Looking out at a well-lit seminar room on the second floor of the midtown Hilton Hotel, at tables laden with wine glasses and lined with eager listeners, McCoy informed her audience that “It couldn’t be a better time for wines from southern Italy.”
It was a theme to be repeated, although never again quite as succinctly, throughout the all-too-short run of this year’s Italian Wine Week presented by the Italian Trade Commission. Subtitled “The Grandest Italian Wine Event Ever Held Outside of Italy” and focusing this year on wines from Calabria, Campania, Puglia and Sicily, the event (this year was its fifth edition) brought together about 200 Italian wineries (not all from the south and about a quarter of which were looking for a U.S. importer) and countless importers and distributors and other wine-trade people.
Among the many memorable remarks from the week’s speakers and guests:
“This week there is a peaceful invasion of Italian producers and wine experts.” – Maurizio Forte, Trade Commissioner and Executive Director for the Italian Trade Commission.
“The U.S. market is the most-important market for Italian wine; we export almost $1.5 billion per year.”– Maurizio Forte
Wines from southern Italy are largely unknown to the U.S. market because “most American tourists still do not visit Southern Italy.” – former wine director Charles Scicolone.
“They are a ‘hand-sell, meaning that it often takes talking about these wines and explaining them to the customer in order to get them to try a bottle or two.” – Charles Scicolone
“People want to know who you are, not just your wines.” – Chad Turnbull, president of New York-based importer Savorian, Inc., told the producers. “One of the most fundamental things you can do is to introduce yourself to your market.”
“Puglia and Calabria are at the edge of the western world.” – blogger/importer/Italophile Jeremy Parzen. “They just needed a small nudge to enter the modern world of winemaking.”
“When you taste (the wines of southern Italy), it’s hard to imagine what the wines were like 20 years ago.” – Elin McCoy. “These were wines you didn’t want to know about.”
“Sicily is sexy; it was sexy even before the wines were so good.” Roberta Morrell, president and CEO of Morrell Wine Bar and Café, New York City.”The good reds came before the good whites…now the whites are fresh, fruity and minerally.”
“I’m consumer driven. If you can’t say it, you can’t buy it.” – author/wine educator Kevin Zraly.
“In Italy, people mostly eat at home.” – restaurateur/ author Lidia Bastianich. “First, because good eating means eating their mother’s cooking, nobody makes it better, and secondly, because of the economic crisis that is currently afflicting the country.”
“Buying a wine made in Italy means buying a piece of wine history from a country that has made wine for a thousand years.” – journalist Luciano Pignataro.
As this space noted earlier, voters in Colorado will face the question whether to allow grocery stores to sell wine, spirits and full-strength beer.
Since that posting, a new consideration has arose.
Kroger Co., the country’s largest supermarket chain and owner of the eponymous Kroger grocery stores as well as King Soopers, City Market and others, has “proposed a plan that would let a private distributor oversee how much prominence brands get in stores,” according to the Wall Street Journal.
Plus, the WSJ goes on, the alcohol companies will be asked to pay for the distributor to find shelf space. (The original article is behind the WSJ paywall but you can read a summary here in an article from Money magazine).
In other words, pay for exposure.
Already this sounds like bad news for locavores supporting small-batch producers.
Not every small winery, brewer or distiller will notice the change. Many of them are too small to use state or national distributors and many of them sell most of their product through the front door.
But for those who depend on a distributor, or simply rely on the willingness of a retailer to find room on a shelf, the Kroger proposal is bad news.
Finding a place to sell small-batch wine, beer and spirits already is tough; just ask the winemakers, distillers and brewers who make weekly rounds of stores, making sure they haven’t lost shelf space to large distributors also trying to find space for their products.
Competing for premium shelf space just got harder, as writer W. Blake Grey assets here, against national distributors who can pay for better positioning.
Grocery store chains in Colorado again this year are expected to ask voters to be allowed to sell full-strength beer, wine and other spirits, something currently reserved under state law for liquor stores.
