Sunday, August 31, 2008

Bottle Shock

By some coincidence, the movie Bottle Shock was released on the day I went to California’s Napa Valley. Bottle Shock, a small but generally well-reviewed film starring such dependable B-listers as Bill Pullman and Alan Rickman, tells the story of one of the wine world’s most famous events: the so-called Judgement of Paris. In 1976, a young British wine dealer called Steven Spurrier who had failed to make much headway in cracking the French wine establishment had a bright idea.

The wines of California were growing in popularity across the Atlantic. But they were still derided by the French. Supposing he organised a blind tasting at which French wine experts judged French and Californian wines? The experts would not be told which wines they were trying. But if their dismissal of California wines was based on a genuine inferiority of taste, then that should not matter. The wines would come out bottom at the tasting anyway.

Spurrier managed to persuade the French experts to agree. And predictably, not only did California wines come out on top in many cases but it was also clear that the French really could not tell the difference. In one celebrated case, a French expert declared “what a relief it is to drink a good French wine” while drinking one from California. A journalist from an American newsmagazine was present at the tasting and his story made waves in the US. Other papers picked up the news and though the French stuck to their view, the Paris tasting gave California wine-makers the confidence to go ahead and compete forcefully on the world stage.

It is an unlikely subject for a Hollywood movie though given the recent success of Sideways and Mondovino perhaps wine is such a hot subject that people will want to see the movie anyway. And if the film makes him famous among a wider audience, Spurrier may not mind that Alan Rickman plays him with what the New York Times critic describes as a “parched low voice and an air of beleaguered pomposity.”

I thought of Bottle Shock because the French have not really changed their minds about California wine. They may be polite about it in public and may even have invested in California vineyards but the private disdain persists. The French criticism of California wines are based around the following points: n French wine is an agricultural product. Its quality depends largely on the soil on which the grapes are grown. The great Bordeaux vineyards, for instance, such names as Mouton, Lafitte or Haut Brion, have been renowned for producing excellent wine for centuries. This is because the vineyards themselves have such perfect soil that the grapes that grow there will yield amazing wine.

California wine, the French say, is an industrial product. There are few historically revered vineyards. Many famous wines are grown on land that its owners have purchased over the last ten or twenty years. In Napa, the producers don’t even grow all their own grapes but buy them from local farmers. So where is the sense of an agricultural product emerging from special soil? These wines are not based on the vineyard but on the brand name. Wine makers use science and tricks to create ‘special’ wines from ordinary grapes. n French wines are about elegance. California wines are about power. Ever since the influential wine writer Robert Parker began laying down the law, California wines have become more and more intense and full of fruit. Such wines, say the French, lack the subtlety of truly great wines. Speaking for myself, I have little time for old world snobbery and the French claim to historical prominence. If a wine is good, how does it matter how old the vineyard is?

On the other hand, I do tend to prefer the elegance of French wines over many of the fruit bombs that come out of California. Also, I don’t think that the French tendency to treat wine as an agricultural product is mere hype. Visiting the Burgundy vineyards, I saw myself how seriously the wine-makers took the soil. Often they would argue that the wine from the first row of grapes would be better than the wine from the second and third because the soil was better in the front. It is hard for the Californians to take that line because they don’t treat their vineyards as being that special. California wine makers dispute some of this. Besides, they argue, if French wine is so much better, then why did Baron Philippe de Rothschild, the owner of Mouton Rothschild, one of the great wines of Bordeaux, rush to make wine in California?

There are trendier, more expensive and better wines in California but few have the historical importance of Opus One. In 1978, Robert Mondavi, the leading California wine figure (he died a few months ago) was invited to Mouton by Philippe de Rothschild. Baron Philippe proposed a joint venture in California. Mondavi agreed and the two men set up a 50-50 partnership.

In 1981 Mondavi sold 35 acres of one of his vineyards in the Napa Valley to the venture. In 1983, another 50 acres were purchased. And in 1984, they acquired a 49-acre vineyard. Altogether, the venture had 134 acres. But there was no sense of designated vineyards with great soil like Mouton. Philippe de Rothschild called the wine Opus One and it quickly went on to get the highest prices ever for a California wine. The wine was subtler than many of its California contemporaries but the prices were a consequence of the brand values of Mondavi and Rothschild.

These days, Opus One is rarely talked of in the same breath as such great California names as Screaming Eagle or Harlan Estate but it remains one of the big boys. Its wines seem to me to be too intensely fruit-flavoured to bear comparison with Mouton itself but such is Robert Parker’s influence that even Bordeaux wine makers are making more intense wines so some of the old California-Bordeaux distinctions have broken down.

The winery itself is beautiful and they gave me both the 2001 and the 2004 vintages to drink. I thought both wines were very good but nobody I spoke to at the winery had any answer to the question about the importance of soil. If the Rothschilds believe they can produce great wine by buying parcels of land all over California, then what makes Mouton so great? In France, the Rothschilds make a different claim. They say that their wine is exceptional because Mouton is one of the best vineyards on earth. Both positions cannot simultaneously be valid.

Among the other wineries I visited was the spectacularly beautiful and hilly Spring Mountain vineyard. Spring Mountain is owned by a Swiss banker who has lavished funds on it, buying two other adjacent vineyards to create a huge estate. I spoke to Jac Cole, the wine-maker and was intrigued to find that his position was closer to the French wine-makers I had met. Cole reckons that good wine is a creation of ‘terroir,’ of the soil and the temperature mainly. He grows his grapes all over the vineyards and then harvests them in lots. He made me taste the wine from four different lots to demonstrate how the same grapes could yield such different wines in the same year only because they were cultivated a few hundred yards apart from each other. Of course he was right. There were huge variations in taste between each lot which he attributed to the soil, to altitude and temperature (parts of the vineyard are cooler than the rest).

His job as wine-maker, he said, was to take the different lots and to create a blend that reflected the best of each batch of grapes. “You could say that I am a flower arranger,” he said. “I arrange flowers that have already been grown.” Later, he expanded that to include the image of himself as a conductor of an orchestra. But even then, he conceded, the score is already written. The top Spring Mountain wine was – to my untutored palate at least – the equal of Opus One. So clearly the traditional, French-style approach to wine-making works in California as well.

But even after I had finished touring the vineyards, I was left with no answers to the big questions. Is California now better than France? (My instinct is to say no.) Does the vineyard not matter as much as the French say it does? In the end, it boils down to taste. If we drink it and we like it then it’s good. If we don’t like it, then no matter what anybody says, it is not good. Wine is about taste. And taste is personal and subjective.

Vir Sanghvi, Hindustan Times
New Delhi, India

Hong Kong, France sign memo on cooperation in wine-related businesses

HONG KONG,(Xinhua) -- Hong Kong and France signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on cooperation in wine-related businesses on Tuesday.

The Hong Kong-France Memorandum of Understanding on Cooperation in Wine-related Businesses was signed by Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development of HKSAR government Rita Lau and French Minister for Agriculture and Fisheries Michel Barnier.

This first MOU that Hong Kong had signed on the subject, demonstrated the commitment of both sides to encourage wine- related businesses, Financial Secretary of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) John Tsang said at the signing ceremony.

Tsang said under the memorandum, Hong Kong and France would facilitate and promote trade in wine. The two sides would strengthen co-operation, exchanges and the sharing of experience in areas including the stimulation of wine-related trading and investment activities, wine education and manpower training, promotion of wine-related tourism and wine culture, as well as customs cooperation against counterfeit wine.

He said France is the largest supplier of wine imports into Hong Kong, accounting for about 30 percent of Hong Kong's imported wines in 2007. In terms of value, French wine represented about 57percent of all wine imports to Hong Kong last year, with a growth rate of 108 percent compared with 2006.

