Monday, January 25, 2010

A Buyer's Market: Some Thoughts.

The cover story for the current issue of the Wine Spectator states that we are currently in a buyer's market for wine. Because of the current economic downturn, drinkers are spending less on individual bottles of wine, but buying more wine than ever. From my perspective, as a retailer, that is both good and bad news. Sure, I'd prefer that people bought more mid-range wines than say the best buy brands that seem to be the current rage. Fortunately, more solidly-made wines are being sold today, than at any other time in recent memory. Wine technology being what it is, it's fairly easy to find inexpensive wines that deliver plenty of up-front flavor, and that go well with simple fare. But what I find a little unsettling is that a lot of wine consumers are ONLY willing to buy wines under or at, let's say $10.99. So, what do you actually get at that price point? For the most part, you get grapes sourced from non-appellation designated regions (e.g., California, Southeastern Australia, or French Vin de Pays); larger crop yields; youthful, unoaked wines, or if oak aging is required, the substitution of expensive oak barrels, with oak chips or staves, that are suspended in the fermentation tank to impart some level of oak flavoring. Essentially, you are getting alcoholic grape juice, somewhat lacking in structure, nuance or complexity of flavor. Of course, it can and in most cases does taste good. And, if you are happy with that, great!
What I am proposing is taking the next step, and asking you to select wine that hover in the $15.99 range. It's not a huge monetary leap, and the dividends are noticeable. Here you often do get wines that are appellation specific; aged in oak barrels, albeit for less time that what normally passes for "reserve" wines; lower crop yields; therefore, higher levels of concentration; and probably, more hands on wine making. I remember seeing the Jacob's Creek winery in the Barossa, and marveling at what seemed to be more akin to a petrochemical plant than a winery: a veritable forest of stainless steel fermentation tanks, catwalks and pipes everywhere. Although Jacob's Creek wines are tasty; I'd rather drink something from a more modestly-scaled enterprise. It only stands to reason when you're producing such vast quantities of juice, you're going to end up with something perfectly adequate, but far from stellar. If nothing else, you'd better have a very rigorous quality control system in place when it comes to grape selection, since, in all likely hood, you're sourcing grapes from a lot of different growers, with varying degrees of quality.
So, next time you decide to pick up a bottle of Red Truck California Red for $9.99, pick up a bottle of the Hook & Ladder Sonoma County, Russian River Valley "The Tillerman" Red Wine, instead ($16.99), and you'll get twice the wine, and a great finish.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Some Random Thoughts on Nano-Distillation and Absinthe

I have been thinking a lot about the distillation of spirits, in general, and about absinthe in particular. While most of my recent professional life has centered around wine, I find that I have become increasingly drawn to spirits and liqueurs. Perhaps it has to do with the alchemy that happens during the distillation process, or it's the notion of infusing a base spirit with fruits, herbs, and other botanicals that I find both intriguing and appealing. I have been reading about the phenomenon known as nano-distillation. This is the contemporary term that once was known as making "moonshine," and is a fancy name for home distillation. Nano-distillation has increased in popularity in the past decade, with hundreds of regional nano-distilleries mushrooming across the land. People who once dedicated themselves to home brewing have turned their attention and efforts to making hootch--granted, this ain't gran' pappy's corn liker, but the spirit that drove those early pioneers is alive and well in the new generation of distillers. What sets most of these nano-distillers apart from their predecessors is the desire to make a spirit that is both unique, and the perfect expression of their art, and not so much a question of making a financial killing, or making spirits that are cheaper than can be bought in the marketplace. This is craft, and one of the holy of holies is making a genuine absinthe.

Legally unavailable until recently, absinthe has experienced a renaissance ever since the federal government rescinded the ban on its manufacture, and legalized (although regulated) the active ingredient found in wormwood, thujone. After years of legal wrangling with the federal government, spirits importers and distributors managed to get the ban lifted, and Americans were able to sample absinthe from Switzerland (its birthplace), France, Spain, and the Czech Republic. Once confronted with the real deal, American distillers, and nano-distillers figured they could make the genuine article right here in America. To date, there are now about thirty-odd domestic absinthes commercially available in the marketplace; a few of these come from what could be characterized as nano-distilleries, such as Delaware Phoenix in upstate New York. The brainchild of 51 year-old Cheryl Lins, who until three years ago had never even heard about absinthe. She encountered an article about the spirit in the New Yorker Magazine, and reading the piece set her off on a three-year odyssey to set up her own nano-distillery, and produce her own versions of absinthe. She now has two absinthes that are commercially available through mail order, or in limited distribution in New York. She was recently the subject of a profile in the New York Times ( Her drive and stick-to-it-iveness to achieve her dream is what nano-distillation is all about; near obsessives driven to create something artisanal, unique, and ultimately, both drinkable and good.

My first encounter with absinthe only occurred recently. I got a bottle of Vieux Carre absinthe, distilled by the Philadelphia Distilling Co. (, took it home, and guided by a set of instructions culled from The Wormwood Society website (, I poured the absinthe into the reservoir at the bottom of the glass, placed my slotted spoon on the rim, with the optional cube of sugar, and slowly dripped chilled water from the carafe. The absinthe seemingly magically began to turn an opalescent white color; this process is known as the "louche." Upon tasting the absinthe, I found out what all the fuss was about; the stuff is delicious! There were some very nice, subtle anise and fennel flavors, along with some minty wormwood notes in the background. I found the lightness of the anise flavor far more to my liking than what one normally gets with Spanish anise, which can be syrupy and cloying. The fennel doux added a nice light sweetness that played well with the light anise and floral wormwood. The genepi, which along with hyssop, are frequently added to the "holy trinity" of anise, fennel, and wormwood, added a nice roundness to the overall flavor and texture. The finish was something else; it lingered for a good long while, leaving a pleasurable taste and a slight numbness in my mouth. If I had one criticism it's that this particular absinthe did not hold up very well to "excessive" watering; anything more than a 3:1 ratio and the absinthe falls apart. It flattened out, and some subtle chlorine or bleach-like notes became unpleasantly noticeable.

I can easily see how absinthe became addictive. Thankfully, the 60% A.B.V. (120 proof) of this absinthe acts as a natural deterrent to excessive consumption. Now that I've been properly introduced to this great spirit, it's time to try it out in a cocktail. What could be more appropriate that a Death in the Afternoon; Ernest Hemingway's contribution to absinthe lore: substitute Champagne for the water, and use a Champagne flute rather than the traditional absinthe glass. Here's to you!

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Grower Champagne...worth the search.

I’ve been thinking about Champagne a lot, lately. Perhaps, it’s due to the proximity of the New Year’s holiday, or it may have been the result of an exchange that I witnessed at a local wine shop a while ago, where a customer, seeking to impress a Champagne-loving friend, opted for the usual brand of industrial Champagne over the truly unique, characterful, wine recommended by the salesperson. The proffered bottle, a non-vintage Brut from Egly-Ouriet, a small grower in the Montagne de Riems, known for producing rich, powerful wines of great depth. This small estate farms approximately eight hectares of all Grand Cru vineyards, mostly in Ambonnay, but also in Bouzy and Verzenay. The vigneron, Francis Egly, is recognized as one of the finest growers in the region; his Champagnes are nothing, if not expressive of their terroir. Clearly, the aforementioned Champagne-loving friend would have been in for a unique experience.
But, the sad fact is that this scene is played out hundreds of times a day in wine shops across the nation. People who wouldn’t hesitate for a moment to lay down their hard-earned cash for a terroir-driven, 93+ wine from Parker, will, more often than not, opt to buy an innocuous factory Champagne that is available at every mom ‘n’ pop shop in the land.

In 2006, the top-3 Champagne brands accounted for 62.6% of all the Champagne sold in America, whereas Grower Champagnes accounted for only 2.47% of the market. This translates into approximately 2,000 growers out of the 20,000 that exist, who are making and selling their own juice, although the numbers that have the ability to export their wines to the United States is far smaller. However, the good news is that their numbers are growing: last year, according to Terry Theise, a top American selecter of Grower Champagne, there were 129 Grower Champagnes available in the U.S., this year the number has risen to 160.

