Guest comment: The Blanding of American wine

This article was written by a renowned wine writer and competition judge, first appearing in the Santa Rosa (CA) Press Democrat.

By Dan Berger

I saw a tweet the other day in which a wine commentator decried what he said was the peppery taste in a syrah he was reviewing.

The comment was amusing and led me to conclude that the blanding of American wine was nearly complete.

Before setting off on this diatribe against mindless commentary, let me defend myself by saying that the old Latin phrase beginning "De gustibus" still holds true: About matters of taste there is no debate. You like sauerkraut, I don’t, and neither one of us is "right."

Still, with wine as with a lot of other consumer goods, there is a standard of quality and then there is a lack of same.

[Go here for the full commentary.]

To Dowd's Spirits Notebook latest entry.
To Dowd's Tasting Notes latest entry.
Back to Dowd On Drinks home page.


Rhône Valley named world's best region

The Rhône Valley region of France
Not that it needed another accolade to burnish its centuries-old reputation, but the Rhône Valley of southeastern France has been named "2010 Wine Region of the Year," part of the annual Wine Star Awards.

According to the editors of The Wine Enthusiast Magazine, who made the selection, the Rhône Valley’s excellent vintages and quality work made it the first French region to be so honored in the history of the awards.

"When we considered its recent string of top vintages and growing environmental stewardship, it emerged as a clear favorite choice ... ," said Joe Czerwinski, the magazine's senior editor and tasting director.

The valley, located along the Rhône River between Lyon and Avignon, is known for crafting one of the world’s most diverse collection. It has more than 6,000 vineyards and produces about 400 million bottles of wine every year, reaching out to approximately 150 countries, as per 2009 figures. Currently, the U.S. is the second largest export market for Rhône Valley wines.

The full list of Wine Star Awards:

Wine Region of the Year

Rhône Valley (France)
Ribera Del Duero (Spain)
Russian River Valley (California)
Prosecco (Italy)
Willamette Valley (Oregon)

• American Winery of the Year

Barefoot (Modesto, CA)
Hermann J. Weimer (Finger Lakes, NY)
J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines (San Jose, CA)
Pacific Rim (Columbia Valley, WA)
Shafer Vineyards (Napa Valley, CA)

• Winemaker of the Year

Frederic Bonnaffous and Guillaume Pouthier, Dourthe (France)
Bob Cabral, Williams Selyem (California)
Genevieve Janssens, Robert Mondavi Winery (California)
Zelma Long, Vilafonte, (South Africa)
Phillipe Melka, Melka Wines (California)

• European Winery of the Year

Gérard Bertrand (France)
Louis Latour (France)
Mastroberardino (Italy)
Sogrape (Portugal)
Viña Sastre (Spain)

• New World Winery of the Year

Achaval-Ferrer (Argentina)
Bodega Catena Zapata (Argentina)
Craggy Range (New Zeland)
DGB (South Africa)
Viña San Pedro (Chile)

Distiller of the Year

Beefeater Gin
Cooper Spirits (St-Germain)
Hangar One
Jack Daniel's
Milagro Tequila

• Importer of the Year

Aveníu Brands
Fine Estates From Spain
Kermit Lynch
Preiss Imports
TGIC Importers

• Retailer of the Year

Bounty Hunter (Napa Valley)
Sherry-Lehmann (New York)
Stew Leonard's (NY, NJ, CT)
Trader Joe's (nationwide)
Vino Volo (airports nationwide)

Innovator of the Year

Hall Winery (California)
Alain Juppé (France)
Libera Terra (Sicily)
Murphy-Goode (California)
The New Zealand Wine Industry

• Restaurateur of the Year

Tom Colicchio (New York)
Tyler Florence (California)
Danny Meyer (New York)
Michael Mina (California and nationwide)
Gordon Ramsay (worldwide)

To Dowd's Spirits Notebook latest entry.
To Dowd's Tasting Notes latest entry.
Back to Dowd On Drinks home page.

