Friday, November 30, 2012

Sometimes a parent needs to show the child who's boss... (cabernetly speaking, of course)

I occasionally get together with a group of people that I met online at the Wine Spectator Forums. I like to call the group, "The Strange Men I Met Online," but my wife doesn't like that name, for some reason (though she does like the group). About 6 or 7 of us get together a few times a year (most of the time with our significant others) and taste wine. It has been a great experience because these guys are some of the friendliest and most generous individuals I've met. We all love wine, good wine, and like to bring fun and interesting bottles to share with each other. Maybe it was the company, but some of the best wines I've ever had have come on occasions with this group.

So, a few weeks ago we got together to open a handful of cabernets. In the conversation leading up to the tasting, no one ever said sauvignon, so I decided to throw in some ringers and bring two cabernet franc-based blends. The host was kind enough to grill some delicious flank steak and others brought a variety of sides. All of the wines were brought in brown bags, so each attendee only knew which wine he or she brought. I did a quick peek at one bottle that I didn't bring because that individual was trying to decide if the wine needed further decanting; so I new three of the labels. The bags were all labeled 1-8 and pre-poured into glasses at each place setting at the dinner table. I assessed the wines before we ate and then adjusted my assessments as I tried the wines with food.

Wine 1: lots of red fruits; redcurrant and raspberry, cedar, smoke, cinnamon, leather and tobacco. Nice, but not anything special. My #4 (tie) Very Good/Excellent

Wine 2: Similar to #1 but bigger/darker. Blackberries, spicy tobacco, vanilla, great nose. My #2 Excellent

Wine 3: light, funky, cranberries, red fruits, herbal, green, dilly, chemically, flat. Quite a disappointment. My #8. Average/Good

Wine 4: What a nose! Red cherries, raspberries, earth and mushrooms. Lots of fruit; blackberries and raspberries on the palate complemented by licorice, rosemary and roasted meat. Concentrated and complex. Clearly the best of the lineup. My WOTN. Excellent

Wine 5: Most Bordeaux-like of the group right off the back. Tobacco, green pepper, forest floor, mushrooms, kind of a salty nori flavor, very minerally, almost syrah-like. My #4 (tie) This changed a lot in the glass and might have been higher with a few more hours to follow its evolution. Very Good/Excellent

Wine 6: Started off a lot like #3. Dilly, chemically, flat, oaky. This also improved with time and started reveal good complexity and flavors, but still was near the bottom of the pack for me at the end of the night because of how it started. Needs time. My #7. Good/Very Good

Wine 7: Red and Black fruits, leather, cedar, good acidity, spicy tobacco. Like a smaller version of #2. My #3. Very Good/Excellent

Wine 8: Poured after the previous 7 from a magnum. Lots of blue and black fruits. Nice but simple. A little grapey but goes down smooth. My #5. Very Good

Each person voted for his or her top three wines of the evening.

Wine 4 was clearly the group WOTN with 4 first place votes.
Wine 2 was group's second with 5 second place votes.
Wine 8 was third.
Wine 6 was fourth.
Wine 5 was fifth.
Wine 7 was sixth with only 1 second and 1 third place votes.
Wine 1 and Wine 3 didn't get any top 3 votes.

After all the votes were tallied, we unveiled the wines.

Wine 1 = 2006 Caymus Vineyards, Special Selection, Napa Valley AVA
Wine 2 = 2006 Maybach Family Vineyards, Materium, Oakville AVA

Wine 3 = 2002 Quilceda Creek, Columbia Valley AVA
Wine 4 = 2006 Ovid Napa Valley, D7.86, Napa Valley AVA

Wine 5 = 2006 Cayuse Vineyards, Camaspelo, Walla Walla AVA
Wine 6 = 2010 Ruby Trust Cellars, The Smuggler, Grand Valley AVA

Wine 7 = 2001 Lokoya, Diamond Mountain District AVA
Wine 8 = 1999 Trefethen Family Vineyards, Oak Knoll District of Napa Valley AVA

The group was surprised to see two cabernet francs in the lineup and one easily coming out on top. They were not surprised to see Colorado represented, as I usually bring a local wine. I was not as impressed with the Ruby Trust as I was when I first tried it a few months ago at the release party. I actually thought it was the Quilceda Creek I noticed before it was bagged. During previous experiences with Quilceda Creek I have found it to show lots of dill and herbal characteristics that I found in both Wines 3 and 6. Wine 6 just seem to say Quilceda Creek to me more. I'm not a huge fan of the QC bottles I've had, but I guess comparing a Colorado wine to a wine that some people say is the best cabernet sauvignon in the U.S. isn't the worst critique!

