‘BRANDING’: FRIEND OR FOE OF WINE

There have been similar rants on these pages in the past about the current trend toward ‘branding’.  But it seems that every time a situation arises that demonstrates exactly what we object to, we feel the need to speak out.  Maybe no one is listening.  We do realize that a lot of fermented grape juice of marginal quality is sold out in the world and we are but a microscopic (if vocal) speck on the landscape.  Maybe our rants are some sort of therapeutic exercise we need to go through, but we are becoming somewhat concerned about things that are happening in the wine industry that we feel are completely counter to what we find to be in its best long term interest.

Yes we are very passionate about what we do here and get excited to come to work and see what the day will bring. Sadly there are burgeoning trends we feel are encroaching on the true beauty of the business.  One supposes it would be a good time to state what that ideal is.  Well, for us, it is about the diversity and personality of wine.  As importer Eric Solomon so eloquently stated on his philosophy of selecting wines, ‘place over process’.  We want Bordeaux to taste like Bordeaux, Napa Cab to taste like Napa Cab, Rhones to taste like their place of origin and so on and so on.  To us the joy of wine is in the diversity of expression that aspect is an inherent part of quality.

We still believe vintage matters because in each year the variables of weather have an impact on the finished wine, for better or worse.  That is the essence of what the wine experience is all about.  If you want something to taste the same every time, drink whiskey or one of those canned cocktails.  Wine has never been about that to us.  But now there are large forces in the world that are trying to make it that way.

We first noticed It with the distribution companies and wholesalers.  We would order a particular wine and, if the distributor was out of it, he would just ship the next vintage as if that was perfectly OK.  Same label, right?  Doesn’t vintage kind of matter with wine?   We, in our archaic mind sets, still think it does.

More recently we have noticed a couple of disturbing trends.  First is the homogenization of wine.  More and more we have noticed a certain artificial twang and overt primary grapeyness in a number of red wines.  We have very specific ideas about who perpetrated this attempt to mediate ‘vintage’ with excessive manipulation in the cellar.  For a number of reasons we will not name names.  But these successful market brands, even though they don’t necessarily taste like their stated varietal because of additions of various winemaking ‘ingredients’, have spawned a whole series of imitators.  Pretty soon everything will be made to formula and will all taste the same, or at least that is the fear

If, say, a 2011, 2012, and 2013 version of a Napa Cabernet, from vintages that are about as different from one another as it gets in California, are virtually indistinguishable from each other, what does that tell you?  It tells you that there is ‘winemaking’ happening, and we don’t mean that in a nice way.  Sadly, instead of being spurned by the marketplace, some of these companies are selling for ungodly sums of money because of ‘branding’.  Big conglomerates don’t seem to care about quality at all, only having a name that has a certain public appeal so they can ramp up production even more.  Is it good business?  There are those that think so.  Is it still wine?  Technically and chemically, we suppose it is.  But such beverages do not inspire a lot of passion in us.

We have been pretty vocal about ‘natural’ wines, too.  We are all for organic farming and minimal handling in the cellar as long as it provides exciting juice.  But we aren’t interested in buying something based on how it is made, only how good it is.  If there is a compelling story about the wines process, great, but only if we like it in the first place.  Sadly, the term ‘natural wine’ has become an excuse for shoddy winemaking as well as a philosophy.  If something is oxidized, tawny, lifeless or full of mercaptans, that is perfectly fine if it is ‘natural wine’ and we must not ‘understand it’.   To us it is simply flawed wine.  Natural doesn’t mean ‘bad’ per se, but it has become an explanation for a lot of flaws when the process isn’t executed perfectly.

The other day really got us going on the branding thing again.  Some new purveyors who were pretty full of themselves because they had been a part of another grocery store brand, were in to present their newest project.  They proceeded to lay out a few wines that were essentially brand new labels and we tasted through.  Frankly only one of them was even noteworthy and it had the strangest name and label from the standpoint of marketing a ‘food product’.

