Monday, May 31, 2010

Napa Wine Pricing: Up Escalator Only?

In a February 18th Freakonomics blog post, Robin Goldstein described two wine pricing models.  The supply-side model uses the cost of production, other ancillary costs, a modest profit, and distribution costs to arrive at the price of the wine to the consumer.  The demand-side model says that the wine should be priced at whatever level the market is willing to bear.  In the halcyon days of yesteryear, makers of premium Napa wines embraced the latter model wholeheartedly and consistently priced their products to market.  As prices continued to rise, new players entered the market in order to get a piece of the pie.  They saw the model as simple: buy a piece of land in Napa (never mind the price); contract with a "name" winemaker to put your juice "through its paces"; get a 95-point score from Parker; and you are off to the races.

But, things did not quite work out like that.  According to Nobel-Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman, the US lost 8 million jobs in the last recession and recent job gains have only put 500,000 people back to work.  Wine consumers and prospects are either unemployed or, if still working, have cut back drastically on things that are not perceived as core to existence in today's straitened environment.  The wine industry, as a result, has suffered significant sales declines (the $15 and under market increased it sales by 15% in the last year) and some of the players face uncertain futures.  The April 30 issue of The Wine Spectator, in an article on Napa wines, notes that "the distribution chain is clogged up with unsold wines."

If you subscribe to the demand-side model, and demand evaporates, you should be reducing your price to spur demand or to bring it into equilibrium with the existing demand levels (Of course you could also dump product to reduce glut levels and, in that fashion, bring supply and demand into equilibrium.  I do not see that happening in Napa.).  Instead, the winemakers are utilizing strategies such as giving price breaks to restaurants (hoping that they keep the increased margins for themselves rather than passing it through to the customer) or pushing "premium" juice into lesser-pereceived-value brands.  There have been a few cases of high-profile wineries (Joseph Phelps Insignia, Caymus Special Select) lowering their prices but that is more the exception than the rule.  While prices ramped up rapidly in the face of perceived high wine demand, they are very "sticky" on the down side of demand.

The industry definitely has a short-term problem to solve but, if Mr. Krugman is right, they may also have a longer-term problem.  According to Mr. Krugman, "We may be heading for a Japan-style lost decade trapped in a prolonged period of high unemployment and slow growth."  If that is the case, then winery strategies of waiting this out may not be the best way forward.  If demand does not rebound, the industry will have to cope with an excess-capacity problem.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Night of Debauchery

What happens when a room full of testosterone meets a sick line up of wine? Correct. Nobody made it to work on time the next day. Thanks to an invite from fellow wine-lover Robert Alfert, Esq., from the Robert Parker online wine forum, I was able to attend one of his highly touted, local-cycling-group wine dinners. Granted, I've only tasted with Robert once at a local wine tasting so I wasn't quite sure what awaited me as I rolled into the beautifully landscaped neighborhood of Lancaster Park. The wine theme of the night was 07’ Napa Cabernet’s. This is probably the loosest wine-themed dinner I’ve ever attended since only 3 of the 11 bottles met the 07' Napa requirement. Nonetheless, the wines and the dinner brought great pleasure and exceeded my expectations.

One wine I would like to mention specifically brought new meaning to the words world class. The wine of distinction is the 06’ 2006 Didier Dagueneau Pouilly-Fumé Silex pictured second from the left. With the 06’ Silex, the late Didier Dagueneau leaves behind a great legacy. Silex is named for the flinty rock that comprises the French Pouilly-Fumé’s soils.

As you know, Wineorl recently consumed a previous vintage of the Silex as part of Master Sommelier Andrew McNamara’s Wine Journey. Since reading his glorious notes, I have been dying to get my palate around this wine. So it was of no surprise that I greedily smiled with great anticipation while I swirled the glass. As I carefully placed my nose into the bowl I knew I was in for a memorable ride. The bouquet brought intense complexity. The rich exotic nose laced with notes of stable, stone, peach and pear spoke to me. Tasting this wine brought me to a new place for, along the way, I had completely lost interest in Sauvignon Blanc. Oh man, I’m back. This is a huge wine. On the palate, the acidity brought a laser-like focus, accented by soft pamplemousse, creamy peach, lemon hints and minerality. The long finish is framed by exotic fruits. The wine brought a cavalcade of decadence. I have no problem dubbing the Silex as liquid sex and quickly pointed this out as my wine of the night. No easy feat given the competition. This wine is a must for any wine collector and should be sought out yesterday.

It was a wonderful night filled with new friends, great food, wine, conversation and swollen livers. Until next time…

Thursday, May 27, 2010

A Wine Journey: 1982 Pichon-Longueville, Comtesse de Lalande

The author is engaged in a quest, a journey in the footsteps of the Master (Sommelier) Andrew McNamara who, as it has been told, in days of yore, slew 115 bottles of very good wine -- the so-called Wines of the Decade.  Today's tale relates the pursuit, capture, and tasting of that vibrant beauty, the 1982 Comtesse de Lalande.

The story of Chateau Pichon-Longueville, Comtesse de Lalande, stretches back to 1689 when the Rauzan family bought plots in Pauillac.  The core Pichon vineyard was established after some plot exchanges with it s famous neighbor, Chateau Latour.  The new Napoleonic wine laws were responsible for the Pichon Vineyard being broken up into the Baron and the Comtesse, as it could not be passed on to a single heir while other possible heirs were alive.  The Lalande family retained ownership of its portion of the Pichon Vineyard until a sale to a consortium led by Louis and Eduoard Mailhe.  After a few twists and turns, the estate eventually cane under the control of Eduoard's youngest daughter, May-Eliane, and she quickly upped her stake from 55% to 84% by buying up the shares of other consortium members.  The Chateau was sold to the Rouzaud family (owners of Louis Roederer) in 2006.

The chateau owns 75 hectares of vines (up from 40 hectares at the beginning of May-Eliane's tenure), 64 hectares of which are in the Pauillac commune and the remainder in St. Julien.  The soil is gravel over clay and some deeper limestone and sandstone.  The vineyard is planted to 45% Cabernet Sauvignon, 35% Merlot, 12% Cabernet Franc, and 8% Petit Verdot.  The grapes are hand-harvested and then fermented in temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks.   The juice is allocated between the flagship and the chateau's second wine (Reserve de la Comtesse) after which the flagship wine is placed in 50% new French oak for 18 months.

The 1982 vintage has received widespread acclaim.  The winery refers to it as an exceptional vintage.  Robert Parker (November 1998) said "This has been the most sumptuous, delicious, and profound 1982 to drink over the last 5-6 years."  James Suckling  of Wine Spectator said "This has always been a great wine. I marvel at it each time I taste it."

This wine was bought online.  This is not a great time to be shipping wine into Florida so I had it shipped in next day air. I did not get into the office for a few days so it was languishing in the hallway outside my office.  I was very concerned.  I picked it up at the office on Friday and headed directly to our Antonio's tasting event.  They were going to be tasting this blind.

When I arrived at the venue, only HlyTerrroir and Keith M. had arrived.  I had not brought a bag with which to cover the wine so HlyTerroir lent me one (He is always prepared.).  I opened the wine without decanting and placed it on the table.  The top of the cork was covered in a greeninsh moss and the cork came out in four separate pieces.  I was concerned.  The locale filled up very quickly as this was going to be another farewell to Robert and Allison. 

