Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Fa Bene!

After reading my post about the Italian protectionism regarding Sagrantino di Montefalco, Marcello writes:

Well, I'm about to plant a vineyard to Sagrantino in Western Australia, so if he has a problem with Tuscans, then he's gonna have to spread that ire further afield. What about the Bordelaise? They've lost so much of their once unique varities to international competitors. Hell even varieties they ditched (like Carmenere and Petit Verdot) are thriving in the New World!

I'm looking forward to sending Marco a bottle of my Sagrantino Di Antipodea. We'll see what taste it leaves in his silver spoon-fed mouth.

Marcello, Mt. Barker

Fa bene, Marcello!
That's just the spirit that's needed in the wine world today - throw the pretentiousness back in their faces!

Honestly, it's just that sort of adventurous nature of man to explore the world and bring his vines with him that spread vines to France and Germany millenia ago. And if a particular varietal doesn't take too well in a particular spot...then try something else. Even Thomas Jefferson the President and perennial American statesman (and all-round Renaissance man) tried viticulture for years at Monticello (he unfortunately never managed to get it right, but his dedication and spirit of viticultural adventure are legendary…).

Well, Congratulations Marcello. I hope it goes well for you...and if you DO send a bottle to that guy...please, please let me know what he says!

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Côtes du Riveière Kwai ??

More wine in Thailand...
..continuing the wine news from Asia:

...Metge-Toppin jokingly calls the red he has helped to create, Côtés de la Rivière Kwai. He is the first to admit that, "Everything is different when you are growing wine in Thailand, so you need to adapt. And, after you have adapted your growing techniques, there are the problems of storage - as well as people's perceptions."

As one wine critic said, "I still find it hard to believe that New Latitude wines will ever be seriously good - but then that's what we said about New World wines not so long ago."...

This is new territory, and quite a bit of work will need to be done. Mold and rot could be serious problems given the heat and humidity. But there may be other problems...

As Metge-Toppin proudly points out: "Selling our wine to every Thai restaurant in the world would amount to over six million cases each year. Even Jacobs Creek would be jealous." This demand could be easily met: unlike the West, which has just one harvest each year, Thailand has two and, because of the climate, can grow grapes continuously for eight months at a time. [emphasis added /huge]

That challenges some of the notions of Western viticulture, though if workable could give them a leg up on production. And initially it might make for a glut, if too many farmers see some growth in the market and try to jump on at the same time.

However, some of it's wines are already finding their way into the EU, New Zealand, the US and Japan. Will it take off - is this the new model for wine?

Very probably - NOT. But it is a further sign that many niche markets will open to local products from almost every corner of the world - albeit small markets.
And can you imagine the work involved with trying to identify the stated 6,000 Thai resaurants in the world, much less the work of trying to get each one to carry your wine? The "authentic taste of Thailand" might be one way to market those wines, but it wouldn't really have a big draw outside of the related ethnic food market would it?

Maybe not, but it will push the current envelope of perceived wine growing regions should it be a successful endeavor.


India pushes improved wine image

More wine news from India

Sunday Indian Express (Mumbai)

Looks like some powerful Ministers in Indian Parliament are starting to exercise some political muscle to give their grape market a push forward.

There are a few points in the article that take a careful read:

Over the last week, the NCP supremo has sung paeans to the virtues of wine as a ‘‘health drink’’, over colas, and the need to disassociate it from liquor—change the term ‘‘wine shops’’ to ‘‘liquor shops’’ to improve wine’s image, said Pawar.

This implies that currently “wine shops” are stores that primarily sell liquors, and wines aren’t sold by themselves.

Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh is maintaining silence while his deputy and Pawar’s man, R R Patil strongly backed his leader on Wednesday.
‘‘The idea is to make available grape juice to people on a stall along with other fruit juices and soft drinks,’’ Patil said after a cabinet meeting.

“Juice”?... But that’s not quite what wine is, eh?
Although it could help their grape industry overall, and eventually could be used to bolster the demand for more wines as people develop a taste for the fruit’s acid profile and aromas.

