Tom's blog

Premium wines selling better, but not in restaurants

A recent report from the Silicon Valley Bank -- strangely the best guide to wine sales -- shows that consumers are spending more on their wine. 

The bank reported that "premium" wine sales are increasing while those for cheaper wine under $10 is decreasing. These cheaper wines are often composed of bulk wines, box wines, etc.  Wines that cost more aren't necessarily "premium" in my book, but nonetheless wines in the $15-20 and $20-plus have shown sales increases.

More interesting to me in the study was the change in restaurant wines. Consumers are spending less in restaurants, partly because of a shift to more casual restaurants where wine plays a smaller role.  Also, chain restaurants sell mass-produced wines because they can depend on supply. An increasing number of smaller wineries are ignoring the three-tier system and selling their wines directly to consumers.

More so, consumers at all ages are frowning at restaurant mark-ups. It's about time to rebel. Younger drinkers, theorizes Silicon Valley Bank's study, know they can pay less for wine in a store and are having only a glass of wine or beer in restaurants. Seniors on fixed income are opting for a glass of wine while dining out and millennials are favoring at-home meals.

I'm a senior citizen now, but until recently my wife and I have enjoyed sharing a bottle of wine while dining out. We recently switched to a glass of wine, which we know has a higher mark-up than a bottle. The bottled wines we like are often the most expensive and I know the mark-up from experience. A restaurant bill with wine can regularly top $200 and occasionally $300. I can't sustained a dining bill this high twice a week.

We like to dine at home, which is the trend nowadays. I have a good cellar of aged wines to tap into. But even those seniors who don't have a cellar, it's still significantly cheaper to buy steak and wine and serve them at home. Restaurants are hurting themselves with these high mark-ups.

And this brings me back to my annoyances: restaurants should be less focused on mass producers of common wines marked up 300-400 percent. Instead, they should find the small producers who will appeal to the curious consumer and whose prices are more moderate. They are out there -- I taste these wines every week. 

Sure, these producers may not be able to replenish inventory but why not have a list of daily specials? When they run out, list something else. I've seen this done in restaurants with great success. Those restaurant owners who aren't lazy and who are willing to spend some time on their wine lists will reap the rewards.



Game of Wine

I don't know what's more addictive: wine or Game of Thrones. But, now you can have both.

Vintage Wine Estates has more wine choices of Games of Throne wine, created in cooperation with the award-winning HBO drama. Wine is featured in many scenes.

The wines includes chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, red blend and the new pinot noir. The corks are imprinted with either the House Tyrell or House Martell sigil.

These wines are available at


Is the wholesaler in jeopardy?

More and more people are getting their wines directly from producers and that's a trend that should concern wholesalers and retailers who are losing their cuts. 

According to Gomberg, Fredrikson Associates, a wine industry data collection firm, direct-to-consumer sales accounted for 10 percent of the wine retail market in 2017. Volume increased 158 percent over the previous year.  The trend is obvious.

Most of the DtC business is from wineries with limited production and who have a hard time getting attention from distributors who don't want to mess with them. According to Forbes, 80 percent of total domestic wineries produce no more than 5,000 annual cases each.

I was recently talking to Ryan Harris, president of Domaine Serene in the Williamette Valley, about this issue. He said 80 percent of Domaine Serene's revenue is from direct-to-consumer sales and that represents about 50 percent of their volume. Those numbers stunned me because I don't consider Domaine Serene to be small.

It is the same conclusion I've heard from other producers who focus on expensive, high-end wines. Wholesalers focus on large producers -- Constellation, Treasury Wine Estates, Gallo and Kendall-Jackson, for instance -- who can keep the pipeline filled. Expensive wines with small productions can't get the attention of wholesalers focused primarily on quantity and numbers.

Harris' two numbers show the attraction of stronger marketing in DtC sales: you can make more money if you eliminate the middlemen.

Domaine Serene has a strong wine club. West Coast producers have amped up their wine clubs and hospitality centers that attract tourists to their facilities. That, coupled with more liberal laws regarding the shipment of alcoholic beverages, and you have a movement. However, it's not necessary positive for consumers.