The wine was a stunner from the word go.  There was very little evidence of bricking; the lighter-red  color was consistent throughout (I can see why the word claret was used in the early days by the British to describe Bordeaux wines.) .  It had a great nose.  The fruit had receded into the overall framework and the secondary characteristics were on full display.  Saddle leather. Cigarbox. Cardamom . Cedar.  On the palate the wine was very well balanced, exhibiting a full, round mouthfeel and good integration of all the elements.  It was like a Fred Couples golf swing: smooth, elegant, with a long finish and complete balance throughout.  "This is an epiphany wine."  "This is why I do this."  "This wine is begging for a roast tenderloin or a rabbit."  Those were some of the comments issuing from an awed round table.

This is, without a doubt, the best wine I have tasted in the series to date.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Derenoncourt and Montesquieu: A Match made in Biology?

The American Heritage Dictionary defines symbiosis as "a close, prolonged association between two or more organisms of different species that may, but does not necessarily, benefit each member."  A symbiotic relationship exists between Stephane Derenoncourt (noted winemaker and wine consultant) and Montesquieu (a west-coast-based, Bordeaux-style negociant), especially as it relates to Stephane's "US account."

Stephane, the Ryan Seacrest of the wine world, is as famous for his winemaking skills as he is for the reach of his influence.  Beginning with his work on the right bank of Bordeaux, Stephane has leveraged that success into consulting appointments the world over.  It is, however, the work on his own account in the US that is of interest here and how he has worked with Montesquieu to the mutual benefit of both (organisms?).

Fulfilling a long-standing dream, Stephane, at an event held at Rutherford's Auberge du Soleil on February 9th, 2009, introduced the world to his Derenoncourt California wines.  The wines, sourced from grapes grown in small, high-elevation, cool-microclimate, volcanic-soil plots, included a Cabernet Sauvignon (Caldwell Vineyard, Block 13), a Cabernet Franc (Caldwell Vineyard, Block 15), a Merlot (Stagecoach Vineyard, Atlas Peak), a Syrah (Hudson Vineyard, Carneros), and a second Cabernet Sauvignon, this one from Andy Beckstoffer's Red Hills Vineyard in Lake County.  Writing about these small-production wines in the June 15th issue of Wine Spectator, James Laube remarked that these 2006s "... are as good as any from that year and as uniformly consistent stylistically as any wines I have ever tasted."

You can make great wine but you have to get it out the door before next year's vintage shows up; and that is where Montesquieu comes into the picture.  Stefan became acquainted with the company after meeting its President, Fonda Hopkins, at an event in Bordeaux.  He was intrigued by the business model -- connecting the best artisanal winemakers to a discerning customer base through an activist personal wine broker -- and joined the company as its chief wine buyer in 2006.  Getting Stephane on board was a huge coup for Montesquieu.  First, and most obviously, was the cachet associated with being able to say that Stephane Derenoncourt (the Stephane Derenoncourt) was your chief wine buyer.  Second, Stephane, because of his contacts and clout, could open doors that were previously closed to Montesquieu.

Montesquieu has benefitted significantly from this relationship; as has its customers. The quality of the juice they now have access to has increased dramatically from both US and international sources.  Wines from Derenoncourt proteges -- such as Greg Viennois, head winemaker for Michel Chapoutier -- and contacts -- Clos de la Terra, Heidi Barrett, Andy Beckstoffer -- are now readily available to Montesquieu clients.

From Stephane's perspective, he has access to a vehicle for US distribution of wines from estates that he is working with internationally.  These small estates, or side labels from more notable names, might not otherwise have ready access to the type of market served by Montesquieu if left to their own devices.  Further, Montesquieu has been integrally involved in the Derenoncourt California program.  While plot and grape selection is Stephane's purview, he is ably assisted in the winemaking process by Hèlène Mingot, the Montesquieu winemaker.  Distribution of the final product is the responsibility of Montesquieu with the exception of product sold on the Derenoncourt website which, by the way, was developed with the assistance of Montesquieu.

Perfect.  Symbiosis.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

New Wines of Greece Marketing Initiative: NYC Seminar

In a recent post, I mentioned the fact that New Wines of Greece was spearheading a marketing initiative designed to further expose wine-market players to the wines of Greece and, further, that I had attended the New York City instance of the launch event.  The New York City event, held at the Alice Tully Hall of New York's famed Lincoln Center on Thursday, May 20th, featured a Seminar, led by Doug Frost, Master Sommelier and Master of Wine, inclusive of tasting sessions led by Konstantinos Lazarakis, Master of Wine, followed by a "Grand Tasting" of 137 wines from 60 wineries.

In his opening remarks, Doug Frost touched on some of the challenges confronting Greek wine marketers as they attempt to further penetrate foreign markets.  Greece, he indicated, was "blessed' with 350 indigenous grape varieties none of which can be DNA-linked to any other grape in any other locale in the world.  This "uniquenesss," plus varietal name-complexity, combined to steepen the climb for marketers of Greek wines.  Within that context, the event organizers were entertaining the thought of bringing Greek wines to customers by relating them to more broadly recognizable varietals and sought to utilize seminar attendees to test this hypothesis. 

The test, titled Comparative Tasting of Greek and International Varieties, consisted of tasting four flights of five wines each with, as we later discovered, three of the wines in the flight being Greek varietals and the remaining two being international varietals.  The Greek varietals were, in order, Moschofilero, Agiorgitiko, Assyrtiko, and Xinomavro.  Three points of note.  (i) Many of the seminar attendees appeared to be familiar with each other, with the presenters, and with Greek wines and these folks were not very happy with the concept of presenting these wines vis a vis others.  In their minds, Greek wines were unique and should be treated and presented on their own merits. (ii) The fact that the seminar leaders grouped Greek varietals with specific international varietals, seemed to indicate that they had some leanings of their own.  That is to say, they did not ask the testers to suggest international varietals to go with Greek varietals.  They already had the first two flights poured when we stepped into the seminar room. (iii) The three instances of the Greek varietal in each flight were drawn from different vendors.

In leading off the Moschofilero tasting, Konstantino pointed out that Greece has some of the most complex topography in Europe.  There are very few fertile plots in the nation and the saying goes, so says he, that vineyards are only planted where the soil cannot support anything else.  The Moschofilero is a pink-skinned, aromatic grape variety which imparts a pink tint to its wines.  In the Mantinea appellation, where this grape predominates, it plateaus at 600-700 meters and, as a result, the area is cool after sunset.  Grapes mature slowly in this environment and it is difficult to get above 12% alcohol. The overarching characteristics of the Moschofilero were florality and acidity. It was later revealed that the internationals were Torrontes Crios, Susana Balboa 2009 and Gentil Hugel 2008.  The panel did not think that the Moschofilero could be in any way compared to these internationals.

Agiorgitiko, according to Konstantino, is primarily from the appellation Nemea, which, though close to Mantinea, is warmer and subject to autumn rains and vintages are definitely affected by weather patterns.  The appellation can be dividied into valley floor -- hotter, produces sweet, soft reds -- 350 to 500 meters -- classic Nemeas are produced here --- and the top subzone -- 700 meters and up; previously only rose but now high-acidity, quality wines are produced here.  The wines from this region have soft tannins and go well with oak.  The Agiorgitiko was much less floral than the Moscofilero with, depending on the producer, a preponderance of black or red fruit.  The international wines paired off against the Agiorgitko were the Monticello Reserva 2005 and Mt. Difficulty Pinot Noir 2008.

