Sunday, April 29, 2012

How Does a Brand Taste?

Writing about size of production recently reminded me of interactions with larger producers compared to smaller operations.  Big is not inherently bad.  Big can streamline and take advantage of economies of scale, therefore bringing incredible value to the market.  Big works beautifully for assembly lines and products that are the same every time.  However, big does not react well to change and big does not equate with uniqueness.
My interactions with wineries producing large volumes has been unimpressive.  New wines are referred to as line extensions and their justification arises from market positioning, not exciting new vineyards or outstanding grapes.
As an example, a Shanken News Daily from March covered the "major overhaul" of an Australian producer "that includes a realignment of its product tiers, new packaging and new wine styles."  Peter Lehmann's GM, Jeff Bond had this to say: "Our first goal was to add new wines and new styles to keep the Peter Lehmann brand relevant."  He goes on to mention "restructur[ing] the brand family into tiers that are more defined by customer and channel" and "enhanc[ing] the packaging to deliver a stronger link."
Notice that no mention of taste appears.  This is why I avoid most wines available in grocery outlets everywhere.  The goal here is not to pick on Peter Lehmann wines but to point out the complete lack of attention paid to the actual wine by too many large-scale producers.  They are enhancing the packaging, not the liquid within.
Perhaps an analogy will help.  When I choose to go see a concert, I do so based on the music of the band performing, not based on how they dress or what merchandise they offer.  I want real music, even if sometimes that means a song that sounds off.  For me, lip-syncing has no place in concerts, no matter the flashy stage show.  You decide where your tastes lie.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

A Few Thoughts on Size

My last post about Australia reminded me how difficult it is for me to recommend wines readily available in grocery stores around the country.  After reading a couple of Shanken News Daily editions I could actually put it in numbers.  Marvin Shanken runs Wine Spectator, among a number of other publications, and his Shanken News Daily focuses on trade news, generally on the larger, corporate producers/distributors.
Two posts caught my attention.
1) E J Gallo now has long-term contracts covering 90,000 acres of grapes, with 10,000 more coming on board in the next few years.  For comparison, Napa Valley's entire planted acreage (according to Napanow.com) is just over 45,000.  One winery, albeit an insanely large one, controls twice the amount of vineyards of Napa Valley. 
Let's put that size in perspective.  Gallo controls 140 square miles(!) of vineyards, and will control 156 once the other 10,000 acres are added.  According to Wikipedia, Philadelphia, PA covers 142.7, Raleigh, NC covers 144, Portland, OR covers 142, Las Vegas covers 136 and Denver 154.
2) Another item from Shanken Announced the release of Yellow Tail's Moscato, perhaps the hottest grape around at the moment.  The article said the  wine "was expected to reach" 800,000 cases which would account for approximately 10% of total brand volume.  10%!?!  That means they produce 8,000,000 cases of wine.  That's 96,000,000 bottles of wine or about 5 million short of being able to provide a bottle to every single person living in the states of Florida, Texas, New York and California.  If we remove underage residents, I'm sure Yellow Tail could cover all those states and then some. 

I was talking with some people last night about why I don't eat at fast food restaurants very often and I realized that while they are convenient I just don't like the food very much.  It tastes processed and fake and leaves me less healthy and unsatisfied - a terrible combination.  Assembly line wines leave me cold as well.  Unique does not guarantee enjoyment but I'm bored by generic, safe choices.  Give me a random roadside diner any day over predictable branded food. 
Can't resist mentioning pink slime too...

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Last Word on Australia

The Aussie education took me much longer than I ever expected...but I will endeavor to continue with other regions in a more timely fashion. As I read back through my perspective on Australia it occurred to me that while I noted some exciting wines, the most important step might be missing for some readers.
Should people make the step up to many of the wines recommended in the series? Absolutely! Will they? Many will but many others have been so turned off by Aussie wines that some middle point must be reached.
With that in mind, here are a few thoughts about reliable wines at very reasonable prices:
Avoid Yellowtail at all costs. If you like that wine, you are unlikely to be reading this but if you are, more power to you. If you can stomach that stuff, do so. Keep your wallet happy. For me it is unpalatable.
Lindeman's makes some solid reds and whites, the Bin 65 chardonnay, Bin 50 shiraz and Bin 55 shiraz/cabernet are the best. Stay away from the merlot - this is generally good advice across Australia. Shiraz functions as their soft, approachable red and performs much better across the board than merlot. Don't eat at American fast food if you're overseas and don't bother with wines made the same way.
Wolf Blass makes some solid value wines, although they have crept up a bit over the years. The ugly yellow label wines offer the best value, especially chardonnay, dry riesling, cabernet sauvignon and shiraz/cabernet.
Penfold's, perhaps the originator of quality Australian wine for export still produces top-notch selections. There are few true bargains though. Reds are better than whites and the upper range items are much better than the less expensive. I recommend the label but can not wholeheartedly endorse the under $15 options. The Bin 389 cabernet/shiraz is outstanding, but also around $25.
To my palate, the offerings from Oxford Landing and Yalumba are not only some of the best values coming out of Australia but also offer balance rarely seen at the value end. Oxford specializes in low-cost wines and their whites are clean and fresh, especially the sauvignon blanc. The chardonnay is well-made and on the lighter side. The viognier is by far the best inexpensive example of the grape I have seen in years. I am much less enamored of their reds.
Yalumba has a similar deft touch with viognier and whites in general. While Yalumba's portfolio can get quite expensive, and sometimes merits the price, the 'Y' Series offers the best value. Try their viognier, riesling and unwooded chardonnay on the white side. The shiraz/viognier red is the only red I can recommend until you reach the Bush Vine Grenache which is outstanding (but closer to $20 than $10).
Enjoy your explorations Down Under!