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2010 Best of Wine Online Awards Pt. IV

In Part IV (and final installment) of my review, I continue an annual, highly subjective look at what I think is the best of what’s around in the wine scene.


Product Launch of the Year

The One™ wine glasses launched by Master Sommelier Andrea Immer Robinson wins my new product of the year.

First, a new product launch of this sort happens infrequently in the wine world.  Second, when a new product launch does happen, it’s usually a disappointment on some level, the claims not quite matching up to reality.  That’s not the case with The One™ glasses.

Designed to be all-purpose, everyday glasses – one for a red and one for a white wine, I have found them to be nearly perfect.

As an alpha consumer with a streak of skepticism, I’ve never quite reconciled the Riedel, Spiegelau, Waterford crystal wine glass landscape, instead drinking my wine out of inexpensive glass tumblers whilst the crystal languishes in the china cabinet.  Plus, polishing crystal glassware after hand washing is a drag and that’s only if a glass has not broken in your sink after you looked at it wrong.   

That said, The One™ glasses are nearly a revelation and have moved into daily use for me, in addition to being something I’ve gifted this year.  Why?  They are crystal, lead-free, bottom rack of the dishwasher safe (i.e. they handle super-hot water), thin, have a nice bowl that nicely captures wine aromas and they’re incredibly durable.

At $12.95 per glass or $49.95 for a set of four, they are an incredible bargain that will last for year and years.  Buy one of each of the red and white glass and do this little test before committing to buying enough for a crowd – run the glass under screaming hot water in your sink, immediately turn the water to cold and run the glass under it, then, as Andre 3000 might say, “Shake it like a Polaroid picture.”  Most other crystal wine glasses would snap at the stem in an instant or spontaneously combust.  Not this glass. 

Kudos to Andrea Robinson and her team for creating something truly useful for the wine enthusiast – a wine glass that handles the way people actually live while providing a good experience for what is in the glass.

Wine Book of the Year

2010 was the year of the wine book, an embarrassment of riches for the wine inclined bibliophile.  With releases too numerous to mention, not the least of which are Oldman’s Brave New World of Wine, Secrets of the Sommeliers, Matt Kramer on Wine, The Wild Vine, Opus Vino, and The New Connoisseurs’ Guidebook to California Wine and Wineries, any of these titles could have won best non-fiction wine book of the year in any other year. 

And, as if to add a cherry on top of this book sundae, the book sequel to Sideways, called Vertical, releases in the third week of November.

Despite this depth of quality, my pick is for book of the year is Reading Between the Wines by Terry Theise.

In choosing a winner, the criteria becomes what transcends the enjoyable and has an opportunity to become a benchmark book referenceable for years to come?  Oldman’s Brave New World of Wine comes close, as do several other books and the rest are solid backlist titles, but Reading Between the Wines is an instant classic.

Theise’s book is part treatise and part rumination on the human condition.  It is rare for a wine book, hell, any type of book, to move you to feeling.  Reading Between the Wines does that and more in becoming indispensable reading and re-reading on the thoughtful wine lover’s bookshelf.

Philanthropist of the Year Award

Doing good is a part of the DNA of the wine world.  Hardly a week goes by in which a non-profit isn’t picking the pocket of their volunteer base with an event that includes wine, most of which is donated.  2010 saw this is as ongoing concern, with the addition of a tragedy of grave consequence.

When news spread of the earthquake devastation in Haiti in January, a 7.0 on the Richter scale, it didn’t take long for David Honig, Publisher of Palate Press, to mobilize.

As I watched CNN and saw the most horrific scenes of human carnage I’ve ever seen, scarring visages of bodies piled up in the street with heavy equipment creating mass graves, Honig was organizing an online auction, aided by a supporting cast of hundreds who donated wine and purchased bottles with an awareness of the deep consequences the citizens of Haiti were facing.

According to Honig, he expected to gather up a case or two of wine and be able to donate a few hundred dollars.  Instead, what he saw was an outpouring of support that far exceeded his expectations.  Per Honig, special mention should also go to Lenn Thompson from the New York Cork Report for mobilizing the New York wine industry in a meaningful way.

