Wednesday, February 23, 2011

'Sweet' Or 'Savory'? Is That All We Need?

Throughout tonight's dinner I kept asking myself, "Is this wine 'sweet' or 'savory'?" Early on, I expected only to figure out whether the wine - the Orfila 2008 Roble Malbec - would work with the tangy chile verde and the fruity Mexican rice that constituted our meal. But just before pulling the cork I'd read Eric Asimov's column in today's New York Times.

There, he argues pretty persuasively that informative descriptions of wine more or less can be stripped down to whether the wine is "sweet" or "savory." While I agree with his premise that too many wine descriptions are cluttered and counter-productive, including some of my own tasting notes, I'm not sure that "sweet" and "savory" alone are enough, especially given his extensive explanation of what each represents.

What bothers me most about his fresh and concise approach to describing wines is that he takes a word with a long-standing definition within the wine culture - "sweet" - and tries to transform it into something broader and not as precise. "Sweet," by his reasoning, should stand for wines that don't necessarily carry obvious residual sugar but rather convey a sense of sweetness via their "dominant fruit flavors and high concentrations of glycerol, a product of fermentation that is heavy, oily and slightly sweet." OK, "sweet" may be the impression left on the palate by this combination, but it isn't sweet in the customary sense, which originates mostly with sugar remaining in the wine. I'd have been happier had he chosen "fruity" rather than "sweet" as one of his two qualifiers, and even happier if he'd settled on "sweetly fruity," a term I often use to describe a wine whose sweetness stems from the intensity of its fruit and perhaps its glycerol rather than lingering sugar.

As to "savory," Asimov nails it. On the wine-tasting spectrum, those are the sensations that suggest nuts, herbs and minerals, which in many instances can trace their origin to the  texture, acid and weight of a wine more than its fruit.

His thesis, as he notes, is full of complications and contradictions. Wines are ever evolving, for one, and a release that is "sweet" in its youth is liable to be "savory" as an elder. And within the wine world are all sorts of contrarians, rebels who like to tweak an established style to accommodate their vision of what the grape or region can or should say. Exceptions abound, Asimov notes.

At any rate, he isn't dictatorial, and suggests that he just wants to give wine enthusiasts food for thought as they evaluate wine and reach their own conclusions about character and value. "The point of this exercise, after all, is not so much to label every wine as one or the other, as it is to suggest a different, simpler way of thinking about these wines. And, perhaps, to help people make their own discoveries."

By the end of tonight's dinner I'd concluded that the malbec, while fruity with suggestions of pomagranate, was actually more savory than sweet, given that it was dry, taut and snappy, with hints of both minerality and mintiness. It went well with the chile verde. But so did a decidedly "sweet" wine, the viscous and floral Uma 2010 Mendoza Torrontes, which we'd had earlier with the dish. Maybe that's the solution - serve chile verde whenever you aren't sure whether the wine is "sweet" or "savory."

Friday, February 11, 2011

Chilly In The Valley, Chile On The Beach

Here's some hopefully helpful advice for wine-loving snowbirds about to break from this year's brutal winter in the United States for a little sunshine and warmth on the beaches of Los Cabos at the southern reaches of the Baja peninsula:

- As far as I know, you won't have to be surprised and disappointed by this bright barricade, which appeared over the weekend across the usually wide-open wine department of the San Jose del Cabo supermarket Mega, hugely popular among visitors nesting at nearby time-shares, resorts and condos. This barricade, and others like it at other markets in the area, announced that an election was under way and that no alcoholic beverages were to be sold through the weekend. By Monday, business was back to normal.

- Get ready to enjoy wines from Argentina, Chile and Spain. That's easy to do on three counts: They dominate the Los Cabos market, they are the most reasonably priced, and almost without exception they are well made, offering varietal character without a whole lot of heavy baggage, such as oak, tannin and alcohol.

- Yes, you also can find Australian, Italian, German, French and even Californian wine hereabouts, but the selection is thin, the quality uneven, and some of the vintages curiously outdated. Broadly speaking, they also tend to be markedly more expensive than South American and Spanish imports.

