Hungarian Wine Authorities Don’t Seem to Know Anything About Wine

The people in charge of Hungarian wine seem to believe that orange wine, pétillant naturel, natural wines, low-sulfur wines, and other experimental approaches to wine are abominations and mistakes.

According to an article recently published in the Winemaking Notebook, a free publication by the Hungarian Alcoholic Beverages and Wineries Directorate, Kalman Meszaros, the head of this organization (pictured above) believes that any winemaker with any professional pride would never make a white wine with extended skin contact.

“Before [the fall of Communism], vintners were actually fired if they failed to process the incoming grapes soon after arrival,” Meszaros was quoted as saying in this article.

The Hungarian Alcoholic Beverages and Wineries Directorate is part of the larger organization of the Hungarian National Food Chain Safety Office known by its local acronym: NEBIH.

The article in question serves largely to explain what NEBIH does with regards to testing and certifying Hungarian wines, how it is doing that during COVID, and to offer a lot of self-congratulations about how they’re helping Hungarian winemakers.

“We are also part of the wine industry, and we are organized around the success of winemakers,” says Meszaros, explaining that the quality of Hungarian wine improves each year thanks to his laboratory testing and quality controls.

Most wines pass our tests. The characteristic mistakes are mostly done by the ‘pioneers’. Orange wine is such a typical example, as well as sparkling wine made without disgorging. There was even someone who said that there was interest for wine without added hydrogen-sulfide.

Kalman Meszaros, NEBIH Director

Of course, there are some places where quality is not improving according to Meszaros, which are mostly the smaller wineries who “sold wine at premium prices but the wines are not premium in quality.”

“Most wines pass our tests,” continued Meszaros. “The characteristic mistakes are mostly done by the ‘pioneers’. Orange wine is such a typical example as well as sparkling wine made without disgorging. There was even someone who said that there was interest for wine without added hydrogen-sulfide.”

Orange wine is a problem, not only because it is “decaying” (to use the Meszaros’ words) but also because the very term is misleading to consumers. “Many associate [orange wine] with citrus flavours because of the name, which they will definitely not find in them. Those not familiar with it will not know that the wine is made of grapes, they can think that it has something to do with oranges,” says the article.

If you’re not laughing (or crying) by now, wait until you hear the description of how wine was so great under communism because it was consistent for the consumer. And, oh, if we could only go back to those days….

“Prior to [the fall of Communism] our domestic market was dominated by typical wines,” suggests the article. “Then with the family wineries [who were finally allowed to operate when the wall came down] a certain ‘colourfulness’ appeared. However, it is typical that the consumer expects the same quality time and time again. According to [Meszaros], this could even be achieved with OEM wines that could be ‘constructed’ to achieve a certain flavour-type.”

Issues With Regional Certification Bodies

Most countries around the world (with the notable exception of the United States) define their appellations not only with geographical indications but also other regulations regarding the production of wines, which in many cases include stylistic definitions.

When a country decides to institute a formal set of geographical indications, or regulated delimitations that define specific wine growing areas, the regulations associated with this controlled appellation system are usually developed and overseen by a governmental body.

France, for instance, has the INAO, or the Institut National de l’Origine et de la Qualité, which is responsible for overseeing France’s appellation d’orgine protégée system that covers not only wine but cheese, honey, meat, etc.

By and large, these organizations, and the smaller consortia that exist at the level of individual regions, have historically been a positive influence in the world of wine, thanks to their defense of and advocacy for regional winemaking traditions, and the regulations that prevent them from being victims of pure market opportunism. Brunello di Montalcino, for instance, decided to not allow any other grapes to join the traditional Sangiovese in its wines. Whereas the Rioja region decided in 2009 to allow other white grapes to be used to make Rioja Blanco because, among other things, there were judged to not be enough acres of the traditional Viura, Malvasia, and Garnacha Blanca varieties planted to allow the style to survive.

Most everywhere (again, apart from the United States) winemakers wishing to put a particular geographical indication, or appellation, on their label, must submit a sample of wine and paperwork to their regional certification body, who certify, or grant permission for that winemaker to label their wine appropriately.

One of the more controversial aspects of this process is known as the sensory panel, in which a wine is tasted by a panel of judges who can make two separate determinations: whether that wine is commercially sound (i.e. free of flaws) and whether the wine conforms to the typical “style” of a given region or class of wine from that region.

If the sensory panel doesn’t think the wine conforms to their idea of a good example of the form the winemaker is unable to label the wine with the appellation where it is made, often resulting in either not being able to sell the wine for as much money, or in some cases not being able to sell the wine at all.

A number of public fights with regional certification bodies have occurred over the years, as winemakers have fought to get their experiments, or merely their personal vision for what good wine, allowed to bear the name of their particular appellations. When winemakers disagree with the standards and judgment of their certifying organizations, they sometimes declassify their wines, choosing to label them with more generic appellations that have much broader rules about what is and what is not allowed. In 1996, Angelo Gaja famously declassified many of his wines, choosing to label them as Langhe Nebbiolo instead of the much more prestigious Barolo, because of his stated desire to include a small amount of Barbera in the Nebbiolo to improve the acid balance.

