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A sparkling lunch, maybe a blind tasting

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Besides the fact that the wine menu at Chez Panisse’s famous upstairs café has no sparkling wines from California — what’s up with that, Ms. locovore Alice Waters? –my sparkling wine lunch with Joy Sterling, Hugh Davies and Xavier Barlier was, well, sparkling.

Ms. Sterling (Iron Horse), Mr. Davies (Schramberg) and Mr. Barlier (Roederer Estate) represent the trifecta of sparkling wine in California. The trio had once previously gotten together (at Celadon, in Napa) to talk shop, which in their case was the state of tête de cuvée sparkling wine in California, and, as Xavier emailed me afterward, “One seat was empty. We thought: ‘Who would be the perfect 4th whose company is always a treat?’”

I’m sure my company is not always a treat, but Joy’s, Hugh’s and Xavier’s is, for me, and as Chez Panisse (where parking is impossible; both Hugh and Xavier got parking tickets afterward) is only a couple subway stops away, I eagerly assented. Joy proposed, as a matter of logistics, that we structure the first part of the conversation this way: each person would explain why he or she was at the luncheon. That was fine with me, but I did ask to be allowed to go fourth (without multiplying), since it was no doubt clearer to them why they were there than it was to me, other than that I’d been invited.

After hearing them out, I intuited the following. Each was aware of his winery’s position and reputation in the hierarchy. Each was proud of its tête de cuvée (which means, if my high school French is correct, head of the class, i.e., the top wine the winery is capable of producing). And each, in his or her own way, came thiiiiissss close to admitting that selling an expensive wine, especially an expensive sparkling wine, isn’t the easiest thing to do these days.

They were concerned that such French wines as Dom Perignon and Cristal were grabbing market share for prestige bubbly in the U.S., even though (in their opinions) these wines are mass-produced and not particularly distinctive. (Xavier shared a case production figure for the former that, literally, blew my mind, but I can’t repeat it without risking a lawsuit.) I told them they must fight, fight, fight against the slanders that perpetually are hurled against California wine. When some Europhile puts it down, call him out. Expose the lies. (I’m afraid I got a little worked up at this point, but I think Hugh liked it.)

Finally it was my turn. They were asking me for advice. I gave it. “First, you can’t just sell tête de cuvée. You have to sell the entire category of sparkling wine, in order to persuade Americans it’s not just for holidays and weddings. Sparkling wine is the most versatile food wine in the world. If you can convince people to buy more, they will naturally buy it at whatever dollar level they’re prepared to invest. A rising tide lifts all boats.”

I’m not certain that argument worked. At least one of what Joy dubbed The Three Mousseketeers seemed dubious. After all, they wanted to advance the cause of their têtes de cuvées, not of some $8 bulk process “Champagne” manufactured in the tens or hundreds of thousands of cases.

I continued. “And you must get the tastemakers on your side, the writers, bloggers, sommeliers who have influence.” They agreed, but Joy pointed out that somms are less influential these days because people aren’t going out to expensive restaurants. All right, that left writers. That raised the question, which writers do you reach out to? And in what format? Here were the three of them, focusing in on one writer (me), which, I pointed out, was a time-consuming and expensive way to influence the Fourth Estate. Wouldn’t it be better to travel to a few important cities and host tastings with an invited audience of 10 or 12 influential local writers, instead of doing dozens of one-on-ones?

That’s when the discussion got interesting. One point of view was that no format is as successful as a one-on-one. Another, opposing viewpoint was that these collective group tastings are irresistible to writers, providing the venue is well-chosen and the wines are alluring. After much back and forth, Joy put forward a suggestion. What if I, Steve, hosted a tête de cuvée tasting in San Francisco? We could decide whom to invite (not just locals, but New York, L.A., etc.). We could expand the California presence from the three têtes de cuvées they represented to all wineries with a tête de cuvée (e.g. Chandon’s Etoile, Gloria Ferrer’s Carneros Cuvée, and so on). We could throw in some number of real Champagne têtes de cuvées, including Dom and Cristal. We would do the tasting blind. I asked the three of them, “Wouldn’t that be risky for you? I mean, if your wines came in last and the Champagnes came in first?” They all smiled knowingly. Joy said, “I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

We’d all had our share of sparking wine by then, some of us more than the others; and maybe this happytalk of a big blind tasting was just a bunch of bubbles, fizzing and evaporating into Chez Panisse’s rarified atmosphere. But I have a hunch it will happen. I’ll keep you posted.

  1. The very idea that Dom is considered something “special” is laughable when you find out what their case production is….and when you taste it, boring. We stopped carrying it over 8 years ago and when people ask me where they can find it I tell them, “Seen it at CVS & Food 4 Less” which kind of lets them know, (without saying it) just how “special” that wine really is.

