Thursday, September 24, 2009

The New Wine Connoisseur

The term “emerging markets” has a specifically nouveau riche intonation when people are talking about wine consumption in China and India. The story of the Beijing business man who opens up a first growth Bordeaux worth upwards of US$700.00 and adds coke to it before drinking has become a new urban legend in the wine world. At a panel discussion last night at Christie’s Rockefeller Center, Charles Curtis MW, wine consultant Judy Beardsall and Bloomberg News’ Wine and Spirits Columnist Elin McCoy could not help but bring this topic up when discussing Fine & Rare Wines in a Changing Market.

Charles, who is Vice President and Head of North American Wine Sales for Christie’s, referred to an auction in Hong Kong earlier this year where top wines were selling for well above their high estimates, in some cases 3 or 4 times as much at gavel - especially those of Chateau Lafite, one of the five first growth Bordeaux wines (newly released bottles of this wine fetch upwards of $800.00 a pop, even more in fantastic vintage years). Indeed, as consumers in Asia are finding that they now have more disposable income than ever before, they are exploring these luxury goods, and wine is finally finding new fans where it never did before.

There is even wine production taking place - in India, Sula leads the charge, with a decent, value-priced Syrah and a few other wines. When you think India, don’t make the mistake of thinking hot. Such a large country has parts that do indeed experience winter, and cooler mountain areas where vitis vinifera grape vines can flourish. The same is happening in China.

Also in China, sadly typically, is counterfeiting of higher end wines. Elin repeated a statement she said she’d heard a Canadian Liquor Control Board official make - “50% of the Canadian ice wine in China is not ice wine, and its not Canadian”. So it’s not just dvd’s and Louis Vuiton handbags in the fake market anymore! Caveat emptor! Verify the authenticity of a coveted wine you are thinking of buying and purchase from reputable sources - these are key elements of what we call provenance.

On the bright side, these new wine buyers seem to be ignoring the Wine Spectator and Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate scores that have long been polarizing driving forces behind the perception of quality in individual wines, and therefore, there pricing and their sale-ability. Instead, they are listening to what their friends and colleagues are saying, in what Charles referred to as the “rise of the consumer review”. I would be interested to follow that supply chain and see where the friends and colleagues are getting their information from - I sincerely hope it is from drinking the wines themselves, and not from one of the aforementioned magazines.

That’s the thing about wine, though. The fun is in discovering. It makes me very happy to know that there is a whole new, very large group of consumers who are discovering and developing a palate for wine. Its a wine world after all!!

Photo Credit: Jupiter Images

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Corked or Screwed?

I should preface this by saying that I’ve published this very piece of writing many a time before, and that I will keep publishing it until all my wine peeps are wise to the cork vs screwcap game. It is that serious. Enjoy this week’s blog, winebabes!


Hard to believe there is a raging debate in the wine world surrounding such a small item – a bottle closure. To the wine drinker, cork, screwcap, rubber ball bearing, whatever is sealing the bottle is just a barrier they need to get through to get to their wine. Nonetheless, to the producers, importers, distributors, restauranteurs and retailers who deal in wine, that closure can affect the way customers receive the end product in more ways than one. Between the perception the consumer might have of either closure (some still think screwcaps only go on inferior wines) or the condition of a bottle when it is opened, all the parties involved have a stake in the game.

You see, naturally this topic would be of interest to me, the New Zealand Wine Specialist, because about two thirds of New Zealand wines are bottled with screw caps instead of corks. For those of you who don't understand what the fuss is all about, here's a short explanation.

Cork is made from the bark of a tree. Don't worry, it is completely renewable - the bark is stripped from the living tree, only one stripping per tree every nine years, and the stripping doesn’t harm the tree in anyway (I guess they like to be naked – I can relate to that!). The thing is that cork is porous and can harbor fungus and pathogens that sometimes proliferate and get all the way through to the wine. Ironically, the worst cases of this issue stem from the method used to sterilize corks. So when you open a bottle of wine, and it smells like musty basement or wet cardboard, we call it "corked", and send it back to the sommelier or the bottle shop, because all parties involved knew the risks and took the chance on selling you that bottle of wine anyway.

Cork was the seal for wine amphorae in Ancient Greece and Ancient Egypt, and once glass bottles were developed in during the 17th century, it emerged as the most economic choice of stopper. Since the 1980’s, as awareness of cork taint in wines was increasing, development of alternatives closures proliferated. Now, in addition to screw caps, we have synthetic cork, the Zork (convenience of a screw cap paired with the pop of a cork) and the glass Vino-Lok (the super cool glass T stopper), among other innovations. They’re even exploring the use of a crown cap as a final closure for champagne and sparkling wine.

