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What happens when a great Cab house produces second or third tiers?

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Benjamin Lewis writes, in his superb new book, Claret & Cabs, that the Left Bank of Bordeaux, and to some extent the Right Bank, is undergoing an identity crisis, as more and more Classified Growth chateaux bottle second wines.

It used to be that the handful of chateaux that made a second wine used grapes that were considered not good enough to go into the main wine. But that started to change in the 1990s and 2000s. “[S]econd wines have become profit centers in their own right, and are no longer simply a way to mop up lots that are not successful enough to include in the grand vin,” Lewin writes. “Often enough they have become a separate brand in all but name.”

The result are wines that “have improved significantly” and, with the great 2009 and 2010 vintages, “seemed to reflect their origins more clearly” than the grand wines. In fact, Lewin quotes Bruno Eynard, director of Chateau Lagrange, that “The second wine of a great year today is better than the grand vin of a minor year previously.” !!!

Lewin is not suggesting that proprietors are reducing the quality of the main wine, only that there is now competitive selection to make it into the second wine–with the corresponding result that many chateaux now have a third brand, as well, often bearing a simple communal AOC.

This ties into a phenomenon we’re also seeing here in California, in which top Cabernet wineries, usually in Napa Valley, produce a hierarchy of wines. As readers of my reviews probably know, it is far from certain that the most expensive wine (which may be a vineyard designate or barrel selection) is “better” than the second wine. I’d say that in about one-third of the cases, it is not. (Whether that makes the second wine a value, or the main wine a rip-off, is debatable.) But when the winery has a third tier that bears a simple Napa Valley appellation, the chances of it being pretty ordinary rise significantly. Not naming names– my reviews speak for themselves–but some Napa wineries are releasing these third-tier Cabernets that frankly aren’t worth the price, but merely trade on the winery’s name.

There was a time when vintners had some pride in what they turned out. If they had a lesser quality wine, they’d bulk it out on the market, or else bottle it under a different brand name and do everything in their power to hide the link to the parent winery. Inherent in this strategy, obviously, was the possibility of a reverse one: Some marketing whiz, at some point, would have said, “Wait a minute. Why are we hiding the connection? If we actively promote it, we could charge more money for the lesser wine.” (Mouton-Cadet, anyone?)

Someone in the room, I would think, would have objected that a low score on the lesser wine would taint the image of the main wine. But with the Recession and the current struggle for survival, even of some pretty famous wineries, the marketing message increasingly is triumphing over the moral message.

Last year, Joe Gallo asked me a question: Was Opus One good or bad for the Robert Mondavi brand? I’d never thought about it, so I asked him to give me a few seconds to think about it, and then I said, “Good, because it associated Mondavi with prestigious Bordeaux.”

“Wrong,” Joe Gallo admonished me. “It was bad, because Opus One took all the best fruit, and the Mondavi reserve suffered.”

He may or may not have been correct: certain critics in the 1990s faulted Mondavi Cabernets for lacking power, but that wasn’t necessarily because “Opus took all the best fruit.” Tim Mondavi repeatedly insisted he was not interested in making powerhouse wines, preferring a French style; the criticism that the wines were light (which I never bought into) was therefore a misunderstanding of the winemaker’s intention.

However, Joe Gallo’s argument does underscore the danger when a winery, with only limited access to superior fruit (and what winery has unlimited access to the best fruit?), tinkers around with second and third tiers. Usually, something gets hurt: either the top wine is lowered because quality grapes are diverted from it, or the second or third tier suffers because it has only inferior grapes. This is not to say that a winery cannot successfully produce separate tiers that are each quite good on their own: Freemark Abbey reliably does (with Sycamore, Bosché and the Napa Valley), and so does Stag’s Leap (Cask 23, Fay and Artemis). But I’m afraid they’re more the exceptions that the rule.


Are vineyard designates better than blended wines? Not necessarily. So why do they cost more?

