“Wine is one of the most civilized things in the world and one of the most natural things of the world that has been brought to the greatest perfection, and it offers a greater range for enjoyment and appreciation than, possibly, any other purely sensory thing.”
~ Ernest Hemingway
As I prepare to travel to Portugal later this month for the MUST Fermenting Ideas Conference (LINK), where new and innovative ideas will be presented and discussed, I can’t help but look at some of the major issues in the wine industry today.
Issues like counterfeiting, fraud, and outright theft are regularly reported here in France and elsewhere. One might actually take that as a positive sign that there is something of great value which is sought after by the criminally inclined. There may well be truth in that, but that is not the kind of thing I am talking about. Even the great scandal of the past year involving the cheating at the Master Sommelier test in the United States (LINK), while closer to the heart of the matter, is not the really big issue, as important as it may be. These kinds of things only affect the upper tier of wine drinkers, not the vast majority.
For me, the big issue is the fact that the industry is pulling in so many directions that it is becoming more and more difficult for wine consumers to have a broad understanding of the world of wine and the enjoyment such awareness brings. This also adversely affects the industry as customer engagement and loyalty wane.
In the United States, the corporatization of the wine industry is having many negative effects. The buying up of labels from shuttered wineries and the conversion of these labels to bottles bulk wines; the “Gallo-ization” of everyday wines; the failure to support labeling regulation policies; and crazy shipping restrictions due to the efforts of regional distributors’ lobbying efforts all serve to break down trust from consumers. These things also make it difficult for family-run wineries to compete in a market where the deck is stacked in favor of the big producers.
Additionally, the movement toward a generic kind of wine blend for the American palate (again, thanks Gallo et all, although wine critics have a hand in this as well), which is opposite of what is happening in the beer industry, where craft beers are gaining market share to the point that they are becoming corporate targets, has also made it harder for the average consumer to explore different styles of the winemaker’s craft. More and more with New World wines and US red wines especially, everything at $12 and under, tastes the same.
The oases from all of this are the smaller wine shops and non-chain restaurants where wine lists are chosen to match the menu, not to maximize buying power. I routinely encourage younger wine drinkers to go to local shops and talk to the staff, who will give good advice about wines regardless of one’s budget. If someone find that they like wine and are interested in exploring it further, local wine shops are a great place to begin. I still rely on my wine cave in Lyon to help me sort through the myriad labels from local wine regions – their advice is worth an extra euro or two per bottle that I may pay over supermarket wines. The same is true in the US and UK.
NOTE: my wife and I have a budget for everyday wine in the 7€ to 15€ range (about $8 to $18). Our go-to Provencal rosé for this summer costs only 6€99. We find that we can get very good wines in this price range here in France – with the advice of our cavistes. We do occasionally splurge for more expensive wines, of course.
On a larger scale, the wine industry would do well to create a more welcoming invitation to wine enjoyment than the usual bifurcated choice of cheap wine laden with additives or more expensive options often marketed for snob appeal. If labeling regulations were supported by the industry, many people who choose to eat healthily would see that their organic food choices are all too often negated by chemical-laden cheap wines. Many of today’s consumers are more health-conscious and the wine industry is doing them few favors by not supporting labeling requirements.
The period of continual growth for the industry seems to be over, meaning that attracting new customers will require more than just putting wines on shelves. Making wine an everyday beverage, as it is in much of Europe, will necessitate a more welcoming and egalitarian approach and require more attention to health concerns. Seeing wine as food seems like a good place to begin.
More to come on all this, but I am interested in any comments you have. I you will be at MUST – see you there!
If you follow the link below, you will be taken to the WineFolly.com site where Madaline Puckette does a blind tasting of Pinot Noirs from Burgundy and Oregon. I think this is an excellent representation of both how to taste wine and a fun way to organize tastings – compare the same variety from different regions or nations. Below the video on the site is a lot of good information as well.
I agree with Madaline about the 2015 Burgundies – living here in Lyon, I have been able to taste a few and they are stunning wines. And, being in France, I have access to some secondary labels from great producers which are not available in the US. As I have noted before, the French do not like to pay a lot for wine, which for most of them is an everyday part of life. French wine producers know this and price their wines accordingly for the most part. As an example, recently I drank a very nice white Burgundy from Mercurey which cost me just 11 euros.
I know I have not been blogging much lately – my focus has been on learning French and we have been drinking some everyday wines – which I will blog about soon. It is spring here, and the new crop of rosé wines will be on the shelves soon.
Look for a few posts on these over the next months.
This is proving to be a well-spaced series of posts, the first in September 2017 (LINK), the second in April 2018 (LINK), and this, the third one in November 2018. Here is an update on the months since my last post.
We moved into our apartment in the 6ème Arrondissement of Lyon beginning in late June. Our shipment from the US arrived in early July, but we had some paining done and moved our shipment in early August. The good news was that there were no customs duty or taxes due since we were moving our primary residence (if it were a second home, the duty and taxes could be 50% of the value). The bad news was that an armoire was heavily damaged and about 6 boxes were missing – and not covered by our homeowner’s policy as we had been advised by our agent.
Our building is essentially a co-operative, with 9 owners, some descendants of the original builder and owner. Gas and electric hookups were generally easy, with some language issues, especially on the telephone. Our building fees and taxes are under 400 euros per quarter.
