Help wine retailers help you

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It can be intimidating for some to walk into a retail wine shop with hundreds of bottles and a price range of $7 to $300. Even a small shop may have 500 to 700 different labels of red and white wines.

grape-sense-logoYou may not know the technical terms or understand the strange wine-speak used by dedicated winos. You may not even know what you like or want to try. That’s all okay if you’re in a shop where retail consultants have a patient ear and ask good questions.

Be prepared to work with retail wine sales people and you’re much more likely to walk away with a bottle you’ll enjoy. There are things you can do to help that retail sales person find you a great bottle of wine at all price points.

IMG_1186First, think just a little about what you like. Do you like your reds big and bold or light on the palate? Do you prefer whites with a big mouthfeel, smooth and rich? Or do you prefer clean and crisp white wines and flavors?

Talking about flavors is a good start in any store. The other question you’re going to get is “what are you prepared to spend?” That is where you need to be honest and don’t inflate your answer, and spend more, than you are really prepared to pay for a bottle of wine.

Upselling is as common in a wine shop as a clothing retailer trying to sell you socks after buying a shirt or blouse. A retail shop is there to make money and upselling is quite common. Be firm if not convinced the more expensive bottle will really suit your tastes and pocketbook.

Now that I have personal retail experience I like to find a customer the price point they are looking for and then, more often than not, suggest another bottle at a lower price and a bottle which costs more than they were originally seeking. More expensive wines are better for lots of reasons. But one of the bigger stories, perhaps untold, is the increasing quality of inexpensive wine. Quality continues to improve as more people enjoy wine with dinner and recreationally.

Some wine people, retail and writers, get hung up on the ‘hints of cherry and underlying flavors of black currants” and other such descriptors. Ask the wine retailer is it bold or light in flavor? Would they describe the wine as acidic – which can be a good or bad thing.

Remember almost all shops will offer a discount for quantity purchases. A 10 percent discount is not uncommon for a six or 12 bottle purchase, which will of course vary from store to store.

Then obviously take advantage of tasting events. The more you taste wine the better chance you have of finding wines you will enjoy.

It’s summer time so get to your wine retailer and stock up on whites, rose’ and don’t forget the bubbles!

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Tips for smaller wineries to compete

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For the past two Grape Sense columns, the focus has been on a handful of small production Oregon wineries. This column wraps up the in-depth look at how they face marketing challenges against the big operations moving into the Willamette Valley. There are also some brief comments about their wine and how to buy their products.

grape-sense-logoCarl Giavanti is a winery publicist working in the valley with these ‘little guys’ assisting them in carving out a niche.

“I think the real story in Willamette Valley (and other small regions nationally) is that 85 percent of the wineries produce less than 5,000 cases,” Giavanti has written. “It’s micro production by any measure. They have only survived because of so called “Premiumization” and the recent fascination with the region. What will happen when the next economic downturn occurs, and as the distribution consolidation continues, or as vineyard and winery acquisitions accelerate (which is happening at a rapid pace right now)? Are there business parallels between what is happening in Willamette Valley and any other burgeoning American industry? Is large always destined to win? Is there a “Manifest Destiny” for these small craft producers?”

Carl_Headshot2Giavanti is a guy good at answering his own questions. There is no questioning its tough for these winemakers to clear their shelves at the end of each season. But smart marketing positioning and taking advantage of earned media seem to be the most direct route for the smaller winery’s success.

“It’s no secret there are generally lots of wineries in most wine regions,” Giavanti points out. “There are over 9,000 wineries in the U.S, and due to consolidation by the largest distributors, I estimate only 700 distribution companies, and they focus on large family or corporate winery groups, high profit margins and primarily order taking. The small production winery simply cannot compete.”

