What Wine Writers Want You to Know

Put 300 or so wine writers in the same room and you’ll know what people mean when they say, “Everybody’s a critic.” It’s especially true among those who understand what’s in your glass and how it got there. Opinions, interpretations and (sometimes) attitude will swirl about you like a funnel cloud.

Uruguay class

[Masterclass in Uruguayan Wines, taught by Amanda Barnes, South American wine authority]

But we all agree: we’re crazy about wine (that’s why we come together) and we love learning about it. I brought home plenty of new wine knowledge after the 2018 Wine Bloggers Conference (now Wine Media Conference) in Walla Walla, Washington, and thought I’d share a few takeaways here:

— Walla Walla is a cute, walkable little town, but there’s more: in just a few blocks, you’ll find more than 30 tasting rooms in the core downtown. Sure, we all love to drive from winery to winery and sip great wine on patios overlooking lush vineyards–if we have unlimited time and cash. The beauty of a town like Walla Walla, where the streets literally are lined with tasting rooms, is that you can try the region’s best wines, buy some bottles to take home, and still get to the airport on time. Or just keep people-watching.

— Washington is almost ideally positioned to produce superior wines. The Blue Mountains east of Walla Walla catch the humidity, and no wineries sit in a rain shadow–that is, a “sheltered” slope that doesn’t get sufficient rain. There’s just one snag: the region also doesn’t get much fog, so the sunlight can be pretty intense. Vineyard managers have to pay close attention to the canopy (the parts of the vine above ground, especially the branches and leaves sheltering the grape clusters) so the grapes don’t get sunburned. As one winemaker put it, “These slopes are like a Disneyland for grapes.”

— If you don’t know wines from Uruguay yet, you have a real treat coming. Considering that Uruguayans are the world’s biggest consumers of beef (124 lbs./person annually, compared to 78 lbs./person in the U.S.), it’s no surprise that their wines are 80 percent red (mostly Tannat and Merlot) and just 20 percent white (largely Albariño). Uruguay also walks the walk in terms of educating kids: the government gives families one laptop per child. Cool, yes?

— Back in the U.S., winery owners will be interested to know that 45 percent of wine club members live with a couple of hours’ drive from the winery, according to Wine Business Monthly. And here’s a kicker: 35 percent of winery customers are under 50 years old, yet they bring in only 18 percent of revenues. Apparently they love the wine culture and trappings, but they’re not buying the expensive stuff.

— Another age-related message for all businesses: 50 percent of Gen Z (under age 25) and 42 percent of Millennials (currently age 25-39) think social media is the most relevant channel for ads. If you’re trying to reach the under-40 audience, forget buying print ads; that generation couldn’t care less about magazines and newspapers. Almost never touch ’em.

— Here’s a sobering statistic about websites: 74 percent of smartphone users will abandon a website that takes more than five seconds to load, according to Lewis Perdue, publisher of Wine Industry Insight. Some 42 percent of users expect mobile pages to load in under two seconds. (That figure was eight seconds in 1999–we’re getting more impatient!)

— During a quick visit to the Owen Roe Winery in the Yakima Valley outside Walla Walla, I learned that Yakima shares Walla Walla’s sunshine challenges. (Living in Cleveland, I can tell you it’s a “problem” we’d love to contend with.) The valley runs east-west, so vineyards enjoy a plethora of sunny, south-facing hillsides; some winemakers in this region cover their vines with little white tents to shield them from the intense sun. Driving past the vineyards, those hills blanketed with white tents make quite a sight. Grapes don’t do well on the Yakima Valley floor, where crops can face frost, floods, and soil that can be too deep and “soft.” The solution: many farmers plant hops on those lower elevations.

The next Wine Media Conference will happen next fall in Australia. I’m registered, so I expect to be writing like crazy after that one.

Wine Lingo = Teinturiergrapes whose flesh and juice are red. If you love red wines, you may not realize that your BigSexyRed usually gets its color from the skins. The pulp and juice of almost all grapes are clear; we get red wine when the skins are soaked in the grape juice and they stain the juice red. (“Teinturier” comes from the French word meaning to dye or stain.) One teinturier grape you might recognize is Chambourcin, a French-American hybrid.

Dama, medium

Vino ‘View: DAMA 2013 Cowgirl Cab (14.8 percent alcohol; $19) is a happy discovery from those tasting rooms in downtown Walla Walla. A cowgirl, DAMA’s label explains, “may have an exterior as rough as the desert scrub, but underneath you’ll find an intense, alluring woman who loves deeply and fears little.” This inky-dark-purple wine doesn’t fool around; with such high alcohol you know it’s going to be robust, yet it’s silky with balanced tannins. Cherry and black olive aromas compete, then you settle in with cocoa, coffee and delicious tobacco on the palate and light smoke on the finish. I had it with a spicy chicken pesto and it stood up to the full-flavored dish beautifully.