DtC sales mean consumers have greater access to hard-to-find wines sold exclusively at wineries. However, they don't come cheap. I recently ordered some Lorenza rose from the winery, thinking it was hard to find in my local market. Later, I discovered Total Wine was selling it for $3 less a bottle and there was no shipping charges.


Location, location, Locations

David Phinney, the genius behind The Prisoner, continues with his new Locations' series of wines. 

A couple of years ago, Phinney had the idea that he could do so much more with his wine if there weren't any boundaries to the vineyards. In other words, why not blend a Rhone grenache with a Languedoc grenache and call it "F" for France?  Thus was born Locations, a portfolio of wines that now include Spain, Italy, Texas, Washington, New York and more. The labels for each of them mimic a bumper sticker: a single letter in an oval circle.

The recent releases I tasted are enjoyable, although without characteristics that would help locate them. In other words, their generic flavors didn't tell me they were French or Californian. However, Phinney seems to take care in selecting complementing grape varieties. "E5" (Spain) is a common blend of garnacha, tempranillo, monastrell and carinena. "NZ" (New Zealand) is entirely sauvignon blanc (what else is there to blend in New Zealand?).  "W" is a combination of syrah, merlot and petit sirah grapes. "E5" was my favorite.

The best news is that these tasty wines are sold for $20. 

Mount Etna erupting with unique wine

I can't imagine owning vineyards on the slopes of Mount Etna, Sicily's still active volcano. First, I'd be looking over my shoulder a lot. Second, the volcanic rock from molten lava would seem inpenetrable.

But it hasn't been inpenetrable for centuries. In fact, some of the vines in the Etna region are more than 100 years old. Growers simply break up the rock and let the vines reach through the heavy nutrients in the fertile soil in their search for water.

Etna, a DOC since 1968, is a trendy growing region today as Italian winemakers have been buying up property in the last several decades. Expect to hear more about wines from the Etna region.

Giovanni Valenti

Giovanni Valenti

One producer new to the region is Giovanni Valenti, a well-established businessman who launched a second career in wine. Valenti grew up in Catania, Sicily and always dreamed of making wine with his father on his home island. They bought a nearly abandoned vineyard in 2009 and a dilapidated distillery to make the wine. Since then they have bought several more vineyards to amass a collection of nearly 100 acres.

I met with Valenti recently to taste his wines.  The grape varieties are hardly well known: the top red variety is nerello mascalese and the top white grape is carricante. Catine Valenti wines are named after writers, operas and other products of Italian fine art history.

The red 2013 Poesia ($50) was medium body and is compared to something between a nebbiolo and a pinot noir from Burgundy. It was light colored and had the texture of a slightly aged Marsanay, Valenti said they aged very well. 

I wasn't as impressed with the red wines as I was with the 2017 Enrico IV ($28) made from carricante grapes. It had intense aromas and a rich texture that reminded me of a premier cru burgundy. I bought several bottles. 

What I love about the wines from the Etna region is that they are unique. And, when you're tasting chardonnay or sauvignon blanc most of your life, unique is good. 

Bonjour, Domaine Serene -- et, bon chance?

Ken and Grace Evenstad have always loved the chardonnay and pinot noir from Burgundy. In the late 1980s they launched one of the most successful pinot noir houses in the Willamette Valley and sought to pursue their dream of making exceptional wine in the United States.  Indeed, Domaine Serene has been winning awards ever since.

But the Evenstads couldn't let go of their Burgundian dreams. In 2015, they purchased a 15th century chateau -- Chateau de la Crée -- in Santenay. I would think that breakthrough would cause a stir in the chateau's tiny village of Santenay. After all, it wasn't that long ago that Robert Mondavi was rudely rebuffed by the French in an attempt to plant a vineyard in Languedoc. 

But, the Evenstads were no Mondavis.

"The deal was completed in a few months," said Ryan Harris, president of Domaine Serene.

