User ID:
Password:

 
Remember me
Lost password?

THURSDAY THORNS
07/05/2012
Thursday Tributes
Half-Time Is Over—Let’s See Some Action

By Charles Olken

It feels like this year’s Fourth of July celebration has gone on for days. But, as the fireworks fade into memory, the calendar calls us back to reality.

Some would say that the hiatus in wine country has not been half a week but half a decade. We have been sleep-walking our ways through the last several years. No new plantings of significance. No vintages of the decade. No breakout region or variety. Grape gluts and wine gluts and falling grape prices. Even a few falling wine prices.

We have been left with a mixed bag of quality, a 2011 vintage not yet seen and a confused, seemingly rudderless industry. Up in Mendocino, they scrapped their efforts to make themselves known and closed down the grower/winemaker association. The rightfully renowned Hospice du Rhône tasting has gone away. Wineries have disappeared or been snapped up by corporate interests.

But nowhere have we seen change for the better, or progress, or new initiatives. OK, in part, we have to accept that ours is an “evolutionary” industry, not a revolutionary one. Even large changes in grapes, direction, popularity take time to develop and take time to diminish. We cannot just roll out a new model or invent an electric car or reimagine the way our vacuum cleaners work. We are not about “fast” in the wine business.

Still, after so many years of “slow”, of stagnation, of the status quo in most corners, it is time to seize the day. The economy is improving, vineyards that once went begging are now in demand, sales of wine are up across the board. And it is time for the wine world to get on with it.

Herewith then are five initiatives that we need to see blossom in the next two or three years.

--It is time for new plantings of varieties like coastally grown Zinfandel, chilly area Riesling, moderate climate Grenache to take off. We know that coastally-influenced Zinfandel has actually decreased in acreage over the last thirty years. Is it any wonder that Zinfandel has lost much of its market vitality. We know that Riesling thrives in areas that can ripen the grape in October at low sugars and high acidity. We see that scenario played out in the best examples from California, and we see how places like Washington State and New York State are succeeding with what is, for our money, the very best of the aromatic white grapes. We know that Grenache can produce significant wines in France and in Spain. Yet most of the Grenache here is still in vineyards too hot to make great wine. How about locations that are too hot for Pinot Noir and not hospitable to Cabernet Sauvignon? Upper hills in the near coastal valleys? The cooler parts of the Central Valley? The southeastern end of the Livermore Valley and the southern reaches of Santa Clara and Monterey counties? The hillsides of San Benito county?

--It is time to redefine geographic places names on wine whose meanings have become blurred beyond recognition. It may be heresy to say it, but the Napa Valley does not include places outside of the Napa Valley like Pope Valley, Chiles Valley, Wooden Valley. Rutherford is perhaps the priciest appellation in California, yet defining it by its political boundaries instead of using smaller and more meaning gradations like West Rutherford, Rutherford Floor, East Rutherford would be far more accurate and of much greater value to the consumer. The wines are different from each of those areas so why not define the areas legally? The same is true all over California where names like Russian River Valley, Northern Sonoma, Sonoma Coast are designed to serve growers and wineries, not the consumer. How about the far too big Paso Robles AVA?

--It is time to make label information more meaningful. The current rules for alcohol statements on wine labels are disgraceful examples of a failure to serve the consumer. Not only are the permitted differentials from the stated number far too wide (one and a half percent for wines under fourteen percent; one percent leeway for wines over 14%), but the placement of this valuable information sideways, hidden, and in a size that takes a magnifying glass to read is so anti-consumer that the wine industry should be ashamed. There is no part of the label of greater significance technically than the alcohol statement, but, there is another number that now needs to be included. In this era of ingredient labeling, the amount of sugar in wines ought to be a required label statement. The wineries will tell you that the such information will prejudice the consumers in some way. Yes, that is quite possibly true, and it is one of the strongest arguments in favor of disclosure.

--It is time for the folks who produce California sparkling wine to start telling the world that their products are not somehow different, cheaper, softer, duller. That myth has been perpetuated so widely that I was recently told by an otherwise intelligent sommelier in San Francisco that she did not have any California sparkling wine on her list because “they are all too sweet and too low in acid”. I may have reacted too strongly by telling this otherwise pleasant person that she had no idea what she was talking about. But, it is not my responsibility to tell restaurants in San Francisco that the wines of Schramsberg, Domaine Carneros, Roederer Estate, Gloria Ferrer have virtually identical acids and sugar levels as the Champagnes that these restaurants choose while ignoring the locals. It is the wineries’ job, and it is high time that I can find a reasonable cross-section of wines from all over the world without having to do the education job for them.

