Portuguese Native Wine Grapes and the New Age of Discovery

One of the wonderful things about wine is its ability to surprise and delight — there are always new wines made with unusual wine grapes and from unexpected places to enjoy. A person who is bored with wine, given this great discovery potential, is bored with life!

Portuguese explorers were at the forefront of the “Age of Discovery” that opened the world to economic and cultural exchange. Portugal’s impact on global trade was astonishing considering that it is and was a relatively small country hanging on Europe’s western-most edge.

Now I propose a reverse movement with respect to Portuguese wine and its native grape varieties. The New Age of Discovery, as I call it, calls for wine enthusiasts to take deep dives into Portugal’s many wine regions and especially to explore native wine grape varieties with unfamiliar names but intriguing flavors and unlimited potential.

Discovering Portugal Wine Diversity

Maybe that’s why Italian wines frequently appear on The Wine Economist page (although this is a global wine blog, for example, it was recently named one of the 40 best Italian wine blogs and pages). The wine map of Italy is a colorful mosaic that invites close inspection. But Italy is not alone is this regard. It is time to explore in more depth the diversity that Portugal offers.

Vini Portugal sent us three wines selected to illustrate three sides of Portuguese wine diversity. The Villa Alvor Singular Moscatel-Galego-Roxo 2020, for example, comes from the Algarve region, which is better known for sunny beaches than lush grapevines.  The Antonio Maçanita Tinta Carvalha 2020, an Alentejo wine, is made from grape varieties now quite rare, but that once dominated the region. This wine brings them back from near-extinction. Finally, the Esporão Reserva Tinto 2019 is an interesting hybrid from a famous Alentejo producer, blending indigenous grapes with international varieties such as Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon. It tells the story of the winery and the region, too.

Unexpected Field Blend

Knowing of our interest in native grape varieties, António Graça, the head of Research and Development at Sogrape Vinhos, arranged for us to receive examples of Casa Ferreirinha Castas Escondidas, a field blend from an old vineyard at Quinta do Seixo in the Douro.

The grape varieties include such unfamiliar names as Touriga-Fêmea, Tinta Francisca, Bastardo and Marufo, which are sometimes included in Port wine blends, but rarely make themselves known in unfortified wines. Tinta Amarela, Tinto Cão, Touriga Nacional, Touriga Francesa and vinha velha are also part of this unique blend.

Now it would be easy to dismiss a wine like this as a “kitchen sink” product made up of odds and ends, but that is clearly not the case here as you will know immediately when you taste it. It is really true that what grows together often goes together, and the combination of these wine grapes in the talented hands of Sogrape Douro winemaker Luís Sottomayor results in a distinct and delicious statement of terroir. We found the wine to be complex, balanced, and elegant with a finish that went on and on. An experience as much as a wine. Fantastic.

Quiet! Old Vines at Work

António writes that, “We have been surveying our old vineyards and inventoried all varieties present in that vineyard, plant by plant in an effort to identify the patterns of the historical field blend. This wine is the result of the knowledge we gained from that work which we extended now to other old vineyards we own in order to gain knowledge that will assist us in adapting to a warmer climate in an already warm region.”

“This has led us to develop new vines and wines using blends or single variety wines made from minority varieties, some representing less than 50 hectares as total planted acreage today. The revelation of their sensory aspects has been very reassuring. Examples are Touriga Femea (literally «female Touriga»), Tinta Francisca in the Douro, Sercialinho in Bairrada or Encruzado and Alfrocheiro in Dao.”

Portuguese winemakers have a lot of material to work with in this new age of discovery. The official wine grape registry lists 343 native varieties so far — incredible diversity for a relatively small region.

An Age for Discovery

When I first visited Portugal and began tasting wines made from the native grape varieties, I saw the unfamiliar names as an obstacle to their success on the global market. It made sense to me, I wrote, to market the wines under proprietary brands or in blends with familiar international grape varieties in order to avoid erecting another barrier to entry for consumers new to the country’s wines.

But things have changed and my opinion has changed with them. The world is re-discovering Portugal as a place to visit or live along with its history, cuisine, and of course its wine. It is the new Age of Discovery and my, but there is a lot to discover in Portuguese wine.

What’s Ahead for U.S. Wine? Searching for a Crystal Ball

We are starting to gear up for the State of the Industry session at the 2023 Unified Wine & Grape Symposium and it looks like we will have a lot to talk about. The challenges the wine industry faces are significant and this year’s expert panel (Danny Brager, Glenn Proctor, Dr. Liz Thach MW, Jeff Bitter) is well-prepared to help us navigate the wine-dark seas.

Everyone wants to know what’s in the future — what will the U.S. wine market look like a a year? Five years? Ten years? Prediction is difficult for a variety of reasons, however, not least because the wine economy is embedded in the national and global economies, which are themselves full of uncertainty these days.

Looking for a Crystal Ball

Back in the days when I was writing university-level economics textbooks I told students looking for clues about the future to consult what are called leading economic indicators. The idea is that there are a lot of economic statistics available. Some tell you what has already happened (these are the lagging indicators), some give you an idea of what’s going on right now (coincident indicators), and a few offer a glimpse of possible future trends (leading indicators).

The number of new building permits and housing starts are leading indicators, for example. Once a permit is issued or construction begun, that sets in motion a chain reaction of economic activity that extends out into the future.

Durable goods orders are another leading indicator of economic activity in general, but they speak to attitudes and expectations. Durable goods, by definition, are long-lasting and need not be re-purchased every week or month. If consumers and business increase durable goods purchases, then it suggests that they are optimistic about the future and willing to make an investment now rather than wait for the future.

