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Renewed U.S.-Cuba ties good news for CA wine

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The first thing I thought, when I heard that the U.S. is about to normalize diplomatic relations with Cuba, was, “Oh, man, that’s really good news for California wine.”

Before the brouhahas of the early 1960s, Cuba was a favorite tropical destination for American vacationers, especially those along the East Coast. Today, people go to Costa Rica, Belize, the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico; back then, it was Havana, just 90 miles across open water from Florida. Fashionable resorts, like the Hotel Nacional, lined the Malecón, attracting tourists with cash to spend. And spend it they did, in restaurants and bars, until the break with the U.S. and subsequent embargo sent the Cuban economy into a tailspin.

But with this resumption in relations, there’s every reason to believe that U.S. tourism will once again explode; certainly, expectations are high. Forbes last week, in an article called “Five Industries Set to Benefit from the U.S.-Cuba Thaw,” listed “Tourism” in the top slot, writing that Cuba will be an attractive stop for architecture buffs, food lovers, music lovers, and those interested in literature and the arts.” And where food lovers go, there is wine.

And what wine is more natural to pour in Cuba than California wine? Yes, there’ll be plenty of Bordeaux and Burgundy, and probably lots of German Riesling in that warm climate, but really, California wine is likely to dominate restaurant wine lists, as it dominates wine lists here in the States. At least, that’s what Napans believe. An article last week in the Napa Valley Register described how Napa Valley winemakers are weighing the Caribbean nation’s potential to become its newest market,” although the article also warned that direct sales to Cubans themselves, rather than to wealthy tourists, are likely to be minimal for quite some time, because Cuba remains a poor country. Last summer, of course, a group of Cuban sommeliers famously visited Napa and Sonoma. At that time, they said they “aren’t sure how long it will be before California wines will be in their Cuban restaurants.” So the timing is iffy, but not the interest: the somms want our wine, and they’re going to get it. Pacific Northwest vintners, too, are eying the possibilities.

Because news of the improved U.S.-Cuba ties came so unexpectedly and rapidly, it’s not likely that very many California wineries were prepared for it. I would imagine that late last week, and continuing on into this Christmas week and the New Year, winery sales and marketing teams will be meeting on a contingency basis to figure out how to take advantage of the new developments. They should. Every market counts—and the Cuban tourist market (which will be international in scope, not just comprised of Americans) is likely to eventually be very profitable.

U.S. tourism in Cuba isn’t a done deal—it will take some action by Congress to fully open it up. But, as Bloomberg Business Week reports, even the prospect of travel has provided an exciting jolt of new possibilities. Namely, hordes of U.S. tourists shelling out to visit the formerly forbidden country.” When it happens, those tourists are going to be shelling out a lot of money for California wine.


Zinfandel poised for growth

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Some wine varieties in California are permanently popular with the population. Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, for example. In now, in last year, and they’ll be in next year.

Then there are varieties that seem to come and go in cycles, and of them none more so than Zinfandel. It’s had more ins and outs than—well, I won’t go there. But Zin does go through cycles. It was hugely popular in the 1970s and 1980s, when consumers (mainly Baby Boomers) who were seeking “authenticity” in California wine found it in the Zins of producers such as Lytton Springs, Ravenswood, Nalle, Ridge and Rabbit Ridge. Then in the 1990s, Zin trailed off a little; why, I’m not sure (who can ever account for shifting fashion?), except that the 1990s were when we saw the rapid, dramatic rise in importance of “cult” Cabernets. Perhaps they captured the public’s fancy so much that people didn’t have room in their heads (or cellars) for Zin. The 1990s also saw the rise of Pinot Noir, which further crowded the field. Red Rhône-style varieties were also quite popular at that time, with the emergence of the Rhône Rangers. So the Nineties was (were?) not a good decade for Zinfandel.

In this new Millennium, Zin has had a couple periods of popularity, usually when one of the important wine magazines declares that “Zin is back.” But here’s my point: I think that Zinfandel is poised for its biggest, most popular time ever, and here’s why.

