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Columns – Norm Roby

Career Changers and Cellar Rats: Living the Dream in Tin City
Norm Roby
Nov 16, 2022

Nov. 16, 2022: Topping my To-Do list over the last two years has been to visit and explore Tin City. So, after a few last-minute changes in recent travel plans, I finally made it. Although I researched it in advance, it was not at all what I had expected. In fact, Tin City is simply amazing, an original, creative concept enabling small wineries to get established and allowing winemakers who think 'outside the box' a real opportunity to pursue their dreams. Best of all, either can be done without shelling out mega millions. For those unfamiliar with it, Tin City is in an industrial area southeast of downtown Paso Robles. With train tracks running along its eastern edge, it began around 2005 and is now home to 25 wineries, a brewery, a distiller, cider works and a market.

Viognier: A Hedonistic White Wine Goes Mainstream
Norm Roby
Sep 21, 2022

Sept. 21, 2022: Even before I learned how to pronounce it, Viognier intrigued me. I still recall tasting an early vintage from Calera and thinking, 'This is unlike any other white wine, something new and distinct to check out.' But this was in the late 1980s and there were not many produced. Joseph Phelps had experimented with it, and in 1986 La Jota made a small batch from its 3 acres. But today, after a long and often bumpy course, Viognier is gaining acceptance worldwide. It is grown in every wine country and shows up in unlikely places like Virginia and Israel. According to the folks at Tablas Creek, 'Viognier as of 2016 accounts for some 40,000 acres worldwide, including more than 20,000 acres in France, and significant plantings in Italy (4,500 acres), and California (3,000).

Pinot Gris: Alive and Well in Oregon
Norm Roby
Jul 27, 2022

July 27, 2022: My interest in Pinot Gris began during an early one-on-one meeting with David Lett of Eyrie Vineyard. Though known today as one of the pioneers behind Oregon Pinot Noir, Lett was keen on showing me his first vintages of Eyrie Pinot Gris. He was convinced it was Oregon's white of the future, not Riesling, not Chardonnay. And the quality of his first vintage was as convincing as his enthusiasm. A few years later I was invited to visit the new and much talked about King Estate in Eugene, Oregon and was reintroduced to Pinot Gris along with Pinot Noir made from several Dijon clones. Both encounters convinced me that Pinot Gris deserves to be taken as a serious white, neither a minor mutation nor a grape for cheap bulk wine.

Zin, Zap & Zen: Talking with Joel Peterson
Norm Roby
Jun 1, 2022

June 1, 2022: Most people who build a brand from scratch and after, say, 25 years sell it for mega-millions would take the money and quietly ride off into the sunset. Well, in my years of following the wine biz, I've encountered one glaring exception: Joel Peterson. After surprising everyone by selling Ravenswood, he took the money, but worked hard with the new corporate owners, bought the 150-acre Bedrock Vineyard in Sonoma, and started over in 2014 by founding his Once & Future Winery. At one point, about 20% of All Zinfandel made and sold sported the Ravenswood name. Now that's a victory from a longshot that deserves a chapter in wine history. So, I asked Joel a few questions about the early years and his takeaways from the experience.

Mourvèdre & Mataro: Past, Present and Future
Norm Roby
May 3, 2022

May 4, 2022: Before phylloxera began slowly destroying vineyards in the late 19th century, Mourvèdre was seen as a star in the south of France. In 1884, the famous ampelographer Charles Wentworth summarized reports about grape varieties and refers to one from France. "All the great French authorities agree in placing the Mataro as the finest red wine grape of the southern regions." This is a good reminder that before phylloxera, Mourvèdre was the dominant Rhône grape, not Grenache. After some comments on its ripening, Wentworth says: "The apparent defect of this grape is the roughness of the new wine; but this is the defect of most noble varieties. Like the Cabernet-Sauvignon of Bordeaux, it requires age to develop its quality." In assessing the situation in California, Wentworth also concludes with a look at the variety in California and ends with this backhanded compliment: "I believe there are few red wine vineyards in California, whether for dry or sweet wine, wherein the introduction of a proportion of Mataro, varying from ten to seventy-five per cent, will not be a positive gain."

