This one has been in the works for months. Originally slated for Wine Tourist Magazine, WTM unfortunately closed their doors as a publication two months before going to print. After exploring a few homes for this piece, I landed on posting it on Medium. Enjoy here:
Beyond this Medium article, I have two more pieces in the works, one for Growler Magazine. Stay tuned.
The couple month hiatus has been the result of a cross-country, permanent move to Minnesota, my bride’s torn ACL amidst the move, the 2017 Willamette Valley crush (flew back), and a month on the road telling the story of the lovely little wine company that employs me. Life is full and wonderful. Expect this site to start firing on all cylinders again soon.
“Well, it’s no fun getting old,” wheezed my great-grandfather Wes. Then, a deep breath. It was meant as a direct response to a rote question. It frequently left me grinning uncomfortably.
For many, aged wine contains an aura of near mythical power. Hold a 30 year old wine in your hands, and you hold history, even time itself. We are taught that aged wines bring new depths to explore, and we hear a similar message about elderhood. I have certainly felt this rapture when holding aged bottles of wine.
Too often, however, the rapture doesn’t extend to the tasting experience.
In truth, most wines (and humans) don’t age gracefully. While recently drinking a bottle of 1998 Brunello, I (again) held a wine in my hands that undoubtedly tasted better 10 years earlier. I’m not talking about $10 grocery store wine, which surely should be drunk young. Most well-crafted wines made with great care do not benefit from 20+ years of cellar aging. More of us, collectors included, would do well to drink our wines with 5-12 years of age on them. In this window, we run little risk of pulling a cork on a worn out bottle, and the resulting experience will provide a surer pleasure for a broader audience. Between a wines youthful release and tired, raisened age rests an ideal window when a wine holds both fresh fruit, and complexing, intriguing layers that only time can add.
I can already hear the scoffers. “Is this clown really telling me I can’t age my First Growth Bordeaux for 30 years and find glorious fruit and captivating aged aromas and flavors?”
Of course not. For most, however, wines of this ilk are out of reach. And to those scoffers, I bet them their cellars that I will enjoy fewer tired, no-fun-getting-old wines, and many more in their prime of life. And when I win their cellars, I’ll start pulling the corks.
The mystique of aged wines leads collectors to buy futures from many fine Chateaus and Domaines, but a disturbing number of these stunning wines rest for decades holding nothing but the promise of vinegar 30 to 40 years in the future. We’ve sanctified the status of aged wine to the point that many dare not touch their pearl-white treasure.
Perhaps as I age, I will find new meaning in the brittle aromas and flavors of dried fruit and leather. In the meantime, I will enjoy my wines while I know they will please.
I recently had the fortune to sit down with Aurélien Fiatdet of Terroirs Originels and Tom Monroe of Division Winemaking Company for an exploration of cru Beaujolais. Held at the SE Wine Collective, Aurélien led an intimate group through a 15 minute overview of the region before pouring seven distinct Crus ranging from the 2016 vintage to 1995.
For decades Beaujolais was cast aside as a land of cheap, monodimensional Beaujolais Nouveau. This “one trick pony” had much more to offer, however. Inspiring grower producers existed through the years, but wallowed in the shadows. No hyperbole. Top level Crus sold for $9-$12 in the American market, leaving no margin for these small production winemakers. Thanks to the persistent efforts of a handful of independent producers (Gang of 4), the rise of prices in Burgundy/Bordeaux/Rhone, and the megaphone of somms, cru Beaujolais has gained traction.
Rightfully so! These wines hail from high elevation vineyards ranging between 800-1700 feet with ideal granite and volcanic soils. The wines tasted at this event come from a group of producers that farm their estate vineyards with serious care, and the wines receive small lot treatment—hand harvesting from bush vines, semi-carbonic maceration with a large portion of whole clusters, and aging in large neutral oak foudre or concrete vats. The resulting wines sing the praises of the varietal, Gamay, and the unparalleled terroir for this grape.
Tom Monroe, co-leader of the tasting, champions Gamay himself, making more Gamay bottlings each vintage than any other Oregon producer. Other revered winegrowers, including Brick House, Chehalem, Bow & Arrow, have also dabbled, some for decades. With the cool-climate of the Willamette Valley well-respected for the other Burgundian varietals, it makes sense that the region would test the vinous waters of Gamay. And they have found success. Festivals like I Love Gamay and national press evidence the varietals growing reputation in Oregon.