The Smuggler only saw 30 minutes in a decanter and was in the glass for about 3 hours. Near the end of the evening it had lost most of the unpleasant (to me) characteristics, so I would recommend ample aeration if you plan on opening it any time soon, but best to just wait a few years. It was also the youngest wine, by four years, and the least expensive in the lineup. Despite my thoughts on The Smuggler (74% Cabernet Franc, 13% Syrah, 11% Petit Verdot, 2% Cabernet Sauvignon), the rest of the group was more endeared to it. It also might have helped had I not been thinking Quilceda Creek; goes to show there can also be a negative label bias for big name wines.

The other cabernet franc was amongst everyone's top three. Ovid produces a flagship proprietary blend every year from its estate in the esteemed Pritchard Hill area of Napa Valley. You can read about Ovid and its neighbors in my Sommelier Journal article on Pritchard Hill. Ovid also produces an Experiment line of wines from barrels not used in the cabernet sauvignon blend. Usually, the Experiment wines are dominated by cabernet franc. I've enjoyed the regular Ovid wines, but still find the unique Experiments more to my liking. The D7.86 was no different. The D7.86 was a blend of 61% cabernet franc, 29% merlot and 10 % cabernet sauvignon. If you ever come across any Ovid wines (and can afford them, as the don't come cheap) give them a try. I actually recommend the same for any Pritchard Hill winery. I think that area in the hills above Oakville is one of Napa's prime places for the highest quality wines.

I also found it somewhat ironic that a cabernet franc showed up some pretty serious cabernet sauvignons at a cab tasting. Cab franc is, afterall, cab sauv's genetic parent. Caberent franc and sauvignon blanc were crossed in the 17th century in southwest France with cabernet sauvignon resulting from that yield night. Even though cabernet sauvignon is king in California nowadays, a parent still has to show the child who's boss every once in a while...

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Wine as Art and Art as Wine (and a visit at Eric Kent)

Wine is a science. Wine is Art. Wine is a craft. Wine is a commodity. Wine is a luxury. Wine is a many things to many people. Wine should be drunk. Wine should be discussed. Wine should be savored. Wine should be collected. Yet, any way you look at it, wine is meant to be enjoyed. Luckily, there are many different ways to enjoy wine. Some people like to feel tipsy. Some people like to simply smell the aromas for hours. Some people even like to collect it. Some do so for financial gain (or adrenaline rush or even ego). Some people even collect wine as Art. No, not necessarily for the masterpiece inside, but the label.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Unity in the wine world

Unity is perhaps the second most important aspect of the wine world. Quality would of course be number one, but working together is a close second. Think about about the world's greatest wine regions. They all have at least two things in common. They all produce quality wines and they all have a common identity. That common identity did not happen on its own and did not arise from each individual producer working selfishly by themselves. This idea of unity is certainly more important as the wine world continues to flatten in the global economy and competition continues to increase every day.

Forty years ago America was still considered the backwater of the wine world by industry elites. Yes, Ohio and Missouri wines were internationally known in the 1800s, but a little something called Prohibition cut America's wine industry off at the knees. In the 1960s and 1970s, several concurrent events led to California (and by proxy America) putting itself back on the world wine map. Perhaps most important were the efforts of Robert Mondavi. Mondavi split from his family and started his own family in the Napa Valley in 1966. He not only worked his tail off to build one of the most famous American wineries, but he put selling California and the Napa Valley ahead of his own namesake winery. He knew that if he consumers considered California and Napa Valley wines amongst the best in the world, his brand would benefit as well. He understood the importance of unity.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The confluence and disconnect of Regional Wine Week and Wine Spectator's Top 100

This week Wine Spectator announces its Top 100 wines of 2012. Now many people pay no attention to this list, but a lot of people do. The list sparks debates amongst enthusiasts and drives prices up for the top 10 wines and helps move many of the other ninety off shelves quickly. I'm not huge proponent of the list, but I think it probably does more good than harm overall to the broader wine industry. Rather than get into the details of the argument, I suggest you read Evan Dawson's recently penned thoughtful defense of the list in Palate Press.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

