The 2017 Rhone Rangers SF Grand Tasting
On June 10, I attended the Rhone Rangers’ San Francisco Grand Tasting at the Presidio Golden Gate Club with the objective of assessing the state of Syrah. My plan was to hit producers mostly located outside my home base of Sonoma and Napa, especially ones I hadn’t tasted before. Despite three hours available to taste, I only made it to 15 producers on my short list. I witnessed many people walking table-to-table only tasting one Syrah at each. I wanted to do every producer justice and taste most of their range so I could arrive at a fair quality conclusion. I also wanted to meet the owner, winemaker, or sales director and give them the time and respect their wine deserves. I witnessed far too many people shoving their glass forward for wine, then moving along like it was a pub crawl.
The number of Paso Robles wineries represented was overwhelming. Out of 70 total wineries pouring that day, I counted 28 from Paso, 13 from Sonoma, 8 from Santa Barbara, a handful each from San Joaquin, Napa, Monterey, the Sierra Foothills, the Bay Area, and even a couple far-flung regions like Arizona and Virginia. Just one winery present (Tenet) was from Washington. This is surprising and disappointing since places like Walla Walla have long been growing some killer Syrah. It was a fairly accurate representation of the Rhone Rangers’ overall membership, which is dominated by Paso Robles wineries. With Rhone varietal production expanding in places like Sonoma County, Oregon’s Applegate Valley, and Walla Walla, I’d urge the organization to keep growing their geographical base.
There was a swell of attendees in the tasting hall around 3:30 PM, but it really leveled off after that. The final hour of the tasting was nearly empty. I’d estimate the overall Grand Tasting attendance at around 300. I reached out to the Rhone Rangers organization for attendance confirmation (and a few other answers) several weeks ago and never received a response. So I’ll leave it to them to refute or defend the attendance and my other observations.
What's Up with Syrah?
Although I’m a huge Syrah fan, I was really struck by the quality and consistency of Grenache that day. Petrichor, Qupe, and Skinner were all pouring seriously impressive Grenache. On the other hand, my primary takeaway on the state of California Syrah is that it’s still impossibly varied. No doubt it’s a versatile grape that offers multiple expressions in different climates. But there’s a reason it’s been falling in consumer preference: it’s nowhere close to consistent. I don’t advocate for uniform and monotone Syrah, but the range of characteristics in California Syrah is astounding.
I classify California Pinot Noir into two general winemaking styles: ripe red fruit and cola, or savory earth/mushroom/pepper. Pinots typically fall somewhere along that range of profiles, with varying acid, tannin, and oak influence, of course. Yet they all remain identifiable. Syrah has multiple personality disorder in this state. I tasted wines ranging from peppery, meaty, and olivey, to brambly, syrupy, and dark fruit-punchy. Acid levels and oak treatment were all over the map. Tannins were undetectable to overpowering. I expect good Syrah to stay within a particular realm, but another drinker may expect the exact opposite.
The benchmark annual SVB State of the Wine Industry report has told us for the last couple years that Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, and red blends have been selling incredibly well. Syrah is one of the primary components of those domestic red blends, so that bodes well for growers’ futures. But if I were a single-varietal Syrah specialist, I’d be very concerned about the perception of my product and how it affects my business viability. Rob McMillan, who authors the SVB report, says “From our vantage point, a decade or longer after their planting booms neither merlot nor syrah gained a consistent and identifiable character profile with the consumer, leaving the door open for popular growth in other red wines.”
According to the most recent Nielsen data I’ve seen from April 2017, Syrah/Shiraz sales dropped 11.4% in the past year. It's a trend that has been continuing for years. That’s bad news for producers focused on Rhone varietals. I haven’t been able to find a breakdown of those figures between U.S. Syrah, French Syrah, and Australian Shiraz, but no matter whose sales declined the worst, the correlation hurts. Many wine articles blame American Syrah's struggles on the association with the early 2000's flood of cheap Shiraz, and there may be some truth to that. Cheap Australian Shiraz sales continue to decline as of 2017.