Boiling down Giavanti’s recommendations can be oversimplified to having a good story to tell and knowing your product niche. He tells the winery owners to: 1) build your own unique brand, have a strong authentic winery voice that clearly states how you are different, unique and what you promise to consumers 2) do media outreach, either direct or with a media relations consultant. Get your name, your stories and your wines out there! And 3) sell your wine direct to consumer. You’ll have the highest margins (even after marketing costs), enjoy the greatest loyalty and have the most fun!”

That’s pretty good advice for any small business.

The Wines

One of the remarkable things about the Willamette Valley is the overall quality of the wine and the five producers included in this story are no exception. Those making Chardonnay are learning quickly and producing Burgundian style – soft and rich – white wines. Ghost Hill makes a fabulous white Pinot Noir at an incredible low price.

Pinot Noir is the calling card for Alloro VineyardLenne’ EstateGhost HillVidon Vineyard and Youngberg Hill. The wines are slightly different in style which is one of the most interesting things about Oregon Pinot for real wine enthusiasts. All have varying levels of critical acclaim. Space does not allow for individual reviews but ordering six bottles of wine from any of the wineries will be well worth your Pinot investment. The wines average around $40-$50 a bottle. With price creep really taking hold in Oregon, these wines are a value buy. Contact the wineries directly through their easy-to-find website to place an order. And yes, they can ship to Indiana. For more specific recommendations, contact me at hewitthoward@gmail.com

And anytime you visit a wine region, remember the little guys!

For More

Go to the Grape Sense website at howardhewitt.net and look for a post with the headline “More from Boutique Oregon Wineries.” There are tips on aging Pinot, and background and philosophy on winemaking.

 

More from boutique Oregon winemakers

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Good journalism and writing always demands more sourcing than you can use in a single story. I’ve always tried to conduct as wide-ranging interviews as much as possible with the forum or time constraints of the opportunity.

I did email interviews with the boutique Oregon winemakers I’ve written about in recent weeks. But I also have a great deal of material that didn’t make it into any of the columns.

So here is one long – very long – blog post with some of the highlights from each interview. I thought these were valid and interesting points that didn’t necessarily fit into the stories I wrote. I’m going to present it as concisely as possible in a Q&A format. I included everyone’s answer about aging their Pinot Noir, admittedly a personal interest.

Ghost Hill Cellars

Interviewee Mike Bayliss, owner

The only winery of this group that makes a white Pinot Noir. Why do they make this wine and how has the market reacted?

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Drenda and Mike Bayliss

“We wanted to expand the wines we sell in the tasting room. At the time, all that we had planted was Pinot Noir grapes. The Pinot Blanc was suggested to us by a friend who is a French winemaker, who said that half of the French Champagne is made with Pinot Noir Blanc from the youngest planting of Pinot Noir grapes. Our winemaker suggested instead of aging it in oak to use stainless steel to give it a bright crispness to the finish. It’s been very well received in our tasting room and has been well acknowledged by many reviews.”

What is the ageability of Oregon Pinot Noir?

“It depends on the vintage but as an average 8-10 years – plus. Willamette Valley Pinot Noir is always drinkable upon release and especially with local foods.”

What is background of winery?

“The Bayliss Family has been stewards in this corner of the Willamette Valley since 1906. We’re on 240 acres of beautiful rolling hills made up of sedimentary Willakenzie soils … very rewarding for Pinot Noir grapes. We started planting our vineyard in 1999, after we quit farming 200 head of cattle and putting up 250 tons of hay, farming oaks, wheat, and grass hays.”

Alloro Vineyards

Interviewee: Tom Fitzpatrick, winemaker and general manager

Speak about the growing broad appeal of Oregon Chardonnay:

Alloro Winery, Chehalem Mountain AVA, Willamette Valley, Oregon

Alloro Vineyards

“I think the appeal of Oregon Chard is the classic ‘cool climate’ profile our wines have. We have just the right climate for this style of Chardonnay, which allow the wines to retain all the subtle and wonderfully complex aromas and flavors, rendered on the almost perfect, complementary frame. These are wines that truly express the terroir and offer up a spectrum of flavors associated with the sites they come from.

