The industry


I have been fascinated by the print-media ads for Fragoli and Passionné since they began appearing in food and wine publications about a year and a half ago, or at least I started noticing them early in 2010. Fragoli is a liqueur made from “wild strawberries,” whatever “wild” means in the context of international marketing; the bottle is actually filled with fruit. Passionné is a Prosecco Spumante. These products are made by the Toschi firm in Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region.

The picture is always the same: five gorgeous young Latina or Hispanic women engaged in a sort of cluster mind-fuck of hugging, fondling, kissing, smoldering glances, seductive smiles, whispering — notice that the structure of the image is almost a perfect right triangle; could Caravaggio have planned it any better? — while three hold flutes of “Fragoli Passion,” a cocktail composed of Fragoli and Passionné in a 1 to 4 proportion. The motto is also consistent: “Forbidden Fruit.”

What in the name of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas is going on here?

I wonder every time I see this ad who the target audience is. Latina lesbians would be a pretty small demographic niche (unless I am ill-informed), and the portion of citizens of the United States who wish they were Latina lesbians, media cool and sexy as that category may be — and si, amigos, these babes are hot — must also be pretty darned narrow. There’s always the group of men who are turned on by the idea or implication of lesbian romance, but these products are relentlessly girly, though you gotta watch that 24 percent alcohol in Fragoli, not that these women don’t know how to hold their liquor, I’m not saying that.

It seems odd, however, in a culture where old-fashioned, hostile and morally judgmental attitudes about same-sex love and marriage are changing, ever so gradually to be sure, to base a long-running marketing campaign on the notion that lesbian relationships are titillating and “forbidden.” Most lesbian women and gay men are like most heterosexual men and women in that they all share a desire for love and commitment, for legal recognition and security. I mean, are the white middle-class foodie-types who read Food & Wine or Bon Appetit going to look at this ad and say, “Whoa, honey, this Fragoli stuff could change our lives!”

The concept of decadence projected by the image in the Fragoli and Passionné ads is hopelessly out of date, except in the minds and stunted imaginations of 15-year-old boys — meaning 98 percent of all male human beings — who read too much H. Rider Haggard and William S. Burroughs. (That’s a literary joke, of course; no 15-year-old boys read H. Rider Haggard or William S. Burroughs nowadays; perhaps if someone made a video game of Naked Lunch …) A YouTube segment devoted to Fragoli is titled “Sexy New Yorkers Taste Forbidden Fruit,” about as pathetic an appeal to provincial yearnings as could be made; I mean, don’t we all want to be sexy New Yorkers?

Oddly enough, passionné is the masculine form of the adjective in French that means “passionate” or “impassioned” (and a noun that denotes “devotee” or “fanatic”). Wouldn’t it have been more appropriate to use the feminine passionnée?

Vine Connections of Sausalito, Ca., well-known importer of wines from Argentina, just announced that the name of one of its labels, Budini, will be changed to Bodini. Bodini, which produced its first vintage in 2002 (as Budini), produces highly-regarded wines made from chardonnay and malbec grapes. The change comes because of a threatened lawsuit from Budweiser, the ubiquitous beer manufacturer, whose cadre of attorneys apparently interpreted Budini as an Italian rip-off meaning “little Bud” or “Buddy.”

Budweiser, launched in 1876, is made by Anheuser-Busch (now known as Anheuser-Busch InBev), founded by German immigrant Adolphus Busch and his father-in-law. The company had revenue of $16.7 billion in 2007 and accounts for a 48.9 percent market share of the American beer business, producing some 11 billion cans and bottles annually. In 2008, after hostile approaches, the Brazilian-Belgian beverage giant InBev acquired Anheuser-Busch for $52 billion, creating the world’s largest brewer.

Bodini makes about 20,800 cases of wine each year. Current releases sell for about $13 a bottle.

In a related development, Universal Studios, owner of the rights to the ever-popular slap-stick Abbott and Costello films, announced that the first name of famed comedian Bud Abbott was being changed to “Steve.”

