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.
Benjamin Lewis writes, in his superb new book, Claret & Cabs, that the Left Bank of Bordeaux, and to some extent the Right Bank, is undergoing an identity crisis, as more and more Classified Growth chateaux bottle second wines.
It used to be that the handful of chateaux that made a second wine used grapes that were considered not good enough to go into the main wine. But that started to change in the 1990s and 2000s. “[S]econd wines have become profit centers in their own right, and are no longer simply a way to mop up lots that are not successful enough to include in the grand vin,” Lewin writes. “Often enough they have become a separate brand in all but name.”
The result are wines that “have improved significantly” and, with the great 2009 and 2010 vintages, “seemed to reflect their origins more clearly” than the grand wines. In fact, Lewin quotes Bruno Eynard, director of Chateau Lagrange, that “The second wine of a great year today is better than the grand vin of a minor year previously.” !!!
Lewin is not suggesting that proprietors are reducing the quality of the main wine, only that there is now competitive selection to make it into the second wine–with the corresponding result that many chateaux now have a third brand, as well, often bearing a simple communal AOC.
This ties into a phenomenon we’re also seeing here in California, in which top Cabernet wineries, usually in Napa Valley, produce a hierarchy of wines. As readers of my reviews probably know, it is far from certain that the most expensive wine (which may be a vineyard designate or barrel selection) is “better” than the second wine. I’d say that in about one-third of the cases, it is not. (Whether that makes the second wine a value, or the main wine a rip-off, is debatable.) But when the winery has a third tier that bears a simple Napa Valley appellation, the chances of it being pretty ordinary rise significantly. Not naming names– my reviews speak for themselves–but some Napa wineries are releasing these third-tier Cabernets that frankly aren’t worth the price, but merely trade on the winery’s name.
There was a time when vintners had some pride in what they turned out. If they had a lesser quality wine, they’d bulk it out on the market, or else bottle it under a different brand name and do everything in their power to hide the link to the parent winery. Inherent in this strategy, obviously, was the possibility of a reverse one: Some marketing whiz, at some point, would have said, “Wait a minute. Why are we hiding the connection? If we actively promote it, we could charge more money for the lesser wine.” (Mouton-Cadet, anyone?)
Someone in the room, I would think, would have objected that a low score on the lesser wine would taint the image of the main wine. But with the Recession and the current struggle for survival, even of some pretty famous wineries, the marketing message increasingly is triumphing over the moral message.
Last year, Joe Gallo asked me a question: Was Opus One good or bad for the Robert Mondavi brand? I’d never thought about it, so I asked him to give me a few seconds to think about it, and then I said, “Good, because it associated Mondavi with prestigious Bordeaux.”
“Wrong,” Joe Gallo admonished me. “It was bad, because Opus One took all the best fruit, and the Mondavi reserve suffered.”
He may or may not have been correct: certain critics in the 1990s faulted Mondavi Cabernets for lacking power, but that wasn’t necessarily because “Opus took all the best fruit.” Tim Mondavi repeatedly insisted he was not interested in making powerhouse wines, preferring a French style; the criticism that the wines were light (which I never bought into) was therefore a misunderstanding of the winemaker’s intention.
However, Joe Gallo’s argument does underscore the danger when a winery, with only limited access to superior fruit (and what winery has unlimited access to the best fruit?), tinkers around with second and third tiers. Usually, something gets hurt: either the top wine is lowered because quality grapes are diverted from it, or the second or third tier suffers because it has only inferior grapes. This is not to say that a winery cannot successfully produce separate tiers that are each quite good on their own: Freemark Abbey reliably does (with Sycamore, Bosché and the Napa Valley), and so does Stag’s Leap (Cask 23, Fay and Artemis). But I’m afraid they’re more the exceptions that the rule.
Before I was a wine critic–which is to say, before any of my publishers would let me actually review and rate wines–I was a wine reporter. For quite a few years, I worked for numerous publications that wrote about the nuts and bolts of the wine industry.
Those articles could be about almost anything: a study on some insecticide, fumigating soils, selling in China, pricing strategies, the economics of barrels, estate planning, the consolidating distribution system (yes, even then it was shrinking). That may not sound very glamorous, compared to the popular image of the wine writer hanging out with famous winemakers, eating fabulous foods prepared by superstar chefs, and drinking rare wines. But it was a good, solid job that taught me how to report quickly and accurately, and I loved it. Moreover, I learned a lot about what makes the industry tick.
