Monday, April 27, 2009

Gone west

So, I just came back from a ten-day trip west, and here is a brief report.

The first leg of the trip was to Boise, Idaho to act as a judge in a competition among Idaho wines. Actually, it was the second leg of my trip, as you can’t get from New York to Idaho without going somewhere else first! I think that’s called the deregulated airline industry…

In any event, the Idaho trip was an eye-opener. There are some good things going on in wine around Boise. While I found many flawed wines with weird off aromas and plain technical faults, I also found a number of solid wines to appreciate.

My favorite wines from Idaho included Viognier, Gewurztraminer, Riesling, Merlot, and Malbec. I was generally unimpressed with the Pinot Noir wines and most other wines in the competition.

Even though it started in the nineteenth century (of course, there has been a decided gap in wine production from then until now) the Idaho wine industry is still young and learning. But some wines certainly are ready for the big leagues.

I was going to talk specifically about names that I enjoyed, but the list of winners got lost in my emailer while I was traveling. I must get a replacement email sent to me and then I’ll get back to Idaho’s wines in a later blog entry.

After Idaho, it was off to Sonoma County to travel with an old business associate who seeks wines for his wine shop, his wine bar, and his restaurant in Manhattan.

We traveled the Dry Creek and Alexander Valleys and of course found special delights named Zinfandel (I love the way the gnarly old Zinfandel vines look like trolls reaching out as if to grab us).

Look for the name Del Carlo on wine labels soon—their first vintage is being released and it is wonderful stuff. I think I mentioned Rued before—look for their great Sauvignon Blancs.

In Healdsburg, we were treated to Alderbrook Zinfandels and were quite pleased. This winery has had some trouble in the past, and since it became part of the Terlato Wine Group, it has been more focused, mainly on Zinfandel.

We also made a foray into Boonville, northwest of Hopland in Mendocino County. Here we found some young wineries that show great promise, with a winery named Breggo at the head of the class.

Speaking of class, one fellow proved that he could use a little help in that department.

Others told us that this fellow’s winery was a comer. What we didn’t know is that the winery had been discovered by a West Coast blogger and that is what made the place an all of a sudden seeming success—tasting room traffic swelled and so, it seems, has the owner’s head.

We introduced ourselves to the owner and mentioned that one of us was on the lookout for unknown wines to bring into New York City. To that, the owner went into a winded lesson about how his tasting room traffic has been making him rich and about how he would never consider distributing wine to New York unless it was to go to a ‘high visibility’ restaurant. He never asked us about my friend’s business, so he had no idea whether or not he was talking with the owner of a ‘high visibility’ place, but he made sure to repeat the refrain at least four times.

We figured it was either arrogance or the fact that my friend is black that made the man act so distastefully. We said nothing more than “it’s your choice,” reached out our hands and said goodbye.

One of the things that impressed me on this trip is the number of times I was told how much of a turn off excessive wood and extract is. This sentiment was expressed by winemakers, wine tasting room servers, wine distributor sales reps, a few friends in Sonoma who are not in the wine business, and a couple of restaurant waiters.

I found myself wondering: with all this apparent dismay over bombastic wines, why in the world are they still being produced. Why in the world do these wines still win accolades? Must be a disconnect.

In all, I loved the Idaho experience, mainly because I learned from it. I always love visiting Sonoma County and this time was no different—I tasted many more wines that were wonderful than were not (incidentally, a winery called Ledson offers a stellar red blend of Bordeaux varieties).

We had lunch with Tom Wark one afternoon. It’s always a pleasure to talk with Tom. He’s one easygoing guy who handles even criticism with grace, leaving me to sorrowfully wonder how I might gain some of that humility?

Oh, I almost forgot. I also met for the first time one of my blog readers: Jack Everitt and his lovely family. Jack and Joanne entertained us for dinner in their fabulous surroundings in Santa Rosa.

Thanks again, Jack and Joanne, for the dinner, the wines, and the sparkling conversation. You proved once again how nice and sharing the majority of wine people really are.

If you are reading this entry anywhere other than on the vinofictions blog, be aware that it has been lifted without my permission (and without recompense), and that’s a copyright infringement, no matter that the copyright information appears with it.

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
April 2009. All rights reserved.

Saturday, April 11, 2009


Having reached the ripe age that I have reached, it comes as no surprise to me that people complain—about anything. Still, some complaints make a lot of sense.

For instance, the year I entered the New York wine business, 1985, the complaint was that New York wine gets no respect from retailers, restaurants, the press, and most consumers. I don’t think much has changed on that score and so, I am not surprised to hear the same complaint in 2009.

Because of this lack of respect, many New York winery owners work their backsides off to move a case of wine here and there because, until they become large enough or at least establish a relatively identifiable name, distributors have about as much interest in them as they have in dismantling government-sponsored distributor profits. (I sometimes think that distributors take on New York wines mainly as a show of support, for PR purposes).

All too often, when New York wines make it into a distributor’s portfolio, the complaints shift from ‘can’t get into retail shops and restaurants’ to ‘can’t get distributor sales staff motivated to get the wines into retail shops and restaurants.’

To be fair, I know a few New York winery owners that are content with their distributor’s efforts, but it is so rare.

The fact is, New York wine has suffered a relatively negative image for decades—no matter that the image is outdated and wrong. To change something so negative for so long is not an easy task. The funny thing is that the image is not the same image that tourists have of New York wine.

So, why can’t tourists ask for New York wine and get it wherever they shop and dine?

The answer to that is complicated.

