Chalk another one up for California

California Adds the “San Bernabe” Appellation; Newest AVA Located in Monterey Growing Region

After three years of work, the San Bernabe region is an official, federally recognized wine region adding yet another California appellation (region).

A little research on the area reveals a long history of wine growing in the region. As early as 1776, Father Pedro Font, a member of the famous Anza expedition, referred to the general area as the Cañada de San Bernabé (cañada refers to an open river valley). In 1842, it was deeded as a land grant to Petronillo Rios, a cattle rancher believed to have made wine from grapes grown around his home in Spain. The current expanse of San Bernabe was formed from several adjoining land parcels, bought in 1974 by the Prudential Insurance and Southdown companies. Believing the site to be unique in its winegrowing attributes, it was developed as vineyard property.

The San Bernade encompasses a shade under 20 square miles, comprising a total of 12,600 acres, and, according to Delicato Vineyards’ website, is the world’s most diverse single vineyard property.

Congratulations to all involved in the process and here’s to yet another region that will help us all Enjoy the Wine Life!

Novice or normal?

This is an important question. Novice or Normal? Should you feel like you’re “out of the loop” because you’re relatively new to wine?

The fact of the matter is that the vast majority of people enjoying wine are fairly new to wine. This is something the wine related industrys need to understand and work especially hard to create information that is informative without being condescending. We set up Vivi’s to bring a sense of normalcy to every person. Not to toot our own horn (but I will anyway) more mainstream businesses would be wise to follow suit.

Analyst firm Russel Research recently put out a study of wine drinkers in which they found that 66% of respondents wish restuarants would do more to guide them to which wines should go with the different meals. Additionally, 64% of the respondents classified themselves as “Novice”.

This essentially highlights the fact that the vast majority of mainstream wine businesses need to pay a little more attention to their customer base and make their wine menus a little more than a complex collection of often eclectic names and regions (other than New World wines its extremely hard to follow whats going on – you can take French wines as an example). This study didn’t include folks who never drink wine; these are wine drinkers like you and me.

So as it turns out, novice is normal and many wine businesses would do well for themselves and, in turn, everyone else if they would be as friendly and creative with their wine presentation as they are with the actual wine itself. The recognition that novice is normal would really help us all Enjoy the Wine Life.

Screw Cap: The Uncork…

There has been a lot of talk about what is going to replace natural cork as the preferred closure for wine. The main problem is the fact that natural cork has a chance of tainting wine (or cork taint) due to a contaminant found in the cork called trichloroanisole (or TCA). This is more commonly referred to as the wine being “corked”. Corked wine has a sort of musty smell, a little like your dog when it comes in out of the rain or your basement after a week of rain and hot weather. It can range from very subtle (you can drink one and not even notice it because the aroma is affected but not the taste so much) all the way to making the wine completely undrinkable. Estimates of tainted wine go as high as 17%. Some wine producers will anecdotally put the number higher than that.

For very large producers, even reducing this a few percentage points means big money so don’t be too shocked if you start seeing some large producer switching over. When your producing thoudands upon thousands of cases a few percentage points adds up. For instance, Hogue Cellars, the large Washington winery owned by Vincor International, plans to go screwcap on 70% of its wines beginning in January 2005. The conducted a study that found that consistently 17.6% of thier wines with natural cork get corked and that synthetic corks let in too much oxygen. Screwcaps, on the other hand, can be designed to allow precisely the right amount on oxygen in (you can’t seal it out completely or the wine won’t age correctly). And, obviously, no wines will be corked.

So whats the big delay in everyone switching over? If you haven’t noticed, there is a tradition of ego and “above all that” in the wine industry. The change over is going to have to happen at some point, its a matter of when. When you have a product and business driven by marketing it becomes difficult to convert to closure that is used for soda bottles. There is a big debate over whether or not to move away from natural cork. This debate is really senseless from a practical, scientific, stastical standpoint. But that isn’t driving the decision. Psychology is driving the debate. Why are Napa Cabernets more expensive than Australian Cabernets? Because the branding of these wines and strong marketing makes them more in demand and therefore allows Napa producers to charge more (although the Aussies are making a run at them). Its good branding driving good profits. To use a screwcap on a premium Napa wine would instantaneously demote the brand of that wine in the minds of the customers to something less then ultra-premium. So at this point, if cork taint is only affecting 5% of your wine (and many consumers won’t even notice) and you estimate the brand damage done by using a screwcap will cost you 10%+ of your business, would you switch? Wine, while delicious and fun, is a business and that is a business decision.