Konstantino described the Assyrtiko from Santorini as a "gifted grape variety" with extremely good acidity even in hot weather.  Santorini is a difficult place to grow grapes in that it is "too windy, too hot, and too sunny."  The vines have to be trained in baskets in order to generate humidity and production is 12 hectoliters per hectare.  There is no clay in the volcanic soil so it is phylloxera-free and phylloxera-resistant.  The vineyards are very old with some root systems being hundreds of years old.  The wine ages phenomenally. The wines have excellent texture and exhibit fruit and acidity with high stone minerality.  The international wines tasted were Chablis 1er Cru Vaulorent, Brocard 2007 and Reisling Gobelsburger, Schloss Gobelsburg 2009.

The final varietal tasted was the Xinamavro, described by Konstantino as "a punch in the face of globalization."  This wine manifests black fruit and some limited phenolics as well as good acidity.  The international wines paired with it were Barbaresco, Produttori del Barbaresco 2006 and castel Giocondo Frescobaldi 2004, Brunello di Montalcino.

The panel mostly held to its opening position that Greek wines were unique and could not be marketed via other grapes without further confusing the issue.  These wines would have to stand on their own and be supported by stories appropriate to them.  In his closing remarks Konstantino opined that, in the future, being good would become irrelevant because people would take that for granted.  Being different with what is in the glass, he said, is what will make sense going forward.  Meta data will be needed as a part of the selling process.  The data are the contents of the glass and the meta data are the stories that surround the contents.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

A Glass a Day Keeps the Doctor Away

We have all heard that wine secretly harbors some magical health benefits; a powerful elixir that bestows its heart-healthy benefits upon those willing to partake. In addition, scientific studies have revealed a whole host of benefits to the winedrinker. Well the secret could be due to a flavonoid compound found in wine called Resveratrol.

In recent mouse and rat experiments, anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory, blood-sugar-lowering, and other beneficial cardiovascular effects of Resveratrol have been reported. Resveratrol, found in grape skins and seeds, increases HDL cholesterol (good cholesterol) and prevents blood clotting. Flavonoids, on the other hand, exhibit antioxidant properties helping prevent blood clots and plaque formation in arteries. Red wine may help reduce the blood vessel damage caused by fat deposits. But wait, before you do your best impression of a drunken sailor, lets back up a bit. Sorry to dampen your enthusiasm but let me remind you to do this right. That means everything in moderation. Oh, I just heard a collective sigh out of 90% of you. That means 1 glass a day for women, double that for men. Though I think you will still get the benefits even if you indulge a bit more. Unfortunately, for those who like to burn the candle at both ends, excessive consumption can actually damage your heart. Let’s not forget the stress it places on your liver. So a glass a day means approximately 5 ounces. Too much indulgence could lead to a fatty liver. A fatty liver will lead to higher triglycerides. High triglycerides prevent the endothelium from producing the most cardio protective protein nitric oxide in addition to thickening of the blood and fatty plaque. Fatty plaque is unstable plaque which can dislodge causing blockage elsewhere. Hello heart attack.

Currently, pharmaceutical giant Glaxo has a synthetic version of Resveratrol in clinical trials. Whether it will become part of the pharmaceutical market is still unknown.There is some further evidence of Resveratrol’s effects on the sirtuin gene to slow the aging process. In the meantime Resveratrol is available over the counter or in your glass!

Friday, May 21, 2010

New Wines of Greece Marketing Initiative

New Wines of Greece, a joint venture of 31 top Greek wineries, has recently formed a North American Wine Bureau (NAWB) for the express purpose of managing a campaign to increase the awareness of Greek wines among consumers, trade, and influencers.  The initiative is sponsored by the Greek National Inter-Professional Organization and funded by the European Union and the government of Greece.  NAWB will operate out of offices in New York, Montreal and Toronto.

New Wines of Greece held a series of seminars and grand tastings in Montreal (May 11), Toronto (May 13), Chicago (May 18), and New York (May 20) as a part of its 2010 road show and NAWB launch. I attended the session in New York and, in subsequent posts, will address the NAWB, the seminar, Greek wine regions, Greek grapes and wines, and tasting Greek wines.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

A Wine Journey: 1998 and 2004 Penfolds Grange

I continue to climb this mountain one step at a time.  This is truly a case of the journey, the chase, being significantly more rewarding than the actual attainment of the end point.  Two more wines from the McNamara Wines of the Decade have fallen to my resolute corkscrew.

No one was as important to the development of Penfold's Hermitage Grange (Penfold's Grange since 1990) than the then winemaker Max Schubert but the founding and nurturing of the company can be traced back to Dr. Christopher Rawson Penfold and his wife Mary, respectively.  Dr. Penfold, who was firm in his belief in the medicinal value of wine, planted some French vine cuttings around his home in Magill, Adelaide -- called the Grange -- upon his emigration to Australia in 1844.  He produced port and sherry from the resulting grapes for dispensation to his patients.  Upon his death, Mary took over the running of the winery and, in this task, she was ably assisted by her son-in-law, Thomas Hyland.  Thomas and Georgina, Mary's daughter, assumed management responsibility when Mary retired in 1884 and the family members retained control until 1976.  The company is now owned by Southcorp, a division of Australia's Foster's Group.

Penfold's wine production consisted primarily of fortified wines and brandy up until the 1950s.  Jeffrey Penfold Hyland, reacting to his perception of changing tastes, asked Max Schubert to look into the increased production of table wines.  As a part of that mandate, Schubert visited the wine-growing areas of Europe and was very impressed by the aged wines he encountered in France.  He was convinced that with the proper technique, he could produce a quality, long-lived wine in Australia and sought to put that into practice with the production of  an experimental vintage -- utilizing the Syrah grape -- of Penfold's Hermitage Grange in 1951.  The early wines were not well received.  So much so that the board, in 1957, forbade further production of the wine. Schubert continued to produce the wine in secret and as the earlier vintages stabilized, they began to receive more favorable consideration.  These favorable comments trickled back to the board and, in 1960, they authorized Schubert to resume production of the wine.  Of course, he had never stopped and, thanks to his" cheekiness," there has been an unbroken string of Penfold's Grange produced since the experimental vintage in 1951.

From the beginning Penfold's has pursued a multi-vineyard, multi-district grape-sourcing strategy bolstered by a "house style" of complete, controlled fermentation followed by aging in new American oak barrels.  The grapes for the wine are sourced from vineyards in the Barossa Valley, McLaren Vale, and Magill, all regions falling within the Adelaide "super zone."

The vintages drank for this portion of the journey were from 1998 and 2004.  The winemaker for both these vintages was Peter Gago.  The 1998 vintage was 97% Shiraz and 3% Cabernet Sauvignon aged for 18 months in new American oak.  The 2004 was 96% Shiraz and 4% Cabernet Sauvignon aged fro 16 months in new American oak.

The 1998 was experienced at a previously mentioned dinner at the home of Keith and Nancy.  We opened the bottle at around 8:30 pm and noted that it had good color.  On the nose we experienced black olives, sawdust, cigar box, sweet tobacco, sandalwood, coconut, coffee, mocha, and salt ocean spray.  On the palate there was black fruit and some salt in the finish.  This wine was balanced, smooth and silky and had a "Jordanesque" hang time in terms of finish.

The 2004 was tasted at our regular Antonio's Friday afternoon tasting.  This wine had a complex structure with cigar leaf, raw meat, cedar box, leather, coconut, salt, black pepper, cherry, and black licorice all evident on the nose.  This wine was obviously a baby but was well integrated with smooth wood tannins across the palate and a lifelong finish.  One taster felt that this wine as more exuberant than traditional Penfold's but that it would be "smoking in ten years."  The wine was tasted one hour later and at that time the alcohol had become very evident, as was the pepperiness, and the green note had now become a green chord, the acid was now dominant, and there was significant chalkiness on the tongue.  The wine exhibited its promise in the earlier tasting and then seemed to close down.