Cheers!

Mary

Viognier, the “White Wine for Hedonists”

The cherry blossoms are about to pop in northern Virginia, and I’m looking at the first green grass I’ve seen in six months. We’re sipping Viognier, the state’s signature grape—crisp, fruity and the perfect varietal for welcoming spring—but this bottle is from the other side of the country: Maryhill Winery in Goldendale, Washington.

977E7728-8E78-4DCC-B6D9-B90CF58C2AD5

I visited Maryhill, perched above the Columbia River near Mt. Hood, last October after the Wine Media Conference in Walla Walla. At about 8,000 cases of Viognier a year, Maryhill is the state’s biggest producer, though the American Northwest is a latecomer to Viognier-growing.

Viognier—a close DNA match to Syrah, by the way—may have originated in Croatia. One story has it imported into southern France as early as 281 AD: we know it grew in Condrieu during the Roman Empire. But it’s a notoriously difficult grape to grow because it’s more prone to disease than most varieties, and by the 1960s it was nearly extinct—only about 35 acres remained across the globe.

But as wine’s popularity grew, so did wine lovers’ awareness of this luscious white grape. Growers planted vines in California and Eden Valley (Australia) in the ’70s; now it’s found in New Zealand, Israel, North and South America, and the Cape Winelands of South Africa–for starters. In spite of its susceptibility to disease and unpredictable yields, Viognier also is drought-resistant, so it can thrive in warm, dry climates.

Viognier is a crisp, fruity wine, with aromas of peach, honeysuckle and tangerine. On top of the stone fruit layer you might detect a steely quality, along with some herbal notes–pine, chamomile, perhaps thyme. This festival of aromas is why wine authority Jancis Robinson calls Viognier, “the hedonist’s white grape variety,” but the perfume party doesn’t happen by accident. In order for the nose to fully develop, Viognier must hang on the vine longer than most grapes, sometimes rendering it “too rich to ferment to dryness.”

I think Viognier makes a delicious varietal, but increasingly I’m seeing it in blends, often with Grenache Blanc. Italian winemakers sometimes blend it with Chardonnay, especially, as Jancis Robinson notes, if it needs the Chardonnay’s added acidity. A few  creative winemakers, especially in California and Australia, have even started mixing it with reds, especially its close cousin Syrah, for a deeper texture and brighter color. And if you’re a person who likes a little oaky taste in your whites, look for Viognier that’s been aged in oak; it will give you that creamy mouthfeel you get in oaked Chardonnay.

Wine Lingo of the Day:  pH = a measure of a wine’s acidity, indicated by the amount of hydrogen in it.

BF7F484D-BAA1-4D25-9A3C-35FA4FDB2E24

Vino ‘View:  Maryhill 2017 Viognier (14.5 % alcohol; $19) delivers superb balance in spite of that high (for a white) alcohol content, thanks to a hot summer and late harvest that give the wine a slightly tingly acidity. The grapes were sourced from four vineyards in the Columbia Valley AVA, picked in the cool morning hours to keep those peachy-bright aromas. The wine was partially fermented with French oak staves, but it’s so lively and fruity, I wouldn’t call it an “oaky” wine at all. Don’t drink it straight out of the refrigerator; take it out half an hour before you serve it so you can experience its richness. I drank mine with a spicy Thai curry, a perfect pairing for the grape’s natural sweetness.

[The Maryhill Viognier was sent to BigSexyReds for review.]

Cheers!

Mary

 

Hoarding Souvenir Wineglasses

It doesn’t matter whether you drink from 50-cent water glasses or $100-a-pop fine crystal  – if you love the grape, then you have a stash of souvenir wineglasses.

 

 

I’ve collected these over the years, starting long before I actually knew anything about wine. I don’t need the glasses, don’t even drink from most of them. I have a cupboard full of divine Riedels and Marquis by Waterford that I use every day.

Yet I keep these, I think because they remind me of good times with good friends. That stemmed glass in the back row with the big “2” is from 2 Lads Winery on Mission Peninsula in northern Michigan. I was there with my sister Margie sometime in the last century, shortly after the winery opened. We drank our way up Mission and Leelanau Peninsulas, stopping at any winery with a pretty lake view (which was most of them).

Another sister trip got me the beer glass in the upper righthand corner. I was with my sister Carol in Dubrovnik. It was hot that day and we exhausted ourselves shopping, so we stopped at a sidewalk café for a cold glass (or two) of pivo. I remember having to practically drag her away because she couldn’t stop staring at our handsome waiter.

