Tom's blog

Finding new direction in South American wines

I’ve been a skeptic of South American wines. For decades Chilean wine producers struggled to create well-made and friendly cabernet sauvignon. Their sauvignon blancs have been more appealing to me, their reds high in acidity and low in concentration. One of its primary grapes — carmenere — just can’t seem to get a foothold.

Argentina is known best for its malbecs — a darling of the American consumer — but struggles to produce decent cabernet sauvignons.

Interestingly, Bordeaux abandoned carmenere and malbec years ago.

The best course, it seems to me, is for producers in both countries to focus on blends that have a greater variety of grapes. I was struck by this when I recently tasted a terrific Argentina blend from Fina Decero. Called “The Owl & Dust Devil,” this 2015 blend incorporates cabernet sauvignon (39 percent), malbec (32 percent), petit verdot (19 percent) and the rest tannat. The variety not only masked any defects, but it provide a broader flavor profile. It cost $33 a bottle.

I wonder how syrah and merlot would grow in Argentina and Chile. I suspect the growing conditions aren’t conducive to these varieties, but they would soften the hard edges to their red wines.

This wine has received a lot of good ratings. I’m not surprised. It has a lot of character and depth, which I attribute to the blend.

A Cotes du Rhone to buy now

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In my 35 years of wine writing I have never lost faith in Cotes du Rhone. Vastly underrated for its power and easily dismissed as a poor cousin of Chateauneuf du Pape, this AOC blend often over-performs.

I was reminded of this last night when I eagerly opened a bottle of 2016 Chateau de Saint-Cosme “Les Deux Albion” Cotes du Rhone. It was a stunner for $22 — worthy of buying more for my cellar. I’ve tasted gigondas from this Rhone Valley property and have found the producer to be reliable across the board. But this simple red blend rocked my senses.

The wine is a class blend of syrah (50 percent), grenache, carignan, mouvedre and clairette from three Cotes-du-Rhone-Villages communes. The whole clusters are co-fermented with indigenous yeasts and vinified in conical wooden vats and concrete tanks for 18 months.

The result is a wine with dark color, dense structure, complexity and huge garrigue and floral aromas. On the palate the flavors range from black cherries to plums with some nice spice tossed in. It can easily age for 3 years or more, which makes it a great wine to put away for the short-term.

Direct-to-consumer sales rising

In its Direct-to-Consumer Wine Shipping Report, Sovos and Wines & Vines reports that consumer shipments of wines have increased by more than 15 percent. Although Napa Valley continues to dominate this market, Sonoma and Oregon have shown the biggest growth.

I’m not surprised this part of the business is growing. More and more people are finding it difficult to find wines they enjoyed while visiting West Coast tasting rooms. The report shows the biggest growth in expensive wines, which are often sold only in tasting rooms or through a producer’s club.

The highest sales come in October and November when presumably people are returning home after winery tours during the harvest season.

Wine producers make significantly more money in direct-to-consumer sales because they eliminate the middle men — distributors and retailers. Since most of these wines are made in small quantities, they may not need to the marketing and sales force that distributors can bring.

I really doubt this avenue of sales will ever replace distributors, but it’s surely making a bigger and bigger dent in their overall sales.

Knudsen: from farmer to producer

When you think of winemaking pioneers in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, a handful of names come to mind: David Lett, Dick Erath and Dick Ponzi, all of whom were growing grapes and making wine by the early 1980s. However, a name that escapes more memories is Cal Knudsen, a Weyerhaeuser executivbe who became Oregon’s largest vineyard owner in 1975 when he expanded his 30-acre block in Dundee Hills to 60 acres.

Knudsen never made wine solely under his name, but he partnered with Dick Erath to form Knudsen-Erath Winery. When that partnership ended in 1987, he sold his wines to Argyle for its well-respected sparkling wine program.

Knudsen died in 2009 and his four children — none involved in the wine business — decided to continue the family legacy and launched Knudsen Vineyards in 2012, first with a pinot noir and then with a chardonnay. Because they had established lives and businesses well outside the wine world, the family turned to its long-time partner — Argyle — to help.

 Page Knudsen Cowles, managing partner

Page Knudsen Cowles, managing partner

I recently had dinner with Page Knudsen Cowles, managing partner of Knudsen Vineyards, who said it was important to the family to keep their father’s legacy going for future generations. Knudsen continues to sell grapes to Argyle and buys back about 500 tons for its own wine. Argyle’s winemaker Nate Klosterman is making the wine.

