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Follow the Story:  The “Champagne Schooner”

On an entirely too short visit to the Smithsonian American History Museum in Washington D.C.  a decade ago, you could have knocked me over with a feather when I saw a set of George Washington’s wooden teeth.  Ditto when I saw the pocket pistol that General Robert E. Lee carried in the Civil War and a corkscrew from Thomas Jefferson.  What enchanted me is precisely what enchants millions of school kids—history leaping off the pages of the textbook suddenly made relevant. 

I’ve pursued the triptych of history, wine and relevance since then.

Nearly equidistance between Finland and Sweden, an autonomous Swedish-speaking, Finnish country called Aland exists as a cluster of islands in the Baltic Sea.  There, the story of the so-called “Champagne Schooner” begins.

In the 1840s, a two-masted 70-foot long cargo ship set sail from an unknown port to an unknown destination.  Perhaps, the ship was sailing, as it has been alleged, to a Russian Emperor in St. Petersburg who never received his provisions from a ship that found a watery grave in the Baltic Sea. 

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In July of last year, divers discovered the ship wreck standing nearly upright in 160 feet of water in those same chilly, forbidding waters.  Preserved in a pristine 40 degree sea bath, in total darkness, 170 bottles of French Champagne were reclaimed to much international fanfare.

Under the supervision of the Aland government, divers took great care to extract the bottles from the wreckage, ensuring integrity in temperature and pressure fluctuation on their short journey to the surface and land.  All told, 172 hand-blown bottles finished with cork were found and 168 of the bottles were very nearly perfectly preserved.

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Representing the legacy Champagne house of Juglar (now Jacquesson) Veuve Clicquot and Heidsieck, the discovery is notable not just for the age of the Champagne, but also its quality.

Sampled in November of last year, Essi Avellan, MW said, “Sweet in style, bright golden in colour and honeyed and toasty in aromatics, both the wines were very much alive and remarkably fresh.  The Juglar was more harmonious and complete with Veuve Clicquot’s aroma being overwhelmingly pungent and smoky but the palate retain(ed) a freshness and an immense concentration.”

The end of this story will ultimately be written over a period of years as the wine is owned by the Aland government who are rightfully taking a judicious approach to the bounty.  To begin, auction house Acker Merrall & Condit will auction two bottles, one each from Juglar and Veuve Clicquot on June 3rd in Aland.

To follow this fascinating story from the beginning till now, below are a number of links to various resources and news articles on the wine from the “Champagne Schooner.”

Official Aland Champagne site

Official Aland Facebook page

PDF One-page download from Scandinavian Islands web site

Backstory from Alands museum site

Images from Alands museum exhibit

December 14, 2010 New York Times article

Reuters article on the pending auction


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Death to the “Cult” and Birth of the Domestic First Growth

One of the more interesting aspects of the domestic wine world over the last fifteen years has been the phenomenon of the “cult” winery. 

You can count the true “cult” wineries on two hands.  Denoted by critical success, reputation, limited volume, inelastic demand with wait lists, and profitable aftermarket value, you can almost name them off the top of your head – Harlan, Screaming Eagle, Scarecrow, Colgin, Bryant, Dalla Valle, Hundred Acre, Araujo … The rest of the hundreds of wineries that suggest they are of “cult” status are a mix of allocated wineries trying to up the ante and some wannabes that want to be allocated. Some have the pedigree to emerge into this classification.  Most do not.

The net outcome based on those that wear the crown and those that desire to ascend to the throne is a real dilution in the meaning of “cult” wine.  This meaning has been further diluted by the lingering economic malaise that has also metaphorically centrifuged the contenders from the pretenders.

This brief reflection would be apropos to nothing were it not for a couple of emails I received from a flash wine site recently that described an unknown Paso wine with its “cult-like” following.  This did nothing but reinforce the “contender from the pretender” notion in my mind.  Just as the denizens of a Phish concert gives off a wafting hint of b.o. intermingled with da kine, a flash wine sale for a wine with a “cult-like” following at 60% off of list price gives off a hint of b.s. intermingled with desperation.

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The reality is that the word, “cult” like “boutique” before it, and “artisan” in the near future has become meaningless: An unoriginal euphemistic phrase no more convincing than calling a used car a “pre-owned” vehicle.

We’re not fooled by the phrasing.

In the wake of the co-opting of a phrase that has been stripped of meaning coupled with an economic environment that has re-calibrated most wine price points and demand to rational levels, I think what we’re subtly seeing is the very early emergence of a New World Order in the domestic wine world, at least as far as the inelastic upper echelon of wine is concerned. 

Borne out of necessity, true “cult” wines are morphing into a new category:  a Premier Cru class; – a Domestic First Growth equivalent – both in perception and reality.

While this isn’t the time nor place to discuss the differences in between a French classification system that is based on tradition and history and a U.S. based system that rewards vision and moxie, I will note that any winery in this lofty position has to carefully navigate the gauche indelicacy of outright calling themselves a Domestic First Growth wine.  That designation has to be anointed just as they were anointed as a so-called cult wine(ry). 

However, wineries can and do politely suggest, via their vision, that this is the case, as Tim Mondavi has done when he says at the Continuum web site, “Our goal at Continuum Estate is to produce a single wine to be recognized among the finest in the world.”  Continuum is one of a select few wineries that aren’t yet mentioned in the same breath as Harlan, but for whom their potential will surely place them in this category in the next couple of vintages.

Combining premium location, a singular focus, a ‘spare no expense’ meticulousness to detail that would make an OCD man anxious, we’re starting to see the germinating market elements with these wineries who are not only emboldened coming out of the recession, but also the beneficiary of some wind at their back by virtue of the French first growth wine sales in Asia.

Call it an educated hunch:  Humans love mental order and things that fit into a realm of understanding.  With a re-balanced demand curve, a very muddled “cult” meaning, and upper-tier wineries that have effectively shaken the ankle-biters that are other would-be elite wines, we’re going to see the emergence of a new classification of Napa wine – they’ll be geographically clustered (Pritchard Hill, for example), they’ll be expensive, they’ll be scarce and they’ll be the future darling of the insatiable luxury wine market in Asia in the not too distant future.

Call these wines the scourge of the everyman, call them Domestic First Growths (DFG), just don’t call them, “cults” a phraseology that has lost its relevance in the wine world.


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The Like List (20 Things that don’t suck)

I’m fond of a quote from comedian Patton Oswalt where he suggests, “Pointing out that stuff sucks is not edgy or dangerous anymore.  Everyone knows what sucks. What’s better is to find the stuff that’s amazing and hold it up.”  With that in mind, here is a random assortment of things that I’ve been enjoying recently because they don’t suck—some are wine-related, others not so much.

Sean Minor 2010 Vin Gris.  All of Sean Minor’s wines are a terrific value.  This Vin Gris is no exception and the perfect spring wine.

This version of Little Ole Wine Drinker Me (Dean Martin classic) by Stephen Kellogg and the Sixers

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Enameled Good Grape soda signs from the 1930s and 40s.  A seller on eBay plucked money out of my pocket for the sign pictured above.  So far, I’ve resisted buying another one (link).

My wife went to the UK last month and brought back Chunky Kit Kat’s and Cadbury Dairy Milk Turkish Delight Bars, amongst other treats.  The Kit Kat is good, but the Turkish Delight bar was otherworldy and a match made in Heaven for a nice Port.

Terry Theise Estate Selections 2010 catalog.  If you haven’t read it yet, you do need to – the most enjoyable catalog reading you’ll do this year. Though, like a regular consumer catalog it might incent you to spend money you didn’t plan on.

Meta-irony t-shirts like this one (link).  Based on the “Mc” in McDonald’s, co-opted by a movie, licensed back from the restaurant and then sold to the consumer.  I bought mine for $10 at Target – at least I’m aware of the consumer con.
 
It’s allergy season.  God bless Zyrtec and Allegra and Claritin and Alavert and …

The live cam of an eagle’s nest in Iowa and its three just-hatched baby eagles.
 
Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution on ABC. Season two is in LA and it picks up some of the hackneyed dramatic elements from season one (Huntington, WV) and Jamie’s efforts to bring quality food into the school system.  Despite some of the overwrought production, I really admire Oliver who did create real, lasting change in the UK before coming state side for the reality show.  It’s more than lip service to Oliver and anybody that cares about food would find this show educational and entertaining.

Trader Joe’s buttermilk pancake mix – fluffy, light, and yummy.  Add real maple syrup, and a whisper of some bacon-flavored Torani syrup (cane sugar, no HFCS) and you’re all set for breakfast.

Cedar raised bed garden frames from The Farmstead.  My wife and I have four of these.  Sturdy and dead simple to set-up, these raised beds offer an inordinate amount of inexpensive joy when you pluck a tomato from your vine in August.

Tumbleweed pottery chicken roaster. A bit more refined than the beer can chicken apparatus you mind find elsewhere, using this roaster with a whole organic chicken, a little butter and herbes de Provence and an hour and ½ in a 350 degree oven and dinner is deliciously served.

Real Wine.  This is the third time I’ve read this book, first published in 2000.  It serves as a gentle grounding element for the natural wine movement that seems to be so breathlessly au courant today.  Read it while drinking a Lioco Pinot or Chardonnay or something from Donkey & Goat.

