Monday, October 20, 2014

Offer Samples Instead of Saying No

A post with links to multiple wine articles appeared in my RSS feed and two of them piqued my interest. Clicking each brought up web pages of the San Francisco Chronicle and the Wall Street Journal respectively. Each one offered the headline, a sentence or two and then told me to log-in or sign-up.
It is entirely possible that signing up would be quick, easy and require only that I agree to receive emails. Perhaps there would be a need to conjure up yet another password to something I may never use again. Even less appealing would be needing to pay to access the article.
In the end, it didn’t matter. Despite wanting to read both articles the obstacle placed in front of me outweighed my desire for access. The Wall Street Journal has good articles but my lack of familiarity with the author caused me to close the window and skip the read. I know little about the San Francisco Chronicle and, although I did know the author, I do not always love what she writes.
How easy is it to let me visit as a guest and then bar me from access on a subsequent visit unless I then decide to share my contact information? I’m happy to invite you in once you demonstrate value to me but there is too much good information and great writing available for free to make demands before I make a commitment, even one as small as sharing an email address while creating an account. 

If you meet someone are you expected to provide them your contact information in order to talk to them? Of course not. (If you said yes to that, please tell me where and when you interact with new people so I can come observe this process and the hilarious reactions that will inevitably follow). You talk, you learn, you decide if you’re interested.
Wineries would be smart to remember this. Wines sell because people taste them and like them. In many cases, the first experience is free, whether by the generosity of someone who bought a bottle or through marketing efforts.
Free samples are everywhere. Taste, experience, buy-in...or don’t. The offer of food or wine to taste costs someone money every time and some moochers will never support your business. Sharing an article that has already been written and is currently available on the internet costs no one anything to share it with more people. When walls discourage potential new customers it can cost you everything.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

More counterfeiting news

The attention being paid to counterfeiting continues. Bill Koch and Rudy Kurniawan are the primary cause of the press covering fake wine and methods being used to defeat would-be shysters. See my earlier posts, herehere and here.
All of this time and effort spent discussing wine fraud probably makes people nervous. It shouldn't. This will almost assuredly never matter to almost every wine drinker. No one is bothering to counterfeit a $20 bottle of wine. This goes well beyond #FirstWorldProblems to #RichPeopleProblems. The money some people spend to acquire old, rare wine is insane. Even if you can guarantee the wine inside the bottle is actually what the label claims, you can not guarantee it will be any good. This is partly why counterfeiters get away with it. Most people have no idea how these wines taste.
I don't support the fraud in any way shape or form but it certainly has reminded big spenders that an old Latin phrase still has relevance in the digital age. Many would have done well to recall caveat emptor (let the buyer beware) earlier. Some of the fake wine sold for huge sums were from vintages before the producer ever made wine. A minimal amount of investigation would have revealed the scam.
Mark Ellwood, on Bloomberg, writes an in-depth post about even more ways to prevent criminals from ripping off rich people. Read his entire article here. Bill Koch now spends upwards of $500, in some cases, to authenticate a single bottle of wine. I've never spent that king of money on a bottle, much less to verify its provenance. Particle accelerators, laser and microchips are some of the techniques Mr. Ellwood explains in his piece.
The whole concept fascinates me and the amazing, and expensive, efforts to thwart counterfeiters are impressive but you can't stop it entirely. I will continue to read and share articles but none of this causes me to lose any sleep, my wine purchases are safe.


Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Let's Raise the Price Again, They're Still Buying!

