Thursday, November 29, 2012

Inauguration Speculation, Wine Division

Just got off the phone with Bianca Nicolosi, a journalism student at Ithaca College in upstate New York. She'd earlier emailed me a couple of questions dealing with her pursuit of a report that a riesling from the state's Finger Lakes region will be served at President Obama's inaugural luncheon in January. Here's her questions and how I replied:

1) What are your thoughts or ideas about which winery this riesling will hail from? I'm not surprised that a Finger Lakes riesling has been chosen to be served at an inaugural event. It's the varietal that shows best in Finger Lakes. Of course, January in Washington, D.C., isn't exactly riesling season. Riesling is a wine best savored during spring, summer and fall, when the weather is warmer and sunnier. Nevertheless, the dining room where the wine is to be served could be hot and stuffy, particularly if House Speaker John Boehner is among the invited, which is likely to be the case, given that he is a member of the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies responsible for planning and executing the inauguration's activities. But regardless of season, riesling from Finger Lakes is an apt choice if fish or shellfish is on the menu. Or, for that matter, if the signature ingredient of traditional political meals is in play - chicken. Strictly by coincidence, in fact, we had a Finger Lakes riesling just last night, when the entree was chicken in a spicy coconut and basil curry sauce with jasmine rice. (If the Joint Congressional Committee or the White House wants the recipe, I'll send it on its way.) The wine was the Ravines Wine Cellars 2010 Finger Lakes Dry Riesling, whose fresh if delicate fruitiness, touches of minerality, and crisp acidity made it a quiet yet confident companion with the dish.

At any rate, is Ravine Wine Cellars a candidate to have its riesling poured for the President's inauguration? Could be. Its wines are diverse and solid, and the story behind the winery is one of determination, imagination, relocation and family, a theme with which the Obama Administration easily could identify. Nevertheless, I suspect the wine will be from one of the region's older wineries that has been instrumental in showing the fine caliber of riesling that the area can yield. Dr. Frank's Vinifera Wine Cellars comes to mind. So does Hermann J. Wiemer. Lamoreaux Landing Wine Cellars, Anthony Road Wine Company, Thirsty Owl Wine Company and Swedish Hill Winery all turn out consistently impressive rieslings, among other varietals.

2) What's the overall process of selecting wines for major national events? I'm not sure, but I suspect that some sort of mutually beneficial arrangement between host and winery is worked out to feature a wine at a high-profile happening. I wouldn't be surprised if a kind of payment were involved. As to the Presidential inauguration, on the other hand, the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies no doubt makes the call on the wines to be poured, and I've a hunch committee members defer to the chairman to select the wines. When President Obama first was inaugurated four years ago, three California wines were served at the inaugural luncheon. The chair of the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies was Sen. Diane Feinstein of California. The committee's chair this year is Sen. Charles "Chuck" Schumer. And, yes, he's from New York. But why only one Finger Lakes wine?

Monday, November 26, 2012

In Wine Writing, Not Much To Laugh About

In a speech he delivered to a congregation of wine bloggers in Turkey recently, the British magazine editor, wine writer and poet Andrew Jefford declared that the wine writer is dead. "The old wine-writing world has disappeared. The creature which we used to call a 'wine writer' has died," Jefford lamented.

In his obituary, Jefford didn't substantially back up this view, other than to suggest that the reason for the death of wine writing is twofold: For one, the traditional vehicles for wine writing - newspapers, magazines, book publishers - aren't much interested in the topic nowadays. Secondly, too many practitioners of the craft are too lazy or too unaware as to what they should do to make their writing compelling.

Jefford says that wine writing for print publication now accounts for less than 40 percent of his income. From this he concludes that anyone who wants to write of wine in the future best had plan to capitalize on his or her interest by also lecturing, consulting, guiding, judging and otherwise being invested commercially in the business and culture of wine. That, however, is how wine writing has been pursued for decades. Very few wine writers ever have made a living with their wine writing alone. For every Robert M. Parker Jr., Jancis Robinson and Eric Asimov, who look to be supporting themselves through their wine writing alone, dozens of other practitioners of the craft, many of them highly influential and every bit as insightful as Parker, Robinson and Asimov, supplement their writing with other gigs, sometimes related to wine, sometimes not. Jefford might better have said, "This is the way it is, kids, so get used to it."

