SIERRA CANTABRIA RIOJA SELECCION 2014

SIERRA CANTABRIA RIOJA SELECCION 2014

Think of this as what we used to call a wine-of-the-month, though with the new ongoing format time is a lot less linear.  An amazing deal from Spain shouldn’t surprise us. We have been on our soapbox regarding the value of Spanish wines at a wide range of price points for, what, a couple of decades now? But this one certainly did! When the purveyor pulled the bottle out of the bag, the only thing we saw was Sierra Cantabria, one of the most trusted, go-to names for us in Rioja since we began selling their wines in the mid-90s.

The Eguren family have been one of the superstars of the region not only for their range of Sierra Cantabria wines, but also their Senorio de San Vicente project that focuses on an arcane variety of Tempranillo (called Tempranillo Peludo because the leaves have a unique ‘fuzzy’ surface) that typically works on the level of a Classified Growth Bordeaux. These same folks, along with importer Jorge Ordonez, sidled over to Toro and created Numanthia (which they later sold to LVMH) which helped redefine the region. They turned right around and started Teso la Monja essentially with the same concept as Numanthia as premium Toro red.

The Egurens, even though the family has been in Rioja since the 1870s, they are ‘movers and shakers’ in the region in the most modern way. Where do they fall stylistically? They do it all, making traditional Crianzas, Reservas and Gran Resevas, as well as wines reaching for a more modern sheen with the like of Finca Eel Bosco, Reserva Unica, El Puntido and Seleccion Privada outside the traditional ‘rules’. They make more than twenty different wines, including a more ‘mass market’ enterprise under the Dominio de Eguren label.

Given our knowledge of this winery’s broad lineup, we had no idea what to expect of this label that we couldn’t remember seeing before. We tasted it with no particular expectations in mind since these folks worked on many levels. Plenty of dark fruit (strawberry, plum, currant), vanilla highlights from what appeared to be some time in oak, fine purity of fruit, and the classic chocolate/earthy notes that are a part of Rioja terroir. ‘Pretty good stuff’, we thought, ‘a fine tipple in the upper teens.’

As it turned out, this was only the second release of this wine, and the price was under $10! Our shock was legitimate. Sourced from proprietary vineyards located in San Vicente de la Sonsierra and Laguardia, this wine was 100% de-stemmed and saw 6 months in tank and 6 months in a combination of 1-3 year old American and French Bordelaise barrels.

For the price point, it was a revelation! We have been complaining for quite a while that ‘value-priced’ wines have been tasting more and more homogenized and ‘messed with’. Far too many have the prevalent flavor of wood stays or oak chip ‘teabags’ meant to give the wine the ‘impression’ of more expensive winemaking, or leave residual sweetness in the wine to fill in some of the ‘cracks’. The flavors often lean more towards industrial chocolate cake frosting and candied fruit.

This one tastes like wine! Good wine! We can’t think of a more exciting thing to say than that in a wine world that seems to be intent on using wine-making tricks to gussy up marginal, ordinary juice (the ‘lipstick on a pig’ analogy comes to mind). The Egurens are giving you delightful, honest Rioja for the same kind of price.

Not only is this a $10 wine we would happily drink ourselves, it caught the attention of the usually-not-particularly-generous Josh Raynolds of Vinous, who remarked, “…Dark ruby. Ripe dark berries, candied flowers and a suggestion of woodsmoke on the perfumed nose. Pliant and expansive in the mouth, offering bitter cherry, cassis and peppery spice flavors that become sweeter on the back half. Finishes on a juicy dark berry note, showing very good persistence, gentle tannins and lingering spice and floral notes…90 Points.”  A 90 from Josh on a wine in this price range is a rare occurence.

The Egurens know their business, but something tasty, honest, and inexpensive is the hardest thing to do in wine. Bravo. House red, party red, something that delivers in a way few $10 wines can (and, sadly, a whole lot of $15-20 wines as well), this is one to buy by the case…$9.98

VIDEO: THE EXTRACT INTERVIEWS WINEMAKER TROY KALLESKE

 

Have you checked out our Youtube channel, The Extract? It’s a weekly video series dedicated to wine geeks and cork dorks from novice to expert. We talk shop with wine producers, growers, and makers from all over to bring you candid discussions about wine philosophy, technique, and most of all…passion.

Here’s our most recent interview with Australian winemaker Troy Kalleske of Kalleske Wines. Troy’s family has been around the Barossa block growing grapes for over 160 years but somehow Troy is the first generation to actually make wine with them!

Enjoy.

Gauging Temperature: What happens when my wine gets hot?

Throughout the years we’ve always found ourselves caught up in discussions about the effects of certain things on a bottle of wine, predominantly temperature.  Now we could be like much of the industry and simply stick to the perfection rule that all wine must be kept between 52 and 65 degrees through all of its life or it will be ruined.  That not only refers to the storage in your home or office, and the temperature of the place where you acquired the bottle, but all points in between including the weather through which it is shipped from beginning to end.  In a perfect world, sure, why not?  But let’s face it, things in your life are rarely this perfect.

