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The Future of Small Wineries in America…?

Vinted on June 6, 2008 under wine news, wine shipping, winemaking


Forbes.com ran an interesting (and sobering) article this week about the future of small to medium wineries in the U.S. (primarily CA, WA, & OR).

What this article says is that, due to the proliferation of wineries, wine brands, and distributors (5000+, 7000+, and 450+ respectively – in the U.S. alone), consolidation is inevitable. Throw in the escalating fight for retail shelf space (usually won by the largest players with the most retail muscle) and skyrocketing land value prices in those aforementioned states, and you have an industry almost ripe for the picking. According to the Forbes.com article, a recent study by Silicon Valley Bank estimates that over 1000 of wineries in those states may change ownership in the next 10 years.

This is not just a situation impacting the U.S. Global competition is creating large wine brand conglomerates with global reach. And rising land prices are certainly not unique to U.S. wine properties – just check out Noble Rot to see what land value and inheritance taxes are doing to the Bordeaux wine area prices, which eventually are driving smaller players out of the market (and ins some cases, out of their family properties) entirely.

With all of this going on, you’d think that Internet wine sales might help to level the playing field for these smaller players.

And you’d be wrong. Way wrong…

Why? Because antiquated wine shipping and alcohol sales laws, as well as unfair state licensing fees effectively prevent many smaller wineries from selling their products online.

Those wineries that do brave the insanity of interstate sales have a heady task in front of them – according to the Forbes.com article:

A winery shipping a single case to each state that allows direct sales (there are now 37) would have to submit 725 forms to conform with sales, excise and state income taxes.

That’s not a joke.

This totally sucks, on two counts.

  1. Wineries with amazing products can’t get those products to people who want to buy them – resulting in lost sales, and, as mentioned in the Forbes.com article “family-owned microbrands have seen their pricing power and ability to demand shelf space trickle away.” This is Bad for the U.S.’s ailing economy.
  2. The average wine consumer also gets screwed in the process – fewer players controlling the wine brands available to you, and fewer ways for you to get those wine brands. So you can’t spend your money even if you wanted to – also Bad for the ailing economy.

I’ve contacted the campaign centers for the presumptive 2008 U.S. Presidential nominees, Senators Obama and McCain, to find out where they stand on the issue of interstate commerce and wine sales.

So far, I’ve received nothing but canned responses… but I’ll keep trying in the hopes that they answer, because for a geek like me this issue is part of the larger problem of archaic bureaucracy negatively impacting the economics of U.S. citizens. Watch this space…

Cheers!

(images: autocrisis.com, ecu.edu)

Hail to the King, Baby (Robert Mondavi 1913 – 2008)

Vinted on May 19, 2008 under wine news, winemaking

Most of you reading this will have heard by now that Robert Mondavi, patriarch founder of the Robert Mondavi winery enterprise, died on Friday, May 16, at the age of 94.

By the time this article posts to the web, there will probably be hundreds of well-written obits. available on the Internet.

Most of them will talk about how Mondavi literally redefined the world of winemaking by taking his (at the time far-flung) vision of putting California on the map as a fine wine locale – and making it a reality.

Most of them will talk about his charitable giving, and focus in his later years on establishing vital centers for the progression of art, food, and wine, most of which is chronicled in the book Harvests of Joy.

But I don’t think too many will venture into the Dark Side of Mondavi. How he squandered the family enterprise, for example, or how his lavish giving my have contributed to the downfall of his family-run business empire.

And you know what? That is totally okay by me.

Why?…

Because for every single thing that Mondavi screwed up, he did about one thousand things right.

Mondavi’s place in the world wine lore of history would be solidified if he was remembered only for establishing one of the world’s most successful wine businesses. But when you factor in that he literally conceived of – and then implemented – the modern CA wine industry, taught the U.S. how to make low-cost, high-volume wine of consistent quality, actually made friends with the French, and almost single-handedly introduced wine into the lexicon of the idea of “fine living” in the U.S., you have something else on your hands entirely.

