A look at Maison and Cork House wines
Up until about twenty-five years ago, the world wine market was largely dominated by négociants, wine dealers who bought grapes, must, or wine in various states of completion from smaller producers, and assembled it all into their own signature wine programs. Because individual producers couldn’t make enough wine, were too small to afford production equipment, or had limited access to consumers, they’d sell to a négociant who could make better use of it.
The last couple of years has seen a resurgence of négociants in the wine industry. It was bound to happen. In retrospect, the return of the wine négotiant seems inevitable.
The growth of the Washington wine industry has been nothing short of explosive. In 1999, there were a mere 160 bonded wineries in the State, and according to a report by the Washington State Liquor Control Board, there were 686 wineries operating with non-retail licenses in 2010. According to a recent report by the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers, grape production increased by three percent in 2010 from the prior year, which may seem small until you consider that this number represents a record high in Washington. We crushed 160,000 tons of wine grapes last year, whereas we were producing a mere 70,000 tons back in 1999. As far as bottling goes, we bottled 21,468,124 gallons (equivalent to about 81,265,690 1.5-litre bottles) of still and effervescent wine in 2010, and in 1999, we bottled just 6,815,620 gallons (about 25,799,924 1.5-litre bottles) of still and effervescent wine. And consumption? According to statistics from the Wine Institute, nationwide wine consumption was at about 2.02 gallons (about eight bottles) per person per year in 1999, and has increased to 2.54 gallons (about ten bottles) in 2010.
|Washington Grape Production (tons)||70,000||160,000||+128.6%|
|Washington Wine Bottled (gallons)||6,815,619||21,468,124||+215.0%|
|U.S. Wine Consumption (gallons per capita)||2.02||2.54||+25.7%|
The question, then, is where’s the limit? Wine consumption continues to grow, but it doesn’t appear to be growing nearly as fast as production. The law of supply and demand would dictate that either prices should fall to move more goods, or that supply should decrease to match the demand. What we’re seeing is a little of both.
With the economy in the crapper, we’re still seeing trends of increased wine consumption, but by and large, the increase comes from less expensive bottles. Some wineries have adjusted the pricing of their wines, and some, to protect the integrity of the brand, have released second labels with lower price points to generate revenue through volume rather than margin. Still more are simply bottling less. But, if you’ve got contracts on the fruit, or you’ve got an estate vineyard, bottling less means that you’ve got a bunch of leftover vino that you’ve already paid for with dollars and labor that becomes a financial liability. If you want to recoup your costs, you’ve got to liquidate.
That’s where the négociant comes in.
We’re all familiar with the Charles Shaw model (now a Trader Joe’s exclusive)–buying up surplus wine at pennies on the dollar, dumping it all in the hopper and churning out cheap wine by the tanker-full. Savvy business move, and occasionally even palatable, but as anyone who’s consumed any amount of Two Buck Chuck will tell you, you never know what you’re going to get. My friend Valerie once told me that she’d go to Trader Joe’s and buy one bottle of Chuck, open and taste it in the car, and if it was drinkable, go back in to buy a case.
Today’s négotiants aren’t peddling cheap bottles of plonk, though. On the contrary, we’re seeing talented winemakers buying up nearly-finished surplus wines from premium wineries and seizing an opportunity to blend tasty vino that can be sold at a value price. And some of them, like Paul Beveridge and Travis Scarborough, are also using négotiant wine programs to pursue worthy causes.
Two Riedel decanters rest full of ruby juice on a pristine marble counter in the illuminated penthouse of Barons V partner Gary McLean. A Chihuly sculpture gleams through one of the wall-length windowpanes on a bright January afternoon and into the eyes of winemaker Matthew Loso.
He squints and introduces himself as if there hasn’t been decades of reviews written on his wines by nobler journalists than this one. He smiles and trades a handshake with an equally sun-shined wineglass.
Matthew Loso hails from self-made vintner pedigree. By setting the foundation for Matthews Cellars when he was months out of high school, he has the experience of a winemaker twice his age, the opportunity to get his pick of fruit in blocks next to the caliber of Betz Family Winery and Quilceda Creek and through trial, does not believe in vineyard terroir.
The cultivated Loso joined forces with and Gary McLean as well as three other shareholders to build Barons V parent company Vine & Sun, LLC. in 2001.
Although the wine company is lead by five “type AA personalities,” McLean said they leave the wine up to Loso. “We trust his forward palate, we give him our opinions and he runs with it in the way he sees best.”
Ain’t Nothin’ Small About ‘Em
By Christine Go
Does size matter? Well, it does if you’re talking about grapes, namely Petite Sirah and Petit Verdot. These varietals produce big, bold wines, so why are they called “petite?” Give up? Because of the size of the grapes! Apparently both varietals have small berries, so they have a high skin-to-juice ratio. Since color and tannins come primarily from the skin and seeds of the grapes, more skin equals more color and tannins, which translates to tooth-staining wines with lots of structure.
