RANDOM RAMBLING: THE PINK ‘TAX’

The prevailing wisdom is that there are two things in life that are inevitable, death and taxes.  While we are not seeking to disturb anyone’s comfort zone (one has Donald Trump and Elon Musk for that already), there are a few other things that come to mind in the discussions of ‘absolutes’.  The ocean is always salty for example.  The whole gravity thing works pretty consistently as well.  You drop an apple, it hits the ground.   And, rosé Champagnes always cost a lot more.  Unlike the oceans and gravity, which have perfectly sound explanations, that last one doesn’t necessarily.

It all started with a presentation of one of our favorite larger Champagne houses, Bollinger.  As usual, we loved the Bollinger Special Cuvee.  We always have, but haven’t always carried it because the price point doesn’t always hit a logical spot vis-à-vis all of the other Champagnes that we carry.  Still, no faulting the juice.

At the same time we were presented Bollinger Rosé.  Curiously, though the two of us tasting that day have nearly seventy years in the wine business between us, but neither of us could remember ever tasting this particular bottling.  Sure we taste a lot of stuff, and can forget things.  But we rarely do, and when something is this good, you don’t forget it.

Intrigued, we looked at the ‘stats’.   The Special Cuvee was  60% Pinot Noir, 25% Chardonnay, and 15% Meunier from vineyards of which over 85% were Grands and Premiers crus sites.   The Rosé is 62% Pinot Noir, 24% Chardonnay, 14% also from vineyards that are over 85% Grands and Premiers crus.  A percent or two difference in the blend but, otherwise, not a lot of evident separation points between the two bubblies…except one.  The Rosé has 5 to 6% still red wine added to provide its color.

The kicker is that we were interested in the Rosé as well as the Special Cuvee and inquired as to the price.  The cost of the pink version was 60% more!  How does the addition of a little still red wine cause the price to vault so precipitously?  Was that ‘still red wine’ some unnamed Grand Cru Burgundy?  We’re not bagging on ‘Bolly’ mind you.  This seems to be common practice throughout Champagne.  Those of you who have seen the super elite certainly have noted that the cost of the pink versions of, say, Krug, Dom Perignon and Cristal are substantially higher than their already very costly ‘regular’ cuvees.  The practice is widespread.   The only question in our minds is ‘why?’

The first thing out of most vintners’ mouths is something about ‘rarity’.  But limited quantities don’t always justify extreme prices (see also Napa Valley).  I mean is still red wine that hard to come by that you couldn’t make more rosé?  Champagne is a big place.  So, then, is the rosé version of someone’s Champagne always better by comparison to that house’s go-to Brut?  Not in our experience.  In fact it is surprisingly close to a 50/50 proposition.

So what’s the deal?  It seems to be standard operating procedure in Champagne.  Is rosé Champagne worth so much more simply because it is ‘pink’?  Some aren’t even that pink!  The bottom line is that this is all baffling to us when we stop and think about it.  As a wine store, we spend a lot of time trying to educate folks on a wide variety of topics to try and explain why things look, taste or cost a certain way.  Here? We got nothing.

Maybe it’s just a case of a French region trying to pull ‘la lain’ over everyone’s ‘yeux’.  Hey, we love a good rosé Champagne as much as anyone.  We also understand the whole ‘perceived value’ thing.  We just aren’t ‘perceiving’ why we are expected to pay so much more for the genre.  Just sayin’…

RANDOM RAMBLINGS: SUMMER, 2018

**We have complained about many writers penchant to spend an inordinate amount of ink on wines that few people can afford and even fewer can get their hands on.  This does no service to the majority of their readers and effectively serves as a de facto sales arm of the wineries they praise.  The consumers actually suffer because the prose gives certain wineries the impetus to charge more because of the attention and other wineries to raise their prices because ‘if they can charge that much, so can we.’

**Not that we have to remind people around here that it is hot outside, but there are a few things that bear repeating with respect to wine practices.   People chill their white wines so the only issue is how they keep them cool.  Ice bucket is one solution, there are a number ‘keep cold’ devices on the market, and, if necessary, you can simply use a plastic ice pack in a bowl or a towel.  Sometimes whites here start too cold, but it is better than the alternative of being to warm where the wines definitely suffer from an enjoyment standpoint.

