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Still no closure

[screwcap, reproduced under the GNU Free Documentation License provided by Wikimedia Commons, from user wnissen]Thanks to comprehensive note-taking, one of the things I’m able to do is note trends in my personal wine experience. None of which anyone else should care about, except for one:

I calculated the percentage of corked wines I experienced over the past year. As expected, it went down, and the current identified taint rate (I’m far from the most sensitive TCA-detector) is about 2.5% or so. That’s still too high, but much better than the 7-9%, even occasionally pushing 10%, failure rate I regularly experienced a half-dozen years ago.

Or is it? Those old numbers were generated in the near-complete absence of screwcaps and the only anecdotal presence of other alternative closures. So that, too, needs to be factored into the new percentage. Subtracting screwcaps, glass closures, both kinds of synthetic corks, and crown caps (I had several this year, on a bottle of California sparkling wine and some Italian sparklers as well), the number goes up. And it goes up again when I eliminate barrel samples, which obviously can’t show cork effects.

So what’s the real number? The number, it must be remembered, that comes after the cork industry’s much-heralded (unfortunately, mostly by themselves and their bought-off journalistic shills) attempts to, at long last, address their taint problems with technological solutions?

It’s better than one might expect: just a shade over 4%. Much better than it used to be, for sure, but still not good enough. I’m not yet at the point where I can express even cautious optimism, given the cork industry’s decades of lying and obfuscation on this issue, but we’ll see what the new year brings. At least the numbers are headed in the right direction, and obviously it will take their efforts a while to catch up to the older vintages in everyone’s cellars.

Meanwhile, two related numbers seem worth considering. The oft-discussed reduction issue with screwcaps did occasionally rear its head this year, but I still don’t see the problems that others do, which makes me wonder if I’m simply insensitive to the phenomenon. I identified four reduced wines this year, for a total reduction rate of .35%, but one of those was (somewhat surprisingly) under synthetic cork – the very last closure that should be able to preserve reductive characteristics – rather than screwcap. Restricting the data to screwcapped wines alone, the reduction rate – and this includes some aged wines, which are what those beating the anti-screwcap drum seem to fear most – was 1.6%. Not very high, and certainly far below the percentage of wines tainted by natural cork, but still not ideal. As I’ve said before, more research is obviously needed, but remember that the vast majority of the stories on this issue are being generated by a single journalist…which doesn’t make him wrong, but should at least lead to some healthy suspicion.

The most worrisome number is the physical failure rate for extruded synthetic corks (for those confused by the terminology, those are the spongy ones that look like a real cork, not the stiff plugs of multicolored plastic that strip the Teflon off corkscrews and are often impossible to remove). It’s important to note, however, that my number will be a bit of an outlier, as this past year included a number of wines that I inadvertently aged without realizing that they were sealed with artificial corks. The ability of synthetics to seal bottles for more than a few years has long been doubted, even by the people who invented them, and my experiences bear this out: the failure rate for extruded synthetic corks was a rather shocking 9.7%, and that’s only wines that were completely or very nearly dead, not those that I thought were inferior to their expected states.

In sum, my previous recommendations (not that anyone necessarily cares what I think) stand: there’s no reason for wines made for youthful consumption to be under natural cork. Synthetic corks must not be used for wines that have any aging ability at all. As for the longer agers and which closures are best, the questions remain: 1) how much oxygen ingress, if any (and from where?), is necessary for wine to age, and 2) what adjustments to wine chemistry, if any, are necessary to guarantee optimum performance for different types of wine under each closure? We need to answer the former first, however.

Grognostications

[crystal ball, created by user EvaK and used under the terms of a Creative Commons license]English wine writer Jamie Goode, whose progression from online wine forum bomb-thrower, through webby groundbreaker (albeit with dodgy site design), to authoritative and respected author is surely some sort of sign of the apocalypse1, has published a list of predictions for 2009 (short version here, longer version here. Since this is something I’ve done in other venues and years, I figure: why not? I couldn’t possibly be more wrong than everyone else trying their hand at a game of oenological prescience, could I?

Don’t answer that.

1) The number one story will be, as everyone knows, the economy. The dominoes have already started to fall, with some wineries going out of business, others on the block, and many, many others in the production and trade realms poised on the brink of disaster. According to friends who watch such things, however, the real carnage is going to be in the restaurant world…not just closings, but people scaling back on their extravagance when they do go out to eat. And what will be the first thing these customers drop? Wine, of course. It’s going to be bad for restaurants (who make most, and sometimes all, of their profit from beverages), it’s going to be really bad for sommeliers, but it’s also going to affect that previously choosy set of wineries who’ve demanded that their wines be represented only on the best wine lists. Some of them will just shift the product onto their mailing lists, if they can, but there’s not a market for all of those wines.

2) Diversity is in danger. Some wineries will just go out of business, but others will be gobbled up by avaricious giants. Perhaps more importantly, the same will be true for vineyards, which will start falling under the umbrella of the megacorps, permanently lost to the artisan farmers and winemakers who’ve previously shepherded their grapes. Small, philosophy-based importers will struggle to get their wines recognized in an increasingly price-oriented market, especially because the small, alternative-minded retailers who’ve supported their products will not have an easy time of it. Again, the purveyors of mass-market plonk gobbling up the spoils will benefit. It’s a vicious circle, and it’s hard to say when it will stop.

