Pix—The Inside Story

American wine isn’t keeping up with the digital technology revolution, and it hasn’t been for a long while. I’m not talking about the surprising resistance of some wineries to invest the time and energy required to engage customers on social media. I’m talking about a lack of the deep-seated digital transformations that have occupied most other industries for the last decade.

The wine industry has a long history of eschewing what it calls ‘ecosphere’ investments (investments that contribute to the overall industry ecosystem) in favour of either proprietary systems or products. Put simply, the largest wine companies are more than happy to spend a bunch of money on software to help themselves operate more efficiently, or to spend a couple of million acquiring a new brand for their portfolio, but seem quite reluctant to invest in companies that benefit the broader industry.

Roughly two years ago, wine-technology evangelist and thought leader Paul Mabray launched a start-up named Pix, aimed at providing consumers easier ways of buying wine while giving the wine industry better tools for selling it. On 16 August, Pix laid off most of its staff and began searching for buyers, after some of the largest players in the wine industry opted not to participate in the company’s latest round of fundraising. Even though many of these companies were already enthusiastically paying for the services that Pix offered.

Explaining Pix

For the last 18 months or so, I served on Pix’s Board of Advisors. As some readers know, in addition to writing about wine, I have also had a long career as a consultant in technology marketing, design and digital strategy. As an advisor, I was given stock options in exchange for providing advice and perspective to Mabray and the rest of the executive leadership team. 

My involvement since the early days of the company gave me an intimate understanding of what Pix was getting right, and what challenges it faced. For all of those challenges, the business Pix was building proved not only financially sound, but also potentially game-changing for the wine industry.

Continue reading this article on JancisRobinson.Com

This article is my monthly column at JancisRobinson.Com, Alder on America, and is available only to subscribers of her website. If you’re not familiar with the site, I urge you to give it a try. It’s only £8.50 a month or £85 per year ($11/mo or $111 a year for you Americans) and well worth the cost, especially considering you basically get free, searchable access to the Oxford Companion to Wine ($65) and maps from the World Atlas of Wine ($50) as part of the subscription costs. Click here to sign up.

Image of a wine city of the future created by MidJourney.

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How Flashy is American Wine?

A slowly growing number of American winemakers are relying on the winemaking equivalent of a secret weapon. It doesn’t feature prominently in most winery tours as it doesn’t exactly fit in with the romance of oak barrels and sweeping vineyard vistas. In fact, it usually requires its own building with a natural gas line, plumbing and, occasionally, a separate insurance policy. But from dealing with smoke taint, to handling some adverse effects of climate volatility, to shaping the flavours and textures of high-scoring wines, a once-esoteric European winemaking technology called flash détente (as it was named by the French) increasingly has a role as an indispensable tool for some winemakers.

A combination of thermovinification and flash evaporation, flash détente involves the rapid heating of grape must or juice to between 175 and 190 °F (79–88 °C) and then moving it into a vacuum chamber. When the hot must enters a vacuum, the cellular structures of the grape skins and pulp burst open, in the same way they might if they were brought to the boil. But because this happens in a vacuum, the instantaneous evaporation of water cools everything down, allowing the extraction of colour and flavour compounds that you could ordinarily get only by cooking the fruit, which would result in much less desirable flavours.

The evaporation and capture of water from this process produces three critical outcomes that matter to winemakers: a concentration of the processed must or juice (usually the equivalent of around 2 Brix in sugar accumulation), the removal of a wide array of unwanted volatile compounds (including pyrazines, various aerosols and some elements of smoke taint, all of which have conveniently low boiling points and end up in the captured steam), and the effective pasteurisation or denaturing of moulds, enzymes or other sources of grape spoilage.

Continue reading this article on JancisRobinson.Com

This article is my monthly column at JancisRobinson.Com, Alder on America, and is usually available only to subscribers of her website. If you’re not familiar with the site, I urge you to give it a try. It’s only £8.50 a month or £85 per year ($11/mo or $111 a year for you Americans) and well worth the cost, especially considering you basically get free, searchable access to the Oxford Companion to Wine ($65) and maps from the World Atlas of Wine ($50) as part of the subscription costs. Click here to sign up.

Image courtesy of Barry Gnekow.

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Napa – Small Scale, Big Change

For more than 80 years, the journey up Highway 29 into Napa Valley has begun with the same view. To this day, as motorists make the turn off of Highway 12 from Sonoma or sweep across the Napa River and head north into the valley, the first sights they encounter are a set of green fields dotted with cows grazing placidly in front of an old white barn.

