January 2008 Archives

Monterey Wine Auction

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By Robert Farmer

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February is a great time to be on the Monterey Peninsula. Okay, so pretty much any time is great to find yourself on this part of the California Coast, with its rugged natural beauty and refined city life that attracts all walks of life - from romance-minded tourists to nature lovers to golf nuts and, of course, wine lovers. Golf lovers, Yours Truly among them, head toward the Peninsula in February to mingle among the celebs and the pros during the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, held this year February 4-10. I'll be there to take part in the fun and to try and get pointers from the pros on golf, and from the celebs on how not to work for a living.

Foggy Bridge Winery

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By Robert Farmer

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The news that a winery would soon open in San Francisco's Presidio hit home for me quite literally. Or at least, close to home. My residence happens to be within an easy walk to the Presidio, that gorgeous former military base that is now a national park. And it's a frequent haunt of Yours Truly - ideal for Sunday afternoon walks with the family beneath the towering forest of Eucalyptus trees and among the array of historic structures that one by one seem to be getting new life. One such structure will be the home of the proposed new winery at Crissy Field. >

Foggy Bridge Winery would be the first winery every in a US National Park. It's the idea of Daryl Groom, former winemaker at Geyser Peak Winery to open a boutique, 8,000-case working winery and tasting room inside a 37,000-square-foot former Army machine shop. Plans also call for a 120-seat restaurant to be built into a former airplane hangar. While there are of course no vineyards surrounding the planned winery, that won't prevent Foggy Bridge from its plans of being a working winery. Grapes will be hauled over from Livermore vineyards to the facility and guests will be able to watch the full process during crush time. I for one can't wait to see the plan ripen into reality. The ongoing development and improvement of the Presidio makes one of my favorite spots in the City more attractive all the time. And the idea of a winery within walking distance from home and within eyeshot of the Golden Gate Bridge is something I can easily support. I'll keep you all up to date as plans develop.

Zinfandel: The New Budweiser?

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By Courtney Cochran

zap.JPGThe first time I attended the ZAP festival (zinfandel.org ) – the annual tasting hosted by the trade group Zinfandel Advocates and Producers each January at San Francisco’s Fort Mason – I couldn’t get over the sheer enormity of the gathering.  Press materials peg attendance at the multi-day festival somewhere around 10,000, an astounding figure for a wine event.  And while the size of the event is itself noteworthy, what I find still more interesting is the makeup of the tasting’s attendees (and I’m talking demographics - not cosmetics - here).

The Everyman Tasting
The beer and burger crowd is at ZAP.  The barely-old-enough-to-drink crowd is at ZAP. The fashionistas are at ZAP.  The gays are at ZAP.  The hippies and the yuppies are at ZAP.  It’s the most eclectic gathering of wine drinkers I’ve ever seen in one place, and it’s also the only major wine event I’ve attended where casual may just be the best word to describe the guests.  This diversity, in and of itself, is exciting and worth checking out, particularly in light of the Wine Market Council’s recent announcement that 2007 was “a tipping point” for wine consumption in America, a phenomenon triggered in part by a shift among many wine drinkers from marginal to regular wine consumption, as well as a dramatic increase in the number of twenty somethings (holla!) drinking wine.  

Many of these so-called marginal drinkers are folks who used to choose a beer or a cocktail over wine, but whom statistics show are increasingly opting for a glass of wine when selecting a drink.  And, to lots of these newbie wine enthusiasts, Zinfandel is a fruity, easy-to-like wine that doesn’t intimidate.  After all, Zin is the wine most often associated with casual foods like pizza, burgers and ribs, and its low acidity when compared with other popular varietals (think Pinot Noir & Sauvignon Blanc) makes it a palate-friendly option for someone who may not be accustomed to wine’s signature strong acidity.  

A Gateway Wine
This weekend’s ZAP festival is the perfect occasion to check out these casual drinkers in action, not to mention a great opportunity to knock back some seriously good Zin.  And, I would be remiss as a sommelier if I didn’t note that, in spite of Zin’s casual reputation that I’ve emphasized here, it can also be a serious wine, one worthy of connoisseurship and all the other hallmarks of a “fine wine” tossed about in the stuffy-wine-speak lexicon.    

But really, at the end of the day, what’s most important about Zin is its accessibility to the legions of new drinkers we’re seeing leap, many in jeans and t-shirts, onto the wine bandwagon.   And what a merry bandwagon it is.    