At heart, Jefford is more optimist than pessimist, however reluctant he may be to admit it. He doesn't really believe the wine writer is dead. If he did, he wouldn't have devoted most of his talk to cogent advice about how his audience of aspiring writers could develop both livelihood and following. Be an eager listener, be fresh in your approach, dig deep for information, check your facts, take a position, "struggle to find the narrative frame," he advised.

Coincidentally, Jefford's talk took place just as thick packets of feature articles, wine columns, video scripts and blog posts began to be squeezed through the mail slot in the front door of our house. These were wine writings submitted by candidates hoping for a fellowship to the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers at Napa Valley's Meadowwood Resort in February. The symposium coming up is the 9th annual, and for most of those years I've been one of three judges who get to grade the work and recommend who should receive a fellowship, each of which covers the $1,715 registration fee and lodging for the nearly week-long session. Each candidate submitted two pieces, coded so we wouldn't know their identities. Each year some 40 or 50 persons apply for a fellowship, of which 15 are awarded. Another 50 persons customarily sign up for the week-long gathering. Clearly, they haven't heard that wine writing is dead.

To judge by the diversity and quality of the 80 works I've just read, I'd say that wine writing has a future. Over the past few years, entries have gotten more knowledgeable and sophisticated. Sure, some still are shallow and rough, but a growing proportion reflects earnest, original and at times compelling work. A year ago, the overall quality and range of the work took a substantial leap, and I gushed to symposium director Jim Gordon about the number of works that showed more personality, timeliness, details and color than in the past. I could say the same thing this year. Indeed, topics generally were fresher and more daring; terrific explanatory pieces were turned in on the impetus behind new-wave wine lists, chocolate-infused wines and even veraison. There's always going to be a couple of predictable features about Napa Valley and Sonoma County, but a greater range of regions drew the attention of writers than ever, with the wine scenes of Humboldt County, Minnesota, Arizona, Georgia and Kentucky explored intelligently. There were fewer cliches, less of a gee-whiz attitude, and far fewer tasting notes. A few pieces displayed the hand of seasoned science and travel writers, helping bring a fresh and knowing perspective to the genre. For the second straight year, the entries showed a passion and a reach that wasn't nearly as apparent in the early years of the symposium. Here, for example, is what I had to say of entries two years ago: "Too many pieces lack focus and a theme; the reader doesn't know where it is going at the outset and feels lost when he gets to the end. Broad conclusions aren't substantiated with facts. A lot of material sounds familiar, as if lifted from winery press release or website. Personality and color too often are missing. Too many are humorless. Quotes are rare. Mostly, many of the pieces are painfully self-absorbed, as if the writer already has seen it all, experienced it all, knows it all, and doesn't have to learn from anyone who ever walked through the vineyard before he or she got there."

This year, there's much less reason to categorize the entries like that, with one exception. Humor still is lacking in wine writing as exercised by fellowship candidates. They are a serious bunch, sternly focused on their mission to understand and to communicate. In his speech, Jefford also urged his listeners to develop a "humorous, witty or caustic" style of writing of wine. He yearned for a "gonzo irreverence" about wine matters, and concluded, "There's a future in levity." I agree totally, and if I get to review entries from next year's fellowship candidates I hope to find more material to elicit chuckles and grins.

Monday, November 19, 2012

The President's Leftist Italian Leanings

Newly secure in his job, President Obama looks to be loosening up. On Friday, as budgetary talks between administration officials and Congressional leaders got under way, the President gave the Speaker of the House, Rep. John Boehner, whose birthday was the next day, a gift bottle of wine. In the past, the President has been largely quiet about his purported interest in wine, going so far earlier this year to try to keep secret the identities of wines served at a state dinner.

