Thursday, October 28, 2021

Wine's Turning Point

   California Vineyard at Dusk with mountains (P) Temecula vineyard, wine country, looking over, mountains, low hanging clouds vineyards california stock pictures, royalty-free photos & images


Tracing the history of modern wine making in the United States is difficult, mostly because the definition of what is meant by "modern" is unclear.

Some observers claim that the modern era of U.S. wine making began in California in the 1970s, following the so-called wine boom. They will tell you that wine stumbled along in the American consciousness until "The Judgement of Paris," a 1976 taste off of French and California wines, staged by an English wine merchant.

But setting the date a mere 50 years ago ignores the planting of grapes by Franciscan padres at the first California mission in 1769.  And it would be minimizing the efforts by European immigrants to grow grapes and make wine in New York, Missouri, Ohio and other eastern locations early in the 20th century.  

Of course, history and circumstances meant that the compass arrow would eventually point to Northern California and especially the verdant valleys of Napa and Sonoma.  Italian and German immigrants had already plowed the vineyards and built the wineries with venerable names like Sebastiani, Beaulieu Vineyard, Pedroncelli, Inglenook and Beringer.  These became established wineries making solid wines, that formed the basis for the flood of wine to come.

Post WWII wines from Napa and Sonoma may not be recognizable to today's wine consumer.  Red wine, mostly blends, dominated then and what little white wine there was likely didn't come from Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Grape and wine names like Alicante, Golden Chasselas, Carignane (Carignan), Charbono, Emerald Riesling and Flame Tokay, were common then and it would be years before varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay would be on the tables of wine drinkers.

As technology changed the way grapes were grown and wine was made, it was only natural that the character of wine was approaching a turning point. When wine began to change is hard to say.  But I noticed a sameness creeping in during judging some wine types at wine competitions, as early as the mid-1980s.  

Wine competitions generally group wines by varietal types and sometimes by price and vintage. At large wine competitions this might mean that any group could have hundreds of wines, all from the same vintage or price range.

However, while the industry was preaching dry, especially for white wines, increasingly what I was tasting was off dry.  This was especially noticeable with Chardonnay that seemed to be getting sweeter with each new vintage.

                  Vineyard in Provence Vineyard in Provence. french vineyard stock pictures, royalty-free photos & images

Then, there was the touting of terrior, a French term that encompasses the entirety of a vineyard environment. Problem is, the very terroir signs that are supposed to distinguish a vineyard or region, making it different from other sites, were being erased from the wine by wine making. 

Escalating alcohol levels was another sign that the character (and maybe the soul) of wine was changing.  As recently as the 1970s, the majority of red wines were finished at 12.5% alcohol by volume, or the number claimed on the label.

Sidebar:  In the United States, "table wine" must by law be between 7% and 14%, with a 1.5% fudge either way.  Thus, a stated alcohol of 12.5%, may legally be 11% or as high as 14%.  A wine between 14% and 24% qualifies as a "dessert wine."

Also, there is something called the "International Palate," a profile of character and flavor, to which all wines for sale in the international market, supposedly conform. This "homogenizing" of wine is most often seen in lower-priced "commodity" wine.  However, I waffle a little on this because the sameness is not present in all wines or markets. 

Finally, wineries change wine makers and the grapes change from vintage to vintage, possibly altering the "house style."  Then, some wineries want to make the best wine possible and not stick to a house style.  

The list of factors changing the character of wine is unlimited.  Any changes I've noticed have been slow and subtle.  If you only buy a bottle of wine now and then, you're not likely to see the changes that have occurred over the years.

So, enjoy each wine but be conscious that change is happening.

Next blog:  My Life in Wine Episode 21

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Thursday, October 21, 2021

The Red Wines of Oregon

It could be said that Oregon's reputation for world-beating Pinot Noir owes its success to the dissatisfaction of a small group of California wine makers.  

