Monday, October 31, 2005

Viansa & the Sebastiani's

Wine Family’s Broken Dream

This is yet another reason not to become consumed by your success: the local paper looking to bump up its circulation numbers when a national scandal is in the works.
That’s the only reason I can think of for the timing for this article of the troubled tale of Viansa and the Sebastiani family.

People are reading New York Times, Washington Post, and other papers looking for tidbits on the “Scooter” Libby debacle, but was this really needed? Certainly they’ve cemented the fact that they have more to offer about local color than say USA Today, but at what expense to the Sebastiani clan?

This was really too much information…

Anyway, I bring this up because of the
post (& flak I took) some months ago when I stated that Viansa hadn’t been doing well for a few years. I felt I defended my comments fairly well then, but here it is all out in the open. As one comment went:
JD said... "As for Viansa, it hasn't been profitable for years"
There's the proof: ignorance plus arrogance = huge j on the wine business

I usually refrain from the “I told you so”, but I can’t resist. Sorry “JD”….

From the article [see link above for the whole thing]:

"Viansa was built on marriage, the marriage of Sam and Vicki, the marriage of wine and food, the marriage of California and Italy, and the marriage of Napa and Sonoma," Vicki Sebastiani said.

The new winery was built as a tourist destination to showcase Italian-style California wines and Italian food in a marketplace setting.

And the couple, aware that Italian varietal wines like nebbiolo and dolcetto would have difficulty getting attention from the dwindling number of national distributors, decided to sell wines directly to consumers.

That made Viansa Winery & Italian Marketplace, with its large retail store at the southern entrance to the Sonoma Valley, reliant upon busloads of tourists. When the tourists stayed home after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2001, Viansa's revenues plummeted. The economic downturn also kept people away from Viansa's higher-priced wines as consumers flocked to cheaper products.

These forces impacted more than just the winery's bottom line. They also exposed rifts among family members that would soon affect its leadership.

To combat flagging sales, the three Sebastiani sons involved in the winery at that point - Jonathan, the president, Michael, the winemaker, and Joe, the manager of the 172-acre property's wetlands and olive grove - hit the road.

The trips, which they called Viaggi, or travels, involved the young Sebastianis hosting dinners, receptions, barrel samplings and parties for the winery's Tuscan Club members around the country… Midway through 2002, the tourists had yet to return in large numbers and the turnaround plan clearly was not working, leading to a summer of crisis for the family.

"It was just like a submarine going too deep. You heard the rivets starting to squeak," said Sam Sebastiani, who talked in a series of interviews about the events that led to Viansa's sale.

Not good.
Even worse though to have all this laundry out in public.

Good luck to them

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Constellation & Vincor - "Let's Get Ready to Rumbllllle"

If you've been following the action with Vincor lately, you know that they've been on Constellation's radar screen after first receiving a friendly offer (which was rejected) and now a formal hostile takeover at (C$31 per share) has been initiated. Vincor claims to be insulted by the offer, which expires in less than a month, and in late September, announced an auction process that would generate higher value and they announced on September 30th that they would name potential suitors the following week. Well, its been three weeks now and no suitors have been mentioned or even legitimately rumored, and they won't be either. On Monday, Vincor issued a letter to its shareholders asking them not to tender their shares to Constellation until the board gets back to them. This is merely at attempt to buy time, sort of like asking the passengers on the Titanic to see if the hole in the boat can be patched before they board the lifeboats.

What has happened is not surprising. Nobody is willing to pay the prices that Constellation is paying for wine companies (whether paying these will ultimately work for Constellation is the subject of a future post) and its not likely there will be any other suitors.

So now, Vincor is forced to try to extract greater value from its company and Constellation is not only sticking to its guns, but doing a stellar job of drilling Vincor in the press at every turn.

Richard Sands has recently said "There’s no reason to sweeten the bid, our bid is very sweet. If circumstances change, and there was a competing bid, we would evaluate any information that was available and make a decision at that time." - translated "We're not paying anything more than we have to, but we'll pay more if there is another bidder"

Sands also said "If before the expiration of our offer, no one shows up with an alternative and Vincor can’t bring certainty to some set of prospect, then the shareholder will be facing, 'do we take $31 in cash, or do we let the stock drop to the low $20s?'" - Brutal!