However, Tom and most other Oregon producers still genuflect east in the morning as they tend their Gamay vines, or punch down the cap of fermenting Gamay must. Beaujolais reigns supreme. The wines swirled and tasted last week provide the evidence.
Notes from the two standouts with a list of the other wines tasted:
2016 Pascal Aufranc Vignes de 1939 Chénas ($17): Bold aromatics of ripe raspberry, white pepper, and granite fold lusciously into the mesmerizing palate, which provides pleasing yin-yang tension and structure, all boding well for the present and at least a decade in the cellar. 25 acre vineyard. 92 points.
2013 Domaine Pascal Aufranc Lingum Julienas ($20): Medium purple with dry cherry, kirsch, and dried marjoram seducing the senses. Nice delineation through the palate with a pinch of pepper adding intrigue. 20% neutral oak. 92 points.
2015 Robert Perroud L’enfer des Balloquets Brouilly ($17)
In the February edition of Wine Business Monthly, Kevin O’Brien penned a noteworthy article filled with curious nooks and crannies.
Good news! Wine sales continue to grow, especially in the $10-$25 category. Sales of $6-$10 wines have meanwhile declined. This has resulted in the “premiumization” of the wine business. Even better, wine drinkers are lusting for honest wines. “. . . consumers are continuing to demand premium products across all beverage alcohol categories as they seek an authentic, high-quality experience.”
Of course, corporate wineries want in on this action, but only have a few options (beer drinkers, this should sound familiar):
Increase price of existing wines
Create new labels and reprice
Buy premium brands*
As a consumer, beware of number two and a flip side of three. Thankfully you aren’t being duped by numero uno.
In the face of falling cheap wine sales, corporate wineries with substantial vineyard holdings have the need to put that fruit to better use. Quick, put the marketing department to work! Slap a new, shnazzy label on the identical bottle of vino (or nearly identical), get the PR machine buzzing, and out of the corporate sphincter comes a glimmering new bottle for the new and improved price of $15 (formerly $8).
Massive producers have also used a related though sneakier tactic. “It should be noted that these large transactions, as well as several other completed during the year, were primarily focused on the brandrather than underlying vineyard or production facilities. A leading driver behind ‘asset light’ transactions is the flexibility in grape sourcing and resulting scalability of the brand.”
Decode: Corporate wineries gobble up a sexy, premium brand name, leave the vineyards and production facilities behind, and then put their less costly, already held vineyards to work under the newly acquired brand label.
Clever, clever, and harder to detect. The answer, the same tried and true answer, can be found in the following:
“The recent wave of wine industry transactions has been notable for its size and breadth. These acquisitions have been driven by suppliers’ desire not only to improve profitability through increased scale but also to remain relevant to their wholesaler and retailer partners. The past few years have seen several significant mergers between some of the country’s largest wholesalers and retailers. As the distribution funnel continues to narrow, wineries are finding access to the market increasingly difficult. . . . In general, larger retailers prefer to work with larger wholesalers in order to better integrate and simplify their supply chain and forecast demand.”
Corporate wineries need one of the big three distributors to move their product into the large retailers. It’s that simple.
Gallo Constellation Brands The Wine Group Bronco Wine Company
Breakthru Beverage Southern Glazer’s Republic National
Safeway Total Wine Costco Whole Foods*
The answer, my friends, remains the same. Shop your locally owned wine retailer, get to know your steward, and you will bring home bottles with authenticity, character, and value. You will also support three authentic tiers rather than the behemoths above.
*Premium brands = wineries producing $20+ wines
*Whole Foods has historically worked hard to diversify shelf space with large and small wineries. However, results at any given store vary by state, and market pressures continue to push retailers of this size to consolidate and simplify i.e. work with fewer distributors and reduce options on the shelf.
Perhaps you’ve recently had an “Aha!” wine—the swirl, sniff, and sip that paused the spinning world. Maybe you’ve long ago fallen down the wine rabbit hole, and then started following the wine event calendars at your local wine shops. Or maybe you have ten years of wine geekery under your belt, and have participated in a monthly wine tasting group for a few years, where you endeavor to explore a specific varietal or region each gathering.
