Saturday, May 31, 2008

The Wine or The Woman

Being in Heaven, I am at an impasse with respect to what is more sublime.
The perfect wine or the perfect nymph?
Food and wine compliment one another. Fine wine and sublime sex do also.
I choose all three: fine food, fine nymphs and of course, fine wine which makes it all divine.


Tips for Letting Your Wine Breathe

Aerating Your Wine
The whole concept of letting wine breathe, or aerate, is simply maximizing your wine's exposure to the surrounding air. By allowing wine to mix and mingle with air, the wine will typically warm up and the wine's aromas will open up, the flavor profile will soften and mellow out a bit and the overall flavor characteristics should improve.

Which Wines Need to Breathe

Typically red wines are the ones to benefit most from breathing before serving. However, there are select whites that will also improve with a little air exposure. In general, most wines will improve with as little as 15-20 minutes of air time. However, if the wine is young with high tannin levels, it will need more time to aerate before enjoying. For example, a young Cabernet Sauvignon will likely require around an hour for proper aeration and flavor softening to take place.

Not that you cannot drink it as soon as it is uncorked, but to put its best foot forward give it more time to breathe. Mature wines (8+ years) are another story all together. These wines will benefit most from decanting and then will only have a small window of aeration opportunity before the flavor profiles begin to deteriorate.
How to Let Your Wine Breathe

Some erroneously believe that merely uncorking a bottle of wine and allowing it to sit for a bit is all it takes to aerate. This method is futile, as there is simply not enough room (read: surface area) at the top of the bottle to permit adequate amounts of air to make contact with the wine. So what's a Wine Lover to do? You have two options: Decanter or Wine Glass

Decanter - use a decanter,a flower vase, an orange juice pitcher, whatever - any large liquid container with a wide opening at the top to pour your bottle of wine into. The increased surface area is the key to allowing more air to make contact with your wine. Keep this in mind while setting up proper "breathing" techniques for your favorite wine.

Stacy Slinkard

Serious health stuff

A couple of weeks ago my local newspaper published a guest column titled, "Women at risk: wine and cardiovascular disease." The author was a member of the community who enjoys regularly stirring the alcohol and health pot with irrational and inflammatory rhetoric. This article was filled with factually incorrect health information and personal opinions, and the author grossly misrepresented a variety of otherwise respectable sources of information. I wrote a letter to the editor expressing my concern for the misinformation that was contained in her article, and pointed out some of the more egregious errors.

As a health scientist I have had over 20 years of experience in research and education in the area of alcohol and health, and have amassed a bibliography of hundreds of research articles on both the positive and negative effects of alcohol. I have conducted continuing medical education seminars on the topics, including several in conjunction with the American Heart Association. Because of this background, I was highly disturbed at the way this person, who has no training in the health sciences, cherry-picked bits of information and quotes from reputable sources out of context to try to force her thinly veiled personal anti-alcohol agenda on others.

When discussing alcohol and health issues, it is critical to make sure the information is accurate, current, and balanced. It is absolutely true that alcohol abuse continually causes devastating damage to a certain portion of society. But it is also true that millions of people use various forms of alcohol safely and responsibly every day.

A common tactic of the anti-alcohol faction is to cloak their agenda in grossly misrepresented medical-scientific research data, and by quoting individuals and organizations out of context in an attempt to scare people into accepting their arguments. Individuals and organizations such as the notoriously Machiavellian Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) - which, by the way, does neither science nor works in the true public interest - usually target complex topics with high visibility in the media. Wine and health is one of their all time favorite arenas in which to cause mischief. They make shrill, fear-inducing claims that do nothing to educate and inform, but rather exacerbate and cloud an already confusing, complex, and emotion-laden topic.

I have had the pleasure of confronting representatives of some of these groups face to face, and their bravado usually collapses rapidly like a balloon filled with hot air poked with a sharp needle. For example, when I challenged a spokesperson from CSPI about their misleading approach to health issues related to wine and other consumer goods, rather than arguing from a position of defensible data he justified it by saying that they had to use scare tactics to get through all the media "noise" so they could be heard. Never mind that what they are trying to get people to hear is biased and misleading information. The scary thing was that he and his co-conspirators saw nothing wrong with this tactic and felt completely justified in doing so. They also seem to be oblivious to the fact that their over-zealous and sometimes bizarre approach only serves to marginalize them as the radical fringe.

But there always is a portion of the population that will not see through the hysterical claims and will be taken in by these tactics. People and organizations that engage in this kind of irrational sensationalism do a reckless disservice to and insult the intelligence of the public they claim to care about. If they were truly interested in promoting things like healthy drinking they would be making every effort to give the public balanced and accurate information to help illuminate the issue.

When it comes to alcohol and health, it is like most other aspects of life, and that is moderation, balance, and common sense should be our guiding principles. And for some people with certain conditions or genetic predispositions, exposure to alcohol and many other things from peanuts to penicillin in any quantity can cause severe negative health consequences.

I receive on a regular basis the most current research information on what we know and do not know about how alcohol consumption affects health. But the general public normally only receives disjointed and incomplete information through the mass media, and through junk mail such as that generated by CSPI and other such manipulative organizations that traffic in fear to win over the uninformed.

When a new report comes out that supports the potential benefits or the negative consequences of alcohol consumption it rarely is put into the context of all the other research data and information that has come before it. That is why is it so important to not make any kind of major changes in alcohol consumption for health reason without first getting the facts from reputable sources and checking with your physician.

A good rule of thumb to use when you hear a report on a new study about alcohol and health, whether it is positive or negative, is to be a bit skeptical until you can figure out how it fits with all the other information out there. The same goes for the information disseminated by any organization that seems to be one-sided. If it presents only one side of the issue then it is biased and not to be trusted.

When it comes to human health, there are few absolutes that apply to all people. When it comes to alcohol and health reports, always look to the source of the information and assume there is a hidden agenda at work until you can verify otherwise.

A toast to rationality and common sense.


John Juergens

No Sulfites? Beware. Understand What Sulfites Are

Wine and Sulfites

What is this compound found in most wines?
Sulfur dioxide is a naturally occurring compound. It is formed from sulfur and oxygen during the fermentation process. It is present in very small quantities. Some winemakers will add it to wine.

Sulfur dioxide is the penicillin of wine, preventing and curing all sorts of ills. One of the most important jobs of sulfur dioxide is to prevent the wine from turning to vinegar. It acts as an antioxidant, keeping wines fresh. It does this by preventing bacterial growth. In sweet wines sulfur dioxide prevents the yeast from refermenting in the bottle.

But, a little goes a long way. Wine makers try not to add anything to wine unless absolutely necessary. So, a light hand is used when adding sulfur dioxide to wine.

With the advent of highly complex and highly technical wine making equipment wine makers don't rely on sulfur dioxide as much as in the past. The irony is that labels in the United States contain the phrase, "Contains Sulfites."

In 1988 Congress passed a law requiring that phrase on the label. Sulfur dioxide didn't suddenly appear in wine in the 1980s. It has been present in its natural and added forms long before 1988. There is now less sulfur dioxide in wines than before the labeling requirement.

Why the concern over sulfites in wine? About 5% of asthmatics are extremely sensitive to sulfites. To allow them to make good health choices, Congress required wines containing more than 10 parts per million of sulfites be labeled with "Contains Sulfites." To keep this in perspective, remember that 10-20 parts per million occur naturally in wine. So, almost every wine will be required to carry this phrase. (Studies have been conducted that suggest that some people may be having reactions to other things than the sulfite in wine.)

Sulfite levels in wine range from about 100-150 parts per million (about the same as dried fruit). You can sometimes ingest more sulfites by eating pizza and drinking diet cola. The maximum allowed by law in the United States is 350 parts per million.

When selecting wines you can look for wines that state "No Sulfites Added." Some assume that organic wines will not contain added sulfites. This is not true. Some organic vintners add as much sulfur dioxide as conventional wineries. New laws have clarified labeling requirements.

Paula S.W. Laurita

How to Remove Wine Stains

What is the most effective way to remove wine stains?
Red wine stains are a pain to wine drinkers. How do you effectively remove stains from clothing, carpet, tablecloths, or napkins? Spilt wine has ruined many a cocktail dress. Fear no more! There is good news.

In 2001 a study was conducted by the University of California, Davis, on wine stain removal. The Red Wine Stain Removal study was conducted by Natalie Ramirez, a participant in a special summer high school research program supported on campus by the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. The study compared eight cleaners, from commercial wine-stain removal products to folk remedies. These included:
3% hydrogen peroxide mixed with an equal volume of Dawn liquid soap
Camco’s Erado-sol laboratory cleaning solution
Gonzo “Wine Out” Red Wine Stain Remover
“Wine Away” Red Wine Stain Remover
Salt (applied only to 2 minute-stains, as it was used to absorb the liquid out of the fabric)
Sauvignon blanc white wine
A solution of vinegar and Dawn liquid followed by rubbing alcohol
Spray ‘n Wash, a pre-laundry spot remover made by Dow Corning
These cleaners were tested on cotton, a polyester-cotton blend, nylon, and silk. They were applied at two different times after "spill." One testing at two minutes after and the other 24 hours later. After the fabrics were washed the residual stain was precisely measured with a colorimeter.

Silk was the hardest fabric to clean, with none of the cleaners completely removing the stains. Cotton was the easiest to clean. Some cleaners worked better on different types of fabric. Many of the cleaners just didn't work as promised. The commercial wine stain removers were among the least effective on any type of fabric. White wine or salt didn't work at all, with the exception of white wine on nylon.

The best stain remover? It was an equal blend of hydrogen peroxide and Dawn liquid soap. The next best was Erado-sol, it was the most effective on silk. Erado-sol is a commerical cleaner, mostly sold to health-care facilities.

While red wine stains remain a problem, if you wear cotton, there is hope.

Paula S.W. Laurita

How To Clean Your Wine Glasses

What?! There really is a methodolgy to cleaning wine glasses that will improve your wine tasting experience.
For a premium wine experience your glasses should not have dust, odors, stains, invisible layers of dried detergent, or previous wines. With the advent of stemless glasses this has never seemed easier--Just pop the glasses into the dishwasher. No! No! No!

