellar and the Alaverdi Monatstery especially stood out. The wines had real tension — they were alive in the glass. No funk, nothing mousy, just great wine. I was really impressed.

I admit that visiting the wineries and meeting the people made a difference, as it always does. I was moved by Iago Bitarishvili’s hard work and humility, for example, and excited by Beka Gotsadzes’ energy and ingenuity. The fact that these people can make natural wines like this using traditional Georgian methods is something to celebrate. The wines and the stories that come with them are the product differentiation I was looking for.

Maybe these are the wines that Georgia should highlight, I thought. Certainly they tell an authentic story of Georgia and its wines. But there are problems. The domestic market for such wine is limited, as I explained last week, and natural wines are a niche (albeit a growing one) in the global market. In any case, production of these natural qvevri wines is small and the best makers routinely sell out now. Market expp1110789ansion requires new investment and new players.

The natural qvevri wines are a great symbol for Georgia and its wines, but can they open doors for other Georgian wines? Not sure.

Past is Prologue?

My confusion reached a peak when we visited Teliani Valley winery, which is a large diversified producer. Production is about 3 million bottles divided 30% domestic, 70% exports, 30% semi-sweet wines for the traditional markets, 70% dry wines, and 90% conventional wines with 10% made in qvevri.

After a brief tour of the big factory-style facility, we were asked to choose wines to taste. Could we try three red wines, I asked? An international-style wine, a qvevri product and one of the semi-sweet wines popular in Russia and other traditional markets.

The wines were produced and the results were interesting. The oak-aged international Saperavi and the qvevri  wines were fine, but not especially memorable. No electricity here. Well made, but not distinctive.2014042019

The semi-sweet wine was different, which caught me by surprise.  100% Saperavi from the Kindzmarauli vineyard, it was fruity and, well, delicious. To paraphrase my favorite philosopher, Charles Barkley, it tasted like itself — it was good because it wasn’t trying to be something else. It was the surprise hit of the tasting. It was the wine that we would want to taste again.

Sweetish red wines enjoy a growing market in the U.S. (although their sweetness isn’t always advertised). High quality wines like this might have a bright future, not the dim past that I had imagined.

One Wine to Rule Them All?

My working hypothesis was based on the conventional idea that Georgia needed to choose a clear, simple strategy to move forward in the global markets — to decide which of its wines to take the lead.

But Georgian wine isn’t one thing, it is many things. And I think any attempt to over-simplify — to choose the one wine style to rule them all — is bound to fail.

International style, natural qvevri wines, and the semi-sweets, too. These are all Georgia wines and Georgia is all of them and more, too. My hypothesis was off base, but the journey of discovery it provoked has taught me a lot.

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Thanks to all the wine producers who met with us during our Georgia expedition and to the Georgian National Tourism Association for all their help and encouragement.

Republic of Georgia: First Impressions of a Wine Industry in Transition

qvevri1Sue and I were fortunate to be able to extend our visit to the Republic of Georgia at the conclusion the  of United Nations World Tourism Organization’s (UNWTO) first Global Conference on Wine Tourism. The conference’s focus was on wine tourism, but we wanted to learn more about the Georgian wine industry itself.

Georgia’s DNA

As I explained in an earlier column, I came to Georgia full of questions about the wine industry here and with a preliminary hypothesis to help me shape the inquiry. Here’s what I was thinking.

Georgian wine is very old and the wine culture is strong. I have never been anywhere where wine was so central to the culture. Wine and vine were everywhere we looked. Wine grapes were a central element, for example, of a Soviet-era war memorial we saw in Sighnaghi. And grape vines are at the heart of the image of Georgia as a Christian nation. Saint Nino fashioned the first cross using her own hair to bind two lengths of grape vine. Wine is Georgia’s DNA.

A great deal of the wine that is consumed is produced by families for their own use and to give to friends and neighbors. The fact of such large family production necessarily shapes the market. Not much imported wine enters Georgia, for example. And a great deal of the commercially produced wine must be exported.