Regardless of your experience level, take another step. Curiosity desires knowledge and experience. Below you’ll find a collection of next steps, starting with the simple and moving toward the advanced.
The sheer number of wine regions and styles overwhelms many new to wine. Now is the time to get your hands on one excellent wine book, ideally a thorough and approachable romp through the core regions and styles. Importantly, reading this solid primer provides enough information to make the next steps more comfortable and pleasurable.
Windows on the World by Kevin Zraly
The Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil — Don’t let the title mislead. I find MacNeil’s writing creative and buoyant. Read all materials prefacing the wine regions, and then read a handful of core regions to whet your appetite. Move on to the next step before finishing the book.
Start seeking opportunities to taste 3-8 wines at a time. Tasting wines in isolation provides little insight. The connective and comparative judgments fall short when three weeks have passed between your two most recent glasses of Loire Sauvignon Blanc. Subscribe to a handful of local specialty wine shops’ newsletters. Most of them, at least the ones worth knowing, hold tastings either weekly or monthly. Whether it’s a flight of wines from around the world, or a comparative tasting of five Washington Syrahs, the experience will elevate your understanding of and pleasure with wine.
I can hear the moans. “Really?” Yes, really. Sitting down at a table with other wine curious individuals and a reputable teacher will take your understanding and appreciation to new heights. Depending upon the course provider, the costs need not be prohibitive.
Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET) — provides 4 levels of study. Level 2 is a great place to start for anybody who has already endeavored in steps one and two above.
Research “wine schools” or “wine classes” in your area. Many cities have unique institutions serving their communities, some of which partner with broader institutions like WSET.
Wine Tasting Group
This step can arguably be placed anywhere in the process. However, I have found most who participate in wine tasting groups have at least participated in two of the three steps above, if not all. Having a grounding in winemaking, regions, and styles greatly enhances a groups ability to dig in to thoughtfully procured flights. Plus, where else do you meet a group of 8+ wine lovers who want to gather weekly or monthly to focus on the wines at hand?
Take another step forward. The beguiling bottles that await will not disappoint. It is often a rabbit hole experience, and a wholly more pleasurable one than what we’ve started experiencing since January 20th.
“He walked in, pulled out a roll of hundreds, and flipped me two,” gnarled the no-nonsense owner of a boutique wine shop. He had been paid by the largest distributor in the state for bringing in ten cases of wine.
This is illegal.
In his case, a customer requested the cases for a special event—he had no intention of stacking* them in his store. In fact, he thought the wine was shit. He also didn’t know he’d get the payout. From the perspective of the conglomerate distributor, his purchase had triggered the payoff. Send in the man with the wad of Benjamins. Interestingly, Mr. Heavy Pockets is a separate employee than the distributor’s sales rep who typically services the shop.
Nestled on the edge of a wealthy, Midwest suburb, this one-man wine shop prides itself on small-production and high-quality wines. The owner doesn’t cower to the Powers. He simply received an unexpected, free date night, paid for by a customers large order, and mediocre taste.
As I walked out the door with my distributor’s sales rep, he said, “Yeah, I’ve heard it before. I’ve talked to some larger shops that say, “I’d love to stack your wine, but I can’t give up the $140 a month I get for that stack.” Both the winery that employs me and our distributor here can’t play this game. Both small and family-owned with honorable values statements, we wouldn’t dare, nor can we afford to dance this dance.
The words “pay to play” get thrown around frequently in the wine world. In the age of wine distribution mergers, the game keeps getting scarier for the thousands of small to medium-sized wine producers. You want your wines on certain shelves and restaurant wine lists, get ready to pay. While not always Benjamins, money flows to these accounts circuitously. And we’ve only talked about distributors.
