Category Archives: General

Fuck the Fires — Drink Australian Wine

It’s too much — the lost habitats and species. The homes and businesses devastated. Now there are reports that some Australian wine producers in the Hunter Valley and Adelaide Hills may lose an entire vintage due to smoke taint.

Kangaroo in Robert Stein Vineyard

Picture that.

Even if you don’t work in the wine industry, imagine an entire year’s worth of your work wiped out. Think about all those steps, sweat and hours in the vineyards going up in smoke. Perhaps insurance and safety nets will help offset some of the financial losses. But nothing offsets a punch to the gut.

You still feel it. But you learn to manage it and move forward. This is what Australian winemakers are doing right now. However, they don’t have to do it alone.

So in the spirit of Yael Cohen’s Fuck Cancer movement, I encourage the wine community to #FuckTheFires and commit to supporting our brothers and sisters in the Australian wine industry.

There are numerous ways that people can help.

Consumers — Drink Australian Wine, especially from small family producers

Hunter Valley Wineries

Just a small assortment of the many tremendous Hunter Valley wineries that could use your support.

It begins and ends with you. Consumers who care and want to make an impact need to vote with their wallets. You need to ask for and actively seek out Australian wines at your local wine shops and restaurants.

While some producers may have lost their 2020 vintage, there are plenty of bottles of current 2016-2019 wines out in the market. The cash flow of moving those bottles through the supply chain and emptying backstocks will help cushion the blow of a down vintage in 2020. Find these bottles and drink up. This is the easiest thing that anyone can do to help the Australian wine industry.

I know this is tough in many markets–especially in places like the United States where the Australian “selection” is dominated by a handful of big names and mass-produced brands. While the supermarkets aren’t likely to change anytime soon, independent wine shops and restaurants can be more responsive. And, believe me, if customers start asking for more Australian wines, they will rise to meet the demand.

Importers and Distributors — Promote and expand your Australian portfolios

This is more of a personal plea to my American compatriots back home. Because even though we’re the largest wine import market by value, the perception of Australian wines for many US consumers is still of low-priced critter wines and fruit bombs. While those wines helped pave the way for Australian wines into the States, they certainly don’t reflect the realities of Australian wine today.

American consumers deserve the chance to know about things like cool-climate Pinot noirs from the Mornington Peninsula and Margaret River Chardonnays that are ages away from the tropical, butter bombs of the past.

Then there are the crackling Rieslings of Mudgee or the beauty of aged Hunter Valley Semillon. Not to mention the Hunter’s exciting foray into alternative varieties like Verdelho, Fiano and Vermentino as well as intriguing Shiraz-Pinot noir blends.

Lowe Zinfandel

David Lowe was inspired by the great Dry Creek Zins of Fred Peterson of Peterson Winery.
His Mudgee Zinfandel strikes me as a mix of the red-fruit & peppery spice of a Dry Creek Zin with the mouthfeel and texture of a ripe Paso wine.

While I do think that Zinfandel is the “craft beer” of American wine, it’s also made its way to Australia as a passion project of more than a few winemakers worth discovering.

In Orange, they’re exploring the potential of high elevation vineyards as well as carbonic maceration. All of which are tailor-made to capture the interest of the wanderlust Millennial market eagerly looking for something different.

There’s so much more to Australian wines than fruit and furry critters. Please, help give American consumers a chance to discover this.

Wine Shops & Restaurants — add more Aussie options to your selection

I know you guys are caught in the middle between what consumers are buying and what you can actually get from importers and distributors. But being caught in the middle means that you can also push at both ends.

Highlight your Australian wine selection by pointedly putting them in front of consumers. And let them know why you’re doing this. Something as simple as a line on a menu saying, “To support the wineries and families dealing with the effects of devastating fires, we proudly offer this selection of Australian wines for you to enjoy” goes a long way towards bringing awareness to consumers.

Of course, we want consumers to lead the way and dictate demand. But dictations often need a prompt to get going. Seize on that and give consumers a prompt to consider Australian wine. In chicken and egg scenarios, successful businesses are rarely the chicken. So take the lead and be proactive in your promotions.

Wine Writers and Influencers — Talk About Australian Wines

Sasha and Jean Degen

Sasha Degen and her mom, Jean, run a tiny winery dedicated to single-vineyard wines.
Sharon Parsons did a lovely write up on Degen during the 2019 Wine Media Conference in the Hunter Valley.

Yes, there’s so much exciting and interesting stuff out there in the world of wine to write about. But next month, next year and so on, all that exciting and interesting stuff is still going to be there.  So mix things up!

I’m not saying that you need to turn your blog or social media feed completely over Australian topics. However, now is the time for us to turn the spotlight on Australia for something good.

Currently, when Australian topics come across newsfeeds, it’s almost always for something heartbreaking. The fires, the floods and drought. We don’t need to whitewash or sugarcoat the negatives. But we shouldn’t dwell on them either. Australia is so much more than just natural disasters and things that can kill you.

Let’s change the narrative by sharing the stories of dynamic Australian winemakers forging ahead. Let’s talk about how Australia is a microcosm for wine–combining the history of many of the world’s oldest vines and multi-generation family winemaking with innovation that is at the forefront of climate change and the future of the wine industry.

But most importantly, let’s make sure that in the minds and hearts of wine consumers that Australia doesn’t get left behind once the news cameras leave.

Wineries — Hold solidarity tastings featuring your wines and their Australian peers

The wine industry is unique in that while it’s a business and every winery is technically competing against each other; it’s also a community. There are too many other threats to our industry–declining interests by younger generations, neo-prohibitionism, government regulations, tariffs, unstable economies, climate change, hard seltzer and other beverages–that merit more concern.

Whether it’s across the street, across the country or globe, we’re all in this together. The health and success of all our businesses–wineries, shops, restaurants, writers, educators–depends on consumers being engaged and intrigued with wine.

That’s why it would be a fabulous idea for wineries in other regions to host “solidarity tastings” featuring their wines alongside their Australian counterparts.

This will not only highlight how interconnected the world of wine is but help deepen the understanding and appreciation of guests who could try Cab, Shiraz, Sauvignon blanc, etc. from a local favorite next to an expression of that grape from somewhere in Australia. But instead of being done as a competition, it’s done in the spirit of community–perhaps even to raise funds supporting relief efforts in Australia.

Cathy Huyghe and Rebecca Hopkins have a wonderful list of worthwhile organizations to support on their A Balanced Glass site.

Hospice du Rhone seminar mat

Events like the Hospice du Rhône do a great job of highlighting the community among winegrowers.
I remember being fascinated with how many Californian, French and South African winemakers attended this seminar. They were there to taste and ask questions of the panel from Barossa just like the rest of us.

This is a powerful message to send because, while this time it’s Australia, who knows which wine community will be next?

California, Washington, Canada and South Africa are certainly not strangers to devastating brush fires. Flooding, drought and mudslides are hitting European and South American wine regions with increasing frequency as well.

Even if you’re a skeptic about climate change causing these, there’s always the vagarities of devastating earthquakes like those that Chile, New Zealand and Italy have endured. This won’t be the first time that the wine community comes together for support and it certainly won’t be the last.

Why this matters

The timing and impetus for the industry to respond to the fires by supporting the Australian wine community couldn’t be more stark. The industry once again is wringing its hands over how to reach Millennials and Generation Z. But how many times do we need to be beaten over the head with the same messages?

Younger generations want to support businesses that stand for something. That share their values. That basically gives a damn.

So, here you go. Stand up. Give a damn. #FuckTheFires and let’s drink some Australian wine.

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In Defense of Jargon

If you’ve been floating around the Wine Twittersphere anytime the last few weeks, I’m sure you saw The Tweet.

