Unlocking the Market Potential of Languedoc, Roussillon, & the Loire Valley

pink1What do you think of when you think of French wine? If you are like most people, your thoughts probably stray to the iconic regions of Burgundy, Bordeaux, and Champagne. These regions and their wines are fundamental to the way we understand U.S. French wine and wine generally.

The Rhone and Alsace are probably on your radar, too, as they should be given their wonderful wines. Languedoc, Roussillon, and the Loire Valley likely show up further down the list. Important wine regions, but not quite in the same league as the others in terms of reputation and market presence.

But the wines Sue and I found during a recent press tour of these regions are so well matched to current market trends that I think this situation is going to change. No, Languedoc isn’t going to replace Bordeaux in anyone’s wine investment portfolio, but I do think these regions are positioned to gain both respect and market share, especially here in the United States. I will use the next several columns to explain how and why and also to explore some issues we discovered along the way and headwinds that could slow progress.

Growth in the overall U.S. wine market has slowed in the last year, but there are two categories that continue to boom: sparkling wines and Rosé wines. Here’s how the wines of Languedoc, Roussillon, and the Loire fit in.

Blanquette and Cremant

Sparking wine is booming in the U.S. market and while Prosecco is the driving force, wines from other regions are benefiting from the surge. Cava from Spain, for example, is getting more attention in part because of its great affordability. And French sparkling wines from places other than Champagne are in the mix.

The Languedoc’s Blanquette de Limoux is both delicious and historic — it lays claim to being the first sparkling wine made using the classic method. It was Champagne before Champagne. Some say that Dom Perignon, the famous priest given credit for inventing Champagne, actually learned the special method when he worked in Limoux.  Impossible to prove, but fascinating to consider.

The United States in Blanquette de Limoux’s most important export market, accounting for 32% of export sales. No surprise considering the sparkling wine boom and Blanquette’s excellent quality/price offer.

Seven regions of France produce sparkling wines called Cremant, including the Loire Valley and we really enjoyed these wines. One reason might be that Cremant de Loire’s menu of grape variety possibilities include Chenin Blanc, which does so well here and is so delicious in its sparkling form.

The Bubble Boom is much more than Prosecco and Champagne and Languedoc and the Loire are well-positioned to benefit from increased attention to these wines.

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Pretty in Pink

Pink seems to be the new black when it comes to wine sales. Rosè wine sales in the U.S. have increased by more than 66% in the last year according to recent Nielsen figures and the surge isn’t limited to North America. I’ve heard that French supermarkets now sell more pink wines than white wines. Incroyable!

Although many consumers think Provence when they consider French Rosè wines, we tasted delicious versions in the Languedoc and Roussillon. A quick survey of the pink wine section of our local upscale supermarket revealed a good selection of Rosè from these regions at attractive prices. Our standby Gérard Bertrand Languedoc “Cote des Roses” (made from Grenache, Cinsault, and Syrah) was abundantly available at Costco on a recent visit.

In fact Languedoc pink wine exports to the U.S. are booming, up 100% in the last year according to one authority we spoke with. Pink Power! The Paul Mas Prima Perla Crémant de Limoux Brut Rosé shown in Sue’s photo at the top of this column, which we enjoyed at a dinner at Chateau de Pennautier near Carcassone in the Languedoc region, is perhaps the perfect wine for this moment. It is pink and sparkling … and delicious!

The Loire produces fantastic Rosè wines, but it is important to pay attention to appellation. Rosè de Loire is always dry while Rosè d’Anjou is always slightly sweet. These are just two of this region’s noteworthy pink wines.

Beyond Bubble and Pink

Languedoc, Roussillon, and the Loire produce a host of different wines — the list goes far beyond the bubbles and pinks I have referenced here — but these particular wines are key as export emphasis increases to compensate for sagging French domestic wine sales. One reason these wines succeed where other wines from these regions get less attention is that the geography of the typical wine shop display wall favors these wines over the regions’ other products. Here’s why.