Only the rare retailers and restaurants go out of their way to work at selecting wines, and even then it is a phenomenon largely connected to major cities or certain centers that surround rural communities; the majority simply take what has already sold and keep selling it over and over.

Retailers and restaurateurs have been known to change directions but not usually without a push. They move with the trend and, as much as we may like to think that we are, New Yorkers are not the trendsetters. This may be among the most provincial states in the union. And for upstate New York wineries, it’s even more difficult, as this is among the most conservative places—affecting change is tough.

In general, New York wine is not cheap; it is not overbearingly woody; it is not chewy; it is not consistently rated by the self-appointed gurus; and it is not savvy (witness most NY wine labels). New York wine seems to go out of its way to buck the general public tide.

The one thing that New York wine is—a generally premium product—doesn’t seem to matter, but that's no surprise either. Just check out the few fastest and most consistent selling wines in the U.S., it’s clear that producing a premium wine doesn’t necessarily provide for certain success.

Much of the New York wine industry dreams of relying on tourists to go home and ask for New York wines. But people aren’t that dedicated and their lives are too complicated to commit to an unnecessary vigil. Besides, many tourists to New York come from other states, where they can’t get New York wine because only a small portion of it is sold outside the home state.

Finally, many wine knowledgeable people don’t get that way by having been explorers. They may pay lip service to the concept of exploration, but when you pin many of these fat-walleted geeks down, you often find that their range is limited and their ability to think for themselves is in retreat. Even the results of blind tastings don't seem to sway them to think for themselves.

So, here I am with this seemingly bleak picture of the situation that confronts the New York wine industry and this morning I receive my weekly email from the New York Wine and Grape Foundation that includes this startling piece of information:

Since 1985, when there were maybe two-dozen New York wineries located in a total of seven counties, the wine industry has grown to a whopping 294 Tax and Trade Bureau-approved licenses located in 45 counties (there are 62 counties in New York).

While the ‘old guard’ complains, the march of a ‘new guard’ proceeds unabated. It’s a dichotomy for sure, but what does it signify?

Damned if I know the answer. The progression forward may give a hollow ring to the complaints or it may simply mean that you can’t stop the human spirit even under proven adversity. It could also mean that some wine people are in for a rude awakening.

Wouldn’t it be nice if that awakening is a positive one?

Incidentally, the NY legislature gave the NY Wine and Grape Foundation a one-year reprieve. But its state funding for the coming year is less than half of what it was. Maybe this situation will prove to wineries that they need to organize an effective, and unified, industry promotion effort and stop relying on the state for money. Past activity on the industry's part, however, puts the word 'unified' in doubt.

If you are reading this entry anywhere other than on the vinofictions blog, be aware that it has been lifted without my permission (and without recompense), and that’s a copyright infringement, no matter that the copyright information appears with it.

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
April 2009. All rights reserved.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Wine is not war.

We bloggers have quite a forum, but sometimes we go overboard in our zeal. Take my friend Tom Wark’s blog entry a while back that he titled, A Dying Culture’s Last Words.

Tom’s first paragraph: “The European Community wants to ban the sale of U.S. wines that carry on their label the terms "Clos", "Chateau", "Vintage", "Vintage Character", and "Classic", among others,” gives us the reason for his post, which is to point out that the European demand is nonsense.

Let me first say that I agree with some of Tom’s sentiment. My issue is with his rhetoric. Tom brings up Europe’s imperialist past and also tries to make the point that the Europeans are sliding into insignificance.

Whether true or not, those points have nothing to do with the wine label issue, and they actually make his post sound more silly than some of the words Europeans want to ban.

Almost at the end of his post Tom said, “I have no way of knowing this, but my gut tells me that U.S. trade negotiators will eventually cave, forget the obscene silliness of this European demand and agree to accept a ban on American winemakers…”

That is disingenuous. Tom knows that this issue is part of a wine trade agreement between the Europeans and the U.S. that was signed in 2006 and that expires in March of 2009. The trade negotiators should have protected U.S. wine producers from the possibility of this threatened ban by signing a much tighter (and maybe longer term) wine trade agreement in the first place.

One other way of looking at the issue is that the ‘Wild West” approach applied to wine labeling practices in the U.S. often leads to tension in trade talks. Hell, our labeling practices lead to misrepresentation right here at home, just ask a few wine producers in Napa Valley.

I find that many wine consumers in the U.S. raised on California wine (and I think Tom fits that description), simply have little understanding—and little patience—with the way things are done in the European wine world. Europeans have generally put some effort into trying to provide consumers with a measure of information concerning what is inside the bottle. It’s not their fault that consumers in the U.S. are uninterested in finding out what the labels mean.

For instance, before listing the proposed banned words in his first paragraph, Tom could have discovered that ‘Vintage Character’ is a particular term used for a particular bottling of Port. He may think it’s silly to protect the term, but it is a term to describe a particular wine that is produced and bottled in a particular place in Portugal. For that matter, in Italy and Spain, the word ‘Reserve’ on a label refers to the aging process of the wine; in the U.S., the word means absolutely nothing beyond its potential to make us think the wine is worth more money.

The fact that Europeans seem to go overboard on some of the words that they consider sacrosanct for European labels is why we have trade negotiations, and why we need smart trade negotiators to make agreements that are of mutual benefit.

I don’t think it does any good to use demagoguery or culture war rhetoric just because you don’t understand or are uninterested in a particular issue.



If you are reading this entry anywhere other than on the vinofictions blog, be aware that it has been lifted without my permission (and without recompense), and that’s a copyright infringement, no matter that the copyright information appears with it.

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
April 2009. All rights reserved.