How does this affect you and me? Well, it doesn’t. If your favorite wine switches over to screwcaps you might save a couple bucks. If they ar smart business people, they’ll switch over and reduce the price so that loyal customers who might get turned off by the cap will try it anyway for the price. And guess what? It’ll taste the same. So keep enjoying the wine life.

A wine before its time…or after?

Did you know that for a wine to be of a certain vintage (year on the bottle) the grapes need only be 95% from that year? That sounds wierd but its not bad because producers can use grapes of different vintages to produce different tastes and smells. They can also get some use out of good vintages that didn’t completely sell out. It is restrictive on “bulk” wine producers though because they need to try to find cheap grapes but if every year the producers of premium wines hunt for and buy up the grapes then the prices are driven up making it more difficult to produce cheap wines.

The Napa Valley Register reports that there is a proposal by the wine institure to drop this requirement even further to only 85%. This is troublesome to grape growers because if the standards are relaxed then bulk producers don’t need as many new grapes and the growers will be at their mercy. This is troublesome to Vino-philes because it opens the door to some premium producers using less new harvest grapes, mix in some older wines which they were unable to sell because of over-production which ultimately reduces overall quality of wines found in the market today.

Wine extremists are arguing that if it comes to this then why even have vintages at all? The wine is a mixture of vintages hence not really a single vintage. There is some logic there but come on.

There isn’t too much momentum behind the proposal at this point. Even the Wine Institute is pretty mum on the topic with little to no information made publicly available on it. So it seems as if this proposal doesn’t yet have teeth.

Could there one day be fine wine before and after its time? I think the bigger question is: How does this affect The Wine Life?

The answer: Not too badly because if you enjoy family, friends, good food, and good times then the good wine just completes the picture and you can still Enjoy the Wine Life…

Wine Event in Walnut Creek

PRIMA Restuarant and Wine Shop is hosting and exciting wine event – Second Annual Syrah Summit on Tuesday, September 14th. Seven of Syrah’s most ardent advocates will be at PRIMA pouring their wine alongside a Syrah-friendly menu. Attending will be Bruce Neyers (Neyers), Kevin Hamel (Hamel), Mark Estrin (Red Car), Trent Moffitt (Livingston), Sarah Floyd (Finca Sandoval, Spain), Rob Griffin (Patrick Lessec Hermitage) and Andrew Seppelt (Murray Road Barossa Valley Shiraz).

If you’re not familiar with PRIMA in Walnut Creek CA (about 45 minutes south of Napa Valley) its one of the more comfortable place to enjoy wine in the San Francisco Bay Area. 28 year old establishment, it serves great Italian food with an extensive wine list. I had the pleasure of dining there earlier this year and look forward to visiting again at this event.

Stay tuned for our review of the food, wine, and the official Vivi’s atmosphere review of this event. We’ll let you know if this is Enjoying the Wine Life.

Summertime, Sauvignon, and a Sandwich…

Its late summer, the weather is still hot (and muggy depending on where you are). There is definitely a good way to escape the heat, take a break from work, and just enjoy. A very Zen experience – a cool glass of Sauvignon Blanc and a sandwich. If you set yourself up with a nice Turkey on Rye, a glass of very cool Sauvignon Blanc, and go sit in an outdoor spot (maybe in the shade) you’ll catch a bit of the reason why people get hooked on wines. Many wine folks will tell you that wine too cool hides “flaws” and doesn’t allow the wine to have it full character. When it comes to summer, Sauvignon, and a sandwich forget all that – you need it nice and cool to give you that refreshing taste on top of the standard wine and food experience.

