The industry


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.

Stodgy Old Label
BORDEAUX — It was announced today that Chateau Lynch-Bages, a mainstay of Bordeaux’s Pauillac commune, is changing its traditional label and staid image to become Large Bunny. This attempt to appeal to a younger demographic of wine consumer was explained by Lynch-Bages owner and manager Jean-Michel Cazes with a shrug that could only be called Gallic.

“C’est la vie,” said Cazes, standing in the courtyard of the estate that dates back to 1749. “These young people no longer are New “Fun” Label! interested in wines that are — comme dit-on? — stuffy and sacrosanct. They like the immediate appeal of labels that are relaxed and hip. The wine is the same, n’est-ce pas? But outside, you see, it is the coolness factor. Why should all these penguin wines and monkey wines and moose wines, wines of fish and birds and kangeroos, capture the market? Lynch-Bages, that is, Large Bunny, is now in the avant-garde.”

The over-achieving Fifth Growth property may be in the vanguard, but rumors abound in the Great Gray City of Bordeaux that other prominent chateaux are planning similar label and image transformations. Mentioned in scandalized conversations in brokers’ offices and in the town’s dignified boites are Chateau Petrus, rumored to become The Stormy Petrel; Leoville-Las Cases, perhaps looking at Lion City, and, most surprising, First Growth Chateaux Margaux, which anonymous insiders insist is contemplating a change to Chateaux Magret, with a different label every year depicting a duck preparation by a Michelin-starred chef.

“Change is good,” said Achille Apollinaire, spokesman for the Bordeaux Chamber of Commerce. “It is time for Bordeaux, this ancient region where the best wines in the world are made — ask Mr. Robert M. Parker Jr. if you don’t believe me — to move ahead and join the rest of the winemaking industry in expanding its markets. Our new motto is, ‘Yellowtail — Watch Out!’”

dregs.jpg

dregsreport.com
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Does the American Wine Consumer actually purchase wine based on the American Viticultural Area designated on the label?

Mr. American Wine Consumer: “Look, honey, this chardonnay is from the Santa Maria Valley, so it must be good!”

Mrs. American Wine Consumer: “”I’ll say, sweetie, let’s get it!”

Mr. AWC: “Okey-dokey!”

Mrs. AWC: “By the way, where is the Santa Maria Valley?”

Mr. AWC: “Oh, you know, in, um, California.”

Not meaning to denigrate the knowledge of Mr. & Mrs. American Wine Consumer; I realize that a lot of people out there haunting the aisles of the nation’s retail stores have a lot of facts about wine in hand. I know that people who really love wine probably understand that there is or can be or ought to be differences between, for example, pinot noir wines made in Anderson Valley, Russian River Valley, Carneros and Santa Lucia Highlands. On the other hand, I would say that most people just want a nice bottle of wine to take home for dinner and rely on experience or the advice of a trusted salesperson or brilliant blogger.

Wine producers, on another hand, are pretty obsessive about the exactitudes of geographical designations, and a great deal of time, effort and money and not a little blood has been spilled in the establishment of AVAs. Petitions for new AVAs appear before the TTB (the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau) almost weekly. Being able to say on the label, for instance, that one’s wine is from the Napa Valley, because of the region’s historical and qualitative importance, is theoretically more desirable than a broad “California” designation, while a narrower or more specific AVA, like Oakville or Stags Leap within Napa Valley, is theoretically better than just Napa Valley. Carving out a new and distinct AVA can be an important step to legitimizing a winery and its products, at least in the mind of the producer.

This meditation was inspired by a post from September 12 on Tom Wark’s Fermentation called “Let Russian River Valley Take Over the World” that Looks like the Russian River Valleyparodies the TTB for entertaining the notion that the Russian River AVA should be enlarged to the south by 550 acres of vineyards. Who would want that done? Well, let’s see; the expansion would give 350 acres belonging to Gallo the right to a Russian River Valley designation on the label. Would the TTB grant such an expansion because the world’s second largest wine producer wanted it? Think of this: The last time the Russian River AVA was expanded, in 2005, it benefited Kendall-Jackson.

