What Next for U.S. Wine? Unified Symposium’s “State of the Industry”

whatnextSue and I are in Sacramento for the annual Unified Wine & Grape Symposium trade show and meetings that start today and run through Thursday. This is the Western Hemisphere’s largest wine industry gathering and there is a lot going on this year, both on the trade show floor and in the ambitious seminar program.

I will be moderating the “State of the Industry” panel on Wednesday and also speaking about the global wine market “big picture.” Nat DuBuduo of Allied Grape Growers will explain what’s happening in the vineyards (Allied’s most recent newsletter suggests Nat will have some dramatic statistics to reveal), Steve Fredricks of Turrentine Brokerage will examine bulk wine market dynamics and Jon Fredrikson of Gomberg, Fredrikson & Associates will break down the U.S wine market and name his Winery of the Year.

It will be a great session. There’s a lot happening in U.S. wine and this may be the best place to go to learn about it.

Uncertain Prospects

The Economist cover shown here captures the essence of my part of the program. The global economy faces uncertain prospects as we enter 2016. Where will economic growth come from in 2016? I will examine the usual suspects and come up with a surprising answer.

I will also highlight four global  trends that I think will be important for the U.S. wine industry  in 2016. (1) The slowdown in the Chinese economy, which is likely to have significant direct and especially indirect effects. (2) The possible renaissance of the Argentina wine export machine (I have written about this in my last two columns on The Wine Economist).

(3) The “Euro-Doillar Twist” that is taking place as U.S. interest rates rise slowly this year and European interest rates continue to move into negative territory. No one really knows how this will play out in terms of direct and indirect effects, which adds a major element of uncertainty to any economic forecast for 2016.

A Very Good Year?

Finally (4) I’ll talk briefly about the possibility of contagion as economic events in one part of the world cascade through the system. With some countries on the brink of crisis, it wouldn’t take much to set off a chain reaction.

I will conclude my very brief remarks by asking if 2016 will be a very good year for the U.S. wine industry? The answer? Maybe! (Which may come as an optimistic surprise after all the gloom and doom of my previous points.) There are definite positive prospects for U.S. wine this year, but lots of potential problems, too.

What next? Lots of uncertain possibilities. Get ready!

>><<<

A very good year? That calls for Sinatra. “I think of my life as vintage wine …”

Will Argentina Wine Export Growth Return in 2016?


Last week’s column analyzed the reasons Argentina’s wine boom fizzled out. Wine exports to the U.S market have more or less plateaued since 2010 after a decade of rapid growth. Part of the problem, I wrote, is increased competition in the wine market, particularly from the so-called Red Blends that seem to have taken some of the momentum from Argentinian Malbec.

But the biggest factor has been Argentina’s domestic economic policies, which made it very difficult to do business and squeezed the margins of export industries, including wine. The squeeze has been particularly severe in the value wine categories, where the margins are so tight (or even negative) that Argentinian producers have been squeezed out.

Yes / No / Maybe?

Will Argentina wine growth in the U.S market return in 2016? Maybe is the answer, although 2017 looks like a better bet than 2016. The main reason for optimism is the change in government that took place in December 2015 when Mauricio Macri became President of Argentina, promising an end to the policies that crippled the economy, especially export industries like wine, and pushed inflation skyward.

The Economist magazine reports that Macri is “off to a fast start,” removing export taxes and allowing the peso to fall from its artificially high level. These actions will benefit exporters, but also send a shock to the domestic economy through higher interest rates and a short-term boost in the inflation rate due to rising import costs.

Argentina’s wine industry it likely to be twisted in 2016, with falling domestic economic activity offset by the exchange rate’s boost for exports. Growth in both domestic and export markets will have to wait until 2017 and beyond.  Good news under the circumstances even if it is far short of an instant cure for the ailing industry.

Like a Normal Country

But some of my friends in Argentina tell me that they are not expecting a miracle. They just want Argentina to be “like a normal country,” as they put it, in terms of its politics and economics and perhaps that’s what they will get.

If “normalization” works, will Argentina’s wine boom return to the U.S market? Perhaps, but things have changed and adjusting the macroeconomic levers won’t turn back the clock entirely. Argentina will come back, that’s for sure, although it will take a while for the foreign exchange and other factors to be fully felt  But don’t expect a return of the boom.

The best that Argentina should hope for — and it is actually a good thing — is to be like a “normal country” when it comes to the U.S. wine market. By this I mean that its exports are driven by the normal factors and not subject to booms or crises. Being a normal country in this context suggests a focus on the $10 and above price points, because that is where market grown and margin opportunities are.

