Category Archives: wine evolution

Chile’s Mountainous Evolution

As Sommeliers and startup retailers we watch the wine industry closely, looking for distinct patterns that in turn allow us to make sound buying decisions for our clients. Our goal is to seek out and perhaps sharpen that cutting edge in the world of wine. My business partner GUY and I attended a trade tasting of Chilean wines guided by a Master Sommelier this past August. That event was immediately followed by excited conversations with many other wine professionals regarding discoveries of new-found and re-found geographic vine-growing locations. Savvy wine folk know there are no coincidences.

Every wine-producing country wants an identity—a peg to hang the proverbial hat. The key to discovering that identity is to first uncover what makes a country unique. For example, Chile sports a climate and geography that has the ability to produce wine naturally, using phylloxera-free vine stock. New producers are actively pushing geographic boundaries by venturing into cool climates and high altitudes with old-vine cuttings. This tactic possesses much upside for potential quality while adding significantly to expense, thus reducing commercial potential. So far the gamble is paying off. However Chile has yet to quantifiably reap the benefits of their uniqueness.

Push and Push Back

Only three wine corporations control 84% of the overall wine market: Concha y Toro, Santa Rita and San Pedro. These three plus Santa Carolina control almost half of total exports. Through the decades of their reign, the Chilean wine industry, as it was known, became complacent, conservative. No outside competition and minimal new internal competition provided little incentive for change. Chileans did not worry about what wine they were drinking and wineries did not worry about significant new investments in vineyard or winery. Chilean producers did not possess the drive to venture into frontier wine regions, where the air is thin and quality potential grows exponentially. Instead Chilean production is traditionally focused on warmer, valley regions with abundant water sources. The tradeoff for this high yield, low risk strategy is a reduced overall quality.

In a statement that sounds benign enough, Ignacio Recabarren, winemaker at Concha y Toro said of current Chilean winemaking practices, “Chile is subtle. We depend on simple, natural things, which the world does not yet understand.” The world understands just fine: Chile is in line for a huge wine culture shift.

Changing Chile

At PROTOCOL, we typically say “It’s just wine.” But of course that statement’s underpinning is more complex. Wine is emotional, wine is political, and wine is catalyst: wine is evolutional…

Enter the revolutionary wave in Chile: MOVI (Movement of Independent Vintners) has emerged as a push against the corporations and what could ensue is the most exciting time in Chile’s wine producing history. For those of us in the industry, some of the most transforming wines in the arena today may in fact already be planted in obscure regions of Chile. As Andres Sanchez, MOVI member and winemaker from Gillmore Wines announces, “[We’re aiming at people] who are not just trying to do comparison shopping and find good value at the supermarket, but rather people who have an interest in flavor, histories, and the relationship of the product with its land and country.” What’s interesting about the smaller member-wineries is that they’re pushing the envelope and throwing out the tried and true Chilean wine playbook.

Derek Mossman, owner of Garage Wine Co. framed the scene perfectly when he commented, “Soon articles began to appear about the ‘coveted urban myth’ of Garage Wine Co. that minted our humble garage as a denim-clad David figure up against the enormous odds of agro-industrial giant Goliaths.” Indeed, MOVI is a relatively small group of winemakers, a Halloween who’s who of Italian counts, lawyers, photographers, skiers and ex-pats as varied as the regions and soils they work.

This emerging Chile reflects a philosophical turn from industrialization to farm. Winemakers, who are agronomists first, have returned to the land to work the vines and study the complex soils from higher elevations in the Andes to the coastal edge. Many MOVI members can be found in the Maule Valley, hit hardest by a series of earthquakes, most recently 2010, which left the area’s small family-owned grape-farmers hurting. And yet the movement persists in the Maule Valley where the talk is of old-vine carignane, as mature as 70 years. It seems earthquakes, granitic bedrock, and old-school bush vines are a veritable feast for hungry, multiple-hat wearing revolutionary winemakers.

