Saturday, January 27, 2018

BRAMBLES: A $ellar of Values

Most wines come from a handful of large beverage companies
Beginnings. January is for many of us a month of organize and purge; shuffle those receipts, and finally get around to putting away the summers wardrobe. It does not take much more time or experience or even information to also begin to collect wines to fill a value cellar that provides a very hedonistic joy for almost any wine lover. Today, more than ever before, value wines abound in our increasingly global marketplace, and more avenues exist to acquire them.  It is a great vino game that invites the intrepid wine consumer, a hunt for storable nectar.

Long standing consumer trends indicate that we are buying more wine than ever before, even as industry consolidation continues with distributors and retailers(convenient supermarkets sell a lot of low to mid-priced wine).  That means that the value oriented wine consumer does not have to search far or wide to begin to collect a selection of wines that will contribute to any meal or occasion.  Once you find a place to store your collection that is out of the sunlight and in a stable environment(a ground-floor closet or dark basement corner), the game is on.
Building a cellar starts with one or two bottles
Fact is, the more we know about wines, ie. characteristics of grape varieties, details on their wine labels, etc., the easier it becomes to find a value that will benefit from a little bottle development. Does your meal need a zippy white wine to take a mild dish or appetizer over the top?  What a joy then to retrieve from your cellar an Argentine Torrantes, or a Spanish Verdejo, or a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. Should that red sauced pasta need accompaniment, then pull a bottle of Sierra Foothills AVA Zinfandel, or a Rosso Montepulciano d'Abruzzo Sangiovese from Italy's southeastern hills to provide dimension not present in the dish alone.  For the consumer, these selections and many others continue to represent not only value, but also a nectar that can change our perceptions about collecting wines.  You see, all wines benefit from some further development, not unlike the way children benefit from our patient nurturing.
Even in winter, we look towards new beginnings
Not all wines are created equal, as well.  Most of the wines available conveniently to consumers are products of large industrial corporations, where uniformity in manufacturing and bottom line oriented production costs guide their development.  You see, most wines produced in the U.S.(by volume) are intended for immediate consumption, because that's the way most domestic consumers' consume.  So the game of collecting becomes a little more challenging when we seek out wines that can really benefit from time in the bottle. Those mandatory front labels only represent part of their commercial story however.  Typically, by turning the bottle around consumers can find notable details that assist their selection, such as the important name of the importer or the distributor.  A back label can offer you suggested food pairings, the composition of the bottle or the unique history of the winery, and that can help consumers make a better informed selection for the cellar.

For the informed, clues can include a good vintage year for the producers region or a long-standing reputation for quality and value(Ch.Ste. Michelle or Ge'rard Bertrand); wines bottled by the producer or the domaine, or even a reliable importer(Winebow, Kermit Lynch) can also be informing. Increasingly, finding a reliable on-line flash site offering selections you routinely like can be of benefit to device-savvy collectors.  At on-premise retail, those impulse wine buys can encourage us with promotional pricing or a prominent shelf-talker that trumpets its accolades.  And, it all starts with one bottle that you don't intend to consume right away.  Heck, by two.  Before you know it, you are in the game, your stored wine collection is filling with a broad selection of values for almost any meal or occasion.  You will have a quality wine to bring to a friends' dinner party or to share with that special someone. And that, value wine collectors, can be just the beginning.



Friday, December 29, 2017

BRAMBLES: Chances Are...

Raise a glass with friends and try something new
Chances are that during that holiday party you will see old, familiar friends and a few new faces, too.  And then, there are all the folks you will greet.  There will be wines that you have enjoyed before, and perhaps a few that you know to avoid....just like those other holiday celebrants. But among the surprising collection of holiday treats there will be probably a few wines that are unfamiliar, creations that you have no prior experience with.  In that celebratory environ we have a great opportunity to introduce ourselves to something new that can change our world of wine perceptions, and as a result expand the choices we identify in the marketplace or the printed terror that is a restaurant wine list.  No formal introduction should be necessary.

