Archive for the ‘Wine industry stuff’ Category

What’ll they think of next — grape grower division

A friend once told me, “Sometimes, doing anything is better than doing nothing.”

I’m guessing that’s what Bruce Cakebread thought when he called in the cavalry (so to speak) to rescue his grape crop.

Bruce is the president of Cakebread Cellars, one of Napa Valley’s Blue Chip wineries. His vineyards, along with every other vineyard in Northern California, were deluged with rain during the 2011 harvest.

Take my word for it: rain during harvest is a VERY BAD THING. Moisture sitting on the grapes and caught in the bunches can allow rot to develop, and that can potentially RUIN THE ENTIRE YEAR’S CROP.

Typically, grape growers just cross their fingers and hope for a succession of warm sunny days to dry the fruit, but our friend Bruce couldn’t stand to do nothing: like I said, “sometimes, doing anything is better than doing nothing.”

So Bruce got very creative. He borrowed a trick from old-time cherry growers and hired a helicopter to come charging over the hill and save the day. The chopper flew back and forth across the Cakebread vineyards, just 20 feet above the valley floor, and stirred up enough wind to (hopefully) blow the moisture off the grapes. Wow — that’s creative thinking.

I picked this story up from Dr. Vino’s very fun wine blob, and he picked it up from NPR (National Public Radio), my sole source of information about the world. Check out the full story on NPR to get all the details.

It’s a great tale of creativity and ingenuity, but it also helps us to remember that at its heart, winemaking is agriculture, and winemakers are essentially farmers. They live by the land and are at the mercy of  Mother Nature, working tirelessly to stay ahead of whatever she might throw at them.

Those of us who drink wine need to send an occasional shout-out to those who make wine, and thank them for  devoting their lives to our pleasure.

So Thank You Bruce, and all the others like you. I’ll drink to that…

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Chinese Wine Becomes the Giant Killer

chinaWow. It’s the Judgement of Paris all over again, except that this time, California isn’t the David that slays France’s Goliath. This time, it’s China that knocks off the big guys.

At the recent Decanter World Wine Awards, the 2009 Jia Bei Lan Cabernet blend from He Lan Qing Xue winery took top honors, winning the Red Bordeaux Varietal Over £10 International Trophy. (Thanks to, and you can read their full article here.)

This shouldn’t come as a total surprise. I (and many other wine writers) have written about the emerging Chinese wine industry, but I’ll admit that I, for one, didn’t take it all that seriously. But I guess we have to now.

I was pretty curious to learn the details about this international wine star from China. For me it’s the context of a wine — the region where it’s created, the climate, the winemaker’s philosophy — that create the wine’s story. So let’s see what we can discover about this award-winning Chinese wine.

The 2009 Jia Bei Lan is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and something called Cabernet Gernicht. It comes from Ningxia Provimce in northern China, which apparently experiences incredible extremes in temperature. Summers are blisteringly hot and winters are bitterly cold, with temps often going as low as -25 degrees C.

Just how cold is it? They have to bury the vines in order to keep them alive. Wow. And they can grow world-class Cabernet in this climate?

The judges at the Decanter Awards thought so. Here are their comments about the winning wine: judges described the wine as ‘supple, graceful and ripe but not flashy’ and praised its ‘excellent length and four-square tannins’.

So how does an infant wine region learn to make wine like that? You learn the trade in Bordeaux, of course. The winemaker — trained in Bordeaux and did an internship at the famed Third Growth Bordeaux house, Chateau Palmer.

What would make this picture complete for me would be for us (as in, us American wine lovers) to taste this Chinese wine and be able to compare it to Bordeaux blends we know and love. Unfortunately, that’s not likely to happen: the award-winning wine is sold only in China. Maybe this is the market pressure that’s needed to bring Chinese wine onto the world stage.

I’d say that after all this publicity, whaever’s gonna happen is gonna happen soon.






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Now Both My Car and I Can Live on Wine and Cheese

carIt’s clearly an idea whose time has come: powering a car with fuel made from wine-based ethanol and whey (as in, “curds and whey,” a cheese product).

The Huffington Post’s reported on the 5th annual Eco-Rally between Oxford and London, England. During the rally, this very hot Lotus Exige 270E Tri-Fuel went like hell (from zero to 60 in four seconds!!) on, well, wine and cheese. In a pinch, though, it can consume methanol or traditional petroleum-based fuel.

Apparently biofuel is not a new idea. Businesses have been creating and selling fuel made from all kinds of biological stuff, including compost, vegetable matter, animal waste, and my personal favorite, used deep fryer grease.

