Are you still searching for those perfect gifts for your wine-loving friends? I have you covered! Below are tried + true wine products which pass the Vineration test.
The Historic Vineyard Society hosted their largest-ever tasting at San Francisco's Press Club wine bar on Saturday, April 21. Thirty producers were present, both stalwarts and upstarts of the California wine scene. In the past HVS has hosted vineyard tours and dinners, but this year, they wanted to involve more producers, said HVS president Mike Officer.
The initial attraction for attending this event was the opportunity to taste 76 wines from some of California's most venerable vineyards and respected winemakers. The real reward was that a sub-level existed to this event: it was an in-depth study in terroir through a de-facto horizontal tasting. Among dozens of vineyards represented, multiple expressions of Wirz, Evangelho, Bechtold, Besson, and Mancini vineyards were poured by multiple producers. For a wine geek, there was no better chance to examine the nuances in winemaking than at this HVS event.
With 215 official attendees, the wood-paneled basement bar was stuffy. During the core of the event, I had to muscle through the crowd to get a pour, and limited table space made diligent note-taking a challenge. But popularity is a good problem to have. I hope HVS continues to host special events like this more frequently.
Of the 53 wines I tasted, here are the highlights.
Arnot Roberts 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon, Montecillo Vineyard, Moon Mountain District - Tobacco, bell pepper, gravel, subtle cassis, high but balanced acid, killer structure, tight but pleasant tannins. It's very old world style Cab; a beautiful wine that expresses terroir. - 10
Birichino 2015 Besson Grenache - Owner John Locke told me this includes some whole cluster fruit that was apassamiento dried for tannin concentration. It's a really lovely wine, big fresh red fruit up front, light stemmy tannins, and very complex on the palate. Among several Besson grenaches I've had, this is one of the most interesting. - 9
Calder 2015 Mendocino Carignane, Rivera Vineyard - Calder owner/winemaker Rory Williams told me this Carignane is grown behind a cemetery in Ukiah! Dark red fruit, medium plus acid, medium body, soft tannins, pretty juicy and elegant. It was among my top Carignanes of the day. - 9
Calder 2015 Evangelho Carignane - High acid, super fresh structure, incredibly bright red fruit with spicy licorice undertones. Evangelho Carignanges don't always do it for me. They tend to be made with overwhelming acidity. This was one of the more balanced expressions. - 9
Carlisle 2015 The Derivative White Wine - Made from a plurality of Semillon from Monte Rosso Vineyard, the oldest Semillon in the U.S. Great citrus aromatics, lemon curd on the palate, rich body, lanolin finish. The richness of the fruit gives the impression of some residual sugar. - 9
I. Brand & Family 2016 Enz Vineyard Mourvedre, Lime Kiln Valley - High acid, buried earthy dark fruit, stemmy tannins, elegant medium body with a long finish. - 9
Precedent 2016 Victors Zin, Lodi - Awesome textbook Zin with great balance, smooth body, fruit forward but elegant with structure. The best Lodi wine I tasted of the day. - 9
Reichwage 2016 Mancini Ranch Carignan - A new winery from Max Reichwage, the new owner of this historic RRV vineyard. Beautiful aromatics, round red fruit, white pepper, crazy musty/tarry character. - 8
Robert Biale 2016 Basic Black Heritage Blend - Killer depth, black fruit, spicy herbs, cocoa, lots of slate & structure. Solid wine from a storied Zin specialist. - 8
Stirm 2016 Zinfandel Cienega Valley - A lighter, brighter zin with white pepper, rose, cranberry, raspberry notes. Great acidity and a break from heavy zins. - 9
Stirm 2016 Riesling, Wirz Vineyard - Best Riesling I tasted from Wirz that day, some slight R/S giving body, great citrus fruit and plastic dust aromas (in a good petrolly way), medium plus acid, full fruit and full body on palate - 9
Stirm 2016 Cabernet Pfeffer, Lime Kiln - Lovely elegant body, crisp structure and tight tannins, candied cherry, white pepper and sweet cherry/rasberry finish, not as peppery as the name implies. Really quaffable, I could drink this all day. - 10
Turley 2015 Hayne Vineyard Zin - Super elegant body, smoky with deep blackberry notes, it's simply an outstanding wine, period. From Napa's most famous old Zin vineyard, this is the traditional Zinfandel style at its pinnacle - 9
Under the Wire 2013 Sparkling Zinfandel Bedrock Vineyard - The folks behind Bedrock wines also produce bubbly by Methode Champenoise. Amazingly balanced, mild bready notes, bright & crisp, white cherry fruit, loads of minerality. This is definitely not from Chard or Pinot and is a delightful detour. - 10
Favorite Producers: Calder and Stirm
These two newer brands headed by young winemakers blew me away. All of their wines were handled with balance and finesse. Each wine was also immediately drinkable but showed potential for moderate aging. Of course I love and respect many of the winemakers present at HVS who have long-established and consistently deserved reputations. But part of the fun of attending these events is trying new wines from emerging producers. From that aspect, Calder and Stirm rocked my palate with multiple wines.
Find them online at:
I used to be very intimidated when ordering wine at a restaurant, especially any fancy joint with a long wine list. After several years of wine travel, living in Sonoma, and earning an official wine certification, I've finally mastered the dreaded wine ordering process.
But you shouldn't have to get formal training to feel at ease with ordering outside your comfort zone. So take to heart my core message:
IT'S NOT YOUR FAULT!
Really. Go easy on yourself... It's. Not. Your. Fault. The difficulty and intimidation felt when ordering wine is the fault of the restaurant and their service staff. Most establishments in which I've dined go about their wine service entirely wrong. Even in some restaurants with a full-time, trained sommelier, the wine ordering process is an abysmal failure.
