Video: From Rural Texas to Napa Valley Wine Country. Mac McDonald of Vision Cellars Interview: Part One

Mac McDonald of Vision Cellars is not what you would expect from someone making some of California's best Pinot Noir. 

Mac speaks with a southern drawl, wears a farmer's hat, and sports blue jean overalls in a world of California's "Wine Country Casual."  He is a boutique craftsman who makes his wine in the corporate beast that is Wagner Family Wines.  He is also African-American in an industry where diversity is in the terroir and almost never among the winemakers.

Mac McDonald is also one of my favorite winemakers.  Not only because he makes delicious Pinot Noirs - which he does - but for the perspective he brings to the industry.

Please enjoy this 5 minute video or read the transcription afterwards.  

This is Episode #55 of the Understanding Wine with Austin Beeman Podcast.  // Direct Download Link.

Winemaker of Mac McDonald (part one) of Vision Cellars interviewed by Austin Beeman. Mac McDonald discusses his path from rural Texas to being a winemaker in California.

Mac McDonald:

I am Mac McDonald. I'd like to say I'm the owner, winemaker of Vision Cellars but I'm married with Miss Lil so I just make the wine for Miss Lil. 

Well, you know, it's kind of interesting how I got into wine. I grew up 89 miles south of Dallas, Texas. I grew up way in the woods, way in the country. I consider myself as an old organic kind of a guy, growing back up in there, squirrel eatin' type of a guy. At 12 years old, there used to be a couple hunters used to come down in these woods and go hunting with my grandfather and drink my father's moonshine. So one of them used to drink burgundy and these guys would give him a hard time about drinking that burgundy wine, blah, blah, blah.

But they was drinking corn whiskey. So one day he said to me, he says, "Hey, son, would you like to have this bottle of wine?" And said yes, but 12 years old, I didn't know how to get it open but I finally dug out the cork out of it and I took a stick and shoved it off in there and I tasted it. You don't have to worry about Child Protective Service because they didn't have anything back off in the woods to do that anyway. At any rate, I tasted it and I drank a half a bottle of that wine that day. It tasted pretty good. From that point on, all I talked about was I wanted to be a winemaker. Fast forward through high school, my coach says to me, "If you wanna make wine, you need to move to California."

That's why I moved to California, from Texas to California. I grew up about 89 miles south of Dallas, Texas, around Palestine, Waco, in that area. So I get into California, we had a pretty tough time getting to know winemakers and I didn't know who they were or what they do, any of that thing. So I started hanging around up in Mendocino County, which is about 160 miles north of San Francisco. Met a guy by the name of John Parducci up there and old John wouldn't give me the time of day but that was okay because some kid coming out of Texas talking about you wanna make wine but I kept going back up there and he started talking to me, telling me stuff. But really what kicked me off into this wine business is I met a family over in Napa valley. A family called the Wagner family and I hung out with Mr. Wagner probably for 9 months and I didn't know who he was, he didn't say anything about who he was.

And one day the taster room manager came out and said, "Hey, why you always out here bothering Mr. Wagner?" And I says, "Well, what do you mean? That old guy out there?" He goes, "That ain't just some old guy, that's Mr. Wagner. He own this place." I had no idea for 9 months I'd been hanging out with the owners of Caymus Vineyard. Fast forward a little bit further, I've known the Wagner family for around 31 years. 17, 15 years or so after hanging out with him, Mr. Wagner said to me, "Son, you ought to be in the wine business." And I thought, "Well, you know, I'd like to but I don't have that kind of money." He goes, "Don't worry about it, we'll take care of ya." So 17 years ago, my wife and I, Miss Lil, we started Vision Cellars and to this day, I'm the only non family member that's allowed to make wine at Caymus.

All my wines are crafted at Caymus Vineyard in Rutherford, California. I make 'em all myself. We own some vineyards in Sonoma County, which is about 110 miles north of San Francisco, Russian River Valley. We own this little vineyard there and we do craft wine from that vineyard. That's basically how I got into the wine business.

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Can a Jackass Improve with Age? A Vertical Tasting of Martinelli's Jackass Hill Zinfandel

Jackass Hill is one of the legendary vineyards of California.  Planted in the 1890s by Giuseppe Martinelli, this is a legacy vineyard of Zinfandel.  One of the oldest in Sonoma, the vineyard is farmed without irrigation or pesticides. 

Called Jackass Hill because "it is so steep that only a jackass would farm it," the wines produced from the vineyard are some of the most sought-after Zinfandels in California.  They are extracted, high-alcohol, expensive, beasts that are in very limited supply. The wines routinely sell for over $160.  If you can find them.

This is normally not a style of wine headed for the cellar and it isn't readily apparent if they will last, improve, or decline with age.  People are buying this wine for the delicious blast of powerful fruit and pleasure of owning a scare luxury item.

So, when I was invited into a back room of the Martinelli winery to taste a vertical of Jackass Hill Zinfandel with the Martinelli family, I knew it would a special moment and a chance to taste some Sonoma Valley history.

Here my notes on the 2014, 2007, 2003, 2002, 2000, 1997, and 1996 vintages.

Here are my tasting notes of a few memorable bottles.  All the wines were of the finest provenance possible, pulled directly from the winery's cellar, and were tasted first by the winemaker to confirm that they were tasting correctly. 

Martinelli 2014 Jackass Hill Zinfandel.  "Tight and intense. Yet perceptibly soft with extreme black fruit. Flavors of charred meat and hickory smoke. Very smooth. Right now this wine is a strange mixture of alcohol burn and smooth mouthfeel.  The genre here reminded me of bourbon, even if the taste did not."  90 points.


Martinelli 2007 Jackass Hill Zinfandel.  "Luscious with an apricot and jalapeño compote. That is an incredible thing to write in a tasting note, 'tis true, but it is also an incredible thing to taste in a red wine.  It was truly there and obviously so.  The texture is very smooth with red berry jelly with the least perceptive heat from the alcohol of any vintage of JHZ that I've ever tasted."  92 points.


Martinelli 2003 Jackass Hill Zinfandel.  "Peaches, plums, and apricots in a slow-cooker with dashes of herbs. A crusty char from smoke and heat. Creates a dark delicious goo."  93 points.


Martinelli 2002 Jackass Hill Zinfandel.  "The Jackass Hill terroir shows through the alcohol with strong apricot aromas and flavors. Also some stone fruit. Sexy and extreme! Incredibly big and incredibly lush. Massive but not ungraceful. Sweet stewed peppers. A finish that recalls apricots on the grill."  95 points.

Martinelli 2000 Jackass Hill Zinfandel.  "Two bottles were both off-putting and funky. Winery representatives considered them flawed. Not enough experience for me to know if this is the end of this vintage's life or if we just got unlucky."  No Rating.


Martinelli 1997 Jackass Hill Zinfandel.  "Exotic and lush with those aromas that are created when you pour red wine into cooking tomato sauce. Sweet potato cream. Apple pie with cinnamon. Spicy tomatillos and salsa on the finish."  91 points.

Martinelli 1996 Jackass Hill Zinfandel.  "Over the hill at this point, into the funky tomato-paste thing."  83 points.

Some final thoughts on Martinelli Jackass Hill Zinfandel.

These wines are not subtle shrinking violets and if you want to age them, you need to be prepared for some wildly usual flavors.  I absolutely adored the grilled apricot flavors that hit this wine in the 8-14 year age bracket, but at the 20 year mark, I was not a fan of the stewed tomato character. 

It is unlikely that you are going to find old bottles of this on the market.  Most have likely already been consumed.  But if you spot one, and if you want a wild adventure, consider picking up one of my recommendations here.

Keep reading.  More great wine articles here...

5 Things You Need to Know About the 2015 Bordeaux Vintage. (notes from the 2018 Union des Grand Crus de Bordeaux Tasting)

Whether making wine or promoting it, nobody does it quite like Bordeaux!  Every year the Union des Grand Cru de Bordeaux sponsors a industry-only wine tasting in major markets around the world.  Some of the world's greatest winemakers travel together, pouring their wines, and introducing the world to a new vintage of Bordeaux.


The Chicago 2018 tasting at The Drake in January was buzzing with excitement because this year, the vintage was 2015.  In rumor, this was the first truly world-class vintage since 2010 for Bordeaux and the room was thronged with the top buyers in the Midwest.  They wanted to see if this was true.  For the first time, I was lucky to be among them.


This is the first of a few articles that I'm writing based on this tasting.  There is a lot to say.  Shall we start with a couple quick observations about the 2015 Bordeaux Vintage.

1.  2015 is truly a great vintage ... and an easy vintage to love.

In Bordeaux, great vintages are classified as Vin de Plaisir (wine of pleasure) or Vin de Garde (wine to age.)  Either style can be truly great, but they are truly different.  Vin de Plaisir vintages offer luscious fruit and youthful beauty.  Vin de Garde are firmer, more structured, and mature dramatically with time in the cellar. 

2015 is a Vin de Plaisir.  I don't think I've ever enjoyed Bordeaux in its youth as much as I did these 2015s.  Only the superlative 2009s came close.  This will be a very popular vintage for the sommeliers and restaurants of the world, who crave accessibility and often don't have the time to give the wines decades in the cellar.  I also expect great success in Asia, driving global prices upward again.

2.  Cheap Bordeaux will be amazing in 2015.

"A rising tide raises all boats" is a Bordeaux cliche.  It is also often true.  The quality of the lesser, humble wines was astounding and the quality distance between the cheapest and most expensive wines was far less than normal. 

This is a year to aggressively buy everything you can get your hands on.  You won't be disappointed.  I'll write about some recommendations in future articles.

3.  The White Bordeaux are stunning in 2015.

I started the tasting with some white Bordeaux, thinking ahead to the delicious reds that were in store for me.  Then I stopped, refocused, and realized that the wines in my glass were mind-blowing. 

White Bordeaux vintages do not always move lock-step with the quality of the red wines, but in 2015 they are show-stoppers.  Rich and flavorful with great mouthfeel and pure acidity that never overpowers. 

Most people will ignore the moderate to expensive white Bordeaux.  You shouldn't.  These are some of the best white wines in the world right now.  They are also dramatically unpriced when compared to the best white wines of Burgundy or California.  Specific recommendations to come.

4.  Focus on Pessac-Leognan and Graves in 2015.

The wines of Southern Bordeaux - the communes of Pessac-Leognan and Graves - were by far the most consistently superb of any region I tasted.  Not just because they produced the white Bordeaux that I thought were so amazing, but because the richness of the 2015 fruit, when mated to the earth and funk of these appellations, created the most complex and interesting wines of the tasting. 

Both the best white wine and the best red wine of the tasting were from these regions.  Specific recommendations in a future article. 

5.  Be a little careful with the Right Bank in 2015.

There is more than enough great wine coming from the Right Bank appellations - Saint Emilion and Pomerol - to justify this as a great year for that region.  Yet, there are also quite a few wines that really missed the mark for me, including many prestigious names. 

