Friday, February 20, 2009

Next up: Port in a box and a 'roadside' tent

Sometimes the longer the interview the longer it takes to post. That's my excuse, and I'm sticking to it, for why part of this Presidents Day chat with Morris Zwick of (yeah, we can call them funky) Terrapin Station Winery that's located just north of Elkton, Md., in Cecil County has taken so long to transcribe and give it some eyes beyond mine.

The word “fun” jumps out at you on his site, and that sense of humor shines through in any interview with this second-generation Italian who notes on his Web site that he was a rare bird among his peers at the University of Maryland, where wine was his drink of choice. Starting with kits, his move toward winemaking now includes a product that is the only one in the Pennsylvania/Maryland region that packages it in a bag and box. It's sold in more than 40 stores, including now in Beltway Fine Wine & Spirits in Towson. “That's actually a big deal for us,” he said. “It's a large store, they move a lot of volume, and there's a lot of people go there to shop.”

As of now there's nowhere to buy his wines on his property, but Zwick said that will change soon. He figures to put up a festival tent by the wine building and open on weekends and maybe a couple of weekdays from June through mid-August. There they can allow visitors to taste and purchase the wines. “It's just to get people to stop by, see the place and sell some retail. We have some longer-term plans to put up some permanent structures, but those are on hold until several things happen “ he said, stopping to laugh, “including the improvement of the economy.”

Not only would the weather prohibit them from doing that now, but so would the inventory. Zwick said they're down to two Vidals and the Syrah, but that they plan to package five in the next few weeks. “We're just waiting for the guy who makes our cardboard to finish, and once he’s done with that we’ll start getting em knocked out one by one.”

Those include a Cecil Red, a blend of Cabernet Franc and Shiraz, their reserve Traminette, Vidal, Cayuga and what he called Five Rivers Rose. “And then, when those five wines are done, we have last year’s reds in the tank. We also have a Port we’re playing with and, with the port, we’ve come to an agreement to do a little marketing with it that people should find entertaining and useful. So we’ll see how that works out. I think it will be the world’s first Port in a box. We’ll see. It’s a matter of convenience for us. You know, we’ve got our form factory, we might as well keep it.”

He can only hope all of these sell with the same zest as his Traminette, which has been overwhelmingly popular.

“Last year we sold it out in five weeks. Now, we didn’t have a huge amount, but I was actually pleasantly surprised and I think part of it is. We don't don't it horribly sweet, but it does have some residual sugar. And its parent Gewurtztraminer is definitely a love or hate wine because [it] has definitely a very, strong, unique characteristics, a spiciness to it. Some people like it, some people hate it. The Traminette, being a cross of it, it has those characterictics but it’s not so overwhelming and I actually think it makes a more pleasant wine to drink. So I think part of it is that Traminette such an approachable white wine and it’s unique. It’s not just another Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc or something like this. And it was really popular, so we're hoping to keep with it.”

He said they handled the approach on this current vintage a little differently; for instance, doing an extended cold soak on it for 48 hours. “We definitely got something even more flavorful than last year, so we’re pretty excited about it. One thing you should always talk to a winemaker about, I think, is what kind of wines are you drinking. Because if you’re only drinking your own wines, drinking the same things all the time, then you’re not learning. And we definitely started to, and it’s hard to find, it’s not like every store [sells] a Traminette. But we definitely have been going around trying Traminettes and getting ideas from people and I think that will be reflected in what comes out here.”

Perhaps one other significant change at the winery will be some new packaging to differentiate their product line. Zwick said the higher-end wines will have a variation on the existing box and the newer wines will have a slightly different box style. It's one of our goals to be able to have somebody to look at the wines,” and recognize the gradations of value and price points. “Everything right now is priced the same. Our quote-unquote suggested retail is 20 bucks; that’s what we sell at festivals and stuff. When we’re done this little phase we’ll probably be anywhere from $18 to $30. The Traminette will probably be around 30 bucks . Now part of this is the mission work of explaining to people before they take a step back and say 'Wow, that’s a lot of money,' is remember the boxes containing the equivalent of two bottles of wine in it.”

Chien offer view of other coast's assets

I've been lucky enough to make acquaintance with Mark Chien, Pennsylvania's wine grape educator, and receive his monthly updates. This month's, as usual, had a variety of information that would make more sense to people in the industry. Still, there's always something in his e-mails that's worth sharing with everyone, and that's the case this month, too.

Chien wrote that "in the East, wine growers are often so busy battling the elements that they do not have time to be serious viticulture innovators. I have always found it helpful to go to other wine regions, in particular Europe and California, to find information and practices that might help us to be better wine growers. These areas simply have the critical mass to support research and innovation that we lack. I recently traveled to California to attend the Unified Symposium, a National Grape and Wine Initiative board meeting and visit vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains and Santa Barbara County. The trip was enlightening for me and I’ll share some of the highlights."

Those highlights include this edited assessment of growing grapes in Santa Barbara County:

"After visiting Santa Barbara County (SBC) and its vineyards it is necessary to wonder why anyone who wants to grow wine would do it anywhere else. This is as close to wine paradise as I have experienced. The region has just emerged during the past decade and one of its greatest proponents is Jeff Newton. I have known Jeff since we were grad students studying viticulture at UC-Davis. We followed different career paths – he went on to become one of the best viticulturists in California, well, most of you know what happened to me. I am not being frivolous with this accolade. In the preface of his most recent wine tome, Robert Parker, Jr. mentioned just two viticulturists in his broad view of the wine world, David Abreu and Jeff. His name is now popping up everywhere.