More recently a trend of declassification has swept the natural winemaking communities in several European countries in response to widespread rejection from sensory panels in their various regions. In the wide world of wine, the definition of what is “good wine,” remains subject to a lot of interpretation.

And the problem, of course, to come back to the sad state of affairs in Hungary, is that there’s a big difference between the way that wine looks to food safety professionals and the way that it looks to winemakers and their organizations.

Poor Kalman Meszaros literally doesn’t have any idea what he’s talking about. He’s busy prosecuting food safety issues with a 30-year-old playbook that says if something he tests falls outside of the parameters on his clipboard, it must not be wine. He’s clearly swept away by the romance of the wine world, and ignorantly believes himself to be a wine professional because he deals with wine, when in fact he doesn’t have the faintest idea. If he did, he wouldn’t make statements like “Winemaking is a practice older than ten thousand years where there are basic rules and cornerstones” while at the same time describing skin-macerated white wine (aka orange wine—literally one of the most ancient winemaking techniques still employed) as faulty or “decaying.”

Regional wine certification boards all around the world suffer from some degree of such ailments, as is common with any government bureaucratic institution. The people being asked to regulate the wine industry often remain quite out of touch with the constantly changing nature of the wine world, and far too often simply fall back on extremely conservative notions that may be time tested, while increasingly irrelevant.

My heart goes out to all my Hungarian winemaking friends. Orange wine, pét-nat, natural, and low-sulfur wine are all legitimate and exciting forms of wine. A country like Hungary, with some of the oldest traditions of legislated wine quality in the world and dozens of compelling local grape varieties shouldn’t be thwarting its winemaking community from tapping into global trends and exploring the possibilities of the raw materials they have been given.

Hungarian wine has had an uphill journey to return to quality since the end of the Cold War. The last thing it needs is small-minded bureaucrats trying to drag it back to that era.

Many thanks to Eva Cartwright for translation of the article from Hungarian to English.

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Channeling Bob Ross to Bring You “The Joy of Wine Tasting”

It’s been months since I’ve had a haircut, and not one to miss an opportunity, I thought I might as well have some fun with my JewFro. When I snapped the photo above, people seemed to love it, so before I cut all my hair off this week, I couldn’t resist taking the idea to its logical conclusion.

So without further ado (and with apologies for self-indulgence plus great reverence for one of my personal heroes, the late great Bob Ross) I present to you, The Joy of Wine Tasting.

I realize now watching this that I misspoke. France’s Jura region is the true origin for Trousseau Noir, not the Savoie, of course. I’d record the piece again, but… I already cut off all that hair! Oh well. Improv is, by definition, imperfect. Apologies to the hardworking people of the Jura and their fabulous grapes. I promise to drink some Poulsard in penance.

We now return you to your normal programming.

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Drinking While Eating is Not Food and Wine Pairing

A couple of months ago, I wrote a piece entitled “Food and Wine Pairing is Junk Science” in which I attempted (some would say unsuccessfully) to argue the point that the so-called “rules” of wine and food pairing, and that the supposed “art” of making such combinations is a load of crap that actually makes wine harder for people to understand and appreciate.

In the weeks since, as is my usual habit, I have posted things on social media about what I’m eating and drinking. Several friends and followers have “pounced” on such posts with glee, exclaiming (some good-naturedly, some with just a whiff of spite) something along the lines of “SEE, so you DO believe in food and wine pairing.”

They’re missing the point, entirely.

Choosing a wine you want to share with your dining companions and drink with your dinner is one of the most natural and wonderful experiences afforded us as human beings, and something utterly fundamental. As far as I’m concerned, it’s practically why wine was invented in the first place.

But deciding what you want to drink with your meal is not the same thing as carefully matching a specific wine to an individual prepared dish of food with the idea that the wine plus the food will result in a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. This intention, and the supposed artistry and principles that underlie it are what produce the anxiety and hangups that infiltrate the average consumer’s understanding of what wine means.

Perhaps I should have said that I believe in merely combining wine and food, not matching them. We should all drink wine while we eat. We just shouldn’t worry about it, nor make it anything resembling an exercise of precision.

Choosing wine to go with a meal can easily have almost nothing to do with the food being served. Sometimes, for me at least, it’s simply about what I want to drink. The other night, I just wanted to drink Champagne. It didn’t matter to me in the slightest what I was going to be eating for dinner.

Of course, other times, what’s on the table does enter the picture, but not as a formula or an equation to be solved. It may sound like I’m headed towards the splitting of hairs here, but what I’m really getting to is the idea of intention.

If anything could be said to be the kernel of my rant it is this: deciding what to drink when you eat needs to be less about precision and more about pleasure. More about you and who you are eating with, and less about what someone else says is the right pairing or a set of principles about acidity and sweetness that you read in a book.

We should all have food and wine together. But we should be enjoying them, not pairing them.

Read my original rant.

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‘Clean Wine’ is a Commercial Scam

Much ado is being made of the latest entry in a long line of celebrity wine brands. Actor Cameron Diaz and entrepreneur Katherine Power have come up with a wine brand called Avaline, which describes itself as offering “clean wine” that the friends describe as “full of natural goodness and free from dozens of unwanted and undisclosed extras.”