These wines came in overripe with inappropriate amounts of alcohol and completely lacking in acid.  It is likely that some of these wines will garner very high ratings from major critics, but I wasn't enormously happy with the category. I felt that many of these wines let the weather steal the soul of Bordeaux away from them.

I'd recommend that you try to taste 2015 Right Bank Bordeaux, before you invest heavily in them.  But don't worry, I'll have plenty to recommend in a future article.

Final Thoughts ...  for now.

My final thoughts are of a very lush, sexy, and delicious year.  The 2015 Vintage in Bordeaux is going to be loved around the world and prices will likely surge, but it will be for good reason and good taste.

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Glen Manor Vineyards 2013 Raepheus. The Most Memorable Wines of 2017

I didn't truly expect to find world-class wine in Virginia.  Good wine?  Probably.  A beautiful country and a great time visiting a friend?  Absolutely.  In a year filled with extraordinary dessert wine experience, I would not have expected that a Virginian Petit Manseng would be one of the most memorable.  But it was.


The wine is liquid gold, done in the style of Southwest France's Jurancon.  It has been described as the 'apricots of the gods with the soul of raspberries."  One of the few dessert wines that blends the complexity of fine Sauternes with the delicate character of Eiswein.  It slides across the tongue like a sword cutting snow and then reveals absolute beauty beneath. 

Raepheus is not only the finest wine made in Virginia.  It is quite possible the best dessert wine made in the United States.

Glen Manor Vineyards is located in the Blue Ridge Mountains and the views are stunning.  More importantly, the terroir and climate of the vineyards provide a freshness and acidity that doesn't exist in most other Virginia wines.  Steep slopes and high elevations are also keys to the success.

For five generations and over 100 years, the family has owned the property.  It was not an easy life and for a long time the family operated as subsistence farmers.  In 1995, the realization came that less fertile land is ideal for vineyards.

I visited the humble tasting room.  I saw the beautiful property.  I also saw the hands and faces of the owners and winemakers. Glen Manor Vineyards is truly what many wineries pretend to be; a wine made in the vineyard.  That isn't easy, but it is kind of righteous.

What ever else the winery may be, they made the 2013 Raepheus.  One of my most memorable wines of 2017.

You Don't Need Expert Advice to Pair Wine with Thanksgiving Dinner.

You really don't.  If you are struggling to pair the "correct" wine with your Thanksgiving Dinner, you are maybe missing the point of Thanksgiving.  And perhaps also the point of wine.  Please allow me to explain...


There is a deluge of Thanksgiving wine pairing articles are easy to write and easy to read, but the sheer number of them can make you think that pairing wine with your Thanksgiving table is somehow difficult.  It isn't.  It might not even be that important.

Thanksgiving is at its core a harvest celebration.  We give thanks for the bountiful crops of the summer and prepare for the lean times of winter.  The table abounds with a overabundance of meat, vegetables, and more.  And that is what makes the concept of wine pairing with it so irrational.

Precision wine pairing - finding the perfect pairing - is simply not relevant during a celebratory feast.  For most of us, the Thanksgiving meal isn't a crisp progression of courses.  It is a delicious free-for-all of flavors, family, friends, and probably football.  There are too many flavors in play, making a mouthwatering mingle of meat and vegetables.

Plus the flavors are relatively nondescript.  Turkey, potatoes, stuffing, corn, noodles, pumpkin pie!  These are some of the most versatile wine pairing foods in the world.  At most, you'll get a splash of sweet acidity in the cranberries and dark savory in the dark meat of the Turkey.  The neutrality of most of these flavors make wine pairing a cinch!

Love sweet white Riesling?  That will pair with Thanksgiving.

Love aged French Bordeaux?  That will pair with Thanksgiving.

Love explosively fruity Shiraz or Zinfandel?  That will pair with Thanksgiving.

The dirty secret is that almost anything will.  Better yet?  You can have all of the above at the same time.  If you enjoy a wine, you will enjoy it at your Thanksgiving Table.  But do not forget why you have gathered.

Celebrate the abundance of the harvest.  We have never had more choices.  The world of wine comes to our wine shops in a diversity that the kings of a few decades ago could never have experienced.

Time is fleeting.  Life is fleeting.  Family is fleeting.

Eat and drink and laugh and love with Thanksgiving.  Just don't stress out about the "perfect pairing."

7 Ways to Consistently Drink Bad Wine.

The wine world is difficult for anyone trying to drink truly bad wine.  The rampant flaws that plagued the wine world only a few decades ago have been mostly wiped away.  Modern wine-making techniques, refrigerated shipping containers, and a demanding wine trade have eliminated the vast majority of these issues.

Still, the modern world has gifted to us a new way of bad wine.   Bland, boring, corporate zombies of wine.  Wines made from irrigated deserts, high yields, and chemistry sets in the wineries.  And thankfully, these wines are slowly taking over our wine shops and restaurants.

To tide yourself over until the inevitable victory of boring wines,  here are seven ways to consistently drink bad wine.


1.  Pick the 2nd cheapest wine on a wine list.

Sommeliers and restaurateurs know that most people don't want to appear 'cheap' and so the 2nd cheapest wine on a wine list is often one of the best sellers.  This is often where the restaurant puts its highest margin wine.  Frequently, this isn't a very good wine either.

2.  Buy wine in a big box store.

People love to buy from big box stores.  They think they are getting a great deal.  On most things they are right, but not in the wine aisle.  Any wine available in the kind of quantities that can service a big retail chain isn't going to be anything close to hand-crafted.

3.  Buy wine from a store without anyone in the wine department.

This is similar to number two, but is even more important.  If a wine store hasn't invested in qualified wine personnel in their wine department, you can bet that they are letting the ultra-large distributors run the show.  Those guys are going to put their corporate junk that "has to move" front and center.  You can count on the quality being sub-par.

4.  Buy wine from a wine club connected to a entity that doesn't normally sell wine.

I'm not talking here about that wine club from the winery you visited on vacation.  That wine is probably pretty good.  Nor am I talking about the wine club run by your local wine shop.  That is likely exceptional. 

I'm talking about the wine club run by a newspaper or some organization that promises discounts that are too good to be true.  They are correct.  The wine is consistently bland and boring.  It is also likely generic "custom crush" juice, since no one in the industry ever recognizes the labels they are selling.  This is a great choice for getting a bad wine on a regular basis!

5.  Buy any wine that you recognize.

Are you a wine expert?  Probably not, since they tend to want to drink good wine.  If you aren't an expert, please assume that reason you recognize the wine is because some large corporate wine company has dumped barrels of money into marketing to make you remember it.  They wouldn't do that if there wasn't hundreds of thousands of cases that they needed to move.  These wines are reliably awful.

6.  Buy a cheap red blend from California  (without doing copious research first).

Cheap reds blends are an important part of the wine world and a favorite of people that like good wines.  Just not cheap red blends from California.  The economics just doesn't work.  With the high costs of land and labor, you aren't going to get the value for money offered by a red blend from France, Italy, or Spain.

Also, most of these wines are sold on brand identity, not vineyards or regions or anything that denotes quality.  They are marketed like soft drinks and many of them have 'secret sugar' that makes your 'dry wine' anything but.  A great choice for bad wine.

7.  Buy Cheap Pinot Noir.

Pinot Noir is one of the greatest of all wine grapes.  Maybe the very greatest.  It is capable of wines of incredible finesse, elegance, purity, and complexity.  But you don't want any of that, and that's why you bought a cheap Pinot Noir.

Pinot Noir is such a finicky grape that it requires premium (expensive) land and skillful (expensive) cultivation.  This does not make for an inexpensive bottle of wine.

Cheap Pinot Noir often contains the minimum amount of actual Pinot Noir that is allowed by law.  Many California Pinots can contain up to 25% other grapes and they don't have to tell you that on the label.  Most of the popular cheap Pinot Noirs have so much blended into the wine that there is truly no hint of Pinot left in the flavor. 

It is perhaps the best way to get a truly awful wine in the modern wine landscape.

A Different View of California Cabernet Franc: John Skupny of Lang & Reed Wine Company

One of the exciting things about working in the retail wine business was the ability to go to industry wine tastings.  Not only could to taste a wine variety of wine, but you often got a chance to meet cool winemakers.  At this trade event in 2010, I had the chance to interview John Skupny of Lang & Reed Wine Company.  He had a very interesting take on what was possible for Cabernet Franc in California.  **It was also the era before cell phone video and this was shot on a small jittery pocket camera.

This is Episode #12 of the Understanding Wine with Austin Beeman podcast.  Enjoy. Transcript is below the video.


Hi, I'm John Skupny from Lang & Reed Wine Company in Napa Valley, California. I'm the proprietor and winemaker for Lang & Reed Wine Company along with my wife, Tracy. We are one-of-the-only wineries in California that work exclusively with Cabernet Franc. That's kind of the whole story.

In California, they had been following the Bordeaux Model for a long time and a few people focused on Cabernet Franc. With Lang & Reed, in the early '90s, we decided that there was some inherent and distinctive charms about Cabernet Franc, particularly when it was expressed by themselves. The places in which we had Cabernet Franc planted and the vinification techniques all sort of favored the Bordeaux Model. We looked at some of the charming ones from the Loire Valley and decided that we were going to try and create something that expressed those inherent attributes of charm that came from Loire Valley recognizing that we had different circumstances in Napa Valley.

We moved to California 30 years ago in 1980 and at that time, as I mentioned before, it was this sort of influx of the thought of what did the Bordeaux know that we didn't know. Deconstructing the blends, I was always charmed by Cabernet Franc in its early stages. We start barrel tasting in January or February after a harvest and you'll find that of the Bordeaux grapes the Cabernet Franc expresses itself in a much more effusive way than the other varieties do in an early stage.

In the early '90s Tracy and I decided to start to look at producing wine on our own and we thought nobody was doing Cabernet Franc with that kind of intent. That might be something that we could create our own niche or market. Even in the year 2010, making and selling Cabernet Franc is a little, we call it the Rodney Dangerfield of varietals, but it's a little bit like rolling a rock up the hill and it's still in a pioneering phase.

It is a touchstone grape in sort of its volatility of acceptance. It's not unlike Sauvignon Blanc where you'll find people who really, really dig it or people who really don't. Some of it has those because it has fairly overt characteristics. We say that it lies on the green edge or the herbaceous edge. Some people like that and some people don't. It often times depends upon what you're eating with it because it is an exceedingly food-friendly variety because of that herbaceous streak to it.

Well, it is a cool climate variety. It's adaptable to both cool and warmer climates. If you look at vinifera growing in the world, it's like a pencil line going around the northern hemisphere and a pencil line in the southern hemisphere and Cabernet Franc happens to be a fairly soft pencil and covers a pretty wide swathe. If you imagine that it excels in the Loire Valley, which is a very, very northern region in France, and it also does really well in Bordeaux, which is a fairly southern region in France.

