TB must apologize for being so remiss in updating the blog but have been doing a lot of reading and thinking since the last issue. Still, no excuse, but here are some of the things I have observed over that time.
1. Use and misuse of the term ‘terrior’ in blogs. Terroir is kind of like je nes se pas, as in something you detect but are unable to define. A blog recently referred to the ‘terroir’ of Lodi wines. Lodi! This is not to denegrate these wines but there is a difference between a ‘well-made’ wine and a wine of great character, thus terrior. That does not mean they aren’t good value, but it depends on what you expect in a wine. For instance, what if you tried five, or ten wines and found them all good but with no distinctive qualities. Is that what you want to buy? Hold that thought for a minute…
2. The great wines of the world have their own terrior, but through the efforts of wine critic, Robert Parker, and his friend, global wine consultant Michel Rolland, winemakers are adjusting their wines to suit the tastes of these two and other wine writers. Why? Because they can make more money with a 90 or 95 rating than an 88. There are perhaps half a dozen (or more?) wine raters now so the odds of getting a 90 or higher from one of them is improved. After all, they are not all looking for the same thing in a wine…and did it occur to you that what you, the end purchaser, likes that matters most? It is you, dear reader, that should decide what you want in a wine…that makes you go back and buy another bottle…or case. but if you just buy based on ratings you may never find that wine…your find!…that you love enough to make your ‘house wine’. This implies that unless you are blessed to be wealthy you can afford enough of the wine to serve your needs.
3. This leads to still another issue: wine snobbery. When TB first began this project, he considered something like “ending wine snobbery”, but then what is a wine snob?…or a ‘reverse’ wine snob as one fellow blogger has titled his blurb? His thrust is that you needn’t pay more than $20 for a bottle of wine (if you do, are you thus a wine snob?). He then uses a rating system that factors in taste – and a negative price factor – to come up with an overall rating on an 8 point scale. Be it 8, 10, 20, or 100, I want to know what the rater is looking for so that if her tastes don’t match mind I can go on to another wine critic to get a rating. I actually prefer the UC Davis 20-point scale as I have tried it on wine novices and find it simplifies judging wine. But there is still a problem. It is judging a wine on quality alone not a distinctive wine. In the end, TB chose as his mot: demystifying wine, not for wine snobs. Now there is a topic that can produce hundreds of blogs, right?
4. Let’s go back to that $20 maximum price: you will get for the most part, a well-made wine but not a stand-out. Furthermore, you will eliminate most wines made by real producers. Real producers? I mean the non-corporate, family wineries who don’t produce a 100,000 cases, or whatever, giving them incredible economies of scale. Isn’t that who you would really like to support: someone making a quality product, often organically (by not using pesticides, natural yeasts, etc – note that there are reasons to not use natural yeasts in controlling fermentation, but on a smaller scale it can be done). This overlaps on sustainable and bio-dynamic production which is more expensive but often with the end result of a better product. Moving into this range means wines that are more in the $20-35 price segment. Not, to TB at least, in the realm of priced for the wine snob. No, to TB, a wine snob is someone who buys on ratings alone, and adjusts her likes to what she is told to like. Lettie Teague, who writes a weekly column in the Wall Street Journal, is an honest writer who ‘calls ’em as she sees ’em’. Her last column was on sins of people in the wine industry. Sins? How about the sommelier who pours you a glass and then describes in detail what you are tasting – isn’t that like giving you a book then reciting the story and telling you to enjoy? Another of the sins is wine shops that pepper their inventory with stickers showing the ratings of most of the wines. One of TB’s pet peeves is the server, intent on selling you more wine, pouring behind your back, or dumping the rest of the bottle in someone’s glass. I have experienced and seen friends experience, getting pie-eyed because they lost count of how much wine they drank because they didn’t see their glass refilled…again and again.
5. I know of one blogger who refers you to a wine he has rated (and often following a rating by a seller), that offers you a chance to buy direct by clicking on the link. Without accusing said blogger, how can she be independent if there is an incentive to sell the wine. TB has never, and never will, accepted anything for a favorable plug…period. But then, TB is not out go get rich, but merely provide information to fellow wine-lovers (note he did not say ‘oenophiles’ – enough of enophiles!). Instead, TB hopes you will regard his efforts at truthfulness positively and if…and when…his book is published be inclined to buy a copy, but that is up to you.
