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!

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Recycle Bin, Week of April 22

A terrific Chilean red, a surprisingly wonderful rosé, and a pair of energetic Italians are the highlights of this week's round up of samples.  You'll see a trio from Lodi, whose winegrowers association never disappoints with their unique samples (note that there isn't a single zin in the lot!) But don't overlook the Italy and Chile here - these international players continue to over deliver dollar for dollar.

2017 Villa Barbi Orvieto Classico $15
Brilliant sunshine and energy burst alive in this mineral-infused Umbrian white. Half grechetto and with sauvignon blanc and vermentino, this versatile wine will please all summer long.

2016 Mazzi Valpolicella Classico Superiore 'Sanperetto' $19
A rivulet of salinity winds its way through this unique and utterly enjoyable. Dry, clean, and with a crunch of western Veneto sunbeams, this Valop deftly stradles the borderlands of savory/fruit. Mamma mia!

2015 Primus The Blend Colchagua $19
It’s been close to a decade since I’ve seen this wine on shelves, so I was pretty excited to get reacquainted. In years past it has been a solid, reliable red guaranteed to please crowds, yet provide enough character and complexity to satisfy the wine nerds among us. Slightly more expensive and more honestly Chilean than the last time I had it, this blend has otherwise remained consistent: black extracted fruit with blue green highlights is framed by a lithe structure that exudes purity and offers good tannic grip. Though the green vegetable aspect is not something I normally gravitate to, in this wine it complements many other desirable qualities. Enjoyable and very well made. Grilled steak lovers rejoice!

2018 LangeTwins Winery and Vineyards Aglianico Rosé Lodi $20
Rich salmon in color, this dry, lively rose is an absolute delight. It’s fully decked out with crisp acidity, focused fruit, and an elegant structure. could not help myself from returning again and again to this substantial and lovely wine.  Wow.

2018 Acquiesce Winery and Vineyards Ingénue White Blend Lodi $32
Packaged in a clear glass teardrop/amphora shaped bottle, the pale color is on display and the full effect of the presentation seems to be a bit of a novelty. But the complexity of the nose makes a terrific first impression: plenty of bright interest here. The supple texture is juxtaposed against the prominent bite of acidity, leaving the soft fruit in the background until it emerges on the long finish. Made of a kitchen sink blend of varieties you've likely never heard of, wine geeks will love all that’s going on in this.

2018 m2 Wines Vermentino Lodi $20
Though platinum blonde in color, this extroverted and expressive Italian variety is anything but coy. Possessed by a humming energy, the acidity and Krystaline fruit play off of each other resulting in and accessible brilliance. Dangerously easy, yet companionable to summer fare.

Monday, April 22, 2019

Just In Time For Passover

Passover began last Friday and runs through this coming Saturday.  Whether you're in the planning stages of a seder dinner (especially if you're having brisket) or just looking to add something special to a dinner table, this Israeli red is both appropriate for the holiday and a damn good beverage to celebrate a special occasion.  

2015 Galil Mountain Winery Yiron Red Blend Galilee $40 
A serious wine requiring no qualification for its origins, Galil Mountain’s Yiron is a cab-dominant Bordeaux blend that starts out taut and elegant. Aromas are classic: graphite, crushed herbs and violets, and heady dark fruit preserves. The mouth is full, offering unpretentious complexity and densely-packed, black flavors. As it opens up (two or so hours decanted) it sings, with perfumes becoming more pronounced and the flavors more relaxed, expansive, and really coming alive. The finish is long and graceful - and haunting.  Excellent and precise.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Recycle Bin

It's been a loooong time since we've had a Recycle Bin write up, so following is a hodge-podge of wines that have arrived as samples at various points over the last several months.  Enjoy.

2017 Terlato Pinot Grigio Friuli $24 
Here comes porch season! Though on the pricey side, this textbook PG will do the trick.

2010 Vinas del Vero Secastilla Garnacha Somontano $32
Eight years old and the age has benefited this surprisingly refined Spanish red. Crackling tannic energy threads floral elegance and a seamless texture together into a bright, quenching fabric. Importantly, the oak regimen acts as a compliment rather than a cudgel - a welcome change from many contemporary/modern red wines from this area.

2015 Left Coast Pinot Truffle Hill Willamette Valley $42
Holy smokes! This is a BRIGHT, exuberant red with a lot to say. Acidity dominates the attack with brilliant and elegant fruit following closely behind. Slight green elements in the aftertaste hint at whole cluster fermentation, use, or both. This is one of the few Pinot noir‘s I’ve had that I’m sorry to have opened so young. It promises to evolve into

2017 Bowers Harbor Unwooded Chardonnay Michigan $16
In a slightly off dry style is something new to me, but if approached with an open mind, there’s a lot to like here. Clean, precise, and bountiful in its bright fruit, this is a versatile and friendly white that can stand up to everything from polite conversation to Chinese food.

