Through the Grapevine

Spring is the Time to Enjoy Virginia Wines

May 27, 2013

It’s that time of year and my spring fever is kicking into high gear. For me, this involves tasting and experiencing as many of the new releases as possible. I’m traveling to eastern Washington State, Oregon, northern California and Bordeaux to do so. But I’m also exploring in my own backyard. I’ve had two enjoyable experiences recently exploring Virginia wines.

Linden Vineyards (Photo by: Stephen Morris) Linden Vineyards

I made a visit to one of my all-time favorite vineyards in the world: Linden Vineyards, right off I-66 in Northern Virginia. Now, a visit to Linden is not the same as visiting many other vineyard estates. You drive on a gravel road, limousines and buses are prohibited, and they do not accept groups larger than four people. If you have trouble functioning without cellular tower access, this may not be for you. But if you are a serious wine consumer and you’re interested to see the wines that Virginia can produce, a visit to Linden Vineyards will be as good an experience as any you can find on the US coasts.

Linden Vineyards’ wines are 100 percent authentic, meaning that everything in the bottle comes from the specific vineyard sites. Owner/winemaker Jim Law has worked these impressive vineyard sites meticulously for decades and has mastered them to a science not achieved by many in his profession. His wines feature world-class Chardonnays and red Bordeaux blends from three specific vineyards: Hardscrabble, Boisseau, and Avenius.  All of these vineyards I have it from a reliable source are going to represent Virginia in the first round of American Grand Cru vineyard nominations. 

I tasted all the new releases and each was as amazing and as distinctive as the individual vineyard sites they come from. The experience offered at Linden is one of the few where a consumer can see, feel and taste the vineyard differentiation between high quality wines made by the same winemaker. It’s an easy drive from DC, so I heartily recommend that serious wine consumers go for a visit and buy some of these amazing wines.   

Now, a spring fever focused on tasting all the best-in-class wines produced in Virginia is no simple task. The various Virginia wine appellations are scattered across lots of geography and sampling them is nothing like driving down the Silverado Trail in Napa Valley where wineries seem neatly stacked back to back. Therefore, I was fortunate to attend a side-by-side tasting of the 12 gold medal winners of the Virginia Wineries Association’s Governor’s Cup Competition at the Capital Wine School in D.C. I recommend this establishment as a venue to get high-quality, non-biased wine education. 

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The annual Governor’s Cup Wine Competition serves to showcase many best-in-class wines being produced in the Commonwealth. (It’s an opt-in endeavor and not all the wine producers in the state chose to submit their best wines every year.) The event held earlier this year was the 31st annual for the Commonwealth.

The side-by-side tasting event at the Capital Wine School was hosted by two local notables: Master of Wine and school owner Jay Youmans, and Charlottesville resident Richard G. Leahy, one of the foremost authorities on vineyards and wines of Virginia and the author of the book Beyond Jefferson’s Vines. Tasting Virginia’s gold-medal winners was a decent guide to discovering the current best-in-class wines produced there. Interestingly, this year’s gold medal winners involved a pretty rare display as there were 11 reds and one sparkling rose. This reflects the stupendous high quality vintages for red wine grapes in Virginia in 2009 and 2010.

The majority of the winners this year came from areas between the Northern Virginia Region and the Monticello AVA near Charlottesville, which are, coincidently, the most convenient to access for DC-area residents. If you have not experienced a Virginia red wine or it’s been a while since you made the effort, you really owe it to yourself to check these out:

The 2013 Virginia’s Governor’s Cup Gold Medal winners:

·         2008 Trump Winery Sparkling Rose

·         2009 Pollak Vineyards Cabernet Franc Reserve

·         2009 Lovingston Winery – Josie’s Knoll Estate Reserve

·         2010 King Family Vineyards Meritage

·         2010 RdV Vineyards – Rendevous

·         2010 Philip Carter Winery – Cleve

·         2010 Rappahannock Cellars Meritage

·         2010 Sunset Hills Vineyard – Mosiac

·         2010 Potomac Point – Richland Reserve Heritage

·         2010 Cooper Vineyards – Petit Verdot Reserve

·         2010 RdV Vineyards – Lost Mountain

·         2009 Barboursville Vineyards’ Octagon 12th Edition.

