Friday, 19 December 2014

The Realities of Wine: Bottle Shock, Somm, and A Year in Burgundy

Jancis Robinson has written about the difficulties of transmitting the joys of wine to the screen, arguing that a TV show as successful as Oz and James's Big Wine Adventure only worked because it took on a reality format. I recently watched three films that followed Robinson's advice, recording real-life events to bring wine to life in very different ways.

Bottle Shock (2008)

The 1976 "Judgment of Paris" has entered wine folklore as the moment when Californian wine demonstrated that it was every bit as good as, if not better than, the great wines of France. Organised by Parisian wine shop owner and British ex-pat Steven Spurrier, the Judgment was a blind tasting of ten Burgundy whites and ten Bordeaux reds against their Californian equivalents, mostly from Napa. To the consternation and initial denial of the French, two American wines came out top - Chateau Montelena's 1973 Chardonnay and Stag's Leap's 1973 SLV Cabernet Sauvignon (from their first ever vintage).

That's the basis for Bottle Shock, a film which more than any other I've seen holds a casual, almost flippant, regard for historical facts. Alan Rickman plays Spurrier, who on watching must have thought, Oh my God, I'm being portrayed on film by Alan Rickman, and then must have shuddered, Oh my God, I'm being portrayed as an ignorant, dilettante snob, before understandably considering defamation action against the makers of the film. This film does not like the French - or anyone like Spurrier who likes the French - and presents a colorful glorification of everything related to Napa (ignoring the fact that three of the Californian wines were from Santa Cruz and Monterey).

Bo's wig
The film centres on Chateau Montelena, apparently on the verge of bankruptcy and whose monomaniacal owner, Jim Barrett, spends much of the time punching the wall and his hippy and bewigged son, Bo, who is involved in a bizarre love triangle with seasonal help Sam and colleague and wannabe winemaker Gustavo (none other than Gustavo Brambila, whom I visited in August). This tortured and tortuous to watch love affair results in the immortal line, "With hardship comes enlightenment," breathlessly whispered between surreptitious kisses among the vines. Jim (who is seen making the wine, omitting the role of the actual winemaker, Mike Grgich) takes an instant dislike to Spurrier/Rickman and refuses to allow his Chardonnay to be entered in the tasting, believing the French will not treat his wine fairly. Bo intervenes, sending the Chardonnay via another tortuous plot device to Paris, where, despite mysteriously turning brown two days before the tasting, the wine wins the whites.

There's so much ground to turn such an iconic, almost mythical moment as the Judgment of Paris into a great film, but Bottle Shock doesn't even try. The author of the book on which this film is very loosely based even appears as a monosyllabic wine heathen, a brushstroke characterisation typical of the film. It is fun to watch, but more often than not it's funny despite itself.

Somm (2013)

Somm is a documentary which follows a handful of young American men (the only women in this film are their wives) preparing to take the Master Sommelier exam. The film quotes several talking heads - mainly Master Sommeliers - saying this is the toughest exam in the world. But, rather like the Master of Wine exam which seems much harder and more thorough, this isn't an exam in the educational sense of the word; it's a test to join an exclusive men's club populated by testosterone-driven egos.

This beautifully shot film inspires us to laud the efforts of the would-be Master Sommeliers who sacrifice so much time, effort, and sanity to pass (or more likely fail) the exam (and thank goodness for their long-suffering, understanding wives without whom, etc.). Instead, I spent much of the film hoping they all failed - the arrogance of these men trying to outdo each other in their speed-tastings of expensive wines is insufferable.

Their efforts are presented uncritically, with little explanation of what tasting a wine involves. The job of a sommelier or wine educator should be to demystify wine, make it approachable and understandable, and get people to drink and experiment more; Somm, with its chosen sommeliers, instead underlines the stereotype of wine being an elitist, snobbish institution full of men congratulating themselves on their unerring taste using impenetrable language.

The most telling part of the film is when Ian - the most obsessive and unhinged of the students - misidentifies a Beringer Chardonnay (a decent, widely-available wine from Napa) as white Hermitage (one of the greatest and most exclusive of white wines, made from Marsanne and Roussanne), and refuses to admit his mistake. How on earth can anyone destined to be a Master Sommelier ever be wrong, even if they don't know how to pronounce Viognier correctly?