Wow. The advantage of all these fuels is that, “Unlike petroleum, biofuels are biodegradable, easily renewable, less noxious and less toxic.” That’s good — we can share a picnic with our vehicle, and know we’re being good to the environment.

Actually, the French have been producing wine-based ethanol for some time: that’s what they do with all the surplus wine they haven’t been able to sell in recent years.

So I’ll raise a glass and say, “Merde!” Isn’t that word used as a toast in France? Or if not, it’s probably used as a fuel…





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Trees or Vino: Here’s a True Conundrum

treesIt’s easy for me to work myself into a rage when I read stories about forests being chopped down to make way for yet another strip mall or cookie-cutter subdivision. But I just came across a tough one. Louis Sahagun and P.J. Huffstutter at the Los Angeles Times report that:

Two wineries want to remove  redwood and Douglas fir trees in order to plant Pinot Noir vineyards.

Hmmm… I love trees, but I also love wine. And it’s not like vineyards are a scourge on the landscape: they can be every bit as pleasing to the senses as towering evergreens.vineyards

But why do these wineries (Codorniu, whose Napa property Artesa happens to be one of our favorite winery destinations, and Premier Pacific Vineyards) want to plant on this particular patch of ground? Can’t they go dig up a cow pasture somewhere?

No, they can’t. As Nature would have it, land that’s capable of growing those beautiful trees also grows beautiful Pinot Noir grapes. Situated just a few miles from the Pacific Ocean, the land is cooled by ocean breezes, and Pinot Noir is a cool-loving grape. The land also sits above the fog line, so there’s plenty of direct sunlight to ripen the grapes. And for the punch line, this area near Annapolis on the northern edge of Sonoma County is part of the desirable Sonoma Coast appellation. Pinots made from Sonoma Coast fruit have an intense, structured style that’s been adding dollar value in the marketplace.

So is that worth chopping down centuries-old trees? Well, the truth is that this a second-growth forest, replanted after the virgin forest was logged many years ago. Its value isn’t its venerable old age, but all the good things that forest lands do for the environment.

Environmentalists say, “”We are not going to let them rip these trees out by their roots, change the soil chemistry with amendments and develop neighborhoods so that these forests will never grow back.”

The developers, on the other hand, have promised to “restore streams, add more than 200 acres to a county park, plant 1 million redwoods and Douglas firs and make other environmental improvements.”

So who should get the nod? Should we go with pine cones or Pinot Noir?

Let me know which way you vote, and Cheers!


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Let The Games Begin: Sonoma’s 2011 Grape Harvest


Judy Jordan of J Winery crowns winemaker Melissa Stackhouse, Winemaker Queen. (Photo from the Santa Rosa Press Democrat)

Ever wonder what harvest is like in wine country? Do you imagine that’s it’s serene and bucolic, with the sun shining down on vineyard hands and winemaking staff as they happily gather the fruits of their labors?
Here’s how J Winery’s George Rose puts it: “Our winemaking team definitely is gearing up for what they like to refer to as war,” Rose said. “It’s a very grueling process.”

So gird your loins, folks; harvest 2011 is about to begin. And it appears that some wineries have a unique way of launching it.
J Vineyard and Winery in Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley is among the first to start picking. They kicked off their harvest early Monday morning with a blessing of the grapes ceremony, and the crowning of their very own Winemaker Queen.
This year’s harvest was a huge concern a few months ago, when cool temperatures and record spring rains threatened to ruin the vintage. In fact, the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission reports that yields will be down anywhere from 20 – 25%, because those rains knocked the flowers right off the vines and resulted in fewer and smaller berries on each cluster of grapes. Read the rest of this entry »
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Benziger Leads The Way in Organics


Benziger uses natural pests to keep vineyards healthy.

I remember, back in the day, when organics were “just stuff for aging hippies.” Whether it was organic food or wine, the average guy believed it was a bunch of  mumbo-jumbo, and even if it was better for you, organic stuff sure wouldn’t taste as good as our  factory-made, chemically-enhanced stuff.

There were a few wineries experimenting with organic farming, but they didn’t promote it. In fact, I had to beg a rep from a good-sized Oregon winery to put “Organic” somewhere on the label, in a type size big enough to actually read it. Their marketing people were afraid wine shoppers would avoid their wine if they “admitted” they used organic practices.

Meanwhile, there was a winery in California’s Sonoma County. At Benziger Winery, they started out growing grapes the way everyone else did, with chemical pesticides and fertilizers. It took a few years for one of the brothers, Mike Benziger, to decide that he was seeing changes in the vineyards, and they weren’t good. He wanted to revitalize the vineyards, and the fruit they produced, by using more natural methods.

