Extreme Wine: Vineyard Edition

P1030341When I started working on my book on Extreme Wine  (due out in the fall) I asked Wine Economist readers for ideas. Who are the most extreme wine people, for example? I received many nominations but one particularly caught my attention.

It came from a California winegrower who asked that winegrowers (although not him/herself) be included on the list. Everyone says that wine is made in the vineyard — and some growers go to real extremes to make that happen — but it is the wine makers who get all the attention.  The Pisoni family was cited as an example. Fruit from Pisoni Vineyards goes into some of the best wine in California, although only a little of it is bottled under the Pisoni name.

Good point. A quick search on Robert Parker’s website turned up a long list of Pinot Noir and Syrah with the Pisoni Vineyards designation (Parker calls it a grand cru vineyard in one review).  The 2008 Pisoni Estate Pinot earned the highest score (98/100), but all the reviews were strong. Clearly there’s something special about this vineyard and the people who farm it.  I visited several extreme winegrowers in 2012 (most recently on Red Mountain). Here are three that illustrate different sides of the extreme winegrower phenomenon.



As luck would have it, at about the same time I was having this extreme wine people conversation I received an invitation from Wine Yakima Valley to participate in a program they were organizing to help wine enthusiasts get to know several of the most noteworthy (read “extreme”) vineyards in the Yakima Valley AVA (which celebrates its 30th birthday in 2013). A perfect opportunity for me to do some extreme vineyard / wine grower research!

The Vineyard Tour Series highlighted the work of  four outstanding growers at Red Willow Vineyard, DuBrul Vineyard, Upland Estates and Boushey Vineyards. What a great opportunity. Each of these vineyards is famous for the quality of the wines made from its fruit and each is discussed in Paul Gregutt’s valuable book, Washington Wines & Wineries: The Essential Guide.

Gregutt knowingly breaks down Washington wine into grapes, AVAs, wine makers and wine growers. Boushey is one of his “grand cru” designates while Red Willow and DuBrul make “premier cru” in the top 20 list.  All these vineyards have interesting stories, but the DuBrul program was the best fit for my schedule.

Tough Love

I ended up spending a hot July afternoon at DuBrul, walking the vineyards with Hugh, Kathy and Kerry Sheils and gaining an appreciation of the unique terroir. This is how the Sheilses describe their site:

Our DuBrul Vineyard is situated on a basalt promontory with sweeping vistas in all directions.  The steep rocky south facing slope is composed of dissected terraces comprised of coalesced alluvial fan deposits primarily from the Ellensburg Formation.  The soils in the vineyard are made up of relatively thin loess (wind-deposited silt) over the more coarse-grained alluvial fan deposits.  The volcanic ash and heterogeneity of the rock types within the Ellensburg Formation add to the complexity of our terroir.

It’s hard land — literally. I think I remember Hugh saying that the spacing of the vines was partly determined by the lay out of the previous apple orchard there. The land was too equipment-busting tough to cultivate any other way, so they were forced to accept what they had to a certain extent. Wade Wolfe laid out the vineyard and Stan Clarke advised on the winegrowing — that’s as good a combination as you can get in Washington State.

The grapes are in high demand and are sold to only a few carefully selected customers — if you see the DuBrul Vineyard designation on a wine label you can expect something pretty special. So special that some of it is reserved for Cote Bonneville, the estate wine that Kerry makes.  The wines get high marks from the critics. At $200 the top of the line Cote Bonneville Du Brul Cabernet Sauvignon is the most expensive Washington State wine.

But DuBrul Vineyard isn’t about the money, it’s about the place and the particular geological forces that shaped it over the millenia and that shape what’s in your wine glass today. And, of course, it’s about the extreme wine people who have nurtured it.

History in a Bottle


The first thing you see when you approach Larkmead Vineyards, which is located in Napa Valley up the road near St. Helena, are the 120 year old head-trained Tocai Friuliano vines planted in a block between a house and the road. Man, that’s history, I thought, as I surveyed these gnarly old vines and imagined the tenacity of the owner and the commitment to a less-than-fashionable Napa Valley variety.

I was right about the history, but wrong about the commitment to Tocai. Turns out the Tocai vines were kept through the years  in spite of  negligible market demand because they made such a darn fine hedge in the summer. Completely blocked out the road and its noise! Only in recent years did the winemaker decide to make lemonade out of the lemons. Now the unusual wine quickly sells out its tiny production each year.  (I was too late to try the most recent vintage. Sigh … maybe next year).

We came to Larkmead for the history (although not specifically for the Tocai Friuliano). Larkmead got into my head when I first read Jim Lapsley’s history of Napa Valley wine, Bottled  Poerty. The legendary Andre Tchelistcheff identifed the “big four” quality wine producers in the valley when he came to work here in 1938: Beaulieu (Tchelistcheff’s new employer), Beringer, Inglenook and … Larkmead.

Larkmead? I knew the wines were very good, but I didn’t appreciate the historical significance. I needed to find out more.

My curiosity was especially piqued because of what I knew about the other three wineries and the way that they fell into corporate hands and met different fates. Perhaps the saddest story (but with a happy ending) was Inglenook, which went from producing some of Napa’s best wines to being a lowly jug wine brand. Only recently, after years and years of effort, has Francis Ford Coppolla managed to bring the estate, its vineyards and the Inglenook brand back together to make excellent wines. Congratulations to him on this achievement.

We tasted with Colin MacPhail and Sonny Thielbar and enjoyed the wines quite a lot. But what I liked even more was the sense of history. Although everything about Larkmead is up to date, there’s a very strong sense of of identity here. The people at Larkmead know what they are –the stewards of the land — and who they are, too.  After talking, tasting and thinking a bit I realized that several generations of extreme wine people were necessary to preserve these vineyards and to sustain a particular vision of wine through all of Napa’s ups and downs. The Tocai vines that first caught my attention aren’t central to all this (as I secretly hoped), simply an unexpected reminder of how hard it can be for a vineyard and winery like this to stay true to itself.

