Posts in the Category: California

Climate change and alcohol in the Napa Valley

After rains all week in the Napa, the sun finally came out to dry out the fruit and hopefully ensure the 2011 crop isn’t riddled with rot. It was a particularly unseasonable week when I visited but the rains seem to follow me wherever I go. Perhaps drought-ridden areas should call me in…

So, a seminar on climate change between downpours seemed relevant. What is going on with the weather?

Napa Valley Vintners supported a study published this year breezily entitled ‘Climate and Phenology in Napa Valley: A Compilation and Analysis of Historical Data’ (!) in response to growing concerns about climate change.

Rex Stultz, industry relations director a the NVV, explains, “We started to see reports on USA today and NBC tying climate change to agriculture, saying that if the climate continued to change we might not be able to grow grapes in the Napa Valley.

“It created a bit of a stir in the community, asking if it was true.”

A two-year project followed to study the historical weather trends in Napa, and how this change affected wine grape growing.

Using 12,000 data collection points through the county, the study found that the Napa Valley had experienced warming but not to the degree that had been originally suggested.

Perhaps the problem was that the previous studies had been based on just two temperature collection stations.  The first at the Napa state hospital, a facility for the criminally insane (not that that had any effect on the study but it’s a piece of trivia), which was positioned next to a road. The other station, in St Helena, was on the top of a fire station roof – not exactly representative of the county.

After studying some complicated-looking graphs, the results show that the average temperatures in Napa Valley have increased 1 to 2 degrees Fahrenheit over the past several decades, but considerably less warming than the fire station and mad house station had suggested.

Christopher Howell of Cain Vineyard & Winery said “Globally, the years 1998, 2005, 2006 and now 2010 were the warmest years on record, but they were some of the coolest for the Napa Valley. There is a suggestion by some climate scientists that, as the interior areas warm in the future, Napa temperatures may actually remain relatively moderate, or even cool as maritime air gets drawn further up the valley.”

But this doesn’t explain why so many wineries have alcohols into the high 14s and 15s. Winemakers claimed canopy management, lower hanging fruit, more efficient yeasts in the winery, rootstock selection and lower yields have resulted in higher alcohols.

However, in my opinion, late picking seems to be the main factor in these higher alcohol styles in Napa. There’s a bunch of producers that don’t have these high alcohols like Clos du Val and Corison, who pick a little earlier than most, proving that top Napa Cabernet doesn’t have to be horribly high in alcohol, and these producers are making some of the most attractive wines. So it’s not the climate; it’s all to often a human decision.

Posted in - Blog Posts & Cabernet Sauvignon & California & Research & wine on October 16th 2011 0 Comments

Roll out the barrels

A tour of winery barrel halls is about as exciting as watching paint dry. And when winemakers tell you which brand of barrels they use, it doesn’t mean much to most of us non-winemaking mortals.

But suddenly it makes much more sense after sitting in on a barrel trial tasting session with Chris Carpenter, winemaker for Cardinale, La Jota and Lokoya in Napa.

We sat down in front of five dense 2009 Napa Cabernet Sauvignons from the sub-region of Mount Veeder, which is destined for the Lokoya brand. They were the same wine but had been put into different types of oak. They had been in barrel for the same length of time, the toast was the same on each barrel, and the age of the barrels was also the same – but the wines tasted dramatically different.

Carpenter explained, “Mt Veeder has big fruit and giant tannins so we need to fill in the middle. We try to do that in the winery but oak also helps.”

We each marked the wines on that basis with the coopers Bel Air and Taransaud coming out joint favourite. Other coopers’ barrels flattened the smell of the wine while others overpowered the fruit. It was interesting to see Carpenter and his assistant winemaker completely disagree on the Bernard-made barrel, showing wine is totally subjective even when you know what you’re doing.

However these barrel test results are specific to each wine so while our favourites for this wine were Taransaud and Bel Air, this test doesn’t apply to the other Cabernets or Merlots Carpenter makes.

