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In June I spent three days in North Yuba, a sub-appellation of the Sierra Foothills, about an hour’s drive north of Sacramento, for a brief immersion into the situation of Renaissance Vineyard and Winery and the other wineries and properties in the area. The first task of my visit was devoted to a day-long tasting of RVW library wines, a fairly astonishing collections of thousands of bottles going back to the early 1980s. Not surprisingly, the winery would like to sell these wines, which themselves are a pretty astonishing reflection of quality, integrity and single-minded devotion to an ideal. The winery staff was quite open in its expectation for my visit and looked to me for recommendations about how to market these wines and for the direction RVW should take to make their products more appealing to consumers. This sort of consulting work is not typically the position I find myself in when visiting a vineyard and wine region, but I felt that I had to take these expectations seriously. Here, by the way, are links to my two-part posting on the tasting: Cabernet-based reds and White table and dessert wines.
(Image of Sierra Foothills counties from 1916, courtesy of quarriesandbeyond.org.)
How is the winery going to divest itself of this tremendous store of library wines dating back to the early 1980s? By conveying a sense of a narrative that focuses on the winemakers, the terroir of the property and the quality and character of the wines. It’s a truism of today’s wine market that consumers, especially under the age of 35, are attracted to wines that possess a back-story, whether it’s a unique history or location, whether there’s an interesting aspect to the personalities involved or to the winemaking process. To reach to the contemporary audience, Renaissance needs to do what it has never done in its almost 40-year chronicle: Hire an outside marketing agency to craft this narrative and package the wines for sale to a particular stratum of restaurants and retail outlets. The advantage for restaurants would be that they could offer aged wines on their lists without having to serve them before they’re ready to drink or store them for a decade, the latter a prospect that few restaurants have the space for or can afford. Imagine being able to recommend the Renaissance Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc 1989 or the Riesling 2002 or the Estate Cabernets from 1994, ’93 and ’91, all drinking perfectly now, to discerning palates.

This marketing agency could create, indeed with no embellishment, a fascinating narrative about a succession of fanatical winemakers dedicated to low alcohol content, little or no new oak, Old World techniques and organic methods. Imagine the appeal to collectors of a package that included cabernet-based wines from the 1980s, 90s and 2000s made by original winemaker Carl Werner; his wife Diana, who became winemaker when Werner died in 1988; and Gideon Beinstock, winemaker from 1994 to 2011, or of the winery’s late harvest dessert wines. The ability to taste such wines and compare them is invaluable. The fact that Carl Werner’s cabernets from years such as 1983 and 1984 are just coming round to a drinkable state, having shed their considerable tannins, creates a unique opportunity in California. It doesn’t hurt that Renaissance is located not in Napa Valley or Sonoma but in North Yuba in the Sierra Foothills, a region that may lack the glamor and recognition of better-known areas but offers the attraction and authenticity of laboring in obscurity and even a tinge of stubbornness.

A variety of ways exist through which a wine-savvy marketing agency could package and promote these wines to retailers and the restaurant trade, but Greg Holman, president of RVW, and his staff would have to be receptive to suggestions and new ideas and willing to make the financial outlay necessary.

And what about the future?

First, trim the line. RVW offers four cabernet sauvignon or cabernet-based wines — the “regular” cabernet sauvignon, a Reserve bottling, the Claret Prestige and the Vin de Terroir — and four Rhone-inspired red wines, a single-variety syrah and the blends La Provencal, Mediterranean Red and Granite Crown. Asking consumers to understand the differences among these wines and their motivations leads to confusion and indifference. Perhaps limiting these labels to a regular and reserve cabernet and one Rhone-style blend in addition to the syrah would clarify matters.

Second, engage in a major label revamp, another task for a marketing or design firm. Let’s face it, while the Renaissance label may be dignified, it’s also stodgy and bland. I don’t advocate changing a label design whenever the vagaries of fashion seem to dictate, and I admire wineries like Grgich Hills, for example, for staying with an uncluttered, elegant and easily identifiable label. The retention of the Renaissance label, however, feels more like habit than devotion, and I would say that it’s time for a shake-up. Keep the initial “R,” or a version of it, with its hint of antique finery, but clarify, simplify and modernize the rest.

Third, update the winery website with better graphic elements, a more compelling design, pictures of the winery and the estate, and, speaking selfishly, a section for Trade & Press where images and technical information can easily be obtained. A website and an active blog increasingly are part of a winery’s story.