Petitions being circulated spout blather like “produce jobs,” “increase consumer choices,” “lower prices” and “economic development.” Sounds good on the surface but like most arguments, this one isn’t black and white.
From a liquor-store owner’s view, a grocery store selling wine or booze means unwanted competition in an already tight market.
“There’s just no possibility I can go out there and compete with grocery stores,” said Kim Schottleutner, chair of the Colorado Licensed Beverage Association and owner of DTC Wine and Spirits in Greenwood Village, in an interview with Channel 7 TV in Denver.
Industry watchers say if grocery stores get beer, wine and spirits, many of the state’s small liquor stores, already operating on a tight margin, may disappear, along with the jobs they provide and taxes they pay.
“You will affect jobs. You will affect businesses,” said Schottleutner. “That’s something that the petitions aren’t telling anybody.”
Keep Colorado Local, formed by the Colorado Licensed Beverage Association and the Colorado Brewers’ Guild, says the state risks losing nearly 1,600 independent liquor stores, 287 craft breweries, 135 wineries and 46 distilleries.
Fewer competitors won’t mean lower prices or better selection. Have you been into a state-owned liquor store in Utah, one of the 18 states that are state-controlled?
The wine/liquor selection is limited because every store sells only what someone in the state office mandates. Want something different? Drive to Colorado, something Utahns already do.
According to the Huffington Post, Colorado is one of only five states that limit grocery stores to selling 3.2-percent ABV beer. The exception is that each chain in Colorado is limited to one full-strength license.
Another concern is the impact grocery store beer sales will have on craft brewers.
“We have a lot of craft beers that come in here on a day-to-day basis, from vendors that would like to see new placement,” said Schottleutner.
One argument for the success of craft brewers and distillers in Colorado is that liquor stores are able and willing to make room for new brands from small companies, something grocery chains can’t do because of limited shelf space reserved for national brands.
“It’ll kind of create an issue in the market where you’re only getting the top-selling brands,” Gaele Lopez with Beverage Distributors of Aurora, is quoted in the same Channel 7 interview. “A smaller brewery might have to close.”
An editorial last year in the Denver Post said Kevin DeLange, founder of Dry Dock Brewing in Aurora, said his business never would have achieved its success if not for Colorado’s regulations allowing breweries to self-distribute directly to liquor stores.
As is the case with any small producer looking to increase market options, DeLange said he poured samples of his Vanilla Porter and Apricot Blonde beers to owners and managers in neighboring liquor stores in efforts to entice them to sell his beers.
“We can go in there, and we can negotiate visibility and get the product in within a week,” Lange is quoted in the editorial.
However, Lange said he was rebuffed when he went to the Safeway store in Littleton, the chain’s only Colorado store (see the Huff Post entry above) that can sell full-strength beer.
“(The manager) actually chuckled,” DeLange is quoted as saying. “He said, ‘You have to go to California. You have to ask the home office.’ It took four months. There is no decision made at the local level of where they display products or signage.”
One argument for booze in the grocery store says it will break the monopoly held by liquor stores. Do you seriously think one City Market/King Soopers will compete (have lower prices) than the rest of the chain?
Walk into most Grand Junction liquor stores and someone’s there to help you find the right wine, beer or spirit. Ask for help choosing a wine in a grocery store and maybe you’ll get a produce clerk, onion in hand. Not fair to either person but for now, he or she is your only hope.
Local liquor stores also means your money stays in the community instead of the pockets of far-distant corporate stockholders.
In Grand Junction, the bigger stores –Fisher’s Liquor Barn, Andy’s Liquors, it’s a short list – may survive by cutting costs (that means jobs) and capitalizing on customer service, something large-chain grocery/liquor stores can’t provide.
But look at it this way.
I’m sure Little Sammy will be happy to run across town to the mega-box grocery store for bread, milk and a pint of Jack.
It gives him one more chance to try that fake ID.
(This column originally appeared in the Dec. 22, 2015 issue of the (Grand Junction, Colo.) Daily Sentinel.)
As we head into Italian Wine Week Feb. 3-9, with special events held in New York City, it’s fitting to remember the roles of five men key to the wine connection between Italy and the U.S.
