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Dan Aykroyd on his new California wine venture with Jean-Charles Boisset

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I caught up with the comedic legend in Ontario, where he started the Canadian branch of his Dan Aykroyd Discovery Series wines last December. He’s set to launch the Boisset project at a press briefing this Thursday. They’ll be producing Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay at Boisset-owned DeLoach. Both wines will retail below $20 and sell in the 6,000-case range.

SH: What’s your plan with the California wines?

DA: What I’m doing is taking the template of what we’ve done here in Canada, to go to the consumer with a product that’s something I would drink and be proud to put on my table. The idea is the consumer sees my name and knows if he pays $19, $20 he’ll get a good wine experience.

Will you increase production?

That will depend on the consumer’s appetite.

You’re making Cabernet and Chardonnay but not Pinot Noir, which is really what both DeLoach and Boisset are known for.

I’m not a Pinot fan! I love the heavier grape. If he [Jean-Charles] wants to convince me to do a Pinot, it would have to be one I like. I like those big heavy Bordeaux reds and these Chards.

There’s a lot of competition out there nowadays, even for celebrity wines.

I know, and I like it, because we have so many things to compare with. So I’m glad our standards are high. It gives us the opportunity to shoot for these price points and this quality.

Do you collect wine?

My cellar is pretty depleted after my entertaining this summer, but it’s Haut-Brions, Lynch-Bages, Talbots in reds, and in white, Puligny, Chassagne.

Any California in your cellar?

I love Diamond Creek, and some Kendall-Jackson. Dave Ready, Jr. [Murphy-Goode] is a star, and Turley wines, I love those.

I read you might do a beer.

Well, the beer I’m most interested is [Venezuela-produced] Polar, which was in the movie Miami Nights, with Alec Baldwin. I want to import it. Trouble is, Venezuelan companies aren’t talking to American entrepreneurs. So this is a terrible development. But I don’t want to be a manufacturer of beer.

The press release says you’ll be personally involved in the selection process. What does that mean?

That means I’ll sit with Jean-Charles, do some tasting with his winemakers, and say “Push it a little more this way.” I’d like to come out of there with a wine that tastes like [Diamond Creek] Gravelly Meadow.

Then would you ever do a Napa Valley wine?

I think the Napa story’s been told. It’s a beautiful story, but I’d like to break Sonoma out a little more and turn the world on to what’s coming out of there.

Do you think people are more likely to buy a wine from a celebrity? Why?

I think because celebrities can afford quality, and they know great wines, and so can speak with some authority on what they like, because they’re paying a premium for it. I know what I like and I think we can hit a target in there for a very good price point so the American supermarket consumer can go out and entertain 10 people for the weekend and not overpay.

Any chance we’ll see a Ghostbusters wine? I thought about doing a Conehead wine, something with a little humor. At this point, I’ll see how the Aykroyd brand sells. A Ghostbuster wine would have to be like a Pinot Grigio. It would be a great branding opportunity.


Are MWs elitist?

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Decanter has a story whose tease of a headline definitely made me want to read it. It’s about the new chairman of the Institute of Masters of Wine, Dr Josef ‘Pepi’ Schuller (himself an MW), and that inviting headline is:

New IMW chairman: ‘We’re not elitist’

As soon as I read that, all sorts of thoughts flashed through my head, beginning with: Well, of course you’re elitist, you Masters of Wine. Why would you say you’re not, with that name (masters), the way you put the letters MW after your name like MD or PhD, your official crest with its aristocratic flourishes, your London address, the fact that you have only 264 members in the entire world, and the feeling — never explicitly stated, but oh, so implied — that the MW stands above all other wine titles as supreme.

Well, I just re-read the above and decided it sounds snarky so let me get warm and fuzzy and say I have some MWs who are very good friends, in fact some of my oldest friends in the industry. I have enormous respect for them and for all the hard work they put in. Guys like Peter Marks and Joel Butler are incredibly kind, generous, hard-working professionals who, personally, are in no way elitist, and they know more about the world’s wines in their pinkies than I know all together.