At any rate, the President's choice of a birthday wine for Rep. Boehner appears to have been carefully considered. The wine is the Poggio Antico 1997 Brunello di Montalcino Altero, a wine made solely from the black grape sangiovese. The winery and the denomination are in Tuscany, where 1997 was an especially benefical year for wine grapes. The choice of a Brunello di Montalcino from Poggio Antico may have been an inside joke among the President's wine-drinking pals, given that the estate is one of the more liberal-leaning wineries in the region, whereas Rep. Boehner is conservative in his political philosophy. The Altero, which is a proprietary name, is aged solely in French oak barrels contrary to the area's traditional practice of aging sangiovese in Slavonian oak casks. "Altero," incidentally, translates as "proud."

Washington insiders already are speculating that the choice of a wine from the 1997 vintage is a sly reference to the Balanced Budget Act of 1997, intended to effect $160 billion in spending cuts and to balance the federal budget by 2002.

Open to speculation is whether the wine came from the President's private Chicago cellar, reportedly stocked with some 1,000 bottles, or whether it was bought recently in Chicago, where it can be found for $109 per bottle, or in Washington, D.C., where it sells for $125 per bottle.

Also open to speculation is whether Rep. Boehner will enjoy the wine. On one hand, critic Robert M. Parker Jr. raved about it several years ago, annointing it with 95 points and exclaiming: "I can't remember a more polished, elegant vintage of Altero. Poggio Antico hit it out of the park." The Wine Spectator also gave it 95 points. On the other hand, a disconcerting number of wine enthusiasts who have tasted the wine more recently have posted rather unflattering tasting notes, finding the wine "corked, cooked, oxidized, earthy, musty, bitter."

Indeed, Rep. Boehner actually may never get to taste the wine. Jonathan Karl of ABC News reported over the weekend that members of the U.S. House of Representatives are subject to limits on the cash value of gifts they can receive, and that limit is $50 for a single gift. The House Ethics Manual runs 456 pages, however, and you can bet there's bound to be an exception or two in there that will allow the Speaker of the House to explore that Altero. Who knows, if the wine was from the President's wine cellar he may have been able to pick it up for $50 or less per bottle when it was released. The bigger question is whether the President has any more of the Altero in his collection; after all, Rep. Paul Ryan, the other House heavyweight in budget talks, has his birthday coming up in January.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

For Wine, Amazon.com Has Some Work To Do

Tuesday, I got an email from a Houston wine blogger asking for my address because she wanted to send me a book via Amazon.com. Wednesday, the book arrived, much sooner than I expected. That, however, was indicative of my experience generally with Amazon.com - service fast, accurate and reliable, at least with respect to books.

But will the the scale, range and efficiency for which Amazon.com is famous - and successful - extend to the sale of wine? That experiment just got under way, right in time for gift giving during the year-end holidays. Yes, Amazon.com is now in the wine business, no doubt to the consternation of wine merchants who have seen what impact the company has had on book dealers.

I just went window shopping, or rather the online equivalent of window shopping. I visited Amazon.com in search of some bottles of wine I maybe could arrange to have shipped to people on my gift list. At first, I thought the website had taken me to the music selections. The labels looked like album covers, and were for wines like Zombie Zin Zinfandel, the Rolling Stones Forty Licks Merlot, and the Grateful Dead Steal Your Fire Red Wine Blend. At least, I think they were wines, though I've never heard of any of them.

As I got deeper into the page I wasn't terribly impressed by the selection. Oh, it's extensive, all right - 25,000 red wines, 12,000 whites, 2,000 sparkling wines. But in quickly scanning through a few pages of the choices I didn't see a whole lot of labels I couldn't find in the local Safeway. I did get pretty excited when I saw on the left side rail of the introductory page that Amazon.com had grouped several types of wine into categories like "chocolate" and "vegan." I'm aware that chocolate-flavored wines are growing in popularity, but I was amazed to see that the chocolate category on Amazon.com listed 47. When I clicked on the group, however, I soon realized that any wine anyone ever described as smelling or tasting of chocolate, a not-uncommon descriptor, was included in the options.