The rest were unremarkable in every way but that didn’t seem to matter.  These guys were intent on making them part of the ‘Nielson 300’ (the list of top selling commercial wines that is the bible for grocery stores).  Based on what was not so clear.  Here you were marketing a name and, presumably, some sort of story that might cause people to pick up a bottle.  Clearly these folks had a pretty low opinion of the people who they were marketing to in terms of sophistication.

They continued to represent these wines as competitive in the marketplace (not sure it was our marketplace, nor what kind of stuff these guys were used to drinking), even going so far as to say their Oregon rose was ‘the best in America’.  Huh? Based on what?

Not sure what kind of conversations these people have with grocery store buyers but clearly they weren’t used to people like us that asked them about sourcing and how the wines were put together and had certain expectations about a wine’s viability based on how it tasted.  Essentially these wines, we found out, were predominantly blended to achieve specific market flavor profiles, or as we like to call them ‘control group cuvee’.  Is this the kind of thing people are  drinking these days?

 

What we came away with was that there wasn’t any particular thought to giving people tasty, character-filled alternatives to the current spate of innocuous mass marketed wine, just the same old stuff in a different package.  We’d venture to say little thought was given to the wine at all.  This was a classic case of the ‘branding’ being the central issue.   The concept of ‘branding’ is fine for Pepsi, Green Giant Nibletts, and Tide laundry soap, all of which can be manufactured to be the same every time.  The concept plays a little differently in a product that can vary in quality and expression based on vintage.

Step one, dumb down character.  Step two, sell the ‘brand’ because that is the key to success. Sadly more and more folks in this industry are acting as if the label and image are more important than what is inside the bottle.  Maybe that is the real world.  For us, wine doesn’t work that way…at least it didn’t used to.

 

 

 

 

PENFOLDS KOONUNGA HILL: STILL ONE OF THE BEST VALUE REDS

Back when we first discovered Penfolds in the 80s, the wines represented some of the most compelling values in the marketplace.  A lot has changed since that time.  In fact it would take quite a bit of space to go over all the changes.  Perhaps the key points are that Penfolds is not the same entity we sold all those years ago.  A purchase by Southcorp some years ago, and subsequent ‘market factors’,  changed the brand forever.

Since that time there has been financial intrigue, an explosion of demand in Asia that shot prices of Penfolds Bin 389 and 407 to 2-3 times their norm, and a period where most of the moderately priced Penfolds wines bordered on undrinkable (they were ferociously over-acidified).  We won’t even get into some of the bizarre marketing moves that have recently come about.  It would be very easy to let this behemoth go the way of the dinosaurs except for one small thing…they still have the ability to make some pretty interesting wines.

The 2016 Penfolds Shiraz/Cabernet Koonunga Hill South Australia  is still one of the more compelling and straightforward value reds in the marketplace.  It is a blend of 65% Shiraz and 35% Cabernet Sauvignon sourced from a variety of locales (Padthaway, McLaren Vale, Wrattonbully, Barossa Valley and Coonawarra if you want to know) that sees 10 months in American oak.  Stylistically it is round, plump, surprising ample for the price but not overdone.  No self-respecting critic is going to give this more than an upper-80s type review simply because it is a ‘little wine’.  But it is a delicious, engaging little wine and that should always be the point.

The Syrah is the star here imparting a good bit of blackberry fruit and spice, with the Cabernet providing some redder fruit, a touch of olive and a hint of vanilla.  Is it a ‘fastball down the middle’?  Absolutely, and what’s wrong with that?  You would be hard pressed to find a more crowd-pleasing red for this kind of price.   Up-front, expressive fruit, straightforward flavors, just enough acidity and laid back tannins, it’s an outstanding, budget-friendly choice for  parties, grillin’, and everyday applications.  We don’t really need to sell commercial stuff like this, but when it’s this good, why not?

JUFFER SONNENUHR TWO WAYS

There are lots of ways to present a wine and we thought that, over all the time we have been doing this, we had probably done all of the possible permutations at one point or another…until today.  But then offer like this have never came along before.  We had the opportunity to purchase two different Rieslings at great discounts, from one of the greatest vintages in Germany in this century and from one of the most storied vineyards in the Mosel.  Same price, same pradikat levels, both knockout deals, but the wines are from two different producers.  You talk about wine being made in the vineyard? You will never have a better chance to see that it action, and get some pretty wicked spatlese in the bargain.