P.S. I Love You

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by Courtney Cochran

psleaf_logo_100.jpgOnce upon a time, there was a wine so big, so bold and so outrageously outsized that its fans felt ashamed admitting it was their favorite. "Oh no," naysayers would insist, "a wine that big just can't be good with food. Why, it's so ridiculously over the top as to hardly even resemble what I think of as a wine."

Despairingly, lovers of Petite Sirah would retreat to enjoy their prodigious darling in the privacy of their own homes, away from the prying eyes of fellow drinkers who insisted that a wine must have impeccable balance - meaning it could harbor neither outsized fruit nor high-octane alcohol - in order to be enjoyed.

How it all Began: The Movie

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By Robert Farmer
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Though it’s probably too early to begin calling it this year’s Sideways, the wine industry is again the darling of the silver screen with a new movie about how Napa Valley got its modern day start. The film, called Bottle Shock, is apparently a buzz at this year’s Sundance, which is now in full swing through the last week of January. Bottle Shock starts Bill Pullman, tell the story of an unassuming California wine that took the world by storm and set the wine world on its ear when it won top honors at the prestigious 1976 tasting in Paris, France - the event that became known as “the judgment of Paris.”

Pullman starts as Napa Valley’s own Jim Barrett of Chateau Montelena, whose vineyard produced the famed bottle and set the wheels in motion that would forever transform the California Wine Country into a region of global winemaking importance. It was an impressive win not just for the winery but also for all U.S. wines - the competition was judged entirely by Frenchmen (Chateau Montelena took top honors for white wine, while less publicly Stag’s Leap in Napa took home the prize for reds).

Though I haven’t seen the movie yet, I have spent time at Chateau Montelena, which remains one of my favorite places in Napa to visit. Here you can relive the victory, get inside scoop on how it all happened, and best of all, sample the wines that continue to set the bar very high. It’s also worth noting that another film, called Judgment of Paris, about the same subject is due out this year too. It’s kind of like that year when two movies about asteroids hitting earth came out during the same summer. Only this time, we get fewer explosions.


It Only Tastes Expensive

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By Robert Farmer

wineglass.jpegThe report tore through wine circles recently that a study that shows people think the more expensive wine is the better it tastes. The study, produced by the Stanford Graduate School of Business and the California Institute of Technology, showed that because people expect wines that cost more to be better, they convinced themselves that indeed those wines were more pleasurable to drink. Now this might be easily categorized in the “no kidding!” file, but I don’t think it should be so easily dismissed. This information is actually more beneficial to wine makers - actually, to wine marketers - than it is to wine consumers.

This news is, in my view, an insult to wine drinkers.  It demonstrates in no uncertain terms the gullibility and the overall herd-mentality of the wine drinking public (indeed, this phenomenon isn’t limited to the wine business). Is it true that wine drinkers are so eager to have a positive wine-drinking experience that they can be so easily hoodwinked into thinking that because the wine in their glass costs a lot it must taste good? Please, let’s hope not. In the meantime, it should be every serous wine drinker’s mission to sniff out the you-know-what and to let their taste buds make the decisions - not their wallets.


Label Overexposure

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By Robert Farmer

bonny_doon_label.jpgOn the other side of the label - the wine label argument, that is - is California's trend-setting winery, Bonny Doon Vineyards, in Santa Cruz. Long known for its avant-garde approach to the wine biz, and for its rather whimsical takes on wine label, Bonny Doon announced recently that it would begin offering wine labels that list all the ingredients in its wines, as well as what ingredients were used to create those ingredients. Though it might be a case of TMI (too much information), and perhaps even a case of Who Asked For It, the winery hopes it will be a precedent-setting example of transparency that will help the consumer make better choices'certainly more "informed" choices, at the very least.

This is interesting to me, especially in light of the recently proposed Oregon legislation (see above) that hopes to mandate such transparency. But what this means, and what consumers will begin seeing on the labels of Bonny Doon’s, Demeter certified Biodynamic 2007 Ca' del Solo Albarino and the 2007 Ca' del Solo Muscat, is an esoteric catalog of such things as tartaric acid, yeast nutrients, bentonite, enzymes and sulfur dioxide. Many of these ingredients are benign and indeed no longer remain in the completely fermented and bottled wine. But, trailblazer though they are, Bonny Doon wants to expose it all. I’ve always like the Bonny Doon labels - typically fun, eclectic, and colorful. But I'm not sure I like this idea and I'm not sure it makes a difference.