If you wash your wine glasses in the dishwasher you must also rinse them by hand in hot water. This will remove soap residue left by the machine. If you wash your dishes by hand you must also give them an extra rinse. When washing wine glasses the less soap used the better.

Many serious wine drinkers use no soap at all. I'll admit I can't do it. I have to use soap in order to 'know' my glasses are clean. It's not always logical, but it's my personal quirk. If you opt to use no soap be certain your hands are clean and oil free. I have a friend who uses a glass sponge that is dedicated to her wine glasses. No soap ever touches the sponge and the sponge is never used on anything except her wine glasses.

You may want to use your wine glasses for other beverages (e.g., water, juice, etc.). Just be certain your glasses are completely clean of any other liquid. This includes water. Heavily chlorinated water can leave a residue that will change the taste of your wine. I use only filtered water to wash my wine glasses. I have friends who keep distilled water just for this purpose. They've been known to take a bottle of water with them to restaurants to rinse suspect wine glasses.

Taking a few extra minutes to properly care for your wine glasses can mean the difference between a quality wine experience and a poor one.

Paula S.W. Laurita

Drinking Lighter Reds in Heat

My blood is thinning in this heat, but I must continue to drink.
The lighter wines are working fine. They tell me blood thins with the heat, which is true. Mind you, the drinking must continue. I continue to drink vine juice, but with the change of time, I must adapt so I don't collapse.


Do you change your wine-drinking patterns for the summer?

Yes: 69.8%
No: 30.2%
If yes, what will you savor as the temperature soars?

Riesling: 29.7%
Chardonnay: 17.2%
Other: 16.1%
Pinot Gris: 12.3%
All of the above!: 8.8%
Gewurztraminer: 4.7%
Champagne/Sparkling: 4.6%
Sauvignon Blanc: 2.2%
Grenache: 1.4%
Gamay: 0.9%
Merlot: 0.6%
Pinot Blanc: 0.6%
Pinot Noir: 0.6%
Zinfandel: 0.6%

When the heat rises, about two-thirds of you turn to lighter wines. Those who change their wines for summer top the list with Riesling, Chardonnay and Pinot Gris. This question picked up a very high number of write-in votes, most of whom will pour rosé or "cold whites in general."

Wine Spectator Poll

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Wine Predictions in Fifty Years: China, Plastic and English Champagne

Berry Bros. & Rudd, Britain's oldest independent wine merchant, made several predictions about the state of the wine world in 2058 in its “Future of Wine Report.” Among its many predictions, Berry believes China could one day rival Bordeaux, while England could be a new champagne region in just 50 years.

In the world of volume wine, Berrys believes there are two specific areas set for significant change by 2058:

1. Countries renowned for “new world wine” will alter radically as the effects of climate change are felt.

2. The size of wine “brands” will lead to massive changes in the way wine is produced, packaged and marketed.

Leading the charge in volume wine, predicts Berrys, will be China. Already the world's sixth largest wine producer and number four in terms of area under vine, its not too far-fetched to believe that China could soon be the world’s leading producer of volume wine. Berry believes China will excel in producing Cabernets and Chardonnays, in particular.

"China has the vineyards, but not the technical expertise," agrees Alun Griffiths MW, "however, if good people from wine producing countries think there is opportunity to make wine in China, they will go there and invest."

Berrys also believes that if global warming persists, countries that are currently small scale producers, such as Ukraine, Moldova, Croatia, Slovenia, Poland and Canada,

BLEAK FUTURE FOR AUSTRALIA. In recent years, Australia has suffered from severe droughts that have resulted in vineyard irrigation being temporarily banned. If this trend continues, says Berry, supplies of inexpensive Australian wine may soon be a thing of the past.

By 2058, Berrys predicts Australia will be too hot and arid to support large areas of vine. It will no longer be renowned for volume wine and will become, instead, a niche producer, concentrating on hand-crafted, terroir-driven, fine wine.

WINE BECOMES (EVEN MORE) COMMERCIALIZED. Berry experts believe big brand, blended wines with grapes from around the world could soon replace region-specific varietals.

"By 2058, big brand wine could be grape or blend specific, rather than from a particular country. Grapes will be gathered from all over the world and blended to suit consumers' tastes."

They also believe spirits companies and supermarkets will own most of the world’s wine brands by 2058.

GLASS BOTTLES NO LONGER. In 50 years' time, Berry believes wine is unlikely to be sold in glass bottles as retailers and importers try to cut costs, waste, and reduce the environmental impact of wine being shipped around the globe. Instead, wine will be packaged in plastic or reinforced cardboard containers.

CHINA AND ENGLAND, UNRIVALED WINE REGIONS? While Berry thinks China is set to become a leading producer of volume wine, they also think China has all the essential ingredients to rival the best of Bordeaux.

“It is entirely conceivable that, in such a vast country, there will be pockets of land with a terroir and micro-climate well suited to the production of top quality wines," said Jasper Morris MW.

Thanks in part to warmer temperatures (2007 was the second warmest year in the UK in 356 years), more and more English land is becoming suitable for wine production. Berrys believes the amount of English farmland devoted to wine production may rival that of France by 2058.

French Champagne producers such as Louis Roederer have been looking at the chalky soil of the South Downs with interest, believing it offers them a great opportunity to produce sparkling wines similar to Champagne itself.

Wine Growth Slowing

How is wine performing during the weak economic climate? Are consumers still trading up? According to Nielsen’s food, drug and liquor scan data, wine and even high-end wine is still growing but at a much slower rate. To get an idea of the difference, we took a look at Nielsen data in the period to April 5, 2008 and April 7, 2007.

OVERALL TABLE WINE. Table wine continued to post growth in the four weeks to April 5 but at a slower rate than the 52 week period to April 5. Table wine dollar sales grew 4.7% in the four weeks, but were up 5.4% for the year.

In terms of volume, the four week period saw growth of 1.5% while volume jumped 2.2% in the 52 weeks. It takes longer for trends to show up in 52-week data, while four-week numbers tend to reflect current trends. Case in point? Growth of wine in the U.S. is stalling and isn’t showing signs of turning around (yet).

Let’s take a look at the same period last year. In the four weeks to April 7, 2007, dollar sales jumped 11.1%. In the 52 weeks to April 7, 2007, dollar sales grew 6.9%. Volume increased a whopping 7% for the month and 2.9% for the year to April 2007. Volume growth of table wine in 2007 was almost five times more than in 2008.

TRADING UP. High-end wines reached a new record of growth in 2007. Since then, the rate of growth has slowed. It turns out that consumers are still trading up, just not as much as they were last year.

Higher-priced wines continued to post growth in April 2008, but at a much slower rate than in April 2007. In the four weeks to April 2008, dollar sales and volume of wines priced $15 and above rose 8.1%. Wines priced $12-14.99 saw sales climb 7.8% and volume rise 5.5%. Meanwhile, wines in the $9-11.99 range increased 7.5% in dollar sales and 5.3% in volume.

Dollar sales of wines prices $6-8.99 grew 1.9%, followed by $3-5.99 (3.7%) and $0-2.99 (1.2%). Volume of wines prices $6-8.99 grew 0.6%, followed by $3-5.99 (1.5%) and $0-2.99 (-0.6%).

The difference between 2008 and 2007 is vast. In the four weeks to April 2007, the $15 and up category grew 26.9% in value and 26.3% in volume. Dollar sales of wines prices $12-14.99 grew 20.3%, while volume jumped 20.1%. Wines in the $9-11.99 range rose 15.1% in value and 14.4% in volume.

All of the lower priced wines grew faster in 2007 as well, aside from the $0-2.99 price segment. Dollar sales of the $6-8.99 category rose 8%, followed by $3-5.99 (7.8%) and $0-2.99 (0.3%). Volume of wines priced $6-8.99 grew 9.2%, followed by $3-5.99 (7.3%) and $0-2.99 (0.2%).

Grape vines take root in modern China

Despite a 4,600-year wine history, booming nation is just discovering good vino

BEIJING - The history of Chinese grape wine dates back more than 4,600 years. But if you are in the country during this Olympic year, I suggest you drink beer.

Back last week from a three-week sojourn through China, I discovered there are only a couple of wines approaching entry-level international standards.

There is no question China will eventually produce some world-class winners. The country has the climate, the soil and the will-power to rival the world's top wine-producing regions. And international expertise is arriving with state-of-the equipment.

But the wine industry has not kept up with the quality strides made in other industries, from manufacturers of high-tech equipment to leather goods to clothing.

One reason China is behind most of the world's best wine-producing regions in quality is that many of its 1.3 billion people haven't been able to afford such a luxury drink. Just getting enough food to stay alive during famines can be a huge endeavour. It's a rather sad situation given the country's long history of winemaking -- in 1995, Chinese and American archeologists discovered remnants of alcoholic beverages, including grape, mead and several mixed beverages, that dated back some 4,600 years.

Another handicap was that Chinese grapes, for centuries, were of inferior quality compared to those cultivated around the Mediterranean and later in Europe. Consequently, wine didn't enjoy the same popularity in China as in other parts of the world. Then, during the Han Dynasty, following a gentleman by the name of Zhang Qian's exploration of the country's western region in the second century BC, high-quality grapes were introduced.

Fast forward to 1989, just shortly after the Tiananmen Square massacre, I visited Beijing and befriended a local university student who was keen on wine. I was delighted one night when he rushed from a restaurant (with my cash) and returned with a pretty decent bottle of French-influenced Riesling.

French wine was the first foreign wine to be imported into China and in 1980, at the beginning of Chinese economic reform, Remy Martin arrived to set up some joint ventures.

I licked my lips recently at the thought of tasting 20 years of viticulture progress. Consider the progress the B.C. wine industry has made in that time.

But sadly, I was disappointed. For the most part, the same few brands are sold throughout the country. Only in top international hotels in such cities as Beijing and Shanghai could one find French, Australian and perhaps some Californian wine.

But who wants to drink wine so readily found at home? It was in ancient, cobble-streeted Lijiang, in the province of Yunnan and near the Burma border, that I sat down one night to sample wines found in most restaurants in the region. Some notes:

Dynasty Red Wine, $4. A quite quaffable wine made with French help. Dry, light and well-balanced, but the fruit was more faded-savoury than forward.

