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On distributors, and the IPOB-ization of wine

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When I first started writing about wine, professionally, it was for Wine Spectator, but they also wanted me to write for their trade magazine, Market Watch, which I was happy to do, because it was more work for an underpaid freelance writer. I quickly learned to like that back end of the business, the intricacies of sales, marketing, P.R. and all the rest. I found it intellectually stimulating, like a chess game—and I still do.

I soon began to be invited to the numerous tastings in and around San Francisco. Among these were events specially designed by and for distributors and their clients. These were trade-heavy events. While there could be some pretty good wines served, most of the distributors didn’t seem particularly interested in them. They just wanted to be told how to sell them (and perhaps they also wanted just to drink wine and eat some good food!).

Those early experiences colored my view of distributors. As far as I could tell, they could just as easily have been selling widgits as wine. They didn’t care about the product itself (although they were willing to work hard), they wanted to maximize their sales. It was a rather demoralizing experience for me to realize that wine was being represented, through this important face to buyers, by such indifferent people.

Over the years, though, my attitude has softened. Every once in a while I complained (especially in this blog) about the inequities built into the distribution system, and I generally supported my friend, Tom Wark, in his American Wine Consumer Coalition efforts to bypass or improve the three-tiered system, which I felt unfairly discriminated against smaller wineries. However, every time I did so, someone I respected—usually a winemaker—would write in and tell me that I was failing to understand all the good that distributors do. So I began to double-check my premises, since some of these winemakers who were taking the time to write were highly respected by me.

So I’ve been open to re-evaluating my views on distributors for some time now, although I have to say my emotional sympathies still lie with Tom. Last Friday, I was invited down to participate in a meeting of Jackson Family Wines’ Southern California distributors. I couldn’t help but be struck by how much more educated—and interested—in wine today’s distributors are compared to their remote ancestors of twenty and more years ago. These people, gathered down in Orange County for a semi-quarterly meeting, struck me as young, really smart, eager and perhaps most of all, passionate about wine. Although I made a few comments, mostly the event was presided over by sommeliers and other wine experts, who led the rather largish group through some fairly serious tastings that everyone seemed to enjoy—and they were blind tastings, at that! The contrast between those widget distributors of the 1990s and these guys could not have been starker, or more welcome to behold.

There seems to be a tendency nowadays for the leaders of these guided tastings to provoke the audience to stretch their tasting vocabulary. For instance, when these leaders ask what flavors people are getting and someone says, “Mushrooms,” the leader asks, “What kind of mushroom?” I understand this approach, which gets the audience more intimately involved and stimulates their analytical powers. This isn’t particularly my way, since I tend to be more generalized about flavors, and I feel that structure is anyway more important that individual flavors, “structure” including the way the wine feels in the mouth, which is all-important. But if people want to talk about the differences between shiitake and hen-of-the-woods, that’s fine by me.

How much smarter and more educated everyone in the food chain has become: not just distributors, but bartenders, restaurant staff and, mostly importantly of all, the consumer.

* * *

Finally—last words!—remember some years back when everybody was talking about the “Parkerization” of wine, that term referring to a supposed overripeness, over-oakiness and high alcohol content of wine? Well, whether or not it ever was true, nowadays I perceive another style-driving trend: Let’s call it the IPOB-ization of wine (after the In Pursuit of Balance organization). I will begin with a question: Are we seeing some vintners, particularly those producing Pinot Noir, now deliberately picking their grapes underripe, in order to appeal to that small, but influential, cadre of writers, critics and sommeliers who insist that Pinot Noir must be low in alcohol in order to be balanced? I invite your answers. For myself, I think the answer is “yes.” And, as a certain Mr. Parker recently implied, underripe fruit merely results in underripe wine.

Now, I haven’t really been clear on what “In Pursuit of Balance” means since I went to their last tasting, in San Francisco, and Rajat Parr said (I paraphrase), “Some people think IPOB means we only like wines below 14% but that’s not true.” Well, I suppose, then, that “balance” can be applied to any wine, of any alcoholic strength, so what else is new? I’ve never heard of anyone being in favor of unbalanced wines. Then I was reading, in the new April issue of The Tasting Panel (and what an interesting ‘zine that’s turning out to be) a little article by Randy Caparosa in which he made some salient points, most notably that, at the last World of Pinot Noir (which I attended; I was underwhelmed by Raj’s Domaine de la Côte Pinot Noir), “There is still talk of the ‘high-alcohol problem’ in American Pinot Noirs, but in the vast majority of 200-plus wines tasted [at WOPN], an overweening sense of alcohol or ripeness just wasn’t’ there.”

Indeed. One could, I guess, argue that IPOB has had its intended effect, of driving down alcohol levels. On the other hand I could point out that high alcohol per se hasn’t been a problem in good Pinot Noir for years. Still isn’t.