A recent Rabobank report on Argentina’s wine sector notes that the reforms will allow more competitive pricing for Argentine wine exporters, but cautions against a rush into the value wine segment where Argentina used to be strong. “There are now opportunities to be more flexible with pricing,” Rabobank’s Stephen Rannekleiv notes, “but these need to be managed carefully in order to avoid undermining the long-term premium positioning of the brand and the overall category. … Excessive pricing moves may allow for windfall profits today, but could create headaches in the long run.”

And being a normaql country also means resisting the temptation to define Argentina as Malbec-ville. I know the temptation to adopt a particular grape as a region’s “signature variety” is strong, but I don’t see it as the best path for the industry.

Three-Dimensional Argentina

Argentina has Malbec, and that’s a good thing. But before the growth slowed smart Argentinean producers were already trying to add dimensions to their market space. Terroir is an obvious dimension that is even more important in signalling quality and  authenticity than it was a few years ago. I think many consumers now look for region — Uco Valley? Salta? — and especially elevation (Malbec develops differently in Argentina depending on the vineyards’ altitude) as quality indicators.

Another way to add dimensions is to exploit grape varieties beyond Malbec. There are so many wines that do well in Argentina besides Malbec and Torrontes, the two “designated” signature grapes. I love Mendel’s old vine Semillion, for example, And we recently surprised a Syrah-loving friend at a local Argentinean restaurant by ordering a higher elevation Syrah from the Uco Valley. He loved it, but would never have thought of  ordering an Argentine Syrah. Time to get that thinking started.

The options are nearly endless, as we learned a few years ago when we visited Buenos Aires and had lunch with sommelier Andrés Rosberg (you can read about the lunch here).  Andrés knew that we would taste many Malbecs during our visit and he wanted to be sure that we understand that Malbec was only the most visible part of the story — not the whole story and maybe not even the best story.

No Sure Things

So he served us a line-up of wines that featured everything except Malbec and it was great. Lesson learned and it was reinforced as we met with winemakers and tasted distinctive Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and even Bonarda. Malbec? Yes and that’s a good thing. But a lot more, too.

This is an age of discovery for wine and Argentina has much to discover, both within the Malbec terroirs and beyond Malbec. That’s the sort of strategy that “normal countries” are embracing in the U.S. wine market today.

Argentina has little experience as a normal country, making its way without crisis or drama. The success of Macri’s economic policies is not a sure thing since they depend on short-term sacrifice for long-term gains in an uncertain and even unstable global economic environment. It won’t be easy to become normal, but it is an important step.

Sometimes, as Argentina’s national soccer team has demonstrated, great players and great ideas can come to a disappointing end. I am optimistic, however, and hopeful that the wine sector gain will regain momentum while avoiding the boom-bust cycles of the past.

Whatever Happened to Argentina’s Wine Boom?

Whatever happened to Argentina’s wine boom (and can that country’s wine industry recover the momentum it has lost)?

Argentina is an important player in world wine. Recent OIV statistics (click here to download the pdf) tell us that Argentina is the fifth largest wine producer in the world (behind the USA and ahead of Australia) and the eighth largest consumer country. Just a few years ago it seemed like Argentina was poised to become the next New Zealand in terms of its export growth, especially here in the U.S.

Anatomy of the Malbec Boom

New Zealand somehow manages  to sell more Sauvignon Blanc each year and it seemed like Argentina might find a way to do the same with its signature Malbec wines. In fact, the boom was so strong that it made some people nervous, as the award-winning 2011 documentary Boom Varietal revealed. Maybe it was too good to be true? Maybe the world would suddenly get tired of Malbec and move on to something else? What then? Bust?

The boom had many causes. Perhaps the most important was the Argentine Peso Crisis of the early 2000s. The collapse of the peso and the opening of the economy to foreign investment was a painful transition for the people of Argentina, but it restored international competitiveness and encouraged foreign investment, both critical to the industry’s rise.

Shift to US Exports

Like many European countries, wine consumption in Argentina is in long-term decline and the economic crisis made things worse for the domestic market, where inexpensive jug wines dominate. As explained in Laura Catena’s book Vino Argentino and Ian Mount’s The Vineyard at the End of the World, Argentine producers found themselves with no choice but to focus on export markets for growth and that meant major investments to improve quality. The U.S. market was the prime target, a different strategy than Chile, which developed more diversified export opportunities.

The US-led export push was effective for several reasons. First the wines presented good value and rapidly improving quality. The U.S. wine market was growing and consumers were turning away from Merlot and later Syrah/Shiraz, opening the door for easy to drink and understand Malbec.

Some of the most important brands established effective distribution partnerships, which enabled them to lead Argentina into the market and firmly establish the category. Catena partnered with Gallo, for example, to make Alamos the market leader No wonder Argentina’s wine exports boomed year after year.

