Thursday, January 27, 2011

Update: What Calistoga means to Champagne

After my post yesterday suggesting that a new US wine law might make "California Champagne" illegal, I had input from two players: Korbel director of winemaking Paul Ahvenainen and Sam Heitner, director of the US Office of Champagne.

Not surprisingly, they don't agree on exactly what last week's TTB ruling means.

A recap: Calistoga Cellars will have to change its brand name on wines that do not include at least 85% grapes from Calistoga. It will not be grandfathered in, and this will apply in the future to any wineries with geographic terms in their names, should those places become official American Viticultural Areas.

One thing that won't happen is what I speculated yesterday, that Korbel will immediately have to stop calling its wine "California Champagne." Ahvenainen pointed out that Champagne is not a wine region in the United States, and the ruling at present only applies to US wine regions.

But while the US won Korbel's right to continue misleading consumers in trade talks with the European Union in 2005, that concession isn't necessarily going to be the law forever, Heitner said.

Heitner said that, in theory, the 2005 agreement came after the first round of talks that are supposed to have a second round. In fact, Heitner said the sides were supposed to reconvene within 90 days, though apparently that didn't happen.

"In theory, the EU and the US are continuing to talk about this," Heitner said.

Protecting Champagne, along with Burgundy, Port, Chablis and other wine regions whose names are used as brand names in the US, may not be high priority for the EU, but it's not an issue that's going away. And the positions of some of the US players have changed since 2005.

Most of the California wine industry, along with several members of Congress, lined up against Calistoga Cellars in support of the new TTB regulation. It's hard for me to see those folks turning around and strongly supporting Korbel (and Constellation, which makes Cook's) for doing exactly the same thing Calistoga Cellars was doing -- implying that its wine is made some place that it's not.

Heitner pointed out that as recently as 20 years ago, few Americans cared about this sort of law. The growth in power of the US wine industry, and the growing interest among American consumers in wine, has changed that.

"We're very impressed with the great strides the US wine industry has made in the last 20 years," Heitner says. "The protection of the Calistoga AVA is the latest in a series of steps that shows that the US wine industry cares where the wine comes from. I don't think there's any other country in the world that has made as many great steps in the last 20 years. At the same time, it would behoove the US to recognize worldwide regions such as Champagne and Port and others. The United States has a loophole that allows the misuse of Champagne on wines from California. But that is directly in conflict with the majority of other countries in the world."

A major part of Korbel's argument, as made by Ahvenainen, is that "champagne" no longer means a place, but has become a generic word, like Kleenex or Frisbee. That would be fine if growers in Champagne agreed, but they don't. The company that has been telling people for decades that Champagne isn't a place now says its argument is correct because people believe it. I'm always amused when people use the ignorance of the American public as an argument, but just because many people think aliens live among us or President Obama is a Muslim born in Africa doesn't make it so.

The question is, will France, the EU or the Office of Champagne approach the TTB and try to get the Calistoga ruling applied to European wine regions? "We continuously communicate with the TTB about multiple issues," is all that Heitner would say.

"The idea that there are Calistogas and Paso Robles -- at the end of the day, this is something the US embraces, that wine comes from a place," Heitner said.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

"California Champagne" is now illegal, right?

I'm not a lawyer, so I'm not sure about this, but I think the federal government might have made "California Champagne" illegal last week.

What happened was that the TTB (Alcohol Tax & Trade Bureau) finally published a rule on the application for Calistoga as an AVA. The TTB made the right call, requiring wines that say "Calistoga" on the front label to actually be made from at least 85% Calistoga grapes.

An important part of the decision was that Calistoga Cellars requested to be "grandfathered in," and was denied. Even though the winery was using that brand name before Calistoga became an officially recognized wine region, it will have to change its name if it doesn't use Calistoga grapes.

Moreover, this new rule applies to all AVAs, not just Calistoga.

Regarding Korbel and Cook's California Champagne -- why wouldn't this ruling also apply to them?

"Champagne" is a viticultural area recognized around the world. Korbel has always successfully lobbied the US, in trade talks with Europe, to allow it to continue calling its wines "California Champagne" because it established its business using that product name, even though almost every other sparkling winemaker in the world doesn't need that crutch.