It is reds that are of greater concern.  The old adage of serving reds at room temperature envisions cold castles in English, not the back patio in southern California or Arizona in the summer.  Simply put, if red wine gets too warm, it doesn’t taste very good.  If you are pulling it out of a cellar, it will be the right temperature…for a while.  You need to think ahead and maybe set the red in a bucket of some kind with some plastic ice.  If it is too cold (it should be somewhere between 58 and 65 degrees ideally), it will warm up soon enough.  If it gets too warm, you can put it in the fridge, an ice bucket or in a wine sleeve.  But the idea is to prevent it from getting too warm in the first place.  Keep it cool.

If the red is stored in some non-temperature controlled scenario, don’t be afraid to cool it down by whatever means you have.  A half hour to 45 minutes in the fridge will work, or any of the other means we have mentioned (ice bucket, wine sleeve, etc.).  You pay good money for your wine but extreme temperatures might require a little extra effort to let that wine show at its best.

**Speaking of useless prose, it has been interesting to watch Advocate ex-patriot Neal Martin as he sets up shop at his new home at Vinous Media.   Now to be upfront, we have a pretty clear notion that ‘pay-for’ wine services should be devoted to looking at the scads of new releases on the marketplace and give the consumers who buy the service the kind of information that will help them sort it all out.

We have been hyper critical about most writers penchant for going out of their way to review wines that few consumers will ever see, let alone have the chance to buy.  That being said, Mr. Martin has taken that process to a new level.  Here is a sample of some of his ‘pearls of wisdom’ articles currently on the Vinous site.

In Excelsis: Château Latour 1887 – 2010

Looking Back To Go Forward: Lafite-Rothschild 1868 – 2015

1918 Bordeaux – 100 Years On

Cellar Favorite: 1961 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti

Mugneret-Gibourg: Ruchottes-Chambertin 1945 – 2014

Cellar Favorite: 1961 Latour-à-Pomerol

Bordeaux In Excelsis (featuring historic vintages of d’Yquem, Haut-Brion, Lafite-Rothschild, Latour, Margaux, Mouton Rothschild)

Bear in mind that we hold no ill will for Mr. Martin.  We’d love to get paid to crank out such ‘topical, timely’ pieces.  We just wonder what is the purpose of these articles?  Going into detail about such rare, eclectic, and expensive wines is intended to do…what exactly?  Give working data to a couple dozen collectors who might stumble across something at auction?  Deliver the message that he has tasted such wines and you likely haven’t?   This is a glowing example of the kind of high-handed stuff that turns people away from wine.

Thousands of people pay good money to get relevant information in a timely manner about wines on the market that they might try and enjoy.  Many are in it to learn more. If you asked them how much they cared about reading the guy’s notes on his three-star Michelin  dinner with a variety of one-of-a-kind bottles, we suspect the response would be pretty unenthusiastic.

This individual has even deemed himself a music critic and put his notes on Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino by Arctic Monkeys and Heaven And Earth by Kamasi Washington on your wine website at no extra charge.  Is this supposed to be some kind of ‘bonus content’?  Thanks a bunch.

**You are going to hear this repeatedly within the context of a number of articles we are and will be doing over the next 2-3 years on individual wines…in certain areas of Europe, the 2016 vintage is one of the most remarkable we have tasted in our decades in the business, in some places possibly the greatest.

There have been many exceptional vintages over time to be sure, but we can’t remember one with this unique profile.  Yes the fruit is ripe and well meshed, the flavors true to their terroirs.  But the wines are rich and full of character yet light on their feet. There is a unique texture, one the Aussies call ‘slippery’, and perfectly proportioned acidity.

In many wine circles, a ‘great’ vintage is associated with size and density.  These wines have the requisite size and density, but it is wrapped in a sleek package with bright acidity so they are not heavy or ponderous. Perhaps more important, there is almost another ‘gear’ evident in the finish of the best examples that suggests that they have more to give, yet they are perfectly drinkable now thanks to their striking balance.

