Friday, May 31, 2013

Deep, honest thoughts are always soulful (the importance of words)

Earlier this week, I was part of a twitter discussion about the use of figurative language in wine writing sparked by Alder Yarrow's description of wines as being "honest, soulful." What is an honest wine, you ask? Well, of course it is a wine that doesn't try to be something it isn't. Is describing wine in that way really useful? The honesty of a wine is purely subjective, but then again any description of a wine is subjective. Even the most objective part of a review, the numerical score, is subjective bullshit. Do you know what 93 points tastes like? I don't.

Now, I'm not saying that tasting notes are bullshit, but some of the words you may find in them are. Take honest, for example. David White took Alder's description as meaning "a bit flawed." Others might take "honest, soulful" to mean a pure expression of terroir. Me, it means nothing, but it makes me think about it. Is a mass-produced wine honest? Sure. Lots of mass-produced wines don't pretend to me artisanal. Is a 16.5% 2007 Châteauneuf-du-Pape dishonest because it is pretending to be wine when it is actually a liqueur? Or does it honestly taste like 100 points?

I get the reason why writers try to write colorfully about wine. There are only so many things that wine tastes like. You can only read about mocha, currants and tobacco in cabernet sauvignon so many times before you tune out. And consumers don't really want to read about methoxypyrazine, monoterpenes or ketones. pH and titratable acidity only matter to a small group of nerds like me (and probably you). Numbers just taste bland. Do abstract terms have real meaning. No. But, bullshit terms like honest and soulful actually make people discuss wine. And that is a good thing.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Colorado Wine Week, 2013

Next week (June 2-8) marks the third annual Colorado Wine Week. In 2011, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper proclaimed the first week of June to be Colorado Wine Week to coincide with the first ever Colorado Urban Winefest. Both the Urban and Mountain Winefest (in September in Palisade) are put on by the Colorado Association for Viticulture and Enology (the wineries' and vineyards' trade association). The Urban event has changed venues three times the past three years, but has also grown in scope beyond just the Saturday afternoon festival and may soon surpass the original festival in importance for the local industry.

The kickoff event for the week's festivities is billed as a "Farm-to-Turntable" Party on Sunday, June 2. The idea behind this event is to combine a farm-to-table passed appetizer gathering with music from a DJ. It is nice to see a fresh approach for Colorado wineries to reach a different audience. Almost all of the wineries are run by retired Baby Boomers and the younger generation is often overlooked as an important consumer base. Not surprisingly, perhaps Colorado's most successful winery, Infinite Monkey Theorem, has focused on the "farm-to-turntable" type of crowd. I am looking forward to seeing how successful this event is.

Sticking with the hipper crowd and bringing back a theme from last year's Wine Week, local alcoholic beverages other than wine will be celebrated as well. There will be a Colorado Cocktail Celebration (June 4) at Green Russell where Denver's top mixologists will use local wines in creating unique mixed drinks. Also, on June 6, organizers have developed a wine, beer and spirits food pairing competition they've dubbed "Craft Colorado" at Root 25 Taphouse & Kitchen. I think it is an important step for the industry be considered on the same level as the highly successful craft breweries and distillers in Colorado. Too often wineries complain that they're not as successful as the breweries instead of trying to place nicely with them and support everyone.

One of the highlights of the week for me (because I helped organize the Governor's Cup) is the Governor's Cup Awards Presentation Reception and Tasting at the Hospitality Learning Center at Metro State University on June 7. Only medal-winning wines from the competition will be allowed to be poured; so attendees won't have to worry about getting a mouthful of vinegar or horse manure. I was able to taste many of the winners during the competition and can say that there will be some really nice wines poured. And for the second year in a row a cabernet franc won best of show. This year, Creekside Cellar's 2010 Cabernet Franc succeeded the Winery at Holy Cross Abbey as earning the Governor's Cup. As I've said before, I think Colorado could really make cabernet franc its signature variety.

The week concludes with the Urban Winefest breaking in its new digs at Infinity Park in Glendale. More than three dozen wineries will be sampling and selling bottles. The rugby stadium and park are near the high-rent Cherry Creek North so the walk-up crowd should be sizeable and affluent. The venue is not as centrally located as last year's, but the space is bigger and parking is more ample. If the festival stays at Infinity Park in 2014 I'd say this year's event was successful.

