Tom's blog

Happy days are here again

Happy National Wine Day. As if marketers haven't given us another reason to buy something, today we have another reason to drink wine. I'm all for it. 

There are a lot of people drinking wine in the world and not just today. The U.S. consumes more than any of them at a round 3.2 billion liters in 2014, although they lag in per capita consumption behind most European countries. We're a paltry 55th in the ranking. Let's step it up.

Who's at the top of the heap? Andorra. Yep, we're sure you know where that it.

Only 69,165 people occupy this skiing region on the border of Spain and France, but they average 76 bottles of wine a year. I want to visit them. I don't ski.

The capital of Andorra. All wine flows downhill.

The capital of Andorra. All wine flows downhill.

The Vatican City ranks second in per-capita wine consumption and I only hope the wine is consumed mostly during communion. I even pray it is because the alternative is unthinkable.

So today when I celebrate National Wine Day, I'll toast the people of Andorra who obviously need no celebration to drink.

o which country takes the crown? The proud title of most fervent vino guzzler goes to Andorra. According to the Wine Institute, the country consumed 3,936,000 litres of wine in 2014 (the most recent year for which comprehensive statistics are available). Given that just 69,165 people call the Pyrenean principality home, according to the UN, that's an impressive 56.9 litres per head. Or the equivalent of 76 bottles. 

Lowering the boom on wine sales

The Silicon Valley Bank is predicting that wines sales will begin taking a hard hit as the Baby Boom generation fades. About 44 percent of sales are made to those between 48 and 65 years old.

With 11,500 of them retiring every day, it's not hard to do the math. I am among those boomers who stopped massive wine purchases when I retired on a fixed income. I'm feeding off my cellar now and quite contently.

Winemakers have been bragging about increased wine sales, but I bet those numbers are about to peak. Generation X, Y and Millennials simply aren't buying wine at the same pace as their elders.

The wine producers who may be hurt the most are those whose wines are pricey. I just can't imagine new generations forking over $50-300 for a bottle of wine. It's just not in their nature.

The Chinese market a chinese puzzle

If you wonder how difficult the Chinese market is to crack for wine producers, talk to Gaia Gaja. Her family's wines are some of the most prestigious in all of Italy, commanding prices of more than $400 a bottle for its barbarescos and barolos.

I had lunch with Gaia -- pronounced "gaya" just like the last name -- this week and it was full circle from a lunch I had with her father, Angelo, more than 35 years ago. Angelo. 77, has willingly turned over most operations to his daughters. One of Gaia's jobs is to work with trade and distributors in foreign markets. That took her to China several years ago where you would think the Gaja name was well known. 

She found the market dominated by Bordeaux and recounts a conversation she had with a woman who was doing her nails. The woman wanted to know what Gaia did for a living and became instantly confused. She knew nothing about Europe an d didn't even know where Italy was located. When Gaia introduced the subject of wine, though, she had instant recognition.

"Eight-two Lafite-Rothschild?" the manicurist said in broken English. Gaia knew then what competition she was facing.

"She knew nothing about Italy and nothing about wine, but she associated wine with Lafite," Gaia said.

It turned out that 1982 Lafite-Rothschild was often on television shows as a symbol of luxury. The Chinese don't drink much wine, but they are fond of buying expensive gifts as a sign of wealth. 

Slowly, the market is changing. A new president outlawed gifts to public officials and several producers lost a lot of money when that happened. It's a more honest market, Gaia said, so Italy is on equal-footing with France.

I can't imagine her frustration when she found the Chinese were equating "wine" with "1982 Lafite-Rothschild." 

Appreciating good wine not for everyone

I had the most enjoyable two-hour lunch with Gaia Gaja, the fifth generation Gaja to become involved in the family's iconic Piedmont wine business. The subjects ranged from her family history to the impact of an impudent president (yeah, Italy had one too). So, I'll be posting a couple of these exchanges in the next few days.

Gaia Gaja

Gaia Gaja

One illuminating discussion centered around the appreciation of a Gaja barbaresco, not everyone's cup of tea.  I like to call these wines "cerebral" because they call on a taster to dig deep into the recesses of his mind to fully appreciate them. There are nuances that evolve in the glass and even more that evolve in the cellar. They aren't as obvious as, say, a full-throttle Oregon pinot noir or an extracted Bordeaux. Instead of clobbering your palate with ripe fruit, a Gaja barbaresco teases the palate. 

