2020 was supposed to be the breakout year for the Ventoux wine region of France in the USA. The region, that has lived in the shadow of the Rhone Valley, was poised to be at the April Hospice du Rhone, the trendsetting wine event, held every other year in Paso Robles California. While a lesser known here in the USA, the Ventoux, like Beaumes de Venise, Rasteau and the Plan de Dieu, is one of the real hidden wine gem producing regions in France, where Rhone grapes grow, with intense concentration, stylistically correct fruit and vibrant intensity. They also offer incredible values when compared to the rapidly rising prices for Chateauneuf du Papes, Gigondas and the ethereal wines of the Northern Rhone from Cornas and Cote Rotie.
But with the postponement of this year's Hospice du Rhone, the Ventoux's big promotional effort in the USA has been pushed back. But the HdR event being put on hold wasn't the only hurdle for the region. The impact of the tariff increase also hurts them. While the wines are often big and bold, rarely do they hit the higher alcohol levels, so the additional 25 percent tax was detrimental as well. And then there was Covid-19. With the closure of restaurants and reduction in customers in bars, and a shift to retail by wholesalers who are wheeling and dealing with the wines already in the warehouses to bring in cash, new and established producers who had been looking towards, the USA as a market of opportunity, have seen those plans delayed.
The Ventoux wines will rise in the USA. It just may take a bit longer. So while some negociant wines from the region have wider distribution, if you want to find the real wines from the region look for Fondreche, Pesquie, Clos de Trias, Chene Bleu, Vintur, Chateau Unang and Saint Jean du Barroux, as those are the producers to know, as they are the producers who matter.
Last night I did something I don't normally do. I opened a bottle at home, and drank it. The whole bottle. Maybe it's the Coronavirus. Maybe it was the evening at home. Maybe it was just the fact that the wine was so darn good. But I'm thinking it was the fact that the wine was a 13 percent, at the most, low alcohol wine. As someone who prefers Grenache and Syrah, both of which are usually higher in alcohol, the Rhone red known as Tire Bouchon (the Corkscrew) from Domaine d'Ourea in Vacqueyras was about as opposite of any expectation.
I've had this wine a few times before, the first time in Seattle, then another few bottles locally with friends, but last night after about 30 minutes of being opened and out of the wine fridge, the Tire Bouchon turned magical. I honestly wasn't expecting it to be so off the hook as I was looking for a simple red that I could enjoy with some paleo past and diced tomatoes. Nothing fancy. Nothing bold. Just a nice red to sit back and enjoy. So as someone who has spent many a day and night traversing the Rhone Valley, and driving through Vacqueyras. occasionally stopping in various wineries, this wine was a thrill ride that isn't expensive. Possessing a gorgeous purple and red color, the bright fruit flavors all blended nicely together in such a way that it would be a show stopper wine. The stats show the wine is a blend of 30% Grenache, 10% Syrah, 30% de Carignan, 10% Aramon, 10% Counoise. Given the percentages of Carginan, Grenache and Syrah, one would expect the wine to big, brooding and bold. But this wine wasn't. It was graceful. Elegant and delish.
Here was a totally and delightfully elegant, easy to drink, fruit forward wine that was sippable, drinkable, gulpable and fulfilling. It was loaded with fresh fruit flavors of berries-blackberry, strawberry, raspberry and black cherries. At age five, the wine is certainly at a point where letting them sit around isn't the right move. Having drunk this wine over the past year now four times, I have to say it's really at a point of sheer drinking enjoyment. It's also a testament to excellence in the winery, to the winemaker and to the entire team at Domaine d'Ourea so if you find this wine on your local store shelf, don't hesitate to buy it. I know I'll be hunting for more of it.
It has been a while since I wrote a comparative wine review, but the other night I decided to compare two 2016 Beaumes de Venise wines from producers I've had a good fortune to taste for a few years. The two, Domaine de Durban and Saint Amant are about as different as different can be. Having visited the Beaumes de Venise region a few times, the wines from there are vibrant, world class and under-appreciated outside of the region. They offer excellent value, the ability to age and go very well with winter, fall and spring cooking.
Domaine de Durban is the long established producer imported by Kermit Lynch for many years. They are one of the more traditional producers in the region so while best known for the white vin du natural, Beaumes de Venise blanc, that's made from Muscat and other grapes, the reds from Durban over the years have proven to be great value Rhone wines, rivaling the better known Cotes du Rhone Villages and even Gigondas wines.