An American wine producer buying an historic chateau of this order is more unusual than a French producer buying wine property in the United States. Moet-Chandon was among the first to do launch a sparkling wine company in California in 1973. Champagne makers Taittinger and Roederer soon followed. Then came Clos du Val, Dominus, Opus One (a partnership of Mondavi and Baroness Philippine de Rothschild). In Oregon, Burgundian Robert Drouhin of Maison Joseph Drouhin raised eyebrows -- and prestige -- when he launched Domaine Drouhin in Oregon's Willamette Valley. But the Evanstads were the first Oregonians to own a chateau in Burgundy.

Grace Evenstad, who was recently hosting a wine dinner in Naples, Fl., said the differences between making wine in Oregon and France were clear one day when she showed a Burgundian winemaker their Willamette Valley vineyards. 

"She said to me, 'Which rows are yours?'" Evenstad said.

In Burgundy, it is common for a vineyard to have multiple owners.

Harris said that throwing a lot of parties, meeting neighbors, and developing good relations with local officials paved the way for the purchase. But, the transition to making good wine was not so smooth.

Evenstad said, "Everyone is now gone."

Whether they left on their own or were replaced wasn't clear, but she said that they were surprised by the lack of "science" at Chateau de la Crée. She said vineyards lack adequate spacing between rows and even if the vineyards were bio-dynamically farmed -- whatever that means in France -- the pesticides and other chemicals from neighboring vineyards were wafting onto those of Chateau de la Crée.

Ken and Grace Evenstad.

Ken and Grace Evenstad.

She was quick to distance Domaine Serene from the pinot noirs being poured at the tasting. "They aren't ours," she warned, lest someone came away with an unfavorable impression of their new venture. 

Despite the caveat, I enjoyed the Chateau de la Crée Clos de la Confrerie Monopole Santenay.

The tasting bravely paired a Domaine Serene pinot noir with a Chateau de la Crée pinot noir and there was an obvious New World vs. Old World difference. The Santenay wines had an earthy, barnyard profile classic to Burgundy and its terroir. However, the Domaine Serene Evanstad Reserve was undeniably a superior pinot noir.

It will be interesting to watch what the Evenstads do with the wines from this historic chateau and how they manage the French. Will they Americanize them with bolder fruit, higher alcohols and more fruit extraction?

I don't think it is going to be as smooth as they think. They are asking the French to adapt to their practices and no matter how much better they are, it doesn't always go down well with the sensitive French.

Bon chance, Ken and Grace.

Alsace: the forgotten and neglected

Every time I have a riesling or pinot blanc from Alsace, I am enveloped in regret The only ageworthy riesling I have in my cellar is from Washington state. The last time I ordered one in a restaurant was when I spotted a deal for a 10-year-old Weinbach pinot blanc. It was sublime, but did I go out and buy some of the current vintage? No.

Colmar, the commercial center of Alsace.

Colmar, the commercial center of Alsace.

With that in mind, I recently dived into a flight of Alsace pinot blanc, pinot gris and pinot noir from several Alsace providers.  All of these pinot iterations are deceiving: all are descendants of pinot noir. Pinot gris in Alsace is pinot grigio in Italy. Same grape, just a different interpretation of "gray" that describes the grape skin. Pinot blanc is slightly different in that it is a genetic mutation of pinot noir.  Any flavor differences between the three white grapes is mostly a result of terroir and climate.

First, let me say Alsace producers should get out of the red wine business. For centuries they have struggled to make a decent pinot noir and I have yet to taste one. The two I sampled were awkward, vegetal and astringent. With great pinot noirs coming out of Burgundy and the West Coast, there are ample comparisons.

Second, the region's rieslings and pinot blancs are showing less sweetness nowadays. Just one pinot gris from Emile Beyer exhibited some residual sugar in my tasting flight. The 2013 Albert Boxer pinot blanc reserve was unique -- five years of bottle age gave it a riper, slightly maderized profile I loved. And it was dry.

The 2016 Domaine Paul Blanck Pinot Blanc was a perfect example of a simple Alsace wines with varietal stone fruit flavors, a dash of mineral and citrus.

The pinot blancs and pinot gris are great summer sippers. The austere French pinot gris is superior in my mind to the fruity, extracted Italian pinot grigio.

About those ripe fruit bombs you like...