“Our style is a wine with a classic cool climate profile with all the wonderful elements that come with barrel fermentation and extended lees contact. This focus and approach delivers a wine with moderate alcohol, bright acidity, a mineral core, fresh pear fruit, and flor aromas. It’s complemented by the barrel fermentation and less contact that bring more fullness and roundness to the palate along with notes of biscuit and baking spices.”

Alloro

Tom Fitzpatric

Your vineyard is in the northern-most part of the valley. Why is it unique?

“Alloro is a single vineyard site on Laurel Ridge in the Chehalem Mountains AVA. This is a very unique site with a very distinctive personality. My primary focus is to assure the wines capture the distinct personality of this site as they’re expressed in each vintage. I do this by capturing what I call “purity of flavor.” I want the flavors of these wines to be the direct, unencumbered flavor derived from this fruit. There is a very long list of things we do but in a nutshell we undertake activities that mitigate compromise to the integrity of the fruit and undertake activities that mitigate unwanted outside influence on the wines’ flavor. Once in barrel my wines are moved only one time prior to bottling. All movements are either via gravity or with the use of inert gas, all under the protection of inert gas to protect from oxygen exposure. They are bottled after about 11-12 months to capture and retain the richness and purity of fruit and then bottle aged for about one year before the release.”

What is your Pinot’s ageability?

“Our wines see very little oxygen and are handled to retain fruit purity. I believe this dramatically increases their ageability. In general, my wines typically take 2-3 years to blossom and then drink wonderfully for a subsequent 8-plus years.”

Lenne Estate

Interviewee: Steve Lutz, owner

You have a unique vineyard site, explain whys it’s different.

“We farm the vineyard primarily organically but I am not certified organic nor wish to be. I like the flexibility of being able to use other tools if we get into a year with high disease pressure. The way it is going with the weather and early vintages we haven’t had to turn to a commercial fungicide since 2011. We generally just use organic compounds and micronutrients in the vineyard. Our farming is dictated by the year in terms of how we manage the canopy and that is a changing landscape with these warmer evintages.

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Steve Lutz

“In the winery we are straight forward unless we get into an unusual vintage. We generally destem and don’t use any whole clusters though I am thinking about playing with it a little this year but it would be totally dictated by the vintage and how developed the stems are. But generally we destem, cold soak and inoculate with yeast. We press before fermentation ends then don’t expose the wine to much oxygen after that unless we have a reduction issue. We sterile filter all our wines and the wines spend 10-11 months in French Oak about 35 percent of which is new.”

When is the best time to drink your Pinot Noir?

“I think the best time to drink most of our vintages is at 10 years out from the vintage. Some vintages take longer and some it is hard to predict their peak. We only started producing in 2004 and so far none of them have oxidized. I think the 2006 wines are at their peak or just past it now for instance. That was a warmer vintage.”

Youngberg Hill

Interviewee: Wayne Bailey, owner and winemaker

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Youngberg Inn and event center

Let’s start with your Chardonnay:

“My background in Chardonnay began in Burgundy.  I tried for several years to purchase fruit but never found the quality. So we grafted over half of our Aspen Block of Pinot Gris in 2014 and 2015 is our first vintage. My style is that of Burgundy, fermented in barrels (once used) to have the influence of oak but not be oaky. I want to emulate Montrachet.”

How do you describe your approach to Pinot Noir?

“Pinot is the most transparent of any varietal, so my job is to be as light handed in the winery as possible to let that sense of place and vintage shine. That is why making wines from the fruit on our hill is so much fun.  We have three distinct soils on our hill, elevations from 500 to 800 feet, and different slopes and orientations. As a result, we make distinctly different wines from each of those distinct ‘terroirs.’ ”

What is the ageability of your Pinot Noir?

“We believe they can age for 20-years plus.”