Yunnan Red Wine, $4. A local wine, drinkable if one has been stranded in the local mountains for about a year.
Great Wall Red Wine, $3.75. Found everywhere and selling to westerners on its novelty name. The wine tasted oxidized. But it's a "must-try" to say you have sampled Chinese wine.

Tibetan Dry Naked Barley Red Wine, $4.50. Caramel, dried figs and plums on a wine that deserved a second sip.

Lijiang Red, $3. Some licorice notes in this local wine what tasted like a cross between sherry and firewater.
Beer is the chosen beverage of most males. Some 90 per cent of the wine consumed domestically in China last year however was red. Drinking it has become a status symbol.

Some 80 per cent of vineyards produce red wine. It's the country's women who are driving a slowly growing white-wine market.

The Chinese have undoubtedly noted wine is a key export in some countries and within a decade I believe we will be sipping good Chinese wine.

That's just as well. The standard of living there is rising quickly and a more affluent population will no doubt seek a share of our favourite wines.

Nick Lees

Burgundy wine sales hit by rising euro

Sales of Burgundy wines have started to decline over the past few weeks with vintners blaming the rise in the euro against the dollar and the pound.

But winemakers in one of France's best-known wine regions are not feeling too anxious after two years of steep price rises on the back of demand that still far outstrips production.

"I believe that in the first quarter of this year we have had a decline of 4-5 percent in volume and a similar rise in prices," Frederic Dupray, head of economic studies for the Burgundy wine association, told Reuters on Tuesday.

"We had been expecting a decline in volume this year after two years of growth and in any case stocks are very low in Burgundy, so we are not in tears," he added.

Wine house Albert Bichot sounded a warning bell.

"After two years of strong growth in sales...Burgundy is experiencing the start of a slow down," it said in a note to clients. "The strength of the euro, the rise in prices for the 2007 harvest and a more glum sentiment at our clients are the cause of this," it said.

The single European currency used by France, Germany, Spain, Italy and several other EU countries has gained 16 percent against the U.S. dollar over the past 12 months.

Dupray said that sales to the United States were hit by the rise in the euro, while sales to the United Kingdom were hit by a decline in the pound as well as an economic situation in Britain, which he described as "not brilliant".

"In Britain there is less demand for the high-end Burgundy wines and more for the middle range," he said.

But demand from Russia and Asia is booming and many vintners from Burgundy and other French wine regions will be present at the Vinexpo trade fair in Hong Kong, from Tuesday until May 29.

"There is a lot of demand still but what we want in Burgundy is to get a hold on volumes and improve the price level," Dupray said.

Albert Bichot ( trades in Chablis, Cote De Beaune, Cote de Nuits, general Burgundy wines as well as the Beaujolais, Maconnais, Cotes du Rhone and Languedoc wines farther away from the central Burgundy area, roughly between Dijon and Beaune in central France.

Created in 1831 by Bernard Bichot, the family firm is now headed by Alberic Bichot.

It owns, among others, Domaine Long-Depaquit in Chablis and the Domaine du Clos Frantine in Vosne Romanee, a village that yields some of the most expensive Burgundy wines.

Burgundy wines are single grape wines, mainly Pinot Noir for the reds and Chardonnay or Aligote for the whites, and not blends such as Bordeaux.

The tastes of wines can differ widely from one mini-climate to the next in the myriad of villages and vineyards that stretch across Burgundy.

Marcel Michelson

Wine held underwater to test cellar methods

French winegrowers have submerged 276 bottles of local drink deep in an artificial lake and will keep them there for decades to see how they differ from bottles stored above ground for the same period.

Every 20 years, 24 of the submerged wine bottles will brought to the surface to test how the wine has changed.

A dozen frogmen placed the bottles of Arbois wine, kept in wire crates, 60 metres below the surface among the ruins of a sunken 12th century abbey in Vouglans, in the Jura region of eastern France.

Built by monks of the order of Saint Bruno, the Chartreuse de Vaucluse was submerged in 1968, when France's electricity operator, EDF, created a huge dam and France's third largest lake.

Nestling within its walls, the wine will be kept at 4 degrees Celsius, with pressure at seven bars and between 4 to 8 mg of oxygen per litre.
Every 20 years, a crate of 24 bottles will brought to the surface to test how the wine has changed, in parallel with the normally conserved bottles, according to domain Henri Maire, which organised the operation.

Besides the wine, 12 bottles containing messages from "different personalities from the arts, media, the world of wine and gastronomy" were also laid to rest at the bottom as a testament to "future generations about our art of living today," said Henri Maire.

The Arbois appellation (which draws its name from the town of Arbois) is the heart of the Jura region. Located along the eastern border of France, it runs parallel to Burgundy and is not far from Switzerland.

Arbois whites are produced from Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc and its yellow wine from the obscure Savagnin variety. The reds contain Pinot Noir, Trousseau and Poulsard grapes.

The Henri Maire domain last year sent 20,000 bottles around the world as an experiment, while crates of its yellow wine are currently stored in the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen, far inside the Arctic circle, in minus 40 degree temperatures.

Henri Maire himself started the craze for such tests in 1955 by walling in bottles of vin jaune in the bowels of the Tour d'Argent, one of Paris' most famous restaurants with a sumptuous wine cellar.

The bottles are due to be removed in 2055.

Henry Samuel

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Young and hip and seriously fine wines

In Mendoza, winemakers are breaking with tradition in a big way and using innovative techniques with their Malbecs.

As wines go, many find Argentine Malbecs die-hard traditional. Dry, oaky, full of musky tongue-curling tannins, and quick to stain your lips purple-red, they're built to wash down forkfuls of steak, not to sip.

But what's refreshing about Mendoza, Argentina's wine country a half-hour flight west of Buenos Aires, is the innovation that young, hip but equally serious winemakers are bringing to Malbec.

Mendoza itself is a blissed-out place. It's a walking and biking town: Mellow, tree-arched streets that keep everything delightfully cool radiate from a huge sprawling plaza, set against a backdrop of the striking Andes. At night, cafe culture spills onto the sidewalks, where people

chatter and chink cutlery in the balmy air.

With wine bars, boutiques and nightclubs, it makes a fun base camp for a weekend of wine touring. The surrounding vineyards are miraculous expanses of green, irrigated since pre-Inca times by mountain snowmelt. Dry and sunny by day, cool at night, the climate produces vines heavy with juicy grapes.

Some of the Mendoza region's best bodegas are in Maipu, 9 miles southeast of Mendoza, and Lujan de Cuyo, directly south. But there are thousands of wineries and vineyards in Mendoza; you could explore here for weeks.


At the Melipal winery, every member of the family is involved in the winemaking: Mom designed the landscaping; her daughter, Clarisa, creates the bottle labels; Clarisa's husband, Santiago, is the general manager.

Inside their modern bodega, they mess with tradition in a big way, letting the grape speak for itself by making a fruit-forward, nearly unoaked Malbec -- unheard of in Mendoza. Their first vintage in 2003 was an enormous success, achieving 91 points in Wine Spectator and selling out immediately.

Other bodegas are taking similar risks. Familia Zuccardi has an entire winery devoted to experimentation, featuring worldwide varietals as well as organic wines. New blends are constantly being tested, temperature and time are being tampered with, and wine drinkers -- even savvy Argentine ones -- are taking notice.


With the rise in wine travelers to the region, some Mendoza bodegas are pulling out the aesthetic stops. Carlos Pulenta, for example, painstakingly combines aesthetic and function with a eucalyptus roof and a rosewood floor, obviously with tourists in mind.

Other bodegas, like Melipal, opt to make you feel at home, like being invited into the family's living room. They'll tell you everything you want to know about their vintages, from the exact blend of grapes to the number of days spent in the tank.

Across the region, there are few trade secrets. Vintners often float between vineyards, making suggestions and acting as consultants.

''In the U.S., your neighbor might be a competitor,'' explains Melipal's Santiago, who spent time in California's Napa Valley. ``In Mendoza, we collaborate.''


Monday, May 26, 2008

The Rising Dragon & Wine

Top U.S. seller gears up for Asia's largest wine auction

HONG KONG (Reuters) - America's top wine seller will host Asia's largest ever auction of fine wines in Hong Kong this week, betting on Chinese consumers developing a finer nose for the beverage as the territory aspires to become a global industry hub.

Acker Merrall & Condit's inaugural auction of fine and rare wines in Hong Kong comes months after the city abolished duties on the drink in a bid to uncork some $500 million of new business, particularly with the city poised to tap the potential of the huge China market as a flood of newly minted consumers there chase Western lifestyle trends.

"We really made an effort to cull some of the best wines from the best sellers that we know," said John Kapon, the President and Auction Director of Acker Merrall & Condit.

"Hopefully China will become a little more wine friendly and follow the lead of the Hong Kong government ... perhaps make it easier for some of the mainlanders to acquire (and) import their wines back to mainland China," Kapon told reporters in Hong Kong.

The estimated $6 million sale will feature top vintages including a case of 1990 Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, often considered the world's most expensive wine, which could fetch up to $240,000.

Other top lots include a case of 1945 Chateau Mouton Rothschild which could sell for $160,000 and a single large Jeroboam of 1961 Chateau Latour estimated at up to $50,000.

Most of the over 200 registered buyers at the sale hail from Hong Kong, Macau and mainland China.

Over the years, a small clique of affluent so called "super-collectors" in Hong Kong has established a reputation for seemingly limitless spending on some of the best vintages coming onto the market each year, outbidding other global connoisseurs.

Top American wine critic James Suckling, who writes for the respected Wine Spectator magazine, has described bacchanalian jaunts with such Hong Kong collectors including tycoons and the territory's number two official, Henry Tang.

"The profile of our Asian customers so far and their purchasing habit have been very top end ... the best of the best of the best," said Kapon.

Bonhams hosted a small but symbolic auction in Hong Kong last month worth $1.5 million, the first in the city in over a decade and the first since wine duties were abolished. Global auction houses Christie's and Sotheby's are also reported to be considering getting in on the act.

Industry representatives say the slashing of Hong Kong's 40 percent duty on wine will give it an edge over rivals such as Tokyo and Singapore.

