Two items

First, the winter of 2014:

Canadians love to talk about the weather.  We always lament the lost weather we had last season when we are in the midst of whatever weather Mother Nature delivers this season.

Well, the winter of 2014 has given us plenty of cause for complaining this winter.  We are in the middle of the coldest winter Ontario has experienced in 20 years.  We have recorded 31 cold weather alerts to date since the beginning of December, more than all the alerts in the previous three winters combined.

We are all very tired of the unrelenting cold and yet, according to current weather forecasts, we face at least another two weeks of below-normal temperatures.

All this is to say the vineyards of Ontario have been under incredible cold stress this winter.  Many growers are reporting significant bud loss due to the cold weather and this will have a direct effect on yields in the upcoming growing season.  The buds are formed in the fall and lay dormant on the vines until the spring when pruning of the vines is done.  Depending on the pruning techniques used by the grower, more or less new growth will be enabled and this growth will determine the volume of grapes grown on the vines.

When bud damage occurs there is less freedom afforded the grower and pruning must be adapted to maximize the potential for an acceptable yield.  The damage in Ontario vineyards is widespread with Lake Erie North Shore and Prince Edward County being hardest hit.  Syrah and Sauvignon Blanc seem to be the hardest hit varieties but all varieties have been affected to varying degrees. An enormous drop in yield is forecast for 2014.

The extreme cold may also trigger damage to the vines themselves but the degree of this damage will only be measured properly once the new growth starts in the spring.

There is a modest silver lining to this cloud: the cold came early with the right intensity to allow an early harvest of fruit for Icewine.

Second, California…again:

Following my recent rant about France I received an invitation to this year’s California Wine Fair which will take place in Toronto on Monday April 7 at the Fairmont Royal York Hotel in Toronto. The invitation was unrelated to the rant.  I get this invitation every year.

The event has two components, the consumer event in the evening and the trade event in the afternoon.  Both events are huge; I think this is the biggest single day wine event on the calendar each year and is a testimony to the effective work done by the California Wine Institute and its local PR partner, Praxis.

The trade event is especially good as the media are able to taste in a private room which means we sit at tables, we pour our own wines, we are able to work at our own pace without being pushed around and we select which wines we choose to taste.

This is another way the industry can get its proper place in the consumer’s eye.  Give the centres of influence the tools and time and they will tell your story.

And it works.  California sent out recent data later in the week and US wine exports (90% of which are from California) reached a record high in 2013 to $1.15 billion (an increase from the previous year of over 16%). Volume also grew by 7.5% in 2013 from the previous year.

The EU is the largest market for California wines at just over $600 million (up 31% year-over-year) with Canada sitting in second place at $454 million (+12%).  Canada is a HUGE market for California, in both absolute and per capita terms

Clearly you will earn rewards if you spend your promotion dollars properly.

Is anybody watching California?  If not, you should be…

You can get more information and buy tickets for the California Wine Fair at http://www.calwine.ca/.

à bientôt…

Copyright© W. John Switzer 2003 – 2014.

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France – an opportunity lost

This weekend the main feature is France, part of the February month-long Joie de Vin celebration at LCBO stores across the province. There is a selection of some 20 wines chosen from the wine-producing regions of France and all price points are represented.

The Joie de Vin celebration is one of the most low-key events in recent history at the LCBO.

I make this comment when I compare the Joie de Vin program to the huge splash which was the first of two California celebrations conducted at the LCBO last year.

That event started with promotional materials inserted in newspapers prior to the launch, billboards, radio slots, tasting events and media kits for critics and writers and an ongoing onslaught from agents who sent wines to professionals when those wines didn’t reach the tastings. The message in the stores was even more full-frontal in its colourful California lifestyle displays everywhere you looked. Consumers and their advisors were in the loop that something was going on with attractively-priced mid-range wines featured in waves throughout the campaign.

The overarching purpose of this blitz was to open widely the California brand to the big and informed value-buyer segment, a category that has historically always considered California wines to be either too cheap to be of acceptable quality or too expensive to be even considered.

