Refocusing on Wine Labels

I have to admit, somewhere along this wine journey of mine, wine labels have become a bit like white noise once I pop the bottle. Sure, I’ll snap a pic for Instagram or Delectable, but I’ve been more concerned with what’s inside the bottle. But a few things over the summer reminded me that these labels deserve a significant pause—if not for the time spent in creating and marketing them, but for the joy of discovery they help to impart.

The first is a fascinating innovation that’s changing the way those in the bottle business can market their wares, but the second is a bit of whimsical happenstance, so I’ll start there.

Labels Invoke an Artistic Past

If you follow me on Instagram, you may have noticed I’ve recently moved from Washington, D.C. to Boston where I’m soon learning that there’s a fascinating and evolving wine culture up here. (Which also explains why I haven’t written in this blog since February —so my apologies for the delay). That also means, that when I’m not exploring wine, or focused on my day job (which thankfully still lets me write about wine), I’m exploring my new home state. Recently, that led me to the beautiful Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum, famous for an unsolved art heist in the 1990s. On my way out of the museum, a room caught my eye: It was empty except for a stunning work of a woman dancing across the horizontal canvas. I couldn’t stop looking at it. And after taking a few iPhone pics, decided I should continue on my way.

Later that evening, after posting about my adventure on Instagram, a fellow wine-lover I follow commented that the piece of artwork was the label of an Edmunds St. John bottle. (If you don’t know ESJ, please read this great Esther Mobley profile and seek out his wines). Lo and behold, and not even 10 seconds later, I was able to pull the bottle out of my own wine cellar. Had I seen this artwork before? Of course, but I remembered the bottle for its producer, not its label.

Edmunds St. John’s El Jaleo wine bottle on the left, and the original painting on the right.

It’s a funny coincidence, and one I like to think the universe may have played a part in because honestly, the only artwork I snapped pictures of were of a missing Rembrandt and this John Singer Sanger’s El Jaleo painted in 1882. But more importantly, it’s a nice tap on the shoulder to keep paying attention to the label. In this case, it’s illustrating ESJ’s first Spanish blend.

Label Innovations

However, if you’re in the wine business and trying to introduce yourself to the vast majority of the wine-drinking public, your label is everything. You’re probably shaking your head and dismissing my white noise comment above.  But I agree, to discount the creativity and purposefulness that goes into labels is foolish. My first realization came after discovering a coffee-table book called 99 Bottles of Wine on the giveaway pile when I worked at NPR. The book showcases the bottles designed by CF Napa Brand Design. But next to each photograph is a page-long description of how the label was conceived.

So, when I was asked to write a marketing story for SevenFifty Daily on how to take the perfect bottle shot, the importance of the label came back into focus. While much of the story discusses hiring a professional, the lighting and consistency of your photographs, one bit of ingenious trickery caught me off guard.

It’s a company called Outshinery and it was founded by Laurie Millotte, a Burgundy-born graphic designer who moved to Vancouver so she could see the Pacific Ocean (I may need to reevaluate how I choose to move in the future, especially as cooler weather and gray skies are starting to arrive here in Boston). After designing wine labels and realizing the difficulty in getting quality brand assets for her clients to sell their wares, she knew there had to be a better way—especially one that would allow her to work with clients all over the world and not be tied down to waiting for shipments of wine to cross international borders). And while watching one of the Jurassic Park movies, she had her “aha” moment: Why not use the magic of Hollywood and apply it to the alcohol business. If technology can make a dinosaur interact with the people and the rest of the physical world around us, why can’t there be a way to do the same with bottles, she told me.

And that’s what Outshinery does. Using 3-D technology, CGI (computer-generated images), and a dash of scientific calculations, she’s created a virtual studio that can create and then photograph a virtual bottle from any direction. Not only do the finished products look incredibly true to life (“It still looks real,” she assured me. “It’s just executed by a computer.”), but she can animate them for fun social media campaigns like this Mikkeller Brewers Instagram.

Wineries (or breweries) can even have their images printed long before the bottles come off the production line. As long as the winery has a digital version of the label available and knows which shape and color bottle they’re using, the images can be created—either against a white background that can be used on a tech sheet, or placed in a real photograph for lifestyle images.

