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Monday, March 31, 2014

What states drink the most wine?

Per wine industry folks at the Beverage Information Group, New England, Florida, and the West Coast are the biggest consumers of wine in the U.S. Although #1 on the list is actually the District of Columbia--nothing like a tipsy Congress!
Drink up D.C. We're probably better off
if you're all a little buzzed
Image from

DC and New Hampshire are the top per capita drinkers of wine while Mississippi and West Virginia are on the bottom (even beating out Utah).

Article, including a map, from Business Insider.

BTW, North Dakota and New Hampshire (again) are tops in beer consumption.

Friday, March 28, 2014

While everyone was worried about the California drought ...

There have been lots of questions about, and lots of speculation around, the effect of the drought on California's wine grape crop for 2014. (Though you should probably worry more about food prices this year).

While this has been going on in California, the Finger Lakes wine growing region of upstate New York has been declared a disaster area by the federal government. The bitter cold winter has destroyed many of the buds that would become this year's crop. It's not yet known if this just means the 2014 yield will be much lower than normal or if there is widespread permanent damage to vines.

Image from


Thursday, March 27, 2014

Wine, Inc.

Who actually makes the wine you purchase? There are lots of different labels out there, but that doesn't mean each is a small family operation. The large companies own multiple labels and they make it difficult to know you're drinking a "corporate" wine.

These three companies make half of the wine you find on American store shelves:

Gallo - A privately-owned company headquartered in Modesto, CA. Some of their labels are André, Barefoot, Carlo Rossi, Louis Martini, MacMurray Ranch, Rancho Zabaco, Turning Leaf and William Hill. Gallo owns about 70 different labels, some based in foreign countries.

Constellation - Based in NY where they started as a single winery Constellation expanded rapidly to become a top-level wine, beer, and spirits company. They operate in 40 facilities around the world including U.S. brands Clos du Bois, Franciscan, Mondavi, Ravenswood, and Simi.

The Wine Group is a generically-named San Francisco Bay Area-based company that started as Coca-Cola's entry into the wine business in the 1970s. They own Almaden, Franzia, and Mogen-David--about 24 labels in all.
The next three on the list combined are smaller than any one of the previous three:

Trinchero is a family-owned wine group that started with Sutter Home White Zinfandel. They own over 30 labels in all including Joel Gott, Montevina, Trinity Oaks, and one that made the news recently, Duck Commander.

Treasury - Fosters spun off its wine division several years ago and Treasury seems to have had their troubles ever since (they've just appointed a new CEO after firing the last one for dumping millions of dollars worth of wine down the drain). They own over 50 brands including Beringer, Chateau St. Jean, Meridian, Souverain, and Stags' Leap. They are very much a wine corporation with revolving CEOs, a board of directors, and I've seen lots of corp-type job openings for finance, marketing, IT, etc.

Bronco - Fred Franzia, a nephew of Ernest Gallo, is best known for Charles Shaw (aka two buck chuck) along with Forestville, Hacienda, and about 60 other labels. He originally started the Franzia wine company that was later purchased by Coca-Cola (see The Wine Group above). Ol' Fred has had his run-ins with the law a couple times in his business life.

These companies are responsible for most of the wine you see in the marketplace. Is that bad? There are efficiencies to doing things on a large scale otherwise they wouldn't be in business. They are growing significantly every year with much of that growth from adding new labels to their portfolio.

I do believe that "boardroom winemaking" leads to a homogeneous wines. That is, if some particular wine or style of wine gets popular then they all will make it that way. For example, I see this in visitors to California wineries who are surprised that all CA Chardonnay isn't oaky and buttery.

There's a lot of wine styles out there that aren't all made like Barefoot and Franzia, but these small producer wines are dwarfed in the marketplace as they can't compete for shelf space with the big boys who muscle them out. That's too bad for you.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Everybody wants a wine tasting room

Sonoma Raceway (aka Infineon, aka Sears Point) is home to Indy Cars, NASCAR, and NHRA racing. It now wants to expand into other entertainment such as holding concerts. But one change speaks Sonoma County all the way: They want to add a wine tasting room. 

