Monday, December 21, 2015

Why Your Wine Is Priced The Way It Is

While you're decking the halls and making merry you're no doubt enjoying a sip or three. Maybe you're buying bottles of wine for gifts this year (ahem...yes, please!). Ever wonder why wine costs what it costs? Pour yourself something or, better yet, have someone else do it for you, settle in and I'll help explain it.
The best article I've seen on the matter, Breaking Down the Price of a Bottle of Wine, offers a solid perspective that you should read, including the comments (they are valuable, not rants). However, I disagree with some points and feel Mr. Colman completely missed others.
He nails the winery's desire to sell as much as they can directly to the consumer because they retain all the profit. No middlemen are involved. I once worked with a gentleman from a winery who, rather glumly, announced he had sold out for the year.
"That sounds like a success story these days, why do you sound unhappy?"
"Because nearly all of it went through distributors," he replied. "We actually lost money."
That may be a bad business model, where you sell out and don't turn a profit but it illustrates, brilliantly, the importance of direct sales.
Mr. Colman's math on distributor markup is inaccurate (based on my experience) and makes them look greedy. He shows a 75% markup for the wholesaler, based on the stated $19 cost to them and the subsequent $33 price from them. However, the FOB (freight-on-board, incorrectly written in the article as "free on board") price is the cost, per bottle, to buy the wine from the winery. Then the wine needs to travel. Temperature controlled trucks and refrigerated containers (reefers) are more expensive but much better for the wine. It's been a while since I have priced transport specifically but a safe assumption is between $1.00 and $2.00 per bottle just to get the wine to the distributor (this would include state taxes, duties, handling or consolidation charges, etc.). Factoring in even the lower end of that scale means that the markup drops to about 65%, a significant change which would be a dream for most wholesalers.
Sometimes, if your timing is good, and you buy enough, a wholesaler might hit a 50% margin, but generally, and I reiterate, this is based on my experience, the margins are 25-35%. (See comment #3 on the linked article, from Berndog, for some confirmation). Wholesale deals for volume in retail or special by-the-glass prices for restaurants means another 10% (or more) off that relatively lean figure. In Mr. Colman's article the price offered from the wholesaler would be more like $26-$28, not $33.
Then you need to account for retail and/or restaurant profits. Mr. Colman posits "that each tier will mark up the wine by 50 percent." If retailers achieved 50% markup, I would be one. I tried to be one even though the usual margin is closer to half what Mr. Colman claims. It is hard to generalize about wine because volume deals can allow bigger percentages and more ubiquitous wines might need to be priced at much lower numbers to remain competitive. While some retailers choose to price their wines as "loss leaders" to get people in the door with the hope they will buy larger margin items, like furniture, or become loyal shoppers, in grocery stores, for example. By law, in Louisiana, no one is allowed to sell alcohol below the minimum 6% markup. However, after credit card charges, that results in about 4% profit, until you consider the staff needed to stock and run the department. Typical retail on the wine in Mr. Colman's article would be $32-$38. Perhaps, if there was little coming to the market, the price might edge up a few more dollars.
Restaurants, to the surprise of no one, are a different story. First of all, restaurants traditionally employ a cost structure versus of one based on markup. Instead of taking the cost and multiplying it by 1.XX, with the Xs being the desired markup percentage, restaurants take the cost and divide it by their desired cost percentage. A $7.50 wine cost with a 35% markup is retailed at $10.12, perhaps rounded down to $9.99. A $7.50 wine cost in a program running a 35% cost would be on a list for $21.42 - rounded to $21 or $22, or, more likely, $25 or even $30 to accommodate some higher end wines being offered below their strict percentage price. The system allows for some wiggle room, usually making the lower end wines much more expensive and lowering some higher ends. The best system is when the sommelier/buyer uses his or her brain to offer some more reasonable prices on unusual wines (often that pair beautifully with the menu) while making more profit on "brand name" wines. I applaud this approach heartily but I am willing to poke around and try some wines others avoid.
Many restaurateurs cover the cost of the bottle by selling one glass, even though there are five in a bottle. This is approximately a 21% cost or more than a 400% markup.
This leads to the fantastic (and, perhaps, depressing) quote from Bo Barrett (winemaker at Chateau Montelena) in the linked article. Bo says, "In a restaurant, the person who brings the wine to the table, uncorks it, and pours it can make more in tips than we do at the winery." This is akin to the usher making more than the director. Or the valet over the car designer.
I hope this helps you understand the price on the bottle of wine you are debating about buying for the holiday gathering or Aunt Gladys.

