Kermit Lynch and Importers Important Role in Developing Regions

A Food And Wine Revolution Begins

Kermit Lynch Wine Merchants was a ground breaking importer of French Wine to the West Coast
Kermit Lynch Wine Merchants was a ground breaking importer of French Wine to the West Coast

This is an adjunct to the Domaine Leon Barral post, the producer that Kermit Lynch Wine Merchants imports and sells both through it’s own shop but as a distributor nationwide. Barral is located in wine backwater of Faugeres, and Lynch has been steadily raising the status of this bio-dynamic producer for the past couple of decades. Today the estate has a significant and loyal following in the United States, thanks to  Kermit Lynch Wine Merchants tireless work to promote it.  It is much easier import wine than to create a demand for it, and this ability to do so has been key to the firm’s continued success. As a retailer who bought from them, I quickly learned that Kermit Lynch’s reputation for importing only the best wines, could alone sell wines off the shelf, just by consumers seeing the importer’s wood cut logo on the strip label. 

Kermit Lynch was a ground-breaking revolutionary in early 1970s, when be began importing many previously unknown French wines into his Berkeley, California wine store. It wasn’t a sure thing, but the fertile intellectual ground of Berkeley allowed the food and wine scene to germinate, and Lynch, along with fellow visionary Alice Waters nurtured fledgling businesses that grew and prospered only a few miles apart.  It was perhaps inevitable they would become friends, along with  noted food writer, the late Richard Olney, who would help spread the word.

For his work importing and promoting small, emerging producers, often from  unheard of French appellations, Lynch has received two James Beard Awards. As much impact as he has made here in the states, he made even a greater impact on winemakers and regions of France that he represented. How much so is revealed by the fact that the French government  Knighted him! Being awarded him truly prestigious medal of “Legion d’Honneur”, illuminates the immense impact his relationship with so many small vignerons has made. He may not have made the wine, but he made it possible for others to make and elevate quality and reputation of their wine.  He has also been influential in directing wineries to make cleaner, more acceptable styled wine for a world-wide stage, ensuring their success, and in many cases creating their legacy. Some of the producers he has been involved with have become iconic and legendary in the industry. They include Vieux Telegraphe, François Raveneau, Coche Dury, August Clape, not forgetting to mention the winery which Kermit Lynch is most closely associated with, in part because of Richard Onley’s book “Lulu’s Provencal Table”, Domaine Tempier.

A new subterranean cellar takes the money of success, something a good importer can help attain.
A new subterranean cellar at Kermit’s producer Leon Barral in Faugeres takes the money of success, something a good importer can help obtain.

It is not simply true to say that Kermit brought these producers into the limelight, because these producers would not become the great winemakers without his promotion, and the money it brought. With his promotion, and their new ability to raise funds for re-investment, allowed them to become producers of great wine. You can see a similar parallel of the Burgundy producers represented by another early importer of French wines, Chateau & Estates. C&E’s producers included Ramonet, Roumier, Grivot, d’Angerville, Niellon and Courcel which were all to become leading estates in Burgundy. It is no accident that Kermit Lynch and Chateau and Estates represented so many top producers while the rest of the area struggled through the 1980’s. It was with the promotion and money these importers provided they could re-invest in their vineyards and cellars. As the quality improved, these up and coming domaines (fields) could raise their prices. It was these producers who had distribution and financial support in the 1980s, which are the ones we consider to be the legendary estates today. Many other producers have caught up qualitatively, but it is these few that came to prominence first that command the most attention, and the highest prices.

Argh! Too Many Spritzy Wines!

Roche de Solutré in the heart of Macon, and above the Pouilly-Fuisse village of Vergisson
Roche de Solutré in the heart of Macon, and above the Pouilly-Fuisse village of Vergisson

Having a recurrent fascination with Burgundy, and an unfortunately small budget, I went to the closest store to work to pick up some Macon whites. Macon, as Neal Martin pointed out in a recent article, was the area that had made the most remarkable strides, and was still affordable, even at their very most expensive. Indeed, I’ve had a number of Pouilly-Fuisee’s that were better than a lot of Pulignys and Chassagnes, and even a cru vineyard from Domaine Ferret that was not unlike Batard-Montrachet.

This particular wine merchant has grown to be one of the big boys on the internet, and does a lot of direct importation – which is cool, I figured. There are something like 4500 producers in Burgundy, and only a small portion of them are imported. If his retailer imported the best of these unknowns, this could be my Shangri-la.  Terrific wines for $12.99. Could it be that I could have a terrific source only blocks away?

“Once in a great while, you find wine from the Mâcon so good…”

The write-ups sounded fantastic. One had the following sign attached it:

“Once in a great while, you find wine from the Mâcon so good that when tasted blind you are forced to apply some much higher (and more expensive) appellation to it. Often, such a wine comes from hillside vineyards with better drainage and cooler nights. This is such a wine, from the slopes below the giant monolith of rock that is Solutré. Domaine Renaud is a small domaine, making Mâcon, Pouilly-Fuissé and St. Veran from 12 hectares of estate vineyards. Their cellar is modern, and they use upright ovals for many of the wines, and stainless for others.”

Along with that sign, I asked the clerks: “Which would you recommend: This 2012 Macon, or this 2011 Macon-Villages?” The answered “They are both good, if you like crisp, minerally chardonnay. And who doesn’t like that?”

So I bought both, plus a really cheap bottle of  Chardonnay from the Loire – which I didn’t have very high expectations for but how bad could it be. But for $6.99 I wasn’t really going to complain. As it turns out, I’m complaining.

