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COOPER'S HAWK PHENOMENON -- I've been to many winery/restaurants over the years. No matter where they are -- Michigan, California, Virginia -- they usually disappoint. Only Domaine Chandon impressed me for both the wine and the food. So, I had my doubts about Cooper's Hawk Winery and Restaurants when I recently visited it in Naples, FL.  Could a restaurant that sold only bulk wine shipped from Illinois really succeed?

Tim McEnery, CEO

Tim McEnery, CEO

It is succeeding. On an off-season Tuesday night, it was packed -- the bar was teeming with millennials who have made this a club and tables were ringed with single women and retirees. Every table had wine.

Cooper's Hawk is the brainchild of 40-year-old CEO and founder Tim McEnery, who launched his first restaurant/winery in 2005 in his hometown of Orland Park, Ill.  Today, he has 10 restaurants, including one in Annapolis, and he's reportedly grossing more than $100 million a year.

One would think that not a lot of thought goes into the wine -- grapes are surplus from California, the Northwest, New York and Michigan, then shipped already fermented to Cooper's Hawk's blending facility. McEnery and his Canadian winemaker, Rob Warren, doesn't care much about terroir or origin, but neither do they care about vintage -- wines are blended from multiple vintages. Instead, they concentrate on offering an exclusive product in a club-like atmosphere and providing a service experience.

Serious wine drinkers are likely to cringe at the thought of drinking such wine, but they aren't McEnery's target. Most of the customers I spoke to were just enjoying the wine and could care less about it's origin or makeup. The din in this cavernous dining room exposed the frivolity of the night.

I tasted four wines -- sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, pinot noir and merlot -- and can say that all of them were decent and well-made. They have generic characteristics and little complexity, but I've tasted worse from other producers. 

The restaurant has all the gimmicks to make the experience seem special, including an obscene decanting device that towers over the tables. Gravity-fed, it aerates wine through a filter. A waitstaff told me the filter is to catch sediments -- from a wine that is probably a few weeks old? It was a bunch of voodoo, if you ask me.

By the way, the heavy portions of food from an extensive menu is decent too.

WHAT WILL THEY THINK OF NEXT? -- I should no longer be surprised when some entrepeneur comes up with one more gimmick to sell wine. For a long time, it was a special glass, a can't-fail corkscrew or expensive coolers. They never made wine taste better, but somehow were suppose to make the experience more special. Now, though, they are messing with the wine.

Two crazy introductions this week: a blue wine and a wine for cats. Really? Really.

The cat wine is made by Apollo Peak and is non-alcoholic (thank God for that because cats are crazy enough when they're sober!). It's actually made from beets and has crazy names such as Pinot Meow. Spare me.

The blue wine is a mix of Spanish red and wine grapes with a little bit of natural indigio to give it a blue tinge. Selling for about $11 a bottle, producers hope to introduce it to the U.S. next year. They are targeting millennials because, well, they'll try just about anything.

Once you get past the gimmick here, what do you have? A stupid wine.

FRAUDULENT FRENCH BLENDS -- It has been recently reported that Maison Bejot Vins Terroirs, a Burgundy negociant, has been caught using juice from other French AOCs in its wines. Its CEO has resigned.

Maison Béjot Vins et Terroirs owns several brands and vineyards in Burgundy, including Chartron et Trébuchet, Reine Pédauque and Moillard.

Although Decanter reported that the incident has sent "shockwaves" through the region, it is hardly unprecedented. Burgundian producers have secretly blended wines throughout its history, but it became illegal once Burgundy established strict laws. In fact, many decades ago it used wines from other countries.

Not only does adding bulk wine increase quantity, but it endows otherwise thin yet burgundies in bad vintages. These foreign grapes used in adulterated burgundies are often coming from southern France and Algeria.

Georges Duboeuf's company was convicted in 2006 of blending his crus from lesser-known beaujolais villages. In 2012, Laboure-Roi -- a historic property I once visited -- was accused of blending wines from other appellations and adding table wines to wine musts to increase volume.

More notably, in 2001 the former owners of Burgundy's Chanson admitted to fraudulently mislabeling its wines with specific AOC designations when they included vin de pays from the Languedoc. The admission, though, didn't come until after Chanson sold its property to Champagne's Bollinger, who unwittingly sold the wines to consumers. Eventually, owners of Bollinger were charged with breaking wine laws.

The sad truth is that you can't always be sure when Burgundy producers brag about the importance of its terroir in making its wines so great and expensive.