We’ll start with the vintage.  As we have said on multiple occasions, the 2015 vintage in Germany (OK, a lot of places in Europe for that matter) was special.  It stands alongside the 2001 as the icon vintage of the 21st Century (thus far anyway).  The wines have unique power and cohesiveness to the fruit and surprising palate length.  Wine after wine has exhibited the same vintage personality as we have tasted through probably 200+ examples.

The vineyard?  Maybe Brauneberger Juffer isn’t quite as well known to the broad market as Wehlener Sonnenuhr, Graacher Himmelreich, and Bernkasteler Doctor because producers like Prum and Thanisch have been here much longer promoting them.  But among those more tuned in to great Mosel vineyards, Brauneberger Juffer is one of the great ones.  We have come to appreciate the vineyard a lot over the last three decades as we have been presented several striking examples from the likes Fritz Haag and Schloss Lieser.  More specifically the Sonnenuhr part of the Brauneberger Juffer is the best part, the ‘sweet spot’ if you will.

Given those similarities, and the strong characteristics of both the site and the vintage, our ‘tale of two Juffers’ would seem to come down to the producers.  Or does it?  That is what makes this exercise so exciting.  Besides the fact that the producers are different, and presumably the grapes came from different plots in the vineyard, we don’t actually know the harvest must weights.  There is a range to qualify for spatlese designation, including declassified auslese.  The alcohols are .5% apart (8% vs 8.5%), but that is all we know.

Both the Karp Schreiber and St Nikolaus Hospital labels boast long histories, the Karp Schreiber tracing its roots back to 1664 and the St. Nikolaus Hospital winery having existed for more than 500 years as the money-raising arm of the  foundation that runs  the actual hospital in Bernkastel-Kues, the hospital itself founded in 1458.  As we opened these two side by side, they started in different places.  The Karp Schreiber Brauneberger Juffer Sonnenuhr Riesling Spatlese 2015 shows a more delicate, filigreed profile, with whiffs of slatey minerality to the peach and pear fruit, a livelier, more active mid-palate and an airier finish of spice and slate.  It is a bit higher pitched on the palate with a more evident mineral element.

By contrast, the  St Nikolaus Hospital Brauneberger Juffer Sonnenuhr Riesling Spatlese 2015 is a more centered wine that shows a more direct, pronounced element of peach and pear, with a little hint of apricot possibly as a result of a greater must-weight (this is the one that is the .5% higher in alcohol), but not necessarily.  The sweetness level seems slightly more overt out of the gate and the palate is more concise.

As we sat there going back and forth and between the two, it was fascinating to watch them change in the glass, and certainly even more intriguing to watch as they began to show a much more familial streak that we have to presume is the vineyard talking.  The Karp got more mid-palate-focused as time passed while the St. Nikolas more high-pitched minerality and lift than it had presented early on.  In short, as they developed they became much closer to each other as the elements of one of the middle Mosel’s best terroirs took hold of the proceedings.

While there were still slight differences in line with their original profiles, it was Brauneberger Juffer Sonnenuhr that won the day with the strongest voice.  As to our preference, it was not unanimous and way too close to call.  We highly recommend taking the opportunity to experience this unique comparison yourself.  As to predicting a winner, the winners would be those that take advantage of these two exciting spatlesen from a great vineyard  in an epic vintage for a good 40% less that you would typically find anything from this esteemed dirt.  These are steals for under $20, the educational/geeky opportunity merely a special bonus here!

Another Great Kiwi Pinot from C.P. Lin

One of the most fascinating stories we have ever come across in the wine trade is that of C.P. Lin. Born in Taiwan, he has been blind most of his life because of a carcinoma of the retina. His parents left Taiwan when he was relatively young and headed for New Zealand. In college, C.P. was a promising mathematics student at Canterbury University. While at university he became involved with a social wine club that gave him the opportunity to explore the grape. He became fascinated with the subject and his acute sense of smell and touch gave him the tools to explore a career in wine.