If you are looking for red or white wines from these regions, you will probably find them in a “France” section of the wine wall, where they are likely to be tucked away in a corner to make room for wines from better known French regions. Hard to stand out in this crowd, given the importance of reputation in the maketplace. They will be there, but not always in a featured position, and their closest competition will be other, often very different, wines of France, not wines of the same kind from other countries.

Pink and sparkling wines are different. They form their own categories and are increasingly placed altogether in one spot on the wine wall. Rosé wines from around the world sit together on one shelf and bubbles on another, fostering head-to-head comparison and competition that benefits wines from Languedoc, Roussillon, and the Loire and those consumers who are curious enough to try them.

Will success in sparkling and Rosé wines transfer over to the other fine wines that these regions produce? The positive impressions that these wines make on consumers will certainly have benefits. But there are challenges — headwinds, I like to call them — that must be overcome. That’s what I will talk about next week.

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Sue and I participated in the media programs of Terroir and Millésimes in Languedoc and in Roussillon from April 15-22 and Val de Loire Millésimes from April 22-25 as guests of the regional producer associations. Thanks very much to the Langedoc, Roussillon, and Loire groups who hosted us and to everyone we met along the way. This is the first of a series of columns examining what we learned at these events.

Outlaw Wine? 19 Crimes Succeeds by Breaking All the Wine Marketing Rules

25162619 Crimes, the popular brand from Treasury Wine Estates, does everything wrong. It breaks all the “conventional wisdom” rules. It is everything that shouldn’t sell in the U.S. market. And yet it flies off the shelves. What’s going on?

19 Crimes is an Australian wine brand, which is the first problem. Sales of Aussie wines have been in decline here in the U.S. for years. The Australian section of my local upscale supermarket’s wine wall has shrunk to a shadow of its former self.

Sad and Doubly Cursed

Although 19 Crimes has evolved into a lineup of 7 different wines,  including Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, the core grape variety is Shiraz, and that’s the second problem. American consumers drink plenty of Syrah and Shiraz in red blends, but they don’t seem to want to buy it as a varietal wine. Sales of Shiraz have been sinking right along with Australian wine in general — a double curse!

And then there is the branding. 19 Crimes — outlaw wine! The name comes Australian history (history wine — oh no!). Great Britain once expelled its most hardened criminals to Australia. Any of 19 crimes could get you sentenced to transportation to Australia — banished to the end of the earth. Who wants to buy a criminal wine?

And, each label, of the core brand features a photo of a sad man — the mug shot of a convicted criminal. Who wants to buy a sad man wine? Who wants to associate themselves with a loser? How in the world can a wine like this get on the shelf, much less sell more than a million cases?

 

Wine by Design

Well, the answer is that 19 Crimes seems to have been rather precisely engineered to appeal to an important demographic — millennial men, especially those who see themselves as a bit of a rogue. Outlaws, if you know what I mean, who identify with others who defy convention.  Outlaw wine for self-styled renegades? Now you are beginning to see the 19 Crimes logic.

I bought a bottle of the red blend and, after I stared at the sad man for a while, I tasted it. Sweet and tannic, that was my reaction, and better chilled sangria-style than straight up. Not to my taste, but I am not the target audience.

Some of the most popular brands on the market today totally succeed with tannic sweet red blends pitched at a particular market segment. A friend who seems to have some inside information told me that the 19 Crimes flavor profile is no accident but rather the result of lots of careful research and consumer testing. No surprise there!

Every bit of the package is carefully linked to the brand identity and I’d encourage you to take a close look the next time you buy wine. But you will have to purchase and open the bottle to see my favorite part of the branding system — the cork!

The cork? Well, that breaks another stereotype, of course, since we sometimes think of Australia and New Zealand wines being topped by screwcaps. But there are many reasons why cork is so popular today and 19 Crimes cleverly adds a new advantage to the list: collectibility!