Bottle one:2011 Bernier, Chardonnay Val de Loire $6.99:    Spritzy.  Really Spritzy.  After I knocked the gas out of it (which took quite a bit of effort, it was fine, and simple apple fruit, and the Loire’s characteristic limey-ness that you see in so many wines from the region. Fairly solid, pretty much what I would expect, though it could have been much worse.

Bottle two: 2011 Domaine des Niales, Macon-Village Vieilles Vigne $12.99:  Spritzy, Really Spritzy. This too took quite a bit of doing to get the gas out of. Underneath it was a fairly simple wine with apple, and while it still had CO2 trapped in it, minerality. But once the CO2 was gone so were the minerals. Relatively light in weight for Chardonnay, and very representative of what has been made in Macon for the past two decades. Not special in any particular way. I was certainly hoping for more given the quality strides made in the region.

Bottle Three:  2011 Domaine Renaud Macon-Solutré $12.99: Spritzy, Really Spritzy! Underneath all the spritz was a lightly concentrated, very traditional Macon, much like the Niales. It was fine, but seemed a little bit simple, with all the minerality disappearing with the spritz.Ok, what’s going on here? Three bottles in a row? Seriously?

“these were near sparkling levels of CO2 – totally unacceptable levels”

Argh! More Spritzy Wines! My Grapes of Wrath!
Argh! More Spritzy Wines! My Grapes of Wrath!

OK, I’m losing my patience here a little.  This Renaud was the wine I’d had the most hope for. Solutré is shared by Pouilly-Fuisse Vergisson, and the surrounding Macon-Solutré.  I picture a small producer, working the land, probably a husband-wife team which is common in Macon.  This was the story of hard-working artisanal  farmers in a majestic location like Macon-Solutré. That is the romance of wine. This just tasted like all the cheap Macon’s I’ve ever had, without ever stepping outside-the-box.  AN it was the third spritzy wine in a row!

Maybe all the spritzy bottles made me feel a little negative toward this and the others wines. I’m well aware that crisp, steel-raised whites can be bottled with a little CO2 to help protect them, as they have short life spans.  And it is true, that any wine can have an occasionally spritzy bottle.  But these were near sparkling levels of CO2 – totally unacceptable levels if done to protect the wine.  Recently I’ve had increasing numbers of spritzy bottles, to the point where maybe a full third of the wines I buy in stores have this problem. Granted my budget precludes me from buying expensive wines, but really, this is not acceptable.  I don’t return them, because they are not ruined, they can be de-gassed, but it is disappointing nonetheless.

International Bulk Wine Competition has a Super-Gold Medal?

imagesNot only is there a competition for those who make bulk wine, but they give gold medals to the best of them.  Samples that are scored between 88 points and 95 points are awarded gold medals.  Given that the competition actually has a category for bulk wine that scores above 95 points is of special interest. These wines receive Super Gold!  Super Gold?  I’m not really sure what that is. But frankly, I find it hard to imagine a 94 point bulk wine being offered on the open market, much less a 97 pointer… but apparently there must be.   Is this the ultimate in point inflation, or just the bulk wine world’s adoption of the bell curve?

imgres40% of all wine is sold on the bulk market.

While I got a pretty hearty laugh at this yesterday, in reality I was encouraged that there is seems to be a real push in the bulk wine market for improved quality.  As it is, bulk wine  is already a big part of many a well-regarded winery’s appellation wines. Whether the name on the label says Napa or Sonoma, legally up to 25% of a wine can come from another appellation without any indication on the label.  Many, many wineries supplement their production with grapes from other high-quality, but less desirable regions, to stretch their production, and keep costs down.

Delicato Family Wines in the Central Valley, used to sell their clone 337 Cabernet production  to wineries that put the Lodi-juice in their Napa Valley Cabernets. This Lodi-grown Cabernet was said to be in high-demand by big-name Napa wineries. Apparently the 337 Cab was desired for its deep, opulent fruit that  gave wonderful mid-palate to the Napa Valley Cab blends. Eventually a decision was made that the wine was too good to sell off, and Delicato began bottling it as the 337 Cabernet.

So despite my laughing at the Bulk Wine Competition’s expense, I really should show them a debt of gratitude.  It seems I probably bulk wine may be a significant part of my wine diet without my even knowing it. Thank you to you bulk wine producers for pushing quality upwards.

A Great Producer That Fails Comparison Tastings: Joseph Roty

Stand Alone Producer

At Atherton, one of our best producers is Domaine Joseph Roty. But Roty doesn’t produce the most striking or flashy wines, and they are often overlooked in a flight of its peers. This wasn’t a problem some

From author:" Tast de Gevrey Chambertin: ...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia

years ago, before scores from the big periodicals started to influence the insular world of Burgundy drinkers. (who have been remarkably resistant to what Parker and the Spectator had to say.) But today the influence is felt, especially by Allen Meadows who is closely read by lovers of Burgundy.

“It’s a beauty contest, and Philippe Roty’s wines come unprepared to compete in that arena.”

But Roty, like some of the most complex wines in the world, can get lost in a flight. They get passed over. When I have poured Roty’s brilliant 2008 Gevrey Champs-Chenys or the excellent 2010 Marsannay next to wines like Frederic Esmonin’s 2011s or Gros Frere et Soeur’s 2010 and 2011s, Roty’s wines fade to the background for almost all but the most experienced tasters.  Esmonin’s wines which are fresher, brighter (and less expensive) and Gros Frere’s wines with their liqueur-driven, lushly-textured fruit, overshadow Roty’s thought-provoking, terroir driven style.