Perhaps the most important part of Wine Week isn't the proclamation or the events, but the buy-in from area restaurants and retailers. Along the Front Range, from Boulder to Colorado Springs, restaurants and wine shops are now involved in the local industry like never before. Dozens of restaurants will be offering Colorado wine and appetizer pairings all week. The restaurant tier has been a tough cookie for most Colorado wineries to crack, but Wine Week has been a boon for getting on wine lists and in consumers' mouths. And getting Colorado consumers to see that Colorado has a growing, quality local wine industry is the goal of the whole week.

Tickets for all events can be purchased here. Use the promo code "WINEWEEK" for $10 off (25%) your ticket to the Urban Winefest.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Identity in Specialization

On Monday, I wrote about wine regions' need for signature varieties in creating an identity. The post my have been a bit odd because while I proclaimed the need for a region to be known for a specific grape variety I also praised two wines made from non-mainstream varieties. If the Russian River Valley weren't known for its pinot noir nor the Napa Valley for cabernet sauvignon, then these two wines would have been just another bottle in a sea of many. But because they both came from regions with strong ties to specific varieties (and styles), their uniqueness was part of their stories.

But above their respective regions' identities, both Gary Farrell and Massican have their own identities. Not surprising, Gary Farrell is known for producing chardonnay and pinot noir. Massican, on the other hand, is known for white wine blends inspired by the wines of North East Italy. Not too many Napa wineries can make that claim. Even in the sea that is Napa Valley cabernet, there are wineries that stand out because of their identities. Corison Winery is known for its age-worthiness, elegance and balance. Dunn Vineyards is known for its formidable tannins, bright acidity and low alcohol. Silver Oak is known for its prodigious use of American oak and the resultant characteristics. When buying wine from Napa, winery style/identity clearly is important. The same could be said about wine from every region.

In neighboring Sonoma County, there is a much more diverse set of wineries that also have to set themselves apart from their competitors. Just as in Napa, many strive to make the best example of the signature variety that they can. Yet, many also try to be known for something more specific or different. For example, take the group of 17 wineries (including Massican) that are a part of what they're calling the 7 percent solution. They are all rallying around lesser-known varieties like ribolla gialla, grenache blanc, trousseau, verdelho and others. While some of the wineries make less exotic varieties like cabernet sauvignon and syrah, together they are embracing diversity and experimenting with interesting (to me) varieties. I have been lucky enough to have tasted wines from nine of the wineries and in fact am proud to have purchased (yes, bloggers are also consumers...) and presently own wine from five of the wineries.

Now to bring this back to Colorado. I have told many of the wineries here that they make too many wines. It seems that every winery makes a merlot, a cabernet sauvignon, a cabernet franc, a syrah, a chardonnay, a riesling, a viognier, a sweet rosé and a few other odds and ends. Many even have the token port-style dessert wine. They claim they need the cabernet sauvignon for the serious drinker and the sweet rosé or a sweet riesling for the RV crowd just passing through. Of course they have to have chardonnay and merlot (they are the two of the most planted varieties in the state...). Making ten different varieties in three or four different styles is ok, if you're a big winery with the resources to spread yourself out. But the average winery in Colorado makes about 1,000 cases per year, total. So many wineries are making two or three barrels (50-75 cases) of ten or twelve wildly different wines. It seems that many of the Colorado wineries are trying to make a wine for every consumer without any thought given to the wineries' identity. I doubt any winery in Colorado is going to be the next Robert Mondavi Winery that can make a high-quality wine for every single type of consumer. I think many wineries make good wines, but I also think almost all of them have wines they should stop making in order to focus on their better wines.

Why not make a concerted effort to create an identity? What if a few wineries were known for only producing Rhône-style wines? What if a few wineries were known for their big, bold Bordeaux varieties? Rather than making many different, often mediocre, wines, wineries could focus on what they do best and do it better. I am more apt to buy a specific type of wine from a winery that specializes in that style than from a jack-of-all-trades winery.

Say a winery "needs" to have a white wine to sell in its tasting room. Perhaps buying finished bulk wine (or even shiners) from a winery known for its whites and selling it under their own could work for a winery making only Bordeaux varieties. Or, Colorado law allows Colorado wineries to sell any other Colorado wine in their own tasting room. Not spending the time and energy to make a mediocre wine just because you think you need to have it in your tasting room would allow you to spend more time and energy on the cabernet franc you do well. Plus, you might be able to sell a better white than if you had made it. That would be a great way to help promote the region as a whole. Wineries could focus on what they do best and also support their neighbors.

