Here’s the full Kansas City Public Television (KCPT) half-hour show about regional wines and their absence from Kansas City wine lists, plus the big grape showdown where Missouri and Kansas wines take on the French and Californians in a blind tasting – and win!
Tomorrow, Thursday June 21st from 730pm on Kansas City Public Television (KCPT) it’s the battle of the grape. Two blind tastings, one for reds and another for whites, will determine if wines from Missouri and Kansas can compare with the best wine making regions in the world. The show also tackles the issue of why most restaurants in Kansas City (and in cities all over MO and KS) are happy to serve local food, but don’t serve local wines. The blind tastings will help determine if the preference for Californian, French and other international wines is actually fair and based on quality and customer preferences, or just a result of inertia, snobbery, ignorance – or all three.
Surely if French and Californian wines are so good and the local wines so poor, the blind tasters will prefer those? The restaurants will be proved right afterall…but if MO and KS wines do well hopefully it will be a small wake-up call to consumers and restaurants alike.
So tune in to KCPT on tomorrow! Or come to Belvoir Winery in Liberty where we’ll be watching the show.
I tried hard to make this a fair contest. The five reds and five whites in each tasting cost between $12 and $20 retail, except for a ‘wild card’ that could cost anything. Two of the wines in each red or white tasting are from MO or KS, one is from California, one from France and one that ‘wild card’ that could be from anywhere.
The basis of prejudice against MO and KS wines is often based on their tendency to be sweet. People seem to think that sweet is all the Midwest does well and discount the quality dry stuff that has emerged and is emerging all over the place. This tasting will be meeting Californian and French wines on their own terms: all the reds competing are dry and all the whites are dry or semi-dry.
I was also conscious of how the order in which the bottles would be tasted could confer an advantage. It is probably not ideal to be the first wine tasted, or the last. The order of the tasting was determined by me reaching blindly into a case where I’d place the bottles and pulling the bottles out, lottery style, one by one.
The bottles were placed in white paper bags and each labelled with a letter – A to E.
The 5 blind tasters were chosen to be widely representative of wine lovers and to be fun – there’s a mixture of celebrities (Eddie Kennison and Stretch), wine and food experts (Stephen Molloy and Katie Van Luchene) and Lucinda, a young woman and regular customer at Belvoir winery, chosen to represent ‘normal’ people (possibly like you?). They all like a wide range of wines. Overseeing them and to offer his analysis, wine brain and expert, Doug Frost.
The blind tasters are not comparing the wines to each other, they’re just making a very simple judgement: how much do they like each wine and why? In other words, how does the wine they’re blind tasting compare to their idea of the perfect white or red? They mark each one with 1 to 5 points, 1 being ‘not to my taste or ‘I don’t like it’, up to 5, which means ‘excellent ‘ or ‘I love it’.
So tune in! Will this be a humiliation for the Midwest wine industry? Or will this be a case of Bottle Shock and a humbling experience for French and California? Find out on Thursday at 730pm…
The author of this article is Mary Mihaly of Midwest Wine Press (MWP), based in Chicago. MWP is the first business publication dedicated entirely to the art and business of winemaking in the Midwestern United States. The editor of MWP is Mark Ganchiff, whose stated goal is to help winery owners, grape growers and cellar masters be more effective and profitable. The story first appeared in Midwest Wine Press in December and provides a positive tonic to, as well as supporting, the dark findings revealed in the blog posting “Wine Lists of Shame”.
“Beats me,” he said, “and it makes no sense. They talk about using local produce, local meats, farm-to-table everything—and they carry wines from France, California, everyplace but Ohio.”
His point is valid: why don’t more restaurants carry regional Midwest wine—and more importantly, how can regional wineries get onto their wine lists?
“I suspect it’s probably a little more expensive, takes a little more legwork to carry regional wines,” says Jon Trasky, general manager of The State Room Restaurant and Lounge in East Lansing, Michigan. His 17-page wine list features dozens of Michigan wines; they show up in nearly every category from Riesling to rosé. Trasky concedes that as part of the Kellogg Hotel & Conference Center at Michigan State University, it follows that he would carry Michigan wines.Still, he has a choice, and he sees buying local as good business: “What’s good for Michigan is good for us,” he says. “We live here, so we want to do all we can to support Michigan businesses.”
Every restaurant and winery owner we interviewed agreed on the chief reason for carrying a local wine: because it tastes as good as wines from the “major” wine regions. “That’s the biggest factor for us,” says Nolan Cleary, beverage manager for Lola Bistro in Cleveland, one of several restaurants owned by Michael Symon, TV’s “Iron Chef” and star of ”The Chew.” “For us, quality is a big motivator; we’re not going to bring in local products if they’re inferior.”
