The burst of spring across the landscape means a shift from traipsing around in heavy coats and boots to the lighter clothing and footwear that comes with warmer weather.
My wine drinking is going through similar changes, and with VinItaly only 10 days away away, I’m looking toward Italy, especially the lighter reds of Valpolicella, for refreshment.
The Valpolicella area is east of Lake Garda, in the Veneto region of northeast Italy. It’s a mix of flat agricultural lands and rolling hills, cut with permanent streams flowing north to south where they meet the Fiume Adige (Adige River).
The wine was a favorite of Ernest Hemingway, and it gained notice after he made his protagonist in the 1950 novel Across the River and Into the Trees a Valpolicella fan who describes the wine as “better when it is newer. It is not a grand vin and bottling it and putting years on it only adds sediment.”
The medium-bodied, bright-cherry fruited wine made a big splash in the1960s and 1970s with American wine drinkers, an occurrence which brought it not only attention but almost its downfall as well.
As demand for the wine grew, winemakers shifted their attention from the hard-to-farm hills to large estates on the flatter lands and as production increased, overall quality went down.
By the 1980s, the Valpolicella found in Italian restaurants across the U.S. was a weak shadow of what it once was. But the same revolution, and the changing tastes of consumers, that saved many Italian wines also played its part in saving Valpolicella.
Some of the credit goes to the late Giuseppe (Bepi) Quintarelli, a demanding winemaker who knew the wine could produce better wine and better prices.
And there was Sandro Boscaini of Masi, who was among the winemakers offering a middle-level Valpolicella style called ripasso, where regular Valpolicella is refermented on skins and seed remaining from the partly dried grapes used in the Amarone process developed by Quintarelli.
The result is a wine with higher alcohol and more heft and body, midway between the lighter Valpolicella and the mouthful that is Amarone.
Valpolicella DOC regulations allow the use of several grape varieties, mainly corvina (up to 70 percent), along with rondinella (20-40 percent), and molinara (5-25 percent). There also can be up to 15 percent of other grapes such as barbera, sangiovese and negrara.
I recently tried several Valpolicellas made in the traditional style, with bright cherry fruit, floral aromas and enough acidity to stand up to many foods. And Valpolicellas, especially the Superiore and Classico Superiore, won’t break your budget.
I found my favorite of this tasting, a 2012 Folonari Valpolicella for $7.63 at Tri R Liquors in Hotchkiss and I should have bought two. In the glass it was bright garnet with edges fading to red/purple, with a nose of cherry and dusty roses. Bright cherry with soft tannins filled the mouth.
I also had a 2011 Zenato Valpolicella Superiore ($11), a bit heavier in weight than the Folonari but still with plenty of red fruit and bright flavors, and the 2011 Sartori Valpolicella Classic Superiore ($13), biggest of the three but well-balanced with lots of dark cherry flavors and aromas of violets and roses.
As a side note, many writers fall for the story that “Valpolicella” has its roots in the Greek word for “land of many cellars,” a false cognate if there ever was one.
I prefer the explanation offered by the well-spoken Jeremy Parzen in his blog Do Bianchi, where he says the name refers to “the valley of sand deposits, from the Latin pulla, a term used in classical Latin to denote to dark soil and then later to denote alluvial deposits.”
Parzen, a linguist of note, goes on to say, “In fact, Valpolicella is not a valley but rather a series of “wrinkles” defined by the Marano, Negrar, Fumane, and Nòvare torrents (streams).”
The accompanying map shows the complexity of the Valpolicella geography.
If you ever feel overwhelmed while walking the aisles in your favorite wine store, here’s why:
Wine Business Monthly reports in its February edition that in 2013, the TTB approved 96,539 Certificates of Label Approval, which a winery needs prior to bottling a wine.
In 2012, that number was even higher, at 105,828.
That’s a boatload of potential new wines to crowd the shelves and daze the casual (or not so casual) wine drinker looking for something for dinner.
Some of these labels are short-timers conceived several years ago when wineries were making what WBM writer Cyril Penn termed “lifestyle brands.”
Penn quotes Ted Baseler, president and CEO of St. Michelle Wine Estates, as saying wineries have started to pull-back from the “silly, goofy double entendre stuff.”
“It seems like there’s a return to more traditional packages and names,” Baseler said. “That’s stunning in 12 months. It’s gone from the latest catchy gimmick to more of the traditional quality, thoughtful brands.”
The same issue reveals what we already know: Large wine companies dominate the consumer market.
According to the figures in WBM, of the 7,762 wineries in the U.S., 30 companies sell nearly 90 percent of the wine produced in the U.S.
Three companies – E&J Gallo, The Wine Group and Constellation Brands – accounted for more than half (187.5 million cases) out of the 370 million cases (4.4 billion bottles, at the typical 12 bottles per case) of domestic wine produced last year.