In my next post I'll share some of the decisions that need to be made at the winery level that affect price. You will think about wine pricing differently.

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:
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."

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Prime Time Wine

Wine counterfeiting has hit a tipping point. Fox's series Backstrom hatched an entire plot around it. Rarely does wine, real or not, get this much air time and it's worth a closer look. The episode, called "Corkscrewed" can be found here.
They refer to "collector-grade wine," which made me grin because it sounds like a reference to illegal drugs, somehow making the crime more heinous. Rainn Wilson suspects, early on, something isn't exactly kosher, "How many old ladies with precious unopened bottles of wine can you possibly track down in a month? One?" He says the bottles are stolen, and then utters these words in the most menacing way they have even been uttered: "So where are you getting your wine?"
Only a minute or so later, he says "Take me to your vineyard guys," which is what I think aliens would really ask for if they knew anything about the earth before landing. No one should want to meet with leaders right away, much better to have a drink first.
The wine dealers, "keep the whole place regulated to the cellar standard of 59 degrees, it's good for the wine." There was a place in Portland, OR (the city where Backstrom takes place), that kept their shop at cellar temperature but they had a huge selection, unlike the dealers in the episode. The temperature was also their undoing in Backstrom due to condensation on the wrong side of a glass door. That room had, among other things, "Red dust, used as sediment. You won't find that in a week-old box of wine." Labels hanging were too washed out by a flashlight to read, except for one, Romanée-Conti. Their high-profile, luxury status makes them a consistent target for counterfeiters. Even their website landing page has a disclaimer, discussion of fraud!
The "brilliant sommelier" at Portland Governors Club (the recipient of the counterfeit wine) refers to a bottle as, "Romaneé-Conti Pinot 2005." He should know better with, "degrees from Yale, the Culinary Institute of America and a sommelier certification from the Court of Master Sommeliers." The wine should be vineyard-designated, the winery doesn't make a generic "Pinot Noir." But then again, he later states, "They love what I tell them to." Clearly not a role model for the position. They get some credit for getting the grape right. 
As to why on one knows it's fake wine? "For one, the wine is too valuable to open. And when it is, without anything to compare it to, very few people can tell the difference between a decent one and the most exclusive wines on the planet." This is certainly true, to some degree, but using "cheap red wine" in the bottles would give the hoax away very quickly. Apparently, in this show, "They mix different wines together and add a non-fermentable sugar to improve the taste. It's very effective."
Don't worry wine and food fans, cheese was not overlooked. The stomach contents of the murder victim held crackers and "Havarti cheese." Backstrom then finds, "a fancy cheese shop paper" in his trash. Who would go to a "fancy cheese shop" to buy Havarti? For that matter, what "fancy cheese shop" even carries Havarti? Couldn't they have just mentioned Brie instead? These are the moments where I feel my services could be used as a consultant for Hollywood when it comes to wine and food. It amazes me someone on the set doesn't know enough to point out the awkward choices.
Later, when Backstrom is drinking on the job (as usual) another detective observes, "That's a $150,000 bottle of fake wine, sir." They then all taste it. "Oh wow, that's good." "That's impressive." And, finally, after spitting it out in disgust, "Anyone fooled by this should just kill themselves." 
The highlight featured a return to Portland Governors Club, and Backstrom treating some of the membership on hand to a tasting. He asks for a side by side tasting of "the best you've got" and is told that "such a tasting would run in excess of $250,000." The dollar amounts are completely ridiculous by the way. A wine purported to come from Thomas Jefferson's cellar (a 1787 Lafite) sold for just over $150,000, these are not that old. The wines arrive, "a 2005 Romanée-Conti Pinot Noir...and a 1945 Chateau Mouton Rothschild and a '47 Chateau de Fleur [sic]." Rainn over enunciates the last one, amusingly so, and it later turns out it is Lafleur, according to a normal pronunciation by one taster. The sommelier responds after Rainn orders them, "You are truly an aficionado." They did pick some impressive wines. 
Disappointingly, the wine glasses are pretty cheap looking but the tasting has some highlights. One taster spits it out, "I had a bottle of the same wine in Italy last week, and it tasted a lot better than that." The sommelier stammers, "It could be that the cork has been compromised." Someone observes, "I distinctly taste some brandy." (Hmmm, that wasn't in the formula discussed earlier). The bottles are conveniently located in a glass case, standing up, behind the bar rather than in a cellar. They are not decanted. I'm sure this is expedient from a story-telling standpoint but it is amusing in light of the earlier, exacting cellar-temperature comment. 
It was a fun episode, I enjoy the show even when it doesn't focus on wine. Rainn Wilson's character is flawed and brilliant and a very interesting antihero, which probably means the show won't last. I hope it does. 
Oh, while the sommelier makes a run for it, breaking glasses (maybe that's why they were cheap?) and knocking bottles over, Backstrom pours himself another glass. Think I'll go do the same.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Crawfish Boil: Wine or Beer?

