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How can we get distributors and other wine buyers to get beyond their 90-point obsession?

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Bulletin: Just in (8:05 a.m. California time, Oct. 8): “TTB ANNOUNCES ESTABLISHMENT OF HAPPY CANYON OF SANTA BARBARA VITICULTURAL AREA.” We knew that was coming. I blogged about it more than a year ago.
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I got an email the other day from a winery representative who complained about some of my scores. “The last 4 months of reviews have been in the low 80’s and we have been getting much higher scores from wine competitions and other publications for the same vintages of wines,” the person wrote, asking, “The reason for my email is concern that our wines are somehow getting cooked, or something, from here to there.  Can I give you a call to see what we can do differently to insure the wines arrive fresh?”

I want to blog on this, because so many important issues are at stake. To begin with, I double-checked my scores for the wines since June 1 and discovered I’d given 87 points to a Cab, 86 points to a Chardonnay, a pair of 84s to a Zin and Syrah, and a couple of 83s. One or two of the wines did indeed score in the low 80s, but I emailed the P.R. person back that 87, 86, 84 and even 83 are not “low 80s” but mid- to high 80s. To this, the person responded, “Our distributors and many of the wine buyers look at anything below an 86 as a ‘low score.’”

What can I say. I can’t teach remedial arithmetic to distributors. All I can do is point out that 87 and 86 are not low scores and neither is 85 or even 84 points. All are “very good” and “good” scores by Wine Enthusiast’s definition. Of course, if a wine scores 85 points and retails for $50, then there is a problem, but it’s not my problem, it’s the problem of the people at the winery who establish the price.

Another issue that really gets my goat is when a winery rep tells me, “Parker (or ____, fill in the blank) really liked this wine, and it got a double bronze at the Cleveland International Wine Fair, so how come you only gave it 87 points?” Well, at the risk of being obvious, let me point out that my name is not Parker or Cleveland or anybody or anything else. It’s Heimoff. I don’t check in with other critics before I make a review. Just sayin’…

The final issue involved in this situation is shipping or, to be more precise, wines getting cooked in the back of a UPS or FedEx truck during a heat wave. For many years, I’ve urged wineries to check the 7-day forecast before sending samples out for review, and I’m glad to say they’re listening. This September, the quantity of incoming wines was at a near-record low, because September is our hottest month and we did in fact have several heat waves. I was happy to see my storage closet actually empty out at one point.

What am I supposed to do if a wine suffers from heat damage? Obviously, if I know for sure it’s cooked, I can call the winery and request a resend, and I’ve done that. But I can’t always tell. Many California wines, especially red ones, are so overripe and soft anyway that they might as well be heat-treated — are the raisins from shriveled clusters or a hot truck? I also reason to myself that, if I started asking wineries to resubmit wines that just might have suffered from one problem or another, I’d basically be increasing the number of wines I taste by a huge percentage, and even then, how could I justify leaving a score at “83” unless I’d tasted the wine at least half a dozen times, so I could swear that I’d done my best to be absolutely, positively sure that it was really the wine, and not something external to it? But obviously, I’m not going to do that. I think for the most part that wineries need to take the responsibility for getting me (and all reviewers) their wines in the best shape they can. That’s their job.

But back to those pesky distributors. It’s a cliche to say that anything below 90 is dead on arrival. I’m not sure where that came from, historically, but it’s a horrible development. I don’t think that’s why Parker invented the 100-point scale and I know for sure that at Wine Enthusiast, we don’t turn our noses up at an 86 point wine. Wines that score in the 90s tend to be bigger, riper and probably oakier than those in the 80s. That’s the way the system works. But that doesn’t mean that a 95 point Pinot Noir is better for drinking tonight with lamb than an 87 point Pinot Noir. That’s what the distributors don’t understand. And what I don’t understand is how to get the word out that the 90 point threshold is not some magical, absolute event horizon, the dividing line between Heaven and Hell. It’s just a number. If you have any ideas of how to de-criminalize scores in the 80s, let me know, but please, don’t suggest doing away with the 100-point system altogether. That’s a non-starter. I think it has to do with educating distributors and point-of-sale people, both on-premise and off-premise. It’s a simple message to deliver to the customer: “Dear Sir or Madame, this wine is better for drinking tonight. I assure you.” If the customer doesn’t trust the seller, then that’s where work is needed, not in the scoring system.


Wine prices are still too high

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Everybody knows that housing prices are still too high, especially in Sun Belt places like Las Vegas, South Florida and certain parts of California. Prices won’t stabilize until demand equals supply, and supply was way overbuilt to begin with. So housing prices continue to fall. You can only conclude that they were too high to begin with, and must plunge further before the bottom is reached.