Farming-wise, Syrah remains the 5th most planted red winegrape variety by acreage in California, although it has lost 900 acres over just the last two years according to the USDA. The only grapes to have a larger drop in acreage over the same period are Zinfandel and Merlot, however both remain over twice as abundant as Syrah. Proportionally, Syrah’s drop in planted acres has been the biggest.
What's the Solution?
The blame game on domestic Syrah's under-performance has been going on for nearly a decade. The truth is that many world-class Syrahs are being produced in America. A confluence of the aforementioned reasons has created a deep rut for the varietal which continues to plague its reputation. Concerning the Rhone Rangers, they have their work cut out for them. A grassroots wave of refinement in winemaking style, pinpointing more appropriate vineyard microclimates, and an aggressive marketing campaign may be able to turn the tide of Syrah sales. If they want red Rhone varietals to chip away at Cab's and Pinot’s leads, producers might have better luck in the red blend category with GSMs. I also think California Grenache as a single varietal has a solid future ahead of it. The wines I tried at the Grand Tasting definitely reinforced that hunch.
The Tasting Rundown
My favorite producers were: Ledge, Petrichor, The Withers Winery, Skinner
Standout wines include:
Adelaida 2015 Anna’s Estate Picpoul Blanc - Silky body, vanilla, green fruit. Much more body than typical French Picpoul, but elegant.
Ledge 2014 James Berry Vineyard Syrah - A big tannic wine with garrigue. My favorite red of the day.
Ledge 2014 G2 Tannat - Very acidic and inky with dark berry aromas. Great Tannat.
Petrichor 2014 Grenache - Peppery, acidic, and so approachable.
Qupe 2015 Sawyer Lindquist Vineyard Viognier - Favorite white of the day. Beautiful floral & fruit.
Jaffurs 2013 Bien Nacido Syrah - Deep, earthy, herby. It contains everything I love about Jaffurs’ style.
Skinner 2014 Estate Grenache - Sweet red fruit and cinnamon. Nice balance, easy drinking.
Withers 2014 Burgess El Dorado Syrah - Varietally spot on Rhone style, a deep Syrah.
Least favorite: Calcareous - All 3 wines I sampled were unreasonably overripe. The only note I managed to take was “blueberry overload” on their 2014 Moose blend.
*Honorable mention must be given to Steve and Kyle at MacLaren Wines for making some of the best Rhone-style Syrah in the New World. I omitted them from the above review since they're not "new to me". But I love their wine so much I've gotta plug them.
Is natural/organic wine healthy?
That question has apparently been answered with a self-approving "yes" by some producers, marketers, and salespeople during this swelling natural wine wave.
Natura, a large Chilean producer of organic wines found in many American supermarkets, identifies themselves confidently as "High quality, clean and healthier wines" on their website. Another major producer of organic and biodynamic wines, Frey Vineyards of Mendocino, presents a more nuanced justification for their grape growing and winemaking choices. It's not blazed across their homepage. However, they still claim "For nearly thirty years we have been making delicious organic wines that are natural, healthful and enjoyed by wine lovers across the globe."
While producers of organic or natural wines make only occasional health benefit claims, retailers don't shy away from making it their primary sales pitch. Several natural wine subscription clubs have emerged that market their offerings as healthy products. The Wine Fellas, based out of Napa, feature "wines that are friendly to all diets and healthy lifestyles." Dry Farm Wines (another subscription club) slaps you across the face with their health claim. Their home page boldly states they are "The Only Health-Focused Organic Wine Club in the World." Not only do they meticulously select organic wines to sell, they also perform a chemical analysis to substantiate the "highest standard of health." Dry Farm Wines even reaches so far as to guarantee no headaches or hangovers. A smattering of endorsements appears on their website from people I deem to be health nuts heralding the wine's compatibility with their diets.