Extreme Vineyard PersistenceP1040105

We visited Anne Amie Vineyards twice during our Willamette Valley expedition (I taught a class for the University of Pinot at the International Pinot Noir Celebration) — first to attend a casual food and wine reception and then again for a “magical mystery tour” seminar and luncheon.

We’ve been to this place on many occasions, starting about 30 years ago when it was called Chateau Benoit (after the founding family). We liked the wines then, especially the sparkling wines as I recall, and it has been interesting to watch the place evolve as the region’s wine industry developed. Much has changed. We called it Chateau Benoit (pronounced Ben-OYT) when we first visited because that’s how the founders said it, but I understand it morphed into a French-inflected Chateau Ben-WAH later on. And it 1999 it became Anne Amie when Robert Pamplin bought the operation and named it after his two daughters.

More than the name has changed — Pamplin has invested much energy into developing Anne Amie’s Pinot Noir program as you might expect in Oregon — but much has remained the same, including some of the original vineyards (which is where this story fits into today’s post). As we drove up the long road to the hilltop winery, we passed the original (1979) block of Muller Thurgau vines that produced the grapes that went into the wines we tasted on our very first visit.

It has taken a good deal of persistence to maintain these vines because they have faced a lot of challenges. The first is economic — there’s not much of a market for Muller Thurgau here in the U.S. It might make economic sense to pull them out and put in a more marketable variety.

And then there’s nature. The bottom of the hill gets pretty cold in the winter and these old vines sometimes suffer. And I think I remember that they’ve been hit with Phylloxera, but nursed along rather than grubbed up as you might expect.  I like the wine that is produced from these grapes — crisp and clean — but more than that I appreciate the extreme perseverance that is behind it. This particular Muller Thurgau vineyard is singled out for special mention in Wine Grapes by Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and Jose Vouillamoz and it is easy to see why.

These three vineyards only scratch the surface of extreme winegrowing, but I hope they make the point that my anonymous correspondent suggested. If wine really is made in the vineyard as we all like to say then we ought to honor and celebrate wine growing as much as we do wine making. Here ‘s a toast to the growers! Cheers!


Thanks to Barbara Glover and Wine Yakima Valley for inviting me to take part in their vineyard program. Special thanks to Hugh, Kathy and Kerry Sheils for answering all my questions and sharing their wine growing experiences with me. More thanks to  Colin MacPhail and Sonny Thielbar at Larkmead and to Ksandek Podbielski at Anne Amie. Happy New Year to all!

Photos: Old vine Tocai block at Larkmead, Hugh Sheils at DuBrul, those old 120 year old Tocai vines once again, and the view from Anne Amie looking down the hill at the Muller Thurgau block.

Wines, Vines, War, Peace and Troops in Afghanistan

Members of the 2nd Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, patrol a grape vineyard with members of the Afghan National Army in Char Shaka, Kandahar province, Afghanistan, on April 28, 2011. (U.S. Army photo by Pfc. Justin A. Young)

I don’t really understand why wines and vines are so frequently associated with conflict.

Wine and War

Glancing at my bookshelf, for example, I find Wine & War by Don & Petie Kladstrup, which is about the Nazis in Bordeaux during the Second World War. Then there’s  Wine, War & Taxes by John V.C. Nye, which examines the Anglo-French wine trade in the 19th Century. Olivier Torres’s The Wine Wars tells the story of the Mondavi  “invasion” of the Languedoc. (And of course there’s my own Wine Wars, which examines tensions and conflicts implicit in the globalization of the wine market.)

These are all books that show how human conflict in other areas inevitably reveals itself in wine. I guess that’s the wine-war connection.

Wine and Peace

What about wine and peace? Perhaps the most famous “peace wine” story is Vino della Pace,  which is made in Cormons in Italy’s northeast corner. This region was devastated in World War I and then again in the Second World War. In a hopeful post-war gesture that I wrote about in Wine Wars, the local cooperative collected vines from all over the world and planted them in a special vineyard. They use the grapes to make Il Vino della Pace or the wine of peace.

The hope is that the people of the world can find a way to coexist as harmoniously as the grapes that make the wine in your glass. To see the vineyard and taste the wine as Sue and I did during a visit to Friuli a few years ago can be a moving experience.

Vines, War and Peace in Afghanistan

So you can understand why I was moved again recently when I read about a program that Washington State University’s Viticulture and Enology program  has developed to help U.S. troops in Afghanistan avoid conflict through a better understanding of the importance of the vine in that country.

Afghanistan is not an important wine-producing country, but grapes are a major crop (as they are in Iran, for example). “Forty-eight percent of the fruit-bearing land in Afghanistan is dedicated to grapes,” according to WSU. “Much of the crop is grown for personal consumption as table grapes and raisins, not for commercial use. Because most Afghan vineyards have higher rates of fungal disease, yield is typically low,” which means the grapes that survive are particularly precious.

Michelle Moyer, a WSU statewide viticulture extension specialist, has developed a presentation for the national eXtension Grape Community of Practice (GCoP) that offers troops a general introduction to vine biology, how grapes are grown, potential threats to grape production and specifics of Afghan grape production. An organization of 87 grape production professionals from 31 states and Ontario, Canada, the GCoP will distribute Moyer’s presentation to its members at universities and government agencies for their troop training efforts.

“Specific information on Afghan grape production is important for developing cultural and production sensitivity in deploying U.S. troops,” Moyer said. “Grapes are the leading horticulture crop for Afghanistan, but their production systems are not like those U.S. citizens would be accustomed to seeing.

Troops learn to be sensitive to water rights issues that might affect grape production. They also learn what an Afghan vineyard looks like, which might seem obvious but is not. The vines are not necessarily trained along the neat post and wire trellises familiar in the U.S.. Instead they are likely to grow up around the through trees, as they do in nature. Or they may be “bush” or head-trained like the vines in the photo above. Easy for an untrained eye to mistake an Afghan vineyard for something else.  Troops also learn about the high market value of raisins and why farmers might be especially protective of them.

