Thursday, November 26, 2015

Happy Thanksgiving

Happy Thanksgiving. Here's to a safe, relaxing, and peaceful day. Enjoy. 

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Broadside - Current Releases

Broadside Wines has been making a bit of a splash in the wine media of late.  Harvesting at lower sugars with native yeasts and minimal oak, their wines aim for finesse and balance, aspiring to do justice to a good meal.

How classically French.

But here's the thing: they're in California.  In fact, they're based in Paso Robles - a region that has lamentably become synonymous with bombshell reds, lofty sugar levels, and boom-boom alcohol.

With this buck-the-establishment approach, proprietors Stephy and Brian Terrizzi have found a foothold in the growing West Coast movement towards restraint and purity.  Though their Paso Robles cabernet has been enjoying critical attention of late, the lineup of samples reviewed here showcase two other wines worthy of your search: the Wild Ferment chardonnay from Edna and the merlot sourced from the Margarita Vineyard.  Best look for them soon.  Because the applause is only likely to get louder.

Before we get into the particulars about each of the wines, a brief, but noteworthy comment about the pricing of these wines.  It has been a long, long time since a batch of samples has come into the Winethropology HQ with a ceiling of $25.  Reflecting on the overall quality of this batch, it's reassuring that wines of this caliber are still available below the stratosphere of pricing (especially from California).  Napa, you should be ashamed.

2014 Chardonnay Central Coast $20
Sourced from the Edna Valley close to San Luis Obispo, the seamless texture of this chard supports creamy, freshman-weight fruit. A gulper if there ever was one, but not without a worthy tangent or two down the long, easy finish.  Very enjoyable at room temp - a strong indicator of benchmark quality, particularly at this price.

2013 Merlot Paso Robles Margarita Vineyard $22
Endearing for its freshness and bright honesty. Luminous fruit and lilting herbal aromatics framed by direct, but delicate acidity. Strongly evokes Provence. Deftly hiding its 14.4% ABV. Succulent and fantabulous.   

2013 Cabernet Paso Robles $18
Extracted and monolithic, with candied bing cherry syrup. On day two it unwinds and reveals secondary nuance of pretty floral spice.

2013 Cabernet Paso Robles Margarita Vineyard $25
A bright, lean, athletic structure dominates the attack, with secondary service to the poised cabernet elegance. Clearly in repose awaiting its comeuppance in a few years. In the meantime, expect superfine tannins wrapped over the lithe body.  Lip-smacking.  Would love to revisit in another decade.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Cepa 21/Emilio Moro

From the venerable Bodegas Emilio Moro in Ribera del Duero comes a new(ish) brand, Cepa 21.  Focusing on delivering younger, more accessible, and modern wines, this project is head up by the new generation of Moro brothers, José and Javier.  Thrown into the sample pack was Malleolus, a 100% tinto fino bottling from older vines - a monster of a wine.

If Cepa 21's goal is to win over more adventuresome drinkers at a value price point, they've got a good chance with their entry level Hito bottling, which I recommend.

2014 Cepa 21 'Hito' Ribera del Duero $15
Deep, dark, and round, this extracted Tempranillo manages to pack solid density while maintaining balance. Rewarding for its black fruit character mounted on a dignified structure, and framed by pretty anise, it's acidity helps keep its heft in check. A very, very good showing at this price point.

2011 Cepa 21 Ribera del Duero $24
Two things jump out of the glass at the first pour: boisterous fruit aromatics and strong oak presence. An hour decanted helps the latter dissipate, replaced by chewy, dusty tannins that complement the black fruit well. There's a lot happening in this busy wine, most of it good, but it needs a little time to sort itself out. Still very young indeed. No doubt this one has a long life ahead. 

2011 Emilio Moro 'Malleolus' Ribera del Duero $44
Massive. Inky in the glass, leaping with potent, high-frequency aromatics. Despite its density, the texture is supple - this wine's only modest quality. Black fruit tempered by graphite and slate flavors are delivered in multi-dimensional layers across the palate and along the kilometer-long finish. Prominent powdery tannins coat the mouth in the lingering aftermath. Closed on opening and yielding only slightly after two days (!) with no moderation of intensity.  A beast. 