Reviewers who taste blind, or taste in large groups of wines from the same region, recognize these wines as being of quality, but they rarely score highly. It’s as beauty contest, and Philippe Roty’s wines come unprepared to compete in that arena. For the most part, they rarely score much above 90 points. This is hardly a ring endorsement these days for a wine that costs $60. But if you taste Roty’s wines in the context of a flight what Philippe produces, their brilliance becomes immediately clear.

So yesterday I took a flight of Roty’s wines on the road to test my theory that standing alone, Roty’s wines would shine. It was immediately obvious that these wines were showing really well on their own. From the first two wines, The 2009 Marsannay Blanc and 2009 Marsannay Rose, every buyer loved these wines.  While there were some concerns about serving a 4-year-old rose to customers that expect a fresh and fruity (and simple rose) would be disappointed, they all were blown away by the wine’s stunning minerality (not acidity that masquerades as minerality) and surprising complexity.

Each red was lauded as it was poured through the line-up, beginning with the 2010 Marsannay, and the 2010 Marsannay Quartier. The 2010 Gevrey-Chambertin showed the continuation of the house style of concentrated, but never over-ripe black fruit, great purity, and never a suggestion of heaviness, and to that added Gevrey’s textbook savage, meaty, truffle-like scents. But it was the 2008 Gevrey Champs-Chenys, which I have repeatedly loved so much, and had never caught anyone’s eye in flights of Burgundy’s before, that really got the most comments yesterday. Here, among it’s previously poured siblings, it shined brightly, with all of its smoke, meat, and underbrush, with plenty of fruit, and none of the sweetness that marks the high scoring wines today. Beautiful!  The last wine was the stunning 2007 Roty Gevrey Fonteny Premiere Cru. This drank like a grand Cru. And being from the softer 2007 vintage, it was lush, and rich, with a full mid-palate was absolutely seamless. There was not a single hard edge to this wine. It was remarkable wine.

Tasting Note: A Burgundian Minervois? Anne Gros

From the author: "THe vinyards are all ar...
The vineyards are all around the village of Minerve. Minerve gave its name to the Minervois, a region and a wine appellation” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here is a wine from the formidable Burgundian husband and wife team of Anne Gros and Jean-Paul Tollot. But this wine isn’t from Burgundy, it’s from the Languedoc’s Minervois appellation. I suspect that a Minervois has never tasted like this before.

There are so many pieces to this puzzle of a wine, that I suppose I should just deal with the tasting notes first. Later, I can talk about all of the perplexing peripheral issues this Minervois presents. I have to say right up front, this is a wine that raises many more questions than it can possibly answer.

2009 Domaine Anne Gros & Jean-Paul Tollot, “Les Fontanilles” Minervois 

This blend of  GrenacheSyrah, Carignan and Cinsault is dark, almost black in color. On the nose, there is some liqueur of cherry and raspberry fruit, but this wine isn’t giving off much in aroma. In the mouth, the wine is soft, very soft, much softer than anything I’ve tasted in quite some time. But the there is considerable fresh, red cherry fruit, and deeper black fruits, particularly the deep black cherry I associate with a riper premier cru, or grand cru Burgundy. The significant fruit of Les Fontanilles is accented with faint notes of smoke, thyme and a touch of black pepper. The mouth-feel is round and supple, but not the slightest bit heavy, and it has a very creamy texture. This wine has a remarkable delicacy, and I keep getting a watermelon-like fruit, right on the surface of this wine. It’s pretty, very pretty in fact, and surprisingly it has tremendous balance. It is really quite delicious, and just calls out for a second glass.  $32   86-92 points

And that is it.  That is all I could find in the wine. It was delicious. It was very pretty. But without much acidity, it’s range of flavors was limited. I really can’t explain how the wine had so much fruit, with virtually no acidity or tannin, yet somehow it remained so remarkably balanced. It had good richness, and it never once approached being flabby.

“Did I kill this metaphor?  No, I don’t think you can really understand the dichotomy of this wine.”

This wine was like a beautiful, delicate young girl, with really nothing to say. Very nice to be around, but you can’t talk politics or philosophy with her – maybe the most basic current events, but not much more. Did I kill this metaphor?  No, I don’t think you can really understand the dichotomy of this wine. This is a wine of great finesse, balance and elegance, with really lovely fruit. It’s like a beautiful top-flight Burgundy without the nose, or any complexity, really at all.

The 2009 Les Fontainilles is a very difficult wine to judge.  You can’t really throw a number at it, and say this is an 86 or a 92.  It is both of those scores depending on which angle you look at the wine.  It does some things magnificently well, and almost fails in other areas. It is both fascinating and perplexing.  I guess the bottom line is, would I buy this for $32?  The answer is yes; not only is it really elegant and finessed, it delicious. And most importantly, all this rigorous head scratching makes it well worth the price.

The Winemaker, Anne Gros

anne Gros pic   For those not familiar with Anne Gros, she is one of the real succ ess stories of Burgundy. In 1988, at 22 years old, she took over her father’s failing Domaine Francois Gros. He had health issues, but really, he had never made the quality of wines his brother, the famed Jean Gros, produced. She was almost instantly a star. By the mid-nineties, her tiny production of Richebourg, Echezeaux and Clos Vougeot were highly sought after, and prices were going up. That was twenty years ago, now she is married to another vigneron, Jean-Paul Tollot, of Domaine Tollot-Beaut in Chorey-Les-Beaune, and together they have three children.  Anne now wanted a new challenge.  So they began a long search for a new project. It had to be somewhere else, and it had to have soil similar to Burgundy’s marl and limestone. The search lead them to Minervois, and a property with very old vines.

