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So Many Reasons to Be Upbeat
By Robert Whitley
Dec 1, 2009
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Amid the gloom and doom that is the current wine industry, I’ve had an epiphany. The sky is not falling.

Consider: California Pinot Noir, once upon a time thought to be a lost cause, has emerged as one of the great success stories of the past two decades. Amazing Pinots abound. Black Kite. Freestone. Sojourn. Golden Eye. ROAR. Longboard. Dutton Goldfield. Papapietro Perry. Those are but a few of the remarkable Pinot Noir producers that weren’t even in business a few years ago.

Williams Selyem, the benchmark for California Pinot, no longer holds the high ground. This new generation of California Pinot has the elegance and finesse to compete on even footing, even with the best Oregon and Burgundy have to offer. This is real progress, and a development wine enthusiasts everywhere can celebrate.

Consider: That despite the sinking value of the dollar against the euro, great wines at bargain prices are still flooding the market from Spain and Italy. From Spain, the new and improved wines of Rioja remain well priced, and up-and-coming regions such as Navarra and Jumilla are vying for a foothold in the U.S. market with stunning red wines (made primarily from Tempranillo, Mourvedre, Garnacha and Cabernet Sauvignon) at value prices.

Italian reds and whites from Sicily and Puglia are from the same mold. Improved viticultural practices have made Italy’s Nero d’Avola and Puglia’s Negroamaro and Primitivo better than ever, and both regions have found success with Cabernet Sauvignon.

Availability and distribution remain troublesome issues, but so long as prices remain low (usually well below $20 a bottle) wine lovers can have great fun taking the occasional stab at an unknown producer from one of these impressive wine regions.

Consider: Economic conditions have made it a necessity as well as chic and trendy to back off on the amount of new oak used in the production of Chardonnay. This is a worldwide trend, but it is most noticeable in California, where the emergence of aromatic, clean, crisp Chardonnay is a recent phenomenon. I can’t even remember the last time I rejected a Chardonnay solely on the basis of an overly wooded nose.

Consider: The rise of Malbec has been nothing short of stunning. American wine consumers have a new appreciation for the wines of South America, and it is Argentine Malbec that has paved the way. Even the entry level Malbecs of Argentina deliver a fair amount of complexity, palate weight and pleasure, and the prices are often in the $10 to $12 range, which makes everyone happy.

Consider: That California sparkling wine has found its voice with the likes of Domaine Carneros, J Wine Company, Gloria Ferrer, Schramsberg and Roederer Estate. And dollar for dollar, there isn’t a better value in methode-champenoise bubbly than Mumm Napa Valley’s Brut Prestige at about $18. I still love Champagne, but much of it is now out of my price range except for rare special occasions.

Consider: That wine is made in virtually every state, and it’s getting better all the time. New York, Virginia, North Carolina, New Jersey, Rhode Island, New Mexico, Missouri and even Michigan have sent impressive wines and won scads of medals at the major wine competitions with which I’m involved. Yes, I’m the one rummaging through the leftover wines after each competition in search of a spare bottle of Dr. Konstantin Frank Riesling from the Finger Lakes. I can actually encourage you to drink local wine and mean it!

Consider: Restaurants have never been more wine friendly, waiving or reducing corkage fees and introducing half-price wine nights to bring in more customers during these difficult economic times. Some have been so successful with their wine promotions that I expect them to continue long after the recession ends.

Consider: That scores of wineries with vision have recognized their prices were unsustainable and have lowered them to meet the new reality. Those that haven’t are sitting on large inventories and soon will arrive at the same conclusion. The upshot is a boon for consumers who have the wherewithal to stock up, especially for the holidays.

Consider: The wine crowd is bursting at the seams, including a new generation of young wine drinkers that prefer the grape to beer and martinis. Evidence of this is all around. Just pop into any urban wine bar and size up the age of the crowd. They’re young and casual, without any pretense of snobbery. They’re savvy, too. I mean, why else would every single one of these establishments have a Gruner Veltliner by the glass?

Consider: This Christmas you can buy that special someone a bottle of Caymus Special Selection or BV Georges de Latour Private Reserve for less than they cost wholesale at this time last year. From where I sit, the future of wine appears to be sunny and bright. And I can say with some certainty that the sky is not falling.