El Dorado: The New Gold Standard for Terroir?
Norm Roby
Mar 1, 2022

Mar 1, 2022: Mention El Dorado County to most wine lovers and the typical knee jerk response among those who heard of it is, 'that's Zinfandel country.' Well, yes and no. It is part of the Sierra Foothills AVA which includes Amador, where Zin is well-established. And it too makes outstanding Zin. But as I have discovered recently, there are many other exciting wines being made from El Dorado's high elevation vineyards. Every winemaker in the region emphasizes elevation. That makes sense because it is one of the few U.S. appellations defined entirely by elevation, which ranges from 1,200ft-3,500ft. The region's elevation and proximity to the alpine terrain of the Sierra Nevada Mountain strongly influences grape growing. Factor in the region's unusual rocky, volcanic soils and growing season, and well, we may be entering the terroir zone. Though more sensory research awaits, I'm beginning to think a great case can be made that El Dorado, still a well-kept secret, may be the real deal, and a mother lode of terroir-driven wines.

Going Rogue: Exciting Diversity and Outright Exellence in Oregon
Norm Roby
Dec 21, 2021

Taking its name from the Rogue River, the Rogue Valley wine region wears that rogue title well. Approved as an AVA in 1991, the Rogue Valley is the southernmost growing wine region of Oregon. Today, this high elevation (1,000-2,300-foot level) growing area is home to 100 wineries. While most of these wineries started after 2000, the Rogue Valley is Oregon's oldest wine region, with first vineyards planted in the 1850s. And it is home to the State's first operating winery opened in 1873. Vineyards have been expanding recently and now cover around 5,000 acres, growing no fewer than 70 varieties. Yes, from Albariño to Zinfandel, the roster includes the obligatory Chardonnay and Cabernet and, no surprise, Pinot Noir. But with vineyards planted at different elevations with different aspects, the Rogue is no Willamette.

Outliers, Mavericks & Free Spirits
Norm Roby
Nov 2, 2021

Before the pandemic, the wine world was generally taking itself far too seriously, becoming too elitist, and had lost touch with the fact that wine is at best 'an elegant extra' in life, far less essential than, let's remind everyone, TP. I also found it kind of creepy when visiting a tasting room (salon or lounge) that the server or sommelier wants to tell guests what the wine tastes like before they taste it. And with details and layers...that really seem to take away from the fun of discovering and discussing something you like or dislike. When winery tasting room experiences are like this, they do more harm than good. Talking down to people is never a good idea. A few new wineries with active and successful wine clubs have come to my attention recently as they build strong brand loyalty by connecting with people and bringing wine back down to earth. This approach seems to apply to four wineries that are focusing on unpretentious wines for wine novices and young drinkers.

The Okanagan Valley: Making Canadians Proud
Norm Roby
Sep 21, 2021

The Okanagan Valley accounts for 90% of all wines made in British Columbia. As a wine producing region, it is home to just under 10,000 acres and over 275 wineries. Looking at what is planted, the breakdown is interesting in that four red grapes--Merlot, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc--account for about 75% of the total. And a similar pattern emerged for white varieties with four accounting for 70%: Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Gewurztraminer, and Riesling. Only seven wineries try to make an Icewine, and It was a surprise to see that hybrids like Baco Noir and others which are thought to thrive in cold climates have pretty much disappeared. With a little digging, I found out why.

Revisiting Walla Walla
Norm Roby
Jul 27, 2021

Granted AVA status in 1984, Walla Walla is unusual in many, many ways. First it is a rare AVA straddling two states, Washington and Oregon. About 60% is within Washington. Defined by the Blue Mountains to the southeast, the Palouse to the north, and the Columbia River to the west, Walla Walla is said to be the size of Napa but contains only 3,000 vineyard acres. But, for surprise #2, there now are about 120 wineries calling Walla Walla home. Nothing much happened vineyard-wise after the Repeal of Prohibition as the region expanded its orchards and wheat growing. In 1974, Gary Figgins planted a small vineyard and by 1978 his Leonetti Cellars was the first new winery. Figgins, who was interested in Italian reds like Sangiovese, made a 1978 Cabernet that by the early 1980s won so many awards and earned so many high ratings that it was being talked about as a cult wine. Walla Walla had awakened with a bang.