If you make that swathe across the United States, you'll find it excelling in Washington State, Napa Valley, San Ynez Valley, on the western coast. You also see Cabernet Franc doing well on the east coast in Long Island, Finger Lakes area in New York, in Pennsylvania, Ohio up near the lake, and also in Virginia. It's really actually more adaptable to come into ripeness in a lot more places than Cabernet Sauvignon will come to ripeness.

The one thing you find, because it has this wide swathe, is the cooler the climate, the more herbaceous, more green characteristics you either contend with or utilize. The warmer climate, the more you sort of rise the sugars above that stage, for good or bad. You may lose its inherent characteristics or charm in too ripe a climate.

The 2008 Vintage for Oregon Pinot Noir. Interview with James Cahill of Soter Vineyards

I always strive to create wine content that is evergreen; not tied to any one specific vintage or wine.  But in the summer of 2010, the fine wine community was buzzing about the 2008 vintage in Oregon and people wanted to talk about it.  Unlike the 2008 vintage Pinot Noirs, my interview with James Cahill, winemaker of Soter Vineyards hasn't aged very well.  It's all out the quality of the 2008 Vintage in Oregon.

This is Episode #14 of Understanding Wine with Austin Beeman.  Enjoy.  Transcript is below the video.


I'm James Cahill and I am the winemaker for Soter Vineyards, Tony Soter's Oregon project. A certified sustainable winery producing an emphasis we'll say on estate grown and regional blends of Pinot Noir and a little bit of sparkling wine. It's just a silly habit of ours.

What we have in '08 is a long growing season and when we found ourselves in Oregon picking grapes in the middle of October, that means lots of things. Especially if we're picking at leisure like we were. It means that the grapes have been out for a good long while. They've enjoyed a good growing season.

If we're not in a hurry, it means it's been a moderate growth season, right? That there hasn't been heat and things that would force us to have to harvest because grapes are shriveling or something like that.

Of course, if we're harvesting leisurely it means it's under sunny skies. I think what we regionally look for in from '08's will be the precious and natural acidity that's found consistently in '08 Oregon Pinots. It's what our region does.

It's a beautiful level of ripeness. A complete level of ripeness without excess, right? So that the things we can do in our cool climate, which is capture fruit flavors with freshness and life rather than more confection or baked flavors are so clear and consistent I think in most quality levels as well.

Of course, the price of admission for a fine Pinot Noir is pretty steep right? You have to pay a few bucks to get a satisfying bottle of wine, but I think even on modest bottlings you'll find a good quality Pinot that will speak not just of Pinot, but of Oregon Pinot. Acidity, liveliness, structure. Again, with a thorough level of ripeness.

What is the aging potential of 2008 Oregon Pinot Noir?  And what Oregon vintage is most similar to 2008?

It's a great question. Of course the aging potential is always how you enjoy wine, right? I think what we always qualified is that the wines will get better, you know? I think that there's structure in the wine and enough depth and volume in the quality of fruit that they will age gracefully, and in balance, and that you will be rewarded by waiting both in the near term as the wine's relaxed. Waiting a year or so you'll be rewarded with a better picture of what the young wine is.

Then of course as it unfolds, in its old age I think one of the things we'll look for is that the wine's made mature like many other vintages at seven, eight, nine years old, but they'll probably hold for quite a long time where other wines may have less ability for a plateau.

2002 is a vintage we often look back on as controversial for some, but for many right-thinking folks in our region, I think 2002 is kind of a perfect year because there was good ripeness. There was not a lot of drama to harvest. The harvest conditions and the wines had muscle.

If people didn't go to far in terms of manipulations or excessive hang time. I mean, beautifully balanced wines that will age elegantly. '98 and '99, '99 would probably be more like '08 in that it was a miracle vintage at the time because we were harvesting well into October. A vintage that looked like it might be tough to get the grapes in, you know?

There were three challenging vintages in the 90's. '95/6/7 people were pretty gun shy that if you're waiting to October puts you at risk of course for the winter rains that are going to arrive. So yeah, I think referencing '02 and '99 might be benchmarks, but the level of ripeness in '08, while complete, the alcohol potentials might be a little lower perhaps than in other vintages.

Half-bottles, Restaurants, and the Meaning of Wine. Elizabeth Pressler of Elizabeth Spencer Winery: The Complete Interview

My interview with Elizabeth Pressler of Elizabeth Spencer Winery was a pleasant wine conversation with a pleasant lady who makes very good wine.  What really makes this a turning point was that I asked her "What Does Wine Mean to You?"  It was a question I had asked of Dirk Richter and would soon become a motif in later interviews as well.  Enjoy!  Parts of this video were released as separate episodes of Understanding Wine with Austin Beeman and are collected here for the first time.


My name's Elizabeth Pressler, and I am the Elizabeth of Elizabeth Spencer. My husband Spencer is of course the Spencer. We put our first names together to make the brand name. People often mistake the name Elizabeth Spencer as being one single person, and of course it's not. It's the unification of the two of us.

Part One:  What Does Wine Mean to You?

That's a really hard question. It's interesting, because wine is a passion of mine. Wine is my business. Wine is something that stimulates my mind and thinking, and it's a lifelong pursuit. Once you get hooked by wine, you learn about it every time you open a bottle of wine and taste, and it's a lifelong growing experience because you're always experiencing new tastes when you're interested in wines. I also love the way wines bring together the culinary arts. When you begin to love wine, you also appreciate food, and you think about how flavors go together.

Spencer and I cook at home. I love how we will come home and pour a bottle, pour from a bottle, have a glass of wine while we're making our dinner, and we talk a lot about wine.

We have a side board at home in the kitchen, a marble top table, and we have zillions of bottles open, where we're always tasting and sampling. What we'll do is we'll open a bottle of wine and watch it over the course of five to seven days to see how it changes over time, and on that side board, you'll find wines from Napa, Sonoma, France, Italy, Australia. We're always looking at what our friends and colleagues are doing around the world, because we think it's very important to know about wines from other regions.

What else does wine mean to me? I love the way it brings people together. Once you open a bottle of wine and share it with friends or family, suddenly the conversation flows. The conversation moves to interesting things. You talk about art, politics, what movies you've just seen. It just is an added enjoyment to life and to living.

Part Two: On Cooking and a Little History

Oh, gosh. I was raised by a mother who loved to grow organic gardens back in Pennsylvania, and we always had fresh corn, and tomatoes, and lettuces, and my favorite, the strawberries. I got to learn what great, good food tasted like, so that was part of my interest. I always liked cooking, and we always cooked at home as kids with my mother. When I met Spencer, we loved cooking as well, and both of us have spent much time in the restaurant business before we got into the wine industry.

I started out as a waiter, which I think is some of the best training that anybody can ever, ever have for life, because you really learn how to think on your feet, but you also get to appreciate and enjoy fine wine and fine food. I also worked in front of house as a maitre d, and I organized all of the waiters, and I seated our customers. I was even a sommelier in a restaurant, where I went from table to table and really increased wine sales, so I love restaurants, and love food and wine, and putting it all together.

Part Three:  What are the Characteristics of a Good Wine Restaurant?

A restaurant where you get an opportunity to taste wines from around the world, and I love the idea of having different size pours. For instance, I think it's great to have a two ounce pour, so you can really have a sampling or a taste of wine, and then maybe a five to six ounce pour so you can actually enjoy it with a meal, and then I like the idea of having a variety of wines that you can enjoy throughout the course of a meal.

You and I were talking earlier about the beauty of half bottles. My husband and I often like picking those off of the wine list so that we can select a wine that goes well with each course, so it would be fun to have a white wine with our first course, and then move into a red for the second. Of course, I can't forget sparkling wine. We love having champagne as a cocktail, so it's great to have a half bottle or a split of champagne to begin.

Oh, yeah. Spencer and I are committed to bottling in all different formats. This is primarily for our Cabernets. Cabernets are wines that can age very well, and classically in France, the French have always bottled in many different sizes.

When you come to our tasting room, you'll see that we have a display. Everything from the 375, which is the half bottle, to the 750, which is this normal size bottle, to 1.5, which is the magnum. We do a three liter, six liter, 12 liter, 18 liter, and recently Spencer even has done a 27 liter.

Don't ask me what that's called.

I have to read the names to know what it's called.

Biodynamic, Sustainable, and Organic Wine. Rebecca Work of Ampelos Cellars: The Complete Interview

Biodynamic wine?  Organic Wine?  Sustainability?  In the world of wine, these are terms of confusion for even experienced wine drinkers.  In my interview with Rebecca Work of Ampelos Cellars, I received my first coherent explanation of these terms.  I hope they help you as well.  Parts of this video were released as separate episodes of Understanding Wine with Austin Beeman and are collected here for the first time.


Hi, I'm Rebecca Work, and the winery is called Ampelos Cellars. It's a winery that my husband and I do all the work ourselves. It's a very small winery in the Santa Barbara/Santa Rita Hills area. We make about a total of 3,500 cases. We have a vineyard as well, 25 acres planted. Two-thirds of what we make comes from our own vineyard.

Part One:  Organic? Sustainable? Biodynamic?  What Does it all Mean?

 Many people don't really know the difference between those three practices. Basically, you actually have four farming practices. You have conventional, which is basically you spray herbicides, pesticides, artificial fertilizers, try and get the largest yields you can get out of the land. Don't necessarily pay attention to waste management, irrigation practices, any of the farming aspects. Just try and grow as much as you can possibly grow out of the soil.

Then you have organic, and organic is, you're not allowed to spray herbicides or pesticides, or use artificial fertilizers. Basically, don't spray any nasty stuff. Organic doesn't say what you must do or how you must do it. It doesn't pay attention to waste management, irrigation practices, any other farming aspects. Just don't spray that bad stuff.

You have biodynamic, and biodynamic actually came before organic, so it's been around since the early 1900s. This is not a newfangled idea. Biodynamic is you're not allowed to spray herbicides or pesticides, or use artificial fertilizers, so by default you're organic. But biodynamics says, "Here's what you must do and here's how you must do it." Biodynamic follows the earth schedule and not the farmer's schedule, so examples of that would be, we know that in a descending moon the earth takes in, and in ascending moon, the earth lets out. We irrigate on a descending moon because it takes less water. We get deeper penetrations than if we irrigated on ascending moon.

Biodynamics says, "Everything you take out of the vineyard you must bring back." All of our stems, seeds and skins come back. We compost it. We put it back in the vineyard. Biodynamics says, "You must treat everything like one holistic system." We know we have a lot of beneficial insects, so to make sure those insects don't leave our vineyard, every 10th row, it's totally natural. Nobody's allowed to walk in it. No equipment's allowed to go there, and therefore when the tractor goes up and down the other rows, the beneficial insects have a safe place to go and we don't lose them.

