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Good times for DTC

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Ever since I’ve been a wine writer—the 1980s—direct-to-consumer sales has been the Holy Grail of wineries. Why pay a middleman a cut of the profits when you can make 100% of every dollar by selling direct?

In the 1990s and early 2000s, though, DTC was as elusive as unicorns. Some wineries did a lot of it; I remember touring the wineries of Gold County, where proprietor after proprietor told me they were selling 90% or more of their production “out the screen door” to tourists cruising up and down Highway 49, or on their way to Tahoe and ski country. But if you weren’t on a major tourist route, you weren’t so lucky.

Some wineries tried to lure tourists in through indirect means. Wineries along Highway 29 in Napa Valley, for instance (where competition is fierce) offered educational, artistic and musical venues, becoming, in effect, entertainment palaces that just also happened to sell wine in the tasting room. This was, and is, quite effective. But still, not everyone was in a position to do it.

Now, Business Wire is reporting that “American wineries increased the dollar value of their direct-to-consumer wine shipments by an unprecedented 15.5% in 2014.”

Granted that this percentage increase comes on a relatively smaller base compared to traditional on- and off-premise accounts, it’s still a pretty impressive achievement.

Another breakthrough in DTC sales has come due to efforts to get around the nation’s silly patchwork of laws that limit or prohibit reciprocal shipping of alcoholic beverages between states. In Massachusetts, a new law just went into effect that allows wineries from throughout the United States to sell and deliver up to 12 cases of wine per year to Bay State consumers — a transaction previously prohibited.”

I doubt that the three-tiered system of distribution is going away anytime soon. It’s just too entrenched, and does serve the useful purpose of providing a solid infrastructure to deliver wine to every nook and cranny of the U.S., something that individual wineries, especially smaller ones, are in no position to do. But DTC should continue to grow, fueled in part by the desire of increasing numbers of consumers, particularly younger ones, to buy locally. The Internet and social media, too, are making it easier for consumers to dial in to local wineries and buy direct from “sales’ links, provided that doing so is legal where they live.

So it’s just one game-changer after another when it comes to selling wine in America. Interest in DTC on the part of wineries and other parties is evident by the proliferation of professional seminars on the topic; the Direct to Consumer Wine Symposium just completed their 2015 event yesterday in Concord (Contra Costa County), attracting the attention of such important national media as Forbes, which reported (via Cathy Huyghe), It was so crowded you’d have thought they were giving away money for free.”

Have a great weekend!


Bob Cabral’s next step

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NOTE: This is a revised version of the original post, based on additional information.

I am so pleased that Bob Cabral has landed a job that according to his lights will be all that he is looking for.

I’ve known Bob for a long time, since my days as California editor of Wine Enthusiast. It was under that guise that Bob always arranged for me to get tasting samples of the latest Williams Selyem releases. Now, given Williams Selyem’s stature—one of the leading in-demand, high-end producers in California—I’m sure owner John Dyson didn’t have to send me samples. But he did, which always led me to ask myself the following hypothetical question: If I owned a high-end winery, would I send samples out? If so, to whom? Some producers (Kistler or Marcassin, for example) never sent me anything. Williams Selyem, on the other hand, did, and what was so pleasurable about that, beyond merely getting to review these wines twice a year according to the winery’s release schedule, was getting to know Bob Cabral.

I was very honored when, one day, during the course of writing my first book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River, Bob invited me to sit with him in his then-tiny office, at the old Williams Selyem facility on Westside Road, and participate in a blending session of a new wine Bob was working on. Called “Neighbors,” it was to be a composite of several of the vineyards along Westside Road that Bob bottled into vineyard-designated Pinot Noirs: Allen, Rochioli River Block and the like. Bob told me this had been Dyson’s idea, in order to create a tier between the vineyard designates and the lower-priced regional blends (Russian River Valley, Sonoma Coast and so on).

I remember tasting and giving Bob my impressions. I suppose I didn’t think, even then, that my contributions would be significant. What was important to me was that Bob asked. It also gave me a glimpse into the passion with which Bob, so driven and such a perfectionist, approached all aspects of his job. This “Neighbors” blend would have to approach, in quality, the vineyard designates; it was important for Bob to get it exactly right. (He did.)