It gets warm, it gets cold, and people make mistakes.  We aren’t going to try and tell you that those fears are overblown.  But there are people out there that think anything short of perfection is actionable.  They think that the UPS driver should be there at a specific time to avoid any prolonged ride on the truck when the temperature is over 70 degrees, and that the driver should wear insulated gloves so as not to transfer any body heat to the wine when he touches it.  Yea…right. With all of the new virtual reality stuff that’s happening these days, maybe someone will come up with that perfect world.  But in the meantime, it isn’t realistic.

We once saw a merchant claim in a written advertisement that all of his wines came in refrigerated trucks. Hmm…  ‘Long haul’ trucks might be refrigerated.  We shipped a lot of loads from a Washington State importer with a company that also hauled fish.  Sometimes the truck smelled, um, like the sea?  But the wine arrived in great shape.  Shipping containers for expensive wines, and even not so expensive wines, were usually refrigerated. But as far as trucks that delivered from the local distributors, or couriers around town, we only saw one refrigerated truck per year…the Romanee Conti release.  The rest of the time they were at ambient temperature.  For everyone.

Our merchant ‘friend’ was being less than honest, but often consumers are over-the-top the other way, saying two hours on a truck at 80 degrees is ruinous.  It isn’t, and we say that knowing there are plenty of holier-than-thou types in the industry that will call us out because it is easier to be elitist.  It’s easy to preach perfection, a lot harder to actually do it where weather and human beings are involved.

We’ll tell a short story about an experience a few years ago.   I put a case of mixed Burgundies in the car after work and went off to do a bit of ‘research’.  Upon getting home, I went straight into the house, forgetting that case of Burgundy in the trunk.  I did not have occasion to go into the trunk for another week during a very warm July, essentially driving the case around town until one day when I had a reason to get into the trunk…and saw the case.  My reaction was, oh shucks (or…something like that).  But I figured it was a way to test the heat/wine thing real time (bear in mind I am a trained professional).

The heat was substantial but not extreme (90s but not over 100).  Over the course of the next month I had those twelve bottles.  Eleven of them were just fine and one was corked (which it would have been regardless of temperature).  We continued the experiment for years testing the occasional shipping ‘mishap’bottles as they came back.  For the most part, we found that in the difficult cases, the wine did show some deterioration after a few months, even sooner in the cases where the corks were pushed up (which of course would allow more oxygen to reside inside the bottle)*.   But most were good to go early on.

What we are getting at is that, much of the time, if there is a temperature ‘accident’, it is rarely the proverbial ‘bullet to the brain’.  It can, and again we are talking extremes, cause deterioration over time probably as often because the airspace in the bottle changed as being the direct effect of extreme heat or cold.  If it does happen, like we said, as long as you get to it sooner (let’s nominally say within a month or two), you should experience little if any perceptible depreciation.  So if it is a ‘drinking bottle’, as most bottles are these days, go ahead and drink it.  The one caveat is ‘natural wines’.  Since such wines are not typically stabilized, a change in temperature might occasionally set off an unanticipated reaction within the wine itself .

“wine is a living thing, which means it can take anything you can”

Obviously nobody goes out of their way to create these unfortunate scenarios.  We do our best to avoid them and mediate the weather with our shipment timing as best we can.  We tell people picking up wine that, when it’s hot, they should put their wine inside the cabin of the car where its air conditioned and go straight home.  Some don’t listen, go to the mall for two hours and complain to us because the bottle leaked.

If someone asks us to ship into Phoenix in August, we will simply say no.  One must be cautious to a point.  However weather being what it is, you never know for sure how it will play out.

In truth, most of the industry doesn’t worry about it that much.  But then something like 90% of the wine purchased is consumed with in a couple of weeks so it’s rarely ever an epidemic.  The point is we don’t live in a perfect world and sometimes stuff happens.  When it does, don’t panic.  Move those bottles up in the rotation, serve them at the proper temperature, and most of the time you’ll be just fine.  Occasionally unfiltered wines might throw off some extra sediment.  In those cases, stand them up a day or two, and then proceed as planned.

While we always practice, and recommend, exercising caution, wine is not as fragile as some might have you believe.  As someone told us once, yes wine is a living thing, which means it can take anything you can.  In other words, except in extreme cases, it isn’t ‘life or death’, at least in the short run.

 

* Extreme heat or cold will cause liquid to expand which will push the wine out of the cork or push the cork itself up in the neck. As it comes back to a more normal temperature the wine will contract to where it should be, minus any that pushed out.  In either case, there may be a larger air gap in the bottle, which will accelerate the process.  It’s basic physics. 

PEGASUS BAY PINOT NOIR WAIPARA VALLEY 2012

PEGASUS BAY PINOT NOIR WAIPARA VALLEY 2012

It seems like only yesterday (it was actually the mid-90s) that we were invited to a very low-keyed tasting that a supplier was hosting. That supplier, who pioneered Oregon wines in the late 80s, long before they really took hold in the broad market, had just come back from a trip to New Zealand. He brought with him bottles of Pinot Noir from New Zealand, something we had been exposed to before. Apparently the wine industry there was just starting to get a feel for the varietal and our geeky Oregon vendor felt compelled to drag a few bottles back (a lot easier to do in those days given current airport security) to test the water. Guess we were curious, too , since we attended this small scale event just to check them out. This was so early in the game, we weren’t even aware that there was a game.

