A Toast To Direct Shipping; Long May It Be Legal.

16 May

photo by walknboston via flickr

Today marks the 5th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s ruling on Granholm vs. Heald, which paved the way for more direct shipping of wine within this country. Before the ruling, if you lived somewhere like New York or Michigan and wanted wine shipped to your door from an out-of-state winery, you basically couldn’t get it. Not legally, anyway.

In honor of this anniversary, an organization called Free the Grapes is inviting wine lovers to break out a favorite bottle and join them in a toast this evening. I say, go for it, and while your sipping that nice glass of wine, you might want to go over to Tom Wark’s blog, Fermentation, and read up on a new bill before the House of Representatives called H.R. 5034. Nicknamed the anti-consumer bill, H.R. 5034 essentially seeks to invalidate the direct shipping gains delivered by Granholm v. Heald in 2005. Meaning depending on where you live, you may have to revert back to criminal activities in order to have wine shipped to your home or office. If the idea of this makes you want to take action, compose a message to your Representative or Senator. (It’s easier than you think, if you just click that link back there.) Or, maybe your more of a social networking type. If so, you can join the Facebook campaign to Stop H.R. 5034. Easy, right?

While you toast your freedom to enjoy wine tonight, go online and try to save it. It’s the least we can all do.

Everything’s Coming Up Rosés

14 May

Earlier this week, I attended RAPwine‘s (RAP stands for Rosé Avengers and Producers) Pink Out! event in San Francisco.  In the interest of full disclosure, I was invited to the Trade/Media tasting, which was provided free of charge.  RAP also held a consumer tasting later in the day, and tickets for that cost somewhere around the $40 mark.  It was a sellout.

When I was just starting out as a wine merchant (a little less than a decade ago now) we offered free daily tastings at the shop where I worked.  At regular intervals in the Spring and Summer, we’d pop open a rosé for the daily tasting.  I hated working the tasting bar on these days.  Not because I hated rosé.  (For the record I loved it and still do.)  But because I hated rejection.  On those days, when I offered a free taste of pink wine, 99% of customers who walked through the door would turn me down.  Many did so by recoiling in horror at the suggestion, many scoffed, others laughed and asked “are you kidding?”  I remember very clearly the face of one man who looked at me with a combination of pity and disdain.  On rosé days, I always went home feeling drained and dejected.

For the record, I blame White Zinfandel — Sutter Home, Lancer’s, Mateus, whatever.  Because of its ubiquitous presence at every airport bar, office party, and Oliver Garden in America social wine drinkers clearly went through a period of White Zin induced PTSD, unable to unlock the mechanism in their brains which, when it saw pink, immediately thought sweet; unable to understand that it didn’t always have to be that way.  One thing I learned from attending RAP’s PinkOut! tasting?  We have definitely recovered.

Recent studies have shown that over the last couple of years, during a down economy when the wine industry as a whole has been struggling to stay afloat, rosé producers have been enjoying a renaissance.  In fact, sales of imported rosés were up 28% last year.  A huge number given economic conditions.  When researchers talk about imported rosés, they’re really talking about France, and when talking about French rosés, they’re really talking about Provence, which accounts for about 40% of all the pink wine produced in that country.  It also sets the standard for what a blush can really be — pale-hued, mouthwateringly refreshing, with elegant minerality and subtle fruit.  Interestingly, at the PinkOut! tasting, only two Provençal rosés were on offer.  The vast majority of wines were from California.  Interesting, given that 10 years ago very few CA producers (but for the Sutter Homes, Beringers, Gallos and the like) were even making rosé.  A fact borne out by my own simple research.  As I worked my way around the tasting, I asked every winery representative I met how long they had been producing rosé.  The vast majority told me that it was their second or third vintage.

Not that that’s a bad thing.  One of my favorite wines of the day was one called Lorenza ($20).  A pink wine produced by the mother-daughter team of Melinda Kearney and Michele Ouellet at Intersection Wine Company from a blend of Mourvèdre, Carignane, Grenache, Cinsault, and Syrah.  In only its second vintage, this wine showed the kind of charm, restraint, and elegance I tend to favor.  It wasn’t a hot pink hued wine bursting with ripe berry fruit.  Rather, it was a cool, crisp pour without even a whisper of residual sugar.