--It is time for our experimental vineyards to try fifty or one hundred varieties that are essentially new to California or so narrowly planted as to exist only in the minds of a few wine geeks. It matters not whether Albarino or Gruner Veltliner or Taurasi or Fiano or Romorantin can succeed or not. What matters is that we start looking again. Not only do we need the plantings discussed in the first paragraph of needed initiatives, we need a whole host of measured experiments in a variety of locations to see if we are missing something special.

Yes, California, our five-year half-time intermission is over. Time to get back to work in earnest.

Comments

Devil's Advocate
by Adam Lee/Siduri Wines
Posted on:7/5/2012 5:29:48 AM

Charlie,

Just to play Devil's Advocate for a minute.

1) Cooler areas for Zinfandel, Riesling, and Grenache.  Do you expect these plantings, and wines from these plantings, to be financially successful....in the short to medium term?  I ask, because I think you can attribute the lack of new, risk-taking plantings largely to a lack of capital and risk-aversion with the capital that you do have.  And this is because of the general economic climate.  So unless you see these planting as being fairly quick money makers (or you are aware of a faster economic turnaround...in which case, you really should be making $$ elsewhere)....I think it is unrealistic to call for these planting to occur. 

2) BTW, why cooler for Grenache?  Go to CdP and you will see many of the most successful wines in the mid-15s alcohol wise, at least.

3)  The ultimate geographic name is the name of the vineyard....and we have seen a proliferation of vineyard-designnated wines in the last decade.  Does this not meet your criteria for smaller,more meaningful appellations?

4) Specifics on the label thing please.  How much do you want to narrow down the alcohol range (I am cool with narrowing it down, btw)?  What size print?  Where on label?  How long to get it changed?  --  Sugar on label....almost all wine has some glu/fru left in it (I assume you want it measured as glu/fru....alcohol itsself involves reducing sugars)...so should it be labeled on all wines even if considered dry now?  Why leave off pH if you want sugars?

Just some PITA questions on a Thursday that feels like a Monday.

Adam Lee

Siduri Wines

Advocating For Action
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:7/5/2012 9:09:39 AM

Adam, thanks for the thought-provoking comments.

--Re new plantings. Zin has the potential to produce economic returns in coastally influenced vineyards that are not better dedicated to PN or CS. The return of the consumer and the resulting grape shortage is going to bring about more plantings. Properly located Zin needs to be part of that picture lest we wind up wiith PN in too hot places and CS in most of the others. Grenache is a different story. Having tasted my way throught almost all the Grenache in CA for our July Issue, I am convinced that there is plenty of land that is right for Grenache and that truly hot areas like Lodi, eastern Paso and hotter are giving us and wiill continue to give us really dull wines. I am not suggesting Grenache in Sebastopol, but I would love to see it in the upper Alex Valley, Redwood Valley and the places I mentioned in the main article. It is true that some CdPs come in naar 15%, but they also hang a long time, and CdP is uniquely the most interesting Grenache turf in the world. And even in CdP, there are significant variations that make some wines more concentrated than others.

I see the point of the vineyard-designate argument, but I do not expect most wines to be vineyard-designated as a matter of regualation. So, while I am happy to see lots of vineyard-designates, I still want to see AVAs defined not by what they will do commercially but what they mean in terms of wine character. The current RRV AVA, for example, is now encouraging growers and wineries east of Hwy 101 to use warm hillside vineyards for PN because RRV PN on the bottle can be lucrative. The AVA defintion in this and other cases is actually encouraging bad decision-making.

Label specifics--All good questions that need better answers tha ABV in type-sizes so small that they cannot possibly be read. And I am for a specific, easily found location for all ABVs. This current system that allows some wiineries to play "Where's Waldo?" with the required ABV number leads to cynical actions by some.

I would think that sugar can be stated the same way for wine as it is for soft drinks and apple sauce. This is not a question without an answer. We have history on this point. There is no such thing as a dry wine technically--just varying levels of sugar. As to pH, it cannot hurt, and if the wine industry wants to avoid ingredient labeling of the kind that appears on other foodstuffs, it needs to be pro-active in developing labeling standards that are useful to the consumer. If not, then some activist group is going to do it for them and get it all wrong--and ban fois gras in the process.

