Category:Wine news

Robert Mondavi: 1913-2008

image I was tasting wine on Friday with Joe Briggs of Napa’s August Briggs Wines when we heard that Robert Mondavi had died. “It’s the end of an era,” said Briggs. I nodded, and said: “Let me ask you something. Would we even be here now if wasn’t for Mondavi? Not just us tasting, but this place” — and I gestured at the wine bar where I meet visiting winemakers — “and everyone here?”

Briggs didn’t have to wait to answer. “No,” he said. “None of this — us, the other people, this place — would be here if it hadn’t been for Robert Mondavi.”

It’s easy to overestimate the importance of famous people when they die. If nothing else, it’s part of paying respect. But that’s not the case for Mondavi, who truly was the giant that his obituaries say he was. Mondavi had a hand in almost every major development in the wine world in the last 40 years. He believed California wine could be some of the best in the world, and his perseverance helped California become what it is today. Napa and Sonoma are among the greatest wine regions in the world, rivaling anything in France or Italy.

But that was only part of what Mondavi did. HIs Woodbridge line was among the first grocery store brands that offered quality at a fair price, helping wean entry-level consumers off poorly-made jug wine. He took his company public in 1993 and then sold it a decade later, both presaging major trends in the business. He was also ahead of his time when it came to family squabbles, extravagant excess, the spotlight of celebrity, and cult wines — and these things, too, are all part of today’s wine world.

Perhaps most importantly, Mondavi understood marketing at a time when most California winemakers didn’t even know it existed (and many, sadly, caught up in scores and the Wine Magazines, still don’t). In the late 1960s, Mondavi’s sauvignon blanc wasn’t selling, so he changed the name to fume blanc. Fume was easier to pronounce, and sales improved dramatically.

In all of this, Mondavi’s central theme was that Americans should drink wine, that it should replace iced tea and soft drinks at the dinner table. In this, he succeeded. When I grew up in the 1960s in a comfortable middle class suburb, wine was an exception — both at home and in restaurants. Today, U.S. wine consumption is at record highs, and even family-style chain restaurants have wine lists. When I was in college, it was a big deal to take a girl to dinner and order imported beer. Somehow, I don’t think Lowenbrau would do the trick anymore..

This culture, this lifestyle, this emphasis on wine — it’s Robert Mondavi’s doing. Others played a role, of course, but without Mondavi, Joe Briggs is right. We wouldn’t be here.

Cordon Bleu students turn wine critics

We do two tastings in my Cordon Bleu wine class — 10 or so red wines and 10 or so white wines. We talk about the flavors of the wines, about pairing them with food, and the differences in varietals across countries and regions.

So why not let them write about what they taste? (And a tip ‘o the wine glass to Ruth Reynard, with Cordon Bleu’s corporate parent, who jostled the Wine Curmudgeon into the Digital Age on this one.)

Hence LCB Anti-Wine Snobs, where the students blog about the wines. They picked the name, they designed the site, and they did the writing. I did a bit of editing and offered some technical advice. Otherwise, it’s all theirs.

And nicely done, too.

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? The Wine Establishment strikes back:  Last week, I noted Alice Feiring’s criticisms of California wine, in which she called much of it “over-alcoholed, over-oaked, overpriced and over-manipulated.” Turns out she is a borderline Luddite and an ultra-conservative, says Matthew DeBord, formerly of the Wine Spectator. DeBord’s rebuttal is worth reading, if only because he lumps every single person who disagrees with him into the category of un-young, uncool and unhip. It’s such an over the top performance that I actually feel sorry for him. DeBord also uses the word prelapsarian and the word sucks in the same essay, which is not an easy thing to do.

? Sommeliers as sex symbols: Not quite as silly as wine writers as sex symbols, but sill enough. (We’ll pause now for a giggle, thinking of the Wine Curmudgeon with a stubbled face and an $800 Italian blazer). Nevertheless, I will pass this on from a Los Angeles publicist, plugging a forthcoming wine event: “They ?re hot. They ?re smart. They work for Batali, Fraser and Myers. They can tell the difference between an Austrian or Washington Riesling with a sniff. They ?re all under 35. … Wine & Spirits magazine will introduce 10 of the city ?s brightest young wine experts to a Gen Y group of wine lovers. ” Thank God, because we know no one who isn’t Gen Y can know anything about wine.