And because I have vegans in the family, I was encouraged to see that the "vegan" selection included five choices. On closer examination, however, not a single one of the five currently is available for ordering through Amazon.com. This reminded me of what could be either mismanagement or a deceptive ploy by some restaurants to inflate their wine lists with selections nowhere near the premises. Clearly, the company has some work to do before its merchandising of wine is up to the standard set by its marketing of books and other products.

I did find one wine that I was tempted to order for the Thanksgiving table, the Twisted Oak Winery 2009 Calaveras County Tempranillo, being sold by Amazon.com for $19.99. Shipping charges and tax would boost the price to $30.80 if I wanted it delivered within three to five busines days, $39.95 for delivery within two days, and $56.46 for overnight service. Twisted Oak is at Murphys in Calaveras County, about 100 miles from Sacramento, and even at today's gas prices I might be able to save myself a few cents by driving there to pick up a bottle in person. Besides, it's a delightfully scenic drive, and there are many other wineries in and about Murphys worth visiting. Nevertheless, I visited the Twisted Oak website to see if I could order a bottle of the wine direct from the winery. I could, but the shipping charge would be a whopping $18, nearly doubling the price of the wine to $38.38.

Next, I visited Wine.com, already well established in online sales, and Amazon.com's most serious competitor for the affection of people who buy wine through the Internet. I couldn't find the Twisted Oak there, but I did find a comparably priced tempranillo by Zuccardi in Argentina, a producer I've found to be remarkably consistent in the quality of its wines. The wine cost $19.99 through Wine.com, but standard shipping would have tagged on another $12.70, bringing the total to $32.69. Tempting, but I've always enjoyed the drive to and from Murphys and still am thinking the Twisted Oak could be the best deal.

This is Amazon.com's third effort to capitalize on online wine sales. Others also have tried and found the challenge daunting. I'm sure there are people who want or need to save themselves a trek to winery or store to pick up a wine they already know and enjoy, and who welcome the opportunity to simply log on to Amazon.com, find their favorite wine, and sit back until they have to sign for it at the front door in a couple of days. But I do question whether there will be enough of them to sustain this latest outreach by Amazon.com. Wall Street also must be having its doubts. The price of Amazon.com stock has dropped $10 a share since the company joined the wine trade about a weeek ago.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Frank Prial: Blunt But Fair, And Often Funny

Frank Prial, The New York Times, 1989
Surprisingly little comment has followed the death last week of Frank Prial, whose column Wine Talk appeared for three decades in The New York Times starting in 1972. I suspect this lack of reflection is the offshoot of a wine-writing community generally so new to the craft that Frank Prial's work, including a collection of his essays published under the title "Decantations," just hasn't been part of its grounding. Frank Prial had retired in 2004, when many of today's wine commentators were just starting to discover blogging. They may have seen his columns as dated, not contemporary enough to provide them with much of a frame of reference. They might be surprised by just how relevant his columns remain even several decades after they first were put to print.

Yes, Frank Prial was more Old World than New World in both his style and his taste in wine. (Nonetheless, in one of journalism's more curious twists, Wine Talk was suspended for a few years in the 1970s when he became a Times correspondent in...Paris.)

While his views and his tastes tended to be European, he didn't ignore wines and wine developments elsewhere about the globe. He picked up early on the phenomenon of California's Two Buck Chuck, and his resulting column was classic Prial - richly informed, lively with telling quotes, historically framed, and perked up here and there with his sly humor, which alone separated him from most of his wine-writing contemporaries. "Someone referred to it recently as the ultimate fund-raiser wine - perfect for large groups of people who really don't care what they are drinking," he wrote of the Two Buck Chuck lineup.

He treated California as fairly as he did any other wine region, but his way of being both newsy and blunt occasionally nettled California vintners. After he sharply criticized William Hill Winery for a series of blind tastings it was staging to show that California cabernet sauvignon could be superior to their Bordeaux counterparts, William Hill himself responded with a long, detailed, balanced and thoughtful defense of his strategy. To his credit, Prial devoted an entire subsequent column to Hill's views.