Before and after bottle shots using Outshinery
Traditional photographs on the left, and Outshinery’s bottle images on the right.

For the wine industry, which likes to harken back to its history, it’s fun to see new technology easing some of the business responsibilities and the fascinating innovations coming from creative people like Laurie Millotte.

Laurie recently hosted a webinar for 150 wineries to discuss the importance of getting the right images and how her business can help. Lucky for us, she’s posted it online, which you can watch here.

More Details on New Alcohol Tax Laws


Taxes. It’s a dreaded topic, often filled with thoughts of dollar signs flying out the window, procrastination and eye-rolls. It’s certainly not the fun side to writing about wine. But after reporting on the new alcohol-specific tax legislation that was added to the larger tax overhaul bill, this time, it’s a topic with plenty of interesting things to talk about.

Thanks to my editors at SevenFifty Daily, I was able to write a comprehensive report that I hope will be informative and useful to industry professionals, but there were some tidbits I had to leave on the cutting-room floor.

And that’s where this space comes in. For those seeking a bit more behind-the-scenes details about the Craft Beverage Modernization and Tax Reform legislation, here’s some of that additional reporting. (Note: If you haven’t read my piece yet, go read that first … I’ll wait).

After interviews with Michael Kaiser of WineAmerica, Bob Pease of the Brewers Association and Mark Shilling of the American Craft Spirits Association, it was clear the purpose of the federal excise tax cuts was reinvestment back into the industry. Yet as consumers, it’s easy for us to hear “less taxes”, and hope (and maybe pray) that those savings will fall into our pockets. But that’s not quite the case as Kaiser clarifies:

The whole point of a tax credit like this is that the money is going to be back into their business. In some other articles that have been written about this bill, there’s been a narrative that now wineries, brewers and distillers are going to lower the cost of their product because they’re paying less taxes, but in reality our member companies and the other commodity companies are going to refold it back into their businesses.”

These new tax laws didn’t appear out of the blue. Lobbyists have been working for close to a decade to lower federal excise taxes and it’s one of the few times members of the wine, beer and spirits industries banded together in support of a common goal.

In January 2017, the Craft Beverage Modernization and Tax Reform Act was introduced with strong bipartisan support. The stand-alone bill called for the tax rates and credits to be permanent changes, but when lawmakers decided to fold it into their gigantic tax overhaul at the end of the year, that permanency was reduced to only two years.

Another casualty was the amount of time the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) had to implement the changes. Instead of a year, they only got about 10 days. The Tax Cuts and Job Act was passed on Dec. 22, 2017 and became law on Jan. 1, 2018, which given the holiday season, only gave the regulatory agency that administers the laws about four full work days (provided none of its staff was on vacation).

This, not surprisingly, has caused some confusion.

Scott Rosenbaum, a spirits specialist at T. Edward Wines and Spirits, described a “disconnect,” when he tried to do his job at the start of the year.

“As an importer, I had [spirits] crossing the border on [Jan. 2] which should have had the new tax rate applied, and we were charged the old tax rate and told that we could file for a refund because they hadn’t put it into play yet even though it went into action,” he told me while I was researching the SevenFifty Daily story.

Kaiser of WineAmerica, who was among the lobbyists fighting for the bill’s passage, wrote in an explainer piece to wineries that he doesn’t expect the TTB to finalize its written rules and regulations until early spring. But he assures businesses that if they are still paying the old rates, the savings will be retroactive back to the beginning of the year.

So, what’s next? The lobbyists all told me they’re committed to fighting for reauthorization and making the new tax rates permanent like it was intended. They’re also working to help smooth out its implementation.

“In the permanent version of this bill, there was some actual language that would have required Congress to appropriate some more money for TTB to implement this,” Kaiser says. “And so separate from this, we’re working to get more money for them through the appropriations process.”

One more thing worth mentioning, or perhaps asking: Why did this bipartisan-supported bill get wrapped into an extremely divisive piece of legislation?

Without getting lost in the intricacies of how Congress does business, one answer might lie in the act’s impact. Mere weeks after tax bill was signed into law, there’s evidence that small drinks businesses are already hiring for newly-created positions — many of which are manufacturing jobs, which the Trump administration has been promising.

Pease, of the Brewers Association, says his industry has always been a source for manufacturing jobs, often in urban environments. 

