Michael Wangbickler on December 16th, 2010

100% CorkIt seems that the cork industry have ruffled a few feathers of notable wine critics over their new marketing campaign. Several bloggers, whom I respect immensely, have taken exception to a series of videos and press release titled “Beware the Holiday Party Faux Pas: Wine Topped with Artificial Stoppers.” While I’m sure that the ads were supposed to be humorous, and may in fact be viewed that way by the average consumer, it’s riled up the experts.

And while I don’t personally take exception to the campaign, I can understand how it may offend some people. With any marketing campaign, there are risks. Sometimes, you need to break a few eggs to make an omelet. The trick is not to break the whole carton.

You can view the ongoing conversation by visiting Vinography, Fermentation, and The Wine Curmudgeon.

Disclosure: Apcor was once a client of Balzac Communications, though not mine personally.

Michael Wangbickler on December 10th, 2010

Reprinted from the St. Helena Star:

In a recent St. Helena Star/Napa Valley Vintners tasting, the top three Napa Valley petite sirahs were Three Clicks, B Cellars and Spellbound. The tasting was held in the Rudd Center at the Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena. Photo courtesy of Alan’s Studio on Main, St. Helena

The winegrape Durif is an interesting specimen. It is a red variety that usually produces tannic wines of deep color, with a spicy-plummy flavor profile. The grape is a cross between Syrah and Peloursin, and originated from the Rhône-Alpes region in eastern France. It is primarily grown in California, Australia, France, and Israel, but has also made recent in-roads in Washington, Maryland, Arizona, West Virginia, Chile, Mexico, and Ontario.

So, why is it that most Americans have never heard of the grape? Well, because it also goes by another name, petite sirah, which is the name that most producers give their wines.

Durif/Petite Sirah first came to California in the late 19th century and found an early home in the Livermore Valley, particularly at Concannon Vineyard. Eventually, it made its way into the other growing regions of California, including Napa Valley. Total California acreage of petite sirah peaked at around 14,000 by 1976, but steadily declined over the 15 years to a low of 1,400 acres in 1990. In recent years, due in part to a new-found appreciation of the grape, total vineyard acreage has climbed to roughly 7,500.

Petite sirah is often used for blending with zinfandel or cabernet to add color and structure, but it really shines when bottled as a single varietal. Petite sirah wines from Napa Valley are particularly good examples of how great they can be.

This is what over 25 winemakers, merchants and journalists discovered at the recent gathering of the St. Helena Star/Napa Valley Vintners Tasting Panel. The panel tasted through 18 different petite sirahs from Napa Valley. Needless to say, several individuals had purple teeth after all was said and done.

Three wines in particular stood out from the crowd: Three Clicks, B Cellars and Ballentine Vineyards.

The Three Clicks 2008 Napa Valley Petite Sirah ($35) displays a dense inky color with beautiful forward flavors of blackberry, blueberry, gingerbread, nutmeg, licorice, black pepper, vanilla, dried flowers, black tea, and a hint of leather. In the mouth, the wine exhibits a well-crafted balance with a fleshy mid-palate, soft tannins (for a petite sirah), and a complex finish. As a group, panelists felt this was a tremendously balanced and well-made wine.

The B Cellars 2008 Napa Valley Petite Sirah ($42) shows great fruit intensity with aromas/flavors of black plum, black cherry, black raspberry, cedar, molasses, cassis, violets, dark coffee, cola, cardamom, and a hint of chocolate. On the palate, it is lush and full bodied, with good structure and a creamy mouthfeel. This wine stood out for its long, lingering finish.

Ballentine Vineyards 2008 Napa Valley Petite Sirah ($24) is a deep purple color and exhibits a lot of dark blackberry, blueberry, black pepper, rose petal, sage, cocoa, vanilla oak, and toffee. The wine has a heavy body with firm, dusty tannins with good balance. The group liked this one for its complexity and richness.

As always, a discussion of the wines took place at the conclusion of the tasting with some poignant observations. Several winemakers expressed how surprised they were that the wines were so varietally consistent overall. They expected to see more variation. Alison Crary of Sterling Vineyards summarized the tasting as a “crash course on petite sirah.” Consequently, as a group, the wines showed very well.

That said, however, the panel was drawn to the younger wines in the tasting. While there were 2006 and 2007 vintage wines present, the 2008s as a whole were preferred. Hugh Davies of Schramsberg Vineyards made the point that the older wines seemed out of balance and lacked the vibrancy and youth of the 2008s. This led to a question by Eric Carpenter of the St. Helena Wine Merchants: “Do petite sirah wines lose their fruit too quickly?” To which most of the winemakers in the room agreed that the fruit does “fall off” with age. It was obvious from this discussion that the panel preferred their petite sirah fresh, lively and fruity.

In conclusion, David Stevens from 750 Wines probably summed it up best: “Why wait for it?” So, drink them while they are young, and enjoy!