It wasn’t a cakewalk, and in fact his classmates laughed when he responded to a teacher inquiry about why he was taking the winemaking class by announcing that he wanted to make world class wines.  As a matter of fact he couldn’t actually graduate because he couldn’t perform the lab work required to do so due to his disability. Yet on he went to make wine commercially for nearly two decades and become one of the best known winemakers in New Zealand, achieving an international reputation for Mountford Estate winery in Waipara.

There are many legends surrounding C.P.’s prowess and acute sense of smell.  His run at Mountford was pretty epic.  His unique talents and personal story were truly one of a kind, and he would have been ‘news’ just for doing this at all.   But the level of performance, particularly with Pinot Noir, was extraordinary.  Dude has chops and an unbelievable nose and we were willing participants in spreading the word about his wines, even hosting him once at a tasting at the old location.  What was most impressive was the purity and style of the wines.  The Pinots tasted like Burgundy, the Riesling like a German, and so on.

C.P. left Mountford after 16 years because, according to him, because the winery’s orientation became more focused on dollars than wine quality.  He then founded the Erewhon project.   The name is an anagram for ‘Nowhere’ and a reference to the remote vineyard sites that C.P. is working with in this multi-vineyard blend focusing on fruit from Waipara and Central Otago.

We sold the 2013, to our knowledge the first edition and now have the 2014, another winner with perhaps an even more tender palate feel (no small trick in New Zealand).  It’s another stunning effort from C.P. though perhaps, again, more ‘Kiwi’ than his Mountford stuff. The Erewhon Pinot Noir New Zealand 2014 has all the cool, savory (but not too savory) flavor profile that the very best from the region have, but not of the green or edgy character that can sometimes detract.

It’s fleshy and pretty, but at the same time purposeful, pure and precise. Mulberry, plum and confectionary cherry combine with spice, stones, thyme, tea, and flecks of mushroom, and the wine is both lifted and tender with surprising continuity from front to back. The 2014 got a 92 from Wine Spectator yet again back in March, 2017 with comments, “Rich, plush and generous, with fleshy dark cherry, plum and sandalwood flavors. Notes of black tea and fresh earth linger on the finish. Drink now through 2026.”

Like last year, the notes are nearly a year old on this wine which means it was probably tasted last January or before (it takes time to put ‘print’ magazines together).  We suspect this Pinot has come a long ways since then. Again, one of the most complete Kiwi Pinots we have tasted and the price is extremely attractive given the performance here…orange label notwithstanding. Only 832 cases produced, more than last year but still not very much.  A must have!

Pinot Noir auf Deutsch?  Sehr gut!

Pinot Noir has been a hot topic for some time now.  And the usual discussion about whether the pricing and performance is currently more exciting in California’s Central Coast or Russian River, or in special vintages from the Motherland (France), is the norm.  But with global warming, there are new considerations to the Pinot discussion, particularly in a juicy vintage like 2015.  Like …Germany?

No, we are not talking about some leafy tasting, brownish Spätburgunder that garners little interest outside of Deutschland itself.  We are now talking about extremely appealing examples of German Pinot Noir these days, wines that are competitive on the world stage.  At the top of our list in that category is today’s selection from Meyer-Näkel.

This player is no surprise either to us any more, though we must admit our surprise from our first trip to the region more than a decade ago.  We have sold several vintages of the Meyer-Näkel wines  since that time and they only seem to be getting better.   Werner Näkel himself is credited with putting the Ahr on the map internationally back in the 1990s and nothing has changed, other than the Pinots have taken on a deeper fruit component and a more tender mouth feel,  while never losing the lift, clarity and purity that make them special.  The Ahr Valley has a long history with the varietal and is only elevated by the current weather trends.

Yes there are easier things to sell than German Pinot Noir, but the quality at Meyer-Näkel has earned them the right to be included in any serious discussion about the varietal.  As you might have guessed, the 2015 vintage that was a watershed for the Rieslings was also very kind to Pinot Noir.  So the Meyer Nakel Spätburgunder (aka Pinot Noir) Estate 2015 has a bit more flesh and sweetness on the palate, making it perhaps the most ideal ‘crossover’ Pinot they have made.  Yet it still speaks of the unique micro-climate in this river valley.

