Tom's blog

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, www.alitwines.com.

 

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. 

drouhin2.jpg

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.