REX HILL
 
January 14, 2013 | REX HILL

The Best Wines of 2012 - According to Us

He Said...
- Mike Willison

I drank enough fussy, indulgent, crappy, delicious, anemic, mustachioed, skeevy, elegant, flamboyant, flat, voluminous, aromatic, closed, oxidized (from age), oxidized (on purpose), natural, engineered, silly, enigmatic, meta, thought provoking, and stultifying wines this year to render my neighbors absolutely speechless on each and every recycling day. Some of them I absolutely adored. In no particular order, I give you my favorite wines of 2012:

2005 Cold Heaven Syrah, Second Sin, Santa Barbara

Morgan Clendenen always kills Viognier in a decidedly un-California manner. The Syrah is no different. This wine is light on its feet and is great at parties. It says just enough and knows when to walk away from a vitriolic conversation. Shared with friends without food, we all agreed that the bottle was a tad bit too empty too very soon. This is Syrah for Pinot Lovers.

2010 Vouvray, Domaine Huet, Le Haut-Lieu

Its like rooting for the Yankees. Of course this is awesome. Chenin Blanc has been the new black in my wardrobe for the last 15 years and I don't see any reason to change that. If 70's punk style is still somehow considered "punk", and animal prints insist on showing up on runways every three years, then its okay for me to love Chenin with all of my heart and my closet full of Sperry top-siders.

2011 A to Z Wineworks Pinot Noir, Oregon

I’ll root for the home team a bit here not because I have to, but because this wine is that good. 2011 was the miracle harvest wherein we stole victory from the jaws of defeat when the weather gods threw us some 9th inning sunshine like Mariano throwing off speed with location for the save. We broke bats, mystified right handed batters, and jammed up the lefties. Guaranteed to be a first-round hall of famer.

2009 Fleurie, Coudert Clos de la Roillette

Another miracle vintage that hoisted Beaujolais into the spotlight for a spell, this was the kind of wine that makes one consider whether or not to share too loudly about it’s glories. To say that Beaujolais is underappreciated is akin to pointing out exactly when R.E.M. lost the plot (after Life's Rich Pageant and before Document, by the way, or whenever Mills scored that cape); it just, sadly, is. I don’t need to sell you on this; you either get it or not.

2006 Troon Vineyards Old Vine Meritage, Applegate Valley

At $32, this is the best Meritage I've had in a very long time from a price-value standpoint. Even without its awesome price tag, this wine is a standout for its lush, rich, developed but staid intensity and delicate nuance that is so often squashed in modern winemaking. Bright and cheery, yet brooding and macho, this is an example of why everyone should be paying attention to Southern Oregon, but likely won't.

 

She Said...
- Carrie Kalscheuer

As we head into 2013, it's time once again to reflect upon the prior year and all that it had to offer. I was fortunate enough to be able to do some great traveling this year, getting to taste wine in Tuscany, California, and even Arizona. As is usually the case, a combination of place, the wine itself, and the company with which I shared the particular wine all played important roles in determining my favorite wine of 2012. These in particular stood out on all counts. Here they are for your consideration:

  1. 2009 Santo Stefano Senaia IGT Valdichiana D.O.C. –Beautifully integrated and formed by a field-blend of Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot (not even the winemaker knows exactly how much of each), this lovely wine was enjoyed at the Tuscan estate where it is produced, with a pasta lunch I helped to make. Accompanied by some great people and excellent hosts, I couldn’t carry enough of this wine home with me.
  2. 2007 Ridge Monte Bello – tasted at the Sonoma location, hosted by a very educated and hospitable staff member, and accompanied by my favorite person, this wine – which always makes an impression – became one of my top choices for the year.
  3. 2010 Fausse Piste Garde Manger Syrah – I think that Jesse Skiles is one of the most exciting winemakers in Oregon right now. Although I missed the already-sold out Ce lieu après Syrah this year (my historical favorite from the Fausse Piste line), the Garde Manger was an excellent second choice. Enjoyed with two of my best friends, this was a wine to remember!
  4. 2010 Alma Rosa Pinot Noir – Absolutely the most charming tasting room I have ever seen, with a wood-burning fireplace and a window that overlooks roaming goats on the hillsides behind. Tasted with a brand new (yet already so dear) friend, I was filled with child-like excitement over this new Richard and Thekla Sanford venture. Who needs pesky business partners, anyway??
  5. 2007 Francis Tannahill Pinot Noir “The Hermit” – One of the many perks of my job is getting to taste this wine on a daily basis. Never-released save direct from the winery, only 83 cases were produced. From one of my favorite vintages in the Willamette Valley, this wine rivals some of the best aged Burgundies I've had. So, so good.
Time Posted: Jan 14, 2013 at 9:45 AM
REX HILL
 