3) As Jamie notes, this is indeed South Africa’s golden opportunity, but one that might very well slip through their fingers. What they’ve got: a) a very wide range of quality wines…certainly one much more diverse than New Zealand, whose arduous agricultural quarantines and tiny size make for an exceedingly un-diverse vinous output, b) neither an impending agricultural disaster (see Australia) or an oversaturated market of identical-looking and identical-tasting wines (again, see Australia and its ubiquitous “cute animal” labels), and, c) their own form of an economic disaster – a currency that’s absolutely crippled (even against even the dollar) – which could potentially make for some rather spectacular bargains. That is, if they can get their wines to export markets. And then, sell them.

What South Africa most obviously lacks is a coordinated marketing effort. There’s no will (or money) on the part of the government, so the producers will have to do it themselves. That costs a lot of money, especially given the essential task of being physically present in any target market, and the very thing that makes South African wines especially attractive on the world stage – low cost – means lowered profits for the wineries, and thus tight marketing budgets.

4) There will be no closure on closures. The studies will take many more years, but even the research that we are doing doesn’t answer the most crucial question: how much oxygen does a wine require to age in the way to which we’ve become accustomed? Without knowing that, we can’t know what effect the alternatives to cork will have over the long term. That said, for the vast majority of wine that’s meant for near-term drinking, there’s very little reason to even consider using a bark cork.

5) Whither wine writing? A very good question. As advertiser-supported print publications continue their long-predicted drift into oblivion, the opportunities for aspiring young writers to hone their craft are growing thin on the ground. It’s not that higher-end wine-specialist publications will cease to exist, though some of them will, it’s that Jane Doe isn’t going to be able to step into Jancis Robinson’s shoes without a little preparatory work at the Smalltown Pike & Gazette. But the few such publications left to us aren’t much interested in wine coverage. So, the blogs, then? So far, they’ve been tough to monetize. A few will make it big, a few will struggle through, but most will simply not be able to support a serious self-education in the art and practice of wine writing unless there’s a serious shift in the willingness of advertisers – and maybe even readers – to support high-quality content. I don’t see that happening anytime soon.

6) Despite the economy, entire wine regions and styles are, essentially, permanently out of reach to all but the mega-wealthy. Individual bottles here and there will continue to be enjoyed, whether through the generosity of another or as the result of an occasional splurge, and no wine lover should rigidly eschew the necessary expense, once in a while. But the days of being able to build a broad and deep appreciation for the top classed-growth Bordeaux, grand cru Burgundy, and many other ultra-luxury producers, appellations, and cuvées has probably come to an end for most people. If there weren’t so many interesting alternatives, it would be a wine-lovers’ tragedy. As it is, it’s a great shame. These wines carry their reputations for a reason, after all.

7) More than the current handful of nuts and cranks will finally get serious about alternative grapes in California…grapes that are better-suited to the various vineyard climes than the famous but ubiquitous stuff now planted…but of course it’ll take years before the results are available. What will drive this shift? An economy where the permanence of demand for ultra-pricey wines from just a few grapes no longer seems assured.

8) Posts at oenoLogic will grow longer and more intricately-argued, but even less comprehensible to the passing reader. Of all these predictions, this is the one I’m most sure about.

1Just kidding, Jamie.

How to lose friends & influence no one

[bungee jump]In 2008, I tried an experiment. I attempted to post a note on every single wine that I tasted that year. Every single wine. You can see the results over on the tasting notes blog, oenoLog.

How’d that go? In terms of completing the task I set before myself, about as well as can be expected. In the backlog of travelogues and tastings, there are still quite a few wines (especially from the jaunt to South Africa) that remain un-noted, and so the listed 1143 wines – itself a bit lower than the real total, because identical wines often get grouped together on that blog – should really be more in the 1400-1500 range, probably closer to the latter.

Now, before I get a flood of email concerned about my liver and desperate to get me into AA, that’s “tasted,” not “drank.” And yet 2008 was a fairly light year, for me. 1500 wines aren’t that much. That’s only 125 wines per month, 29 per week, or just over four per day…which any working wine critic will tell you is a rather paltry average. I didn’t attend many press or trade tastings, for various reasons (some of which I’ll get into in a moment), and so this is probably less than a third of the total I would have amassed in my earlier, more fecund years.

But whether or not I could have tasted more wines isn’t particularly interesting, nor is the total itself. What’s interesting is what this project entailed, and the results of the experiment.

Obviously, taking and then posting notes on so many wines requires a sort of discipline, and that’s something that isn’t always my strong suit. But I did try to apply some diligence to the task, and – with the above-mentioned caveats noted – got most of what I wanted to note up on the site. The good, the indifferent, the bad, and the ugly…it’s all there, in black, red burgundy, and some sort of nasty cream sherry color. (Maybe it’s time for a new blog template?)

So was it a useful thing to do? It’s certainly useful when hunting for wines to include in print or more thoughtful online work, so it’s a valuable resource for me, if for no one else. And in some ways, that’s enough; I used to keep a personal database of my notes at home, and this is just one more way to keep that database…one that won’t disappear if my computer does. But there are some drawbacks, as well, and I think they’re worth talking about.

To my knowledge, this is not something that any major critic has ever attempted. And I’m not sure most minor critics or writers have tried it either, though I’m sure there are a few – more likely in the self-published blogosphere than from the ranks of those who write for print or online publication. Even the most prolific tasters tend to focus mostly on the best (or, if they have a mind, the worst), rather than the entirety of what passes their lips.

And with good reasons. The for-public-consumption reason – which has the value of being true – is that, especially in print, space is money. One can waste that space writing about wines that no one should drink, just for the sheer glee of it, or one can use what space is available to be useful to the reader/consumer. Space restrictions don’t really apply online, but other restrictions do: who has the time to taste and write up all those notes in a given day? Who has the time to read them, or the interest in doing so?