Something to Watch

It’s too soon to say how this will all shake out. Can the MOVI revolutionaries sustain themselves against the onslaught of big business wineries? Will the dominating wine corporations succumb to change and aid in the search for regionally characteristic sites? Whatever happens in Chile, it’ll be something to watch, especially as Australia, New Zealand and Argentina also make their own push forward. The next few years should be mountainous times indeed. PROTOCOL will be watching…

Tina Morey and GUY, partners
PROTOCOL wine studio


Your Sommelier Hates You

Dubious Honor

It’s Saturday night and you’ve got a date!  You’re dining at the well-received Acme Anvil Steakhouse.  The Sommelier approaches you for the dubious honor of wine selection.  Aiming to impress, you scan the list for the familiar.  One Napa Cabernet stands out and you ask, “I’ve heard a lot about this Cabernet, I went to Napa and visited their tasting room, do you like it?”

Ahhh, the Sommelier’s element–he knows the drill and the answer flows smoothly, with a soft smile he says, “That’s one of our most popular!  I sell more of that wine than any other.  All of our guests who love Napa Cabernet find this wine delicious.  I’m sure you will too.”  You order the wine, proud of your intelligent selection.  The wine is opened, poured and you do indeed love it.  All seems well, but little do you know, your Sommelier hates you.

I recently attended a professional wine seminar that boasted “Best of the Best.”  These were delicious wines from around the world, but the conversation turned when the Master Sommelier suggested a high-end Australian Shiraz would make a good transition from Napa Cabernet.  Many Sommeliers and restaurateurs lamented with the common cry, “Our clients only drink Napa Cabernet, they won’t try anything else!”

From Coke to Coffee

Not more than a few decades ago American wine was considered subpar.  The common assumption was that only Europe produced wines of distinction.  Fortunately, this attitude has evolved, now New World wine-making regions produce quality wine, including Napa.  Considering this evolution newness, it’s surprising how quickly wine has matured in the States.  It only took some thirty years since American wine entered the world stage for us to develop our style: hedonistic.  This is evidenced by the popular brands possessing consistent characteristics: big fruit, heavy, extended oak treatment and higher alcohol.  Intensity is what America loves!  A diet focused on rich, meaty foods craves big, intense wines.

Many Old World (European) wines are for the advanced palate.  Unlike American wine, it took generations to create the unique styles of Burgundy, Bordeaux, Rhone and the like.  These are complex wines, rich with history, and it takes time to discover why—an evolution in taste.

I’ve always been a beverage guy.  As a teen I loved soda, so much so that I forced myself to abstain for many years.  Eager to find a new fix, at age 16 I tried coffee. It was impossible to appreciate.  I’d grown up on Big League Chew, Coca Cola and Fun Dip candy.  This coffee stuff was disgusting–but I persisted.  Coffee isn’t so bad if you add sugar, cream and chocolate, so I drank mocha.  Then I attended a coffee tasting at Seattle’s Stumps Town Coffee.  It was served hot, fresh and black–my palate revolted.  But again I persisted, encouraged by the “Coffee Sommeliers.”  It took time, but now I enjoy coffee black and surprisingly all the flavors I’d been adding: dairy, sugar and cocoa were already present!  It just took time and effort to reach a point of understanding and appreciation.

One Step Away

And so we return to your Sommelier, the one that hates you.  It’s not you he hates, he’s simply frustrated that in a world of many complex, amazing wines, almost every bottle he sells is rich in style.  Combined with the high-pressure atmosphere of restaurant work, the situation is explosive.  Next time you’re in a fancy restaurant take a peak into the “back of the house.”  Odds are you’ll see a sign reading: “Guests Can Hear You” or “This is a Quiet Zone.”

Imagine the scene, a disgruntled server making insulting comments laced with profanity about the table five dude with the paisley tie and his insistence that we drop new glassware because he’s opening ANOTHER Napa Cab!  These incidents generally end the same, one employee loses his job, one table gets a free meal and one back of the house area gets a warning sign.

At this point you may be wondering: do Sommeliers really care this much about my wine choice? Think back how that Sommelier answered your question. Was that smile genuine, or perhaps a bit sarcastic?  He never said he liked the wine.  What he said was people like you like that wine.  Upon reflection the whole comment was backhanded!

If you’re a bit upset because you fail to see how spending $300 on a Napa Cabernet and tipping the Sommelier to open it is insulting, I understand.  But there’s something more important going on here.  This backlash against customers ordering popular wines happens more and more often now, both in retail and dining establishments.  I believe it is a harbinger of change.  Our wine culture is on the verge of transitioning from hedonistic, one-dimensional, intense wines to those of nuance and regional character.

