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Tuesday, 21 April 2009 20:00

erp_logo_07.gifA dustup at Dr. Vino -- aka Tyler Colman, Ph.D -- throws an unflattering spotlight on the pervasive conflicts of interest in the world of big-time wine criticism.

Dr. V takes on the gold standard of high-integrity critics, Robert Parker, whose Wine Buyers Guide stakes out his moral high ground. As quoted by Colman:

It is imperative for a wine critic to pay his own way. Gratuitous hospitality in the form of airline tickets, hotel rooms, guest houses, etc., should never be accepted either abroad or in this country… In order to pursue independence effectively, it is imperative to keep one’s distance from the trade. While this attitude can be interpreted as aloofness, such independence guarantees hard-hitting, candid, and uninfluenced commentary.

But instead of going mano a mano with the Big Guy, Colman targets Parker's second-string associates, Jay Miller and Mark Squires, who may or may not have flagrantly crossed Parker's bright line to pocket an assortment of hospitality and travel swag. Then, in an archly worded "When did you stop beating your wife?" style-email, Colman inquires of Parker when the Wine Advocate changed its ethics policy.

And, in a move with its own troubling  ethics, Colman publishes his private email exchanges with the entire Dramatis Personae. Parker comes off as a word-parsing lawyer (who is currently backpedaling from unqualified support of his staff), Miller as a petulant whiner, and Squires as the arrogant sycophant many know him to be.

Nail-biting stuff, if you enjoy dueling egos in high-end wine criticism. And the comments -- from a Who's Who of online wine writers -- surpass Colman's original gauntlet-toss.

But the issues transcend the personalities, and impact every level of wine writing, including our peninsular backwater of the wine world.

Wine writing has come a long way since mid-century Britain, where it was deemed not just acceptable but normal for prominent critics to operate wine businesses or serve as paid consultants to the trade. On the other hand, no aspiring critic starting from scratch today could afford to adopt Parker's absolutist stance unless blessed with a fortune earned elsewhere or backers similarly endowed, such as the Wall Street Journal's Gaiter and Brecher.

Most wine writers, in Michigan and elsewhere, daily tiptoe through ethical minefields as best we can. We accept winery hospitality and gratis samples, telling ourselves we can still write objectively about the people and places involved -- and perhaps even better because of our "access", whether in the form of private barrel tastings or lengthy discussions over dinner on someone else's tab.

Some of us write for publications that take advertising, or even sell products from the same wineries we write about. And, at the far end of the continuum, some writers swap any claim to journalistic integrity for the perks that accrue to those who serve as conduits for industry puffery. That road seduces, because those you cover can offer so much to the wine lover.

Several months back, I nearly slipped across the line, when I asked to sit in at a winemaker-only tasting during the state wine industry annual meeting. How wonderful to be an "insider", listening to the way winemakers dis (as in "discuss") each other's wines with no one around to listen.

Fortunately, the winemakers displayed more sense. They wouldn't permit "media" -- meaning me -- in the room. They understood that part of their job is to critique each other's efforts honestly among themselves. The job of "media" is to tell consumers about those wines, as objectively as we can.

Last weekend, the MichWine tasting panel sat down to taste and review 15 bottles donated by -- no, make that solicited from -- state wineries. I added two more wines purchased on my own dime, because they belonged in the tasting, whether or not the wineries sent us samples.

Not every Michigan winemaker will be pleased when these reviews appear. Next month, we may be buying a few additional sample bottles, instead of receiving them gratis. But Parker is right, even if few inhabit the financial position to walk his absolutist walk: "In order to pursue independence effectively, it is imperative to keep one’s distance from the trade."

 
Monday, 13 April 2009 20:00

Walmart's Oak Leaf VinyardsIn the early days of Internet humor, one frequently-forwarded email listed the top ten names for a hypothetical Walmart wine label. Among the contenders: Nasty Spumante, World Championship Riesling, and I Can't Believe It's Not Vinegar.

Always good for a chuckle, no matter how many times it hit your Inbox. Who could imagine Walmart selling wine? And what nasty stuff it would be if they did!

Today, Walmart is laughing last, and very loudly. While multiple Napa wineries teeter toward insolvency, their cellars full of unsold $50 Cabernet, Walmart announced that sales of its all-too-real $3 "Oak Leaf Vineyards" line shot up 34% last year, making it the fastest-growing label of all time.