I recently ran into an old friend who jumped at the opportunity to tell me about Dry Farm Wines and how healthy their products are. This friend exhorted me on the wondrous powers of the wines' harmony with her lifestyle, how they reportedly allow you to stay in a state of ketosis metabolism, are a wholesome food, and don't result in grogginess due to the absence of histamines and sulfites. She continued to lecture me on how wine is made in a distillery, sugar is added to all other wines, dry farming translates to healthier wine, so on and so forth. I didn't have time to debate that 1) drinking on a serious weight loss diet is probably a bad idea, 2) wine is made in a winery, 3) many, many wines from small producers contain zero residual sugar nor contain added grape concentrate, 4) dry farming's main (and perhaps sole) benefit is water conservation, and 5) scientific study has proven sulfites don't cause hangovers and histamines probably don't, either. As I researched Dry Farm Wines, it's easy to see why so many people fall for Fake News. Modern science isn't perfect, but nobody promoting this stuff cites any peer-reviewed science.
Despite all the online claims, wine is simply not a health food. Small daily intake of compounds like resveratrol and even alcohol have been shown to benefit your heart health and blood pressure. However, the benefits have been hyperbolized in the name of grabbing attention. The harm of excessive alcohol consumption poses a bigger health threat than the potential benefits. It's important to distinguish between marketing and facts, which Wine Fellas rightfully does in some blog posts buried deep in their website (even with links to studies). The truth is, you can buy resveratrol supplements at your local drug store or get higher doses naturally by eating certain fruits.
In April 2017, CNN published an informative and well-researched article debunking exaggerated wine health claims. They focus on the benefits versus risks to heart health and cancer from alcohol consumption. Their conclusion: "drinking wine isn't more important than eating a nutritious diet, engaging in regular exercise, and avoiding smoking."
Healthy Vineyards = Healthy People
The real, measurable health impact from organic or biodynamic practices is directly on the people working the vineyards and the surrounding residents. Scientific studies have shown for decades that inhalation of synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides have a serious effect on the respiratory health of vineyard workers. California has very serious pesticide regulations, and some parts of Sonoma require vineyard managers to notify neighbors before spraying to avoid exposure.
Vine Pair has an informative article exploring the practices of organic farming, permitted pesticides, and the effect of pesticides on health. It's worth a full read, but in summary, it's very doubtful drinking organic wine has any health benefit to the consumer over conventional wine. The author's concluding recommendation is to not worry about the organic label, but to drink wine from small producers, who likely take better care of their land and their grapes, versus large-scale industrial wine (even if it's certified organic). This has a bigger positive effect on the vineyard workers and surrounding community than on any perceived health of the drinker.
Everything in Moderation
The sheer number of people promoting natural wines online is insane. I'm all for putting more wholesome foods in our bodies. I try to err on the side of common sense even if there isn't hard science backing up every single "healthy" choice. I would rather not drink wine grown with synthetic pesticides, containing loads of sulfites and commercial additives. Sometimes the science is there, sometimes it hasn't caught up yet. However, the fanaticism and fundamentalism about natural wines is edging into Crazy Town territory.
After investigating many bogus marketing claims and factual scientific studies, the safest conclusion must be "everything in moderation" and "use common sense".
If you want your wine purchases to have a positive health impact, make the effort to help the people who grow wine grapes and the surrounding farm communities. If you want to protect your own health, eat balanced foods, limit your sugar intake, exercise regularly, and drink lower alcohol wines in moderation. That's what any doctor would tell you.
1. I expect to get some fervent feedback about this article. I welcome any evidence on the healthiness of natural wines, histamine headaches, pesticide content in wine itself, etc. that is rooted in science and not simply anecdotal accounts. I'm never afraid to admit I'm wrong when exposed to new facts.
2. The Dry Farm Wines founder does appear to base some of his claims on established facts and has some industry insights with which I agree. I'm not accusing him of being a snake oil salesman, but I think it's an extreme interpretation of winemaking standards. His customers and online health fanatic bloggers buy the pitch hook, line, and sinker without understanding what they're talking about. Wine is a very nuanced issue, which I intended to partly clarify in this article.
Recently a strange fashion trend went viral on the internet: dirty jeans. Denim company PRPS (read: purpose) was skewered on the web for selling $425 men's jeans with fake mud at Nordstrom.
Why would you pay $425 for fake dirty jeans when a pair of $25 Wranglers and a day spent working on a farm reaches the same result?
