Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Wine Lists: Does Size Matter?

Yes, size matters, let's get that our of the way immediately. Having to slog through a weighty, leather-bound, encyclopedic list is far from ideal but so is perusing a wispy one-pager that leaves you crossing your fingers hoping there might be more options on the other side.
I will never forget when my family dined at Picasso in Las Vegas shortly after it opened in 1998. The Bellagio-based restaurant features actual Picasso artwork and has a view of the fountains that help make the hotel famous. Be careful if you go, I nearly knocked a painting off the wall just taking my seat (before any alcohol was served).  It also offered (offers?) a massive wine list. Since my family always sends the list my way, I decided to take a leisurely look, hours before the reservation. Being an avowed wine geek, I wanted to find some good bottles that would make everyone happy. Even with the assistance of being able to ignore a large portion of the list due to pricing, it took me a while to make selections. I can not imagine having to do this while a crowd eagerly glanced at me and their empty glasses.
That is, at least partly, why the 'mine is bigger than yours' approach to wine lists has mostly gone the way of the dodo. Unfortunately, the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction. All too often these days I feel like I'm settling when ordering wine rather than feeling excited. At a recent dinner, the wine list offered only two Pinot Noirs. One under $50 from Oregon and one above $80 from California. Your selection is made if you have a budget and want Pinot Noir. While this simplifies things immeasurably for the diner, it makes pairing a wine with the food much more challenging. Of course you can find pleasure in drinking wines that may not match perfectly with the food but how much are you willing to spend for that experience?
I believe many casual restaurants are losing sales while congratulating themselves on holding costs and inventory in check. These establishments count on customers ordering wine even when they do not find something just right. If the wine list doesn't excite me, maybe a glass is enough. Perhaps the beer list is more interesting. Or maybe no alcohol hits the table at all. The biggest risk is that diners do not return after a disappointing visit.
Trying to find the perfect Goldilocks middle is not an easy task. Trying to satisfy wine geeks, people on a budget, people who need to show off and those who only buy brand names can quickly get out of control. Twenty wines is too little and twenty pages is too much, though I would much prefer the latter than the former. There is no right number of choices but it is quickly obvious which restaurants have dedicated buyers/sommeliers and which ones are ordering what their wholesalers recommend. The first step toward a successful wine program is to have a wine program.

If you want to read more on this subject, here are two good articles.
A great perspective from Jamie Goode, sharing a wine drinker's point of view. 
For a detailed read about this subject from a different point of view, read this longer piece from Imbibe Magazine, written by Jennifer Fiedler. She interviews a sampling of sommeliers, including Amanda Smeltz from Roberta's in Brooklyn, where they do things wonderfully differently and offer a superb selection.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Another Way to Select a Wine

People use points, recommendations, price and labels to decide which wine to buy. I rely mostly on past experience but sometimes, interviews and marketing quotes play an important role in finding brands I want to support.

Often wine discussions revolve around whether you want to buy (and drink) a corporate brand or something more independent. The approach I'm talking about today, however, is completely focused on large production wineries, no artisanal products here.
I regularly read Shanken News Daily, put out by Marvin Shanken of the Wine Spectator, because it brings me information about the business of alcohol: wine, beer and spirits. Some of my favorite reading involves interviews and discussion of expanding brands. One of my favorite quotes (featured in an earlier post, read it for more about why this struck me) is "Our first goal was to add new wines and new styles." That had nothing to do with having a great wine that didn't fit in the current portfolio but was all about feeling the need to invent to keep things fresh. That might be okay if you're rolling assembled parts off an assembly line but wine doesn't work like that. You can't just conjure quality grapes out of thin air.
Treasury Wine Estates' CEO Michael Clarke acknowledged that in another Shanken News by saying, "Mother Nature is your partner." (See the whole article here). However, he also says scalability can come from "sourcing breadth." That's marketing-speak for buying grapes for the brand that are outside of current sources. While this is not inherently concerning, perhaps the new source is next door or shares similar characteristics. It might also mean a new wine will be added to the portfolio which won't change the current offerings. In my experience, it means finding some cheap stuff to increase volume without compromising quality so much that consumers notice.
With all of that in mind, this quote is delightfully refreshing, "We're always mindful of what the next opportunity might be, but it's not part of our culture to throw out a lot of new products and see what sticks...We focus on doing what we do best." Hallelujah! That comes from Sam Bon, national sales manager for Bogle Vineyards, in an interview with Shanken News Daily. Bogle produces some really solid values that often get overlooked until you actually try them. The labels aren't flashy but the wines are well made and they produce (and sell) a lot of them. Their projections say they will sell 2.5 million cases in 2015. The Chardonnay and Petite Sirah are the best varietals offered, in my opinion, but don't be afraid to try anything they produce. When sales managers talk like that, it is good news for the brand and, ultimately, the consumer, i.e. you and me.