GALLO MOVES SWIFTLY -- Fans of Orin Swift were surely stunned to hear the news that the iconic brand was recently sold to E. & J. Gallo. The Swift portfolio had developed a devout, rabid following even after it sold its popular Prisoner brand several years ago.

Founded in 1998 by Dave Phinney, Orin Swift became known for its hedonistic wines with colorful labels. They were massive and extracted, which explains their popularity (not with me). Gallo says it fits with their expanded luxury wine portfolio, but I really wonder if Orin Swift's loyal fans will go elsewhere. Gallo is hardly known for its luxury brands and there is a question whether OS will maintain its individuality. Phinney will continue working the wine.

A large company like Gallo can bring marketing and capital investment to a wine, but it didn't seem like OS needed either. For Phinney the price was obviously right.

UWINE ON THE MOVE -- I knew moving my wine collection from Maryland to Florida was going to be a challenge, but in the end it was more than I bargained for. It might have been easier to sell or give away the life-long collection. But I just couldn't forget the years of preserving this wine for personal consumption in my retirement years.

Perhaps you can learn a lesson here.

There were 44 cases of wine to move. Except for costly specialty movers, there are no commercial choices. Refrigerated trucks -- if you can get one -- are very expensive to rent. They even include an hourly charge for how often the cooling unit operates. Moving the collection myself seemed to be the cheapest and best solution.

Renting a truck or a trailer was out -- no refrigeration in the hot, two-day drive to Florida. Cargo vans didn't distribute air-conditioning well to the back, so the choice was a big Chevy Suburban.  The maximum weight capacity was around 4,500 pounds and a case weighs roughly 40 pounds. I stuffed about 33 wood and cardboard cases in back, cranked up the AC and drove to Florida. I had to stop one night, but the temperature didn't get above 70 degrees.

I'm living in a rental condo until my house is being built. When I got to Naples, I stored the wine in temperature-controlled wine lockers. Because of Naples' demographics, there are four wine storage lockers. You'd be lucky to find one in your community, so I was lucky to be moving to the right community.

 I was still left with 11 cases to move, and they will join me on my final trip there.  

However much money I saved, moving wine has not been cheap.  The car rental was  $400 plus fuel. Storage for three months will be another $400. Building a new wine cellar in my home will cost me about $5,000. 

A GEM FROM LANGUEDOC -- When most wine enthusiasts think of French wine, they think of Bordeaux and Burgundy. Maybe champagne and Alsace eventually come to mind, but rarely do any of us talk about the Languedoc region in southern France. However, there are more exciting red wines with unique qualities coming from this undervalued region of France.  Make it a point to try these wines soon – they are great values.
Because there are fewer wine traditions and less history here, winemakers can experiment with grape varieties and wine-making techniques. Most of the red grapes grown here are Grenache, carignan, syrah and mourvedre -- Rhone varietals that need the copious sunshine that southern France provides.
For many years the region was known only for its inferior bulk wine, but today winemakers are producing serious wine at great prices.
I recently pulled from my cellar the 2010 Domaine Le Clos du Serres La Blaca and I probably should have waited a couple more years. It still had the gritty tannins I remember when I bought it. At $20 a bottle, it was a steal. Very dense with blackberry and black olive flavors, violet aromas and excellent structure.
The wine reminded me to not forget the Languedoc for great values.


TASTING ROOM SALES -- A recent Silicon Valley Bank survey of nearly 1,000 wineries found that direct-to-consumer business accounts for nearly 74 percent of wine sales for those that produce fewer than 2,500 cases a year.

For many small wineries, national distribution is impossible. Not only do distributors decline to mess with them, there isn't enough wine to go around. So, most of it is sold through their wine clubs or directly from their tasting rooms. 

I was surprised to see in the bank's report that the average purchase in a Napa Valley tasting room was $246; in Sonoma it was $123. The number drops off in the Northwest -- $77 in Oregon and $62 in Washington State.

The report found that about 6 percent of a winery's visitors become wine club members, which seems low to me.  More and more people in my circle are joining clubs as states relax their laws regard out-of-state shipment of alcoholic beverages.

I joined one wine club in my life -- St. Innocent in Oregon --and although I enjoyed getting their spectacular pinot noirs every year, I dropped out in just a couple of years. My cellar needed more variety and I had moved on. Like me, most people join a club after having a good experience in a tasting room.

