Wednesday, February 22, 2012

A Dallas Reality Check For Napa Valley

Went to Dallas but came home feeling as if I'd spent the holiday weekend in Napa Valley. The posh accommodations of The Four Seasons Resort, the addictive bread pudding in the hotel's Cottonwood Room, and the artistic duck dish at Urbano Cafe all had something to do with that sense of displacement, but mostly, of course, it was the wines.

The event was the Dallas Morning News and TexSom Wine Competition, an international judging that drew 3,269 wines, up nearly 600 from last year's total. For the first time, Rebecca Murphy, who founded the competition 28 years ago and who has produced it annually ever since, organized entries principally by place of origin. That is, for example, all syrahs made in Washington state were judged concurrently by a single panel. At most large competitions, all wines of a particular varietal or style are grouped together regardless of where they originated. Thus, syrahs from Washington state, the Sierra foothills and Barossa Valley all might be evaluated together, without judges knowing where they originated.

Within the wine-competition community, however, a move is afoot to arrange classes of wines by appellation as well as by varietal or style. Murphy and other competition directors who are heading in this direction believe that results will be more meaningful to vintners and consumers alike if wines that emerge from a roughly similar climate and culture are compared side-by-side without intrusions by entries from far different winemaking environments. It's putting into practice the belief that a wine should say something of its "terroir," or place of origin. "We've made this change because we believe it is more fair to the wines, and our goal is to highlight the best wines being produced in each region," said Murphy at the outset.

Judges embraced the concept, but not without qualification. Some wondered whether knowing the place of origin for a class of wine might prejudice judges to instinctively look more favorably on varietals from regions with reputations for doing especially well by them (such as pinot noir and Russian River Valley) and less favorably on varietals from shakier terrain (chardonnay out of the Sierra foothills). Ultimately, a detailed analysis of the Dallas results may indicate whether that happened, but even then I suspect any differences will be slight and insignificant, given that seasoned judges are programmed to continually calibrate their perspective. Nevertheless, all we have to go on right now is speculation and anecdote.

By some quirk, I got assigned to the panel that for two days was to taste and rate only wines from Napa Valley, perhaps the nation's most highly regarded appellation. My fellow panelists were all Texans: Dave Reilly, winemaker of Duchman Family Winery in Driftwood, Texas; Christopher Shipp, wine manager of Goody Goody Liquor in Little Elm, Texas; and Don Brady, who grew up in Abilene but now is the winemaker for Robert Hall Winery of Paso Robles.

Napa Valley means cabernet sauvignon, and we had plenty of them. Of the 210 wines we tasted, 90 were cabernet sauvignon. We gave gold medals to 14 of them, or 16 percent, which is somewhat high by customary wine-competition standards, though some Napa Valley partisans are likely to think that's shockingly low. Other members of the panel may disagree, but I think we went into the cabernet-sauvignon class thinking it would be more favorably impressive overall. Our gold-medal cabernets - as well as several silver-medal winners - generally were praised for the generosity of their fruit, their deft integration of oak, their firm spines, and their roundness and accessibility. Almost all the golds were by split votes; those on which the panel agreed most quickly and unanimously tended to share bright cherry flavors, a persistent finish and were more lithe than heavy. At the other extreme, 44 cabernet sauvignons got no medal at all. If I were a Napa Valley winemaker, this is the figure that would concern me most. Why such a disappointing showing by nearly half the field? Few of the wines were clearly flawed, but those that got spurned almost without exception were off balance - tannins were too showy, oak was too dominant, the heat of alcohol too searing. Where notes of eucalyptus and mint might appear, we found instead stalkiness.

The cabernets were mostly from the 2008 and 2009 vintages, 34 of the former, 27 of the latter. Six gold medals went to each, which suggests, in an entirely superficial way, that 2009 is the superior of the two years, though I hesitate to make that flat-out assessment, given the power and grace of so many Napa Valley cabernet sauvignons I previously tasted from 2008. To me, the biggest surprise of the class was that one gold medal went to a wine from 2010. This is really early for a Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon from that harvest to be entered in a competition. (When competition results are released publicly I will do a follow-up posting to identify award-winning players.)