The Knudsens couldn’t have made a better business decision. They can ease into the unfamiliar business of making wine with professionals at the helm. The two pinot noirs and one chardonnay I tasted were well made — good balance and pure expression of the Dundee Hills fruit character.

I really like the 2016 burgundian-like chardonnay because it had just a kiss of oak and an austere but intense profile. The estate pinot noir blended into the Willamette pack at $55; the reserve showed more distinction at $70 but the wines tasted like a product still being developed. Given the quality of the vineyards, I would like to see Knudsen make a single-vineyard pinot noir.

Argle makes a pinot noir made entirely from Knudsen grapes. Most consumers won’t know that, but I wonder if winemaker Klosterman is making the same pinot noir for both labels — or something different for Argyle.

These wines are on the right track, but clearly the Knudsen’s have an uphill climb in a competitive market. The wines are distributed in only a handful of states (including my state of Florida) and the burden has fallen to Page to hand-sell the wines city to city. She lives in Minnesota.

She agrees that a tasting room will make her job much easier, especially if that can drive direct-to-consumer sales. Oregon has seen tremendous growth in this sector.

By the way, Ste. Michelle Estates bought out Erath several years ago, but Dick Erath was allowed to live in his original home. That lease runs out this year and Knudsen doesn’t plan to renew it. That sounds like a good location for a tasting room!

Can raisins put bubbles back in the bottle?

I was doing a wine tasting for a group of people recently and a woman asked me if I had heard that a raisin will restore bubbles in a flat sparkling wine. I had not heard this and immediately said a raisin couldn’t possibly put bubbles back in a sparking line — it would be like putting the genie back in the bottle.

But the question got my curiosity and online research gives some credence to the gimmick. Bubbles come from carbon dioxide. What’s left of carbon dioxide in a flat sparkling wine will attach themselves to a raisin’s many ridges and emit more bubbles.

I tried this experiment on several glasses of sparkling wine. One was left open two days and emitted no bubbles even when two raisins were added. The sparking wine left open a few hours had more response. And, one left open just an hour got the most bubble action — presumably because it had the most carbon dioxide left.

Unfortunately, the additional bubbles won’t last long, so don’t think you can keep adding raisins to keep the bubble machine going. Frankly, my best advice is to never let sparkling wine go flat to begin with.


Happy Thanksgiving. Now, pass me the wine

For more than 35 years I have been telling readers what to serve with turkey on Thanksgiving Day. My only relief from the tedium is looking forward to the feast.

My advice is always the same: just about any wine, except tannic cabernet sauvignons, go well with a neutral meat such as turkey. If you’re serving prime rib or a loin of lamb, by all means break out those big Bordeaux.

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But at my house I know there will be chardonnay and pinot noir on the table — probably from Burgundy. Chardonnay does well with rich gravy and traditional stuffing while pinot noir is simple enough to complement turkey, sweet potatoes and even cranberries. I like to bounce between both varieties.

If these aren’t your cup of tea, then I recommend beaujolais — a bright red wine that won’t cost you an arm and a drumstick. Syrah or shiraz are also good choices because they are not complicated or tannic.

Check out my suggested wines in this week’s column on the “My Column” page.

I sincerely hope that your Thanksgiving is spent harmoniously with family and friends. Be safe, be healthy, be kind.


How about a glass of Tide?

The tide seems to be turning. Tide, the producers of laundry detergent, abandoned those cute little pods when 8 people died after ingesting them — they looked too much like candy and in some cases sane people were dared into eating them. Now, Tide has developed an eco-friendly box with a handy spout that looks too much like boxed wine.

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Social media comments wonder if people won’t mistake the laundry detergent for their box of Franzia.

Really?

First, you’ve got a bigger problem if your kids are confusing boxed wine with laundry detergent. Second, I don’t see how anyone with half a brain could confuse this box with wine. It’s orange and the label is a jug of Tide. If that doesn’t set you straight, the first pour of this thick, colored liquid should tell you it isn’t wine in your glass.

You just can’t fix stupid.

Beaujolais: Il est arrive!


Beaujolais Nouveau was officially released after midnight this morning. I’m sure you set your alarms.

By French law and custom, the gamay beaujolais, signalling the the new vintage and upcoming holidays, is always released on the third Thursday in November. In the past it has been dropped from dirigibles, parachuted from the sky, delivered by hot air balloon and by many more inventive manners to drive enthusiasm. George Duboeuf has always lead the charge.