Label me undecided.

Top Ten Extreme Wine Touring

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by Courtney Cochran

Given the surge of interest in so-called adventure tourism, it's no surprise that extreme activities have finally made their way to wine country. From mellow outings like deep-sea fishing and balloon rides to truly adrenaline-pumping options like skydiving and trapeze training, the options themselves are as varied as the highs they inspire.

Wine Label Larceny

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By Robert Farmer

labels2.jpgIf your New Year's Resolution included being more conscientious about what you eat and drink, then the addition of nutritional information to wine labels might strike you as a good thing. For those in the wine industry, however, the proposal is something less helpful.

As has been much in the wine-industry news lately, the Oregon State Alcohol Tax and Trade  Bureau (TTB) has proposed a requirement that winemakers there list nutritional information on their wine bottle labels. Now, you may be saying to yourself… What!? Because, like many people I know and with whom I have discussed this notion, the idea seems superfluous at best, idiotic at worst. And as we know when it comes to all things state-related, one state’s law can soon impact the nation. So it's not surprising the Oregon winemakers have been digging in their heels in opposition to this. You should be too.

The proposal presents a number of problems, both logistical and philosophical. From the former, it's not easy for winemakers to list the ingredients that go into their wines - it's an ever-changing array of components added with the temperament and nuance of an individual and generally with little consequence to the wine drinker other than a resulting product that they enjoy. Nutritionally? If you're that worried about what nutrition you're getting from your wine, I'm afraid you’ve got bigger problems than can be solved on a wine label.

And, speaking of the label, the ones that already have government-mandated copy publicizing alcohol content and the dangers thereof (which I agree isn't a bad idea), it's also the space that the winemaker relies on for telling the particular wine story - not to mention for grabbing the attention of the wine-buying public from its position on store shelves.

So, in other words, there are many reasons why this is a bad idea. For Oregon's sake and for overall wine-drinking sanity, let’s hope this particular label idea doesn't stick.





Stop la presse!

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By Courtney Cochran

In a move that can only signal the further withering of France's reputation as the homeland of the bon vivant, a Paris-area court recently ruled that newspaper articles promoting wine should include the same terse health warnings that appear on alcohol advertisements.  This comes on the heels of strict new laws in France that levy severe penalties on drivers who've been drinking.  

For many years, getting behind the wheel after a couple  - or more - glasses of good wine was commonplace for many French.  And while I've heard lots of grumblings from folks over there about these changes (which in spite of their inconvenience are a good thing for public safety), the government's more recent interference in beverage reporting is truly shocking.  At the center of the controversy is a 2005 article in Le Parisien that the court claims was 'intended to promote sales of alcoholic beverages in exercising a psychological effect on the reader that incited him or her to buy alcohol.'  Le Parisien countered that its piece was 'purely editorial'. 

As a journalist, Francophile and wine lover, I'm utterly disgusted by the ruling.  What’s next - outlawing French Fries?!  Woops, guess that bad move's already been made.


Resolve to Drink Wine Pt 2

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By Robert Farmer
With 304 million cases consumed in 2007, the United States is now ahead of Italy in per-capita wine drinking. And, more telling, we are behind only the French. Among the many factors contributing to this welcome trend are the same factors that play into my resolution: increasing evidence that (red) wine is actually good for you; and the availability of better wines in more places throughout the country. Of course, more people are coming of wine-drinking-age now, which does not include me, but we won't get into that. But, like me, more Americans are interested in getting quality for a good price. And, we're more aware of what quality in a wine actually tastes like. As tastes become more sophisticated, wine producers work harder to reach those tastes and to market to pocketbooks. So as more US producers get into the mix along with better bottles from places like Australia, South Africa, and Argentina, we the wine-lovers of the world stand to benefit. As I continue on this resolute journey, I will happily share my finds with you. By all means return the favor if you like!