And as Meredith Meyer Grelli, co-owner of Wigle Whiskey, noted when I spoke to her last week: “Being in Pittsburgh, getting back manufacturing jobs has been the rallying cry for decades and it’s sort of interesting that in some ways it’s happening through alcohol.”

Wine Gadgets from #CES2018


I’m starting a new day job shortly that will move me into the consumer technology space, so with the 2018 Consumer Electronic Show making headlines in Las Vegas this week, it had me thinking: What kind of crazy wine gadgets are being touted and might be entering the market?

As many wine experts have expressed (for example, see this interview I did with with Jon Bonné about his new book, “The New Wine Rules”), these fancy tools aren’t necessarily helpful to your wine and are often more show than function.

But that doesn’t make me stop wondering! So, here are a few of the gadgets I found on a google search of wine and CES 2018:

* This modular wine shelving for your cellar: Caveasy One (via  AndroidHeadlines).

* This new aerator for your wine bottle: Aveine (via The Verge).

* And there’s now a connected (automated) version of the Coravin (via CNET).

(For those following this topic more closely, did I miss anything?)

Does anyone really need new technology for a product that has been produced and enjoyed for centuries upon centuries? Probably not. But it’s still fun to think about and any time wine can enter a wider conversation in the world, it gives us some fun teachable moments.

Too Much Wine in Your House? Throw a Clear the Cellar Party

Clearing the cellar meant we opened a lot of wine! (Photo by Berg Atkinson)

When you enjoy wine and start to acquire or collect it, it’s easy to fill up your space pretty quickly. And if you’re like me, you often save a bottle or two to share with specific people, or a specific occasion. But then those opportunities don’t quite come the way you imagined, or a bottle gets pushed to the back and you forget about it or your tastes start to change and all of a sudden your favorite wine is just meh.

Chances are, that’s happening to your friends, too. So now that shipping season is here (the few months a year when the weather won’t ruin the wine on the back of a delivery truck because it’s too hot or too cold), it’s not unthinkable to admit that you may have gotten a bit carried away and now have nowhere to put your wine, unless you like making cardboard box towers in your living room.

tower of wine boxes
Too many boxes full of wine with no place to put it. (Photo by itswinebyme.)

To combat this purely first-world problem, some friends decided to throw a Clear the Cellar Party and invited about a dozen (plus or minus) wino-s to bring a random assortment of wines they wanted to get rid of, but didn’t necessarily just want to pour them down the drain.

We had close to 100 bottles of wine open and probably another 20 that we failed to uncork. The results were nothing short of epic, not so much because the wines were amazing — in fact, many turned out to be just so-so (and there was at least a case of undrinkable wine) yet the diversity of wines and curiosity it provoked made the tasting that much more fun.

Not to mention, there was an absence of stress that often comes with wanting to impress others with the bottles you brought. So, what’s usually a gathering of fun, super laid-back people, was even more relaxed. That translated to more laughs, more fun and an evening to remember.

Want to throw a similar party for your friends? Here are some tips based on what contributed to our success:

* Give guests several weeks notice so they can really dive into their cellars and pull the bottles they want to bring (or maybe locate bottles they are curious about trying — we really had no definition of what “clearing the cellar” should mean).

* Find the right kind of space to throw the party. This is not an event to combine with a restaurant or seated meal. Somebody’s home or backyard will do. My friends reserved the community room in their condo building, pushed several long folding tables together, and it was perfect.

So. many. bottles. (Photo by itswinebyme.)

* When the wines arrive, don’t try to organize the bottles too much.  Loosely group them in order from light whites to deep, dark, brooding purple. Don’t push the tables against the wall. Having space to walk on either side of the table meant there was never any crowding.

* Plastic utility buckets make wonderful spit and dump buckets. Our host was diligent about dumping the buckets when they were about halfway full, too. That insured no splashing and no accidental spilling. (Oh, and come to grips, you’re going to dump a lot of wine, and that’s perfectly okay! In fact, it’s the responsible thing to do.)


* Food. You need food to ensure your friends don’t over indulge. We had two big plates of cheese and charcuterie to snack on right away. Then, later on in the evening, some other goodies were served: pulled pork, a chicken dish, brisket and a bunch of sides and salads. We did everything pot-luck style. There was room to sit and eat, but it wasn’t a seated dinner.