Taxi Photo by Cristian Lorini. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Like a Chia Pet doused in Miracle-Gro, the brew-ha over wine lists, anti-intellectualism, gatekeeping and winesplaining kept sprouting into sub-threads and subtweets.

A few readers asked for my take on the ordeal but I was too busy studying for upcoming exams to give it much thought.

Besides, the many different angles of this Twitter-controversy were more than covered by Robert Joseph, Esther Mobley, and W. Blake Gray‘s excellent summaries. I’ve never been a fan of regurgitating “hot takes” that’s already been aptly taken by folks more talented than me.

So I wasn’t going to write anything unless I could move the conversation forward, or maybe in a slightly different direction.

Then a recent cab ride took me by surprise.

Asking to go to St. Pancras for my train home, my cabbie responded by offering his congrats. In a split-second of paranoia, I wondered if he somehow worked part-time on the WSET Awards Panel, but no.

Instead, he was impressed that, despite my very clear American accent, I didn’t ask to go to St. Pancreas–a daily occurrence for him. (Though, apparently, this is not a mistake made by only Americans.)

The linguistic compliment was out of the blue because, usually, I am that American who horrendously mispronounces everything.
Gravois Park sign by Paul Sableman. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Ah, GRAV-oize Park–or GRAV-oy if you’re fancy.
Definitely not how the French (or most anyone else) would say it.

Growing up in Missouri, my tongue was certainly not taught the Queen’s English. It took many years of living in other areas, such as Washington State and Paris, to learn to stop “warshing the dishes” or that places like Creve Coeur and Carondelet are not pronounced as Creeve Core and Cah-ron-duh-let.

Lord knows that I’ve baffled more than a few London cabbies asking to go to the WSET School on Beer-mond-see. But eventually, I started getting the hang of Bermondsey (Berm-zee) and those interactions got easier.

Beyond pronunciations, I also got used to standing in a queue, instead of a line, and asking where the toilets are instead of the restroom, ladies’ room or bathroom. I learned that an entrée is only a bite or two, not the main course as it is in the US.

When someone in Europe tells me something is on the second floor, I know that’s a bloody lie because it’s actually on the third floor. But if I need help with my bags, I should use the lift instead of the elevator. While seeing dates like February 1st written as 1-2-2020 will still have me backtracking to January, I’m slowly starting to adopt those habits too.

All of these things are the “jargon” of everyday life.

And while it is embarrassing, intimidating and even shame-inducing to make mistakes, those moments are fleeting. Just because I’m not familiar with Britishisms and European quirks of language, doesn’t mean that they’re wrong.

The important thing is whether or not the interaction produced results. Did I get my cab to Bermondsey? Was I directed to the bathroom? Do I have the right ticket for next Saturday’s train ride or do I need a time machine back to January 2nd?

Now, yes, a dickish cabbie, waiter or ticket attendant could amplify the shame, panning my ignorance of the local jargon and customs. But they’re probably going to be a dick anyways even if I had perfect pronunciations and total acclimation. That’s just how some people are.

It’s not the jargon or customs that are wrong. Sometimes an asshole is just an asshole.

And sometimes a crappy wine list is just a crappy wine list.

Wine List pic by Iwona Erskine-Kellie. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Bold typeface is your friend.

Going back to the Helen Rosner tweet, many people noted that simple design fixes like bolding keywords and a better layout would have helped.

Folks like Robert Joseph brought up that the thread was a good reminder that we shouldn’t forget what the purpose of a wine list is.

Ultimately, it’s to sell wine. It’s a tool to communicate.

So is jargon.

Like any tool, it can be used poorly or effectively.

On the sales floor, I actively listened for jargon from my customers. Because it clued me in on what level of familiarity they might already have with wine. This better focused my questions and gave me a good idea of how I should proceed.

In this way, jargon is like shorthand or a schema.

Someone coming in and telling me that they don’t like “bretty wines” gives me a completely different starting point than someone telling me that they don’t like wines that “smell weird.” Or they use terms like acidic and sour compared to bright, fresh or “crunchy.” (That last one provoked another interesting Twitter thread which eventually won me over to the value of “crunchy wines.”)

It’s the same thing when people tell me that they love “Burgs.” Their shorthand familiarity lets me know that I probably don’t need to insult their intelligence by making sure they know that Pinot noir and Chardonnay are the grapes of Burgundy.

However, if someone says they’re a Chard fan, I may still need to feel around more to see where they’re coming from. Here too, peppering my words with a measured amount of jargon (minerally, malo, oaky) could help in seeing how they respond.

But the onus on me, as the salesperson, is ultimately to understand and communicate with my customer. Especially if I want to actually make a sale. Just as it doesn’t help the London cabbie wanting the fare to get dickish or “play dumb” over St. Pancreas or Beer-mond-see, there’s no value in a sommelier or wine steward belittling a customer who isn’t familiar with our language and customs.

Yes, wine is complicated.

Crunchy Australian red

If you want the perfect example of a “crunchy wine” seek this out. A crazy delicious Pinot noir, Pinot Meunier and Pinot gris (yes, really!) blend from the Adelaide Hills.

Yes, it’s littered with neologisms and strange parlances that make normal folks want to flee. There’s always going to be a cottage industry trying to make wine simple and accessible to those normal people.

We should be mindful of the language we use and whether or not we’re communicating effectively. But that doesn’t mean we have to ditch the jargon completely to be able to talk to less wine-savvy folks. Likewise, Europeans don’t need to “Americanize” the pronunciations of places or change their terminology to accommodate tourists and transplants.

Instead, we should be like cabbies–trying to understand just enough so we can get our consumers to their wine destinations. Eventually, if they keep coming back, they may pick up a bit of our jargon–making future interactions easier.

And who knows? Maybe someday they’ll even enjoy a Burg on Bermondsey.

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Salty Old White Men

I thought it was a hoax when I first read the anonymous letter Tom Wark published on his site.

Salt image from Mahdijiba. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

Now I don’t think that Tom made it up. But it feels like whoever sent it to him was working overtime to come up with the most insane caricature of a feminist Natural Wine zealot they could muster. Right down to the over the top capitalization of “MANipulated” wines.

There’s no way that this could’ve been real, right?

It seems like someone made a New Year’s resolution to do more shit-stirring in 2020–digging up not only the Natural Wine debate but also a good, old fashion row of “cis white men are the root of all evil.”

And, frankly, as both a feminist and wine geek who loves the excitement of natural wines, the sentiments of Wark’s anonymous commentator pisses me off.

Because it doesn’t do jack to move the conversation forward.

Before I go on, I should confess a bias since Tom Wark did write a very positive review of this site. But I’m not writing this post to come to Tom’s defense. What concerns me more is how daft diatribes like those of his anonymous writer distract from important discussions that the industry needs to have.

The wine world has diversity issues. That’s indisputable. It’s gotten better but–particularly in the realm of wine writing–it’s still largely the domaine of heterosexual, cis white males.

I’ve got bookcases full of wine books that are more than 80% authored by old white dudes. Pulling out some of my favorite books written by female authors, I could barely fill one shelf. And a good chunk of that is from Jancis Robinson.

Everywhere I go in my wine journey; I’m following the echos and opinions of old white men. When I’m researching a new region or wine, my first introduction is almost always through the lens of someone who sees and tastes the world quite differently than I do.

Wine books

A tale of two bookshelves. There are a lot more shelves that look like the top image than there are of the bottom.

And I at least have the privilege of sharing the same western Caucasian heritage as most of these writers.

I can’t imagine what it is like for POC and folks from non-western countries wadding through tasting notes, analogies and descriptors that are entirely foreign to their own.

Pardon Taguzu, a sommelier from Zimbabwe, made this point well noting, “I never grew up eating gooseberries, so I will never taste that in a wine.” For folks like Taguzu, they’re more likely to pick up the flavor of tsubvu in a Napa Cabernet Sauvignon than they would blackcurrant.