We needed to buy new appliances for the apartment, since in France, the owners take everything with them when they move (renters usually do, too); and none of our small electrics would work in France, so we needed to replace them as well. We also needed new furniture other than the three armoires, two book cases, one table, and the Steinway piano we had shipped. We had one lamp rewired for 220 current as well.
We happened to hit a sale period for most of our furniture and electronics – there are two or three general sales during the year, regulated by the government (to keep small business from severe undercutting by larger retailers). Shopping for furniture here is like in the US, you do your research and look online. We purchased most things in area retail stores and a few online. We ordered two convertible sofas in early August, just before the whole country goes on vacation, so they were not manufactured and delivered until September and October.
Cable TV and Internet services are like in the US only cheaper, as is cell phone service. Communications companies are required by law to keep prices low and provide customer service. We ended up with cell phones from one provider and cable TV and internet from another.
The new apartment has a cave, or basement, with a dirt floor. It is perfect for storing wine. Our building was built in 1847 and is a block from the Rhône River. There are 5 wine shops (also called caves) in our neighborhood, so the basement cave will be filling up in due order.
Our long stay visa renewal mentioned in Part 2 ran into a snag in June.
You renew your visas through a different agency than the one to which you initially apply through an embassy or consulate in your home nation. In Lyon, which is located in the Rhône-Alps Department (or state), that is at the Prefecture in Lyon. Appointments take about 3 months to obtain. When we went for our renewal, using a list of necessary paperwork from the OFII website (Office Français de l’Immigration et de l’Intégration), we were told the list on the website was incorrect and we were given another list and told to make a new appointment. That was on June 28th. Our visas were to expire on July 12th and the next appointment available was in October.
So, we contacted an immigration attorney (advocat), who told us that the OFII official had illegally returned all of our application items and that our visas would remain in effect until our October appointment. He sent them a letter to this effect, which we took with us when we left the country and had no trouble returning during this period.
Then, on October 18th, we returned to the Prefecture and handed in all the correct paperwork (LINK) and were given our extension good through December 2019. Champagne followed.
As I noted in Part 1 of this series:
What we discovered is that it is very difficult to get a work visa for France unless you are hired by a French company or working for a foreign company and will have a temporary assignment in France. The law says that to qualify for a job, there must be no French citizen who can fill that job, and then, no EU citizen who can fill it. Unless you meet those criteria or are going to invest and start a business and hire ten French citizens, you can forget a work visa. There are no investment visas in France, such as the Golden Visa for real estate purchases in Portugal, Spain, Greece, or Malta.
We applied for a long-stay visitor visa (there are time constraints) (LINK)(LINK). Essentially, we had to show that we could afford to live in France for a year, had health insurance that covered us there, and were not wanted by the law. We submitted a stack of papers and had a short interview at the French Consulate in Los Angeles (you must apply in person at the embassy or consulate nearest to your US residence).
Now, we are legal for another year. After doing this for five years, we will be eligible to apply for permanent residence (like a Green Card) or French citizenship. The current wait for French citizenship applications to be processed is 2½ years, mostly due to an increase in applications from UK citizens due to Brexit.
Learning French is still a slow-go, in part because it’s a difficult language and in part because we have been back and forth to America so often. We are planning to be in France more during the coming year and to focus on learning the language better.
Vector Sign Speaking French
Meanwhile, the wine is still wonderful, abundant, and relatively cheap; the food is still glorious; and France is, well, France. I am again forgoing Beaujolais Nouveau this year, opting instead for some lush Côte-du-Rhônes and maybe a cru Beaujolais or two. Our first Lyon Christmas is approaching, including the famed Fete des Lumieres (LINK), plus a December trip to Paris. For our first New Years Eve, we will celebrate with friends in Mâcon with what they call Champagne-a-Go-Go, which apparently means large quantities of Champagne. We will be staying over.
As always, your comments are welcomed, as are any good tips for expats.
Copyright 2018 – Jim Lockard
NOTE: I will be covering a very interesting wine conference in Portugal in June. The MUST Wine Summit: Fermenting Ideas (LINK). If you can’t go, you can see my posts about it coming in late June!
A Lyonnaise friend took me for some wine tasting and purchasing to northern Beaujolais, first to Fleurie to visit the Co-op there and then to Romanèche-Thorins to visit the Georges DeBoeuf négociant wine cave. We drove north from Lyon on a beautiful sunny afternoon and through some beautiful Beaujolais countryside after getting of the A6 Motorway at Villefranche-sur-Saône.
A French Wine Cooperative (LINK)“produces and sells wine made from the grapes grown by its members. It mutualizes such tasks as winemaking, storage, selling, and, in some cases, the bottling process.” It is a community of vignerons coming together for mutual support. So, you won’t find single-vineyard production, it is more of a collective effort to produce wines under the name of the appellation where the cooperative is located.
A French wine négociant (LINK) is “a merchant who buy grapes, juice, or finished wine from growers, then bottle and sell them on the market wholesale.”
In general, you’ll encounter three types of wine négociants (LINK): those who buy pre-made wine and bottle it, those who make some improvements on the wine before bottling it, and those who take whole grapes or unfermented juice to make the wine virtually from scratch. This last type of négociant is called a “négociant-éleveur,” and they are the négociants with the most prestigious reputations.
Like all Beaujolais wines, the Fleurie reds are made from Gamay (they also produce a tiny bit of Pino Noir), the whites from Chardonnay. The famous Noveau Beaujolais, a soda-pop like wine bottled just after fermentation will be released in early November. I would have avoided it even if it had been available. It can be a fun way to celebrate the recent harvest, but it isn’t good wine.