With the Jan. 5 passing of winemaker Harry F. Mariani of Banfi Wines, another chapter in that American wine history could be written.
Mariani, 78, and his brother John, who survives, made their fortunes introducing
Americans to Italian wines. They were working for Banfi, founded in 1919 by their father and his three brothers, when in 1967 the brothers began importing Riunite, a chilled, sparkling sweet red wine that by 1973 was the nation’s largest-selling imported brand.
If you’re of a certain age, you’ll remember Riunite Lambrusco’s promotional slogan, “Riunite on ice, that’s nice,” which was updated in 2002 to the trendier “Just chill.”
Imports of Riunite peaked at 11.2 million cases in 1984 and accounted for 27 percent of all foreign wines sold in the United States, according to Banfi Wines.
That success as importers allowed the brothers to branch out, purchase their own vineyards in Italy and on Long Island and by the mid-1990s Banfi was the nation’s leading wine importer, according to the New York Times.
Today, Italian varieties are the leading imported wine in the U.S. and Americans now are drinking more Italian wines than Italian themselves, said the Italian Wine and Food Institute.
Which brings us to three other major players in the Italo-American wine connection.
At one time the company owned nearly half the vineyard acreage in California with annual revenues estimated at $1 billion.
Ernest was in charge of marketing and his desire, according to his biography, was to see the company become the “Campbell Soup Company of the wine industry.”
The Gallos marketed their cheap White Port and Thunderbird wines in inner city markets along with a catchy jingle that in part went, “What’s the word? /Thunderbird/ How’s it sold?/ Good and cold/…”
The company gradually shed its low-rent image to become the largest winemaker in the country and today is the largest privately held wine company in the world.
Ernest Gallo died at the age of 97 on March 6, 2007, less than a month after his brother Joseph. Julio Gallo died in 1993.
The third of our Italian triumvirate is Robert Mondavi, who, dismissed in 1952 from
Charles Krug, the Mondavi family winery, went on to build his own eponymous winery and his great fortunes.
As Mondavi noted in his 1998 memoir, “Harvests of Joy,” he found his mission doing “whatever it took to make great wines and to put the Napa Valley on the map right alongside the great winemaking centers of Europe.”
In 1968, he took Sauvignon Blanc, at the time an unpopular variety, and rebranded it as “Fumé Blanc,” figuring it was something Americans could pronounce. The wine was so successful that Fumé Blanc became an accepted synonym for Sauvignon Blanc.
By the time Mondavi sold his winery in 2004, it was sixth-largest winery in the U.S. with annual sales of 9.7 million cases, according to Wine Business Monthly.
Mondavi remained as chairman emeritus until his death on May 16, 2008 at the age of 94.
In 1993, Mariani told the New York Times that wine was always a part of his life, “it was never taboo.”
And at every meal, Harry Mariani would toast: “A tavola non s’invecchia,” which can be translated to “At the table with family and friends, one does not grow old.”
Wandering recently around a near-deserted Crossroads Fitness, I heard a distant voice say, “Don’t worry. Next week all the New Years’ resolutions will kick in and this place will be packed.”
Making a New Years’ resolution about wine is like promising to lose weight or improve your math – without an occasional reminder, we forget what path we’re on.
What path will your wine world take in 2016?
You could drink more, meaning not in quantity but rather in quality, but why do so unless you do it mindfully?
To me, that means paying attention not only to what’s in your glass today but what may be in it tomorrow and the other 363 tomorrows in 2016.
It includes being aware of the growers and the vintners and the grape varieties that bring you the juice to fill your glass.
You don’t need to be an expert, whatever that is, but simply a person who goes beyond quenching a thirst.
A couple of examples:
So-called “Grower Champagnes” became a bit of a rage in 2015 when Champagne lovers turned away from mass-produced Champagnes from the better-known big houses and instead focused on wines made by the same estate that owns the vineyards (rather than buying the grapes to make the wine).
