Sunday, April 21, 2013

Drink Local Wine: Maryland, pt 2 (an assessment)

The 2013 Drink Local Wine conference in Baltimore two weeks ago was eye-opening for me because of more than just the high-quality wine; the content and organization of the conference and dynamics of the Maryland wine industry deserve a few words. My thoughts on the conference stem a lot from my position with the Colorado Wine Industry Development Board and the fact that Colorado hosted the conference last year. As I said in my first post on the subject last week, I think Maryland might have put on a better show overall.

However, as for the quality of the wines, I think Colorado has the edge (and not just my opinion...). The Twitter Taste-Off is the headline event for the conference, so wineries try (or at least should try) to put their best foot forward. There was a lot of mediocre wine at the conference both this year and last year. Yet, both states showcased some pretty outstanding wines. I think that because Colorado has almost twice as many wineries as Maryland, Colorado is able to produce more high-quality wine (though the ratio may be similar). But that being said, I plan on adding a few Maryland wines to my collection.

As the the rest of the seminars that preceded the tasting, the sessions in Maryland were slightly more interesting (probably because I was hearing the info for the first time). However, the topics were pretty much the exact same. One session was a superficial introduction the region and another session harped on the the lack of a locapour movement. If these topics are repeated every year, the conference is going to get stale. We get the fact that many locavore restaurants are ignorant of their local wine industries. Let's do something about it instead of complaining. I really like the blind tasting of Colorado wine versus California wine last year. However, the last session in Maryland was something that I really enjoyed. Dr. Joe Fiola shared six different experimental wines (two whites, two reds and two dessert) that he hoped would show wineries new options or possibilities for Maryland wine. I thought that three of the wines were good and three weren't so good, but the creativity (Russian hybrids!) was infectious.

Now quickly back the Twitter Taste-Off. In Colorado, we had 150 or so consumers attend. Baltimore sold 400 tickets! That's not necessarily saying there is more consumer involvement in Maryland (both events were sold out due to venue capacity), but it was impressive nonetheless. I heard many people in the Warehouse at Camden Yards (a superior venue) ask for sweet wine only (a paradoxical situation for many wineries), but I also saw and heard many consumers truly interested in learning of their local wine industry; some for the first time! The turnout, facility and food spread for the Taste-Off in Baltimore were truly impressive.

Another interesting thing that I learned during my time in Baltimore was that Port of Leonardtown Winery is actually a cooperative winery, one of only a few in the entire country. Over one dozen vineyards established the Southern Maryland Winegrowers Cooperative and jointly founded the winery with the Town of Leonardtown and St. Mary's County. The growers sell grapes to the winery and when the winery is profitable (hasn't yet happened) the vineyards receive a dividend. This structure isn't without it's challenges, as some vineyards' grape quality aren't necessarily the highest, but it is a very interesting concept. I know that wineries and vineyards don't always get along, so seeing a cooperative winery producing quality wine was one of the high points for me.

Along with with a willingness to work together, the acceptance of hybrid varieties was almost universal. In Colorado, I can count all the wineries that regularly use hybrid grapes one one hand. I, personally and professional, believe that hybrids have to be used to grow the Colorado wine industry. I don't think hybrids are for every winery nor are going to produce $30-bottles of wine. I do think wineries can make inexpensive blends with fanciful names that incorporate hybrids. I saw Maryland wineries doing that. I also saw a lot of varietal vidal blanc and chambourcin and even a sparkling chardonnel. Are Maryland consumers that much more aware of those varieties? I never got that answer. But it is obviously working; take note Colorado wineries...

Overall, I thought being on the other side of the conference (guest versus organizer) was much more relaxing and interesting. I was able to notice things that I didn't notice in Colorado. And knowing that the conference has grown and improved every years since the first conference in Texas five years ago bodes well for the future. So where will the conference go next year? I heard that Ohio, New York and Pennsylvania were on the short list. I'd love to see Idaho, Michigan or New Mexico, but they may have to wait a few years. Yet, I wouldn't be surprised if one of those three emerged as the frontrunner. Where ever the organization decides to take the conference, I will look forward to going and supporting the movement.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Drink Local Wine: Maryland, pt 1 (a review)

It is hard to believe that it has been a year since the Drink Local Wine conference was in Denver, but it has. Last week, the fifth annual conference found itself in Baltimore to celebrate Maryland wine. Who'd have thought Baltimore would be considered "wine country!" Yet, I'm hear to say that Maryland, and the whole Drink Local Wine movement, definitely have something of which to be proud. As part of the organization team that brought the conference to Colorado last year, I have to admit that Maryland might have put on a better show.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Wine Spectator moving away from numerical scores?

The May 31, 2013 issue of Wine Spectator is curious for several reasons (aside from being published a month in advance). First, the meat and potatoes of this issue revolves around sushi and sake. It is not unusual for Wine Spectator to feature stories on food or specific types of wine, but the focus on Nihonshu (sake is actually the general Japanese term for alcoholic beverage and 日本酒 is the fermented rice beverage referred to as sake in English) is interesting and applauded. Having lived in Japan for one year almost eight years ago, I am probably more interested in Japanese food and beverages than the average wine drinker. Harvey Steiman wrote an interesting piece on sushi master Jiro Ono, who was the subject of the recent documentary, Jiro Dreams of Sushi. Kim Marcus and Mitch Frank each added stories on Nihonshu. It was in Marcus' story that the second curious issue arose.