But there’s another reason not to work without an internal editor, and it’s not much talked about, because it tends to drive a certain segment of the audience into paroxysms of ethical pontification. Noting, for public consumption, every single wine will necessarily entail writing about a lot of bottles that the taster doesn’t so much like. Now, not everyone will employ as colorful and abusive language as, say, me – some people still adhere to the “if you can’t say anything nice…” dictum – but there’s no getting around the fact that most wine writers taste a lot of really lousy wine.

They taste most such wine (who would voluntarily buy wine they won’t like?) in the presence and at the behest of people in the trade. Free samples in the comfort of one’s home, perhaps, or at portfolio tastings, or over lunch with an importer, or in a producer’s cellars. Whatever the source, these are wines that haven’t been tasted in distancing isolation, but instead were bundled up with personal relationships…relationships that are often a regular (and easily-severed) source of a broader tasting experience than most under-funded writers can afford. And as I’ve written before, the majority of people in the wine trade are lovely people, no matter the quality of their products, so even aside from considerations of access, it’s not the easiest thing to trash the lifework of someone you like.

(And that’s just within the trade/press relationship. Friends and family, too, can fall victim to the unedited critic’s bloody pen. If the motivation to avoid confrontation occurs between those with whom one has an inherently adversarial critical relationship, imagine offending your in-laws by savaging a wine they poured you over the holidays.)

As a result, the critic willing to employ their poison pen finds themselves rather frequently uninvited. They drop off PR lists, sample lists, guest lists. They find doors closed where they were once open. They find their contacts in the trade suddenly less than helpful, their local retailers less glad to see them, their attempts to set up tastings rebuffed by producers with long memories. And it’s not just the peon-level writers who experience this. Even the most powerful critic of all, Robert Parker, has run afoul of producers, importers, and even entire regions that have attempted to limit his access. If Parker can be asked to talk to the hand, what hope for those with less star wattage?

Now, one may say that this is short-sighted on the part of those in the trade, and I tend to agree. So would some of the better tradespersons, who recognize that they too pay a certain price for burning bridges, and that the inability to promote a wine through a hostile critic doesn’t mean that another wine might not benefit from that relationship. One is more likely to hear the objection that none of this should be the critic’s concern. That, too, is correct, albeit from a position of rigid ethical purity, but it does negatively affect the quality of the work most critics can produce. (For an expansion of this controversial point, pull up a chair and a few spare hours, and read this and this.)

So has there been blowback from my year of full disclosure? Yes. The worst of it was actually at the end of the previous year, but that little contretemps continued into 2008. And though I don’t attend many press events anymore (partially due to travel, partially due to having fallen off some people’s mailing lists without an attempt to get back on, and partially because a long history of antagonism between me and the trade has led irrevocably to this point), the invitations are thin on the ground these days, and getting thinner. I don’t expect the next year to be an improvement, either, though some of that will obviously be attributable to the economy.

So if you’re crazy enough to consider your own version of this project, now you know the cost. Post all your notes – every last one of them – and there will be a price to pay in your relationship to the people who make, ship, and sell your wine. Not to mention your free time, and the health of your fingers, wrists, and liver. Are you willing to pay that price in a recession?

Oh…and in case anyone is wondering, the answer is: yes, I will be continuing this project in 2009. Hey, who needs friends?

Ullage

Winemaking[1], for most of its best practitioners, is more about passion than it is about money. And a good thing, too, since – as the saying goes – the only way to make a little money in the wine business is to start with a lot of it. Even in good times, many of the most famous names are far, far less wealthy then their fame…or their prices…might lead one to think. And a surprising number of wineries of acknowledged excellence operate under the near-yearly specter of imminent ruin. One ill-timed hailstorm, one misstep in the cellar, and it’s all over.

Unfortunately, we’re in the midst of one hell of a financial hailstorm, and we’re going to see a lot more of this and this in the near future. Good people – whether they make extraordinary wine or not – are going to find that they simply can’t afford another harvest. Dedicated importers and retailers will shut their doors. Wine-savvy restaurants will stack up the tables and chairs one last time, and for good. It’s going to be ugly, probably for a good long while.

I have no words of comfort here. I can try to support those about whom I am most afraid with my purchases, and so can others, but the sad fact is that consumers are hurting as much as anyone, and thus the inevitable reality is that not everyone will be saved. When we come out the other end of this long, dark tunnel, the world of wine is going to look very different, and perhaps rather barren.

[1]And grape-growing.

Theise me

Were it not for genius importer Terry Theise, many Americans would have no idea that there were Champagnes other than the biggest, most heavily-marketed names. He was certainly, many years ago, the majority of my introduction to the concept of grower-producer bubbly. And yet, despite his efforts, most people still don’t know these wines, and continue to slog through underperforming industrial sparklers best-known for the color of their labels or their low, low holiday pricing (though in my opinion, such wines are still grossly overpriced for what they are; someone has to pay for those flashy promotions, after all). I don’t mean to damn all major-label Champagne, because some of it is very, very good. But far too much of it isn’t, and one pays for name, reputation, and global availability rather than what’s in the bottle.