Since we had no expectations, we went simply to do our jobs and taste because, as we have said so often, you just never know. The lineup of eight wines, which included Ata Rangi and Te Kairanga we recall, showed rather well. We were prompted to order small quantities of these, at the time, completely unfamiliar labels from a completely untrested genre. Perhaps more important, our take-away from this little show was “hey, this could turn into something”. Are we saying we were ahead of the curve. Yeah, we often are because we actually take the time to look. But that isn’t the point. Are we saying we could have predicted where Kiwi Pinot would go over the next couple of decades? Not a chance.

As it turned out, that showing proved to be no fluke. Here we are roughly two decades later, and the Kiwis are accepted players on the world stage. Not only are New Zealand Pinot Noirs taken seriously in wine circles these days, their ‘top guns’ have been consistently producing lights-out juice that should be a part of any serious collection. Our subject here is one of those ‘players’, Pegasus Bay. We aren’t going to claim this is the most consistent of the top drawer estates, but they certainly hit ‘higher highs’ when they’re ‘on’. This is one of those times.

The Pegasus Bay Pinot Noir Waipara Valley 2012 also gets a little less visibility because they because of their location. The name Marlborough is certainly more ingrained in the wine buying public’s psyche and Central Otago is the more ‘glam’ locale. Now we aren’t going to mix words. Sometimes Kiwi Pinots in general can be a little too savory for their own good. But when it gets a little warmer, as it did in 2012, the riper fruit component fills in the middle and plays nicely off the cooler notes while there are none of the green edges that can sometimes get in the way. That leaves a pretty compelling drink when all is said and done.

We’re not the only fans. The added ripeness and flesh (think Burgundy not Santa Lucia Highlands) got multiple ‘thumbs up’ from the critics, including a 92 from Wine Advocate and 93 from Wine Enthusiast. The lead cheerleader in this case, besides us putting our money where our mouths (keyboards?) are, was James Suckling. He dropped a ‘96’ score on this one with the comments, “A sense of real depth, soothing dark cherry notes, some forest floor and deeply knitted oak. The palate has noble tannins and the sort of structural complexity and completeness that is the envy of most other NZ Pinot Noir makers”

As a matter of course, Kiwi Pinots can use a good splash in a decanter before serving. Who knew back in the day that New Zealand would become a world player in Pinot Noir?  It is examples like this that drive the point home. As wines with this kind of reviews goes, and compared to most reserve level California Pinots, it’s quite the bargain, too…$34.98

NEYERS CABERNET SAUVIGNON NEYERS RANCH CONN VALLEY 2013

NEYERS CABERNET SAUVIGNON NEYERS RANCH CONN VALLEY 2013

There are certainly times when wine offers are ‘cut and dried’. Somebody gave it a big review, it’s super hard to find, or there is some other compelling reason to connect with an offer immediately. It is the way of things in the age of the internet… quick decisions made by evaluating easily digestible bullet points and clicking. We have no objection to the process, and understand it. But it can also work to the exclusion of some really spectacular finds that, while they might be among of the most desirable wines in a particular category over the course of a year, don’t have a simple story that can be sliced, diced and edited into a rapid-fire offer.

We knew going in that his was going to be one of those stories that required a bit of an attention span, and therefore eliminated a number of readers and was an uphill fight in the current world of ‘quick hits’. The story of Bruce Neyers and the Neyers Cabernet Sauvignon Neyers Ranch-Conn Valley 2013 isn’t one that can be adequately told in “25 words or less”, let alone “140 characters”. But at the end of the day, we believe the ‘read’ will pay dividends in telling you about one f the most interesting Cabernets we have seen of late.We’ll open with a little perspective piece done by Spectator’s James Laube which we think is really on point, “There are so many things that Neyers winery is doing right these days that it’s hard to know where to begin…What impresses me about their winery goes beyond the quality of the wines, which is often exceptional, and extends to the sensibility of pricing. That comes from being on the sales side of the equation, working with dozens of imports and being a consumer at heart. It’s a function of Bruce Neyers having been in the wine business for 43 years, including 21 at the helm of his own winery.” He had stints at Mayacamas, Heitz, Stony Hill, and Joseph Phelps Vineyards. Bruce is a wine industry lifer, not somebody that flew in on a private jet and decided he was going to make the next Screaming Eagle.

It is that grounded perspective that is the first aspect of why this wine got us going. We’ve had people trying to sell us revved up, one dimensional oak bombs for 2, 3, or 4 times as much money as this one, a lot of them laughingly overpriced. Bruce sees all of that and goes about his business, setting a price that represents a bargain in the rarified air of serious Napa Valley Cabernet.

The vineyard, located in Conn Valley, is also a large part of the story. Bruce and his wife of 46 years, Barbara were introduced to this property in 1984. It had been a vineyard previously as indicated by the abandoned grape stakes and end posts. The land was a succession of gentle hills with a south-facing exposure; in parts it seemed impossibly steep and rocky. We thought it was beautiful, especially from the top of the hill looking southwest across Lake Hennessey towards the heart of the Napa Valley. Then there was that creek – Conn Creek it’s called — that flowed through the south block of the property. An idyllic spot that soil analysis proved was beautifully suited to Cabernet.