But when Decanter itself is suggesting there might be something elitist about the IMW, you’ve got to wonder. Besides the headline, here’s a quote from the article:

Schuller rejected recent criticisms that the Institute is elitist and out of touch with its own students – but stressed that they would always reward excellence.

Decanter didn’t say where these “recent criticisms” came from, and I wish they had. Harpers had a story suggesting MWs were “old-fashioned, chauvinistic, elitist and out of date,” but that was more than 2 years ago.

But I want to get in a good word for elitism. Instead of rejecting the notion that the IMW is elitist, here’s what Dr. Schuller should have said. “Why, yes, we are elitist. We’ve studied harder to get where we are than anyone in the world. Few individuals on earth have as wide and deep a knowledge of wine as do MWs. There is no title that holds the cachet of the MW. And we’re not ashamed to proclaim this.”

Schuller did say that the IMW has to be “more relevant to the trade…We also want to form more partnerships with global wine industry leaders and find new sponsors.” I completely agree. If the IMW wants to be a factor in the rapidly democratizing, anarchic (and increasingly non-white) world wine industry of the 21st century, they are going to have to “mingle,” as the Royals say.


Why are Republicans so uptight about drinking?

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Yesterday I blogged about Sarah Palin’s silly quote that “alcohol isn’t necessary to have a good time” when she spoke last April about Alcohol Awareness Month. (This, despite her Playboy-style thigh tease with a glass of red wine; with those stiletto heels and cleavage-bearing decolletage, she sure seems ready to party hard.)

Actually, Alcohol Awareness Month is a production of the U.S Department of Health and Human Services (your tax dollars at work), and specifically of a division within it called SAMHSA, the Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration. Now, I know I’m going to get into trouble with this post, but I have to say that something about this whole approach to “combating” alcohol rubs me the wrong way. On SAMHSA’s website they lump alcohol in with cocaine, methamphetamine and suicide, and that’s just on the home page. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find comparisons with LSD, ecstasy and marijuana, among other Devil’s delights. It’s as if a nice glass of Cabernet (which, judging by the dark color, Sarah might be enjoying) and a crackhead’s needle were morally equivalent. Go to HHS’s Alcohol Awareness Month homepage and you’ll find it stated that “People who abuse alcohol can be…Professionals who drink after a long day of work” and “Senior citizens who drink out of loneliness.” Now, can we get real here? Professionals who drink after a long day of work can be alcohol abusers? For crying out loud, I’ll bet you that plenty of senior management at Health & Human Services head over after work to the Fairfax Lounge in the Westin Hotel on Embassy Row for a well-deserved Gimlet. (And by the way, does “professionals” mean that blue collar workers can’t abuse alcohol, or does the Republican administration simply not want to piss red-staters off?) Of course, this is the kind of nonsense we might expect from the employees of a President who is an out of the closet “recovering” alcoholic. As for all those lonely old geezers, hey, if a couple glasses of wine-in-a-box or schnapps help pass the hours until snooze time, so what? The website also has one of those “Are you an alcoholic” pseudo-scientific quizzes, which contain such questions as “Do you drink alone when you feel angry or sad?” (Answer: I sometimes do, and I bet you do too. See Proverbs 31:6-7: Give strong drink unto him that is ready to perish, and wine unto those that be of heavy hearts. Let him drink, and forget his poverty, and remember his misery no more.) and “Does your drinking worry your family?” (It doesn’t bother mine, but what if my family believed drinking alcohol was a sin, even though it’s mentioned, what? thousands of times in the Bible, and mostly favorably.) This approach by the Federal government is so opposite to our own here in California, where Gov. Schwarzenegger, a Republican but not a bizarre one, just proudly declared September “California Wine Month.”

