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Quality vs. credulity: One way to make a wine coveted

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If you don’t think that wining and dining tastemakers isn’t one of the keys (if not the key) to boosting a winery’s reputation, then you don’t live in the real world.

I’ll get to examples in a moment, but first, let me explain what I just said. Take two wines that are equal in quality. Give one of them a huge budget to dazzle tastemakers (wine and food writers especially, but also sommeliers, merchants and so on). Let that budget be spent on fantastic tastings with unbelievably good food, held in fancy settings such as hotel ballrooms and four star restaurants. Even better if you can underwrite the attendees’ travel expenses, since wine and food writers aren’t exactly paid very well. As for the other wine–the one without the budget–let it depend on sending a sample out to the same tastemakers. Do you know which wine will be the cause celebre? I do, and it’s not the wine with the puny budget. They’re lucky if they can send a free corkscrew with the sample.

The fact is, dazzling tastemakers and influencers has been the way certain wineries and wine regions got famous to begin with, and it still is. When I wrote my first book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River, Tom Jordan, who created Jordan Winery, told me how he got tastemakers to pay attention. Quote: “Early on, I realized the challenge was, How are you going to get recognized?” What Tom did was to invite restaurateurs, somms, wine merchants, distributors and food and wine writers to the winery (which is one of the showplaces of California wine country) and wow them. “We had guest suites and guest houses and a superb kitchen operation, and we brought chefs in from France to cook,” Tom said, adding, “I knew the wine was never going to taste better than it would in that nice setting…”.

Now, I don’t mean to criticize what Tom did. He had learned well from the Bordelais, who have been plying influencers with goodies for centuries. This is simply how the game is played, and the fact that it works is proved by Jordan’s being one of the top winery brands on American restaurant wine lists, a feat it has replicated for many years.

Which brings us to–where else?–Asia, the El Dorado of today’s wine trade, the Lost City of Gold, only it is no longer a lost city but one that definitely has been discovered and is in the process of being exploited by those who can afford it. Read this article about how the cellarmaster at South Africa’s Rupert & Rothschild (yes, that Rothschild, on the Baron Edmund/Lafite side, meaning there’s a lot of money) flew to Bangkok to host a dinner. I’ll quote just a little from the article so you get a general idea of what you missed: “After a refreshing round of amuse bouche, the action kicked off with the first course: poached seafood, mussel tomato gelee, kaffir lime, dill and smoked herring pearls paired with 2008 Rupert & Rothschild Baroness Nadine [Chardonnay]…Next up was seared Wagyu beef flank, mixed bean salad, rucola [sic] and red currant with raspberry, paired with 2008 Rupert & Rothschild Classique…” etc. etc.

Well, the guy who wrote this up was suitably impressed, for his descriptors were glowing (“perfect,” “classic,” “exciting”), and I bet anybody who read his account went away thinking, “Hmm, I sure would like to get my hands on those Rupert & Rothschild wines.” Which is the point, isn’t it? If you’re a little family winery, you’re not going to be able to wine and dine tastemakers in Bangkok (much less Hong Kong, Taipei, Beijing, Seoul, Tokyo, Singapore, and so on). So you’re probably never going to get on the Asian “A” list, even if you’re making spectacular wine. (It can happen, but it would take a minor miracle.)

So consider today’s posting another in my occasional debunkings of how famous wines get and stay famous. Sometimes it’s about the quality, but sometimes it’s about the credulity of the tastemakers who are gobbling all that smoked salmon and filet mignon and then telling people how fabulous everything was. (Say, I wonder what was in the swag bag at the Bangkok dinner?)

  1. Steve, you’re right. And that sucks for all the little family wineries making quality wine without the budget to feed you smoked salmon and perfectly marbled Wagyu ;) What do you think such wineries can do to overcome this disadvantage? Or can they?

  2. Tom Ferrell says:

    I was a dinner guest of Sally and Tom Jordan along with a couple other winemakers including Andre, his consultant. This was shortly before the release of the inaugural ’76 vintage, so it must have been around 1978. We got the before-dinner tour including Tom’s wine collection and the “Louis 14th and Louis 15th” guest rooms. The chef was Pierre Troisgros (La Pyramide, Maxim’s, les Frères Troisgros) doing over the top, overly rich Burgundian fare. Vintage Champagne, Bordeaux, Jordan cab, fois gras and oysters (on the same plate with a sweet sauce), duck, rich dessert, petit fours…a little silly, but you get the picture. Flower arrangements at the table were so large it was a little hard to see the other guests.

    The first impression was embarrassingly conspicuous consumption. But the lasting impression was gratitude for being recognized and included as part of the release, appreciation for the kind hospitality, and an association of Jordan with important wine and important cooking. So when Jordan Winery came up in conversation, there has never been anything but praise from my lips. It was obvious that was the plan, and I was happy to play my part.

    But this could have been accomplished just as well at a picnic table, warm conversation, the new wine, and steak pommes frites… maybe with more of the wine for dessert.

  3. Colorado, I think each of us has to play the cards we’re dealt.

  4. Here Here Steve!
    Why don’t you break the mold and visit some small guys with great wines and “puny budgets”?
    You’re more than welcome to come visit.

    Albini Family

  5. My family did it similarly, but without the fanciness. My dad build a bar called the “Big Dog Saloon” out of an old chicken coop. People still talk about the parties back in the 80′s.

  6. Or, could critics seek out less “fortunate” wines/wineries rather than focus on attending tastings put on by big money wineries and distributors? Obviously, that is not going to do much, but it is better than nothing at all…

  7. Context certainly helps as does a bit of psychological payola. I’m invited to a friend’s tasting at his house (in the next few weeks) that will be hosted by a winery that they favor. I’m a bit reluctant to go . . . .

    tom

  8. Steve–

    How was Bangkok? I’ll bet you get a lot of those overseas trips with the fois gras and the $1,000 bottles.

    Oh, wait. You are the California guy and you drive yourself up and down the coast and taste blind. And it does not matter whether the winery is large or small, new paradigm or old paradigm.

    It seems to me that small wineries in CA are very lucky that those of us who taste blind and pay our own ways exist for them. We don’t let labels or money speak. We let the wines speak. If Albini wants more attention, it should send it wines to the folks who don’t care who made the wine. All we care about is whether it tastes good.

  9. Charlie, true, but everything does taste better with foie gras!

  10. Hi Charlie, not looking for too much attention, just the right amount from the right folks. Unfortunately, we cannot market too much as most of our wine is alocated. (We’ve only produced <500 cases each of our 20 years).
    I respect you greatly and love what both you and Steve are doing. Next time you're in the Russian River area, please give us a call, we'd love to have you over. We can blind with any Zin and Merlot you'd like and I hope polenta will suffice.

    Kindly,
    Albini Family

  11. Donn Rutkoff says:

    If you want to make wine, you need to know the chemistry. If you want to sell wine, you need a marketing plan. As in other fields. Ask artisans who try to make a living making jewelry, art, sculpture, music, or, uh, writing. Pretty basic but often overlooked in agriculture.

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