One economist, famous for his mastery of esoteric details, used to focus in particular on sales of new brooms on the theory that an old broom will always do if you are concerned about future finances. Buying a new broom is therefore a clear statement of economic optimism. That makes sense when you think about brooms as a gateway durable good.

It is maybe a little bit disturbing to learn that Alan Greenspan, the former Fed chair, once identified sales of men’s underwear as an important leading indicator. Really? Apparently, underwear sales are pretty steady, so any blip one way or another says something significant about consumer expectations. If you want to start an interesting conversation, try asking your male friends how long it has been since they re-stocked their underwear drawer. “Why are you asking?”  People are so suspicious!

Where is Wine Headed?

There are many other recognized leading indicators for the overall economy — the yield curve, for example — but there isn’t room here today to talk about them because I’m interested in the wine industry and I wonder what statistics might be particular useful in forecasting the future of wine sales?

One approach is to use the chain-reaction theory. Where does the decision to buy more or less wine begin? What early indicator can we monitor today that will reveal something about how much wine, what kind of wine, and at what price consumers will choose in the future? Corkscrews? Well, I suppose that’s a wine-specific durable good, but I don’t think tracking corkscrew or even wine glass sales is going to help much.

Recently I stumbled upon news that I think is relevant to the “wine leading indicator” search, even if the data is not exactly what I am looking for. The news? Costco has decided not to raise its membership fees this year. Here’s why I think the Costco news could be important.

The Costco Effect

Lots of people enjoy wine and it is sold in lots of ways and places. But, as we all know, the core wine market is surprisingly narrow. When you take away the U.S. consumers who don’t consume any alcohol (about 35% according to a Wine Market Council study a few years ago) and then those who use alcohol but not wine (21%), the residual is surprisingly narrow.

While 29% of consumers buy wine a few times and month or year, the industry actually relies on a relatively small number (15%) of high frequency wine drinkers who pull corks or unscrew caps pretty much every week. The demographics of this group — and especially the high-end buyer subset — is key to the future of American wine.

If you want to know what these consumers look like, I think a good place to start is by going to your closest Costco warehouse store. I am not saying that the Costco demographic matches up perfectly with wine demand or that purchases in other sales channels are unimportant. It is just that the relatively affluent user base at Costco, the people who are willing and able to pay the $60 to $120 annual membership fee here in the United States, are a group worth watching closely. They buy lots of stuff at Costco, including a surprisingly large amount of wine given the limited number of stores.

Now you might think that tracking Costco wine sales would be good economic indicator, but it doesn’t serve our purpose here because it would be a lagging or maybe coincident economic indicator and not the forward-looking insight needed. But there is one bit of Costco data that I think it useful — and it is flashing yellow (but not yet red) right now: the annual membership fee.

Hot Dogs and Rotisserie Chickens?

Most prices at Costco rise and fall with market forces (the costs of rotisserie chickens and the hot dog meal are notable exceptions having been fixed for years). The membership fee is a critical factor at Costco. The fees themselves account for a substantial amount of the company’s net profit and the renewal rate is high — over 90 percent. Costco typically adjusts its membership fee about once every five years, according to news reports, and the last time they did was in 2017. So no one would have been surprised if a rise was announced in 2022.

But this time around the Costco gurus looked hard at their customer base … and blinked. They decided to pass on a fee increase, which could mean a lot of things but might mean that they believe even their affluent member base is feeling the economic heat. And that’s not good news for wine, since these are the customers driving the U.S. market these days.

Is this the leading indicator for wine sales I was looking for? No, it isn’t, so I am still looking. Ideas? Please let me know. In the meantime, while as a Costco member I am glad that the annual fee is frozen this time around, it will be good news for the wine trade when Costco decides that their affluent, wine-drinking patrons are secure enough to tolerate a rise in rates.

Rioja to Walla Walla: Celebrating Tempranillo Day

There are a lot of holidays that are centered around wine. The one that we most often celebrate here at Wine Economist world headquarters is Open That Bottle Night — the excuse to open special bottles for no particular reason other than to enjoy them. It comes around every year on the last Saturday in February, although you really don’t need to wait if you don’t want to.

This year we are adding Tempranillo Day to our holiday list. It’s coming right up — Thursday, November 10, 2022 — so get your corkscrews out and ready to go!

Tempranillo World on the Rise

Tempranillo is most closely associate with Spain and its famouos Rioja wines, of course, but it has become a global phenomenon according to the 2022 edition of Which Winegrape Varieties are Grown Where? by Kym Anderson and Signe Nelgen.   Tempranillo was the grape variety with largest expanded plantings during the 2000 to 2016 period of their study (see table above taken from the Anderson-Nelgen report).

The new Tempranillo plantings are concentrated in Spain, where it has become even more important than in previous years as winegrowers have upgraded their vineyards, but also Portugal and Argentina.  Australia, the United States, Chile, and even France have seen significant new plantings of this popular grape variety.

Tempranillo #1 — ahead of Cabernet, Syrah, and Sauvignon Blanc in the new-planting league table. Incredible. But maybe it really shouldn’t be a surprise. Tempranillo is a very versatile wine grape that can take on a number of guises depending upon where it is grown and how the wine is made.

New World Tempranillo

Tempranillo has a history in California, according to the standard reference, Wine Grapes. It was planted in the Central Valley alongside (and sometimes inter-mingled with) heat loving Zinfandel. Artesa Winery (owned by Spain’s famous Raventós Codorníu family) has recently planted Tempranillo vines in its higher-elevation estate vineyard. Sue and I are looking forward to tasting this wine when it is released.

Tempranillo gets a lot of attention here in the Pacific Northwest. Walla Walla’s cult winemaker Cayuse Vineyards has made a Tempranillo called Impulsivo since 2002 and it gets consistently rave reviews. Critic Jeb Dunnock says of the 2019 vintage that “You’re not going to find a better Tempranillo in the US, and it will stand toe to toe with the best out there,” by which I think he invites comparison with the best of Spain.  That’s quite a challenge.