Add on: While binging on Breaking Bad, I found this scene which has Walter White and Jesse Pinkman celebrating a cook with a bottle of Bogle! Perhaps this is not the ideal marketing exposure for the winery but I thought it was worth this postscript.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Riedel: Plenty of Glasses, Not Enough Humor

One of my favorite wine writers is the HoseMaster of Wine. Skewering all comers with puns and fantastic plays on words, he has great insight into the world of wine and amuses me regularly. Satire and sarcasm drip from his virtual pen and no sane person would confuse these posts with actual reporting. A guest post on Tim Atkin's site poking fun of Georg Riedel and his company's insane devotion to specificity and diversity in the glassware they produce. Apparently, Mr. Riedel did not find the post funny and his legal team has delivered a threatening note to HoseMaster. How you can't find humor in someone poking fun at you when you produce 20 different cabernet/Bordeaux glasses and sell single stems for more than $150, is completely beyond me.
I have spent my time around wine helping people relax and enjoy wine while Riedel has expanded their selection exponentially, adding a level of pomposity that wine does not need. Add in the price and their propensity to shatter and it's easy to see why I no longer buy the glasses. Drink out of a tumbler, or a jelly glass or even straight out of the bottle but you don't need a varietally specific glass to enjoy the variety. Everyone likes a fine glass now and again but you can find similar products from other companies for much less money than Riedel.
I've often wondered if a serious glare would break Riedel glasses but now I wonder if a loud laugh might...Apparently they're safe in Georg's house since he seems to lack a sense of humor.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

NxNW: Good Wine, Amazing Label

At first glance, it's not a particularly eye-catching label, in fact, it almost looked like the back label had mistakenly been placed on the front. Further inspection showed that the label has more information than I had ever seen on a bottle. I hoped my reaction to the liquid inside lived up to my excitement about the details on the outside.

The bottle came to my family this summer as a gift from my cousin's boyfriend and we meant to open it while he was here but it got lost in the crowded, delightful mayhem that is our Fourth of July. It took me less than a day after returning to Maine to twist the cap and dispense the contents. 
A hint of sweet wood on the nose led to deep red and black fruits on the nose and palate. The black fruit was more dominant but didn't overwhelm the red. In fact, as the wine opened up, warm raspberries emerged on the nose. Tannin was evident, as you would expect with a cabernet sauvignon blend, but the overall impression was a great balance between lushness and firmness. The finish featured lovely notes of violets and made me want more. I hate to trot out the old "iron fist in a velvet glove" description (often used for Volnay) and it's a bit grandiose for this wine (perhaps) but it does give an adequate impression of the style. The tannins gently remind you that the wine wants food. It's kind of like a well-behaved, hungry child on a road trip...persistent but not difficult or whiny. I was happy to have a glass, grateful for the gift and interested in more!
[Note: There are at least two different versions of this wine produced from the same vintage. My bottle blend and information (pictured above) is different than the website image. Both versions might be enjoyable but I think you should be aware, just in case. More on this later.]
The wine is very good, but it's the label that really prompted me to write this. Kudos to King Estate for this innovative packaging idea. The amount of information that is provided is almost overwhelming, especially when you compare it to the dearth of detail on all too many wine bottles. They identify the vineyards, soils, blend, process and aging. Whether or not you think this is great or confusing, one should always appreciate the business that openly displays their methods. Fast food corporations would never share as much, nor would bulk wine producers. However, even high end producers don't offer all this information on the label. I applaud the effort and hope lots of other people do as well.
The information shared is less important when you produce from the same vineyard and same grapes every year but when one vintage produces two very different wines (that could legally have exactly the same label), it is nice to see the details. Too many consumers find out the hard way that the blend and sourcing changed mid-vintage when they don't like a wine as much as they did a few months ago. The percentage of merlot moved from 17 to 10 percent and one had malbec, while the other did not. 
Again, bravo to King Estate! Thank you. When you're proud of something it makes it easy to tell people about the ingredients and the sourcing. This bottle is clearly one to brag about.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Amazing New Website!