All the issues in this matter, with appropriate historical, geographical and climatic background, appeared in a story by Kevin McCallum in the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat on September 11.

If the TTB grants the expansion of the Russian River Valley appellation — and there’s no reason to think that it won’t — the action will serve to emphasize, yet again, that the AVA system is, in some part, meaningless for producers and consumers. According to the AVA guidelines, “We designate viticultural areas to allow vintners to better describe the origins of their wines and to allow consumers to better identify wines they may purchase.” How does that disingenuous expression of good intentions apply to, for example, the North Coast AVA, which encompasses three million acres in Lake, Marin, Mendocino, Napa, Sonoma and Solano counties? (AppellationAmerica.com lists 12 wineries in Solano.) And how does it benefit consumers that the 15,500-acre Dos Rios AVA in Mendocino, approved in November 2005, exists because of one winery, Vin de Tevis, that cultivates six acres of vines? I mean the TTB seems to pass AVAs out like candy — or to the highest bidder.

Of course, many of the AVAs make sense in terms of soil, climate, geography and traditional usage, but those that don’t merely focus our attention on the often ludicrous character of the enterprise and on the political nature of its sometimes dubious accomplishments.

While one might suppose that such issues are managed better in Europe, with its centuries-old heritage of vineyards, small growing and winemaking areas and a pervasive wine culture, one would, to some extent, be wrong.

Oh certainly the communes of Bordeaux and the tiny Grand Cru and Premier Cru vineyards of Burgundy seem irrefutable and secure in the AOC (appellation contrôlée) pantheon and the self-regard of Big Spenders. And it’s gratifying to see, as was recently announced, the addition of a 51st Grand Cru area in Alsace, the 175-acre Kaefferkopf of Ammerschwihr, based on a particular geologic formation, part granite and part limestone, that sets it apart from its neighbors; Kaefferkopf’s elevation to Grand Cru status is also based on a heritage of delimitation going back to 1932. Of course the French being the French and Alsace being Alsace, the percentage of grapes in blending — gewurztraminer, pinot gris and riesling — is prescribed by law. You won’t find that in the Russian River Valley.

On the other hand, the approval of the expansion of Champagne’s vineyard area earlier this year cannot be a harbinger of better quality. The squeeze is on in Champagne, demand is high and prices for grand marques and artisan products are rising, thanks especially to parts of the world — Russia and Asia — where people actually have money to spend. Better to let the situation sort itself out, however painful it might be, than to dilute the reputation of a hallowed region. (Yes, I know, it can be argued that the Grand Marque houses are diluting reputations themselves by overproduction and a certain mechanical aptitude.)

France is also home to one of my favorite bizarre designated wine regions, the Vin de Pays de Méditerranée, a vast area that Looks like the Mediterranean encompasses 10 departments in the lower Rhone Valley, Provence and the island of Corsica, which is, of course, not officially attached to the mainland of France. One appreciates the desire of local cooperatives to band together for solidarity and marketing purposes, but this Vin de Pays seems to be based primarily on a notion of all things romantic and salable conjured by the word “Mediterranean.”

My point is that consumers are far better off educating themselves in what kinds of wine they enjoy most than in depending on the potential quality of an AVA (or any country’s scheme of designation), whether a vast one or one that’s strictly limited. If you’re interested in pinot noir or sauvignon blanc, buy as many as you can afford from different regions and taste them blind, that is with labels concealed. If you consistently like the examples from one region, concentrate on that region, try other wines of the same genre, explore what’s offered in the style of wine that you like. Ask your friendly trusted retailer (or brilliant blogger) for advice in delving more deeply into what’s available. Trust your palate.

Images from appellationamerican.com and vin-de-mediteranee.org.

So, we all know that the film Bottle Shock will be released in about a week, and while it concerns the famous Paris Tasting of 1976 in which a chardonnay from Chateau Montelena and a cabernet sauvignon from Stag’s Leap Wine cellars out-scored a bevy of well-known French wines, the main focus is on Chateau Montelena itself. (Which, coincidentally, was just purchased by the company that owns Chateau Cos d’Estournel in Bordeaux.)

