Category Archives: Taste

No Fun Getting Old: Age and Wine

“How you doing, Grandpa?”

“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.

Tasting the Bella Vida

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.

Bella Vida Vineyard in the Dundee Hills

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.

The line-up from Bella Vida Vineyards

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.

Tar, Barnyard, White Pepper, Compost

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.±

A view from the patio at Bethel Heights in the Eola-Amity Hills AVA of Oregon

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.

The lush life of bud-break wine experiences.

The lush life of bud-break wine experiences

*Old World = Western and Eastern European winemaking regions, including France, Italy, Spain, Germany, Greece, and Austria, where winemaking first took root.

± http://www.wine-economics.org/workingpapers/AAWE_WP16.pdf

∞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.

The Head, The Heart, The Slurp

I recently attended an Oregon Syrah tasting with a trio of Willamette Valley winemakers and a few other industry compatriots. We tasted through seven different Oregon Syrahs, including a vertical from Dion Vineyard in the Willamette Valley produced by Anne Hubatch of Helioterra. Violet-blue in color, the 2013 Dion grabbed me by the shoulders and force-focused my energy directly into the glass. Confident white pepper aromatics lead, followed by spice, blueberry, and boysenberry. Floral undertones add a lovely, gentle layer. This wine will excite those who respect and value Rhone Syrah—a mentally stimulating experience.

Other Syrahs from southern Oregon, especially the 2012 Cowhorn Syrah from the Applegate Valley, luxuriously warmed the heart with New World fruit. The Cowhorn Syrah danced a laser-line between density and buoyancy, fruit leather and black pepper. Wines this thick often fail to inspire, but Cowhorn manages to add layers of nuance into the folds of fruit.

Admittedly, Oregon winemakers and viticulturists have only now entered the dawn of this Syr-era. Few have plumbed current or potential vineyard sites with an eye for Syrah gold. The varietal has, however, found a home in Oregon, and the cool-climate Willamette Valley within. I expect to taste starlight from the misty cave depths once it settles into the embrace of well-selected Oregon vineyards.

A few days later, I dined with family at a casual mid-week gathering. My mother-in-law, a bargain wine shopper, opened a bottle of 2014 Blackstone Merlot from California. This sweet, grape slurpee of a wine lacked everything that makes wine sing. It declared itself robotically, centuries away from passing the Turing Test—Mass Market at its worst. It served as a reminder that $10 Washington flattens $10 California every time. Biased as I am, I challenge you: Apothic Red v. Two Vines, Menage a Trois v. Columbia Crest Grand Estates,  Bogle Essential Red v. Lone Birch Red. Let me know your results.

Cheers to wines that stir the head and the heart.

Breathe

The holidays are coming. Breathe in, breathe out. We benefit from a few deep breaths, and so do most wines we consume today.

This past winter I brought a 2012 Owen Roe DuBrul Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon to Minnesota to share with dear friends. We intended to open and enjoy the bottle prior to heading out to a larger gathering. I had tasted this Cabernet multiple times, and had always deeply appreciated the duality of density and litheness omnipresent in the wine, as well as the layered aromatics. Once gathered, we corked the bottle with pomp, poured, swirled, and tasted. We sipped away over the course of twenty minutes while catching up. To my disappointment, I realized I made an amateur mistake by not opening and decanting this beauty an hour or two prior.

The Eye

Today, we almost universally consume wine young. Roughly 95% of my cellar, for instance, contains wines from 2012 to the present.* I certainly dream of a well stocked cellar filled with the vintages of yore, but the winds of our time blow persistently against these aspirations. First, most of the great age-worthy wines of the world cost more than $30 a bottle. While winemakers produce hundreds of thousands of cases in this upper-tier price range every year, only a tiny percentage of the wine drinking public buys these wines. Beyond the price tag, most of us don’t store wine long-term. We simply don’t own root cellars like our ancestors did. Wine needs cool, consistent temperatures, and ideally consistent humidity, to age gracefully.

