Thursday, February 25, 2010

Please, Anything But Another Chardonnay

Specific wines come in and out of vogue every few decade. There’s been much debate about the movie Sideways’ impact on Pinot Noir and Merlot sales.

Argentina has re-introduced the world to Malbec, Chile to its Carmenere, and Australia to big, fruity styles of Shiraz. South Africa wine is emerging as ‘the next big thing.”

White Zinfandel helped launch the American wine industry. Chardonnay is now the dominant white varietal in the U.S.

But before all of these trends was perhaps one of the most versatile of all white wine grapes, Chenin Blanc. Chenin Blanc dominated California’s white wine scene until the late 1970s. The grape can produce wonderful dry table wines, sparkling wines, age-worthy wines, and even rich dessert wines.

Chenin Blanc is great by itself or with light foods. It pairs well with light fish dishes, salads, and like many others I love it with some cheese. The wine often has floral characteristics along with honey, peach, and melon notes. It is aged in stainless steel instead of oak to produce a light and easy-to-drink wine that almost anyone can enjoy. It’s relatively low in alcohol with modest to sometimes strong acidity.

The growth of the California wine market in the 80s and 90s almost killed off Chenin Blanc. Critics would say California killed off Chenin Blanc because the wines became sweet, too thin and just not very interesting.

A recent trip to two sizable wine shops found only two choices for California Chenin Blanc.

The grape remains celebrated in its birthplace, the Loire Valley in France. Keep in mind French wines are identified by geography and not the grape, I’d advise any wine drinker to try a French Vouvray or Saumur.

I tasted my first Vouvray in an Italian wine bar in Florence just a few weeks ago. Vouvray is a small wine-producing region in Loire that makes a delicious and rich Chenin Blanc. The wine can be aged with an incredibly rich and smooth-textured result. I drank a 1996 Domaine Freslier Vouvray with soft French goat cheese that was one of the best pairings I’ve ever enjoyed.

The Saumur region makes a bigger, drier Chenin Blanc that might please red wine drinkers. It is perfect for food with a stronger minerality than the Vouvray wines I’ve recently sampled.

The wonderful thing about these Chenin Blanc wines is the affordability. You can find great examples under $15 at most wine stores. As noted, you may have more success searching for a French Vouvray or Saumur than a California Chenin Blanc.

Howard’s Picks:
Dry Creek 2007 Chenin Blanc
– This is one of the easiest to find California Chenin Blancs. I picked up a bit of apricot on the nose with a mildly acidic finish. I thought it was thin at mid-palate but worth a try. You can find the wine at $9-$12. Bonny Doon is a producer often cited for its great version of this wine. I bought a bottle I will be blogging but haven’t tried yet.

Remy Pannier 2008 Vouvray – This was a light colored wine with a beautiful nose. The richness of flavor will grab your attention. This wine is widely available and a great introduction to Chenin Blanc. It ranges $13-$16.

Domaine des Hauts de Sanziers 2008 Saumur – A strong nose of lemon and pear make you sit up and take notice of this $14.95 wine. It has tremendous balance between flavor and acidity.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Political Dollars Determine What You Drink

If you love hazelnuts the best Oregon and Washington state producers would be happy to ship you some.

Whether it’s fruit from Florida, books from Amazon, or outdoor clothing from L.L. Bean – those companies will be happy to ship to your front step.

But if you want wine, just start banging your head against the wall now. Wine shipping laws vary from state to state, are contradictory, and unfair.

And one of the dirty secrets is the amount of money state legislators pocket from those wanting to keep the system in place.

Most states are governed by three-tier systems. Nearly all wine is sold producer to wholesaler to retailer. In other words, wholesalers have complete say over what product you can buy off the retail shelf not to mention the additional mark-up in price.

The laws concerning direct shipment to your door are even more convoluted. I was in an Oregon winery in April wanting to buy a case of wine but they couldn’t direct ship it to my home because they do have an Indiana wholesaler. I feel obligated to point out that you read the previous sentence correctly.

But lets’ go back to that dirty little secret.

Grape Sense runs in eight different Indiana communities. I looked up six or seven legislators from the varying communities, not everyone, and found every single lawmaker had accepted campaign contributions from wholesale distributors. As a matter of fact, it seems if you’re in the general assembly you’re guaranteed at least $500 from the booze lobby every campaign cycle. And if your legislator is in leadership, the dollar figure will be higher.

But don’t take my word for it! Check your Indiana legislator’s record at

Every Indiana legislator I researched had contributions from one or more of the major wholesalers.

Legislators consistently repeat the incredibly inane argument promulgated by the wholesalers about “keeping alcohol out of the hands of minors.”

There has never been a single complaint, arrest, or incident of an underage person trying to buy a nice Cabernet for his or her Friday night binge. No, they find someone a bit older to buy their booze at the corner liquor store. Which seems to be the bigger problem?

By the way, to buy booze online you have to have a credit card – something most of us understand.

Between 2000 and 2009 alcohol wholesalers contributed more than $66 million to state campaigns. In Indiana since 2000, wholesalers contributed a minimum of $203,000 in even-numbered election years. They really twisted some arms in 2004 stuffing Hoosier legislator’s pockets with $678,389. (

What can you do? There is an Indiana website with regular updates and calls to action at

But you can have an impact talking and writing to your state representative and senators. These laws are 70 years old and don’t protect consumers they just inhibit free enterprise. It won’t change overnight, but it starts by educating wine lovers about the self-serving interests who control what you can buy.

Howard W. Hewitt, Crawfordsville, writes regularly about wine. Read his blog at Contact him at: