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Wine You Can Buy Online:  California’s Best Kept Consumer Wine Secret

California Wine Month comes to a close today, a month of celebration for the contributions that the wine community makes to the state, nationally and internationally. 

With all of the success of California wines and the thousands of worthy wine-related stories, I’d be remiss if I didn’t lob my vote for what I think is one of the more deserving California stories for praise and greater consumer awareness.

The good news about being into wine blogging is you get into the jetstream of wine press.  Likewise, the bad news is you get into the jetstream of wine press and therefore have more of a 360 degree perspective on what’s working and not working.  There just seems to be times where you see efforts that seem to have all the pieces put together, but for whatever reason larger consumer mindshare seems to have proven elusive.  Coro Mendocino is a good example of that.

Coro Mendocino is a collaborative effort by Mendo winemakers to create an ultra-premium wine line-up that showcases the heritage and terroir of Mendocino County.  Actually, I call it collaborative, but referring to it as a collective is a bit easier because the group of wineries, including Brutocao Cellars, Dunnewood Vineyards, Eaglepoint Ranch, Fetzer Vineyards, Golden Vineyards, Graziano Family Wines, McDowell Valley Vineyards, McNab Ridge Winery, Oracle Oaks Winery, Pacific Star Winery and Parducci Wine are all in it together to make a winery/winemaker/vineyard designate that bears their individual winery/winemaker name.

Started in 2000, the Coro Mendocino project made history as the first U.S. proprietary appellation-specific blend managed by self-imposed winemaking protocol.  Similar to Chianti or Chateneauf-du-Pape, the idea, now in its 4th vintage, is to take a group of wineries who are committed to the project to make a proprietary red blend that is predominantly Zinfandel based (in between 40 -70%). 

The “Coro” in Coro Mendocino stands for “chorus” in both Italian and Spanish, symbolizing many winemakers singing from the same hymnal, as it were. 

The parameters for the blends ensure a level of quality to reward those with the purest intention to express an extremely high-level of quality for the region. For example, and obviously, all grapes must come from Mendocino County and must be made at a Mendo County bonded winery.  Other criteria include:

1)  Coro blends must be in between 40 – 70% Zinfandel and Zin must be the predominant grape in the blend

2)  Blending varietals that can comprise an additional 40% of the blend, but cannot exceed the percentage of Zin include:  Carignane, Grenache, Petite Sirah, Syrah, Barbera, Charbono, Dolcetto, Primitivo and Sangiovese

2)  An additional “free play” 10% of the blend can be comprised of other varietals from Mendo—including Pinot for which Anderson Valley is known. 

3)  Ranges for alcohol and acidity are managed against metrics to ensure there’s no individual palate domination and that the wine is food-friendly.  For example, the alcohol cap is 16%

4)  The wine must be in barrel for at least 12 months and new oak must account for at least 25% of time in barrel, but no more than 75%.  Wines must mellow in bottle for 6 months after bottling, as well

5)  A panel of five judges, including three participating winemakers, review every blend at least three times and vote to reject wines that don’t meet standards of quality. 

6)  All bottlings have the same label with customization for each winery name, the winemaker’s signature, bottling specific notes and a listing of the varietals in the blend.

7)  Each of the wines are priced at a flat $35 per bottle

Production for Coro Mendocino is limited, creeping up over 3000 cases for the ’04 vintage and varying by winery.  The inaugural vintage in ’01, for example, had Fred Nickel from Brutocao making just 70 cases.  Limited production is one of the primary appeals to me, as well (aside from being a lover of Zinfandel and all that is esoteric which Mendocino comes by easily). 

I think most wine fans can appreciate the law of scarcity and the fact that $35 for a bottle of wine of which there are so few available is pretty interesting. 

These wines are not in distribution and according to this quote from a San Francisco Chronicle article from a couple of years ago, Fred Nickel from Brutocao says,

“The low production is intentional,” he says.  We want the scarcity to help generate demand from the public and attention from the press.  The point of this whole program is perception, not production.”

These wines are only available via the Coro web site and at the individual wineries that produced the wine.  So, as an end-cap to California Wine Month, celebrate a uniquely California initiative celebrating California’s grape, Zinfandel, and a well-kept secret that needs to find a larger audience. Did I mention you can do so online, which is healthy for the industry, as well?

The Coro Mendocino web site can be found here.


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98% of Wine Bloggers Are Hacks

Throw away the question of hereditary palate and being a super taster because the simple fact is that training your palate can be done just as you can learn to hit a 20 foot jumper off the dribble with a hand in your face.

Ask Michael Jordan.

