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Columns – Roger Morris

Is Voon Sustainable? Tale of a Virtual Winery
Roger Morris
Jun 19, 2024

June 19, 2024: Evan Anderson has done something enviable - create a California winery from scratch, one that makes very good varietal wines using grapes from premium Central Coast vineyards. Even its labels reflect the quality of the wine inside. Anderson has called his winery 'Voon.' I hope he is still in business this time next year. You see, Anderson does not himself grow grapes. Nor does he 'own' a structural winery. Nor make the wine himself, even though he is very involved with the wine's profile. What Anderson has done beautifully is create a virtual winery. It is a dream many people in the wine trade, as well as wine-bedazzled consumers, have often contemplated - making your own wine with your own commercial label, perhaps even a very good wine where you call the shots but don't encounter the up-front investments needed to rent, buy or construct an actual building or outfit it with equipment or hire a permanent staff to work for you.

'G' - A Chardonnay Grows in Bordeaux
Roger Morris
May 7, 2024

May 7, 2024: People who own wineries love to talk glowingly about their vineyards and the wonderful capabilities of their terroirs. While their children may grow up to be disappointments, they can always find solace in their good earth. As with their children, winegrowers want the best possible opportunities for their vineyards. But, unlike with their kids, who might decide to become tattoo artists rather than neurosurgeons, winery owners can always dictate the future of their terroirs. Can't they? Not always, especially in the classic regions of France. If your estate is fortunate enough to be in, say, Saint-Émilion, you better hope your terroir loves Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Planting anything other than the limited red Bordeaux varieties would lose you your Saint-Emmy status as well as seeming a bit out of step, a little like suggesting the vacant lot just off the Place de Marechal Leclerc should be turned into a football pitch when everyone knows that real men in the Aquitaine traditionally play rugby. Alexandre de Malet Roquefort plans to retire from overseeing his family château soon. Fortunately, the kids are alright, so he and his two siblings, all now in their 50s, are in the process of handing over to this next generation the management of Château La Gaffelière, located at the southern entrance to Saint-Émilion's old town, and their related properties. Since Malet Roquefort's family has owned La Gaffelière since 1705, it is of considerable sentimental attachment - and financial importance - to Alexandre.

Climate Change Coping: Will Barolo & Barbaresco Plant Their Northern Slopes?
Roger Morris
Apr 3, 2024

April 3, 2024: Sometimes the simplest solution may also be turn out to be the most difficult. And maybe not even the best one. With global warming, most wine regions have been searching for ways to combat increased heat and sunlight in their vineyards as well as learning to cope with changing weather patterns, especially when it rains more or less than it historically did and does so during the wrong seasons. Yet for Barolo and Barbaresco, the famous Nebbiolo twins from the Langhe region of Piemonte in northwest Italy, the answer would seem to be easy. Why not gradually begin planting Nebbiolo on the cooler, northern slopes of the region's famous hills to blend into fruit currently being grown in the famous vineyards of the eastern and southern slopes? In fact, that proposition is now officially being considered. And, in fact, not everyone in the land of truffles is happy about it.

Napa 2024: Gray's Sky Meets Blazing Paddles
Roger Morris
Mar 6, 2024

March 6, 2024: Is the sky falling on Napa Valley? A colleague of mine, the writer W. Blake Gray, seems to think so. And maybe it is. Then again, maybe not. Toward the end of February, I was in Napa Valley to work on a few article assignments and to attend the Premiere Napa Valley Auction and the three days of winery visits, barrels tastings and big dinners that led up to it. While there, I chatted with Blake at several events, including at Saturday's auction, which was attended by about 1,000 people in the wine trade. On Monday morning, W. Blake began his report with, 'The slowdown in wine sales has finally come to Napa Valley, in shocking and dramatic fashion,' adding that, 'This year's average bottle price of $195 was down 32 percent from last year. I can say confidently it's the lowest average bottle price in a decade.' True, that appraisal is certainly consistent with, though more cataclysmic than, the modest drop in overall U.S wine sales in 2023. But the question is, as it always is, what are we to deduce from those observations?

