Friday, September 23, 2011

Good Wine Will Cure National Syrah Sales

There is a joke in the wine world that goes something like this: ‘What’s the difference between a case of Syrah and a case of pneumonia?’ 

‘You can get rid of a case of pneumonia!’

Syrah sales have stagnated or dropped in the U.S. in recent years depending on how the research numbers are crunched. But everyone agrees Syrah never lived up to its ‘next-best thing’ potential.

Steve Cass
“Supermarket sales are down and you look and see Syrah sales are down,” said Steve Cass, Cass Winery, Paso Robles, CA. “But also take a look and you see Australian sales are down. There is a massive amount of Syrah or Shiraz (same grape) in this country going out at a fairly low price point. It’s not going out as premium wine.

“Our Syrah is our number-one selling red wine. I don’t think people are turned off by Syrah, maybe they’re turned off to cheap Syrah.”
Gary Eberle
California’s Syrah pioneer Gary Eberle agreed. “I think everybody is always looking for the new hot wine. When Merlot died I think everybody started looking for the next hot red wine and everybody jumped on Syrah. I just don’t think the consumer was ready for that much Syrah.”

Jason Hass of Tablas Creek Winery put numbers to the perception. “If you look at the planted acreage of Syrah over the course of the 1990s, 1992-2002, Syrah acreage went from just under 900 to more than 15,000 acres in California. Even though sales were growing really fast throughout that period there was just no way the market was going to absorb that much new Syrah.

“I don’t think you should confuse the fact there is extra Syrah on the market with the fact Syrah is not a varietal gaining popularity. It’s just a case of supply growing so fast it was going to overwhelm whatever demand was there any way.”
J.C. Diesenderfer
J.C. Diesenderfer, Hope Vineyards, said Syrah never found its market niche’. “We’re all really passionate about Syrah. We always felt Syrah was the next king of California. But it never found its spot. Syrah can be bright, mineral, soft and elegant. It can be a big bruiser. It can be anything in between.”
If you are a regular wine drinker you might recall grocery and liquor store shelves with plenty of Syrah. In recent months, you see far less Syrah or Shiraz. These prominent winemakers hit the nail right on the head during a seminar I attended last fall. The market was just flooded with cheap Shiraz, largely from Australia.

“I think Syrah does beautifully in Paso Robles,” Eberle said. “But I think Syrah does beautifully in a whole lot of different areas as well. In our tasting rooms we sell 1,000 cases of Syrah a year. There are people in this area making spectacular Syrah.

Then there is former NFL safety turned winemaker Terry Hoage who said Syrah sells when consumers are educated and they taste good Syrah. “I think it is a matter of education because it’s difficult for people to know what they’re getting. The largest hurdle we have to overcome in our industry is not dumbing down for the audience but making the audience feel comfortable that’s its ok to try new things. Push the envelope; just don’t go for a safe Cabernet. That is probably our biggest challenge.”

Howard’s Picks:
Central Coast Syrah is some of the best I’ve consumed. The winemakers quoted above all make incredible Syrah but at a higher price point ($20 and up) than I normally include in this column. There is plenty of Central Coast Syrah below $20 from makers like Qupe’. Washington State Syrah is often found at very reasonable prices with soft and balanced fruit.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Mixed Ancestry Charbono Making a Comeback

Is it Italian or French?

Is the wine a unique ancient varietal?

Or, is it the same grape as Argentina’s Bonarda or maybe a genetic cousin?

Charbono, a grape most have never heard of, is making a small comeback. It wasn’t long ago that U.S. plantings had dwindled to about 10 acres. The latest available statistics show Charbono’s plantings have grown to 80 acres, all in California.

As written here before, one of the great experiences in wine enjoyment is trying new wines. It won’t be easy to find a Charbono but it is worth the effort. The wine is a very inky, dark purple with a rich red-fruit flavor. Cherry and raspberry dominate the palate with a bit of spice on the finish. The tannins, or finish, tend to be quite smooth.

Sally Ottoson, Pacific Star Winery

The grape is interesting because of its confusing heritage. The grape was once thought to be related to Italy’s little Dolcetto grape from Piedmont. But it actually comes from the Savoie region in France. That explains how the grape migrated to Argentina along with Malbec.

The ancestral trail was tracked down by Department of Viticulture and Enology at University of California, Davis. Researchers there, the most prestigious U.S. research college for wine grapes, determined Charbono was the same grape as Bonarda and mostly likely the same grape under the names of Corbeau, Douce Noire, or Charbonneau.