But "Champagne" is not Korbel's brand name, or Cook's. If Calistoga Cellars has to change its brand name because of this ruling, why wouldn't Korbel have to simply take the word "Champagne" off the bottle?

As I said, I'm not a lawyer. I welcome those who are to read the ruling here in the Federal Register and find a clause that preserves Korbel's and Cook's right to continue misleading consumers. I can't find one.

And for my readers in France ... time to hire some lawyers of your own and chew into this ruling. Bon appetit.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Wine reviewers should acknowledge "crowd pleasers"

I was reading a book I hate last week, by a fellow wine blogger, and it got me to thinking about how many wine critics are failing the public.

The book is "A Discovery of Witches," by Deborah Harkness, who writes the excellent Good Wine Under $20 blog.

I hate the book -- but not because it's bad. It's just not my kind of book. I want vampires to be ruthless bloodsuckers, not research scientist/philanthropists who host yoga classes for self-improving demons and witches. I want vampires to drain humans of their blood and throw them aside like empty beer cans, not fall so helplessly in love with them that they don't want to defile their perfect relationship with a tawdry act like sex.

So instead of finishing the book, I picked up the antidote: "Solomon's Vineyard," a noir novel from 1941 that was banned in the US for more than a decade. Now THAT was my kind of book: tough dialogue, mean characters, steamy atmosphere, murders and retribution. And it revolves around a vineyard run by a suspicious religious cult.

Sadly, it wasn't a great book, and not because of the period-authentic racism or implied pedophilia. It fell apart on the ending, and even though I like characters hard-boiled, this was a tad more acidic than I prefer. But I devoured it quickly, because it's the KIND of book I like, whereas Deborah's book I'll never finish.

Can you see the wine analogy here? Let me spell it out.

Pussified vampires are huge sellers, like big-bodied Cabernets or White Zinfandel. Fist-first noir stories are a niche with fierce advocates, like savory, cool-climate Syrah or red wines from the Loire. If you took 100 people off the street and forced them to read both books, the great majority would vote for vampires doing yoga.

However, I'm a critic, so I get to say not only that I like one book better than the other, but that it IS better, because it's in the style that I prefer.

Food for thought?

Monday, January 24, 2011

A whole meal with Sauternes: Can life be too sweet?

Get 50% off shipping when you purchase 6 or more bottles of our fine wine using promo code "blake35"
Most people think of Sauternes as a dessert wine, with the famous exception that it's great with foie gras.
But can one drink Sauternes through an entire meal? Obviously you can, because plenty of Americans drink Coke with dinner.

A better question is, what's it like to drink Sauternes with an entire meal, with no foie gras or dessert?

Aline Baly, whose family owns Chateau Coutet, invited me to Benu in San Francisco to find out.

Why? Because Sauternes producers face a challenge getting their wine off the separate-but-unequal dessert wine list. Baly wants to call it "gold wine," rather than sweet wine, and she'd like to see "gold wines" get their own portion of the main wine list alongside the, er, not-so-sweet wines.

It sounds like wishful thinking, but actually it makes sense. As a group, Americans are tremendous hypocrites about sweetness in wine. We talk dry and drink sweet. People claim they don't want sweet wines, but Kendall Jackson Vintners Reserve Chardonnay is consistently one of our top sellers, and it tastes a lot sweeter than many Spatlese Rieslings. And back to Coke with dinner -- you don't see that much in Europe. Baly is just suggesting that people openly order what they actually want.

I let Baly do much of the ordering for me, as I often do with wine dinners. But usually the winery representative chooses no-brainer complementary dishes. Baly suggested pork belly and lamb dishes, and I was intrigued.

Sadly, she had to watch me eat all that yummy stuff while eating steamed fish herself because of a stomach problem she picked up in China. And she barely had any wine, though my wife and I tried to make up for her.

Baly brought 3 vintages of Chateau Coutet: a 1989, a 2006 and a 2007 ($60). You can buy the last, and best, one here. And my sponsor, which doesn't have the '07 yet, does have a good price on the 2004.