In blind tasting exams, mango and other tropical fruits are standard notes you look for in New World Viogniers. But how helpful is that for an Indian wine lover from a country with over 1500 species of mangos?

Think of all that we lose, as a wine community, when we’re not hearing these diverse voices.

We need these other voices to add depth and inclusiveness to the narrative of wine.

But acknowledging that craving for diversity doesn’t mean we have to demonize the old white men who came before. We don’t need to burn chairs to add more places to the table.

Oz Clarke image from Colin1661music. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Oz Clarke, salt bae

Tossing aside the contributions of folks like Hugh Johnson, Oz Clarke, Matt Kramer and their ilk is like tossing the salt from your cabinet. It’s not going to make you a better cook. Nor will losing these voices make the world of wine any richer.

Yes, it’s a seasoning that certainly needs to be limited in our diets. Lord knows that too much of salty old white men running amok leads to groanworthy sexism. But those are the ills of using a shovel when a dash will do.

While the flavor of wine writing is enhanced by bringing in more curry, cayenne, ginger and sage, we shouldn’t denigrate the role that salty old white men have had in preserving this passion.

Even though we certainly can (and should) scale back on the amount of salt taking up space on our bookshelves–you can’t replace it. Their opinions and insights still have value next to all the other seasonings that enliven our understanding of wine.

We need to build bigger spice racks, not “Fuck the Salt”.

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Dry January Can Go To Hell

Oh, it’s that time of year again.

Man with megaphone image by Peter Milne, Motion Picture Directing; The Facts and Theories of the Newest Art, Falk Publishing Co., New York, 1922, on the Internet Archive. Updated to Wikimedia commons under the Public Domain

Social media feeds are about to get flooded with #NewYearNewYou hashtags and selfies of self-determination. For those who frequently comment about wine and other beverage issues, the algorithm gods have a special treat in store for us.

The #DryJanuary fad.

Yay!

It’s not that I’m against the idea of drinking less.

Anyone that regularly reads this blog knows that I firmly support moderation and meaningful consumption. I’m also a staunch supporter of innovations in the wine industry that encourages moderation like small-format bottles and box wines. Heck, I even gave non-alcoholic wines a serious look.

But what I can’t get behind is sanctimonious virtue-signaling–especially for something that the science is far from conclusive about.

Yes, reducing overall alcohol intake is a good thing. But that is only good if it is sustained and habitual–not if it’s a temporary “binge” of abstinence. Just as detox diets don’t work, the idea of giving up alcohol for a month to “give your liver a rest” is similarly fraught with issues.

As Dr. Michael Apstein, a professor at Harvard Medical School and gastroenterologist, notes, “…there’s no science to support this practice, nor does it make sense physiologically.”

Bingeing during the holidays and then giving your liver “a rest” for January before bingeing again come February is like trying to catch up on sleep. It just doesn’t work. Overcompensating with sleep on Saturday and Sunday isn’t going to change the effects of your Monday-Friday sleeping habits.

Now I don’t think that everyone who scales back in January is a sanctimonious virtue-signaller.

Nor do I doubt the sincerity and good intent of folk who want to make more mindful choices in their lives.  However, these usually aren’t the people plastering their IG with #DryJanuary selfies.

The problem I have is that making “Binge Sobriety” a hashtag fad distracts from the seriousness of actual alcoholism.  To make matters worse, it’s often counterproductive. As Dr. Niall Campbell of Priory Hospital in London notes, many of the folks who feel compelled to try Dry January because of problematic drinking are setting themselves up for failure.

I know compulsive drinkers who have stopped for several Januarys in years gone by, but just counted the days until February…

They think ‘because I have stopped, I can stop anytime’. It’s rarely the case. — Dr. Niall Campbell, January 4th, 2019.

This sentiment is echoed by K.C. Clements in his very personal narrative about dealing with his own issues with alcohol, “I’m Skipping Dry January This Year— Here’s Why.”

He tried binge sobriety for many years. While he got some short term benefits, Dry January ultimately “provided just enough proof that I could continue on with my life unchanged, trapped in the delusion that I could quit drinking any time I wanted.

People who need help with alcohol addiction are not going to get it from a hashtag.

Photo by Susanne Nilsson. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-2.0

The road to hell is paved with #GoodIntentions.

The flexing and selfies of strangers on the internet are never going to replace genuine support from family, friends and trained health professionals.

But what about the rest of us?

On the website of the UK group Alcohol Change, which actively promotes Dry January, they describe their “fun challenge” as a way for folks to “reset their relationship” with booze.

However, for many people, binge sobriety doesn’t even pause–much less reset–that relationship. To truly “reset” anything, you can’t avoid the item in question. You have to reframe your thinking about it.

If alcohol is just a means to get drunk–a buzz, a “social lubricant”–then your relationship is always going to be a challenging one. It’s like if you value your partner only because he’s “so good-looking” or she’s “great in bed” and never move beyond those superficial reasons.

If you think that the sum total and benefit of a glass of wine, a bottle of beer, a shot of whiskey or a cocktail is just as an alcohol-delivery vehicle then, yeah, that’s not healthy. It will always be difficult for folks with that mindset to follow guidelines of moderate consumption–up to 1 drink per day for women and 2 for men.

But moderation is much easier when you practice mindful consumption.

This is the same tact that nutrition and wellness experts recommend we take with our food. Don’t just mindlessly gulp down your drink. Slow down. Take time to engage your senses.

Bevan at a Brazilian steak house

Another tactic of moderation and mindful consumption is to limit your alcohol intake to mealtime.

With alcohol, it’s especially important to think about what you’re drinking.

Who made it?
Where did it come?
What makes this drink different from anything else I could have ordered?

Frequent readers of the blog know that there is a story behind every bottle. However, the reality is that the story for some bottles is simply that they exist.

That mass-marketed Sauvignon blanc produced in an anonymous factory and shipped by the tanker? That patio-pounder Prosecco that always tastes the same every time you get it? Yeah, I’ll admit that their stories are pretty lame.

But these are essentially the fast-food versions of wine and it’s pretty hard to mindfully consume stuff like that. This is why mass-produced and anonymous wines should frankly be avoided.

That’s hard, no doubt. It’s so easy to order the house red or pick up that recognizable bottle that you see everywhere. Instead, you have to ask questions.

You have to actively seek out the bottles that have genuine stories behind them driven by real people. At its core, wine is an agricultural product. It’s made by folks who shepherded it along from grapes to glass. Find wines that talk about those people.

Instead of Dry January, think about #TryJanuary.

I have to give credit to one of my #UKWineHour friends, James Hubbard, for bringing this idea to my attention.

His comment came up during an interesting thread that pointed out how independent wine shops and restaurants often bear the brunt of Dry January. The big grocery store chains and mega-corps behind mass-produced brands can weather a month of binge sobriety till February. However, small local businesses–the ones that employ your neighbors and support the community–keenly feel the pain of four weeks of lost sales.

Hubbard’s advice to spend January trying new things works hand in hand with becoming a moderate, more mindful drinker.

Break out of your rut. Try something different. Visit your local shop or wine bar and talk to the people there about wine. Ask about its story.

No one is saying that you have to become a wine connoisseur, obsessing over terroir and coming up with long, flowery tasting notes. You don’t have to do any of that.

But if you truly want to “reset your relationship” with alcohol, paying attention to what you’re drinking is going to do far more for you than a month of “Binge Sobriety.”

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The Tariff Trap

During the baseball season in Seattle, there’s a curious event that happens every year when the Toronto Blue Jays visit Safeco Field to play the Mariners.

A Canadian invasion.

While I’m a huge baseball fan, I never really followed the Mariners much. However, working at wine shops along the I-5 corridor connecting Vancouver to Seattle, I was always acutely aware of when the Blue Jays were in town.