These wines – all sparkling, mostly Champagne, but with two foreign interlopers from another of Theise’s favored locales – draw plenty of critical acclaim, and are of regularly high quality, but what’s always most interesting to me is their individuality and their difference. Champagne – at least the non-vintage sort – has (as its major marketers would have us believe) long been about consistency, and the big producers, whether industrial or not, achieve this with careful blending of young and older stocks. Smaller growers can rarely afford the sources, the expense, or the storage capacity to do the same, and the result is greater site-specificity and a variation more akin to that of vintage Champagne. For those who value a wine’s ability to surprise as much as it’s ability to satisfy, for those who value terroir as much as the winemaker’s art, this is an incalculable benefit. And here’s another: by exploring such wines, you’re not only upping both the quality and value of your bubbly, but you’re supporting a wine culture more connected to its land than its advertising budget.

Schloss Gobelsburg Brut “Reserve” (Austria) – A blend of pinot noir, riesling, and grüner veltliner. Wet and sour with green pear and apple. Finely beaded, with hints of gunshot. Leafy. Powdery, ground-level dust and extremely sour watermelon come to dominate the finish, like a too-old Jolly Rancher (but dry). Fairly complex, long, and very tart. (12/08)

Bründlmayer Brut Rosé (Austria) – Pink and soft, with electrified crystal flowers that re-soften on the finish. A bit girly in its pinkish Hello Kitty-ness. Spun candy on the finish. Frothy. I’m not a fan. (12/08)

[label]Pierre Gimonnet Champagne Cuis “1er Cru” Brut Blanc de Blancs (Champagne) – Striking nose of rainforest rocks and humidity. Huge lemon brioche (sprinkled with grapefruit shavings) on the palate. There’s excellent balance between bitterness and acidity. Massively long and frankly gorgeous, with skins dominating right now, and a very trebly midpalate that I expect to mellow with a little age. (12/08)

Pierre Peters Champagne à Le Mesnil-sur-Oger “Grand Cru” Brut Blanc de Blancs “Cuvée Réserve” (Champagne) – Heady toast and pastry, ripe lemon, and Granny Smith apple. Very powerful with a fine baring of its minerality on the finish. The nose is just a little weird…an odd mix of youthful and advanced characteristics that don’t quite gel. Perhaps in time. (12/08)

Goutorbe Champagne à Aÿ Brut “Cuvée Prestige” (Champagne) – Granadilla, crustacean cream, and paper over a chalky bedrock. Very spare and cylindrical in form, with a wall of minerality. Unfortunately, it never fills in, and never achieves any suggestion of grace. (12/08)

Jean Milan Champagne Oger “Grand Cru” Brut Blanc de Blancs “Spécial” (Champagne) – Delicate, with fine-grained crystals. Crisp but fullish acidity, ripe lime, and lots of molten metal…which hardens on the finish, driven through like a ramrod. Long and in need of time, despite the presence of lovely hints of maturity dancing around the aromas. (12/08)

[label]Jean Milan 2002 Champagne Oger “Grand Cru” Brut Blanc de Blanc “Sélection Terres de Noël” (Champagne) – Beautiful. Soft golden complexity, with a hint of curry dusting exotic flowers and heirloom apples. Very pure and gentle. Extremely long, eventually getting around to showing apples in every possible form, from flower to juice. Gorgeous. (12/08)

Gaston Chiquet Champagne “1er Cru” Brut “Tradition” (Champagne) – Wind-swept and cold, with rinds and hard-edged quarts. Frothy. Unconvincing in this company, and I’m surprised, because this is a wine I usually like. (12/08)

Marc Hebrart Champagne à Mareuil-sur-Aÿ “1er Cru” Brut “Cuvée de Réserve” (Champagne) – Brioche, yeast, mixed apples, and hints of stone fruit over paper. A bit frothy. Persistent. Just OK. (12/08)

A. Margaine Champagne à Villers-Marmery “1er Cru” Brut (Champagne) – At first, a perfect blend of fresh apple, grape, and sweaty yeast, with sharper slashes of lime sorbet later on. And then, it turns into a cherry-lime rickey. Vivid to the extent that it suggests neon, but clean, strong, and exceptionally long. One for the cellar, for sure. (12/08)

A. Margaine Champagne Brut Rosé (Champagne) – Ripe red cherry and cereal. Very balanced. Laser-like purity that softens just a touch more than I’d like as the wine lingers. Long, though. Steady-state. There’s potential here, but probably not enough to reach the pinnacle. (12/08)

Chartogne-Taillet Champagne Brut “Cuvée Sainte-Anne” (Champagne) – Very red-influenced, with ripe strawberries, rose hips, and leaves. Simple-seeming fruit is quickly followed up by waves of complex minerality (chalk seems to be the dominant component), and the finish is abundant with jewels and glitter. Very nice. (12/08)

René Goeffroy Champagne “1er Cru” Brut “Expression” (Champagne) – Almost minty, but at least herbal. Buzzes with electrically-charged freshness and static. Full of lovely gentility. Red-tinged fruit, but sprightly rather than deep. Fun. (12/08)

[label]René Geoffroy Champagne “1er Cru” Brut Rosé “de Saignée” (Champagne) – Sweet-glazed biscuit, fresh red fruit (strawberry, mostly…including the seeds). Pure and complex. There’s a fine foundation of stones ground into gravel, and a lovely, drying, mineral component to the finish. Very, very good, but far from its peak. (12/08)

Jean Lallement Champagne Verzenay “Grand Cru” Brut (Champagne) – Mist-shrouded but heady, with suggestions of animalistic wildness. Sauvage, perhaps, and that’s not something I’ve ever said about a Champagne not made by Selosse. Intense lemon-loam (as opposed to lemon-lime), clementine. Turns a bit unctuous as it broadens, and the finish is a bit of a disappointment in its lack of length. (12/08)

