THE WORLD is drowning in wine

red wine

THE WORLD is drowning in wine. Thanks to improved production methods, more wine is being made everywhere: wine that must be sold to make space for yet more wine. At the same time, thanks to the spread of anti-alcohol feelings, health preoccupations, and other worries of contemporary life, wine consumption is barely increasing in the United States, while it is actually dropping in the two countries–France and Italy–that were once the world’s largest wine consumers.

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We here in America are emphatically not wine drinkers. In 1973, annual per-capita wine consumption was a measly 1.66 gallons; by 1984 that figure had risen, but only to 2.36 gallons. (To put that in context, one six-ounce glass a day would work out to about 17 gallons.) In France, meanwhile, consumption stood fairly steady during that period, at about 25 gallons per person per year; whereas in Italy it fell from about 26 gallons in 1975 to under twenty gallons in 1985.

In other words, the wine trend favors buyers over sellers, who also have to cope with the different market structures for imported and domestic wine. In New York City, it is possible to buy for remarkably low prices ($5 and less a bottle) good everyday imported drinking wines that are almost always more interesting and classier than the comparably priced American wines. (By “American,” in this context, I mean Californian. Wine is made nowadays in almost every state in the Union, but so far only California, the biggest of all the American producers, is capable of marketing it efficiently enough to compete with the foreign producers.)

Unquestionably, California wines are not doing well. Too many new wineries have been started up as tax shelters, producing the so-called “boutique” wines–often very good, but made in such small quantities as to be commercially impossible in this country of mass distribution, yet so full of pride of product that the wineries send unsolicited bottles to journalists like myself, hoping that we will give them a little free publicity.

Long-established California wineries, with excellent production records and equally good national distribution, are caught up in the rat race: among them Beaulieu Vineyard (or BV, as it is everywhere called) in California’s beautiful Napa Valley. BV has made excellent wine for 85 years, ever since Georges de Latour came from France and established it. He and his grande dame wife not only planted grapes in especially suitable Napa Valley districts, but made BV into a showplace with formal gardens and a fine house where they entertained bigwigs like Herbert Hoover and Winston Churchill. In 1924, their daughter married the French Marquis de Pins, who was himself a wine producer in his native Gascony.

BV was and is famous for its Cabernet Sauvignon wines, especially those bearing the Private Reserve label, which are as good as, and frequently better than, Bordeaux’s fine wines. (This is especially true of the early vintages–if you are lucky enough to find any–such as the legendary 1936 product.) I once held a private tasting of California reds of the period 1935-1975, featuring all the best wines from the most famous wineries–including Heitz’s Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet (“Kneel when you taste it,” said a connoisseur). The wine that came out tops with all the Bordeaux people present was the 1936 BV Cabernet.

Part of M. de Latour’s success was owing to his choice of winemakers, especially Andre Tschelistcheff. Andre–a Russian who learned oenology in France–came to BV in time for the 1938 vintage and retired in 1973. A small and totally charming man, he combined the best elements of traditional and innovative winemaking techniques to produce outstanding wines, thus benefiting the whole California wine industry.

In 1969, BV and four of its five vineyards were sold to the Heublein conglomerate, famous for its ready-made cocktails and even more famous for introducing vodka to America. The (to my mind) unenviable task of trying to bring BV back to its early glory, while at the same time making money for Heublein, has fallen to a very nice and very able man, Thomas B. Selfridge. Selfridge became BV’s full-time winemaker in 1979, having been its oenologist and viticulturist since 1973; he is also the president of BV Vineyard. He has to make 12 or 13 different wines, including champagne, and to travel around demonstrating to the world that BV is both traditional and innovative. The answer to the question of why BV has to make so many wines depends on whom you ask. The most frequently given explanation is that you have to have a full line in order to survive. Seeing that quite a number of California wineries are doing fine with only a few wines, I tend to view this argument uncharitably, seeing Heublein’s hand over BV.

But I could be totally wrong, of course. What is for sure? That there is too much wine that must be sold, that the competition is fierce, and that BV now makes very good wines, if you want to spend up to around $13 for a 1982 Cabernet or a 1983 Chardonnay. Or, if you’re feeling rich, you can spend approximately $21 for a Cabernet Reserve or a Sauvignon Reserve, keeping in mind that California wines with Reserve on their label are the best wines the producer makes.