Because then I would get a massive run on J. Lohr Seven Oaks Cabernet Sauvignon and Kim Crawford Sauvignon blanc.

It was bizarre how cases I would be sitting on for weeks would suddenly vanish in a mist of maple leafs and excessive politeness. When I talked to these customers to understand why these two wines seemed to be the national drink of Canada, I would hear a familiar response.

“Oh, you won’t believe how expensive these are up in Canada!”
J Lohr LCBO

Or $23 in Toronto

When I traveled to British Columbia and Toronto with the wife for curling tournaments, I saw first hand how right they were.

That $13 bottle of J. Lohr Cab back in the US? $24
That $11 bottle of Kim Crawford? $18-20
That $5 bottle of Yellow Tail Shiraz? $12
That $7 bottle of Ch. Ste. Michelle Riesling? $16-18

Now some of that is obviously because of the exchange rate (currently 1 USD to 1.31 Canadian). But that would only make those J. Lohr and Kim Crawford bottles around $17 and $14. A significant contributor to the disparity is the local taxes and various tariffs that the Canadian government imposes on wine.

Canada has had a long history of protectionist tariffs–which used to be much higher. This CBC broadcast from 1987 when the original NAFTA negotiations were taking place is well worth the 6:38 to watch. There were stark fears that lowering tariffs (which were as high as 66% in Ontario) would be the end of the Canadian wine industry.

Note: I wanted to embed the video directly, but apparently CBC’s website and WordPress don’t get along.

Of course, those concerns were unfounded.

And, in fact, Canadian wines got better because the increased competition pushed producers to improve. You can see a microcosm of this quality movement in the CBC video (4:33) when they interviewed Harry McWatters at his Sumac Ridge Estate vineyard.

As they showed McWatters working in the vineyard, my eyes popped at the 5:01 mark seeing the overhead sprinkler system they were using for irrigation. This is something that California and a lot of major wine regions started phasing out back in the 1970s as drip irrigation became more widely available. Moving away from wasteful overhead systems towards understanding the importance of controlled deficit irrigation has been a harbinger of quality improvement in many regions.

But you can also see from the interview that McWatters was convinced that he could compete with small, quality-minded producers in California. Clearly, over the next couple of decades, he put that faith into practice as evidenced by Master of Wine James Cluer’s 2012 visit to Sumac Ridge (7:46).

Starting at the 1:40 mark, Cluer interviews McWatters’ daughter, Christa-Lee McWatters Bond, who described many of the changes her dad did in response to the free trade agreement–including pulling out hybrid varieties to plant more vinifera.

However, there is still more work to do.

While the quality of Canadian wine is rapidly improving, the high prices of foreign wine continue to be a crutch that holds them back. This is always the folly that comes with limiting competition.

Think about this. In the minds of many Canadian consumers, J. Lohr Seven Oaks is the benchmark standard of a $24 wine.  So how much effort then do Canadian wineries need to put in to make a better $20-25 bottle? Certainly not the same amount that producers in Washington State, Oregon and California need to do where consumers who are looking to spend $20-25 aren’t thinking about J. Lohr Seven Oaks.

Gramercy Picpoul

It’s hard to imagine paying $20 retail for Kim Crawford when stuff like Gramercy’s Picpoul (or $10-15 French Picpoul de Pinet) exists.

Instead, those consumers are looking at wines like:
Chateau Ste Michelle’s Borne of Fire and Intrinsic
Gordon Estate Cabernet Sauvignon
Adelsheim Willamette Valley Pinot noir
Ponzi Tavola Pinot noir
Elk Cove WV Pinot noir
Schug Carneros Pinot noir
Au Bon Climat Santa Barbara Pinot noir
Stags’ Leap Merlot
Trefethen Double T Meritage
Heitz Zinfandel
BV Napa Valley

Or, for a few dollars more, J. Lohr’s Paso Robles Hilltop Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon.

That’s before you even get to loads of compelling values from Australia, South America and Europe as well.

Yes, there is always a risk that consumers will choose these better value options from somewhere else. But the answer to that problem is to raise the bar, not artificially lower it with protectionist taxes and tariffs.

The US is at risk of making the same mistake.

There’s been lots of ink spilled over the recent threat from the US government to slap 100% tariffs on European wines such as Champagne. The primary justification for these threats is “unfair” trade practices, with some thinking that domestic American wineries will benefit from consumers turning away from more expensive European wines.

Already wine writers are penning posts about how folks can “drink around” the tariffs–noting many domestic options as well as countries that are not yet being hit by tariffs.

But it’s extremely telling that many American wine producers, as well as the US Wine Institute, are firmly against the proposed tariffs.

On Twitter, Jason Lett of Eyrie Vineyards in Oregon shared the letter that he sent to the US trade ambassador.

Lett brings up numerous excellent points about the impacts of retaliatory tariffs in other markets (which is already being felt in China). However, he touches on the pratfalls of limiting consumer choice.

Here Lett looks at it from the angle of distributors being hampered in providing a diverse portfolio. However, the lessons of those Blue Jay Weekends in Seattle still echos.

US wines are better when they’re striving to be the best.

Roederer L'Emeritage

Things like Roederer L’Ermitage from California already out-drink many Champagnes. Using tariffs to push up the price of Veuve Clicquot to $60 is not going to make this sparkler more outstanding.

From the fanatical quest of Martin Ray and Robert Mondavi to make wines on par with the greats of Europe to the legendary Judgement of Paris wines that beat them, the American wine industry has succeeded by raising the bar and not settling.

It’s the competition of outstanding Champagne at affordable prices that inspires high-quality producers in Oregon and elsewhere to keep driving. Otherwise, why not settle for Korbel?

The fabulous rosés of Provence put into context how incredibly delicious Bedrock’s Ode to Lulu, DeLille and other American rosés can be.

It’s the high benchmark of Savennières and the Mosel that encourages folks like Tracey & John Skupny and Stu Smith to make some of the best white wines in California.

Likewise, Anna Shafer of àMaurice in Walla Walla doesn’t need the bar artificially lowered with more expensive French white blends to have a reason to chase after the heights of Condrieu with her Viogniers.

It’s a trap to get complacent and think that pricing or placement is going to win the day. Yeah, that protectionism might give you a short term buffer, but it comes at a cost.

After all, how much of a victory is it to have consumers singing your anthem in another stadium if they’re drinking someone else’s wine?

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What makes a winery Twitter account worth following?

The website Glass of Bubbly regularly publishes a list of their Top 200 Social Media Influencers in sparkling wine. Now while most people think of “influencers” as Instagramers and wine writers (none of which are The Real Influencers of the Wine World), the Glass of Bubbly list is made up almost entirely of winery brands.

Photo by 472301 from https://pixabay.com/illustrations/social-networking-marketing-business-2187996/. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-Zero

I’ll admit that I don’t quite get the methods or metrics that Glass of Bubbly uses to compile their rankings. But as a regular Twitter user, I’m always game to finding new accounts worth following. So I went through and looked at all 200 accounts on this list.

I found that, much like winery Instagram feeds, a lot of them suck.

Now I did find a few worth following (which I’ll tag throughout this piece), but the most common theme of many of these accounts is that they were boring as hell. Instead of engaging and unique content, most winery Twitter accounts fall back on trite bottle shots and canned ad verbiage–if the account is being updated at all.

Unfortunately, many brands (like Jacob’s Creek) have not had a new post in months or even years. This is a darn shame because Jacob’s Creek Twitter actually had a lot of interesting posts that would make me want to follow them.

And there we get to the crux of it all. To make an account worth following, it has to be interesting.

It has to have content that you don’t find easily from other sources. It has to give you a reason to stop scrolling for a moment and pay attention. You’ll never “influence” someone if you don’t interest them first.

