Author Archives: denise

Bootleggers & Baptists – The Politics of Wine

Recently I came across a book by the name of “Bootleggers and Baptists” that attracted my attention in its unusual title and controversial subject matter.  This catchy phrase was created by Bruce Yandle, an academician and a regulatory economist about 30 years ago.   In a simplified way this theory holds that in order for a regulation to emerge and endure it has to be supported by the “Baptists” who seek to serve the “public interest” and the “Bootleggers” who derive economic benefit out of the regulation.  A book by that name and authored by Adam Smith and Bruce Yandle was published in 2014.

You may ask, what does “Bootleggers and Baptists” have to do with wine?  Plenty!  Just listen:

With the exception of a couple of states, most states of the union regulate the sales of wine.  These regulations have been supported by the “Baptists,” some for their moral or religious convictions while for others it may strictly be for greed.   “Bootleggers,” on the other hand do it just to create a commercial monopoly and thus eliminate competition.

This practice works in different ways in different states.   Most of the states have a three tier rule, which means that the winery cannot sell directly to retailers but must first sell their wines to a distributor who in turn sells it to the retailer.    This additional tier, among other things, has a significant impact on small wineries who find it very difficult to engage the services of a distributor thus becoming excluded from interstate commerce.

Several other states have franchise laws under which they grant exclusive licenses to distributors.  Georgia is such a typical franchise state in which a winery cannot terminate their relationship with a distributor regardless of performance.  Several years ago we had a distributor in Georgia that was not paying us our bills.  It took us a whole year of legal maneuvering before we got them to agree to release us from the “franchise.”

No less than 18 states have a Liquor Control Board that retains control of the distribution and sales of wine through state owned liquor stores.  Two of these states are Pennsylvania and Utah.   These states purchase the wines directly from the wineries.

The Supreme Court decisions proclaiming unconstitutional the restrictions imposed by states on shipment of wine “direct to the consumer” has opened the door to wineries, even small ones, to sell their wines to consumers all over the country.  Indiana is somewhat of an exception.  A winery can only ship wine to an individual in Indiana if there was a personal visit to the winery.  The justification is that “this would prevent sales of wine to minors.”

You would expect to have this kind of practices in countries like China or Russia, not in the United States that espouse free market principals.  The Wine and Spirits Wholesale Association which is politically a very powerful association flexes their muscles through their lobbying and contributing millions during elections to individual politicians on both sides of the alley.

In conclusion, I must say that this month’s Winemaker’s Corner has not been the most positive one that I have written.  To counter my negative feelings, this afternoon I will be taking home a bottle of Sivan.  Sivan is my daughter and also the name of a wine that I created that is being released to the club this month.  I will have this wine with Elisheva, my wife, who will do the cooking like she does every night.  We have a postnuptial agreement: I don’t meddle in her cooking and she doesn’t in my winemaking.            Cheers!

Cabernet – from rags to double gold

The Sierra Foothills are probably one of the least known wine regions in California.  It is not because it lacks the right components for creating world class wines.  In fact the desert-like climate of dry hot days and cool nights coupled with soils that are mainly sandy loam and decomposed granite are ideal for growing most wine grapes.  The real reason is that most of the wineries in the Foothills are owned by people who have chosen to be winemakers for the lifestyle and they produce just about enough wine to supply their tasting rooms and local wine shops and restaurants.  The good news is that this is gradually changing.  Wineries with larger production capabilities are moving into the region, and they are all getting better organized and making a concerted effort to brand the region.

Against this backdrop C.G. Di Arie submitted 5 wines to the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition held in January 2015 for which we recently received 2 double gold medals; one for our 2012 Primitivo and the other for our 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon.  Any double gold is a remarkable achievement since it requires that all the judges in the group vote unanimously “gold” for the wine.