* Find a corner of shame. It’s inevitable, there will be some duds. And it will be sad. So once a couple people have tasted the offending the wine and agreed, we banished the wine to a far corner of the room. Yes, it’s heartbreaking to see these bottles here — especially the ones with significant age. But it allowed us to pay our respects, and helped others decide what not to taste.

The beginning of what became the “corner of shame.” Many more bottles joined this group before the night was over. (Photo by itswinebyme.)

Be really fabulous hosts. I can’t thank our hosts enough for all the hard work they put into planning and keeping things running smoothly throughout the night.

Natural Discoveries at Raw Wine New York

Some of the delicious producers who shared their wines at the Raw Wine Fair.

What happens when you put 145 wine producers from all over the world inside a Brooklyn warehouse who all share common winemaking (and growing) values? You get 145 different points of view, often with wild flavors and textures to match. I wouldn’t have expected anything less from the Raw Wine Fair. And neither would the hundreds of wine professionals, industry insiders and enthusiasts who eagerly made their way from table to table, tasting a handful of wines from each producer, using the well-placed spit buckets and overwhelming the winemakers who were proudly pouring and answering questions.

The calm before the storm as people begin to arrive for the second day of Raw Wine.

When I interviewed Raw’s founder Isabelle Legeron about a week before the fair, she told me, “Growers have felt very confident to showcase their wines with us because they knew it wouldn’t be an event where people would be getting  rowdy and drunk. They’d be appreciating the wine.”

She was exactly right. Those attending Raw weren’t hogging the stations, or elbowing each other to get in. At busier spots, people patiently waited their turn. Often times, if you approached a crowded table and just motioned your glass nearby, someone would let you in.

These kinds of events are full of discovery and it is not uncommon to discuss with other strangers which producers they find interesting. Toward the end of my time on the first day, I wound up chatting with someone from Boston who took me on a mini-tour of his favorite producers — all of whom I had missed during my own rounds.

Here are a few of my discoveries (and observations) from the two-day natural wine fête:

* As others have said about natural wine — there’s a lot of really beautiful wines. There’s also plenty of not-so-great natural wines in the world. But then again with taste as the ultimate subjective experience, take those words with a shaker full of salt.

* This was a good reminder to throw what I think I know about wine out the window. For example, there were some beautiful wines from Chile — usually a region I shy away from (just personal taste preferences), whereas I was disappointed by what I tasted from Northern Rhone (usually one of my favorite regions).

* It’s possible to grow grapes, and make age-worthy wine in Texas. Unfortunately if you want any of the wine, the only choice you have is to visit the winemaker’s tasting room.

* Fun celebrity sighting: Aziz Ansari. Not completely a surprise as he’s already noted for enjoying natural wine, but as a “Master of None” fan, it was a bit of a thrill to see him up close.

* The power of spitting during an event like this can’t be stressed enough. It’s the only way to actually enjoy all of the wines and be able to leave standing straight and in one piece. Taking breaks to get a bite to eat helps not just with keeping you from getting drunk, but also with palate fatigue.

* I wish I remembered my Spanish, or knew French, Italian, German or any other language. For those producers who didn’t speak English well, it would have been wonderful to converse with them in their language. You could see in their eyes and from the genuine smiles on their faces the love they had for their craft, and it would have been wonderful to indulge in more conversation with them.

So now the fun begins — trying to find these wines in the wild via retailers or restaurant wine lists. Until then, I can at least remind myself of how much excitement and happiness surrounded me in this Instagram I accidentally photobombed while leaving the Gut Oggau tasting table.


Raw Wine Fair Returns to New York, Expands to Los Angeles

Last year’s catalog from the Raw Wine Fair.

Looking for a way to understand what all the natural wine hype is about? Hundreds of these wines from all over the world will be featured under one roof as the Raw Wine Fair descends on New York and then Los Angeles this month. The tasting brings together more than 100 winemakers from around the world who produce what’s considered “natural” or “low-intervention” wines.

With all the quibbling about what it takes to qualify as a natural wine (and whether that really matters), this event is a good place to learn, ask questions and make your own judgments. (You’ll also be able to keep up with trendy wine conversations after meeting such producers as Sicily’s Frank Cornelissen, Austria’s Gut Oggau and Slovenia’s Movia.)