While there are fine examples from a variety of locales in Europe, we have found that most compelling and consistent areas are Bordeaux, the southern Rhone, and northern Italy (Piedmont and Tuscany).  We have had wines from these areas in this vintage that are at another level, so good that they border on ethereal and even approach transcending  their appellation.

We realize this prose is a little hard to grasp.  It’s hard for us, too, seeing as we have never encountered a vintage quite like this one to convey the message properly.  If there is an easy takeaway, it is that if you have any space in your cellar, or closet, or under your bed, you need to keep your eyes open over the next few months as the 2016s roll in and be ready to grab some of them.

 

THE WINE CRITIC: WILL THERE BE ANOTHER ‘ORACLE’?

When we started in this business, the impact of the media was much different.  There wasn’t a ‘guiding light’ kind of reviewer.  Mostly folks relied on scribes in the newspapers who wrote weekly columns, awards from various wine competitions, and there was a following among elite buyers in a small way for a couple of subscription writers.  Does anyone remember Robert Finigan?  Probably not anymore.  He was arguably the first one to get national attention for wine reviews, but the field was still pretty new at the time.

Back when the 1982 vintage in Bordeaux was being reviewed, Finigan was in a position to make some waves as there was unusual consumer interest in the vintage.  Finigan, a traditionalist, was pretty convinced that the very ripe, somewhat atypical 1982s were an anomaly and would not stand the test of time.  By contrast, an emerging writer from Monkton, Maryland named Robert Parker went full gung ho on the 1982s and the market responded.

From that moment on Parker’s star rose dramatically among hardcore wine collectors and tastemakers.  He achieved a status that perhaps no reviewer in any other field ever had and likely ever will.  About the same time, a more lifestyle centric magazine called Wine Spectator, with reviews, articles, and pretty pictures, captured an even larger, if perhaps somewhat less zealous audience.  Suddenly these publications, aided by an industry that was all too willing to cut and paste reviews rather than do original work, became the defining voices in the wine industry.

While Stephen Tanzer’s International Wine Cellar captured a modest audience, it was Advocate and Spectator that had the majority of the attention for a couple of decades.   We always joked about what kind of panic would ensue if anything ever happened to Parker, and knowing that if all went well, he would eventually retire.  In the early days, Wine Spectator had only a handful of regular critics and Advocate was just Bob.  But as demand grew for wider coverage of more wines, both publications added reviewers to cover the workload.

But with many additional voices, there was perhaps a little bit of dilution in the power of the message.  There were a few folks that came and went because they didn’t fit in with their Wine Advocate roles, a couple were even a little controversial.  The turnover of writers had to affect some aspects of the readership loyalty, though the presence of Parker as the anchor kept a lot of that from becoming too problematic with Wine Advocate at the time.

As to Wine Spectator, things went pretty well for a long time.  Then lead writer for European wines James Suckling parted company with the magazine.  Their domestic specialist, known here as ‘Angry’ James Laube, started toughening up on scores.  Dishing out 91 point scores to $200 Napa Cabernets definitely made him less ‘quotable’ in the broad market.  It seems Spectator’s impact in the marketplace has abated a little.

That brings us to today.  Spectator still has wide distribution, but we’d suggest less impact than the glory days.  Their ex-patriot Suckling set up shop on his own.  Parker isn’t doing much for Advocate these days, and former reviewers Antonio Galloni and Jeb Dunnuck left to set up their own programs.  Galloni’s Vinous absorbed the Tanzer team and recently hired former Advocate Bordeaux and Burgundy reviewer Neal Martin.  With such a dramatic reshuffling of the scribes, and the changing faces of the former ‘powers’, one has to wonder where it goes from here.   That isn’t even taking into account the various other ‘wannabes’ that are vying for relevance.

Our point is that today’s field is crowded and it is hard to predict who, if anyone, will become the next ‘oracle’.  There are a half dozen review platforms that have some amount of clout, and a number of others who could emerge down the road (though we have our doubts).  The quirk of today’s market is that purveyors are trying to prolong the sell-by-reviews format that has been the widely practiced norm for at least the last quarter century.