Bill Pfeiffer tracks another panel's ratings
If the class of cabernet sauvignon left us less that awed, the class of blended red wines based on traditional Bordeaux grape varieties like cabernet sauvignon, petit verdot and malbec left us ecstatic. Of the 13 entries, five got gold medals, an exceptionally high 38 percent. Another five got silver medals. Each gold-medal wine delivered what we were looking for in the cabernet-sauvignon class but only occasionally found - a combination of heft and vitality. These were wines with more moves than "Dancing with the Stars," more persistence than the winning team on "The Amazing Race." Their core was earthy and meaty, their fruit rich yet bright. More than once, "Old World" came up to describe their styling; these were not "fruit bombs," all assertiveness, but spoke more of finesse and complexity. In this competition on this weekend, these blends represented both glory and potential for Napa Valley.

Aside from a "textbook" pinot grigio, a couple of vibrant sauvignon blancs, and a surprisingly strong class of chardonnay (22 entries, five gold medals, five silvers), the rest of the Napa Valley field was pretty much a letdown. Only four pinot noirs and two syrahs were entered, and none won a gold medal. Merlot was the most disappointing class. We tasted 24 and gave just one gold medal; 16 got nothing at all. All the metal the eight zinfandels could muster was two bronzes.

Bottom line: If I actually were to visit Napa Valley on a shopping expedition in the near future, I'd concentrate on Bordeaux-inspired blends and cabernet sauvignon, and leave the pinot noir and zinfandel for other regions.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

More Sugar, More Alcohol, But Why?

Over the past two decades, alcohol levels in California wines have risen sharply. This must be because grapes at harvest are riper today than they used to be, and the reason for that is global warming, goes the conventional thinking.

Not so fast, say three researchers of the University of California, Davis, and a collaborator with the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, Canada.

Hang time vs. climate change
The four have been doing their homework, which has involved accumulating and analyzing a dissertation's worth of data concerning the sugar content of wine grapes at harvest, temperature fluctuations during the growing season, planting patterns for new vineyards and the alcohol levels of wines on the market.

In a 25-page paper for the latest issues of the Journal of Wine Economics, they conclude that higher sugars and consequently higher alcohol levels in the resulting wine are due less to climate change than the modern practice of letting grapes hang on the vine longer than in the past.

The paper - "Too Much of a Good Thing? Causes and Consequences of Increases in Sugar Content of California Wine Grapes" - is long on complicated mathematical formulas and precise detail but short on forthright conclusions and provocative interpretation. It's a study that begs for a sequel, and the authors indicate that more research is in order.

One solid conclusion they draw is that sugar content of wine grapes at harvest and alcohol levels in the finished wines have expanded hand in hand. Between 1980 and 2008, the sugar content of California wine grapes at harvest rose from an average 21.4 Brix to an average 23.3 Brix, a nine percent increase. In looking for a trend concerning alcohol content of wine, they turned to the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, Canada, which tests every wine it imports to the province. The board examines several characteristics of each wine, including alcohol level. In comparing alcohol figures from 1990 and 2000, the researchers found that the average alcohol percentage rose by .3 percent, with white wines showing a larger increase (.38 percent) than red wines (.25 percent). "This increase in alcohol percentage is consistent with an increase in the sugar content of the grapes used to make that wine of .55 degrees Brix, on average," the paper states.

The researchers also conclude firmly that the rise in sugar content and alcohol level can't be attributed to climate change. "Our data do not show a substantial rise in temperature between 1990 and 2007, as measured by the heat index," they state. "Our results imply that warming average temperatures in the growing season did not contribute substantially or significantly to the increase in sugar content of California's wine grapes during the almost 20-year period 1990-2008," the paper iterates later on.