- As to Mexican wine, most of which originates from the Ensenada area at the northern reaches of the Baja peninsula, it's readily available and worthy of exploring if you are an adventurous wine enthusiast. Because of Mexico's counter-productive taxation policies, coupled with shipping costs, Mexican wines tend to be more pricey than the quality generally justifies. Nevertheless, reliable everyday brands in the $15 to $20 range are L.A. Cetto and Monte Xanic. But if you are on vacation, and willing to spend $30 to $60 or more for a bottle of wine, look for a grenache, petite sirah, tempranillo or other warm-climate varietal by such producers as Casa de Piedra, Adobe Guadalupe, Vinedos Malagon, Vinisterra or Roganto.

- Stock up as soon as you get here; the peso is rising that fast in value as the U.S. dollar continues to shrivel and crack like a tortilla left in the afternoon sun.

- After a month in San Jose del Cabo, during which our wine purchases rarely exceeded $12 a bottle, here's the most interesting releases we've found; several also are likely available in California, though prices will vary a bit in one direction or the other:

- Secreto de Viu Manent 2010 Valle de Casablanca Chile Sauvignon Blanc (143 pesos, or about $12 in U.S. currency, at the Costco in Cabo San Lucas): The sort of zesty white wine you want to accompany that dorado you just hauled out of the Gulf of California. As lean, fresh and assertive as sauvignon blancs out of New Zealand, with a similar flavor profile - grapefruit, grass, lime, spice.

- Finca El Origen 2009 Valle de Cafayate Salta Province Argentina Reserva Torrontes (lost my receipt, but the wine commonly sells for around $11 in the U.S.): A varietal rising fast in popularity in the United States, though still largely undiscovered, torrontes at its best is a wine highly aromatic and intensely flavorful. The first sip of this one evoked associations to gewurztraminer in its floral smell, fruity flavor, spicy highlights and viscous texture. It's unusually rich for a white wine, and isn't without a touch of bitterness in the finish. Definitely an acquired taste. And best served with food, like the Thai chicken dish with which we paired it; it's got the body and sweet fruit to stand up to coconut milk, jalapeno peppers, ginger, basil and garlic.

- Del Pedregal 2008 Valle de Loncomilla Chile Reserva Privada Chardonnay (136 pesos, or around $11 in U.S. currency, at the supermarket Tiendas Chedraui in Cabo San Lucas): Not my favorite style of chardonnay in its denseness and oak, but the timber nevertheless doesn't entirely overwhelm the wine's refreshing citric fruit. It's also dry and a touch spicy, with a luscious texture not often encountered in chardonnays at this price.

- Miguel Torres 2008 Santa Digna Valle Central Chile Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon (125 pesos, or around $10.50 in U.S. currency, at the supermarket Tiendas Chedraui in Cabo San Lucas): Don't be intimidated by the color. Yes, it's dense, but on the palate the wine is readily drinkable, not at all brash or raggedly tannic. It's lively with Bing-cherry fruit, a few herbal notes, a kiss of spice, and a whiff of smoke. This is one of those rare cabernets where the price doesn't at all suggest the complexity that awaits the buyer.

- Bodegas Ateca 2008 Calatayud Garnacha de Fuego (74 pesos, or about $6 U.S., at Costco): By far, the best buy so far during this sojurn. The wine is leanly structured but layered with focused red-fruit flavors, prickly spice and a faint suggestion of chalk dust. The grapes were from vines 80 to 100 years old. Commonly sells for $7 or $8 in the U.S., though it's been listed as high as $16 in southern California. Robert Parker annointed this wine and this vintage with 89 points, which is high praise for such a modestly priced release.

- Circus 2007 Mendoza Argentina Malbec (169 pesos, or about $14, at Tiendas Chedraui): In its elegance, suppleness, balance and most of all the depth, clarity and refreshing tanginess of its blackberry fruit, this wine shows clearly why malbec is the varietal most responsible for Argentina's rise as a fine-wine region. I actually bought this wine about a year ago, but on my next trek to Cabo San Lucas I'll be stopping by Tiendas Chedraui to see if a more recent vintage is in stock; almost certainly the 2007 is long gone.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Mega-Purple: An Explanation

The Wine Knows, a blog that concentrates largely on the wines of the Pacific Northwest, has posted this illuminating video about a topic that could be more relevant to the California wine scene. It's an interview with the seasoned wine-trade observer Dan Berger. The topic is mega-purple. The questions and answers aren't as geeky as the subject suggests.