The Jameson brand represents the largest-selling Irish whiskey in the world. The company was founded in Dublin in 1780 by (of all things) Scotsman John Jameson. Its parent entity is Irish Distillers Corp, formed in 1966, which in turn was acquired by Pernod-Ricard in 1988. Pernod-Ricard encompasses 36 spirits and wine brands that include Absolut, Chivas Regal, Ballantine’s Scotch, Beefeater Gin, Jameson, Kahlua, The Glenlivet, G.H. Mumm and Perrier-Jouet. Let me know if you haven’t heard of any of those names. The company owns 96 production sites in 23 countries, according to its annual report for 2012-13. Total assets currently are $8.72 billion, according to Market Watch. Pernod-Ricard is, in other words, a company that possesses worldwide depth and breadth, mega-clout and the dinero to back up its claims.

Jamieson Ranch Vineyards is a winery located in the Napa Valley, in fact the southernmost winery in the appellation. Formerly known as Kirkland Ranch Winery and Reata Vineyard, the company changed its name to Jamieson Ranch in 2013; it happens to be located on Jameson (not Jamieson) Canyon Road. The history of the property is tangled, involving dubious business decisions going back to the late 1990s and bankruptcy filings, but it is owned now by Madison Vineyard Holdings of Greenwood Village, Colorado, a company involved in myriad enterprises including high-end art storage in New York. Jamieson Ranch produces about 35,000 cases annually under its eponymous label, retaining the Reata name for some pinot noirs and chardonnays, and uses the Light Horse brand for inexpensive products. Prices for the Jamieson and Reata wines range from about $24 to $60. Assets of Madison Vineyard Holdings, according to the company’s website, are $250 million.

Early this year, Irish Distillers sent a cease-and-desist letter to Madison Vineyard Holdings, asserting that “Jamieson” is “confusingly similar” to “Jameson” and is “likely to cause consumer confusion and/or the appearance that your client’s business originates from or is endorsed or authorised by Irish Distillers,” the use of which is likely to dilute the mark “Jameson.” Madison Vineyard Holdings responded by filing suit against Irish Distillers for declaratory relief, a term that is totally meaningless to me but I assume implies that there’s no danger to Jameson Irish Whiskey from Jamieson Ranch Winery and that Jameson should leave Jamieson the hell alone.

It seems to me that only people who lack the intellectual prowess to tell the difference between, say, Lady Gaga and Little Lulu — meaning lawyers — would find the labels, intentions and products of Jameson Irish Whiskey and the wines of Jamieson Ranch Vineyard “confusingly similar.”

Let’s examine the evidence.

Jameson Irish Whiskey is a distilled spirit made from grain. The alcohol content is 40 percent. It’s a rich amber-brown color. It looks and tastes nothing like wine.

The products of Jamieson Ranch Vineyards are fermented from grapes. Alcohol contents tend to be about 13.5 to 14.5 percent. Colors range from ruby-purple to pale gold. They look and taste nothing like Irish whiskey.

Additionally, distilled spirits and wine are stored in different sections of retail stores, none of which want to muddy the waters by keeping whiskey next to wine. I cannot conceive that any person would set a bottle of one next to the other and think, “Oh ho, these brands must be the same.” Despite these factors, lawyers for Pernod-Ricard are tallying the billable hours in going after a harmless gnat with a baseball bat. This rigamarole makes as much sense as a case I mentioned three years ago in which the giant Anheuser-Busch InBev went after a tiny winery in Argentina called Budini because their label would “dilute” the effect of Budweiser. The result was than Budini became Bodini. Money counts, as if you didn’t know.

Readers, today marks the 30th anniversary of my first wine column in The Commercial Appeal newspaper in Memphis. That’s right, it was July 11, 1984, and I was still a full-time college English teacher living in a dry county in Mississippi, just south of Memphis. The rest, as they say, is history but a very special and meaningful history. Thanks to Jan Smith, librarian at the newspaper, for digging up that column on microfilm and sending me a copy.

Under the headline “Wine connoisseur’s palate goes public” — I was anything but a connoisseur — I introduced myself; explained the purpose of the column, which was to appear monthly but quickly went weekly and five years later national; and provided reviews of a series of wines including several examples of vintage 1981 in Bordeaux and a group of miscellaneous products. My choice for the best price-quality ratio among the Bordeaux wines was Chateau Lynch-Moussas ’81, a wine of “balance and breeding” priced at $10 to $13. I also liked the Silverado Sauvignon Blanc 1982, Napa Valley (about $9); the Mount Veeder Late Harvest Zinfandel 1980, Napa Valley (about $10 for a half-bottle); the Domaine de la Tour d’Elyssas Vin de Syrah 1981, Coteaux du Tricastin, in the southern Rhone Valley (about $5); the Simi Cabernet Sauvignon 1979, Alexander Valley (about $9); and the Shadow Creek Brut Cuvée No. 1 (about $10).

