A feature of these fraught times is that no matter who you are you have way more screen-watching options than time to explore them. For me a big chunk of that time is devoted to tracking the latest wine industry developments. As far as wine is concerned, the picture painted is almost universally bleak.
There are numerous forces in play that are impacting declining sales. Overplanting, too many wineries, too many generic cheap wines and too many high-priced aspirational wines. Increasing competition from craft beers, spirits, cocktails, mocktails and weed. A reborn and suddenly thriving neo-Prohibitionist movement. Restrictive and conflicting trade regulations. Consolidation of distributors into a handful of giants. Regular updates from the medical community about the dangers of any and all alcohol consumption. Climate change. Disappearing migrant workers. What industry could possibly weather so many storms at once without suffering significant damage?
Of course for every intractable problem there are bound to be proposed solutions. A recent piece by Jessica Broadbent suggests that in France the confusing explosion of obscure appellations rather than a focus on branding is to blame. Her point is that while a blizzard of micro-appellations may work in a few storied regions such as Burgundy, overall there are hundreds in France that are meaningless to consumers, or even to most wine professionals.
We are a long way from that kind of AVA saturation in the U.S., but there are still more than a few that would be head scratchers to almost anyone perusing their supermarket wine aisle. Branding, on the other hand, is a strength hereabouts. Look at the meme-driven resurgence of Josh for example.
Another attempted diagnosis of wine’s woes popped up this past week from an irascible wine blogger, who opined that the reason wine can’t attract post-Boomer palates is simply because younger drinkers don’t like how it tastes. As if there is some specific wine “taste” that folks can dislike, the way some people can’t tolerate cilantro or cauliflower. That seems absurd on the face of it.
Much of this hand-wringing stems from the Silicon Valley Bank’s annual wine industry report which came out last week with a downbeat assessment of wine sales trends heading into 2024. Overall sales are declining and will continue to do so. Inventories are full up at the wholesale/distributor level – not a good sign. Overproduction as well as declining sales are hitting wineries in both California and Washington, the two biggest wine producing states. Only Oregon among the top three is managing to balance production with demand.
But the idea that somehow it’s the taste of wine that is to blame for the industry’s woes is way off the mark. Without burying you with a barrage of misleading statistics, I will tell you exactly what all of the above boils down to. Bang for the buck. Who has the most disposable income? Boomers. For anyone who may still be grappling with college debt, rent or mortgage payments, car payments, job uncertainty, inflation, a growing family – in other words anyone not a Boomer – the funds available for escapist entertainment are almost non-existent. And let’s face it, for most people, wine is in the category of escapist entertainment.
What do you do to release the pressure of the work week on a Friday night? How do you celebrate a win by your favorite sports team? What do you turn to in order to make a holiday meal special, or to celebrate a birthday or an anniversary or a marriage? Traditionally that might be wine. But practically speaking, there are many far less expensive alternatives. Buy a $50 bottle of wine (hoping the cork is ok and your partner will like it) or a $50 Mezcal that will entertain a half dozen friends? Buy a $10 supermarket Chardonnay that tastes like dishwater or $10 worth of entertainment from your local budmaster? Seems to me if there’s a taste problem it’s not because younger folks don’t like wine. It’s because they don’t like cheap wine and because they can turn elsewhere for that happy buzz.
Another misplaced notion attempts to blame wine’s woes on the natural wine movement. That theory rests on the observation that natural, non-interventionist, hands-off winemaking is somewhat unpredictable, and consumers don’t always know what to expect. Therefore they may not like every natural wine. They may avoid it because it’s not a safe choice.
Well wine has never been safe. The only predictable wines are the wines that have industrial flavors, with no real reference to grape, vintage or terroir. Wines made to taste exactly the same every time, like a can of soda. That’s not what wine should be about. It should be about experimentation, exploration, adventuring.
Yes natural wines are a challenge, but if they challenge any consumer group the most it’s the Boomers, who have established their flavor preferences over decades and long before such wild yeast, low sulfur, concrete-fermented, hands-off wines existed. For younger drinkers, natural wines should be as interesting as those first Willamette Valley Pinot Noirs were to Boomers back in the 1970s and 1980s. Were those wines predictable? Never! Were they really good? Rarely! Were they interesting? Almost always, because they were new.
I’ve tasted more than a few non-interventionist wines from the current generation of winemakers, and to be perfectly honest I haven’t always found them all to my taste. But I have kept trying to understand them, and the more I tried, the better they tasted. Because when they are good, they are very good, and offer the extra advantage of not tasting like every other wine you’ve ever experienced from the same grape or blend or place. Here are two adventurous Oregon wineries making truly innovative wines sure to challenge (and entertain) your taste buds.
I recently profiled the Artist Block wines made by Bree Stock, MW. She and her husband also have a project under the Limited Addition label (pun intended I suspect). These wines, she explains “are for a new generation who are promiscuous in their approach to beverages (both alcoholic and non) – they love to jump from a cider to a cocktail to a shrub or an orange wine and back to a traditional bold red. No defining what you are supposed to drink or what that should look like these are free thinkers and their food and beverage is a journey of discovery and excitement. You don’t have to take a class to enjoy them and we hope that people will identify with substance as well as style. We aim to surprise and delight at every opportunity.
“The wines’ resilience,” she continues, “is very important to me as many are sold in restaurants and wine bars and I want them to be able to stand up to several days of air. The reason they can do this is because they are unfiltered and unfined and are not manipulated in the cellar (only native yeast, and left on their fine lees right up until bottling). These wines are living creatures that live in contact with oxygen and have not been over-sulfured during their early life. I want to capture the energy of the vintage and the grape in the bottle and the less I move the wine, rack the wine, filter the wine the more alive and intact it remains. We sometimes compare filtered wines to a train track once you remove their substance you have set them on a straight path that will not continue to evolve and live outside of the regular degradation of age (fading fruit, color etc.) but they lose some of their soul and character when heavily fined and filtered.
