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What Rudi taught us: The producer-critic complex, and never taking a wine for granted

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“I know never to take a wine for granted. Drawing a cork is like attendance at a concert or at a play that one knows well, when there is all the uncertainty of no two performances ever being quite the same. That is why the French say, There are no good wines, only good bottles.”

This quote, from Gerald Asher, is pretty alarming, if you think about it: it means that you can take a bottle of whatever you think is the greatest wine in the world–I don’t care what it is, Romanée-Conti or Petrus or whatever–and be completely underwhelmed by it. How could this be?

The explanation is that wine is among the most psychologically complicated of all the world’s consumer products. By which I mean, subjectivity enters into your perception of it more than with anything else, with the possible exception of modern art. (The most subjective perception of things is, of course, a parent’s view of her child, but then, children are not consumer products.)

I’ve always been fascinated by the psychology of the enjoyment of high-end wine. I’ve tasted enough of the world’s most famous ones to assure you that there’s not that much of a difference between a fabulous, high-scoring wine and one that’s “merely” very good. The producers of fabulously expensive wines–in Napa Valley, Bordeaux or wherever–don’t want you to know this. They go to great lengths to prevent you from knowing it, and they go to equally great lengths to persuade the wealthy people who buy their wines that there really are quantum qualitative differences that justify their prices. And in this dual quest, they are aided and abetted by certain critics, in what we might call the producer-critic complex, in which both sides stand to gain by the perpetuation of the existing system. (I adapted this term from Pres. Eisenhower’s “military-industrial complex” remark in his Farewell Address.)

But really, most of the heavy lifting in this persuading is done by the buyers themselves. When they put so much money on the line, they have a psychological investment in finding the wine incredible. And, most of the time, they do. Notice I didn’t say the wine is incredible; I said they find it incredible. Big difference. In fact, what the wine is, is impossible to discern or define. The “thing in itself,” as Kant observed, is unknowable, because, even if it has a real nature, that nature is obscured in a welter of human expectations, thoughts, emotions, motives and conflicts.

This is precisely why alleged crooks like Rudi Kurniawan are able–for a time, at least, until they get caught–to get away with their counterfeit bottles. Even though the stuff being passed off as Romanée-Conti and de Vogüé obviously wasn’t, the suckers who bought it thought it was, because after all, (a) the labels said so and (b) they paid so much money for the bottles that their pride could not admit they’d been bamboozled. The kind of men (high-end “collectors” usually are male) who buy these rarified wines tend to have out-sized egos; they don’t suffer fools gladly, but neither do they suffer many intrusions into their inflated view of their own discernment. So Rudi was able to prey on them with their willing cooperation.

Thus we return to Gerald Asher’s wise dictum to “never take a wine for granted.” Each bottle in and of itself is a complete, indivisible reality. But, like all fragments of reality that we experience, it is nearly impossible to separate out what we, the perceiver, bring to the phenomenon, as opposed to what it is “in and of itself.” When I explain to wine novices how best to appreciate wine, the first thing I do is dissuade them from the stereotypes they’ve heard all their lives concerning “great wines.” There are no great wines, only great bottles. So lesson no. 1: Never take a wine for granted. Not a $700 one and not even a $7 one.

Am I part of the producer-critic complex? I have been. In this job, you can’t help but be part of something larger than yourself, unless you go entirely off the grid–in which case, my friends at UPS and FedEx couldn’t find me to deliver those samples. So, yes, I’m culpable. But I recognize it–I see the perniciousness that can result when critics who have given ultra-high scores to certain wines year in and year out feel that their reputations are on the line unless they continue doing so. What makes me different, I think, is that I give high scores to wines that aren’t on the A-list of cultdom, and so-so scores to wines that are. And the reason I do so is because in every case, they deserve them. Like Gerald Asher said, never take a wine for granted.


When wine is actually worth its price

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I blogged the other day about high prices and the way some people pay more for certain wines than those wines are intrinsically worth. So I thought it would be appropriate for me to suggest some wines I’ve reviewed this year that actually provide exceptional value. Here we go.

We have, at Wine Enthusiast, a special designation we reviewers can give wines, at our discretion. It’s called Editor’s Choice. It’s a kind of gold star on the forehead (I’m dating myself with that one) for a wine that is exceptional in some way that may or may not be related to its price. The concept of Editor’s Choice admittedly is a little loosey-goosey; I tend to apply it sparingly (maybe 2% of all wines I review), and it’s not always easy for me to spell out in words exactly why I do. It’s just a feeling, but it is based on my many years of appraising wines, and so I think it gives value to my readers.