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I was reading Peg Melnik’s article on Chateau St. Jean’s 2010 Belle Terre Vineyard Chardonnay, in yesterday’s Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, which reminded me that Chateau St. Jean pretty much single-handedly created the vineyard-designated Chardonnay market in the 1970s, with a brilliant series of wines crafted by their then-winemaker, Richard Arrowood. Belle Terre, Les Pierres and Robert Young were perhaps the best known, but one year, Arrowood produced 9 individual Chardonnays. (He also made vineyard-designated Fume Blancs and Rieslings.)

It got me thinking of how obsessed we are today with single-vineyard wines in California, not just Chardonnay, obviously, but everything, especially Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir.

The first vineyard-designated Cabernet I ever heard of was Joe Heitz’s Martha’s Vineyard. It was, back in the day, the most famous Cab in Napa Valley, and if it’s lost a little of its luster in the glare of so many newer brands, it’s still well-regarded. I don’t recall the first single-vineyard Pinot Noir I ever had. The first one I ever reviewed in my wine diary was a 1982 from Louis K. Mihaly, with a Napa Valley appellation. The label said “Produced and bottled by the estate of Louis K. Mihaly,” so I suppose that, technically, it was a single-vineyard wine; but I’m talking about vineyard designations on the label. Ditto for the Dehlinger 1985 Lot #2 Pinot I tasted (in 1990, by which time it had gone downhill).

Today, of course, many producers make single vineyard wines. They fetch a higher price, on average, than blended wines. (Even the word “blended” sounds pejorative. We need to come up with a better one.) When you think about it, though, there’s no reason per se why a single vineyard wine should be better than a blended one. The reason the Bordelais grew so many different grape varieties was because they knew that blending could fill in the divots that a single variety wine might otherwise have (unripe, too acidic, too tannic, not enough color, etc.).

It was in the 1990s that vintners opted to go bigtime with vineyard-designated bottles. They said they were spurred by the extra complexity that certain sites exhibited, but that’s only half the story. The other half was that, by then, it was apparent the public would pay more for single vineyard wines. (We can thank Heitz and Chateau St. Jean for that!) I myself have never quite bought into the theory that the wine from a particular place is necessarily better than a blend. Some critics make much of “wines of place” and, of course, to question the concept of terroir is to hold oneself up for ridicule. However, I don’t see how you get around the “divot” theory: in a perfect vintage, a particular site might yield a complete wine. But not all vintages are perfect, and it’s only logical to expect that, in other vintages, the grapes from a particular site will be lacking something and could benefit from being blended with the grapes from another place.

Today we have brands that specialize in single vineyard wines: Siduri, Loring, Testarossa and Williams Selyem (among many others) in Pinot Noir, and practically everyone making high-end Chardonnay. (Williams Selyem, Lynmar, Rochioli, Paul Hobbs, Marimar Torres, Martinelli, Talley and Thomas Fogarty in particular come to mind.) There also are an increasing number of wineries that bottle vineyard-designated Cabs. Sometimes they buy grapes from other growers, and sometimes they simply make block bottlings from their own vineyard or from separate vineyards in their own portfolio. (Sometimes it’s hard to say what the difference is between blocks from the same estate, and separate vineyards. Witness Diamond Creek.)

As I said, I’m not sure that the best, most wholesome and complete, not to mention satisfying, wines come from individual vineyards. But wine isn’t just about hedonism, it’s about intellectual fun. For me, as a wine lover and critic, I love these single vineyard or block designation wines because they’re so interesting in themselves, even if they’re sometimes a little lacking something essential. Just like some people.


Think Big, Act Small

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It’s interesting, in the light of this new report on the status of direct-to-consumer wine shipments in the U.S., to project the trend into the future and imagine what the American distribution system might look like in 15 or 20 years.

