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Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Who's got your wine culture now?

Historically wine has been a natural part of life for much of Europe, especially in France, Italy, and Spain.  You can go back to Greek and Roman times and find wine carried in leather bags to purify drinking water. Heck, you can go back to the Bible and find lots of references to wine.

Per capita wine consumption has been dropping in France, Italy and Spain primarily because the younger generation goes more for beer or cocktails. Wine can almost be looked at as an old folks drink in some places.

Not too long ago the U.S. became the largest consumer of wine in the world. This is total sales. Our per capita consumption, however, is way down the list at less than one-fourth of what the French consume.

Having spent many years working in tasting rooms I've seen the buying public usually being in their 40s and 50s as premium wine is usually a bit pricey for younger folks. That age range has definitely been dropping. On a recent Saturday trip to a few Sonoma County wineries it seemed 95% of the customers were around 30 years old with many in their 20s. This is a fairly  new phenomenon and bodes well for the American wine industry. And for the importers, too, especially from countries where their own consumption is on the wane.

What do these young people drink? There are lots of marketing studies on this, of course. The latest one I read says Merlot and Malbec are popular. The rise of Malbec hasn't gone unnoticed, but there is only a very little bit of it planted in coastal California regions. It seems that it is difficult to grow and we are still learning--the same could be said about Pinot Noir 20 years ago. One Sonoma winery with Malbec planted called the grape "finicky."

On another note, China expects to be the largest wine grape growing country in the world in a few years.

Friday, November 22, 2013

We have it easy!

Meaning you can get a bottle of wine anywhere (at least in California, not all states are quite as fortunate).  The local grocery store has inexpensive to fancier wines. You can buy online. You can buy seven days a week!

It wasn't so easy in the old days.

Lining up to buy wine from a delivery truck in post-war France
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They used to drink wine out of crap like this!
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And they had to dress up to drink wine out of crappy glasses!
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Here's a guy making wine in France. Note the cigarette hanging out of his mouth.
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Some places you still have to buy it this way.
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Wednesday, November 20, 2013

French anti-wine Nazis

A couple years ago the French Health Minister began a campaign to warn people about the over consumption of alcohol. It was worded something like, "Drinking a little bit too much every day can put your life in danger."  Fine, that's a middle-of-the-road statement. I'm sure there were endless government meetings on how to word this and not sound like they are against France's wine culture or their wine industry.

There's a French "health" lobby that wants to change the labeling on wine bottles from talking about moderation to say any alcohol consumption is dangerous. Okay, that's getting close to stepping on some French toes. They want to increase taxes on alcohol. Governments are always in favor of more revenue.

More drastically, they wish to control what people can say about alcohol on the Internet in France. They would like it to be illegal to promote alcohol. So I suppose a travel site mentioning, "Come taste in Burgundy" would be illegal?  Oh-oh. Even Tweeting, "Drank a bottle of wine and partied all night" would be illegal. A big oh-oh.

How do the backers propose to enforce this Internet ban? According to the Wine Spectator one idiot, Patrick Elineau, pointed out the success of China's ban on Internet free speech.

This is not going to be popular.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Wine with Thanksgiving Turkey

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About half the population asks, "What wine should I have with Thanksgiving dinner?" and the other half will try to answer that question. So here's my go at it. I'm assuming something traditional as in "turkey dinner with all the trimmings."

With this meal you're going to have a multitude of flavors: Turkey (savory), mashed potatoes & gravy (savory, buttery, salty), sweet potatoes (earthy, sweet), cranberries (tangy), and all the traditional spices--allspice, sage, thyme, parsley, salt and pepper. Quite a complex meal when you think about it.

So, what wine?

First, what not to have--anything too big, heavy, dry, or acidic. For red wines this includes most Cabernet, Syrah, and  Zinfandel, Sangiovese, and the like. In whites I'd avoid many Sauvignon Blancs, Gewurztraminers and Rieslings, though some of these will work (the ones that don't come across too acidic).

What's best:

Chardonnay - This is one place where the big, oaky, buttery type of Chard can work. And it's probably your Aunt Esther's favorite wine anyway so keep her happy and you won't have to see her again for another year! The less oaked and buttery Chardonnays will work here, also.

Viognier, Roussanne - These fuller-bodied white varieties are more difficult to find, but will pair well with the meal.

Rosé - A quality off-dry rosé pairs nicely. I said "quality" and I didn't say "sweet." There are some bad food matches in the rosé category so be wary.

