Tom's blog

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.

Get out of your wine rut

I've been doing several wine tastings at various communities in Naples and each time I'm reminded how many people continue to drink the same wines year after year. Whether it's a Kendall-Jackson chardonnay, a Ferrari-Carano Fume Blanc, a Mark West pinot noir or a Manage et Tois blend, there is a go-to wine day after day.

Such a pity, I tell them as I pour four or five value wines they have never tasted before. With so many wines in the $10-15 category, there is a sea of alternatives to explore.  And, once the wine is in their glasses, they enjoy having something different.

They tell me of their fears to buy something they won't like. Going back to the wine they do like is so much more reliable. However, the other wines they will like are just waiting to be discovered. 

There was once a time in my life when wine choices were limited. It was hard to find wines from New Zealand, Australia, Portugal, Spain and even parts of the United States. However, as transportation improved with better shipping conditions, our market was flooded with new wines. But with that flood came confusion and fear. Consumers were buying wines not on familiarity but on the eye-catching labels. Even today producers of mediocre wines are putting more effort into their labels than into their wines. They don't own a winery or even vineyards -- they own just the name.

Please continue to try new grape varieties -- godello, verdejo, barbera, gamay, albarino -- and new regions -- Portugal, Croatia, Virginia, Sicily.  Your next favorite wine is waiting to be discovered.

Drink more, drive less?

A financial report released by Morgan Stanley, as recently reported in the Washington Post, forecasts that liquor producers and bars will experience greater profits as the use of self-driving cars grows.

The investment first suggests that imbibers will drink more if they don't actually have to drive home their cars. How weird is that?

Morgan Stanley says that if each person n the market consumed one more drink per month, the market could expand by $31 billion. Two drinks takes it to $250 billion. 

It's scary to think that more people will be risking their health just because they don't have to drive home after a bender at a downtown bar. I guess the health industry will profit too.



Spanish tasting unveils some gems

Ola, Spain!  Last night I conducted a public wine tasting for 55 eager tasters and rediscovered some gems from a region that is relatively new to the wine world.

Grapes have been grown in this country since the year 875, but internal strife -- Spanish Civil War and World War II to name two -- has curtailed wine production and the export industry.  Not until the root louse phylloxera devastated French vineyards did Spanish wine gain a foothold in the European wine market. Even then it wasn't until the mid 1950s that we began to see more and more Spanish wines in our market. 

Today, there is no shortage of great values from the Iberian Peninsula. Rioja is the most well known (although it's one of the smallest regions), but mencia wines from Bierzo and albarino from Rias Baixas are being discovered.

I like to consider first the name of the importer. For instance, Eric Solomon, Jorge Ordonez and Steve Metzler select top wines that have become reliable go-to's. You can bank on their quality when faced with a sea of labels. Look on the back of the labels for their names.

Here are a few wines from the tasting that I loved:

Burgans Albarino Rias Baixas 2016 ($13)  Many albarinos are way too simple to match with food, but this gem -- made at the cooperative Martin Codax -- is round, layered and long in the finish. Tropical fruit and peach with balanced acidity.

Gotin de Risc Mencia Bierzo 2016 ($16). Very aromatic with violate and blackberry notes.

Montebuena Rioja 2015 ($13). What a steal. Full in body, it has copious raspberry and cherry flavors with a good dose of vanilla. It is made entirely from tempranillo grapes.

Bodegas Borsao Tres Picos Garnacha 2014 ($16).  I've been tasting this wine for years and it never fails to please. Very rich and forward in plum and blackberry fruit.  The heavy use of oak gives it a good dose of vanilla and leather, which may not appeal to everyone.


Misleading labels under attack

The Wine Origins Alliance is pursing federal legislation that will establish stronger regulations in wine labeling. It's about time.

The lobby's focus is on states that put their location on a wine - but get their grapes from another state.  It named Texas in a recent press release, but did not provide any specific examples.

This is hardly new or really that common. I remember Mark West once made pinot noir from grapes grown in Chile.It was very misleading because no where on the label did it say the wines for this inexpensive wine came from Chile. I don't understand why any reputable dealer would even attempt this ruse and it wasn't long before Mark West dropped the practice. However, meanwhile it's reputation was temporarily sullied.

In the European Union and Australia, wine region names are protected through a registry of geographical indications. In the United States, they are protected through well-established federal and state laws that protect American Viticultural Areas for the wine industry inside its borders. However, the U.S. permits the use of wine region names like Champagne, Chablis, Chianti, Port and Sherry on labels of wines that do not originate in those European regions.

The use of "champagne" and "chablis," once popular by EJ Gallo, has been a source of lawsuits by European producers. You don't see it that often anymore.

Napa's changing landscape

If you have read one of James Conaway's triologies or heard him speak on Napa Valley, you can't help but be moved. Conaway, who has been writing eloquently about the Napa wine industry since the mid 1980s, has more respect for the grape farmer whose family has been tilling soil for generations than he is for the magnate who pays big money to have someone else do it for him.  

Conaway has a term for the fly-ins: "lifestyle vintners." I like it. A lifestyle vintner is someone who has made a bundle in another field and who buys a winery without any idea how to make wine or even grow grapes. He -- often a movie star, a professional athlete, or a mega-millionaire who just sold a tech company -- hires winemakers and viticulturists to do the work and then plasters his name on the label, charges consumers $100 for a bottle of over-ripe cabernet to raise his cachet, and names the vineyards after his kids or grandkids. I saw the same thing in Virginia where millionaires wanted to look at vineyards from their country home. President Trump has such a place.