The thing with Biodynamics, though, is it doesn't look at waste management, employee practices, some of the other aspects of farming. Sustainability is a term everybody's using, but now there are starting to come out some certification processes. We were in the pilot of that. Sustainability breaks farming into nine areas. You have employee practices: do you have a grievance process? Social practices: do you tell you neighbors what you're doing? Don't spray at 5 in the morning. Soil management, waste management, irrigation, and you must qualify a minimum in each one of those areas. We're 100% on solar power, so we've qualified in the energy area for that. With sustainability, you can still spray herbicides and pesticides, certain ones, and use artificial fertilizers.

Part Two:  Does Biodynamic Winemaking Make the Wine Any Better?

The school is still out with biodynamics as to whether it made a difference or not. We have seen a difference in the health of our vines. Example of that is in 2008, it was the worst frost we've had in 35 years. Vineyards around us, all on rolling hills like us, all doing the same frost protection like us, all of us getting out there in the morning to turn on the sprinkler systems, lost 50 to 60% of their fruit. We didn't lose a single thing. We weren't doing anything different from them. They were not very far from us. We think the biodynamic just made our vines stronger to protect themselves against the frost.

We have seen in our vineyard where ... We have American oak trees in California. They're protected. You're not allowed to take them out, so you plant the vineyards around them. Problem is, the oak trees taking everything of the nutritional value out of the soil, so you try to plant your rows as far back. We planted it back, but the row by the oak trees just were not doing very well at all. We were about ready to take them out, and over the time of being biodynamically farmed since '05, as of last year those vines were now catching up to the rest of the vineyard, which is telling us there's enough nutrition in the soil to support the oak tree as well as our vineyard.

We think just the healthiness of the vines ... Another aspect is in that frost. We got hit in the fall at the harvest time. We got frost at the beginning and we got frost at the end. That meant many of the vineyards who still had fruit out there, the vines totally shut down and therefore were not going to develop any further than where they were. Our vines just kept on trucking, and so we were able to develop the flavors for our wines even though we had that nasty frost.

Part Three: What is So Special about Santa Barbara Wine Country?

The thing with Santa Barbara is it probably doesn't have an identity, and that's its biggest problem. You think of Napa, you think of cab. You think of Oregon, you think of Pinots. Santa Rita Hills, what do you think of? We've got cabs, we've got Rhones, we've got pinots, we've got everything across the board. I think with Santa Barbara, we are able to get tremendous hang time on our fruit. We don't start our harvest until the end of September, which is a really late time. By having that longer hang time, it allows the flavors to develop so much more. We get so much more complexity, I think, from that in our wines.

I think Santa Barbara is doing a awesome job in the pinot area from Santa Rita Hills, the Rhone areas from Happy Canyon, Foxhound. We're starting to really show beautiful sauvignon blancs that are coming out of there now. I think one of the things people don't really realize is really, Santa Barbara's not only a great place for a lot of varietals, but we're not into yet the big, commercialized, artificial kind of thingYou'll walk into many tasting rooms and meet the winemaker there, or you'll meet the owner and winemaker, like me and me husband area. Santa Barbara has a lot to offer.

Part Four:  What are your favorite wines?  Not including anything you make.

We’re, especially me, very partial to Greek wines. I know that sounds kind of odd. We've spent a lot of time in Greece. We think Greece has amazing wines that actually doesn't leave the country, and one of my most favorite ones is called Agiorghitiko. It's from Nemea. It's a wine that's so hard to explain. It's kind of like a cab but not really. It's like a cab/Syrah. It's got its own identity, and we just love Agiorghitiko. We try really hard to find that wine.

Part Five:  What Do You See Happening in the Wine Culture?

It’s no longer just something to drink that's good. It's more where we're having a lot of people coming in who want to really learn what goes behind that wine. We have a lot of people who are now interested in coming to work a day of the harvest with us. People have a real kind of desire to learn what goes on in the winery. Why do you do what you do? We're seeing this more and more, especially in the younger generation, who, A, is interested in learning as to what goes behind the wines, but B, is wanting to venture into new kinds of wines that they hadn't had before, like we make a Dornfelder. It's the one time we've made it. It's a German varietal. As far as we know, there's the one vineyard in Santa Rita Hills that has Dornfelder, and most people have never heard of it, or seen it, or tried it. People get excited when they find something unusual that they can take to a dinner party.

I think in the past, people were into the white Zinfandels and that was just something to drink, but nobody was really interested in what went on behind, and how do you make white Zin, even though ... I'm not a white Zinfandel person at all, but ...

I think they want to get rid of all of the technical terms around it, but understand what is a clone? Most people don't understand, varietals are pinot noir, Syrah, cabs, and then within each of those varietals you have clones. Most people don't have a single idea what a clone is. I always explain, it's like apples. You have Granny Smith, red delicious, the different ones, and each one of those apples have totally different flavors. The clones we have for like pinot noir are absolutely, totally different, and therefore makes it our spice cabinet to make the kind of style of wine we want to make. People love it. They come out, and then I let them taste the difference between a pinot noir clone 115 versus a 667 versus a triple-7. They can see how those different clones can make the style of wine you want to make. I think people are really wanting to be educated as to what goes into that wine.



Behind the Scenes with Dave Miner of Miner Family Winery

I met Dave Miner by accident, as he was passing around a bottled barrel-sample of Tempranillo on the porch of an Anaheim restaurant after hours.  The wine was good.  Dark and rich.  Miner was talking wine and music with Michael Jordan (the Master Sommelier, not the basketball star) and a couple guys from Fender Guitars were improvising a soundtrack on two twelve-string guitars.  It was the kind of January evening that comes with a pleasant frequency for those of us in the wine business.

The darker side of the business would come a year later when, visiting a famous Napa Valley winery, I would be mocked by an entire tasting room staff who had nothing but derision for wine retailers and (even worse) people from "The Rust Belt."

Driving south on the Silverado Trail, I saw the sign for Miner Family Winery and pulled in.  Dave Miner was his gregarious self.  He stopped what he was doing and welcomed me in.  We spoke about the evening in Anaheim, tasted some wines, and shot some video.  A few hours later, I had produced my first wine video in wine country. 

This is Episode #6 of the Understanding Wine video podcast.  Enjoy.  Transcript is below the video.

Dave Miner:

Hi. I'm Dave Miner with Miner Family Winery. We're here at Miner in Oakville, right in the heart of Napa Valley, over on the eastern side. As you can see behind me, spring has sprung in Napa, so it's a good time to be here. We're getting ready for some bud break and you should come by and see us.


When you're in Napa Valley visiting Miner, you could visit the tasting room. That would be a great place to start, but we're going to go behind the scenes with Dave Miner. Once you get behind the building, what you notice first are the solar panels.

Dave Miner:

We started doing solar a couple years back. We started the project, and we've been on the solar panels for roughly a year and a half now. We generate our own solar power. We're 100% solar powered. All of the waste that we produce here from wine making, whether it's skins, stems, seeds, all go to compost. All of our water is recycled back into irrigation for our property here. We really try to be very conscious of our footprint and our presence here, and not leave a mess.


The same care that Miner gives to the environment, they also bring to their wine making.

Dave Miner:

We hand harvest everything that we do and then dump that directly into the hopper. We sort of hand sort, as well, as we go through. We also don't tend to harvest a lot of grapes at one time. We might do 15, 18 tons in one day and that's it, not a huge amount. It really kind of allows us to manage everything in fairly small quantities. Make sure that the quality of every little lot is premium. Essentially, the whites go right into the bladder presses down here. A whole cluster whether it's Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay. We pretty much do all of those, the whole cluster press.

Each of those bladder presses will hold about seven or eight tons of grapes. We'll drop those all in there, rotate and just gently and lightly press them over two hours. Then, the juice will go off into a tank for fermentation in the tank. Although, Chardonnay, we actually ferment in the barrel, but it goes into a tank first. We kind of cold stabilize it, chill it down a little bit, start the fermentation process, and then move it on to barrels.

The red wines would go through the de-stemmer. For the most part, about 95% of our red wines are completely de-stemmed. We do have some wines that we actually do some whole cluster fermentations with, Syrah primarily, or Tempranillo. The rest of them are all de-stemmed, and then the berries are just kind of lightly popped. Then, they go into a tank, or into a bin for fermentation. Pinot Noirs, we actually do all our fermentations in picking bins, with a lid on or off. The punch downs are all by hand, so we mix the skins up all by hand. The fermentations are all natural. Again, in the smaller quantities, it's easier to sort of control the quality of each little bit that we do.

This is essentially 20,000 square foot cave, which we dug in 1998. Took about 14 months to complete. Can probably hold about 5,000 barrels, although it's not that full. We built it a little bit larger than we probably needed, just so that we would have kind of a comfort level room to work. The great thing about the cave is that it's much more energy efficient. It's 60 degrees and about 90% humidity all year, so you lose a lot less wine to evaporation. Above ground, you can lose roughly 5%, 6% of your wine every year to evaporation. Under ground, you lose 1% or less a year. Significant savings in wine loss. Consequently, you have less labor because you don't have to top the barrels off as often. You want to keep barrels full so that the wine doesn't oxidize. The faster it evaporates, the fast you've got to top it off.

We have variety of cooperages that we buy from. We have a couple that we buy a lot from. Then, quite a few other smaller producers that we buy smaller amounts from. That's kind of an ongoing thing. We always kind of experiment with some of the different producers, different types of barrels. See if we really like them. It's a little harder to do that with Cab, because you're racking in and out of those barrels a couple times a year, whereas with Chardonnay, once it goes into the barrel, it stays there, so you can get a much better of a idea of the effect of that barrel on the wine. You can taste the same chardonnay in four different barrels and really get a sense for what that barrel adds to the mix.

This is basically one of our Cabernet lots from Stagecoach Vineyard from the '08 vintage. These will essentially get blended here in the next month or so, and then put back in the barrel as the blend. Then, bottled roughly in August of this year. This is from a block at Stagecoach that we call the bowl, which is about an 11 acre block, 10 acre block, that's basically just kind of a bowl. It's a western facing area up at Stagecoach Vineyard. Stagecoach is just east of the Oakville Appelation. It's a fairly large vineyard. It's 550 planted acres. On the north end it kind of butts up against Pritchard Hill, runs along Oakville, and goes pretty much all the way down to Atlas Peak. It's a huge vineyard, great, rocky, volcanic soil, roughly around 1,500 to 2,000 foot elevation. It's kind of an ideal vineyard for the Bordeaux varietals. Keeps the yields low. Keeps nice acidity in the wine. Gives the grapes just fantastic intensity. It's also, because it's higher up in the valley, it tends to not get as cold, and not get quite as hot. You get a nice kind of breeze effect off the the bay up there. It's kind of ideal growing conditions for a number of these grapes.

Everything we do is in really small batches, very hand crafted. Quality really is kind of the key thing for everything that we do. Balance. We like to makes wines that are very well balanced, that go with food well. Also, lack of pretension. We like to have people come here and have a good time, no matter what their experience level with wine is. We want them to feel comfortable that they can come here, have a good time, learn some things if they want to, taste good wines, and just enjoy themselves. I think those are kind of the themes here at Miner that we try to promote all the time. You'll get to taste a lot of different kinds of wines, which is unusual, and I think really good, quality examples of every varietal that we do. I think you'll have a really good time, so come visit.