My default recommendation to anyone inquiring was, "Try riesling with that crawfish boil, if you must have wine." I had actually done this, though I usually defaulted to beer, like just about everyone else. However, last weekend an opportunity presented itself and I decided to experiment. I arrived to his crawfish boil
with three bottles of riesling and an albariño. 

They were not expensive, ranging in price from $9 to $14. It seemed silly to spend more for two reasons: 1) the spicy nature of the boil (getting spicier as each batch came out - no water change) meant I would likely be gulping rather than sipping and 2) more expensive wines are often more complex and it seemed to me that simple would be better since the flavor of the boil was so complex already (I like contrasting intense flavors and complementing subtle ones).
Overall, I think riesling is a good choice but you need to be careful which one you choose. Albariño, to my delight, worked surprisingly well but was overwhelmed. Beer is so ubiquitous at crawfish boils that it will be hard to unseat despite the fact that the bubbles in beer perk up you tongue and palate actually making taste receptors more susceptible to heat on the next bite. Some say alcohol works in a similar fashion, so wine may not be the best option either, though riesling is lower in alcohol than many other wines - more on this later.

Here are the specifics:

1) Kung Fu Girl Riesling, Columbia Valley, Washington 2014  $12

I have enjoyed this wine in the past and this was a good example but turned out to be too rich for the crawfish. It was fairly viscous and had a moderate sweetness about it. Not sugary but just too much weight for an ideal match. This is good backporch, pool, richer-fish-dish wine.

2) Chateau Ste. Michelle Dry Riesling, Columbia Valley, Washington 2013  $9

Be aware, this winery makes a lot of riesling, including some at this same price point that have similar labels. Select carefully. They are kind enough to put a scale on the back showing the degree of sweetness in the bottle (thank you Ste Michelle!). This was lighter and worked much better with the boil. It also beautifully displayed what I love about Columbia Valley riesling - there is a fullness in the mouth, some tropical fruit and even subtle minerality that I have never found in California riesling. (Side note: Oregon has less weight and exotic fruit but more minerality...and a higher price tag than Columbia Valley riesling). 

3) Clean Slate Riesling, Mosel, Germany 2013  $9, Imported by Winebow
Mosel rieslings are my Holy Grail. They are bursting with energy and seem to always have plenty of acidity to carry their sweetness. This is not sugary sweetness here, but it would never be confused with sauvignon blanc. At the risk of being overly simplistic, the wine is clean...and well named! The lime blossom nose and delicate, but not wimpy, palate made this the clear winner for me and the three others who tried it. Perhaps the lower alcohol (10.5% vs 12% and 12.5%) compared the other rieslings helped. Winner, and a perfect example to try at your next crawfish boil. If you don't like this with crawfish, stick to beer. Best of all, it costs less than $10!

4) Martin Codax, Burgans Albariño, Rias Baixas, Spain 2013  $14, 
    Imported by European Cellars
A control wine seemed important. Albariño comes from Galicia in northwest Spain and offers a brilliant mix of citrus and tropical fruits while offering a substantial wine with medium weight and a dry finish, but no tartness. This is one of my favorites and it did not disappoint. It is a perfect summer wine and pairs well with sushi, lighter fish and even fruit (which can be a challenge). However, the crawfish boil flavors simply rolled right over it. The pairing went well enough in that the wine did not interfere with the taste of the crawfish but it didn't add anything either. As the most expensive wine in the tasting (still very reasonably priced) there is no reason to select this for your next boil. Do try a bottle though...your mouth will thank you.

Don't be afraid to bring wine to a crawfish boil. I still recommend riesling but would try to get drier versions with less alcohol. This is not always an easy task, since sugar is converted into alcohol. More sugar means less alcohol but also means more sweetness. Less sugar, i.e. dryness, means more alcohol. Germany, due to the chilly climate often has lower potential alcohol (less sugar to begin with) and can create drier wines that also have lower residual sugar levels. 
There are lots of rieslings out there, try your own experiment. Let me know your favorites for crawfish or other spicy foods...I'm always looking for new choices.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Somms and reps part 2

This continues an earlier post about the sometimes tense relationships between sommeliers and their distributor sales reps - find the first here.

