Tom's blog

US champagne sales bubble to the top

Americans love of champagne is clearly evident in reports that show sales increasing in the United States and decreasing in Great Britain.

Although the Brits have traditionally led the way as a champagne export destination, sales in 2016 dropped 14 percent thanks to Brexit. In fact, many British champagne lovers fear that champagne could be banned in Great Britain when it finally pulls out of the European Union.

The United States, on the other hand, saw a 21 million bottle increase in champagne exports.

Laundered money?

Anyone who has tried to snag a reservation at the vaunted French Laundry in Napa Valley knows all about frustration. Probably the most famous and heralded restaurant in California and perhaps the United States, the few tables in the French Laundry are impossible to get even if one works months ahead.

Maybe it will get a bit less frustrating -- but certainly not cheaper -- with a newly introduced reservation system from Tock.

Under the system three months of reservations will be made available online at once. People will grab up the reservations, no doubt, but may be surprised that they have to pay down a significant portion of the dinner to secure a seat. Dinners start at more than $300 and that doesn't include wine. 

The down payment is meant to eliminate no-shows, which undoubtedly cost restaurants a lot of money. However, restaurant owner and chef Thomas Keller is a major investor in Tock.


About those headaches....

Those of you who regularly suffer headaches from drinking a particular wine should read this month's Food and Wine magazine. An article explaining the likely causes of wine-aches is the most comprehensive and understandable one I've read on the subject.

In short, it's not the sulphites that for years have been inaccurately charged as the cause. Instead, scientific evidence points to naturally occurring compounds found in most wines -- phenolic flavonoids and biogenic amines. Flavonoids bring out the wine's color and flavor; they are found in the skins, stems and seeds of red wines. Biogenic amines appear during the fermentation process and are associated with histamine and tyramine compounds found most often in red wine.  For that reason, most headache suffers say their problems occur after drinking red wines.

This working theory was confirmed in a relatively small study conducted by Argentine doctors who gave 28 people two wines to drink during a trial period: a cabernet sauvignon from Bordeaux and a cabernet sauvignon from South America. Sixty percent of the Bordeaux drinkers reported headaches; only 40 percent of the South American wine drinkers reported the same.

The explanation? Bordeaux producers extract the most tannin and phenolic flavonoids from their wines to give them longevity, color and depth of fruit. South American producers aren't looking for their wines to be aged and instead make them drinkable on release. The price comparison between the two wines confirms the difference in effort.

Although I know of some people who swear that only white wine gives them headaches, most of the people I know associate headaches with red wines. My wife, for instance, gets regular headaches after drinking even small amounts of Cline Cellars zinfandel -- every time. Alas, the wine is one of a handful that has given me a headache. These wines are fruit-forward, dense and dark in color. Is the producer extracting the most tannin and phenolic flavenoids it can?

So if you insist red wine, particularly those with forward flavors and tannin, gives you headaches, it's not all in your head.






Preserving opened wines a crapshoot

Over the past several weeks I have entertained a number of house guests -- an insurgence that is more about Florida's warm winter weather than it is about me. The relentless assault on my wine cellar has taken its toll, but despite the depletion it is nice to be able to share good wine with friends who appreciate it.

Because I opened several bottles at a time to allow for comparison and the vagaries of picky palates, there remained a glass or two in several bottles. With guests safely in bed, I recorked the wines for future consumption. Alas, I didn't use a vacuum pump to preserve the wine but I did put it back in the cool cellar. (It's rare for me to have leftovers because I usually open one bottle for my wife and me).

I discovered the next day the obvious: young wines didn't show any depreciation the next day, but the older wines did. A 2003 Charvin Chateauneuf du Pape and a 2007 Hall cabernet sauvignon were essentially ruined from oxidation. 

None of this should be a surprise to me, but it reinforce a lesson I learned long ago. In short, older wines must undergo some preservation system to retain their quality overnight. If you want to enjoy a special wine the next day, put it to bed in a sober moment.

Unraveling and understanding Orin Swift

David Phinney, a wine genius by most accounts, founded Orin Swift Cellars in 1998 after being inspired by a stay in Italy and later by a temporary stint at Robert Mondavi. He made a batch of wines from zinfandel grapes and thus launched a wine enterprise that became a financial success. His blends, pricey and with edgy labels, developed a cult following.

Orin is his father's middle name and Swift is his mother's maiden name.

These wines aren't for everyone and they certainly aren't for me. Heavily extracted and jammy, they are better spread on toast in the morning. They are the opposite of elegant French wine and more like the dense, hedonistic Australian shiraz and grenache, like those from Clarendon Hills and Mollydooker.

