As I noted in my last post (LINK), I spent three pretty amazing days at this Wine Summit (LINK) in Cascais/Estoríl, Portugal. The summit covered a number of topics over its three-day length – but climate change was perhaps the most repeated and most critical. I will dedicate this post to Senõr Torres’ presentation alone. Most future posts will cover more than one presentation.
None other than Miguel A. Torres, President and Managing Director of Bodegas Torres, and is a member of the fourth generation of this family business. His topic was “Climate Crisis and Its Consequences for the European Viniculture.” As a global wine company, Bodegas Torres is faced with many challenges, including growing grapes and making wine in a number of different locations with different climate patterns, business practices, and political environments. Senior Torres noted that, in his mind, climate change is the most important issue and his company is dedicating 11% of profits for programs researching and mitigating climate change.
“We have not sold one more bottle due to steps we have taken (regarding climate change).”
~ Miguel A. Torres
This statement speaks volumes – much of the work required to mitigate the effects of climate change does not increase sales, but, in the long term, it may well preserve them. Senõr Torres showed a series of slides on what climate change is and on what Bodega Torres is doing to mitigate its effects.
Here are a few of the things they are doing:
Minimizing chemical and pesticide use (reducing below organicó requirements):
Reintroducing ancestral Catalan varieties which are more resistant to heat:
Examining introduction of distinctly foreign varieties into growing areas:
Reduction in energy consumption – electric vehicles, solar panels, etc.:
Studying bottling and packaging materials to reduce weight and waste:
Studying Carbon Capture and Reuse (CSR) in the fermentation process:
Participate in the EU carbon emissions reduction program (Greta Thunberg):
Active Participation & Leadership in International Wineries for Climate Action Group:
Senõr Torres is clearly passionate about being proactive about climate change and is taking a global perspective fitting for a global company. Torres Wines are made in Spain, Italy, Chile, and the United States (California). He noted that the approach to climate change is different in each location, as are the political issues relating to climate change. And he had some advice for property owners:
“For those of you who live near the sea, it is time to sell. Don’t wait!”
~ Miguel A. Torres
During the Q&A session, I had the opportunity to ask a question, and I opened with this comment:
“I go to a lot of conferences and events, and you’re the first person of your stature in this, or any industry to take such a strong stance on climate change.”
~ Me to Miguel A. Torres at MUST-Fermenting Ideas
The wine industry, especially its vineyards, are like the canaries in the coal mine for the effects of climate change. Those who are not investing in taking actions like Bodega Torres may increasingly find themselves with damaged products, and eventually with none.
As always, your comments are welcomed!
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“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!
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!
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.
I was going to let 2016 end without a new post, but then I came across and excellent article at VinePair.com (LINK to Article).
The article by Keith Beavers, is entitled “The People Calling Expensive Wine a Rip-Off Are Lying to You.” It is a thoughtful look at a recent trend in the wine media world – the trend of attacking wine experts, the folks who are highly trained in all aspects of wine and who often recommend expensive wines to their readers. This would include people such as Robert Parker, Janis Robinson, and Eric Asimov.
Here is a sample from the article (I highly recommend that you read the entire article via the link above):
“The pleasure of “taking down” the wine industry is certainly understandable. There’s something devastating about knowing that other people are able to appreciate something that we can’t. It’s especially unsettling to know this about something we imbibe regularly, yet know we are not fully experiencing. There’s something mystical about wine – all those mouthfeels and blueberries and leather. What could be more delicious than to find out that those shamans, those mavens with their alienating knowledge, were nothing but charlatans, snake-oil peddlers whose knowledge was all a hoax?”
Now this blog is, if anything, a voice urging greater appreciation of wine without all the pretense. I have tried to simplify purchasing and enjoying wine, and generally removing the intimidation factor that many feel when confronted with a complex wine, a point system they do not understand, ridiculously mellifluous tasting notes, or a price tag in the hundreds of dollars.