You see each cork is printed with one of the 19 crimes — my cork is #11: stealing roots, trees or plants or destroying them. That seems like a pretty petty crime to get my sad guy shipped to Australia, but it might be just the thing to start someone more into it to buy bottles and pull corks relentlessly until all 19 crime corks are captured.

Virtual Story-telling

19 Crimes is a story wine designed to appeal to a particular consumer category and Treasury has taken the next logical step by creating a virtual reality app that animates the sad men (and the sad woman on the Chardonnay label), so that they can tell their own sad stories.

Bringing the inanimate to life is a feat with a long artistic tradition — think Pygmalion, Pinocchio, or — especially relevant in this context — the scene in Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera “Ruddygore” where painted figures step out of their frames to deliver a stern warning.

The 19 Crimes figures tell their stories, humanizing their identities, and then step back onto the label. Art may be served by this, but marketing in the form of consumer engagement is the clear intent. If you want to hear all the stories, I suppose, you need to collect all seven wines in the lineup. It must work — I’ve heard that Treasury has  expanded its virtual reality program.

19 Crimes provides many lessons for anyone trying to understand today’s wine market, but perhaps the most important is that it is dangerous to generalize about generations when it comes to specific products such as wine. Many have written that millennials seek authenticity in products and experiences — and this is an important trend. But one size doesn’t necessarily fit all and some millennials (and probably consumers in other generational categories, too) obviously see themselves in a different light.

Identity trumps authenticity. Outlaw! You don’t need no stinking badges. And now there is a wine for you.

Congratulations to Treasury and 19 Crimes for their remarkable success. What’s next? Arrr, Matey. I’m thinkin’ Pirate wine is a pretty good bet!

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Here is that scene from Ruddygore. Enjoy!

Wine in America: Surprising Idaho and its Diverse Wine Scene

strangefolkThere is a big world of American wine out there, full of surprises. Wine is made in all 50 states, so “Support your local wine industry” is practical advice. Sometimes this requires you to head off the the vineyards, but sometimes they can come to you. Case in point … the booming Boise, Idaho wine scene.

There is an urban winery trail of sorts developing in Boise and our friend Jim Thomssen spirited us away for a quick survey of the scene between sessions of the Idaho Wine Commission meetings in February. His goal, it developed, was to show the diversity that is driving Idaho wine and, I think it is fair to say, American wine today, too.

One Size Does Not Fit All

One size does not fit all in Idaho wine. Idaho is dominated by Chateau Ste Chapelle and Sawtooth winery, which are part of the Precept wines portfolio that also includes Waterbrook, Canoe Ridge, Sagelands, House Wine, and Gruet among others. Precept owns Idaho’s two largest wineries and a huge proportion of its vineyards, whence many smaller wineries source their grapes. Ste Chapelle makes excellent wines (we tasted a vertical of their Tempranillo with dinner one night) as well as a series of “soft” blends that are Idaho best-sellers.sawtooth

In our previous visits we have focused on wineries in the Sunnyslope region of the Snake River Valley, where grapes are grown and wine is made. Some of our favorites include Bitner Vineyards, Huston Vineyards, Koenig Vineyards, and Fujishin Family Wine Cellars. They set a high standard for quality and their wines are delicious.

Given our tight schedule, Jim scheduled appointments at two wineries just outside the downtown core, Telaya Wine Co. and  Split Rail Winery.  The wineries are about the same size in terms of annual production and source grapes from both Idaho and Washington, but that is where the similarities end.

Precision Winemaking

Earl Sullivan is a scientist by training and a former international pharmaceutical industry executive and Telaya winery reflects the precision and systems thinking that comes with that background, both in terms of the wines, which are balanced and structured, and the winery itself, which was strategically located next door to a destination hotel along Boise’s popular river walk.telaya

Production and hospitality spaces in the two-year old winery were custom designed to facilitate efficient wine-making and to provide visitors a warm welcome. The patio by the river is a popular spot in warm weather.