“We learned which flowers attracted the bugs we needed to keep pest populations in control. Habitats were created for birds and owls, and we brought cows, sheep and chickens to live on the property.

Once the estate found its balance, the wines did too. As we tasted the wines grown from such a healthy and vibrant place, we realized that the distinctiveness and authenticity we were lacking before was right in the glass. Healing the land had led to an amazing new caliber of wines and we knew we had to begin applying the lessons learned on our estate to all the vineyards we worked with.”

That was the beginning of Benziger’s industry-leading conversion to Sustainable/Organic/Biodynamic winemaking. They and all the growers they buy from are certified at one of those levels. And in case you’re not sure what those words mean, here’s a quick primer (thanks to Benziger’s very informative website).

Sustainable Farming “emphasizes environmentally sound growing methods, such as biodiversity, soil revitalization and Integrated Pest Management, and shows growers how to cultivate grapes with more character, flavors and aromas with the goal of making better, genuinely distinctive wines.”

Organic certification is more stringent. “It avoids the use of synthetic chemicals and uses natural methods like crop rotation, tillage and natural composts to maintain soil health as well as natural methods to control weeds, insects and other pests.”

Biodynamics “is the highest level of organic farming. Instead of bagged fertilizer, weed killer and pesticides we rely on composting, natural predator-prey relationships, cover crops, and the animals that live on our estate, to keep our vineyard healthy and balanced.”

Do you get it now? There’s no mumbo-jumbo at all. It’s a very common-sense approach, and it’s designed to make better wine for you. Here’s a final quote from Chris Benziger:

“We don’t just farm this way because we think caring for the land is the right thing to do, it also happens to be the best way to make distinctive, authentic wines. By treating our vineyards the best way we know how, we’re making wines we’re really proud of. And that is good for, well, everybody.”

So it’s really all about what’s in the bottle. Benziger makes several families of wines, from different varietals and at different price points. I’ll be tasting some of those tonight in a live Twitter Tasting. These events are great — I’ll be able to taste the wines and talk (by Internet) to Mike Banziger himself.

Tomorrow I’ll start reporting on the wines and our online tasting. Stay tuned! Same Bat time, same Bat channel… Cheers!

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KISS and Wine Writing

wordsHow do you talk about wine without talking about wine?

That’s roughly the question posed by Mike Steinberger in his blog, Wine He wrote a post about the way all of us wine writers, bloggers, and critics describe the wines we’re writing about. “Tasting Notes” are what we call our descriptions of how a wine looks, smells, and tastes.

OK, tasting notes don’t sound too controversial, and it seems they serve a useful purpose. The thing about them is… I for one am sick to death of reading them and writing them. Traditional Tasting Notes can be:

  • the same old “blah, blah, blah”;
  • ambiguous and misleading;
  • total gibberish; or
  • a pack of downright lies.

The truth is, there are only so many descriptors we can use, and so we use them again and again, ad nauseum. For fruit characteristics, we talk about cherry, black cherry, blueberry, blackberry, raspberry, black raspberry, and in one notable case, qumquat.

“Qumquat?” I read that in a tasting note somewhere and set out to find one so I would know what it tastes like. I shouldn’t have bothered — it tastes like grapefruit mixed with essence of dirty socks. Scratch that word off the descriptor list…

And what about those earthy/savory components? It’s not unusual to read about forest floor, pencil shavings, musk, or my personal favorite, wet bush. But who really relates to those things? When was the last time you tasted pencil shavings?

Here’s the thing — we’re trying (lamely) to use words to describe a very visceral experience, and it doesn’t always work. I suggest we revert to the kind of notes I used to read in Wine X Magazine. I loved that magazine’s style (back in the Olden Days when there were actually printed magazines instead of e-everything).

A review in Wine X would go something like this:

“Drinking this Cabernet is like making love in the vegetable aisle.”

Now that’s a review that captures a sensory experience, and gets your imagination working to boot. I think the wine writing community should make a pledge now:

  • No more notes describing the wine. We’ll describe how we feel when we drink the wine.

Can’t you just see it now? Reviews will be short and to the point:

  • “This wine will remind you of when your mother made you eat those disgusting lima beans,” or
  • “This wine oughta replace Viagra in the ED ads.”

I like it: simple, straight-forward, and insightful. Let me know if you agree with me, and if you’ll join me in the pledge. Cheers!

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Can Blau — Can You Blau Too?

montsantSorry for the silly title — I couldn’t resist playing with this (kinda odd) name.