Shamanism.  I was raised Catholic and married a Jew.  While spiritually grounded, I am adrift from organized religion, and I’ve been doing a round robin exploration of religion for a couple of years, mostly eastern thought.  Shamanism has my attention now.  While the Biodynamic and Western religion connection is oft-cited, Shamanism is the one religion that believes that plants have a spirit.  Reading up on this is a fascinating punch in the gut to prevailing wisdom.

Notre Dame football. Saturday, April 16th is Notre Dame’s spring football scrimmage.  Only 4.5 months until football season!

Cooper’s Hawk Winery and Restaurant.  According to my server on a recent Wednesday, this small chain of restaurants based in the ‘burbs of Chicago with one additional location in Indianapolis is now the largest wine club in the U.S. with 25,000 members.  I’ve found the food and service to be good and the wines very uneven.  Yet, to be fair, Cooper’s Hawk is designed to be accessibly upscale and it hits a broad market that is wine interested, but not necessarily wine inclined.  On that measure, I have to give them kudos for helping build a wine culture in the Midwest.

Drinking Paisano-style.  I love to drink my wine at home with a decidedly down-to-earth bent.  Forget the Riedel.  Get some glass coffee mugs and an old-school carafe.

Sacre Bleu wine.  Owner Galen Struwe could write a Harvard case study on the challenges of the wine business, particularly for those coming from outside of the industry.  Yet, after a couple of years of progress and experimentation, his Chilean juice is selling like hotcakes at Central Market in Texas and he’s poised to expand in a big way.  Galen is a good guy and I always like to see the good guys succeed.

Online wine-related videos:  Paso Wine Man’s newest video.  Jordan online videos—always incredibly well-done from Lisa Mattson.

Wine retailers who place the responsibility of receipt of wine packages on consumers and ship nearly everywhere, including Indiana which is technically a no-ship state.  I’m not tattling on whom, specifically, but I’m grateful that this occurs; at least that’s what my neighbor told me.  Ahem.


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Stop and Smell the Wine

With the New Year and winter’s recalcitrance toward resolutions now giving way to spring and new life, I’ve been contemplating a wine-related information makeover.

Perhaps not so much, “Out with the old, in with the new” as simply an editing of the wine-related information I consume, which is to say:  There’s a lot of it and I need less of it.  It’s a diet, perhaps.

Hastened by the online wine world where over the last five years wine content has become free, easy and inexhaustible, a wine enthusiast can get sucked into a vortex of infinite information that is unwittingly counter to their ethos.

Simply, one morning, under the glare of ashen bathroom lighting, the wine boor that we all hate so much might be staring back at us in the mirror.

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This past week, I knew I might be in too deep, stuck in the trees and not able to see the forest, when I traded emails with some fellow wine writer’s.  The initial query obtusely referenced Antonio Galloni and his new for-profit venture into conducting events as an adjunct to his wine criticism at the Wine Advocate.

“Huh?” You might say with this tidbit entirely missing your radar.  And, that’s exactly my point. 

Less than two months ago a mention of Antonio Galloni would have registered little more than a furtive calculation against the mental file. “Innocuous” would have been an apropos adjective for Galloni.  Now, weeks later, Galloni, Robert Parker, Jr.’s successor, is the subject of top-of-mind conversation based on an interview with wine writer Mike Steinberger at his Wine Diarist blog, which itself is barely two months old.  The reason?  Galloni has set-up a company called All Grapes Media, LLC that is facilitating winemaker dinners with readers of the Wine Advocate (WA) and select wineries that have been reviewed by Galloni and WA.

This has raised questions anew about ethics …

While not the subject of this post per se, what struck me about my email exchange was that all parties on the email knew about this VERY minor revelation.

Regrettably, this smallest of details, which has zero implication on the enjoyment of wine, any wine, is something that people pay attention to, and even postulate about as a frame of reference.

I’m as guilty as anybody.

Yet, we all control our decisions.  Just as Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin famously said, “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you who you are” the information we consume says just as much about who we are.

In the meantime, as we wax to drama, and let wine wane, we are living in a Golden Age of the drop – wine that is universally lauded and accessibly priced.  On the market today a wine enthusiast can access a nearly unlimited supply of not just information, but wine, glorious wine.  The ’07 Cabernet vintage from Napa is an all-time great.  The ’09 Rieslings from Germany are stellar.  The ’08 Pinots from Oregon are of incredible quality.

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These are all available to the wine lover who wants to do a bit of research and seek them out.

So, instead of getting into the proverbial weeds of very small wine-related detail, I’m taking just a small step back to enjoy this moment in time to use my information consumption habits to research and seek out wines, allocating some tax refund money to buying up a parcel of Napa Cabs, Oregon Pinot’s and German Rieslings for my cellar.