The French event has been a sleeper by comparison.  There have been two newspaper inserts over the first two weeks of February and they have been attractive in their packaging and content. Tick that box.  There have been a few wines offered at modestly-discounted prices – tick that box.  The stores have a handful of cardboard Eiffel Towers in the window and some aisle or row-end displays that give the customer a sense that something is going. Ok, maybe we can tick that box. But, the in-store presence is otherwise subdued and appears like just more eye-noise, and there is a lot of this noise in today’s LCBO store.  As well, there have been no special professional tastings related to this campaign and the number of wines featured at the LCBO is less than half the number that were on promotion when the California event was underway.

Consider the relative positioning of France and California at the LCBO (General List): French wine sales in 2012-2103 were $115 million vs $149 million for the USA (primarily California).  Sales dollar volume for France for the same period decreased by 3.3% while the USA saw sales dollar volume grow by 26.4%. France does somewhat better in Vintages where the super-premium wines from Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne are offered but in 2012-2013 USA Vintages sales were still higher than those for France ($95 million vs. $82 million), despite rising prices in the Bordeaux futures category.

There is clear evidence that France continues to do a poorer job of positioning itself as a producer of value wines.  It is a country best-known for many of the most expensive wines in the world and this brand image is so firmly established it spills over into lesser categories – where the everyday wines reside – and scares off customers who don’t otherwise know about the values available in regions such as the Loire, Alsace and the Rhône. This is a problem, especially at a time when domestic wine consumption in France continues to decline and at a time when the New World continues to aggressively pursue greater market share with wines of ever -improving quality and value.

In the past California suffered under the reputation as a maker of expensive wines as it is the pricy wines which have traditionally garnered the headlines. Stories abound of long waiting lists for iconic wines that never reach the public.

The message delivered in the California campaign last year was clear: California makes very appealing wines that sell for less than $20.00 and these wines run the gamut of styles from cool-climate to hot continental climate and everything in between: California is not a monolith. The consumer got the message as the G.L. sales growth demonstrates.

If this data did not call the French marketing people into action then there is a problem.  The current campaign indicates the message has not been received in France nor by the Canadian staff of its global food and beverage marketing arm, Sopexa. This is too, bad, not just for French wine makers.  It is even more tragic as there are many consumers who would leap across the aisle to France if they only knew more about the wines and regions of France.  These wines represent exceptional value, diverse variety and are food friendly across a wide array of cuisines.

All of this begs the question: why does France not step up?  Is it arrogance: our wines are so good anybody who needs to know about them already does know about them?  Is it ignorance?  Do the French not know how to market?

I doubt it is either of these.  Rather I think it is a simple matter of culture.  The Joie de Vin has the look of a playful French marketing campaign and while it might work over there it is simply too muted to have any effect in Ontario.  It is not a  campaign that crosses generational lines and it is not a campaign that has enough North American sizzle for consumers to take notice.

The LCBO will work with agencies and industry marketing bodies to promote product.  Each year the LCBO publishes a calendar of themes and campaigns and works with its industry partners and their creative and PR people to bring each campaign to market.  The LCBO has a selfish interest: the more customers learn about the wines and the wine regions of the world, the more they will explore. The more buzz in the stores, the more frequently consumers will visit, explore and buy.

The reciprocal benefit is for the partner, be it France, California, Italy, Australia or whomever.  The more the consumer knows about its grapes, regions and wines the more likely he or she will add its aisle to their path in the store. Big campaigns are the opportunity to build brand, re-define brand, expand brand… all of the above.  Successful campaigns need investment and properly executed will pay immediate dividends.  Under-designed, under-funded campaigns are a waste of money.

Shame on France.  I hope the Joie de Vin campaign is a success by whatever measure the marketing folks have embraced.  Regardless, it will not move the needle very far.

à bientôt…

Copyright© W. John Switzer 2003 – 2014.

California, tasting…

In this posting I highlight the wines from my recent trip to northern California that stood head and shoulders above everything else.  These wines all displayed complexity, structure and concentration, making them standouts.