The cooperative offers about 20 wines for sale, including a rosé made from Gamay and three créments (sparkling wines).
I tasted several whites and reds before purchasing a few bottles to take home to Lyon. The wines are well-crafted, not premier crus, but very good, drinkable wines. Most cost under 10 euros per bottle. The cooperative offers a couple of “Burgundian” wines, as parts of the area are on the southern side of Burgundy.
Then we drove a few kilometers west to the village of Romanèche-Thorins to visit the Georges DeBoeuf négociant wine cave (LINK). This is a huge operation, and many of my American friends will be very familiar with Georges DeBoeuf wines.
As a négociant, DeBoeuf operates across all three types listed above. Labels will indicate what the relationship between the négociant and winemaker are for each bottle.
The cave is expansive, featuring the DeBoeuf wines as well as a selection of other premium world wines (even a couple from the US – I won’t name them, but they were not premium wines. One seldom finds really good US wines in France), and a large area of gift items, wine accessories, glasses, etc.
The tasting room is an old-time bar connected to a large area where food is served and there are entertainments (a calliope) for those who have just exited the adjacent wine museum and Hameau park (LINK) (which we did not visit this time). It was a quiet afternoon, so we got some personal attention. You can taste as many wines as you want, and the tasting is complimentary. I was interested in comparing wines made from the fermentation through bottling and wines only bottled by DeBoeuf. The Brouilly samples were representative of this. In this case, I found the wine processed by the vigneron superior to the DeBoeuf-made Brouilly (reds); DeBoeuf sells both for just about the same price.
I purchased a few bottles of the Brouilly I preferred, plus a few others to take home, including a very special Cahors Malbec from their premium wine room. I passed on the Château Haute Lafitte-Rothchild this trip. By the way, the premium wine room has an excellent selection from all over France and the world at very good prices.
If you are in the area, for a day trip or longer – southwest of Mâcon and northwest of Lyon, Beaujolais offers beautiful countryside, picturesque villages, good restaurants, and wine at very reasonable prices. At home, check your local wine shops for Beaujolais wines – see what they recommend. Despite the reputation of Nouveau Beaujolais, there are some very nice wines coming from the area at very reasonable prices.
REFUSE TO BE INTIMIDATED. The world of wine is populated with a few, well, snobs. There are people whose income depends on you, the consumer, feeling like you don’t know enough to order a wine you will like. There are some whose income depends on getting you to buy a wine whether you like it or not. There are also few who want to make you feel uncomfortable just for their own ego gratification.
That said, there are also lots of folks who can and will help you feel more comfortable. These can include wine stewards or waiters in restaurants, employees in wine shops and at large retailers like Costco, tasting room employees, and, yes, wine bloggers like me. Take advantage of their knowledge and willingness to help. Even with the first group, you will usually find if you ask a couple of clear questions and let them know what you like and what you are willing to pay, you will get what you desire.
2. BE AN EXPLORER. Try some unfamiliar wines. Even if after doing so, you become a drinker of one kind of wine, you will at least know that you aren’t missing something better for you. Again, wine retailers and restaurant employees can be helpful. Like Malbec? Try something close, like a Barbera or a Tempranillo. Traveling? Try the local wines. (LINK to my post WHAT KIND OF WINE DRINKER ARE YOU?)
3. AVOID REALLY CHEAP WINES. The issue here is not so much about price or quality as it is about additives. Most new world (that’s everyplace but Europe) wines under $10 to $15 are laced with additives of various kinds. There are no labeling requirements, so you don’t know which ones or how much of them are in your wine. Some additives are benign, some are not. Many people who eat only organic food buy cheap wines filled with chemical additives – unknowingly, of course. (LINK to my post on ADDITIVES)
There are three main reasons that cheaper wines have more additives than more expensive wines: One, consumers of cheaper wines tend to want their wine to taste the same every time. They are not interested in seasonal variation – the kind based on weather which affect wine grapes from just about everywhere. So, additives can mask changes – and in cheap wines, the issue is not seasonal variations; most are bulk wines, made from whatever grapes or juice are available at that moment from any location. Second – additives can make a rough product taste smoother, smell better, look better. In other words, mask problems. Third – there are economic reasons to use additives in some products, and your health is not one of them.
4. NEW TO WINE? TRY A STARTER CASE. I blogged about this a while back. If you are new to wine or have someone, like in my case, my daughter, who is new to wine, consider a starter case. This is a mixed case of wines for them to try to learn about. Then, when returning to the wine retailer, you or they can say what you liked and would like to get more of, or maybe explore a bit with something like what you enjoyed previously, but different. (LINK to my post on STARTER CASE)
5. LEARN HOW TO SHOP FOR WINE. I often go into wine shops without intending to make a purchase – just to look around, familiarize myself with the kinds of wines available, the labels, the price points. I may engage someone in the shop in a conversation about a specific wine, or a wine region that they feature. And, truth be told, much more often than not, I walk out with a bottle or three.
Many reputable wine writers and bloggers will tell you to ask questions when shopping for wine. Wine shop employees will generally enjoy helping you (with the possible exception of the Holiday rush). For example, you might ask for a wine in the $20 range to go with a lamb roast, or something to take as a special gift to a lover of Argentinian Malbec. (LINK to my post on SHOPPING FOR WINE)
6. LEARN HOW RESTAURANT WINE WORKS. There are a few things to be aware of when ordering wine in a restaurant. One is the pricing structure. The norm is to mark up a bottle two to two-and-a-half times retail cost. Many restaurants are offering wines at a lower mark-up (in Europe it is often the same as in a wine shop). Wine is a significant part of the profit structure at many restaurants. For others, it is an afterthought; the wines may not even go with the food offered.
