Friday, April 30, 2010

A Bridge Too Far??

Great news. After a year of perfect weather, it appears the 2009 Riesling vintage will potentially go down in history as a truly great vintage. Once again it appears as though the savvy wine drinker will be able to find wine of superior quality at an excellent value. In fact, even the reds appear to be of high quality! Who ever drinks German reds? Can you say heiss verdammt? Everybody, lets all celebrate, woo hoo!!

Wait… …wait a minute…, what???

What did you say?!? An autobahn bridge? Did you say something about a bridge?!?

Where?… across the Mosel river??? Do I understand this correctly?!? A bridge through some of the most heralded and celebrated Riesling vineyards in the world??? Vineyard sites that go back to the 1800’s with quality that can not be duplicated? Let’s not forget the history of wine production in this region that spans back to the Roman times. They know this? …right?!?

Oh, they’re not concerned? Do they know about the delicate ecosystem?

No?!? What delicate ecosystem you ask??? You know, the natural irrigation system where rain water is carefully stored and preserved in the delicate shale, then dispenses slowly down into the valley to feed the demanding vines, creating a winemaking utopia.

They must know the ecosystem can be permanently altered by this… …right?!?

Oh, but the bridge will help shorten the trip from Belgium and Holland? Schizer!! Then what the heck am I complaining about? I’m way out of line here!

Once again in the good name of growth and prosperity come’s the impending consequences from decisions made by the powers that be. The estimated $360 million project promises that it will stimulate the area's economy and tourism. That’s all the politican’s seem to care or focu$ on. It appears the only people aware of the greatness of this region live outside of Germany. With the negative effect on some of the most world renowned vineyards at stake, it appears as though the legislators have turned a deaf ear. Well, they are about to get an earful. Quick, cue the intro music!! Like an assemblance of the Justice League, preparing for an epic battle versus the Legion of Doom, a group of prominent wine writers the likes of Hugh Johnson, author of "The World Atlas of Wine," Stuart Pigott, and critic Jancis Robinson will be joined by former German foreign minister Joschka Fischer to discuss a strategy. Want to help?
Add your voice to help stop the bridge by emailing German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

HR 5034 – A threat to Florida Wine Sales?

On April 15th, at the urging of the National Beer Wholesalers Association, members of the U.S. Congress introduced House of Representatives 5034, titled the Comprehensive Alcohol Regulatory Effectiveness Act of 2010, or the "CARE Act." Sponsors are Rep. Bill Delehunt (D) MA; Rep. Howard Coble (R) NC; Rep. Mike Quigley (D) IL; Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R) UT.

This is yet another bill (albeit now on a national level) that is being introduced under the guise of promoting temperance and restricting the access to alcoholic beverages by those under the legal drinking age, while in reality seeking to protect the rights of wholesalers and restricting the rights of consumers to be able to purchase the wines of their choice, and not the choice of the distributors.

The proposed bill would effectively allow the 21st Amendment (in which individual states, not the federal government, have the primary authority to regulate alcoholic beverage sales) to trump the Constitution’s Interstate Commerce Clause, granting states immunity to litigation based on discriminatory alcohol distribution laws. The Interstate Commerce Clause essentially states that there can be no discrimination in the way that out-of-state business is treated relative to an in-state business. If an in-state winery is allowed to ship to consumers in that state, the out-of-state winery should be afforded the same right to ship to those consumers. Under HR 5034, states could legally discriminate against out-of-state wineries, even ban out-of-state shipping, and that ban could be upheld, when challenged, if the state can show, in even a slight way, that the ban will contribute positively to the “promotion of temperance, the establishment or maintenance of orderly alcoholic beverage markets, the collection of alcoholic beverage taxes, the structure of the state alcoholic beverage distribution system, or the restriction of access to alcoholic beverages by those under the legal drinking age.”

The main reason the wholesalers are pushing this bill is to keep litigation out of federal courts, where the U.S. Constitution is king, so laws regarding winery volume limits, production caps, and the ability of retailers to ship are decided at the state legislature level. However, where there is currently an avenue to pursue litigation of a law perceived to be unconstitutional, the proposed bill would render the state laws essentially above challenge. If the bill passes, consumers will be limited to locally-produced wine, plus whatever the wholesalers choose to buy. Unfortunately, wholesalers tend to buy very large-production wines—the type they can buy by the pallet, rather than the case. Both the consumer and the small and mid-size wineries will suffer as a result.

Several people testifying in favor of the bill before Congress alleged that increased deregulation of the alcohol industry would lead to rampant alcohol abuse and underage drinking. Further another “expert” lamented the "alcohol epidemic" that has befallen the United Kingdom due to deregulation of its alcohol industry, testifying that as the U.K. deregulated alcohol between 1980 and 2007, "numerous nightlife centers sprung up… these centers became scenes of drunken debauchery, with people spilling out at closing time vomiting, urinating, and passing out."

I am no expert, but I think that happens throughout the US (and the rest of the world for that matter) in establishments called bars and nightclubs that, if my memory serves, are supplied by wholesalers, not through direct shipping.

Michael Alberty, proprietor of Storyteller Wine Company in Portland, Oregon puts it best – “The beer and wine wholesalers of America realize now that most federal judges understand the interstate commerce clause and how it relates to states who want to draw up discriminatory alcohol shipping statutes. Hence the need for HR 5034. You have to take the smart people out of the debate in order to win with stupid arguments. Nice try, but it ain't going to work.”

Currently, 37 states and the District of Columbia have laws allowing direct shipping. It is unlikely that these states will introduce new legislation to reverse their position if HR 5304 is passed. Several states are considering direct shipping legislation, including Maryland, Massachusetts, and New Jersey. These states could decide to not allow direct-to-consumer shipping. In the few states that still don’t have a direct shipping law on the books, like Florida, we might see direct shipping banned under this proposed law.

For the past few years I have supported, through letter writing and through campaign contributions, those legislators in the state of Florida who supported direct-to-consumer shipping for Florida residents, and who also sought to block the severely restrictive bills backed by wine and beer wholesalers.

While this bill has just been introduced and has not yet made it out of committee, now is the time to act. Please contact your Congressional representatives (both in the House and the Senate) and urge them to vote NO on HR5034.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Parker Changes Scores For 2009

According to the AntiqueWine Company, Robert Parker has changed his scoring system for the 2009 vintage. According to the company, "... the vintage is so good, and the quality so high that Parker has needed to go beyond 100 points."  For chateaux providing exceptional quality, Parker has awarded them an asterisk over and above the 100-point score.  We will flesh this out as more information becomes available.

Evolution of a Pouring has a unique dilemma.  As a wine retailer, it would love to expose its potential/customers to a broad array of wines in a large-scale event.  As a virtual enterprise, however, it does not have the facilities to support such an event.  Over the prior two years an event has been held in rented space at the Vue in downtown Orlando and, for this year, the venue was switched to the Winter Park Farmers Market.  Over the three years that this event has been held, there has been an evolution in approach which has, in my opinion, resulted in this year's event being the best yet.

As previously mentioned, the initial event was held in the social area (not the formal name but we are not standing on process here) of the Vue and everyone and his mother were there.  Wine resources were in great supply but they were obscured by the press of humanity and the L-shaped design of the room.  It was very difficult to get to individual tables because of the crush and patrons had to work the room based on the depth of the crowd at a table rather than the location of wines of primary interest.

For the second event, addressed the accessibility issue by limiting attendance to a little over 100 patrons but the room-shape problem still persisted.  With a little over 100 people in attendance, it was now possible to flow easily from table to table, to engage the pourers in more extensive dialogue, to hang around a table-of-interest for a longer period (without the feel of inconveniencing the entire hall), and to easily spot people that you know (assuming they were in the same quadrant of the "L" as you were).

This year's incarnation of the event was held at the old train depot that houses Winter Park's famous Saturday Farmers Market.

The old train depot, which has been restored as a historical landmark, is a brick construct with concrete floors and high ceilings that are adorned with string lights.  This setting, along with the exposed piping, is evocative of an industrial loft.