“By providing information regarding what our troops might encounter while on the ground in Afghanistan, we can reduce the likelihood of a negative impact on production for this very important crop,” she added. “This sensitivity is critical in rebuilding economic and agricultural stability that is necessary for the overall long-term stability of a country.”

Congratulations to Michelle Moyer and her colleagues for creating this innovative program that will hopefully encourage peace and understanding through viticulture.

The World Tour

Upcoming Wine Economist World Tour Stops
logoScroll down to see both my upcoming appearance calendar and the previous World Tour stops. Check back frequently — several speaking engagements are in the planning stage.


51ppzy7bwzl-_sx332_bo1204203200_October 2019

  • Milan, Italy. I will participate (via video) in a October 10 program on sustainability in wine during Milano Wine Week.

November  2019

  • Chile. Watch for details.

February 2020


Scroll down to see previous World Tour stops.

July 2019

June 2019

  • Friuli, Italy: Sue and I are looking forward to traveling to Italy to participate in the Consorzio Collio’s Enjoy Collio Experience on May 27-June 2, 2019.May 2019

March 2019

February 2019

  • Washington: Washington Winegrowers Convention & Trade Show Kennewick, Washington. February 11-14, 2019. I will heading up the State of the Industry panel and also talking about the market for Rosé wine. [I was scheduled to speak but my flight was cancelled at the last minute and I was unable to attend.]

January 2019

  • California: Unified Wine & Grape Symposium, Sacramento, California. January 29-31 2019. I am speaking at and moderating the “State of the Industry” session again this year.

November 2018

September 2018

  • Italy: Sue and I will be in Conegliano, Italy in late September to help iconic Prosecco producer Carpenè Malvolti celebrate their 150th anniversary.

July 2018

  • I will talk on a panel discussing “Competing on a Global Stage” at the California Association of Winegrape Growers Summer Conference at the Silverado Resort in Napa, California on July 17.
  • I am doing a charity-fundraising “Around the World in 80 Wines” talk and tasting on July 29. Private event.

June 2018

  • I’ll be speaking about “Around the World in Eighty Wines” and leading a wine tasting as part of the University of Puget Sound’s Summer Reunion Weekend Alumni College. June 8-9, 2018.
  • Sue and I will be in Forte dei Marmi, Italy on June 18 for VinoVIP al Forte. I will talk about money and wine in the global market context.

April 2018

  • Sue and I will be in France to participate in two programs: Terroir and Millésimes in Languedoc and Roussillon from April 15-22 and Val de Loire Millésimes from April 22-25.

May 2018

  • I’m happy to talk about “Around the World in Eighty Wines” for the Kiwanis Club of Clover Park on May 15, 2018.

February 2018

January 20189781442234635

  • The World Tour comes to Grand Junction, Colorado where I will be speaking at the VinCO Conference & Trade Show January 15-18. I’ll be giving three talks: “Secrets of the World’s Most Respected Wine Regions,” “The Future of Small Wineries,” and “Around the World in Eighty Wines.”
  • Unified Wine & Grape Symposium. January  23-25, 2018 , Sacramento California. I will be moderating and speaking at the “State of the Industry” session on January 24.

November 2017

  • My new book Around the World in Eight Wines will be released on November 1, 2017!
  • Sue and I will be in Spain and Portugal for private wine industry events in November — November 8 in Madrid and Nov 9 in Porto.
  • I’ll be chatting with Natalie MacLean on her Facebook live show on Sunday Nov 26 at 6pm EST. Watch for more details.

September 2017

May 2017

  • Sue and I will attend the 10th Cyprus Wine Competition in Paphos, Cyprus on May 2-6. I will give a seminar about “Secrets of the World’s Most Respected Wine Regions” and lessons that might be useful to the Cyprus wine industry.

March 2017

January 2017

  • “Wine Drinker: Know Thyself.” This is a wine tasting and workshop for staff at the University of Puget Sound. January 11, 2017.
  • The Unified Wine & Grape Symposium in Sacramento, California is North America’s largest wine industry gathering. This year I will again moderate and speak at the State of the Industry session on January 25, 2017.

September 2016

  • I’m speaking at the first global wine tourism conference to be organized by the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO). The event is set for September 7-9, 2016 in the Republic of Georgia. Here are links to the preliminary program and registration information.

July 2016

  • Sue and I look forward to attending Riesling Rendezvous, the international Riesling symposium sponsored by Chateau Ste Michelle and Dr. Loosen. July 17-19 in Seattle.

June 2016

May 2016

March 2016

February 2016

January 2016

November 2015

  • I’ll be speaking at  the International Congress on Sustainability “SUSTAINABILITY AS A TRIBUTE TO WINE QUALITY”, that will be held on 3rd November 2015  and “DISCOVER THE SENSORY FACTORS”, that will be held on 4th November 2015 during the 26th edition of SIMEI – International Enological and Bottling Equipment Exhibition in Milan, Italy. This event is sponsored by Unione Italiana Vini.

October 2015

  • I’m giving a luncheon keynote address to the annual meetings of the Academy of International Business US West Chapter at the University of Washington in Seattle on Friday, October 23, 2015.

August 2015

  • Sue and I will be attending A Celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the Charles Coury Planting of vines in the Willamette Valley at the David Hill Vineyards & Winery in Forest Grove, Oregon on August 1, 2015. Hope to see our Oregon friends for the trade tasting and then the public BBQ that follows.
  • My new book Money, Taste and Wine: It’s Complicated will be released on August 4, 2015.
  • I’m doing a fund-raising wine dinner for a local service club on August 15. Private event.

July 2015

June 2015

May 2015

April 2015

  • Walla Walla Business Summit, April 10, 2015. Marcus Whitman Hotel, Walla Walla, Washington. I’ll be speaking on the topic “How to Make a Small Fortune in the Wine Business (and other lessons for people in and out of the wine game).”
  • I’m doing a fund-raising wine dinner for a local service club on April 18. Private event.

