Monday, July 15, 2019

The Most Compelling Wine From A Region You've Never Heard Of

And the red's not bad, either...

Tucked way (waaaay) up in the northeast corner of Italy is a little-known winegrowing region called Collio. I'd never heard of the region, let alone Marco Fellunga's estate of Russiz Superiore, which is so far east and north, the Slovenian border is less than a mile away.  So, when samples from this family-run winery showed up, I was intrigued to sit down, investigate, and learn. And this is my kind of education...

Neither of these wines exactly exudes Italian character, nor do they suffer as a result. Instead, they express a lovely purity that feels like an honest reflection of place rather than style.  And as terrific as these wines are, you have to wonder what rewards await those who explore this area's wines, as well as those from just down the road in Slovenia's Brda region.

2018 Russiz Superiore Collio Sauvignon $29
Beautiful. Crystalline and electric, with beguiling aromatics and mineral-infused energy. Nose and palate show off a graphite edge that adds to the character and complexity in an alluring manner. This is a very fine wine. Wine nerds will go bonkers for how it channels the earth, and all drinkers will appreciate its quality. Among the most compelling and exciting whites I’ve had in a year or more.

2016 Russiz Superiore Collio Cabernet Franc $29
Dark and serious looking in the glass with long legs and an inky ruby color. The nose is bright and expressive and fresh, with subtle smoke, suggesting something more casual than what lies ahead. That thin thread of smoke complexity carries through to the palate where sophisticated elegance reigns supreme. This wine, though I was not sure what to expect, is a surprise. It does not carry with it the telltale Italian acidity, but the lean character that often accompanies mountain fruit. It’s joy is delivered in a quieter voice rather than a blaring trumpet. Seductive if you want it to be, but approachable regardless.  Would love to meet this wine again after five years of aging.

Monday, July 1, 2019

Boring But Important, The End Of The Beginning

Patience Should Be Practiced Alongside Celebration

A few months ago I penned a couple of pieces (here and here) about Tennessee v Blair, more formally known as Tennessee Wine and Spirits Retailers Association v. Russell F. Thomas (formerly v. Zackary Blair.) This was a case that was then being heard before the Supreme Court and which I predicted would uphold the status quo. I was wrong, and that could be good news for consumers who like to shop for wine at stores in other states.

Late June is when most rulings come from the bench and last week was no different. While
gerrymandering and census questions dominated the airwaves, the Court also handed down a decisive 7-2 ruling in the case, striking down  Tennessee’s arcane (and brazenly protectionist) requirement that applicants for alcohol retail licenses be residents of the state for a minimum of 2 years. In other words, out-of-towners are not welcome to set up shop here - locals only.

This is a relevant ruling because, at its core is the rub between the Constitution’s commerce clause and a state law that discriminates against out of state businesses which, by the way, is far from unique in the US.  Though this ruling is great news for Total Wine, who will almost certainly rush to expand into Tennessee, its implications for other states are just that: implications.

What wine-loving proponents of this decision hope is that this ruling will help bust through the many state laws (including here in Ohio) that prohibit out-of-state retailers from shipping to consumers in-state. There are two ways for these decades-old laws to be dismantled: through the passage of new legislation and/or through attacking the laws in court. However, patience should be practiced along side celebration. 

It is highly unlikely that state legislators will take the initiative, particularly considering that these laws have benefited the constituents of what is often the most generous campaign contribution and lobbying force in each state: the Wine & Beer Wholesalers Association. And though there are likely to be plenty of parties with standing to challenge local laws on Constitutional grounds, such fights require deep pockets and tremendous upside to whomever is picking up the tab.

Moreover, and as recalled in the Spectator article linked to below, we have a contemporary example of the high court issuing a wine-centric ruling that didn’t have a watershed impact: Granholm v Heald, “...which prohibits state wine-shipping laws from discriminating between in-state and out-of-state wineries.”