Last year the world learned that Bob would be leaving Williams Selyem, after 16 years, for the next phase of his career. This past year has been replete with rumors as to what he would do next; today, the media are reporting that Bob will be the new winemaker at Three Sticks Wines.

There, Bob will craft, not only Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Don Van Staaveren, Three Sticks’ winemaker emeritus, will make the Cabernet Sauvignon, as well as the Pinot Blanc and Casteñeda wines.

 


No such thing as the “best” wine

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It’s interesting how different media outlets described the wines that were recently stolen from the French Laundry.

The San Francisco Chronicle’s headline reads “Wine thief with nose for best reaps huge haul from French Laundry.”

Calling the Domaine de la Romanée Conti and Screaming Eagle the “best” grants the highest esteem to these wines, suggesting to readers that no other wines in the world can approach them in quality. KRON Channel 4, one of the Bay Area’s leading news outlets, took a more cautious approach, calling the purloined wines “high-end,” which carries vastly different connotations than “best”: ‘high-end” implies a certain rare desirability that gives the wines prestige, but does not elevate them to the highest category of perfection. The Contra Costa Times took a decidedly neutral approach: They called the wines merely “expensive,” a just-the-facts-ma’am description of reality, for in truth, those bottles certainly are among the most costly in the world. Still, they are not “priceless,” as USA Today trumpeted in a flashy headline.

This may all seem trivial, but for students of the media, who wish to understand how news is actually communicated in this country, it underscores the importance of optics—perceptions that become fixed ideas among the public. Now, the job of the headline writer is different from that of the reporter. Usually, reporters don’t write their own headlines; that is considered a special art and is reserved to editors. But no matter who writes the headline, it can achieve a life of its own. When a criminal killed a bar owner and then forced a hostage to decapitate him in New York City back in 1983, the New York Post certainly was correct to give it full front page coverage. They could have headlined, as the New York Times discretely did, “Owner of a bar shot to death; subject is held,” and then relegated the gory details of the “head in a box” to the fourth paragraph. But that headline never achieved anywhere close to the immortality of the Post’s “Headless body in topless bar,”

 headless

which has become one of the most famous headlines in the history of American journalism. (Its author, Vinnie Musetto, excelled at eye-catching headers. He also penned the Post’s “Khadafy Goes Daffy,” about the former Libyan strongman’s antics.)

Long before there was an Internet or social media, headlines like these went viral: they were repeated in many media outlets, proving that a great headline is at least as important, in terms of popularity, as what is actually contained in the article itself. This is where, however, a sort of Continental drift between the headline and the actual news can open seismic chasms. In the story about the French Laundry theft, it is only natural that some headline writers would decide that the word “best” sounds stronger than “high-end” or “expensive.” High-end, expensive stuff is stolen all the time, but when “the best” is taken, people pay attention.

However, the fact is that Romanée-Conti and Screaming Eagle are not “the best” wines in the world. There are no “best wines” in the world. Any critic will tell you so. What these wines are, indisputably, are among the most expensive wines in the world. But there’s a big, huge difference, and to call these wines “the best” only reinforces the public’s perception that they can’t get really great wine unless they pay really high prices. That’s the biggest myth in all of wine.


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To each restaurant there is a season. Alas, some of San Francisco’s old guard went the way of the dodo in 2014.

As Paolo Lucchesi reports in his article on the biggest closures of the year in the S.F. Chronicle, Fleur de Lys and Fifth Floor shut their doors. They were perhaps the best-known names of now-shuttered restos. Another that’s gone is Daniel Patterson’s Plum, just down the street from me.

As archeologists can tell a lot from digging down into the ruins of an ancient settlement, so too can we glean some hints about the state of our food (and wine) culture by examining who went out of business. It’s not always possible to determine exactly why a restaurant closes, but we can assume that, in general, it’s because the times have passed them by. Whatever pulse they held on the weltanschauung has, for various reasons, gone away.

