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

Viniculture is helping lift Latin America out of poverty

South America is not one continent, but two. There is the continent of polo-playing, culture-loving exiles, whose life is a rehearsal for an imagined Europe. And there is the continent of the impoverished shanty towns and half-tamed jungle, where Maoist guerrillas and ruthless drug barons compete for control.

Wine is produced in one of those continents, but not in the other. When did you last have a glass of Venezuelan Chardonnay or Colombian Pinot Noir? But turn to Chile or Argentina, and you encounter wine made to European standards by people who are often themselves recent imports from the Old Continent.

This does not mean, however, that the wines from these countries are all produced by well-heeled consultants on vast estates in enviable surroundings. There is poverty enough in Chile and Argentina. And as the best wine is often produced on poor soil in harsh conditions, it is quite likely that, by buying it, you are doing the best that you can for a family of struggling peasants.

This is the case with the wines of the Riojana winery in the remote town of Chilecito in northern Argentina, a place of high altitude, impoverished soil and sparse rainfall where a few farmers have subsisted for generations on small parcels of thankless land. The winery hopes to lift these farmers out of poverty, and has earned the right to export their product under the Fairtrade label.

The wine - named after Saint Florentina, sister to the great bishop Isidore of Seville - is a bargain for you, as much as for the farmers. Of the two well-made examples on offer from Corney & Barrow, our preference went to the Chardonnay - unoaked, but with strong mineral structure beneath the garlands of flower and fruit. Not that the Pinot Gris is without appeal - though very much the standard appeal of that city tipple, and the way for well-heeled girls about town to do their bit for the Andean farmers.

The two wines from Chile come from the historic Maipo Valley, where cool breezes from the Pacific, circling around the baked slopes of the foothills, produce a microclimate perfectly adapted to the production of strong, dark wines from the Bordeaux varietals. Of the two on offer, we marginally preferred the Cabernet Sauvignon: a heady wine with a full backing of tannin, and a tobacco-leaf aroma that reminded me of the days before political correctness when that aroma could be encountered in bars, restaurants and offices across the country, and when solitary comfort was available to anyone anywhere, at the striking of a match.

In those days, however, wine was expensive, Chilean wine had not been discovered, and there was no doorway off our city streets through which you could duck your way to a quick glass of it. Losing one comfort, we have gained another. Cheers.

Roger Scruton

Gallo Most Powerful Global Wine Brand

Gallo is the most popular global brand with Hardy's of Australia being the runner up, with USA owning the maximum Top 100 wine brands, though no brand has made it to the top 10 slots in the spirit and wine category, declares an annual independent survey.

Compiled by Intangible Business, the report titled 'The Power 100- The World's Most Powerful Spirits and Wine Brands 2008' has evaluated over 10,000 brands across the world.

The brand numbering is based on the assessment of both the financial contribution of each brand alongside their strength in the eyes of the consumer.

Smirnoff has been adjudged as the top brand overall followed by Johnny Walker.

Intangible Business is the world's leading independent brand valuation consultancy, specialising in the valuation and development of brands. It has valued and advised some of the world's biggest brands from a management, legal and financial point of view.

The study uses a robust methodology which takes into account the consumer's perception of brand strength and its financial performance. A panel of leading international drinks experts score each brand on a variety of measures and these scores are combined with hard volume data to create a league table of the most powerful international drinks brands in the world.

Here are the wine brands that find a spot in the Top 100 spirits and wine brands:

1. Gallo Gallo USA 18
2. Hardy's Constellation Australia 19
3. Concha Y Toro Concha Y Toro Chile 21
4. Robert Mondavi Constellation USA 36
5. Yellow Tail Casella Wines Australia 38
6. Beringer Fosters USA 44
7. Jacobs Creek Pernod Ricard Australia 47
8. Sutton Home Trinchero Family Est. USA 52
9. Lindemans Foster Australia 60
10. Blossom Hills Diageo USA 63
11. Wolf Blass Fosters Australia 75
12. Kendal Jackson Brown-Forman USA 82
13. Banrock Station Hardy Wine Co. USA 83
14. Penfolds Fosters Australia 84
15. Inglenook Robert Mondavi USA 86
16. Torres Torres Spain 88
17. Kumala Vincor Int. South Africa 98

Chile, Spain and South Africa seem to be the party spoilers for the USA and Australia who have virtual brand monotony.

