Tag Archives: Languedoc wine

Cinsault — The Black Prince of South Africa

As promised in my summary post about the 2018 Hospice du Rhône Weekend, I’ll tackle each of the four seminars with their own posts beginning with the first seminar on Friday — South Africa’s Cinsault Renaissance.

I’m hard-pressed to narrow down which of the four seminars were my absolute favorite but, without a doubt, this seminar was the most eye-opening. In my Quick Take on Day 1, I commented how neither Cinsault nor South Africa tends to be on the radar of most US consumers. The trade organization WOSA (Wines of South Africa) reported in 2016 that the US receives only 3% of the wine exported from South Africa. In 2014, when US sales of wine (both domestic and exported) were around 370 million cases, wines from South Africa accounted for less than 0.33% of those sales.

But after attending this seminar moderated by Lauren Buzzeo of Wine Enthusiast and reading about my friend Adrienne’s wine adventures drinking South African wines in Nambia, it’s clear that South Africa is a wine producer worth paying attention to—not the least of which for the country’s treasure trove of old vine Cinsault.

The seminar featured 9 Cinsaults and Cinsault-dominant blends from 7 producers with winemakers Tremayne Smith (The Blacksmith Wines), Andrea Mullineux (Mullineux & Leeu Family Wines), Danie Steytler (Kaapzicht Wine Estate) and Ryan Mostert (Silwervis) on the panel.

I will get into my tasting notes on the individual wines in the moment but first some geeking about Cinsault.

Cinsault: The Mediterranean “Pinot noir”?

Jancis Robinson notes in Wine Grapes that the earliest recorded mention of Cinsault was under the synonym ‘Marroquin’ in 1600 by the French writer Olivier de Serres. The modern spelling ‘Cinsault’ emerged in the 1880s as a likely derivative from ‘Sinsâou’ that was used in the Hérault department along the Mediterranean coast as early as 1829.

Photo by Varaine. Released on Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

Cinsault growing in Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

DNA analysis suggest this area is the probable birthplace of Cinsault due to its close genetic relationship to the Piquepoul varieties and the potential parent-offspring relationship with Rivairenc (Aspiran), the very old Languedoc grape.

Today some of the oldest vines of Cinsault in the Languedoc date back to 1900. While Cinsault suffered the same post-WW II image problem here it did in South Africa, it is also benefiting from renewed interest in the variety with even acclaimed Burgundian producers like Anne Gros (of the notable Vosne-Romanée family) and her husband Jean-Paul Tollot tending to 50+ year old vines in Minervois.

Outside of France, the grape is found in the Puglia region of Italy where it is known as Ottavianello and must make up a minimum of 85% of the red blends in the Ostuni DOC. In Morocco it is the most widely planted grape variety but that is largely because Cinsault is also a popular table grape variety.

Chateau Musar has long championed the grape variety in Lebanon, frequently blending it with Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah.

In Washington State, Paul Gregutt describes wines made from Cinsault as like a “good Beaujolais” and notes in Washington Wines that it can be found in Walla Walla in the Morrison Lane and Minnick Vineyards as well as in the Horse Heaven Hills at Alder Ridge.

Cinsault in South Africa

Tim James in Wines of the New South Africa notes that Cinsault was introduced to South Africa in the 1880s and quickly became a popular planting. By 1909, it was the most widely planted red grape variety and the third most popular grape after Greengrape (Semillon) and Muscat.

Originally known as “Hermitage” until the mid-1930s, Cinsault would eventually account for as much as a third of all vineyard plantings in South Africa and was used to make everything from dry reds to sweet fortified wines to even brandy. The rise in popularity of Chenin blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon after World War II would eventually signal the grape’s decline throughout rest of the 20th century but even as its popularity wane it was still frequently used as a blending grape to add perfume and acidity to some of the country’s top Cabernet Sauvignon.

By 2008, Cinsault accounted for around a tenth of all vineyards in South Africa with notable plantings in Paarl, Breedekloof and the ward of Malmesbury in Swartland. Roughly translated to “The Black Land” in reference to the renosterbos (“rhino bush”) shrubs that dot the landscape, it is somewhat poetic that old vine vineyards of the Black Prince in Swartland would be the source of some of the most delicious Cinsault at the seminar.