Conceived by Isabelle Legeron, the first woman Master of Wine in France, Raw began in 2012 in London as part industry-trade show — and a chance for small wine producers to market and introduce themselves to importers, distributors and other wine professionals — and part consumer tasting (last year,  was its first visit to the U.S.).

Isabelle says her goal for both audiences is to promote transparency in wine.

“I want people to start thinking about wine the way they think about food,” she told me last week. “I realized very early on that we have this idea that most people think that wine is natural regardless. People have this idea that wine is grape juice fermented and bottled. And that’s because there’s no ingredient labeling requirements for all of wine.”

The reality is that most wines are filled with enzymes and other additives that are used to help preserve the wine, enhance the flavor, and some — with names like mega purple  — can manipulate the color of the wine.

“For me, it’s very simple. A natural wine is made with 100 percent grape juice and nothing else. Not even use of sulfites,” she says. But “for the purpose of the fairs, we’re not exclusively a natural wine fair. Not very many people make purely natural wine.  For the fair, growers who are natural, it’s a two stage process where everything has to be done organically: cleanly in the vineyard and nothing added in the cellar.  We also welcome low-intervention, biodynamic, permaculture principals. [The winemakers are] not allowed to add yeast or enzymes, except small doses of sulfites.”

The use of sulfites — which helps prevent wines from decomposing as it ages — is usually at the heart of the “what’s a natural wine” debate. Consumers tend to understand it the most, because it’s something they’ve heard of. The chemical is often blamed for causing headaches (that’s a myth!) or causing allergic reactions. Yet, sulfites appear in many foods, and doesn’t quite get the same bad rap.

Producers attending the fair who use minimal sulfites are required to list that information on the Raw Wine website, underscoring Isabelle’s transparency values.

“Because even people who work in a very low-intervention way are way, way more natural than the vast majority of wine producers out there. Somebody who uses a little bit of sulfites, but farms organically, ferments naturally, doesn’t fine, doesn’t filter, is actually on the spectrum of a natural wine producer,” she says.

In the year leading up to the fair, Isabelle tasted wines from hundreds of winemakers all around the world who submitted their bottles for possible entry into the fair. She estimates that only about 20 or 30 percent get chosen.

So what’s the best way of tackling the Raw Wine Fair — especially with 145 producers attending in New York, and 112 in Los Angeles? Remember, each producer could have up to five or six different wines to try. Isabelle stresses it’s about interacting with the growers more than anything else, and of course spitting.

If you’re a consumer, Isabelle suggests this:

“People need to come in and really enjoy the experience and make sure you spit, that’s the first thing. Make a whole day of it. Take breaks, have a bite to eat, have a coffee and maybe not view it as a marathon. More look at it as an opportunity to chat with growers. Even when you’re  trade, it can feel a bit daunting … It’s not technical. We’re not here to score wines or anything. We’re really here to communicate a way of living. A way of somm’ing, a way of making wine. Don’t taste with your head, but taste with your stomach and your instinct.”

And for the winemakers:

“For the growers, my advice is always to be super friendly and super smiley. Because I think sometimes producers come from very far away, some people speak not the best of English, they’re a bit shy, they’re a bit worried about are they going to say the right thing, but I always say to them, they’re just here to meet other human beings, and not get too bogged down on the technicality unless people specifically ask for it, because what most people want is to meet the grower … it’s the human interaction.”

The 2017 U.S. fairs will take place Nov. 5 and 6 in New York, and Nov. 12 and 13 in Los Angeles. Thanks to a growing excitement for natural wines in the U.S., the group has planned smaller events across the country, too. For more about natural wine, Isabelle Legeron has also just released the second edition of her book, Natural Wine.

Assessing the Aftermath of the Wine Country Wildfires

Damage from Sonoma wildfires in Santa Rosa
Burned-out cars and charred homes in Santa Rosa, Calif., after wildfires spread across wine country. (Capt. Will Martin/ Army National Guard)

As if 2017 couldn’t be a crazier year, and right as Harvest was ending in Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino, wildfires roared through the hills and mountains and down through some of the valleys. Thousands of homes were destroyed. Scores of people lost their lives. Many, many more were counted as missing. It took more than a week to contain some of the fires. But even now that blue skies are replacing the smoke, and the fires are no longer threatening the land, it’s still difficult to understand the extent of the damage or how this will impact California’s wine industry.