If not global warming, what accounts for the increases in sugar and alcohol? Here, the paper speculates more than concludes. Cultural changes in viticulture could explain the increase, they suggest, noting that over the past two decades new kinds of rootstock and clones have been introduced to California. Denser vineyard plantings and new trellising systems also could be a factor. They don't say it, but the implication is that new vineyard practices help grapes more efficiently generate sugars. The fruit possibly accumulates plenty of sugar before it reaches ideal phenolic maturity, thus prompting winemakers to let it hang longer on the vine before picking than has been the custom.

"Still others claim that higher sugar at harvest is simply a style choice, with no underlying physiological reason to be found in the vineyard," write the authors. In other words, growers and vintners could be responding to a market that they see as preferring wines with ripe flavors and lower tannin, "attributes associated with grapes that are picked at higher degrees Brix."

In an email exchange, James Lapsley of the Department of Viticulture & Enology at the University of California, Davis, one of the four authors, says, "We are saying that sugar levels at harvest have gone up much faster than have temperatures, and thus the major point driving this must be a management decision." That decision could be motivated by one or more of several factors, from an aesthetic goal for the wine to the price for the fruit.

Beyond debunking the link between global warming and higher alcohol in wine, the paper scatters a few intriguing factoids among its findings, to wit:

- "In 1985, only 19 percent of California table wine carried a varietal label, but within 15 years, by 2000, varietally labeled wine accounted for 71 percent of all California table wine by volume." Who would have guessed that the change has been that quick and that reaching? Time for a backlash, perhaps, which could help explain the current rise in blended wines bearing proprietary names.

- Thirty years ago, more than half of California's wine-grape acreage was in the southern San Joaquin Valley. By 2008, however, the region was responsible for just a bit more than a third. During that span, total wine-grape acreage in California rose 59 percent, but in the San Joaquin Valley it grew by just 8.5 percent.

- By percentage, no wine-grape region in California has grown more impressively over the past three decades than the Sacramento/San Joaquin River Delta, where acreage expanded from 17,355 acres in 1981 to 49,558 acres in 2008, a jump of 185 percent. Other fast-growing regions are the North Coast counties, up 128 percent from 55,474 acres in 1981 to 87,726 acres in 2008, and the Central Coast, where the acreage has doubled, from 41,015 acres in 1981 to 82,600 acres in 2008.

- In 2008, incidentally, the North Coast accounted for a little less than 10 percent of all grapes crushed in California, but the value of that fruit commanded more than 38 percent of total revenues for the state's crop. The Central Coast grew 9.4 percent of the tons crushed and accounted for 18.8 percent of revenues, while the Delta delivered 17.1 percent of all grapes crushed and drew 13.5 percent of the revenue. The southern San Joaquin Valley, meanwhile, accounted for 61 percent of the harvest but not quite 27 percent of the revenue. This helps explain why a bottle of cabernet sauvignon with a "California" appellation costs, say, $7, while a cabernet sauvignon with a "Dry Creek Valley" appellation will command $40 or so.

- In comparing the percentage of alcohol on wine labels with the actual alcohol content of the wine, as measured by the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, the researchers found "some remarkable discrepancies." "On average across 7,920 observations of California wines, the actual alcohol percentage (13.35 percent by volume) exceeded the declared alcohol percentage (12.63 percent by volume) by .72 percent by volume," states the paper. The researchers didn't further explore this difference, but they did speculate on its cause: "It seems unlikely that wineries are making consistent errors of this magnitude in measuring the true alcohol content of the wine. One possibility is that wine producers may be attempting to avoid tax, given that tax rates vary with alcohol percentage; another is that there may be marketing advantages from having label claims of alcohol percentages that are consistent with consumers' expectations for given types of wine; a third is that they simply cannot be bothered getting it right."

Monday, February 6, 2012

Social Media: Give Me A Break

Bacchus, surviving just fine without social media
In many respects, the wine business is like any other business. Somebody makes something, somebody buys it.

In several ways, however, the wine trade stands apart. From start to finish, no business may rely more on personal relationships. The vineyard handshake that seals a deal between farmer and vintner more often than not ends with two or more people clinking glasses of the wine that emerged from that trusting pact. And then they talk about it.