Having a grounding in the basics of the wine industry has been very important to me. Although I don’t do much reporting anymore on hardcore industry topics, I carry with me to this day an interest in it, especially the marketing, sales and promotional side of the wine business. I also think it makes me a better writer for the kind of writing I now do. Knowing this industry in my bones helps to give me a perspective on things, which I can then pass onto my readers. It also helps to cut through the B.S. that, with some regularity, tries to pass through the reporter’s filter as news. That doesn’t happen much, not on my watch.
Does this industry experience make me a better wine critic? Not necessarily, per se. I’m not saying that to be a great wine critic you have to have done a lot of reporting. But it can’t hurt. Besides, wine criticism is only a part of what I do. And I’m glad it’s only a part. I wouldn’t want to write exclusively for a publication that only published reviews, and didn’t let its writers explore the industry’s other facets.
In my articles for Wine Enthusiast, I think I’m able to bring the perspective of those years of industry reporting to my words. It’s one thing to know, for example, that a winery is exporting to China. It’s another to have a sense of the history of California wine exports to China–to know how odd it seemed in the 1990s. (In retrospect, people like the Wentes who developed the China connection back then, and were thought a little loopy, look like geniuses today. They faced tremendous challenges: a lack of trusted partners on the ground in China, or even a distribution and sales system, not to mention language difficulties). I like to think that, even when I write a simple sentence like, “Wente, who has a long history of developing Asian markets…”), it’s informed with meaning.
I’m glad I didn’t just jump into wine reviewing with scarcely any knowledge of how the industry works, or why it came to be what it is today. When I started, of course, you couldn’t just jump in; you needed someone to let you write in their publication. Today, with the blogosphere, anyone can start reviewing wines with no experience, no background, not even any knowledge. This has been celebrated as a good thing: the end of elitism and all that, the victory of the little guy against the tyranny of the corporate gatemasters. Yes, we’ve gained that. But I wonder what we’ve lost. Does anyone really care that Sally or Jimmy reviewed a Beaujolais on their blog–when they may not know Brouilly from brie? It’s an indication of the desperate situation some wineries find themselves in (wherein wineries need all the help they can get, however dubious) that they’ll actually use Sally-Jimmy’s review. Hey, I’m just saying.
It’s interesting, in the light of this new report on the status of direct-to-consumer wine shipments in the U.S., to project the trend into the future and imagine what the American distribution system might look like in 15 or 20 years.
The report’s most startling discovery is that DTC’s dollar value last year “was greater than the total value of U.S. wine exports.” Almost as noteworthy is the fact that “The direct shipping channel continues to grow at a faster rate than the overall wine market.” DTC is said to be more important to “small and medium sized wineries” than it is to large wine companies that dominate supermarket and big box sales, presumably because the Big Boys have a lock on a distribution system that’s been consolidating in their favor for decades.
Which brings me to the crystal ball part of this tale.
Let’s imagine that it’s 2030 and, all other things being equal (the U.S. still exists, there’s no internal civil unrest to discombobulate markets), consumers are still healthy and buying wine. At the present rate of expansion of DTC, one can easily see the day coming when small and mid-sized wineries sell pretty much everything they produce direct, either through tasting rooms or through some sort of postage.
The result would be a schizoid market: Giant companies (Constellation, The Wine Group, Diageo, etc.), with their scores of individual brands, still dominate the supermarket aisles where most Americans continue to shop. At the same time, more and more consumers are getting their wine direct from the winery.
The situation is roughly analogous to what happened to traditional bookstores with respect to Amazon.com and other online sources of books. The trad bookstores found themselves confronted with a huge challenge: how to stay relevant. It was much easier for busy shoppers to buy something online and wait a few days to get their hands on it, than it was for them to actually get into their cars and drive to a mall or downtown, find parking, wait in line at the register, etc.
As similar-sounding as the situations are, though, there are important differences. Consumers don’t have to go to bookstores, but they do still have to go to the supermarket to buy their groceries, so as long as they’re there, it’s no hassle at all to swing by the wine aisle. This is good news for the big wine companies, who should continue to enjoy robust sales for decades to come.
Still, there are lessons for everyone. The big wine companies are going to have to “act small.” This means creating new brands that seem eco-friendly and appeal to individual niches in the market: young people, urbans, ethnic and racial groupings, housewives, singles, older retirees, liberals, conservatives, hipsters, etc. Although these brands may be mass-produced in the tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of cases, the consumers don’t know that. All they can see is a bottle they can relate to, and that seems to relate to them. To a great extent, the big wine companies are already doing this. They’re going to have to keep doing it, and do it better, if they want long-term dominance.