Lively cherry and red berry fruit is accented with some smoky tones, cinnamon, slatey minerality, and a whiff of damp forest.  The fruit takes hold on the palate but there is a perfect tension that keeps everything bright and expressive.   For under $30, it can hold its own in any arena, with the personality best pegged as somewhere between Oregon and the Cote de Beaune, but with its own spin.  A must for Pinot lovers.

THE PERFECT CHABLIS?

We’re not presuming to make an airtight case here.  People’s expectations as to what truly defines great Chablis varies greatly with some leaning to the steely, taste-of-the-sea dominance to the flavors to those preferring that character be an aspect to a vigorous fruit component.  There’s no right or wrong answer, simply a question of experiences.  In our experience, there is a lot to like about the Roland Lavantureux Chablis 2016 as it hits on all of the major themes and does so at a very tasty price.

Lavantureux isn’t the most famous guy in Chablis, nor even in importer Kermit Lynch’s Chablis portfolio.  But we have come to appreciate his consistent, rock solid performance in making wines that are precise and true to type, yet show a little flair to the fruit.  We have been following this house, which was founded in 1978, for only a few vintages but are convinced this is one of the as yet undiscovered gems.  The basics are all here… Kimmeridgian soils, 30-year-old vines, and the domaine is in the hands of Roland’s sons, Arnaud and David, who have demonstrated the desire to hone their skills to produce even more compelling wines.

This one, however, really hits the target in every way.  You like ‘classic’ Chablis, there’s plenty of that salinity and insistent minerality to give an excellent accounting of the region.  Yet at the same time, there’s an energetic fruit component of sour apple, citrus and pear to give the impression of a coiled-yet-round mid-palate that slides cleanly into a mineral laced finish that still showcases the fruit.  It checks all the boxes flavor-wise and was ‘love-at-first-sip’ for us, particularly given the modest fare.

We dare say this is the most compelling ‘regular’ bottling we have tasted from Lavantureux, possibly as the natural progression of increasing quality every vintage, or perhaps kicked up by the lovely (if sadly limited) 2016 vintage.  Too early to make the call on that, but we can assure you that we will be partaking of this one on a few occasions moving forward.  The style, the typicite, the fruit, and the price make this a must for Chablis lovers of any persuasion.

 

TASTY, WELL-PRICED and (shhh) KOSHER RED

Every time we are presented something from a Kosher winery here in the states, or from Israel, the first thing out of the vender’s mouth is, ‘but don’t make a point of it being kosher’.  First off, what’s wrong with it being Kosher?  Does that pidgeonhole it for buyers, the practicing kosher ones thinking it is only for holidays and everyone else presuming it tastes like the mass produced, sweet reds whose names you all know.

We have a hard time believing it is that cut and dried for most people. But maybe it is.  Still it is our belief that if you have a wine that plays on the ‘celebratory’ table, that will afford it a built-in audience from which you move forward.  If it happens to be a well made, dry red, the potential followers pool should be even larger because it should make an interesting proposition for folks who are merely looking for something red and tasty without concern for any holiday/holy day applications.  If it happens to sell for a really good price as well, that would appear to be some sort of trifecta.  In other words, this is first a candidate for a versatile everyday drinking red.  Everything else is a bonus.  The Golan Heights Winery Mount Hermon Red Galilee 2016 is such a wine.

Golan Heights Winery/Yarden makes a lot of different bottlings under its various labels.  It is easy to get lost in the shuffle.  But in a recent tasting we zeroed in on this one simply because it was dark, tasty, and engaging and sold for a song.  The 2016 Mount Hermon Red exhibits notes of berries and cherries, along with nuances of Mediterranean herbs, chocolate, earth and a little minerality. Made from all five Bordeaux varietals (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec), with Cabernet as the lead player, the grapes come mainly from  the Golan Heights, a raised volcanic plateau going from 1300 to 3900 feet in elevation that is the coolest wine region in Israel.  A small portion comes from vineyards in Galilee.