Several months ago I met a winemaker who sold only $200 cabernet sauvignons from Napa Valley. He sold his small production directly to consumers and thus saved a bundle of money. Without a cut for wholesalers and retailers, all profits go directly in his pocket. That what lenders like Silicon Valley Bank like to see -- healthy profits.

Georgetta Dane, Chloe's winemaker

Georgetta Dane, Chloe's winemaker

CHLOE WINES MAKE AN IMPRESSION -- i had dinner recently with Georgetta Dane, the winemaker for Big House and now The Chloe Wine Collection. You may remember Big House from the Bonny Doon portfolio. Owner Randall Grahm sold the Big House brand to The Wine Group.

Dane is Romanian-born and came to the United States on a lark in the late 1990s  -- her husband and four buddies applied for an immigration lottery after consuming a few beers. He won and took Georgetta and their newborn son to California. Neither spoke any English, but managed to find jobs at Kendall-Jackson.

Georgetta eventually landed with the Wine Group and is now focused on the Chloe brand.

"Chloe" is as popular for dogs as it is girls, but it also is a marketing tool for the wine's primary audience: millennial women. A bow tie on the label and wines associated with celebration and fun -- prosecco, pinot grigio and rose -- make it a hit at female socials.

I liked the prosecco because Dane reduced the sugar content and the pinot grigio because of a tantalizing mineral thread and  balanced acidity. 

These wines should be easy to find and are rightly priced between $12 and $15. And you don't have to be a female to enjoy them.

A WINE FOR MEMORIAL DAY--If you looking for a fitting wine to honor the fallen servicemen this Memorial Day, consider the 2013 Purple Heart Red Wine ($20). A blend of merlot and cabernet sauvignon, it is a creation of winemaker and Vietnam veteran Ray Coursen. Great grilling wine.  The winery, a new label of C. Mondavi,  gives annually to the Purple Heart Foundation

NICE TEETH YOU GOT -- Several years ago my dentist cornered me about the effects of red wine on teeth. I thought it odd that he was asking me, but apparently he had a patient who had a serious problem.  Red wine's potent acidity can do a number on the buckies.

A recent report on BBC, the effects of red wine on teeth are exacerbated when you brush your teeth after drinking it. Who knew? According to the report, "Leaving time before brushing teeth gives the enamel a chance to recover from the acid attack and makes it less susceptible to being brushed away." 

Experts suggest you wait an hour before brushing.

White wine isn't any better. According to a report in Nutrition Research, "It was demonstrated that white wines have higher erosive potentials than red wines. Within the limits of this study, it can be predicted that a frequent consumption of white wines might lead to severe dental erosion."


BOXED INTO A CORNER? -- At a recent neighborhood tasting, I challenged guests to declare which wine they liked the most: a $5 bottle or a $48 bottle of cabernet sauvignon. Both wines were disguised in carafes. 

I love these challenges -- not because I want to embarrass anyone, but because taking away labels and price tags gets people to concentrate their palates on the wines.  And, I wasn't challenging them to ID the expensive wine -- they didn't even know the cost difference. I just wanted them to tell me which wine they liked.

And, they liked the cheap wine -- a Vin Vault cabernet that costs $20 for 3 liters (4 regular, 750 ml bottles). They knew the other wine -- a beautiful, brawny Priest Ranch cab -- was expensive. But, in the end, it was too tannic and mouth-puckering for them to enjoy with the appetizers.

Frankly, I loved the Priest Ranch and had no use for the $5 plonk. But the moment made me realize that most people don't want full-body wines and prefer to sip on something simple. In an hour, the cheap wine was gone and about a glass remained of the Priest Ranch. I happily drank it.

Box wines have come a long way since Franzia introduced them years ago. The French and Italians have been enjoying them unapologetically for years. In fact, Le Petite Frog and French Rabbit make decent versions.

I guess I'm just out of touch.

THE FUTURE OF FUTURES -- When I first started to collect wine, en primeur was the rage. That's the French word for wine futures, or buying wine at discount before it is released. For instance, today you can buy Bordeaux from the 2015 vintage even though it won't be available for more than a year. 

The practice allows buyers to get the wine with discounts as much as 20 percent. Not only is it a good buy, but you are assured of getting a wine that may quickly sell out. For the producer, he gets your money to invest long before the wine is released.

 However, there is risk associated. First, you are giving your money to a retailer with the promise you'll get the product a year later. There have been many examples of retailers closing shop or spending the money before they pay for the wine. I know of several Michigan collectors who got scammed and had to sue the retailer.