A Few More Before My Plane Takes Off
by Adam Lee
Posted on:7/5/2012 9:53:35 AM

Charlie,

Forgive me for a few more thoughts after your reply.

I am intrigued by the phrase "return of the consumer" that you use early on.  From what I have seen, the consumer never left, they simply traded down in their price points.  Have you seen anything that suggest different?  If so, then it isn't as simple, IMO, to get consumers who once drank wine to return to drinking wine, but rather getting consumers to spend more $$ on wine, in what continue to be uncertain economic times (and with a world of well-priced wines out there).  Plantings in the expensive-to-grow Sonoma Coast area seems quite economically risky to me given that consumer base.

On Grenache.....I went back and looked at your reviews in the July issue, and didn't see a geographic correlation to which Grenache-based wines did well vs. did less well.  Do you see one in looking at these reviews?  Moreover, even if there is one, the vintages you tasted are, by and large, the coolest vintages in modern California grape growing.  Isn't making judgements on where things should be planted given these years basing action on the  exception rather than the rule? (BTW, I think we have as long a hang-time on Grenache in CA, at least, as they do in CdP.  And, from some of the testing I've done, saying some CdPs come in "near 15%" is understating things quite a bit).

I am always amused by pointing out that RRV now allows for vineyards, gasp, east of Highway 101 to put RRV on their labels for markeing reasons.  Dianna and I live in Windsor and there are llots of vineyard in the RRV that are north of Windsor and east of Highway 101.  In fact, you can include Chalk Hill in the RRV appellation....and this has been the case for as long as I can recall.  Where was the indignation there?  I have yet to see one post about it.

Finally, as far as labeling goes....we do indeed have a history on labeling and drinks.  There are only a handful of soft drink compaines out there.  And the vast majority of juice is produced by just two handfuls of companies, in the world.  In a time where micro-breweries have grown at unprecedented rates and small wineries have grown at unprecedented rates, it seems like history shows that ingredient labeling makes it harder for a diversification and expansion of businesses in the drink category.

Almost time for my flight.....thanks for the forum.

Adam Lee

Siduri Wines

 

Advocating For Action
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:7/5/2012 10:43:17 AM

Hi Adam--Have a nice flight. Hope you are off to someplace exotic.

You ask: Where was the indignatioin about including Chalk Hill in the RRV appellation? The answer: In this blog.

Sure, parts of the Santa Rosa plain do run east of Hwy 101 and are pretty moderate in temps, but not Chalk Hill and not Limerick Lane. The point is that AVAs would serve better if they were more realistically defined. You are looking backward, and I am suggesting that it is time to look forward.

Re labels: I have missed your point. Labeling laws have nothing to do with the economics of small breweries and wineries where there is a predisposition in the marketplace to such kinds of business. But, I think one can point to Odwalla as a small business that grew up out of an artisanal effort and was not hindered by labeling requirements.

And, let's face it. Labeling requirements are not for the benefit of the producers. They are for the benefit of the consumers.

Grenache
by Mitch Bakich
Posted on:7/5/2012 11:31:15 AM

Charlie-

Would you like to taste some Grenache from the hillsides of San Benito County?  Where can I send the bottles to?

Best,
Mitch Bakich
Donati Family Vineyard

No Place Exotic
by Adam Lee/Siduri Wines
Posted on:7/5/2012 12:07:20 PM

Heading back to California....not exotic, but no place I'd rather be.

On the AVA discussion.  I wasn't trying to look back, I don't think, any more than you were by bringing up Pope Valley.  But the bigger point, truly, is accurate AVA boundaries.  Currently the TTB has a system in place which attempts to define AVA boundaries by using a combination of factors including weather, soil, geographic factors, and historical boundaries.  They also allow a process of public comments and dissent before making their decision.  Obviously, this process hasn't been perfect in the case of some appellations....but perhaps it would be worth examining the process somewhat and then saying how that process should be changed.  I do know that there was very little public comment actually sent to the TTB against the RRV changes that you mentioned.  I didn't send them anything, not sure if you did or not.

As far as labeling having nothing to do with the economics of small wineries, we should really spend some time together Charlie.  I could tell you about having a label rejected because the Goddess of wine had nipples.  Or of having certain labels approved for sale in one state by one bureaucrat but the same labels rejected by another bureaucrat in the same state. 