Friday, October 30, 2015

The Price Is Right: 3 Reasons Why You Should Stock Up Now

Market circumstances that run counter to economic rules are very curious things.  As we get deeper into OND (wine industry speak for October, November, December), the appearance of just such a circumstance is visiting the wine retail market - and it's presenting an opportunity to stock up on wine for the holidays and beyond.  If you haven't yet noticed, there are deals to be had - and more on the way.  This is good news if you know what you're looking for.

Early this year I wrote about The Worst Time of Year To Buy Wine, noting that the month (couple of
months, actually) following the holidays bore witness to some flagrant examples of price hikes, some combined with fake sales.  For example, Kendall Jackson Cabernet was "on sale" for $19.99 supposedly down from $29.99.  The first quarter saw a dearth of deals and price creeping that can only be described as audacious.

Not surprisingly, the holiday season is vital to the wine business.  According to the Direct to Consumer Wine Shipping Report (by ShipCompliant and Wines & Vines Magazine), 4th quarter sales in the DTC market account for a whopping 40% of revenues, whereas sources in the wholesale tier say that it's a little lower (33-35%) in their market, but higher in the on-premise (restaurants) segment.  OK, so demand is strong in Q4.  Makes sense.  People are entertaining, drinking, and gifting a lot during the holidays.  Perhaps more importantly, people are drinking higher quality stuff this time of year than the rest.

Why, then, would there be any price elasticity in a period of strong demand?  That's not how the laws of economics work.  Prices are defined by the intersection of supply and demand.  If supply rises beyond demand, prices fall.  Conversely, when consumption rises - as it does in the run-up to the holidays - prices should rise with demand.  Right?  So, why would we see any deals now?

A few things to consider:
  1. Economic theory assumes that supply is steady.  Nobody is going to suddenly flood the market with newly discovered wine from the 2012 vintage, so this is a safe assumption.
  2. It ignores external forces like sales targets set by management or, in some cases, Wall Street analyst.
  3. It also assumes that demand cannot be redirected to alternatives such as liquor beer. 
Distributors I've spoken to suggest that #2 is most directly responsible for price pressure and decidedly skewed toward mass producers; "Big suppliers need to see depletions increase over last year.  Whatever it takes."  Hmm, whatever it takes.  The easiest lever to pull in order to enact the desired results is pricing, but also note the "big suppliers" part of that statement.  Deals are not necessarily across the board.  Rather, they're going to be concentrated in those big suppliers, or large holding companies like Gallo, SMWE, Constellation, etc. which own very large portfolios of brands.

The analysts at these large companies also recognize that, in addition to the pressures of growth targets, consumers do have alternatives. Even though wine sales continue to rise overall, so, too, are beer and liquor sales.  Given the choice of spending $30 on a fancy bottle of wine that will last a meal or spending $50 on a fancy bottle of liquor that can be enjoyed over many weeks, some will opt for the latter.

So, what does this all mean for consumers?  There are some bargains to be had, but don't expect them to be found on small production wines.  A distributor whose portfolio is full of tiny European producers told me their sales only experience a "small bump" in the 4th quarter.  "...most of our wines aren't commodity wines that get stacked and price reduced at grocery stores."

In other words, be on the lookout for grocery store wines (which anymore include some high quality labels) marked down.  But don't wait too long.  When January comes, the cold hard light of a new year will once again cast a very different set of prices across the market.  Stay tuned for specific examples in the weeks ahead.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Washington State - Part II

In Part I, the first installment of this two part series, we took a look at the basics of the winegrowing landscape in Washington state.  You can check out that piece to recap on some of the fundamentals that make winegrowing here such a successful enterprise. Alluded to in that article was an upcoming seminar led by Master Sommelier Matt Citriglia. So, what new was there to be learned?  Quite a bit, as it turns out.