The theory long espoused (Ed McCarthy wrote about Grower Champagnes in 2012) is that these growers/vintners would know how to make the best wine possible from home-grown grapes.
And most times, they do.
Yet if it’s consistency you want, it’s likely the “better” (just different, that’s all) Champagnes come from the large and better-known Champagne houses, who makes their wines from a blend of grapes from top vineyards.
That same goes for any wine. You can follow what’s trending, which is fine as long as you know why you’re following it and what it is you’re looking for.
Drink Pinot Grigio? It’s the second-most popular white wine (behind Chardonnay) in America even though most of the stuff poured at bars and restaurants is awful. It’s cheap (to make and to pour) and generally forgettable stuff.
But good Pinot Grigio (and Pinot Gris, the French name) can be charming and satisfying, ranging from the full-bodied, spice and stone-fruit wines of Alsace, France, to the luminous acidity of peach and nectarine from Northern Italy and the pear, ginger and allspice notes of Pinot Gris from J Vineyards in California.
If you learn what Pinot Grigio should taste like, you won’t be satisfied with the norm.
Perhaps you like the science side of wine and winemaking?
Erika Szymanski is studying for her doctorate in microbial enology and in her spare time writes the scientifically leaning (and always informative) blog Wine-o-scope, which she describes as a wine geek keeping notes. Her latest column for the online wine magazine, The Palate Press, is titled “The Some science behind canned wines.”
Which brings us to taking notes.
Nothing fancy or complicated, maybe no more than few words scribbled on a label, but a reminder of what you liked or didn’t like about a particular wine.
Rick Rozelle at Fisher’s Liquor Barn loves to recount stories about people asking for a “wine like the one I had last night.”
“Sometimes all they remember is that it was red or white,” Rozelle said. “It’s tough to find the right one.”
A few simple notes, either by hand or using one of the apps available for your smartphone (don’t forget the phone’s camera), will make wine in 2016 much easier to remember.
“Wine makes everyone hopeful” – Aristotle
We’re not sure if the Greek philosopher actually said this but we do know Aristotle (384 – 322 BCE) was born in the Macedonia region of Greece, where winemaking has seen ups and downs since ancient times.
Once well-known throughout the Greek and Roman empires, the Macedonian wine industry floundered during a long history of wars and unrest, along with the phylloxera blight of the late 1800s that killed so many European vineyards.
The rebirth, helped along with the breakup of Yugoslavia and the adoption of modern winemaking techniques, didn’t begin until the late 20th century with the world’s rediscovery of Macedonia’s potential.
Today the Republic of Macedonia annually produces 100 – 125 million liters of wine, about 3-4 percent of the world’s wine production.
The tiny (2 million population) country’s best-known indigenous grape might be Vranec, a red grape giving a deep purple wine full of dark berry characteristics with moderate tannins and balanced with great acidity.
Other leading varietals include Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Merlot and white grapes Chardonnay and Assyrtiko.
I recently had the opportunity to taste a sampling of several Macedonian wines including two from the Bovin Winery, the first private winery in Macedonia .
According to its website, Bovin produced 120,000 bottles of wine in its first year (1998). Production now is around 1 million bottles per year, 70-percent red wines.
The winery list of international awards includes having its Pinot Noir named top wine at the “Food And Wine” Fair 2000 in Copenhagen, besting more than 650 various wines from France, Italy, Spain, South Africa, California, Chile and others.
Bovin 2012 Dissan Barrique – Made 100-percent from hand-picked and hand-sorted Vranec, this deep-purple/red wine has luscious berry and cheery flavors with dark chocolate notes. Moderate tannins (six months in Macedonian oak) and mouth-filling acidity. MSRP $30
Bovin 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon – This is Bovin’s intro level Cabernet Sauvignon with notes of black cherries, blackberries and hints of thyme and tobacco leaf. MSRP $15. Bovin wines imported by AG MAC Import Export Co., Western Hills, Ohio.
Stobi Winery Macedon 2013 Pinot Noir – Located in Tikvesh, the best-known of Macedonia’s wine regions, Stobi produces roughly 6 million bottles per year in the four Macedonian categories – Premium, Elite, Classic and Traditional.
