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Staying relevant: for wineries, it can be tricky

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W. Blake Gray wrote, on his blog, a pretty good book review on Loam Baby: A Wine Culture Journal’s inaugural edition, so I won’t, not just because Blake did but because I’d rather comment on some of the remarks that Greg Brewer made in the author’s (R.H. Drexel, a pseudonym) interview with him.

Greg is, of course, the winemaker at Brewer-Clifton, Diatom, and Melville (did I forget any?). He’s also emerging as a sort of mentor to a younger generation down in the Santa, err, Sta. Rita Hills (although Greg’s hardly elderly; I don’t think he’s hit 40). I always liked Greg because he was one of the people who welcomed me to Sta. Rita Hills years ago when I first visited, driving me all around and telling me who’s who and what’s what. Reporters depend on the kindness of strangers like Greg, who is no longer a stranger but a friend; I profiled him in my second book, New Classic Winemakers of California: Conversation with Steve Heimoff, and I contact him from time to time with questions about wine, vintages and other things.

Greg has a reputation as an intensely thoughtful guy, a philosopher. He will go all esoteric on you, if you want, but won’t if you don’t. (I also dig his tattoos.) Anyhow, this R.H. Drexel (whoever he is) asked Greg a great question: “How do you stay relevant?”

The issue of staying relevant if you’re a winery or a winemaker obsesses me. The main place I look for clues is Napa Valley,  because of all the wine regions in California, it’s (a) the hardest place to achieve relevance and (b) the hardest place to stay relevant.

This past February I wrote an article in Wine Enthusiast called “The Class of ‘72.” It was about the wineries who began life in 1972. They’ve had a tumultuous ride and not all of them have ended up for the better, sad to say. Some are stronger than ever (Diamond Creek, Caymus, Montelena) while others have languished. There’s no better illustration of “staying relevant” than to look at the Class of ‘72 and see that while some have, others haven’t.

Getting relevant in the first place if you’re in Napa Valley is difficult for multiple reasons. First off, competition is fierce. Does the world really need another $80 or $100 Cabernet Sauvignon (which is probably what you’re going to do if you have a Napa Valley winery)? The economy suggests that, no, it doesn’t. Wineries try to achieve relevance in all sorts of ways, from sending samples to people like me (to get a high score) to not sending samples to people like me (to foster the illusion of exclusivity) to hiring Famous Name growers and winemakers for bragging rights. (It also helps to get an important somm in your corner.) Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. I never feel sorry for new Napa wineries that don’t really make it, because I figure that their owners are rich, and knew what they were getting into, although I’ve been around long enough to know that’s not always the case. Some of them may be rich, but they’re dumb as doorknobs when it comes to selling wine. Either way, I don’t feel sorry for them.

Even if you get relevant it’s hard to remain at the top. I’ll mention two names. Take Chappellet and Trefethen. Both are old wineries (by Napa Valley standards). Both make magnificent wine. Both are intensely relevant to me and to all serious writers. But I wonder if the collectors and showoffs, especially in China, who just want the latest new kid on the block could even be bothered to try Chappellet or Trefethen. That’s a mistake, of course, a big one. Their wines are better than ever. Winemakers learn from their experiences. They seldom make the same mistakes over and over again (well, some do, but not at the level of a Chappellet or Trefethen), and they learn new tricks to make their wines better.

I have no idea how Chappellet and Trefethen stay relevant, or if their owners even try to or care about it. Maybe they’re doing just fine; I hope so. But I’ve seen wineries that were stars for years before their ascent slowed and then they began the long, inevitable descent back to Earth. They couldn’t figure out how to stay relevant and so they didn’t.