The vineyard was planted, or shall we say ‘repalnted’ in 1992 by the esteemed David Abreu. The vines sit on a steep, south-facing slope of basalt mixed with gravel and loam. It is considered one of the best sites for Cabernet in the Napa Valley, and now this primo site has some of the oldest Cabernet vines in the Valley. WE have spoken at length about the value of older vines, and would also make the point that a lot of those trophy Cabs other people presented us were from 6-10 year old plantings.
The last piece of the puzzle was 2013, the vintage. Robert Parker said, “…2013 may turn out to be the finest vintage I have experienced in tasting North Coast varietals over the last 37 years. It’s a game-changer …” In Bruce’s case, drought and wind reduced the crop by 25%.

Sensible, passionate winery owner, organic farming, exceptional site and, now, mature vines (2013 was their 21st harvest), lower yields and an outstanding vintage, you can see where we are going with this. But we wouldn’t be telling this story if the wine wasn’t special. For true fans of Cabernet, this is a gem. The Neyers Cabernet Sauvignon Neyers Ranch-Conn Valley 2013 is wonderfully aromatic, combining cassis and blackberry fruit with violets, cocoa and spice notes. There’s a persistent underlying minerality and whiffs of lead pencil and cedar. The palate is decidedly plush and there is an endearing softness to the edges.

There are plenty of Napa Cabs that have power and punch. Size does matter to Cabernet drinkers. But this one has more than just volume. There are layers to the flavors as well as already emerging complexity and something that can only be defined as ‘soul’. We don’t have a bunch of ‘bullet point’ scores to throw at you here. But to tell the truth our minds were made up at first sip and whatever might come later review-wise will just be a bonus. A must for Cabernet lovers.

OVERLAND WINES ARE A KICK (RANCH)

Over time we have consistently tried to make (belabor?) the point that one of the things that makes us different is our commitment to research. Long ago we figured out that we don’t know everything. Never will. But that doesn’t stop us from looking at as many wines as we can because you just never know when the next star will appear. Sometimes we have to slog through a lot of so-so stuff to find a gem or two, but that’s how you learn. Sometimes it just comes up and hits you in the face.

At first look, these were a little curious. The labels gave the stylistic impression more of a newspaper or poster from the Old West. The story it seems is that on the site of today’s Kick Ranch there was an original vineyard planted by some pioneer types that made the 2000 miles journey out west via covered wagon and landed in a small village called…Santa Rosa. The journey started in 1854 and, by 1875, the records show the family was cultivating some 25 acres of vineyards, putting them on a very close timeline to one Augustin Harasthy, considered the ‘father of California viticulture.

The history lesson ended there and there were no longer any vines on the property when Dick Keenan & Kathy McNamara purchased it around the turn of this century. After ten years of growing grapes and selling them to, as we found out, some pretty famous names (Beaven, Bedrock, Paul Hobbs, and Rosenblum, have made vineyard designated Kick Ranch bottlings), they decided it was time to produce some of their own wine.

The property’s sense of history supports the ‘old-timey’ feel to the labeling and bottles. But there was a clear purpose to the winemaking style here, too. This isn’t someone trying to make a Euro-look-alike. The Kick Ranch wines embrace their ‘trailblazer’ heritage with boldly styled, broad shouldered, very California fare. Kick Ranch’s winemaker, Glenn Alexander, was a former rancher and later manufacturer who wanted to get back to the land. He also runs a viticulture business where he tends vines for some Sonoma heavyweights.

Glenn’s consulting winemaker isn’t some jet-setter who flies in once or twice a year, nor some instantly recognizable, high-profile north coast ‘hired-gun’. It is, instead, friend and mentor Hugh Chappelle of neighboring Quivara. Hugh is a very knowledgable, down to earth sort and very focused on the vineyard approach to winemaking. Lots of winemakers say that, but Hugh came across as sincere in our conversation with him. That means he’s not the type to impose a particular winemaking style. There is little stylistic similarity between the typically more restrained Quivara style and polished, ‘frontal assault’ approach to the Overland reds.

The whole vibe here is a little ‘down home’, and that clearly suggests an authenticity to Kick Ranch’s wines as they express ‘real’ Sonoma, not some stylized California wine with an eye towards the international palate. If this be ‘cowboy’ wine, that’s OK. These wines are deliciously true to their roots.

Turns out we weren’t the only ones who liked the juice. Interestingly enough, Robert Parker also commented on the distinctive packaging. Said Parker, “I must say I liked the squat, German grenade-shaped bottles as well as some of the motivational language on the labels from “wines of promised efforts” to “the courage is in the start.” He also found there was a lot more to these than just ‘novelty packaging’.

Start with the Overland Argonaut Kick Ranch 2012, a wine named with the ‘covered wagon’ set in mind as their web page explained, “In the 1850’s, local California newspapers called those who moved to California during the gold rush of 1849, “Argonauts”. The reference is to wine growing as an ‘adventure’. ‘Argonaut’ is 82% Syrah and 18% Petite Sirah that sees 22 months in a combination of new and 2-year-old French oak.

