Vol 3 No 15 Fire post mortem and $3,000 for a bottle of champagne???

I was surprised and glad that so many tasting rooms have opened in Napa Valley this soon after the fire. Most if not all, are donating the fees to relief agencies. That is encouraging. I wasn’t sure at first about the re-openings but speaking with friends in the wine business there, they are encouraged to see the wineries coming together along with local support. They realize they need to boost the economy by bringing the tourist back, especially for those who work in the valley. Note also that the wineries are a soft touch for charities and are hit up all the time for donations, which they freely give.

It isn’t pretty like last Spring when I was there, and Sonoma County is in much worse shape. I am not in touch with any of the wineries in the Sonoma/Santa Rosa area, but everyone is saddened at the loss of life and homes in this multi-county tragedy. Let’s not forget Mendocino County where in the north they had destructive fires too.

One thing you might not have considered is marijuana growers, who are very active in Mendocino County…this time legally as they prepare for the arrival of the date of legalization of recreational marijuana in California. Due to the conflict with federal law, they have no insurance and are a cash basis as they can’t get credit either. They had harvested some the marijuana, much of which was destroyed by the fires along with warehouses. Also, about 50% remains in the fields which may be affected like wines with smoke taint. I mention the pot growers only as another victim of the fires, not as an endorsement…you decide.

If you watched finish of the United States Grand Prix from Austin, Texas, Sunday, you may have noticed the traditional champagne ‘brawl’ with the winner and other two top finishers. When I saw the three drivers shaking and spraying the bottles I noticed that all the jeroboams were lavender in collar and looked metallic. I freeze-framed it to see the name on the bottle but instead of the usual prestige house there was only one word on the bottle: CARBON, written in bold letters lengthwise on the bottle…huh???

Have any of you ever heard of CARBON?  Most likely not, but at $3,000 a bottle perhaps you should! Furthermore if you want to buy one (suit yourself, not me), you probably have to go to St. Tropez as it isn’t sold in the U.S. and is very limited production.

Is it that good? Uh…in a word: no. Not saying it isn’t ‘good’, just that it isn’t that good. So how do they get $3,000 for a bottle of it? Hey, how do lots of luxury goods go for what they do? Because the wealthy can afford them and that, folks, is status.

How did the custom of spraying the crowd come about. After winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1996, driver Jo Siffert accidentally sprayed the crowd with his magnum bottle of Moët Chandon Brut. The following year, American Dan Gurney did the same and a tradition was born, a waste of good champagne if you ask TB, and messy too! Sacre Bleu!

In 2000, G.H. Mumm replaced Moët and the magnum was upgraded to a jeroboam so more people could be sprayed. They remained a Formula I sponsor until 2015 when Chandon – yes, the California ‘sparkler’ replaced them. Then in July of this year, CARBON replaced them as an official sponsor.

Now you know, but why a $3,000 bottle of champagne? Well, here’s the thing, you can buy Cuvée Carbon 2002 vintage champagne (same as used in the Ultra bottle), in a 1.5 litre bottle (jeroboam) for $990 from Amazon Wine Store* but that is in a standard champagne bottle that holds six bottles ($165 each). Actually, a 750 ml bottle will cost you about $80, the difference due to the cost of the bottle which in large format sizes has enormous pressure.

The difference? The company has created a process that covers the entire bottle in carbon creating the metallic look and it is expensive and very labor intensive. So if you, my friends, want to pay 3 times the price of a regular jeroboam, be my guest. That is also six time the cost of a standard bottle of CARBON. TB wonders if the drivers get to  keep the bottle? Most likely, yes. After all it only costs $9,000 to give them the bottles each race.

To TB, this is the same as the way people pay outrageous prices for Cognac in Baccarat crystal, and other prestige bottlings of alcohol products. If you have the money and you want it…go for it, but TB will take the normal bottling of the same product every time (he won’t however be buying any of the ‘gimmicky’ CARBON. C’est la vie!

That’s it for now…TB with the champagne love but cava budget is done for today.

TB

(c) Copyright, traderbillonwine.com 2017

*Note: Amazon is going out of the wine business at the end of the year due to their ownership of Whole Foods Markets. Reportedly, there are also licensing problems. Ouch!

 

 

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Vol 3 No 14 what to do with your best wines?

(Note: TB is not being insensitive writing this during the horrible conflagration in Northern California’s wine country, but needed to get his mind off it for a little while.)

When one starts collecting wine it soon becomes apparent that the $30 bottle of wine you purchased is now a $60 or $80 bottle is too good to drink for just any dinner, so what do you do as the other bottles you bought start accumulating.

One thing you can do of course is sell them at auction. I did this with some wines years ago that had become simply too valuable to drink. Like my ’82 Bordeaux’s I bought as futures…the vintage that destroyed William Finnegan’s reputation among his subscribers and built Robert Parker’s. Parker being the only wine writer to praise the vintage. So I bought a mixed case…average price $30. I tried a few over the years but wasn’t that impressed, nor was a friend who had the same feeling.