    Now as a Sparkling Wine specialist I would argue that if you are to put the best of California sparkling, (the best as in the finest, not the best as in most volume sold) up against their counterpoints from Champagne then they should also find the best from Champagne and Dom, La Grand Dame and Cristal are not the best as in finest. Now that is the bubble dork in me, the person that deals with consumers directly and knows a thing or two about sales….I think J.Schram beating Dom is a tasting like that would go a long way in impressing the general public. Could have that Bottle Shock (wretched piece of crap that movie was) kind of appeal. I think it is an interesting idea and I for one would love to be invited to a tasting like that.

  2. Just sitting at the same table is a compliment to all.

  3. Greg Brumley says:

    This was a great demonstration of wineries’ problem marketing their products….and the first problem is a reasonable understanding of their place in the market.

    It appears you were closer to the mark than the winery owners.

    Steve, you suggested going to different cities and having tastings for 10-12 wine writers in each. How many cities have 10-12 wine writers? New York? OK. Maybe SF. Now, name 3 more.

    So many winery owners still have a we-will-produce-it-and-they-will-come naivete. Why on earth do they believe a sparkling wine tasting (even one hosted by Your Good Self) would draw writers from New York? Cynic that I am, I wouldn’t be surprised they invited you with the hope you’d sign onto this ill-conceived extravaganza. Are they prepared to spend the coin to promote this?

    When you gave then good advice — well worth the price of the meal — they poo pooed it.

    You hit the nail on the head: sparkling wines are both little-known and misunderstood. If you asked most wine drinkers who the great sparkling wine producer is, they’d probably say Korbel because they see it in grocery stores. If you asked them about the difference between the Methode Champenoise and the Charmat/Prosecco production methods….Well, good luck with that one. And sparklers’ versatility is completely lost on the buying public.

    Being little known and less understood constitutes a significant hurdle, which can only be conquered by a combined effort of all producers. No group of 2 or 3 have the resources — no matter how much gold foil is on their bottles.

    With respect, Steve, they can’t rely on wine writers to market their product. To grow sales, sparkling wine producers need to reach customers far more than they need to reach writers. Less and less, these days, does the latter lead to the former.

    Look, they’re small-production wines, which means they live or die on DTC sales. They need to support and improve their tasting room experiencs, then expand each visitor’s experience to his/her friends. They DESPERATELY need to build a community. Probably start with a few events like Pinot & Pork (whicy, they’ll find, takes a ton of work and a few years to develop). Then, they can build to a ZAP-like synergy. And, of course, they need to support those efforts with SECONDARY campaigns on social media.

    The competitive tasting is a nice idea. Combined with well executed direct-to-consumer programs, it could be effective. However. If they do it as a stand alone effort, it will generate a some attention….and sell darn little wine.

    One final note: You really live in a different world than us common folk, Steve. You agreed to lunch at Chez Panisse because it’s 2 BART stops away. From Santa Rosa, I’d bus, canoe and then crawl to Shattuck Ave. for another meal at Chez Panisse!

    Thanks for another insightful and thought-provoking piece.

    Greg Brumley
    mail@Brumleygroup.com

  4. Xavier Barlier says:

    Dear Steve,
    It was a pleasure to see you all yesterday. I would like to take the opportunity to bring some clarity to what was being said during our lunch regarding Dom Perignon and Cristal. I did not hear anybody using the expression that these two highly esteemed prestige cuvées are “mass produced and not particularly distinctive”. Like millions of wine enthusiasts around the world, I do believe that Dom Perignon and Cristal, each with their own identity and profile, are distinctive, exceptional and beautiful champagnes. With regards to the volume of production, the facts are that both Houses have extensive vineyards ownership situated in the most ideal location in the world for this type of wine, as well as centuries of expertise in winemaking. Regarding our beloved California Têtes de Cuvée, which was the topic of our discussion, my constant endeavor is to raise more awareness and recognition in the market for their uniqueness – the California terroir – and remarkable quality, here in the US and internationally.
    All the best,
    Xavier

  5. Steve,

    Honest, I tried to resist getting into this thread, but my love for the bubbly stuff is too strong… just keeps pulling me back. I think your insight was right on, but I understand the frustration of Hugh, Joy and Xavier… been there. Somewhere around the year 2000, Tom Stevenson came by to taste California bubbles and after a week of tasting, Iron Horse graciously hosted a dinner for all the producers. Mr. Stevenson (a world authority on sparkling wines) said at the conclusion of the evening: “You have leveled the field, California sparklers are now as good as the best Champagnes. Your challenge now is to get the same price respect”.

