Relocation relocation relocation

Posted on July 31st, 2009 – 10:40 AM
By Bill Ward

We’re moving, ostensibly to a better neighborhood. The Star Tribune is updating/migrating its blogs, and now it’s Ward on Wine’s turn.

So from now on, please go here — early and often :-) — to keep up with the blog. (If for some reason that link is not working, the URL is http://www.startribune.com/blogs/51796337.html.

Those of you getting RSS feeds, please adjust accordingly.

All about you

Posted on July 29th, 2009 – 3:38 PM
By Bill Ward

Eric Asimov is one of the very best wine writers around. His weekly column in the New York Times is a must-read, always insightful and interesting, never stuffy. Today’s piece on the state of the wine business in California is no exception.

But it’s not the kind of story that I would write for our print edition. Check that: It is almost exactly the kind of piece I often write, including just a few weeks ago. The difference is that our coverage is geared very heavily toward consumers, and any wine-biz story I do is focused on how sundry happenings and situations affect you, the people buying wine.

We decided when the Liquid Assets column started that the focus would be local local local — happenings here and wines that are available here. (Running the Wall Street Journal column had caused readers to look for wines that aren’t sold here, a frustration for them and merchants.)

That meant no musings on “the dew-dappled vineyards during bud break on the Oakville Grade” and no industry-focused pieces that were too “inside baseball.” And that when I tackled a subject such as restaurant struggles, the ramifications for wine consumers would be a big part of it.

In today’s piece, Eric deftly touches on the effects (now and for the near future) of the industry’s current economic struggles on consumers, but his piece is more focused on the wine biz and the people working in it. He does have this toward the end:

“Those who don’t want to spend a lot on wine may also be drinking better in the near future. Premium producers who need to make room for the new vintage may sell their wines on the bulk market, even at a loss. These premium wines in turn will be repackaged and sold inexpensively, though it will be difficult for consumers to identify which bottles benefit from a premium wine infusion.”

I had one of those wines this week, made from grapes that almost certainly sold for a lot more money in recent years but came cheap because of the current surplus. Crane Lake is a label from Bronco of “Two-Buck Chuck” fame/infamy.  In the past, I had found their wines insipid and/or treacly-sweet, aside from a Brut (!). On Monday, though, I found their new chardonnay to have really nice fruit that wasn’t overly extracted or oaked. When I tried Crane Lake’s California shiraz last night, however, it was back to the candy counter.

That’s the kind of minefield we’ll continue to walk in under-$8 wines. But we now have a better shot at some discoveries there.

Petters’ cellar and something Fresher

Posted on July 27th, 2009 – 12:16 PM
By Bill Ward

So I’ve been told that I’m a competitive sort, which of course tends to come with the turf in my chosen field. But I also believe in giving credit where it’s due.

So kudos to Minnesota Monthly’s Dara Moskowitz Grundahl for unearthing a wonderful story on fallen businessman Tom Petters’ wine cellar and its “pedestrian innards.” Hilarious stuff.

I’m actually jealous of Grundahl for something else in that issue, wine recommendations that follow a pattern I wanted to do in the weekly Liquid Assets column but couldn’t get the space to pull off: weeknight, weekend and special-occasion wines (she uses “birthday,” but I prefer something that comes around more than once a year).

And that’s not all that the folks at the mag are up to. They’re also sponsors of a fabulous event on Aug. 9, the Fresh Taste Festival. Some great winemakers, including Shane Finley, and food purveyors will be on hand parceling out all manner of sustainable and organic and biodynamic goodies.

For tickets and more info, go here.

Unsweet home Alabama

Posted on July 24th, 2009 – 10:59 AM
By Bill Ward

You couldn’t even remotely make this stuff up.

Alabama has banned the sale of Cycles Gladiator wines because of the label, which a side-angle drawing of a nude woman on it. (For those naughty readers who might want to scrutinize the label to discern if there’s anything ostensibly offensive about it, here’s a good-sized image.)

Having grown up in  neighboring Tennessee, I know more than I care to about Alabama, where they think about college football 365 days a year (Vikings fandom absolutely pales next to this) and act like they think about God 24 hours a day. It has produced civil-rights atrocities from Selma and the Birmingham church bombings through George Wallace and current Sen. James Sessions, who told colleagues that he ”used to think [the Ku Klux Klan] was OK” until discovering that some of them were “pot smokers.” 

It’s also a state that only a few months ago finally allowed the sale of beer that contains more than 6 percent alcohol and wine that exceeds 14.9 percent — and only after a State Senate committee added an amendment preventing the sale of such “stronger” beverages in convenient stores.

I often hear people complain about a “Puritan streak” in these parts, blaming it for the unavailability of alcoholic beverages in groceries and on Sundays. But I’ll take what we’ve got and our winters over the yayhoo-ism that pervades Alabama.