Gaia compares drinking her barbaresco to meeting a stranger. "When I drink nebbiolo, I see myself in a room next to an interesting stranger and he's running away. I'm constantly chasing this wine and about the time I catch up, it goes again," she says.

Although the business is a family affair, Gaia's primary role is traveling the globe and working with wholesalers, customers of her family's wine, and trade groups. In her travels, she says many avid Gaja fans want her to taste what they believe are similar wines. But they are not and that disappoints her. Maybe nothing compares to Gaja barbaresco.

The 2011 Gaja Barbaresco I tasted with her was a fresh edition of what I remember from older vintages. The generous aromas included strawberries and red currants -- somewhat ripe but still fresh to me. Alcohol and acidity were in exquisite harmony.

There are few other wines in my experience that reach this level. Many great burgundies do and maybe a few Alsace rieslings.  But Gaja's wines are the Maseratis of the fleet.

I can't imagine pouring these wines to the masses, which is what Gaja was doing when she attended a charity fundraiser in Naples, FL, that evening. Granted, at $10,000 a couple it attracted well-heeled contributors, but who knew what they were tasting?


Redirecting pinot palates

Cushing Donelan

Cushing Donelan

The other night I enjoyed a steak dinner with Cushing Donelan, one of the family members who puts his name behind some of the most exclusive wines in Sonoma County. We were enjoying his 2012 Two Brothers Pinot Noir, an understated wine closer to the likes of Burgundy than California. With minimal exposure to oak and reasonable whole-cluster fermentation, it is a cerebral wine -- one that gets you to think. Contrarily, my palate collapses under the weight of these heavy, extracted pinot noirs from other parts of California.

I asked "Cush" if it's challenging to reach consumers who have been weaned on sweet, inexpensive pinot noir, such as Meomi and Menage a Trois.

"Absolutely," he confessed.

Meomi, now owned by Constellation Brands, makes more than 500,000 cases. Donelan's entire production of 14 wines is a scant 6,500 cases. Meomi cost around $15; Donelan Two Brothers is around $60. 

As consumers flock to the many over-extracted, high-alcohol fruit bombs, is there any hope they will appreciate Donelan's wine? Not likely, but that trend won't dissuade the Donelans who have been true to their cause of making refined pinot noir and syrah.

Fortunately, Donelan has much less pinot noir to sell -- in fact, the only way to get it is through its web site. They'll do just fine, but I have to ponder the thought of pinot noir being defined by the wrong standard.

There are many producers following Donelan's model and I'm thankful every time I ponder a balanced pinot noir. 

More on Donelan's great wines in future posts.

Wine producer eliminates the middle men

 I remember a time in my newspaper career when Craig's List was first introduced. We all scoffed at the notion that one day it would replace newspaper's classifieds. Well, it did. And I get that same feeling when wine producers scoff at Mark Tarlov's concept of eliminating the middle men and selling directly to consumers at greatly reduced prices.

Direct-to-consumer businesses are growing in popularity in the wine industry and, although not yet a huge force, they represent a threat to retailers and wholesalers. 

Tarlov -- a successful movie producer who turned to wine for fun -- introduced Alit to show to consumers how much they are paying for delivery services to their store. On his website he is very honest about where the money goes for a $27.45 bottle of his Oregon pinot noir: 

Farming and fruit             $5.66

Five employees                $2.14

Winery and equipment    $3.31

French oak barrels           $1.11

Bottling/packaging          $2.88

TOTAL                               $15.10

45% gross profit margin: $12.35

Price to consumers          $27.45

Now, his pinot noir is still more expensive than what most people are willing to pay for a bottle of wine. However, Tarlov argues that he is trying to be responsible with farming and winemaking, so his costs may be higher. But, he is revealing to consumers how much he is paying for farming and how much he is profiting from a single bottle ($12.35).  Nothing like honesty to make me a believer.

If the retailer and wholesaler were added to this expensive sheet, that same wine would sell for $50 or more. 

