Dormant vines in Piemonte (Italy)

Because it’s not a blockbuster photo topic, a lot of non-professionals aren’t familiar with vines and vineyards out of season. That’s to say, out of tourist season. I think vines are as beautiful, maybe more, in the winter. This is especially true in the ultra-dramatic region of Piemonte (“foothills”) in northern Italy. Home to Barbaresco, Barolo, Barbera d’Asti, Roero, Alta Langa, and other varied and variously-priced wines, Piemonte is worth knowing. From workaday industrial valley floors to pristine vine-coated hills framed by the Alps, it is exceptional.

These photos are from late December and early January. I adjusted them as little as possible to give you a feel for how Piemonte looks and feels in winter. If they appear pale or low-contrast it’s because the light there is very cool and blue, almost like a light smoke has settled over the hills. I have never seen such cold winter light.

Most of these vines are Nebbiolo and Arneis since I took the photos around Barbaresco and Canale. Now, I’ll go pour myself a glass after I post this.

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The town of Canale:dpm_ 1596

The vines of Malvira’:
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Yes, you can bring your wine into the U.S.

A recent comment thread on The Winegetter reminded me of an area of confusion for many people. I prefer to see it as an area of opportunity.

Most travelers think they are limited to two bottles of wine when entering the U.S. In fact, Customs limits travelers to two bottles duty-free. But there is no limit on the amount of alcohol you can import for personal use. In other words, pack a travel scale and max out those bags because nobody is going to stop you!

Officially, beyond two bottles there is a duty (tax) of $1-2 per liter. In practice the Customs and Border Patrol agents almost never charge this because it adds up too slowly. Some individual states may have different limits that they enforce, but I know this is not the case in New York, California, and Virginia. If anyone has a different experience, please share.

For better selection and prices, go to the source

For better selection and prices, go to the source – in this case Bonnieux (Provence)

Why carry wine home? Simple: the selection is different and prices are usually lower. Personally I enjoy bringing home a couple of bottles of something I enjoyed in a restaurant or at a winery — away from the romance of your travels you can taste it again and see how your perception changes. Sometimes I like it more the second time around, sometimes less, but it’s always an interesting comparison considering how much your environment and expectations influence what you taste.

In October my wife returned from France with 36 bottles — by herself. I followed suit a few days later from Germany with another 10 or so from Cool Climate in Frankfurt. Here’s the evidence. If we can do it, so can you:

Handy carriedhand carried

What about packing those bottles? I try to find padded cardboard shipper boxes, either at a winery or a good wine store. Shipping supply stores sometimes carry them as well. In a pinch you can simply buy some cardboard boxes, tape and bubble wrap, and as long as you are thorough everything will get home in one piece. Sending wine by post is more complicated and typically very expensive.

So, now you have several cases of wine. What are you going to eat with that? How about some imported cheese? Similar to wine, there is a stubborn misconception that importing raw-milk cheese isn’t allowed. Actually, it is. Only cheese containing meat is definitively prohibited. So fill the spaces between your bottles with some raw-milk Munster and Saint-Marcellin. Although maybe some real Cantal would be a better bet since harder cheeses travel better.

In any case, free movement of people and goods is your right, so use it! See the Customs and Border Patrol website for more info.

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Where does my wine money go?

If you’ve ever felt brutalized by restaurant wine prices, you are not alone. Let’s take a high-level view of where your money goes when you drink at home or in a restaurant.

Here, an imported bottle that a winery sells to an importer for $10 ends up as $28 retail and $59 in a restaurant. Following the charts clockwise, you can see how the price builds from winery through to restaurant or retail.  These numbers represent an average case and are based on Deborah Gray’s How to Import Wine.

restaurant retail

As you can see, restaurants are aggressive with their wine markups– bottles typically sell in New York for three times wholesale. Rarely will you see lower markups, but you often see higher. Clearly, drinking wine at home is a better deal. Another option is paying corkage, which at $25 a bottle in many places makes more sense than paying the markup — not to mention you can bring a better bottle of wine. Good BYOB restaurants are also a nice option.