Not sure if the tasting room would be open every day or only during major events. Not sure what wines they'll pour, but Andretti Winery isn't far away--I'm sure Mario will want in. Jeff Gordon and Richard Childress (a NASCAR team owner) also have "hobby" wineries. Also nearby is Adobe Road Winery owned by a professional sports car racer.

I wouldn't be surprised if Sonoma Raceway gets their own label. It's an eleven turn track so I suggest coming up with a wine named after each turn. Turn two is the most fun; turn ten the scariest, so they'll want to take that into account. The "fun" wine might be a Pinot Grigio blend. The turn ten corner, that puts hair on your chest, could be a Petite Sirah maybe.

Of course, the tasting room and all the other changes they wish to make will depend on their neighbors and the county.

They'll want to sell trinkets like this wine bottle holder
Image from

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Alternative wine varieties

Tired of the same ol' Chardonnay, Cabernet, and Merlot?

Just because these three are the most popular wines in America doesn't mean other, lesser known wines, won't work for you. There are thousands of wine grape varieties in the world, but realistically there are a few dozen that you can find in the store. These alternatives are semi-easy to find.

Chardonnay is the top-selling wine in the U.S. Try a white that's originally from the Rhone area of France and now grown in many parts of the world.
A Rhone-style blend

Viognier (vee-ohg-nyay) can be similar to Chardonnay in body and flavors, but tends to be aromatic and can have more complex flavors.  Other similar whites are Marsanne and Roussanne. These three can also be blended together to make a nice white wine.

Cabernet Sauvignon is the second most popular wine in the country. You may not be in the mood for a big, heavy Cab so try one of these.

Tannat is grown in France and is very popular in South America.  There are a few American ones available. Often you'll find Tannat used in a blend, maybe with Cabernet.
Tempranillo is a full-bodied Spanish red wine also found in California, Texas, and South America.
Cabernet Franc
An alternative to either Cab or Merlot

Look for a Bordeaux-type blends where Cabernet isn't the primary grape. These blends are generally softer and easier drinking than a "straight" Cabernet and often have more more interesting aromas and flavors. The other grapes usually found in the blend are Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Petit Verdot. Also, you can find Cab/Syrah blends. Merlot and Malbec, of course, are well-known varietals in their own right.
If you are in the mood for a heavy-duty wine, but don't want Cabernet, then try a Petite Sirah -- it will stand up to pretty much any meal you can throw at it!

Merlot is the third most popular wine in the U.S. Lots of people are tired of the mediocre Merlots for sale and have gone to Malbec already. Instead try to find one of these.

Carignane (cah-reeg-nahn) has Spanish/French/Italian  heritage. There once was a fair amount planted in California, but not so much anymore except in jug wine blends. That's too bad.
Barbera and Sangiovese are of Italian origin and are made for food.
Carignane, Barbera and Sangiovese and can also sub in for a Zinfandel.
A Grenache / Syrah blend
Image from

Grenache (gren-aash) is actually one of the most widely planted grapes in the world, but is just recently gaining popularity in the U.S. Grenache can be seen as a varietal on its own or in blends, such as with Syrah. It's a nice lighter-style red that can also sub for Pinot Noir at the dinner table.

Have fun exploring!

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Ordering wine on a first date

Okay, this is a big moment. 
You've got her out to a nice restaurant and want to make the right first impression. You don't want to blow it on the wine you choose for dinner after you've already taken so much time to bathe and find a clean shirt. You need advice.

If you order the cheapest wine on the list

You will look like a schmuck. What self-respecting princess wants to be seen with her friends later with a guy refusing to order cheese on his burger because it's an extra 30 cents? Don't come across as a cheap ass!  There can be an exception to this rule because if you've already decided you don't want to see her again then by all means get the crappiest wine on the list. And since you're already at a fancy restaurant the trick is to get her to order only an appetizer and get out. Beware, if she senses what you're up to she will order the most expensive entrée on the list.

If you order the most expensive wine on the list

She will see you either a) as a show-off, or b) as a rich show-off who will be buying her an $800 purse before the next date. Neither sounds good, especially "b."

If you order the average-priced wine

This looks like you don't know what you want out of life. It will now be her goal to help you decide.