For what it’s worth, the “offensive” Cycles Gladiator logo replicates a poster created in 1895. Now it should be noted that this was in France. So maybe we should call this a “freedom label.”

Beyond sublime

Posted on July 23rd, 2009 – 10:55 AM
By Bill Ward

You know you’re having a memorable evening when a 2000 Ducru Beaucaillou is struggling to finish a distant fourth in the Wine of the Night competition. But that’s where my kismet-kissed self landed on Wednesday, when six of us gathered for food, fellowship and fermented grape juice on a gorgeous patio in, of all places, Frogtown.

The mmmm’s and aaah’s came early and often, but at the outset — actually, just after a sublime 1995 Bruno Paillard N.P.U. Champagne — there was a distinct chorus of ewwww’s. The initial pour of a 1991 Calera Mt. Harlan Chardonnay provided a seriously stinky nose. We finally landed on “Granny’s closet” as the best descriptor for this amalgam of soiled, sweat-soaked laundry and a touch of mothball on the nose.

Blessedly, the wine tasted swell and intriguing, and within a few hours it was a transcendent, Meursault-like experience. Another old white also improved mightily as the night went along: a 1993 Nikolahof Wachau Gruner Veltliner. Steely at the outset, stunningly soft-in mid-palate and bracingly acidic (in a perfect way) on the finish, this wine was perhaps the best pairing for the lush, lemon-laced leeks at dinnertime.

There was one more wonderful white to come: a vibrant, Sancerre-like 2005 Dog Point Section 94 Sauvignon Blanc. And one utterly transcendent one: a 2005 Chateau de Beaucastel Vielles Vignes. I’m not nearly a good enough writer to do justice to this wine, but “sensual” and “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” might begin to cover it. I can still taste it this morning, and can’t say whether that’s an indelible memory or the finish hanging on for dear sweet life.

Beaucastel also supplied the unforgettable evening’s top rouge experience, my first opportunity to try the Hommage. This 2003 wine had dirt and wild herbs and dried fruit and kick-ass tannins and smoke and … well, absolutely everything one could want in a wine. Plus it paired spectacularly with the grilled kangaroo tenderloin and mushrooms gracing our plates.

I’ve often said that the 1989 Beaucastel CDP would be my dessert island/last meal wine, but I’m afraid I’m gonna have to upgrade to the Hommage. Or the Vielles Vignes white.

My friend Joe talked about how there are white and red Burgundies that could provide the same kind of ridiculously sublime experience as these two Beaucastel wines, but you never knew if you would get that the way you do with these. Amen, my brother.

‘What I want to drink’

Posted on July 19th, 2009 – 8:00 AM
By Bill Ward

Perhaps only in wine and spirits distribution can someone who has “about 100 accounts” be considered a “little guy.” But that’s what Domace Vino, a Shoreview-based wholesaler, most decidedly is.

Being small also affords company president Aleksander Pantic the opportunity to focus on, as he puts it, “bringing in wines that I want to drink.”

That includes one of the most spectacular wines I’ve tasted this summer, a red from Pantic’s favorite winery, Malvira, the Roero Trinita Riserva. It’s just what a great nebbiolo should be: rich and lush, rustic and long; last I checked, the Bacchus store still had this $50 steal on its shelves. Actually, Pantic says it best: “All [Malvira] wines have a character, have a soul.”

Malvira is located in the Langhe area of Piedmont, the region Pantic and then-co-owner Robert Alexander dealt with exclusively when they started Domace Vino earlier this decade. Alexander has moved on — actually, he has moved to Italy — and Pantic soon realized that he “couldn’t just focus on three wineries” and needed to add wines from other parts of the world (check out his portfolio here).

Among them are Opolo, a newer outfit in Paso Robles that’s co-owned by Minnesota native Rick Quinn; Shea Wine Cellars, where the operators of one of Oregon’s most storied vineyards have decided to start bottling some of those delectable grapes on their own; and Core Wine Company, which is making small-lot Rhone varietals and blends in the Santa Barbara area.

Many of Domace Vino’s offerings are at the spendy end, which has, he admits, been “challenging” in this economy. But having a small sales staff enables him to home in on retailers and restaurateurs “who understand what I’m selling. You do that and you pour for them and convince them to run specials on your wine” to get it introduced to consumers in an uber-cluttered marketplace.  

I recently wrote about how blessed we are to have a plethora of local distributors. Operations such as Pantic’s are a big reason why. 

That works both ways. In my view, the outlets selling Domace Vino wines are working esepcially hard to find great juice from every possible source. In this wholesaler’s case, those locales include Bacchus, France44, McDonald’s (no, not MickeyD’s, but an up-and-coming store in south Minneapolis), Byerly’s, South Lyndale, Top Ten, Lakeville’s munis, Vescio’s Lucia’s, Chiang Mai Thai, the Melting Pot, Ursula’s Wine Bar, 128 Cafe and the Northeast Social Club.

We’re lucky to have them, too.