First, much in the same way that the Columbia Valley is synonymous with winegrowing in Washington, so, too, is Ste Michelle Wine Estates (SMWE) with wine making in Washington. A colossal 60% of production comes from this family of wineries which now includes brands from across Washington, Oregon, and California.  Most prominently from Washington are the Château Ste Michelle, Columbia Crest, 14 Hands, and Two Vines brands.  With such a dominant presence, the remaining 40% of market share is split up between the balance of wineries. This gives you an idea of the size contrast between the 8000 pound gorilla and the 800-ish other wineries.

Side note: There's a little over 50,000 acres planted to vines in all of Washington State's 71,000 square miles.  Napa Valley has 45,000 acres planted in 1/100th the land mass.

Second side note: Large does not equal evil, or even bad.  SMWE, like Gallo in California, continues to increase quality at many price levels while holding pricing more or less even.  But they're also vulnerable to the same temptation to dilute quality while holding prices steady.  Bottom line - for real drinking value at the lower end of the price spectrum, look to the big labels.  For a big step up in character (without a huge step up in money), explore the variety the state has to offer.  

While the arid climate and complete reliance on irrigation help make for the perfect winegrowing laboratory, it is not without its vulnerabilities. Long growing days and mild temperatures can translate to high sugar content without full phenolic ripening. (If you're not quite sure what that means, you're not alone.) Once grapes are harvested, those high levels of sugars create their own challenges in the production facility. Volatile acidity is a real threat that can impart acetic acid aromatics and flavors (think vinegar.) There are apparently a handful of high end wineries where this is a serious problem, but the mainstream producers seem to have this well in hand based on the consistency of quality in the more moderately priced bottlings.

As is the case in other winemaking regions around the world, there are a number of winemakers in Washington state who are the eschewing the populist trend that favors ultra ripe, extracted fruit in exchange for more subtlety. Gramercy Cellars and the Owen Roe family of brands (Corvidae, Sharecroppers, etc.) epitomize this approach, yielding bottlings with much more lean and savory character.  The Gramercy Cellars syrah is a dead ringer for the northern Rhone.  Be on the lookout for those labels if that's your bag.

Finally. while the Columbia Valley is the largest umbrella AVA and home to almost a dozen sub-AVA's, even the smaller (and higher quality) sub-AVAs tend to label their wines as Columbia Valley due to name recognition. The story goes that, while insiders recognize and champion the quality coming from the smaller sub-AVA's such as Red Mountain, Wahluke Slope, and others, Columbia Valley name recognition still trumps all. Marketing curiosity aside, the astute consumer will look closely at the labels front and back for clues on sourcing.

To sum it all up, I will simply repeat the most valuable advice I can offer: seek out merlot from Washington state. Big syrahs and cabernets get all of the headlines and points, but the taking experiences in the value are to be found mostly with merlot at almost any price point.

Happy exploring!

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Solid $10 Red

2014 Honoro Vera Monastrell Jumilla $10
As complete and invigorating a bottle as $10 will get you today. Maybe a little over the top with the candied fruit, but energetic tannins and other fast-moving acidity (the kicker) make for a well-rounded, full-tilt wine. Vastly improved over past vintages. Tip of the hat to the Wine Curmudgeon for the suggestion. 

Monday, October 12, 2015


People. If you are not at least experimenting with Washington state merlot yet, you're doing yourself a terrific disservice. Regular readers already know of my prediction: The Columbia Valley will be the epicenter for this maligned grape's redemption. To whit, this terrific value:

2013 Boomtown Merlot Columbia Valley $17
Honest to goodness merlot, made well and framed by a structure that carries its middleweight with deftness. Thoroughly enjoyable with either a hearty meal or genuine conversation. A repeat buy for sure. 

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Awful. Just Awful.

A few years ago the sweet red phenomena was reaching what then appeared to be its apex.  Distorted, imbalanced wines of substantial residual sugar - designed by focus groups and concocted in laboratories - were masquerading as "red wine".  It's a few years (and vintages) later.  So, did the pendulum swing back in favor of moderation?