The Cayuse team also makes a remarkably delicious and well-balanced Tempranillo for their No Girls label, which Sue declared to be even better than  the Impulsivo at this stage of development when we tasted them both. The Impulsivo was very good, she said, but the No Girls was great — very memorable.

There are several others you will find in the Walla Walla, many making good use of grapes from The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater. One that we found particularly interesting on our last visit was The Walls winery’s Wonderful Nightmare.

Oregon’s Other Signature Grape?

If you are telling the story of premium Tempranillo in America, a good place to start is about 40 years ago when Earl Jones began his quest to make quality Tempranillo on U.S. soil. He considered Washington and Idaho but was discouraged by the (very real) possibility of vine-killing freezing temperatures.  Jones’s path ended in an unexpected place: south-west Oregon’s Umpqua Valley and his Abacela Winery.

Abacela’s success with Spanish wine grape varieties clearly demonstrates the folly of the idea that a state or region must be defined by a particular signature grape. Oregon may be Pinot Noir to many wine enthusiasts, but that’s far from the whole story. Taste the Abacela wines and you will know what I mean.

And then there is Idaho Tempranillo. If you visit Boise, Idaho you will probably be directed to the Basque Block, a downtown area that honors the state’s active Basque community (food tip: Bar Gernika for the Solomo sandwich). Maybe that Iberian connection is one reason Tempranillo was planted some years ago in the Skyline vineyard and several wineries make a Tempranillo wine today. Look for award-winning Cinder Tempranillo and for  Fujishin Family Cellars Tempranillo, too, both from the Snake River Valley AVA.

The Tempranillo boom extends to Texas, according to Wine Grapes, and also includes regions Canada, Mexico, New Zealand, Switzerland, Turkey, and Malta.  Winegrowers and wine-drinkers around the world can’t seem to resist it. Tempranillo is one of global wine’s success stories, so it is worth pulling a cork on Thursday and celebrating Tempranillo Day!

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Thanks to the crew at Bionic Wines for samples of the Cayuse and No Girls Tempranillo wines. Special thanks to Jim Thomssen for information about Tempranillo in Idaho.

Susumaniello & Beyond: Charting the Outstanding D’Addario Puglian Wines

It was the Susumaniello that first got my attention.

Our friend John Marino asked if we’d be interested in tasting the wines of Aziende Agricole D’Addario. D’Addario produces a range of wines in Puglia, which is a region we want to get to know better. Southern Italy is having a moment as consumers, having “discovered” Sicily and its wines start to probe other regions. That, and the reputation of the winery, were enough to get my attention.

Susumaniello: Old is New

But, as I examined the winery’s listings, it was the Accanto Susumaniello IGT Puglia that made me stop in my tracks. Susumaniello isn’t a wine or wine grape variety that you see very often. An old grape variety, according to Wine Grapes, my standard reference of such things, what little there is of it is planted around Brindisi. Susumaniello is mainly used as a blending grape and 100% Susumaniello wines are pretty rare. I had to try it!

But before we tasted the Susumaniello we had to get some context in terms of what Puglia has to offer, so we made a summer project of cooking meals with fresh garden ingredients to pair with D’Addario’s Casale Ciliani lineup of IGT Puglia and IGP Salento wines, which are priced in the current market “sweet spot” of about $16 (for an IGT Puglia Fiano) to about $22 (for an IGP Salento Primitivo).

Pretty in Puglia Pink

The first wine we tried, a Negroamaro Rosé, really opened our eyes. We make an effort to sample lots of different Rosé wines in the summer months and this was one of the best — maybe the very best — of 2022. A lovely, flavorful wine! Fresh, balanced, and a terrific value, too.

We enjoyed the red wines with variations on spaghetti alla Norma (this was a good year from tomatoes and eggplant in our garden). We found the Negroamaro, Malvasia, and Primitivo wines flavorful and well-balanced, with nice acidity to cut through the richness of the pasta.

Then it was time to move up to the D’Addario premium wine lineup and to finally taste the Susumaniello. And we were not disappointed. It was different, distinct, interesting and delicious. Worth waiting for, to be sure.

But, it turns out that the Susumaniello wasn’t our final destination. This wine opened the door for us to the range of D’Addario wines at the next level, priced from about $27 to $40 dollars. And, although we are still working our way through this part of the line-up, I have to say we are impressed.

A Stunning Primitivo 

The Vignalesta Primitivo di Manduria DOC, for example, was just stunning, with a finish that went on forever. What amazing wines these are, waiting to be discovered by wine enthusiasts who look beyond Italy’s “usual suspect” regions.

I asked winemaker Leonetta D’Addario to tell me the winery’s story. Well, she wrote, it began more than 100 years ago with her great-grandfather.

” At that time my family was involved in three main activities: the production of artisanal pottery from the famous Grottaglie area, trade, and agriculture. We owned fruit trees lands and we were mainly producing bulk wine. When my grandfather became a young man, in the early 1960s, also due to what it is known as the “Italian economic miracle”, he soon became one of the most important car dealers in Italy, while the other part of the family was still managing the land and producing wine.”

Focus on Old Vines

Choosing her own path, Leonetta was drawn to the land more than the auto business. Realizing that the family’s old-vine vineyards were a special resource, the family established the D’Addario winery in 2010. “I graduated at the Università degli Studi di Milano in Viticulture and Enology in 2016, writing a thesis in which I analyzed differences between 8 years old vines and 60 years old vines of Primitivo,” she writes.