New York grape production up 32%

While a lot of other industries have been reporting less production, grape production in New York State increased 32% last year over 2009.

King Whetstone, director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Agricultural Statistics Service, New York Field Office, yesterday confirmed what industry members have anecdotally been saying -- that 2009 was a bumper crop. He put the total output at 176,000 tons.

However, the state's tart cherry crop is estimated at 7.8 million pounds, down 30% from the 2009 crop of 11.2 million pounds, and the apple crop was down 5%, to 1.3 billion pounds.

The grape production breaks down to 4,000 tons of fresh grapes, with 172,000 tons crushed by wineries and processors. Grapes utilized for juice accounted for 70% of the total grapes processed with the remaining 30% going for wine.

The value of the 2010 grape crop is estimated at $68.4 million, 44% above the 2009 crop value. New York ranked third in grape production behind California and Washington state.

To Dowd's Spirits Notebook latest entry.
To Dowd's Tasting Notes latest entry.
Back to Dowd On Drinks home page.


Celebri-quote: Phil Keoghan

Phil Keoghan, Emmy Award-winning host of the reality show "The Amazing Race," was interviewed for the January issue of Bon Appétit magazine about his food and wine interests.

I have one glass of Pinot Noir every day. I have a note from my doctor to drink a glass of wine every day! I have the prescription framed at home. He said I have to focus on incorporating more olive oil and red wine into my diet to raise up my "good" cholesterol, which was low.

I'm not big on drinks and I don't drink much, but I absolutely love relaxing at home with food and a nice Pinot Noir.

(Go here for more Celebri-Quotes.)

To Dowd's Wine Notebook latest entry.
To Dowd's Tasting Notes latest entry.
Back to Dowd On Drinks home page.


PA wine vending kiosks malfunction

The wine marketing world has been keeping an eye on Pennsylvania, where wine vending machines have been placed in certain grocery stores on a trial basis.

The first reports are not good.

More than 700 kiosk problems were reported to the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board between June 24 and Dec. 20, according to a report in the Patriot-News, citing its review of the agency’s call center log obtained through a Right to Know request.

The kiosks, located in 29 supermarkets across the commonwealth, are being tested to see if they actually provide more convenient service to consumers who otherwise would have to visit a state store to purchase wine. Customers have to pass a blood alcohol breath test to use them.

It was revealed that all of the kiosks were shut down on December 21 after bottles failed to dispense in one of every 150 to 175 transactions. The newspaper said more than 150 calls reported that kiosk screens froze, were lagging or did not show any words. More than 100 other reports said the kiosk shut down, showed error messages or the screen went black.

About 130 reports dealt with customers’ ID cards not scanning, getting stuck in the machine or prompting an ID hardware error message, according to the paper’s analysis.

Other problems included kiosk doors not unlocking, plastic shields not rotating to dispense the bottle or staying open after a transaction, Breathalyzer pads requiring multiple attempts and receipts not printing.

Jim Lesser, CEO of Simple Brands, the developer of the Pronto wine kiosks, said many of the reported problems stemmed from faulty resistors and problems with circuit boards. He said the company replaced circuit boards and tens of thousands of resistors, realigned receipt printers and installed faster processors to speed transactions.

Five or six kiosks are to be reopened Tuesday of this week on a trial basis for a week. If no problems are encountered, the rest will be put back into service.

To Dowd's Spirits Notebook latest entry.
To Dowd's Tasting Notes latest entry.
Back to Dowd On Drinks home page.

Depending on your viewpoint, NZ bumper crop can be called good or bad

From Stuff.co.nz

A bumper year for the country's grape growers could be great news for wine buyers, but not vineyards.

Good growing conditions mean that this year's harvest might exceed 300,000 tons, raising the possibility of another wine glut and a tough year for wineries.

