Category Archives: Wine Trends

In Defense of Evil Empires


Recently Esther Mobley of The San Francisco Chronicle wrote of the blockbuster Pinot noir producer Kosta Browne’s new direction away from their super-lush and highly extracted style to something less “over-the-top, opulent, blow-your-lid-off wines.” The catalyst for this change, according to Kosta Browne’s president Scott Becker, is changing consumer demand, particularly among Millennials.

“We were at the risk of becoming victims of our own success…To be relevant and successful for the next 20 years, we have to recognize that the consumer is changing.” –Scott Becker as quoted by SF Chronicle 11/7/17

A sharp motivation also seems to be a bit of ego bruising that Kosta Browne has taken over the years for being one of the poster child of the high alcohol, super-ripe and hedonistic wines that flooded the market in the last few decades. Mobley quotes founder Dan Kosta concerns over his namesake winery being used by winemakers in Oregon and by organizations like In Pursuit of Balance as an example of what not to do with Pinot noir. The Chronicle article also includes an interesting anecdote about a sommelier at the NYC restaurant Breslin being ignorant that a winery named Kosta Browne even exist.

Quick look–is this Pinot noir or Syrah? Sometimes it’s hard to tell with wines as well.


Let’s set aside how poorly it reflects on the quality of the wine knowledge for a restaurant’s program when their sommeliers are completely ignorant of a winery that has not only won Wine Spectator’s Wine of the Year (and been featured in their Top 100 list numerous times), is regularly in the top half of most collectible wines from California according to Vinfolio’s Collectibility Index and is, for all practical purposes, part of the pantheon of “cult producers” of Pinot noir in California with a 2 to 5 year long waiting list just to be able to buy a bottle.

Even if you don’t like Kosta Browne and don’t feature them on your wine list, it’s beyond pale to shrug your shoulders at the name as if you never heard of them.

I say that as someone who really doesn’t like Kosta Browne’s wines and would roll my eyes at seeing them on restaurant wine lists with their exorbitantly marked up prices just waiting for an expense account ego to order them.

Particularly a big-fish whose name rhymes with “Stiancarlo Ganton”


But even if Kosta Browne is not my style, I’m a bit sadden to read about this “change in direction.” It’s not that I don’t think pursuing more balanced wines isn’t a worthwhile goal. But seeing Kosta Browne trying to become “more restrained” in style is a bit like following the Hot Stove League in Baseball in the post-Steinbrenner years as the New York Yankees aim to be more “fiscally restrained”. Yeah, you’ve got the LA Dodgers and Boston Red Sox’s trying to fill in the gap with their best Belle Glos and Sea Smoke like efforts but as a fan of an old school small market Joseph Swan-like team (the St. Louis Cardinals), the excitement of potentially landing a big-fish is not quite a thrilling when one of the Goliaths of the game is sitting on the sideline. David isn’t David if the sling shot is never used.

“Good is a point of view…. Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator are similar in almost every way, including their quest for greater power. ” — Chancellor Kofi Parker, Jr.


Likewise, how exciting would the Star Wars movies be if the Galactic Empire changed philosophies all of the sudden and started espousing Kofi Annan style diplomacy?

The world needs Evil Empires like the New York Yankees and Kosta Browne because the little guys, the outsiders, the rebels, the hipster snobs need something to aim for. The world needs balance between good and evil and you can’t have one without the other. So why should we root for Kosta Browne to shed it evil ways and try to become something….else? Do we think that people will suddenly stop wanting to drink lush, full-bodied and highly extracted Pinot noirs? Of course not! Just like matter can be neither created nor destroy, so too, is evil and the taste for residual sugar in wines constant.

And as we’ve seen from history, when a vacuum of evil is created, there can be consequences when a new force tries steps in.

You can argue that a lot of the world’s recent problems can be traced to the Chicago Cubs winning the 2016 World Series by trying to out-Yankee the Yankees.

If I could photoshopped him twerking on the Camaro, I would.


They went from being the lovable, lowkey Eraths of the Pinot noir world to the big budget and crass-commercialized Meiomi. They changed their style, trying to become the “New Evil Empire” and it messed up the cosmic order. Now we have women twerking on top of cars, folks dropping turkeys from planes and idiots launching home-made rockets trying to prove the world is flat. Yes, the world is out of whack and I place the blame squarely on Ben Zobrist.

A New Hope.
AKA winemakers of the Eola-Amity Hills.


