THE NEVERENDING STORY

In a recent Wine Spectator, we read yet another article about how “the battle over (consumer) shipping could rage for years to come.” Yeah, and the sky is blue, the ocean is salty, and the problems in the Middle East aren’t likely to get resolved soon either.  Duh.  Must be a slow news week.

For as long as we have been involved with the industry there has been substantial resistance to addressing some sort of national policy with regards to wine shipments direct to consumers.  Every state has its own unique set of rules regarding alcoholic beverages and doggedly clings to those tenets in the face of the growing awareness of life across state lines, brought to you by the internet.

The arguments in favor of maintaining the status quo never seem to change either.  The ‘talking heads’ consistently put forth that the problem with having ‘open borders’ has to do with tax collection and minors.  Our take is that those are the easy targets for politicians who are simply protecting a source of donations in the wholesalers who directly benefit from maintaining the status quo of a well-managed legal monopoly.

Alcoholic beverage companies operating within a ‘closed system’, without any real competition from outside of their borders, are in a position to make silly amounts of money simply because they have that virtual monopoly. If you think about it, they are not unlike the bootleggers that most of the curious alcohol laws were created to thwart in the post-Prohibition era.  The wholesalers and retailers within a given boundary ‘don’t want anybody muscling in on their territory’.

If this all sounds like the dialogue for some 1930s gangster drama, it kind of is.  But instead of ‘tommy guns’ to deal with intruders, it’s a state’s parochial legislation which will cost sometimes prohibitive sums of money for outsiders to fight.  This we know from both observation and experience.  No other business has to deal with this sort of minefield, though the internet age is creating similar issues regarding sales tax.  In all of this, however, no one seems to be particularly concerned with consumers .

The point is that the issue will never be resolved because those entrenched in the various markets will continue to fund the political machine to protect their interests.  You can debate the 21st Ammendment vs. the Commerce Clause all you want (the diametrically opposed legal precedents that give rise to a debate in the first place).  Those within the particular states have absolutely no interest in doing anything else but fighting to block competition, nor in all fairness should they.  They don’t give a damn about the consumers’ right to do anything except buy their stuff.  In many cases they don’t even do a very good job in offering the pricing, products and service that would remove the consumers need to look elsewhere .

We’re certainly not going to solidify the definitive argument today.  We don’t expect there is one.  The debate has been raging for as long as we have been doing this and shows no sign of tapering off.  The position of one state or another may change, the intensity of the political saber-rattling increases or ebbs, but the situation itself will always exist as you have one side of the equation with absolutely no reason to accept or work for any kind of change.

Our question here is a simple one.  The discussions of consumers’ right to buy alcoholic beverages across state lines have been voluminous, often very heated, and we expect will be ongoing. But, really, how much are we talking about here as a percentage of all alcoholic beverage sales?  All of the bar and restaurant business is local, and those bars and restaurants make up a huge portion of the wholesalers business.  There isn’t a huge incentive to buy spirits and beer across state lines, and the cost of transport plus the hassle would deter most buyers from doing it anyway.

That leaves wine.  How many wine buyers, as a percent of all wine buyers, care enough to reach out to other markets to acquire certain labels or genres.  We’re guessing that percentage of buyers looking to other markets to be infinitesimal as a percentage of the total buying population..

And why do these few consumers do it?  To save a couple of bucks?  Not on every day stuff.  The numbers, with the cost of transport figured in, don’t typically make sense.  In fact, from an acquisition perspective, only higher end purchases pencil out from a cost perspective.  So, really, you’ve got a few high-end buyers who can’t find what they want in their own environment that are venturing out to look elsewhere.  We’d suggest, if they could get the stuff locally at a fair price, a good many of them wouldn’t bother with the hassle and risk of shipping and this conversation wouldn’t be happening at all?

The only answer is that they can’t get what they want locally at a reasonable price.  More likely they can’t get it at all! So what are they supposed to do?  This kind of thing doesn’t happen in any other industry.  If I want to ship a couch from Maine to California, I can.  It may be crazy given the cost of shipping something as heavy as that couch, but the law doesn’t prevent it.  Yet the wine guy is supposed to just suck it up and buy local because of some arcane local law that was enacted 80 years ago?

The governments rail on about lost taxes.  Really?  How much are we talking about? We’d guess they’re getting all but the tiniest portion of the tax due because most of the market doesn’t care enough or have any motivation to step out.  The taxes the states  don’t get are because their market has failed to satisfy the needs of those few customers that do want another option.

To put it simplistically, these wholesalers and governments seem to be overly concerned with the one or two buyers out of every, say, 10,000 that feel that need to go to other markets to get what they want.   Hundreds of millions in tax revenues (or more) that are coming in give way to concerns about a few thousand bucks that aren’t?  The Spectator article mentions a couple of cases where a state attorney general has filed suit against out-of-state wine interests.  Don’t state attorney generals have much more important things to do?

Granted the whole shipping thing is probably perceived as a bigger problem today than it was twenty years ago.  But that is likely because there is more information available to the consumer regarding new wines and places to find wines that may be outside the state boundary.  We don’t expect that the internet is going anywhere, so there will always be access to tantalizing information regarding wines and wine prices for the consumer to take in.   But, sadly, the alcoholic beverage wholesaler, sitting in a truckload of money grousing about the few pennies he didn’t get and paying someone to ‘fix it’, isn’t going anywhere either.  Neither are the ‘squeaky wheels’ that will start the next cycle of this ongoing hysteria.  Does this make the whole discussion pointless?   Sadly, it does.

 

 

LISTEN TO YOUR DIRT

We have told this story many times over the years.  But it is arguably the very best example of the point we are trying to make.  There was a family vintner that made Zinfandel in the Russian River area that we met at a ZAP tasting in San Francisco some years ago.  We liked his wines, and he had no regular distribution in Southern California. No problem, we said.  We can take down whatever it takes. To make this work.  It was classic Russian River Zinfandel with the tender ripe berry profiles of some of our favorites at the time, including the Deloach Zins that Mike Sullivan (now of Benovia) made when he was there.  Plenty of ravishing red fruits, plenty ripe but not overdone (usually sitting in the upper 14% alcohol range) and classic spice and pepper nuance, this was simply an engaging bottle of Zin that showcased the genre nicely.

We established a pretty good business with this vintner for several vintages, tasting new releases that fit the profile, then buying and selling a rather substantial number of cases.  Next year’s sample came, same story.  Then one year we anxiously opened the newest effort when it arrived, poured it and looked at each other quizzically.  The comment was something to the effect of ‘what the hell happened?’.   The vintage was a normal one for the region, devoid of any weather ‘events’ that might have explained this particular wine’s variance from the norm we had come to expect.  It was instead rather lean and somewhat short, with some green  streaks to the fruit and an alcohol level in the low 12% range.

Puzzled, we called the winery principal, whom we had gotten to know reasonably well after working with him for several vintages.  Our question was pretty direct.  Why was this Zin so different from all of the years previously?  His answer kind of shocked us.  “The wines were too ripe for me to enjoy with my dinner’, he said, “so I harvested with lower sugars in mind to make a wine more food friendly”.

Say what? The guy’s vineyard gave him lush, juicy, delicious Zin every year, and there was a ready market from ZInfandel buyers for his wines as they had been previously.  Why mess with it?  Zinfandel itself has its own quirks from a growing standpoint, including a tendency to ripen somewhat unevenly and for the sugars in the grapes potentially to jump quickly if it got a little toasty warm outside late in the season.  Also as a grape that didn’t reach physiological ripeness without a good bit of hang time and thin skin for a grape with such potentially high sugars, it presented certain challenges to the grower just by definition.

If you don’t get that physiological ripeness, however, you run the risk of green edges to the flavors, and a clipped, narrow flavor band.  In other words, you end up with not very compelling Zinfandel.   There is a point to this story, besides bemoaning the loss of a source of delicious, well-priced Zinfandel because of decisions we openly questioned.  As you probably guessed, we didn’t buy that vintage of Zin or any subsequent ones.

But the moral of the story is that the whole idea of terroir exists for a reason.  Certain grapes are presumably planted in certain places because it is presumed that those are the ones that will perform the best there given the soils, temperatures, diurnal shifts, winds, and a whole host of other things that define the difference between one place and another.   To us, the growers’ first directive is to listen to their dirt and understand what the vineyard is prepared to give them.  The next directive is to usher in what that dirt gives you as best you can.

Granted that way of thinking may be our problem.  We have an issue with trying to make chicken wings into pork chops.  There’s a reason you don’t see people trying to grow pineapples in the desert.  If the varietal and the place give you a successful beverage in a particular style suited to that combination, why would you fight and take extra steps to make it into something else that it wasn’t necessarily meant to be?  Farming is a dicey enough proposition without trying to superimpose a philosophy that may go against Nature outright.   More important, the results aren’t necessarily all that compelling when you do make that choice.