Resolve to Drink Wine

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By Robert Farmer

wine_2.jpg'Tis the season for making and for breaking new year resolutions. Myself, I for the past six or seven years have not been so foolhardy as to give in to the temptation to make resolutions at the new year or any time of year, knowing that not only are they wishful thinking, they tend to be equally unrealistic and unattainable. But that's not to say that the changing of the calendar from one year to the next does not give me pause to reflect on things I might do better, or differently, in the coming 365 days and beyond. There is a certain undeniable tabula rasa effect that comes in along with January 1st. So this year, I will put my mind to seeking out and drinking better wine. That's not to say that, to-date, I'd been a dedicated "Two Buck Chuck" drinker. Rather, it means that I am going to re-focus my mission to find those great wines that are suitable for everyday enjoyment (i.e., they don't break the bank, but also don't insult the palate). There's strong evidence that this resolution will be one I can achieve and, according to the 2007 wine market report by Impact Databank, I will not be alone. The study indicates that Americans are drinking more and better wine than ever, and they are seeking out and relying upon dependable well-priced bottles.

Top Wine Stories of 2007

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by Courtney Cochran

As the year winds to a close, many of us find ourselves anticipating what lies ahead in '08: the election of this nation's 44th president, Beijing's hosting of the 29th Olympic Games, and - we hope - the wine world's continued waning of interest in White Zin. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let's take a moment to reflect on the top wine news stories of 2007.

AVA Angst

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by Courtney Cochran

Thumbnail image for homepage-feature1.jpgI feel sorry for those of you who – like me – have been attempting to follow the US Alcohol and Tobacco Trade and Tax Bureau’s controversial proposed amendments to American Viticultural Area (AVA) regulations.  I feel sorry for anyone, for that matter, who is sorting through the piles of legalese and angry banter being circulated about the matter in newspapers and online, not only because it's all terrifically confusing, but also because the proposals at the center of the controversy shouldn't even be up for debate at all. 

Proposed amendments hinge on a fundamental shift in regulations that would prohibit wines hailing from smaller appellations located or “nested” within larger appellations (e.g. Oakville within Napa Valley) from listing both the sub- and macro-appellations on their labels. Besides this, there are other issues at play in the current mess, most importantly a proposed "grandfather” clause that would allow wineries founded between 1986 and 2005 to continue to use place names that are also appellations in their brand names (e.g. the soon-to-be-approved Calistoga AVA, as in the case of Calistoga Cellars) even though their wines may not satisfy the standard requirement that a minimum of 85% of the grapes used to make a wine be grown in the wine’s stated AVA. 

If all this sounds confusing – and WRONG – that’s because it is.

When a Spade Isn’t a Spade
When it comes down to it, listing both a sub appellation and a macro appellation – especially when the sub AVA is a new and/or little known region – is a key marketing tool wineries use to communicate what’s inside the bottle.  For example, a consumer might hesitate to order a Cabernet Sauvignon from “Wild Horse Valley” (popularly held to be Napa’s least-known AVA) but he or she might decide to give the wine a try if the bottle listed both “Wild Horse Valley” and “Napa Valley” on its label.  

As recognition of the Wild Horse Valley AVA and its wines grows, that indication on a bottle may very well become a source of differentiation that helps vintners from the area to sell their wines.   And while we're on the subject, differentiation is also the key economic driver that allows producers to charge more for their products than others charge for similar, undifferentiated products.  So, the most effectively differentiated products are not only more likely to sell, they’re more likely to sell at a higher price.

And don’t even get me started on what’s wrong with a wine’s inferring it comes from a certain place when, in fact, the legal threshold for grapes coming from that region hasn’t been met.

At What Cost Costs?
Rumor has it that the Alcohol and Tobacco Trade and Tax Bureau (TTB) proposed these amendments as a result of the growing number of sub AVA petitions the bureau is receiving and the its members’ desire to manage costs associated with processing the petitions and regulating wine labels that list an increasingly large number of regions.  The problem is, we need to look beyond these superficial costs.  Restricting geographic labeling can only hurt wineries and therefore – on a much larger scale – hobble the wine industry itself, one of California’s most vibrant and economically viable agricultural entities.  Moreover, I seriously doubt that the costs “saved” by TTB could equal the long-term fiscal impact of these changes on the industry.

As a sommelier I will always be in support of providing consumers with the most information possible about a wine – and in this case that means both sub and macro AVA identification.  And I will always press for veracity in wine labeling. 

For these reasons, I find the changes proposed by the TTB unacceptable and in need of review. At the end of the day, refuting TTB’s proposals and maintaining or more fairly altering the current AVA regulation policies will only help winemakers - folks who for the most part make wine with integrity and would also like to market their wines with integrity – not to mention sell a good amount of the stuff while they’re at it.  

To voice your own opinion on the subject, visit Docket No. TTB-2007-0068 at www.regulations.gov .

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