Here’s what Georges Duboeuf, founder of Les Vins Georges Duboeuf, had to say about the vintage: “It was a pleasure to watch these grapes develop and arrive at the winery.   Now that the Nouveau is on its way to markets around the world, we can confirm that 2018 will be among the greatest vintages we’ve ever had.”

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Wow.

New this year is the Duboeuf rose, a delicious wine with citrus and peach flavors.

According to the press release, “The 2018 Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais Nouveau wines coming to the US will feature on their label an original, abstract oil painting called “Foolish Pleasure” by emerging artist Chloe Meyer.  Following the success of 2017’s inaugural Artist Label Competition, the winery hosted the contest again this past winter, with more than 680 pieces of art submitted by artists all over the world. Over 7,000 votes cast were cast on social media (nearly double from the prior year), with the Nashville, TN, native named the winner.  Ms. Meyer’s vibrant and colorful painting will adorn over a million 2018 Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais Nouveau bottles sold in the US. “

Beaujolais is a great wine to serve with a turkey feast on Thanksgiving.

Trump needs some wine like the rest of us

Trump finally got around to including wine in his rants — what took him so long?

Here was his recent tweet:

"On Trade, France makes excellent wine, but so does the U.S.," Trump tweeted. "The problem is that France makes it very hard for the U.S. to sell its wines into France, and charges big Tariffs, whereas the U.S. makes it easy for French wines, and charges very small Tariffs. Not fair, must change!"

Well, he’s partly right. Yes, American tariffs across the globe are less than what Europe charges. No, because it wasn’t France’s idea. Tariffs are set by the European Union, so they are applied by Spain, Portugal, Germany and other wine growing regions.

French wine imports have risen 200 percent between 2008 and 2017 — the United States is France’s top importer too.

Tarrifs are greatly influenced by alcohol content and the size of the container. Thus, higher alcohol zinfandels and liter-sized bottles are subject to different tarrifs.

Trump is a teetotaler.

With blends, only red seems to work

I recently did a wine tasting for a small group of eager wine enthusiasts. The subject was blends — a segment of the wine industry that is growing so fast it’s just behind chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon. In fact, of the wines introduced in the last year, 40 percent of them were blends.

Strangely to me at least is that no one is making a decent white blend. The two I offered to the tasters — Kitchen Sink and Apothic White — were awful. Nearly everyone — including me — dumped them. There seemed to be no consideration given to what each grape variety contributed to the wine. Awkward and overly acidic come to mind.

On the other hand, the three red blends I poured were equally delicious. Each blended different grapes — one was a California blend of mostly zinfandel and syrah; one was a South African blend of Bordeaux grape varieties; the other was a Washington state blend of 14 grapes. Each showed how well-paired grapes can produced a delicious wine with broad flavors.

I’ll be writing a column about red blends in the near future. For now, there are the three wines everyone liked:

  • No Curfew Red Wine 2016 ($15). This is a very delicious and balanced blend of zinfandel, syrah, petite sirah, cabernet sauvignon and petit verdot. Raspberry notes enveloped in a round mouthfeel with oak-infused vanilla and chocolate flavors. This is an invention of Amici, a producer known for its great values. 

  • Beyond Ordinary Cabernet Blend 2016 ($15).  We didn’t expect much from this South African blend, but we’re we ever surprised. This blend uses all five Bordeaux grape varieties and offers French appeal with black currant and dark fruit flavors, soft tannins and hints of pepper and leather. 

  • Apex Red Blend “The Catalyst” 2016 ($17). There are 14 grape varieties in this complex and well-priced blend from Washington state. Syrah dominates the blend, though, and provides effuse red berry flavors. Nice dose of fine tannins gives it body for a foil to grilled steaks. 

Some wines should just take a rest

After spending a delightful breakfast with Dan Cohn talking about his accessible and reasonably priced cabernet sauvignon, I had quite the opposite experience speaking to Craig Becker, winemaker at Priest Ranch.

Becker has an envious selection of mountain-grown grapes on Vaca Mountain just south of St. Helena. Generally, vineyards located on mountain sides produce late-ripening grapes that in turn create massive wines with serious tannins and depth.

Indeed, these red wines are hardly approachable. Only the regular 2015 Priest Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon was drinkable. The estate’s Coach Blend, a Bordeaux-like blend, the Somerston Merlot and the Somerston Cabernet Sauvignon XCVI were closed, tannic and begging to be decanted or, better, aged.

