Time for a Pennsylvania “Tea Party” (of the vinous variety)

52 - Liberty Bell

Lettie Teague’s recent excellent Wall Street Journal piece on the tyranny of Pennsylvania’s Liquor Control Board (PLCB) focused on its injustices to the state’s restaurant industry. But individual consumers also suffer mightily from its stranglehold on the wine market – so much so, Pennsylvania wine-lovers should consider fighting back just as restaurant sommeliers are starting to do.

(I pick on Pennsylvania because I spend a lot of time in the Philadelphia area and have experienced the PLCB-driven wine market. Residents of the various other states with hard-to-navigate wine laws have similar motivation to lobby for change.)

As Teague points out, Prohibition never really ended in Pennsylvania; the ambit of its banned behavior merely shifted. If you want to consume wine in Pennsylvania – at home, in a private club, in a restaurant – it’s supposed to come from a state store or, in limited circumstances, from an in-state winery or certain out-of-state retailers and wine clubs with proper licensing to ship to Pennsylvania consumers. The law includes a $25/bottle fine for individuals who carry wine purchased elsewhere across the state line, but enforcement has effectively lapsed, spurring fed-up consumers in the Greater Philadelphia area to “wine-mule” cases purchased at New Jersey and Delaware wine superstores home in the trunks of their cars.

Pennsylvania’s restraints on consumer choice put up speed bumps to securing the most competitive prices and interesting selections, although determined Keystone State oenophiles will seek out those retailers and wine clubs that deliver to Pennsylvania. And, by the way, I haven’t unearthed a magic algorithm that determines who these sellers are. Examples: New York-based Sherry-Lehmann does not ship to Pennsylvania consumers while Super Buy-Rite in Jersey City does. The Wine Cellar @ Red Bank (New Jersey), which supplies several wine clubs including WSJ Wines and Virgin Wines, cannot ship to PA, but Lot 18, in Mahopac, NY, includes PA on its delivery list.

So, while savvy and diligent wine consumers can take heart from the increasing ease of buying good product from outside Pennsylvania (driven perhaps by the state’s fear of losing an interstate commerce challenge on constitutional grounds), for their local purchases they are stuck with the PLCB state stores. This is where I dream of a citizens’ uprising.

The state is disinclined to relinquish the cash flow it reaps from this monopoly operation, Teague rightly notes. The previous governor, Tom Corbett, tried but failed to muscle a privatization bill through the legislature and incumbent Tom Wolf shows no interest in reform. How can it hurt – a collaboration of consumers and restaurateurs making a stand against the PLCB system?

In the meantime, residents and visitors, don your rose-colored glasses: the onerous rules that lead to sky-high prices on Pennsylvania restaurant wine lists have also created many BYOB establishments. You can wine and dine extremely well in Philadelphia at a fraction of what you’d pay in New York City – especially if you want to protest the system in your own modest way by bringing a bottle from your favorite (out-of-state) wine store.

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/64487725@N07/14505752118″>Liberty Bell</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/“>(license)</a>

Crémants redux

I’m giving a thumbs-up to French non-Champagne sparkling wines (aka Crémants). The Louis Bouillot Crémant de Bourgogne rosé ($17 at Sherry-Lehmann) was on my recent to-try list, and did not disappoint. Lovely pale-coral hue in the glass (apologies for the poor-quality photo), softly effervescent with a hint of watermelon and cream on the palate, it offers an inexpensive alternative to a rosé Champagne.

48 - Cremant glass (2)

No disrespect to Champagne—it can provide some of your most delightful tasting experiences—but at typical Champagne prices, it is routinely consigned to special occasions. (If the euro continues its swoon, however, those prices for U.S. customers will eventually—maybe as soon as late 2015—fall, a moment we await impatiently.)

In the meantime, drink more sparkling wines, more often—whether from France or anywhere else that is producing it. They pair spectacularly with many foods. And sparklers offer variety that many of us have not yet explored.

If you only stick with French Crémants, you’ll find a lot to choose from. Manhattan’s wonderful Chambers Street Wines, for instance, currently has on hand a Burgundy Crémant, Tripoz, made from 100% Chardonnay ($26) and a rosé from Jura, Bodines NV Arbois ($24), that blends Pinot Noir, Trousseau and Poulsard.

Crémants from Alsace are popular. Conjure an alsacienne Pinot Blanc or Reisling, but in bubbly form. Sherry-Lehmann carries an Albrecht Brut Blanc de Blanc from Alsace for $17. Loire winemakers are also producing sparkers.

So, aside from not commanding their price premiums, what sets Crémants apart from their Champagne cousins? Since the same méthode champegnoise is commonly employed across producers, it comes down to terroir and, usually, grape varieties. (Burgundian Crémants will more closely match the varietal blends of Champagne—Chardonnay and Pinot Noir—than those from other French appellations.) Sample a few and decide what you like.

In defense of rosé


Eric Asimov’s “Wines of the Times” column yesterday relayed the apparently pervasive disdain wine professionals have for rosé wines. Asimov does not count himself in this contingent, and expressed appreciation for this wine type in general and for specific bottles he and his sommelier tasting team sampled for the column.

But if the dismissive attitudes of Asimov’s tasters represent the consensus view in the industry, I’d like to offer a counter opinion.

First, there is a reason many wine drinkers enjoy – and some even adore – rosé. Rosés in the bottle are beautiful to look at, so it follows that sipping them is an aesthetically pleasurable experience for many people. (Studies have demonstrated that the color of substances we consume affects how they taste to us.)

Second, the variety of rosés being produced has exploded over the past few years, offering casual drinkers as well as serious connoisseurs a range of wines never available before. Many adventurous drinkers are delighted to explore these new choices, a number of which are priced below $15.