Hopefully, this has made up for the self-made ‘drought’ (sorry Californians), and given you pause on what you seek in a wine. In Jancis Robinson’s latest blog, she commented on her version of wine snobs who get on every mailing list of hard to get producers and cause more price escalation and hording. What is a bottle of wine worth? Take the word of Heidi Barrett, consultant to many of the top wineries in Napa Valley after hearing that an Imperial (six-liter bottle equal to eight 750ml bottles) of her Screaming Eagle sold at the Napa Valley Wine Auction for $500,000. As author George M. Taber writes in Judgment of Paris, that works out to $22,944 per four-ounce glass (purchased by a dot-com multimillionaire). Barrett, while obviously pleased by the price, said this, “It’s wild. you drink it, and it’s gone. My brain doesn’t get it.” Neither does TB’s, especially when there are people can’t afford their next meal. Oh, well, let them eat cake, right?
Off to get a glass of wine…
©Copyright 2015 TBOW, all rights reserved.
One of the most intriguing wine regions in the world is the Ribero del Duero in Northern Spain at the source of the Duero River in the Cantabrian Mountains (so you won’t think TB is getting senile – he may be – he discussed part of this are in Vol. 1 No 110), which then flows south through Valladolid and into Portugal where it becomes the Douro, famous for centuries for Port wine growing. The major city of the region is Burgos, near the source. It then meanders down past Valladolid where the two most expensive Spanish wines hail from (Vega Secila and Pesquez), and dozens of other fine and reasonably-priced reds and just outside the boundaries of the appellation one of Spain’s best white wines is made, Rueda, a complex and beautiful wine.
The Duero then passes to the north of the university town of Salamanca and into Portugal where it becomes the Douro for the remainder of its 550 mile journey to the Atlantic. It is in Portugal that it becomes navigable and the Port growers used Daδ’s (small lateen-rigged sailboats) to transport the barrels down to the Port Lodges near the sea across from the beautiful town of Porto (I just learned that there are 8 day river cruises up the Douro and the views look incredible).
While TB loves Port (just as he does Pedro Ximénez sherries and Madeira’s), our interest here is on the unknown Reds that come from here (and slightly above it the whites called Albarinho’s which are labeled Vinho Verde – the only similarity to the old Vinho’s is the name as the quality is equal to Albariño’s and they are less expensive – try one, you’ll like it and save some money too!).
TB will revisit the Duero region in October when he returns to finish the northwest edge of the Iberian peninsula (Rias Biaxas, Santiago de Compostello, and Vigo), then down into Portugal to Porto. From their he will fly to Madeira and back to Lisboa to begin a cruise to Marakeesh, Casablanca, and more, then finish in the Canary Islands at Tenerife – one would think it would be easier to fly from there to Madeira but since the Canary’s are Spanish and Madeira, Portuguese, no can do). Can’t wait to take the trip and report back to you.
Last Sunday, TB read a review of a wine named Portada. A 2013 red, that the author said was a $30 wine selling for $10. Intrigued, and anxious to increase his knowledge of Portuguese wine he bought a bottle from a local wine merchant and it is ‘knock your socks off stunning’! What does it taste like? Indescribable – a wine for all tastes as it is chock full of rich berry flavors but with soft tannins to make it a great wine to go with everything from barbecue to ??? But more than that it will even appeal to those of you who are Two Buck Chuck lovers (even though the price is approaching $3!). Don’t misunderstand, TBC has not only enriched the coffers of Trader Joe’s but it has helped eliminate cheap wine from the competition – globally, good wine is forcing out bad because you can’t sell much for under three dollars – that is legal anyway!
That’s all for now, friends! Stay thirsty? – now why would you want to do that? As an old Navy guy running an enlisted men’s club used to say, “drink up, this ain’t no library!”
©Copyright 2015 TBOW, all rights reserved.
(TB is really anxious to report on my trip to northwest Spain but I saw a blog today that just had to be reported in the wake of the arsenic ‘scare’: people are already increasing their price points on wine or as the TV show was called we’re movin’ on up! Will try to get the Spain articles in this week. TBOW)
Customer: This wine tastes terrible!