A lot of friends have recently asked me what this will all mean, and while I’m far from qualified to give a definitive answer, here’s what is known, and what we should be paying attention to:

* A vast majority of the wineries and vineyards were spared. The San Jose Mercury News has detailed nearly two dozen that were either damaged or destroyed, while Napa Valley Vintners, the trade association for more than 500 Napa wineries, says 47 of the 330 members who responded to their outreach reported damage; and a handful had significant damage. Fortunately, the majority of the fruit has already been harvested — in Napa, which accounts for only 4 percent of wines made in the state, 90 percent of the fruit was already picked.

* As Dave McIntyre reported early on, it’s the people, not the vines, that are suffering the most. In fact, as the LA Times wrote, the vines acted as a natural fire break, and perhaps protected the vineyards and wineries. (Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the other nascent industry in the region.)

* Like most of the agriculture community, the wineries — especially this time of year — rely on immigrant workers for harvest and other important winery jobs. So not only were these workers not able to earn their wages because evacuations forced wineries to close and harvest activities to stop, but many of these workers lived in Sonoma County, where their homes were either damaged or destroyed. Of particular concern is the large population of undocumented immigrants that make up this community.  As reported in the San Francisco Chronicle:

The lack of assistance for undocumented immigrants troubles advocates and attorneys who worry about the futures of these residents, some of whom are agricultural workers central to the economy of Wine Country, as they navigate an already expensive, housing-strapped region.

* There are still a lot of questions swirling around how the 2017 vintage will fare (But there seems to be some optimism). Smoke taint — where the smoke penetrates the grape skins and causes the wine to taste overly smokey or ashy — is usually the biggest concern when wildfires approach the vines during the run-up to Harvest (see this Wines &Vines piece about the 2008 vintage). But because a majority of the fruit had already been brought in, it may not be as much of a concern as expected. I’ve also heard people explain that because of the ripeness of the fruit (and variety of vines) still hanging, the grape skins were thick enough to protect the juice inside.

* It’s bittersweet that as with many tragedies, these horrific kinds of events, often bring out the best in humanity. So it’s no surprise, considering the strength of the wine community and the inherent respect and love for its land that bonds them, that ways to help with recovery were swiftly organized.  There are well-curated lists here and all across the Internet. But the biggest plea, is to continue drinking California wine. To continue with any plans to visit Napa an Sonoma. Or to plan a new trip to see the hard-working and kind souls of California wine country.

Scholium Project Debuts Its Natural ‘Commentary’ Into a Growing Market

Scholium Project wine tasting at Dio Wine Bar
Stacey Khoury-Diaz and Janine Copeland of Dio Wine Bar hosted Abe Schoener of the Scholium Project for a wine tasting and discussion of natural wines.

It’s a Monday night at one of the city’s newest wine bars and more than 20 locals have gathered around a bar with a renegade California winemaker to discuss spoilage and microbes in natural wines. If you think we’re in Brooklyn or Berkeley or even an international city like Copenhagen, Paris or London, you’d be wrong.

We’re here in Washington, D.C., the city not less than a decade ago where those selling wine were more intent on engaging clients like lobbyists or politicians who would seek out the most expensive Napa Cabernets or Bordeauxs as a means to impress.

But in the past few years, as D.C.’s food and dining scene grew (and as the lobbyists’ rules and bank accounts tightened), it makes sense that more diverse wine options would soon follow. A few key sommeliers started changing up their lists and introducing new regions and orange wine to the mix. Then in the past year, the momentum multiplied.

So on a Monday night, Dio Wine Bar – which is also D.C.’s only wine bar focused solely on natural wines – became home for Abe Schoener’s D.C. debut. His wines have popped up in the city here and there, and he’s visited D.C. before (he’s a former professor from St. John’s College in Maryland), but this was his first sales trip to actively promote his Scholium Project wines.

Rather than just tasting the three wines he brought, this was a nerdy discussion in the context of eight additional wines. (The line-up included wines by Spain’s Celler Jordi Ilorens,  Beaujolais’ Julian Sunier, Loire’s Clisson from Jérémie Huchet & Jérémie Mourat and Champagne’s Charles DuFour.)