The nicely designed, highly commercial bottles of Avaline, conveniently available on wine.com and in 43 states at the time of launch may well be made from certified organic grapes (a great thing) and not use any animal byproducts (something that vegans find important) but describing them as “clean wines” would be entirely laughable if it weren’t such brilliant marketing.

I see two problems with the claim that these are “clean wines.”

Problem #1. Avaline wines are actually just commercially produced organic wines that have several more additives than many small-production winemakers would consider using.

The ingredients for Avaline (which Diaz and Power didn’t seem to feel compelled to put on their labels, despite their seeming focus on transparency) include: sulfites, bentonite clay, pea protein, Cream of Tartar, yeast and yeast nutrients.

None of these items is dangerous, strange, harmful, or, as their web site takes pains to point out, unnatural. Most of them are quite common in the world of commercial winemaking and I’m perfectly content to drink wines made with them any day of the week.

But most of them are unnecessary.

Fining and filtration (done with the bentonite and pea protein) aren’t necessary, and can strip wine of some of its character. There’s nothing wrong at all with the processes or the materials used to accomplish them. Unless you’re trying to make a wine with as little manipulation and as few additives as possible, which it sort of sounded like Diaz and Power were trying to do.

Yeast and their nutrients are also not required to make great wine. Many conscientious winemakers, from large established brands to tiny artisans, choose indigenous or spontaneous fermentation in the service of making their wines as pure an expression of the place they came from as possible. Interestingly, the Avaline web site doesn’t really make a single mention of where the wine comes from. If you squint at the label image, you can see that it says “Made in Spain.” Perhaps that will suffice for most of their customers.

Only the most commercial winemakers quake in fear over the dreaded tartrate crystals. Sometimes referred to as “wine diamonds,” crystals of tartrate can precipitate out of a wine and show up in the bottom of a bottle, much to the alarm of the everyday wine consumer. They don’t indicate anything wrong with the wine and they’re entirely harmless, but they tend to freak out the uninformed wine drinker, so it’s not a surprise that Diaz and Power would opt to use Cream of Tartar to prevent their wines from having these precipitates. It’s worth pointing out, however, that not only is this product an unnecessary additive, it certainly isn’t gathered by little old ladies in the Spanish countryside. It’s a (naturally occurring) chemical called Potassium bitartrate, and it is almost certainly synthesized in a lab before being packaged up and shipped to winemakers all over the world.

Problem #2. Avaline’s marketing perpetuates the same kind of mis-information spewed by the most dogmatic of natural winemakers, serving to mislead and scare unsuspecting wine consumers.

Thank heavens Diaz and Power didn’t go on about arsenic in wine, but they’re still shoveling from the same steaming pile as those who claim that commercial wines are akin to industrial poison.

The idea that people need “clean wines” to avoid putting nasty things in their bodies is super catchy, and will likely be quite successful, but it’s also utterly preposterous. Pick any wine made in California, Washington, Oregon, or New York at quantities of less than 10,000 cases, and I guarantee you that it has less weird stuff in it than half the things your average “health conscious” individual puts in their mouth all day long.

And I’m not even talking about soda pop, snack chips, or candy bars. The average kitchen pantry of most restaurants (yes, even the hip, fancy ones) has commercially produced food items in it that contain all manner of additives that are far more “suspect” concerning our health than the things found in decent quality wine.

Some people seem to have no issue taking a swig of Vitamin Water and then going on and on about “frankenwines” and the industrial wine complex and all its evils. That’s pure ignorance and hypocrisy.

Even vegans, whose life choices I don’t share, have very little to complain about when it comes to wine. If they object to the use of animal products in any way, shape or form, then I understand their need to seek out wines that haven’t used casein (a milk product), isinglass (sturgeon bladder), or albumen (egg whites) for fining, but it’s important to know that in all of these cases, these products do not remain in the wine. Drinking a wine that has been fined with an egg white does not involve ingesting egg.

It’s definitely worth noting that Diaz and Power have made the decision to utilize organic grapes for their wines, which is a laudable choice. Leaving all other complaints about their marketing aside, this move certainly distinguishes their efforts in a positive way and means that their wines, like all organic and biodynamic wines, are free from potential herbicide and pesticide residues.

Avaline isn’t as bad as a jade yoni egg, but it is equally misleading

Hats off to Diaz and Power for parlaying their personal brands into a product that will no doubt be a commercial success. This is America, and people get to start businesses offering all manner of useless, unnecessary, or silly things to consumers. And if they’re smart and have clearly understood a market need, or they’ve created a compelling brand narrative, they end up making boatloads of money, regardless of how morally, ethically, or philosophically “good” their product actually is.

But those of us in the wine industry, and those of you who enjoy wine should know that the term “clean wine” isn’t worth the pixels used to print it on your smartphone. We should also know that Avaline Wines aren’t any better for you than any other wine produced from organically grown grapes made by a small or medium sized winery in this country or in any other.

