Friday, March 13, 2009

Recessionary Drinking

If you're not living like a hermit cooped up in a shed tucked out in the hills (like some people I know) then you've heard about this 'recession' that's been plaguing the market as of late. In the States it's managed to make front page news for at least the last six months, while in other parts of the world, like here in New Zealand, market struggles are slowly starting to show a trickle down effect. Regardless, people are tightening their grip on already tight budgets, and spending amongst the worlds fortunate is becoming more cautious by the day. Personally, I think it's partially a huge media boon, spurred on by the usual doom and gloom by the worlds 'Liberal Media', as well as huge mistakes by some people with too much money. Easy to preach as a young idealist, but why not? Enough of my rants.

That said, the wine, beer, and liquor industry sits in an interesting place. It has been said that in times of recession, booze and entertainment are the two industries to remain strong. In the depression era, people flocked to theatres in hopes that the fantastic world of cinema would ease their sorrows. Drinking, arguably, always eases one's sorrows. Though I've heard statistics about film success lately, I have read about surprising struggles for the wine and beer industries. It would, within a reasonable logic, fit that the wine industry take a blow from the impending recession, but why?

Wine has suffered its ups and downs throughout history. I recently heard that in the 17th century winemakers in Europe began to see less interest in their product because the availability of clean drinking water made wine less of an asset to the daily diet. Sometimes seen (at least in the new world) as 'a beverage for those with their noses up in the air' (this is based solely on my experiences), I think wine sales, at least in the States, might take a hit in this 'recession.' I don't think it has to be that way at all.

Sure, when funds are tight, you have to make cuts. As a citizen perhaps you would opt towards that box of wine instead of that 1.5L bottle, or the $8.99 special instead of your $12.99 favorite. Please reach beyond if possible. In the wine business, perhaps it comes in the form of reducing the number of NEW oak barrels you buy for your latest vintage, or even the amount of fruit (that will be made into wine) you decide to buy from local growers. Perhaps you will create a second (budget) label of wine that at a lower price point, will be aimed at the average consumer. It's hard regardless. If you create a stellar wine at a low price point this year, then it will be hard to raise the price in the future. If you cut corners or the climate simply makes for a bad vintage, your luck in the recession will only get worse. It's hard to form opinions with so little invested in the industry (besides my days, nights, sweat, passion, and hard work), but I think with perseverance and patience, success is anyone's gain. It's exciting to see where things will go from here.

That said, I think that there are fantastic buys at all ranges of the price scale, from all parts of the world. In these times, all wineries are considering the budget squeeze and considering the effects on the buyer as well. It couldn't be a better time to buy wines. Whether you have a $100 or $10 budget you WILL be in luck. As always, with the higher end wines (in my opinion) your established French, Italian, and American producers will not let you down. Do your research on the producer and the vintage first. For any collector or investor, there will always be exceptional vintages that will hold their value and only get better in the bottle as time progresses. For mid range, there are sooooo many options. If you're willing to spend $50 on a bottle, I'd assume you have some idea of what you're looking for. Find a wine store where you are comfortable with the staff and their suggestions. They can lead you to a bottle that will fulfill your dreams. For those of us looking for something to accompany dinner, that will dance memorably on the palate and still fit within the restraints of the wallet, there is hope. Look to import wines. Whether it's the diversity and history in Spain, the technology blended with culture/location in Portugal, blending of old world varietals with new world experimentation in Chile, tradition and progression in France, massive climatic differences of Australia or budding possibilities of New Zealand, you're sure to find something interesting. For $10 to $15 you can get yourself a quality bottle of vino and expand your knowing of different wine varieties and regions of the world. Not to say that there aren't good value American wines (for those of you who feel inclined to buy only local). There is so much wine being produced in the States. I once heard that grapes are grown in each of the 50 states. Why not support the local vintners and taste the nectar that comes from the earth on which you set foot? In addition to the long respected Napa/Sonoma stronghold, other regions of California, as well as Oregon, Washington, and New York are gaining ground with their innovation and open-mindedness in viticulture and wine-making practices. Have a look, and a taste!

When it all comes down to it, spend within reason, but don't forget to enjoy the simple luxuries in life. A bottle of wine might only last for a few hours, or minutes, but it will carve itself into your memory and lead you in the direction of new tastes and opportunities.