I attended a wine tasting in a retail store — Great Wines and Spirits — in Memphis two nights ago, and while that event may not seem worth celebrating in some other states and cities across The Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave, it marked a significant change hereabouts. The state legislature recently passed a bill that permitted, for the first time, retail stores to offer customers samples of wine inside the establishments, beginning in July. Yes, friends, Tennessee grew up a little bit today. Now if we could catch up to some other parts of the country where Higher Civilization is represented by the fact that wine and liquor stores can also sell corkscrews and glasses and selections of appropriate food items. That may take a while though. Even longer to accomplish will be grocery-store wine sales. Year after year polls reveal that a majority of Tennesseans desire wine in grocery stores, but the legislature will not be persuaded; too many special interests are arrayed against the notion.
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Anyway, this was a great way to begin wine-store tasting in Memphis because the featured wines at this event were four pinot noirs and two chardonnays from the Domaine de la Vougeraie. What was extraordinary, aside from the high quality of the wines, was the fact that four of them were from the 2006 vintage and two from 2003; current releases on the market are the 2009s and ’08s. (Domaine image, much cropped, from jockovino.com)

Jean-Claude Boisset founded his negociant firm in Burgundy in 1961, at the advanced age of 18. He and his wife Claudine purchased their first vineyard, Les Evocelles in Gevrey-Chambertin in 1964, and from that point there was, apparently, no going back. In 1980, the family launched Boisset Family Estates, now the third largest supplier of wine in France. Run by Jean-Claude and Claudine’s son, Jean-Charles Boisset, the company has seen huge expansion over the past 20 years, including in California, where it owns DeLoach, Raymond and Lyeth, among other properties. The most recent acquisition, in April 2011, was Buena Vista Carneros, a descendent of California’s oldest winery, founded in 1857.

Our concern, however, is Domaine de la Vougeraie, founded in 1999 by Jean-Charles Boisset and his sister Nathalie (pictured here); founded in the sense of producing a first vintage of wines. Actually the brother and sister had spent a decade consolidating all the family’s superb vineyards or parcels of vineyards in Burgundy — about 86 hectares or 221 acres — under the name and operation of one domaine named for their parents’ home. The vineyards, many of which harbor very old vines, are farmed organically or increasingly along biodynamic principles. For the Premier Cru and Grand Cru wines, indigenous yeast is allowed to start fermentation. New oak is employed judiciously or not at all. Winemaker is Pierre Vincent, who in 2006 replaced Pascal Marchand, so it was Marchard’s wines we tasted.

If you’re used to drinking pinot noirs from California and Oregon — and yes many of those wines are fine indeed — these four pinots from Burgundy may seem alien to you. Whereas many West Coast pinots are often made from very ripe grapes, are deeply extracted for dark colors, heavy fruit flavors and tannins and see a lot of oak, these Burgundian models are delicate, cleanly layered, finely chiseled, elegant and yet intensely varietal. Of course one could cite differences in climate, geography and philosophy for such discrepancies, yet a pinot noir that looks, smells, tastes and feels like a syrah is a betrayal of the character of the grape.

The domaine’s website, by the way, is the best winery site I have ever seen in its thoroughness and attention to detail in describing its wines and how they are made.