Are they better for you than than Barefoot? Almost certainly. And maybe that’s all that Diaz and Power are counting on.

Image of Cameron Diaz and Katherine Power from the Avaline web site.

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No Regrets From US Ex MSs

The killing of George Floyd changed so many things, so quickly, and shifted conversations in almost every facet of life. Wine, of course, was not immune and the ensuing discussions and revelations have, no doubt, opened many eyes. 

Among the most discussed (and polarising) of the actions taken in the American wine world these past few weeks was the resignation of three members of the Court of Master Sommeliers – Americas. In a Medium article published on 18 June, former sommelier and current drinks entrepreneur Richard Betts (pictured above) announced his resignation, citing a combination of factors beginning with the Court’s handling of the 2019 cheating scandal (see US Master Sommeliers shrink and compensate), and culminating with what he saw as the Court’s poor commitment to action and change in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests. Betts’ resignation was followed quickly by the resignations of Brian McClintic and Nathanial Ready, each of whom cited similar causes in their public statements.

It’s reasonable to describe the social-media reaction over these resignations as a furore that has only lately died down to a simmer from its initial roiling boil. With a few weeks now having passed, I wanted to check in with these three gentlemen and see how they have gauged the reactions to their public acts of protest.

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 web site. 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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The Doyenne of California Sparkling Wine Steps Down

After 42 vintages, 30 of which were as the founding winemaker and CEO of Domaine Carneros, Eileen Crane (seen above in an image from early in her career) is stepping away from the wine cellar and the board room into retirement. A pioneer in every sense of the word, Crane helped to establish the legitimacy of California sparkling wine, advocated for and won the establishment of the Carneros AVA, and served as both winemaker and Chief Executive in an industry that even 30 years later has very few women with even one of those titles.

Crane has an Enology degree from UC Davis, and graduated in one of California’s most storied cohorts of winemakers, with classmates such as Randall Grahm, Celia Welch, Heidi Barrett, Bo Barrett, Rosemary Cakebread, Bruce Cakebread, Gil Nickel and more. She earned her degree even as she was moving up from part-time tour guide at Domaine Chandon to pastry chef, then wine tech, and eventually assistant winemaker.

When Claude Taittinger, head of the Champagne house of the same name, invested in building a California brand of sparkling wine, he asked those he knew and respected in the industry for the name of someone who knew how to run a sparkling wine operation. He was given many names, but the only person he thought actually had the experience he required was a young woman who had just spent three years launching the Gloria Ferrer sparkling operations from scratch for parent company Friexenet.

A contemporary image of Domaine Carneros Winemaker and CEO, Eileen Crane

So in 1987, before the ground was broken on a new winery, Crane was appointed winemaker for a project named Domaine Carneros. Her first tasks weren’t overseeing harvest, they were supervising the construction of the winery itself. Since the laying of the first stone in the foundation, Crane has been directing the course of Domaine Carneros, both in the cellar and in the board room, achieving an extremely rare feat not often attempted by others: personally crafting world-class wine while at the same time managing a significant P&L, and an organization with more than 60 employees.

With the search for a new CEO underway, I sat down with Crane (over Zoom in the time of the pandemic) to reflect on her more than 30 vintages of winemaking and leadership for Domaine Carneros, as well as to taste some of her top wine, La Reve.

Excerpts from our interview appear below, mildly edited for flow.

Alder Yarrow (AY): Most people know what a head winemaker does. What does a President and Head Winemaker do that an ordinary chef du cave might not?

Eileen Crane (EC): When the Taittingers were interested in building a winery in ’85 and ’86, they advertised for a winemaking student out of Davis. They asked Jim Allen of Sequoia Grove to do the preliminary work. It was too much for him, and he knew me slightly and knew that I had just built Gloria Ferrer from scratch, and reached out to me about the position. I told him, “They’re looking for someone out of school,” and I didn’t think it the position was for me and told him so. “That’s what they think they need,” he said, “but they really need someone with experience.” Claude eventually came to believe that to be true.

Being a CEO was never a goal of mine, but I have to say I’ve really enjoyed it. In the beginning at both Gloria Ferrer and Domaine Carneros my time was split pretty evenly. 50% of the time was winemaking, 50% of the time was managing people. At this point 20% of my job is winemaking, and most of it is managing and running the winery, and public relations.

For the last 12 years we’ve been practicing something called Open Book Management. It builds esprit du corps among the team and I think that’s one of the big achievements that I’ve accomplished over the last 12 years.

Open Book Management is engaging the team in the winery as a whole. We show every employee all our financials. At the winery, employees would would think, “Hey, I sold this much wine today and I’m only getting paid this much.” They though the owners were getting all the money. When we show them the financials they understand what it takes to produce a bottle of sparkling wine.

One of the vineyard workers once asked, “Hey, you have all this money left over, why don’t you give it to us?” And then we explained that we have to buy glass, that’s about $800,000. We have to pay for the utilities. We have to pay for this and that. I enumerate all these things and people begin to really understand.

We have two levels of training for the employees on how to understand financials. And once they do, they get to have input on what we do. We make some decisions from the bottom up, based on employee ideas, which we make sure they know we are looking for. And people ask for things. Sometimes it takes a few months or even a year, but often those ideas get put into place because they’re really good.