October 10, 2012 | REX HILL

Heavy is the Head that Wears the Crown

He Said...
- Mike Willison

In my former life as the wine director at a restaurant in Chicago, I remember, with no small amount of disdain, the first time a bottle of wine arrived on our doorstep bedecked in a kind of heavy armor version of something looking vaguely reminiscent of a wine bottle. The punt was almost laughably deep. The glass seemed an impenetrable barrier. The lip of the bottle was too wide to accept most standard wine bottle openers. Each bottle seemed to weigh just shy of a stone. I had tasted the wine during a salesman's recent visit, but hadn't handled it or given it much thought at the time, so its heft was more than just a bit surprising. The six-pack seemed like it should be holding a case. I checked the bottle- not once, but twice- to ensure that it was only meant to hold 750 ml. When trying to inventory the wines I was slightly annoyed to find that these huge bottles didn’t fit in our rack system properly, so I had to devise an alternative storage method that included duct tape and a roll of nickels. Servers would routinely be tricked at the table when pouring wine by not only the weight of the bottle, but the color of the glass that seemed to absorb and extinguish light. Needless to say, customers were impressed with the wine and found the bottle to be majestic, kingly, and worth endless prattling and praising. The contents were but an afterthought as jealous passersby ogled and oohed with envy. I imagine the feeling was like that first ride in a limousine when you rolled down all the windows and cranked up the tunes on your way to the Sadie Hawkins dance. Are we that shallow? A recent article suggests that we are.

 

She Said...
- Carrie Kalscheuer

Heavier wine bottles appear more expensive because they are more expensive. But to what expense a solution?

I understand it from a psychological perspective - heavier things are less breakable and therefore (seemingly) worth more. Your linked article is correct in that it is all about the marketing. While part of me knows that this goes way beyond the scope of the wine world and into deeper socio-economic territories, I do hope that another of the  wine marketing darlings will soon overtake this as more important (read: cooler, hipper, more worthy of the almighty dollar): sustainability. Heavier bottles cost more: more resources, more energy, and more money.

Of course, there is a (fairly easy?) solution. If the wine professionals and "amateur collectors" already know better, as the article you present states, then it is up to us to speak up and stop the trend. It seems to me that without an avenue with which to hawk their arm fatigue-inducing bottles, the winery in question would have to stop producing them. You spend some time above making it known that you hadn't seen the bottle prior to purchase. It makes me wonder – after the exponential bottle sales generated by passers-by gawking and admiring the heft and glory of the bottle in question, did you reorder??

Time Posted: Oct 10, 2012 at 9:49 AM
REX HILL
 
July 4, 2012 | REX HILL

This American Grape: Who should wear the sash and hold the sceptre on our shores?

He Said...
- Mike Willison

As the fireworks rage and the barbeques smoke and bellow this July 4th, the cans of High Life crushed on dimpled foreheads and Mike's Hard Lemonades sloshed back in mighty, diabetic gulps, one is left to wonder why there isn't a wine that symbolizes the American spirit similarly. On New Year's Eve we toast with Champagne or sparkling wine as if the French invented the holiday and sing "Auld Lang Syne" as if Robert Burns was Baby New Year himself. Our celebration of our Independence resembles more a rag tag Hillbilly Fallujah than a marked and poignant remembrance of our Nation's emergence. I'd love to see our wine industry take a stab at marketing the 4th as a wine-centric event like NYE. Maybe if only long enough to raise one glass and shout a mighty "Huzzah!," but to do so anyway, convincingly, and with a unified spirit of purpose.

But what to fill one's cup with? Zinfandel? Petite Sirah? Chardonel? Jo Diaz makes a convincing argument for the dark and brooding Petite Sirah here, and I'd buy it, too, if I thought you could actually drink Petite Sirah with anything other than a giant steak, a lamb, or an elk. Zinfandel is too Croatian and Chardonel is disqualified for being a hybrid (I really only brought it up because I had one once and it was decidedly un-terrific). This leaves us with only one clear choice: Norton. Norton is an indigenous variety of the Vitis Aestivalis species, and is grown only in North America, but most famously in Missouri. The best way to describe wine made from Norton is "purple-y", in my experience. Haven't heard of it? That’s because it actually doesn't do very well in California, that place of Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, all Frenchified and stuff. So what if we all rallied around a Norton producer from Missouri or Georgia and bought a bottle every year for the 4th? What if we cultivated a relationship with wineries in Virginia that are embracing this American classic (it is said that US Grant stocked his presidential cellars with the stuff)? What if, what if, what if?