For Cleary, carrying local wines was serendipitous. An owner of Laurello Vineyards in Geneva, Ohio is a regular at Lola and brought in some Vidal ice wine for Cleary to taste. It landed on the wine list. The other winery whose wines Cleary serves—Harpersfield Winery, also in Geneva—is on the wine list because, according to Harpersfield owner Patty Ribic, the Iron Chef himself “heard the buzz” and visited the winery.
“We’re a very small producer, just 3,000 gallons. Since we only use our own grapes, we’re at the mercy of Mother Nature. There’s a finite amount so we watch where our wine goes and I guess that impressed [Symon],” Ribic recalls. Symon’s bar manager called, they met, and as a result, Lola Bistro became Ribic’s only restaurant outlet.
Farmhouse Tavern, one of Chicago’s newest hot spots (open just 10 weeks at this writing and pictured on the homepage), is trying a more inclusive tactic, offering wines from throughout the Midwest. “All of our sparkling wine is from Michigan,” says Robert Diaz, manager, “and we carry wines from Indiana, and even a Riesling and Pinot Noir from Firelands Winery in Ohio.” Wine selection, he says, can be easy. “Put together some reds and whites from Argentina, Australia, and France, and your customers will be reasonably happy. But if you want to stand out from the crowd, you need to seek out the smaller players, offer something different.”
Taste is Diaz’s top priority, and he speculates that perhaps more restaurants don’t offer local wines “because a lot of the root-stock in the Midwest isn’t old,” he says. “Europe and California have been growing grapes for a very long time, and older vines sometimes make better wine.”
Michigan wines “sort of fly under the radar,” says Mark Schrock, owner of Salt of the Earth in Fennville, Michigan, “but we produce some of the finest Riesling out there.” One of the most expensive wines on his wine list—“Shou,” a Bordeaux-style blend from Wyncroft Winery—is a Michigan wine with limited production. “You feel like the winemaker has examined every grape when you drink it, it’s that well crafted,” Schrock says. “If you want to be on a good wine list, quality is everything.”
Carey Amigoni, whose family owns Amigoni Urban Winery in Kansas City, agrees. “There’s no question,” she says, “a Cab Franc is a Cab Franc. If you make a pretty good one, people will want it.”
That view is echoed by the Wine Business Institute, which surveyed sommeliers of 74 restaurants in 2009. The results were unanimous: 100 percent ranked “tasting good” as the top factor in selecting wines for their lists. Nearly 98 percent ranked “matches with food menu” as the second priority, followed closely by “competitive price fit” and “balance of varieties.” Sixty-two percent said they prefer to buy locally—a bit surprising, since relatively few high-end restaurants offer regional wines—and only 35 percent said they would list a particular wine to maximize profits. Zero respondents said they relied on a supplier’s recommendations in buying wine.
Marketing, however, is critical to getting on wine lists, especially for small wineries. “Usually, a small distributor will do a good job for small wineries,” Carey Amigoni says, “where with a big distributor, the small wineries sort of disappear.” Amigoni likes her distributor, but she sometimes accompanies him on calls to new restaurants: “You have to go with them, personalize it, enjoy the wine with the bar manager, help sell it.”
That means talking up anything that would appeal to customers. If your wine is certified organic or Biodynamic, mention that to the bar manager. If Justin Timberlake or Bette Midler ordered a glass, or if it was fermented in barrels made of a special wood, that’s worth a mention. Anything that helps create a memorable experience for the customer will help sell your wine.
Megan Zander, bar manager at Blue Bird Bistro in Kansas City, offers wines by Amigoni as well as locally brewed beers and liquor from a local distillery. “Everything’s of the highest quality,” she says, “but we also want to talk to the winery owner and other producers. It’s about building relationships—you have to be as passionate about your wine as we are about our restaurant.”
Patty Ribic agrees: “Let’s face it, there are a million wineries out there. You have to have passion for your wine—put out a product you’re proud of.”
As for the future, Mark Schrock believes, “more and more, `local’ translates to sales,” he says. “Our guests are asking for it—but you’ve got to bring your best stuff.”
“I think you’re going to see people take notice of local wines over the next 10 years,” Robert Diaz predicts. “Wineries should start now, creating and developing relationships with restaurants and restaurant groups, and good things will happen.
“Get into a few good restaurants and people will start noticing—and buying—your wine.”
Reprinted with permission of Midwest Wine Press.
Rich DeScenzo is a microbiologist with ETS Laboratories in St Helena, California and a grape chemistry expert. Rich has spent a decade researching grape genomics (examining the DNA sequences of grapes) molecular diagnostic methods and fermentation. I was attracted to the ETS booth on the trade show not by Dr DeScenzo’s scientific pedigree, but instead by a large plastic scorpion, the mascot for one of their diagnostic technologies. As he poked the scorpion, Rich told me that ETS is the biggest independent wine laboratory in the United States with about 45 employees who do the microbiological analysis for almost 90% of the domestic wine industry. Their aim is to prevent microbial spoilage at the grape, bottling or beyond stages of the wine production chain, what Rich describes as “full spectrum analysis.” The good doctor was lively and entertaining as he explained the microbiological problems that can occur during the wine making process. Here’s the first part of our conversation.