Also speaking at the signing ceremony, the French Minister for Agriculture and Fisheries, Michel Barnier, said the MOU would produce a win-win solution for Hong Kong and France.

He believed France's "unique expertise and large diversity in production" made it the reference partner for wine trade and promotion, Barnier said.

He also noted that with its logistical and financial expertise, its unique knowledge of the Chinese mainland's market as well as the strength of its hospitality and retail sectors, Hong Kong is "the natural wine hub for Asia and is well positioned to catch the emerging business opportunities of the fastest growing international wine market."

Hong Kong became the first free wine port among major economies with the abolition of wine duty earlier this year. Since then, there has been solid growth in wine imports, wine auctions with record-breaking sales and announcements by renowned companies to expand their wine trading, distribution and storage business in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong's first International Wine Fair organized by the Trade Development Council of Hong Kong from Aug. 14 to 16, attracted more than 240 exhibitors from more than 25countries and regions as well as 8,800 buyers from 55 countries and regions.

Bi Mingxin

French wine export volumes fall, but values rise

French wine producers exported less wine in the first half of this year but got more for it than a year earlier as overseas markets opted for more expensive wines, a report said.

Ubifrance, the French export development agency, said export volumes fell 8.7 percent in the six months through June. However, the value of French wine sent overseas increased by 8.2 percent to 3.2 billion euros ($4.7 billion).

The author of the report, Herve Henrotte, warned against celebrating the rich returns, which "concerns only a small category of products, hiding a less euphoric reality."

While fine Bordeaux and other vintage wines are popular exports, lower-quality wines and lesser-known wine regions struggle against competitors from countries such as Australia, Chile and the United States.

And the strong euro, which makes European wines more expensive for U.S. consumers, combined with global economic woes to depress overseas sales at the lower end of the market.

Another worry came from the star product of the French wine industry, Champagne, which produced less than sparkling results with a drop in both volume and value by 4.2 percent and 1.3 percent respectively.

In contrast, exports of sparkling wines from the Loire valley, Alsace and Saumur "were very dynamic," the agency said in a report released Monday.

Vin de Pays, or country wines, lost favor in the U.K., U.S. and Germany -- markets that saw an increase in upmarket wines belonging to the expensive AOC, or Appellation d'Origine Controlee, category.

Exports of table wines were hit by Russia's switch to Moldovan wines.


River cruise with a carbon-free conscience

The route passes through some of France's most picturesque rivers and canals Photo: Getty

The Rhone, like all great rivers, has banks lined with great towns Photo: Getty

The route takes in Camargue, famous for its beautiful horses Photo: Getty

Fine French wines and cheeses keep the passengers thoroughly content

On a luxury barge holiday in the South of France Max Davidson finds that fun can coexist with planetary survival.

What goes at 200mph, then 2mph, is fuelled by fine French wine and leaves no footprint? Answer: a “carbon-neutral France” holiday devised by a tour operator with an eye for the eco-conscious 21st-century zeitgeist.

No cars or planes for the passengers gathered on L’Impressionniste, a luxury barge that plies the canals and rivers of the South of France, between Agde and Avignon. We may have arrived by high-speed train – Eurostar to Paris, then the TGV to Montpellier – but from now on we will be progressing at the speed of a well-fed French snail.

You can almost see the stress dropping from the faces of the passengers as the barge looses its moorings and the sunlight dapples the water and the first champagne cork pops on the sun-deck.

The 168-mile Canal du Midi, overhung with plane trees, is one of the glories of southern France: it was originally built as a trade route, a short cut from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, but now has the verdant languor of a rural backwater. Contented ducks snooze in the shadow of the branches. Swallows swoop overhead. There is a smell of new-mown hay from the fields.

“Look!” I say, as something stirs on the bank. “A rabbit!”

“Don’t say that word,” yelps the captain, Nicholas, putting his hands to his ears. “Not on ship. It’s unlucky.”

“What? You mean French sailors are superstitious about rab-”

“Stop it. You may only refer to 'small fluffy animals with long ears’.” At which the poor man starts hopping about like a ham actor at the mention of the Scottish play. All very odd.

But what sybaritic pleasures lie in wait for us once the unmentionability of rabbits has been made clear. Our cabin, the Cézanne, is not quite as luxurious as the Renoir next door, but it is light and airy and appropriately decorated, with a still life of Provençal apples to whet our appetites for dinner.

Ah yes, dinner. They take dinner seriously on L’Impressionniste – the only thing taken more seriously is lunch. While the chef, James, works his wizardry in the galley, two jolly women from Shropshire provide the running commentary.

“Our white wine today will be a Côtes du Luberon from the Domaine Chasson,” announces Sarah. “The red wine will be a Saint Chignian.” Two bottles of each have already been uncorked; with only eight passengers to drink them, they are setting a cracking pace.

“And the cheeses…” Bonnie squints at her crib-sheet. “We have a Saint-Nectaire, which comes from the Auvergne, and has a grey rind, and a Bresse Bleu, which is a pasteurised blue cheese produced in the South of France.”

The basic idea, consistent with the carbon-neutral theme, is to consume as much local produce as possible. On the Etang Thau, a salt-water lagoon, we tuck into the local oysters, followed by thielles, Cornish-pastie type pies stuffed with octopus and tomatoes. In the Camargue, it is riz de Camargue and steaks from the famous local bulls.

On shore, we visit the Noilly-Prat factory in Marseillan and, later, a vineyard at Châteauneuf-du-Pape, near Avignon, where a master wine-taster, one of those Cyrano-nosed Frenchmen who could find the spittoon from 20 yards, puts us through our paces.

But this is not, by and large, a foodie holiday. Always reassuring to know that you will be well fed and watered, of course, but it is the lazy pleasures of a canal cruise that etch themselves in the memory.

After leaving the Canal du Midi, we head east, along another canal, towards the Camargue and the Rhône. The plane trees give way to marshlands, and the sea is only a few miles away. A solitary flamingo flaps towards the setting sun. A catamaran glides past, with a woman doing aerobics on deck. An old man slumbers over his fishing-rod.

One afternoon, we take a detour into the picturesque village of Pezenas, where Molière wrote many of his plays. Another afternoon, we cycle through the sand dunes towards the Mediterranean and take a pre-dinner swim. The boat goes so slowly that at times it seems to be standing still. But every day brings something different.

The white horses of the Camargue are famous the world over, but to see a pair of them shoot out of the tall grass and gallop along the bank, manes fanned by the wind, is a magical experience. On the opposite bank, in a timeless vignette of rural life, a thatcher in dungarees bundles up the sheaves of hay, watched by his dog.

The Rhône itself is a great beast of river, far wider than I had expected. At times, it is lily-pond still; at others, whipped up by the famous mistral, the north wind that blows down the Rhône valley, it is so choppy that Nicholas, at the helm, looks like Captain Ahab battling the waves.

Like all great rivers, its banks are lined by great towns, which have grown with the centuries. The second half of the week turns into a kind of A-Z – or rather A-A – of French walled cities: starting with Aigues-Mortes, fortified by the Crusaders; Arles, where Van Gogh shared a house with Gauguin; and Avignon, with its famous bridge, overlooked by the craggy Palais des Papes.

The human landscape is equally beguiling, with our fellow passengers proving a glorious mixture of the clubbable and the eccentric. The young couple from Brisbane are visiting Europe for the first time. The banker from Toronto keeps surreptitiously checking the Dow Jones on his BlackBerry. Lily, who divides her time between Canada and Barbados, is a shopaholic.

On the last night, we have a captain’s dinner, dressed in our glad rags, then dance the night away on deck, under a starry sky, with the lights of Avignon glowing in the distance and the dark, silent river gliding past.