In addition to the one hundred 90+ wines of varying types, and from various regions, that were available for customer tasting, Loren and Angel Gil, the proprietors of Bodegas El Nido, were on hand to assist with the pouring of their wines.  The pouring was again limited to around 100 attendees.  This fact, coupled with the arrangement of the tables afforded by the single room layout of the venue, allowed for a free flow of patrons between the 12 pouring stations.

The company's best customers were afforded the opportunity to arrive a full 45 minutes before the official start time and thus were able to have a longer and more intense level of involvement in the event.

I think that has nailed it in terms of locale.  I think that their focus on limited number of attendees, resulting in a 1:1 ratio of attendees to labels on offer, has resulted in a better, smoother, more engaging experience for both the attendees and the pourers.The attendance of the Gils at this event hopefully signals a trend towards a larger involvement of winemakers in future events and, if that is to be the case, it would be great if took advantage of their presence to incorporate tasting elements into the program. has shown that their customers are kings as they continue to evolve this event for their benefit and greater enjoyment.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Latest Update: Napa vs. Mothra

We are receiving communications now. Local authorities have reported sightings of Mothra in Healdsberg. It appears they may have Mothra trapped. Anyone in the local vicinity stay inside your homes and secure yourself in a safe place. Keep away from all windows and doors. Stay inside until a full security sweep has been completed. Stay tuned for further details.

Yes, the European grapevine moth is still in Napa without proper papers or a passport and it’s not sipping lattes. Rather the moth larvae have been busy burrowing inside prized Napa grapes often infecting the fruit with botrytis or rot. Local farmers and vineyard managers have been playing mating God by using artificial pheromones designed to attract and confuse the male insects. The pheromones are injected into plastic twist ties and strategically placed throughout the vineyard.

So far one vineyard in Oakville has been destroyed. Napa growers soon will begin using pesticides on about 450 vineyards and other properties in an effort to eradicate the moth. Concerns moving forward are that environmental groups might attempt blocking the eradication program for the grapevine moth as they have done regarding the state's efforts to combat the Australian apple moth, a previous Napa invader.

Reports by the numbers have stated that there are more than 29,000 grapevine confirmed moths. Areas to be quarantined are Healdsberg (pending more moths found) Knights Valley and some surrounding agricultural land just over the border into Sonoma.

Until next time…

A Wine Journey: 2004 Didier Dagueneau Pouilly Fume Silex

The journey to taste the wines identified by Master Sommelier Andrew McNamara as Wines of the Decade continues with our first foray into the world of white wines, in this case the 2004 Pouilly Fume Silex by Domaine Didier Dagueneau.  This is an especially poignant step on the journey as Dagueneau, whose diamond-like wines, and penchant for criticism of neighboring winemakers, rocked the sleepy hamlet of St. Andelain to its core, died in a small-plane accident in September, 2008.  His death shocked the world of wines but was in character to the way he led his life: a life of adventure and risk-taking.

Didier Dagueneau, the mountain man, both visually and and as it relates to his winemaking accomplishments, was a fourth-generation winemaker who returned to St. Andelain to launch his winemaking career after spending four years pursuing fame and fortune in the arenas of motor cycle side-car racing and international dog-sled racing.  Referred to variously as "non-conformist," "independent,"and "maverick," and nicknamed "the madman of Saint-Andelain," Dageneau's "... fusion of modern winemaking and ultra-traditional techniques of vineyard management ..." allowed his Sauvignon Blanc wines to "... achieve the ultimate expressions of terroir, climate and technique."

Dagueneau began his climb to the pinnacle of Sauvignon Blanc-dom by purchasing 1.2 hectares of land in his native St. Andelain -- a village in the Pouilly-Fume appellation -- in 1982 and producing his first wine under the En Chaillone label.  This entry-level label was followed by the higher-end Silex and Pur Sang labels in 1985 and 1988, respectively.

Dagueneau's vineyard acreage lies predominantly on clay and flint (silex in French) soils and his vineyard techniques -- severe pruning, de-budding, de-leafing, cluster-thinning -- are focused on yield reduction.  A practitioner of biodynamic farming beginning in 1993, his very public denigration of the pursuit of greater yields by his colleagues had made him a very controversial figure on the French winemaking scene.  The press loved him. Fellow winemakers, not so much. 

Silex, the "Grand Cru" of Dagueneau Sauvignon Blanc labels, was produced from high-elevation, high-silex-content ST. Andelain plots.  The vines on these plots are between 15 and 50 years old and have been subjected to the full range of Dagueneau vineyard-management practices.  The wine is barrel-fermented and aged in 450 and 600 liter barrels as well as the 350-liter cigar barrels that are a Dagueneau design.

I had not tasted any vintage of the Silex before nor did I have it in my cellar.  I purchased it online and had it delivered to my place of employment.

The tasting of the 2004 Silex was a solo venture. No large tasting team.  I was home alone and decided to make the best of the opportunity.  The bottle is unprepossessing, with limited contrivances to hide the contents from the supplicant's view.  Poured into the glass, the wine gave off an aroma of freshly cut green grass, evoking a sense of a midwestern spring day (the kind that would be enjoyed by that milk-swilling daughter of the midwestern farmer).  There is a hint of a floral note (green flowers?) and sharper, more pungent notes of citrus and lemon/lime.  In the mouth, there is a lip-puckering, almost eye-watering blast of acid on the initial attack along with bitter lemon rind and a steely gunmetal-ness.  A good round mouthfeel with a very long finish and a slight pepperyness on the aftertaste.  There is a hint of apricot and green honeydew melon.  As the wine matured in the glass, the acid became less primary and the enjoyment intensified.

Thank you Andrew for having this wine on your list.  This is a robust, powerful wine that is still relatively young.  I was so enamored of it that I have since purchased a case of the '07 which Dagueneau himself has referred to as his best Silex vintage ever.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Land of A Thousand Wines: In Search of a Theme

The Vibrant Rioja Professional Seminar titled Land of a Thousand Wines: A World of Wine in a Single Spanish Village, held at the beautiful campus of the UCF Rosen School of Hospitality Management on Tuesday, April 20th, was less expansive than advertised and missed the value-enhancing opportunity to tie the wines tasted into an overarching regime.

The low-keyed presentation to a group of industry professionals was led by Mr. Adrian Murcia.  After brief opening remarks we launched into tastings of the assembled wines to include: Marques de Caceres Blanco 2008, Rioja Alta (100% Viura); Marques de Riscal Rosado 2008, Rioja Alavesa (100% Tempranillo); Ugarte Cosecha 2007, Rioja Alavesa (80% Tempranillo, 20% Garnacha); Beronia Crianza 2006, Rioja Alta (84% Tempranillo, 13% Garnacha, 3% Graciano); Juan Alacorta Reserva 2004, Rioja Alta (85% Tempranillo, 10% Garnacha, 5% Mazuelo); Marques de Tomares Reserva 2001, Rioja Alta (85% Temapranillo, 10% Mazuelo, 5% Graciano); and Tobia Cosecha 2007, Rioja Alta (100% Graciano).

In his opening remarks, Mr. Murcia had pointed out that Spain is subjected to three climactic influences: Mediterranean, Continental, and Atlantic.  Rioja DOCa, the wine region, is unique in that it lies at the confluence of all three climactic influences.  Because of ancient plate tectonic activity, Rioja lies in a depression and this allows for a Mediterranean-dominated climate but also allows for the flow of cool Atlantic air, especially in the northwestern portion of the region.  The Atlantic air cools the grapes and provides the diurnal temperature differential that is so advantageous for grape growing.  The Vibrant Rioja team could have used these facts to construct its "world view" and selected wines for tasting that would highlight this world view.

Rioja DOCa, the wine region, does not fall fully into the political unit called La Rioja.  Rather, elements of the region spill into the political units of Navarra and Alava.  The seminar leaders could have used this  construct to define its world view and present wines from these areas to illustrate the point.