As to our Zinfandel growing vintner, he could have a vintage that is cold where the grapes don’t fully ripen.  Such are the risks of being a grower.  The grapes and the place go along way in mediating potential problems like that.  But for the grower to elect to do it, contrary to what the vintage and varietal are trying to give them in a given season, makes no sense to us.   That being said, you can probably guess how we feel about 11% alcohol nouveau Mourvedre, most ‘somm label’ reds, In Pursuit of Balance ‘early harvest’ philosophies, and any number of the other seemingly faddish, specifically intended concoctions we have seen lately.

It is hard enough to grow great grapes.  To take an extra step to try to impose one’s pre-conceived stylistic notion on something that is ultimately determined by Nature rarely ends well.  So our message to all of the ‘tinkerers’ out there that are trying to create wines to fit some sort of premeditated stylistic profile, listen to your dirt!  Guide the grapes through the process of doing what they are meant to do in a given spot.  You should worry about things like physiological ripeness and even ripening of the fruit, not some arbitrarily imposed alcohol or acid reading that may not fit with the typical profile of a particular vineyard or region.

We hate to sound like old-fashioned fire-and-brimstone preachers saying our Zinfandel vintner’s early-harvest effort was an ‘abomination against Nature’.  But, in truth, it kind of was.  Sadly, there is way too much of that kind of thing going on these days and California seems to be a particular hotbed for that kind of thinking.  We have had the good fortune of having conversations with a number of Europe’s icon vintners over the years.  They are keenly attuned to their vineyards.  You know how often this kind of “I’m going to harvest at so-and-so with a certain profile in mind” discussion comes up with them?  Never.

 

THESE PEOPLE LIVE AMONG YOU

At times I am sure we sound a little like malcontents complaining about how silly the mechanics and protocols of this unique industry might seem to the theoretical ‘rational man’.  I remember multiple attempts to try to explain the ‘nuances’ of the wine business to my father-in-law (who owned pharmacies) and getting understandable looks of utter bewilderment.  Most folks who read our stuff would probably prefer that we focus only on the positive aspects of the wine industry.  Hey, there are many, which is why we do what we do.  But there are ongoing issues, beliefs, and practices among wine ‘professionals’ that are silly enough when viewed from our perspective within the industry.  We suspect some of the things that are routine in the biz would be perceived as absolutely ludicrous by those who might casually look in from the ‘normal’ world outside.

Just for the heck of it, we thought we’d relay a situation that occurred not long ago that demonstrates what we are talking about.  In this case perhaps a little history might help in terms of helping you appreciate the kind of nonsense we have to deal with to be able to do what we love to do on an ongoing basis.  For a lot of folks, the fact that the theme centers on Australian wine makes it less relevant since OZ isn’t currently a particularly hot wine topic.   But trust us this kind of silliness is not confined to any particular genre or category.  It is simply how twisted things are.

It really starts back in the 1980s as Winex was expanding in all directions categorically with no restraints other than the wine had to be good and the price had to make sense (kind of the same as it is now).  As a result of open-minded experimentation, Winex was an early player with labels like Rosemount and Penfolds, showcasing them as viable value reds and worthy of consideration.  We even found opportunities to buy closeouts from a purveyor on Penfolds 389 and even higher end fare like Grange Hermitage.

A few years later, we decided to expand and become more involved in a number of different avenues with respect to Aussie wine.  It stemmed from Kyle’s inspiration from a book called Rhone Renaissance written by Remington Norman.  Besides detailing a “who’s who” list of producers in the Rhone Valley, Norman went on to talk about emerging producers here in America and spent a good bit of print talking about boutique producers in Australia, few of which were known here in the states.  On his way back from the London Wine Fair one year, Kyle spied a bottle of Charles Melton’s ‘Chateauneuf’ blend called Nine Popes in the duty-free store.  This was one of the legends that Norman had spoke of in the work, and Kyle grabbed a bottle to bring back to taste.

Think of the movie The Jerk when Navin Johnson heard the big band music on the radio and exclaimed “if this is out there, what else is out there!?”.   That’s how we dove into a program of pioneering ‘boutique’ Australian wines, being among the first in the U.S. to proffer such labels as Clarendon Hills, Torbreck, Rockford, and Three Rivers.  There were multiple trips to Australia over the next decade including to Penfolds. As a matter of fact, Kyle visited Penfolds again last year as a member of a small, select group of retailers and restaurants sponsored by Wine Australia.  Wine Exchange was recognized as a major catalyst in the development of Australian wines in the USA, and the purpose of the trip was to ascertain what the climate was for Australian wines at present in our domestic market.

Actually Kyle interviewed Peter Gago, Penfold’s esteemed head winemaker, for one of our ‘Extract’ videos as well.  Given the relationship of Winex with Australian wine in general, and the fact that Kyle had been with Peter Gago on more than one occasion, it made perfect sense from the importer’s point of view to put a familiar face in front of the visiting dignitary. Not to boast but we were on a very short list.

Without sounding too much like a native Angeleno, the Winex principals were one of two entities invited to slug it up the freeway on a weekday to have a special ‘sitdown’ with Mr. Gago during his visit (the 101 Freeway is lovely that time of day).  As an incentive for doing this, Winex was ‘promised’ the option to purchase Penfolds Grange by the ‘powers that be’, which would currently sell for over $750 per bottle at a very aggressive retail price.

Grange has been a bit of a scramble to obtain because the Penfolds label in general has caught fire in the Asian market, causing a healthy grey market.  Many of the serious Penfolds bottlings that come here actually go right out the back door of a receiving establishment and onto a container to the Far East.  This has pushed prices up several fold and changed the face of the brand in the marketplace, though none of the purveyors are particularly keen to admit that any of this is happening.  In the end, however, none of that is our problem.

Our only concern was to get the bottles we were promised so that we could offer them out to interested customers (which we have in part thanks to our long-standing history with the Penfolds wines dating back nearly three decades).

What happened next was sadly predictable.  Our sales rep for the company noted that some Penfolds Grange had arrived in inventory and asked us if we would like our order.  We said, “Sure.”  Two days later we asked the rep where the Penfolds Grange was as it had not arrived as yet and the company was literally just up the road.   We were summarily informed that someone in the ‘chain of command’ killed the order because that particular shipment was earmarked for restaurants.

So here we are, offering to buy the wine that we were promised, with the wine itself showing as available and in stock, and us blowing an afternoon in Hollywood complete with a two hour ‘tour’ home and they wouldn’t sell us the wine because…

…it was saved for restaurants? Which restaurants? Italian restaurants that usually feature Italian wines?  French restaurants that typically feature French wines?  Spanish? Asian? Mexican?  Maybe some kind of theme place…buy a hideously expensive bottle of Shiraz (probably at $2000 on a list) and get a free ‘bloomin’ onion’?

It is pretty hard to figure what kind of restaurant operation would be actively searching for a wine that would hit their list at that kind of pricing and from a genre that is currently not en vogue in American circles.  It was also made clear to us that the taco stand down the street with a restaurant license could order and receive said wine even though no one from that establishment had ever bought any Australian wine.  Ever.

We don’t blame Peter Gago.  He is a heck of a winemaker and we’re pretty sure it wasn’t his idea to schlep around the U.S. to have these meetings.  We suspect it was some ill-forged corporate marketing scheme, putting him on the road to press the flesh and then incentivizing us to make the drive so he got the impression the trip was worthwhile.  Ya gotta love corporate thinking.  But in the end, after all this has happened, why not just sell us the wine so everyone can get on with their lives?  Why go through this pointless dance of saying that pile of wine that is sitting there is for as yet to be determined ‘restaurant accounts’ and we have to wait for our wine that is coming in the next pile?

Is this an isolated incident?  Sadly, no.  As a matter of fact this kind of thing, particularly the whole ‘restaurants get first dibs thing’, happens with painful regularity.  Meanwhile, we see that the ‘saved inventories’ hardly deplete at all over time.  It is harder to get things done than it should be far too often in the wine business.  The people who perpetrate this kind of nonsense usually do so in anonymity or from a safe distance so they don’t have to explain the ‘logic’ of their actions to potentially hostile customers.  They send the reps in to face the music.

The thing is that these unidentified people, who routinely engage in some of the most indefensible and idiotic practices on the planet, eventually leave their cubicles and go home.  They walk among you.  They could be sitting next to you in a restaurant or at your kid’s soccer game.  You have to be concerned that such people might be forced to make some sort of decision in your proximity that might affect you in some way, though typically it is pointless corporate posturing.  If they can accept the kind of nonsense we just described, or maybe even buy into it, what else might they be capable of?