Average people took Nordstrom and PRPS to the woodshed for the absurdity of the existence of these jeans. An NPR columnist rightly tore into PRPS and the uproar in this piece. I love that the author drew out the contradiction over PRPS creator Donwan Harrell's definition of authenticity.
"The brand uses denim woven on vintage looms. Harrell started it in response to what he saw as a lack of "authentic" jeans on the market. Even the name — PRPS, as in Purpose — is a callback to a time when jeans were designed as workwear, with a real function. In an interview last year, Harrell invoked authenticity — or the emulation thereof — as a core design principle."
I'm bringing up this fashion-related issue because the same principle applies to the distortion of "authenticity" in winemaking.
The emulation of authenticity is a key principle for industrial wine. Corporate strategy is to convince consumers to buy wine based upon branding and perception, even if it is not rooted in truth. Unjustifiable claims such as "sourced from the best vineyards in California" are made all the time. Also, brands which have no association with an actual location or person are sold on the strength of the false brand association.
I don't find too much evidence of corporations starting a "_____ Family Wines" brand, but frequently they buy a family or personal brand and retain the name. It's the most valuable asset of that company, more so than the vineyards or the production facility.
My favorite example is of Kim Crawford Wines, the omnipresent New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc producer. The actual man Kim Crawford sold his company to Constellation Brands in 2003, and was henceforth prohibited from using his own name in any commercial venture. The current website refers to Kim's story many times without acknowledging he is no longer associated with the winery. And Kim is unable to even use his name with his new winemaking venture, Loveblock Wines.
Not only are personal names used deceptively, but so are place names. The Don Sebastiani and Sons wine company produces a Cabernet Sauvignon called Gunsight Rock. The grapes come from Paso Robles, but the actual Gunsight Rock is 250 miles north in Sonoma County. It's a locally-famous overlook in Hood Mountain Regional Park with my favorite stunning views of Sonoma Valley.
Sebastiani pitches the wine thus: "Gunsight Rock wines highlight the richness and beauty of California’s wine country. Wild, intense and adventurous, they evoke the feeling of the sun on your face, the wind at your back, and the view of one of the world’s most picturesque wine regions spread out before you."
Most people probably don't know and don't care where Gunsight Rock actually is. The tagline insinuates that the "picturesque wine region" would be Paso Robles, which the label designates as the origin. But the location of the landmark and the vineyards are totally unassociated. This inaccuracy is a violation of authenticity and a deliberate decision to manipulate truth to suit a brand. (Coincidentally, the Sebastiani family no long owns Sebastiani Vineyards, which was sold to the Foley Wine Group in 2008).
The Kim Crawford and Gunsight Rock examples are far more nuanced than PRPS's ridiculous filthy jeans. At $425-a-pop, it's quite easy for shoppers to guess that the jeans weren't actually dirtied up on a farm, nor are the idiotic purchasers of these jeans trying to pass themselves off as farmers or construction laborers. It's far more difficult for people to discover that Kim Crawford has nothing to do with wine sold under his name or that Gunsight Rock is nowhere near the vineyards which grow the grapes.
However, the common thread is that falsehood in branding is rampant. Consumers are explicitly or implicitly convinced that a product is authentic: that it's origin and production honestly match with the brand marketed at them. Anything less than is disrespectful and deceitful. I'm guessing that PRPS learned a lesson from their exposure. What will it take for big wine corporations to learn their lesson?
The launch of Alit Wines's first release has been making the rounds on the blogosphere the past couple months. This new Oregon winery is taking a stab at transparency, a subject with which I'm obsessed.
This brand was created by Mark Tarlov, a modern Renaissance man whose accomplishments include founding celebrated Oregon wineries Evening Land Vineyards and Chapter 24 Vineyards, being a Hollywood producer/director, serving as a special antitrust attorney in the U.S Department of Justice, and working as a speechwriter for Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger.
With this latest venture, Tarlov & Team are taking a stab at making a wine that is more transparently grown, vinified, and sold. Their effort is really worth taking note of and watching.
By transparency, Alit means they are going to tell consumers exactly how the wine grapes are grown, by what process they are turned into wine, and what it costs at each step. They are not the first wine producer to do these things, but to my knowledge, they're the first to do them ALL. From Alit's infographic above, you can see a basic presentation of their farming and winemaking methods, cost breakdown, and sales strategy.