Talking German Wine with Dirk Richter: The Complete Interview. Max Ferd Richter.

One of the great ambassadors of German Wine is the erudite and passionate Dirk Richter of Weingut Max Ferd Richter.  I was very lucky to be able to meet him often in the early years of my wine career and talk German Wine in one of my video interviews.  We discuss the meaning of wine, recent vintages, the role of Riesling at the dinner table, and the positive effects of global warming.  Parts of this video appeared as an early episode of Understanding Wine with Austin Beeman, but it is collected here for the first time in its entirety.


Part One:  What Does Wine Mean to You?

Dirk Richter:  "That is good question, what does wine mean to me? Wine is ... let's put it that way, wine accompanies human civilization since there is human civilization. Wine is cultural heritage. Wine is gift from God. Wine is legacy. Wine is totally different from any other drink. When you invite guests to you home and they enjoy the wine, then you are proud to have chosen the right bottle. If they don't enjoy the wine, then you will tell your wife, "I knew that this wine is far too good for these people." That is a kind of reaction you would never have with any liquor or beer whatsoever. That is a personal emotion.

Wine is emotion. That's the reason why we all like to drink wine, to experience wine, because we learn and we know exactly that wine has a total different identity in history. To me, it's very important, I like history.

I think, we all should know where our roots are, we should know where we come from. So is with wine. When I go back in history and when I open the Bible, and the gospel, there from the first to the last page it's wine talk. The first thing Noah did, after the great flood, he planted a vineyard. Why did he plant a vineyard? He could have made a dairy farm or something. No, he planted a vineyard. It is important. It interacts our doing here with a blessing from Lord, himself. I think that's very important. Another example, in the gospel, when Jesus went public, so the first miracle that is reported from Jesus Christ was not the healing of the wounded or people that had physical or mental problems, no, it was the wedding of Cana, in the Gospel of St. John. Why is that reported as the first miracle? My explanation is because that story attracted attention to the public, to the audience. Wow, someone was able to turn water into wine, let's listen what he has to tell.

When we go to the old Egyptian cultures, for example, people were drinking red wine, but the Pharaoh was drinking white wine. That could be seen from the tomb of Tutankhamen, this young king who passed away at the age of nineteen years old, they found remnants of white wine in his tomb chamber. Or when we go to the old Sumer culture, in Iraq now-a-day, in Mesopotamia, wine. Wherever we go, wine. In the Black Sea cultures, the old country cultures, which is now Georgia there, wine. Everywhere is wine. I think that's so important.

To me, wine is part of my family identity. Wine is the history of the landscape I come from. There is so much knowledge and wisdom involved, given from one generation to the next. I think it's really important to learn about wine, to learn more, as people who like to drink wine are always people who are really savvy and interested and go a step forward.

Part Two: On Growing Riesling in Mosel, Germany.

Dirk Richter: 

As most wines, gains its elegance by the long vegetation season and not a hot, short growing time. Subsequently, we have the model country, climatic wise, to grow these refined, versatile, and sometimes fragile white wines. Apart from that, we grapes on slate stone, Devonian slate stone. That is a stone that was created some 500 million years ago. It's not a grown rock but a sediment rock. It was created for millions of years the sediment has been pressed to ground. When the landscape was built, as we know it today, the shift of the continent, some of these layers were brought up, came to surface, and create the Slate Mountains. It is very easy for the blondes to penetrate the terroir, the soil, and take out nutrition. That is very mineral driven.

We have coolish climate, we have got slate stone, the terroir, and that ends up with a low PH level in the wine and as we have got the long vegetation season.   All Rieslings, and that is something really special with a Riesling from Germany, are driven by tartaric acid. The longer the grapes ripen on the vine, the more delicate and the higher the finesse in the acidity. Riesling is something that is seen from the backbone taste. My duty, as the wine grower, is to produce wines taste around that dry lingering finish. That is the secret of the Riesling production. Particularly in the United States, people like acid, subsequently Mosels are so much distributed in this country.

The other reason why we are successful at producing Riesling in Germany is that a kind of German character is precision. If you want to make a top Riesling wine, you have to do it with precision. It's not the art other than other grape varieties, some other grape varieties, to make a blend. In white, a fine winemaker, with his special cellar recipes, take a little bit here, a little bit there, a little bit there, mix it and then you have a nice brand. No, it is precision. Show back the fruit on a given spot, picked at a certain time, back into the bottle. That is the Riesling story.

Part Three:  But isn't Riesling Just Sweet and Cheap?

Dirk Richter:

Cheap Riesling can be simple and sweet, but there is cheap wine everywhere that has no higher match or criteria to fulfill. The great Riesling wines, of course they have got residual sweetness, but they also can be bone dry. Rieslings have an uncounted number of faces. They can go from bone dry to super sweet and everything in between, every step is possible.

But what makes it so special is that the sugar that might be in that particular bottle shows on the tongue and on the palette in quite a different way. It tastes as if you were to bite in a fresh fruit, in an apple, pear, apricot, peach. When you eat that kind of fruit you never speak of sweetness of that fruit, you just speak how refreshing that fruit is, because it is balanced by acid. The same occurs to Riesling, we have, initially on the lips, on the tongue, we have some amount of sugar, that might be in a lower or in a higher percentage. But, it's always balanced against backbone acid. The wine never tastes sweet, the good Riesling wine, but fruity. That is terribly important. That is so important, particularly in the food process, as it helps to reanimate your taste buds, to cleanse or to rinse you mouth, it works like a sorbet and it helps with digest. Riesling is the ideal food wine.

Part Four:  On Aging German Riesling

Dirk Richter:

White wine ages, particularly when it has some residual versus acid. What makes the wine aging is not the amount of alcohol, it's the balance of sugar versus acidity. The Riesling has got, generally, most of the sugar, subsequently it can age much better, provided the acidity is not too low. But, good Riesling from the Mosel, from the Nahe, Rheingau, Pfalz, have got acidity, subsequently they age. There are the white wines that age Chinon Blanc, Bonnezaux in the Loire, Vouvray ages well. There is little bit similarity, they have got residual sweetness as well. It's always that balance that make the wine age. Once these wines start to age, they get more complex, you get much more texture, and slowly they start drying out. A 20 year old wine has no longer the sweetness the wine had when it was young, but it has a lot of richness and complexity and you don't miss that kind of sweetness. It tastes dry, but it tastes, still, very round and has kept it's freshness. That's really important. I can only encourage people to look for vintage bottles to show how well these Riesling wines age.

Part Five:  The Effect of Global Warming on Recent German Vintages

Dirk Richter:

The vintages you see mostly on the market right now is 2005, to start with the older one. That is a great vintage in any corner of the wine hemisphere on this globe, glorious vintage.

2006, a difficult vintage, very small in quantity but a lot of botrytis. The concentration of the '06 is enormous and when you look on the label and you read Kabinett or Spatlese, you can always be sure that this is heavily downgraded. Actually, you get much more wine for what's written on the label. It's a typical example of under exposed, over delivered. The '06 really has a rich, pungent, opulent, creamy character. It has great fruit and great acid and great density. You get oily flavors from the botrytis, you get very quince and rhubarb flavors on the more cleaner or more less botrytised grape wines. That, you find in the '06 vintage.

The next, '07, is very elegant. It's a very elegant, lush elegant, has not the top end style that '05 has got, but in the QBAs a Kabinett and Spatlese, and even the Auslese is a classy vintage. Very elegant.  A vintage to age perfectly.

Now, '08, we are a little bit more crunchy and spicy and zesty than '07. '08 has got a higher acid and a little bit lower alcohol than '07, though if you are looking for light-style Kabinett in German wines and you didn't see it recently, go and find '08, you will have it.

Now, '09, we are already a year further on. '09 is just starting ascending. We are tasting, and sampling, and preparing the first bottlings of '09. It's highly concentrated. It's relatively small quantity. It comes close to '05. I don't know whether it will be similar to '05 but it goes in the direction of '05.

Whatever we see from German wines, on the shelf, be sure you will never run into an off vintage. Whatever vintage the importing agent, the distributor, the restaurateur, the retailer, or the customer picks he can be sure, or she can be sure, always to have a great, good vintage above average. That is so far, the positive effect of global warming as we can see in the Mosel, so far. But we haven't seen the end yet.

Matias Sanchez-Nieto of Eral Bravo: Understanding Wine with Austin Beeman Episode #3

One of the great perks of working in the wine business, as buyer for a retail store, is the many invitations to meet winemakers and taste their wines.  This often happens during large trade events.  I've often taken the opportunity to interview winemakers for the Understanding Wine with Austin Beeman podcast.  This interview with the winemaker of Eral Bravo - Matias Sanchez-Nieto - was shot in Summer 2009 and became my third podcast episode in 2010.  Enjoy!


Okay. My name is Matias Sanchez-Nieto. I am from Eral Bravo Winery. We are placed in Mendoza Province in Argentina, in the western part of Argentina, which is very close to Chile. Actually, we are in the foothills of the Andes Mountains. Our vineyards are about close to 3,500 feet high, so that let's us produce wines with some complexity, very interesting complexity, very nice colors, very nice possibilities of aging the wines and very elegant.

My family has been in the wine business for more than 30 years. We used to have one of the most important wineries in Argentina. We sold it just a few years ago to a very important group. Now, because we've always been related to this, we decided to develop this new product, Eral Bravo product. We have just three years selling our wines, but we are in about 50 markets, in different countries, I mean. Here in the States, we are covering, in the short period, we are in about 12 states. Some of them, like Ohio, we've been working for one year and a half, which was a surprise for us because the results have been really, really good.

We have the highest average altitude in Mendoza, actually in Argentina as well, I think it should be the highest in the world because we have ... As I said, our vineyards are very high, but even in south and the very north, our vineyard's much, much higher at about 2,000 meters or some more, which is about 6 or 7,000 feet high. They are really extreme ... Those vineyard extreme compared to other locations.

We produce different ranges. In our winery, we have the Urano range. We are offering a rose, Malbec, Syrah, and Cabernet Sauvignon. Soon we'll have some white wine, either Viognier or Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc, which are grapes that we produce ourselves. Then we have the Erales range, which is a little higher in terms of segmentation and pricing. Here, we have a Malbec and a Cabernet Sauvignon. I brought this Erales we have the YBS. We call it the YBS because it's our year's barrel selection. Every year we select barrels and we choose the barrels that we think have the best potential to be more time, to keep more the ones inside so then we decide the best way according to our opinion to offer something very, very special. It's been a very successful wine. Allocations are very ... You know, it's tough for us to allocate in different markets, but it's very, very good for our image and very good to make understand that Argentina has all the capabilities to show great wines.