  1. Re IPOB. It might be instructive to read what the Hosemaster of Wine Blog has to say about IPOB. He probably agrees with you, but he has a unique way of expressing his opinions.

  2. No sane person would argue against a tier for distribution. And Tom Wark certainly doesn’t. But sanity also argues for being given the CHOICE if you are a microwinery or brewery. It works for one type of larger production portfolio like Jackson Family (didn’t Jess start his own distributorship, Regal?) but oftentimes less so for limited production wineries. Americans just don’t like to be forced to do something against their perceived best interests. This all seems self evident.

  3. Steve,

    The whole IPOB movement has been an interesting one to follow. Yep, there was a time – perhaps 5 years ago – where the pendulum had swung and winemakers were making pinot in a bigger, bolder, higher alcohol, less ‘balanced’, and less food-friendly style.

    Are there still some doing this? Of course – just as there are still wineries making 15% roses, cabernet from areas where it really shouldn’t be grown, and viogniers that are so high in alcohol, you have to keep them away from open flames!!!

    That said, and as you pointed out, those are now the ‘exceptions’ to the rules. The ‘big’ pinots may still exist, but I found very few ‘out of balance’, even if there alcohols approach or cross the dreaded 15% baseline (or 14% according to some folks).

    Due to this, it may be that some in the ‘IPOB’ camp (and I’m just calling it this, because there are plenty of producers that, for one reason or another, are not currently invited to pour at IPOB because their wines are not deemed ‘fit’ to pour there) are pushing the envelope lower and lower to differentiate themselves from slightly higher alcohol wines that walk the ‘balance tight rope’ nicely.

    Can a wine be too low in alcohol? Heck yeah – why do you think chaptalization is allowed in places like Burgundy? They realize that in bad years – years where they are hit with rains early in harvest, forcing them to pick much earlier than they wanted to – they need to add sugar to bring the alcohol levels higher to achieve ‘balanced’ wines.

    It’ll be interesting to track what happens over the next few years as Mother Nature continues to throw us curve balls. It’s one thing to pick at lower brix levels when the grapes are showing ‘physiological ripeness’ and another to simply pick at lower brix numbers to hit some ‘magical’ final alcohol number.

    Cheers!

  4. I would second Charlie’s suggestion – but be ready to blurt out the wine in your mouth!

  5. Re: distributors — I have spent the last few years working for wine distributors and I can say that many of the observations you have made still do apply — but we must make the distinction between the “big boy” distributors (who move millions of cases on a national basis) and the smaller, regional distributors.

    The smaller distributors are the key to wider reach for the smaller wineries, those making the artisanal product in the hundreds or thousands of cases. Smaller, nimbler and generally dancing where the elephants do NOT dance, the regional distributor generally has a staff that is more educated and passionate about the product they are selling. We know that most of the larger accounts that have a national reach generally do not have a place for the Loire Valley Cab Franc or the Willamette Valley Riesling.

    The “big boy” distributors are all about the numbers and their staff is driven to move product — if they can’t get an account to take at least 10 cases and stack it in a prominent location in their store, their sales manager will ride them mercilessly. Small wineries get lost in the huge books of these national companies and it takes someone with a more focussed approach to be able to match accounts with their wines.

    For some of us, wine is more than a widget –

  6. Steve,

    There is a difference in deliberately “picking underripe” vs. picking at a lower brix level. One does not necessarily mean the other. If the fruit is underripe the resulting wine will not be balanced (without manipulation), but compared to the high octane Pinot Noir out in the market I would propose there are a lot who pick at unnecessarily higher brix levels (using the same context of your underripe comment, perhaps they are picking “overripe” fruit) then adding water, acid, etc. to bring back in balance, although it being done by human hands.

    My take on IPOB is more of a focus on less manipulation and showing that consumers will, indeed, enjoy wines of elegance, with lower alcohols (which is just a byproduct, not a target) and maintaining acid levels as naturally as possible and showing respect to the fruit. However, I hate using the “natural” word here since it has it’s own connotations. I don’t think IPOB-ers do it to seek the somms and writers you mention, but rather there are interested Somms and writers because there is something worth being interested in and writing about. Unique wines are being made that represent where they are from and invites introspection, as wine should when enjoyed with like-minded consumers.

  7. Ed,

    In listening to the IPOB seminar on ripeness, one of the participants was asked about picking decisions, and he basically said that if the grapes got to a certain brix point, he would pick them to ensure his final alcohol was where he wanted it to be. This somewhat counters one of the points you were making.

    And as far as ‘less manipulation’ goes, I would venture to guess that there are many many producers who are being ‘less maniuplative’ now than ever before but are not part of IPOB.

    Just my $.02 . . .

    Cheers!

  8. Which LA Cote underwhelmed? Because one of the ones I tested was ludicrously good, with a finish that was crazy long. I don’t think I tasted all of them, though.

  9. Dude, I don’t remember. One of the wines he was pouring at WOPN.

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