Scholium Project wine tasting at Dio Wine Bar
Eight natural wines from around the world were poured along side three Scholium Project wines.

This was a smart move. I’ve seen other wineries – like RdV Vineyards in Virginia – provide tastings against similar wines from other regions. Not only does it give the tasters something to compare, but it’s a good teaching method and lends to a more memorable experience.

Several years ago the only people who may have attended something like this in D.C. were industry. Instead the sold-out event was comprised of enthusiasts, including those just learning about natural wines, and a few super-geeky types, like me.

While it’s certainly a sign of D.C.’s wine transformation, some of the participants noted it’s still difficult to find many of these wines throughout the city. Stacey Khoury-Diaz, Dio’s owner, suggested if consumers start asking for more of these wines, local shops and restaurants will begin to respond.

Scholium Project wine tasting at Dio Wine Bar
Abe Schoener listens to some questions at the start of the chat.

Capitalizing on the growing geekdom that’s here, this tasting was all about spoilage (and not necessarily in the negative sense of the word). Abe wanted to discuss the natural yeasty microbes which fight each other to eat the sugars and turn grape juice into wine during the fermenting process. He says that when the right microbes win, delicious wine is the result.

So when he was asked several times for his definition of natural wine, the closest he came to answering it was to suggest that the discourse in natural wine should not be focused on the means of production (everything from how to farm the vineyard, to more industrialized ways of winemaking), but rather on the chemistry of winemaking. For example, he’s placed his grapes under high pressure and used electromagnetic forces to create cross-flow filtrations in his winemaking process.

The more common answer from natural winemakers is usually about their yearn to translate the terroir (sense of place) into the bottle, their trials in avoiding filtering wine (not necessarily through scientific methods) and an argument over whether or not to use added sulfur.

But “scholium,” means “commentary,” and that’s what Abe was seeking to do when he first created the Scholium Project in 2006 after learning about winemaking during an internship at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and later from famed Napa winemaker John Konsgaard.

He says his wines can even been seen as his own commentary on some of the wines he enjoys, such as Cru Beaujolais and Edmond Vatan Sancerre. His wines are not supposed to be what you expect from California, yet they showcase some of the beautiful fruit coming from key vineyards and microclimates.

The three Scholium Project wines we tried included:

Scholium Project wine tasting at Dio Wine Bar
2015 Scholium Project 1MN

The 1MN Bechtold Ranch, a red wine made from 140-year-old Cinsault vines in Lodi, Calif.  This was a fresh and vibrant wine exhibiting beautiful and tamed fruit. A light-bodied wine  that indeed reminds you of something from Beaujolais.

Scholium Project tasting at Dio Wine Bar
2014 Scholium Project La Severita Di Bruto

And two Sauvignon Blancs – La Severita Di Bruto and the Prince In His Caves – which both come from Farina Vineyards on the east side of the Sonoma Mountain.  The vineyard sees very little sun – only around noon – so the resulting wines are more in line with what you might expect from cooler climates.

The first had a very distinct smell of rotting produce – much like the spoilage Abe brought us here to discuss, but it eventually blew off and the palate revealed amazing acidity underneath a crisp minerality. If you’ve ever enjoyed a Vatan, you’ll understand and adore this wine.

The second wine, which spent more time on its skins during winemaking was a lusher wine with green vegetal flavors like asparagus and artichokes.

Scholium Project wine tasting at Dio Wine Bar
2016 Scholium Project The Prince In His Caves

All three maintained significant structure and were well balanced – values Abe strives for in everything he makes and are not necessarily a hallmark of many natural wines.

While some like to define natural winemaking as a throw-back to past methods, Abe actually sees this kind of winemaking as post-modern and a way of looking to the future. The traditional methods still used sulfur or as industrialization came along, took advantage of what was offered. But today’s natural winemaking, he says, points away from the traditional and away from what’s expected.

It’s those expectations that Abe’s wines have successfully avoided. And thats what makes his wines absolutely fascinating to taste, and even more enjoyable to drink.

WineAmerica Unveils the First National Economic Impact Study of the American Wine Industry

This week, WineAmerica – the industry trade group for American wineries released its first ever report showing the economic impact wine has the U.S.