The Rioja region lies on both sides of the 142-mile-long Rio Oja.  The Vibrant Rioja team could have used this fact to define its world view and presented wines which bolstered that view. 

According to the Vibrant Rioja website (see link below), the Rioja wine region is further divided into three sub-regions (see map below) -- Rioja Alta, Rioja Alavesa, and Rio Baja -- each having its own climate and terroir.  According to Wines from Spain, the soil types vary from calcareous clay in Rioja Alavesa to calcareous clay, some ferruginous clay and alluvial soils in Rioja Alta, to ferruginous clay and alluvial soils in Rioja Baja. According to Vibrant Rioja, Rioja Alta produces full-bodied, medium-alcohol wines, Rioja Alavesa produces lighter, aromatic wines, and Rioja Baja produces wines that are deeper in color and fruitier in taste.  The team could have used these facts as the construct of its world view and provided wines for tasting that would showcase these facts.

Within the corpus of Rioja winemaking, there is an ongoing debate between the traditionalists and more modern winemakers.  The traditionalists favor the use of American oak and age their wines for a long time while the modernists use French oak and ferment and age for shorter periods.  The team could have used this dichotomy to construct its world view and present associated wines.

In his presentation Mr. Murcia defined a classic Rioja wine as having elegance and a seductive quality.  It exhibits characteristics of tobacco, leather, cedar, leaves, dark fruit, dark chocolate, and cigar box.  The team could have used this definition as its world view and then presented wines that supported this view as well as non-conforming wines.

Rioja is a multi-faceted wine region and professionals who are tasked with selling it in the marketplace require as many tightly focused aids as can be provided.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Wine Pouring and Wine Tasting: Elements of an Integrated Wine Education Strategy

B21 gets it.

In an earlier post, I characterized wine tastings versus wine pourings and provided advice on who should be attending one or the other.  In my treatment, these were separate events and the customer made a choice as to which type to attend based on how well a specific event type met his/her needs.

B21, a Tarpon Springs (FL) full-service wine and spirits retailer, has shown that wine pourings and tastings can complement each other as key elements of an integrated, sales-driven, wine education strategy.  The elements of the B21 strategy are as follows: (i) Organize and publicize a large, region-based (Bordeaux, Burgundy, etc.) tasting; (ii) gain the commitment of high-profile winemakers and wine consultants to support you with their participation in the event; (iii) hold a wine dinner at Currents Restaurant in Tarpon Springs on the night before the event, said dinner to be led by the celebrity winemaker/consultant (wine tasting element); (iv) wines poured by the celebrity winemaker/consultant, among others, in the B21 facility during a 3-hour mega event (wine pouring element); and (v) three or four 45-minute seminars, to include theory and tastings, on selected wines from the relevant region (wine tasting element) occurring simultaneously with the pouring.

At every step along the way, the customer is reminded of the purpose of the event.  The mats on which the tasting glasses rest during the seminar has the name of the wine as well as its price.  Every one of the bottles being poured within the facility has the bottle price prominently displayed in front of it.

The actual workings of this strategy was on display for B21s Bordeaux Grand Tasting and Sale, held on Sunday April 18th.  The invited guests included Stephane Derenoncourt (proprietor of Domaine de L'A, noted wine consultant), Coralie De Bouard (part-owner Chateau Angelus), Jean-Philippe Janoueix (owner Chateau La Confession), and Jeffrey Davies (Bordeaux negociant) among others, but the full complement of attendees did not attend due to trip cancellations resulting from the Icelandic volcano.  Because of these travel disruptions, Jeffrey Davies led the Currents dinner as well as his and Stephane Derononcourt's seminar sessions.

By tying the varying elements into an overarching strategy, B21 exposes the customer to wine education at his/her level of interest and provided by the leading lights of the wine industry.  The customer has two solid opportunities for wine tastings (seminars and wine dinner) within the construct of the larger wine pouring and can choose, in real-time, the appropriate path.

Wine Barn Wine School

Beginning on April 26th, 2010, The Wine Barn is launching a wine education initiative which it is calling Wine School.  The program has two elements (Study Hall and The Focus Group), each of which is geared to a particular customer type.  Study Hall, targeted at the customer who prefers to learn about wine in a "relaxed" and "informal" setting,  will be held at the Wine Barn Orlando facility between the hours of 6:00 and 7:00 pm.  Class time will be spent on a blind tasting wines and discussing pertinent topics of a specific wine region.  Students who prefer to learn in a more formal environment will be steered towards The Focus Group which will be held on Tuesday, April 27th during the same hours as for Study Hall.  Students will be following the format, and using the same study aids, as the Study Hall students but there will be a greater focus on fundamentals and technical details of the type that would be of interest to a more accomplished wine drinker.

Both of these classes cost $10 and are limited to 10 students each.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Next Generation in Wine

The final seminar of the day at Bern's Winefest Grand Tasting was titled "the Next Generation in Wine." Dr. Jeff and Capt. Dee, being Trekkies, just had to check this out.

The seminar was given by three members of a Napa-based group called NG, the Next Generation in Wine, a 30-someodd member group of (you guessed it) at least 2nd generation winemakers and vineyard owners. Representing the group were Janet Viader of Viader Winery (daughter of founder Delia Viader), Fernando Frias of Frias Family Vineyard (son of founder Manuel Frias, Sr.), and Chris Hall of Long Meadow Ranch Winery (son of founder Ted Hall).

Each had brought two of their family’s wines for the tasting, and the seminar began with a little introduction to each winery.

Viader Winery was founded in 1986 by Delia Viader, a native of Argentina who originally came to the US as a graduate student. Located on the lower slopes of Howell Mountain in the northeast portion of the Napa Valley, Viader specializes in Bordeaux varietal wines with an occasional Syrah or Tempranillo sprinkled in for good measure. The flagship wine, called Viader, is a 60%/40% blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc.

The current iteration of Long Meadow Ranch (LMR) was begun by Ted Hall in 1989, but the ranch property has a long and storied history dating back to the 1870s. The ranch is located on the opposite side of the valley from Viader, situated on the slopes of the Mayacamas mountains between Mount Veeder to the south and Spring Mountain to the north. Producing primarily Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc, Long Meadow Ranch is also known for olive orchards and olive oil making, cattle and horse breeding, an egg-laying poultry flock, and the organic vegetable production. All crops are certified organic and aregrown without the use of herbicides, pesticides, or chemical fertilizers.

The Frias Family Winery is located just a little north of Long Meadow Ranch on the slopes of Spring Mountain. Growing up in San Francisco, Manny Frias, Sr. fell in love with Napa Valley and purchased 100 acres in 1977, and planted the first 5 acres of vines in 1985. With now 30 acres under vine, Frias Family makes several wines including Merlot, Syrah, and Sauvignon Blanc, but are known for their Cabernet Sauvignon.

We started off the tasting with 2 Sauvignon Blancs - the 2008 LMR from the Rutherford AVA, and the 2008 Frias Napa Valley. The Long Meadow Ranch SB is fermented in stainless steel, and is cold stabilized after fermentation to block malolactic fermentation. The citrusy fruit aromas are classic, along with a bit of cut grass. The wine is crisp, with bright acidity and relatively low alcohol. The Frias is different, seeing 25% neutral American oak, which makes this wine a bit rounder and fuller than the first, with spice notes to complement the grapefruit and candied lemon peel, guava, fig and gooseberry.

We then shifted to reds, beginning with the 2007 Dare (by Viader) Cabernet Franc (Napa). The wine has aromas of pencil lead, black cherry, and dark chocolate. It is mouthfilling with loads of dark fruits, well integrated tannins, and a long finish.

Next were the 2005 LMR Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa) and the 2006 Frias Cabernet Sauvignon (Oakville). The Long Meadow Ranch just leaps out of the glass with aromas of black fruits, cedar, and Yunnan tea. The palate shows some earthiness, with concentrated fruit, big ripe tannins and enough acid for the long haul. The Frias, not to be outdone, also shows a huge nose of dark chocolate, cherry, and blackberry, with barrel spices such as cinnamon, cardamom, and cigarbox. That cherry wrapped in chocolate shows on the palate, with big but silky fine tannins (an iron fist in a velvet glove) and brisk acidity that leaves your mouth watering.