Though things have certainly improved in the intervening 14 years since Granholm was decided, you’d be hard-pressed to describe the current patchwork quilt of state regulations as fluid or open.  In other words, there’s case law, and there’s state law, and there’s how things work in the real world. Aligning those three can’t happen overnight, and won’t happen without some kicking and screaming and dragging of feet. Only a fool would underestimate the influence of the Wine & Beer Wholesalers Associations. This brief Wine Spectator article does a pretty good job of summarizing the salient points, including the opinions of the Justices who voted in favor of striking it down, and those dissenting.

In the meantime, pop some popcorn with your champagne and watch the slowly unfolding march towards liberated wine commerce.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Consistency Counts: Wente Chardonnay

I have been reviewing - and drinking - Wente's chardonnays for well over a decade now.  For a good stretch there, their Morning Fog bottling was our house white, and for years this family-run brand has been a reliable nameplate for what much of the country has come to know as California chardonnay.  Though my aging palate has me leaning towards whites that speak in more hushed tones these days, I cannot help but be impressed by the ridiculous consistency of Wente's wines.

Few consumers know that 80% of all chardonnay planted in California is the 'Wente Clone'.  Ernest Wente began growing chardonnay from grapevine cuttings imported from France back in the 1880's.  Five generations later, Karl Wente continues the family tradition in making quintessential California chardonnay. Whether the Cali chard style is your bag or not, you know exactly what you’re getting when you reach for one of their bottles.  Also of note are the oak-free Eric's and the mind-bending Nth Degree bottlings, which are both expensive and worth it.

Prices below are SRP, so don't be surprised if you find these in your local market for (possibly a lot) less.

2017 Wente Vineyards Chardonnay Livermore Valley 'Morning Fog' $17
A clean nose leading into big, toasty, vanilla-coated butter blanket around gregarious tropical fruit. Nothing more, nothing less, just dependable. This one has been our house Chardonnay on and off for years and will appeal to consumers with a hankering for Texas-sized chards.

2017 Wente Vineyards Chardonnay Livermore Valley 'Riva Ranch' $22
Same DNA as the Morning Fog bottling, but with a surprisingly restrained core (in a good way, lest it would have become a caricature of exaggeration) surrounded by more of everything. Fuller, rounder, butterier, bigger, more elegant...just more all around.

2018 Wente Vineyards Unoaked Chardonnay Livermore Valley 'Eric's' $30
Somewhere between platinum blonde and straw colored, this wine is very clean and energetic on the nose. But the first sip will have your attention, asking if this really is from California. Clean as a whistle, focused, and with a decidedly European acidity, this is a striking departure from what we have all become conditioned to expect from California chardonnay. Tart green apple runs into brilliant citrus before purity lingers beyond the finish. Wow. What a surprise.

2017 Nth Degree Chardonnay Livermore Valley $70
Borderline magical. Concentrated yellow luminescence in the glass offers a glimpse into what awaits. The palate is expansive with a kaleidoscope of high notes, including fine-grained oak over chardonnay fruit that is at once voluptuous and quiet. An exercise in juxtapositions that will appeal to connoisseurs’ love of complexity while being just a damn pleasure to drink. Bravo!

Monday, June 24, 2019

Summertime PSA

This is your summertime public service announcement. 

Sparkling wine - in all its forms - is terrifically overlooked and under-applied in the US.  Our knowledge of wine and, more importantly, collective mood would be greatly enhanced if we experimented just a little more with the bubbly stuff.

Actually, this public service isn't limited to summertime at all.  Enjoy!

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Recycle Bin, Week of May 17

It's been a while since we've had a Recycle Bin posting.  This will be short and sweet - 3 reds, all good bang for the buck, and tasty as all get out, particularly with grilled food.  Enjoy!

2017 Domaine Brunet Pinot Noir France $10
Simple, but in an honest, appealing way.  Actually tastes like pinot noir - bright dried cherries, low alcohol, and versatile acidity.  Yum. Oh, and ten bucks!

2016 Chateau Maris La Touge Syrah $13.50
Big, fresh, juicy, and with a lip-smacking backbone of acids that make you come back for more - in a hurry.  Delicious and irresistible.

