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Tuesday Twaddle: “Offloading” brands, and the old spinning cone

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When is it time for a winery to “offload” underperforming brands?

It happens. You’ve had a line, or SKU, in the market for years, but for some reason, it’s never gained traction. So the hard decision must be faced: Is it time to pull the plug on Grandma?

This is the situation Treasury Wine Estates is facing. The Australian company, which lost more than $100 million in 2013-2014, has brands “that [are] not a priority and may be retired [or] offloaded,” according the industry publication, The Drinks Business.

This can never be an easy decision for a big company like TWE. Companies love all their brands, the same way parents love all their children. You can’t throw an underperforming child under the bus, of course, but companies aren’t families, they’re business; and sometimes, “retiring non-priority brands”, or repurposing them in some way, is the only way to stay healthy.

 

* * *

Does this shock you? It shocks me. “One in four bottles of Californian Pinot Noir and Chardonnay have been through the industrial alcohol removal process supplied by ConeTech in the past year.” That’s another report by The Drinks Business, which adds that the spinning-cone process of lowering the alcohol content of wine is more popular than ever because “winemakers would rather take out alcohol from a ripe wine than risk creating lighter, possibly greener wines from harvesting earlier for naturally lower abvs.”

Well, as Dana Carvey’s character, The Church Lady, used to say on Saturday Night Live, Isn’t that special?

I’ve written before that I don’t mind some technological intervention to produce sound, clean, drinkable wines. These are what Americans want. Critics denounce them as Franken-wines, but to me, that just seems derogatory and mean. Besides, the truth is, since this de-alcoholization is done secretly, no one can ever know just which wines have passed through the spinning cone, so before you give such a wine 96 points and then have to appear foolish when someone outs you, restrain thy criticism.

However, I will venture to say that winemakers are resorting to this somewhat risky procedure because the public drumbeat against higher-alcohol wines has reached such a fever pitch that they feel they have no choice. Many of them, themselves, probably hate themselves for doing it—for giving in. Some of them may be under orders to do it, by the people who sign their paychecks. It’s hard for me to believe that any winemaker willingly and happily sends her wine to the spinning cone.

Speaking of those “greener wines” that are the potential result of picking early—which is the natural way to produce lower-alcohol wines—I’ve tasted some of them at big Pinot Noir tastings, and they’re dreadful. Well, I suppose if you like dried oregano, mint and green tomatoes, they’re all right, but if you prefer cherries and raspberries (which I do), you’ll be disappointed.

Thus we find ourselves staring directly at the schizophrenia running through our modern California wine business. The bullet quote in The Drinks Business article is this: “The consumer preference is for riper style wines, with juicy fruit, but consumers want this with more moderate alcohol levels.” Someone should politely tell consumers you can’t get ripe fruit without high brix, which in turn translates into healthy alcohol.

But that’s not a message that consumers want to hear, and so producers—caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place—increasingly are turning to the spinning cone. And if California goes back to a series of warm vintages, like we used to have, we’ll see even more wines spun out.


How about some fruit juice with that Chardonnay?

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It must drive some winemakers crazy to hear that two-thirds of younger wine drinkers (ages 25 to 40) in America are mixing their wine with fruit juice, that nearly half are making club soda-based “cocktails” with wine, and 46% actually add ice to their vino!

Those are some of the findings from a new consumer survey by E&J Gallo on “the current state of Americans’ wine drinking attitudes and behaviors.”

Things might not be as dismal as those anecdotal tales of Chinese pouring Coca Cola into their Lafite or vice versa, but a hard-working winemaker who has studied long and hard figuring out how to create wines of terroir cannot be blamed for tearing her hair out when she learns that a 20-something is mixing her Chardonnay with an orange-peach-mango drink from Safeway.

Well, that’s kids for you! I, myself, have done all the above: on a hot summer day I’ve been known to make a wine cooler, even to the extent of adding a couple ice cubes from the freezer. I’ve put sparkling water into red wine on occasion, and thoroughly enjoyed the results.

It sounds sacrilegious, but why should we not feel free to fiddle with our wine? We paid for it, it’s our appetites we’re whetting, and there’s no law that says you can’t. After all, you can go to the finest restaurant in the world, and still feel that your food needs a little more seasoning. That’s not a criticism of the chef, it’s just personal preference. Nobody thinks twice about adding a little freshly-ground pepper to Thomas Keller’s sweet corn velouté, do they? What’s the difference between that and putting a splash of fruit juice into your wine?