Conaway laments that the pioneering days of Napa Valley are long gone. Those farmers who came from Europe to plant some of the valley's first grapes are long dead -- and so are their ideals for the soil and environment. As mega-conglomerates -- Constellation, Kendall-Jackson, Gallo, Treasury Wine Estates -- scarf up family-owned, small wineries, the goal of making good wine has been replaced by making good money. That's not true for every expansionist company, of course. Ernst and Julio Galo, for instance, were among the pioneers to plant vineyards in California. The brothers are long gone but their family remains in place and hellbent on expanding. 

Conaway argues that grape farmer and Napa resident were once respectful and appreciative of one another. Today, however, residents are engaged in lawsuits and feuds with lifestyle vintners who want to raze forests to make room for more vineyards. Resources, particularly water, is in short supply but local zoning officials seem incapable of stopping this parade.

Conaway is very pessimistic about Napa's future because winery owners and zoning officials just don't know when to say "stop." He over-generalizes and incidentally denigrates conscious producers who despite their background practice responsible farming. However, there is no argument that the landscape has changed in Napa Valley and it isn't for the better. Conaway wants people to pause when they sip their next Napa wine.  Tasting wine should be a holistic experience that includes history, stewardship, responsibility and honesty. 

I get it.


Wine labels come alive with the dead

It doesn't take much to amuse me today. A stupid comic, a turn of phrase, a pun and even a good fart joke will make me laugh.  So, I find amusing the clever wine labels created by Living Wine Labels, an app that uses your phone's camera to animate a wine label.  Among those brands using the service are Australia's 19 Crimes and Last Wine Company's Walking Dead wines. Beringer and Chateau St. Jean also have versions.

2015 The Walking Dead Blood Red Blend front label.jpg

The Walking Dead, based on a comic strip, is one of today's most popular cable TV shows, so the time couldn't be more perfect for Last Wine Co. The "Blood Rd Blend" has an image of Sheriff Rick Grimes. Download the app, point your camera to the label, and the sheriff fights off the undead in a wine shop, The Cabernet Sauvignon has zombies breaking out of the label. Put the bottles side by side and you have a fight breaking out. The wines sell for about $19 a bottle.

19 Crimes was first with the augmented reality label. The labels are based loosely on British prisoners who were sent to an undeveloped Australia in the 18th century for committing one of 19 crimes. The rogues later became the colonists of Australia.  The inmates on the label come to life telling their story. The label has been download more than half a million times.



Bad weather likely to spur price increases

A combination of extremely hot and cold weather is expected to spur a dramatic price increase for 2017 European wines. The three countries most affected are Italy, France and Spain -- producers of some of the least expensive wines.

Frost damage has lead to a 40 percent reduction in Bordeaux -- the worst hit coming in merlot-dependent St. Emilion. Rioja in Spain and prosecco in Italy were also hard hit. Experts say prices will rise as much as 30 percent for the least expensive wines. 

Reported the Guardian, “We’ll start to see those [2017] wines coming to the market now and I think for higher volume, lower price wine you will see cost increases,” says Dan Jago, chief executive of high end wine merchant Berry Bros & Rudd.

“Prices for things like pinot grigio or generic Spanish reds will rise by between 10% and 30% and it’s [a question of] how much of that retailers will pass on,” says Jago, who previously headed up the Tesco wine business. “Prosecco was very hard hit by frost, so there will be less of it and the price will go up.”

These weather patterns show the impact of climate change and are likely to continue, in my opinion. Regions once thought to have perfect climate are experiencing more challenging conditions.  Unfortunately, the prices of everyday wine for the masses are most impacted.

Producers of expensive wines, such as those in Bordeaux, may suck up some of the costs just to move their wines -- but price increases will not be avoided.

Wine and exercise

Now here's some medical advice we probably can follow: 2 glasses of wine and 15 minutes of exercise a day.

Dr. Claudia Kawas of the University of California says the secret to a long life is a combination of moderate alcohol and exercise. She adds keeping down your weight and drinking two cups of coffee daily -- another vice I can easily adapt.

Dr Claudia Kawas, of the University of California, who has spent 15 years studying people aged over 90, also recommended keeping weight down and drinking two cups of coffee a day.

Abacus: ZD's wonderful invention


For my 70th birthday, a friend brought over a 2006 Opus One. I decided to pair it with my lone bottle of ZD's Abacus, a wine that was given to me years ago by a mutual friend of ours. They were two outstanding wines -- the Opus was showing better but i always thought it was overrated. But the ZD was unique, albeit still evolving.

Abacus was an invention of ZD's winemakers who were enjoying aged cabernet sauvignon one day and wondered what would happened if they added the young fruit of a current vintage. This solera style of winemaking that blends vintages is common to Champagne but rarely found outside of that region. The one exception I'm familiar with is Marietta's Old Vine that is mostly zinfandel bottled without regard to vintage.

The first release of Abacus was in 1999 and included cabernet sauvignon from the 1992 to 1998 vintages. They used about 15 percent of this inventory to make 200 cases -- I got one of the bottles of a three-bottle case that cost $1,500. The rest of the wine was saved for subsequent vintages. Each year they add some of the current vintage and on it goes. The wine is now in its 19th incarnation.

The wine is not cheap. Today you can find Abacus for about $700 a bottle. 

It was a beautifully textured wine with a remarkable echo of an aged wine and the exuberance of youthful fruit. I decanted it for an hour and it still seemed tight in the nose but broad on the palate with classic Napa Valley flavors. The fine tannins indicated that it was not fully mature.

What a wine.

Dave Phinney is now blending grapes across regions, so the conventions that once pervaded the wine industry are being destroyed.