The three tier system for alcohol sales in the US creates a middleman layer that could be argued to be superfluous. Cynics can and will say it's just to create another revenue stream for the government and creates an unnecessary layer of corporate bureaucratic excess. Indeed when one looks at the products that already have national recognition and demand, the large companies representing them seem to be opportunistically profiting off of the existing system without adding value. So why start a small two person wholesale business in Colorado? Where does an independent lover of handcrafted wines fit into this system? For us at S&M and other small companies like us it begins with a desire to be an advocate for wines that don't have a built in following already.
Take for example the wines of Vincent Fritzsche from the Willamette Valley in Oregon. Vincent is a one man company, making wines from some of the most amazing single vineyards in the Eola Hills. Vincent decided on a winemaking philosophy of working sustainably in the vineyard and naturally with minimal intervention in the cellar. The results speak for themselves in the glass but how to get the wines into the consumer's glass?
This S&M feels, and many other small independent wholesalers agree, is where we earn our spot in the ecosystem. It is up to us to find the wines like Vincent's, bring them to the state and introduce them to the retailers who will sell them. But our job does not end with us getting a buyer to taste the wine and agree to buy it from us. Our role also includes helping provide the tools to retailers to help create the demand for those wines.
In normal times we rely heavily on the fact that the success of our products helps many interested parties, making it a collaborative effort. A restaurant brings in a case of Vincent Pinot Blanc for a by-the-glass program for example, and this can drive a positive experience between a diner and the staff. When that diner wants to recreate those memories at home they look for the wine at their local bottle shop. Unfortunately we are not living in normal times and restaurants can't do as much work driving demand for independent products. But retailers and their staff seem to have stepped up to do more of the heavy lifting. Perhaps consumers are seeking out new small production wines in higher numbers. Whatever the reason there is a feeling that we've noticed out there right now of a shared struggle, that those of us that care about promoting small artisanal products are in this together; that if we want the small restaurants and small wineries and small wholesalers to make it through this moment that we have to speak up now, do the work of sharing our love of these products with others and support the people who share our passions.
Holiday season is a great time to discuss the issue of Riesling. Whether in the industry or not you've probably come across this very interesting disconnect between somms and the average consumer. Most wine professionals I know rave about Riesling and think it's the greatest wine in the world, and in many cases consumers think of Riesling as "that sweet wine". So where does this difference of viewpoints come from? Primarily from what Rieslings you have been exposed to.
Firstly it is probably worthwhile to mention that not all Rieslings are sweet. It is a very versatile pairing wine because it's somehow both balanced on it's own and plays well with a wide variety of food. It has great acidity and body, it's flavorful but also a great vehicle for terroir, that old world concept for a wine (or any crop really) that gives the consumer a window to the land it was grown in. While many a somm's top choice for sushi or spicy food for it's ability to be delicate and a powerful foil for heat, it especially shines with Holiday and wintery foods because the dishes served this time of year are so diverse and it meets each one in such a collaborative way.
Riesling is so versatile that it can make great sweet wine or great dry wine, and unfortunately also really awful sweet wine. It is this last category that has consistently had the greatest demand for many many decades, cheap and sweet wines unfairly maligning the word Riesling on their labels while fulfilling the demands of people who like wine that tastes like soda. While understandable that winemakers would mostly make the type of wine that people are asking for, it creates an unfortunate dilemma. If you've only ever had bad overly sweet Riesling, where is your incentive to buy more expensive Riesling? Well as many a restaurant worker or wineshop employee can tell you from experience, adding just 20-30% to your per bottle wine budget can drastically increase the quality of your experience, as can asking for advice and recommendations from the people who work at the store or restaurant where you are shopping. They often get exposed to a wide range of quality wines and can be ambassadors or curators for those often inscrutable bottles, making it easier to shell out a few more dollars for something you've never tried before. While this is good advice for any wine buying adventure for Riesling you are setting yourself up for a world of new wine pleasures. While Riesling is never going to be for everyone it is certainly worth exploring that something so beloved by somms and wine enthusiasts the world over might have something to offer to your holiday table.
Art and wine are two things that have been part of the human experience for nearly our entire existence and have a lot in common. Both are transformations of raw materials by human hands and minds into something new, often greater than the sum of their parts. Often they are co-opted and commodified by people other than their creators. Both wine and art are often viewed by many as belonging to the realm of snobby elites thanks to their use as status symbols by the wealthy. But in the moment following creation before someone else assigns value, there is a purity and earnestness to these labors of human passion that transcends class and politics and is more often an expression of their creators’ wills or the beauty of the natural world.
