Category:Regional wine

The Texas wine revolution

Texas wineTexas wine has changed so much in the past 25 years – and yes, usually for the better – that it’s sometimes difficult to believe how far we’ve come.

This story, The Vine Frontier, ran in the July/August issue of Texas Journey magazine, and it neatly sums my 25 years tasting and writing about Texas wine. As I wrote:

“What is a new, especially in the past 10 years, is the acceptance that Texas wine is not California wine or French wine or Italian wine. It is, as Greg Bruni, Llano’s long-time winemaker, says, ‘Texas wine. And Texas makes the best Texas wine in the world.’ … This has been a surprisingly difficult concept for many in Texas to understand.”

The first generation of Texas producers thought we had to be the next Napa Valley, and didn’t realize it was enough to be the next Texas and produce distinctively Texas wine. The current generation of winemakers has a better grasp of this, and we’re seeing better quality wine made with grapes better suited to the Texas terroir – grapes from Europe’s warmest regions, like the southern Rhone in France, Rioja and Rias Baixas in Spain, and central and southern Italy. That means tempranillo, a red grape famous in Spain; viognier, a white from the southern Rhone; sangiovese, the red used to make Chianti; and vermentino, a white best known along Italy’s Mediterranean coast.

All is still not perfect, of course. Quality can improve and prices are too high, as producers struggle with economies of scale and limited distribution. And we’re still fighting the battle over Texas grapes; that is, that the industry can only flourish if we make Texas wine with Texas grapes, and not wine in Texas with grapes from California.

Finally, I got a number of emails from wine drinkers saying the story was welcome news, given how much they didn’t like the Texas labels they had tried. Several of the emails came from Californians who had moved to Texas, and didn’t understand why the wine here didn’t taste like it did there. Now, they wrote, they did.

More about Texas wine:
Kerrville 2015: We don’t need no stinkin’ brose
Texas wine at the crossroads, one year later

8 things I learned during my Colorado wine adventure

Colorado wine

That’s Warren Winiarski of Judgment of Paris fame on the far left, Doug Caskey of the Colorado wine board, Colorado wine writer Dave Buchanan, California wine writer Mike Dunne, and the WC. I don’t know why Doug and I are the only ones with hats.

The eight things I learned during my Colorado wine adventure.

1. The wine quality at the Colorado Governor’s Cup was the best I’ve seen since I judged the first one seven years ago. In fact, the improvement in Colorado wine was hard to believe – there were almost no wines that were so awful that drinking them made you fear for the future of regional wine. The best wines, mostly red blends, cabernet sauvignon, and cabernet franc, were elegant, structured, and well made. The improvement in quality is something my friends in Texas should pay close attention to.

2. Warren Winiarski, who made the winning cabernet sauvignon at the Judgment of Paris, spent two days after the competition visiting Colorado vineyards. Watching him with the winemakers and growers taught me that canopy management isn’t as boring as I thought it was, and I learned a lot to bring back to my students. Also, not everyone is happy when someone with more experience and more knowledge and more skill tells you things you don’t want to hear about how you’re growing grapes and making wine.

3. Colorado’s new grocery store wine law – if it survives the upcoming legal challenges – may be the model used to bring grocery store wine law to the rest of the country. It tries to strike a balance between small retailers, the state’s biggest and powerful independents, and the grocery store chains that will eventually dominate the market.

4. Spotting the wine writers in the hotel lobby is easy. We’re the old white guys reading the newspaper while we eat breakfast.

5. Flying on the state plane (that’s the aircraft in the background in the picture above) made me wish I never had to fly commercially again. Ever.

6. So the less said about American Airlines the better.

7. The acceptance of regional wine by those who don’t taste it regularly is wonderful to see. Mike Dunne of Sacramento, one of the most respected wine writers in the country, and Alder Yarrow of Vinography judged the competition and approached the wines with an openness that too many of my colleagues still don’t have.

8. There’s something about being in a vineyard at 6,500 feet that makes you forget about all the aggravation associated with doing this. Or with life, for that matter.

Photos courtesy of Kyle Schlachter.

Is this the end of For Sale in Texas Only?

For sale in Texas onlyA proposed change to federal wine label laws could mean the end for wine that says For Sale in Texas Only – a term that implies that a wine is local when it might be made with grapes from anywhere in the world.

The Treasury department’s tax and trade bureau announced this week that it wants to revise the regulations that allow a wine to carry For Sale in Only designation. In Texas, we call it FSTO – which stands for For Sale in Texas Only – but you’ll see FSO labels in every state: For Sale in Colorado Only, For Sale in Pennsylvania Only, and so forth.

