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Throwaway Thursday: Notes from the road

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Spent part of yesterday blending again with Marcia Monahan, the winemaker at Matanzas Creek. This time, it was putting together the winery’s flagship “Journey” Sauvignon Blanc. This would be a tedious exercise, if one didn’t enjoy it so much, which I certainly do. It makes it all the more pleasant in that Marcia and I agree more than often. It truly is amazing when one particular sample pops! after a string of several that don’t, due merely to the barrel. I can honestly say I never really understood the importance of barrel and toast levels until I began blending with Marcia.

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My sympathies are with the good people of Boston, where I see by today’s forecast it will be bone chilling for at least a week. Meanwhile by contrast (and this isn’t to rub it in, honest), here in Northern California wine country it will be close to 80 this week. This is, as I understand it, because the West is under the influence of a huge high pressure system that’s sending the jet stream “up and over,” as our meterologists call it, into Canada, whence it dips back down into the American Midwest and east coast. I don’t think that’s particularly climate-changy in itself; it’s a question of how persistent the pattern gets. Our drought here in California is temporarily on reprieve, no thanks to record-dry January but to superwet December and a pair of back-to-back February storms. However, if you dig deeper, you find that those storms were warm ones—they call it the Pineapple Express because it comes from Hawaii, not the Gulf of Alaska. This means that, while the Coast got drenched, snow levels in the mountains were quite high—and the Sierra Nevada is where you want that nice, thick snow pack next Spring and Summer, when the runoff will fill the California aqueduct. So far, no luck on that front.

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The Santa Rosa Press Democrat is reporting that the 2014 “Grape Crop Sets Record,” based mainly on “strong demand for top-quality Cabernet Sauvignon.” The value of the North Coast grape crop hit $1.45 billion last year, a new record, and while the paper reminds us that was despite the 2014 crop begin lower than in 2012 and 2013, it still was the third-biggest crop ever.

Well, good for Cabernet Sauvignon! I still love a good one but have reached the point where, most of the time, I’d rather have a Pinot Noir. Meanwhile, the poor Central Valley continues to struggle with maintaining prices and production. Whenever someone says consumers are “drinking less but better,” the viticulturalists from Fresno and Madera must wince.

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It was announced yesterday that Jackson Family Wines has purchased Captûre Wines, the project from Denis and May-Britt Malbec. I had followed their wines quite closely, giving a pair of 95s to two 2009s, the Harmonie Bordeaux blend and the Revelation Cabernet Sauvignon, both of which had mountain intensity and ageability. Following on our acquisition of Siduri, this further fuels the company’s practice of partnering with small, prestigious wineries. Welcome, May-Britt and Denis!

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Glad to see California Lieutenant-Governor Gavin Newsom announce for Governor in 2016. No surprise there: Once Kamala threw her hat in the ring for Senator, The Gavinator was a cinch. He’s likely to win the election, too—I mean, who else is there? He’s young, personable, visionary and made his reputation on gay marriage, which his opponent, I have no doubt, will try to hurt him with, but it won’t work in California. Gavin will be a great friend of wine: his PlumpJack wine empire owns several wineries. Gav is an old—well, I don’t be so presumptuous as to call him a “friend,” but he is an old acquaintance; we go back to the early 1990s when he was this tall, skinny, good-looking kid who wanted to get into the wine biz. So congratulations, Governor-to-be Newsom!

  1. “. . . The Gavinator was a cinch. He’s likely to win the [California governor’s] election, too—I mean, who else is there?”

    Echoes “famous first words” by the leaders of the Democratic Party on the projected presidential candidates circa 2007.

    Who had ever heard of a junior United States Senator from Illinois by the name Barack Obama?

    There will be plenty of competition from within the Democratic Party for California governor.

    “Nature abhors a [political] vacuum.”

  2. “Meanwhile, the poor Central Valley continues to struggle with maintaining prices and production. Whenever someone says consumers are “drinking less but better,” the viticulturalists from Fresno and Madera must wince.”

    This should not be–they need to embrace warm climate viticulture and elevate their efforts. Look how well Sicily is doing recently. Just today I was in a class in UCD listening to a very impressive presentation on “precision viticulture” practices in the Southern San Joaquin Valley, using satellite imagery to manage vineyards on a vine by vine basis, but it was Cabernet Sauvignon they were testing.

    They could be achieving so much more with the varietals appropriate to their region!

  3. Bill,

    And did each each individual vine in that “precision viticulture” vineyard have its own dedicated irrigation drip?