There is quite a bit of Charbono grown around Calistoga in Napa Valley and some in Mendocino County. Names you might look for include: August Briggs, Turley, Chameleon, Shypoke, Joseph Laurence Shypoke, Robert Foley, Saddleback, Dunnewood, Tofanelli, Fortino, and Consentino Heitz. The wine tends to retail in the high teens to the low $30 range.

“All the winemakers in California who are bottling it have to fight over the grapes,” Sally Ottoson, Pacific Star Winery told “But back in the ‘70’s Inglenook was doing a Charbono, and so was Parducci.

“John Parducci was really a mentor for me. I think Charbono is a very universal wine. It’s not too tannic and not too acidic — a real food friendly wine. People always ask me to describe the grape’s characteristics, but that’s a difficult thing to do because it doesn’t have a distinct flavor profile like other grapes. So I like to say, it’s like an old woman who puts perfume in the same spot every day and it kind of sinks into her skin and you get this essence that evokes memories.”

I met Sally during a press wine trip to Mendocino in January. Her stunning location on the rocky Pacific shore about 12 miles north of Fort Bragg is worth the trip alone. She makes a wide variety of wines and has worked in California wine since 1972.

Her winemaking style is blend-o-holic. “I like to add a little bit of this to a little bit of that,” she said during that visit. “We make a huge effort to make wine fun. Don’t agonize over it. I make wine the old-fashioned way. I make wine in barrels.”

During the same trip I met Maria Martinson of Testa House winery. Her family settled in California in the very early 1900s as Italian immigrants. She had a beautiful Charbono that was not yet released. We tasted the fifth generation winemaker’s juice straight from the barrel.

Finding Charbono might be a challenge in the Midwest. But you can usually find a good Argentinian Bonarda at better wine shops.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Synthetics & Screwcaps: Cork Fights Back

Cork, synthetics, screw caps, and now glass closures can bring wine geeks to a furious debate.

For nearly 300 years cork was the wine closure of choice for the wine industry. But synthetic corks and screw caps have made major inroads in the wine market. Cork’s downfall started in the early 80s when a Swiss researcher discovered TCA – or cork taint. Even cork industry promoters will admit cork taint does exist. But the big debate is whether it’s in a mere fraction of all bottled wine or up to 10 percent of all wines using cork closures.

There is also the phenomenon of cork taint. Too often the cork is blamed for a bad bottle of wine when a host of other factors can cause the wine to taste bad. Another way to look at the argument is how much you care if your $10 bottle of Cabernet is corked? Sure, you are aggravated it has to be poured down the drain but it’s just $10. On the other hand, higher end wines use cork almost exclusively. Last winter I had to pour out a $75 bottle of Pinot Noir I was saving for a special occasion. I was not a happy wino!

“Taint is the most misunderstood and misreported issue in the wine world “contends a cork advocacy group, “The taint typically associated with wine corks is TCA (2,4,6-trichloroanisole). It’s a harmless but ubiquitous environmental compound that gives wine a must flavor at very low concentrations.”

The advocacy group acknowledges cork taint but points out the contamination can also come from bottling equipment, airborne molds or chlorine-based compounds in wineries and cellars. 100PercentCork has made use of research conducted by Purdue University ‘s Christian Butzke. His research was published in the May/June 2008 Vineyard & Winery Management.

“TCA is no longer a major problem for the U.S. wine industry,” Butzke said. The Purdue Associate professor notes many bagged vegetables can be affected by the same compound but consumers write off any smell to “earthiness.”

But for many wineries and consumers the cork is out of the bottle. Plastic closures were the rage not too many years ago but seem to have fallen out of favor recently. You’ll still find many wines with synthetic corks. I often found them too soft and easily pulled out of the bottle or so hard I had to go to the gym before prying a synthetic opener out. Screw caps offer a great alternative. A screw cap eliminates oxidation but the jury remains out on how well wines will age with a screw cap. Conversely, most wines in a screw cap are at the lower end of the price scale and unlikely to be put down for aging.

I purchased a wonderful and relatively expensive bottle of Pinot during a recent Oregon trip and it had a glass closure. Glass stoppers don’t require an opener and provide a tight seal with a plastic liner. Oxidation is still under testing but appears to hold up over time. It also provides a nice look of sophistication.

Cork has lost market share to these new closure products. But it’s hard to imagine the great wines of the world ever using anything but cork. There is plenty of scientific evidence, not to mention the romance, of popping a cork from a fine bottle of wine with little worry.

For consumers and Grape Sense readers, you are sooner or later going to buy a bad bottle of wine. But your concerns and efforts are better used on selecting a good value bottle than worrying about cork taint.

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