Anyway, on July 28, two days ago, at 2:50 p.m., I posted an entry to this blog titled “But Here Are 10 Chardonnays from California That I Like (Really).” And one of the responses I received, on July 28, at 7:34 p.m.. from someone named Karen, was this:

“I noticed that you left off Chateau Montelena….an oversight or are you not a fan of their Chardonnay? I know they’ve had a few issues of late, but I hear those are a thing of the past. I just saw a movie about them called Bottle Shock about how they beat the French in a blind taste test in the 70s, and I can’t imagine a california Chardonnay list without them! Btw…I highly recommend checking out the movie…a must see for wine lovers.”

I responded to that message, saying that I had not intended those 10 chardonnays to be the only chardonnays that I liked, that they were among the chardonnays from California I had tasted recently, that Chateau Montelena is indeed one of the great and legendary producers of chardonnay in California and so forth.

So, o.k.

Then I noticed today that an entry I posted on July 26, at 1:30 p.m., titled “Oak in California Chardonnay Is not Going, Going, Gone,” had a new response, posted this morning at 3:38., also from Karen, or “Karen.” Here it is:

“Can someone tell me where Chateau Montelena chrdonnay fits in here? I recently saw a movie called Bottle Shock about how the Montelena Chaardonnay won against the French wines in the 70s…so I assume it’s pretty good? I haven’t picked up a bottle yet (just saw the movie the other day) but watching the movie made me want some! Are they still considered a good vinyard? Btw, this movie is a must see for all chardonnay lovers….check out the trailer at www.bottleshockthemovie.com.”

Geeze, I thought, this is starting to sound suspicious. I looked at “Karen’s” email address: capricornmiller@gmail.com.

A quick Google search revealed that capricornmiller seems to be an entity created solely to respond to forums that mention Bottle Shock and, in addition, seems to be trip-wired to respond to any blog or website that uses the term “California chardonnay,” sending a slightly different response about Chateau Montelena and the soon-to-be-released film.

I urge all you bloggers to put up posts that mention either California chardonnay or Chateau Montelena and see what happens.

Talk about stealth marketing! Talk about insanely fucking annoying!

The Internet is a wonderful and terrible thing.

“Discover the Eco-Chic Wine Choice!”

Ha, what a slogan! And “Eco-Chic” describes precisely the relationship to ecological concerns that many Americans of a certain class — white, affluent, subtly guilty — aspire to: an itemization of easy cures to the world’s ecological problems, some of which, as you no doubt are aware, pose dire hazards to the continuation of life on earth. The French call this class le gauche caviar, “caviar leftists.” I call them “Emo-Environmentalists.”

On the other hand, the phrase “eco-chic” itself exudes boundless cynicism. The slogan comes from PR materials sent out by Boho Vineyards — “We were Boho before it was chic” — to promote the Boho Vineyards Chardonnay 2006, Central Coast, that comes in three-liter “eco-friendly” bag-in-box packaging made from 95 percent recycled kraft paper using only soy-based ink. This “Premium Cask” — notice how each of those words is meaningless — presses to Mother Earth a “carbon footprint … 55% smaller than the four 750ml bottles it replaces.” The Boho wines are distributed by Underdog Wine Merchants, a division of The Wine Group, Inc., the country’s third largest wine producer, after E&J Gallo and Constellation.

The way the wine inside this “eco-friendly” packaging is described, however, makes evident the fact that this is plain old regular “non-eco” chardonnay: “We selected the grapes for our Boho Chardonnay from our cool climate vineyards specially selected to emphasize the crisp and aromatic character that are [subject-verb error] so important to the Boho style. The grapes were harvested cool and fermented at cool temperatures in the winery to maximize the fruit flavors.” Etc. Etc. In other words, the box is “eco-friendly”; the wine is not.

I read this Boho chardonnay material just after taking a gander at the “Eco Checklist: Easy Ways to Live Better” in the August 2008 issue of Food & Wine magazine — right, the issue in which wine-writer Lettie Teague actually wrote that “when picking a wine, I care more about the integrity of the people making it (or for that matter selling it) than the method they chose,” yeah, and I’m going to stop reading books written by assholes — a publication that tries so hard to be hip that sometimes it’s cute and sometimes, as now, it’s just freakin’ annoying. I mean the cliche-detector at the magazine operates at nil level! These people make themselves so easy to parody that it’s like shooting free-range, organically fed fish in a barrel fashioned from trees grown in sustainable forests by workers who wear only clothes made from recycled paper.

