Friday, February 29, 2008

Pride: no, not the California juice

Pride is at the top of the seven deadly sins and I am a sinner!

I take pride in my ability to identify a variety—not all—of the multitude of Italian wine styles. It’s not that I have done any particular rigorous study of Italian wine, unless you count the three decades of consuming them from one region to the next until I became familiar with my likes and dislikes, with the latter taking up quite a small category.

The other day, as I brewed a ragu on the stove, and contemplated what to drink with the rich, lush tomato meat sauce, I gave my wife the task of picking the wine.

Usually, I prefer a southern Italian red with the southern Italian sauce: Salice Salentino, Brindisi, and Primitivo di Manduria are my favorites. Of the three, we are missing Brindisi in the cellar—not many wine shops in upstate New York ever heard of, let alone carry wine from that location.

Just before dinnertime, my wife handed me a glass of red wine and told me this is what she chose for dinner. Knowing that we had Primitivo from two producers and one Salice, I had a choice of three wines from which to take a guess. I sniffed, swirled, tasted, sloshed, swallowed and proclaimed it one of the two Primitivi, but I wasn’t sure which one.

I know that the A Mano is not from Manduria, and it is not among my top wine choices, and I also know that the Leone di Castris is from Manduria and is among my top choices. Still, I could not say with certainty that I identified one or the other. But the wine was closer to the Manduria in style—rich depth of berry fruit, medium intensity mouth feel, great oak, tannin, alcohol integration; perfect with a ragu!

With a hint of trepidation, I proclaimed the wine Leone di Castris Primitivo di Manduria.

On my way to the pantry to grab the package of penne that became my choice for smothering in the thick, meaty ragu, I took a glance at the bottle that sat on the counter. It was:

Bogle Vineyards 2005 Old Vine Zinfandel, and it was the wine I had just proclaimed a more expensive Primitivo.

So much for pride in my abilities…

We keep six bottles of the Bogle Zinfandel in the cellar at all times as a choice red for everyday consumption. At $11, this is one of the good wine bargains of California, but only in my opinion, of course. I don’t seem to know a California Zinfandel from a Primitivo di Manduria, and I don’t excuse myself with the claim that the two grapes happen to be closely related. I am supposed to know the difference.

My only defense is that I was getting quite hungry; maybe my senses were skewed.

This episode reminded me of what bothers me about wine critics: they seem so damned proud of their proclamations.

Incidentally, if anyone from Bogle is reading this, tell me how you guys get away with the point size of the font that lists the 14.5% alcohol on that label. It takes fifteen minutes to find the thing and after that, it takes a magnifying glass to read it. Not that I'm complaining. How can I complain? What do I know about anything?

I think from now on I'll take humility in my ability to identify Italian wine.

Copyright, Thomas Pellechia
February 2008. All rights reserved.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Just musing today

It’s a bad day. It’s been a few bad days. I’ve been wondering over what my next blog entry will be.

When I started wondering, I began to scan the bulletin boards and other blogs for ideas. Aside from tasting notes, I couldn’t come up with a new subject from the Web sites. Is it possible that everything has been said about wine?

I suppose one of the hardest parts of a teacher’s job is to keep the information sounding fresh and interesting after having repeated it over and over for years. I know I have that problem with the wine classes I teach. To help me seem fresh, even if the lessons aren’t, I move things around, add and subtract things, while keeping the core lesson.

I appreciate the feedback comments that I have been getting, but I suppose there haven’t been enough of them to keep any one subject alive for too long. Or maybe that’s the fault of the Internet…so much stuff in cyber world that our attention span is brief.

To add to my dilemma, I’m in the middle of writing my third book and it is consuming a great deal of brainpower and time. Not that the book is a tax on my brain, just that my brain is probably tiring from its years in service—time is always in short supply!

Anyway, here I am wondering if the Internet discussion of wine has run its course. I spent over an hour today scanning wine oriented Web sites and could not find an original subject among them. Seems we keep talking about the same issues, and the same bad information keeps on circulating, as well as the same good information—the operative word is “same.”

What’s new in wine? What questions need answering?

When I started this blog over a year ago, I thought it could go on for a long time; I thought there was so much needing to be addressed. Did I address them all? I doubt it. Maybe I was wrong.

Here’s one piece of news: in the last week of February and the first week of March, I will drink no wine. The last time I went long without wine was a medical situation that kept me from the nectar for two weeks. That was twenty years ago. Since that time, I don’t think more than two days have ever gone by without at least a half bottle of wine filling my soul.