“Our aim with Limited Addition is to work with growers to develop a sustainable future for the industry through expanding the varietal narrative and protracting the growing season with appropriate varieties like Cabernet Franc, Chenin Blanc, Mencia and even Grenache. All grown in the Willamette Valley, mostly at Eola Springs Vineyard in the Eola Amity Hills AVA.”
Limited Addition 2021 Noble Dry Chenin Blanc – This has the aromatic complexity and intensity you rarely find outside of the Loire Valley Chenins. Layers of floral, pollen and honey scents lead into a cascade of grapefruit, blood orange, honey, breakfast tea, yellow apple and biscuity butter cookie flavors. The hands-off winemaking discussed above delivers the sort of complexity I’ve long believed makes this one of the world’s greatest varieties. Here’s direct evidence. 14.1% (Eola-Amity Hills) 95/100
Limited Addition 2021 Cabernet Dorsa – This obscure variety is a German hybrid of Dornfelder and Cabernet Sauvignon. Somehow a rare example exists in the Eola Springs vineyard – a single vine row that just barely fills one barrel. It’s got the intense blackness of Tannat without the tongue-scraping tannins. It actually rests quite lightly on the palate, perfumed with wild floral and herbal accents that seem to have wafted in from Provence. Crushed red and blue berries are much in evidence, with moderate acids and light tannins. It’s got a long, lively finish that invites the next sip. Elegance personified. 24 cases; 12.7%; $78 (Eola-Amity Hills) 92/100
Limited Addition 2021 Old Vines Cabernet Franc – This is soft, slightly grapey, smooth and blue-fruited. It’s scented with hints of cedar shakes, balsa wood and blueberry jam, and backed by lip-licking acids that add some punch to the palate. Cab Franc thrives farther south in the Rogue and Applegate valleys; but remains quite rare in the Willamette. Here’s one to try. 90 cases; 13.2%; $58 (Eola-Amity Hills) 91/100
Erich Berg’s Ricochet Wine Company is another small enterprise forging new and interesting wine trails via “low impact winemaking.” He’s made a short video explaining his approach.
Ricochet 2022 Pinot Blanc – Sourced from 40-year-old vines at Yamhill Valley Vineyards in the McMinnville AVA, this pushes non-intervention to the limits. No additives, no enzymes, no animal products, no filtering notes winemaker/owner Erich Berg. Apart from my doubts about ageability, I can recommend this for near-term drinking. Its purity, resonance, layering, clarity and undeniable juiciness are compelling. A big tangy mouthful of citrus fruit – notably grapefruit – is framed with touches of wet stone. 120 cases; 12.8%; $35 (Willamette Valley) 91/100
Ricochet 2021 Pinot Noir – As is the practice at Ricochet, this wine was fermented with wild yeasts, additions were kept to a minimum, 30% was whole cluster and all neutral oak was used. It’s taut, focused (despite being a four vineyard blend), pure and balanced. Enjoy it for its light but classic Oregon Pinot Noir flavors of berries and a hint of cola. 200 cases; 13.5%; $45 (Willamette Valley) 90/100
Ricochet 2021 Eola Springs Vineyard Pinot Noir – This is a pretty wine, with juicy blueberry fruit bedecked with baking spices. The acids keep it fresh and punch up the lively fruit. It’s not especially deep, but it is pure and appealing. Drink now and over the next half decade. 75 cases; 14%; $65 (Eola-Amity Hills) 92/100
Ricochet 2021 Holmes Gap Vineyard Pinot Noir – All Pommard clone, with 30% whole cluster fermentation, this nicely weaves together components of rock, vine and fruit. It’s a wine of texture and depth, the flavors skipping lightly across blueberry, marionberry, plum and cherry, all backed with dusty minerals. 100 cases; 13.8%; $65 (Van Duzer Corridor) 93/100
Ricochet 2021 Mourvèdre – It gives me great pleasure to taste a wine such as this, with a wrenching story behind it. The vineyard was hit hard by drought and fires, which decimated the young vines. The winery expected to get nothing at all, but a single ton of this Mourvèdre arrived about a month into harvest. Enough for one barrel. Made unfined and unfiltered, it carries a hint of smoke but not enough to be detrimental to the overall flavor. There’s plenty of young, juicy red fruit – cranberry, raspberry, strawberry – with ample acidity. 25 cases; 13.8%; $55 (Rogue Valley) 91/100
Ricochet 2022 Vin d’Evelyn Syrah – Another first for Ricochet, this comes from an unnamed Washington vineyard. My Spidey sense suggests it’s from Walla Walla, not the Rocks District but maybe Seven Hills or Les Collines. It’s balanced, spicy, laden with blackberry and black cherry fruit and dusted with cocoa and coffee grounds. In short, a splendid, accessible style, classic but not over the top in any way. 150 cases; 14.2%; $35 (Washington) 92/100
Final thoughts… This Northwest Wine Guide is designed to showcase the boutique artisanal wines and wineries of the Pacific Northwest. Subscribing is free, and will remain so, though a bonus option may soon be added for paid subscribers. The best way to support my work is by subscribing and passing these columns along to friends and colleagues with your recommendation that they too subscribe.
PS: My band, the DavePaul5, will be playing here in Walla Walla at Marcy’s on the 26th. We are now taking bookings for the 2024 season. I have a solo performance coming up on April 7th. More to come!