While getting a double gold for the Primitivo makes me feel very proud, I am elated to have received a double gold for the Cabernet.  The simple reason is that Cabernet Sauvignon which is the most famous grape variety on Earth is generally thought to be capable of realizing its potential only if it is grown in the Napa region and is therefore completely disassociated from the Sierra Foothills.  And here I am, a relatively newcomer in this field with only 14 years of winemaking experience receiving a double gold in Cabernet Sauvignon made in the Sierra Foothills and completely outclassing Cabernets made in Napa.

The journey to the double gold has not been easy.  While the climate in the Sierra Foothills is ideal for growing many varieties of grapes, Cabernet Sauvignon is not exactly one of them. Cabernet Sauvignon matures slowly and requires warm weather to reach the desired level of ripeness for a varietal wine.   But it has a hard time acclimating to consistently high afternoon temperatures of the Sierra Foothills that cause the plant to shut down thus slowing the ripening process.   When the grapes are not sufficiently ripe at harvest time the wines will exhibit green bell pepper and vegetal flavors.

From the time in 2001 that I planted my first acre of Cabernet Sauvignon, I knew that I would have to overcome the effect of the higher afternoon temperatures on the ripening process.  It took me 10 years to produce my first varietal Cabernet Sauvignon that was true to its identity without the herbaceous and bell peppery flavors.  I achieved this through proper clonal selection and creative trellising techniques.

Now that I have solved some of the technical problems associated with making a double gold quality Cabernet Sauvignon in the Sierra Foothills I have to learn how to deal with people that are stuck in their belief that Napa Cabernet is the only game in town.  So the story is not just about one grower.  Rather it’s about the Sierra Foothills.  And more so, it’s about breaking out of the bias that until now has respected only Napa Cabernets.  For me and my little winery it’s about expanding the potential of this great part of California, a place I am so proud to call home.

Cheers, Chaim

A Tale of Two “Wine Mavens” – A One Act Tragedy

In this Winemaker’s Corner, I am going to do something that I have never done before – I will pretend to be a playwright.   I have a story to tell which I would like to present it in the form of a play.  To make this perfectly clear, so that I am not accused of plagiarizing, the dialogues presented by the two main characters of this “play” were in part taken from quotes attributed to them in an article in New York Times Magazine entitled “The Wrath of Grapes” by Bruce Schoenfeld published on May 28, 2015.  This was accompanied by a generous amount of embellishments, products of my imagination.

The two principle characters of my play are both self-appointed olfactory prodigies.  Rajat Parr, a former sommelier turned winemaker and Robert Parker a most influential wine critic who for three decades was able to influence the tastes of the mainstream American wine drinkers.  They are having an argument about their different styles of wine.

Rajat  – “Robert, you brainwashed an entire generation of wine drinkers to like wines that taste like fruit bombs.  This is like terrorism on a global scale.   I decided to found a new movement to fight your style of wine and I will call this movement “In Pursuit of Balance”.  To belong to this movement, winemakers in California will have to harvest the grapes early not allowing them to ripen properly, exactly the way it happens in the old world wine regions.”

Robert  – “Rajat, don’t forget who I am.  I have been anointed by The Atlantic Monthly as “the most influential wine critic in the world.” 

Rajat  – “You claim that your style of wine is drunk for pleasure.  What a simplistic approach to such a sophisticated product as wine.  I say one should drink wine for intellectual stimulation and for its depth and intrigue and not because the wine is delicious and it gives you pleasure to drink it.”

Robert  –“You are like a jihadist gang trying to erase what I have accomplished in over 35 years.  You are the anti-flavor elite  making green under-ripe wines, low in alcohol insipid stuff promoted by this anti-pleasure police………..”

Rajat –  “Robert, the world will judge you for creating this abomination that you call wine which is like a soda pop loaded with alcohol, residual sugar and oak.  On top of all this, to promote this style of wine, you established the 100 point wine rating system. This seemingly precise but deceiving scoring system became the industry standard because of its simplicity.    And then you awarded high numbers to wines that followed your style making them an instant success in the marketplace.”

