Terroir + marketing: a Danse Macabre
I went to a tasting today at Epic Roadhouse, the newish Kuleto restaurant with the stunning view of San Francisco Bay and the Bay Bridge. The tasting was of some current releases and barrel samples of various wines from a very well known Napa Valley Cabernet house, which I’m not going to identify no matter how much you hope I will.
I’ve given very high scores to this winery’s Cabs and have a great deal of respect for them. I’ve walked their vineyard in the hills above Napa Valley and witnessed how perfectly tended it is. The wines are extraordinarily fine and, by Napa standards, not very expensive. So it’s not like I have an axe to grind here. Just a point to make.
At one point the head of the winery explained how they used to vineyard-designate their top Cab made from their estate vineyard, but no more, because (and I paraphrase) “We want to make the best wine we can every year, and sometimes that requires blending out the estate vineyard with grapes from other vineyards.” Fine; I get that; I agree. Then we moved on to another wine, a barrel sample of a new proprietary blend. That wine, he said, will be exclusively from the estate vineyard, and will be the top wine it can produce, capturing the essence of the vineyard’s terroir. They all were very excited about it, he added.
Well, whenever I hear about a block or barrel selection from a vineyard that’s exciting and will capture essence, etc., my reporter’s skepticism is aroused. Sounds like language to justify a super-high price. So I asked, “How much will this new wine cost?” The guy hesitated, then said, “We haven’t set the price yet.” But if it doesn’t cost more than the regular Cab, I’ll buy you a bottle at full retail.
Think about the contradiction the guy made. First, he said they reserve the right to blend out the estate vineyard to make the best wine. Then, in the next breath, he said a wine that’s likely to be their most expensive is going to be exclusively from the estate vineyard, in order to capture its terroir.
Hello? Is it just me, or are these two statements mutually exclusive?
Well, actually, yes, if you’re talking about sheer quality. But no, if you’re coming from a marketing and sales point of view. Because the truth is that a gullible public is happily willing to pay more for a block or barrel selection, or something else that suggests exclusivity, than they are for a wine that was blended for balance, which may have a more general appellation. Which gets us back to the title of this post.
In medieval times a Danse macabre was a morality play to demonstrate the allegorical idea that we all must die, even the most virtuous among us. I use the term here to suggest that you might have the greatest vineyard, the best-tended grapes, the most talented winemaker, the best state-of-the-art winery; but Death, now in the figure of a marketing manager, is going to lead you to the same place as everyone else: the afterlife known as The Market, where everything — truth, contradictions, lies, terroir — is the same.