Danny: So if I’m a Midwest grape called the Norton and I’m not tasting too great…?
Rich: I’ve just tasted two very nice Nortons thank you! One had a little bit of Brettanomyces in it, but not bad. I tasted one yesterday too that had a little of what I might call a microbial funk in it.
Danny: Is that what produces that inside of an artichoke can taste?
Rich: Well there are lots of different ones. I’m the microbiologist so I’m very tuned into microbial spoilage and that’s what we focus on trying to help people prevent and we have all the diagnostic tools. I gave a talk yesterday (Friday 10th February) at 830am, it was the first talk early in the morning…
Danny: Nice to get it out-of-the-way?
Rich: Yeah, yeah! There were about 30 people and they came for a microbiology talk. Historically people have looked at microbiology as regards the wine industry as a forensics tool, in other words, if something goes wrong you call the microbiologist, for example if the wine starts smelling. We have the tools now that we can prevent spoilage because we can detect the organisms long before they spoil the wine. Overall I’ve tasted a number of wines here and I was very pleasantly surprised at some very nice wines. There are some that have some problems but it doesn’t matter if it’s a Norton or a Cabernet from Napa, you still have problems in the wine.
Danny: So people come to you when they have a problem but are you able to tinker with things in the wine?
Rich: We’re able to tell them what caused the problem. If we catch it before it’s a problem that’s really the power we have and what we’re seeing is a gradual shift in the industry towards pre-emptive screening instead of forensic analysis. Now with the chemistry side, the chemistry is the standard, you need to follow things, you need to know, where are my sugar levels? Is sugar dropping? Is all the sugar gone? Is my fermentation complete? Or malolactic fermentation, is it complete? That type of thing. There’s a great deal of science behind this and what’s interesting, really interesting, is that people who want to have the fewest touches on the wine, the very purest, minimal impact, those are the people who benefit most from having all the information. If you’re one of the large manufacturers and you’re adding lots of SO2 and you filter and then you sterile filter in bottling, maybe you don’t need to know as much, because it’s more like an industrial wine production, but for the folks who are really trying to do as little as possible then the more technology they use and the more helpful it is.
Danny: Is there a typical problem that wineries just starting out come to you with?
Rich: I think the biggest problems early on revolve around sanitation, and not sanitation in a way that there is anything that could possibly harm anyone, but sanitation and not understanding the difference between say cleaning something and then sterilizing or sanitizing it. So a lot of times they end up making a wine which is a nice wine and then they go to the bottle and some microbes, bacteria or yeast get into the bottle and they spoil the wine. That’s what we’ve had a lot of comments about in the context that, maybe in the first few years a winery doesn’t have a lot of natural microbial inhabitants, but over time you start building up these populations in your winery, your house strains, and then you can get bugs in there that can cause a problem in the wine.
Rich: And so that’s probably for the startups, other than the basics people need to know. Invariably they start having problems with microbial spoilage, that’s usually the big one, either that or oxidation, that’s the other big issue.
Danny: Can there be a fine line between the job a microbiologist like you and the task of a winemaker?
Rich: No! We’re completely different. For winemakers, their job is to keep the right microbes in and keep the bad ones out, but there’s so much more to it all in the decisions during the process, like when to harvest the grapes, how to manage the canopies, what crop load on the grapes, what yeast they select, what bacteria, what oak, what toast level. These are decisions they make along the way and we don’t really influence any of that, what we do is work specifically on the chemistry of the wine and then prevent microbial spoilage.
This is the first part of a two-part interview. In the second – and arguably more interesting part – Rich gives his views on Midwest wines and the future of the industry. Part II will be posted very soon.
In a video interview with Regional Wine Taster, Michelle Meyer, owner of Holy-Field Vineyard, tells how a Californian wine connoisseur was gifted a bottle of their Holy-Field Late Harvest Vignoles dessert wine and took it to a blind tasting where it faced the best bottles his wine friends had to offer, including a Dom Perignon, a Chateau Mouton Rothschild and high-end Californian wines. Against this classy opposition, Holy-Field’s dessert wine was the hit of the tasting! Michelle says the Californian wine fans were “tickled” when the Kansas identity of the wine was revealed and they regarded it as the one everyone wanted to top.
Michelle says the response from these wine fans underlines the US public’s growing interest in trying regional wines. ”I think for a lot of people regionality is becoming more important and as that happens they’re pleasantly surprised to find something outside the traditional wine regions, ” Michelle says.
Perhaps today, some Kansas and Missouri wines stand in relation to Californian wines, how three decades ago Californian wines stood in relation to French wines (like that Judgement of Paris 1976). Maybe Missouri and Kansas wines could use a few more ‘bottle shocks’ like this to help both their reputation and challenge the wine status quo.