Clearly world-class wines.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Psychology of Wine

I am a fairly rational thinker who strives to make practical, well-thought-out (well maybe) decisions but, after careful consideration of the facts, I have come to the conclusion that there is a psychology of wine which is an immutable force pushing me willy-nilly in one direction -- further immersion into the world of wine.  Following are some key indicators of this condition -- known medically as vinomyopia (a short-sighted desertion of practical worldly pursuits in favor of things vinous) or, in extreme circumstances, as vinomyopiarosé (same as vinomyopia but as seen through rose-colored glasses).

You may have a problem if you are not gainfully employed in the wine trade yet you spend more time thinking and drinking wine than people who earn their livelihoods from it.  If you constantly have to make gut-wrenching decisions about whether to go to work or to a producer-tasting, you have lost touch with reality and are well on the way to the special place reserved for VMPs (shorthand for persons with the above-described condition).

When you are afflicted with this condition, you never have enough wine storage.  The number of bottles you own expands (exponentially) to exceed your available storage in an incredibly short time after you have brought new storage space online.  And it is not all about consumption.  Rather, I think that this condition is associated with hoarding (I mean collecting) as the rate of acquisition tends to exceed the rate of consumption by 3 to 1.  So you tend to know the wine consultants at ABC very well because, in addition to the home cellar, and multiple wine coolers and Eurocaves, you rent three or four wine cabinets at ABC.

You should begin to be concerned when you see the same six or eight people at every local wine event that you attend (As a matter of fact, attendance at a lot of local wine events is an indicator.).  They are fellow travellers along the road but, moreso, they are flashing warning signs telling you to get off the tracks before it is too late.  If you stay on, you too will become a wine zombie.

You are on your last legs when your spouse begins to address you by your surname (which, hopefully, is the same as his/hers) and constantly mutters "This is sick" or "This is a sickness." And you know, they are right.  We have identified it in the opening paragraph.

There are other indications such as the hoarding of wine shop receipts in shoe boxes, having a lot of wine-cork art, and having friends who actually sew blind-tasting wine bags, but I will not detail these as I think you get the gist of the problem.  Consider the forgoing carefully and check yourself.  It is truly a slippery slope.  Do not be smug if only one or two of the foregoing apply to you because the condition is singular.  That is, a single manifestation of any of the elements is considered to be evidence of a full-bore affliction.  If you have multiple instances (or all) of the above, you are toast.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Book Review: In Search of Bacchus

Having built up great respect for George Taber based on his two previous works (Judgement of Paris and To Cork or Not To Cork), I was vey excited when I was informed by a friend that he had written a third book called In Search of Bacchus.  I took immediate steps to obtain a copy.  The book, published by Scribner, and subtitled Wanderings in the Wonderful World of Wine Tourism, is the story of the authors' exploration of "... wine tourism in twelve of the world's most interesting wine regions."

The book is structured as a series of 12 essays, each covering a wine region, with each essay followed by a two- to three-page accounting of a unique experience the author had had while in the region.  For example, the author bungy-jumped while in New Zealand and went to a "Black Tie in the Bush" event while in Margaret River, Australia.  Bookending these essays are a Prologue and a Conclusion.  The book deals with wine and wine tourism in the twelve wine regions but beyond that there is no connective tissue that ties it into a cohesive whole.  The use of an individual named Zimmerman in the Prologue as the jumping-off point for the entire book seems somewhat contrived.

In the Prologue, the author says that he set out to explore 12 of the world's most interesting wine regions but does not indicate why he settled on the number 12 nor did he define interesting.  In the discussion on the Bordeaux region, the author mentions that determining the best wine region in France, for the purposes of the book, was the hardest of the wine region decisions that he had to make.  This seems to indicate that he selected the best wine region in each country for inclusion in the book. If that is so, why is Margaret River the area selecetd for Australia?  Further, why is Georgia covered in the book and Austria, Romania, and Greece not included?  Why was China, the seventh largest producer, and sixth largest consumer, not included as the Last Frontier (the section in which Georgia was covered)?

While the author does not provide any insight into the structure of the book, or the order in which the essays are recounted, the internal structure of the essays are, for the most part, fairly consistent.  The essay generally begins with a historical overview of the wine region and its grape-growing experience and then launches into a discourse of the wine-tourism experiences of selected wineries in the region.  Within this overall framework, the author drops "rice grains" regarding places to stay, eat, drink, and visit.

The book begins with a fascinating discussion of Napa Valley and the prominent role that the late Robert Mondavi played in the development of wine tourism in the valley (the author has the disconcerting habit of referring to it as "the Napa Valley") as well as the battle between grape growers and wineries in Napa to define what was a winery and what activities a winery could undertake.  The outcome of this battle is the main reason that wineries do not, for the most part, have hotels and/or restaurants on their properties.  In the Napa Valley essay the author had particularly harsh words for Darioush ("Darioush Winery is a monument to Khaledi's homeland and its culture, but an insult to the wine culture of the Napa Valley") and Castello di Amoroso ("... might look fine in Tuscany, but stands out in jarring juxtaposition to its surroundings in the Napa Valley") wineries.

After discussions on South Africa (Stellenbosch) and Argentina (Mendoza) , the books begins to become formulaic and that detracts from the telling of the stories. It almost becomes less of a book for immediate consumption and more of a reference which one would consult before going on a trip.  The book continues with Chile (A Colchagua Valley), Australia (Margaret River), New Zealand (Central Otago), Spain (Rioja), Portugal (Douro Valley), France (Bordeaux), Germany (Rheingau and Middle Mosel), and Georgia (Kakheti).

When I first encountered the book, I thought it was going to be a pure travel book covering the author's travel in the regions and reported in the first person.  Such a book would be aimed at the wine tourist and would have the journey and experiences as the connective tissue.  Those first person experiences have instead been relegated to after-thought status at the end of each essay.  It is not clear whether the audience for the book is a tourist, tour operators, or wineries who have not drank the Kool Aid of wine tourism and I think that this lack of laser-like focus on the consumer (of this book) diminishes it slightly.

The historical narratives in the book are excellent and informative and Taber's writing style is easy on the senses. Based on his prior works, I think that Taber's strength is his methodical research (historical in the case of Judgement of Paris; technical in the case of To Cork or Not to Cork) and that skill is in evidence in this book in his historical treatments. Taber takes us up close and personal with some of the leading winemakers in these regions and even allows us to see them in unexpected situations as when Santiago Achaval, the founder of the Achaval-Ferrer winery grabs a guitar and provides the entertainment during an asado in Argentina. In the conclusion he tries, with some success, to impart the lessons learned, some of which could be applied by the adventurous tourist in order to improve the experience. 

During the narrative, I tried to make a note of every wine Taber mentioned.  This soon became tiresome, however, and I allowed my list to lapse.  You can imagine my surprise and pleasure when I got to the Appendix and saw that Taber had compiled that list for me, arranged by region and price in $US.  Sweet. While this book does not approach the prior two in stature, it probably should be in every wine tourist's backpack.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Wine Quest Annual Wine Tasting and Auction

The subject event, subtitled "Something for all Tastes," will be held from June 11 - 13 at the Grande Lakes Orlando resort.  Proceeds from the event will benefit Quest, a local organization devoted to making a difference in the lives of persons living with disabilities.

The event kicks off with the WineQuest Golf Classic which will be held on June 11th at the Ritz-Carlton Golf Club at Grande Lakes.  The event begins at 7:45 am and costs $850 for a foursome.

