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.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Lynch Bages Face-Off

Tasting a classic like Lynch Bages 1982 once is special enough. Getting to do it three times in three months is even better. Having two of those bottles, from different cellars, at the same time felt a little like winning the wine lottery.
Heading north for a lot of the summer was part of my plan, incorporating lots of old Bordeaux into that time continues to surprise. I named the first post, A Rare Opportunity To Try Some Old Bordeaux, since it was, especially on a rooftop in Manhattan. Then the 4th of July brought out another chance to sample more of the case my father received as a gift for officiating a wedding (More Old Bordeaux with Family). A trip to Massachusetts to visit family created A Very Happy Surprise when we opened a Chateau Latour 1955...and another when we discovered it was in amazing condition. I felt spoiled and lucky and the tastings felt a little less rare, though excitement always builds when trying old wine.
Then came August. My time up north was winding down. My Uncle Jim brought up a treat from his cellar and we made plans to taste. When he told us it was a Lynch Bages 1982, Dad smiled. He had one of those as well. So, we stood them up and pulled the corks the next day. 
One came out cleanly, the other crumbled a bit. No major mess of cork bits in the bottle, and we skipped decanting.
I swear by giving young wines a chance to breathe and rarely decant old wines for fear of them falling apart too quickly. Stand older bottles up a day or two before opening and pour carefully. Unless you have an outrageous amount of sediment you won't have any issues until the very end of the bottle. Never filter wine if you can avoid it (more on that in another post).
My father's bottle was a gift, so we did not know when it was purchased, or where, or whether it moved around during its life. Jim's bottle had been in his cellar, unmoved before coming to Maine this year. The price tag was still on the bottle. Price and date are clear and easy to read.

His bottle had a better fill, clearly lower than when bottled but nothing to worry about. The wedding gift wine was just below the neck (almost exactly like the one from June). We started with the wedding bottle, thinking Jim's would turn out to be superior and we could have it second. 
Lynch Bages 1982 - Wedding gift - I recognized a lot of the same things from the first bottle we had in June (in case you don't want to scroll to the top, click here). The wine was soft, lush and long with that old Bordeaux brick aroma and impressive color. The core of red was a gradual fade to the edge of brown.
Cedar, some earth notes and a distinct whiff of fresh cellar dominated the nose. I did not get so much of the brown sugar or the iodine that appeared in the previous wine but this one exhibited more palate feel. I noticed subtle fruit but mostly the aromas echoed their presence. There was a dirt element and it was not quite chewy but tannin was noticeable. I could feel almost a clay note on the palate. Again, the sense of a bit of a hollow note appeared about halfway through the finish but it was thoroughly enjoyable and only became less so in comparison to the other bottle.
Lynch Bages 1982 - Jim's - The core of red was immediately noticeable and more pronounced. The first showed a more consistent color throughout, but this red was vibrant and differed more dramatically to the slightly orange edge. (The pictures hardly to it justice).
It also was lush and soft and long on the finish but had more happening. There was still that exciting edge of liveliness and acidity that I treasure in wine. The first began to fade, where this one filled out nicely and got much plumper in the middle and finish with about 15 minutes open. It even showed some spicy character that I associate with minerality, almost like what I expect from a Graves wine. Tannin was present but very subtle. What dominated was dark red fruits and that amazing zing of minerality and wet gravel that did not appear in the other bottle at all. The clay note I found this time around appeared here too but it was fresher and more appealing than the somewhat dirty (again, only in comparison) version of dirt/clay in the wedding gift wine.
We were all very happy and the order was correct. Returning to the first made it seem dull and lacking. The bottles emptied quickly and then we moved on to a 1997 Brunello with dinner. The first few tastes of this was very disappointing after our high water mark of the Lynch Bages face-off.
We all won in that contest...

Thursday, August 14, 2014

A Tale of Ancient Counterfeiting and Is Fraud Changing Today's Wine Culture?

Wine counterfeiting continues to dominate the news, at least in the wine world. The whole Rudy Kurniawan thing has captured much more attention than anything since the bottle of Chateau Lafitte purchased by a member of the Forbes family that was supposed to have come from Thomas Jefferson's cellar. (See some of my earlier posts, Wine Fraud and Lessons for You and More on Counterfeiting and Foiling Counterfeiters).
Even I was shocked to see this post by Steve Heimoff about a writing from Cato the Elder on how to make grapes taste similar to a more specific and (I assume) better wine. Although this seems less like counterfeiting and more like trying to make a Philly Cheesesteak or Shrimp Po-Boy in a place they are not native, it does seem to be on a large enough scale that perhaps there were nefarious goals.
At any rate, the problem has existed for a long, long time and is unlikely to disappear while insane premiums are being paid for select bottles.
The other article that caught my eye today was about the effect this publicity has had on some people's impression of the wine world. I have always enjoyed tasting older wine and share my experiences here often because they are unique and maybe you have an old wine you should drink. Perhaps it's to demonstrate that while older wines are potentially rewarding, many disappoint. The takeaway, I hope, is to enjoy what you can and share with friends and family. I do not desire to brag or one up anyone.
Mike Steinberger, writing on Wine-Searcher, wrote Rudy, Fraud and Wine Snobs and it is worth a few minutes of your time. In case you don't click right away, here is a sample:
"In the wake of Kurniawan’s arrest and conviction, however, all those blowout dinners don’t seem nearly so inviting. It turns out that, really, the only thing the rest of us were missing was the opportunity to drink fake wines and to be publicly humiliated when the truth was revealed."
Great sentiment and amusing takeaway! My mantra has always been that trophy wines are for people who are unsure of themselves and have more cents than sense. A $20 wine can be twice as good as a $10 one but a $1,000 bottle of wine can not be 100 times better. So, the reward per dollar spent decreases exponentially as you climb higher and higher into the rarities market. I rarely buy Burgundy anymore but I never stopped buying Cru Beaujolais: they are reasonably priced, complex and interesting, they do not require patience and are much easier to find...Mike Steinberger echoes that sentiment.
If you do too, keep coming back for wine sanity, always available right here.