Leonetta worked at Epoch Estate Wines in Paso Robles before returning home to Puglia to apply what she had learned to the family estate. “We do have in our staff one of the best winemakers of Italy, Teodosio d’Apolito, she writes. “Since 2015 he has followed the Aziende Agricole D’Addario with our agronomists in the production of our wines.”

The result of this multi-generational journey are the wines that Sue and I have been enjoying.  Come for the Susumaniello. Stay for the complete lineup of distinctive, quality wines that over-deliver in every case. And don’t miss that awesome Negroamaro Rosé if you see it!

Storm Clouds Ahead for Global Wine Trade

Storm clouds are on the horizon for the global wine trade and I am worried because I can’t really say how things are going to develop in the short and medium terms.

The problem is that the disruptions are both broad and deep. They are widespread throughout the commodity chain and impact both the supply- and demand-sides of the market. It’s a lot to take in. Herewith a brief sketch of the situation as I see it today.

Storms on the Supply Side

Some of the storms on the supply side are literally storms — wind, hail, freezing temperatures in the main winegrowing regions of Europe plus drought and wildfire smoke taint elsewhere, especially California.

The increasing extreme weather impacts are unlikely to diminish and inject elements of risk and uncertainty into the supply side of the market. Some of this risk is inherent to agriculture, of course, but it seems like the factors that punctuate equilibrium are both larger and more frequent. Increasingly hard to predict what’s coming over the horizon.

Storms on the Demand Side

From a global perspective, as I explain in my recent book Wine Wars II, a small number of countries and regions (France, Italy, Spain, California) shape supply conditions and an equally small number (USA, UK, Germany, China) are key forces on the demand side.

Each of these countries if facing its own economic crisis and taken together they suggest major impacts on both global wine imports and, according to a recent IMF report, the prospects for a global recession. JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon is predicting a US recession within six to nine months.

The storm clouds are somewhat different in each country but the fact that they have come together at the same time raises concerns. Inflation is both high and persistent in the US, for example, causing the Federal Reserve to double down on interest rate increases. The hope is a “soft landing” that would slow the economy enough to reduce wage growth without actually increasing joblessness and tipping the economy into recession.

This is a tough target, especially because monetary policies are subject to what are called “variable lags.” You roughly understand what will happen, but not when. Imagine driving a car with variable lags on the brakes, accelerator, and steering! In theory you might be fine but in practice you will probably end up in the ditch.

The recent declines in equity prices and widespread cooling of the housing market is another concern. A recent Rabobank report suggests that sales of super-premium wines, which seem to persist even when income takes a hit, are not immune to changes in net worth.

So it is entirely possible, following Dimon’s lead, that the US will spend 2023 with both falling income and rising prices. Some wine market niches might be little affected by this combination, but the broad market will certainly suffer.

German and UK Problems

Germany is known for its bulk wine imports, and these are likely to be squeezed by rising energy prices and falling output in its energy-dependent manufacturing sector.

What will German consumers choose: shivering in the cold while they drink their usual ration of wine? Or staying warmer but cutting back on price or quantity? I will leave the answer to you.

The UK market, which is in some ways the wine trade’s most important, will suffer higher energy bills this year and next, too. But its problems go deeper. Already more economically fragile than the other countries discussed here, it must now confront the fact that its new government seems to be both economically reckless and politically tone-deaf (an unusual combination — it is usually one or the other). So the Bank of England has had to raise interest rates even faster than expected and invoke emergency measures to prevent fire-sale losses among pension funds.

To invoke the car example once again, the UK’s drivers are stomping down on both the brake and accelerator pedals at the same time. Not a very safe situation according to most driving instructors. Jeremy Hunt, the newly appointed chancellor, signaled a big U-turn in economic policy yesterday, but much damage has already been done and fundamental problems remain. Watch for more shoes to drop.

Although there was some good wine business news in the original “mini-budget (scheduled duty increases had been postponed), the alcohol tax increases have been restored and the outlook for the wine trade is grim. Will UK consumers spend their inflation-reduced purchasing power on the higher mortgage bills that are coming soon due to rising interest rates … or will they buy wine? Once again, the answer’s up to you.

China’s Economic Bicycle

A few years ago we would have looked to China for a ray of sunlight in the global storm, both in terms of the wine trade and more generally. But not today. The Chinese economy is fragile right now, with many risks to consider, especially in the possibility that the property bubble might burst or deflate.

I have argued that the Bicycle Theory of Economic Growth applies to China. A bicycle is only really stable as long as it keeps moving forward. Once it stopes, staying upright is a real balancing act. I think China is much the same — it has to move ahead rapidly to keep its inherent contradictions from tipping it over. The property market crisis is a clear example of this. As growth has slowed, consumers are now refusing to pay their mortgage bills for housing still under construction.

Five years ago, China would have been the engine we counted upon to pull the global wine trade and, indeed, the global economy, out of its storm. Now its weakness on both fronts (covid lockdowns prevent a return to normal wine market conditions, for example) stand in the way of recover.

What Next?

What next? That’s the question on the cover of last week’s Economist newspaper. The Economist speculates that we are entering a new era of global economic policy. Hard to know where that path will lead.

What’s next for the global wine trade? The combination of demand- and supply-side storms I have outlined here make it hard to know. What next? Too soon to tell, I think. Stay tuned.

Flashback: Confessions of a Rookie Wine Judge

I’ve been sidelined by a medical issue for the last couple of weeks and, while I am fine now, I won’t be able to taste wine for another week or two. This situation reminded me of the time I tasted literally dozens and dozens of wine every morning as a judge at the International Wine Competition Bucharest i(now rebranded as VINARIUM International Wine Contest) n 2018.

Here’s a flashback column about my “Confessions of a Rookie Wine Judge.” Enjoy!