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Are You Drinking An Authentic Wine?

May 19, 2013

What is an authentic wine versus an overly manipulated one? I currently have three discussions on three separate LinkedIn wine groups asking that exact question. In just a week, we had over 105 comments. For the uninitiated, that is an extremely high rate of commentary. To me, this indicates plenty of passion as well as a few raw nerve endings.

Before we dive into this question, we need to get on the same page and accept that all wines require human intervention, and, therefore, a level of acceptable manipulation. The grape will not ferment itself and then pour itself into a bottle. But how far is too far? Should there be some level of transparency for consumers?

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The reality is that there are fewer rules in the United States regulating the making or selling of wine than in many other wine-producing countries. A Bordeaux-labeled wine, for instance, contains only juices derived from fruit grown in the Bordeaux region and specifies certain grape varietals. In contrast, a Virginia wine is only required to have 75 percent of the juice come from Virginia-grown grapes. In the Napa Valley, the requirement is 85 percent. So in theory, 15 percent of your favorite big pricey Napa Cab could be from anywhere across the globe – India or Indiana – without informing the consumer.  This may be bizarre to some, yet it is the state of producer-to-consumer transparency required in the wine industry for consumers in the USA.

When a vineyard fruit is full, healthy and ripens to perfection, a skilled winemaker’s job is to prevent accidents and ensure optimization of the high-quality potential of the wine. Our best-in-class American producers consistently perform this difficult task. For them, winemaking starts with bud break in the vineyard. But the vast majorities of vineyards are more average than exceptional, and vary year to year. In order to manage that reality, a toolbox of manipulation is available to meet producers’ needs and interests. After all, it’s the winemakers’ responsibility to make acceptable and “sellable” wines for which the American wine consumer has an insatiable and growing appetite.  

So what kind of practices cross a line and take a wine from authentic to overly manipulated? Most winemakers do not have access to America’s best-in-class vineyards. The result is that the majority of wines require practices that are, in my view, overly processed. Using some additives can result in obviously imparted flavors that did not come from the fruit naturally. Many processes are necessary, while others are coming from big money and chemists rather than the vineyard. These processes serve to stabilize wines during the winemaking process; add or remove acid or tannins; and increase or lessen alcohol levels and residual sugars to achieve a balanced wine. Those who wish to impart an oaky influence without paying for the cost of a barrel can simply use oak chips. In fairness, using an oak barrel has a lasting effect on ageable wines and imparts flavor and texture characteristics, so it is also a form of manipulation. Not many seem to have any concern with this long-time tradition.

Perhaps the place to identify where the line crosses from authentic to overly manipulated is where the methods are used simply to address a business need. If the wine-altering practice is used to impart a favored characteristic not naturally present, or to help a wine achieve higher point scores from Wine Spectator or Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate, that line then starts to come into focus. Let’s explore a bit deeper in the areas needing more consumer transparency.   

Mega Purple (MP) is an additive rarely known to the wine consumer. Among other things, it’s a concentrated grape juice product added to wine primarily to help in wine uniformity. Produced by Canandaigua West of Merced, California, a division of the global wine conglomerate Constellation Brands, the product is sold to winemakers globally and is a generally accepted practice for all too many, in my view. It’s purported to be used more for mass-produced or less-expensive wines to add color and consistency of wine characteristics, although I hear it’s routinely used in some well-known and pricey Napa Valley wines, too. MP is thought to round out the wine feel on the palate, impart texture, and add significant sweetness on the finish. Those are considered desirable and point-scoring attributes, by the way. If you are consuming wines that sound like this, it’s a safe bet that you are already consuming wines using Mega Purple. 

Is there something wrong with that? Is this wine something less than authentic? To many knowledgeable people in the trade, it both adulterates wine and is a marker for wines made with low-quality fruit. According to an unnamed Monterey County winery president quoted in a 2006 Wine and Vines article by Dan Berger, “Virtually everyone is using it. In just about every wine up to $20 a bottle anyway, but maybe not as much over that." 

Other processes like reverse osmosis (RO) can strip unwanted authentic characteristics from inferior vineyards. They can also eliminate some positive vineyard-specific characteristics as well taking away special nuances and a sense of specific place orterroir. If you have ever heard about the careful handling of the grapes in the winemaking process, RO does not seem aligned with the message of taking care of the fruit during harvest.