The Vineyard, “Les Fontainilles”

This vineyard, Les Fontainilles, is a north-facing, bowl-shaped, 7 acre vineyard of flaky, grey sediment-soil, the French refer to as Gres. The vines were planted between the 1960s and the 1980s, predominately to Grenache, although Syrah, Carignan and Cinsault are grown there also. Half the wine is aged in wood, the other half in stainless, preserving all that fresh cherry and raspberry fruit. A good description (by Robert Parker) of the project can be found here. The property is in the far South of Minervois, right on the St Chinian border in a tiny village called Cazelles.

And All of the Unanswered Questions….

So, there are a multitude of questions that revolve around how to judge such a wine.  The winemaking style clearly has transformed what we expect from these varietals, and from the region in general.  That said, the style is non-interventionist, and done with a much more delicate hand. Clearly, this wine was not acidulated or manipulated in any way. Presumably Anne and Jean-Paul believe acidification of grape must is a tremendous mistake (as many top winemakers do), this is intended to be a true expression of the vintage and the terroir. Has it succeeded in this?

The key question, I suppose, is should you treat the grapes of the Sud (Southern France) as you would Pinot Noir? Is Anne Gros revealing the true nature of the grapes and the vineyard? Is she really getting everything out of these grapes that she should in order to tell the whole story of the land and the grapes? This is a beautiful wine, with a lovely finesse, but it doesn’t really have much in the way of complexity or verve, and these are serious nagging issues. Is she leaving those qualities in the must? The alcohol is 14.5 percent, so these grapes were ripe.  Did they pick them too late, forsaking the grape’s natural acidity?  It wouldn’t seem so, since there were no signs of over-ripeness to the fruit character. But the fact remains, that with Grand Cru Burgundy vineyards needing attention five hours away, these Minervois vines may not get that minute-by-minute attention they might need in a hot year like 2009. The winemakers simply can’t be in two places at once.

And then, there is this question: if you break the mold of a regional wines typicity, such as Gros and Tollot have done, will others realize it as brilliance and embrace the approach, or will they walk away? This is always a risk that the visionaries and the rule-breakers contend with. These are great gambles, that pay off for some like Piero Antinori when he bottled Tiganello as a Vino di Tavola and so many others who have done things the way they think is best, regardless of convention. These are risks that make reputations and change the industry. But for every maverick that succeeds brilliantly, and are vindicated by their position, there a countless others who fail quietly.

Anne Gros and Jean-Paul have staked a significant energy and money into this project, and are relying on their position as great Burgundy producers to help sell their wines, which are definately Burgundian in style.  It is a tough road for sure, one that a fellow Burgundian has traveled. According to an article by Jancis Robinson MW, the well-regarded Jean-Marie Fourrier from Gevrey-Chambertin, had bought a winery in Faugerers, nearer the coast. His experiment resulted in having to walk away from the venture after just a few years. Advice he would give to other Anne and Jean-Paul, whom he had never met?

Spend lots of time with local people from the Languedoc as they can be very helpful – or they can make your life much harder. When you run two businesses 400 miles from each other, the temptation is to work, work and work with the obligation of success. But don’t forget that you are considered a foreigner by the local people. 

This is not to say that Anne Gros is on the wrong course. But as delicious as this wine is, it raises more questions than tasting it can answer. I am interested to see if the 2010s will have better retained their structure, being a year that was cooler, and the wines from 2010 generally had much brighter acids.  For me, that would be the deciding factor. But when a wine is this delicate in a hot, fruit driven year that is marked by most wines being massively concentrated and heavily structured, it’s hard to imagine what will come next.  I may get to taste a couple of the 2010’s in a couple of weeks time. We’ll see then.  I personally can’t wait to read the next chapter.   Dean

Bordeaux and Burgundy’s Relevance on the American Wine Scene

P7141848 (Photo credit: cumi&ciki)

Bordeaux and Burgundy have been in something of the doldrums in terms of relevance on the American wine scene since the recession began in 2008. It was at this time that, while the near collapse of financial markets in the west, there was an influx of new wealth in China.  The Chinese nouveau riche with their insatiable appetite for the best Bordeaux had to offer, drove prices up at a time when budgets were shrinking here. Also at the very, most wealthy, in America and Europe and Russia just continued to gain wealth – snapping up blue chip wines for their cellars. The result the rarest of Burgundies and the most highly celebrated Bordeaux climbed, and climbed in price

The resulting wine trends in the United States was a combination of a rejection of Bordeaux’s pricing, and focus on wines from other places. For the generally stayed Bordeaux drinker, Brunello di Montalcino was an easy retreat.  Comparatively, Brunellos were cheap, delicious, and some of the very best producers weren’t much more than $60. With their excellent international reputation, softer tannins, Brunello was a socially acceptable down-sizing for the Bordeaux drinker.  For a more adventurous Burgundy drinker, there was a lot of thrilling options to choose from, most notably the remarkable Barolos and Barbarescos coming from Piemonte, and Aglianicos from Campagna and Basilicata.  Although for inexperienced tasters these wines have more challenges of in terms of structure and bitterness, their aromatics and texture are a huge draw with those wines, surpassing Burgundy in quality and complexity at each price point.

“The wines from the more traditional producers, really resonated, because they are flavors that cannot be produced anywhere else in the world.”

This economic dynamic created a scarcity of the top wines, while most of the lower and middle tiered wines sat, lingering in distributor warehouses and retailers shelves.  Of course this has always been the problem. The top 1% of wines has an eager market, the rest are more difficult to sell. Only now, this disparity is much more acute.  Now, as the stock market soars and the housing market moves back toward record highs, we can predict that this trend will continue.  The difference I think, is the wine in the next tiers down will be forced to lower their prices because the most of the middle class is not gaining wealth in the recovery.  There will not be an increased market for middle tier wines, rather these wines will need to retreat some in price.