This pastoral scene, in the Carneros section of Napa Valley, provides an exceedingly rare glimpse into an agrarian past that few in modern-day Napa remember. Multi-generational family farms, especially those that grow anything but grapes, are all but extinct in Napa. But thanks to a measure passed by the Napa Board of Supervisors on 22 March, the few remaining such farms may have a new lease on life.

Those picturesque pastures at the entrance to Napa Valley (pictured above) have been in Ailene Tarap’s family for four generations, ever since her great-grandparents bought the property in 1903. The Stewart Ranch, as it is called, was one of Napa’s original local dairies, but now Ailene and her husband Paul raise a small herd of Belted Galloway cattle for meat, even as they struggle to keep the property afloat so they may pass it along to their children.

‘Over the years we’ve been working to figure out how to avoid having the next generation forced to sell the ranch and develop it, but ultimately the cows are not going to make it’, says Tarap.

Continue reading this article on JancisRobinson.Com

This article is my monthly column at JancisRobinson.Com, Alder on America, and is usually available only to subscribers of her website. If you’re not familiar with the site, I urge you to give it a try. It’s only £8.50 a month or £85 per year ($11/mo or $111 a year for you Americans) and well worth the cost, especially considering you basically get free, searchable access to the Oxford Companion to Wine ($65) and maps from the World Atlas of Wine ($50) as part of the subscription costs. Click here to sign up.

Image of the Stewart Ranch courtesy of Paul and Aileen Tarap.

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Direct to America

Wine producers the world over have long coveted America’s growing consumer base of wine drinkers. But wanting access to the American market and successfully selling into it are two entirely different things. The United States has historically not made it easy (or cheap) for international producers to sell their wares to its citizens. Nonetheless, international producers have continued to explore many different ways to bring their products to American wine drinkers. And just like domestic producers, both the pandemic and recent trends in distributor consolidation have them taking a close look at the idea of selling directly to US consumers. 

Of course, literally shipping wine to an American consumer from a winery in Europe or South America is against the law. There are customs duties to be paid, licences to possess, and different laws in every state about how wine can be sold, transported, and delivered into the hands of the waiting customer.

That hasn’t stopped some producers, however. I remember visiting a winery on my very first trip to Tuscany long ago and being told with a wink that I could have bottles of that estate’s wines whenever I wanted, as long as I didn’t mind receiving a shipment of ‘olive oil’ now and again. Plenty of small and medium-size wineries around the world skirt the law and import duties when they can establish direct relationships with consumers in America.

Continue reading this article on JancisRobinson.Com

This article is my monthly column at JancisRobinson.Com, Alder on America, and is usually available only to subscribers of her website. If you’re not familiar with the site, I urge you to give it a try. It’s only £8.50 a month or £85 per year ($11/mo or $111 a year for you Americans) and well worth the cost, especially considering you basically get free, searchable access to the Oxford Companion to Wine ($65) and maps from the World Atlas of Wine ($50) as part of the subscription costs. Click here to sign up.

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America’s Wine Decline

Numbers, they say, do not lie. But the numbers to which you pay attention matter greatly. Much ado has been made in recent years about America’s ascendancy to become the world’s largest consumer of wine by volume, a title it achieved in 2014 and has kept since (as-yet-unreported numbers from the last two years notwithstanding). America seems to be drinking more wine than ever, but that seemingly good news belies a much more disturbing trend that suggests America’s wine industry is in some fairly serious trouble.

Rob McMillan has been watching the American wine industry for three decades, having founded the Wine Division of Silicon Valley Bank in 1992. SVB, as it is more commonly known, finances a significant portion of the country’s wineries and wine businesses, and has unmatched visibility into the financials of thousands of wineries. Each year, based on information gleaned from those financials, as well as an industry-wide survey, McMillan assembles his State of the Wine Industry Report and attempts to provide a snapshot of where the industry is headed.

‘Let’s talk about the elephant in the room’, said McMillan in his live-streamed presentation of the report. The elephant, hiding under big flashy numbers like rising wine consumption and many high-end wineries saying that 2021 was the best year in the history of their business, was this: McMillan’s analysis shows steadily shrinking growth rates for the industry as a whole for the last 20 years.

You don’t have to have an MBA or a degree in statistics to know that when it comes to business, you want your graphs to go up and to the right. The American wine industry’s graph goes down and to the right.