(Reporting by James Pomfret; Editing by David Fox)

Friday, May 23, 2008

High-Tech Wine Cap Design

A design for a high-tech closure for wine bottles that would allow the wine to breathe much like traditional bark corks won the $15,000 first prize in the annual Big Bang! Business Plan Competition at the University of California, Davis. The contest is run by students in the Graduate School of Management.

The screw-cap concept, which could help prevent some $10 billion worth of wine from being ruined every year by cork taint, will compete next on May 28 at the Draper Fisher Jurvetson Venture Challenge in Palo Alto, Calif. The challenge pits the UC Davis team against the winners of business plan competitions at 15 other top west coast business schools. The prize: $250,000 in start-up funding.

"These students are trying things that more experienced people might say shouldn't be done," said Scott Lenet, managing director of DFJ Frontier and a volunteer judge for this year's Big Bang! Business Plan Competition. "That's why these business plan competitions are so important. These are the people who will create the next Microsoft, the next Amgen."

In addition to the first-prize-winning cork concept, a $5,000 second prize and $3,000 "people's choice" award -- selected by audience vote -- went to the same team: Arcus. Led by second-year MBA candidate Matt Vogel, who has had diabetes since adolescence, the team is developing technology that would allow people with diabetes to test their blood sugar levels by blowing into a small handheld device -- a pain-free alternative to current glucose monitoring, in which patients must prick their fingers to draw a blood sample two to eight times a day.

The Big Bang! competition, founded in 2000 by students at the UC Davis Graduate School of Management, is designed to reward innovation at UC Davis and encourage entrepreneurship in the region at large. Previous winners and finalists have gone on to form such companies as Bloo Solar, Instant Effects and Improved Converters.

This year's Big Bang! awards were announced on campus Wednesday evening, following presentations of the five finalists' plans. The event drew a standing-room-only crowd of about 275 people at a ballroom at the Activities and Recreation Center.

The high-tech wine cap was developed by MBA student Tim Keller, a UC Davis viticulture and enology alumnus who worked for 10 years as a winemaker in Sonoma and Napa counties before enrolling in the Graduate School of Management, and his teammates, Kevin Chartrand and Diana Mejia. Chartrand, a fellow MBA candidate with an undergraduate degree in materials science, worked as a thin-film expert at IBM. Mejia, a former engineer for Anheuser-Busch, is earning a master's degree in food engineering at UC Davis.

Their team, Advanced Enological Closures, set out to design a better bottle cap because cork taint, a byproduct of a fungus that infects cork and makes wine smell like moldy mop water or sweaty gym socks, now contaminates the corks of an estimated one in 20 wine bottles on store shelves, ruining billions of dollars of wine annually. Although synthetic corks have been developed in response to the problem, they allow too much oxygen into the bottle, according to Keller. Overly oxidized wine has a shorter shelf life and can develop a fingernail-polish odor. Screw caps -- another alternative to bark corks -- are a viable option for wine white, but do not allow in enough oxygen for fine red wines, Keller said. Without enough oxygen to draw on, red wines start to smell like burned rubber or matchsticks as they age.

The team's design, a "breathing screw cap," has small vent holes and is fitted with a liner made of alternating layers of thin metal and a porous polymer. The liner can be customized to allow optimal oxidation for specific varietals, something that is impossible with bark corks. A patent is pending for the design.

"If you open up lots of bottles of the same wine, you'll notice variability from bottle to bottle because of differences in the amount of oxygen that gets in," Keller said. "With cork, you just never know. Our product will give a level of control that the wine industry has never had."

The cap would sell for 20 cents a unit -- or 10 to 11 cents per unit less than cork-and-foil closures, and only 5 cents more per unit than ordinary screw caps and synthetic corks, according to the team's projections.

UC Davis News

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

UK drinkers loyal to wine despite credit squeeze

Consumers continue to keep faith in wine, with many reluctant to reduce their spending despite the gloomy economic climate, according to figures out today (May 21) at the London International Wine Fair (LIWF).

A survey commissioned by the Wine and Spirit Trade Association (WSTA) showed the sector is proving resilient, regardless of recent duty hikes and an ongoing global credit squeeze.

The research, conducted by Wine Intelligence, questioned 1,000 regular wine drinkers and discovered 60% would readily cut back on buying beer, soft drinks, chocolate and sweets before reducing their wine expenditure.

The survey showed that 13% thought wine was inexpensive or very inexpensive, 52% had no definite opinion, and 35% thought it was expensive or very expensive.

Jeremy Beadles, WSTA chief executive, said: “With household budgets feeling the squeeze, it should be some comfort to the trade that many regular wine drinkers will pause for thought before they cut back on wine purchases.”

The study assessed price changes in the sector over the last six-month period. Wine ranked near the bottom in wine consumers' minds for weight of price increases.

Half of the respondents had noticed no real change in wine prices over the last six months, while the majority judged wine to have undergone less significant price increases than household staples such as bread, poultry, cheese and coffee.

The picture for the on-trade was more negative, as 77% of consumers who drink wine by the glass think it is more expensive. But wine trailed beer in the on-trade in terms of consumers' perceived price increases in the last six months.

Jamie Coggans

After Mondavi, who will lead Napa winemaking?

Decades after the pioneer winemaker made his mark, success in the region has become tricky.

NAPA Valley lost a charismatic leader when Robert Mondavi died on Friday. Has the Napa Valley that fostered such a maverick passed as well?

Mondavi's Napa was the Wild West of winemaking. For the dozen wineries in operation in 1966, costs were low, there was room to grow and mistakes weren't fatal. The challenge was to persuade Americans to drink wine at all. Today, high costs have created a region dominated by small producers. Four hundred wine brands with limited landholdings compete for a share of the top 10% of the U.S. wine market.

When Mondavi planted his initial 12 acres in Oakville, an acre cost less than $10,000, according to Vic Motto, chairman of Global Wine Partners, an investment bank dedicated to the wine industry. He gradually expanded to 1,400 acres.

Now an acre of "good" Oakville vineyard land costs an average of $250,000. Prime land can cost $500,000. Most of Napa's 450,998 acres of planted vineyards are owned by individuals, Motto says. Big holdings are the exception. "Napa is really hundreds and hundreds of small growers." Most are economically viable, but no one is getting rich quick, Motto says.

That doesn't faze today's novice vintners, many of whom arrived in Napa with considerable wealth. The cost of a vineyard can be rationalized as an investment in the wine lifestyle. Deep pockets don't guarantee success, Motto says. "More than money, you need drive and passion to succeed here."

Good news for these vintners: Bottle prices have skyrocketed. Motto recalls the furor in 1970 when Mondavi raised the retail price of his reserve Napa Cabernet Sauvignon by 50% -- to $3 from $2. Today, he says, the average price of a Napa Cabernet is $45. A $100 price tag is common.

Getting a fledgling brand noticed among the proliferation of pricey bottles is tough, says Bo Barrett, Chateau Montelena owner and winemaker. "It was difficult in the old days when no one thought we made good wine, but at least you could buy an old cow pasture to expand your vineyards. We didn't have to charge $70 right off of the bat."

Mondavi was instrumental in this transformation, but he failed to appreciate that surviving in Napa had become a high-wire act. When he ignored a shift in critical and public taste toward a lusher wine style, sticking instead to his personal preference for lighter, more reserved wines, his publicly traded company suffered. In 2004, Mondavi was forced to sell his winery to Constellation Brands, the world's largest wine company .

Concern spread that more of Napa Valley would be owned by outside corporations. Constellation already owned Mount Veeder Winery and Franciscan Estate. Australian beverage giant Foster's Group owned Beringer Vineyards, Stags' Leap Winery, Etude and St. Clement. Another spirits giant, Diageo, owned Beaulieu Vineyard, Provenance, Acacia and Sterling Vineyards. In 2007, U.S. Tobacco added a 50% stake in Stag's Leap Wine Cellars to holdings that included Conn Creek. But there has yet to be a rush of outside investors into Napa.

Will one of the boutique producers rise to fill Mondavi's shoes? Without him, there is no individual or institution who personifies Napa, says Jacques Lurton, scion of one of Bordeaux's most prominent winemaking families. "Mondavi not only created Mondavi wines, he created Napa."

Whoever takes his place, Lurton says, will be someone who can transform Napa Valley yet again. "That person will be the new hero," he says.

Corie Brown

InkSure and eProvenance Form Technology Alliance to Protect the Fine Wine Market

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla., May 21 /PRNewswire-FirstCall/ -- InkSure Technologies Inc. (OTC Bulletin Board: INKS), a leading provider of covert machine-readable security solutions ("CMRT") for the detection of counterfeiting, fraud and diversion, today announced that it has signed an agreement with eProvenance LLC for exclusive distribution of InkSure’s authentication solution into the fine wine market in major wine producing countries in the world. InkSure has customized the covert security ink and handheld readers that are an integral part of the eProvenance system to address the growing counterfeiting problems within the fine wine industry.

eProvenance applies advanced technology (RFID and InkSure covert ink) to authenticate and track fine wines and champagne from producer to consumer. In addition to authentication, the system monitors and records the storage temperature, while collecting the pedigree for each bottle in a secure online database. With the eProvenance system, the bottle is secured, the contents are secured, and temperature history can be tracked for each case shipment, thus assuring the long-term value of the asset.

"The portfolio of technologies from eProvenance provides an enhanced level of authentication and confidence for the fine wine supplier and consumer," stated Don Taylor, Vice-President of Global Marketing for InkSure Inc. "We anticipate eProvenance will be highly successful with their integration expertise in France and other major wine producing areas. We look forward to working with them exclusively in this market."

"InkSure emerged as our preferred supplier for authentication due to their ability to provide custom covert codes and highly reliable handheld readers that are integral to our anti-counterfeit solution for the fine wine industry. Their responsiveness and technical capability has been invaluable," commented eProvenance CEO Eric Vogt.