For instance, I gave an Editor’s Choice to the Bonaccorsi 2010 Fiddlestix Vineyard Pinot Noir (95 points, $45) for several reasons. One is because that’s a very high score, while $45 is not exorbitant for Pinot Noir these days. The vineyard, Fiddlestix, is famous and important down in the Santa Rita Hills, which provides for some thoughtful conversation about the wine. These factors–high score, fair price and an intellectual component–in my mind definitely qualify it for an Editor’s Choice.

I also gave an Editor’s Choice to the Chappellet 2011 Signature Chenin Blanc, Napa Valley (92 points, $30). My reasoning there had more to do with the variety than anything else. Had it been a 92 point Chardonnay for $30, I wouldn’t have given it the designation. And had it been a $60 bottle, I wouldn’t have done it, either. But Chenin is a wine so difficult to make well (in California), and this one was so good, at such a fair price, that, once again, it was a no-brainer.

A third example was Miro’s 2011 Wolcott-Bevill & Piccetti Zinfandel (92 points, $26). That wine didn’t qualify for a Best Buy designation (which is based strictly on a price-score ratio). But 92 points is pretty good for a 26 buck Zin, and this one moreover displayed classic Dry Creek character. It may have been this latter feature that inspired me to give it an Editor’s Choice. I like wines that are classic examples of their regions.

Here are selected other Editor’s Choices from this year:

Jaffurs 2011 Stolpman Vineyard Roussanne, Santa Barbara County) (93 points, $30. The vineyard is in the Ballard Canyon region of Santa Ynez Valley.))

Ehlers Estate 2012 Sauvignon Blanc, St. Helena (93 points, $28)

Matanzas Creek 2010 Chardonnay, Sonoma County (92 points, $26)

Landmark 2010 Steel Plow Grenache, Sonoma Valley (92 points, $35)

Sbragia 2010 Home Ranch Merlot, Dry Creek Valley (92 points, $35)

Von Strasser 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon, Diamond Mountain (92 points, $45)

Calera 2011 Chardonnay, Mt. Harlan, (92 points, $30)

Ziata 2009 Cabernet Franc, Oakville (92 points, $60. Yes, that’s pretty pricey, but the combination of quality and the fact that it’s a very serious Oakville red wine qualified it.)

Dutton Estate 2011 Kyndall’s Reserve Chardonnay, Russian River Valley (92, $38)

Eberle 2011 Mill Road Vineyard Viognier, Paso Robles (89 points, $23)

Morgan 2012 Metallico Un-Oaked Chardonnay, Santa Lucia Highlands (89 points, $22)

J. Lohr 2010 Seven Oaks Cabernet Sauvignon, Paso Robles (89 points, $17. What swung this for me was sheer drinkability. This would make a great house red.)


High wine prices? Pogo figured it out long ago

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Kudos to Jancis Robinson for decrying the hubris-inspired prices on so many of the world’s wines these days.

I don’t know if this is a new position for her to take, or one she’s held for years, as I have; but either way, it’s refreshing to see the most famous female wine writer in the world join the anti-high price crowd.

Jancis points out, in particular, three red wines, one from the Languedoc, one from Australia and one from our friend Raj Parr, a $90 Central Coast bottling I have not yet had the pleasure of reviewing. But since I know Raj, and I know California wine, let me share with you some thoughts.

First of all, it is simply fantastic that a new wine brand can charge $90 a bottle and expect to get away with it. I mean “fantastic” as in unbelievable, mind-blowing, and wrong. But what is even more unbelievable is that people are actually going to be lining up to buy that wine. Why?

For the answer, you have to look no further than the great People’s Republic of China. We Americans love to giggle at the Chinese, so pretentiously buying Lafite and putting it on the edge of the table in the restaurant so everybody can see just what they’re drinking. For we are defined by what we possess and consume, aren’t we? And if we lack the self-esteem to value ourselves intrinsically for who and what we are, then we turn to possessions, to fill that gap. I may be a worthless nothing, but if I can afford Lafite, that makes me better than you.