Also "Basically they’re throwing a party and they’re concerned no one’s coming.” - regarding other bidders.

Kudos to Vincor for not going down without a fight, but go down they will. The only thing that remains to be seen is, will CEO Don Triggs be remembered as the Ted Hall of Vincor?

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Rain's here, game over...

Autumn in earnest [Press Democrat]

My harvest is over. All the vines I was looking to get fruit from were picked by the middle of last week.

It’s been raining since ~10 PM last night. Very lightly, but raining none the less. There is still Cab hanging out in the Alexander Valley, and through Knight’s Valley to Calistoga & St. Helena that I know of…
It’s not raining hard enough to hurt the fruit directly, but could dilute the sugar levels slightly. And with the forecast calling for continued cool & somewhat overcast weather, the biggest danger now is mold. Sunday's warmer weather probably won't be enough to keep it in check, but may allow some vineyards to go "late harvest" with botrytis if cool and not too moist in the next few weeks. Three days in the 70's just won't be enough. For the thick-skinned reds there's still time to act. For other varieties, well, as they say "game over"...

Certainly there has been plenty of opportunity for mold spores and botrytis to establish themselves in the vineyards this year. The turn in the weather will give them the chance to really start taking over – and it’s far too late now to apply sulfur.

This should really mark the end of the season. I'm putting the tractor back in the shed.

Doppler radar for this moment:

Tuesday, October 25, 2005


Its a word you hear in the industry once in a while - "Inglenooking" or "Inglenooked". It refers to the history of the Inglenook brand, once one of the most famous wines from Napa and made at the Niebaum estate (now owned by Francis Ford Coppolla) and now produced as a jug wine by Constellation with no ties to its rich heritage. The 1941 Inglenook was given a (retroactive) score of 100 by Wine Spectator, but how did this once noble brand enter the lower realms of the supermarket shelf?

Simple, corporate greed. In an attempt to capitalize on the Inglenook brand name, its owners, Heublein, decided to launch lower-priced California-appellation wines under the Inglenook label. Unfortunately, due to colossal mismanagement, the wines at the low end became synonymous with Inglenook rather than the high-end Napa bottlings (arguably Mondavi did the same thing by putting Robert's name on the Woodbridge label). Ultimately, the Napa ties were severed and whole generations of consumers have sadly only known Inglenook as a plonk brand.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Night pick

My harvest is over now.
Well…at least the part where I’m out in the vineyards brining in the grapes. The wine’s still being fermented, and that part won’t be completed for another month or two.

My final night pick was last week, early Wednesday morning to be exact. Conditions were perfect. Earlier in the night the moon was out & full, with some maritime layer clouds floating across to form a low ceiling which silenced everything but the most ardent crickets. The air temperature was 57°F, and dew point was 55°F. That overcast layer was going to keep it just warm enough for the fruit to remain dry, and I could begin picking.

It’s a shock when the alarm first goes off for me to get up, usually I’m quietly swearing to myself about the idiot who set that alarm (yes, that would be me) while trying not to awaken Mrs. Johnson by stumbling over a chair, or shoes, or what-have-you while getting dressed in the dark. After I’ve made it into the kitchen and a pot of coffee is underway, things begin to brighten up a bit while I mentally go over my plan of attack: what end of the vineyard I’d wanted to start at, which rows should be picked separately, where the neighbors houses were (this is important!), whom among them might be awake at this hour of the morning, where the trucks were that would haul the fruit to the wineries, how many of the pickers would/wouldn’t be on time, if all the needed gates are open, picking bins on site, trucks fueled up, etc. For the record, I’ve set all this down in my mind or attended to each of these long before that cup of coffee, but it’s always best to recall the details & step through what I want to do just prior to going out…

After the coffee I’m heading out of the house. I grab a thermos and fill it for later in the morning, then hop in the car.

It’s really odd. In the last forty to fifty years this county’s seen all sorts of growth. Some days you’d almost think you were in the South San Francisco with all the traffic, and how houses have sprung up on the ridges and hillsides all around. But not at 2 AM. The place is forsaken by all in favor of sleep… it's quite lovely in it's lonliness...