The 2016 Domain de Durban Beaumes de Venise is a blend of 70% Grenache, 25% Syrah, 5% Mourvèdre, and has the benefit of being closer to the valley floor. That means hotter days and cool nights compared to the high hill top 2016 Saint Amant Grangeneuve which is blended with 50% Grenache, 30% Syrah, 10% Carignan and 10% Viognier . The absence of Mourvedre and the addition of Carignan and Viognier in the Grangeneuve makes this wine more floral, and more modern in style. While the Durban is more rustic, and suited for stews and roasted birds and meats, the Saint Amant has a much more open, fruit forward quality, showing a high degree of soil to glass transfer, evidence of how terroir plays into wine to a T. With a filet or bone in rib-eye, the Saint Amant's style and body is more akin to those who like Cabernet or Merlot, while not losing its' dense structure.
Both wines are well made, offer great value and are loaded with fruit. Both will also age 7-15 years depending on cellaring, as they are by no means shy wines.
Given the skyrocketing prices of Chateauneuf du Papes, wines from these two producers, like from those over the hill in the Ventoux, are excellent options in wines that will offer many years of enjoyment.
There's a new 25% tariff on products coming to the USA from Europe. Let's call it the Trump Tax. For importers of European wine they will have to now pay more for each bottle they import, and of course those costs will be passed onto the distributors, retailers and ultimately the consumer. For European winemakers, wines already sold to importers will either sit in European warehouses as the importers await the end of the Trump Tax, or those bottles will be more expensive on the shelves of merchants in the USA. For restaurants who mark up wine they buy 3-4 times the wholesale price, it means this is an ideal opportunity to be looking for alternatives.
And, alternatives are where the money is.
Older European vintages-The past four years have seen really solid wines coming out of Europe pretty much across the continent. For importers and distributors who have older vintages in stock, with some basic marketing, they can push them to retail and on-premise sales. In reality a few years of bottle age on barrel aged reds and white usually means a much better drinking experience. Given most wine sold in restaurants are from the current release vintage, wine drinkers will actually be drinking a wine that is at a better point of its life.
Australia, New Zealand, Argentina and Chile-The better made wines from these four countries are mind numbing and not impacted by the Trump Tax.
Cabernet and Malbec, Chardonnay from Argentina are very competitively priced already. Wines from Chile, made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Carménère, Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Cabernet franc, Pinot noir, Syrah, Sangiovese, Barbera, Malbec, and Carignan have long found their way into the USA. Of late, the Pais grape, actually one of the first grapes to be planted in Chile has been seeing a resurgence as better vinification has enabled production to take some indiginous varietals and turn out wines that defy traditional descriptions. As South America offers closer transportation of products to the USA, costs are lower. Prices are lower too.
Australia and New Zealand have been producing wines that are on a world class level. The exchange rate is very strong, but the price of wines from Oz and NZ are expensive when they reach retail in the States. Part of the cost is tied to markups along the distribution channel. If the channel all works together then value pricing comes into play, market share is gained and the public begins to appreciate wines that rival what Europe is producing.
The USA-For wineries here at home, the time to be smart and takes steps to grab market share is right before them. The holiday season is what will be impacted the most. This is the time to be smart and change the way wine is sold domestically. Here are some easy to implement programs:
There are amazing wines being produced in New York, Washington, Oregon and California, with some delights found in other states too, as sparkling wine Gruet from New Mexico is one example. If Trump really wanted to help the wine industry, the three tier system would be abolished, and interstate shipment of wine and spirits would be as easy as buying a TV set online.
For those in wine friendly states, where shipping laws don’t prevent the acquisition of wines from anywhere in the USA, the Trump Tax provides wineries a golden opportunity to expand their customer base, stimulate trial of their wines by in the know wine lovers who will want to not pay the extra 25 percent, promote brand switching and drive repeat purchase.
The time is now…..the opportunity is there. Let's see who figures out how to win.
You have to know Perpignan to understand why it was the right place for INDIGENES. The city is the gateway between Catalogne in Spain and France (Catalogne Sud and Nord as they say) and Occitania which combines the top of the Roussillion and bottom of Languedoc area producers. If France had a San Francisco it's Perpignan in many ways. Hip. Chill. Cool. It's got a thriving restaurant and wine bar scene, and is like SF, a stones throw from wine regions north, south and west. You can't go east as the sea is there.
That's part of the reason why the INDIGENES conference was so great. It started with the vibe. From the easy, entry even with cool security guards who without much fanfare checked you bag on the way in, to the lady selling cork keychains, to the merchandise stand that each had a vibe of its own. Reggae music played in the courtyard. Local artisan cheese sellers and sausage makers had their stands, but inside the wine was the star.
