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Why 2014 Will Be Your Best Wine Year Yet


With the close of the calendar comes contemplation: what have I learned from the wine world in 2013 and what do I expect (or hope) to see in 2014? A few observations: the rise of a new breed of “somm”, the demise of the wine score, the discovery of a Jedi Wine Master, and the impending Best Wine Year Ever.

A Return to the Antipodes

Australia Does the theory “If you build it, he will come” apply to wine? I hope so, because the woeful state of Australian imports in the U.S. belies the health and creativity of the industry Down Under. A recent visit to Astor Wines confirms the lack of antipodean demand — NZ and Oz shared a shelf smaller than the one devoted solely to NY State craft spirits! The Australian wine market has languished for years at the bottom of the U.S. market, so with nowhere else to go but up, expect to see a breakthrough of fresh vinous perspective in stores and restaurants. Importers like Little Peacock, which focus exclusively on Australian wines, have expressed tremendous optimism for the coming year. The wines produced by the new generation of risk-takers in Oz are lean, refined, funky, terroir-driven, and characterful. They don’t all work, but the journey’s as interesting as the destination.
Two to Try: Ben Haines Marsanne 2011, Yarra Valley and Jamsheed “Healesville Vineyard” Syrah 2010, Yarra Valley.

New Zealand This island country faces a different problem from Oz, albeit its wines are still underrepresented in the U.S. New Zealand has done so well with Sauvignon Blanc, the rest of its wines have been ignored. The importance of the grape cannot be overstated. The entire world drinks it (including, to the chagrin of Aussie winemakers, heaps of Aussies). The crisp, grassy style is the New World benchmark for the variety. But there’s plenty more from the land of jagged peaks and glacial lakes to capture a wine drinker’s imagination, and we’re starting to see those wines here in NYC. Fantastic Pinot Noir is trickling out of both Central Otago and, amazingly, Marlborough (the spiritual home to Sauvignon Blanc). For alternative whites, seek out James Millton’s Chenin Blanc. Although produced in the otherwise unremarkable region of Gisborne, he’s been called the Yoda of Kiwi winemakers — a serious endorsement. Is he a true Jedi Wine Master? Drink and find out.
Two to try: Terra Sancta Mysterious Diggings Pinot Noir 2012, Central Otago and Millton Te Arai Vineyard Chenin Blanc 2011, Gisborne.

The New Somm
In the past, a restaurant’s “sommelier” often fell into one of several categories, each of which — in an era of increased consumer wine knowledge facilitated by ease of access to information and greater willingness to experiment with up-and-coming regions — have become increasingly irrelevant.

We’ve suffered through uninformed yet opinionated waiters posing as sommeliers, informed and condescending sommeliers, and, most exasperating, the Grand Cru-obsessed, pompous sommeliers selling 100 percent Western European lists with 100 percent of the bottles priced over $100. Thus, it was about time the role either be redefined or abolished. (Yes, I acknowledge someone still has to build and manage the list.)

Fortunately for restaurant-goers, we’ve met the new generation of enthusiastic, educated sommeliers or “somms” who’ve reinvented their role, gifting us a new reason to dine out: access to diverse, reasonably priced bottles. Sure, we’ve seen prices on certain wines this year soar to previously unseen heights, but for the rest of us scanning the lower end of a list for value, we’re in luck: lots more under $50 selections than ever. And somms have managed to balance their lists serving traditional needs while presenting to the curious a plethora of distinctive wines such as zero dosage, undisgorged crémant from the Jura.
Where to Try: Corkbuzz by sommelier Laura Maniec, Pearl & Ash by sommelier Patrick Cappiello.


Domestic Affairs
Wine lists and retail stores in NYC used to be dominated by European selections — France, Italy, and Spain — with small weight given to the New World and even less to the juice of our citizen winemakers. However, with increased demand for local and hyper-local food sourcing, we’re seeing the same interest applied to wine. While in the past a reputable fine dining establishment might not dare be caught with anything from the East Coast on its list, sommelier Thomas Pastuszak at The Nomad has embraced our home state. A huge advocate of NY wines, he puts out an extensive list of Finger Lakes bottles. The best part? These wines offer tremendous value — $35 for a bottle of vibrant Riesling with dinner? Yes, thank you.
Where to Try: The NomadFrankly Wines.