Oversupply has threatened to damage the value of New Zealand wines in key export markets since a bumper harvest in 2008. Grape prices subsequently slumped and, with them, profits.

Now, "Vintage 2010," a state-of-the industry report by Deloittes and New Zealand Winegrowers, warns that although last year's reduced vintage went some way to alleviating problems caused by previous bumper harvests, the 2011 harvest could exceed 300,000 tons, adding to the industry's woes.

That warning is backed up by the producers of Oyster Bay wines, Delegat's, who said the wine surplus would continue to cause headaches for the next two years.

(Go here for the full story.)

To Dowd's Spirits Notebook latest entry.
To Dowd's Tasting Notes latest entry.
Back to Dowd On Drinks home page.


WWII wine cache found in Germany

From Reuters

A German vintner acting on a hunch uncovered a hidden trove of wine untouched since 1945.

Andreas Neymeyer discovered 500 bottles under a cellar staircase while clearing out a burned-out building on his 94-acre) vineyard in southern Germany shortly before Christmas.

"It was my uncle's idea," Neymeyer told Reuters. "I was preparing the building to be torn down and he knew that wine had been hidden sometime before the end of World War II. It was springtime 1945 and the French were about to invade. My family wanted to secure some wine if there was any looting by troops."

It was not the first reserve of wine that Neymeyer has found on the vineyard, which produces some 350,000 bottles of wine each year.

"The wine is still drinkable; in fact some is quite good," the fifth generation vintner said. "The dark conditions were ideal for storage."

Some of the bottles were not from the vineyard but were sweet wines thought to be from Spain or Greece. Brandy, schnapps and sacramental wine was also found in the collection.

Neymeyer plans to rebottle the wine and put it up for auction when the new building is ready to open next year.

To Dowd's Spirits Notebook latest entry.
To Dowd's Tasting Notes latest entry.
Back to Dowd On Drinks home page.


NC wine club: No men allowed

From the Asheville (NC) Citizen-Times

ASHEVILLE, NC -- No boys are allowed, but don't confuse this crew with a childhood clubhouse. There is something decidedly more adult about this new Asheville social group: Wine is a founding member.

Santé Wine Bar in the Grove Arcade will host its first "Girls Gone Wino" event Sunday, featuring cookbook author and chef Louisa Shafia of "Lucid Foods: Cooking for an Eco-conscious Life."
""It's just an opportunity for women to meet new people,” said owner Carla Baden of Girls Gone Wino.

It's not really about excluding men because they have cooties; it's more about "giving women an opportunity for a girls' night out," Baden said. "It gives us an excuse."

(Go here for the full story.)

To Dowd's Spirits Notebook latest entry.
To Dowd's Tasting Notes latest entry.
Back to Dowd On Drinks home page.


Earliest known wine press found in Armenia

A wine press, behind which an archaeological identification kit is placed,
in Armenia. The vat, right of the press,  apparently was used for 
accumulating grape juice and the consequent wine fermentation.

From the Associated Press

The earliest known winery has been uncovered in a cave in the mountains of Armenia.

A vat to press the grapes, fermentation jars and even a cup and drinking bowl dating to about 6,000 years ago were discovered in the cave complex by an international team of researchers.

While older evidence of wine drinking has been found, this is the earliest example of complete wine production, according to Gregory Areshian of the University of California, Los Angeles, co-director of the excavation.

The findings, announced Tuesday by the National Geographic Society, are published in the online edition of the Journal of Archaeological Science.

"The evidence argues convincingly for a wine-making facility," said Patrick McGovern, scientific director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Laboratory at the University of Swann Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia, who was not part of the research team.

Such large-scale wine production implies that the Eurasian grape had already been domesticated, said McGovern, author of "Uncorking the Past: The Quest for Wine, Beer and Other Alcoholic Beverages."

(Go here for the full story.)

To Dowd's Spirits Notebook latest entry.
To Dowd's Tasting Notes latest entry.
Back to Dowd On Drinks home page.