There are myths about ordering wine in restaurants. Most are false or only partly true. The reality is that if wine is a serious consideration in a restaurant, the wine list will have been chosen with care based on what is important to that restaurant’s management. It might be by region – focusing on Italian wines in an Italian restaurant; or by type of food served – an emphasis on white and rosé wines in a seafood restaurant; or it may be wines selected for the specific items on the menu. Some say that the best buy is the 2nd cheapest wine on the list. This is almost never true. If it is good value you are seeking, a good choice is to order a bottle of one of the wines they are selling by the glass. These wines are usually a good value and they are sold by the glass because they are well-received.
Again, don’t be afraid to ask the waiter, wine steward, or sommelier for guidance – and DON’T forget to give him or her your budget! I have never had a negative experience with wine in a restaurant when I have been given guidance (I don’t always ask for it). (LINK to my post on ORDERING WINE IN A RESTAURANT)
7. REMEMBER CORKAGE. In many places, you can bring your own wine to a restaurant. Normally, a corkage fee will be charged, to cover the cost of using the glasses and having the wine open and served by the restaurant staff. This is a good option if you have a special bottle to share with family or friends that will go well with the restaurant meal. Some etiquette – if you don’t know, check in advance on the corkage policy of the restaurant; don’t bring a wine the restaurant has on its wine list; don’t pay $20 corkage on an $8 bottle of Yellow Tail to save money. And, if the wine is corked or otherwise bad, don’t try to send it back for another bottle! (LINK to my post about corkage)
8. LIFE IS TOO SHORT TO DRINK BAD WINE. I know you have a budget, which, like mine, is limited. And maybe you don’t have an educated palate to justify really expensive wine. However, as I noted above, just about all of the really cheap wines are filled with additives and are bad for you. So, think about how much wine you drink and what it would take to get the average cost per bottle up to $15 or more. At that price point, generally speaking you are drinking wine, not just a mixture of random grapes made in bulk. You will notice qualities like minerality, or terroir – the effect of the soil on the wine. You will begin to tell varietals apart ($7 Cabernet Sauvignon tastes surprisingly like $7 Merlot). And you will be drinking a more healthful beverage.
Also, if you buy a decent bottle and it’s bad (corked or chemical tasting for example), don’t drink it! Pour it down the sink, or if it’s not too bad, save it for cooking. If you get a bad bottle (meaning there is a flaw of some kind) at a restaurant, let the staff know. They should replace it. If they disagree with you, let them know that you may not be an expert, but you find the wine undrinkable. They should replace it with another bottle. If the first one was bad, you will taste the difference in the new bottle. It is bad form to ask for a different wine in this situation. Maybe you will get lucky and that will have been their last bottle of that kind in stock! (LINK to my post on EXPENSIVE WINES)
9. WINE ENJOYMENT IS SUBJECTIVE. No matter what the experts tell you, for 95% of wine consumers – the ones who haven’t trained their palates for years and taken rigorous certification classes – wine enjoyment is subjective. You either like a wine, have a “meh” reaction, or don’t like it at all. Robert Parker can’t tell you if you will like a wine. I try to look at tasting notes only after I have tasted a wine, to see if they got it right for me. There are things to know about specific wines, but, let’s be realistic, most who drink wine will never invest the time and energy to learn more than a few of them.
Wes Hagen, currently of Central California’s J. Wilkes Wines (LINK), shares his way to taste wine for most consumers:
Swirl the wine in the glass and look at the color; put your nose to the glass and sniff the bouquet; if it smells like something you want to put into your mouth, take a sip; if it tastes like something you want to swallow, swallow it; notice the finish.
If you begin from there and add some knowledge as you go, you will never get to a point where Wes’s advice doesn’t hold true.
10. HAVE FUN WITH WINE. Wine is both a beverage and, for some, a lifestyle. I love sharing a good bottle with friends and family, and almost never have an expensive (say over $30) bottle when alone. Dorianne and I used to have wine dinners, where we would ask our guests to bring a special bottle, like the one they’ve been saving for a special occasion for ten years, and a dish to accompany it. At the dinner, each guest will tell the story of their wine as everyone shares it. Or bring a bottle from a trip and share the story of the trip.
Go wine tasting when you travel near wine country – there are hundreds of “wine countries” these days. We have tasted in Mexico, Hungary, Poland, Ukraine, England, and in Michigan, Maryland, New York, Virginia, and Texas, to name a few outside of the normal wine destinations. You will meet some great people in the local wine industry, and fellow tasters are often interesting as well.
I am sure that there are other guidelines for enjoying wine. These are my top ten and I hope you find them of value!
“When people ask me why I still have hope and energy after all these years, I always say: Because I travel.”
~ Gloria Steinem
If you read the first post (LINK) in this series, written in September 2017, when we had been in Lyon, France for a bit over two months, you know about the process of securing a long-stay visa and finding an apartment, and a few other things. This post will bring you up to date on the next steps we have taken, and some lessons learned along the way.