 

She Said...
- Carrie Kalscheuer

As a gal who came to Oregon via Missouri, I tip my hat to your Norton theory. However, Independence Day is all about barbeque and fireworks, hot weather and flip-flops. Only in Oregon are we still enjoying red wine during the day, as summer has yet to actually begin here. Elsewhere in our great nation, and this past year especially, summer has been going on for months - long before its actual calendric date would indicate. In places like Norton's preferred growing region, summer has already reached a scorching crescendo. As I write this, it is a balmy 93 degrees Fahrenheit at 11:30pm in Missouri. I say America needs whites – crisp, refreshing, chilly whites – to go with our potato salad, grilled chicken and blistering heat. We're all about the blending of cultures in our country, so why not allow for the adoption of something with its roots on another continent? After all, that’s who we are as a nation, isn't it- a melting pot of different cultures that fought to gain independence from their oppressive former nations? With that in mind, I vote that we make something like Sauvignon Blanc our 4th of July wine. While it might have its roots in Bordeaux, there the grape’s name is hidden behind the region or village name – oppressed, you might say. In America, it has found its freedom. So let's toast a chilled glass of crisp, clean, fruity, refreshing Sauvignon Blanc at our hot summer 4th of July picnics this year. And, hey, why the heck not… Huzzah!!

Time Posted: Jul 4, 2012 at 9:54 AM
REX HILL
 
June 27, 2012 | REX HILL

Wine Marketing to Millennials: Who gives a f*$%?

He Said...
- Mike Willison

There's been a maelstrom of articles, blogs, and random blatherings bandied about lately regarding how, exactly, to market wines to Millennials. Apparently, this group of people represents the Most Important Demographic Ever, especially if you ask them, and we all need to unlock their mysteries before it's too late. The general consensus is that young wine drinkers aren't going to react to the same old, stodgy, buttoned up images of wine drinkers in country clubs sipping away at Montrachet after a ripping good game of squash with the same enthusiasm as generations that preceded them, so we should figure out how to be hep cats and get down with their lingo and colloquialisms. As such, we will all begin making wine with labels like this, or this and be wildly successful. Sadly, I believe that we are all missing the point.

Consumers make connections to brands, styles and varieties of wine based on any number of diverse criteria, and not all Millennials, Gen X-ers, or Baby Boomers adhere to any cohesive set of strictures except one: authenticity of experience. Sure, any one person from any generation may like shiny things that cost a lot, or weird stuff that they pioneered and are now jaded over because Brand X sold out to The Man, or read about Brand X in the Major Wine Publication Magazine, but you cannot beat the Real McCoy. Seeing a picture of the Grand Canyon isn't the same as flying over, or walking on the edge of the Grand Canyon. So, make good wine, get it in people’s glasses by pounding the pavement, and have a good story about where it came from, the people who made it, or the magical company culture. Make the experience the thing, and make it an authentic extension of the winery as a whole, and people will respond. Otherwise, your target market will eventually outgrow your pinpoint marketing strategy like you outgrew your shoulder-padded oversized blazer and love for NKOTB.

 

She Said...
- Carrie Kalscheuer

Who outgrew NKOTB? In all seriousness, you absolutely have a point. I think, however, that what these articles are trying to get at (although possibly missing the "how to get there") is that we have a slew of newcomers to the sport of wine drinking each year, and that if we position ourselves as an out of their reach, too-cool-for-school industry, we will eventually become extinct. Now, we know that isn't true, because these kids will eventually grow up, mature, evolve – just like you say. They'll learn how to drink black coffee without making a face, will develop a taste for things like sweetbreads, and will hopefully learn the difference between a Cabernet and a Pinot Noir. But simply saying, "we’ll get 'em someday" isn’t going to increase business during a depressed market.

Authenticity is always the best approach to anything, sure. But we’re still missing that link – that thing that makes our industry approachable to young potential wine drinkers while maintaining its integrity. And it can't be about just making your wine approachable, but further, it's getting them to want to approach your wine. That ingress is crucial when you're attempting to deliver the 'story' of your wine and winery. Without an IN, we're twiddling our thumbs and waiting for them to outgrow this generation's version of shoulder pads and NKOTB.