Let me explain.  A few pinot missionaries, led by David Lett, decided that the Golden State was not suitable for their grape, so they headed north.  By the 1960s, "Papa Pinot," as Lett would become known, planted pinot vines near Dundee and opened the Eyrie Vineyard.  Dick Erath, Erath Vineyards (formerly Knudsen-Erath) led the next wave, mostly from California, settling in the Willamette Valley. 

The background to this vinous diaspora is that grape specialists at California's UC-Davis told Lett that Pinot Noir, or for that matter any Vitis vinifera grape, would not survive in Willamette's cool climate.  Lett and his colleagues persisted, proving that the experts are not always right. 

Willamette valley vineyard in autumn rows of grape vines in Autumn colors in the Willamette valley willamette valley stock pictures, royalty-free photos & images
Autumn in the Willamette Valley

Today, the Willamette Valley is the epicenter of arguably America's best Pinot Noir. The valley boasts more than 200 wineries, most of which make Pinot Noir and is host to the annual International Pinot Noir Celebration, that attracts a sizeable contingent of Burgundian vintners, from the birthplace of classic Pinot Noir.

Anecdote.  There is another story about Burgundians anointing the Willamette Valley (not California) as a place, outside of Burgundy, worthy of growing great Pinot Noir.  In 1979, the French staged a comparative tasting between French wines and their North American counterparts.  The 1975 Eyrie Vineyard Pinot Noir placed second, besting some of Burgundy's finest pinots.

Robert Drouhin, head of the Burgundy wine company, Joseph Drouhin, did not agree with the results, so he held a re-match. The results were the same.  Drouhin decided that Oregon Pinot Noir was worth a look, so he went to the Willamette Valley with his daughter Veronique and in 1987, Drouhin bought vineyard acreage, built a winery, with Veronique as winemaker.

The most important thing to be said about Oregon Pinot Noir is that it is not Burgundy.  The grape may be the same, though some will argue that variations in terroir and other factors, illustrate the differences between the two wines.  The flavors of Pinot Noir are elusive but at its base Oregon Pinot Noir has a deep berry richness with subtle earthy notes and above all, a complexity that varies with the local area and terroir.  

Beyond the Willamette 

When Oregon wine first became known, spurred mostly by Pinot Noir, critics sniffed that Oregon was a one-trick pony.  Fact is, in 1961 Richard Sommer, a California transplant, planted Pinot Noir at Hillcrest Vineyard in the Umpqua Valley, in what today is considered (at least in wine terms) southern Oregon. 

The two million acre vineyard region runs just south of Roseburg to the California border and includes a number of AVAs (American Viticultural Area), ranging from the small Applegate Valley AVA, part of the larger Rogue Valley AVA, to the large encompassing Southern Oregon AVA.

Autumn in a Rogue River Valley Vineyard

Umpqua Valley and Rogue Valley are the best known and have the most wineries.  The other AVAs are Redhill-Douglas, Snake River Valley and Columbia Gorge. Two regions, Walla Walla and Columbia Gorge are technically a two-state AVAs, with vineyards in both Oregon and Washington. 

Southern Oregon is warmer than the Willamette Valley, making it a good spot for Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Grenache and Tempranillo.  Still many of the vineyard sites in Southern Oregon are cooler than northern California, and reds like Cabernet are leaner and with more earthy notes. 

Oregonians are proud of their wine and they want consumers to know that there is a vibrant wine industry operating from just over the border from California to just south of Portland.  

Next blog: Wine's Turning Point

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Thursday, October 14, 2021

My Life in Wine Episode 20

My association with the San Francisco Chronicle lasted 12 years, the first four as a contributing wine writer and then eight years as staff wine writer.  Those last eight years were productive, covering the wine scene, starting a wine tasting panel and recognizing excellence in wine making with the Winemaker of the Year.  In 2018, Janet and I moved to Santa Rosa and I moved into the next stage of my wine writing career.