SF Chronicle awards announced

CLOVERDALE, CA -- The monumental, week-long task of judging more than 5,000 different wines has been completed, and the five sweepstakes winners -- as well as dozens of other medalists -- have been selected in the 8th annual San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition.

The event, which for all eight years has held the title of "Largest Competition of American Wines in the World" racked up 4,913 entries last year and topped it this year with 5,050 from 23 states.

Judging was conducted at the Cloverdale Citrus Fairgrounds in Sonoma County. Wines were awarded as bronze, silver, gold, and double gold (unanimous gold by the judges). In addition, there were "Best of Class" awards and the prestigious Sweepstake Awards.

The major sweepstakes awards, by category:

Sparkling: 2006 Gloria Ferrer Carneros Brut Rosé ($42)

• White: NV St. Clair New Mexico Gewurztraminer ($11)

• Pink: 2010 Barnard Griffin Columbia Valley Rosé of Sangiovese ($12)

Red: Tie between 2008 Thacher Triumvirate Paso Robles Zinfandel ($36) and 2008 Ecluse Wines Lock Vineyard Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon ($32)

Dessert: 2009 Alapay Cellars Late Harvest Paso Robles Sauvignon Blanc ($30)

The full list of award winners is available here.

To Dowd's Spirits Notebook latest entry.
To Dowd's Tasting Notes latest entry.
Back to Dowd On Drinks home page.

Newcomer doubles up in PA competition

Scott Bubb shows off his double trophies.
HARRISBURG, PA -- Seven Mountains Wine Cellars isn't a widely-known operation, but it certainly has a higher profile today than it did a week ago.

The Centre County facility, which won't even mark its first anniversary until August, on Saturday became the first entrant ever to win the Governor's Cup top awards in both grape- and non-grape wine categories of the Pennsylvania Farm Show competition.
Seven Mountains' grand-prize winner in the grape category was its 2009 vidal ice wine. Its 2009 cranberry won for the fruit category.

Scott Bubb is the owner and winemaker who runs the facility with his wife, Mary Ann. When they received advance word they were in the running for awards, they chartered a bus to whisk them and 46 supporters to the show. The Bubbs were presented with their trophies by Pennsylvania Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding at a ceremony at the Farm Show.

Thirty-seven Pennsylvania wineries submitted a total of 244 wines for the competition.The best-in-show wines in six categories were chosen from among the gold medalists, and from those six wines two were chosen for the Governor’s Cups.

Scott Bubb is a native of Mifflin County. He got into winemaking in 1976, making his first batch from Concord grapes picked in his Aunt Sylvia's back yard. He became a professional when the manufacturing plant that employed him closed.

He earned numerous regional and national awards as an amateur, including being ranked 12th on the American Wine Society's list of the "Top 50 Amateur Winemakers in the United States." Now, his professional status seems equally promising.

To Dowd's Spirits Notebook latest entry.
To Dowd's Tasting Notes latest entry.
Back to Dowd On Drinks home page.

Washington considers wine/beer sampling

This is how it's done in California.

From the Seattle (WA) Times:

OLYMPIA, WA — Following in the steps of grocery stores, farmers markets soon may be allowed to offer wine and beer samples to customers.

Sponsored by state Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, Senate Bill 5029 would authorize a pilot program for limited wine and beer tasting at farmers markets.

Kohl-Welles ... proposed the program in the previous legislative session, but it failed to reach a vote on the Senate floor.

"We have a longer amount of time to get ... bills through, and I believe it would be very helpful to our farmers markets, which I strongly support and are growing across the state of Washington," she said. " ... And I think particularly for our small wineries and small craft breweries, they have a harder time marketing to the public. This gives our potential customers the opportunity to taste the product."

The Legislature convened today for a 105-day session that will be dominated by wrangling over the state budget.