But no column may have rattled the California wine trade more than an essay he wrote in the fall of 1981. Bearing the headline, "A Dissenter's View of California Wine," it took the state's winemakers to task for a wide range of alleged sins, from its winemaking style to its marketing ploys. Of heavily oaked, high-alcohol wines just then gathering momentum among some critics and consumers, he wrote, "There should be a special warning label that says: 'This wine was designed for competition and is not to be used for family dining.'"

Why was so much fuss being made over California wine, wondered Prial. Yes, we all recognize that the dog can bark, but what does it have to say, he suggested. He was hopeful that in time American wines would be quite good, but his optimism was countered by a fear that winemaking and wine drinking in the U.S. was on the verge of becoming inbred and precious. The lingo was arcane and hyperbolic, he fumed, and he speculated that Americans eventually would find the scene so grating that they'd throw up their hands over all the silliness and walk away from it before it realized its potential. Since then, American wine has improved substantially, and the trade now can boast of quite good wines not only from California but from several other states. To my knowledge, Prial never updated his sweeping take on the American wine scene, but I suspect he would acknowledge that much progress has been made and that he was regularly enjoying its shining examples, though he still might have fretted about how insular and dear the country's wine culture can be.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Washington: Stick To Cabernet Sauvignon

On Election Day, I tasted 21 sparkling wines, and none included a toast to the victor of this or the defeat of that. While others were going to the polls, I joined other judges at the Grand Harvest Awards on the Sonoma County Fairgrounds in Santa Rosa.

This is a small competition - about 1,000 entries - but the Grand Harvest Awards, which draws wines from throughout the world, is believed to be the first to organize classes not only by varietal or style of wine but by place of origin. Since the start in 1990, the intent has been both to award medals to the best of the entries and to determine the similarities they share by virtue of where their fruit was grown. For example, just what do the pinot noirs of Russian River Valley have in common and how do they differ in that respect from, say, the pinot noirs of Anderson Valley? With a few exceptions, wines of a type are grouped by their terroir - where their grapes were cultivated.

Frankly, I haven't kept up to speed on the conclusions that the competition has drawn about terroir's influence on wine styles and expressions. First, "terroir" means different things to different people, with no consistent and satisfactory definition yet to evolve. Secondly, experience has taught me that the link between farming environment and what wines of a defined area have in common is elusive and shifty, but that's a topic for another day.

The 21 sparkling wines our panel pondered will shed little light on the role of terroir. This was one of those classes where the entries could have been from anywhere, and a couple tasted as if that might not even have been from this planet. We weren't told their place of origin. At any rate, we gave three of them gold medals, and with the year-end holidays approaching I look forward to learning the competition's results, which are to be released in another week or so.

On the other hand, our biggest single class of wines - 72 - was based on appellation. All were from Washington state's Columbia Valley, an expansive and diversified area I've come to associate largely with fine riesling, merlot, syrah and cabernet sauvignon, most of which tend to share balance, ready accessibility and a clear representation of varietal. To give an idea of the size and range of the appellation, however, we also tasted barbera, zinfandel, grenache, malbec and sangiovese from Columbia Valley, among other varietals.

Based on the 72, I'd have to say that cabernet sauvignon and blends based on cabernet sauvignon is what Columbia Valley has done best by in recent vintages. Of the 10 cabernet sauvignons we tasted, six got a silver medal and one got gold (and in my opinion two others also should have won gold). Broadly speaking, the cabernets were juicy, bright, direct and ready to drink, with tannins more supple than steely. If they lacked complexity I suspect it was because they were primarily examples carrying everyday prices, not the more expensive interpretations coming out of the region, though the wines weren't grouped by price. We'll see come mid-month.

Merlot and syrah also were impressive. On the other hand, if I were farming cabernet franc, zinfandel and malbec in Columbia Valley I'd seriously be thinking of grafting it to one of the more promising varieties. For the most part, the entries we tasted were a surprising letdown, generally coming off green or overripe and lacking varietal markers. Of course, the Grand Awards might not have attracted the best examples that the region is capable of yielding, but 72 should be enough to provide a snapshot of how some varieties are doing in the area and how others might be happier in a home elsewhere.

Monday, November 5, 2012

A Look At Wine Buying: What Drives It?