Vidon
Interviewee: Don Hagge, owner

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Don Hagge

I have interviewed Don Hagge on several occasions over the years.  I did not ask him a lot in my email interviews like I did the other winemakers. But here are a couple of blog posts and stories featuring the colorful Hagge, wine maker, farmer, student of Burgundy, and NASA engineer.

My visit with Don.

First time meeting Don Hagge

Investors not all bad for small wineries

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Small Oregon wine producers have been leery of huge corporate investment in the Willamette Valley. But they also see a benefit for their strongest sales outlet.

grape-sense-logoThe investments from big producers like Kendall- Jackson and Louis Jadot makes competing for shelf space, distribution, and marketing opportunities difficult. But the big budgets also help bring more visitors to Oregon wineries. Real oenophiles love finding small, boutique producers when visiting any wine region.

“Being small and getting our wines out there in the market is our biggest hurdle,” said Mike Bayliss owner of Ghost Hill Cellars. “We’re seeing more competition from the bigger well-funded wineries, who make wine with volume and less expense and have more market dollars.”

Steve Lutz

Steve Lutz, Lenne Estate

Steve Lutz, owner at Lenne Estate, watched as Kendall-Jackson purchased Willikenzie Estate which is across the road from his small production winery. “I think that will bring more people to our location so I can’t complain,” Lutz said.

Wayne Bailey, who owns a beautiful inn and winery near McMinnville, Youngberg Hill, echoes the concept that big dollars bring more visitors. “It’s very exciting to have the big boys spending big marketing dollars on our region,” he said. “That awareness can only help all of us. Most wine tourists will tell you they prefer to discover small wineries that they are not familiar with (when visiting).”

Tom Fitzpatrick, winemaker and general manager at Alloro Vineyards, says the big producers have pushed Oregon Pinot Noir to the world stage. “This is tremendously beneficial for all of us,” he said. “This has created more crowding of Oregon wine in the sales pipeline. The hope is that the attention and the spotlight is widening the pipeline. In general, I look at it this way, the attention and dollars are coming because we have something truly great here. It was just a matter of time before this was discovered. Things that are truly great can’t remain a secret forever.”

Vidon Vineyards owner Don Hagge has struggled with distributors and selling all of his annual production. “I hope to get there in about a year or two,” Hagge said. “I have about two years of inventory counting unbottled wine.

“But I’m not concerned about big money much. There’s a market for wines from boutique operations that aren’t ‘factory wines.’ We have to exploit that big time, particularly with direct-to-consumer sales.”

Wineries realize the biggest margin, therefore profit, when distribution and retail sales are eliminated. A bottle of wine sold in the tasting room is all profit.

Mike & Drenda Baylis

Mike and Drenda Bayliss

The burgeoning success of all Oregon Pinot producers can lead to some of the smaller winery owners reconsidering their business model.

“Our production used to be much higher, around 1,500 cases,” Bayliss said. “Willamette Valley Pinot Noir fruit has become quite valuable so for the recent vintages we decided to sell the majority of our fruit.”

In 2017, Ghost Hill was down from 1,500 cases to 360 cases.

But there remains a strong market to explore the smaller wineries. Readers can google the wineries in this column and order directly from these small Oregon wine producers. There will be one more column focusing on the challenges and a bit about the wines.

Small guys face distribution squeeze

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When big companies invade boutique wine country with much bigger marketing budgets and resources, the little guy can feel squeezed out. Or, creative marketing and a changed paradigm could lead to more success.

grape-sense-logoOregon’s Willamette Valley has seen explosive growth in recent years in small and large wineries. But big investment from major players has an impact on the smaller wineries distribution and maybe even production.

In recent years Kendall-Jackson has purchased Willamette Valley vineyards: Penner-Ash, Willakenzie, Gran Moraine and Zena Crown. French icon Louis Jardot has bought in along with Chateau St. Michelle from Washington and Foley Wines from California. There are quite a few others.