Friends, I am but an ink-stain’d wretch and proud to be counted amongst that company, though the financial rewards are not great, especially in the freelance cadre. I do not, as you can imagine, actually buy wine often, but, yes, I dipped into the credit card zone and bought three bottles of these Domaine de la Vougeraie wines, one each of the Côte de Beaune Les Pierres Blanches 2006, the Beaune Blanc 2006 and Beaune La Montée Rouge 2006. Here follow reviews of all six wines.
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Côte de Beaune Les Pierres Blanches 2006. The chardonnay grapes for this wine derive from vines planted in 1989 and 1990, among the youngest in the domaine. The wine aged 10 months in oak barrels, 25 percent new. Lovely, lively; spiced pear and quince, touch of ginger and cloves, honeysuckle, acacia and — how to say this? — old-fashioned face powder. Smooth, supple, subtly earthy over a mantle of scintillating limestone; squinching acidity cuts a swath on the palate; citrus and pear flavors; gets deeper, spicier. A few minutes in the glass bring in lilac and a hint of mango and yellow plum. Incredibly fresh and inviting but with a slight tinge of smoky maturity. Drink through 2014 or ’15. Alcohol content is 12.5 percent. Production was 457 cases. Excellent. About $50.
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Beaune Blanc 2006. Just under two acres (.74 hectares) includes vines planted in 1973 and ’74 and vines planted in 1994 and ’95. The wine aged 14 months in oak barrels, 25 percent new. Wow, what a chardonnay, and what a great price (relatively speaking, n’est-ce pas?). Gorgeous pineapple-grapefruit strung across serious depths of stones and bones; cool and clean, yet seductively spicy, seemingly infused with Parmesan rind and bacon fat, cloves, quince marmalade and ginger scones, Bit O’ Honey; yet very dry, austere even, with swingeing acidity and a huge component of river rock and limestone; gets increasingly spicy and savory and floral; thoroughly compelling but a little daunting. Drink through 2015 or ’16 (well-stored, I mean). 13 percent alcohol. 290 cases. Excellent. About $50
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Beaune La Montée Rouge 2006. The vineyard is a hair under nine acres (3.46 hectares); the pinot noir grapes for this wine are drawn from several small parcels planted in 1964 and ’65 and 1985 and ’86. The wine aged nine months in oak barrels, 30 percent new. Here’s what we want from classic pinot noir: a pale but radiant ruby-brick red color with a hint of garnet at the rim; a delicate and impeccably knit congeries of dried red currants and plums, cloves and a touch of cola with a slight earthy/mossy/mushroomy cast; a supple, suave and satiny texture that entices the tongue while plangent acidity plows the palate; this is quite dry, a little brambly, slightly austere and woody on the finish, nothing that a roasted chicken wouldn’t cure. Drink through 2014 to ’15. 13 percent alcohol. 270 cases. Very Good+. About $50.
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Nuits-Saint-Georges Les Corvée Paget Premier Cru 2006. From vines planted in 1987/’88, so fewer than 20 years old at harvest; the parcel is miniscule, about .85 acres (not much larger than my backyard). The wine aged 15 months in oak barrels, 50 percent new, though, interestingly, after 2006 this wine sees no new oak. Light ruby-mulberry color, faint blush of garnet; beautiful aromas of slightly spiced and macerated red cherries, red currants, mulberries and cloves, just a hint of smoke and cola; a few minutes swirling and sniffing unfold delicate tissues of plum pudding, fruitcake and roses; supple and satiny in the mouth, impeccable layering of red fruit flavors (including dried currants), vibrant acidity, a burgeoning spicy element and just a touch of briery, tannic austerity on the finish. Just freakin’ pretty. Drink through 2015 or ’16. 13 percent alcohol. 100 cases. Excellent. About $85.
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Savigny-lès-Beaune Les Marconnets Premier Cru 2003. The name “Marconnets” is found on documents going back to the 13th Century. The vineyard parcel is about 4.7 acres and has been farmed on biodynamic principles since 2001. The wine aged 12 months in oak barrels, 45 percent new, but after 2006 will see no new oak. A beautiful but vivid faded ruby-garnet color, almost transparent at the rim; spiced and macerated plums and red cherries, touch of fruitcake, hints of roots, moss and leather; light, elegant, wonderfully knit, spare, tends toward dryness and austerity, especially on the slightly earthy, slightly woody finish; a diminishing beauty though still with power to provoke. Drink through 2013. Alcohol is 13 percent. 564 cases. Very Good+. About $50.
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Vougeot Le Clos du Prieuré Rouge Monopole 2003. A monopole, a vineyard owned solely by one person, family or house, is rare in Burgundy, where vineyards tend to have been fragmented by marriage and inheritance over two centuries. Le Clos du Prieuré — the wall of the priory — is a small vineyard, a whisper over one hectare, meaning that it’s close to 2.57 acres. The vineyard has been carefully maintained — now on biodynamic principles — with plantings that go back to 1901/’02; the last planting was in 1982 and ’83. The wine aged nine months in oak barrels, 30 percent new. The color is a gently faded ruby-garnet with a flush of ruddy brick-red; the aromas are smoky, a little roasted and fleshy, spicy and macerated, with hints of plum pudding and fruitcake; it’s a grand wine, dignified, supple and subtle, seductively satiny in texture yet spare, graceful, polished; a few minutes in the glass bring out notes of smoldering potpourri and sandalwood, incense, forest floor, mildly woody tannins. What a beauty! Drink through 2015. Alcohol content is 13 percent. 261 cases. Excellent. About $75.
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Congratulations to these blogs and their authors in winning the following awards, announced last night at the Wine Bloggers Conference in Charlottesville. Writing about wine online is hard work, requiring discipline, objectivity, a palate that’s both sensitive and iron-like (sort of like syrah) and technical skills. This roster of winners reflects the growing influence of wine blogging in the industry, the beginning of blogging’s absorption into the mainstream (while retaining the essential role as outsider) and a lot of dedication, knowledge, experience and social media savvy. Again, congratulations!

Best Overall Wine Blog – Fermentation
Best New Wine Blog – Terroirist
Best Writing on a Wine Blog – Vinography
Best Winery Blog – Tablas Creek
Best Single Subject Wine Blog – New York Cork Report
Best Wine Reviews on a Wine Blog – Enobytes
Best Industry/Business Wine Blog – Fermentation
Best Wine Blog Graphics, Photography, & Presentation – Vino Freakism

So it’s harmless, right, to label a wine Bitch. Or Sexy Bitch or Sweet Bitch or Royal Bitch or Crazy Bitch or any other of the 48 “bitch” names for which producers or marketers have applied to the TTB (common shorthand for the Federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau) that oversees and approves labels for alcoholic beverages in the U.S.