The Russia Factor

Russia was for many  years the largest export market for Georgian wine and because of this the focus was on semi-sweet red wines made in state-owned factories and often sold in bulk. Quantity was a priority over quality. But then came the Russian embargo of Georgian and Moldovan wines in 2006 and in an instant the most important market, accounting for perhaps 80 percent of sales, was gone and did not return until 2013.vino1mo

The Russian embargo was the worst thing that could have happened to the Georgian wine industry in the short term and the best thing in the long run. In retrospect it is easy to see that such complete reliance upon a single foreign market for wine sales was not a healthy situation.

The sudden loss of that market forced Georgian producers to develop new markets, improve quality to be competitive in those markets, and find strategies for product differentiation to raise margins and secure market niches.

Silk Road to China

A recent report lists Georgia’s five largest export markets as Russia, Ukraine, China, Kazakhstan and Poland although there have been substantial sales increases (albeit from a low base) to Germany, the UK, and Canada.

The recent  rise in the Chinese market has been particularly noteworthy and follows on investments in Georgia wine shops and culinary centers that were established in China. There are ambitious plans to open 100 Georgian wine houses there.

One wine executive we talked with noted a “Silk Road” connection that works in Georgia’s favor. Georgia has negotiated a preferential trade agreement with China and Chinese traders and investors who visit the country taste and enjoy the Georgian wines, learn about the country’s 8000 year wine history and its Silk Road connection. Nothing could make more sense than to buy Georgian wine with its long history and connection to China. Very smart of Georgian producers to leverage this cultural advantage!p1110666

Natural Wine Buzz

Here in the United States much of the buzz about Georgian wines concerns natural wines made using the traditional qvevri clay containers to ferment and sometimes age the wine wines. Alice Feiring is a leading advocate of these wines and her recent book For the Love of Wine gives a highly personal account of her passion for them.

No one we talked with is sure how much Georgian natural wine is made by families for their own consumption, but commercial production is relatively limited. One producer estimated total output of perhaps 120,000 bottles more or less with several wineries in the 3000 to 6000 bottle capacity range. Little of this wine is sold domestically in Georgia because of its relatively high cost and the existence of family-produced alternatives.

So the focus is clearly on export to markets where natural wines have a strong presence including Italy, France and Denmark, and developing natural wine markets such as UK, Canada and the United States.

Given all of this my working hypothesis when we left for Georgia was this. The Russian market is the past, now they need to look to the future. But which future? The natural qvevri wines are Georgia’s key to differentiation in the new markets, but high quality natural wine is too narrow a category to carry the ambitions of a great wine producing nation.

Process of Elimination

My hypothesis, based on the process of elimination, was that the way forward is for Georgia to focus on increasing the quality of their conventional wines, making them in a clean international style and differentiating by stressing a small number of exciting indigenous grape varieties (perhaps red Saperavi and white Rkatsiteli and various blends) from among the dozens of native Georgia wine grapes.

In other words, I saw Georgia in a very conventional way, much as I view Turkey or Portugal, for example. That was then. What do I think now? Come back next week to find out.

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Thanks to the Georgia National Tourism Administration for inviting us to extend our visit to Georgia and generously providing  us with help in visiitng the wine regions and meeting wine producers.

When Will Wines from Asia Hit U.S. Shelves? (Hint: They’re Already Here!)

chinasaleMost people are surprised when I talk about the growing wine industry in Asia. In working on my next book  Around the World in Eighty Wines I have sampled interesting wines from China, India, Thailand, Korea, Japan, Vietnam and even Bali. And I know there are more out there waiting to be discovered.

Why are people so surprised? Stereotypes are part of the answer — wine isn’t part of the way that we usually think of these countries. But availability is also important. We understand that wine is made in far-away New Zealand because we see it on store shelves. When will Asia wine arrive in the U.S. market?

Flying Below the Radar?

Asian wines are a little more visible in Europe and the U.K. Reports from Paris suggest that Chinese wines can be found in many places (perhaps reflecting in some way the boom in Chinese investment in Bordeaux) and Berry Bros. & Rudd, the London wine seller, proudly advertises its commitment to Chinese wine offerings. Sue and I enjoyed some lovely Thai wines from Monsoon Valley on our last visit there to London, too.

Asia wines are pretty much flying below the radar in the U.S., but they are here if you know where to look. I found a nice Korean raspberry wine at one local Asian market, for example, and a Chinese wine — a Changyu Cabernet — at another. A brand of Chinese wines crafted specifically for the U.S. market appeared a few years ago and made a bit of a splash, but now Dragon’s Hollow wines seem to be hard to find.