Sauvignon Blanc (sometimes called FumÈ Blanc) is pretty well known for being very “food friendly”, meaning you can almost envision the food you want to eat it with rather than wasting time trying to pick out the subtle tastes hidden in the layers. The sauvignon blanc grape is found in France, in the Loire Valley (Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume) and Bordeaux (see “Can Anything Save French Wine” for my view on the French not just calling it Sauvignon Blanc). However, my favorites are from New Zealand and California. Other new world producers include Australia, South Africa, and Chile. In Bordeaux, it is blended with the semillon grape to produce both fine dry wines (Graves) and the great sweet wines of Sauterne and Barsac.

One of the most interesting facts about this wine is that to foster the summertime, refreshing taste most producers age the wine in stainless steel barrels for relatively short amounts of time, generally only a few months as opposed to 18 to 24 months in the case of some red wines.

The best part of all this – and one of the main reasons Vivi’s really loves this combo – is the friendly price of Sauvignon Blanc. Once ridiculed as a “poor man’s Chardonnay”, many good Sauvignon Blancs can be bought for under $20.

So before Fall rolls in, while its still hot, grab your sandwich, get outside, and Enjoy the Wine Life!

Vivi’s Picks:

Gainey Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2002 – $11.99

Brander Winery Santa Ynez Sauvignon Blanc 2002 – $13.99

Paul Hobbs 2002 Chardonnay (Russian River Valley)

This Chardonnay is pretty hard to find but here is a site where you can buy it. It’s a bit more expensive then the value wines I normally try to hunt down, but this is worth the extra $20. At around $40 it tips the Vivi’s scale for value wines but this is a value even at that price.

We tasted this wine recently and it is definitely on our highly recommend list (even at $40). Wine Spectator rates this wine 95 and its clear why. If you are hesitant to change over try whites or are fairly new to them then this is the white you need to try at least once and use as a baseline for future tastings. Pour it into the glass and almost immediately you smell the vanilla and melon aromas. The wine is really very bright and delicious upfront with a toasted vanilla taste and yet maintains fruit flavors mixed in. When wine “pros” refer to “well structured” wines this is a standard for Chardonnays. Buy one (or many if your up for it) if for no other reason other than to have a clear understanding what a Chardonnay is supposed to taste like.

Like I said, pricey for the Vivi’s value recommendation standard but it is surprisingly good. Easily as good as a wine twice the price (hard to say that about a California wine these days).

Splurge a little, give it a try, and remember to Enjoy the Wine Life!

Can anything save French wine? (Part Duex)

As it turns out, the French government ever-so-quietly last month passed guidelines that radically change the wine labelling system in France – they are allowing wine growers to label bottles with the GRAPE so that people can actually understand what their buying. Currently some French supermarkets can have up to 600 different bottles of French wines on the shelves!

This comes amid growing concern over competition and over-production. This system, however, won’t be present until 2006! So we’ll all have to wait and continue to shy away from French wines because its much easier to just go to New World wines, as I wrote previously.

It seems as if the French might actually help themselves out here. With French wine less intimidating on the label it may be more approachable to normal folks. With an over-supply you would expect the price to come down a bit from the astronomical levels they are at. Those two factors could help them stabalize their marketshare. But waiting unti 2006? Inevitably the French wine producers won’t cut-over right away to the new system because of egos…excuse me, because of history, so 2006 probably means we won’t see any real change until 2009 or 2010. That could be too late. With the rate of growth of the wine industry worldwide and the increase in premium wine available, French producers could be in serious trouble by then.

The stalwarts of wine culture, Burgundy and Bordeaux, will certainly take the longest to cut over believing there is no need to – my prediction is they’ll get squeezed into it though. What would you order, bottle of nice French Chardonnay or Chablis Les Clos Grand Cru…

Justin Obtuse 2002 (Port)

Interesting thing about Ports, many people who drink Cabernets and Zinfandels often say “Oh, no thanks. I’m not into Ports”. If you fit in that category (normal person who drinks red wine but isn’t really into Ports), then the Justin Obtuse 2001 or 2002 should be the first Port you experience. I haven’t run into someone yet that has tried this wine and hasn’t been roped in. Its as if the Justin Winery created this wine to help people transition from regular wines to dessert wines.