About eProvenance

Founded in January 2007 by Eric Vogt, eProvenance applies advanced technology to assure the provenance of fine wines from producer to consumer using its innovative Intelligent Bottle(TM) and wine temperature tracking system along with its web site, eProvenance serves the rapidly growing fine wine industry globally (1.1 billion bottles) and generates the proprietary information and reports which can assure the actual Provenance of each bottle, thus proving and preserving the asset value. The company is currently implementing programs with nine leading Bordeaux Chateaux, including several first growths. Among its first customers are Chateau Bauduc, Chateau Lynch Bages, Chateau Margaux and Chateau Palmer. The Franco-American team is headquartered in Boston, Massachusetts, with offices in the USA and in Bordeaux and Paris, France. eProvenance has exclusive rights for its technology as applied to the global wine industry, and has four U.S. patents pending for eProvenance technology certifying provenance and authenticity of alcoholic beverages using RFID and other technologies through all stages of the distribution channel.

About InkSure Technologies Inc.

InkSure Technologies Inc., with its corporate headquarters in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida and its research and development center in Science Park, Rehovot, Israel, specializes in comprehensive, covert security solutions designed to protect high profile brands and documents of value from counterfeiting, fraud and diversion. The Company’s sales and marketing activities target a number of market opportunities, including financial, pharmaceutical, branded products, transportation, and government/institutional, on a global scale. The Company’s R&D activities include the development of "chipless" RFID technology for affordable item-level secure logistics and track-and-trace applications.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Rivalry and angst in Champagne expands

The news that the Champagne appellation area is to be extended has unleashed a torrent of anticipation and anxiety among local vintners. Converting a field of corn into a Champagne vineyard multiplies its price by a satisfying 350.
Yves Bénard, who presides the wines and spirits committee of the Institut national de l’origine et de la qualité – INAO – announced the extra communes now permitted to plant Champagne grapes. The current 319 villages are to be increased to 357. Two communes will lose their growing rights. The exact parcels will not be clear until 2015, when all the hearings and legal appeals are over.
Lawyers in the region are sharpening their wits for what will inevitably be a fantastic legal punch-up. Landowners who find that the new boundaries fall just outside their property will try to get them adjusted in their favour. Farmland sells at E5,000 a hectare whereas a hectare of AOC vineyard has been known to change hands recently at more than a million euros. The justification for each new parcel must be based on the most learned geological and oenological research. The land must have the necessary chalky or clay-chalk subsoils. It will take more than weighty scientific evidence to convince the disappointed that they not been robbed by their neighbours.
Philippe Wibrotte, director of the Comité Interprofessionnel des vins de Champagne (CIVC), told French News that the aim is to up production to meet steadily growing demand. Champagne is the highest selling French wine. Exports broke records again in 2007 with 150.9 million bottles sold in 190 countries. The quantity of grapes permitted per hectare was recently increased from 13,000kg to 15,500kg. Since 1927, when the present system was set up, there have been 33,500 hectares round Reims and Épernay in the Marne but with 25% of Champagne actually produced in the next door département of the Aube, near Troyes, and some in the Aisne and the Haute-Marne.
Wibrotte admits that the corks of the new Champagnes will not be popped until 2021 at the earliest, by which time the world economy may be totally different, so the initiative is something of a leap in the dark.
However, he stresses that the increase in area is also intended to pre-empt individual villages following the example of Fontenay-sur-Ay which individually won the right to produce Champagne in 1995 after a legal battle lasting 13 years. He is also keen to emphasise that the extension will in no way be at the expense of quality.
Champagne and legal strife go hand in hand. Wibrotte’s CIVC is eternally vigilant in defending the brand name. It was even guaranteed in the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I. In 2002 they succeeded in stopping the Swiss village of Champagne in the Vaud (pop. 660), calling their local wine by the village name. More seriously, in 1994 and 1995, they defeated an attempt by American sparkling wine producers to have the name declared semi-generic worldwide. This would have meant the name had no geographical significance and was merely a type of sparkling wine, which could be produced anywhere by the tanker load. Champagne lovers throughout the world heaved a sigh of relief when this challenge was defeated.
Similarly, the Yves-Saint-Laurent perfume house has had to change its brand name Champagne to Yvresse. The two villages thought to be scheduled to lose their AOC status are unlikely to accept being dropped from this exclusive and uniquely profitable club without a fight.
The British drink more than any other country – 39 million bottles last year. Now the trend towards global warming could lead to competition in production from across the Channel as well, where suitable subsoils exist. Pancho Campos, president of the wine academy of Spain, speaking at a recent conference in Barcelona on wine production and climate change, said some French Champagne houses have already bought farmland in Sussex and Kent, just in case.

French News

Sparkling Wines

With champagne production stretched to the limits, many other countries and areas in France are cashing in on producing quality sparkling wine. The UK and Germany are leading the way in the upturn in consumption – the former drank around 63 million bottles in 2001.

By 2005 the figure had reached 90 million, set to rise by another 7.9% by 2011. All production methods, except perhaps carbonic maceration (the infamous méthode pompe bicyclette), are showing good returns. Due to automation and modern production techniques, prices remain reasonable – a far cry from the labour-intensive processes of 40 years ago.

In those days the second fermentation took place in a bottle sealed with a cork and a spring metal clip – agrafe. The stacking of wines in the cellars was done by hand. The remueur – who riddled the bottles to shake down the sediment – was the most expensive blue-collar worker in the wine trade. A lot of disgorging of the sediment was still done manually without going through the brine ice-bath, meaning additional care when disgorging. Demonstrating what could go wrong in the process was the star event for many a trade trip. You were told that once the agrafe and cork were removed the bottle was ‘live’. Giving the bottle a firm tap with the disgorging key, the demonstrator would prove his point.

So what better to drink this Easter, a time for celebration, than sparkling wine? Nowadays the choice is vast – for style, colour, sweetness, method of production, country of origin and, of course, price. Between the Northern and Southern parts of the Rhône Valley region, in the département of the Drôme, the small town of Die gives its name to a variation of the traditional method – the Méthode Dioise (or sometimes Méthode ancienne or ancestrale). For the alcohol conscious, it is an ideal wine, having only between 7.5 and 8% alcohol. The area also produces traditional method wines from 100% Clairette with the AC of Crémant de Die (until 1999 Clairette de Die).

Yet another of the excellent independent vignerons, Bérard et Maubouché at Saillans have 30ha of vines in the Drôme Valley growing grapes for producing both these styles of wines. The Domaine les Trois Becs has a fine reputation for quality. The cellars are on the main D93 from Valence to Die itself, with adequate parking, so it is an ideal stopping off point to sample and buy these wines and regional produce.

French News

Wine and food for love

Neufchâtel AOC – Fromage de Normandie
Arguably, Neufchâtel is the oldest cheese in Normandy, 1035 or 1037 AD according to some, but officially first documented in 1543/4 in the archives of Rouen’s Abbey of Saint-Armand.
The appellation contrôlée dates from 1977. Controls on the production and maturing of these cheeses are draconian. They may be made from either raw or pasteurised milk – the latter is more widely used during the winter. The legislation allows six shapes, two of which are heart-shaped. More than half the cheeses sold come in the smaller heart shape, weighing 200g.
Why heart-shaped? Again, legend mingles with fact. Legend holds that the young local ladies, to show their great admiration for the English soldiers stationed in Normandy in the Middle Ages, made and sold or gave them heart-shaped cheeses. The far less interesting fact is the cheese producers had a number of different cheese moulds including the heart shape. But, why spoil the romance?
The rind is ivory white, the heart also white, soft and smooth, with a pale yellow band towards the rind. Neufchâtel has aromas of mushroom and is slightly acidic but mild in flavour. For a good partner, try a crusty baguette and a glass of Saint-Émilion Grand Cru. A Sainte-Croix-du-Mont or other Bordeaux demi-sec also makes a good match.
Neufchâtel is made by all scales of production, from farmhouse to factory, and is on sale almost everywhere in France. The 200g heart costs between €5 and €8.

Romantic vintages
Although the softer, merlot-based Bordeaux wines are always regarded as the ideal marriage for Neufchâtel, many prefer a sweeter, but not too full, white wine – more often recommended with ewe’s milk cheeses. My old friend Pierre Montagnac, a Bordeaux wine merchant, was a great help as we went in search of wine links to the lovers’ patron saint. Here are just two for your delectation.

Château Leydet-Valentin – AC Saint-Émilion Grand Cru
The château was originally named Clos Valentin by the Nadeau family but after it was sold to cousin Bernard Leydet, it was changed first to Leydet-Figeac and then in 1983 to its present name. A second label wine Château Saint-Valentin was introduced in 1992. The vineyard covers almost nine hectares.
With traditional British love of a pun, Bernard’s surname can easily be mispronounced as ‘Lady’, making the link with February 14 even closer.
Château Leydet-Valentin is 60% merlot, 30% bouchet (the Libournais name for the cabernet franc) and 10% cabernet sauvignon. Quality is foremost in the making of any vintage here. The grapes are reduced in a severe ‘green harvest’ in July, manually picked at vintage time, and the bunches further selected at a sorting table. Fermentation on the skins usually lasts three to five weeks. After pressing, the wine is matured for 11 to 14 months in a combination of old and new oak.
This yields a wine to stir any heart: a ruby red robe, soft, black berry aromas which follow through to the palate to mingle with slightly oaky tannins in a long-lasting finish.

Château Valentin 2006 – AC Sainte-Croix-du-Mont
The family of Henri Chouvac has farmed in the area of Sainte- Croix-du-Mont for five generations. The current Henri took over from his father in 2000, after working with him for 14 years. There are now 25 hectares under vine under seven different appellations.
Château Valentin is a sweet white wine which has twice taken the Magnum d’Or prize at the Concours de Bordeaux – Vins d’Aquitaine.
The best sweet wines are made when the ‘noble’ form of the botrytis cinerea fungus has attacked the grapes. Thinskinned grapes like the sémillon are most susceptible, but the climate and weather must also be right. Not all grapes will be infected at the same time so harvesting involves a number of visits (tries) to the vineyards, and expert pickers. Henri Chouvac insists on a strict sorting procedure when the grapes arrive at the winery. With a high sugar content caused by the shrivelling of the grapes, fermentation is difficult and timeand labour-intensive.
The wine produced is pale to mid-gold in colour, with aromas of honey and tropical and dried fruit. It is lusciously sweet on the palate, with a long aftertaste. In Aquitaine, it is the traditional accompaniment to foie gras, but it also pairs well with soft, rich and blue cheeses.