On that Friday evening, the WineQuest Grand Tasting and Auction will be held at the JW Marriott Orlando Grande Lakes.  This event will take the attendee on a tour of 200 fine wines from around the world and 14 food-tasting stations.  This event will run from 7-9:30 pm and will cost $70 per person.

The WineQuest Premier Dining Experience will be held on Saturday, June 12th, at the JW Marriott Grande Lakes.  A sparkling wine reception at 7:00 pm will precede the dinner and auction at 8:00 pm. Dinner will be a five-course masterpiece created by the JW Marriott chefs and will be paired with the appropriate wines.  This event costs $150 per guest.

The final event in the series will be a champagne brunch at Primo, the jewel in the JW Marriott Orlando crown.  This restaurant is generally only open for dinner.  Guests can choose between an 11:00 am - 1:00 pm  or a 1:00 pm - 3:00 pm session.  The cost for this event is $70 per person.

For additional information please visit or call 407.218.4300.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The British are Coming! The British are Coming!

Only this time it is the French who are running through the streets in sack cloth and ashes and pulling the hair out of their collective heads.  French vintners have been complaining for a while of the potential impact of global warming on its wine industry and, conversely, its potentially beneficial impact on the fledgling British wine industry.  According to an article in, a French wine growers association, Vigneron Independant, blamed climate change for speeding up harvests in Burgundy, altering the taste of Alsatian wines, and disrupting the hydration pattern of grapes grown along the Mediterranean coast.  Further, according to Michael Issaly, president of the organization, if temperatures continue to rise over the long term, Pinot Noir could disappear from large swaths of Burgundy while grape-growing regions will move further north.

The worst fears of French wine growers were realized earlier this week when the 2003 Nyetimber Classic Cuvee, a British sparkling wine (anybody but the British), won first place at the World Sparkling Wine Championships in Verona, Italy.  Not only did the 25 pound sterling wine win the competition.  It won against the likes of Louis Roederer, Bollinger, Pommery, Gosset, Joseph Perrier, and Devaux.

The Nyetimber vineyard was established by Stuart and Sandy Moss, Chicagoans who, after completing the requiste research, realized that the soils and climate in Champagne and in the south of England were similar.  They realized that the chalk seam which is found in Champagne runs below the English Channel before emerging in Sussex and Hampshire on the English side.  With this information on the soil and temperature similarity, and knowing that the primary Chapagne varietals thrive in that environment, the Moss' thought that they could craft a world-class sparkling wine.

As a first step towards that goal, the Moss' bought 120 acres of land comprised of free-draining green sand over chalk with some areas of pure chalk.  They chose to plant only the classic Champagne varietals (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier) and to use equipment sourced from Champagne.  The estate chose to produce two vintage products: a classic cuvee (85% Chardonnay with the remainder Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier) and a blanc de blanc.  The first vintage was produced in 1992.

The Moss' sold the estate to Andy Hill, Celine Dion's songwriter and he, with the help of head winemaker Cherie Spriggs and Vineyard Manager Paul Woodrow-Hall, has continued to produce fine wines.

Unfortunately for the French, this is probably only the opening salvo in a long-running war.  According to SpiegelOnline, "The concept of English wine was once as absurd as German bananas.  But England's summers have been warmer and drier from year to year."  Even though the number of vineyards in England fell from 416 to 381 (2008 to 2009), and number of wineries fell from 116 to 109 in the same period, the total vineyard hectares increased by 10% year over year and hectares in production increased by 20%.  While red table wine production remained stable year over year, white wine production almost tripled.  So the British will have many more opportunities to play the role it has played all through history -- French nemesis.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Finally, a second South African Wine that I like

Ever since travelling to South Africa ten years ago, and drinking local wines both at wineries outside Capetown and in restaurants in Cape Town and Johannesburg, I have been less than effusive in my praise of South African wines. I have always found them too "body-free" for my liking.  When Eric Asimov wrote a piece in the New York Times a few years ago on the coming of South African wines, I drank the Kool Aid and bought four bottles of his highest-rated red.  I rolled them out at a JRE wine-tasting dinner and my friends were less than impressed.  The first South African wine that I have truly liked was a bottle of Ken Forrester Chenin Blanc that I was introduced to by Dhane Chesney (now of Vibrant Rioja).  I have now found a second South African wine that I can say that I like and that, frankly, I can recommend.

Last Saturday afternoon I attended a "meet-the-winemaker" event at Tim's Wine Market just outside of Downtown Orlando.  The winemaker on offer was Bruwer Raats (I had never heard of him but Tim knows stuff) of Raats Family Vineyards.  The pouring was scheduled for 1 to 3 pm but the winemaker was delayed

as a result of uncooperative traffic.  When he did walk in, I could swear that I had seen him in a uniform of the Springboks, the South African national rugby team.  Without a lot of preamble he proceeded to pour the 2008 vintage of the Original Chenin Blanc, one of the wineries offerings.

Stepping back a bit, Raats Family Vineyard was initially a partnership between brothers Bruwer and Jasper Raats, with their father as the viticulturist.  According to Bruwer, after working in vineyards in Bordeaux, Napa Valley, and Tuscany, he had settled on the goal of doing something that would make South Africa special in the wine world.  He felt that this goal could be realized through his family's passion for Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc.  The winery, located in Stellenbosch (outside of Cape Town) became the sole property of Bruwer (his wife works as the general manager) upon his father's retirement.  As he poured the Original, Bruwer indicated that we should be getting impressions of Golden Delicious apple and citrus.  Chenin Blanc, he said, if grown in Table Mountain sandstone, will provide yellow fruit flavors.  If grown in decomposed dolomitic granite the prevalent flavors will be citrus.  He wants to show all of the Chenin Blanc characteristics in the 2008 Original so 70% of the fruit is from sandstone vineyards with the remainder from granite vineyards.  Juice from the grapes were vinified separately and then blended to produce the final product.

In warm vintages, more granite-grown grapes are used in order to get higher acidity while a higher percentage of sandstone-grown grapes are used in the blend in cooler years.  All grapes are sourced from vineyards that are above 600 feet and are handpicked from vines that are, on average, in excess of 25-years old. 

Bruwer feels strongly that good soil makes good grapes.  While pouring the '08 Raats Chenin Blanc, Bruwer shared his views on the role of a winemaker.  Ultimately, he said, a winemaker's job is to unlock the flavor from the grape.  In order to do this, he/she has to understand the soil, know what to plant in that soil, and then proceed to unlock the flavors containd within the harvested grapes.  He is against the use of exorbitant amounts of oak as it introduces "extraneous flavors."

We next turned to the Cab Franc and Bruwer indicated that he was the only Cab Franc specialist in South Africa.  He feels that winemakers prefer to use Cab Franc in blends rather than as a pure varietal because it is even more difficult to manage than is Pinot Noir.  When I tasted the wine, I noted a burst of flavor on the palate, silky soft tannins, and a clean freshness on the finish.  It slowly dawned on me that I liked this wine.  It was  a South African wine.  But I liked it anyway.  I looked around sheepishly, sidled up to the counter, and, in hushed tones, ordered six bottles.  It was $30 a pop.

Wanting to be sure of my assessment that this would be a stellar Monday night dinner wine, I  recently retasted it.  It had excellent color and good consistency in the legs.  There was spice, black fruit, and black olives on the nose.  On the palate there was a slight fruitiness but it was well integrated with the sweet tannins and the quality of acid showed a backbone for the future.  It had a persistent, though slightly weak, finish. At 13.5% alcohol, this is a balanced wine that could serve double duty as an easy-drinking wine or as an accompaniment to a Monday evening (or any other evening, for that matter) dinner.