This change is already underway as wine lovers ask more in-depth questions.  Some of my favorites are: What organic wines do you have?  What is the alcohol of this wine?  And most impressive:  I really like Cabernet Sauvignon do you have another varietal I might enjoy?

Wineries are responding.  Winemakers are making revolutionary comments: “We don’t submit our wines for scoring.” or, “We spent a lot of time and money identifying the proper grapes for our vineyard” or my favorite, “I like to make wine that I enjoy drinking!”

So don’t take it personally if your Sommelier doesn’t cotton to your taste.  Perhaps it’s just a sign that wine is about to change.  Instead go ahead and ask for a trousseau from Healdsburg.  That’ll turn his head!

GUY, Partner
PROTOCOL wine studio


“My own chairs to rest upon.”

“Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve dreamed of havin´ my own things about me. My spinet…over there, and the table here, and… my own chairs to rest upon. And… and the dresser over there in that corner.  And… my own china and pewter shinin’ about me.  And now…”     -Excerpt from The Quiet Man.

Tina and GUY, partners of PROTOCOL wine studio threw a party in June.  We called it Transiency and Transcendentalism.  Our intension was to offer our gratitude to all the family, friends and mentors who’ve help us as we’ve formed this enterprise.  So we served Persian food, popped bottles of Cremant, a Greek red and smoky Fie Gris.  And it all went down in my empty San Diego house.

Why an empty house you ask?  Well, being a startup wine business, we’re all about the bootstrap mentality.  Thus, it seemed like perfect timing that the house was temporarily vacant and the business is moving closer to its official opening.  So let’s have a party and spend most of the budget on food and wine—as it should be!

Our concept was simple, yet experimental: a bare house, not many chairs, no personal items in the space at all—quite the transient feel about the place.  And while the concept was simple, the questions we asked ourselves about the event were diverse:

How do we adapt to a new situation?

Does spending time in a bare house heighten our intuitiveness?

Do we become, even for a short time, more in tune with our senses in an empty space?

Are we approaching a cultural precipice that begs the question: What’s your cultural evolution?

Or for us wine geeks, what is your cultural evolution in wine?

And finally can a bare space somehow inspire us in a more pure fashion?

While all of these questions are fascinating to us, it turns out the truly monumental evolution of this event came in its planning and a conflict we experienced.  GUY embodies incredible vision.  Me, I’m more of a, if it feels good let’s do it, kinda girl.  While those differing attitudes can work extremely well, complimentary even, sometimes we find ourselves at odds.

We both were stressed–I felt displaced and GUY was edgy about the event as a whole.  I wanted to keep it simple and GUY had more complex visions.  So we had our first big “discussion,” ok, phone fight.

I found myself hunkered down in the upstairs master walk-in closet, raising my voice and using not-so-ladylike words to my business partner.  At the time it was awful, but as we discussed it afterward, the whole experience was necessary and even cathartic.

I’m reminded again that I’m not a good relationship communicator (my husband has been telling me this for years—why he stays is beyond me.)  And perhaps that’s just me.  You can’t completely sum me up on this point alone, there’s far more.  We are all parts of a whole.   And full circle, that’s what we’ve been saying about wine—we are more than what is in our glasses.  We are more than what a package says about us.

So as a business we ask, what exactly gives us a sense of who we are, how do we describe our sense of place?  We suspect that the answer is that it’s the whole experience, who we’re with, the conversation, the music, the artwork…and by arriving at these conclusions, are we transcending?

Oddly enough, while writing this post, I realized that although GUY and I called the evening somewhat of an experiment, it occurs to me that we were just as much experimental participants as our guests.  How psychologically fitting!

That big fight I talked about–many business partners could have parted ways, but we worked through it, identified what exactly was going on within each of our personal lives and figured a way to deal with it.  It was an incredible learning experience for me, both professionally and personally and I hope I become the better person for it.  And perhaps in the end it prepares us for facing the really big decisions down the road.

As GUY once said:  “Evolved thinking is the power within one’s self and the potential to overcome adversity.” (the visionary bastard) 😉

 

Tina and Guy
Partners, PROTOCOL wine studio


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