Guests are never given enough time to consider the wine list. The server requests a drink order far too quickly and then promptly confiscates the wine menu. Aforementioned server rarely knows a darn thing about wine. If they call for backup from a sommelier, that individual heaps on the discomfort by speaking in industry jargon and suggesting the second-most expensive bottle on the list.
I've developed a surefire strategy to confidently order wine, make your dining experience smoother, and feel like a boss doing so. No matter your level of wine knowledge, even if you're a self-proclaimed expert, this strategy will win.
Here Are My Tricks
#1 - Accept the fact that wine in restaurants is absurdly expensive.
The bar is more profitable than the kitchen. This is common industry knowledge. Restaurants rely on profits from alcohol sales to subsidize the food prep, so the drink margins are larger. Also, a fully-stocked bar and deep wine list is a pricey inventory to keep provisioned. Therefore, bottles of wine are priced at 2-3 times retail cost. Here's a secret: wine-by-the-glass is usually priced at the wholesale cost of the whole bottle! So that $40 bottle of Chardonnay which costs you $8 by-the-glass... costs the restaurant $8. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but accepting this reality will make you more comfortable ordering wine.
#2 - Do a bit of research prior to dinner.
These days, you always read the online menu before choosing a restaurant, right? Well, take an extra minute to peruse the wine list if they also have it posted. Just as you know which dishes are immediately enticing, certain wines will jump out at you. If the list is obscure or concentrated to one region about which you know very little, such as the wines of Croatia, you'll know to ask for guidance. (What the heck is Plavac Mali?!) You'll also get a feel for the value of the wines and will be prepared to spend accordingly.
Furthermore, consider the wine preferences of your fellow diners. If they aren't old friends, you may not know what wines they like, whether they are willing to split the cost, or if expensive wines make them uncomfortable. Before or immediately upon your arrival to the restaurant, and ask your companions whether they will partake in the wine and if they have any general preferences/aversions. It's the courteous thing to do.
#3 - Consider bringing your own wine.
Outside of wine-producing regions, this isn't a very common practice. But if the wine list is complete garbage, consider bringing your own bottle of wine. How can the untrained eye judge if the restaurant wine list is terrible? If you can recall seeing the majority of the brands for sale at your supermarket, then the list is an insult to fine dining. Feel free to bring your own bottle, which the restaurant will charge a corkage fee to serve to you. (Usually $15-30). If the corkage policy isn't explicitly listed on their website menu, then call ahead and ask. Be warned: it's incredibly tacky to bring a wine which is featured on the wine list, and doing so may even be prohibited by the restaurant.
On the other hand, if you're celebrating a special event and want to bring your favorite wine despite the fact that the wine list is great, go for it. Just be sure to order pre- or post-dinner drinks from the menu. The restaurant will appreciate that, and if you also buy a bottle of wine off the menu, they just may waive the corkage fee.
#4 - Elect a wine delegate.
When you sit down in a dining group of 2-6 people, designate one person to order the wines by the bottle. (Larger groups are a whole different ballgame.) Etiquette-wise, first right of refusal should go to the individual who chose the restaurant or can reasonably be considered the "host". Otherwise, nominate the person perceived to have the most wine knowledge. They'll not only feel honored to choose the wine, they'll enjoy doing so.
#5 - Pick your meal first.
There’s nothing I hate more than a waiter handing me an extensive wine list and then returning for my drink order less than five minutes later. Set the wine list aside unless you have something very specific in mind (or if you already chose your bottle per Trick #2). First select your meals, then go back to the wine list. If you want an aperitif drink while deliberating, get a cocktail or a glass of bubbly to start. You can then order your bottle of wine after you place your food order.
This restructuring of the ordering process will allow you time to consider food and wine pairing based upon the table's dishes. It'll also take the pressure off your table mates to make a selection compliant with your wine choice.
#6 - Confidently say how much you are willing to spend on a bottle.
It’s okay to get the cheapest bottle of wine on the menu if that’s what you want to drink. Per Trick #1, you've already come to grips with the reality that restaurant wine is overpriced. But don't be a cheapskate who settles for the cheapest bottle no matter what. If you've enlisted the help of the server or sommelier, confidently give them some price guidance. Don't be embarrassed if your budget is on the low end. Giving your sommelier wine style criteria without a budget range is certain to end in a costly suggestion. Be proud of the fact that most occasions don't call for an expensive wine.
#7 - State what you like.
Asking a sommelier for a random wine recommendation is as bewildering as asking a department store clerk for underwear recommendations: they can't tell what you have on and have no frame of reference for what you'd like.
If you have a favorite wine you drink each week, tell them that. If you're out for a special occasion, inform them of the best wine you've ever had. And if there is a type of wine that totally disgusts you, reveal that, too.
These points of reference will be incredibly instructive to landing on the perfect wine for the night.
#8 - Ask questions.
Have you never heard of Mencia from Ribeira Sacra? Don't know the difference between Riesling Kabinett and Riesling Auslese? Have no idea where Taurasi or Minervois are located, or what grape varieties they contain?
No problem! If the server/sommelier suggests a wine from an unknown place or a varietal you've never heard of, just ask about it!
Don't be shy to admit you know nothing about the wine or place. Give them an opportunity to educate you. And then, don't just settle for the facts. Ask the server why they are suggesting the wine and what makes it great. If they can answer those questions with certainty and without condescension, then they've demonstrated their excellent wine service training. Trust their advice and try something new!
If they can't answer those simple questions, then they've proven they are inadequately trained and don't know an iota more than you about wine! Perhaps they should go back to working at Applebee's, where "House Red" and "House White" are as complicated as it gets.
Now make that reservation, dominate that wine list, and enjoy your night out!
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 that 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!
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.
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.