I’ll give you an example. About 10 years ago we were trying to re-do our employee benefits. I said, “Why don’t we just ask the employees what they want?” So we did. It turns out, they didn’t want life insurance, they wanted a gym membership. So we put in a gym membership program. The vineyard workers didn’t believe we were really asking them what they wanted, but eventually they stepped up and asked for a Taco Truck lunch twice per month. We said yes. A bit later the employees said, “We really like the wines, but we can’t afford them. Could we have some more wines?” That was easy to fix. Now people get a couple bottles every month. People are always coming forward now with questions and suggestions. It’s fantastic.

AY: Tell me about how the relationship with Taittinger has evolved over time?

EC: In the beginning, the relationship between Taittinger and I was less than Ideal. I like to say that the janitor in the home office always knows more than the PhD in the field. When we first started, I was a long way away, and I was this California woman (they would have been horrified if they knew I was from New Jersey) and I don’t think that everyone trusted that things would come out quite right. The French and California cultures were different enough that there was some friction at the start, but that went away in the first three or four years. They sent an enologist over for the first few years, but it quickly became obvious to them that he was learning from us, rather than the other way around, which was a good thing.

For the first few years, the folks from Taittinger and we would get together and taste each other’s cuvées, but after about four years, they simply accepted that I was head winemaker and they let me be. Over the next three to five years we took over every aspect of the operations and began to extend our line of wines. We began with the Brut, then launched La Reve, then our Rosé. That was our choice and we were given the autonomy to do it. We have always shared information and worked closely together with the folks at Taittinger. We’ve learned from each other.

When I was hired, the first few weeks I was on the job, Claude Taittinger called me up. At the time I was in the construction trailer with the dirt mover and the electric contractor. It was hard to hear him on the phone over the noise. But I eventually understood that he was saying to me, “We have the best Blanc de Blancs in France, and we’ve decided we want you to make California’s greatest Blanc de Blancs.”

At this point I had no equipment other than the trailer I was standing in, and I told him as much. “We think in terms of decades, in terms of generations, so just keep that in mind,” he said.

The Doyenne of California Sparkling Wine Steps Down
Eileen Crane and members of the Taittinger Family at the Domaine Carneros opening gala in 1987

AY: That’s a pretty good segue to La Reve. Relatively quickly you began making a Blanc de Blancs Tête du Cuvée. How did that come about?

EC: I started making experiments in 1988 for a Blanc de Blancs. It was just a trial and we sold it at the winery as a Blanc de Blancs, and it was a very nice wine. From then on I continued to make it every year, and I would send over the cuvees to Taittinger to taste.

In 1991, when they tasted the Blanc de Blancs cuvee they called me up again, and said, “The 1991 is lovely. If the 1992 is just as good, you should do your first specialty cuvée. We will order the specialty bottle for you from France.” The 1992 was even better and so we had our first special cuvée, which were intending to bottle without a vintage.

From then on, we’ve produced it every year. In France, they don’t produce super cuvées every year. The weather doesn’t allow it. We’re lucky here in CA. When we first got going, one of Claude Taittinger’s questions to me was, “What do you do with bad years?”

“We don’t have them,” I said.

“In that case,” he said, “Why don’t you vintage date it?” And so we did.

AY: So you’re now retiring. How do you pass on 40 years of knowledge? Is true continuity even possible?

EC: Of course there will be changes. My palate has certainly changed over the years. Very few things are static. Zak [Miller, who will be taking over as head sparkling winemaker] has worked with me closely for 10 years. I will still be the lead on the sparkling harvest in 2020. I may continue in that role, but we’ll see what the new CEO thinks of that. Most of the people we’re interviewing have asked, “Would you be willing to come back?” I have to be honest that I would be delighted. It’s my baby.

I think Zach will to a great job. He knows he can always reach out to me. As you know, when you make wine you do it only once per year. I’ve done this 42 times. It’s a long learning curve.

Making wine and taking care of the wine is something that takes time to learn, but it is learnable. There are some things you don’t learn in the first 10 years. The cuvee blending is intuitive, for instance. Your palate directs you. It’s an art but the artist changes over time and artists may have protégées that follow in their footsteps. The wines I make here year after year are not identical. When we retire as winemakers we turn the grapes over to someone else. Someone else will take those wines in different ways. But they won’t be dramatically different if we’ve done things right.

AY: Do you have any regrets?

EC: Not really. I do regret I didn’t put more library wines aside. In the early years, right off the bat we started putting some things aside. But now if I could go back and change one thing I have done I would have kept two or three times as much of each vintage. Now we’re keeping twice as much as we were in the early years. You start out in one place and you don’t know everything. People think that Madiera and Port are the longest aging wines, but I don’t agree with that. Fine Methode Champenois ages for a long time. They keep finding these ancient bottles aroud the world, and every once in a while, if a cork has held you have an utterly stunning bottle of Champagne.

AY: Beyond the wines which are themselves a testament to your work for the last few decades, how do you think about your legacy, both as a winemaker and a leader?