In the end, we (and you) can benefit from this kind of nonsense.  Much of the time these entities do such a good job of ‘protecting’ and ‘allocating’ the brand that they don’t actually sell anything.  Suddenly they realize they need to stop the nonsense and move things quickly and maybe even cut a deal. That’s where we come in.  We like deals. We eventually did get our 15 bottles of Grange.  But why did it have to be so difficult in the meantime? Especially since we helped them by showing our faces at their little soiree. That is the question.

SCORE WARS

It wasn’t that long ago, in a place not so far away, that we expressed concern about what would happen to the wine world as the media continued to expand.  This was pretty much back when James Suckling left the Wine Spectator to set up his own shop, and our fear at the time was that there might be a certain rise in ‘numbers’ as this new entity tried to garner a readership.  After all, it is axiomatic that consumers do not concern themselves with wines that get a B+ (89 point scores), so one of the ways to get your name in front of a new audience was to become more quotable.  How does one achieve that?  One way is to issue ‘enthusiastic’ scores on certain wines that would surely be quoted by those of us trying to sell said wine.

Selling by third party endorsement became a growing industry tool back in the late 1980s as certain wine media sources, mainly the Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator, made inroads into consumer wine awareness by virtue of their easy to digest 100 point scales.  Yes there were words, too.  But there was good familiarity with the general populace when it comes to number grading because most experienced it in school, and the quick evaluation a consumer could make just by looking up a number embedded the system into the collective wine psyche.

It didn’t help that most merchants were lazy and quick to adapt to someone else providing sales avenues via published reviews.  Using third-party press relieved them of the responsibility of actually doing their own work and removed their liability in actually giving their customers their own opinions.  This indemnification made the retail trade the writers’ biggest fans and the constant attention that the majority of retailers gave to third party reviews gave the media tremendous power.

Remembering back however, what was different then was that the scores themselves seemed to have honest intention on the part of the media to give the consumer the appropriate perspective.  Back in the day, a 93 point score was a pretty enthusiastic endorsement, a 95 was a ‘must have’, and ‘88’ and ‘89’ were still viewed as positive prose for wines that were value priced.  There were shock-waves in the industry when Robert Parker issues his first ‘100-point’ score for a domestic wine, the 1985 Groth Cabernet Reserve.  Such scores were quite rare and special then.

Fast forward a couple of decades, and the value of individual scores gradually depreciated.  Sadly after the turn of the century, no matter how glowing the prose, a 90 point score barely elicited a response from buyers and ‘92’ became the new ‘90’ for value wines.   Giving a wine ‘89’ these days is like putting it in a witness protection program…no one will find the it because they won’t look.  All kidding aside, this is what we have observed behaviorally for a while now.  But the worst, it seems, is not over.

Part of it has been predictable given the way the James Suckling site established itself.  Purveyors and retailers aren’t out there quoting the guys who give ’89’ to sell wine.   It also seems, as we sit across the table from a steady stream of suppliers presenting us with wine and information, the ‘number’ itself is more important than the source who issued it and often becomes disassociated with the actual source of the review.

Suddenly, however, there are a lot more ‘players’ competing for consumer attention.  Antonio Galloni once worked for Wine Advocate, then left to set up shop on his own, subsequently purchasing Stephan Tanzer’s International Wine Cellar and incorporating that writing team into the fold.  Most recently he hired away the Advocate Bordeaux specialist Neal Martin.

Jeb Dunnuck was brought on to Wine Advocate to focus on Rhones and then got other responsibilities on the domestic front.  Jeb, too, recently left to set up his own service (or more correctly re-setup as he had his own service before), knowing full well that the new enterprise would benefit from his exposure with Wine Advocate.  He just recently kicked off this program.  Given the ‘defections’ and the fact that Robert Parker himself has greatly scaled back on his post-sale involvement, Advocate editor Lisa Perotti-Brown, MW expanded her role in the Wine Advocate review writing.

So where are we now?  Well it is fair to say that previously there were two main review services being widely followed, 2.5 if you count the respected but not always ‘quotable’ Tanzer publication.  Now there are five that directly resulted from the initial two and a number of others that are at varied stages of ‘market penetration’ but arguably have lesser clout.  There are likely some ‘startups’ we haven’t even run across yet that are U.S. based.   All of them have plans to become, or in some cases retain a powerful voice with wine consumers.  Sadly, it appears that another dangerous score escalation may be in the offing.  It has been coming for a while and it appears to be heating up.

A few years back, after the sale of the Advocate, Robert Parker did a ‘second look piece’ on 2002s from Napa Valley.  Now here was one of the most powerful critics of any kind, someone who had been generally judicious in handing out triple digit reviews (with the possible exception of elite Bordeaux and Guigal and Chapoutier specialty items).  But in this particular issue in June, 2012, in one section, ‘The Bob’ handed out nineteen 100 point scores!  Now granted, one could argue that this was the beginning of Parker’s ‘farewell tour’ after a storied career and he was making friends.  One could also point to the lineup (Abreu, Harlan, Sloan, Schrader) as the Cabernet version of the ’27 Yankees so what’s a few ‘100s’ among friends.  That was unprecedented at the time and we saw it as a departure from the conscientiousness of Advocate’s prior history.

But it is what has been happening recently, with reviewers operating in new positions or trying to establish new services, really has us concerned.  Lisa Perotti-Brown’s first significant foray into the Napa Valley generated fifteen 100-point final scores and 32 that were either 99 or a range score that touched perfection (98-100).  Perhaps a little surprising to some is that there were three Chardonnays that were awarded triple digits.  Pretty rarified stuff.

Not to be outdone, there was plenty of firepower to Jeb Dunnuck’s opening report of the Napa Valley.  Now one of Robert Parker’s strengths was his enthusiasm which he could convey through the written word.  Jeb showed plenty of excitement in his inaugural work, handing out no less than 31 ‘100s’ and a good slug of ‘99s’ (21 actually).   Thirty one ‘perfect’ wines?  In a single category? Really? Someone used the term ‘jumping the shark’ for this opening salvo/love fest.  More important, if the perfect score becomes commonplace, it also will seem less special and have less impact, not to mention how it undermines all of those poor souls that only got ‘96’ which, back in the day, was a very good review.

We could make a few, albeit less sensational examples to illustrate what we are talking about with respect to the current round of ‘score wars’, but it’s the overall impact that is the problem.  With more publications slinging around more ‘100s’ and other lofty marks, perspective goes out the window.  The consumer will start getting confused or numbed (a number of the trade already have), and sensationalism will rule the day.  With so many more items pushed up against that finite ceiling (since you can’t have more than 100 points) separation becomes much less clear and it all starts to lose meaning.

In the end, if this proliferation of over-the-moon scoring continues, where does it end?  People thinking the only way to get a decent bottle of wine is to pay $300-500 on somebody’s mailing list? Does ‘95’ become the new ‘89’? Is there really that much perfection in the world or are all these writers trying to win friends and influence the marketplace for their own agenda?  It’s hard to say but it is clear we are entering dangerous territory.

These publications are supposedly designed to help consumers sort through the myriad of wine choices out there.  Passing out big scores like Halloween candy might get the writer ‘in big’ with the wine elite.  It might help Andy Beckstoffer charge even more for his grapes. But we fail to see how it helps the consumer very much, and they, my dear writers, are the ones that pay your bills.  If your audience stops listening, it’s nearly impossible to get them back.  Cuidado.

 

 

A LOOK AHEAD AT 2018: TOO MUCH GOOD STUFF

As we usually do this time of year, we like to offer up a buyer’s perspective for the coming months.  It’s something we do not only as passionate wine drinkers but, well, it’s our business to know this stuff. After all there is only so much money, manpower and space, so allocating those things and anticipating needs ahead of time is one of the reasons we have been around as long as we have.  Sure, we still wake up every day with that sense of wonder about what exciting new things might roll in the door.  But, for the reasons we have mentioned, things are not as ‘free form’ as they sometimes might appear.

As we look at what we can expect to see in 2018, we are struck by the breadth and depth of what will hit the market.  There have been few times we can recall in our three-decades-plus where so many areas had spectacular harvests that were here or due to arrive in the next twelve months.  For a lot of you, it’s about one or two of your favorite wine regions but for us it is almost overwhelming because we deal in everything. It would literally be easier to talk about the parts of the wine world that weren’t successful, but we can’t really think of that many.

In recent memory, there certainly hasn’t been a buying window like this since the 2010s from France and Italy (and later Spain) rolled out some 5-6 years ago.  Even then, while vintages in California were certainly solid, they weren’t necessarily what most aficionados would call ‘classic’ in today’s terms.   This time around there was definitely a broader participation in the success by, well, almost every place.   In short, if you can’t find something to drink this year, you probably don’t like wine very much.  That said, here are what we see as the highlights.