I think the gouging that happens in restaurants is a bit sad since it  flies in the face of the concept of wine as an everyday beverage and an essential part of eating well. On the other hand, wine drinking is booming in America so I may be wringing my hands over nothing. Ultimately, as more people drink wine they will demand value and quality and hopefully these markups will fall.

Retail prices, however, actually amaze me. To drink a delightful top-quality Beaujolais for $20 is nice. But to have it thousands of miles from its origin, in perfect condition and available right down the street — that is great. Considering all the costs involved, I tip my hat to the better wine stores of New York for offering such value while turning a profit.

For simplicity these charts do not include sales tax, and other costs (such as import duties) are embedded in the figures. By “retail” I mean a quality independent wine store such as those I list on this site, and by “wine” I mean artisan wines from real wineries — not industrial-scale products, for which the business model is different. Similarly, markups on very cheap or very expensive wines may differ significantly.

For a nice overview of fine-dining restaurant wine markups see this article from the Wall Street Journal.

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Photo tour of the Côtes du Rhone in winter

My brother and I recently had the pleasure of a free weekend around Orange, the center of the Côtes du Rhone wine region in and around Provence. This highly productive region is famous around the world and these wines land on almost every table in New York. From $10 (Domaine Jaume) to $120 (Château de Beaucastel), you can find an excellent selection on our shores. From fresh and fruity to dark and brooding, the “CDR” makes it all.

Rather than use words here, let’s let the photos speak for themselves. Just looking at the vines you can see the incredible diversity in the wines. For a handy map click here. The photos are my brother’s.

Beaumes-de-Venise (town of Suzette)












Plan de Dieu (near Cairanne)

St. Joseph

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What is “natural” wine?

This question is a bit divisive since opinions on the subject are varied and strongly held. The Wikipedia definition, which is a good jumping-off point, describes natural winemaking as “minimal chemical and technological intervention in growing grapes and making them into wine.”

Strictly speaking, wine is not natural. Wine does not just happen — it is the result of work, decisions and manipulation by people to craft a beverage in a certain style. Even if some ripe grapes did somehow fall into a container, crush themselves and ferment to create the blend of alcohol, water and other minor (by volume) ingredients that we call wine, almost nobody would recognize the result as wine. And, it would spoil almost immediately.

So, natural wine is not black and white — it’s a question of how much manipulation you consider desirable or acceptable. Fundamentally, from speaking to natural winemakers it becomes clear that natural winemaking is really a philosophy of making wine more in the vines than in the cellar. The idea is to grow healthy grapes and let the resulting wine be shaped by the juice that goes into it as opposed to post-manipulation — adding sulfites, strong wood flavors through intensive use of oak barrels, lots of blending, coloring and artificial additives, and the like. The thinking is that this produces a wider variety of more interesting wines that express their place of origin more than conventional wines. If this is true is matter of opinion.

In my opinion, the problem with the “natural” label is that it penalizes a lot of exceptional winemakers who do not adhere so strictly to this philosophy, which in certain circles is almost a religion. Many careful, thoughtful winemakers make the decision to use commercially-isolated yeasts (as opposed to “wild” yeasts favored in natural winemaking) and judicious amounts of sulfites (to protect the wine from bacteria and oxidation, and to help it maintain the purity of its flavor while in bottle). Personally, I would argue that these decisions do not reduce the quality or inherent value of the wine — in fact they often increase it, depending on your definition of quality.

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We should all drink more wine

Friends and new friends,

As many of you know my good friend Chris Lebherz is a talented sommelier in Frankfurt. He recently struck out on his own with Cool Climate, a store in Sachsenhausen where he introduces people to the wide world of the “natural” wines he loves and loves to share. Cool Climate inspired me to try to do something similar in my own smaller way.

This brand-new web resource will be dedicated to sharing things worth knowing about wine. I won’t try to demystify or reduce the perceived complexity of wine — what would be the fun in that? — but rather give people the tools to get the most enjoyment they can from the wide and thrilling world of the world’s oldest beverage. In this effort I know I can count on Chris — and the many other inspiring people I’ve met in wine — to help us down this path together.

Finally, like wine itself, this site is ultimately about people and friends and enjoying ourselves — I think this label from Marcel Lapierre sums it up nicely. So stay in touch!

Cheers, Andrew


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