Well, I exaggerate, of course, but that is the view many Americans have of the Chinese. But let’s look at ourselves. Americans, too, line up to buy the most expensive, talked-about wines (if they can afford them). Why doesn’t everyone laugh Ray Parr right out of his shoes for attempting to foist an unknown, unproved wine on us at such a ridiculously high price?

Because he’s Raj Parr. He’s associated with Michael Mina. And that, my friends, is your window into the world of celebrity and wealth, a world closed to most of us. Yet the more closed it is, the more we want in, to make ourselves feel better than we are, to reassure us that we really are as good as the handsome, well-dressed and tasteful people whom we see laughing in the windows of Michael Mina as they dine on herb-roasted lamb ($47) washed down with Raj Parr’s new wine.

So you see the phenomenon is fundamentally psychological. Yes, it can be dressed up in Armani and Gucci and made to appear natural and tasteful, but this aspirational behavior, I would argue, is fundamentally neurotic. These vintners can get away with charging an arm and a leg for wines that–let’s face it–no matter how good they are, are not worth the price, because they take advantage of the human tendency to associate high price for quality, even when reason and common sense tell us this is a false association. In this sense, the enemy is not Raj Parr, or the Australian or Languedocian vintner charging those prices. No, as Pogo pointed out a long time ago, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”


Lots of good values in wine, as the economy recovers

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This article about how well Gallo is doing in the super-premium tier ($15 and above) squares well with the chatter at the recent Napa Valley wine auction concerning the rather sudden turnaround in the wine business. From misery to marvahlous was the song on everyone’s lips, cults and commoners alike, leading me to believe that, while the general U.S. economy may still be tottery, wine has become a leading indicator of recovery.

(Until yesterday I might have said wine has become the canary in the coal mine of recovery, but Chuck reminded me that that metaphor has a rather unfortunate implication.)

Gallo is selling a lot of MacMurray Ranch, Louis M. Martini, Frei Brothers and Ghost Pines, all of which indeed do offer sound wines reasonably priced. So I thought I’d dig through the Wine Enthusiast database and see what some of my best-reviewed wines have been over the last year in the $11-$20 category.

Exactly 50 scored 90 points or above. Several brands appear more than once: Cameron Hughes, Minassian-Young, Tangent, Rodney Strong, Courtney Benham, Zaca Mesa. These may be described as a deep bench of talent. Of course, some of them also produce much more expensive wines (Zaca Mesa’s Black Bear Block Syrah, for example, is $60 retail), but I like it when a winery can do more than one thing well.

Other names on my list appear only once, but that was over the past year. If you go back further, they appear with greater frequency. Longboard, Sebastiani,  Huntington, Tercero, Claiborne & Churchill, Firestone, Kendall-Jackson,Vina Robles, Geyser Peak–we’re lucky to have them (or the consumer is). It is brands like these (and again, some of them produce super-ultra-premium wines) that make me put on my populist hat and be happy that someone is giving consumers wine they can afford.

On the other hand, here are two very good but expensive Chardonnays I’ve enjoyed lately. Both are from the Russian River Valley, and both are 2011: Rochioli River Block ($60) and Lynmar Quail Hill ($55). It never fails to amaze me how River Block–which as its name implies is on a bank above the Russian River, and whose soil consequently is pure, crumbly sand and gravel–can produce, not just Chardonnays of such exquisite poise, but Pinot Noir. In theory, it should not do so; and Tom Rochioli himself told me he doesn’t consider River Block his best. But don’t tell that to the wines! It just shows to go that, once again, the conventional wisdom isn’t always right. Or maybe all it shows is that great viticulture can make up for deficiencies in the soil. Or both.


As wine consumers trade down in cost, some wineries stand to lose, while others gain

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Please consider voting for steveheimoff.com for the Wine Blog Awards’ Best Overall Wine Blog. Voting is open until Friday. Thank you.

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Trading down from Gucci to J. Crew may not seem like the toughest sacrifice in the world, but even the top 2 percent of upper-income Americans is “thinking twice” about spending their money on über-expensive goods, says Bloomberg News.

“These ‘2-percenters,’ unnerved by the most recent recession, are trading down to less-expensive” apparel and other items, the article says. It quotes the president of a luxury research firm: “The rich have lost their exuberance.”

Of course, “a small cadre of ultra-high net-worth individuals…is insulated and not cutting back,” but unless you’re in the yacht business, you’re not really concerned about these 1 percent of the 1 percent.