To get down to the serious stuff, Mas de Can Blau is all about new, but it acts like it’s been around forever.

I’m talking about a wine called Celler Can Blau Mas de Can Blau, which looks like a typo but drinks like a dream. And what’s new about all this is that not only is the winery (Celler Can Blau) relatively new, but so is the D.O., or (in English) appellation, from which it comes.

Let’s start again, and clarify all these confusing words. Celler Can Blau is a winery that began in 2003 as a partnership between Spain’s Gil Vera family and Victor Rodriguez. None of these folks were new to Spanish wine, but they set out to develop a relatively new wine region. Their winery is in the Montsant D.O., and I have to admit that I’d never heard of it.blau

Turns out that the Montsant appellation was created in 2001, and includes a horseshoe-shaped patch of land that surrounds the more famous Priorat region on three sides. Montsant is unique in its soils if not its climate. The weather is fairly typical for a Spanish wine region: the summer days are hot and dry, but mountains nearby bring very cool nights (remember that Diurnal Temperature Shift I’ve talked about before? Wine grapes thrive when there’s a big difference, like 25 – 30 degrees C, between the daytime and nighttime temperatures. This builds structure to help create a balanced, bold wine).

Montsant’s soils are more unique: they include three very different soil types, each suited for a particular grape variety. And guess what? Can Blau creates it’s wine from those three different grapes.: Carinena (Carignan to some), Syrah and Garnacha (Grenache).  Now that makes perfect sense.

The wine I tasted was Celler Can Blau Mas de Can Blau 2005 (thanks to our friend Gary Johns for sharing it with us). This is their premium blend, and it’s gotten plenty of big ratings to prove it. And according to one report, it has an interesting parentage: the winemakers are Australian Liz Reed and Spaniard Richard Rofes. Interesting… Read the rest of this entry »

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The Cure for Over-Wrought Winery Websites

websiteA fellow blogger who writes  The Winery Website Report” just flipped my switch. He wrote a post called “Why Most Winery Websites Stink, Part II”, where he explains why many winery websites, well, suck.

That’s putting it kinda bluntly, but the truth is that too many winery websites are mind-blowingly visual and high-tech, but they tell you almost nothing about… the wine!

I’m sensitive to this problem, because I always start work on my posts by researching the winery and the wine region in question. I want information that I can use to understand the winery and its wines, and if I like what I see (and taste), I end up promoting them to an international wine audience.

Unfortunately, I too often get fancy graphics instead of info. The first bad sign comes right up front, as the website is building on my screen. If I see one of those running bars that says something like, “Uploading images, 98% to go,” I sigh and settle in for a wait. If I see an on-screen message that says, “Skip Intro,” I think, “Yeah, don’t have to sit through this one,” and I click to the next page.

Problem is, the other pages are often just more spectacular images. Still no information.

Michael Duffy, creator of the Winery Website Report, uses a good quote to explain the problem:

“Say you’re a designer and you’ve got to demo a site you’ve spent two months creating,” Bohan explains. “Your client is someone in their 50s who runs a restaurant but is not very in tune with technology. What’s going to impress them more: Something with music and moving images, something that looks very fancy to someone who doesn’t know about optimizing the Web for consumer use, or if you show them a bare-bones site that just lists all the information? I bet it would be the former—they would think it’s great and money well spent.”

OK, now I get it. “The sizzle” beats “the steak” when the person approving the website doesn’t understand the technology or the process enough to know what really matters. Read the rest of this entry »

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Drink Away Your Sunburn!

sunHere’s great news for sun worshippers: drinking wine may prevent sunburn. What a great excuse to pop open a bottle of summer wine!

An article by Melissa Dahl on’s Health website reports this great news.

A compound found in grapes or grape derivatives may protect skin cells from skin-damaging ultraviolet radiation, report researchers from the University of Barcelona and the Spanish National Research Council. The flavonoids found in grapes work to halt the chemical reaction that kills skin cells and causes sun damage.

Here’s what happens: When UV rays hit your skin, they activate “reactive oxygen species,” or ROS, which then oxidize big molecules like lipids and DNA. This activates particular enzymes that kill skin cells.

But grapes’ flavonoids work to decrease the formation of the ROS’s in skin cells that were exposed to UVA and UVB rays. The researchers, led by Marta Cascante, a biochemist at the University of Barcelona and director of the research project, note that this finding may lead to better sun-shielding drugs and cosmetics.

The study was published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.

Previously, vino has also been found to fight Alzheimer’s, ward off prostate cancer and even prevent cavities. We’ll drink to that.

Thanks, Melissa. Salute!



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