The report’s most startling discovery is that DTC’s dollar value last year “was greater than the total value of U.S. wine exports.” Almost as noteworthy is the fact that “The direct shipping channel continues to grow at a faster rate than the overall wine market.” DTC is said to be more important to “small and medium sized wineries” than it is to large wine companies that dominate supermarket and big box sales, presumably because the Big Boys have a lock on a distribution system that’s been consolidating in their favor for decades.

Which brings me to the crystal ball part of this tale.

Let’s imagine that it’s 2030 and, all other things being equal (the U.S. still exists, there’s no internal civil unrest to discombobulate markets), consumers are still healthy and buying wine. At the present rate of expansion of DTC, one can easily see the day coming when small and mid-sized wineries sell pretty much everything they produce direct, either through tasting rooms or through some sort of postage.

The result would be a schizoid market: Giant companies (Constellation, The Wine Group, Diageo, etc.), with their scores of individual brands, still dominate the supermarket aisles where most Americans continue to shop. At the same time, more and more consumers are getting their wine direct from the winery.

The situation is roughly analogous to what happened to traditional bookstores with respect to Amazon.com and other online sources of books. The trad bookstores found themselves confronted with a huge challenge: how to stay relevant. It was much easier for busy shoppers to buy something online and wait a few days to get their hands on it, than it was for them to actually get into their cars and drive to a mall or downtown, find parking, wait in line at the register, etc.

As similar-sounding as the situations are, though, there are important differences. Consumers don’t have to go to bookstores, but they do still have to go to the supermarket to buy their groceries, so as long as they’re there, it’s no hassle at all to swing by the wine aisle. This is good news for the big wine companies, who should continue to enjoy robust sales for decades to come.

Still, there are lessons for everyone. The big wine companies are going to have to “act small.” This means creating new brands that seem eco-friendly and appeal to individual niches in the market: young people, urbans, ethnic and racial groupings, housewives, singles, older retirees, liberals, conservatives, hipsters, etc. Although these brands may be mass-produced in the tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of cases, the consumers don’t know that. All they can see is a bottle they can relate to, and that seems to relate to them. To a great extent, the big wine companies are already doing this. They’re going to have to keep doing it, and do it better, if they want long-term dominance.

The small and medium-sized wineries have this lesson: They have to “think big.” They have to put on their businessman’s hat and come up with real marketing plans. After all, direct-to-consumer doesn’t happen all by itself, like Athena springing fully-born from Zeus’s brow. DTC has to be planned, created, executed and followed through; and once you have a loyal customer base, you have to keep it and make sure the competition doesn’t poach it away.

This is where communicating with the customer comes in. If a small winery has a tasting room on, say, Highway 49, in Gold Country, and is selling 90% of their wines “through the screen door,” they’re very lucky. But most wineries aren’t in that position. They may sell 30% in the tasting room, but the rest has to be cultivated, through clubs and the like. This is where social media comes in. Consumers like to feel connected to the producers of goods and services they buy, especially when the product is something as mental as wine. (“Mental”? Yes. There’s nothing emotional about buying a screwdriver. But there is something emotional about buying clothes, a car, wine. Think about it.) I’ve long said that wineries can’t put all their eggs in the social media basket, but they should put at least one or two and, depending how it goes, maybe even three or four.


How do you know if you’re being authentic?

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“Did you stop beating your wife?” is the classic Catch-22 question. If you say “Yes” you admit to having beaten your wife. If you say “No,” you admit you’re still beating her. Either way, you lose.

It must feel the same way when a winery owner is told that he’s not being “authentic” in his marketing strategy. What’s he supposed to say or do to prove that he is?

Yet “authenticity” is supposedly the Holy Grail that Millennials are seeking. We’ve been told this again, and again, and again over the years, particularly with the rise of social media such as Twitter. Here’s the latest version, entitled “Authenticity Key to Wooing Younger Wine Consumers, Price Says.” (It’s in yesterday’s Bloomberg News.)