In the case of Fleur de Lys and Fifth Floor—both of which I was familiar with for many years—it was because our times no longer favor old-fashioned palaces of fine dining, with white tablecloths, snooty servors, and rather predictable food at stellar prices. In a sense, San Francisco simply outgrew that experience. People today want to eat out in relaxed comfort, in a place where the food is exciting and reassuring. True, in the place of Fleur de Lys and Fifth Floor we now have destinations like Saison and Benu, with their prix fixe multi-course extravaganzas. But there’s something different about the latter two that makes them a better fit for today’s ethos. There’s nothing stodgy whatsoever about them. Both places are culinary adventures with a sense of adventure that looks forward, not backwards, as Fleur de Lys and Fifth Floor did. Where Fleur de Lys and Fifth Floor were Paris vacations, Saison and Benu are more Iceland, Antarctica or Myanmar—exciting, off-the-beaten path destinations you’ll remember for a lifetime. Saison and Benu may not last for many years, as Fleur de Lys did (it gave up the ghost at the age of 28 years), but they fill an important niche now for a destination.

Plum, too, offered adventurous cooking from Patterson, a Michelin-starred (Coi) chef. But where Daniel miscalculated was to think that downtown Oakland would support a place of high concept. From the decorative, Warholesque paintings of plums on the walls to the rather austere menu it never caught on. Let’s face it, beet boudin noir with Thai black rice, a sort of faux blood sausage served with caramelized Brussels sprouts and kohlrabi sauerkraut, simply isn’t a combination most Oaklanders can wrap their heads around. It shows once more than a chef makes a fundamental mistake if he serves only food that intellectually stimulates himself. Winemakers, too, must accommodate themselves to the public’s tastes. It’s a balancing act.

Comfort isn’t necessarily the new black; we’ve been through countless comfort food phases over the years, from the taco era to today’s obsession with noodles. But people do want something that reminds them of simpler, happier times, even if the past never was as simple and happy as we like to remember it.


Wine as “the good life”? The Wall Street Journal says so!

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I’ve been watching the case of the New York Times for many years, to see what would be the fate of the Gray Lady. At the height of the Great Recession, the paper was said to be perilously close to going under, the result of (a) declining readership because younger people were not reading newspapers, and (b) the dramatic falloff in advertising that crippled nearly all print publications.

The Times tried to stave off its financial problems: they went to an online subscription model that didn’t work, and they laid off or bought out employees. A year or two ago, the paper seemed to enjoy a modest turnaround, but apparently it wasn’t enough: A new round of layoffs has occurred because the paper had not received enough voluntary buyouts to cover newsroom budget cuts.” Despite executive editor Dean Baquet saying “We are coming to the end of a painful period for the newsroom,” those of us who grew up with the Times and love it can only hope that, this time, the paper will survive, and I expect it will. I point this out only because the Times is the example par excellence of the difficult journey print pubs have had over the last decade or so. It’s not just that I prefer reading print over digital, although I do, it’s that the Times represents the culmination of an epoch that was centuries in the making in which the idea of independent journalism, free from the grasp of lucre, or the ignorance of ideology, was ascendant in America. When our Founding Fathers wrote the U.S. Constitution, with its First Amendment guarantee of Freedom of the Press, they did so with the understanding and assumption that the Press really was fearlessly free. I wonder if they would do the same thing now that personal opinion and for-profit hidden agenda has largely taken precedence over independent reporting.

Speaking of newspapers, many of my readers will know I’m no fan of the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal. But the newspaper itself, when freed from the op-ed ideology of Mr. Murdoch, is top-rate, and I love, love, love this graphic they created for WSJ+,

 

WSJwine

 

which they tout as “a complimentary addition to your Wall Street Journal experience” for subscribers. How about that glass of wine? Don’t you just love it? The Journal is implying to readers—no, telling them, in compelling visual form and with all its magisterial New York City authority, that a glass of wine is as important to the complete, good life as anything else they could indulge in, from sports to fine art to “much more of the finer things of life.”

We can differ over our politics. But it’s wonderful that all of us, left, right, center, whatever, can agree that wine is central to the good life—the life that is examined, and self-examined, and enjoyed, with harm to no one–life that adds joy and laughter to the world. So bravo to the Wall Street Journal for putting wine right up there.


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.


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