Talk about eco-chic/emo-environmentalism! Of course there are the usual admonitions to abandon plastic water bottles for reusable aluminum containers (such as the ones designed by Japanese artist Shinzi Katoh) or the compostable plates made from fallen leaves (VerTerra, $9 for 10 plates). You can “upcycle” — a new cliche — stained shirts by baking them in the oven (330 degrees) with blueberries and sugar, leaving your friends and colleagues to wonder, “Where did all the fruit flies come from?” You can “Set a Stylish Green Table” by using Dansk’s resurrected “Classic Fjord” flatware that uses sustainable teak ($100 for a five-place setting) or handblown pitchers made in a wind-powered studio in Portland, Ore. (Esque, $200). Or you can drink Del Maguey Minero Mezcal, a “warm, smoky mezcal … made from organic agave by independent family producers” ($70).

In your kitchen, you can choose Michelle Kaufmann’s mklISLAND, “ideal for small, energy-efficient homes (from $5,250).” Or you can “Take a Green Vacation,” such as one through Aventouras, which books “intimate trips in seven countries [that] include stays at a guesthouse in the Andes and dinner with a Costa Rican family” that no doubt serves only organic food on plates made from fallen leaves. The State Department, by the way, reminds us that for safety reasons the American Embassy in San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica, places official visitors in large suburban hotels rather than in hotels in the center of the city, and further advises Americans to avoid “areas of high concentrations of bars and clubs, especially at night.” Just so you know.

Am I being a total bastard here? Sorry, but being able to tell your dinner party guests that every item of food or decor on the table comes from sustainable or organic sources isn’t the same as 1. Not driving. 2. Driving a lot less and driving more slowly. 3. Using public transportation as often as possible. 4. Writing to your representatives in your state capital and in Washington and telling them that they will no longer receive your vote if they don’t support efforts toward weaning America from fossil-fuels and if they don’t support efforts to find alternative fuel and energy sources, like wind power. Wind is there, and those wind turbines are pretty damned beautiful. 5. Supporting Human Rights Watch in its efforts to see that the people (for example) who work in those organic agave fields in Mexico receive decent salaries and health care. 6. Thinking about the big picture in terms of urban culture and the local livability of urban and architectural design. Get a seat on your architectural and design review board. Attend meetings of design and zoning boards. Be vocal; become an annoying busybody. And wear your sustainable clothes.

Ha ha!, no, what I actually mean is “The Gall of DeVries Public Relations in New York,” which handles PR for Gallo, but in a recent post “Naked Wine People & Blog Promotion” on fermentation, one of Tom Wark’s principles of blog promotion is “Write Really Provocative Headlines for Each Post.” So there. I might throw in a naked person too.

The point here, because you’re wondering what the hell the point is, is that I received an email press release from DeVries bottleshock-poster-lrg-202×300.jpg inspired by the forthcoming release of the movie Bottle Shock, which is based on the controversy surrounding the notorious “Judgment of Paris” tasting in 1976, a cinematic premise that sounds as engrossing as watching a bunch of wine critics sitting around a table and, you know, tasting wine, which is what they did. The movie stars Chris Pine, Alan Rickman and Bill Pullman and will be released on August 6. A rival production, The Judgment of Paris, is also in the works, but got a later start than Bottle Shock.

The point of the “Judgment of Paris” tasting, a name conferred after the fact, is that a group of wines from California, chardonnays and cabernet sauvignons, were pitted, in a blind tasting, against a group of wines from France, great and prestigious chardonnays from Burgundy and cabernets from Bordeaux, and the California wines not only showed extremely well but won. Selected as the best wines — remember, the panel was composed mainly of French winewriters — were the Chateau Montelena Chardonnay 1973 and the Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon 1973. The event was organized by Steven Spurrier, an Englishman who ran a wine store and school in Paris. Naturally the French were chagrined at this slap against their national honor, and the French press tried to downplay or ignore the results of the tasting, but a reporter for Time magazine was present, and his article was, as it were, the shot heard round the world. The tasting, along with the excellent vintage of 1974, declared that winemakers in California were no amateurs and that their products could stand up to and beat the best that France could offer.