For most people, social media is an escape. So the question that every winery should ask themselves about their Twitter is,

“Is this a feed that someone would want to escape to?”
Sumaridge Twitter screenshot

I wasn’t planning on linking to any of the negative examples, but this Twitter feed baffles me to no end.

If you’re running your Twitter feed like a neverending ad or parade of bottle porn, then the answer is a resounding “No.”

More so than in any other type of marketing, wineries need to think like consumers when it comes to their social media.

Think about what you like seeing and reading about when you’re looking for a distraction from the day.

Think about what makes you stop scrolling.

Is it an endless stream of hashtags and emojis? Probably not.

Nothing but links to your IG or FB page? Erm.

And why on earth would any consumer care about an automated bot-message noting the number of people who followed & unfollowed you?

Plus, if I live several hundred miles away and can only buy your wine online, knowing what your holiday tasting bar hours are is not going to be a compelling reason to follow you.

But you know what is a compelling reason?

Monsoon Valley (@MonsoonValleyUK) sharing Thai dining customs and the unique sights of their homeland.

Parés Baltà (@paresbalta) posting a surprise they discovered while pruning, which highlights the biodiversity in their vineyards.

Rives-Blanques (@RivesBlanques) in Limoux, France pulling out an eye-catching quote from Jancis Robinson that “white wine can look even more alluring in a decanter than red.”

Raventós i Blanc (@RaventosiBlanc) in Spain sharing BABY SHEEP! First rule of winery Twitter–If you can post videos of baby animals, always post videos of baby animals. Guaranteed scroll stopper. Though do sheep always growl like that?

Dante Gabriel Rossetti - Hanging the Mistletoe from The Bridgeman Art Library, Object 87464. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-PD-Mark

Dear, let’s kiss underneath the “poop on a stick.”

Dunleavy Vineyards (@DYvineyards) in Bristol & Somerset sharing an Italian greyhound puppy so small that they needed to use a pen for scale.

Ambriel Sparkling (@Ambriel_UK) of West Sussex shattering all my romantic notions about mistletoe with a tweet that sent me down the Google rabbit hole looking up the origins of the word “mistletoe.”

Carolyn Martin (@creationwines) of Creation Wines in South Africa tweeting (and sharing retweets) about what makes Overberg unique and worth visiting.

Show us the people and personalities behind your brand.

Wine is an agricultural product with dozens of distinct hands having a role in shepherding it from grape to bottle. Show us those hands and the heart of the people behind them because that is what truly makes your wine special.

Like Curtis Fielding of @FieldingWinery, who is apparently a big Toronto Maple Leafs fan and is fond of retweeting National Lampon Christmas Vacation clips. While I love geeking out about terroir, stuff like this is the cherry of the terroir sundae that people can relate to much more than soils and climate.

Biddenden Vineyards (@BiddendenVine) in Kent going back into the family archives to post old newspaper clippings from 1985 that shows that English sparkling wine isn’t that recent of a phenomenon.

Lakeview Wine Co. (@LakeviewWineCo) in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario spreading some holiday cheer with their staff’s toy drive.

Featherstone Winery (@featherstonewne) in Vineland, Ontario celebrating the last pressing of the harvest.

The human touch and face
Screenshot from Waterford Twitter

When scrolling through a social media feed, our eyes are drawn to faces of people. Not only does it make us more likely to stop scrolling and pay attention to who is posting it, but we’re also more likely to respond to what we see thanks to the “Jennifer Aniston cells” in our brain.

Babylonstoren (@babylonstoren) in the Drakenstein Valley of South Africa paying tribute to their “pruning maestro” on his 80th birthday. In my article How Can Wineries Use Instagram Better?, I raved about a similar post from the Washington winery Côte Bonneville.

Waterford Estate (@waterfordestate) in Stellenbosch, South Africa highlighting the next generation taking a family trip to Table Mountain.

Reif Estate Winery (@Reifwinery) in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario making excellent use of the #ThrowbackThursday hashtag. This is something that every winery should do. Share that nostalgia. Share the bad hairdos, shoulder pads, handlebar mustaches and bellbottoms. Those things resonate because we all have our own nostalgia and “Oh my god, did we really look like that?” pictures.

Show us the people and personality of your brand. That is why we follow your feeds.

Treat Self Promotion like Salt

By all means, post that great review or article mention. But make sure you’re sprinkling it in between other worthwhile and engaging content. Otherwise, we’re back to the same boring old ads. And, again as a consumer, why should I spend my time looking at your ads? If you want consumers to commit to following your Twitter account (and eventually seeing some of those ads), you have to make it worth their while.

A few wineries that do this well include:

Bob Lindo (@camelvalleybob) of Camel Valley sharing what makes English sparkling wine worth discovering with a well-produced Vimeo interview with BBC’s Saturday Kitchen.

Rathfinny Estate (@RathfinnyEstate) throwing out a bit of geeky wine history about Roman viticulture while encouraging folks to visit them in Sussex.

screenshot of Torres Twitter

Geeky and sentimental.

Familia Torres Wines (@TorresWines) has an outstanding winery blog so their posts highlighting their efforts to revive ancient varieties in their vineyards definitely stands out from the pack.

Dr. Loosen Wines (@drloosenwines) in Germany is headed by the legendary Ernst Loosen. Their social media team does a great job of highlighting articles and short videos featuring Loosen.

Newsflash: Wine drinkers who follow wineries on Twitter might actually like reading about other wines.

Know your audience. Not everyone is going to bother looking up the Twitter handle of a winery to specifically follow them. A lot of times, wineries are getting follows because Twitter’s algorithm is recommending their accounts to folks based on similar interests–such as WINE!

So make use of the retweet feature and tweet out interesting wine articles that capture your attention. This adds value to your feed. It can also help increase engagement, making your Twitter posts more likely to show up in other folks’ feeds.

A great example is L’Acadie Vineyards (@lacadiewine) in Nova Scotia who commented on Alice Feiring’s recent piece in The New York Times pondering if the Natural Wine Movement is dead.

Denbies Wine Estate (@denbiesvineyard) in Surrey, UK got a mention in this article about interesting dessert wines from around the world. But they didn’t make the tweet promotional and all about them. Remember, you want your social media feed to feel more like an escape for wine lovers than an endless ad. Well played, Denbies.

Even Bottle Porn can feel less “porn-ish” with meaningful content behind it.

screenshot JC Le Roux Twitter

Why hire models to pose with bottles when you could retweet photos of real live consumers *actually enjoying* your wine?

Villiera Wines (@villiera) in Stellenbosch, South Africa does this nicely with explaining the history of the wine as well as the meaning behind the color choices on their label. WAY less boring than another beautiful shot of bottles held by beautiful people in beautiful locations.

JC Le Roux (@JCLeRoux) in Stellenbosch, South Africa let their consumers supply the bottle shots with very effective use of their #JustCelebrate 🥂 hashtag. This is a terrific example of engagement and what I was desperately seeking from wineries in my post One Night Stands and Surprises. Bravo JC Le Roux!

Who else I followed from the Glass of Bubbly list

As I went through all 200 accounts, I focused on the most recent December tweets (if there were any). If I saw at least 2 to 3 posts of engaging content, I followed them.

Flat Rock Cellars (@Winemakersboots) in Ontario, Canada.

Klein Constantia (@KleinConstantia) in Capetown, South Africa.

Henry of Pelham (@HenryofPelham) in St. Catharines, Ontario. Admittedly more “bottle porn-ish” than I typically follow, but their Anchorman-inspired caption on their ice wine grapes made me smile and earned their inclusion here.

Prosecco Superiore (@ProseccoCV). One of the few non-brands on the Glass of Bubbly list.