Over the past week, Wine Spectator released their “Top 10 Wines of 2016” through a countdown. Seeing the producers on the list from my region, and having tasted hundreds of 2014 Willamette Valley wines, I have a tough time believing these producers landed on the Top 10 by merit of the juice alone. In fact, Wine Spectator doesn’t even deny the non-blind nature of the picks. While most of the industry uses the term “X factor” to describe a thrilling bouquet or texture that carries something unique and sublime, here Wine Spectator directly states something quite different:
“Then when you take the bag off, that’s where the X Factor comes in. Is it a new domain, new producer, great value? What is it about the wine—that’s the back story that adds to the excitement.” Senior Editor James Molesworth, Wine Spectator
And of course, how did these wines receive their high scores in the first place? Plenty furrow their brows at the correlation between advertising dollars spent and scores received. Here I do not levy my claim at Wine Spectator alone, nor do I levy it at all publications. None the less, plenty of room to wonder.
While none of this news should surprise us in the 21st century, it should still unnerve us. And if you want to settle those nerves, go find that honest suburban shop owner and ask him what he recommends. It is the path to better wine and a better world, locally and globally.
*Stacking = to stack multiple cases of the same wine to prominently display it, typically reserved for the $15 and under category in medium to large wine, beer, and liquor stores.
I have a bias. I’ve long held this inclination, but have recently worked to expand my awareness. New in . . . sight has affirmed my bias—no more shame.
I care way more about the aromatics of a wine than any other factor. From the nose we can gauge nuance, complexity, layers, intrigue, depth, density, purity, specific aromas. . . you get the point. However, as a rather new industry-insider, many around me have emphasized the importance of wine’s texture and mouthfeel. Why? Points and the general public.
I submit wines for my employer (a producer of Willamette Valley Pinot Noir and Chardonnay) to nearly all of the major wine publications for review and a score. Conversations with winemakers, PR/Marketing specialists, and other industry insiders, in conjunction with a close following of the scoring publications, has undeniably confirmed the value of a wine’s texture, weight, and presence on the palate. Palate increases points—most want a suavely-textured wine.
I, however, put much less emphasis on mouthfeel when judging a wine. And after months of refocusing on texture, weight, tannins, acidity, and their interaction, the last two weeks have jilted my new practice. I recently caught the bug that gave my wife Pneumonia. While spared the clogged lungs, my head has suffered the consequences mightily, and so has my sense of smell. I’ve spent two nights at my WSET Level 3 in Wine course unable to smell the Pommard, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, or Côte-Rôtie wines tasted during the sessions. Zero smell. “Alright, a new chance to focus my energy on the palate,” I consoled myself.
Wine is simply alcohol without our sense of smell. Yes, I could and did focus on these other factors while sick, but I could have instead drunk orange juice to play with acid, or whole milk to experience weight. Hell, combine the two—it wouldn’t have mattered. Smell makes wine the knee-buckling elixir that has captivated our minds for millennia. While not the only factor that makes a wine great, smell is primary.
If you, like the publication editors and reviewers, value a wine’s density and texture, more power to you. I’m going to keep swirling and sticking my nose in the glass, because I revel in the rapture of this rabbit hole.
Three wines. Each providing a thumbprint and insight into a winemaker’s style. All under one roof. A tour of the Willamette Valley typically provides the curious connoisseur an experience with Pinot Noir, soils and AVA variations, winemaking style, and brand image. The preeminent role of site, however, leaves the taster wondering what effect the winemaker had in comparison to the plot of land and farming that raised the grapes.
Enter Bella Vida Vineyard. Located in the rust-hued hills of Dundee, the motherland of Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, Bella Vida contracts three noteworthy Willamette winemakers to each craft a Pinot Noir that highlights this site and the essence of their winemaking style. As a 26 acre vineyard, each winemaker works with very similar fruit tended by the same vineyard manager. This culminates in a memorable and deeply informative tasting experience.
In the middle of the tasting, owner Steve Whiteside poured a trio of 2012 vintage wines from his three winemakers—Jacques Tardy of Torii Mor, Jay Sommers of J. Christopher, and Brian O’Donnel of Belle Pente. Each wine demonstrates that winemaking impacts our experience with a wine profoundly.
2012 Bella Vida Tardy Pinot Noir
Pure ruby in color, lifted aromas of red cherry and spice leave no doubt that this is Dundee Hills wine. In the background, a hint of mushroom adds intrigue. With lithe body, medium-plus acidity, and a finish that carries memories, this wine will clearly benefit from aging. I have a bottle in my cellar to investigate. Excellent.