No.  In fact, this virus has spread, and so our collective descent into gustatory delinquism continues.  The 2013 vintage in California seems to signal a tipping point in this unfortunate race to the bottom. 

Consumers favoring dry red wines are no longer safe simply steering clear of the catch all "red wine" label (which, incidentally, is how fine Bordeaux used to be labeled.)  No, no, no.  Now wines ostensibly made from fighting varieties are being bastardized wholesale. 

At a friend's celebratory dinner out last year, we were served a 2011 Smith & Hook Central Coast cabernet.  The perfect restaurant wine, it had plenty of oak, vanilla, deep fruit, some structure, and - most importantly - a sub-$40 price.  It was an uncomplicated, crowd pleasing wine that went well with the convivial vibe.

Emblematic of the trend toward getting wine to cater to our national penchant for Twinkies, the 2013 Smith & Hook Central Coast cabernet ($20) is a catastrophe of a wine.  Too overtly extracted and hot to be accidental, were it not for its density this would pass for a $5 wine in a blind tasting. Manipulated - poorly and with a clumsy fist - if this wine were a face, its features would all be exaggerated: bulging eyes, cleft chin, saggy cheeks, and a nose like Cyrano de Bergerac.  Awful.  Just awful.

What's perhaps the most shameful aspect of this wine - and others like it - is that it is deceptive on many fronts.  First, it's labeled as cabernet.  If it is, in fact, cabernet, I cannot fathom what sort of hocus pocus they had to perform on it to extract such cough syrup-like qualities.  Second, very few wines are tasted comparatively, so when a wine of this loudness is initially sipped, our mouths tend to interpret that level of attention-commanding stimulation positively - at least until our bodies register the impending ill effects.  And by then, it's probably too late.  Which leads to the final deception - wines with this much alcohol (labeled at 14.8%), residual sugar, and (probably) additives deplete your body of critical elements you need to make it through to morning without throbbing buyer's remorse.

Buyer beware.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Washington State - Part I

In a recent post on these pages, I detailed the experience of having attended a trade tasting a couple of months ago. The shoulder seasons are the perfect time for distributors to host these events in preparation for the busy holiday season. As mentioned before, trade tastings are a terrific opportunity for wholesalers and producers to showcase new products coming to market, as well as for people in the retail/restaurant tier to taste a lot of wine and meet the people behind them - all in an efficient afternoon.

I will have the good fortune of attending another trade event this weekend, with an added bonus: the tasting will be accompanied by seminars on Washington state and the Mendoza region of Argentina. The seminars will be conducted by Master Sommelier Matt Citriglia. Very few people have met a Master Sommelier because there are so few of them (fewer than 150 in North America). But having met a few myself, I can attest that these people possess an appealing combination of humility and encyclopedic knowledge of all aspects of wine from history to economics to vinification and, of course, analysis.  So, this will be a treat.

So as not to walk into the seminar completely green, I did a little research on the underpinnings of this important winegrowing region. Even if the climate is not cool enough for certain varieties, I have a long theorized that Washington state offers both quality and value vastly superior to much of California. I've also maintained that the Columbia Valley will be the epicenter for merlot's redemption. While this maligned variety has fallen out of favor since Sideways came out (11 years ago!), it continues to be crafted to excellent results here.