2016 Altesino Rosso Toscana $14.50
From the venerable Brunello house comes this affordable blend of true Tuscan flavors with some extraction and depth without getting too bogged down in weight.  Anything from pasta to steak will benefit from this as an accompaniment.

Monday, June 17, 2019

GSM: Old School Blend Made Modern

Grenache, syrah, and mourvedre were long ago discovered to be fantastic bedfellows, and for centuries the Rhône Valley has been the stronghold for where this triumvirate shines. But that doesn’t mean southern France has a corner on the market. Other regions around the world have made their own versions, with notable successes coming out of southern Australia and Santa Barbara county.  

Each grape in this blend brings a something to the table, but the magic of it is that the resulting combination is greater than the sum of its parts. This blending also allows for a great deal of flexibility from vintage vintage so that, for example, if one year yields a grenache that is just too lean or too flabby, an increase in either or both of the other grapes can compensate for that shortcoming, as seen in the vintages below.  

So, when two gorgeously-packaged samples arrived from a Bay Area winery known mostly for its chardonnays, my interest was piqued. Bay Area GSM? Hey, if you want to discover something under-appreciated, you need to keep an open mind. That these wines were from successive vintages was even more exciting, as this offers the chance to identify the commonalities of the wines, the variations from year to year, as well as winemaker's thumbprint. As new world examples from a vintner with a strong track record of consistency, these riffs also provide a modern take on GSM.

2016 & 2017 Wente GSM Small Lot Artist Series Livermore Valley $55
Not surprisingly, these two wines have a tremendous amount in common: expressive, round, warming, youthful, seductive, and with dusty, textured tannins. They also differ enough to tell that they are siblings, not twins. Perhaps the most notable difference between the two is that, while the 2016 offers a more poised, elegant structure and is a bit on the coy side (great things to come down the road here), the 2017 is confident in its largesse, delivering all in a casual swagger. The variation in the blend percentages (as seen on the rear labels below) show the flexibility of blending in action, with syrah swinging 9% from one year to the next.

Deciding on a favorite between the two proved challenging, with the '17 oozing just a little bit more sex appeal, at least right now. I sure would like to take a mulligan on that decision and revisit these wines in another 5 to 10 years, but if you can lay your hands on either in the short term, do it - these are in extremely limited supply.

Sunday, June 9, 2019

6 Discoveries From The Veneto

While I am still jet-lagged and the memories are also somewhat fresh in my mind, I’d like to offer a few takeaways from my recent trip to northern Italy that found me mostly in and around Verona. This trip was all about discovery and my wandering eyes (and palate) were swiveling in search of overlooked diamonds in the rough to bring home and share. And it did not disappoint.  

First, a baseline. The Veneto region’s most notable wines are Soave and Amarone, and for good reason. Soave’s star has been rising for some years now, and I have noted in prior posts that my experimentation with this white almost has a 1000 batting average in terms of over delivering on QPR. Amarone, by contrast, is an exceedingly distinctive wine made from grapes that are dried for an extended period of time prior to pressing. This results in unmistakable potency and complexity. Neither of these two wines are much of a mystery to seasoned wine drinkers, but drinking my way through the enchanting city of Verona provided the opportunity to make some terrific finds, and I also learned a thing or two about wines I thought I already knew plenty about.  