So, what’s the point of the press release from DeVries?

That Gallo Family Vineyards and Gina Gallo, granddaughter of Julio Gallo, should be a source for journalists writing stories about the movie and about the famous tasting in 1976. Gallo Family Vineyards is the arm of the vast E.&.J Gallo company that produces fairly limited editions of higher-end wines from Sonoma County. Gina Gallo is a talented winemaker, and the Gallo Family wines can often be quite good, especially the Single Vineyard and Estate wines, but Gallo had absolutely nothing to do with the “Judgment of Paris” nor with the making of the movie Bottle Shock. You can learn all you need to know about that event and its aftermath on Wikipedia. Or, if you have time, you could read George M. Taber’s detailed and evocative book, “The Judgment of Paris,” on which the movie of the name is based.

Here’s the gist of the press release from DeVries:

It’s time to break out the Chardonnay and celebrate the virility of Californian wines, with Gallo Family Vineyards and the much anticipated movie release of “Bottle Shock” staring Chris Pine, Allan Rickman and Bill Pullman on Aug. 6. Encourage your readers to relive the excitement of the 1976 Judgment of Paris, where top sommeliers from around the globe shocked themselves and the world when they proclaimed Californian Chardonnays and Cabernet Sauvignons as the best wines in the world – beating out some French classics.

Gallo Family Vineyards, one of the country’s first and largest family-owned wineries and currently the largest exporter of California wines, wants to help your readers recreate the excitement of 1976 by hosting their very own Judgment of Paris tasting experience. We can offer an interview with Gina Gallo, Gallo Family Vineyards third-generation winemaker and granddaughter of Julio Gallo, who can recommend tips on how your readers can act as “sommeliers” just like in “Bottle Shock”— and taste for themselves.

I like that, “the virility of California wines.” And of course it wasn’t “top sommeliers from around the world” that were involved in the event, but mainly a group of dour Frenchmen. I hate it when PR people don’t do their homework.

Well, the point, the real point, is that this press release will probably be the opening salvo of batteries of PR and marketing efforts by wineries in California to capitalize on the movie and the attention it will bring to the state’s wine industry. Or at least to chardonnay — I can see the marketing slogan: “Go back to chardonnay. You always loved it.” — because according to blog reports, the movie concentrates on Chateau Montelena’s white wine victory and ignores Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars.

So, everybody is thinking, “Whoa, remember Sideways? Man, that sucker really took off! And it was about wine!” But the ultimate questions are: Do we need another movie “about wine” this soon after Sideways, and do we need two movies about the same wine event, even though they’re made from totally different perspectives?

Come on, you know the answers to those questions. Not yes.

Bottle Shock poster image from screenhead.com.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all in favor of protecting and nurturing the environment. Let’s not fool around with Mother Nature (though she was pretty hot in those old commercials) and all that. In terms of vineyards and grape-growing, let us, by all means — and these criteria are taken from “Our Seven Standards” of sustainability recently issued by Sanford Winery and Vineyards — preserve winery estate land for natural inhabitants; use natural springs requiring no electrical pumps as water sources; use minimal organic.jpg irrigation; use energy efficient buildings and recycled and reclaimed materials; use natural methods (“whenever possible”) for controlling grapevine fungal pathogens; use cover crops to control erosion and improve soil structure and nutrition; encourage predatory birds to help control vineyard pests.

These are admirable practices. Three years ago this month I visited a number of vineyards in the Sonoma Valley, including the well-known Rancho Salina, which occupies about 200 acres 750 to 1,000 feet above the valley floor; 40 of those acres, beautifully laid out and maintained, are planted with cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and malbec. The vineyard is farmed using sustainable methods. The rows between vines are rotated with cover crops each year, grasses and clovers alternating with legumes, all of which provide nitrogen to the soil and help prevent erosion. Weeds, far from being regarded as enemies, are allowed to grow. Beside the fact that the view is spectacular, the vineyard exudes a sense of serenity and harmony, of things being done right, though, frankly, it would be difficult to find a hill-top vineyard, sustainably farmed or not, that didn’t embody serenity and harmony; location is everything

But let’s face it: Being green brings in the green. The principle moral decadence that afflicts American culture (and hence world culture) is the pervasive influence of and the complete permeation of marketing and advertising in all aspects of life, from bottled water to American Girl dolls to presidential campaigns to brands of t-shirts and jeans that start out hip and cool in New York and L.A. and end up in the Wal-Marts of Dubuque and Peoria.

