Monday, July 26, 2010

Why a vine pest is responsible for direct shipping laws

As I was sitting on the couch last night reading the latest issue of Wine Spectator (Aug. 31, 2010) I stumbled across an article by James Laube (pg. 37) entitled "Direct Shipping Threatened". The article talks about how the proposed H.R. 5043 bill would be detrimental to the domestic wine industry, especially small wineries in California.

He wrote about small wineries like Carlisle in Sonoma that produce about 6000 cases annually and ship 85 percent of their wine directly to their customers. They're concerned that without direct shipping their prices will double. In the article the owner of Carlisle, Mike Officer, was quoted saying they have a wine they direct ship for $48. "48 bucks?" I thought, why the hell do they have to charge $48 for a Zin from California? Is it laced with gold? It got me thinking about cause and effect and why they need to charge that much for a wine that comes from our country.

After stewing about this for a while I came to the conclusion a vine pest is responsible for the push by many California producers to pass a direct to consumer shipping law. Before I go any further I need to explain two things. First, I'm not crazy, I only believe slightly in flying saucers and conspiracy theories. Second, I support direct to consumer shipping 100%. I think that this situation has been strong armed and has gotten out of control. I believe we must pass a law that allows wineries and online retailers to ship wine directly to the consumer. With that said let me explain why a vine pest is responsible for the large push by California wineries to pass a direct shipping law.

The vine pest I am referring to is phylloxera (fihl-LOX-er-uh), an aphid responsible for one of the greatest agricultural disasters of all time, right up there with the 1840's potato famine of Ireland. Phylloxera is a small yellow root feeding pest that feeds on grape vines, kills them, and then moves on. The pest only takes three years to kill a vine entirely.

It was first discovered in the south of France in the mid 19th century. Many farmers just chalked it up to another pest and figured excessive spraying or even the cold winter would kill it off. But when it didn't die, and kept spreading, they got worried. Desperate and willing to do anything to kill it they tried things like flooding their vineyards to more crazy ideas like irrigating with white wine or placing a living toad beneath the vine to suck up the poison. Little did they know the answer was ultimately the problem. It took a Texan, who I imagine wore a big belt buckle, to find the solution.

To understand what happened I need to explain grape vines quickly. Even though there are more, think of the world as having two grape vine species: the European Vitis Vinifera and the native American Vitis Riparia. The European Vitis Vinifera vine is responsible for all of the quality grape bearing vines preferred for making wine including but not limited to: Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, etc, etc, etc. The Vitis Riparia vine on the other hand is used primarily for the production of table grapes and when producing wine, which is rare, it is said to display "foxy" characteristics.

When Europeans imported native American Vitis Riparia grape vines in to places like France and Italy they had no idea that the vines were carrying a pest that was about to destroy their crop. Over time the American native Riparia vine had built up a resistance to phylloxera, the native European Vinifera vines did not have this luxury. So when the two came in contact the aphid jumped ship and started attacking the Vinifera, or wine preferred, grape vine. The solution as I mentioned earlier was the cause. They corrected the problem by grafting (cutting and retraining) the Vinifera vine to phylloxera resistant Riparia rootstock. But not before an estimated six million+ acres of grape vines were devastated by the pest.

The transition of American native rootstock to European vines was not smooth sailing. First, Europeans did not want their wines tainted with the “foxy” characteristics of the American vine. Second, the American rootstock struggled in European soils. The amount of grafting alone was overwhelming, trying to convert all of the vines over to American rootstock seemed impossible. Regions like Burgundy banned the use of American rootstock until 1887, however they were affected in 1878 and by 87’ the growers forced the government to overturn the law.

It wasn't just Europe that was affected by phylloxera, by 1885 most of the world, including California, had been infected with the pest. When the Texan found out you simply need to put the two together (like peanut butter and jelly) to solve the problem he didn't take in to account that the pest might mutate or there might be another strain. As a result the first grafting used didn't work as well as they thought it would. The Euros knew this and told the Americans not to use the first one (called AXR1) and to instead use the second, it worked better. But we didn't listen. So in the 1980's America was plagued one more time by the aphid.