I guess the bottom line is that we should all chill about wine more than we do. We get so uptight and fussy about it, no wonder wine seems like a huge and risky puzzle to so many people. I like this statement from the Gallo study: “Unlike previous generations, [younger wine drinkers are] seemingly unbound by traditions that have often governed wine.” That’s just fine with me. I love the good traditions behind wine—the history, the culture,  the magic of food-and-wine pairing, the way wine encompasses so many aspects of human knowledge—but there really is some silly baggage we should jettison, and one of the silliest is the utter seriousness, amounting almost to an autopsy, that accompanies some aspects of wine appreciation, especially at the high end.

Anyway, lest winemakers despair that their art and craft is being sluiced away by juice, take comfort: I think the Gallo findings are probably exaggerated. It may be true, as the study says, that 66% of younger drinkers mix fruit juice with their wine, but I doubt very much that they do it all the time, or even most of the time. Probably, they do it a little bit, same as I do. If someone had asked me “Do you ever mix fruit juice with wine?” I would have answered “Yes,” and then hoped they’d follow up with, “How often,” to which I would have replied, “Not very much at all, and only when it’s hot.” I suspect that most wine drinkers buy and drink wine for the reason people always have: Because wine is damned good, in fact irreplaceable, all by itself.


My thoughts on the S.F. Chronicle’s Top 100 Wines of 2014

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Of the San Francisco Chronicle’s Top 100 Wines of 2014,

  • 9 of the 12 Chardonnays have alcohol below 14%
  • 13 of 16 Other Whites have alcohol below 14%
  • 8 of 9 Sparkling Wine, Rose and Others have alcohol below 14%
  • 18 of 23 Pinot Noirs have alcohol below 14%

Did these wines make the cut because they really are the “top” wines of the vintage, or because the alcohol is low, which is where Wine Editor Jon Bonné prefers it to be?

Jon did select numerous Cabernet Sauvignons, red Rhone-style wines, Zinfandels and Other Reds that have well above 14% alcohol, but I suppose that’s because he had to include those varieties on his list, and for the most part, those grapes just don’t make good wine unless the brix is elevated enough to produce wines in the 14%s and even approaching if not exceeding 15%.

I’m simply puzzled. There are so many great Pinots and Chardonnays out there that don’t fit Jon’s restricted mold. And what’s up with that Calera 2012 Central Coast Pinot that made the list? At 14.6%, it’s easily the highest-alcohol Pinot of Jon’s bunch, but it certainly isn’t a Top 100 Wine of the year. I reviewed it last March 1, just a week before leaving my job at Wine Enthusiast, and gave it 86 points. It’s just what you’d expect: Not Josh Jensen’s top Pinot, not anywhere close to it, but his least expensive ($26), a nice everyday sipper that’s a blend of multiple vineyards along the Central Coast. (I think Josh must be praising the Gods of Caprice for that one!)

Haven’t we ridden this low-alcohol train about as far as it can usefully take us? There’s something fundamentally mashugana about it. I use the word “mashugana,” which is of Yiddish origin, deliberately, for in my version of street parlance, it means, not just “crazy,” but nonsensical. For it’s nonsensical to demand that California wine be picked underripe, just to satisfy the intellectual inclinations of a small band of adherents.

Jon himself seems not to sense the inconsistencies in his approach. In his introduction to the Top 100 article (after mentioning he’d hung out recently with Steven Spurrier), he tells us that, back in 1976, California wine “was as good as French” (a fact obvious to anyone after Cali wine swept the Paris Tasting). Then he adds that, whilst in London, “Our [i.e. California’s] wine promise was again unmistakable.” In fact, repeating a theme he’s held for some years, he trumpets “This is a golden moment for American wine,” which presumably means California wine, or certainly West Coast wine, “which is the scope of our annual Top 100 Wines.”