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Michael Wangbickler on November 19th, 2010

The following article appeared in yesterday’s edition of the St. Helena Star. The Judgement of Paris was such an important event in the history of California wine, it is hard to imagine that it may never have happened. Read on to see what I mean.


‘The Judgment of Paris Revisited’ at Napa Valley Museum

Judgment of Paris Revisited

More than 175 people attended Napa Valley Museum’s recent event, “The Judgment of Paris Revisited.” Panelists were, from left, Mike Grgich, Warren Winiarski, Joanne Dickenson DePuy, George M. Taber and Jim Barrett. All five were involved in the original 1976 Paris tasting; the sixth, Steven Spurrier, could not attend the Oct. 30 event. Submitted photo

The year 1976 was a pivotal one for the Napa Valley. It marked a turning point in California as two wines from the Valley took top honors over several French rivals in a competition which later became known as the “Judgment of Paris.” While the impact of the event was unknown at the time, thanks to a brief mention in Time Magazine by George M. Taber, who was the only journalist in attendance, it soon became evident that California wine had established a beachhead on the world stage.

The two wines to take top honors were a chardonnay from Jim Barrett’s Chateau Montelena (made by Mike Grgich) and a cabernet sauvignon from Warren Winiarski’s Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. At a recent event at the Napa Valley Museum in Yountville titled “The Judgment of Paris Revisited,” members of the museum and community at large had the opportunity to hear a discussion between Taber, Winiarski, Barrett, and later, Grgich.

By now, many people, both inside and outside the wine business, know the story. Its notoriety is due, in part, to Taber’s book, “Judgment of Paris: California vs. France and the Historic 1976 Paris Tasting that Revolutionized Wine,” but also to the 2008 motion picture Bottle Shock. Taber’s book gives a comprehensive (and insider’s) look at the event and its impact on the wine world since. Forgiving the liberal artistic license with which all Hollywood producers/directors feel compelled to take with any subject, Bottle Shock was nonetheless a good story.

The whole saga started when British wine merchant Steven Spurrier decided to have a little contest between the best wines of California and France at his shop in Paris. It was, by any reckoning, a publicity stunt intended to bring more business to Spurrier’s store and wine school. His intention was to show how far California wines had come, but he never envisioned that they would best what he considered to be some of the world’s greatest wines.

What many people may not realize is that this key event in California wine history almost didn’t happen. In the spring of 1976, Spurrier and his wife, Bella, made the journey to Napa Valley to scout out the wine scene in this sleepy back-water region. He didn’t tell anyone he was coming, nor did he share what he was doing. He was so impressed with a dozen or so producers that he purchased (at full retail) several cases of wine to take back with him to France for the tasting. What he didn’t realize at the time is, under French law, he was unable to carry in more than two bottles of wine from outside the country.

Enter Joanne Dickenson DePuy. Joanne ran a business called Wine Tours International (WTI) which brought vintners from international wine regions to Napa Valley, and vice versa. It was DePuy who arranged Spurrier’s tour of Napa Valley, taking him from winery to winery. And, it was DePuy who would later save the day by helping get Spurrier’s purchased wines into France.

When he finally realized that he had an issue, Spurrier phoned DePuy to ask for her help. Coincidentally (some may say serendipitously) she was planning WTI’s first vintner tour to France a week later, led by none other than Andre Tchelistcheff, who many consider America’s most influential post-Prohibition winemaker. Also on that trip were Louis P. and Liz Martini, Andy and Betty Beckstoffer, Bob and Nonie Travers, Jim and Laura Barrett, Margrit Biever (soon to be Mondavi), Zelma Long, and Rene di Rosa, among others. Spurrier asked DePuy if she would take the wines with her group.

“Without thinking, I said, ‘Yes, of course,’” said DePuy. “I had no idea what that hastily made promise would involve. How could I get these wines to Paris? I couldn’t ask the people on the tour, already loaded with their own luggage, to hand carry two bottles each for 20 hours and through two different airports. Aside from it’s being bad for business, what if someone dropped one?”

So, she reached out to Larry Cahn at the Wine Institute to ask his advice. He suggested that she should be able to get the wines through French customs if she assigned two bottles to each person on the trip. She also contacted her TWA (remember TWA?) rep, Earl Hankin, with whom she’d been working on the tour for over a year. He promised to help. Although he had intended to fly with the group on their first leg from San Francisco to Boston, Hankin wasn’t able to join them. But, he did arrange for the wines to be transported.

Upon landing at Charles de Galle airport, DePuy and group met Spurrier in his trademark white suit; he was pushing a large cart. Together they waited for the porter to deliver the cases. “At the same time, I was keeping an eye out for my luggage among the bags that were being belched onto a roundabout from a long see-through tube,” said DePuy. “I spotted the cases – but not on the porter’s dolly. They were on the roundabout. And then I smelled it . . . wine … strong wine … a magnificent bouquet making its debut in Paris.” Fortunately, only one of the bottles broke, and there were duplicates.

Spurrier loaded the cases onto his cart, and with a smile, strolled off into the crowd unknowingly about the change the fortunes of Napa Valley wine forever.