It is also interesting to note that most of us were non-plussed with the World Cooperage Barrels. These barrels just overpowered the fruit, giving an unpleasant coffee, mocha and vinyl character to the wine. However, Lakoya’s parent company, Jackson Family Wines, is a partner in World Cooperage Barrels.

Carpenter added, “We are going to France this year to try to figure out why they are like this. Is it how they are cutting the staves in France or is it the cooper in Missouri? These barrels do work with out Merlot but not with our Cabernet.”

Inevitably, with consolidation one of the key trends in the wine industry at the moment, there is some pressure from accountants to use this oak, as it is up to 50% cheaper.

Posted in - Blog Posts & Cabernet Sauvignon & California & Merlot on October 10th 2011 0 Comments

Napa Valley harvest 2011 update

For the second day running I am wearing another bloody poncho. Today I’m in the middle of a Zinfandel vineyard with 20 Mexican blokes.

My tour schedule claimed this morning would be ‘Down and Dirty’ but it did not involve any saucy underwear or adult movies or any of the Mexican blokes – we were picking grapes in the rain.

Oscar Renteria picked me up at 7.30am to get out into the vineyards. He has taken over from his father running Renteria vineyard management company, which is charged with looking after everything that goes on in the vineyards for many well-known wineries around the region including Duckhorn, Rombauer and Michael Mondavi.

Today we were picking like crazy – well, the Mexican boys were – I was going at a leisurely pace: one grape for me, one for the bucket, one grape for me…If the Zinfandel was left out for another 24 hours and the expected big rains arrive in the valley, the Zin could ‘turn to mush,’ said Renteria.

The Renteria family are all around the valley – he has more than 100 first cousins in the area, which must make Christmas an expensive time. His mother and father came to Napa Valley from Mexico, as market farm workers and met in Rutherford in the mid 1960’s. His father started the vineyard management company in 1987 and Oscar has since taken the helm, and more than 300 people are employed by them.

Find out the lowdown from the 2011 Napa Valley vintage thus far by watching my interview with Oscar..


Posted in - Blog Posts & California on October 3rd 2011 0 Comments

The Napa Valley forecast

If you thought the English liked to talk about the weather, you’d be right. But it seems the Californians have an even greater penchant for climatic conditions.

There’s a double page spread devoted to the weather in the San Francisco Times on a Sunday to satiate people’s appetite for the forecast, and there are constant updates on every TV channel.

So, as an English girl in California, it only seems appropriate to discuss the weather. Today, in Napa, it is mostly raining, giving vintners plenty to discuss in the middle of harvest. So much for bringing suntan lotion – there was a group of poncho-wearing, umbrella-carrying master sommelier and master of wine students to be found traipsing around the region.

It has been all systems go this weekend for producers with thin-skinned grape varieties such as Pinot Noir with the rains on their way. Thicker skinned varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, which makes up 40% of the region’s crush, are still out and producers are saying they’re not too worried about dilution as there is better weather ahead (probably once I’ve left!) Thus far it’s been a cool season and some producers are expecting to harvest as late as November.

More on the season thus far and the Napa seminar tomorrow but I’ll leave you with a few Napa facts before signing off…

  1. Napa accounts for just 4% of California’s production, which equals 0.4%  of the world’s wine production;
  2. It has 15 sub appellations;
  3. 77% of the Napa Valley Vintners’ memebers make fewer than 10,000 cases of wine a year;
  4. It is 36 miles from the Pacific Ocean and 48 miles from San Francisco;
  5. More than 100 different soils have been found in the region.
  6. Posted in - Blog Posts & California on October 2nd 2011 0 Comments

The week that was at

August is a quiet month for the wine industry – most of France, Italy and Spain go on holiday. Yet, there’s been plenty to write about this week at, where I’m acting as news and commissioning editor. So here’s a digest of the main news stories in the wine industry this week…

The Champenois have announced the yield for the 2011 vintage – 12,500kg – which is approximately 20% more than last year due to increased demand for bubbly. The Champagne houses wanted a higher yield with their sales up 13% last year but the growers weren’t so keen, and this was the compromise.