The Chenin Blancs were good, but did not make me forget the Ken Forrester.  Definitely buy the Cab Franc.  At $30 you cannot go wrong.

Monday, May 10, 2010

A Wine Journey: 1987 Dominus

Robert S., and Allison, members of faculty and administrative management, respectively, of a local university, and, in the case of Robert, a member in good standing of the Antonio's Tasting Group, are moving to another state in furtherance of Allison's career.  As a part of our send-off activities, a few of us got together with them for dinner at the home of Fred W., and Laurie L.

This was an occasion that merited a Wine of the Decade: a few showed up, including the 1987 Dominus, the 2001 Dominus (again), and the 1990 Dom Perignon (white, 750 ml).  This post covers the tasting of the 1987 Dominus.

Details of the Dominus Estate pedigree and winemaking philosophy and process have been covered in a previous post but a look at the label of the 1987 vintage provides new factual details.  The 1987 was the fifth vintage produced by the John Daniel Society, the name of the partnership between Christain Mouiex, Robin Lail, and Marcia Smith.  Second, the vintage has the pre-Bordeaux-style label with a non-dominant portrait of Moueix done by the Israeli artist Avigdor Arikha.

The tasting of the Dominus followed a wonderful "six-course" meal comprised of a jambalaya as a starter, followed by a gazpacho-style, apple-citrus soup, salad, planked salmon, grilled steak and a sherbert for dessert.  Many bottles of wine were consumed prior to, during, and after the dinner.  The 1987 was one of the post-dinner bottles.

The bottle was decanted by "I-need-a-light-source" HlyTerroir. Upon visual inspection, the wine had excellent color with hints of orange at the edges.  The legs were thin and evenly spaced and flowed relatively quickly back to the surface of the wine.  A perusal of the label for information on alcohol content is unrewarded but a  quick search online reveals that it is 12.9%; almost a teetotaler by the standards of today's Napa Cabernets.  That same online search also revealed that the wine is a blend of 86% Cabernet Sauvignon, 9% Cabernet Franc, and 5% Merlot and that said blend spent 14 months in French oak of which 25% was new.

On the nose the wine presents cigarbox, cedar, sandalwood, vanilla, mocha, espresso, spearmint, and eucalyptus.  On the palate there is a muted green note, cassis and a pleasant old cigar.  The late-arriving wood tannins are well integrated into this smooth and very-well-balanced wine.

Robert and Allison, you will be missed but you are permanently seared into our memories, and our senses, through this capstone dinner and the meritorious performance of the 1987 Dominus as a wine of the decade.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Arsenic and Old….Romanee Conti?

Like sands through the hour glass so are the days our lives.
And you thought soap opera's only happened on tv... maybe not. How about at one of the worlds greatest wine estates, Romanee Conti? Ok, do I have your attention now.... so what exactly is going on at Romanee Conti these days? How about bribes, lies, and video tape? Well not exactly, but with all the story lines that can be written, would you believe blackmail or poison would be at the top of any inquirers list? Not!!

First off, what do we know about the Romanee Conti Estate? I think Clive Coates said it best. Romanee Conti is, “the scarcest, most expensive - and frequently the best - wine in the world . . . This is the purest, most aristocratic and most intense example of Pinot Noir you could possibly imagine. Not only nectar: a yardstick with which to judge all other Burgundies.” Hey, what a perfect place to attempt a blackmail extortion plot right? So what actually transpired? It appears that an unnamed, 57-year-old man is accused of attempting to extort 1 million euros from the estate by threatening to poison the vines. Did I hear right? Shocking to the wine world, but very true.

Aubert de Villaine, co-manager of the estate, told ABC News, “We received a first letter in January saying that we would be getting a second letter with some bad news in it.” Two weeks later, the second letter arrived in the mail. “The letter was saying that our vine stocks would be poisoned if we did not pay a ransom of 1 million euros,” Villaine also went on to state, “In order to show how serious he was, he had made a hole in each of the two vines and injected a liquid into them, some sort of weed-killer, like Roundup," As if the whole scheme wasn’t creepy enough, the perpetrator asked for the ransom to be dropped off in the cemetery of Chambolle-Musigny. Wow, what a great idea! Why didn't I think of this? Oh, I know why, keep reading.

In an attempt to catch the return of this nocturnal criminal, night-vision cameras were installed to oversee the vineyards. To buy time, the estate replied saying they needed to call a special general assembly to procure the ransom money. This gave the estate enough time to come up with a counter plan with the authorities. By the time the satchel filled with false bank notes was placed at the cemetery, it was all but over. The extortionist was immediately apprehended at the pick up site. Good riddance and where he's going, the wine list leaves much to be desired. Until next time...

Friday, May 7, 2010

Beringer: Official Wine of the PGA Tour

Thanks to the good offices of, I was able to attend the first day's play of the 2010 Players Championship -- one of the premier PGA Tour events -- as a guest of Beringer, the now "official wine of the PGA Tour."  The announcement of the partnership, posted on, the official site of the PGA Tour, designates Beringer as the official wine of the PGA, Champions, and Nationwide tours.

The effect of the partnership was in full view at the Players Championship yesterday.  First, Beringer supported its guests with a fully stocked hospitality tent located in the Sawgrass Suites directly across from the 16th tee.  In the tent, guests were treated to the full range of Foster's (Beringer's parent company) and Beringer products.  The food offerings were anchored by a Halibut with Jeweled Rice and a Blackened Pork Loin.  Second, Beringer had a wine bar at the Benefactor, a high-visibility, large-format hospitality tent overlooking the 16th green and the arena around the 17th hole.  Third, at all other venues where wine was being sold, inclusive of the clubhouse, Beringer was the only brand available.


On one of my many return trips to the Beringer tent, I was able to speak to Matt Foley, Brand Manager, Beringer, about his company's association with the PGA Tour.  According to Matt, the partnership with the PGA Tour covers 12 premier events including the US Open, one of the four majors, and The Players, variously described as the fifth major.  The partnership was initially rolled out at the Northern Trust Open which ran from February 4 -7 at the Riviera Country Club in Pacific Palisades (CA).

According to Matt, the program is designed to: (i) increase brand awareness among the golf demographic; (ii) associate the brand with the lifestyle; (iii) provide a vehicle for promotional activities in event cities; and (iv) engage golf fans with Beringer.  Seventy percent of the people who watch golf also drink wine so, from Beringer's perspective, it makes sense to engage them in a brand conversation.  The program's success will be measured by bumps in sales in areas where it is implemented  as well as through customer feedback.

Between visits to the wine well at the Beringer's hospitality tent, I watched a few holes of golf.  I followed Tiger for five holes and he seemed none the worse for wear.

Thursday, May 6, 2010 and its Implications

TastingRoom's announcement of its online wine marketplace represents an evolution of the application of its technology as well as an evolution of its business model.  In this post we will track the trajectory of the business model evolution as well as highlight its implications for market participants.

In December of 2009, TastingRoom, Inc., announced the introduction of a technology, which it called T.A.S.T.E. (Total Anerobic Sample Transfer Environment), which allows the transfer of wines from 750 ml bottles to smaller 50 ml "sample" bottles without compromising the integrity of the wine.  In April of 2010, TastingRoom announced deals with wineries such as Trefethen, Chateau Montelena, and Grgich Hills Estates whereby those companies would utilize the TastingRoom technology to reach out to the trade and their club members.  On May 3, 2010, TastingRoom announced, an online marketplace where consumers can buy sample bottles of wine from participating wineries and have those bottles delivered directly to their homes.


