Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Holding On To Summer

2018 Pieropan Soave $16
This entry-level wine is from a producer with real chops in the world of Soave. The more expensive classico version of this wine was my first introduction to Pieropan, and I've swooned over their labels many times since.  It's bottled summertime; carefree, fresh, and full of round, white flower aromas and fruit.  Perhaps a bit pricey for a declassified Soave, but worth it.

Sunday, August 9, 2020

Interesting, But Not Great

2017 Arnot-Roberts Syrah Sonoma Coast $43
Praised else where for its distinctiveness, perfume, and expression, I found this wine to be a bit of an oddity. Bordering on effervescent and far lighter-bodied than any other syrah I've had from Northern California, the weight of this wine was more like a cool climate grenache.  The nose was indeed perfumed, though muddled and seemingly searching for a north star.  Whereas most syrahs take on either savory, roasted flavors or structured, fruit-centric profiles, this has neither.  All of these outlying attributes make it interesting, for sure.  But at $43, interesting alone is not enough. At that price, it needs to be great.

Friday, August 7, 2020

Why That Wine Review Doesn't Make Sense To You

We've all had the experience at one point or another: you read a review that sounded great, but when you go through the trouble to find and buy it, the wine doesn't match what you read.  Maybe you even got that recommendation here.

Sure, there's ample evidence to support the notion of just how subjective the enjoyment of wine is - different strokes and all that - but a recent exchange with a publicist brought into focus another, more realistic likelihood:

The wine you're drinking isn't the same one that was reviewed.

No, this isn't a conspiracy theory about producers and marketers deliberately tricking the public by shipping the good stuff to critics (though nothing would surprise me.)  It's much more practical than that.

So, back to this PR rep. A review for a wine I panned not too long ago caught her eye.  It could be that she represents the winery or region, or just that she knows a thing or two about this particular wine.  Either way, she suggested that my experience was so different from that of the critic who had given the wine a 93 point rating.  What?  How?  Why? 
  • The wine is older now than it was when originally released and scored. 
  • The vinification method used means that it's meant to be drunk young, and isn't particularly well-suited to stresses of the supply chain.
  • The points-showering critic in all likelihood evaluated the wine while in-country.
All good points and most likely true.  If so, one could hardly say that the wine I gave a swift kick in the ass to is the same the other critic lauded.  Similarly, over a decade ago I wrote about a wine that I had had at home and then again just a couple of months later at the winery.  That was one of those times I was enjoying the advantage of proximity - and it made such a difference in the wine, I had to call it out:
"The difference between wine at the winery and the same exact wine off a grocery store shelf 2,500 miles away - based on this tasting - is night and day."
But who among us has the privilege of tasting a wine at the supremely optimal place and moment for peak experience?  Very, very few of us, which perhaps sheds light on why some wine reviews may not make sense to us.  It also raises the question of relevancy for wine reviews published by sources who do enjoy that privilege, given how at odds their experience is with that of consumers when and where they open the same bottle.

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Oh, Valtellina!

Wine is made in some very unexpected places, sometimes with lackluster results (islands in Lake Erie) and other times with wondrous effect.  The Valtellina region is one of the latter.  Tucked at the feet of the Alps in the borderlands between Italy and Switzerland just north and east of Lake Como, the area is home to steep hillside vineyards and ridiculously beautiful vistas.  When the world opens back up after quarantine, this is going to be on my short list.

While many alpine vineyards are planted to white varieties like pinot blanc, riesling, and so on, the majority of wine grapes grown here are not only red, but nebbiolo. And in conrtast to nebbiolo famously grown in Piedmont, the steep slopes, higher altitude, and climate in Valetllina yield a gentler, lighter wine.  If the one below is any indication of what this region has to offer, I'd recommend experimentation with whatever few bottles from the area you can lay your hands on.

2016 Sandro Fay Valtellina Rosso Tei $15
Weighing in at just 12%, this fleet-footed nebbiolo bears little resemblance to Barolo or Barbaresco.  Instead, its light body channels clear-eyed acidity and an easy going, food-friendly mouth of tart berries.  This is the winery's entry level red, which piques my curiosity about their other bottlings - and other wines from this region.  Definitely a repeat buy.

Friday, July 31, 2020

Desperate Times For Wine Marketing?

(Fair warning: This is squarely in rant territory.)

Wine buyers in the marketplace, whether retailers, restaurateurs, or consumers, are commonly introduced to new products at tastings. Tastings run the gamut from 10 Tastes for $10 at fancy grocery stores to blowout warehouse trade tastings put on by large distributors. With none of these happening these days, there's been a noticeable uptick in samples shipped to my doorstep.  That makes sense.  Marketers are looking for any available avenue to find an audience for their clients' products.