Within that context, it is a proven fact that ’89s don’t sell wine’.  These days the same can be said for a lot of scores relative to certain price points.  A 91 might move a $12 wine, but won’t even register a blip for a $30 wine.  Therein lies the problem.  The purveyors know they need bigger ‘numbers’ to excite buyers and consumers, and have taken it upon themselves to present the best score possible without regard to the source.  People present us the reviews of 2nd and 3rd tier critics all the time (and all-too-often not accurately).

We know the difference and who is who.  But the average consumer seeing it on a sign in a store doesn’t necessarily have knowledge of the hierarchy (if you can call it that) and many take the number at face value.  All too often wines are presented with floating reviews, which say a wine received a 95 point score but doesn’t cite where it came from.

Given all of this, the industry is concerned about how to reach the next generation of wine buyers.  The ‘score’ thing has worked well for a lot of people for a long time.  But will that continue?  Are reviewers going to have the same impact with millennials they did with baby boomers?  Our first guess is probably not.   Who knows what kind of dynamic will be the basis for information moving forward.  A hybrid of some current market trend-setter?  Some self-proclaimed hipster critic?  Yelp?

Then again, with hand held devices connected to world-wide internet 24/7, it would be easy to get information on a potential wine purchase from some review site in seconds.  So it is difficult to fathom the possibility that all of the critics websites will disappear.  These days, convenience matters, particularly for the most impatient of generations.  But whose reviews are they going to follow?  That is the question.  Who best speaks to the market in the post-Parker era?  What exactly is the wine market as defined today?

One might ask who we follow.  In truth, we don’t really follow anyone.  We’ll look into things based on reading articles because not everything comes to our door.  Then we’ll use whatever reviews we think will get people to try a wine we already liked and bought, provided those reviews come from sources we feel are legit.  It is important for us to associate with proven and reasonably well-followed review sources.  We aren’t inclined to quote the ‘scribe of the week’ simply because he/she gave the highest, most quotable number.  ‘Steve’s mom gave this 94 points’ isn’t going to resonate with anyone.   There may be critics out there that will be widely quoted down the road, once they have established themselves.   But for now we’ll focus on the half dozen or so that seem to be the most followed.

The working theory moving forward, as we have stated, is that the guys with the highest reviews will get quoted because the market responds to higher numbers, and therefore will receive more ‘reinforcement’ in the public eye.  Though these all represent relatively new independent voices, James Suckling, Jeb Dunnuck, and some of the Vinous crew, have historic connections with top sources.  So they have historic credibility as long as they don’t overdo it and give everything 100 points.  They will typically run somewhat higher scores (a point or two, say) because they are still trying to expand their audience, or maybe they really are that much more excited.  Enthusiasm sells.  Just saying everything is ‘pretty good’ or ‘just OK’ won’t motivate anyone to act, or more importantly acquire.

For that reason we see the current Spectator ‘tough guy’ approach as being counter-productive in the broad sense with respect to wine reviews, though there will be an audience for their travel, food, and “People Magazine” portions of the publication.  Page after page of middling scores (by today’s standards) will cause consumer’s eyes to glaze over.

The Advocate has been something of a revolving door having lost two top reviewers who created their own sites, and another that went to work for one of the competition.  Will the new crew catch on?  Hard to say at this point.  It is probably still their game to lose, but we can’t see where a bunch of folks that the public doesn’t know as well, talking up mainly wines that no one can find or afford, as a recipe for long term success.

When we mine some positive prose from those publications, there is interest in the individual wines.  But we used to know when a new edition of those publications came out because the phones rang off the hook.  That has not been the case in recent years.  The point is that, when we present a wine with a review from one of those sources we mentioned, there is usually some response.  But we aren’t sure how many people are reading these publications on their own and reacting from that research any more.

There is more great wine out there now than at any time we can remember.  With so many things to evaluate one has to wonder why folks aren’t flocking to critics’ sites and publications to sort it all out.  Maybe they are.  But the impact of the reviewer has certainly changed over the past dozen years.  Is it because there are too many critics, reducing the impact of each one?  Whose reviews will reign supreme?  Is it because the industry has gone overboard in presenting reviews to sell wine so that most consumers feel they are getting all the info they need?  Or is this format going the way of the VCR and experiencing a decline in popularity with the next generation?  After all, how many of the younger crowd cares about 20-year drinking windows?  Most of it gets consumed in a week.