Your bringing up of Odwalla is a good point.....started in 1980 selling juice from the back of a van....incorporated in 1985, several millions in investments in the late 1980s, and already 80 employees in 1992 (big for a winery)...which coincidentally turns out to be the year (1992) when the FDA started requiring nutritionally statements on labels.  Odwalla is a good example in that it makes the point of how easy it used to be to start up a small company in the beverage business.  ---  It still is fairly easy in the wine business....which is why we have so many small wineries and why so many of them are small and remain small and hands on.  The more requirements that are placed on them, the fewer small startups you will see.

 

Adam Lee

Siduri Wines

Small Business
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:7/5/2012 2:36:00 PM

Hi Adam--

The urge to make wine is so universal that I just do not see how labeling requirements are going to change all that. The cost of entry is small and the psychic rewards so high that having to add some extra data to a label is not going to deter those who feel the calling.

action by consumers is the answer
by barry kinman
Posted on:7/5/2012 3:57:57 PM

As with most wine writing the entire story misses the real issue, it is not what the wineries are doing that makes the difference in our business, it is the consumers. The last 3-4 years have been brutal. Anyone that does their own sales, inside and outside, knows that price has been the only discussion for too long to remember. If it is cheaper it is better. We don't lead the hound, we follow. Producers like myself are just trying to hang on as we compete with prices of wineries that haven't. It is impossible to sell wine at prices the same or lower as your neighbor once she has gone out of business and every closeout has been followed by another. Here is the new idea we all need, more dollars in the wallets of consumers for good wine. When that happens there is a story.

Consumer Dollars
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:7/5/2012 4:16:15 PM

Barry--

It would have helped the conversation if you had told us something about you and your winery--or even its name so we could do our own search for you.

It is clear from the sales data and the demand for grapes that something has changed and has changed for the better where wine sales are concerned. Incidentally, grape shortages inevitably lead to new plantings--and that message does not miss the point.

Grape Shortages
by Brian Loring
Posted on:7/5/2012 4:59:48 PM

Charlie,

Before someone starts planting more grapes based on shortages, they should look at what caused those shortages.   The past couple of years have seen incredibly low yields - due to continued drought and unfavorable weather conditions (including frost).  I think it'd be foolish to rush to plant just because the grape glut is now gone.  Given a couple decent harvests, we could be back to a glut condition without any new plantings at all. 

Consumer Dollars
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:7/5/2012 5:32:05 PM

Hello Brian--

Thanks for stopping by. With sales of wines of the type you make and I review growing rather rapidly, we would need to have bountiful harvests to have a renewed glut. That possibility always exists, as does a double dip recession. I sense that we are beyond that point.

I understand the reasons for caution. The response to demand growth in any industry with expensive startup costs (land purchase and planting) is always caution. We are not the auto industry which has the ability, because it already has idle capacity, to ramp up production quickly and to ramp it down almost as quickly.

But, my belief is that we have passed the threshhold for new plantings, and the sold out supply of rootstock would seem to suggest that someone is planting. What I am hoping for is plantings that give us better wine both by putting in varieties like Zin and Riesling where they will thrive and by working as an industry to examine the potential of the many grape varieties that we now do not have or have not done much with.

Label Changes?
by Mike Officer
Posted on:7/5/2012 5:40:57 PM

Charlie,

I realize you're not advocating ingredient labeling (that would be bad in so many ways that I shudder to even consider it) but do you realize you're slapping handcuffs on winemakers even wanting sugar and pH?  The printing industry has been consolidating like crazy over the last decade.  As a result, you need to start your labels well in advance of bottling.  I typically start ours by submitting copy for fronts and backs three to four months before our first bottling.  Even with that much lead time, sometimes I don't get the labels until the evening before we're going into bottle.  Once it was 20 minutes before bottling!  If you want accurate technical data printed, then no changes can occur to wines once the proofs have been approved.  (Well, you can make changes up to a point but it's going to cost money.)  However, I know from experience that there can be a lot of "winemaking" done in the three to four months prior to bottling that can greatly alter a wine's chemistry.  We're not making Budweiser.  We're not even making Odwalla juice.  We're making a unique product that varies greatly from year to year.  Sometimes we don't know the final chemistry of the wine until a few days before bottling. 

Furthermore, if you want sugar and pH, why not TA?  TA has a bigger impact on perception of acidity than pH.  And why stop there?  Why not list ethyl acetate, 4-EP, 4-EG, anthocyanin content, malic, succinic, lactic, citric, ascetic, acetaldehyde, calcium, iron, potassium, copper, dry extract, and the ba-zillion other things found in wine that influences taste?  It's a slippery slope.  Alcohol is listed for tax reasons.  I have no problem if you want it in a bigger font.  Just don't tie my hands in what I can and cannot do in the final days, weeks, or months prior to bottling.