Seminar Wines

Most of these wines are limited releases and hard to find in the United States. But they are well worth the hunt if you can get them.

Color of the The Blacksmith Barebones. Note how you can read through the core to see the text underneath.


2017 The Blacksmith Barebones, W.O. Paarl (Wine Searcher Average $24)
Medium intensity nose with black cherry and fresh uncured tobacco.

On the palate, those black cherry notes come through and are quite juicy and fresh with medium-plus acidity. Medium tannins and medium body contribute to the “Beaujolais” quality of the wine making it very pleasant and enjoyable with a moderate finish.

2017 The Blacksmith Prince of Bones, W.O. Swartland (No WS listing. At the seminar, Lauren Buzzeo priced it at $45)
Medium-plus intensity nose with lots of blue floral notes to go with the black cherry and tobacco notes exhibited by the Barebones.

On the palate, those fresh uncured tobacco notes from the nose change to more cured tobacco spice–not that dissimilar from Bordeaux wines. Medium-plus acidity maintains the juiciness of the cherry fruit with medium-plus tannins contributing to the medium-plus body of the wine. Long finish ends on the spicy note and mouthwatering fruit. Outstanding wine and probably my favorite of the tasting.

2017 Sadie Family Pofadder, W.O. Swartland (WS Average for 2016 vintage $42)
Medium-minus intensity nose. Light raspberry and some herbal notes. With some air a slight watermelon note (both flesh and rind) come out which is intriguing.

On the palate, the fruit flavors are similarly light. High acidity and chalky medium-plus tannins contribute to a thin and skeletal feel of the wine. Very short finish brings an earthy element that is hard to make out.

2017 Craven Wines Cinsault, W.O. Stellenbosch (WS Average $14 but I’m skeptical as Buzzeo listed the price at $55)
Medium intensity nose with red cherry, rose petals and fresh forest earthiness.

On the palate, the earthy element becomes a little more herbal but also brings a savory black pepper spice note. High acidity and medium-plus tannins are balanced a bit better with the fruit than the Sadie Pofadder so the wine feels more firm and structured rather than thin and skeletal. Seems young but promising.

The Badenhorst Ramnasgras from Swartland was fantastic.


2016 A.A. Badenhorst Cinsault Ramnasgras, W.O. Swartland (WS Average $38)
Medium-plus intensity with black cherry notes and lots of spice and meatiness. A mix of Burgundian and Rhone notes on the nose that had my mouth watering before even taking a sip.

On the palate, the cherry and spice carries through with the mouthwatering continuing with the medium-plus acidity. High tannins hold up the full-bodied fruit of the wine really well and contribute to this wine feeling like a meal in itself. Another favorite.

2016 Kaapzicht Cinsault 1952, W.O. Stellenbosch (NO WS listing though one merchant offering it for $31)
Medium intensity nose with an intriguing mix of cherry pie spices and leather.

The Kaapzicht 1952. Note how much darker this wine is in the core.


On the palate, those cherry pie notes come through with a toasty graham cracker crust character as well. Juicy medium-plus and ripe medium-plus tannins gives the wine great structure and mouthfeel. Long finish keeps with the cherry pie note with some cured tobacco spice joining the party. Very delicious.

2015 Kaapzicht Cinsault Skuinberg, W.O. Stellenbosch (NO WS listing though one merchant offering it for $79)
Medium-minus intensity nose. A mix of minty menthol and coffee espresso with some undefined red fruits.

On the palate, the red fruits become more defined as cherry and raspberry but the menthol and espresso dominant. Like the 1952, the medium-plus acidity and tannins give the wine exceptional balance and structure. I just don’t know if I’m a fan of this flavor profile as much.

2015 Leeu Passant Old Vine Cinsault, W.O. Franschhoek (NO WS listing though one merchant offering it for $103)
Medium-plus intensity nose with black raspberry and blackberry notes. There is also a minty element here but it smells more like fresh mint leaves rather than menthol.

The black fruits carry through on the palate with the minty notes being more subdued. In their place some of that Bordeaux-style tobacco spice emerges which gives the wine a savory element with the medium-plus acidity. Medium-plus tannins balances out the full bodied weight of the fruit. Long finish lingers on the spice. Really well made wine.