Press Wine: Plonk or Special Ingredient?
Roger Morris
Jan 10, 2024

Jan. 10, 2024: Press wine - that is, wine made from juice pressed out of grape pomace once the free-run is separated - doesn't get much press, even though it is often added in small proportions into the final blend of both the premium or estate wine and, especially, into its secondary labels. While tech sheets may go into voluminous details about how a fine wine is made in the vineyard and in the cellar, the utilization of press wine is seldom mentioned, nor is the topic often raised during media briefings and interviews. As 2023 was coming to a close with a new vintage sleeping in the cellars, I posed the question of press wine to several winegrowers.

The Middleburg AVA: Trying to Make Sense in Identifying Terroirs
Roger Morris
Dec 6, 2023

Dec. 6, 2023: The wine world is rabid in its obsession to connect a bottle of wine with its origins - where the grapes were grown - and no one more so than wine producers. Yet the quest to provide meaningful identity to a vineyard that produces a cluster of wine grapes and the area surrounding it is a complicated, frustrating, and often humorous endeavor--with special emphasis on "complicated." This was the challenge that Rachel Martin knew she was facing when she underwent the (should we say Sisyphean or Quixotic?) task of trying to create an appellation for the region of northern Virginia where her family's Boxwood winery is located. No matter where the lines were drawn, someone would find a very reasonable objection to it - the geology or topography decided upon would leave something out or bring something in that seemed unreasonable.

When Grahm Met Gallo: A "Language of Yes" Love Child
Roger Morris
Nov 1, 2023

Nov. 1, 2023: So, I asked, who called whom first? A hearty, though sophisticated, laugh came in reply. 'I would never think of approaching the Gallo company with a business proposition,' says Randall Grahm, the original Rhône Ranger and the present Pope of Popelouchum. 'Joe Gallo approached me. It was shortly after I sold Bonny Doon [January 2020], and, yes, I was surprised. I had not met him, although I had met his dad.' And so, the yclept 'The Language of Yes' brand of wines was conceived three years ago, with Grahm as winemaker in chief, and Gallo as grape supplier and marketer of the resulting wines. Of course, those who follow Gallo realize that the company that was once famous for jug wine has also developed a wide portfolio of well-reviewed, high-end wines either in-house or through buying other wineries.

Young Love in an Old Bottle
Roger Morris
Sep 27, 2023

Sept. 27, 2023: Do you remember when you first fell in love with wine? I mean really fell in love - when you began collecting a few bottles and putting together a cellar, bought that first wine rack, began looking at wine books whose stories read like fairy tales and before you got into planning wine-country vacations with equally besotted wine friends? Looking back from where you are now, wasn't there a thrill and freshness about it, a bit like the first blushes of teenage love? In the late 1970s, I fell into a job as Sunday wine columnist for the Washington Star although I no longer lived in the city. So after work at my day job in Delaware, I would speed down I-95 to downtown D.C. for wine tastings, meeting my friendly competitor - Jo Hawkins at the Post - and stay for dinners with visiting winemakers such as Angelo Gaja and Richard Arrowood. For me, it was a heady time.

Why We Wait: 2013 Napa Cabs Revisited
Roger Morris
Sep 6, 2023

Sept. 6, 2023: The 2013 vintage in Napa Valley for Cabernet Sauvignons was predicted to be both good early and good later, almost from the time the Napa Valley Vintners association reported the year's growing season as being 'early, even and excellent.' Their vintage report noted that 'a warm, dry spring brought early bud break, helped with canopy vigor and berry size and created ideal conditions for flowering and fruit set under sunny skies. With the exception of one heat spike in late June/early July, temperatures were consistently in the zone for optimal vine activity, resulting in notably healthy vines as fruit went through veraison and started ripening. The August 1 start of harvest was the earliest in recent history. White wine grapes came in at a furious pace throughout that month, moving on to lighter reds by early September.'