We finished with the 2006 Viader Red Wine. This is a wine of two minds - there is cassis and minerality from the Cabernet Sauvignon, and floral and spice and dark red cherry components from the Cabernet Franc. There is a significant tannic grip, as this wine is from grapes grown on steep, rock strewn slopes that face the afternoon sun.

Left to Right - Janet Viader, Chris Hall, and Fernando Frias

What struck me as a I sat and listened was how at ease and unpretentious these three young people were. They have grown up around the business, have probably known one another most of their lives, and it showed. Janet Viader is, by her own admission, a bit of a geek, but watching her during the Grand Tasting and before and after this seminar, she knows how to work a crowd. Chris Hall is as passionate about food as he is wine and, in addition to the marketing he does for the winery, has opened a restaurant that features Long Meadow Ranch's all-natural grass-fed beef, organic vegetables, extra virgin olive oil, and honey. Fernando Frias has been in and around vineyards his whole life, and you can sense the familial pride he takes in representing the Frias wines around the country.

If these three are any indication of the knowledge, drive, and dedication of the Next Generation, there will be alot of great wines in our future.

Friday, April 23, 2010

2006 Dominus, The Right Place At The Right Time

I had an exciting opportunity at the Wine Barn today. I walked in to casually check out their latest selections. So what do I catch out of the corner of my eye, none other than an open bottle of the 2006 Dominus quietly resting in the wine dispenser. I figured it was an empty bottle, so I asked, "how was the Dominus?" Gary Tupper, the sales manager replied, "ahhh, lets find out." Nice! This is only my second rodeo with the likes of the Dominus. My last experience was an 02’ of which I had greedily consumed an entire bottle. For some reason I do not feel a need to apologize for my selfish ways. Ok, truth be told I was all alone, but to enjoy the bottle with another wine enthusiast would have only enhanced the experience.

It is always fun to share those fine wine moments with someone who shares a similar passion, as you sit back and discuss the vintage, wine-making techniques and characteristics of the wine. Gary had some left over from their weekend wine throw down. It was opened on Saturday but kept cool in their wine dispenser, patiently waiting a turn to reward a lucky patron’s palate. Hey, who better than me, right? Ok, don’t answer that. As I swirl the wine, I try to regain my composure, excited by this rare opportunity to try this critically acclaimed wine. Those familar with Dominus know that it is owned by Christian Moueix of Chateau Petrus fame. Hello!!! I commented to Gary on how I was struggling to get anything on the nose. Gary chimed in, ‘no kidding, feel how cold that wine is.’ Oh my, time to get my two hands around the body of the glass.

As the wine slowly warms up, chiming in are notes of cedar, basil, and sage followed by hints of oak. A solid start. On the palate I find an herbal component that marries beautifully with the plum and tea flavors. As I swish the wine fervently around my palate I pick up additional subtle hints of that velvety French oak off in the distance. The wine finishes a scosh tart. All in all a very well made wine. I would have liked to have seen a little more weight on the palate and a tad more fruit, but, again, this is day two so my assessment may not be 100% accurate. Gary says this is ‘classic 2006,’ with its hallmark high tannin and high acidity. 2006 was difficult year for many producers, a bit cooler and less sunlight. Gary felt this favored wines like Dominus that emulate more of a Bordeaux profile and not the over-extracted, high-alcohol style. I would have loved to have tasted this wine the first day it was opened. Give this a few more years. $95.99. 96 points Robert Parker.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Wines of Joseph Phelps

I was fortunate enough to be able to taste through a portion of the Joseph Phelps Vineyards portfolio with Damian Parker, their Director of Winemaking, as part of a seminar during the Grand Tasting at Bern’s Winefest in Tampa.

Joseph Phelps Vineyards was founded in the early 1970s by – you guessed it – Joseph Phelps, a construction company owner from Chicago. Mr. Phelps, who grew up on a farm, studied engineering in college, and later served during the Korean War, helped his father take a local home renovation firm and turn it into a prominent national construction company. Mr. Phelps’ company built several well-known wineries in both Napa and Sonoma.

The Phelps winery, located outside of St. Helena on the east side of the Silverado Trail, was crafted in part from redwood salvaged from bridge timbers. Although he initially started with white wine (Johannisberg Riesling), Mr. Phelps used France as his model, having fallen in love with the wines of Bordeaux and the Rhone while vacationing there years prior. Phelps rapidly added red wines to the portfolio, primarily Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, but he also made a series of Rhone-style wines, and spearheaded a resurgence in the interest in Syrah, which had not been bottled as a “labeled varietal” in California since the late 1800s. In 1974, Mr. Phelps sought to create a wine that was styled like the wines of Bordeaux, but reflected the Napa Valley. What he created was Insignia, the first “meritage” wine; a blend of traditional Bordeaux grape varietals bottled under a proprietary name.

Mr. Parker began his wine career at Souverain Winery in Sonoma that, ironically, was built by Mr. Phelps’ construction company. Damian began working at Joseph Phelps Vineyards in 1981, starting as a bottling line supervisor, and held several positions before becoming VP of Production in 1997. Although he has years of on-the-job training, he does not have a formal degree in enology. But when Craig Williams left the head winemaker position a few years ago, Damian stepped into his current role of Director of Winemaking, with Ashley Hepworth serving as Winemaker.

The tasting began with the 2008 Sauvignon Blanc, a 100% estate grown wine. The wine sees about 1/3 new oak in puncheon (a little more than twice the size of a standard barrel, so less wine to oak interaction), and 2/3 one to two year old French oak barrels and puncheons. The grapes come from three distinct blocks within the vineyard, each chosen for a particular characteristic. One provides a lemon tone, another grapefruit, and the third - planted to the Sauvignon Musque clone, provides roundness and some hints of honeydew melon. The wine is light and extremely aromatic (IMHO due to the Musque clone), with bright acidity and a long finish.

We then moved to the 2006 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. This wine is sourced from the Stags Leap and Rutherford AVAs, and is 2/3 estate grown. It is aged in 50% new oak (French and American) and 50% two-year-old oak (the prior vintage’s Insignia barrels). This bottling has always been a favorite of mine, and in the early ‘90’s was (along with Beaulieu Vineyard's “Rutherford” bottling) the first wine I bought by the case. The wine showed blackberry, cassis, and tobacco on the nose, followed by cassis, black cherry, and raspberry on the palate. The tannins are very fine grained (perhaps showing some of its Rutherford heritage) and the wine is very well balanced.

Next came the flagship – the 2006 Insignia. 95% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Petit Verdot. This wine has been 100% estate grown since 2004. A blend from six (6) estate owned vineyards in Stags Leap and the Rutherford Bench. Each vineyard adds something specific to the blend – the Home Ranch supplies bright fruit, the Suscol Vineyard adds texture, color, and weight, and on down the line. Aged for 24 months in 100% new French oak. Opaque purple black with aromas of graphite, black fruit, spicebox, and oak vanillin. Mouthfilling with blackberry and blueberry fruit, chocolaty tannins, and a long finish.

We soldiered on to the 2005 Backus Cabernet Sauvignon. Planted in the early ‘70s by the Backus family, Phelps began sourcing fruit in 1977, began farming the vineyard in 1983, and eventually bought the vineyard in 1996. The vineyard was re-developed by Phelps from 1997 through 1999, and it holds the distinction of being the last vineyard permitted in the Napa Valley with a greater than 25% slope. Given the steep grade, all of the work throughout the year and the harvesting on the upper slope is done by hand. Cabernet is planted on the steep slopes, while an acre each of Petit Verdot and Malbec are planted on the plateau at the top of the vineyard. Aged for 24 months in new French oak. This wine comes across as a Pauillac – deep ruby color with aromas of cassis, graphite, espresso, and mineral. Palate is consistent with the nose, and there is sufficient tannic structure and acidity to suggest that this wine may be a crowd pleaser for many years.