The role of tourism in the local wine industry

At first glance, wine and tourism may not seem to go hand in hand. The traditional model for wine distribution is through what's called the three-tier system. Since the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, the sale of alcoholic beverages has been dominated and controlled by this model. Wineries sell their wine to a distributor and the distributor in turn resells their portfolio of products to retailers. One of the purposes of this system is to supposedly act like a safety net and protect the general population. In theory, consumers and retailers are unburdened with pressure and coersion from producers. However, in the social media age we now live in, consumers are increasingly more interested in building relationships with the producers whose products they buy. Many wineries have figured this out and are very active via social media channels. Other wineries and wine regions have also become more active in promoting enotourism and developing their direct to consumer sales channel.

Enotourism, or wine tourism, focuses on getting travelers to visit, taste and purchase wine at the source. While it may not seem like a novel idea to most wine enthusiasts, wine tourism is an important activity in the industry, yet has room to become even more important. Most people buy wine at a retail store or a restaurant and that is the extent of their relationship with a winery. A handful of consumers may actually buy wine directly from the producer via their website or mailing list. Actually visiting a winery is not something a majority of wine drinkers do regularly. Developing the wine traveler segment is key to many wineries' business models. Next week, I will be in Santa Rosa, CA to attend the second annual Wine Tourism conference to gather with 200 or so other people looking for ways to enhance the role of tourism in the wine industry. I attended last year and it was very interesting to hear about how wineries in California, New York and Oregon are approaching the tourism market.

In Colorado, tourism is an important sales channel for many of the wineries, but it can also be a double-edged sword. Of the 100+ wineries in the Centennial State, only a dozen or so are sold through a distributor. All of the Colorado wineries are also licensed wholesalers and can sell their products directly to retailers, but many choose to not do so because of the exceptional hard work it takes for family-owned wineries to be successful. A majority of the state's wineries sell most of their wine out of their tasting rooms. This can be a successful model, especially when a small winery is located in a highly-visited wine region, like Napa Valley. Unfortunately (or fortunately depending on how you look at it), Colorado is not necessarily considered a destination wine region filled with bumper-to-bumper traffic with cars and buses filling tasting room parking lots.

In Colorado, most tasting room traffic is limited to the RV crowd of people simply passing through and perhaps looking for wines with a touch of sweetness. That's not to say consumers don't specifically travel to wineries here to seek out "premium" wine, just that the current tourist base is somewhat limited. The same crowd also visits Napa Valley. But Napa also attracts the type of consumer that is not afraid to spend thousands of dollars on a case or two of wine. I have rarely heard a Colorado winery tell me about an instance such as that happening in their winery. A three or six-bottle purchase is often a big deal. Some wineries are thankfully growing their (or just starting) wine clubs, but most still rely on just the drop-in traffic to sell most of their wine. Fortunately, the somewhat limited tourism foundation that currently exists implies that the potential for tourism growth is great. It will be interesting to see how much, if at all, Trip Advisor's Top Ten ranking of Palisade, CO as a wine destination will increase visitor traffic. Wineries need to to everything they can to drive traffic if they are focusing their sales channels on their tasting room. This brings me back to the first paragraph.

While many wineries in Colorado have decided that tourism is their priority, they cannot forget about the traditional model. Only a handful of Colorado wines can be found on retail shelves, and almost all of these producers utilize a distributor. Even fewer local wines can be found on restaurant wine lists. The blame for this does not solely reside on the wineries and some wineries have excelled in this regard. A few have even put all of their energy into the retail tier and have forgone the tasting room/tourist route altogether. However, the wineries who have been less successful (and the local industry as a whole) are going to have work hard to convince retailers and restaurants that they have been wrong to relegate Colorado wine to the bottom shelf at the back of the store or to exclude them from the list altogether. Most people still are introduced to new wines via restaurants and retailers. To reach those new customers (and there are lots of them) local wineries are going to have to start putting more energy (and expense) into developing these sales channels in addition to their own tasting rooms. What role do you think tourism should play in emerging wine regions like Colorado?