A Year in Burgundy (2013)

This film acts pretty much as a tourist promotion, taking us through the 2011 vintage from beginning to end. As unquestioning as it is to the inherent greatness of Burgundy's wines, it's a beautiful film which gives a leisurely insight into the working life of an old, mostly traditional region. Burgundy is all about the land - as winemaker after winemaker lines up to remind us - and the film gives a great feel for that sense of place which somehow ends up in a bottle of wine. Without trying to be something it's not, this film succeeds far better than the other two films.

Only the French would describe winemaking as "Cartesian"

Making a film or programme about wine is difficult, because there's only one way to appreciate the subject: by tasting it. Sharing a talent for cinematography that the makers of Jancis Robinson's Wine Course perhaps didn't have when she ventured into television in the 1980s, these three films take different approaches: a heavily fictionalised account of a famous event; a documentary insight into the lives of those who taste wine for a living; and a documentary guide to those who make wine. The last works best because I think, ultimately, that's what we want to see: how the glass of wine we're drinking as we watch the film got made and where it comes from. The personality of a wine comes not from a taster, but from its maker.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

The Rhône

Driving down France from the cold, grey, almost English north through the gradually brighter Burgundy, all of the sudden the weather and the country change after Lyon. The sun is bright, constant, and warm; the land is vast and dramatic. You can sense that northern Europe has been left behind for good, and that the glamour of the Mediterranean is not too far away. These changes are reflected in the wines, which get bigger, bolder, and warmer as the Rhône, one of France's great rivers, winds it way down from Lyon to Avignon, city of Popes, and Arles, where van Gogh somehow lost an ear.

the regions

The Rhône is divided into four different wine-producing areas, the most significant of which are the northern and southern. The climate of the northern Rhône is still moderate, only just warm enough for Syrah to ripen fully. The south is hot, the sun baking the galet stones which retain heat in the cool nights. 

northern Rhône

This is France at its most dramatic and unforgettable, the grand river bending back and forth as huge, steep slopes rise from its banks. These slopes are home to some of the most famous, and expensive, vineyards in the world, including Côte Rôtie ("roasted slope") and Hermitage. These south-facing slopes allow enough sun and heat to hit them for Syrah to grow. The Syrah here is far removed from the Shiraz of Australia: meaty and gamey, with a restrained fruitness and several years of oak ageing, designed to be drunk at least five years after the vintage, and often much more.

There are also three appellations dedicated to white wine. Condrieu, next to Côte Rôtie in the north of the area, is all Viognier, heady, aromatic, and arguably overpriced. Within the appellation is another, France's smallest, called Château Grillet after its only producer. Right at the other end of the region is St-Péray, a small appellation dedicated to Marsanne and Roussanne, my two favourite white Rhône grapes.


southern Rhône

After a small break along the river where nothing much happens in wine terms (apart from sparkling wine production in Die, just east of the Rhône), the climate becomes startlingly hot and Mediterranean. A huge variety of wines are made in the southern Rhône, including the delicate fortified wines of Beaumes-de-Venise, but this area of France is known for its high-alcohol red blends based on Grenache.

The most famous appellation is without doubt Châteauneuf-du-Pape, so called because nearby Avignon was the home for the Papacy in the 1300s. Châteauneuf was the very first appellation to be created in France in order to counteract fraud, in 1923. The rules are quite broad - 18 different grapes are allowed for the production of both red and white wine - and standards have risen and fallen. There has also been a trend, led by demand in the American market, for high alcohol wines aged in lots of new oak, which can be too much for the more delicate palate.

the galets of Châteauneuf-du-Pape

More consistent, less fashionable, and better value is neighbouring Gigondas, which is very similar to Châteauneuf-du-Pape but more reserved. Next door to Gigondas is Vacqueryas, a more rustic, less hygienic, but appealing version of its two neighbours.

At the bottom end of the scale is Côtes du Rhône, a large area which takes in 42,000ha of land. The wines, often made using some carbonic maceration, are simple, straightforward, and fruity, but can offer good value at the entry level. The next level up is Côtes du Rhône-Villages, wine made in one of twenty villages that have the potential to become their own appellation one day. These wines can offer a very good value alternative to the more famous appellations.