And, the top six – add to the above three Bronco Wine Co., Trinchero Family Estates and Treasury – and you have almost 2/3 of the wine produced.
Some gleanings from the Wine Business Monthly report:
– Gallo, at No. 1 with 80 million cases, sold more than the bottom 26 wineries combined.
– I million cases ain’t so big. Precept Wine, which you might not recognize unless you’re reading the backs of bottles, made 1.1 million cases and ranked only 18th in the top 30.
– Purple Wine Co. of Graton, Cal., was the smallest of the top 30 at only 400,000 cases last year. But the company also produces another 400,000 cases of private and control label wines (wines under a certain name or label bought by a store or restaurant in large enough quantities that retailer can control the entire allotment of wine).
In comparison, in 2013 Colorado produced 140,900 cases, according to the Colorado Wine Industry Development Board.
While some industry followers have expressed concern about the iron clutch of Big Wine around the pocketbook of the American consumer, the wine industry is keyed to scale.
Which means Big Wine can make wine affordable, which leads to one more statistic – Last year, the U.S. reached 100 million wine drinkers.
Which is good for all wine, big and small.
California long has been the crucible for much of American winemaking, and while there certainly are reasons why not every winemaking region in the U.S. (and elsewhere) can or should emulate that state’s wine industry, there still are lessons to learned from the Golden State.
That’s a round-about way of saying that Jon Bonné, wine writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, covers more than simply the upheaval he sees occurring in California in his recently published book, “The New California Wine: A Guide to the Producers and Wines Behind a Revolution in Taste.”
His insightful (and perhaps inciteful) book has been received some mixed reviews (hey, it’s about California, for starters) but mostly his work has been received well.
In one of many accolades, Eric Asimov of the New York Times, himself no slouch when it comes to promoting nuanced, well-made wines, says Bonné writes about the current “mental liberation among winemakers and consumers freed from a stultifying, dominant style that Mr. Bonné labels “Big Flavor.'”
Bonné, for his part, asserts there is an “aesthetic” revolution happening in California wines, those made by “people who remained committed to restrained, compelling wines that spoke clearly of their origins — and who shared my frustration with California’s modern style.”
Still, he also asserts there is no danger of “steakhouse Cabernet going away tomorrow.”
This post is a review, not of Bonné’s eminently readable book, but of that interview which I, being from a nascent wine-making state, found particularly interesting.
Many of the topics covered by Bonné and White are immensely applicable to the Colorado and other young wine industries and to the wine industry in general, as to be expected of something from the wide-ranging Bonné.
The prior and the following quotes are from the interview mentioned above.
Bonné points out the roles played now and in the future by winemaking regions lumped together as the “other 47” in developing a true American wine palate.
“I think the prospect of having small, local wineries making a quality product – maybe not the great wines of the world, but a quality wine– makes wine a local business,” Bonné said. “It could be Virginia… It could be Colorado…And ultimately, it’s what the Europeans have grown accustomed to, which is that wine is an industry that surrounds you, rather than being something far off.”
Simply, or as simply as I can put it, it’s knowing that wine is a local business and not simply a shelf-talker in a liquor store, of knowing you can go out to a local winery and enjoy a bottle of locally made (and, in our case, of locally grown) wine.
The next step, which too many fail to do, is making the connection between something amorphously “agriculture” and something that is “the next great step in the maturing of American wine culture,” Bonné puts it.
As young wine industries mature, they attract people who aren’t interested solely in the novelty of a Colorado or Virginia or (fill in the blank) wine but intrigued by the quality of it, as well.
“I think there will be more states that do mature in their wine industries — and I think that’s essential to actually getting more people to drink wine,” Bonné said.
It’s also obvious the drivers in that maturity are the young adults of today and tomorrow. They’re curious, inquisitive and eager to try something new.
They aren’t strangers to wine, as was my Baby Boom generation which at time struggled to find decent wines, but instead have grown up with wine on the table.
One last thing, although there are so many great topics Bonné and White covered.
It’s what Bonné calls “the Whole Foods gap,” explained by White as “the same people who want free-range chicken and organic, locally sourced spinach are happy to pick up a $5 bottle of who knows what when they purchase wine.”
A recent survey showed the average bottle of wine in the U.S. sells for $6-$9.
In contrast, the average bottle of Colorado wine costs $16.68, according to Colorado State University.
“Americans like to drink cheap,” White pointed out.
But Bonné said there’s “a virtue” in making people aware of the spending gap.
“There is a purpose in buying a wine made by a relatively small winery or a small business that’s interested in making a specific wine that doesn’t lean on industrial scale,” he said.
“And that’s where the Whole Foods gap comes in — people who are willing to pay a premium for whatever it is, say tomato sauce made by a small company rather than Ragu, are going to need to extend those values into wine over time.”.
There already are people, Bonné said, “all over the country who … want to drink American wine, who very much believe in it…They simply haven’t found wines that speak to them.”