We have tasted examples of this before but this one made an impression.  We didn’t have our Israel vintage chart handy but apparently 2016 was a superior vintage in the region (a warm spring and the earliest harvest in nearly a quarter century).   Wine Enthusiast noted, “A  nose of cassis and vanilla sets the scene for flavors of black cherry, blackberry, butterscotch, juniper and violet. It’s easy on entry, offering smooth tannins that slowly reveal themselves, culminating in a floral and cranberry finish. ..92 points.”  Tasty, well-priced and, yes, kosher, but you don’t reason need a ‘reason’ to open this.  In the end it’s simply a tasty red.

LOS VASCOS CABERNET SAUVIGNON 2015-A STEP (OR TWO) UP

Chile has come a very long way since we started to see the wines in the late 80s when the majority were  generally a collection of rustic juice that could sell for super low prices.  Given the development of higher end collectables like Almaviva, Seña, and Clos Apalta, a growing number intriguing boutique projects, and a general surge in quality from a number of the Chilean ‘old guard’ producers, there’s a lot to talk about.  Sadly, if it’s not ‘hot’, ‘elite’, or ‘new’, the wine media doesn’t pay much attention…a token 86 or 87 score and a cloud of dust.  We didn’t want this one to get lost in the footnotes.

That presents a little bit of a problem for those of us with boots on the ground who spend a lot of time to find tasty, well-priced and angst free beverages to recommend to people.  Talking about the things we do find isn’t exactly easy either.  In a world where one email after another hits your inbox making claims to be offering the ‘best ever’ in one way or another, giving someone a straight, honest assessment of a wine often proves to be a pointless exercise.  Hyperbole sells and we know that.

Even so, we feel compelled to mention things that got our attention and, in some cases, do so without overstating our case.  That being said, we like to mention the Los Vascos Cabernet Sauvignon 2015.  Yes the under $10 one!  We go back a long way with this label and have tasted many vintages.  They have usually been solid, honest Cabernets that you could serve with confidence.  Some have been a little leaner, occasionally they might have had a little green streak, but consistently serviceable Cabernet.

The Rothschilds (yes the same folks that own Chateau Lafite, Duhart-Milon, Rieussec, and L’Evangile) have been in Chile for quite some time, taking over this estate in 1988 and giving it the name Los Vascos (meaning the Basques, a nod to their family heritage).  The wines have consistently improved over the years as the family has become more familiar with the terroir, but the 2015 vintage seemed to allow them to kick it up a notch.

Knowing Los Vascos as we do, we were immediately impressed with the more ample, supple fruit that this wine delivered…  a pleasing midpalate of dark red fruits reminiscent of a well made petite chateaux from Bordeaux with fleck of spice, earth, and graphite.  We were also pleased by what it didn’t have…the green peppercorn notes and overtly savory edge that seems to be a component of many Chilean reds at all price points.

Apparently James Suckling was as charmed by this Cabernet as we were, saying, “An attractive and delicate Cabernet Sauvignon with very fine tannins and bright fruit. Medium body. Black currant, walnut and wet earth. Delicious Chilean Cabernet. Fantastic value. One of best ever from here. Drink now…92 points.”

Ditto for Decanter Magazine.  The Brits know a good buy when they see it and, for them, this review is positively giddy, “A fresher and purer style seems to have emerged from this new release, part of the Domaines Barons de Rothschild holdings. It’s vibrant and bold, focused on primary cassis and red cherry fruit and a herbal hint. Silky textured and supple, it’s elegant with lovely depth to0. 90 Points ”

We’d go so far as to say it is the best we’ve had in this series, and this is a Los Vascos most folks will be able to get comfortable with.  We aren’t telling you to throw away all of your $50 Cabernets.  We aren’t shouting from the rooftops.  We’re simply telling you in a regular voice that this is a rather tasty little surprise and nine bucks well spent.