Well, if California wine was great 38 years ago, and has been in a “golden moment” for the few years that Jon’s been praising it, are we then to assume that between 1977 and 2008 or 2009, California wine was bad, unbalanced, irregular? I don’t think any credible person could claim that. Certainly our wines are wonderful now (the best really are world class), but they were wonderful in the 1970s and 1980s (when I started paying attention to them) and they were wonderful in the 1990s and 2000s (when I was paid to review them). They were wonderful through the second week of March of this year, when I left my old job, and they’re wonderful now, although I will confess I no longer taste as widely as I used to nor as broadly as Jon. But how much can have changed since last March? I would say California is in a golden century, not just a moment.

It takes, I think, a special form of mental jujitsu to dismiss higher-alcohol California wine, as Jon does, and then to come out with a statement like “Eight years ago, it would have been hard to imagine a wine like the 2013 Lo-Fi Cabernet Franc,” a wine that made Jon’s list. Well, it took me all of 40 seconds to go to my database and find Jonata’s 2007 El Alma de Jonata Red, a wine that is largely Cabernet Franc. I gave it 96 points, and while I don’t know precisely what the alcohol was, I really don’t care, either. And how about Lang & Reed? Great Cab Franc house, and has been for years. I could also mention Merryvale, Pride Mountain, Jarvis (both the estate grown and Will Jarvis’ Science Project), Peju, Constant and La Jota. All great Cab Francs. There was a Niebaum-Coppola 2002 Cabernet Franc that was so good, I still remember it. But perhaps Jon never tried it; he only arrived at the Chronicle in 2006.

I don’t mean to pick on Jon or anybody else. Shortly after he came to the Chronicle, I invited him to dinner, because I thought we Bay Area geeks should all be friends. He’s a perfectly nice guy. But I just don’t get this addiction to below 14% wines. Blind tasting clearly is the way to figure out what’s really going on—just ask Raj Parr and Adam Lee, if you know what I mean and I think most of you do. (Hint: World of Pinot Noir, 2011.)

If the Chron’s tasting panel really were tasting blind, their list wouldn’t be so heavy on the under-14% wines. It’s just not fair to be so harsh against all the others. I thought critics weren’t supposed to let their personal preferences affect their reviews. Have times changed?


A short history of why Cabernet is King in America, and why that could be changing

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Whenever people of similarity spend most of their time together they tend to develop the same esthetic tastes. This is known as class identification and has been developed through evolution to keep tribes cohesive.

When it comes to wine one singular and rather insulated tribe defined for centuries what was good and bad. This tribe was Caucasian, Western European, male and wealthy, and thus deeply conservative in its social and political outlook. It consisted mainly of the British upper classes, an amalgam of landed gentry, aristocracy, academics and clergy. What they favored was Bordeaux. Without this group of what, today, we call tastemakers or gatekeepers, Bordeaux likely would not have reached the pinnacle of wine fame it  still enjoys today.

The tastemakers eventually branched out, a little bit, to appreciate a few others wines: Burgundy, Port and Champagne, but Bordeaux remained their obsession and exclusive province. When our own country, America, was formed, it was mainly by the descendents of those Britishers, which is why we saw the founding fathers similarly obsessed with Bordeaux . (Madeira too appealed to them, but there were other economic reasons for that.)

As long as America remained a fairly tight little country, with poor internal communications, the tastes of these original British (and some German) founders dominated the country’s esthetic. (We might credit the Germans with establishing the beer culture that has always gone hand-in-hand with the wine culture, and more than occasionally dominated it.)

Even as late as the 1960s, the country’s internal communication was fairly dismal. The large newspaper chains tended to speak with one voice; wine writing and criticism remained in its infancy, with a “preaching to the choir” mentality in which, yet again, Bordeaux was extolled, now joined by its California cousin, Cabernet Sauvignon. Some insiders understood that it would take a revolution to shatter this template, but what would the revolution be?

We know now: The internet. More specifically, the proliferation of social media. All the old institutions in this country are being fractured and disrupted. We see this in politics first and foremost, with the rise of movements as disparate as greens/environmentalists, on the one hand, and the Tea Party on the other. We see it in the wild fractionalization of popular music. No longer do we simply have rock and roll, jazz and classical music; nowadays the most particularist genres appeal to their tribes. Ditto with the multitude of televised broadcast sources we have to choose from: hundreds on my cable system alone. We see it in the very diversity of the American people: California is no longer a white-majority state, but is the first truly rainbow state in the nation.