The situation is analogous to California wine prices. There are simply too many wines out there in the $20-$50 and higher range that aren’t worth it. Once again, I’m not going to mention any names, because that would be unfair; for every “ABC winery” that’s overpriced I could name 5 dozen others.

First, let me start with a general observation that wines scoring between 83 points and 86 points are, by Wine Enthusiast definition, “good.” And the definition of “good,” in our view, is “Decently made, with varietal identity, serviceable. At most, minor deficiencies.” Now, there’s nothing wrong with a “serviceable” wine, but my Webster’s dictionary defines “serviceable” as “useful; usable; durable; ready for use,” which is not exactly a glowing endorsement. For example, if you drive a car, you probably want something that’s more than “useful.”

The majority of California wines are serviceable. They’re what a Frenchman might call vin de table or vin ordinaire, the kinds of wines most people drink on most days with very little fuss or clamor. A decent dry red, a crisp fruity white, or maybe a perky little rosé is a serviceable wine. How much should a serviceable wine cost? It’s in the eye of the beholder, but in my view, an everyday wine should be less than $15. And there are tons of everyday wines out there that go for less than $15, not only from California but from around the world.

Here’s the problem. Over the last few months I’ve reviewed a lot of wines I scored at 84 points, which is right in the middle of the “serviceable” spectrum. Here are a few (without specific identities) and their prices:

a Central Coast Bordeaux blend with tutti-fruity flavors and tons of weird oak: $28
a Napa Valley single-vineyard Cabernet that had sharp, green tannins: $50
a Russian River single-vineyard Chardonnay that was too oaky and popcorny: $38
a Napa Valley rosé that tasted like cola: $35
a Paso Robles Viognier that was practically a dessert wine, it was so sweet: $29
a Sierra Foothills Syrah that was pleasant and simple, for $32
a Dry Creek Zin that should have been about $15 but was $40

Well, you get the idea. Each of these wines was basically decent, but why on earth would anyone pay the asking price? And keep in mind, these are prices that were established (either by the producer or someone along the distribution chain) after this past Spring — in other words, when the country already was deeply mired into a Recession, and everybody knew that consumers were diving down in terms of the prices they’re willing to pay for wine.

How do you account for a wine that’s overpriced and mediocre (definition: ordinary, average) being sold for so much money during a Recession? I, myself, don’t know how to. Is it blindness? Whistling past the graveyard and hoping there are enough gullible consumers out there who will buy it anyway? Is it simple ignorance of reality, a kind of cellar-vision whereby a winery owner lives in his own little world and doesn’t understand what’s going on? Is it a desperate act forced upon vintners by their banks? Is it the belief that their own particular wine — their love child — is actually worth the price they’re asking? Is it a form of lethargy? All the above?

Whatever the explanation, the fact is that every day I review wines that are average and ordinary, and when I see their prices I’m shocked and appalled. If a Recession is indeed a time for correction, of the same kind that housing is experiencing, then wine prices are going to have to be seriously corrected, and not just at the super-ultra-premium end. They’re going to have to be corrected in the $20-$40 tier, where, as Ricky Ricardo might have said, there’s a lot of ‘recting to do.

Breaking news!

Conde Nast is closing Gourmet magazine!! The N.Y. Times announced it this morning. This is a major event in print publication. Gourmet in its time was required reading, especially for wine lovers who could revel in everything the great Gerald Asher wrote. Gourmet will be missed.


Three — count ’em, 3 — for the price of one!

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Hey, who says you don’t get your money’s worth for this blog? Here’s a Threefer.

1. Talkin’ Sonoma County

Somebody from the Sonoma County Wine Library called the other day to do a little phone interview with me. She wanted to know, basically, how I thought the Sonoma County Wineries Association could do a better job of marketing and promoting Sonoma County wines. My answer was: it can’t.

This stuff is going to appear in print someplace. The interviewer sent me a draft of her article, and while I completely approve it, and am sure I really said all the things she quotes me as saying, I want to put my remarks in context. This was, after all, a long conversation we had, and the quotes were preceded and followed by other statements that gave more complete meaning to them.

(I should add that, as a news guy myself who’s conducted literally thousands of interviews over the years, not just with wine industry people but with cops, politicians, business tycoons, lawyers, doctors, crime victims, artists, judges, kids, dying people, you name it, I understand the challenges of getting quotes right, and of presenting them in a way that doesn’t distort their intended meaning. It can be difficult.)

So here are the quotes, with my amplifications.

1. “Sonoma County should not market itself as a region. The only region that means anything to anyone,” Heimoff says, “is Napa.”