He is currently selling only pinot noir and sparkling wine through his web site,


Heavenly matches made in Sicily

Not always do I work hard at finding the right wine for tonight's dinner. I doubt that many of you work at it either. Maybe we decide whether to open white or red, but oftentimes it's a matter of what we have and what we thirst for.

That's not always the case, of course. If my wife is putting an effort into planning a remarkable dinner at home, the least I can do is put the same effort into selecting a wine. How well wines go with a gourmet dinner is the food for thought that makes wine-food pairing so much fun.

The Regaleali Estate

The Regaleali Estate

And I had fun one recent night -- not at home but at an exquisite restaurant in my new hometown of Naples, FL. Sea Salt is unquestionably one of the top dining venues in Naples, a vibrant nucleus of fine restaurants in a relatively small town. 

At a special wine dinner featuring wines from Sicily, owner-chef Fabrizio Aielli teamed with visiting chef Ludovico De Vivo of Regaleali Estate to produce an incredible four-course dinner. The food was a perfect pairing with an eclectic selection of Sicilian wines, an experience that reminded me that professional chefs can do a much better job than home chefs in challenging the palate.  The experience was a jolting reminder of what role wine plays in the hands of detail-minded chefs. 

Although Sicily continues to struggle finding a niche in the wine market and becoming known more for quality than quantity, the wines I tasted on this night gave showed promise of a better future. Younger generations of wine makers are finally moving up the bar and applying practices that eventually will reap results.

A grillo, for instance, was far more balanced and round than I have experienced in the past. A grape variety commonly used to make marsala, grillo is common to Sicily. It does well here because it can withstand the high temperatures generated by the scirocco winds of North Africa. But cool night temperatures in vineyards with high elevation give the grapes a needed respite.

The Tasca d'Almerita Grillo Cavallo delle Fate ($20) had fresh acidity with generous citrus aromas and easy apricot flavors with a dash of minerality. This is a wine that won't overwhelm delicate foods. It didn't overpower Sea Salt's incredible hearts of palm "ossobuco" filled with truffle, scallop and abalone. Don't try this at home, as they say.

Tasca d'Almerita Lamuri Nero d'Avola ($20), another indigenous grape variety to Sicily, had much more depth than I customarily find in this grape variety. In fact, wow, how far this wine has come to greatness. It has great depth and complexity. Black cherry and blackberry flavors with a hint of rosemary and subtle, soft tannins.

My favorite wine of the night was the Tasca d'Almerita Rosso del Conte Contea di Sciafani ($70), which was paired with bison and porcini, cippolini and offal game sauce. Food with this intensity requires a big wine and the Tasca delivered. 

If you can find these wines, you'll be rewarded with good value.

Is it safe to split a bottle of wine -- and drive?

My wife and I like to order a bottle of wine when we dine out. Spread over a couple of hours of leisurely dining, I assume the wine has not rendered me incapable of getting us home. But if I were pulled over, would the police think differently?

Chances are you have wondered the same thing.

I laid the matter to rest recently by using a portable breathalyzer to measure my alcohol content in a simulated dining experience. The AlcoMate Revo made by AK Global Tech is a highly sophisticated breathalyzer that assures accuracy over multiple uses and even has a spare sensor module to quickly substitute as the other one is being recalibrated. Like other breathalyzers, you simply blow into a disposable port until told to stop.

Here was the set-up: I drank  14 ounces of wine -- slightly more than half of a 750ml bottle -- over 90 minutes and with a hearty meal. 

Here was AlcoMate's result: .044 percent alcohol content, well under the .08 level all states use to charge you with drunk driving, measured 30 minutes after I stopped drinking and eating..

Here are the "buts": Some states have lesser charges that can be brought with lower levels. For instance, in Maryland a breathalyzer reading of .07 to .08 could draw a driving while impaired charge with a heavy penalty. Furthermore, a reading of .05 to .07 can be used against you if you are charged with another infraction, such as reckless driving. My home state of Florida has no such additional charges.

But, my .044 reading was safely under even the most strict drunk driving levels.

Secondly, everyone reacts differently to alcohol consumption. I am 6-ft. 4-in. tall and weigh 200 pounds. A woman and a person with more fat will not metabolize alcohol as quickly as a thin male. And, a "drink" is not always equal. A 4-oz. glass of wine is not the same as a margarita with a double shot of tequila, so watch those guidelines that say it's safe to have one drink per hour.