There are plenty of other appellations in the area, including the interesting Costières de Nîmes on the western side of the Rhône, all offering local variants on the constant theme: wines with red fruit, highish alcohol, dusty tannins, a meaty depth, and some ageing potential. Not surprisingly, they pair well with the local food: rich, hearty, meaty dishes.

Far less common (2% of the Côtes du Rhône appellation; 7% of Châteauneuf-du-Pape) are whites. I love the rich, creamy, nutty textures of these wines, made from any combination of Roussanne, Marsanne, Viognier, Grenache Blanc, Picpoul, and the wonderfully named Bourboulenc. 

The Rhône also has an appellation solely for rosé, Tavel, which serves as a pink equivalent to Châteauneuf-du-Pape (where rosé is not allowed): full-bodied, fruity, and earthy. A distinguished appellation, but not one that is to everyone's taste.

the wines

Guigal Condrieu 2012 ($70)

From Côte Rôtie and Condrieu's most famous producer, this is a wine of beautiful floral and stone fruit aromas. The wine has also seen some oak giving it a light smokiness, and it has a dry, mineral finish. I personally thought this wine was outstanding, but the overall, and quite harsh, conclusion of the Diploma group I tasted this wine with was that its fruits lacked concentration and the finish wasn't long enough. It's hard to imagine a wine more delightfully aromatic than this, though I do prefer the rounder, creamier wines made from Roussanne and Marsanne elsewhere in the Rhône.  

Cave de Tavel Lauzeraies Rosé 2012 ($14)

Our Diploma tutor confessed that he wasn't a huge fan of the rosés of Tavel, but nevertheless it's a style which he have to appreciate and understand. Tavel produces full-bodied rosés far removed from both the sweetish blush wines of California and the pale rosés of nearby Provence. This wine had lots of red fruits which were a little too candied and juicy watermelon, together with a wet earthy feel. Full and fruity, but lacking complexity.

Château du Montfaucon Côtes du Rhône 2013 ($12)

This was a good, fruity example of Côtes du Rhône at an extremely reasonable price. No oak and quite simple, this is nevertheless a good entry level wine. The producer is from Lirac, one of the Rhône's many appellations.

Clos St. Jean Châteaufneuf-du-Pape 2011 ($35)

Tasting this wine with a group of American students was interesting. These students described the wine as well integrated and balanced; in contrast, I found the whopping 16% level of alcohol burning and out of control. The only non-fortified wines that reach this level of alcohol are Amarone and Zinfandel. The tannins weren't ripe or the fruit jammy enough to be a Zinfandel, and it was much closer to a modern, powerful Amarone, with its dry, dusty tannins and lots of new oak to try and integrate the excessive sugar of the fruits. If I wanted to make a wine with this high alcohol, I'd just make it fortified - at least then there'd be greater control over the nature of the alcohol.

Guigal Brune et Blonde Côte Rôtie 2010 ($70)

Back to the opposite end, and style, of the Rhône with another wine from Guigal. This is a blend of Côte Rôtie's two famous slopes; wines from the 'Blonde' slope are softer and more likely to be blended with Viognier (there was 4% Viognier in this wine), while those from the 'Brune' are firmer and age longer. I loved this wine, its fruits restrained and use of oak just about in balance. The subtle flavours slowly drew out, a savoury gameiness behind the black fruits and slightly coarse, drying tannins. This is still a young wine, however, the flavours needing plenty of time to develop and mature. One student complained that the finish wasn't long enough, but the lingering toasty, pepper finish is exactly what Syrah from a moderate climate should taste like.

Tasting these wines from the Rhône left me thirsty for more, and I had a blind tasting of three other wines to hone my Rhône recognition skills further.

Prat Sura Vacqueryas 2012 ($28)

The more rustic element of Vacqueryas was clear in this wine, with an earthy, homely appeal. The tannins were proper Rhône, dry, gripping, and teeth-staining, but with good red fruits to flesh the wine out. In true French mode, I later drank this with steak - a perfect match.

Torbreck Cuvée Juveniles Barossa 2011 ($20)

GSM is not a term used in France, but it refers to New World Rhône blends featuring Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvèdre. The latter doesn't get used much in the Rhône, more so in Provence and Spain (where it's called Monastrell), as well as in California and Australia (where it's called Mataro). This Australian GSM is surprisingly herbal, but its main difference from actual Rhône wines is that the fruits and tannins are much riper. There is enough structure to balance out those ripe fruits: one of those Australian wines that reveals unexpected layers with each taste.

