Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The 10 best Canadian wines from Northern Lands

Some Canadian wines go well with mouth-caught salmon
The best Canadian wines can definitely compete on the world stage. That said, unless you're reading this in Calgary, you'll probably never see them.

I was one of several mid-NAFTA judges flown in April to Edmonton for an innovative, painstaking wine competition called Northern Lands. There were few enough entries -- 82 red wines, 73 whites, 27 other -- that each flight was judged by more than one panel on more than one day.

This obviously wouldn't work for a competition like the Concours Mondial de Bruxelles, which gets 8000 entries, so that each judge ends up tasting less than 2% of them. Every judge left Edmonton having tasted all the top awards winners, giving us all a survey of what's going on up there in the Great White North.

My overall impressions:

* Syrah is the best red varietal being made in Canada right now. Not only did a Syrah deservedly win overall Best Red Wine; its runner-up could probably have won as well.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Wine is a bad business, Cameron Hughes edition

Cameron Hughes
For the uninitiated, a winery is basically a license to hemorrhage money. Many smart companies like Coca-Cola have tried and failed.

Cameron Hughes is no fool, and he had a decade of success building a unique business model. But we learned last week that his company has been placed into receivership and he may be forced to sell.

The problem wasn't Hughes' initial innovative idea: buying wines out of tanks and barrels that famous wineries couldn't sell for nickels on the dollar, then selling them at Costco under his own name with lot numbers; i.e., Cameron Hughes Lot 218 Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon 2008. That line of business is still profitable.

The problem also wasn't Hughes' innovative direct sale business, where right now you can buy 2012 Russian River Pinot Noir, Napa Valley Meritage or many other choices for under $20. As Hughes expanded his market, he moved into buying excess quality grapes in big vintages like the last three and having the wines made in custom crush facilities. These opportunistic buys are also profitable, according to court filings.

Where Hughes fell down was in two things: 1) entering the mainstream battle for ordinary cheap supermarket wine and 2) getting financing to do it from a bank that apparently wasn't really acquainted with wine industry.

It's just the latest sign that wine is a bad business, if your grandparents didn't own vineyards, and if you hope to make a profit on the kind of schedule that pleases a bank or traditional stock investors.

Hughes is not insolvent, and he may be able to right the ship. But the bank he owes $15.3 million isn't helping. His representatives told the San Francisco Superior Court the bank forced him to sell bulk wine at a loss, rather than bottle it and sell it on his website. His side also said he and the bank agree he needs to get out of the mainstream "broad market" business, but disagree on how to do it.

I'm rooting for Hughes. But let this tale be a reminder to people who want to make a small fortune in the wine industry, because we all know the prerequisite for that.

Follow me on Twitter: @wblakegray and like The Gray Report on Facebook.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Perfection isn't perfect: Parker says only 50% of his 100-point scores are repeatable

More 100-point wines when the critic is lit!
If you read that a wine scored 100 points out of 100, you think, wow, that's an absolutely great wine. A perfect wine. Right?

It turns out that perfection, for Robert Parker, is as fleeting as the beauty of cherry blossom leaves drifting softly to the ground. Today your wine is a pink blossom; tomorrow it's a bare branch, possibly covered in birdshit.

Parker gave an interview to Drinks Business earlier this year for an article that will appear in its June issue. The magazine published excerpts online last week. I find this section astonishing:

How often do I go back and re-taste a wine that I gave 100 points and repeat the score? Probably about 50% of the time.
-- Robert Parker
Parker goes on to say that most -- not all -- of the time "I can understand why I did see it as perfect at that time."

Holy crap! How did this quote not roil the Internet?

Monday, May 11, 2015

Wine trade rumor: Santa Margherita, Terlato consider divorce

Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio is one of the biggest successes ever on the U.S. wine market. For 14 years in a row, from 1995 to 2008, it was the most popular imported wine in Wine & Spirits magazine's annual restaurant poll.

Tony Terlato introduced it in 1979. He created a sensation, and not just for the brand. Pinot Grigio, unknown before, is now the third most popular grape variety in America.

With apologies to Deutsch, which brought us Yellow Tail, I can't name an import company that did more for a wine brand or wine category.

And yet, in Italy last week I heard a widespread rumor that Santa Margherita is planning a divorce. It's a rumor and could be nothing more.

"We continue to work under the terms of our agreement with Santa Margherita," said Liz Barrett, Terlato Wines vice president of corporate communications. "I know there's many rumors out there. We don't comment on those."

If the story does come to pass, it reminds me of Mateus rosé.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Napa County should increase its minimum parcel size

Napa County is considering increasing the minimum parcel size required to build a winery, from 10 to 40 acres. This is a classist move that favors existing wineries and could prevent some small landowners from stepping up to join the elite.

It's also one of the best moves Napa can make right now to address its longterm growth challenges.

Napa County already has 395 wineries, including 49 grandfathered in on rural properties of less than 10 acres. It's likely that among the remaining 5,000 parcels of 10 acres or more, there's another Martha's Vineyard that would really shine if allowed to be made and bottled on its own.

Of course, Martha's is one of Napa's most famous vineyards, yet its owners have not needed to build a winery in order for its grapes to be recognized. Nor have they needed a winery to profit from their land, or increase its value.

Napa decided decades ago that its future is high-end agriculture. No region in the United States, and arguably the world, is better at turning a local name and image into stacks of money.

Napa can't really grow much more without hurting its image.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Former doctors grow grapes in Paso Robles

Bob Simpson
This is a guest post by Rutgers Today, written by Jeffrey Tolvin. It's a good story; thought you'd enjoy it.

Serena Friedman and Robert Simpson have so much in common you would think they would be close friends.

Forty years ago they were medical school students – she at New Jersey Medical School in Newark and he at Rutgers Medical School in New Brunswick (today Robert Wood Johnson Medical School). They both became successful physicians in Los Angeles and later went on to operate thriving vineyards in Paso Robles.

Surprisingly, they still have never met.

“It probably has something to do with the fact that Paso Robles has nearly 300 vineyards,” says Simpson, who developed Whalebone Vineyard from a 128-acre cattle ranch he bought with his wife Janalyn in 1986.

Today neither practices medicine. Instead, in retirement they are putting the same passion they brought to their careers as doctors into harvesting grapes and manufacturing thousands of cases of wine annually.

Each came to their new calling by different routes.

Simpson developed the first private obstetrics-gynecology practice in nearby Templeton, focusing on high-risk pregnancies. As the practice grew, his interest in wine was piqued by the many roadside vineyards he noticed en route to deliveries.

Then suddenly he was forced from his solo practice in 1994 after he lost parts of three fingers in an Idaho duck hunting accident.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Wine events teach the wrong things about wine

ZAP. Courtesy Alder Yarrow/Vinography.
When people pay $75 to go to a wine tasting, what do they do?

They taste as many wines as they can, mostly without food. They bounce from this Pinot Noir to that Zinfandel to that Cabernet Sauvignon. They don't have an entire glass, or even half a glass, of anything.

They crowd around the table of the wine with the highest price, fighting to get their glass poured into.

Maybe they learn to describe wines using Ann Noble's aroma wheel. Maybe they learn a producer or two that they like, more because of a personable pourer than the quality of the wine.

We like to think that wine tastings are a great way to teach people about wine. But what messages do they really send?

* You can understand any wine in a sip or two

* Drink 'til you can't take any more, then drink more

* More expensive wine is more desirable

* Wine isn't food. It exists in its own universe.

If wine producers don't like these messages, they need to consider the way their wine is presented at events.

Follow me on Twitter: @wblakegray and like The Gray Report on Facebook.