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Monday meander: Pinot Noir and Lot18

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It wasn’t inevitable that I could wrap my head around a low alcohol California Pinot Noir, for the simple reason that low alc Pinots historically haven’t been very good. They’ve been overcropped, thin little things, showing more tannins and tobacco than fruit. When California learned how to make Pinot Noir rich, it did so by making them ripe, hence my years of high scores for Pinot Noirs in the 14.5% and up category. I relished the richness and opulence of, say, Goldeneye, Merry Edwards and Lynmar, none of which have been shy in alcohol. I liked the weight, the velvety mouthfeel, the density, not to mention the marvelous fruits that rolled through the finish. These were Pinot Noirs I thought were serious, and they merited serious scores.

Then there is another expression of Pinot Noir that clocks in under 13.9%. Copain 2009 Monument Tree, many if not most of Au Bon Climat’s and Babcock’s, a Lioco 2009 Hirsch that’s a mere 13.5%, ditto for a Tyler 08 Clos Pepe. Yesterday I tasted and reviewed Ghostwriter 2009 Woodruff Family Vineyard Pinot Noir, from the Santa Cruz Mountains, that was 13.5%. These wines are considerably lighter than the 14.5% and up boys. Paler, too. But they are very good and deserve their high scores. It made me wonder how one Pinot Noir could be pale and light-bodied and boring while another can be pale and light-bodied and scrumptious. It’s all about stuffing, isn’t it? And that’s the glory and genius of great Pinot Noir–how it can be the most ethereal thing you’ve ever tasted, and also at the same time be explosive. With Pinot Noir as with no other variety does my vocabulary struggle to come up with oxymorons: delicate power, airy potency, silky depth. I’m not saying my palate preference is moving away from the 14.5% crowd, as many other critics seem to be doing. I’m just saying I’m gaining a new appreciation for a lower alcohol Pinot Noir that manages to be at the same time complex and rich. These cool vintages we’ve been having may give us more of them in years to come.

* * *

I’ve been keeping my eye on Lot18 lately. That’s the website that sells a handful of wines at deep discount for a limited period of time. I’ve been hearing about it, and then on Sunday (yesterday) Jon Bonné had an article on Lot18 on the front page of the Chron’s Food & Wine Section called “A wine site flexes its muscle.” Jon had generally good things to say about it, although he did point out that Lot18’s offerings can be “a release valve for inventory.” Jon also nailed something Lot18 does that only a practiced eye, like Jon’s, would catch: that the critical reviews may “bypass a rating for a blurb on the vineyard or winemaker–not the specific wine.” The example Jon uses is when he quotes Philip James, Lot18’s (and Snooth’s) founder, as claiming it’s okay to say a wine was made by “the same guy who made Robert Mondavi’s Cabernet” even though the wine in question isn’t a Mondavi. It’s almost like saying, “This Russian River Valley Pinot Noir is actually made within sight of the famous Williams Selyem Winery.” It’s glitter-by-association and has nothing to do with the actual wine in the bottle.

It’s also troubling to me that so many of Lot18’s reviews are by the wine’s winemaker–for example, Marco DiGiulio, on Hidden Ridge’s 2006 55% Slope Cabernet Sauvignon. I grant that $25 is a good deal off the wine’s release price of $40. But I reviewed that wine in April, 2010. Here’s what I wrote, in part: “It may be a little too ripe for its own good, though, as it’s pretty jammy. For some reason, the winery lowered the price considerably from the 2005, which was a much better wine.” Not having tasted the wine lately, I can’t say I like it or not. But I wouldn’t pay $25 for it without an assurance it was fresh and complex and has benefited from the extra 14 months in bottle. This does seem to be, to requote Jon, an “inventory valve.” There’s a place for such practices, but caveat emptor has to be the guideline for consumers.

  1. “Release valves” are not exactly a new idea. Trader Joe’s, Grocery Outlet, even Costco at times are release valves. And so, too, Steve are thee and me when we get sent bottles from producers who previously would never deign to darken our doorsteps.

    Lot 18 is just the newest kid on the release valve block. It is well-funded and seemingly smartly run at this point, but there are not many wines available at Lot 18 that have garnered big-time support from the critics (not that we are universally right). Just sayin’.

