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Unquenchable by Natalie MacLean

Natalie MacLean is a wine writer living in Ottawa, the political capital of Canada. MacLean is her maiden name. Her mother’s maiden surname was MacDonald. Natalie grew up in Nova Scotia, and participated very successfully in Scottish Dance competitions internationally. Having had a grandmother myself who actually immigrated from Scotland, I find the notion of reconciling a Scots heritage with the sybaritic aspects of wine writing rather a fascination.

Broadly understood is the Calvinist image of an industrious, penurious Scot. And it is certainly true that if I had ever taken pleasure in something expensive as a child, my grandmother would have whipped it out of me. Those Calvinists were Presbyterians who supported the Hanoverian (Protestant, William of Orange) succession to the British throne which was codified by the Act of Settlement in 1701. Less understood is these Protestant alliances between Scots and the British were not the only game in town. Not in Scotland; nor in Canada. In the middle of the 1500’s Mary, Queen of Scots, had been married to Francois, Dauphin of France, and a Catholic. French sensibilities, including culinary traditions from the era of Louis XIV in the 1600’s, were well appreciated by certain segments of the population in Scotland. During the crucial 1700’s Scotland’s Bonnie Prince Charlie (Charles Edward Stuart) was both a Catholic and an active campaigner for the British throne. He inspired the Jacobite Movement in Scotland (eventually crushed by the British at the Battle of Cullodon, 1745). Today the wildlife, and extensive shoreline, of Scotland combine with long-practiced French cooking skills to create an extraordinary (if not widely recognized) cuisine.

Jump now to Acadia, the Maritime Provinces of Canada at the beginning of the 1700’s. Originally settled by French Catholics, Acadia was occupied by British troops in 1710, and Nova Scotia was established in 1713. Subsequently 12,000 French settlers were expelled (between 1755 and 1763). Many of them became the ancestors of today’s Cajuns in Louisiana. No one ever accused New Orleans Cajuns of lacking for culinary tradition. Nova Scotia isn’t exactly world-renown for fine wines today, but they do have a grape growers’ association and 13 wineries; up from 4 wineries in 2000.

Which brings us full-circle to a highland dancer from Nova Scotia who was named Drinks Writer of the Year in 2003 at the World Food Media Awards. It is my speculation that ascetic Scottish followers of John Calvin, rubbing shoulders over 400 years with neighbors who embraced a much more sensuous French culture (cf: the Quebecois), developed a rather intense love/hate relationship with luxuries such as wines. We like them a lot; we just like somebody else to pay for them. It may be akin to Catholics finding sex so much more exciting because of guilt imposed by the church.

Natalie MacLean has parlayed this little Scottish personality ambiguity into a rapidly ascendant career. I’m a fan. I first noticed a piece she’d written several years ago on rosé wines. Her theme was how studly those wines could be. If I hadn’t seen her name on the masthead, I would have assumed it was written by a longshoreman philosopher (think Erik Hoffer or Charles Bukowski). I believe I may have I sent her a mash note. She writes prolifically about wines from all over the world, yet always pulls back to recommend modestly priced examples which she pointedly claims to be drinking, and enjoying, herself at home with her husband. She never portrays getting a little buzz on as anything other than a really good thing. She is famous in Canada for her decidedly unpretentious style, which is not the same as using simple, lazy prose (in the manner of John Madden’s commentary on football). The woman studied Nineteenth Century English Literature at Oxford. She was a Finalist for a Rhodes scholarship. She’s plenty bright. She just doesn’t feel the need to strike authoritative poses. At the end of the day, her talent is to be a storyteller, a woman of the people. There are many wooden apparatchiks blogging today who think writing about wine will somehow add texture and color to their personalities. They tend to produce databases in narrative form. By contrast Natalie MacLean has an ear for interesting elements in a story, and she’s smart enough to present them in clear declarative sentences. It’s the way she arranges them that’s unusual and noteworthy.

 

XMAS GIFT RECOMMENDATION ~ Natalie’s latest book came out this Fall: Unquenchable. Find it on Amazon. Hardcover $16.00.