Mas de Gourgonnier Les Baux de Provence ($20)

Les Baux is one of my favourite villages in Provence, a stony hilltop village with small chapels and shops to dip into to escape the beating sun. It also produces great wine, an appellation created in the early 1990s to incorporate Cabernet Sauvignon - a grape that traditionalists believed shouldn't flourish in the heat of the Provençal sun. This is a blend of Grenache, Syrah, Cabernet, and Carignan, but falls a bit short. The nose is disappointing and medicinal; the mouth, however, has good, dry tannins and red and black fruit, but the finish fades too quickly.

The most important thing to consider when tasting Rhône wines is the tannins. If the wines come from the Rhône rather than the New World, there is going to be a dry dustiness to the tannins, especially in the hotter south. These tannins give the wine great structure, making them perfect with robust food dishes. There is also a romanticism to the wines of the Rhône which I can't avoid falling for, even in the formal educational settings of a WSET Diploma course. The sunshine, the lifestyle, the river are all reflected in the wines: this is a place which gives and then gives some more.

Thursday, 4 December 2014


Burgundy is the most terroir-driven of all winemaking regions, hundreds of small patches of land divided up into even smaller plots inherited over the generations by individual farmers. There are only four grapes grown in the region, though for the most part quality wine is made with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir (the other two grapes are Aligoté and Gamay). Although the two grapes are important to the taste of the wine, it's the many different soils, the location and aspect of the vineyard, the weather, and, of course, the influence of the winemaker that lend so much to the wine's eventual character.

Some of the most famous names in the world of wine lie in this land. The Côte d'Or - literally golden slopes, though the name may originally have been an abbreviation of Côte d'Orient, meaning east-facing slopes - stretches from Dijon, taking in the expensive red wines of Marsannay, Chambertin, Chambolle-Musigny, Vougeot, Vosne-Romanée, and Nuits-St-Georges, down to Beaune, more famous for its whites from Corton, Pommard, Volnay, Meursault, and Montrachet.

Another famous name is further south, in the Mâconnais area where the limestone soils which give Burgundy so much of its identity turn into the granite soils of Beaujolais. These soils end in the spectacular crags of Vergisson and Solutré, two of the four villages that form the Pouilly-Fuissé appellation. The soils here are the oldest of Burgundy, with a 100 million years' difference in age between the oldest and the youngest rocks.

the communes

From north to south, the first of the communes is Vergisson, which is dominated by a large crag. The west of the commune has east-facing slopes on granite soils, producing expressive wines, while the east of the village, with its west-facing slopes on rocky, limestone soils, is cooled by northern winds, producing more mineral and floral wines.

Next is Solutré-Pouilly. Solutré is dominated by the other of the two crags; to the back of this large rock, the wines are aromatic and complex. Pouilly is on limestone soils, producing complex, rich, ageworthy wines.

In Fuissé, the vineyards looking down on the village create rich, powerful wines, while those at the bottom of the village, on volcanic soil, are round, supple, fruity, and easy to drink.

The most southerly commune is Chaintré, on east-facing limestone slopes, whose wines are fruity and fresh with mineral qualities.

Solutré's rock


the appellation

The four communes got together in 1929 to create a single village, which was made into an appellation in 1936. Until the nineteeth century, Gamay was the dominant grape, but Chardonnay took over, particularly after phylloxera, and it is now the only grape permitted in the appellation. Unlike the Côte d'Or, the concept of Premier Cru and Grand Cru vineyards, which define each appellation's best sites, does not exist in Pouilly-Fuissé. This is changing, however, and the appellation's authorities are in the process of applying for Premier Cru status for several of its vineyards - or climats, meaning sites - including the vineyards behind the five wines I tasted below.

the wines

At the invitation of the Bourgogne Wine Board and @AnnetteHamani, I tasted five wines from Pouilly-Fuissé. These displayed the rich variety of styles produced in the village, due both to the divergent soils and production methods. Pouilly-Fuissé is known for its bigger style of wines; although these were still all quite full-bodied, there was a great deal of finesse and delicacy to them. Also surprising was the age of the vines, ranging from 40 to 90 years.