    Still, it is likely that every release valve in the world, whether brick and mortar or big box store or new and well-funded online startup, is going to have an array of product that needs help to move. Needing help to move does not a priori make it of lesser quality, but it does make it suspect. And reviews that come from the winemaker, not an independent observer, should make those wines even more suspect.

    Buying wine is always a “caveat emptor” business. Not every Merry Edwards or Williams Selyem or Copain or Staglin offering is going to be brilliant. The odds of finding absolutely brilliant wine go down from those names in any event, and when one is selling only wines that need a release valve, the odds do not get better. They got worse.

    The thing about Lot 18 is that caveat emptor works both ways. It warns the buyer to look out for bad merchandise, but it also warns the investor that Lot 18 or any other release valve may find itself with some pretty good wine. And in times like these when new vintages are ready for release but inventory of a decent vintage remains in the warehouse, the odds of success are higher than when retail market heats up and wineries do not need release valves or winewriters.

  2. Charlie, you’re entirely right. I was actually thinking of Trader Joe’s when I wrote the piece. Their reputation used to be for distressed wines. In the 80s I stayed away because so many of the wines were awful. Not any more.

  3. How does “private labeling” by the negociant-types fit into this picture? Firms like Castle Rock?

    An interesting brick and mortar, release valve I’ve noticed of late is a semi-cult wine or two now available at retailers that formerly were only available at the winery.

    Times are a-changin’.

  4. Tom, one of the points I was trying to make, and was not as clear about as I should have been, is that each winery has its own needs for release valves. You are absolutely right that high-brow wine merchants can be release valves for wineries that once sold all their output directly to their mailing lists.

    There is a cascade of levels of need and levels of release valve. Some wineries are happy to use Costco to sell wines if they need to go there. Others will not, but may choose Lot 18 because they are left with a few hundred cases of wine at the end of a vintage and want a one-off release valve rather than a change of outlet release valve.

    One thing to look out for with Lot 18 is how its business fares when the wine market tightens. Some of the better offerings they, and other release outlets, are getting now will go back on allocation or mailing list only. We have seen that cycle in the wine business forever.

  5. Victoria P says:

    Lot18 has a great idea, but they should be more transparent, especially regarding the link between Lot18 and Snooth.

    Many of the positive ratings for Lot18’s flash sales come from a Snooth wine writer. In many other industries this would be illegal.

  6. Tom Barras, the times are indeed changing, and fast! This issue of release valves is fascinating.

  7. Part of what I like about Lot 18 is the fun aspect. The exclusivity. Wine buying on a strictly rational basis can be terribly boring sometimes. Give me some intrigue, give me a story. I like the Cameron Hughes M.O. for the same reason. There are a TON of reasons why good wine needs clearanced. My gawd. Our wine market is anything but transparent or “rational” in the economics sense of the word.

  8. Wholesalers are pretty savvy regarding wine quality and what they can sell. Most do their best to support the wineries they represent. They have to present it to and taste it with retailers and restaurateurs who are also pretty savvy. If you can’t get your wholesaler to buy it and have to go another route the odds are the wine is not the best. There are exceptions, of course, but the odds of it being a great deal are not high.

    Also, I had to laugh at the way Lot 18 tied the Franciscan 2006 Stylus which they are discounting to “Taste Luxury from Famed Silver Oak Founders” What makes it so funny is that in the early 70’s Duncan and Meyer were stuck with a ton of dubious inventory from the previous and bankrupt grower/owners who founded Franciscan. Their solution, bottled it up, fly a big balloon over the winery that said “Everything $1 a bottle.” People were driving in with pickups loading up the back much like the Two Buck Chuck hysteria.

    The more things change, the more they stay the same.

  9. Interesting comments on both topics, Steve. I have also had a preference for the rich, high alcohol pinots for exactly the reasons you mentioned. I’ll look forward to your recommendations on lower alcohol selections that still deliver richness and complexity.

    Re: Lot 18. I have bought from them a couple of times, but it is definitely a “buyer beware” situation. As soon as I see a rating from Snooth or comments like “we can see Williams Selyem from our window” (OK, an exaggeration), I move on. Unless I have personal knowledge of the producer or access to an independent review (like you, Steve), I don’t buy. As a result, I’ve been very happy with the purchases I have made.