Confessions of a Rookie Wine Judge

The Wine Economist / November 27, 2018

I have declined several invitations to serve on wine competition juries, but when Catalin Paduraru asked me to be be part of the International Wine Competition Bucharest I just couldn’t say no.

Sue and I had never visited Romania and there was much I wanted to learn about the country and its wines. Besides, Catalin (along with Lucian Marcu) had somehow managed to publish a Romanian version of my book Wine Wars. So we headed to Iași, Romania’s cultural capital, where this year’s competition was held.

Reservations? I had a few because of my lack of formal training in wine tasting and my rookie juror status, so I asked a few experienced friends for advice. It’s not so hard, one veteran juror told me. You know how to taste wine, just concentrate and focus. Taste them one at a time. A Master of Wine advised me to be generous in general, except when there were clear faults, and then to cut no slack.

Wine by the Numbers1mbc2

The wine competition was organized according to OIV regulations. We were grouped into three teams or “commissions” of five jurors each, three internationals and two from the home country Romania. We used the “Australian” system, I was told, where we could talk a bit amongst ourselves rather than sitting solo. As in the old days of figure skating scoring, the highest and lowest scores are thrown out for each wine and the three middle ones averaged.

The wines were evaluated on a 100-point scale divided into a number of different categories. The tablet-based OIV software made it easy to focus on thinking about the wine and my friend was right — if you think about one wine and one sensory element at a time the task is difficult, but not overwhelming.

The software gave each juror a report of his or her score for a wine along with the average score. Wines that received an average between 82 and 84.99 points earned a silver medal. 85 to 91.99 point wines were gold. 92 points and over received the Great Gold Medal. This is a pretty tough grading curve, but with many elements evaluated critically and individually, maximum scores are hard to achieve.

My team tasted 50 to 60 wines over the course of about 3 hours each morning for  three days in a row.  Lunch followed the judging and the wines were revealed, giving us an opportunity to see what labels were inside the closed bags.

60 wines in three hours does not leave much time for chit-chat and if you watch the video about the event you will notice how serious we all were. Staying focused for so long and moving through the wines so quickly was a challenge.

Rookie Mistakes

There were several aspects of the competition that took some time for this rookie to figure out. The wines were assembled by category not region (or country of origin) or grape variety. So a flight of dry white wines might include several different grape varieties and countries or regions of origin. It was therefore important to approach each wine with an open mind because the variation from glass to glass was sometimes dramatic.

Because the software reported both my score for each wine and also the team average, I was initially tempted to see the average as the “right answer” and try to think about what I must have missed if I was far off the mark.  There was a certain satisfaction when we all gave a wine exactly the same total score, but I’ll bet we differed in the details.

Eventually I realized that this second-guessing was another rookie mistake since there really isn’t a right answer.  Or, rather, it wasn’t my job to try to guess what the other jurors thought, but to provide my own careful judgement. The economists’ motto is degustibus non est disputandum!iwcb1

Mining Gold and Silver

Sue had the best view of the process. She and an official OIV observer sat apart from the rest of us. They got to taste the wines along with one of the commissions (not mine) and they could see all of the scores come in and follow the dynamics of the tasting. It was interesting, she told me when it was all over, to see how different jurors reacted to particular wines and how the individual scores were forged into gold and silver medals.

My fellow wine economists often criticize wine competitions in general because they make seemingly objective awards on the basis of necessarily subjective and sometimes inconsistent sensory evaluation.  The jurors I spoke with were aware of this problem and familiar with the research on the issue, but committed to the project nonetheless, which might account for the serious concentration and focused work ethic they all displayed. I was impressed.

Would I agree to serve on a jury again? It would depend on the circumstances. But I have already started to think about what I would do differently — how I would organize my scoring so that the final number better reflects what I sense in the glass.

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Sue and I would like to thank all the wonderful people we met in Iasi. Special thanks to Catalin and Lucian, of course, and to my fellow jurors Diana Lazar, Richard Pfister, Roberto Gaudio, and Carole Cliche. Thanks as well to Prof. Valeriu Cotea, who gently coached me through my rookie experience and to Cristian Ionescu, who kept the technology working efficiently and made life easy for all of us.

Sue took these photos at one of the post-jury luncheons, where the wines were revealed and we could finally see the labels behind our scores.

Two New Guides to Global Wine

Two new guides to the global wine scene are scheduled for release next Tuesday, October 11 and this coincidence of release dates provides an opportunity to compare their different approaches and to consider the problems that such books necessarily confront today.

Hugh Johnsons’s Pocket Wine Books 2023 (general editor Margaret Rand) is  the latest annual edition in this best-selling series. The new third edition of Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil is as big as Hugh Johnson volume is slender. Both books are jam-packed with information and insights.  Both are addictive page-turners that reflect all the creativity, attention to detail, and pure hard work that has gone into their production. No wonder they are so successful.

A global wine guide has got to be exceptional to succeed these days. Consider the challenges that authors and editors face. First is the vast domain of the topic. Fifty years ago the world of wine was pretty big in theory, but much smaller than today in practice. New Zealand wines existed, for example, but you might not need to talk much about them. Who would ever encounter a kiwi wine outside of kiwi-land?

Now, of course, wine production takes place in more places and efficient wine trade brings an enormous number of the bottles to our doorsteps. More wines from more places made in more styles with more different wine grape varieties. Incredible.

How is a book supposed to approach such a huge topic? And how can a book compete with the internet, which can provide smartphone-equipped wine enthusiasts with vast storehouses of wine data? A physical book simply has to have a lot going for it to find a market in the smartphone era, don’t you think?

And then there is the problem of readership. Physical books and e-books there to be read, but more and more people want to listen to information instead of reading it. Podcasts and audiobooks are very popular today. When I checked the Amazon sales figures for my wine books back in August, for example, and I think the audio-book versions usually topped the tables.