  1. A younger generation is curious about red wines other than Cabernet and Pinot Noir. Of course, they’re looking all over the world, but Zinfandel is right in their back yard, an American classic.
  2. Sommeliers always have a soft spot for varieties that make good wine, but aren’t necessarily appreciated by people. Zinfandel is such a wine. It has just the right balance of geeky and accessible.
  3. Zin is a marvelous matchup for grilled meats, but also for the wide range of spicy ethnic fare that’s so popular today. Mexican, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Indian, Ethiopian, Cuban—if it’s beef or chicken, grilled and spicy, Zin will love it.
  4. Zinfandel prices have remained fair. The variety hasn’t exploded in cost, like Pinot Noir and Cabernet.
  5. Zinfandel is deliciously fruity, which people like, and it’s full-bodied. But the tannins are smooth and supple, not hard, like Cabernet’s.
  6. There’s a Zin for every palate. There are high-alcohol Zins that are blood-warming and heady, if that’s what you want. There are Zins below 14% for the lower-alcohol crowd. And everything inbetween.
  7. Winemakers have gotten very good at making more balanced Zins than in the past. A big part of that is more sophisticated sorting of berries. Zinfandel is cleaner than ever.
  8. Zin just sort of has something special going for it. Everybody’s heard about it and knows the name; it’s got good vibes. People don’t have negative associations with it; they’re willing to try it, especially on a personal recommendation.

A couple weeks ago I was invited to moderate a Zinfandel tasting at wine.com’s San Francisco headquarters, together with their Chief Storyteller, Wilfred Wong. I remember thinking that if wine.com, the country’s biggest online wine retailer, believes in Zinfandel, it must have a good future. Growers, who always have a finger to the wind, apparently think so too: Zinfandel acreage rose 4.3% between 2012 and 2013, the biggest increase of any major variety, red or white, in California.

Have a great weekend!


Tuesday Twaddle: “Offloading” brands, and the old spinning cone

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When is it time for a winery to “offload” underperforming brands?

It happens. You’ve had a line, or SKU, in the market for years, but for some reason, it’s never gained traction. So the hard decision must be faced: Is it time to pull the plug on Grandma?

This is the situation Treasury Wine Estates is facing. The Australian company, which lost more than $100 million in 2013-2014, has brands “that [are] not a priority and may be retired [or] offloaded,” according the industry publication, The Drinks Business.

This can never be an easy decision for a big company like TWE. Companies love all their brands, the same way parents love all their children. You can’t throw an underperforming child under the bus, of course, but companies aren’t families, they’re business; and sometimes, “retiring non-priority brands”, or repurposing them in some way, is the only way to stay healthy.

 

* * *

Does this shock you? It shocks me. “One in four bottles of Californian Pinot Noir and Chardonnay have been through the industrial alcohol removal process supplied by ConeTech in the past year.” That’s another report by The Drinks Business, which adds that the spinning-cone process of lowering the alcohol content of wine is more popular than ever because “winemakers would rather take out alcohol from a ripe wine than risk creating lighter, possibly greener wines from harvesting earlier for naturally lower abvs.”

Well, as Dana Carvey’s character, The Church Lady, used to say on Saturday Night Live, Isn’t that special?

I’ve written before that I don’t mind some technological intervention to produce sound, clean, drinkable wines. These are what Americans want. Critics denounce them as Franken-wines, but to me, that just seems derogatory and mean. Besides, the truth is, since this de-alcoholization is done secretly, no one can ever know just which wines have passed through the spinning cone, so before you give such a wine 96 points and then have to appear foolish when someone outs you, restrain thy criticism.

However, I will venture to say that winemakers are resorting to this somewhat risky procedure because the public drumbeat against higher-alcohol wines has reached such a fever pitch that they feel they have no choice. Many of them, themselves, probably hate themselves for doing it—for giving in. Some of them may be under orders to do it, by the people who sign their paychecks. It’s hard for me to believe that any winemaker willingly and happily sends her wine to the spinning cone.