Monday, August 29, 2005

More Beaujolais problems

(Chateau de Vaurenard)
Jason Burke, Europe editor in Villefranche-sur-Saone writes:
The lines have been drawn between the vines, the trenches dug in the famous, sandy soil: tomorrow will see the final showdown in the battle of Beaujolais.

The conflict, in a region where wine has been produced for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, has been boiling for months. It has been described as a fight between generations, between the rich and the poor, between good and bad vineyards. In fact, its roots are more complex, reflecting a global crisis in winemaking and in France.

That tensions are high is clear. Last week 800 winegrowers gathered for an acrimonious demonstration outside the office of the Winegrowers Union of Beaujolais in the small town of Villefranche-sur-Saone, capital of the district. 'Revolution' screamed the front page of the local newspaper, Le Patriote-Beaujolais...
This is what you get for suggesting that producers are going to need to reduce the amount of wines they make by 10%...
But then again, it's a valid point that nobody would like to see their income reduced 10%....even if it was for the long term stability of the region's wine prices.
De Longevialle [the ousted President of their union /huge], whose family have been making wine at their stunning Chateau de Vaurenard estate for three centuries, denied that the conflict pitted the older, wealthiest winemakers against the less well off. 'The attacks on me have been sustained and personal. But it's the law of the market that is behind the problem,' he said. 'We have to do something before this harvest creates another huge surplus.'
So, he gets the axe for thinking forward and suggesting that which they all know they need to do...and in his defence he's suggesting the burden should be shouldered equally by all, not just a few on the lower end of the scale.
Though there may be some truth in what they are saying; older established wine families have more clout, and better reputation and path to market in France, where smaller new producers have more risk with the 10% cut. I'll go on record as stating that the reductions in amounts produced should be pro-rated for the wines which are in surplus:
  • if Cht. "X" has sold all of it's vintage, then it should be encouraged to do the same again the next year with simmilar production quotas.
  • If Cht. "Z" has 75% of it's wines in surplus, then obviously it shouldn't be producing that much, and should see at least a 50% drop in what it's bringing into the marketplace. Should they see a future turn-around, they can get the OK to increase in subsequent harvests.
Quotas are pretty much the only thing you can do if you're going to continue to have subsidies from the Gov't. Ideally, the market would relinquish the subsidies, and turn to a sales driven paradigm.
Sink or Swim...
Sell or Perish...
It's the only real way to get back out of these huge payouts (and distillation schemes) the EU is being held to, and places the burden squarely on the shoulders of the individual vignerons, where it should always have been anyway...and it won't be pretty...
Subsidies should be for emergencies, not the everyday way businesses are supported. And with 1 million bottles of the previous vintage in surplus (almost 50% of the annual production), it's quite obvious something needs to be done.
And they'll have to face the facts...bottle-aged Beaujolias Nouveau just doesn't sell that well. It's made for immediate drinking, not cellaring. Sounds like it's going to be more calls for Gov't subsidies, more rioting, protesting (perhaps even more monkey-wrenching), and eventual distillation for industrial alcohol.
That vicous cycle just doesn't make good business sense, for anybody...

DeBoeuf Wine Fraud!?

French Beaujolais king DuBoeuf denies wine fraud

PARIS (Reuters) - France's Beaujolais king George Duboeuf has on Saturday denied allegations of blending the equivalent of some 300,000 bottles of his company's premium wines with cheaper wines...

The firm's top quality Beaujolais wine from 2004 that was under investigation accounts for 300,000 litres of Duboeuf's total annual production of some 25 million bottles of wine, said a spokeswoman for the company.

Who would be able to tell the difference…?

I mean really, it's Beaujolais Nouveau...what are people expecting, anyway?

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Indonesian Yuppies go for wine...

Indonesian Yuppies & wine

The trend towards increased wine consumption in Asia has been underway for quite some time, but is accelerating due to the increased economic power of the newest generation of technology workers.

While admitting that she was not a wine expert, Djenar said she often drank wine while discussing many things, especially literature and books, with her fellow writers, mostly until midnight.

"I only drink red wine. I love the taste, not sweet. I don't like sweet taste," the mother of two told The Jakarta Post recently.