In the past, the first growth and second growth Bordeaux were not so expensive that the middle class wine buyer could buy them occasionally, and the same went with Grand Cru Burgundy.  But I have always felt the soul of those appellations are those below those haut crus.  In Burgundy, I have always felt, that if you don’t know the premier cru’s you don’t know Burgundy.  Sure the Grand Cru tasted great.  They were ripe and succulent – anybody could like those.  The true soul, the heart and character of Burgundy is in the terroir, and if the wines got too ripe, this would be covered up, and the aromatics would be buried. For that reason I have always been a fan of the ”off years.”  To me, they seemed to retain more aromatics and just seemed to age better. The ripeness of the Grand Crus, at least to me, often masked the vineyard’s terrior.  As for Bordeaux, I have always been a fan of the 3rd through 5th growth Bordeaux and Cru Bourgeois. I know, it’s an underdog thing, but they were really good then, and today they are much better even now which in many cases justifies their price increases.  Besides, what hasn’t gone up in price?

Having just started to go out into the marketplace this week with some of these Bordeaux and Burgundy wines, it is fun to watch the light bulbs go off as the wines are tasted.  In many cases, the reactions I got are as if these buyers had suddenly remembered that Bordeaux and Burgundy even existed.  That’s how far removed the wine industry in many places has become from these two regions.  The wines from the more traditional producers, really resonated, because they are flavors that can not be produced anywhere else in the world. It makes you wonder if part of the problem with the relevance of Bordeaux is not only the prices, but the extreme modernization of the wine making, and the resultant fruit-driven styles that have taken hold there.

Givry vineyards 3
Givry vineyards 3 (Photo credit: Max xx)

Tasting the wines from these two classic French appellations is like a re-awakening. They are beautiful, full of personality and character. Sure, because of my new job I have a vested interest in the success of Burgundy and Bordeaux in the market place.  But I left my buyer’s position at The Wine Club precisely so I could immerse myself in the amazing portfolio at Atherton Wine Imports. While there certainly is a lot more competition for their attention, but I think Burgundy and Bordeaux are, and will again gain in relevance in the American wine consciousness.     Dean 

If James Gandolfini were a wine…

A Look At Ourselves, And Our Industry

I’ve been struggling with this post for a couple of weeks.  I don’t want it to come off as trite, hence the delay in sending it out. 

James Gandolfini
James Gandolfini (Photo credit: gdcgraphicsissue.

The death of James Gandolfini was pretty shocking.  Here was a man who was highly respected, and by many, revered as a true artist. That he died at such an early age

made his life and his work more poignant. But the event of his death made me think: If James Gandolfini were a wine, how would he have been judged?  Would he have been successful? Would anyone even have considered him?  Here was a man who did not have beauty, was not fit, but he exuded such character, strength, sensitivity and nuance.  Aren’t those all attributes we desire in a wine?  Aren’t those the things that actually define a great wine?

It dawned on me that wines are judged the same way we consider models or a Miss America contestant. It’s a beauty contest, and wine critics with their score cards, are telling us this wine is better than that wine, when all it really does is confuse the issue of what a wine is really about.

Wines are like actors, or at least the characters they play, but the majority of our wine critics, and the wine buying public, for the most part, treat wines like models. And everybody knows, the supermodel is the best example of a person, right? (sarcasm is intended here.) 

“To combat the constant dumbing down of wine, we’ve got to tell the stories of wine.”

But if we want real soul, and real character to mean something, and to really shine through, what do we as wine professionals do? To combat the constant dumbing down of wine, we’ve got to tell the stories of wine. I was telling my boss, “We’ve got all these really cool wines, and it’s our job to tell people about them.”

I have a new job, doing marketing for a small importer of Bordeaux and Burgundy. Despite representing some of the greatest domaines in Burgundy, and an incredible selection of Bordeaux, we have a challenge to relate how wonderful these wines are in virtually every vintage.

Although collectors should, they don’t tend to stock their cellars with the 2006, 2007 or 2008 vintages, all of which produced wonderful wines. Wines from these vintages show remarkable character, strength, quality, and they will age beautifully too.   These are the vintages that the top sommeliers are purchasing for their restaurants.  It is the producer’s name that is important, not so much the vintage.

But for some reason we, as American wine enthusiasts, have a hard time getting past our thing about vintages.  Take 2007 vintage in Bordeaux for instance. With the exception of 1961, the 2007 vintage is better than any vintage between the years 1960 to 1981, yet most wine collectors have completely dismissed the vintage as not worthy.

But it’s really a more extreme problem than just of vintage. In my last position as a wine buyer, I was constantly amazed that if you offered two wines from the same producer, from the same year, and one got 97 points and another got 96 points, people would only want to purchase the 97 point wine – even if the 96 point wine was significantly less expensive.  I guarantee that there is no qualitative difference between a 97 point wine and a 96 point wine – or even a 94 point wine for that matter.  Additionally, if you blind taste 10 people on those two wines, it is a sure bet that half of the tasters will like the lesser, 96 point wine better.

What is this national mentality that makes people want only the best, and how could the best be determined when taste is so subjective, and the simple fact that wines can “show” wildly differently on separate occasions?

 “You could go really hungry trying to sell wine without resorting pimping wine out with scores.”

As wine professionals, I realize we talk out of both sides of our face.  On one hand, many of us have a remarkable fascination with  wine and are quite dedicated to telling the hundreds of stories associated with them. On the other hand we’re also trying to put bread on our table, and we feel that we have to resort to using the scores (that we really often detest) to sell wine. We do it because in the time it takes to get your customers to blindly trust you, you could go really hungry without resorting to pimping wines by using scores.