What I meant: What I was saying was that I don’t think the words “Sonoma County” have much meaning to the average wine consumer. They do to people in the know, like you and me, but we’re not average consumers. To me, “Sonoma County” is a virtual guarantee of quality, of good viticulture and enology, of smart, hard-working people. But to most Americans, it’s like, “What part of Napa is Sonoma in?” They just don’t get it, and I don’t know if they ever will. So I’m not saying Sonoma “should not” in the moral, prescriptive sense of “Thou shalt not kill.” It’s more like I’m saying, “I wouldn’t spend a whole lot of marketing money promoting Sonoma County, because it’s not likely to be effective.”

2. He believes Sonoma was, “very promiscuous in the 80s in developing its AVAs.” Napa “was deliberate and said it did not want to rush. Sonoma is now paying the price,” he believes, with too many AVAs which mean nothing to the consumer, though an AVA like Russian River, he declares, has been very adroit in its marketing.

What I meant: Sonoma rushed out in the 1980s making all these AVAs before the terroir was properly understood. That caused bafflement, even among wine writers, but it also robbed the “Sonoma County” brand as a whole of the potential for respect and recognition, and fed (or attempted to feed) that energy into the sub-AVAs. Trying to promote “Sonoma County” now is a little like trying to put Humpty-Dumpty back together again.

3. Much more important, he says, for Sonoma’s future is that, “people buy brands. In fact, brands are the only thing that people look for. I think in tough economic times people tend to stay with what they know, so to me, that would bode well for some of the more reputable brands in the country.”

What I meant: With hundreds of wineries in Sonoma County, they’re not all going to succeed, even if the public suddenly starts thinking that Sonoma County is the greatest thing since sliced bread, which they won’t. No, the most visible, respected brands will sell because people know and trust them. At the high level, a Williams Selyem doesn’t have to rely on a relationship with Sonoma County; people line up to buy it because it’s a brand. The same goes for Chateau St. Jean or Sebastiani or Geyser Peak; people buy the name, not the grape source. In Napa Valley, it’s a little different; people are so mesmerized by those two words, they believe anything from Napa Valley has to be great, which of course is nonsense.

4. “Newer vintners need to be aware they will have to build their brands by getting high scores for their wines from good critic. There is nothing,” he says, “that moves bottles off the shelf better than a high score from a reputable critic.”

What I meant: This would be self-serving if it weren’t true. The single best way for a winery (especially an unknown or little-known one) to sell wine is to get a high score. We can argue about who’s a “good critic” and who’s not, but not today. Put it this way: Which will sell more wine, an Enthusiast 100 or a Sonoma County AVA? Duh.

5. His tough-love wisdom at the moment: “Focus. It’s hard right now. And it’s every brand for itself. It’s definitely dog eat dog out there.”

What I meant: Exactly what it says. Woof woof.

2. Wine Fraud hits Canada, no longer limited to Europe

I’m continuing to read and enjoy Benjamin Lewis’s “What Price Bordeaux?” book, which is a romp through everything you ever wanted to know about the great wines of the Left and Right Banks. Each chapter is immensely interesting in its own right. I’m up to “Plus Ça Change” — “the more things change,” as in “the more they stay the same — which is about fakery, fraud, aduleration, mislabeling, and the entire Rogue’s Gallery of crooked practices which seems to have infected the world of fine wine forever.

When I was reading the chapter on Sunday morning I wondered if fakery exists in California. Just a little while later I sat down at the computer, went to Meininger’s Wine Business International to check on the day’s news, and saw this headline, from The Vancouver Sun: Canadians react angrily to faux wines.

Seems that some pretty big wine companies “buy bulk wine from cheap sources outside Canada, bottle it here and sell it in the B.C. [British Columbia] Wines section of government liquor stores.” This “could even be a violation of the criminal provisions of the federal Competition Act [and] at the very least it’s unethical.” Some of the wine apparently is labeled “Cellared in Canada” which, apparently, does not mean that the grapes are from Canada, although the average consumer might be forgiven for thinking so.

This brouhaha brings to mind the famous WineGate Scandal, which Lewis recounts in Plus Ça Change. In the mid-1970s, a negociant house bought cheap Vin de Table red wine. He also bought some real AOC Bordeaux white wine. He then changed the color of the wine on the paperwork for his AOC Bordeaux from white to red, which allowed him to sell it for much more money than a table wine would fetch. Of course, he had to correspondingly lower the price on his white wine, since it was “demoted” from AOC Bordeaux to Vin de Table. But he still made “several million francs of profits in a period of four months” before the fraud was discovered by shocked, shocked authorities. (Only the previous year, the President of the INAO, the AOC’s governing body, had insisted that “Our system of control has been perfected so that [fraud] is impossible.”)

