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How does a winery get from the minor leagues to the major?


I was talking yesterday with a guy on the marketing side of the wine industry who’s trying to promote his winery (as all good marketers should always be doing). He used an analogy with Major League Baseball—that his winery has reached AAA status in the minors (the top category) and now is ready and willing to hit the Major League. But it hasn’t happened yet, and he was wondering how to get it done.

As he put it, “How did those guys at the AAA level get to the Majors? How did they take the step to get access to capital to develop their business?”

Well, that’s the Big Question, isn’t it.

I replied that there’s no one answer to the question, but at least two that I can see, based on my years of observation. One is that some people simply buy their way into the Majors. They start with a ton of money they made from another industry or inheritance (Gordon Getty at PlumpJack), buy a prime piece of real estate in a significant appellation, hire the talent (viticultural and enological) to make killer wine, and then hire the public relations pros to promote the heck out of their wines. That’s how everybody from Tom Jordan to Kenzo Tsujimoto did it.

Fortunately it’s not the only way. Then there are the guys who started with little or no money and did it the old-fashioned way: sweat equity. They simply made great wine while no one was looking. Nobody gave them anything; they asked for nothing. Quietly, they did their thing until the media—and then the sommeliers and other influencers—noticed. Justin Smith, at Saxum, and Ehren Jordan, at Failla, come to mind.

The marketing guy’s reference to getting “access to capital” made me think. His idea was that if a winery is performing at the peak of their game with limited resources—i.e. at the AAA level–they should be able to convince a moneybags to invest to push the winery into the Majors. I replied that it seems to me that investors will only invest in a winery if they think it will make money, but he reminded me that there’s plenty of capital invested in wineries by people who don’t expect to make a pile of profit. They don’t want to lose money, but they do want to at least break even, and have the chance to live the winery lifestyle. (I’d love to take visiting friends to visit “my” winery but I don’t think that’s going to happen unless I win the Powerball Lottery.)

That’s the same dream that all those young entrepreneurs down in Silicon Valley have: an angel investor comes along and believes in them enough to finance whatever they need to realize their vision. I don’t really know enough about this investment side of the wine business to know if rich people actually do look for opportunities to help struggling younger winemakers up their game. But I do know that old adage: How do you make a small fortune in wine? Start with a large one.

Finally, there’s this reality: Not all Major League Baseball players are equal. Some, like Cal Ripken, have long, fabulous careers. Some, like Buster Posey (yay!) are just starting out on what could be long, fabulous careers. And some burn out early and fade away, sometimes going back to the Minors. Just because a winery makes it to the Majors doesn’t mean they can stay there—especially through all the ups and downs of the economy.

I’ve always thought there’s an element of magic to getting and staying famous. Heidi Barrett once told me that when she and Screaming Eagle got super-famous it caught even her by surprise; she described it as a wildfire that just erupted and swept everything before it. If there was a formula for making it, everyone would follow it. There isn’t. Short of being able to buy your way in, the best way to make it to the Majors and stay there is to do whatever it takes to make the greatest wine possible.

Cork: equal time in the closure wars


A few weeks ago, I blogged on the closure wars, and specifically about Nomacorc, a plastic “cork.” While I was careful to write, in bold italics, “This is in no way a product endorsement of Nomacorc,” I was aware of the fact that my sources of information were representatives from Nomacorc. They did a good job pointing out the advantages and efficiencies of their product, and that’s what I reported on.

So it wasn’t completely surprising when a fellow named Dustin Mowe contacted me, asking if we could meet up so he could tell me the real,  natural cork side of the argument. Dustin’s president of Portocork America, whose website describes it as “the premier supplier of natural cork closures to the North American wine industry.”

Dustin drove down from Napa, where the company is headquartered, and we met at my office-away-from-home, also known as Whole Foods. (Full disclosure: I let Dustin buy me a medium soy latte.) I told him I was there to learn, not to take sides. This was an important ice-breaker, I think, because the cork people have felt a bit beleaguered in recent years, what with TCA being a problem and vastly increased competition from plastic “corks,” like Nomacorc and screwtops. Dustin was perhaps expecting to have to defend natural corks more than proved to be the case; I let him know right away that I have no great argument against natural cork, just as I have no great argument with screwtops or plastic closures in general (except the ones that swell up after you extract them, and then don’t fit back into the bottle).