2016 2 Lads Cab Franc Old Mission Peninsula $35
What a terrific surprise! Medium bodied and with a well built structure, this versatile red is well-made and easy to like. Bright, focused fruit comes alive thanks to sprightly, enthralling acids. Very, very good indeed.

2016 Peninsula Cellars Late Harvest Riesling Old Mission Peninsula $19
The world needs more wines like this. Exceedingly pleasing and gentle, this versatile (aperitif or dessert) wine strikes a deft balance. Requires no analysis to enjoy. Perfect to have in hand as we head into the winter months. Brilliant.
2017 Vinum Cellars Chenin Blanc CNW Clarksburg $15
Hell yes! Super bright, steely, maybe even flinty and with a tart squirt of passion fruit on the finish. Very likable and versatile. Pair with neighbors on your front porch this summer.

2016 Vinum Petite Sirah PETS Clarksburg $15
Rich and opaque in the glass, gorgeous nose with inviting bright floral aspects that lead into a balanced palate where toasty oak, tannins, and a respectable backbone await. Not an ounce of flab on this petite that drinks more like a quality North Coast cab.  Happy to see this back! 

2015 Aridus Syrah Wilcox (Arizona) $37
Close your eyes and you’ll swear this is a Northern California syrah. Powerful and focused, this supple-textured medium density red packs intense fruit character framed by toasty oak and wildflower accents into an alluring package that finishes strong. But no amount of elegance can mask the octane (almost 16%) that fuels this flavor juggernaut. Enjoy with a marbled steak, but don’t turn your back on it - this wine might eat your meat while you’re not looking! 

2017 Gratvs White Blend Napa Valley $29
Flinty looking in the glass with pale hits of green. Inviting, lively nose with a round shape and alluring weight. Full palate continues the shapely theme immediately beguiling with its luxurious texture. The finish shimmers with layers of heavily scented dimension and a solid bracket of acidity. There’s more than a little something for everyone here in this serious, but versatile wine. Grenache blanc, roussanne, marsanne, and viognier.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Speed Dating: Notes From A Trade Tasting

Industry tastings are a lot like speed dating. Dozens of wines are presented in either a warehouse or a banquet room setting tended to by representatives from distributors, importers, and wineries. It’s not uncommon for 100-200 wines to be available for tasting at one of these events, so it’s virtually impossible to get to even half of them. Those that you do get to taste are poured in tiny quantities, and time constraints limit your evaluation to short moments in an often bustling atmosphere.

It is no more appropriate an environment to make a comprehensive evaluation than speed dating is in deciding a long-term companion. Perhaps the analogy works better if you think of it for what it is: you’re not getting married, you're just trying to find out if you want to have a first date. With that as a disclaimer, following are a dozen wines from a recent trade tasting that I will look forward to seeking out and spending more time with. I encourage you to do the same. 

In no particular order...

2016 Otto's Constant Dream Pinot Noir Marlborough New Zealand $17: Surprisingly enjoyable, especially considering the price point. Stylistically midway between Willamette Valley and burgundy.

2018 Jacques Florent Blanc (3 liters) $37: White wine in a 3L box? Yes. Apparently it’s all the rage in France these days.

2015 Gallil Mountain Yiron Red Upper Galilee $40: Perhaps...scratch that...without a doubt the best of show. Magnificent. Perfume, complex, and dreamy, this red blend stood out among many wines double and triple the price. Oh, and it’s from Israel. Cab, merlot, and syrah.

2017 Mount Hermon Red Golan Heights $15: Also from Israel is the entry-level red counterpart. Grill companion extraordinaire, fresh Bordeaux blind. Enjoyable any night of the week. 

2014 Calla Lily Ultimate Red Pinot Noir Napa Valley $49: Lovely, statuesque, and well-made. A Napa valley body wrapped in Burgundian structure. 

2014 Calla Lily Ultimate Red Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley $80: A little brother of sorts to the Audax bottlings reviewed here a few months back. Close your eyes and think dark, luxe cabernet made expertly in a classic Napa style. That's this.

2016 Brandborg Bench Lands Pinot Noir Umpqua Valley $22: from an unheard of region of Oregon comes this interesting, character filled, and slightly smoky Pinot Noir that I look forward to having again.

2015 Chateau Larose Trintaudon Haut-Mdeoc Bordeaux $30: There’s nothing terribly remarkable about this Bordeaux other than it’s a reassuring textbook example without breaking the bank.

2015 Domaine de L'Oiselet Vacqueras Bio $27: Gritty and tannic, this intense red will put hair on your chest. Well made and sophisticated, despite its brawn.