My books might have had more listeners than readers during the peak summer weeks, but my books have lots of stories and so lend themselves to audio narration. Reference books and guides might not be as easy to transform from printed word to spoken voice.

You probably have earlier editions of both these books on your bookshelves, but it is worth considering their different strategies for capturing the world of wine in print.

The Hugh Johnson Guide takes a sort of pointillist approach, with lots and lots of very short entries in each of the major sections such as vintage reports, wine grape varieties, food and wine pairings, ten wines to try in 2023, and so on.  The chapters on wine producing countries take the same approach, featuring lots of  star-rated thumbnail producer reviews. The classic Old World regions — think Burgundy and Bordeaux — get special attention.

The Wine Bible takes a more broad-brush approach, with many of the same topics and topics covered, but in a more flowing narrative style with many of colorful illustrations. The Wine Bible encourages deep reading and focused study more than browsing. The Hugh Johnson chapter on Washington State, for example, has short sketches and star ratings of more than 60 wineries while The Wine Bible focuses on the stories of just eight iconic producers that help define the region. Both approaches are useful — it depends on what you are looking for.

Both books confront the inevitable question of where do you stop? The world of wine is so broad today, how much coverage should emerging countries and regions receive given the obvious constraints of the book format? There is no right answer to this question, but I admit that I was a little disappointed in the Hugh Johnson treatment of Asia and especially China, which received less space on the page than New Jersey. The Wine Bible’s treatment was more in line, in my view, of China’s current and potential position in the wine world.

The Wine Bible and Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book both have a lot to offer and much that is new. Wine enthusiasts are fortunate to have these great guides to global wine.

Flashback: Lawyers, Wine, and Money

Recent Wine Economist columns have reflected on the Judgment of Paris and its impact on the Napa Valley.  I couldn’t help myself thinking back to 2010 and the column below, which I present here as a “flashback.”  Where do “lawyers, wine, and money” come into the Napa picture? Read on to find out.

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Stag’s {Stags’} (Stags) Leap

Originally published April 4, 2010.

The Stags Leap District Winegrowers Association has invited us to their V2V (Vineyard to Vintner) program later this month and we are looking forward to the event.

I have a particular interest in the Stags Leap District. My study of wine economics can be directly traced to a conversation with one of this area’s leading winemakers in his cellar many years ago. I’m looking forward to this focused opportunity to learn more about the Stags Leap District today and see what has changed since my last visit.

Money, Wine and Lawyers

The first stage of my research to prepare for the Stags Leap trip took an unexpected turn that reminded me of Warren Zevon’s song “Lawyers, Guns and Money.” Most stories of famous wine regions are about places, faces and wine. They start with places (the terroir), then move to faces (of the famous winemakers who helped establish the region’s reputation) and end with the wines themselves.

Stags Leap AVA certainly has the terroir. The district, about six miles north of Napa on the Silverado Road, is marked by a 1200 foot vertical basalt palisade that is both landmark and a source of the particular soil and microclimate that helps define the district. The growing season is longer in Stags Leap than in other parts of Napa Valley, with bud break coming two weeks earlier. The grapes ripen more slowly during their longer time on the vine, which seems to have a positive effect.

Stags Leap has it famous wine faces, too. The most notable is Warren Winiasrski of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. A former lecturer in Greek at the University of Chicago School of Social Thought, he was one of the early movers in Stags Leap. His second vintage, a 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon, was declared the red wine winner at the famous 1976 “Judgment of Paris” wine tasting that Steven Spurrier organized to test California wines against the French originals.  (You know about this event if you’ve read George B. Taber’s excellent book on the subject or seen the fictionalized film version, Bottle Shock.)

(Incredibly, the winning wine was made with grapes from three year old vines — infants! Unfortunately, according to my sources here, the vineyard was not in the Stags Leap District but rather farther north in Napa Valley. It established the winery’s and the region’s reputations at once.)

There is even a hallmark Stags Leap style — “perfumey fruit” according to Bruce Cass, although not every wine is made in a way that highlights this.

Lawyers, Wine and Grammar

So where do the lawyers come in? Well, the first thing I did when I started this project was to grab my copy of James Halliday’s classic Wine Atlas of California. Halliday devotes seven pages to Stags Leap places and faces and its distinctive Cabernet Sauvignon wines. But he begins his report with the most controversial part of the AVA’s history: its name and the legal battle over the the valuable intellectual property rights (IPRs) associated with it.

The area takes its name from the legend of a prodigious jump that a stag (or maybe several stags) took on the palisade while fleeing hunters. Warren Winiarski naturally included this colorful reference in the name of his winery, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, when he founded the operation in 1972.

But so did Carl Dounami, who started founded Stags’ Leap Winery just up the road, also in 1972.  Two wineries, two strong personalities — they battled for years over the right to the Stag’s / Stags’ Leap name. More than an apostrophe separated them, of course, although any grammarian can tell you that where the apostrophe is placed makes all the difference.

The right to label your wine with some variation of Stag’s/Stags’ Leap had obvious economic advantages and both winemakers wanted clear title to the designation. The IPR battle reemerged and intensified when the AVA was formed and its geographic lines drawn.

Clashing economic interests made the process of choosing a name and drawing AVA lines particularly contentious, according to Halliday. The compromise name — Stags Leap (no apostrophe anywhere, purely plural, nowhere possessive) settled the legal squabble, leaving the real task clear: making great wine.

Challenges Old & New

The old wine economics story of Stags Leap was about intellectual property. The new one — the one I want to explore when I visit later this month — is how the winegrowers are dealing with the current economic challenge and will respond to the future ones.