Dan Berger's mention of rubired as one of the grape varieties commonly used to make mega-purple reminds me of some figures compiled by Allied Grape Growers Inc. and presented at last month's Unified Grape & Wine Symposium in Sacramento. According to the organization's Nat DiBuduo, 500,000 tons of last fall's California grape crush was for concentrate, of which mega-purple is a segment, though probably not a major one. (However, not a lot is needed to have a telling impact on wine, as Berger makes clear in the interview.)

Consider, however: DiBuduo noted that concentrate from California is in high demand, and that nearly a quarter of the state's 18,000 acres planted to rubired was put in just within the past few years and has yet to start bearing substantial amounts of fruit. What's more, the association's survey of nurseries last year found that 17 perent of the vines bought by growers during 2010 was rubired.

All of which raises a couple of questions: How much grape concentrate is used to hype the color of California's red wines? And how does rubired and other grape varieties used for mega-purple affect the nature of a wine? UC Davis has a brand new teaching and research winery. A dissertation already may be under way to answer these sorts of questions.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Why Are All Those Vineyards For Sale?

As I scanned headlines in a feed of wine-related news the other day, an ad caught my eye: "Shenandoah Valley Winery," it said. Because the winery wasn't identified, and because it was grouped with several real-estate ads, I wanted to try to figure out which Amador County winery was for sale. I clicked on the tease and was taken to, which provided a bit more information - 65 acres, $1,995,000 - but no identity. The brief listing, however, included an email link to Ed Keller, a real-estate agent in the Sierra foothills. But before I contacted him, I visited his website, which has an entire section devoted to just vineyards and wineries in the Mother Lode.

I was startled by that section in two respects. For one, it includes far more properties for sale than I ever would have guessed - 21, nearly all of them with existing vineyards, several with wineries. Secondly, many of the prices didn't seem outrageous. If someone were looking to get into the wine business in the foothills, now might be the time to make that leap, given the range of listings and the rebounding economy. I do have to wonder, however, what all these listings say of the state of grape growing and winemaking in the region. Is the area saturated? Is the appellation's standing not growing in esteem and popularity? Or might the number of vineyards and wineries for sale simply indicate that several people simultaneously want to get on with the next phase of their lives?

When I got in touch with Ed Keller, he mentioned that he didn't think the number of vineyard and winery listings is unusually large, given how much the industry has grown in the region over the past 30 years. He also said that people who put wineries up for sale customarily don't want their identity revealed, though sooner or later that will become known, and in some cases actually could help a sale, I'd think. So I never found out the name of the winery and its 65 acres that are on the market for about $2 million.

In looking at photos and reading information on the other listings, however, I have a hunch as to who at least a couple of them are. The "Fair Play vineyard estate" (53 acres of vines, 4,500-square-foot home, $2,495,000) sure looks like it could be part of the Perry Creek Winery site, though the winery itself isn't mentioned. And the "Shenandoah tasting room and home" (1,900-square-foot house, small vineyard, five acres, $995,000) could be popular and ideally situated Bantam Cellars.

And I don't have a clue about this Fiddletown structure, but I sure like the architecture, the fact that 13 of the property's 31 acres are planted to Rhone Valley grape varieties, and that the site is listed for what seems an eager-to-sell $499,000.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Needed: Transparency In Wine Competitions

If you must, read every last word in Alder Yarrow's exhaustive report of a panel discussion at last week's Vino2011 in New York City. Believe me, however, the best parts are up high and down low. Panelists were asked whether wine competitions still matter. "Yes" and "no" seemed to be the answer. But rather than broad conclusion, I was intrigued by a few specific comments in Alder's report.

Early on, for one, panelist Anthony Dias Blue said his San Francisco International Wine Competition sells "more than half a million stickers to wineries every year." What! Is he saying that wineries that already pay an entry fee and provide his judging with presumably free wine also must buy and apply the bottle stickers that alert consumers that this or that wine won a medal? What's next, an additional levy on wineries to mention their winning wines in any press release the competition sends out?
Yarrow didn't report whether the audience let out a collective gasp when Blue boasted of this apparently lucrative revenue stream. In fact, it generated no followup debate, though Dan Berger, another competition director on the panel, said his Riverside International Wine Competition not only doesn't charge for stickers, it follows up its judging with several promotional efforts on behalf of winning wines at no additional charge to wineries. "We haven't made a nickel," Berger is quoted as saying of his involvement in directing the Riverside competition. (Footnote: Dan, consider hiring Anthony Dias Blue as your manager.)