USA:  We can’t recall a string of vintages (2014, 2015, 2016) this successful up and down the coast.  California, Oregon, and Washington are rolling out one hit after another.  If these are your muse, your ship has definitely arrived…it’s actually been here for a little while and isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.  The ‘issues’, if there are any, have nothing to do with the grapes.  It is more about pricing.   The market is flush with great $40-60 single-vineyard Pinots and nearly everything outside of broad commercial labels that says Napa on it is $50 (and up).  The beauty is that, with so much quality juice, there will be some ‘trickling down’ and it should be good times for value shoppers.

As a matter of fact, we are hoping this is a banner year for Pinot as wineries dial back the single vineyard stuff that doesn’t seem to have as enthusiastic a market as 5-6 years ago and put better juice in the ‘entry level’ bottlings.  Here’s hoping anyway.  Zins, Syrahs, et. al. are all delivering and, as we have pointed out in the past, a great vintage elevates all wines great and small. Rising tide lifting all boats etc etc… The burning question for a lot of folks (OK maybe like 6) is whether Merlot is ‘back’.  As far as we can tell from our experiences, not quite yet.

ITALY:  Italy is kinds of a mixed bag because the 2014 vintage was difficult in Piedmont (except for Barbaresco!) and Tuscany.  So there’s a need to be more specific.  The 2015s from these regions that are emerging now are quite delicious and the ‘bigger fish’ that come out later (mostly from Tuscany this year) are definitely important.  The whites from the northeast in 2016 are exciting as well.

FRANCE: What has come out of France over the last year, and will over the next is downright gaudy.  We’ll start with Burgundy.  The 2015s are still out there, though depleted.  You want to grab whatever you can of this remarkably sexy vintage, with the only restriction being the ‘freight’.  Yes the big dogs are very expensive, but this is a vintage to look for modestly priced appellations from good sources as it’s the sleepers that will surprise with a little bottle time. The 2016s are fine, but not 2015s, and will be scarce.  Same goes for Beaujolais.

With the Rhone, there are no bad choices between 2015 and 2016, only degrees.  The 2015s from the north are special in a way that few vintages have been, so take the opportunity to give a good home not only to Cote Rotie and Hermitage, but Cornas, Crozes, and St. Joseph.  There’s a sexy edge and freshness to these wines that rarely happens even in the best years.  As good as the southern Rhones were in 2015, 2016 looks to be one of the best vintages we have ever tasted.  They possess both grace and power, and we’ll be surprised if the ‘final numbers’ aren’t epic.

Bordeaux is on a bit of a run after the ‘dark times’ of 2011 and 2013.  You’ve got the friendly, juicy, well-priced 2014s and the even richer and well-stuffed 2015s.  Red Bordeaux is on a roll and hopefully the ‘big boys’ have learned a lesson after their price excesses with some of the past vintages.  If not, Bordeaux is still a big place with literally hundreds of good producers.  There will be plenty to consider, with the potential to create a foundation for a great Bordeaux cellar moving forward.

SOUTH AMERICA: We said last year that South America was the rising star with the highest trajectory.  More of the same this year as all of the research, quality surge, etc. bears fruit.  It’s looking rosy for Argentina and Chile from a wine perspective.  In Chile, Pinot Noir in particular will keep surprising as vineyards mature and vintners develop more familiarity with the cooler, ocean-influenced valleys inland from the coast.  As for Argentina, there may well come a day where Cabernet Franc is considered their ‘great grape’.

SPAIN:  As we have learned over the years, Spain always bears watching, though the staggered way in which the various bodegas release their wines and the different levels of wine that are made (particularly in the case of Rioja) make it hard to issue any kind of sweeping statement.  As a ‘heads up’, there  should be a number of wines coming from a 2015 vintage that was as successful in Spain as everywhere else in Europe.  Also, there should be a number of Gran Reservas emerging from the epic 2010 vintage.  Good times.

OTHER: Yeah we didn’t cover all the categories.  Briefly, with so many of the big time genres performing so successfully, we don’t expect the media will have a lot of time and space for a lot of the others.  Buy 2015 Germans whenever you can.  Australia’s return to significance in this market is still in the concept stages except for the occasional screamimg ‘delta’ (95 points and $15, crickey!), South Africa has a lot of exciting things going on but zero momentum here, and except for the occasional stunning Assyrtiko, Greece’s learning curve is still somewhat daunting for most folks (Malagouzia for all my friends).  Because the categories they ‘know’ are so chock full of goodies, a lot of folks won’t even look at the more esoteric selections.

This would be an opportune time for someone who was starting a cellar.  There are great choices in nearly every ‘important’ category (Bordeaux, Burgundy, Rhone, Tuscany, etc.) and plenty of potential superstars to highlight a selection that is of generally exceptional quality.  The only thing that would make 2018 better is if the market coughs up some of the insane deals we saw last year.  That remains to be seen. But, no matter what, there will be plenty of thrilling juice to be had.

For our part we are going to keep doing what we do with a special eye towards pricing.  For all of the great wines we bring your way, there are a good number that we don’t simply based on what we feel is excessive, ego-driven pricing.  ‘Rarity’ alone does not justify some of the crazy fares we see.  We could name a few names, but that really isn’t the point.  We’ll simply continue to filter out those kinds of offers, and show you the best deals and the best wines we can get our mitts on when all of the important criteria are met.  Happy New Year, it promises to be a good one.

THE 2015 VINTAGE IN BURGUNDY REVISITED

This is partly a reminder.   We and others have gone on at length about 2015, particularly with respect to the flattering reds, one of the juiciest and most engaging vintages we can recall.  For Burgundy veterans, think back to the expressive, fleshy 2009s, but lighter on their feet like the 2002s, with a nice verve to the acidity that calls 2005 to mind.  It will surely be considered in the pantheon of great vintages.

We have also (and often) discussed the difficulty in finding value in Burgundy a number of times over the years.  High demand, small production, not to mention the ups and downs of marginal viticulture in general, have an upward effect on the price tag.  Even at the lower end, prices aren’t necessarily all that low.  It’s not impossible to find a deal.  It’s just really hard.  The best results usually come in concert with the blessing of Mother Nature because Pinot is a delicate grape that needs all the help it can get, a little extra sun raising the level of all vineyards great and small.

Untimely rain, thin skins, under-ripeness, too much heat, not enough heat, there are many things that can cause Pinot to underperform.  But the reason that some appellations consistently sell for much higher prices than others is history, plain and simple.  Chambertin has hefty price tags because it consistently performs at a high level.  The places that don’t carry big tickets do not by virtue of the fact that they don’t perform at the highest level consistently.  Maybe that lack of consistent success is due to exposure, or perhaps the fact that, year-in and year-out ripeness levels might not be as high as other locations.  But it is because they are on the more marginal side of ‘marginal viticulture’ that they sell for less.

However, when the sun shines, those areas perform at their very best.  But, because of history, the vignerons can’t charge substantially more money when they are successful because of the ‘hierarchy’.  When that happens, it is the consistent recipe for a deal, and that’s how to play Burgundy in 2015 unless you own oil wells or invented an app.  Places like Marsannay, Savigny-Les-Beaune, and Mercurey had sensational seasons in 2015 and we have spent a good amount of time going through the less famous locales to find the honest gems.  That we did, though we had to, as they say, ‘kiss a lot of frogs’ and work through some disappointments to get it done.  Hey, that’s Burgundy.

The hardest part isn’t the work, though.  The hardest part is bucking the system.  When we first referred to the ‘hierarchy’ in that last paragraph.  That is a very specific phenomenon in our view.  While there is an ‘official’ classification to Burgundy that determines Grand Crus and Premier Crus from ‘village level’ vineyards, there is also an unspoken but immutable pecking order to the vineyards as reported by the press.  It’s hard to explain even to Burgundy ‘hardcores’, many of whom accept the hierarchy as law.  But if you read enough stuff, you realize that a most of the ‘conclusions’ are forgone and/or political.

By ‘foregone’, we mean that there is a certain ‘weight’ assigned to certain climats and producers.  The most brilliant Maranges ever made has an upper limit to its scoring potential because it’s Maranges.  Most of the time it will dwell in the upper 80s score-wise, perhaps creep into the low 90s on occasion, almost always in cases where that domaine doesn’t have significant upper cuvees in their lineup.  But that’s it.  If it is tasted in the same cellar next to a wine from a better appellation, the odds of it besting that wine isn’t ‘zero’.  It’s just nearly zero.