March 2015

February 2015

January 2015

November 2014

  • Peninsula  Book Club Extreme Wine talk. Private event. November 11, 2014.
  • Finally Found Books, Auburn, Washington. Wine Wars and Extreme Wine book talk and signing. 6-8 pm. Click on the link to reserve your place.
  • Wine Vision.  November 17-19, 2014. London. This is a global CEO-level wine industry conference. I’ll help set the stage on the opening day by talking about the state of the global wine economy today.
  • Scoula Enologica di Conegliano,  Conegliano, Italy. I will be doing a pair of wine industry “webinars” on November 26 and 27. The first seminar is titled “Anatomy of the U.S. Wine Market” and the second “Wines of the Veneto: A SWOT Analysis of the U.S. Market.”

September 2014

  • Valpolicella, Italy. Sue and I will be joining a team of international wine bloggers to explore this fascinating wine region and test out a new App to help wine tourists navigate the many options. Sept 1-4, 2014. We will also visit Prosecco with wine economist colleagues and then examine the Bisol family’s Venissa winery project in Venice.
  • Wine Industry Financial Symposium, Napa Valley. September 22-23, 2014. Click here for details.

August 2014

  • Wine Industry Symposium. August 19, 2014.  Willamette Valley, Oregon. Private event.
  • “A World of Wine,” World Affairs Council of Tacoma event. Wednesday, August 20, 2014. Click for details.

June 2014

  • The World of Syrah, Walla Walla Washington June 19-21. Sue and I will be attending this celebration of Syrah in Walla Walla and across the globe.
  • American Association of Wine Economists meetings, Whitman College, Walla Walla, Washington. June 22-25, 2014. Looking forward to seeing everyone at the AAWE’s annual conference

May 2014

  • Whitman College. I’m giving a talk to  Lee Sanning’s Wine Economics class on Monday, May 5, 2014.
  • Northwest Farm Credit Services Financial Summit Conference, May 6-8, 2014. I’ll be talking about what wine can teach us about global business. (Private event.)
  • Open That Bottle Night, Saturday May 10, 2014. We are celebrating this important holiday a few weeks late this year because of schedule problems. There is no wrong night to Open That Bottle, is there?

April 2014

  • I’m giving a book talk at a private event in Midlothian, Virginia on April 15, 2014. Hope to taste some great Virginia wines while I am in the region.

March 2014

February 2014

January 2014

  • South Africa! VinPro Information Day — Somerset West, South Africa. January 23, 2014. Click here for details.
  • Unified Symposium, Sacramento California. The biggest wine gathering in the Western Hemisphere! I’m moderating a panel on Tuesday, January 28 and speaking in the “State of the Industry” session the following day.
  • I’m also giving the keynote address at the luncheon meeting of the Winegrape Growers of America at noon on Wednesday January 29.
  • Finally, I’ll be signing books at the Wine Appreciation Guild booth at the Unified’s trade show from 2-3:30 on Wednesday.

December 2013

November 2013

October 2013

  • Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association “Nightcapper” meet the author event in Portland, Oregon.
  • Extreme Wine is released on October 7, 2013.
  • Peninsula Book Club talk. October 8, 2013. Gig Harbor, Washington.
  • Extreme Wine: Idaho. October 18, 2013 at the Mouvance winery in Boise. This is an event for University of Puget Sound alumni and parents.

September 2013

  • Savour Australia 2013. Adelaide, Australia 15-18 September 2013. I’ll be speaking about global market opportunities in the Tuesday session of this conference.
  • Ninth International Wine Forum, Mendoza Argentina. September 24, 2013. Since I can’t be in two places (Argentina and Australia) at the same time, I’ll be speaking via the internet on an “virtual panel” of international experts.

August 2013

July 2013

  • Riesling Rendezvous 2013. Sue and I will be attending Riesling Rendezvous 2013, sponsored by Chateau Ste Michelle and Dr. Loosen. The event runs from July 14 to July 16.
  • Northwest Farm Credit Services 2013 Wine/Vineyard Industry Symposium, Kennewick, Washington. July 24, 2013. I’ll be talking after lunch about how northwest wine fits into the changing global picture.

June 2013

  • Oregon Pinot Gris Symposium. Sue and I will be attending this annual event for Oregon Pinot Gris producers, which is held at Oak Knoll Vineyards.

March 2013

  • Taste Washington. Sue and I will be attending Taste Washington on Sunday March 24 to check out what’s new in the Washington wine scene. Hope to see you there.

February 2013

  • Open That Bottle Night celebration. Saturday February 23, 2013.

January 2013

  • Unified Wine & Grape Symposium, Sacramento, California. January 28-29, 2013.
    • I’ll be on the panel for the general session on globalization and the U.S. wine industry that starts at 9 am on Tuesday, January 29 and moderator

    for the “State of the Industry” panel that starts at 8:30 am on Wednesday, January 30. I’ll also be signing copies of Wine Wars at the Wine Appreciation Guild booth in the trade show from 12:30 – 2 pm on Wednesday.  Please stop by Booth # 1620 and say hello if you are there.

November 2012
  • Boeing Management Association program. 4-6 pm on Saturday November 3, 2012 at Wine World & Spirits in Seattle. Open to Boeing Management Association members and their guests.
October 2012
  • Pierce County Library Donor Event. Thursday October 4, 2012.
  • Tacoma Film Festival October 4-11, 2012. Boom Varietal (in which I appear) will be one of the featured films. Not sure what we’ll be doing to celebrate. Watch for details.
  • International Studies Association West conference, Pasadena California. October 19-20, 2012. I’ll be talking about the political economy of global wine and participating in a teaching panel.

September 2012

  • Cape Wine 2012, Capetown, South Africa. September 25-27, 2012. I’ll be attending Cape Wine as a guest of Wines of South Africa.
  • Nederburg Auction, Paarl, South Africa. Sept 28-29, 2012. I’m giving the keynote address at 9 a.m. on Saturday the 29th at the historic Nederburg winery in Paarl.

August 2012

  • World Trade Club of Seattle. August 8, 2012. 4-7 pm at Wine World & Spirits in the University District.
  • Tacoma Opera Guild donor dinner. Private Event. August 8, 2012.
  • American Wine Bloggers Conference, Portland, Oregon. August 17-19, 2012. I’ll be moderating one of the breakout sessions. Looking forward to meeting wine bloggers and guests!