The Pinot Noir (Classic) is an Old World-style wine with earthy notes of plums, wild strawberry and red cherries finishing with a hint of white pepper. A terrific value at MSRP $15. Imported by August Wine Group, Seattle, Wa.
Stobi 2014 Zilavka – An easy-drinking white wine with notes of dried figs, apricots and green apple. MSRP $15. Imported by Winebow, Montvale, N.J.
Tikves 2014 Rkaciteli – Also known as Rkatsiteli, this white grape offers a complex nose of citrus and tropical fruits along with fennel and other herbs. Tikves, founded in 1885, claims to be Macedonia’s largest and oldest winery. MSRP $11.
Thanks to Arielle Napoli of Coloangelo & Partners of New York City for the samples.
Without reflecting on whether they were naught or nice, one thing is sure: Christmas 2015 came early for western Colorado grape growers.
A conflation of factors – plenty of late-season moisture in 2014, a mild winter and more moisture going into the growing season last spring – resulted in a grape crop that was larger, much larger in some cases, than even the most-optimistic grower would imagine.
The 2015 harvest “was fantastic,” said John Barbier of Maison La Belle Vie Winery in Palisade. “For the first time in 11 years, it was best I’ve seen.”
Barbier farms four acres of grapes, which he says gives him more control over the quality of his fruit.
Bruce Talbott of Talbott Farms in Palisade, who is the state’s largest wine-grape grower with about 130 acres of Vinifera grapes along with another 30 acres of cold-hardy hybrid varieties, said his crop this year came in well over early estimates.
“We knew there was a good crop but as we went through harvest we realized we had far more than we thought,” Talbott said. “We’d go out and start picking and say, ‘This looks like a normal crop,’ but then we’d pick 50 percent more than we thought.”
And it wasn’t over-cropping; there simply were more grapes – high-quality grapes – out there than anyone expected.
“Before harvest we estimated our crop would be around 460 tons and we came in something around 587 tons,” said Talbott, his voice still reflecting the immensity of the crop. “That’s 125 percent of what we thought when we started.”
And it wasn’t just in the Grand Valley. Growers in the North Fork Valley also report unexpectedly generous crops.
“Our crop this year was huge, the biggest I can remember,” said Devon Petersen of Alfred Eames Cellars in Paonia. “The berry size was good and the quality was excellent.”
And here’s the kicker: No one is claiming 2015 was a perfect year.
A cool, wet spring delayed the growing season by about two weeks or more before summer really kicked in.
While suitable heat spikes in August and September provided the necessary heat-degree days for maturation, the delayed entry resulted in some later-ripening varieties barely making it to ripe before the onset of cool fall weather.
“Shorter season varieties like Chardonnay, Gewurtztraminer and Merlot did fine,” Talbott said. “In fact, our whites, especially, had amazing production.
“But the longer-season grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and the Italian varietals, those need a whole season to finish ripening.”
Devon Petersen, who along with his father Eames makes noteworthy Pinot Noir and other varieties in the North Fork Valley, said the short summer there was a bit brief for Pinot Noir.
“Our (Pinot Noir) grapes got ripe but I would liked another week or so,” he said.
He held up two fingers less than an inch apart.
“Oh, the quality is very good but we were that close to being perfect,” he said, shaking his head. “Maybe two days before the grapes were perfect, it started to rain and we had to pick.”
Everyone said they could have done a few things differently to manage this year’s bumper crop, but then, how often does something like this happen?
“This is an anomaly,” cautioned Talbott. “I don’t see it happening again.”
Take it from Eames Petersen: If it does happen again, it likely won’t be next year.
‘It seems every three years we have a really big harvest,” he said, reflecting on previous vintages. “You go back to 2009, and then 2012 and now this year. It’s strange how it’s worked out that way.”
Strange? Yes. But nice? Yes, again.
(In my original article appearing in the Dec. 9 issue of The Daily Sentinel, I misstated the acreage of grapes farmed by Bruce Talbott. The correct total is reflected above.)