Monday, March 9, 2009


Now that I've been living in New Zealand for a little over a month, I've finally settled in and among other things I've undertaken the task of buying a car. Since cooking is a way for me to relax after a long day and channel my creative energy into a sensory packed output, I was quite excited at the prospect of being able to take a trip to the weekend market, as well as the supermarket in a suburb nearby. I stocked up on lots of fresh local produce, from apples (an historic Nelson staple whose market is sadly dwindling by the day) to silky organic lettuce. I also packed plenty of frozen meat and canned goods into my cart in anticipation of the late harvest nights to come when all I will seek is an easy, wholesome meal. That was on a Sunday, and the following Monday I was blessed to recieve a package from my lovely lady in the States; among a few other pleasantries, it included a bottle of the prized Sriracha sauce, a sweet and spicy nectar of a hot sauce which I tend to add, more often than not, to my culinary creations. How does this relate to wine you might ask? The story continues.

With all of the plenty at hand, my palate craved the can of potato leek soup that I had purchased, and after a long Monday of work it seemed worthy enough to be cooked. I doused it with heaps of Sriracha to add a tinge of red and an excess of spice. To lighten it up I also made a light balsamic salad. After preparation of the meal was complete, I brought it out to the picnic table where I dine, weather permitting, but felt a glass of wine was in order.

Lucky for me there was a recently opened bottle of Riesling open in the winery lab fridge, to which I had free reign. I couldn't have picked a better choice. Now to many, Riesling is often conceived as a wine-too-sweet-for-drinking. In my first experiences, that was the case. I believe the first Riesling I tried was a cheap bottle of German Riesling, perhaps a Spatlese, which is even middle of the road in terms of sweetness by German standards, but the only way I could drink it was with a super salty cheese at dessert. For more on German wine classification and its complexities one might consult any number of publications; My habit lately in enlightening my mind on new topics is wikipedia:

I guess my point is that, like all wines, there is more to each grape varietal than one simple style. That is the joy in trying wines from different producers in the same part of the world, or trying the same wine from different parts of the world. I remember the first time I tried a decent Riesling from South Australia at a grand tasting a few years ago and I nearly spit it out. It was nothing like I was expecting: way too dry. Perhaps the aromas and flavors were also a bit too subtle for my immature palate, but I was told it was a quality wine. Needless to say, I had, and still have quite limited knowledge of the grape and its possibilities.

When I was working my first harvest in Oregon last fall I was quite excited to find out that Riesling was one of the grape varietals that they produced at the winery. Imagine my excitement they day that the grower arrived, near the end of the harvest, in his shotty old flatbed diesel truck stacked full with rotting wood bins piled full of ripe Riesling. I had the pleasure of unloading them and soonafter rushed to pluck some berries out of the bins and put them to a taste test. The thich skins of the grapes gave way to a semi-firm gooey flesh, which instantly reminded me of childhood and the gummy candies I used to guiltfully sneak onto the counter when I went with my dad to the hardware store on a Saturday morning to buy paint. I am curious to try the soon-to-be-bottled wine that came from those specific grapes, but regardless, it was definitely a treat to try the raw form of such a mysterious grape.

Back to now. With a few more Rieslings having glazed my palate since then, I was so very pleased when I arrived here to Nelson, NZ, and got a chance to taste the wines they were making from the Riesling grape. Not uber viscous and sugar bombed like one might normally conceive a dense Riesling or an ice-wine, but not bone dry like my first encounter with the South Australian pour. The Rieslings I have tried here thus far have been spectacularly balanced. The acidity is enough to make your tongue salivate just a bit, the sugar just enough to make you want a little more (with aromas and flavors of the local fruits), the body heavy enough just to make you hold it in your mouth just a little longer, and the complexity enough for you to be tasting the wine long after swallowing (or spitting if you really must).

All said, I couldn't have been luckier to find an open bottle of Woollaston 2007 Riesling sitting in the fridge to pour with my modest meal. The light, halfway sweet texture was a perfect compliment to my over spiced, heavily salted, creamy potato soup, and the acidity also jived well with my vinaigrette salad. With the late (New Zealand) summer sun still beating down, even after dinner, it was fresh enough to have another glass as an aperitif after dinner.

Riesling is not even my favorite grape; There are so many grape varieties I have yet to even try (see Italy), and I have a hard time choosing sides in the first place. It is a fantastic example though of how one might shatter pre-conceptions of a wine through trial (and error) and the numerous wine styles that exist around the world and the endless food-pairings they might enable, all from one grape. That being said, I highly recommend you try and seek out a recent vintage of New Zealand Riesling, but don't stop if you can't find it or it doesn't please you, there are many others that await.