This aspect of the wine business, which has driven the market over the last couple of decades, is in flux right now.  Honestly, it could go any number of ways.  Among critics, sadly, we feel the high scorers will win as long as the ‘number’ takes precedent over the meat of the write-up.   The ‘number’ is the quick answer in a world where faster is better. We have lived largely in the world of review-driven sales.  While the ‘players’ may change,  we believe the role of the critic will remain significant at least until a better way comes along.  We can’t envision what that would be.  The 100-point system didn’t dominate wine marketing, until it did.  Arguably the success can be tied loosely to the system of education most people grew up and are familiar with.  But the fact remains that it is an easy, quick format for people to digest.

Possibly the industry could take charge of their own business and try to educate consumers through their own articles, tastings and one-on-one dialogue.  Maybe there are unicorns, too.  We have always presented our own ideas, sometimes without any reference to third party opinions. But the number system has created a life all its own for the time being.   As to more of the industry taking the ‘bull by the horns’, we aren’t going to hold our breath.  Telling someone they should buy a wine because ‘so-and-so gave it 95 points’ is still so… much… easier.  We’ll wait and see whose ‘95’ moves the needle the most as time passes.

 

 

 

 

 

SPECIAL ORDERS DON’T UPSET US…

You hear that a lot out in the advertising world.   Everybody wants to sound accommodating and consumer friendly, like they are anxious to fill the varied needs of a diverse public.  It all sounds peachy when you hear the ads but perhaps doesn’t always translate to the real world.  It’s easy for the corporate heads to advertise that they have a ‘liberal return policy’ when they aren’t going to be the ones standing in line for 30-40 minutes while the lone person in the return department is on break.  Promising something is one thing, how (or if) those promises are met is quite another.

Most outlets can’t handle a lot of requests that are outside the carefully put together order sheets that the employees have to work with.  We have seen the panic on the face of operatives when the ‘special requests’ don’t fit into the prescribed ‘boxes’.   Granted it isn’t rocket science to grill someone’s onions for their burger instead of put them on raw.  Obviously with certain types of furniture these days, everything is ‘special order’.  Rather one must select not only the style of the couch but the size, upholstery, and complementary pieces.   The point is that, when you hear about some outlets’ claims about, well, anything, you have to take them with the proverbial grain of salt.  Their interpretation of what constitutes ‘fulfillment’ of the promise can vary greatly from yours.

We have always prided ourselves in trying to be as close to ‘literal’ as possible.  In other words, when we say ‘special orders don’t upset us’, we mean it.  That being said, however, we must also point out that there are parameters to the promise.  First, if we’re going to go out and try and find something that is outside our normal, albeit very expansive and occasionally esoteric routine, there are a few things that sort of override the process.  Everything is determined by the amount of effort needed to complete the task, and the size of the task.

There are plenty of factors that play into the fulfillment equation and, for the sake of perspective and full disclosure, we thought it might be informative to understand what some of those factors are.  Now bear in mind virtually everyone in our industry has to go through some form of the same process.  We’re just being up front about it.  So, say you come to us with a special order for something, the key parts of the process go something like this…

PRICE: Of course most of these conversations start with ‘can you get this wine?’ and ‘how much will it cost?’   Even though it doesn’t sound particularly difficult, answering those two simple questions can be unbelievably daunting.  First of all, to quote a price means we have to find a cost, which means we have to find someone who sells the wine.  That is easier said than done.  There are thousands of producers in California alone, let alone all of the other places that produce wine in the world.  There are far more labels out there than most folks realize and new ones all the time.  Even with as much experience as we have, the information required to be able to answer those two simple questions for all of the wines in the world is impossible.

There isn’t a single source reference for all brands.  We can’t just pull out the ‘Great Book of Wine’ and get the answer.  Such an all-encompassing source simply does not exist for even all of the wines that are sold within California.  Purveyors can be region specific as well, meaning for example that a wine might be sold in northern California but not in southern California.  Sometimes associating a particular brand with certain source can be next to impossible.