Sure there are always exceptions, just not many of them.  When a reviewer tastes at a Burgundy domaine, he is presented the wines in the ‘order of importance’ of the bottlings…Bourgognes et. al, villages wines, Premier Crus and Grand Crus. Reviewers will taste them relative to their pecking order, and the reviews stick to that script a preponderance of the time.  Is that the most logical result?  Probably, but our point is that it almost never varies to the contrary.

On top of that, the 100-point scale that everybody uses these days has an upper limit…100.   A wine cannot score greater than 100, so everything is scaled back from whatever the top effort is.  If the best wine in the cellar, using the numbers analogy, scores a 94, the next best has to be less.  By the time you get 2-3 wines down the ladder, you are in a place where most consumers are lukewarm about most things, particularly something that has a $50-60 price tag.  Those potentially delicious ‘little wines,’ in these hierarchy lineups, have a remote chance of getting a review that will motivate buyers even though the quality warrants it.

We refer to this as the ‘theory of relativity’, as in reviewers tend not to always be able to figure out where one group of wines fits in to the broader array of all wines.  The best and most extreme illustration is Romaine Conti.  Always presented ‘in order’ (and remember nothing can be scored above 100), by the time you get ‘down’ to the Echezeaux, you are at 91-92 point scores, the same as a modestly-priced Rioja or Argentine Malbec.  Silly.  Take that Echezeaux and put it in a different lineup, and it crushes.  So what is the takeaway from this small and very slanted sampling?  Nothing clear.

Also, from one year to the next, reviewers are either clueless or afraid.  Let’s take the 2013 vintage in Burgundy versus the 2015.  While the vintages were substantially different qualitatively, the majority of the scores on the individual wines were within a couple of points between the vintages, hardly a reasonable representation of the difference between those two vintages.  Also, we don’t recall anyone coming out on the 2013s and saying that these wines weren’t worth the prices and don’t buy them.  With 2012 still on shelves, and the very good 2014s and flashy 2015s coming down the road, did anyone say not to spend your hard-earned dollars on the 2013s.

That would have been honest advice from these reviewers who represent themselves as working for you, the consumer.  But we don’t remember seeing anything of the sort in print.  We can point to Robert Parker’s brutal honesty with respect to the 1983 red Burgundies a long time ago.  He said the reds were overly tannic and had issues with rot.   Was he right?  Doesn’t matter, he was simply giving his honest opinion to the folks that pay him to give them his opinion.  The Burgundians didn’t like it very much and, if memory serves, there weren’t many subsequent reviews on Burgundy from Parker.

Are we saying reviewers go easy on the Burgundy producers so they get to come back (and you can infer the same for a lot of top addresses in other areas as well)?  Are we suggesting that Burgundy gets treated with ‘kid gloves’ by the press for fear of reprisal?    You can read the pages and pages of predictable reviews and judge for yourself.  The same wines finish at the top, the general rankings of the individual wines relative to each other within a portfolio are virtually unvaried year-to-year.  Sure there will be the occasional ‘up and comer’, but the inter-relationship between producers and vineyards is virtually unchanged from house to house and year to year.

Maybe we are jealous.  Would we like to get paid to hang out in Burgundy and tell people to buy Dujac and Roumier? Heck yeah! But we have a hard time wondering why anyone would do that.  That leaves us, the poor schmuck merchants who are trying give consumers some viable, reasonably priced and enjoyable options thanks to the quirk of fate of an exceptional vintage in a prestige (and typically expensive, sometimes laughably so) region, in a tough place.

There are a lot of delicious wines in Burgundy that won’t break the bank.  But the ‘system’ does not lend itself to promoting them in a meaningful way.   Human nature being what it is, we certainly can’t expect people to easily shell out say $50-60 for something ( say a village Vosne Romanee) that the ‘system’ allowed no more than 90-91 points within the ‘hierarchy’.   Better to spend it on an Oregon Pinot that got a ‘94’, though that score came in a completely different category and mix.

We’re going to continue to do our best because it’s the right thing to do.  We love finding that delicious Bourgogne or Marsannay for a song.    They are out there, particularly in vintages like 2015.  Just don’t expect there to be lofty reviews because of the way Burgundy is handled by the media. The hierarchy of vineyard and producer, the top-heavy score bias, and the ‘old boy’ review network, make us feel like salmon swimming against the very predictable current in the sense of creating sales.  You  will get sweeping (though calculated) comments regarding a vintage overall.  But when you actually dig into the individual reviews, the information is predictable and not particularly enlightening.

Still, we have found things that we are truly exciting from this vintage because they are compelling, engaging bottles of Pinot Noir to drink (or hold) from the place where Pinot was born.  That is ultimately the point.  Given all of the things we have mentioned, you can clearly understand that there are a lot easier things for us to sell than Burgundy.   But finding a $20-30 Monthelie that you can pull out in a few years that puts a smile on your face is a labor of love.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAMPAGNE, PART ONE: THE ROAD TO ZERO

As we have mentioned in a couple of other pieces, the holidays are considered Champagne season.  We love Champagne any time, but it difficult to get a lot of people’s attention for most of the year.  Usually at this time of year, because of the Q4 tradition, we have been through a number of serious tastings focused on Champagne.  Having completed that gauntlet, it seemed time to offer a few thoughts on what’s out there and the happenings in the wonderful world of Champagne.  For the most part all is well.  The big brands are the same as ever, there are more grower Champagnes appearing in this market all the time, and the selection is historically unparalleled.

In simple English, if you want a great bottle of Champagne, you can find one at virtually any price you are willing to pay over $30.  Occasionally less.  Of course, the issue is what you are looking for.  If you are looking for classic, likeable fizz that anyone would enjoy, most of the bigger brands will deliver that.  They are formulated with a higher dosage (i.e. a little more sugar) to appeal to a broader range of palates.  Consistency works for the big houses and delivering a fruit driven wine has never proven to be bad business in the glass.  There’s a saying in the industry that “People talk ‘dry’, but they drink ‘sweet’. That is true the majority of the time…provided that no one actually says the word ‘sweet’.

We have been leaning towards individual grower Champagnes for a long time.  Our feeling is that the more specific terroirs of these smaller estates adds another dimension to the wine’s profile, and the lower (but not necessarily low) dosage tends to augment the visibility of the terroir elements.  These grower cuvees are made a little dryer stylistically to approach a more sophisticated audience.  Plus, because they are not necessarily aiming for the ‘broad market’, the individual growers can take a more personal approach to their wines which also, over the vast majority, leans a bit more to the dry side.

Any time we talk about ‘sweet’ and ‘dry’, there are invariably some misunderstandings about meaning.  Before we go on, we should make the point that there are definitely guidelines for the descriptors.  In the real world, sweetness is a perception.  What people say, how they describe things, are subjective, but not necessarily accurate.  One man’s sweet could be too dry for someone else.  So our references here are based on scientific fact.  A Champagne can be called ‘brut’ up to about 1.2% per cent residual sugar. A Champagne that is 0.9% residual sugar is drier, period.  As you can probably surmise, there is a significant difference in the profiles of something that has zero residual sugar and sitting at 1.2%.

One’s individual appreciation of a particular style or dosage is strictly personal.  In other words, it is not up to us to tell you what to like, merely give you data to help you determine what you might like.   Because of Champagne’s higher acidity, a higher level of sweetness will, in plain talk, not taste as sweet as it would in a lower-acid still wine.  Unlike a lot of people who think anything with any sweetness at all is for grandma, some wines need a bit of sweetness to offset certain levels of acidity.  It is particularly true with varietals that have higher natural acidities like Chenin Blanc and Riesling.  We see Champagne as falling into the same kind of requirement.  Don’t get us wrong, we don’t mind a little sweetness, or a complete dryness.  But no matter the profile, the individual wine has to be balanced. Most important, it has to be enjoyable.

That being said, we are seeing a strong trend towards more dryness, maybe a little too much.  A lot of folks we have followed for years seem to be lowering their dosages across the board, or at the very least introducing ‘brut zero’ or ‘no dosages’ options in their line.  Let us first point out that the industry does not ask the people what they want.  They merely decide what is best for all of us and proceed to make it (see also Syrah and Italian varietals in California).  One of our more frequent descriptors regarding a rather substantial number of Champagnes we have tasted this year is ‘angry’.

A somewhat drier entry is an indicator stylistically, but far too many examples cut away mid-palate exposing something soily, stoic and a sometimes little bitter.  The grower says he is ‘expressing the terroir’by keeping the sugars very low.  To that we say ‘yeah, but it isn’t very pleasing to drink.’

We are sure there are self-appointed gurus and twenty-something sommeliers who think the super dry cuvees are the ultimate food wines.  It seems that the brut-zero/orange wine/underripe-red set currently has a disproportionately larger voice among suppliers.  Maybe the next generation of producers like ‘angry’ wine better.   Who are we to question the pontifications of some self-appointed ‘trend setter’ who has moved on from skeletal trocken Riesling to embrace literally ‘bone dry’ Champagnes.