2012 Bella Vida J. Christopher Pinot Noir
A darker-hued wine with a blue rim, this wine leans into the darker fruits with spiced blueberry melding with tilled earth. A balanced wine all around. While my least favorite of the three wines, it undoubtedly sings of Pinot Noir while holding its head high. Delightful.
2012 Bella Vida O’Donnell Pinot Noir
Minimalist winemaking creates a suave-textured wine with black cherry, bramble, and floral kisses. My tasting crew unanimously declared this their favorite, in large part due to the mouthfeel. Excellent.
With production at about 150 cases for each of these wines, visitors to the valley will likely never touch these gems unless they visit the vineyard personally. The opportunity to taste the decision-making and ethos of each winemaker will captivate any wine enthusiast. The fact that the fruit hails from such a stunning site—both visually and viticulturally—makes this a must visit tasting room on your next trip.
Step one: Pull the cork on your winery’s award-winning Pinot Noir.
Step two: Fail to test the wine for flaws prior to pouring or test the wine and fail to notice flaws.
Step three: Pour two-thirds of the bottle to other tasting room guests (title shift, “How to Lose a Silly Number of Sales”).
Step four: Pour award-winning wine, while gloating over the award.
Step five: Fail to acknowledge a flaw (cork taint, aka TCA) when guest, backed by group of four other tasters, states the wine is corked. More specifically, taste the wine in question in front of the guest, then tell the guest that she is wrong. Do so while holding the questioned bottle, which now contains three ounces of award-winning Pinot Noir.
Step six: Admit to minimal wine experience during your time talking with this group.
What makes expensive wine so expensive? I get this question more than almost any other. And it is a great question. Many layers weave together to create a wine’s price tag (Wine Economics Part I, Part II, and Part III only scratch the surface). However, a remarkable reality persists—the large majority of wine drinkers don’t particularly enjoy drinking expensive wines, especially the exalted wines of the Old World*. Blind tastings of regular folks have consistently shown no correlation, or even a negative correlation, between the wines they like and the price of the wine.±
The tasting descriptors of lauded Old World regions provide clues as to why this phenomenon exists. Open a five year old Beaujolais Cru from Morgon, France, and the slate stoniness and tart acidity, along with the second-fiddle role of fruit aromas and flavors, shock many wine drinkers. Head south to the Northern Rhone of France, and the Syrah punches the palate with savory black olive, bacon, white pepper, and charcoal. Aged Bordeaux? Wet dusty road, tobacco, truffle, compost, and gravel, with fruit once again singing back-up. The list of the “great” wines goes on in similar fashion. And on. Karen MacNeil argues that Great Wine must display a degree of non fruitedness. See the tasting notes above, and you get her point. For most, though, non fruitedness dominates many of the great wines, sucking the pleasure provided by the primary fruit flavors.∞
So why the hell does anybody want to drink the expensive stuff? Some argue that wine drinkers experience an evolution of the palate. In reality, the exploration of wine becomes academic. How does a presentation on the macroeconomics of suburban zoning arouse the minds of some fellow humans (this one’s for you, Mom)? The act of diligent study, over time, begins to stimulate neural connections that never previously existed. Consequently, hard work and forced study slowly shift into a pleasure inducing experience. In the words of Twain, “Then his work becomes his pleasure, his recreation, his absorption, his uplifting and all-satisfying enthusiasm.” Blessedly, for wine drinkers, we get to relish in the initial “work.” Absorption and enthusiasm grab hold, and the mind takes the reigns. How do soil, place, and grapes create this? No, winemakers in the Piedmont commune (village) of Barolo don’t add tar extract into their wines. So how does this happen? A wine enthusiast is birthed.
Enjoy the wines you enjoy. When the hard work takes you to a new place, step into the bizarre novelty that surrounds you.
*Old World = Western and Eastern European winemaking regions, including France, Italy, Spain, Germany, Greece, and Austria, where winemaking first took root.
∞There is certainly an American bias in this article. This bias likely plays a substantial role in answering why Americans’ prefer cheap wines. Our processed food, salt and sugar-added diet likely skews our palate toward sweeter, fruit-driven wines. I would love to see a break down of “average consumer” wine preferences in Europe compared to the United States.