“We shall miss L’Impressionniste,” I tell Nicholas, putting a drunken arm around his shoulder. I was feeling no pain – and, having opted for a carbon-neutral holiday, no eco guilt either.

Getting there
A six-night cruise on L’Impressionniste between Agde and Avignon costs from £2,471 per person with Abercrombie & Kent (0845 618 2213; for Sunday departures until November 4. Price includes Eurostar and TGV tickets, transfers, tours and full board in a junior suite.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Trimbach to produce a Grand Cru

Top Alsace producer Maison Trimbach has revealed that it will produce a Grand Cru wine after years of strongly resisting the idea.

Pierre Trimbach told that, as part of an 18-year agreement with the Couvent de Ribeauville, Trimbach would label wines made from the convent's vineyards as Grand Cru, where applicable. The convent's name will also appear on all wines made exclusively from its grapes.

For around 20 years, the Trimbach estate has purchased between one and 1.5ha of Riesling from the convent's Grand Cru Geisberg vineyard to go in the flagship Cuvee Frederic Emile.

The new deal gives the producer access to all the convent's vineyards – a total of 7.6ha – and complete control over how they are farmed.

The convent's vineyards are composed of 2.7ha Grand Cru Geisberg (primarily Riesling, with a tiny amount of Muscat), 0.5ha of Grand Cru Kirchberg (Pinot Gris) and 4.4ha spread over the Rotenberg, Ellenweiher, Lutzelbach and Rittloch vineyards (planted with Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Noir).

Along with other acclaimed Alsace producers Hugel and Beyer, the Trimbachs have long criticised the boundaries of Grand Cru vineyards, which they claim have been expanded for political reasons to include parcels not worthy of the designation.

Tom Stevenson

Winery wins fight to stop trees

A South-West winery has won a two-year battle to stop a blue gum plantation being grown next to its vineyard, with Great Southern Plantations dropping the plan amid wrangling over whether the trees’ oily mist would contaminate grapes.

The company walked away from its proposal after owners of the property it was leasing asked the company to end its project so they could “live in harmony with their neighbours”.

It ends the sometimes heated dispute between Great Southern and Yanmah Ridge winery over whether the trees’ oily mist, which famously gives the Blue Mountains its blue tinge, would settle on its grapes and contaminate its red wine.

Manjimup Shire Council twice rejected the plans, a first for the heavily wooded region, after growing evidence showed that “wine taint” could occur but buffer zones to solve the issue could not be agreed upon.

An appeal was due to be heard before the State Administrative Tribunal this month.

Part-owner and Yanmah Ridge winemaker Peter Nicholas said he was relieved but disappointed that the matter was not settled in the appeals tribunal.

“It’s disappointing because it leaves other vineyards hanging,” he said yesterday.

“I think the proof is incontrovertible because the Australian Wine Research Institute has put forward compelling evidence that blue gums do contaminate wines. We would have won.”

Great Southern refused to concede the debate.

“It is important to point out that we have not withdrawn the appeal because we consider that reasons behind the neighbour’s objections have been proved,” a spokesman said. It did not believe there was conclusive proof eucalypts could ‘taint’ grapes on adjoining properties.


Wine Spectator Gives ‘Award of Excellence’ to Fake Restaurant

Yes, Wine Spectator magazine, which urges readers to “Learn More, Drink Better,” unwittingly gave an “Award of Excellence” to a non-existent restaurant in Milan. Wine writer Robin Goldstein is behind the hoax. Goldstein entered Osteria L’Intrepido and its fake menu in the magazine’s restaurant awards competition, paying the $250 entry fee, “[a]s part of the research for an academic paper I’m currently working on about standards for wine awards.”

Needless to say, the magazine’s editor was none too happy to learn the publication had been duped, writing:

This act of malicious duplicity reminds us that no one is completely immune to fraud. It is sad that an unscrupulous person can attack a publication that has earned its reputation for integrity over the past 32 years. Wine Spectator will clearly have to be more vigilant in the future.

No, the magazine’s editors didn’t try to visit the restaurant. But the editor wrote that phone calls were made that reached an apparently bogus answering machine message, a Google search turned up an address for the restaurant on a map, and the restaurant’s merits were even debated by (phony) Chowhound users.

It would seem that the magazine’s editors are grousing all the way to the bank. As The New York Times points out, “More than 4,000 awards were granted this year, so Wine Spectator made more than $1 million in fees.”

A note about the restaurant’s award has been removed from Wine Spectatator’s website, Goldstein writes, adding that a mention of the award appears in the magazine’s August print edition.

Photo by conskeptical via Flickr, (Creative Commons).

Posted by Jim Benning

The Wine Industry's Best Green Shipper Available Immediately

WTN Services(TM) Announces TemperEco-Pak(TM)

NAPA, Calif.--(BUSINESS WIRE)--WTN Services(TM), recognized as the "best in class leader" for providing direct-to-consumer solutions to the wine industry, has introduced TemperEco-Pak(TM), their green shipping option for wine delivery nationwide. TemperEco-Pak(TM) is the industry gold standard in green shipping packaging, and is the most affordable and efficient product currently on the market. WTN Services(TM) is offering shipping containers at $7.50 for a two-pack, $9.00 per three-pack, $18.00 per six-pack and $24.00 for the 12-pack shipper.

Custom made for WTN Services(TM) by Fagerdala USA, Inc., TemperEco-Pak(TM) is a curbside recyclable shipper utilizing green technologies that provide guaranteed climate-controlled wine shipping from point to point. Only WTN Services(TM) offers bi-coastal wine shipping by maintaining warehouses in both California and New York, allowing for shorter transit times, increased delivery options, and better quality control. In addition, by offering bi-coastal shipping options, transportation costs are often a fraction of what other companies can offer, and localized shipping is a more eco-friendly way to ship.

For increased security and peace of mind, WTN Services(TM) also offers a state-of-the-art, ultra contact temperature monitoring option called PakSense(TM). For an additional fee, PakSense(TM) can be placed in each TemperEco-Pak(TM) shipping container. When the recipient opens the TemperEco-Pak(TM), the monitor should be blinking green. Should the monitor be blinking red, the monitor can be sent back to WTN, where data on the monitor can be downloaded and transferred to graph the temperature fluctuations that occurred throughout the entire shipping process, allowing the user and provider to assess any potential threat to the quality of the wine before opening the bottle. For super-premium wines, the PakSense(TM) option is another level of quality control that can protect both the winery and the consumer.

For more information on the TemperEco-Pak(TM), please contact Jen Sims, WTN Services(TM) at 707-265-1514, or visit

About WTN Services:

WTN Services(TM) provides winery clients with timely and reliable solutions through proactive account management, leading-edge technology, key strategic partnerships and a bi-coastal warehousing network to enhance delivery.

Ambrosia and WTN Services(TM) operate under the umbrella of The Winetasting Network(TM) a division of as the resource to provide direct retail access of exceptional California wines to passionate wine lovers throughout the United States. Those one-on-one relationships with wine enthusiasts across the country have provided impetus for creating unique collections, gifts, and clubs with highly sought-after world-class wines.

ReCORK America gains recycling partner

ReCORK America, a natural wine cork recycling program sponsored by Amorim Irmãos of Portugal and their U.S. sales affiliates, Portocork America and Amorim Cork America, announce the addition of Flora Springs Winery in St. Helena, as their newest recycling partner.

John Komes, proprietor and president of Flora Springs, is enthusiastic about teaming up with ReCORK America as an extension of his winery’s ongoing commitment to environmentally sound business practices.
“We have the responsibility to fulfill our roles as stewards of the earth,” said Komes. “We have already made huge strides in organic farming, the addition of solar power to our operations, and the use of recyclable shipping materials. ReCORK is a natural addition to our efforts.”