Speaking of those “greener wines” that are the potential result of picking early—which is the natural way to produce lower-alcohol wines—I’ve tasted some of them at big Pinot Noir tastings, and they’re dreadful. Well, I suppose if you like dried oregano, mint and green tomatoes, they’re all right, but if you prefer cherries and raspberries (which I do), you’ll be disappointed.

Thus we find ourselves staring directly at the schizophrenia running through our modern California wine business. The bullet quote in The Drinks Business article is this: “The consumer preference is for riper style wines, with juicy fruit, but consumers want this with more moderate alcohol levels.” Someone should politely tell consumers you can’t get ripe fruit without high brix, which in turn translates into healthy alcohol.

But that’s not a message that consumers want to hear, and so producers—caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place—increasingly are turning to the spinning cone. And if California goes back to a series of warm vintages, like we used to have, we’ll see even more wines spun out.


Who’s growing fast, and who’s not, according to the latest survey

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Silicon Valley Bank’s annual industry survey has been summarized by Lewis Perdue’s Wine Industry Insight, and while I don’t have a link (it came late yesterday via email), I’d like to make it the focus of today’s post.

The most interesting part is SVB’s “predicted sales and case growth by region.” I did manage to drag the chart onto my desktop, and reproduce it here.

Regions

It’s kind of small: sorry about that.

As you can (or cannot) see, the chart takes nine California regions and predicts their case growth and sales growth for this year. The regions with the least growth are the Sierra Foothills, Lodi, the Central Valley and, surprisingly, Napa County (in that order, from least upward). The region with the highest growth by far is Anderson Valley/Mendocino County. Mid-Coastal (Santa Cruz/Monterey)) also is projected to have high growth, as are Sonoma County, Lake County and the Central Coast (San Luis Obispo/Santa Barbara).

I don’t find any of this in the least surprising. It’s actually quite interesting, because it’s always interesting to see a bird’s eye view of these large regions and compare and contrast them with one another. I’m delighted that Anderson Valley is doing so well. It’s a small region, but so impressive, especially for Pinot Noir and the Alsatian varieties. Someone described Anderson Valley Pinot to me as a cross between Santa Cruz Mountains and Oregon, and I think that’s about right.

Mid-Coastal is a term I hadn’t heard before regarding Santa Cruz/Monterey; generally, I think of those as Central Coast. Santa Cruz isn’t a very big wine-producing county, although it is of high quality. Too bad all those vineyards in the Santa Clara Valley are now housing developments and Silicon Valley companies! But Monterey is a very high-production place, and as we’ve seen for some time now, it’s also coming up in quality. I’m not talking just about its best-known AVA, the Santa Lucia Highlands, but the county as a whole. Prices also have remained reasonable, which surely is one of the most important reasons why Monterey is doing so well. People are looking for a bargain, and they get it with Monterey wine.

I said Napa County was one of the places with the least predicted growth, but that’s a little misleading. It’s on the lower side compared to the higher-growth regions, but not by much. The point, I think, is that sales there are limited by the high prices. We can argue about whether they’re warranted another time; for now, suffice it to say that American consumers, post-Great Recession, seem to be looking for value, and Napa doesn’t really represent value, any more than, say, Classified Growth Bordeaux represents value, unless you’re willing to say that a 95-point Cabernet that costs $150 is a “value.” I mean no disrespect to Napa Cab, only to suggest that it is a little too pricy for most people, and that’s what seems to be holding back Napa’s sales growth.

Sonoma County on the other hand is doing well, and I think that’s because their prices just haven’t kept up with Napa’s. We all know that Sonoma County, with its many appellations, is far more diversified than Napa, or for that matter than just about any other major wine-producing region in the world, in terms of the varietal range. And quality, too, is really high. But the Sonomans have never been able to charge Napa-esque prices, which is to our (the consumer’s) benefit.