There are many wineries that are working very well and I think the American consumers are realizing about these that we can offer great quality at fair prices, not overpriced wines. That's an advantage that we have and the results are on the way because we are growing, Argentina I mean is growing a lot in the American market. Currently it's the most important market and it's going to be ... It is continue growing, for sure. Everybody's looking for United States.

It's worth it to try our wines because they offer nice fruit, very good colors, you can see here what deep colors. We have very clean wines, very balanced wines in all senses, in fruit, without treatment, but also nice acidity, smooth wines, structured but smooth wines, very round tannins. We try to get complexity in our wines and we want them to be elegant, so I think we have accomplished that and we invite you all to try them.

Why Wineries Desperately Need the Skills That Bloggers Have: Austin Beeman's Speech at the Wine Bloggers' Conference 2016

On Sunday, August 14, 2016, I had the honor of speaking to a room full of wine bloggers and industry professionals at Wine Bloggers' Conference 2016 in Lodi, California.  My topic was one on which I am passionate.  Born of my Kedge Wine and Spirits MBA research and my experience as Director of Marketing for Bonny Doon Vineyard, I spoke about the necessity of Direct-to-Consumer Sales for Independent Wineries.  And how bloggers have learned the skills to help them.

Please enjoy the video presentation or read the transcript just below the video.

Let me introduce myself. My name is Austin Beeman. My blog is my name. In fact, all of my social things are my name. I have a special wine email that I use when communicating with bloggers or when I'm communicating at conferences.


My blog primarily posts my video podcast, "Understanding Wine with Austin Beeman," which I'll talk a little bit about as we go through this. Basically, I do winemaker interviews on video coming out of working in retail and meeting all these great winemakers and realizing that the average person doesn't get a chance to meet these great winemakers, and it'd be a fun thing to dig deeply into that.

I worked in the wine business for about 16 years now, since 2000, after coming back from France, and we'll talk a little bit more about this. But really, this is not about me. The introduction talked a lot about what I've done and "blah, blah, blah," but the point of what I'm saying here is not about me. It really is about this time, the opportunities for wineries, and the opportunities for bloggers.

If any of you have visited my blog, you'll know one thing and that is: My blog's not very good. I do everything wrong. I post a lot in a short period of time, and then there'll be months when I'm distracted doing something else. I have okay social followings, but I'm nowhere near many people in this room, and I'm nowhere near a major influencer when it comes to those things.

The point here is not about your traffic; it's not about your blogging best principles; it's not about having this huge social media following; it's not about what you can leverage from brand. It's about the skills that you have acquired building your blog, that at this time in the history of the American wine business are absolutely crucial to the wineries themselves. We are in this unique period of time and there are great opportunities.

The point here is not about your traffic; ...It’s not about having this huge social media following; ... It’s about the skills that you have acquired building your blog

Let me tell you a little bit about my story. Once upon a time, a long time ago, I thought I might someday be Steven Spielberg or George Lukas, or something like that. I spent a lot of time learning video production and launched after high school a video production business. I did pretty well. At first I did as well as my friends who were out working construction jobs, and then I started to do a lot better than them.

Then the industry changed dramatically.

When I started doing gigs, they were primarily 8mm/16mm films, sitting in a room cutting and pasting. By the time the business was over, around 2004, everyone had digital videography. Everyone had the ability to produce video. I used to be able to snap my fingers and get $5,000 wedding, even in Ohio, where it's not a great economy. By 2004, you'd fight for a $500 wedding. Today, most of those people are out of the business.

I learned a very important thing: Even if you do nothing wrong, the technology can change. The market can change and you're dead.

I learned a very important thing: Even if you do nothing wrong, the technology can change. The market can change and you’re dead.

That has been something that has been with me all the time. I'm seeing it happen in the wine business. I'm tempting to address that, here for you, so when you talk to these wineries, you'll be able to have some information that will help you.

At the time that the video business was waning, I started working in a wine business. First in retail, a little bit in distribution - carrying a bag, going to stores, opening accounts - and then back into running my own fine wine store in the equivalent of an independently owned whole foods. Grew that from about a $100,000 sales to $1,000,000 sales in about eight years. It was a lot of fun; I tasted everything. I was tasting 6,000-7,000 wines per year.

However, at a certain point you get tired of standing there and seeing the same thing, seeing the same people. I thought the best thing to do would be: "I want to go work in wine business, I want to work in California, Oregon, or France." I wanted to be on that side of things. But the truth is that I love California, I love many Californians, but they simply do not respect what the rest of the country does when it comes to wine sales, and retail is definitely the lowest ring of that. So, no matter what I knew and what I was capable of doing, those opportunities really weren't there.

It's the same with bloggers. The wine industry loves bloggers, but they don't really think that bloggers are in the industry. They don't really think that bloggers are part of the wine business. It's very hard to make what I'm calling "The Big Jump," which is going from some town somewhere, blogging, working in a small store, to jump into the business in a serious capacity.

The wine industry loves bloggers, but they don’t really think that bloggers are in the industry. They don’t really think that bloggers are part of the wine business.

So, come 2012, I go to some pre-excursions that I had created on my own prior to the Wine Bloggers' Conference. After far too many drinks with multiple wine makers, I heard the same story over and over, "We have warehouses of wine that we cannot sell at all." These were independent wineries making great wines with high spectator, high enthusiast, high Parker scores; none of that mattered. They couldn't sell the wine.

Since I've come out of California, I've spoken to lots of people. Almost everyone in that middle space is having great difficulties selling their wine. Yes, they can flush it out in a deep discounter online, and lost money or make pennies, but they can't sell it for a good profit a sustainable way.

At that moment, I decided that rather than pursue some certification like a Certified Sommelier or WSET, I would go for the Wine and Spirits MBA, which is out of Kedge Business School in Bordeaux. Immediately, in the first economics class, I get the data of "oh my god, this is what's happening in the America wine business. This is happening across the business, and there are some market trends that are absolutely new for the American wine business, and crushing the independent wineries."

When I'm talking about an independent wineries, I'm talking about somebody who's doing something in the 5,000-75,000 production that isn't part of a giant wine corporation, and isn't a high-end luxury brand. It's the people that have to make a living making and selling wine. A lot of them are family owned, and frankly, I don't know about you, but for most of us, those are the wineries that we like. Those are where the innovative stuff is happening in California. Those are the hand-crafted, those are the bio-dynamic, those are the terroir-based. There may be good other wines from big companies and there's certainly great luxury wines, but for the purpose I'm talking about: its independent businesses.

So, I saw that it wasn't just a couple people; there is real data that is really accessible - if you want to go to a website, The American Association of Wine Economists has paper after paper after paper showing how much these people are hurting.

Those of you who are in the wine industry already know this, but since there’s so many bloggers in the room who don’t, I’m going to tell you a little bit about the American market.

Those of you who are in the wine industry already know this, but since there's so many bloggers in the room who don't, I'm going to tell you a little bit about the American market. After prohibition, you basically had 50 states that were 50 countries when it came to wine. The issue that they were experiencing was very simple. It was simple to sell wine, but it was difficult.

You would make the wine, find a distributor - maybe a distributor for every state, or maybe one or two distributors, or 10 distributors to cover big swaths of the state. They would have the relationships with the retailers and the restaurants. They would sell your wine. You would make some money on that, but you would have somebody else out there selling it.

That is very simple, but it works. It has worked for most of American history, and if you found a good distributor, it would work for you.

We've seen a number of trends in the last 20 years. One is the rise of powerful brands. There are major wine companies doing tens if not hundreds of millions, maybe even billions of dollars in sales. We all know who they are; I'm not going to name them. I know many people who work there, and the way which that business works you have very powerful, very ruthless, very smart people who's job it is to sell wine as it was Coca-Cola or an industrial widgets.

And they're winning. Because the wineries that we like, have no idea how to do the business of wine. The people that know about wine-making, make the best wine; the people that know about wine business get to sell it.

The people that know about wine-making, make the best wine; the people that know about wine business get to sell it.


Right now, about four brands hold 80-90% of the entire American wine market.  Also consolidation of distribution. There are far less distributors today than there were 20 years ago, which means that unless you're a big winery, you're not going to get noticed, picked up, or relevant; your distribution of market is getting much, much weaker.

Of course, there's been a consolidation of retail. The superstores, the Wal-Marts; I believe that Costco is the #1 seller of wine in the United States. Whole Foods, Total Wine; you name the big chain, they have incredible power. They force prices down, and when you need to sell into that number of stores, you can't deal with a little guy doing 20,000 cases. It just doesn't make any sense for Whole Foods or Wal-Mart or Costco to do that. So, you're seeing wholesale distribution dry up.

When I was with the MBA in Australia, I saw the state of the Australian market where essentially two major brands run everything.

Two things have happened that are good for these wineries.

One: the rise of the internet has allowed them to be in personal communication via social media, via emails, via live streaming, all sorts of things like that that allow them to build personal relationship. There has been a liberalization of wine shipping laws. You can ship into more states easier, and people are becoming more accepting. We all buy stuff from Amazon; you get in this mindset that it's okay to purchase things online and have them shipped to your house. There's still a lot of legal complexities to that, but it's never been better in the modern era for people to purchase a wine through their smartphone or online and have it shipped to them.

it’s never been better in the modern era for people to purchase a wine through their smartphone or online and have it shipped to them.

Now we're talking about the skills that bloggers have acquired. You talk about Michael Jordan. Michael Jordan's specific skill set of being great about basketball has made him an unimaginable fortune, but at almost any other time in recorded history, that skill set would have been nothing. It would have mattered not at all. So, not only do you have to have the skill set, but you have to have the skill set that connects with the time in which you are living.

Not only do you have to have the skill set, but you have to have the skill set that connects with the time in which you are living.

The skill set that bloggers are creating, running their own blogs - mostly pro bono, - are the same skill sets that can be turned into jobs, into consulting, into real revenue. Most people will probably never monetize their blog. The best most bloggers can hope for is free samples and some cool press trips. There's going to be that 1% that goes and makes a whole career, but if you look at so many of the people that have made it, they've made it by paying wine gigs for magazines, consulting, or working for a brand. Not many people are going to build the kind of traffic that you need to monetize with ads; you might have to write a book, might have to do all these things, and still you're going to struggle to make that middle class lifestyle that most people want and that is normal. I'm not talking about coming out and having Michael Jordan-style wealth, but I'm saying that if you want a middle class lifestyle in the wine business using this skills, that this is a time that that is a possibility for you in a way that it would not have been 10 years ago, and may not be 10 years from now if we don't get in early.

The reason this is there, is the idea of direct consumer sales. If you buy a bottle of wine in a store, the person that makes the most money on that is the store. That's just the truth. It's something like a third of the price that you pay is going to that store. Whoever has access to the customer gets to make the most money. That's just fundamental rules of business.

Whoever has access to the customer gets to make the most money.