Domaine Pascale et Catherine Rollet, Clos de la Chapelle 2012

From a vineyard on marl, limestone, and clay soils in the centre of Pouilly, this was by far the oakiest, as well as the youngest, of the wines I tasted - fourteen months in 50% new oak and 50% two-year-old oak. From 90-year-old vines giving the wine extra concentration, there were strong earthy, smoky, and vanilla aromas to the nose, with white pepper and cinnamon. The oak did overpower the other aromas of apricot and hazelnut. A little obvious, but a wine with lots of appealing flavours wrapped in a smoky earthiness.

Domaine Dominique Cornin, Les Chevrières 2011

This wine was completely different, as it was only aged in old oak. The vineyard is also from a different part of the appellation, Chaintré, where the grapes are earlier ripening due to the south-facing slopes and protection from the northern winds. With the absence of new oak, the pear and apricot aromas were more apparent, with an almond nuttiness showing the wine's extra year of age. A delicate, balanced, yet still full-bodied wine.

Domaine Thibert Père & Fils, Les Vignes Blanches 2010

From the ampitheatre of vines that overlook the village of Fuissé, the name of the vineyard refers to its white, pebbled, limestone soil. A forward wine, with 20% new oak and 20 months of ageing (the final 9 months in stainless steel), with rich, creamy flavours of vanilla, quince, and banana. Likewise on the mouth, making the wine like a creamy mushroom sauce. This wine, showing well four years after the vintage, indicated that the full style of Pouilly-Fuissé would best be appreciated with rich creamy chicken or veal dishes.

Domaine Denis Bouchacourt, En Sevry 2010

Perhaps my favourite of the five wines, due to its mature aromas of orange peel and its mellow, delicate, yet complex feel. Ageing more quickly than the other wines - it hadn't been aged in oak at all - this was an indication of what Pouilly-Fuissé tastes like as it grows old. From near Solutré's rock, where the vines are protected from the cool air from the north and exposed to lots of sun, this wine felt the purest, most balanced expression of the appellation's soils, floral with a long nutmeg finish.

Château de Beauregard, La Maréchaude 2010

In the village of Vergisson between the two unavoidable crags, this wine comes from a vineyard with poor, stony soil. The relatively small amount of new oak (25%) still overpowers the stony, mineral flavours, with a rich, full, creamy texture of vanilla, smoke, and banana. An intense wine, but not the subtlest.

What surprised me most about tasting these five wines is that the two with the least amount of oak used in the maturation process were the most interesting, expressive, and complex. The use of old oak in the second wine and the complete absence of oak in the fourth allowed the character of the vineyard and the attitude of the winemaker to come through more clearly but also more subtly - which is what the wines of Burgundy should be about. The vineyards of Pouilly-Fuissé, protected from the cooler airs of the north and exposed to the warmer sunshine of the south, seem quite capable of producing expressive, full wines without too much intervention from the winemaker. If the producers of Pouilly-Fuissé wish their wines to be compared to those of the Côte d'Or, they should allow those wines to express most completely the character of the land they come from.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Some Like It Cold

Although Prohibition was repealed just over 80 years ago, it still affects American life today. Even last week, a number of Sacramento wineries and breweries were accused of breaking a law dating back to Prohibition. Having spent the last few months in California, I've become increasingly interested in how Prohibition influences American drinking culture as well as wondering what brought the entire nation to vote for a ban on alcohol.

Prohibition's influence today

The high taxes on alcohol, attitudes towards drink, and the strange, Byzantine laws result from the period. Prohibition explains American drinkers' habits, from under-21 students partying in foreign cities to a preference for Scotch - it also explains why on earth Americans drink Canadian whisky. The popularity of light, low-alcohol beers comes from the moralistic attitude that led to Prohibition, while making wine at home led a generation and more to prefer sweeter wine. Because of Prohibition, states have different laws on alcohol, which is why it's impossible to get alcohol on a Sunday in Indiana but possible to get some over the border in Ohio. These laws also make shipping alcoholic beverages from one state to another bureaucratically tortuous. If it weren't for Prohibition, Bourbon could well be the world's leading whiskey and California the world's leading producer of wine.

reasons for Prohibition

The period from 1919, when the Eighteenth Amendment was passed, until its repeal in 1933 seems now a crazy time in American history, when an everyday activity was outlawed, the law routinely broken, and organised, violent crime became ordinary. Prohibition resulted, however, from many factors which still resonate today. Prohibition happened not just because of anti-alcohol sentiment - which was arguably still in a minority when Prohibition came into effect - but due to a wide-ranging and still on-going debate about what it meant to be American.