Jean Lallement Champagne Verzenay “Grand Cru” Brut “Cuvée Réserve” (Champagne) – Crushed strawberry and rather bodacious red cherry, leaves, and thyme. Smells fruit-sweet. Sizeable. Rolling watermelon rock candy on the finish, and then the tactile sensation of frozen metal to which one has unwisely stuck their tongue. I can’t quite figure this one out. (12/08)

Aubry Champagne à Jouy-les-Reims “Grand Cru” Brut Rosé (Champagne) – Tart cranberry somewhat overwhelms a core that leans more towards red and black cherry; this is a wine that leads with its acidity, and never takes its foot off the sour pedal. And is that hollyberry? Sharp and linear. Not really my thing; it’s more like an intermezzo that it is a beverage, though I suppose with the right accompaniment it could sing. Maybe an edgy berry dessert? (12/08)

Oregon, going, gone?

[vines at Bella Vida winery, Willamette Valley, Oregon]Marketing. It’s really not my thing. I’m mostly immune to it, and though I am as frequently awed by its most adept practitioners as I am repelled by their best work, I’ve no discernable skill at it.

So it’s somewhat amusing to me how often I get asked, by those who make and sell wine, for an opinion on how they might a better impression on the market. Usually, but not always, it’s a foreign concern wishing to sell more – or at all – in the States. In fact, I just got back from South Africa, where this question was much on the minds of many of the winemakers with whom I swirled and spat.

While I was traveling, Thad over at Beyond the Bottle invited my comment on a piece he’d written, itself a follow-up to a winemaker’s thoughts on how to market a decidedly non-foreign wine region: Oregon. Since this is a place I’ve actually been, and a state that produces a rather larger number of wines that I like than is the norm for other domestic sources, I took a special interest in the topic. Herewith, then, a few thoughts from a someone who knows nothing about marketing. And what could be more valuable than that?

The contrast between the two essays to which I’ve linked is interesting, even though they cover some of the same ground. On one hand, we have a winemaker talking about wine as a niche (some would argue luxury) product and how to market that product to a knowledgeable audience. His idea is to find the hook, the mnemonic, the attention-grabbing uniqueness that will move his state’s wines into the public consciousness. And he suggests their fundamental “Oregon-ness” as that hook.

Thad Westhusing, on the other hand, takes a broader view, examining everything from wine tourism to price points in an effort to wrestle the problem to the ground. But neither he nor Hatcher really question the latter’s assertion that Oregon and the associations to be made with that place are the path to sales glory.

That may be, and I find thoughts with which to agree from both, but I think they’re missing the key point. The problem is pinot noir.

Oregon, for better or worse, has hitched its wine fortunes to this supremely expressive but finicky and expensive grape. Though there’s pinot gris, chardonnay, pinot blanc, a little sparkling wine (question: why not more?), and the occasional outlier variety, the consumer is, first and foremost, presented with a range of pinot noirs as the representatives of Brand Oregon. It’s a sort of marketing monoculture, and while it’s taken for granted in the Old World and frequently codified in Europe’s stringent appellation laws, it’s somewhat of a rarity in the anything-goes New. Most New World regions plant a diverse range of varieties (many of them, alas, painfully unsuitable for the terroir) and then let the shifting winds of popular taste do the marketing…or, when necessary, the winnowing.

The problem with doing it the other way – the Oregon way – is that success or failure are entirely subject to the public appetite for one specific product. Now, it happens that we’re still in the boom years for pinot noir, and whether one identifies it as a continuing post-Sideways effect or something else, the fact is the public loves its pinot. However, it must be noted for the record: not nearly as much as it loves its chardonnay or pinot gris/grigio.

Given that, shouldn’t Oregon be going gangbusters, since they’ve got pinot noir to sell and an allegedly avid market to sell it to? Maybe, but…well, see, there’s a problem. Oregon’s not the only modern monoculture in town. There’s the Central Coast of California, which has been around for a while but which has really exploded into the public wine-drinking consciousness over the past few years (and that is attributable, in large measure, to the aforementioned movie). There’s the Central Otago in New Zealand…and in that same country, Martinborough and the Waipara/Canterbury region.

So what’s the calling card of the Central Otago? Pinot noir. The Central Coast? Pinot noir. Martinborough? Pinot noir. The Waipara? Pinot noir (and riesling). What’s previously-monocultural Marlborough, widely known for it’s sauvignon blanc, planting a lot of these days? Pinot noir. How about Germany, the still-beating heart of rieslingdom? They’re making a big name for themselves these days among a subset of the wine geek set with their spätburgunder…a/k/a pinot noir. Meanwhile, the Russian River Valley, long a source for succulent pinot noir, hasn’t gone away. Nor has the Anderson Valley. And there’s still that other place…what’s it called?…oh, yeah. Burgundy. They make just a bit of pinot noir there, still, and despite centuries of fame and reverence, many commentators think it’s only getting better.

But why should pinot noir be a special problem? It’s not like people have any trouble selling chardonnay from pretty much every grape-growing region in the world, right? Didn’t I just say that there was an ever-escalating demand for pinot?

Sure, but the grape carries some baggage. It’s notoriously fickle on the vine, and when it does grow well, it requires careful shepherding and lowish yields to show its quality. That means that wines made from it are almost always going to be expensive versus other varieties. Cheap pinot noir is, with very, very rare exceptions, either dismal or – pumped up by the steroidal winemaking much-employed by the industrial set, and yet the primary source of cheap pinot – grossly unrepresentative of the variety and its qualities.