EC: The legacy I leave behind is first and foremost the style and commitment to quality that people have come to know from Domaine Carneros. I’ve designed a style and identity that is Domaine Carneros. When I was first hired, Claude asked me to start looking for vineyards. Only with estate vineyards can you truly control the quality. I’m proud to say that 2020 will be the first harvest where everything we make will be 100% estate grown. I leave Domaine Carneros as a fully estate-grown program. I also have to say that moving to Open Book Management has changed the whole sense of community at the winery, I’m so delighted that I found that and proud of how we developed a process around that. People who work here enjoy working here far better now.

I should also say that we’ve been the leader in green practices in the wine industry. In 2003 we put in the first really large solar array of any winery in the world. We have people from around the world coming to see what we were doing and how we were doing it. We’ve won awards for recycling. We were 100% organic for a while. The fish in the reservoir were dying due to the algae. CCOF told us to use copper, but it would kill the fish, so we decided to use something else [and gave up our certification].

AY: So you’re not taking another job. When you’re not answering questions for your successors, what are you going to be doing?

EC: I’m definitely not taking another job. In this time of COVID I’ve been sitting on my back deck for the last month. Where am I going to go? I enjoy it quite a bit. My partner cooks and cleans up the dishes. As you can imagine, with my job I’ve traveled extensively. I’ve been 120 countries. But I’ve always traveled fast. When it’s safe again, I want to travel slow. I want to go to Provence for lavender season for a month. I’m going to hang out in Lisbon for 3 weeks. I’m going to take trips to places I’ve wanted to go in the US. I’ve wanted to go on Canadian rail trip during Autumn. I want to go back to Japan. I’m also involved in two non-profits. I’ve got some stacks of books I want to read. And I’m going to get involved in historical societies in Napa. I also think that there’s too much contention between the County of Napa and wineries and there could be a much better relationship and we could get better results all the way around if we move to carrot rather stick approach. I’d like to see if I can do something about that.

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About “La Reve” by Domaine Carneros

La Reve is pretty unique in the landscape of California’s top sparkling wines in that it sees no oak treatment whatsoever.

“In the early days when Claude would come over to taste with me we were doing trials with barrels for cuvée aging and aging in barrel for dosage wine as well,” says Crane. “After a number of attempts Claude looked at me and said ‘When you have Beluga caviar, you don’t cover it in chopped eggs and onions,’ and that was that. We don’t need wood.

The Doyenne of California Sparkling Wine Steps Down

For the first 12 years or so of its existence, it was mostly Chardonnay with a bit of Pinot Blanc blended in.

“Little by little we found that the Chardonnay didn’t need the Pinot Blanc,” says Crane. So it was phased out in favor of a 100% Chardonnay cuvee. The grapes used for the wine are not true clones, but various cuttings from vineyards that Crane has liked over the years. Most of them are farmed organically, but without formal certification.

“When we go into harvest, we tend to know which blocks are likely to end up in La Reve, but virtually every year we get a surprise when one of our favorites doesn’t show well and something we weren’t thinking about gets used.”

The grapes come into the winery and are pressed immediately with a membrane press. The juice goes into steel tanks and is fermented with a proprietary yeast that Crane has selected over the years.

After primary fermentation, the wines go back into the bottle, again with the proprietary yeast and. La Reve ages for a minumum of five and a half years, sometimes up to six years, on the lees before disgorgement. At that time it receives a dosage of about 8 grams per liter of sugar for balance.

Tasting Notes:

2012 Domaine Carneros “La Reve Blanc de Blancs” Chardonnay, Carneros, Sonoma, California
Light gold in the glass with medium fine bubbles, this wine smells of buttered brioche, sea air, and citrus pith. In the mouth, a moderately coarse mousse delivers flavors of nut skin, butterscotch, toasted sourdough and a mix of salinity and citrus pith that makes the mouth water. Nicely balanced. Just a touch of marzipan on the finish. 11.8% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $115. click to buy.

Crane has this to say about the 2012: “It was a cooler summer, and these grapes had a longer hang time than other cuvées, perhaps by 2 or 3 days. This is perhaps much more fruit forward than other recent vintages.”

2004 Domaine Carneros “La Reve Blanc de Blancs – Late Disgorged” Chardonnay, Carneros, Sonoma, California
Light yellow gold in the glass with very fine bubbles this wine smells of lemon pith, sea air, and apples. In the mouth, a soft mousse delivers wonderfully bright lemon pith and lemon curd flavors mix with buttery biscuit and are shot through with oyster shell and seawater notes tinged by white flowers. Beautifully pure and expressive, with a minutes-long finish. Outstanding. 12.5% alcohol. Score: about 9.5. Cost: $100. click to buy.

Crane has this to say about the 2004: “I have tasted this wine a lot of the years, and it is more elegant and understated in for, but it’s really coming into its own now. This is one of the last vintages that included Pinot Blanc in the blend. This bottle was disgorged about two and a half years ago.”