  10. Trader Joe’s has really come up huge in the last few years in raising their wine reputation. It is one of my favorite places to pick up affordable wine.

  11. Steve, I receive dozens of inbound feeds about wine every week, and Lot18 is one of them. I have a difficult time opening on my iPhone, so I largely ignore them even though they eem to have an enticing hook most of the time.

    Your comment about the winemaker writing the notes made it sound like Lot18 had specifically asked for a custom note. Is that the case, in your opinion, or do you allow they may just use the winemaker notes from the winery site? Some transparency here would be welcome although using the winery’s tasting note shows no imagination or accountability for opinion.

    However, I think it is OK to reference that a wine is made by a winemaker who had formerly been connected to another label. (ex: who among us has ever written a word about La Sirena’s winemaker without bringing up Screaming Eagle?) It is no different than mentioning the wineries that get fruit from To-Kalon. These are tangible connections based on history of past performance. That is very different from what you suggest as a comparison based solely on geography, which could well have been an exaggeration. :)

    Apparently sometimes it isn’t enough to say it is 65% off, but from Wine Spectator’s 99 point vintage and located on the Silverado Trail, home of fruit stands and animal hospitals :)

  12. Doug, good question if they ask the WM for a note or simply lift it. Either way, it’s not very helpful. Asking a winemaker to recommend his own wine is like asking an author, “Should I buy your book?” And I’ll concede that in the past I might have mentioned the Sirena-Eagle connection. But I don’t do that as much as I used to, if at all, because it’s a very lazy and misleading form of wine writing.

  13. I’ve purchased from Lot 18 several times, and to date, have not been disappointed in the least. While I see your point about them possibly being a “release valve” for inventory, I’ve learned to do automatically is search for reviews other than the ones Lot 18 offers. I’m immediately wary of the winemaker reviews – but that goes for any site that just has the winemaker review. If there isn’t an independent review available, especially by a reputable reviewer, then chances are I won’t buy the wine.

    But I do like Lot 18’s approach. I’m a busy technology professional, and don’t have a lot of leisure time to peruse wine sites, so I rely on my wine “feeds” to tell me what’s out there. It was through Lot 18 that I discovered Hook & Ladder. I don’t know about anyone else, but I dig their Pinot. If it hadn’t been for Lot 18 offering that wine, I would’ve never known about them.

  14. Wholesalers are pretty savvy regarding wine quality and what they can sell. Most do their best to support the wineries they represent. They have to present it to and taste it with retailers and restaurateurs who are also pretty savvy. If you can’t get your wholesaler to buy it and have to go another route the odds are the wine is not the best. There are exceptions, of course, but the odds of it being a great deal are not high.
    Morton it is rare that I disagree with you but here I have to. These days wholesalers seem to be in a panic. Perhaps it is because banks have tightened and cut lines of credit, but they seem interested only in representing products that they don’t have to work at all to sell – just take and fill orders, and keep inventory off their warehouse floors. The refrain I hear from winery marketing people (even the big players) is that the expectation is that the winery – not the wholesaler- does the selling.

    There are plenty of wines from small producers that are “great deals” that never get any play. What’s a small producer to do? I recall reading an interview with Bill Foley recently where he explicitly stated that his brand acquisition strategy is intended to create an entity large enough that “the big distributors have to pay attention.” Most of us don’t have the fortune required to make that happen.

    It may be that Lot18 represents the beginning of a shift to a new model for distribution by small producers. Calling it a “release valve for inventory” seems a bit like calling walking a way of getting from point A to point B. For small guys, every single sale is an equally valid and welcome depletion.

  15. All-
    Thank you for the incredible insight into the story; your experience in similar situations and the effortless contrasting this to both Trader Joe’s and/or other industries. I admire Lot 18 from afar as not doing so could be perilous to our business. They have the means, the finances (NEA’s recent $10MM entry ticket never hurts) and certainly the connections. If this is indeed a “release valve for inventory” than it is only a short term fix. Like all businesses they will have to evolve and with their impressive talent pool I’m sure they will. For those of you seeking winemaker remarks that aren’t “lifted”, but actual video taped interviews with the winemaker accompanying each offer, I think we may have something for you at Cellar Angels. Full disclosure: I founded the company. I do like what Lot 18 is doing as they’re really helping the small (less than 7,000cs) producer benefit from a much needed cash infusion.