Financial reading is dull and usually has little to do with wine, the only regular link is that they both involve my wallet. Last night, however, two articles by the same author reminded me of pricing insanity that has long been part of the wine world. 
A fund I have a small investment with apparently bought some of the stock mentioned but their decision better not have been based on either article. The analysis began by admitting the company was having trouble attracting customers but then said everything is fine because they are making more money off of fewer people. In fact, his delirium over this so infected the author he continued to say the sky was the limit. Sure, as long as people are willing to pay $1,000 a ticket and $50 for a hamburger, the sky might be the limit. 
Steve Martin did a routine about this decades ago where he calculated how much money he was making and how much he could make. Eventually he reached a high enough ticket price, assumed a five digit audience count, figured he could retire and announced, "One show and goodbye!"  
Bordeaux, Burgundy and California, among many others, are all guilty of the same backward logic. We can make more money if we just charge more! That's great until one day you realize you've pushed it too far and revenue begins a slow (if you're lucky), steady decline. At first customers might keep coming/buying but less frequently. Then lots of them will find something else to do/drink. Suddenly your loyal cash cows are grazing in someone else's field and they're not coming back.
During the wild price escalations of the late 1990s I asked a winemaker from California how some people priced their wines. He told me the in vogue method was to gather a handful of similar wines from the area and taste them blind with a wine made in house. While the tasting was technically blind, winery people tend to recognize their own product and rate it more highly then the others, almost without fail. Then they would price the "winner" higher than the other bottles on the table. This led to prices spiraling out of control with, seemingly, no end in sight. It was a nightmarish Escher print of high end grape juice.
It happens on the spirits side too. Allow me to quote Stoli Group USA's president from this article in Shanken News Daily
“We’ve successfully moved our price up to premium, which was one of our goals this year,” says Esposito, adding that Stoli’s retail price now sits at around $25-$29 a 1.75-liter and $19 a 750-ml. “Previously, we were $3-$5 a bottle below Absolut. So right now we’re moving toward that, and we’ll continue to move it up. It’s where the brand belongs, and now that the advertising is there, we have a great opportunity to justify our pricing.”
Wow, wow, wow. No mention of changing quality, just a higher price - followed by advertising to justify that increase. If I drank Stoli and read this, I would be looking for another vodka, quickly. They are far from the only ones employing this style of pricing but this is just so blatant it was impossible to ignore.
But I never thought this upside down logic would reach the financial sector. In addition to the specious argument that declining attendees and higher costs result in a sound investment the author admits there is a lot of debt and that operating expenses are rising every year. Sounds great, how do I invest? Oh wait, I am invested...bye, I've got a call to make.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Huber Heritage - an Indiana Gem

I "discovered" this winery at Vintage Indiana in 2013. Miss Wright and I tried a lot of wine that day. She had visited this farm in the past but hadn't fully explored the wines. We had a stellar tasting experience with that day, including tasting with the winemaker - always a nice treat.
Huber's is a family run operation, since 1843, with wine production coming in the late 1970s. All of the wines are estate based. The winemaker admitted that sometimes they run short on fruit due to you-pick-'em sales but those issues are limited to non-grape-based wines like their blueberry port. If extra fruit is needed for these wines it is purchased from other Indiana farms.
The Heritage wine I purchased that day clearly wanted some time to develop in the bottle and I tried to offer that. Eventually, the temptation overtook my desire to let it age and I opened my bottle for some friends.
The bottle claims the blend in 65% cabernet sauvignon and 35% cabernet franc.
The website says 45% cabernet sauvignon, 40% cabernet franc and 15% petite verdot. I am going with the website since that specifically references the 2008 vintage. The back label does not. Plus, I'm pretty sure I tasted petite verdot...see below.