Time Posted: Jun 27, 2012 at 9:57 AM
REX HILL
 
June 22, 2012 | REX HILL

Yeah! More posts about the Natural Wine Movement

He Said...
- Mike Willison

"He does it with a better grace, but I do it more natural"

Proponents of the so-called Natural Wine Movement might object to the sentiment that Shakespeare tossed around, taking umbrage with the words, "better", "grace" and, likely, "he." Natural wine supporters argue that there is basically a right and a wrong way to make wine, although the line that separates the two is often as gray and akimbo as the Maginot. The general gist is to limit human and chemical intervention during the winemaking process to almost nothing in an effort to produce wines that showcase not only true varietal character, but also allow the expression of the vineyard site to be exposed. The principle issues are usually about allowing native yeast fermentation rather than inoculating with cultivated yeast strains and using no added sulfites to artificially preserve the wine and prevent microbiological beasties from causing the stuff to get real weird, real fast. There are, of course, other factors: using pigeage (your feet and legs, etc.) to punch down ferments rather more modern methods, small fermentation vats and aging vessels, organic, biodynamic or "do-nothing" farming as advocated by the late Masanobu Fukuoka, a Japanese farmer-philosopher, and, maybe most importantly, not really doing it for the money.

It should be said, of course, that none of this is really written down, specifically agreed to, or even 100% adhered to by a collective or any governing body. So there are fudge-able allowances for a vintage that needs a pinch of sulfur here or a splash of something-something there. I should also say that I, by and large, agree with this ideal. I love the idea of hands-off winemaking and less crud being put in my body because a winemaker had to sit around all year waiting for harvest so that she could fiddle with everything for the sake of fiddling when harvest comes around. I mean, that’s what all of this stuff in this winery is for, right? Where I have problems is with the attitude of most of the people yelling the loudest, drawing needless lines in the sand, and ascribing demi-god like status to but a lone few untouchable icons of the epoch. The most seriously ridiculous implication of the natural wine movement is that it cannot, or should not be, done by medium or large wineries (Sinskey gets chastised for even trying). What better way to have the natural wine movement actually make a difference (to the land, to the people, to the industry) than for it to be introduced to a wider audience?

Making wine can be done better, and more gracefully than many of the giant, mega-wineries currently do. I long for the day when "organic" isn't a buzz word, but is rather the standard for all industry. For some, it's a matter of old habits dying hard; there are just too many people doing what they’ve done for years that aren't about to change in positions of power and influence. I dare Bronco to go natural, organic, or even some kind of sustainable. At least they aren't dogmatic and precious about it, though. Sheesh.

 

She Said...
- Carrie Kalscheuer

I, too, have been reading about all of these tiny, French producers who have been telling everyone who will listen that they make better wine because they do it 'naturally.' But as you point out, what does naturally mean?? Without any parameters, it seems like yet another marketing ploy. For example, native yeast strains are used quite often, yet how native are they really when we propagate that same species by plowing pomace back into our fields? Is that considered toying with nature?

Can wineries afford to thumb their noses at modern technology and actually make wine from just the set of circumstances that nature gives them in any particular year? I say no way. The American wine drinker demands clean, fruity, (and sadly in many cases sugar-y) wines. French wines are misunderstood by many palates, and in fact elicited an emphatic, "EW," from a winemaker friend just last week. I think you nailed it with your comment, "…not really in it for the money." Sure, it sounds romantic and could work in France, but that poop isn’t going to fly here.

Hey, I'm all for making wine in the most natural way possible – after all, this is a food product we are talking about. But it should just be DONE, not preached.

Time Posted: Jun 22, 2012 at 10:01 AM
REX HILL
 
May 3, 2012 | REX HILL

Dear Marketing Department: It's Willamette, Dammit!

He Said...
- Mike Willison

The US has gone Sub-AVA crazy. We have long believed in the "specialness" of everything that we do (now more than ever), possibly motivated by over-protective parents trying to convince themselves that their progeny isn't a dud. We then believe that we are amazing and that-- despite the fact that we haven't learned to tie our own shoes by 10 years-old—we can do no wrong no matter what you say. If you don’t believe me, just ask Kanye West, he'll set you straight, because everything he does is the best, too. Shirley Bassey also sang, "Nobody Does it Like Me", but then a whole bunch of other people did it exactly like her including Valerie Harper on the Muppets. I actually like that version better. To be sure, nobody did it exactly like her, but c'mon. These days it’s pretty easy to put together a rag-tag bunch of homeless-looking bon vivants and assemble a pretty fair approximation of the Kings of Leon using ProTools, Antares Auto Tune, a Line-6 amp modeler, some clever airbrushing and 19th century beard management theories. A high school kid with a laptop can do this in a matter of minutes.