Sure, big over-the-top wines can be boring and lack “character” just like big, cash-rich organizations that can buy or trade for any stud player can be infuriating and soulless. But doesn’t knowing the fact that these Evil Empires exist make it all the more satisfying when you find the gem of a bottle that tells a story to your palate or when your plucky rag-tag team of no-names finally scale the summit?

Sure, we want to root for the underdogs. But we also need those Big Dogs to still be casting their long shadow of evil like the Death Star. The world works better this way. It’s has balance even if that balance is dripping with sugar, extract and alcohol.

There is a place in the world for the Kosta Browne Yankees just like there is a place for my Joseph Swan Cardinals, the Merry Edwards Twins, the Beaux Freres Giants, the Argyle Mariners and the Williams Selyem Braves.

There is even a place, begrudgingly, for the Meiomi Cubs. Well, once they’ve been dethroned and relegated to the bottom of the shelf.

Running Out of Stones (and Glaciers) in the Age of Climate Change

By the year 2100, some of the most exciting wines being made could be Scottish Pinot grigio and Suffolk Syrah. Such is the (potential) reality of climate change predicted by professors from the University College of London in a study commissioned by wine merchant Laithwaite’s. While the English sparkling wine industry has already seen some benefits from changing climates, an expected increase in global temperatures of 2° Celsius (3.6° F) and more rain could mean a dramatically new landscape for both wine lovers and producers.

Image Credit: Laithwaites

Image Credit: Laithwaites


But at a cost.

For every climate change “winner”, there are also losers as traditional and well established wine regions have to grapple not only with changing vintage patterns but also the changing dynamics of consumer tastes and fashion. It’s no secret that consumers’ tastes have been trending towards riper, more fruit-forward wines that are either sweeter in sugar or “bolder” in flavor and alcohol for some time now.

While there are still fans of lower alcohol, less fruit-driven wines, it’s hard for those kind of wine drinkers to not feel like their taste and preferences are being relegated to the Stone Age of the wine industry. As we start seeing strings of highly acclaimed “blockbuster vintages” being bolstered by warmer climates, it may be more than just the wine map that has to change in this new age of wine drinking.

Would you like a little acid for your Riesling?

http://www.winesandvines.com/template.cfm?section=news&content=177266

Dr. Monika Christmann. Credit: Jim Gordon, Wines and Vines


In Germany, producers are enjoying a “boon” of riper vintages but are finding themselves in the unique position of being a country known for bracingly acidic and vibrant Rieslings now needing to acidify their wines. A recent Wines and Vines article on the 62nd German Winegrowers Congress in Stuttgart, included comments from the keynote address of Dr. Monika Christmann of Geisenheim University .

Dr. Christmann noted that producers are finding themselves at a crossroads of either letting the impact of climate change steer the style of wines in their region towards a different direction or adapting new methods afforded by modern technology to help maintain the “traditional styles” historically associated with their wines albeit sometimes through very non-traditional means like reverse osmosis, crossflow filtration and the use of additives.

While the issue of climate change and the trend towards fruit-forward, high alcohol wines certainly vexes the hoi polloi of wine writers and “taste makers”, you can complete that trifecta of ire with the battle of modern winemaking that embraces the use of technology versus natural wine which eschews it use.

There are pros and cons to both sides but if the thought of German winemakers needing to add acid to their Rieslings horrifies you, then you may have some sympathies with natural wine enthusiasts who would argue that if you have to “manipulate” your German Riesling to taste like what a German Riesling is expected to taste like, is it still really a German Riesling?

On the other hand, though, if the thought of tasting a German Riesling that is indistinguishable from the tropical, lush, high alcohol flavors of a New World Viognier gives you pause then you may find comfort in this quote from Dr. Christmann.

“The Stone Age did not end because there were no stones left,” she said, but because early humans moved on when they discovered how to work with a better technology: metal.

What is the Greenlandic translation of Vinho Verde?

We may not run out of stones in the world of wine, but an unquestionable consequence of climate change is that something is going to get left behind as the industry and consumers adapt to the changing reality of the world around us. We may have to give up “tradition” and expectations of what certain wines from certain regions should taste like. We may have to open our minds to the possibility of new styles and new fashions. We may gain new knowledge and introduction to fantastic terroirs and see the birth of new classics but we may also have to mourn the loss of old favorites and classics. There will be conflict and there will be battles over the soul of wine. There will be change and there will be costs that the wine industry will have to bear.