The same pressure to create, to compete, to buy and consume, the same pretense of social significance affects popular movements and ideologies. It’s so easy so slap a “green” label on a product — a mattress, a pair of shoes, a tennis ball, a bottle of wine — and bask in the fashionable cloaks of virtue that a certain segment of the population requires at this point in the 21st century. How do you sell a product today? Give it an eco-friendly name and call it “green.” While the term “organic” is regulated by the federal government, anybody can use the word “green” with its loaded implications anywhere.

Green bread, green jam; green eggs, green ham: How “green” is our food supply?

According to the Economic Research Service of the USDA, the number of acres of certified organic farmland in the United States doubled from one million in 1990 to two million in 2002 and doubled again to four million in 2005. That figures includes 1.7 million 4colorseal_usda.jpg acres of cropland and 2.3 million in rangeland and pasture. Still, that certified organic acreage represents only 0.5 percent of all U.S. cropland and 0.5 percent of U.S. pasture and range. That’s not very much. That’s actually itty-bitty.

California is the leading state for certified organic farmland, at more than 220,000 acres involving (in 2005) 1,916 certified organic operations. How many of those operations are wine producers and how many of those acres are vineyards?

It’s more difficult than you would imagine to assess the number of producers in California that adhere to sustainable, organic or biodynamic practices. Some wineries don’t mention organic practices on their labels for fear of being pegged as hippie wines for the Birkenstock-wearing crowd. Others tout their philosophical affiliations with bold logos and graphic devices, clearly willing to tap into a growing interest among wine consumers. I don’t mean that such producers are cynically exploiting popular tastes; going organic and at the least maintaining ecological balance and health in the vineyards is hard work and requires dedication and zeal.

In January 2006 greenLAgirl provided an annotated list of 25 wineries in California that practice sustainable, organic or biodynamic methods. In December 2007, cawinemall.com listed 67 wineries that do not use pesticides in their vineyards or add sulfites to their wines, a sort of minimal standard for “greenness.” Townhallcoalition.org offers 30 organic and biodynamic wineries in Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino countries.

None of which adds up to a revolution, though market forces are at work to convince us that it does. Take for example the “Fleming’s 100″ list of wines for 2008/2009 at the national chain Flemings Prime Steakhouse and Wine Bar. Corporate wine manager Marian Jansen op de Haar chooses 70 of the wines on this list with local restaurant managers allowed to select the other 30 wines. The recently released list offers more than 70 wines that are “green” in some fashion, whether that means sustainable, organic or biodynamic. Jansen op de Haar calls these 70 products “carefully handcrafted and environmentally responsible wines” and says “I also believe the fruit for these wines to be purer in taste.” Well, the jury is out on that last statement, but what I really wonder is if the customers at Fleming’s — lapping up red meat on expense accounts in a dynamic, clubby and testosterone-laden atmosphere — demanded a roster of wines so heavily dominated by “green” wines: “Hey, Bob, let’s order one of those green wines!” The press release doesn’t tell us. To see the full list of “Fleming’s 100,” click here.

Another recent manifestation of the imagery and marketing of “green” wine is “The Consumer’s Green Wine Shopping List” (little trademark sign) issued by the “International Green Wine Competition,” held on May 5 in Santa Rosa. Fifteen judges tasted 271 entries from six states and 11 foreign countries, awarding 15 gold medals, 58 silver and 80 bronze. The categories were Certified Biodynamically Grown, Certified Organic, Transitional & Third Party Certified, and Natural (International Imports Only). For a list of winners, click here.