All told, the Palate Press wine auction for Haiti raised over $17K for Haiti relief, donated to the Red Cross (Palate Press summary post here).  A similar and complementary auction led by the Aussies added another $20K.

Kudos to David, Palate Press, Lenn Thompson and a cast of hundreds who contributed to this global cause.  As the former founder of a non-profit whose board I sat on said to me, “I appreciate you and volunteers aren’t always appreciated.”  My mention in giving David, Palate Press and others an informal award is merely appreciating the good work that has already been done. 


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2010 Best of Wine Online Awards Pt. III

In Part III of my review I continue an annual, highly subjective look at what I think is the best of what’s around in the wine scene.

Quote of the Year

As seen in the Press-Democrat serving Sonoma and Napa county and attributed to Michael Collins, owner and winemaker at Limerick Lane Winery in Healdsburg, in response to harvest this year:

“In farming, every now and then, you get a baseball bat across the face. We got that this year.”

Generation Next / Online Video

This category is designed to highlight emerging people that merit watching as they develop into more central figures in the wine scene.  For online video, I’m choosing Jess Altieri from WineChannelTV.

What to do if you’re a twenty something broadcast major from NYU with a passion for wine?  Many might get a production or a field-reporting job in a third-tier TV market and start climbing their way up the ladder in a hyper-competitive field, drinking a glass of wine at the end of the day as a respite from a short-term sentence in trying to make it happen in Dubuque, IA.  Not Jess Altieri.  She starts an online media company.

There’s a lot to like about Jess—her camera presence is warm, and she has a joie de vivre about her.  Like any good personality, you feel comfortable spending time with her.  However, equally important, her business model is spot-on.

Altieri may feel like it’s challenging to get people to understand what she does, but it won’t be that way for much longer, the convergence of TV and the Internet is happening quickly, not to mention the fact that the appetite for wine information is growing significantly.

Wine enthusiasm is a radically underserved market on TV.  Most of what is on broadcast TV is hackneyed and generalized to the point of not having an audience.  Online, sure, you have Gary V. as mensch reviewer for a new generation and you have wineries producing high quality videos as an extension of their marketing, but there is nobody that’s doing eyewitness reporting at trade shows and tastings, acting as a red carpet reporter and go-to person for wine happenings.  Jess, smartly, is moving to fill that void.  Keep an eye on WineChannelTV, I have a hunch you’ll be seeing a lot more of her.

Generation Next / Writing

I like people that make it happen and Ben Weinberg is making it happen.  Writing about wine is a second career for this former financial planner with both a JD and an MBA.

Weinberg’s former gig was writing the wine column for the now defunct Rocky Mountain News. Currently, he’s a regular contributor to Sommelier Journal.  His writing credits this year include Wine Enthusiast and The World of Fine Wine, a magazine that is the pinnacle in wine writing, in my opinion.

Weinberg also maintains a blog called Unfiltered, Unfined. 

He’s low on the radar for the socially fuelled online wine scene, but he’s got the one thing that many others don’t – paying work. 

Keep an eye on Weinberg as an emerging voice in wine writing.

Winery Blog of the Year

Last year my selection was Judd’s Hill and “Judd’s Enormous Wine Show,” a tough act to follow.  This year the nod goes to Jordan Vineyard & Winery and their “The Journey of Jordan” blog, a video-driven effort that does, indeed, capably follow Judd’s Enormous Wine Show.

Started in December of 2009, but begun in earnest in January of this year with Lisa Mattson, Director of Communications, at the helm, The Journey of Jordan is a varied and interesting lifestyle-oriented video blog with moments of inspiration enveloping always-interesting video vignettes.

According to Mattson, “(the) goal with the Journey of Jordan, our weekly video blog, is to share everyday life on the estate and bring extra value to those who enjoy Jordan wines.”  She continued, “There are so many people out there who have been to wine country, but they don’t live here and can’t visit each year, each season, each month … these videos are a great way for them to feel connected …”

Mattson has done an exceptional job in bringing the flavor of Jordan to life for online viewers.