The Champagne region is now recovering from a blip during the economic crash of late 2008 and if sales continue on the upward curve it is now on, they’ll have a shortage. The industry is currently undertaking research to figures out a way to manage supply and demand. With a restricted area that is planted to bursting point, they will struggle to make more, so it will be interesting to see what solution they come up with.

In Burgundy, five grands crus vineyards are banning the use of machine harvesting from the coming vintage. I spoke to president of the Union of Burgundy Grands Crus, Louis-Michel Liger-Belair, during his holiday in Tuscany to ask him why they’d done this. There are 5% of the grands crus that use machines and it gives us a bad image. Hand harvesting does cost a bit more but the quality is much better,’ he said.

At the end of the week, Domaine de l’Arlot’s winemaker of 13 years has also left to establish his own domaine down in the Ardeche. More on that next week, I hope.

Over in the US, there have been acquisitions aplenty. At the start of the week, Fiji water billionaire, Stewart Resnick bought Chardonnay specialist Landmark Vineyards of Sonoma. It’s the second purchase for his company Roll Global in eight months.

Roll Global is one to watch, as is Alejandro Bulgheroni. While most magazines reported his acquisition of Renwood Vineyard from the company’s press release, there seemed to be more to this one. A 20-minute chat with Alejandro, revealed he was not only a charming businessman that has made his millions in oil and gas, he’s also got grand designs for a wine empire, aspiring to run six wineries, including what’s thought to be the world’s southernmost vineyard.

London rioters stormed Michelin-star restaurant The Ledbury at the start of the week, smashing windows and stealing personal items from customers. The Ledbury’s kitchen staff managed to chase away the rioters, armed with a variety of kitchen items. While it must have been terrifying for diners, The Ledbury offered them all Champagne to ease their anxiety.

Further restaurant news in London: Spanish chef Jose Pizarro will be opening a Cava bar at his new restaurant Pizarro. It is in Bermondsey Street – the same road as his newly-opened tapas and sherry bar.  It should open in October. Should….

Posted in - Argentina & Blog Posts & blogging & Burgundy & California & Champagne & Pinot Noir & wine on August 12th 2011 0 Comments

Constellation’s Christmas cracker

When the google wine alert dropped into my inbox on Christmas Eve, I wasn’t expecting anything significant to happen. Then came news that Constellation, one of the world’s biggest beverage companies, has sold off its Australian and UK division.

There’s nothing quite like announcing an AU $290 million deal when everyone’s left the office for a week or two and have mince pies rather than pie charts on their mind. Of course, you can’t brush this one under the carpet but it has happened without too much fuss.

An Australian private equity fund, CHAMP, has bought the businesses and the deal is expected to be complete by the end of January. It includes the transfer of Constellation’s Australian, UK, and South African brands, wineries, facilities, vineyards, and the company’s 50% interest in Matthew Clark, the UK wholesaler. All CWAE employees will transfer with the business but there is uncertainty for those staff who will be unsure as to the future holds in 2011.

Constellation’s CEO Rob Sands said Australian wine no longer offered the profit margins it expected as part of its premiumisation strategy.  “Constellation has implemented a strategy focused on driving profitable organic growth through premiumizing its world class brand portfolio and improving margins, return on invested capital and free cash flow,” he said. “The CWAE business sells quality wines from the important Australian appellation and has significant scale, but continues to be faced with challenging market conditions. Therefore, the business is no longer consistent with Constellation’s strategy.”

How did Constellation get into this sticky wicket? It paid US$1.1 billion for BRL Hardy in 2003. It was part of an acquisition trail, which included buying Zinfandel producer Ravenswood for close to $150m and Mondavi for more than $1bn. The debt soon piled up, the global economic crisis hit, Australian wine slumped and other wine producing countries got their act together. Not a recipe for success.

So, Hardy’s is off to pastures new at a fraction of the price paid in 2003 and Constellation has thrown plenty of extras in as part of the deal. They must have been feeling in the Christmas spirit.

Posted in - Australia & Blog Posts & California & New Zealand & trends on December 30th 2010 0 Comments

South Africa makes it onto the rostrum

South Africa is now selling more wine in the UK than France. You would have got very long odds for that happening if you’d placed a bet 15 years ago.