I mean this is all just a joke, right, and if I am increasingly bothered by the proliferation of such “humorous” bitch labels then I must be a prude or completely lacking in sense of humor or just plain old, because the bitch labels, the critter labels, the goofy labels, the surreal labels, the double ententre labels — Pinot Evil, Herding Cats, Plungerhead, Screw Kappa Napa, Rude Boy and Rude Girl, Hair of the Dingo, Full Montepulciano, Smoking Parrot, Arrogant Frog and on and on — are intended, we are told, to draw the attention of young people who (quoting a press release) “are intrigued by fun wines freed of the burden of snobbery and geeky Old School connoisseurship.”

Actually, I’m not a prude, and I have a pretty active and slightly bent sense of humor — I won’t comment on the age issue — but words have meanings and consequences, and I think that the “bitch” label phenomenon — apparently launched by the R Winery in Australia, a collaboration between winemaker Chris Ringland and American importer Dan Philips that ran into serious financial trouble last year — offers a serious critique on attitudes toward women in America.

What is a bitch? A female dog, to be sure. Also a complaining woman; a competitive woman; a woman with a superior attitude; a demanding or assertive woman; a woman who denies a man sex; in short — women, because to many segments of American culture, all women are competitive, demanding, assertive, balls-breaking bitches. Unless, of course, they manifest the other side of femininity, promulgated in mainstream Hollywood movies and television sit-coms, as the sweet, non-threatening girls you would be proud to take home to meet Mom and Dad. (Maybe not Dad.) Hiphop, one of the dominant if not the dominant form of pop music in America (and an incredible influence on world culture), is defined by its deeply misogynist stance on women. Who hasn’t stopped at a red light next to a thunderously booming sound system that you feel in the marrow of your defenseless bones that churns out the refrains of “Slap the bitch,” “Fuck the bitch” and “Kill the bitch”?

Whatever advances were attained by women and their male supporters in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, popular culture has succeeded in dumbing down or, at least in the collective imagination, turning into a charade, a caricature of progress. Look at the two women involved in the latest public displays of unhinged male prowess, the still-unnamed chambermaid assaulted in a New York hotel — excuse me, allegedly assaulted — by IMF director Dominque Strass-Kahn, and Mildred Patricia Baena, the housekeeper who worked for Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver for 20 years and who after an affair with Schwarzenegger gave birth to his child in 1997. Both women are being demonized on websites and blogs all over the world, the maid for daring to accuse a man far her superior in wealth, status and importance, and Baena for not being hot enough. Like, who do these gold-digging bitches think they are?

There’s nothing wrong with humor and irreverence in the naming of wines and the design of their labels; if irreverence and creativity bring more people into the wine-drinking fold, I’m all for it. Do we, however, have to continue to demean women in such automatic, casual, degrading manner? Let’s have a moratorium on “bitch”‘ labels. Let’s be better than that.

Bitch Grenache image, slightly altered, from aglassafterwork.com

Take a look at this label. Look at the name, Adolfo Hurtado. That’s the winemaker for Cono Sur, actually given credit for his work on the front label of a wine he made. We expect books to carry their authors’ names prominently; we assume that movies will list their writers and directors. Would you download a song that didn’t indicate who wrote the piece and performed it? Would you attend a concert of classical music advertised as “Music Played by Some Guys in Tuxedos” without the names of the composers and musicians?

Yet it’s surprising how often winemakers are not named on the labels of the wines they devoted their lives to, often in an accumulation of knowledge and experience that goes beyond the ordinary. Labels often carry the names of the winery’s founders, owners or proprietors or even the name of the artist who designed the label; far more seldom is the winemaker named, yet he or she was responsible for the wine that’s in the bottle.

I’m speaking primarily of “New World” wines: the United States, Chile, Argentina, Australia and so forth. Matters are regarded differently in Europe. No one expects a winemaker’s name to be displayed on a label from Bordeaux because all elements are subsumed under the rubric of the chateau and its estate; winemakers come and go, is the implication, but Chateau Lafite Rothschild remains. In Burgundy what matters is the vineyard, the village and the producer, and the same is true in Germany.

California, however, gave birth to the chatty back-label, to descriptions, paeans, poems, diatribes, marketing, self-aggrandizement, and many, if not most, New World producers follow suit. Rarely, though, in the verbiage, is the winemaker given credit. How rarely? I made an informal survey of 65 bottles in my reviewing rack and refrigerator, looking mainly at California wines but also some from Oregon, Washington, Argentina, Chile and Australia. The division was 48 with no winemaker indicated and 17 that named the winemaker; that’s 74 percent of the labels without the winemaker’s name.