We especially liked the Turas blend of Syrah, Malbec and Petit Verdot from the Snake River Valley and the elegant single-variety  Petit Verdot, too. Precision wine-making can yield delicious results and Earl Sullivan’s well planned and executed wine business is very successful.

Relentless Experimentation

A short drive away, Split Rail Winery is a very different experience. The brightly-painted winery and tasting room live in a former auto repair shop out on the highway. Jed Glavin’s philosophy is to explore his favorite Rhone varieties (including a tasty SGM  field blend that we sampled) and to provide wine in all imaginable delivery systems including bottle, keg (for the on-trade), cans, and take-out growlers. I have included an image io the Strange Folks line of canned wines. Pull tabs, not corks. Pretty crazy, huh?

sgm

Jed’s intention is to experiment relentlessly and he’s OK with it if he never makes the same wine twice, letting vintage variation and other factors rule. It says something about Jed that he’s willing to take so many risks to see what develops.

And it says something about Idaho in general and the Boise area in particular that he has an enthusiast following that is excited to see what he will come up with next.

A Happening Place

In fact Boise is quite a happening place, with crowded restaurants featuring local ingredients, a bustling craft beer scene, and some interesting cider makers, too. In fact, cider was one of the features of this visit. A Basque friend introduced us to Basque cider during a visit to Spain last year and, knowing that Boise has a large Basque population, we sought out (and found!) several of these very dry ciders, including one on draft at the Basque Market restaurant, just across the street from the iconic Bar Gernika.cider

Jim took us to Meriwether Cider Co. out on the highway near Split Rail where a variety of tasty ciders (very different from the Basque products) are made and a loyal local following has developed. Cider has many advantages over wine — you can make it year around from stored apples, not just once a year when the grapes are ripe. And cider making has a tradition of flavorings and infusions that encourages experimentation. We know some winemakers in Oregon who also make cider and are very successful in both markets.

The Leadbetter family that owns Meriwether Cider will soon open a cider house in downtown Boise to feature both their products and those of other local cider makers. I was pleased to meet Gig Leadbetter at the wine meetings, which included cider industry people in Idaho because of the many synergies and, I suppose, the obvious need for producers in smaller markets to work together when they can.

The Idaho wine industry is anything but cookie-cutter in terms of size, scope, and style — and that’s part of what makes it so interesting. The fact that broad local support has developed for this rainbow of wine is inspiring, both for Idaho and for American wine.

 

The Changing Face of Wine in America: The Cooper’s Hawk Phenomenon

As I noted last week, wine is everywhere in America, or nearly so, and while it is common knowledge that the U.S. is the world’s largest wine market and that wine is produced in all 50 states, the diversity of the wine experience here sometimes comes as a surprise. Case in point …

What if I told you that one of the largest wineries in the U.S., home to what is probably the largest direct-to-consumer winery club program in the world, is based in Illinois, not California?

Illinois? (I can hear you saying this). No way! You’ve got to be kidding? Well, Cooper’s Hawk winery is no joke and learning about it helps us understand how wine is changing in the U.S. and where it could be going.

Top 50 U.S. Wineries

Wine Business Monthlys February 2018 issue lists the 50 largest wine companies in the U.S., from #1 Gallo (estimated production 70 million cases) to #50 McMannis Family Vineyards (340,000 cases). Most of the wineries are located in California as you would expect with a few exceptions such as Washington-based Ste Michelle Wine Estates (#8), #13 Precept Wine, and #36 Mesa Vineyards of Fort Stockton, Texas (550,000 cases).

Number 34 on the list with 570,000 case annual production and a wine club that is approaching 300,000 members is Cooper’s Hawk Winery and Restaurant of Woodridge, Illinois. All that wine is sold directly to restaurant patrons and wine club members. It is an interesting case study of wine’s growing (and changing) place in American culture.