Speaking of color, I’ve focused a lot here on pale pinks, but the fact is that rosé comes in every hue from carnation to magenta, and I was a little surprised at the number of wines at the PinkOut! event that tended toward the latter.  While scanning my notes, I noticed that I wrote the words fuscia and hot pink quite a few times to describe a wine’s color.  This made me wonder if more domestic rosés tend to fall into the darker end of the spectrum?  Seems to me that it would be a possibility given American red wine drinkers’ penchant for dark wines.  Maybe the same follows for pinks?

I’m not typically one to advocate for trends, but in the case of pink wine I’ll make an exception.  Drink more pink…regardless of whether you like it salmon-hued or fuscia.  Just promise me it won’t be Boone’s Farm.

The Best Bubbly Comes from…New Mexico?

7 May

photo: D. Sharon Pruitt

Did you know that New Mexico is the oldest winegrowing region in the U.S.?  Yeah, me neither.  But I did know that Gruet Winery, arguably the best sparkling wine producer in the country, is located there.  Over the years I have sold Gruet’s wines in my jobs at various wine store, and I have been happy to recommend (and drink) them.  They are not difficult to find (currently distributed in 48 states) and represent a great value in bubbly, starting around $14 a bottle.  For me, there is no better producer of domestic sparkling wine than Gruet, due in large part to its awesome cost-to-quality ratio, something that is sorely lacking in domestic fizz — particularly here in California, but more on that later…

Last week, I took a little vacation to our country’s oft-overlooked 47th state, and though this was not a “wine trip,” per se, I did  stop in at Gruet’s tasting room in Albuquerque to taste their wines at the source.  Sort of.  Gruet’s vineyards are located 150 miles south of its tasting room, in Truth or Consequences, NM, but the wine itself is made at the facility in Albuquerque, as it has been since the  first vintage in 1987.

First, a little history.  The Gruet family (from France, natch) were not New Mexico winemaking pioneers.  The first wine grapes were planted in the state around 1629 by monks who smuggled over some Mission grapes from Spain in order to make sacramental wine.  By the late 1800s, New Mexico was officially wine country, producing more than three million liters of wine per year.  So what happened?  Why isn’t New Mexico the wine powerhouse it once was?  Two things:  Prohibition in 1919 followed by the Rio Grande’s extensive flooding in 1926, the combined effect of which destroyed many of the state’s oldest and largest vineyards.

So in the early 1980s when the Gruets were traveling through the Southwest, the wine tradition in New Mexico was just beginning again.  During their trip they met some European winemakers who were having success with vineyards they had planted south of Albuquerque so the Gruets (who had been making Champagne in Champagne since the 1950s) decided to plant an experimental vineyard there, too.  And, it worked.  At, more than 4,000 feet in elevation, the Gruet vineyards are among the highest in the country, and this is to their advantage, as daytime temperatures in New Mexico can be very hot.  But at night, at this elevation, the temperature drops as much as 30 degrees very consistently, allowing the grapes to rest, mature slowly, and ultimately make very good wines.

So back to my visit.  The Gruet tasting room is a dated-looking faux château, located on a highway, in an industrial park, next to an RV dealership.  Check your idyllic wine country notions at the door.  They won’t be fulfilled in this setting.  Time to get on with the business of tasting wine.  Here in California, I often see Gruet’s NV Brut, Blanc de Noirs, and sometimes its Rosé.  These were all on offer, but I was more interested in some of the wines I hadn’t seen back home, namely:

NV Sauvage ($13.75) – A brand new release from Gruet.  This sparkling is made from 100% Chardonnay to which zero dosage is added.  Dosage is the mix of wine and sugar that is traditionally added to bubbly just before it is corked.  This slightly sweet (levels vary) mixture helps to balance the high acidity that typically exists in sparkling wines.  Non-dosed fizzies are becoming trendy these days.  I happen to like this style, but it can be too tart for some.  Although its worth mentioning that Gruet’s version is well-balanced, fresh and crisp, without being austere.

NV Extra Dry ($13.75) – Another new release also made from 100% Chardonnay.  This time there is dosage added, and for Extra Dry, the level of sweetness is typically on the higher side.  Extra Dry is kind of a misnomer, in that on the scale of sparkling wines, it is generally sweeter than a Brut.  How’s that for confusing!  Given my predilection for the drier styles, I typically veer away from Extra Dry for my personal consumption, which is exactly why I wanted to taste this wine at Gruet.  I have to say I was pleasantly surprised.  Instead of the sweetness I expected, I was met with ripe green apple with just a hint of creaminess.

