Written and © copyright by Dave McIntyre
February 2005 Not Exactly My Utopia
The Wall Street Journal ran a page-one profile of Fred Franzia this month, finally jumping on the Two Buck Chuck bandwagon and highlighting Franzia's battle with the Napa Valley Vintners Association over whether he can use the word Napa in the name of a wine that doesn't contain any wine made or grown in Napa.
This legal tussle over terroir could reach the U.S. Supreme Court this spring. To oversimplify, the NVVA argues that using names such as Napa Ridge on basic California appellation wines misleads consumers into thinking they're getting something more than merely drinkable, and that it cheapens the prestige of the Napa Valley, which everyone knows is God's gift to wine.
Franzia's response, similarly oversimplified, is "Up yours!"
The Journal piece had this curiously suggestive paragraph, what reporters like to call the "nut graf" of the story:
"If the Napa vintners prevail, [the U.S. wine industry] could grow to resemble the clubby French wine scene. There, winemakers fiercely guard the rights to use certain geographical place names, known as appellations, which determine their position in the wine hierarchy, and imply, often for centuries, an assurance of quality. If Mr. Franzia wins, a more freewheeling and commercial ethic could prevail. Successful vintners may not be drawn from the ranks of well-known names, but rather those able to offer low prices."
Here was our nation's most elitist newspaper, the favored rag of the financial set with their temperature-controlled cellars stocked with cult Cabs and Bordeaux bought on futures and Parker points, deriding the "clubby French wine scene" and championing a vinous Robin Hood's egalitarian crusade.
Somehow I doubt the editors of The Wall Street Journal have forsaken Brooks Brothers for Wal-Mart. But they can't resist a little gratuitous frog-bashing and the New World vs. the Old World/good vs. evil theme. Maybe they still sell Freedom Fries in the Journal's cafeteria.
What's really perplexing about that paragraph is the last two sentences and the utopian vision of a Franzia-dominated world. This "freewheeling and commercial ethic" sounds egalitarian and all-American, but do we really want talented winemakers run out of business by slick marketers of inexpensive plonk? I'm all in favor of downward pressure on wine prices, and I scratch my head and wonder how Napa Cabernet can fetch more than $100 a bottle. (Supply and demand, perhaps, mister editor?) Charles Shaw Shiraz is not a bad bottle of joy juice, even as "Four Buck Chuck," which it is on the East Coast. There's room for both in an expanding wine market.
Of course, this battle isn't about Charles Shaw wines, but Napa Ridge, Napa Creek and Rutherford, all labels owned and aggressively marketed by Franzia's Bronco Wine Co. Franzia clearly is playing off the casual consumer's impression of Napa as the Promised Land of Wine and the expectation that the "California" appellation will be shrugged off with, "Yeah, well, Napa IS in California." Misleading? Definitely. But it won't fool anyone who knows the French pronunciation of appellation, and if the aggressive pricing gets more people to drink wine, so much the better. They may never graduate to cult Cabs, but they'll get tired of the Two Buck Chucks soon enough and want to explore better wines.
"Daddy, you're the one who writes about empty wine bottles!"
- Emma Mei McIntyre, age 4
Here are some exciting wines I've tasted recently and recommend seeking out:
Aquinos Cabernet Sauvignon 2002, Napa Valley ($14). Now here's a Napa Valley appellation cabernet that doesn't break the bank. Aquinos delivers rich blackcurrant fruit with aromas of graphite and wood ("pencil shavings") and soft tannin structure. The oak is "seasoned" so it is not overbearing, the balance is impeccable and the finish medium-long. For a mid-teen Napa cab, this is fab!
Barnard Griffin Syrah 2003, Columbia Valley ($16). From one of my favorite producers in Washington state, this syrah offers rich blueberry and blackberry fruit aromas and flavors, round, ripe and full yet well-balanced with soft tannins and a medium-long finish. Delicious now or over the next year or two. Don't pass up their Rosé of Sangiovese 2003 ($14) if you see it - Spring is around the corner, after all!
Bergström Winery Pinot Gris 2003, Willamette Valley ($22). Lime, apricot and kumquat aromas dance out of the glass. On the palate, there is a hint of residual sugar, but enough acidity and fruit tannin to make this wine dry, well-structured and impressively complex. This is a rare white wine that can benefit from decanting and breathing for an hour or two.
Jackson-Triggs Proprietor's Reserve Chardonnay 2003, Okanagan Valley, Canada ($13). This producer is best known for ice wines, but is now marketing some of its dry table wines in the U.S. Lucky for us. This Chardonnay is nicely balanced among fruit and oak, lees-stirring and malolactic fermentation. I snuck it into a blind tasting with a small group of talented professionals from the D.C. area (where unfortunately the wines are not yet available) and enjoyed listening to them guess where it was from. Two said Burgundy, while two others, wishing for more mineral characteristics, opted for cooler climes in California. I loved the beguiling nose of tropical fruit and orange peel, cake spice and honey, and the tree fruits that dominated the palate. The oak was well done, providing structure and spice but not overpowering the wine. A nice bargain.
Millbrook Tocai Friulano 2003, Hudson River Region ($14). Aromatic and flowery on the nose, crisp and dry on the palate with a nutty finish that gives it an Italianate character. This delightful and refreshing wine pairs well with appetizers or shellfish pasta and probably a lot more.
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Dave McIntyre is Wine Editor of Foodservice Monthly, a trade publication for the restaurant industry in the mid-Atlantic region. His writings have appeared in Wine Enthusiast, The Washington Post, Washington Life, Capital Style, the newsletters of the American Institute of Wine & Food, Decanter.com, Sidewalk.com and WineToday.com, among other publications. He has appeared on radio on NPR's Kojo Nnamdi Show and on WTOP's "Man About Town" segment. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the National Capital Area Chapter of the American Institute of Wine & Food. Dave McIntyre's WineLine is archived on Robin Garr's WineLoversPage.com. E-mail Dave at McIntyreWineLine@yahoo.com.