As the quality of Oregon Pinot Noir continues to gain critical and consumer accolades, more small wineries are disappearing, and others are strategizing to find and hold market share. The bigger brands eat up the shelf space and dominate distributor’s selling efforts.

“We primarily sell out of our tasting room though we do distribute a small amount of wine in Colorado, Maryland and Illinois,” said Steve Lutz, owner of Lenne Estate near Yamhill, OR. Lenne produces about 1,600 cases of wine annually. “It is becoming increasingly difficult to find any distribution for small producers and not a very effective way to sell anymore.”

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Don Hagge

Some winery owners have simply given up or cut back on efforts to lure a distributor.

“I’m resigned to finding and working with a couple of distributors in niche markets to sell about half of my wine,” said Don Hagge, Vidon Vineyards. Vidon also produces around 2,000 cases annually. “We’re rolling out a new online system (called VinAlliance) this year that might help us and a few other small wineries.”

Hagge hopes the new alliance will allow consumers to buy wines almost like a wine club but from several different wineries on a regular basis.zpat

These small wineries depend on direct to consumer (DTC) sales for their success. “We had distributors in more than 20 states but last year scaled back to six,” Alloro Winemaker and General Manager Tom Fitzpatrick said. “It’s not difficult finding a distributor but it is difficult finding a distributor who can generate adequate sales. But they have their own businesses to profitably run just like us. Building brand awareness and recognition for a small unrecognized producer, in a crowded space, is expensive. Most distributors don’t seem to be able to do this.”

Alloro is the biggest of this group of winemakers at a modest 2,550 cases.

Experience, Fitzpatrick said, has told him that direct to consumer sales will probably always be 80 percent of his business.

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Wayne Bailey

Everyone has a website, and some are exploring the partnering options like Vidon. The challenge is to get a brand in front of the consumer. “Most of our wine is sold through our tasting room, wine club, and events,” said Youngberg Hill winemaker Wayne Bailey.  “Online sales are a big opportunity, but the current challenge is figuring out how to best reach potential customers or let them know you even exist. Even though you can ship to consumers in most states now, it is a very expensive and time-consuming process to gain and maintain the ability to ship into each individual state; making it almost impossible for small wineries to justify.”

The smallest of this winery group is Ghost Hill Cellars which produces less than 400 cases. Marketing is complex for such a small operation. “We have distributors who work with small producers but still even that is difficult,” said Ghost Hill owner Mike Bayliss. “We do online sales and a seasonal tasting room (April to November). Although we sell a good amount of our annual production we’re moving toward selling more grapes and making less wine.”

The upside of the investment by the wine world’s bigger players is additional attention. We’ll look closer at that benefit and at these winery’s wines in future columns.

Note: The next Grape Sense column keeps the focus on wine marketing and these small wineries.

Fun comparing small-production Pinot

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There are lots of ways to enjoy wine with friends but when you want to add some twists and turns put the wines in a paper bag and try to identify or rank them.

Try a night of all one varietal or from different growing region. My small wine group, frequently referenced on this blog, has played about every wine game in the book and made a few others up.

Back in December three of us tasted three, small production, Oregon Pinot Noirs and ranked them. All three wines were from the much-praised 2014 vintage. Youngberg Hill‘s Natasha Block, Ghost Hill’s Prospector’s Reserve, and Alloro‘s Estate Riservata were the three Pinot Noirs. Alloro was our favorite. Here is that blog post.

Alloro

Tom Fitzpatrick, Alloro

All three tasters that night were pretty experienced wine drinkers and big Pinot fans. We repeated the exercise April 8 with a group of 8 regular wine drinkers. We had three wines from the same wineries but different bottlings: Youngberg Hill Jordan Block, $50, 87 pts Wine Spectator; Ghost Hill Bayliss-Bower Pinot, $42, 91 pts Wine Spectator; and Alloro Vineyards Estate, $35, 93 pts Wine Spectator. The marketing firm had sent me an additional small-production wine, Lenne Estate’s whereI have previously visited. We included the Lenne Estate Pinot, $45, 92 pts Wine Enthusiast, in our Sunday night tasting.