The '07 was clearly the best vintage of the three: it tasted of apricot jam and honeycomb with appealing minerality and good acidity. I enjoyed drinking the '89 because of its complexity, but the '07 was almost as good now and will probably outstrip the '89 eventually. It was significantly richer and more intense than the '06 because 2007 was a humid year that allowed plenty of botrytis ("noble rot") to develop in the 95-acre vineyard.

Here's what we had, and how well the Sauternes went:

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Barrel-aged cocktails: the next big thing

 Bonnie & Clyde at left; Cortez the Killer at right.
Last week I finally tried the next big thing in cocktails: barrel-aged cocktails.

Blackbird, on Market St. in San Francisco, started barrel-aging Martinez cocktails (the cocktail that evolved into the Martini) last fall, but sold out because everyone needed to try them. So now they have two new ones.

The Bonnie & Clyde is excellent and shows why one would want to barrel-age a cocktail in the first place -- to smoothly integrate the components in a way that a quick shake with ice simply cannot do.

An interesting aspect of this drink is that the base spirit -- High West Silver Whiskey -- was never aged in wood barrels, so that keeps the drink from getting a double dose of wood. High West is actually made in Utah, which is akin to making pork sausage in Israel.

The Utah whiskey is blended with Dolin white vermouth, an organic chamomile liqueur and baked apple bitters that came from a bartending specialty supplier.

What was best about it is that, if I couldn't see the ingredients written on the wall, I would have been guessing for a while. It had apple and chamomile notes, and the whiskey was so well-integrated that the drink had body but no bite at all.

The cocktail is made up in large batches and then aged in used rye barrels for four weeks. Some of the alcohol evaporates, so it's actually lower in proof than a freshly made version would be.

Blackbird's other barrel-aged cocktail showed the hazard of four weeks of aging together. It has a great name, Cortez the Killer, but is so dominated by Luna Azul Blanco Tequila that it's hard to taste even echoes of the other two spirits, one of which (Bonal Gentiane Quina Aperitif) is particularly delicate. That drink also has an overly woody taste; I left most of it on the bar.

San Francisco is not at the forefront of this trend; Robert Simonson wrote in the New York Times last month that it came from Portland via Australia.

Unfortunately for my readers in the wine industry, it's hard to imagine repurposing a used wine barrel in this way; they're just too big. But maybe I'm not ambitious enough. Cocktails for 1000, anyone?

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

How to succeed in the drinks business

This is a tale of two women, both drinks entrepreneurs.

Both found themselves out of a job, so they created products in their kitchen that weren't on the market before.

But the products are very different -- and so are their business results.

Nora Egger creates Elixir floral infusions in Cleveland using natural ingredients; it takes 15,000 rose petals to make a 9 ounce bottle of her Damascan Rose elixir.

"I make 40 gallons at a time," says Egger, 33, who was laid off from an international management recruiting job. "We manually fill, sticker, label; everything."

Nikki Halibur, co-founder of Adult Beverage Company, doesn't know what kind of vodka goes into Adult Chocolate Milk -- an outside company takes care of that. She knows the milk is shelf-stable, but doesn't know where it's from, what the vodka was made of or how many times it was distilled.

The products taste very different, of course -- the rose elixir is one of the best floral products I've ever had, with a strong rose essence, delicious in sparkling water and just waiting to be used by cocktail experts.

Adult Chocolate Milk is also the best of its kind I've ever had. I can honestly say I've never had a better combination of shelf-stable milk, generic industrial grain neutral spirit and chocolate so mild that you can barely taste it. It's like a not so tasty, provocatively named Bailey's Irish Cream.

The company's ad slogan invites you to "Re-taste your youth," but unfortunately in my youth shelf-stable milk was still rare, so in order to achieve this beverage folks had to add grain neutral spirit to reconstituted powdered milk. Still, this flavor really might take some of y'all back to the good ole days: red-faced parents lying on the floor, screaming fights at all hours, the sound of shattered glass, Mommy explaining why you can't see Daddy anymore.

Anyway, you can read the press release for Adult Chocolate Milk, as an Arizona Republic writer rewrote it for a national news audience, and USA Today picked it up. (The writer actually got something wrong, because Halibur told me there was no actual milk in creator Tracy Reinhardt's original recipe, but who cares about how the stuff is made? That's kind of the point of this post.)