Why does someone go into a wine shop looking for a particular wine? That's the question I put to 10 wine merchants in the Sacramento region in recent days. Their answers surprised me. Not a single one volunteered that social media had played a role in prompting a customer to ask about a specific wine. Facebook and Twitter? They essentially don't exist as a force that drives people into grocery stores and wine shops, at least according to the merchants with whom I talked, and they are the ones on the front line every day, helping shoppers through the maze of shelves and bins. "No one has said they've just seen it (a specific wine) on Twitter," says Don Ashton, a wine specialist at the Nugget Market along Covell Avenue in Davis.

OK, so why does someone saunter into wine department or wine shop in search of a particular wine? The single most popular reason is rather old-fashioned - they'd had the wine in a restaurant and they want to buy a bottle to have at home. "One of the best places for wine to be recognized is in a restaurant setting, especially if the diner has had a good time. They remember the wine, either taking a photo of the label, asking for the label, or writing it down," says Sacramento grocer Darrell Corti, the dean of the region's wine merchants. Richard Ebert, the resident wine authority of Taylor's Market in Sacramento's Curtis Park, agrees, saying, "Being on premise is the way to build a brand. When people are out dining they're having fun and are more receptive (to unfamiliar wines)." John Booher, who with his brother Richard owns Valley Wine Company in Davis, concurs that restaurant exposure to a particular wine is "the first or second" reason why people venture into their shop in search of a particular wine. Similarly, say merchants, customers also are likely to be looking for a wine to which they had been introduced at a dinner party or while visiting winery tasting rooms.

While exposure to a wine they'd like to savor again is the main reason potential buyers visit a wine shop, customers also still get inspiration to go on a search from what they've read of a wine in newspaper and magazine columns and articles, say merchants. Nevertheless, the influence of some traditional sources of wine information, in particular the Wine Spectator and Robert M. Parker Jr.'s The Wine Advocate, while still fairly persuasive, look to be waning, they note. A gold- or silver-medal wine from a competition also brings in customers, though they also seem to be losing clout, say merchants.

While social media doesn't look to be having much impact on initial wine-buying decisions, the wealth of wine-related online information and tools is helping traffic and sales, concur merchants. Favorable reviews of a shop on Yelp stimulates visits. Electronic newsletters, email blasts and website carts are playing a positive role in delivering information and product to customers. Foot traffic in some wine shops isn't what it was a decade or two ago, but online-savvy merchants like Eric Stumpf of The Wine Consultant in Citrus Heights and and Gary Moffat of Carpe Vino in Auburn credit their Internet tools for soaring sales, up 20 percent or more over the past year. Stumpf's website includes a "virtual tasting bar" that lists wines to be tasted whenever he stages an open house. His website also includes an extensive drop-down menu of his inventory. In addition to a website that includes their frequently updated inventory, Moffat and his son Drew take advantage of a wide range of electronic tools to keep in touch with customers, including a Kindle-based wine list for the restaurant in their shop and a weekly email to alert the hundreds of people in their database to new arrivals and to the hottest-selling wines at their store.

For local wine merchants, Twitter basically doesn't exist, and Facebook has been largely a letdown. Stumpf maintains a page on Facebook, and believes it has helped drive traffic to his tastings, but he's seen no correlation between "likes" and purchases. "It's getting interest," says Stumpf of his Facebook page, "but I don't know that they (people looking at the site) are spending money."

By and large, the merchants surveyed have been in the trade at least a decade. They entered the business when wine merchants customarily were relied on for advice and guidance; customers who ventured into their businesses might occasonally be seeking a wine they'd read or heard about, but for the most part they looked to merchants for seasoned insight and cordial assistance, and that still characterizes much of their business.  Richard Ebert of Taylor's Market says he loves to hear customers tell him, "You've never steered me wrong." In a similar vein, Gary Moffat of Carpe Vino says, "People ask us what they should buy. Since day one they've wanted our advice."