I held them along with many other wines, including some I had purchased at auction. Then, following the millennial, anything with a 19xx vintage shot to the moon, Alice, the moon. So I made a list and took it to Butterfields in San Francisco which had recently merged with Christy’s. They eagerly accepted the wines and I attended the auction with a friend. It was live and telephonic and we were blown away at the prices – especially for ones we could find at a local wine merchant for much less. While I walked away with over $6,000, and a huge profit, I decided there would never be an opportunity like that again for me, and altered my buying habits to what TB liked, not what Parker or anyone else liked that I was supposed to love.

Here are some things I have tried…some successful, some not so much:

  1. Bring out a bottle at a dinner you are hosting. The problem with this is that if you didn’t plan it for the main wine, it will go largely unnoticed. I wasted a lot of bottles that way until I figured it out: ideas pop up after drinking and when followed through seem to fizzle. What did that wine taste like anyway?
  2. Donate it to a charity auction. Not such a good idea with pricey wines as frequently they will be underbid (once I bought back my own wine because the bid price was so low and it was a good wine). Make charitable donations of wines currently available.
  3. Say what the hell and sometime when you are in a really good mood, simply bring one up…but be sure to not make the mistakes in number one above.
  4. Keep them for show…dazzle people with your cellar. Yawn! I have found people are more impressed with the size of the cellar than what it actually contains.
  5. Find a special occasion and make it about the wine…not literally, but you can use it to enhance the event.

Focusing on that last suggestion, we recently visited two couples in Chicago. One lived there part time and we were old friends and the other couple flew out from California. The event was the 70th birthday of one of the friends. A perfect chance to showcase some wines, since they were coming from out of state by air and we were driving.

So…what did I bring for this four day event? First, we had other wines so I didn’t want to overdo it…just be able to have some great wines together.

Day 1: Quinta do Bonfim, Portugal, Dao. This company makes all the great Ports and is located up the Douro in Pinhao. This was not an expensive wine but like most Portuguese wines hard to find in the States. Everyone loved it

Day 2: For our traditional ‘picnique’ dinner I brought a bottle of Clos de l’Obac’s 2006 Miserere. A beautiful Priorat red that is really complex. This is from the same winery that I attended the 25 year vertical in Chicago last March See Vol. 3, No 3.

Day 3: For cocktail hour we had Castello del Volpaia, Chianti Classico, 2012. If you haven’t had this beautiful Chianti, look for it…years ago I stayed at the Castello in one of their beautiful rooms overlooking the vineyards.

Day 4: Also for cocktails, Verdad Tempranillo 2013. This wine is made by Luisa Sawyer Lindquist, wife of Bob Lindquist of Qupe wines. It is an extraordinary example of a tempranillo and shows that it can be made in the Central Coast…elegantly.

Day 5: For the birthday dinner we went to The Barn in Evanston, where we were staying. They have an excellent wine list but I knew this wine would not be on it and was dying to see how it held up over the years. It was a Leonetti Merlot 2000, and when the somme saw it he was dazzled. I told him to save a glass for himself and he was so thrilled he waived the corkage fee. We also had a Black Slate Priorat for a second wine and it was very good. Note that before I had commented on the etiquette of bringing your own wine. First, make sure you can and, second, make sure it is not on their wine list of of such an early vintage that even if they have the label they won’t have it. Make the somme part of the group by letting him/her enjoy and comment on the wine. See also Vol 2 No 25 for TB’s Ten Commandments of Wine.

There you have it, TB’s best suggestion for what to do with your best wines…enjoy them with good friends!

Best,

TB

(c) Copyright 2017, traderbillonwine.com

Vol 3 No 13…an American tragedy…

(It has been over a month since the last post…mea culpa…partly this was due to the hurricanes and the destruction they brought that put TB in a funk. Will try to be more prompt and get back to the ‘every other week’ pace. TB)

TB doesn’t want to overemphasize the disaster in Napa and Sonoma counties, but it is a big deal, perhaps second only to Houston in damage, much of which cannot be measured.

First, having lived in the Bay Area for 29 years before moving to Minnesota seven years ago, I have visited scores of wineries and gotten to know many in the wine industry. My book project on the passion these people have for what they do, brings to light their hard work…and let’s not romanticize it: it’s farming (don’t take TB’s word for it, Joe Heitz was the one who said it to TB thirty years ago)!

Many of them came from the Midwest and were farmers, others, as my friend Lane Tanner puts it: “were bitten by the bug and when that happens you’re done.”

As much damage was done to the vines, wineries, and their homes, the growth in population, fueled by both the tourist industry where many are employed, and a place where retirees see an Eden to spend their twilight years was a key factor in the loss of homes and lives, especially in Sonoma County in and around Santa Rosa.

There is much confusion due to the massive size of these fires. For instance, they refer to the one with the huge perimeter that has destroyed much of Santa Rosa as the ‘Tubbs Fire”…huh? Aren’t they talking about the wrong fire? Actually, no. The Tubbs fire stretches from Tubbs Lane just to the north of Calistoga, over the Napa range along the Petrified Forest Highway and then down to Santa Rosa. That fire is bigger in area than all other fires in the state, which includes the Orange County fire combined!

