Expensive wine 122: Ridge Lytton Springs 2016

ridge lytton springsThe Ridge Lytton Springs zinfandel blend speaks to quality and value in the finest California tradition

The premiumization debate should not obscure the fact that there are expensive wines that deliver value and quality. Perhaps the foremost of those is anything from Ridge, the California producer that has been the watchword of the faith for anyone who believes in value and quality. As evidence, we have the Ridge Lytton Springs.

The Ridge Lytton Springs ($45, purchased, 14.4%) reminds us of everything that is possible with California wine. It speaks to terroir and to Sonoma’s Dry Creek Valley and its particular style of earthiness. It speaks to aging – this wine, ready and delicious now, has at least a decade of life in it, when it will become rounder and less ripe and much more interesting.

Best yet, as with all Ridge wines, it shows the rich, ripe style of California, but done with structure and and almost elegance. Look for dark fruit (black cherry? black raspberry?), a wonderfully peppery middle, and one of best uses of oak I’ve tasted in years on the finish. Plus, the tannins are not an afterthought, as with so many zinfandels (even expensive ones), but an integral part of the wine.

This isn’t a swaggering Lodi zinfandel. The fruit and alcohol aren’t piled on for show, like frat boys seeing who can chug the most beer. Rather, the Ridge Lytton Springs is rich and ripe because zinfandel produces rich and ripe wine. And because it’s a blend (four grapes, including some two-thirds zinfandel and one-quarter petite sirah), winemaker John Olney can use the blending process to make the sum greater than the parts.

Highly recommended. I decanted this about a half hour before dinner, which seemed about right. It’s a food wine, but not just red meat. I served it with roasted pork shoulder studded with rosemary and garlic, which worked more than well.

Dallas men, an attorney and a sommelier, win U.S. Open wine tasting championship

U.S. Open wine tastingU.S. Open wine tasting winners will lead U.S. team at world championships in France

This year, the winning team at the U.S. Open wine tasting championships scored 101 points. That’s one more point than the U.S. team scored in the 2016 world championships, when it finished a best-ever third.

So does this mean Dallas residents Taylor Robertson and Jacob Fergus, the winning team, have discovered the secret to blind tasting?

Not exactly.

“To be honest, we weren’t sure how we did when we saw the wines,” says Robertson, 34, a Dallas attorney who worked in the restaurant business before going to law school — but who never lost his appreciation for wine. “The wines this year were much more difficult than last year, and we were worried about how we did.”

This year’s wines included a South African chenin blanc, a Portuguese touriga nacional, and a French white grenache – hardly the sort of thing you’ll see on most wine lists.

But no need to worry, apparently. Tournament director John Viljus called their performance a very strong one, and is optimistic about the U.S. team’s chances at the 2019 world event this October in France. Belgium won the 2018 world competition, followed by Finland and France. Robertson and Fergus will be joined by Gwendolyn Alley and Sue Hill, who finished second in thee U.S. competition with 92 points.

Last weekend, a dozen two-person teams blind tasted six red and six white wines, getting points for correctly identifying the wine’s producer, its varietal, vintage, and region. They had just eight minutes to taste each wine, something Robertson says presented one of the tournament’s biggest challenges. At some point, tasting fatigue sets in, and it becomes more difficult to tell which wine is which.

They key to winning, says Fergus, who works at Savor Gastropub at Dallas’ Klyde Warren Park, was understanding the difference between the U.S, Open tasting format, which is more open ended, and the way blind tasting works for wine certification programs like master sommelier, which focuses on identifying specific wines.

And as for the world competition?

“I wouldn’t miss it for the world,” says Fergus. And why not, with a score like that?

 

What’s next for three-tier after the Supreme Court’s Tennessee retailer decision?

Tennessee retailer decisionDon’t make too many bets three-tier will open up after the Tennessee retailer decision; we’ve been down that road before

The cyber-ether has been awash with confident pronouncements since the U.S. Supreme Court’s Tennessee retailer decision, which struck down a law that limited who could own a liquor store in that state. Many predicted the beginning of the end of the antiquated and restrictive three-tier system that regulates alcohol sales in the U.S.: “Consumers could benefit from Supreme Court ruling,” “Supreme Court hands retailers a big win,” and so on. One of the smartest people in the wine business even said we should see these pro-consumer changes quickly.

Don’t bet on it.

I’ve spent the three weeks since the Tennessee retailer decision interviewing attorneys who practice liquor law, analysts, and other knowledgeable people. And their consensus, almost to the syllable: The Tennessee retailer decision may be a big deal at the moment, but don’t expect much to change about three-tier — and it’s not going to get easier for us to buy wine.