It’s not a matter of being misanthropic, on the contrary I’m quite gregarious. But it all becomes clear to me when I’m out in the vineyards in those early mornings – especially when the overcast layer is hanging above us. The silence out here is nearly deafening. Most houses are totally dark. Maybe one or two cars cross you path while you drive, either they’re others with missions like yours or some unlucky sots who have to commute to the city every day.

And so you arrive in your secluded vineyard site, with the crickets, frogs, and occasional owl flying over you - and your thermos of coffee. Time to have a second cup while I look over the equipment that’s staged for this little show of ours.

Nobody’s there yet, and that’s not a problem – I routinely show up 45 min to an hour early to make sure everything’s where it should be. When I’m satisfied, I can start to relax and really take in the vineyards at night. The soft light reflected off the clouds hanging overhead casts a somewhat eerie effect, but I’m not about to turn on the work lights until absolutely needed.

The silence is gorgeous! Nothing but Nature to be heard…
Yes there’s the occasional car on the road near the vineyard, but it’s probably those poor commuters trying to make good time into SF.

The screech of an owl, soft crickets chirping, and a few obsessed frogs in the small creek off to the left of the vineyard. Otherwise nothing.

Everyone else would be arriving soon, and I revel in my last opportunity to soak up the solitude.

Eventually, a few cars are approaching. The pickers are arriving, followed by the drivers to haul the fruit, etc. I get myself ready for the interlopers of my silent vigil, say a short prayer that everyone remains safe and sound, climb onto the tractor, insert the key, and break the spell by turning over the engine…

…and see the first light at a neighbor’s house go on…

Thursday, October 20, 2005

The Real Impact of a Big Crop

Okay, so California is going to see a record crop. That's good, particularly if you have a brand that subsists on bulk wine supply (which was dwindling pre-harvest). Its bad if you are a grower (spot-market prices have plummeted to, in some cases, "no thanks at any" price) or a long-term player like a bricks-and-mortar winery that buys from outside vineyards.

Why? Well the problem is that once the oversupply started (2001-2002), the market over-reacted, prices fell, wineries stopped giving contracts to grape growers and growers therefore stopped planting grapes. Now in late 2005, with a big harvest coming in, wineries won't be looking to contract for new plantings (they're notoriously short-sighted) and with a normal harvest in 2006 we'll be quickly in short supply with no new plantings on the horizon until 2009/2010 (grapes typically take 3-4 years to reach fruit production).

Ultimately, this will mean a tightening of supply, a slow death for negotiant brands (like Castle Rock), and a gradual return to higher prices. There will still be some value brands ($2 Chuck is largely supplied by Fred Franzia's own grapes and will go on for some time), but ultimately, there will be fewer values and upward pressure on bottle prices as grape prices rise from tighter supply and continued demand. This will likely give more fuel to cheap imports (Chile, Spain, Australia, Argentina, what's left of France by then, and don't forget China) and, depending on where the US dollar goes, could have significant long-term impacts on the California wine industry until we can get more vines in the ground.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Oh baby! Arson…!

This is bigger than Falcon Crest, or “Who shot JR?” on Dallas as far as soap-operas are concerned. Multiple suspects, multiple motives…

Wine warehouse fire was arson, police say
Court records show business was mired in partnership feud

Man, oh man, what a catastrophe for the innocent businesses & wine collectors who had bottles in there. If it’s true, the person who set this blaze will gain an instant infamy – perhaps only second in notoriety and severity to murder.

No suspects have been named, and police would not say how the fire was started, nor would they speculate on a motive.

"Right now there are several persons, or people, of interest," said Lt. Lori A. Lee of the Vallejo Police Department.

"It could be dozens, anyone from employees to those who are tenants or have ownership interests, or vintners who are storing their wine there."

Lee said police and fire officials have been deluged with tips, rumors, and innuendo about who had a motive to start the fire.

"It's still premature to say that anyone has been cleared," Lee said. "It's an open investigation. We have investigators filtering out in a number of directions."

I’d hate to be in that guy’s (or gal’s) shoes when they get caught, and odds are, they will get caught.

Monday, October 17, 2005

"Authentic" wines

"Well, it's the real article ... genuine double-rectified busthead, aged in the keg."
John Wayne as "Rooster" Cogburn in
True Grit

Authentic. Real. Genuine. True. Established. Unadulterated. Bona fide.