Over the past three years, I wrote email blasts for The Wine Club.  About a third of the wines I wrote about didn’t have any scores (or I didn’t include them.) I wrote them up with exaggerated enthusiasm, ala Robert Parker, in an attempt to build a following for our store, and the wines we championed.  I thought it was important to build a reputation for being authority of wine ourselves. Quoting a score doesn’t make you an authority, does it?imgres

So for three years I tirelessly wrote up wines – with no scores, just my enthusiasm.  I found I could sell wines quite well up to about $25-$30. Above that price point, fagetabout-it.

In today’s wine world, is it necessary to score a wine in order to build a reputation as a wine authority? Certainly, it appears as though scores are required; which kind-of-sucks. I’ve really wrestled with this.  

When I taste wine, I don’t taste points, I taste wine.  But since Gerald Asher retired, (by far my favorite wine-writer) I can’t think of a successful critic that hasn’t resorted to giving wine points.

At this point it is tempting to digress into the problems revolving around scoring wine, and the inequities involved in the process.  I hope we all understand those issues and frustrations well enough, to let it sit there stewing, without addressing them.

Scores or no scores:

I think the answer to my question in the opening paragraph is clear.  It was in a sense rhetorical. Suffice it to say, (with all due respect to the late Mr. Gandolfini) that if he were a wine, very few members of the wine-buying public would ever gotten to experience Gandolfini’s fabulous character, strength, and nuance he would have projected.  This happens every single day in the wine world, and it is the great shame of the wine industry.


Go out and tell the stories.


Harvest Bos part 2: Biodynamics is Ascending

I think understanding Biodynamics is most easily done by breaking it down into two basic parts:  doing things at the right time, and feeding the

harvest moon
The Harvest Moon: For centuries, farmers have known to harvest on the cycles of moon -different times for various fruits and vegetables.

land, (thus feeding the plant, and by extension the grapes).  Too much time is focused on what on the surface seems to be hocus-pocus elements, and the language of the process, rather than the reasons behind them, and I think that just confuses the how people perceive Biodynamics.

The first part is doing things at the right time.  With biodynamics, the right time is determined by the moon.  The moon exhibits tremendous forces on the earth, pulling and pushing our vast oceans (weighing 1.5 quintillion pounds) several feet in one direction or the other, every twenty four hours and fifty three minutes.   Tides rise in rivers and lakes just as rhythmically.

Humans have been aware of moon phase harvesting since ancient times.  As recently as 100 years ago, farmers understood the relationship that nature, their farms and their plants had with the moon.  “What they didn’t have in education, they made up for in observation. says biodynamic farmer Dave Bos. “Today, we tend to discount what we observe. A lot of vineyard managers write work orders from their desks,” says Bos. “They don’t even go into the vineyard to see it what it looks like. I learn a lot more from walking the vineyard and observing.”

There is strong  evidence that produce that is picked on the correct moon cycle will have a longer shelf life.  Fruits and vegetables that are meant to be stored, like apples, cabbages, potatoes and onions are better picked during the waning moon, when water content is decreased. Conversely, fruits and vegetables that are to be eaten right away are best picked during a waxing moon.  Tomatoes are best harvested during a full moon when the plant will naturally have a higher water content.  None of this dictates that you need to pick at night – in case it needs to be said.

The route of the moon around the earth is egg-shaped, meaning at the two opposite points of the egg, the moon is farther away and has less pull than when it is in its closest proximity to earth.  From down here on the ground, we are of course most aware of when the moon is ascending and when it is descending.  The gross effect of  the ascending and descending is the moon pushes for two weeks, then it pulls for two weeks.  In the vineyard, this information can lead to timing when certain vine maintenance is performed, and the end results can save the farmer significant head aches.

For example: If you prune your vine on a descending moon, this will cause a later bud break.  Pruning in Napa traditionally happens in February.  An excellent description of pruning can be read here. However, if the vineyardist prunes late, and during a descending moon, bud break will be delayed, (hopefully) until after the frosts.  Frost, of course, can decimate a vineyard’s potential crop in a single morning, so every day counts.  Conversely, if you prune during an ascending moon, bud break will happen 3 (or more) days earlier.  Those 3+ days of delayed bud break, coupled with up to two week delay in pruning can make a world of difference in crop set.

Bud break 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon
Bud break 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon (Photo credit: fris2008)

Planting is best done during the descending moon, because the descending moon has downward pressure, and it really positively effects the root system of the plant. Conversely, it is said the ascending moon positively effects the plant above ground – the moon is pulling during this cycle.

But those who study the moon have identified 3 major moon rhythms and 13 minor rhythms -many are so subtle, that Dave says he can’t observe some of them.   The most obvious rhythm is the full moon.  Dave says the full moon amplifies every thing in the vineyard. He says it turns up the volume.  The ground is wetter during a full moon, even though there hasn’t been any rain.  The new moon is the opposite of the full moon. It is a quite time, with more a neutral effect.

Further, Biodynamics indentifies four types of “days”, they name them: Fruit, Flower, Leaf and Root “days”.  These “days” last two and half days each, so any given day can be split between say, a leaf day and a flower day. To know what kind of day it it, and what time it will change, you need to consult a Biodynamic Calendar. Biodynamic farmers use the knowledge to determine when to pick and when to plant various fruits and vegetables. 

From Maria Thun’s Biodynamic calander that is available on

Leaf plants on Leaf days
The cabbage family, lettuce, spinach, lambs lettuce, endive, parsley, leafy herbs and fodder plants are categorized as leaf plants. Leaf days are suitable for sowing and tending these plants but not for harvesting and storage. For this … Fruit and Flower days are recommended.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         Leaf days occur, (among other times) on the full moon, and during this time their is more water in the air, in the ground, and in the plants. -this sentence is not from Thun.