Fox & Fox (@sussexvineyards) of Sussex, England.

screenshot from Spier Twitter Feed

Apparently the Spier Light Art Festival is quite a thing to experience in Stellenbosch.

Spier Wine Farm (@SpierWineFarm) in Stellenbosch, South Africa.

Katnook (@Katnook) in Coonawarra, South Australia.

Ridgeview Wine (@RidgeviewWineUK) in Sussex, England.

Bench 1775 Winery (@bench1775) in Penticton, British Columbia. Another Twitter that is a little heavy on the bottle porn but won me over with posts about the ice wine harvest. Truly a labor of love to go out in sub-zero temperatures at night to hand-harvest grapes.

Ravine Vineyard (@RavineVineyard) in St. Davids, Ontario.

Red Squirrel Wine (@RedSquirrelWine) in London, UK.

Hattingley Valley (@hattingleywines) in Hampshire, UK.

Breathless Wines (@BreathlessWines) in Sonoma, California.

Vasse Felix (@vassefelix) in Margaret River, Western Australia.

Balfour – Hush Heath Estate (@HushHeath) in Kent, UK.

Godstone Vineyards (@godstonevines) in Surrey, UK. If you’re a fan of Downton Abbey and the Christmas time classic Love Actually, you’ll be right at home following this winery.

Schramsberg (@Schramsberg) in Napa Valley, California.

Coates & Seely (@coatesandseely) in Hampshire, UK. I’ve realized in compiling this list that a lot of UK wine producers have a very solid winery Twitter game going on.

So check out these accounts and let me know what you think!

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Send Roger Morris to Mudgee

Note: The wines reviewed in this article were samples from the 2019 Wine Media Conference post-conference tour of Mudgee.
Robert Stein winery
Just after Thanksgiving in the US, Roger Morris wrote a firebrand piece on Meininger’s Wine Business, challenging the sacred status of Riesling among sommeliers.

Reading the article, you would think that blaming consumer ignorance and the myth that “all Rieslings are sweet” was just a scapegoat. The real culprit for why consumers don’t adore Rieslings is the grape itself. It’s too precocious in aromatics and flavors with its worst sin, Morris argues, being that Riesling just isn’t very food-friendly.

For my palate, and I expect many if not most wine drinkers, Riesling is too often the precocious child whose parents think he is darling while the rest of us are edging toward the door. Its flavours and aromas, we doubters believe, clash with food. — Roger Morris, “The real reason consumers reject Riesling”, November 28th, 2019.

What.

The.

Fuck???

There have been many articles written about the challenges of selling Riesling. But this is probably the first time that a wine writer has picked “Riesling is not food-friendly” as their hot-take hill to die on.

Alanis, isn’t it ironic?

Don’t you think? That the one saving grace that has helped Riesling lumber out of it’s Liebfraumilch and sweet Johannisberg shadows has been its affinity for food. As early as 1988, Dan Berger was describing in the LA Times this growing epiphany among wine lovers.

The other day, John and Janet Trefethen of the Napa Valley winery that bears their name staged a cook-off to see which foods best went with their dry Riesling, which annually is one of the most attractive in the state. The winner, a Far East-leaning chicken dumpling sort of concoction, won by only a shade over six other excellent matches.

The point was thus made: The classic Johannisberg Riesling grape variety, when made into a relatively or completely dry wine, produces a beverage of incomparable quality that does, surprising as it may seem to some people, go with food. — Dan Berger, “What’s Wrong With Riesling? Nothing That a Little Information Won’t Fix”, September 15th, 1988

And even today, when you Google “Most Food Friendly Wine,” nearly every publication worth their salt will feature Riesling high on their list.

But maybe they’re all wrong and the salt they’re worth is more Morton’s table rather than fleur de sel. Could Roger Morris be right and everyone else is just “barking up the wrong grapevine” about Riesling?

Courtesy of Memegenerator

Of course, everyone is entitled to their opinion.

Though here, in favor of full disclosure, I should note that I’ve quite publically disagreed with other articles that Roger Morris has done in the past.

But I don’t doubt Morris’ sincerity when he laments how often he wishes he’d ordered something else when pairing Riesling with food. Admittedly, though, I do wonder what in the world he’s eating. There are so many amazing cuisines in the world–Asian, Indian, Soul Food, Caribbean, Hispanic, etc.–that are bursting with “precocious” flavors that need a similarly precocious counterpart.

Yes, Riesling will most definitely overwhelm and clash with grilled cheese. But duck breast with red Thai curry and sticky jasmine rice? The thought of pairing that with ANY of the Rieslings I’m going to talk about below makes my mouth water.

Which brings me to my proposal to convert a Riesling skeptic into a Riesling saveur.

Send Roger Morris to Mudgee.

Gilbert 2010 Riesling

Interestingly, in that Wine Enthusiast article, Morris does recommend 2016 German Riesling as potential birth year wines to save. So he at least recognizes the immense aging potential of Riesling. Something that the 2010 Gilbert Riesling amply demonstrates as well.

For those of you who are thinking, “What the heck is Mudgee?” Don’t despair. That’s a frequent thought of wine lovers when it comes to this thoroughly under-the-radar gem in the New South Wales region of Australia.

While most folks justifiably know about the Hunter Valley when they think of New South Wales, it is well worth taking the 4-hour trek west from the Hunter over the Blue Mountains to experience the delicious combination of food, wine and hospitality in Mudgee.

Full disclosure part III: While the food and wine as well as travel to Mudgee from the Hunter were sponsored by Visit Mudgee Region as part of the Wine Media Conference, the wife and I paid for our own travel to Australia and hotel accommodations.

But we fell in love with the region and are already planning a return trip with friends. Heck, my wife was checking out real estate prices before we left. Because now, apparently, Mudgee is high on her list of places to retire to. The last trip that got her googling land prices was St. Emilion in Bordeaux. The wine, food and people of Mudgee impressed us that much. (And it’s WAY cheaper than St. Emilion too :P)

However, I’m not a Food or Travel blogger so this really won’t be a food or travel piece.

It’s just not my personal style. Instead, I’ll be linking to a few of my blogger friends who can give you a little more feel of Mudgee. All of their sites and IGs are well worth following.

But I will highlight 3 Mudgee cellar doors that I think would give Roger Morris some food for thought about Riesling.

Robert Stein Winery and the Pipeclay Pumphouse

Robert Stein Riesling

Kangaroo tartare and Riesling? Sure, why not?

This is the show stopper and should be on the bucket list for any food and wine lover. But it’s a particular must-stop for Riesling fans (& skeptics) because of winemaker Jacob Stein’s passion for the grape. He makes 3 Rieslings (dry, half-dry and reserve) sourced from both his family’s 40+-year-old estate vines and other historic vineyards in Mudgee like the Miramar vineyard.

His Rieslings go for more of an Alsatian-style with a rich-mouth-filling texture that is exceptionally well-balanced by zippy acidity. Despite being a warm region, Mudgee’s altitude with vineyards going up to 1100m (3600 ft) above sea level encourages a sharp drop in temperatures at night. This maintains acidity and freshness of fruit flavor that you see throughout Mudgee’s wines.

Sharon Parsons of SpaWineFood posted a great rundown with pics of our group’s lunch at Robert Stein’s on-site restaurant, Pipeclay Pumphouse.

I got a chance to try the 2019 Dry and 2018 Half-Dry Rieslings with several courses prepared by Jacob Stein’s brother-in-law, chef Andy Crestani.

The Dry Riesling was my favorite with it going particularly well with the scallop boudin blanc and truffled pea. Oh, and the house-made pork rillette with this Riesling was to die for! The added weight of the residual sugar gave the Half-Dry Riesling enough body to hold up to the kangaroo tartare and sweet potato. Yes, I ate kangaroo and it was surprisingly tasty. But that could be because it was made really well and had a great wine pairing partner.