How long will it be before this stranglehold of a handful of wine varieties is loosened? Just today, a local wine writer and restaurateur writes in the San Francisco Examiner of the world “beyond the 93 percent prime grape varieties” that are “opening the eyes” of sommeliers, leading one to remark that “The potential [for new varieties and wine types] is something we haven’t even scratched the surface on.”

I’m seeing this up close and personal. If you go into a wine bar, nobody is ordering Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay. Visit Uva Enoteca, in the Haight, and you’ll find lagrein, schiava, refosco, gattinara, nero d’avola among reds by the glass. Head over to Hotel Biron, in hot-hot-hot Hayes Valley, and you have your choice of Mendoza Torrontes (a variety that’s quickly grabbing my attention), South Portuguese whites, South African Pinotage, plenty of German Rieslings, and a nice range of a California wine that deserves to be consumed in restaurants more than it is: Zinfandel.

This is encouraging news. It means that a new generation of wine drinkers is willing and able to expand their experience well beyond where their parents and grandparents went. It doesn’t mean that Cabernet, Chardonnay and the rest of the 93% “prime grape varieties” are going away anytime soon. But it does bring a welcome diversity to our wine (and restaurant) scene, and it seems particularly strong here in the Bay Area, where so many cultural trends begin.


Post-Haas School thoughts

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We did my annual tasting and seminar last week at the U.C. Berkeley Haas School of Business’s Wine Club, “we” being myself and Randy Ullum, K-J’s head winemaker.

I’ve long been a fan of Randy. I included him in my 2008 book, “New Classic Winemakers of California,” which I organized by the decade when the winemaker began his or her career. Randy was part of the 1980s section that also included (for good measure), Bob Levy, Heidi Peterson Barrett, and the brains behind Shafer, Doug Shafer and Elias Fernandez.

What a decade that was. I’ll write more about it soon, but for now, I just want to say how the boutique winery movement of the 1960s and 1970s might have fizzled out, were it not for the energy the Eighties gave it. Like a shot in the arm, you might say, with the brilliance of Napa Valley now being—if not joined, then at least other regions were permitted to co-star in the play.

What I admired then about Randy, and still do, was his ability to craft small-lot wines alongside something like Vintner’s Reserve. And not just any small lots, but really great wine. Randy’s also a humorous, affable guy, and it was obvious the future MBAs at Haas liked him. The laughed a lot more at his jokes than they did at mine!

The cool thing about hanging out with the Millennials /Gen Yers who comprise the Haas Wine Club is that they offer a window into tomorrow’s smart wine consumers. They’re also tomorrow’s well-to-do wine drinkers; an MBA from Haas School ain’t chopped liver! So it’s interesting to know what they’re thinking.

Most wine tastings and seminars are given for an older crowd: for example, the folks who pay big bucks to go to something like the World of Pinot Noir. They are more or less settled into their ways. They’ll go to a Burgundy seminar because they like and collect Burgundy. Their minds are made up, you could say; older drinkers are not as open as younger ones to new wines, or from places they may be unfamiliar with. This is why there’s no event in California called World of Pinotage or World of Trebbiano or World of Croatia.

But Millennials are wide open when it comes to preferences. That’s why they’re such a huge target for wine marketers, who believe that, if they can catch a fan at a young age, they’ve got a customer for life.

Randy tasted the group, which numbered about 60, through five various tiers of Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay, from Vintner’s Reserve up to small production, vineyard-designated bottlings. The students were eager to learn, asking lots of good questions. I know, from having done this class for the last 7 or 8 years, that among them, you’ll find varying degrees of wine knowledge. Some are absolute neophytes, while others have done a lot of tasting and reading. When you’re doing a seminar like that, you have to try and make everyone happy. In the case of the Haas School Wine Club, it’s never hard. They’re a very un-snobby bunch, but at the same time they’re there to learn. I would rather speak to people like that, who have few if any preconceptions about what’s good or bad, important or unimportant, and just want to soak up every bit of knowledge they can.

I never rehearse for such classes. What’s the point? I like to keep things impromptu, on the theory that what’s real is better than a canned speech. And besides, those kids’ questions keep it real. I don’t have any problem thinking on my feet, which is probably partly because I’m from The Bronx (if you’re not on your feet in The Bronx, you’re on your back), but also because I have a lot of thoughts in my head all the time about wine—or about the particular wine topics I’m interested in—so it’s easy for me to expound on them. Just don’t let me go on too long!