You'll note that Adult Chocolate Milk is already in 300 stores. Halibur told me that after making just 7000 cases in the first three months of production, the company made 8000 cases in January, as the product got national attention, thanks to the fact that it's being trumpeted by a Real Housewife who earned her money the old-fashioned way, by inheriting it. Turn your sound on to check out the website: I like the funky song a lot. Seriously.

Meanwhile, Elixir products are barely in stores on the East Coast, and haven't found a West Coast distributor, though you can order directly from the company here. Unfortunately there ain't no party going on at this website; you can practically taste the absence of Hollywood cash.

So the moral of the story is, if you want to get attention in the drinks business, don't waste your time sourcing great ingredients or making an artisanal product. Find the right product name and get it to Hollywood, and you're all set.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Food-wine pairing apps: tyranny in your pocket

New column photo: like it?
I get emails every week inviting me to write about some new wine or food related app. Recently one listed several of its recommended food and wine pairings.

I disagreed with them, not because they were bad, but because they were prescriptive and unimaginative. Porterhouse steak -- Cabernet Sauvignon. Thank you, I needed to spend $2.99 to learn that.

The thing is, I prefer Pinot Noir with steak, and not because I'm weird; it's a pairing first recommended to me some years ago by a sommelier at Bern's Steak House, an institution that should know a thing or two about the topic.

And that got me to thinking about the whole concept of a food-wine pairing app.

There are two extremist theories of food and wine pairing. There's the "perfect pairing" theory, espoused by many glossy magazines. Here's a recipe, and with it you should drink not just Sauvignon Blanc, but Loire Sauvignon Blanc -- and not just that, but this one particular Sancerre.

And there's the diametrically opposed "anything goes" theory, usually espoused by people fed up with the "perfect pairing" theory. This theory says if you want to drink Cabernet Sauvignon with steamed crab, go right ahead.

As is usually the case, the truth is in the middle. Most foods will be good with a wide range of wines, but not an unlimited range. With crab, I recommend Chardonnay, Viognier, sake, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Muscadet, my list could go on and on ... but it would never include Malbec or Syrah or any other heavy red.

However, a great chef could take that as a challenge and could make a Syrah-friendly crab dish if she really wanted to. I was reminded of that last week at Skool restaurant in San Francisco, where chef Toshihiro Nagano had been tasked to come up with pairings for Tamas Estates Central Coast Zinfandel 2008.

It wasn't a great assignment for a seafood restaurant -- come up with foods that will best showcase a $10 Zinfandel. When I saw the menu, I thought it would never work.

One dish was Coca Flat Bread with Aji-Himono, Caramelized Onion, Goat Cheese, Sun Dried Tomato, Ume-Olive Tapenade and Local Greens. Aji-Himono (dried horse mackerel) is very fishy; I love mackerel and other fishy fish, but it usually isn't great with red wine, and goat cheese doesn't help.

Another dish was Sauteed Local Black Cod with Tamas Zin Reduction and Japanese Mushrooms. Black cod is so delicate, I was sure the wine -- and maybe the sauce -- would overwhelm it.

The only sure-fire semi-hit was Washugyu Beef with Tamas Zin Reduction and Flash-Charred Brussels Sprouts. Beef and Zin, sure; I only doubted the sprouts.

Of course I was wrong about all three. The black cod dish best showed the Zinfandel, brightening its fruit. The flat bread was delicious and brought out more body and texture in the Zin. And the beef made the Zin taste murky -- but the Brussels sprouts were fine with the wine.

Which brings me back to my point. Can you imagine a wine-pairing app that would show "Black Cod -- Zinfandel"? It worked because of the sauce and the mushrooms, and because the chef tasted this particular wine. It might not have worked with a more expensive Zinfandel that might have been heavier or spicier.

But the nature of apps isn't to put Evan Goldstein by your side when you order, asking you how much salt is in the dish or whether or not the wine is barrel-fermented. It might irritate the iPhone user, but all this stuff matters.

Instead, you get "Risotto -- Barolo." Well, what if the wine list doesn't have Barolo? What if you don't like Barolo? Can you dial up another choice?