We still have vestiges of neoprohibitionism in this country, which itself is an echo of the old Puritan ethic that, if it feels good, it’s a sin. Don’t get me wrong: Obviously some people have issues with alcohol abuse (just as some religious fanatics have issues with intolerance), and there are some people who should never drink at all. What bothers me is this suggestion that we should all conform to some white-bread government nanny’s ideas of right and wrong. And while I’m on the subject, now I see the Republicans are planning on promoting Todd Palin (who was busted for DUI in 1986) as “First Dude,” thereby winning the hearts and votes of the rural, beer-drinking, liquor-swilling, country & western crowd. Am I suffering from cognitive dissonance, or just too many glasses of Cabernet?


Wine prices heading up? Looks like it

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A very interesting article by economist Michael Veseth on his always compelling blog, Wine Economics. In it, he traces the economic forces currently impacting the global prices of wine. Concluding that “Wine prices in the U.S. appear to be heading up,” he asks the logical question, “what’s a bargain-seeking shopper to do?”

Among the external forces sending prices higher, Veseth writes, is the dollar’s weak position against the Euro (which is pushing the price of imports up) and high energy costs (which is boosting the price of everything that has to be transported). Another factor, which Veseth didn’t mention but is enormously relevant, concerns this report, from the Western Farm Press, that “2008 [California] wine grape prices [are the] highest in seven years.” Seems that Allied Grape Growers, the state’s largest grower coop, is reporting “better prices than any of the past seven years,” due to decreased acreage in the Central Valley. For example (I got these figures from the 2007 California Grape Acreage Report), standing acreage of red wine grapes in District 11 (San Joaquin and Sacramento counties) District 12 (San Joaquin, Stanislaus and Merced counties), District 13 (Madera, Fresno and Tulare counties) and District 14 (Kings, Kern) all dropped from 2006 to 2007. And that doesn’t take into account the loss of crop due to this past Spring’s historic freezes, which mainly impacted premium coastal grapegrowing areas. Meanwhile, wine from the 2005 and 2006 bumper crops is largely gone from the bulk markets, and consumption of California wine continues to grow, even as California wineries are experiencing increasing export success due to the weak dollar. As Record.net, an online publication, reported, “this price uptick could be the start of a long-term upswing” in both grape and wine prices.

Veseth looks to Southern Hemisphere (especially South African) wines for value, as well as his native Washington State. (He teaches at the University of Puget Sound.) Washington wines, he suggests, are as good as any, but “they suffer somewhat from an undervalued reputation” and so prices are lower. I myself have noted fewer “Best Buys” lately in my reviews of California wines at Wine Enthusiast. They still come in, but not with the frequency they used to. My impression is that prices are creeping upward in the under $12 category, while quality is either staying level or, in some cases, dipping. On the other hand, quality at the ultrapremium level is higher than ever — but hey, that doesn’t help the average consumer who’s looking for a bargain.

P.S. Check out this blog for a side-splitting “interview” of Sarah Palin, the Republican nominee for Vice President, on her favorite wine. It’s hilarious.

Please visit my posting on Gary Heck’s new luxury wine at Wine Enthusiast’s Unreserved.


What makes a great brand launch?

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I’ve seen a lot of wineries come (and go). Some of them pop into existence with little fanfare, and operate more or less “steady as she goes,” hoping to turn a profit. But some wineries are overnight successes. Like a young Hollywood star who goes from waiting tables to the red carpet, they’re discovered.

What does it take?

You can always buy land in Napa, hire David Abreu to develop the vineyards and Helen Turley to make the wine (with Michel Rolland as a consultant). But most people can’t do that (or don’t want to). More instructive are successful brands that got there the old-fashioned way: They earned it. Here are some of the more memorable launches that come to mind, and the take-home lesson on how they got there.