“Flora Springs is an ideal partner,” said Roger Archey, ReCORK’s program manager. “Their sustainability program dubbed ‘Flora Power,’ fits nicely with our goal to find ways to extend the lifecycle of natural cork wine closures through recycling and reuse. We can add from 20 to 50 years to a wine cork’s usefulness, while retaining the cork’s original CO2 absorption as a forest product.”
Flora Springs is offering cork collection during normal business hours at its tasting room (“The Room”) at 677 St. Helena Highway in St. Helena.

ReCORK America recycling program includes Whole Foods, Plump Jack, Calistoga Ranch and Honig Vineyards as part of a growing list of recycling partners.

Bargain Barrels for '08 Vintage?

A Bordeaux-style barrel from Seguin Moreau Napa Cooperage

Small crop, high prices, barrel alternatives and uncertain economy may mean discounts

Napa, Calif. -- It could be a good year to buy barrels. With a short crop expected, some cooperages may have extra inventory on hand that they don't want to store for a year.

The stated reason is the expected smaller than average harvest--the second in a row-- but the unfavorable exchange rate and rising acceptance of barrel alternatives seem to be factors, too.

The 2007 harvest in California was 3.2 million tons, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture forecasts 3.4 million tons this year, up 3% from a year ago, but most industry observers are skeptical, predicting 3.2 million tons or less, some even below 3 million tons.

"Customers don't know if this will be a small crop, and they obviously don't want to order barrels that they don't need," says François Peltereau-Villeneuve, president of Seguin Moreau Napa Cooperage. "This year, lots of coopers brought in more barrels than they may need."

Michael Peters of Barrel Builders in St. Helena, Calif., agrees. "The frost and other problems are creating a lower crop. Last year was also small, and some wineries still have barrels left from then, too. Many are waiting to see how many they really need."

Chris Dearden, winemaker and general manager at Benessere Winery in St. Helena, says he's personally run into a surplus of barrels. "Some coopers have stock in inventory now, when in the past they were sold out at this time," he says.

François Peltereau-Villenueve, president, Seguin Moreau Napa CooperageDearden, who formerly worked for Seguin Moreau, notes that the big cooperages must plan well in advance, starting to produce barrels for inventory and shipping them to the U.S. from June to September. "They couldn't make and ship all the barrels they need at once. Many offer early-delivery discounts to encourage ordering early," he says.

Dearden also imports wine barrels for Gamba USA. His barrel company only deals with custom orders, so shouldn't suffer, but he notes, "It really hit us in 2005, which was a huge year. We could have sold many more barrels." The wine grape crush in 2005 was 3.74 million tons, an increase of 35% over 2004.

Doug Fletcher, vice president/director of winemaking for the Terlato group, oversees activities at Chimney Rock, Rutherford Hill, Alderbrook, Sanford and Terlato wines. He says, "Most wineries bought their barrels this spring before anyone knew what the harvest size would be. So in general, I think you will just see an increase in the percentage of new oak in the '08 wines."

Peters, like many others, feels that the cost of barrels is a big issue, however, and Scott Harrop of United Barrels in Napa says, "The exchange rate is a big factor in how many barrels we sell."

According to Peltereau-Villeneuve, barrel pricing in Euros went up about 15% in the last 12 months because of the exchange rate. Chris Phelps, the winemaker at Swanson Vineyards & Winery, Rutherford, Calif., says his average barrel price rose from $924 last year to $1093, an 18% increase.

Harrop at United Barrels is now importing less expensive Ukrainian barrels for the first time this year to help compensate.

Chris Phelps, winemaker, Swanson Vineyards & WineryFletcher agrees that the problem is the cost of barrels. "The real problem is the exchange rate. The massive increase in barrel costs parallels the exchange rate."

Another big factor is alternatives to barrel. "The biggest wineries are going to adjuncts in a huge way," says Barrel Builder's Peters.

Harrop also reports big growth in barrel alternatives. "They won't be in $100 bottles of wine, but they're even being used in expensive wines. There's less feeling of embarrassment about it, too," he notes. "The southern hemisphere wineries use them, and they're even legal now in France."

Harrop admits his selling season is usually over by now, but he's still expecting 20 to 30% of his orders to come in. "The winemakers are waiting for the go-ahead from the accountants in this uncertain economy," he explains.

Fletcher says," I don't know how flexible the discount will be for coopers who have excess barrels. If coopers produced more barrels on speculation they are surely stuck with them."

Still, some coopers may not be willing to sit on the expensive barrels. "For those who don't want to finance that inventory for a year, they may decide to sell at a discount," Peltereau-Villeneuve says. "It's likely that some wineries will make good deals on barrels during the harvest."

Paul Franson

Tasting Notes

Chers Amis,

To shed some light on a father and son team who have spent the last 70 years toiling the earth and ending each day with good food and wine. Why can’t we extend the same luxury to ourselves? Thoreau famously wrote that most men lead lives of quiet desperation, but seemingly not so much here in France where I’ve fallen into the pace (peace) of life, which means that work is secondary to life, and yes, I'm broke.

Paul Jacqueson Rully 1er Cru Pucelles 06 is in keeping with the TWS theme of grace and not a 'putassier' wine, which would be rude to translate. We had a bottle of this demure loveliness at Bissoh, my favorite Beaune restaurant, with sushi and a gang of les Francaises who only eat their legumes from the garden and prefer very precise aromatics, minerality and detail - here the unique quality lays within its burst of white flowers and subtle fondue, length, and charm, a light kiss of oak - I would think it was a Ramonet Boudriottes if tasted blind.

For those out there that don’t need to be schooled, I shouldn’t have to mention that Jacqueson is of the finest estates in the Cote Chalonnaise, having established this reputation early on with insistence on hand harvesting and natural vinification. Uncle Clive says they are the best source for White Burgundy in the lower Cote.

From the Burghound:

Moderate wood frames notes of acacia blossom and citrus hints that can also be found on the detailed and vibrant medium weight flavors that are delicious, round and complex, culminating in a linear, mineral-infused finish that delivers excellent length. I very much like the balance here. 89-91 points


Cool climate wines

Grapes grow in different ways depending on what soils and climates they grow in. And in the last few years, a number of California winery owners have expressed irritation that their growing regions’ wines aren’t as highly rated as are wines of other, warmer areas.
Many of the growers who seek a better public image say they are in cooler climates, and their wines are not as full-bodied and as rich, and thus not as acclaimed, as are wines from warmer areas.

This is a generalization, of course, that ignores the fact that great rieslings, pinot noirs and chardonnays usually are made in areas that are cool. But for most other grapes, such as syrah, zinfandel, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, sangiovese and petite syrah, warmer climes produce flavors that seem to be more respected and in demand these days, especially with those who rank wines by putting scores on them.
When grapes grow in a hot climate in which the nighttime temperatures stay pretty warm as well, sugar develops in the fruit faster than the ripe-fruit flavor does. So, for instance, in the hot central San Joaquin Valley, it’s pretty hard to make a “great” wine because flavors tend to be rather simple.

Some grapes are simply in need of warm, but not hot, areas. For instance, you find very little cabernet sauvignon planted in truly cold climates, such as in the western Russian River of Sonoma County. There, pinot noir is the lead grape.
Cabernet can make an elegant wine near the Russian River, but big and bold is what’s in vogue, and you simply can’t make that sort of cabernet in such a cold area. Napa Valley is warm enough to grow cabernet to perfection, but cool enough to keep the balance of the wine appropriate.

And in France’s Burgundy district, where cool-loving pinot noir flourishes, cabernet is outlawed.