She first acquired a taste for wine at the age of 14, and Djenar admitted that she visited cafes two or three times a week and would drink two to three bottles of French red wine in a night.

The 32-year-old novelist said the price of red wine she normally drank was about Rp 150,000 a bottle.

So, what’s a 14-year-old doing drinking 2~3 bottles of red wine in a night, a couple of times a week? And where’s the money for that wine coming from?...
That’s not what was meant!
But it sounds like it from the way it’s worded.

Perhaps this would’ve been better:
“… Djenar admitted that she [currently] visited cafes two or three times a week…”
Man - that sure changes the tone of it…for the better…

By the way, that Rp 150,000 (Indonesian Rupiah) is equivalent to ~$14.50 US or £ 8.03 (or € 11.76…), so it’s not as extravagant as it first sounds.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Reader Question: Why Are Winery Sales Kept Quiet?

The following question came from Steve L.:

"Can you explain why its so clandestine when a winery's owner sells his business? I see transactions between telecom and oil companies discussed in the paper long before they close and yet only Mondavi and Chalone were publicly discussed before they sold, rumors of other wineries being an exception I guess. Why is that?"

Good question Steve. I wondered the same thing years ago when one of the first wineries I worked for was sold out from underneath me (well, not really, but it seemed that way). When I worked with my next employer I ended up helping him to sell his business, and I came to understood why....

It has to do with distributors and, to a lesser extent, retailers. When distributors get wind that a winery is for sale, they typically assume that the new owners will change to another distributor within the state and they will lose the business. Whether that ultimately happens or not, the problem that is created is that a rumor of sale can damage a brand in the marketplace as distributors ignore it, it doesn't get through to consumers. Consequently, sales suffer and the value of the winery declines (this exact thing happened to the Sebastiani family when they sold their Central Valley wine businesses). This is why winery owners try not to let anyone know that they are for sale until it happens - a difficult tightrope to walk as you have to make the sale known to possible buyers, but very carefully.

In the case of Mondavi and Chalone, since they were public companies, their buyouts were played out in the public eye. Mondavi's happened so quickly that there was little time for damage.

I would guess that knowledge of which wineries are for sale (just like with houses) would create a better market with more information for both buyer and seller, but given the power of distributors, I don't see that happening.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

White Zinfandel - the Pariah

I found this wine site recently and followed it through to its wine reviews. Note that the tasting notes for white zin take you to Is this meant to imply that WZ is only for women (who buy 70% of the wine in the US) or that WZ is one of those wines you "drink but don't write about"? I hope its the latter, as I agree that WZ reviews are generally unnecessary.

This brings me to a larger point about elitism and the continued snobbery I find in the wine world. Its still okay for some wine drinkers to turn up their noses at other wine drinkers because the former "drinks better wine" than the latter. Why is this? Is it because of wine's elevated status as a beverage of the bourgeois? Is it because some wines sell for much higher prices than others? Is it because of our relentless need to climb enological social ladders?

Most wine drinkers have stories about the horrid plonk they drank while in college, but many quickly move from there to actually disdaining those who drink sweet or generic wines and make those who drink them feel like they should apologize for what they choose to drink (we've probably all seen this happen, it happens frequently to me when I go to people's homes for dinner - I tell them not to apologize and join them in a glass of whatever they're drinking).

I for one don't think that Bob Trinchero should have to apologize one iota for his creation. The headline of Linda Murphy's
excellent article on the history of white zin says "The wine snobs won't touch it, but that's their loss". As she points out, the majority of Americans don't even drink wine, so why are we going out of our way to look down on those who do, even if they choose something different than what we like. Can't we all just get along?

I am said to be a revolutionist in my sympathies, by birth, by breeding and by principle. I am always on the side of the revolutionists, because there never was a revolution unless there were some oppressive and intolerable conditions against which to revolute.- Mark Twain

Monday, August 22, 2005

Raison d'etre: a little over done?

I got an email the other day which asked if I had any comments on Christian's page at his "le Chai" website where he discusses his raison d'etre...