Credit goes to Matt Kramer from Wine Spectator for highlighting the concept of 10,000 hours of training to be an expert in anything.  He culled a couple of nuggets from a book called, “This is Your Brain on Music” by Daniel Levitin.  The premise of the book is more focused on a certain capability for musical genius, but it’s applicable to anything, including wine as he deftly points out in his column found here.

A couple of the excerpts from Levitin’s book, highlighted in Kramer’s article, are worth repeating here:

Ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert—in anything.

In study after study of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, and what you, this number comes up again and again.  Ten thousand hours is equivalent to roughly three hours a day, or twenty hours a week, of practice over ten years.

No one has yet found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time.

The ten-thousand-hours theory is consistent with what we know about how the brain learns.  Learning requires the assimilation and consolidation of information in neural tissue.  The more experiences we have with something the stronger the memory/learning trace for the experience becomes.

Additional credit goes to Kramer for not staking a pious point of view about his own expertise; it’s an integrity-based position, probably more humble than reality, though.  He and his professional writing brethren all have an easy 10,000 hours in.

How is this related to wine blogging?  Well, the short answer is very few people, chance are, that do wine reviews on a wine blog are qualified under the premise of having to have 10,000 hrs. of training to be an expert, particularly when you consider the diversity of wines tasted and the need to have an expertise not at a macro-level, but instead at a micro-level.  Most of us are hacks.  And, it’s us against them—the pro’s versus the blogs.

What’s the good news?  Well, chances are if you had the gumption to start a wine-related blog, you have a long head start on the 10,000 hours and the next couple of years should be interesting as newly minted experts cross the 10,000 hour threshold.  This wine blogging online thing becomes a whole lot more interesting when we overtake the pro’s in numbers and I’m guessing a lot of people are accruing their hours quickly …


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Chasing the Wind with Wine Critics

Having been employed in and around the wine industry for a scant 12 months, I still consider myself an outsider.  It’s good, I think, to not be inured by others historical preconceptions and it fits my ethos of open-mindedness.  Plus, it allows me to call my shots here without much compunction. 

I do, however, have to say that one of the things that I love about the wine industry is the diversity of opinion, on all subject matter.  It’s like a Haight-Ashbury for modern man.

That said, one of the debates I’m growing weariest of is bashing against the perceived fondness of critics for ripe, fruit-forward “hedonic” wines, high alcohol wines that don’t pair well with food.  Likewise, I’m weary of the old-school vanguard that continually deride the critics, their influential palates, and the sway they hold on the public.

Color me bored.

Unfortunately, in order for it to be a debate, you have to have both sides engaged in dialogue.  However, getting to this debate is like chasing the wind.  And, unfortunately, a couple of the biggest wine critics don’t deign to respond to THEIR critics, leaving many in a sort of simmering, frustrating quietude, with no discourse on their differences.

A pretty good example of this is an article at Appellation America by Dan Berger.  Now, my caveat here is two-fold:  first, Appellation America is doing some of the most thrilling wine writing in the industry these days and second, Dan Berger has forgotten more about wine than I know.  That said, the folks at AA could sharpen their editing and Berger could sharpen his writing pen if he truly wants to get serious—not invoking the name Laube or Parker in a 5000 word two-part screed is the kind of civility you would expect, but the kind of weak-kneed writing that renders what is essentially a long-form op-ed piece toothless. If you’re going to call your shot, you gotta call your shot.  Otherwise it’s politics. 

That aside, his two part story on regionalism (read:  terroir) is a darn fine read, albeit heavy on opinion and light on source references, that covers a lack of character in Rutherford Cabernet as a reference point for Napa wine.  It highlights high alcohol as a by-product of the overripe flavors currently in vogue and gives a sort of viticultural lesson with the reasons that this occurs in the vineyard.

A summary of his article can be found in the following quote:

(Speaking in reference to a lack of terroir in Rutherford Cabs at a recent tasting) What has driven it out is the derision of some high-profile writers who prefer walking-around wine rather than classic dry, food-oriented wine.  And to that end, they have warped the grape, twisting it into a style that’s atypical of what the historic model represented.

The article in its entirety can be found in two parts, here and here. 

This sort of writing is interesting if the industry would make some progress on this issue, divide into camps with clearer lines of demarcation or something … critics of Laube and Parker, both of whom are asserted to have “New World” palates that don’t respect the finesses, elegance, restraint, subtlety, and specificity of wine, just simply lob barbs across the transom hoping to find an audience of believers to mobilize, and that’s about it.

In contrast to this heavy sense of regionalism/terroir-ism is the following quote from a recent UC Davis presentation.  This response came unattributed, but it’s from an industry insider and was in response to the following question:

Will global brands dominate wine in the future such as a wine version of Budweiser, or will appellation brands continue to be important?