I read a few favorable articles about their wines from Bustle and Quartz, and I poked around the Alit website. I have a few critiques about how they present the vineyard origins of the wines, the lack of enological details like pH and TA for the wine geeks, and the fact that you can't even figure out the Pinot is a 2015 vintage. I'm also perplexed as to why they're selling grower Champagne. But we shouldn't dwell too long on the minor details.
Let's focus on the purpose.
In Alit's own words, this is why they are doing business this way: "Alit is a new kind of wine brand that’s stripping away all of the extra layers between the winemakers (us) and the wine drinker (you). Our goal is to bring you closer to the story of our wine, the people who make it and the place that it comes from. We believe great wine should be made naturally and with integrity, with no synthetic ingredients or chemicals. We also believe the winemaking process should be shared with everyone, not just “wine people.” So we’re being fully transparent about what it costs us to make wine without compromise."
As for their sales model, Alit will be solely direct-to-consumer (DtC), which has proven to be the fastest growing and most profitable way to sell wine in the online age.
Of course, none of this means Alit's wines are going to taste good or be the best value for the money. But it does mean that wine drinkers will have a complete picture to make an informed choice about what they're buying. I give Alit a BIG round of applause for trying to transform the values of transparency and integrity into a business plan.
I hope other wine brands are taking cues!
I'm excited to announce that some of my wine travel stories have been published by the Tampa Bay Fine Wine Guide!
I wrote a series of articles for them based on my travels in New Zealand. I've been to 41 wineries in NZ and chose 10 of my favorites, of which 7 made the final cut.
Check out the online version using this link, and let me know what you think:
I'll also be reposting the stories in their entirety here on my Travel section for your reading enjoyment.
The launch of The Martha Stewart Wine Company was announced this week, and I read about it in a favorable Fortune.com article as reposted on Terroirist. The Martha Stewart Living portfolio is owned by the publicly traded Sequential Brands, a retail licensing company which paid $353 million to acquire Stewart's brands in 2015. I'm telling you all this because it represents so much of what I detest about wine marketing and sales.
The venture is nothing more than a deceptive operation to make loads of money peddling private label bulk wine.
Per the company website, "The Martha Stewart Wine Co. is a direct-to-consumer wine service, bringing you wines that Martha Stewart loves. The Martha Stewart Wine Co. delivers carefully curated selections of these wines straight to your door."
Five minutes of online digging is all it takes for someone with a little wine knowledge to see through that charade. Unfortunately, many consumers aren't that savvy.
Martha Stewart's domestic wines are produced by "Saddlehorn Cellars" which is really ASV Wines, a huge private label and bulk wine operation with locations in San Martin (south of San Jose near Gilroy) and Delano (just north of Bakersfield in the cheap-wine-haven Central Valley).
Online wine retailers frequently sell private label plonk, such as ASV's wines, and trick customers into "deals". I found a telling tale about a novice wine drinker lured by marketing tactics into a Groupon wine sale. The wine happened to be made by ASV, and nearly identical to the domestic selection "carefully curated" by Martha Stewart. This guy eventually connected the dots about the wine's origin and has an informative blog post about it.
Many other wine subscription clubs, such as Winc, The Tasting Room, and Bright Cellars, similarly sell private label wine while using creative marketing to make it appear cool and authentic.
Why does private label wine bother me so much? Thanks for asking.
According to the Fortune piece, "The wine delivery company intends to work with Chris Hoel, the former sommelier of famed chef Thomas Keller's The French Laundry, to consult vintners to develop the collection." For the sake of the suckers who subscribe to Martha's wine club, I sure hope they bring on a qualified somm to ditch the private label garbage and give these folks some honest product.
Wine Folly beat me to the punch a few months ago on a goal I'd long ago set. Madeleine did the yeoman's work of cataloging most of the major corporate wine brands. This is a hugely important step for transparency in the wine industry.
I'll say up front that I have no problem if people are happy drinking industrially manufactured wine or wine from a boutique winery that happens to be corporately owned.
