Wednesday, April 10, 2019

What the Aquilinis are up to on Red Mountain

Aquilini Brands president Barry Olivier
Since 2013, when a mysterious man in a turban outbid a host of wineries at an auction for 670 acres of unplanted land on Red Mountain, the Washington wine industry has been wondering: who the heck are these people, and what are they up to?

The man in a turban, whose name I do not know, worked for the Aquilinis, a Canadian family of billionaires that owns the Vancouver Canucks hockey team and its arena. They're reportedly the world's largest farmers and processors of blueberries and cranberries, and they also own real-estate developments and several fine-dining restaurants in Vancouver. (Here are more details on Francesco Aquilini's Wikipedia page.)

But this is their first foray into wine, and it's a huge one, with important implications for the Washington wine industry. The Red Mountain AVA is Washington's trendiest region, responsible for many of its highest-rated wines. But Red Mountain is tiny: only 4040 acres total, with about 2400 planted. Of the Aquilinis' 670 acres, 535 are in the AVA. The Aquilinis are now Red Mountain's largest grape farmers by volume, and they will play a huge role in determining how Red Mountain is perceived in the future.

But when the Aquilinis harvested their first crop last year, they couldn't find buyers because they have so few contacts in the industry.

Hence this blog post. I did a story for Wine-Searcher about Red Mountain AVA for consumers because the wines merit it. This post is basically for the Washington wine industry. I spent a whole day with both Aquilini vineyard teams last month. Everybody else I talked to before or after asked, what are the Aquilinis up to? Well, I'll tell you.

There are two separate Aquilini wine operations


Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Truly great old-vine Grenache for Pinot Noir lovers

Like growing grapes on the beach: Yangarra's High Sands vineyard. Courtesy Drinkster
Grenache is a wine I rarely order. To me, when it's good, it's meh. I like Grenache rosé, but too often I find varietal Grenache red wine to be high-alcohol fruit punch: nothing wrong with it, but I can drink better.

When Grenache is great, though, it's phenomenal. It's like a great Pinot Noir in that it's medium-bodied, not overpowering, but with pretty fruit and good complexity. Ordinary Grenache is a change-of-pace wine for fans of Zinfandel and Shiraz. Great Grenache is very rare, but it's special.

"John Alban told me, 'Everybody wants to make Pinot Noir. It's an overindulged princess'," said Richard Betts MS, who sold some other wine projects to buy an old Grenache vineyard.

In contrast, great Grenache is a commoner who grows up to be queen. I'll never forget the first time I had Château Rayas. I didn't know Grenache could be that good. But Rayas averages $680 a bottle on Wine-Searcher, and that price is actually going up with each new release.

The price for Rayas gives a little context for the five outstanding Grenaches I'm about to recommend.


Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Vintners behaving badly: Huneeus charged in college admissions bribery case

Agustin Francisco Huneeus. From his company's website
This is a story of wealth and privilege, and how a public appearance last week by a man fighting a proposed Napa County environmental law ended up being surprisingly prophetic.

The federal case is so big -- 50 people were charged in six states -- that most individual details will be skimmed over. Here, I'm going to present some transcripts from conversations taped by law enforcement to show exactly what one man is accused of doing.

Agustin Francisco Huneeus, 53, president of Huneeus Vintners, was charged Tuesday in the college admissions bribery case filed by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Huneeus, charged with conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud, is a very successful vintner. His father built Concha y Toro from a small winery into Chile's largest. Huneeus himself was chief executive of Constellation Brands' fine-wine division before forming Huneeus Vintners with his father in 2004. The company owns Quintessa in Napa Valley as well as Flowers in Sonoma County and Benton-Lane in Oregon.

I like Huneeus; he has a rakish charm. My wife was dismayed when she learned he had been charged; she remembers his kindness and sense of humor. And I like his company's wines. All three of its main wineries are known for the kind of high-quality balanced wines I most enjoy.

He has a problem now, though, that goes beyond the charges themselves.

More than 90 percent of people charged with a federal crime plead guilty. And the great majority of people who plead not guilty are found guilty. The federal court system is stacked against defendants, way more than state courts.

But Huneeus has good reason to fight the charges, despite the odds. If he is found guilty of a felony, he may be forced to divest himself of the wine business he has helped build. State and federal laws differ on this, and I am not a legal expert; this is a question for another day.

For today, the question is, how bad is it for a parent to try to help his kid at any cost?




Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Let's awamori! Okinawa's native drink finds a home in San Francisco

Modern awamori production; not so different from pre-WWII (see below). Courtesy Voyagin
Yoshi Tome
Awamori is a really interesting beverage, historically and culturally. Yoshi Tome, owner of one of the most successful sushi restaurants in the San Francisco bay area, has decided to refocus one restaurant's menu to show it off.

