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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Balsamic Glazed King Salmon

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I'm finding salmon to be a really great fish for wine and food pairings.  There are so many different ways to prepare salmon, and a wide range of wines to pair with.  One of my favorite grapes is Pinot Noir, and Pinot just happens to go hand in hand with salmon.

This dish makes good use of the Balsamic vinegar to cover up any fishy taste.  Norwegian salmon is nice and fatty, and has a flavor perfect for this dish.  When you grill the salmon, the grilled flavor really gives the salmon a nice glaze.

Check out the 1996 Domaine Leroy Bourgogne from Burgundy. Burgundy Pinot Noirs take longer to come together in the bottle so you have to be patient.  When you get a good one, it's magic in a bottle.  Burgundy has 4 levels designated on their labels:

Bourgogne - when you see that on the label, it means the grapes were sourced from anywhere in Burgundy.  Pretty broad area.

Villages - Burgundy is broken up into villages, such as Cote de Nuits.  This zooms into a smaller area within Burgundy.  Grapes from that village are in a Villages bottle, pronounced (vilaj).

1er Cru - Also known as Premiere Cru.  This zooms in even more to a specific vineyard that's within a village, which is within Burgundy.  Pinot really starts to express terroir when you get into a specific vineyard.  Quality and collectility goes up.

Grand Cru - When you get a wine from a Grand Cru vineyard, you have something special.  This is the ultimate expression of terroir and winemaking.  Some Grand Cru wines from Burgundy fetch upwards of $2,000 a bottle because the quality is the highest, but supply is the lowest.

Leroy is one of the top producers in Burgundy, so although her Bourgogne is the lowest of the four levels, hers is still spectacular.  The 1996 is very youthful, velvety and complex.  Aromas out of the glass are like a tractor beam bringing the glass to your lips—you're powerless to stop it.

LeroyBoug

recipe from Chef Ron Barber

INGREDIENTS 4 salmon steaks – about 6 ounces each, 1 inch thick 1 cup balsamic vinegar 1/2 cup Cabernet Franc 1 TBSP fresh lime juice 1 TSP sugar

Combine the balsamic vinegar, wine, lime juice, and sugar in a small saucepan.  Bring to a simmer and reduce the mixture by half – allow to cool.  Add the salmon steaks to the marinade and refrigerate for 30 minutes.  Prepare a charcoal or gas grill.  Remove the salmon from the marinade and pat dry.  Season with salt and pepper and grill over high heat for about 4 minutes per side.  Serve with grilled vegetables and steamed rice.

photo via SheKnows

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