Jeff started Coastal Vineyard Care (CVCA) as a one-man consulting business 25 years ago and now it is a multi-million dollar company managing over 2500 acres in Santa Barbara County. The business itself is remarkable to behold, a lean and mean planting and management machine that farms medium to ultra-premium wine grapes that have achieved 95+ Parker scores. I have to keep reminding myself that this is the guy who used to grow broccoli in the central valley.

Jeff no longer works alone. He has three partners in the business who help to oversee the 30 or so ranches they farm. Below them is an incredibly integrated and efficient hierarchy of managers and foremen who monitor every last minute detail of work. They manage 2500 acres as well as any five acre vineyard in Pennsylvania. The company has its own accounting department, pest control advisor, and farm safety officer. CVCA draws talent from the excellent program at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo and many of those working at CVCA have diverse and very accomplished backgrounds in other fields. There are viticulturists to look after the detail work such a irrigation scheduling. CVCA also relies on expert consultants to help them do a better job of farming, including Tom Prentice of Crop Care. It is truly a team approach to wine growing.

I got to ride shotgun with Jeff for two days as he made the rounds around his ranches. It was an amazing experience. First of all… the weather. It was perfect. The temperature in Lancaster hasn’t crept much out of the 30s all winter and here we were, 60 degrees, blue sky, shimmering sunlight. Amazing. Maybe too amazing as a drought lingers and an early bud break brings the threat of frost.

Vineyard development: Clients usually approach CVCA with a property and ask them to evaluate it. It then goes through the suite of testing, primarily soil and water testing. Soils can be very high in magnesium which affects structure and nutrient availability. Salinity in the water can be a major problem. The initial walk over is important to determine the quality of the site and how vineyard blocks, varieties and rootstocks will be assigned. The soil work and determination of total available water will guide decisions, particularly rootstocks.
Depending on the AVA location relative to the ocean, varieties are selected. In the cool Santa Rita AVA it is mostly Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Further east into the Los Alamos AVA Syrah, Sangiovese, Grenache excel. The furthest east region is Happy Canyon where Cabernet Sauvignon has taken hold. Jeff has a good sense in each area what varieties will do best. The topography is highly variable, from some flat land on the valley floors to Mosel-steep hillsides but almost always with rolling hills defining the vineyards and adding complex slope, aspect and elevation qualities to the wines.

The vibrating winged plow has been used to rip in soil preparation. This is a wing on the end of a shank that glides through the ground at a depth of 2-3’ and lifts the soil and gently lays it back down. They rip on each vine row adding uniformity to the soil structure. There is an applicator that can drill soil amendments deep directly behind the winged plow shank. Gypsum is often used to help improve soil structure and to neutralize active aluminum. Gypsum is much more soluble than lime so it can move deeper into the soil.

Row direction in warmer areas is established more by terrain contour than a strict N-S or NE-SW preference, although they try to achieve optimal orientation. In cooler Santa Rita, N-S becomes more important.

Development costs can be high, upwards of $40,000 an acre for the ultra-premium, high density vineyards. Farming costs can also be steep, pushing $10,000 per acre for the best vineyards but most are in the $6-8K range and as low as $3500. Labor is the major expense.

Soils: Mostly clay loams with some sandy soils. They care about soils but not to the extent that Europeans value the soil for wine quality. Here soil is a medium to irrigate and hold water long enough to get the vine to the next irrigation set. But one premium vineyard was on very sandy soils and the expectation may have been for lighter, fruitier wines but the strength of viticulture applied to the vineyard allows it to produce big, juicy Parker wines. It demonstrates the Thunevin method of taking a medium site and raising it to a top site through maniacal viticulture."

Waltz to open winery next Saturday

You've read much about the grapes from Waltz Vineyards in Manheim, Pa., on this blog. Those who had contracted to buy Kim and Jan's grapes through the years have raved about the quality of the fruit. Starting next Saturday, Feb. 28, you'll get a chance to see for yourself what all the fuss is about. The couple has put the finishing touches on its tasting room and will swing open its doors for business from noon to 5 p.m next Saturday.

Kim said the couple plan, are least through the end of March, to be open on Saturdays only, and also by appointment. Those hours that the winery will be open for visitors figure to increase as the weather warms.

Shipping debate resumes in Maryland

All of what has appeared on this blog regarding the legislation in Maryland to create a shipping bill that got under way Wednesday in Annapolis has been fAdd Imagerom the side of the state's wineries. While the wineries association hasn't introduced the measure, it certainly supports it.

Maryland wineries are not allowed to ship wines directly to consumer; rather, there's a three-tier system set up that forces the delivered goods to be sent through a wholesaler and retailer, where the consumer would then pick up their wine.

Kevin Atticks, executive director of the winery association, said by phone last week that the current setup is broken. "There’s never been an example of that actually working," he said of the three-tier system. "If somebody wants a hard-to-come by wine, we found that wholesalers and retailers who have to agree to that system don’t, so the wine never actually makes it anyway. That was set up as a compromise years ago . . ."

Still, while the bill to change the system comes back up for discussion every year, it remains enforced. "That’s a bill that’s vehemently opposed by the liquor interests and, my god, if we even see them on the street they start yelling at us about it," Atticks said. "It’s not our legislation. I mean we support it but we’re not behind it. It’s a consumer group, but the liquor interests are so upset about it and that can only tell me that it’s getting closer to passage. Usually, they don’t even respond to it, but now they’l really upset about it and it’s the same bill that has been in for 20 years . . . so the only thing that's diferent is it's chances."

So how does the Wholesale, Retails Associations of Maryland articulate it's resistence to the legislation, called State Bill 338 and House Bill 1262? Click on this above letter sent Monday to the Honorable Thomas V. Mike Miller, president of the state Senate.