Not Sherlock Holmes
sula-sauvignon-blanc-premium-white-wine

You won’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to find wines from India if Rajeev Samant has his way. Samant is founder and CEO of Sula Vineyards and his wines are not just here, but are getting a good deal of attention. They were featured in the May 2016 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine, for example. The Sula Dindori Reserve Shiraz was named an Editors’ Choice and the Sula Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc and Shiraz all received ‘Best Buy’ recommendations.

Wine was probably  not high on priorities when Samant was growing up in Mumbai, but things changed when he came to the United States to attend Stanford University and work for a while in Silicon Valley. Visits to Napa Valley and wineries like Robert Mondavi left their mark.

Coming home to India, Samant accepted the challenge of reviving a family farm near Nashik. He cast about for crops that would provide higher margins and wondered if wine grapes might thrive. With help from a California flying winemaker, he learned tropical viticulture and made the necessary winery investments.

The rest, as they say, is history, but that phrase doesn’t begin to capture the challenges that Samant has faced and overcome over the last 20 years. Sula is today India’s largest winery, with capacity to both service the growing India domestic market and also make targeted export sales.

The Mondavi of Mumbai

The Stanford University alumni magazine published an article about Samant a few years ago, calling him the “Mondavi of Mumbai,” a reference to Robert Mondavi, who was also a Stanford graduate.  It was a bit of journalistic hyperbole then, but the title is not without merit today.tasting1

Samant seems to have followed the Mondavi blueprint in many ways, both in breaking new ground in wine production and promoting his products and the region through wine tourism. The Sula Vineyard winery includes attractive hospitality facilities and hosts concerts and festivals, too.

The operation is world class. Or at least that’s what the experts at The Drinks Business believe — they presented Sula with the prize for  Best Contribution to Wine and Spirits Tourism at their London awards ceremony in May.

Once the Novelty Wears Off …

The thing about wines from unexpected places is this. People will try them once just for the fun of it, but the quality and value have to be there to earn a repeat sale. Sue and I have had an opportunity to taste the Sula lineup and we think the wines pass the test.

No one comes to this URL looking for tasting notes or point scores, so I won’t give any, but the Sauvignon Blanc was particularly noteworthy. It managed to walk a fine line. It was made in an international style — clean, crisp, balanced — but it had its own character, with a rather nice finish that wasn’t Marlborough or Napa or anywhere except Nashik. Not a me-too wine, if you know what I mean, and therefore a good addition to the wine shelf.

Sula isn’t the first wine from Asia to arrive on these shores and I expect we will see more and more of them now, especially if (as I worried in a previous column) the recent UK Brexit vote makes London a less desirable wine market and more of these wines are directed our way. If that’s what happens, I guess London’s loss is our gain.

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This brief video does a good job telling the Sula story. Watch it — I think you will be surprised!

It’s Complicated: Four Things I Think I Learned at Riesling Rendezvous 2016

rrSue and I are back from Riesling Rendezvous 2016, a gathering organized by Chateau Ste Michelle and Dr. Loosen. The conference brings together winemakers and industry leaders from the four corners of Planet Riesling for three days of tasting, discussion and debate.

I have been fortunate to attend four of the five editions of Riesling Rendezvous beginning with RR2 in 2008. Herewith a quick accounting of my takeaways from the 2016 meeting.

1. Talking around in circles

One constant of the conferences has been a tendency to talk around in circles during the formal tastings — twenty dry Rieslings on Monday and twenty more off-dry wines on Tuesday. (Twenty wines for three hundred participants each day– that, my friends, is a lot of stemware to set up, fill, dump, and replace and a lot of bottles to organize.)

Don’t get me wrong — these tastings are amazing. What a great opportunity for winemakers to benchmark their own wines and assess the state of the industry than by tasting forty of the finest Rieslings on earth and hearing from the winemakers. Truly a priceless experience.

But as the discussion unfolds I have found that the same issues seem to come up over and over again. Do you really think this is a dry Riesling (often stated as an accusation more than a question)?  The focus often shifts to the analytical data (RS, TA, PH), which is another set of circles. Then the big question: is this Old World or New World (the wines are tasted blind)? It is as if each wine must fit neatly into a set objective category and, of course, they don’t because wine isn’t really like that.