The only questions, it seemed at the time, were would demand continue to rise and, if it did, could Argentina produce enough Malbec to satisfy thirsty buyers?

Argentina

The End of the Boom

And then? Well, the boom didn’t turn to bust as many feared, but Argentina’s export growth has skidded to a stop. As Kim Marcus reports in his recent Wine Spectator article, exports to the U.S. have plateaued at about 13.2 million cases overall. Recent Nielsen data for off-premises sale as reported in Wine Business Monthly paint only a slightly more optimistic picture, with a meager 0.3% growth rate over the previous 52 week and a 2.5% fall in sales revenues over the most recent four weeks.

The Wine By Numbers figures for January through September 2015 shown above (click on the table to enlarge it) tell the story in detail. Export volume is up overall, but revenues are down because of falling unit price. Good success in bottled wine sales in some markets (UK, Germany and China, for example), is offset by declines elsewhere, including Sweden and Denmark. Note the huge rise in UK bulk sales. But the US market is still #1 for Argentina and it remains flat.

An article by Angel Antin in the current issue of Market Watch adds more detail about the U.S. market situation. Impact Databank statistics show that Argentina wine shipments to the US market peaked in 2010-11 in terms of volume after a decade of rapid growth. 2014 volume was modestly down from that peak, but lower than any year since 2009. The boom seems to have faded.

The situation for individual brands depends very much on price point and margin. Constellation’s Marcus James was the market leader in 2009 with 425 thousand  cases in the U.S. market compared with Alamos with 75 thousand cases. But the situation has changed. Alamos, which sells at a premium price point, has plateaued at 900 thousand cases in 2014. Marcus James, selling at a much lower price point, has slumped to just 180 thousand cases.

The Red {Blend} Menace

What accounts for this situation? The U.S. market has indeed shifted. “Red Blends” are now the fastest growing red wine category, rising to #2  after Cabernet Sauvignon and ahead of Merlot and Pinot Noir. I suspect that some of the Red Blend growth is coming at the expense of Malbec sales.

The Red Blend category is very diverse, encompassing all sorts of blends (even some that include Malbec). I like to joke that the key to Red Blend success is that many of the products are blends of two wines that consumers say they hate but secretly love: Merlot and Shiraz. Whether this is really true or not, Red Blend is a convenient category for producers with stocks of red wines and an inconvenient truth for Argentina producers.

But Red Blends are far from the most important problem. It seems to me that the most severe constraint on Argentina exports in recent years has been supply not demand. Not so much difficulty growing grapes and making wine as navigating the harsh economics of the situation.

Economic Policy Squeeze

The economic policies of the government of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner pushed up inflation rates, which pushed up wage rates, which increased the cost of producing wine. At the same time, the exchange rate was frozen at an artificially high rate, which squeezed margins. Capital controls added to the problem by making it difficult for Argentina to import technology and winemaking supplies from abroad.

The inflation/exchange rate squeeze was particularly hard on the value wine exports that were the initial key to Argentina’s success. It is nearly impossible to profit from exports of Argentinian Malbec with a retail price below about $10, so many of these wines have simply disappeared from the market (a few brave firms are absorbing short-term losses to maintain their market positions for the future).

The good news is that the $10+ part of the U.S. market is growing, and so the Argentinian wines that remain are in a good place. The bad news is that this market segment has become intensely competitive, so it will not be easy to survive and thrive. And of course the Red Blend trend continues.

I’ll end on a positive note. Economic policies are changing in Argentina, which gives hope for the wine industry there for 2016 or perhaps 2017. I’ll analyze the changing market environment in next week’s column.

>><<<

Here’s a good soundtrack for any discussion of a boom. Enjoy.

Wine Sustainability: Trade-off, Trilemma or Synergy? It’s Complicated!

milanSue and I are in Milan this week at the International Congress on Sustainability during the 26th edition of SIMEI – International Enological and Bottling Equipment Exhibition.  This event is sponsored by the Unione Italiana Vini, an association of Italian wine producers whose 500 members account for 70% of the nation’s wine.

I will be leading a discussion of the economic elements of sustainability in wine on Tuesday and then taking part in a panel that looks at the role of sensory analysis in sustainability on Wednesday.

One of the themes of the conference is that sustainability is not simply an ethical matter but also a key to wine quality and wine market success. I am looking forward to meeting the international group of speakers and participants.

I was asked to prepare a quick “ice breaker” presentation to jump-start the discussion of the economic aspects of sustainability in wine and I thought I would share its outline with you here. I begin with the conventional wisdom of the “triple bottom line” analysis: sustainability must take into account the natural, social and business environments. The question is how are these three related. The answer is “it’s complicated.”