To end on a practical note: In buying any wine–but especially inexpensive wine–patronize a store with a good reputation. Reputation is a valued possession, which no store wants to lose. You will normally get good wines; and if a particular wine turns out not to be everything it ought, you will have recourse, which you wouldn’t with a discount store. At the very least, you may be sure that your wine has been properly stored.

Bordeaux playground to Bacchus

Bacchus, god of wine! As soon as he was grown, he started on a journey through the world to teach the cultivation of wine. When he arrived in the Bordeaux region of France, he received the welcome of his life. In return, Bacchus endowed Bordeaux with the natural and human qualities essential to the production of the world’s best-known fine wines.Bordeaux_wine_region

Where are these famous Bordeaux vineyards? They cover approximately 100,000 hectares of land around the city of Bordeaux, in south-western France. From the Gironde estuary, the region stretches 105km to the south and 130km from east to west.

With what qualities did Bacchus endow Bordeaux for the production of such fine wines? Blessed site, noble grape varieties, and the unique Bordeaux blend.


Located on the 45th parallel, Bordeaux has a temperate climate warmed by the Gulf Stream, and is protected from the high winds of the Atlantic by the pine forests of the Landes. It has hot summers, crisp autumns, winters with rare frosts and springs that are wet.

Because of the large surface covered by the vineyards, a wide variety of soils – gravelly, chalky, sandy and clayey – can be found. It is therefore common for a single property to grow different varieties of grapes adapted to the different soils found on its parcel of land. It is the blending of the different grape varieties that gives the complexity and the richness to Bordeaux wines. This is in contrast to other wine-producing regions and countries where the wine is often the product of a single grape variety.

The famous wine-makers of Bordeaux produce a wide variety of fine reds, (dry and sweet), cremants and roses. Think of it: more than 10,000 chateaux and an average of 600 million bottles produced annually!


Even with the perfect alliance of the God-given regional attributes, all would come to nothing if the Bordelais did not put their intelligence into the wine-making process and if there were not a regulating body to maintain quality control standards.

Bordeaux has a long history in wine culture, dating back to the Romans and to the English in the Middle Ages. It was during the World Exhibition of 1855 that French Emperor Napoleon III requested that wine-producing regions establish a classification system for the red and white wines of Giroride. It is the most famous wine classification system in the world.

Since 1935, the wines of Bordeaux must answer to much stricter regulations relating to the purity and the constancy of the local production methods (number of vines per hectare, maximum authorized production per hectare, etc.). They are called “Appellation d’Origine Controlee” (AOC).

The wines receive the AOC label, which must appear on each bottle, only after submitting to a tasting under the National Institute of Controlled Appellation of Origins (INAO). So when consumers purchase a Bordeaux, they are assured of a product above standard! Today, there are 54 different appellations classified into six categories for all tastes and at all prices: red, dry white, sweet white, rose, Clairet and sparkling wines.


The wines of Bordeaux are 80 percent red and 20 percent white. What differentiates a red wine from a white wine? Its method of production and its life span.

With few exceptions Bordeaux is a blend of grapes allowing each vintner to bring out the best of each variety in one perfectly balanced package. The whites, both dry and sweet, are primarily a blend of Semilion and Sauvignon Blanc that often contain a touch of Muscadelle. The Semillon’s rich oily structure is the perfect foil to the crisp, fresh fruit and acidity of the Sauvignon Blanc while the Musoadelle’s prominent floral attributes tends to lift the entire wine’s outlook.

Red Bordeaux is simply a benchmark for blended wine. It begins with Merlot the widest planted grape variety in the region. An early ripener, it brings a soft, supple, fleshy character to the vat exemplified in whole by the wines grown along the right bank of the Garonne.

The Cabernet Sauvignon grape dominates the vineyards of the Medoc bringing a full-flavoured wine to the blend. Long on tannins and generally firm in the mouth, it requires several years of bottle maturation before revealing its true nature.

The other prominent component of the blend is the Cabernet Franc. More herbaceous than fruity, it is perhaps best described as a kinder, gentler version of the Cabernet Sauvignon. In decidedly smaller amounts Petit Verdot (a late ripener that adds colour, and alcohol) and Malbec (a variety low in alcohol, but high in acid) rounds out the blend.