July 2012

  • Timber Ridge at Talus. A talk and Three Buck Chuck tasting for members. July17, 2012 at 3pm.
  • International Pinot Noir Celebration, McMinnville, Oregon. July 27-29, 2012. Details here. I’m teaching “Globalization 101: The Revenge of the Terroirists” as part of the University of Pinot curriculum.

June 2012

  • University of Puget Sound Alumni College. June 8-9. Details here. I’ll be talking about “Robert Mondavi and the ‘Grape Transformation’ of American Wine.”
  • International Wine Wars Day. June 16, 2012: One year anniversary of Wine Wars publication. Lift a glass to celebrate!

May 2012

  • Eastside Business Roundtable breakfast talk, Thursday May 3. Overlake Golf and Country Club.
  • University of Puget Sound Olympia area alumni event, Thursday May 3. Details here.

April 2012

  • University of Puget Sound Seattle alumni event at Chateau Ste Michelle. Thursday, April 12. Details here.
  • Puget Sound Women’s League Luncheon. 11:30 am on April 25 in Kilworth Chapel basement, Puget Sound campus.
  • Mortar Board “Last Lecture” series on “Second Thoughts.” I won’t be talking about wine, but I think it will be interesting. 7pm on April 25 in Trimble Forum, Puget Sound campus.
  • World Trade Center Tacoma Monthly Lunch Meeting Friday April 27. Details here.
  • Pike and Western Wine Shop book signing, Pike Place Market, Seattle April 27. I’ll be signing books from 3-6pm and the Pike and Western folks will be sampling some of their great “terroirist” wines. The tasting is free and it should be a lot of fun!
March 2012
February 2012

January 2012

December 2011

  • Mercer Island Chamber of Commerce Luncheon. Thursday, December 1, 2011. Noon.
  • Retired Teachers Association of  Tacoma. Saturday, December 3, 2011.
  • World Affairs Council of Oregon. Thursday, December 8, 2011. Portland, Oregon.  6:30 pm at the WAC headquarters, (Madison Room, 3rd Floor, The Oregon Historical Society), 1200 SW Park Avenue, Portland, OR.
  • Metropolitan Market wine tasting and book signing. Friday, December 9, 2011 from 4-7 pm.  25th & Proctor Street, Tacoma, WA. (This is the store featured in chapter 3 of Wine Wars). I’ll be chatting and signing books at the kiosk in the deli section.

November 2011

October 2011

September 2011

  • “The Miracle of Two Buck Chuck and the Revenge of the Terroirists.” Saturday September 17 2011  11:00 am in McIntyre Hall 103, University of Puget Sound.
  • ”Wine Wars: A Tale of Curses, Miracles and Revenge.” Thursday September 29 2011. 7:30 pm Linfield College, McMinnville, Oregon.
  • “Wine Wars: A Tale of Curses, Miracles and Revenge.” Friday September 30 2011.   Noon. McMinnville Rotary Club, McMinnville, Oregon.

Grandi Vini (or Joe Bastianich is Nuts)

Joe Bastianich must be nuts.

The food business is crazy; you have to be nuts to own even a single restaurant in today’s market much less the twenty that Joe owns in partnership with the equally insane Mario Batali.  The wine business is maybe even crazier; Joe owns three wineries in Italy and several food and wine shops, too,  just in case he ever has a moment of free time with nothing else to do!

And now there’s this book, Grandi Vini.  You don’t have to be nuts to write a book (although I think it probably helps), but I’m not sure a really sane person would write this book, which aims to identify the 89 best wines in all of Italy and tell their individual stories.

Nuts? Oh, Yes.

Why is this nuts? Well, Italy is maybe the the most complex and varied vino terrain in the world. Here in the U.S. we often talk about “Italian wine,”  but really there is no such thing. Mario Batali once said that Italian food doesn’t exist, there are only the regional cuisines of Italy. It’s the same with Italian wine.

Just take a look at De Long’s nifty wine map of Italy shown below — what a crazy quilt! Local wines in Italy evolved from (largely) indigenous grape varieties and co-evolved with the local cuisines.  Common threads, to the extent there are some, are few and far between. 

Some of this complexity is hidden, submerged by regional wine appellations. Soave, for example, is a very familiar name — so familiar that we don’t always recognize it as a wine that comes from a particular place (the Soave zone outside of Verona), is a blend of grape varietals with the very unfamiliar indigenous Garganega playing the leading role and is made in a number of distinct styles (including Soave Classico and the exquisite Recioto di Soave).

The more you drill down into Italian wine, the more complicated (and interesting) it becomes and the more you start to understand how crazy Joe Bastianich must be to attempt to identify the very best wines.

Yes, yes, I know that Gambero Rosso’s famous annual guide Vini d’Italia has done this for many years now, bestowing their “three glasses” tre bicchieri designation on the year’s very best. (Receiving three glasses is like getting three Michelin stars.)

But their team tastes and rates thousands of wine (16,000+ in my dog-eared copy of the 2007 edition) from hundreds of producers (2,206  in 2007) and in the end bestows scores (262) of top prizes.

For Joe to try to do this all himself, despite his intense relationship with Italian food and wine (which now includes Eataly in New York — another Joe and Mario production)  and to narrow down the list even further than Gambero Rosso is … well, audacious at least if it isn’t actually insane.

What Joe Says … and Doesn’t Say

So what about the book? Well, it’s a great read (just because Joe is crazy doesn’t mean he can’t write). Wine is good, I tell my audiences, but wine and a story is much better and the 89 stories that Joe tells here make great reading, both individually and taken as a whole. I am fascinated by what he says … and what he leaves unsaid.

The unsaid is quite striking. Joe’s family is from Istria and he calls Friuli in Italy’s northeast corner his Italian home. That’s where you’ll find his wineries including the eponymous Bastianich. (The Bastianich Vespa Bianco is Wine Economist household favorite.) I consider Friuli one of Italy’s great wine regions, so I was surprised to see just three wines listed here (versus five for nearby Alto Adige and six for the Veneto).