    Here we are, ten years later, and nothing has changed. Holding another “us vs. them” tasting is not going to do California sparklers any good, just like winning “Best New World Syrah” in Decanter’s contest will not suddenly make California Syrah a hot cake. A few years ago an organization with a ridiculous name (CMCV or something like that) tried to unite domestic Methode Champenoise producers to promote bubbly in general. The absolutely right idea with the worst possible execution. Immediate bickering about who’s method is “purer” than the other’s scuttled the endevor. Your blog entry, and the responses so far, mirror the problems.

    First, some local producers are extensions of French companies and they will never be allowed to “diss” their mothership. To give you the perfect example: Carneros Alambic produced a Brandy that was better than anything Remy Coiuntreau produced in France. They were not allowed to export it and compete with Cognac on an even field.

    Second, Greg is right in saying that many producers have a hard time getting off the “if we produce it they will come” path. Just look at the explosion of single vineyard wines everywhere… everyone thinks that if they name a block after their daughter’s dog’s favorite treat it will automatically make the wine better and they can charge more for it. None more evident than in Pinot Noir these days. This goes to the “Tete De Cuvee” issue. Both Hugh and Joy make some phenomenal wines but there just aren’t that many people in the US who really want to spend the price these wines shoud go for. I think you are right in saying they should first do more to promote general bubbly consumption. Basically, if the bottom of the pyramid get’s wider, it creates more room at the top too.

    Finally, I wish we could come up with new, authentic terminology. Every time you say “Têtes de Cuvée” (Literally: “Tub Heads”) you send a subliminal message that US bubbly is second to the French. It is time to move on. I’d love to see us come up with our own nomenclature and start telling our own love stories with this most magnificent of beverages.

    And yes, I will make California Sparkling again… just taking a break.

  6. Steve
    Congratulations. I really feel bad that the parking at Chez Panisse harshed your mellow. And I thought my life was banal. I had a fun lunch with some important people once, too. I’m glad you are enjoying the fruits of your labor. James Laube once caught my delinquent bird dog for me during lunch at a Yountville restaurant. Who cares? Thanks for no insight whatsoever on the quality or means of production of sparkling wine. Marketing- how fascinating. Do you ever get out? Besides to pricey restaurants with other marketing people? Despite the biting sarcasm, I am very happy, as a Buddhist, for your happiness. Wait, I’m a Catholic. You deserve to roast, for sure. See you there. I’m sure you will be at the head of the vat. Or, tete de cuvee, as the devil puts it. Of course, she’s French. And, she invented Champagne- Dom was actually a secular French version of Faust, Robert Johnson, or Tom Walker, depending on your ethnic identification and reading/listening/viewing list. Is Dom a joke? Is Roederer or Schramsburg better, in your ‘umble opinion? Has anyone noticed Chandon switched from Napa to California appellation with no change in package or reduction in price? Or is that too risky for someone in your position at the free lunch table? Oh, and in case there’s any question, French champagne kicks the ass of California sparkling wine. If you want to afford it. BUT, fifteen dollarNapa/ Sonoma sparkling wine is one of the miracles of modern winemaking, and the best wine deal on the planet. Only free sex, north coast chronic, bourbon, or Scotch can come close for pleasure per dollar. To be fair, I should add that venting one’s spleen on a free wine blog is another great modern bargain. Thanks for the opportunity. Bunt

  7. Dang, and here I thought I was being a douche…

  8. Greg Brumley says:

    Thanks, Bunt. I’d begun to think I was the resident tart-tongued curmudgeon. The honor’s all yours now.

  9. Kimberly Charles says:

    Steve,
    Le Reve of Domaine Carneros must be included for sure and that’s the goal of our blind tasting on the 3rd albeit with just one CA sparkling involved…it’s great to test the palate and pre-conceptions. Kimberly

  10. Bunt, as a working wine reporter I cover the waterfront of all aspects of the wine industry. My heavy duty stories about production and terroir tend to appear in Wine Enthusiast Magazine. On this blog, I like to turn my attention to other areas that interest me, and that I don’t typically write about in the magazine. As for “California” appellation rather than Napa, that means nothing, from a quality point of view. Don’t be hung up by that. Champagne often is blended from different villages, and that’s all Chandon (and Schramsberg for that matter) are doing: sourcing the best fruit they can find, in order to make the best blend. Anyhow, I hope I addressed some of the issues you mentioned in your comment.

  11. I’m confused– They only want to push tete du cuvee (their most expensive bottlings) but not interact w/ somms because people aren’t spending money going out to eat?

    You won’t put more domestic bubbly on the table pushing $100+ domestic- It will always be seen as for special occasions if the price dictates that.

    The growth has to be in the world that Champ doesn’t touch- The sub $30 market. The spot where you can throw one down in the backyard- play some badminton, maybe shoot a deer, dress yourself in skins, and throw back a few bottles gazing deep into the fire thinking about 12/21/12 (aka end of the world).