Some people see these simply as discrete goals and focus on trade-offs. Others see sustainability as a trilemma — pick two and the third is eliminated. I can understand this logic, but I think it is possible to design for sustainability and I will try to direct the discussion towards strategies for synergy and success.

I plan to get the ball rolling by talking about the case of Durbanville Hills winery in South Africa, a success story in terms of both wine quality and sustainability. Durbanville Hills isn’t sustainable by accident but rather results from the combination of effective leadership, a progressive organizational design and strong institutional commitment by all stakeholders. Inspiring! I hope the participants will contribute other success stories that will collectively point the way forward.

The key, of course, is to bridge the gap between theory and practice. and to identify the key pressure points. Sustainability is important in wine both for the success of the industry and as a beacon to other sectors. Wine, with its strong social and cultural connections and its deep agricultural roots, presents a clear example of how complex thinking about sustainability pays off.

Ciao a tutti — hope to see you in Milan!

Book Review: The Perfect Wine? Multi-sensory Lessons from Planet Food

Charles Spence and Betina Piqueras-Fiszman, The Perfect Meal: The multisensory science of food and dining. (John Wiley & Sons, 2014).

One of the many benefits of speaking at Wine Vision 2014 in London last year was being able to participate in a multi-sensory wine tasting demonstration presented by Oxford professors Barry Smith and Charles Spence. As the Harpers report of the event explained, “it is not enough to get the liquid right” because how we experience a wine depends on many factors that can have both positive and negative effects.

Nose Clips and Jelly Beans

I have talked about this as “wine in context” and I wrote about it on The Wine Economist and then again in the first chapter of my new book Money, Taste, and Wine: It’s Complicated. Professors Smith and Spence are way ahead of my experiments and they were able to make many useful points in just a few minutes.

One quick experiment invited us to match wine with music, a task that Sue and I repeated in greater detail a few weeks ago at a lecture by Callifornia winemaker  Clark Smith. He actually had us hold a particular Chardonnay in our mouths for a few seconds and, by switching musical selection, changed the sensation from sweet to bitter. Unbelievable!winevision

One of my favorite moments at the Wine Vision seminar (captured in this photo collage) came when we were asked to put special clips on our noses so that the sense of smell was suppressed. Then we popped jelly beans into our mouths and … there was no flavor. None!  Now take the clip off, Prof. Spence directed, and a world of intense flavors erupted.   I knew that aroma was important to taste, but I have never seen it demonstrated so effectively. (And it was hilarious to see all of us standing around with nose clips popping jelly beans!)

The overall message was that wine is about more than what’s in the glass and that this is important both to consumers who want to enjoy wine and to the Wine Vision audience, made up of people who want to make and sell wine. And, as the jelly bean case showed, it isn’t just wine that depends on the multi-sensory context, it is everything and there may be much to learn from analysis of other products that can be applied to wine.

What Can  Planet Wine Learn from Planet Food?

Given all this, you can understand why I was interested in reading Prof. Spence’s The Perfect Meal, which usefully synthesizes the vast literature on multi-sensory analysis over on Planet Food.  Topics include

  • menus and service,
  • the art and science of food description,
  • the impact of plating, plateware and cutlery,
  • the  multi-sensory perception of flavor,
  • the role of surprise,
  • dining in the dark,
  • atmosphere,
  • technology and finally
  • the future of the perfect meal.

The idea is clearly that a dining experience can be improved through careful attention to each aspect of the experience. This is obviously also true for wine and in fact I think you can probably think of a wine analog for each of the dining factors I listed in the previous paragraph (glassware = plateware, for example).

I learned a great deal about dining and sensory analysis from The Perfect Meal, but of course my real purpose was to open up my thinking about wine — to think outside the wine bottle, if you know what I mean. Wine appears just once in the book — on page 56 in a discussion about the enormous variation in restaurant wine prices (same wine, much different price at the restaurant down the street), but ideas popped into my head in just about every chapter.

The Organic Wine Paradox

Here’s one example just to whet your appetite. Here on Planet Wine we suffer from what I call the Organic Wine paradox. Consumers seem to be increasingly interested in all things organic and your typical upscale supermarket features more and more organic products. But wine seems to be  lagging behind. Winegrowers are increasingly interested in going organic, but they are pushing on a string. Why don’t consumers pull organic wine along to a greater extent?

The Perfect Meal‘s authors report that attitudes towards organic foods are quite context sensitive and it is not always easy to predict whether an organic indicator will be a plus or a minus. They  report (pages 87-88) that when American consumers were surveyed about organic fruits and vegetables a frequent (28%) attitude (especially among those who indicated a low concern for the environment) was that the organic products would be healthier but have poorer taste. So organic can be a turn off, at least some of the time. Other studies found that consumers could find no taste difference between the organic and conventional fruits and veggies in blind tastings, so where did that attitude come from? Go figure.