2015 Silwervis Cinsault, W.O. Swartland (WS Average $26 but I’m skeptical as Buzzeo listed the price at $50)
Medium intensity nose with coffee and cherry notes. With some air, a little floral mint and fresh tobacco leaf comes out.

On the palate, the coffee notes dominant with fruit present but struggling to emerge. Medium acidity and medium-plus tannins have firm edges to them. Even though this one of the oldest wines at the tastings, it felt really young. Intriguing though.

Takeaways

Cinsault’s diversity is a joy for food pairing but a nightmare for blind tasting.

As I reviewed my notes I saw some patterns emerging (cherry and tobacco) but many of those notes overlap with styles familiar to Burgundy, Beaujolais and lighter Bordeaux. A few examples even hit some of those savory meaty notes of a Rhone. Still, this diversity is exciting because here we have a wine that can be anything from a great picnic & BBQ sipper to something savory and complex that can hold up to robust dishes.

While two of my favorites (The Blacksmith’s Prince of Bones and A.A. Badenhorst’s Ramnagras) were from the Swartland–along with the intriguing but young tasting Silwervis–it was hard to pinpoint terroir characteristics. Considering how much I’ve liked other wines from these producers, I wonder how much of it is more producer style verses the region?

But a big takeaway, and one that the moderator and panelists frequently referred to, was the importance of older vines for Cinsault. The vine lends itself easily to overproduction and with its thin skins can be prone to producing thin flavors. While that may work for bulk rosé, it’s not ideal for making character driven wines.

With over 1600 acres of Cinsault vines over 20 years old (and many of the wines featured in this tasting coming from 40+ year old vineyards), South Africa does have a good bounty of older vines to work with. The really lovely Leeu Passant Old Vine Cinsault from Franschhoek was sourced from South Africa’s 2nd oldest red wine vineyard from vines that are 91+ years old. You can taste the added complexity and concentration from these older vines.

Remarkable stuff that is, again, well worth the hunt to find.

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Getting Geeky with Gramercy Picpoul

Going to need more than 60 Seconds to geek out about the 2015 Gramercy Picpoul from Walla Walla.

The Background

Gramercy Cellars was founded in 2005 by Master Sommelier Greg Harrington and his wife, Pam. Prior to starting a winery, Harrington managed wine programs for restaurants owned by Joyce Goldstein (Square One in San Francisco), Emeril Lagasse, Stephen Hanson and Wolfgang Puck (Spago). At the time that Harrington passed his MS exam in 1996, he was 26 and the youngest person to have achieved that honor.

According to Paul Gregutt, in Washington Wines, while sommelier-turned-winemaker is somewhat common in California and other parts of the world, Harrington was the first to traverse that path in Washington State.

In 2006, Gramercy started a partnership with Jamie Brown of Waters Winery that eventually led to the development of Wines of Substance (later sold to Charles Smith) and 21 Grams (now owned by Doug Roskelley and Mike Tembreull, owners of TERO Estates and Flying Trout Wines).

In 2008, Harrington was named by Seattle Magazine as “Best New Winemaker in Washington” and followed that up in 2014 as the magazine’s “Winemaker of the Year“.

Along with Harrington, the wines of Gramercy Cellars are made by Brandon Moss who joined the winery in 2009 after stints at King Estate in Oregon, Indevin in New Zealand and Waters in Walla Walla.

Drawing from Ampélographie Viala et Vermorel. Uploaded by JPS68 via photoshop to Wikimedia Commons under PD Old

Picpoul blanc grapes by Viala et Vermorel


Gramercy started making Picpoul in 2013 because the variety was a favorite of Pam Harrington. That first vintage came from Olsen Vineyards in the Yakima Valley from a block that was scheduled to be uprooted and planted over to Grenache. The cuttings were sourced from Tablas Creek Vineyards in Paso Robles from original vines at Château Beaucastel in Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

Subsequent vintages of Gramercy Picpoul have been sourced from Los Oídos Vineyards located in the Blue Mountains of Walla Walla which are managed by Ken Hart and sustainably farmed. In addition to managing Los Oídos, Hart was also involved in the planting of Ash Hollow, Nicholas Cole, Pepper Bridge and Seven Hills East vineyards and today helps manage the vineyards of Abeja, àMaurice, Dunham and Walla Walla Vintners.