2006 Blanc de Blancs ($25) – Unlike still wine, vintage sparkling wine  (vintage = a date on the label) is rare (it’s not made every year, only in the best years) and it takes a lot longer to make.  Thus, the price of a vintage is usually quite a bit higher.  So to see a vintage for $25 a bottle is a relative value.  This Blanc de Blancs — literally white from whites, which means all Chardonnay is in the bottle — was aged for three years before its release.  I found it to be very elegant and lemon citrus flavored with a light hazelnut toastiness.

2003 Grand Rosé Vintage ($32) – This blend of 92% Chardonnay and 8% still Pinot Noir (the latter gives the pink color) was the most vinous (i.e. tasted the most like regular wine) of the things I tasted.  There’s a little touch of smokiness on this bottling, as the still Pinot Noir that goes into the blend comes out of French Oak barrels.

Gruet makes a bit of still wine, mostly Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, but unbeknownst to me until my visit they also produce a very small amount of Syrah.  I tasted the 2007 Syrah ($25).  This bottling is the winery’s fourth vintage of the Rhône grape variety, and I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised.  Instead of being heavy and tannic, this wine was lithe and elegant with a nose of violets and rose petals followed by smooth blueberry notes on the palate.

I left Albuquerque more than satisfied with my visit to Gruet, and with a single nagging question:  Why doesn’t California produce good-quality, affordable sparkling wine like this? For my money, the Roederer Estate Brut NV from Anderson Valley is the best cost-to-quality ratio I can find in my home state, and it’s $20 — a full $5 more than Gruet’s Brut NV.  My other CA choices (almost all of which are owned by large Champagne houses) are variously overripe, overly sweet (due to high dosage that’s out of balance with the wine), and overpriced.   My suggestion:  California bubbly producers should take a few cues from New Mexico.  It is, after all, the oldest winegrowing region in the U.S.

R.I.P. Anchor Brewing Co.

27 Apr

It’s  confirmed — San Francisco’s Anchor Brewing Co. has been sold.  Longtime owner and microbrew pioneer, Fritz Maytag, sold the iconic brewery to a pair of Bay Area entrepreneurs for an undisclosed sum.  In addition to beer (my favorite is the Liberty Ale), the Anchor empire also includes a distillery operation, which produces some outstanding spirits, including Junipero and Genevieve gins.

I have a personal interest in this particular story for three reasons:  1) Anchor Brewing Co. is located in my neighborhood, Potrero Hill, in San Francisco, and is one of the most famous and beloved businesses in our little community; 2) My ties with Ridge Vineyards have rendered me fairly familiar with Mr. Maytag’s history as it relates to wine.  He’s also the owner of York Creek Vineyards in Napa Valley, which has supplied Ridge with grapes for their York Creek Zinfandel since 1975; 3) I’m always wary when products I like change hands, particularly when the thing happens to be a small production beer, wine, or spirits purveyor.

I can’t help but think that with this change will come an increase in production, and that that increase in production with mean the inevitable decrease in quality, consistency, and originality.  It so often happens that way.  A small, undiscovered drinks maker gets noticed by a few interested parties, they tell their friends, soon there’s a little buzz (pun sort of intended) going.  In a few months or a few years the little undiscovered drinks maker isn’t so undiscovered.  And, soon it isn’t so little either.  Other than the fact that it took 45 years to happen, this is in some ways what’s transpiring now with Anchor.

I don’t want to jump on the bigger is never better bandwagon, or imply that change is never good.  But, I will say that this is truly then end of an era; an instance when change is difficult to accept.  Here’s hoping that Anchor Brewing will reamain a San Francisco original… and that it stays within walking distance of my house.

Aromatic Whites Put Spring In Your Sip

15 Apr

Photo: q8 via flickr

Spring is in the air — literally.  A couple of weeks ago, as the season was just beginning to take hold, I got very sick.  The culprit?  Pollen.  Outside my house, the shop where I work, in every parking lot and on every curbside was pollen, piled upon itself until it resembled yellow snowdrifts.  The arrival of Spring can be an assault on the olfactory sense, but it’s this most aromatic time of year that makes perhaps the strongest argument for being a seasonal wine drinker, someone who matches the wines that they drink to the seasons.