I was having lunch the other day with Jay Turnipseed, a winemaker I first met when he was at Mount Veeder and Franciscan wineries. Today, Jay is making wine for the Rutherford Wine Company, which has an extensive portfolio of wines, including Round Hill, Rutherford Ranch and Scott Family wines.  I always enjoy talking to Jay because he is a fountain of knowledge when it comes to growing grapes and making wine.

The preponderance of fruit-ladened, bold and alcoholic red wines on the market has been bugging me of late, so I was eager to hear Jay's thoughts. His bourbon-barrel-aged zinfandel falls into that category, so Jay wasn't against this style because, as he said, it's a business decision. Sell whatever sells.

However, Jay said that you lose a lot of varietal flavor when you over-extract a wine -- and that alone helped me to understand why I don't like these fruit bombs. He said that especially with cabernet sauvignon you can lose the currant flavor and instead pick up more dark cherry and plum character. Aha, I thought. I don't like plums in my wine and prefer fresh blackberry or black cherry flavors. 

This riper style began more than a decade ago when wine critics like Robert Parker Jr. gave ripe wines with high alcohol levels a 90-plus ranking. In order to earn a higher score, winemakers changed their style of winemaking. Pretty soon the old style of wines with tannins and varietal character became rare.

Whether you like the Old World style of wines -- as do I -- is personal.  But if you like ripe fruit, today's wines are made for you.

Roses have arisen

I've never tasted so many rosés before this year. Thanks to its growing popularity, there are more rosés on the market as the segment continues to expand. But with this growth comes growing pains. Not all of it is good, much of it is a producer's after-thought, and some of it is being made with odd grape varieties, such as pinot gris.

Lorenza wine producers Michele Ouellet and her mother Melinda Kearney.

Lorenza wine producers Michele Ouellet and her mother Melinda Kearney.

Perhaps that is why we like Lorenza, a California rosé being made by mother/daughter team Melinda Kearney and Michele Ouellet. Ten years ago they fell in love with rosé and decided to form a company that made nothing but rosé. And, they use the grape varieties traditionally used by the French who have perfected rosé: grenache, syrah, cinsault and mourvedre.

I enjoy wine made with these varieties, but I also found several good ones made with pinot noir. 

From France, I liked the many rosés made by Michel Chapoutier, Whispering Angel, Minuity, and Guigal. From the West Coast, my favorites were those rosés made by Inman, Ponzi, Lorenza and Cline. 

I'll have a full report in my column next week.

Maybe I have it all wrong

Last  night I sprung a surprise quiz on a group of wine enthusiasts who were attending one of my programs. I asked them to give me a thumbs up or down on two mystery wines: Apothic Brew, a Gallo wine infused with coffee, and Four Virtues, a zinfandel partially aged in toasted bourbon barrels.

I hated Apothic Brew -- not just because it assaulted my palate but because it was a laboratory Frankenstein developed by a marketing department eager to tap into consumers' gullibility. At least the Four Virtues zinfandel redeemed itself with good flavors, even though it was too sweet for my palate. 

four virtues.jpg

Nonetheless, the audience showed that my seasoned palate is not what most winemakers care about.  Half of the crowd liked the Four Virtues zin; less than half like the Apothic Brew. They all found the wines "interesting" and appreciated the opportunity to try something off the wall.

And, maybe that's the point. I often harp that wine drinkers regularly stick to the same wines year after year when there are so many alternatives that will deliver pleasure. So why shouldn't they try a blend of wine and coffee? Who am I to say they shouldn't like it?

Wine conventions are being dismantled daily as winemakers seek to find the new trend (white zinfandel, orange wines, rose, et al) that will earn them and their shareholders big profits. Fetzer was the first to make wine in bourbon barrels and it flew off the shelf. Others -- Rutherford Wine Company, Robert Mondavi, Gallo -- jumped on the bandwagon. Do bourbon barrels add anything to the wine? I'm not sure -- but it's a great marketing tool because bourbon is trending nowadays and the producers are making money.