A Wine-Centered Lifestyle Brand

The first Cooper’s Hawk location opened in 2005 and the chain, which identifies itself as a “lifestyle brand centered around wine” has grown to 30 stores in the  mid-west (Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, Missouri, Wisconsin) plus Maryland, Virginia, and Florida. Five new locations are scheduled to open in 2018. A total of 4.4 million guests visited Cooper’s Hawk last year.

A Cooper’s Hawk experience combines several elements. It is a restaurant, of course, with a wide-ranging upscale menu that encourages patrons to think food and wine with a suggested pairing for each dish.  Bin 70 (Cooper’s Hawk Pinot Gris) is the suggested match for pan-roasted Baramundi, for example, and red wine braised short ribs are matched with Bin 04 (the Cooper’s Hawk Red, a Cab-Merlot-Syrah blend).

Ordering wine by the numbers rather than listing the wine names on the food menu is a way to keep things simple, rather like many people order by number from an Asian restaurant menu. You don’t necessarily need to speak wine to enjoy it at Cooper’s Hawk.

Each restaurant features a “Napa-style” wine tasting room and an “artisanal retail market,” where various food and lifestyle items are sold along with the Cooper’s Hawk wines. The idea is to bring the feel of a wine-country tasting room and restaurant to customers who are attracted to wine lifestyle experiences.

47 Varietieslux

A total of 47 different Cooper’s Hawk wines are listed on the online wine menu, divided into several categories, including International, Sparkling, White, Red, Sweet Red, Sangria, Fruit Wine, Dessert, Mulled Wine, Barrel Reserve, and top drawer Lux. As the video above indicates, grapes are trucked to the Illinois winery from California, Washington, Oregon, and other regions and the wines made, aged, bottled and shipped to Cooper’s Hawk stores.

Cooper’s Hawk invites its guests to embrace wine and gives them both broad choice and attractive pricing. Bottles of wine sell for what glasses of wine might go for at other restaurants. Retail shop prices begin at under $15 per bottle and top out at $39.99 for the Lux Pinot Noir. Restaurant prices are a bit higher, as you would expect, but the mark-up is surprisingly small. You can have that $40 retail Lux Pinot for $47.99 in the restaurant.

All 47 wines are available by the glass, with prices starting at less than $7. A glass of Lux Pinot Noir or Lux Meritage will cost you $13. How you view these prices depends on context, I think. If you are used to New York City restaurant prices, these wines are incredibly cheap — so cheap you might hesitate to try them. On the other hand, if lower-shelf supermarket wines are your reference, the prices might seem a bit high. It is clear from Cooper’s Hawk’s success,, however, that there is a sweet spot for an upscale casual dining restaurant wine list and they seem to have found it.

World’s Largest Wine Club?

One of the most interesting elements of the Cooper’s Hawk phenomenon is its wine club, which has nearly 300,000 members and is growing at a 25% per year rate. Guests who join the club are offered special “members only” wines plus invitations to various exclusive programs and events. Although there is an option to have monthly wine allocations shipped to your door, the pricing structure strongly encourages members to pick up their wines at the tasting room, which obviously produces repeated visits to the restaurant and reinforces the lifestyle relationship.

I am kind of fascinated by Cooper’s Hawk, which seems to have struck a chord with many American consumers by making wine the central element of a carefully crafted experience. I am therefore disappointed that I have so far been unable to visit one of the locations. Our travels take us many places, but so far the opportunity to belly up to a Cooper’s Hawk tasting room bar has eluded me.

But I have tasted a couple of the wines. The Cooper’s Hawk Lux Pinot Noir was the featured wine at this year’s Screen Actors Guild awards (Cooper’s Hawk is the official SAG wine partner) and we received samples of this wine plus the Lux Chardonnay, which were served at the event’s gala dinner, as part of the promotion of this partnership.

The details of the wines we received are a bit of a mystery — the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are American appellation (not California or Oregon as you might expect). The Pinot was medium-bodied with a strong oak presence on the nose and palate that eventually faded to reveal varietal character. Perhaps the wine needed more time in the bottle to pull itself together or perhaps this is a winemaking decision to feature more oak on the premium product. The oak was nicely integrated in the Lux Chardonnay, on the other hand, and the wine was very enjoyable.