The AXR1 UC Davis engineered was higher yielding (fruit to vine ratio), but it was not completely resistant. So when the pest reared its ugly head the second time as ‘Phylloxera B’ California and other states were forced to rip up their vines and plant the more resistant Vitis Belandieri rootstock to the Vitis Vinifera vine. This in turn resulted in a price increase for California wine because somebody had to pay for all of the replanting, and that somebody is you and me - the consumers. It's safe to say the second coming of phylloxera is why California wine prices are higher than most other wines in their category and in my opinion the others will likely never catch up, not that they want to.

So that brings us back to direct shipping. Many small wineries that have wine retailing for $25 at the winery are able to honor that price nationally by shipping their juice direct to the consumer. They are worried about what will happen if they are forced to add a middle man. Their prices will hit the shelves at $50 a bottle because another hand has to make money on it. At double the price they fear they won't be able to sell their product or will have to take significant cuts on their margins to remain competitive.

Small wineries and their prices are just one of the many components in the "Free the Grapes" campaign. Without going too deep in to the politics of the situation this campaign comes down to who has the most lobbying dollars, distributors (wholesalers) or wineries. Wholesalers already have a lot of money invested (Laube reports $11.5 million) because they have a lot to lose if a direct shipping bill passes. Distributors like Southern or Johnson Brothers won't support the "Free the Grapes" campaign because they will ultimately be cutting in to their profits by allowing wineries and online retailers to have more national presence. If a bill were to pass allowing direct shipping less wine would go through their hands and they would run the risk of loosing brands. They want to eliminate even the minimal laws that currently exist allowing wineries to ship direct to the consumer in select states at regulated amounts.

But the small wineries are an important part of this situation because they are the ones not present on the retail shelf. If you want to drink Zinalley Zinfandel you have to have it shipped to you or you have to purchase it at the winery. A place like this has such a low case production and that coupled with a price of $25 a bottle we can see that it wouldn't make any sense to offer it through distributors. You'd be hard pressed to sell a Central Coast Zin in a retail store for $50, nobody would buy it.

If you've ever been to California to taste you would agree, mailboxes at the end of a gravel driveway are an important part of California wine tourism. If they can't sell the limited wine they have via direct shipping they will go out of business and there won't be any of these great little diamonds in the rough left in the state. These quaint artisan wineries are all part of the fun of exploring wine country.

Have you ever stopped to think why a Syrah from Australia (called Shiraz) can be so good for so much less than a Syrah from California? Riddle me this, Aussie Shiraz has to cross a giant ocean, the Californian Syrah simply has to cross the country. The Aussies have to go through customs, the Californians don't. So why is it that our prices are so high? As you can see from the information on phylloxera a large part of this is due to the devastation the second time around. We had to rip it up and do it again, they didn't. Take all of this information and we see that a vine pest name phylloxera is responsible for the push by small wineries to pass a direct to consumer bill. To be frank, I'm with them...FREE THE GRAPES!!!

As always thanks for reading. Check out the new sample wine tasting we have posted at Cru Wine Online.

Nicholas Barth
Certified Sommelier
Wine Director
Cru Wine Online

Monday, July 19, 2010

Julie and Julia - Serving Up Inspiration

Last night my wife and I sat down for a quiet evening consisting of dinner and a movie. We had rented Julie and Julia (I know, I'm a bit behind the times) and cooked up a couple of steaks on the grill. I opened up bottle of 2005 Chateau Aney from Haut-Medoc, Bordeaux (left bank) . The Aney is made up of primarily Cabernet Sauvignon and usually retails for around $25 a bottle making it an all around great little Sunday night pairing.

As we sat down to enjoy our pairing (Meryl Streep, Steak & Bordeaux - nummy) I had no idea I was about to be so inspired. If you haven't seen the film let me give you a quick run down. It takes a juxtaposed look at two women, Julia Child - the famous chef and Julie Powell - an American author. The film shows the parallels of the two woman as they explore their affinity for the culinary arts. The scenes with Julia Child, played by Meryl Streep, are set in France post 1949. The movie looks at her education at Le Cordon Bleu through her role in the publishing of Mastering the Art of French Cooking (published August 1961). It showcases her struggles and triumphs throughout the 8 year process of getting her book published.