Under the new rules, wines labeled FSO won’t be allowed to list the vintage or the grape it is made with, like cabernet sauvignon or chardonnay. Currently, FSO wines can list both and look local in almost every respect, save that they don’t have a state name or other appellation on the front label. The only clue that they aren’t local is a line in small type on the back label that says FSO, and that only wine writers, wine geeks, and winemakers understand.

FSO is sometimes used to circumvent appellation laws when the wine isn’t made with enough local fruit for it to have a state name. This is unfortunately common in regional wine, and has been an especial problem in Texas for the past decade or so, as the number of wineries has almost doubled and grape acreage hasn’t kept up.

That’s because appellation laws require that 75 percent of the grapes used to make the wine must come from that state for it to labeled Texas (or whatever). If a wine is made with less than 75 percent local grapes, it must use the word American on the front label, something producers don’t like to do because it’s obvious that the wine isn’t local. And what’s the point of local wine that isn’t local?

Hence the FSO label.

It’s important to note that FSO isn’t illegal and that many producers use it legitimately. The problem comes when it’s used to disguise non-local wine as local. That, apparently, was the impetus for the rules change – a Georgia winery selling an FSO wine made with Napa Valley grapes in North Carolina, and which caught the attention of a key Napa trade group and the Napa Valley’s U.S. congressman.

In fact, a spokeswoman for U.S. House Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif)., who chairs the Congressional wine caucus, emailed me to say that FSO in the Georgia case was “a TTB labeling loophole” and “works against strict and rigorous labeling rules to ensure that consumers know exactly what they are purchasing.”

The actual rules proposal is almost indecipherable unless you practice liquor law. My thanks to Austin attorney Kimberly Frost, who did her usual brilliant job in explaining it to me. The new rules will limit FSO wines to terms like red wine or white wine on the front label, in the hope that producers will use the more accurate American appellation so they can list the grapes and the vintage..

One irony to all this? The new FSO rules may give regional producers incentive to buy California bulk wine and put their label on it. That means  we could see more California wine sold by wineries in the other 47 — Texas-bottled Russian River pinot noir, anyone? That’s because the revisions will allow producers to use grape names and vintage on California bulk wine, which they couldn’t do if they bought California grapes or grape juice and combined them with local grapes to make FSO wine.

The tax and trade bureau is taking comments until Aug. 22, but there’s no time frame on when the rules will take effect. My guess, given how slowly the agency works, is that we won’t see anything until the middle of next year, and it could be even later than that.

 

Local wine matters — another hipster says so

local wine

“Local wine is super rad — and I have the booze-soaked road trip to prove it.”

It’s time to declare victory in local wine’s battle over whether local matters. Of course, it does. Yet another hipster wine type has said local is worth drinking.

This time, it’s author Dan Dunn, whose credits include Playboy. He has a book out this spring about local wine, and he told Bloomberg Business “At least right now, they’re not making wine anywhere in the United States better than California. Forty years from now? Things are going to look a whole lot different.”

Which made the Wine Curmudgeon smile. Who can argue with someone whose research for the book, “American Wino: A Tale of Reds, Whites and One Man’s Blues,” was described as a “booze-soaked road trip?” You don’t get much more hipster than that.

Several of Dunn’s choices are impressive — a Texas producer, Bending Branch and its infamous tannat, as well as Vermont’s Shelburne and Miletta Vista in Nebraska, which uses one of my favorite obscure grapes, brianna. His Virginia wineries are far from the best in that state, but they do allow him to write about politics. And Dunn is honest about quality in a way that too many of us who support local are afraid to be.

Know that my point here is not to be too flip, though a little flip and some irony is intended. Besides, anything that pushes drink local is most welcome, especially if it’s better than what we usually get for mainstream regional wine writing. And, of course, I’m jealous. When we did Drink Local Wine, no one wanted to give us a book deal and there wasn’t one booze-soaked road trip involved.

Texsom International Wine Awards 2016

Texsom International Wine AwardsHow much fun is it when one gets to judge regional wine at an important U.S. wine competition, and to do it with people who know just as much about regional wine as the Wine Curmudgeon does?

Lots and lots of fun, which is why I always enjoy judging the Texsom International Wine Awards (formerly The Dallas Morning News Wine Competition). The judges are matched with their specialties, so that I usually get to judge wine from the other 47 states, which I did again this year — Michigan, Arizona, Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, and Nevada among them.

And, as noted, the other judges are my panel were top-notch — Quebec’s Remy Charest, who knows as much about obscure Canadian grapes as anyone has a right to know; Madeline Triffon, an MS from Michigan; and Colorado’s Wayne Belding, another master sommelier and one of the best friends regional wine has.