In between, winemakers preside over winemaker dinners, court distributors and restaurateurs, manage wine clubs, pour at community tastings, and tend to customers in their tasting rooms.

For their part, wine enthusiasts plan entire holidays around tours of wineries. They might visit half a dozen in a day, find something they like that they’ve never tried before, and learned about the making of wine and the people behind it, sometimes from the person who actually made the wine. In contrast, no one returns home from a weekend in Silicon Valley raving about this or that laptop they tested in a tour of computer shops. (Or if they have, please send me your notes; I’m in the market.)

Given all this interaction, an observer might conclude that the wine business is perfectly poised to take advantage of “social media.”

But it isn't doing much of that at all, according to an essay posted the other day by wine blogger Alder Yarrow. He is positively indignant about the failure of the wine trade to capitalize on social media. His lament was windup to a pitch for Vintank Social Connect, an online tool to help wineries “monitor their brand presence in the sphere of social media, and to engage with their customers in this space,” Alder says. “Any winery in the world that does not have a free account on this service, and does not spend at least an hour or two every week using it, is dumber than a bag of hammers,” Alder claims. (Despite his blunt advice, Alder says he has no vested interest in Vintank.)

I don't know Vintank Social Connect. It's a club that won't have me as a member because I'm not affiliated with a commercial winery, which in wine journalism is a no-no. Thus, I have to take Alder's word that Vintank Social Connect may be "the single greatest gift that anyone has given the wine industry since the invention of the steel fermentation tank." If it's that significant, winemakers will find it and use it, if they see a need to.

They just might not see a need to. With wine sales perking along quite robustly despite a deep and prolonged recession, why should they? Winemakers are savvy to the reach of the Internet, even if they don't much keep their websites up to date. An online presence is virtually essential to maintain a vibrant wine club, to say nothing of sales. Aside from that, if winemakers are failing to exploit social media the fault may not be so much with the wine business as with social media. Sure, it has potential, and, yes, it's had sporadic spectacular impact, but in this instance it may be failing to acknowledge and respect just how different the wine trade is.

Let's back up for the moment to consider what is meant by "social media." I rather like Alder's definition: "Social media are those channels of interaction on the internet where the public has a voice. Any outlet at which an ordinary person, free of charge, can say something, create a piece of content, react to something that someone else has created, or establish relationships with people and companies falls under the banner of social media." Think Facebook, think Twitter, think blogs. They all can be fun, enlightening and effective. Excuse me, however, for my skepticism of whether social media will have much influence in building brand awareness and loyalty in the wine trade. More traditional and more personal means of doing that have been practiced for years, and winemakers and wine enthusiasts seem happy enough with them.

Consider for a moment a graphic that a Facebook friend of a friend posted on the same day that Alder posted his essay. It lists the "16 types of people on Facebook," starting with the "lurker" ("never posts anything or comments on your post, but reads everything") and ending with the "rooster" ("feels that it is their job to tell Facebook 'good morning' every day"). The thread that ties the 16 together is cynical, but it also rings true: A lot of people participating in social media aren't that crazy about being social; they're the party guests who try to monopolize a conversation, drift off without contributing anything, or otherwise aren't much interested in a meaningful exchange of thoughts.

Maybe a substantial segment of the wine trade recognizes or senses this from dealing so often with people, and thus is hesitant to jump on the social-media bandwagon. Just how much personal interaction does a person need before realizing that too often it's a one-sided pontification rather than a discussion?

Ever notice how a seemingly disproportionate number of California winemakers pursue fly fishing, rebuild vintage cars, bake bread and keep second homes on the isolated coast of the Sea of Cortez? Why is that? What these pursuits share and may represent is a longing for occasional escape and solitude. A fish, a car, a loaf of bread and a cactus doesn't talk back. A respite from chatter could be in order. In a career that involves so much socialization, who can fault winemakers for being chary of social media?