Phinney's The Prisoner brand was bought by Constellation in 2016 for a cool $285 million -- no property, just the name. E.&J. Gallo bought the rest of the brand, inventory and Modesto tasting room later in the year. 

I have to wonder whether Constellation or Gallo will be able to sustain Phinney's wine philosophy. Neither one seems to be a good fit for cult wines not intended for the masses.

I was thinking of this incredible success story while sipping a D66 that was gifted to me recently. Made mostly from grenache grown in the Roussillon region of southwest France, it mirrors Swift's other wines. Jam-packed, rich and concentrated with ripe cassis and plum notes and floral aromas, it attacks the palate with bold, full-bodied flavors. This is hardly a sipping wine on some summer day, but rather a wine you would pair with barbecued foods, beef, lamb or wild game.

In spite of my personal dislike of these wines, I can't deny their popularity. They get high reviews from other critics too. Prices range from $30-120 for blends with names like Trigger Finger, Machete, China Doll, Mercury Head, Slander and more.


A vineyard just for you

Have you ever wished for a vineyard but didn't have the means or ability to grow grapes? Or make wine?

Case de Uco may be able to help. The luxury Argentine resort is offering 80 plots on which they will help you grow grapes. Starting at a mere $45,000 for a half-acre, a lot comes with expertise from the winery and membership to the resort. Uco Valley is one of the most fertile wine-growing regions in Argentina.

I suspect only a few wealthy individuals will take them up on this offer, but it surely would give investors some bragging rights.

Is it the wine -- or is it the alcohol?

I bought a case of wine the other day. That may not sound unusual for someone who writes about wine, but it was. Over the years I have amassed a small cellar that is maturing at a nice pace -- especially now that I'm not working and have less money to invest in wines that will probably mature after my death. But I generally save the older wines for a special dinner at home.

I get samples several times a week and happy hour is often spent analyzing a half dozen wines. That may sound like an envious task, but that joy of tasting free wine has worn off long ago. Many of the wines are quite pedestrian, so the remains often end up in the drain or in the hands of eager neighbors who are all too willing to consume the leftovers.  

People feel I'm lucky to have so much free samples at my disposal, but trust me, it's not as glorious as it sounds. These wines are analyzed, as they should be, and not stored in my cellar for later use. If I have a party, I open a few samples to get the opinions of others. If you drink all these wines -- the good and the bad -- the process becomes more about the alcohol than the wine. I don't ever want to get to a point where I am not discriminating when I drink wine. 

With this in mind, I ventured into a wine store and lazily cruised the aisles looking for inspiration. I quickly passed up Bordeaux and Burgundy, and meandered down the aisles of southern France, Alsace, and Spain. I wanted something I can enjoy tonight with my pasta or stew.

I realized how badly I missed discovering good value wines that I can open without guilt. A third of the wines I bought were from Spain -- a region that offers a lot of good bargains in the under $25 category. This region is so fertile in good wines.

I also bought several roses -- perfect for the warmer climate of Florida. And, I bought a few wines from the Rhone Valley. I didn't buy any domestic wines because I drink so many California and Oregon wines during the week.

Now, I have to find the time to drink them. And, it won't be just a job when I do.

Paying hommage to Cotes du Rhone

I was in a restaurant the other night and struck by the cost of wine. It's getting pretty hard to find something decent under $50 and most of the interesting wines are $70 and above. Even when I realize the markup can be as high as 400 percent, I still want wine with my dinner. It isn't unusual to get a staggering bill of more than $200 a couple. That's just nuts.

I know, it doesn't make sense when the wine bill is often more than the food bill, but for my wife and I wine is as much a part of the experience as the food.

But, in the hands of a good wine manager or somm, reasonable wines can be found at the right price. Take,for instance, the Cotes du Rhone. I recently enjoyed a Chateau St. Cosme for $46. It was one of the cheapest wines on the menu, but I bet it also was one of the best. I could have ordered current vintages of Bordeaux that wouldn't have showed any where near as well as the St. Cosme. And with country French food on the plate, it was a perfect match.

The Rhone Valley offers great values whether the wines hail from the Cotes du Rhone, Vacqueyras, Saint Joseph, etc. 

The other night I uncorked several 10-year-old chateauneuf du papes and regaled in their quality.  I don't think I spent more than $40 for any of them. Even though Bordeaux dominates my cellar, the Rhone Valley is my favorite for both current drinking and long-term cellaring. 

It really annoys me when a restaurant list of expensive wines fails to provide the right alternatives to appeal to frugal customers. It's not hard if you have a good manager or wine steward.

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.


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. 


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.