Billed as a "natural wine" event, it was as much about organic and bio-dynamique as anything I've been too. In many ways it was better than Millésime Bio because of the vibe. Bio is about wineries who make organic wines and want to be know for it. INDIGENES was about winemakers who make wine that just happens to be organic. Many of the wines were special. Some were off the hook. Others took my breath away.
INDIGENES was as much as a coming out party for some wineries like Bodega Clandestini and Nenu both so new they don't even have findable websites, as it was a showplace for friends like Matassa, Riberach and Amistat Vin. The former were newcomers. The latter, wineries and winemakers I've befriended over time and during visits to the Roussillion.
INDIGENES rocked. The wine rolled. And everyone left very happy!
For a long time I was a high volume, frequent buyer of wine. My collection at one point swelled to over 11,000 bottles and between on site and off site storage I never had a need for more wine. So even today, with my collection and the wines I make, and what is now a more modest sized stash, I find that buying wine in state is just not cutting it for me, as the wines I like are often not found on local retailers shelves, or when some are, the distributor has chosen not to stock the entire book of a producer, making wine buying more of a game of "hunting" than "farming."
With that in mind, I decided to put together a list of my favorite online wine merchants. Some are well known, but others are a bit more obscure.
Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant - as both an importer and a retailer Kermit Lynch straddles the line between wine hunter and merchant. Originally only known for French Country wines and Burgundy, they have expanded to include more Italian and Spanish wines over time. The biggest factor in buying from KLWM is the quality. Not only are the wines some of the tops from each region, but the way they are handled from winery to customer is cool, as they only ship in refirgerated containers and insist on that with all transportation.
Wine Exchange - For almost 30 years I have been a regular buyer from WineX. First in their original location in Orange, CA, and then as they migrated to online, as a customer virtually. No one shop offers better deals, in a list where the objective is sell the wine fast, move on to the next wine flash sale approach. This flash offer approach means the early bird gets the deal. That said, now that they have expanded more into direct imports, they are bringing in more undisovered gems that the mainstream importers and distributors don't alway touch. This means great deals for the customer, but is bad news for importers and distributors.
K&L Wine Merchants - a long time Bay Area stalwert with a Hollywood annex, K&L has become one of the larger boutique buyers of wine. They were one of the first to put their buyers in the regional curator role, moving them from unknown online to front and center. Like Wine Exchange they do a large portion of direct imports. What makes them a really good go to source for wine is their pioneering style buying. Long before Greece or Portugal were en vogue, K&L was there. Smart buyers know that they can often find gems at fair prices as well. Between their staff's knowledge and friendly nature, you can't go wrong buying from K&L.
Full Pull - Full Pull is a small Seattle wine curator, aggregator, sometimes producer of wine. While their offers are mostly about Washington wines-and they do have the best pricing on them-from time to time they offer up some French and Italian gems. The catch is you have to sign up for their daily newsletter of offers. The good news is unlike Wine Exchange you have a very good shot of getting what you want, as they take orders, then buy the quantity requested, often going back and getting more when there's enough inventory to be had. Given how Washington State wines are on the rise, having a go to source like Full Pull is enough reason to be on the list.
Garagiste - Like Full Pull, and also based in the Seattle area, Garagiste has been a list only online retailer for many, many years. Their offers, which follow the flash sales offer approach means they are selling hard to find wines at the lowest pricing around on many gems, mostly from across Europe and Argentina. In many cases the wines they offer are high scoring, but not often imported widely into the United States. The newsletter along is worth receiving even if you just want to have your wine knowledge level raised. They also offer limited production olive oils from time to time too.
Echelon Wines and Wine Commune - Lovers of California, Oregon and French wines will enjoy the regular newsletter from proprietor Sam Chen. While billed as a private list, all you need to do is ask to be on it. What makes this unique is Sam goes out and finds new producers who are on their way up, and doesn't gouge the customer base. Instead he builds a loyal two sided model that insures that future releases are made available to his customers, and the wine price that he buys at isn't "advertised" but instead offered to customers at a fair mark up.
Moore Brothers - started by a former sommelier at Le Bec Fin in Philadelphia, Greg Moore, he and brother Terry run three shops along the east coast in NYC, NJ and DE. They also ship. They are a bit like Kermit Lynch as many of their wines are pretty much only sold through their retail operation, and are one time arrivals. Gems from French producers like Saint Amant, L'Effet Papillion, Magellan, Barmes-Buecher, Xavier Vignon are found here so buy quick, before they are "discovered." Prices are more than fair, especially if you buy as the wines are arriving as they sell at early bird prices once the wines hit the shops.