Then there’s Central Coast, defined as Santa Barbara (mostly) and San Luis Obispo. Santa Barbara has been one of my top wine regions for more years than I care to remember. I was championing it early, and the reason I can say that is because Santa Barbara vintners were telling me, a long time ago, that I “got” their region, while other critics didn’t, in their view. I don’t know about that, but I do know that Santa Barbara, with its various AVAs (Santa Ynez Valley, Santa Rita Hills, Santa Maria Valley) caught my fancy in the early 1990s, and whenever a Santa Barbara winemaker told me that other critics never visited there, I always was astonished.

Santa Barbara’s a funny place, price-wise. The best wines are expensive, but, again compared to Napa Valley, not really. And there are quite a number of fabulous wines, across varieties ranging from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay to Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Syrah and Grenache, that haven’t leapfrogged into the too-expensive category…yet. I think Santa Barbara prices are heavily connected to the economy, but they’re still reasonable, which explains why the region is experiencing growth.

I won’t say anything about the low-growth regions here. I wish them luck.

Anyhow, as you read this, we northern Californians are hunkering down for the Great Storm of ’14. Good luck to us, and to you.


French attitudes toward Napa Valley, plus comparisons of winegrapes to meat?

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It’s too funny, really. When I first started out in this biz, you couldn’t give Napa Valley wine away to the French. “Mais non!” was their attitude. It was vin de table, merde, Algerian plonk.

Some of us knew otherwise, and suspected that the French—so chauvinistic in the belief that no other culture could rise to their level, especially American culture—were simply whistling past the graveyard. After all, their run of dominance—lasting for centuries—had no assurance of lasting forever, and they were continually hearing California’s footsteps coming up behind them.

But now, listen to what the respected CEO of Moët Hennessey, Jean-Guillaume Prats, has to say about Napa Valley. He previously managed Cos d’Estournal, the Super-Second Bordeaux, which he took to new heights, according to Wine Spectator, so this isn’t merely some oddball voice out of France; his father, Bruno, owned Cos. So Jean-Guillaume is, in other words, the very establishment that once scorned Napa Valley.

Here’s what Jean-Guillaume said: “I do believe some of the great wine from Napa Valley will be the equivalent of the First Growths in years to come, not only in terms of price—it is already achieved—but in terms of perceptions, of quality, and in terms of being looked after and thought after by wine collectors around the world. So Napa, for me, is soon to become the equivalent of the great Medocs.”

Wow. They ought to put those words on a billboard right next to the “And the wine is bottled poetry” one on Highway 29. You wouldn’t need the whole quote: Just “Napa…the equivalent of the First Growths” would do it.

It doesn’t surprise me that the Bordelais are finally coming around to appreciating Napa Valley. After all, Christian Moueix and Baron Rothschild did it decades ago, visionaries that they were. What’s ironic is that nowadays it’s some Americans who continue to diss Napa Cabernet. Why they’re so stubborn in this attitude, when even representatives of the top French chateaux gaze with envy upon Napa’s near-perfect climate and soils, is beyond me.

* * *

And now, from the Department of Ideas That Are Going Nowhere, let’s zip around to the other side of the world, Australia namely, where an article in the North Queensland Register is calling for wine grape prices to be more objectively determined, like meat prices.

Mr. Rob Hunt argues that, of all agricultural commodities, only the price of wine grapes “is determined using subjective criteria.” He contrasts this with “an objective system” of pricing, such as that employed by his country’s Meat Standards Australia system, in which, I gather, a short loin is a short loin no matter where it’s from, and priced accordingly. That is, indeed, an objective system. It is also very different from one in which (for example) a Cabernet Sauvignon bunch grown in Beckstoffer Tokalon costs much, much more than a similar bunch grown in Paso Robles.

But nobody ever said wine grape prices are objective. They’re not, because wine wholesale prices aren’t subjective. We pay for certain names and reputations, and I for one assume that more rigorous vineyard practices go into a highly-reputed wine than into an everyday one. So it’s not likely that we’ll be grading wine grapes the same way we grade meat anytime soon.