The Grape

According to Jancis Robinson’s Wine Grapes, the first mention of Picpoul (or Piquepoul) was of the black skin variant in 1384 near Toulouse in the Occitanie region that borders Spain. The name is believed to have been derived from the Oc dialect words picapol or picpol which loosely translates to a “place with a peak” and may refer to the cliff-side vineyards where the grape was planted.

The first account that explicitly described the white skin mutation of Picpoul was in 1667. There is also a pink-skin Picpoul gris that is nearly extinct. All three color variants are part of the 22 grapes that are authorized to be grown in Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

A Picpoul de Pinet from the Languedoc.


In 2009, there was over 3500 acres of Picpoul blanc planted in France–mostly in the Languedoc area where it is the notable variety of Picpoul de Pinet–the largest white wine producing AOC in the Languedoc. The grape is valued in the white wines of the Languedoc and Provence for its high acidity and lemon, floral aromatics.

In the United States, Tablas Creek was the first to plant Picpoul blanc in 2000. In California, Tablas Creek has noted that the variety is early budding but late ripening and tends to produce rich tropical fruits along with its trademark “lip stinging” acidity. Several producers in Paso Robles will occasional produce bottlings of Picpoul blanc including–Adelaida Cellars, Denner Winery, Derby Wine Estates, Halter Ranch, Lone Madrone, Bending Branch Winery and Broc Cellars.

Outside of Paso Robles, the grape can also be found in Calaveras County where Twisted Oak Winery and Forlorn Hope make varietal examples as well as in the Arroyo Seco AVA of Monterrey County which supplies Picpoul for Bonny Doon. In Arizona, Cimarron Vineyard in Cochise County is growing Picpoul blanc for Sand-Reckoner Winery and in the McLaren Vale of Australia, Picpoul blanc has been produced by Coriole Vineyards since 2015.

In Washington, outside of the Los Oídos Vineyards supplying Gramercy, the grape is being grown at Boushey Vineyards, Corliss Estate’s Blue Mountain Vineyard in Walla Walla and at Tanjuli Winery’s estate vineyard in the Rattlesnake Hills AVA.

The Wine

Photo by Vegan Feast Catering. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

The lemon custard aromatics and creaminess of this 2015 Gramercy Picpoul is just one of the many complex layers to this wine.

High intensity nose. There is a lot going on here. Initially it starts out very floral and lemony with subtle pastry crust like a lemon custard tart. Underneath the lemon zest is some dusty gravel mineral notes. In a blind tasting, this would have my brain start thinking white Bordeaux. There is also a white floral note in the background that is not very defined.

But on the palate the wine switches gears and starts getting more tree fruit oriented with spicy d’Anjou pears and the floral notes morphing more into lemon verbena. The custard note from the nose carries through adding a richness to the mouthfeel–creamy but not buttery like a California Chardonnay. Even with this weighty creaminess the high acidity is quite present, offering exquisite balance and freshness. The gravel mineral notes come through and have a “crushed rock” element that is almost electric. The long finish brings a subtle hint of hazelnut that would have me wondering in a blind tasting if this was a village level Meursault.

The Verdict

Incredibly complex wine that jumps out of the glass and leaves a lasting impression on the palate. At around $20 bucks this is an absolute steal for all that this wine delivers.

But even if you can’t find a bottle of Gramercy’s Picpoul, do yourself a favor and find any bottle of Picpoul to try. If you are looking to trade out from your same ole, same ole Sauvignon blanc and Pinot gris, this grape is perfect.

Picpoul has the freshness and zip of a great Sauvignon blanc but with some of the spice of Gruner Veltliner and depth of a well made Chardonnay. Examples from Picpoul de Pinet can be had for $10-13 and are often far superior to what you usually find among Sauvignon blanc, Pinot gris/grigio and Chardonnay in the under $15 category.

This is definitely a grape that should be high on any wine geek’s list to try.

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Getting Geeky with Domaine de Couron Marselan

Going to need more than 60 seconds to geek out about the 2014 Domaine de Couron Marselan from the Ardèche region.

The Winery

Located in the village of Saint Marcel d’Ardeche, Domaine de Couron is owned by Jean-Luc and Marie-Lise Dorthe. They are 9th generation vignerons farming their vineyards sustainably and organically in the Rhône valley northwest of Avignon.