What doesn't make sense is the even larger increase in "invitations" to provide coverage for wineries' products sans product.  Yes, you read that right.

Virtual tastings, increasingly common over the last few years, are where the winery will send samples out in advance and then set up a video chat with the winemaker while you taste through the wines (which I have my misgivings about.)  By contrast, recent missives sometimes include an "invite" to a similar event, but also including advice on where to buy the wines (on your own dime) and what hashtag to use when posting about them.  It's essentially crowd-sourcing public relations. 

However, the most common variant of this new breed is an "invite" (phrased more like a request) to write about a winery's newest release.  When these land in my inbox, I respond with a link to the samples policy and a shipping address.  Then I get apologetic replies indicating that no samples are available.  What's even crazier is that these are often coming from people representing wineries trying to sell $85/bottle+ wines. 

So, what they're asking is that wine writers either a) go out, buy their wines (again, on their own dime), and then write something flattering about it, or b) write about their wines without trying them. 

I'm sure they'd be fine with it if writers skipped the purchase and evaluation altogether, so long as the flattering press happens.  If this sounds like a bitching about not getting enough samples, it's not.  I don't care about that, but can you imagine reading an article about the new Porsche when the closest the reviewer got was to see a video of it?

It must be some kind of new fever going around the PR community.  But here's the wackiest thing of all: they wouldn't be asking for coverage if at least one out of a hundred writers complied.

(Rant over.)

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

A Pair Of Summer Refreshers

2018 Michel Lelu Muscadet Loire Valley $12
This bright, refreshing, and dry white has something else going for it: a scant 11.5% alcohol, which makes for a very friendly aperitif.  But there's enough substance here for it to be much more than a palate-cleanser.  Terrific with shellfish pasta or end of day storytelling.

2016 Abbazia di Novacella Schiava Alto Adige $15
Vineyards in the foothills of the Dolomites are higher in altitude and lower in temperature, making the wines less dense, but with sparkling acidity that gives flavors sharp definition.  And while this particular bottling seems to vary in quality from year to year, it's a hit way more than a miss.  Look for vibrant flavor, clean acids, a light body, and lower alcohol. Fantastic alternative to pinot when having salmon.

Monday, July 27, 2020

They Can't All Be Winners

In the endeavor of loving wine, we must kiss a lot of frogs.  Here are some of those.

2016 Jose De Sousa Vinho Alentejano (Portugal) $16
The best (by far) red wine I had on a trip to Portugal a few years back was a $15 bottle from the Alentejo region.  Since then I've been repeatedly trying to find something similar.  This one looked appealing, so I gave it a try. A dense, tight nose of burning paperwork leads to a palate that's more of the same.  Did I get a bad bottle?  Wine Enthusiast gave this 93 points.  I gave it a swift kick in the ass.

2014 Sterling Merlot Napa Valley $13
Originally priced at $27, the vintage suggests that a palate of this was found in a forgotten corner of a warehouse and priced to move.  Sold to me as wine that "drinks like one of the big boys," I should have realized that this was code for "merlot masquerading as cabernet hammered into submission by an oak regimen that would be the envy of a lumber baron." 

What was I thinking?

Saturday, July 25, 2020

If Only California Delivered More Wines Like This

2018 Uppercut Sauvignon Blanc Napa Valley $10
Either someone mislabeled this as Napa Valley (maybe it's really sourced from across northern California?) or someone mispriced it (because since when does any wine from Napa cost $10?) Either way, this is a straightforward, textbook, classic North Coast sauv blanc, which means fresh-cut grass, exuberant energy, and a dash each of green apple and citrus. Uncomplicated, delish, and affordable.  If only California put out more wines like this.

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Drinking At Twice Its Price: Rickshaw Pinot Noir

Scratch that.  More like three times its price.  From the guys behind Banshee, Rickshaw is their second, value-priced line of wines.  As more high-end fruit in California cannot find buyers, keep an eye on labels like this for a bump in quality without a corresponding increase in price.

2018 Rickshaw Pinot Noir California $12
Textbook Sonoma Coast pinot profile, complete with beautiful, exotic spices, some burnt orange smoke, and classically California fruit without the overblown cola factor. Quite a feat at $20, but at $12 it's a bonanza of a bargain for those who like this style - including me.  Tasted twice for the sake of scientific thoroughness, of course.  NOTE: On opening it's a bit thin in the mid-palate. Give it a few hours of air and it will flesh out.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Box Wine's Tipping Point?