The concept behind the marketplace is that the consumer can taste the wine in this reduced-size form factor as an aid in making decisions regarding purchsing full-sized bottles.  The program is currently only available in California but will be rolled out to other states in the future.

At first glance this looks like a glorious opportunity for the consumer as the winery's tasting room is deposited at the front door and the pour is larger than available at the winery, but at the same price.  The consumer can eveluate the wine in the privacy of the home and make "no-pressure" buying decisions.  Once a decision is made, the consumer can either go back to to make the full-size purchase or can go to their neighborhood retailer or other favored channel.  In addition to using this approach as a buying decision, a consumer can use a winery flight pack as a vehicle for flight-themed wine dinners.  The only downside for the consumer would be reliability of access on a year-round basis.  For example, living in Florida, there is a narrow window during the course of the year when we can receive shipments from a winery.  One option is to do next-day air during hot weather but the wine still has some exposure and this approach adds to the procurement cost.

The wineries who sign on to the program run the risk of alienating some existing channels but the approach provides another avenue for getting their wines into the hands of consumers; in this case, an internet-savvy customer.There are two opportunities for increased sales here: the sample pack and, if the wine does its job, the follow-on sale of larger-format bottles. will be viewed with suspicion by the neighborhood retailer.  In the first place, it keeps the customer in the home and, as such, reduces impulse buying, a key source of revenue for the retailer.  Second, the retailer has the same problem that the winery had before the advent of That is, the retailer might be willing to give out samples as an aid in a purchase decision, but you have to be in the store to get that sample.  Third, this is competition for the retailer. is an innovative and relatively inexpensive approach to gaing access to a wine prior to making a purchase decision or as a means of having flight-themed diners.  The key things to look at going forward are (i) how many, and what quality, of wineries jump on the bandwagon, (ii) how broadly it is rolled out around the country, and (iii) how they address the year-round shipping problem.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

A Wine Journey: 1970 Vega Sicilia Unico

This foray into the the thicket of McNamara's Wines of the Decade takes us, once again, to the land of Ribero del Duero and that icon of classy elegance, Vega Sicilia Unico.  For many years the winery, and its wine, stood alone against the wines of Rioja so it is only fitting that the tasting of the 1970 Vega Sicilia Unico take place in a setting designed to highlight the wines of Rioja.

On the evening following the Vibrant Rioja professional seminar, this blog teamed up with Vibrant Rioja to host a dinner called A Dinner with Rioja.  The dinner was held in Lake Mary and Parlo, at whose home the dinner was held, worked closely with the chefs from Hospitality Concepts, Inc., to ensure that a food menu suitable to the occasion was on offer.  The final dinner menu consisted of four food courses and five accompanying wines:

  • First course -- Arugula and Mojito Prawn Insalata, Salsa Verde, Manchengo; paired with a 2008 Marques de Riscal Rosado
  • Second course -- Divers Scallop Escoviche, Cilantro Tomato Puree, Candied Lime; paired with a 2001 Marques de Tomares Reserva and a 1995 La Rioja Alta Reserva
  • Third course -- Sugar-cane-charred Churrusca (Skirt Steak), Creamed Yucca, nest of Asparagus, Chimichurri; paired with a 2005 Maetierra Dominus "quatro pagos"
  • Fourth course -- Trio of desserts: Guava Cheese Tart, Coconut Flan, Pineapple Tres Leches; an unusual dessert pairing of 2007 Tobia Graciano.

I welcomed the 35 guests, thanked them for coming, and turned it over to Dhane of Vibrant Rioja.

She, in turn, made a few remarks and then turned it over to Adrian Murcia, our designated driver for the evening.  Each course was preceded by an explanation of the food course by one of the chefs followed by Adrian's explanation of why the particular wine was so well-suited to the food with which it was paired.

The meal was a gustatory tour de force as course after mouth-watering course flowed across our palates and seared themselves into our collective memories.

Chef was in rare form and Adrian more than rose to the occasion.  The Marques de Riscal, Marques de Tomares, and the Graciano had all been tasted earlier in the day at the seminar and had not been exceptional.  Paired with the food, as they were that evening, they shone, especially the Graciano which was used as a dessert wine almost as an experiment.  The class of the Rioja's that evening, however, was the 1995 La Rioja Alta Reserva, two magnums of which were consumed.

After completion of the dinner, and a lot of congratulatory back-slapping, a team was assembled for the tasting of the Unico.  The team was comprised of all attending members of the Antonio's group as well as the members of the Vibrant Rioja team (Yup, the Rioja guys could bring themselves to drink juice from the "hated" Ribera del Duero if it was Unico.).

I had earlier removed the bottle of 1970 Unico from its position of honor in the cellar (in the display window and next to the 2001 Giacomo Conterno Monfortino Reserva Barolo) and I now handed it over to Adrian of Vibrant Rioja (after all, he was the most senior sommelier present) to do the honors.

As he reverently extracted the cork from the bottle, I made note of the serial number: 44631.

The wine was decanted for residue and then poured into the waiting glasses.  Even after being in bottle for well nigh 40 years, the wine had a bright color and was devoid of bricking.  To the awe of the participants, the wine offered up an aromatic feast of coffee, mocha, spice box, leather, mint, faded red flowers, raw meat, morcilla, dried currant, sandalwood, and dried tobacco.  It exhibited great structure and balance and had a very long finish.

The tasting team was blown away by the quality and finesse displayed by this wine as well as its vibrancy even after 40 years of "life."  This wine truly deserves its place on the Wines of the Decade list.

Monday, May 3, 2010

The Terroirs of St. Emilion and the 2004 Vintage

B-21s Annual Bordeaux Grand Tasting and Sale had advertised a seminar titled "The Terroirs of St. Emilion and the 2004 Vintage" which was to be led by Stephane Derenoncourt, proprietor of the right-bank property Domaine de L' A and consulting oenologist to many.  Like many other travellers in that time period, Stephane fell victim to the the travails of the Icelandic volcano and could not meet his B-21 commitment.  With an agility belying its age, B-21 quickly arranged for Jeffrey M. Davies, the American-born, Bordeaux negociant, to step in to fill the gap.  The seminar retained its original title but was sub-titled as "The Wines of Stepahne Derenoncourt ... presented by Jeffrey M. Davies."

The story of Stephane Derenoncourt, his rise from relative obscurity to the pinnacle of the wine world, his right-bank wines, and the 2004 vintage in St. Emilon have all beeen succinctly covered in the January 6, 2009 edition of the Organic Wine Journal so we will not plough that ground again.  Instead, we will detail the property not mentioned in that article (Chateau Clos de l"Oratoire) , pass on any insights gleaned from listening to Jeffrey on that day, and share the findings from that day's tasting.
Davies was extremely laudatory of Derenoncourt's farming practices.  Davies felt that his aeration practices afforded the vines better protection in both rainy and drought periods and, in addition, allowed them to extract more mineral complexity from the soil.  His predilection for dry farming stressed the vines and forced vertical growth and the associated increased complexity of the resulting wines.  Davies also felt that the lack of crushing and pressing during the sorting process allowed for fruitier, softer wines.
We began the tasting with the 2004 Chateau Clos de l'Oratoire, wine produced from a 10-hectare vineyard residing on clay, limestone and Fronsac "molasse" ("sandstones, shales, and conglomerates formed as terrestrial or shallow mineral deposits in front of rising mountain chains") for the hillside plots and clay and sandstone for the foothill plots.  This 35-year-old vineyard is planted to 90% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 5% Cabernet Franc.  Grapes for the 2004 vintage were harvested (Merlot, October 5th through 7th; Cabernets, Octber 16th) into small plastic crates, twice sorted, and then fermented in temperature-controlled oak tanks.  Malolactic fermentation occured in 80% new oak barrels with aging on fine lees.  The final blend was 90% Merlot and 10% Cabernet Franc.
On the nose, this wine displayed characteristics of sandalwood, licorice, dark chocolate, and mushrooms.  It had good acid, good length, and pronounced aromatics.  Davies identified length-of-finish as a good indicator of a quality wine and also pointed out that the lack of oaky notes signified good integration between the tannins and wood.
La Gaffeliere, a Premier Grand Cru estate, is located in the foothills looking south to the Garonne on sandy-clay soils.  In the 1500s and 1600s, the Chateau, which has been in the same family since the 1400s,  served as a hospital for lepers.  Derenoncourt, according to Davies, began working with this estate in 1983.  When right, again according to Davies, this wine exhibits quintessential elegance.  Qualities exhibited by this wine included chocolate, black fruit, some vegetality, phenols, spice, and saltiness.  It had green tannins and a rich, silky softness.  This wine was aged in 100% French oak, a practice that Davies sees Bordeaux dialing back on as oak and toast tend to hide the fruit. The probable final blend for this wine was 50% Merlot, 45% Cabernet Franc, and 5% Cabernet Sauvignon.