The current challenge, of course, is the continuing economic crisis, which has hit some upscale producers especially hard.

The future challenges? The future is hard to predict, but I’d suggest globalization (with its many threats and opportunities) and climate change, which would seem to be an especially scary prospect for a micro-region like Stags Leap.  But maybe I’m missing an even bigger story? I guess I’ll have to go there and find out!

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The title of this post reminded me of a Warren Zevon song.

The Judgment of Paris and Napa Valley’s Road Not Taken

A journalist recently asked me to comment on the impact of the famous 1976 “Judgment of Paris” tasting of California and French wines. The California wines were very competitive, according to the scores given by the panel of French judges, and wines from the Napa Valley actually topped both the Cabernet and Chardonnay lists. Amazing.

Time magazine reporter George M. Taber was the only journalist in attendance and his exclusive story about the unexpected American victory was a shot heard round the world. His 2005 book, Judgment of Paris is worth reading and even re-reading today.

What if … ?

Would Napa Valley have grown and developed if the Judgment of Paris had not taken place? Well, yes, I answered, there was already a good deal of momentum stimulated by, among other things, the successful opening in 1966 of the Robert Mondavi Winery, the first major new winery in the valley since Prohibition.

In fact, local residents were already concerned about the masses of wine tourists clogging local roads and highways and over-whelming winery facilities back in 1972 when a KPIX Eyewitness News reporter paid a visit to see what was happening. Click here or on the image below to watch the vintage video report.

And there was already international attention, too. Domaine Chandon, the Yountville outpost of the famous French Champagne house Môet Chandon, opened in 1973, three years before the famous Paris tasting.

On the Road Again

So the Napa Valley was already on the road to big things even before the Paris tasting. But just about everyone agrees that the international recognition changed things.

It changed things for Napa and for California, but the impact didn’t stop there. Towards the end of his book, George Taber takes a bit of a global tour, showing us how the world of wine broadened as the result of a number of forces including, of course, the new perspective on New World wine that the 1976 tasting provoked.

Second Thoughts?

Revisiting the Napa Valley years after the Paris tasting, to gather insights for his 2005 book, Taber could see the result of the intense focus that his astute reporting helped create. There was growth, for sure, and lots of new investment, both domestic and by a long list of international wine luminaries including, of course, the Rothschilds who partnered with Robert Mondavi in 1978, just two years after the Judgment, to build Opus One.

Taber was concerned about how the boom was unfolding. Enormous wealth, vanity vineyards, trophy wines. “The Napa Valley unfortunately became another proof of the maxim that nothing succeeds like excess.” And a good indicator of excess, he proposed, was the price of vineyard land. Warren Winiarski paid about $2000 per acre in 1970 for the first Stag’s Leap vineyard, Taber reported.  In 1999 the owner of Far Niente winery paid $100,000 an acre for a 42-acres vineyard, which seemed like a lot. Francis Ford Coppola raised the stakes just a few years later, paying $300,000 an acre, a jaw-dropping price at the time.

Now, of course, $300,000 an acre for Napa Valley vineyards is not noteworthy or exceptional. $300,000 to $500,000 per vineyard acre (adjusting for the value of any production or housing assets) seems to be the norm, with some particular parcels going for even more.  The excess that Taber saw 20 years ago has not diminished.

Money, Taste, and Wine

Naturally this is reflected in the wine. Not all of it, of course, but it is easy to see a pattern. The focus in Napa is increasingly on its signature grape variety, Cabernet Sauvignon. I am sure this is about taste — the best Napa Cabs I’ve tried are really good — but it is also about money, I think.

Cabernet is the grape of Bordeaux, too, and some people are happy to pay much more for Cabernet than they would for Zinfandel, which was once widely grown in the valley but now not-so-much. Sky-high land prices require high grape prices which mean high bottle prices for the wine. King Cabernet is the surest bet, many believe, and so it increasingly carpets the valley floor.

Many of the wines are really distinctive — Sue and I have tasted some real stunners! — but some of them taste the same to my amateur palate. I call them Napa Valley Red Wine. Maybe this is true of all wine regions, even the great ones? In Napa they often sell for more than $100 a bottle and seem to satisfy the thirst of buyers looking for the taste of Napa.

They Think I’m Bragging

I am not the only one who is concerned about how the wines of Napa Valley have changed and how the flood of tourist dollars and investor wealth has led to excess. But whenever I bemoan certain aspects of the Napa wine industry environment to international audiences, they think that I am just bragging. All those tourists and fancy restaurants! All the celebrities and trophy wines! Such economic success and pure opulence!

Napa Valley is a dream to international wine visitors, and for foreign winery owners who long for their own Napa moment, their own Judgment of Paris. Who can blame them?

But what if the Judgment never happened? If you know the story, you can appreciate that it could easily not have taken place (of the results could have turned out differently).  Napa Valley would still have grown the thrived, I think, but it would be different today. What might it look like? Come back next week to see what might have been … and is.

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Thanks to Tony Correia for his help nailing down vineyard valuations. Thanks to Silicon Valley Bank’s Rob McMillan for his help locating the KPIX video, which was originally featured in a very memorable post on Rob’s blog.

Using Food to Drive Wine Sales the Italian Way

The conventional wisdom holds that wine and food are a match made in heaven — wine was food in many cultures in the past and still is in some places.

We would call food and wine complements in economics terminology. Products that are complements tend to be purchased together. Beer and pizza. Hot dogs and mustard. Burgers and fries. Get consumers to buy more of one and the sales of the complement will follow.

Problems with the Conventional Wisdom

There are always problems with the conventional wisdom, of course, and it is true that most food is eaten without wine (the US wine-drinking population is relatively small) and much (most?)  wine is imbibed away from the dining table. But the logic of pairing food and wine still holds along with the potential to exploit the complement relationship to broaden the wine drinker base.