So Petite Sirah isn’t petite, but is it related to Syrah? There’s been a lot of confusion about the origin of Petite Sirah, and it’s taken about a hundred years to figure out the answer to that question. If you check out the timeline on the “P.S. I Love You” website (an advocacy group for Petite Sirah), you’ll see that Syrah first came to California from France in 1878, but some called it Petite Syrah. Then, a few years later, a French varietal called Durif (named after the grape grower who propagated it) was introduced to California, and it was called Petite Sirah, since that was its common name in France.
We now know that Syrah/Petite Syrah is not the same as Petite Sirah/Durif, but they are related. In 1997, Carole Meredith, a professor at UC Davis, did a DNA analysis of Petite Sirah compared to Durif, and discovered that they are indeed the same. It turns out that Syrah and Peloursin, an obscure French varietal, are the parents of Petite Sirah. Syrah is prone to a fungus called “powdery mildew,” something familiar to gardeners in Western Washington, and originally Petite Sirah was developed to be resistant to it; but in humid climates, Petite Sirah is prone to another fungus called “grey rot.” This is why Petite Sirah does well in drier grape-growing regions. Today the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) recognizes Durif and Petite Sirah as synonyms for the same grape. And just to add to the confusion, some wineries label their Petite Sirah as “Petite Syrah” even though it is not the same as Syrah.
The juicy story of a chick, a couple of guys and a dog
By Erin Thomas
Heather and Dean Neff really are living the dream, as the signs up to their Chelan estate winery suggest. With the green and flourishing Defiance Estate Vineyard overlooking the rolling hills and glistening waters of Lake Chelan, the folks behind Nefarious Cellars are fully aware and grateful for the thriving luxury known as their life.
“We are just a chick, a couple of guys and a dog striving to blow your mind,” the Nefarious Cellars website states referring to Heather, Dean, and their children, George, 4, and Cooper, 9 months.
“The bonus to being the woman in the group is I do notice I tend to smell things a little better than Dean,” Heather said, “That’s my little asset.”
With a bag full of tricks and assets they bring to the blossoming Lake Chelan Valley AVA scene, the chick and the fathering guy have a longstanding history in the industry and as a couple.
The two met in 1996, both striving to crack into the soils of the wine business after attending Chemeketa Community College in Salem, Oregon for enology and viticulture. They then decided to plant a test block vineyard on Dean’s property in Pateros, Washington. At the Rocky Mother Vineyard, named for its soils, Heather said they got a great sense of what they could grow in the Lake Chelan Valley.
The Neffs returned to Oregon, where Dean started working for a vineyard management company, then to study under the uncompromisingly gifted winemakers Isabelle Dutartre of De Ponte Cellars and later with Tony Soter at Soter Winery in Willamette Valley. Heather managed a small tasting room in Carlton, with the intentions of both retaining every aspect of the business but ultimately wanting to start a winery of their own, Heather said.
With the couple having equal parts of formal grape training, they said it was an obvious decision to split production by colors and ultimately give themselves a niche in the industry among giants.
Winemakers come in all shapes and sizes, demonstrating as many styles of personality as there are styles of wine. What they all have in common, of course, is the transubstantiation of ostensibly ordinary grapes into that Dionysian elixir called wine, but each winemaker has his or her own approach to making the wines they love.
Brennon Leighton, winemaker for Efeste, has been making his mark on the Washington wine world, practicing a noninterventionist winemaking philosophy with a religious zeal. His hallmark methods, while not necessarily original, are certainly more uncommon that one might expect.
Pacific Distillery and Soft Tail Spirits turn passion into powerful drinks
by AJ Rathbun
On December 5, 1933, the 21st Amendment was ratified, repealing the 18th Amendment, which had banned the sale, manufacture, and transportation of alcohol used for drinking. The Nobel Experiment, or Prohibition (or just a really bad idea) ended on that beautiful day. Except in Washington State.
Okay, maybe it wasn’t just here. There were, and are, other states practicing various forms of prohibition, due to the 21st Amendment’s setting regulation control at the state level. While these prohibitive measures haven’t recently held the heels of the wine industry, they have kept spirits distilleries from becoming established. But on April 10, 2007, Dry Fly announced their intention to be Washington State’s first grain distillery since Prohibition. The Dry Fly folks imported a German still, partook in some serious study, and have since released gin and vodka and will soon release a whiskey. They did run into a snag early on though; due to the existing regulation, they weren’t allowed to sell their products on the premises or to give visitors samples. For most new to a small batch spirit (or wine), the ability to sample product while hearing about it from the creators is a delicious experience.
