Monthly Archives: February 2019

Sonoma County wineries lead the way in direct to consumer shipments

 

Recently, for a friend’s birthday gift, I phoned a local Sonoma County winery, selected a few favorite wines and had them shipped directly to his home in Los Angeles. Within three days, he had received them. A growing number of consumers are taking advantage of the convenience and easy access to fine wines through this process that eliminates the retail and shipping middle man.

One of fastest growing trends in the wine industry is something called direct to consumer (DTC) shipping.  In 2018, consumers spent $3 billion purchasing wine that was shipped to them directly by the winery, a 12% increase from 2017.  

Representing a nine percent increase from the previous year, wineries, in 2018, shipped over six million cases directly to consumers throughout the country except Utah, Kentucky, Mississippi and Alabama, four states that still prohibit it.  Oklahoma lifted their ban on direct to consumer shipments in 2018 and received $4.3 million worth of wine.

The recently released 2019 Direct to Consumer Wine Shipping Report sponsored by Sovos and Wines Vines Analytics revealed some interesting insights into what now accounts for ten percent of all off premises sales of wine domestically.

The research in the study is based on two major factors:  the volume or number of cases shipped and their value.  California is the most common destination representing 30.2% of the volume and 32% of the value of all wine shipped. Beyond California, Texas is, surprisingly, second in number of cases received at 8.2% followed by New York (6.0%), Washington State (5.4%) and Florida (5.0%). 

Sonoma County experienced the largest increase, 19% in number of cases and 18% in value, surpassing Napa County as the region with most wine shipped by volume at 1.8 million cases. There is also demand for wines from the Pacific Northwest as Oregon and Washington State enjoyed increases in volume shipped of 19% and 18% respectively.

Sonoma County’s advancements in both volume and value of shipments included an average per bottle price of under $30.  Napa County’s modest gains in both categories was accompanied by the highest average per bottle price of over $67, leading some to question if they have reached their price ceiling.

The report also detailed what size wineries are shipping the most with some surprising results.  Of the  9,997 wineries in the United States, 80% are small or limited in size, producing under 5,000 cases per year. These smaller wineries, along with large ones producing over 500,000 cases, experienced the biggest increase during 2018 in both volume and value.

The larger wineries had a 28% increase in volume and a 37% increase in value of their shipments with an average per bottle price of $17.28.  In contrast, the smallest low-production wineries experienced 17% more volume, but a 32% increase in value with an average per bottle price of $72.22. Overall, the value of direct to consumer shipments has more than doubled during the past decade.

The descending order of top shipped varietals are cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, red blends, chardonnay and zinfandel.  Pinot noir took over the second spot in 2017 which seems to correlate with the increase of shipments from Sonoma County and the plethora of small “pinot-focused” wineries that exist there.

In 2018, rose’ shipments grew 24% in volume and 29% in value, indicative of the popularity of the light wine, now created with purpose and not as an afterthought.

It was a pleasant surprise to find that the volume of under-appreciated cabernet franc shipments rose 19.1%. Having recently tasted some fine releases and talked, over the years, with many winemakers who prefer the varietal, I often wonder why cabernet franc is not more prolific in California.

One explanation is that cabernet franc cannot compete with cabernet sauvignon, the popular grape that is abundantly produced and sold in California as a single varietal wine.  Actually, cabernet sauvignon is a relatively new grape, the result of an accidental blend of

Cabernet franc vines

cabernet franc and sauvignon blanc nearly three centuries ago.  Call me daddy.

 

With increased membership programs and more awareness, the sustained growth of direct to consumer wine shipments will be an interesting trend to follow in future years.  However, it’s always more fun to pick up your wine at the source and do some tasting.

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Monochrome Wines puts color and creativity into unique white blends

 

Experimentation is a distinctive characteristic of wine makers who began, as hobbyists, making wine in their garages.  They embrace trial and error out of necessity and, as a result, learn to think out of the box. Such is true with Dave McGee, founder of Monochrome Wines, the only Paso Robles winery that focuses exclusively on white varietals and unorthodox blends.

Aside from a few fine white Rhone blends, the Paso Robles region is known for world-class red Rhone blends and zinfandel which begs the question, “Why the focus on whites here?”

Half joking, Dave explained that it gets very hot during Paso’s summer season and he and his wife prefer to drink cooler white wines.  They are also weary of the myth that white wines are simplistic, lacking in-depth and beneath most serious wine drinkers.

Dave McGee, founder and co-winemaker at Monochrome

To prove his point, Dave decided to take his focus on avant-garde white blends and plant it in the middle of red wine country. I wonder if the property values have begun to fall?

McGee is a transplant from the Bay Area and after three degrees from Stanford and a long career, he fled the rat race for the green hills of Paso Robles wine country.  When asked if wine was his second career, he said, “Actually, it’s my fifth or sixth.” 

After years of planning, tracking California weather patterns and comparing them to the noted European regions, the McGees founded Monochrome Wines in 2016, intent on changing faulty perceptions of white wines.

From the first taste, the 2017 Monochrome “Barrel Distortion” ($35), a 100% albarino sourced from the Plum Orchard Vineyard in the nearby Templeton Gap AVA, challenged my perceptions and became a new paradigm.