Another study looked at cookies. The test subjects were presented with the same cookies, sometimes labelled organic and sometimes not. They apparently enjoyed the organic cookies s lot and bestowed on them  a kind of  “halo effect” because they associated them with lower calories even when there was no objective difference in calories, taste, etc. It’s all in our heads, I guess, and that’s important to remember.

There is much more to be said about the research into perceptions of organic foods, but let’s stop here and think about what we’ve learned. The success of  organic foods generally masks some real complicated consumer behavior. When the food is inherently healthy (fresh fruit) some consumers will see organic as a potential negative, but when the product is unhealthy to begin with (cookies) organic can be seen as a plus. So where does wine fit into this? In different ways for different consumers, I’ll bet, and the impact of an “organic” designation probably depends on other context factors, such as whether the wine is sold in Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods or some other “green and organic” retailer. Organic wines face a very complicated consumer environment!

This is not the only example I could cite and probably not the best once, but it gives a sense of what The Perfect Meal offers to those of us on Planet Wine. An interesting read if you want to think outside the bottle!

Tre Bicchieri: A Journey Through Friuli Wine in Three Glasses

Tre Bicchieri — three glasses.  Those are important words if you are interested in Italian wine. The Michelin Guide gives up to three stars to the top restaurants in France and around the world and perhaps for that reason Gambero Rosso magazine’s Vini d”Italia gives up to three glasses to Italy’s finest wines.

For the 2015 edition the editors surveyed 2042 wineries and evaluated 20,000 wines. Just 423 (about 2 percent) received  the tre bicchieri rating.

Friuli Venezia Giulia punches above its weight in the Gambero Rosso rankings with 27 tre bicchieri awards listed in the 2015 league table including wines from three wineries that I mentioned in my last column: the Rosso Sacrisassi 2012 from Le Due Terre, the Sauvignon 2013 from Tiare, and the Sauvignon Ronco delle Mele 2013 from Venica & Venica.

The quality of the Friuli wines is high and rising and deserves greater attention. We visited three wineries (the “three glasses” of this column’s title) that impressed us both for the three glasses-worthy wines and also for the different ways they are advancing the reputation of the wines of this region.

Rooted in Nature: Borgo San Daniele

We first learned the story of Borgo San Daniele in my dog-eared copy of Slow Wine 2014, which awarded the winery its “snail” designation for giving particular attention to the values of the Slow Food movement (I wrote about Slow Food in my Globaloney books).

It is the philosophy of Slow Food that tradition and nature are best preserved if they are valued in the marketplace and so the Slow Food and Slow Wine movements seek to identify producers of traditional and natural products and then draw wider attention to them. There was a special room set aside for Slow Wine producers at the Italian Trade Commission’s  Vino 2015 symposium in New York City earlier this year, for example, and it was always buzzing.

Borgo San Daniele fits right into the Slow Wine philosophy. Mauro Mauri and his sister Alessandra inherited vineyards from their grandfather in 1990 and have spent the last 25 years renewing the land and the vineyards and developing wines with a quite distinct local identity that reflects their own gentle but determined personalities. We were fortunate to be able to stay at the winery, meet Alessandra, and taste the wines with Mauro.

The Borgo San Daniele wines have an extraordinary reputation in Friuli — restaurants and wine shops that are lucky enough to get a few bottles display them proudly. Only a few different wines are made, each from specific varieties or blends and each from a particular place. The land, not demand, limits production and when it is gone it’s gone. Vineyards are 18 hectares in total, according to Slow Wine, and about 14,000 cases are produced.

Each of the wines we tasted was distinctive and memorable, but the Arbis Blanc and Arbis Ròs stand out. Arbis Blanc, from the grassy San Leonardo site in Cormons, is considered a defining Friulian white. It is a field blend of Sauvngnon, Chardonnay, Pinot Bianco and Friuliano, with subtly integrated Slovenian oak. Arbis Ròs is 100% Pignolo from the Ziris site in Cormons. It was one of the two best Pignolo wines (along with Rodaro Paolo) that we tasted. Mauro served us the 2009 Arbis Ròs from magnum and it was simply stunning.

I desperately wanted bring home a bottle of Arbus Ròs to lay down and see if Maruo was right that it would continue to evolve and start to develop Asian spice notes in 8-10 years. But the standard bottles of this wine were long sold out and I didn’t think I could get one of the few remaining magnums home successfully. So there is just the memory of  Mauro, Alessandra and the Arbis and other Borgo San Daniele wines. Their personalities (which I think come out in the video at the end of this column) are so distinct that I am sure the memories will last.