The small and medium-sized wineries have this lesson: They have to “think big.” They have to put on their businessman’s hat and come up with real marketing plans. After all, direct-to-consumer doesn’t happen all by itself, like Athena springing fully-born from Zeus’s brow. DTC has to be planned, created, executed and followed through; and once you have a loyal customer base, you have to keep it and make sure the competition doesn’t poach it away.
This is where communicating with the customer comes in. If a small winery has a tasting room on, say, Highway 49, in Gold Country, and is selling 90% of their wines “through the screen door,” they’re very lucky. But most wineries aren’t in that position. They may sell 30% in the tasting room, but the rest has to be cultivated, through clubs and the like. This is where social media comes in. Consumers like to feel connected to the producers of goods and services they buy, especially when the product is something as mental as wine. (“Mental”? Yes. There’s nothing emotional about buying a screwdriver. But there is something emotional about buying clothes, a car, wine. Think about it.) I’ve long said that wineries can’t put all their eggs in the social media basket, but they should put at least one or two and, depending how it goes, maybe even three or four.
Albarino is one of those grape varieties nobody in California thought too much of, like Pinot Gris and Gruner Veltliner, until comparatively recently.
Why should they have? California vintners fell into two categories in the modern era: those who wanted to sell commodity wines to lots of average consumers, and those who wanted to create prestige brands along the lines of Bordeaux chateaux or Burgundy domains. Either way, that meant producing those old familiar varieties, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. If variety for variety’s sake was desired, the vintner could always throw in a little Sauvignon Blanc, Zinfandel or something Rhônish.
But something in the California psyche started shifting around the year 2000. I haven’t read much about what instigated this shift, which saw the beginnings of the emergence of what are usually called aromatic whites. There had long been plantings of Riesling and Gewurztraminer in California, but suddenly, one started hearing about Pinot Gris/Grigio, Viognier, Albarino, Gruner, Torrontes and others. Whaf the wines had in common were low to moderate alcohol, keen acidity, bright floral, citrus or green notes and, perhaps most importantly, little or no oak influence to mask the fruit.
What instigated this shift is hard to tell. It’s a chicken-and-egg situation. Grape growers are very conservative when it comes to planting; they’re not going to stick anything in the ground they don’t think they can sell. So it didn’t come from the growers. But growers are sensitive to signs around them, and the more acute of them, who have their fingers in the wind all the time to detect changing consumer preferences, know what’s happening before most of the rest of us. Maybe they have a good network of restaurateurs and distributors to keep them abreast of what’s happening out there. Maybe they watch the critics, to see what new variety is being touted. Maybe the appeal for fresh, vibrant white wines really did start among consumers, and then traveled from the ground up. Who knows?
At any rate, it wasn’t until 2003 that I reviewed my first Albarino for Wine Enthusiast, a late date. It was a 2002 from the Lodi winery, Bokisch. It was pretty good; I scored it 88 points and, at $16 in price, it was worthy of an Editor’s Choice special designation. But I can’t say it knocked my sox off.
The first 90 point Albarino I reviewed was the 2004 Havens. It represented a big step above the Bokisch, in terms of utter dryness, light alcohol and a flintiness that was like a lick of cold stone. It put the idea in my mind that Carneros, and cool climates in general, were what Albarino likes.
Since then, the 90 point or higher Albarinos haven’t exactly flooded my doorstep, but they are coming in with greater frequency. Three producers now stand out as the most dependable: Marimar Torres, Longoria and Tangent. Each takes a different approach, but what all have in common is a cool growing region: respectively, the Green Valley of the Russian River, the Santa Ynez Valley and the Edna Valley. I’ve also been impressed lately by Kenneth Volk’s 2011 Albarino from the Santa Maria Valley, a little more-full-bodied than the others, but still Albarino-ey.
This new penchant among consumers for light, aromatic white wines is a very good thing, and I suspect it’s being driven by younger wine drinkers. It takes a certain amount of courage for a diner to request a wine type he’s unfamiliar with and may not even be able to pronounce, even if the sommelier recommends it. My friends who are floor staff confirm that it is indeed younger people who are drinking these aromatic whites, including Albarino, which pairs so well with today’s fresh, ethnic, pan-Asian fare and tapas-style small plates.