If you order a European wine

This will make you look really sophisticated, but can you back that up? Can you even pronounce the name on the label or are you just ordering "bin 83" and hoping for the best? If the sommelier starts talking to you about the blends in the neighboring villages be ready to turn on the bullshit.

If you order Australian wine

She will assume you still listen to rap and leave your underwear showing because your shorts ride six inches too low. Nobody should be stuck in the nineties if they expect to make a good first impression.

If you order California wine (and you're not in CA)
If you're thinking about sharing a MILKSHAKE
 on your date get the hell off my blog!
Image from

This looks like you have absolutely no imagination especially if you ask for a Chardonnay or Merlot. At least order a Rhone-style blend.

If you order Oregon wine

Now you're getting somewhere!

If you order New Zealand wine (NOT Sauvignon Blanc)

Find a NZ Pinot Noir and her panties will fall right off!

You're welcome

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Wine bottles -- why do we use them?

When you think about it, the standard wine bottle is somewhat impractical and even kind of goofy. It can still be in use only because of tradition, not because it's what works best.

Glass Bottle

Wine bottles first appeared in the 18th century. Until then wine was kept in bulk, as in a barrel or something similar, then maybe transferred to an individual's leather wine pouch.

Glass bottles are fairly good on the environment as far as recycling, but the manufacturing process isn't totally earth-friendly. They are costly to produce compared to other containers, they're breakable, and heavy. Being relatively heavy means they are costly to ship. Many bottles are heavier than they need to be. Some wineries purposely buy thicker glass for expensive wines as somehow a heavy bottle means better wine. All it really means is it costs more to produce and ship.

Most wine bottles have a "punt" in the bottle--that's the dimple thing in the bottom. Wines without the punt are considered cheap, too. The reason for the punt? Beats me, though there are several theories given with the most common being it adds strength to the bottle. And the punt is somewhere for the wine server to put his thumb when doing a fancy pour. Personally, I never trusted myself to pour wine like that safely. Also, the bigger the punt the better the wine, right?

What's wrong with glass besides being heavy for picking up or shipping and the potential for breakage? You can see why shipping wine is probably a bit of a nightmare for UPS and FDX. Bottles also let in light and it happens that sunlight is the enemy of wine. Light can cause chemical changes to wine affecting the mouthfeel and flavors. That's why many producers use dark-tinted glass to help prevent this.


A foil is usually a tin or plastic capsule covering the neck and cork. So maybe they look nice, but are totally unnecessary and they don't get recycled.


This is the worst part of the entire package. Why is cork still the wine bottle closure of choice? With all the potential problems there's no reason for this to be used except for tradition.  Oh yeah, and so the restaurants can charge you a corkage fee. If everything was under a screw cap it'd be a screwage fee. And if they're charging you over fifteen bucks it definitely is a screwage fee.

Corks don't always seal well, are susceptible to cork taint (called a corked wine), and are a pain to remove from the bottle then a pain to reseal. Screw caps are better in all these respects. So why don't all wine use a screw cap closure? Because American consumers think it means a cheap wine.

What looks better?

Thinking about buying wine in a store and choosing between two similarly priced bottles which of these would you choose?  This first one is in a thin, lightweight, flat-bottomed glass bottle with a screw cap and the other in a heavy glass bottle with a punt, a cork, and a tin foil on top. Or what if you saw a $50 Napa Cabernet in a box? OMG!

So what else is there?
Wine in a Tetra Pak
with a straw!
Image from

There are bags in a box, but box wines are for cheap wines, or so the common wisdom goes. There are paper-based recyclable boxes. These are friendlier on the environment, don't let in light, don't break, are cheap to ship, and easy to open.  So yeah, they are superior to a glass bottle with a cork in every way. There are a few people experimenting in the marketplace with these to judge consumer reaction.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Why Zinfandel is the Best

First, this is about red Zinfandel, not the pink stuff. Sorry to say this note is necessary for there are some who don't know the joys of real zin.

Sonoma County is well-known for Zinfandel as are several other parts of California including Amador County in the Sierra Foothills, Lodi in the Central Valley, Mendocino County just north of Sonoma, and Paso Robles in the central coast area.