Broad and deep (the wine, not the bottle), with plenty of black fruit and a pleasing ‘chew’ to the finish (but not astringence), this is the consummate California mouthful. An Advocate 93+, Parker’s take was, “The impressive 2012 Syrah Argonaut Kick Ranch exhibits an opaque purple color, blueberry and blackberry fruit intertwined with licorice and camphor notes, full body, sweet tannin and a long finish. This heady wine should drink well for a decade or more.” Less than 300 cases were produced of this one.
Even ‘pioneers’ need white wine sometimes, and the Overland Sauvignon Blanc Kick Ranch 2013 delivers plenty in what might be considered something of a throwback style. We had the opportunity to buy either the 2013 or 2014 Sauvignon Blanc, both Wine Advocate ‘90s’, but chose the 2013 because it was in such an appealing place. Round in the mouth with ripe fig and melon fruit, and an unobtrusive touch of oak, the 2013 had mid-palate appeal but still plenty of freshness. Bob’s take, “The outstanding 2013 Sauvignon Blanc Kick Ranch offers lots of honeysuckle, orange blossom, caramelized grapefruit and melon notes. This exotic, medium-bodied, deliciously fruity, dry, zesty Sauvignon is filled with character.” You don’t hear Advocate say,” Enjoy it over the next several years…” about California Sauvignon Blanc very often (ever?), but he did here. Overland produced a ‘whopping’ 330 cases of this one .

We had an email plans for thse wines but couldn’t secure enough wine to support it.  Still, this is fine, off the beaten path California juice.  If you’re muse is sitting around drinking Chinons and Savoies, these probably aren’t for you. If you are a fan of boldly flavored California wines, however, these will play well at your table.

BRETON BOURGUEIL FRANC DE PIED 2015

BRETON BOURGUEIL FRANC DE PIED 2015

Cabernet Franc can be trying, but when the fruit gets to a certain ripeness, they are magic. Of course it takes just the right situation for them to hit that highest note, and nature has to cooperate. The Breton Bourgeil Franc de Pied 2015 is one of the most haunting examples from this particular appellation we have had ever. But it’s only Bourgueil, you say? How good could something from such a modest, utilitarian section of the Loire be that outstanding?

As we have said so often in Burgundy (it applies here, too), the three most important things about a wine are the producer, the weather, and the dirt. The Bretons have been a favorite of ours since we started selling a lot of their stuff back in the 2005 vintage. Catherine and Pierre Breton are as ‘blue chip’ as it gets in this part of the world. They always do fine work in both Bourgueil and Chinon (as well as a little Vouvray ). When Nature is kind, their game improves exponentially. So these grapes fell into the right hands.

The next part in this case is the ‘dirt’, or more specifically the vines. The term Franc de Pied refers to vines that are ungrafted. They exist on their own root-stock which makes them more vulnerable to phylloxera and other issues. They need special care. Given the difficulty of the vineyard maintenance and the special conditions the vines need to thrive, plots like this are relatively rare. But because the material is homogenous, it is capable of a depth of flavor and an almost exotic expression of the varietal. This simply has another gear or two by comparison to mere mortal bottlings.

Finally, in case you haven’t heard, 2015 is a uniquely special vintage. It was beyond exceptional here. We can count the vintages like this we have experienced on one hand. But not only was 2015 outstanding, it excelled in the most conspicuous of ways. Most 2015s have almost uniformly endearing, jump-out-of-the-glass type fruit components that should appeal to experienced palates and novices alike. Loire reds are no different in 2015. The Breton Bourgeil Franc de Pied 2015 simply jumps higher! The effusive nose shows notes of violets, wild herbs, fresh leaf tobacco and a little note of pepper as accents to the central theme of mulberry and red currant fruit. In the mouth, the plump, supple, gentle, but expansive fruit comes to the fore and takes charge, with gentle tannins and subdued acidity. No ’green’ flavors anywhere.

We have occasionally spoken of how a wine can succeed in a way that transcends its varietal and appellation to almost become something else. This is one of those cases, the wine existing on a plane somewhere between optimally ripe Bourgueil and a reserve Pinot from Oregon. It’s almost an ‘umami’ thing. It is definitely a delicious thing that can be enjoyed for pure hedonism, or pondered for its uniqueness and complexity. A must, we took all of it…$29.98

And Now, a Look Even Further Ahead: Part IV

Essentially from our previous pieces, we have suggested that the whole wine landscape has changed over the last twenty years as wine became more engrained in a larger segment of the population. However as the baby boomers, the first generation to really embrace wine, pass from the active market place the wine industry will have to reevaluate itself. That is something it has failed to do thus far with one of the most monumental changes in the history of mankind, the internet.

We have posited that the new, millennial buyer is more likely to be comfortable with wine because they grew up at a time where many more households had wine on the table on a regular basis. They will have more information at their fingertips 24/7 that they can access instantaneously via a number of devices. There will be no reason to wonder any more about anything but the most arcane aspects of wine, and even a lot of that info is out there if someone wants to dig a little harder.

Most will think of wine as an acceptable beverage, but we suspect fewer will have the opportunity to have that first ‘epiphany’ because this is a faster, noisier, more instant gratification group for whom burgers, pizza, buffalo wings, and forays into ethnic cuisines, most of which aren’t necessarily wine friendly nor bring with them any kind of wine culture. We’d go out on a limb and say that, in the vast majority of the venues we’ve just mentioned, it is unlikely you will find anyone who knows much of anything about wine. Things are way more casual than they used to be food wise. Millennials go out more, but typically don’t take the fine dining thing particularly seriously and don’t spend as much when they do go out according to studies we have read.