But the blending isn’t just about grapes. Much of the Bordeaux tapestry is woven by the influence of its winemakers and their technology. Blessed with a history that spans several centuries the region’s vintners bring a wealth of experience to the modern winemaking process. Included in this are up-to-date viticulture practices such as dense plantings, shoot thinning and green harvesting that ensure concentrated, highly flavoured grapes are delivered to the winery door.

The winemaking itself is a highly sophisticated affair that begins with a temperature-controlled fermentation of mostly hand- sorted grapes. Although some select whites are now fermented in wood, stainless steel fermentation is wide-spread leading to clean, crisp modern whites and full-bodied rich reds.

From here the wine can move directly to bottle or into oak barriques for further aging. Depending upon the winemaker’s wish it could then spend another 6-24 months aging in the wood. The percentage of new oak used varies at each chateau. While some winemakers use only 100 percent new oak others may use none at all. In general, the formula is closer to one-third new oak, one-third one year old barrels and one-third two-year old casks.

A further selection is made at bottling to produce the grand vin and in many cases now a second label as well. Of special note is the percentage of grapes found in the blend. Usually they do not strictly mirror the percentages planted in the field reflecting either vintage variations or simply the stylistic preferences of the winemaker.

Once inside the bottle it undergoes its final and most important transformation. It is here the subtle nuances that are the hallmark of fine Bordeaux are born. The ultimate aging ability of any of these wines is very much linked to the vintage and production process. In a normal year, most non-classified wine can be opened between the three and six year mark. In outstanding vintages the great whites will age a minimum of 5-6 years while the reds may require as much as a decade to mature. With the possible exception of the branded or merchant wines almost all Bordeaux improves with age.


Multicultural societies, such as are found in Canada, have adopted many tastes from many different countries. A Bordeaux wine, with its complexity, lends itself perfectly to pairing with any type of cuisine. You can add a little creativity, a little finesse to your dining experience with a carefully chosen Bordeaux!

A fast, simple meal of meat or poultry? Try it with a “Cotes de Bordeaux”, a “Bordeaux” or a “Bordeaux Superieur”. What could one possibly drink other than tea or sake with any of the Oriental cuisines? A classic choice for the adventurous could be a red Bordeaux – Medoc or Saint-Emilion. Start your meal with a white Bordeaux AOC as an aperitif. You could choose another if you prefer fish – Entre-Deux-Mers or Graves for example.

Your tastes are on the sweet side? Why not crown your dessert, such as cheesecake, with a sweet wine, or enhance your apple or peach pie with a Sauternes?

With all its great qualities, Bordeaux’s ability to complement a wide range of food is perhaps its most redeeming. A unique blend of the past and present, Bordeaux has been described as “the wine that travels and a traveller’s wine”. A perfect expression to describe a wine that remains a classic but which is never out of fashion.

Good vinebrations

Bicycles and wine, on paper at least, do not make the best partners. Wasn’t it Virgil who said that good vines love open hills? Well bikes, in my experience, are considerably less keen on them.

So how my girlfriend convinced me that our tour of New Zealand’s wine country would be incomplete without cycling around the Hawke’s Bay wineries is beyond me. We had planned our trip using Footprint’s Wine Travel Guide to the World and, so far, had had great fun in Marlborough drinking Montana’s breathtaking Sauvignon Blancs.

Hawke’s Bay, in the North Island, was supposed to be a contrast; and, with this unusual combination of epicurism and exercise, it looked like it was going to prove more of one than I had anticipated.

New Zealand tends to make people think of Lord of the Rings (its topographical variety made it the perfect stand-in for Middle Earth in the movies) and of bungee-jumping. Cycling is certainly not on many people’s activity list when they visit. But it is a popular sport there and it did not take long for us to find a Hawke’s Bay-based company called On Yer Bike to loan us bikes and provide the essential food and maps to make our day a success.

We set off from their base on one of those warm, midsummer days that Kiwis get in March and it soon became clear that this was not to be the challenge it might have been. Hawke’s Bay is, pace Virgil, mercifully flat. Everywhere you look there are vine prairies, deep-green rows stretching out towards low, undulating hills behind which craggy, rough-hewn mountains rear up in the distance. It is the kind of scenery that keeps even the most unenthusiastic cyclist going.