Here is how the Justin Winery describes the wine:

Obtuse is JUSTIN Vineyards & Winery’s American-style Port made from Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. We adhere to traditional vinification and maturation methods to make this wine. In cooler growing seasons, color extraction is often more difficult and may require the addition of pectic enzymes that help free color from the grape skins before fermentation. Once fermentation begins, the juice is pumped over the cap several times per day to extract color and flavor from the skins. The sugar concentration of the fermenting must is closely monitored. When it reaches the desired level of residual sugar, typically in 3 to 4 days, the fermenting must is pressed off and fermentation is stopped with the addition of 170° proof unaged grape brandy. At this point, the wine is adjusted to an alcohol content of approximately 20%. After the fortification process, the Port style wine is placed in large neutral French oak barrels called puncheons, which are twice the size of traditional 225-liter barrique barrels. The wine is then racked once every three to four months during the one to two-year aging period for a natural clarification and to allow for maturation and integration of the brandy and the wine. This wine is unfined and unfiltered.

Whoa…Thats a mouthful. What that breaks down to for you and me is simply a full-bodied dessert wine that has plum and cherry aromas and tastes like a deep plum jam. Its always surprising how good it is no matter how many times I’ve tried it. Justin Winery makes this port out of 100% Cabernet grapes so the foundation is already there if you’re into Cabernets. Could be part of the reason the transition to this Port is so easy.

My wife, Kelly, was one of the people who I talked about before. So I tripped her out by giving her a taste of this with her dark chocolate (she’s a dark chocolate fanatic). She fell in love with and now I have to chase it around the Internet to keep a healthy stock in our wine fridge. (I’ll make it easy on you though; you can pick up a bottle here or at the winery’s website here).

One of the coolest things about this wine is that with proper storing you can keep it for a while, figure a couple of months. Over time, it develops a sort of nutty flavor on top of the already delicious plum-jam flavor. If you have two bottles you can try storing one after you open it and one day open another and compare. Storing an open bottle is not too different from storing a sealed bottle. Temperature should be around 60 F degrees and you shouldn’t store it too close to anything with a real strong aroma. If you’re into it, its worth a try. If not, just grab a couple half bottles and bring them with you to parties to impress your friends, especially those who aren’t “into Ports”.

Have fun and remember to Enjoy the Wine Life!

Can anything save French wine?

Does anyone care? Basically the new world wines have improved in quality over the last 10+ years to the point where does it really matter?

I’m not a big fan of French wines but thats a personal taste thing. Everyone tastes differently so there isn’t any reason for me to be critical of someone who does like French wines. But after 10+ (arguably 20) years of great wines coming out of other regions (like the US) there is a generation of wine drinkers that have “grown up” on non-French wines and, in cases like mine, don’t even like the taste, texture, and everything else of French wines.

There was an article on this on the CNN/Money website that points to consumption dropping in France and international competition from other wine regions. There are some valid points here and it makes plenty of sense. But the French are at a loss to understand why some sell and some don’t and why price cuts don’t help.

Let me break this down for you. The surge in worldwide consumption is driven by people understanding wine. When you and I can pick up a bottle of wine and have a general idea of what it should taste like without knowing the appellation, the wine maker’s history, the winery’s style, etc. etc. etc. then you will buy the wine. Thats all it takes. You want to sell more, make it easier to buy. THAT is why new world wine growth is out pacing old world. Its better marketing. US, Australia, New Zealand, South America, South Africa, and just about anywhere except the old world producers (Italy, France, et. al.) produce wine and name it by the GRAPE.

Its easy to understand what a Cab should taste like. But its not easy to know what a red from Bordeaux should taste like. So when does one order a red Bordeaux? Who outside of wine tools (no offense to the wine tools out there) and French people take the time to learn about French regions? The whole concept is a disaster (and, of course, somewhat arrogant).

Now, you can have a basic wine understanding of the different grapes and confidently pick wines at restuarants, bars, etc. and know what you’re getting. If you want to get more complex and learn the appellations, climate affects, barrel affects, etc. you can. But you don’t have to!! This makes it accessible and approachable by normal people. Which happens to be a bigger market than French people and wine tools.

Bottom line – its easier and less intimidating these days to stick to non-French wines so why bother with them. Only the French can save French wine industry.

(Read the follow on article “Can Anyone Save French Wine? (Part Duex)”)