 

These four wines represented the Willamette Valley AVAs McMinnville, Yamhill-Carlton, and Chehalem Mountains.

We tasted the four wines, and made comment, in a random order. Then we reversed order and tasted again. I would describe the group as three very serious wine drinkers, including myself, who have consumed their share of Oregon Pinot, two more guys who have tasted great Oregon Pinot but probably not quite as geeky, and three guys who are new to the geeky side of wine.

We ranked the wines simply by personal palate preference. Lenne was a strong new entry to this round. When all was said and done, our bigger group picked Alloro as the clear cut favorite for the second time in a row. I might add the four new tasters didn’t know the results from our first effort. And another note, as the wine writer here, I agreed with the ranking both times. But it was tougher this last batch

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Steve Lutz, Lenne

Alloro and Lenne were the picks with seven winos picking one or the other as the best with Alloro having a fairly sizeable margin of victory. Ghost Hill picked up one first-place vote. Youngberg Hill was one of the wines most debated.

 

There are a couple points to be made here. First, my palate or any of my friends’ palates have nothing to do with your wine choices. If you like it, it’s great wine. But we all rely on recommendations, particularly from friends. Second, these are small to very small production wines and are not easy to find outside of Oregon with a few exceptions.

The bigger point might be if you travel to any wine country leave time on your schedule to seek out a few of the really small wineries. You’ll find great choices and those little guys really appreciate your business. Most personnel tasting room employees are anxious to share recommendations. I’ve found some great wine by asking “who else should I go see?’ in Oregon and Napa.

BLOGGER’S NOTE: I’ll have comment from all four of these winemakers, plus Vidon Vineyard’s Don Hagge, in a couple of upcoming newspaper columns. Of course, those columns are always posted here as well.

 

Time to start stocking up on Rose’

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If it’s spring it must be a column about dry Rose’. If you are still shunning the wonderful dry – and yes, pink – Rose’ wines from around the world you are the fool fellow winos.

grape-sense-logoRose’ is beyond hot in the wine sales market – it’s a rocket ship. From mid-2016 to mid-2017, Rose sales in the U.S. increased by 53 percent in volume according to BeverageDaily.com and Nielsen sales data. Rose’ represents less than two percent of all US wine sales but the growth is unprecedented in any category.

While it is difficult to get up-to-date sales figures, the growth of French Provence Rose’ – the category leader – is stunning. In February of 2016, Nielsen reported an increase in sales over the previous 12 months of 54 percent on volume and 60 percent on value.

The growth rates for imported Rose, which comes from a number of countries but is dominated by the French, is crazy. Rose’ sales have outpaced the rest of the imported market for more than 10 years. In 2016, Provence Rose’ held 64 percent of all imported Rose’ sales.

IMG_1254 (1)More than 160 Provence wineries are exporting the salmon-colored wines to the US. For more than a dozen years exports of French Rose’ have grown every years at double digit rates.

Two of the biggest selling French Rose’ wines are Chateau d’Esclans Whispering Angel and Domaine Miraval’s short, stout bottle with the backing of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. Even these two best sellers come in at the mid $20 price point. It’s not unusual to see Whispering Angel under $20 down to $15 come end of the summer clearance – if there is any left. Several producer make several price levels of Rose’ with d’Esclans Garrus at the top of the pack at an average of $80 a bottle.

But if you’re not a Francophile there are plenty of Rose choices at home where quality is skyrocketing in the last couple of years. Oregon and California producers, particular those who grow Pinot Noir, have jumped into the booming Rose’ market. After attending a recent Rose’ tasting presented by one of Indiana’s biggest wine distributors, it’s easy to see the vast improvement in Rose’ of Pinot over past years.