Closing the tasting was Phelps’ dessert wine, Eisrebe, the 2008 vintage. Made from 100% estate grown Scheurebe, which is harvested when ripe (around 24° brix), and then the grapes are frozen and pressed, with a resulting sugar content of 35° brix. The juice is then fermented in stainless steel tanks to 8% alcohol (and 21% residual sugar!!). The grapes do occasionally become botrytis-affected prior to harvest, which, according to the winemaker, was evidenced in this wine by a predominant aroma of apricot (I typically sense the presence of botrytis as a smell of Mattel plastic – but that story is for another venue). Rich, ripe, mouth coating peach and apricot, but balanced by good acidity. A nice “sticky” if that is your thing.

All told, an hour well spent, with a bit of education, an entertaining speaker, and great wines.

Bern's Winefest-Grand Tasting

This past Sunday, Dr. Jeff, Capt. Dee, and I drove over to Tampa to attend what is billed as the "premier wine tasting experience in Central Florida" - the Grand Tasting at Bern's Steakhouse's Winefest. This was the 13th year of this 4 day festival that raises money for a variety of charities, including the Bern Laxer Scholarship Fund, which awards several scholarships each year through the James Beard Foundation in honor of the founder of Bern's Steakhouse.

The festival begins on Friday evening with a Winemaker's Dinner at Sidebern's (Bern's' Mediterranean-themed restaurant located just down the block from the Steakhouse) honoring one of the featured wineries from that year's festival, and builds through the Saturday Soiree, where Sidebern's is transformed into an upscale nightclub for the evening. The proceeds from this year's Soiree supported the recently opened Vincent Lecavalier Pediatric Cancer and Blood Disorders Center located at All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg.

For me, the weekend culminates with the Grand Tasting on Sunday, where the chefs from all of the Bern's' restaurants go all out to create fabulous small plates to pair with over 200 highly rated wines. We opt each year for the VIP Party, which affords a limited number (somewhere around 150) of patrons full access to the food and wines for an hour and a half prior to general admission. VIPs are also treated to a greeting wine - 2000 Dom Perignon - which flowed early and often.

The wines were organized by country/region of origin (including the United States, France, Italy, Spain, Germany/Austria, and the rather nebulous 'southern hemisphere') and spread out through two huge air-conditioned tents. Within each region, wines were further organized by color and "weight," and then co-located with chef's stations serving food meant to be paired with those wines.

In the past few years, the food has been the highlight with a few notable wines. This year, the organizers, distributors, and wineries picked it back up and the wines were back up to the food's level across the board. On the domestic side, wines such as the 2006 Dominus, 2006 Phelps Insignia, 2006 Kathryn Hall Cabernet, 2006 Domaine Serene 'Evenstad Reserve' Pinot Noir, 2005 Cain Five, and 2005 Silver Oak were being poured, along with notables from around the world such as 2006 Numanthia, 2005 Pio Cesare Barolo, 2004 Pertimali Brunello di Montalcino, 2006 Sassicaia, 2005 Jamet Cote Rotie, 2005 Chateau Certan de May, and 1999 Chateau Pichon-Longueville Baron, among many others.

Dishes to be paired with the wines included crispy oxtail with pistachio, apricot and fennel, lobster and shrimp ravioli in a goat cheese tomato fondue, poulet rouge chicken with foie gras, wild mushrooms, and a lemon shallot cream, Rioja-braised rabbit stew, and curried fried pheasant with lentils, fennel and a tomato vinaigrette.

The VIP Party is very much a wine tasting - the guest has ample time to stroll through the event, picking out specific foods and wines to taste, interact with the knowledgeable people pouring the wines (who are often principals or regional representatives of the winery), as well as talk to the chefs at each of the food stations regarding their inspiration for their culinary creations and how the wines would complement/enhance the dish.

Once the general admission begins, the tasting rapidly morphs into a pouring, as you are joined by 400-500 of your closest friends, the space in front of the tables (and everywhere else for that matter) becomes crowded and loud, and you must pick and chose your targets carefully and force your way through.

Refuge may be found in one of the two wine seminars that occur throughout the afternoon (more on these in later posts), or in the silent auction area, where unique wines and other items have been donated by wineries from around the world. This year's lots included a 3-liter bottle of Quintessa, verticals of Pichon Baron, BV Latour, and large format wines (magnum, 3-liter, and 6-liter) from around the world.

The Winefest weekend ends with a final Winemaker's Dinner at Bern's Steakhouse on Monday evening, again highlighting the wines of one of the featured wineries. These wines are paired with a specifically-designed 5-course meal prepared by the Chef de Cuisine.

All in all, a fun time was had at the Bern's Grand Tasting, with some great food, fabulous wines, and good friends. Next year promises to be a great time as well - look into it.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Chateau Pavie Vertical

I attended B21s Bordeaux Tasting at their facility in Tarpon Springs (FL) and, while there, sat in on a Chateau Pavie vertical tasting led by Jeffrey Davies, noted American-born Bordeaux negociant.  The wines included in the tasting were the 1998, 2000, 2003, 2004, and 2005.

In his opening remarks Davies indicated that, in his opinion, the 2005 Pavie was superior to the 2000 and that the 2009 may surpass both.  The '09s had an incredible growing season, according to Davies, with warm days contributing to increased ripening and cool nights allowing for long hang times and acidity retention.

Chateau Pavie, which was bought by the current owner Gerard Perse in 1998, lies southeast of the town of St. Emilion on a steep, south-facing slope called the Pavie Slope.  Chateau Pavie's wine style changed upon the purchase when, under the direction of Michel Roland, the noted wine consultant, the yields were lowered and the wine became more concentrated.  The 2003 vintage was especially galling to Jancis Robinson.  The well-known English wine critic referred to the vintage as port-like and "reminiscent of a late-harvest Zinfandel."

The vineyard lies on three soil types depending on slope position: Clay at the highest levels; clay mixed with gravel on the mid portion; and gravel and wind-driven sand on the lower parts of the slope.  These soils all lie on a bed of limestone.

The 37-hectare (90 acre), single-block property, is one of the largest in St. Emilion.  It is planted to Merlot (70%), Cab Franc (20%), and Cabernet Sauvignon(10%).  The Cabernet Sauvignon, a relative newcomer to the vineyard, has been planted as a hedge against global warming.  Merlot, the prime varietal in the wine, goes soft in hot climates but the addition of small amounts of Cabernet Sauvignon can "stiffen the spine" of the Merlot.  According to Davies, Pavie tore out contributing Merlot vines in order to plant the Cabernet Sauvignon.

The chateau practices green harvesting and leaf thinning (allows direct sunlight to fall on the grapes) and picking and sorting is done by hand.

The cellar was built between 1998 and 2000.  Fermentation occurs at ground level while aging proceeds in a sub-ground-level area.  The cellar contains 20 temperature-controlled vats, one for each of the 20 vineyard plots.  The shell-within-a-shell nature of the cellar construction allows the air needed for heating or cooling to be circulated in the area between the shells.  Ageing is done in 80-100% new oak.  The barrels are used once in Pavie and then sent off to one of the other Perse properties where it is used once more before being sold.  Malolactic fermentation is done in the barrels so as to provide a better marriage between the wine and wood.

At tasting, the '98 vintage had a round mouthfeel and exhibited elements of dark earth and sandalwood.  The 2000, the vintage which put Pavie on the map as a result of a Parker 100 score, had graphite, coffee, mocha, heavy tannins, and a great finish.  Davies thought that the wine was still a baby and stated that it was the least-evolved of the St. Emilion 2000 vintage.  The '03 showed very ripe fruit, an exotic character, and great length on the finish.  Davies saw the 1998 and 2000 as being terroir-specific but felt that the '03 was definitiely vintage-specific.  The '04 exhibited overripe black fruit and some char (the result of high toast on the barrels -- Davies).  The 2005 was a tannic monster and is slightly deconstructed at this time.  Davies is certain that Parker will upgrade this wine when he re-reviews it.