Sommeliers were strongly in support of representatives knowing the basics of wine. This seems so obvious it's hardly worth mentioning except that you would be amazed how many clueless individuals there are in the business. "Distributors hire super sexy women or 'stud' male reps who have no knowledge about the wine they're trying to sell." For every sommelier that wrinkles their nose at these hires, there are dozens of other accounts tripping over themselves to do business. I can't even count the number of times I have heard, 'She doesn't know anything about wine and she brings me questionable product but I always try to order something to make sure she comes back next week.'
This tied into a few questions. There was also wide agreement about reps understanding "sensory concepts (tannin, residual sugar...)." This falls under basics of wine, to my mind. If you can't discuss and evaluate the wine on a similar level, building a business relationship will be that much harder.
Sommeliers also freely admitted they were more likely to buy from reps with a good wine education. "It shows dedication and professionalism."
One somm also mentioned knowing the products and pricing. While this also seems obvious, there were a few wholesalers (the biggest ones) in New Orleans that could not get a price right on an invoice. Time after time, the same wine arrived at different prices. When I worked retail, we had weekly meetings with our reps and managers to get the pricing correct. It goes beyond knowing the price, you have to get it right on the invoice too.

"There is nothing more irritating that a distributor rep reciting all the statistics on sugars and acids." Agreed. If you want the stats, there are usually available online. Reps that insist on regurgitating those numbers usually do so in a vain attempt to make themselves appear knowledgable.

When asked how much time they give a rep to present the answers ranged from "two minutes per wine" to 30 minutes (the most common). There is a nice shot at those reps who bring almost a case out with them hoping some will find success. The shotgun approach is universally reviled by professional buyers and adored by those hoping to get a nice buzz while "doing their job." "Forget the 'let's pick from the bag' routine. If you want to sell me something, sell me something."
I applaud this! I dreaded seeing a rep in front of me with a huge array of bottles, it could really put me behind if the buyer didn't limit the tasting. One technique (that I have witnessed) employed by large wholesalers with multiple reps working some accounts, was to try to monopolize the buyer. One rep shows up, calls the others and they try to piggy-back presentations. This can tie up a buyer for a long time and discourages competing reps from waiting to present their wines.

When asked if there were any 'rules' for sales reps, one somm responded, "Bring a great product - not the wines you are being told by higher-ups to upsell." This is perhaps the biggest hindrance to accessing great wine. Not only are reps pressed to sell certain brands within their portfolio but sometimes there are monetary incentives tied to pushing particular wines. Large production wines drive sales for wholesalers and mean lots of profits year after year. These producers want constant growth and pressure the distributors to make sure it happens. These are supposed to be the lead recommendations and take priority over other wines. Occasionally, especially during OND (October, November, December - the big sales months), the wineries will put their money where their mouth is. Cash awards are available for new placements and for overall sales of certain products.
I used to represent a couple of wineries that offered $10-$20 for new placements (meaning an account that hadn't ordered the wine in the last six months, or a year, placed an order and took delivery). The rep needed the customer to sell through a few cases in order to qualify for further bonuses on the placement. This showed the new account was actually selling the product. Sometimes sommeliers need these wines but that is a rarer and rarer occurrence. What usually happens is a months long game of reps trying to present what they need while somms wade through the dreck to get to what they need. Eventually, a mutual understanding would develop and a change of rep or somm could start the game all over again.

On a side note, reps sometimes created "new placements" by sending bottles that were never ordered and then made it such a pain in the neck to pick up the bottles for credit that the account finally just put the wine on the shelf or the wine list and sold it. Sometimes, this would result in re-orders if the wine sold through. Orders should not have been placed with the offending rep until the bottles were returned but the reps I saw employing this sleazy tactic sold brand name liquor and wine and most accounts could not easily go without the other products, so the practice continued.

Steve Heimoff wrote a piece in response to the article that prompted my posts, called "Kumbaya" wondering why we all can't just get along in the wine business. The comments are telling. Lots of reps responded but the best one was from an ex-somm who pointed out the biggest problem was the sheer number of reps. A buyer could easily fill most of a week with nothing but appointments to taste wine with different reps. That's just the reps, consider the ever-growing portfolio of wines available and there is always something new to present. The dance card fills quickly and so does the wish list.
Wines do not always get ordered even if the somm approves. Room may need to be made in the cellar and/or the list itself. Sometimes it takes weeks to make room for a wine, even one that excites the buyer. 