No one reads The Wine Economist for tasting notes, of course, and I’ve only sampled a couple of the wines. It is clear that these wines appeal to Cooper’s Hawk customers, who order them with meals and come back for more. Very impressive.

Cooper’s Hawk has achieved amazing success by creating or expanding a market that few of us imagined could be so large. Cooper’s Hawk recently announced and growing list of collaborations with famous wineries (Francis Ford Coppola, Boisset Collection) and celebrity chefs (Tyler Florence among others) that promise to expand the brand’s lifestyle appeal.

Is Cooper’s Hawk the future of American wine? No — wine is too complicated to have a single road ahead. But the Cooper’s Hawk phenomenon does suggest several important trails to explore — direct-to-consumer sales, focus on experience not just product, innovative marketing structures, and broadening the consumer base beyond the Wine Spectator reader “usual suspect” base to explicitly include Food Network viewers and foodies more generally. I think there’s a lot to learn about the market for wine in America from Cooper’s Hawk.

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The Wine Economist will pause for a couple weeks while Sue and I are in France to participate in Terroir and Millésimes in Languedoc and Roussillion from April 15-22 and Val de Loire Millésimes from April 22-25. Looking forward to meeting fascinating people, drinking wonderful wines, and learning as much as we can. Full report to follow when we return and have had time to digest our experiences.

Scratching the Surface of Wine in America

wineamericaI was busy this winter speaking at national and regional wine industry gatherings here in the United States: the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium in Sacramento (the western hemisphere’s largest wine industry meeting) and smaller but equally ambitious wine business meetings in Colorado, Idaho, and Washington State.

It’s been inspiring to meet so many hard-working and talented wine people and to talk with them about their challenges and achievements. I’d like to give a sense of what I learned in today’s column but — fair warning — I only have room here to scratch the surface of what I saw and heard and the places I’ve been.

As I said in my “State of the Industry” presentation at the Unified Symposium, wine is bustin’ out all over America. More consumers drank more wine in 2017 from more producers in more places than ever before.  The United States is well on the way to fulfilling Thomas Jefferson’s (and Phillip Wagner‘s) dream of a widespread wine-making and wine drinking nation.

American Wine By the Numbers

Wine America commissioned a study by John Dunham & Associates of the American wine industry’s economic impact  and the 2017 numbers are impressive (here is a pdf summary of the study). The total economic impact of American wine was more $219 billion, when both direct and indirect effects were included, and spread across all 50 states.  Follow this link  if you want to see the numbers for particular sectors or regions.

Wine Business Monthly‘s February 2018 issue surveyed the American wine scene and found nearly 10,000 wineries in the U.S. today (the exact number was 9,654), of which 7,751 were brick-and-mortar bonded wineries and 1903 were “virtual” wineries. California (1241) and Oregon (301) account for most of the virtual wineries. Nearly 40% of Oregon wineries are virtual — brands based upon wine produced under contract by others or sometimes purchased on the bulk wine market.

California makes the most wine, of course, and has the most bonded wineries (3,151) followed by Washington (713), Oregon (473), and New York (365). California was both the most wineries and the largest ones. It is no wonder that the California section of your local shop’s wine wall is so large.

My speaking schedule took me to Washington, Colorado, and Idaho this year. Colorado is 12th on the winery league table (behind Missouri and ahead of Illinois), with 121 bonded and 6 virtual wineries. Idaho sits in 28th place with 47 bonded and 5 virtual wineries. Although the scale is obviously smaller in regions like these, compared with California, that doesn’t mean that potential quality and ambition are any less.

Grappling with Challenges

Sue and I were much impressed by the energy and intensity we saw in the winemakers we met as they grappled with their particular challenges and opportunities. At the Unified Symposium in Sacramento, for example, special seminars inspired by last year’s wildfires were organized around emergency planning, preparedness, and response.