Second, you haven't tasted the wine and instead are depending on the producer's history or barrel tastings by critics like Robert Parker Jr.  If you are buying a first-growth Bordeaux, odds are your risk is minimal.  A declassified wine is another matter.

In some years, the wine was priced close to its en primeur price when it was finally released -- the savings was not worth the hassle. En primeur sales have dropped since 2009.

I haven't bought futures in years and I suspect most collectors aren't either. Spring is the time to buy these wines, so the subject is hot.  Bordeaux sales account for about $1.2 billion annually and en primeur accounts for half of that. It is estimated that, in general, Bordeaux prices will rise 10-20 percent over 2014.

If you are sitting on a tax refund, this may be a good place to invest your windfall. However, proceed cautiously. Me? I'm sitting on the sidelines again.

BAIT AND SWITCH? -- It's a common scene. You are shopping for wine and are drawn to a tag that touts the high score a certain wine achieved from a notable critic. You decide to give it a try, but get home and discover it was a different vintage than the one in the tag. Do you feel  you've been duped -- or do you think a wine made a year later will be just as good?

Scott Glovsky feels he's been duped. The California attorney recently filed a class action suit against BevMo, a chain retailer, who was filmed by a local radio station selling wines that weren't the ones mentioned on shelf tags.

BeMo says it displays a disclaimer about "vintage substitution" and recommends consumers check the bottle.

This has happened to me a number of times in various stores. You can assume it's an innocent mistake, but some wily retailers hope they can get away with it. It's quite possible that the wine on the shelf could be just as good if not better than the wine in the shelf talker. But consumers should be told and posting a disclaimer in small print isn't going to do the job. Frankly, retailers shouldn't even use these scores if they don't apply to the wine they are selling.

Next time you buy one of these wines based on an expert's score, make sure you're buying the same vintage.

SOTER KNOWS HOW TO AGE -- Ten  years ago I visited with Tony Soter at his Carneros winery, Etude. Alongside the top of several stainless steel fermenting tanks, we tasted through his current lineup of extraordinary pinot noirs and a barrel sample of his single-vineyard pinot noir. It was the barrel sample -- Deer Park -- that most impressed me. So when it was finally released, I quickly bought a few bottles -- expensive at nearly $70 apiece. 

Just this week, I opened my last one. It was crazy to have cellared a pinot noir this long, but I took a chance on the last bottle because the pinot noir was so dense at the start. Alas, the fruit had faded, but not the memory of that great day in Carneros.

Shortly after my visit, Soter announced that he had sold Etude to Beringer Blass. Even more surprising, he was leaving California to establish a wine facility in Oregon's Willamette Valley, where he had owned property since 1997. Soter is a native of Portland..

Pinot noir was still his favorite grape variety, but it would be in Oregon where he would take it to another level.  Worn out by remaining a consultant with Etude, Soter quit that job in 1999 and devoted full-time to his family and Soter Vineyards.

Soter is an interesting guy. Unlike his winemaking bretheren, he never received formal wine tasting at places at the University of California at Davis. Yet he became a valuable consultant to wineries like Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, Chappellet, Shafer and Araujo. He launched Etude in 1980.

Soter seemed to have found more competition in the Willamette Valley. No longer the rising star in pinot noir, he continues to make stellar wines alongside some of Oregon's best. His wines aren't cheap, but with them come quality.  You don't have to be educated in wine to make good wine; you just have to know what you're doing.

BIG MOVES FOR WINE GIANTS -- Two major ownership changes occurred within a week. The first was Jackson Family Wines' announcement that it had purchased Penner-Ash of Oregon. This will extend JFW's reach into the Northwest's pinot noir country. Penner Ash makes some of the best pinot noir in Oregon, but its owners said they didn't have a good succession plan and opted instead to sell the brand.

The more recent announcement was that Ste. Michelle Wine Estates purchased California's Patz & Hall. Patz & Hall also is a pinot noir house although I have enjoyed its chardonnay just as much. The deal includes all property, including its beautiful reception room, the Sonoma House.

The two significant deals is further evidence that major wine interests are scarfing up smaller wineries. However much I fear that this will lead to an homogenization of styles, I am impressed with the dependable quality that comes from these two giants.  They bring to the table capital to invest in barrels and facilities, which eventually leads to better wine. Time will tell, but for now I just hope that Penner Ash and Patz & Hall will continue to make unique, prestigious wines.