I think that’s a shame, and I promise that from now on, whenever possible, I will include — for good or ill — the name of a winemaker with my reviews.


At a press conference on the future of Italian wine in America — last week at VINO 2011 in New York — importer Leonardo LoCascio startled everyone — well, me — by asserting that American consumers don’t give a flying fuck (that’s not exactly what he said) about the regional niceties of the elaborate Italian DOC and DOCG regulations that determine where grapes can be grown and how they may be blended (if at all) in specific wines and how those wines must be treated in terms of barrel and bottle aging.

“Most of the Italian wine laws are irrelevant to the American consumer,” said LoCascio, founder, chairman and CEO of Winebow Inc. “These regulations are totally meaningless as to whether people buy a wine or not. Everything needs to be simplified.” And he mentioned in passing some little-known DOC zone with the implication that it was completely beyond the pale in terms of marketing interest in the U.S.

It’s true that Italian wine and the Italian wine laws are complicated and often confusing. Over 2,000 grape varieties are officially grown in the country’s 20 broad wine regions — they conform to the boot-shaped nation’s administrative divisions — portioned into something like 311 DOC zones, 39 DOCG zones and 120 IGT zones that produce more than 1200 different wines. Many of these areas are tiny and obscure and produce minute quantities of wine from grapes no one has heard of outside the neighborhood. (The abbreviations stand for Denominazione di origine controllata; Denominazione de origine controllata garantita, a theoretically higher category with stricter controls and “guarantees,” and notice that I say “theoretically”; and Indicazione geografica tipica, for a wine that does not fit into the traditional grape heritage of a region or vineyard area.)

Now I’m not about to contradict the authority of one of this country’s leading importers of Italian wines from all regions, the man who practically singlehandedly persuaded Americans to drink the wines of Apulia, and LoCascio may be correct when it comes to Mr. or Ms. Average American Wine Consumer (AvAmWinC) who just wants to pick up a bottle of pleasant, quaffable pinot grigio to knock back with a bowl of potato chips before dinner. These people, I vouchsafe, probably don’t care a hoot whether their pinot grigio hales from Collio Goriziano or Valle Isarco or Blanc de Morgex et de la Selle (yes, that’s in Italy).

There is, on the other hand, a group of people for whom the notion of regional authenticity rates high on the scale of their aesthetic and moral principles. These are the people who care whence their coffee and and tea and chocolate originate, down to the name of the plantation; who eat on a strictly seasonal basis from local food sources; who buy organic and healthy ingredients whenever possible; who want the wine they drink to be made naturally and traditionally, the consumers who care deeply (perhaps maddeningly so) about the notions of integrity and authenticity that regionality signifies. These concepts form the whole basis of the international Slow Food movement, which started in Italy, and the related locavore phenomenon, and if those social and cultural directions appeal to a minority of Americans, let’s remember, in vinous terms, that only 20 percent of Americans who drink wine drink 90 percent of the wine that gets drunk. These people are serious, and they spend money.

As for me, the more regional the better! I was pleased as punch to try wines at VINO 2011 from Italian DOC zones that I had not encountered before, especially in Lombardy. And to move the discussion out of Italy, a few days ago I made my Wine of the Week a juicy tasty garnacha from Spain’s Vino de la Tierra del Bajo Aragón, another region that was new to me. Somebody is sending me a wine from — New Jersey! The Outer Coastal AVA! I can’t wait!

Of course just because a wine is made by a venerable family on an ancient farm in some dim, out-of-the-way valley using only the most traditional methods and gluing the labels on the (recycled) bottles by hand doesn’t guarantee a great or even good wine. Intentions count, but not much. My point, though, is that we must value individuality, integrity and authenticity, even some eccentricity, if we are to participate truly in a global wine world that does not become homogenized or “pinot-grigioized” into universal innocuousness.

The label of the Juane Serra Cristalino Brut, a 10-dollar CAVA sparkling wine from Spain, carries this disclaimer: “JAUME SERRA CRISTALINO is not affiliated with, sponsored by, approved by, endorsed by, or in any way connected to Louis Roederer’s CRISTAL™ champagne or Louis Roederer.”

Not meaning to be a total asshole or anything, but would anyone with even a modicum of sanity think that these products, which stare at each other across a vast abyss of intentionality, taste and expense, have the slightest connection to each other? To refresh your enfeebled memories — it’s the end of a very long week, right? — Louis Roederer Cristal is one of the grandest of the grand cuvee champagnes, served in the hallowed temples of cuisine and beloved by hip-hop artists who splash it around their hotel rooms or the interiors of their Escalades with gleeful prodigality. Retail prices for Cristal range from about $200 to $300 a bottle; the cost in a restaurant or from room service is unimaginable. Cristalino, as I mentioned, retails for about $10 and is often discounted to $7 or $8.

