Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Good Online Maps

During my wine sales days, the one tool I returned to more often than any other, except for a corkscrew and a glass, were maps.  For many years, heavy tomes or some bad copies from those heavy tomes accompanied me on my sales calls.
There is no substitute for visual reinforcement when it comes to educating.  And that is what I did more than sell.  I explained and demonstrated what made one wine different from another.  This set me apart and grew my business.
Now we all have this information at our fingertips, assuming you know the right place to find it.  There are some great map resources out there - and more coming all the time, here are a few of my favorites.

The first two are excellent for global exploration, you can drill down to fairly specific regions.  Play with them and decide which ones give you the style and look you like the most.

Kobrand Wine and Spirits Maps

Wine Spectator Maps

These links will be placed in the Resources section as well.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Tips to Avoid/Identify Bad Wine

Save this one, or remember it will stay in the growing Resources tab...I can promise it will come in handy at some point.
First, you should know that a bad bottle of wine will not make you sick, unlike eating spoiled beef or undercooked chicken.  However, bad wine can be much harder to detect.  Like death and taxes, flawed wine is unavoidable but you can do a few things to limit your risk.

Shop at places where they take care of the product.  Does the store feel hot?  Is shelving bathed in sunlight?  Light and heat are mortal enemies of wine.  If the shop is hot (not just warm) or has wine located in places the sun hits for long periods of time, maybe you should shop elsewhere.

Damage can happen before wine reaches your favorite retailer or restaurant.  Importers sometimes ship without proper temperature control.  Although this rarely happens anymore, too many wholesalers do not care for their product properly.  There is a wholesaler in town that routinely loads their trucks before the sun sets and parks them in their lot overnight.  Even responsible companies do not all have refrigerated trucks.  Check bottles for signs of leakage or seeping around the foil or neck. Be sure to avoid wines with corks that extend beyond the bottle.  That is a sign of heat damage (or freezing - not an issue in New Orleans) because the liquid expands and can force the cork out a bit. Also look for low fills in any bottles you might be purchasing - this exposes the wine to more air and may have oxidized the wine.
Responsible retailers and restaurateurs will keep you from ever seeing or experiencing these problems but it doesn't hurt to be aware of them.

Now the real challenges begin:
Pay attention to the cork when you remove it.  Are there wine stains along the length? (Another potential issue from exposure to heat).  Are there tartrates (small crystals) stuck to it? This is not a sign of a bad wine just of one that was not cold-stabilized, most likely.  For tartrates or sediment, just pour slowly and avoid agitating the bottle and you will only have some in the last glass.  You can also filter or decant the wine - more on that another day.

Go ahead and smell the cork.  I know, everyone tells you it only makes you seem pompous but sometimes the cork smells like a corked wine, i.e. wet newspapers or cardboard, and that tells me to be suspect of the wine.  The cork, no matter how moldy, crumbly, wine colored or corked-smelling does NOT mean a wine is bad.  You still need to try the wine.  Think of some washed-rind cheeses...if you ran away from the wet sock aroma without trying the deliciousness within you missed out.

Sometimes a wine can be a bit funky when you first open it.  Remember it is a living thing.  Think back to the last long trip you took.  Were you at your best immediately after getting out of the car or off the plane?  I know I'm not.  I need some time to acclimate and stretch my legs.  Same thing for wine. Some musty flavors 'blow off.'  If the wine is corked, the unpleasant aroma tends to get stronger with exposure to oxygen, so you'll figure it out.
[Hint: If you don't know what a corked wine smells like ask your retailer if there are any available to smell.  Sometimes a customer has returned one but the wholesaler has not yet picked it up.  You'll never forget it and will be able to recognize it forever after].
Some things that won't blow off are wine that has become vinegar - I think we can all tell when that has happened - and wine that is re-fermenting in the bottle.  The latter means you have still wine, by design, that is now sparkling.  Be careful here, some wines are lightly bubbly on purpose, even without a telltale sparkling wine cap.  Unintentionally effervescent wines tend to have a funky note and uneven, unintegrated bubbles - they can even be a bit harsh in the mouth rather than lively and pleasant.

Pour the wine.  If it is a white wine, is it orange or even brown in the glass?  That is a sign of oxidation and you will be unhappy with the wine (although there are some wines made this way on purpose, you are unlikely to happen across one by accident).
Red wines gradually fade in color and become brickish or even brown in the glass but that shouldn't happen to wines on retail shelves.  If the vintage is more than four or five years before the current year, you should inquire about it before purchasing.  [Note: Some producers hold their wine back longer than others before releasing them.  Italy and Spain are famous for this, especially in Tuscany - think Brunello and Chianti Riservas - and Rioja, again Reservas and Gran Reservas].