Timeless Wines - A Virginia based merchant who is the best source of wines imported by Fran Kysela, Timeless offers wines on a daily basis. While never the least expensive, their customer service and thoughtfulness can't be beat. Call it southern hospitality and common sense. Given the uplift in interest in Rhone wines, Timeless has many of the most well known bottles from the now sought after producers, but they are unlike many reatilers, as they are also willing to go deeper into the portfolios and offer the lesser known regions like Lirac and Vinosobres in the Rhone or even some unknown producers who you should know about.
Robert Panzer's List - a lot like Garagiste but with a dash of Kermit Lynch meets Terry Theise in writing style, Panzer operates via Down To Earth Wines. He is a kindrid spirit who travels the wine roads, gets to know the winemakers and provides incredible insight into the wines he offers. What makes Panzer's list so good are his copious notes that detail each wine in a no b.s. style, without being a flag waving cheerleader.
MacArthurs - When I first moved to California I was unable to buy many of the Rhone wines I was finding along the east coast. Thankfully, there was MacArthur Beverage then, and now. Because of some grandfathering with licensing MacArthurs, like a few other D.C. merchants they can also direct import wines and bypass the wholesale channel. This means better pricing and better availability. Their annual Rose selection for years is perhaps the best on the east coast, as they seem to buy the better wines and in greater quantities. They also have a fantastic customer relations approach, where their buyers actually take time to talk to customers over the phone, providing an almost bespoke wine merchant approach at more than fair prices discount prices.
Wine House Los Angeles - If Wine Exchange has a west coast rival in the Los Angeles area, it's Wine House. As a customer both online and in the expansive shop, the team there takes time to choose wisely. They also listen to their regulars, and will order in wines for you on a special order basis, something any shop can do, but most don't. This extra special feature, plus their extensive list of wines available makes them a sure shot go-to etailer as well.
North Berkeley Wine Merchant - Importer. Retailer, Mailing list merchant is how to best describe North Berkeley Wines. Operating a few blocks away from Kermit Lynch's retail store means a pretty good local customer base rivalry, much like Pat's vs. Geno's in Philadelphia for a cheesesteak. A heavy importer of French wines, they tend to offer more custom blends made only for them from some of the better producers. This means you get a wine only available from their retail or wholesale channel. They also bring in high value, well priced wines from regions like Les Baux des Provence, Cotes de Provence, the Ventoux, Loire, Roussillion and others.
Some Good Wine - Another NYC wine shop with a very eclectic bent, the team there is perhaps the best at finding wines from places like Portugal, the Canary Islands, Azores, Corsica, Germany and Italy. Their sales are often worth taking a very close look at, and most of all, they like to educate.
Vinopolis - This Oregon shop brings a merchant tone to what they have to offer. Like many of the shops on the list, Vinopolis has the knack of finding and bringing in wines that are about to become the next big thing. Pricing is more than fair, and their flat rate shipping approach is very noble.
Wine Access - a pioneer in working within the shipping laws of various states on a nationwide basis, Wine Access direct imports wines, sources from other importers and distributors to bring wines to consumers often first, if not as soon as they hit land. They even offer some pre-arrival pricing (i.e. futures) and their buying clout insures you actually receive them.
At various times over the past 25 plus years I've been a customer of all of these shops. In some cases it was well before e-commerce came to be where orders had to be phoned in. In other cases after the dawn of the Internet and online shopping. I've also shopped with other online merchants, and while they may have provided excellent service, the etailers on this list have shown over time to be consistent in what they offer, super responsive to customer requests and will never deliver wine out of the shipping season. While pricing plays a part in deciding where to buy, my experience with some other more widely seen online shops doesn't measure up to the 14 shops listed here.
Take a look at what they offer. Sign up for their newsletters, and use them as a resource when your local shop doesn't have the wines you want.
New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov gave an interesting interview on VinePair. When media leaders take the time to share their thoughts it's always a good interview to check out.
Asimov, who may be the most populist style writer of wine critics talks about the trends in wine, the Natural Wine movement and supermarket wines. His perspective on supermarket wines, also known as mass market wines included a discussion about The Prisoner. He also talked about millennials and their impact on the premium wine world.
My view on supermarket wines are rather polarized. Most of the wine on mass market shelves are the wine industry version of Miller Lite. It's wine made to a formula. There's a way they wine has to taste and year after year, the big brands seek to make a wine that will always taste mostly the same, year in, year out.
