Wine of the week: McManis Viognier 2016

mcmanis viognierThe McManis viognier is $10 Hall of Fame quality – a reminder that California can produce great cheap wine

California viognier is infamous for being heavy, overoaked, and too alcoholic, lacking grace and subtlety. So how does the McManis viognier taste completely different – and for just $10?

Because the McManis family still cares about making great cheap wine. Others may have gone over to the dark side, but the McManis viognier ($10, purchased, 13.5%) remains a symbol of what California once was – quality wine at a fair price.

The 2016 viognier remains fresh and interesting, with ripe, juicy apricot fruit, an almost oily mouth feel, and a stone fruit pit finish. In this, it’s classic New World viognier, a little less overwhelming than its French cousins from the Rhone, but still heavy enough that it’s a food wine.

I drank it with a cornbread tamale pie made with chicken and tomatillo sauce, and I couldn’t have asked for a better pairing. It would also work with roast chicken (and add some dried apricots) or any post-modern salad with fresh stone fruit.

Highly recommended, and the year’s first candidate for the 2020 Cheap Wine of the Year. The 2017 is the current vintage, but there is plenty of 2016 on store shelves.

Winebits 576: Free delivery, Dry January, booze moderation

free deliveryThis week’s wine news: Direct-to-consumer wine must solve the free delivery problem, plus Dry January in an age of booze moderation

The problem of free delivery: The latest numbers show that direct-to consumer wine sales – from the winery to the wine drinker, without a retailer – have increased again in an otherwise flat market. Of course, direct to consumer still represents a tiny part of the wine market, in the low single digits. And what’s holding direct sales back? One study suggests it’s charging for delivery: Shoppers “increasingly expect free delivery of items they purchase on-line. … 75 percent of the roughly 3,000 U.S. adults polled want delivery to be free even on orders less than $50, up from 68 percent a year ago.” The story goes into fascinating detail about how expensive free shipping is for the retailer – it loses about $2 on every delivery – and that consumers will pay only $1.40 for delivery. The study doesn’t address wine specifically, but the points are well made.

Dry January: Booze drinkers who don’t imbibe for a living are increasingly taking the month of January off, a fascinating development in the wake of of the slowdown in worldwide alcohol consumption. The link, from Self magazine, notes that Dry January is an opportunity to “reevaluate your relationship with alcohol.” This is an equally fascinating turn of phrase, since it implies that even moderate drinkers may be drinking too much and will benefit from giving up booze. I’ve noticed it on the blog — visitor numbers are down about one-third this month. Which raises an even more fascinating question: How did we ever get to this point?

Marketing to non-drinkers: Ad Age reports that Dry January, as well as other trends toward less drinking, “is forcing bars, restaurants and alcohol brands to adapt. More low- and no-alcohol products are in development, and some, like Heineken’s new no-alcohol 0.0 beer, are already hitting store shelves. Drinking establishments, meanwhile, are adding fancier non-alcoholic cocktails, or mocktails, to their menus as they look to keep their drink revenues flowing.” Again, how did we get to this point? And why does no one in the wine business seem to notice?

Expensive wine 116: Hedges Family Estate La Haute Curvee 2014

Hedges La Haute Cuvee.The Hedges La Haute Cuvee is top-notch Washington state cabernet sauvignon

Hedges Family Estate has been part of the good fight for quality wine, transparency, and fair value for years. Its $13 CMS red and whites are well made and almost always worth buying, and the Wine Curmudgeon enjoys tasting its more expensive wines, like the Hedges La Haute Cuvee whenever I get a chance.

Hence, my anticipation when I opened the Hedges La Haute Cuvee ($50, sample, 13.5%). It’s Washington state caberent sauvignon that speaks to terroir and the difference between the state’s Red Mountain appellation and those in California and France. It’s not as rich and opulent as a Napa Valley caberent, nor as taut and firm as a great red Bordeaux. It’s different – and that’s the joy, for all wine is not supposed to taste the same.

Look for lots of black fruit (blackberry?), though aging has mellowed the fruit’s power a bit; some baking spices (cinnamon?) and even a intimation of cocoa; beautifully soft and integrated tannins, and a fine balance. One key to this wine: aging in older oak, to complement the fruit instead of overwhelming it. This is a wine that has aged magnificently, and should continue to do so for at least another five to seven years.

Pair this with red meat (I drank it with homemade mushroom and pecan sausage), and enjoy what Washington state has learned about making top-notch red wine.

Mini-reviews 177: Total Wine and Aldi private label, plus a gruner veltliner

Total WineReviews of wines that don’t need their own post, but are worth noting for one reason or another. Look for it on the fourth Friday of each month.

Palma Real Verdejo 2017 ($10, purchased, 12%): This Spanish white blend is a Total Wine private label that tastes like it’s supposed to — tart and lemony, simple but not stupid. It looks to be some sort of knockoff of the Marques de Cacera verdejo, but is better made and more enjoyable. Highly recommended.

Provinco Bianco Grande Alberone 2017 ($9, purchased, 13%): This Italian white blend, which includes chardonnay, is more Aldi private label plonk. There is little varietal character, save for some chardonnay mouthfeel. Otherwise, it’s thin and bitter.

Weingut Berger Grüner Veltliner 2017 ($12/1 liter, purchased, 12%): Yet another Wine Curmudgeon attempt to understand why so many wine hipsters recommend gruner veltliner, an Austrian white. As my pal Jim Serroka said, and he doesn’t pay much attention to wine, “it’s thin and watery.” Look for a little citrus fruit and not much else.

Familia Bastida Tempranillo 2016 ($10, purchased, 13.5%): Another top-quality Total Wine private label – a Spanish tempranillo that is varietally correct with soft cherry fruit, a hint of spice, not too much oak, and all surprisingly integrated.