Julie Powell, played by Amy Adams, is a struggling author in the film, and apparently real life since the film is based on a true story. Julie's scenes are set in 2002 New York city post 9/11. The film follows her on a 365 day blog post mission where she has committed to making all 524 recipes inside Julia Child's Master the Art of French Cooking book. On her journey she learns that you don't need a Maytag Stainless Steel commercial kitchen to cook. Throughout her adventure she discovers a new passion for cooking and a new appreciation for Julia Child.

What I loved most about the film was the way director Nora Ephron showed the reality of cooking. It's not always rainbows and butterflies, shit happens, and that's okay. Food and wine have become this almost impossible strive for perfection. Sometimes you burn the beans, sometimes the wine doesn't really fit, but that's okay, just make the best of what you have and try again later. I love Julia's approach to cooking, she just has a wonderful "oh well" attitude. As some variation of a blogger I was also inspired by Julie Powell's role in the online blogging community. Many people identified with her and were inspired by her cooking stories.

Beyond blogging I personally find a number of parallels to both woman, few of which are anatomical. Julia Child prior to her schooling at Le Cordon Bleu had never boiled an egg. She was a novice in her craft, and I too was a novice in mine. Before assuming my role as a general manager of The Veranda Lounge wine bar I only briefly explored life outside of White Zinfandel in a box and Merlot with 3 ice cubes. I wasn't just green in relation to wine, I was 'culinarily challenged' (I just made the term culinarily up). I thought cheese came in individually sliced packages or squirted out of cans. And if my meal didn't come out of a Campell's can I questioned its quality.

I grew up in a quaint Central Minnesota city. We ate things like Hot Dish (just a MN name for Goulash or Casserole), chicken from the Crockpot and an ugly fish called Lutefisk. As a result I didn't explore food. I mean, I didn't try a mango until I was 25 and I had my first deviled egg when I was 26! But I also realize it's never too late to start enjoying the many flavors of cuisine. The meat and potatoes diet I grew up on kept my taste buds fresh:) We never had salt or pepper on the table, the food was seasoned in the kitchen (and usually not enough). Hell, I thought ketchup was a spice. And I always applied it to my steak, even at a fine dining establishment. In a lot of ways I was really bummed when I saw the head start many people throughout the rest of the world had on me. But in the same breath I was excited to start exploring, and almost everything was new to me.

That night watching Julie and Julia I realized that you don't have to be a great chef to enjoy cooking and eating. I found a new appreciation for food and exploration because making the food is as fun, and important, as eating it. Our taste buds are so amazing, and it's fun to work them all. It's also exciting to find pairings that complement the dish. A great pairing can be mind blowing. And sometimes the right pairing is a deck and a book, or a fireplace and loved one.

Today I would loosely describe myself as a foodie. Not because I'm overly sophisticated, but because I love food. So thank you writers, directors, editors, film crew, Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, and of course Julie and Julia for inspiring me to take a new approach to cooking and cuisine. When I think about my new assignment I am super excited. I aspire to wander the many flavors of food and wine and take time to enjoy and appreciate the amazing pleasures food and cooking can offer.

As always thanks for reading. Make sure to check out the Cru Wine Online shop for super cool wine accessories.

Nicholas Barth
Certified Sommelier
Wine Director
Cru Wine Online

Monday, July 12, 2010

2010 FIFA World Cup Finals: Netherlands 0 - Spain 1

In light of the recent Spanish victory over the Netherlands in the 2010 FIFA World Cup Finals yesterday I decided it only right to post today on the wine laws of Spain. Let me begin by explaining that the wine laws of Spain are difficult to define because they are ever changing. By the time you finish reading this post they will most likely have changed something. Also, this is a little wine geeky, so be advised this does come in video form at Cru Wine Online's YouTube channel.

In this post I'm going to explore the regions governed by the INDO's Ministry of Agriculture. The INDO stands for Instituto Nacional de Denominaciones de Origen. Since Spain's induction in to the EU they, in accordance with EU laws, formed a governing body to regulate and define their wine laws. The INDO specifically regulates regions like Rioja, Jumilla and Cava. Other regions like Cataluna and La Mancha have self-governing wine associations within their delimitation or wine zone.