Prior to doing the Pavie vertical, I had tasted the '02 vintage in the larger Bordeaux tasting.  This wine was on Table 1 and was one of 19 wines on the table, to include Canon La Gaffeliere, Clos Fourtet, Lynch Bages, and La Croix St. Georges, among others.  It was simply the class of the table.  I liked the Pavie and ordered some of the 2000s.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Cycles Gladiator Cabernet Sauvignon: Wine imitating porn?

I read about this some time ago and it still perturbs me. It’s in regard to a controversial wine label and a label that never crossed my mind as even being remotely lewd. The label in question is taken from an 1985 art poster for Cycles Gladiator bicycles. Well, obviously, I do not hold the same view as Alabama’s liquor control agency. It appears that they perceive this label as porn. Bob Martin, staff attorney for the Alabama Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, said Alabama's liquor regulations prohibit labels with "a person posed in an immoral or sensuous manner."

There is absolutely nothing immoral about this label. Is it sensuous? Well, yes, but not in a sexual way. Bill Leigon, president of Hahn Family Wines, makers of Gladiator wines said, “it’s one of the most sought-after pieces of art in the world.” Leigon said original lithographs of the Cycles Gladiator image go for up to $50,000 apiece, putting them on par with pieces done by famed Parisian lithographer Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Well, we all know any publicity is good publicity so I would love to see how much Gladiator has profited since all the controversy.

If you have never tried Cycles Gladiator wines they are worth a look. The wines are very reasonably priced. The 05’ cabernet is one of the best Cabernets under $10 that I have ever tasted. Loaded with cherry, tobacco, cedar and cigar box I was blown away by the quality. It seriously tasted like a $20-$30 wine. Unfortunately, 06’ and 07’ have not been able to duplicate the quality of their predecessor. Whether you like your wine labels naughty or clean give Cycles Gladiator a look, literally and figuratively.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

John Blazon to head the Spire Collection

John Blazon, one of three Master Sommeliers in greater Orlando, will be assuming the position of Vice President of Sales for the Spire Collection.

In what may be a new trend in high end wine sales, all of the regional sales representatives will be credentialed sommeliers. According to Jackson Family Wine officials, the sales team will be uniquely qualified to assist fine dining restaurants and upscale retail shops that do not have an in-house sommelier, and can work synergistically with those that do.

Blazon has over 25 years of experience in the wine business, most recently as the wine and beverage manager at Walt Disney World, where he supervised the wine program in over 50 restaurants.

The Spire Collection, the upper echelon of Jess Jackson’ Jackson Family Wines, includes such brands as Hartford Court, LaJota, Lokoya, Arrowood, Cardinale, and Verite.

Wine Market Challenges

The domestic wine consumption market has tremendous potential but is also confronted by a number of challenges which have to be overcome in order to transform the milk-swilling daughter of a midwestern farmer into a Sauvignon-Blanc-loving hedonist.  The market challenges include jargon, closures, price points, spoilage issues, form factor, access to aged wines, etc., but, for the neophyte, no single factor looms as large as the bewildering array of choices which he/she confronts when attempting to select a wine.

During this past week, I considered writing a post on wines under $15 (We did not want readers to get the impression that we were unaware of the existence of wines priced south of $100.) and prepared for this eventuality by soliciting input from local retailers as well as consulting internet sources that promised lists of the "best wines under $15."  I collected information from 10 sites and consolidated it with the information gleaned from locals and I only found two wines (one a sparkler) that appeared on more than one list.  So, in today's environment, where people get pre-purchase information on the internet, confusion reigns in the entry level wine space.  With that many choices, and very little guidance, or consensus, it is easy to make a poor decision and reveal your lack of knowledge to family and/or friends.  Why take the chance?

Compounding this lack of clear choice for wine neophytes is the inadequacy of the most ubiquitous entry portal:  the supermarket. People do not leave home to go to a supermarket to buy wine (at least I hope they do not).  Rather, they are buying ingredients for a meal and pick up the wine to accompany the meal(s).  Not only are they confronted with that aforementioned array of choices but, as on the internet, no assistance is available.  You are on your own in Costco or Winn-Dixie. Supermarkets move product but more potential wine converts run aground on the shoals of those aisles in a single day than grace the facilities of  local retailers over the course of an entire year.

For the wine retailer in search of prospects, the aisles at your neighborhood supermarket is fertile ground.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

L'Evangile "Vertical"

We recently marked the passage of another of my wife's birthdays by having a few friends over for some food and drink.  In addition to consuming the many bottles of vintage and non-vintage champagne brought by well wishers, we raided the cellar to the tune of a 1998 Clos Mogador, a 2004 Numanthia Numanthia, a 1990 Beaucastel CDP, a 2004 Luca by Nico, a 2003 Seavey Cabernet Sauvignon, a 2005 Robert Foley Claret, a 1996 Ducru Beaucaillou, and a 2006 Dominus (Dr. Jose was the baby killer here).  As good as this lineup was, the highlight of the evening was a "gappy" (more holes than wines) L'Evangile vertical consisting of the 1982, 1990, and 1995 vintages.

Chateau L'Evangile, long considered one of the great Pomerol estates, lies on the eastern outskirts of Pomerol and, in that position, is bordered by Vieux Chateau Certan, Chateau Petrus, La Conseillante, and Chateau Cheval Blanc.  Known as Fazilleau prior to the mid-18th century, the property was purchased by Paul Chaperon in 1862 and was held by his descendants, the Ducasse family, until its purchase by Domaine Baron de Rothschilds in 1990.  The quality of the property has been long recognized as evidenced by an entry in the second edition (1868) of Cocks and Ferry (colloquial name for a classic Bordeaux wine directory initially published in 1846 by Englishman Charles Cox and Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Feret) which identified its product as an "... upper Pomerol 1st growth wine."

The 35 acres that comprise L'Evangile sit on a deep gravely soil that is mixed with clay and sand and supports vines that are, on average, 35 years old.  The vineyard is planted with a mix of Merlot (contributes fruit, body, and softness to the wine) and Cab Franc (for structure and finesse).

The finished L'Evangile product is approximately 78% Merlot and 22% Cab Franc.  The Chateau practices late harvesting which lowers yields and results in rich, concentrated wines.  The grapes are picked by hand, fermented in cement tanks for 8 - 12 days, and aged in oak barrels for 20 - 24 months.  The average production of the estate (inclusive of the second wine Blaison L'Evangile) is about 5000 cases.

HlyTerroir took on the task of preparing the wines for tasting.  All of the corks were cleanly extracted and the bottles decanted.  The tasting was conducted from the oldest to the youngest vintage.

All three of these wines have been reviewed by Parker with the 1982 receiving a score of 98, the 1990 a score of 96, and the 1995 a score of 93.  All three of the wines fall into what Parker classifies as "superb" L'Evangile vintages (the other vintages thus noted are 1985, 1975, 1950, and 1947).

I had tasted the 1982 vintage on previous occasions and felt that it was one of the best wines that I had ever had.  This bottle did not disappoint.  It attacked the senses with tones of graphite, iron, gunpowder, licorice, chocolate, vanilla, sandalwood, and raw meat.  There was a slight vegetal streak on the nose.

The 1990 was new to all of us and, shockingly for me, stood shoulder to shoulder with the 1982.  It exhibited lightly roasted coffee and was reminiscent of the 1991 Dominus in the concentration of pencil lead and graphite.  It was redolent of sweet black fruit.

The 1995 was the disappointment of the three in that it was very un-Bordeaux-like. It seemed to be confused as to its heritage in manifesting as a disordered Napa meritage. It had gooey black fruit, vanilla, licorice, clove and a marked vegetality (I know.  Not a word. But I want to convey the vibrancy of the vegetal-ness).  Dried earth on the palate.