In the wine world, AVA identity and terroir have been largely eliminated by hoodwinkery, fancy machines, and winemaking auto-tune all at the hands of some high schooler with a laptop calling the shots from a Mallorcan beach whilst launching an IPO. Who cares if your wine comes from the tiniest corner of an AVA that no one has ever heard of when you use the exact same centrifuge and spinning cones on your wines as the guy making the wine with the dancing kookaburra on the label? Meaningful wines come from meaningful places and are made to respect that. In that sense, the place should eventually carry some cache and become, potentially, marketable if that is the desire.

Oregon is finding its way. We have a very small piece of the US wine market share at a thimbleful (less than 1%), although all indicators show growth. Pinot Noir is, no doubt, what is leading the charge here, although there are places in Oregon that can grow grapes with higher yields and fewer stress-related trips to their therapists at a much lower cost; and they do. Albariño, Cabernet Franc, Dolcetto, Baco Noir, Gruner Veltliner and more are all being produced in Oregon, and these are varietals that are still struggling to gain a foothold here when autochthonously produced. Good luck getting everyone on board! In this vein, perhaps the best marketing strategy would be to consider Oregon the winemaking home of a "Pioneering Spirit". This is in line with the general M.O. of most Oregonians anyway (or transplants) and also includes the maverick nature of those rugged few that first planted Pinot here, against everyone's better judgment. Take that and run, marketers. You may have it.

Otherwise, we should just concentrate on making great Pinot Noir here in the Willamette Valley, reflective of place, and support our brothers and sisters in arms as best as we can, regardless of the foolish decisions they make, and hold hands with the ones that see the fight like we do.

 

She Said...
- Carrie Kalscheuer

Marketing a wine region is tough business. There's all manner of back and forth regarding how to best go about this. For some, the best route seems to be yelling OREGON PINOT NOIR at whoever will listen. For others, the chosen route is to jump wildly ahead of the middle ground and onto the sub-AVA marketing train. Neither of these will market a successful wine region. Here's why:

"Oregon Pinot Noir" is vague. Although Pinot Noir is certainly grown in other places around Oregon, these other regions aren’t known for their Pinot Noir. Further, we’re doing them no favors by pigeonholing them into ONLY Pinot Noir, when they grow over 40 different varieties in Southern Oregon alone - Pinot Noir not even being the most notable. I've heard it argued that we're doing some sort of service to ALL the Oregon wine regions by marketing this way. (How magnanimous.) Let’s call a spade a spade: Oregon Pinot Noir means Willamette Valley Pinot Noir – at least for the time being. Let's leave it at that and let the rest of the state figure it out for themselves.

The opposite end of the spectrum, jumping right into sub-region marketing, is simply too much, too soon. If we’re struggling to make it known that we grow grapes in Oregon - to the extent that many still feel the need to lump the whole state together just to get the word out - then attempting to market "Eola-Amity Hills" is, at least at this point, just silly. Not only does it confuse people who don't live or work in the Willamette Valley, the idea that this mini-marketing will impact sales or visitors nationally is way ahead of its time.

Take California. (Yes, comparisons to California are growing tired, but there's a reason we make them, so bear with me.) California's major regions are well-established, at least as far as American wine regions are concerned. Whatever your personal opinions are of these regions, they're doing something right, and it would be worth our time to pay attention. For example, the Napa Valley is arguably the most famous American wine region, pulling the most visitors and commanding the highest prices on a relatively easy to grow grape. People visit ‘Napa’, not ‘Calistoga’ (a sub-region of the Napa Valley), and they know which airport to fly into and which direction to head for all of that famous Cabernet.

Marketing the Willamette Valley specifically as the home of award-winning Pinot Noir would give visitors a destination. It would make Willamette Valley-designated Pinot Noir worth more, the way that Cabernet grown within the confines of the Napa Valley can command ridiculously high prices just based upon geographical designation. This type of marketing creates familiarity. And familiarity sells wine.