The Colorado program included applied research on Phylloxera, which has now come to parts of the state, and necessary practices to deal with it more effectively and to slow its spread. Paul Hobbs presented a seminar and growing and making Malbec, so put Colorado Malbec on your radar.

Idaho has its own vineyard problems — a killer freeze last year wiped out a lot of the production capacity. Growers are working together to rethink what should be grown, where, and how, treating the problem as an opportunity to improve. I was especially impressed by one conference session that I was not allowed to attend. Each year the Idaho winemakers gather in private to taste and frankly evaluate each other’s wines. The idea is everyone needs to improve quality if the regional industry’s reputation is to grow. No outsiders allowed in these pointed discussions.

To Tip or Not to Tip?

Sometimes regional meetings rely upon outside consultants for imported expertise, but often the biggest gains come from internal discussions like this. I sat in on one session at the Washington Winegrowers meetings, for example, where participants shared their experiences running tasting rooms. With direct-to-consumer sales more important than ever, tasting rooms need to adopt the best practices — but what does that mean in highly localized wine markets? It was fascinating to hear what worked and didn’t and why.

One issue that I did not expect to come up in the tasting room discussion was tipping. Tipping is for restaurants and cruise ships, not for wineries, or so I thought. But once you are using computer-based credit card payment systems, it is a simple task to insert a tip option ranging from zero to ten percent to twenty to whatever you like. Some winery owners were dead set against tipping — we pay our tasting room staff a good wage, no need to tip them to do their jobs. Others reported that customers brought the subject up, asking how they could tip — they appreciated the personal service that much.

One winery owner, who seemed to enjoy stirring things up, said he gave visitors who wanted to tip three options: 10%, 20%, and 200%. That 200% tip possibility usually generated an interesting conversation, he said, and that’s just what he had in mind.

There is a big world of American wine out there beyond California. If you haven’t taken advantage of the opportunities, consider this a wake-up call. The world of local American wineries is not as ubiquitous as craft breweries, which seem to lurk around every corner, but they are widespread and deserve your attention and support.

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This is the first of a short series of columns on the changing face of wine in America. Come back next week to learn the surprising story of the world’s largest winery club and the innovative winery project behind it.

Review of “Our Blood is Wine”: A Film about Georgia Qvevri Wine

 

Our Blood is Wine, directed by Emily Railsback, released by Music Box Films, 2018. Available as video-on-demand via iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, etc.

Our Blood is Wine is a fascinating look at traditional wine-making in Georgia (the republic, not the U.S. state) and how it survived the traumatic Soviet era to be widely celebrated today as a natural wine icon. This documentary has been made with the same restraint and respect for tradition that the Georgians use in making their qvevri wines. The wines let nature tell its story to a greater extent than most wines do. And the film lets Georgia tell its story in a very natural way, avoiding unnecessary intervention.  Highly recommended.

I admit that I was a bit concerned when I learned about Our Blood is Wine. Georgia is unique and I worried that the film would treat it with the generic techniques that are so often found in wine films — sunny vineyard scenes, the changing of the seasons, pick-up trucks with faithful dogs. You know what I mean. These scenes are charming and beautiful, but they are clichés. They could be anywhere, so they end up being nowhere. Wine films are filled with them.

Georgia is different, special, so the film needed to be different, too. Sitting at a key geopolitical crossroads, Georgia has experienced invasion, occupation, and foreign rule repeatedly and yet somehow the people, their culture, Christian religion, unique  language and alphabet, have all survived. Georgians are survivors and the same is true of their wines.

Our Blood is Wine shows the hard work and sacrifice of artisan winemakers in Georgia instead of sunny vineyard scenes. We travel along with Chicago-based sommelier Jeremy Quinn, our inquisitive guide, but he is not the star of this show. He usefully yields the screen to the Georgians who have created these wines, preserved the indigenous grape varieties, and crafted the fantastic qvevri themselves.