The claims recently for authenticity in wine are interesting ones, one part demand from consumers for assurances on how their wines are made, and one part holdover from the esoteric religious movements from the mid 1800's to early 1900's.

That seems like an odd combination, doesn't it? While doing my source reading for this post I came across some rather interesting items, some of which I had suspected, others that were quite new to me.

Yes, during the end of the Enlightenment and all the way to today, there are calls for a "return to nature" - a rejection of technology in favor of primitivism and intuition. It hasn't really cropped up in the wine world until the last 25 years or so - that is, until the first true large scale multinational wine companies started to emerge. It was at that time that people started to wonder about the "industrialization" of wine. Here is a product which has always been touted as magical and unique (wine as "art", and terroir concepts), what arrogance that humans could debase such an expression of Nature by twisting it to their whims? Winemakers are solely to use "intuition" in their pursuit of fine wine, aren't they?. I don't think the image of a collision of Man, Nature and Wine is realistic. As a friend of mine once stated flatly-
"Nature doesn't make wine. Nature makes vinegar. Only by interfering with the natural process do we stop it at the stage of 'wine'. In fact, wine wouldn't even exist without mankind."

So if Man needs to be present for wine to exist, is there any wine which is truly "natural" wine? Some interference of one sort or another must take place, so is the call for "natural wine" reduced to a call for nothing added to it at all? But the friction is more complex than just that...

This perceived conflict was fueled over the 80's & 90's by the anti-establishment counter-culture, which viewed the consolidations largely as just more examples of large corporations destroying competition in pusuit of nothing more than increased profits. In that world view, human industry is reduced to an extension of the ego, and is never altruistic. Larger companies which make items that were universally viewed as small artisan products were labeled as profiteers, and derided about quality - even IF their products were similar or better than the small producers. This continues to this day in films like Mondovino, and in views of winemakers like Nicolas Joly, among others. It's an easy image for small winemakers to invoke, afterall who hasn't heard the parable of David and Goliath, regardless of their religious views?

The birth of ecology was in the late 1800's, and was a reaction to the Industrial Revolution. People rightly started to wonder if mankind's incessant changes to the world were going to produce long term negative effects. Monopolies and Barons of Industry ruled the increasing rate of changes to the world. And Mankind should be concerned with the effect of its actions, and the environment should not be unnecessarily degraded for short term goals. But that doesn't mean we need to return to an idealized era before industry - an era which never really existed, in essence a Utopian agricultural society, if you will. There is no competition, money, or large scale agriculture. Services are bartered (which doesn't help you if you're a brewer and the plumber whose help you need doesn't like beer...etc.) and are somehow always traded fairly.
This place doesn't exist, in fact it's never existed.
This is just romantic idealism about the past.

Somehow these same ideals are supposed to be applied to the wine trade, with tradition - not quality - the mistress of all endeavor. Make what you will, they claim, and stand by it as "authentic"...somehow there is no need for profit, and if the public doesn't like your wine...well, they get a bit fuzzy there, don't they? The bank won't foreclose - but if they do your supporters won't think highly of them anymore (fat lot of good that'll do you while you sit on the corner begging for handouts). Your product will be acclaimed - not for its quality, but for it's uniqueness (as Joly stated, "A biodynamic wine is not always good, but it is always authentic." Joly's italics, btw).

Authenticity is only an issue when someone is trying to sell you something which it isn't.
Perhaps a $6 central valley red which was thrown into a Petrus bottle...or something simmilarly fraudulent.

Drink what you like, regardless of how it's made. That's the only true yardstick for you to use.
Evaluate with your palate, not some idealistic romance-novel views of what the world should be...

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Saturday, October 15, 2005

Foul way to wake up

And yet more stormy weather ~ Ain't that swell?

What a way to wake up last night!
Light rain in the North Bay, round 'bout 1 AM…
I fell back asleep, but when I got up again this morning there was still a light drizzle coming down. It's still there right now...

Probably not enough rain to do any direct harm, but it may drop sugars a little, and certainly will exacerbate any mold & rot that’s out there right now.

Forecast says it should be clear and windy to help dry the fruit off, though temps in the 80's would be more helpful than the 70's...
Doppler radar shows most eveything has moved through.