'Chances are 'cause I wear a silly grin the moment you come into view; chances are you think I'm in love with you.'
Riesling pairs well with Asian inspired appetizers
Chances are when joining good company this holiday season, we will be in good cheer and ready to raise a glass or two. So what is expected in that glass?  Is the choice by color or a familiar varietal?  Or perhaps we choose something comfortable and familiar. There was a time when such gatherings brought together 'anything but chardonnay' sippers, and 'only cabernet' dandies.  Today as the global market expands, new choices await, like Chile's Carménère,  or a delicious Cabernet Franc from the Loire Valley of France, where the appellations of Bourgueil or Chinon will reward the curious searcher.

Chances are there will be bubbles, always bubbles.  Proseccos of northeastern Italy and cavas of Catalonia continue to present high standards of quality and value to celebrating consumers, and this holiday season is no exception. White wines too present choices beyond chardonnay(which can be in your cava), offering tastes of world travelers like Pinot Gris/Grigio or dry Riesling from Australia with a chance to join a party.  Again, the Loire Valley's Chenin Blanc from Vouvray or Savennie'res can be a delightful revelation in a glass. Chances are you may ask for two, even as you started as just one.

Chances are that as we escape our vino comfort zone, we'll find a new love.  Increasingly, the result may help the casual wine lover discover to what it is that they really like about wine varietals from unfamiliar places, and as a result, more about their personal wine preferences. Go ahead, take a chance. Chances are you'll find something good.
A world of wine awaits exploration
Predictions: Red blends will continue to be popular.  Consumers should continue a trend of 'trading up', even as the comfortable $10 threshold remains strong.  Chances are market growth will continue for those $20+ bottles where brands increasingly become important. International values should remain strong, as wines of emerging countries, like Bulgaria(world's second biggest wine producer in the 1980's) or Uruguay's high-tannin Tannat grape, find new markets. On-line retail will continue to grow with sail wind from Amazon(which consumers should notice), and there will be continued consolidation within the heavy weights of the industry(consumers should not notice).  As varietal and country of origin selections expand, consumers should find innovative packaging choices continue to grow green. Sustainability in any relationship is after-all what it is all about.

'Well, chances are your chances are awfully good!
Lyrics: Al Stillman c.1957

A Happy and Healthy New Year to All!  Cheers!!

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Thursday, November 30, 2017

BRAMBLES: Taste This!

Austria's 'Heurigen' culture invites a celebration by the glass
A discovery in a glass awaits! Hundreds of wine tasting rooms dot the bucolic landscape here in North Coast wine country, and thousands more nationally, all offering the opportunity to find something pleasing and inspiring presented in the glass.  In spite of the hospitable invitation, a common reaction may be, "why should I visit a rich guy place to pay inflated prices for a widely available wine?"  Fact is, that most of the wineries are small producers(comparatively), looking for the precious opportunity to introduce the uniqueness of their quality brand. The big guys dominate the marketplace and distribution, so little guys need to get creative to gain fans of their wines. Locally, by now you have probably heard or read of the devastating wild fires that enveloped the North Bay's Wine Country in October of 2017, so now especially it is an opportunity to aid their recovery and entrepreneurial development along with our own delicious discoveries. Perhaps unlike ever before, it is a wonderful time to 'taste this'!