Moreover, its nearly unparalleled (among red grapes, with only nebbiolo as a serious contender) ability to reflect site-specificity results – as it always has in Burgundy – in a small blizzard of single-vineyard bottlings, regular and reserve bottlings, and/or differently-named blends. In other words, where cabernet might be responsible for a wine or two at a given winery, pinot noir can sometimes fill a case. Without duplication.

So where does that leave the pinot noir producer? Holding a dozen fairly expensive wines, each produced in relatively small quantities, and having to convince an already-saturated market of their quality when they’ve got similarly-priced options of quality from all over the globe, plus a few centuries of wine culture nagging that for the same amount of money they could be drinking “the real thing”: Burgundy.

In Oregon, or in fact anywhere the grape is grown, I suspect the urge to “buy local” trumps other factors (and the ability to visit and taste before purchase helps this along). Certainly that’s what they do in Burgundy, as well as all the other regions I mentioned earlier. But selling the wine at home…that’s not the marketing challenge, is it? The challenge is selling the wine elsewhere.

For example, consider Boston, this author’s current hometown. It’s a very Europhile market, as I’ve noted before, and a lot of very good New World producers have unsuccessfully beaten their skulls against the seemingly closed door of our avid wine culture. But even for those local consumers who are willing to explore beyond their beloved Burgundy, the available options quickly move beyond staggering to merely bewildering. Felton Road or Belle Pente? August Kesseler or Arcadian? Ata Rangi or Patricia Green? Not to mention the fact that there’s always the “…or d’Angerville?” option lurking in the background. They’re all pretty much the same price here, after all, and while they all have enticing qualities, only the truly pinot-obsessed will want to fully explore the full range on a regular enough basis to qualify as a reliable source of sales. That subgroup, repeated across hundreds of communities, may be enough to escalate a few wineries’ sales, but it’s not enough to accommodate all of them.

So what’s the solution for Oregon? I don’t know (remember: Marketing ’R’ Not Us). I don’t think that grubbing up pinot noir and planting…I don’t know, lagrein…is the answer. Because the wines are quite good, or at least they can be in capable hands, and if they think selling pinot is hard…. I’m not sure that selling “Oregon-ness” is the answer either. New Zealand tried that with their “the riches of a clean, green land” campaign, and I don’t know that it made much of a difference in their wine sales (though it has helped tourism, by all accounts…and it would probably help more were New Zealand not a zillion miles from everywhere). Further, I’m not sure this is the differentiator some might want it to be. Vermont – much closer to my market – is full of crunchy earth-mother environmental goodness and beauty, not to mention a wealth of fine agricultural products, but it doesn’t make me want to drink their wines, and I don’t think the stuff they are really good at (e.g. cheese) is pushing Vacherin Mont d’Or off, say, New York shelves; it remains a niche product for a niche, local market that knows and has regular access to that product.

Also, I’m not sure tourism is the answer. Wine regions everywhere point at Napa and ask, “why can’t we have that?” Well, first, I think much of Napa would very much enjoy it if someone else would take the tourists for a while. But the obvious thing is that Napa benefits almost immeasurably from its proximity to San Francisco, just as the newer California tourist hotspot of the Central Coast benefits from its proximity to Los Angeles. Portland is a nice city, but it’s certainly no San Francisco or L.A.

The best thing a wine region can do – and this is the advice I’ve always given, when asked – is to get into the desired market and really work it. That means sending the best and brightest to whatever places have been targeted and keeping them there for a while, or at least promising they’ll be back every few months. Work the retailers and the restaurants, and maybe even the press (most of the non-national wine press doesn’t really move much wine, but sometimes every little bit helps). Do some public dinners, which I think are absolutely critical in creating demand and name recognition. Plant representatives at stores’ regular wine tastings. Do the big wine fairs, and while there do tutored tastings.

And make it about more than just the individual producers. Yes, by all means, sell the names on the labels. But everyone who makes wines from its grapes benefits if some critical mass of people who know how to pronounce “Willamette” correctly is reached, and for that to happen everyone – or at least a large enough subset of everyone – has to work together to push all the categories that need pushing: pinot noir, Brand Oregon, whatever appellations are involved, and individual wineries’ products.

This is all marketing 101, I’d think, and yet it’s surprising how hard it is to get people to leave their wineries and saturate their target market. The farmer mentality, maybe, and non-corporate winemaking doesn’t leave a lot of down time for travel. What helps is government money, but in its absence wineries – many of which make much less money than the average consumer might think – have to do it themselves. If that means voluntarily pooling resources, then that’s what it means.

Otherwise, I see little hope. Major critics have been giving perfectly fine ratings to Oregon wines for years, and yet not enough has happened. There’s going to be no Sideways 2: Wasted Weeks in the Willamette. California – hopefully – isn’t going to tip its vines into the ocean and make beachfront out of Fresno, nor are New Zealand (and Germany, and Burgundy) going away. Words, print ads, flashy handouts…they aren’t going to get it done. The wines need to be under the noses and in the mouths of potential consumers.

Oregon needs a hook, yes. But the hook it needs is the one in a hotel room, on which its best winemakers and marketing gurus hang their jackets as they make their case to a new market, customer by customer.

Wine Blogger Manifesto, #5

There’s no reason a blog has to be serious. But if you want to be taken seriously, act seriously. This doesn’t mean you can’t be funny, or consciously vapid, or light-hearted, or antagonistic, or anything else a blogger might want to be. But authority is not handed out at request. For example, the right to be contrary and not be judged as merely reactionary is earned through effort and experience, not by the act of being contrary.