I’m not a mussels person, but both my wife and Diane Letulle of WineDineGo were fans of the Half-Dry Riesling pairing with those.

The Cellar by Gilbert

Will Gilbert, a 6th generation winemaker, made some of the most exciting wines that I tasted on the entire trip. Expect to see a future post with me raving about more of their wines. But for now, I want to highlight how delicious Gilbert’s 2015 & 2010 Eden Valley Rieslings were paired with locally sourced charcuterie and cheeses made by High Valley Cheese Company in Mudgee. The brie, in particular, was melt-in-your-mouth luscious. The high acidity of both Rieslings served as a nice contrast to the heaviness of the cheese.

The choice of Eden Valley as the source for their Rieslings was very deliberate.
Will Gilbert

Will Gilbert of Gilbert Family Wines

Will’s great great great grandfather, Joseph Gilbert, pioneered Riesling in Eden Valley and founded the iconic winery Pewsey Vale Estate.

A sub-region of the Barossa zone in South Australia, the Eden Valley is another region that defies expectations when it comes to producing intensely vibrant Riesling. However, while cooler than neighboring Barossa Valley, these Rieslings still shows ample weight with ripe lime and a generous mouthfeel. With only a smidgen of residual sugar–that I doubt the average wine consumer would notice–both the 2015 & 2010 had mouthwatering acidity.

2010 tasted distinctly drier and was starting to develop some of the petrol notes, which are, understandably, controversial. While I’m firmly in the “I love it!” camp, I accept that petrol in wine is a lot like Brett (A Spice of Brett). So I don’t blame folks like Roger Morris if that’s a bit too much.

Sharon Parsons of SpaWineFood, again, has another lovely write-up about our evening at Gilbert along with several of Will Gilbert’s other outstanding wines.

Moothi Estate

Moothi Estate owners

Jess and Jay of Moothi Estate

The Mudgee region takes its name from the local aboriginal word Moothi which means “nestled in the hills.” You get a sense of what the original Wiradjuri were talking about when you take in the gorgeous views at the family estate of Jess Chrcek and her husband, Jay. Like most cellar doors in Mudgee, Moothi Estate provides snacking platters of locally sourced meats, cheese and produce that folks can pair with wines while soaking up the sights.

Steve Noel of Children of the Grape has a few photos of those sights on his Instagram and write-up about our tour of Mudgee.

The 2019 Mudgee Riesling, again, stood out from the pack. But this was quite different compared to its peers. It would undoubtedly challenge Roger Morris’ sentiment that Rieslings are “too fragrant” and that “…if someone were wearing Eau de Riesling as cologne or perfume to a wine tasting, we would send them to the washroom to hose off before taking a seat.

When the Moothi Riesling was poured, at first I didn’t hear what it was.
Moothi Riesling

The beauty of Riesling is its diversity. Even in the same region, it’s far from monolithic.

Smelling it, my thoughts originally went towards Italian whites. Maybe something like a Soave?

The aromas were undoubtedly pleasant, a mix of peach and citrus zest. But they were distinctly on the medium to medium-plus side of the intensity scale rather than the high octane aromatics of Riesling.

However, the palate was all-Riesling. Mouth-watering acidity that made the flavors of aged cheeses and salume do the tango on your tongue.

I would gladly enjoy savoring the sights of Mudgee on the patio with a platter and “Eau de Moothi Riesling.”

And I think after a thoroughly memorable experience to the Mudgee region, Roger Morris would too.

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The Past and Future of Small Family Wineries

First off, I want to apologize for the radio silence the last couple of weeks. August is “vacation-month” in France and, perhaps, Paris is rubbing off on me.  My brain certainly needed some time away from the wine world to recharge. Still not quite back in the saddle yet but I’m getting there.

However, I do want to take the time to highlight this Kiva micro-loan for a small Georgian winery and what it means for the future of wineries like Tinatini’s.

KIVA loan https://www.kiva.org/lend/1812416

Kiva.org’s loan page for Tinatini and her son to modernize their winery so they can take part in Georgia’s growing wine tourism industry.
Please consider donating and sharing this page.

Most folks in the wine industry have heard this “joke.”

How do you make a small fortune in wine?

You start with a large fortune.

The response is usually a knowing chuckle followed by a small sigh because of how true that statement is. It’s not easy to make money in the wine industry. This is why so many winery owners nowadays are “second career” folks who have made their fortune elsewhere.

But the goal hasn’t always been to make a small fortune.

When you look at the history of wine on a global and historical scale, it’s populated far more by stories of small family wineries like Tinatini in Tsinandali, Georgia than it is by dot.com billionaires and shipping magnates living the “vintner’s life-style.”

Yes, there has always been the grand estates of the gentry like the Pontacs’ Ho Bryan and the esteemed Roman crus extolled by Pliny the Elder.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jacob_Gerritsz._Cuyp_-_Wine_Grower_-_WGA5850.jpg

Jacob Gerritsz’s The Wine Grower. (1628)

But it likely wasn’t all Roman DRC poured at the taverns of Pompei. Of the thousands of ships that have sailed from Bordeaux to London, the fabled classified growths only accounted for a small percentage of that cargo.

Throughout history, the backbone of the wine industry has always been families making wine for sustenance. Both personal sustenance and as a source of income.

Not to make a fortune and to buy a Ferrari. But to pay for a roof over the head.  Support for their children. And maybe buy a few more barrels.

As consumers and folks in the industry, we must never lose sight of this.

The vast, vast majority of people in the wine industry aren’t here to make a fortune. But instead to do something they love. Perhaps, with the hope that they’ll make enough to pass that love onto the next generation.

Photo by Jim G from Silicon Valley, CA, USA. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

If you see a tasting room sign of a winery you’ve never heard of, give it a shot. You never know, it might become your new favorite.

While no one is entitled to a sale (the “Nice Guy Syndrome”) on the merit of being a small family winery alone, I do think these wineries deserve respect and at least the chance to earn your attention.

Today, there are so many agricultural crops that are nothing but commodities. Do you know who farmed your corn? Who harvested the peaches you enjoyed at lunch? Do you know where the grain that went into your bread or the milk in your butter came from?

We’ve lost our connection to so many of our food items because we’ve lost sight of the people behind them.

I don’t want to see the same thing happen to the wine industry. Which is why when small family wineries like Tinatini ask for our support, let’s not lose our opportunity to give it.

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The Wine Industry’s “Nice Guy Syndrome”

I’ve been working with Kenneth Friedenreich on his follow-up book to Oregon Wine Country Stories about the Stags Leap District. He’s been sharing some of his drafts on the prologue and, not to spoil anything, he includes a remarkable moment we had on our research trip watching a hawk swoop down into the vineyard to pluck a vole out amongst the vines.
Photo by Michael Warnock. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-3.0

Friedenreich expands on this imagery as a metaphor for many of the themes that he’s weaving into the SLD book. But reading his prose and recalling my memories of watching the cold realities of nature in action,  reminded me of Lisa Perrotti-Brown’s article last year for The Wine Advocate called “The Big Parkerization Lie.”

Now I’m not going to rehash the old Parkerization debate or drill deep into this article. But the image of the hawk and vole struck a similar chord with me as Perrotti-Brown’s three-point rebuttal of the Parkerization mythos. While I disagree with her that Parkerization is a “useful lie”, I do think people’s response to Parker (painting him as a villain) and Parkerization (This is why I’m not selling my wine!) is symptomatic of the “Nice Guy Syndrome” poking its head out in the wine industry.

No, I’m not going to make this post about sex either.

Photo of Cabernet Sauvignon aisle

Passionate winemakers working with great terroir is behind every wine on the top shelf–or so the story goes.

That’s because it’s not sex that wineries feel entitled to when they make good wine, but rather sales. There is a sentiment that if you have great land, work it diligently and put your passion into making wine that it’s going to sell. That it should sell.