Let me start by saying that I enjoy his blog, and also respect his opinion - especially when you take into consideration that this page of his lays down the philosophy for his business. He states that he has tasted and approved each wine that he sells, and that's commendable. Also he states that his storage of these wines are in a temperature and humidity controlled cellar conditions - again, very commendable. He also states that he doesn't use ratings from critics to decide what wines to stock & sell, which could be good or bad...depending on what an idividual is looking for, though I think it supports his other statements fully here.
But while I think it serves to help him define what he's trying to do, it unfortunately reinforces some rather antiquated wine stereotypes.

The raison d'etre problem arises with the phrase that "these very questions run through my head (and often out of my mouth) whenever I drink a wine from the "New World.""...Yikes! can that be any more myopic? And does he never question Old World wines?
Couple that with the line "[France, Germany, Italy and Spain] have set the world standards for all things wine and, as it is my opinion that they also produce the finest wines in the world...", and I start to sense that the implication of the "raison d'etre" is to question why anyone outside Europe makes wine at all.

Further down he states "[a]s far as the New World goes, to be sure there are some very good being wines produced. Unfortunately, they also tend to have big price tags and very small production levels."
Has he never seen the price tags on some of those Bordeaux? Burgundy? Barolo, even? And let's talk about some microscopic production levels...wait a minute!...isn't that usually the call to arms for the Old World guard? That anything produced on a scale where the average consumer can find it must be average wine (read average here as plonk)??
It seems a bit schizophrenic there...the Old World can mass produce, yet if the New World wants to do that they must have sold their soul to the Devil...
Given his earlier position that Europe seems to set the bar in all things wine (with the attendant implication that they produce nothing but good wine - which is just outright wrong), and that the New World has yet to even justify it's existence, it's not hard to imagine that he hasn't really searched out the New World wines before making this statement. Regular readers will be aware of my posts contrary to that position.

And I'd postulate that if what he says were true, then the New World producers would be starving right now - which they aren't by a long shot.
The New World is doing exactly the opposite right now, taking more and more of the Old World producers' market share. In fact, I'll go out on a limb to predict that even if the EU changes the labeling laws to allow for branding by varietal instead of just commune, that the New World will still pull forward. This I think, will be due to the increased intensity of most new world wines when compared to Old World counterparts. Those label changes will help them to compete, but won't equalize the playing field when it comes to ripe flavor development and concentration, areas which the New World pretty much owns outright at the moment.

At the bottom of his statement he finishes with several gems...
That he wishes to "educate my clients and acquire the wines that my clients are and should be interested in." Wines that your clients should be interested in? While it's nice that I can walk into a store & hear someone else's opinion of what's worth drinking, I take offense at the idea that the world needs someone to coddle it through their wine selections. And then "[w]hy does Le Chai exist? Because there has to be an alternative to the sea of mis-information that gets thrown about concerning wine." What misinformation is he referring to - the outdated idea that only Europe can make a decent wine (much less a great one)? That everything needs to be justified - or have a pedigree to be worth anything?

While "raison d'etre" does mean "reason for existence" or "purpose of being", the use of it implies that anything without a known lineage or lofty purpose is to be shunned. What about using a human example - are orphans any less deserving of repsect than England's Prince Charles? I think not, they are both to be evaluated upon their own individual merits...not those images we push upon them.
The idea that wine exists simply for the pleasure of the consumer is lost with his viewpoint. Please note that I think it's ok for people to make up their own minds regarding which wines they like or dislike, but it's a disservice to all to imply that there's nothing worth selling from the New World and the idea that people need to be "educated" to fit that model.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Michigan Consumer Group Goes on the Offensive

WineCAM (Wine Consumers Across Michigan) has struck a PR blow and gone on the offensive against the powerful alcohol distributors of Michigan with its own press release. As Tom at Fermentations has also pointed out, the distributors are moving the battle from the public's view in the editorial pages to the backrooms where the payola is exchanged.