Anti-Saloon League slogan: perhaps not the deterrent intended

temperance movement

Dominated in large part by Anglo-Saxon Protestants, Methodists, and Baptists, the temperance movement was a reaction to the chronic alcoholism it saw afflicting the US. Similiar movements existed in Canada and northern European countries, where forms of Prohibition were introduced in Germany, Sweden, Norway, Iceland, and Finland. The UK also had its own movement, with Temperance Bars scattered around the country and a restriction on pub opening times enacted during the First World War, restrictions only fully lifted in 2003.


Those initially most concerned with the nation's drinking problem were women, who saw the damage their fathers' and husbands' alcoholism could have on the family income and well-being. The Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) was founded in 1874 by Frances Willard and 34 other women, and was an instrumental organisation in the campaign for limits on the sale of alcohol. This campaign became directly linked to the right for women to vote, in the tactical belief that any form of Prohibition would only be enacted if women were able to vote on the issue. The Eighteenth Amendment of 1919 brought in Prohibition, the Nineteenth of 1920 gave women the vote. 

income tax

The tax returns on alcohol were so high that proponents of Prohibition had to come up with an alternative revenue should alcohol be banned. The answer was federal income tax. Unlike the Eighteenth Amendment, the Sixteenth Amendment of 1913 introducing income tax has never been repealed. Ironically, the federal government later used Prohibition gangsters' unpaid income tax bills to imprison them.

the role of the government

Income tax was seen by its opponents as a trangression on an individual's rights: no government should have the right to impose a levy on an individual's wealth. The relationship between the federal government and the individual was, and still is, one that goes to the core of how America perceives itself. Not only did the imposition of Prohibition and income tax demonstrate a central government willing to intervene in the lives of its citizens, so did the methods, such as wiretapping and stop and search, used to combat criminality during Prohibition.


30% of federal revenue came from taxes on alcohol in 1910, much of it from beer. This was the period when national breweries began to dominate the industry, including Anheuser-Busch, still a giant conglomerate responsible for Budweiser. Most of the major breweries were German, and their customers German and Irish. The associated rise of the male-only, heavy-drinking saloon gave rise to the name of the most powerful Prohibition lobby, the Anti-Saloon League.


Anti-Saloon League poster
The object of Prohibitionists' ire were recent immigrants, in particular Jews and Catholics. The Irish and Italians, who viewed drinking as an everyday part of their culture, were attacked for their drinking habits, while the German brewers - such as Anheuser-Busch, Pabst, Miller - were viewed as un-American as the First World War approached. (The founder of Anheuser-Busch was best friends with Kaiser Wilhelm.) Some of the language was extreme towards "the scum of the Old World" (Frances Willard) and continued well into Prohibition; the 1928 Presidential candidate, Al Smith, lost the election due to a stream of anti-Catholic rhetoric as much for his anti-Prohibition stance. Meanwhile, the gangsters who emerged in the 1920s were often young European immigrants (over 6m arrived between 1900 and 1915), using Prohibition to establish a foothold in the US.


The Ku Klux Klan, refounded in 1915, initially vented their racist rhetoric against Catholics and Jews, but others were happy to push their views on race on to arguments in favour of Prohibition. A Nashville newspaper stated that, "The Negro, fairly docile and industrious, becomes, when filled with liquor, turbulent and dangerous." The black population did not have the vote at the time, but any political power they might gain was of concern. Frances Willard of the WCTU feared that, "the grogshop is the Negro's center of power." It wasn't just the Drys who used such objectionable language: a St. Louis distiller marketed a so-called "nigger gin" with the name, "Black Cock Vigor Gin." 

organised crime

Lucky Luciano
Organised crime wasn't invented with Prohibition, but it saw a new generation of mobsters form city-wide units able to distribute alcohol across the country. Although these informal organisations were bloody and brutal, they still managed to maintain a nationwide bootlegging network that was able to assuage the thirsty drinkers of Prohibition America. Annual sales of illegal liquor were estimated to total $3.6bn in 1926, and all untaxed. Chasing down the gangsters, who included such infamous names as Al Capone and Lucky Luciano - proved impossible for underfunded, undertrained, and often corrupt Prohibition and judicial officials - US attorneys spent 44% of their time prosecuting Prohibition offences, mostly by the ordinary drinker rather than the mobster.