“I don’t see this ruling going much farther,” says Tucker Herndon, an attorney in Nashville who is the office managing partner of Burr & Forman LLP. “I don’t think it’s going to open the floodgates, and I don’t think it’s going to give us a regulatory system without a lot of limitations.”

The Supreme Court ruling said Tennessee couldn’t impose a residency requirement on liquor store owners because such a requirement didn’t promote the public health and safety. All it did, said the ruling, was shield local retailers from competition from national and regional chains. In fact, residency laws are common in in the retail booze business for just that reason, and we’ve had one in Texas in one form or another for years.

The 21st Amendment, which repealed Prohibition, allows the states to regulate alcohol sales as long as the states are promoting the public health and safety. Hence, the Tennessee law ran afoul of the Constitution’s Commerce Clause, which says states can’t favor their residents ahead of people from other states unless there is a very good reason, like public health and safety.

Nothing new about this test

Hence, what seems to a litmus test for the three-tier system. But the attorneys I talked to said that public health and safety has always been a litmus test, and it’s a long way from the Tennessee retailer decision to Internet wine sales. That’s what many analysts are predicting in the wake of the decision: That we will be able to buy wine from any retailer anywhere in the country with the click of a computer mouse.

The attorneys and analysts cited three reasons for their pessimism:

First, the decision didn’t really do anything but overturn a bad law that even the state of Tennessee didn’t think much of. The state attorney general didn’t appeal the lower court ruling; the state’s liquor retailer trade group did because the attorney general didn’t think the law was defensible.

Second, says Herndon, the decision is about retailer residency – nothing more. That someone doesn’t need to be a Tennessee resident to get a retail liquor license to open a store in Tennessee doesn’t mean that someone who doesn’t live in Tennessee can get a license to open a store outside of Tennessee. It’s a subtle difference, perhaps, but an important one. He says the state can almost certainly show that it’s protecting the public health and safety by requiring anyone who has a Tennessee retail license to use that license for a store in Tennessee.

Third, says Lou Bright, the former generral counsel for the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, it’s a long legal journey from this ruling to Internet wine sales. Three-tier mandates that consumers can only buy from retailers and restaurants, while retailers and restaurants must buy from wholesalers and they can’t buy from producers. And producers must, save for one small exception, sell only to wholesalers.

Bright says Tennessee was about who can get a retail license, and not about retailers selling wine directly to consumers. When the court carved out the small, direct shipping exception in 2005, it didn’t address the mechanics of the three-tier system and the role of wholesalers. And, he says, this ruling didn’t, either.

Photo: “Moot Courtroom” by College of William & Mary Law Library is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 

Wine of the week: Zestos Old Vine Garnacha 2017

Zestos Old Vine GarnachaThe Zestos Old Vine Garnacha, a Spanish red, remains one of the world’s great wine values

One of the hallmarks of a great wine, regardless of price, is consistency – does it offer quality and value every vintage, while remaining true to its terroir and varietal? Which is exactly what the Spanish Zestos Old Vine Garnacha does.

That was true with the 2013 vintage, and it’s just as true for this one. The Zestos Old Vine Garnacha ($10, sample, 14%) shows off the fruit, but doesn’t overwhelm the wine drinker. That’s not easy to do with cheap garnacha.

Look for red fruit (cherry? berries?), but it’s not too jammy, which can be a problem with garnacha. There’s even a trace of minerality, and the bit of oak that seems to lurking in the background should fade as the wine ages. In this, it’s lively and juicy and everything I hope for in great $10 wine. But what else we expect from an importer as brilliant as Ole Imports?

The Zestos will complement almost any kind of food, tapas or otherwise. And you could even chill it a bit, and it would be fine its own on a lazy weekend afternoon. Highly recommended, and almost certain to appear in the 2020 $10 Hall of Fame – and it’s a candidate for the 2020 Cheap Wine of the Year.

Winebits 602: Texas wine, legal weed, wine gadgets

Texas wineThis week’s wine news: Fredericksburg’s Cabernet Grill honored for its commitment to Texas wine, plus trouble in legal weed land and do we really need more wine gadgets?

True to its roots: Fredericksburg’s Cabernet Grill has been named one of “America’s 100 Best Wine Restaurants” by Wine Enthusiast magazine for the second year in a row. It’s an honor much deserved – chef-owner Ross Burtwell has had an all Texas wine list for years, and long before drink local was hip and trendy. The list has 145 wines from 45 wineries, demonstrating that local wine pairs with local food. That’s something I’ve been able to enjoy during several visits to the Hill Country.