Waning Crescent Moon
Waning Crescent Moon (Photo credit: I am marlon)

Flower plants on Flower days
These days are favorable for sowing and tending all kinds of flower plants but also for cultivating and spraying 501 (a Biodynamic preparation) on oil-bearing plants such as linseed, rape, sunflower, etc…

Fruit plants on Fruit days
Plants which are cultivated for their fruit or seed belong to this category, including beans, peas, lentils, soya, maize, tomatoes, cucumber, pumpkin, courgettes, but also cereals for summer and winter crops…Fruit plants are best harvested in Fruit days. They store well and their seeds provide good plants for next year. When storing fruit, also remember to choose the time of the ascending moon.” (Maria & Matthias Thun, The North American Biodynamic Sowing and Planting Calendar).

First as a distributor rep, and then as a retail wine buyer, I noticed that wine tastes different on different days.  Early on, I associated this solely with the fact that wine does not taste good on hot days. Then an old industry salt, Don Beatty, told me it was barometric pressure that effects how a wine tastes.  At that time I was tasting roughly six wines a day. Ok, I could buy that… maybe. Still, some days, regardless of the moderate weather, my palate would just be seem off. Later, I was buying wine and tasting seventy wines a day, or more. I was my palate was super-tuned, and I was really confused by the fact that some days wine really just didn’t taste right. It wasn’t until talking to Jared Wolff from Palm Bay Imports, perhaps one of the straight-out most intelligent and knowledgeable guys in the wine biz, told me about root days being bad days to taste wine. Finally, this was something that made sense.  It all has to do with the phases of the moon.

Fruit Days:  Wine tastes its best on fruit days

Flower Days: are neutral in the taste of wine and not effect the wine negatively

Leaf Days:  Leaf days are neutral-negative days for tasting wine.  Not the best.

Root Days: Wine will generally not taste good on root days

Maria Thun has written a book (that I admit I haven’t yet purchased) on the subject, called When Wines Taste Best: A Biodynamic Calendar for Wine Drinkers.  It’s on my to-do list.

Next up: Biodynamics: Treat the Soil, Not the Symptom.

Harvest Bos: Biodynamic Grape Growing In The Napa Valley

Part One

The Case For Biodynamics

grgich winery, napa valley, California
Grgich Winery, Napa Valley, California (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

During the difficult, cool vintages of 2010 and 2011, winemakers and vineyardists across California were complaining of harvests rife with rot and mildew  – everyone it seems, except Dave Bos.

Dave only makes 3 barrels of his own wine,  but he points to the wine in the glass and says, “Look at the color.” “I’ve got plenty of color.  I didn’t cold soak, or do an extended maceration.  I just did a normal fermentation, and this is the color I got.” The Syrah is very dark, almost black in color.  It is the nose that sets the wine apart. It is vivid, with lavender, plum, blackberry, earthy loam, ad lots of fresh black and green peppercorns.  In the mouth there was plenty of richness and weight, with tremendous freshness.

Both the 2010 and 2011 Boss “Pheonix Vineyard” Coombsville, (100% Syrah) were spectacular regardless of vintage. In both vintages -2010 (cool) and 2011 (cool and wet) a lot of really good winemaking teams saw difficulties getting the kind of color and concentration they were looking for.

“It’s how the vineyard is farmed.” Dave says. “It has nothing to do with the way I made the wine.”  Dave Bos is a vineyard consultant, who only uses Biodynamic practices. The name of his company is Harvest Bos Dynamic Vineyard and Farm Management where he manages several small vineyards in the valley. “I manage more then I consult, it allows me to have better control. I do have a few clients that I consult for in Napa”

“I have voodoo in my vineyard”

“I consult for Brian Phoenix, who owns this vineyard.” Bos says referring to the wine in our glasses. “He is a mechanic.  Brian’s a really sharp, meticulous guy who can fix anything.  “But he doesn’t really believe in Biodynamics, so I’ve had to convince him to trust me.  “Brian laughs and says, ‘I have voodoo in my vineyard!’ . . .”Brian would tell you,” Dave adds, “he has seen a huge difference in quality and health in his vineyard since he converted it to BD.”

Dave moved to the Napa Valley ten years ago, and signed on as a vineyard manager for Grgich in 2005. The winery had already started the process of converting a few blocks to Biodynamics the 2003 looking to combat the leaf roll virus that was infecting the vineyards. When Dave got there in ’05, they embarked on the mammoth, 2 year process of converting all of Grgich’s five vineyards, covering 367 acres of vineyards, to biodynamic farming. Dave worked closely with winemaker/general manager Ivo Jeramaz to see the enormous project through completion and Demeter Certification in 2006 and 2007.

Dave Bos, Biodynamic Farmer and Consultant

Over that time, Dave has seen the direct, positive results of the changes in a vineyard due to Biodynamics. Most notably he has witnessed the problems have been completely avoided, that his neighbors have waged desperate struggles to contain.  The 2011 vintage was especially notable. Rains in June and September caused a significant amount of mildew and rot, whereas he notice much less of this at  Grgich. In 2011, at Grgich the whites were exceptional – Dave feels they are some of the best the winery has ever made.

Having visited many, many wineries over the years, it seems every sales manager spouted off about how they are farming sustainably, many saying that they are Certified Sustainable. “Certified Sustainable” however, can mean no more than someone at the winery took a class on sustainability, not that they ever implemented any sustainable processes in the vineyard to become “Certified.”  There is no legal definition for Certified Sustainable at this time, so the meaning of the term can vary widely depending on the organization providing the certification.