So it was fascinating for me recently when I traveled two hours from Melbourne to the verdant Yarra Valley to visit De Bortoli winery and to ask how a winery can survive with cabernet and syrah (shiraz) in a world in which warm climates seem to be in the driver’s seat.

De Bortoli is one of the Yarra’s largest producers. It has 480 acres of prime land, having just acquired 80 acres from a neighbor that was planted largely to cabernet. Yet Yarra is chardonnay and pinot noir country.

And tasting through the latest De Bortoli wines, including the stylish 2007 chardonnay ($25) and 2007 pinot noir ($30), both of which won’t be released until October, I found that these are clearly made to reflect the cooler nature of the region.

Both wines are more delicate and refined than are warmer-climate brethren. And a 2005 cabernet sauvignon ($30) is also delicate and restrained.

Winemakers David Slingsby-Smith and Sarah Fagan revel in the delicacy derby. They say the winery operated by head winemaker Steve Webber is favored by those who love the more European, structured style of wines.

Then I tasted an as-yet unreleased 2007 shiraz ($30), and found it to be distinctively flavored with black pepper and herbs, racy black cherry fruit. It is a wine to serve with food. It demands food.

Fagan then noted that Yarra Valley shiraz will hardly ever make a fat, unctuous shiraz. This is almost exactly what writer Max Allen wrote in his 1999 Yarra Valley wine guide book:

“Yarra Valley shiraz will probably never be able to match McLaren Vale or the Barossa in the oomph stakes — but the argument for it is stronger than that against.”

I love cooler-climate red wines when they are made with balance, and I always find pleasure in the modest yet still distinctive De Bortoli wines.

Fortunately, such wines have other followers too, few though they may be. As much as I like full-flavored red wines, I see the absolute need for the wines of restraint and delicacy that De Bortoli does so well.

Wine of the Week: 2007 Craggy Range Sauvignon Blanc, Martinborough, Te Muna Road ($25). This dramatic white wine has the lime/lemon/grapefruit aroma we associate with New Zealand sauvignon blanc. But this wine is from the North Island and has a lot more restraint that do most of the Marlborough SBs from the northern tip of the South Island. This wine has great structure for aging, but it’s superb now with seafood and Thai dishes.

Dan Berger

Australia becomes New Zealand's biggest market

Australia has overtaken the UK as the biggest export market for New Zealand wines, according to the country's winegrowers' association.

Although exports to the UK increased by 8% last year, the Australian market grew by 37%. The increased consumption of New Zealand wines in Australia means the country's market is now worth NZ$247m (£94m), overtaking Britain, which consumed marginally less – NZ$240m (£92m).

However, according to Stuart Smith, chairman of national wine body New Zealand Winegrowers (NZW), the attempt to persuade UK consumers to pay more for New Zealand wines has been successful.

'The average bottle of New Zealand wine sold in the United Kingdom [is] now £6.47, which is £2.09 ahead of the nearest competitor,' he said.

In total, New Zealand's wine exports increased 14% year-on-year and are now worth NZ$797m (£305m). The NZW expects export sales to hit NZ$1bn (£380m) by 2010.

Erica Loi

The Sipping News

If you had just one bottle of wine to enjoy your last day on earth, what would it be? A helpful resource for any preplanning is "1001 Wines You Must Taste Before You Die." Joining other books in the "1001... Before You Die" series is this 960-page tome, which compiles contributions from 44 notable wine professionals, including Clive Coates, Hugh Johnson, Tom Stevenson and Terry Theise.
Four major sections - sparkling, white, red and fortified - include a wide selection of international wines - from Burgundy grand crus to California Cabernet Sauvignon - listed alphabetically by producer. Price range and drink-by dates of each wine are given; along with history about the vineyards and owners, along with tasting notes. Color photos of vineyards, wineries and wine labels help visually connect a specific wine to its specific place.

One quibble: It would be nice to know when the contributors tasted wines, though part of the book's beauty is that the recommendations are as much about the producer as they are about a particular vintage.

"The producer is almost always more important than the vintage," general editor Neil Beckett writes in the book's introduction. With "1001 Wines," you'll learn about, and hope for, a taste of some of the world's most sought-after wines.

"1001 Wines You Must Taste Before You Die," edited by Neil Beckett

Lynne Char Bennett

Carmen Wines Go Green with Lighter Wine Bottles

There are worldwide concerns for the environment, and everyone is doing their part to decrease the carbon footprint, especially consumers and industries. Consumers are demanding less packaging and the use of recyclable materials in their goods -- and wineries are a perfect example of adopting these ecological measures. Carmen is the first winery in Chile and in South America to follow environmental initiatives which began with the WRAP Wine Institute (Waste and Resources Action Programme) in the UK to create lighter glass wine bottles.

Carmen -- the premium winery from Chile -- has reduced the weight of its Classic tier wines. This initiative has resulted in scaling down the average bottle weight from 17.28 ounces to 14.81 ounces, a 15% reduction that will result in savings of more than 343 tons of glass per year. By using lighter weight wine bottles Carmen's carbon footprint is dramatically reduced, which in turn has a positive environmental effect across the entire supply chain. The decrease in bottle weight lowers the output for energy consumption, manufacturing materials, waste management and also facilitates resource handling.

For Carmen, the lightweight bottle is one more step toward reaching even greater constructive impact on the environment. "The search has just begun to establish the right weight in all of our wine packaging," commented Juan Pablo Ruiz, Carmen Export Director for the USA market. "According to extensive market research, the lighter wine bottles retain the essential packaging functionality and do not affect brand integrity, which makes for a winning situation. When it comes to environmental concerns and wine packaging, less is definitely more."

Ecological concerns have led many countries, such as Ireland, one of Chile's largest wine markets, to adopt strict environmental measures to care for the planet, including reducing packaging and recycling glass waste. As an example, the UK market -- the world's largest wine importer -- consumes approximately one billion 750ml bottles of wine each year, which in turn results in approximately 2.8 million tons of glass packaging entering the country's waste stream each year. Glass bottles represent almost 40% of all household beverage packaging, and reducing the weight of wine bottles will have a major impact on the environment. Decreasing bottle weight in Carmen wines is expected to result in savings of more than 1,875 tons of CO2 emissions each year - which is roughly the equivalent of the emissions from 500 cars!

About Carmen Winery
Carmen--founded in 1850 as the first Chilean winery--has a history of innovation and success. In 1987, the Claro Group acquired the brand to focus in the international premium wine segment. A new winery was built in 1992 and new vineyards were planted to produce the best quality wines from Chile and export them worldwide. Today, with exports of over 500,000 cases to more than 60 countries, Carmen is one of the most important Chilean wineries. Carmen owns 1,626 acres in the most prestigious Chilean growing areas such as Alto Maipo -- famous for its superb Cabernet Sauvignon -- Casablanca and Limarí.

Olympics may help Dragon's Hollow, but importer says it's no gimmick wine

Bartholomew Broadbent hopes Americans will be so fired up over Chinese culture they'll clamor for his wines.

Marketed under the Dragon's Hollow label, the wines are coming from China, the world's fifth-largest wine- producing country, though few of the nation's wines are exported. Broadbent understands why.

"Much of it is very poor quality – thin, green, insipid, lacking elegance and any sort of depth," says Broadbent, owner of the San Francisco wine-importing company Broadbent Selections Inc., speaking by phone from London.

But the potential for the Chinese to make wine more palatable to Westerners is there, Broadbent is convinced.

As a consequence, he joined longtime China wine distributor David Henderson three years ago to create Dragon's Hollow, which draws grapes from a 9-year-old, 1,600-acre vineyard in the auto- nomous north-central region of Ningxia Hui.

The officially recognized Chinese appellation for the area is He Lan Mountain, a desert plateau "very, very hot" during the summer but so cold during the winter that vines have to be bent over and buried with 10 inches of sand to keep them from freezing, Broadbent says.