A tale of two Italian wines, one of which tastes like it came from New Zealand

Italian winesTwo Italian wines from a Big Wine company, but only one of them tastes like it came from Italy

This is where we are in the wine business in 2019 – two Italian wines from the same Big Wine company, one of which is varietally correct, terroir-driven, and a pleasure to drink, while the other tastes like it was put together by a marketing company and is about as Italian as a pair of panty hose. Why does anyone think this will advance the cause of wine?

The wines are from Zonin1821, which owns nine Italian producers (as well as one of the best wineries in the U.S., Barboursville Vineyards in Virginia). Zonin1821 is best known for its $13 Zonin Prosecco, a pleasant enough bottle for a $13 Prosecco. But many of its wines are interesting and well worth drinking, and there are many worse Big Wine companies.

The insolia white wine ($14, sample, 12.5%), made by Zonin1821’s Feudo Principi di Butera subsidiary in Sicily, is Big Wine done right. The insolia grape is native to Sicily, and it’s not necessarily easy to work with. But the Butera is all should be – tart green apple fruit, lots of spice and almond, an almost stony finish and even some green herbs. It’s Hall of Fame quality, a white wine that is neither chardonnay nor sauvignon blanc and a reminder of how much value Sicilian wines can deliver. This is seafood wine – risotto with shrimp, perhaps?

Which brings us to the panty hose. The second wine is a sauvignon blanc from Zonin1821’s Ca Bolani in northern Italy’s Fruili region. Italian sauvignon blanc has long taken a back seat to pinot grigio, which probably explains why the Ca Bolani ($14, sample, 12.5%) tastes the way it does. Or, as a friend said when she drank it, “Why did you open this wine? You know I don’t like New Zealand sauvignon blanc.”

Which is exactly what it tastes likes – big, huge smacking gobs of grapefruit. It’s a well made wine, and there is even a little something trying to peek out from behind the grapefruit. And $14 isn’t a bad price. But none of that really matters, since it raises a larger question: Why would I want to buy Italian sauvignon blanc that tastes like it came from New Zealand? Isn’t that what New Zealand sauvignon blanc is for? Shouldn’t Italian wine taste like it came from Italy?

Apparently not. These days, the goal seems to be to make all wine taste the same, so it will be easier to market. Because Big Wine. Hopefully, no one at Butera will realize this and turn the insolia into Paso Robles chardonnay. Because then I would have another reason to worry about the future of the wine business.

Wine of the week: Our Daily Red 2017

our daily redOur Daily Red is an enjoyable $10 California red blend

The wine world may be convinced that the only way to sell dry red wine is to sweeten it, but that’s not a problem for the company that makes Our Daily Red, a California red blend.

In fact, Our Daily Red ($10, purchased, 12.5%) is so dry it’s almost old-fashioned – tart, rustic, and fruity, the kind of red wine that was common until improved winemaking technology made it possible to fix those “flaws” with a nod and wink. Plus, the blend includes the legendary ruby caberent grape, once common in California wine but today mostly interesting only to wine geeks.

In this, Our Daily Red will make some people shake their head and wonder at its inclusion as a wine of the week. But understand that it’s not a cocktail, but a food wine – red sauce, pizza, cheeses, sausages and any combination thereof. Look for lots of dark red fruit and just enough tannins peeking through the tartness.

One other note: The producer says it doesn’t add sulfites to its wine; take that as you will. It’s a surprisingly acidic wine if that’s the case, though I have a feeling unripe grapes are used to make up the difference.

Winebits 575: Prohibition and the Klan, Oregon wine, Millennials and wine

Prohibition and the KlanThis week’s wine news: How the Ku Klux Klan supported Prohibition, plus Oregon tightens its wine label laws and Millennials are abandoning wine

Prohibition and the Klan: Lisa McGirr, writing in the New York Times, offers that Prohibition was about more than religious, anti-drinking fervor and trying to protect working families from the evils of early industrialization. In addition, “anti-liquor crusaders found a powerful new ally in the so-called second Ku Klux Klan. … the organization snowballed after 1920 in the Midwest and West … [and] drew in a bumper crop of new recruits with their anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant, white supremacist message. … the anti-liquor crusaders ushered in the mixed-sex, alcohol-laced, night-life leisure Americans have known ever since.” She describes one incident in the early 1920s in southern Illinois (where I later worked as a young newspaperman) that led to repeated violence, 14 deaths, and the National Guard.

Defining Oregon wine: The Oregon wine industry had to fend off a major challenge from an important California producer in 2018; the latter tried to label his California-made wine as “Oregon” in defiance of federal regulations. The Oregon legislature, not satisfied with what it saw as a tardy and insufficient federal response, will consider “a measure aimed at preventing out-of-state winemakers from hijacking the names and reputations of certain growing areas.” This dispute is not as wine geeky as it sounds. Rather, it speaks to the growing power and hubris of many large producers, who see bending the law to their advantage as just another way to do business.

Bye, bye Millennials: The Wine Curmudgeon and the annual SVB wine report aren’t the only ones who have noticed younger people don’t much care about wine. The Wine Intelligence US Landscapes 2019 report “found there was a ‘marked decline’ in the frequency that wine (and alcohol generally) was drunk among people aged under 35, with around 3 million people aged 21-35 falling out of the category.” Said the Wine Intelligence CEO: “As a category we need to realize we are in a pitched battle for the hearts and minds of the next generation. They are becoming less connected with alcohol generally, for a variety of health and lifestyle reasons. … This report should be seen as a wake-up call to our industry’s biggest and most exciting wine market.’ ”