Wine Blog Post of the Year

This category goes to the blog post that stayed with me the longest, be that bad or be that good.  This year’s winner is W. Blake Gray for his post titled, “An Open Letter to Marvin Shanken” in which he calls for the reassignment of Jim Laube at Wine Spectator. 

To co-opt former football coach Lou Holtz’s quote in reference to Notre Dame, “If you were there, no explanation is necessary. If you weren’t, no explanation is satisfactory.”

Since posting, comments have been deleted and the general tone is much less rancorous than upon publication (ipso facto editing for the Internet records?).  Suffice to say, the initial post read like a suicide bomber hurling a Molotov cocktail to add insult to his own injury.

*Note* W. Blake Gray indicates in the comments to this post that no comments nor the text of the post referenced above were changed.  I think the lesson is that “perception is reality” and I trust that in online wine writing, without a second set of editorial eyes, words can be miscontrued from author intent.

Region of the Year

You can make an argument for dozens of areas around the globe.  The pace at which the walls in the global wine village are being broken down is fast and furious.

My vote, however, has less to do with sales momentum and more to do with preservation(or lack thereof) as a microcosm of the global wine village. 

My award for “Region of the Year” goes to the Mosel region in Germany (A balanced NPR piece here).  Reaching its vocal nadir in the spring of this year, pockets in that region have been battling against building a bridge smack dab in the middle of the wine region, a crime that can be equated to a third-party painter adding background detail to the Mona Lisa.  That is the media’s perspective, however.  A closer inspection of the coverage indicates that while building the bridge may visually blight the area it would have minimal impact on acreage under vine while bringing modernity and increased accessibility for tourism.

The Mosel is home to the most beautiful Riesling on the planet, wines that are ethereal and delicate. Yet, the vocal minority have lost their fight as plans continue for the bridge, an indicator that tradition and progress are in a perpetual battle in the crucible of wine.

In Part IV, the final post in my series on the best of wine online, I’ll look at product of the year, book of the year and more.


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2010 Best of Wine Online Awards Pt. II

In Part II of my online awards, I continue an annual, highly subjective look at what I think is the best of what’s around in the wine scene.

Trend of the Year / Wine Media

In 2009 my ‘Person of the Year’ was winery PR, acknowledging that online wine media had made significant strides in becoming an accepted part of the wine media landscape.  I’m not giving a ‘Person of the Year’ award this year and instead I’m breaking out several areas into “trend” pockets.

This year the unquestioned trend of the year in wine media is “assimilation.”  Simply, the formerly unseen but acknowledged dividing line that separated traditional media from online wine media has eroded into one large bucket of “wine content.”

Sure, there are significant differences between whom a person writes for and their bona fides especially as compared to somebody else who may not have a W2 or as much legacy reputation, but you have that in any professional classification. 

Simply, every paid wine writer of any merit has an online vehicle for content (most of it for free), competing for attention and mindshare with online wine media, many of whom compete capably without resources or a burnished brand masthead.  Need more proof?  Read mainstream wine media – Spectator, non-Asimov NYT’s, the SF Chronicle, or any other outlet that reports on au courant wine trends or happenings and ask yourself if you’ve seen that topic vetted online first.  Eight times out of 10 the answer will be, “Yes.”

The leveled playing field and sentiment of the “Barbarians at the Gate” is now old news.  For online wine media, the classic Pogo indictment on humanity frailty, “We have met the enemy and he is us” is apropos.  This trend became fully realized in 2010.

Trend of the Year / Wine Packaging

It used to be a keg was synonymous with college kids, Natural Light beer and turning over couch cushions for a tap deposit.  No more.  2010 is the year of the wine keg.  The news has been steady all year.  And, while the cork folks would like you to believe that the story of the year is their growth, against sharp competition, and the box wines folks would like you to believe that quality has increased in their product by a sharp percentage, the reality is that wine on draught at on-premise establishments has the staying power to radically impact wine by the glass programs at restaurants, all with a much larger financial impact than either cork or box wines, a niche compared to restaurant wine sales.