Good and bad examples exist in each group, it would be great to find a way to shuffle all the incompetent sales reps to the buyers who purport to be sommeliers while they look for favors and drink for free. Meanwhile the worthy, considerate, professionals could work together. Another pipe dream...or maybe pipette?

Hope you enjoyed some insight into a relationship that brings wine to you in restaurants. 

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Somms and Reps

Two groups of people need one another to survive. That does not mean they naturally get along. In fact, quite the opposite can be true because they are so integral to each other's world.
Karen MacNeil (The Wine Bible, among others), interviewed a handful of sommeliers around the country about their relationships with their sales representatives. While my career in wine has not included a stint running a wine program, working for more than a decade as an outside sales rep more than qualifies me to discuss the complaints lodged in the article. (You can read the entire article here. Just click to zoom in and click again to zoom out, if needed.)
Note: I will use the term buyer and sommelier (or somm) interchangeably here so you don't tire of one word or the other

There is nothing outrageous or unreasonable in their complaints. Reps often act unprofessionally and discourteously but sommeliers are far from infallible.
The top two pet peeves:
"Showing up unannounced and often in the middle of service...Tardiness to a scheduled appointment." I wholeheartedly agree with the complaint about showing up in the middle of service. I appeared often at the end of my day (into their dinner service) but only to drop off a few opened sample bottles. I never expected anyone to stop what they were doing to deal with me once service was underway. The rest of the top complaints are a bit more nebulous.
Sometimes showing up unannounced was the only way to get in front of a buyer. Some sommeliers would tell you straight to your face they had no interest in wine X or even in doing business with your company. In those instances, professionalism dictated you stay in touch from time to time, (dropping off a new price list was a great way to do this). However, some buyers would just duck phone calls from reps they didn't want to see. I have witnessed this countless times. If a rep shows up unannounced under these conditions, it is the somm's fault.
Tardiness is a big deal and a great frustration on both sides of the relationship. Reps try to fill a day with appointments, especially with sample bottles in tow. Some meetings can take a few minutes and some can last for an hour or more. I have had numerous buyers tell me, upon arrival, that they want to discuss re-doing portions of the list. I could put some off by getting as much information as I could and then putting together a formal presentation that night so they could look at it before the end of their workday. That kept me on schedule. If the discussion needed to be done then and there, my day could be a total loss if the rest of my visits had no flexibility. While it is certainly not the fault of the sommelier in the 11am time slot if the 10:30am keeps me for an hour, another somm still created the problem.
Also mentioned here was "aggressive follow-up." See the example above of somms not responding. It is a simple matter: you taste a wine and listen to the presentation, you decide if the wine is for you/your restaurant, you decline the wine or order it or have a basic timeframe where it will get ordered. Simple. Again, a professional rep will follow-up to get the results of the meeting, especially if they had a supplier with them (ride-along) because that person needs to know as well. Too many buyers try to be nice, saying pleasant things and giving the impression that business will follow, when, in fact, nothing could be further from the truth. As a rep, I could often tell the difference, but I am not clairvoyant and need an answer to pass along. Even if the answer is a dismissive "No," the rep has an answer and aggressive follow-up is no longer needed. I sympathize and empathize with not having enough time but if you are being asked about a meeting you agreed to have then you owe the participants a response. If there is no response, then repeated, multi-channel, "aggressive" follow-up is likely to happen.
In defense of sommeliers, direct responses of "No" and "Not interested" are all too often ignored by sales reps. They continue to return and pester the buyer after receiving an answer the rep, and the rep's bosses, didn't like. My patience would wear thin, quickly. Reps are within their rights to ascertain the reason(s) behind the refusal of a proposed wine and somms should be ready to explain themselves. This can benefit both parties if there is a meaningful exchange of information here and the rep actually pays attention and gears future tastings accordingly.
It's a fine line between accepting a rejection quietly and being an advocate for the wine, i.e. being a salesperson. There are occasions when buyers reject wines simply because they don't like them. However, making a case for the wine and where it might fit on the list is a sales rep's job. Be prepared, make your case and if there is still no interest from the sommelier, let it go. You can always revisit the wine at a later date. Reps that push hard often succeed in the short term with the desired placement but hurt their long-term prospects with the account because the buyer may offer them less opportunities in the future, wanting to avoid the "hard-sell."
I believe the model sales rep should be familiar with the wine list (and menu) and able to discuss it (them), in depth, with the sommelier. There was, however, little consensus from the somms interviewed about whether reps should know the food/menu of the restaurant with one specific quote from a sommelier, "Knowing the menu is my job." I certainly applaud this approach, the sommelier should be the ultimate connection between the menu and the wine list. However, any rep that doesn't understand the menu of a restaurant can not possibly understand their needs and will never be valuable to the business. Reps should strive to tailor their presentations to the customer and not just load up a bag full of wine hoping some will be hits. This is the difference between a run of the mill rep who does business and a partner who can grow business.