So, in no particular order, following are six discoveries I made this time around:
  1. Sparkling wine. In Italy, sparkling wine almost invariably means Prosecco, at least from the outside looking in. But there’s much more to it than pedestrian bubbly. Fraciacorta, Italy’s high end response to Champagne, sits at the elite end of the spectrum, but in a part of the country where aperitivos are a daily ritual, affordable and refreshing quaffers are in demand. In the many piazzas and street corner cafés where orange-hued Aperol spritzes are the norm, older clientele (with no gender bias, either) tend to favor energetic, low alcohol sparkling wines. One in particular that was a real surprise and has haunted me since first tasting it is Buglioni’s Lo Spudorato (the shameless one).  It's a blend of garganega (the dominant grape in Soave) and durello. Light and fleet-footed, this gorgeous wine has microscopic bubbles and an intensity that refreshes and engages simultaneously. It was being poured, amazingly, for €2.50 a glass.  Another local white grape to look for: custoza.
  2. Grape drying.  This part of the winemaking world is fairly unique in its exhaustive use of both drying and byproduct. While most of the world races its harvest from picking to crush, drying red grapes is very common here. Amarone, for example, is made from the pressings of grapes that have been laid to dry for months after picking. The pomace, or leftover skins, seeds, and whatnot, are then used to make ripasso, which is regularly-vinified Valpolicella filtered through the richly-concentrated Amarone byproduct. Lastly, pomace is also used as the raw material in the distillation of grappa, a potent spirit enjoyed as a digestivo. What I had not realized until sitting down to a meal at the excellent Roberto Mazzi winery, is that winemakers variably use drying of grapes in non-Amarone Valpolicella wines to add a little extra density and oomph to the wines. Mazzi’s Poiega bottling, for example, uses 20% dried grapes in the mix. Having dried grapes at their disposal in the cellar only increases the versatility of winemakers’ tool boxes. Only in Italy, man.   
  3. Grappa. Prior to this trip, my long-held impression of this post prandial spirit was that it had more in common with formaldehyde than brandy. Our accommodations at the winery, however, included a communal bottle of the grappa della casa in the kitchen. Though it was far from spectacular, it was good enough to plant a seed for further experimentation in Verona’s watering holes where an education (and a couple of rough mornings) awaited. Like other liquors, grappa comes in many varieties and quality levels, including beautifully honeyed grappa di Amarone and, more specifically, Bonaventura’s 903 Barrique grappa. A very fine way to cap off an evening, indeed.   
  4. Internationalization. The term “international”, when used to describe stylistic inclination, is polite shorthand for wines made to appeal to American consumers (or big-assed wines.) This is as alive in the Veneto as elsewhere in Europe, which means that consumers need to really pay attention to what they are ordering/buying. Valpolicellas used to be lighter-bodied and more fragrant than corpulous, but that is no longer a dependable rule of thumb. I learned this the hard way at a fancy dinner one night when I asked the sommelier to recommend a wine that was not too overpowering or heavy. The bottle he brought was a Valpolicella Superiore clocking in at 14.5% and, while very well made, was both strong and intense. When I pointed out the alcohol level to him, he shrugged and told me that all his better wines were that high. (Sigh.)  Thankfully, there is still plenty of drinking delight to be had with Valpolicellas in the 12-13% range.
  5. Accessibility. I have praised modern supply chain sophistication time and time again, and here is yet another example of why we live in a gilded age of wine drinking. I brought back zero bottles of wine from this trip, having had faith that most of the good stuff I had while in Italy I could also procure stateside. There was one small tavern in Verona, however, it served wines from its own vineyard and I thought, "no way will I have a chance to enjoy this stuff again." This led to a bit of overindulgence at that particular tavern - when in Rome and all that - but wouldn’t you know that I found two bottles of their wine at an Italian grocery less than 10 miles from my house shortly after returning. I have brought back countless cases of wine from Spain, Portugal, Italy, and France, and I am happy to help travelers navigate the regulatory waters to do the same, but knowing what I know now about global accessibility of products, I have skipped the hassle of lugging heavy boxes through customs the last four times I’ve been to Europe.   
  6. The Peeps. Finally, and though this hardly qualifies as a new discovery, one cannot have even a fleeting conversation about Italy without talking about it’s number one asset: the people. Engaging, hospitable, and incredibly forgiving of our bull-in-a-China-shop presence on the world stage, Italians are irrepressibly eager to share in everything that makes their culture so wonderful. The smallest enthusiasm or curiosity for their food and wine opens many doors and conversations, invariably leading to memorable experiences. Grazie a tutti per tutto!

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Chardonnay Season Is Coming, People

With Memorial Day almost upon us, many of you will be stocking up on porch quaffers. Is it any coincidence that the Winethropology sample queue is almost entirely made up of chardonnays? Well, consider that fair warning of what you'll be reading a lot about on these pages in the coming weeks.  And, as a kick off, we have an appearance by an oldie-but-goodie brand, Cameron Hughes.