In his interview Greg Brewer said he hopes to stay relevant by mentoring a new generation of talented young winemakers. If I were a 21-year old budding winemaker (oh, that would be nice!) I’d certainly hope that Greg would take me under his wing. But I also assume that Greg’s hardly ready to call it quits and just “mentor.” He and his wineries will stay relevant for just as long as he wishes to continue working. After that (and let’s hope it won’t be for many decades), his wineries will reach a turning point: all wineries do when their veteran winemaker dies, moves on or retires.

  1. There are a few wineries to keep your eye on that are new. One of the best to watch (in my opinion) is OM by Oliver Marshall. The wine is outstanding and the winemaker is taking risks. Recently had the OM concrete fermented Sauvignon Blanc and it is a delight. As is the Dolcetto Rose. Definitely a winery to keep in your radar. I’m a fan!

  2. Loam Baby, good read. Kind of in the spirit of Lucky Peach.

    How does anyone stay relevant? It’s part smart moves (risk) and part chance.

  3. The question of which wineries are relevant and which are not is harder to judge than you think. You and I are not out there in the real world of relevance much. We taste everything and we issue our opinions, but we don’t do much market research.

    If we did, we might conclude that Rombauer is relevant because it sells so much wine and Diamond Creek, despite making good wine for four decades, is not especially relevant by any modern standard.

    I was surprised by your inclusion of Trefethen and Chappellet in the “possibly less relevant” category. To my way of thinking, Trefethen is a quite vibrant winery with a style that has become more relevant as the world looks for sleeker, more lithely balanced wines. And, I also think that Trefethen wines have gotten better over time. It is hard for me to think of them as not relevant.

    Chappellet is a different case. They sit up there in the fancy hills to the east of the Napa Valley and are surrounded by fancy, fancier and fanciest names and their Cabs and Chards remain attractive in my tastings. Maybe I am missing the point, but if relevance is at least partially driven by a continuity of good wine that has adjusted to changes in winemaking technique over time, then Chappellet is also relevant in my scheme of things.

    All of which brings me to wineries that have fallen out of favor because their wines have not kept up. To me, those are the ones that are not relevant if we define relevant by constancy and quality. Heitz and Freemark Abbey would be poster children for the loss of relevance by those measures. Jordan and Sonoma-Cutrer over in that other county (which is also relevant in my view) hit my list of reduced relevance.

    I have no idea how much wine any of those brands are selling. All I know is that they do not measure up in the way I would measure relevance.

    All of this is meant to say that the term is a tricky one, and it depends on how it is defined. I would guess that some folks would only measure relevance by the new, hot styles and wineries and would find Scholium Project, Harvest Moon, Donkey and Goat, Pey and Peay to be much more relevant in today’s world than anything from the “established” groups and places.

  4. I must confess, I look to the world of hip-hop when I think of relevance and lessons to learn and apply in the world of wine. Hip-Hop artists generally are relevant for a very finite period of time. And yet, Jay-Z, at 42 years of age, is as relevant as ever.

    At 30 he wrote a song called “30 Something” where he gives grief to those attempting to take his place,

    “I know everything you wan do
    I did all that by the age of 21
    by 22 I had that brand new Ack Coupe
    I guess you can say that my legend just begun
    I’m, young enough to know the right car to buy yet grown enough not to put rims on it
    I got that six-duce with curtains so you can’t see me and I didn’t even have to put tints on it
    I don’t got the bright watch I got the right watch
    I don’t buy out the bar, I bought the night spot”

    Almost twelve years later he released The Blueprint 3, selling over 2 million copies, and on that CD he included many young artists (Drake, J. Cole, Kid Cudi, more) in the songs. The same type of artists he was taking on a decade earlier.