The response:

I think we will have both and these are kind of like parallel universes.  In the new world, appellation essentially is a marketing tool and a marketing trick.  I think it has very minimal real meaning.  It’s a branding exercise.  In the old world, appellation still has a little bit of meaning – and so the two are just not equivalent – they are two different animals.  We call them both appellation, but they aren’t really.  Appellation in the old world has so much more rigor associated with it as far as farming practice, varieties, spacing, trellising – all that stuff is so proscribed.  In the new world everything goes – to the point where appellation I think is essentially meaningless.


Well, that sums up the other side, for sure.  And, anybody with this opinion is certainly going to make wine that appeals to an audience, notably an audience that follows Parker or Laube ratings.

But, to make this more confusing … in contrast to this talk of Rutherford Cabs, lack of type in Napa, fruit bombs versus food wines and glancing references to “influential critics” is no less than Robert Parker himself.

He says in the October issue of Food and Wine, referring to Paso Robles:

There are now a half-dozen or so properties producing wines that are revelations of elegance, finesse, complexity and flavor concentration.  In fact, each year I spend 10 days there tasting, and each year the quality improves.  Major progress has largely come not from makers of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot, but from a group of producers often referred to as the Rhone Rangers, specializing in grape varietals of the Rhone Valley of France.

The greatest headway has been made west of Highway 101, where most of the top vineyards are located.  These are hillside vineyards planted in limestone soils of various elevations, but almost all are within 10 to 15 miles of the Pacific Ocean.  These limestone soils, prevalent in many of France’s finest vineyards, seem to encourage wines of great intensity as well as elegance.

Paso Robles remains a work in progress, but I believe the region already shows some of the most striking potential in all of California. 

Hmmm … what is Parker saying here?  He is indicating that Paso Robles might be the TRUE Napa Valley of California, if that makes sense.  He is invoking the French as a part of wines historical legacy, he is using the words finesse and elegance and complexity.  He is offering subtle endorsement for Rhone varietals, not a Cabernet, or varietal that California hangs its hat on. 

He is saying that he won’t be pinned down.  In fact, he is subtly using the Karl Rove tactic of using somebody’s strength against them in a kind of wine industry equivalent to a John Kerry swift boat dis-credit tactic. 

Smells like politics?  Kind of like chasing the wind, huh?


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Pop Some Champagne for Genericized Trademarks

The last thing I did last night before turning the lights out was rip an ad out of the September 3rd food issue of The New Yorker.  From the US “Office of Champagne,” the ad noted that only wines from Champagne, France should bear the regions name.  I shook my head thinking this Champagne thing would make for some good blog fodder. 

Then, I woke up and fired up the computer this morning and within the first couple of hours I was copied on an email from our CEO—he was forwarding a comment posted to our blog from a lawyer that wanted to make sure we knew that a completely innocuous blog post that contained a completely innocuous noun-verb combination was in fact a trademark violation for his client.  Do they send “cease and desist” letters via blog comments now?

Can you say coincidence?  Yes.  Can you also say, “completely ridiculous?”  Er, maybe that’s trademarked by somebody.  All, I know is if you’re a lawyer billing $200 an hour or more chasing this stuff down on the web and leaving comments about innocent word usage, sign me up for that gravy train.  I’ll chuck my job now to go to law school. 

This stuff is getting out of hand.  Next thing you know, with fall on the way, “hot chocolate” is going to become a proprietary word. 

In both instances, Champagne and this obscure trade magazine don’t want their trademark to be “genericized” by the court of public opinion.

But, here’s my question:  Who cares?

What am I missing here?  Why is this a big deal?

If you live in the south you know that if you want a soda you ask for a Coke.  The conversation goes like this,

“Can I have a Coke?”

“What kind do you want?”

“I’ll have a 7-up.”

Coke is a word for soda.  Now that I think about it, “7-Up” is pretty close to being genericized for lemon-lime soda.

Is this a bad thing?  Don’t marketers work a lifetime to associate their product with a consumer’s thought process?

This same genericized thing can be said for “chapstick,” “kleenex,” “xerox,” “crock-pot,” “google” and a whole bunch of others words …

The Champagne ad copy went on to say, “Even names of American wine regions like Napa valley and Walla Walla Valley are also misused.”  For now, we’ll look around the fact that usage of the word Champagne and use of the name Napa Valley are apples and oranges. 