Although there were enough stills producing high-strength alcohol of dubious quality around the US, plenty of alcohol was smuggled into the country. Neighbouring Canada, despite having watered-down Prohibition laws of its own, benefited greatly - legal whisky exports to the US rose from 8,335 gallons a year before Prohibtion to 1.1m by its end. Compensating for a decline in British whisky consumption, the Scottish whisky industry used its Canadian connections to establish a strong presence in the US, although the Caribbean was another starting point for smuggling - the 914 gallons of Scotch sent to the Bahamas in 1918 had already risen to 386,000 in 1922. The Bahaman tourist industry dates from Prohibition, due to the number of American tourists travelling there in search of a drink (also the origin of the cruise ship holiday).

the drinks industry

Only a handful of brewers made it through Prohibition - those large enough to maintain alternative production of ice-cream and, more relevantly, malt syrup for home brewers. At Repeal, they were ideally positioned to gain control of the new, legal demand for low-alcohol beer. These brewers were Anheuser-Busch, Pabst, Miller, and Coors, who still dominate American beer today.

The wine industry at first benefited from Prohibition. The necessary fashion for home-winemaking meant that the demand for grapes rose hugely, and the price of grapes in Napa and Sonoma hit record highs. The number of people drinking wine doubled in the first years of Prohibition, most of it made at home. As a result, quality was hit: plantings of Alicante Bouschet, which produces simple, boldly-coloured wine, overtook quality grapes and winemaking knowledge was lost, to the point that Californian wine did not regain its standards until the 1960s.

The taste for spirits had been in decline for some time before Prohibition. Even before national Prohibition, Jack Daniel's had been forced to move from its home in Tennessee to St. Louis. It moved back in 1938, where it is still based in a 'dry county.' 

drinkers' habits

Women entered Prohibition supporting it and left it opposing it. Prohibition made drinking an equal pastime, allowing men and women of different backgrounds to socialise together openly. Social, cultural, and racial divisions had been broken down - thanks to Prohibition, everyone was a drinker.

celebrating the end of Prohibition



Drinking actually went down after Prohibition, although this was due in part to the poverty of the 1930s and the war of the 1940s. But making drinking legal meant that the government could directly benefit from drinkers' habits, rather than try and punish them. Prohibition led to widespread social drinking, the popularity of cocktails, and a tendency towards sweetness in alcoholic drinks, but it's the broader social and political effects that perhaps have had more consequences: for instance, the increased role of federal government. Arguments over that role and attitudes towards immigrants continue today. Despite the failure of Prohibition, which led to hardened drinking and increased crime, various governments around the world still believe it to be the correct policy to adapt towards drugs.

further reading: "Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition" by Daniel Okrent (2010)

Monday, 17 November 2014


One of my tutors on the WSET Level 3 summarised students' appreciation of Riesling: "When you study Level 1, you just don't get Riesling. At Level 2, you realise it's important but you don't understand why. By Level 3, you begin to appreciate it more but still don't quite understand why everyone goes on about it. It's only when you study the Diploma that you realise it produces the greatest white wines of the world." Likewise, the Oxford Companion to Wine describes Alsace Riesling as "one of the most difficult varieties for beginners, but one of the most rewarding wines for connoisseurs."

This may seem a snobby, off-putting way of viewing wine - 'you can only appreciate it if you know what you're talking about' - but Riesling does not have the broad appeal of Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay. Its flavours are varied and complex, it develops difficult petrol-like aromas as it matures, it's a demanding grape at its best in cool-climate areas, and it's difficult to grow well and economically. Riesling is not so much a drink for connossieurs, but it is one for those - both winemakers and drinkers - willing to dedicate some time and effort to it.

It's also suffered from the whims of fashion. The popularity of Blue Nun and other low-quality German wines in the 1970s and 80s caused the reputation of both German wine and Riesling to fall, even though many of those wines were made from Müller-Thurgau. It's taken a very different style of Riesling from Australia to help regain the grape's reputation.

where it's grown

Riesling's heartland is in the cool areas of Germany around the great Rhine and Mosel rivers. The vines grow on slopes that steeply rise from the river on difficult soils. Particularly in the cool climate of the Mosel, Riesling has to work incredibly hard, which is why the wines are so austere with high acidity. Riesling is also one of the 'noble' grapes in neighbouring Alsace, the only area of France where the grape is able to be grown. The wines are lightly floral when young, gaining a gunflint complexity as they mature.