Thankfully, winemaking has evolved. Aging is no longer a requirement for red wine, because winemakers can now extract flavor compounds and color while simultaneously minimizing harsh, astringent tannins. These techniques allow fresh fruit characteristics to shine along with some level of intriguing secondary aromas and smooth tannins. Aging wine naturally softens abrasive tannins (not uncommon in great wine when young), but the market has managed to speed up time. How we love control.

Our technological advances leave us with a plethora of young wines that need time to “breathe” in order to show their best traits. Technically speaking, the wines need to oxidize. Oxidation results in a multitude of tiny, chemical reactions that often make young wines more enjoyable. Through oxygen exposure, youthful wines release their aromatics. In youth, wines are like tight rose buds. Aeration encourages the opening of the flowers and aromas, revealing the rose’s full potential. The Owen Roe DuBrul Cabernet, for example, can go from “yum” to eyes-wide, knock-you-back-in-your-chair “whoa” thanks to aeration. The aromas broaden and deepen, while also providing more nuance and intrigue. These qualities seduce most wine drinkers.

So what to do. The best options involve a decanter or aerator. A decanter is any vessel that can contain a bottle of wine. Most decanters are made of glass with a broad base. Decanters achieve the goal of aerating the wine, however, the majority of the aeration takes place when you pour the wine into the decanter. More recently, aerators have taken hold in the market place. They come in many forms, but all introduce moderate to substantial amounts of oxygen into the wine. Some attach directly to bottles, allowing the wine to pour through the aerator into the glass. The third and simplest option requires you to open a bottle 4-24 hours in advance. If you open it 1-2 hours prior to serving, pour the wine into stemware as early as possible, and encourage guests to swirl their glasses.

Aerating red wines may well be the best strategy to improve your enjoyment of wine, as well as your guests’ pleasure. Take the time to reap the benefits of oxidation.

Closing note: Decanting old wines can kill them. If a wine has slowly oxidized through the cork over ten or twenty years, further oxidation can suck the remaining life out of the wine. Like a rose at the end of its blossom, the wine holds a fragile, crisp-edge beauty at this age. Do not disturb the moment by over aerating the wine.

*If you drink whites alone, no worries. Drink them young, and all shall be well. Nearly all whites present themselves best in youth.

Notice

Senses open. Descriptors flitting and nesting within your brain. Noticing brings meaning and ultimately peace, balm in our hurried world. Harvard Psychologist Ellen Langer agrees, and suggests we practice mindfulness, the “simple act of actively noticing things” (more here).

I propose that engaged wine tasting is mindfulness, a means to appreciate the fullness of life. “Ahh, bah humbug.” I hear the calls for sanity. “Wine is wine. You like it or don’t. Stop overanalyzing.”


I refuse to oversimplify our experience. Quality certainly exists, and so does its antithesis. If you like a Slider at White Castle, fine and dandy. It doesn’t make the burger high-quality, however. If you open your senses and mind to the experience of eating that Slider, you will likely agree (1). We consume mindlessly.


Enjoying our time at Trisaetum


Noticing improves our life. This is a reason I admire passionate birders, wild foragers, hunters, yogis, rock climbers, golfers, et al. These folks slow the clock and absorb the task at hand. Focused wine tasting can serve this purpose.


I recently finished True Taste: The Seven Essential Wine Words by Matt Kramer. The book asks us, as wine drinkers, to open our minds to a more expansive view of wine tasting and critiquing. Kramer suggests we can use six words to hone our awareness and thinking: harmony, texture, layers, finesse, surprise, and nuance. These words help us think deeply without wasting time on the frivolous. Can a white wine taste like “Meyer lemon”? Yes. Does “lemon” suffice as a descriptor? Yes. Does the description “aromas of Meyer lemon” tell us anything about quality? Indirectly at best, and most likely no. Herein lies the significance of the six words. Quality wines exhibit many of these six elements. Stellar wines, those that haunt and tickle our memory, define those six words. Of course, antonyms serve well to describe wines lacking significance–discordant, one-dimensional, and iron-fisted, for example.