To be honest, we have had a few examples (Ruppert-Leroy, for one) of low dosage bubbly that we liked a lot.  But to pull it off is really, really difficult.  The fruit has to be near perfect, have enough flesh on it to give the impression of richness, and an extra lift at the finish.  Very few that we have tasted, a really small percentage in fact, can deliver that style in an engaging way.  We get it that there are a lot of folks that decry the mawkish nature of some of the most popular French bubblies (like Moet White Star).  But there’s a new wave in Champagne that seems to be taking it too far the other way.

Not to sound like Mary Poppins, but a little bit of sugar does help the ‘medicine’ go down.  It makes it taste good, and ultimately that is the point.

Another trend that seems to be developing throughout the industry (though most folks may not see it for years, if ever) are ‘dirt’ cuvees (they don’t call them that, but the name fits).  We encountered more than a couple instances where some growers were not only bottling from their property, but subdividing parcels and making even more finite cuvees based on soil types, exposures, etc..  While they gave those cuvees individual names, the explanation was, ‘…this one comes from mainly chalky soil, and this other one comes from volcanic soils’.  In other words their base was rooted in some more finite aspect of site specifics.

There were also individual plot bottlings defined by vine-age, and still others that featured a specific varietal.  We love artisan Champagne, but many of the artisans are becoming a bit too artisan, and we have a hard time believing that a producer can (or should) make six, seven, eight different cuvees.  Sure, winemakers, being winemakers, love to tinker with new ideas.  But they sometimes get too involved in their own world.  We’re afraid things will go the way of California and Oregon Pinot Noir where too many individual bottlings from the same house confuse the consumer (and us), and don’t provide nearly as significant a varied profile to people out in the world as they might appear to a winemaker who tastes them repeatedly in a closed environment.

We understand trying to challenge the palate.  But even most Champagne dorks (and we count ourselves among them) would not  find a lot to get viscerally excited about with the slightly different nuances of these varied cuvees (which are noticeable in a side-by-side comparison but certainly less so otherwise), all done in a more austere style, at $60, $80, $100 per bottle.

Growers already have a challenge in that they only have their own dirt to work with, and can’t address problems that crop up in their own winemaking by blending juice from other areas.  We taste growers every year because they can vary quite a bit from year to year based on the base wines and reserves they have available.  There are some houses that we have loved almost every year (Vilmart, Billiot, Agrapart, Pierre Peters).  But most are off-and-on and can ‘sing’ one year and disappoint the next.

The overall quality level has been augmented by some exceptional vintages in the base wines (like 2012).  But the stylistic shift towards drier styles negates some of that because of the demands it puts on the individual cuvee.  If you expect the consumer to appreciate the terroir, the terroir has to perform. The lower the dosage, the more the base wine is exposed.

If we aren’t sounding like cheerleaders, it is due to our concern about the trend we see taking shape. It wouldn’t be our choice.  Somewhere in between those tart, no-dosage Champagnes and the sweetish broad market cuvees would seem to be the happy medium.  ‘Drier’ isn’t ‘better’ by definition as far as Champagne goes.  Still, as far as thrilling options, there are plenty of those.  We’ll get more specific about that next time.

 

THE MAN (/WOMAN) IN THE HIGH CASTLE

To be honest, the relationship between us, the industry, and the wine press has been a varied one over our three (plus) decades.  We started Winex (such as it is) in 1982, roughly about the time The Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator gained substantial enough readership and influence to ‘move the needle’ with respect to sales of a particular wine.  The emerging, expanding wine-drinking population was looking for guidelines to help them select from among the increasing array of wines in the marketplace.  These two publications in particular were in the right place at the right time with formats that were palatable enough to generate substantial followings.  In turn, those ‘followers’ began to have more impact on the marketplace as they reacted to reviews and bought up the lauded wines.

Now that we are about 35 years into this process, and possibly witnessing a change in the landscape, it seemed a reasonable time to assess where we are.  It started simple enough with the reviewers giving their opinions about various wines they tasted, and people heeding that advice.  As a greater number of people started to follow these scribes, the intensity of the reaction elevated.  A big review was like that proverbial magnifying glass focusing the ‘rays’ of demand into a white hot flashpoint that burned up the existing supplies of showcased vinos faster and faster.

The industry had the opportunity to hold their own in the face of this growing phenomenon, but instead largely accepted that it was easier to just paste up reviews than generate their own sales programs.  For most of the time since, buying and selling based on reviews was the only program for most retailers.  Still is.  Exploring most wine web sites, you will find cut-and-paste reviews almost exclusively on most, and virtually no original text.

The introduction of the internet increased the power of the press and made their chosen sites more accessible more quickly.  The whole buying/selling process became much quicker accordingly.  What took a particular wine a few weeks to sell through before could now sometimes go from start to finish in an hour or two thanks to the internet.

The wholesalers/wineries/importers, reacting to getting blindsided by people buying up reviewed wines (and nothing else) did what they always do…overreacted.  Tie-ins (which aren’t technically legal) and abuse of the ‘allocation’ process were chosen as the best defensive tools for purveyors to make sure peole don’t corner too many of the ‘cherries’.  That is loosely where we are today, although it has been a little easier to get some of the high-demand, highly reviewed goods simply because the market is so fiercely competitive thanks to greater variety, higher quality of goods, and a much more widely educated buying public.

As most of you that have followed Winex over the years, we are about as fiercely independent as a merchant can be today.  The wine writers’ hype is a tool for us to use when we like something to get the message to buyers.  But they have never been something to be blindly followed without question.  We have turned down many wines over the years that we could have sold through in a nano-second simply because we don’t think the wines are good enough.  We have had a love/hate relationship with the press for all of these years, which we will explain in a minute.

First let’s give credit where it is due.  The reason that we have a more educated wine-buying population these days can be attributed to a large extent to the wine press, which has explored, explained, and helped develop a broader understanding and appreciation of a number of genres that were not en vogue back in the early days.  People are aware of, and more comfortable with a much wider range of wines than ever before and, because of that, are presented with even more to choose from by virtue of that broader receptiveness.  A lot of this can be credited to the press covering those formerly off-the-beaten-path categories and educating the consumer.  If you write it they will read?

Also the press has revved up the discovery process.  It took years for a brand to develop in the marketplace, even decades.  But a new wine or winery can be an instant icon with some timely press coverage and a couple of big scores.  Yes the ‘waters’ run faster in today’s wine news cycle and things can pass by rather quickly.  But there is plenty to be had if you swim fast enough, and really even if you don’t.

Our point is that, while we sometimes get a little miffed with the wine press, and have pointed out a number of things we see as flaws in the ‘process’, in all fairness they have been a big part of the development of the wine market over the past quarter century.  Now that there are a few more players in the ratings game we’ll see how it shakes out.  More opinions shouldn’t hurt the message, though it could dilute the impact of a particular review.

That being said, we felt the need to mention a couple of things to the writers themselves.  We would ask the banal question ‘who pays your salary?’  Consumers and the trade presumably are using ratings services to help them evaluate choices in the marketplace.  Do they have the same objectives?  Perhaps, perhaps not.  But the ‘why?’ isn’t the issue.  So much stuff hits the market every year at such a high rate, every byte of usable information can help sort it out.   It is the definition of ‘usable’ that we are debating today.

We were reading the Wine Spectator the other day and happened to notice their review of the 2014 Ramonet Montrachet at 98 points.  The piece stated that ten cases were imported.  You can only imagine our relief at knowing that someone had tasted one of the rarest and most collectable white wines in the world, in an outstanding vintage, and deemed it worthy.  We can rest secure in the knowledge that if we had $1100 to drop on a single bottle of Chardonnay (if you could even get it for that) and could find one of the remaining 119 bottles that came into the U.S., it would be OK to pull the trigger.   Is this usable knowledge?

We can say the same thing about a number of other highly reviewed icon wines.  Does it really matter to anyone if Sine Qua Non gets a 98 or 100?  OK maybe to Manfred Krankl, though the guy doesn’t really need the hype to sell wine any more.  It might matter to the few guys that buy wines like that to ‘flip’ so they can seek a higher resale return.  But to most folks, what is the message?  That the reviewer got to taste the wines and you didn’t?  That you should start thinking about getting on the waiting list to be on the waiting list?  Is this usable knowledge for most folks?