Food and wine pairing is mysterious and counterintuitive and, despite the title of Evan's book on the topic, rarely perfect. Psychologically, that's the reason some people obsess on it, because the success rate isn't great. We are intermittently reinforced with something like goat cheese-roasted beets-Sauvignon Blanc that works so beautifully that we keep trying to recreate the magic.

I don't know if the medium of apps can deliver this message. I would trust the chef or sommelier of a restaurant to choose a pairing rather than any wine or food expert I know who hasn't tasted the dish in question.

When cooking at home, you can start with the simple principles, there for a reason: fish/white wine; red meat/red wine. But you quickly pour on the complications: sauces, spices, more or less fat, different styles of wine.

I rarely write about food and wine pairing because it is so complicated, and because I don't have a comfortably extreme view like the two theories above. When I want to showcase a wine at its best, I try to pick the right food for it; recently I opened a bunch of Mourvedre-based wines with cassoulet because they're both earthy and a little gamy and the Mourvedre would bring some nice spice. Was it perfect? Of course not. If I had a test kitchen, I might make 10 different Mourvedre-friendly dishes only to learn that some went best with one wine, and others with another.

All I'm saying here is that if you have a pairing app that tells you One Dish -- One Wine, immutably, with no wiggle room, it's a tyrant in your pocket. It's time for your own revolution.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Why $35 wines are worth more than $100 wines

What's better than a $100 wine -- a $100 wine for $35, right?

Maybe ... but that perception is a problem that wineries which have been pricing their wines fairly all along are facing now.

Call it "wine market compression." Other than a few perennial big names like the Bordeaux first-growths, most high-end wines aren't selling. In fact, I'm writing this a little late, because the true collapse in the market for $100 wines happened in 2008; the market may be recovering slightly.

But the market isn't recovering enough to make two vintages go away, so many of those 2005 and 2006 wines once priced at $100 are quietly filtering out through the discount market. Sites like Wines Til Sold Out, Wine Spies, Wine Woot and others have emerged to sell $100 wines for $35.

The idea behind all of them is similar: deals are offered for a brief time, so you have to buy now or lose your chance. The markdowns from original prices are staggering.

So which would you rather have: a wine originally $80 for $37.99 (with free shipping on four bottles) or a $35 bottle ordered direct from the winery -- for $35?

The former, right? Anybody would rather have $80 worth of goods.

The question you have to ask yourself is, are you really getting $80 worth of goods? Or was the wine overpriced in the first place?

I got into this discussion during a lunch roundtable at Bien Nacido Vineyards, where I tasted a number of superb Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs from different producers, all priced between $30 and $45.

For the uninitiated, $35-40 is a reasonable cost-of-production-based price for a premium wine made from grapes from a well-known vineyard. Yes, Fred Franzia can get you a bottle of wine for $2, but he doesn't use hand harvesting, a sorting table, etc. For most wines, prices above $40 have what car dealers refer to on the sticker price as "ADP": additional dealer profit.

For years I have enjoyed the California wines in this price range more than any other. They're often great versions of out-of-favor varietals like Syrah, or winemaker pet projects from pricey vineyards. The best Zinfandels in the state usually cost about $35 because Zin fans won't pay more, and high-end buyers aren't that interested in Zin.

Cabernet Sauvignon is not more expensive to produce than other grapes; it costs more because people pay more for it. Pinot Noir had a big price run-up after "Sideways," but the truth is it doesn't intrinsically cost much more to produce than other wines. You have to hand harvest it, it needs gentle treatment, but that can all be done for under $50 -- even at DRC. Prices above that are all about land costs, debt load, ADP, and sometimes the winery owner's ego.

It's hard to blame winery owners who took advantage of the wine gold rush and jacked up their prices. Sometimes it's the Napa Neighbor Effect -- hey, he's charging more than me! But often it's just good business. If you were willing to pay me $50 to read this blog post (oh please), I'd be a fool to not take it.

But this is where we are now: folks who didn't follow the gold rush, and charged reasonable prices for their wines all along, are now being squeezed from above as pricier wines fall from the heavens.