New to our portfolio are a few exciting examples both of wine/cider making and visual artistic expression. Art + Science produces truly unique ciders, wines, perrys and co-ferments. The labels are the reproductions of original artwork by Kim Hamblin who co-owns the company. Johan Vineyards is a biodynamic winery in the Van Duzer Corridor. A beautiful estate in any season, they decided to commission painter Yong Hong Zhong to make various vineyard scenes for each wine. Both products not only showcase visual and beverage art but remind us of how created beauty can bring a pure kind of joy into our lives and open our minds to new possibilities.
Orange wine is a term popping up more and more on menus and in boutique bottle shops lately and while the name nicely sets it apart from the styles of wine we're familiar with like white, red and rosé, it doesn't exactly explain what it is. A quick refresher on how wine is most commonly made will help explain. In almost all grapes the juice has very little color, all the color comes from the skins. Red grapes are pressed and then the juice is left in contact with the skins to extract color from them, when this is done only briefly you get the most common style of rosé. In modern times white wine is made by fermenting the pressed juice of pink, green and yellow skinned grapes after pressing and draining off from the skins. But what would happen you ask if you left the skins of green or golden grapes in contact with the juice and made a white wine in the same style as a red? Well that is what is commonly called 'orange' wine. It's not really all that new, wines were made this way for centuries. It's actually what we commonly think of a white wine that is a novelty. Hence as some winemakers explore traditions of natural wine-making from the past that have been partially put away in favor of modern techniques, we begin to see more natural wines using skin contact as a way of adding complexity to wines in a historic and natural way. The skins do create a completely different experience, one that is often more savory and can even create a textural experience in a white wine that many have only previously experienced with reds; tannins and pheynolics, spice flavors, floral and tropical fruits.
Near the end of the last ice age about 15,000 years ago, massive lakes in what is now Northern Montana would occasionally have the blocks of ice damming them break, sending as much as 10-17 cubic kilometers per hour of floodwaters barreling across the landscape of Idaho, Washington and Oregon, bringing with them mud and rocks of all size and shape from gravel to boulders the size of buildings. As this mass reached the Oregon coast the Coastal Range and icy logjams diverted the water to the south, filling the area now known as the Willamette Valley. The visit S&M took to Oregon in February was undoubtedly less impactful on the landscape, but the place had a similar power on us. In a short time we met a great many wine and cider makers, vineyard managers and garage wizards, and all of them impressed on us a sense of service to the land, a feeling of stewardship. Whether walking through the hushed afternoon vines of Johan among giant old trees, or Art + Science's nursery orchard with a friendly dog padding along behind. The people we met were inquisitive, humble, reverent to the nature that surrounded us. They were making wine out of a compulsive passion, without shortcuts or cynicism. With everything going on it's tough for a fledgling distribution business to add many new wineries but we were energized by the products we discovered in Oregon and couldn't help but bring what we could to Colorado to share.
S&M Selections is excited to announce a couple of firsts for us: we are going to be partnering with the fantastic folks at Clear Fork Cidery, our first cider producer as well as our first Colorado partner! Hard cider is often sold alongside beer by many distributors, but as we are predominantly wine focused we feel Clear Fork is a perfect producer to showcase how much more in common quality cider has with wine than beer. Most commercial cider in America is made from commodity table apples but a cidery like Clear Fork shows why hard cider was the beverage that helped build America and is a true expression of our spirit and our land. Apples helped Americans settle the west and uniquely American varietals came into being as pioneers planted seeds on their journey. In the last century many heirloom varietals that were less commodifiable and too complex, acidic or tannic for grocery stores or corporate juice makers have been all but forgotten. But for the folks at Clear Fork who are more interested in complex terroir driven beverages, abandoned orchards of wrinkly crab apples look like a wonderful opportunity ripe for the plucking. Their ciders are from immensely diverse and multifaceted varietals, many harvested from old or forgotten orchards. To us, this fermented fruit juice from farmers and artisans is right up our alley.
The old world idea of terroir, that a wine or cheese or even an olive can express different characteristics depending on where it is grown, cannot rightly be said to apply to the Loire Valley as a whole. With its headwaters in the Massif Central and its mouth opening in the Atlantic Ocean it travels roughly 629 miles and covers many different soil types from ancient seabeds to flinty hard rocks. It passes through lots of countryside and many different grape varieties are grown there including Cabernet Franc and Pinot Noir for reds and the very diverse tasting Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc and Melon de Bourgogne for whites. Even with all of the differences, history has shown that the river ties the region together in other ways. Not only did the broad agricultural region provide a giant garden with which to feed the city of Paris, but the ease of transport that the river provided helped make sure that the best wines of the area were traded widely and helped make the Loire famous for quality wines. As large of an area as the Loire is, it is still known for exceptional quality today, and farmers that are deeply committed to making wines that honor both tradition and respect for the earth that they live on.