The INDO laws are broken in to four tiers. The bottom tier or, most basic wines produced, are called Vino de Mesa or Table Wines. VdM's can be regionally blended and bear no vintage or geographic origin. This level is comparable to the basic table wines of France called the Vin de Table or Italy's Vino da Tavola.

The next step up from the basic wines of Spain are the Vino de la Tierra or Wine of the Land. VdlT's are required to state the origin from where the wine was grown and produced and must contain a minimum alcohol content. This is equivalent to the Vin de Pays (now called IGP) of France. But unlike French IGP's the Spanish VdlT is usually a stepping-stone to the highest classification. I say unlike because French IGP's are happy just where they are, no need to go anywhere - they are doing what they want when they want, like a teenager.

The next level of classification is a fairly new category. Better than VdlT and not quite DO status, Vinos de Calidad con Indicacion Geograica or VCIG are the Spanish equivalent of the VDQS's of France. Because of this categories youth it is still being defined and therefore is subject to change. But basically, VCIG’s are in the on deck circle waiting for the call up to the big leagues. The Robin to the greater Batman.

And that brings us to the highest quality (Batman) or the fourth tier of Spanish Wines. Vinos de Calidad Producidos en Regiones Determinadas or VCPRD, which basically translates to Quality Wine Produced in a Specific Region. Under the VCPRD are the sub categories of Denomincacion de Origen or DO and Denominacion de Origen Calificada or DOC. VCPRD's are regulated by the Consejo Regulador who define the parameters for growing, making, and marketing quality wine in Spain. Whew, the German wine laws are looking more appealing with every line. (German wine laws are arguably the toughest to understand and pronounce - the words often have 17+ letters)

Back to Spain. DO is the first of the two tiers defining quality wine in Spain. These wines have stricter requirements and a producer must undergo 5 years of examination before even being considered for DO status. There are currently more than 67 DO's including regions like Penedes, Rias Baixas, Ribera del Duero and many more.

Even more quality than a DO status is the DOC. This status is equivalent to Italy's DOCG. There are currently only two DOC's in Spain, Priorat and Rioja. Rioja was the first region to be awarded with the title in 1991. Then in 2003 Priorat was given the accolade. In Priorat, where Catalan is spoken, many refer to the DOC as DOQ or Denominacio d'Origen Qualificada. I know what you are thinking. This is really confusing. But just look at Spain as having 4 tiers of quality and the top tier has an a an b subsection.

To recap, VdM's or Table wines are the most basic, then VdlT's or Wine of the land are next, followed by VCIG and finally VCPRD which has a DO and a DOC sometimes called DOQ. Okay, you are right, this is more confusing than texting my 16 year old cousin.

Strip it down and all you need to know is that Spain is producing a lot of juice, and some is really really good. Stick to the DO's and you'll find some great wines at occasionally remarkable values. Regions like La Mancha and Jumilla are producing some really good juice so keep your eyes open for some delicious values, but buy at your own risk because these hot regions can produce some crappy stuff too.

Spanish wines have really made an amazing turn for the better in the last 20 years; so they don’t all smell of that old stinky shoe aroma you remember from drinking their wines in the 80’s. With producers using regional varietals like Tempranillo and Albarino to internationals like Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, there are some unique wines being produced.

Still, traditional regions like Rioja continue to make some great quality wines, and not always at exuberant prices. Their regulations on oak and aging requirements are designed for the producer to age the wine for you, so that you the consumer can drink upon purchase.

While this post may have came across as confusing rest assured the INOQ will most likely change the laws next week creating a new system for us to learn anyways, so don’t stress. Just remember that Spain is making a lot of really good quality juice and you can often find some great values.

As always thanks for reading and make sure to check out the Cru Wine TV split on Spanish Wine Laws.


Nicholas Barth
Certified Sommelier
Cru Wine Online
Wine Director

Monday, July 5, 2010

Talkn' 'bout a heat wave!