French News

The Minervois takes heed and changes its image

Few wine areas can have had a speedier change of image than the Minervois: from gut rot (from the Aramon vine) to quality in one generation is quite a success story. The Midi, of which the Minervois is a part, was the ‘wine basket’ of France, producing the daily vin ordinaire. Now shrunk to 15,000 hectares, a third of which is AC, the Minervois has seen real progress, having brought in quality vines from other regions and kept the best of its own local varieties.
There are three ACs (Minervois, Minervois La Livinière and Muscat de Saint-Jean de Minervois) plus several regional and local vins de pays. Prices range from €3 to €15 a bottle. Although the Minervois AC allows white wine, 90% is red or rosé. La Livinière is red and Saint- Jean is solely Muscat-based Vin Doux Naturel (VDN).

Le Chai Port Minervois in Homps sells 150 local wines at producer prices.

A muscat and two contrasting reds

The Domaine de Barroubio, close to the Upper Languedoc regional park, has been in the Miquel family more than 500 years. Raymond Miquel, who has modernised the whole property – some 60 hectares of vines – says “My wines are for current drinking or short term storage, using modern techniques but with a quality image. This is what my customers demand and expect.”
Muscat Sec 2006 Vins de Pays d’Oc – 14% alc. Using low temperature fermentation this muscat is dry, crisp, clean and grapey, an ideal chilled aperitif. Dry muscats are very much in the ascendant in Europe.
The two red wines show the difference between the old and the new style wines.
Minervois 2005 AC - 13.5% alc.
is made from approximately one third each of carignan, grenache and syrah, grown on chalky clay. Both carbonic maceration and traditional vinification methods are used, and the result is blended. Medium bodied with aromas of berries, spice and red fruits and a long finish it is an excellent partner to lamb.
Cuvée Marie Thérèse – 2005 AC Minervois – 14% alc. Although also produced using a combination of the two fermentation methods, this wine is made up of 75% syrah and 25% grenache. Much fuller on the nose and with stronger tannins, spicy and peppery, here the comparatively recent concentration on the syrah really comes into its own. Ideal with game and beef, it will benefit from two or three years’ storage.
A lingering finish

Nicole and John Bojanowski, both Narbonne born, made their first vintage at their estate in 1999 and have gained a worldwide reputation for wine quality whether red, white or fortified.
At the Clos de Gravillas in Saint- Jean de Minervois, they produce an AC Muscat VDN by adding grape spirit to the fermenting juice thus stopping the fermentation (often called the Port method).
Douce Providence 2006 AC Muscat de Saint- Jean de Minervois – 15% alc.
This muscat VDN makes an ideal accompaniment to chocolate. Aromatic on the bouquet, lusciously sweet with hints of pineapple and tropical fruit, it has a long, lingering finish. Try it, too, with roquefort cheese.

French News

The heartland of Provence

Range of Château Berne wines
Top : rosé, white, red cuvées spéciales
Front: ‘la Viognier’, ‘Impatience’ rosé

The Château de Berne at Lorgues is a vast estate of 500 hectares, with 80 hectares of vines, olive groves, a hotel, restaurant, conference and event centre and even a wine school. It has been British-owned for the past 25 years and in July last year was bought by millionaire Mark Dixon, when incumbent Bill Muddyman decided to retire.
Dixon, a true oenophile, said he was delighted to have acquired this exceptional property in a very special part of France. His first aim was to continue to upgrade the quality of the wines, the vineyards and the exterior of the estate.

Daniel Guerin (49), viti-vini BTS graduate (Beaune), was appointed the technical director of this daunting task. His first job, before any exterior improvements, was the 2007 harvest and wine making. Innovative wine making has always been Daniel’s strength and with his first vintage at the estate, he introduced changes in blends, styles and even packaging.

Showing me around the winery and vineyards, he outlined his first major changes – in the rosé wines: “Our top-ofthe- range Cuvée Spéciale needed more fruit and balance, and I also wanted to introduce a mid-priced rosé to the list. The name chosen for this new range was ‘Impatience’. The CEO Didier Fritz said it was named after me, because of my insistence.” He then moved on to the viognier produced from the Wine School’s parcel of the vine. Both the style of wine and packaging needed change: “It is now in specially-designed 50cl bottles with a glass stopper. Viognier is very much of a cult wine at present and we have only enough to make around 4,000 bottles annually. Luckily for me, Mr Dixon has already made improvements in the winery equipment, and there is more on schedule.” The three ranges of wines, with the exception of the viognier, take the AC of Côtes de Provence. Viognier, with no recognition in the governmental AC, is a Vin de Pays du Var.
Cuvée Spéciale Rosé 2007
This rosé took a Gold Medal at the Concours Général and Silver at the International Vinalies in Paris. Made from 80% grenache and 20% cinsault, it is vinified using the cold fermentation technique. Pale rose-pink, with a stone fruit bouquet; dry, clean, fresh, with well-balanced acidity and fruit (peach, soft berries) on the palate, and a long lingering aftertaste, it is the perfect example of a modern quality rosé wine. Ideally it should be served at around 8°C as an apéritif, with a Provençal salad, or lightly grilled snapper fish.

Viognier 2007 – Vin de Pays du Var
The viognier is a shy-bearing vine yielding only 20 to 25 hectolitres per hectare. The grape itself is not the easiest to make into a quality wine. This 2007 viognier is straw-coloured, aromatic (dried apricot, peach and blossom), with the apricot and peach following through strongly on the palate and in the aftertaste. It can be drunk as dessert wine or as an apéritif. Viognier is best consumed within two years.

French News

A Modest Glass of Wine Each Day Could Improve Liver Health

UC San Diego Researchers Pose Major Shift in Thinking

Researchers at UC San Diego School of Medicine are challenging conventional thinking with a study showing that modest wine consumption, defined as one glass a day, may not only be safe for the liver, but may actually decrease the prevalence of Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (NAFLD).

The study, which appears in the June 2008 issue of the journal Hepatology, showed that for individuals who reported drinking up to one glass of wine per day, as compared to no alcohol consumption, the risk of liver disease due to NAFLD was cut in half. In contrast, compared with wine drinkers, individuals who reported modest consumption of beer or liquor had over four (4) times the odds of having suspected NAFLD.

NAFLD is the most common liver disease in the United States, affecting over 40 million adults. Previous research has shown that as many as five percent of adults with NAFLD will develop cirrhosis. The major risk factors for NAFLD are similar to many of the risk factors for cardiovascular disease—obesity, diabetes, high triglycerides, and high blood pressure. Multiple studies have shown that modest alcohol consumption may reduce the risk for heart disease. However, recommendations for modest alcohol consumption in individuals at risk for cardiovascular disease have overlooked that these same people are also at an increased risk for NAFLD. Thus, there exists a dilemma as to whether modest alcohol consumption for the heart is safe in regards to the liver. The UC San Diego investigators sought to clarify this important question.

“The results of this study present a paradigm shift, suggesting that modest wine consumption may not only be safe for the liver but may actually decrease the prevalence of NAFLD. The odds of having suspected NAFLD based upon abnormal liver blood tests was reduced by 50 percent in individuals who drank one glass of wine a day,” said Jeffrey Schwimmer, M.D., associate professor of gastroenterology, hepatology and nutrition, Department of Pediatrics, UC San Diego School of Medicine and Director, Fatty Liver Clinic at Rady Children’s Hospital San Diego. The result remained constant, even after adjusting for age, sex, race, education, income, diet, physical activity, body mass index, and other markers of health status.

Research did not provide any support for drinking larger amounts. “We want to emphasize that people at risk for alcohol abuse should not consider consuming wine or any other alcoholic beverage,” said Schwimmer, who also pointed out that, although this is the first study to address this important dilemma, the findings do not address those who already have liver disease and should not be drinking alcohol at all.

“Because this effect was only seen with wine, not in beer or liquor, further studies will be needed to determine whether the benefits seen were due to the alcohol or non-alcohol components of wine,” added Schwimmer.

The cross-sectional, population-based study of nearly 12,000 participants in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) included 7,211 nondrinkers and 4,543 modest alcohol drinkers. Modest alcohol consumption was defined as up to an average of one drink per day of either four ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer, or one ounce of liquor. NHANES is a large epidemiological survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The alcohol history was obtained by a trained interviewer, in a private room, to ensure confidentiality.

The study was funded in part with grants from the National Institutes of Health National Research Service Award (NIH NRSA) and from the National Center for Research Resources of the National Institutes of Health for the General Clinical Research Center at UC San Diego.

The research team included Schwimmer, Winston Dunn, M.D., division of gastroenterology, Department of Medicine, UC San Diego and Ronghui Xu, Ph.D., Department of Family and Preventive Medicine and Department of Mathematics, UC San Diego.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Trading down on wine

'Recession-proof' high-end labels, eateries feel squeeze as consumers cut costs

The wine industry likes to think of itself as recession-proof.
Wine, the story goes, is more than just a drink. It's a lifestyle, and not one that people are inclined to give up just because times are tight.

But that theory is being put to the test as waves of woe continue to wash over virtually every segment of the nation's economy.

Not only are the majority of economists convinced the nation is now in a recession, more and more seem to think it's going to be longer and deeper than previously predicted.

There are signs that California's $19 billion wine industry is already feeling the squeeze. Luxury wine sales appear particularly vulnerable as consumers facing soaring gas and food prices are eating out less and finding lower-priced wine options on supermarket shelves.

"A recession is upon us and sales growth rates will likely moderate," concludes a recent report on the industry by Silicon Valley Bank. "We believe the margin squeeze many wineries feel today may not be a short-term trend."

The report, based on a survey of more than 500 wineries, remains largely positive about the prospects for the industry's future. It predicts the wine industry as a whole will grow 4 percent to 6 percent annually.

But one worrying sign is that demand for higher-end wines -- long the fastest-growing segment of the industry -- has slowed sharply in recent months.

Sales of wines priced from $15 to $20 a bottle had been growing at about 15 percent a year, with wines above $20 growing at more than 20 percent, according to the study.

But those growth rates dropped last year to 6 percent and 12 percent respectively, the study found, citing data from Trade Pulse.

Nielsen, which tracks wine sales in supermarkets, found similar softness for high-end wines in the first quarter.