A good job by WineCAM to keep these shady tactics in the public's view. The distributors are resorting to buying votes to keep their monopoly and this needs to made transparent to the public.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Volcano Winery (Hawaii)

Here's an interesting travel article on the Volcano Winery

(Hmmmm...Symphony grapes...y'know there's a reason that varietal never caught on in popularity)
Note they use a few weird tropical fruits in some of their wines, including the Brazillian grape-fruit ('jaboticaba' which is not really a grape, but a tree which has fruit reminicent of grapes in appearance).

If you've ever had it...well, it's unforgettable...
I suppose it does qualify as wine if your definition is "an alcoholic beverage produced from fruit'...but that's where the similarities end.
Strange taste. Acidic with no real tannin structure, and a rather baked red fruit note (like red stone fruit - only not like red stone fruit).

The fruit 'pops out' all over the tree's bark like the's what it looks like when fruiting:

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Witness the Vinferno!

Bonny Doon's latest newsletter is another joy to read. As usual, Randall Grahm pulls no punches on how he feels about the state of the industry.

"This is Wine Limbo, where reside the brilliant vignerons of lore,
Masters who came B.S. (Before Specatation)
And were never awarded a numerical score."

Coincidentally, Alder from Vinography, wrote a not dissimilar version for publication.

Both are very, very good bits of writing.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Constellation Buying Rex Goliath?

Rich Cartiere's Wine Market Report reported Monday that Constellation is in talks to buy the Rex Goliath brand from Hahn Estates for $40-45 million. A pretty colossal number for a brand that was launched less than three years ago. This brand was on pace to sell over 500,000 cases in 2005, but was thought to be marginally profitable - making its money on sheer volume, with very little profit per case.

Is this the beginning of the end for the independent animal brands or just a chance for the owners to cash out far more than they would be able to get from continuing to sell the brand? Time will tell, I suppose....

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Another Biodynamic post

This comment appeared recently on a biodynamic (BioD) post of mine from January...

Anonymous said...
I am as skeptical as the next person when I hear about burying horns and the like, but I think it is wrong of you to completely discredit it based on your own personal "hunch" that it is a bunch of hocus-pocus.

How arrogant of me! Oh, wait - aren't the proponents doing exactly that in reverse?

A lot of how the world works is still a mystery, and I kind of like it that way.
Good for you. Go wander the world blindly if you feel so inclined...

I buy biodynamic wine and organic wine because I like knowing that care and attention went into how they are made.
How many times do I need to state this? You don't need some new age voodoo system to decide quality...all you need is your tongue. BioD is not an assurance of's a philosophy relating to man's place in the universe. You should be buying ISO9000+ wines if you're looking for care and attention...

Even then, those protocols aren't so much about quality as they are about accountability and paperwork, right? So you're still left out in the cold...

Demeter only certifies 12 wineries in California, so is this really such a huge marketing movement? Many wineries don't even list their organic or biodynamic status on the label. How does that fit into your argument?
Rest assured that those wineries leverage (market) that fact to the hilt when it suits them. And I'm sure from the conversations I've had with BioD producers (as well as interviews of them) that many of them truly believe in the system, and are trying to effect a positive change in how they farm.
One reason many of the products which are produced via BioD or even organically aren't labeled as such is that Joe Consumer may have a negative perception of products that carry those tags. Certainly, there are many of us who look at it as a form of voodoo/withcraft/sympathetic magic...

I also question your reasoning as far as the blooming flowers since the moon's pull would probably be different based on which side of the earth it happened to be on. I understand that flowers respond to day and night, warm and cold etc., but these are the main influences on everything. I believe there are other, subtler, influences like the moon that work below our awareness, perhaps like human pheremones, which were previously not acknowledged, but are now widely accepted.
(...this last part is in response to an example I used to disprove another person's statement that fortnight lilies all bloom at the same time...those fortnight lilies would then all have to bloom at the same time in both Greenland and Cancun, Mexico for that to be true...which they don't, incidentally. Perhaps a better example might be the Yukon Territory and Cancun, instead of Greenland.)
Yes. Those are the main influences.