As I reported in the last issue of WVN, there are distinct climate differences between northern Sonoma and Mendocino counties.  These differences influence both varieties cultivated and wine style: big reds made with Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon in northern Sonoma and delicate whites and reds made with Chenin Blanc, Riesling, Pinot Grigio, Pinot Noir and others in Mendocino.

The northern Sonoma area is dense with vineyards and wineries – it is a mecca for weekenders with an immense number of high-quality makers all in very close proximity to each other, a wide array of dining rooms and good-value accommodations.  Because the region is farther away from the bay area than Napa, Carneros or the Sonoma Valley regions, crowds are not a distraction from the tasting experience in this part of wine country.

Mendocino is very rural and the wineries are fewer in number but the tourist experience is special: there is no crowding in the tasting rooms, the character is more rustic and the hosts are welcoming and knowledgeable.

Fritz Winery Estate Dry Creek Valley Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2008

This winery makes bright, fruit-forward wines with exceptional structure: these wines

are made for food. The Cabernet Sauvignon has a delicate nose of mint, smoke, leather and black currant preserves. Round ripe fruit on the attack is followed by crisp acid and round, spicy tannins.  This is a very food-friendly wine with a long, clean and bright finish.  It is refined with an expressive fruit-forward personality despite 20 months in French oak barrels. Put in the cellar: it will age well for at least 10 -12 years.

Extra dry, red wine – $50.00 per bottle at the winery

Ferrari-Carano Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2008

At Ferrari-Carano. I'm the one on the right.

This showpiece winery is owned by a successful operator of casinos and hotels in Reno, Don Carano. Despite the over-the-top opulence of the estate, the wines made at Ferrari-Carano are very fine: balanced with finesse, expressive fruit and effective use of oak. The Cabernet Sauvignon is a blend with 17% Syrah and 3% Petit Verdot.  The nose is elegant with medium intensity showing aromas of cassis, coffee, mint, vanilla and smoke.  The palate shows bright acid, grainy tannins and bright black currant and blackberry fruit.  There is a spicy backbone throughout the palate and a mouth-coating, fruity finish.  This wine is an exceptional value.

Extra dry, red wine – $30.00 per bottle at the winery (available in Ontario through the agent, Authentic Wine and Spirits.)

Seghesio Cortina Dry Creek Zinfandel 2008

Seghesio is a family-owned winery and one of the originals in the region, founded in 1895. From humble beginnings this winery has become known for its Zinfandels, all of which are full-bodied and structured – not fat and flabby as are most of the Zins we see at the LCBO.  Cortina comes in at a whopping 15.4% alcohol yet is wonderfully balanced with a ripe fruit-driven structure. It is made with fruit from 40 year old vines and displays a concentrated nose with ripe blueberry, black cherry, chocolate and smoke aromas.  The palate is full-bodied with bright, ripe fruit, round tannins and medium + acidity. There is black pepper spice throughout the palate and the finish is long with lingering ripe black fruit. This wine will make believers of Zin skeptics. (Note, at the beginning of June Seghesio announced the sale of the its family business to Napa-based Crimson Wine Group, owner of several west coast boutique wineries)

Extra dry, red wine – $36.00 per bottle at the winery (available in Ontario from Dionysus Wine and Spirits.)

Sbragia Rancho del Oso Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon 2007

This is one of three flagship Cabs made by Ed Sbragia, former winemaker at Napa-based Beringer. Ed is known for his use of oak… and then some. Befitting his winemaking pedigree, Ed makes his three big Cabs from fruit sourced at two sites in Napa, the first at Mt. Veeder, the second at Howell  Mountain – both very high elevation (1800+ feet) vineyards.  The intent is to make the flagship Cabs wines that will improve with time.  This wine has a youthful nose even after two years in bottle.  It brims with bright red fruit, cassis, smoke and leather.  The attack is round and ripe with flavours of cassis, chocolate, bright spice and smoke on the mid-palate. This wine displays exceptional structure with medium-weight green tannins, medium+ acid on a medium-weight body and a well-balanced use of oak.  The finish is memorable with zesty and bright fruit and spice.  Cellar for the next 15 years.

Extra dry, red wine – $75.00 per bottle at the winery (available in Ontario from Treasury Wine Estates  – formerly Foster’s).