So, what do you actually get when you opt for Champagne from these grower-producers, or récoltant-manipulant (RM), as they are known in France? You get, as Eric Asimov eloquently states, “Champagnes with clear, pronounced personalities that bubble up through the wine, expressing the quirky nuances of each particular combination of soil, climate and producer.” That is to say, something honest and real; wine grown and made by a vigneron; by a family that tends the vines and grows the grapes. Not “product” served up by a mega-conglomerate that also sells overpriced luggage. These are wines that are an eloquent expression of their individual terroirs, much in the same way as other storied wines, such Barolo from the Cannubi vineyard, or Meursault-Les Perrières.

The problem is that your average consumer suffers from a mild form of disconnect with regard to Champagne; wine is wine and Champagne is that other beverage reserved for celebratory occasions and special holidays. It’s no wonder then that most Champagne drinkers don’t wax eloquently on the differences between say, a single-vineyard Varnier-Frannière “Cuvée Saint-Denis” Grand Cru from Avize, and a Vilmart & Cie, “Grand Cellier,” non-vintage Champagne from probably the best grower-producer in the Montagne de Reims, as they do with their expensive Burgundies. And it is partially because of this disconnect, that the big Champagne houses have been able to foist their homogenized, ultra-blended, house-style wines on a largely unschooled public. Their wines (with the exception of some Cuvées de Prestige from the likes of Krug or Bollinger) have been largely stripped of any traces of terroir or distinctiveness. Perhaps, the second reason for this disconnect is the fact that most people do not perceive Champagne as being, essentially, a food wine. The more mineral-laden Champagnes are a perfect match for shellfish and Sushi, while the more robust styles are perfect match for roast meats. And it is in this realm that Grower Champagnes really shine, affording drinkers unique, untold pleasures that a homogenized, industrial product cannot provide.

So, what Grower Champagne would I recommend for the upcoming New Year’s Eve celebration? The aforementioned Egly-Ouriet Brut Tradition Grand Cru; a sublime paring for just about any holiday meal; and probably a splurge for simply toasting or ringing in the New Year, but hey, it's only once a year!

Wine and grower information from Michael Skurnik Wines, the importer:

Egly-Ouriet is one of the original Grower Champagnes distributed by Michael Skurnik Wines, long before "Grower Champagne" was even part of our wine vernacular. As such, Egly has earned a soft spot in the hearts of many Champagne groupies. Based in the village of Ambonnay, this small estate claims approximately eight hectares of ALL Grand Cru vineyards, mostly in Ambonnay, but also in Bouzy and Verzenay. Francis Egly is one of the most conscientious, skilled vignerons in the entire region, and his vinous, terroir-expressive Champagnes are unique and incredible. The vines average 30-50 years in age and are planted to 75% Pinot Noir and 25% Chardonnay. In order to preserve the integrity of the base wines as much as possible, all wines are unfiltered - a somewhat unusual practice in Champagne. Once the assemblage is complete, all wines spend a minimum of three years on their yeasts, often significantly longer, resulting in rich, full-bodied Champagnes. The date of disgorgement can always be found on the back label.

Tasting Notes:
Golden colored with some hints of green tinges. Lemon and honey suckle butter on the nose with some wet stones, chalk dust, white roses, nuts and cooked peaches on the edges. Lots of pepper and raspberries with white roses here, Mirabelle plums, and lemon and lime rind. Mid palate of baked dried red-fuits with a long finish.

Simply one of the finest growers in all of Champagne, this is their flagship
wine; 75% Pinot Noir and 25% Chardonnay, all from the Grand Cru villages of Ambonnay, Bouzy and Verzenay. Unapologetically vinous, and with amazing depth. The vines are between 35 and 40 years old. The sheer ripeness and quality of the fruit allow for a very moderate dosage of 4 grams per liter. Egly's Champagnes are legendary; taste why.