    The comments are fantastic! Thank you again.

    Martin Cody
    President
    Cellar Angels

  16. It’s easy to make the type of Pinot Noirs you like steve. Please find below the recipe to your enological happiness.

    Step one: Find a grower who’ll allow their fruit to dehydrate and shrivel to a ripeness between 27-29 brix. Crush/destem 40-60% and toss the remaining raisins along with the crispy dead brown stems in to an open top. ADD 5-8 Grams of fake tartaric acid per liter. (which is a craplod if you aren’t aware) This will drop ph to an “acceptable” ferment able level.

    Step two: Add 10% distilled water back immediately just so there’ll be enough water for the raisins to cold soak. Cold soak at 50 degree for 3-7 days adding dry ice on top to prevent premature oxidation.

    Turn off glycol and ferment dry.

    Press off the juice to 60-80% new french oak. Age for only 9-10 months as the VA will surely begin to creep and all that fancy new oak has successfully masked that overly ripe syrupy mouthfeel of that very expensive fruit you paid for with very very expensive oak brls.

    Right before bottling, spin out 2 points of alc in order to drop the adjusted level to only 15.1-15.5%. Buy heavy bottle, bottle and store for 3-5 months… release with an alc of 14.5% to the number monkeys and wait for the sheeple to follow their corporate gatekeepers.

    This recipe should score a 91-94 points.

    There you go. The only real knowledge, skills and abilities needed for this type of adventure is a lack of regard for the fruit and traditional winemaking style.

    Let me tell you it’s a lot harder to make intensely aromatic and flavorful elegant low alc low oaked Pinot that the jet fuel stuff you and your fellow reviewers hold in such high regard. And that is a true statement.

  17. Randy,

    I am sorry…but what you write is simply, factually, incorrect.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  18. Hi Steve,

    I appreciated reading your blog post about Lot18.com, as well as your readers’ comments about the company. I wanted to address several of the questions raised in that discussion.

    First, you suggested that one particular recent offer, the 2006 Hidden Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon, hinted at Lot18 serving as an “inventory valve.” This connotes that we would recommend subpar wine to our members purely for the sake of assisting the producer in generating cash and/or clearing space in the warehouse. Neither is the concern of Lot18; the only goal is to provide high-quality wines at fair prices to our members. Our curator felt that the Hidden Ridge, regardless of vintage or available volume, over-delivers in taste and experience, right now, for its price. That’s why it was selected as an offer to our members. While inventory clearance is a thriving sector of online wine sales, it’s not one in which Lot18 cares to participate.

    Instead, members of our curatorial team visit dozens of wineries each week, tasting through cellar and library vintages as well as current and upcoming releases in order to find the best wines for our members. For every wine that makes it onto Lot18.com, dozens and dozens of others do not.

    To your point about how and where Lot18 features critics’ reviews, it’s true that you won’t find reviews on all of the wines featured on Lot18.com. This is because wines aren’t selected based on ratings or reviews; they are selected if our curators believe that our members will enjoy drinking them. If there do happen to be positive third-party reviews, we share them with our members–and we do so in no different a manner than any other wine retailer. Yet, it does happen that we love a wine, our members love that wine and not a single critic did.

    As someone who worked at both Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast, you are familiar enough with tasting processes and procedures to know that, sometimes, great wines get low scores from critics; other times, poor wines earn high scores. For Lot18, however, we simply do not recommend wines that we wouldn’t drink ourselves–regardless of praise or derision by a critic.

    Building on this, you asked in your post why Lot18 features blurbs on the vineyards and winemakers. We do this, in some cases, for the same reason that a person visits a tasting room in Napa or Sonoma seeking more than just a splash of wine–they want a story. Who made the wine? How? Why? Where? In many cases, we believe this information is worthwhile and helps inform our members with their purchase decisions. To the point above, if Lot18 were an “inventory valve,” we wouldn’t bother with helping a winery or winemaker tell his or her story.

