HOW the Wine Industry can Recover in 2011: Use Less Oak

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Oak wine barrels at the Robert Mondavi vineyar...
Image via Wikipedia

Positive signs of recovery for the wine industry in 2010.  We can all breathe a sigh of relief that consumers are drinking again.  Well, they never stopped drinking, just now they're drinking the good stuff.  Consumers are now buying $25-$50 bottles of wine whereas last year and the year before they were buying bottles under $15.

I got to thinking about what it costs to produce a bottle of wine.  Things that factor into the price have a lot to do with the work done in the vineyard.  Each time vineyard workers go through the rows and touch the vines, it costs money.  In good vintages, a winery will get good fruit with less touching of vines, hence, less cost basis.  In a bad year, a winery might have to do a significant amount more work just to get fruit to a good place by harvest.  From vintage to vintage, these are unfixed costs that can't be controlled.  If a winery is buying fruit from another vineyards, there might also be a fluctuation of what the fruit costs per ton.  In 2010, many vineyard in Northern California lost 20-30% of their crops because it was a cool summer.  Grapes weren't getting ripe, so vineyard managers cut leaves off the vines that normally act as shade from the sun.  Mother nature, it seems, has a sick sense of humor.  Shortly after leaves were cut off, there was a heat spike over 100 degrees for a few days.  That turned 20-20% of grapes into raisins.  Without the normal leaf shade, the grapes didn't stand a chance.

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One (somewhat) fixed cost in wine is the cost of oak barrels.  A brand-spanking new French oak barrel costs somewhere around $800-1200.  A barrel can be used a few times before it becomes "neutral," or doesn't impart oaky flavor.  American oak is an option, but French oak is the preferred choice.  Wineries order pallets of oak barrels each year.  Do the math with me.  If a winery buys 500 new oak barrels at an average of $1000 per, that's $500,000 in barrels.

Here's where my brilliant idea for financial recovery comes into play:  Use less oak.  Simple, huh?  In 2010 I tasted more overly oaked wines than I cared to.  Why on God's green earth are winemakers oaking the shit out of their wines?  This is a debate that's been around for years, but I'm really baffled.  Cut the amount of oak down 25% on your next barrel order.  Actually make wine that expresses the vineyard and don't cover up flaws with an orgy of French oak.  Not only could wineries save a few hundred grand, but they might actually make a better wine.  Why has nobody done this?

Take for example the 2007 Quilceda Creek Red wine from Washington state.  For years I've been a lover of QC wines, and have ordered from their mailing list.  After drinking (or trying to drink) this wine, I decided to drop off the list.  At 15.2% alcohol, the lower tier QC resembled Vodka and Robitussin rather than a world class wine.  There was so much oak on this wine, my wife and I literally could not finish it.  We ended up making a sauce instead.

In Napa and Sonoma I've experienced something similar.  Dozens of overly oaked wines that really have no reason to be so oaky.  Robert Parker isn't helping any by giving these behemoth's inflated scores, and essentially rewarding them for oak.

So there it is, use less oak.  That reduces the carbon footprint for shipping.  It saves more trees.  Wineries save on costs and wine drinkers get a better wine.  What do you think?

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HOW coffee is made

According to research done by the National Coffee Association, approximately 112 million Americans were "every day coffee drinkers" in 2006.  Each year another 3-5% of the population joins in as an every day drinker racking up $18 Billion a year spent on coffee by Americans.  The average coffee drinker has 3 cups a day, which means about 336 million cups of coffee are consumed every day in America.  That number grows exponentially when you look at worldwide consumption.  Coffee is the second most popular drink after water at a staggering 1.4 billion cups of coffee consumed every day around the world.  Over 100 million people depend on coffee as a source of income.

I recently had a chance to visit one of the world's best coffee producing regions.  Kona, on the big island of Hawai'i is 22 square miles of ideal coffee-growing "terroir".  That's a wine term meaning the combination of weather, soil, climate, slope and all other elements that give a place its "placeness".  It's what makes a place unique.  Terroirs are like snow flakes, no two are the same.  Kona coffee fetches upwards of $20-30 a pound compared to the $6-$10 a pound you pay at the grocery store.  Kona coffee is known for rich, bold flavors without high levels of acid or bitterness.

Greenwell Coffee Farms is the oldest family-owned coffee producer in Kona.  Henry Nicholas Greenwell arrived in Kona from England in 1850.  He lived with his wife and 10 children where we built a successful coffee export business.  Over time, Greenwell became well known in Europe and America for having reliable quality Kona coffee.

Today, Greenwell Farms is run by fourth generation family members who still farm 35 acres of prime coffee growing land at about 1,500 feet elevation.  During my visit I learned there are a number of similarities between growing coffee and wine grapes.  For example, wine grapes and coffee trees both do well in volcanic soil, both do well in altitudes of 600-1,200 feet in elevation, both need some sun exposure (but not too much), both get pruned down to the stump after harvest and both go through flowering before they produce fruit.  Coffee trees are technically fruit trees, and the coffee fruit it called cherries.

Watching the harvesting and processing of the coffee beans was a unique experience.  The end result was a coffee every bit as good as advertised.  Greenwell's 100% Kona coffee's were rich yet smooth without any of the bitter acid reflux.  Kona coffee is famous for being low in acid.  Because Kona coffee is so popular, yet expensive, you might find coffee's that say 10% Kona on the package.  They do this to keep the price down, yet get the name on the label.

Sadly, many of the growers barely make any money even though they're selling their coffee at $20 a pound.  The reason it's so expensive is all the labor that goes into producing some of the world's best coffee.  From picking, to drying, to sorting and roasting—every step of the way requires doing it by hand.  Machines aren't used for anything during the process.  Because of that, the Kona coffee can't be made by automating any step of the process.  Greenwell employs 50 people in the production facility, which is a significant number considering they farm 35 acres.

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Bacon Smoothie Recipe

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Raspberries
Image via Wikipedia

Before you have a gag reflex thinking about what the bacon smoothie might look like, take comfort knowing it's still a fruit smoothie.
The list of ingredients are:

1/2 cup yogurt
1 cup soy milk
1/4 cup acai
1/2 cup frozen raspberries and blueberries
1 TSP greens (dietary supplement)
2 strips of slow cooked, savory maple bacon
1-2 TBSP dark chocolate powder
1 TBSP Agave

Pretty simple. Just throw it all in a blender and blend it.

The reason the recipe works is the chocolate. Chocolate and bacon go together, but there still needs to be fruit. Raspberries, blueberries and acai not only go with chocolate, but they're also good for you and you need something good to offset the bacon, which is not a health food.
Play around with the amounts. I find with this recipe you can taste the raspberry, chocolate and bacon all equally, nothing overpowers the taste.

Enjoy!

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