Merchant: Really? Parker gave it a 90!
Customer: I’ll take two cases!
Don’t be that customer! Trust what you like, not what Robert Parker, Michel Rolland, or any other critic says is a good wine. For one thing, you might serve it to friends and they might have the same tastes as you and like the customer, think it tastes terrible. $50 down the drain and worse, perhaps ruining a good meal (putting aside for a later column which wines pair well with food).
First, ‘good’ is a relative term: compared to what? Is a wine ‘good’ for a Cab? Is it good in the $50 and up range? Is it good value? Is it good by itself? …with food?
As TB writes this column those thoughts come back again and again. We have all heard someone tell us that is a good wine, but then tried it and found it ‘so-so’ – or worse! A few decades ago Gerald Boyd, a prominent San Francisco-based wine writer, wrote an entire column that essentially asked this question.
He said, how can you accept a wine writer’s recommendation without knowing what he looks for in a wine? Does he like big, bold, tannic wines, like Robert Parker? At the other end of the spectrum the late Robert Lawrence Balzer who wrote in the Los Angeles Times? An eccentric, pioneer wine writer who accomplished many things in his 99 years but who could talk as glowingly of Gallo Hearty Burgundy or Sutter Home White Zinfandel (they pioneered it in the 1970’s and Balzer wrote a column saying they were ‘on to something’, even though there is no such thing as a white Zin, a red grape that produces what we now know as a ‘blush’ wine), as a first growth Bordeaux.
This is the point of TBOW: you be the judge, not some recognized expert. Two of the most respected wine writers are Jancis Robinson and Hugh Johnson have had a ‘lively’ debate over which is better: Bordeaux or Burgundy? Since I have a friend who can‘t stand Pinot Noir (it makes him ill, and we have tried to trick him but somehow he always has the same reaction), it proves it is in the ‘nose’ and taste buds of the beholder.
Think of wine as NASA would: the cost difference between 90% reliability and 100%, or even 95%. Wine is not a matter of life or death so a wine that is 90% as good as a $100 wine (very subjective, of course), can cost as little as $25-30. If you want the expensive wine and can afford it, more power to you, but TB would suggest that fewer and fewer people either an afford an expensive bottle of wine or do not have the inclination (there was a time that this writer wanted and collected them but that is in the past having some that were disappointments when he finally drank them).
I want to recommend a great wine blog, www.thewineeconmist.com by Mike Veseth who is an economist who has chosen to study wine. In today’s blog (3.31.15), he discusses the impact of the financial crisis on wine consumption (actually all consumption was impacted). Wineries have seen their wine clubs ‘wither’, and downward pressure was exerted by wineries and wine shops who were finding it difficult to move their inventory, significant discounting occurred in th ‘dead zone’ of $20 and up wines. As a table in the blog shows, sales of wine selling up to $8.99 a bottle are off (and will likely be more so with the new arsenic ‘scare’). Meanwhile wines from $9.00 to $11.99 have had increased sales of 7.2%; contrast this to wines from $6.00 to $8.99 which have declined by 3.2%! Below that level they are off from 0.1%- 1%. More significantly, wines selling for $12..00 to $14.99 are up by 10,6% and wines selling for $20 or more are up 15.7%! This is significant since total wine consumption for the 52 weeks ended 12/6/14, as reported by Wine Business Monthly, was up just 3.4%! Think about it!
The extreme high end Bordeaux have priced themselves (been priced?) out of the range of all but a small percentage of consumers. Also, new laws in China which prohibit giving gifts (Lafite Rothschild was a favorite), have cut back on Chinese demand and the ‘spec wine’ buyers have seen the values of their wine consortiums plummet. Also, you will find this hard to believe but there is counterfeiting out there! No…not wine! Yes, wine and it is as old as Thomas Jefferson’s era. One would be wise to consider wines as consumables and stop gambling on demand and thus prices of rare wines continuing to rise.
In the movie, Red Obsession, the statement was made that the Chinese would buy up all the best wines in the world. TB chuckled at that because in 1989, just before the Japanese economy tanked, the same was said of Japan! Funny how that same year the went into a tailspin and have never emerged from it. The same may be true for China, and take TB’s word for it: no wine is worth even $100, except for the historical value, but do you feel lucky? It might be fake!