I leapt into wine reviewing with the same approach that I take today, though I hope that 30 years have honed my palate and technique. Here’s what I wrote about the Mount Veeder Late Harvest Zinfandel 1980:

This wine is a beautiful deep purple, almost opaque; the nose is tannic and fruity and just slightly sweet; deep, complex and mouth-filling, almost thick, grapes and berries, hints of chocolate and vegetal undertones. Magnificent! Drink this with a wedge of English cheese after dinner. It should last and improve for decades.

Not bad for a beginner, I guess.

Writing about wine, first for the newspaper and the Scripps Howard News Service for 20 years, then on my old website and since December 2006 for this blog, has certainly given me the chance to taste and drink countless numbers of fine wines as well as afforded me the opportunity to travel not only to wine regions in this country but around the world. Most important, though, are the trust and the friendship that I have developed with so many people, from my local retailers and distributors to importers, producers and winemakers, public relations and marketing people and other writers and journalists — I see many of you almost daily on Facebook — to the consumers I see out and about who come over and say, “Hey, just read about this wine on your blog and went out and bought it.” All of you make this effort worth while. The awards don’t hurt either, so thank you for the confidence that those many votes expressed.

Tasting wines occurs under many circumstances and in many venues, all of which have advantages and disadvantages. Best, though, is to sit down with LL to a dinner that she cooked or perhaps we prepared together and I open a bottle of wine and pour it and we clink glasses and take a sniff and sip and say, often together, “Oh, yeah, that’s good.” I dedicate all this to her.

We’re dining with a friend tonight at an excellent restaurant, and, as is my habit, I’ll take a bottle of wine from home. “But wait!” you say. “Doesn’t this restaurant have a wine list?” Indeed it does have a wine list, and a good one, but not a great or adventurous one. I’m happy to pay a corkage fee to bring a bottle in that gives me the opportunity to try it with a variety of foods and to take a few notes. “Brown-bagging,” as the procedure used to be called, is a time-honored tradition in eating out, and while restaurateurs may grumble, it’s a way of keeping patrons happy, especially high-ticket customers that own collections of lovely old vintage wines. (Full disclosure: I’m not one of those.)

Let’s face it, most restaurants don’t store large quantities of older wines because they don’t have the space and because the wines are expensive, and they don’t buy young wines with the potential to improve with “laying down” because they can’t afford to tie up capital while the wine is aging. Depending on the state or municipality, restaurant owners can institute rules about bringing in wine but not necessarily forbid the practice. In this state, for example, according to an opinion filed on June 14, 1977, by Tennessee assistant attorney general William C. Koch Jr., “the practice of ‘brown-bagging’ is legal under state law,” and “‘brown-bagging’ is permissible as a matter of state law in all parts of the State.”

If you want to take your favorite wine or a special wine to a restaurant, though, certain forms of etiquette apply. I mean, there’s no sense in antagonizing a restaurant owner or manager just to get your way. Look at it this way: A bottle of wine brought into a restaurant by a customer makes an interruption in the (one hopes thoughtful) synergy between the cuisine and the menu, unless that customer is very knowledgeable about the menu and the wine list. Act accordingly. Here are some aspects to consider:

1. Don’t take a wine that’s on the restaurant’s wine list. That’s just tacky. Most restaurants nowadays post their menus and wine lists online; check it first.

2. Don’t take a wine that insults the restaurant. If you’re eating at a fine dining establishment that features an award-winning menu and a great, imaginative wine list, leave your plonk chardonnay and Beaujolais-Villages at home.

3. Don’t take too many wines or burden your waiter with a table loaded with your wines, as if you’re promoting your own tasting. Two bottles should be the limit, unless you have made arrangements with the manager and, preferably, occupy a private room.

4. Buy a bottle from the restaurant’s list for every bottle you bring in. After all, the restaurant needs to make something from this transaction.

5. If you’re bringing in a rare old bottle, offer a glass to the sommelier and chef or owner. If it’s Mouton-Rothschild ’29 or the like — you should be so lucky — call the restaurant and inform the manager. Don’t spring a legendary wine on the restaurant as a surprise.

