Posts Filed Under winemaking

A Pennsylvania (Wine) Revolution (Penns Woods Wine Tasting)

Vinted on June 9, 2008 binned in Penns Woods, pennsylvania, wine industry events, winemaking

A shot has been fired in the world of Pennsylvania winemaking.

And it’s a portent of a revolution in how wines are made in PA – and for that matter, how wines are made in all of the East Coast U.S. wine regions.

A bold statement? You bet. But I mean every word of it. And yes, I am totally sober as I write this (a condition I plan to remedy by sampling some heavy reds later this evening).

And if you taste some of the wines from Penns Woods, the brainchild of Italian winemaker and importer Gino Razzi, you might end up agreeing with me.

I had the pleasure of meeting Gino and sampling his wines during a recent first-rate tasting event at Teikoku Restaurant. Now, before you write me off as having gotten wined & dined so that I would waste several minutes of your life with a recap of a drunken Penns Woods love-fest, you need to know that I did not care for all of Gino’s wines.

At worst, Gino’s wines were over-manipulated, over extracted, Parker-point-chasing fruit bombs (2005 Merlot Reserve); or, just plain unnecessary (2006 White Cabernet, a rose that somehow kept astringency without offering much in the way of fruity goodness).

But at their best… Gino’s wines are nothing short of the opening salvo in a PA wine revolution. A shot that is sure to have reverberations felt as far away as VA, Long Island, or wherever quality wines are trying to be made in the U.S. right coast.

Because at their best – most notably the 2007 Chardonnay – Gino’s wines are that good. Not “good, for a Pennsylvania wine” good. They are “stand up to any U.S.-made wine” good…

While I’d been interested in trying Gino’s wines ever since I read Craig LeBan’s enthusiastic review of Penns Woods, I wasn’t expecting any miracles. We’re talking about PA, after all, whose future seemed to best lie in unique expressions of Cabernet Franc and the brambly Chambourcin. When I saw that the dinner at Teikoku was being prepared by Iron Chef Takao Iinuma (pictured, left), and was bookended by Wakatake Daiginjo Onikoroshi sake and gelato covered in 50+ year old Modena balsamic vinegar made from trebbiano grapes that goes for well over $40 / ounce, as far as I was concerned if the accompanying Penns Woods wines were any good, it would simply be a bonus.

A shot has been fired in the world of Pennsylvania winemaking. And it’s a portent of a revolution in how wines are made in PA – and for that matter, how wines are made in all of the East Coast U.S. wine regions.

I’d expected a quiet spot in the corner where I would be able to take a few tasting notes. Instead, I was given the honor of sharing the winemaker’s table with Gino, wine guru John McNulty, consultant Heather Wright of Cellar Door Imports, West Chester foodie Mary of WC Dish fame, and talented WC Dish photographer Sugendran Ganess, among others. One of the best things about sharing a wine event with a crowd that irrepressible (outside of the fun factor), is that it saves me from having to be irrepressible myself, and afforded me a few moments to reflect on Gino’s wines – which through the course of the dinner were wowing me nearly as much as the food.

As soon as I had a whiff of the 2006 Sauvignon Blanc, I was almost speechless. Sure, it has some of that PA ‘grit’; but this wine delivered an improbable amount of citrus fruit. I scratched my head… did these grapes honestly ripen in southeastern PA?

When Gino decided to make wine in PA, he told us, he sent some of his grapes to trusted associates for examination. The news Gino received back was that he should go ahead and make wines with his PA grapes, because they had levels equal to the quality of the grapes that produce his high-scoring Italian-made montepulciano d’Abruzzo.

I was brought down by the Merlot. It tasted of raisins and the varietal character felt masked – overdone and over extracted, I thought. And then it hit me again – how the hell did he get so much fruit out of these wines? No one in PA has been able to do that since, well… ever.

When Gino decided to make wine in PA, he told us, he sent some of his grapes to trusted associates for examination. The news Gino received back was that he should go ahead and make wines with his PA grapes, because they had levels equal to the quality of the grapes that produce his high-scoring Italian-made montepulciano d’Abruzzo.

The two wines that really drove things home for me were the Ameritage red blend and the Chardonnay. According to Gino, year on year he may not have any idea exactly what grapes will go into his Ameritage, but year on year “I promise you, that wine will be good.” And he delivers. Was it a tad manipulated? Yes. But it was also very, very good, at par with (or better than) similarly-priced red blends I’ve had from CA, WA, and southern France. The hint of nebbiolo gave a small, delicate polish aroma to the wine that countered the intense fruit nicely. Nebbiolo? In Pennsylvania?? Is this guy nuts?!?

Gino was insistent that there was no secret to his approach: he wants to make world-class wines in PA, and he has invested the capital (physical and mental) to do so. He uses expensive, ultra-modern equipment to extract the maximum amount of fruit from his grapes. He hires consultants that charge more for a few vineyard visits than most PA winemakers clear in an entire year of doing business. And he uses new (= very expensive) French oak barrels to impart complexity to his wines.

The shining result of this work is the 2007 Penns Woods Chardonnay. John McNulty (pictured, far right, with Gino and the Dude) introduced this wine as “a home run.” My tasting notes for the Chardonnay have two words that really stood out when I went back to them to pen this article:

“A revelation.”

This wine had tropical fruit, just the right amount of oak and creaminess, and was big – and I mean BIG – on the palate. It finished long and strong with minerals, almost like wet rocks. Tropical fruit? In Pennsylvania?? This was one of the best Chardonnays I’d had in the last three years outside of France. I was stunned. Maybe it’s not as steely as a great Chablis, or as complex as a Montrachet, but it aims to kick no less ass than the French big boys.

A Revelation – for me, anyway. Actually, it’s more like a Revolution.

The word is out, and if you want to hear it, just pick up a bottle of the Penns Woods Chardonnay, pour a glass, and listen to what that fine wine is telling you.

PA can make world-class wines.

It’s now a fact – and if Penns Woods repeats this over multiple vintages it will be indisputable – and not just a dream of a few passionate individuals. Gino has fired a well-aimed first shot. Will any PA wineries return the volley? Time (and a good heap of venture capital) may tell…

Cheers!

(images: members.aol.comliv18thc, sugendran.net)

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The Future of Small Wineries in America…?

Vinted on June 6, 2008 binned in 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)

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

Vinted on May 19, 2008 binned in 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)

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