Time Posted: May 3, 2012 at 10:03 AM
REX HILL
 
March 7, 2012 | REX HILL

Size Matters: Quality & Scale in the Wine Industry

He Said...
- Mike Willison

A recent article in the Wine Spectator suggested that small wineries are better than large wineries, for a variety of reasons. "Big wineries are all about predictability," the article proffers, while small wineries are catering to a shift in American wine consumer habits that demands an esoteric or unusual experience in every glass. "Today, if you want to experience a wine that is at all different from anything that might be understood as 'mainstream,' you have to drink 'small'", the article asserts. I agree. But most Americans are still totally confused, intimidated, and put off by the minutiae of the wine world and seek something they can rely on. Sure, the sommelier in the nappy suit and bow tie has seen it all already and demands the weirdest, most obscure variety aged in petrified goat viscera and made in a 13th century artisanal style. Gary from accounting, on the other hand, just wants a wine that doesn't taste like petrified goat viscera and/ or cost the better part of his paycheck.  In other words, Gary likes a predictable wine that looks good, smells good, tastes good, and occasionally makes him feel better about his meaningless life. Gary isn’t crouching behind a row of shrubs looking for the smallest producer of Bourboulenc in the Shire. Gary lives in Pickaway County, Ohio and hasn’t even heard of the Scholium Project, or Bonny Doon, or even Byron. Gary can find the big brands at his Buehler Food Market on the way home from work. I’m okay with Gary. Most people are Gary. Better a critter wine than a can of Bud and an hour of "Dance Moms". Maybe one day he will go to California and try something that really piques his interest from a picayune producer of 100 cases and join the wine club. I doubt it, though.

 

She Said...
- Carrie Kalscheuer

It does seem that many of today's wine writers write for the niche market, rather than the Gary's of the world, doesn't it? Why not simply accept that there is a market for both, instead of pretentiously proclaiming the obscure stuff 'better'? The small-production winery will thrive because there is a large enough percentage of the wine drinking population who seeks out the new and obscure, and the larger producers will thrive because of Gary's desire for consistency. Like you're saying, the big guys act as a gateway to the little producers. How do we think that we got to the 'shift in American wine consumption', anyway, but for the bigger producers and their now-maligned "predictability?" Further alienating an already timid customer by making him feel idiotic for loving Chateau Ste. Michelle Riesling sends the wrong message, and creates an ever-widening gap between the geeks and the novices. It’s still wine he's drinking, after all. Far better to say, yes, this is good and consistent and a great value, but also this smaller thing is cool too, rather than separating them into 'good' and 'bad' categories, which the use of the term "better" does.

As wine writers, we would do well to remember our own humble wine beginnings. We all started somewhere, and I highly doubt that the wine writer at Spectator you speak of was weaned on grower Champagne and Williams Selyem Pinot Noir.

Time Posted: Mar 7, 2012 at 10:05 AM
REX HILL
 
February 29, 2012 | REX HILL

Our rules suck: What should we do about American labeling laws?

He Said...
- Mike Willison

The laws governing the making, selling, labeling and manipulating of wine in the US read like stereo instructions translated from the Dead Sea Scrolls into the Wookiee language of Shyriiwook and then into American English. You can find them here. The sad part about them is that they basically boil down to a very scant few loose rules about what you can and cannot do, but sometimes can anyway if you feel like it or if no one is looking. There's a lot of text there, but the main threads with respect to grape-based wines are these:

  • To label a wine with a grape name like, "Pinot noir," the wine must be made up of no less than 75% of that grape.
  • To label a wine with an AVA such as, "Willamette Valley," at least 85% of the fruit must have come from that place (the rules are a slightly more generous 75% when it comes to states and counties).
  • To label a wine with a vintage date, or a single-vineyard designation, 95% of the wine and fruit must come from that vintage or vineyard.
  • "Estate," may be used to signify that a wine has been mostly put together under one general roof.
  • Table wines shall not exceed 14% alcohol by volume, but no specific designation exists before "Dessert Wines" at 17%.

I know that when buying certain foods there is an assumption that it’s not 100% that specific thing, but 75%?!  These rules were/ are likely designed to give the American farmer a better chance of being successful, and I respect that. But go to Napa Valley and look at the excesses all over the place. Explain to me how adding 25% Ruby Cabernet or Alicante Bouchet to your Cabernet Sauvignon does anything other than extend your yield and lower your overhead, and buying you another Maybach for your armada.

Here's an idea: let’s get together and classify the AVA's according to variety, like the French do, and create real standards for quality. Sure, it’ll be confusing for some, but it will also make the wine industry criteria valid. The county, regional and state appellations can remain under the current system, but the AVA's will have significance beyond some broad suggestion of what the wine might be.