2016 L'Hallali Gigondas Grande Reserve $30: As jubilant as its colorful label. big, powerful, ageworthy heavyweight bruiser Delivering a kaleidoscope of iridescent flavors. Pow! And still just a baby.

2015 Le Lecciaia Toscana $22: Made by a producer of terrific Brunello is this robust and flush, internationally styled cabernet that still delivers Italian acidity. Good bang for the buck here.

2017 Vecchio Marone Veneto $18 Italian Bordeaux blend ready for Tuesday night pizza. An honest wine.

Finally, one of this distributor's cornerstone producers is Albert Bichot, so it was no surprise that the very first table in the room was devoted entirely to this Burgundian mainstay. Pouring 16 different bottlings (which, believe it or not, represents just 20% of their total offerings), the rep patiently repeated his talking points on each of them again and again and again.  With so many wines at this table, I had to prioritize and here I will just summarize. Bichot is a microcosm of Burgundy: mostly pedestrian until you start spending north of $45, and then it’s a game changer. For those with the heady means, the spendy territory is fertile ground for exploration, starting with the Pommard. For the rest of us, France is a big country full of gems.

Monday, April 1, 2019

A Peek Behind The Curtain

Getting Free Wine Is Awesome.  Or is it?

Writing this blog has provided an embarrassment of riches. Over the last 10 years, free wine has showed up on my doorstep periodically. Invitations to tastings and other exclusive events also arrive in my inbox with regularity.  As a result, my eyes have been opened to varieties, regions, and people I otherwise wouldn't have a reason or the opportunity to discover. And merely mentioning that I am a wine blogger has opened doors that I wouldn't have even known existed.

All of these are a extraordinary privileges, none of which I take for granted, and it’s worth pausing for a moment to note that this stuff doesn’t materialize out of thin air.  Someone is putting money, effort, or usually both to make these things happen. Because free wine (aka samples) seems to get the most attention from people outside the industry, I wanted to offer a peek behind the curtain to explain how all this really works. 

It's not all rainbows and unicorns.  Sure, there are those bottles that arrive and speak for themselves; honest wines that tell a story.  Inspirational vintages make the writing process easy; the words just spill out of the bottles as easy as red wine onto a white shirt. Unfortunately, those are few and far between. You see, great wines need little promotion, which means they are less likely to show up on my doorstep. On the other hand, products with less notoriety and/or track record do need some marketing. There is also a lot of overlap of wineries that need a publicity shove and those which are still developing talent in the cellar and/or vineyard, which is just a polite way of saying that the wines aren’t that good. I’m not complaining- it’s just the way the cookie crumbles.

If that were the end of the story, it'd be fine; not every bottle can be a home run.  But beyond having to hold my nose at a lot of the stuff FedEx drops off, there is an implicit expectation of reciprocity. To understand what that means, you first need to appreciate that there's a producer who has worked hard to bring their product to market, a multi-year, capital-intensive process not for the faint of heart.  (As the joke goes, if you want to be a millionaire vintner, best to start with ten million.)  Wineries also often retain public relations representation.  These are the good folks I interact with the most, as it falls to them to get the wines in front of those likely to write about it.  Finally, there's the not-so-insignificant component of shipping, which itself can have regulatory implications.  All of this costs time and money, neither of which is plentiful. So, it's natural that those on the risk-taking side of the seesaw have hopes - and even expectations - that there will be some return on their investment.

Thankfully, very few of the professionals I have dealt with over the years have explicitly demanded such a return, but the message is always there: We've just sent you some free wine, and not for the first time, either. Surely you can find something nice to say about it.

That message is delivered most clearly in the silent absence of future shipments after I've published an unflattering review. This site contains many honest, if critical, reviews, which make for a comprehensive list of wineries and publicists who no longer do business with me.  Writing those reviews used to be entertaining, but the fatigue of judgement has caught up with me.  Besides, drawing readers' attention to the weaknesses of a fledgling winery they otherwise would not come across is merciless sport of questionable value.  Today I aspire to draw into focus undiscovered gems worth celebrating. This explains why, out of the last 24 samples I've received, fewer than 6 have made it onto this blog.

It's the process of separating the song from the noise, but every one of those shitty bottles gives me a pang of heartache.  I want to find something redeeming in each of them, but you just can't conjure what isn't there, and I know that's a let down for everyone up the supply chain.  There's also the question of purpose: who am I serving with the endeavor of my writing?  Myself?  Readers?  Producers?  An increasingly uncomfortable question as the writing gets harder.

So, if you're one of my friends and neighbors who give me a wistful look that tells me you think getting free wine is the con of the century, please forgive my sigh in response.

Is getting free wine awesome? It sure is. Just maybe not for the reasons you might have thought.