In "Cracking the Sake Code," Marcus does a great job of describing how sake is made and defining the various terms used to describe it. However, one thing missing was the terroir of sake. Just as with wine, the regional differences of sake are both clearly defined and endlessly argued in Japan. Sake from Kyoto, Niigata and Yamagata are all very different; not because of the soils or climate, but because of the water, yeast and rice varieties used. Geography matters, but that isn't made apparent in the article. In fact, Marcus actually suggests that rice and water aren't usually locally sourced and the source doesn't matter. It would have been nice to see the geography of sake addressed with something approaching the effort they do for wine. Yet, that wasn't the impetus for this post.

What's missing?
The most striking thing missing from Marcus' story was Wine Spectator 100-point scale. Instead of numerical scores, Marcus, along with Bruce Sanderson, blind tasted the sake and used descriptive categories (words, not points) to reflect how highly they regarded each sake relative to other sake in different categories. Does 92 points describe something that "outstanding" does not? Do you gain more information knowing a wine rates 88 points as opposed to "very good?" As the precise score of a wine varies palate to palate, I think categories are in fact more useful. I think the method was more effective at describing the sake than if they had used points, but I clearly am not an advocate of the 100-pt system. Is this a hint that Wine Spectator is moving away from numerical scores? If sake doesn't need scores, then why does wine?

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

What the climate study actually said...

Last week, the wine writing world was ablaze with abject proclamations and naive denials about the predicted changes of the spatial distribution of viticulture suitability put forth by Hannah et al. (2013) in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The idea that the Earth's climate is changing is indisputable. That those changes will affect viticulture is also incontrovertible. How those changes will manifest is up for debate. But all the writers and bloggers that had to put there two cents in about the article are missing the point of the study., as well as failing to critically analyze what was actually described.

First of all, the article was not focused on what will become of the world's wine regions. The study's goal was to estimate conservation conflicts in land use in areas currently not altered by viticulture. The researchers used a variety of environmental variables critical to viticulture to assess the spatial suitability under predicted conditions in 2050 (actually, the mean of 2041-2060) using 17 global climate models. The authors found that the areas currently suitable for viticulture may decrease and new areas at higher latitudes and altitudes may became suitable for production of Vitis vinifera winegrapes. They concluded that such a redistribution of wine production may result in substantial economic and conservation consequences in both areas.

Hannah et al. were not trying to sound any alarm bells in Napa. They were, however, trying to raise awareness for conservationists in the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Planning Area and other places potentially affected by future viticulture. They mentioned that investment in new varieties and changes in vineyard management could lead to innovative adaptions in extant wine production regions. While they mentioned that, they were not overly concerned with what may happen in Napa or Sonoma because they sought to estimate where grapevines might be planted in the future so that conservation strategies can be addressed in areas likely to be affected by potential indirect impacts of climate change (i.e., wine production).

Several other facts overlooked by many of the previous commentators include the parameters used to estimate suitability. First, the authors only used 21 common vinifera varieties. Now, we all know that there are way more than 21 varieties of vinifera grapes with varying degrees of environmental tolerance. And when you throw in the countless hybrids and non-vinifera species suitable for wine production, the potential for viticulture suitability is increased exponentially. This means that the loss of suitability in current regions is greatly exaggerated. Likewise, this also means that potential areas suitable for viticulture are also underestimated.

Second, the scale of the models is something others have alluded to. The grid resolution in the viticulture suitability portion of the study was only 2.5 arc-minutes. Depending on where the grid is located on the geoid, that equates to about 2.5 - 3-mile resolution. Now, obviously that is not fine enough resolution to make the sweeping statements that so many have about the death of California viticulture. Yet, tt is enough to make general conclusions about changes global viticulture. All the authors said, was that a changing climate will significantly affect viticulture and that vintners and conservationists should consider as many adaptations as possible to mitigate the changes as much as possible.

Finally, a third thing that I have not seen mentioned in any other review of the study is of the minimum temperature constraint. Wisely, Hannah et al. did address the fact that overwinter minimum temperature is an important limiting factor in viticulture suitability. Napa vintners don't have to fear the killing winter freezes that make viticulture in Colorado so extreme. Sure, frost at the wrong time of the year is a problem, but no where near the issue of getting to -15 C. However, what they did used for this parameter was the mean minimum temperature in the coldest month. A vine does not care what the mean minimum temperature is. The maximum minimum temperature is what is going to kill a vine. If it it gets to -35 C for even a few hours a grapevine will die. This vital information is lost if the mean minimum temperature for that month is only -12. Their model will assess that area as being suitable when in fact it is not. So, they may have overestimated the new area suitable for viticulture in 2050. As often is the case, using means when extremes are the important parameter can change the story.

Am I saying that California viticulture is going to be just fine in 35 years? I am not. I am also not saying their will be no more vineyards in Napa as many others are incorrectly assuming. What I am saying is wine writers failing to see the whole picture and that may come from failing to critically analyze a scientific study that is more about conservation than it is about predicting the future for Napa Valley viticulture. Hell, when one prominent writer claims that El Niño is the biggest driver of the ocean's temperature I know not the take what he says seriously...