  Origins of Zinfandel in California

California has many Zinfandel vineyards going back at least to the 1880s. I say "at least" because without original records of plantings you can't be sure how old a vineyard may be. The oldest producing documented vineyard is the Grandpere (grandfather) in Amador County dating from 1869.

Winemaker from Vino Noceto in the Grandpere Vineyards
Image from

Zinfandel's roots were traced back to an obscure grape from Croatia that made it to the East Coast of the U.S. in the 1820s then to California during the Gold Rush. Zinfandel was thought to be an Italian grape until its DNA was traced to Croatia. There was a large influx of Italian immigrants to Sonoma County in the 1880s with many going into the wine business and they planted lots of Zinfandel. You still see the names in the local grape biz: Foppiano, Pedroncelli, Rafanelli, Rochioli, Seghesio, Teldeschi, etc.

Zinfandel has now been shown to be the same as Primitivo in Italy.

About 10% of Sonoma County's, and California's, vineyards are planted to Zinfandel.

  Growing Zinfandel

Zinfandel has a habit of ripening unevenly so on a single vine you can have green, under ripe grapes along with shriveled up, overripe, raisiny grapes. Under ripe can taste herbaceous and acidic; overripe tastes sweet and pruney. Neither trait is good in large quantities.

That's a trick in growing and making Zinfandel--getting lots of nice bright fruit flavors without going over-the-top into pruniness and having the alcohol content so high you can taste it.

Dry Creek Valley -- Zinfandel Central!
  Zinfandel Styles

Zin comes in two major styles:
  • The more restrained version is generally lower on fruit flavors, higher in acid and tannin, can be described as elegant to rustic, and has some aging potential. Examples: Kenwood Vineyards, Storybook Mountain Vineyards, and Ridge Lytton Springs Vineyards.
  • The riper style is bold, big on sweet, soft red fruit flavors and often high in alcohol. You might call these powerhouse zinfandels. Examples: Mazzocco Winery, Rosemblum, and Wilson Winery.
Of course, not everyone is pigeon-holed in one of these two categories as many try for somewhere in between.

  Why Zinfandel is Special

It's incredibly versatile because the different styles can be used for different occasions.

The more fruit forward zins are great as a cocktail wine (without food). They can work with a slightly spicy or sweet beef or pork dish plus anything with a sweet BBQ sauce. The "sturdier" less ripe zins are great with anything tomato-based (spaghetti is the classic choice) to grilled meats especially burgers, sausages and ribs. A grilled ribeye with a Zinfandel can make for a nice summer evening.

Pinot Noir and Zinfandel can cover pretty much any wine need I have--Pinot with the lighter dishes and Zinfandel with just about anything else.
Lots of great Zins from Rockpile
Image from

Zin is usually rich, dark, concentrated, jammy, spicy, and full of berry flavors. Some of the more restrained style Zinfandels can age for many years though you'll want to consume most of them within five years of the vintage date.

Drinking a really outstanding well-made Zinfandel is a memorable event. One of my most unforgettable wine experiences was with a 15 year old Lytton Springs reserve Zinfandel that I was sure had to be over-the-hill. Not even--it was fantastic!

  Buying Zinfandel

There are many good growing regions in California besides the previously mentioned. Some specific appellations within Sonoma County to look for are Alexander, Dry Creek, and Russian River Valleys, plus Rockpile. Also, when I shop I look at the alcohol level listed on the label figuring 15% means fruit bomb, 14-14.5% means more restrained (this isn't guaranteed, but it's another data point in making a selection).

These different appellations within Sonoma County truly produce different Zinfandels. Some suggestions for producers you have a chance of finding on a store shelf near you:
Alexander Valley - Alexander Valley Vyds, deLorimier, Seghesio
Dry Creek Valley - Dry Creek Vyds, Ridge Lytton Springs, Mazzocco, Pedroncelli, Quiriva, Seghesio, Wilson
Russian River Valley - Deloach, Martinelli
Other nearby producers - St. Francis, Storybook Mountain

If you find you really like many of the Zinfandel wines you are finding then consider a visit to Sonoma County because you can visit dozens of small producers making some incredible wines.  Come see the folks at Bella, Carol Shelton, Dashe, Forchini, Hobo, Nalle, Trentadue, Valdez, etc. and you won't be disappointed.