I did not see the movie Sideways so I was never forced to renounce my love for Merlot and, especially, Pomerol Merlot. I have not tasted all of the the great Pomerols but until I do, L'Evangile has a special place in my heart and on my table.  I buy the 1982 whenever I encounter it and this tasting drilled this wine even deeper into my wine psyche.  The 1990 was a stunning and pleasant surprise, not because of anything that I had seen or heard, but that I had, unwittingly, foregone the pleasure of this great wine for as long as I had.  I hope that the 1995 pulls itself together with the passage of time.  This is a very confused wine at this time.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

A Wine Journey: 1994 Shafer Hillside Select

The journey continues.  It was time for another encounter with a Wine of the Decade and the "chosen one" was the 1994 Shafer Hillside Select.  The venue for the tasting was the Board Meeting.

Shafer Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon is the flagship product of Shafer Vineyards, a Stags Leap District winery founded in 1972 by John Shafer, a Chicago publishing industry refugee.  With 100% of its grapes drawn from precarious, family-developed hillside terraces, the wine has  "... a solid track record of consistency and quality."

As the name implies, Hillside Select is crafted exclusively from selected blocks of hillside vineyards whose soil characteristics and micro-climate combine to produce Cabernet Sauvignon wines with excellent aging potential.  The soil on the Shafer Stags Leap properties are primarily bale loam or volcanic  -- 2- to 4-feet deep -- resting on bedrock.  The warm days and cool nights result in elongated growing seasons and a near-perfect mix of ripening and acidity.  The wines are aged for four and one-half years prior to public release.

The 1994 Shafer Hillside Select was awarded 99 points by Robert Parker who labeled it a "prodigious" Cabernet.  Further, "the 1994 combines the vintage's spectacularly ripe, luscious fruit with a rarely seen degree of elegance and finesse.  The wine is extremely rich, as well as gorgeously poised and graceful."

The Board Meeting was slated to begin at 6:30 pm.  I was leaving for work at 7:30 am, with no prospect of returning home to retrieve the bottle prior to the event.  I was going to have to take it to work with me.  I lovingly removed the bottle from its nestling place in the cellar and, without changing its orientation, placed it horizontally into a brown leather carrying case.  The case was maintained in this (uncomfortable) position while being carried, or at rest, for the remainder of the day.

I arrived at the Downtown location of Funky Monkey Wine Company (Board Meeting location) at about 6:15 pm and met up with John Alport and Frank Husic (Husic Vineyards) who had arrived previously.  I gently placed the carrying case on the bar counter, removed the wine from the case, and gave it to the bartender so that it could be slightly chilled. 

The wine was uncorked at about 6:30 pm.  The cork disintegrated under the pressure of the corkscrew and had to be pushed down into the bottle.  It was strained into a decanter and set aside so that we could consume the 15 other bottles that Board Members had brought and the one bottle (you owe us Frank) that Husic had brought.

We returned to the Hillside Select at approximately 8:40 pm.  The wine manifested cigarbox, leather, graphite, stewed plums, black olive, tar, espresso, bitter chocolate, coffee, mocha, sandalwood, barnyard, and cedar.  The finish was of medium length and the tasters all concurred that this particular bottle had reached its maximum potential. 

This was a beautiful wine.  The wine of the night, according to John Alport (Husic was still holding to his position that his wine outshone everything on offer that night).  The incident with the cork indicated that this bottle had been the victim of improper storage at sometime in its life. In spite of this, the wine was powerful enough to overcome this traumatic portion of its life and perform admirably when called to the stage for its swan song.  In addition to improper storage, the wine had suffered the indignity of, at its age, being decanted for almost two-and-a-half hours, yet still engaged our palates with a firmness and roundness that belied its age and experiences.

I have always been a Hillside Select fan, as evidenced by the fact that it is the single most populous label in my cellar. This bottle did nothing to disabuse me of my strongly held view on this matter.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

A Customer-Centric Approach to Wine Retailing

In the years that I have been observing the marketing initiatives of wine retailers, I have noticed a marked product orientation in their efforts.  That is, marketing, and marketing dialogue, are focused on (i) increasing varietal/producer visibility and acceptability and (ii) crafting paeans to the god-like qualities of winemakers, winery owners, and product reviewers.  I believe that this "product-centric" marketing is a short-sighted strategy for the US market and, in this post, will propose a comprehensive "customer-centric" strategy that is more aligned with current US market conditions.

In a prior post, I reported that 90% of the wine sold in the US was consumed by 20% of the population, that there were 44 million marginal drinkers, and that there was a significant number of non-wine drinkers.  The marketing efforts of retailers, with the cult-like focus on winemaker, varietal, and scores, are targeted at a wine-knowledgeable market and therein lies the problem.  This market is a replacement market and, as such, is inherently slow growth.  That is to say, these purchasers have a finite capacity for wine storage and will only purchase to replace current/foreseen stock depletions.  In limiting their efforts to this market segment, retailers will eventually reach a constancy of sales, with the occasional growth bump as a new customer comes on board.

A clear understanding of the customer environment is a prerequisite for a customer-centric program.  As stated previously, 20% of the population are committed wine drinkers.  These "players" like certain wine styles, varietals, and regions and will continue to buy, albeit at varying paces, regardless of market conditions.  Traditional retailer practices such as in-store wine tastings, mailings of special offers, etc., are relevant here.  These are knowledgeable consumers and the ability to purchase Caymus Special Select at $99 will have a certain resonance.  They will understand, and respond to, a promotion designed around the Wine Spectator Top 100, or a sales strategy based on 90+ point wines.  This is not the high-growth-potential segment of the market, however.  These customers still need to be attended to but as part of a maintenance strategy.  Growth in this segment will occur as a result of new product offerings rather than increasing consumption of already favored products.

The market segments that provide the real growth opportunities for wine retailers are the casual-drinker and non-drinker segments.  These spaces have growth potential in terms of initial conversion as well as upward wine mobility. The non-drinker presents as a conversion opportunity at low intial price points.  That new convert, as well as the casual drinker, are then potential candidates for being moved up the wine escalator (We are all well aware of the tendency of wine drinkers to migrate to higher quality wines the more they are exposed to the culture.).

The keys to this strategy are (i) understanding where your customer stands in the wine pyramid and (ii) devising techniques to get to the non-drinker, and (iii) designing and implementing wine-education programs targeted at moving a class of customer up to the next level in the pyramid (Pyramid here reflects a graphical representation of the size of each market segment with the non-drinkers at the base and the comitted drinker at the top.). So, for example, the accomplished wine drinker can be exposed to high-end tastings and experience-oriented ativities.  The casual drinker could be exposed to mid/high-level tastings, advanced wine concepts, producer/wine region information.  The "newbie" should be the focus of education designed to reduce discomfort: jargon; why wine; what does it mean to be a member of the wine drinking community; selecting wines; etc.

The customer-centric wine retailing strategy thus consists of (i) knowing where your customer/prospect falls on the customer pyramid, (ii) pushing class-specific marketing efforts at that customer/prospect, and (iii) committing to education as the key to growth.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

7th Annual Taste of College Park

The Rotary Club of College Park will host the seventh annual Taste of College Park Food and Wine Festival at Dubsdread Golf Club (549 W. Par St. Orlando, FL 32804) on Thursday, April 22, 2010 from 6-9:30 pm. The event showcases food and wine pairings from College Park's finest restaurants along with live entertainment and  live and silent auctions.  All proceeds from the auctions will benefit local schools, local and international charities, and the Ronald McDonald House. Tickets are $50 in advance and $55 at the door. For more information about the Rotary Club of College Park, the Taste of College Park event, and to order tickets please visit For information on becoming a corporate sponsor or donating an auction item please contact Brighid Williams at or 407-761-3950.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Got Wood?

Are oak barrels becoming obsolete? You may be wondering, given some new trends in the wine-making world. An example is the new, and growing cost-effective measure of aging wine in stainless steel tanks and adding oak chips to the mix. Look, traditions can and do change, but I will say this now for all of my tree hugging friends. I’m sorry but, wine barrels are not going anywhere.  What I’m talking about is oak in wine and what a great marriage it is. It can be a great partnership that can span time and coexist in a harmonious state. Ever cook a special dish only to taste it and say oh it needs this or oh it needs that? In wine, oak can be seen as this missing piece to the puzzle. It’s like a spice that can make that special dish, well....special.