More importantly, the quality of the wine continued its improvement. Some of the whites had their problems, but the reds were among the best I’ve judged in years, and we gave gold and silver medals to match. Particularly impressive were a Rhone-style blend from Arizona and a Bordeaux-style blend from Maryland, both golds. We judged the wines blind, so I don’t know what they were, but I’ll update when the results are announced.

The second day of judging wasn’t quite as much fun, when Remy and I did lots and lots of wine from the Lodi region in California. We held up, though, and much thanks to Paul Wagner of Balzac Communications and Ben Roberts, an MS in Houston who works for the distributor RNDC. They kept me on track when I wanted to run screaming from the room in the middle of judging 23 Lodi zinfandels that mostly tasted the same — lots of sweet fruit, little tannins or acidity to balance the fruit, and a mouth feel closer to dessert wine than table wine.

We also judged two rounds of Italian varietals from Amador County, an under-appreciated region in California, and the wines were mainly spot on. A barbera won gold, and I’ll update this as well.

2016 Virginia Governor’s Cup

Virginia Governors CupIt’s not the high quality of the wines that impressed me when I judged a preliminary round in the 2016 Virginia Governor’s Cup earlier this month. Rather, it was the consistency. There were almost no undrinkable wines among the five dozen or so wines we did, a far cry from the first time I did the competition in 2010.

If this is not unprecedented, it’s certainly rare in any state that’s not on the west coast. One of the biggest difficulties for regional wine, given that most local producers have too little experience and too little money, is consistency and improving toward that consistency. It’s not enough to make one great wine every three or four years; for regional wine to succeed, it must make drinkable wine every year. If it can do that, the great wines will follow on a regular basis.

And my panel saw that consistency earlier this month, allowing for the small sample size and that we judged blind. Especially impressive — but not surprising, given past experience — were the viogniers, where I though three of the five wines deserved gold medals (though medals won’t be awarded until the final judging in February). The other two were well worth drinking, too. Every wine was fresh and varietally correct, and even the two that had been oaked were nicely done. The oak complemented the wine, and was not its reason for being.

The half dozen cabernet francs, another Virginia specialty, were surprisingly fruity, without the elegance I have come to expect. But they were enjoyable and two were worthy of silver or gold meals.

Even those regional wines that usually fare poorly, like chardonnay and dry rose, were professional and competent. The former are usually under-ripe and over oaked, while the latter are usually just a mess. But though simple, they were drinkable, and that’s not damning with faint praise given the difficulty in making those wines drinkable.

This is the slow, steady improvement that we haven’t seen in Texas for several years, and is one reason why I despair about the Texas wine business. But if Virginia, Texas’ arch-rival, can do it, maybe we can be motivated to do it as well.

The Wine Curmudgeon’s Arizona wine adventure

arizona wineFive things I learned during a weekend of Arizona wine, where I visited six wineries and spoke at regional meeting of the American Wine Society:

? The technical quality of the wine was impressive, especially given how young the Arizona wine industry is. Allowing for the small sample size, the wines were clean, without flaws, and varietally correct. This is not often the case with regional wine, and that producers in Arizona are already able to do this speaks to how far they have come in a short time.

? The best grapes seem to be planted for the state’s terroir and climate, which is warm and mostly dry. This means Mediterranean varietals and not chardonnay, merlot, and cabernet sauvignon, something it took us more than 20 years to figure out in Texas. In this, many of the wines reflected the terroir, which surprised me based on what I’ve tasted in the past. Those had been hot, heavy, and not all that interesting. Especially impressive: the Caduceus Shinola ($25, sample, 13.4%), a red blend with tart cherry fruit and dusty tannins; the Stronghold chenin blanc ($20, sample, 13.5%), a little oily and with pear fruit; and the Fire Mountain Sky ($24, sample, 13.7%), a white blend that was fresh, simple, and enjoyable.

? The catch? The prices, of course, since the state doesn’t make enough wine to enjoy economies of scale. I love chenin blanc, but $20 is a lot of money for chenin. This is something everyone there knows, and say they’re working on.

? Having said all of that, Arizona faces tremendous challenges. First, it grows grapes at altitude, often more than 3,000 feet. There are only a handful of places in the world where this is done, and so there is little information or historical data about how to do it well. The growers are truly pioneers. Second, the state suffers from every problem imaginable, whether the dreaded Pierce’s Disease or late and early freezes. Deer eating grapes (also a serious problem in California) is common, too.

? Consumers want to know more about wine, and are happy when someone talks to them in language they understand. The 40 or so people who heard my speech were appreciative when I pointed out the emperor’s new clothes as it relates to wine, and the idea that we can buy quality for much less than $25 was a big hit. We bought five cheap wines and served them after dinner, and that there was tasty $10 Provencal rose was a revelation much appreciated.