By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37582061

Seriously, if you haven’t seen this film yet, go watch it now.


But in the bigger picture, beyond the scope of wine, will be the tremendous costs that the whole of humanity will bear. Perhaps as we ponder the changing wine map, we also shouldn’t forget that the world is losing things like our glaciers at a frightening clip. Reading the warning of scientists about climate change and watching brilliant, but sobering, documentaries like Chasing Ice is enough to drive anyone to drink.

Though maybe we could pass on the Scottish Pinot grigio.

Whiskey and Wine

As I’ve admitted before, I can be a bit skeptical about newfangled wine trends but I always try to keep an open mind. So when I walk into stores and see big displays of Gallo’s Apothic Inferno (“A Wine With a Whiskey Soul” they say) supported with advertising campaigns featuring tatted up and vested hipster bartenders playing with fire, I know I need to try some wines aged in bourbon and whiskey barrels.

By Ken Thomas (KenThomas.us (personal website of photographer)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I love Woodford Reserve in my Old Fashioned, not necessarily in my wine.


But first, a little background

Henry H. Work’s 2014 book Wood, Whiskey and Wine gives a nice backstory on the love affair between wine and wood barrels that extend over two millenniums. He also goes into the sharing of barrel technology with other beverages like whiskeys and beers. I highly encourage folks interested in geeking out more about this topic to give it a look.

In the 17th century, the convenience and availability of excess Sherry barrels from the bustling Jerez to London trade led to a “happy accident” of Scotch makers discovering the rich dark fruit flavors and deeper color that Oloroso Sherry barrels impart on whiskey aged in them.

A Port finished Scotch from one of my favorite distilleries

A Port finished Scotch from one of my favorite distilleries

In recent decades, the concept of cask-finishing for whiskeys has expanded to include barrels that previously housed Port, Madeira, Sauternes, Amarone and even First Growth Bordeaux and premium Super Tuscan and Barolo producers.

Across the pond, American Bourbon and whiskey producers also discovered the interesting flavors and added complexity of aging in former wine barrels. Of course, Sherry and Port casks were popular choices but producers also branched out with California Chardonnay like Woodford Reserve’s Sonoma-Cutrer finish. Even winemakers started getting in on the gig, like Dave Phinney’s partnership with a distillery to create a Bourbon aged in barrels that formerly held his Orin Swift Napa Cabernet Mercury Head. (Not sure what the status of this project is after Phinney’s sale of Orin Swift to Gallo)

Whiskey Returns the Favor (maybe)

A very tasty barrel aged brew from Firestone Walker

A very tasty barrel aged brew from Firestone Walker

Perhaps taking a cue from the beer industry which has seen a huge explosion in popularity of barrel-aged beer, it may have been inevitable that we would see wine aged in whiskey barrels.

The first mentioned of a whiskey barrel aged wine that I could find was back in 2010 when a winemaker in Australia some how got his hands on Pappy Van Winkle Barrels to age his 2008 McLaren Vale Shiraz. What became of his Southern Belle Shiraz, or if you can still find it, I don’t know as there are scant tasting notes on the web. I do find it interesting that the 2010 article from Garden and Gun noted that the expected release price for the 2008 was $25 USD but the average price of the three vintages available on Wine-Searcher (2009, 2011 & 2013) is only $9. If any one has further details about this wine (or know of an earlier whiskey barrel-aged wine), let me know in the comments below.

As with most things in the wine industry, people usually don’t start paying attention to a trend until the big-money players get involved and that is what happened in 2016 when Pernod-Ricard (Jacob’s Creek), Constellation Brands (Robert Mondavi), Concha y Toro (Fetzer) and E. & J. Gallo (Apothic) released their whiskey barrel-aged wines.

Are these wines any good?

I was able to get my hands on 3 brands of whiskey barrel-aged wines–Robert Mondavi Bourbon Barrel Aged Cabernet Sauvignon, Barrelhouse Bourbon Red (made by Bruce and Kim Cunningham of AW Direct) and Apothic Inferno (aged in whiskey instead of Bourbon barrels). Tasting these wines with colleagues in the retail wine industry, I wanted to be as objective as possible so we decided to do this tasting blind and with a “ringer” of a popular dark red blend (which was the most recent hot trend in the industry till the whiskey-aged wines came barreling in). In this case, I chose Cloud Break Black Cloud from O’Neil Vintners.