Here is where we are as of this writing:
We have purchased an apartment in the 6th Arrondissementof Lyon. Long-term rentals are nearly impossible to find, as landlords usually demand French co-signers for leases (see the first post for more about this). We signed the papers where our offer was accepted, and now are in a 3-month period where notaires, sort of specialized real estate attorneys, do some due diligence on the title, etc. There is an 8% fee for this service, which includes an effective sales tax for the property. We expect to take possession of the apartment in late June or early July. I am now on my way to the US to meet the shipping company representatives who will begin the move of our remaining possessions from California to Lyon.
We had a bit of a scare about shipping Dorianne’s 1923 Steinway piano because of the prohibitions (in the US and the EU) of exporting or importing ivory But we found out that when the piano was rebuilt, plastic keys were installed, so no problem there (just a rather large packing and shipping fee). Also, Dorianne is playing violin is a couple of amateur orchestras in Lyon.
We are in our third short-term furnished rental and about to move into our fourth. By law, short-term rentals in France cannot exceed 90 days unless the residence is declared as the non-primary residence of the owners. And, apparently, AirBnB rentals are limited to 90 days. Plus, French cities are restricting AirBnb operations, cracking down due to many complaints. We found a great rental manager who does both AirBnB and non-AirBnb rentals and have been very happy with rentals in different parts of the city. We have been paying between 1800 and 2500€ per month for nice furnished apartments – one to three bedrooms. It has worked out well for us, but we are glad to be moving to a “home base.”
We are about to renew our long-stay visa, including a change of department (like a state) from Bourgogne (Mâcon) to Rhône-Alpes (Lyon). We go to the local prefecture, police station & department offices, to renew. Our appointment is set for June 28th, and the paperwork is essentially the same as the original visa application (see LINK to prior post). We will still not be able to work in France. Dorianne is considering seeking a self-employment visa but will explore that later. After five years, we will be eligible to apply for permanent residency and/or French citizenship (which takes about 2 years to process currently).
Learning French is coming more slowly that we expected, but we continue to study – Dorianne more diligently than me to be honest. Mais c’est la vie. Also, we have met several expats through org (they have a wine-tasting and hiking group) and other sources, and we are too temped to speak English when with them. We are also traveling out of France quite a bit – something that should be reduced over the next year. Dorianne has a tutor, who offers immersion weeks at her home in Burgundy – that is something we may take advantage of over the summer.
Meanwhile, we are loving the lifestyle inLyon. I have blogged about the everyday wine experience (LINK)here. Every neighborhood has a selection of great restaurants and shops, including wine caves, featuring regional wines. Our current local cave is Cave Chromatique, on Rue de la Charité in the Ainay neighborhood. It has a nice selection of wines and spirits and the owner has carefully selected the wines he sells – some nice wines, including great values from Burgundy and the Rhône Valley.
We go out for lunch or dinner once or twice a week, and there are many wonderful places to eat at all price ranges. The markets offer fresh foods daily, as do the local shops – baguettes, cheese, meats, fish, fruit and vegetables, chocolates & pastries – everything we need. The railroad system is excellent (although on a series of rolling strikes at the moment), and Lyon Airport is convenient and has flights to most of Europe.
I have been bringing wines from my California wine locker back, a few bottles at a time. My French friends love the good American wines – the rare US wines stocked here tend to be, well, mediocre at best (unlike in the UK). I think that is intentional, as the French are very sensitive and proprietary about their wine, and, indeed, we are drinking French wines almost exclusively and loving them.
I think that’s about it for this post. As always, your comments are welcome – I’d love to hear about your expat experience or your questions about moving to France.
I recently spent a couple of days in the Santa Rita Hills (LINK to Prior Posts), located north of the city of Santa Barbara and west of the cities of Santa Ynez and Los Olivos in Santa Barbara County. The unique geography and geology of the Santa Rita Hills AVA (the mountains and valleys run west to east allowing cooling Pacific winds and moisture to come further inland), make this an excellent location for Burgundian grapes, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. There is also a decent amount of Syrah grown here, along with a few other varietals in smaller lots.
Over two days, we visited five wineries and stopped at a sixth just to buy some wine. I am going to feature four, Ampelos, Foley, Hilliard-Bruce, and Pence Ranch.
Pence Ranch Vineyard & Winery (LINK): I visited here last year, when they were relatively new as a tasting room operation (LINK). At that time, I was told that their plan was to open the tasting room for regular hours in the future. When we stopped without an appointment, I was told that they were back to the appointment system, but there was availability. Jake, took us via a large golf cart to a part of the property where an outdoor tasting room area had been created. We had a very nice experience tasting the Pence wines, and then got a tour of the vineyard portion of the property. The Pence Ranch is relatively narrow and runs nearly two miles deep off Route 246 between Buellton and Lompoc. The front of the property is where the vineyards and wine tasting rooms are, the back is an equestrian center and a working cattle ranch. The winery is in Lompoc.
At Pence, you taste the Pinot Noirs before the Chardonnays, the former being elegant in style, the latter being more pronounced, if not the traditional butter-bomb California Chardonnay. Their wines are uniformly well-crafted and made to enjoy with food. This year, we also tasted a Gamay wine, which is young and crisp but very complex. I plan to take a bottle back to France to share with my friends used to drinking Beaujolais. So, make an appointment to visit, or order their wines from their website – you are not likely to find Pence Ranch Wines at your retailer.