So:

  • A wine labeled with the AVA, "Napa Valley," must:
    • Be comprised of 100% fruit grown in the Napa Valley
    • Be made from 100% Cabernet Sauvignon if red
    • Be made from 100% Chardonnay
    • 95% of the fruit must come from the designated vintage
    • Brix at picking is not to exceed 25.8˚
    • Maximum yield at harvest is not to exceed 3 tons/ acre

And if they don't like it, they can call it California Red Wine and make it however they like. Until then, our system doesn't have any authority or credibility. Sure, Americans like varietal labeling, but we also expect it to mean something, don't we?

 

She Said...
- Carrie Kalscheuer

I agree with the assessment that we need a stricter set of rules, but not to the level that you're proposing. I've always liked the idea that we exist outside of the stringent rules like those that France imposes.

The rules as you propose them don’t allow for the best part about our current leniency: artistic license. Going from nothing to everything will upset the balance to a staggering degree. Consider France and Italy. France has been doing the same thing for centuries, yet has only been making wine under the current wine law since 1935. Their regions were tried, tested, marketed and set. They knew where to grow Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet, etc. through decades of trial and error. Placing rules around these was for marketing purposes and an afterthought as far as regulations are concerned. They were already doing it that way, in order to market what they were doing to other nations, they slapped a strict-looking label on the bottle and away they went.

Italy, on the other hand, has only been a country since 1856. They were growing grapes willy-nilly on every available surface then and they're still doing that now. They had no rhyme or reason to their wine program until 1963, when, in an attempt to achieve the success enjoyed by France, they mirrored France’s wine laws and, in my opinion, jumped the gun on regulations – same as you are suggesting we do now. They still don't have their business together to a degree that they will anytime soon be enjoying the wine marketing success of France, and some of their most successful wines have actually had to secede from the DOC union in order to thrive both from a quality perspective and a marketing perspective. Too much, too soon.

Our wine program has really only been growing since 1933, when we repealed Prohibition. Since then, we’re advancing at a rapid rate, but are still discovering exciting new wine regions and determining which varieties grow best in them. I agree wholeheartedly with your call for accountability, but are you really telling me that Merlot is just off the program in Napa? That’s a shame. I think that a better plan for us is to start small. My take:

  • Yes, 100% if it's called by a varietal name.
  • Yes, 100% from the AVA it says it is from.
  • Yes, 95% from the stated vintage.
  • But no to your Brix proposal. What ever happened to letting the vintage speak for itself?
  • Also no to your tons per acre. If it has to be 100% from the AVA and 100% of the stated varietal, these yields will work themselves out naturally.
  • And finally, a big, emphatic NO to your proposal that we begin, at our very young wine age, to limit our regions to specific varieties. It's too much, too soon.
Time Posted: Feb 29, 2012 at 10:09 AM
REX HILL
 
February 1, 2012 | REX HILL

Dear Pinot Noir and Chocolate: I Hate You

He Said...
- Mike Willison

I'm not sure who to blame for this. Probably Hallmark for their insistence in sissifying February 14th into the willowy, cream-puffed doily that it has become, perpetuating the notion that chocolate, pink stuff, tulle and a dozen roses is everyone's idea of romance. I disrespectfully disagree. In wine country, at least here in Oregon, there is an obsession with pairing Pinot Noir and chocolate when Valentine's Day rolls around. It seems that every tasting room in the Willamette Valley is hawking some craft chocolatier's nibblies with their wine if they aren't obsessing over bacon, or bacon and chocolate or, worse yet, chocolate infused wine. I'm going to go out on a limb here and just say it, Pinot Noir and chocolate sucks. It sucks because of how silly everyone looks gushing over it. It sucks because that wad of crappy milk chocolate is disrespectful to the wine. It sucks because that crappy wine is disrespectful to the delicious chocolate. Chocolate is not a magic ingredient. It does not make celery better, or clam chowder, or sitting in a hot tub. It is not as cool as duct tape. At best, combining wine and chocolate is a gateway pairing, hopefully leading one to learn and do more with their energies. At worst it is lazy, boring, and, frankly, just awful. It isn't romantic, really, and could lead to a pretty weird night, but the better pairing is Pinot Noir and mushrooms. Brown stuff. Dirt. Fungi. True love.