Yet, apart from those supermarket wine displays throughout the store and restaurant wine pairing suggestions, I wonder how much effort has gone into exploiting the food/wine link? Certainly there are some worthy efforts — popular magazines like Wine Spectator and Food & Wine routinely feature chefs and restaurants as well as winemakers and wineries. Sometimes there are recipes and wine pairing suggestions. Wine selling food. Food selling wine.

But there are obvious missed opportunities. How many cable food programs bring wine into the frame, for example?  Last year I complained bitterly that Stanley Tucci’s CNN series on food in Italy was ignoring the obvious connection with wine! The preview episodes of the second season suggest that this situation has improved, but it is only a small victory.

Food needs to be treated as a key lever in developing a sustainable wine culture in the U.S. Regular wine drinkers are a small group, but everyone eats food. Most people love food. Some people (you know who you are) think about little else. Wine needs to find ways to insinuate itself more fully into that dynamic. Herewith two interesting approaches.

The Italian Dinner

Sue and I were invited to a dinner at Assaggio Ristorante in Seattle organized around the theme “From Italy to Your Table” as part of the Italian Denominations of Origin 2022 U.S. tour. Most of the usual suspects of the Seattle wine scene were in attendance and, although wine wasn’t the main attraction, a really useful food-wine connections was made.

Anyone who is interested in the wines of Italy soon comes to appreciate the many protected designations — DOC, DOCG — that define the national wine treasury (and also the often-exciting IGT wines that sprout up in the gaps that the DOC structure creates). Well, the gist of the dinner is that there is a world of food products in Italy with similar protected status and that pairing the food and the wine is a way to explore and understand Italy’s complex culinary world.

Thus, for example, a spaghetti al pomodoro with Pasta di Gragnano IGP and San Marzano DOP tomatoes was paired with a Chianti Classico DOCG wine. And a rather spectacular risotto al tartufo highlighting carnaroli rice IGP and Pecorino Romano DOP (plus black truffle, of course) paired with a Montepulciano d’Abruzzo DOC.

Like its neighbor France, Italy has made a point of recognizing its many special foods. Do you think there are a lot of DOC, DOCG, and IGT wine designations? Trust me, there are many more PDO and PGI food products. Sue started a list that ran from various sorts of meats and cheeses (of course) to garlic, olives, saffron, olive oil, vinegar, oranges, asparagus, basil, bergamot, turnip, artichoke, capers, chestnuts, cherries, spring onions, mussels, dry beans, flour, farro, hazelnut, figs, licorice, apples, aubergine, plums, breads, pistachios, and tomatoes before she gave up and poured herself a glass of wine.

The dinner was very successful — thanks so much to the chefs and the great service staff at Assaggio — but it wasn’t just that the food was good and the wines were good and pairings were tasty. It was also that the idea made sense. A room full of wine professionals was coaxed into thinking more seriously about their food using the familiar vocabulary of designated origin.

The next step is to switch things around and help foodies (and there are millions of them) translate their passion more directly to wine!

The Cheese Box

Wine and cheese are an obvious pairing — one local supermarket has located the cheese counter directly opposite the wine wall. Wine should sell cheese. Cheese should sell wine. Both offer a world of interesting choices. The combinations are almost endless. But curious consumers might need a little help get started.

This is what the people at curdbox and The Italian Selection have done with their curated wine and cheese offerings. curdbox offers monthly subscription shipments of cheeses and associated products to introduce consumers to different elements of the world of cheese (the September box features cheese selected in consultation with Food Network celebrity Justin Warner). Each $49.95 box contains

• 3 artisan cheeses
• 3 specialty food pairings
• Pairing info card with wine suggestions
• In-depth blog post
• Themed Spotify playlist
• Curdcast podcast

Cheese subscribers can add wine to the mix, which is where The Italian Selection comes in. Add wine to the subscription and The Italian Selection will send two bottles of Italian DOC or DOCG wine chosen to pair with the cheese selection.

We received the July 2022 curdbox, organized around the theme “Born in the USA.” Our box included

The Cheeses:

  • Hoop Cheese by Striplings General Store
  • Grand Cru Surchoix by Roth Cheeses
  • San Geronimo by Nicasio Valley Cheese Co.

and The Pairings

  • Speck Americano by La Quercia
  • Michigan Blueberry Preserves by Brownwood Farms
  • Everything Goes Nuts by Bobby-Sue’s Nuts

Here is a List of past curdbox seelections.

I was impressed with the thought that went into the wine pairings. We received a white wine (Cantine Terre Stregate “Trama”  Falanghina from Campania) and a red (Quartomoro di Sardegna “Òrriu” Cannonau di Sardegna). I asked the folks at The Italian Selection why they picked these particular wines and received a detailed reply.

The wines have the general characteristics that pair well with wine (no hard tannins, for example, good acidity) and also particular attributes of note. The floral notes of the Falanghina were cited as adding a feature to the pairing, for example, and the fruit of the Cannonau could play the role of fruit usually included on a cheese tray, too.

So what did our test crew think? We liked the cheeses quite a lot and enjoyed tasting new and different varieties. If the point of curdbox is to nudge subscribers to think outside the box a bit, we think it works.

We liked the wines, too, and enjoyed the pairings. The Falanghina was an immediate hit with everyone and changed with each bite of cheese. The Cannonau took a while to show the fruit we were looking for, but it came around eventually. The Falanghina was the discovery for us, however, and demonstrated clearly how curdbox subscribers might come for the cheese and stay for the wine.

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Many thanks to curdbox, The Italian Selection, and our friends at the Italian Trade Agency for their help making this column possible.