If you like reading about the wine business from the Napa Valley perspective, you should consider subscribing to the St. Helena Star.

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The following article appeared in this morning’s edition of the St. Helena Star. It was an interesting tasting. While I didn’t mention it in the article, the tasting took place at the Epic Roasthouse in San Francisco. It was a very nice setting, and the food they served at lunch was excellent. I highly recommend it.

Vintners, media gather in San Francisco to taste Cakebread, Corison, Far Niente and Opus One

Photo by Julie Crafton

While vintners in Napa Valley have been growing grapes and making wine for century and a half, the last 10 years have seen an incredible amount of change and growth. The year 2000 marked the beginning of the first post-Phylloxera decade in the modern era. By 2000, most growers had pulled out all their diseased vines and replanted with heartier rootstock and more appropriate varieties of grapes. In essence, it was a “do-over” and gave most wineries and growers an incredible opportunity to leverage new knowledge and technologies to better their wines.

Ten years later, we begin to see the impact of their decisions on the quality of wines from Napa Valley. In a recent tasting conducted by the St. Helena Star and Napa Valley Vintners, journalists and winemakers had the opportunity to taste every vintage from 2001 to 2010 (yes, even this year) of four well-respected Napa wineries: Cakebread Cellars, Corison Winery, Far Niente Winery and Opus One. The winemakers present for each winery included Bruce Cakebread, Cathy Corison, Dirk Hampson, and Michael Silacci, respectively. All of these wineries and winemakers have been making wine for many years and have definitely put their experience to good use.

The goal of the tasting was not to rate one producer against another, but rather to compare vintages – to observe the differences from year to year. The general consensus was that the wines in each given vintage ranged in style but were consistent in quality with each vintage.

The group tried the wines in two separate flights, 2001 to 2005 and 2006 to 2010. The 2001s have aged beautifully, showing more red fruit than black with a demonstrated elegance. The 2002s exhibit nice balance and structure, with a perfumed delicacy. The 2003 vintage was a challenging year, similar to 1998 and is what Bruce Cakebread calls a “dark horse vintage.” The 2004s display tremendous ripeness and depth. The 2005s are plush, dense and rich.

Other than the 2006s, which are showing some bottle-age with graceful balance, the second group of wines stood out for their youth and exuberance. The 2007 vintage was a warm year which shows in its juicy ripeness. The 2008s have tight tannins and are in an awkward stage, but show great potential. The 2009s are dark and brooding, with texture and youth competing for dominance. Finally, the 2010s are just fun to taste.

“We’ve all gotten better,” said Cathy Corison, owner and winemaker at Corison Winery. Indeed, while the earlier vintages have held up very well, the later vintages seemed better balanced and more expressive.

Some of the improvement is due to maturing vineyards. “As vineyards get older, it generally drives up quality,” said Bruce Cakebread, president and chief operating officer at Cakebread Cellars. Much of it, however, is due to the experience the wineries and winemakers have gained over the past decade.

Several of the winemakers present emphasized that what they’ve learned during the past 10 growing seasons helped them get through the 2010 harvest.

“Two thousand ten has been the year of the tiger,” said Opus One Winemaker Michael Silacci, referring to the fact that the season was challenging due to very diverse weather, from a rainy spring to a relatively cold summer to drastic heat spikes before harvest. “In one season, we’ve had to rely on everything we’ve learned over the past 10.”

“Two thousand ten wouldn’t be a success if we hadn’t learned so much from the past decade,” replied Dirk Hampson, director of Winemaking and partial owner of Far Niente. “We’ve learned a lot from each other. Collectively and cooperatively, our touch and experience helped us get through this harvest.”

If you like reading about the wine business from the Napa Valley perspective, you should consider subscribing to the St. Helena Star.

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Michael Wangbickler on November 2nd, 2010

It's Alive!

It's Alive! It's Alive!

No, I’m not dead. I’m still very much alive and kicking. I have not, however, been very active on this blog for the past several months. This pretty much breaks one of my biggest rules: if you are going to do it, do it right and do it often. But, things don’t always work out as you’d like or expect.

The good news is that I’m busier than ever. I’ve been writing for clients and newspapers, attending conferences and events, etc. The bad news is that it takes away from activities such as this blog. But that’s okay. It’s reality. I’ll continue to update it as I can.

One of the points I like to make to folks I’m teaching about or giving advice on social media marketing, is that it is okay if you don’t do it. There are a lot of “experts” out there telling small wineries that they “have to” use social media to promote their wines. Yes, but what if you are the president of the company, winemaker, and chief bottle washer? You may be busy, I don’t know, making wine or something. Or, even better, you may be out trying to sell it. Is social media your highest priority? Is it selling more cases for you?

The thing is, social media can be a huge time suck if you aren’t careful. Regardless, it takes time to build online relationships and brand recognition. So, sometimes, your efforts might be better concentrated in other areas.

If you can make social media a priority, great! If not, don’t stress about it. Sometimes, reality just dictates that we shift priorities.

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