1998 Domaine Carneros “La Reve Blanc de Blancs – Late Disgorged” Chardonnay, Carneros, Sonoma, California
Medium gold in color with very fine bubbles, this wine smells of marzipan and butterscotch with hints of sea air. In the mouth, dried lemon rind, pineapple, and toasted sourdough have a wonderful kelpy, saline quality that along with still-bright acidity keeps the mouth-watering for a long while. Lovely balance, soft mousse, and rich complexity. 12.1% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $n/a.

Crane has this to say about the 1998: “As you know it was a very cool season and a very small harvest. It has taken a lot longer to age and to show its stuff. This bottle was disgorged about two and a half years ago.”

The Doyenne of California Sparkling Wine Steps Down

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The (Brief) New Era of Unbelievable Wine Deals

For anyone looking for discount pricing on their favorite luxury California wines, we have just entered perhaps the best time in history to be a high-end wine consumer. It will take a little effort, but the motivated wine lover can now snap up some truly astonishing wines at prices approaching half of their normal range.

Most high-end wineries, especially those California wineries commanding top prices in the marketplace, reserve a certain portion of their stock to sell in restaurants. Even those wineries who sell the entirety of their “allocated” wines direct to mailing lists of consumers hold a few cases back to sprinkle among top-tier restaurant wine lists.

Having their wines appear on these lists is an unusual win for both the wineries and the restaurants. Both parties achieve a certain amount of cachet from the situation. The wineries get to brag about their wines appearing in lists next to some of the world’s great wines, and the restaurants get to brag about offering such wines to the public, which entices the most profitable type of guests: the big wine spenders.

Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, however, this supply-chain (if you can really refer to this small but steady trickle of high-end wine as a supply chain) has completely broken down.

Some restaurants have been able to pivot rapidly to selling wines with their to-go food, but those wines are not the big expensive bottles that would sell on their lists for $500 or $800. Instead they’re selling $40-80 “everyday dinner” wines.

A few restaurants seem to be going for broke (if you’ll excuse the painfully unfortunate phrase) and simply liquidating their cellars as best they can, rather than having all their money tied up in bottles that they can’t possibly sell.

Which brings us to the opportunity that now awaits wine lovers, and the tricky situation wineries now face.

Very few, if any, restaurants will be placing their usual wine orders in the near future. As top-tier wineries open up their Spring releases to their mailing lists, they are also shipping a few cases to their distributors as per their usual agreements (likely hammered out before the pandemic) to be sold into restaurants.

And since those restaurants aren’t buying like they normally do, those distributors, and the wineries they serve, are in a pickle. All of a sudden, there might be 5, 10 or even 20 cases of a wine that might fetch $225 at retail, or $600 at a restaurant, that the distributor must sell to customers that no longer exist.

So what are most distributors going to do? Unload that wine as quickly as they can and attempt to at least recover their costs.

Which is why savvy wine lovers are starting to see serious name brand wines available at shocking prices on flash sale sites and from certain retailers who are used to moving closeout or small lots of wine.

This morning I received a wine offer from a mailing list I patronize. It read something along the lines of the following:

From the stellar 2016 vintage in Napa comes a serious surprise! From among the top pieces of Napa real estate, we have a pristine lot of this wine at prices that can’t be believed (major retailers sell it for $250 – $275+). I can’t reveal the producer, but your price today? $130.

One of many wine offers I’ve REceived Lately

Last week I received an offer for a wine at $40 per bottle that regularly sells out to mailing list customers at $150.

These kinds of deals will continue as long as restaurants and hotels aren’t buying, and until distributors manage to wiggle out of their contracts to sell these wines, or wineries find better places to sell them for higher margins.

So for a while (a month or two? half a year?) if you’ve got money to spend on some of America’s most expensive wines, you can likely get yourself some serious bargains.

Of course, your main question at this point is likely, “alright, so where should I be shopping?”

I’m not in the business of endorsing any specific wine sellers, but here are a few retailers that are, or are likely, entertaining these kinds of offers at the moment:

First Bottle

Garagiste

WineAccess

Vinfolio

I’m sure there are more. If you’ve got suggestions to help out your fellow wine lovers, put ’em in the comments. And happy shopping.

The post The (Brief) New Era of Unbelievable Wine Deals appeared first on Vinography: A Wine Blog.

Sommelier Richard Betts Throws Away His Pin

Today, Master Sommelier Richard Betts told the world that he no longer wants to be a Master Sommelier. He is resigning from the Court of Master Sommeliers because he feels the organizations values are, and have been for some time, at odds with his own.

In Medium article posted today, Betts lays out the rationale behind his decision, which results from two factors, the Court’s approach to dealing with the cheating scandal that rocked the institution two years ago and what he describes as its lack of empathy for the current climate of racial equality and social justice.

“It is unacceptable that in some CMSA circles there has been rhetoric around not being a political organization and wanting to remain neutral. There is no neutral. By doing nothing, one passively endorses the status quo — and the status quo for BIPOC in America has been, and remains, horrible.”

Richard Betts

I have a great deal of sympathy for Betts’ position, and I applaud the principled stand he is taking at this moment.

Diversity has long been an issue for the Court of Master Sommeliers, which skews the same way as most of the wine industry: male, and white. The problem, it seems, may not merely be about demographics.