Continue reading this article on JancisRobinson.Com

This article is my monthly column at JancisRobinson.Com, Alder on America, and is usually available only to subscribers of her website. If you’re not familiar with the site, I urge you to give it a try. It’s only £8.50 a month or £85 per year ($11/mo or $111 a year for you Americans) and well worth the cost, especially considering you basically get free, searchable access to the Oxford Companion to Wine ($65) and maps from the World Atlas of Wine ($50) as part of the subscription costs. Click here to sign up.

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An American in London

Every time I find myself strolling the streets of London, as I did for a few days in early December while in town to attend the annual JancisRobinson.com Christmas dinner, I inevitably end up whistling Sting’s ‘Englishman in New York’. Odd as it may be, I revel in my (admittedly very geeky) inversion of the song’s conceit. 

I’m an American in London. I’m an alien, I’m a legal alien. You can hear it in my accent when I talk. I like my toast done on both sides.

I arrived in London just as the world was beginning to hear about the Omicron variant, slightly nervous because of that, but determined to make the most of my time in a city I hadn’t visited since 2015.

As on that previous trip, my first impression of the city consisted of a skyline continuing to evolve, with myriad buildings in various states of construction and completion. Given the infrequency of my visits, I suppose I should resign myself to a perpetual sense of architectural change in central London.

Once released from my post-flight, pre-COVID-test-result isolation, a stroll across Hyde Park (under darkening, but mostly blue skies) brought me into familiar streets and the recollection of just how much more festive London is during the holidays than my home in California. The holiday lights suspended above the streets, the artfully decorated windows of Harrods, and the hordes of stylishly dressed shoppers (a surprising number speaking Arabic or Farsi) put me in a Christmassy mood for the first time in 2021.

Continue reading this article on JancisRobinson.Com

This article is my monthly column at JancisRobinson.Com, Alder on America, and is usually available only to subscribers of her website. If you’re not familiar with the site, I urge you to give it a try. It’s only £8.50 a month or £85 per year ($11/mo or $111 a year for you Americans) and well worth the cost, especially considering you basically get free, searchable access to the Oxford Companion to Wine ($65) and maps from the World Atlas of Wine ($50) as part of the subscription costs. Click here to sign up.

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Three Small Steps Forward

Understanding the byzantine nature of wine laws in the United States involves thinking not in terms of 50 separate states, but in terms of 50 separate countries. The regulations enacted by each state in the wake of the 21st Amendment’s repeal of Prohibition are so complex, they have given rise to several companies whose revenues run into the tens of millions of dollars, all from helping wine producers stay on the right side of the law.

Decades before they enacted the protectionist and convoluted shipping laws that are the bane of America’s modern existence (except for the wholesalers who profit handsomely from them), most states established a set of laws governing the consumption and sale of alcohol. Some of these so-called ‘blue laws’ forbade the sale of alcohol on Sundays or during certain hours of the day that were objectionable to primarily religious interests.

Other laws, known as ‘tied-house’ laws, were enacted to prevent the competitive price wars among liquor sellers that the temperance movement blamed for overconsumption before Prohibition. 

While these laws have sometimes been adjusted and changed with the times, in many states, California included, laws still exist that seem quite preposterous. But on 9 October, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed three bills into law that inject just a bit more rationality into state-wide winery regulations.

Continue reading this article on JancisRobinson.Com

This article is my monthly column at JancisRobinson.Com, Alder on America, and is usually available only to subscribers of her website. If you’re not familiar with the site, I urge you to give it a try. It’s only £8.50 a month or £85 per year ($11/mo or $111 a year for you Americans) and well worth the cost, especially considering you basically get free, searchable access to the Oxford Companion to Wine ($65) and maps from the World Atlas of Wine ($50) as part of the subscription costs. Click here to sign up.

Image of a growler from Kivelstadt Cellars by Grace Remeta.

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That Heat Dome: How Are Vines Coping?

On 29 June, as the so-called heat dome settled over British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon, the weather station near the Red Mountain AVA of Washington recorded an ambient temperature of 117.8 °F/47.7 °C. That was the third of what would be four days of high temperatures above 112 °F/44 °C which came hard on the heels of more than a week of highs above 95 °F/35 °C. Since then the daytime highs have not fallen below 97.7 °F/36.5 °C. Temperatures are expected to climb higher still in the coming days.

As untold billions of shoreline molluscs literally cooked in their shells, hundreds of people died from heat exhaustion, and scientists were presented with incontrovertible evidence that human-caused climate change bore responsibility for the heat, like many I found myself wondering just how the wine grapes were doing under the broiler.