Fact is, there is sensual pleasure directly associated with a wine tasting experience.  That joy of anticipation, the lifting of the spirit as you approach the pristine setting, and the excitement of discovery are only the beginning.  Once inside, be it a mysterious cave or a patio with an inspiring view, or a neat interior that gets your design juices flowing, the variety and types of tasting experience can be varied and as comfortable a fit as our unique sense of style.  There are stand at the bar community tastings, sit-ins at the casual comfort of a salon with new friends, or the ritzy upscale private tasting to temp our tastes.  Each has its own attributes, but all aspire for the same result: to create a new fan, an ambassador for their brand, whether it be from the few bottles you take away or the unique wine club you can adopt.  Many times, the selections offered at these smaller venues can be found in scarse other places, offering the buyer the bragging rights of 'exclusivity'.
Tasting in moderation is a sensual social activity
Each experience gives the taster inside information, a chance to talk with someone in the know to get the selections story.  That makes it a personal connection.  Because we taste subjectively(our own taste preferences), we can be influenced by what others say about the wine, or how the wine is presented(try to avoid places that tell you what you will taste), or even the heavy perfume carried by another guest.  Our unique palates with all those individual taste memories can also be effected by spicy jalapenos or that yeasty beer from lunch.  After all, it is an exploration, a personal discovery of what we like and don't like, enhanced by being in a cheerfully social situation.  We are at the same time challenged by our nature by not wanting to be the one in the group that does not like something. Tastings present the opportunity to fall in love with something new, and the special memory it carries when that same wine is enjoyed at home or with friends.  It simply makes emotional sense to try and get the most for ourselves from such a personal adventure of discovery that can be shared, and then repeated as often as possible.  Up lifting and jovial, wine tastings are intended to be a sensual pleasure, for the eyes and nose and palate that can also educate the affable consumer.
Discovery in a glass is social and educational
Of course alcohol repetition has its disadvantages too.  The taste buds tire, individual selection memories get foggy, and that impaired driving can really change your life.  It then makes sense to limit tasting venues, employ the convenient spit buckets, drink water as well, and use a friendly designated driver where possible.  In reality, tasters need a plan for their discovery.  Throughout the calendar there are numerous regional wine country events that help organize your outing and provide a special social reason to indulge, like the upcoming WineRoad's, Winter Wineland or Sebastopol's, 'Meet the Makers Tours at the Barlow'. These special events invite us to get out and meet new friends, enjoy the festive community atmosphere generated in the many inspiring venues, and ultimately, to indulge in the socially-personal discovery of 'taste this'.

Raising a glass: Prost and Salute!


Thursday, October 26, 2017

BRAMBLES: Resilient Drinking?

Like an aged farmer, old zinfandel vines have seen it before.
In those early hours nothing else seemed to matter.  Survival was what bulldozed everything else. Lack of sleep gets replaced by adrenaline, fear of the unknown draws you closer to someone, anyone. For the local wine industry, the first days of the October firestorm brought with it the heavy concerns of loss of precious resources, including vineyard life.  Ultimately for some a question is raised, "what do you drink when threatened by a wild fire"?   For many of us the answer is of course, "everything"!  We lift a glass to present our sorrows, and cheer then for the resilience of the long-lived grape vine.
Part of the life of man since Neolithic times, nurtured in Asia Minor and the Mediterranean, the domesticated grape vine, Vitis Vinifera, is ingrained as part of classical antiquity.  Over its cultivated existence the vine has proven to be buoyant and tough, an example of flora that can be quick to recover.  Near the end of the 2017 grape harvest the vineyards of our wine country encountered historical stress and destruction due to savage fires that consumed locally almost 200,000 acres in Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino and Lake counties.  Fires that burn around the grapevine trunk are likely to kill the vine, but most vineyards survived, dealing with many dark days of smoke and ash. These same smoke compounds can be found in toasted oak wine barrels, and those ash residues can be rich in nutrients potassium and calcium. Now, across the North Coast AVA the vineyard's top soil has changed.  Inspection, soil testing and needed nutrients to feed the soil will follow, along with constant monitoring for the vines foreseeable future.  Just under that exterior bark of the vine lies its vascular system, thru which it gets life sustaining water and nutrients.  If undamaged the irrepressible vine should recover, but as with all injuries it will take time.  Those vineyards that were lost will take years to grow back, and premium grape farming will survive.

A brighter spring in Carneros AVA
Across its long, cultivated history the wine vine has consistently demonstrated the ability to recover.  It is by its nature a survivor, driven almost singularly to reproductive growth. Combined with a historically sparce 2017 harvest throughout much of Europe, the once inflating industry is now facing yet again new challenges within the expanding global marketplace.  This cycle, too, will recover.  But, it will take time.  Just like us, the rebound from a traumatic health event will change things in our life cycle and will take sometimes many years to return to what had been familiar. As a long time local grape farmer once said to me, "we have seen it all before". 

Burgundy vineyards cycle a return to 'normal' in 2017
As we move forward, there will still be good local wine on the shelf or wine list, and consumers may even be influenced to expand their wine knowledge or regions of interest. Just like the vine, the local industry will endure and rebound, and eventually the wild fires of 2017 will be in the rear-view mirror.   As of this writing it is still burning in the hills somewhere.  Locally, the hum of fire fighting aircraft is slowly being replaced by the distraction of abrupt jackhammers and heavy equipment.  Locals continue to renew normal routines, and fortunately, cellar workers return to their craft.  Yet the smell of smoke lingers in the air, and we remain vigilant just like the wine growers on Sicily's Mt. Etna.  They make good wines there, too.  Now that's historically resilient drinking!