 I will continue breaking down this article and sharing my perspective in the next post, stay tuned.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Can We Make Wine Descriptions Useful?

Do you read flowery descriptions of wine anymore? Did you ever? Did you feel any closer to understanding the wine being described? Do descriptions like these help or hinder?
"...with honeyed overtones to the flavors of quince paste, tarte Tatin and juicy grapefruit...lots of anise, bergamot, floral, spiced almond and smoke notes."
"Shows the sweet and smoky character of burning vine clippings...Kirsch, grilled plum, sanguine and espresso notes mix with hints of lavender, marjoram and sage..."
The above are both from Wine Spectator but they are hardly the worst offenders of wine writers. [For more of these, and my take on them, check out my series. Simply search Preposterous Pundit Pontifications. If that sounds like work, some samples can be found here and here.]

It is not a new problem in the wine world. Or the music world. Can you know what an album sounds like without actually listening? No, but there are ways to communicate more effectively. 
I have long believed that describing wine in complicated, overly specific detail not only confuses many readers (including yours truly) but is actually a disservice. Implied snobbery with esoteric, even bizarre, terms can discourage would-be enthusiasts from learning about wine. 
My take was always to use general terms like: red or black fruit, tart citrus or juicier fruit, for example. If Bing cherry leaps to mind, great, feel free to share, but broader strokes will resonate with more people. Of course, that kind of reading can get repetitive, so publications with hundreds of reviews encourage different language to communicate a similar message.
Over the years I have employed myriad other ways to convey a wine's style. Comparing them to books, Hemingway vs. Faulkner, or music, Bob Dylan vs. Steve Winwood, or food or weather or get the idea.
Universal concepts like this might still confuse some people when presented in a three of four sentence description. However, with a little more space these descriptors can really make a wine come alive for a reader even without a glass in front of them. Dylan's voice is rough, and not for everyone, but can be very rewarding to those who like it. Steve Winwood's vocal take is smooth and pretty and much more universally appealing, but some say his music is a bit simple. 
Of course, if you write too much then you run the risk of no one reading it because it's more long this. 
Oh well, the wine world rarely presents us with perfect's all part of the fun.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Difference Between Wine and Cars

If a Hyundai representative appears on TV and claims their car is the same as Porsche because it has multiple gears and anti-lock brakes everyone would know this was public relations braggadocio (otherwise known as BS). When someone from a budget sparkling wine producer says something similar, people tend not to be able to see through the smoke. Let's clear the air.

Paul Ahvenainen, director of winemaking for Korbel Cellars, appeared on a San Francisco station in December and talked about the difference between Champagne and sparkling wine. Here is a link to the Gray Report's post on this topic.

"For us at Korbel, it's really about the process. Champagne is a product that is fermented twice: first you do it in the tank and then you ferment it the second time in the exact same bottle that the consumers can get." Viola, Champagne. Technically, he's correct, like the Hyundai rep above, but he omits that true Champagne only comes from France, a specific area of France.
But his offense is not omission, he goes on to bash sparkling wine in general. "Sparkling wine, on the other hand, can either be done in huge tanks and filtered into bottles or even artificially carbonated." This is true but completely misleading.

Cheap sparkling wine can be made in tank and the bubbles can be huge and inelegant and poorly integrated. Quality sparkling wine can be made in the méthode champenoise (méthode traditionelle) and can even taste better than some of the production based in the small geographic region of Champagne.

How hard is it to be transparent and informative instead of petty and underhanded? Nearly impossible for this Korbel cheerleader apparently. For those who might not have listened closely enough, he gave himself away, as most people do who have something to hide. He began his answer with, "Honestly..." He is correct, there are "a lot of different levels to that conversation" but to ignore the most obvious seems disingenuous, at best.

Wine confuses people, the question was asked, "for our viewers who may not know," and his answer will only confuse them further. This is why winery PR and spin can be so dangerous.

Happy New Year, may you encounter better information and more honest, passionate advocates for wine the rest of the year. I will continue to debunk, expose and discuss poor examples right here.