©Copyright 2015 TBOW, all rights reserved.
TB had intended to write more on his trip and has almost completed on segment but this story is too important and also highlights his theme: there are many good wines produced now around the world that are forcing out the bad. Areas that used to just produce a high volume of wine are now making less and at higher quality…a good thing!
It isn’t so! Okay, there is, but an ambulance-chasing law firm in L.A. with the unwitting (?) help of a Denver-based chemical analysis firm (neither shall be mentioned by name so as not to further publicize their heinous actions by creating a scare that is much more insidious than any trace arsenic in wine. Put a stop to it. Of course they were able to get two couples to file, thus getting class-action status – the Holy Grail of product liability lawyers – but just how have they been harmed? Did anyone suffer injury or die? Wouldn’t it more likely that someone had dies of arsenic poisoning leading regulators to look at wine? Unless the wine industry comes on very strong and proves the suit is without merit, it will probably be settled on the courthouse steps with only the law firm benefiting, and of course, secondarily the chemical analysis firm. I believe there are just four names in the class action. If you have been, or had the opportunity to be, a party to a class-action (most likely through some securities you own(ed), you are well aware of how this works: settled out of court, lawyers and expert witnesses are paid, and in a case against say Ford, for fires in pick-up trucks, the plaintiffs get a $200 coupon to be used on a new…FORD PICK-UP! Why in God’s name would you buy anything from the company knowing that they produced a vehicle that could catch fire (even though the problem was fixed long ago)? In this case, how about if they gave you a coupon for a free case of ‘Two-Buck Chuck’? That’s the ticket.
Enough of the levity, now to the serious side of the issue. The U.S. Food and Drug Agency has decreed that drinking water should not contain more than 10 parts per million of arsenic (this due to a 2013 decree caused by it being in orange juice) that we consume much more water than arsenic…er, wine…a couple of glasses most likely a day, versus a couple of quarts (or liters) of drinking water. The rub is that arsenic stays in your body and eventually builds up (that is the theory of how Napoleon was poisoned, slowly, and without knowing it). How valid is the 10ppm level?
The French drink on average 16.4 gallons of wine per person each year (that’s less than 6 ounces per day or about 9% of their daily intake of water. If the standard there was the 50ppm and assuming their water was right at 50ppm, that would mean the standard for wine could be 500ppm or higher, with no ill effects. In fact, the results of the lab study here didn’t even exceed the 50ppm level which the lawsuit has labeled.
Yet without saying how many different labels they tasted, they came up with 28 producers and 73 labels, most notably Charles Shaw (Two-Buck Chuck), and some of the others named being sold through Trader Joe’s (talk about defamation!), and other outlets. No one asked them to do this (or so they say), and the wine industry has its own chemical analysis companies that strongly dispute the findings. In their scare campaign they said some of these wines more than 500% of the limit (see they could have said five times which is just 50ppm – hardly worthy of sounding alarms). Even the FDA and EPA said the limit was established for ‘public water systems’ and is not relevant for wine – how about that?
Back to the 10ppm limit. Canada, conservative Canada (who has to absorb the health costs of their citizens), has a limit of 100ppm. Europe is 200ppm…they too have to pay health costs!
If you aren’t disgusted by our legal system by now, you should be if this case isn’t thrown out of court and the law firm sued for their overblown claims like ‘dangerously high levels’ that are damaging an entire industry.
How did the arsenic get in the wine? It is in all wine and virtually all things including the soil. Diatomacious earth is commonly used to filter wine, with presumably the best filtration methods being used on middle and high-end wines. Sorry, no smoking gun here.
You decide the facts and hopefully this case won’t even come to trial and be dismissed for lack of merit. But is there an upside to this? There just might be. Perhaps consumers will see that for a little more (Two-Buck Chuck now costs $3.50), and Trader Joe’s and other vendors may be able to get people to pay more…there are many steals at all wine shops for under $10, some for as little as $5 (once TB saw a clerk moving a case of TBC and warned him not to drop even one bottle or the profit would be lost). Did you ever stop to think how much just the bottle, label, cork or screw-cap, cost…let alone the cost of growing and processing the grapes? It is hard for TB to contemplate what the wine sells for that allows it to be profitable at less than $10 (we haven’t even considered the cost of production, except by tremendous volume. Try paying a little more and experiment with several wines not just settling for one because it’s cheap.
