Three weeks after the massive fire swept through Wines Central warehouse in Vallejo, Calif., many of the vintners have finally had a chance to get a first-hand look inside. It wasn't a pretty sight: towering piles of burned cases, melted or broken bottles, thick layers of ash. However, some winemakers--those whose wines weren't nearest to where the fire started, in the section of library wines--say that things may not be as bad as they first feared. Winemaker Sean Thackrey, who had 4,000 cases of wine stored in the facility, reports, "A rather heartwarming percent of the wine I have there is clearly unaffected." His rarest and most valuable wines were largely spared, although he still can't locate about 1,200 cases of his popular nonvintage Pleiades blend. Steve Sherwin of Sherwin Family Vineyards had all of his 2003 production and the remainder of his 2002 wines in the facility, and he said there appeared to be little damage. He drank a bottle of the wine and it seemed fine. "I'm on the fence. I'm just going to have to let it sit for a while, and we'll see."
Among the less fortunate was Justin Baldwin of Justin Vineyards in Paso Robles, who had 10,000 cases of wine in the warehouse, including a significant portion of his 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon and 2003 Isosceles, the winery's flagship red blend. "What wine we did see wasn't encouraging," Baldwin said. Delia Viader of Viader Vineyards in Napa was hit particularly hard. "All of our production of the 2003 Viader in 750ml was there," she reports. "It was too close to the beginning of the fire. The shrink-wrap around the cases was clearly melted. There is no doubt that the wine got really hot." Viader also faces a problem common to many vintners who lost wine in the fire: Some of the wine was already sold to retailers, restaurants and mailing-list customers. While Viader will have no 2003 for release in January, she is advancing the release of the 2004 to September 2006. Tom Leonardini Sr., owner of Whitehall Lane, says all 5,000 cases of his 2002 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon in the warehouse were lost. Opening a few cases, he discovered that the ullage level was down nearly an inch on most bottles. He said, "I think it cooked off like a reduction sauce."
Most people don't confuse vodka with wine (unless they've consumed a lot of vodka). But the Swedish company that makes Absolut was worried enough about that possibility to take legal action against a small French winery labeling its wines Tinto Absoluto. Jean Beille makes 6,000 bottles of reds, whites and rosés a year in the town of Cabestany in Rousillon. Believing Switzerland could be a good market and noting the popularity of Spanish wines in Geneva, he gave his French wine a Spanish name, which means "absolutely red." Three months after filing trademark paperwork with the Institut National de Propriete Intellectulle (INPI), he learned that Swedish distiller V&S had filed an objection. "Brand protection is important to V&S as a means to protect the consumers," said spokeswoman Marika Hjelm Siegwald. "They should always know what they get." (Spanish winemakers have not filed any objections.) Cabestany's mayor mentioned the spat to a local newspaper, Beille started a Web site proclaiming "Vodka no pasara" (vodka shall not pass) and messages of support began flooding in. While awaiting resolution of the matter, Beille simply asks, "How could someone confuse a French red wine with a Swedish clear, hard liquor?"
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First the good news: Someone has finally taken the time to explore the mindset and knowledge held by the typical wine consumer. Now the bad news: there's no such thing as a typical wine consumer. Constellation Wines U.S. took the time to ask more than 100 questions of 3,500 wine drinkers for a study called "Project Genome: Understanding the DNA of the Premium Wine Consumer." The company found that wine drinkers fit into one of six categories. From the top down, they're the knowledgeable Enthusiast (12 percent); the trend-influenced Image Seeker (20 percent); the value-conscious Savvy Shopper (15 percent); the somewhat stubborn Traditionalist (16 percent); the White Zin-drinking Satisfied Sipper (14 percent); and the completely Overwhelmed (23 percent), the largest group of them all. The message to the rest of the wine world was simple: The best way to sell the most wine is to make sure that restaurant wine lists and store shelves contain brands for people in all six groups. We can see it now … an extensive selection of White Zinfandels at Per Se and three vintages of Haut-Brion at Bennigan's.
Some people love the taste of oak in wine. Now they can have it in their dessert. San Francisco's renowned seafood Aqua Restaurant has introduced a crème brûlée that's infused with oak chips. Sonoma-based Innerstave, a supplier of oak-barrel alternatives, will also be serving samples of the dessert at the Unified Wine & Grape Trade Symposium in Sacramento in January. We've never met a crème brûlée we didn't like, but then again, we're talking about wood here, people.
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Though California winemaker Richard Sanford is no longer at Sanford Winery, he's still admired widely enough in Santa Barbara County to merit a special tribute dinner. Held last Friday night at a local landmark, the chapel at La Pursima Mission, the candlelit dinner was the opening event in a weekend devoted to exploring the Santa Rita Hills AVA, where Sanford pioneered Pinot Noir plantings 30 years ago. The setting seemed irreverent to some (Sanford's protégé, winemaker Bruno d'Alfonso, a former altar boy, quipped, "You could never desanctify this place"), but any discomfort wore off as the wine-filled evening wore on. Sanford introduced Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio and Pinot Noir from his new "baby," Alma Rosa Winery (named for the nearby Santa Rosa hills and the former Rancho Santa Rosa on which his vineyard is planted). Guests praised Sanford, whose vineyards were the first to be certified organic in the county, for his enthusiastic work in preserving the environment. Local Sideways celebrity Frank Ostini, owner of the Hitching Post II restaurant, credited Sanford with inspiring him to go into the wine business. But D'Alfonso gave the best accolade of all, saying Sanford makes the "best margaritas I've ever tasted in my life."
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