The stemmed glass in the upper left corner is from the annual tasting fundraiser for the International Women’s Air and Space Museum on Cleveland’s waterfront. It’s a small affair, as tastings go, so it’s an easy evening for strolling and talking. I never miss it. Last year they switched to the small stemless glass, second from left in the front row. I brought the stemless, ridge-bottom glass in the corner from the Island Wine Festival at rowdy Put-in-Bay. It was my friend Anne’s maiden voyage on the Miller Ferry to the Lake Erie Islands  – how could that be, I wondered, when she’s lived here all her life? – and she was smitten.

The tall water bottle from Livermore Valley in California isn’t a wineglass, but it says, “Live a little more” – how could I toss away that cheery message? Livermore was one of the excursions offered at the 2016 Wine Bloggers Conference in Lodi; this year we’ll meet in Walla Walla, Washington, and I know I’ll snag at least one good glass there, too. I might even drink from it while I’m there (twist my arm).

Wine Lingo:  Avvinare i bicchieri = an Italian wineglass custom. Clean glasses aren’t ready to drink from until the server pours a little wine into the glass, swirls it, then tosses out the used wine. Then the glass is ready. Author Karen MacNeil, in The Wine Bible, called it a “baptism of sorts.”

Bervini Rose

Vino ‘View:  I took half a dozen photos of this bottle, trying to capture its gorgeous salmon color. We’ve had a few warm days here in the northern states – our harbinger of spring – and they sparked my taste for a nice rosé. This is Bervini 1955 NV Spumante Extra Dry Rosé (11 percent alcohol, $17.99), a sparkling wine that tastes as pretty as it looks, filling my mouth with red berry flavor, floral notes and plenty of tingly acidity. The bubbles  come fast and tiny, making it even more elegant. Bervini rosé is a blend of Glera, best known as the white grape that produces Prosecco (no surprise, since the vineyards border the Prosecco region of Italy) and Raboso, a red grape that adds backbone, color and some tannins to the more demure Glera. I drank it before a salmon salad dinner (a nod to the wine’s color) with a berry vinaigrette and just a bit of blue cheese.

[The Bervini 1955 NV Spumante Rosé was sent to BigSexyReds for review.]

Cheers!

Mary

Washington Wine Month is Walla-Walla-Wonderful!

Some say the shrubby, scrubby, almost desert-like terrain of eastern Washington is what gives character and backbone to wines from that state. There, in the rain shadow of the Cascades, you’ll find 99 percent of Washington’s vineyards.

Red Willow vineyard, Yakima AVA, Washington

Red Willow vineyard, Yakima AVA, Washington

March is Washington Wine Month and we can all raise our glasses: their wines are sold in all 50 states and about 40 countries.

Big Sexy Reds do well here. A slew of micro-climates are scattered across the state’s 13 AVAs, but typically the vines goes fully dormant in winter, with temps from 28°-45° to keep the roots cozy and growing, and hoarding their carbs until the vines are ready to sprint in the spring. Diurnal (overnight) temperature swings of 40° keep the acid levels up there, and summertime highs of 90° or more make great sugar for the fruit.

Some 25,000 acres are planted with reds – slightly more than half the state’s vines – with about 10,300 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon alone. But it’s all good for red-lovers of every stripe; Washington also produces Merlot, Syrah, Cabernet Franc, Sangiovese, Nebbiolo, Tempranillo, Malbec and more. For white-wine drinkers they grow Riesling, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, Viognier – more than 40 wine grapes in all.

Harvest, Figgins Family Wines, Walla Walla, Washington

Harvest, Figgins Family Wines, Walla Walla, Washington

Washington wine has come a long way since the first wine grapes appeared in the Walla Walla Valley around 1860. The state’s oldest living vines are the Muskat of Alexandria vines on Snipes Mountain, reportedly producing fruit since 1917. (Next year, when those vines celebrate their 100th birthday, I think Washington wine lovers should make a pilgrimage to Snipes Mountain and dance naked in the vineyard. Just saying.)  The first commercial-scale plantings – predecessors of today’s Chateau Ste. Michelle and Columbia Winery – came in the 1960s; today Washington wine is a $4.4-billion industry, with a new winery opening almost every 30 days.

Although the biggest tastings happen this month, you have plenty of time to plan a visit during sunny, walking-around weather: it generally stays warm (70°-80°) into the fall, with some wineries able to harvest as late as November.

Wine Lingo of the Day:  AVA = American Viticultural Area, an officially designated wine grape-growing region in the U.S. The gatekeeper for AVAs is the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau of the U.S. Department of the Treasury. Currently there are 234 AVAs in the U.S. (138 of them in California), with 10 applications pending for the creation of new AVAs or expansion of existing ones. One day when I’m feeling especially nerdy I’ll write an entire post on AVAs, their regulation and how they differ from wine-region designations in other countries. Sound exciting? Yeah, I thought that’s what you’d say…

Don’t forget to click the “Follow” tab (lower right corner of your screen) to get BigSexyReds.com by email (pretty please!).

Cheers!

Mary

[Photos courtesy of WashingtonWine.org]