So I was at a symposium on syrah in the vineyards of Hawke's Bay, New Zealand two years ago, and I noticed that the issue was deftly glossed over. On the panel was a syrah producer from California, one from Australia, one from New Zealand (other local producers were present) and a Master of Wine. The question was burning my chest throughout the day. I decided to take the mic towards the end during the q & a period and open the barrel of worms.

If the choice of closure for syrah is an important consideration because of the nature of the grape (they mentioned in the notes that it is naturally reductive; that is a slowing of the aging processes in bottle, and suffers often the formation of stinky sulfur compounds), then what closure is best? It was the Aussie who dismissed me with the very abrupt answer: If the wine is "reduced" when you bottle it, it's going to stay that way, whether it's under a screw cap or cork. The panel quickly took another question.

Afterward, I was thanked by one gentleman for being brave enough to pose the question. After all, it is something that should be addressed in the company of wine professionals who are discussing marketing opportunities for wine, especially New Zealand wine. The thing is that the issue is so polarizing, especially among winemakers, and a cork producer was one of the sponsors of the event, yadda yadda yadda, no one would touch it.

I was then introduced to the lovely Jenny Dobson, winemaker at Te Awa in Hawke’s Bay. She recognized me immediately as the poseur (or imposeur, as it were) of the hot question, and she happily treated me to her thoughts on the subject.

In her experience, one has to prepare the wine for the closure. One choice of closure is not necessarily better than the other. Each has its flaws, and there are issues with screw tops that "no one likes to talk about". For one thing, wine producers have a limited choice of bottles for screw tops and the neck size has to be perfect for the machine, as well as compatible with your choice of screw top, otherwise the collar doesn't sit quite right on the bottle. Although screw tops are less expensive than corks, changing your bottling line over is initially an expensive endeavor. Also, if you stack palates (a large, flat wooden platform that holds like 500 cases of wine) too high, literally two high, the pressure can break the seals of the bottles on the bottom.

She uses both closures. Her corks come directly from a producer in Spain (most of the world’s cork comes from Iberia), and they are composite corks from which the offensive microbes have been removed. Cork producers are working hard to improve the way they grow, produce and clean corks. At dinner that night, I was chatting with Amelia, winemaker at Matariki Wines, and she echoed Jenny’s sentiments, adding that her choice of closure has more to do with marketing than with the wine itself. Her less expensive, second label goes in a cute, stylish screw cap. The estate wines, made for cerebral enjoyment and old school aging, are finished with corks.

Still, people, especially people who make wine, generally have very strong opinions about which is better. From all accounts, had they taken my topic on, dudes might have had to break up a fistfight!!

Personally, I like screw tops for their easy access, and I also like being able to reclose the bottle. I've had (myself, purchased for personal use) very few corked bottles of wine, and at least once, I've had a screw top bottle I couldn't open because the collar was too loose and so I couldn't break the seal. I’ve had corks dry up and break as I try to extract them, then expand so fat that reinserting them was impossible. The latter is especially common with synthetic corks, which can also be really tough to remove from your corkscrew! Bottom line, drink wine and enjoy life. Drink it out of screwtop or cork or Zork, bottle or box or can, stemmed or stemless glass, plastic tumbler or coffee mug. Much like your last blind date, its what’s inside that counts.

Photo Credit: The Paupered Chef, March 2007,

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Tasting While Congested

If you ever wondered if you could party yourself sick, you can. I partied so hard this past weekend, I woke up Tuesday morning with a sore throat, swollen tonsils, and my nose completely clogged. That evening, I was due to taste the wines of Palmaz Vineyards, a small Napa Valley concern down by the city of Napa with just a handful of wineries nearby (most of Napa Valley’s wineries are further north near the towns of Rutherford, Yountville, Oakville, St Helena and Calistoga)

Palmaz is another intense wine story of family, money, change and fortune (see my June 4th blog on Charles Krug). The property, originally a little stone house on a hill, was founded in 1800’s by a gent who was actually distilling, rather than making wine. Henry Hagen, a German immigrant who was a Napa Valley winemaking pioneer, purchased the property in 1881, built a magnificent 4 floor mansion, and took the property from moonshine to wine under the name Cedar Knoll. Sadly, Prohibition would force him out of the business and the property, and when the bank foreclosed on his home and land, he and his family took all that they could carry and left. For 85 years, no wine was made there.

Fast forward to the 1970’s when Dr. Julio Palmaz, a surgeon from Argentina, came to the University of California at Davis to study - who knew UC Davis had a medical school? Inevitably, he met many winemakers and caught the wine bug, but he and his young wife Amalia soon moved south to Texas where he would build his medical career. Their fortunes turned when Dr. Palmaz made a discovery that would revolutionize heart surgery. He created the Heart Stent, a device that holds the artery open to improve blood flow. He sold his invention to Johnson and Johnson, and treated himself to this fantastic property back in Napa, where he and his family now live and work as winemakers.