Provence used to hold a near-monopoly on rosé production, and its standard grape blend usually included some mix of Grenache, Syrah, Cinsault and Mourvèdre. This southern region of France continues to turn out what are arguably the world’s highest quality rosés but its monopoly has certainly evaporated. This summer’s Sherry-Lehmann catalogue, besides its Provençal selections, lists rosés from the Rhône, Vaucluse and Bordeaux regions of France, along with Argentina, Spain, South Africa, Sicily, Lebanon, Long Island, Napa and Sonoma – and this roster is far from exhaustive.

These new production areas mean that rosé is now being made with red varietals never before associated with this wine type – Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec and more.

Is all of this wine great or even good? No, but the same is true for reds and whites.

Do all of the rosés now on offer adhere to a “standard” style? Not at all, given the numerous regional and grape varieties involved. Some wine experts may insist that rosé should fit an aperitif profile, that is, light, with mineral tones. But why must there be orthodoxy? Why can’t a diversity of rosé styles evolve?

Wine makers are responding to consumer demand by producing more of it. A story published last year in Yahoo News stated that Nielsen Company reported a 14% year-over-year increase in 2011 in the U.S. sales, by volume, of rosé, marking the seventh consecutive year of growth.

Just because it’s popular doesn’t mean it’s bad.

South Africa gets liquid, part two


As I’m confirming, glass by glass, in my tour around the $15-and-under wine universe, oenophiles need not spend a lot to enjoy terrific reds, whites and roses. And South Africa this year is a great supplier of wines to fit this budget.

South Africa’s wine-making tradition dates back to the late 1600s, although only since the last third of the 20th Century has the country gained global stature as a producer of fine wines for export. According to South Africa’s wine industry association, national wine production rose by more than one third from 2005 to 2012, from approximately 629 million gross liters to 871 million gross liters.

Yesterday I wrote about two reds from South Africa, both “blends” made from grapes characteristic of Bordeaux (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot) as well as Rhone (Shiraz/Syrah, Grenache).

Whites of solid quality may be even more abundant than reds in this price range. And, because South African growers in the past few years have reversed a previous trend in favor of red grapes by planting more whites, that abundance is likely to continue awhile.

Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc have dominated there in the past, but an increasing number of white varieties – Chenin Blanc, Semillon, Viognier to name a few — are getting vineyard space, promising more discoveries to come for adventurous drinkers!

Here are three whites I’ve tried this summer. I purchased them all at Sherry-Lehmann; your favorite retailer should offer interesting choices as well.

Ken Forrester Petit Chenin, 2011 – Fresh and fruity. 87 points from Wine Spectator. Ken Forrester’s vineyards were first planted in 1689. This producer is a big champion of Chenin Blanc. $10.

Ken Forrester Sauvignon Blanc, 2011 – Juicy, effervescent in the mouth. Perhaps a shade too grassy for my taste; New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc lovers will appreciate this one. $14.

Buitenverwachting, Sauvignon Blanc “Beyond,” 2012 – My favorite of the three, a citrusy but elegant pour. Buitenverwachting is another long-producing wine property. The Dutch name means “beyond expectation.” $10.

Bonus bottle:

Mulderbosch, Rosé, 2012 – An unusual rosé because it’s made from 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, this wine is becoming easier to find in retail stores. If you see it, grab two, or six . . . It has a deep pink color to match its bold berry taste. A beautiful choice for summer. $9.

South Africa gets liquid, part one


For a few years I became less forgiving about wines I would buy for everyday drinking. At least I thought that’s what I was doing when I upped my usual price range to the $15-to-$25 universe. The theory was I’d be weeding out the marginal selections, the third-tier labels of mass producers. At those prices, I kept my quality standards decently high, so I presumed. I’d even go beyond occasionally, with a splurge on a recent great-vintage Bordeaux or a boutique-label California cab. On a whim, I once backed up my allegiance to all things South American with a purchase of a bottle of Cheval des Andes for upwards of $70.

But now that austerity rules, in my household at least, the new ceiling is $15. Based on early tastings, I’m liking the self-imposed limits.

My current source of delight is my mini-tour of inexpensive South African wines. My primary source for these bottles is the venerable Sherry-Lehmann, known for its near-encyclopedic Bordeaux inventory but
offering plenty from the best wine-growing regions around the world. (Tip for non-New Yorkers: watch for Sherry’s periodic free-shipping-anywhere offers.)

No matter where you live and shop, though, South African wine offerings are becoming more plentiful, boosted by good harvests and – for us bargain-hunters – a weakening rand.

What I’ve liked over the past few weeks includes these two reds:

Rustenberg, “1682” Red Blend, 2012 – This Stellenbosch wine estate dates back to 1682, a reminder that this country is no ingénue in the fine-wine scene. This wine is a blend of Shiraz (40%), Cabernet Sauvignon (37%), Merlot (13%), Grenache (7%) and Petit Verdot (3%). $13.

Rupert & Rothschild, “Classique,” 2010 – I liked the first glass but loved the second, consumed the following night (after Vacu-Vinning, which mellowed the immediately strong earthiness). Like Rustenberg, Rupert & Rothschild is produced on a historic wine property founded in 1690. Since 1997, the Ruperts and Rothschilds, established vintner families of South Africa and France, respectively, have jointly owned the estate. This red is also a multi-grape blend reminiscent of Bordeaux yet distinctive to the African terroir: Cabernet Sauvignon (49%), Merlot (34%), Shiraz (8%), Petit Verdot (5%), Cabernet Franc (3%) and Pinotage (1%). $15.

Besides the reds, I’ve discovered several Sauvignon Blancs that drink just right for summer. I’ll talk about those next time.