Foley Estates Vineyard (LINK): Foley has been making great wine in the Santa Rita Hills for decades. Their tasting room is nicely appointed, next to the huge “barrel room” where special events can be held. Like all the SRH wineries with some history, Foley makes very good Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs. They also make a very good Syrah. Their blended Chardonnays, Pinots, and the single vineyard versions of these varietals each have their own characteristics. We particularly liked the 2015 “T-Ranch” Chardonnay and the 2015 “T-Ranch Pinot Noir (there are also 2013 and 2014 Pinots available currently), but all were good. Foley is worth a visit when you are in Santa Barbara County. You can also order wines from their website.
Hilliard Bruce Vineyards (LINK): A smaller, boutique producer, Hilliard Bruce Vineyards occupies 101 acres (21 under cultivation) to the west of storied Clos Pepe Vineyard along Route 246. This was my first visit to Hilliard Bruce and you have to be impressed with the beautiful grounds, architecturally striking winery/tasting room building, and the vineyards of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes. The wines do not disappoint. Four 2014 Pinots from their Earth, Sun, Moon, and Sky vineyards, each have nuances that separate them from the others, yet all are clearly in the same family. Spicy, peppery, soft and velvety Pinots will go well with food.
The Chardonnay is also made to go with food, as the bottle we bought to have with our picnic lunch showed. Well-structured, with a hint of buttery mouthfeel, the 2014 Chardonnay is classic Santa Rita Hills in style and should drink well for several years. We did meet John Hilliard during our visit – he was most cordial and, like almost everyone in the wine industry, liked to talk about his wines and his property. Hilliard Bruce is open by appointment; their wines are available via their website.
Ampelos Cellars (LINK): Full disclosure – my wife has known Peter and Rebecca Work for a few decades, having worked with them years ago when they were all with Price-Waterhouse. But Dorianne was not with me on this visit, and Peter and Rebecca, sadly, were not at the tasting room in Lompoc’s Wine Ghetto when some friends and I visited recently. I have enjoyed their wines for years.
Ampelos uses biodynamic and organic farming practices (LINK) and produces a range of wines, some of which are atypical for the Santa Rita Hills AVA. These include their Viognier and Grenache (bottled as a single varietal and blended with Syrah for their Syrache red blend). Viognier and Rose of Syrah constitute the lighter end of their offerings; two Pinot Noirs in the mid-range; and Grenache, Syrah, and Syrache at the heavier end. Of course, none of these wines are really big wines like you would find in Napa Valley or Paso Robles these days. Ampelos focuses on balance and elegance, putting them well within the Santa Rita Hills style in this regard. The vineyard is down the 246 a way; the winery is also in Lompoc. Wines are available for order at the website, and you will find them at better wine shops here and there.
I also stopped at Ken Brown Wines in Buellton to buy some Chardonnay and Pinot Noir on our way out of the area. Brown is one of the pioneers of the AVA and produces some amazing wines in the Burgundian style. I frequently tell my friends in France about the Santa Rita Hills with their east-west mountains and valleys and their Burgundian style Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays. Now I will have a few to take back and share with them.
This has been a very unique year for me in terms of wine exploration and enjoyment. After traveling full time between North America and Europe for 2 ½ years, Dorianne and I have settled in Lyon, France. Although we continue to travel for various reasons (I’m writing this in Southern California), we have been exploring the local wine scene in and around Lyon since July – and have discovered that there is a lot to learn, and even more to enjoy.
The year began with our annual few days in Pismo Beach, CA with our friends to explore wineries from Paso Robles, the Edna Valley, Santa Maria, and the Santa Rita Hills AVAs. The highlights of that trip were Sculptera Vineyards in Paso Robles (we all joined the wine club and bought two cases), Presqu’ile Vineyards in Santa Maria, and Pence Winery in the Santa Rita Hills. (LINK to Post about the last two)
The cases from Sculptera (mixed cases) were sent to Roam Miami (LINK), where Dorianne and I stayed last winter. A co-living/co-working space, Roam offered a haven of tropical peace and calm right next to downtown Miami and the Brickell area. We were surrounded mostly by Millennial digital nomads, and we conducted a few wine tastings and seminars to help educate them about wine enjoyment. (LINK to Post about Millennials and Wine).
In late March, we headed back to southern Oregon, Medford and Ashland, to see friends and explore more of the Rogue Valley wine scene. A month there took us to several wonderful wineries (LINK to Post) and some great restaurants.
The next highlight was two weeks in New York, staying in my daughter’s Harlem apartment, where we got to explore the burgeoning Harlem French wine and restaurant scene (LINK to Post about Harlem). Lots of good experiences there.
In June I traveled solo to Kelowna, British Columbia, the heart of the rich Okanagan Wine Region in western Canada(Link to Post about the Okanagan). Here I explored a variety of wineries and wines, as global warming has opened the region to growing red grapes, from Cabernet Sauvignon, to Tempranillo, to Syrah. Kelowna is a boomtown for vacation homes and recreation on its 90-mile-long glacial lake. The wine scene is growing more sophisticated with over 200 wineries in the area. Dirty Laundry Winery showcases much of what is fun in the Okanagan (LINK to Post).
Lyon has been a revelation in terms of wine. Centered between Burgundy to the north, the Rhône Valley to the south, Beaujolais to the west, and Jura to the east, there is an embarrassment of riches. And some surprises.
The French don’t like to spend a lot of money on wine. I’m sure that there are exceptions, but you rarely see a bottle above 20€ in a grocery store or over 40€ in the local wine cave (shop). Restaurants generally sell wine bottles at or just above retail. And winemakers sell wines for half to 2/3’s what they would cost in the US. A “pot” is a 460ML bottle – a bit more than a half-bottle – of house wine which will cost 8 to 12€ in a Bouchon (Lyonnaise for bistro). There are also demi-pots and rare 500ML bottles.