Coravin as a Verb
2013 saw the launch of the most lauded device in recent wine history: the Coravin. It’s a wine extraction system that allows the user to pull out a measure of wine, while safeguarding the remaining precious liquid inside against oxidation with inert, tasteless argon gas. Testing has shown the wine can keep for years, allowing drinkers to sample the bottle to check for development or just have a glass of that rare Cabernet bought at auction now and again with a Wagyu ribeye. The pricey but genius device will change wine drinking habits both at home and in restaurants, truly, forever. Del Posto, an initial supporter of the device, offers rare wines by the glass, and Anfora has updated its menu to include a selection of “Coravin Wines.” What shall we Coravin tonight, dear? And a verb was born.
Where to Try: Del PostoAnfora.

Nobody’s Worrying about Robert Parker
Finally, America’s adherence to a mono-palate (Parker’s) approach to wine is on the decline. Although Parker stepped down in late 2012 from his post as editor-in-chief of the Wine Advocate — the newsletter he founded that spawned decades of obsession over a 100-point grading system that favored huge wines — in February 2013, he became the first wine critic inducted into the Culinary Institute of America’s Vintners Hall of Fame in Napa Valley. Perhaps a deserved award, but the collective unfettering of our taste buds over the year has left individuals free to make independent decisions — or at least use more resources to do so. Trusted local retailers in conjunction with social media apps like Delectable and Drync have been filling the void.
Retailer: Le Du’s Wines
Apps: DelectableDrync.

More Curiosity, More Choice 
Overall, NYC wine drinkers are imbibing during exciting times. Whatever we want, short of actually flying to the vineyard, we can find. Wines from Croatia? Blue Danube’s got them. Need that expressive, biodynamic Umathum from Austria? WineMonger’s your importer. Our increased curiosity and willingness to drink anything has encouraged importers to scour the globe and bring us a range of wines that dazzle in their diversity. So, keep sipping folks — 2014 looks to be our best year yet.


Filed under 2014 Predictions

Phil Sexton of Innocent Bystander and Giant Steps, Yarra Valley, Victoria

Phil Sexton Giant Steps

Phil Sexton of Giant Steps and Innocent Bystander, Yarra Valley, Victoria

Signature Wines:

  • Giant Steps single vineyard wines, $35
  • Mea Culpa Shiraz $45
  • Harrys Monster (named after Phil’s’ son Harry; Cabernet Sauvignon-based wine) $45
  • Innocent Bystander Moscato $6.99 in can, $11.99 750mL bottle

Where were you born?  Where do you live now?  Born in Melbourne, brought up in Margaret River (Western Australia) and now live on my vineyard in the Yarra Valley (near Melbourne).

How did you get into the wine business? Started life after University as a pupil Brew master in a large brewery. I slowly graduated to wine as my palate and interest developed. My first wine venture was 1981 when I planted Devil’s Lair vineyard in Margaret River.

What is most and least rewarding about being a winemaker?  Most rewarding is showing and discussing my wines with kindred souls around the world. Least rewarding is the continual battle for cash; it is a very capital-intensive business and there are few rich winemakers. But then if we were rich, we would just spend it all on new barrels, new equipment and better bottles of other peoples’ wine to try with our friends and colleagues.

What are the benefits and challenges of making wine in your region? Being close to a very wine and food centric city like Melbourne is of considerable advantage; we sell a lot of wine within 1 hour of our winery, to knowledgeable and interested customers.  Challenges include being surrounded by other great producers; it is hard to stand out from the crowd when you are in illustrious company, but then, we really love that anyway. Other challenges include a trying climate; we are very cool and some vintages are a struggle, even with early ripening varieties such as Pinot Noir, particularly our higher vineyards (up on the side of the Great Dividing Range). 

Have Australians’ wine preferences changed in the last 10 years?  Yes, very much so. I would say there has been a dramatic shift to more classically styled wines, which come from cooler climate areas. There is a tendency towards lower alcohol wines that are fully ripe (this is a viticultural and location-based challenge); a tendency towards minimal intervention, both through the sourcing of single vineyard sites, hand viticulture, indigenous fermentations and minimal additions from there on, particularly with the use of sulfur. Customers are seeking out these wines and are very interested to learn about them as well as asserting their preference this way.

Have you been to the U.S.?  Yes, many times. I even lived there for 2 years in Portland, Oregon working on the Bridgeport Brewery as a sabbatical from my wine business at that time, Devil’s Lair in Margaret River.