Making a wine list interesting is not that difficult

My wife and I were in Nashville, Tn, and Asheville, NC, the last week. We were resolved to find a wasteland of culinary treats because we had sadly consigned our views to old stereotypes -- you know, grits, ribs, fried foods. But tucked into corners of these growing communities were trendy eateries focused on farm-to-table dishes. If you look, you will find them: Curate, Rhubarb, Husk, Rolf & Daughters, and others we didn't have the time to try.

These restaurants are serving local meat, fish and vegetables like ramps but with a chef's twist on preparation and sauces. Similarly, the wine had a spin with emphasis on organically grown wines, zesty orange wines and roses.  I was very impressed with wine lists that dared to ignore commercial chardonnays and merlots. 

There seemed to be a greater emphasis on farm-to-table in these small and hardly cosmopolitan towns that there is in my previous locales, such as Naples, FL and Annapolis, MD. Bully for them.

How to reconcile broken stemware accidents

Like many others, I was dumbfounded to read about an Australian woman's plight after she accidentally broke a wine glass while visiting her rich in-laws. Not much was made of the accident when it occurred, but she was later the recipient of a bill for more than $200 for the broken glass. The note came with a web link where she could order a replacement. 

The woman, who just had her inlaw's first grandchild, was living in a converted garage with her husband, so it's not as if they have the same wealth as her husband's parents. 

This is so wrong on many counts, but it raises the issue of stemware in the home. If you serve wine as often as I do, you break glasses. I break glasses and even carafes. My guests break glasses. No one does it intentionally and I should be generous enough to forgive my guests if they accidentally break a glass just as I hope they would forgive me if I broke a glass in their homes. If the stemware is that precious to me, I shouldn't serve it. 

If I'm hosting a sit-down dinner, I serve wine in my best stemware. If my guests are gathering on the lanai or in the pool, I serve everyday plonk in plastic tumblers. Broken glass on pavers or, worse, in the pool is catastrophic. Everyone seems to understand.

When people break a glass, they feel horrible and offer to pay. It is ridiculous for me in let them pay.  It's the cost of having fun with friend. For this woman's inlaws to present a bill to her says one thing to me: she married into the wrong family.


Sparr: starting anew in Alsace

Wine history is littered with stories of family breakups. The Mondavis and Krugs are just two examples in Napa. More rare in Europe, generations of wine families go deep. That's not so much the case with the Pierre Sparr family in Alsace. Founded in 1680, the company is now 12 generations deep but not all of the family is together.

Pierre Sparr died several years ago and his family disagreed on whether to sell the company to Wilson Daniels. His son and winemaker, Pierre Sparr, opposed the sale with his 18 percent share and lost. While his cousins continued to run the business under new ownership, Pierre launched his own winemaking operation with his son, Charles. Domaine Charles Sparr -- presumably named to avoid a conflict with Pierre Sparr -- has been making wine just outside Colmar for a couple of years. 

I happened to run  across Pierre at a recent wine dinner. He said he promised his father on his deathbed that there would be no acrimony with the family, but Pierre dreams of the day when he gets back the family property. Meanwhile, he's content to be making wine with his son.

Charles has introduced biodynamic and organic farming methods to the vineyards --- one of the first to do so in Alsace -- and he is striving to make drier wines. This is a goal of other young winemakers in Alsace who are eschewing their ancestors' practice of making off-dry rieslings, pinot blans and gewurtraiminers.

Said Pierre, "It's his turn."

He said at 22 he persuaded his father to let him make cramant d'Alsace, so he appreciates the need for change.

Pierre Sparr wines are dry -- nothing special from what I tasted but worthy of note nonetheless. 

I feel sad for Pierre, a delightful and earnest winemaker like others in the often forgotten Alsace region. He has such pride for his family and its wine history, but can only watch from afar as its 11 generation. 

Toes in the water for Zac Brown

The lyrics to Zac Brown's "Toes in the Water" became my theme song when I retired. They represented the life I wanted after a long working career.

I got my toes in the water, ass in the sand
Not a worry in the world, a cold beer in my hand
Life is good today Life is good today… 


I moved to Florida, put my toes in the water and, yes, life is good. But, apparently Zac Brown put his toes in the water too -- this time in a new wine-making venture. 

