Sunday, August 23, 2009

A Sense of Place ...

I lived in the Napa Valley for five years from 1998 to 2003 and entered wine writing there so it’s the wine region I know best and write about most often. Recently I wrote a story for Decanter, the British wine magazine, about how Napa is attempting to stay relevant and attractive not only in a weak economy but in an increasingly competitive world wine market.

It’s not the first time Napa has faced hard times, it happens cyclically, in fact, and this time it comes when American wine drinking is at an all time high. In the past, high-end wines like Napa and Sonoma were relatively unaffected. But as we all know by now, consumers are looking for value wines to help salve their financial wounds these days. Napa makes a plethora of very good wines, as well as some incredible wines, but they have not been particularly known for good value for some time now. I don’t know what the average price of a Napa bottle would be (I tried to find out, but found no one who was anxious to say), but I would guess it is $40 or more, with many Cabernets in the $100-and-up-range.

I’m sure the present fall-off in sales is causing some discomfort at the ultra-premium or luxury brand levels, but Napa, the centerpiece of U.S. wine production, is not about to go out of business. So what are Napa producers doing to stay in the game?
Emphasizing terrior, or Napa’s unique sense of place, has always been both a strength and a selling point, and it is no less so today. After all, Napa cannot be duplicated anywhere else. It’s micro-climates, great variety of soil types and other growing conditions make Napa the high-quality wine growing region it is. Thirty or so years of good publicity hasn’t hurt either and for the last decade, making a point of Napa’s unique terrior and its steadily growing army of expertly trained and talented winemakers and viticulturalists has been a big part of that publicity campaign.

For more on what Napa is doing to stay fresh and vital in the wine marketplace, see my story in Decanter magazine’s California supplement, which comes with the September issue, out now.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

When in New York...

I recently had the pleasure of visiting several wine bars around the country, and one that particularly stood out to me for its innovative spirit is Clo in New York’s Time Warner Center. The fun factor is high here, and it’s a great place to drop by for tastes of old favorites or new discoveries (I had never heard of Gelber Muskateller from Austria, for instance, but I liked it) before or after savoring some jazz at Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola -- which is what I did on a recent trip to New York.
What makes it novel is that guests sit at a communal, interactive table with a multi-touch projection menu allowing you to explore wine regions, grapes, flavor profiles and producers for all the wines on offer. Andrew Bradbury, Clo’s creator, developed the eWinebook, an electronic touch screen wine menu at Aureole Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas and in Clo he has fused his love of wine, technology and design into one impressive space. I say “space” specifically because Clo is not even a room with walls that reach the ceiling; rather it has curved walls that create an intimate space in the middle of the 4th floor at Time Warner Center. From what I was able to piece together from talking to two young French women who work in the wine industry in London and were visiting Clo the same night I was, “clos” means an enclosed space in French. A server then told me that the owners dropped the “s” so people wouldn’t be worried about how to pronounce it.
See my story on Clo and four other wine bars around the country (in San Francisco, Seattle and Atlanta) in the October issue of Cheers, the beverage magazine.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Crème de la Crèmant

Several months ago I received an unsolicited bottle of Rosé Crémant d’Alsace from a producer I was unfamiliar with, Lucien Albrecht. I’m a fool for rosés, so it was a safe bet that I would like it. But I did not – I loved it. Like Dom Pérignon, I felt I was "tasting stars." Effervescent strawberry stars. And the bottle was just $20, which was amazing because this is wedding reception-worthy wine. And at 12% alcohol, it’s a wise choice to serve at a gathering where much imbibing and merriment may be transpiring (many California wines, even whites, can be as high as 15-16% alcohol and though it may not sound like it, that’s a BIG difference). The Lucien Albrecht rosé crémant is made from 100% Pinot Noir, is dry and crisp, with a soft coral color. Nothing looks better sitting on an outdoor table glinting in the sunlight surrounded by light summer foods. It is made using the same method as a Champagne, or "methode traditionnelle" – but cannot be called one because it doesn’t come from the region known as Champagne.

Shortly after I tasted this wonderful wine, I traveled to Burgundy and coincidentally tasted several sparkling wines from that region. The Crémant de Bourgogne I tried was from two producers, Vitteaut Alberti, a small family firm, and Veuve Ambal, one of the larger Crémant makers in Burgundy. They were all lovely – not as tightly focused and precise as great Champagne, but refreshing and pleasant, a great foil for oily, salty foods, and all priced from$10 to $20. I looked into it and found out that Crémant de Bourgogne has taken off in France and in the U.S. lately. The appellation Crémant de Bourgogne was created in 1973, and is the generic term for sparkling wines of all colors from the Burgundy region. For years overshadowed by the region's many famous and coveted AOC wines, it has become, in the space of a few years, one of Burgundy’s leading lights with sales constantly rising. A new sales record was reached in 2008, at the same time that demand for many other wines was falling. In fact, the export manager at Veuve Ambal told me when I visited that the winery could hardly keep up with the recent explosion in demand. Exports of Crémant de Bourgogne rose more than 14% in 2008 over the previous year despite a difficult economic climate. And exports to the United States rose 6% while overall imports of French wines fell during the same period by 8%.

However, France remains the leading market for Crémant de Bourgogne wines – they know a good thing when they drink it.

But back to Domaine Lucien Albrecht. Last week I received more Lucien Albrecht in the mail: Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Pinot Blanc and another Crémant , this time a Brut. Yum; right up my alley since I am beyond tired of Chardonnay, Merlot and Co. Even the bottles were intriguing: tall and slim, they are like Gisele Bundchen compared to the heavy, round turrets that contain many Napa Cabernets.

Lucien Albrecht has one of those intriguing backgrounds that Americans can really appreciate – the family winemaking business goes back 18 generations! And Lucien himself was one of the founders of the appellation, Crémant d'Alsace.

Highly recommended: If ethereal, subtle and refreshing wines are what you crave in summer -- or all year-round – to go with salads, light cheeses, fish and shellfish, check out the wines of Domaine Lucien Albrecht.