So, is there anything unique about Washington? As it turns out, absolutely:
  • First, when talking about winegrowing, the Columbia Valley is almost synonymous with Washington state as it covers about 25% of the state's landmass and encompasses most of Washington's 13 sub AVA's.
  • With an incredibly arid and temperate climate (getting only 8 inches of rain per year) the Columbia Valley's high desert climate is inhospitable to vine diseases. The soil, predominantly fast-draining sandy loam, is ideal for vinifera. This dryness makes the region dependent on irrigation, but has the enormous Columbia River to draw from.
  • With ideal soil, so little summertime precipitation, and the absence of disease, much of the Columbia Valley is essentially the perfect winegrowing laboratory. Winemakers can control exactly how much water the vines get, and when they get it, translating to terrific consistency from vintage to vintage - something I appreciate when reaching for a Columbia Valley bottling.
  • Sitting mostly north of the 46th parallel (think Montana), the longest days of summer will see up to 17 hours of daylight and a 40° diurnal variation in temperature. These long, warm days allow fruit to fully ripen, while the cold nights help to concentrate acidity in grape berries. 
  • Land is far cheaper here than it is in the chic winegrowing areas of Northern California, translating to less expensive wine. Who doesn't love that?
  • But the secret is out - there are now over 850 wineries in the state.
  • Though riesling gave Washington state it's first real notoriety, winegrowers here have zeroed-in on red varieties - cabernet, merlot, and syrah - as excelling in this climate. Today red varieties make up more plantings and production than white.
  • One criticism that has befallen Washington is that it does not specialize in any particular variety the way, for example, the Willamette Valley specializes in pinot noir. This is a ridiculous criticism that translates to persistent values in the marketplace for the educated consumer. 
I intend to become more educated about this region in hopes of bringing more light to those values. Stay tuned for part two nest week.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

VRBO vs Airbnb: A Cautionary Tale

While this site is primarily dedicated to wine commentary, reviews, and business, many of its readers invest heavily in traveling to winegrowing regions around the world. These regions are, unsurprisingly, almost exclusively rural farming areas with little industry, and lodging made up primarily of small, family-owned B&B's and expensive boutique hotels. With the proliferation of the sharing economy, many new options in lodging have become available through short-term rental sites such as VRBO and Airbnb. This is very much to the benefit of both property owners and travelers as the spectrum of accommodation options has increased dramatically in just the last five years.  This has made wine country destinations the world over that much more accessible.
Airbnb property (and young pinot noir vines) in the Edna Valley rented by the author.
If you haven't taken advantage of this tremendously positive development yet, I encourage you to. That said, it's worth understanding the difference between these two 800 pound gorilla's on the Internet. 

VRBO (now part of the HomeAway family of companies) was first to dominate the vacation rental space on the internet many years ago.  Founded in 1995, it has been the mainstay advertising outlet for vacation property owners around the world. Rival upstart Airbnb, by contrast, was founded in 2008 and not only allows the listing of exquisite mansions in the hottest of places, but also allows travelers to rent a room (or bed or couch) in someone's home or apartment. This provides a much broader and diverse spectrum of both accommodations, travelers, and, no doubt, experiences (not all positive) as has been widely reported in the media recently.

The two companies also differ in a very significant way to travelers: how payments are processed. VRBO generates revenue by charging annual subscriptions or taking a 10% cut of rentals and provides its advertisers the option to accept credit card payments from travelers. This is not mandatory, however, and payment terms are ultimately up to the property owner.

By contrast, Airbnb charges renters a fee to take a reservation and processes all payments through its website accepting credit cards, PayPal, other secure methods. When a traveler makes a reservation, they pay for it at that time. Airbnb essentially escrows that money until the second day of the traveler's stay. This gives travelers and property owners a level of security to be sure that both the property and the traveler are as advertised.

The primary delta between these two approaches is that Airbnb acts as the trusted third-party to hold funds while a reservation and secured, whereas VRBO basically facilitates the transaction to occur between the traveler in the property owner. Now, there is also another detail worth drawing into focus and which is the crux of the cautionary tale here: bank wire payments.

When payment is made by bank wire, it is an irreversible one-way transaction with very limited visibility to the actual recipient of the funds. Obviously, this carries with it tremendous risk as you will see in the following tale. 