My coverage of Cameron Hughes's wines and business model is well-documented, going back more than nine years. Re-reading some of those pieces traces the arc of the business' rise, stumble, and retooling. Today, CH Wine is owned by industry juggernaut Vintage Wine Estates and available only by direct order.  It was fun to revisit the brand after such a long hiatus and hope to explore more of what they've been getting into recently. 

2017 Cameron Hughes Chardonnay Rogue Valley (Oregon) Lot 672 $14
To deliver a solid QPR, you've got to start with good grapes that don't cost an arm and a leg. For this lot, CH turned to the still-emerging region of Rogue Valley in Oregon's southwest, from which I've had some terrific pinot noirs recently. This chard sports a clean nose, tropical fore-palate, acidity on the mid that persists, and cream along the finish. Butter and oak spice emerge as the wine warms towards room temp. It tastes like good old American Chardonnay, which is apropos for this holiday weekend.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Act Fast

2017 Trader Joe's Platinum Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon Howell Mountain $15
Wines sourced from the bulk market run the gamut. They can be (and often are) plonk, but they can also be overlooked gems, as the Cameron Hughes empire was built on. Trader Joe’s private label wines also run the gamut. Recently, however, I’ve had a couple of their platinum reserve tier wines, which have been surprisingly good. This latest one, a cabernet made from Howell Mountain fruit in Napa, is not the same caliber as many estate wines from the appellation, but it’s also not $100+, which is the norm there.  Still, when you start with quality grapes, you can only go so wrong. Look for black fruit, good grip, and Napa tannins all leading towards a strong (and hot) finish. Hard to complain about a thing here, particularly at this price. Oh, and if prior experience is any indication, this won't be around for long and only 1,250 cases made.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Part II: A Peek Behind The Curtain

Hmmm, do I detect notes of litter box and overcrowded barn stalls?

That piece last month about A Peek Behind The Curtain generated some engagement/feedback, so in this second installment, we'll dive into a little-known, but increasingly popular medium: the virtual tasting. And I'll offer 4 (perhaps cynical) reasons why they work so brilliantly.

Enabled by advances in telecommuting technology, one of the darlings in wine publicists' tool boxes is the virtual tasting. Dig this: a PR firm dispatches invites to wine writers and ships samples to those who commit to attend the event. Invitees convene at the appointed time on one of the various hosting platforms/sites, which boast three common features: one-way video streaming, a comments function, and integration to Twitter.

The video stream typically shows a table staffed by 2-3 presenters; some combination of the winery owner, winemaker, vineyard manager, marketing person (sometimes a minor celeb), and/or public relations rep. If you've ever visited a winery, the scene is staged to look pretty much like that. These folks give a little background on the winery and wines, and, just like at a tasting room, begin to talk you through the wines.

Virtual tastings have become increasingly popular because their collective effect can be highly favorable for the sponsors, and come at a fraction of the cost of advertising. They are also sneakily brilliant. Core to the savvy in these events is that they recreate the tasting room dynamic, which itself is often a bit sneaky in its manipulation.