The bill would direct the state Liquor Control Board to choose 10 farmers markets for the pilot project, which would run from July 2011 to September 2012. Only one winery or microbrewery could offer samples at a market per day, customers would have to stay in a designated tasting location, and food would be available to customers as they drink their samples of two ounces or less. ...

As of December, 195 groceries in Washington were authorized to provide wine and beer samples.

To Dowd's Spirits Notebook latest entry.
To Dowd's Tasting Notes latest entry.
Back to Dowd On Drinks home page.


NY wine-in-markets debate flares anew

Speculation is one of New York State’s major industries. Speculation about one of its other major industries takes things to a different level.

With the arrival of Andrew Cuomo as governor, and his appointment of people to various key advisory and regulatory positions, the matter of wine sales in supermarkets quickly has come up once again. Given that it got a lengthy walk in the spotlight from the State Legislature last summer before once again disappearing under an avalanche of hysteria, you can expect the matter to be kept at the top of the agenda for many people.

Tim Morral
How the pro-market forces will fare under Cuomo is an unknown at this point. Even people on the same side of the issue already are disagreeing. For example, the respected blogger Tim Morral writes on his blog NY Wine Guy, “Is Cuomo New York wine’s knight in shining armor? … Although he may find it difficult to match Governor Paterson’s entertainment value, Andrew Cuomo is making a lot of noise about rebuilding the state’s economy. If he succeeds that could be good news for the New York wine industry.”

Among the “signs” he cites:

• The election of ex-Rochester mayor and police chief Bob Duffy as lieutenant governor. He has long been exposed to the business power and potential of the ever-growing Finger Lakes wine community.
• The appointment of Danny Wegman, of the Wegmans grocery store empire, to an Upstate Business Council that Cuomo has promised to create. His stores in other states already sell wines.
• The fact that the governor’s girlfriend, Sandra Lee of Food Network fame, is a big wine fan and would seem to have the ear of the man in charge.

Carlo DeVito
However, Carlo DeVito doesn’t buy that. DeVito, a New York City publishing executive and owner with wife Dominique of Hudson-Chatham Winery in Columbia County, writes on his own blog, “Where my fellow blogger is wrong is that he thinks “it would mean a significant revenue boost for New York wineries. A greater emphasis on the wine industry in Albany would be nice, but selling wine in grocery stores is a start.” I am sorry, but that’s bullshit.

“An emphasis on growing the wineries is a great idea. Where’s some tourism dollars? Where’s the funding that wineries in Maryland and Virginia, and other states are getting to promote their wine industries and tourism? Now, I’ve played many games on the playground, and I know the old rubric ‘Money talks, bullshit walks,’ but this is too much. Name which wineries will actually score big. I can tell you who: The five largest wineries in the state, one of which will be Canadaigua. Then it will be California, Australia, Chile, and Argentina.

“I used to live next to a Wegmans. They sold four or five NY state wines, and then the rest were everything else — from Cakebread and rare French Bordeaux’s and Burgundies to Yellow Tail and Franzia. I’ve had someone tell me from one of these larger wineries that with my own winery I could probably sell a couple of delis that I couldn’t get in before. Gee, thanks! Where’s the revenue boost? Wegmans will get a sweetheart deal on taxes and pay into the coffers, and a number of smaller, ill equipped wine stores will bite the dust. When the small stores falter, the small wineries will falter as well. It’s only the big store chains that will make something happen.

“The reason the wineries haven’t helped make this deal happen yet is pure and simple. In the main, it won’t help the NY wineries, or they would already have gotten it done. Out of the more than 300 wineries in NY State, Wegmans has only ever carried five or six. What happens to the other 294? … I say to Duffy and Cuomo, let’s have a meeting. Let’s have a discussion. Ask a few dozen winery owners to the state capital. Let’s see what they say. I say to the wineries, better get off your hands, or someone will chop them off for you.”

And so, Let the debate go on from here.