©Copyright 2015 TBOW, all rights reserved.
Of the six major wine regions in Spain, La Rioja (from the river Rio Oja, a tributary of the Ebro river that flows through the region), is by far the most important, although many others are developing. As mentioned in the prior blog, there has been improvement in Basque wines, and quality is up throughout the region.
Spain owes its fame and pain in the wine industry to phylloxera, the parasite that destroyed the vines in Bordeaux, causing the winemakers to try to find similar places to grow their wines. These included both the west and east of Spain, and even Portugal, but the most successful was La Rioja. But when grafting the shoots to American rootstock created phylloxera-resistant vines, the French returned to Bordeaux and eventually the bug moved into Spain forcing the growers here to do the same. It was both costly and time-consuming and many growers abandoned business.
The next ‘shockwave’ came when Generalissimo Franco (don’t say that name in Basque Country), ordered the vines to be replaced – with wheat – due to a famine. Somehow, some way, the wines were eventually brought back and while lacking the elegance of French wines they were soon sought out. Just as in other parts of the world, modern techniques improved the quality of the wine and today, the best riojas command high prices.
Rioja’s might never have become popular had it not been for modern tastes that caused a transformation not only in Spain, but Chile, Argentina, and even Portugal. These wines remain less expensive (except the very top lines which can cost as much as $100), and are exceptional value.
As my readers know, TB is, and has for long, been opposed to ‘wine snobbery’. Why should we ‘accept as gospel’ what Robert Parker, or Michel Rolland, or any other wine critic says is best? I asked this question at several of the wineries and was greeted with nods and smiles. At Muga, of all places, Carmen, my host, complained, “Everyone asks me ‘what is your best wine?’ I always tell them this, it is the one that you like best.” No one has ever made that statement to this writer before, yet he feels it is prevalent and it sums up exactly the point of this blog and what wine enjoyment should be about. Would you dare to ask a mother which of her children is her favorite? If you don’t have a wine cellar, why do you want to buy a wine capable of aging for ten years or more? Under improper storage conditions it will likely be ruined by the time you get around to drinking it.
Think of it this way: wine is about pleasure and passion. Passion is not being able to tell your friends, “Parker gave this wine a 90”, it is about offering them a wine that you love and most likely they will be drawn to it as you were. Here is a simple test: try a bottle of wine…in your mind rate it, then visit a winery (or Bodega, or Pazo, or Chateau), and if you are lucky enough to meet the winemaker or someone else who is a full-time employee – not a student with a part-time job –try the wine again. Most likely you will rate the same wine different. See, their passion comes through just as yours does when you talk about wine with your friends. That is the anti-wine snob.
Visiting wineries in Spain as in most countries outside the United States requires a reservation. A tour can cost as much as 25 euros, but a trick to learn, especially if you have visited wineries elsewhere, is to reserve a tasting instead. This will not only save you money but precious time.
I had scheduled a tour of Bodegas Muga in Haro (pronounced ‘arrow’), but when we met the woman in St-Jean-de-Luz, who was an owner of Cune (actually CVNE and pronounced ‘coon-ay’ as it is the initials of the company that also owns other properties in Spain), Sophie Vallejo, she gave us an introduction to Cune, so we were admitted without a reservation and cancelled the tour at Muga which would have been difficult to make as we were coming from two hours away. We tasted six of their wines, including a white wine made from Viura grapes that is high in acid and a very pleasant wine for an aperitif or with fish. In addition, we had five different Rioja wines made primarily from Tempranillo, with varying amounts of Garnacha, Mazuela, and Graciano (one was 100% Graciano, a very temperamental wine of high quality, which I liked best.
The older style wines, like Imperial, which was their most expensive and most highly regarded are aged longer in oak, both French and American, this was a result of the cost of French oak so they bought the wood from America and had their own coopers make the barrels.
Today, only Muga still makes its own barrels, both French and American. Their more modern wines are sold under the Contina label and are much more forward as most people now prefer. The aging time has been reduced to three to four years in oak (the American imparts vanillin flavors to the wine, while French has more spice), then another three to five in bottle. While there are many wines produced here, it is the Crianza’s, the least aged and less complex, while the Reserva’s and Gran Reservas that are the most sought after for the longevity.