Broadbent and Henderson conceived the brand to appeal largely to Chinese restaurateurs in the United States, but they've been surprised by early corporate buyers, including American Airlines, which bought 2,000 cases.

Making wine in China has had its frustrations, says Broadbent. They include persuading growers to wait until grapes are mature before harvesting and to cultivate more for quality than quantity.

"The biggest challenge is getting people who don't have the first clue about Western food to make wine to go with Western food," Broadbent says.

Yinchuan, the capital of Ningxia Hui, has 1.8 million residents, but not a single McDonald's, he found. "It's so remote they've never tasted Western food, and they hadn't tasted Western wine until last year," he says.

The population of Ningxia Hui is one-third Muslim, and many of Dragon Hollow's workers are Muslim, but Islamic strictures against the consumption of alcohol are taken lightly in the area, Broadbent has found.

"I've been at banquets with some vineyard workers who are Muslim and seen them drinking. They don't have hang-ups about alcohol."

With many Americans questioning the propriety and safety of various "Made in China" products, Broadbent concedes his timing to introduce Chinese wines to the United States could have been better.

But he's convinced the wines are wholesome, noting that the vineyards are free of chemical additives and that the wines are subjected to minimal manipulation in the cellar.

"We can improve quality, but for purity, they're great," Broadbent says of the wines.

And he does have the Olympics to help spur potential consumer interest in the wines. He makes it clear, however, that Dragon's Hollow isn't a short-term novelty meant to capitalize on these Summer Games.

"It's not an Olympic gimmick. For us, it's a very serious brand we plan to grow quite strongly."

Medal count

So where do Dragon's Hollow wines – all dry, all with 12.5 percent alcohol, each $13 – stand on the podium?

• Bronze: The 2006 unoaked chardonnay has a betwixting biscuity smell and a hint of pear in flavor, but it's soft, more fitting as aperitif than with food.

• Silver: The 2006 riesling is an understated but clean introduction, with refreshing peach and apple attributes, and gripping structure.

• Gold: The 2005 cabernet sauvignon is fresh, young and simple, speaking trippingly of the herbal and minty side of the varietal.

Taylors Market carries Dragon's Hollow riesling and chardonnay. Nugget Markets may soon stock some of the wines.

Reconsidering sulfites

Progressive vintners weigh the pros and cons of the controversial winemaking tool

On almost every wine label, a challenging subject is concealed behind an opaque, almost nonchalant warning: "contains sulfites."

The term encompasses sulfur dioxide as well as many derivative forms of sulfur. Sulfites are present in all wines both as an additive and as a natural by-product of fermentation, and many countries require that their presence be indicated on the label.

Long viewed as a necessary, if unromantic, tool by winemakers, and either ignored or completely misunderstood by consumers, the role of sulfur in wine has become a hot topic. From health issues (see "Debunking myths," Page F4) to sulfur as a winemaking tool at a time when there's a push within the industry for wines made with minimal intervention, sulfur dioxide is in the spotlight like never before.

Sulfur dioxide has been used in the production of wine for centuries - primarily as a buffer to keep wine from reacting with too much oxygen, but also to inhibit microbial spoilage (from bacteria or rogue yeasts) that could lead to off flavors and aromas, and as a winemaking technique to partly control fermentation.

It's is one of the most useful and powerful tools available to a winemaker. "You have to think of it as something that will keep a wine clean and help its ageability," says Mike Dashe of Dashe Cellars.

Contemporary attitudes toward the use of SO{-2} are changing, most notably in Europe, but also increasingly in the United States. Indeed, working with little to almost zero SO{-2} is one of the rallying points of the natural wine movement, a blanket term used to describe wines made according to a philosophy of minimal intervention in the vineyard and cellar.

In recent years in both France and Italy, winemakers such as Marcel Lapierre in Morgon and Stanislao Radikon in Friuli have pushed the envelope on SO{-2} use, simultaneously embracing a traditional approach - no additions of sulfur - while at the same time eagerly cultivating the market for such wines in Europe and the United States with a modernist fervor. As with organics and biodynamics before it, wine made without SO{-2} may be the next trend in the current green craze.

The interest in such wines has extended to California. Though a few organic vintners have long tried making unsulfured wines with little real success, a handful of more mainstream winemakers have begun experimenting with using as little sulfur as possible.

Dashe's daring experiment
Dashe, who makes wine out of a cavernous warehouse in Oakland, recently began his own sulfur dioxide experiment in a new Zinfandel he calls L'Enfant Terrible.

The genesis of this particular wine came about almost by accident while Dashe was visiting Guinness McFadden's organic farm in Potter Valley (Mendocino County) just before last year's harvest. McFadden grows mostly white grapes (including fruit for Dashe's Riesling), but Dashe noticed a small Zinfandel vineyard on a hillside. "It was a light-colored clone and reasonably cropped," he recalls. After tasting the grapes, which he found to be low in sugar for Zinfandel, he filed the vineyard away in his memory and headed back to Oakland.

The next day, Dashe spoke with Mark Ellenbogen, wine director at the Slanted Door in San Francisco. According to Dashe, the two had talked about what kind of California wines might complement the restaurant's food and work with Ellenbogen's Euro- and Riesling-centric list. Ellenbogen said any potential new wine needed to be made from grapes farmed organically or biodynamically, picked early, then processed in a way that avoided high fruit extraction or the heavy flavors of new oak. "We didn't really talk about sulfur, but that's certainly part of it," Ellenbogen says.

After their conversation, Dashe called McFadden and bought all 8 tons of Zin. The grapes were harvested relatively early at about 23.5 Brix, a measure of sugar.

Organic, check; early picked, check. So far, everything met Ellenbogen's qualifications. At this point, Dashe took the first of two gambles, and decided on native yeast fermentation. Then he took minimal intervention a step further and decided to back off on his sulfur additions. "I added SO{-2} at crushing to keep bacteria down, but that was it," he says. "It was so clean to begin with, so I didn't think the wine needed it."

That the wine was "clean" was an important factor in his decision. Dashe felt he could minimize his SO{-2} use because the wine was going into new, clean barrels. The wine's naturally high acidity offered a certain level of protection as well. "L'Enfant Terrible was the first wine that I had ever added SO{-2} once and never again," Dashe said later in an e-mail.

The result is an aromatic and fresh wine that clocks in at 13.8 percent alcohol - a relatively low percentage for any California wine, let alone typically high-octane Zinfandel. "The clarity and precision of flavor really expresses the site," says Ellenbogen, who ended up buying a sizable portion of L'Enfant Terrible's total production of 550 cases. The wine is currently featured by the glass at the Slanted Door. "We've already sold about 20 cases," Ellenbogen says.

Parr goes low sulfur
Styling a wine in the manner of L'Enfant Terrible could be catching on. Rajat Parr, wine director for the Mina Group, has made his own low-sulfur wine called Cuvee Anika.

Parr says the idea for Cuvee Anika came from the site-driven, minimally handled expression of Syrah that Thierry Allemand achieves in the Rhone appellation of Cornas. "I wanted to see if we could do something like that here."

Parr's first vintage of Cuvee Anika, which he made with Sashi Moorman of Stolpman and Piedrasassi, was in 2006. The wine is all Syrah, sourced from a vineyard near Cambria (San Luis Obispo County), one of the most marginal growing areas along the Central Coast. As a result, Parr says, the wine is high in acid and low in pH, with enough structure and tannin to keep it fresh. "It was fairly hearty wine," he recalls.

The numbers seemed to stack up in favor of making a wine with minimal handling or additives. Like Mike Dashe with L'Enfant Terrible, Parr and Moorman added a bit of sulfur when they crushed the grapes, but left it at that.