Consumer Dollars
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:7/5/2012 6:25:04 PM

Mike--

I realize that you have pushed the list of possibilites to impossible levels for the sake of argument. Yet, I have to come back to this one overriding question.

What is it that the consumer has the right to know? How can it be "nothing" because it is too difficult for it to be "anything"?

I don't want to get into the niceties and not-niceties of the printing industry but please do remember that I have been producing a monthly magazine that gets final type set on the 24th of the month, gets off the press on the 26th and goes in the mail before the first of the month.

Is the question one of label approval from TTB or problems in the printing industry? If it is the industry, then you might need to find another printer.

What I keep hearing here, and you can see it in many oof the comments (for which I am grateful as conversation is the best way to explore possibilities) is that change is challenging. I agree. Yet, we do make change in all kinds of areas from environmental practices in the vineyard to health care. It may be challenging to make labels more informative, but it is time, now that half-time is over, to find a way to do it.

Consumers' rights
by Mike Officer
Posted on:7/5/2012 6:54:42 PM

Charlie,

The consumer has the right to know everything!  And if they e-mail me or call me, I'd be happy to tell them everything I know.  But I'm willing to bet most consumers could care less about these numbers.  Sure, you care.  You review wines professionally.  But the average consumer?  And if you do provide this data, how many consumers understand the data well enough to make informed decisions?  Again, very, very few.

Perhaps the best solution is to have the data available on the internet.  That way, the few consumers who care can get the data and winemakers aren't constrained in the last several months of elevage.

P.S. - We've used three of the finest wine label printers in the business.  The timeframe has been the same for each of them.  Remember that we also have to have an approved COLA before bottling.  Even with online submittal, you're looking at 4 to 6 weeks.  And that's if everything goes right!

Change
by Adam Lee/Siduri Wines
Posted on:7/5/2012 7:34:22 PM

Charlie,

You may see that "change is challenging" in the comments, but that's only because it is what you want to see. What Mike is really saying is that, given the particulars of governmental approval, state government lead times, and printing lead times, he would be losing the opportunity to possibly make better wines if some of those things were required on the label.

For you to compare writiing and printing CGCW to wine labels shows that you don't quite get it. How many Federal Government agencies approve your newsletter? How many state agencies tell you that you what you show in the newsletter? How long do you have to wait for them to approve what you do? How often do they come by to check your records and make certain what you write is accurate? --- Now, I am most definitely NOT trying to dismiss what you do.....there are things that you have to deal with that we don't and that we don't understand at all. But just because both involve printing doesn't make them the same.

BTW, to say that the problem is change and a reaction against change....when Mike and Brian (leaving me out of it) change things they do every year. They have to deal with changing production levels (out of their control), rapidly changing weather, different barrel experiments, and on and on.....well, I think change is something they do best. So it isn't change that's the problem.....its the system.

Adam Lee

Siduri Wines

Consumer Dollars
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:7/6/2012 12:38:16 AM

Mike and Adam--

Sorry for going silent in the middle of the conversation. Grandkids showed up unexpectedly and they  (one is still here having talked herself into a sleepover). I had a response to Mike have wrritten but it has been superseded to a large degree by Adam's comments.

That said, Mike has suggested that the consumer has a right to know everything, and I agree both as a writer and as a consumer.

Please think outside the box for a moment. On Mike website he gives most fo the data that I would like, although I would add RS even for dry wines. The problem for me is that dry is too hard to define, and unless it were defined very tightly and at a very low level like less than 0.20, I would prefer to see a number rather than a term.

But, let's not get hung up on definitions for the moment. I am interested in knowing how much of what appears on Mike's website has changed materially near bottling. I would love to hear from Adam or Brian or anyone else about late changes.

Secondly, I am now caught between Mike's reference to long print times and Adam's reference to long Govt lead times.

No finger pointing here. Just an attempt to understand and to look for openings and possibilites to improve label information.

I have some ideas about how this might be done, but I want to learn more about the problem before making any suggesstions. You gentlemen have been very generous with your time, and clearly you are among the folks in the industry who are not afraid of telling consumers what is in the bottle. The question, then, is how to make improvements in content and process.

Thanks in advance for any further comments you may care to make.