6. Pay the corkage fee willingly and graciously.

7. Tip for the bottle or bottles you brought in. The waiter or sommelier made an effort to accommodate you.

8. If there’s a little wine left in the bottle, leave it for the staff.

9. Don’t actually put the wine in a brown paper bag.

Image from worldmarket.com.

In the past three days, the friendly, if not incredulous, UPS and FedEx drivers have traveled numerous times to my threshold, delivering wines for review. Almost five cases in fact. A similar circumstance prevailed last week. That’s a lot of wine, and I’m sure you understand that there’s already an enormous amount of wine in the house.

It’s easy to understand why so much vinous product is being sent to me now. The weather is perfect, neither frigid nor torrid, so wine will not be ruined during its passage, typically from the West Coast or the Northeast. I’m certain that wine reviewers exist who receive more wine than I do, but I’ll admit that the amount of wine currently stacking up chez Koeppel is overwhelming. I know, I know, unsympathetic readers are muttering, “Oh, gee, poor guy, having to drink all that free wine,” as if I actually consume the contents of every bottle and as if every wine delivered to my door is a Grand Cru Burgundy, First Growth Bordeaux or vintage Champagne. (Full disclosure: It never is.)

The idea, of course, is to taste the wine, not scarf it down, though I tend to save the best or most interesting wines for dinner. The sordid truth is most of the wine gets tasted in the kitchen, in a fairly rigid swirl-sniff-sip/spit-swallow-spit ritual and the rest of the product gets poured — oh, the horror! — into the sink. That’s the way it’s done, folks.

How do I decide what wines go through the process? As with most matters in life, there’s a hierarchy. Here, then, is an outline of how the wines I taste and write about are arranged on the priority scale. Pay heed.

1. The wines I give most attention to are those that are sent after a winery or importer’s representative or marketing person sends me an email asking if I would be interested in tasting such and such wines and may they send them to me. It helps that the wines in question embody great quality or reputation or have an intriguing geographical, historical or personal background or story. (I don’t need the whole story in that email.)

2.Second in priority are wines that arrive, whether after inquiry or not, from wineries or producers with whom I have a long record of tasting and writing about their wines.

3. Third in line are wines that arrive unheralded but that seem promising in terms of their history, heritage, geographical significance or grape make-up or that fit into whatever my present wine-tasting mode is. Yes, friends, it’s a crap-shoot.

4. Finally, down here, is the slough of plonk that makes me wonder if people who send out wine ever read this blog.

Will every wine I receive be reviewed on BTYH? Nosiree, the world does not hold enough time and space for me to accomplish that feat. In fact, I encourage people who submit wines for my perusal to remember that just as newspapers do not review all the books they are sent, so do wine writers not review all the wines delivered to their doors. Book reviewers plead eyesight; we plead the health of our livers.

I’ll admit that it’s gratifying to open a wine sent anonymously, as it were, and discover true greatness or, alternatively, true decent quaffability. In an ideal world, though, I’d like prior notice.

My Readers — I’m pleased, O.K., thrilled, to announce that BiggerThanYourHead won Best Reviews on a Wine Blog from the annual Wine Blog Awards for the third time, adding 2013 to the awards of 2009 and 2010. I’ll admit that I was becoming cynical about my efforts, my talents and writing abilities, just because, I suppose, there are so many blogs out there that review wine and assay commentary on the wine industry, that the whole endeavor, bloggers as well as audience, is getting younger, and because I thought my voice was too well known to merit much interest. So I’m doubly thrilled that people voted for this blog and for the concept of what I do here, and that is to write about individual wines and groups of wines in a way that peels back the wine to get at its essence, its heart, and to place that wine (or those wines) as much as possible in a historical, geographical, personal and technical context. Heartened by this award, I will continue to produce the same kinds of reviews and stories that I have written since this blog was launched in December 2006 and since my first print column was published in July 1984. Yep, I’m a veteran, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t love wine and all the ideas and nuances that surround each great bottle. Here’s to you, My Readers, for your confidence in me, your patience and your appreciation. Cheers, and remember always to drink sensibly and in moderation.


Dear Readers: Again this blog has been named a finalist in the Best Wine Review Blog category in the Wine Blog Awards. If you appreciate what I do here and profit from the approach I take in terms of writing about and describing wines and providing background information of a historical, geographical, technical and philosophical nature, then I in turn would appreciate your vote. Here’s a link to the awards page: http://wineblogawards.org/from-the-organizers/the-finalists-in-the-2013-wine-blog-awards-are-announced/

Thanks for your confidence and for your readership.

