Friday was my final day teaching the introductory wine class at Dallas’ Cordon Bleu. As much as I enjoyed it — and I enjoyed it very much — the class was more work than I had time for. For one thing, it cut back on the Wine Curmudgeon’s wine drinking.
I’m going to write a longer piece about my experiences (that’s a hint to any magazine editors reading this who need a clever, well-written, thoughtful article), but I do want to offer these observations:
? Texas wine competition: One of the Wine Curmudgeon's favorite events to judge is the Lone Star International, held each year at about this time. It includes not only Texas wines, but entries from around the world. I can't judge it this year (I'm in Houston on another assignment), but I will check with a couple of pals to find out what tasted good and what won.
? Heavy metal wine: Just in case wine from the Rolling Stones isn't enough, how about this? Queensryche frontman Geoff Tate is going to make a red wine from Washington state, called Insania. Sigh. What's next? Fleetwood Mac white zinfandel?
? In a recession? Those of us wondering if we're officially in a recession need look no further than this news release, for a Brazilian rum called Leblon Cachaca. The release isn't on the web site, so I'll quote: "What's the cocktail of the 2008 recession? Many are pointing to the Caipirinha, the Brazilian national cocktail made with Cachaca, Brazil's national spirit. After all, who knows how to muddle through an economic crisis better than the Brazilians?" Glad we have that settled.
? Chinese wine drinkers: The price of high end wines just got a lot higher — or it will, if all those newly wealthy Chinese wine drinkers throw their money around the way the experts expect they will. Or, as Reuters so poetically put it: "[T]he potential of the huge China market as a flood of newly minted consumers there chase Western lifestyle trends." One of the first tests of the Chinese willingness to overpay for wine is a key auction in Hong Kong this week, where a case of 1945 Chateau Mouton Rothschild could sell for $160,000.
? Siberian merlot, anyone? Just in case some of you were still wondering how global warming would affect the wine world, there is this from The Associated Press: "[B]y 2050, the world's premier wine-friendly zones could shift as much as 180 miles toward the poles." So long France, hello Quebec. Somehow, if and when global warming arrives, I think we'll have more important things to worry about than the quality of Siberian wine.
? Robert Mondavi: Much was written when Robert Mondavi died a couple of weeks ago, but one of the best pieces of writing didn't appear until last week, Jon Bonne's retrospective in the San Francisco Chronicle. It asks a key question: In a world where family wineries are being replaced by corporate labels, and with California so very full of its accomplishments, who will carry forward Mondavi's mission?
My copy of the book, The Wine Trials, arrived last week (that's the Wine Curmudgeon on page XIII in the blind tasters credits). The Wine Trials, of course, is the 189-page effort from author and critic Robin Goldstein that shows that wine drinkers pay more attention to price than they do quality.
Two things struck me as I thumbed through the book:
? Baseball wine: How does Chipper Chardonnay sound? Or Cabernet Glavignon? They’re from a company called Charity Hop, which produces wines for charity using sports figures as the leverage. Chipper is Chipper Jones of the Atlanta Braves; the second wine is named after his teammate, Tom Glavine. Even Ernie Banks, Mr. Cub, has his own wine — 512 Chardonnay.
? Genetics and wine palates: The always erudite Dan Berger writes that genes may have as much to do with how we taste wine and what we like as anything else. For instance, do some people prefer sweet wine to dry wine because it’s part of their DNA, or is sweet vs. dry a learned behavior? It’s a fascinating essay — highly recommended.
? Aussies line up for Grange: This is one of the best known wines down under, a darling with the Wine Magazines and a label that always gets big scores. At the beginning of May, the winery sold all of its 2003 — about 9,000 cases — in one day. Asking price? About US $500 a bottle. The sale reportedly attracted a fair number of speculators, buying the wine to sell later at a profit.
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.
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.