It struck me that the language of the disclaimer possesses the stink of legalese, and a little research by my lovely assistant, Miss Google, proved that indeed back at the beginning of August the producer of Cristalino — J. Garcia Carrion — lost a four-year lawsuit for copyright infringement brought by Louis Roederer. (Those interested in the actual brief may read it at the Minnesota Litigator website.)

I received a bottle of Jaume Serra Cristalino yesterday by overnight delivery — my friendly UPS man said, “Wow, they really wanted you to have this in a hurry!” — along with related press and technical matter. The letter from the importer, CIV (USA) in Sacramento, begins thus: “Hello, I’d like to share with you some exciting news about Jaume Serra Cristalino, … [which] has an entirely new look this year for the Brut, Vintage Brut, Rose Brut and Extra Dry sparkling wines that are now in the U.S.” I suppose I can’t blame the company for not adding “and the reason we have an entirely new look is because we suffered a humiliating loss in a lawsuit brought against us for copyright infringement.” The company was required to change everything about the label: color, typography, font, devices, the whole shebang. You can see in the photo I took of the lower half of the new label that “Jaume Serra” now gets top billing over “Cristalino.”

Will the litigation, the negative ruling and the radical change of label hurt sales of Cristalino? Naw. Remember the mantra of the old-time Hollywood agent: “All publicity is good publicity.” The CAVA has been marketed in the U.S. since 1989 and by 1997 was selling about 400,000 bottles a year. More recent figures are not available, but anecdotally Cristalino is the country’s top-selling CAVA; I would be happy to receive more exact information. In any case, it’s hardly surprising that sales of Cristalino “exceed sales of Cristal,” as the lawsuit ruefully puts it — like boo-hoo — as if a sparkling wine that consumers could purchase by the case for as little as something like $84 wouldn’t outsell a luxury Champagne that could cost $2,400 a case, if you could find one. We’re talking completely different worlds here, and they not only weren’t separated at birth, they weren’t born in the same hospital.

My initial impression of the Jaume Serra Cristalino was a bit negative because the bubbles are rather large and flabby, but the steely, limestone-tinged bouquet drew me in with its hints of lemon, lime and grapefruit, its slightly nutty and yeasty character. This sparkling wine, made in the traditional champagne method of second fermentation in the bottle, is quite crisp and lively, and it’s that factor that makes Cristalino so fresh and engaging. It’s a blend of the typical grapes of the Penedes region, 50 percent macabeo, 35 percent parellada and 15 percent xarel-lo. Buy by the case for parties and receptions. 11.5 percent alcohol. Very Good. About $10 and often found two or three dollars cheaper.

Many issues confront writers about and consumers of fine wine at this point in space and time, shifting entities worthy of debate themselves. The very concept of writing about wine and the differences among writing, criticizing and reviewing are subjects of a great deal of discussion on the world’s wine blogs, along with the efficacy or necessity of various rating systems. The newest buzz topic of “natural wine” — even attempts simply to categorize or define it –generates clouds of sound and fury that seem to have obscured such previous bones of contention as terroir and biodynamic philosophies. People who write about California’s wineries and wines expend generations of electronic capital on the matters of high alcohol and the overuse of oak barrels. In the rarefied echelons, auction houses, wine collectors and their attorneys are atwitter about what appears to be a proliferation of fake prestigious bottles that are apparently strewn about the landscape like squalid pretenders to the throne.

And then there are the millions of consumers who, far from these controversies and disputes, just want a decent glass of wine with their dinners.

I thought about these themes recently when I was down in Vicksburg, Miss., for my grandson’s second birthday party. The historic river-town, the upside-down apex of the Mississippi Delta, is a four-hour drive from Memphis if you take I-55 to Jackson and turn west. My son told me that he would be cooking hamburgers, hot dogs and sausages on the grill outside, and I told him that I would bring some red wine fit to accompany such hearty, smoky, meaty fare. I rummaged through the wine rack and chose six bottles, two each of some pretty damned big cabernets, merlots and syrahs. As it happened, I misread the audience.

People assembled for the party that afternoon — neighbors, friends, the parents of my grandson’s daycare compadres — good, kind folk who have been helpful and generous to my son and his little family since they moved to Vicksburg about 18 months ago. I was introduced, inevitably, as a wine expert who had brought special wines to the party, but when I offered my wares, the questions repeatedly put to me were these: “Do you have anything sweet?” and “Do you have anything that’s not too heavy?”