The area used to be a Roman settlement with many ruins and archaeological sites.  The Domaine de Couron label pays tribute this heritage by featuring a Roman coin that was discovered in one of their vineyards.

Domaine de Couron farms .72 acres of Marselan planted in granite and limestone soils. After harvest, the grapes get completely destemed  before being fermented in concrete tanks. The wine doesn’t see any oak during aging. This is because the Dorthes believe this approach better conveys the typicity of the grape and terroir of the vineyard. The winery produces around 1000 cases a year.

The Grape

Photo by Vbecart. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons and released under CC-BY-SA-3.0,

Marselan grapes

According to Jancis Robinson’s Wine Grapes, Marselan is a crossing of Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache that was created by Paul Truel in 1961 at the Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique (INRA). The grape was named after the town of Marseillan where cultivars produced by the INRA’s breeding estate of Domaine de Vassel are stored.

The official French register of grape varieties saw Marselan’s join its ranks in 1990. Because of this growers began planting it in the Languedoc and Southern Rhone. By 2009, there were almost 6000 acres planted with Robinson noting that the most successful producers of the variety have been Domaine de Couron, Chateau Camplazens, Domaine de la Camarette, Paul Mas, Mas de Ray and the Châteauneuf-du-Pape estate of Domaine de la Mordorée which does a Marselan, Merlot and Grenache blend.

In the Côtes du Rhône AOC, Marselan is only permitted up to a maximum of 10%. As a result, Rhône producers wishing to make a varietal examples often have to bottle it as a Vin de France. Additionally, they could use one of the regional Indication Géographique Protégée (IGP) like Pays d’Oc, Mediterranee, Bouches-du-Rhone, Aude, Cotes de Thau, Coteaux d’Enserune, Cotes de Gascogne, Comtes Rhodaniens, Cotes Catalanes and, in the case of this bottle of Domaine de Couron, from the Ardeche.

Other Regions

Outside of France, Marselan was first planted in the Penedès region of Spain in the mid-1990s.  Consequently, growers in the Terra Alta region of Catalunya began experimenting with the variety. Also, Argentina was cultivating 195 acres as of 2008 with around 59 acres next door in Brazil. In Uruguay, Bodega Garzón blends Marselan with Tannat and makes a varietal example as well.

In China, the Sino-French Demonstration Vineyard located in Hebei province in the shadow of the Great Wall in Hulai county includes plantings of Marselan that winemaker Li Demei produces a varietal wine from. The 2015 Marselan from Grace Vineyard in the Shanxi province won the top prize at the 2017 Decanter Asia Wine Awards.

The Wine

Mid intensity nose. A mix of black fruit like cherries and currants as well as some herbal notes like mint and tomato leaf. With some air, a little Grenache-like smokiness emerges.

Photo by McEC16. Released on Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

The mix of juicy cherries and currants give this Domaine du Couron Marselan a lot of charm and adds to its food pairing potential.

On the palate, the black fruit certainly carries through. However, the medium plus acidity adds some red fruit like juicy cranberries to the mix. The herbal and smoke notes are still present but much more muted on the palate than on the nose. In their place is an intriguing tobacco note. This is something that I usually associate with Cabernet Sauvignon that has seen some time in oak. Medium tannins and medium body give good balance and structure.

The Verdict

This Domaine du Couron Marselan charmed me considerable. Most noteworthy, I enjoyed how I could pick up Grenache and Cabernet Sauvignon characteristics in this wine. Similarly, I would probably peg this wine as a moderate weight Côtes du Rhône in a blind tasting. Perhaps even an earthier Spanish Garnacha.

For a BBQ wine or if you are just in the mood to try something different, it is well worth the $13-16 for a bottle of this geeky grape.

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Wine Clubs Done Right

It all started with a tweet.

Terret noir!?!

I was only familiar with this grape as one of the obscure little brother varieties in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. For some added geekiness, courtesy of Jancis Robinson’s Wine Grapes, the noir is a color mutation of the Terret grape with blanc and gris versions as well. Apparently, in the 1950s, Terret gris was the most widely planted grape variety in the Languedoc with over 20,000 acres!