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Friday, September 29, 2017

HARVEST; the Cycle of Past Perfect

Dried leaves danced in a race across the dry pavement.  It was a reasonable escape considering the sweltering heat spikes that repeatedly visited wine country throughout the weeks of summer, but the effort used up entirely too much energy.  No fewer than 5 weekends over a two month period saw triple digit temperatures blanket our vineyards hanging full of fruit.  After a historically wet winter with a generous snow pack in the mountains, the vigor of the vines that had introduced the 2017 season had now slowed to a listless crawl.  What was an early promise of good fruit quality and average crop yields was altered; it had become a different harvest.
Sonoma County American Viticultural Areas(AVA)
That wet spring gave way to sustaining sunshine to begin flowering and fruit set of the vines, and then came a rare hail event in June.  This is the type of weather that may be more common in continental Burgundy, not maritime-influenced and Mediterranean Sonoma County. Weeks of summer went by seasonally, albeit higher than average humidity.  By the end of July, sparkling wine producers were already calling out picking orders, expecting a traditional early crop of higher acid ripening fruit with sufficient sugars. Then in late August seasonal temperatures began to rise; Labor Day weekend saw three days of invading triple degree digits.  September, a typical harvest month, began a patient game of waiting for sugars to threshold and phenolic ripeness to develop in the fruit. It all stalled, as it remained unseasonably hot.  Locally, there were even a few rain 'events' mid-month promoting the fear of widespread fungal rot.
Vineyard rows adapted to machine harvesting
Grapes are cyclical survivors, they want to complete the process.  As photosynthesis shuts down to produce ripening of the sugars, it is common for growers to remove grapeleafs, promoting even ripening by exposing the fruit to more sunlight. It is a balancing act, for we know that stressed vines produce more intense fruit color(flavor) and richer aromatics. During a heat spike sugars climb and then drop during sustained waves, the maturity process shuts down with this continued vine stress. To combat, growers can irrigate their stressed vineyards, but that dilutes flavors and runs the danger of altering the fruit flavors.  Harvesting under-ripe fruit does not help much either.  The fruit bakes; light, thin skins can sunburn, the fruit dehydrates, and may even raisin the berries.  Months of dedicated toil and nurturing can change to critical over a scorched weekend. 

Sonoma county is not alone in this current climate challenge. "The heat was excessive to the point where it actually slowed ripening", noted celebrated Lake County AVA winemaker, Jed Steele. Moist conditions from winter's rains and rare monsoonal periods in September introduced rot to many vineyards.  Talley Vineyards of Arroyo Grande Valley AVA noted it sorted out a surprising 14% of its harvest from Rosemary's Vineyard due to the blight. Globally, according to Decanter, Italy and France are expecting to see the smallest harvests in more than 60 years due to a late season heat wave the Italians have dubbed 'Lucifer'.  To balance the scales, cool, sun-deprived Germany is having a historically early harvest, as reported by Bloomberg's, E.McCoy!
Italian wine raisins in the Mediterranean sun
If we add the agricultural labor challenges to pick fruit at the peak of ripeness in more vineyards than ever before with a shrinking seasonal migratory work force, the annual increased farming costs, and a more competitive producer/consumer marketplace it is a wonder that growing premium wine grapes still invites the dreamers.  And, the wildfires in Mendocino, Lake and Santa Barbara counties, and in Oregon would only add to a winegrowers challenges this year, too. Welcome to the new normal of farming cool climate sites, the real new McCoy, as it were.

Record amounts of carbon dioxide hang in the atmosphere, our rising sea levels and increasing deforestation are global events the worlds' agrarians have never before seen on this scale. Locally, our Sonoma September was 3+ degrees warmer than our historical average for this harvest month. Those increasing global temperatures have introduced to once marginal, cool extreme vineyards the rarity of more hours of sun and increasingly consistent ripening. Now at this edge, indications are that we are currently living in the new climate normal. A few longtime fruit farmers may have see it all before in their day, but for the rest of us we may be entering a vineyard environment of the Cycle of Past Perfect!

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