 The question is where do I stand between these two feuding gentlemen?  My guiding principles have been to make wines that have a sense of place, maximize the potential of the grapes, are true to their varietal identity, have good balance, a restrained level of alcohol and oak and are pleasing to drink.  Rajat  and I only agree on one aspect of winemaking, which is restraining the level of alcohol.  Robert  and I also agree on another aspect that wine should be made in a way that would give pleasure.  The problem is what gives Robert pleasure gives me displeasure.  In conclusion my style of wine is a world apart from their styles.



Matchmaker! Make me a Match!

(Between Wine and Food)
Whenever I pour one of my delectable wines, our food-loving club members often ask me what food would best pair with this wine. In the following paragraphs I will outline a few of my ideas some of which may be quite different than what other people think about this subject. This is more of a philosophical discussion rather than a road map on how to pair food and wine.

Among wine drinking nations wine has always been an important part of the meal, where homemade dishes were consumed with locally produced wines. In our modern times food and wine pairing has been institutionalized with books and publications springing up and expounding the principles, guidelines and ideals of matching the perfect wine with the perfect food.

I read many of these publications and listened to various “experts” lecture on this subject. I don’t believe that it is possible to create a perfect pairing of wine and food unless the wine is perfect, or near perfect, to begin with. Thus before I would consider pairing a wine with a food I would have to like to drink the wine solo and derive a minimum level of pleasure. While my olfactory senses play the major role in my perception of this pleasure, my other senses or the circumstances that I am in may also participate in this pleasure. If I am in a company of people that I care for, or having an interesting conversation, or listening to music that I enjoy, or eating a food that I like, all of these will alter the intensity of this pleasure. Obviously the alcohol in the wine plays a role in getting me into a happy frame of mind which might enhance my sense of pleasure or….. blur it.

The big question is how do I establish this minimum level of pleasure? Unfortunately, the sense of pleasure like other emotional feelings such as anger and love are not objectively quantifiable. I decided to introduce the term Pleasure Index to subjectively quantify the level of pleasure derived by an individual when consuming wine. The scale for this index is 0 to 10 and the minimum Pleasure Index that I will accept for drinking a wine or pairing it with a food is 7. The attributes of a wine that determine the Pleasure Index are olfactory qualities such as the aroma, flavor, mouthfeel, finish and lack of flaws, all of which determine the “balance” of the wine. To me a wine that is overly alcoholic, sweet or oaky is flawed and consequently would be out of balance.

Some experts on the subject claim that when pairing food and wine what needs to be considered is the balance between the weight and intensity of the food with that of the wine. Thus a robust food is often paired with a comparably intense wine. This is referred to as “complementary pairing”. The more adventurist approach is matching a robust food with a light wine or vice versa. This kind of pairing is known as “contrasting”. Whether complementary or contrasting in a perfect pairing neither food nor wine dominate like conducting an enjoyable dialogue where both sides get a chance to speak and listen to each other. In my enthusiasm about the wine I did not discuss the food side of this partnership. While I am responsible to get a perfectly balanced wine with a Pleasure Index of 10, it behooves you to do as well in your food preparation.


December 2014

When Your Heart’s on Fire, You Must Realize, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

When the fire was raging around our property on July 25 this iconic song from my youth came back to me as a reminder of how pain and joy can coexist together in so many different ways.

I refused to believe that the fire that started on Sand Hill Road and HW 49, 5 miles west of the winery on Friday July 25, a day before my birthday, was going to affect us. Friday morning we left the winery for a weekend of celebrations for my birthday. We were hardly a day in the Bay Area when I started receiving text messages from my neighbor Mike that has a house straight west from our house. At some point he texted me that with the help of “two giant bulldozers, 20 fire trucks and hundreds of firemen the fire was contained around his house and now moving towards ours.” His next text message came as we were on our way to have dinner at the One Market Restaurant in San Francisco. It said, “I can’t see your house, it is engulfed with flames that are 200 feet high.” Needless to say, my birthday dinner was less than joyous. By the time the dessert arrived his text message read, “We can still see the roof of your house behind the thick smoke.”