Who knew? But now there are only around 257 acres of Terret gris left with approximately 3500 and 460 acres of Terret blanc and noir respectively.  I was excited to read about Tablas Creek’s version of this obscure grape. I visited Tablas Creek several years ago where I geeked out over their nursery of Rhone varieties, taking many leaf and vine pictures that I uploaded to Wikipedia (as Agne27). I’ve always been impressed with Tablas Creek’s effort to introduced new varieties to the American consumer.

So I tweeted my enthusiasm and went to Tablas Creek’s website to see what they had available.

Petit Manseng! Clairette blanche! Picardan! and, of course, Terret noir. But there was a catch—beyond many of them being sold out. Most of these uber geeky bottlings were limited to members of Tablas Creek’s wine clubs.

Instead of being bummed, my reaction was to appreciate the brilliance and good business sense. My biggest gripes about wine clubs, and why I join very few of them, is that they rarely offer compelling value.

What makes a wine club appealing to join?

Wine industry folks talk ad infinitum about how to improve wine clubs to encourage more sign-ups. It is no secret that the financial stability of consistent wine club sales is essential to many small wineries’ bottom line. With so many things competing for a consumer’s wallet, how does a winery entice folks to join?

Well for me, my decision to ultimately sign up for the Tablas Creek wine club was driven by three factors.

1.) How easy can I get your wines at home?
Photo taken by myself (as Agne27) on Wikimedia Commons

I live a little closer to Beaucastel in Seattle at around 8600km than Tablas Creek is to their partner estate. But I have no problem finding bottles of Ch. Beaucastel.

This is a big reason why I don’t join the wine clubs of many Washington (especially those in Woodinville) and Oregon wineries. Living in Seattle with an abundance of wine shops and tasting rooms close by, I can get most any wine I want from these local wineries. Yes, getting a 10-25% discount and invitation to “members only” events is nice but what is more appealing is access and exclusivity. This is where I tip my hat to Tablas Creek for their impressive selection of “Members Only” wines.

This created value in my mind because I wanted access to these wines. I want to try a Terret noir. I want a varietal Picardin. Even if I lived right next store to Tablas Creek, I still couldn’t get these wines easily if I wasn’t a member. That’s a strong incentive for a wine consumer like me.

Yes, I know plenty of my local Washington and Oregon wineries have “Members Only” bottlings, but very, very few of those wineries put them front and center on their wine shop page or highlight them as much as they should. And, truthfully, many of these “Members Only” bottlings are not that exciting compared to what the winery is already producing.

More than “Members Only”

A special one barrel “Members Only” blend? Um, okay that could be great but your regular red blend that I can buy is pretty darn good so why should I buy the whole cow and join your club when I’m already happy with the chocolate milk?

Now a three bottle “Members Only” set of the same grape variety but from 3 different clones, three different vineyards or 3 different kinds of oak barrels–THAT’S intriguing. That is not something I can regularly get from yours or any other winery. That’s something with compelling value and exclusivity.

In the case of Tablas Creek, I would have to do a fair amount of hunting on WineSearcher.com to find a bottle of Terret noir. While I can get their Esprit de Tablas and Patelin de Tablas blends at local wine shops, with these obscure varietal bottlings their wine club provides a chance to get something above and beyond their typical retail offering.

That’s intriguing. That’s worth buying the cow.

2.) How many bottles am I committing myself to?

But to be honest, I don’t really want a whole damn cow.

Frankly, I’m a bit of a slutty boozer that likes to play the field with many different types of wines and alcoholic beverages. Just peruse the archives of this “wine blog,” and you will see. For every couple of wine-related posts I do, I’m just as likely to post about a whiskey like the Edradour 10 year or a beer like the Bourbon County series from Goose Island.

I want to commit, but I’m truly only faithful to my wife.

That is why flexibility with wine clubs is so vital. Here, again, I’ll tip my hat to Tablas Creek for offering options of 6, 12 and 24 bottle commitments. Each tier has its ancillary perks, letting consumers pick just how much cow they want to bring home. Starting with a six-bottle a year commitment is not going to tie down my wine racks.

But I decided to go with the 12 bottle VINsider tier because A.) I saw 12 bottles on their shop page alone that I want to drink and B.) It seemed like having “Shipment wines specially selected by our winemakers” increased my odds of getting the geeky bottles I want.

3.) How likely is the style of wine going to change?

Though I do wonder what happened to this potted Grenache blanc vine. Is it still chilling outside the tasting room? Or did it grow up to be a big boy vine in the vineyard?