Despite Australia's reputation as a blisteringly hot country making big, fruity wines, it has gained standing for its Rieslings. In the high altitude areas of Clare Valley and Eden Valley near Adelaide, the wines are fruitier (zesty limes) and more giving than their Alsatian and German counterparts. It is these bone-dry Rieslings, with characteristically high acidity, which have turned drinkers back on to the grape.


The great Rieslings of Germany are known for their sweetness. The regulations and terminology of German winemaking are convoluted and labyrinthine, and it can be difficult to know what level of sweetness to expect. However, the lower the alcohol (and it can be as low as 7-8%), the sweeter the wine. As sweet German wines have fallen out of fashion, more producers are making dry Rieslings (labelled "Trocken") to follow the popularity of Australian wines. Alsace, on the other hand, has always made bone-dry Riesling.


I conducted a blind tasting of three Rieslings, from the Mosel, Alsace, and Napa, an area certainly not known for its Riesling.

Trefethen Dry Riesling 2013 ($25)

The US in general has yet to master Riesling. It is the second most-planted white grape in Washington State, where Chateau Ste Michelle is the world's biggest producer of Riesling, but the wines lack depth and complexity. Oregon, cool and rainy, ought to have the potential to produce interesting Riesling, but producers stick to Pinot Noir - only 718 acres of the grape are planted (compared to over 15,000 acres of Pinot Noir). If you can, try Chehalem's Rieslings. Finger Lakes in New York is cool enough for Riesling, although the wines are still too expensive for what they are. A good example of Finger Lakes Riesling is the Tierce Dry Riesling, made by three of the area's top producers.

California, meanwhile, is just too hot and sunny, but there are a small band of producers that battle through regardless. The cool hills of Santa Rita offer potential for the grape, but only a handful of producers dare tackle it in Napa and Sonoma; in my tastings, I've only encountered Riesling from three producers - Scribe, Chateau Montelena, and Trefethen. In The Wines of the Napa Valley, Larry Walker describes Trefethen's Riesling as "consistently at the head of the class for California," although that's a very small class. Dry, with green apples and a lemon and lime zest, the wine has a nice acidity and the characteristics of Riesling. It lacks complexity, however, its flavours pleasing but somewhat one-dimensional, demonstrating the difficulties winemakers in California have in making truly memorable wine from the grape.

S. A. Prüm Graacher Domprost Estate Bottled 2009 ($31)

From a famous vineyard on the steep slate slopes of the Middle Mosel, this is a superb example of Riesling at its most complex, although not quite as sweet as the classic style of Mosel wine. A wet, farmyard nose with orange peel and apricots, spicy butterscotch, and a whiff of petrol, the wine is maturing nicely at five years of age. Despite that age, the acidity on the palate still gives the wine plenty of structure. The fruits on the palate are a little fresher and more citrus-based than the nose, suggesting that the wine has a few years left yet, and the long finish has a slightly sweet, cinnamon, and white pepper feel. An outstanding wine at an astonishing price, from San Francisco's Ferry Plaza Wine Merchants.

Domaine Ostertag Heissenberg Alsace AOC Riesling 2011 ($36)

Ostertag are one of my favourite producers. Biodynamic, the wines are of a guaranteed quality but also individuality. Slightly younger than its German counterpart but from rich, mineral soils, this Riesling still has a developing, petrol nose with strong orange-citrus flavours. Floral too, with a dry, spicy finish. The rich flavours of the wine make it an ideal accompaniment to an oily, acidic dish such as salmon. As good a wine as this is, however, it lacks the long complexity of the Mosel.

No surprises that the Napa Riesling could not compete with Alsace or the Mosel. I was surprised, however, by how much quality was packed into the latter wine at the $30 mark. The Mosel, with its steep slopes and small vineyards, is a difficult area in which to make quality wine, yet this wine was a complex, sophisticated wine at a very reasonable price. Proof that the best wines of Germany are not always at an off-putting price and evidence of the quality German wine often reaches.