This time, my lack of wine isn’t exactly medical, but close. I want to see if I can lose a few pounds by not drinking wine.

There was a time when I could not gain weight, with a metabolism that underlined frenetic energy, my weight was almost exactly the same for a straight 20 years, but then I turned 45 and along with my perfect eyesight went my frenetic metabolism!

Not that I’m overweight by much—ten or so pounds—but I can feel that excess, and I want it gone. I’ve tried all the usual suspects: increased exercise, reduced carbohydrates, and reduced calories from food. Reducing wine is all that I have left—how sad. How really sad if it works and I lose a few pounds. What will I do after that?

I’ll certainly not give up wine, but “something’s gotta give.” Suggestions? Do I stop cooking with oil?

Sorry for the lack of content in this entry. Maybe I need suggestions there, too.

Copyright, Thomas Pellechia
February 2008. All rights reserved.

Monday, February 18, 2008

$750 a bottle

On the tail of my last blog entry about being on a winery mailing list, came notification that Screaming Eagle is now priced at $750 a bottle, and the lucky ones still on the mailing list can buy only two bottles.

To some, the price increase is calculated to foil flippers—people who bought their allotted three-pack of the last batch at $500 a bottle, then flipped (sold) a bottle for $1,000, reducing the price of the two others to $250 a bottle.

I find it interesting that the producer would decide that if others not on their mailing list or on allocation were willing to pay $1,000, then they’ve been stupidly pricing the wine too low to those on the mailing list, which says nothing about the cost to produce the wine, or its real value for that matter.

People who claim that this is the producer’s aim expect the wine to be $1,000 a bottle next year, and many of them claim they don’t see why not. The harder blowhards among them use the line, “it’s what the market will bear.”

Sure, it’s what the market will bear. The question I have is why does the market bear it?

Fred Franzia, owner of Bronco Wine Company and Two Buck Chuck said in an interview, "There's not a bottle of wine made worth more than $5. Ten dollars would be a stretch.”

I won’t go that far, or that low, because I know that producing on the Franzia scale he’s right. But for producing on a small scale, he’s dead wrong. With the cost of production today, a stellar bottle of American wine should cost consumers anywhere between $20 and $80, depending upon location, variety, and level of greed.

Still, Mr. Franzia’s sentiment is on target.

Generally, the cost of premium in-demand grapes in Napa topped out in 2007 at $5,000 a ton—the average price was between $3,000 and $4,000.

At $4,000 a ton, the grapes that go into making one bottle would cost about $6.

The oak? Let’s top it at $900 a barrel. That would be about $4 a bottle.

What’s the cost of a good glass bottle, cork, and a capsule? On the high end, about $10—then throw in an expensive, slick label at $.50 a bottle.

That’s almost $21 a bottle for grapes and package.

Remember, this is at the highest end of the spectrum. I might be off a little but only by a few dollars up or down. Then there’s fermentation, time holding inventory, equipment depreciation, labor, and distribution costs to include.

For a wine retailing at $750 a bottle to reap a 30% return on investment, that would mean the rest of the costs beyond $21 for grapes and package would be over $500 a bottle—not bloody likely.

Now, consumers can say that the wine tastes like it should cost them $750, and that’s their prerogative. Can’t argue with subjectivity. In fact, I don’t blame Screaming Eagle, or any other producer who can get away with charging such prices. The producer can’t be responsible for fools clamoring outside its doors.

In my view, wine exists in a parallel universe. I have been consuming it for decades, for its utility and the pleasure that it gives to me. That’s my universe.

In that other universe, people buy wine for additional reasons, the kind of pleasure with which I am unfamiliar: the pleasure of burning money, of begging to be allowed into a private club, or of ensuring that the world know that I have taste, as well as money.

I used to worry over the paucity of wine consumers in America, that it would keep us from developing a quality wine industry beyond the old Martin Ray, Louis Martini, Beaulieu, et al, of sixty years ago. Now that we have a larger wine consuming American public, I worry over the connection between wine and conspicuousness, and whether it will backfire, maybe even feed the ever-bearing flames of prohibition as a reaction to the ostentation.

I’m waiting for the smart California winemaker who labels his product for what wine seems to have become to many: “bling.”

Take a look at this display:


Copyright, Thomas Pellechia
February 2008. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

In the spirit of the Internet, and in deference to, I was thinking of starting a site called

This idea came to me after reading a number of posts on wine bulletin boards concerning winery mailings—or, to be more exact about it, emailings. The savings from using no stamps is applied to raising the price of the wine!