True Taste: The Seven Essential Wine Words by Matt Kramer


I recommend True Taste. Read and you will better understand the subtleties found in each of Kramer’s six words as they apply to wine. Ultimately, the book helps you enjoy wine, and better articulate its. . . layers. This awareness stimulates our bodies and minds, while also helping us better assess the wines we drink.


Savor this world; respect it with your engagement.


1. Mediocre food can, of course, hit the spot. Average, bulk wines also serves this purpose. Conversely, you may personally dislike a medium-rare, well-aged filet mignon, just as you may find a well-prized Chateauneuf du-Pape distasteful.

Wine Literature Must Haves

In my previous post, Buying Wine, I mentioned the anxiety many feel when purchasing wine. The plethora of options at most wine retailers leads people to often reach for the comfortable–old trusty–or pick a varietal, price point, and label that aligns with their mood, and then speed out of that daunting environment. The following list of wine literature essentials will help move you from uncomfortable, to curious, to confident.

Wagon Wine’s must haves

Wine: A Tasting Course by Marnie Old

Marie Old, a sommelier based out of Philadelphia, has written the wine primer–the ideal introduction to wine. Covering varietals, winemaking, tasting, purchasing, and wine regions, this book is all encompassing without overwhelming. In fact, it can lead a wine newbie into the mysterious depths of the wine world, while still keeping the reader engaged, intrigued, and light on the toes. Tasteful graphics benefit and deepen the reader’s understanding. I recommend this book for anybody interested in learning more–anyone tugged by curiosity thanks to the experience with a delightful bottle, a first winery tour, or a life long enjoyment of wine without the accompanying awareness.

The Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil

Does the original tug now have you bound infinitely to the glowing light, the mystery that is wine? Karen MacNeil has written my preferred reference book. I, however, fully encourage the passionate wine drinker to dive head first into this book and climb out at the last page. Many would recommend other books for this purpose and level of knowledge (Zraly comes to mind, and I do recommend Window’s on the World Complete Wine Course); however, I find MacNeil’s style and tone inviting, smile inducing, and profoundly insightful. I especially appreciate her writing in first segment, which covers varietals, winemaking, pairing, tasting, storage, vintage variation, serving…it is thorough. This is all covered in the first 110 pages before exploring the world of wine, the countries and regions any wine lover should explore. At 860 pages, this deserves the daunting title, though when you start reading your shoulders will relax, and your glass will swirl and tip back effortlessly.

Washington Wines and Wineries: The Essential Guide by Paul Gregutt

Does Washington have your attention? Do you wonder what all the hype over Washington wine is about–the high scores? Are you part of the industry, but need to deepen your knowledge of Washington wine specifically? Paul Gregutt, wine writer and now winemaker, wrote this thorough book which covers the history of wine in Washington, the AVAs, varietals, noteworthy vineyards, reputable and up-and-coming wineries. The second edition was released in 2010, and I would imagine a 3rd edition isn’t too far off (though I have no knowledge of this). Some of the up-and-comers of 2010 have arrived! The world of Washington wine is evolving rapidly. This book fills an important niche in the world of wine literature.

The Science of Wine: From Vine to Glass by Jamie Goode

This book explores the science behind most aspects of wine, including the vineyards (soil, pests, pruning, trellis systems, etc.), winemaking (oxygen, barrels, alcohol reduction techniques, sulfur dioxide, brett, closures, etc.), and our interaction with wine (tasting, psychology, saliva, flavor chemistry, etc.). While not written for the novice, Goode writes accessibly for those readers passionate about the content. A scientific background will benefit your understanding, but wade in to the depths even if you lack this expertise. This book deepened my understanding of the manifold factors influencing my experience with the wines I uncork.

Concluding Remarks

Remember, an excellent wine steward at a trusted shop will always prove invaluable, even to most wine fanatics. Wine stewards at any reputable store understand their inventory well, and familiarize themselves with the wines both academically and through tastings. No wine expert can taste every wine, and so wine stewards who passionately know and appreciate their bottles serve a needed niche. Take advantage of their knowledge.