Beaujolais, Pinot Noir, Grenache - Any of this lighter, fruity reds made in a more restrained style will go with the turkey dinner. How can you tell if it's restrained rather than a big, bold style? Go by the alcohol level (below 14%) or ask the clerk in a wine shop.

Sparkling - My favorite match for Thanksgiving dinner is an off-dry sparkling wine--Brut, Blanc de Blanc, Blanc de Noir, Rosé. All work! Nothing says happy holidays like popping a bottle of bubbly. Careful though, the bubbles might make Aunt Esther giggle.

In a sparkling wine I stay away from the cheap stuff. It really is made differently and it gives me a headache. One of the best for the money and widely available is the Roederer Estate Brut from Anderson Valley, Mendocino County, California. It should sell for $23 or less.

This is how you know the meal was a success

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Wineries for sale

Over the past months a number of well known wineries have sold: Araujo, Clos Pegase, Qupé, Viansa. It appears there are a lot more wineries and vineyard property on the market now. Why? One is the economy as people have been waiting for real estate prices to start heading up. The second may be that a number of owners are getting too old to run a winery any more. These are the folks who jumped in during the '70s and '80s growth years for California wine.

Who will be the buyers? There are always investment groups looking for longer term gains. They'll be looking somewhere other than Napa Valley as property there is too expensive to expect to make a profit. Anyone buying in Napa is a "lifestyle" buyer, not an investor. Prime vineyards in Napa, such as in the Rutherford and Oakville areas, goes for a quarter million dollars an acre or more. Bare plantable land is about $100,00 plus-or-minus. Napa vineyard and winery prices held steady during the recession years. You can assume prices are starting to go up again. Central California, Oregon and Washington state probably offer better value. Also, some lesser known areas of California like Lake County and the Sierra Foothills may draw some attention.

I'd like to buy about, um, 100 sq. ft. please.
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Besides investment groups, there are current winery owners such as Bill Foley who may add to their portfolios before prices rise. You can bet there will be some Chinese investors as there's lots of speculation of huge future growth in that market.

A number of wineries are buying vineyard land now, too. Part of the reason is speculation of an upcoming grape shortage as demand for U.S. wine is growing steadily. And, of course, there's that future boom in Chinese consumption.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Sonoma Beer Country

You've maybe heard the phrase Sonoma Wine Country, but we're also beer country. As with a lot of the U.S. the micro-beer boom is well underway here. Sonoma County just had its first Beer, Cider and Spirits Conference bringing together the owners, media and people with money interested in funding craft beer growth. Yes, cider and local distilleries are growing, too, but it's mostly about the beer at this point in time.

Sonoma County has about 20 craft breweries. Nobody seems quite sure of the exact number as it changes quickly. Eight of these opened in the last couple years. The better known ones are Bear Republic, Lagunitas and Russian River Brewery. Lagunitas' growth has exploded in the last few years and they are expanding to Chicago to feed the eastern U.S. beerophiles. Russian River is one of the top ten breweries in the world according to those who put together these lists. Third Street Aleworks and Dempsey's have been around a long time, but don't get the press of these others. A couple of the newer ones coming to retail shelves are St. Florian's and 101 North.

Sonoma County doesn't rate up there with Portland, San Diego and Ft. Collins in the amount of craft beer available, but all of Napa Valley has about four breweries, I think. Just another reason to visit Sonoma instead of Napa, huh?

The #1 beer in the world
From Santa Rosa, Sonoma County, California

I've searched for a website containing a list of all breweries and who has a pub, but haven't found anything all inclusive.  I recently went to Woodfour Pub in Sebastopol for the first time, but haven't yet made it to Fogbelt in Santa Rosa. And there are more to sample. So now I can't even keep up with the breweries let alone all the wineries. (I know, it's tough).

Sonoma County has four cider makers and three distilleries--so far.

This reminds me of the Sonoma County wine industry in the 1970s as it exploded from almost nothing to wineries popping up weekly it seemed.  And they still are!

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Women in Wine

In the early days of Sonoma County wine (by the early days I mean the 1980s) the first time I thought maybe there was something different, something special, about a female winemaker was when I discovered Simi Winery had a winemaker named Zelma Long. I loved Simi wines at the time. There was something distinctive, maybe a light, feminine touch, I'm not sure. Zelma got her start in the 1970s with Mondavi which was certainly the place to learn about wine at the time. She's making wine in South Africa now.