The AlcoMate costs $225 and can be purchased on line. It's far less than your legal fees if you are charged with drunk driving. 


Another look at Clos Pegase

I remember when Clos Pegase opened in the mid 1980s. Who could forget? It was the most lavish wine facility in Napa Valley and soon became the scorn of traditionalists who saw nothing but oneupmanship. That certainly included its neighbor, Sterling Vineyards, whose visitors could look down on Clos Pegase when they boarded Sterlilng's gondola. 

The source of contempt -- which became an unsuccessfuly lawsuit -- was owner Jan Shrem's excessive use of precious water for waterfalls and other water features.. But underneath this complaint was Shrem's post-modern architectural tastes. Sculptures, including that of a thumb, were displayed all around the Calistoga estate.

Looking back at this controversy today, I suspect Shrem was misunderstood and maybe ahead of his time. Although nothing came close to Clos Pegase's display in the tame '80s, since then I've seen similar extravagance at other wineries, such as Ferrari-Carano. 

Shrem was hardly an art amateur. He had a committee review proposals and was a respectable art collector who just wanted to combine his love of art with his love of wine. His estate grew from 50 acres to 450 acres and it wasn't long before the tour buses started to line up. With that Shrem struggled to get noticed for something more than his taste for modern architecture. 

But I remember it for its Bordeaux-like sauvignon blanc.

Shrem sold the property in 2013 to Leslie Rudd, owner of Dean & DeLuca, and his partners at Vintage Wine Estates. Most of the sculptures -- including works by Henry Moore, Jean Dubuffet and Francis Bacon -- were donated to the University of California at Davis. Gone is most of the sculptures and thus most of the long-forgotten controversy.

I had a moment to recall this episode while recently enjoyed the 2014 Clos Pegase Mitsuko's Vineyard Chardonnay ($30). The quality of the wine far exceeds its price. It has exotic mango and papaya notes with a hint of lemon and butterscotch. Very lush in style and appealing to those who like a little oak with their wine. At least the wine lived on.



Reaching new Heitz

In a world of ever-changing ownerships, there is comfort in seeing an old brand that has survived the challenges of time. Heitz Cellars brings me such comfort. 

Joe Heitz founded Heitz Cellars in 1961 when there were only a couple dozen of post-war farmers making wine in Napa Valley. He stood alongside such iconic pioneers as Andre Tchelistcheff, Robert Mondavi, Warren Winiarski, Lee Stewart, Louis Martini and Charles Krug who brought old-world winemaking to the valley. Most of these people have since passed but their legacy lives on in new generations. 

Heitz left his mark on California winemaking by being the first to make a single-vineyard cabernet sauvignon. While others were blending the grapes from several vineyards, Heitz landed on a particular vineyard that produced a unique flavor profile. In 1965, he struck up a handshake deal -- still in existence -- with Tom and Martha May to use grapes exclusively from their 14-acre vineyard. It was Heitz's idea to put their name on the label and thus was born the first single-vineyard cabernet: Heitz Cellars Martha's Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon.

The wine that sold for less than $10 then sells for $225 today. It has more awards than almost any other Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon. It's 1970 Martha's Vineyard cabernet placed ninth in the 1978 Judgment of Paris tasting and scored well in similar tastings afterward.  It set a benchmark 46 years ago that remains today.

Heitz saw in the terroir a special flavor that makes this wine so great. In fact, the clone's identity remains a family secret. 

I recently tasted the winery's regular Napa Valley chardonnay ($27) and cabernet sauvignon ($52). They are great wines. The 2015 chardonnay has generous aromas of peach and lemon and tropical fruit flavors with a lush mouthfeel and a dash of sweet vanillin oak. 

The 2012 Heitz Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon has fresh, dark berry fruit, great depth and complexity.  

Getting into New Zealand pinot noir

There once was a time when I struggled mightily to like New Zealand pinot noir. Like its sauvignon blanc (I still struggle with it), the pinot noir often had aggressive acidity and bright but immature fruit. It didn't even try to mimic burgundy, where great pinot noir is defined. I just didn't find it friendly, warm or hospitable.