After 40 minutes or so at our rather leisurely pace along deserted roads – New Zealand has such a small population that cars in the country are few and far between – we reached our first cellar door at Ngatarawara. The bottle-filled wood cabin was looked after by a small, rather feisty grey-haired lady who, within seconds of our arrival, was uncorking bottles, pouring wines and enthusiastically going through their vinous biographies. It was a bit of a shame to have to spit out such pleasant wines but, with plenty of cycling ahead of us, our options were limited.

To get to the next estate, Hatton’s, we cycled through vineyards where workers prepared for the imminent harvest. Their weathered faces did not register our presence as they pruned the vines busily and we cycled by unnoticed, arriving at the winery in less than an hour. Hatton’s cellar door was pretty basic – a couple of bum-splinter picnic benches in a converted barn – but their wines were anything but, with Gordon Ramsay numbered among their fans. Their Tahi, a ripe, richly concentrated Bordeaux blend, is on the wine-list at his restaurants for around [pounds sterling]70 a bottle and, having tasted it, it’s not hard to see why.

By now the exercise had left us both hungry and ready for lunch. We headed back to the vines, taking the opportunity to cycle between the rows with childlike abandon, and then sat down between them to eat the wraps and fresh strawberries that we had been provided with, plus a grape or two, cheekily stolen from the ripening bunches around us. Under the blue, cloud-streaked skies, it was hard to believe that New Zealand could get any better than this.

We would have stayed there all day had we not had one more winery to visit, and we had to cycle fast to get there. Sadly, Sileni turned out not to be worth the ride.

Its cellar door looked more like a Bond villain’s lair than a winery and, inside, the heaving tasting bar and souvenir shop were modelled on one of those Californian tourist traps that dot the Napa Valley.

Unfortunately, so was the flabby, fruity and forgettable wine.

It was a shame to end on this low note when there were other wineries to visit, but we were out of time; we had arranged to meet the On Yer Bike truck in Sileni’s car-park to return our bikes. The tour had been enormous fun and the wines mostly excellent but now, having sniffed, swirled, spat and, above all, cycled our way around the region, it was time to get back to our hotel for a well-deserved rest and perhaps a bottle of wine to savour.

Tom Williams

Calendar a harvest of fall events includes cowboy recitals and wine tastings


A guide to fall 1994, Canadian festivals, fairs and events is given. The events include the World Confederation Pumpkin Weigh-Off in Alberta, the Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Saskatchewan, and the Niagara Grape and Wine Festival in Ontario.

Sept. 30-Oct. 9: Okanagan Wine Festival, Penticton and surrounding area. More than 500 different activities welcoming the harvest, including wine tasting, a pig roast, hayrides and balloon rides.

Oct. 1: Greater Victoria Fire Safety Fair. A bucket-brigade competition between teams of local celebrities headlines the event; also fire and traffic safety shows for children.


Oct. 1: World Confederation Pumpkin Weigh-Off, Smoky Lake. Pumpkin growers vie to smash the provincial record of 438.5 lb. Competitors can also seek glory in the squash and watermelon categories.

Oct. 6-14: Calgary International Organ Festival. The gold medal prize at the second quadrennial competition is $10,000. The eight finalists, representing five nations, are drawn from an original field of 72 from 21 countries.


Sept. 23-25: Cowboy Poetry Gathering, Maple Creek. The pickin’, singin’ and recitin’ will be accompanied by exhibits of handcrafted cowboy gear such as saddles and braided belts, as well as trained dog competitions.

Oct. 8-10: Chokecherry Festival, Lancer. Locally made chokecherry wine and syrup are prime attractions at the 24th annual event, which also features a goose shoot and an ecumenical service.


Sept. 29-Oct. 1: Connexion Heritage Festival, Brandon. Representatives of 20 ethnic groups from the area showcase their artifacts, crafts, foods, dances and songs.


Sept. 16-25: Niagara Grape and Wine Festival, St. Catharines and surrounding area. A very Canadian bacchanalia–the winery tours and wine tastings are interspersed with a Teddy Bears’ Picnic, parades and concerts. A highlight: the Mayor’s Invitational Grape Stomp.