I covered the first part of the two-hour class; these Haas students always are interested in things pertaining to being a wine critic. Then Randy took over, and he was smart enough to realize that the class would be interested in some of the business-related aspects of the K-J company. So he intertwined talk about that, even while he presented a thorough tasting and explanation of the various terroirs from which the Chardonnays came.

My favorite among the five Chards (with all due respect to the others) was the 2012 Camelot Highlands, from Santa Maria Valley. I’ve given that wine 90-plus scores over nine vintages, a pretty good track record for a Chardonnay. My readers know I’m a Chardonnay guy anyway, but that Camelot, which is from the so-called Tepusquet Bench of the valley, a hop and skip away from Bien Nacido (Cambria is inbetween), is one I could drink all the time.

As for my new gig, well, so many of you want to know how it’s going that I’ll report here from time to time. In short, it’s great. I’m settling into the new routine, which continues to evolve in the scope of my responsibilities. One of the best parts is that K-J encourages me to bring Gus along with me (for the most part—obviously there are limitations), whereas at my last job, Gus could sometimes be an issue. As I’ve said before, a challenge of my former profession was to get people to see me as me, not their image of me. I never liked that part of the job—being defined by my job. I respected people for seeing me that way, but I always tried to show them the real me. I think all well-known wine critics feel the same way. The job description comes with humility. Or at least, it had better.


Praising California Chardonnay, and a remark about my new job

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Wines & Vines last Friday reported that Oregon winemakers, like their counterparts in California, are trying to understand how best to grow and vinify the variety, “but defining Oregon Chardonnay remains an ongoing work.”

There were a couple things in the article that struck me. One is the opening statement that “Chardonnay is enjoying a revival of sorts.” I hadn’t been aware that Chardonnay was in need of a revival. It certainly isn’t here in California, where plantings are at an all-time high, of 101,900 acres, far more than any other grape variety.

So maybe there’s a Chardonnay revival in Oregon. Everywhere else, as far I’m aware, Chardonnay is the definitive white wine in America. For all the ABC sentiment that may or may not exist among some aficionados, when the typical consumer asks for a glass of white wine, more often than not it’s Chardonnay.

What is it about Chardonnay that keeps generations of winemakers seeking to understand it? In some respects, Chardonnay isn’t any different than Pinot Noir or Cabernet Sauvignon: there will probably be panels on them forever. When winemakers and wine lovers stop inquiring about “defining” the major varietals, we’ll have a definite clue that the world is coming to an end.

The Oregonians apparently are determined to establish a style of Chardonnay that’s different from either Burgundy or California, the two regions that are most famous for Chard. Veronique Drouhin, the winemaker at Domaine Drouhin Oregon, was quoted as saying that following the California model of buttery, oak-warmed Chardonnay would be “a disaster.” I myself don’t care for buttery, popcorny, butterscotchy-sweet Chardonnay–I’ve reviewed enough of it to last a lifetime–but I sometimes fear we’re throwing the baby out with the bathwater, with all this hating on oak, malolactic and fruit. I don’t mind a good unoaked Chardonnay, but to me, that defeats the whole purpose of Chardonnay, which is to be rich and opulent, in an oaky, buttery, creamy but balanced way. Unoaked Chard is like going on vacation to Maui and staying in your hotel room the whole time, never enjoying the sun, the balmy air, the rustle of the wind in palm trees, the scent of passionflower and night jasmine, the romantic chords of Hawaiian music. Surely, the Oregonians would not want to avoid a “California style” Chardonnay, if that style were defined by, say, the likes of Flowers, Williams Selyem, Stonestreet, Failla, Joseph Phelps, Hartford Court, Talley–all fabulous, world-class Chardonnays that are, or ought to be, the envy of Chardonnay producers wherever they are.

Okay, let’s get this out of the way. I just praised Hartford Court and Stonestreet. They are part of the Jackson Family Wines portfolio, where I just started work as director of communications and wine education. Before some of you start freaking out, let me just say this: I’ve been giving those two wineries, as well as others in the JFW portfolio, high scores for many, many years. I am not about to stop praising them, just because somebody thinks I’m trying to please my employer. That’s not how I roll, and I should hope everyone knows that.


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