But I have never said not to read the experts. I am self-taught in all things wine (meaning that I have never taken a wine course for certification; I have taken a few seminars) as is Keith Beavers, the author of the VinePair article. Like him, I learned, in part, by reading the experts. Unlike the experts, I am not doing regular tastings of dozens of Bordeaux or Burgundy wines. I have not tasted wines from dozens of other vintages to compare with what I am tasting now (although that is changing over time). So I count on the experts to be guides, although I am not a slave to their guidance.
A good point in the article is the difference between the typical European and American wine consumer:
“Then there’s the fact that there is just so much wine out there. It makes choosing and understanding each bottle that much more difficult. This is especially true here in the United States, because we are not a culture that grew up with wine. Wine in the U.S. is a relatively young culture, and though we want to understand wine, we’re very new at it.
“Compare us to Europe, where drinking wine is such an integral part of the lifestyle, a part of the attitude. In the rural wine regions of Europe, you don’t go to a wine store and choose a bottle from a selection of 10,000. You live in a specific region that grows one kind of grape best, and the wine that comes from that grape is what you drink, probably every night with dinner. The soil itself determines what wine people drink, and they grow up with a specific varietal like mother’s milk.”
Americans face a huge variety of regions, varietals, wine growing techniques, wine making styles, terroirs, additives, and more when deciding which wines to purchase. The advice of experts is one pathway to take toward greater understanding, but they are never a substitute for trying things yourself and discovering what you like and enjoying yourself along the way.
As to expensive versus inexpensive wines, there are reasons why some wines cost more. And there are reasons why many people prefer cheaper wines, even in taste tests with more expensive wines. Again from the article:
“. . . people with less experience drinking wine tend to enjoy cheaper wines. It’s not because wine is one big hoax. It’s rather because their first experiences with wine were probably with cheaper wines, and cheap wine is manipulated to taste the same every year. There’s no inconsistency, no terroir. It’s homogenized, for a very simple reason: We are a culture that likes sweet things. When you’re drinking a really cheap wine like Yellowtail or Trader Joe’s Two Buck Chuck, you’re drinking a wine that has added sugars and added coloring so it tastes the same every time you buy it. And it’s wine experts who teach us how to move past these wines, and how to enjoy the more expensive stuff.”
In my experience with expensive wines, which is somewhat limited I admit, once you get to about $50per bottle, you can expect an excellent wine and will often get it. I have drunk and tasted wines that cost $250, $500, even $1000 or more. At those price points, if the wine is old, every bottle is unique, and the more refined your palate (LINK), the greater your experience. There is also a certain mystique in knowing that you are drinking say, a 1982 Chateau Lafitte-Rothschild, which I have had the pleasure of drinking. What is that mystique like? Think of driving a Rolls Royce versus a Nissan – both will get you there, but the experience of the Rolls will be different. In fact, just knowing it’s a Rolls makes a difference.
For me, wine appreciation has been a slow but certain road toward wines that are well-crafted and which have different characteristics from year-to-year. I drink or taste from at least 500 bottles per year (considering that a day of wine tasting can mean 20 or so different wines). Maybe 40% of those are wines I have had before – at least the label is the same, although the vintage may not be. I would say that the average price per bottle of the wines I drink has gone from $10-$12 a dozen years ago to $25-$28 now. Over that time, my tastes have changed, my palatehas improved (intentionally), I have read and learned more about wine in general and have experienced a greater variety of wines.
So I recommend that you read Eric Asimov’sWine Columns in the New York Times (LINK), especially his wine school columns. Get yourself a copy of Janis Robinson’s Oxford Companion to Wine(LINK) or borrow it from the library. Read Hugh Johnson’s A Life Uncorked(LINK) or A Pocket Guide to Wine(LINK). Or, go through the Amazon listings of wine books (LINK) and find something that appeals to you. Read Wine Spectator or Wine Enthusiast Magazines. And, this blog!
If you are a wine lover, or aspire to be, my suggestion would be to enter 2017 with the intention of deepening your knowledge and expanding your experience with wine. Your life will be richer for it.