Oct. 1-2: Deer Trail Studio Tour, Elliot Lake. Local artists and artisans display their works at 15 locations along a 150-km route that winds through spectacular autumn colors.

Oct. 12-22: International Festival of Authors, Toronto. The 15th year of public readings and book signings by some of the world’s best-known and most popular writers. This year’s lineup includes Julian Barnes from Britain, Joyce Carol Oates of the United States and Canada’s W. P. Kinsella.


Sept. 15-Oct. 23: Chinese Feast of Lanterns, Montreal Botanical Gardens. The ancient festival is celebrated in the Chinese Garden with 900 brightly colored lanterns in different sizes and shapes, all handmade in Shanghai by skilled artists.

Sept. 23-Oct. 2: Autumn Dreams, Baie-St-Paul. The fourth edition of the North Shore fall festival features well-known comedians, musicians, artists, a photo contest and countless outdoor events.


Sept. 17-18: U.S. Civil War Re-enactments, Kings Landing Historical Settlement. Dressed in period costume, performers recreate the experiences of the thousands of Canadians who fought with the Union Army.

Oct. 7-9: Oyster Festival, Maisonnette. Oyster supper and shucking contest.


Sept. 25: Beach Sweep, McNabs Island Provincial Park Reserve. By helping to clean beaches, volunteers–who should bring gloves and lunches–get a day in the fresh air and “subsidized” transportation.

Oct. 1-2: Helen Creighton Folklore Festival, Halifax. Music, songs and dance honoring the collector of Maritime folk music, who helped preserve more than 4,000 songs in English, French, Gaelic, Micmac and German.


Oct. 8: Harvest Home Festival, Orwell Corner Historic Village. Potato harvesting and cider pressing demonstrations.


Sept. 22-Oct. 1: Trinity Conception Fair, Harbour Grace. The annual fair of arts and crafts is highlighted by the Miss Newfoundland Pageant, accordion and step-dancing contests and a baby contest.


Oct. 7-10: Delta Daze, Inuvik. A traditional fall event featuring the crowning of the Delta Prince and Princess, honey-bucket races, a midnight dance, a barbecue and casinos.


Sept. 22-Nov. 13: Paintings from the Kluane Expedition, Whitehorse. An exhibition of works inspired by a 1993 expedition of well-known Canadian artists to Kluane National Park.

Aussie rules

Melbourne looks a lot more spruce than when I was last there. Handsome Flinders Street Station has had a bit of a clean and Federation Square a complete facelift. It is all rather wacky and jolly, with outside cafes, restaurants and contemporary art displays, where I remembered it as rather worthy and dull. It still feels very European, with trams and fine Victorian architecture, but less like Dublin on a wet weekend now and more like Vienna or Paris in spring.

Melbourne Food and Wine Festival

I arrived during the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival and made my way over Princes Bridge to Southgate Plaza on the banks of the Yarra River. Some 40 or so wineries from all over Victoria had set up their stalls along Southbank and were doing a roaring trade. The Aussie blokes and their Sheilas looked bronzed, healthy, happy and, well, a little pissed. I grabbed a glass and joined in and soon realised that it was more a vast drinks party than a wine tasting, with precious few spittoons around.

‘Mummy, why’s that man spitting?’ I heard a little girl whisper as I gobbed some rather fine Fairbank Pinot Noir over the railings into the river below. ‘He’s pacing himself, darling,’ she replied, giving her slightly swaying husband a stare.

I made it to about a dozen stalls before the sun and the wine got too much, so I headed back to the Lindrum, a swanky boutique hotel in Flinders Street, whose minimalist chic wouldn’t look out of place in New York. I had arranged to meet my old chum Mark Tower there for the start of our brief no-expense-spared boys-on-tour jaunt around Victoria.

We launched our trip with a romantic dinner a deux at Walter’s Wine Bar, back on the Southbank. We got a couple of funny looks as we sat side by side giggling in the moonlight, so we talked loudly about our wives and nippers back home. I had a I trencherman’s chargrilled kangaroo steak, the sight of which gave Mark the shudders, and we made a serious raid on Walter’s remarkable wine list.