By Doug Haugen
Your average dictionary, for better or worse, tends to give the most concise denotation of a term, and perhaps nowhere, depending on your interests, is that more inadequate than when defining a sommelier. Many people flail around just trying to pronounce the word (for the record, it’s sum-ul-yay), let alone actually knowing what a somme really is. Even when pulling out the Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary (you know, the big bug-squisher), you read that a sommelier is “a waiter, as in a club or restaurant, who is in charge of wines.” This is true, in a way—a sommelier is someone who may approach your table to discuss the wine list—but what this fails to capture is the sheer scope of what a sommelier is.
To be a sommelier requires intensive education, disciplined self-study, and a significant financial investment. There are two organizations that certify sommes, the International Sommeliers Guild and the Court of Master Sommeliers, and while their approach is different, in both cases, the process is grueling, the required skills are exacting, and candidates must have the passion and the fortitude to fulfill mind-boggling expectations.
It’s not uncommon for a somme to hear a customer say something like, “Wow, you have the best job in the world—you get to drink wine all day!” The somme would probably agree wholeheartedly, but not for the reasons the customer is thinking. For a somme, drinking wine all day involves sipping wine and spitting it back out, pouring half-full glasses into the spittoon and moving on, evaluating each wine on as many as twenty different factors, classifying and reclassifying it according to style, region, varietal and more, and adding the wine to his or her broadening knowledge base. For them, tasting wine is more than casual enjoyment; it’s academic, systematic and disciplined. And why? Much of it is for their passionate love of the subject, but more than that, it’s so they can help you, the consumer, find a single glass or bottle of wine that you will enjoy on a single visit to their place of employment. When you talk to a sommelier in a restaurant, you’re not merely getting advice from a “waiter who is in charge of wines,” but rather, you’re tapping into thousands of hours of draconian education.
An intrepid trio takes Communion to a whole new level
By Doug Haugen
When I first saw, online, a bottle of “Communion” by a winery called Thirsty Pagans, I thought that this must be one more clever marketing trick to sell cheap wine to thirsty college kids on a lite-beer budget like so many that are starting to don the shelves at local supermarkets and corner stores. But, trick or no, I was intrigued by the irreligious nature of the winery’s name, and clicked my way over to their website.
With a flashy label featuring three monks and a wench drinking together, I was surprised to learn that “Communion” is not a jug wine, mass produced and sold for under ten bucks. It is, in fact, a limited production red blend hailing from the Alder Ridge Vineyards in the Horse Heaven Hills AVA, and retails at a $26 price point. Not only that, but it’s made by Rob Chowanietz, the Washington State winemaker for Corus Estates & Vineyards, whose Cabernet Sauvignon from their Alder Ridge Winery label won a Double Gold at this year’s Seattle Wine Awards. Why would an accomplished, award-winning winemaker launch another project in an industry where risqué often equates to risky?
To find out, I sat down with Rob Chowanietz (Chief of Fermentation) and his wife Jeanie Inglis-Chowanietz (Sales & Marketing Wench), who along with Crandall Kyle (Chief Bean Counter), went balls-out into uncharted territory.
By Doug Haugen
A trained geologist with degrees in Earth Science and Soil Science including a Ph.D from UC Davis, and a résumé that includes a professorship in geology, agriculture and soil science, years of scientific research, consulting on a majority of the AVA petitions in the State of Washington and finally starting a vineyard consulting company called Vinitas, it seemed a natural matter of course for the legendary Alan Busacca to dabble in the wine side of wine. Dabbing, however, just isn’t his thing, so he cannonballed right in.
Having worked so closely with vine and soil, Busacca understands the influence and impact of terroir on the finished juice, so it makes sense that his debut in the winery business emphasizes just that, and how.
On a challenge, we headed out into the dirt to talk to the guys who grow some of the best fruit in the world.
By Doug Haugen
“Wine is made in the vineyard.” This is a common adage in the wine world, perhaps trite, maybe cliché, but probably one of the most succinct ways of communicating the importance of the virgin fruit in the overall lifecycle of wine. Another way to phrase it is, “You can make bad wine out of good grapes, but you can’t make good wine out of bad grapes.” The phrase is ubiquitous among winemakers, viticulturists and professional tasters. No doubt you’ve heard it in tasting rooms or wine parties.
Here’s why: Winemaking is a much more complicated process than just leaving a pitcher of Welch’s in the fridge for too long. Nearly every stage of it is an effort to bring aspects of the fruit out in some way. The acids, tannins, sugar and alcohol, let alone all of the nuanced flavors that can be drawn out and expressed, all of these things are only there but by the grace of the grape.