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Tasting Impressions: Food & Wine Magazine 2009 American Wine Awards

Wednesday, I described the Food & Wine Magazine American Wine Awards event that took place on October 6 in St. Helena. Today’s article covers the wines themselves. As it happens, you might consider the article a shopping list.

Wine Over Time: Two Syrah from Olson Ogden

One of the pleasures in enjoying wine is seeing how a bottle changes over time. We usually think of this in the context of aging, buying several bottles of an age-worthy wine and trying one every year or so. However, a lot of wines change in interesting ways over the course of a just few hours as they aerate in your glass. One rarely sees any details on this in reviews of specific wines.

Reviews these days almost always provide you with a score these days. You’re also given a collection of adjectives that try to communicate the aromas, flavors and texture. In the majority of cases, these notes are based on quick tastes. Some reviewers taste as many as two hundred wines per day. How does this help you determine whether or not a wine will “come around” during dinner or die if decanted?

The most conscientious reviewers might taste a wine a second time on the following day. This gives the reviewer more time to think about the wine and the wine a chance to aerate. Plus, it’s a “safety check” that ensures the taster’s palate wasn’t “off” the first time. I’m sure that whenever you dine in a restaurant, you arrive a day in advance, taste the wine and then tell them to keep the open bottle so you can drink it tomorrow. No?

While these reviews are be helpful, they are incomplete. And they seem to ascribe consistency and predictability to wines that is not realistic. With that in mind, I will periodically do wine reviews in which I describe the wine as it is upon first opening but also increments of 15 minutes or so over a few hours (or more) as it sits in my glass. This essentially replicates the experience you might have with the wine during a leisurely dinner.

The Fastest-Growing Wine Grape Varieties in California

As I reported yesterday, California  vineyard acres increased by nearly 77,000 during the past five years, 2007 - 2011. Which grape varieties got the most new acreage during that period and why? 56% of the new acreage was dedicated to dark-skinned grapes. Let's look at some of the details.

Note: The numbers above only consider planted acres. They do not distinguish between bearing and non-bearing vines. Nor do they consider vine spacing, per-vine yields, etc.

Wine Grape Varieties with the Largest Increase in California Acreage, 2007 - 2011

Variety

New Acreage

2007 - 2011

Total Acreage

2011

Counties of Greatest Increase

Pinot Noir

8,529

39,273

Monterey, Santa Barbara, Sonoma

Chardonnay

6,686

95,511

Monterey, Sonoma, San Joaquin, Mendocino, Napa

Cabernet Sauvignon

5,555

79,290

Napa, San Luis Obispo, San Joaquin, Sonoma

Pinot Gris

4,383

13,292

San Joaquin, Madera, Sacramento

Zinfandel

1,478

48,354

San Joaquin, Amador

Rubired

1,329

11,832

Fresno, Madera

Sauvignon Blanc

1,234

15,636

Monterey, Sonoma, Lake

French Colombard

1,218

24,143

Fresno

Petite Sirah

1,128

8,335

San Joaquin, San Luis Obispo, Napa, Yolo

White Riesling

1,067

4,147

Merced, Monterey


The increase in the top three grapes above is no surprise. The “Sideways Effect” drove sales of Pinot Noir way up for several years and the momentum continues. Chardonnay has long been America’s favorite varietal (by volume). The ABC (anything but Chardonnay) movement has been countered by Chardonnay with less oak and butter. It remains the most planted grape in California. Cabernet Sauvignon is the king of robust red varieties. But, Pinot Gris?

As consumers, critics and sommeliers sought Chardonnay alternatives in recent years, delicious Pinot Gris from cool zones in Sonoma and Mendocino Counties have garnered attention. But that’s not where the boost in Pinot Gris acreage came. Those two counties combined accounted for just 64 new acres of Pinot Gris in five years. The new Pinot Gris plantings did contribute to Chardonnay alternatives, but not at premium price points. Coming from Sacramento, San Joaquin and Madera counties, most of it will have filled bottles sold for less than $8.

Rubired, French Colombard and White Riesling boosts came in similar areas. The first two varieties will have been used almost exclusively in inexpensive blends. White Riesling is also blended from time to time, but a lot of it is made into inexpensive varietally-labeled wine too. [Rubired is a disease-resistant cross of Tinta Cao and Alicante Ganzin that thrives in the hot Central Valley and makes a richly-colored juice for blending.]