Next day we headed out of Melbourne towards the Yarra Valley. We had scarcely gone a dozen blocks before a policeman stepped out and beckoned me to pull over. It was 9.30 on Sunday morning and I was being breathalysed. ‘Christ, how unsporting can you get?’ muttered Mark. Despite our late night, miraculously I passed.

I had noticed in Melbourne that nobody crossed the road unless the pedestrian light was green and emitting an urgent ‘tock-tock-tock’ sound. Motorists too, we discovered, were equally supine. Nobody, apart from us, broke the measly speed limit, and there were endless nagging road signs along the immaculate empty roads that snaked into the bush. ‘Drowsy? Take a powernap,’ said one, ‘Snooze, booze, lose,’ said another. Is this really the nation of Mad Max, Crocodile Dundee, and Lillie and Thomson?

After some lengthy detours via the cellar doors of wineries such as Coldstream Hills, De Bortoli and Yering Station, we reached our plush country hotel, Chateau Yering. I don’t think it unfair to say that Mark had more than made up for the fact that I was driving. ‘It’s so rude to the winemaker to spit,’ he chided me on the way to our rooms.

That night we went to the local culinary hotspot, Bella Vedera, and had a hugely enjoyable dinner that included kangaroo tail soup (like oxtail soup, since you ask) and gallons of sublime Yarra Valley wine. We cadged a lift home.

We had booked a hot-air balloon ride for the following morning and I was up at 5 a.m. while Mark overslept and missed it. More fool him. The early morning sun was driving the mist away as the balloon rose into the air. The view was spectacular. I had been told to take a jacket, but it became warmer as we climbed and my balding pate got a regular singeing from the gas burner. We could see Melbourne, lying pale pink over 40km away, as the sun began to dance on its skyscrapers.

After the traditional balloonist’s champagne breakfast I returned and woke Mark, then drove for hours along the Hume Freeway to Benalla. This is Ned Kelly country and we made straight for the town’s modest museum to gawp at its prize exhibit–Ned’s bloodstained green cummerbund, taken from him at his capture.
Benalla is also known as one of the world’s finest spots for gliding, and we had booked flights at the Gliding Club of Victoria. There we met Bob Fox, from Yorkshire. ‘The conditions here are just perfect for gliding,’ he told me. ‘You can do 1,000km flights from here.’

Mark and I both loathe flying and neither of us had ever been in a glider before. I wasn’t entirely sure that I wanted my first flight to be in a 30-year-old Romanian glider driven by an OAF’ from Pocklington and towed by an ancient crop duster whose pilot was even older.

We lurched crazily into the air, weaving upwards in a vast circle, before the rope between crop duster and glider dropped. I was sitting in front and clung to the sides in panic. Bob wanted to head for the stubble fires burning outside town for some ‘crazy thermals’ but I very much didn’t want to, so we climbed–rather too quickly for my stomach’s liking–to 2,700ft and headed instead for the Strathclyde Hills. ‘Basically, gliding is a controlled dive,’ explained Bob reassuringly. ‘Did you feel the turbulence then?’ he asked as we shot up another 500ft. Oooph, blimey, yes I did thanks. After a while, though, something remarkable happened: I began to enjoy it. The view was stunning and I began to relax thanks to Bob’s soothing, matter-of-fact Yorkshire tones as he explained each manoeuvre. I declined his offer to take the controls, but our hour in the air passed in moments. Back on deck, Mark and I patted ourselves on the back as if we’d just downed a couple of Jerries in a vicious dogfight over Romney Marsh.

Next stop was Glenrowan, scene of Ned Kelly’s last stand. A true one-horse town, it seems to exist only because of the Kelly legend. Kelly’s Cookhouse Card, home of the Ned Kelly Breakfast, gave some idea of the town’s flavour. We pottered about and found the very spot where Kelly finally fell, peppered with 28 bullet wounds, despite his body armour. A sinister-looking black snake slithering by sent us scurrying back to the car. We had had enough adrenaline rushes that day.

We bypassed Wangaratta (‘Wang’ to the locals) and finally reached the dusty crossroads of Milawa and booked into the cool and airy Lindenwarrah Hotel, bang opposite the vast Brown Brothers winery. ‘Great spot, chum,’ sighed Mark dreamily. ‘Our very own winery.’