The “International Green Wine Competition” was produced by Wine Competition Management LLC, a new company that has been busy this year, already having produced the “National Women’s Wine Competition” (little trademark sign) on March 16-18 and gearing up for the “First Annual U.S. Professional Wine Buyers Competition” (little trademark sign) October 13-14. (“Why spend thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours trying to get face time with America’s top professional wine buyers? Enter your wines into the U.S. Professional Wine Buyers Competition and the Importer/Distributor Search Tasting.” Regular fee for entries is $85, but there’s an Early Bird Special through July 15 of $65.)

See what I’m sayin’? “Greenness,” in the good old American way, is being managed, codified and commodified. As minute as the certified organic segment is in farming generally and wine-producing specifically, it has already become entrenched in, or perhaps “swallowed by” is the correct term, the American Marketing-Advertising Complex (AMAC), a monolith of unimaginable riches and unfathomable proportions.

I’m in favor of sustainable and organic practices available in the choices we make both in personal daily life and as a country. But rather than emphasizing “green” products and playing on our sense of shame and righteousness, wouldn’t it be better if all those advertising and marketing dollars went instead to finding and funding alternative fuel and energy sources, for raising awareness of the necessity for conservation and public transportation and re-imagining the culture of cities, for changing the way we see ourselves in relationship to what’s left of the natural world?

Here’s an email bulletin I received from Sam’s Wine and Spirits in Chicago yesterday. Founded in 1946, Sam’s is one of the best and most comprehensive wine stores in the country. So:

The Only Thing That’s Gone Up More Than Gas… the Price of Bordeaux

2005 Bordeaux Vintage Offers a Valuable Long-Term Investment!

With the uncertainty of the economy and the market of today, investors are looking to alternatives to stocks and bonds. The margaux-lafite-large-format.jpg answer to the market crisis may come from a particular entity that we may use to relief this stress—wine.

The 2005 Bordeaux Vintage wine has received such high reviews that demand for the wine continues to rise rapidly. Acclaimed wine writer/critic, Robert Parker describes the 2005 Bordeaux vintage as “the greatest vintage produced during my 30 year career.”

Yet, is all the hype really going to pay off in dollars and cents in the end? Although the 2005 Bordeaux guarantees superb quality and taste, many retailers are steadily increasing their prices to meet the high market demand. With these high prices, the 2005s will take up to 10 years to show value growth, but then should prove to be an amazing long term investment. The vintage wine has already appreciated over 300% from its birth in 2005.

Brian Rosen, President of Sam’s Wines and Spirits states “We heard the buzz from our customers so we responded by obtaining the largest inventory of 2005 Bordeaux in the country with over 5,000 cases to be delivered to our stores.” Brian also offers another worthwhile wine investment, “Since the buzz has been primarily focused on the 2005 Bordeaux, earlier vintage wines such as the 2004 Bordeaux will offer a great shorter term return.”

Notice what’s missing here: Not a mention of when the Bordeaux from 2005 will be ready to drink, just when they might be ready to sell. No mention of the qualities of Bordeaux red wines, their potential for nobility, grace and elegance. No indication that when the Bordeaux from 2005 reach maturity they will drink wonderfully with a beef crown roast or venison, that they will bring to your table a sense of history and geography and artisanship. No reference to the wine’s ability to bring friends and families together in a shared moment of great wining and dining (and all the Bordeaux of 2005 are not extravagantly expensive). No hint that the real investment is in pleasure and the satisfaction of drinking a magnificent bottle of wine.

Have the wines of Bordeaux from 2005 really “appreciated” 300 percent since their “birth” that year, or are merchants simply charging 300 percent more than they did when the wines were offered as futures? If you paid (or promised to pay) $300 a bottle for Pichon-Longueville (or whatever) two years ago, could you sell that bottle now for $900? I would say, Dream on.

And don’t forget that if you invest in wine, you have to take responsibility for proper storage: Constant 55 degrees, no vibration, humidity regulation and so on. Whether you have your own cellar, lucky you, or pay for storage in a well-maintained facility, keeping that wine safe and cool costs money, part of which goes to pay for the fuel that runs the refrigeration unit.

So, thanks, pal, for making the gasoline for my car more expensive, while you sit on your “investment” and wait to rake in the dough.