Heritage 2008 - A round dollop of oak greets the nose along with deep red and black fruits and even a little hint of mint. No green, herbal flavors, but mint, like I sometimes find in Aussie shiraz. This wasn't so pronounced that it reminded of a Thin Mint Girl Scout cookie but it was much closer to that than a mint julep or mojito. The wine fills the mouth nicely, from the roof to the tongue and is clearly rich without feeling heavy. The color is impeccable - no browning despite the age and the bright violet rim leads to an opaque purple core. Petite verdot provides great color and contributes to the fleshy texture of wines and I would be hard pressed to believe there is none in this blend. The flavors come in layers and the wine evolved while we drank it.
I continue to be amazed that they can achieve the ripeness with a grape I do not associate with the middle of the country. Cabernet franc loves the sun but thrives in cooler climates. Cabernet sauvignon, to my palate, demands sun and warmth or else it can taste of bell pepper and feel sharp, almost punishing.
While $40 (the current price, I think I paid $30) is more than I usually pay for a bottle of wine from anywhere, much less Indiana, this wine should be the calling card of Indiana wines. If you're a wine fan from Indiana, or visiting Indiana or want a distinct gift for a wine lover in your life, this would be an excellent choice.
If I was helping to develop the Indiana Wine Trail, I would be sure to include this in any tasting for high profile wine writers. This is the kind of bottle that can reshape perceptions and all of Indiana's wineries would benefit.
I look forward to visiting Huber in person and can't wait to try more of their wines.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Winery Spin Unspun

This is the first in what I envision being a series of articles taking winery PR or writing and debunking it. Being able to put a nice shine on a pile of something you might not want to step in always amazes me. This practice is particularly egregious in the wine world where far too many people are confused and the spin patrol only serves to keep them that way. 
Don't worry, this won't take long...
Diageo, a massive liquor/beer/wine company, is preparing to release a new line of wines called Woodwork. I nearly did a spit take when I read their information. 
"Diageo Chateau & Estate Wines has launched Woodwork Wines, a brand with three varietals. The wines are created using wood staves instead of barrels, which is a lower impact on the environment and allows more robust flavors, according to the company."
You can read the other few sentences here if you want.
Vintners have used wooden staves for a long time but I have never seen anyone brag about it. It saves money not the environment. Oak for barrels is mostly farmed now so no one is out cutting down old growth forests. 
Wooden staves, less expensive than actual barrels, are placed into stainless steel tanks to flavor the wines with oak (I assume they're using oak, they only say "wood"). However, when you're saving money you rarely go the extra mile of allowing the wood to age and mellow (seasoning). This means that what you have is a very raw product that will indeed result in "more robust flavors." I would view this as a potential flaw, not something to brag about, although staves are superior to wood chips and sawdust, two other inexpensive ways of getting wood flavor into wine. Still, you have to hand it to them, spinning this money-saving technique into being environmentally friendly is brilliant. Especially if you can keep a straight face.
A true barrel allows the wine to breathe and soften and develop while stainless steel tanks do not. For crisp, fruity whites that lack of oxygen contact is a bonus, preserving their freshness. Woodwork is producing chardonnay, cabernet and pinot noir, all varieties that benefit from some air. 
Bizarrely, the Diageo website has no reference to the brand and, at a different time of year, I might write this off as a prank. However, Shanken News (the industry daily from the Wine Spectator) also featured the same press information so I have to believe it's real. Perhaps they're already backpedaling and rebranding? 
Good luck to them, I won't be buying.


Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Stop the Vino Vitriol

Create an organization in pursuit of a reasonable goal and you will have enthused participants go too far. Their actions or statements will then rile up people who feel threatened or wronged and the entire undertaking can devolve into a pointless exchange of unpleasantries that pretty much misses the point entirely. The gloves come off, civilized discourse devolves into name calling and most people tune out. This is the nature of politics but it shouldn't happen over wine.
Steve Heimoff reported yesterday that James Laube wrote an editorial in Wine Spectator that "comes out swinging against Pursuit of Balance." "The Empire Strikes Back: Laube Takes on IPOB" is the title of Mr. Heimoff's piece. During the summary paragraph Mr. Heimoff says, "Jim has presented his case cogently and respectfully." I disagree. You can sort of read the article from the picture Mr. Heimoff posted but you must subscribe to the Wine Spectator to read it more easily. However, anyone can see the title, "Dim Somms." There is nothing respectful about that.
I have no skin in this game. James Laube routinely bestows rave reviews on wines that I find to be over the top. Many of his favorites are too lush and too oaky for my palate but most of these are very popular. He and I do agree on some wines. Mr. Laube's status in the wine world as well as his predilections have set him up at the opposite end of the spectrum from IPOB.
In Pursuit of Balance focuses on California chardonnay and pinot noir and desires wines where terroir appears. I like the concept but they have gotten off base as well. The entire exercise feels like a clique of cool kids promoting indie bands you've never heard of and sneering at you if you mention a band that's played on mainstream radio. It all seems a bit like work...as does drinking more than half a glass of some of Mr. Laube's choice wines.
IPOB's manifesto says nothing about alcohol levels but that has become the big point of contention. There are sommeliers who will not even taste wines above a certain level as there are people who sometimes buy because of that same elevated percentage. Mr. Laube makes a good point about alcohol levels not being absolute on wine labels. Producers in California have 1.5% to play with if the wine is actually below 14% or 1% if they tip the scales over 15%. (If you don't want to strain your eyes trying to decipher his piece on Steve Heimoff's site, read an earlier post from me that discusses this, here.)
Unfortunately, some zealots decry wines in sweeping generalizations that confuse, or anger, their customers. These fanatics are not all supporters of IPOB and this sort of vinous bullying has existed far longer than that organization. I remember a soon-to-be famous restaurant opening in New Orleans in the 1990s that refused to carry white zinfandel. The sommelier didn't consider white zin 'real wine' and planned to offer (force?) those customers to drink German riesling. Customers complained and eventually, as I recall, some white zin was available, if not actually on the wine list.
The fine balance of offering what people want and what you want them to experience is a challenging one for restaurants. I'm sure seeing a delicate dish being crushed under the ponderous weight of an over-oaked monster is frustrating to sommeliers but my 20+ years in the wine business has taught me you don't win converts by forcing them to drink the wine you want. Let them drink what they want and offer a taste of something you recommend. If/when that clicks, you will have an ambassador of you and your employer. If it never does you will still have an appreciative customer because you are offering something extra, allowing them to explore.
The wine world is large and varied and far from absolute. There is no reason to denigrate wine styles that are not your favorite, they are not foes to be vanquished. Palates change and tastes evolve. Nurture your passion, share it when appropriate, but don't try to browbeat others into joining your cult of wine.
In the meantime, wine "professionals" yelling at one another and uttering wild generalizations will not serve to enlighten anyone. I thought the idea of wine writing and education was to share insight and offer options so people could make the best choices for their palates. If no one else likes the wines I like, that's okay. I don't need confirmation of approval, in fact, it might mean more for me...and at better prices.

Friday, August 22, 2014

How Not To Learn Anything About Wine

Read junk like "How To Not Embarrass Yourself While Talking About Wine." Wine is simpler than most people believe and more nuanced than a lot of writers want to admit. You don't have to be able to score the third movement of any of Beethoven's symphonies but you should be informed that his music genre (classical) also includes the vastly different styles of Mozart and Wagner.
I am going to pick on the article linked above but have no agenda against the author, Jonathan Cristaldi. He "is the deputy editor of The SOMM Journal," and may know what he's talking about but this type of wine writing is a huge disservice to the consuming public. It seems to offer absolutes but these are few and far between in the world of wine. It is, unfortunately, becoming the norm in this short attention span world.

Let's take a look at the nine points in the article:
First, ignore the clickbait in the introductory paragraph, they lead to articles only vaguely about their link words - "wine philistine" takes us to a guide to making prison wine, for example.

1)  Don't say you'll just drink anything
Agreed. However, the simplistic notion of 'because I like this, I'll like that' will help almost no one. Black coffee drinkers won't necessarily enjoy pinot poir. A better piece of advice here would be to pay attention when you drink some wine and make a few mental notes to describe those you enjoy. "I like wines that are lighter and crisper, like New Zealand sauvignon blanc."
Also, don't hesitate to ask for a taste, whether you're at a restaurant or a party.