We grabbed a few ‘special report’ titles from Wine Advocate to further illustrate our point:

–A Retrospective of Barone Ricasoli’s Vin Santo del Chianti Classico -30 tasting notes

–Sunday Prayers with Trotanoy 18 tasting notes

–Tenuta San Guido – Bolgheri Sassicaia Retrospective 47 tasting notes

–Chateau Montrose 1893 – 2014 62 tasting notes

–Valandraud Complete- 45 tasting notes

–2007 Southern Rhônes – Living Up to the Hype at Age Ten?  192 tasting notes

–Bordeaux: The Pauillac of Margaux – Brane-Cantenac 1971-2013

It didn’t take long to get that list, and we could dig deeper into multiple publications and create the ‘mother of all lists’ regarding this sort of thing, but the point is that the information in many of those articles isn’t necessarily actionable or of any real value to most readers in a conventional context.

Is there an audience for these pieces or is it writer’s self-indulgence?  If you are telling me in detail about wines I have little likelihood of seeing, let alone tasting, how am I enriched?  By sharing in your experience vicariously?  Thanks a bunch.  I would question how many subscribers were actually seeking this kind of information when they signed up.  But since the publication already has the money, readers don’t have a lot of say about they are being served.

There will be arguments that these kinds of tastings augment the tasters’ experience and therefore their ability to assess wines oveerall.  Street cred.  To that we would rebut that such experiences can have just the opposite affect and jade the palate beyond reason and make everything else such people taste seem ordinary.  We know people like that.

A ‘consumer report’ that delivers the message that virtually everything is banal or ordinary, except a few things that you likely can’t buy, doesn’t really help those consumers very much.  Yet this is the direction such publications seem to be leaning over the last few years in particular.  If writers view their role as being the de facto sales department for winery-only, boutique wines or the guy with the 119 bottles of Montrachet, let them pay you, too.

We say to the wine press, come down off your high horse.  Reviewing page after page of wines that most folks will never see, except at a restaurant at three times an already hefty price doesn’t benefit most consumers.  Climb down out of your high castle and be among the little people.  We drink pretty well ourselves and still think a lot of this stuff you writers do is indulgent and over the top.  What’s next?  Jayer Cros Parantoux vertical?  The 1947 Bordeaux 70 years on?  Favorite 5-case production wines? We’re sure it will make for compelling reading, but really what is the point?

Simply, when writers take up space with this kind of stuff, we don’t believe they are serving the best interests of the majority of their clients.  We can say for ourselves that we read much less in these publications than we used to.  Are we jealous?  Would we like to get paid for our detailed notes on the 1985 Romanee Conti lineup?  Sure!  But we can’t imagine who would pay for that, nor do we really need such info from somebody else.  It is more likely, if we adopted that business model, we’d end up on a freeway off-ramp with a cardboard sign that says, “will pontificate for food.”

 

 

 

 

The Aftermath

Obviously, we need to start this by sending wishes and prayers to all of our friends in the wake of the fires in ‘wine country’.  The loss of life is horrific and the extensive damage to property, still being assessed, is clearly catastrophic.  Our heartfelt sorrows go out in particular to those who lost their homes and businesses.

 

There are a lot of folks who will be offering condolences.  The media has, and will, be full of articles about people’s heroics, first responders, and other encouraging tales about the human spirit.  It does seems like there have been way too many disasters this year in particular.   There are a lot of people that will tell you they know how you feel, but most don’t.  Being helpless in the face of an overwhelming tragedy isn’t something most humans have had to experience over the last few decades.

 

Around here, we’ve had a bit of an inkling (more than we cared to) of what NoCal has been going through as three of the ‘characters’ in our own Winex crew were far too close for comfort to the Corona fire a couple of weeks ago and Canyon Fire 2 early this week.  Having to decide what to save, considering the immediate and long-term importance of the item, and to have to make those decisions within a very short period of time and under duress, is scary enough in itself.   Our people were fortunate to be beyond the final perimeter in those cases, but others weren’t.

 

It’s certainly fair to say that some of us down here didn’t realize how bad things were in Napa and Sonoma because we had our own disaster going.  It was amusing to hear the national news people talk about our fires as ‘just outside of L.A.’  We’re an hour south on a good day and substantially more in traffic.  In any case we have been ‘shaken and stirred’ here to the point where we might vaguely be able to sense the situation up there.

 

We actually weren’t sure what to do given the events of the past week.  We know a lot of people in the north, and have friends that did lose houses.  But we also figured that a people are a little tired of hearing about things burning.  We’re supposed to be the ‘fun’ place.  But this particular set of horrific events is right in our own back yard and, both as wine merchants and Californians, we thought we needed to say something.

 

The only point we would make falls in line with that whole ‘the wine business isn’t like any other’ thing.  Given the fact that there are still fires raging up there it is still too soon to assess the damage.  There have been more fatalities, more evacuations and more structures burned.  Obviously, we aren’t trying to make light of anything.  But we are starting to see articles about ‘what happens next’ and ‘rebuilding’.  That caused us to ponder a little about ‘wine’ things.

 

How do you rebuild?  Let’s say you are a winery.   There’s no ‘good’ timing for a fire but right now is harvest.  There are still some ‘ready’ grapes on the vine, possibly partly scorched, heat damaged, or affected by smoke.  Even if they were still ok (apparently there were cases where the expanse of green healthy vines in a vineyard acted as something of a firebreak for crops, homes and buildings), how are wineries going to get to them?  It doesn’t sound particularly healthy or safe to put a crew on picking.   So, a lot of grapes are going to be lost in the vineyard.

 

If you were one of the luckier ones in this earlier harvest, a lot of your grapes are harvested and fermenting.  But a lot of folks can’t get to their wineries to do some of the simple things essential to the basic making of the wine.  As we have said many times on these pages, timing is an essential part of the winemaking equation.  Not everyone does things the same way, but each winemaker has a protocol that can be pretty time intensive at this part of the process.  Failure to do certain things at the right moment can create problems that cannot be fixed later on.

 

There are potential risks to existing stocks from fire, smoke or heat.  Some are preventable, some are not, but someone has to be there and able to do it.  Clearly that will be a problem for a number of producers.  Even if there aren’t the ‘specifics’ we mentioned to negatively affect grapes or wine, lack of access on the part of winery crews has its own unique set of problems this time of year.

 

Taking it a step further, what if the winery goes altogether?  You not only have what is being made, you have a bit of what was already made and still aging in barrel.  So not only is the current ‘crop’ gone, so are portions of the last one or two vintages.  At White Rock, one of the wineries rumored to be destroyed (their website tells a more positive story), they age their Cabernet in French oak for 20 months.  So, the potential existed to lose three vintages.

 

The final assessment isn’t in for them.  There are storage caves on the property which may have saved a lot of the stock.  But White Rock serves as an example of what can happen.  It isn’t the first name you think of when Napa Valley is mentioned, even though they have been there for decades.  It is a unique, small production property in Soda Canyon that has a very specific style.  They have a carefully established network for sales and most folks that have been around Napa Valley for a while know who they are.

 

So, let’s say they did lose as many as three vintages of their red wines (hopefully not).  They could buy something else and bottle it, but it wouldn’t be the same thing that consumers have come to expect.  They could be off the market for three years and have to start the distribution process all over again, no easy feat these days.  If some of their 40-year-old vines were destroyed, it would take them, you guessed it, 40 years to get to them back to the same point.  A lot of folks went through this kind of decision-making with phylloxera in the 90s, but that was a slow, predictable process not an overnight wipeout.  You can’t plan for this sort of thing.

 

Finally, and again White Rock is just a real name that represents scores of wineries in every conceivable state of disarray from this terrible tragedy, what happens to such labels in the meantime?  If you make tables, and one of your tables burns, you can make another one (yeah, we know that there’s at least one guy out there mumbling no two pieces of wood are the same).  You can’t remake wine.  Vintages, vine age, blends, etc., cannot be precisely reproduced.  The competition in the marketplace is the fiercest we have seen in our decades of doing this, so coming to the market with less than your best is an uncomfortable proposition.   If you don’t come to the market at all, that’s bad for other reasons.

 

On top of it all, you’ve got tourism.  We are old enough to remember walking into a tasting room in the Napa Valley and seeing the owner behind the counter.  Of course, that was the 70s.  That was light years from where it is now.  It is an industry unto itself.  We read one article that said ‘wine country’ (however they defined it) had more visitors than Disneyland in the last year.  How will all of this destruction and relocation affect that aspect?

 

This is a nasty situation, lives lost, property lost, jobs lost, and more jobs lost by the people that support the people in the industry.  The whole industry will feel the sting of something of this magnitude in a number of different ways.   It will take weeks to assess the obvious damages, but perhaps a decade or more to see the full, as yet unpredictable impact on the region.  However, none of it matters until the winds die down and the fires subside, and that can’t come soon enough.