It seems to me that every producer has to figure out what makes the most sense for his wines, economically, esthetically and technically. I’ve learned enough over the years to know there’s no perfect solution to the bottle closure issue. There always will be a certain failure rate for natural cork, in the sense of it being infected with TCA, just as there always will be a failure rate in automobiles and medical procedures. (Life itself, let’s remember, has a failure rate of 100%.) Hopefully, the failure rate in corks will be low. Dustin assured me the cork industry is hard at work on getting TCA down to as near zero as possible, and I have no reason not to believe him, since their livelihoods are bound up with finding a solution.

What is the failure rate of corks? Depends on whom you ask. My own experience is around 1.5%. It used to be much worse, maybe 10-15 years ago, so it seems like the cork industry is making progress. Dustin showed me a chart on TCA analysis in natural corks over the last ten years; the tests were conducted by a third party lab, ETS Laboratories, in St. Helena, so there’s no worry of bias. TCA, measured in parts per trillion, averaged just over 4.0 in 2002 and has steadily declined since, with 2012 averaging about 0.50. Dustin cited Christian Butzke, an enology professor at Purdue University: “TCA is no longer a major problem for the US Wine industry.”

So why do some people insist it is? Partly, I suspect, because minds are slower to change than facts. If a critic decided 10 years ago that cork taint was unacceptably high, he might not have changed his mind today. Dustin cited Jim Laube, from Wine Spectator, who’s been criticizing TCA in corks for years. For example, in 2007, Jim wrote, “Wine Spectator’s Napa office tracks the number of ‘corky’ bottles in tastings of California wines, and the percentage of defective corks routinely runs at 15 percent, which seems way too high to me.

Last January, Jim addressed the topic again, writing , “In 2011, out of roughly 3,100 bottles of California wine topped with cork (another 269 were topped with twist-offs), the percentage of ‘corked’ wines dropped to 3.8 from 4.8 in 2010—making it the best year since we started tracking this. In 2009, nearly 7 percent of the wines were corked, and in 2007, it was 9.5 percent.” Don’t ask me how the 2007 “routinely runs at 15 percent” squares with “9.5 percent in 2007” because I don’t know.

People do have differing threshholds for TCA perception, as for other compounds in wine, like brett. Jim’s schnozz may well be far more sensitive to TCA than most other people, including MWs, somms, collectors and winemakers. Besides, every form of closure has its issues. Screwtops can let too little air in, which can lead to reductive aromas. Plastic can give weird rubbery smells. Each closure also has its own environmental footprint issues, which I don’t intend to get into. There are economies that have to be considered by the producer, as well as image issues. Dustin told me that Bronco Wine Co. uses natural cork for most of their brands, even though cork on average is more expensive than plastic or screwtop, because the Franzias believe cork has a better image.

I emailed Joey Franzia about this, and he replied, “BWC [Bronco Wine Co.] % of sales is 2-4% of all case goods produced; consumers like the POP! And screw capped wines are received 50/50 by buyers as positive and negative, corks are natural, eco-friendly and biodegradable.  We do extensive cork testing minimizing TCA contamination with BWC wines.”

I do like the POP! with corks, and the pomp and ceremony of opening a bottle, particularly when I’m entertaining. My poor old fingers are getting a little rickety, after opening 100,000-plus bottles over the years, but that’s a small price to pay for all the pleasure wine’s given me. So you’d have to count me as a cork fan.

A California AVA: for what’s it worth


California has a new AVA, its millionth. This time it’s Inwood Valley, up in Shasta County, which is way to the northeast of San Francisco, up toward the Oregon border.

Actually, Inwood Valley isn’t California’s millionth appellation, it’s only the 128th (by my count), but still, that’s about 28 more than the last time I counted, which wasn’t that long ago. So these things are proliferating faster than walking dead people in a zombie movie.

I have nothing against appellations, but consumers really have got to understand their limitations. The bottom line is that an American Viticultural Area is a guarantee of nothing except grape origin. The specific percentage that’s required depends on the type of AVA. For example, a county appellation (like Shasta County) calls for a minimum of 75% of the grapes from that county. A more specific appellation (like Inwood Valley) requires 85%. There are additional minor requirements, but that’s pretty much it.