Certainly there is wide use of cover crops these days, to attract the right insects and give nutrients back to the earth. I have been told by many Sales Managers that they are no longer using pesticides… but they invariably slip in the caveat, ‘unless there is no other alternative.’

The French call this kind of farming lutte raisonnee, (the reasoned struggle.)    I have begun to think lutte raisonnee means, what happens in the vineyard, stays in the vineyard.  

While all these General Managers sounds like they really have a solid environmental plan, and they use all the right buzz words, I have always gotten the feeling that there is too much spin, and a lot of lip service, being given to the subject.  I mention to Dave that sustainable farming is a talking point of every winery manager, and his response was this: “By definition, if they can continue to stay in business they are sustainable.”

The Power of a Healthy Vineyard

When Grgich Hills started converting its vineyards over to Biodynamics, there was a section of old vine Cabernet that had been part of the reserve program that was dying, and had been scheduled to be replanted the following year.  In the meantime, it was easier to farm the entire vineyard in the same manner.  So for the next year, this section of Cabernet was farmed just like the rest, Biodynamically.  At the end of the year, it was noted that the vines which had barely be producing any fruit, were looking much better, and had produced a larger crop.  The decision was made to leave them in to see what happened.  Today those old Cabernet vines still has the disease that plagued it before, but now the vines are strong enough to withstand its affliction, and once again produces a high quality crop with a feasible yield.

On a ride-with a few years ago, I had asked Mike Benziger (who is a tremendous advocate of Biodynamics) if he thought Biodynamically grown grapes produced better wine. His response was surprising.  He said that he felt Biodynamics acts like a lens in winemaking, focusing whatever you have. If what you have is good, it will focus and heighten those attributes, and if it isn’t so good, then those lesser attributes will be heightened too.  He also said that he thought that the intense focus, observation, and effort put into the vineyard, moves with the grapes into the winery.  When so much work went into growing these grapes, greater effort is made to make them into the best wine possible.

It is no accident that if you look at a list of the world’s greatest winemakers, Biodynamic producers will populate the  top 100 in a remarkably high percentage.  The primary reason is the land is healthier, so the vines are healthier, and the fruit is healthier. But also this care in the vineyard has a dramatic effect at the crush pad: to take every opportunity to do everything right.  To observe, adjust, and to not take any short-cuts.

Next Post:  Harvest Bos: Biodynamics is ascending

The Red Blend Explosion: From The Prisoner to Apothic

Around twenty years ago, winemakers from Paso realized that the Napa Valley had a reputation for Cabernet, Sonoma had Pinot and Zin, and Paso didn’t really have a reputation for anything.  They decided they were going to make themselves known for The Paso Rhone Blend.  This blend of Syrah, Mourvedre and Grenache was going to catapult the region to fame.  To varying degrees this has been successful despite the lack of favor of Syrah in the market place, but along came a brand that really muddied the definition of “Red Blend”.  That was The Prisoner.  There were other’s, like Marietta’s venerable  Old Vine Red, but it was The Prisoner, with its cult-like status, that really opened up what a Red Blend category.

Then along came Apothic, an enormously successful, ridiculously large production, red blend from Gallo. It has made a massive mark on the industry, because it sells for under ten bucks and it is available everywhere.  It is a baby The Prisoner, for the masses.  From Apothic’s huge success, the copycats have sprouted like weeds.  They are made from anything and everything, as long as they big, thick, juicy, and faintly sweet.

“Now there is a flood wines, built to a recipe, that are remarkably uniform in style and flavor.”

English: Freshly harvested grenache grapes in ...
English: Freshly harvested grenache grapes in the California wine region of Santa Barbara, USA. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the last one to two years, I have been almost overwhelmed by the presentations of  these Red Wines.  At first they were mostly less expensive copies of The Prisoner, with varying degrees of character.  Now there is a flood wines, built to a recipe, that are remarkably uniform in style and flavor. To attain that thick almost sticky richness, undoubtedly they have to use a good dose of grape concentrate to boost concentration, giving the wines their similar flavor profile. They are all tasty, some bordering on delicious, but as a retail buyer, it begs these questions:  Do you buy them, and if you do buy them, how many do you really need?  Finally, how do you sell them? Do you put them with the Paso Reds that have regional, and varietal definition, and undermine their years of effort to forge an identity?

We have found, almost no-one comes in saying “I want a red blend.”  If you make a whole section of Red Blends (say, ten wines that taste almost identical), they won’t get shopped, since most people are still conditioned to buy by varietal. In our case, we have reluctantly put most of them in the Zin or Syrah section depending if they seem to have any hint of either of those in the mix, or, (the shame of it) in the Cab section.  We had been told there was Cab in The Count by Boisset’s Buena Vista Winery, and because we positioned it in the Cab section, it has become one of our best-selling “Cab blends.” Yes it is dis-indigenous, but people really like it, and they would have never found it in a “Red Blend.”section. As for how many of these Reds my store needs, I’m holding the line at around 6 or 7, out of 1600 SKUs, about as many as I carry of Sancerre.

As a wine buyer, and a wine seller, I do not feel it is not my job to be an arbiter of good taste. It is my job to only select wines that represent the spectrum of tastes of my customer base. Do I think they will like it? Is it the right price?  Because of this philosophy, I carry The Prisoner, and I carry Apothic, despite the underlying feeling that these are formulaic and somewhat contrived wines.  They have their place in my store because my customers buy them.  On the other hand, I also carry the flag of exploration, having a selection of Natural wines, and wonderful wine from some of the more obscure regions across France and Italy for those who are more adventurous.  Can I interest you in a lovely Mondeuse from Savoie?