Wine Grape Varieties Plantings that Grew by More than 20% in California, 2007 - 2011

Variety

Growth Percentage

Total Acreage 2011

Counties of Greatest Increase

Albarino

238

176

San Luis Obispo, Yolo, Monterey

Pinotage

124

56

San Joaquin

Symphony

111

1611

Merced, Fresno

Dornfelder

87

41

Merced

Aglianico

83

55

San Luis Obispo

Tannat

71

287

Monterey, San Joaquin, Sacramento

Primitivo

67

254

Amador, San Joaquin

Muscat Hamburg

63

355

Kern

Grenache Blanc

46

278

San Luis Obispo, Madera

Malbec

43

1,611

San Joaquin, Merced, Monterey

Verdelho

43

90

Sacramento

Muscat Blanc

40

2190

Madera, Fresno

Triplett Blanc

38

856

Fresno, Merced, Tulare

White Riesling

35

4147

Merced, Monterey, San Joaquin

Roussanne

24

367

San Luis Obispo, Mendocino

Muscat of Alexandria

24

3842

Merced, Fresno, Madera

Orange Muscat

24

290

Madera, San Joaquin

We see a different picture here. The high-percentage growers are almost all varieties which had very small existing plantings. The dramatic exception is those grapes suited to sweet, aromatic white wines: White Riesling, Muscat of Alexandria and Muscat Blanc. Can you say “Moscato?”

There are some things worthy of quick note among the other varieties, but nothing indicative of a major trend as of yet:

  • The Pinotage growth, virtually all in San Joaquin County was likely the work of  Vino Con Brio, a Lodi vineyard and winery. They were a pioneer of Pinotage in the United States. They made Pinotage from it themselves and also sold to a few wineries out of the area. Vino Con Brio left the business in June, 2011. Their winery and vineyards were sold to Mettler, one of Lodi’s largest growers. Mettler recently started their own label and has been renovating the winery and tasting room. Their current wines don't include Pinotage.
  • Like Rubired, Symphony is a cross created at U.C. Davis by Dr. Harold Olmo. Muscat of Alexandria and Grenache Gris are its parent varieties. It is primarily used for blending and provides slightly spice apple, pear and stone fruit flavors. 
  • Dornfelder in Merced County isn’t something I would have expected. Dornfelder is yet another cross (Helfensteiner and Heroldrebe), but one created in Germany where the grape is now the second-most grown red. It is capable of very high yields, but its most unique advantage is that it grows well in extremely cool areas that would otherwise be suitable only for white wine grapes. Merced County isn't especially cool, so I'm interested to discover exactly where and why it was planted there.
  • The Lodi AVA straddles two counties, San Joaquin and Sacramento. The Alta Mesa AVA, nested within the Lodi AVA, is entirely within Sacramento County and is climatically similar to Alentejo in Portugal. The Silvaspoons Vineyard in the Alta Mesa AVA produces darned good Verdelho.
  • There was no Triplett Blanc in California until 2004. From then through 2007, 856 acres were planted. It is a neutral, high-yielding white wine grape that was created by crossing French Colombard and Vernaccia Sarda. It’s chief attraction is astoundingly high yields — 20,000 tons per acre or above. A number of Central Valley growers have been experimenting with it to see if they can thereby increase production without expanding their overall acreage. One of the challenges in the experiments so far has been insufficient water availability to support the potential yield. For more about Triplett Blanc see Central Valley Fights Low Prices with Tripplet Plantings by Melinda Warner for Wine Business Monthly.

 

Data: U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Agricultural Statistics Service

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for breaking wine news, information on events and more. Become a fan and join the NorCal Wine community on FacebookAlso check out our comprehensive Northern California winery listings. They are very useful for planning a tasting trip or just getting in touch with a winery.

This article is original to NorCalWine.com. Copyright 2012 NorCal Wine. All rights reserved.

Robert Parker's Advice to Wine Writers

Wine-critic-Robert-Parker-010Given the quantity of articles last week on Robert Parker’s appearance at The Symposium for Professional Wine Writers, and the length of this one as it stands, I’m not doing the compleat review I’d intended here. Instead, I’m focusing on his advice to wine writers, which was intended to be one of the primary benefits to us of his talk.

Though some disagree, I believe Parker thought the issue through and was genuinely trying to be helpful. Wine writer Elin McCoy, who wrote the 2005 biography of Parker, The Emperor of Wine: The Rise of Robert M. Parker, Jr. and the Reign of American Taste, also attended the conference and saw his appearance similarly, “What struck me first was his clear desire to reach out to this group of wine writers, certainly generous given his current health issues. – i.e. back surgery, and he has bad knees, too.”