It was definitely a male-dominated field then (as were many occupations). It's not so now. Here are a few of my favorite places with women winemakers.

Heidi von der Mahden studied under the late Mike Lee of Kenwood Vineyards. At Arrowood she started off by working for Dick Arrowood until he left. Mike Lee and Dick Arrowood were two of the best in Sonoma County.

Carol Shelton Wines
Carol has been in the wine biz for over a decade. Her wines, mostly Zinfandels, have won lots of awards.

Chateau St. Jean
Margo Van Staaveren is in her fourth decade at St. Jean. Yes, it's now a big corporate winery, but if you try her reserve wines rather than just the "grocery store" wines you'll see she knows what she is doing.

Inman Family Wines
Kathy Inman came to my attention just a few years ago when I first tried her Pinots at an open house for several small wine producers. I immediately gave them a "wow" and took home several.

Merry Edwards Wines
Merry Edwards was another of those "wow" rated Pinot Noirs. She was the winemaker that put Matanzas Creek Winery on the map in the late 1970s. People talk about terroir where a wine tastes like where it's grown. Her Pinots do that as well as any wines.

Selby Wines
Susie Selby has two decades of making wine after starting in the cellar. She has a small hands-on operation making some big wines.

Wilson Winery
Diane Wilson has probably won more awards at the local Sonoma County Harvest Fair than anyone has a right to expect. The Wilsons own several wineries in the county. All are highly rated.

Helen Turley, California's best-known winemaker

Women Winemakers of California 

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Moon Mountain, Sonoma's newest AVA

An AVA, or American Viticultural Area, is a government-approved wine grape growing area--the most well-known one being Napa Valley. Moon Mtn is a sub-appellation of the bigger Sonoma Valley AVA. It deserves its own designation because, well, it's not even in a valley, it's on a mountain range that forms one side of Sonoma Valley. Most of the larger appellations like Sonoma Valley contain a wide range of soils and micro-climates so subdividing them may sound like a natural progression.

I have to think for those not familiar with the area that buying a wine saying Moon Mountain on the label sounds kinda spacey! And I sure wouldn't have any idea where it is let alone what it means. The most famous vineyard there is Monte Rosso (Red Mountain in Italian). It was first planted in the 1880s and was purchased by Louis Martini in 1939. The vineyard is most well-known for Cabernet and Zinfandel. It gets its name from the iron-rich volcanic soils.

The new Moon Mtn appellation ranges from a few hundred feet above the valley floor to about 2,000 feet. So its weather is influenced by the elevation plus by its proximity to the San Pablo Bay. This combination of unique climate and soils is why Moon Mountain grapes are different from those in the surrounding lowlands.

There are 40 vineyards in the appellation. Besides Louis Martini Winery some of the other with a presence in Moon Mountain are Hanzell, Kistler and the new Repris Wines.

Moon Mtn appellation  above the town of Sonoma
The Mt Veeder appellation in Napa Valley is just to the east

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Healdsburg, center of the wine universe

According to The Seattle Times you want to skip Napa and head for wine central in Sonoma County. Healdsburg, CA is close several wine areas and is less crowded. Tasting rooms, restaurants, and a brewpub, what else do you need?


One little problem: There's a quote from the article, "Unlike Highway 12 that runs through Napa Valley."  Well, Highway 29 runs through Napa; Highway 12 through Sonoma Valley.  Little issue with their geography.

Healdsburg. It's purdy darn cute.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Beringer Winery up for sale?

More bad news possibly for Treasury Wine Estates, the corporation owning over 50 wine brands around the world (the majority in Australia & New Zealand). Their CEO was canned recently for dumping bad wine. Blog entry from Sept. Something seemed a little wacky about that whole story.

Now their arguably most prestigious holding, Beringer Winery in Napa Valley, may be on the blocks. Apparently they paid too much for Beringer in 2000 and their bank would like them to dump it for some cash. And Beringer would definitely bring in some bucks. It's been around since 1875, they are one of the most visited wineries in Napa Valley, Beringer makes a lot of wine, something like eight million cases annually, and are found on pretty much every wine list in the country.

A Napa Valley landmark for a very long time
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At this time info is pretty sketchy on what all is going on within the corporate walls at Treasury, but you can bet it ain't all good. Anyway, if this comes to fruition then remember you heard it here first! If not, forget about where you read the bad rumor.   :)