Stop, readers, before you say, “Oh, those kinds of people.” Those kinds of people comprise most of the wine consumers in America, and I promise you that they’re completely unconcerned about notions of place and terroir, of natural wines versus manipulated wines, of auctions and ratings and in what forests deep in France’s heartland the mighty oaks grew that provided the wood for the barrels that aged whatever wine you and I might be having with dinner tonight. No, those kinds of people desire a wine that’s not substantial, not shaped by oak or laden with tannin, not complicated or multi-dimensional, but rather a wine that’s pleasant, easy to drink, flavorful and, yes, it’s true in many cases, a little sweet. A friendly electrician at the newspaper where I used to work told me once that nothing in the world made him happier than going home to a plate of spaghetti and meatballs and a glass of port, and he didn’t mean a glass of port after dinner, he meant with the spaghetti, and who was I to say “Gack!” (I assume he meant a glass of non-vintage ruby port, not, you know, Taylor-Fladgate ’66.)

It’s a commonplace saying of the wine industry and wine commentary that what we call “fine wine” — intended for cellaring and aging –occupies about five percent of the wine made in the world, while the other 95 percent consists of everyday wine meant for fairly immediate consumption. In terms of writing about wine, of course, that five percent has traditionally received about 95 percent of the attention, though the proliferation of blogs dedicated to inexpensive wine may have changed that estimate to some degree. Of course fine wine is far more interesting to taste and write about than everyday wine, just as Philip Roth is more interesting to read and write about than Nora Roberts (though as a model of industry she should be an inspiration to us all). Everyday wine, however, is important enough as a huge market for American consumers that as a product it should be better than just serviceable.

I certainly understand the desire to own a winery that produces, say, a thousand cases of exceptional cabernet sauvignon or pinot noir that commands a dear price and garners glowing reviews and awards. How many people do such wines affect, however? Perhaps a few hundred collectors and restaurants in New York, San Francisco and Las Vegas. Isn’t it a nobler endeavor to produce 100,000 cases of a well-made, dependable, delicious wine that costs $12 a bottle and that will bring pleasure to millions of people in their homes and favorite bistros? I recently interviewed the wine manager for a small, well-run restaurant in Memphis who said that he can’t offer Napa Valley wines by the glass or bottle for a reasonable price, even though he would like to. The reason? “They’re not good enough,” he said. That’s an assessment borne out by my experience, though I would expand the criticism to California as a whole. Generally speaking, wines in the $10 to $15-a-bottle range are better from Spain, Italy and Argentina (not so much Australia anymore) than from West Coast producers.

There’s not a thing wrong with making simple, decent, palatable wines that display enough personality that one would want to drink another glass and buy another bottle. And of course there’s nothing wrong with making superbly nuanced, elegant, deeply layered and profound wines for those who can afford them. I think, though, that a great segment of the wine consuming audience — an audience that wants good wine, not plonk, not dreck — exists only at the margins of the wine industry’s consciousness, like my son’s neighbors down in Vicksburg. They tried the full-bodied, tannic wines I poured for them, were polite about them, and then went looking for the beer.

Will it really help sell wines from Russian River Valley or Alexander Valley if labels for wines from those appellations are required by law to state “Sonoma County” as well as the region?

The trade group Sonoma County Vintners is proposing such a law for so-called “conjunctive labeling” to the state legislature, on the model of a similar law passed in the 1980s for Napa Valley. The idea is to raise recognition for the county as a winemaking region; in other words, this law would be all about marketing. As Tom Wark eloquently points out in his post on this subject on his blog Fermentation, wineries in any of the county’s 13 distinct American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) may append the words “Sonoma County” to their regional designation if they want do, but they may also choose not to; most of them, it seems, do not. After all, labeling practices are in the hands of the Federal Alcohol and Tobacco Trade and Tax Bureau (TTB), which sets the regulations for wine labeling and geographical matters. Why should local authorities try to trump the feds and add even more rules to a complicated business?

And why would a producer in Russian River Valley or Dry Creek Valley not want to have the term “Sonoma County” added to a wine’s front label?

Sonoma County encompasses 13 growing regions (AVAs) that total about 60,300 acres of vines. Theoretically, the different official areas — “official” because they are determined and recognized by the federal government — display distinct enough characteristics to justify their existence, for example, Russian River Valley with its low-lying riverine topography and propensity to morning fog; the warmer Alexander Valley; gently rolling Chalk Hill, with its soil of volcanic ash. The implication (or hope) is that each distinct AVA contributes unique elements of geography and climate to the formation of a wine’s style and character.