The problem for today's consumers is that the information is so hidden or obfuscated. By use of brand names, label design, or shelf talkers, wine corporations frequently deceive consumers into buying wine by making them think it is a hand crafted product or a family-owned venture.
I would hope many low-to-mid priced wine consumers can infer that impersonal labels like Picket Fence (Bronco Wine Co.), Irony (Delicato), or Primal Roots (Constellation) are corporate products. No more than five years ago, I was buying similar $5-15 supermarket weekday wines to stay within a reasonable budget, without a care who the producer was.
After my wine infatuation became serious, I started paying more attention to who makes my wine. And since moving to California, I been incurable. That's when I became aware of the flood of mergers and acquisitions in the wine industry. So many iconic brands or cult family producers have sold out to "Big Wine" over the past 10-20 years. That is their personal prerogative, and I won't speculate on their motives or retirement goals.
The item I take issue with is that many brands bury the story and still pass themselves off as independent or family-owned wineries. There are more instances than I can count, especially in California. Here are few examples:
MacRostie - Full disclosure: We are wine club members at MacRostie. We signed up in 2016 after visiting with my parents and enjoying what is arguably the best view in Sonoma County from their tasting room patio. Steve MacRostie sold the winery in 2011 to Lion Nathan USA, the American arm of an Australian beverage conglomerate. In all our visits, the staff has never mentioned the corporate ownership, nor is it stated on the website. We're told every wine club shipment is "personally hand-picked" by Steve MacRostie for our enjoyment. I doubt that; they're just trying to sell wine. He is still involved (at least in giving intermittent, pricey vineyard tours, and probably in final blending), but the omission of the facts is irksome. My parents directly receive most of the wine, of which the Chardonnays are decent, and the Pinot Noirs have noticeably improved over the last two vintages. MacRostie's vineyard sources are some of the best in Sonoma: Sangiacomo, Bacigalupi, Ricci, and more. We remain members so we can show off the view to vacationing friends, the wine is consistent, and the hospitality is polished. However, I'm constantly on the hunt for an independent Pinot producer with comparable views, in which case, I'll jump ship.
Talbott Vineyards - E&J Gallo purchased this family winery in 2015. The wine bottle back labels talk about how the wines are named after their kids, such as Kali Hart and Logan, which has continued even after the acquisition. The website touts founder Robert Talbott and his direct involvement. Talbott may be 100% still involved in management, but nowhere does their website or collatteral mention the Gallo acquisition. I picked up a bottle of the Kali Hart Pinot a couple years ago and enjoyed it for being well-balanced and drinkable. I've noticed a rapid national expansion of the brand. Now you can find it on every Safeway shelf.
Imagery Estate - I recently had a friend tell me they are a wine club member here. They are a person that prides themselves on the unique and independent things in life, as many San Franciscans do. But Imagery is now owned by The Wine Group, peddlers of FlipFlop, Cupcake, Franzia boxed wines, and MD 20/20 blackout juice. The sale was completed in 2015 along with the sister Benziger Winery. Imagery certainly does have a beautiful property and the wine is highly praised. But I didn't have the heart at the time to tell my friend the real story. I fear the worst as time goes on for Benziger and Imagery wine quality under The Wine Group.
Bottom Line - Corporate ownership, along with fruit sources and winemaking techniques, ought to be fully disclosed to consumers in an easy-to-understand method. Too often the winemaking is inflated by marketable terms to sound more impressive and corporate ownership is purposefully concealed. Only by investigating and revealing the truth are consumers able to make a fair, informed choice.
An article from Eater.com which I read last month turned my attention to wine labels. The entire span of my drinking life has seen a proliferation of eye-catching labels and bottles. Many studies, such as the one cited in this article, reinforce the strength of dynamic labeling. "And a 2015 Gallo Wine Trends Survey found that millennials are four times more likely than Baby Boomers to buy a wine based on the label. They are looking for labels with originality and personality, while Baby Boomers pick labels based on region of origin and taste. Nielsen found a similar trend. Millennials want labels that are "bold and distinctive," while baby boomers want more traditional designs."
What, really, does a label (or the whole bottle's presentation) tell us?