The tasting room at Navarro.

Navarro Vineyards Mendocino Sauvignon Blanc Cuvée 128 2009

Navarro was founded by former Torontonian Jim Bennett in 1973.  Navarro has established its name by making Alsatian-style whites from Pinot Gris, Riesling and Gewürztraminer grapes. This place was by far the best tasting room experience I have ever encountered: the staff were amazingly helpful , engaged and informed, the setting was comfortable and the wines were exceptional in every way. Unfortunately, you will have to visit the vineyard to get Navarro wines: they sell 90% of their production directly, in the tasting room or by direct shipment to club members and mail order customers. The Navarro philosophy is very simple – make good wines using sustainable practices and treat staff, customers and neighbours like family.  The Sauvignon Blanc is made in an Old World style with subtle understatement in the nose and palate. Herbal elements are accompanied by ripe peach, stony minerals and high acidity.  This wine is bright throughout with a long finish.  Quite a change from the big, fruity reds of Dry Creek Valley.

Dry, white wine – $18.00 per bottle at the winery

Navarro Vineyards Anderson Valley Pinot Noir Deep End Blend 2006

This is one of a handful of Cellar wines not usually available for tasting.  Deep End refers to the deep northern end of the Anderson Valley and is a naming relic from the days of the earliest settlers of the region. The nose is developing with an intense character of ripe berry fruit, forest floor and green beetroot. The palate is very ripe and Old World with assertive ripe berry fruit, grainy tannins, firm body and medium+ acid: the overall effect is an harmonious blend of all the elements. The finish is long and juicy.  This is a beautiful, elegant wine that will develop further for another 7 – 10 years…it is a great value!  See Navarro visitor reviews here.

Dry, red wine – $49.00 per bottle at the winery

Roederer Estate Anderson Valley Sparkling  L’Ermitage 2002

L’Ermitage is the tête du cuvée for this long-established branch-plant sparkling winery in Anderson Valley, the winery that first put Anderson Valley on the map in the early 1980’s. It spent 5 years in cask before the bottle maturation. A further 3 years in bottle  before disgorgement delivers the exceptional character of this grand cru style wine. The nose is bright with aromas of brioche, grapefruit, lime and light smoke. The palate is dry with intense flavours and sharp, aggressive mousse. The acid level is high, providing a juicy mouth feel. Complex flavours of lime, grapefruit, green apple and brioche dominate the palate. The finish is long, crisp and clean. Profound is the only way to describe this big wine.

Dry, sparkling wine – $29.00 at the winery (available in Ontario from Authentic Wine and Spirits.)

Goldeneye Estate Anderson Valley Pinot Noir 2007

Call this the White House Pinot; it’s been served at gala dinners under three administrations over the past 2 decades. Made from a blend of grapes from the 4 Anderson Valley ranches owned by the Duckhorn  group, this wine is made for balance and style.  It is the flagship P-N in the Duckhorn family of big Anderson Valley reds but it is surrounded by a group of single-vineyard siblings that aspire to greatness. This is a wine with a developing nose of beetroot, cranberry, red cherry and smoke.  Grainy, drying tannins dominate the mid-palate and the mouth feel is distinctly linear and square. The acidity is pronounced and assertive and flavours of cranberry, beetroot, black-pepper and forest floor make this is a classic P-N.  The finish is long.  This wine is a big one and will age well for the next 7 – 10 years.

Extra dry, red wine – $55.00 at the winery (available in Ontario from Rogers & Company.)

This was a very satisfying tasting trip and I recommend all readers try to visit this part of California to experience the varied and exceptional wines that are there for the tasting.

Where the wineries are represented in Ontario I have indicated the agent and provide a hyperlink to the agent’s home page.  In every case you will have to place an order with the agent.  It will be rare exception that any of these wines will be available in the consignment warehouse.  Enjoy!

à bientôt…

Copyright© W. John Switzer 2003 – 2011.