Increasing your knowledge can reduce your stress and deepen your pleasure when both buying and enjoying wine. Cheers to the seductive allure of wine! 

Reflections after the Columbia Gorge Grand Tasting

The Columbia Gorge Winegrowers Association (CGWA) recently hosted a Grand Tasting at Castaway in NW Portland. After a few days of pondering and reflecting on my notes, I feel more confident than ever that the Columbia Gorge AVA has a bigger and brighter future ahead (though perhaps we shouldn’t hope for “bigger”). This AVA garners relatively little press from regional and national press. As a consequence, it is a spring lilac, under-appreciated, that forces your attention when you get within proximity. Your senses awaken.  


Why the Columbia Gorge? The breadth of styles and varieties, in conjunction with quality, provide consumers with a dreamy array of wines from a small geographic area–40 miles west to east. The Columbia Gorge quickly transitions from forested foothills with significant annual rainfall to elevated, sloping desert overlooking the Columbia River. You can taste sauvignon blanc, pinot noir, sangiovese, barbera, nebbiolo, chardonnay, zinfandel, cabernet franc, syrah, grenache, and blends both traditional and path forging, all while only scratching the surface of this AVAs offerings. This blessing of diversity may also provide one of the confounding factors–what grapes thrive where? Experience, often through trial and error, has helped uncover the “spirit” grape(s) of many parcels of land. What works at a vineyard 2 or 3 miles west will likely pan out quite differently, or even fail, at your vineyard. All factors impacting terroir change drastically in short distances here.

Wines and Wineries of Note:

  • 2012 Phelps Creek Cuvee Alexandrine Pinot Noir: The Columbia Gorge need not play second fiddle to big sister Willamette Valley next door. Let the Gorge play a solo show! This age-worthy pinot opens with aromatic intrigue–strawberry, cherry, and aromas of a cool walk in a damp woodland. This wine is alive! Medium tannins and a wonderful balance of acidity keep us dancing instead of lounging. Pinot lovers, take note of this wine, and Phelps Creek. Stellar. 
  • Viento 2013 Savvy Sauvignon Blanc Allegre Vineyard: My mind immediately travelled to New Zealand. The zest, the brightness of this sauvignon blanc aligns wonderfully with my ideal for this varietal. A zip of lemon welcomes your senses, accompanied by melon and pineapple notes. This is summer in a bottle. Delightful. In the words of head winemaker Rich Cushman, expect “honest wines.” No enzymes, stabilizers, etc.
  • The Pines 1852 2013 Estate Old Vine Zinfandel: Wow. A ripe, lush sensory experience with blackberry and resin. Avoids jaminess while plushly coating your mouth. Medium-plus tannins. Length abounds. Sourced from some of the oldest vines in the northwest, planted in the late 1800s. Stellar. 
  • Memaloose 2011 Mistral Ranch Estate: Southern Rhone blend of syrah (60%) and grenache (40%). Red fruit, caramel, earth, and fresh forest growth create a provocative wine. All wines produced now come from estate fruit. Excellent. Expect only neutral oak, and an Old World winemaking style when you drink Memaloose. 

If you live in the Portland area, consider attending the Columbia Gorge Grand Tasting in the future. Head to tasting rooms on a typical weekend, and you often have 30 seconds to hear the shtick from tasting room staffers before they must move on to the throngs of other guests. Understandable, but also disappointing if you appreciate discussing the details of the wine in your glass. However, attend this tasting, hosted by the CGWA, and you will have a unique opportunity to talk directly with many winemakers, owners, and/or heads of sales and tasting rooms (especially if you arrive early). These pillars of the industry can provide the details and stories behind the wine you enjoy. 

Cheers!

The Essentials

Some call these details. Anybody passionate about wine disagrees. If you ever buy and drink a bottle over $10, take note. You should read on even if you exclusively drink Two Buck Chuck.

Wine storage, wine glasses, and serving temperature–the holy trinity of wine stewardship in the home. Let us begin the obligatory post of every caring wine writer to have walked this planet.