Some of the posts are about how the guy can’t help it—they are mostly guy posts. He buys everything that plops into his email software, and in some cases, he hides his shopping from his wife.

Sounds like a 1950s sit-com in reverse, when the wife can’t stop buying shoes or hats, and hides them from her husband. It’s actually easier for a wine geek to hide wine, since after spending a fortune on it, it’s supposed to go into a dark cellar and stay there so that one can boast over one’s possession.

Other posts complain that the prices of the wines are way too high, and so, the thinking goes, better buy the wine now before the price gets even higher.

Still other posts are from guys salivating, because they have been informed that they are off the waiting list—or they have been informed that there’s something seriously wrong with them, so they are now on the waiting list.

I particularly love the posts intended to “help” everyone see the light. These guys implore, beg, warn, threaten us to get on the mailing list, because we surely don’t know what we are missing.

For the finale, the posts that tickle me greatly are the ones when the guys are sick and tired of all the direct mail solicitations that they receive. They are cutting the wineries off—well, not all of them; just can’t go without that $300 bottle of milkshake from that screaming winery or the $250 proud bottling, or that $1,000 ghost with its tongue in its cheek while writing the emailer.

What do you think about my idea? A Web site devoted to chronic high rollers complaining about the marketing technique of wineries that they encouraged and rewarded with their spending habits and with their adoration?

Only problem is: I’m having second thoughts about the name,

Maybe it should be, you'

This entry’s wine:

To call wines from Italy by the monolithic description, Italian wine, does not do justice to the diversity of wines from Italy. When they say it, most people think that Italian wine is Tuscan or Piemontese, two out of two dozen wine regions in the country.

Since it made a splash in Rome of 121BC, one region, Campania, has been among Italy’s most interesting wine places. When compared with the well known northern wines, the wines from Campania seem, er, un-Italian. Rather than leathery and acidic or earthy and forward, the wines from Campania are big boned, almost flabby at times, but always lush and rounded.

One of the grapes in the region is named Aglianico. The name is derived from the word, Hellenic, which gives clue to its origins: Greece, about 750 BC.

Aglianico is usually a big, lush, tannic wine that acts as a good foil to big foods. But sometimes the producer’s hands, or barrels, get in the way. This was one of those times.

Anyone from Brooklyn should know what an egg cream is and what it tastes like. The original egg cream was white and foamy—it looked like a whipped egg white. It was made from vanilla syrup, milk, and seltzer (to me, the abomination called chocolate egg cream is non-existent).

How it was done I don’t know, but the 2006 Aglianico from Terredora DiPaolo reminded me of an egg cream, after I got past the cedar aroma and tasted the wine. I didn’t like it at all, even later, when I thought I detected a touch of cherry in the finish. On the plus side, the alcohol was not a problem.

Didn’t have the wine with anything to eat. Must be an old habit: when I was growing up, I took my egg cream neat.

2006 Aglianico, IGT Campania

Terredora DiPaolo

Alcohol 13% $14/bottle before volume discount

Imported by Vias Imports, NY

Copyright, Thomas Pellechia
February 2008. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

News release--sure

Today we have a press release lesson, as well as a lesson in the law.


The sad news is that stringent alcohol control laws in Washington State have been upheld by its 9th Circuit Court. Costco was the challenger.

Now, I’m no fan of big chain stores—I don’t shop in them. Never been in a Costco or a Wal-Mart. But I wanted Costco to win this case for one reason: it would have been a potential step in the right direction against the pitfalls handed to us by the 21st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the one that gave states the right to take money from alcohol lobbyists—wait a minute, that’s not it; the amendment gave states the right to suppress alcohol sales—wait a minute, that’s not it; what did it give the states? Ah yes, the right to control alcohol commerce.

Costco’s case was not built on the 21st Amendment. Instead, it claimed that Washington’s laws violate the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890, which prohibits the state from establishing unfair hurdles to business. Costco specifically claimed that alcohol controls in Washington limits competition by mandating a minimum mark up on wholesale prices, preventing volume discounting, preventing retailers from buying wine on credit, preventing retailers from storing wine in a warehouse, and forcing posted wholesale prices to remain static for a minimum of 30 days.

The court told Costco that it had a case only against the 30-day price-posting rule.

Sometimes you may think you are reading a reported news story but what you are really reading is a press release or, as the spinmasters like to call it, a news release. Usually, the news release issued by an interested party, is to news what standing in the ring and chest pounding is to wrestling. So let’s look at The Wine and Sprits Wholesalers of America (WSWA) news release about the Costco issue.