You can’t get good wine from a bad appellation (not saying Inwood Valley is a bad appellation, don’t know anything about it), but you can get bad wine from a good appellation. That’s because the federal TTB (trade and tax bureau) requirements for appellations have nothing to do with quality. It’s strictly origin, like I said. Maybe they should, but this gets into governmental intrusions that I don’t particularly want to see happen. I’m not a small government guy, but can you imagine TTB “taste experts” saying what Napa Valley-grown wines can use “Napa Valley” and which ones can’t? That would be like getting Dan Berger, Wilfred Wong, Jim Laube and me into a room and making law.

Steve: I love this wine. I think it should qualify for a Napa Valley appellation.

Dan Berger: Are you crazy? It’s overblown! Look at that alcohol–15.5%. I say downgrade it to North Coast. Maybe even California.

Wilfred: Boys, boys, try to get along. Say, are there any hors d’oeuvres?

Jim Laube: I give it 100 points. Or maybe 57.

There are certain appellations that are more likely to be good than others:  Howell Mountain and Mount Veeder are two. Santa, err, Sta. Rita Hills has a high probabilty of being good, but the bigger they get the more opportunity there is for so-so wine. Usually, the smaller AVAs in the better coastal counties offer the best chance for success. But, of course, smart wine lovers wouldn’t buy a wine based solely on appellation. They’d want a trusted recommendation, whether it’s from a critic, merchant or friend.

I poke fun at the proliferation of AVAs in California, but actually, there are lots of areas I’d like to see even more appellated, or sub-appellated. Alexander Valley needs to be split up, especially as regards elevation. I wouldn’t mind having Oakville divided into east and west, although I know that will never happen. Remember the carnage when somebody suggested an Oakville Bench? (They wanted a Rutherford Bench too.) There was blood running along Highway 29, and the Napa River ran red. But it wasn’t a bad idea then and it isn’t now.

I think Santa Lucia Highlands should be split into two, maybe three parts, on a northwest-southeast line. I’ve written plenty about sub-AVAs within the Russian River Valley and won’t get into the details again, except that there’s a big difference between south of River Road and the Middle Reach. Down in Paso, they’ve been hassling with sub-AVAs for years. I lost track of developments a while back. I think they were talking about an additional 11 or so new ones. Can that be right? Somebody let me know. Seems excessive. Sometimes in an effort to get things right, people go too far and just over-complicate them.

And, as I wrote in October, a Pritchard Hill appellation is long overdue, although that, too, is unlikely anytime soon.

What AVAs are just right? Yountville. Calistoga. Edna Valley. Arroyo Grande Valley. Diamond Mountain. Spring Mountain. Stags Leap. Happy Canyon. Santa Maria Valley. Those are a few. I’m not gonna go through all 128, so I’ll just stop here.

Your questions anwered, here, now


Some readers asked me some questions yesterday. Here they are, with my answers.

“Would also be curious to hear how the editorial team takes into account the thought, ideas and trends coming out of the blogosphere.”

Tom: I can’t speak for the rest of the team, as these are personal decisions. Speaking for myself, I am not terribly influenced by other bloggers, except in the realm of ideas. For example, I learn from your blog and am often inspired to think about things that you discuss. I enjoy cruising other blogs looking for ideas and concepts that make me think, and perhaps to blog about here on my own blog. However, when it comes to wine reviews, very little of what bloggers write has any interest to me.

Tom Barras: “To what extent,if any, do you take into account what your several magazine competitors and wine journalists have been writing about?”

Tom: Again, it matters very little to me what other writers say about wines, in terms of their impesssions, criticisms, etc. Of course, it’s always nice when I stumble across a critic I respect whose opinions agree with mine! But I’ve been around long enough to understand that reasonable people can disagree. I do have certain writers, both online and in print, whom I follow with some regularity, just as I know there are writers who follow me with some regularity. But I hope they don’t base their opinions on what I say!

Cody Rasmussen: “Steve, I’d love to have you dedicate a whole blog post to the differences in taste among your fellow editors. It sounds as though a 93 point California cabernet for you might score no more than 89 points with Roger Voss? I find that very honest and interesting.”