Idea log

[questioning brain]It will surprise no one that I’ve had a political discussion or two over the last few weeks. And it’s probably also no surprise that one of them got me thinking about wine. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about the role played ideology.

There are a number of ideological stances one can take in response to wine. This is true whether you’re a producer, in the trade, or a consumer…and in fact, those ideologies often run in parallel lines through those three groups. For example, consumers with a given philosophy often patronize the wines of retailers, importers, and producers who share that philosophy.

What do I mean when I refer to wine ideologies? Here are a few common examples, though by no means is this an exhaustive list:

  • “natural” wine is superior
  • “natural” winemaking is anything but
  • biodynamic viticulture is better
  • biodynamic viticulture is mystical hooey
  • organic viticulture is preferable
  • organic viticulture is marketing
  • all that matters is what’s in the glass
  • wine is wine, no matter how or where you drink it
  • wine is meant as a companion to food
  • quality is not inherent, but is a product of context
  • there are objective standards to wine on which experts can agree
  • taste is subjective
  • quality is determined by price
  • quality is determined by terroir
  • sulfur is bad
  • the abandonment of sulfur is lunacy
  • screwcaps are the answer
  • only real cork belongs in a wine bottle

…and so forth. One immediately notices that a good number of these ideologies are fundamentally incompatible. And yet, they are passionately-held, each of them, by very serious wine folk. How can this be?

It is likely true that some ideologies are, in fact, nonsense. And that others are justified primarily by their marketability. And that still others are only held because their holder fails to understand (or denies) evidence to the contrary.

I’m not interested, here, in discussing which ones are valid or not. Instead, having been brought to this musing by considering the positive and negative effects of ideology in a political context, I’m interested in whether or not the very concept of ideology is worthwhile, especially from the standpoint of the consumer.

Long-time acquaintances are undoubtedly sputtering in their biodynamic Muscadet right now, objecting thusly: “oh, sure, you’re a fine one to talk about the negatives of ideologies, Mr. Everyone-has-a-bias, and Serious-is-not-a-philosophy, and Alcohol-is-a-conceptual-problem, and No-really-everyone-has-a-bias.” (OK, maybe no one actually talks like that. At least, I hope not.) And it’s true: I have ideologies, and while I feel I’m open about them in a way unfortunately few critics and writers are, I would never presume to deny them.

Despite this, might ideologies be a profoundly mixed blessing?

Let’s start with the positives. I’m a firm believer that wine – that is, wine worth thinking or writing about, wine worth more than a tossed-back glass after a hard day at the office – can be about more than a gut-level, caveman-like response to the pure pleasure it brings as it fills your mouth and gets you just a little bit more drunk than you were a moment ago. That, in itself, is an ideology, and one certainly not shared by everyone. But it’s a basic, foundational ideology, without which I couldn’t – and wouldn’t – write about wine for a living or for fun.

Based on that foundation, then, one can immediately see the appeal of sub-categorical ideologies. Especially those reinforced by experience. If, on balance, wines self-identified as biodynamic, or “natural,” are appealing to me more often than is the norm across all wines, I as a consumer have a ready-made shopping list, even if the brands on it are unknown. Or if I find the modern obsession with ripeness to be fundamentally deforming, I now have a ready-made list of wines, and perhaps even places, to avoid. The mere existence of these ideologies, coupled with the knowledge of how to apply them, makes my life as a consumer a more efficient one. And it reduces the number of times I’ll waste my money on something I was destined to dislike.

Other philosophies can be similarly-examined for their benefits, which accrue not just to the consumer, but to other entities as well. An organic producer has a ready-made audience, while a low-sulfur producer a smaller but proportionally more fanatic one. An importer with a portfolio of luscious liquid “hedonism” from warm, fertile regions – big explosions of velvety fruit layered with toasty new wood – has a reliable market, as well.

Of course, the temptation is – as with any ideology, in any field – to mistake preference for objectivity, projecting hierarchies outward from the person onto the thing itself. This isn’t to say that there cannot be objective value in certain ideologies; organic viticulture may indeed be better for the environment, low-sulfur wines could be easier on the body’s biochemistry, screwcaps might maintain a wine’s intended form better than other closures. But most ideologies aren’t like this. They’re philosophies that emanate from subjective preference, codified and thus eminently arguable, but no less subjective for the force and structure of them. And that’s where we run into trouble.

It is perfectly reasonable to prefer one wine to another for stylistic reasons. If those stylistic reasons are directly attributable to philosophies, and that preference reliably extends to other examples, then it is similarly reasonable to connect the preference with the philosophy, and thus to prefer one philosophy to another. In fact, I know of no one who does not do this, to a greater or lesser extent, even within the narrow field of wine appreciation.

The problem arises when the ideology becomes more important than the object of the ideology. There exist more than a few winemakers, tradespersons, writers, and consumers who cannot free their response to a given wine from the boundaries of their ideologies. Sometimes, they won’t even try a wine because of how it’s made, where it’s from, or what it represents. More often, they’ll take a taste, but final judgment has been rendered before the first sniff.

It needs to be made clear that this does not make said victim of their ideology a bad person, nor does it make them useless as an observer or commentator on wine. In fact, many of the most successful critics and writers in the wine field are absolutely laden with ideologies. But note that word: victim. The trap of ideology is that is closes the mind and the palate, while calcifying in such a way that the subjective eventually becomes canon. Wines that fall outside the strict borders of the ideology are tarred as heretical, rather responded to with reasoned dislike.