APOTHIC'S DARK SIDE -- E. & J. Gallo has had a huge winner with its Apothic Red and Whitelabels.  Since its first release, the wine has soared in sales, thanks to its fruit-forward character and a deceiving sweetness that provides a round, luscious texture. Using a motley collection of grape varieties, the wine defies critics looking for a singular identity. Gallo's superb marketing and ability to mass produce and distribute wine has certainly helped sales.

Now Apothic has added two new red blends to its lineup: Crush and Dark. 

Dark aptly describes the color of this wine. Petite sirah, the primary grape, always makes fora dark wine and this is no exception. Sporting a brooding label that would be fitting for a Halloween party, the 2014 Dark has ripe blackberry flavors with strong coffee flavors and a hint of chocolate. The blend includes cabernet sauvignon, petit verdot and teroldego.

A less impressive 2014 Apothic Crush blends pinot noir and petite sirah with "other" unidentified grape varieties. Cherry and strawberry come to mind.

I can't deny the appeal of these wines while acknowledging they are more for the masses than the serious collector. I am not drawn to wines that indiscriminately blend grapes with the goal to come up with something ripe and forward. I couldn't identify place or grape in these wines. But if I pour them to guests, they would most likely ask for a second glass of Apothic than a second glass of a Bordeaux. Mon dieu...

ETIENNE HUGEL DIES -- It was heartbreaking to hear of the sudden death of Etienne Hugel, one of Alsace's most enthusiastic supporters. Etienne was only 57 and the cause of death wasn't announced by the family.

Etienne was born in the beautiful village of Riquewihr, which is where I met him more than a decade ago. My first meeting with Etienne was during one of his many tours in the United States -- he made me promise to visit him when my wife and I traveled next to Alsace. When we did, he had such an array of wines for me to taste, I was late getting to my next stop at Hugel.  He was so insistent I stay that he called ahead to his cousin at Trimbach to beg for more time.

Etienne Hugel

It was quintessential Etienne. Always promoting Alsace and in particular Hugel. The only person perhaps more charismatic and enthusiastic was his uncle, "Johnny" who died many years ago. Together they made Hugel one of the most prolific Alsace wines distributed in the United States.

"A visionary and a hard worker, my son Etienne travelled the world relentlessly, showing unparalleled people skills and infectious enthusiasm," declared André Hugel. "Throughout his life he was able to communicate his passion, his professionalism and his personal values to all those with whom he worked."

So sad to see someone such as him die so young.

RECEPTION WINE NOT WELL RECEIVED -- If you are like me, you hate ordering wine at receptions -- weddings, fundraisers, celebrations or any even with a crowd. Sponsors don't want to pay a lot for the wine, especially at the markups charged by the host facility. At some fundraisers, the wine is donated by a local retailer who is only happy to unload unwanted wines.

I was a guest bartender at a recent charity function where the wines were donated or provided at cost. There was a red and white made in Maryland, an obscure chenin blanc and a William Hill cabernet. Except for the latter choice, the wines had little to offer guests.

Standing behind a bar, one gets a good glimpse of consumer tastes. Most women were asking for a chardonnay and then implored me to choose something "similar" once they found out chardonnay was not a choice. Alas, chenin blanc and pinot gris have nothing in common with chardonnay other than they are all white wines. Several of them asked for ice with their wine, which clearly didn't hurt them at all.

Surely, party organizers can do better. I drank the beer.

READ MY WINE -- As if you don't own enough gadgets to make your wine taste better, here comes another one for every well-heeled collector: Kuvee.

The two-part system comes with a wifi connection that allows owners to retrieve information about the wine and even order more of it -- right from a touch screen on the special container.

Here is how it works: you order one of several wines from participating California producers. The special bottles, ranging from $15 to $50, are made of aluminum. You slip the bottle into the larger Kuvee container and pour from there. The system allows you to switch from one wine to another without any appreciable oxygen entering the system. So, if you spouse wants white and you want red, voila, you can alternate.  

The wifi connection provides information about the producer, tasting notes, food pairings and more. 

The Kuvee system with touch screen cost $200 and at first will be sold only in California and Massachusetts, where the company is based.

The founders admit this is a work in progress, but say they have signed up 50 wineries, including Bonny Doon, Pine Ridge and Girard.

I have not tried the system, but I have to question if this is something I need to have. Sure, it would be fun to show off to other tech geeks, but I don't see the wine tasting any better. You have to buy wines from the participating wineries, so you're limited. Sounds like an expensive gadget to me....