"It's the piecemeal value effect: I'm going to buy this $50 wine for $30, so why should I buy your $30 wine?" said Costa de Oro winemaker Gary Burk.

So I ask you, gentle reader, to think about those wines on the deal-a-day Internet websites this way. If that was really a $100 wine, wouldn't it have sold for $100? Wouldn't sommeliers have championed it? Wouldn't wine stores have recommended it more strongly to their customers?

I'm NOT suggesting these deal-a-day wines are bad wines; not at all. Many of them are very good wines.

What I am saying is that the market has ruled on their actual value. I would say that it's what the deal-a-day site is charging, but unless the wine actually sells out (sometimes they don't; these businesses often pull a wine off the site if it's not selling fast enough) its actual value is still somewhat less than what you paid.

And maybe, just maybe, a wine that has been selling all along for the same $35-$40 price is actually worth more.


I tasted some knockout wines at Bien Nacido, but the one that impressed me most was a varietal I don't generally like, Roussanne. Often, especially but not exclusively in California, I find Roussanne to be fat and waxy, and it's just not my cuppa wine.

But this is:
Qupe Bien Nacido Hillside Estate Santa Maria Valley Roussanne 2007 ($40)
When you first stick your nose in it, the waxiness jumps at you; it's like smelling a melted candle. But it's a candle scented with cantaloupe, honeycomb and flowers. On the palate, you initially get dry honeycomb, followed by green papaya and clay. It's hard to put a descriptor on the citrus note: Meyer lemon peel? But it kept changing on me. This wine had great complexity without weight; it's just 12.5% alcohol. Moreover, it's the deer's favorite. Bien Nacido Vineyards owner Nicholas Miller told me that the deer in the area will jump several fences and bypass lots of great Pinot Noir and Chardonnay to nibble on this one block of Roussanne. You really couldn't ask for a better endorsement, albeit from a different species. 97 points
Buy it here

Monday, January 10, 2011

Robert Parker vs. Gary Vaynerchuk on HBO

Are Robert Parker and Gary Vaynerchuk rivals in real life? Whatever the answer is, they might soon be on TV.

The production company behind "Boardwalk Empire" has optioned a script from "Sideways" author Rex Pickett called "The Nose," about characters based on Parker and Vaynerchuk.

Pickett says that in his plan for the pilot, the Parker character "has social anxiety disorder so badly that he has to have a psychiatric service dog." His rival, the Vaynerchuk equivalent, is younger and more savvy about the Internet and social media.

"They're not friends; Parker won't be on Vaynerchuk's show," said Pickett, who didn't share any specific plot points.

It's still a long way from a pilot script to an HBO series -- or even a filmed pilot. But Leverage Management, which also produces "Entourage" for HBO, is interested in making a TV series about wine, Pickett said. And Pickett, who wrote the book that became the most successful wine movie in history, was a natural choice to take a swing at it.

"They wanted to get underneath the surface of the gloss that is wine country and into the real wine world," Pickett said.

The concept reminds me of the mid-'90s animated show "The Critic," in which Jon Lovitz played a sad misanthrope who reviews movies. In fact, Lovitz' character reminds me a lot of Miles in "Sideways." So imagine if Miles and Robert Parker were melded; maybe that's the idea.

"The Critic" was excellent but never developed an audience. ABC cancelled it after one season, but it was picked up by Fox, where it was cancelled the following year. Only 23 episodes were made and the DVD has proven popular enough that it's in its fifth printing.

HBO doesn't need as big a mass audience as the broadcast networks. It's not hard to imagine such a show succeeding. "The Critic's" signature line was, "It stinks." What will Parker's and Vaynerchuk's signature lines be? I can't wait to watch "The Nose" and see.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

On the battle over "USDA Organic" wine

Rarely as a wine journalist have I been as happy to write a story as I was this one on the future of "organic wines" in the Los Angeles Times.

It's a story that almost every other media outlet has been getting wrong. The argument against adding sulfites is very convincing, if you don't know wine, and most environmental journalists don't.

Maybe -- just maybe -- my story can lead to a healthier environment, better wines, and more informed consumers. Wow, what a dream.

This blog post isn't intended to retell the story, so please go here and read it. What I want to do is add some perspective and answer some questions that I couldn't address with a print newspaper word count.

