WineLine No. 36
Written and © copyright by Dave McIntyre
Dec. 5, 2003

Staring Into My Crystal Goblet

"And now, on the top of this, comes the incident of the wine glasses."

With those words in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Adventure of the Abbey Grange," Sherlock Holmes solves a murder that was staged to resemble a robbery gone awry. The killers, presumably a famous gang of three burglars, had calmed their nerves with a glass of wine - Dr. Watson noted that "the long, deeply stained cork ... and the dust on the bottle showed that it was no common vintage which the murderers had enjoyed." Holmes observed, however, that only one glass contained beeswing, a type of sediment, indicating that the dregs of the others had been poured into it to create the false impression there were three killers instead of two.

Holmes also noted wryly, "I should say, that it is very unusual for such men (the supposed burglars) to leave a bottle half empty."

I do not put myself in Holmes' intellectual league; I certainly cannot unravel the secrets of the past 24 hours by looking into a wine glass. (Forget them, maybe ... ) But as I was contemplating the Beaujolais Nouveau stains on my teeth recently, I found myself thinking of the future. So here are some trends in wine I believe we'll see in the coming year, as well as some trends I hope we'll see, if we're lucky:

Dave's Divinations for 2004

1). We'll see more wine in screwcaps, but not a whole lot more. Wineries will continue to test consumer acceptance of screwcaps as an answer to cork taint, but don't throw away your ah-so's, your rabbits and your waiter's corkscrews. New Zealand and Australian wineries will send more screwcapped wines to the United States. Bonny Doon will continue to lead U.S. producers into this new domain as it shifts its line to Stelvin caps. Wine writers will continue to praise these wineries, as will restaurant managers and retailers tired of returning tainted bottles. Interior decorators will push cork flooring as the new thing for the In crowd, and the Wine Enthusiast catalog will tout a full line of furniture made from cork for the gullible nouveau oenoriche. But Thomas Keller will not change the name of his Yountville bistro from Bouchon to Stelvin, and consumers will not yet be ready in 2004 to journey far beyond the mystique of the cork and the image of screwcaps littering Skid Row.

2). We'll see more American Syrahs, and at affordable prices, as quantities and quality continue to improve. American vintners like to start big, in terms of flavors and ambitions. For years, any California Syrah was modeled after Hermitage and priced accordingly, while we all went along drinking our Cotes-du-Rhone and splurging once in awhile on Crozes-Hermitage. Luckily for us, they kept planting Syrah vines and experimenting with different styles, and now some are even affordable. Check out the Bonterra Syrah 2000 from Mendocino County ($19) for a California Crozes, austere yet with the floral violet notes of the grape, good mineral and tannin structure and a medium-long, complex finish. Bravo!

3). Spain will continue to lead the wine world in bargain wines. There will even be some nice affordable wines from trendier areas such as Priorat, as plantings there expand and wineries need to sell their juice while they tinker with the cult-wine formula. An example: Llicorella Roureda 2001 from Unio Cooperativa ($9), light in color but deep in flavor, with berry, coffee, cocoa and some earthy notes on a medium finish.

4.) Chile and Argentina will make a resurgence and challenge Spain in the value wine category as consumers are reminded just how good these wines can be. Stay tuned for January's WineLine.

Dave's Wish List for 2004

And now for a few things that I am less than optimistic about, but that I would love to see happen:

1). Lower alcohol levels in wine. I may be beating my head against a Brix wall on this one, but the obsession with super-extraction and physiological maturity has, IMHO, resulted in too many toxic pancake syrups masquerading as wine. This cult wine formula may work in certain rarified wines I'll never be able to afford to try when implemented by the uebergods and uebergoddesses of winemakers, but frankly I'm skeptical. And when mimicked by mere mortals, the formula results too often in unbalanced clunkers that would make Bacchus cry.

Jancis Robinson, the Earth Mother of All Wine Writers, created a stir recently with a column in the San Francisco Chronicle's Wine section in which she criticized the practice of "humidification." In this step, vintners who left their grapes on the vine long enough to achieve "physiological maturity" in the seeds actually dilute the juice at press time in order to reduce the potential alcohol level and re-balance the wines. The Devil's Advocate who occupies the airy loft between my ears whispers that this is akin to chaptalization, when winemakers add sugar to make up for unripened grapes. But those vintners have little choice if Nature deals them a troublesome vintage and the grapes can't develop adequate sugars. To ripen the grapes deliberately to a point where the wine will be unbalanced and must be remedied by adding back the water they let escape in the first place seems cynical, manipulative and downright bizarre.

It's time for a counterrevolution. We all know the alcohol content on a wine label is an unreliable indicator of the wine's actual strength. (The common wisdom says to add 1.5 percent.) But it's the only indicator we have until we've spent our money and unwittingly coated our palates with treacle. My New Year's resolution will be to pay more attention to the alcohol levels disclosed on the labels and check for a correlation with quality. More on this throughout the year.

2). I'd like to see more wine writers abandon the canard that American winemakers can't make Sauvignon Blanc. I continue to read frequent references to "ersatz Chardonnay" in wine columns around the country. To be sure, I still taste some that deserve the derision. But more and more I'm tasting Sauvignon Blanc from various regions of California, Washington and even Virginia that define a new American style for the grape - somewhere between the mineral Loire or hefty Bordeaux and the over-the-top grassy wines of New Zealand. I pronounced the cliché about "Chardonnay wannabes" dead more than two years ago in WineLine #11. My colleagues missed the memo.

3). Can we please have some more decent American wines at $10 or less a bottle? The "Two-Buck Chuck" phenom aside (and I confess I haven't tasted it), there are disappointingly few wines from California or elsewhere that rival a Cote-du-Rhone, a juicy Spanish Garnacha, or a fun Sangiovese from Umbria. I keep hearing that the "grape glut" should press down prices, but I keep tasting insipid Merlots and Cabernets or flabby, fake-oak Chards. No wonder Budweiser is our national beverage. There are a few exceptions that manage to escape the California border into the rest of the country. One notable bargain is Queen of Hearts Santa Barbara County Pinot Noir 2001 ($10). Made by one of my favorite winemakers, Daniel Gehrs, for Lucas & Lewellen Winery, this delicious pinot displays the silky texture the grape gets when handled properly. Strawberry flavors predominate, but there's some depth too, and a hint of roasted tomato as from older California clones. Great balance. Great value.

And no way those fictitious burglars of the Abbey Grange could leave the bottle half-finished.

Happy Holidays!
Dave McIntyre

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