We are all guilty, occasionally or often, of reaching for our perennial favorite wines without regard for the weather, dinner companion, or food pairing.  This is not a crime.  We like what we like.  However, there are certain events that seem to warrant a wine choice to match — birthdays, anniversaries, picnics, etc.  I believe Spring is one of these occasions, too.  When gray and rainy winter finally gives way to daffodils and poppies and birdsong and sunshine our senses are awakened and refreshed.  It’s a great time to expand your sipping horizons with a few unusual, aromatic whites, which as a category, offers the perfect pairing with Spring’s vibrant bouquet.  Go ahead, take a chance on one of these:

(Prices are approximate.  Importer’s name is in parentheses where applicable.)

2009 Bedrock Wine Co. Compagni Portis Vineyard Heirloom White, Sonoma County, CA, $20

A truly unique and unusual field blend of Gewürztraminer, Riesling, Trousseau Gris, Berger, and some others, this wine is bursting with spicy floral notes.  Don’t let the blend of grapes scare you, this is not a sweet wine.  Rather, it is crisp (due to vinification in stainless steel), devoid of residual sugar, and has a beautifully silky texture.

2008 Patricius Tokaji Furmint, Hungary, $18 (Blue Danube Wine Company)

Tokaji?  Isn’t that a dessert wine?  Well, yes, but not in this case.  Tokaji is the name given to wines that come from the region of Tokaj-Hegyalja in Hungary.  The grape variety is Furmint, which can be made sweet or dry.  We’re dealing with the latter in this wine that is a super-fragrant fruit basket.  It’s redolent of fresh pear, lime, mango, and a little peach all sprinkled with a touch of spicy cinnamon.  Mouthwatering.

2008 Luis Pato Maria Gomes, Bairrada, Portugal, $16 (Vinos Unico)

Sounds like a person, but Maria Gomes is actually a grape variety, albeit one most have never heard of.  Sort of like Grüner Veltliner crossed with Muscadet, it has both a peppery, mineral streak and a creamy lemon-grapefruit quality that is at once crisp, refreshing, and complex.  Delish with fish.

2009 Crios de Susana Balbo Torrontes, Cafayate, Argentina, $12 (Vine Connections)

This wine is so floral, you’d swear you just stuck your nose in a bouquet of fresh lavender and not a wine glass.  On top of that, there are flavors like peach, Bartlett pear, and tangerine.  And, it’s all backed by great acidity, which makes the wine feel very fresh and light.  Almost no grape is quite as perfect a fit with Springtime as Torrontes.

2008 Coronica Malvasia, Istria, Croatia, $20 (Blue Danube Wine Company)

From a part of Croatia that is characterized by its colorful green hillsides, spotted here and there with blossoms and olive trees, this wine says, “go outside and roll around in the grass.”  Round and soft with aromas and flavors of peach blossom and apricot, this wine is light, but manages to have a pleasant (but not heavy) creamy texture at the same time.  Like Spanish Albariño with an Eastern European accent.

If You Drink Cheap Wine, Drink It Young

8 Apr

Every cheap wine isn’t a good deal.  You already know this.

All of us at one time or another has grabbed a bottle off the shelf because we’re attracted by its low, low price.  We are lured by the hope that this wine will be the steal of the century, the greatest bottle ever at a rock bottom price.  Problem is, it doesn’t always happen that way.  Best case scenario is that the wine is simply boring; worst and all-too-often-the-case scenario is that it just plain sucks.   Yesterday, while reading an article from winebusiness.com called, “Consumers Respond to Grocery Outlet Wines,” I was reminded of all the times I’ve purchased wine based primarily on price, paying little attention to other factors, only to be disappointed later.  In general, winebusiness.com article puts a primarily positive spin on the Grocery Outlet wine selection (which leans heavily on wines in the $3 to $6 range), but it also offers insight into how large outlet stores get their wine at such deep discounts.  This is important information for wine drinkers to understand, but given that your average wine drinker doesn’t sit around reading dry industry publications, I’ve decided to highlight the important parts here in my blog, just in case an average wine drinker happens to read it some day.  Why?  Because understanding how the mechanics of discounted wine works can help all of us make better wine choices in the future, particularly when we’re rummaging around in the bargain bin.