Give it a listen.
A new event is always a tricky endeavor. Take it from someone who has been involved in hundreds of events and thousands of event days through the years. But wine events, like a vintage is always full of unknowns. Will winemakers support the event? Will the trade buyers show up? Will the media care? How do you promote the event? Those are just some of the challenges that new event organizers will face. So do those repeat event organizers who have the beneft of reaching out to past attendees and a track record for what the event will be like.
This April, surrounding the every other year Decouvertes du Vallee du Rhone, put on by Rhone Valley Wines the week of April
15th in Ampuis, Mauves, Crozes-Hermitage and Avignon, there's some very inviting events that are both new and worth knowing about.
Let's start with the Grenache Association's Grenache Night on Tuesday April 16th. It's scheduled the night before the two day Avignon days of Decouvertes du Vallee du Rhone (DVR). While most of the other "offs" surrounding DVR are Rhone only producers, the G Night event often brings producers who are big into Grenache from other regions from around the world.
A new event being held the next night, Ventoux Rising,features a group of winemakers from the region surrounding and on the hillsides of Mount Ventoux. The Ventoux is the next big thing from the Rhone Valley. Much like Lirac, Beaumes de Venise or Cairanne which have all received their boost after staking a claim at DVR in the past, the Ventoux has reached a point where the wines are as sophisicated as many Chateauneuf du Papes, and in some cases, just as sought after. Just check out producers like Chene Bleu, whose super Rhones are in high demand at top shops and restaurants, Domaine Vintur and their Le Gentleman or Clos de Trias Vieilles Vignes and Pied Porcher, or Fondreche's Persia and Divergent These are wines that are on par with the top southern Rhones, but at fractions of the price vs. comparable Gigondas, CdP's or Vacqueyras.
For twenty years the small Languedoc village of Montpeyroux hosts Toutes Caves Ouvertes Montpeyroux. This year the event will be held on Sunday April 21st starting at 10 AM . The center of town is ransformed into a wine carnival, as all the streets become wine storefronts for the 25 or so wineries opening their caves to the public. Tastings, food, music and more are there for all day event. The event is as much for the trade as it is for the locals as the town pours out, and in typical French fashion, has a flair and flavor of where everyone is your new best friend.
But the Rhone and Languedoc aren't the only places for knock out wine events in April. Way down south, in Perpignan, a new event that brings producers from the Occitane (Roussillion) and Northern Catelonia in Spain
is happening. INDIGENES. the Northern Catelonia wine fest makes its debut in Perpignan on the Sunday April 28th and Monday the 29th at the Church of the Domenicans.
Strawberry Fields Forever. My first thought was that I fell into a Strawberry patch. That was my feeling when I took my opening whiff of the the new 2018 Kaeana Grenache Rose made by Mikael Sigouin. Here's a Rose made in Santa Barbara County that could be easily dropped into a blind tasting and easily mistaken for one from Tavel.
Sigouin is one of the Grenache masters in Santa Ynez Valley. He really understands the grape and how to get the most out of it, and he always has. He, Lindquist Family Wine's Bob Lindquist during his ownership of Qupe, son Ethan with Ethan Wines and Core Wine's David Corey have for years been at the forefront of pursuing greatness from the red grape as has pal Doug Margerum of Margerum Wine Company. More recently winemakers Angela Osbourne, with A Tribute to Grace, Jeff Fischer of Habit and Larry Schaeffer of Tercero and a few others have been turning attention the Grenache grape as well, further underscoring why Grenache and Santa Barbara County are really so sympatico in the USA.
The 2018 Kaena Grenache Rose release, which follows upon the success of the 2016 and 2017's may be the best Rose ever to come out of Kaena as beyond the strawberry patch aromas comes both strawberry and blackberry fruit in a very easy to drink dry and crisp style. What makes this wine so great is how well it can complement many foods. I had it with a pizza that was covered in hot cherry peppers, herbs, and mushrooms. Given how Grenache has a bit of a spice, that's all so nice, it was a perfect test.
And the Kaena Rose really stood up to it. While the wine has only been in the bottle a few months, and there's always a precocious nature to a fresh bottle at that young age, the Kaena 2018 Grenache Rose is clearly going to be one of the better Rose's this year to grace my table.
Sigouin also gets credit for labeling the wine as a "Grenache Rose" versus just as Rose. The Grenache grape, which is rapidly becoming one of the most widely planted grapes in Calfornia is at the core of so many famous Rose wines these days. By doing that he's amplifying the importance of the grape in the world of Rose.