If you’re looking for substantiation of this trend, especially compared to my comments about wine media, do a Google search for “wine kegs” and “wine kegs blog” and look at the publishing dates to follow the story.

Trend of the Year / Wine Business

Meteoric Malbec growth, value wines, private labels, natural wine and even the recovery of the above $20 segment all merit consideration, but for me the largest trend that I’ve seen, that is also still largely unexplored as a topic, is an area that I call, “Velocity Labels.”

It used to be that medium size wineries would create a second tier of wines at lower price points and they were “second labels.”  This isn’t a correct descriptor any longer because second labels really call to mind declassified wine, and a correspondingly lower price from a winery’s “Reserve” or “Estate” line.

As a correlating point, large wine companies also tend to create new wine lines to capitalize on consumer trends – Trinchero’s Main Street label is an example of this opportunism.

However, what we’re seeing between the notion of medium size winery’s legacy second labels and large wine companies brand development is an entirely new classification – medium-sized wineries that are creating a lower-priced, independently branded series of wines, sourced from all over, that act as an adjunct to a winery’s higher-end tier of wine with the intention to create sales velocity.

I first noticed this last year with Pétanque wine from Michel-Schlumberger Winery, a wine line that I don’t believe is being continued.

Continuing the burgeoning trend is Forefront wines from Pine Ridge Vineyards, also launched last year (web site here). 

This notion of “velocity labels” was really brought home to me in an email exchange with Craig Camp from Cornerstone Cellars in regards to a new series of wines called, “Stepping Stone by Cornerstone.”  In response to my query about second labels he replied, “Actually I would almost consider Stepping Stone by Cornerstone my main label as its 2/3’s of my production. Also, the wines are made from selected vineyards selected in advance for their style, not by just by buying bulk wine or declassifying Cornerstone wines. Cornerstone are really my reserve selections. To me they are sister labels.”

Another example of this is the reasonably new and re-jiggered Tamás line of wine, aimed at Millenials, from Wente.

Sister labels or “velocity labels,” call it what you like, but the development is palpable as domestic wineries examine how to preserve existing brand equity at higher price thresholds, leverage resources and create cash flow, or sales velocity with additional lines of wine ... this is my wine business trend of the year because I think the curve for this growth is only now starting to show itself.

In Part III of the 2010 Best of Wine Online Awards we get to the fun stuff – who is next in video, writing, the best product launch of the year, the best book of the year and more merriment!


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2010 Best of Wine Online Awards Pt. I

In December of last year, I wrote a two-part story (here and here) highlighting examples from the online wine scene that I thought were the “best of” their niche for the year.  It was a well-received series of posts and I am continuing this year with a somewhat broader scope encompassing a perspective not limited to just the wine blogging scene. 

Why publish early in November, just moments after Halloween, marking entry into the end of the year?  Hmm … good question.  I think it is because I’ve been two months ahead all year.  2009 was such a challenging and difficult year that I wiped the mental slate clean in November of last year, so I’ve mentally been in 2010 for 12 months already.

On the other hand, perhaps I have been spurred into creating mental order because I was recently voted THE best wine blog by the folks at the web site, “Guide to Culinary Schools”—a list that clearly indicates some kind of disruption in “The Force.” The rest of the top five, out of 50 wine blog listings, includes Gary Vaynerchuk, Alice Feiring, Eric Asimov, and Alder Yarrow.  Yeah, I also laughed at the notion of being numero uno.  As the Latin proverb goes, “De gustibus non est disputandum”—there is no accounting for taste.

What follows here is an opinion-heavy perspective on, “The good stuff” for 2010, and, mercifully, I am not including myself.

Large Winery of the Year:  Bogle Wines

In 2010, consumers, still reeling from the economic malaise of the last two years, love a wine brand that reliably delivers at a reasonable price across a broad spectrum of varietals.  Found nationwide, but staying slightly above the supermarket fray, Bogle delivers high quality and varietally correct wines from Riesling to Petite Sirah and most are under $12 a bottle while NOT tasting confected as so many supermarket wines do.  The Bogle Phantom, the most expensive table wine they offer at around $18 a bottle, competes on quality against wines at twice the cost. 