After filtering through literally hundreds of different lodging options for an upcoming trip overseas, I reached out to the property owner of a place (with 43 very positive and detailed reviews) listed on VRBO through the website. I heard back from the property owner in short order and began a lengthy email exchange. My varied and detailed questions were answered thoughtfully and professionally, and a rental agreement was sent to me with an offer for a 15% discount if payment was made in full upfront. (Standard terms for this property are 50% at reservation time and the balance within 30 days of arrival.) 15% is not an incredibly large discount, but when considering a week-long stay, it adds up quickly and was, therefore, tempting enough to accept.  So,

I printed off the rental agreement and shot an email to my bank to get the process of the wire transfer rolling. Reviewing the specific language of the rental agreement, a few peculiar things stood out: in the section that describes the renters insurance coverage, there were several grammatical errors. Since this was an overseas listing, I wrote that off to a language translation issue. There was also the matter of the wire transfer going to a bank in Poland (the property is in Italy). Part of the European Union, Poland is just another country in that free market zone, so I wrote that off, too. To be on the safe side, I reviewed VRBO's security recommendations, which states that renters should contact the property owner by telephone prior to sending money via bank wire.  So,I emailed the property owner asking if I could contact them by telephone, but they told me they could not speak due to having had recent tracheotomy surgery.  Strike three.  This I could not overlook.

I then contacted VRBO's customer service team to determine whether I was dealing with a legitimate person or not. While VRBO is based in Austin, I suspect my phone call was routed to someone at a call center in India. Citing privacy concerns, they would not confirm whether the email address I have been corresponding with belonged to the property lister or not. They were of absolutely no help, and, apparently, did not even send any sort of security warning to the property owner.

Finally, after a number of tries, I dialed the number listed on the property listing and eventually connected with the property owner - a very nice, if initially confused, woman whose English is far better than my Italian. She was shocked to hear that I almost wired money to a someone in Poland. It was clear that her account had been hacked. 

In retelling the story to a handful of people, I have learned that VRBO listings getting hacked is not altogether uncommon.

Does this mean that VRBO is a viper pit of fraudsters?  Not at all.  But prospective renters should be aware of the pitfalls and appropriate countermeasures to prevent from getting duped.  I'm thanking my lucky stars the conspiracy theorist in me was reviewing the paperwork.  Had I not carefully read the rental contract, we would have been out a lot of money - and a place to stay on arriving at our destination.  You don't want to be that person.


Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Recycle Bin, Week of Sept 21

We have a decent backlog of reviews for you this week, including a smoking deal on a French sauvignon blanc, a cautionary tale on vintage variation, and reminder of why we should all be drinking more Italian wines.  Cheers!

2014 Casillero del Diablo Cabernet $10
A far cry from the 2012 reviewed back in June. Noticeably less refined with a strong bite on the finish. I cannot recommend this one at all. Note: if you see the 2012, grab it!

2012 Montevina Barbera Amador County $11
A rich, inviting nose beckons. Soft, supple Texter serves as the platform for Rich, balanced fruit with a notable dusty element on the midpalate. Soft, round, and accessible, this is an easy one to reach for, particularly at the price.

2013 Caves des Perrieres Pouilly Fume $10
A nearly electric nose gives way to an equally energetic attack of grassy, Granny Smith fruit. As honest and straightforward as this wine is, it also has real grip, acidic framing, minerality in torpedoes, and palpable tension. Quite a lot for $10!  I only wish I had discovered this at the beginning of the summer. Purchased at Trader Joe's.

2010 Filomusi Guelli Montepulciano d'Abruzzo $14
It used to be that Montepulciano was almost exclusively bottled in 1.5L bottles, stocked on the bottom shelves at grocery stores, and rarely exceeded $7 (for the big bottles).  Today, there are many examples of terrific wines being made from this grape and this is yet another.  Easy-going, round, and soft on the tannins, this is a versatile wine for any night of the week.  As a sobriety test: try saying this wine's name three times.

2012 Schild Estate Grenache Mourvedre Syrah Barossa Valley $15
A carbon copy of the 2011 vintage - rambunctious, volatile, attention-commanding, and magnetic.  Lighter bodied, but positively enormous flavor, the juxtaposition adds to its allure.  Can't get enough of this wine.