Mind you the three are stunning wines (from Josko Gravner, Edi Keber and Silvio Jermann), but I think there are more Friulian wines that deserve to be raised to the vino Italiano pantheon.  Just sayin’ that Joe shouldn’t short change the home team in his attempt to be objective.

What Bastianich says is significant, too. As I have read through the various entries I find one strong theme: change. Joe is constantly recognizing winemakers who bring new ideas to Italian wine, especially “modernist” ideas. He wants his readers to understand that Italian wine today is not your grandfather’s rather flat raffia-clad Chianti. By implication, I think, he is saying that many “traditional” producers became lazy and let quality slip.

The best producers today are bringing new ideas and technologies to the vineyard and cellar and are making really distinctive wines of quality that honor tradition but are not slaves to it. These are the wines that are showcased in Grandi Vini.

It’s All in the Timing

The best Italian wines find a way to express their unique terroirs while also meeting international standards for quality. The worst Italian wines — and there are many of them — fail utterly and are part of Italy’s enormous overhang of unsold wine.

Italian wine is in a slump right now. U.S. off-premises sales of Italian wines have actually declined in the last year, although they have picked up a bit in the last few months. This is a good time to seek out the better wines. Hopefully Joe’s book will inspire many wine enthusiasts to take the plunge.

I still think Joe Bastianich is nuts for writing a book like this, but I hope he stays nuts for while.  I’d like to see his crazy vision of Italian wine develop and its consumer market grow.


Grandi Vini: an opinionated tour of Italy’s 89 finest wines by Joseph Bastianich. New York: Clarkson Potter Publishers, 2010.

Money, Power, Memory, Taste and Wine

A review of Liquid Memory: Why Wine Matters by Jonathan Nossiter (FSG, 2009). Original French edition published in 2007 as Le Goût et le Pouvoir (Taste and Power).

Jonathan Nossiter is famous for his 2004 film Mondovino. Love it or hate it (or love to hate it), Mondovino has given Nossiter standing in the world of wine and he takes advantage of this fact in Liquid Memory: Why Wine Matters.

Remembrance of Terroir Past

Although it is not intended to be a supplement to or continuation of Mondovino, I certainly learned quite a bit about the making of the film and its characters and about Nossiter, too. Indeed, the book is really about Nossiter and how wine inspires his memories and provokes his emotions just as a small cake, a madeleine, famously provoked Marcel Proust. It’s not my favorite book because I guess I’m not that interested in Nossiter’s memories, or at least not as interested as he is, but I did find things to like in it.

In one of my favorite scenes from the book, Nossiter and a film-making colleague are driving back from a day of Mondovino pre-shoot research in Burgundy and they talk about why they are so attracted to terroir. Members of a somewhat rootless transnational artistic class, they recognize that perhaps terroir is so precious to them because it is something they feel they have lost. Nossiter, the American raised in Paris, now lives in Brazil, well you can see how he would feel nostalgic for the authentic home terroir he maybe never had. That’s an emotion many of us can appreciate.

The Bland Taste of Peace?

Another passage subtly probes this same feeling in a different context. Why is terroir and regional identity so important now? Because sharp divisions have caused so much pain and hardship in the past (think Europe and the two World Wars).  Suppressing differences and rounding off sharp corners to create a more peaceful whole has been the agenda of the last 50 years.

Now we find that universalism has gone pretty far, creating the terroir-free transnational world of the European Union and we start to value what we have lost. Sharp edges seem pretty desirable now that we’ve lost them, even if they  sometimes bruise or cut.

I tasted both sides of this problem when we visited Friuli in the Italian Northeast a few years ago. We stayed outside of Cormons with the Venica family at their winery estate and the Sirk family at La Subida.

The land and people of this area where brutalized by the two Great Wars and so, when postwar peace appeared, they gathered grape varieties from around the world and planted them all together in one serene vineyard. The wine from these grapes, Vino della Pace (wine of peace) isn’t especially distinctive on the palate as I recall, but is memorable nonetheless for its optimistic symbolism.

We longed for the taste of peace when we didn’t have it. Now that we do, we find it a little bland. So we seek out terroir, even if it threatens to divide us once again.  Interesting, isn’t it?  Even in Friuli it is the intensely distinctive local wine of long memory – Pignolo, Schioppettino, Ribolla Gialla – that attracts our attention today, not the wine of peace.

Wine and Money

Although this is a book about cultural politics (if you believe the French title) and social philosophy (if you consider the American one), it seems to me that a great deal of space is actually given over to wine economics. The business of wine with its commercial pressures, and especially the ethics of wine pricing get a great deal of space.

“It occurs to me,” Nossiter writes, “that it is impossible to talk about wine without talking about money” and I think he is right. “Wine is inextricably linked to money like all objects of desire in a capital-driven world.”

Though a given bottle’s price varies even more peculiarly than the price of fine arts, a given bottle’s price is supposed to be a reflection of its intrinsic values. Whether it is the producer who sets the initial price, or the importer, distributor, or end seller, each time the price of the wine is set an ethical decision has been made in relation to the wine’s origins and contents.

Nossiter is disgusted by the religion of money, but in this passage he seems instead to be seduced by it, to accept the premise that market prices are moral judgments even as he protests their verdict. I think the premise is wrong and that intrinsic worth is measured by a different scale.

But that’s just the economist in me talking, I suppose.

A review of

Breaking In

I’ve written before about the British wine market, the most important marketplace in the world of wine.  Everyone wants a place on Britain’s Wine Wall, but breaking in isn’t easy to do, as a recent Decanter article and a conversation with one of my former students makes clear.

Decanter Discovers Washington Wine.

Many Washington winemakers are keen to try to get their feet in the door of European markets.  They figure that the time is right: the dollar is cheap and their wines are excellent. They cannot help but be pleased, therefore, with the July 2008 issue of Decanter magazine, which features an article about Washington wine by regional wine critic Paul Gregutt.  Three pages of text, maps, photos and wine reviews – it’s a nice package.  Several of the wineries mentioned even backed up the effort with two pages of advertising.  A really good display for Washington wines in the world’s most influential wine magazine.