    What this tells me is that Greg Brewer has a lot of it right when he talks about mentoring young winemakers. To remain relevant, to remain on top, you have to know your situation, and know when to challenge others and when to work with others.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  5. I most appreciate this article as this is an on-going interest of mine. It is tricky to stay relevant and staying relevant while embracing, researching, and understand the past is even more tricky. I have been working on this for the past decade at Hanzell Vineyards. Bob Sessions made the wines here for 28 years and then consulted 8 more years. Two of his last big projects – besides mindful daily attention to the vineyards and wines – were to dream up a new design for a one ton fermentor that would work even better than the first ones ever produced here in the 50’s – then plant a new pinot noir vineyard on a steep slope with 11 different rootstocks and clones, and lastly, a new Chardonnay vineyard back to our roots – hanzell (wente) clone on st. george rootstock. Pretty relevant now as we study the different clone / rootstock characteristics. Finding the “right” winemakers too was also a challenge to embrace a house style / tradition – understand it – then start taking it even higher in translating this land into wine. It is a tricky practice to stay relevant and then to spread that story. Thanks Steve!

  6. Dictionary.com lists this as the definition of relevance.
    rel·e·vance  /ˈrɛləvəns/ Show Spelled[rel-uh-vuhns] Show IPA
    noun
    the condition of being relevant, or connected with the matter at hand: Some traditional institutions of the media lack relevance in this digital age.

    Steve,

    Based on the definition of relevance, any discussion of the term should consider a wider spectrum of possibilities. As applied to wine brands the term can mean completely different things. Some producers may consider themselves relevant for the reasons you stated, while others may feel the same way for entirely opposite objectives such as having wide distribution and market penetration. Charlie mentioned some brands (even though I hardly consider them new), that do represent relevance in their distinctive niches although it would be a stretch to group them into any specific category.

    Regarding Drexel, he/she mailed me a copy of the new magazine and I like the image-rich style and commitment to doing something different to make us all think about the people in wine on a little more personal level.

  7. David Sharp says:

    Charlie Olken mentions Sonoma-Cutrer and Jordan as two wineries on his “list of reduced relevance”, but also mentions he “has no idea how much wine any of those brands are selling”.

    In the April 2012 Wine & Spirits magazine “Top 50 Wines in Restaurants”, Sonoma-Cutrer and Jordan are both #1 in by the bottle restaurant sales in their varietal category. They overall rank #2 and #3 in the Top 50 for 2011 sales.

    Neither of these wineries has been on my list of relevance for many years. Clearly, though, they are still doing something right with the dining public.

  8. David,

    Thanks for digging up the data which elaborates on my comment about market penetration. Those W&S lists are always educational to read. I think it reinforces Steve’s point about a Sommelier (as corporate buyer, or consultant) being involved as a part of the decision as these are the types of wines you see at restaurants who have a regional, or even national presence. Arguably, they are buying lots of pallets and for this market the drivers are cost and consistency.

    Sometimes in our efforts to be relevant as critics/writers/bloggers we may not fully appreciate there are brands that have had a long-entrenched on-premise marketplace presence that over time serve to raise the awareness of growing regions, and types of wine. Their success has a lot to do with “raising all the ships” even though some are ocean liners, others sporty speedboats.

  9. David Sharp, of course you are correct in the data. However, “relevance” from a critic’s point of view may be very different from “sells well.” I’m not making any point about Sonoma-Cutrer or Jordan, just saying.

  10. Dear Jean Sessions, many of us respect Hanzell and hope you don’t go the route of big, alcoholic, oaky Chardonnays. Hanzell always has stood for balance, elegance and ageworthiness and that should be your mantra going forward.

  11. Steve – happy to see your inclusion of Trefethen. While I think Charlie has a point about whether they ever fell out of relevance, they certainly seem overlooked at times when you think of what people visit when they head to Napa. I have been recommending them for years to people who visit us and are looking for a Napa experience, but maybe without the hype and largesse of many Napa wines. They strike a nice balance in presentation and wine style. Quintessentially both Napa and California, or at least what they ought to be.

    Tyler

  12. David Sharp says:

    Steve, you are correct that relevance for a critic and relevance in sales are two distinctly different things. As a very long time consumer of wine, I tend to see relevance of a winery or brand from more your perspective.

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