In his opening remarks last week, Parker said, “In the time that I have here today, I’d like to share as much information as I have because I want to see all of you succeed. I came out of basically nowhere… and never dreamed of the kind of success I would have…. I have some ideas how I got there and I want other people to succeed.”

But then he added, “When I retire, I don’t want to see the wine writing profession just sort of dwindle away.” That led to open-mouthed gapes. Does he fear that, without him as shepherd, the huge flock of contemporary wine writers will lose focus and drift off into oblivion? To some writers, Robert Parker seems like one of those fathers who dispenses encouragement and sage advice, urges you to work hard and then pauses to remind you (again) that you’ll never be as good as he is. It can be maddening. But, perhaps, we are hearing what we expect, not what’s said.

Let’s look at his words again. He did not say “wine writing.” He said “the wine writing profession.” He’s not saying that we aren’t good writers. He said the opposite, “There’s a lot of good talent here. I think there are infinite possibilities to do something very, very special.”

He’s worried about the profession. “When I started in 1978, and looking around the room I think this makes me the premier geezer in the room [he and the room laugh], in 1978 when I started most magazines that dealt with any kind of lifestyle involving food had wine writers. I’ve seen a lot of those publications reduce their staffs. They’re under strict budgets and that’s unfortunate.” We have seen most all newspapers cut their paid wine columns too, and trim their culture sections overall.

How many professional wine writers today make a living based solely on that vocation? A survey at last year’s Symposium revealed that most of the attendees made less than $20,000 per year writing about wine. How many wine scribes make the kind of money through wine writing that Parker has? Probably none. Other areas of journalism are little better. This is what causes him trepidation, not our talent. He’s not demeaning our capabilities. He’s realistically appraising the state of paid journalism today. It’s abysmal.

Later, Parker hit on that topic in a different way. “The idea of giving content away makes no sense at all. People will always be willing to pay for independent expertise. In the overall blog world I see content that is derived from other sources, it may be good reading and attract a lot of hits but we’re talking about people willing to pay you for content.” I’ve heard wine writer and educator Karen MacNeil give this advice more bluntly, “Never do anything for free.”

Parker is not criticizing us as writers. He’s cautioning us, bloggers in particular, as business people and he’s correct to do so. Very few writers have the financial wherewithal and stubbornness to continue writing quality articles day after day, year after year, without compensation. And nobody has meaningfully monetized a personal wine blog. Meanwhile, the internet’s demand for new content every day almost guarantees a great many blog articles will be superficial, derivative or navel-gazing—not the kind of thing people will pay for.

Creating enough valuable, unique content to drive a profitable level of paid subscriptions, let alone ads, is hard. The niche isn’t big enough to support everyone that might want to do it either. But the market has already proved free wine content with an ad- or affinity sales-based model won’t support anyone at all. There is a good number of subscription-based content providers who have achieved at least modest success though. Some have done much better.

Parker suggests teaming up may be a way forward. “If you have a website, and there are some really good websites… there’s got to be real content, original content not derivative stuff… We’re talking about making money. People willing to pay you, $9.95, $20 or whatever for that content. You may have to do it with a group of people [to get enough content].”

The already successful sites and newsletters also reinforce something else Parker said. Despite complaints from many writers about the banality of wine reviews, people still want to read them. The majority of consumer-focused, subscription-based wine newsletters have wine reviews at their core. Even so, the market for paid wine newsletters in the United States is small and more likely to decline than improve.

There will never be another figure such as Parker in wine for the western world. “Today,” he said, “the internet sort of neutralizes things. It’s a reservoir almost.” The great ease with which wine writing can now be published and the broad access to it for consumers precludes that. Parker’s empire is being divided among many hundreds of writers and thousands of citizen reviewers.

This leads into Parker’s next point. "“The real growth market, and this is why I sold the majority of the Wine Advocate to guys in Singapore, is in Asia. There is no question about it, even though the economy in China has slowed a bit; it’s still booming.” There is virtually no credible, Chinese-language writing on wine, but many of the wealthy in Asia who can afford fine wine are comfortable with English.

“I really think the opportunity today,” Parker continued “is live-streamed video, high-quality video content… I think the future is in an educational wine video program that streams through all of the different Asian countries. If you do it as professionally as possible, and don’t charge too much for it, you’ll have success because the volume of people in these countries dying for education is enormous.”