Cody: This would indeed be a fantastic blog post! However in all honesty it’s not likely to happen, for the following reason: We live in different parts of the country—indeed, on different continents—and we do not often have the opportunity to taste together in a way that would allow for such direct comparisons, except in the most casual way: at a dinner, for example. However, we’ve worked as a team long enough for me to have a pretty good idea how our tastes differ. In general the Europeans prefer their table wines drier and more acidic, while I, with my California or “New World” palate, enjoy fruit and opulence. (That’s a tremendous generalization, and I could come up with dozens of exceptions, but still…). For example, last night, as I previously mentioned, we had the 2009 Ovid, which I scored quite highly. Most of the other editors would have scored it in the low 90s, which is a great but not a stupendously great score. They said it had an enormously attractive aroma and was upfront delicious, but disappointed them a little in terms of complexity and/or finish. Understood. But Mr. Voss, who you reference, liked it quite as much as I did and he, like me, felt it to merit a good long time in the cellar. Roger is the ultimate Bordeaux guy. I was surprised, and so were some of my fellow editors, that he thought as highly of the Ovid as he did. Just goes to show…

Rew Craig: “Why do wine writers so rarely allow someone to tweet or fb their writing? It spreads their name without asking my followers to go to the site and sort through everything.”

I replied briefly yesterday to Rew, but here’s a fuller reply. First of all, on my blog, it’s easy to tweet or Facebook it. I can’t speak to other bloggers. Most of the ones I read also make it easy to shoot them right onto Twitter or your Facebook page. So I don’t know if “so rarely” is a true description of the situation. The more interesting aspect of Rew’s comment concerns “spreading their name.” I have a couple things to say about that! I do think that a lot of ambitious bloggers use every trick in the book to spread their name. Buzz is good! In my judgment, one has to combine good taste with sound tactical thinking. It’s a little tacky when somebody is touting their blog all around the place. For example, when the period for Wine Blog Award nominations was open, I never mentioned it here, or on my Facebook or Twitter pages. I could have asked my thousands of readers, friends and followers to nominate me, and I’m sure many of them would have. But I didn’t, and so I didn’t get nominated. Would I have liked to? Sure. But not at the price of “Please vote for me!,” every day, 24/7. Like I said, tacky. Not the way I was raised.

Happy to answer my wonderful readers’ questions anytime as best I can. If I get enough, maybe I’ll make it a regular feature.

What wine writers talk about at dinner


We’re in NY (“we” being Wine Enthusiast’s editors, here for the annual editorial conference), and we had a nice dinner with plenty of wine. We’re staying at a cool inn in Chappaqua, the Kittle House, said to have one of the best restaurants in Westchester. The wine list certainly is impressive, one of those telephone books that makes you wonder just why it has to be so big. But it does get certain awards for its heft or what my father would have called zaftig.

We had a 2007 Grand Cru Chablis Paul Gregutt and Roger Voss loved, I considerably less so. When I said it was sour, Paul exclaimed, “It’s called acidity,” but then Paul, our Pacific Northwest editor, is congenitally complaining that California wines are too soft. We had an $85 rose Champagne that no one cared for. I had a glass of 1994 Zind Humbrecht Gewurz that was fantastic. A couple of other things not worth mentioning. But I wanted to write about what we talked about.

After the usual shop talk common to every office, it was the nature of our jobs. What is an 82 point wine. What is a 100 point wine. The trials and joys of traveling in wine country: it’s a mixed blessing, fortunately more fun than not. The ethics of accepting freebies of any kind, including meals at restaurants we’ll never review, since we’re wine critics, not restaurant critics. Being friends with winemakers whose wines we sometimes must pan. One particular thing we all agreed on was how a winery’s more expensive wine isn’t necessarily its best. This is certainly true in California, where “Reserve” frequently means oakier and higher in alcohol, but not better. I wouldn’t say wine writers are cynical–we love our work and the industry too much. But we’ve seen how producers can fool themselves into thinking that “more” equals “better” when it ain’t necessarily so.

Now it’s onto the hard work of planning the 2013 book, or editorial calendar. This is always a somewhat competitve experience, since there’s only so many pages in the print magazine. Having an online component that is essentially spaceless and therefore limitless helps all of us be able to get our stories published, but still, you can’t just put everything you want to online. At the magazine, we’re trying hard to get online standards to conform to print standards, but the nature of online’s evolution–rapid, hard to keep track of–means it’s an ongoing challenge. I myself have some very strong California stories I hope to write in 2013. I worked hard to think them up. We’ll see what survives the conference’s give and take.

My own view continues to be that California is the center of the world’s wine industry, but of course I’m prejudiced, as a regionally based wine writer should be. Anyway, the next three days will be busy ones, but I’ll try to post something here everyday.

Bad bottle? Or bad wine?