Don’t get me wrong: these wines were great but far too early to enjoy. And that got me to thinking about the number of people who pay hundreds of dollars in restaurants to taste these wines. Even against a steak, I don’t see how they could be enjoyed.

Priest Ranch is now part of the Somerston Estate as a result of a purchase recently made to expand its vineyards. It is named after James Joshua Priest who settled the property in 1869. It was purchased by the Chapmans in 2004. All of its wines come from estate-grown grapes.

Perhaps the best wine of the tasting was the Priest Ranch Grenache Blanc 2016 ($20). Becker says the yield from this block is 20 tons an acre — but they drop 14 tons to get the results they want.

Bellacosa: finally a true wine to enjoy

I’m so tired of false wines. By that I mean those sappy popsicles that are loaded with sweet fruit and blended with no consideration for what makes sense. Oh, wait, there is a wine called Liquid Popsicle. And there are wines called Kitchen Sink to denote that everything but is a part of the blend, and Conundrum because the variety of grapes make it impossible to define.

 Daniel Cohn

Daniel Cohn

But then comes along Bellacosa, a cabernet sauvignon that is appreciably honest.. The wine is balanced and the best $25 cabernet sauvignon on the market today. I am not exaggerating.

The genius behind this three-year-old brand is Dan Cohn, the son of Bruce Cohn whose cabernet sauvignons — B.R. Cohn — were legendary. When Bruce sold the business in 2015, Dan launched Bellacosa with the matra that his wine “had to look like a $100 bottle, it had to brink like a $50 bottle and it had to sell at $25.”

He traveled state to state for 308 days a year while married with child, staying in cheap hotels and putting his wines in the mouths of restaurant beverage managers, retailers and consumers — shoe-leather marketing. When I met up with him for breakfast, he pounded down two espressos — he would have four more before lunch. He is the Energizer Bunny of the wine world.

“I try to keep it under 20 espressos a day,” he quipped.

His first vintage of 25,000 cases sold out in 10 months. Wine Business named him one of the top 10 Wine Brands of 2016. Critics are raving about his wines.

Each restaurant he visits, he challenge doubters to blind taste his $25 Bellacosa alongside the best cabs on their wine lists. In fine restaurants, that can include Hall, Frank Family Vineyards and other prestigious brands that sell for considerably more. He calls this the “Bellacosa Bet” and if he wins the restaurant agrees to pour his wine by the glass. He hasn’t lost yet.

He makes only cabernet sauvignon from California’s north coast vineyards because that’s the grape variety he managed while working for his father. Last year he formed a joint venture with Deutsch Family Wine & Spirits.

What I found so refreshing in Bellacosa is that it didn’t follow the herd of most start-ups that are parlaying the consumer’s coco-cola palate for instant success from cheap blends loaded with sugar and plastered with some catchy name.

You’re a fool if you don’t try this wine.

Phinney sells another one

Wine genius David Phinney seems to have a pretty good deal going. He invents a label, makes it a marketing phenom, then sells it for a princely sum to a wine conglomerate.

Phinney’s most recent deal was to sell his Locations series to E&J Gallo. It was only a few years ago that Phinney was inspired to blend wines across regions and label them after the country’s designation. Resembling a bumper sticker, “F” was for France, “E” for Spain, “AZ” for Arizona, etc. There was no regard for boundaries in deciding which varieties to use in his blends. However quixotic, the wines were tasty — and reasonably priced at $20 a bottle. It was a formula that abandoned traditions that would be Phinney’s ticket to success.

The sales price was not disclosed.

Phinney already had a friendly business relationship with Gallo, having sold his Orin Swift wines to them just two years ago. Constellation now has the Prisoner brand.

Phinney was able to launch new labels without owning any vineyards or winemaking facilities. Think about that. He sells a label. Presumably, he stays aboard and makes the wine, but I suspect it is in name only.

Phinney’s latest wine is 8 Years in the Desert made under the Orin Swift label. It is a zinfandel blend that sells for $45 a bottle.

Nice pitch, Tommy

Tommy Lasorda is the latest luminary to put his name on a bottle of wine. Lasorda Family Wines have released a reasonably priced chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon made from grapes grown in Paso Robles.

Lasorda was a major league pitcher but is known more as the manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers — a position that earned him a place in the Hall of Fame.

More than 90 years old now, I doubt he’s doing much wine making. He did get his interest in wine from his father, an Italian immigrant who did make wine. He is the longest-living Hall of Famer.