The Moon? I can see the tidal effects of our moon, those are based on its proximity & mass (gravitational effect). But it would be hard to assume that there are other properties of the Moon which somehow affect quartz (a fairly inert and insoluble mineral) or manure (especially when it's buried in the ground).
Further, merely stirring water into opposing vortices for an hour doesn't impart magical peoperties to it either...
There are legion other reasons to doubt BioD, and no one yet has been able to provide proof it does anything more than regular organic farming.
What the proponents have not acknowledged is that the onus of proving BioD rests with them - and they continue to fail to demonstrate any solid proof.

Dear [anonymous], if you haven't already read Joly's book, get it at the library and read it. (Link to my review of that work.) If you have read Joly's book and you're still making these statements...well, there's probably not much common ground we'll find on this subject.

My BioD posts (only some) which you may find interesting: BioD - Santeria of viticulture, Bennett Valley vineyard experiment, Roger Voss BioD article...


Monday, August 08, 2005

Wine vs. Beer - The Real Story

At first, I agreed with Alder, that the recent Gallup poll that Americans were preferring wine to beer was a non-story. Though much balleyhooing was made about it, I figured it was just a statistical blip (you know the one about the "two kinds of lies"!). Then I came across real data....not a survey that produced skewed results because people didn't want to admit that they like to kick back with a cold one, but want people to think that they know their Pinot from a hole in the ground.

In 2004, US consumers spent $82 billion on beer, $49 billion on spirits and a paltry $23 billion on wine (note beer outsells spirits & wine combined!). Further, wine was actually ranked third in the Gallup poll among 18-29 year olds, a key demographic that the wine industry has been courting!

Clearly, when you strip away the survey bias, the harsh reality comes through......we have a long way to go.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Still fear consolidation?

It's signs like these that keep me from fearing the recent consolidations in the wine markets.

Most of the consolidations that have occurred are larger wineries & corporations which, frankly, don't really concern the smaller wineries on a day to day basis. The photo is just one small corner of the Alexander Valley, and if that many small 'mom & pop' wineries can exist amidst all this 'globalization' and 'consolidation' then I say it doesn't matter in the long run as far as available wines and diversity of winemaking styles are concerned. Essentially smaller producers will be bought out when they feel they should sell as they're generally too small to attract much attention from the big players.

Small high-end producers will still be sought out as "jewels" for the larger corp's portfolios, and also due to their profitability (because they can command much higher prices per case than other small wineries).

And It will contiue to make a difference in market access in respect to whom distributors pay more attention to. In a scenario where mega-global-mondo wine conglomerates own almost all wineries of any decent size, and all that distributors carry are these large brands, the argument that almost everything one would see on the shelves of most supermarkets is just this 'common' wine is probably valid. But with the opening of more market access via the direct shipping campaigns, winery pressures to get the attention of distributors would start to subside in the near future. Also, smaller wine shops and importers probably wouldn't be affected by those conglomerations to any significant level, since quite a bit of their offerings aren't carried by distributors anyway.

Certainly the argument could be made (& I'll make it here and now) that any supermarket wine/liquor manager would still be able to seek those small production wines out - should they desire to - if the changes of direct shipping laws continue to be favorable ones. There would also be quite an opportunity to open more niche distributorships carrying those smaller brands bundled together - though it wouldn't have the same clout a larger distributor would in demanding shelf space, or with other "requests" that might limit stores carrying other wines.

So here's the question - does it really matter if there's consolidation if it's mostly larger wineries that were making less "distinctive" wines already? There's sure to be some smaller and mid-size wineries caught up in the scramble but they would be ones that were looking to sell either because they wanted to get out of the business, had money problems, or experienced other stresses.

If in the end, the entirety of California's Central & San Joaquin Valley producers formed a single company making an average wine of all of them, would anything really change in that scenario (think 'mega-Bronco Wine Company')?