Repurposed wine bottle: olive oil with tap

Wine Storage

Wine has two core enemies–heat and light. Wine should ideally be stored at 55 degrees fahrenheit, and with a consistent humidity level of around 50-80%. Ignore the humidity ideals, however, unless you live in a desert or jungle, or you plan to store wine for 10+ years. The humidity won’t affect the wine most of us store away, because most of us drink our wine relatively young and live in moderate enough climates. As for temperature, attempt to keep your wine in a stable environment. 65 degrees year-round will serve you better than 45-70 degrees depending upon the season. The obvious answer is to store wine in your basement.

Common questions or concerns about storage:

  • Don’t have a basement? Store it in the corner of a dark, interior closet. 
  • But I like to decorate my kitchen with bottles! Me too. Decorate them with empty bottles once you have drunk the wine. Save your favorite bottles, once consumed, and display them on your hanging rack. They look great in the sunlight that would otherwise be harming your filled bottles. I enjoy reusing bottles as oil and vinegar dispensers, which I leave on my counter for ease of access (any cook will appreciate this). 

Finally, don’t let your purchase go to waste by neglecting it for too long. I have witnessed many people leave a bottle unopened for 10 years when it should have been consumed 8 years prior. Most wines purchased under $20 are meant to be consumed within 1-2 years. Do your duty.

Large, swirlable stemware

Wine Glasses

Own decent stemware. My personal recommendation is to haunt the Goodwill stores near you and scoop up the Riedel glasses as you find them. I found the Riedel pinot noir glass, pictured right, for 99 cents at Goodwill. The MSRP–$20.

Stemware matters because it allows you to swirl and smell without fear of spilling, because good stemware typically has a large bowl shape which tapers toward the rim. The swirling releases aromatic compounds through aeration. We taste wine primarily through our sense of smell, both when we smell the wine (after swirling), and when we drink the wine.

Hold your glass by the stem. Your hand is a balmy 98 degrees, and the stem keeps that heat away from the wine (read about serving temperature below). For this reason, avoid using stemless glasses unless you use them for large parties in which you will serve mass market, value wines.

Don’t let the marketers fool you. You simply do not need different glasses for different wines. I personally use the glass pictured right for both whites and reds. While a specific glass for each wine may enhance a specific wine’s characteristics minutely, a nice bowl-shaped glass will serve you very well for all wines.

Serving Temperature


Most folks serve wine too warm, both white and red. This includes a significant number of restaurants. Unfortunately, respected boutique and high-end restaurants don’t always fare better here, though they theoretically should. Why does temperature matter? Temperature affects what we smell and taste. Serve a big, high alcohol syrah too warm and it will overwhelm you with sharp alcohol aromas, which will greatly reduce your enjoyment of the other positive attributes. Serve a riesling too warm and the uplifting acidity and fresh fruit aromas will fall flat.

Whites should generally be served between 45-55 degrees, though the bigger and bolder whites (think California Chardonnay) can be served warmer. How do you achieve this? For reds, 10-20 minutes in the refrigerator before serving will do nicely, though a proper cellar (basement) will keep it at a wonderful temperature for serving. For whites, I prefer using an ice water bath to chill them for 5-15 minutes, though a refrigerator will do the job if you think ahead.

These are the details that shouldn’t be details. Take care of these three essentials in your home, and your enjoyment of this pleasure inducing elixir will most certainly benefit. Cheers!

Wine Economics Part I: The Land

Why can I buy a solid, terroir-nuanced Cabernet Sauvignon from Washington for $18, while I can’t buy an equally alluring Pinot Noir from neighboring Oregon for under $30? Why the huge variety and volume of respectable Languedoc-Roussillon red blends (France) for under $15, while I can’t buy equally unadulterated* cabernet sauvignons for that price from California? These two scenarios only hint at the tip of the economic iceberg when it comes to wine. The price tag at our local wine shop reflects a complex web of factors leading to that ultimate number. I will devote a series of posts to the factors that weight price tags toward affordability or incomprehensibility.