While you can find winery addresses and pull them up on a map, finding specific vineyards has been a larger challenge. Maps of AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) are readily available but usually at sites focused on that region exclusively. Everyvine is an exciting tool and I would like to take you on a brief tour. Here is the link: http://www.everyvine.com/
There is a new website featuring maps of wineries, vineyards and AVAs that is free to browse and you can even embed the maps on your website, if you choose (this can cost money). You will find only domestic wines represented but Oregon and Washington are included with California. Surprisingly, and impressively, they include West Elks region of Colorado. I would love to see them include Missouri, Virginia, Indiana and Texas (among others) as well but they are off to a good start.
Being able to zoom in and out (simply scroll within the map) on a region and toggle between a map and satellite view is amazing! Here is a map of the Willamette Valley. You can get a real picture of where the wine regions sit in relation to cities (often not included in wine-centric maps) and then you can get a glimpse of the topographical situation to help understand things. All while the region remains delineated on your screen. This is the most exciting aspect of the website to my mind.
You don't need everyvine to find a winery, finding an address and pulling it up on a map is easy. However, the vineyards are not always located next to the winery itself and it can be quite a challenge to find them on a virtual map. Everyvine does it for you, again with marked boundaries. I found the vineyard search option a bit confusing but they do appear to still be in beta, so perhaps some bugs will get corrected. When you find a vineyard, you need to click the name to get to the map. Here is the famous Shea Vineyard in Willamette Valley.
They have maps for sale as well, be sure to check out the options. This website is a wine geek's dream come true(!) and I hope they are wildly successful, eventually bringing us the entire globe.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Rettig Hill Grand Rouge - Mini Vertical

Vertical tastings, multiple vintages of the same wine, might just be my favorite way to learn about a winery. You can see vintage variation and even watch the evolution of a style. Unfortunately, I had only two vintages of this wine - as mini a vertical as you can get. However, I learned quite a few things and look forward to an opportunity to visit the winery in person.

Two years ago I attended Vintage Indiana and bought a number of bottles that impressed me. (You can see that post here). These are my last bottles from that event but I wish I had more.

When I find wines labeled estate grown anywhere, I am interested. When those wineries are located in places not California, Oregon or Washington, my inner geek gets very excited. Importing grape juice from California and bottling it in, for example, Indiana does not do anything for me. Every so often, one of those wines will be worth drinking at something close to the retail price but those instances are few and far between.
My admiration and appreciation of the dedication required to make these sorts of wine sometimes causes me to gloss over minor flaws. I freely admit to being a cheerleader for these efforts but also try to share my honest opinions.
Rettig Hill is run by Jeff Hill, an Indianapolis native who got involved in winemaking after a trip to Australia. Located in southeastern Indiana, in a town called Osgood, Rettig is producing some exciting wines but might fly below the radar, even for locals, because they are only open by appointment. If you're nervous about being expected to buy and not finding good wine, relax. If you appreciate dry wines, you'll be happy.
The Grand Rouge bottles were from 2010 and 2011. The blends were much different and so were the wines. I can not claim any great depth of knowledge about Indiana vintages so I must attribute the majority of the differences to the blend.
First, we should talk about the grapes involved: norton, villard noir and chambourcin. The first and last are fairly well known in domestic locales other than the west coast. The middle one used to be widely planted in France but I had never encountered the grape before. You can read more about the grapes on Rettig's website under "Our Grapes" (reprints of Wikipedia pages) and also a short post I wrote about norton here or in the Tastings From "Other" States section of my site.

2010 - 61% villard noir, 39% norton
There is a color change at the edge, not quite orange (a sign of more age) but clearly no longer ruby red. I smell brick, wet stone, earth and red fruit with a hint of some darker fruit and meat in the background. The palate is slightly sappy, very textural, and the wine is tasty enough. It is a bit too primary for waxing philosophical but enjoyable nonetheless. I find a hint of "pinot noir-ness" about the wine (which is hard to pin down) that is persistent. On the second day the wine tasted a little dirty and the oak became much more noticeable. There was a clear wood presence but no sweet vanilla aroma or flavor. The nose also faded. The wine was soft and easy the next day but much less interesting. Overall, a solid effort and probably at the peak of drinkability...go ahead and finish it all in one sitting if you have any.