What makes it so special? For one, oak barrels can offer up the necessary tannin, flavor, structure, and complexity that all serious wine drinkers desire. Oak can impart a wide variety of flavors based on the quality, the type, the toast level, or the age of the barrel. There are different types of wine barrels with different grains (American, French, Hungarian,Solvenian). Some wines see oak for short periods of time and higher-end wines much longer. For example: in Napa, Shafer Hillside Select is aged in oak for 32 months; Nebbiolo grapes may spend four or more years in oak; those Barolos need some age before they drink well; and high-end Rioja producers will sometimes age their wines up to ten years in American oak to get a desired earthy, vanilla character. Now there are some who do not like the oak in their wine, but if you plan, want, or desire to taste some of the finest red wines in the world, there will be oak in them. As for whites, well that can be a different story.

So how does a winery choose what type of barrel to age their wine in? It’s a difficult decision that can come down to finances, type of grape, tannin levels, or flavor preferences. The two most popular are French oak and American oak. If it is a financial decision, then American oak wins every time. Typically, American oak barrels cost about half as much as French, $400 - $500 vs. $1000.  If you desire a wine that can age, then French oak barrels with a tight wood grain profile is your best bet. Now, if you desire to make a tasty wine at a reasonable price then new American oak may be a good choice. In the United States, white oak, grown in Virginia, Missouri, Kentucky, and Ohio, is the species used for barrels.  French sessile oak is harvested from several different forests in France. The most common forests are Limousin, Alliers, Vosges, Troncais and Nevers, each producing oak which imparts slightly different nuances of flavor and aroma to the wine. Since each forest may impart different nuances to the wine, some wine makers choose barrels that are a blend of more than one to impart additional complexity.

Aging wine in wooden barrels allows for oxygen and wood to react with the wine causing the wine to gain additional flavors and characteristics. Distinctly different flavor profiles are imparted by French and American oak.  For example, American oak contains more vanillin (vanilla aroma) while French oak contains more flavor components and complexity with, less oaked or oaky odor, that can be found in American barrels. American barrels can offer a wine a toasty, sweeter characteristic. Eric Baugher, winemaker at Ridge Monte Bello expressed his perspective on American oak, "Poorly sourced wood, short drying time, and incorrect fire pot temperatures can make an American oak barrel taste planky, crude, and strong in dill and coconut shavings. The reason our American oak barrels perform so well, is that we take the time to work hand-in-hand with the coopers to specify forest, seasoning time, selection of fine grain, and toast level. We also carefully balance percentages of new oak and older cooperage, and match to the wine’s concentration." French barrels can offer up more tannin structure impart to it containing 10 times the concentration of ellagotannin compared to American specie. Use of new barrels contribute to additional flavor and complexity for the wine. As the barrels age, this capability is dimiinished. Toasting of the barrels is done slowly and deliberately over a low flame which lends itself to a deeper penetration and caramelization of the wood sugars. Some winemakers may choose between a heavy, medium, or light toast. Or if the winemaker chooses to bypass toasting then the choice is neutral oak. Toasting the barrels can tame some of the coconut flavor you find in American oak while imparting some of those fun flavors of caramel, mocha and toffee.  I used to joke about the McManis Petite Sirah. I swore that they actually lite the barrels on fire while the wine is still in them!!!  Truth is McManis actually uses the newer, cost-effective stainless steel tanks mixed with oak chips.

Personally, my perference leans towards the use of new french oak. In good vintages a characteristic I find in the top wines is the possession of velvety, silky structure that glides across the palate, yum! I think that sums it up. As for me, when it comes to aging wine, I’m not afraid to say ‘got wood?'

St. Innocent Winery

I attended a wine tasting this past Wednesday at Journeys Restaurant in Alaqua. The wines being tasted were the current releases from St. Innocent Winery in Salem, Oregon. Pouring the wines and providing running commentary and background on the wines and the wine region was the proprietor/winemaker – Mr. Mark Vlossak. Mr. Vlossak brought with him the wines currently available in the state of Florida, but by no means the entire portfolio. The wines included a single vineyard Vitae Springs Pinot Gris, as well as four (4) vineyard designated Pinot Noirs (from Zenith Vineyard, Temperance Hill Vineyard, Justice Vineyard, and Momtazi Vineyard) and one blended Pinot Noir, the Winemaker’s cuvee.

Mark hails from Wisconsin, and is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin at Madison. His original degree was in scenic design, but after a few years returned to school and received medical training that eventually was parlayed into an 18-year career as a Physician Assistant (PA) in Pediatrics. It was during his medical internship that he first travelled to Oregon, and he was hooked.

Mr. Vlossak had grown up in a home where wine was prevalent (his father imported wine) and he eventually decided that he wanted to make wine himself. He experimented for a few years, took classes at the University of California, Davis, interned with winemakers in both the Willamette Valley in Oregon and the Napa Valley in California and, in 1988 (with the help of investors), founded St. Innocent Winery (the winery is named in honor of his father, who was born on All Innocents Day and whose middle name is “Innocent”).He produced about 600 cases of wine his first vintage – production has grown 10-fold since then. Mark balanced his work in medicine and the wine making for several years (including making wine for both Panther Creek Cellars and St. Innocent for a period of 5 or 6 years during the mid to late 1990s.) Mark retired from the medical field in 1998 to concentrate on the wine.

Mark’s philosophy on his wines is that the wine should be an extension of the meal and should complement the food. His wines tend to have higher acidity levels and he strives to create wines that are balanced. His Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc wines tend towards the Alsatian style, with more textural weight, less overt sweetness of fruit, and sufficient acidity to accompany rich food. His Pinot Noirs tend to be Burgundian in style, and are meant to express their place of origin and the vintage. He exhibited this concept with consecutive tastings of three wines, the fruit for which are all grown within a mile of each other, but under different slope and soil conditions.

At the lowest slope position is the Zenith Vineyard which is planted on well-drained loamy soils. The wine exhibits red and black fruit flavors and a green peppercorn spiciness. The Temperance Hill Pinot Noir comes from the highest elevation of the three where the vines grow on weathered basalt (a volcanic soil) and there is concern annually for the grapes to reach full ripeness. The wine exhibits a floral character to the nose, with lilac, lavender, and cherry being the aromas I heard people mention most. The flavors tend toward black cherry, black raspberry, and perhaps a hint of anise on the finish. The Justice Vineyard Pinot Noir is located on the mid-slope and the vines grow on a thin layer of basalt. This is the “sweet spot” – the arguably perfect spot along the slope for Pinot Noir. Where the Zenith exhibited fruit and the Temperance Hill showed floral, the Justice is all about spice. Aromas included clove, allspice, ginger, and cinnamon, all complementing the wild strawberry and black cherry fruit. The finish on this wine went on seemingly forever.

The Winemaker’s Cuvee was an experiment in winemaking suggested by wine critic Pierre-Antoine Rovani. Grapes from two disparate vineyards were selected and co-fermented with the goal being an expression of Mr. Vlossak’s winemaking style rather than the expression of the vineyard as with his other wines. The resulting wine is both floral and fruit driven, with an underlying hint of earth or mushroom, and a crisp acidity that compels you to take another sip. Mark says his wife describes the wine as “hedonistic,” and I think that is an apt descriptor.

While not represented at the tasting, Mr. Vlossak also makes vineyard designate Chardonnays. The style is similar to white Burgundy with an emphasis on balanced ripeness, complexity, texture, and acidity. The Chardonnay is fermented entirely in used barrels. The lees are stirred weekly for 3-4 months and the wines are left on their lees for one year. Think Chablis meets Maconais.

The referenced St. Innocent Pinot Noirs and Pinot Gris are currently available in the Orlando market, and the Chardonnays are anticipated to be arriving within the next 6 months.