Box wines are better quality than I expected. For about 25€ you can get a 5-liter box of a very drinkable Luberon Valley red wine; 18€ for the rosé.
Rosé wines are very good at 4€ per bottle, excellent at 7 to 10€. We drank rosés almost exclusively during the hot summer months.
Maconnais Chardonnays are wonderful wines. Just north of Lyon, the vineyards of Macon produce some wonderfully approachable wines which sell for ½ or 1/3 of what their Burgundian cousins to the north fetch. Another nice surprise was Aligoté, the other Burgundy white – crisp, with a mineral/floral nose, it is a great value choice from the same winemakers who make the expensive stuff.
In France, Cabernet Sauvignon is just Cabernet and Sauvignon Blanc is just Sauvignon. Cases in France are 6 bottles. Just FYI.
As I noted in the Moving to France Post (LINK), we tend to shop every day for fresh items at the open-air marchés and the mom-and-pop bakeries, butchers, etc. This may also include a stop at the wine cave to pick up a bottle or two and have a conversation with the proprietor about what is new and interesting.
We have not yet begun to explore the wineries and vineyards in the area – our focus has been on learning French, getting to know the city, and finding a flat to purchase – however, we expect to do a lot of that in 2018.
We are winding up 2017 in Southern California with friends and family. Our New Year’s Eve dinner with friends will feature a cold lobster appetizer that I am making and a Ken Brown Chardonnay to accompany it; then roast leg of lamb with a 2005 Opus One and a 1994 Harlan Estate Cabernet Sauvignon to see the year out with something wonderful.
Next week, we return to Pismo Beach to explore the Central Coast some more, then . . .
Thanks for being a part of this year on the blog.
As always, your comments and suggestions are welcomed!
We stayed at Daughter #1’s Harlem apartment while in town for two weeks to celebrate daughter #2’s graduation, so I thought I would explore the rapidly changing wine and restaurant scene south of 135th Street. The past few years have seen a number of new restaurants and wine shops open here. Many are worth a visit.
The NYTimes recently did an article on Harlem’s French Renaissance (LINK) – and we ate at four of the restaurants featured there. Also, there are some good wine shops which are bringing a greater appreciation for wine to the area.
Harlem is changing, and relatively fast. Real estate prices in lower Manhattan and Brooklyn are driving younger people here to more affordable housing. With that influx come two things – the dilution of the African-American Harlem culture and the rise of gentrification. The newer restaurants reflect these two things, and the area is not without some tension as a result. But crime is down, there are more shopping and dining options, properties are being renovated, and there is some good in that. This transition period between what Harlem was and what it is becoming, is a time for pioneers to try new things. And the restaurant and wine scenes are full of pioneers.
I visited three wine shops during my stay. There are others, and my apologies for not finding and exploring them all. As readers of this blog know, I am an advocate of local wine shops and using the expertise of the staff in selecting wines to purchase. These shops have that expertise, if not great depth of selection from any region. If you want greater depth, the amazing shops of lower Manhattan are not that far away.
BTL (LINK)at 311 W 127th Street, has a connection with Maison Harlem bar and restaurant across the street. Run by French expats, both establishments offer French wines (and others). BTL is offering value-priced wines for the most part, and has a few New York wines in stock along with selections from the Old and New Worlds. I purchased a nice Gigondas red and a New York Finger Lakes Chardonnay here.
The Winery (LINK) at 257 W 116th Street has a few hundred bottles in stock (and a sister store in Tokyo). There is a temperature controlled case with high-end wines – the best selection of this level of wine that I saw, and cubbies with a bottle displayed upright and others laying down behind it – each with a good description of the wine displayed. There are wines from the old worldand the new, decent selections of each in a variety of price ranges. Weekly wine tastings are a good way for locals to learn about less well-known wines stocked here or to expand their palates a bit. Eric White, the manager, brings a wealth of knowledge about his wines and the wine world in general – and selects the wines for the weekend tastings with care. I was very impressed with this shop, and found a couple of very nice Italian wines to take home.
Harlem Vintage (LINK)on Frederick Douglass Blvd. at 121st Street has been in business for over 7 years. Owner and former Wall Street execEric Woods stocks a variety of interesting wines – some I knew and many I did not, from the Old and New Worlds. We had a good conversation and Eric shows a good knowledge of the wines he stocks and the wine world in general. Like the other shops, there is a good variety of countries and regions to choose from, but little depth from any of them, which likely reflects a good assessment of the wine-purchasing public in the area at this point.
Expect high mark-ups on bottles and glasses of wine in Harlem – meaning it’s like most of Manhattan. Using my Delectable App(LINK), I found markups as high as 400% to be common. Corkage fees run to $35 and higher.
Barawine (LINK) at 120th Street and Malcom X Blvd (Lenox Ave) is a gem. Beautifully designed, with a small wine bar, common table, and a few smaller tables in front, and a larger dining room in the back. The wine list is more than adequate, the staff knowledgeable and efficient, and the experience there was very positive. We were there for brunch, and the menu is French with a few twists. Food is very good.
Vinateria (LINK)is at 119th and Frederick Douglass Blvd (8th Ave). Again, nice design – exposed brick and dark woods. A Eurocentric wine list of moderate size with some wine specials listed on a blackboard. There is a bar on the side of the front space in the L-shaped dining room. The food was very good, the staff knowledgeable, the wine mark-ups pretty high. We had dinner here with daughter #1 and her husband. It was very enjoyable.