I know this to be true. The number of applicants to the Wine & Spirits Education Trust for authorization and training to teach WSET curriculum throughout Asia is startling, as is attendance in the resulting classes. Some well-established western wine writers, such as Australia’s Jeremy Oliver, are spending more and more of their time in China serving this thirst for wine education. And Robert Parker, with his reconstructed back and aching knees, wouldn’t be embarking on a month-long trip to China were it not important.

We can laugh at stories about people in Asia mixing expensive Bordeaux with Coca-Cola, as I heard some writers do. Or we can let those folks pay us to help them enjoy the nuances of great wine, straight-up, no chaser. We can titter at the idea of doing videos from home while we write our pajama-clad, freelancing-butts off for fifty cents per word, or we can give Parker’s suggestions a shot.

Nobody in Parker’s audience at the symposium was a serious videographer but video, even mediocre video, will be more compelling to this audience, and many others, than the same content in writing. Jancis Robinson spoke to this when addressing bloggers in Virginia two years ago. She urged them to integrate video into their repertoire. She said it didn’t have to be sleek, if the information was solid and unique. Antonio Galloni has made videos a big component of his Vinous Media site.

In a post-symposium discussion, David White of the excellent Terroirist.com told me, “I think writers are still hoping for Parker to become the elder statesman he pretends he wants to be… We still revere him. Yet over and over again, he’s divisive and dismissive.” There were definitely moments of that in Parker’s session and they’ve been well-documented. However, his advice to us as professional writers was solid and well-intentioned.

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for wine news, information on events and more, or friend me on Facebook. This article is original to NorCalWine.com. Copyright 2014. Robert Parker photo by Shahrar Azran/WireImage. All rights reserved.

Harvest 2011 in Paso Robles and Freshly-Picked Roussanne at Tablas Creek Vineyards

I have just spent three days visiting with wineries in Paso Robles. The weather was great with cool mornings and warm, occasionally hot, days under a clear blue sky. Harvest for some grapes is underway, though most varieties have yet to achieve necessary ripeness.

The harvest is late this year due to poor weather in previous months. At Terry Hoage Vineyards, for example, harvest will probably start next week. That’s at least two weeks behind normal. Even then, brix levels may be lower than average. Because of the cool growing season and the need to pull in fruit slightly prematurely should there be forecasts of substantial rain, many winemakers are suggesting 2011 Paso Robles wines will be lower in alcohol and higher in acidity than is typical. The difference may be noticeable, but not extreme.

The biggest problem for Paso Robles growers and wineries this year is not ripeness though. It's low yields. A series of early April frosts are primarily to blame. Vines that had already entered budbreak were damaged and didn’t flower. Viognier was the most affected. [Some varieties tend to reach budbreak early, others late. The timing of the frost this year happened to hit Viognier the hardest.] Tablas Creek figures their potential Viognier crop may be just 20% of average this year (or less). On the positive end of the spectrum, Grenache yields should be at about 90% barring heavy rains during the remainder of the season.

Tablas Creek GM Jason Haas told me on Tuesday that Paso Robles has had much less trouble due to weather than most of California's AVAs. The previous day his blog post was, “Why Paso Robles will make California's best wines in 2011.” It is an interesting read. The calcareous earth beneath the thin topsoil holds water like a sponge. It soaked up the heavy winter rains, aiding those vineyards which are dry-farmed. But Paso Robles' specific location isolated it from most of the untimely rain and heat spikes.

As a Paso Robles producer, Mr. Haas is not an unbiased observer. His arguments are sound though and there has been no shortage of dire reports from other AVAs. I expect top Paso Robles vintners to sell out of wine even earlier than usual. If you have favorite Paso Robles wines that are tough to get in normal years, consider joining the wine club/mailing list to improve your access for this year.

While at Tablas Creek, I had the opportunity to see freshly-picked Roussanne grapes. They looked healthy and tasted great. The fruit was perfectly ripe with sweet flavorful juice and dry, crunchy seeds. A sip of frothy juice straight from the press was equally promising. The other varieties I saw on vine — Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre, Tannat — looked good as well.

Roussanne-at-Tablas-Creek-Vineyards
Freshly-picked Rousssanne at Tablas Creek Vineyard. The name Roussanne is a reference to the grapes' russet color.

pressing-roussanne-at-Tablas
The Roussanne is sorted and then put into this horizontal bladder press.

roussanne-juice
Juice coming out of the press looks like this.

 

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for breaking wine news, information on events and more. Become a fan and join the NorCal Wine community on FacebookAlso check out our comprehensive Northern California winery listings. They are very useful for planning a tasting trip or just getting in touch with a winery.

This article is original to NorCalWine.com. Copyright 2011 NorCal Wine. All rights reserved.

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