But look around your wine shop for Rose’ wine from Spain, many of Italy, and Rose’ of Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec.

It’s not just a summer sipper. Rose’ owns the summer and has eyes on becoming more a year around part of your wine shopping habits.

NOTE: Would you like some specific Rose’ recommendations? You’ll find a long lists of Rose wines Howard has tasted and recommends listed in the following post.

 

Howard’s 2018 Rose’ wine picks

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This post accompanies my every-other-week column which went out to newspapers and websites Mar. 29 about Rose. Here are some specifics wines to look for at your nearby wine shop and liquor stores. The full column will be posted on this site April 2.

whHoward’s Rose’ Picks: The Whispering Angel and Miraval are very good representations of Provence Rose’ but there are so many out there to choose from. I recently attended a distributor’s Rose’ tasting of more than 100 wines. Obviously, I could only taste a few but here are my picks and a couple of other recommendations.

I’m liking Oregon and California more with every passing vintage but the French are still the masters. When everyone started jumping into the Rose’ market a few years ago, there were some wines that lacked depth and structure. More recent offerings have been darn good Rose’. As any regular reader of my musings knows, I love Oregon.

The wines listed here may not all be easy to find but they are all sold in Indiana: Tablas Creek Patelin de Tablas, CA. – a blend of traditional Rhone grapes; Conundrum Rose, CA. – A well-known producer growing gamay; Mirabeau Pure, FR. – traditional Provence blend and probably my favorite of the entire tasting.; Lunda Nuda, IT. – an unusual blend of Sangiovese-Merlot from Multipulciano; Maison Louis Jadot Gamay Rose’, FR. – light bodied from one of Burgundy’s biggest names;

b_Miraval-Rose_zoom_7Cloud Chaser, FR. – lighter than many of the others but nice freshness; St. Andrieu, FR, – a nice choice if you prefer a bit more mouth feel; Esedune Cab Franc,- a bit above average but Cab Franc Rose’ continues to improve and take market share ; Canto Perdrix Tavel, FR. Tavel is often too big for my Rose’ palate but this one is more understated; Susan Balbo Malbec/Pinot, AR, – tasted this Argentinian winemaking rock star’s Rose’ several years ago and was underwhelmed. The 2017 version is quite enjoyable: Willakenzie Pinot Noir, OR.  – nice, well-balanced Rose’ … one of many from Oregon.

Of course this means I didn’t taste somewhere around 85. There were also several I tasted that I didn’t care for very much.

Cheers!

Stepping up your wine drinking

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So how do you take the next step in your wine drinking? Let’s say you have an interest or desire to drink better wine. Perhaps you feel stuck drinking the same $15 Tuesday night red or white.

grape-sense-logoThe easy answer is to spend more money. You can go out and buy a $30 bottle instead of the $15 and odds are good you’ll drink better wine. But perhaps the approach should be more discerning.

If you want to improve your wine picks then get into a wine shop or a liquor store, big box store, that has a big selection. And yes, you’re going to pay more for better wine.

Perhaps one of the most frequently asked questions is what’s the difference between a $15 and $50 bottle of wine. The answer isn’t neat and simple but several factors will help you appreciate the higher price beyond the taste.

Higher-end wines are usually made in small batches. Would you rather drink wine made in a silo or one made in a small oaken barrel? Would you rather drink wine where grapes are indiscriminately yanked from the vines by machines or hand-picked before heading to the winery? Would you like to drink wines where the vineyards produce seven tons per acre with no pruning or wines grown in a vineyard where leaves are trimmed for ideal ripening and fruit is dropped during the growing season to increase the intensity of the fruit? Those things greatly increase labor costs.

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There are reasons – good and bad – that bottle costs more than $100.