Certified wine professionals would point to European labeling rules as the ideal model. Understanding the label cues can lead to effective conclusions on wine quality before you ever drink it, as we're taught in WSET classes. However, a serious amount of studying and geography skills are required to effectively remember the vast difference between a Pouilly-Fuissé (Chardonnay from the Macôn region of Burgundy in eastern France) and a Pouilly-Fumé (Sauvignon Blanc from Loire in western France), or the difference between Vino Nobile di Montepulciano (red wine made from mostly Sangiovese near the town of Montepulciano in Tuscany, which is on the west coast) and Montepulciano d'Abruzzo (a red wine hailing from the Abruzzo region on the east coast made from the Montepulciano grape).
For this reason, many importers have altered back-of-the-bottle labels on European wine to include the grape varieties for their "less sophisticated" American consumers. The American domestic wine industry came of age in the late 20th century with varietally-labeled wines, and it's shaped American consumers. I personally don't think that's a bad thing.
However, in defense of the Europeans, once you learn the classification systems, it's a lot easier to understand that you'll likely get a better quality of wine when you buy a Chateauneuf-du-Pape AOC than a bottle of Côtes du Rhône AOC. The U.S appellation system is sometimes equally confusing. You must study the appellation maps and read wine reviews to understand that a Russian River Valley AVA Pinot Noir is generally of higher quality than one from the North Coast AVA (which can include fruit grown almost anywhere in six Nor Cal counties). For better or worse, the AVA (American Viticulture Area) designations don't have the same quality-based regulations that the European AOCs or DOCs do. For Americans without a deep knowledge of wine, the only way to tell that a Rochioli or DuMOL Pinot Noir is far superior to a La Crema Pinot Noir is the price tag. European consumers have the upper hand with quality guarantees, but U.S. wineries wouldn't fare well with a similar amount of encumbering regulations and classifications.
Still, consumers lose in either labeling system.
In my opinion, one of the biggest hurdles to the success and expansion of premium New World wines is the opaque nature of their identity or blatant misdirection/concealment of origin with marketing schemes.
In 2015, the top three selling wine brands in the U.S. were Barefoot, Sutter Home, and Franzia. Peruse the bottom two shelves of supermarkets and you'll find the other brands like Apothic and Cupcake that land in the top 20. These are all wines without "provenance", or in wine-speak, an identifiable source. They're made from grapes sourced from the cheapest contract vineyards all over California. To keep consistency of taste year after year, these wines are seriously doctored with additives, chemicals, and interventionist techniques like reverse osmosis to reduce alcohol content.
In order to compete with the mega-brands like Constellation, Gallo, The Wine Group, and Treasury Wine Estates who own all the aforementioned brands, smaller sub-premium brands focus lots of energy on branding and label design. The main example in the Eater article, Mouton Noir wines, is a serious winemaker producing better-than-plonk wines. Yet his labels focus on catching attention, looking hip, and making puns. I suppose this is the strategy you have to take to stand out and capture customers. I suppose it speaks well to your target audience of Millennials. Conventional advertising theory would assert that this is the winning strategy. Make your brand unique. Stand out. Catch the customer's eye.
Sadly, this is an effective strategy for sales but not for informing the customer of anything substantial. The label strategy is just like any other consumable product: buy this lifestyle, buy this emotion, buy this to show off to your friends. These labels don't educate the consumer or guarantee a product's quality.
I recently took the above photo of the back label on a bottle of a Vin Gris de Cigare from Bonny Doon. Owner Randall Graham is known for being a trendsetter among the American wine industry, and I hope others follow suit. I love the amount of useful information they put on a label. You can see they list the grape varietals, the winemaking style, the fact that they added tartaric acid and yeast nutrients, used bentonite for fining, and exactly how much sulfur dioxide exists in the bottle. This is a phenomenal amount of info for consumers. If you're a natural wine zealot, you may think 60 ppm of SO2 is too much, or be disappointed that they had to acidulate the wine. But at least those zealots know what is in the bottle and can decide to compromise their principles, or refuse to drink it.