Here's a few thoughts against consolidation:

  1. a distribution chokehold by larger distributors/producers would still exist, and likely get worse to some extent for other players in that same segment of the market
  2. mass marketing of 'bland' mega wine would continue (which it will anyway, provided people continue to buy it)
  3. growers would have to bend to the larger corp's desires & pricing (loss of grower clout)

But in favor I could see the following:

  1. direct shipping should allow consumers to continue getting good limited-bottling wines
  2. the process will weed out the weaker winery companies, that probably weren't going to "make it" anyway in the long run
  3. more price competition will occur, which will lower prices for the majority of consumers
  4. grower prices are too high already in some areas and need some correction (which we've seen already in this over-supply period)
  5. ma & pa producers are not really competing with large players anyway
  6. even if ma & pa could get onto a chain's shelves, they might not have the production capacity to keep that space - so it's better for them to concentrate on other avenues anyway
  7. imports and specialty wines will still be available and prices may remain unaffected due to the fact they have different sales channels open to them

In any case the results will be interesting.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Big Box Wines Redux

My response to a post by Adam Mahler at the Untangled Vine. Adam, I would comment directly to your blog, but you've disabled comments. Normally, I wouldn't reply to another's opinion, but since Mr. Mahler has a published wine column, I felt it was important to reply to a number of misconceptions or opinions with which I disagree.

"Big Box Wine
This is a golden age for the wine consumer. There have never been so many high quality selections from every corner of the globe. Wine is getting better and more consistent. But, just like the rest of the world, the wine market is wrought with over-consolidation. The big guys keep getting bigger, and the small guys keep losing distribution. The question that everyone keeps forgetting to ask is: Is this ultimately good for the consumer?

I share this concern regarding consolidation despite my disagreement with some of your generalizations.

Let’s explore the way a grocery chain or retail chain makes wine purchase decisions. Most wine that is purchased in this country is purchased in either a grocery store or drug store..."

You're forgetting that Costco is the largest retailer of wine in the country. I wouldn't consider an outlet that sells first growths and limited Napa releases to suffer from the ills you imply. Costco does not carry the same products in all locations and actually tailors its offerings to the local markets (i.e. they don't place the first growths in the Vallejo location but do in the Marin location due to their demographic experience). Further, I find the quality of wines at Costco and Cost Plus World Market to be very good, and both are very significant players in the retail market.

".......Now let’s look at the winery’s side of the equation. The winery can decide to make the best wine possible, but production goes down, as does cases available for sale. Lower yields translate to higher quality wine grapes. "

At the $5 price point, sure, but your argument is uniformly against all mass-produced wines at all price points. Any evidence of this with, say, $10 and up wines? Does 4 tons per acre uniformly yield a better wine than 5? Any evidence of this? I've tasted wines from blocks yielding over 6 tons to the acre that were superior to wines yielding under 4. Its a gross oversimplification to reduce quality to vine yields.

"Or they can decide to make more wine, and see if it competes favorably with other wines at a certain price point. The big companies run on such small margins, that the second scenario doesn’t favor the small or medium sized guy. "

Most big guys run on 40-50% margins, its the AMP (advertising, marketing & promotion) that makes the difference as you point out below.

"...The big producers constantly sacrifice quality for quantity. This is not because they are evil, or malicious. They are doing the best they can, but at the prices that consumers are paying for grocery store wines, consumers are demanding this quality, or lack thereof. "

I don't follow. If "big conglomerate winery" makes a $15 wine, is it automatically of lower quality than the $15 wine of a smaller winery? Do small wineries automatically make good/great wines? BS. I've had many positively horrid wines from small wineries. Most importantly big wineries make good wines at all price points (quality tends to rise as price rises, no matter the size of the producer). They absolutely dominate in the sub $10 category domestically, but that's not a quality issue vis a vis small wineries but rather one of scale as you point out with the national distribution issue (placements in national grocery/drug chains can't be achieved by little guys).

"These wines tend to be mediocre for the same reasons everyone wants school class sizes to remain small (trust me). When the teacher(grower)/ Student (grape) ratio is too high, the teacher has a difficult time controlling what is absorbed. Rather than teaching (growing high quality grapes) the teacher is too focused on damage control, you don’t want the students to rot, er grapes, er, you get the idea. The wine produced is always the result of the average quality of grapes. The larger the crop, the more difficult it is to keep the quality high."

Sure, for sub-$10 wines you may get some "plonk", but I don't think that this applies to all large production wines. Many large producers get scores in the high to mid 80's with lots of 100,000 cases and above (see below)! If the mid 80-scoring wines aren't good enough for you, then you're probably not shopping the supermarket for your wine anyway! Most wines are of "supermarket quality because that's what most consumers want. If consumers demand better by voting with their dollars (as they have year after year), wines will get better (as they have year after year).