(Read all about it here:WineAmerica Unveils the First National Economic Impact Study of the American Wine Industry)

Similarly, the Brewers Association for Small and Independent Craft Brewers, also released an economic impact report for their industry.

While pitting the two reports against each other wouldn’t be very fair – as one accounts for an entire industry, and the other is only a slice, plus the data is from two different years – I thought it was still worth noting the highlights in a single post to provide perspective on the gigantic size of these two industries.

When it comes to WINE:

  • The wine industry’s total economic impact to the U.S. for 2017 is $219.9 billion (California accounts for  $71.2 billion. To see more state data see the chart on this Wines & Vines story, or you can individually look up each state’s details here. Pssst… journalists…  this is an amazing resource to give context to your future stories).
  • There are 10,236 winery facilities in all 50 states.
  • There are 677,629 acres of vineyards across every U.S. state, except Alaska.
  • The wine industry supports 1,738,270 American jobs, with wages exceeding $75.7 billion.
  • A total of $36.5 billion in taxes is generated – more than $19 billion for the federal government, and $17.5 billion to states and localities.

In the world of BEER:

  • The craft brewing industry contributed $67.8 billion to the U.S. economy in 2016 – a 21.7 percent increase from 2014.
  • There are 5,301 breweries in the U.S.
  • The industry accounts for more than 456,373 full-time jobs (a 7.5 percent increase from 2014).
  • Just like wine, the state with the highest economic impact is California with $7.3 billion (see all the state data here and here).



Eating Through California Wine Country …

A quick post to highlight three of the delicious stops that helped fuel last December’s trip. I try to keep It’s Wine By Me! wine-centric, but these were too good not to mention. As a solo traveler, these were also perfect for dining without a plus one, or two or three…

FOR BREAKFAST OR BRUNCH: Boon Fly Cafe. Located on the edge of the Carneros Inn, on Sonoma Highway as you start to escape Napa, this is one of those places that on a weekend morning, you’ll be sure to see a line waiting outside to be seated. Fortunately, there was a single spot at the bar which I seized immediately. The food came out quickly, which is always appreciated when you have a full day of activities planned. More importantly it was delicious!

Boon Fly Cafe
Fresh melon mimosa with mini donuts. Coffee for good measure, too.


Boon Fly Cafe
If I hadn’t already splurged enough, the Corned Beef Hash with spinach and jalapeno hollandaise was amazing. Note: they didn’t even blink when I asked for scrambled eggs instead of a poached one. In other words, the dish as prepared is probably much prettier than this pic.

FOR LUNCH: Redd Wood. This is the more casual outpost of the popular Redd in Yountville. Redd Wood is known for their wood-oven pizzas, which I’ve had before and are delicious, but a friend recommend stopping here for their pasta. On a rainy cool day after touring cold caves, how could I resist warm comfort food. I sat at the bar, ordered a glass of an Italian rosato, and began talking to the woman (a winemaker!) next to me. I was so busy chatting, enjoying the ambiance and the wine, that I didn’t realize it had taken longer than it should have for my pasta to arrive. The only tip-off was when the chef sent out a beautiful chopped salad I didn’t order as a “we’re sorry.”

Redd Wood
I’ll let the picture of this beautiful chopped salad speak for itself.

Not very long after, the pasta appeared. Again, I’ll let the picture speak for itself. It was everything I wanted it to be and more (and so were the leftovers the next morning!).

Redd Wood
Gemelli with bolognese.

FOR DINNER: Glen Ellen Star. One of the things I adore about this restaurant nestled in the tiny Sonoma County hamlet of Glen Ellen is that it’s perfect for a quiet meal with someone you love, but also has the perfect counter for the solo diner. You’re up-close enough to the open kitchen that asking a question of the chefs is a little too easy to do. Known for its beautiful wood hearth, I had heard good things about the vegetables, so I immediately ordered the cauliflower and then selected the brick chicken. Both were as amazing as they look. I topped the meal with some of their homemade ice cream and swore up and down I’d be back on my next visit.

Glen Ellen Star
Cauliflower, tahini, almonds and sumac straight out of the wood oven.
Glen Ellen Star
Brick chicken, also from the wood oven.