They're taking clear aim at the 30 milion cases already sold by Trader Joe's "Two Buck Chuck," created by the wine world's adulte terrible, Fred Franzia .

The stuff can't be tossed off as mere rotgut, either. Oak Leaf Chardonnay took gold medals in the under-$15 class at the 2008 San Francisco Chronicle and Florida International wine competitions. Critics taste and call the wines "a helluva deal".

But this isn't just about Walmart, Trader Joe's and the "super-value" wine category. Every second article I read carries a common message: in 2009, we're buying and drinking cheaper wine. Whether we're sacrificing quality to necessity or finally wising up to inflated pricing is subject to debate. I won't take sides -- but as iconoclastic Sonoma winemaker David Coffaro told me a decade back, "There isn't a wine made in Sonoma that couldn't be sold at the winery for $10. The rest is all about ego."

Restaurant sales, in particular, have fallen off a cliff, zapped by a double-whammy. People are eating out less often, and our suddenly-frugal mindset no longer finds it fashionable to pay three times retail for a bottle the restaurant acquired just last week.

Who am I to disagree? I'm writing this from home and sipping a glass of Monday night wine -- a Spanish Monastrel found at Costco for $5.99. It's not bad.

What does this have to do with Michigan? Just this: Michigan can't play in that ballpark. Our climate and soil don't let us churn out vinifera grapes at the 7 tons per acre Franzia pulls from California's Central Valley. Most years we're lucky to fully ripen our vinifera at all, and even our largest wineries can't compete with Californian industrial-sized economies of scale.

Sure, Michigan wineries turn out lots of bottles with under-$10 retail prices, most from trucked-in juice or local non-vinifera grapes.  But these thrive in niche markets without major growth potential, such as fruit-flavored sweet sparklers.

To the extent that consumers of dry table wines continue to trade down and locate acceptable wines with under-$10 price tags, Michigan wineries will find it difficult to claw their way onto highly-competitive retail shelves and restaurant wine lists. The inevitable result: greater-than-ever dependence on their tourism-driven tasting rooms.

 
Monday, 06 April 2009 20:00

I faced a strange problem last weekend: figuring out how many Michigan wineries participated in Novi's Michigan Wine Expo.

This wasn't as easy as it sounds, even though show organizers thoughtfully handed out a list of exhibitors. And my difficulty had nothing to do with the number of wines I sampled. The answer -- however Clintonian it sounds -- depends on how you define winery.

Urban storefronts that advertise "make your own wine" have been spreading faster than powdery mildew in a Lake Michigan Shore vineyard after a late summer rain. Customers walk in off the street, select the grape variety or region of their choice, pour bulk juice or concentrate into a carboy, add some yeast, and return in a few weeks to bottle and custom-label a couple of cases of "their" wine.

Can't wait that long? Most also sell the same wines off the shelf, under their own labels.

These storefronts offer a great introduction to the winemaking process for newbies. I've done it myself, as have many "serious" wine-loving friends. Results are drinkable, if just barely, and it's a hoot passing out bottles of "Domaine Goldberg" come holiday-time.

And since they produce alcoholic beverages, they require Federal and Michigan winery licenses. The latest Federal permit spreadsheet shows 148 winery licenses in Michigan; a quick glance suggests that 30 or 40 belong to such storefront "wineries". They're Michigan wineries in every legal sense, and many plop the word "Winery" into their names.

But they share about as much in common with real winemaking -- and real Wineries -- as paint-by-the-numbers shares with Picasso.

So when one of these storefronts rents a booth at the Michigan Wine Expo, is it a "Michigan Winery"? Does it get included for a shout-out alongside Pentamere, which also turns fruit into wine in an urban storefront?

The Michigan Grape and Wine Council thinks not. Their definition -- the most restrictive and widely-cited -- allows membership only to wineries that make a majority of their product from Michigan fruit. Their website currently lists 63 Michigan wineries.

Now let's throw a curveball: over time, some of the storefronts evolve into hybrids, slowly replacing bulk kits with hands-on winemaking, and supplementing the carboys with all sorts of pricey toys winery equipment. That's not surprising, since many were started by longtime home winemakers looking for a low-cost bootstrap into the business.