To Dowd's Spirits Notebook latest entry.
To Dowd's Tasting Notes latest entry.
Back to Dowd On Drinks home page.


Italian bubblies now outsell Champagne

If you are among those who uncorked a bottle of bubbly to usher in the new year, there's a strong chance it wasn't Champagne.

The iconic French wine was outsold in 2010 by Italian sparkling wines -- to the tune of 10 million bottles more, according to statistics just released by Assoenologi, the Italian winemakers association.

Assoenologi estimated global sales of spumante and similar wines collectively known as "bollicine" at 380 million bottles. Additionally, Coldiretti, an Italian agricultural association, said exports of spumante and prosecco, the most popular Italian sparkling wines, were up 17% in the first nine months of 2010.

"I see so many international sparkling wines, and many of them are just as good quality as Champagne," Beppe Juliano, editor of the Italian wine magazine Euopisa, told UPI.com. "The difference is that small producers from Italy or England are not charging you for a brand."

France's Champagne region has been producing less Champagne because of successive bad harvests. In addition, both Italian and English sparkling wines have entered the market at 25 to 75% less than their French counterparts.

To Dowd's Spirits Notebook latest entry.
To Dowd's Tasting Notes latest entry.
Back to Dowd On Drinks home page.

Guest comment: Don't pour my wine!

The writer is chairman of the Electoral College of the Vintners Hall of Fame. He is a former wine writer/editor for the San Francisco Chronicle. This commentary was written for Palate Press, the online wine magazine.

By W. Blake Gray
Traditionally in haute cuisine wine service, a waiter refills wine glasses, and the diners never need sully their hands on the bottle. But traditional haute cuisine service is just about dead. Instead, the main reason servers refill glasses today is to get the bottle off the table and encourage you to buy another one.

I spend many meals in fine restaurants these days trying to play defense against every passing server topping off a glass I don’t want refilled. Let my guard down for a second -- laugh at a friend’s joke -- and suddenly I have a full glass I didn’t want.

Perhaps I’m unkind to think servers are only looking for a 20% tip on a second bottle. Many are just trying to do a job. But servers can’t keep track of each diner’s individual needs, nor do I want to give them a rundown of our personal situations each time we sit down.

[Go here for the full commentary.]

To Dowd's Spirits Notebook latest entry.
To Dowd's Tasting Notes latest entry.
Back to Dowd On Drinks home page.

Georgian wine exports on the rebound

There is no definitive proof of where wine originated on this planet, but many places claim to be its home.

One of those is in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, which cites archaeological finds suggesting viniculture began there as much as 8,000 years ago, well before it reached western Europe. Most authorities on wine history concede it probably was No. 1.

That aside, it is the more modern status of the country's wine industry that concerns it, in the wake of a 2006 ban on imports of Georgian wine by Russia, which had been its primary customer. The move was made during mounting political tensions between the two countries that eventually erupted into a brief war.

Now, according to just-released statistics from the Georgian agriculture ministry, sales numbers for 2010 showed a definite upturn although the exports are nowhere near the pre-ban level.

Ministry spokesman Giorgi Chaduneli today said 15 million bottles of wine were exported over the past year, a 34% increase over 2009. Production had dropped by about 80%, severely damaging the industry. At one time, Georgia exported as much as 59 million bottles, mostly to Russia. Its main customers now are fellow ex-Soviet countries Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan.

Although there are 500 or so of grapes, only 38 are officially grown for commercial viticulture in Georgia. Most wine grapes are grown by small farmers and sold to wineries. Few of the grape varieties are known in the U.S., although one, Rkatsiteli, is coming into vogue more and more in New York State. It is the top white wine grape grown in Georgia.

Georgian wines are readily available in the U.S. Here is a link to one importer.

A Georgia farmer as shown on the Georgian Wine Society home page.

To Dowd's Spirits Notebook latest entry.
To Dowd's Tasting Notes latest entry.
Back to Dowd On Drinks home page.