Z. Alexander Brown is a collaboration with Delicato Family Vineyards in Napa Valley. Launched in 2016, the Uncaged Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc were instant hits, thus showing the value of a rock-star label. He isn't the first to leverage his name in wine.

A red blend, cabernet sauvignon, and pinot noir have been added to the lineup. 

 How are the wines? Decent but nothing special. I like his music better. Given his country genre, wouldn't it have been better to put his name on a beer just like the lyrics have it? Jimmy Buffett did that with Landshark and it was a better fit than wine.

Not a worry in the world, a cold chardonnay in my hand....

I'll have some wine with my coffee

I met again with Jon Priest to taste some of his great pinot noirs and chardonnay from Etude. I first met Jon more than a decade ago while touring Carneros. He was filling the shoes of Etude's founder, Tony Soter. Treasury Wine Estates had just bought the winery, but Soter was obligated to stay on for a spell. Soter's legacy was pinot noir -- a passion he pursues to this day  but in the Willamette Valley.

Jon Priest, winemaker and general manager Etude Wines, Carneros.

Jon Priest, winemaker and general manager Etude Wines, Carneros.

Priest doesn't have much stock in what he calls "cocktail wines," those pinot noirs that are loaded with extracted fruit, oak, alcohol and especially sugar. Meomi and Menage et Tois come to mind, although he was too professional to cite any of the pinot noir producers he puts in the "cocktail" camp.

Priest said one day he was talking to an associate and said aloud that the next thing they'll be mixing with wine is coffee. Not long after that, someone did. Again, he wouldn't mention the wine, but I knew he was referring to Gallo's new Apothic Dark Roast. It's a Frankenstein. I don't know whether to serve it with my morning cereal or my evening dessert.

Robert Mondavi used to add wine to his morning coffee, if I remember his biography correctly. But he was one of a kind in more ways than one. Perhaps it was an Italian custom.

I asked Priest why someone hasn't yet mixed beer with wine. Today I read someone has! Curious Brewery in Great Britain adds chardonnay to its sour ale to make Curiouser & Curiouser. Let's  hope it never leads England's shores or, worse, starts a trend.

Wine has been a blending liquid in a lot of mixed drinks -- mimosas are probably the most well known. But that combination seems to make more sense than beer.

I can't wait until they add wine to Gatorade.



Winemaking can be a barrel of fun

What's with all of bourbon-barrel wines on the market? It seems like we have a new trend afoot. In recent weeks, I've see four bottles of wine aged in old bourbon barrels. 

Actually, in the '70s, only the big wineries like Robert Mondavi had the money to invest in French oak. The other fledgling producers turned to former bourbon barrels because they were a lot cheaper. However, as quality became more important, everyone was buying French oak and charging customers for it.

Fetzer was the first to re-introduce ex-bourbon barrels to its 1000 Stories Zinfandel. The wine is first aged in American and French oak, and then finished with a few months in bourbon barrels. Winemaker Bob Blue says the bourbon barrels give the wine a smoky statement,

Other red wines aged in ex-bourbon barrels include Stave & Steel Cabernet Sauvignon and Four Virtues Zinfandel.

And, as if bourbon barrels isn't enough to throw us out of whack, Cooper & Thief is aging its sauvignon blanc in former tequila barrrels. It is probably the strangest sauvignon blanc I've ever tasted. Whether that's good or bad, you have to decide.

The bourbon-barrel reds I've tasted so far tend to be heavy on the vanilla, but that could come from the American oak too. 

If you've got a guy in the family who likes  his bourbon but not necessarily wine, here's a gift idea for Father's Day to help him in the transition.

Your wine preferences change over time

Researchers from Sonoma State University have found that consumers change their wine preferences as they age.

In a survey of 422 people, it was concluded that those people who agreed their preferences have change said they liked sweeter wines in their youth but graduated to drier red wines as they get older. However, those who said their preferences did not change always like sweet or semi-sweet wines. 

The researchers concluded that wine producers should always have a sweet wine in their portfolios but that dry red and white wines prevail over time.

There aren't a lot of surprises here. I never did like sweeter wines, but I have found my palate changing from the bolder wines like barolo and barberesco to the softer red wines like pinot noir. I've always like cabernet sauvignon and Rhone Valley. I've been returning to chardonnay as I age too.