My, how times have changed. Even small producers are finally making world-class pinot noir. For me, the country's pinot noir has overtaken its vaunted sauvignon blanc

The best regions are being better defined along with the best winemaking practices. Central Otago was among the first to gain attention with its complex wines. Add to that Canterbury and Waipara. Marlborough on the North Island has improved dramatically in recent years.

Relatively young among the world's wine regions, New Zealand is now home to more than 700 producers - an incredible growth for a grape variety that really didn't start until the 1970s. Growth like this doesn't come without problem. Given the youth of the vines, you can't expect burgundy.  Then, the prices aren't even close either. You get a decent New Zealand pinot noir for less than $50.

I noted the progress of this region while tasting the 2014 Nobilo Icon Pinot Noir ($22) from the Waihopai Valley. The vineyards are only 11 years old, but the fruit was hardly green. There were ripe blackberry, red currant and black cherry flavors with a dose of mocha. For the price this is a very nice wine.

Is sauvignon blanc and luxury an oxymoron?

Tom Gamble, farmer

Tom Gamble, farmer

Last year I met Tom Gamble of Napa Valley's Gamble Family Vineyards. Tom prided himself as being a farmer first and a winemaker second. A very humble man, his wines were anything but. While well-heeled patrons lined up for his expensive cabernet sauvignons at a pricey fundraiser in Naples, FL, I latched onto his Heart Break sauvignon blanc. At nearly $100 a bottle, it was hardly a cheaper alternative to his equally expensive red blends.  But while I have tasted similar red wines at similar prices, I never tasted a sauvignon blanc like this. Unfortunately, patrons had prematurely made up their minds that sauvignon blanc couldn't live up to their standards.

I spoke to Gamble later on the phone and wrote a column about this extraordinary venture. Who would pay this kind of money for a sauvignon blanc? Well, enough people did that he sells out of his small production.

The wine is exquisite with a Bordeaux-like style that comes from two clones -- one from Graves and the other from the Loire Valley. It has exotic, layered fruit that ranges from citrus to passion fruit and a finish that never seems to end. Although it has great mouthfeel, it wasn't heavy on the palate. Like a white Bordeaux, you had to pause and think about what you were tasting. Frankly, I haven't been able to get this wine out of my mind since.

I was reminded of this wine when I recently sampled the 2015 Flora Springs Soliloquy Sauvignon Blanc. At half the price, the Soliloquy delivered a similar exotic Bordeaux style. It's clone is named after the wine and was certified by the University of Davis in the 1980s. Well textured, it has a more creamy mouthfeel, due in part to the stirring of its lees.

There is no reason a good sauvignon blanc shouldn't cost as much as a good cabernet sauvignon. Getting consumers to associate this grape with luxury, however, is a challenge.



Aging that Oregon pinot noir

Several years ago I stopped by Domaine Drouhin to catch up with its fabulous pinot noir and meet with Veronique Boss-Drouhin. I was hoping to disprove a theory -- one I regrettably espoused in a column -- that Oregon wines did not age well.  My conclusion was based on a handful of 5-year-old pinot noirs that had passed their prime.

Veronique has been with Domaine Drouhin since its launch in 1988, but she balances her time between Oregon and Burgundy, where she oversees Maison Joseph Drouhin as well. I was in luck: she was in Oregon when I was passing through. 


We tasted some older wines together and she persuaded me that her Oregon wines had as much an ability to age as her burgundies -- just maybe not for as long as the great burgundies.

I brought home some of her iconic flagship, Cuvee Laurene, from the 2009 vintage. Named after daughter, the Laurene gets the best grapes of the harvest and is more restrained than most Oregon pinot noirs.

I decided to open a bottle and was shocked at the stage it was in. The obvious tannin and tight cluster of flavors indicated that it was still evolving. Or was it? Would the fruit ever emerge after the tannins faded? I could taste the potential -- but not the reality. Damn. I hate opening expensive wines prematurely, but truthfully I wasn't convinced by this bottle that the wine would get better. 

Drouhin's more elegant, restrained style is more like burgundy, but it gives me pause about how well it will age. However, the Laurene experience shows that a delicate wine -- ala a great burgundy -- doesn't mean a short-lived wine.