 Tradition and Innovation at Rodaro Paolo

 Slow Wine brought us next to Rodaro Paolo and to meet the very intense and focused Paolo Rodaro himself, the 6th generation of his family to make wine in this region since 1847.  The current winery makes about 16,000 cases of wine from the 57 hectares of estate vineyards (40 hectares on the hillsides).  The vines are split 50/50 between red and white grapes, an increase on the red side (Pignolo, Schioppettino, Reofsco) over the years as climate change has improved the ability to ripen these grapes.

Slow Wine told us that the entry-level wines are a bargain for the quality (and we tried them a few days later over dinner at a simple country trattoria across the street from the winery). But we came to learn about the Romain wines.

Paolo Rodaro is committed to bringing out the very best of the traditional local wines that he produces and he intensely channels this desire through experimentation and innovation (evolution, not revolution), with some quite spectacular results. The flagship Romain wines, for example, are the result of an experiment in drying red wine grapes before pressing and fermentation. Paolo observed the beneficial effects of “appassimento” air-drying of Picolit and Verduzzo Friulano grapes for sweet wines. Would air-drying also bring out intensity and character of some of the red wines?

The answer we found in our glasses is a clear yes. Drying very ripe red grapes for 3-4 weeks through the “surmaturazione” process (versus 3-4 months for the white grapes) achieved maturity, concentration, and balance. The resulting wines are dry and therefore high in alcohol but extraordinarily balanced and capable of significant aging. These were some of the best red wines we have ever tasted and it was an honor to discuss them with the man who made them.

The discussion was very personal — as when we tasted with Mauro at Borgo San Daniele.  Both men make a statement about themselves and their idea of Friuli through the wines they put in a bottle. Both limit the production of the wines that make the strongest statements — Paolo released just a few hundred bottles of some wines each year and makes them only in years where conditions are ideal. We felt fortunate to leave with a bottle of 2009 Refosco Romain. My tasting notes rave about the depth and elegance of this wine and I can’t wait to taste it again in eight or ten years (a timetable we negotiated with Paolo, who encouraged us to wait even longer).

The personal touch extends to the label design shown here, which was created by Paolo’s daughter Giulia when she was 5 years old. It looks like a curling vine, but it is really an abstract representation of the family home’s wrought-iron gate.

Returning to Roots: Bastianich

It would be easy to dismiss Bastianich  as just another celebrity winery. Lidia Bastianich and her husband Felix fled their home in Istria (just across the Adriatic from Venice) during the dark days after the Second World War, eventually making their way to the United States where they slowly worked their way up in the world using food as their ladder. A restaurant (Bounavia) arrived the same year as a son, Joseph.

Lidia Bastianich is now a celebrity chef with cookbooks and a PBS cooking series to her credit. Joseph is a celebrity in his own right — business partner of Mario Battali in several famous restaurants, former judge on MasterChef USA and now host and judge on MasterChef Italia. It would be easy to say that the Bastianich winery in Friuli is just another example of a celebrity using wine to cash in on transitory fame.

But it isn’t true. In fact, against all odds, I think the first sentence you find on the Bastianich website holds true: “The Bastianich winery, founded in 1997, strives to understand the history and culture of Friuli-Venezia Giulia and take it to a new level.” Sue and I toured the vineyards and winery with Wayne Young, an American who has been with the project since the first vintage in 1998 and is very much part of Friulian wine society (he sits on the board of the Coli Orientali Consorzio, for example).

It was clear in talking with Wayne that although the Bastianich owners are American, the winery and its wines are not just Italian but Friulian through and through and that to the degree that celebrity comes into play, it is an asset that is used to try to draw attention to the region.

Take the wines, which is the right place to begin. Vespa Bianco and Vespa Rosso are the flagship “tre bichiere-class” products  (Vespa is Italian for “wasp,” inspired by the swarms of wasps that descend at harvest time) and they are authentic blends of local grapes that will introduce many wine drinkers to the wine styles of this region. We’ve enjoyed Vespa Bianco many times over the years, but never the single-variety Plus (from old vine Friuliano planted near Buttrio) and the Calabrone (Italian for “hornet”), a blend of Refosco, Schioppetino, Pignolo and a bit of Merlot. All the Schioppettino and some of the Refosco are air-dried before vinification.

Celebrity creates barriers that can only be overcome by performance. These are authentic wines and the intent is to take them to the next level while respecting tradition.  Celebrity  also opens some doors for the wines and the region. This is literally true with Orsone, the Bastianich restaurant, taverna and B&B down the hill from the winery which is worth a trip even if you (gasp!) do not care about wine. The menu at Orsone gives respect to local culture while also giving an occasional nod to New York.