The biggest material expense is oak. Cheaper wines are aged in used oak barrels or oak barrels from less prestigious regions. In recent years, the much-derided use of oak chips has proven a popular and cheap alternative for low cost wines. Top-end wines are aged in new French oak barrels which can cost $1,500-$2000, while most are $1000-$1,200. American oak barrels often cost half or a third of that amount.

Is there a difference in the golf club you buy at the local big chain discount store and the club you’d buy at a top-flight pro shop?

There has always been something pseudo glamorous about a $100 bottle of Napa Cab. Now it’s hard to find a Napa Winey with a top bottling that costs less than $100. Napa’s top vineyard To Kalon is in such high demand that the vineyard owner will only sell to producers who price their wines at certain levels above $100 a bottle.

But, as noted earlier, lets move beyond price. One approach to drinking better wine is taking a wine you like and go online to see if the winery produces a more refined, and higher-priced, similar bottle. If the winery has a $15 Cab there is a good chance it also produces a $30-$50 Cabernet.

Going to a wine shop should expose you to someone with expertise who can ask you questions about what you’re drinking and suggest the next logical step. Logic doesn’t dictate going from $15 to $100. If you’re sold that bill of goods leave and don’t return to that wine retailer.

If’ you’re drinking mostly $15 wine, your next step up the wine ladder should be in the $25-$50 range. Look for wines from a specific region. If you’re buying Napa Cab – and that’s all it says on the label – the grapes could come from 16 different sites in Napa. That’s good wine but there are probably no defining characteristics. Instead, buy a Napa Cab from Rutherford, Mt. Veeder or Howell Mountain for nuance in the flavors.

You need to get to about the $50-$75 price point to start drinking the really fine wines. In lesser regions, $30-$50 will get you a really good bottle.

If you’re drinking wine costing less than $20 simply ask for some advice and try something that costs 50 percent more or double the price. You’ll consume much better wine.

Tommasi introduces Amarone to many

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Amarone is an under-appreciated fine wine that may be new to many wine drinkers. Amarone comes from northern Italy and is made in a process requiring the grapes be dried before pressed for their juice.

grape-sense-logoThis column is another in a series of interviews with winemakers, owners, and families about their passion for winemaking. Pierangelo Tommasi is a member of the fourth generation of Italians making Amarone wines. The Tommasi family owns several Italian estates and makes a variety of Italian wines. Pierangelo is something of a family spokesman. He works to market the Tommasi wines.

When a family business is rooted with such history, the passion is easy to understand.

Tommasi Famiglia

The current generation of the Tommasi family. Pierangelo is second from right.

“The time, labor and materials that go into crafting each bottle of Amarone della Valpolicella Classico set Amarone apart from other Italian wines, as few are as distinctive or precious as Amarone,” Tommasi began. “Our Amarone is produced from indigenous grape varietals Corvina, Corvinone, Rondinella and Oseleta grapes, all of which have thick skins, allowing them to dry for 100 days on bamboo racks with constant air circulation.”

The process of aging is unique for Amarone. During that drying period the grapes lose about half of their weight but the juice is concentrating. The wine is fermented and gains the color from skin along with the tannins and structure needed for a great wine. After fermentation, the wine is aged for three years in large oak casks.

 

Amarone is known as a wine of great depth and richness. And, obviously, it’s wine made from grapes which most Americans have never heard of previously. It is unlike other wines.

tommasi

Pierangelo Tommasi

“Amarone is a complex wine, but it is one of the most historical and beautiful expressions of one of the most esteemed Italian wine regions,” Tommasi said.  “Consumers should not be intimidated by the blend of grapes that go into Amarone, they should instead focus on the long aging potential of the wine and the full-bodied yet smooth and elegant characteristics that make it a favorable wine to pair with food.”

“Amarone della Valpolicella Classico is a wine one can proudly serve for special occasions, paired with red meats and ripe cheeses,” Tommasi said. “It is also a fantastic stand-alone wine, with the perfect balance of intense berries and soft tannins to make it easy to sip on its own. An ideal companion to enjoyable conversation.”