"Finally, the big producers have marketing and advertising dollars to further entrench themselves in the marketplace. Small guys can’t do this. OK, so what do you do? Well, first, the only time you should ever, and I mean ever buy wine in a grocery store, is if the person who makes the wine buying decisions for that store is employed at that store. In Toledo, that means, oh, about a half dozen stores (you should be able to figure out who this is). Or, you can buy your wines in a wine shop. These aforementioned stores offer something that the big chains can’t- high quality small producers. They are able to stock whatever they like, with quality always being the most important factor. These stores rely on consumers that put quality ahead of convenience. Just remember, if a store doesn’t have someone available to answer your wine questions, you need to go somewhere that does. There’s too much great wine out there to settle for mediocrity!"

Agreed, mediocre wine makes life not worth living whether from your neighbor's backyard, a 2,000 case producer or a "mega winery" - but let me offer some brands and products from big producers and you tell me why they are inferior....

Acacia 2002 Pinot Noir Carneros 90 points (WS) 20,400 cases
Chalone 2001 Chardonnay 88 points (WS) 26,000 cases
Estancia 2002 Cabernet 87 points (WS) 150,000 cases
Yellow tail (gasp! the devil!) 2003 Shiraz 85 points (WS) 1.9 million cases!!!
Rosemount 2002 Shiraz (SE Australia) 88 points (WS) 1.09 million cases!!!
Edna Valley Chardonnay 2000 89 points (WS) 143,000 cases
Robert Mondavi Cabernet Reserve 1999 94 points (WS) 20,000 cases at $125 per bottle!
La Crema Chardonnay 2001 88 points (WS) 50,000 cases
Bogle Petite Syrah 2001 87 points (WS) 75,000 cases
Blackstone Chardonnay 2003 86 points (WS) 100,000 cases
Geyser Peak Sauvignon Blanc 2003 85 points (WS) 75,000 cases
Fetzer Sauvignon Blanc 2002 85 points (WS) 596,000 cases
Smoking Loon 2003 Chardonnay 85 points (WS) 35,000 cases (Best Value)
Kendall-Jackson 2003 Chardonnay Grand Res 88 points (WS) 50,000 cases
Camelot 1996 Chardonnay 91 points (WS) 62,000 cases (Spectator Selection)
Bonny Doon Big House Red 150,000+ cases
Bonny Doon Pacific Rim Riesling 75,000+ cases
etc. etc.

I don't think we need to throw the baby out with the bathwater just yet, there's good (and bad) from wineries of all sizes. You might think me an apologist for the big guys. I'm not. I buy good wines that I like, no matter who produced them (although there are some wineries (both big and small) whom I dislike and avoid). I encourage others to do the same.

Monday, August 01, 2005

TTB fingerprinting

The Press Democrat (Santa Rosa, Ca) yesterday had a couple of nice articles about the TTB's efforts to use modern trace metal & minerals analysis to fingerprint wine for it's origins.

See these links to the two articles :

Tests baffle Healdsburg winemakers
TTB test for wine’s origin & composition

Good news for those who question the integrity of winemakers! Perhaps now the US Gov’t will be testing wines and notifying winemakers when they think they need more investigation. That should add quite a bit of ammunition to their cases where fraud has been perpetrated.

Only a small sampling (~35 wines) have been tested, though the above graph from the articles shows some very promising results. Certainly the information's not complete enough to pinpoint which individual vineyard a wine came from - at least not yet...but given time I imagine that might become the case. A final question remains the cost of the testing, and the need.

Just how rampant do people think fraud is?

My first thought is that this new testing data can be used by the industry to bolster consumer confidence. Have your wine tested voluntarily, and showcase the results. But that assumes that consumers have some serious and large-scale doubts, which I don't think they do on the whole...
And accuracy needs to be improved as well - right now, the amount of data TTB has accumulated is too small to really be the defining factor in saying whether a wine's a fraud or not.