Several merchants also noted that they cater largely to an older clientele that maybe isn't as tuned in to online buzz as younger wine enthusiasts. It could be that younger wine shoppers who take advantage of social media for buying tips know where to go for their purchases - big-box retailers? online sources? - and eschew the kind of grocery store and wine shop that has cultivated a personal relationship with its customers. Still, it is surprising when a veteran wine merchant like Marcus Graziano of Capitol Cellars in Granite Bay says that he's never had a customer ask for a wine based on a Facebook or Twitter recommendation. It makes you wonder about the future not only of the wine shop that prides itself on personal service and a selective inventory but of the role of social media in the wine culture.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Vintage Notes: "Go, Bears," Go Tree

Here's the second installment in an anticipated series of postings based on stacks of notebooks I haven't looked at in ages, but which I'm scanning for jottings that may or may not have made it into column or story when I first put the pen to their pages:

Three Palms Vineyard: Why one is shorter 
- In flipping through my notes from a retrospective tasting of the wines of Duckhorn Vineyards two years ago, I realize that in my report posted here I'd left out a couple of good quotes. Margaret Duckhorn, who with her husband founded the Napa Valley winery in 1976, was recalling their inaugural harvest in 1978. It was a wonderful year for growing grapes in Napa Valley, helping give the couple a firm footing in the wine trade right at the outset. "It was a great vintage," she said, "you could have made wine with walnuts that year." She also recalled that they had stored cases of their first merlot from that harvest in a barn on their property. Later, they had a somewhat difficult time finding the wine: "Banana slugs had eaten the labels off the boxes." Early on, and ever since, Duckhorn Vineyards has been celebrated in large part for the breadth and depth of its Three Palms Vineyard Merlot, the fruit for which comes from vines which share rocky soil with three towering palm trees. Two of the trees are more than a century old. The third ancient palm was killed by a hard freeze a couple of decades ago, then replaced. That's the official line. To this day, Margaret Duckhorn frets that she and her former husband hastened the tree's demise around 1990 when as graduates of the University of California, Berkeley, they hung a "Go Bears" banner from the trees on the eve of Cal's game with Stanford. "That banner killed that palm," she says, noting that a spike had been used to help hold it to the tree.

- A trip to Hudson Valley n 2008 to judge at the annual New York commercial wine competition gave me a chance to catch up with grape growers and winemakers from throughout the state, some on hand as fellow judges, some as volunteers to help run the judging. One Finger Lakes vintner complained about a continuing soft market for the cabernet franc he'd planted. "I should have planted more pinot grigio and less cabernet franc," he said, recognizing the nascent rise in popularity of the Italian grape. "But it's all part of the deal, it's agriculture," he was quick to add with the shrug of a longtime farmer. "It's not for the faint of wallet," he further said of farming.

- Another judge at that competition was Kevin Zraly, founder of the Windows on the World Wine School (which has graduated 20,000 students over the past 36 years), author of the frequently updated "Windows on the World Complete Wine Course" (the country's most popular wine book with 3 million copies sold), and director of the wine program at Windows on the World Restaurant from its opening in 1976 until Sept. 11, 2001. He seemed like a guy who might have some thoughts about how wine competitions could be improved, and he did. Among other things, he suggested that judgings station a wine authority with broad experience in the back room to assure that wines of each flight are arranged more or less by color (lighter to darker) and anticipated tannin density (less to more). This would help give more delicate wines a fairer shake at winning a medal; most competitions arrange flights rather randomly, or at best by increasing levels of residual sugar or alcohol or both. Zraly was recommending additional refinement to maybe prevent wines of relative delicacy from being sandwiched between wines of power and weight. He also suggested that each panel have one member new to judging, thereby helping expand the community of judges while also providing that person with tutoring from seasoned members of the circuit. He also noted that he limits himself to evaluating no more than 50 wines a day. He indicated that that could be a standard worth emulating by competitions, which routinely assign judges 80 to 100 or more wines per day; no more than 50 wines a day would go far toward avoiding palate fatigue, which jeopardizes the credibility and consistency of competitions. Zraly doesn't judge often at commercial wine competitions, perhaps because he takes them seriously and recognizes the concentration and stamina they demand. At least, that's what he seemed to be saying in one final remark as we ended our chat: "You have to prepare physically, emotionally and spiritually for this."