But there’s a problem. British buyers know about these great wines now (more than ten wineries are mentioned including Columbia Crest, Seven Hills, L’Ecole 41 and Reininger), but only one (Columbia Crest) has current British distribution.  Want one of the other nine?  Call the winery in Washington State, the Decanter listing says. You’ve got to wonder how many buyers will do this and how many will just turn the page to the next New World wine – one that is actually available in Britain. You need publicity to get distribution, I know, but publicity without distribution doesn’t make the cash register ring.

On a different note, I have to wonder about the quoted price for the Columbia Crest Horse Heaven Hills Chardonnay.  Wine Spectator gives it 91 points and lists the price at $15.  The British price is apparently £19.53 or about two and a half times as much in dollar terms.!  It’s not going to be easy to break into European markets under these circumstances,

When Gallo Went to Europe

Gallo today is a classic American integrated wine multinational.  Although it is based in Modesto, in the heart of California’s Central Valley, and the bulk of its business is U.S. market, Gallo has complex international linkages.  Gallo sources wine from Italy, France, Australia and New Zealand and sells wine in Europe, Japan, and Latin America.  But it wasn’t always that way.  Gallo’s was drawn into the global marketplace in the 1980s, attracted by the markets in Britain and Germany.

I asked my former student Steve Emery to tell me what happened when these American wines (and American wine ideas) invaded Europe.  Steve is CEO of Earth2O, an Oregon company that bottles and distributes water from pristine Opal Springs near scenic Bend, but in the late 1980s he was Director of Sales for Gallo’s program to establish its varietal wines in England, Ireland and Germany.  His experiences say a lot about the nature of global wine then and now and the problems of breaking into new markets.

Getting Gallo into Europe was difficult, Steve told me, although ultimately successful.  Even though Gallo is a huge presence at home, it was an unknown quantity abroad.  I remember seeing Gallo wines on the shelf of my local wine shop when I taught in England in 1989 and I was surprised at the price point.  Gallo wines seemed expensive to me, about the same price as the most popular French and Italian wines on the shelves.  I expected Gallo to be a cheaper brand like it was at home.  But the advantage of lower price wasn’t really possible in the British market, given such obvious barriers as transportation costs and not-so-obvious hurdles such as the British wine tariff.

Many countries tax wine imports, whether to collect revenue, protect domestic winemakers, or try to shift consumption to other commodities such as local beers and spirits.  Britain is not unusual in this regard.  What makes Britain different is that the tax is relatively high and levied on a per-bottle basis (and only on non-EU wines, of course).  Britain collects more than $2 on each bottle of imported. (£1.29 according to a recent Rabobank report).  The flat per-bottle tax has a way of shifting the demand for wine towards more expensive products.  A $2 tax on a $2 wine represents a 100 percent tax. For a $4 wine, a $2 tax increases the price to $6, a 50 percent rise.  For a $10 wine, the tax raises the price to $12, only a 20% increase.  So the tariff falls heaviest on lower price goods and shifts the market upscale towards better or at least more expensive bottles and wines produced in the EU, not the New World. The cost advantage that Gallo enjoyed  in the United States was partially offset by the British tariff regime.

But that wasn’t the main problem, Steve told me.  The British supermarkets were savvy retailers – some of the wine buyers were highly trained Masters of Wine – the highest designation in wine education.  But they were organized to purchase and market wines based on geographic region rather than brand or type of wine.  As Steve says, they didn’t think in terms of brands (apart from the obvious fact of their own store brands).  This is true even today.  If you go into a Marks and Spencer store in Britain, you will find a world of wine available, but the wine is mainly organized and labeled according its place of origin rather than a US-style brand.  The wine’s “pedigree” (Friuli D.O.C. Grave Merlot, for example, or Macon Rouge, appellation Macon Rouge contrôlée) is listed in big letters, but the maker’s name and the brand – custom bottled for Marks and Spencer – are tiny by comparison.  The wines that Gallo sent to Europe were California wines, a useful geographic designation, but Gallo was the brand that defined the wine, not California.

British wine marketing was also different in other ways.  Steve told me that the British weren’t applying the basic Wine 101 lessons he learned with Gallo in the U.S. – lessons about where to put the most profitable wine (right at eye level on the shelf), where to position your target products in a wine cooler (on the right, where most people will look and reach first) and the many strategies of point-of-sale merchandising. They also introduced print advertising to the wine market successfully.

Gallo had to adapt, Steve said, to be successful in the foreign environment, even replacing the practical screw caps on its least expensive wines with more traditional cork closures (creating a shortage of corks in the process).

The German Problem

Germany was even more difficult, Steve said.  That’s easy to understand given the focus on bargain basement wines.  It doesn’t seem like most German buyers are interested in paying for a brand.  Low price seems to be the main factor and cheaper wines were readily available, Steve said, from Germany, Italy and France.  The supermarket wine buyers didn’t want to talk to him, Steve said, so Gallo resorted to guerrilla  marketing.  They got into the stores through the meat department, using a technique called cross-merchandising.  They sold the wine as the perfect accompaniment to beef, chicken and fish rather than wine alone.  Every meat purchase was therefore a potential wine sale as well.  You are probably familiar with cross-merchandising yourself, even if you’ve never heard the work before.  It is the process that has placed small displays of wine all over your supermarket, so that you never miss an opportunity to pair up wine with whatever you actually came to buy.  The Germans seem to understand cross-marketing very well now.  I visited my local Trader Joe’s this morning and found wine everywhere. I think there was probably more wine spread throughout the store than in the wine section itself.

The wine business is very competitive and Gallo found that the “rules of the game” were much different in Europe.  Wine is regulated as an alcoholic beverage in the U.S., so every aspect of its sales is subject to federal or state regulation.  In Europe, however, Steve said, wine is just another product and the competition is much freer.  That’s why he was able to bargain with the meat department managers in Germany rather than go through the wine buyer department.