These debates, unlike the actual tasting of the wines, seem like a dead end to me. Perception of sweet and dry is individual and subjective, so what is dry to you might be sweet to someone else. The analytical data have limited significance, as Jamie Goode, who also attended the meetings, recently explained.

And it doesn’t matter to me very much if someone can guess where the wine is from — wine should not be a game of Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego. In any case, even the experts usually couldn’t answer the Old/New geography question with confidence and there were many surprises when makers and regions were revealed.

Talking around in circles doesn’t lead anywhere by itself, but I think it does serve a purpose. Like the tasting itself, it brings people together and often puts them in a frame of mind to take action either in their own winemaking or address the industry’s collective problems.

2. Actions speak louder …

The good news is that once the Riesling folks get beyond ritual circle talking they can and do accomplish quite a lot. One problem that is often noted is that many consumers think of Riesling as a sweet wine, unaware of its great diversity of styles and unable to figure out what is what. The International Riesling Foundation and its very useful Riesling  scale came out of earlier Riesling Rendezvous gatherings. Not every winery uses the scale as a back label way to communicate with wine drinkers, but those that do give consumers useful information and the confidence to try a new wine.scale-300x103

Chateau Ste Michelle uses the scale, for example, and has seen significant growth in both its Dry and sweeter Harvest Select wines that share shelf space with the big-volume off-dry Columbia Valley bottling. Consumers seem to be able to find the particular wine style they like best and come back from more. That’s progress.

The “winemaker only” sessions at Riesling Rendezvous allow for transfer of knowledge as well as a frank exchange of opinions and it seems like these discussions have had an important impact. The quality standard of Riesling has risen as technical expertise about vineyard and cellar practices have been shared. That’s progress, too.

3. Riesling’s rising tide

One impact of the rising quality tide, as noted earlier, is that even the  experts find it more difficult to tell Old World Riesling from the New World wines. At one point in the dry wine tasting, for example, Tom Barry (of Jim Barry wines) responded to a question by looking at the unidentified wine in his glass and saying simply and approvingly, “This is a nice wine from somewhere.”

The days are gone when Old World wines were typically better made than their New World competitors. Now there are well-made wines from all the regions that participated in the program. But I don’t think the wines have been reduced to a homogeneous “international style” — there is still great diversity even if there is also a trend, well documented in John Winthrop Haeger’s recent book Riesling Rediscovered, toward market-friendly drier styles.12182-110

The big moments of the earlier meetings happened when we found a stunningly good wine (and great wines still earned applause in 2016). This time most of them were stunners and the oohs and aahs were loudest when we encountered a wine that surprised  by walking a tightrope defined by terroir, vintage or technique with great success, like the memorable 2014 Tantalus Old Vines Riesling from British Columbia. The rising quality tide has served to accentuate and reward originality and authenticity, which is a good thing in my view.

4. Keep it complicated (and tell stories)

Riesling is special — it is my Desert Island wine if I have to choose one. The wines that we tasted spoke clearly and truthfully about Riesling’s progress around the world.

But as quality has increased Riesling has also become a bit more like other wines in the sense that the key factors are not simple dichotomies — Old versus New, dry versus sweet, good versus not-so-good and so on. And this is also a good thing.

Riesling Rendezvous revealed a wine world taking the next step from dichotomies to richer ways of thinking. As Ernie Loosen said at the opening session, complicated things need to be understood in complicated ways. How is this done?  People understand complicated things through the stories they tell about them.

And that’s where I see Riesling headed now. The story of what is happening today is complicated and important. It’s time to move beyond dichotomies and develop richer narratives about Riesling wine in the Loosen style that will attract and engage consumers, especially younger ones, by connecting them more persuasively to the people and places behind the wines and to their friends who they invite to share them.

Riesling Rendezvous has an important role to play in shaping those stories and helping producers get their complicated messages out. Can’t wait to see (and taste) the next chapter.

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Thanks to Chateau Ste Michelle and Dr Loosen for sponsoring Riesling Rendezvous and allowing us to attend. Thanks to everyone we met and talked with for your insights.