The latest Nielsen stats put three New World countries on the UK’s best-selling rostrum: Australia, the US (well, California) along with the Safas. What a turn around in 20 years. According to the OIV, new world producing wine countries had 3% of the market in the late 1980s but in 2008, it was 30% and its share is clearly continuing to grow.

In the past year, South African wine sales have increased 20% by volume to 12.27m cases, while French wine sales continued on their slide into the abyss, dropping 12% to 12.26m cases.

Interestingly, South Africa released its volume figures but not its value figures, which leaves us guessing. Anyone venturing into a UK supermarket, will see there are plenty of deals on South African wine, which have been driving volumes and not value.

As Australia and Chile have seen, cheap isn’t cheerful for your wine industry. If you sell at less than a fiver, that damages perceptions of your wine industry and it’s difficult to claw your way out of that.

Nevertheless, South Africa has come a long way and the World Cup is coming in June putting the country firmly on the map.

Posted in - Australia & Blog Posts & California & South Africa & wine on February 23rd 2010 0 Comments

Let’s Get It On at #pinot2010

Burgundy is the world’s top dog when it comes to making Pinot Noir but at today’s tasting New Zealand fared much better in a blind line up of Pinots from around the world. Of course we’re in New Zealand so the tasting might have been a bit skewed but there were some real surprises.

There’s a whole number of reasons why the Burgundians looked rather unimpressive today: the 2006 vintage was patchy, the selection of wines was rather tight and closed, and you need more than a splash of wine to make a true assessment of them. They could’ve done with a nice game dish to accompany them too.

Nevertheless Oz Clarke was so unmoved by the 2006 Camille Giroud, Chambertin Grand Cru that he said he found it as exciting as a “bus timetable”. I awarded it a very average 16.5 out of 20 and thought it was a village level Burgundy. At the prices Grand Cru Chambertin commands, this wine shrieked daylight robbery.

In contrast, my favourite wines of the tasting were the 2007 Ata Rangi and the 2007 Felton Road Block 5. Both had beautiful purity, concentration and structure. The tannins were certainly a lot riper and the wines were much more approachable in their youth than Burgundy. The panel of speakers started getting carried away with comparisons to song lyrics in their tasting notes and critic Neal Martin claimed the Felton Road Pinot was his ‘Let’s Get It On’ wine. Unfortunately he wasn’t so complimentary to Russian River’s Littorai Pinot, likening it to a song from Flight of the Conchords, ‘Sugar Lumps’, in which Bret and Jemaine compare their testicles to the sweet cubes. I think I’d rather have Marvin Gaye.

It was good to see the NZ Pinots performing so well but one of the UK’s leading importers Hatch Mansfield warned producers not to set their sights only at the premium end of the market.

The average price for a bottle of New Zealand Pinot Noir in the UK is currently £8.93. Patrick McGrath MW, managing director of Hatch said, “I don’t think you want that premium to go any higher because you want to introduce Pinot to the greater public.”

“There’s a huge opportunity for it to become mainstream,” he added.

Tim Atkin MW agreed with McGrath. “ I believe Pinot Noir is a huge opportunity. Under £20 I would rather drink a New Zealand Pinot Noir. If you can crack the £9.99 market then the future in the UK export market is very bright.”

I’m not sure that’s what producers wanted to hear about their precious red grape variety.

Posted in - Blog Posts & Burgundy & California & Central Otago & New Zealand & Pinot Noir & wine on February 4th 2010 0 Comments

The hill debate continues

Last month after visiting Waipara for the first time, I noticed that the vast majority of vines were planted on the flat gravel lands while there were plenty of hillsides sitting unplanted. Coming from a European viewpoint, I questioned whether there was lots of untapped potential.

This led to an interesting debate with Brian Bicknell of Marlborough’s Mahi wines. While vines in Europe are planted on slopes mainly to find less vigorous soils, achieve better drainage, and a better aspect to the sun, he commented: “the weird thing is that the situation here is nearly exactly opposite [to Europe] as the valley floors were rivers only a couple of hundred years ago so certainly in Marlborough, and I believe in Waipara, the free-draining soils are on the valley floors. The silts and clay soils in most cases are still on the hills so it is quite a different situation to that of Europe.”