Gallo was very successful in Britain and in Europe and many other American wine companies have followed them, but that hasn’t eliminated the challenge of breaking into new markets.  I wish our Washington winemakers good luck in their well-timed assault on the Old World markets. It’s not going to be easy.

Wine Critics Reviewed: Gambero Rosso

The first in a series on the actors and institutions that shape the wine world.


I’m interested in the role of wine critics (and their publications) in shaping the global wine market. This is the first of several entries that will examine a few of the most influential publications. I’m not entirely sure where this process will take me, but I’m pretty interested to find out what I will learn. So let’s begin.

I want to start with Gambero Rosso, which is a very influential Italian publication. It is the Italian equivalent of Wine Spectator, but it goes well beyond WS in its coverage of food and wine culture and tourism. It publishes a number of important guides to Italian regional restaurants, food and wine that I have found to be extremely useful when I have lived in or visited Italy. The Italian monthly magazine is physically imposing – the issue that appears in the photo above weighs in at more than 400 pages and was filled with ads. I subscribe to the much thinner abridged quarterly English edition, but my comments here concern the Italian original.

Birth of the Red Prawn

The name Gambero Rosso means red prawn, so it is easy to imagine that the magazine started out with a focus on seafood and expanded from there. The true explanation is a bit more Italian and a bit more political (I wrote about it in Chapter 7 of my book, Globaloney.) A group of young revolutionaries found themselves working on a Northern Italian newspaper called il manifesto in the 1970s. They formed a social club, which later evolved into the Slow Food movement, on the theory that political revolution needed to have deep social roots and to draw upon important economic sources in order to succeed (the status quo they opposed, after all, was political, social and economic, too). It is hard to imagine a better way to bring people into a political movement than through food and wine. And so their project thrived.

Gambero Rosso first appeared as a slim culinary supplement to il manifesto, so I imagine the name made reference to both its “red” politics and its shrimpy size. The magazine grew to become an independent publication, spawned a number of books and guides, and now even includes a television network. It is no shrimp any more.

Gambero Rosso is unique among the wine critic publications I am examining here in that it is almost entirely focused on the wines of a single nation, Italy. Although other publications may emphasize one country or region over others, all attempt some form of international coverage (this is even true of Wine Press Northwest, which covers the Washington, Oregon and British Columbia wine industries). In this as in many other things Gambero Rosso is different.

Mario Batali has said that there is no such thing as Italian cuisine, there are only the regional cuisines of Italy. Gambero Rosso takes this view of Italian wines, locating each wine within its particular region and quietly seeking to reinforce regional wine identities and to resist the industrialization and homogenization of wine. It thus holds true to its Slow Food roots. Gambero Rosso has an agenda, as its il manifesto origins might suggest, and it promotes it effectively by identifying the very best regional products and local producers. Other wine critics have agendas, too, I think, but are not always so transparent as Gambero Rosso.

The Italian Way of Wine

Each monthly issue of Gambero Rosso features a major section on wine, usually devoted to a particular regional wine. Winemaker profiles and interviews are accompanied by ratings and tasting notes. The ratings use the usual 100-point scale, although it is applied a bit more rigorously than in U.S. publications, I think, judging by the relatively small number of 90+ wines that appear. A surprisingly small number of wines are rated each month given the thousands and thousands of Italian wines produced. This is because the most important ratings appear in an annual guide called ViniD’Italia (one word), which is the bible of Italian wine. You can purchase an English translation, ItalianWines. The 2004 edition that I have here ran 864 pages and rated 14,208 wines from 1,937 producers. The new 2008 edition (due out later this month) is probably even bigger.

Several features of ViniD’Italia are noteworthy. First, it eschews the 100-point rating system in favor a simple scale of zero, one, two or three wine glasses. The three glass or tre bicchieri wines are the best in Italy. There were only 254 of them in 2004, so this really is a high distinction and I am sure it is a tremendous market advantage to receive the highest rating. I admit that I think the wineglass rating system is refreshing and usefully informative. Tasting wine is not really rocket science at my level of (un)sophistication. Robert Parker probably really can tell the difference between an 88-point merlot and one rated 87, but I’m not sure I can. Good, better and best ratings meet my needs pretty well.

ViniD’Italia is noteworthy in other ways in comparison with other wine guides I have seen. It is organized by wine region (and then by wine town) rather than wine type, producer or some other system. The idea seems to be that regional identity really counts and so you should be thinking about comparing wines based on their terroir and the qualities of the people who make them rather than just grape varietal or brand name (there is no emphasis on brands here at all). Within regions, each important producer gets a single page. Terse but data-packed text evaluates the winemaker’s progress since the last publication and surveys briefly the changes the tasters perceive. Then a small number of wines are rated and compared to some of the same wines from the same producer in previous years, with relative cost noted to provide a quick index of value.

(The focus on identifying quality producers (and not just exceptional wines) reminds me of the winery rating system that Paul Gregutt developed in his recent book about Washington wines. Click here to read my book review.)

If you want to know about the wines of Venica & Venica, for example, you turn to the chapter on the Friuli Venezia Giulia province, find their town, Dolegna del Collio, and learn that their reserve Tocai Friulano, the Ronco delle Cima, received three glasses for the 2002 vintage. Venica & Venica are quality producers, according to the text, and their wines are reliably good — you really cannot go wrong. One or another of their wines usually receives the highest rating and they generally receive several two glass ratings as well. This is useful information. (By the way, because of its geographical organization, this guide is a great resource if you plan to do any wine touring in Italy.)

A Critical Agenda

The book is frankly hard to use if you are standing in a wine store, flipping back and forth trying to find out how different wines (from different provinces and cities, made in different vintages) come out in the ratings. But I doubt that the editors really care. You are supposed to learn to use it their way, not your way. They want you to stop thinking about wines except in terms of their regional and local identities and to make more disciplined and informed choices, taking the long term development of quality producers into consideration.

The Gambero Rosso publications want you to think about wine in a particular way that reflects its original political agenda and distinctive Italian roots. In many ways it is exactly the opposite of the wine guide I’ll consider next, Decanter.