In addition, Bogle is my default recommendation for wine-interested friends who need a “woobie” comfort brand to look for at the store. 

Kudos to the folks at Bogle for for consistently over-delivering on value while not compromising on quality, all at a good price – a winning wine recipe for 2010 and for years to come…

Medium-size Winery of the Year: LIOCO

LIOCO was winner of the 2009 Winery of the Year Award from Wine & Spirits magazine, a prescient decision from Joshua Greene and team and more prestigious than my notice here.  However, I note LIOCO for good, duplicative reason … 

To me, LIOCO represents the “natural” wine movement domestically, a movement that has “earned its spurs” this year in wine wonk discourse.  In addition, LIOCO also represent a movement that I call “Nü California” – fruit forward wines with an old world sensibility.  LIOCO’s chards are generally vineyard-designate, unoaked, mostly fermented with ambient yeasts and they are unfined and unfiltered.  Fantastic wines.  Their Pinot’s are likewise perfect – fruit forward, alive, and vital with just a kiss of oak for structure. 

All of their wines are offered at a fair price for the quality in the bottle and all of them offer a memorable and compelling lip-smacking quality.  To drink LIOCO is to feel a rush of exhilaration similar to your first kiss in that movie theatre years ago.  Seriously.

Small Winery of the Year: Kimmel Vineyards

The winner of the Small Winery of the Year Award goes to Jim Kimmel and family from Kimmel Vineyards.  Five hundred and fifty six cases across two varietals – Chardonnay and Merlot—constitutes small (micro?) production in my book. 

The reason I have selected Kimmel Vineyards is not because of their wine, which is very good, their Chardonnay, in particular, being an exemplar of what a restrained, but oaked Chardonnay can be in California.  However, more importantly, Kimmel Vineyards is truly a family operation with all of the positives and negatives that come with being a small business – the struggles to sell grapes, heck, the struggle to sell wine, period—the twists, and turns of being a vineyard owner and a small vintner.  Jim Kimmel and family have experienced the gamut of highs and lows in the last two years. 

A good guy, Jim Kimmel and Kimmel Vineyards are people worth highlighting and worth rooting for in the sometimes schizophrenic wine business.

Wine of the Year: 2007 Continuum

I contemplated selecting the 2006 Dry Riesling from Anthony Road winery from the Finger Lakes, almost the polar opposite of the 2007 Continuum from Tim Mondavi’s venture, Continuum Estate.  The deciding factor had little to do with the notion of a small NY winery versus a renowned winemaker from Napa, and had everything to do with the wine. 

The Anthony Road was electrifying, but the Continuum is the single best thing that I’ve put in my mouth all year, a wine that I have a distinct taste memory for and a wine that I scored a 95.  I don’t review many wines on this site – for good reason, there’s too much grade inflation in wine rankings and many dole out 90s like first grade teachers giving smiley faces on homework assignments.  Yet, in hindsight, I might have graded this one a little too tough at the time.  It’s surely a 95, and perhaps higher.  It’s a wine that’s rich and decadent, yet finely wrought and obviously built for the long haul.

As compared to other so-called “cult” wines in Cabernet, Continuum is a steal at $140 SRP (and found for less online).  In different economic times, the wait list for Continuum would have stretched out til 2013.  Count your blessings while you can …

In part II of the 2010 Best of Wine Online Awards, I’ll cover people to watch, trends, apps, books, and more …


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How Sweet it is – The Growing Sweet Wine Trend

Is the table set for a boom in varietal sweet table wines in the U.S., wines that are known to have some residual sugar (RS) instead of being a wink and a smile from the wine business?  The tea leaves say, “Yes.”

I touched on the “knowing” sweet wine topic earlier this year in a post about Jam Jar, a stated semi-sweet Shiraz that, according to importer Cape Classics, has been enjoying robust sales since domestic launch.