We also visited another top producer, La Rioja, which provided us with a beautiful and complex Albariño (not produced in La Rioja but Rias Biaxas which we were unable to visit due to distance). We also tasted their Rioja’s which also are produced under various labels with their best modern style wines as Torre de Oña. The quality of all the wines we tasted at the various Bodegas was amazing.
Later we returned to Muga, which had been closed and Iasted another eight wines, two impressive Cava’s: a brut and a Rosada, both beautiful, especially the latter. Then six more wines including a white made from Viura grapes, and reds from Crianza to Gran Reserva.
A bit of history on Haro. Due to rail access required by the French vintners it established rail service to Bordeaux and Bilbao in the 1880’s, and two years later it was the first town in northern Spain to have electricity, early in the 1900’s. The town is beautiful with Baroque architecture, the vineyards below, mountains in the background, and winding narrow streets (as in most of the north, the streets are almost all one way which is confusing until you understand the plan, and even more so in the larger towns and cities like San Sebastian and Bilbao). Today, only a handful of the ‘old’ bodegas remain situated in Haro, which is at the northwest corner of La Rioja (Rioja Alta). Most of the others and the new wineries are now near Logrono, primarily in another beautiful hill town, La Guardia. As mentioned previously, the new ones are designed by world-renowned architects, and stand out against the mesas with the mountains in the background
La Rioja is in three parts, with Rioja Alta producing the best wines due to a higher elevation, the best soils, and the breezes that come through the canyons of the Cantabrian Mountains from the Atlantic Ocean. The bottom of this region is Rioja Alvesa, still good but drier, and to the south Rioja Baja, which produces grapes with lower acidity, higher alcohol and are coarser due to the more sandy soils.
The regulations for producing Rioja and other wines are strict under the Denominación de Origen Calcificada (DOC). Among these are the length of time required for aging in the barrel and in the bottle which increases from a Crianza, Reserva, and a Gran Reserva. Historically, wines were aged much longer than required…some for twenty years or more! This aging caused the tannins to build up and lose the fruit characteristics. The three producers discussed here and many others, especially the newer bodegas have shunned these requirements for some or all of their wines. Why? Because they feel, and the public would agree judging from the price, makes them better. This follows in the footsteps of Italy’s Piero Antinori, who in 1971 decided to use smaller barriques instead of the huge barrels required under the DOC for Chianti. Both have have been generously rewarded for this by the buying public. Rioja’s may only be made from three grapes, Tempranillo, the mainstay, Garnacha, known in France as Granache, Graciano, and Mazuelo. Most have at least 70% Tempranillo. Some producers are now making single grape wines from Garnacha. CUNE is making a Graciano that was a favorite of mine (the joke, because it is so difficult to work with is that taking the Spanish word for thanks, gracias, they say “gracias, no gracias” Some single-vineyard Tempranillo’s are now being produced such as Contina’s (CUNE) Viña del Olivo, which is very intense…and expensive!
Only recently have I began to appreciate Cava, a sparkling wine made in the traditional méthode Champenois in the Penedes region south of Barcelona. In the 1860’s they imported French champagne-making equipment, usually a Brut or Rosada. It is now being produced in other areas and I particularly liked the Muga Rosada. The prices for these range from 10-20 euros.
I am taking the time today to write as it is raining out – the first day of the entire trip (10 days), relaxing in our beautiful hacienda just outside Donostrio (San Sebastian). The name comes from the Basque (Don a sign of respect for the saint, and Ostrio, for where he died in Italy). Signs are mostly in Basque (Euskadi) and Spanish, but IF you use the Basque you will do better. As for Spanish’, good luck as in the north it is all Castilian (Catalan), so they don’t understand you except in pigeon. That said, these are warm people, and we have had people spend a lot of time assisting us. Once in the Basque restaurant/Cidery (Sidra), by us and a woman at the post office who stayed for half an hour to help us. The clerks were useless. Imagine over an hour to mail a package home!
Adios, mi amigos…
©Copyright 2015 TBOW, all rights reserved.