One thing that keeps the film moving is the fact that we mainly see people at work and often (as in a scene where several sweating shirtless men carefully move a large, awkward, heavy qvevri into place) the actions speak as loud as any words ever could. The hard work contrasts with the beautiful Georgian music that forms the film’s soundtrack.

The Soviet era, which the film shows through archival footage, was particularly hard on Georgian wine. Georgia-born Joseph Stalin made sure that he had a constant supply of good wine from his home region, but the rest of the country’s wine industry was not so lucky. Private vineyards were seized and industrial wine production replaced private cellars to satisfy undiscriminating palates elsewhere in the Soviet empire.

Traditional wine-making practices survived through home production and even today  most Georgian families make wine for their own consumption, some of it very good. Georgian wine consumption is high by U.S. standards. The rule of thumb for a party is two bottles of wine for each female guest and three bottles for each male. The domestic industry is necessarily focused on export since it is hard to compete with homemade wine for local sales.

There are, as I wrote in 2016, three wine industries in Georgia today. Some large producers focus on sweeter wines (which can be very good) to sell to traditional Russian and former-Soviet markets. Another industry has grown up around exports of clean international-style wines made with indigenous Georgian grapes. And, finally, a relatively small craft industry exists to satisfy the growing global demand for the natural wines made in qvevri — traditional hand-made clay pots that are buried in the earth. These wines and the people who make them and love them are the focus of Our Blood is Wine. 

Sue and I were delighted when, at the end of the film, the art of Georgian wine was driven home through the work of an artist who actually paints with wine and the juice of the grapes instead of oil or watercolor. Saperavi art? Could it be, we wondered? Yes! The artist was our friend Elene Rakviashvili, who helped us to learn about Georgian wine and culture when we visited in 2016.

Our Blood is Wine is worth seeking out for what it teaches about Georgia, history, culture, politics, and of course wine. One of the best wine documentaries of recent years.

Războaiele Vinului: Romanian Wine Wars

newwinewars

Romania has a long wine history and a more significant contemporary wine market presence than many observers appreciate. Its fine wines seem to fly under the radar here in the United States.

Romania produces more wine than New Zealand, according to OIV statistics. So why are Kiwi wines much  better known on the international scene?

Strategy is one answer. New Zealand is highly export-driven, powered by international and multinational investment, while Romanians drink much more of their own wine and export less. In fact, statistics I found suggest that Romanian spending on imports generally exceeds their wine export receipts, creating a negative wine trade balance.

Market positioning is another difference. When New Zealand was breaking into the high-margin US and UK markets 20 years ago many Romanian producers were focused on the lower-margin Russian and CIS markets. This is changing. Exports to the UK, China, and Germany among others now lead the charge. Romanian wine is on the rise.

I was pleased, therefore, to learn that a Romanian translation of my 2011 book Wine Wars has been released. It is called Războaiele Vinului, which translates as “War of Wine.”  The subtitle, “The Curse of the Blue Nun, the Miracle of Two Buck Chuck and the Revenge of the Terroirists” is “Blestemul Blue Nun, Miracolul Two Buck Chuck și Razboaiele Teroriștilor” in Romanian.

The Romanian Wine Wars was adapted by Catalin Paduraru and translated by Radu Rizea. Why translate Wine Wars into Romanian? Catalin believes that it is important for Romanian wine producers to better understand the global markets in which they and their wines compete. He sees Wine Wars as an approachable and understandable analysis of global wine dynamics and was willing to go to a good deal of trouble to make it available in Romania. I’m flattered by this attention and hope that Romanian wine-makers can leverage this analysis to help them gain ground in the fiercely competitive global markets.

I hope to find an opportunity to visit Romania later this year and talk about their wine wars with my Romanian readers. Cheers to you all, and especially to Catalin for all the work he put into this project.

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Update. The Romanian edition of Wine Wars has been named the book of the year by an important Romanian publication.

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