    Bob

  4. Bob,
    No the plumbing was such that sections of irrigation line could have flow restricted by devices within the lines that could be controlled by a computer, as guided by imagery (satellites or planes) monitor degree of vigor in adjacent vines. As an area went from weak to normal the flow could be adjusted. This was a prototype in development, not yet in common use.

    But what do you think of my idea that the Central Valley is an under performer, growing too many varieties that do better on the Coast instead of varieties more appropriate to their climate, e.g. acid retaining cultivars?

  5. Bill,

    When I was enrolled in Robert Balzer’s wine appreciation course, I floated the trial balloon idea of visiting his good buddies Ernest Gallo and Julio Gallo in the Central Valley — who were notorious for not hosting visitors.

    I thought it would be an eye-opening experience to see Gallo up close and personal, and dispel some preconceptions. (Alas, it never happened.)

    I suppose that if you are cranking out wine by the gazillions of gallons, you need to go where large tracks of flat, arable land are affordable and can be machine harvested. And historically that was the Central Valley.

    But Gallo did wise up and buy land in Sonoma for their Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and and Cabernet program.

    Bob

  6. Bob,

    What I am getting at is what if the San Joaquin stepped out of the box (so to speak) and tried a white variety like Verdelho, which retains acidity in a hot climate. Or any one of a number of red varieties that do well in hot regions; e.g. I have tasted serious Aglianico from Valle de Guadalupe in Baja. Why not in Bakersfield or Madara?

  7. Bill.

    The venture might be a success from a viticultural and vinicultural perspective — and fail miserably from a marketing perspective.

    A consumer’s “top of mind awareness” of wine grape varieties is largely limited by one’s exposure to grocery store procured wines.

    And that means White Zinfandel and Moscato and Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.

    (See the exhibit labeled “Where Do Frequent Wine Drinkers Buy Wine?” in the Wines & Vines article by Paul Franson titled “Wine Consumers Thirsty for Other Beverages.” The second leading seller of wines are supermarkets/grocery stores.

    Link: http://www.winesandvines.com/template.cfm?section=news&content=145997 )

    Grocery stores lack “taste makers” and “opinion leaders” working in the wine aisle. So the consumer is on her/his own discovering new wines and new experiences.

    Those grocery store shelves lack “shelf talkers” to educate the public. The vast majority of bottles on the shelf lack neck hangers complementing (or replacing) shelf talkers. And too many wine bottle labels do a poor job of using that “real estate” to educate the public.

    How do you “champion” a grape variety (e.g., Verdelho) that Americans have never heard of, have never tasted, and probably don’t even know how to pronounce?

    The hardest task assigned to marketing is changing ingrained human behavior. It happens at a glacial pace . . . and sometimes not at all.

    (Recall those years-ago articles in the wine trade and consumer press predicting the “next new thing” being Sangiovese. Some adventuresome vintners embraced it as “the other, other, other red wine.” And consumer adoption went nowhere. Same with Tempranillo. And to a lesser extent Syrah. Turns out the “next new thing” was Pinot Noir – given a huge boast in the popular culture by the movie “Sideways.”)

    The best tool in a beverage marketer’s toolbox is sampling – which overcomes the risk-averse and skeptical nature of consumers by tasting them on the product. But when’s the last time you ever saw a “brand ambassador” positioned behind a table pouring wines in your local grocery store? Trader Joe’s? Target? Walmart? Costco?

    A bet on (say) Verdelho is a bet on the future.

    Retail store shelf placements and consumer sampling comes in “year five” of your business plan . . . after you have grafted over a section of your vineyard in “year one,” harvested your first usable, high quality crop in “year three,” and put your first bottled vintage into distribution in “year five.”

    A “Field of Dreams (build it and they will come)” high stakes wager that (1) distributors will take on your product, (2) grocery store chains will give it shelf space, and (3) the public will embrace the new grape variety.

    I wish I could be more sanguine about the success of new product introductions. But that is the Darwinian world of consumer packaged goods retailing.

    (Here’s an alternative scenario – one to gladden the heart of Bill Haydon. Test the waters before committing to an “all in bet” on replanting a vineyard. Strike a deal to import Verdelho under a brand name you set up and control, sell it as a product line extension of your existing domestic portfolio, and see if it gains traction in the marketplace. If the answer is yes, then sit down with your CPA/CFO, pencil out the numbers, and decide if it is more profitable to make it domestically or continue to import it.)

    Bob

  8. Let me correct this misstatement . . .

    “The second leading seller of wines are supermarkets/grocery stores”

    . . . by substituting this:

    “The second most frequently shopped stores for wines are supermarkets/grocery stores”

    Categorically, the supermarkets/grocery stores chains across the country sell more units of wine than all independent wine stores combined.

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