Unquenchable is a concept book; at once very efficient for the writer and for the reader. It covers a lot of ground (eight disparate wine producing regions around the world), but does so by telling stories about highlights ~ much as one might do at dinner with friends after returning from a trip abroad. Natalie says technical detail about wine production bores her. She only provides enough to act as background on why certain wines are special. Instead she concentrates on people. She picks a handful of well-known, respected wineries, then sets out to provide a window on the subject region by describing the people she meets while visiting. In an era when consumers are submerged in irrelevant wine data assembled by amateurs, it’s quite enjoyable to read wine stories where a professional author has chosen to throw out mountains of chaff in order to reveal the most entertaining grains of wheat.

This is a book for the mass-market. You don’t need an advanced wine credential, nor a lot of tasting experience, in order to enjoy it. There are chapters on major players: Australia, Germany, France’s Provence, and Portugal’s Duoro Port region. But there are also evocative chapters on less well-recognized producing regions: Sicily, Argentina’s Mendoza destrict, South Africa’s Western Cape, and Natalie’s local Niagara Peninsula. It’s a cornucopia of styles and stories, sculpted by a large number of adroit editorial choices.

You’ll like it. I did. Your boss and your uncle will too.

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New Approaches to an American Classic: Thanksgiving and Wine

Every newspaper in America runs a column on Thanksgiving wine. Understandable. It’s generally a meal with six to ten guests for which people plan at least a week in advance. Moreover it’s largely the same meal in 50 million American homes and restaurants. Pinot Noir, Gewürztraminer, Beaujolais Nouveau, White Zinfandel ~ all the usual suspects get trotted out for one more turn in the spotlight. I mean really… How hard can it be? We are talking about turkey. Not the most challenging match on the planet.

 

I’ve probably written 30 of those columns. So you’ll forgive me if I choose here to go in a somewhat different direction.

 

1.    Serve a seasonal crab hors d’oeurve. One of the unique highlights of any culinary year in San Francisco is opening of local Dungeness crab season. It occurs in mid-November, usually after some period of financial wrangling between the fishermen and the distributors; thus very close to Thanksgiving. There is no local season during the summer, although frozen crabs still arrive at high prices from Alaska. So Thanksgiving is the first chance in six months to get live crab for about one-third the summer price. Live crab, incidentally, makes a huge difference. Frozen crab meat is mushy. If strands of Dungeness crab muscle get caught in your teeth, such that you need a toothpick after the meal, you know the crab was fresh. Nothing could be more logical in Northern California than to make fresh, live crab part of your family’s traditional Thanksgiving appetizer.

Explore supermarkets in the Asian district of large towns. They will have live Dungeness crabs in aquaria. You can steam the crabs, just as you might a lobster. Then you clean them, and serve chilled at your convenience. I find it easiest for guests to eat if I cut a zipper up each leg with poultry shears. The legs can then be set out by themselves (or with a little melted butter) for guests to sample as they arrive. I take the meat out of the bodies myself. I stir that meat with a small amount of mayonnaise and lemon juice. I spread that mixture on finger-food-sized wedges of sourdough, and heat them under the broiler in the oven.

The perfect wine match with these Thanksgiving crab appetizers is an aged, cold-climate Riesling. An eight- to fifteen-year-old Kabinett or Spätlese from the Mosel Valley in Germany would be my first choice. That might take a little shopping. Query Corti Bros in Sacramento or K&L in San Francisco if you get hung up. Certain California producers have good candidate Rieslings, but you’ll probably have to lay a few bottles away yourself to end up with the aged examples I recommend. Try Madroña in El Dorado County or Greenwood Ridge in Mendocino’s Anderson Valley. What we’re looking for is taut acid balancing a couple percent residual sugar. The acid is refreshing, and the sugar reaches out to the perceived sweetness of the crab. The age factor confers a slight dried fruit character to the aroma of the Riesling. It’s somewhere between apricot and nectarine, but faintly nutty; a good match with the melted butter or the heated bread.

 

2.     Small adjustment to make a luscious Chardonnay work well. If you do jewel yams (the dark orange ones) with your turkey meal, I suggest serving them on a grilled slice of pineapple. That single maneuver will make them sing with a modestly priced Chardonnay from California’s Central Coast. This is such a good combination that even canned pineapple works, but fresh is better. If grilling on a BBQ seems a bother, just sauté the pineapple with a little butter in a skillet. When you plate the dish, put a generous serving-spoon-load of yams on top of each pineapple slice. Find a Chardonnay from Monterey or from Santa Barbara in the $20 to $25 range. Don’t serve it too cold. What you’re looking for is that rich regional fruitiness. Twenty minutes in the door of the refrigerator will be more than enough chill.