Part I: The Land

Location, location, location–economically impactful in real estate, retail business, and wine. How can one Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon sell for $150, while another bottle from vines grown within eyesight sells for $18? Vineyard location plays a role (discussion of other factors in upcoming posts). The $18 bottle almost certainly originates from grapes grown on the flats at the bottom of the Napa Valley. Flat, fertile valley bottoms encourage abundant growth and yields, and frequently mediocre wine as a consequence. Hillsides, even gentle slopes, typically have more shallow, less fertile soil. Grapes stress in these soils, and as a consequence put more energy into the fruit for the propagation of the plant. Stressed vines produce better wine. Therefore, hillside vineyard sites cost more money in notable grape producing areas–Napa Valley, for instance. The steepest vineyard sites can also add additional expenses due to the relative inaccessibility and associated labor costs to maintain the vines. 

More broadly, land values fluctuate drastically because of other geographic factors. California and Washington’s Columbia Valley serve well as counter-examples. For those who have travelled the Columbia Valley AVA, it is a vast, sparsely populated desert. As a consequence, the value of vineyard land often costs pennies to the dollar in comparison to most California vineyards. Many California AVAs, on the other hand, exist near population centers. California has also received global praise for the production of fine wine for decades longer than Washington. Both of these factors drive land prices higher than similar vineyard sites in the Columbia Valley. The Columbia Valley, of course, has exceptions to the rule. Some sub-AVAs have garnered reputations that drive prices sky-high. Red Mountain, for instance, recently sold land at a competitive auction for a hefty price. Expect more Columbia Valley vineyard land to follow suit as Washington continues to gain international respect. Back in California, the Central Valley, well away from the moderate climate on the coast and the largest population centers, proves the exception in the state, but few grapes recognizable as important wine grapes grow here. Rather, this relatively inexpensive valley produces an abundance of teinturier grapes intended as additives to serve as an inexpensive filler for many, if not most, bottles under $20 from California (and around the world). Wine regulations in California, and most regulations nationally and globally, allow for 10-15% of the juice to come from varietals not listed on the bottle, which gives wineries the option to top off bottles with inexpensive filler. Up north, Washington wineries producing bottles under $12-15 likely use similar or identical additives made from teinturier, but the climate, in conjunction with inexpensive land, greatly reduces the need for additives in most years.

The Columbia Valley AVA. Note the vastness and lack of development in the background. Courtesy of Seven Hills Winery.





Land ownership can also give wineries an economic advantage. For instance, an upstart winery in Oregon, which recently purchased 40 acres of prime Pinot Noir growing real estate, now owes banks or investors for this purchase. This new winery will need to pass on the land expense in the final cost of the bottle (unless the owner cares naught for the economic viability of the winery itself, a scenario that plays itself out with surprising frequency–enter the “hobby winery”). Some wineries in the Old World have had the economic advantage of owning their land for hundreds of years. This allows them to either lower their price, giving them a competitive advantage, or provide additional revenue to invest as they see fit.

The land grapes grow upon exists within our global, competitive economy. As evidenced by the details above, many of the same factors that create disparities between home values significantly impact the cost of wines we purchase from our favorite wine shop. Location, for one, matters. 

Many simplifications exist in the information above. Economic factors certainly overlap and intertwine in a complex manner. For instance, not all low-lying vineyards produce bad wine. Proper vineyard management in low-lying vineyards can produce excellent wine. The soil also plays a substantial role. However, people seeking to produce bulk, value wine frequently choose cheaper land–the lowlands. Generalities are necessary to discuss the topic meaningfully, even if imperfectly.

Finally, excuse the long hiatus. An unexpected death in my family, in conjunction with the holiday season, postponed my writing ventures. 

Coming soon, Wine Economics Part II: Grape Varietals and their Economic Impact. Happy New Year!

*Unadulterated = limited technological and chemical manipulations e.g. additives (Mega Purple), spinning cones to reduce ABV (alcohol by volume), etc.