    Mostly, however, this practice helps foster a connection between the winery and our members. In a previous blog post of yours, “DTC sales help wineries rebound, study suggests” (http://www.steveheimoff.com/index.php/2011/05/26/dtc-sales-help-wineries-rebound-study-suggests/), you stated that smaller wineries struggle to break into the direct-to-consumer market. Lot18 seeks to help facilitate that transition. Many of our winery partners report record numbers of visits to their websites and numerous sign-ups to their direct-mailing lists following sales on our site. We agree, as you do, that wineries must master DTC sales in order to survive; we see Lot18 as part of the solution, not the problem.

    For example, we have already featured seven wines from Darek Trabridge of Old World Winery, one of the up-and-coming young winemakers you featured in a past blog post of yours, “Winemaker hopes and dreams” (http://www.steveheimoff.com/index.php/2010/10/28/winemaker-hopes-and-dreams/).

    Again, we appreciate that you took the time to examine Lot18 on your blog, and we hope you continue to in the future. Many of the questions you raised we often do our best to explore and answer in our own blog at http://blog.lot18.com. Please feel free to follow our posts as we follow yours, and discuss the issues of the wine world we address in our space.

    Thanks,

    Dini Rao
    VP of Products
    Lot18

  19. Adam,

    My specific details may not be 100% accurate, but the fact is major winewriters love soft, low acid high alc high new oak Pinot Noir that generally will not age. I’m opening 07’s that are falling flat from MAJOR well known producers. These are expensive wines that with a mere few years in bottle taste sweet and syrupy. This you cannot argue against. History doesn’t lie Adam. Look at the coorelation between high alc, low acid overly oaked PN and their scores. The same guys who claim to love PN on their websites are the same one’s who neglect the tiny clusters oon the vine and then tweek it once it gets to the crushpad.

    Why do so many offer “brix at harvest” in the high 20’s and then there’s a final alc of only 14.1 or 14.5? Wheres the difference? Either they’re lying, adding water or both. And even at 14+, these wines are platauing as they enter the bottle… so it taste to me.

    The fact is, IF one did much of what I mentioned here, they’ll probably receive a favorable score or point or medal. Pinot Noir has become a joke… a syrupy cocktail that won’t benefit from years in the bottle = a CALIFORNIA COCKTAIL. There’s nothing wrong with these types of wines. they fill a certain segment but they certainly don’t belong in a conversation about world-class wine.

  20. Randy,

    I agree with you, your specific details are not 100% accurate. Why post something you don’t know?

    As far as major wine writers go, looking at subscription figures the wine writer with the biggest potential following is…Eric Asimov of the NY Times, who rags on the type of wine you also criticize.

    But if you want to look at major wine critics….such as Wine Spectator or Steve Heimoff here with Wine Enthusiast….you will see that many of their lowest rated Pinot Noir are, gasp, over 14% alcohol and picked at high sugars. Everybody looks at the top and nobody looks at the bottom….but if you do you see the recipe that you created doesn’t probably lead to a favorable score.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  21. Adam, thanks for pointing out that most people look at top scores, not bottoms. Another thing is that the print edition of Wine Enthusiast typically doesn’t publish the lowest rated wines (80-83). For that, people have to go into the free database.

  22. Randy, I can’t speak for other winemakers, but for me, I look for good acidity in Pinot Noir and one where the oak doesn’t stick out. The best coastal Pinots actually can handle quite a bit of oak, and that’s not usually a problem for me. As for ageability, I seldom recommend holding a California Pinot for longer than 6 years, and even that can be a challenge. But so what? That’s not why people like California Pinot. It’s to drink them fresh and on the young side.

  23. Lots of interesting back and forth here. Lot 18 has some upside, but I have two significant concerns. 1) Shipping wine is fraught with peril of exposure to heat. 2) Smaller wineries enjoying an infusion of cash from Lot 18 commitments should be aware of damaging other venues for their product, read wholesalers and retailers who may be undercut and cease doing business with the wineries entirely. Customers have elephant-like memories for pricing deals and no retailer will continue to carry wines that creates more grief than sales. For more see http://bigeasywines.blogspot.com/2011/06/lot-18-new-outlet-online.html

  24. Alesia Greaves says:

    Thank you Etienne for pointing out some of the hidden costs of producing wine!

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