In our tumultuous era of mergers and winery acquisitions by big mega-corps, there is always a chance that your favorite winery is going to sell out. That potentially could mean a new style of wine driven more by focus groups rather than a focus on terroir. While I know that doesn’t matter to everyone, it matters to me and how I spend my money. Sometimes it is not even an acquisition that changes a style but rather a winemaker moving on with the new winemaker doing things just a little bit too different for your taste.

As a newbie wine lover, I learned this lesson the hard way when I first moved to Washington State in 2004. I fell in love with the wines of David Lake at Columbia Winery and joined their club. Failing health caused Lake to retire in 2006 with him passing away in 2009. Of course, you can’t blame the winery or David for that but the style of the new winemaker, Kerry Norton, just wasn’t to my taste. It took a year’s worth of unexciting wine club shipments for us to finally realize that the style had changed and wasn’t coming back, leading us to quit the club. This was before Gallo later bought Columbia and took it even further away from David Lake’s style.

Change happens. I get it. But if I’m going to invest in a wine club, I want to wager on one that I’m confident that I’ll be liking their wines for a while.

Looking at Tablas Creek’s website, I got a lot of comfort seeing the continuity of their leadership, viticulture and winemaking team. Many of the same people that were making those delicious wines I tried on my visit in 2012 are still there six years later.

That makes Tablas Creek feel like a solid bet of being a winery that I’m going to enjoy being part of their wine club.

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Trading Out instead of Trading Up


Seven Fifty Daily reposted an old Jon Bonné article from October about Do Wine Drinkers Really Trade Up?

This is a question that regularly percolates in the wine industry, occasionally bubbling over. Bonné gives lip service to (but doesn’t link) the New York Times op-ed by Bianca Bosker Ignore the Snobs, Drink the Cheap, Delicious Wine that created a firestorm last year. The op-ed was an excerpt from her book, Cork Dork, which, likewise produced some interesting reactions.

The gist of Bosker’s take is that wine industry folks shouldn’t turn their noses up at so-called “cheap wine” because there is actually quality in these bottles, even if there isn’t terroir. To add seasoning to her opinion, she includes a quote from no less of an esteem source than that of Master of Wine Jancis Robinson.

“It is one of the ironies of the wine market today, that just as the price differential between cheapest and most expensive bottles is greater than ever before, the difference in quality between these two extremes is probably narrower than it has ever been.” — Jancis Robinson as quoted in the NYT March 17th, 2017.

This narrowing in the quality gap has come via technological advances and winemaker “tricks”, several of which Bosker list in her op-ed, like the use of the “cure-all” Mega-Purple, toasted oak chips, liquid oak tannins and fining agents like Ova-Pure and gelatin.

Still despite these mass manipulations, Bosker contended that these technological advances had help “democratize decent wine.”

Needless to say, many folks disagreed with Bosker, few more passionately than natural wine evangelist Alice Feiring in her post to Embrace the “Snobs.” Don’t Drink Cheap(ened) Wine. But my favorite rebuttal had to be from Alder Yarrow of Vinography.

By M.Minderhoud - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, from Wikimedia Commons

I think Ronald would want to have a few words with Alder.

“[Bosker’s argument] is the wine equivalent of saying that McDonalds deserves the affection and respect of food critics and gourmets the world over for having engineered such tasty eats that can be sold at prices everyone can afford.” Alder Yarrow, Vinography March 23rd, 2017

Some certainly defended Bosker’s view with most of those defenses centered around the idea that these cheap democratized wines introduce people to a less intimidating world of wine. A world that they may eventually trade up from for “better wine”–whatever that may be.

“She seems to share the view that mass-marketed, everyday wines eventually will lead a person introduced to wine through them to step up to more challenging wines. This perception isn’t without precedent.

I have a hunch that industrial wines will prompt neophytes who find that they enjoy wine to search for wines that have more to say.” — Mike Dunne, Sacramento Bee April 11th, 2017

And this is where we get back to the concept of “Trading Up”

Many people in the wine industry are unconvinced that this phenomenon exist. While the Bonné article above tries to paint some nuances around the concept, you will find many writers who doubt that people ever really trade up and instead think that the reason why we are seeing an increase in “premiumization” is simply because older 4 liter box wine drinkers are dying off while newer Millennial drinkers are starting right off the bat with a little more pricier $7-10 wines. In the article linked above, The Wine Curmudgeon expresses skepticism that a Bogle or Rodney Strong drinker would ever “trade up” to a Silver Oak.