The bullet point: “The key thing to the younger drinkers is being authentic — they have super-sensitive noses about what’s not authentic about your brand,” Price said. (William Price is chairman of Vincraft Group, a winery capital investment company that works with such wineries as Kosta Browne and Gary Farrell.)

Winery owners might well read Price’s words, scratch their heads and think, “What the hell does being authentic mean?” The questions pile up. What practices are authentic and which ones aren’t? How do you know when you’re being authentic and when you’re not? Is there an authento-meter you can buy that measures it? (Try Googling Authento-Meter.) How much does it cost to be authentic? Are there people I can hire who specialize in authenticity? (Try Googling authenticist.) How do I find them? How do I know if they know what they’re talking about? And so on and on. It’s enough to turn your hair gray.

Some hint of a solution to frazzled winery owners is offered by Michael Honig, of Honig Vineyard & Winery, who says Millennials “have been lied to so often and so many times about these fanciful brands. It’s like the Wizard of Oz, what’s behind the curtain? Well, there’s nothing behind the curtain.”

All right, our winery owner now knows, he must never, ever lie to consumers. Fair enough. But then, he never did lie to consumers, not to his knowledge, anyway, not consciously. Oh, he might have put something on the back label about “the finest grapes from the finest coastal vineyards,” but everyone does that, don’t they? And besides, they were good grapes; he paid an arm and a leg for them. But was it a lie? True, he might have paid a lot more for grapes from other vineyards, but it was the Recession, times were tight, his financial manager (who happens to be his wife) said they couldn’t afford $4,000 a ton, and so they had to settle for $2,000 a ton fruit. But it was good fruit, wasn’t it?

Even so, our owner thinks, maybe he should get rid of that phrase. If these Millennials really have super-sensitive X-ray noses that can detect the slightest lie–no, exaggeration–then perhaps he might tone down his back label.

But what was that stuff about “nothing behind the curtain”? I’m here behind the curtain. Me, my wife, my kids, my brother-in-law who does our sales, my nephew who helps out in the winery. Are we “nothing”? Are we the Wizard of Oz, phony fakes pretending to be things we’re not? The winery owner grows indignant. Who is this Honig to accuse me of being nothing? Why, I should call that little so-and-so up right now and–

Then he collects himself and takes a deep breath. Maybe Honig’s right. Sales have been soft lately, at least since 2009. Maybe that’s proof that I really am nothing. If I were something, sales would be better, right? Our winery owner sighs. He pours himself another drink. I really don’t know what being authentic means, he thinks, and the thought makes him sad. He’s gone through four Kubler-Rossian stages in less than 10 minutes and is now parachuting into the final stage, acceptance. He turns to the Google machine one final time, to find a number for Vincraft. Maybe this Price fellow can give me some advice about authenticity, our winery owner thinks. I just hope he’s not too expensive…


Meet the new meme: terroir as marketing

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What I wrote yesterday isn’t to say that all Bordeaux tastes alike. Lewin doesn’t go there and, in fact, goes out of his way to point out distinctions between chateaux (e.g. Haut Brion and La Mission Haut Brion) that must be due to something–although he cautions the reader that “the only difference [between them] is that Haut Brion is planted at 10,000 vines per hectare, while La Mission is planted at 8,000 vines per hectare.” Last time I checked, terroir does not include the way a vintner plants his vines, so what vine density has to do with terroir is a mystery to me.

In California, when you think of all the things that can mitigate or mask terroir (in addition to Lewin’s catalog, there’s clonal/selection, a tendency to use more oak, a general standardization of winemaking techniques, and considerably more career mobility than in Bordeaux), it becomes easier to understand why all coastal Pinots taste more alike than not. What the wine critic’s task then becomes is to look for differences of elegance, finesse, beauty, balance, texture, ageability and so on–qualities that are not merely expressions of local growing conditions, but of human influence, of proper vineyard management and superior winemaking skills. In other words, the writer’s task becomes the telling of stories, not repeating the conventional wisdom of the terroir meme, which is of very little use to consumers.