? Another example of why our liquor laws are crazy: The California liquor cops have told a home wine event organizer that they will raid his festival if he holds it. The details are complicated, but what it comes down is that amateurs aren’t allowed to hold wine competitions in California, though professionals are. Says one home winemaker: “”If that’s the case, then just about every county fair and club across the state is breaking the law.”

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? Aussie wine take takes an import hit: It’s not news the historically weak U.S. dollar is hurting foreign wine producers. But what is news is that the strong Australian dollar is making imports cheaper Down Under, and clobbering the Australian wine business from that direction. Imports from Chile, South Africa and Argentina will rise 50 percent this year, says a government study. Fosters Wine Estates, which sends brands Like Greg Norman, Lindemans, and Rosemount to the U.S., says that a one cent rise in the value of the Australian dollar against the US costs it A$3.2 million in revenue (about US$3.04 million). The Aussie dollar has risen 10 cents since the middle of December.

? Another shot at Robert Parker: This, from the food writer Alice Feiring: “Forget ‘Eureka,’ the new state motto can well be: ‘Anything worth doing is worth overdoing.’ Today’s California wines are overblown, over-alcoholed, over-oaked, overpriced and over-manipulated.” Sounds like the Wine Curmudgeon, doesn’t she? Feiring, whose forthcoming book is called The Battle for Wine and Love — Or How I Saved the World from Parkerization, doesn’t mince words. She rips some of California’s best-known winemakers, including Helen Turley, and even gets a dig in at a Texan named Michael Stewart, who owns Napa’s Stewart Cellars.

? Texas wines in Smart Money: Wine writer Raymond Sokolov praises Llano Estacado, Pheasant Ridge and Woodrose in the current issue of Smart Money (which isn’t available on-line.). It also discusses the three-tier distribution system, and how difficult it is to get Texas wines in places out of Texas. One correction, though: Sokolov identifies Llano as a boutique producer, which it isn’t. In fact, it makes 100,000 cases a year and is the state’s second biggest producer.

A look at Colorado wine, part I

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This is the first of two parts looking at Colorado wine. Today is  an overview, and Monday is a look some of the wines.

Guy Drew, who owns the self-named winery outside of Cortez in southwestern Colorado, insists the high desert in that part of the state will eventually produce world-class wines. And he isn ?t alone in that optimism, either. Talk to growers and winemakers throughout Colorado, from Grand Junction in the west to the Front Range in the east, and you ?ll hear the same thing. Colorado is a wine phenomenon waiting to happen.

Says Horst Caspari, the state viticulturist: ?One day, we ?ll be so popular, you ?ll see Hollywood celebrities buying land here and opening wineries. ?

Continue reading

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? Now that’s a bribe:  Tip o’ the wine glass to Dave McIntyre, who passed this along. Wine magnate Bernard Magrez has outraged a group of journalists by offering each of them a Cartier wristwatch worth more than $2,600. The writers attended a wine lunch and got a bag when they left that had a press kit and a box with the watch, which most did not open until they had left the restaurant. Decanter, which ran the story, reports that that the majority of watches have been returned.

? Wine writers hall of fame: Silly, I know, but there it is — the first inductees will be honored June 16. (No word on whether they will receive pricey Cartier watches.) The group includes Italian specialist Burton Anderson; Hugh Johnson of World Atlas of Wine fame; Edward McCarthy, the co-author of many of the Wine for Dummies books; the Robert Parker; Frank Prial of the New York Times; the Jancis Robinson; and Kevin Zraly, whose Windows on the World is probably the best introductory book about wine. Posthumous inductees are pioneer wine writers Alexis Lichine and Frank Schoonmaker.

? Rolling Stones get into the wine business: Specifically, the band has has signed a licensing agreement with a Canadian icewine producer. The product, to be called Sympathy for the Devil, will retail for about C$125 (which is about US$125). The winery plans to do a red and white with the band, as well.