So it can happen in Canada. But here in California? Well, we all remember that in 1994, Fred Franzia “pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit fraud with Bronco by falsely labelling grapes,” according to the story about him in last May’s edition of The New Yorker. But that was 15 years ago, and to the best of my knowledge, California wine has seen no fraud since. Every once in a while the question arises of whether or not wineries send critics like me “special” bottles for review — bottles that aren’t the real wine — and while it wouldn’t surprise me if that were true, there’s no way to know. (All you investigative bloggers out there, here’s the route to stardom: Find such a case and bring the winery down.) There are, of course, rampant tales of fraud in the wine auction and old bottle communities, but I can’t get too upset about that, since it doesn’t impact 99.9% of consumers.

I think the Franzia case was a shot across the bow to California (and American) vintners, a warning from federal law enforcement officials that they won’t tolerate such outrageously deceptive practices. Perhaps far more interesting than outright fraud is adulteration — the “improvement” of wine by adding chemicals for flavor, texture and the like. Although the practice is frequently deplored by winemakers, it’s widespread, and there are currently no regulations, state or federal, to disclose them to the public. Should there be? I don’t know. How many more words can you squeeze onto a label? They’re already getting pretty crowded. Maybe wineries could make the information available online.

3. How to make cult wine and be graceful

And speaking of Plus Ça Change, I read with great interest yesterday’s front page article on Dick Grace in the San Francisco Chronicle, in which Mr. Grace skillfully administers the coup de main to the dozens of Napa Valley cult wines that regularly exceed the $225 price tag on his Grace Family Cabernet. The Chron’s wine editor, Jon Bonné, wrote that Grace “is credited with creating California’s first cult Cabernet,” a citation that may be undermined by the craze that attached to Joe Heitz’s Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon when that wine first appeared in the 1960s. But it’s true enough, and the point is that Mr. Grace views the metastasis of cult Cabs with some proper skepticism. He told Jon, “We have to get over what I call the trophy mentality,” and Jon quoted his wife, Ann, as saying that some of the newer cult wines say more about “an address” than anything else.

Well, I can’t argue with that. I don’t taste all the Napa cults but I do taste a lot of them and I can unhesitatingly say that your quality-price ratio is poor in many cases. (The Napa Valley Vintners kindly invited me to a private tasting of cult wines I don’t routinely get to taste. The tasting is Nov. 5. I’ll be reviewing the wines, blind and formally, for Wine Enthusiast, but I should be able to write about the tasting here.)

You can agree or disagree with Mr. and Mrs. Grace — I tend to agree — but what struck me, when I thought about it, were the parallels between their attitude toward the newby cult Cabs, and the way that some of the older, Baby Boomer wine critics view the younger bloggers. Not to paint everyone with the same broad brush (something I’ve been accused of), but you can say generally that some of the older writers saw the younger bloggers as upstarts, not fully qualified, yet out there making statements anyway. That’s kind of like the Graces saying that some (not all) of the newer cult wines are wannabes rather than proven commodities.

Are the newer cult owners resentful that the Godfather of Cult Cabs, Dick Grace himself, faulted them? Maybe there’s been some grumbling. The Chronicle is Northern California’s largest newspaper, and this article was on the front page of the Sunday edition, meaning that a lot of people read it. But if they have hurt feelings, I doubt if they’ll express them in public. Besides, I have to think that many of the newby cults know, in their heart of hearts, that what Mr. and Mrs. Grace said is true. These overblown wines, crafted with the help of hired celebrity winemakers and grapegrowers, are “marketing tool[s], as opposed to wines with a distinctive character,” as Mr. Grace asserted. The pendulum indeed “has swung too far.” And in at least one other aspect, the Graces are attempting to make up karmically for the wealth and luxury that their lives have accorded them. A Buddhist and follower of the Dalai Lama, Mr. Grace contributes large sums of money to humanitarian causes. He calls this act of charity a “self-correction” after realizing that there is a higher purpose than wealth or fame. It’s enormously gratifying to hear him concede that the prices his wine commanded were “an extension of my overblown ego” and to see him making up for it.

Maybe Mr. Grace could hold Buddhism classes for his fellow cult wine producers in Napa Valley and elsewhere. They have a lot to learn from him.

dalailama


What’s the best way to judge a wine?

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My bosses at Wine Enthusiast asked me to do a seminar at tonight’s Toast of the Town San Francisco, and I thought it would be fun to pick 6 of my top-rated wines over the last few months that show off their terroir or origin, and then explore the whys and wherefores of how they do so.