At a table in the lobby of the swank Ace Hotel in Flatiron, Alan Greenberg, the company’s East Coast representative, told us this captivating story over olives, salami and cheese. Samantha, Betty and I, three of the five board members of Women for WineSense NYC Chapter were about to be treated to a tasting of 5 of this winery’s 6 wines, including a rare vertical of three vintages of their $100.00 Palmaz Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley. But alas, my nose could not cooperate.

I sniffed and I snuffed and I blew but I could only get a tiny bit of air through one nostril. Through that portal I took a deep whiff of the Palmaz Chardonnay Napa Valley 2007 - success! It came though! Crisp green apple, citrus and cream aromas were lovely! On the palate, the acidity was perfect - not so soft as to be flabby from the malolactic, not sharp. Fabulous. I had a lot less luck with wines that were a lot more expensive. I could smell fresh red berry, cassis and hints of cinnamon in a very youthful 2005 Cabernet, and leathery cedar and tobacco aromas in a more mature 2003, but the 2002 was kinda lost on me. I could just cry!!

The Palmaz Muscat Canelli 2007 was spectacular, though. Grapey as Muscat can be, laced with lovely floral aromas. The sweetness was delightful on the attack, but it subsided as it progressed across my palate to a clean finish, and had a nice vein of acidity to balance it out. Very impressed, as were Samantha and Betty.

The moral of the story? Well, I guess there could be several:

Don’t schedule an important wine tasting the day after a big party weekend.

Don’t skip a wine tasting just because your nose is stuffy - you may surprise yourself.

If you can’t control the scheduling of a tasting, bring along other trusted palates to help you evaluate the wines.

A beautiful dessert wine can conquer flooded sinuses!

I can’t wait to taste the wines with a clear nose!

Friday, September 4, 2009

The ABC - Alcohol Bullsh!t Control

OK, I get it. US state and city governments and law enforcement agencies were absolutely shell shocked by the end of Prohibition. I mean, after the rampant bootlegging, proliferation of speak-easies and the boom of organized crime that was the gratitude to the 18th Amendment over the skinny 13 years - a time frame that, inopportunely, also hosted the Great Depression - who could blame the recoil after repeal? So when in 1933 the federal government replaced the 18th with the 21st - which effectively gave all the states the right to make their own autonomous alcohol laws - it is no wonder that the “Great Experiment” yielded these crazy results.

So what do we have now? Pandemonium! A nation of 50 different alcohol fiefdoms that are adjoined by a massive interstate system (save two, of course). Wanna send your friend in Kentucky a bottle of wine in gratitude for hosting you and yours at their home last summer? No can do - Kentucky and 12 other states still consider it a crime to ship alcohol directly to its resident’s homes. Wanna open a restaurant in Pennsylvania? Sure, be our guest, but you do not have access to the wholesale tier to purchase wine for your wine list - you’ll be shopping in the same retail aisles and paying the same marked up prices as consumers, then you’ll have to build your profit in on top of that. You can buy wine in the supermarket in Hawai’i and New Jersey, but not in New York. In most states, if you want to have a mimosa with your Sunday brunch, you still have to wait until noon to order it. There are even some counties that are “dry” - yes, that means that alcohol is prohibited within the county limits. Stories of rows of liquor stores that press up against the county line in the very next, usually very wet, county abound. And yes, it is a crime to return across that county line with alcohol (legal contraband) in your possession.

What if you want to open a lovely little wine shop in a swank New York City neighborhood? You can do it, but be prepared to pay rent on an empty space until you have finished gathering all of the necessary items - questionnaires, bank statements, penal bonds, proofs of citizenship. You have to get fingerprinted by the police and in addition to the lease, your land lady has to further affirm that she is giving you a right to use this premises, but is not a shareholder in the business. And you or any of your investors can’t be employed by the NYPD. And even though the legal age for someone to work in a wine shop is 18, your investors must all be at least 21.

At least I can open a shop, though. If you are running or working in a wine shop in Pennsylvania or Utah, you are a state employee. If you’re a consumer, well, your selection is limited to only what the state alcohol-beverage-liquor-control-board-authority-guys decide they want to buy for the stores statewide. Special requests? Prepare to jump through bureaucratic hoops! But I can only open one shop - New York State law prohibits me from having more than one off premise (retail) license, so my dreams of expansion are presently deferred (until I figure out another way around it).

Yes, I get it; criminals made it big during Prohibition, the Great Experiment that went so wrong. But 76 years have elapsed since its repeal - doesn’t it seem fitting that these laws should be reviewed and brought up to date? I’m no Al Capone. I just wanna sell wine and make babies!

For more information on the various state laws regarding wine and wine shipping, visit our friend Shackles at Free the