Blue's and Berger's remarks raise a question not tackled by the panel: Just where does the money go in wine competitions? Yes, wine competitions are costly to execute. Even if judges aren't paid an honorarium, they do have to be transported, lodged and fed. The assembling and pouring of wines, the tracking of results, the washing of glasses and so on is expensive. But volunteers do much of that work at just about every wine competition. Wineries customarily pay around $50 per wine to enter a judging, for which they also might ship half a dozen bottles per entry. Where's all that money and all that wine go? Several competitions are set up with noble intents in mind, from funding scholarships to underwriting legal aid for the impoverished. Just how much money do those worthwhile programs and services realize?

Is it important to know this? Only if you think wine competitions are important. The answers go to their credibility. Are they set up to do the wine trade any good, consumers any good, a worthwhile service or program any good, or just to enrich the people who run them? Most competitions, I'm convinced, are set up to be philanthropic, but some seem intent on generating profits for their own good. As both a frequent judge and as a wine consumer, I'd like to see wine competitions be more transparent about their business model. If they were, perhaps those competitions that aim to be benevolent could be tweaked to be even more effective. Last fall, I asked officials of the California State Fair for a breakdown on income and expenses affiliated with the exposition's commercial wine competition. I was told it could be provided. I'm still waiting, but I also appreciate how slowly things develop in Sacramento.

But I digress. Back to Alder's report. Near the end, panel moderator W. R. Tish seems to suggest that wine competitions start thinking smaller rather than larger, that maybe the old "regional county-fair model" might be worth emulating. He could be on to something. By organizing wine competitions according to a shared terroir, such as the El Dorado, Calaveras, Amador and Humboldt county-fair competitions, wines would be judged within a common and potentially more meaningful frame of reference. The regional county-fair model also would almost certainly reduce the number of wines judges are expected to evaluate, enhancing the reliability of the results. Some wine-competition directors seem to get downright depressed if their entries don't increase from one year to the next. At the Vino2011 panel, Blue crowed that his competition was the largest last year with 4,000 entires. (But not this year; the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition had 5,050 entries, so we are told.) Is bigger better? Put it this way: Which is likely to be more reliable, the judge who evaluates 30 to 50 wines a day or the judge who evaluates 100 to 150?

And finally, Alder's report concludes with this mightily curious comment of his own, based on his experiences not at wine competitions but at open tastings: "The more medals a winery displays or brags about, the worse the wine tastes. Yes, this is what I have learned. A surefire way for me to get a really lousy mouthful of wine is to walk up to whatever table at a big public tasting is draped with medals and try something they're offering. I've never found an exception to this rule, though I keep trying to prove it wrong."

I have mixed feelings of my own about wine competitions, but over the years I've become convinced that if a wine wins gold or silver medals at a series of judgings over a year, it's passed the test of consistency. That wine has been tasted by a wide range of palates in an array of formats and been found exceptional. Given that authority, it's a wine virtually guaranteed to delight a wide spectrum of people for several aesthetic reasons, except, apparently, Alder Yarrow.

But maybe he's pulling our chain. Maybe he's saying that the blind-tasting method of wine competitions is really the only fair way to evaluate wines. Just as you don't want to judge critically a wine whose identity you know, why would you want to be influenced either positively or negatively by knowing that it's won a bunch of medals and ribbons?

I do see an opportunity here, however, for another wine competition. We'll name it after Alder Yarrow. We'll roll out mostly but not exclusively wines that have won gold medals over the past year or two. We'll include some wines he's given 90 or 95 points or more. To keep down costs, we'll have just one judge, Alder Yarrow. Per the usual methodology, he won't know the identity of any of the wines, or how many medals they may or may not have won, or how many points he's given them.  Wineries can be assured that the results would be widely disseminated. I'm still working out a few of the details, including the entry fee. In the meantime, have your checkbooks ready.