Susana Balbo Sees a Whiter Argentina
Roger Morris
Aug 2, 2023

August 2, 2023: It's hard to think about wines made from the Torrontes grape without thinking about Susana Balbo. In fact, it's just as difficult to think about Argentine Malbecs without Balbo's name coming to mind. Or, really, discussing Argentine wine in general without Balbo walking into the conversation. Since she founded her own winery in 1999 after several years of working for others, the 67-year-old Balbo has served as the unofficial wine ambassador for Argentina and for Mendoza in particular, helping it to become branded internationally as a diverse, world-class producer of fine wine. And she isn't done yet, not ready to retire into the pages of wine bibliographies and the search engines of the internet. As Balbo's wine business gets ready to celebrate 25 years of independent winemaking after almost two decades of doing it for other people - first in Salta, then back in her native Mendoza - she is full of plans, ideas, and opinions.

Ernst Loosen: Allegra, Adante and Fortissimo
Roger Morris
Jul 5, 2023

July 5, 2023: 'I love Riesling and Pinot Noir with some age,' Ernst Loosen says on the other side of our Zoom screen. It is early June, and all is quiet in the Loosen vineyards along the Mosel, as well as those in the Willamette Valley and in Eastern Washington. This Zoomy declaration of love for aged wines is the jumping off discussion point for 'Ernie' Loosen, as he is generally known and who has one of the freest minds in the wine business. Whereas many winemakers are good at making wine, Loosen is both good at making wine and having a guiding philosophy about how wine should be made and consumed.

On Wine Origins: I'm Napa Valley, and You're Not!
Roger Morris
May 17, 2023

May 17, 2023: One cool morning this April, I sat down for a hotel breakfast in Washington, D.C., with a visiting delegation from Napa Valley Vintners who were in town to taste with the trade in the afternoon and the media that evening. But their primary reason for being in the capital was to meet with regulatory agencies and Congressional representatives about a topic higher on the group's business agenda - the protection of wine origins. 'We just got recognition in Vietnam for the Napa Valley brand,' said Rex Stults, the NVV's VP for industry relations. Getting Vietnam's recognition was no small accomplishment, Stults explained, because some Asian countries still falsely label wines from elsewhere as being from America's most-prestigious appellation.

The Two Petits Find a Home on the East Coast
Roger Morris
Apr 12, 2023

April 12, 2023: What are the chances that a secondary Bordeaux grape, one which seldom gets any attention except for being a small percentage in a Medoc classified red blend, and a white grape infrequently grown outside the backwaters of France's Southwest appellations would together become showcase varietal wines on America's East Coast, particularly in Virginia and Pennsylvania? Or that they would share the diminutive first name of 'Petit' - Petit Verdot and Petit Manseng? It should be noted, of course, that other than sharing a first name and their adaptability and growing popularity in the same broad winegrowing region, the two Petits would have nothing genetically in common should anyone administer a 23andMe test. While even the most casual lover of red Bordeaux knows Petit Verdot is one of a handful of 'blending grapes' grown chiefly in the Medoc on the Left Bank, it wasn't until a dozen or so years ago that I had tasted a varietal Petit Manseng while I was on a tour of the small regions of France's Southwest (South West - they spell it both ways), in the shadow of the Pyrenees. Recently I talked with the winemakers who made two of the 12 Virginia winners, one each for Petit Manseng and another for Petit Verdot, about their experiences with the grapes.

New & Old: An Evening with Biondi Santi
Roger Morris
Mar 8, 2023

March 8, 2023: What happens in the life of any organism when its continuity is interrupted? Does it adapt, and, if so, what path will it take? That Darwinian question lingered in the evening air recently, when two wines were the centerpiece of an impressive tasting. One wine still had a foot in the past, while the other was taking the first step into the future. Both were produced by well-known, well-respected Biondi Santi, whose history is part of the catechism for any student learning Tuscan wines. During the late 1880s, the then-eponymous, family-owned winery became a beacon for showing how great Sangiovese-based wines in the Montalcino region could be. In the 1900s, it created the formula for what were to become the modern, collectible Brunellos. But a decade ago, inheritance problems arose when the winery was being handed off from one generation to the next that partially destroyed its thread of continuity.