 

The Aftermath

Obviously, we need to start this by sending wishes and prayers to all of our friends in the wake of the fires in ‘wine country’.  The loss of life is horrific and the extensive damage to property, still being assessed, is clearly catastrophic.  Our heartfelt sorrows go out in particular to those who lost their homes and businesses.

 

There are a lot of folks who will be offering condolences.  The media has, and will, be full of articles about people’s heroics, first responders, and other encouraging tales about the human spirit.  It does seems like there have been way too many disasters this year in particular.   There are a lot of people that will tell you they know how you feel, but most don’t.  Being helpless in the face of an overwhelming tragedy isn’t something most humans have had to experience over the last few decades.

 

Around here, we’ve had a bit of an inkling (more than we cared to) of what NoCal has been going through as three of the ‘characters’ in our own Winex crew were far too close for comfort to the Corona fire a couple of weeks ago and Canyon Fire 2 early this week.  Having to decide what to save, considering the immediate and long-term importance of the item, and to have to make those decisions within a very short period of time and under duress, is scary enough in itself.   Our people were fortunate to be beyond the final perimeter in those cases, but others weren’t.

 

It’s certainly fair to say that some of us down here didn’t realize how bad things were in Napa and Sonoma because we had our own disaster going.  It was amusing to hear the national news people talk about our fires as ‘just outside of L.A.’  We’re an hour south on a good day and substantially more in traffic.  In any case we have been ‘shaken and stirred’ here to the point where we might vaguely be able to sense the situation up there.

 

We actually weren’t sure what to do given the events of the past week.  We know a lot of people in the north, and have friends that did lose houses.  But we also figured that a people are a little tired of hearing about things burning.  We’re supposed to be the ‘fun’ place.  But this particular set of horrific events is right in our own back yard and, both as wine merchants and Californians, we thought we needed to say something.

 

The only point we would make falls in line with that whole ‘the wine business isn’t like any other’ thing.  Given the fact that there are still fires raging up there it is still too soon to assess the damage.  There have been more fatalities, more evacuations and more structures burned.  Obviously, we aren’t trying to make light of anything.  But we are starting to see articles about ‘what happens next’ and ‘rebuilding’.  That caused us to ponder a little about ‘wine’ things.

 

How do you rebuild?  Let’s say you are a winery.   There’s no ‘good’ timing for a fire but right now is harvest.  There are still some ‘ready’ grapes on the vine, possibly partly scorched, heat damaged, or affected by smoke.  Even if they were still ok (apparently there were cases where the expanse of green healthy vines in a vineyard acted as something of a firebreak for crops, homes and buildings), how are wineries going to get to them?  It doesn’t sound particularly healthy or safe to put a crew on picking.   So, a lot of grapes are going to be lost in the vineyard.

 

If you were one of the luckier ones in this earlier harvest, a lot of your grapes are harvested and fermenting.  But a lot of folks can’t get to their wineries to do some of the simple things essential to the basic making of the wine.  As we have said many times on these pages, timing is an essential part of the winemaking equation.  Not everyone does things the same way, but each winemaker has a protocol that can be pretty time intensive at this part of the process.  Failure to do certain things at the right moment can create problems that cannot be fixed later on.

 

There are potential risks to existing stocks from fire, smoke or heat.  Some are preventable, some are not, but someone has to be there and able to do it.  Clearly that will be a problem for a number of producers.  Even if there aren’t the ‘specifics’ we mentioned to negatively affect grapes or wine, lack of access on the part of winery crews has its own unique set of problems this time of year.

 

Taking it a step further, what if the winery goes altogether?  You not only have what is being made, you have a bit of what was already made and still aging in barrel.  So not only is the current ‘crop’ gone, so are portions of the last one or two vintages.  At White Rock, one of the wineries rumored to be destroyed (their website tells a more positive story), they age their Cabernet in French oak for 20 months.  So, the potential existed to lose three vintages.

 

The final assessment isn’t in for them.  There are storage caves on the property which may have saved a lot of the stock.  But White Rock serves as an example of what can happen.  It isn’t the first name you think of when Napa Valley is mentioned, even though they have been there for decades.  It is a unique, small production property in Soda Canyon that has a very specific style.  They have a carefully established network for sales and most folks that have been around Napa Valley for a while know who they are.