The growth rate of wines above $15 has been cut in half, according to Nielsen. On a volume basis, sales that had been growing at more than 14 percent slowed to just 7 percent for the first three months of 2008.

Slowing restaurant sales are a key reason high-end wine sales are slowing, said Jon

Fredrikson, a veteran wine industry analyst at Gomberg,

Fredrikson & Associates.

"The high rollers are not spending as much in restaurants, and certainly bankers are not out there celebrating these days," Fredrikson said.

Changing habits

The softness could be particularly painful for the North Coast wine industry, whose high-end wineries have long enjoyed prominent placement on the wine lists of the nation's best restaurants.

The National Restaurant Association has been warning for months that its members are very worried. The group's performance index dropped sharply in March, to its lowest level in five years.

"The soft economy continues to weigh on the minds of restaurant operators," said Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of research for the association.

At Syrah Bistro in Santa Rosa, chef Josh Silvers said beverage sales -- the majority of which are wine -- are down 4 percent so far this year.

Instead of dropping $30, $40, $50 or more on a bottle of wine for the table, more diners are ordering wines by the glass, which run from $7 to $15 a pour.

That's partly because of a shift in their dining habits.

Syrah, where a seven-course tasting menu with wine runs $128 a person for dinner, is finding more people coming for the less expensive lunch menu.

"People are spending a little bit less, but they still want to go out and treat themselves," Silvers said.

Wine sales at dinner are down about 6 percent, but lunch sales are up 14 percent over last year, he said.

For wineries like Sonoma's Hanzell Vineyards, which sells nearly half of its 5,000 cases to fine restaurants, the pullback is palpable.

Sticking to what's familiar

Restaurants across the country are buying about a third less wine than they have in the past, said Jean Arnold-Sessions, Hanzell's president.

That doesn't mean she's sitting on a bunch of wine she can't sell, it just means she has to work harder than ever to sell it. Arnold-Sessions must travel more to court new restaurants to make up for the drop in sales from her longtime accounts.

It's costly and tiring, but so far she's succeeding.

"The market is still there; the restaurants are still there. It's just harder work now," she said.

One force working in favor of established wineries is that many diners tend to stick with what they know when they aren't feeling flush, said John Hudson, brand director for Sonoma-Cutrer in Windsor.

With more than 80 percent of its nearly 300,000 cases sold in restaurants, the chardonnay specialist keeps a close eye on the "on-premise" market, as it is known in the industry.

"I think when times get tight, people go with what they know," Hudson said.

And even if they don't, deciding instead to try something cheaper, Hudson thinks Sonoma-Curter will win some of that business. As people slide down from the lofty heights of wines over $100 and look for value, he thinks they'll settle in comfortably to Sonoma-Cutrer's $40 to $50 restaurant range.

Retailers feel pinch

Exactly how far consumers will slide in search of less-expensive wines is a hot topic in Wine Country these days.

One of the core ideas supporting the argument of wine as recession-proof is the notion that once people get hooked on high-quality wines, they have a tough time swallowing lesser vintages.

But in today's fiercely competitive market, every winery has rivals nipping at its heels, arguing that their wines cost less but deliver just as much.

"You'll see people who on a regular basis have been drinking Kendall-Jackson at $13 and all of a sudden Blackstone is fine at $10," said Dale Stratton, vice president of strategic insights for Constellation Wines U.S., which owns Blackstone, the popular merlot brand. "Loyalty is very low in our category."

Retailers say they're seeing the trend of "trading down" very clearly.

"With the uncertainly of the economy and the future of our country, those I have talked to are watching their pennies and saving for a rainy day," said Renay Santero, wine buyer for Oliver's Markets, the chain of local groceries.

Oliver's wine sales are up overall, but growth has recently slowed and people are trading down, Santero said.

"The recent tone of the industry is that higher-end wines are sitting on our shelves a little longer than normal," she said.

Despite the pain that may cause some wineries, the wine industry is growing and will likely continue to do so, Fred-rikson said.

The weak dollar tends to make U.S. wines more affordable, in comparison to foreign wines, which bodes well for domestic wineries, he said.

In March, imports "walked off the cliff," plunging 19 percent over the same period in 2007. For the quarter, total imports were off 7 percent, he said.

And unlike the previous recession in 2001, there is currently not a glut of grapes on the market. In fact, several years of strong demand combined with limited planting of new vineyards means wine prices are far less likely to drop, Fredrikson said.

"Sales have softened a little, but it's not like we've fallen out of bed," Fredrikson said. "There is no major crisis here."


Obituary: Robert Mondavi

In Napa Valley, where formality tends to be reserved for gala auctions and visiting dignitaries, Robert G Mondavi was and probably always will be referred to as 'Mister'.

'Call me Bob,' or 'Call me Robert,' he would say when introducing himself. Yet those employed by him over the years at Robert Mondavi Winery, others who worked with him to enhance the quality and reputation of California wines, and even some who didn't always see eye to eye with America's most important and charismatic wine figure, typically showed their respect by calling him 'Mr Mondavi.'

Mr Mondavi died on May 16, one month shy of his 95th birthday. The legendary vintner, who had been frail and in a wheelchair in recent years, died peacefully at his home near Yountville in Napa Valley, the family said.

Described as the father/grandfather/godfather/patriarch/ambassador of California wine, Mondavi, a skilled technician and ultimate marketing and public relations man, waged a half-century-long, four-pronged campaign: Rally California winemakers to produce better wines; show the world that California wine quality could rival that of France, Italy and Germany; encourage Americans, for whom little wine-drinking tradition existed, to include wine as a healthy, food-friendly part of their lives; and demonstrate that wine, food and the arts were equal components in enjoying 'the good life.'

'We lost one of the most important leaders in the world of wine, and for those of us in the Napa Valley, it's as if we've lost our second father or grandfather,' said Linda Reiff, executive director of the Napa Valley Vintners association. 'Robert Mondavi was the head of the Napa Valley wine community's extended family - this large, crazy yet tight-knit and dedicated group of people who would do anything to help each other. And that's one of the many important lessons Mr. Mondavi taught us: To always be there to help a neighbor, a friend, our community or beyond. He was one of the most kind and generous people we've ever known.'

In addition to founding the most famous winery in the US, Mondavi is credited with being one of the creators of the wildly successful Napa Valley Wine Auction, and for sharing viticultural and enological research and information with his competitors, believing, as Richard Arrowood said, 'that it would come back to him ten-fold.'

Decanter's consultant editor Steven Spurrier said, 'There will never be another Robert Mondavi. He was unique, and completely driven, completely consistent. His uniqueness lay in the fact that from the very beginning he wanted success for the whole Napa Valley – he was never just in it for his own operation.'

Mondavi inspired huge loyalty, and counted some of the most eminent wine professionals as personal friends.

'I was there at the opening of the winery in 1966,' Hugh Johnson said. 'He was always a great great friend. What was unique about him? He was an amazing, seamless talker – unstoppable. He was always asking questions, trying out new theories on people – and he always had a bottle of wonderful French wine on the table, Mouton or Latour. He wanted to show everyone the wine he was making was just as good.'

'He is singly responsible for putting respect for California wines on the map. Period. End of story,' said Arrowood, who received advice and inspiration from Mondavi in the early 1970s, when Arrowood was a lab technician at Rodney Strong Vineyards in Sonoma, contemplating becoming a winemaker. 'He brought all the wines from California to the attention of the world, not just Napa.'

Arrowood went on to great success as the winemaker at Chateau St Jean, then founded Arrowood Vineyards & Winery in Sonoma. In an interesting twist, he and his wife, Alys, sold their winery to Mondavi in 2000, with Arrowood staying on as winemaker. The sale of the Robert Mondavi Corp to Constellation Brands in 2004 ended the business relationship, yet Arrowood looks back fondly on the experience.

'The whole family was very kind to us, very sincere,' he said. 'The wine world has lost a champion of graciousness and the enjoyment of wine and food'.

Sarah Kemp, publishing director of Decanter (which honored Mondavi as its Man of the Year in 1989) said, 'Robert Mondavi holds a unique position in the history of wine. This extraordinary man, through his vision, relentless energy and gritty determination, changed the way consumers thought about wine. By putting California wine on the map, he ensured the world knew that some of the world's great wines could be made outside Europe, at the time a revolutionary concept. He was deservedly one of the wine legends of our time.'

One of Mondavi's proudest accomplishments was the 2001 opening of Copia: The American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts, in the city of Napa, to which he was a major contributor. Also in 2001, he and his second wife, Margrit Biever Mondavi, gave US$25 million to help establish the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science at UC Davis, which is scheduled to open in October, and US$10 million to launch the Robert and Margrit Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts in Davis, which opened in 2002.

After being forced out of his family's Charles Krug Winery in St. Helena in 1966, Mondavi founded Robert Mondavi Winery on the west side of Highway 29 in Oakville. In addition to the high-quality wines made there, the winery's iconic California mission architecture, educational opportunities, visitor amenities, concert series and Great Chefs program (participants included Julia Child, Alice Waters, Paul Bocuse and Joel Robuchon) underscored the credo Mondavi outlined in his 1998 book, 'Robert Mondavi: Harvests of Joy.'

'Wine to me is passion,' he wrote. 'It's family and friends. It's warmth of heart and generosity of spirit. Wine is art. It's culture. It's the essence of civilization and the Art of Living … When I pour a glass of truly fine wine, when I hold it up to the light and admire its color, when I raise it to my nose and savor its bouquet and essence, I know that wine is, above all else, a blessing, a gift of nature, a joy as pure and elemental as the soil and vines and sunshine from which it springs.'

Jay Indelicato, chairman of the California Wine Institute, said, 'Over the decades, he encouraged a spirit of cooperation for all wineries in California. He helped advance the whole industry, from technical issues all the way to marketing concepts and culture. He was out there doing it all himself, not just designing programs. What drove him? True passion.'

Mondavi was born in 1913 in Virginia, Minnesota, to parents who left the Marche region of Italy for America. The family moved to Lodi, California, during Prohibition and Robert attended school there.

A 1936 graduate of Stanford University with a degree in economics and business administration, he joined his father, Cesare, at Sunny St. Helena Winery, a bulk wine producer. He later convinced his father to purchase the nearby Charles Krug Winery, where Mondavi and his younger brother, Peter began to improve quality there.