2013 Ramsay Estate Pinot Noir North Coast $17
A smooth and nuanced pinot.  Such a welcome surprise.

2010 Confidencial Tinto Reserva Lisboa (Portugal) $12
Very friendly fruit with enough structure to keep it interesting and enough acidity to make it a terrific accompaniment to hearty fare.  Thankfully missing the blockish, teeth-hurting tannins that many inexpensive Portuguese wines have.  The only tacky part of it is the sticker on it reading "92 points".

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Fires in California: What You Can Expect

Unless you've been living in a cave, by now you know that there are several fires raging across northern California and the Pacific Northwest. These are very serious, large fires, encompassing huge swaths of land and challenging firefighters by the thousands. The loss of both natural resources and property has already been very significant. Lives have been altered in irreversible ways and the true tally will not be computed for many weeks or months to come.

This is not the first time natural catastrophes have ravaged our primary domestic growing regions.  In most recent memory, the earthquake that rattled Napa Valley last year comes to mind. There was also the widespread fires that impacted much of Mendocino County several years ago. And there are other events going further back for those wanting to take a grim walk down memory lane.

But as resilient people do, many in the wine industry are looking ahead. For some, harvest is already upon them, plans accelerated by the fires, no doubt.

What does this mean for the wine consumer? A few thoughts on short, mid, and long-term impact:

In the near term you can expect a very interesting mix of messaging coming from winegrowing and winemaking associations. On the one hand will be a reassuring message that all is well, grapes have been salvaged, and 2015 promises to be, yet again, the vintage of the decade. Perhaps that's a little overboard, but the public relations machine is already well past ignition, attempting to reassure the consuming public that they should not alter their allegiances (buying habits) due to the fires. At the same time, petitions are already in the works for  assistance for those personally impacted by the disaster. This is both understandable and necessary, if at odds with the prior reassurance.  How can the fires be so bad that households smack in the middle of wine country have been decimated without extraordinary impact to the grapes in the area?  This is either conveniently optimistic or deliberately ignorant. Here's why:

When temperatures reach a raging flame point in natural settings, combustion of any flammable substance is often explosive. Depending on what the material is, different types of residue will be vaporized and set a loft into the winds. If we think about burning yard waste - dried grass, for example - we know that it can smoke a lot and smell for a short bit. But when we consider that much of the vegetation surrounding wine country is either conifer, succulent, or deciduous, these trees or shrubs tend to have very oily sap. Different varieties of pine, eucalyptus, and other heavy aromatic brush, when burnt, will emit smoke heavy with these oils and tar. Much in the same way as a crude oil spill coats rocks, beaches, and wildlife, there is no escaping this insidious and cloaking smoke. Anything even remotely in the path of the prevailing winds will be tainted.  Such was the fate of Pinot Noir from the Anderson Valley in 2008: more Cohiba than cool climate.

In the midterm, most particularly at the end of this year and into next year as recaps of this vintage echo, a refined downplay evolution of the message starting to go out now will emerge: 2015 is a unique vintage that offers unprecedented character.  Spin city.

Finally, the long term will remain less certain until the net impact to wines becomes pale in the light of day.  At that point - if there is any damage to juice at all - winemakers will be forced to make harsh, if creative, decisions. Will they dare put smoke-laden juice into expensive barrels at the risk of long-term damage? Will they invest the operational resources to even make wine if it is undeniably flawed? Conversely, will they make lemonade out of lemons by seizing the opportunity to branch out and issue one-time-only bottlings of wines that go well with heavily grilled poultry, Pittsburgh steaks, and maduro cigars?

At the end of the day, every savvy consumer should be comforted by the knowledge that there are dozens of other winegrowing regions around the world that, in 2015, experienced little more than a hiccup. Which is consolation indeed in light of what families are suffering through right now across the west and northwest. Let's all keep them in our thoughts as we raise a glass for their safe passage. And if you're feeling charitable, perhaps you'll consider making a donation to the Red Cross, which is participating in the relief effort.