California, another perspective

As I reported in the last Newsletter I spent a few days in northern California last month.  I visited the Dry Creek Valley and Mendocino County regions with the single purpose of testing a selection of the winery recommendations made in Stephen Brook’s recent book, The Finest Wines of California (reviewed in Newsletter 125).  These regions are the most northerly in California and are, accordingly, out of the way for most visitors to the west coast who may only have a day to travel from business in San Francisco before returning home.

Most wine lovers have a limited understanding of California outside the biggie regions such as Napa, Santa Barbara and some of the more high-profile areas in Sonoma such as Russian River, Sonoma Valley and Los Carneros – all located in the mid – and southern parts of the broader Sonoma County wine regions.

Proximity is only one factor for the notoriety of these southern regions.  The other factor contributing to their reputation is the name recognition many of these southern wineries have been able to build: Kistler, Ravenswood, Arrowood, Benziger, and so on.

Few wine lovers will recognize Fritz, Sbragia Family, or Goldeneye, yet these are wineries with either a long pedigree or associations with other well-known properties.    For instance, Fritz is one of the first gravity-fed wineries built into a mountain – in the 1970’s.  Sbragia is a new venture of Ed Sbragia, famed, long-time winemaker at Beringer in Napa Valley.  Goldeneye is the Mendocino-based Pinot Noir operation of the Duckhorn family, also well-known for quality Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon wines, in Napa.

All of this is to say there is a lot to see and do if you are a wine tourist and have some time to take the roughly 160 km drive north form San Francisco. It is very worthwhile.

We booked a room at a small fashionable bed and breakfast at the top end of Sonoma County at the edge of the village of Cloverdale and used this as our base for three days, travelling south then north from the base as our itinerary dictated.

For readers who might still be skeptical about the effects of terroir on grape selection, grape growing and winemaking there could be no better demonstration than our experience in northern California.

Dry River Creek is hot and dry – appropriately named.  The terrain is hilly with many valleys and the hillsides feature scrub where vines are not planted.  There are a lot of vines.  The Dry River Creek American Viticultural Area (AVA) is big with 9300 ha under vine.  The stars are Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Because of the heat and the dry conditions vines are stressed and with careful vineyard management wines of enormous colour depth and flavor intensity can be produced. I have never enjoyed Zinfandel, generally finding its wines to be over-ripe, blousy and monochromatic in every way.  The Zins I tasted at Seghesio and Sbragia were razor sharp in their fruit, acid, tannin structure: big, but elegant and complex, all.

Mendocino, on the other hand, might have been a different planet from Dry River Creek.  First, reaching Mendocino required travel up and over a high, twisting ridge road into the Yorkville Highlands zone and eventually into the cool-climate district of Anderson Valley.  This valley was made famous when Champagne house, Roederer, opened a sparkling wine operation here –not in Carneros – in 1982.

The rolling hills and deep valleys are endless, the morning fog from the nearby ocean creates a pastoral and moist setting and the growing season is long and gentle.  Anderson Valley is the perfect home for Pinot Noir, Gewürztraminer, Riesling and marijuana.  The valley, north of the village of Boonville, is home to countless grow-ops. Recent reports estimate illegal marijuana accounts for some 2/3’s of the Mendocino County economy – leaving wine accountable for the remaining 1/3, as not much else seems to happen in this extremely rural place.

We visited several properties but the stand outs were, in alphabetic order: Ferrari-Carano, Fritz, Goldeneye, Navarro, Roederer, Sbragia Family and Seghesio.  I will write about the wine highlights next issue.

In the meantime, the conclusion from this excursion: take the road-less-travelled.  It is well worth the detour.

à bientôt…

Copyright© W. John Switzer 2003 – 2011.

Book review – The Finest Wines of California

The World of Fine Wine (WFW) is a magazine for thoughtful wine enthusiasts, launched in the U.K. in 2004.  It is a quarterly journal and features long articles written by an all-star cast of writers who know wine and happen to write very well about the subject.  These people are not journalists but rather skilled writers who have immersed themselves in the world of wine, often with very specialized areas of interest which they constantly study and interpret.  Many of these individuals started as editors and migrated into wine writing as a second stage in their careers. Most are full time in their pursuits. Most also happen to have been regional chairs at DWWA this past week.