Wine Advocate Review:
The NV Brut Tradition Grand Cru (75% Pinot Noir, 25% Chardonnay) is made in a muscular, weighty style that reveals impressive richness and density in its fruit. The wine possesses outstanding persistence on the palate but finishes rather tight, suggesting at least a few additional months of bottle age are warranted. This is a distinctly fruit-driven, opulent style of Champagne. The Brut Tradition Grand Cru spent 36 months on its lees and was disgorged in July, 2008. Anticipated maturity: 2008-2011. 91 points.-
Wine Advocate (Dec 2008)

Monday, December 21, 2009


This is the inaugural edition of Georgetown Wine & Spirits newsletter and blog. If you have visited the store, you undoubtedly have seen me standing behind the counter. If not, let me introduce myself. My name is Manuel Michalowski, and I have been involved in the wine business since 2001. I have worked in wine retail, wholesale, and as a wine consultant/educator. I hope to use this forum, as both a marketing vehicle for the store-to highlight wines of interest-and, to write about topics that interest me, and hopefully, you (e.g., different rum styles, the virtues of grower Champagne; Tequila, wine chemistry, Belgian Red Ales, Irish vs. Scottish Single Malt Whisk(e)y, etc.).

I though we might kick off this blog with a few nuggets about Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey. I always get asked, "What makes bourbon Bourbon?" and "How is it different from Single Malt?" Both are pretty reasonable questions, and apparently, quite a few people are curious about America's native spirit. First the basic facts:

To be designated Bourbon (by law, enacted in May 1964), the whiskey type must be produced from a mash of not less than 51 percent corn grain, and is usually made using between 70 and 90 percent corn, with some barley malt plus rye and/or wheat in the mashbill. It has to be distilled to no more than 80% ABV and casked at 62.5% ABV or less. Legally, bourbon must be matured in new, charred, white-oak barrels for a minimum of two years. Contrary to popular belief, bourbon does not need to come from Kentucky to be classified as Bourbon; it needs only to originate in the U.S. There are bourbon distilleries in Tennessee, Pennsylvania, New York, Virginia, and even California.

Bourbon differs from Single Malt Scotch Whisky in its primary ingredient, corn. Single Malt Scotch Whisky is made solely from malted barley in copper pot stills. "Single malt" is the product of an individual distillery. In Scotland, it must be matured for a minimum of three years.

Perhaps the second most popular question centers around Jack Daniels, the famous Tennessee Whiskey. How is it different from Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey? Here's the real deal: Tennessee whiskeys are essentially bourbon-style spirits that undergo filtration through a thick layer of sugar-maple charcoal before the spirit is casked. The same legal criteria that apply to bourbon, in terms of strength and maturation period, also apply to Tennessee whiskey. The charcoal filtration process is colloquially known as the Lincoln County Process, in reference to Lincoln County, Tennessee, where Jack Daniels was founded. One point of interest is that Jack Daniels cannot be purchased in in its home base of Lynchburg, Tennessee. Lynchburg is situated in Monroe County, which is officially "dry." Ironic, no?

To conclude, there are other styles of American whiskey: Corn, Rye, and those distilled in micro-distilleries. Here's the lowdown on each:

Corn whiskey is distilled from a fermented mash of not less than 80 percent corn at less than 80 percent ABV. It is the one American whiskey that does not have to be aged in new, charred-oak barrels, and no minimum maturation period is specified.

Rye whiskey, by law, has to be made from a mash of no less than 51 percent rye, with other ingredients usually being corn and malted barley. It has to be distilled to no more than 80 percent ABV and casked at 62.5 percent ABV or less. As with bourbon, virign charred-oak barrels are used for maturation, and the minimum maturation period is two years. leading brands of rye whiskey include: Pikesville, Rittenhouse, and Sazerac.

U.S. Micro-distilling - The US is currently undergoing a boom in small-scale or "micro" distilling. Whiskey micro distilling is a notably vibrant area of the market, where experimentation and innovation with different grains and production techniques are the norm. Distillers often operate outside the legally-defined boundaries of bourbon, rye, or corn whiskeys.
Some micro distillers include: Anchor Distilling Co, San Francisco; Mount Vernon Distillery, Virginia; New Holland Dsitillery, Michigan; Ballast Point, San Diego; and High West Distillery in Utah.

Notes adapted from Charles Maclean's excellent World Whiskey, DK, 2009.