Cascade Winery in Grand Rapids opened in 2003 to sell wine kits and winemaking supplies. By last year, Bob Bonga took home a Michigan Wine Competition gold medal for Lake Michigan Shore Cab Franc. Burgdorf's Winery in Haslett is on a similar track; Dave Burgdorf says Michigan grapes and fruit now account for 85% of his wine. Both are becoming full-blown, make-it-from-from scratch wineries -- but you can still buy kit wines at either.

When does a business morph from "winery" to Winery?

And what about a winery that isn't a winery at all? A Michigan business can take the name "winery" without a license to make or sell wine. I've written two articles about The Political Winery, a company with neither a winemaking license nor physical plant. They contract with St. Julian to produce and be the legal seller-of-record for custom blends labeled under their company's brand.

Are they a Michigan Winery?

For now, here's the decision rule at MichWine: Forget about licenses and other legal niceties. Companies that release unique, made-from-scratch-in-Michigan wines are Michigan wineries. Those with primarily formula-made products from prepackaged juice are not. No bright line separates one from the other, but the benefit of the doubt goes to the folks who are working to become a full-blown winery.

On that basis, four Michigan wineries exhibited at the Expo: Burgdorf's, Chateau Chantal, Pentamere, and Sandhill Crane. The two other storefront winemaking operations with booths at the Expo don't yet make the cut.

 
Monday, 30 March 2009 20:00

Wine lovers with websites sometimes receive an unexpected perk: new or unreleased sample bottles that winemakers point in your direction. While I like to fantasize they're after erudite feedback from a highly-developed palate, it's more about the unstated quid pro quo: if I like the wine, they wouldn't mind reading something favorable about it in print.

MichWine doesn't run winery ads and my personal bribery threshhold lies well above the odd gratis bottle, so with a clear conscience, I can make nice about top wines that cross my palate in this manner, ignore the mediocre, and pen the occasional nasty pan when something vile this way comes.

Last weekend I short-listed three wines we can't yet buy -- sorta like adding films to your Netflix queue following the reviews but before the DVD. Two of the three are merely excellent. The third may be the best of its kind -- or, more precisely, the only one of its kind -- ever made in Michigan.

Jim Lester, owner / winemaker at tiny, high end Wyncroft Winery, seldom walks the well-trod path. Full disclosure: he's also a good friend. For a decade, his idiosyncratic, expensive and frequently outstanding wines have been available only to his customer list, sold by the solid, 12-bottle case. He's recently loosened things up a little on his website, just in time for more customers to take advantage of some soon-to-be-released gems.

WyncroftJim embodies the adage that grapevines must struggle -- and winemakers along with them. He normally uses only grapes grown in his own Avonlea vineyard, cutting back yields from the unfertilized, unirrigated, gasping-for-life vines to near-microscopic levels.

But last fall, grape grower Doug Nitz offered him some unsold Riesling from a vineyard next to Domaine Berrien that Jim had consulted on when Doug planted it four years ago. Was Jim interested in buying them?

Jim waffled; the crop density was twice Wyncroft's usual yield, meaning they'd make much more wine, but with far less concentration. So the grapes sat on the vines, continuing to ripen.

Then nature intervened, in the form of a partial freeze on December 3. As water in the grapes turned to ice, their yield dropped to a mere 90 gallons per ton, in the form of juice with a sufficiently high concentration of desolved solids that it wouldn't freeze. That's pretty much the same process that gives us Ice Wine later in the winter -- except that these less-concentrated grapes remained party frozen and less sweet. But perfect for the kind of concentration Jim seeks in his grapes, so picking he went.

The result? 2008 Wyncroft Wren Song Vineyard "December Harvest" Riesling, Lake Michigan Shore, Wyncroft's first-ever desset Riesling. At 12% alcohol and 5% residual sugar, it's seriously sweet and intense, but nowhere near the dense syrup that typically carries the "Ice Wine" name. But calling it simply Late Harvest Riesling doesn't do justice to the amazing grapefruit nose and extraordinary intensity of grapefruit and mandarin orange on the palate. Jim Lester fancies its style akin to an Alsace "SGN", and I can't disagree. This is fairly priced at $35 a bottle, considering that similar wine from Alsace might sell for twice the price.