Siduri. Adam and Dianna Lee got drunk one night and, on impulse, dropped off a bottle of their first Pinot for Parker, who they heard was staying at Meadowood. The next morning, panicked, they tried to retrieve it. Too late; the concierge had delivered it to him. Parker loved it; Siduri’s reputation was secured. Take-home lesson: Get excited and take risks. (But you don’t have to be drunk.)
Brewer-Clifton. Young Greg B. and Steve C. had a dream to make wine in the Santa Rita Hills. They made a lot of friends, worked hard not just for themselves but to promote the region, and incidentally were always around to help the wine media. Take-home lesson: Be polite, helpful and friendly. Nice works.
Laetitia. The vineyard originally was started by Maison Deutz, who hoped to succeed in California bubbly. That didn’t happen. In 2001, the current owners purchased it, maintaining the winemaking services of the Dad and son team of Dave and Eric Hickey. Today, Laetitia’s Pinot Noirs are among the best in the state. Takehome lesson: Recognize talent and then preserve and protect it.
Failla. Ehren Jordan had a good day job with Turley, but longed to do his own thing. He went way out on the far Sonoma Coast into no-man’s land and, with his own sweat, made a brilliant vineyard. Then he settled down and made wines of great purity. Takehome lesson: Do what has to be done, no matter how hard.
Pisoni. Much has been said about the vineyard, but the man who planted it has been as important to the winery’s success as the grapes. Gary Pisoni’s personality is like Robert Mondavi’s on steroids. Take-home lesson: A colorful personality spills over into the wine, and can’t be faked.
Saxum. How did Justin Smith’s Rhone reds get to be the most expensive in Paso Robles? They’re delicious. The critics love them. The vineyard is immaculate. And Justin Smith doesn’t dilute himself by making a whole bunch of stuff he doesn’t care about. Take-home lesson: Do one thing better than anybody else.
Breggo. The story is so improbable. Douglas Ian Stewart runs a sorbet company in Brazil and an ice cream factory in San Francisco. Decides to move back to the land, in Anderson Valley. Next thing you know, he’s producing stellar Pinot Noir, with the help of consulting winemaker Ryan Hodgkins, who happens to be Hanzell’s assistant winemaker and viticulturalist. Take-home lesson: Find the best talent you can to help you fill in your divots.
Tangent. No, the Niven family wasn’t exactly broke when they started this specialty brand that produces only dry, crisp, off-beat whites in screwtops. They owned Baileyana and a good chunk of prime vineyard land in Edna Valley. But they did come up with an idea before anyone else, and in so doing, are driving the wave. Take-home lesson: Be innovative, not me too.

Oh, and one more thing: None of the wineries above relied on gimmicks.


Blogging different from print? Not according to this poll…of bloggers

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The Wine Bloggers Conference is slated to be held Oct. 24-26 in Sonoma, and I’ll be going. It’s my first participation in group blogdom since I launched this site last May and I value the experience.

Ever since I started paying attention to the wine blogosphere, I’ve noticed a current of feeling that blogging is somehow different in essence from traditional print — purer, more honest, less driven by concerns for advertising, profit and similar nasty pecuniary obsessions. This feeling is best expressed, of course, by bloggers themselves, as you’d expect from revolutionaries who operate outside the MSM box.

As one who straddles both worlds, I think that the similarities between blogging and print are more apparent than this view permits. Check out this “Feedback Forum” on the Wine Bloggers Conference website. It polled participants as to which among a list of possible breakout session topics they wanted most to attend.

Their choices reveal, not anything outstandingly radical or different about the wine blogosphere, but how its concerns are precisely those of print journalism. As of this date, here are the readers’ top 2 choices, with my commentary in italics.

– Increasing visitors to your blog. This is the same thing wine magazines want. Just substitute the word “subscribers” for “visitors” and “magazine” for “blog.”

– Making money from your blog. Duh.

I point these things out not to disparage blogging, although I do wonder if the Conference will address the topic of the ethics and practices of blogging, which I have recently called into question. I happen to believe blogging represents a wave of the future (although it’s unclear where that wave is taking us). But I don’t think blogging’s essence is fundamentally different from print journalism’s. It’s just a new medium, and if blogging is indeed something new, bloggers need to develop a set of ethics not only as stringent, but more so, than those under which print journalism operates.


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