According to Doug Due, Director of Wine for Grocery Outlet, one of the primary ways the chain gets its wine at such low prices is by buying back vintages.  What does this mean, exactly?  As Mr. Due’s explains, this is when “a brand is releasing its latest vintage, such as an ’09, but still has ’07 or ’08 vintages available and needs to move the older “juice” in order to focus on the new one.”  Given that the seller (in this case the winery) needs to move inventory, the buyer (in this case Grocery Outlet) is in the position to negotiate a very low price, allowing them to offer the wine to their customers at a deep discount.  Sounds like everybody wins, right?

Well, maybe…sometimes.  Allow me to explain.  The vast majority (and I mean vast, like 98%) of all wine produced in any region, in any country on earth is intended for early consumption. Early, as in right now, or at least within a year or so of the vintage date.  Now, this doesn’t mean that all those wines turn to vinegar in 18 months, but they’re also not getting any “better” for those extra months sitting in somebody’s warehouse.  Contrary to popular belief, most older vintage wines are not improved simply because they have some age on them. Therefore, drinking an aged bargain wine actually means that you don’t experience it at its freshest, which is arguably when it’s at its best. Don’t get me wrong, many bottles will taste just fine with age; in these (best) cases they just aren’t much different than when they were first released.  However, there are a few types of wine that really, truly should be drunk within that first-year window because after that time they are typically tired and over the hill (i.e. they taste pretty sucky).  These are the wines I would, personally, steer clear of at the Grocery Outlet or any stores that sell back vintage wines at a steep discount.

In the interest of helping you drink better on the cheap, here’s my short list of what to avoid in the back vintage bargain bin:

  1. Dry Rosé
  2. Sauvignon Blanc (particularly from New World producers, like New Zealand)
  3. Unoaked Chardonnay
  4. Pinot Grigio
  5. Gamay (absolutely and especially if it’s labeled Beaujolais Nouveau)

The Secret to Finding Good Cheap Wine

24 Mar

I’ll let you in on a little secret.  I know where you can always find great, inexpensive wine.  It doesn’t matter that I don’t know where you live.  I know where to send you.  If you want a really good, affordable bottle of wine tonight, forget about Costco and Trader Joe’s.  Go to a specialty wine shop.  You know, that little boutique wine store in your town.  The one you’ve been afraid to go into because you think it will be filled with crazy bottles with Italian labels you can’t decipher and triple digit price tags.  Go into that one.

I know, I know.  This seems antithetical to what you would normally do, which is walk into Safeway, BevMo, or Total Wine and take your chances with something from the bargain rack.  After all, they have a large selection, which typically includes several bottles that fall into an affordable price range, be that under $20, under $15, under $10.  They also often have good sales like buy one get one for a nickel, or a 15% off six or more promotion, and so what if you only came in for a bottle or two if you’ll save by buying more…  This all sounds pretty good, until you walk in and are confronted by the wall of wine.  Row after row, bottle after bottle, label after label.  How do you choose? 

The problem with big box wine stores is not that they lack for choice, it’s that they offer a whole warehouse of choices and no one to help navigate them.  Once you realize this and are ready for a change (and a good cheap wine shopping experience) make your way to your nearest specialty wine shop.  Here’s why:

A boutique wine shop will almost certainly be small (thus one reason for the moniker) and because of its diminutive size, will have a nicely edited selection.  It will also likely be independently and locally owned.  There’s a good chance the owner/manager/wine buyer will greet you when you walk in the door.   Because this person has chosen the life of a wine merchant (which, believe me, is no get rich quick scheme), it’s a fair guess they’ve done so because they love wine, and because they want you love it, too.  When you walk in the door of a shop like this, you should find someone who is happy to see you, and who wants to see you again.  They way they’ll make that happen?  By giving friendly service, listening to what you want, and matching you with the right bottle of wine at the right price.  This is what good small shops do time and time again that big box stores don’t.

Now to the cheap part.  Contrary to the historical connotation, boutique wine shops aren’t just for people interested in expensive wines.  These days it’s quite the opposite.  Many small shops specialize — either partly or solely — in affordable wine.  Here are a few examples:

Plonk Wine Merchants, Los Angeles – all wines $30 or less

In Fine Spirits, Chicago – half under $20, 75 selections under $12

Cork: a bottle shop, Portland – 100 wines under $20

Vintage Berkeley, Berkeley, CA (full disclosure:  I work here.) – all wines $25 or less

The Wine Bin, Ellicott City, MD – 200 wines under $20

Now that you know to go to a specialty shop in search of good, cheap wine, stay tuned for Part 2:  How to Get Matched With the Best Cheap Bottle for You.

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