Smell and taste, if you have concerns or are unsure about the wine, be sure to leave it alone for a few minutes - then give it a second chance.  Some of these can be considered quirks, like the friend who has some habits you might prefer weren't shared.  Some people will find those quirks endearing, perhaps even a bonus, but they are fewer in number.  Earthy, funky flavors can be part of a good or bad bottle of wine.
Sulfur is sometimes used during bottling and can result in a matchstick aroma when the wine is first opened.  This will fade relatively quickly.
Things that won't fade at all, and may become more pronounced are volatile acidity (VA) and brettanomyces (brett).  The former can add complexity if there is not too much of it.  With more VA present, the wine smells of nail polish or band-aids.  While some consumers will tolerate (enjoy?) wines with this fault, I am not one of them.  The latter is a component I sometimes treasure but, again, it can overwhelm the wine.  It adds a wild, animal or even barnyard funk to the wine.  The French might call it sauvage - though each of those words I just used can also be accurately used to describe wine without any level of brett.  Some wines have built reputations and garner high prices because of the presence of brett, others fail to achieve distribution beyond their winery...or their drains.
By far the most frequent issue consumers encounter these days is the presence of 2,4,6-Tricholoranisole (or TCA).  This is what you smell in your wine when it is corked.  It is the reason for the creation of, and embracing of, screwcaps.  It is the thing wineries fear more than anything but weather.  Why?  Because the incidence of cork taint is much higher than the number of bottles returned. That means huge numbers of people experience an unpleasant tasting wine and do not realize it is flawed.  That means they will likely not buy the wine again and might tell lots of others to avoid it as well.  [Note: For years before screwcaps became (mostly) accepted by consumers, lots of wineries shipped wine to events, reviewers, etc. with that seal, avoiding the risk of corked bottles in those important venues].
Moldy cardboard, wet newspapers that have been stacked up for a few days, etc. are the telltale aromas. They can be faint but it is an unforgettable sense memory once you have experienced it.  Oxygen will make the flaw more pronounced, so leave the bottle for a minute or so and try again if you're unsure.  If you are in a restaurant, don't hesitate to have your waiter or sommelier taste it as well.  They should know the wine and be able to recognize any issues.  And be happy to supply a replacement if there are issues.  [Note: This is why sommeliers taste your wine sometimes.  They want to be sure you are receiving a proper version.  Chefs do this all the time in the kitchen, we just don't see it].
One last note, just to remind you that wine can be infuriating and that nothing is black and white.  Wine displays various levels of being corked.  Some can be smelled across the room while others may go totally unnoticed.  It's not like a microwave experience where you have a sound wine and 15 seconds later it is corked and undrinkable.  It is much more like crock pot cooking or erosion...or the coming down with the flu.
The most insidious moment in the corked process is the earliest stage.  From my experience, I believe that corked wines just heading in that direction are sometimes simply more mute.  The cork might have the faintest trace of TCA but the wine smells just doesn't show very much fruit or character. I have experienced a few of these bottles and I only knew something was amiss because I had tasted another, sound, bottle recently.  Don't get too worked up about this (it is a very infrequent occurrence) but I felt I needed to share what I believe to be the full story.

Did I miss anything?  Anyone want to add, clarify, debunk?

Coming Soon: Now you know you have a bad bottle...what do you do with it?

Friday, July 19, 2013

Quick, Easy Burgundy Guide

Burgundy is a challenging region to understand but it can also be very rewarding.  While I lament the prices, it is still a region worth investigating if you have the money.  Even with no budget constraints - call me(!) if that description fits your situation - some basic groundwork is imperative.  Pitfalls of lazy producers and a confusing array of different producers that share a family name create a maze that can, literally, leave a bad taste in one's mouth.
Hilarie Larson recently posted a digestible overview that is accurate and well laid out.  Being the completist I am, I would add loads more information but then it would intimidate rather than invite.  Kudos to her for the words and the maps, this is a good place to start.
A Simple Guide to Burgundy
[One small note: in the Chablis section, Kimmeridgian is misspelled]

I will keep looking for more information to offer as complete a picture as possible for more Burgundian exploration.

Monday, July 15, 2013

St. Innocent Pinot Noir Brickhouse Vineyard 1998

On the occasion of drinking some fun wine with friends in the wine business last night, it seemed a perfect opportunity to open the last 1998 Oregon Pinot Noir in my possession.  The vintage created excitement about the region and the grape and paved the way for a good string of vintages that cemented Oregon's place in the upper echelon of Pinot Noir production around the globe.