Another legend becomes a memory

It was announced today that the legendary Heitz Wine Cellars has sold. The buyer is Arkansas billionaire Gaylon Lawrence. The Lawrence Group made its money from farming and perhaps that bodes well for Heitz.


The 1970 Heitz Wine Cellars Martha's Vineyard cabernet sauvignon placed third in the famous Judgment of Paris competition in which first-growth Bordeaux was bested by California cabs in a blind competition. That was the producer's zenith as the world flocked to its doors for the privilege of tasting Joe Heitz's fabulous and complex wines. More recent times have not been so kind.

It is only a matter of time for wineries to succumb to the temptation of big investors -- the rumor is that Heitz sold for as much as $180 million, according to Bloomberg News. How can you resist that when you get older and none of the offspring want to carry on?

In a press release Mrs. Heitz Myers said, “Our family founded Heitz Wine Cellars in 1961, and we have treasured our role in helping to shape the history of Napa Valley winemaking for three generations. We feel this is the right time for us to pass this rich legacy to another family. When we met with Gaylon, it seemed a perfect match. Fundamentally, in the wine business we are all farmers and with the Lawrence family’s history in agriculture we feel Heitz Cellars will be in good hands.”

I remember drinking Heitz in its heyday. It's not the same today. But neither are a lot of other legendary wines scarfed up by investors. Family owned wineries tend to concentrate on quality while corporations like E.J. Gallo and Kendall-Jackson tend to focus on the bottom line. One exception is Francis Ford Coppola who has invested a lot of time and money to resurrect the reputation of Inglenook.

One only hopes that a billionaire farmer will resurrect Heitz for the good of its customers and not his bottom line.


Augmented labels go nuts

My recent column about the introduction of augmented wine labels -- labels that become animated once a device's camera is applied -- drew a response from Treasury Wine Estates. The column featured two particular TWE labels -- 19 Crimes and Walking Dead. 

My figures about their popularity was vastly outdated. In fact, the Living Labels app has been downloaded more than 1.2 million times. More importantly, sales of Walking Dead are doing so well that future sales have been put on allocation. 

All of this reinforces my observation that sizzle continues to sell. What's outside the bottle is becoming a more influential draw that what's inside the bottle. Having made that generalization, however, these wines are pretty tasty.

I think what is bothering me of late are the number of new labels I've experienced in my daily wine tastings. So many of them are being born out of garages -- their owners have no vineyards and no winery, just a label they hope will catch the eye of consumers.  Labels like Cupcake (a name invented because its creator says everyone likes a cupcake, right?) are proof of the name's importance. I swear people buy Menage e Trois because they love to speak French and there's a daring sin involved in the name.

I don't anyone for being attracted to these gimmicks. But please don't judge the wine on its cover. Taste it and go back for more, if you like it.

Jammy red wines just won't go away

I naively thought that American wine masters were turning away from the extracted, ripe fruit bombs. Alas, I am wrong.

If there is one characteristic that separates American red wines from their Old World counterparts, it's that there is little that is refined and unoaked. While Bordeaux and Burgundy, for instance, produce delicate, sensual red wines, many large producers in California, Oregon and Australia prefer to impress you with residual sugar, lots of alcohol and robust, jammy fruit flavors. Sadly, it's what American consumers seem to want.

Just look at the success of Gallo's Apothic Wines or Meiomi pinot noir, Menage et Tois, and a host of zinfandels that leave considerable sugar in their wines to give them a roundness and disguise what is often a poor wine. Apothic has even introduced a new wine -- Brew -- that infuses cold-brew coffee into a motley collection of red grape varieties. You could spread it on toast and serve it with your morning coffee. Other wines sport names that broadcast their style: Big Smooth and Double Black are two I recently tasted. 

It has been known for decades that Americans have a Coca-Cola palate even though most consumers profess to like dry wines. Residual sugar covers tannin and other acids many find offensive, but they also disguise inferior grapes.  Rarely do these sweet concoctions come from sub-appellations. That's why they are cheap and unfortunately so sweet that they can't possibly complement any food besides cake.