The article names names: On “the way down” in clothing and accessories are Prada, Armani, Gucci, Hermes and Gianni Versace. On “the way up” are Ralph Lauren, Michael Kors, Banana Republic and Urban Outfitters. In other words, brands that offer cachet and style, without the high price.

So the HENRYs (“high earner not rich yet”) are scaling back. What does it mean for luxury wine brands, particularly California Cabernet Sauvignons that have hit triple digits?

Unless you’re the owner or the winery’s banker, you can’t really know what the bottom line is. Is Screaming Eagle hurting? Harlan? How about Bryant, Colgin, Dalla Valle, Schrader, Abreu, Sloan? If these are the Armanis and Guccis of wine, then we have to expect that things are not quite as solid as they were pre-2008. The HENRYs are “thinking twice” about spending their hard-earned cash on them, and there’s no indication they’re going to return to their free-spending ways anytime soon.

Nor are there enough “ultra-high net-worth individuals” to absorb all of these expensive wines. I have to believe, based on what I’ve seen and heard, that the cults are hurting–although some of their owners are so rich that they can afford to ride out what they hope is a relatively brief soft period following the Great Recession.

What are the alternatives to the cults–the winery equivalents of the Banana Republics and J. Crews of California that the 2 percenters are turning to? Here’s my list of Cabernet Sauvignon producers whose wines are pretty much near as good as anything from the cults, but whose prices are more aligned with reality: Stonestreet, Von Strasser, Vine Cliff, Goldschmidt, Krutz, Hall, Sequoia Grove, Duckhorn, Conn Creek, Kendall-Jackson Highlands Estates, Long Meadow Ranch, Piña, Macauley, Stephen & Walker, Kuleto, Yates Family, Renteria, Creo, Snowden, Laird, Moone-Tsai, Hunnicutt, St. Supery, La Jota, Frank Family, Prime, Rubicon Cask Cabernet, Signorello, Trinchero, Stag’s Leap Artemis, Monticello, Charnu, KaDieM, Venge, Terra Valentine and Hidden Ridge. I’ve given scores of 95 points or higher in Wine Enthusiast to bottlings from each of them over the past few years, and none costs more than $90 retail.


Global wine shortage could be good news for struggling wineries

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The shortage of California wine is rippling through the system, causing serious if not quite catastrophic consequences.

Winery principles tell me that when their sales forces fan out across the country, buyers are unhappy at the lack of supply and in some cases are personally blaming the winery!

I’m sure that distributors as well as retailers both on and off premise find themselves in an uncomfortable position when wines they’ve sold for years are suddenly unavailable. Of course, the rational part of them knows that no one at the winery is responsible for short crops: Mother Nature is.

But there’s a vein of paranoia that runs through the end users of the three-tiered distribution system like a low-grade infection, and sometimes these buyers can’t be sure if the winery really is low on supply, or is just cutting them out and pretending to be short.

It’s bad for the winery. If buyers feel the winery is shorting them, they might turn to someone else they can get product from, thus terminating what might have been a long relationship.

We’ve all been reading about a wine shortage, for instance here and here, which cites BofA Merrill Lynch that “Global supplies appear to be tightening simultaneously,” with government policies in Europe and Australia deliberately discouraging production, while bad weather in South America had the same effect.

The problem is exacerbated by increasing demand from China for U.S. and particularly California wineries, some of whom are selling a surprisingly high percentage of their top wines there.

Several highly placed producers have openly fretted to me about the shortage, wondering what their companies are going to do. But the truth is, they have few options. They can’t turn to Oregon because crops there run so short due to natural circumstances. Washington has huge, fertile spaces in the east, but that state’s frequent hard winter freezes intimidate California producers, who aren’t used to having entire vineyards wiped out in a single night.

The 2012 vintage, California’s biggest ever, threw the industry a lifejacket, throwing it into temporary balance, but it probably won’t be enough to overcome the result of prior years of below-average crops, coupled with increasing demand. As Gomberg Fredrickson’s Jon Fredrickson told the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium earlier this year, “California ran out of wine.”

The result? Higher prices. The trend is especially notable at restaurants, where by-the-pour prices are inching up. It’s curious that all this is happening just as the country (and world) seems to be emerging from the Great Recession, putting a little more money into the average consumer’s pocket. Are consumers willing to dig deeper for their daily Pinot Grigio and Merlot? I expect they are–and that’s good news for wineries that have gone through the hell of the past five years, and survived.


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