The distributor gets a slug of that. If it's coming from out of the country, the importer gets a slug of that. Sometimes there's brokers; they get a slug. The person who tends to get the least out of it, is the winery themselves. They're the ones who put the most risk, and they're the ones who had the highest costs.

What changes is that when you sell direct to consumers, yes, there's going to be shipping costs, yes there are expenses involved in that, but you're making all of that revenue. You're making the revenue that the store would have made. You're making the revenue that the importer or the distributor would have made. For the small wineries that sell less wine that aren't getting the good distribution, that are getting their prices forced down by the big distributors and retailers, if you can sell to that individual, you have the potential to thrive and survive.

A lot of wineries, especially the little independent ones that we like, they are not making fortunes. They may have a lot of money sunk in land, so technically on the books they're wealthy, but they're not really.

There are three types of direct consumer sales. There is the tasting room, which is what most wineries think about because they're used to hospitality-type things. There is the wine club where there are recurring shipments; I'm sure you are all familiar with that. And then there is e-commerce. Right now, most wineries have absolutely no thought to the e-commerce side of the business.

most wineries have given absolutely no thought to the e-commerce side of the business.

Again, there is space where hospitality because most of the top wineries in California are very close to San Francisco and Silicon Valley. There is an unparalleled amount of wealth there, but we know from history there will be a time when that will not be a wealthy area. I come from Toledo, Ohio; Detroit was Silicon Valley before Silicon Valley was Silicon Valley. It's not a matter of if something falls, it's a matter of when.

Again, having spent some recently in China, they are gunning. They do not want to be only where stuff is manufactured. They don't just want Detroit's business. Believe me, they want a part ofthat high-end tech business. They are doing incredibly well in that space. I'm not saying that tomorrow Silicone Valley's going to collapse, become Detroit, and have fires and 70% of your population gone, but what I'm saying is that the entirety DTC business we see for most wineries is based on an ultra-wealthy, ultra-young clientele walking in the front door.

When that goes away, what do you have? When that even goes down, what do you have? The answer is we have the rest of the country. The amount of money outside of Silicon Valley is greater than the amount of money inside Silicon Valley. There's a lot of people. If you can connect with them, you can now sell to them. There are very, very few states where you cannot ship them wine. If you are communicating, if you are talking about these things, if you are doing social media funnel, content marketing, relationship building with club members; if you're doing all those things, you can succeed in this direct consumer space.

The amount of money outside of Silicon Valley is greater than the amount of money inside Silicon Valley. There’s a lot of people. If you can connect with them, you can now sell to them. There are very, very few states where you cannot ship them wine.

That is what bloggers have been learning. We have been playing in the minor leagues; working for pennies, building up these skills, learning what a community is, learning what I need to post, how I need to post. Staying on the cutting edge of tech. Experimenting with that thing first. Bloggers from all over this country are right there learning these things that can be turned into actual businesses. That can be turned into actual jobs; that can be consultants, that can be employees.

All of these things are possible and can be done. None of what I'm saying says you have to do it. If you're very ahead with your life, if you're in a part of the country with a family and multiple kids, and all these things, you may not be able to just pick up and move to Lodi or Napa. But you can. They need you. If they don't, they're going to die. They don't know how to do this well.

The reason is that farmers make the best wine. We all basically know that. I just got my MBA, but MBA's don't make the best wine. Artists don't make the best wine. Celebrities who fly in on a helicopter to the winery don't make the best wine. Farmers make the best wine. But the farmer temperament does not innovate. Farmers don't innovate, because if you fail and your crop dies, your family starves. That type of people and families just don't innovate; they need to bring people who do innovate in.

(Farmers) just don’t innovate; they need to bring people who do innovate in.

Deep down, a lot of them know this, and don't know how. In a lot of companies, it's the 21-22 year old who's good at computers that is given these positions. Or it's some grizzled marketing executive who just ... It's a different world. It's a completely different world for them. Or they bring in somebody who doesn't think, a consultant who's very expensive. One of the things you have to do if you're doing this is you have to make sure that the cost is low. It's almost always better to hire a person than it is for them to bring in a consultant for these things.

Then, also, tasting room managers. They think that because a person is doing the direct consumer sales in their tasting room, and they're a restaurant person, they got great hospitality skills. All that is wonderful, but because you're big on hospitality skills, does not mean that you're on the cutting edge of tech or know about content marketing; you can write, you can make photos and do videos, you know social media, you know how to build these communities. It doesn't do that.

They need these people; you can be these people. Now is the time to think about it, because now is the time that these wineries are at the most risk. The wineries know they need you. I've said that many times. Think about this conference for a second. Think about what you paid; think about what you got. Think about the fact that you have wine makers here during harvest not doing harvest, talking to us. What? You know? For the tweets that we do, for the things that we put out there?

Yeah, there's great value in that, and they're desperate. They know it; they can't say it, because it doesn't have a good image. But I can say it! I can tell you! They know that there's a problem; they know we could help it. That's why they want the conference to come here. That's why Sonoma wants the conference to go there. That's why everybody wants this. They know they need this, and they don't know that they can just reach out and say, "Come. Here's some money, come."

They know they need this, and they don’t know that they can just reach out and say, “Come. Here’s some money, come.”

That's how we're going to monetize. That's how so many of us are going to monetize. That is what happened to me with Bonny Doon. I sat down, talking Randall Grahm, drinking wine, talking about his business, and he's like, "Oh my God, I need you. Come." And I came out and I worked on this stuff, and we did so much interesting stuff.

But, he's not alone. He saw it, and that's great. He's seen a lot of things before the rest of people see them. Everyone is starting to see it now, and you may have to be the one that brings it up. You might have to be, "How's your direct consumer business? Is it great? Are you wonderful? Is everything fine? No problems? Or could you use some help?"

For most of us who live anywhere other than the Bay area, we're not going to cost what a social media expert who has worked at Google is going to cost. We're going to be able to come in, get a great amount of money for us, and be half of what somebody who has to pay a California rent is going to ask for.

The opportunity is so big. The chances are so big right now. If there's a winery that you love and you approach them, and they don't get it? Pass. They're not feeling the pain yet. Go to the next one. And the next one, and the next one. Don't just say, "I'm going to work at this one, and this one." No. Somebody out there - they might be in the Santa Cruz mountain range, they might be in the Carmel Valley, they might be in the Finger Lakes - there's somebody who knows they need you and is willing to step up. Find them if you want this. You can have this. People are already doing this.

If there’s a winery that you love and you approach them, and they don’t get it? Pass. They’re not feeling the pain yet. Go to the next one. And the next one, and the next one.


In the year that I've spent out here in California as I visited as many taste rooms as I can, every weekend getting out, and tasting and having a great time, I start talking like, "Oh, you've a blog? I had a blog too. I came out to pick grapes during harvest and they hired me." I know at least 12 people in Napa who are working for wineries making good money who come from places like Oklahoma, Kentucky, and West Virginia who had a blog with 500 viewers who called some winery and said, "I'd love to come work harvest" and then got hired and are getting paid $65,000 a year or more.

It is happening, it is just quiet because there are a whole lot of people who think that, "If I tell people, then it will go away and won't be there for me." But there's hundreds of thousands of wineries, all of which want something. We could place everyone at this conference somewhere with a winery, and it would be great and there would still be a thousand options out there.

If this is what you want, if this is your dream and something you want to experience, this is the five-year window to reach out and take it. Now, the wineries you're going to work for are going to be wineries for the most part that are not very well known. You're not going to work for the big wineries; a lot of the wineries you think are medium-sized are actually owned by large companies. You're going to have to play around a little bit; this is not going to be easy. It's work. That's what gets you paid. You have to work for stuff.

If this is what you want, if this is your dream and something you want to experience, this is the five-year window to reach out and take it.

I want to talk a little bit about ... I did a lot of research into this for my MBA thesis about how new media's being used by wineries. I interviewed a number of wineries from all over the country up and down the west coast and in different places, and had five takeaways that you should put in the back of your head to think about.

That is: medium-sized wineries between 20 and 70 thousand cases need this the most, and they're the worst at it because they have big business to run, small staffs, and don't have the time to learn this stuff. So, they tend to hand it off to that 22 year old tech guy who doesn't have any clue. And they need it the most because they have more product to sell and they have far more costs.

Number two is that great new media use grows your DTC even when you don't want it. I interviewed a winery where they sell everything they make through wholesale distribution on day one. They're an allocated company. So, you'd think that they would be totally fine. They also produce really excellent quality new media. What they found is they're intentionally having to hold back a percentage of their production because the demand to buy from them is higher than they want, because of their new media success. Even though they as a business don't want to sell DTC at higher profit margins - and I don't know why, but they don't - they're being forced to do that. This guy was talking about having to produce special labels just to sell online because their excellent social media was forcing their online sales up.

Using everything but not having a business strategy, doesn't get results. People who are doing every bit of social media, everything out there, but don't have any idea why they're doing any of it. I interviewed people who couldn't talk intelligently about the platforms, and didn't see the increase in sales value, volume, or DTC at all. They fell far below industry averages. So, you have to know why you're doing what you're doing. Again, that's where you as a blogger can bring something special, because you've been building your own business on your own blog for a long time now. You know why you do what you do; you know why you write what you write. Or you should. You can use that for these wineries and say, "Yeah, you're doing all these things, but how about we do two or three of them that really will help your business and sell wine direct to consumer."

And then: the category of "Not California" is winning the direct consumer new media game. There is a benefit to your sales to be able to put California on the label. Everybody else is at something of a disadvantage, but the wonderful thing is the one reason California, multiple sizes that I interviewed, almost every one of them had difficulty intelligently speaking about new media. But when I interviewed wineries from the Midwest, East Coast, the South, and the other western states that aren't California, they tended to know this so much better. So, you may want to target some other places first, because they know why they're doing it. They have a good idea. And they may be more receptive. You may have better results in Washington, Oregon, than you have in Napa. You may have better results in Anderson Valley or Santa Barbara than Napa or Sonoma. Think about that. Don't get locked into "It has to be California" or "It has to be Napa or Sonoma."

The last thing that I discovered in the research was that wineries that knew who they were and knew who their customers were - and I don't mean demographic data here, but I mean experiential data - they had more success. The people that said, "I can't write well. So I do photos and video, because I know I can't write well" were killing. The people who are like, "I don't have the time to edit a video. I want to do Vine. I want to do six second videos" were killing it. The people who were like, "Yeah, I don't think this is right for my company but I have to do it because that's what millennials want" were failing miserably and not getting the results that they needed.

So, that's just a little bit about what I call "The Big Jump."

Almost all the wines that we like, all these independent wineries, are special and unique in some way. They just really need to tell the story, and they really need you guys to tell the story. And if you want to make that transition, this is the time and you can do it.

Thank you very much.

Thank you all for getting up in the morning and coming to see me, I really appreciate it.

**A special thanks to Stub of Cork Envy for being willing to work the camera on an early Sunday Morning after some serious WBC16 after parties.