Are we saying that is bad? Not at all, simply that it is and is not the most conducive environment to recruit new wine drinkers. In a world of texting, Facebook (or whatever the hippest new social media platform is), virtual reality and self driving cars, fewer people take the time (or have it) to sit down and have a quiet dinner and a bottle of wine. Fine wine is a special, contemplative experience and that sort of entertainment is kind of out of vogue. We could go in a number of different directions from here but, suffice it to say, the speed and sensory overload of today’s world doesn’t necessarily pair well with an elegant, subtle red.

On a broad market level, the wine industry is attempting by and large to amp up the wines and the ‘kitch’ trying to make an impression. Bold, if not necessarily complex flavors via a little manipulation in the cellar mediates vintage. This uniformity makes wine ‘brands’ more like Pepsi (or Coke, we aren’t biased). It’s a homogenization of wine to a frightening extent. Everything is starting to have annoyingly similar flavor profiles as if a ‘control group’ is dictating styles.

So in the face of that, where’s our millennial generation going to get hit by the wine bug? Word of mouth and random contact with people who have already been bitten will still be a great way. But it’s that person on the street just going through life…where are they going to have that defining moment that changes their perspective? A lot of folks learned wine at an outlet where they found someone to talk to that was truly passionate. But such places are disappearing in California as a function of brutal competition, high rents, and an inability in such an environment to find good floor people.

Most of the people in ‘chains’, if you can find anyone to talk to at all, are not that far from novices themselves and definitely have some sort of employer mandated agenda like selling their own exclusive brands. Big box stores? Good luck finding anybody to ask a question of any kind, let alone something in depth.

Sommeliers? You aren’t going to find one of those in anything but top flight restaurants and, given the markups, it’s going to cost a ‘regular Joe’ a lot more to learn something. The casual dining experience, which seems to be where the restaurant expansion is these days, is less likely to produce that ‘discovery’ scenario. The accelerating pace of life in general (both real and virtual), coupled with fewer opportunities to experience some kind of ‘connection’ to wine outside the home, will make the whole embracing of fine wine as more than a ‘casual beverage option’ much more difficult.

We don’t mean to sound like depressed 1920s poets in some French café. Some will find a way. But today’s environment and generation just don’t seem as fertile a mix for fine wine appreciation. And we haven’t considered the effects of surging factors like home-delivery of meals on an unprecedented scale, presumably bringing food to someone intently engaged in some FPS (first person shooter) video experience who won’t even have a free hand to eat let alone hold and ponder a glass of wine.

Other stuff we think about…

Global warming: Whether you believe that greenhouse gasses are the cause of global warming or that it was an inevitable direction of some 10,000 year weather cycle, there is hard data that it exists. We have extensively studied European vintages back into the 40’s, and seen how many truly crummy vintages there were in the period from 1945 through 1980. In the last quarter century, the percentage of ‘great’ vintages has increased, and true ‘stinkers’ are relatively rare. But even casually saying that the average temperature increases a little every couple of years (we have heard specifics as high as 1 degree per year), what happens down the road is the issue.

Warmer weather has given us a plethora of noteworthy vintages in recent times. So, ‘hooray, global warming’ from a wine perspective? But fast forward a decade or two and think about this. All of the greatest growing sites are ‘great’ because their situation/exposure/terroir allows them to ripen the grapes consistently. Those great sites will eventually become too warm and not be as hospitable to the grapes for which they are renowned. It’s a little early to start planting Mourvedre in Germany. But the thought of doing so is considerably less insane than a couple of decades ago and freak vintages (like super hot 2003 was in Europe) might start coming around more regularly. Maybe these are the good old days.

Paradise Lost: We have often said that the wine industry has succeeded in spite of itself. We attribute that to the times and the innate appeal of the product. There were some very successful business models that worked back in the 70s and 80s that created a number of brands that have been solid for years. Here, decades later, the wine industry still holds those programs (Cakebread, Far Niente, and Sonoma Cutrer among them) as holy grails. But the times they are a changin’.

Labels are still trying to emulate the success those brands achieved ‘back in the day’ by using the same formula of perceived exclusivity, premium pricing, and restaurant focused marketing. The thing is that, back then, there were substantially fewer brands vying for people’s attention. It’s a lot harder to catch someone’s eye in a group of 500 labels than a group of 50, yet the market is saturated with would-be superstars who all want to play the same game. We have exactly the same conversations with wineries about how ‘special’ their wines are that we had three decades ago, only more of them because of the sheer volume of wineries.

The rise of the critic changed how wine was marketed, and the internet changed the world. Yet the wine industry still blindly preaches the mantra of the old days. There’s a lot of unsold wine out there because of ‘the games people play’. Still, as wineries come to grips with their own failures, they still cling to ‘the ideal’. Shhh, don’t tell anyone, there’s a bit of big time wine being dumped at restaurants at a fraction of the price to move it. There’s a lot of wine sitting in warehouses unsold.