Charlie

Thoughts
by Adam Lee/Siduri Wines
Posted on:7/6/2012 4:34:35 AM

Charlie,

Let me start in the middle....the difference between Mike emphasizing long print times and me long government lead time lies largely in the specifics of our wineries. Mike makes Zinfandels and Syrahs, many of which come from older vines. Depending on the vintage he may or may not keep different sections of the vineyards separate and may tweek blends up until the very end. That can change his numbers more significantly that us at Siduri....where we make Pinot Noir, and we could get closer, I think, to some accurate numbers at the end as we may end up tweaking different sections of vineyards, but still it is all Pinot Noir.

My emphasis on Government lead times is because we are distributed in approximately 40 more states than Mike, and thus we are more subject to those whims than he is. This leads to a lot more in the way of costs to us in changes that need to be reported to those agencies. --- That being said, I can think of a a few non-ml whites we have made that we have seen go just slightly thru ml before filtering and depending on how tight you decided to enforce the pH number it could be out of legal limit.

I do think that both Mike and you have stated a place where numbers could be easily reported....the website....without any printing issues to be dealt with and no government delays/fees to deal with. And then require a QC code on the labels that leads you to that information. That, IMO, wouldn't be oenerous whatsoever.

Adam Lee

Siduri Wines

New plantings?
by Martin Stephens
Posted on:7/6/2012 9:46:06 AM

Charlie,

Your list of initiatives is thought provoking, but when you mention new plantings, you ignored White Grenache and Albarino. I have been hearing a lot about them and other new varietals from other wine writers. What do you think?

Plantings
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:7/6/2012 10:26:13 AM

Martin--

As an overall philosophy, I am 100% in favor of everything that folks want to try. I like both those varieties in small doses, but it is my sense that I like other light and aromatic whites like Riesling, Chenin Blanc and Gewurztraminer ahead of Albarino and that I like Marsanne, Roussanne and Viognier ahead of Grenache Blanc.

We have almost no history of Albarino here in California. In Spain and Portugal, it is grown along the coast, and if it were to be tried in locations that are cold and foggy, it might do something interesting.

Grenache Blanc, despite the endorsement for it that appeared in the SF Chronicle recently, has not been impressive in our tastings. It has produced some decent wines but none that would see it jump ahead of the other white Rhone grapes. It tends to high ripeness and low acidity, and, to me, those are characteristics that are not beneficial or desirable in Callifornia where we have no problem with ripeness and do have problems at times with adequate acidity.

But, I do want to stress that I am in favor of all kinds of new plantings and would not rule anything out. Despite our increasing maturity with CS, PN and Chardonnay, California is still a baby in terms of what we have yet to try.

QCs
by Mike Officer
Posted on:7/6/2012 10:36:40 AM

Glad you found the information on our website useful Charlie.  I'd include sugar but don't feel there's any value in doing so.  Out of over 100 wines we've produced in the last 5 years (I got tired searching beyond that), one exceeded .2 at .22. Almost everything else, like greater than 90%, is below .1.

But again, how many consumers really care about this level of detail?  How many consumers understand the difference in taste between a wine at .2, .2, and .5?  Further complicating matters is that this just one element of a wine.  Sometimes a wine at .5 tastes drier than the number indicates.  Sometimes a wine at .2 tastes sweeter than indicated.  The risk you run in putting this tehnical data on a label is that people will use it to make purchasing decisions without fully understanding that it is so much more complicated than that.  I've used sugar as an example but you could make the same statement about any component of a wine.  Just the other day I was doing a barrel tasting for a gentleman.  The gentleman told me that alcohols have gotten way too high and that they shouldn't be over mid-14s.  His favorite wine of the tasting, the wine he raved about?  16.1.  I told him after the tasting.  :)  And I have seen people dismiss a wine, without even tasting it, simply based on the alcohol number on the label.

Although all this labeling stuff is a royal PITA (I just want to focus on making the best wine possible with the least interference from government), I'll settle on Adam's suggestion of QCs.  If it means avoiding ingredient and nutritional labeling (Wow!  Look at that!  Every wine is 100% carbohydrate!), I'd be happy to give one bottle of everything we make to an agency whose job is to run the analyses and post the information to an independent website.  It should be no cost to wineries and the agency should be funded by tax payers.  But as a consumer, depending on what information was available, not sure I'd use it.  Obviously, you, as a professional reviewer of wine, would.

Label Information
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:7/6/2012 11:27:43 AM

Mike--

Thanks again for your thoughtful and carefully explained response.