Last week I was sent a white wine from Paso Robles that I let stand for a day before chilling in the fridge for my daily review tasting. (I’m not going to name the brand because it’s irrelevant.)

As soon as I opened the bottle I knew something was wrong. The color was off: a weird, orange-brown, like diluted root beer. Then the smell hit me: the unmistakable, nasty aroma of a maderized wine. “Maderized” is the term used to describe a wine that has been baked. It comes from the word “Madeira,” the island in the North Atlantic whose wines used to be shipped in ship holds across the ocean to the eastern U.S. Madeira wine is said to have been one of the favorite wines of 18th century America.

I’ve had my share of authentic Madeira, which is very good. But a “maderized” wine is not Madeira. It’s simply a wine that has suffered hideous treatment and isn’t fit to drink.

That white wine was one such. Now, there are any number of reasons why a wine can be maderized, and I didn’t know why this one was. So the question was whether to contact the producer, let him/her know about the problem, and resend the wine. Or to simply conclude that the producer made a bad wine, which isn’t my problem but theirs, and let it go.

I get a fair number of awful wines, but it can be hard to say just why they’re so bad. Are they bad because the producer was incompetent? Sometimes, I’ll look up my past reviews for a wine and see if the current bad bottle is shockingly out of whack with previous bottlings. For example, let’s say a winery whose Chardonnays I’ve given 90-plus scores to for the past ten years sends me a bad bottle. In that case, I’d most likely call the producer and ask for a replacement bottle (or, if they originally sent two bottles, I’d try the second one).

But I obviously can’t call every producer every time there’s a problem with a wine! If I did, I’d be tasting thousands more a year than I already do. So at some point, I have to conclude that, if the producer sends me a bad wine, it’s on them. In the case of the Paso Robles white wine (the producer had sent two bottles, and the second bottle was just as bad as the first), I decided to give it a code “22,” meaning it gets buried deep in the bowels of Wine Enthusiast’s database, where no one except the Tasting Department will ever see it. That seemed the only fit and proper way to deal with that wine.

A little later, the Paso proprietor emailed to ask if I’d received the wine and what did I think? I told him candidly that I found both bottles undrinkable and had given them 22s, so at least he could relax and know that the public would never see my review. He then sent me a long email explaining how the situation had come about.

Simply put, there was some kind of irregularity with the third party shipping company, and the wine was shipped during one of Paso Robles’ worst heat spells in years, with daytime temperatures hitting 113 degrees. Who knows what auto-da-fé the wine suffered in the back of a metal UPS truck, where the heat could have been as high as 130 degrees?

The issue to untangle here is, does a critic have an obligation to notify a producer when a bottle is suspect or not showing well? How about if the wine is ever so slightly corked? What if it’s slightly fizzy? Some wines can be lightstruck. Others can be bretty or have a little v.a. Oxidized wines can mimic maderized wines. Many wines just seem off in some way–you know something’s not right, but you (not being a trained enologist) can’t quite put your finger on it. The list is actually quite long of things that can go bad. In the case of a heat-damaged wine, shouldn’t producers be aware of the weather conditions they’re sending their wines into? Most send via ground, which can take 5 business days, as opposed to the more expensive next day delivery. (Savvy producers, I’ve noticed, are starting to include little ice packs in the boxes that can keep the wine cool for days.) At any rate, a producer ought to check the long range weather forecast. If they don’t, well, who’s to blame and whose responsibility is it to rectify the situation?

Delving deeper, how is the critic to determine if the bottle in question was bad, as opposed to the wine itself being bad? I recently gave this review to a wine: “This blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah…has a burnt, overripe flavor suggesting shriveled raisin skins…”. My first thought was the grapes got sun-burnt, but I suppose it could have been a baked bottle, blasted in the back of a delivery truck. There conceivably could be other bottles of the same wine that don’t have that burnt flavor and are perfectly sound. How am I to know? Were I to second guess myself every time a bad wine comes my way, I’d have to clone myself and have a second, third or fourth taster confirm every dreary repeat.

I admit there are aspects of this situation that trouble my conscience. I take no pleasure in giving out bad scores and harsh reviews. But two thoughts comfort me: One, nobody is forced to send me wine at the point of a gun. And two, there really is a lot of bad wine out there–not bad bottles, not bottles that suffered, but perfectly good glass bottles that contain perfectly awful wine.

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