                        Free Writing' Can Help You Finish Your Book. Here's How

Free lance writing about wine and spirits, mainly single malt whisky which I had developed a fondness for, kept me busy during the transition after the Chronicle.  

Building a free-lance business demands a high level of self discipline and sacrifice.  While it sounds noble, anyone who has decided to go it alone knows what I mean. To be successful, a free-lancer must establish a regular schedule and stick to it.  No slacking off to watch television or putter in the garden.

Things moved slowly at first because, as a free lancer, you are competing for assignments with other writers and it takes time to build associations with editors.  For me, getting back in the game was going slower than I expected, so the lure of another editorial position was tempting. 

Although my re-entry as a free-lance writer was moving along, my experience as a former editor became of value and the fact that I was no longer with the Spectator held some interest in a narrow field that was constantly looking for that rare writer/editor with wine knowledge.  

So it wasn't long before I got a call from the Wine Enthusiast, the main competitor of the Wine Spectator. Would I be interested to meet the owner about an open editorial position?  The offer was tempting, but it meant a return to the pressures of managing a magazine and I was just beginning to relax. 

It is an on-going surprise to me how the word circulates, even in a small field like wine writing, that there has been staff changes at a magazine or newspaper.   Then I got a call from Peter Simic, owner and publisher of Wine & Spirits Buying Guide, a low-circulation wine magazine intent on raising its value and image in the U.S. market.  WSBG was not even on my radar but Simic was looking for someone to edit the magazine while helping him to develop a better understanding of the American wine market and he heard about my change of employment.

He was persuasive, so I signed on with the understanding that my stint would be 12 months and no longer.  Peter Simic and I hit it off and we are still friends, but the magazine was struggling and having financial trouble, so Simic sold out and moved back to Australia, where he owns a very successful wine magazine. 

After the ownership change, I decided to return, again, to life as a free lance writer.  Assignments began to pick up from diverse publications like Advertising Age, Restaurant Hospitality, Robb Report, Decanter, Peter Simic's Winestate Australia, and others. 

Then, another offer came out of the blue.  Robert Whitley, a writer in California who I knew only by name, emailed me to ask if I would like to be a contributor to a new online site he was starting called "Wine Review Online."  I had been avoiding writing for the internet, but Whitley's invitation would open a new area of writing for me, so I started writing a monthly column on any aspect of wine I wanted to write about. 

Robert Whitley 1950 - 2021

An unexpected bonus of being a WRO contributor was an invitation to be a wine judge at Whitley's "Critics Challenge" wine competition.  It was an opportunity to join some of my WRO colleagues, like Mary Mulligan MW, Michael Franz, and Paul Lukacs, as well as taste a variety of wines that I might not see otherwise. Robert Whitley passed away in February 2021, followed in June by WRO contributor and Critics Challenge judge, Paul Lukacs.

Living in the beautiful Sonoma Valley was a respite from the hustle of the Bay Area.  My association with Wine Review On line continued and I began a busy time of travel to many of the world's wine regions.  Then, fully adjusted to life in wine country, my life in wine took on two new adventures. 


Next blog:  The Red Side of Oregon Wine 

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Thursday, October 7, 2021

Wiine in the Holy Land

Kosher Israeli Wines

In 1986, I had occasion to go to Israel to observe first-hand a wine industry that, while not new, was struggling to establish an international presence. Except for Carmel, then one of Israel's largest wineries, few small Israeli wineries, kosher or non-kosher, had made a mark in the growing U.S. wine market. 

Thirty years ago, if you wanted kosher wine in America, your choices were Mogen David, Manichewitz, Kedem and you might find Carmel in major markets. The image of kosher wine was sweet and innocuous and that's not what wine consumers wanted.