 

3.   Dessert can be very special. Pecan pie with an Australian Liqueur Muscat is a match made in heaven. That doesn’t mean pumpkin pie is disqualified. People will still eat a big piece of pumpkin pie. But 2 oz. of Liqueur Muscat with a square inch or two of pecan pie will be the jewel in your dessert crown. A single half-bottle of Liqueur Muscat is all you will need. Look for brands like Bullers, Chambers, Campbell’s, or even Yalumba. Half-bottle should cost around $15 to $18.

The wine is made in the hot Rutherglen region of northern Victoria, along the Murray River. Muscat de Frontignan grapes get fully ripe, then are slightly fortified in the manner of Port. The wine is aged for many years in wood casks kept in hot warehouses. Water evaporates, concentrating the wine to a caramel or toffee flavor with just a hint of Muscat’s floral fragrance. A tiny amount of treacle-like old wine will have a distinct effect on the nose even when blended with a large quantity of young wine. The result is sweet, but with complexity so intense that residual sugar shrinks into the background. A small serving lasts a long time in one’s glass. And pour it into big glasses, or even into snifters. It really is all about the smell.

 

4.   What are you serving for the rest of the Weekend? Turkey sandwiches can be dramatically invigorated with a little Hoisin sauce. This dark brown paste (Asian food section of any chain supermarket) is made from fermented beans. It has a very high umami taste component, which is a glutamate reaction. That makes your sandwich much more flavorful and savory ~ perfect to match up with a hearty, although not overly alcoholic, red wine. I’m going to suggest a moderately aged Barbaresco. Melt a couple pieces of Gruyere cheese on a slice of light rye bread. Put a little mayo and Hoisin on another slice of light rye. Maybe a little sweet onion, like Walla Walla or Vidalia. Turkey between the two dressed pieces of bread, lettuce as desired, and away you go.

 

It’s not that you sneer at tradition. You are merely open-minded.

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Bottle Shock: The Movie

I’ve had several people ask me at parties recently what I think of the movie Bottle Shock, which came out in 2008. It didn’t play widely in theaters. Only did $4.5 million in gross receipts, which is about 4% of what Sideways did (and only about a quarter of what it even cost to make Sideways). Most of these party questioners are just making small talk once they learn I have a connection to the wine industry. In all likelihood they brought Bottle Shock home on DVD, just as I did.

It’s an interesting comparison though. Sideways was not about the wine industry; it merely used a consumer’s interest in California wine as a setting to tell an interpersonal story. A rather depressing story, if you ask me. The color and attractiveness of the Paul Giamatti character in Sideways was his passion for quality Pinot Noir. But that feature was not central to the story. He could have as easily been addicted to gambling, or sailboat racing, or motorcycles and socialist politics for that matter.

Bottle Shock is a completely different animal. It’s the Rocky cliché (underdog fights hard against adversity; triumphs in the end) applied, quite broadly and inaccurately, to the California wine industry of the 1970’s. As a piece of writing it’s all schmaltz, albeit here hiding behind an excruciatingly thin veneer of historic truth. I liked it. Let’s set aside, for the moment, the ocean of scientific and factual material which has been thoroughly fictionalized by Bottle Shock. I may take some personal satisfaction in pointing out these discrepancies, but so what? Truth is messy. It slows down and dilutes the story line. Other than the claim by Bottle Shock to be “based” on the 1976 Spurrier Tasting in Paris, why do we need that connection? As a documentary, Bottle Shock is ludicrous. Why they even try to make the claim is clearly the ignorant delusion of some marketing wonk amongst the investor corps.

The thing that makes Bottle Shock worthwhile is the scenery, the musical score, the lush cinematography, the outfits on the foxy babes appended to the script with only the slightest pretense of justification. It’s Hollywood baby! It’s the same genius that made melodramas set in late 1800’s western cowboy towns a stable of American entertainment for generations. I know. I grew up on that stuff. And here is the same formula applied to a largely imaginary, but very romantic, view of the wine industry. It’s even replete with sentimental passages about the land infusing the blood of the vintners and living on in each bottle of wine. Hokum? Sure, but so are most notions of American Exceptionalism, religious salvation, and military honor. I’m not inclined to tilt at any of these windmills! They’re all so deeply ingrained in me that good stories on those subjects frequently elicit a teary-eyed emotional response. That’s art, almost by definition.