Now, to be clear, each one of these events is its own thing. I've attended some real doozies, but I've also had the pleasure of discovering some incredible treasures and engaged with the people behind them, so they're not all bad - at all.  Still, the function they provide is first and foremost promotional.  Here's why they are so effective:
  1. The Bolus: While the presenters talk through the wines, attendees follow along at home, sipping on the samples and watching the talk-through. You are encouraged to post questions to the presenters and remark on the wines via the comments function, which integrates with the invitees' Twitter accounts. What does that mean?  Whatever is asked of or commented to the presenters gets blasted into the Twittersphere with the winery's handle or hashtag appended. This creates a sudden flood of presence for the winery: 20-ish writers all tweeting comments about the same wines/winery, all in the same hour, with blog posts published in the subsequent days and weeks. It's like detonating a marketing bomb.
  2. Contrived Akwardness: Whomever is pouring the wines does so in a way that conveys pride and ownership in the product. They prompt you through the experience, suggesting specific flattering characteristics about the wine, where those elements came from, and how they are the precise manifestation of the winemaker's vision. "Do you like it?", they then ask expectantly. Now, what are you going to say to this person, who shipped you free wine and is beaming with pride? If the wine is honestly pleasing to you, the truth comes easily. If not, will you reply, "Hmmm, I detect notes of litter box and overcrowded barn stalls."?  No, probably not. Instead, you will look into the pourer's puppy dog eyes and begin calculating how to fake a sudden gastrointestinal crisis. But what comes out of most mouths is normally a vague, benign observation muttered at half volume.
  3. Peer Pressure: Whether organic or manufactured (and sometimes it is), peer pressure is also real. Imagine being in a tasting room where everyone around you is raving about the wines. "OMG, this chardonnay is so amaaaazing! I'm totally going to insta it right now." The same applies to virtual tastings because everyone else's comments are scrolling in a section right next to the video feed - and the most complimentary of which are read aloud by the presenters. You could be forgiven if at some point you get a little swept up in the enthusiasm.  And would it surprise you if occasionally one of the most vocal complimenters is being compensated for their advocacy?
  4. Palate Fatigue: A tired tongue can also come into play. When samples arrive on my doorstep, they spend a minimum of two weeks settling down from their journey, after which I find the right opportunity to spend some solitary time considering what's before me. I need some quiet space to give each wine my full attention.  I also need to return to the wine a number of times over an evening to see how it evolves. Virtual tastings are rapid fire by contrast, commonly tasting through six wines in an hour. By the third one you're becoming either tipsy or desensitized (or both), and that can only play to a wine marketer's benefit.
Leveraged properly, each of these can deliver the kind of impact every promoter desires, but together, they can pack a solid marketing punch at relatively low cost. 

And you thought writing a wine blog was nothing but purity of awesomeness, didn't you?

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Must Buy Red

2015 Canoe Ridge 'The Explorer' Horse Heaven Hills $19
More than just a pretty label, this blend of cab, syrah, merlot, and cab franc is worth every penny and then some.  Poised and elegant, yet accessible, this balanced red delivers terrific bang for the buck. Patient drinkers who can control themselves long enough to cellar this should be rewarded as this wine matures in the bottle.  But good luck with restraining yourself - this is delicious right now.

Friday, May 3, 2019

We Live In A Golden Age of Drinking

The other night I enjoyed a GSM with a meal of grilled veggies and meat.  The classic blend of grenache, syrah, and mourvedre takes on different styles depending on the continent of origin, but
always seems to dazzle with its combo of fruit and savory flavors.  This particular one, made in southern Australia, set me back a very reasonable $11 and got me to thinking, yet again, that we live in the golden age of drinking.

How is it possible that a wine can be cultivated, harvested, and made well in the Barossa Valley before being bottled in glass, loaded into cases, trucked to a port, craned onto a ship, sailed halfway around the world, trucked again through who knows how many warehouses, before making its way to a grocery store shelf in the eastern edge of the Midwest and still cost just $11?

That, people, is a miracle of modern times. If you’re looking for evidence that we live in a marvelous time to be a wine consumer, this is it!

Four or so years ago I wrote a piece about the potential upsides of the three tier system relative to what unintended consequences a deregulated market could bring.  The devil's advocate argument in that article elicited more spirited response than the vast majority of subjects covered on these pages.  Why?  Because people love to hate on the man that is the establishment underpinning the three tier system.  (And, well, the lack of love is not entirely without good reason.)

It's easy to throw the baby out with the bath water and join the fervor that the three tier system is evil, but its primary function is supply chain, and a robust supply chain is what makes drinking wine from other continents possible.  That we can enjoy non-US wines at generally more reasonable prices than domestic stuff is proof that the supply chain is oozing efficiency.

It wasn't all that long ago that consumer choices were extremely narrow and homogeneous.  But today you can walk into a wine shop in almost any city and find an incredible diversity of products from around the world.  We have come a long way, baby. So, in the spirit of gratitude and pointing out minor economic marvels of modernity, cheers!