I am grateful that none of the properties owned by friends were affected, but then, it isn’t over yet. Nearly 30 are known dead, and over 60 still missing (owing to the destruction of landmark hotels in Santa Rosa and since those were tourists, likely most, if not all scattered but there are still those who were trapped in their homes.

The last fire in the Santa Rosa area was in 1964, and note that there were no fatalities…zero! So you can see the impact of growth. Of course the high winds, with gusts to 70 mph were a major cause of dissemination. Firefighters say that embers were blown ahead of the fire for one to three miles…making it impossible to control or predict where it would strike.

Consider California coming off a 500 year drought! Then the rains of early this year caused the valleys and hillsides (I drove from Orange County to Seattle in mid-February), to be the most beautiful I have ever seen them…and now this.

While it was green and beautiful, it came at the expense of mudslides, especially in the Santa Cruz area where you had to zigzag on surface streets to get from US 101 to Santa Cruz since the main (and only) highway connecting the two was inundated in a mudslide that took more than a month to recover from. Also, there are some great vineyards and wineries stretching from Santa Barbara to Paso Robles. North of there, in the flat between the coastal range and the Carrizo plain to the east, the vineyards are flat and looked like a swamp. While this concerned me, Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon noted that before budbreak it isn’t problematic. Still, I can’t help but think the wines from the area north of Paso to Greenfield, which is solid vineyards, would not be producing very good wine. For 2017,wines you are going to have to be very careful, and might want to pay attention to ratings before you buy (can’t believe I just wrote that!). Besides the rains, many areas suffered early frosts, then came the record-breaking heat, most notably in Napa Valley.

Twelve days above 100 degrees with no cooling at night, as Napa Valley traps in the heat, normally a good thing, while to the west and atop Howell Mountain there was some relief. Look for wines from there this vintage. Smoke taint is certainly a risk but over 90% of the grapes had been picked…the holdouts being some of the big cabs and zins, so you will have to be careful with these. In addition, to the record number of days, the highest temperature recorded was 115 degrees! Not good for wine…especially whites, pinot noir and merlot which are cooler climate grapes.

The combination of rain making the valley lush, then frosts, then the searing heat which dried out all that new greenery as well as the accumulated dead brush from the drought, was a prescription for disaster.

Here is another thing I bet you didn’t think of: with a lot of grapes in fermentation, they need to be tended to daily. Judd Finkelstein, whose father was a widely respected winemaker at Whitehall Lane, and owner of Judd’s Hill Winery, just off the Silverado Trail to the west of the Atlas Peak burn, had no damage but his winemaker had to be escorted in to tend to the fermenting wine, called my attention to this in an email to friends of the winery. How much wine that is in inaccessible areas will be lost? A pity.

While California took the brunt of it, Oregon and Washington were also impacted with fires. Note that all these fires are occurring at a time that fire crews are usually disbanding. This was particularly true in Washington where the largest burn was caused by a teenager setting off fireworks in the forest! It is likely that some of the California fires were due to human negligence, however the high winds toppled trees causing power lines to collapse setting off several fires.

Hopefully, while you are sipping your wine you will think of the wine people and also of those who lived nearby and are now homeless.

Lastly, a political statement, but one that shouldn’t be: there can be no doubt about climate change. First, we had 95% or more of the scientific community signing off on it, with most (all?) of the dissenters being shills for the energy industry and others. This is not from me but a friend with the National Academy of Sciences and of Engineering. Nothing new here…he told me this a few years ago.

Meanwhile, Trump and Co., including Secretary of State Tillerson (who, by the way was made a member of the National Academy of Engineering about five years ago for his work on fossil fuels), who while CEO of EXXON denounced climate change along with the rest of his company, despite funding many scientific studies which proved just the opposite. When challenged on this the company released all internal communications (what the hell were they thinking?), and the proof was shown that while they were denouncing it, the very studies they funded showed it to be real.

TB doesn’t know whether you believe in climate change, but if you don’t, and with the leadership (sic) of Trump, we do nothing, what will you tell your grandchildren when they bear the consequences of our inaction? Good luck on that one! I would like to add the climate change in Europe where Burgundy and Bordeaux had a huge disaster of a harvest. One winemaker in St. Estephe has predicted that in ten years there will be no more merlot!

A friend told me he was going to the wine country next week! I said, “still?” He said he was and going to both Napa and Sonoma. I tried to talk him out of it, and may have, saying they don’t need tourists there now. I added that IF he is still going he should focus on the Dry Creek and the Alexander Valley, both just out of Healdsburg and north of the fires, and further north the Anderson Valley, all of which produce some great wines.

Condolences to those who have lost their homes, or have friends or relatives that have had their lives torn apart by this catastrophe…also to the hurricane victims who continue to suffer.

Trader Bill

(c) traderbillonwine.com