One of these writers is Stephen Brook, a specialist in the wines of Bordeaux and California. Not a bad selection of regions, n’est-ce pas?  Stephen has written many wine and travel books over the past 30 years and these works are considered authoritative and highly readable.  He is a wine judge, an educator and a contributor to several wine journals, including WFW.  Stephen’s career followed the path I described above: he was educated at Cambridge, moved to the United States where he was an editor at the Atlantic Monthly and two publishers for several years.  He returned to England and continued to edit for a time before becoming a full-time writer in the early 1980’s.

Brook has authored a new title, The Finest Wines of California, released earlier this year by the University of California Press.  This is the most recent in a series of The Finest Wines of… books commissioned by WFW.  Other titles in the series include studies of Tuscany, Champagne and Bordeaux. In all cases true subject matter experts have been engaged to assemble the content for these titles and each book is commendable for its precision and packaging.  This is a series to watch, for general readers, travelers and students.

Over the past several years a number of books have been written that cover specific zones of California. This book is the first in many years which examines the state as a whole.  In my mind this is an overdue book – measured by the outdated California space in my wine bookcase – and it does what it has to do.  It addresses the history of the region.  It speaks extensively to the culture and the regulatory environment, such as it is. Brooks subtly makes it clear these topics are related when one considers California.  There is also an overview on winemaking, on varietals and the final chapter of the introductory section discusses evolving style in the region.

The reader then travels through the sub regions (Mendocino, Napa, Sonoma, Sierra Foothills, etc.) starting with a short description of distinctive aspects of the sub-region, followed by brief profiles and tasting notes for a personal selection of producers.  Some 80+ wineries are covered (including the iconoclastic, Sean Thackrey who is truly hors zone…).

I should explain the format of The Finest Wines of…books.  Each opens with an overview section which covers the context of the region under study: history, geography, social and cultural context, grape growing, winemaking and trends.  This overview delivers in the style readers expect in WFW and it sets the stage for the producer commentary which follows the overture.  While the structure is formulaic, the publisher intervention seems to end here. Content is the writer’s domain. I spoke to Stephen at the recent Decanter World Wine Awards judging and he was very clear that the selection of the producers is his, as are his remarks.

This book is exceptional.  It is well-written.  It is informative. It is readable and entertaining.  It features outstanding photography by Jon Wyand. It makes one want to get on a plane and go to the Golden State for an extended tasting tour. It paints a bullish picture for California and makes all of us who complain about California wine prices nod in agreement… now we understand (or at least we are empathic).  Land is in limited supply and is expensive, driven up by wealthy buyers who have the money and ego to spend what they have to, to acquire the property they covet. It translates into higher cost wines.

While Stephen is clearly a Cali-phile it is noteworthy that he calls it as he sees it.  He is matter-of-fact in tone throughout, even when waxing about wineries he likes. He gives you the information, sometimes unvarnished and lets you draw your conclusions. He calls some pricing practices garagisme, not a compliment. He is skeptical of the whole concept of AVA’s (American Viticultural Areas, designated by regulation) especially considering California still has to figure out what does best where (some call it terroir…).

Stephen is not judgmental and his style makes his thesis believable and one you accept: California is what it is.  Don’t compare it to Bordeaux.  It has its own styles and culture and the wines are of indisputably high quality as winemaking has evolved and as close interaction between grower and winemaker has become the norm. Don’t try to make it something that it can never be.  Rather, revel in its constant journey and as it becomes better along the way.

He is funny, as when he describes the beautiful and delicate Delia Viader as “…no Napa trophy wife”, going on to describe the number of advanced degrees she has from Berkeley and MIT. The editor in me would suggest there is a missing mere just after the no.

I believe this book is important and there is one fundamental reason for my conclusion: it is written by someone who is not American.  This said, Stephen has worked in the USA. He has travelled to California for many years.  He has tasted thousands of wines – in Bordeaux and in California.  He is knowledgeable but he is also arm’s-length.  He tells the story of California without a hype-driven agenda.  These factors make the book credible and make it one any wine-lover should read.

à bientôt…

Copyright© W. John Switzer 2003 – 2011.