10-years hence, I won’t remember a small peccadillo about Antonio Galloni and some wine events, but I surely will remember when I had the foresight to buy up some wines that will pay me great dividends in enjoyment in the future.

You should consider doing the same.


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Bi-Polar Politics in Wine, Oncoming Urbanism and Your Thoughts

A reader (Gabriel from Portland) playfully chided me recently and said, “You never ask for comments.”  He’s right, I don’t ask for comments.  But, I surely do appreciate it when people do comment.  Talking to yourself can be lonely.

With Gabriel in mind, instead of doing my traditional op-ed and declaration of opinion as fact, I’m going to lay out some thoughts and then some third-party contextual information and maybe we can have some fun in the comments section today.

First, it’s my impression that the U.S. wine industry is politically bi-polar in ways that defy easy description.

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On the one hand, the prevailing sentiment in the wine business from a macro perspective is socially liberal.  It’s soft, it’s touchy, it’s artsy and inclusive of all of God’s creatures.  Yet, on the other hand, when it comes to the dirt, growing grapes, and protecting nature, hidebound neo-conservative traditionalists rule the day.  Ask anybody trying to navigate the labyrinth of red tape for a new vineyard development in Napa or Sonoma.  So, how to explain these polar opposite perspectives between progressive and preservation?  I’m not sure, but I think the coming two decades will tell the tale.

Recently, I’ve been reading a lot of dry-as-dirt information about global population growth.  I’m fascinated by the explosive growth of wine in China and the eye-popping auction sales numbers that follow by press release nearly every week.  For example, Acker, Merrall & Condit, the world’s largest wine auction house, sold over $10M in wine in Hong Kong over two days in late March, selling 99% of the available 1,080 lots for sales.  Their success is not an isolated incident and China is just one leading edge indicator of the globalization that will occur in wine in the next several decades.

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Here are a couple of excerpts from Trendwatching.com’s report on the future of urban consumption as well as McKinsey and Company reports on global economic growth in urban environments:

* 50.5% of the world is already urbanized

* By 2050, the global population living in an urban environment is expected to be 70%

* By 2030 China and India will have a combined total of 289 cities with a population exceeding one million people.  During this period, 615 million people will move into these urban environments exceeding the U.S. population in its entirety by nearly double.

* 400 midsize cities in emerging markets—cities that most of us have never heard of—are poised to generate nearly 40 percent of global growth over the next 15 years.

* For every 1% increase in urbanization in China, the country can expect a 1.6% increase in the contribution to their gross domestic product (GDP).

The prognostications are nearly universal – rural flight and population movement into urban environments in economically emerging countries like China and India is fueling growth, innovation, and wealth, re-balancing a global world axis that has always leaned towards the west.  This urbanization and increase in the quality of life as measured by economic wherewithal is driving an acquired taste for the trappings of Western middle-class life, including wine – a worldwide symbol of the good life dating back thousands of years.

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Net-net:  the wine world we live in will be radically different 10 years from now and, perhaps, unrecognizable to us 30 years hence.  And, this has all sorts of implications on the U.S. wine industry not the least of which is the aforementioned progressive sensibility countered by a traditional sense of agricultural stewardship.  A yin and a yang that may not always be in balance in the future.

To kick off the comments, here are a couple of thoughts/questions for you to react to:

* After-market wine auctions are getting the headlines; will the domestic wine business move to capitalize on expanding markets (be progressive) or sit on their hands (be traditional) till markets develop further?

* What will be the hottest job title in the wine business in the next 10-20 years?

* With increasing urbanization and the fine dining that is associated with cities, what role do you think Sommeliers will play in the future as wine tastemakers?

* India and China are both societies with hierarchical structures that accord respect to expertise and elders.  Will this continue the proliferation of the role of the wine critic?

* Do you think a Western wine critic is likely to assume this role in developing, global wine markets or will it be a native to that specific country?

* With international urbanization comes a specific set of needs, will the domestic wine industry systematically move to brand development that resonates globally instead of a “sense of place” that is focused on their dirt?

* Will small production, “cult” wineries allocate their wines to where they can command the most money (and profit) or will they stay true to their domestic roots and the customers that got them there?

* If the upper echelon of U.S. wineries focus globally, does that open up an opportunity for U.S. consumers to more readily find and engage with wineries from emerging U.S. regions – the Finger Lakes, Michigan, Virginia?

* What thoughts do you have about global urbanization and the impact it may have on focus, production, marketing or criticism compared to our current state?

Thanks, in advance, for your thoughts in the comments section!

Additional reading on global urbanization:

* McKinsey Global cities of the future map

* McKinsey Emerging Global Cities

* McKinsey Mapping the Economic Power of Cities

* McKinsey Focus on Cities

* Wikipedia entry on BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) as a coming economic superpower

* United Nations research on global urban living


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