Mega Purple and reverse osmosis are just some of the products and tools available to make poor wine fruit into acceptable sellable wines. For another great read about the topic, read the Robert Parker article, “Dark Side of Wine” and hear what he had to say about overly manipulated wines back in 1999. What he brought up 14 years ago still rings true today.

Some fast food burger chains are financially successful because their business model and business practices use fillers and additives to precisely replicate each product for consistency and to save money. While there’s nothing wrong with making money, for me, it’s a matter of enabling the consumer to make an educated choice. Heavily manipulating wines lowers cost and enables mass production of lower quality and less expensive fruit with a uniform outcome. Does this make the result a bad wine? That question can only be answered by each individual consumer’s spending habits. I believe a dependence on processes like reverse osmosis or adding Mega Purple take away the allure of being made by serious wine craftsmen and women. Thankfully wine consumers who become enthusiasts also become knowledgeable about the wonderful nuances available in truly authentic wines. To truly appreciate wine, becoming an educated wine consumer is critical.   

Since the result in overly manipulating wine is often a lower cost with the same benefits (from the alcohol), for far too many consumers it simply doesn’t matter. Some think it’s not a big deal, and others find the situation, at best, disingenuous. Where do you stand personally? Do let us know.

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Educating the American Wine Consumer

April 29, 2013

There is an increasingly fervent discussion in today’s wine industry about the Americanization ofthe global wine palate. We are the largest wine consumer market and, perhaps, we are a bit more homogenous in our collective tastes and preferences. We like a consistent taste experience, or at least the business cases are developed with that in mind. The impact of our huge consumption rate will have profound and long lasting impact on the world of wine as we now know it. 

American wine consumers rely on a short list of sources for their education and often rely on influencers instead of education. The biggest influencers to wine consumer purchasing today are Robert Parker or Wine Spectator, using the scoring system of 80-100 (having never seen a number in the 70s on a wine store shelf). Note that influencing and educating are not the same, so we collectively tend to accept influencers rather than empower ourselves with knowledge. This adds to the deck for marketers when consumers accept rather than question.

The next tiers of wine educational influencers and educators include individuals like Jancis Robinson, Matt Kramer, Michael Broadbent, Steven Spurrier and Stephen Tanzer to share my favorites.  They have all authored books that are worthy to study. Below that are niche cult films like Sideways and Bottle Shock and superficial learning opportunities like many wine tastings and dinner programs. While they proffer to impart knowledge, are they really just an entertaining way to sell wine?  While I have found wines I like at these events, rarely if ever have I learned anything of consequence.  Having said that wine education is experiential after all, and the ride is worth the trip for most. 

I personally believe that the only way to truly understand wine is to travel to its origins. That's a philosophy I am very committed to and use personally and when taking clients on private wine education tours to France. I’ve visited SantaCruz, Napa and Sonoma so far this year, and I'm currently planning trips to the Columbia Valley in Washington State, Oregon, Bordeaux and a return trip to California. Traveling is great if you can take the time. But the research involved to return with real lasting knowledge still requires diligence and effort.

Right here in Washington, D.C., we have an excellent resource for serious wine consumers committed to learning. The Capital Wine School, run by an area Master of Wine, Jay Youmans, provides programs that draw local wine professionals as well as enthusiastic consumers. The Wine & Spirit Education Trust partners with places like the Capital Wine School for wine education and, although mostly used by the trade, offers some of the few non-biased wine education programs around.  The French Wine Society also has an array of wine educational opportunities for consumers interested in French wines.   

My point is that only a very small minority of consumers ever take the opportunity to learn from unbiased resources. Most learn from those who combine teaching with sales in attempts to get an instant purchase while alcohol is being consumed. As consumers of wine, we really have targets on our backs. We are subject to slick marketing campaigns, innovative and totally fabricated brands, and decent-enough wine that may or may not have natural flavors and characteristics.  I mean, it’s not like consuming heavily processed food? Or is it?

Great wine demonstrates the truest of any grape varietals expression, imparting specific influences derived from a specific place, micro-climate or terroir. Advances in science can make poorer-quality wine decent. They just can’t make decent wine good.

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