And if it doesn’t? Well someone is to blame. From wine critics who promote particular styles of wine to distributors and gatekeepers with a stranglehold on consumer channels, they all throw up obstacles. Even pesky consumers, themselves, can be an obstacle such as those maddening Millennials turning their noses up in boredom at the old guard wines and grape varieties.

Those are all valid concerns and serious impediments that wineries do need to deal with. However, there is an even starker truth that is just as raw and stinging as watching a hawk snuff the life out of another animal.

No one needs to drink your wine.

There is no entitlement to sales. No entitlement to attention.

photo by gdcgraphics. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-2.0

Well the actual line is “If you build it, HE will come” so maybe you can at least bank on Ray Liotta showing up at your tasting room.

It doesn’t matter if you have the most blessed terroir on earth, tended to by the best viticulture and winemaking teams that money can buy. It doesn’t matter if you have generations of heritage and tradition. None of that guarantees that people are going to care, much less beat a path down to your door.

The wine industry has never followed the quaint narrative of “If You Build It, They Will Come.”  You can build the best and be the best, but in the end, it doesn’t matter if you are the hawk or the vole. You stand just as good of a chance of missing out and going hungry as you do of being dinner yourself.

That is the nature of life and the nature of capitalism.

And, really, there’s no villain here.

I did have a Bambi “Oh My God!” moment watching the hawk snatch up that little vole. But the hawk is not a villain. Heck, from a vineyard perspective the vole is a dirty little bastard wreaking havoc among the vines. There is a reason why wineries build nesting boxes to encourage birds of prey to patrol the vineyard.

Photo by Marisszza. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

But he’s just trying to support his little vole family!

But, honestly, the vole isn’t the bad guy either. It’s just trying to survive in the environment that it was born into– a situation that humans have shaped far more than a rodent species ever could.

Likewise, critics such as Robert Parker and the frustrating web of distributors and gatekeeping aren’t truly villainous either. Though I’ll give you that many of their tactics can make them prime, juicy targets. But, in their own way, they’re just hawks and voles doing their thing among the vines too.

The lesson of the hawk and vole is that nothing is owed to anyone. In the wine industry, there’s always going to be some combination of luck and circumstance that leads to success or failure. Some of that you can influence. But a fair amount of it boils down to being in the right or wrong place at any given time.

Ultimately, all you can do is just be glad for all the dinners you get and grateful for all the dinners you’re not.

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Groans and Hoses — Or how I saved wine writing from satirical dick pics

I really shouldn’t be writing at 2 am. I should be in bed, lying next to my gorgeous wife. But instead, I’m downstairs on my laptop so as not to disturb her with ruminations that have been bothering me for the past few days.

Photo by Alex E. Proimos. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Ruminations that I’m far from alone in sharing as evidenced by the eruption of anger towards a recent piece posted on Master of Wine Tim Atkin’s site.

There Ron Washam, the HoseMaster of Wine, wrote a satirical tribute to Robert Parker in the voice of wine writer Alice Feiring. The background, besides the announcement of Parker’s recent retirement, is that Feiring is a fierce natural wine advocate who has had deep philosophical disagreements with Parker on how wine should be made.

While she’s written numerous books in her long career, as well as a highly respected newsletter, one of Feiring’s most notable works has been her 2008 part treatise, part memoir The Battle for Wine and Love: or How I Saved the World from Parkerization

I’m not going to link to Washam’s piece.

But I will post screenshots and you can Google the full thing for context if you like. But, believe me, the “context” isn’t much better.

I’m a frequent reader of Tim Atkin’s site. It’s one of my favorite bookmarks. Both he and his contributors–including Celia Bryan-Brown and fellow Master of Wine Christy Canterbury–usually produce excellent and engaging content.

I’m also a fan of witty and biting satire–both written and performance. George Carlin, Amy and David Sedaris, James Thurber, Dorothy Parker, Mark Twain, Frances Burney and, of course, the legendary Jonathan Swift.

So perhaps my expectations were too high when I went to read Ron Washam’s “satirical” take on Alice Feiring and what she might say to Robert Parker in a note.

Attribution: Ron Washam at https://timatkin.com/, June 3rd, 2019

Attribution: Ron Washam https://timatkin.com/alice-feirings-tribute-to-robert-parker/

Really?!?

Instead of getting satire, Ron Washam and Tim Atkin gave us a dick pic.

Instead of skewering both the real and made-up divide between Parkerized wines vs. Natural wines–something ripe and juicy for satire–we get “a woman scorned” as Washam signs off his Alice.

We get a women’s work, her research, her personal journey, her opinions, her philosophy and approach all drilled down to “Oh, she just really wanted to ride his dick! Ha Ha!”

Give me a break.

Now I don’t agree with everything that Alice Feiring says. I think the idea of Parkerization has been vastly overblown and the disdain of “Parkerized wines” has had more of a Streisand Effect than anything. It pushed people into camps and encouraged tribalism–which is just as destructive in wine appreciation as it is in politics.

But I respect her work and even if you don’t agree with Feiring’s opinions and approach, she certainly deserves more than sexually charged mockery.

Yes, she is a strong voice in the public sphere on controversial topics. Then speak to her voice, speak to her words, speak to the controversy.

Speak to the substance of what she is saying. Don’t denigrate and dismiss with a phony portrait of a scorned sex kitten.

That’s not satire and it’s certainly not wine writing.

The post that I should be writing tomorrow (while I’ll now be sleeping) is one answering a poignant question that came up during the recent Born Digital Wine Awards Summit about the nature of wine writing.

During the summit, Felicity Carter of Meininger’s Wine Business International posted this compelling Tweet asking how the industry would be impacted if there were no wine writers.

The post that I wanted to write was in defense of wine writers. In defense of people like Tim Atkin, Celia Bryan-Brown, Christy Canterbury and others who share their joy and passion of wine with their readers.

Yeah, wine writers have their warts and often spend too much time focusing on telling people what to drink. But overall, I think wine writing brings much-needed light to a topic that is both fascinatingly complex but also quite simple in its pleasures.

And that, for me, is the essence of wine writing–bringing light.

Now it doesn’t mean that everything has to be all fuzzy, lovey with everything fabulous.

The disinfecting light of sunshine on dark and uncomfortable topics (like sexism in the wine industry, racial, labor and environmental issues) is just as important as sparking the lightbulb of discovery in consumers to seek out new wines and learn more about them.

It’s also that disinfecting light that makes satire such an important literary genre. Good satire is like yanking the table cloth away from the table. Yes, it may make things uncomfortable and mess up all the place settings. But that’s precisely the point–to shake things up and encourage the reader to look at what’s really being served to them instead of just accepting the ornate way it is presented. Regardless of how modestly it was proposed.

Satire is about bringing light, not heat.

It’s not about being offensive. That’s low-brow and something that any idiot can do. But a good satirist will heed the advice of the greatest satirist of them all.

Satire is a sort of glass wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own; which is the chief reason for that kind reception it meets within the world, and that so very few are offended with it. — Jonathan Swift, The Battle of the Books and Other Short Pieces

A good satirist (like a good wine writer) can toe the line between the uncomfortable and the offensive without crossing it. And if they do cross, once again they should heed Swift’s advice and never be ashamed to own that they were wrong.

Because that shows that they are wiser today than they were yesterday.

Ron Washam should admit that he was wrong with his sexualized attack on Alice Feiring. And Tim Atkin should admit that he was wrong to publish it and let it hang on his site under the banner of his name and Master of Wine credentials.

That post did nothing to bring light to Atkin’s readers. It did nothing to further the conversation about Parker, Feiring, Natural Wine, Parkerization or even satire.

It was a satirical dick pic and wine writing should be better than that.

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