A few quick facts, straight from the back label (love a label that actually informs!):  Elevation about 440 feet, Willakenzie soil, grapes planted in 1990, farmed organically, harvest was a mere 1.1 tons/acre, the wine spent 19 months in 43% new barrels (I assume French), no fining or filtration.  Amusingly, the final line is, "will benefit from up to 6 years of bottle age" - or 15 apparently!
Here are my tasting notes for the same wine opened in 2009.  I was thrilled to find no iodine note and the wine showed brilliantly as soon as it was poured.  Fresh earth and just small hints of mushroom mingled with some dried berry aromas, providing that rare experience where smelling the wine is almost enough.
The palate was the highlight though.  Silky, seamless and with incredible power still, the wine filled the mouth and I'm not sure I could conjure up another wine I would have chosen over this palate experience.  The finish could not live up to the excitement created by the nose and taste, however.  While it didn't fall flat, it clearly lacked some focus and staying power.  The other parts more than made up for it and the wine vanished all too quickly.
I am amazed at how happy I was with the wine based on those earlier notes.  For those interested in some other 1998 Oregon Pinot tastings, here are two more links.
Other St. Innocent wines
Other 1998 Oregon Pinots
St. Innocent remains a leader in producing top-notch Pinot noir and if there was to be a ranking of Oregon producers, they surely would merit Grand Cru status.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Distribution Model?

As I read a recent Seth Godin post * it brought me back to my wine days and the insanity of distribution and the games played in the pursuit of making suppliers happy.
He laments not seeing any of his books in any airport bookstores during a whirlwind tour.  After sharing this news with his publisher, "Someone wrote back, 'Seth, if you tell us which airports you'll be visiting, our salesforce says they will do their best to have your book in a place you can see it.'"
Clearly not what he was after.
The wine market often functions in this same dysfunctional way.  Regional or national representatives come to town and the local distributor for the supplier's products tries to find out (or control) where the rep is staying and eating to guarantee the wines will be available.  In some cases this is appropriate - go support those who are supporting you - but this is not always how it works.
What if the chosen restaurants have no interest in the products?  What if the wines have never been presented?  Then the give-aways begin.  I remember a local rep for one of the two big wholesale companies in New Orleans walking into Martin Wine Cellar, where I worked, and offering us a free four case stack of $13 a bottle wine if we would display it for a few days while a market survey was conducted.  He went further and told us whatever we sold could be profit for us and they would pick up the remainder next week.
Never mind the illegality of selling alcohol on consignment in Louisiana.  Never mind that he knew no amount of sales was going to magically create a "permanent" stack of the wine in the store. The company was creating false success for the survey.  They do deplete more bottles from inventory but they are not building a sustainable distribution model.  They are building, as Seth says, a Potemkin village (the link is here because I had to look it up).  I always pictured a set from a western movie, storefronts, but no insides, just support beams to keep the facades from falling over.
In restaurants, the same thing happens.  "Could you feature this wine by the glass this week?  We'll give you a case."  Or perhaps, "We'll give you four bottles and reprint your list for you if you could add this wine for a few days."  There is always this lonely, outsider grasp at hope that the wine will be so successful that the placement will remain and the outlet will actually order (and pay for) the wine in the future.
This is the teenager doing favors for someone they have a crush on.  In my experience, these efforts go unrequited and your time and energy is much better spent doing almost anything else.  Don't waste your limited resources on those turning a deaf ear, find prospects willing to listen and join your team.  As Seth puts it: "Don't save the canary. Fix the coal mine."

* If you don't follow him, you should.  He has a brilliant way of getting to the heart of the matter and focuses on distilling ideas down to simple concepts.  Many of his posts are like snacks for my brain, a short read but plenty to consider.  He is an impressive businessman, a programmer, an author, a traveler and explorer and, perhaps most important of all a questioner.  I think of him as a paradigm of the new modern technological Renaissance man.  Seth's Blog

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Interventionist Winemaking: What Could Be More American?

For many years I cursed American winemakers for manipulating their wines.  I dismissed many as flawed and phony-tasting.  My allegiance went to the old world, especially France - where the word 'winemaker' doesn't even exist.  They employ vigneron, or 'vine grower.'  The word has come to mean winemaker in many translations but it is not what it means literally.
Ask a vigneron about some technical aspect of their wine and many respond with a gentle shrug of the shoulders and a small expulsion of air from the mouth that sounds like 'puh.'  When I have pressed further, responses mostly focus around why I need that information when I have the wine in my glass.  The implication was that reading me a recipe would not tell me enough about the final dish as actually taking a bite would.  I love this answer, though it frustrated me greatly while I was selling wine because American buyers, and some consumers, want to know the nuts and bolts of a wine before they buy.
The United States has a very different climate and it affords us wide latitude in what vines to plant and where to put them.  We had no accepted list of what to plant and where it would grow best, so we did the American thing: we experimented and blazed new trails.
We are the country of Manifest Destiny.  We are the country that accepts differences (or used to) and embraces a variety of cultures.  Our founders left countries because they did not like how they were being told to live.  The war to free us from British rule and tyranny was called the Revolution.  Why should our wine culture be any different?
I don't always like these brash, non-traditional wines but perhaps I should respect them more for simply being American.  Happy Independence Day!