A New Take on Terroir
Norm Roby
Jun 8, 2021

'Terroir' in wine talk has been around for years but it is more often brought up today in discussions of French wines. When it comes to California wines, it is only occasionally mentioned in the popular press probably because it seems so obviously pretentious and ultra-geeky. After all, it comes from the French phrase, 'gout de terroir,' and was always a bit too complicated to explain. But I'm now seeing signs that several new, small wineries are going all out to make wines that are 'terroir driven,' ones that capture a sense of place. With so many new wineries trying to make a name for themselves in today's crowded market, it seems reasonable for them to set their sights on making wines that stand out from the crowd by capturing what is best described as 'terroir.' At last count, according to the Napa Vintners Association, there are 475 wineries, 1,000 different brands and 700 growers-in Napa alone. If you add the many private labels making Napa Cabernets from bulk wines, the number of brands soars much higher.

The Other Cabernet's Time to Shine
Norm Roby
Apr 6, 2021

Cabernet Franc, cultivated over the last 700 years, has recently become newsworthy. Not splashy, front-page stuff, but trends of genuine interest to wine lovers. Out of Bordeaux, vignerons are re-thinking the varietal mix in reaction to global warming and Cabernet Franc is getting serious consideration. Recently highly successful vintages (2015, 2017, 2018) in the Loire Valley have Roger Voss, a colleague, writing, "It's a great time to enjoy Cabernet Franc from the Loire.' And in California. where acreage is on the increase, the Lang & Reed Winery in Napa Valley is celebrating its 25th vintage as Cabernet Franc specialists.

The Roussillons are Coming! The Roussillons are Coming!
Norm Roby
Feb 9, 2021

So many winery projects, plans and promotions were put on the back burner in 2020 that it feels like we all were in the twilight zone. But now that wineries are opening for business and wine clubs are being more creative than ever, this is a good time to focus on a Rhône wine project that is about to relaunch. It was created by a few small wineries, mini Rhône Rangers not horsing around. Here is some background: 'The GSM Rhône Society is a distinctive collection of premium wineries in the southern Silicon Valley area dedicated to crafting exceptional Rhône style wines from locally grown grapes.'

Eden Rift: Historic Vineyard, Fresh New Outlook
Norm Roby
Dec 8, 2020

On a sunny day, before 2020 went to hell in the proverbial handbasket, I've reached the highest point in a beautiful terraced vineyard. At roughly 1,600 feet, I can see the Monterey Bay off to the west. To the south, there's a distant peak that I'm informed is a limestone outcropping and in the background there's a dolomite quarry also rich in limestone.

Online Wine Shopping, Part 2: Best Websites for Daily Wine Deals
Norm Roby
Oct 6, 2020

With so many now working from home and not concerned about 'NSFW' issues, websites offering daily wine specials have upped their game in response. In fact, if you are looking for good deals on hard-to-find wines normally sold in restaurants or winery direct, daily deals are where the action is. Just this morning I was surprised to see wines from Ridge, Spottswoode, and Rombauer being dangled before my eyes. If you are a serious wine shopper, my best advice is to have a list of your top needs because the best deals sell out quickly. If you are simply curious about wine trends and want to see what's out there, or just want to learn more, then several of these sites are surprisingly informative.

Online Wine Shopping: A Guide to the New Normal
Norm Roby
Sep 15, 2020

Whether you call it 'the new normal' or 'the new abnormal,' the way we go about our daily lives has changed in 2020. Although home wine deliveries aren't new, they have become a game-changer for many producers and importers, a life saver for sheltered-in-place wine drinkers, and collectors and a way to remain in business for small, Mom & Pop wineries. Over the last five years, I've been following, evaluating and writing about the major online wine retailers and wine clubs as well as buying wines online. Wine clubs such as Winc, Vinesse and nakedwines pushing subscription box memberships have done nothing much to distinguish themselves, whereas the virtual wine store/retailer types like wine.com and wineexpress.com have upped their game in response to the new stay-at-home normal. As a result, exceptional wines once allocated to restaurants and many cult wines once limited to sales direct from the winery are now becoming increasingly available in the e-commerce world.