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Three Modest Proposals
By Robert Whitley
Dec 25, 2012
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Unlike many of my colleagues, I don’t have a crystal ball that allows me a glimpse into the future. I usually can't spot a wine trend until it lands in my glass. I merely have a wish list. So for 2013 I have a few modest proposals for the wine industry.

First, I would like to see more options for tasting multiple wines while dining out. I’ve just about given up on the half bottle of wine. Restaurateurs generally hate the topic because they know offering a half-bottle selection is perfectly logical and desirable, but also a royal pain.

There is the storage issue, of course. And pricing presents a problem. Most customers don’t understand why a half bottle is more expensive by volume than a full bottle. Simple answer: half bottles cost restaurants more at the wholesale level than full bottles. The additional cost is passed along to the customer.

My solution to all of this is the half glass. I may not want a full glass of white wine or bubbly with my starter course, followed by a full glass of red (or another white) with the main, especially at lunch. Or my inner wine geek, after stumbling onto an excellent wine-by-the-glass selection, might simply want to experience as many of those intriguing wines as possible without ordering too much.

There is a superb bistro/wine bar near my home in San Diego, Café Chloe, which offers the “half glass” option. A number of other restaurants have imitated the Chloe wine-by-the-glass program since it opened several years ago, but I would love to see more.

The half-glass option gives the diner tremendous flexibility and discretion when ordering wines to pair with ever more varied menu options.

My second proposal is directed at Olivier Bernard, the incoming president of the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux, a trade organization that represents the interests of those chateaux that produce classified growth Bordeaux. Olivier has done a wonderful job since taking over the family chateau in Graves, Domaine de Chevalier, a number of years ago.
He is personable, gregarious and very sharp, so I’m sure he will do the same for the UGC.

Bordeaux has reached a crisis point here in the United States. Young wine drinkers don’t buy it and new wine drinkers don’t buy it. Interest in Bordeaux wines is confined now to aging wine collectors and the high-rollers who prowl the wine auctions looking for investment-grade Bordeaux to re-sell on the Asian market.

When I first took an interest in wine in the 1970s Bordeaux was the dominant player in almost every fine wine shop from coast to coast. California wines had yet to gain widespread credibility, and even fairly serious wine enthusiasts did not understand the intricacies of Burgundy. Few collectors took Spanish or Italian wines seriously, and no one could pronounce the name of a single German wine other than Blue Nun.

If you were serious about buying wine for long-term cellaring and enjoyment down the road, after the wines had matured, you bought Bordeaux.
The First Growths are now out of reach for most of us. I love Cheval Blanc, but I’m not paying $800 for any wine. Chateau Latour at $1200 to $2000 a bottle? Forget about it.

It is up to the UGC, in my humble opinion, to market Bordeaux aggressively here in the United States and spread the word that affordable classified-growth Bordeaux exists. The UGC also shouldn’t be afraid to point out there are many wonderful unclassified Bordeaux reds and whites that are not only delicious but age-worthy.

The importers won’t do it because they’re cheap. A handful of importers have a decent budget for marketing, but the vast majority don’t.  And the smaller chateaux simply don’t have the resources to promote their product throughout a country the size of the United States.

It is only with a collective effort by a unified and effective trade organization such as the UGC that we will ever see Bordeaux regain a smidge of the grip it once held on the U.S. wine market.

Finally, I would borrow an idea from one of my colleagues, Dan Berger.
Dan suggested that “cool-climate Syrah” might well be the salvation of this exceptional grape variety in the United States. I am inclined to agree.
For those of you unfamiliar with the history of Syrah around the world, this is a red grape variety that is the workhorse of southern France, particularly in the Rhone Valley. It is also the dominant red grape in Australia, where it is known as Shiraz.

Syrah is widely planted throughout the U.S., but Syrah wines have never been fashionable here. In fact, many wine merchants run the other way when a wine distributor attempts to sell them Syrah. That’s because Syrah is a hard sell with the U.S. wine consumer.

Most U.S. Syrah is grown in the same places vintners grow Cabernet Sauvignon, meaning there is a good deal of heat. Paso Robles, in the Central Coast of California, is a prime location for Syrah production in this country. For the most part (there are some exceptions) Paso Syrah is rich, ripe and full blown, with generally high levels of alcohol (above 15 percent in many cases). The same could be said of Napa Valley Syrah or Syrah from the Sierra Foothills.

But Syrah is a versatile grape that can also survive in a cooler climate. Most experts would agree the finest, most desirable, and also the most expensive Syrah produced in the Rhone Valley is made in the cooler northern Rhone.

Cool-climate Syrah tends to be spicier, often with subtle notes of white pepper and mint, and more firmly structured, thus more suitable for aging. Even Australia, which is most well-known for its jammy Shiraz from the warm Barossa Valley, produces a fair amount of spicy cool-climate Shiraz from the Victoria region, Clare Valley and Margaret River.

The cool coastal valleys of northern California, Santa Barbara County, and even the Columbia Valley of Washington have been making credible cool-climate Syrah for years, just not enough of it and also without the necessary explanation (marketing again) that it’s a different beast from the ripe, jammy, Cabernet-style Syrahs you’ve experienced in the past.

More Syrah like this, please. I would by it.

And those, dear readers, are my modest proposals to improve our wine experiences in the coming year.

Email comments to whitleyonwine@yahoo.com and follow Robert on Twitter @wineguru & @WhitleyOnWine.