The duo took things further in 2007. One Syrah, made from the biodynamically farmed Purisima Mountain Vineyard in Santa Ynez Valley (Santa Barbara County), was harvested at 23.5 Brix. A small amount of SO{-2} - about 7 grams per ton of grapes - was added at the crusher, and then the grapes were left to undergo a whole-cluster fermentation relying entirely on native yeasts.

Another Syrah, which Parr gleefully refers to as his flagship "wine geek wine," was sourced from the Rim Rock vineyard near Nipomo in Arroyo Grande (San Luis Obispo County). With Brix levels of around 21 and a finished alcohol around 12 percent, Parr and Moorman added even less SO{-2} to the wine - 1 or 2 grams per ton. Both wines are fresh expressions of Syrah, with bright, vibrant fruit and mineral character. If anything, the Rim Rock feels more brisk, playing its pure expression off an inherent coolness.

Moorman says that although the two sites are completely different - Rim Rock is extremely cool, while Purisima Mountain is warmer but with high amounts of limestone in the soil - they both yield wines with high natural acidity, which eased concerns.

Parr is quick to acknowledge the risks involved with making a wine with little to no added SO{-2}: Stability and oxidation become major factors. "The wines can mature much quicker," he points out. It seems, however, that a wine from a well-farmed vineyard handled correctly and attentively is stable enough to take the risk.

As Parr sees it, his goal isn't to make a non-sulfured wine, but rather a wine that shows purity and clarity: "Exuberance," Parr says. "The wine just shows more."

For Moorman, the greater satisfaction lies somewhere else. "It shows that you can pick grapes at low sugar."

A magic combination
Decisions to reduce sulfur use are complicated. Sometimes they're made not based on numbers but simply personal conviction and the desire to take a risk. Phillip Hart, who grows grapes at Ambyth Estate in Paso Robles (San Luis Obispo County), combines low sulfur use with such practices as biodynamics and dry farming. Hart cites Frey Vineyards, the Mendocino pioneer of unsulfured wine in California, as one of his main inspirations for making unsulfured wine.

"I really like Frey wine, and I love the fact that a lot of people say you can't do it," he says.

Hart, who grew up on a sheep farm in Wales, makes a Grenache blend at Ambyth. As an experiment, he used minimal amounts of SO{-2} for most of the wine (regulations by Demeter, the Biodynamic certification agency, allow up to 100 parts per million in SO{-2} additions), but reserved a portion of it to keep sulfur-free.

While he is pleased with both wines, the wine made without any sulfur addition tastes "even fresher, more pure." The only problem he reports between the two wines is that after bottling, the wine made without SO{-2} suffered from bottle shock, whereas the wine made with a sulfur addition did not.

That problem, however, eventually sorted itself out. As Hart explains it, one of the advantages of making wines without SO{-2} in the modern era is that wineries themselves are cleaner and much more sanitary than in the past.

Like Hart at Ambyth, Abe Schoener at the Scholium Project is another California winemaker with a strong desire to challenge his understanding of how wine is made and where additions like SO{-2} fit in to the bigger picture.

For the most part, Schoener makes his wines without any added SO{-2}, save for a minuscule amount at bottling. Another technique he employs is to allow evaporation to occur during fermentation, with oxidation stopping on its own. In other words, he views oxygen both as a preservative and a component of his wine. Schoener, though, wouldn't be content to stop there. As if to hold a mirror to himself, he also makes a Verdelho with almost no exposure to oxygen. It's dosed with SO{-2} at the crusher, and then again every time the wine is racked or moved between tanks, in what is often called a reductive winemaking style. In contrast to maverick winemakers of northeastern Italy like Josko Gravner, whose wines also eschew sulfur, Schoener credits the inspiration for this method to the clean, crisp Gruner Veltliners from Austria - where such practices are highly common.

"I don't feel dogmatic about SO{-2}," Schoener says. "In fact, I love it - it's so powerful, so predictable. It's a really friendly tool and I know what it's going to do."

Perhaps recognizing sulfur's versatility, and risks, is the key to understanding how best to apply it. That goes for both winemakers and the rest of us.

How and why sulfites are used in wine
1. At the crusher: Sulfur dioxide in the form of a diluted liquid solution is added to just-harvested grapes at the crusher to protect against oxidation. Much of the sulfur added at this stage is effectively used up during the subsequent fermentation, converting into what is referred to as "bound" form, which has almost no flavor.

2. Barrel cleaning and maintenance: Sulfur dioxide was once the primary agent used to clean barrels and larger wooden vessels like puncheons or upright fermentation tanks; in the 19th century, this was accomplished by burning a sulfur wick, which released SO{-2} gas. Today, while other techniques are used in the cleaning process, winemakers often use a gas form of sulfur dioxide to maintain a sterile environment inside of wooden containers after cleaning.

3. In the winery: Sulfur dioxide is often used when topping up barrels that have lost some volume of wine through evaporation. There is a chance that microbial spoilage can occur at this point, so sulfur dioxide (as a diluted liquid solution) may be added as a preventative measure. Additionally, low levels of sulfur dioxide will protect against oxidation in the barrel.

4. During bottling: The bottling process can be rough on a wine, and there is the chance of overexposure to oxygen. Winemakers will often dose a wine with sulfur dioxide solution just prior to bottling in order to keep it in a reductive state, protected against oxidation. This SO{-2} should dissipate over time, although traces can remain present for longer periods in wines bottled under less breathable enclosures, like screwcaps.
Sulfites, sulfides and sulfur: What's in a name?
Sulfite: Applied to a class of compounds that includes sulfur dioxide among several derivatives of sulfur.

Sulfides: Volatile compounds of sulfur that can occur during fermentation. The smell of hydrogen sulfide closely resembles that of bad eggs and is therefore easily detectable.

Sulfur: An element and the parent of several useful compounds in winemaking; in its various forms, it is applied at every stage from the vineyard to the winery.

Debunking myths
There are several widespread myths about sulfur dioxide - and sulfites in general. Here are some explanations that should help you to finally avoid that headache in the morning:

Sulfites in red wine cause headaches. While it's true that exposure to high levels of SO{-2} is an unpleasant experience, there's no hard evidence that proves sulfites and SO{-2} cause migraines in red wine drinkers. A phenomenon often called "red wine headache" is a combination of several things, with histamines considered one likely major factor. High levels of alcohol and residual sugar are also far more likely culprits than sulfites. When it comes to the negative effects of sulfites, asthmatics are the most vulnerable and need to closely monitor their intake of sulfites - or avoid them altogether. It's worth noting though, that many foods - dried fruit, for instance - contain higher levels of sulfites than wine. Allergic reactions to sulfites include far more severe symptoms than headaches, like hives and anaphylactic shock.

Red wines contain more sulfites than white wines. The higher levels of tannin in red wines mean winemakers use less total SO{-2} in red wines than in whites. Sulfur dioxide is sometimes used to halt fermentation for wines that will be sweet, including many German Rieslings. Dessert wines, because of their high levels of residual sugar, have even greater levels of added sulfur.

Organic wines don't contain sulfites. It is impossible to produce a wine without any sulfites, as sulfur dioxide is a naturally occurring by-product of fermentation. Therefore, even wines with zero added SO{-2}, such as natural and organic wines from the United States and Europe, contain small amounts of the compound.

How does sulfur dioxide work?
The exact chemistry is rather complicated, but when sulfur dioxide is added to a wine, particularly at the crusher, it dissolves into two forms, bound and free.

Bound SO{-2} is basically locked up with the various chemical compounds that form during fermentation, and has been thought to have little affect on the flavor of the wine, while the free portion is available to react with harmful microbes and guard against the introduction of too much oxygen. Free sulfur dioxide that remains unabsorbed by the wine can create the smells - burnt matchsticks, rotten eggs - that some associate with sulfur.