Aside: Kosher means "pure" and is central to all Jewish religious and family events.  At the winery, the wine making process must be supervised by a rabbi and only kosher items, such as yeasts and fining agents may be used.  Fining agents like isinglass, made from animal products, can not be used. Kosher wine is suitable for vegetarians and if egg whites are not used for fining, it can be vegan.

So things changed, thanks in large part to the Israeli wine industry.

Israel is such a small country (about the size of New Jersey), that you can easily get around it in one day.  It is a mind boggling, for an American in Israel, to hear that records show evidence of wine being made 10,000 years ago, perhaps on the very land where you are standing.

My first stop was at the Golan Heights Winery, not far from Syria and the site of a major tank battle in the Yom Kippur War of 1973.  Imagine standing on an overlook, with a vineyard below you, sprawled along a flat plain where Israeli and Syrian tanks once faced off in battle.  

"This area had to be cleared of derelict tanks and unexploded shells, before the vineyard was planted" explained our guide, a former major in the Israeli Army, who fought in the '73 war.  

Today, most Israeli vineyards are planted to international varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah, the mainstays of Israeli red wine. Carignan is also a popular red grape, both as a varietal and in blends. The best white wines are made from Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. There are a few native grapes, like Argaman, used mainly for blends that are sold in local markets. 

The Golan Heights Winery is in the Galilee, one of the countries five wine regions.  The others: Shomron, which includes Mt. Carmel; Samson, covering Tel Aviv and parts of Judea; The Judean Hills, in the foothills west of Jerusalem; and the Negev, in arid southern Israel.  

                      Golan Heights Winery: Irresistible Israeli Wines – XOXO SHOSH

On the day I visited Golan Heights winery, the Israeli Defense Force was running maneuvers, with army vehicles and tanks racing along the road beside the winery.  Inside the modern structure, a small cellar crew was tending to the wines.  The winemaker then was a young Californian named Peter Stern who provided a perspective on kosher wine. 

"To be a kosher wine, all of the practices of kashrut (Jewish dietary laws) must be observed," said Stern.  "Only religious Jews may handle the wine and the winery equipment from the time the grapes arrive at the winery."

Aside: Stern admits that the story of his hiring as winemaker was a little confusing and dramatic, but thinking back, he says it now seems amusing.   "When I interviewed for the job (as winemaker), the requirements of kashrut in the winery were explained and I was asked if that would be a problem for me. I said no, but then I mentioned that I am not a Jew. The assumption was since my last name is Stern, that I was a Jew." 

Despite the name confusion, Stern was hired as winemaker, but his appointment took some adjustment on everyone's part. In the early days, Stern says it was awkward at first having to tell his cellar crew, who were all religious Jews, what he wanted done and how to do it. " But in time we all got used to the routine."

Today, Golan Heights Winery, which sells wine under the Yarden brand, has an internationally trained Israeli winemaker and is one of hundreds of small and medium-size kosher and non-kosher wineries in Israel. 

Availability of Israeli wines in the United States is spotty, mostly sold where there are large Jewish communities, live like New York.  Golan Heights, Carmel and Barkan control the Israeli market today and are the brands mainly seen in export markets.  Other Israeli wines to look for in your local stores include: Barkan, Binyamina, Domaine Herzberg, Ella Valley, Galil Mountain, Gush Etzion, Shiloh, Shiran, Tabor,  Tulip, Yarden, Yatir. 

Kosher wine is made in many countries and the quality rivals that of non-kosher wine.  While it may take some effort, the search for kosher wine will pay tasty dividends. 

Footnote.  Wine tourism is not big in Israel but visiting Israel is high on the bucket list of those Christians and Jews wanting to see the Biblical land of Judea, walk the path of Jesus along the Stations of the Cross in Jerusalem, ending at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, mingle with the devoted at the Western Wall, visit the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and just revel at the opportunity to stand on the site of so much history.  Of all the many countries I've visited over the years, Israel is the most memorable...of course, there's always Italy!


Next blog: My Life in Wine Episode 20

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