    If you get get that US sub $30 bottle to kick some yellow/ orange label BS ass… then we have a story that is worthy of shooting pistols into the dark of night..

  12. I’m not sure a blind tasting of tête de cuvée would mean much to a lot of people who buy tête de cuvée. From what I have seen, consumption of tête de cuvée is about celebration whether it be Kree-stall at the nightclub or Dom on New Years eve. It’s a bit like snorting coke thru a hundred dollar bill and then burning the bill. No, that’s not the best analogy.

    I’m all for blind tasting, but what I’m saying is I don’t care how your tasting comes out. When I celebrate I would prefer it be Krug or “Bolly” and I’m not thinking points.

  13. Morton, I actually don’t agree. Events that are well publicized can have consequences. Just look at the Paris tasting and Sideways. I’m obviously not saying a TdC tasting in San Francisco will have anywhere near that impact. But it could have some.

  14. Greg Brumley says:

    Some, Steve.

    But certainly not enough to improve CA sparklers’ place in the market.

    Iron Horse has 10 current sparkling wines and Schramsberg 12. Lotsa $20-$40 offerings. But they only want to offer the top wine from each producer? These guys appear to be far more interested in a little personal prestige than in promoting their varietal.

    Which is, undoubtedly, why they’re flailing about in search of some magic bullet to save themselves from their unproductive marketing.

    C’mon, Steve. Give us the real news. What did you four EAT AT CHEZ PANISSE?!?

  15. This tasting has been done before and it will be done again. Publicity is not about some game-changing event. Those are few and far between, and they are usually unintened consequences–as impacts of the Paris tasting and of Sideways both were.

    Greg Brumley makes an interesting point. Regardless of the existence and prestige of the TdC wines, it is the wines at the other end of the spectrum that pay the bills. In that regard, a tasting of non-vintage Bruts might be more instructive to a wider audience. And frankly, I would not mind putting the next tier, the vintage Brut Champagnes besides the CA vintage bottled efforts from Schramsberg and others. At both tiers, the CA wines sell for considerably less and can more than hold their own in my experience.

    There is another category of Champagne that gets left out here. That is the grower-bottled tier. They often sell for better prices and have more unique personalites than the competition. Some are exceptional; many are not, but this is a category unlike to be seen in any tasteoff that is winery sponsored. They will go after the big cats.

    Be that as it may, sign me up. TdC cuvees and I are willing partners–as long as someone else is paying.

  16. Greg, I ate pizza and soup.

  17. I’m really late to this. I was bored and searching through the archives and stumbled upon this.

    First, I’m not sure many people know that really good sparkling wine can be found for $20-30 a bottle therefore making it something that can be enjoyed often and doesn’t have to only be for a special occasion.

    Second, I feel like the idea of sparkling wine is intimidating to some. I mean, you have this bottle with a cork that can literally be deadly if handled incorrectly. They even have special glasses for the stuff! And compared to still wines, many of the rules don’t apply to sparklers.

    Personally, I use to be intimidated by sparkling wine and really didn’t understand it. It wasn’t until I ended up working an entry level position for a sparkling wine producer that I started understanding sparkling wine and gained an appreciation for it. I love the stuff now and I wonder why people still fill their carts with Korbel and Cooks when for a few dollars more they can have some really good stuff. Perhaps they’ve tried the bad stuff and simply expect the rest to be the same. Oh well, more for me.

  18. There are wineries making great bubbly in California, at under $30 too. Last year McFadden made a 5 part Chardonnay to 3 part Pinot Noir NV Sparkling Brut that took Gold along with Roederer, and the McFadden was just $25. This year’s McFadden Sparkling Brut, made with organically grown grapes, is even richer at even parts Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and the 500 cases released just a month ago are already over 1/3 sold out. Along with McFadden, the Hopland area of Mendocino County is rich with Sparkling Wine producers: Terra Savia, Rack and Riddle, Jeriko, and Weibel, with Graziano coming on board next year too.

    A visit to Hopland for complimentary sparkling wine tastings is no invitation to Chez Panisse, but might just let you connect with bubbly in a more real way, a way that the real public can appreciate and afford, than an exploration of the most expensive offerings from California’s most well known producers.

    I would love to drink the most prestigious offerings from Iron horse, Schramsberg and Roederer. I drink sparkling wine often, certainly more than most wine drinkers, but tend to make my purchases with a wine industry employee’s budget, not a winery owner’s budget. I am grateful that these producers do have bottles that I can enjoy affordably; just as I am thrilled that there are a host of local quality sparkling wine producers among those poured daily in the tasting rooms of Hopland.

    John Cesano

    Disclosure: I am both the tasting room/wine club manager at McFadden and the secretary of the non-profit group Destination Hopland.

  19. hi I’m a huge cognac fan mainly Remy Martin, great blog post, thanks

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