While it is true that I pay pretty careful attention to technical data, I do so after the wine has been tasted because we taste everything blind and only after we have drawn our conclusions about each wine's profile do we find out what it is and what data apply to it. Oftimes, that data are explanatory or informing in terms of helping us decide how we will choose to structure our reviews. You have already provided a good example of the issue in your comments about RS. We will always describe the wine for how it tastes, but when we find a dry-tasting wine with 0.5 RS, we know that it has earned its spurs through balance. That helps in suggesting to our readers how they might use a wine. The other side is equally true. A wine with a high pH and low acidity may taste soft and gloppy but it is not "sweet" technically. Nothing in the numbers affects our qualitative judgment but numbers can at least validate or question our reactions to the wine.

For consumers, those numbers will mean something else and, as you say, often mean something less. But, I think you give the consumers a bit of short shrift. Many of the buyers of your wines, of Adam's wines, of Brian Lorings' wines are quite sophisticated. Sure, some more than others, and while I have long railed against the use of ABV as some form of arbitrary point of choice (and you may be familiar with Adam's even bigger role in this), at the same time, I truly believe that consumers are entitled to information. It is then the job of the industry first to explain those numbers and secondarily the job of the rest of us, including the chattering class of the Fourth Estate, to also help folks makes heads and tails out of the information available to them.

In a funny way, I actually think the ABV nonsense would be better handled if we, as a whole industry, had access to and discussed wines in numbers beyond ABV. No system is perfect, no set of data can take the place of a palate, and no buying decision ought ever to be made on the basis of numbers. But, all those folks who like sweetened Chardonnay have a right to know that their wines are sweet. Maybe some will recoil in horror, and maybe some will say, "You know, a little RS is not such a bad thing after all" and then go on to try an off-dry Riesling.

Ultimately, truth is a better arbitor than the absence of truth. The nice thing in this conversation is that we do agree on that. We are really talking about how to make the truth available. '

Thanks for hanging out here. Even though this seems like a conversation between a couple of folks, this topic has drawn more eyeballs than anything ever publshed in this blog--and it is because folks like you and Adam have been so generous in keeping it going.

To clarify
by Mike Officer
Posted on:7/6/2012 11:52:55 AM

Thanks for the reply Charlie.  To be clear, I was not suggesting that you, as a professional reviewer, would use technical data prior to tasting a wine to form an opinion.  But I'm willing to bet many consumers would and, as pointed out, do.

As for giving consumers short shrift, absolutely not!  But I'd say our consumers, Brian's, Adam's, do not represent the broader market.  I have a great relationship with my customers.  I'm friends with many of them.  They know they can ask me anything and everything and I will truthfully answer.  Yet, even amongst the most die-hard, wine-geeky (I use the term affectionately) of them, very few seem to want to get into this kind of technical detail.  Rather, they trust us as a producer and prefer to judge a wine for how it tastes, not for its numbers.

I feel we're already over-regulated as it is.  I just don't want to see it get worse, especially if it affects the quality of wine I can produce.

Who Knows?
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:7/6/2012 2:46:13 PM

Mike--

Let's agree that any change in labeling requirements needs to be thoughtfully considered and carefully implemented.

And we can also agree than almost any requirement on any business creates a burden of some kind. The question, for me, then is not one of all or nothing but of reasonable balance. Consumers have a right to know. Wineries need to be able to pursue the making of wine within reasonable bounds. Finding ways that promote both ends is the key, and maybe there need to be some tradeoffs, including quicker label approval or the Govt no longer reviewing label statements in regard to technical data. The proof than lies on the wineries to make the statements true, and consumers need to right to bring about enforcement actions when labels are untrue. Maybe or some variation of maybe.

I don't see how the Govt interest is served by seeing TA and RS numbers as part of the label approval process.

The real issue?
by Brian Loring
Posted on:7/7/2012 5:43:05 PM

Personally, I'd prefer not to list the technical data for our wines - either on the label or our website.  It's not that I want to hide anything (we'll disclose anything and everything to anyone who asks), it's just that any set of data about wine, no matter how exhaustive, will not get you what (I think) every consumer wants: a prediction of the style of the wine and how much they'll like it. 

I've come to the conclusion that numbers lie.  And without someone like the winemaker explaining the numbers within a context, I think you'll as often be mislead as not.  And I'm not talking about some worrisome 2% of the time.  I truely believe that you might as well flip a coin.