For the record, my selected wines are Geyser Peak 2007 Block Collection Russian River Ranches Sauvignon Blanc (Russian River Valley), Heintz 2007 Chardonnay (Sonoma Coast), Hall 2005 Bergfeld Cabernet Sauvignon (St. Helena), Beaulieu 2005 Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cab (Napa Valley), Morgan 2006 Double L Pinot Noir (Santa Lucia Highlands) and Gary Farrell 2006 Bradford Mountain Zinfandel (Dry Creek Valley).

Like a good lawyer, I can argue for or against the notion of terroir. (My Gemini nature also contributes to that perennially bifurcated point of view.) Against appellation is the reality that you can have wines of the same variety, grown within a stone’s throw of each other, that are vastly different. But arguing in favor of terroir is the fact that there are wines, such as the six above, that are perfectly in alignment with the theoretical qualities of any given appellation. Each defines, in a stereotypical way, its origin’s personality.

When I rate wine, it’s generally on the basis of how good/bad/indifferent it is regardless of terroir. This is especially true when the tasting is done blind. A case can be made, however, that it’s pointless (no pun intended) to rate a wine unless it’s from the point of view of how well, or not, it expresses its terroir, so I was fascinated to read about this tasting that took place in New York State. It was of Finger Lakes wines, and they were “judged based on how well they express[ed] the environment in which they [were] grown,” not merely on how good they tasted.

The tasting was conducted — not surprisingly — by the folks over at Appellation America. Last month, I posted about AA’s efforts to appellation-ize the U.S. in a piece I called “The Appellation Myth” in which my mixed feelings expressed themselves with classic duality. On the one hand I worried about “an appellation-literary complex…that seeks to make money” from writing about appellations. On the other hand, I acknowledged that appellations “are important, but not overly so.”

Regarding that AA competition in New York, it’s actually not a new-fangled way of judging, it’s an old one. The French historically interpreted their grands vins by how they expressed the attributes of their origins, and not merely by how they tasted (which is why, in the late 18th century, there was such a furor over “improving” the wines of the Médoc with darker wines from the south).

Tasting by terroir rather than strict hedonistic or organoleptic impressions provides endless opportunities for discovery, insight, conversation, debate and passion, which are all things that serious winos enjoy. Is tasting by terroir antithetical to the 100-point system? I don’t think so. They can be meshed together. When a wine is very, very good, as the six above are, and truly do seem to be expressions of where they were grown, it’s right to praise their typicity. But it’s important to remember that a wine may be very good even if it is not a precise expression of where it was grown. I have in mind certain sparkling wines from Schramsberg that are assembled from 3 or even 4 counties, or a Napa Cabernet that’s blended from vineyards up and down the Valley. So if I had to choose between wines that were defined by their terroir and those that were simply, purely hedonistic, it would be the latter. (Fortunately, no such choice is demanded!)


Top ten list of things gatekeepers could do a better job of explaining to consumers

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People call people like me “gatekeepers.” Beyond the obvious definition of a person who controls passage through a gate, the more modern meaning of gatekeeping is a cultural one: according to Wikipedia, gatekeeping is “the process through which ideas and information are filtered for publication.”

gatekeeper1

In the wine industry, in addition to writers and critics, gatekeepers include any professionals who interface with consumers and can influence what they buy: sommeliers, restaurateurs and wine shop personnel.

I have always taken my position as a gatekeeper very seriously. But I’ll be the first to admit we don’t always do a very good job at giving consumers true, useful information about wine they can use to bust through stereotypes. I was reminded of this yesterday when I wrote my post about screwtops and somebody commented that screwtops would be a lot more acceptable to diners if sommeliers pushed or at least didn’t oppose their use. That led me to think, What else are we gatekeepers not doing enough (or doing too much of)? Here’s my top 10 list of things that gatekeepers could do a better job of letting people know:

1 screwtops aren’t just for cheap wine
2. the relationship between price and quality is not as absolute as most people think
3. just because a wine comes from a single-vineyard that is designated on the label means nothing
4. a high score does not reflect a wine’s affinity for food
5. a particular varietal that comes from a region famous for that varietal can be terrible
6. the weight of the bottle is meaningless and can be misleading
7. ditto the beauty of the label
8. ditto the faux wax seal which is often just an excuse to charge an extra $15
9. a wine described as “dry” can actually contain residual sugar that interferes with food pairing
10. the official alcohol reading on the label can be seriously off

I’m sure I could come up with others, but then it wouldn’t be a Top Ten List.


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