 

So, let’s say they did lose as many as three vintages of their red wines (hopefully not).  They could buy something else and bottle it, but it wouldn’t be the same thing that consumers have come to expect.  They could be off the market for three years and have to start the distribution process all over again, no easy feat these days.  If some of their 40-year-old vines were destroyed, it would take them, you guessed it, 40 years to get to them back to the same point.  A lot of folks went through this kind of decision-making with phylloxera in the 90s, but that was a slow, predictable process not an overnight wipeout.  You can’t plan for this sort of thing.

 

Finally, and again White Rock is just a real name that represents scores of wineries in every conceivable state of disarray from this terrible tragedy, what happens to such labels in the meantime?  If you make tables, and one of your tables burns, you can make another one (yeah, we know that there’s at least one guy out there mumbling no two pieces of wood are the same).  You can’t remake wine.  Vintages, vine age, blends, etc., cannot be precisely reproduced.  The competition in the marketplace is the fiercest we have seen in our decades of doing this, so coming to the market with less than your best is an uncomfortable proposition.   If you don’t come to the market at all, that’s bad for other reasons.

 

On top of it all, you’ve got tourism.  We are old enough to remember walking into a tasting room in the Napa Valley and seeing the owner behind the counter.  Of course, that was the 70s.  That was light years from where it is now.  It is an industry unto itself.  We read one article that said ‘wine country’ (however they defined it) had more visitors than Disneyland in the last year.  How will all of this destruction and relocation affect that aspect?

 

This is a nasty situation, lives lost, property lost, jobs lost, and more jobs lost by the people that support the people in the industry.  The whole industry will feel the sting of something of this magnitude in a number of different ways.   It will take weeks to assess the obvious damages, but perhaps a decade or more to see the full, as yet unpredictable impact on the region.  However, none of it matters until the winds die down and the fires subside, and that can’t come soon enough.

2003 Bollig-Lehnert Riesling ist zurück!

Summer rerun? Well maybe, but in the best way.  We actually ran this aged Bollig-Lehnert Riesling in an email nearly two years ago.  The importer apparently got another shot at this lovely aged Riesling recently and asked us if we were interested in more.  We said ‘jah’!  It would have been the subject of another email, but we simply don’t have enough for that.  We thought we’d leave a little note here for Riesling fans, along with the context of that piece we did before.

“Recently, there’s been a big push among German producers towards drier styles, presumably at the behest of the restaurant scene in Germany.  We could rail on about our opinion regarding the new dry ‘trocken’ Riesling movement, but suffice it to say we are not impressed with the direction things are taking.  German wines have been made a certain way for a long time for a reason.  The wines we are presenting today are perfect examples of why.

”Classic Rieslings with their zingy acidity beg for a little residual sugar to round things out, but they age beautifully.  As they age, they dry out a bit and take on more minerality and nuance as they reflect the site from which they were sourced.  The resulting wines have a charm, delicacy, and complexity that is unlike anything else.  We don’t run across fine aged Riesling in the marketplace all that often (remember that Schloss Schonborn Marcobrunn deal from a little ways back?).  But when we do, we pay attention.

“The Bollig-Lehnert Riesling Spatlese Dhroner Hofberger 2003 is a stunning example from what was one of the most controversial vintages in Germany in the last couple of decades.   A lot of people decided that 2003 was way too hot for Riesling.  They reputedly possessed lower acids that made them of questionable aging potential.  People in the know suggested that these wines would develop beautifully because of their high extract and concentration, supported by elevated tartaric acidity and fruit density.  In this case (and most of the others we have had the opportunity to taste) the latter folks were right.  This spätlese has hardly changed from its initial bottling with palate coating extract, high spätlese richness, brilliant clarity and palate freshness.  The fruit has settled down a bit as has the urgent sweetness, though this is still a classic spat.  This Hofberger doesn’t seem even 5 years old let alone 12 and the peach, citrus, cinnamon and slate nuances are delightful!”

At $14.98, it’s also a steal…