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Noble, or Rot?
By Linda Murphy
Feb 28, 2012
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Politicians have made global warming a heated campaign debate topic, with a number of them denying that climate change exists, and/or that human-created emissions are largely to blame.

It’s difficult for me to argue against climate change, when it was sunny and 74 degrees in Sonoma County last week -- in February! -- with folks wearing shorts and sunscreen and mowing lawns that are typically dormant this time of year.  Recent California summers have been unusually cool and wet, lacking the heat spikes Golden State vintages are infamously known for.  And an extraordinarily mild winter in the northeastern part of the country had ice wine producers worried that they would not get the sub-20-degree temperatures needed to freeze grapes on the vines.

Yet bone-chilling temperatures arrived for a few days in early January, saving the ice wine harvest and allowing winemakers to produce viscous, honeyed, super-rich dessert wines that command $50 or more per 375-ml bottle.  Ice wines are expensive because so little juice can be pressed out of the frozen berries and thus, only minute quantities are produced.  Ma Nature came through for ice wine makers in 2012, yet climate change was certainly on their lips as they waited for a deep freeze they feared might not come.

While ice wines come from grapes whose sugars are concentrated by freezing after many months on the vine, other dessert wines are produced from grapes infected with noble rot, or more formally, Botrytis cinera.  Just as there is good cholesterol and bad, there is good (noble) rot and bad (ignoble), the former drying out grapes to the point of raisin formation and flavor concentration, the latter turning grapes to unfermentable mush.  Hey, that reminds me: It’s time for another installment of “Noble or Rot:”

Noble:  I was at a Trader Joe’s store last week, as the grocery chain was celebrating 10 years of wedded bliss to Charles “Two Buck Chuck” Shaw.  Since 2002, Joe and Chuck have had a fulfilling relationship; Trader Joe’s sells approximately 5 million cases of Charles Shaw Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and other varietals a year, and Two Buck Chuck owner Fred Franzia finds homes for the grapes his Bronco Wine Co. grows on 40,000-plus acres in California’s Central Valley. 

I watched shoppers load cases of “Chuck” into their carts, perhaps at a slower rate than they did when the brand launched in 2002, yet still at a steady pace.  At $1.99 a bottle in California (the wines are a bit more expensive elsewhere, due to higher distribution costs), a case of Charles Shaw wine is just $23.88 plus tax and redemption value.  With many California wines costing more than $24 a bottle, Chuck offers a big bang for the buck, and makes drinking California wine possible for those who might not otherwise be able to afford it.

I don’t buy nor drink the Charles Shaw simpletons, and I’ve never met Fred Franzia and am not in his fan club.  Yet I applaud anyone who drinks his wines, particularly if they are replacing a soft drink at dinner with a glass of Sauvignon Blanc or Cabernet Sauvignon.  Cheap vino is better than no vino, and any competently produced wine with taste better with food, and vice versa, than Coke.  

Rot: Paul Dolan’s departure from Mendocino Wine Co.

Dolan, the former Fetzer Vineyards president and winemaker, and sustainable/organic/biodynamic guru of Mendocino County, abruptly left Mendocino Wine Co. in late January, apparently due to business disagreements with fellow partners Tom and Tim Thornhill.  The company, producer of Parducci, Sketchbook, Zig Zag Zin and other brands, is a pioneer in “green” winemaking and grapegrowing, and Dolan was its face, its ardent messenger for MWC’s achievements in carbon neutrality, progressive recycling, earth-friendly packaging and organic farming.

Partners come and go in businesses, yet Dolan’s separation from Mendocino Wine Co. cannot be seen as positive for the image of the organization.  Dolan is a partner in Truett Hurst winery in Sonoma County’s Dry Creek Valley and VML in Russian River Valley, so he has plenty to do.  Yet one Mendocino Wine Co. brand, Paul Dolan Vineyards, will carry on without the man whose name is on the label.  That will be a neat trick to pull off for the Thornhills. 

Noble: John Parducci and Peter Mondavi Sr.

Wine Review Online colleague W. Blake Gray administers the annual balloting for the Vintners Hall of Fame, sponsored by the Culinary Institute of America and housed at the CIA’s Greystone campus in Napa Valley.  I was particularly pleased to see two of the 2012 candidates win inclusion and be honored on Feb. 20: John Parducci and Peter Mondavi Sr.

Peter Mondavi Sr., Robert Mondavi’s younger brother, has, with his family, operated Charles Krug Winery in St. Helena for nearly 70 years.  Robert famously left Krug to open Robert Mondavi Winery in 1966, while Peter stayed on (less famously) to use pioneering winemaking techniques such as cold fermentation, and fermentation in French oak barrels and glass-lined steel tanks, and was the first in California to produce varietal Chenin Blanc.  At 97, the impish Peter still reports to work every day, although sons Peter Jr. and Marc shoulder most of the business load at Charles Krug.  Long hidden by his late brother Robert’s shadow, it’s now Peter Mondavi’s time in the limelight. 

Parducci, whose winery Mendocino Wine Co. now owns in Ukiah, is as iconic in Mendocino County as any Mondavi is in Napa Valley.  As a teen, Parducci, now 94, accompanied his family’s grapes on train trips to the East Coast during Prohibition, where he sold the fruit to home winemakers.  In 1940, Parducci assumed winemaking duties at Parducci Cellars, producing solid wines, including the first varietally labeled French Colombard.

In 1994, Parducci was fired as general manager of the winery bearing his name by Teachers Management Corp., a Southern California investment group to which he sold most of his shares in the winery in 1973.  Yet Parducci rebounded in 1999, founding McNab Ridge Winery in Mendocino County.  Today, his grandson, Rich Parducci, make the wines, with John giving guidance. 

Rot: Skinnygirl Wines.

“Real Housewives of New York” star Bethenny Frankel parlayed her skin-and-bones body and nose for self-promotion into Skinnygirl bottled cocktails -- Margarita, Cosmo and Sangria -- and sold the brand to Beam Global in 2011.  More than half a million cases of the lower-calorie cocktails were reportedly sold in 2011.

That’s well and good, and a skimpy-tasting Skinnygirl Margarita has far fewer calories (110 per 4-ounce serving) than a 500-calorie-or-more sweet-and-sour mix Margarita made at the local bar.  Yet the recent announcement that Frankel is hawking low-calorie Skinnygirl Wines from California has my knickers in a twist.  There is a thong joke here, but I won’t go there.

Skinnygirl’s wines, priced at $15, include a Syrah-based red blend, a Chardonnay/Pinot Grigio white blend, and a rosé made from Grenache and Syrah.  The “skinny” is that the wines have 100 calories per 5-ounce serving, suggesting that one can drink them while watching the pounds melt away.  While a glass of Skinnygirl rosé has fewer calories than a Skinnygirl Margarita, most California dry table wines clock in at 110 to 120 calories per 5-ounce serving, leaving Skinnygirl slim on the concept of low-calorie wines.

This reminds me of a Weight Watchers wine brand sold in the United Kingdom some years ago (it never made it to the States).  The wine was a lower-cal, 8.5% alcohol German Riesling, which must have sounded appealing to Weight Watchers members, yet was no different than the many other 8.5% German Rieslings produced and sold without weight-loss marketing supporting them.

Although I would love to be a skinny girl, I have no use for Skinnygirl wines.  The 20 or so extra calories I ingest per glass in “regular” wines is a small price to pay for wine pleasure and complexity, and I don’t find myself supporting lame, chick-based marketing.