I hope this doesn't turn into a nightmare for those with fruit still on the vine.

Issued: October 15, 2005 03:47:06 PDT

Today: Partly cloudy with a chance of showers. Highs in the upper 50s along the coast to mid 70s inland. Northwest winds 5 to 10 mph increasing to 15 to 25 mph in the afternoon.

Tonight: Partly cloudy. Windy. Lows in the 40s to mid 50s. Northwest winds 15 to 30 mph...decreasing near the coast and in the valleys overnight. In the hills north winds 15 to 30 mph with gusts to 40 mph.

Sunday: Partly cloudy. Windy in the hills. Highs in the 60s near the coast to upper 70s inland. Northeast winds 15 to 30 mph in the hills with locally higher gusts in the morning. At lower elevations...northeast winds 5 to 15 mph.

Sunday night: Partly cloudy. Lows in the 40s to upper 50s. Northeast winds 5 to 15 mph.

Monday: Mostly sunny. Highs in the 60s along the coast to lower 80s inland. Northeast winds 5 to 10 mph..becoming northwest in the afternoon..
(From the NWS, SF-Monterey offices)

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Go Jancis!

If you missed this article in the SF Chron or at Fermentations, be sure you read it. Among Jancis' gems:

"It is not just small, homespun operations that disprove this myth about "industrial" New World wine. There could hardly be better-funded wineries than Napa Valley cult winemakers Araujo Estate Wines and Harlan Estate, yet here every bit as much effort is put into refining every detail of vine growing and winemaking as at France's first growths - perhaps more, because they don't have a centuries-old track record to fall back on. I am not the only wine traveler to feel that there is no one in the wine world more meticulous than California's top vintners, with their precision viticulture, yield monitors in their vineyards and the most expensive oak barrels in the world in their cellars.

So, all this anti-New World stuff is without doubt a slur on the current reality. Of course there are wine producers more industrial than those described above, in Australia and California in particular. But the reason the French resent the likes of Constellation Brands, Hardys, E. & J. Gallo Winery and Yellow Tail is that they are much more successful at branding and marketing than their large French counterparts, such as Les Grands Chais de France, Les Vignerons du Val d'Orbieu, Domaine du Castel and the Bordeaux negociants.

I am concerned about the prevailing myth about French wine producers being much more "pure," noble and artisanal than their New World counterparts not just because it is inaccurate. As one who loves French wine, I am worried that this sort of inaccuracy will encourage the average mediocre vigneron (grape grower/winemaker) in France to believe there is no need to make any effort to improve the quality of what he or she produces. It is enough, according to this myth, simply to be French. (emphasis added- HJ)

Well said. Can we finally get past the concept that just because a wine is made by a small producer or a French producer (or better yet - small and French!!!) that it must be good?

Friday, October 07, 2005

Yes...tradition sucks...

This in an email from Al who is commenting about the French lawmaker's quip that they've been making wine since the Romans-

...who didn't find the Gauls all that attractive in their drinking habits (not that the Romans didn't have their problems with drinking either). Generally the Romans diluted their wine before drinking, and actually, the Gauls preferred beer to wine until the Roman culture brought them around.
I recall that Herodotus (or was it Tacitus?) mentioned how the Gauls would get truly wasted on beer, and how that repulsed him. Of course the Romans thought that the gassiness of beer and belching produced by it was unhealthy, too. This contributed to the view that the Gallic culture was utterly barbaric.

And on one of the ways they made their wine (a 'methode traditional', eh?) -

Cato wrote (circa 150 BC) about how to make Coan wine, which was apparently a favorite;
"CXII. Recipe for Coan wine: Take sea-water at a distance from the shore, where fresh water does not come, when the sea is calm and the wind is not blowing, seventy days before vintage. After taking it from the sea, pour into a jar, filling it not fully, but to within five quadrantals {amphorae, ~32 galllons total?} of the top. Cover the jar, leaving a space for air, and thirty days later pour it slowly and carefully into another jar, leaving the sediment in the bottom. Twenty days later pour in the same way into a third jar, and leave until vintage. Allow the grapes from which you intend to make the Coan wine to remain on the vine, let them ripen throughly, and pick them when they have dried after a rain. Place them in the sun for two days, or in the open for three days, unless it is raining, in which case put them under cover in baskets; clear out any berries which have rotted. Then take the above-mentioned sea-water and pour 10 quadrantals {~60 gallons?} into a jar holding 50 {~300 gallons vat?}; then pick the berries of ordinary grapes into the jar until you have filled it. Press the berries with the hand so that they may soak in the sea-water. When the jar is full, cover it, leaving space for air, and three days later remove the grapes from the jar, tread out in the pressing-room, and store the wine in jars which have been washed clean and dried."
Yum! Nice hints of salt and kippers with every sip!