If you want a chilling individual story, I suggest you take a listen through this brave 10-minute Instagram video from sommelier Tahirhah Habibi describing two formative (and seemingly quite damning) experiences with the Court of Master Sommeliers America—one as she sat for exams, the other more recently in the wake of current protests surrounding racial equality.

As for the way the Court has handled the cheating scandal, I have to say I am among those who are not impressed with their complete lockdown and radio silence. Not to mention what seemed to be a draconian approach to dealing with the ramifications of cheating—an approach that wasn’t so much extreme in its initial conception as much as it was entirely unfeeling and inflexible in reaction to its community of members when they raised concerns and objections to how it was being prosecuted.

Betts is not just going out on a limb with this announcement, he’s jumping off it, at least partially in the hope that some may choose to join in his protest. I look forward to seeing what kind of solidarity he receives from his fellows.

Read Richard Betts’ resignation statement here.

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Want To Taste Wine? Sign This Waiver

As Wine Country re-opens throughout California and visitors return to tasting rooms once again, beyond mask-wearing employees and lots of hand sanitizer, they may encounter something unusual before sipping and spitting: legal waivers to sign.

I chronicled my wine tasting experiences at newly reopened tasting rooms in both Napa and Sonoma in my monthly column for Jancis Robinson which was published yesterday, and one of the things I encountered in both places was the stipulation that I sign a legal waiver before being permitted to taste wine.

This, dear friends in the wine industry, is the opposite of hospitality, and a surpremely bad idea that should be halted immediately.

Why?

Because forcing customers to sign away their legal rights and make attestations as to their health before entering your facility and tasting your wine is not about keeping them safe, it’s about keeping YOU safe. And when you are in the hospitality business, and you find yourself forcing your customers to do something uncomfortable that is entirely for your benefit, you’re doing it wrong.

Just ask any of the restaurants who are opening up in your county. The idea of forcing someone to sign a legal document before sitting down to have a meal is patently absurd. I haven’t been out and about much since things started reopening, but when I recently sat down in a restaurant for the first time since the shelter-in-place began, I certainly wasn’t asked to legally attest to the fact that I had no symptoms of COVID-19 and agree that I wouldn’t sue the restaurant if I later became sick.

You want to take my temperature as I come in the door? Fine. You want to ask me to sanitize my hands? Great. Insist I wear a mask except when I’m eating and drinking? Great idea.

But don’t get the lawyers involved.

Here’s the way I see it: either you are comfortable enough with your ability to keep your customers safe and the risk of frivolous lawsuits (which by the way, could have happened before COVID-19, too) or you’re not.

If you’re not — if you’re truly frightened to death that there’s a significant likelihood that someone might catch the virus through no fault of yours and choose to sue you — then you should seriously consider whether you should be opening back up right now.

And lord knows, there are plenty enough signs that this re-opening may be too much too fast already. And there almost certainly will be a second wave.

I say this with the deepest compassion and empathy for business owners and their employees who are truly suffering right now. I can’t imagine what it must be like to have the government shut down your business and force you to furlough or terminate employees who, in this industry, probably feel like family. It’s heartbreaking, and I join many of my industry colleagues in demanding that the government take care of the hospitality business in the same way it has been taking care of the airlines and the banks and the country’s wealthiest corporations.

If you feel like you need some level of protection, work with your insurance companies and lawyers to find a way to do so in a way that does not impact the guest experience. For instance, here’s what I was greeted with when I pulled into Peju Province Winery’s parking lot last Wednesday:

Now I’m not a lawyer, and I assume this probably isn’t anywhere near as protective as a signed legal contract, but from a customer experience perspective, it’s miles better. Such signs have long been posted in wineries thanks to Proposition 65. There’s got to be an equivalent approach for COVID.

So I implore my industry colleagues in these trying times: don’t forget the principles of hospitality as you struggle to regain your footing. By all means, do what you need to to do keep everyone physically safe and healthy. That’s an important part of taking care of the guest. Forcing them to cover your ass legally most certainly is not.

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Wine Country Reopens, Cautiously

I should probably come clean at the start. I broke the law to write this story. Here in northern California, shelter-in-place orders are still in effect throughout the state, and the one covering my residence in Alameda county stipulates that I cannot travel outside the county borders except under certain limited ‘essential’ circumstances associated with food, health, and other such fundamental needs.

Wine tasting is surely not one of those.

But despite similar such orders in place throughout the most populous regions of California, wine country has begun to reopen. Limited reopening was allowed in Sonoma County beginning 23 May, but (strangely) only if the wineries served customers ‘a meal’. Napa followed soon after with a similar measure, but given pre-existing laws that prevent almost all wineries from serving food, nearly every winery was prevented from operating until enough outcry, lobbying, and even a lawsuit combined to result in the relaxation of regulations.

Therefore slowly, and rather quietly, wine country began to reopen to tourists last week. And I decided to go find out what wine tasting in the time of COVID-19 was going to be like.

Last Wednesday I grabbed my mask and hand sanitiser, jumped in the car and headed up to Napa.

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 web site. 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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