Don’t believe me? Ever heard someone dismiss a Burgundy just because it was a Burgundy, and thus already known to be a lousy value, thin, and rife with biological flaws? I hear it all the time, and with unfortunate frequency from a number of California winemakers and their fans. (Worry not: some Burgundians can and do return the favor.) Ever read a writer or importer decry a wine for using non-indigenous yeast before they’ve even tasted it? Or their control-freak opposites mocking the very concept of indigenous yeast and the oenological negligence it represents? Ever heard someone respond positively (or negatively) to a wine tasted blind, and then completely change their tune when they find they’ve been had by their ideology-tweaking friends? Of course you have. And so have I.

I think this is a shame, and something to be resisted. There are good wines out there made in a way I’d probably prefer wines weren’t made, and if I can’t leave myself open to the possibility that I might enjoy them, I’ve not only lost something important, I’ve prevented myself from ever finding that important something. There are surprising experiences left for the experiencing, but they’ll never be experienced if I refuse to experiment. There are beautiful places and people in the world of wine who I will never meet should I be unwilling to accept what they do on their, rather than my, terms.

More generally, the inability to adapt to one’s circumstances is a dangerous trait, both intellectually and socially. Should friends not be able to enjoy a wine they like without receiving a philosophical lecture in return? It sounds unfathomably rude, but I’ve heard wine ideologues who couldn’t help themselves. Should one stubbornly cart one’s preferred wines around the world, refusing to drink local wines because they’re ideologically insufficient, becoming the oenophilic version of one of those people who brings their own condiments or desserts to a restaurant?

This doesn’t mean that one has to change, or even lower, their standards. Not at all. As I noted before, I believe wine is about much more than whether or not it tastes good. It’s right up there in the header: “wine is liquid, wine is life, wine is emotion, wine is thought.” (I might add that it’s art and science, as well. And it gets you tipsy. And it tastes good.) Matters of philosophy, practice, and execution are, to someone who feels as I do, important. And if wine as anything other than a commodity is to survive and prosper, it needs ideologues at every stage of its existence.

But it’s crucial to remember that we do not drink the ideology. We drink the wine. And if we don’t, we’re drinking the Kool-Aid.

(image used thanks to a Wikimedia Commons license)

Everyday Tariquet

[chateau]Domaine (and Château) du Tariquet is known for its brandies more than its wines, but due a worldwide slowdown in demand for Armagnac, that’s changing. The winemaking history of this estate better-known for its spirits follows directly from market difficulties for the region’s best-known product, Armagnac. In the seventies and eighties, vineyards were planted to supplement brandy production.

To maintain the crispness of the very light grapes used in these wines, trucks bearing dry ice-cooled tanks are sent to the vineyards. Machine-harvested grapes are destemmed on-site, start macerating on their skins in these tanks, and six to ten hours later are put through a gentle pressing (taking care to avoid breaking the seeds, which releases some very green tannins). A slow, cold fermentation takes place over the next few weeks, and wines are subsequently held in tanks and bottled to order. This is industrial viticulture, yes, but there is very little mucking about with the results, and the low prices reflect the process.

NB: the distinction between “domaine” on the table wines and “château” on the Armagnacs comes from AOC regulation; only appellations so designated can use the latter word on their labels, and the table wines are only entitled to vin de pays status.

Domaine du Tariquet 2006 Vin de Pays des Côtes de Gascogne Ugni-Blanc/Colombard (Southwest France) – Very crisp green apples. Clean, sunny, and nice with drying skins on the finish. (3/08)

Domaine du Tariquet 2006 Vin de Pays des Côtes de Gascogne Sauvignon Blanc (Southwest France) – Linear, to the point of pure two-dimensionality. Simple grass braced by acidity. Eh. (3/08)

Chenin blanc was apparently once widely planted in Gascony, but lost to phylloxera, and remains highly susceptible to disease even now.

Domaine du Tariquet 2006 Vin de Pays des Côtes de Gascogne Chenin Blanc/Chardonnay (Southwest France) – Apricot and grapefruit, with good acidity and a hint of minerality. Long and balanced, and bigger than most of this lineup. A nice wine. (3/08)

Domaine du Tariquet 2006 Vin de Pays des Côtes de Gascogne Chardonnay (Southwest France) – This wine sees six months in barrique; half new, half one year old. Some cream drizzled over light, crystallized peach. Short finish. Just OK. (3/08)

The next wine was the result of an accident. Rushing to complete a harvest before oncoming rains, one tank full of grapes was unintentionally left in the vineyards. When it finally arrived the next day, there was no room in the fermentation tanks for the grapes to rejoin their brethren, and so this somewhat unusual blend was created.

Domaine du Tariquet “Côté Tariquet” 2006 Vin de Pays des Côtes de Gascogne Chardonnay/Sauvignon Blanc (Southwest France) – Intensely fruity, with some apparent residual sugar (seven to eight grams), apple, and good acidity. In the context of this appellation, a powerful wine. (3/08)

Château du Tariquet Bas-Armagnac “Classique ***” (Southwest France) – This is the entry-level Armagnac. Raw wood, leafy, and creamy. Chocolate and caramel over pecans and hazelnuts. Lush and seductive, with a long finish. It lacks the more complex and subtle characteristics of better Armagnacs, and it’s a bit dessert-like in character, but it’s quite pleasant. (3/08)

Disclosure: wines provided by and lunch paid for by importer and/or producer.