We get people coming to us regularly with wine they need to move at heavily discounted prices, many of them good labels, with the request that we sell it for the same price that they did (or clearly failed to) so as not to hurt their image. Our take is that maybe their image isn’t what they think it is. Maybe it shouldn’t have been that price in the first place. If they couldn’t sell it to people who supposedly like their wines within those parameters and nothing else to sell, what makes them think we could do it against our very competitive selection.

Wine Spectator recently published that direct-to-consumer shipping was at an all time high. Fair enough. We’d say that more wineries are adopting that model because they make the most money that way, and there are record numbers of wineries playing that avenue. We also would suggest that without a tout from a significant critical source, that plan is not sustainable and people will tire of paying $60-80 (or more) for a ‘$30’ wine just because it is ‘exclusive’ or ‘rare’. We don’t see millennials putting up with that nonsense at all.

The wine industry has lived a charmed life over the last three (or four) decades. It has been a good ride, but much has changed. If the industry as a whole does not accept the new reality and rethink their approach, they will not only attract fewer new buyers, but are in danger of losing a bit of their existing audience. Finding new buyers is going to be difficult enough moving forward for reasons we have discussed. But it is considerably harder to bring back buyers you have alienated.

And Now, a Look Even Further Ahead: Part III

Our last piece (Part II) ended with a very telling question. It is based on different patterns of the populace and tries to predict the behavior of the generation that grew up with the internet, cell phones, more ‘less traditional’ households, and, now, the dawn of virtual reality and Wingstop. While we can only predict with limited accuracy (if we were really able to predict that stuff, people would pay us money), there are some reasonable basis for hypothesis.

One is that ‘entertainment’ happens more outside the home in casual restaurants, gastro pubs, pizza places, et al. Clubs, cocktails, and craft beers are much more ingrained in the culture. Entertainment options are at historic highs (since now you’ve added virtual reality to plain old reality), as are the dining choices. A generation of immigrants (we do not make presumptions about anyone’s status), mostly not from Europe, have brought their food traditions with them. There’s an amazing array of cuisines from South and Central America, Asia and the Pacific Rim. Mexican cuisine, longtime staples in California, has countless more regional examples.

In places like Los Angeles and San Francisco, there is a dizzying array of food choices. All kinds of folks are eating all kinds of different foods. The thing is, and we say this in the most objective way possible, the majority of this new, expanded ‘food scene’ are from places with no ingrained wine culture. We interpret that as a potential problem from the standpoint of the learning curve. Everybody who ultimately gets ‘serious’ about wine has an experience or two that tickle the imagination, that motivates them to follow the path.

The typically bustling, high-decibel eating environments of today don’t necessarily support the quiet contemplation of your beverage. Sometimes you can’t even hear the person across from you, let alone talk about the wine. The energy of such a room is part of the experience, but the odds of randomly discovering wine is reduced by the fact there us so much other stimulus. In most Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese, or Indian eateries, if there is a wine ‘program’ at all, it’s usually a small list of ordinary, very commercial bottles selected by a distributor rep without necessarily any regard to the cuisine but rather what they are supposed to sell. Often times the restaurateurs themselves don’t care. Beer is easier (though less so today with the craft explosion).

A lot more people eat at these types of restaurants as a percentage than three decades ago. Heck the extent and diversity of cultural food options really didn’t exist back then, and the ones that did were an occasional novelty for the typical family. The key point is that the expansive landscape of more ethnic fare will provide fewer opportunities percentage-wise for people who have yet to have that ‘definitive’ wine experience.

One would think that there would be more avenues than ever where someone might stumble into wine. But that’s not necessarily the case in today’s world. We old-timers learned by tasting, reading, and finding a few folks to talk to in a wine store. Since all the prices were fixed back in the 70s, a standard wine venue could support itself by carrying ‘the hits’ and a lot more options that grocery stores did not. When price fixing went away, so did a lot of those types of venues because they couldn’t adjust to the new reality. Fast forward today and buying patterns have changed (at least in California) because of the market shifting to a different group of venues that provided convenience and price advantages.

People today are a lot more harried. They will shop ‘specialized’ for big purchases, but most would like to take care of the day-to-day stuff in as few stops as possible. So they are less likely to make the extra trip for wine when they can find something palatable in the now-somewhat-expanded grocery store selection or ‘big box’ set. Are they interested in trying something new? Maybe, but there is little information on the shelves in such places save for an occasional point score from some publication that they may or may not know. It’s not likely there is anyone that can answer even the simplest of questions, either.

Big box stores? There’s a modest selection of ‘the hits’ and no one that knows anything on the floor. So unless you know what you are looking for, you’re flying blind and likely to just buy the same old things. Is just buying the same old thing wrong? Not for a lot of people. But even if you have the desire and motivation to expand your horizons you might need a little help. In such venues, if there even is anyone ‘working the floor’ (which is rare), it’s usually some supplier rep with an agenda to sell their own stuff.
The wine store of old is generally gone, replaced by more hybridized versions that have passionate buyers and innovative selections. The problem is that most aren’t going to have many of those old familiar favorites for you to fall back on because ‘big brand’ giveaways by grocers and big box stores have made these brands untenable even to carry for convenience. So basically to make that extra trip, you have to have made the decision that you want to get out of the ‘rut’ and get into wine. That’s a big commitment for most people.