The following morning we presented ourselves at Brown Brothers to meet the head winemaker, Terry Barnett. We were shown round the enormous plant, full of activity in the middle of harvest. Terry gave us an impromptu tasting of various wines from the barrel, before taking us to the Cellar Door for a more formal affair. It all got too much for Mark and I could see he was in trouble when he started swirling and sniffing at an empty glass.

‘What were you doing last night?’ I asked Terry at one point. ‘Riesling all night long,’ he sighed.

‘Excellent!’ exclaimed Mark. ‘How many bottles?’
‘Er, it was picking, not drinking,’ replied a baffled Terry.

I sent Mark outside.

Our trip was at an end and we had had a hoot. Melbourne is a free city, buffed and polished in preparation for next year’s Commonwealth Games. The wines of Victoria are better than ever and the roads a joy to drive on. Just don’t speed, drink and drive or cross the road before you are told to.

Ray, Jonathan

A Glass Half Empty

America is producing more and better wine than ever, but hardly anyone’s drinking it

One of michael mondavi’s favorite stories, harking back to the dark ages of American wine drinking, takes place around 1969. The California winery he began with his father, Robert, was only three years old, and he was on the road pitching Cabernet Sauvignon to a doubtful citizenry. “I was in Des Moines, staying at the Adams Hotel, which had one of the better restaurants in town,” he recalls. “I went in for dinner and asked to see the wine list. The waiter said they had red or white, and I asked for red. He brought me a glass of port–that was their red wine. I thought, oh my God, do we have a big job.”

California wine

In fact, they had a huge job–but three decades later we’re swimming in fine domestic wine. Half a billion gallons of wine were sold in the United States last year, nearly three quarters of it from California, and it’s no longer newsworthy when California wines triumph over their European counterparts in blind tastings. In Napa Valley, home of 240 wineries including Mondavi’s, 5 million tourists a year swarm from town to town, blissing out on sun, vineyards and wine tastings. Many in the wine business credit the Mondavis–especially Robert, 85, a legendary promoter of wine and the good life–for revamping the image of California wine from plonk to plush. As his winery grew into a $300 million business, Mondavi pioneered the notion of wine as lifestyle. He opened his doors to tourists, invited top chefs to cook at the winery and still travels the nation and the world talking up California and Mondavi wines. He’s been photographed so many times genially swirling a glass of red that he’s probably got one permanently affixed to his fingers by now. This fall the family celebrates its past with the publication of Robert’s autobiography, “Harvests of Joy” (Harcourt Brace), and looks ahead to next year’s groundbreaking for the project closest to his heart. The $70 million American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts, scheduled to open in Napa in 2001, will be a nonprofit museum-performance-education complex. It’s expected to draw some 300,000 visitors a year, and the family calls it his legacy.

But for all the celebrating, there’s a strange disconnect here, and the Mondavis know it. “We’ve got a long way to go before we’re Italy or France,” says Tim Mondavi, Michael’s brother and the company’s winemaker-in-chief. Americans are producing wine, we’re selling wine, we’re buying $1,595 temperature-controlled storage units to hold cases of rare Burgundy–but precious few of us are drinking the stuff.

Americans consumed less than two gallons of wine per capita in 1996, compared with 54.2 gallons of soft drinks. Among wine-producing countries we’re fourth from the top: only Italy, France and Spain make more than we do. But among wine-drinking countries we’re fourth from the bottom, just above Iceland. A measly 11 percent of Americans drink 88 percent of the wine. Worse, they’re the wrong Americans–aging baby boomers. No wonder the industry is getting nervous. Retail sales hit $16.1 billion last year, up $6 billion since 1991, but half the wine is being consumed by people 50 and older. As for the rest of the population–a survey by Sutter Home winery revealed that some 80 percent of Americans don’t even own a corkscrew.

Even the French Paradox didn’t affect our drinking habits as dramatically as early reports suggested. On Nov. 17, 1991–a date Tim knows by heart and recites with reverence–“60 Minutes” aired a story suggesting that cardiac health among the butter-happy French could be attributed to their consumption of red wine. Sales of red wine jumped and kept going: they reached 57.2 million cases last year, up 159 percent from 1991. Yet relatively few new drinkers came on board. Most of the buyers are longtime wine lovers. “It gave our best customers permission to drink more wine,” says John Gillespie of the Wine Market Council, a trade association.