Sideways had a major impact on the wine industry, especially for Pinot Noir. Decanter magazine reports Pinot Noir sales rose 16% in the first three months after Sideways came out in 2004. The magazine went on to say the sale of Riedel’s expensive Burgundy stemware rose 46% in the year after Sideways was released. But Sideways did $110 million box office gross. Sideways got a 97% favorable rating from 218 commentators on the website Rotten Tomatoes. Bottle Shock was originally released at the Sundance Film Festival, but never got much traction in the marketplace. It got a 48% favorable rating from 210 commentators on Rotten Tomatoes. I’m guessing it didn’t help when Steven Spurrier, perhaps the primary player in the actual events depicted by Bottle Shock, said of the movie, “There’s not a word of truth in the script, in my opinion.” Of course, at the time, he was involved in a competitive movie project.

With that note, shall we try just a few selected, catty remarks on factual distortions to be found in Bottle Shock?

  1. Most easily excused, of course, were short-shorts versions of overalls worn by Rachael Taylor’s character to perform vineyard and winery work, especially hosing down anything. Rachael is a healthy, lithe, young woman. That the costume department had clearly spent more time observing runway models in Milan than vineyard workers in Tuscany is of no consequence.
  2. Confusing the Barrett Family’s vehicles in Calistoga for Steinbeck’s Joad Family vehicles during the Great Depression… ? Well, it is a story about overcoming obstacles.
  3. Filming in September, when all the vines are fully leafed out and have ripe fruit on them, even though the Spurrier Tasting in Paris, which is the time period of the story, occurred in May (it was done in preparation for the U.S. Bi-centennial, which would have been 4 July 1976)… ? Completely understandable.
  4. Maybe a little more controversial would be filming so many of the landscape shots in Sonoma County, while giving all the credit for wine quality to Napa Valley. As my friends in Sonoma never let me forget, “Sonoma makes wine. Napa makes auto parts.”
  5. ‘Temporary’ brown color for a young Chardonnay in the bottle… ?  I’m sorry, that’s just lack of imagination on the part of writer / director Randall Miller. Spend a couple hundred dollars on a wine consultant for Christ sake! Chardonnay subjected to skin soak, without the benefit of SO2, will turn brownish (pulp particles oxidizing, just as a cut apple does) for a week or two after fermentation. But those brown particles drop out. Chardonnay is not going to brown in the bottle while remaining tastey, then magically correct itself a few days later. I’m surprised UC Davis didn’t sue them for that little bobble.
  6. The biggest injustice was, however, not creating a character to play the part of Mike Grgich, Chateau Montelena’s actual winemaker during the period portrayed. Credit aside, Grgich is and was a magnificently complex individual. Croatian by birth, he eschewed many scientific instruments to make the wine (’73 Chardonnay) which is the centerpiece of the film. Instead of a pH meter, he relied on his own finely tuned palate. And he had a roguish personality: I’ve never heard so many sexual double-entendres strung together than when Mike Grgich described one of his own wines.

But why quibble? It’s said enjoying fiction requires the “willing ability to suspend disbelief” (Samuel Taylor Coleridge). As a reader, I’m usually not very good at that. In the case of Bottle Shock, for a little less than two hours, it was no problem for me at all.

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Are You Man Enough to Order Chenin Blanc in Public?

There are many grape varieties which have less name recognition than Chenin Blanc, but few which are viewed with as much distain in a producing region like California. The reason is simple. Most California Chenin Blanc sucks! It is grown as a bulk resource for jug wines in hot, fertile Central Valley vineyards where tons per acre almost always run to double figures. There are slightly more than 7,000 acres of Chenin Blanc in California, and 65,000 tons were crushed in 2010. The grape is naturally vigorous, with a tendency to over-crop. If encouraged in that direction, the resulting wine is, at best, non-descript. It does have good acidity though, and that trait makes it a good blending candidate for our 25,000 acres of French Colombard, although both end up together in $9 retail gallons with the varietal aroma of newsprint. It’s a flavorless universe where the phrase “alcoholic” is viewed as a compliment. California is not alone in this shabby treatment of the grape which has made the middle-Loire Valley district of Vouvray famous. Twenty percent of South Africa’s vineyard acreage is devoted to Chenin Blanc, which they call Steen. Much of that gets distilled into brandy.