Two Lads The second short-list wine originates with sophomore winery Two Lads on Old Mission Peninsula, whose maiden year claim to fame was to sell every bottle in their inventory by October 1 and have to shut down the tasting room. They reopen tomorrow, April 1, ready to offer the 2007 Two Lads Cabernet Franc, Old Mission Peninsula. It's the first red for the lads -- Cornel Olivier and Chris Baldiga -- and they just found out it took a Double Gold Medal last weekend at the Finger Lakes International Wine Competition, the only Michigan red so recognized.

Cab Franc is to be the Lads' signature red grape, and they're making a lot of it: 640 cases of this 2007, all from estate-grown fruit. Another three barrels from a top vineyard block remain in the cellar, destined for bottling this summer and release as a Reserve come the fall.

About half went into first-fill French barrels for 12 months and half into neutral wood. What rocked my world was how perfectly the wine captures the qualities of cool climate, ripe vintage Cab Franc -- just the character you'd look for in a high-quality Chinon from France's Loire Valley. Its bright raspberry fruit is perfectly set off by a lively acidity -- "vivacity" was the word another taster used -- with a dark ruby color and just-right medium body. It's Michigan wine all the way, not a California wannabe, with nary a hint of the green or peppery qualities that Cab Franc can throw your way in less-than-stellar vintages.

One word of caution: with creamy vanilla oak flying out the front end and fine-grained tannins biting up the rear, this is still totally disjointed and nowhere near ready to drink. Buy it to cellar. And buy a bunch -- at $25 the bottle (winery price), this is a screaming value by Michigan standards.

Finally, a one-of-a-kind for the must-buy list: 2008 Wyncroft Wren Song Vineyard "VT" Riesling,  Lake Michigan Shore.

Alsace lovers know that "VT" stands for "Vendange Tardive".  Literally, that means "Late Harvest", but in Alsace, unlike Germany, late harvest grapes have a tradition of being fermented mostly or completely dry. That's why Jim Lester is calling it "VT" -- in order to differentiate it from the more typical, German-style Rieslings made elsewhere in Michigan. All of the flavor, none of the sugar. Or at least not enough that I could detect any, sometimes an issue with near-dry Riesling.

Starting with the same December 3 grapes used in "December Harvest", the VT was fermented with the same yeast, but the fermentation was left running to yield a dry, 14.5% alcohol Riesling that's -- amazingly -- neither hot or alcoholic. Aromas of ripe stone fruits, pineapple, grapefruit and a little pine resin blow out of the glass; you'd swear you're about to ingest a mouthful of sweetness. Then the palate wallops you with all that fruit, near-icewine viscosity and just enough acidity to cut through the clutter.

Jim produced just 80 cases of the VT, and plans to sell it by the half-case when it's bottled and released in late spring. At $40 the bottle, it's not cheap. But I'm wagering you've never tasted a Michigan wine like this before.

Correction: An earlier version said that Wyncroft's "VT" Riesling used a different yeast than the "December Harvest". In fact, both used the same Steinberger yeast. It's been corrected in the article, and is noted here.

 
Monday, 23 March 2009 20:00

Everyone in town saw it coming when the Ann Arbor News hammered several daily editions down to 20 ad-challenged pages earlier this year. Even the angry letter-writers made it clear they expected the penny to drop any time.

And yesterday, the hometown paper I've read for 30 years announced it will cease to exist come July.

They tried to put the best possible face on things. The press release tells us that they're creating a "new business model" suited to Ann Arbor's web savvy, highly engaged population. In place of the paper, a new company -- AnnArbor.com -- will produce a web publication plus twice-weekly "print editions" which "will deliver a better experience for readers and better results for advertisers".

Right. Sometimes it's hard not to be cynical. I might swallow some of this if the new operation planned to import a few web-savvy journalists and business types. But instead, its leadership team recycles a trio of newspaper execs whose prior actions did little to postpone the decline of the News and sister Booth Newspapers around Michigan.

Their reputations precede them. Or as former sports reporter and columnist Jim Carty wrote in his blog, "Given my experience at The Ann Arbor News, I have absolutely no confidence that the people in charge have any ability to react to these changes and/or adjust their strategy to make things better."

And though the press release doesn't mention it, the new company is just one more online tentacle of media octopus Advance Publications, a.k.a. the Newhouse gang. They're the geniuses behind Mlive.com, perhaps the worst-ever newssite foisted upon residents of an entire state, albeit somewhat improved of late.