I interviewed a lot more winemakers than I quoted. In particular, I interviewed zealots from the "natural wine" crowd -- people who risk using only native yeasts and believe in minimal intervention. These folks sneer at mass-market winemaking, yet all of them said they add sulfites to their wines when necessary.
The reusable NPA bottle
The one that most surprised me was the Natural Process Alliance. This is the one winery in America that really doesn't need to add sulfites. Their wines are sold in reusable stainless steel bottles, only within 100 miles of the winery, and are intended to be consumed within a week. I don't know of a more environmentally concerned, idealistic winery.

And yet, it's even on their website: "Sulfur is used only when absolutely necessary and in very small quantities." Hardy Wallace, better known as a wine blogger than the NPA's sales and marketing rep, explained that for some batches of wine, it's a choice between adding sulfites or pouring them down the drain.

Matt Lickliter of Lioco Winery says the issue should not be whether sulfites are allowed in "USDA Organic wine," but how much should be allowed. He suggested a 50 ppm (parts per million) limit, which would probably be fought by most big companies, but would allow dedicated vintners to make their organically farmed, lovingly processed wines "organic." He wasn't the only winery guy to tell me that some of his wines exceed 10 ppm without any sulfur additions, because sulfites are naturally occurring.

What green-minded consumers might do is look at the substitutes people are buying for "organic wine" because that category is so small. "Certified sustainable," in California, allows you literally to throw all of your plastic trash in the Napa River. One year ago, "natural wine" was almost always made by idealists, but once the category got some traction, wineries without the same environmental commitment began to realize that "natural wine" has no standards whatsoever.

Currently the best type of wine for Earth lovers is "biodynamic" by default. It's a religion that's more than a little nutty, but it does force grape growers to lavish care on their vines and their soil. But its science is indefensible.

"USDA Organic wine" could be more widely produced, available and consumed than it is now. And it's important, because it's the easiest green-friendly category to understand. But it will require people who are passionate about the issue to study it more deeply. Ask some winemakers, ask some farmers, educate yourself.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Why all wine lovers just don't get along

Most of us who love wine operate under a basic misconception.

We think that when we love a wine, other aficionados will too.

We also think there are other people buying wine who are complete idiots because they disagree with us.

The problem is this: It's not just that individual tastes differ. It's that among wine lovers, there are two incompatible worldviews.

This is a subset of Constellation Brands' groundbreaking work from several years ago on the 6 types of wine consumers. They are:

Overwhelmed, 23%, buy wine but don't know anything about it
Satisfied sippers, 14%, buy the same brand
Savvy shoppers, 15%, look for discounts
Traditionalists, 16%, like old wineries and are brand-loyal

That leaves two categories: Image seekers (20%), and Enthusiasts (12%). The former spend the most money on wine; the latter expend the most verbiage on it. These are the only two who care enough about wine to read articles or blog posts about it.

And like a marriage entered into after one date, they are stuck together even though they're incompatible, with verbal sparks flying all the time.

I find the term "image seekers" pejorative, so I'm going to change it to "Quality Seekers" for the rest of this essay, because I think it better illustrates the psychological divide.

"Quality Seekers" want the best wines available. They might drink across several categories, but they're swayed by high ratings so they tend to drink mostly varieties that receive them; i.e., Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay. If they saw a print article about, say, Lake County wines with five wine reviews, they would seek out the highest-rated one.

It's a reasonable position; why not try the best wine? Yet it is constantly attacked by the other category, "Enthusiasts." These are the idealists who demand natural yeasts, unusual varietals and interesting experiments.

Because Enthusiasts don't like numerical ratings, many have developed a better vocabulary to describe wines than Quality Seekers. In fact, many are beautifully literate, and their attacks on the 100-point scale, corporate wines, Chardonnay grown in non-traditional areas, and various other perceived offenses should be convincing.

What they won't accept is that Quality Seekers don't care about any of that. You can lecture a Quality Seeker about unique Jura wines until you're blue in the face, but when the wine list comes, the Quality Seeker is going to spend his money on a wine that some known critic has tested and approved. It might be a Chardonnay, it might be a Rhone blend Robert Parker likes, but it's not going to be some weird wine recommended by some weirdo who thinks it's interesting to make wine under a cover of fungus.