And, while it’s common for a domestic white wine, generally under $12 a bottle, to have a whisper of RS, what is not common is reporting that there’s residual sugar in it.

That said, I think we (the royal “we” as in the collective of all wine enthusiasts who participate symbiotically with the wine business) are on the cusp of participating or being swept up in a sweet wine trend – the kind of trend that takes sweet wines out of the back alley and onto Broadway as an accepted varietal wine while no longer being viewed as a quaff only for the uninitiated, or dessert, instead being seen as something that is occasion appropriate and can be paired on the dinner table.

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I note this because much of what I find interesting in writing about wine is looking for disparate common threads that can be tied together.  Related to sweet wine, over the course of the last several weeks, I’ve seen these disparate common threads and, as they say, once is an accident, twice, a coincidence and three times is a trend ...

Simply put, Muscat, typically known as Muscato or Moscato on the wine shelf is growing … big time growing ... as a still wine, not an Italian sparkler nor as a dessert wine.

The first “hmm …” moment regarding Moscato came with an announcement from the NextGen Wine Competition this summer, based on judging from a twenty-something panel, awarding a non-vintage Barefoot Cellars Moscato a “Best in Show” award.  Was this a fluke worthy of derision?  Some thought so …

… Until a larger context started framing itself ...

The second reference I saw came in a presentation from the Wine Industry Financial Symposium last month. In that presentation, in response to a question posed to wine industry leaders, “Have your sales begun to revive? For which products at which price points?”  The anonymous, non-attributed response came:

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“I would say at the low-end, Muscato is the varietal that is standing out. There is not enough Muscato right now in California to feed the beast. It is a sweet wine, similar to our Pinot Grigio at the lower end. Every producer that can ramp it up is.”

The third flag I saw is a Fresno Bee article on Moscato (also in September) that noted in reference to the Muscat grape, (quoting Nat DiBuduo, president of Allied Grape Growers in Fresno):

“Now, we are at the point where demand may be outpacing the current supply.”

DiBuduo estimates that acreage will increase by at least 50% over the next two years, from 3,245 acres in production statewide today.

Among the reasons for the surge is a growing number of muscat wine drinkers.

Sales of Moscato—a muscat wine—rose 78% during a one-year period ending in June, said Jon Fredrikson of Woodside-based Gomberg, Fredrikson and Associates, a wine industry consulting firm.

Finally, as a capstone, I paid a visit to the wine section at Sam’s Club this past weekend – in a bin, nearly empty, next to nearly full bins of other white wines, was the Terra d’Oro Moscato, a wine that clearly was selling extremely well against other whites.

Is this all coincidence?  No.  Moscato is coming on strong.

The reason for the growth, organic as it may be, is harder to pin down.

Anecdotally, I think there are four reasons:

1) Distribution.  Large wine producers are able to get Moscato varietal wines to large retailers at competitive prices, where many people are buying their “value” wines

2) No stigmas. Gen. Y doesn’t carry legacy stigmas of what to drink, or not to drink.  And, even if they did, they probably wouldn’t care.  Plus, they are inveterate explorers drinking globally from the word “go” and Moscato d’Asti from Italy is a pleasant introduction to the varietal

3) Rising consumption and new consumers.  With the rising wine consumption in the U.S. there are some late converts, like my Mom for example – Age 60 +.  She is slowly but surely taking the path of palate development, but White Zinfandel wasn’t her gateway wine, it was semi-sweet varietal wines from Midwest wineries.  Moscato is tailor made for her as she evolves to Riesling and soft tannin reds.  Her journey is one shared by many.

4) Quality.  Even hard-bitten wine enthusiasts have to admit that Moscato is an enjoyable glass of wine, pleasingly floral, typically balanced, and able to be made with some character, with reasonably low alcohol and an inexpensive price.

In sum, keep an eye on growth of not just Moscato, but semi-sweet varietal wines in general – they will have higher price points, but still with a “value” orientation and they won’t be garishly packaged on the bottom shelf of the wine aisle, having earned a higher degree of respect in the court of wine consumer opinion.

Reference Link
USDA grape varietal acreage in California table


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