The albarino grape is typically aged in stainless steel to highlight its crispness and vibrancy.  The “Barrel Distortion” is aged in stainless steel and on the lees in neutral French oak, giving it a unique soft and rich mouthfeel without sacrificing the flavors and aromatics. 

McGee understands that the creation of captivating wines begins with the best fruit.  To that end, he has secured grapes from known sources in the central coast and north Santa Barbara County including the Zaca Mesa Vineyard in the Santa Ynez Valley and the nearby Happy Canyon Vineyard, a long-time producer of quality sauvignon blanc. 

Having spent much of this decade avoiding red meat and eating more seafood and vegetables, I enjoy complex white wines that pair well with food such as the 2017 Monochrome “Neither Here Nor There” ($38), a distinct blend of sauvignon blanc and chenin blanc, both with origins from different parts of France’s Loire Valley. 

Sancerre and the nearby Poiully Fume’ region produce extraordinary sauvignon blanc that is, by nature, very dry.  Chenin blanc is produced to the south and is more versatile in its flavor and texture profile with different regions like Vouvray or Anjou. 

Origins aside, “Neither Here Nor There” claims its identity from California terroir and is barrel, not stainless steel aged, hence the name.

The individual varietals in Monochrome wines are fermented separately, then carefully blended later under the close scrutiny of Dave and consulting winemaker, Riley Hubbard, resulting in inventive wines like the 2017 Monochrome “Altered Images” ($40), a blend of chardonnay and chenin blanc and the 2016 Monochrome “Analogue in a Digital Age” ($38), a blend of marsanne (81%) and chardonnay (19%) that is aged separately in earthenware amphoras, used 8,000 years ago and oak barrels, in use for only 2,000 years, to achieve a contemporary result.

Monochrome currently produces about 500 cases per vintage but looks to expand to 2,000 cases and has many new releases on the horizon.

A growing trend among smaller production wineries, the easiest way to access Monochrome wines, aside from a few local restaurants, is by direct to consumer shipments through their growing two-tiered membership program that guarantees seasonal releases. 

Monochrome also has a small tasting room south of the town of Paso Robles where Dave McGee personally pours current vintages and provides insights into his passion of create complex, memorable white wines. 

Whether a connoisseur or someone who simply enjoys white wines, Monochrome’s mission to explore their intricacies is something not to be overlooked. They have certainly made me a believer.


Clos du Val Winery continues to make history

 

It is the perfect scenario for a Hollywood movie. A dream come true for a man who settled in the Napa Valley to produce world-class cabernet sauvignon and watched his first vintage become a part of history, the kind of history that changes things forever.

Clos du Val began in 1972 when John and Henrietta Goelet, after years of searching, purchased a parcel in the what is today the Stag’s

Clos du Val Winery in Napa Valley’s Stag’s Leap District

Leap District and set about making great cabernet sauvignon.  Working with French trained winemaker Bernard Portet, the inaugural release, the 1972 Clos Du Val Cabernet Sauvignon, was a part of the California contingency of wines that outscored the French wines in the venerable 1976 Judgement of Paris blind tasting.  In fact, the same vintage was the overall winner in a 1986 rematch.

If your first vintage helps to change the wine world and catapult California to the forefront, what’s next.  Well, Bernard Portet stayed at Clos Du Val for other 40 years, continued to produce top Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon and both became icons in the industry.  

Still owned by the Goelet family who reside on the East Coast, Clos du Val has, for over 45 years, succeeded through high-end consistency, stability among their staff and a focus on relationships, both with the customer and the surrounding community. They are also not willing to sit on their laurels.

In 2014, with new winemaker Ted Henry at the helm, Clos Du Val made the decision to dramatically reduce production, from 90,000 to 35,000 cases annually, and focus solely on making wines from their estate vineyards in the Stag’s Leap District, Yountville and the Carneros.

The 126-acre Hirondelle Vineyard, that surrounds their Stag’s Leap property, is the main source for cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot, petite verdot and malbec, all native to the Bordeaux region. The State Lane and Riverbend Vineyards add more fine cabernet sauvignon clones, cabernet franc with sauvignon blanc and viognier.

Under Henry’s tenure, Clos Du Val is returning to where they started, to the principles on which they were founded. He realizes that they can’t be everything to everyone and that the experience starts with people first, then the wine.

With the change in focus came the construction of a spacious, retro-modern tasting facility with indoor and outdoor spaces overlooking the Hirondelle Vineyard, furnishing comfortable enhancements to the experience.  Designer Erin Martin used the outside of old barrel staves as paneling and the inside of the staves for the ceiling to create history in the architecture.  Glass walls open to the West and bring in the outdoors with elegant patio furniture and water features. To the East, there is another glass door that opens to the barrel room and production facility.

We sat in a cozy nook with Ted Henry and members of the staff to taste some current releases that began with classic aromas of spice and red fruit in the 2016 Estate Pinot Noir, Gran Val Vineyard, Carneros, Napa Valley ($65).  Aged in 100% new French and Hungarian oak, the cherry and red fruit flavors were concentrated and lingering.