2011 - 50% norton, 37% villard noir and 13% chambourcin
A lighter edge was visible here as well but the core was much darker. The nose was sweeter and darker and deeper and there was more texture on the front end but less of a middle. I found the same, elusive "pinot-ness" in this bottle - sorry I can't describe it better than that. On the finish a pronounced note of clay reminded me of merlot grown in Bordeaux, specifically Pomerol and St. Emilion. Vanilla does show up here on the nose. Blackberry appears as well but does not carry through on the finish. It was clearly a bigger, richer, wine than the 2010, even taking into account the difference in age. There is a delightful plummy note that carried through into the second day. The wine remained delicious, lush and pretty with the clay note continuing as well. I think the increased norton percentage made a big difference and I look forward to tasting some new vintages.

I plan on visiting soon. If you do too, be sure to reach out before you go. Use the "Contact Us" page on their website. Happy tasting, I would love to hear your reactions...

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Pay to Play

In the adult beverage world there is significant volume created through bribes. We all like to think that the beer, wine and liquor offered in our favorite bars, restaurants and retail shops are available due to their merits and am exacting selection process by the owners/staff. This is certainly true of many establishments but those with lesser standards often accept cash/trade to promote certain brands.
This practice is illegal. [If you're interested, you can read the actual wording from the Federal Alcohol Administration Act (p. 145) at the bottom of this post, I won't bore you here.] However, there is little motivation, or ability, to stop it.
Few announce the payoff loudly but most do not hide their willingness to play. I have been shaken down on numerous occasions, even in front of other sales reps in the wine section of a grocery store. "I love that wine and we'd be happy to feature it but you'll have to write us a check." Part of the payment would have gone to print the circulars where our wine(s) would be advertised. The rest was a flat out bribe. We did business with this company but never got displays or ads.
In restaurants the payola scheme guarantees a glass pour, the highest profile (and volume) option.
On the beer side, the pay to play involves draft taps, again highly visible and big volume. Sometimes a large company will simply pay enough to get a dedicated tap (or three). This gives them the decision-making power to choose what beer is available on that tap. They can then place whatever swill they need to move to reach their goals.
No small wineries or local brewers can afford to play this game, the advantage belongs to the large producers and wholesalers. Consumers have less choice and smaller players are squeezed to the margins. Short of eavesdropping on all holders of liquor licenses and solicitors permits there is little that can be done. The problem is widespread but single instances hardly merit the effort required to prevent/punish these illegal acts.
What's the big deal?, you might ask. Not everyone participates and people can still choose to ignore the more generic beverages in favor of more diverse selections. However, there is damage being done to the consuming public every day. The effects are subtle and easy to overlook. Turn your attention to chain restaurants for the best example.
No, I am not accusing all of them of pursuing pay for play - though I can attest to the insane discounts that are required to get wines placed on lists, by the glass or not. What happens, slowly and insidiously, is that as less diversity remains, the power of familiarity becomes stronger. Consumers, often intimidated by wine (and now by the huge selection of beer and spirits as well), stick with the ones they know. Familiar labels are rarely esoteric or "indie" and their ubiquity leads to more orders and, consequently, to less support for lesser-known labels.
If you doubt my premise, go drive around an area with lots of chain restaurants. Count the number of independent, local establishments. I rest my case.
Though it is impossible to determine whether any given bar, restaurant or retailer is playing the payola game, try to support those that rotate their featured beverages with labels not seen stacked in the grocery store or viewed in ads on TV.

"It is unlawful for an industry member, directly or indirectly or through an affiliate, to induce a trade buyer to purchase the industry member's products, to the complete or partial exclusion of products sold or offered for sale by other persons in interstate or foreign commerce, by offering or giving a bonus, premium, compensation, or other thing of value to any officer, employee, or representative of the trade buyer. The bonus, premium, compensation, or other thing of value need not be offered or given for the purpose of directly inducing a trade buyer to purchase from the seller, but rather is applicable if an industry member induces officers, employees or representatives of the trade buyer to promote sales of the industry member's products and thereby indirectly induces the trade buyer to purchase from the industry member."