Three whiskey barrel aged reds with a "regular" red blend ringer. (Not wrapped up in the same order. See reveal below)

Three whiskey barrel aged reds with a “regular” red blend ringer. (Not wrapped up in the same order. See reveal below)

Here are my notes before the reveal:

Wine A- Sweet smelling on the nose. Very ruby port-like nose with figs and dark fruit. Some vanilla.
On the palate, rich fruit, very smooth but with noticeable RS. Yep, definitely very port-like with more overt oak spice flavors on the palate. Medium acidity. Medium-minus tannins.
My guess is that this is one of the bourbon barrels one. Drinkable, good for sweet(ish) red wine drinkers. Actually this may be an improvement over many of the “Dark” blends since the oak spice seems to add some complexity.

Wine B-This smells like a whiskey. But whiskey that smells like burnt rubber. Noticeably sweet nose. Roasted marshmallows and burnt flambe cherries. It smells like someone took a shot of cheap lightly peated whiskey, mixed with a really pungent Pinotage and then added it to someone’s Seagram 7 and Coke.
On the palate, Burnt rubber and roasted marshmallows. Medium-minus tannins and medium-minus acidity, maybe even low acidity. It’s no where near as sweet as I expected it to be based on the nose but I can’t tell if that is a positive or negative at this point.

Wine C- Much more subdued nose, medium-minus intensity but that may just be a scale down effect compared to Bag B. I don’t really smell any oak at all, just some subtle red fruit–red berries, maybe a little red plums.
On the palate, I can get some vanilla but it is still very mellow. Medium+plus acidity, actually has some good life to it. Definitely still red fruit. Medium tannins, very ripe and smooth.
My gut is telling me that this is the regular red blend but I’m a bit confused with the fruit being much more red than dark, knowing in the back of my mind that the “ringer” is one of the Dark Red styles. Whatever this is, its fairly enjoyable and with the medium plus acidity, can actually see this being a decent drinker and food pairing option.

Wine D- Medium nose. Still way more subdued than Bag B and less fragrant than Bag A. Much more overt vanilla on the nose. This has a bit of a “whiskeyness” to it but its not in your face. A little dark fruit but, again, subdued.
On the palate, this has some great texture. Medium+ acidity. Medium + tannins but very velvety and great full body. By far the most impressive mouthfeel. This feels like a decent $15-17 Cab. The flavors are very Cab-like as well, being more black currant with a little tobacco spice. The finish lingers with the vanilla and I do almost feel like I can taste a bit of roasted corn. Not enough to be weird but at this point I’m wondering if my palate is shot.

The Reveal and Final Thoughts

Bag A.) Cloud Break Black Cloud — (The Dark Red blend “ringer”) I was totally fooled on this. The ruby-port aspect had me thinking that THIS is what these Bourbon barrel-aged wines should taste like. Definitely a wine for the smooth, bold (but slightly sweet) red crowd. 3rd favorite of the group.

Bag B.) Apothic Inferno – As you could probably infer from my notes, this was my least favorite wine of the bunch. It certainly had the most in your face “whiskeyness” but, in my opinion, that didn’t add up to a pleasurable drinking experience in the slightest. Personally, I would rather drink any of the other examples in the Apothic stable (the regular red, Apothic Dark, Apothic Crush, etc) than the Inferno. It’s just not my style of wine at all.

Bag C.) Barrelhouse Bourbon Red – This pleasantly surprised me. It definitely wasn’t what I expected from this category. As I noted, I strongly thought this was just a regular red blend. Very solid and very drinkable. Probably the 2nd best of the whole bunch.

Bag D.) Robert Mondavi Bourbon Barrel Age Cabernet Sauvignon – the clear winner of the group and a very solid wine. I don’t think this wine needs the marketing gimmick of the “bourbon barrel age” (neither does the Barrelhouse really) and could easily stand on its own as regular, every day drinker that would do well paired with food or at a party with a crowd.

Or we can just drink some cocktails instead. The Oak Blossom was delicious!

Or we can just drink some cocktails instead. The Oak Blossom was delicious!

So there you have it. It’s worth having an open mind and I would encourage all wine drinkers to give these wines a try and form their own opinions.

Some of these wines, like the Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon and Barrelhouse Bourbon Red, are pretty solid and legit red wines. Others…..do have their own unique personality. I definitely recommend trying these wines side by side with either other whiskey barrel-aged wines or just general red blends. That is, by far, the best way to judge the character of these wines and see how they stake up against what you enjoy in red wine.

Cheers!