We asked the chefs to choose our meal and the sommelier to pair Bastianich wines with each course with a predictably delicious result. My primo course was a burnt wheat orecchiette that honored the tradition of Italian peasants making one final pass through the fields after they have been burnt in the fall, looking for every last bit of wheat, no matter how scorched. Quite an experience.

>>><<<

So what do these three wineries have in common? A commitment to authenticity, which they have developed in distinctly different circumstances. The three families approach Friulian wine from very different angles and tell its story if very different ways. Tasting these wines and learning about the makers gives a sense of the journey that Friulian wine has taken and the road that lies ahead to greater global appreciation in the future.

 >>><<<

Many thanks to Alessandra, Mauro, Paolo and Wayne.

I found videos of the three wineries featured here and I thought I would share them to give you a taste of Friuli wine. Enjoy!

Borgo San Daniele

Rodaro Paolo

Bastianich

 

Friuli Revisited: Surveying Collio’s Changing Winescape

It has been more than  a dozen years since our last visit to Friuli. Friuli-Venezia Guilia is tucked up in Italy’s upper right-hand corner, north-east of Venice, north-west of Trieste, bordered by the Adriatic Sea to the south, Austria to the north and Slovenia to the east. It is sometimes awkwardly lumped together with Trentino and Alto Adige as the Italian Northeast.

Friuli is a cultural mixing bowl with influences from all its sides. It is also a beautiful region with great wines. Why did it take us to long to return?

Lucky Day: Cantina Aperte

Our last visit was memorable. We happened to arrive at  Venica & Venica, well-known both for its wines and its hospitality, on Cantine Aperte Day, which is the one day of the year when many otherwise private cellars throw open their doors and welcome swarms of enthusiasts. It was a lucky day for us because we met so many wonderful people and tasted some memorable wines. Later we moved from the Venica B&B to to La Subida close by the Slovenian border and used it as a base to visit Udine, Cividale, San Daniele, Gorizia, Trieste and Aquileia.

As much as we enjoyed our visit to Friuli I wondered if we would ever return. There are so many interesting regions in Italy and the world, so many distinctive wines. But the pull of Friuli was strong and so we pointed our rented Fiat 500 in the direction of Cormons. We wanted to revisit some friends and wines, but “what’s new, what’s changed” were the questions on our minds.

We spent half a week at  Borgo San Daniele in Cormons, one of the best wineries in the region and a comfortable base of operations, before following the recommendation of our friends Zari and Greg and shifting to another wine estate,  Il Roncal, just outside of Cividale del Friuli for the final few days. (See below for some wine tourism notes.)

Super White: Tiare Sauvignon Blanc

When we visited before we were struck by the stunning white wines of the region and later attended some “SuperWhites” events in the U.S. designed to inform American wine enthusiasts about this under-appreciated part of Italy and draw attention to the stunning wines. We enjoyed many wonderful wines on this trip, too, including the memorable Ronco delle Cime Friuliano at the expanded and updated Venica & Venica.

But the highlight on the white side of the wine ledger was probably an impromptu visit to Tiare and the opportunity to taste a wine that had been named the best Sauvignon Blanc in the world. Best in the world? Those are big words and I don’t really know if it is even possible to settle such a claim with certainty, but the Sauvignon Blanc that we sampled (from the following and possibly even better vintage) was unquestionably excellent.

And it might not even be the best wine that Tiare makes. Roberto Snidarcig, the owner and winemaker, was even prouder of another Sauuvignon Blanc called Empìre that showed subtle oak, channeling France more than New Zealand.  And he smiled when Sue and I tasted his Pinot Noir, a pet project that showed real character and finesse.

Pinot Noir? Well, yes, as I said Friuli is a mix of influences from France and Austria and of course the indigenous Italian  grapes like Refosco, Friuliano and Ribolla Gialla.  The ebb and flow of global and local influences shows itself in many ways.

Bastianich, for example, is a project that American “Del Posto” and “Eataly” entrepreneur-restaurateur Joseph Bastianich (son of the remarkable chef and cookbook author Lidia Bastianich and business partner of the irrepressible Mario Batali) launched in 1997 to make the wines of the region and to introduce them to the U.S. and other markets.  The wines are good enough that Italy is today an important market, too. You may think of Bastanich as a showman — he was until this season a host/judge along with Gordon Ramsey on the U.S. Masterchef (he hosts Masterchef Italia now), but I can assure you that the wines are the real deal and not just a show.