It doesn’t have to be that way. And there are dramatic exceptions to this broad generalization.

Chenin Blanc is capable of making magnificent wine which pairs wonderfully well with many types of food. Jancis Robinson MW says Chenin Blanc is France’s answer to German Riesling. A handful of the best wines coming out of South Africa are made with Chenin Blanc, and have been since the end of the 1600’s when it probably arrived there in the hands of Protestant Huguenots fleeing Catholic persecution in France.  At its best Chenin Blanc balances a cleansing natural acidity with luxurious honey and almond scents. If allowed to ripen slowly, but fully, it can add guava and quince notes to the aroma. It can fairly be labeled as delicate, without being accused of shyness. There is no better foil for fresh-caught trout. Although finding fresh trout and a pristine bottle of Chenin Blanc in close proximity is a bit of a trick. Hiking the bottle into the cold mountain stream shakes the wine, rendering the aroma mute. While hiking the trout out of the mountains doesn’t do the fish any favors. The answer, of course, is to hike the wine in, cache it in the stream, and come back two weeks later to catch the trout. Believe me; that’s a recipe for intense wine-food appreciation.

Grown at 3 to 4 tons per acre, and fermented cool to retain tropical aromatic properties, Chenin Blanc’s bracing acidity makes a stunning refresher. Maritime districts along California’s coast could be the perfect sites ~ better even than France’s Loire Valley. Chenin Blanc pushes buds early. That makes it subject to Spring frost in high latitudes. Tours, in the middle of the Loire Valley, where Rabelais wrote so glowingly of Chenin Blanc’s restorative properties in the 17th Century, is over 47ᵒ north latitude. They get snow in May. Soledad in California’s Salinas Valley is at about 35ᵒ of latitude.  Soledad never gets snow, and grapes often start to bud in early March. Chenin Blanc also ripens late. Obviously it is a grape built for long hang-time. French growers often remark that their best vintages are the ones in which they have 100 days of sunshine between flowering and harvest. The Salinas Valley routinely gets 180 days. In Monterey they rarely have a compelling reason to pick prematurely, even into November.

One of the best reasons to take a look at Chenin Blanc is the price. Really good ones can be had for less than $10, and world-class examples with track records going back decades usually come in around $20. The other major reason, at least here on North America’s Left Coast, is that Chenin Blanc frequently surprises as the go- to-match with many ethnic cuisines, especially if the wine has a little residual sugar to balance its sharp acidity (Spätlesen-style), and to simultaneously tame the capsaicin burn of a Thai curry or a Vindaloo chicken dish.  I tried six different wines with a Peruvian ceviche that had been lit up with habanero the other night. Nothing seemed to work. That is until we got to the South African Chenin Blanc. Perfect. And the same wine went well with a roasted pumpkin and rice dish the next night at an Afghan restaurant. I can’t wait to deploy a couple Chenin Blancs in my favorite sushi boite.

Here’s a good line-up of Chenin Blancs. Try a few side-by-side to appreciate the wide range of styles:

blue plate ~ $10 ~ From Clarksburg in the Delta. Something about the terroir in Clarksburg is magic with Chenin Blanc. No less a connoisseur than Gerald Asher wrote in Gourmet magazine many years ago, “Clarksburg is California’s Vouvray.” Full Disclosure: Jeff Anderson, one of the partners in Picnic Wine Company, is also Marketing Director of the new self-guided wine touring smart-phone app on which I am now working. But he’s not the partner who made the wine, and I do like it.

Ventana ~ $14 ~ Doug Meador doesn’t own Ventana Vineyard, near Soledad in the Arroyo Seco AVA, any more. Doug was a great innovator, and remains (I’m sure) a very entertaining personality. He had scores of ground breaking projects. But year-in and year-out, over fifteen vintages, I always thought his best wine was his Chenin Blanc. It was invariably a head-snapping success; miles ahead of the competition.