During an argument with Peter in 1965 over Robert's purchase of a mink coat for his first wife, Marjorie, to wear to a White House dinner, Robert punched his younger brother, prompting his expulsion from Krug by his mother, Rosa.

So at age 53, Mondavi built Robert Mondavi Winery in 1966, with his older son, Michael. At a time when California wine was considered cheap plonk, the Mondavis made an immediate impact on quality by introducing the use of cold fermentation, stainless steel tanks and French oak barrels to their winemaking. By the l970s, Robert Mondavi wines were recognized for their superior quality and sold abroad.

Robert Mondavi had a great eye for talent, hiring several winemakers who went on to stardom elsewhere, including Warren Winiarski (Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, Zelma Long (Simi Winery and now her own Zelphi Wines), Mike Grgich (Grgich Hills) and Dan Goldfield (Dutton-Goldfield Winery).

Along the way, Mondavi met Baron Philippe de Rothschild at Chateau Mouton Rothschild in Bordeaux, and in 1979, the two launched Opus One Winery in Oakville, a specialist in Bordeaux-style red wines. That same year, Mondavi bought a winemaking cooperative near Lodi that he named Woodbridge, for the production of value-priced wines.

Mondavi further expanded his winemaking empire through partnerships with the Frescobaldi family in Italy, Eduardo Chadwick of Viña Errazuríz in Chile, and Rosemount in Australia.

Seeking more growth, the Robert Mondavi Corp. became a publicly traded company in 1993. Robert semi-retired, though his succession plans were upset when sons Michael and Timothy couldn't agree on how to run the company. Financial problems arose, stock prices fell, and the family was compelled to sell its shares in Robert Mondavi Corp. to Constellation Brands in 2004, a transaction that the family and many Napa Valley neighbors still have difficulty swallowing.

Richard Sands, chairman of Constellation, praised Mondavi's contributions.

'He had a vision about the potential for developing great California wines. Robert was a pioneer who acted on his vision and was both passionate and relentless in his pursuit of ever-better wines, especially from the Napa Valley. He championed the marriage of fine wine, excellent food, arts and culture, and relationships that enrich lives. He was an inspiration and he will be greatly missed.'

Mondavi was awarded France's Legion of Honor in 2005 and in 2006, was the first inductee into the Culinary Institute of America's Vintners Hall of Fame. In 2007, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger inducted Mondavi into the California Hall of Fame.

At the time of his death, Mondavi was chairman emeritus of the Robert Mondavi Corp. With his wife, Margrit, son Tim and daughter Marcia Mondavi Borger, he also owned the Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon-based brand Continuum; the first vintage, 2005, was recently released.

In addition to his wife, sons and daughter, Mondavi is survived by nine grandchildren and his brother, Peter. In lieu of flowers, the family suggests donations to Copia, UC Davis, The Oxbow School and Stanford University.

Robert Mondavi Winery spokesperson Mia Malm said services will be private. A remembrance book will be available at the Oakville winery and at the visitor center at Woodbridge winery in Lodi, California, for those wishing to share a message or condolence. The books will be given to the Mondavi family.

Linda Murphy

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Forget the Glass Drink from the Decanter

Loving adventure and experimenting, just like a monk, I took the decanter and drank my third and fabulous 2003 Chateauneuf Du Pape bottle for the evening.
I put my nose directly into the decanter and slowly poured this great vintage into my mouth and the flavors intensified!
Creativity is so important, do you wonder sometimes how warriors and war kings drank their wine while out on the field? Life is too short and insane in this "new world" . I wonder how Charlemagne drank wine after a battle.


Friday, May 16, 2008

Viewing wine through a Parkerized looking glass

Saddled with the name Alice, I've long-suffered from the inevitable Wonderland reference. However, when it comes to the critical acclaim for New World-style winemaking, I really do wonder if I've stepped through the looking glass.

I shun popular fruit-driven wines just as I do cardboard tomatoes. Others rush to them the way mice rush to sugar. Are we really tasting the same wines? Is my palate so peculiar? Or have others had their taste buds brainwashed?

It occurs to me that larger forces might be at play, pushing these bold flavors, especially when a respected winemaker gets publicly paddled for making wine in a restrained style. And especially when it's a vintner whose wines were previously lauded, like Steve Edmunds of Berkeley's Edmunds St. John winery.

I first experienced Edmunds' wine in the form of his Port O'Call New World Red. This was back at a 1989 wedding in the Berkeley hills, and it was everything I used to like about what California could produce. The grapes in the wine were identifiable as a Rhone-style blend with the taste of those lovely soft, barely cooked mi-cuit prunes from Provence, and didn't skimp on tannic structure, but it also had that California brightness.

Uber critic Robert M. Parker Jr. liked it as well. In his early criticism, he heaped on praise, calling Edmunds St. John perhaps the "finest practitioner" of Californians working with Rhone grapes. He remained an Edmunds supporter for nearly two decades, even stating in a 1994 write-up, "I love this guy's wines." But something started to turn. Parker's current notes might say more about where the critic is now, than Edmunds.

A couple of years back I traveled from New York to Paso Robles, on assignment researching the region's wines and attending Hospice du Rhone, an annual celebration of Rhone grapes. I'm a redhead who melts in the heat, and the sauna-like conditions on the day of the gala tasting - reminiscent of the real Rhone Valley - made me weak. I gulped some ice water and revived the old curmudgeon within as I grumbled, "OK, there must be something I can tolerate in this room."

A few wineries impressed me - Pipestone, Adelaida and Tablas Creek. But California generally is out of my usual taste preference. Still, I was there to experience the scenery, so I sidestepped the exhibiting French vignerons and made rounds of the locals. Right next to where the hefty wines of Turley Wine Cellars were being poured was their polar opposite: Edmunds St. John. With graying blond hair and vintage pre-'90s spectacles, Steve Edmunds, a boyish 58, had a get-me-out-of-here-and-put-a-guitar-in-my-hand kind of demeanor.

I took a sip of his Los Robles Red Viejos Rozet Vineyards Paso Robles from the 2000 vintage. I liked it and was so relieved to find Edmunds' mark of restraint still stamped on the wine. The 2001 Basseti Vineyard Syrah was next, all sunny and tasting of olive, with well-knit tannin. Good and healthy tannin. "There's hope," I thought.

But not everyone shares my love of tannin, like the guy tasting next to me. He asked Edmunds: "Is this ever going to open up?"

Like Edmunds' way of dressing, or his eyeglasses, little has changed in his winemaking. He still doesn't have his own winery. He buys his fruit from trusted sources. He approaches the wines as he has for more than 20 years. The dirt the grapes grew in did not change; neither did Edmunds' approach to the grapes. He still interprets the parcels he uses, with vintage and maturity being the only variables. He picks earlier than most and has never bowed to the gods of new oak. His aim is to work with the power of California fruit and not, as is popular today, augment it. The wine was plenty open for me. I directed Mr. Closed Wine to Turley.

Parker on the attack
Though Edmunds enjoyed Parker's praise, his scores never made it to the cult status of 95 points or higher. Since his first vintage in 1987, Edmunds' restrained style has made him an unsung hero for those who believe California should lower the sugar and lift the personality in its wines. But in Parker's eyes, Edmunds seemingly started to falter in 2004 and cracked in the 2005 vintage, when Parker slammed him with damning scores ranging from 84 to 87. Where in years past, even middling scores for Edmunds were accompanied by glowing prose, this time the words stung.

In the August 2007 Wine Advocate Parker wrote, "What Steve is doing appears to be a deliberate attempt to make French-styled wines. Of course California is not France and therein may suggest the problem. If you want to make French wine, do it in France."

"Wow," I thought, "wine critic on the attack." Criticizing a wine for trying to be French? As Edmunds has said, he does not want to augment the power that is natural to California. Was he punished for elegance or has America and its most favored critic forgotten the beauty of restraint? The personal attack seemed out of line, more like a spurned lover. There were also some choice words that would quickly lay me flat on a shrink's couch if they were used about a piece of my writing: "innocuous effort," "one-dimensional," "superfluous."

Was Parker was playing the Wonderland Duchess, screaming, "Off with his head"? Parker's style has been quick to laud and hesitant to criticize. This show of displeasure was highly out of character. The words indicated offense, but what could be offensive? Did Edmunds disappoint by not succumbing to a preference for jam and oak? Was this to be a cautionary tale to those who take a stand against non-Parkerized wines?

I wanted to inquire what Edmunds' thought of it all. Before we met up for dinner this March, I retasted some 2005s. I found the 2005 Parmelee Hills compelling, with touches of mint, the deep smoked blueberry of Syrah and a definite touch of granite in the rain. The wine had opened more than the last time I had it and was far from superfluous or innocuous.

In fact, over the next few days it opened up and showed even more complexity. The Red Neck 101 Eaglepoint Ranch, which Parker said had a "superficial personality," sang with cocoa, forest and plum. Both of these wines were quite closed when I last tasted them five months previous. Edmunds' wines need some time. Sometimes a few months. Parker is an experienced taster, shouldn't he have known this? (I would have contacted Parker, but I suspected he wouldn't take the call.)

I kicked off the Edmunds evening with a brilliant skid on the slick floor of New York's Gramercy Tavern restaurant that landed me right on my butt. As I nursed my wounds over a bottle of Beaujolais, Edmunds told me he, too, was mystified by the Parker debacle. It occurred to him that somehow he offended the critic. Perhaps it was a discussion of Syrah on Parker's Web site. "I said that I hoped that Syrah didn't get turned into an SUV, and Parker popped in on the thread and called me a wimp."

Vintner sticks to his guns
But there is evidence of discontent in the wings. Despite Edmunds' spanking, I'm hopeful that others might have the spunk to lower the dial on the fruit and expose the complexity California wine can have.

"Plenty of people offered me encouragement," Edmunds said, "for being willing to take such a beating for not making the style of wine that Parker seems to demand."

What helped ease the pain was that far from worrying about hurting his sales, Edmunds' East Coast sales rep sent out a mailing that said: "Edmunds St. John scores mediocre points in the Wine Advocate!"

And the wine sold like hotcakes.

Maybe I'm not in Wonderland after all.

Alice Feiring