Talking ‘bout a revolution…

It has been almost a half century since a guy named Antinori decided that the ‘rules’ in Chianti were far too restrictive.  The rules were put into place to prevent people from cutting corners and, in so doing, protect the appellation.  In the case of this producer, they turned out to be counter-productive.  The Antinoris were looking to reach beyond the appellation with better grape blends and a more refined barrel regimen.  The ‘appellation police’ essentially said ‘no’, that Antinori had to conform to the rules of the DOC if he wanted to identify with Chianti.  He said no, and the rest is history.

To Antinori the existing narrow boundary for winemaking and requirement to use certain ‘second tier’ varietals in the wine, were a severe handicap.  Since he felt constrained by following the rules, he said ‘forget it!’, essentially causing the ‘super Tuscan’ category to emerge. But the wine industry thrives on tradition, and breaking out of the ‘beaten path’ is harder than it would appear.

Antinori was a rebel, and his challenge of the status quo was legendary. But the wine industry is not afraid to change in many ways.  There are constant discussions about various techniques of winemaking, viticulture…how to make better wine, how to grow better grapes, etc.  But as far as questioning the very ‘definitions’ and ‘guidelines’ by which appellations are defined…revolts such as Antinori’s have been historically rare.

That said, there is a significant uprising going on in Spain that not a lot of folks have heard much about.  True there are a lot of rumblings in Spain these days about a lot of things9.  In the area of Catalunia in the northeast, which was an independent kingdom for a couple of centuries, there have been definitely been aspirations to secede from Spain proper.  Heck, the Basques to the north act like an independent country to some extent.  There has long been ‘turbulence’ in Spain, but nothing thus far has actually gone beyond that.  But there are disturbances in Spain, specifically Rioja, that threaten to significantly alter the modus operandi of the region.

A long-simmering conflict in Rioja kind of erupted when Bodegas y Vinedos Artadi announced its “decision to leave the Consejo Regulador of the D.O.C Rioja,” the region’s governing organization.  Artadi was founded in 1985 by a group of vintners led by Juan Carlos López de Lacalle and is located in the village of Laguardia, part of the Rioja Alavesa subregion.   We have sold Artadi for a long time (since the early 2000s) and they have never really marketed under the ‘traditional’ banner.  But eschewing the regional banner is a new twist.

The bodega has focused more on origin (bottling a number of single-vineyard wines, including its flagship El Pison) than on the common Rioja designations of CrianzaReserva and Gran Reserva. Artadi isn’t the only winery to do that. Muga, for example, makes a couple of wines that don’t follow the specific guideline of the appellation.  They don’t use the ‘official’ nomenclature, however.  They simply give those less traditional bottlings other names like Torre Muga and Seleccion that don’t confuse themselves with the ‘traditional’ designations that Muga also produces, and they still call everything ‘Rioja’.

What makes the move by Artadi notable is that, moving forward, their wines will not say Rioja on them at all!   According to the article we read, Lopez de Lacale says he is not trying to be a revolutionary.  In fact, in his mind, he isn’t doing anything different at all!  He was quoted as saying, “We would like to highlight that there is no change in our project…We will keep betting on the land and the vineyard as the main sources of value for our wines.”

Senor Lopez de Lacale claims he isn’t trying to lead a secessionist movement.  But it is a pretty major move to buck a century plus of tradition without a clear end game.  His wines aren’t going to say Rioja on them.  So what are they? The Riojanos have put in more than a century of work to get their region’s identity established in the world market.  A number of large concerns are benefitting from that identity, and the region seems to have made some real progress over the last decade or so in raising awareness.

Now what?  Where does it go from here? Is Artadi a ‘lone wolf’ or will more bodegas follow the Artadi lead, and to what end?  There are a lot of issues swirling around, and it is unlikely that a solution that will garner widespread support can be cobbled soon given the range of diverse range of concerns that seem to be at the heart of the matter.  There don’t seem to be any easy answers.

Part of the problem is philosophical. Rioja’s classification system permits only one geographical indication… Rioja.  That works as long as everybody is on board and all of the ‘players’ conform at least to the task of solidarity in representing the region.  Rioja has done a lot to elevate itself in the international wine market.  That solidarity of image has been a key part of the program.  Sure there are some mavericks that experiment with more modernist approaches to winemaking, but all under the “Rioja’ banner.

But there are forces that are pushing for a more specific identity within the region as a whole.  Telmo Rodriguez, a highly visible winemaker who has projects all over Spain, has been advocating implementation of a “village” appellation system (a la Burgundy) in Rioja for years. In January, El Grupo Rioja, the largest association of wineries in the region, issued a proposal to move in this direction, including formalization of criteria for village and single-vineyard designations!  A ‘Grand Cu’ map for Rioja in other words.

Also, Rioja’s three sub-regions (Rioja Alavesa, Rioja Alta and Rioja Baja) have been looking towards an opportunity to express their own specific areas beyond the simple catch-all ‘Rioja’ appellation.  According to an article in Wine Spectator, the Alavesa region (located within the very independent Basque area) wants to put the Rioja Alaveza designation on bottles.  In June 2015, 120 bodegas in the Alavesa region requested permission to add this indication to their labels, and officials in the Basque government have indicated their support.

Finally, the folks in Rioja have worked long and hard to create an international image for themselves.  They seem to be finally getting to a good place and a number of their ‘native sons’ are doing better than ever.  Is it worth blowing the economics of a united thrust for the sake of individualism? The largest bodegas have also built worldwide brands based largely on multi-regional blends of vineyards from all over Rioja.  If Rioja becomes a subservient appellation to, say, Rioja Alavesa, where are they left in the consumers view?

If a bunch of bodegas, arguably some of the more prestigious ones among them, eschew the Rioja handle altogether for something like Rioja Alavesa or Rioja Alta, or even something more specific like Logronio or La Guardia, where does it end?  What does that do to Rioja’s larger marketing thrust?  Most important, how will consumers, many of whom are just recently coming to grips with Rioja and loving it, deal with the confusion this kind of ‘upheaval’ can create?

“Clarity” is important part of the wine experience.  A lot of people like to be comfortable with regions and varietals before they settle in with the genre.  If things happen that cloud the identity of the region in the consumers mind, or a lot of big names back out of using the appellation name, it could undo a lot of what Rioja has done to elevate itself in the wine market over the last decade.

By the same token, how do the secessionists garner any kind of attention for themselves?  We are reminded of one of our favorite Spanish producers, Mauro, who hail from the Ribera del Duero adjacent, nebulously defined (in consumers’ minds) Vinos de Tierra y Leon.  The Garcia family makes killer wines here, but they don’t necessarily fall into a category that gets reviewed by a majority of the pundits.  They are technically ‘other Spanish wines’. So their name doesn’t get in front of consumers as much the wine merits simply because they are effectively independents.

The same would happen with those Rioja guys that aren’t calling it Rioja.  There isn’t a ‘category’ for ‘folks in Rioja that aren’t calling themselves Rioja’.  The whole fuss causes would-be buyers to have a more muddled picture of what the region, and the wines, are about. That is usually not a positive from a marketing and imagery perspective.

It is possible that, ultimately, a terroir-centric orientation might play better with the wine cognoscenti.  But it would involve a bit of back-tracking in re-educating people to the new terminology and the more specific landscape in Rioja. They make a lot of wine in Rioja, and something that undermines the broad message of Rioja would seem to be something to avoid.

Granted those rebels in Tuscany ended up creating a whole new category (‘super Tuscans’) that has elevated the whole region.  But it is important to note that those wines are typically estate, rather than regionally focused.  It’s ‘Tignanello’ or ‘Orenellaia’ that most people know, not the dirt they sit on.  Yes, Burgundy is a terroir focused region.  But it has taken centuries to develop the vineyard framework and most people still don’t understand it.  So if you like confusion, you already have Burgundy for that.

Rioja has never outwardly been about site specifics.  We don’t deny the importance of the terroir with something very specific like Senorio de San Vincente.  But they still call themselves Rioja.   We can’t really contemplate all of the complications that might occur down the road, particularly for Artadi who is the one pushing the issue.

We understand the independent spirit of Artadi, Rioja Alavesa, and Basque country.  We get the idea that the winery feels site specificity is important to their program.  As independent types ourselves, we admire their courage.  But having pioneered a number of genres ourselves over the years and taught consumers about all kinds of things they were not familiar with.  We are well aware of how difficult the education process can be even when it is relatively straight forward.  There can be wine-speak, curious foreign words, maps, and all manner of ‘information’ that isn’t necessarily easily digestible.

We also know the more complicated the explanation, the smaller the audience will be at the end.  As students of business, we have to wonder what the long term benefit for this kind of ‘declaration of independence’ is, and what kind of marketing mess it will create if more people follow suit.