For every single thing that Mondavi screwed up, he did about one thousand things right.

You have a veritable doer of great deeds.

A legend. A titan.

A King of the U.S. wine industry.


Oh, by the way, he did all of that stuff after he was 50 years old. You know, when most people have stopped working and have moved onto perfecting their golf games.

Is there a downside to all of this Kingliness? Sure.

Just as George Lucas’ Star Wars changed movie-making forever for both good and bad, Mondavi’s influence will forever be felt in the world of wine – both in making decent wine accessible to the masses, and in influencing the Parker-ized fruit bomb clones that currently flood the wine market.

Would you take that trade off? I certainly would.

Seems to me a small price to pay for the wine Kingdom of plenty that Mondavi was able to establish. Now, to the best of my knowledge I’ve never changed the world. But I imagine if I did, that I wouldn’t necessarily be able to predict all of the minor negative ramifications of my good deeds. Can you fault the guy for not being a clairvoyant on top of being the King?

It’s never too late to do great things.

The chasing of Parker scores is peanuts worth of collateral damage compared to that.

If I had to boil it down, I’d say that the Mondavi era hasn’t really taught me anything – at least, not anything I didn’t already know from my experience with another “King” – King Lear.

In Shakespeare’s Lear, the title character redeems his humanity – but only in the moments before his death at a very old age.

The lesson?

It’s never too late to do great things.

All Kings die – even the ones that are larger-than-life. But great deeds? Well, those don’t slip away quite so easily.

Hail to the King, baby!

Cheers!

(images: media.sacbee.com, nytimes.com, timeout.com, hd.org)

What Makes a Wine Great? Maybe Not What You Think!

Vinted on April 30, 2008 under commentary, winemaking, zen wine

What makes a wine great?

I don’t mean great as in “pretty tasty, I like it, it’s got a nice beat and I can dance to it” great.

I mean eye-popping, life-changing, “the heavens opened ancient mythology style” great.

That’s a tough question, even for those of us in the wine biz, because so few of us have actually tasted a truly great wine.

I’m going to give you my view of what makes a wine great – and it’s probably not what you’d think.

But before I do that, I need to set the record straight about how I think greatness is judged in the first place…

Winemaking is more art than science. If you disagree with me on this one, then I invite you to read my previous post on the subject.

If you still disagree with me, then you might want to skip the rest of this article entirely, because the rest of this post will be drawing parallels between winemaking and art. For those of you who couldn’t stand art class, I apologize in advance!

Personal preference doesn’t matter. I don’t like pilsner beer. Does that mean that all pilsners are no good, or that they can never achieve greatness? I love the works of Picasso. Does that mean all of Picasso’s art is great? When you stop to think about it, it’s obvious that greatness has nothing to do with any one individual’s personal preferences (not matter how highly that individual might regard his/her own opinion…).

The light red wines of Medieval times would no doubt seem watery and insipid to our Parker-ized palates.

Collective preference does matter. The collective consciousness of a given society and its era in time does matter when it comes to greatness. This is borne out time and time again in art history – and in the annals of wine history as well. If you flip through the pages of Ancient Wine, or the superb Story of Wine, you will learn that the wine of the ancient Greeks and Romans likely would be too cloyingly sweet for our tastes today. The light red wines of Medieval times would no doubt have seemed watery and insipid to our Parker-ized palates. Times make the society; and societies make the collective decision on greatness.

Material matters – but not that much. Is a Picasso painting “greater” than a Picasso sculpture, just because the medium is different? Probably not. In wine, while some grapes (such as Concord) may never make truly great wine, it’s pure folly to discount any one of the “noble” grape varieties when it comes to greatness – all of them are capable of making a great wine. Unless you mixed them altogether. That would probably suck.

Is a Picasso painting “greater” than a Picasso sculpture, just because the medium is different?