2) Don't guess on the grapes
The example given is of a tasting room employee trying to stump a guest. I have never seen this happen except with wine professionals where this is a fairly classic game I have always called "Stump the Chump." Mr. Cristaldi is correct that if you are confronted with this in a challenging manner you should not support the winery.
You also should not be afraid to state an opinion. This is a critical element of developing the confidence to describe what you want.

3) Don't be a grape racist
Remove the word 'grape' and I fully support this point!
"This is an immediate tip of the hat to any discerning wino who is looking to sniff out the defensive novice. Declaring war on a wine because of its color will warrant a barrage of questions and humorous jabs at your expense from any wine aficionado within earshot." 
Unfortunately, a-holes like this exist. Mr. Cristaldi paints a picture of pretentious wine nerds like sharks sniffing for blood or lions looking for a weak antelope. If you are surrounded by these people you shouldn't make up stories to cover your dislike of red or white wine you should hang out with a different crowd.
I always encourage trying new wines but at some point you can certainly surrender to liking red or white exclusively if that's what your palate wants. Pushing people into lying about why is disingenuous and also exactly the kind of bullying Jonathan decries at the end of the quote above.

4) Remember that Bordeaux is not a grape
An oddly specific reference that should also include any number of other old world locations where the place name is featured on the label, not the grapes. Burgundy, Chablis, Champagne, Brunello, Chianti, Rioja, etc. should also be mentioned. Or, if he wished to avoid a laundry list he should at least say that Bordeaux is not the only wine with this potential confusion.

5) Don't say you prefer 'dry' reds
"Eyes will roll immediately because all wine pros know that most red wine is dry." 
Yes, most red wine is dry. Yes, you should also refine your explanation since some wines are more fruity than others, giving the impression of sweetness, even though they are fermented to dryness. This is good. However, Jonathan completely ignores the growing segment of wines that are being made to be sweet, or at least off-dry. This is bad. The category is bigger than ever and I would much rather say I like dry wine and take my changes than say I like a more fruit-forward style and risk getting something sweet.

6) Know your Champagnes vs. sparkling wines
Again, he uses an implied threat, this time in the form of "an age-old lecture"and then uses "Champers" to describe champagne. No one serious enough to lecture you about describing sparkling wine as champagne would then use the word "Champers."
I will now pick on him for a pet peeve of mine, admittedly very nerdy. Champagne, the place, should be capitalized while champagne, the actual wine, should not. (Sorry about that one...I'm in therapy to let it go)
The final recommendation, to be safe and "talk about the bubbly" is good advice.

7) Don't announce an arbitrary price limit
He does admit you should "[t]alk about your ideal budget...at a bar or restaurant" so I have no quibbles with this section.

8) Don't fear the wine list
This is brilliant and the explanation that follows is perfection!

9) Quit hating on Merlot and sniffing corks
It's still okay to hate merlot (yes, small 'm' is correct). It's safer in most cases. There are still lots of merlots being made that lack any sort of character or complexity. For my palate, I need to pay a lot more to find a merlot that tastes good than I do for any other grape. Merlot is welcome in blends but not so much on it's own.
The whole cork sniffing thing ignited some controversy in the comments section - go ahead, read it, I'll wait. Mr. Cristaldi's analogy to sniffing a dog's butt to see if it's male or female is amusing but off base. We don't sniff something else on a dog to determine that either. We do use our noses to find a corked wine and I find that sniffing a cork can help remind me to pay close attention.
A cork can smell of TCA (tri-chloro-anisole, the bacteria that leads to corked wines) and still be fine. However, in most cases if the cork smells like wet cardboard you will have a problem and I routinely smell them because the amount present in the wine can be much more subtle...and therefore harder to detect.

My biggest gripe with the article is not the opinions expressed. My issues stem from these opinions being expressed as facts with no room for interpretation or presentation of other ideas. Make it an op-ed piece and it can stand alone...or post my responses as the con side.