Trouble in legal weed land: Constellation Brands, which sold off its cheap wine brands to pursue a future selling legal weed, lost more than $800 million on its investment in the first quarter of this year. The story in the link, from Shanken News Daily, tries to put the high in that low, as trade news reporting often does, but one question remains: Does Constellation understand what it got itself into? The bizspeak in the article doesn’t help with that much, and it wouldn’t reassure me if I was a Constellation shareholder.

No more gadgets: David Cobbold, writing on Les 5 du Vin, repeats a warning the Wine Curmudgeon has uttered many times: Buying wine instead of gadgets is the best investment almost every time. Cobbold reviews a wine aerator, and his conclusion: Buy good wine, and don’t “worry about useless and expensive gadgets like this!” It’s a sentiment marketers ignore at their own risk; the number of gadget emails I get has seemingly proliferated as wine sales flatten.

Photo: “2014-11-19 Grape Juice Bar 010” by spyjournal is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 

Five things the Wine Curmudgeon learned from last week’s wine premiumization post

wine premiumizationMost importantly: Consumers dislike wine premiumization, no matter what the wine business wants us to believe

Last week’s wine premiumization analysis kicked up more than a little dust in the cyber-ether – it was the most visited post on the blog in almost 2 ½ years. The comments and emails covered the spectrum, from people blaming me for wine’s problems (and that there wouldn’t be any if not for people like me) to those who offered their take on premiumization (pro and con) to those who thought I was spot on.

In all of this, I learned five things after writing the wine premiumization post:

1. Consumers dislike premiumization, no matter how much the industry insists otherwise. I wasn’t sure about this until I saw the reaction to the post, since all the data suggests we’re paying more for wine. So if we’re paying more, then we’re happy, right? But since fewer of us are buying wine, and those of us who still buy wine are buying less, how happy can we be?

2. Talking about wine prices is even more taboo today than it was when I started writing about wine in the late 1990s. There was a sense then that pricing was not to be questioned. Because, wine. I’ve never understood this, and my emphasis on cost vs. value has always annoyed people in the wine business. It annoys them even more today – and some are way past annoyance.

3. The economics of the post-modern wine business stink for almost everyone who isn’t Big Wine. I sympathize with those producers, and have agonized over their plight many times. But overpriced wine is overpriced wine, regardless of the reason why. Is any bottle of wine really worth $80 or $100? Or, as hard as it is to believe, thousands of dollars?

4. I taste thousands of wines a year, at all prices and from all over the world. My friends also taste thousands of wines a year, and we talk about what we taste. So how am I not qualified to say that wine quality is not what it was before the recession? One friend, a well-known wine judge and critic, will start his pinot noir rant without one nudge from me. Yes, technically the wines are OK — not oxidized, not tainted with VA and so forth — but are they interesting to drink? Are they fun to drink? Unfortunately, not nearly as many of them as in the past.

5. Wine writing, even in the second decade of the 21st century, is still expected to be positive and to sell wine. I had hoped the Internet would change that. I was wrong.

Photo courtesy of IWA wine blog using a Creative Commons license

U.S. Open wine competition returns this weekend

U.S. Open wine

Byanca Godwin

Top two teams will represent U.S. in world championships

Byanca Godwin didn’t expect much when she entered the U.S. Open wine tasting championship last year. All she wanted to do, she says, was to get a little blind tasting experience in as she prepared to take the various certification exams she had scheduled.

So how did she end up representing the United States at the 2018 World Wine Tasting Championships in France?

“I tried it just to have some fun blind tasting, instead of practicing like I usually do,” says Godwin, a wine retailer who will compete in this year’s U.S. Open on Sunday in Ventura, Calif. “I thought it might be interesting to compete. And then I finished third, which I didn’t expect.”

The Wine Curmudgeon has always thought blind tasting should be a competitive sport. Blind tasting is difficult enough, but imagine it with the pressure amped up – an audience cheering (or booing) as the contestants sniff, swirl, sip, and spit. Talk about grace under pressure.

The U.S. Open offers all of that. Two-person teams work their way through a dozen wines, getting points for correctly identifying the wine’s producer, its varietal, vintage, and region. And they have just eight minutes until another wine comes along. The top two teams will compete for the U.S. in the world championship in October in France. Belgium won the 2018 competition, followed by Finland and France.

“You really have to approach this like an athlete,” says Godwin. “When you’re competing, you have to stay focused on the wines and pay attention. You have to find the answer in the glass. Being distracted by the audience does not help your performance.”

One addition this year: Event organizer John Vilja says audience members can taste the wines as the contestants taste them in a sort of mini-competition. There’s also a blind tasting app.