Do you think Australia gets an unfair reputation in the U.S. for producing unbalanced, fruit bombs? On reputation, I think that we have been master of our own demise, to some extent. Just because everyone claps and cheers when you take your clothes off, doesn’t mean that you are taken seriously or that it is going to do you any good. So yes, we went with the applause rather than our gut and wine instincts. This second wave of Australian wine that is starting to get more attention (off a tiny base) has always been around in Australia and we are seeing serious attention paid to these wines as we trickle them into your market. But they will always be in small volumes as they come from smaller family producers such as ourselves (=no capital market pressures); from small, carefully tended, special vineyard sites; and require explanation and hand selling, rather than brand-based selling. So I don’t expect there will ever be a huge wave of Australian wine hitting your shores again, rather a steady influx of well-made, appellation and often site-specific wines made by smaller producers.

Which wine or grape is the least understood or respected? From Australia, it would have to be Semillon. We don’t grow it as it prefers warmer climates, but probably the wine I drink most with my team would be aged Hunter Valley Semillon. It’s an art to grow and make properly in the challenging environment north of Sydney, but the end result is heaven in the bottle; we don’t talk about it very much because we would rather it stayed here in Australia.

Giant Steps Vineyards

What excites you most about Australian wine right now? The inevitable return to what fine wine is all about: great sites and dedicated, uncompromised and independent producers doing what they believe in, slowly. Rather than a beverage industry directed by marketing men and corporates.

What do you drink when relaxing at home?  Aged Hunter Valley Semillon, Rieslings (Australian), Pinot Noir (from everywhere) and Chardonnay (from cool appellations), cool climate Syrah/Shiraz (including Northern Rhone) and good beer, including Bridgeport IPA (yes, it’s on tap in Australia) and Trumer Pils (yes, also on tap in Australia). Currently, I am really enjoying the wines from Ted Lemon at Littorai (CA). They are inspirational examples of low/no intervention wines. It’s our peers that excite us most of all.

What types of food do you like to eat? Australian/Thai based food. This cuisine is a big movement in Australia and marries the precision and spice of High Thai (Thailand is not far away) cooking with the robustness and enthusiasm of classically trained Australian chefs (see Thai Cooking, by Australian Chef David Thompson). Also, thin crust pizza from a wood burning oven (no cheat heating, i.e. gas flames)  We have a huge business at our winery based around “the dragon”, our wood burning oven and I never tire of the classic Italian styles (with respect, not Wolfgang Puck styles).  They go with any wine.

What music do you listen to? Jazz: Brubeck, Coltrane, Burrell, Jarrett, Loussier and French Jazz in general; classical (but not “best of”), and alt rock and country. I have every album by Manchester (England) composer and guitarist Vini Reilly/Durutti Column and as a contrast, but certainly not second, Nick Cave, Townes Van Zandt and every album by John Prine.

Which non-Australian wines do you like? I love Chablis (most sites, most producers), Barolo (same as for Chablis) and my partner Donna loves grower Champagnes…. so of course “I love them too”… but with tongue out-of-cheek, I love what the grower producers are doing, with what was previously a very controlled front.

Are there any wines you can’t stand to drink? First of all, I do not like infused wines in general, but some of the new botanical styles are intriguing. I don’t like high alcohol wines (hot) so I avoid them. I have a huge problem with producers who refuse to deal with cork problems. Why should we pay good money for faulted wine, even if it was great when it went into the bottle?

If you could be traveling somewhere else right now, where would you be?  Where I am right now as I am writing to you: Paris. It’s got it all and if I could improve my French a bit, I would move here. I am kidding. If I ever make any money in the wine industry, I will plonk myself right on my front porch and enjoy the view…. and the wine.

Is there a winery dog? Yes, three vineyard dogs: Timmy and Elsa the Golden Retrievers and Edie, the Brown Labrador. All are very selective consumers of high-quality wine grapes (they know exactly where to go in the vineyard) and vintage life becomes focused around stopping them eating the best fruit before we get to it!

Anything else you care to share? If your readers ever plan to visit Australia, they MUST plan properly. Allow 4 weeks (at least) or they will do little more than the tourist shuffle, and miss the heartbeat of a very different culture located in one of the most unique environments in the world.

 Giant Steps Timmy1 Giant Steps Elsa

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Filed under Australia 2.0, Phil Sexton of Giant Steps/Innocent Bystander, Yarra Valley