Bonné also notes that there is a significant segment of wine drinkers that are risk and change adverse, pointing to Constellation Brands’ Project Genome study that found around 40% of consumers prefer to stick with drinking the same ole thing they drink everyday.

British wine writer Guy Woodward, in another Seven Fifty Daily article, quoted a buying manager at the UK grocery chain Morrisons flat out saying that his customers aren’t interested in trading up, being quite content with their £5 (around $7) bottles.

Maybe the industry should count its blessings that Millennials are even buying $7-10 wines and just cross our fingers that the next batch of wine drinkers in Generation Z start out their wine journey in the $10-15 range?

Or we can stop talking about “Trading Up” and start talking about “Trading Out”.

A major hang up in the “Should we love ‘cheap wine’ debate?” is the focus on the word “cheap”– which means different things to different people. For some, it means the type of mass manipulated wines that Bosker describes from her visit to Treasury Wine Estates. For others, cheap just means…cheap. This is especially true when you are talking about a Millennial generation of wine drinkers saddled with student loans and a lower wage economy. It is a victory for the wine industry when a Millennial reaches for that $7-10 wine instead of a six-pack of craft beer.

By Jami430 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, on Wikimedia  Commons

I mean, seriously, we could get about 7 meals of avocado toast for the price of one bottle of Silver Oak.

But for “natural wine advocates” like Alice Feiring who want wine drinkers to take their wine seriously and folks, like me, who despair at supermarkets monopolized by brands made by the same handful of mega-corps like Constellation, Treasury and Gallo, perhaps the potential of the Millennial market offers the perfect solution to our woes.

Going back to Alder Yarrow’s Vinography post, he references a Bosker rebuttal from Troon Vineyard’s general manager Craig Camp, that aptly notes the abundance of inexpensive but non-industrialize wine on the market. These include under $20 wines made in Beaujolais, the Cote du Rhone, Languedoc, Spain, Portugal, etc. Heck, you can even find tasty wines from these regions under $10. Now you might not find these in a grocery store, but they exist and often just down the road from the grocery at your local wine shop.

But how do we get drinkers to seek out these wines?

I think it is best to start small and encourage wine drinkers to get in the habit of “trading out” which simply means trying something new. Even if you are still shopping at your convenient grocery store looking at the litany of industrialize wines–try a new one. Sure, grab a bottle of your regular “go-to” but also grab something else. Just one bottle of something you never had before. Try it. If you hate it, you still have your ole trusty.

Why? Because drinking the same wine over and over again is like eating the same food. To echo back to Yarrow’s quote, you wouldn’t eat at Mcdonald’s everyday, why would you want to drink the same thing everyday?

So let’s say you try something different but in the same grape or from the same wine region. That’s a good start but it is still like limiting yourself to just one type of cuisine (Italian, Chinese, Indian, pizza, etc). Now granted, you can have a fair amount of pleasure exploring all the delicious possibilities of pizzas or Indian cuisine, just like you could have exploring all the delicious possibilities of the Riesling grape or the wines of Washington State. But you have even more potential for more pleasure when you trade out your standby cuisine for a chance to try something different–like Moroccan food or stuffed portobello mushrooms.

So many Cru Beaujolais….which incidentally goes great with both pizza and Indian food.

Encouraging the wanderlust and sense of adventure that Millennials have demonstrated, is the best path for wine industry folks promoting alternatives to industrialized wines. Yeah, mass produced and mass manipulated wines are probably going to be the starting point for a lot of wine drinkers. Bosker is quite right in that their accessibility and approachabilty has helped democratize wine.

But stop stressing if people reach for bottles of 19 Crimes or Apothic. Instead, keep encouraging them to “trade out” at least one of those bottles for something, anything different.

Perhaps if they keep trading out and exploring new wines, they may eventually find themselves on the wine industry’s holy path of “trading up” into more esteemed quality wine. But even if they don’t end up trading up to a higher price tier of wine, at least their journey is going to be a heck of a lot more interesting than just eating at McDonalds.

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