Okay...not the type of thing I'd be interested in.

And it does make you wonder about the value of 'tradition' it really all that great?
Apparently not all the time. So while arguments can be made that a tradition exists, obviously those individual traditions need to be evaluated one-by-one to make sure we aren't just following along the wrong path just because our forebears didn't know better.
(Something I mentioned in my Tradition Sometimes Sucks post...)

(Say Al, you might want to lighten up your reading list, too...)

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

A Mid-Harvest Night's Dream

Most of the vineyards that I'm concerned with have picked now.
I still have some Zin and Cabernet to contend with, but that won't be for another 2~3 weeks at this rate.
(Yawn!) time to start sleeping in again...until 5:30 AM instead of having to wake up at 2:30 or 3:00.

Most vineyards are starting to show signs of stress, with a few leaves starting to drop, and lots of fall color, so the end of the harvest can't be too far off...

My expectations for this harvest are upbeat: mold and rot haven't played any significant role where I've been, and the weather looks like it will hold for the Cab and the other late pick vineyards to mature - even though it may be cooler than it needs to be. Flavors are quite nicely concentrated, and there really hasn't been much dehydration for the most part.

The fact that we've had a long cool growing season has made for less dehydration, even in the dry-farmed vineyards...something which will take a little steam out of the grape growers argument in the "hang time" issue. The next issue of that debate is scheduled for about a month from now on November 10th. I don't think the issue is going away, just that this year didn't have the same pressures as the last few. In fact, the spot market for grapes has become even tougher as many vineyards are heavier than they were last year, and there seems to be a lot of juice out there this year. Just about everybody is scrambling for extra room for these "extra tons" as some of my friends refer to them...

But let's get back to the "hang time" issue.
Enter ETS Laboratories in St. Helena. They now offer a test for "Grape Moisture Content".
Think anyone will pay the $40 for this service?
Oh yeah...every grower who's ever thought that a winery was gouging them will be getting this done. I'm a little wary of this myself, not because I don't think it's informative or perhaps useful - but I wonder if it means the same thing to everyone.

Is there enough data gathered to make some realistic decisions regarding what or if something's amiss. It might be used by either side to argue their point, without providing any clarity to the issue at all, except in extreme situations. Otherwise the question will still remain - when and what levels will need further compensation for the growers?..

The dream I had that started the title of this post? Grapes you're thinking, maybe you'll guess money or payment...


But not until after the grapes come in. Until then it's just a dream...

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Funny What You Catch if You Pay Attention

So last week, Opus One announces that it will not only retain its independence, but that it's partners, Baron Phillippe de Rothschild (BPdR) and Constellation Brands(CB) (by way of their acquisition of Robert Mondavi Corp) will stay as 50/50 partners and go on happily ever after.

Then, last Friday, a
press release was issued that, on the surface, seems totally unrelated to the above story. The companies involved, however, are BPdR and CB yet there is no mention anywhere in the release about their partnership in Opus One, it instead implies that this is simply an import agreement where CB will take on Mouton Cadet, the new line extensions of Blanc and Rouge, the Chilean brand, Escudo Rojo and several others.

I imagine that the negotiations over Opus One went something along the lines of this:

Baroness: "We thought we were paired with the blue bloods of the Napa Valley and now we're stuck with some New York nouveau riche hoodlums who make Wild Irish Rose?"

CB: "Hey, we own Ravenswood too! No wimpy wines!"

Baroness: "Perhaps if you will import and sell the vast array of wines we have from our less successful brands, then we could see our way to staying partners with you in Opus One, provided that none of you show up to any of the events"

CB: "Never met a label we couldn't cram down a distributor's throat! Deal!"