Last weekend my family and I vacationed to the North Shore of Minnesota and landed in a sleepy little town named Grand Marais - population 3,500 give or take a few tourists. This trip has been a family tradition since my wife and I got married a few years ago. Each year over the 4th we escape the heat and humidity of central Minnesota to relax in the 65 degree comfort of Lake Superior. This year however was different. Rather than campfires and sweatshirts we were wading in the 40 degree waters of the world's largest freshwater source (by surface area) to cool down from the summer heat.

After spending the weekend commenting on my dissatisfaction about the weather (yes, that's right - I complained about the heat) I started thinking, is this going on everywhere? What will this mean for the 2010 wine vintage in the United States? The vintage on the bottle informs the buyer the year that the grapes were grown and picked. It's a reflection of the region's growing season that year. So if the summer was unusually hot the grapes ripen differently than if the season was cool. Same goes for rain, a wet growing season results in a completely different crop than a dry season.

A region's general weather tendencies, called climate, during the growing season is what helps a grower decide which grapes will grow best in a particular place or region. But climate is so much more than just a factor in helping vintners decide which grapes to grow, it also helps define wine profiles. Wines are a reflection of their surroundings. A hot climate is likely to produce lush, ripe fruit flavors and aromas whereas a cool climate tends to display crisper, leaner fruit flavors and aromas.

There are different categories used when defining a region's climate. For example Bordeaux is a Maritime climate, The Rhone Valley is mostly Mediterranean, and Alsace is Continental. Of course within each of these regions their are sub climates or micro climates and influences that make one site better than another. Climate coupled with soil type, aspect and location are important factors leading up to why you pay more for one wine over another. France is a great example of this, they have defined their best growing sites and prices dictate this. In regions like Burgundy they define their best wines using the term Cru and then qualifying it with a level inside of the classification. Cru meaning growth and referring to the quality factors from the sub region or vineyard where the grapes were grown.

Climate doesn't just allow you to charge more, it's a huge variable in a wines quality from year to year. The year on the bottle (the vintage) is a direct reflection of the region's weather that year. This is why people discuss how one vintage may be better or worse than another. Weather patterns change from year to year and can mean the difference between selling all of your wine at a premium price and having to dump it down the drain.

Bordeaux's climate as I mentioned earlier is defined as Maritime which just means that there is a relatively narrow annual range of temperatures. These usually occur around large bodies of water like seas and oceans. I usually describe this climate as being similar to that of San Diego, 78 degrees and sunny year round. While there's a little more variation than that in regions like Bordeaux the point is Maritime tends to be fairly moderate year round.

The 2006 Bordeaux vintage for the left bank was a bit unusual for the region. July was too hot, August was too cool and September was really wet. The unusual hot and cold resulted in grapes ripening unevenly and ultimately unbalanced (referring to acid and sugar levels). In addition, the excessive rain in the harvest month (September) resulted in watered down grapes. Just think of excessive rain at harvest like putting too much water in your Kool-Aid - where's the beef? The 2006 Bordeaux prices were less than other vintages because the weather resulted in a worse crop than other years.

To sum vintage up: climate is what it should be, weather is what it actually is. So what does vintage have to do with me swearing at a giant lake in Grand Marais? Well, there has been unusual weather all over the United States this year. The northeast and south are experiencing record temperatures and the west was drenched with rain in the spring. Needless to say 2010 is going to need some help to produce a good vintage. Whether it's irrigation, a hot fall or a strong wind something has to happen in order to bring balance and quality back to the 2010 crop.

In the same breathe, never count a vintage out before it's picked, it's a long growing season and a lot can happen. Good sites will produce good grapes year after year. That's why quality wine producers make good juice every year and command high prices even in less than ideal weather vintages. I think that climate change or global warming or whatever you want to call it is having an effect on wine around the world and over the last decade it appears to be a positive one. Take Bordeaux again, 4 classic vintages (2000, 2003, 2005, 2009) to kick off the new millennium. I'm not saying I'm against the environment, just stating there has been 4 outstanding vintages in 2010.

So keep your eye on the 2010 vintage when buying in the future and remember where you were sweating the day those grapes were ripening. Needless to say I will be reminded of the less than perfect weather during my mid summer getaway.

As always thanks for reading and make sure to check out the Cru Wine TV Split on how climate effects a wines profile.

Nicholas Barth
Certified Sommelier
Cru Wine Online
Wine Director