If you had the wine in another city, or another country, that will make the process that much harder because sometimes that wine you had doesn’t even come to California or reside with any source whatsoever within the state, or sometimes even the country.  So we wouldn’t be able to simply order it even if we could find it.  The process would be much more complicated even if we could find it in the first place.

PHYSICAL ACQUISITION:  Every borderline you cross, be it state or international, adds to the difficulty of the process of acquisition.  There are paperwork, licensing, and shipping issues that have to be resolved presuming you actually find the wine to buy.  Some wines only exist in one place.  There are California wineries, for example, that produce wines for export or for restaurant chains or distributors in other states, that are specifically only for those entities.  You won’t find them anywhere else but those places (even though that same wine might exist under many other different labels) and never know the origins of the wine.

So let’s say we actually can find the wine you asked for via the ‘needle in a haystack’ process (sheer luck), in a quantity that makes business sense for us, and find a cost and be able to create a ‘landed’ price.  But, wait, how do we create that price?  There are also discounts, shipping quantity and dollar minimums, as well as potential U.S. and state taxes, just to name a few things that would have a direct effect on final pricing simply based on the logistical aspects.

Now we don’t mean to imply that everything is incredibly difficult.  Often we know the purveyor right away.  But if we don’t, it can sometimes take an hour or two just to find out who we are supposed to talk to.   There can be special promotional prices and other variables that can greatly affect the final sale numbers which are not evident until one has that conversation with the source.

The bottom line is that, truly, ‘special orders don’t upset us’. It is one of the many things we can do that large chain operations, big box stores, or grocers simply cannot do.  It is unlikely you will even find someone that knows what you are talking about in most outlets unless that item is very main stream.

You also won’t find many people that really understand the process in those other scenarios either.   The follow-up systems simply aren’t geared to accommodate the ordering and receiving of ‘special requests’.  We are pleased to be able to offer the service.  We can and will try.  But one needs to know going in that it can be an extremely difficult and time consuming process that may not ultimately make economic sense to anyone.

Sadly, all of this knowledge is both a blessing and a curse.  While we feel the need to impress upon people how difficult this process is behind the scene, we are doing so to make people aware of all of the pitfalls in doing this sort of thing.  Like that current pop hit ‘whatever it takes’, we are willing to ‘go the distance’ if the result makes sense from a business standpoint and we know what to do.

Unfortunately, the greatest cause for past consumer disappointments is something we absolutely have no control over.  There is usually a reason that people seek a particular wine that is not readily available.  It is because of their positive, possibly ‘aha!’ experience with that wine.  People sometimes don’t think about context and how it can affect the joy of the moment.

If you had some wine on your back porch and it struck you as tasty, that’s one thing.  Cases like that pretty much revolve around the wine.  But there are also occasions where the wine is associated with a grander experience, where the perception of the wine is augmented by the backdrop.  We learned long ago that, for some folks, the moment can be as important as the wine itself, and the perception of the wine is greatly colored by ‘other elements’.

So, like those drug ads on TV, we have a few disclaimers.  While we will do our best to ‘get the goods’, there are certain parts of the process that made a wine’s experience memorable that we cannot be responsible for.   Be aware that your enjoyment of the juice might well have had, at least in part, something to do with ‘the moment’.  As we have stated, in some cases it is difficult enough to simply procure the juice requested.  However we cannot guarantee your experience will be the same because we cannot presuppose or recreate the environment in which the moment occurred.  In all honestly, you probably can’t either because so many things come into play.

What are we getting at?  Well, an O.K. wine at the perfect moment will often shine greater than a great wine when you are in a bad mood.  Therefore, we will not assume any liability for the affect the food, the significant other, the company, the sunset, the ambience, any body of water, or any other non-wine aspect had that made that particular wine experience special.

So, in the end, ‘special orders really don’t upset us.’  We just need for people to realize that in some cases the task can be prohibitively difficult.  As for ‘the moment’…that’s on you.

 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.