I don't universally avoid those winemaking techniques, especially on a wine in this price range (<$20). However, when I'm buying a $30+ bottle of wine, I expect to pay for better quality grapes, which come from greater attention in the vineyard and cellar. I'm really disappointed when I discover a high-end or boutique producer is charging top dollar but acidulating, watering back, or adding powdered tannins to their wines. I want to be paying for grapes of the highest quality, where my dollar directly goes to the attention paid to the vineyard. I don't want to be paying for inferior grapes that are "corrected" into decent wine. All I'm buying at that point is marketing.
Put whatever design or artwork you want on the front label. I understand that winemakers or corporations have to grab attention on the shelf or that they want to express their artistic style. Back labels like those on Bonny Doon wines provide a commendable level of transparency. Other wine producers should take notice and follow their lead.
For the past few months, professional wine journalists and bloggers have been debating the concepts of the "hipster somm" and "natural" winemaking. The debate boils down to this:
1) Apparently younger somms in NYC have started to favor wines made in what they believe to be Old World style: low in alcohol, high in acid, and made by winemakers who swear to zero intervention;
2) These somms even like wines with hints of Brettanomyces, a verifiable wine flaw caused by undesirable yeast strains that make wine smell like wet barn animals (sulfur);
3) The somms favor adherents of "natural" winemaking, which is typically defined by biodynamic farming, not adding excessive (or any) sulfites as preservatives, using only native vineyard yeasts, and not doctoring wine with tartaric acid, sugar, grape concentrate, etc. to make up for a flawed wine.
4) Wine journalists hit back that the form of "natural" winemaking which "hipster somms" favor equates toward asceticism. The strictest form of non-intervention imposed by the hipsters leads to bad wine. Modern methods and New World styles are not inherently wrong.
OK. Clear as mud?
What I can gather from this ongoing war of words is a lot of over-exaggeration. The desire for authenticity and integrity in wine is nothing new or hip. People who pay a lot of money for fine wines want a pure expression of the grape varietal(s). But so many wines today are clouded in mystery as to their contents. Along with the organic and non-GMO movements, the natural wine movement is rightly seeking clarity about what's in the bottle.
However, some purists take it pretty far. Is it defiling or desecrating the wine to add small amounts of tartaric acid to balance out flabbiness? Is using a controlled, cultured yeast instead of native vineyard yeast an abomination? No.
The problem is that, unless a vintner details their winemaking process on their website or on the bottle's label, you have no clue how that wine is made. A $5 wine you find on a liquor store shelf is most certainly doctored with sugar, acid, and other additives to make up for cheap quality. But the $15, $20, or even $50 bottle you buy for a special dinner may be just as doctored up, too.
The hipster somms may be fanatics, but they're driving the industry to improve their transparency, and through that - each producer's winemaking skills.
Wine journalist Monty Waldin does a stellar job in clarifying the debate from a knowledgeable insider's perspective: https://grapecollective.com/articles/monty-waldin-on-hipster-somms-and-why-black-magic-wine-is-delicious-wine
Megan Krigbaum published a great article today in Punch about bargain-buster wines and their provenance. Much of the impetus for creating Vineration is the belief that good wine can come in a variety of price ranges, but that wine must be honestly made.
Many of the industrial wine producers, such as The Wine Group who Megan researches in this article, are so shady about what they put into a bottle. There is no way for the average consumer, much less a journalist, to discover how what their wines are made. But I can guarantee it isn't simply fermented grape juice.
It's not that unfined wines are inherently better, or that adding sulfites is wrong... It isn't. The problem with inexpensive wine is that there is no transparency in how it's made. Consumers should know that their cheap wine is more of a chemistry experiment than it is real wine.
The best comparison I can think of is between fruit juices. On the juice isle of the supermarket, it's clearly marked which products are 100% real fresh-squeezed juice, with no preservatives or additives, and which is the sugary quasi-juice, with 10% juice concentrates, loads of hi-fructose corn syrup, ascorbic acid, artificial colors, and loads of other ingredients. People still buy Capri Sun, Hi-C, and other fake juice, but at least they can read the ingredients on the back of the label. They know what they're getting. We wine drinkers don't.
Other non-travel ramblings on wine and business.