And so we come to yet another iteration or mutation of the concept of terroir: it now becomes a marketing tool, a word to use on back labels and sales brochures. How many wines have I seen described as coming from superior terroir that actually are purchased on the bulk market and blended into county-wide or even Central Coast and North Coast appellations? I wish we could put the toothpaste back into the tube and limit our use of the word “terroir” to the only place where it could conceivably apply: to small, individual vineyards that have produced particular wines (varietal or blend) over a longish period of time, where those wines have shown a consistent style and profile. (We might for example look at the Allen Vineyard on Westside Road for its Pinot Noirs from Williams Selyem.) But I think it’s no longer valid (if it ever was) to talk about “Santa Rita Hills terroir” or “Russian River Valley terroir” or “Oakville terroir,” except in the most generalized way, and even then to warn our readers (those of us who have readers, anyway) to take these terroir distinctions with a generous pinch of salt.


Whose blogs are relevant?

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READERS: Here’s another blast from the past, originally published late in 2008. I’ll resume regular posting when I come back from New York, this Friday.

* * *

I had coffee yesterday with M., a highly regarded North Coast winemaker (actually, he had tea) who’s been in the business for a long time. What did we talk about? Blogs, of course. I wanted to know how he (and, by extension, his winemaker colleagues) view wine blogs, and did he think they hold value for him in publicizing his brands.

Yes, M. replied, but… There’s always a “but.” M. put it this way: In determining the value of any particular blog, he wanted to know if it was relevant.

Hmm, I wondered. How do you determine if a blog is relevant? So it was a bit of serendipity this morning to surf through my usual morning mush of blogs and stumble across this one from Caveman Wines, which asks the question, “How do we as wine PR professionals determine which wine bloggers are legitimate or not?” To answer that, the blogger, Michael Wangbickler, a P.R., account manager at Balzac Communications, turned to a guy named Kevin Palmer, who runs an outfit called Social Media Answers. According to Caveman, Palmer came up with a list of 5 metrics by which he measures the value of a blog. Quote:

1. Alexa/Compete – Good for painting a general picture of the strength of traffic to their blog.
2. Quantcast – Most won’t have the tag installed necessary to register with Quantcast. Those that do may be a little more serious about their blogging.
3. Age of blogs – There is high turnover on blogs. An older blog may indicate that the blogger is here to stay.
4. Average Number of posts per month – The more frequently a blogger posts, the greater likelihood that their audience will be larger.
5. Other Social Media channels – Does the blogger have a good following on Facebook, Twitter, etc.? It may indicate that their readership is larger than implied by visits to the blog.

By this method, Caveman writes, he can figure out whom to send review bottles to, because “We can’t just send wine samples to every Tom, Dick, and Harry who happens to say they have a blog.”

I can’t quibble with Palmer’s 5 metrics, although I believe there are additional ways to evaluate a successful blog: the blogger’s breadth of knowledge and experience; number of visits; demographics of the blog’s readership; the blogger’s reputation in the industry (although not all of these are readily quantifiable). I agree with Palmer’s conclusion, taken from his website, that wine blogging currently “seems really fractured and disorganized.” Palmer referred to a Twitter discussion that gave him the feeling “that a lot of bloggers weren’t being respected or included by wineries or PR people. They felt slighted, a little angry” at not being sent samples and not getting invited to events. Well, that gets me back to my conversation with M. With 1,000 wine blogs out there, there’s no reason why a winery should reach out to every one of them. As M. said, he’s happy to play ball with a blog, as long as it’s relevant. Turns out, he couldn’t really define what makes a blog relevant; he just had a feeling which ones are and which ones aren’t.

Blog relevance may be difficult to precisely measure, but, to misquote the late Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, you know it when you see it.


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