Last week's post on the Natural Origins Cabernet got me thinking about packaging and why this moment in time could be a tipping point for boxed wine.  The marketplace is no stranger to boxed wine, even drinkable box wines.  Heck, the first box wine I reviewed was just over a decade ago, though the current pandemic could be accelerating what has been a slow maturation process in the boxed wine category.

Why? (Hint: It has a lot to do with grocery stores.)
  1. Fewer Stops: Exposure-conscious consumers have reduced the number of store visits they make in any given week.  This has translated to less traffic at small independent wine shops, especially those slow to reach out to their customers with specific offers and curbside pickup. 
  2. Larger Volume/Longer Shelf Life: If you've seen the frozen vegetable section empty since the pandemic began (as I often have), you'll know that consumers have skewed their buying preferences towards products with a longer shelf life - again to minimize the frequency of trips. 
  3. Grocery Selections: Because there's no skipping groceries, people are buying more non-grocery products (like beer and wine) at the supermarket where wine sales have picked up very significantly.  In my local market grocery store wine sales are up just shy of 40%.
  4. Quality and Availability: Box wine is, almost exclusively, the domain of grocery stores.  But the options, like the Natural Origins, are expanding and improving dramatically.
  5. Social permission: Just as happened during the great recession, people are modest spending.  Back in 2007-9 it became uncool to be seen popping open overpriced bottles, creating a social stigma associated with consuming extravagantly.  Something similar is happening today, but with hardly anyone entertaining or eating at restaurants, there's no one looking at what you're drinking.
All of these factors add up to what has got to be the most favorable market conditions for box wine ever.  Is it enough to reach a tipping point towards mainstream acceptance? Only time will tell, but one distributor recently shared with me that the SKU with the largest leap in gross dollar sales was a well-known premium box wine, sales of which nearly TRIPLED from a year ago.

Saturday, July 18, 2020

Giddy For Wine In A Box

There is a class of wines that, when described, often has parenthetical qualifiers attached to it. For example, when enjoying a white from that state up north, it wouldn’t be unusual for someone to say that, “it's pretty good (for a Michigan wine)”. But qualifiers aren’t limited to geography. The can include uncommon grape varieties "not bad (for a cinsault)", off-beat vinification methods "tasty (for a sparkling syrah)", and, as is the case with this wine, packaging.

This wine, however, needs no qualifier.  It's a very approachable, mid-level quality cabernet that tastes like cabernet should.  It just happens to be in a box.  A restaurant could easily charge $8 a glass for this as their house pour and sell a ton of it (so long as the clientele can't see where it's coming from.)  The best part is that the 750ml equivalent price of this box is $5/bottle.  Yeah, five bucks.  And it's organic. And if that doesn't make you feel good, check out how much more environmentally efficient transporting boxed wine is (936 liters per pallet vs 504 liters in bottle.)

2019 Natural Origins Cabernet Sauvignon Tupungato Mendoza Argentina $20 (3L)
(This is copied verbatim from their spec sheet because it's all you need to know and happens to be right: Intense ruby red color. Fresh and clean with berry aromas and flavors. Medium body.

A week and a half after first tapping this box it shows no signs of degradation whatsoever.  They also make a malbec, packaged the same way...

2019 Natural Origins Malbec Tupungato Mendoza Argentina $20 (3L)
Pleasant and benign without any distinguishing characteristics, which is a good thing considering how wrong inexpensive malbec often goes.  An ever greater crowd-pleaser than the cabernet. Seriously, people, why aren't we drinking more of this?

These were samples, but I'll spend my own money to buy more of this.

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Two From Balverne

From the Notre Vue Estate Vineyard & Winery, which straddles the respected AVAs of Chalk Hill and Russian River Valley, come these two uplifting summer sippers labeled under the Balverne nameplate.  The winery, which suffered two fires last year, is relaunching with these young and vibrant wines.  If they're any indication of their potential, I look forward to future releases.  Both of these are available for purchase direct from the winery.

2019 Rosé of Pinot Noir Russian River Valley $24
The muted and very pale platinum strawberry appearance in the glass might suggest an austere wine, but one whiff dispenses with that impression. The layered and complex nose is a telling precursor to a supple texture and far more dimension than expected. While enjoyable on its surface, there’s real substance to this wine. I’m not sure that I would have identified it as pinot noir blind, but damn if it doesn’t deliver some thought-provoking character. Balanced and very well made.

2019 Sauvignon Blanc Chalk Hill $27
Classic California sauv blanc on the nose: fresh cut grass, Grannysmith apple, and a touch of citrus zest. All that goodness carries through to the palate with honesty and a crackle of acidity to boot. Quite pleasant.