Jeffrey was very enamored with the Clos Fourtet.  The vines sit on soil that has a little clay and a lot of limestone.  The wine has a great mouthfeel and is fresh and delightful to the taste.  For Davies, everything is in harmony as the wine is beautifully balanced, with great length on the finish.  This wine is approachable now but, in Davies view, can be cellared for an additional 10 years.

Davies pointed out that Stephane started his career at Chateau Pavie Macquin, a vineyard that sits on a clay-limestone plateau.  The wine exhibited forest floor, dank minerality and mineral complexity.  It had a good mid-palate and good tannin and acid structures.  Davies believes that this wine has a drinking window of about 10 years but, that being said, he is reluctant to place drinking windows on Bordeaux wines.  In his view, the best vintages in Bordeaux can now be drunk young, medium-young, medium-old, and old.

I had hoped that with the vineyards having similar viticultural and vinicultural practices, resulting from the commonality of Derenoncourt's oversight, any differences that came through would be a reflection of the terroir associated with a specific wine.  But, as indicated in the notes, the wines also differed in final blends, another factor that would affect the perception of the wine by a taster.  All in all this was a very interesting exercise with seminar attendees having an added layer beyond what was expected in that we had the opportunity to have Jeffrey Davies expound, in his inimitable style, on Derenoncourt, his practices, his wines, and the terroir of St. Emilion.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

A Wine Journey: 2001 Dominus

Our random walk -- a wine journey -- through Andrew McNamara's Wines of the Decade continues with the 2001 Dominus from Dominus Estate.

Dominus Estate is owned by Christian Mouiex who, in addition to his Dominus responsibilities, manages his family's properties in Pomerol and St. Emilion,  properties that include the likes of Chateau Petrus and Chateau Trotanoy.  Moueix, whose scholastic accomplishments include a Masters in Enology from UC Davis, was, upon his return to France, given responsibility for the family holdings.  While in California, he had developed a love for Napa Valley and enlisted the late Robert Mondavi to assist him in finding a property that would allow him to produce high-quality wine in Napa.  Robert introduced Christian to Robin Lail and Marcia Smith, daughters of the legendary John Daniels and current owners of Napanook vineyard (Napanook was the former Inglenook Estate and, under John Daniels, had become famous for its Inglenook Cask Selection.).  Grapes from this site were highly sought after for the production of high-quality Napa Cabernets.  Moueix entered into partnership with the two vineyard owners in 1982 to create an entity called Dominus Estate which would focus on producing a Cabernet-based wine.  Moueix eventually bought out the sisters and took full ownership of the property in 1995.

Napanook, located in the foothills of the Mayacamas Mountains, has a history that goes back to 1836 when George Yount, who gave his name to Yountville, planted the first vines in the valley there.  The farm is 124  acres -- 108 of which planted to vines -- with volcanic, heavy clay, and loam soil types.

Chrtistian believes that the best wine is made from the best grapes and, to that end, the company expends enormous amounts of energy in the vineyard -- crop thinning, canopy management, separating clusters, leaf plucking, and rinsing, for example -- to ensure that the best possible grapes are produced.

The estate produces 6,000 - 8,000 cases of wine annually with one half of the production meeting the stringent requirements for Dominus and the remainder either being bottled as the estate's second label -- Napanook -- or sold off in bulk.  Dominus, in the Bordeaux tradition, is a blend.  Early vintages were 75% - 85% Cabernet Sauvignon and the remainder Merlot.  Cabernet Franc was added to the blend in1986 and Petit Verdot in 1989.  The first 13 Dominus vintages were crushed and aged at Rombauer Vineyards but, in 1996, production was shifted to a 50,000 sq. ft., Dominus-owned winery which was designed and built by the Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron.

According to Dominus Estate, the 2001 vintage is truly a classic and will benefit from years of aging.  This vintage was characterized by an early bloom and long growing season that yielded grapes of exceptional maturity.  This wine has the unique ability to be rich and complex while possessing a smooth and silky texture.  The blend for the 7,000 case production was 81% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Cabernet Franc, 5% Petit Verdot, and 4% Merlot.  The fermented wine was aged for 18 months in French oak barrels, 40% of which were new.

Tasting the 2001 Dominus was an exercise in perseverance.  I had this wine in my cellar but, inexplicably, bought a bottle from an online retailer for the purpose of the tasting.  I took the bottle to our regular Friday tasting at Antonio's and was disappointed to see that only four of the regulars had shown up for this, my thought, blockbuster event.  It turned out to not matter.  The bottle was not good.  One member of the team thought it might be corked while another thought it was funk that would blow off.  We set the bottle aside and came back to it half an hour later.  The "corkiness" had disappeared somewhat but there was still an unidentified smell that should not have been there.  On the palate, the wine was disaggregated and phenolic with high alcohol.  A chalky residue persisted on the tongue.  This group has had extensive experience tasting both the 1991 (one of our favorite wines) and 1997 Dominus so there was a flavor profile that we were looking for and it was not showing up. Needless to say I was very disappointed and platitudes like "It's not your fault" and "better luck next time" did nothing to pick my chin up off the floor.

I had been invited by Keith M. and his wife Nancy to have dinner with them on the following night as my wife was going to be out of town.  I saw this as an opportunity to re-taste the 2001 Dominus and took a bottle out of my cellar for this purpose (I also took another bottle which I will discuss at a later date.).  So I show up at Keith and Nancy's at 6:30 pm sharp, walk into the kitchen, and begin opening my bag of goodies.  I begin telling Keith that we were going to revisit the scene of the crime, as I pull the 2001 Dominus out of the carrying case, when he points out that he already has a bottle (same wine, same vintage) in the decanter on the kitchen counter.  He had seen how disappointed I was the day before so he was giving me a piece of candy to make me feel better. Oh well.  By the way, he prepared the meal and a wonderful one it was:  Osso Bucco, butternut squash risotto, and roasted asparagus.

Keith had opened his bottle at 1:30 pm and placed it back in his cellar at 57 degrees until 6:30 pm.  We began tasting it at around 8:00 pm. Black fruit and black olives were dominant along with muted hints of graphite.  On the palate there was a distinct creaminess and a hint of coconut.  The wine was smooth and had a very long finish.

This wine is a baby and needs another 5 - 10 years to begin to reveal itself fully.