What about those alcoholic beverage chain stores that advertise they have ‘experts’ on the floor to help you? Good luck with that. The term ‘experts’ is tossed around rather loosely, and most of them are only trained to move you into that high margin ‘store brand’.

Restaurant-by-the-glass programs should offer the best opportunity to learn. But there are a host of problems. In a busy, noisy restaurant, the likelihood of being able to talk to someone who actually can spend the time to help you and knows the wine is small (though they are out there). Plus, as we have mentioned in other pieces, you don’t know if the wine you’re tasting is representative of the genre it represents if you don’t already know the genre. Moreover, given the generally marginal condition of most ‘back bar’ wines, where you have no idea how long that particular bottle has been open, you don’t really know if the juice in your glass is even representative of that wine. Given that, it is fairly remarkable how much energy wineries put into wine-by-the- glass offers since they have little idea what the customer is actually drinking. They could be turning off potential wine drinkers to their brand or wine in general with some half-dead white or decrepit red.

As for experimenting with wine list at restaurant, where you see them open the bottle, you can learn that way provided it’s an eatery with a more enlightened yet still consumer friendly list. It’s no easy task to find one of those, and the learning curve will be the most expensive of any. This of course also presumes the person running the wine program is actually concerned about the diners themselves and doesn’t have some sort of personal agenda.

There are suggestions of forming tasting groups where a bunch of people all learn together. They work, but they are at least step B or C. At that point you have already gone to the next level of interest and aren’t a novice any more. The same goes with wine education classes. The passionate will find a way. Our point is that the person who might potentially be interested in learning more will have a much harder time in today’s market stumbling onto that formative ‘aha’ moment that will give him/her the fire. More to the issue, those who might have it may never find out they do because, under a wide range of scenarios, the situation may never present itself.

The ‘next generation’ of wine drinkers, whoever they might be, will have the most to do with how the next couple of decades play out for the wine industry in general. They are likely to be more open to wine as a beverage choice than any generation to date, but less likely to go far beyond that (other than the occasional tech millionaire who wants to fill the wine cellar in the mansion he just bought). As the prices of better bottles get to be more expensive, and the range of beverage choices competing for the consumer dollar continues to expand, wine geekdom will likely be even more ‘the road less followed’.

Pricing, marketing, global warming, is it the ‘juice’ or the ‘show’? We’ll take a swing at that stuff in a couple of weeks…

SOULFUL CHARDONNAY: ALMA DE CATTLEYA CHARDONNAY SONOMA COUNTY 2015

ALMA DE CATTLEYA CHARDONNAY SONOMA COUNTY 2015

It’s getting harder and harder to find good deals in California. Sure there are those so-called value bottlings that essentially offer plonk for a low price, but that’s not really a good deal if you are a discriminating wine drinker. Heck, you don’t even have to be all that discriminating to know that a lot of that stuff is simple, calculated, and something that strives for adequacy.

That’s what makes this wine kind of special. This is not some made-to-order line item to fit into a specified price strata. This is a soulful, expressive, bright Chardonnay that is the personal statement of a winemaker with a burgeoning reputation and a fascinating history. A lot of passion and knowledge goes into this wine and it shows in the glass. This all emanates from Bibiana González Rave, a Columbian born lady who decided in her teens that she wanted to make wine.

Hard to figure where it all started but she studied chemical engineering in Columbia after which she got herself to France, where between Bordeaux and Cognac she learned viticulture, enology and microbiology. She had all of the tools to be a winemaker but that was only the beginning. She worked at a number of French domaines including Ogier and Clusel-Roch in the Rhone and Haut Brion and La Dominique in Bordeaux.

She worked harvests in South Africa at Saronsberg Cellars as well as in California and France, working six harvests in three years at one point. One can get a little winded just reading her story but, in 2007, she decided to take her show to the West Coast. In California she worked at La Crema, Peay Vineyards, Au Bon Climat and Qupé before Lynmar, where she was winemaker from 2009 through 2011.

Upon leaving Lynmar, he started her own vineyard and winery-consulting business, Rave Vines & Wines, produced a handful of wines under her own label, Cattleya (named for the national flower of Columbia, the orchid, and the word alma is Spanish for  ‘soul’).  She married Jeff Pisoni, of the Pisoni Vineyard family, formed a winery with him called Shared Notes, secured new grape sources for her own wines and signed on as winemaker for Jayson Pahlmeyer’s Sonoma Coast Pinot and Chardonnay project called Wayfarer Ranch. She has been given broader responsibilities within the range of Pahlmeyer projects recently. To borrow a phrase from athletics, ‘You can’t stop her you, can only hope to contain her.’

You wonder when she has time to do all of this. Given the range of her vast winemaking experience at high end locales, you also wonder why she would choose to make something in this kind of price range. Yes, she makes the requisite $60-90 vineyard designated offerings that have pulled down big numbers from the critics. But here is this brilliantly precise, vivid Chardonnay for under $20, clearly made with the same attention to detail. Lifted apple fruit, well integrated notes of clean minerality, mid-palate volume and plenty of freshness, this outclasses the price point. Are we saying this is one of those desirable ‘little’ wines made by a big time winemaker that reaches to a higher level? ¡Claro que si!