Campania, the Southern Italian region centered on Napoli is the bread basket of the South. Originally settled by the Greeks it features warm sun dappled coastlines teeming with seafood and fertile volcanic soils that are home to fields of the world’s best tomatoes and citrus groves. Not far inland the land rises quickly and you find cool forests of chestnut trees. As you might expect, viticulture in such a place has not always focused on quality. Roman senators and Neapolitan nobles have looked to Campania for juicy table grapes and copious amounts of flavorful wine alike. But the bones of good winemaking have always been here: great biodiversity with grapes like Falanghina, Fiano, and Greco (and that’s just the whites), lots of wonderful microclimates that provide unique terroirs, and most of all a local pride in the produce. Whether it’s established masters like Marisa Cuomo growing vines in terraced cliffside vineyards on the Amalfi coast, or the Favati family making traditional mineral driven reds and whites at the feet of old volcanoes in Irpinia, Campanian winemakers are keeping a connection to history through this incredible land and their amazing indigenous varietals to make wines of a caliber rarely seen in the past. Producers like Bruno De Conciliis and Diana Basca of I Cacciagalli combine old-new techniques like biodynamics and sustainable energy with millennia of traditional growing and a love of gods grapes. It’s a region of diverse selections many of us are discovering for the first time.
In a number of recent wine press articles the Alto Piemonte, the region of northern Piedmont that abuts the Alps, is referred to as a new or even final ‘frontier’ for the wine world. It’s a similar miss-characterization as referring to the American West as a frontier because Europeans were ‘discovering’ it while ignoring the fact that there were already indigenous people there. The commercial wine world is just now remembering something that it forgot nearly a hundred years ago.
Historically parts of Boca, Gattinara, Ghemme and Carema had more land under vine than Barolo and Barberesco. Wealthy wine lovers from France and Germany sought out these delicious reds and the export market was strong. But beginning at the end of the 19th Century a whole string of misfortune began to befall the wine world at large and some historic areas such as Alto Piemonte were hit harder than others. First phylloxera, the American root louse began decimating all the vineyards of Europe. When we tell the story of this epidemic it almost always is a story of grafting coming in at the last minute to save everything. But this is only part of the truth. Like any natural disaster phylloxera may have hit all of Europe equally hard but recovery happened far faster for those with more wealth or resources. Poorer areas were not only slower to replant but commercial wineries having to replant all of their vineyards to American rootstock had to make choices about which vines were worth saving. Many grape varietals were removed from commercial production to make way for higher yielding more disease resistant plants.
As different parts of Europe recovered from this first epidemic at varying rates, two World Wars struck the continent and caused not only death and devastation but also led to huge disruptions to commerce. Vineyards can be forgotten when survival is at stake.
Following the wars people in Alto Piemonte as well as other parts of Europe found that the economic realities had changed. Industrial farming and globalized trade made it all but impossible for small country wineries to be a viable way to make a living, and young people began to abandon Alto Piemonte to move to Milan and other cities for steadier work. In many parts of Alto Piemonte the forests reclaimed the land and much of it’s history was forgotten.
Some small producers held on over the decades, modernizing in some small ways when possible, but more often continuing in the old ways even when they were harder or not profitable. Fueled by passion for the land and the produce it creates these people and the new generations that are returning to the land now have preserved a piece of history that the larger world can now discover as if for the first time. So perhaps instead of a frontier we should think of the Alto Piemonte as a time capsule; one that we forgot we buried but managed to unearth before it was lost forever. We can get a literal taste for a style of wine making and a way of life that maybe we were too hasty to leave in the past.
S & M Selections is proud to offer selections from Le Piane in Boca, Il Sorpasso in Carema and Villa Mercante in the Valli Ossolane.
On the rocky windblown slopes of the Gredos Mountains outside of Madrid, Las Moradas cultivates Garnacha from 50-100+ year old vines grown in old granite sand soil. These gnarled old bush vines, trained low to the ground surrounded by pine woods, holm oaks, juniper, rockrose and a wide variety of aromatic plants and other native vegetation. Dry cultivated in a climate with hot days and cold nights, organically grown with natural composting and minimal sulfur added, these terroir driven wines ferment naturally in a mixture of French and Hungarian oak under the guidance of winemaker Isabel Galindo. These wines are a pure and precise expression of both the character of Grenache as well as the soul of the land that they come from.