On a personal level, the changes bring mixed emotions. For six months, I've written the monthly Arbor Vinous wine column for the Ann Arbor Chronicle, an online paper run by a smart, well-connected former News editor and her husband. Despite limited resources, their site offers a strong journalistic product that already draws over 20,000 unique visitors monthly. The News's demise leaves them well positioned to reach for a broader audience and support its growth with more local advertising dollars.

On the other hand, tasting buddy David Creighton -- who recently stopped blogging on MichWine coincident with obtaining a weekly gig writing a wine column for the News -- may or may not fare as well. That depends on whether they decide to "hire" him for the "new" company.

Say what? "We are inviting current Ann Arbor News employees to apply for positions with the new company," wrote News Publisher Laurel Champion, one of the aforementioned execs with a secure slot in the troika atop the new entity.

Translation: by calling it a new company instead of merely transitioning the News to a web presence as other papers have done, they doubtless hope to slither out from under "no job cut" commitments to their 200 current employees, along with god-only-knows what other obligations. Let the lawsuits commence.

The "new" company is off to an awkward start. As I said, sometimes it's hard not to be cynical.

 
Monday, 16 March 2009 20:00

Some Michigan-based wineries deliberately obscure the non-Michigan origins of their grapes. From misleading back label wording to squintingly impossible-to-read type, these folks do their best to hide one fact: their wines contain juice from elsewhere.

Deceptive? Yes. Illegal? No. As I wrote last week, the grapes aren't the problem. It's how wineries obfuscate what they're up to behind their "Michigan" identity and, as a result, mislead the public about the true qualities of "Michigan" wine.

Why does this matter?

In today's hyper-crowded wine marketplace, many forward-thinking Michigan wineries toil in the vineyards to establish a distinct identity for winestyles our state does well -- Alsace varietals like Riesling and Pinot Gris, cool-climate versions of grapes like Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc.

That's why Ed O'Keefe (Chateau Grand Traverse) has worked on the International Riesling Federation's Taste Profile, and why Sean O'Keefe (Chateau Grand Traverse), Spencer Stegenga (Bowers Harbor) and Bryan Ulbrich (Left Foot Charley) recently visited Anderson Valley, California, where their wines turned heads at an Alsace varietal showcase.

But when Michigan producers truck in ultra-ripe, low acid grapes or juice from elsewhere, or varietals that don't even thrive here -- and "neglect" to mention this on the labels or promotional materials --  their self-serving drive to make a buck undermines these efforts to establish Michigan's unique identity as a premium wine producer. 

That's where a Michigan Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA) comes in: an easy-to-identify bottle sticker, like Ontario's, that wineries earn to instantly identify wines that meet certain criteria, such as originating with high quality Michigan grapes. Accompany it with a marketing program that encourages consumers to seek out this sticker as a guarantee of genuine "Michigan" wine. 

Ontario's VQA operates under authority of law. But Michigan doesn't need new legislation.  Any group willing to administer a Michigan VQA and hand out the stickers could step up and do it: WineMichigan (the industry's lobbying arm), or even an association of wine trails. If they run into pushback from those who benefit from obfuscation of origin, it could even be done by an ad hoc group assembled for the purpose.

The only necessity: to put the interests of the state's wine industry and consumers -- which coincide here -- ahead of  individual wineries or specific regions.

Consider how this might look in five years: Michigan wine bottles carry a Vintners Quality Alliance sticker on the neck that guarantees they contain 100% Michigan-grown grapes, made of varietals certified to produce high quality wine, and the wine itself has passed a taste-test to verify the absence of major flaws.

To me, that sounds like a wine that lots more consumers would step up to buy.

Until the wineries step up to the plate, as consumers we can begin to do our part. Next time you visit a Michigan winery or wine store, look for the grapes' origin on the front label, not some fanciful language on the back. If you don't see it, ask the tasting room pourer or store clerk where the grapes come from -- and why that isn't listed on the label. Tell them the answer makes a difference -- both to you and to our wine industry.
 

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KIM'S SECRET STASH

Recently-deceased Korean dictator Kim Jong Il was a wine geek (and reputed alcoholic) with a 10,000-bottle cellar, according to ex-Slate wine columnist Mike Steinberger. Kim earlier gave up Hennessy Cognac on doctor's orders.