We could not wait until the next day. We cancelled all the events that we had planned and went back to the winery to see the damage with our own eyes. While both accesses to the winery from D’Agostini and Upton Road were blocked by police we were able to persuade them to allow us in. When we arrived the fire had been contained about 30%. We still observed about 100 helicopter sorties dumping water and chemicals on the surrounding areas of the house and the winery. By this time there were about 190 fire trucks and in excess of 1000 fire fighters fighting this fire.

Bottom line: Except for about 20 acres of forest that burned down on the west side of the house, the house and winery were spared. We had smoke damage inside the house with minor smoke damage in the winery. Most importantly, the vineyards were not touched by the fire. Actually, the fire didn’t even come close to any of the vineyards that can be seen from our winery which includes the Helwig and Rombauer Vineyards in addition to ours.

Our gratitude goes to the firefighters who saved our property from total destruction. They fought the fire for over 60 hours with extra-ordinary dedication and bravery. We thank our neighbors who have been so supportive during these difficult times. We also thank all of you, friends and customers who contacted us by phone, text and e-mails. Your good wishes were comforting to us and made us feel loved.

We have also been very fortunate that our insurance company has been very pro-active in the fire restoration activities. When you come to the Open House on September 6 and 7 I hope that will not notice any evidence of fire within the winery compound. You will notice however pockets of the burned forest on the south side of the winery which is there to stay for a few years.

Now we can go back to business as usual, beginning with the crush that I anticipate will start two weeks earlier than usual. After having had some painful moments it is a joy to walk the vineyards to see and taste the wonderful fruit hanging on the vines that will make the 2014 vintage the best in our history.


Who Needs the 100 Point Scale?

Robert Parker was the first one to use the 100 point scale for evaluating wines in the early 70’s introducing it into his publication “The Wine Advocate”. It took 10 years for Marvin Shanken from the Wine Spectator to follow suit and ten years later in the mid 90’s the two remaining wine magazines Wine Enthusiast and Wine & Spirits finally adopted this system. These magazines that review thousands of wines every month send their scores to retail stores ahead of time giving them an opportunity to purchase the highest scoring wines so that they have them in their stores before the publication goes out.   The wines that receive the high scores are promoted on the shelf by pinning a “shelf talker” under the bottle that announces the score along with a description of the wine. This becomes a strong advocate for selling these wines and not only rewarding the winery and the store but also the publication that rated the wine.

I have always been critical of the 100 point scale system for rating wines. I find this rating system flawed, deceiving and misrepresenting for the following reasons:

  1. It misrepresents the subjective nature of our gustatory and olfactory senses. It presumes that the judges are olfactory prodigies with an ability to objectify these senses.
  2. It acts as a driving force for creating wines that are uniform in style. It discourages diversity and creativity preferring cookie-cutter wines that please the reviewers.
  3. The system is skewed in favor of the stronger wines higher in alcohol, tannins and oak versus the more elegant and subtle wines truer to their varietal identity.
  4. By giving the wine a rating in the form of a specific number it creates the illusion that this number was scientifically measured and is absolute while in reality these ratings are totally arbitrary. A wine judged by one wine critic at 90 points may be judged 89 by another, making a world of difference on the sales of the wine.
  5. Unfairly it creates a strong market for the higher rating wines driving volumes and prices for certain wines higher while making other wines difficult to sell.
  6. It forces winemakers to make wines that are designed for the higher ratings abandoning their passion or their emotional connection for these wines.

Don’t get me wrong I am not against wine writers or wine critiques. I believe they are a very important part of this industry and make a valuable contribution to its growth and prosperity. I would like to see the 100 point system replaced by scoring the wines either with “stars”, from one to five stars, or assigning adjectives such as “excellent”, “very good”, “good”, “average” and “below average”.

While I don’t anticipate the 100 point scale wine rating system will go away, I believe that as the consumer in the US is becoming more educated about wines and gaining more self-confidence not to rely on a third party to make the decision as to what wine they should drink.   Also, I believe that with the advent of the social media the influence that the 100 point system has on the buying public will gradually diminish. People will pay more attention what their pears are saying when making buying decisions. Is this too optimistic?