‘I was pretty scared at first’, said Dick Boushey, who farms 300 acres (121 ha) in Washington’s Yakima Valley and manages another 300 acres of vineyards in the Red Mountain AVA. ‘But now, in the second week of this heat, I’m feeling a little bit better.’

Water was the primary determining factor for how vines weathered the heat, especially in the sandy, fast-draining soils of the Yakima Valley.

Boushey and his crews began irrigating in advance of the heat, and essentially they haven’t stopped since. ‘Perhaps counter-intuitively, I’ve also been putting on more compost, trying to get more organic matter into the soils, which should help with water-holding capacity’, said Boushey. While the water and the fertiliser are driving more vigorous growth in the vines than Boushey would want at this point in the growing season, that’s a trade-off he’s willing to make if it means he can avoid more serious losses. Nonetheless, he hasn’t got through the heat event scot-free.

Continue reading this article on JancisRobinson.Com

This article is my monthly column at JancisRobinson.Com, Alder on America, and is usually available only to subscribers of her website. If you’re not familiar with the site, I urge you to give it a try. It’s only £8.50 a month or £85 per year ($11/mo or $111 a year for you Americans) and well worth the cost, especially considering you basically get free, searchable access to the Oxford Companion to Wine ($65) and maps from the World Atlas of Wine ($50) as part of the subscription costs. Click here to sign up.

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Napa Goes Kosher

I’m a particularly bad (read: unobservant and unbelieving) Jew, but I’ve written my share of articles on kosher wines over the years, usually for magazines or websites with broad consumer readerships, and usually to coincide with some Jewish holiday. I wouldn’t say that I’m particularly in touch with Jewish communities here in California, but when I heard recently that one of Napa’s top winemakers was making a kosher wine, I sat up and paid attention. And when I did, I learned that it seems that kosher wine is now officially a thing in Napa.

For the longest time there have been only three names to know when it comes to kosher wine in Napa, or in California as a whole. Herzog Wine Cellars, now based in Ventura, California, was the first to make kosher wine from Napa in the mid 1980s, and was likely the first to make kosher wine in the United States following the end of Prohibition. Hagafen Cellars, based in Napa Valley, has been making kosher wine since the early 1990s. And in 2003, Jeff Morgan started Covenant in Napa, which for years has been the standard-bearer for premium kosher wine in California (and the best-known, expensive American kosher wine on the market).

That was the state of things, or so I thought, until I heard Maayan Koschitzky make a passing comment about all the kosher winemaking spam he was receiving these days.

Continue reading this article on JancisRobinson.Com

This article is my monthly column at JancisRobinson.Com, Alder on America, and is usually available only to subscribers of her website. If you’re not familiar with the site, I urge you to give it a try. It’s only £8.50 a month or £85 per year ($11/mo or $111 a year for you Americans) and well worth the cost, especially considering you basically get free, searchable access to the Oxford Companion to Wine ($65) and maps from the World Atlas of Wine ($50) as part of the subscription costs. Click here to sign up.

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California Runs Dry

Over the last year or two, the ubiquitous two-word phrase ‘climate change’ has, with increasing frequency, been replaced with the phrase ‘climate emergency’. Spring has not quite yet transitioned to summer in California wine country, but there are plenty of alarm bells ringing that make it clear the state is firmly in the grip of the latter.

On Wednesday 21 April, California Governor Gavin Newsom declared a drought emergency for Sonoma and Mendocino Counties. As the site for his announcement he chose the dry bed of Lake Mendocino where, he said, under normal circumstances he should have been standing ‘40 feet underwater’. Last Monday, 10 May, he expanded that emergency declaration to add 39 other counties to the list, including Napa. 

Rainfall in the state is at 42% of normal levels according the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration with parts of Sonoma County at just 33% of historical averages. At a time when parts of the state would normally be seeing the last of their spring showers, more than 1,788 fires have already started, including some flare-ups from ‘holdover fires’ – smouldering embers from 2020 that did not receive enough rain to be fully extinguished over the winter. The wildfire risk for much of the west, as shown above in a map from Channel 7 News, is already extreme.

Continue reading this story on JancisRobinson.Com.

This article is my monthly column at JancisRobinson.Com, Alder on America, and is usually available only to subscribers of her website. If you’re not familiar with the site, I urge you to give it a try. It’s only £8.50 a month or £85 per year ($11/mo or $111 a year for you Americans) and well worth the cost, especially considering you basically get free, searchable access to the Oxford Companion to Wine ($65) and maps from the World Atlas of Wine ($50) as part of the subscription costs. Click here to sign up.

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