Now, I’m not talking about wine from elsewhere in California going into a wine labeled as “Napa Valley.”  That is, in fact, misleading. I’m talking about “Champagne” that refers to a complete brand category for sparkling wine.  In my mind there’s a difference.  Napa Valley is a place.  You don’t refer to all cabernet as “Napa Valley” as in, “I’m going to buy some “Napa Valley.”  But, by gosh, most people refer to Champagne as an entire category for sparkling wine.  Heck, this battle should have been waged 40 years ago, not in 2007.  And, I would think that the French, being the superb marketers that they are, what with all of the international success they’ve demonstrated in exporting consumer brands of all stripes for a global market, would understand that.  Maybe I’m being a little facetious. 

So, the net of the copy of the ad says,

“Masquerading as Champagne …  might be legal, but it isn’t fair.  In a country of consumer rights, a federal law tests our traditions. 

There are many fine sparkling wines, but only those originating in the chalky hills of Champagne, France can bear the region’s name.  A legal loophole allows some U.S. wines to masquerade as “Champagne.”  Even names of American wine regions like Napa Valley and Walla Walla Valley are also misused.

Unmask the truth.  Demand accurate labeling.  Sign the petition at http://www.champagne.us

The web site has more propaganda.

So, what’s your take?  Are French Champagne producers well within their right?  Or, are the French completely missing an opportunity to turn this into a positive for their benefit? 

Would it matter if I told you that a four color ad, run once in the New Yorker, costs 100K?  Does that seem like a good spend of that kind of money?

For addt’l reading on the history of the word “champagne” and its usage, see this CNN article.

Leave a comment or hit the poll to your right. 


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The Less Sustainable Side of Sustainable Viticulture

I would hazard a guess that you could spend a month of Sunday’s in a wine magazine archive from the last twenty years and still not come up with two magazine articles from two different magazines published in the same month that referenced hawks in the vineyard.

Odd, I know.  I thought so, too.  Sometimes the romantic story of the winery is so often featured that the downright more interesting aspects of vineyard life are downplayed. 

Forget hand-sorting fruit and natural fermenting, tell me about owls picking off gophers in the vineyard. 

But, I digress …

The September Business 2.0 article featuring Fred Franzia used a hawk as a metaphor for the way Franzia conducts business, saying:

(in reference to Franzia) … Looking up at a hawk flying high over his fields, he wonders whether it doesn’t have a better life than we do.

{in reference to Franzia admonishing the author about “real life”} … This real life comes up constantly, second only to the wars.  Real life is a hawk, or the tractor trailer that split in two from the weight of grapes.  When I bend down, as instructed, to pick up a gopher skull amid a huge pile of bones outside an owl house built to keep rodents away, those bones are real life.  Real life, I quickly learn, is anything except what you would do in Napa.

Then, lo and behold, over in the September issue of Wine & Spirits magazine there is a one page article at the end of the magazine that discusses (and quite well, I might add—it’s a good little piece), vineyard management from the point of view of hawks and owls in order to successfully execute (bad pun, I know) vineyard pest management.

Maybe this is the wine industry version of Shark Week, the notoriously popular programming on the Discovery Channel in which blood thirty viewers get their annual allotment of shark bloodlust.

Who knew vineyard pest management was such a riveting topic … this is something I can get behind.  Forget the warm, soft and fuzzy pr aspect of solar panels and buried dung in a horn ala biodynamics; give me some good, swooping, predatory hawk kills coupled with a great horned owls eating a deer.  Who doesn’t like, according to the magazine in reference to the great horned owl, “the tiger of the night sky?”

The Wine & Spirits magazine piece says in part:

“Every raptor has its place and its prey,” Schuster explained.  ‘Kestrels, sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawks will go after smaller songbirds that larger raptors aren’t interested in. When a kestrel moves in, starlings vacate the area—it’s like a great white shark at the beach.  Larger diurnal raptors (hawks and eagles) are mostly interested in squirrels, rabbits and rattlesnakes, but barn owls are selective feeders—they won’t anything they can’t swallow whole.  They go after voles, rats and gophers and they’re seriously nocturnal—they hunt by hearing, not by sight.  They can actually hear gophers scurrying under the ground, hover over the hole, and yank the rodent out.”

The above quote is from John Schuster, who runs Wild Wing Company in Sonoma.  His company web site can be found here—incredibly interesting in its own right.  And, a man after my own heart, a musician by passion, he has opened for Indiana native son, John Mellencamp. 

As I think about the serendipitous nature of hawk references in popular media and sustainable viticulture, I’m struck that a wine related book that explores some of the grittier aspects of vineyard life might be ready for an eager public and secondarily, John Schuster might win my vote for “somebody I would most like to share a bottle of wine with who is not my wife.”

If I can’t have an in-person shark week narrative, at least give me somebody who says things like, “By combining owl boxes and raptor perches, you can have a 24-hour killing program.”  It makes for good drinking conversation and is certainly the less sustainable side of sustainable viticulture.  Bring on that hearty glass of red … wine. 


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