Market Forces: A Region in Transition

White wines no longer steal the show in Friuli. It isn’t that they have declined in quality, only that winemakers have turned their attention to sparkling wines and back to reds, too. There have always been good reds made in Friuli, as we were reminded at Venica & Venica when we were served a stunning Merlot from the 2001 vintage that had been lost in the cellar and recently rediscovered. Clearly the best Collio reds can age! Climate change is partly responsible for the increased interest in red wines. Red wine grapes are a more reliable bet today than they were 50 years ago, I was told. The rising interest in indigenous red grape varieties such as Refosco, Schioppettino, and Pignolo is also a factor.

Market forces are another reason for the shift in direction and economics is a powerful factor in Italy, which cannot seem to extract itself from a long-term recession. Back in the old days the Bank of Italy could devalue the lira and temporarily restore competitiveness when the economy slowed down. But now Italy is a euro country and competitiveness must come the hard way — though internal reforms — rather than from exchange rate adjustment. These are difficult times for everyone including wine and we heard through the grapevine that many vineyard properties are for sale. Financial security is in short supply.

Hence a shift toward fast-selling sparkling wines because the Prosecco production zone extends into Friuli. The town of Prosecco is actually a suburb of Trieste although  the zone of DOCG production is in the Veneto, south-west in Conegliano-Valdobbiadene. Pinot Grigio is a reliable money-maker, too. Costco’s Kirkland Signature Pinot Grigio, its best-selling white wine, is from the Friuli Grave zone. Follow the money in times like these.

The marketability of Prosecco and Pinot Grigio put pressure on the indigenous wines that I am always keen to discover.  Some wine makers we met with were concerned about the region’s identity slipping away a bit, especially the very high quality Collio and Colli Orientali zones where we spent most of our time. The marketplace for wines (Italian wines, wines in general) is crowded and very competitive. Tough to get and hold consumer attention! Difficult, too, to earn that all important quality premium. A strong regional identity isn’t the solution to this problem, but it can be part of it. Need to make a statement.

My next column will profile three wineries that are making such statements in very different ways. Circle back for details.

>>><<<
gatto

I can’t end this overview of our Friuli expedition without a few comments on the wine tourism experience. Sue and I just love this region for its physical beauty and cultural importance, great food and wine, and the warm hospitality of the people. It is an exceptional wine tourism destination, well-known to Italians, Germans, Austrians and the Swiss, but mainly undiscovered by Americans. Put it on your list.

We were the only guests at Borgo San Daniele in Cormons (they have three nice rooms in the winery compound), so we had the place all to ourselves at times and enjoyed our stay very much. We had breakfast in the kitchen each morning and came back at one point to discover the sleepy cat shown here who may have come in through the window and obviously made himself as comfortable as we did.

Il Roncal was a different experience but one that we would also recommend.  More rooms, more visitors, lots of activity on this hilltop estate overlooking the vines. A group of German bicyclists passed through one day and several family groups took full advantage of the outdoor meeting areas. Our room was elegant. The private tasting featured local delicacies paired with each wine, which was a real treat.

There are many exceptional restaurants in the area including a homey new osteria at La Subida with great food and wine. The staff built a fire in the outdoor fireplace for us one night when thunder, lightening, and a heavy rainstorm chased all the other diners inside. What atmosphere! trota

We had to return to Al Giardinetto in Cormons and it was as spectacular as we remembered. The food is wonderful, but the wine stands out in my memory. Our host pulled many corks, showcasing limited and unusual wines that we would not otherwise have been able to taste. A glass of this, a half glass of that, you might find this interesting, it was great as he shared treasures of the cellar with the guests.  And the total cost was much less than we might have paid for a single bottle of wine in other circumstances. A real wine lover’s restaurant.

Two other meals stand out among many. We stopped for lunch Alla Trota in the little village of Pulfero near the Slovenian border in the beautiful Natisone valley. We sat out on the patio overlooking the Natisone river that produced the trout on our plates. I went over the top with tagliatelle with a smoked trout ragu followed by  roasted whole trout and then apple strudel along with this jug of local wine.

salepepeThe next day we found ourselves in an even tinier town at lunchtime. Not many dining options in little hillside Stregna and when we asked at the door we discovered that Sale e Pepe‘s kitchen was closed for a thorough cleaning. What to do? Well, the chef said, just because we can’t use the stove doesn’t mean we can’t fix you lunch. And so we enjoyed the rather spectacular salad, cheese, charcuterie and dessert shown here accompanied by one of the region’s best red wines from Le Due Terre.

Did I mention warm hospitality before? Now you know what I’m talking about. Obviously we need to return when the kitchen is cooking on all its burners. Must be spectacular!

Circle back for a profile of three wineries that really caught our attention. Cheers!

>>><<<

Thanks to everyone who hosted and helped us during our week in Friuli. Special thanks to Michelangelo Tagliente for his advice.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,519 other followers