I made the Toad Hollow “Eye of the Toad” Dry Rosé of Pinot Noir 2012 my Wine of the Week on March 19. Now it’s the turn of the Toad Hollow Erik’s the Red Proprietary Red Wine 2011, which carries a general “California” designation. Pour quoi? Because the zinfandel and petite sirah grapes for this robust blend came from Lodi, the syrah and malbec from Central Coast, and the dolcetto from Mendocino County. I have a great deal of fondness for this winery that delivers well-made wines at prices sometimes far below what could be asked if quality were the criterion; in other words, Toad Hollow turns out authentic and drinkable wines at great prices. The last Erik’s I reviewed was the 2009; the blend for that wine was primarily merlot, cabernet sauvignon and zinfandel with dabs of souza, tannat, syrah and petite sirah. A different roster of grapes, however, has not changed this wine’s defining characteristic, a combination of attractive rusticity and bumptiousness with full-throttle dark and spicy black and blue fruit flavors and fine detailing of acid, tannin and mineral elements. The color is dark ruby-mulberry; the bouquet teems with notes of black currants, plums and blueberries with hints of mocha, black tea, black olives and pepper. The wine is lively and vibrant, moderately dense and chewy and bursting with ripe, slightly roasted and macerated black cherries, raspberries and currants; a wash of earthy briery-brambly-graphite completes the finish. 13.9 percent alcohol. Great for barbecue ribs, grilled pork chops and steaks or hearty pasta dishes, through the end of 2013. Very Good+. About $15.

A sample for review.

Boy, a lot of people blog about wine. If there were a conference of people who blogged about watches or sailboats or sandwiches or collecting Hummel elves would there be so many? By many I mean about 375, so, sure, that’s a drop in the wine barrel compared to bloggers that concern themselves with national affairs or neo-nazi hate music, but when you see all of these eager shining faces gathered in one place (with their computers, iPads, electronic notebooks and phones), it’s rather overwhelming.

So, here we are at the Doubletree hotel in Portland, Oregon, on what I can’t help thinking is the wrong side of the river from Downtown. The schedule is filled each day with myriad activities, including, yesterday, visits to wineries in the Willamette Valley — everyone piles into buses and isn’t told where they’re going until the buses take off — and today sessions of discussions on various aspects of blogging about wine, including what I’m sure will be an eagerly attended panel about monetizing our efforts instead of endlessly laboring on our blogs for the sake of free wine, a privilege that’s gratifying indeed but doesn’t pay the bills. Later today occur the announcement of the winners of the Wine Blog Awards — keep your fingers crossed for Your Truly in the Best Writing category — and a banquet hosted by King Estate.

What I discovered is that a huge amount of ex officio activities take place, mainly in the form of tastings put on by different wineries and trade groups. Some of these events occur during the day, but most of them fall after hours, by which I mean that they start at 10 p.m. and go on until after midnight. Last night I finally turned in my glass and closed by notebook at 12:15 a.m., after having gone to five tastings — including one that was shut down by hotel security for being too loud — but I know that other people stayed up much later. I can only do what I can do, n’est-ce pas?

I’ll get to the details of some of these tasting events in a few days; I don’t want to neglect some of the spectacular wines that I tried, many of which were new to me, but right now I have to hurry off to breakfast off-site to meet a winery person and then get back to the Doubletree for the first discussion meetings.

Let me add, though, a final observation, and that is that attending a conference like this tends to put things in perspective. You can imagine how gratifying it is to be told by a winery person or importer that “we send you wines because you’re one of the top ten wine bloggers” — yeah, I liked that! — or to have fellow bloggers come up to me and say things like “I’ve been reading your blog forever” or “I’ve always wanted to meet you” or, at least, “Oh, I follow you on Twitter.” And yet just as many times, on introducing myself to let’s say someone who has been to every Wine Bloggers’ Conference, the response is a stare or nod of polite incomprehension. We are never as important as we think we are.


My Readers, beginning tomorrow through Sunday, I’ll be posting to this blog and to Twitter and Facebook from the 2012 Wine Bloggers’ Conference in Portland, Oregon. The roster of activities and tastings and discussions, as well as after-hours tastings set up by various wineries and importers — these occur from 10 p.m. until midnight — is awesome. The weather in Portland is unseasonably warm, so I won’t be getting the relief from the hideous heat in Memphis that I thought I would, but I’m taking shorts and sandals for comfort. I’ll get back to posting as soon as I can. The winners of the Wine Blog Awards will be announced Saturday night; keep your fingers crossed for this blog in the Best Writing category.

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