For instance, I often get people asking which of our wines are most acidic, because they prefer high acid wines.  The problem is that our wines that taste the most acidic (ie tart) are actually some of our highest pH (lowest acid) wines.   You can list pH, TA, RS, Alc, etc all you want, but there's still no magic formula of how all those things play together, or some combination that guarantees you'll like the result.  I know the desire is to think that you could at least come up with a trend, but I'm not sure I believe that's even possible. 

I know, that doesn't sound right.   And I know most people reading this will think I'm totally wrong.  But that's been my experience both in my own tasting and in judging the comments of people who taste our wine.

The good news, Charlie, is that's the reason why critics are absolutely necessary in the wine world.  A review's preferences can often be mapped to your own, thereby getting closer to being able to determine ahead of time whether or not a wine is something you may like.   

What actually might be the most helpful to consumers would be some industry standard self-rating scheme, wherein winemakers rate their wines on a scale from "light and elegant" to "big and bold".   Basically a style declaration on the label.   I'd be for that.

 

Alternative Varieties..
by TomHill
Posted on:7/8/2012 4:47:58 PM

Charlie,

   Good stuff here. Everybody dumping on the Govt regulations and regulators. In epee...it's called "easy target".

   To my viewpoint, the most interesting aspect of your post is encouraging folks to plant new varieties which have not been worked w/ before in Calif. I go thru the list of available varieties from FPS and think..."why the heck doesn't somebody try that variety. I bet they could do something interesting w/ it in Calif". Not just some winemaker that happens to have this wild hair that he'd like to see what Assirtico (sp) or Mencia would do, but they also should be allowed to fail. But maybe someone else, planted somewhere else or different winemaking practice, would be a stunning success.

   If you think back to those first Phelps Syrahs (by Walter Shug)...they were friggin' miserable failures and everybody should have thrown in the towel on Syrah in Calif. Fortunately, there were some visionaries (or nut cases...whatever) who were convinced they could do better and persisted..with tooday's result...Calif Syrahs as great as any made anywhere in the World.

   I'm seeing a quiet undertow of interest is some of these lesser varieties. Lodi has taken the ball on Iberian varieties and have already crossed the goal line well ahead of many others. The greatest Vermentinos in the world come from Calif (Tablas, Mahoney, Ryme). There's a quiet undertow of interest in a lot of Italian varieties (like Aligianica/Sagrantino/Nera d'Avola/Nebbiolo/Fiano/Montepulciano/Freisa...on & on). Some I've tried are smashing successes, some are miserable failures (like Clarksburg Teroldego). These are very exciting times to be a fan of Calif wines.

   The big bottleneck is, alas, the time and the $$'s it takes to get these new varieties thru quarantine and into the ground. I would love to se what Zelen or Tazzalenghe would do in Calif.  Alas...probably won't happen in my lifetime. Just more of the same ole cookie-cutter Napa Cabernets.

Tom

 

 

Random thoughts and the young palate
by Ken Musso
Posted on:8/17/2012 8:26:06 AM
As a small vineyard manager and grower in the Sierra Foothills, and having had my hand in such pushing 40 years, there are indeed changes taking place.On the growing side, this is the second year now that inquires are coming in about planting grapes. And no one is mentioning cab, merlot, chard, or the other standards. No, rather they are planting Muscato Giallo, Marsanne, Grenache Noir and Grenache Blanc. Spanish varietals and Port varietals are also discussed as is there interest in the Italians such as Dolcetto, Nebbiolo, Montepulciano and Aliagnico. The muscat interest is intense as sales of such have taken off. Will they all work out? likely not, but eventually some will be figured out.The second change I notice, specifically since moving our tasting room from Napa to Clarksburg, is the way more common event of young folks visiting the Due Vigne tasting room and seeing that they are way less preconceived as to what they might enjoy. These young guys love the rare stuff, and they have actually heard of Dolcetto and can't wait to try it. No longer do we have to cater to the tourist from Florida making sure they only leave the Napa tasting room with ONE bottle of NV Cabernet, probably because they have dropped a grand or more already on a two night minimum hotel and five meals in restaurants.These young tasters are truly a breath of fresh air, and I for one applaud their enthusiasm for the new and not so famous.Ken MussoWinemaker, Due Vigne

Leave a comment below, but please limit your comments to 1,200 characters or less. We find it helpful to make a copy of our comments to be sure that they fit. In that way, you can edit them if they run long.

(Please note: your e-mail address will not be visible after posting)

Name
Email
Subject

 

Note: Refresh your browser to see your latest comments.

Having technical problems with the comment system? Click here.