Both sides have advocates. The leading Quality Seeker is, of course, Robert Parker. Wine Spectator is in this category, as is Wine Enthusiast and every other US wine magazine with the possible exception of Wine & Spirits. This crowd is as professional, talented and knowledgeable as anyone in the business, and loves wine as much as anyone. If you want somebody to taste 50 Merlots and find the best 5, they're your men (and they are, without exception, men.)

The leading Enthusiast is Jancis Robinson, the best writer in the world at explaining the lure of unknown wines without sounding condescending. Eric Asimov of the New York Times is probably the leading US Enthusiast, though he is hampered by a Quality Seeker tasting format.

The great majority of well-known wine bloggers are Enthusiasts. There are exceptions: Alder Yarrow of Vinography is more of a Quality Seeker. Steve Heimoff recently wrote "Snore" on his blog in response to the idea of natural wines; he's a Quality Seeker. But I'm hard-pressed to name another major wine blogger who isn't more of an Enthusiast.

Yet if you look at social media like Cellar Tracker and Wine Berzerkers, those attract more Quality Seekers than Enthusiasts. Both get mixed crowds, but if Constellation's numbers were right, there are 5 Quality Seekers for every 3 Enthusiasts, and the ratio seems higher on those bulletin boards, perhaps because the Enthusiasts are busy writing their own blogs.

The classic Enthusiast arguments are: Native grapes, minimal intervention, let the wine reflect its terroir. The classic Quality Seeker argument is: I don't care what you did to make it as long as it tastes great. Enthusiasts scream their arguments at Quality Seekers, who simply don't care.

Here it is in a single word.
Quality Seekers want "great."
Enthusiasts want "interesting."

Now, why is Napa Valley still the center of the American wine world? (I can hear the sharp intake of breath from the Enthusiasts as I type that.)

It's simple: Quality Seekers spend more. Napa wineries understand that. And since they're running businesses, why shouldn't they pursue the greatest profits?

Enthusiasts know how many interesting wines are available for $25, so they're reluctant to spend much more than that. Why should they? You can always tell an Enthusiast from this kind of comment: "Sure, that Napa Cab might be good, but why spend $100 on it when there are so many great wines from the Languedoc for so much less?"

Quality Seekers would spend four times as much to get a wine that's 10% better. Maybe not every day, but that's the way they look at life. They want the best and they're willing to pay for it.

Both sides like new discoveries, but the type of discovery is different. Enthusiasts want new frontiers: wine from Moldova or Uruguay. Quality Seekers never tire of finding a new producer making an established wine: a great new Napa Cab, a mailing-list-only Russian River Chardonnay.

I have the opportunity, or curse, to write for multiple outlets. It's not always as good as a weekly paycheck with benefits, but it gives me the chance to try to see the wine world from both sides of this divide. Some publications want articles for Quality Seekers; others are strictly for Enthusiasts, and with others it might depend on the individual editor.

What strikes me is how deaf both sides are to the other. The 100-point scale debate, for example: I'm always astounded that Enthusiasts want to take information away from Quality Seekers, and don't even try to understand why they would want it.

Meanwhile, on the Quality Seekers side, they look at Enthusiasts the way people with jobs looked at tie-dyed student protesters. Yeah, yeah, you love the sound of your own voices. The louder you yell, the less I'm going to listen.

It really is an incompatible marriage.

But for 2011, here's a suggestion. You want to get people on the other side to pay attention to you? You have to speak their language.

If you're an Enthusiast and you really want Quality Seekers to drink more California Barbera, you need to couch it in their terms. It's the red variety best suited to California. It's really the best wine with dinner. The top winemakers are making it. Here are the top-rated ones.

Quality Seekers don't generally seem to care much what Enthusiasts think. But if you're a Quality Seeker and you find yourself in a restaurant with a sommelier who won't shut up about terroir, just explain "I care mostly about quality. I love wine as much as you do, but I'd rather drink a great wine I know."

Next up: I try to get Nancy Pelosi and Haley Barbour to hold hands.