“Sonoma County,” on the other hand, is such a broad category that its most legitimate function is as a generic geographic indicator, a way of saying, “This wine was made in a certain county in Northern California.” Such a condition is not necessarily pejorative, especially for inexpensive or moderately-priced wines whose grapes may be blended from several smaller AVAs, of which there are many examples. The point is that there is not an identifiable “Sonoma County” character that can be ascribed to a wine.

If, however, a producer is making prestige-level wines from smaller AVAs with the intention of reflecting the specific influence of that soil and micro-climate in the wine, then adding the term “Sonoma County” to the front label is not merely redundant but distracting. That front label is the billboard, the “Hollywood” sign of a wine bottle; it’s the field where producers state what they think is most important and immediately recognizable about their wines.

Being curious about how many wineries or producers in Sonoma County actually use the “Sonoma County” terms on the front label as well as a smaller AVA, I looked through the review sample rack and refrigerator for examples, and here’s what I came up:

Those That Do Not Mention Sonoma County on the Front Label
<>Frei Brothers Reserve Syrah 2007, Russian River Valley, Northern Sonoma. (The largely useless Northern Sonoma AVA encompasses all of Sonoma County except for the Sonoma Valley and Carneros appellations. It was created in 1985 — and amended in 1986 and 1990 — after a campaign by E & J Gallo. Frei Brothers is a Gallo brand.)

<>Terlato Pinot Noir 2007, Russian River Valley.

<>Sausal Private Reserve Zinfandel 2007, Alexander Valley.

<>Benovia Bella Una Pinot Noir 2007, Russian River Valley.

<>Dry Creek Vineyard The Mariner Meritage 2006, Dry Creek Valley. (Sonoma County stated on back label.)

<>Benziger Signaterra Three Block 2006, Sonoma Valley.

<>La Crema Pinot Noir 2008, Sonoma Coast.

<>Davis Bynum Pinot Noir 2007, Russian River Valley.

<>Louis M. Martini Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2003, Alexander Valley. (Yeah, I know, why do I still have this wine?)

<>Respite Reichel Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Alexander Valley.

<>Gundlach Bundschu Rhinefarm Vineyard Merlot 2005, Sonoma Valley.

<>EnRoute Les Pommiers Pinot Noir 2008, Russian River Valley.

<>Silver Oak Cabernet Sauvignon 1998, Alexander Valley. (Not a review sample, of course; I bought this at an auction. Perhaps I should drink it with tonight’s pizza.)

<>Thumbprint Cellars Westside Vineyard Chardonnay 2007, Russian River Valley.

<>Hook & Ladder “Third Alarm” Reserve Chardonnay 2003, Russian River Valley. (Why do I still have this wine, too?)

Those That Mention Sonoma County on the Front Label as Well as a Distinct Appellation
<>Murphy-Goode Merlot 2007, Alexander Valley, Sonoma County.

<>Matanzas Creek Merlot 2006, Bennett Valley, Sonoma County.

<>Rodney Strong Brothers Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Alexander Valley, Sonoma County.

Admittedly this is an anecdotal survey with a plus/minus factor of probably 10,000 percent, but it also speaks pretty clearly; 14 wineries use the specific appellation name without adding Sonoma County, while three do. Yet according to an article by Kevin McCallum in The [Santa Rosa] Press Democrat, “Eight of the county’s nine wine and grape trade groups say they would support a law that would require wines made from local grapes to feature Sonoma County on the label.” The ninth trade group, that of Russian River Valley, is also considered a shoo-in.

What the hell, readers? I mean, I won’t even speculate on the motivations behind these bewildering votes, because I can’t fathom it.

And as I look at other wine labels of bottles clustered about me in phalanxes of rectitude, I can’t help noting that most of them to do not include a broader county designation in addition to a specific appellation. Right at hand are two bottles of wine from Heller Estate that say, “Carmel Valley, California,” but don’t mention Monterey County. Similarly, bottles of vineyard designated pinot noir from Lucienne say “Santa Lucia Highlands,” without mentioning Monterey County. Here’s an Easton Zinfandel 2006 from Fiddletown that doesn’t mention Amador County. And so on.

The exception to these examples, as I mentioned earlier, is Napa Valley, but notice that the legal requirement doesn’t insist on including the term Napa County. Yes, Napa County is also a designated AVA — it’s slightly larger than Napa Valley — and wineries could use the term if they wanted to. I’m sure you have noticed that almost no one does. I mean, who wants to be known as a producer of Napa County wines?

Map of Sonoma County AVAs from sonomainspring.com.

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