Acreage of Albarino is up sharply, although it’s still miniscule compared to other white varieties: a total of 176 acres in 2011. But 72 acres of that were non-bearing, meaning they’d been planted in 2009 or 2010; and I suspect that when the 2012 Grape Acreage Report comes out, we’ll see even higher numbers. Critics have long lamented that Americans are not drinking adventurously, creatively and experimentally. But I think that trope can now be laid to rest.
I was pleased to read, in Benjamin Lewin’s magnificent new book, “Claret & Cabs: The Story of Cabernet Sauvignon,” that “in Bordeaux [there is a] general lack of interest in exactly which clone is used.”
That is so different from California, where you’re always hearing about Clone 7, or 4, or 6, or 8, or 29, or 337, or whatever. And it’s not just Cabernet, it’s Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Syrah and just about every other important variety
I formed my initial impressions about clones in the early 1990s, when the new French Pinot Noir clones started coming into widespread use in California. I remember many a conversation with winemakers as they described the differences between the various clones and older selections. As a budding reporter, I listened carefully, trying to learn all I could. I wanted to know if, for example, 777 was better than 115 in Carneros–or if perhaps the situation were reversed in the Russian River Valley. Writers always want neat, tidy conclusions that we can pass along to our readers.
But it was all in vain: there was so much conflicting and competing information, so many different opinions were expressed, so many complicating factors such as rootstocks and different climate and soil conditions, so much absence of scientific certainty, that at some point in the 1990s I gave up trying to understand clones. I was in despair that I would ever be able to write about them without resorting to clichés, second-hand anecdotes or pretend-authority statements that I was just stealing from others [and that others would eventually steal from me]. That has never been my style.
By the turn of the new millennium I was doing research for my first book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River, and since so much of that had to do with Pinot Noir, I found myself reluctantly plunging back into the chaos of clone theory. I went through more rounds of interviewing, and by that time, access to the Internet additionally expanded the scope of information I had access to. Once again, I found myself in overwhelmed. So much data, so little time to digest it. So, when Tom Dehlinger said to me, “If you have a site that is producing great Pinot Noir, then almost any clone will be successful,” I almost sobbed with relief. At long last, with a single statement, someone smart and respectable had swept away the cobwebs, and given me permission to not be obsessed with clones, the way so many other writers were.
Why are the French so lackadaisical about Cabernet clones when the Californians seem so obsessed by them (or, in Lewin’s words, “Bordeaux’s indifference to clones [versus] Napa’s focus on them”)? Lewin, who’s an M.W., doesn’t explore this fruitful territory, but I will. California viticulture and enology always has been very academically and scientifically oriented, at least, since the modern boutique winery era began. The state has schools like U.C. Davis and Fresno State that long have been heavily involved in the industry, and have had a lock on providing winemaker talent. I’m not sure if there’s an equivalent situation in Bordeaux.
Universities stay in business, of course, only as long as they’re perceived to be adding to the body of knowledge of the academic subjects they specialize in. In Davis’s case, this means making constant, ongoing progress in all their V&E fields, whether it’s plant pathology, soil science, fermentation science or biochemistry. Graduates of these departments arrive at their first jobs heavily educated.
There’s always been some debate in California about whether winemaking is an art or a science. To some extent, this is a silly distraction–it’s both–but the perception is out there that too much technique can cripple the vintner’s creative, artisanal side. For example, when I first met Josh Jensen, at Calera, he told me that when he was advertising for an assistant winemaker, his single qualification was “Must not be a U.C. Davis grad.” I suspect Josh was being wry, but I took his point.
Winemakers in California tend to get very wonky because of the belief that only rigorous scientific research can result in the greatest wines. That is a reasonable point of view, but it also should be pointed out that some pretty great wines were made in Europe for centuries before there were winemaking schools or even a basic understanding of fermentation. If your quest is for ever-greater wines, then when do you stop questing? When do you know that you have a great formula (vineyard, winemaker, grapes, winemaking facility) and so there’s no longer a need to keep on tinkering? When, in other words, do you leave well enough alone? Or is that a dangerous thought–that, somehow, if you stop questing, you’ll lose status and be eclipsed by the competition?
I don’t know the answers to these questions. But the interest in clones in California, versus the apparent lack of interest in them in Bordeaux (assuming Lewin is correct), is interesting. I wonder if it’s just a phase, part of California’s coming of age. What do you think?