 

She Said...
- Carrie Kalscheuer

I'm going to have to disagree with your chocolate and hot tub assessment. Other than that, I concur. The chocolate and Pinot Noir pairing has been a pet peeve of mine for many years. I've grown weary of explaining how these two don't taste good together, and from the incredulous looks on people's faces, they don’t believe me regardless of how passionate my explanation. So, instead of talking people out of the Pinot Noir and chocolate pairing, I’m going to talk them into the right pairings. I am hardly ever without chocolate close at hand (no less than three different bags of chocolate sit in my desk drawer at this very moment), so have amassed an arsenal of pairings that once tried will make you never want to reach for Pinot Noir and chocolate in the same sitting again.

My absolute favorite chocolate pairing is Banyuls, a full-bodied sweet red wine from France, but it’s admittedly hard to find. Easier to find and oh-so-appropriate for Valentine's Day is the sexy, delicious combo of Brut Champagne and milk chocolate. I've reached for coffee, Port, Madeira, Sherry, Armagnac and even a cold Guinness to accompany my chocolate cravings. I’ve had some success pairing chocolate with certain Zinfandels and Cabernet Sauvignons, and my favorite accidental discovery was how stunning chocolate is with Mezcal (the higher end stuff, people, not the worm-in-bottom kind).

So please, Valentine's Day revelers, try these suggestions with your chocolate next time. Enjoy them, love them, adopt them as your own, and leave the Pinot Noir for better pairings – yes, like mushrooms.

Time Posted: Feb 1, 2012 at 10:13 AM
REX HILL
 
January 26, 2012 | REX HILL

Getting a bit sentimental/ philosophical about our love for wine

He Said...
- Mike Willison

I've been thinking a lot lately about how very funny it is that I work in the wine industry. I mean, as a child I'm certain that, because I passionately adored Smarties, one day I would work as a Smarties technical taster and ensure stringent QC across all of the dusty pastel colors/ flavors. Incipient ambition, I felt, was going to prove to be my greatest asset. This dream was hastily dusted off, like the candy's own residue on one’s fingers, as a passing fancy by my parents. Rightly so, likely, as I then became infatuated with Twizzlers, Dr. Pepper, Dungeons & Dragons, and (finally) girls (although the D&D made the girls thing a bit unlikely). Like the bleats of a baby bird for more regurgitated grubs, my dreams would carom off of my parents' stoicism into the forgotten ether.

As I grew older my passions became a bit more fixed, with less tangential foolishness and puppy-like stick-to-itiveness, I began to realize that all of these early passion-ettes were driving me towards an inevitable explosion of real, honest to god, unbridled enthusiasm; In this case, for wine.

Just yesterday someone asked me what my favorite wine is. I realized that really don’t have an answer. I can tell you what the first wine that made me really happy (1989 Ridge Geyserville). I can tell you also that I used to pilfer wine from the gun at the bar of the country club I worked at when I was a teen ("Chablis"). I can further tell you that there are wines that I thoroughly dislike but will always try again, just to be sure (Barossa Shiraz). Maybe the most important thing that I can say is that every glass of wine I encounter is an adventure that can only be realized at that very moment. It may be kind of a lousy adventure, like going to buy stamps or returning home to see if you left the oven on, but it also just might be the most exciting, fascinating and spectacular fun you have ever had and everywhere in-between. In this case, I truly am living the dream. Love wine because of its potential for awesome, everyday, and you will be a better, more successful, more attractive person with an 18 charisma and +1 to beguile.

 

She Said...
- Carrie Kalscheuer

This post, in all of it's poetic excess, has sat unanswered on my desktop for months. I don't often extoll the virtues of wine to such degree (at least not until I've consumed at least a bottle of the stuff in question, and by that time my writing skills are subpar - I could never have lasted as a beat poet). But today I find myself in a similarly, albeit more concisely, reflective mood.

Why I love wine (today): wine is one of the oldest things in the history of man, yet is ever-evolving. It can be likened to politics, religion, even love in this regard– and that's a powerful thing. We will never completely 'master' wine. It will always have a shroud of mystery, even to those of us who leave work with purple hands on a daily basis. It expresses itself differently every year, in every region and with each different winemaker. It changes, grows, develops every day in-bottle. It will one day die. It's different for each taster – a uniquely personal experience. Talking about wine is a personal expression of sorts, in fact; a way to convey what each of us thinks and feels about a shared pleasure. Maybe this is why wine is considered more sophisticated by comparison to other agricultural outputs – it transcends the everyday and speaks to the greater depths of what it means to be human.

Time Posted: Jan 26, 2012 at 10:15 AM