The next three wines were all sourced from the estate Hirondelle Vineyard beginning with the lush 2015 Estate Merlot, Hirondelle Vineyard, Stag’s Leap District ($65).  There were complex, earthy aromas of baked fruit and spice with integrated berry and fruit flavors and hints of espresso on the finish.

Cabernet franc, with tremendous heritage, is one of the most overlooked reds varietals in California.  The mineral and menthol hints on the nose of the 2015 Estate Cabernet Franc, Hirondelle Vineyard, Stag’s Leap District ($100) foreshadowed the full-bodied herbal

Clos du Val tasting room

flavors and elegant velvet finish.

The 2015 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Hirondelle Vineyard ($120) with merlot and cabernet franc added and the 2014 Three Graces Cabernet Sauvignon ($175), named for a sculpture that modeled the label design, were both exceptional wines that exemplify the grandeur and history of the Napa Valley.

As a special treat, we opened a 1996 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon from the library and found it to be surprisingly pristine and fruit-forward, an acknowledgement of how well Clos du Val wines age.

The rich legend of the 1972 vintage will be preserved in perpetuity as the contemporary Clos Du Val winery continues to create great wines, ambiance and memories for a new generation. 


Winemakers adjust to the impacts of climate change

 

With everything that surrounds the mystique of wine, it is, essentially, an agricultural commodity, produced by farmers.  Like all farmers, wine grape growers are and must continue to adapt to the challenges of climate change.

The French word, “Terroir,” is used to describe wine grapes matched with the perfect soil type, rainfall, temperatures, sun and wind exposure, elevation, etc.  Scientific data has shown that the terroir is changing.

Winegrowers deal with the ever-changing climate conditions for each vintage where seasonal variations of yield can exceed thirty

Hillside vineyard above the Mosel River

percent.  However, climate change may demand thinking beyond the grapes that have flourished in their regions for decades and even centuries.

As a co-author of a study in Nature on the impacts of climate change, assistant professor of organismic and evolutionary biology Elizabeth Wolkovich suggests that diversity is the answer for wine growers who should be exploring lesser known varietals.  She explains that while the old regions of Europe grow over one thousand different grapes, there are only twelve varietals that comprise over eighty percent of the market in New World countries

The Europeans, for the most part, produce blends that are not dependent upon a single varietal, whereas, in the United States, we have become fixated on single varietals like cabernet sauvignon, syrah or sauvignon blanc. 

Change in most parts of Europe will be difficult because of strict ordinances that carefully regulate what can and can’t be planted.  In California, we are regulated only by the strong influences of terroir and comfort.  Who can imagine the Napa Valley weaning itself from cabernet sauvignon and selling the vines to growers in a warmer Russian River Valley?

Don’t look for that change soon. The 2017 California harvest of cabernet sauvignon, the world’s most planted grape, was up six percent from 2016 at nearly 600,000 tons.  In contrast, most other varietals were down including popular chardonnay which dropped nine percent, the result of abnormal heat spikes.

California now grows sixty different wine grape varietals and Washington State has long had success with diverse plantings.  In contrast, Oregon is mostly pinot noir and may not be well-positioned to adapt to climate change. 

Although it may be short-lived, there is one country that is reaping the rewards of climate change. Over the past three decades, while

spatburgunder grapes (pinot noir)in Germany

Germany’s agricultural and tourist industries have been negatively affected by steadily rising temperatures, Germany’s wine industry,  at least for the time being, is benefitting from the spikes in heat, primarily because their prized riesling grapes are fully ripening.

A northern European country that has long been associated with beer, Germany has historically created fine riesling and gewürztraminer in the southerly Mosel region along the French (Alsace) and Luxembourg borders. Summer temperatures in Mosel had been fairly cool, averaging 64 degrees which, at times, did not allow the grapes to fully ripen, ultimately holding back the full expression of fruit and roundness to the wine.

Today, viticulture in Germany is less about finding ways to allow the grapes to fully mature and more about the fear of over-ripening. With increased temperatures, the riesling grapes are consistently ripening earlier increasing the yield and the quality of the wines, culminating with the 2018 vintage, that many say will be the best in a lifetime.  While acknowledging the harmful impacts of climate change to our planet, German winemakers admit that today, it is a boom for their product.

Conducive terroir for wine grapes has expanded to the North and opportunities to plant red varietals are growing.  There are reports of cabernet sauvignon, syrah and pinot noir plantings, previously unknown to Germany’s wine history, that are producing high-end results in the bottle.

Thirty years ago, all red grapes represented only ten percent of German vineyards, half that of riesling. Since then, higher average temperatures and a new approach to making red wines has catapulted them into the fore front.  Winemakers have focused on lower yields, malolactic fermentation to reduce acidity and oak aging to achieve their success.

Increased plantings of pinot noir, called spätburgunder, embody the growth of new German red wines that can be found online or in fine wine outlets throughout the Bay Area.

Meanwhile, we should all take advantage of extraordinary German kabinett (austere), spatlese (late-harvest) or auslese (dessert) style riesling wines, warmed by the new heat, and abundantly available at higher, but still reasonable prices.