I’d heard about a winery in Waipara, Pyramid Valley, 15 minutes drive west into the hills, that was planting on limestone slopes with excellent results, so I headed up there to see what their view is on this whole hill thing.

Mike Weersing, a Burgundy-trained Californian, and his partner Claudia, planted the two hectare vineyard in 2000, after searching Europe, California and New Zealand for a place to plant Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. “We wanted to add a new terroir to the world that could say something about the place via the grape,” he said. They found parcels of clay and limestone and there’s still plenty of virgin land on the property to be planted.

So what’s his take on the hill thing?

“Historically it’s been easier to plant on the flat and producers like the wines they are making enough, so they don’t have the incentive to plant up the hills,” he says.

“They would make more interesting wines and they would have one-hundredth of the water needs of the vines on the flat gravels” He says this because clays on the hills retain water better than free-draining gravel, adding “the country is going to deplete its water resources with so much irrigation. We don’t have to irrigate on the clay slopes.”

So, is it laziness and complacency that is to blame for people heading up into the hills? Well at the moment, there is very little planting due to the oversupply and recession. When the financial crisis finally draws to a close, will there be more people looking upwards? Yes, it’s going to be more expensive to work, so it would only be for premium players but there could be lots of new and interesting wines made.

In Hawkes Bay, the Glazebrook hills surround the main grape growing area – the Heretaunga plains. According to Rod Easthope, chair of the Gimblett Gravels Winegrowers Association, they offer some new good-looking terroirs for the local producers. “There’s potential all through the hills with limestone. It’s elevated so they don’t suffer frost. But they are always going to be an adjunct to what people are doing now,” he said.

In my next blog, more on Pyramid Valley and its unfined and unfiltered biodynamic wines.

Posted in - Blog Posts & California & Hawkes Bay & Marlborough & New Zealand & Organic & Pinot Noir & wine on January 14th 2010 0 Comments

Retailers accused of paying ‘lip service’ to the green issue

I’ve just attended a debate, which asked whether the promotion of environment credentials is a marketing ploy. The room was half-full at best, which is a sad indication of the importance of the green issue in the UK wine industry. Or perhaps everyone had gone on half-term a day early? Compared to the full-house at the recent low alcohol forum, it was a poor showing – I didn’t spot one major retailer.

It appears many wine producers are going green for the right reasons but retailers were accused of using the green message to suit their own agendas – making a profit. Unfortunately the supermarkets weren’t there to defend themselves, but there were some damning comments.

Michael Cox, UK director for Wines of Chile, which is one of the main producing countries leading the sustainability drive along with South Africa and New Zealand, said, “Most multiple retailers will pay lip service to green initiatives.”

The main problem is consumers see wine as a natural product and that means the word sustainable or organic on a wine label has less meaning than organic on a bunch of carrots. It goes some way to explaining why sales of organic wine have not kept pace with the rest of the organic industry. Cox added, “Having a social conscience does not appear to sell more bottles. The consumer is not prepared to pay a premium for organic wine because they don’t understand the concept. ”

Retailers are clearly doing things to help the environment such as the plastic bag reuse scheme but a cynic would argue it is only because the authorities have ruled they must reduce their plastic bag use. Angela Mount implied retailers didn’t give a damn about saving the environment – it is all about saving money. If the changes didn’t save money, then they wouldn’t do them. She argued bulk shipping and lightweight bottles improved margins for retailers, adding “I don’t believe the green issue is driven by the consumer. It is often a convenient ploy to reduce costs.”

Peter Darbyshire, MD of UK importer and distributor PLB agreed, “The green solution is to move the point of packaging as close to the point of sale. It is moving to the UK but sadly driven by retailers’ price motivation rather than the green agenda.”

Posted in - Blog Posts & California & Chile & European Union & low alcohol & New Zealand & Organic & Retail & Sainsbury's & South Africa & Tesco & trends & wine on October 25th 2009 0 Comments