Nature matters – and so does nurture. Old World winemakers will tell you that terroir – the nature and place from whence a grape came – is the determinant of whether or not the resulting wine can be great; the winemaker’s job is to interfere as little as possible with the natural process. New World winemakers will tell you that it is trough savvy vineyard practices and the use of modern technology in the wine cellar that greatness is achieved. They’re both right – start with a great pedigree, and finish with great care, and a wine may just achieve greatness.

So how can we measure a wine’s “greatness?”

In The Wine Bible, Karen MacNeil offers 5 criteria that can be used to determine if a wine is great. Her take is as good as any other, so I’ll share a synopsis of it here:

  1. Distinct varietal character - a wine exemplifies the true characteristics of its grape(s)
  2. Integration – the wine’s components (alcohol, acidity, fruit, etc.) are harmonious
  3. Expressiveness – the aromas & flavors are clear & focused
  4. Complexity – like an artwork, the wine keeps you coming back, discovering more nuances each time
  5. Connectedness – the wine embodies qualities that link it to the specific place where it was made.

Not a bad list at all. I think it’s missing an important element, however. To me, the most important.

So I’d like to add something to Karen’s fantastic list: Great wine is like great art, or a peaceful meditation, or even a great life lived to its potential with humility and true grace.

Great wine is a Mystery.

By mystery, I don’t mean a problem to be rectified, a secret to be revealed, or a puzzle to be solved. I mean a Mystery like the seat of human consciousness in the brain, the origin of life, the feeling of love, and the nature of pure being.

Great wine is a true Mystery, because it is greater than the sum of its parts in a way that synthesizes our mental, physical, and spiritual selves; connecting us to ourselves, to each other, and to a place and time, and to the earth. The greater the wine, the less likely it is that any words will be capable of adequately describing the experience.


Great wine is a tiny miracle of the universe that cannot ever be fully explained.


Now, before you all start sending me lava lamps, crystals, or patchouli, remember the words of Albert Einstein – “There are two ways to live: you can live as if nothing is a miracle; you can live as if everything is a miracle.

Which one would you pick?

Cheers!

(images: winefront.com.au, clevelandart.org, restaurantlacaravella.com, macedonian-heritage.gr)

So You Want To Own Your Own Vineyard? (How to Be a Wine Geek, Part III: Winemaker Interview)

Vinted on April 23, 2008 under best of, wine how to, winemaking

(images: delawaretoday.com, gophila.com, vinology.com, newdaleville.com)

“It is my life’s work to identify and bring out colors, smells and flavors that not only typify my region but are also delicious.” – Eric Miller, Chaddsford Winery


A few months ago, I started a mini-series of posts about how to become a ‘wine geek’ (see Part I and Part II for more background). This post is the (long overdue) third installment of that series.

The ultimate wine geek is probably the winemaker – what budding wine geek hasn’t (at least for a minute or two) entertained the thought of growing their own grapes, and making and selling their own wine?

I went to the source to get an insight into what it’s like to run your own winemaking operation. Following is a short interview with winemaker Eric Miller, proprietor of PA’s most celebrated winery, Chaddsford.

I asked Eric to reflect on winemaking after celebrating Chaddsford’s 25th year. The result is a fascinating look into what it really takes – passion, know-how, and a fair amount of luck – to make and sell your own wine…

From the point of view of an experienced Winemaker: what resources do you feel give wine lovers the most ‘bang for their buck’ as beginners just exploring wine, and then as more experienced wine consumers?

The best resources for a new wine drinker: avoid tight-assed views stuck on old world rules and regs. I teach a twice annual class on what wines taste like, the words to describe them with an international selction under the primary headings of: light fresh fruity dry (white annd red), light fresh fruity sweet (iIonly show a white), med to full body dry white, med to full body red usually a cab, pinot, syrah or shiraz, and a fortified sweet red like lbv porto.