Tome has owned Sushi Ran in Sausalito since 1986. The fine sake list at Sushi Ran has been, for many area residents, their first introduction to premium sake. But sake is not where his heart lies drink-wise.

Tome is from Okinawa, where awamori is the traditional drink of choice. He is a fan; he likes to relax with a glass of very well-aged awamori from his private stash.

Awamori suffered from World War II as much as any cultural product and has still not really recovered. But we have come to an era in liquor appreciation where what was once seen as its greatest weakness -- single distillation, instead of double -- may now have become a strength.

When Tome left Japan for the U.S., awamori was at its lowest ebb ever. Japanese made fun of it as firewater; a more primitive version of shochu, which was just beginning to rise in popularity.

This was an era when Japanese looked down on Okinawa in general. The onetime independent island nation of Ryukyu was annexed by Japan in 1868. U.S. forces took the islands in extremely bloody fighting in 1945 that killed one-third of the civilian population. The U.S. ruled Okinawa until 1972, when we handed it back to Japan. Okinawa had an independence movement (and still does) but Japanese in Tokyo tended to look paternalistically on the islands; not until the Okinawan music scene caught on throughout Japan did the islands really get respect.


Thursday, February 21, 2019

Cannabis and wine: People combine them, but restaurants and shops cannot

This looks like wine, but it isn't
Cannabis has been legal in Colorado for five years now, which means finally there is some legitimate market data. Here are some highlights from a seminar at last month's Unified Wine & Grape Symposium:

* More than 50% of American adults aged 21+ have tried cannabis at some time

* 32% of adults 21+ in fully legal states have used cannabis in the last six months

* 25% of adults 21+ in the 33 states where cannabis is legal for medical OR recreational use have used it in the last six months.

* In states where cannabis is legal, flower (the buds you smoke) quickly loses market share to edibles and concentrates. In Colorado, flower accounted for 69% of sales in 2014, but just 43% of sales in 2018.

* Branded products are taking over. In Colorado, branded products are up to 44% of sales, which is even more impressive when you consider flower is not branded in the state. 96% of edibles in Colorado are branded. Willie Nelson, Bob Marley and Snoop Dogg have cannabis brands; so does Goop. No wonder Constellation, wine brand-sellers extraordinaire, is investing in cannabis.


Friday, February 1, 2019

Millennials are talking but the wine industry isn't listening

In the last two weeks I watched two separate annual State of the wine Industry presentations. Both were focused on millennials and were worried that they aren't drinking as much wine as hoped.

The reasons why were all in the reports. But the wine industry is pretty much doing the exact opposite of what millennials are saying they want.

First, take a look at the two stories, then come back here and I'll explain. Here's the story from the Silicon Valley Bank report. I did not suggest or agree with this headline, but it's hard to blame my editor for trying to attract page views in a month that saw some of the largest layoffs in history for online news organizations. Clickbait helps pay my wages: Millennials now ruining wine as well

Second, here's the story from the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium. This headline is also clickbaity but reflects what was said: Wine and sex off the millennial menu

Now, forget about sex and smartphones. Let's talk about what millennials are telling the wine industry they want -- and how the industry is ignoring them

1. Millennials like healthy products

Why else would kombucha be so popular? Millennials care about what they put in their bodies.

So what's the wine industry's response?


Tuesday, January 29, 2019

People who make good wine have nothing to fear from cannabis competition

Graphics courtesy Silicon Valley Bank
The wine industry has been warily eyeing cannabis since before the first state legalized it. Now that a wave of legalization is spreading across the U.S., owners of small wineries are gettting nervous.

Wine sales are actually dropping for the first time in 25 years
Rob McMillan, executive vice president of Silicon Valley Bank's wine division, was especially gloomy about the future of wine in his influential annual report earlier this month. McMillan said millennials aren't buying as much wine as he expected, and they especially aren't buying expensive wine. (Here's a full story on McMillan's report.)

McMillan cited cannabis as one reason younger consumers aren't drinking as much wine. There is probably some truth to that, at the volume sales level.

Paradoxically, sales are dropping for the cheapest wines, even though supposedly-broke millennials can't afford wine. Sales for wines over $12 are continuing to climb.

Put these numbers together and here is the conclusion: Cannabis is not hurting all wine sales. It's hurting cheap wine sales. And not just with millennials. If you spend any time in cannabis shops in Northern California, you'll notice there are plenty of boomers buying weed. And as you can see from the next chart, it's not stopping them from buying wine.