France may not enjoy the brand popularity in the still wine section but has a near monopoly in the sparkling wine sector with only Freixenet (49) and Martini (100) give some competition to Champagne brands.

Moet Chandon is the obvious king (14). Other brands enjoying a spot in the Top 100 Spirits and Wine Brands are Veuve Clicquot (26) also owned by LVMH. Other brands at the fag end of the ceremonial parade are Laurent Perrier (73), Piper Heidsieck (74), Mumm (76), Dom Perignon (79), Taittinger (91) and Nicolas Feuillatte (99).

Quit Struggling with the cork! Enjoy wine in a box! At least they do!

"Boxed wines cost less, keep longer, and open easier than regular bottles.
Box wines (also known as boxed wines) have become popular in recent years because they hold more wine than a single bottle, are light and recyclable, easy to open and reseal, chill quickly, and won't break if you drop them."

Quote By Jeffery Lindenmuth

Photo (College Kids)

German Research Identifies Wine Phenolics

Braunschweig, Germany -- Winegrapes have long been known to contain healthful properties, and in recent years, these have been the subject of research around the globe. Bioactive wine constituents including anthocyanins and resveratrol also contribute to wine's sensory properties. For the past 25 years, Dr. Peter Winterhalter has been performing wine-related research at the Institute of Food Chemistry at the Technical University of Braunschweig in Germany. When his team started, "There were excellent techniques available for the volatile compounds/flavor compounds (in wine), but what was missing was a gentle methodology by which the aroma progenitors/precursers could be analyzed," he told Wines & Vines via e-mail.

"A major amount of the aroma of wine is present in a nonvolatile form, and during wine production and storage, these compounds are converted to the volatiles, i.e., the aroma active compounds. We therefore needed a gentle and preparative method by which we could handle these labile (unstable) progenitors."

This was the starting point of the team's work with countercurrent chromatography (CCC), the topic of the Honorary Research Lecture that Winterhalter will present at the American Society for Enology & Viticulture's (ASEV) annual meeting in June. Given that much of the program at the Portland, Ore., event will be devoted to sensory analysis of wine and grapes, Winterhalter was an apt choice as presenter.

In a brief abstract of his lecture, "Application of Countercurrent Chromatography in Wine Research and Wine Analysis," Winterhalter described CCC as: "One of the few liquid chromatographic techniques that can be predictably scaled up from analytical to process scale. This technique is ideally suited to the analysis of polar wine constituents."

The principle of CCC "is like a separation funnel that operates under extremely gentle conditions and is also preparative," he added. "In this regard, we could enrich minor or even trace compounds, and we were in many cases able to clarify the structure of important wine aroma precursers." Among those cited were TDN ("petrol note") and wine lactone.

"We also applied this technique to the analysis of phenolic compounds in white wine," Winterhalter continued. "Due to the preparative capabilities of CCC, we were able to work up large amounts of a polar Riesling extract. We ended up with roughly 100 identified structures, approximately 50 of them being identified for the first time in wine."

Since then, the team has scaled-up the technique and now can perform separations on the kilogram scale. The preparative version of CCC, Winterhalter explained, "is mainly used for the study of bioactive wine constituents (such as) anthocyanins or resveratrol derivatives.

"For thorough studies into the mechanism of cancer prevention of these compounds, large amounts of pure specimens are required, and these testing substances have also been isolated by using CCC," he said.

In the first part of his lecture, Winterhalter will explain CCC instrumentation and its application to the analysis of labile aroma precursors, antioxidants and anthocyanins. In the latter part, he'll describe novel centrifugal precipitation chromatography for the fractionation of polymeric wine constituents and describe the scale-up of the technique for separations in the 10-100 gram range, according to ASEV's preview material.

Jane Firstenfeld