My suggestion would be to get the terms down in an environment like that. If that is not available just go to the myriad of shops that do tastings and begin to get vocabulary in tune with taste. If that is not available throw a series of parties and have a hell of a range of wines for friends and you to taste. The important thing is to taste like a banshee.

There are few printed publications or blogs that are tuned to the beginning wine drinker, unless you want to begin with prejudice or excess info.”

Or if the new-be is really bold go as close to the source as you can. Winelovers like me will talk eagerly to someone truely interested. (you get a dozen newbes together and iI will speak). There are few printed publications or blogs that are tuned to the beginning wine drinker, unless you want to begin with prejudice or excess info.

What are the most essential resources for you as a Winemaker (excluding your own know-how and expertise)? I.e., the top 3 or 5 resources that you could not live without, and to which you find yourself returning on a regular basis?

What I do to learn is to formulate questions. That is so hard. Then what I do is put it on paper, see how it looks and put together a budget. Then I contact industry friends to see who is working on those topics and send my agenda. When the serious know someone is serious he or she will find time to chat.

To learn about the restaurant industry I read “restaurant wine review”. To learn about production I scan “practical winemaker”, “the american society of enology and viticulture” and “vineyard and winery management”. To understand what it means I make a date with our enologist and she gets excited or answers and shuts me down. Or I call our state viticulturalist, and he either answers me or sends me on down the line. It is never easy.

After 25+ years of successful winemaking, what advice would you give to wine lovers that want to expand their knowledge of wine? What advice would you give to those that may want to someday enter the wine trade?

I do not have 25 years of succesful winemaking. I have 25 years of trials and some successes. I would say to those who want to learn wine to make the hard decisions about what they want: is it sales or production? One needs to know a bit about either but the disciplines require a life time to get good at. Especially in this varying east coast climate.


“Climate trumps all but judgment.”


Here we are faced with climate change for most vintages and to produce wines typical of the region (and not colored by infections) the first critical thing is to know the effects of site, soil and climate on the development of non-terroir affectations. Climate trumps all but judgment. Being an east coast winemaker today is a commitment to research. I need to be bled dry of information by someone with a depth of technical understanding of the chemistry of our soils, the effects of our climate on what the vine uptakes and how a vineyard should be established so controls are limited.
I have limited interest in how to sell. My simple mind says that in today’s world of wines we have simple divisions. Superstars that have cult status to carry them, mass marketed products and regional wines with only local interest to carry them.

The future of a successful marketer is to move a lot of wine off the shelf. That’s a matter of money and marketing. My future is as a local product with regional identity. It is my life’s work to identify and bring out colors, smells and flavors that not only typify my region but are also delicious.

In the course of time I have made wines that a) do not taste like California wines or are from California, Australia, Italy or cost less than 12 bucks a bottle and so are rejected by a significant number of wine drinkers b) suck and I will never be forgiven or tried again c) are exemplary examples of this region and fit the wine-model of only the most broad-minded or uninitiated wine drinker.


Any good winemaker, if you want my recommendations for someone thinking of getting into the biz, has gotta love delayed gratification. Be bold. And never, never, never, never never, never quit.

What that means to those who want to sell wine might be to avoid anything that is new and not-yet-established. Or it might mean that those who see the next big thing will become recognized clairvoyants. How can i make recommendations?

I have been revising my thinking about how best to handle tannins and acidity and fruit character in terms of soil amendments and cultural practices and pressing and timing of malo-lactic fermentations and frankly my attention is gravitating to ’08 and ’09 releases and analysis of tissue and soils from this growing season in terms of the ’08 vintage.

Any good east coast winemaker, if you want my recommendations for someone thinking of getting into the biz, has gotta love delayed gratification. Be bold. Find other winemakers who will talk and keep on trying. And to quote my new friend, Patrick Feury, and Winston Churchill – never, never, never, (Churchill has a tommy gun in this photo) never never, never quit.

How about you ask me the same questions in 10 years?


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