I don't want to knock all the wineries, because there are more than a handful that do already have an identity because of specialization. A brand is more than a winery name and logo. It is a promise to customers about the quality and type of product being offered to them. If they don't know what they're getting when they see a winery's name on a label, they're probably not going to buy that wine. Knowing the identity of a winery is perhaps more important than the identity of the collective region. And when individual wineries start being recognized for high-quality wines of a certain style, then the region will benefit as well.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Variety as Regional Identity

At the Drink Local Wine conference in Baltimore last month one of the panels discussed the idea that Maryland should have a signature grape variety. One person said chambourcin, another said cabernet franc and yet another suggested red blends. In Europe, wine regions are known for specific varieties. Burgundy is pinot noir. Barolo is nebbiolo. Brunello is sangiovese. Of course, these identities were curated over hundreds of years, but they are also dictated by law. Outside of Europe, many other regions are also known for certain varieties. Napa is cabernet sauvignon. The Willamette Valley is pinot noir. Barossa is shiraz. Argentina is malbec. This of course is an over simplification, but these generalizations make some sense.

The reason for regional varietal identity is two-fold. First, those grape varieties reach their pinnacle in those regions. It is no coincidence that through trial and error certain varieties' environmental tolerances were found to perfectly match the environmental characteristics of specific regions. Second, having a keystone variety also gives a region something to rally around. It is easy for consumers to associate high-quality pinot noir with Burgundy, Oregon or the Russian River Valley (and vice versa). These associations help wine regions in marketing terms, and yes, marketing is an important aspect in producing the "best" wines. Not having a signature variety might mean a region has no identity.

I've long said that Colorado could make cabernet franc its signature variety for wineries to rally around. The 2013 Colorado Governor's Cup Wine Competition was held last week and not surprisingly twos cabernet francs were among only four wines to earn Double Gold medals and one of those cabernet franc was named Best in Show. In fact, last year The Winery at Holy Cross Abbey's 2009 Cabernet Franc won the Governor's Cup (no, it did not defend its title). But does having a keystone variety make sense? Do the wineries in southern Oregon appreciate the Oregon wine "brand" being pinot noir?

Outside of Europe, most regions are planted to many different varieties. Sure, the Russian River Valley is known for pinot noir, but other varieties like syrah and sauvignon blanc are grown there with great success, too. A while back I had the 2011 Gary Farrell Sauvignon Blanc.Sauvignon Blanc doesn't often come to mind when one thinks of the Russian River Valley. Yet, this was a lovely example of the variety. It was filled with citrus (more lime than grapefruit), green apples, vanilla and floral aromas and flavors. There was just a bit of the cut grass characteristic many associate with this variety, but it was barely noticeable. It is a bit pricey, at $25, but still a very nice wine.

Just last night, I drank a Napa Valley wine, but it was not a cabernet sauvignon. In fact, it was an exceptionally interesting and tasty blend of tocai friulano, ribolla gialla and chardonnay. The 2011 Massican Annia is a low-alcohol, savory alternative to Napa's full-throttle, fruity cabernet sauvignon. Sure, I often enjoy those big Napa reds, but I don't usually find them as mentally stimulating. Just thinking about why on Earth someone would grow ribolla gialla in Napa (I implore you to read the entire 7-part Ribolla Gialla University series by Lily-Elaine Hawk Wakawaka) and then blend it with tocai friulano and chardonnay when they could make more money by simply planting cabernet sauvignon makes me enjoy a wine more than just its pure hedonistic qualities. And despite what some people claim, wine is more than just hedonism.

So, in summary, I do think having a signature variety can be extremely beneficial for wine regions. But just copying another region's identity isn't going to work in today's market. At this year's Governor's Cup there were more cabernet sauvignon entries than any other variety. Yet, I don't think Colorado can be known for cabernet sauvignon when Napa and Bordeaux already have staked that claim. Cabernet franc or petit verdot (another Double Gold winner, by the way) might make sense, however. I think Colorado is ready to have a varietal identity other than fruit wines. But more importantly, I think individual wineries need to have an identity. Having brand recognition might be just as important as a regional identity. More on that idea later this week...