Wolfgang M. Weber

More California farmworkers dying from heat

California, the nation's leader in heat-related deaths among farmworkers, sought to turn that trend around three years ago with new laws aimed at ensuring people toiling in sweltering fields had such basics as a water break and an umbrella for shade. But if anything, the problem has gotten worse.

Since then, 12 farmworkers have died in suspected heatstroke deaths, six this year alone. That's twice the number of such deaths in the nearly three years before the laws were passed.

An Associated Press investigation found that an understaffed labor agency fails to consistently hold farms and labor contractors accountable for heat deaths or ensure they pay for violations and improve conditions in one of the most brutal jobs in America.

One recent high-profile death of a pregnant, teenage vineyard worker led the state Division of Occupational Safety and Health to issue a record fine of more than $262,000. But the fines often drop when appealed and have averaged less than $10,000 in other heat-related deaths. In one case, it ended up at just $250.

Currently, 210 state inspectors look for heat-related violations and other safety hazards at farms and all other kinds of work sites. But with just 1 inspector for every roughly 90,000 workers in California, the gaps are evident.

Foul water to drink
One day last month in Raisin City, about 20 miles southwest of Fresno, the owner of a cherry-tomato farm was fined $3,365 for violations that included offering no first aid and nothing to drink except a jug of foul, undrinkable water. But about 20 miles away in Kingsburg that same day, Ramiro Carrillo died after hand-picking nectarines in the 112-degree sun; he had gone home after apparently telling co-workers he felt sick.

"Why did no one run over to help him in an emergency? Maybe his life could have been saved," asked his grieving sister Natividad, who said she also fainted from heatstroke this year after pruning bushes at a San Joaquin Valley nursery. "People's lives are being lost, but sometimes I wonder if anyone cares if another Mexican immigrant dies."

Only firefighters suffer from heatstroke at a higher rate than farmworkers, and no occupation sees more deaths from it.

Cal/OSHA Chief Len Welsh said inspectors have stepped up sweeps through the fields this summer in anticipation of a deadly string of heat waves, and set each penalty according to strict formulas.

"You see people crouching underneath tractors when you go out in the fields. We think workers should be able to rest with dignity," Welsh said. "If somebody doesn't have shade up and available for workers this summer, they're going to get a whooping."

Laws violated
Violations are common: The agency conducted 1,018 heat inspections last year and found that 490 companies had violated heat illness laws.

The AP review, however, found that authorities have yet to collect fines in several heat death cases. In four of the cases, the agency's appeals board cut the fines by around half, or sometimes more.

One Central California farm paid the state just $250 after a 38-year-old man died harvesting lettuce seeds, after the farm's appeal of a $13,500 penalty, according to records.

Welsh said his office has no authority over the appeals process, and said the department that collects fines from employers has been slow to respond.

"Collections has been a problem historically and we need to fix it. I can't sugarcoat it," he said. "People have been dying all along every year for decades, and now that we're finally focusing on it we're finding all these heat fatalities. We're doing all we can with the very limited resources we have."

The highest-profile heat death in the fields has been that of Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez, a pregnant 17-year-old who died May 14. Authorities believe she collapsed because her supervisors denied her access to shade and water as she pruned white wine grapes for more than nine hours in nearly triple-digit heat.

Record fine
Cal/OSHA recently hit the contractor in that case, Merced Farm Labor, with a $262,700 fine, the highest penalty the agency has ever issued to an agricultural firm, and state authorities now want to revoke the company's license. Merced has appealed the fine.

Outside of that incident, however, companies were fined an average of just $9,945 for farmworkers who died from 2005 to 2008, even in the case of "serious" violations. Merced's fine was higher because state officials concluded that its violations were deliberate.

State Assemblyman Sandré Swanson, an Alameda Democrat who sponsored a failed bill to give Cal/OSHA stronger enforcement powers, said the system is broken because employers don't have to fix hazards while the state's citations are being challenged.

"Unscrupulous employers can game the system by filing frivolous appeals," Swanson said. "We cannot expect our workers to endure a lengthy series of appeals, especially when people have actually died from these conditions."

Bryan Little, director of labor affairs with the California Farm Bureau Federation, said most growers strictly follow the rules and make a conscious effort to teach foremen how to watch for the signs of heatstroke.

Heat deaths are a nationwide problem at work places including farms, construction sites and oil derricks. At least 34 farmworkers in the United States have died of suspected heatstroke between 2003 and 2008; 18 of those were in California.

California is one of 21 states that has its own worker safety program.

10 deaths
Before the current law took effect, there were no specific employer rules regarding heat illness although they were required to have an injury and illness prevention program. A string of 10 deaths - four of them farmworkers - in a two-month period in 2005 prompted regulators to toughen the rules.

California Farm Bureau's Little said giving the agency still more oversight won't keep people from dying.

"Is the purpose of Cal/OSHA to induce compliance and protect workers, or is the purpose to collect fine money from employers?" Little said. "Encouraging employers to settle gets the hazards abated more quickly, and gets employees protected more quickly."

Advocates argue that lowering penalties - even when a worker has died - renders the regulations toothless.

Garance Burke
Associated Press

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Intelligent Wine Lover

Restaurant Wine Prices Are Too High

A few months ago I sat as a seminar panelist at the 2008 Miami setting (Biltmore Hotel, Coral Gables) of the Vinitaly Italian wines promotion tour. The panel's theme was NEW TRENDS IN MIAMI RESTAURANTS AND THE WINE BUSINESS. The event organizers selected my topic; the job called for me to present something like the perspective of the online wine consumer community.

After explaining that my connection to the industry is strictly as a judicious consumer, I attempted to enlighten the professionals, particularly restaurateurs, about some of the concerns we wine consumers have. I spoke about Miami not really having a "wine culture", even though there is a great deal of interest about wine and people willing to pay for it. I complained about restaurants generally not having servers who know anything about the wines for which they take orders. I tried to tell them that my biggest gripe, and I suspect that of restaurant wine consumers in general, is offensively high prices.

The message was that high prices hurt the Italian wine industry (and the wine industry in general) because they make it less likely that patrons will buy any wine at all or will buy less of whatever they order. Perhaps even equally important, high prices deter experimentation, to the detriment of wine producers, regions and grapes that lie off the known path.

It's one thing to pay $30 for a bottle of an unknown label of Pinot Grigio, where at least you will have a general idea of what it will taste like. It's another to put down good money for a bottle of Nero d'Avola, a name you saw for the first time on the wine list, particularly when the most the server can do to educate you about it is show you or read to you the sophistry on the back of the bottle.

Similarly, it's one thing to buy a $20 bottle at a restaurant, not like it, set it aside, and get another one. It's another to by a $90 bottle and walk away from it. I issued a call to restaurateurs to align table prices more closely with street prices.

After the seminar, I got some direct and indirect feedback from some of the restaurant owners. One protested that I was preaching against her ability to make a living. Another mentioned that at his place he only charged twice his cost (100% gross margin), so, using our benchmark $10 bottle, he would only ask his patrons to pay $14 (rounding up to the next dollar).

I take my hat off to anyone who owns a restaurant. Theirs is a high risk and arduous business. Yet, I don't buy the party line that to "make a living" restaurant owners need to charge offensively high wine prices.

This complaint begs the question: OK, Leo, how should restaurateurs price their wines? That will be the subject of the next entry in this blog--which I have already written, but need to edit it some more to make sure I don't say the kinds of things that make the wife roll her eyes, as she does whenever I do or say the kinds of things refined folk don't.

Leo Bueno
Miami, Florida