All these bleak statistics have finally prompted the industry to take a step Robert has been urging for years: a generic advertising campaign. “Microbreweries are taking over the youth market,” says Robert. “We’ve done ourselves a disservice. Now we’re being forced to do something about it.” In February the Wine Market Council will begin test-marketing TV, radio and in-store ads targeting the 21 million Americans identified by council surveys as “marginal wine consumers”–people who like wine but drink only a few glasses a month. According to the council’s research, these desirable customers, many in their 30s with incomes of more than $60,000, seem to be shying away from wine. Four years ago 43 percent of this group drank wine once a month; last year only 30 percent drank that much. “They think wine makes an occasion too formal,” says Michael, who sees the snob/ceremonial image of wine as the industry’s biggest obstacle. “The old emphasis on the proper-shaped glass, the proper wine of the proper age, served with the proper food–we’re fighting all that. We want to take wine off the pedestal and put it on every table.”

Among marginal drinkers, the subgroup the industry is eying with greatest interest is women in their 30s–“the strongest target for expanding wine usage,” according to council research. Focused on home, friends, family and food, well equipped with discretionary income, these women are considered ripe and ready to drink more wine. Alas, they’re also a group with reason to think twice before ordering that second glass. While most of the medical news about wine is positive–moderate drinkers tend to have healthier hearts and live longer than nondrinkers–some research raises questions very pertinent to women in their 30s. Scientists are still investigating a much-debated possible link between alcohol and breast cancer, and a recent study suggested that women who drink have a harder time conceiving, and suffer more miscarriages, than abstainers. “Our position is that health is an important issue, but the way to discuss it is by edu- cating the press, opinion leaders and the health community,” says Gillespie. “Advertising is not the venue for a discussion on wine and health. This campaign simply allows people to reconsider the perception that wine is for special occasions, and make it seem more friendly and fun.”

For wine that’s friendly and fun, it would be hard to beat Sutter Home’s new Portico line, released in July: two white zinfandels, flavored with kiwi-strawberry and peach-mango, and a red zinfandel flavored with raspberry. (Unlike the old wine coolers, these are 99.8 percent premium wine.) “Everyone in the industry has been wringing their hands and saying we have to appeal to young adults,” says Stanley Hock of Sutter Home. “We thought, maybe if we add fruit flavoring, they’ll give it a try.” If they do, they’ll find the kiwi-strawberry tastes disconcertingly like Jell-O. But Sutter Home tends to know what people want. White zinfandel, the sweet concoction it invented 25 years ago, is second only to Chardonnay as America’s favorite wine.

Mention fruit-flavored wines to the Mondavis, and they get choleric. “We’re losing the credibility of zinfandel,” exclaims Robert. “This has no zinfandel flavor, come hell or high water.” Their own latest wines stick to the high road. Sea is a $50 Cabernet Sauvignon blend made in Chile; and in April the company will release a sangiovese and a pinot grigio, made in Italy, each for about $8.95. As these new wines indicate, Mondavi’s partnerships with wineries in other countries represent an increasingly important avenue of expansion. And they show the family working, as always, with its antennae out. Chile, where Mondavi and many other American wineries have found land and labor cheaper than California’s, doesn’t yet have a fine-wine reputation; Sea is intended to help create one. And the Italian pair will hit two boom markets at once: Italian food, and premium wines in the $7-to-$12 range. “The Mondavis are in every niche there is,” says Stephen Singer, a wine consultant based in Berkeley, Calif.

More important, they’ve learned to carve out niches where nobody’s been before. Three years from now, Disneyland will open a new attraction called Disney’s California Adventure, featuring mini-versions of famous California sights and landmarks. Mondavi has contracted to build a “wine-country experience,” with vineyards, exhibits, tastings, a film and a restaurant. Some 8 million people are expected to troop through every year, meeting California wine perhaps for the first time–and every bottle in sight will be Mondavi’s. Who needs fruit-flavored wines when you’ve got Mickey stomping the grapes?