Both wines are medium body and pretty pedestrian, but Dodger fans would be proud to own them.

Wine drinkers are a happy lot

According to a study by TABS, 66 percent of adults in the U.S. consume beverage alcohol and among them 45 percent buy wine at least three times a year

The profile of those who enjoy wine is not surprising: 55 percent earn more than $125,000 and most popular are those aged 21-29 and 30-39, and probably hail from the Northeast.

Game of Thrones wine

Now that HBO’s hit series Game of Thrones has won an Emmy, isn’t it time to celebrate? You can celebrate or binge watch the show with the 2016 Game of Thrones Pinot Noir ($20). The wine is made from grapes grown in the Willamette Valley and is full of ripe red berry fruit flavors. 

Rabble comes to life

The Rabble Wine Company is the latest producer to introduce augmented reality technology to wine labels. And, it’s pretty impressive.

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With the use of an app, a historical woodblock print rendition from the Nuremberg Chronicle (late 1400s to early 1500s) comes to life. These labels depict nature’s wrath, so you can imagine the movement. Among the prints is a fire-breathing dragon, a tempest touching down in Rome, and Mount Vesuvius erupting over Pompeii.

The first release is a red blend of grapes from the Paso Robles region. The wine is pretty tasty but not as exciting as the label — an apocalyptic comet falling on Florence. Nonetheless, it will give you a conversation started for your next party.


Geyser Peak's finer wine

More than a decade ago I wrote about Geyser Peak’s comeback under the guidance of Australian winemaker Nick Goldschmidt. I had met with him during a wine country tour and he was more than happy to accept the title. I remember him acknowledging the work that went into restoring this historic property founded in 1880.

Alas, Goldschmidt left in 2008 after Geyser Peak was sold by Beam to Constellation. The winery has had multiple owners since then, including Ascentia and now Accolade. Ownership changes mean changes in philosophy and in this case the role Geyser Peak should play in the marketplace.

Over time I watched the wines return to their plonk status: cheap, pedestrian and uninspiring. They were made for grocery stores sales and I’m sure they made money if they didn’t make fans.

But I was recently encouraged after tasting the 2013 Geyser Peak Devil’s Inkstand reserve cabernet sauvignon ($55). It reminded me what Geyser Peak was — and perhaps what it can be. It’s a very nice wine.

Using grapes from mountain top vineyards in Alexander Valley, this cabernet was aged 21 months in French oak barrels. The aging provides complexity and depth to this tannic yet approachable wine.

Although the technical notes lists only cabernet sauvignon as the wine’s composition, clearly it has some petite sirah to give the wine its dark color.

Randy Meyer has been the property’s winemaker since 2018.

Alas, balanced chardonnay

I've been opening a lot of chardonnay lately. You may think I'm a glutton for punishment, but I'm not afraid to admit I like chardonnay. I especially like some of the relatively inexpensive burgundies from the Macon and other regions. Alas, I can't afford Montrachet but there is still plenty of good, austere French chardonnay.

What's so good about French chardonnay? They aren't cloaked in oak nor are they sweet, which is what I still find in mass-produced California chardonnays. But, I did find two balanced chardonnays that emphasized fruit and balance over oak and sugar.

The 2015 Fort Ross Mother of Pearl Chardonnay ($60) is unfined and unfiltered, which preserves the purity of the grapes. The oak influence is in the background and adds to the complexity of this luxurious chardonnay but upfront are the generous citrus and honeysuckle aromas followed by layered pear and white peach flavors.

The other version that impressed me was the 2016 Dutton Estate Kyndall's Reserve-Dutton Ranch chardonnay ($42) from the Russian River Valley. Good acidity balances the plush mouthfeel of the barrel-fermented, malolactic fermented fruit.

Has wine consumption hit its peak?

Wine consumption in the United States  has been on the upswing for 20 years, thanks largely to encouragement from health reports that show some benefits from moderate wine consumption. However, like all trends, sales may have reached their peak.

The Silicon Valley Bank Wine Division in its "State of the Wine Industry 2018" report projects growth to decline as much as 10 percent this year. That's down from last year's 10-14 percent growth.

Sales increases were unsustainable. There is only so much alcohol we can drink. The volume of wine we consume -- 2.3 gallons annually per person -- has doubled since 1993. California wineries have increased production in response to the trend 

Even though Americans have more dispensable income now and the nation's economic health is good, consumers aren't increasing their consumption. My bet, though, is that they are drinking better wine. Anyone want to study that?