Divorcing Your Wine Cellar
Roger Morris
Feb 15, 2023

Feb. 15, 2023: I have this good friend, Rick, who retired a few years ago from his hectic day-to-day grind as an owner / winemaker to enjoy the good life and to do some traveling. Since his retirement, I've thought of Rick's new, leisurely lifestyle as that of a boulevardier, a man who in the morning strolls to a nearby coffee shop for a bracing espresso or two and perhaps a fresh croissant or a pain au chocolat to enjoy while leisurely perusing the morning newspaper. In the evenings, I imagined Rick entertaining guests by first taking them downstairs for a peek into his carefully-curated, temperature-controlled wine cellar. No longer. Rick lives in another town, but whenever we've gotten together in the past few months for lunch, he hasn't ordered a single glass of wine or cup of coffee. For some un-diagnosed medical reason, his system has rebelled, giving Rick severe headaches and indigestion whenever he drinks either wine or coffee.

Italy's Trebbiano: Ugly Duckling to Graceful Swan
Roger Morris
Jan 12, 2023

Jan. 12, 2023: 'To make a fine Trebbiano was always a dream of mine,' says Luca Sanjust, the enthusiastic owner of Petrolo winery in Tuscany's Val d'Arno di Sopra region. 'I've always been interested in history, especially history of the Renaissance, and we have documents [about Trebbiano's origins] dating back to the beginnings of the 14th Century. We know that the Pope, who was then in Avignon, bought it.' He sighs. 'It's possible that we had forgotten its tradition.' If Sanjust's long-held passion for the grape and wine sounds a little misplaced, well, it is and it isn't. For decades, Trebbiano has been considered an ugly duckling of northern Italian white grapes, though not as common, perhaps, as Moscato and certainly not considered as lowly by wine snobs as Pinot Grigio. But certainly no one until recently considered it the stuff of fine wine.

The Lieux-Dits of Seneca Lake
Roger Morris
Nov 30, 2022

Nov. 30, 2022: Looking west from the Seneca Lake's eastern shore and across the placid waters far below, on the opposite side a few miles distant, a mid-afternoon thunderstorm, more of a local squall, really, plays peek-a-boo with the bright sun that has been encouraging the fattening grapes over here to add a bit more sugar and forget about losing acidity. In between, the lake is deep, and not just the water - although the average plunge to the bottom is the length of a football field - but the setting of the lake itself. Most of the vineyards are spread out well above lake level, just below the hilltop and the high plain beyond, beneath its protective brow. 'This area is called 'the Banana Belt' because of its warmth, as opposed to further down the lake,' Kelby Russell, winemaker at Red Newt Cellars located outside the village of Hector, told me during my recent visit. 'The temperature can be 20 degrees warmer down by the lake' he says. 'The red wines from the east side of Seneca tend to be darker with more berry fruitiness. But we've found the soil makes more of a difference in growing, especially with Riesling, than does the exposure. The soils were dropped in quilt-like, sometimes in bands.'

Côte de Kiwi: Steve Smith Sees a Future for Fine Burgundies - Made in New Zealand
Roger Morris
Oct 26, 2022

Oct. 26, 2022: Steve Smith is much too modest to say it or perhaps even to think it. And may not be happy that others, less-inhibited, may have the audacity to say and think it. But Steve Smith, MW, the creative force behind Craggy Range's rise to preeminence in Hawkes Bay and a former partner there, will say that Burgundy's fabled terroir and elegant wines are under threat from global warming. And he will say that he and his business partner, private equity billionaire Brian Sheth, have an undying love for elegant, legendary Pinots Noirs and Chardonnays that come from Burgundy. And that the Pyramid Valley of New Zealand's South Island is under little threat of global warming, unlike Europe, and that he and the Sheth in their collaboration have the resources, the terroir and hopefully the talent to produce Chards and Pinot in the manner, taste and style that in a few short years Burgundy may no longer be able to execute. So, connect the lines to the dots, and the resulting picture of it may look like Burgundy taste-alikes sprouting in lower New Zealand.