On the other hand, Mr. Hunt is entirely correct when he observes, I suspect there’s nothing more frustrating for growers than to see their carefully tended grapes dropped into the same receival bin as others of lesser quality.” That is a very sad situation for growers who work hard to grow quality fruit. We saw something similar happen in the early histories of counties like Santa Barbara and Monterey, where those grapes—fine quality for the most part—were shipped north or east, to be lost into vast blending vats destined for jug wines. The solution, as it turned out, was not to regulate prices, but to elevate the reputation of those counties, through small-production wineries making wines of critical esteem. You have to have the reputation first; then you can raise prices, not the other way around.

Cheers!


What does the Galloni purchase of Tanzer mean to wine criticism?

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It is, I suppose, the fault of the historian and logician in me that I’m always looking for the meaning of things. I’ve always thought that all things are connected in some mysterious way, and that certain events have implications, not only for how the future will unfold, but for trying to understand where we are now. Such an event is the purchase of Steven Tanzer’s International Wine Cellar by Antonio Galloni, which hit the airwaves yesterday via dueling press releases.

The context here is several-fold. One, both Tanzer and Galloni are enormously influential in this little world of wine criticism in which I and, I assume, most of my readers dwell. Antonio got his fame after being employed by Robert Parker to write for The Wine Advocate, which is how I met him (for the first and only time), at a tasting at the Culinary Institute of America, where Antonio was kind enough to give me a very long interview, which I turned into a three-part blog post. (Here’s the link to part one.)

I was very grateful to Antonio for that (he probably knew enough about me to know that my blog could be, ahem, a little controversial). I went away from that experience thinking what a gallant, intelligent and well-bred mensch Antonio is.

Tanzer I never met; not that I recall. But he’s always loomed in my mind because of the huge reputation he’d garnered among the people I respect: winemakers, sommeliers and folks like that. Tanzer’s name was one of those that mattered in high-class wine reviewing. So what I’m trying to say is that both Galloni and Tanzer earned my respect.

For years we’ve been tracking the evolution of wine criticism, the dualism of print journalism versus online, the gradual fading away of my Baby Boomer generation, and we’ve all tried to figure out what’s coming next. Who will matter? How will wine criticism and recommending work in the next decade and beyond? For me, a major question has been: Will there continue to be super-important critics (and their associated publications), or will wine critiquing become so crowd-sourced (due to the sheer magnitude of blogs) that no one voice will have national or international authority?

My answer to the latter question has consistently been: We will continue to have “important critics” because some fundamental part of human nature demands it. Humans want “authorities” to tell them what to buy, and to justify their tastes, especially in an area like wine that’s so confusing, subjective, emotional and, let us admit it, irrational. A few years ago, at the height of the blogosphere’s insistence that “critics don’t matter,” I couldn’t bring myself to believe it. It seemed to me to be wishful thinking on the part of the many (who wanted a piece of the action), against the power and influence of the few (of which, until last Spring, I was part). But I always thought that someone would take the place of the Parkers, Laubes, etc. of wine criticism.

Now, with this acquisition of Tanzer, it appears that Antonio’s Vinous is moving forcibly into a position of great influence and its associated power. I welcome this. Both men seemed marked by fairness and objectivity, and an indifference to external influence. Both men, too (as well as their teams) are profoundly talented. So we could be looking at the next great force in wine writing.

The one question that remains for me is whether or not this new Vinous will address itself chiefly to super-ultrapremium wine, or will examine wines from all price points. This is a decision, obviously, that Antonio and his business partners will have to address, and I hope they will review everything, from under $10 wines to the rarest and most expensive bottles. If my two cents is worth anything, that’s the way to go.

So it seems to me that the meaning of this marriage is that wine criticism is consolidating among a younger generation, who will continue to publish both online and in hard copy. The torch is being passed, folks, and IMHO it couldn’t be placed into better hands.


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