WSWA loved the court’s ruling, and why not? In alcohol distribution, you open a business and the state guarantees your markup! Who wouldn’t fight to keep that bennie?

Here’s the first paragraph of WSWA’s release:

“The Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America (WSWA) on Tuesday hailed a federal appeals court decision which delivered a stunning victory to states in their bid to maintain prudent regulatory control over alcohol distribution.”

Notice the words “stunning victory” and “prudent.” That’s to have us believe that the Yahoos at WSWA are protectors of our liberty.

Here’s a great sentence in the release.

“Costco argued on the basis of its own bottom line in this case,” WSWA President and CEO Craig Wolf said.”

That’s to make you think that WSWA has no bottom line interest by donating to state legislators across the country.

Here’s a sentence that I consider a slip on the part of WSWA.

“…the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld eight out of nine provisions in Washington’s regulatory scheme designed to discourage abuse of alcohol...”

So, Washington State purposely made its alcohol laws to impede citizens from gaining access to a bottle of wine. How telling that is, and why would WSWA members want to impede access to the products they sell? Strange logic.

This next part made me laugh aloud.

“Among the key Washington alcohol regulations affirmed by the court: the requirement of a minimum markup, designed to ensure that products are not sold too cheaply or below cost…”

If read carefully, this seems to imply the ridiculous and insulting notion that the state is looking out for our interest by making sure that we are not charged too little for our wine. What’s worse, however, is that the state is looking out for WSWA, guaranteeing a minimum mark up for its members.

The chest pounding gets louder.

“…the appellate court invoked the language of the landmark 2005 Granholm v. Heald Supreme Court decision, which describes as “unquestionably legitimate” the three-tier system which ensures the safe flow of beverage alcohol from supplier to wholesaler to retailer.”

Ah yes, the famous Granholm decision that so many in the wine business (but not I) thought was going to revolutionize the United States wine distribution system.

And now, WSWA’s Mr. Wolf becomes the Constitutional authority.

“Said Wolf: “This opinion gives major credence to a key point we have argued all along, which is that the authority the Twenty-first Amendment grants to the people—not judges—must be given deference and respect.”

First, WSWA is quoting in its news release a WSWA representative as if it were an interview—get it?

Second, I seriously doubt the 21st Amendment gave any rights to the people, but it certainly gave some moral and financial leeway to some people.

In a story, reported by a real news organization, this is a quote that truly rings my chimes.

"They got a dose of old-time religion from the judge," said Corbin Houchins, a Seattle attorney who specializes in alcoholic-beverage law.”

The 9th Circuit Court actually said that by separating Washington’s regulations they found that individually only one out of the group was anti-competitive, the one about forcing prices to hold for 30 days. To that issue, Mr. Houshins pointed out that:

“The judge never said in his 40-plus-page opinion, however, that the other laws are particularly good laws since they do in fact result in higher prices for consumers, just that they don’t facilitate collusion when viewed separately.”

Costco pointed out exactly that the state's distribution laws, which are created to keep prices high, are put together as a package.

According to Costco’s legal counsel, John Sullivan, the state said during the trial that “We intended to have these anticompetitive laws that raise prices so everyone will drink less, and everyone who abuses alcohol will drink less as well. That is our game plan. The former chair of the LCB even said that you can't look at any component by itself, you have to look at the whole system."

Well, Mr. Sullivan, apparently the 9th Circuit Court feels that you don’t have to look at the whole thing, not if you don’t want to, and WSWA is ever so happy about that.

Sherman Act News

This entry’s wine:

It smelled like juniper berries to me; it was clean, crisp, and slightly grapefruity in the taste. How come there was no cat pee, no asparagus, none of the over-the-top stuff that Savignon Blanc can offer? Because this was no ordinary Sauvignon Blanc; this was Quincy.

Quincy is neighbor to that other marvelous place in the Loire for the SB grape, Sancerre. I have never gotten the outer reaches of SB from either of these two wine locales.

I like these wines with vegetables and so, I prepared a heavily vegetable dish to go with this one and it worked perfectly: potatoes and egg fritattta with fennel, onions, garlic, chopped broccoli rape, and Tabasco sauce.

Domaine Mardon 2006 Quincy

12.5% Alcohol by volume $16/bottle before volume discount

Imported by Michael Skurnik Wines, NY

Copyright, Thomas Pellechia
January 2008. All rights reserved.