Understanding Chianti Classico with Badia a Coltibuono's Emmanuela Stucchi Prinetti

Note:  I'm restructuring all my wine videos on the website to make a better online experience for everyone.  But don't worry.  All the videos are still downloadable from the Understanding Wine Podcast link and can be streamed on My YouTube page.

In 2010, I realized that in my role as Wine Manager for Walt Churchill's Market, I was getting an opportunity to meet some of the most interesting Winemakers in the world.  More than that, I was learning from them.  It was at that moment that the Understanding Wine Video Podcast started to germinate in my mind.  Perhaps other people would enjoy hearing from this interesting people.

So I grabbed a little camera and recorded this video.  It was not High-Definition, and noisy with traffic noise.  But Emanuela Stucchi Prinetti of Badia a Coltibuono was really interesting.  She succinctly set the record straight about Chianti Classico vs "plain" Chianti.

Please enjoy the video or read the transcript below.


Hello. My name is Emmanuela Stucchi Prinetti, and I'm here because I'm the proprietor of Badia a Coltibuono, which is a winery in the Chianti region. It is a winery that's producing Chianti Classico wines.

I am not anymore, but I was, for a period of three years, also the president of the Consorzio of the producers of Chianti Classico wines. I am very glad to have this opportunity to explain a little bit about my region and our wines.

Chianti is a region that produces wines that are named Chianti Classico. This is something that is a bit complicated, because there are, in Tuscany, other wines that are named "Chianti," but they're coming from other areas of Tuscany, not from the Chianti region. This, unfortunately, is a bit complicated history, but I'm really glad to have this opportunity to point it out and explain about it.

Chianti, as a wine-making region, has a very long history of at least 300 years. It has been made famous and built a reputation over centuries for this wine. Chianti originally was a region in between Florence and Sienna that was producing a wine named Chianti.

Because of the renown of the name, of the fame of these Chianti wines, also other regions in Tuscany, other villages and areas, they wanted to make wine and be able to sell it, so they asked the Italian government, (we're talking back in the 1930s,) to be able to make wines called "Chianti," and the permission was given.

At that point, the producers of the original region Chianti, we decided we'll get together. We founded the Consorzio and, in order to underline the difference, we named our wines "Chianti Classico."

The Chianti Classico, they're all the wines produced in the Chianti region. All the other regions of Tuscany, which lie in other areas, they will produce that are named Chianti, only Chianti.

That is something to be understood, because, in fact, Chianti Classico, in this kind of explanation, brings you the concept that is Chianti Classico is terroir, with a very definite taste, terroir.

Instead, Chianti is a wine with a style. It's a style of making wine. It's Sangiovese that is grown around Piza, around Arezzo, around Sienna. It's more of a style. Often these wines are blended, and not so much importance is given to the regional terroir from where the wine is produced.

Instead, for the Chianti Classico, yes, that's the region and the terroir is very, very important. That really sets the two wines at a different level with different roles. Chiantis often are more simple, straightforward wines. Instead, Chianti Classico are more complex, with more depth and other appealing edge to it.

I just hope that this was clear enough. Of course, there's information about that on the web. You can also look at the website of the Chianti Classico and you're always very, very welcome to ask for more information if you want. Thank you very much.

FTC Disclosure:  At the time this video was recorded (2010), I was the wine manager of Walt Churchill's Market and purchased Badia a Coltibuono wines for sale in the store.  This video wasn't produced at the behest of either Walt Churchill's Market or Badia a Coltibuono.

Ridge Monte Bello: 1988, 2003, & 2012. Three Vintages of One of America's Finest Wines.

Ridge Vineyards Monte Bello is one of the commanding heights of American Wine.  Not simply because it has some of the oldest vines and an amazing view of Silicon Valley, but because the wine that proclaims the Monte Bello Vineyard is one of the finest in the country.

The Ridge Monte Bello is a Cabernet-based blend of classic Bordeaux varietals that represents the flagship of the Ridge portfolio.  The wine has a long history of stellar critical and competitive success; including the famous Judgement of Paris Tasting in 1976.   But despite the incredible success, this is a winery rarely visited since it is located in the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA, not the well known regions of Napa Valley or Sonoma County.

Since living in Santa Cruz, I've had the opportunity to visit the winery a few times and taste current releases of Ridge Vineyards.  But the most recent time, I was able to taste a few older vintages.  Ridge Monte Bello is known for supreme age-worthiness and it was interesting to see this in action.

Ridge 1988 Monte Bello.  $400 Winery Retail. 

"A beautiful and perfect mature version of Monte Bello that has transformed into the kind of secondary aromas and flavors you most likely find in fine Bordeaux.

The color is an attractive medium-light red with a hint of amber at the edges. The nose is all red apple skins and the bright earthy aromas of the forrest floor in Fall. Palate is herbal with tea and rose petals, herbs, and tobacco. Fruit isn't gone, but overwhelmed by the complexity of the other elements. Finish in long (about 60 seconds) and echoes the complexity of the palate.

One of the finest "Old California" wines I've yet tasted. A revelation that shows Monte Bello to be a European wine trapped in a California label." 

97 points.

Ridge 2003 Monte Bello.  $400 Winery Retail. 

"The color was dark red. The nose was overripe with warm tones and funky stewed tomatoes. The palate was dark blueberry, chocolate, and dust. Very little acid left with a viscous texture on the tongue. A short fading finish.

A big disappointment as Ridge Monte Bello is always much better than this. Maybe and off bottle or vintage?" 

87 points.

Ridge 2012 Monte Bello.  $175 Winery Retail. 

"Very young - this is wine for the cellar. Dark spice, hints of green herbs. The nose is like walking into a Chinese herb shop. Crushed chalk. Plum skins. Texture is very smooth with deep hints of baking chocolate dusting. This is quite the thoroughbred Cabernet: Elegant, Pure, Pristine, and Powerful." 

95 points

Video: L. Mawby and the Rise of Sparkling Wine in Northern Michigan

Larry Mawby of L. Mawby / M. Lawrence discusses the rise of Sparkling Wine in the Leelanlau Peninsula of Northern Michigan.

This is Episode #53 of the Understanding Wine with Austin Beeman video podcast.

The History of Growing Sparkling Wine in Northern Michigan.

Larry Mawby:

"We've been growing grapes here for just a little over 40 years and I'm the second person to plant a vineyard here, so this is a young grape growing area by international standards. Even by U.S. standards, it's pretty young. When we started, we had no idea whether grapes were possible to grow here. We had no idea what kind of wines we could make. We had no idea whether we had any customers that would care and be interested.

There was a lot of experimentation at the beginning and there still is a lot. When we started, I planted all French-American hybrids, because those were the varieties that were available, that there was some experience from the Finger Lakes, New York, that was similar climatically to us. We thought we had a good chance that they would survive the winters and that they would ripen in the length of growing season that we had.

Then, we started to plant Vinifera. We started with French hybrids in 1973, and in 1981 I planted the first little bit of Vinifera. Those were vines that I got from Oregon. At that time, I was really interested and my role model probably was Burgundy. I love red and white burgundies, and I thought if we grow Chardonnay and Pinot Noir here, and make a credible table wines from those that would be a great thing.

We got cuttings from Oregon because they were the most serious producers of Pinot Noir in the U.S. in a climate that was anything like ours. California, doesn't make a difference what you do in California; we don't have that kind of climate.

We started growing those vines on a small scale in '81, and in '84 I decided to start making sparkling wine. Mostly at that point because all my experience, which was only 10 years of growing grapes and about 5 years, 6 years of making wine here commercially, was that we had short, relatively cool growing seasons, really quite cold but snowy winters, and that in cool growing seasons we struggled to get Chardonnay or Pinot Noir ripe enough to make a table wine but we always got them ripe enough for sparkling wine.

 The Brix levels that you want for sparkling wine are substantially lower, and because it's a relatively short growing season, because of the typical weather in the last month or so of the growing season, we get really good flavor to all of them at low Brix, which is really important for sparkling wine. That's one of the challenges that a lot of the California sparkling wine producers have is to get the Brix low enough to make a balanced sparkling wine, they have to pick really early in the growing season and there's no flavor development, so you end up with these awkward wines that have the technical parameters that you'd like but they don't taste right. That's why the really good sparkling wines in California are in the really coolest parts of the state.

We have naturally that kind of balance of sugar acid and flavor and aroma that develops, and it was pretty clear to me that sparkling wine was something that we could consistently do every year no matter whether it was a really warm year or a really cool year, we got the kind of flavor development that we wanted in the grapes to make nice sparkling wines. It was also clear to me that we had critically we had people from around the country and European sparkling wine critics had tasted the wines and said, "These have some real promise. You should continue do this sort of thing."

It was also clear to me that at that point, sparkling wine was only 15% of our total production. We weren't focused on it. We were making table wines mostly and we would make sparkling wine. It seemed to me that the real future was focus on sparkling wine, concentrate only on that, grow everything in the vineyard knowing that you're going to make sparkling wine from it, harvest it, ferment. Everything is about sparkling wine if we don't do table wines.

 By the time we started making sparkling wine in the mid-1980s, there were 5 wineries in this area. If a visitor came from, let's pick an Ohio, if they came from Cleveland or Cincinnati and wanted to visit the wineries here, they could come up and visit everybody in a weekend. It was doable. Well, by the mid-1990s, we had about 15 or 20 wineries, and we were adding a couple wineries every year or two. Today, we have 40, and so it was clear in the mid-90s that there were going to be enough wineries that visitors had to start making choices. They couldn't just come for a short period of time and see the whole wine region. They had to make choices.

What I wanted to do was to have them make a choice and have the people that walked into my tasting walk in interested in what I was doing, not just walking in, looking for cherry wine. I don't make cherry wine. We have other folks that do. We'd like people who want cherry wine to go to the wineries that make cherry wine and find that. It seemed to me that there was a possibility for us to specialize, but it took 4 years to eliminate 85% of my sales.

We make sparkling wine. If you're interested in sparkling wine, you think about us. If you're not, you think about somebody else."

Video: The Meaning of Wine with Larry Mawby of L. Mawby / M. Lawrence

Larry Mawby of L. Mawby / M. Lawrence answers Austin Beeman's signature question.  "What does wine mean to you?"

This is Episode #52 of the Understanding Wine with Austin Beeman video podcast

Austin Beeman: "What does wine mean to you?'

Larry Mawby:  "What does wine mean? Wine is an essential component of civilized life. It's like another food item. It's food for the soul as well as the body. It's a part of the civilized discourse around the table.

It's a lot more than that but that's the critically important piece.  For me, it's the way I make my living. For most consumers it is a tangible connection to a place.

A lot of customers vacation here.  Say, they live in Cleveland and it's January in Cleveland.  They open a bottle of my sparkling wine and they can be instantly transported to the time that they were here in Leelanau Peninsula in July and had a great time on the beach, in the water.

It's a great way for an urban dweller to connect to the rural, agricultural heart of the human experience."