Chez Lucienne (LINK) north of 125th St on Malcom X Blvd., Chez Lucienne pre-dates the more famous Red Rooster next door. The space looks older, with white tile walls and a small bar on the side of the long room; white table cloths. This place has some age and wears it well. The wine list is short, with some decent selections, leaning toward French with a few New World selections. The menu is more toward classic French dishes (coq au vin) which are done well. The staff is friendly and efficient. I inquired about corkage fees here and was told it was $35 per bottle.
Maison Harlem (LINK) at 127th and St. Nicholas is part bar part restaurant. The front of the space is a large fully-stocked bar; the back has about a dozen tables and shares space with the kitchen. Décor is old rustic wood. On one visit, a while ago, there was a jazz trio playing in the restaurant space. This visit, for lunch, was less crowded. Owned by two French expats and linked to BTL across the street, Maison Harlem offers well-prepared food, a moderate wine list, and a great casual atmosphere.
This is just a taste of what is available in Harlem now, as far as the wine scene goes. I am sure, that with continued increases in real estate prices in the area due to demand, that the old Harlem will continue to disappear and something new will emerge. This is a good time to visit, as the transition is still relatively early in its process. Manhattan is one of the world’s great cities, and Harlem is an essential element of what it has been and is becoming.
Dorianne and I are spending three weeks in Southwest Oregon, and wine tasting will be part of the experience (of course!). We were here just about a year ago (LINK).
Our first two winery visits were to 2Hawk Winery (LINK) in Medford and Ledger David (LINK) Wine TastingRoom in Central Point. Both are part of the Rogue Valley AVA (LINK).
2Hawk was within walking distance of where we were staying for the weekend in Medford. The tasting room, winery, and the family home are all on the 23.5 acre estate, where many of the grapes are grown – others are sourced from other vineyards in the area. The tasting room, completed in 2012, is very nice, following historic California architectural styling and using a variety of rustic building materials, both local and imported.
When we arrived, the two “flagship” estate wines were sold out. We tasted their 2015 Viognier and Chardonnay – the Chardonnay is estate grown. Both showed good balance and nice fruit from the nose through the finish. The Viognier was especially nice – in the French style. The reds, a Malbec and a blend, were less impressive, and made us wish those flagship reds had been available, especially their Tempranillo. We also tried their rosé, made from Grenache. A very nice wine. We purchased bottles of the Viognier and Grenache Rosé.
Later in the week, I visited Ledger David Cellars tasting room without Dorianne, but with three friends. The tasting room is a small, but nicely appointed space in Central Point, a small town north of Medford that does not appear the be the central point of anything.
At Ledger David I had one of those amazing experiences where pretty much everything turns out beautifully. A good group of friends, a nice atmosphere, a very high caliber staff, and some amazing wines constellated in that couple of hours – along with some very nice chocolates!
Let’s cut to the chase – the wines. At worst, the Ledger David wines I tasted were better than average. At best, they were superb; all are estate grown just north of Ashland. Production is just 3500 cases, 11 varietals, on about 40 acres of vineyard (some fruit is sold).
White varietals: Chenin Blanc, Malvasia Bianca, Viognier, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc
Red varietals: Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Malbec, Sangiovese, Tempranillo and Petit Verdot
We explored beyond the basic tasting list and were ably guided by Scott Oakley, something of a tasting room legend in the Rogue Valley, and a relative newcomer to Ledger David. Scott is one of those people who was born to work in the hospitality business, and would be equally at home in a Michelin Star Restaurant. Our experience was made more amazing because of his efforts to ensure that we had the best possible experience. But I digress.
The wines, whether white or red, were superbly crafted, well-balanced, and each had its own character. The 2015 Sauvignon Blanc, as an example, fell somewhere between French and New Zealand Sauv Blancs. It was grassy, but neither heavy on citrus nor on green fruit. There was a hint of minerality and a generous mouthfeel. A nice wine for summer and it will be excellent with oysters. The 2016 Viognier was very nicely crafted, with hints of pear and apricot and a floral nose. This is a very impressive white wine – the winemakers of this area are doing very nice things with Viognier.
The reds at Ledger David were varied. We tasted six reds, and each was unique – to me a good sign of a relatively light touch indicating the winemaker lets the fruit speak for itself. If I were a 100-point scale person (which, as a rule, I am not), I would place all of these wines in the 89-95-point range. I have not checked to see if anyone has done this. One of the wines, a 100% Petite Verdot, was nearly gone, down to 6 bottles (4 when we left), so I won’t critique it other than to say it was unique, full bodied, and cried out for a rack of lamb.
The other reds, mostly blends, were excellent. I purchased a few bottles of a wine called Epitome of Three – Tempranillo, Sangiovese and Syrah – an Old World tour, that was very nice. It’s only available at the tasting room.
Reds that are available via the website include a 2014 Dark Night blend, a 2014100% Tempranillo, a 2014 100% Cabernet Franc, a 2013 Orion’s Nebula blend (did not taste this one), a 2013 Sangiovese, and a 2014 Sublimus blend. Of these, the Cabernet Franc and the Sublimus blend stood out for me.
We left with a number of bottles and will enjoy these wines over the next few weeks (I can’t take more than a couple with me to our next stop!).
The Rogue Valley area wines are showing some maturity, a very good sign that the wines produced here will take their place among Oregon’s best over the next few years.