The Double Lives of Philippe Bascaules
Roger Morris
Sep 21, 2022

Sept. 21, 2022: To be named estate director at any one of the world's greatest wineries would be, for most winemakers, a lifetime achievement. But to be named director at two of the world's great wineries is practically unheard of - especially if the positions are being simultaneously held at both wineries, involve two unrelated owners, and are located on two different continents, but still in the same hemisphere (meaning bud breaks and harvests at both estates are just days apart). For the past half-dozen years, this has been Philippe Bascaules' daily life. In 2011, the Bordeaux native was hired as general director at Francis Ford Coppola's Inglenook Estate after serving 11 years as estate director for Château Margaux, working alongside Paul Pontallier, the managing director. In 2016, upon the death of Pontallier, Bascaules was enticed to return Margaux while retaining the title of director of winemaking at Inglenook.

Bob Mondavi & Associates
Roger Morris
Aug 3, 2022

August 3, 2022: Opus One, a brilliant idea that was actualized about a decade later, was just the first of the Bob Mondavi & Associates partnerships. In 1995, Mondavi set up a joint venture in Chile, Seña, with Eduardo Chadwick and in the same years established Luce in Montalcino with the Frescobaldi family. In 1999, he began buying shares in Ornellaia in Bolgheri and two years later completed purchase of the famous estate from the Antinori family, again in partnership with Frescobaldi. By 2002, Bob Mondavi's joint ventures had his company owning not only his flagship Robert Mondavi brand but also, in partnership, four of the world's most-revered wines - Opus One, Ornellaia, Luce and Seña. A four-pack of them today would cost about $1,000: $414 for Opus One, $255 for Ornellaia, Seña for $144 and Luce for $124.

Deconstructing the Holy Trinity of Winemaking
Roger Morris
Jun 22, 2022

June 22, 2022: As with all religions, winemaking has its myths and fables, its mainstream congregations and its heretic sects, its prophets and its sycophantic followers. And, like Christianity, winemaking has its Holy Trinity. But instead of the mystery of Father, Son and Holy Ghost, winegrowing is constantly pondering the relationship around Terroir, Vine and Winemaker. Everything boils down to those three and how they work together. If you get into a conversation with any winemaker - regardless of gender, age, race, native language or national origin - 99 percent of them will recite almost word for word what has become winemaker's Holy Creed: 'Wine is made in the Vineyard.' Or the currently most-recited creedal variant: 'I'm just trying to make a wine that speaks of place.' And they seem to actually believe it.

At Long Last: Premier Cru 2020 from Pouilly-Fuissé
Roger Morris
May 10, 2022

May 11, 2022: It was in November 2012 while attending the annual the Hospices de Beaune that I heard there would be a Pouilly-Fuissé presentation that afternoon at the Palais de Congress, an event that wasn't on my schedule. The subject was how the white-wine region of the Mâcon was working its way to being granted Premier Cru status about 80 years after other areas of Burgundy, including those on the Côtes d'Or, had been granted theirs in 1942. My kneejerk reaction was, 'won't happen.' Wholesale ranking changes don't take place in France's most rigid appellations - Burgundy and Bordeaux's Left Bank - although there have been rare adjustments on a case-by-case basis. Elevating several of Pouilly-Fuissé vineyards to Premier Cru ranking didn't seem likely.

Evolutionary Winemaking Comes to Patagonia
Roger Morris
Mar 15, 2022

Mar 15, 2022: Patagonia is particularly interesting because if you're a winemaker wanting to move further away from the Equator in search of cooler terroir as the Earth continues to heat up, Patagonia is about all that is left in the Southern Hemisphere to explore. Unlike the Northern Hemisphere, where England, Demark, Scandinavia, Siberia, Canada and maybe even Iceland all are beckoning the winemaker-cum-pioneer to come plant vines, the Southern Hemisphere has almost run out of new frontiers for farming. The Cape is as far south as South Africa can go, Australia stops after Tasmania, and New Zealand has pretty much reached the limits of its South Island. All these regions are already making commercial wines. So that leaves Patagonia as a place where daring winegrowers can heed call of global warming and ecological evolution.