How many times do I have to say this? Whether it’s today, tomorrow or 10 or 20 years from now: Wine is to drink.

Image from vintages.com.

Beverage mega-giant Constellation Brands has been in such a buying mode since purchasing the Robert Mondavi Winery in November 2004 (for $1.03 billion) that it’s almost stupefying to learn that the company has actually gotten rid of some California estates, purchased as recently as December 2007. In that month, to refresh your memories, Constellation bought, from Fortune Brands’ Beam Wine Estates, for $885 million, Geyser Peak, Atlas Peak, Buena Vista Carneros, Gary Farrell Winery, XYZin and Clos du Bois. Four of those wineries (or brands) — Atlas Peak, Buena Vista, Gary Farrell and Clos du Bois — had been owned by Allied Domecq, from which Fortune had acquired them in 2005.

In the recent transaction, announced Tuesday, Constellation retained Clos du Bois and Wild Horse (also a former Beam property) while selling, for $209 million to the newly organized Ascentia Wine Estates, these properties: Geyser Peak, Atlas Peak, Buena closdubois.gif Vista Carneros, Gary Farrell, XYZin, the Washington State wineries Columbia Winery and Covey Run and Idaho’s Ste. Chappell. Together, these wineries produce about a million cases of wine annually. Ascentia is headquartered in Healdsburg, Sonoma County. The company was launched by Jim DeBonis, who was chief operating officer of Beam Wine Estates, with major investment from William and Peter Deutsch, whose W.J. Deustch & Sons is one of the country’s best-known wine importers (Yellowtail, Georges Duboeuf), and GESD Capital Partners of San Francisco.

That’s the succinct version of these mergers and acquisitions. Things get really complicated if we trace them back 10 or 15 years; some of these wineries have had more owners than Lindsay Lohan has had mug-shots.

Anyway, these maneuverings seem aimed at one result: To give Constellation the power, using Clos du Bois’ ubiquitous columbialogo.jpg inexpensive chardonnay, to complete against equally ubiquitous Kendall-Jackson in the all-important $12 chardonnay niche, both in retail and in restaurant by-the-glass and bottle sales. Besides that factor, Clos du Bois has been an under-achiever for decades. Will Constellation put the money into Clos du Bois to return its flagship cabernet sauvignon-based Marlstone and Briarcrest wines to the glory days of the late 1970s and early ’80s? The fact that Clos du Bois is not grouped with Constellation’s top-brand Icon Estates properties would imply that we shouldn’t bet on it.

The properties that Ascentia acquired make an interesting and slightly difficult roster. Buena Vista Carneros — the original winery was founded in 1857 — has lately been turning out excellent cool microclimate pinot noirs and syrahs. Gary Farrell Winery produces highly regarded pinot noirs in the Russian River Valley, but the winery’s eponymous founder left after selling to Allied atlas-peak.jpg Domecq in 2004. Atlas Peak, which has undergone many shifts in ownership, is now a brand, making primarily cabernet sauvignon wines from purchased grapes; the former Atlas Peak vineyards are owned by Tuscany’s Piero Antinori, who was always a partner in the deal. Columbia Winery and Covey Run are two of Washington’s best-known labels and are fairly familiar to American wine consumers as producers of a variety of popularly priced products, especially riesling. Geyser Peak makes a widely appreciated sauvignon blanc as well as focusing on regional and vineyard designated merlot and cabernet sauvignon wines; however, the Australian winemaker Darryl Groom, who brought Geyser Peak to an acme of recognition in the 1990s, is no longer with the label.

My point is that most of these wineries are in a state of transition or are simply not well-known, and Ascentia will have to work hard to bring some order to the arrangement and to find niches for a dizzying array of products. As production costs go up and wine sales flatten, it will be a challenge to present some of these labels as fresh and meaningful and as compelling choices for consumers inundated by brands at every price point. Deutsch’s established national distribution network should help.

Meanwhile, we’ll wait breathlessly for Constellation’s next move. More acquisitions? More divesting? More consolidation? Remember, readers, the wine industry is all about markets and marketing and what American wine consumers can be persuaded that they need to drink.

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