Husch~ $12 ~ from Anderson Valley on the coastal side of the mountains in Mendocino. Dry. Lovely Juicy Fruit nose, without seeming cosmetic. Good consistency over a couple vintages. Big winner at the CA State Fair.

Pine Ridge ~ $18 ~ Blended with Viognier. Real nice combination. Evidence this Disclosure concept can run amuck ~ Lisa Goff took a couple of my wine classes years ago. That experience, and her Harvard MBA, helped get her a job as VP of marketing for Crimson Wine Group, which owns Pine Ridge.

Domaine des Aubuisieres ~ $16 ~ A classic Vouvray. Usually made with just a little residual sugar to balance the acid. More full-bodied and flavorful than Montlouis, although generally fermented at fairly warm temperatures, which de-emphasizes aromatic properties as the centerpiece.

Francois Chidane ~ $22 ~ Montlouis is on the south side of the Loire, right across the river from Vouvray. As such the vineyards do not get as much direct sun exposure, and the grapes have more trouble ripening. So the natural acidic character of the Chenin Blanc takes center stage. These are usually inexpensive wines paired with oysters or freshwater eels. In a hot vintage they can be very good value.

Indaba~ $10 ~ Fragrant, full-bodied, supple. An excellent representative of what should be a national tradition in South Africa, but isn’t. That could be because Afrikaners don’t see the wine as sufficiently virile. Perhaps if you imagine serving it with mussels you’ve harvested yourself, in shark-infested waters, using only snorkel gear. Serve the mussels in a manner the Dutch-descended Afrikaners brought back from Indonesia: with rice and a selection of sambals or chutneys.

Philippe Delesvaux ~ $70 ~ Coteaux du Layon. Botrytized Chenin Blanc from the Loire Valley west of Tours. A dessert wine.  Agreeable. Very honey-like. Serve with an apple Tart Tatin.

NV Louis de Grenelle Saumur Mousseux Chevalier de Grenelle ~ $20 ~ Sparkling Chenin Blanc from the Loire Valley west of Tours. Generally not very aromatic, certainly not compared to Asti Spumante, but can be excellent value when compared side-by-side with Champagne.

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CA Wine Market ~ Past & Future

Sometimes it seems wines just stay the same, as consumer preferences cycle through predictable patterns.

Historical Wine Background

     When one considers something as venerable as wine, two generations seems rather paltry. Forty years isn’t very old for a vine, and it’s nothing but a quick glance compared to the 5,000 years human beings have been seriously turning grapes into commerce. Nevertheless, the knowledge base of humankind has advanced rapidly since 1970, and wine is no different.
     It may be helpful to set the stage. In the early 1960’s there were only a few hundred U.S. troops in Viet Nam, and they were still called “advisors.” At that time nearly half the wine consumed in America was called “Port” and/or “Sherry.” JFK and his dazzling wife were in the White House and setting fashion around the world. Zinfandel was the most widely planted “premium” wine grape in California. The Civil Rights marches in Mississippi and Alabama were just beginning to happening, and 60% of the grapes crushed in CA for white wine were Thompson Seedless. Pills for birth control were about to come on to the market, and Robert Mondavi, although just turning 50, was still employed as a salesman for his family’s winery, Charles Krug. Women still went to college to get an ‘Mrs.’ degree, and you could buy a 1,200 sq. ft. cottage on a half acre in St. Helena for $30,000. Of course if you lived in St. Helena, you’d have to drive to San Francisco to get a good restaurant meal. The 280 freeway down the Peninsula from San Francisco had not been built yet, but South Bay wineries like Paul Masson, Almaden, and Mirassou were prestige players on the national scene. Seven years later, in the late 1960’s, while Jimi Hendricks and Janis Joplin were setting the tone musically, Gallo’s Hearty Burgundy was hailed by the New York Times as particularly noteworthy amongst international wine competitors because it was sound, clean, reliable, and reasonably priced.

Consumer Wine Style Preferences

     Yeah, things have changed.
     But I’ve changed too. Sometimes it is hard to say the wines or the marketplace have really changed more dramatically than my own preferences and opportunities have…

     To read this post in its entirety, including commentary about changing wine styles and the importance of future markets, visit the Stanford Wine Blog.

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