I’ve been doing weekly tastings at Jackson Family Wines for a while now, and part of that is buying non-JFW wines to include in our [blind] tastings, and preparing printed information for my fellow tasters on technical matters about the wines.
For this, I turn to three sources: the front and back labels, the winery website, and any tech sheet the winery included in the box.
The labels are usually pretty useless. The one piece of data they do offer—because they’re required to by law—is alcoholic content by volume. I don’t know why so many wineries make this so hard to find. Often, they print it in light-colored ink so it barely registers on the label, and then they use the tiniest type size possible. You should see me twisting and turning the bottles, holding them up under a bright light, trying to find that magic number. Another, related problem is that, if there is an alcohol number listed on the website or tech sheet, chances are 50/50 that it’s different from the number on the bottle. (I always go by the number on the label.)
Maybe most people don’t care about such stuff, but I do, and I think most other critics do. I think also that people who are serious about wine, and are willing to drop a bundle on a good bottle, like to know about the wine’s origins and winemaking. So here are 18 tips, respectfully submitted, for wineries that actually care about their customers, rather than simply making a few bucks.
- Always have your new vintage wine/s on the website. Always. No exceptions, no excuses. There’s nothing worse than a website that’s out of date. It’s disrespectful to your audience.
- Have a link somewhere to “technical information” or “more information about this wine” or whatever you want to call it.
- Don’t make users search for that link like they’re kids looking for the Passover afikomen.
Put it upfront. Lots of winery websites put the link on their “buying” or “shopping” page. I don’t like that. A critic/writer who’s looking for that information shouldn’t have to click all over the place to find it. Every winery website should have a link right at the top of the homepage about “Wines.” That link should lead directly to a listing of the wines, with the tech info connected to them, or just a click away.
- What technical information should be there?
- Suggested retail price
- Alcoholic content [and it should be the same as on the label]
- Case production
- pH and acidity
- Grape sourcing. If it’s a single vineyard, tell us where the vineyard is: Not just “Russian River Valley” (we can see that from the label), but where in the valley? Situate the vineyard. Don’t say just “a cool corner” but exactly where? Sebastopol Hills? Green Valley? Occidental? Westside Road? East of 101? It matters.
- If the wine is a blend, tell us which vineyards contributed, and where they are.
- Describe the vineyard/s. What is the elevation? The orientation? What are the soils?
- What clones or selections constitute the grapes?
- What is the age of the vines?
- Fermentation techniques: tell us about your regime: barrels, percent new, malolactic, time in wood, stem inclusion, the precise cépage. I don’t need a laboratory analysis, but these above details are helpful.
- Who owns the winery? Include a bio.
- Who is the winemaker? Include a bio.
- What is the full contact information?
- How may the wine be purchased?
- If you send someone a bottle of wine, especially a writer, include a tech sheet in the box. I don’t want to hear that your fulfillment center won’t do that. If they won’t, hire another fulfillment center.
I have particular annoyance with wineries that try to convey the impression of snobby exclusivity by having a website that offers nothing but an email form to contact the winery. Too good to talk to us? Remember, fame is fleeting. What the right hand offereth, the left hand snatcheth away.
All of these are commonsense things to do. The wine industry is a service industry: we serve the public, not the other way around. It’s a mark of respect for your consumers, for wine writers and for the industry in general to be open, informative and transparent, both on your website and on your tech sheet.
This is a sad story, told by the Vancouver Sun, about a small British Columbia winery’s legitimate fear that it may get squeezed out of the market. It’s the same old story: Getting harder and harder to compete with the big wineries in shelf space, distribution and price.
When I read a tale like this, my heart goes out to the proprietors. It’s never been easy to sell wine (in either Canada or the U.S.), but it’s getting more difficult. I can’t imagine how emotionally upsetting it must be to put your heart and mind into building a small family winery, then find yourself in danger of losing everything, through no fault of your own.
There are a couple ways small wineries can fight back. One is, obviously, to focus on direct sales. Everybody I know is doing that, but it’s an uphill battle. DTC is trickier than it sounds. You can’t just build a website, start tweeting and Facebooking, and expect customers to flock to your door. It takes years of continuous effort, and even then, there are no guarantees. Of course, if you’re located on a busy road in a popular wine region, you can sell a lot of wine out the door. But not everyone is, especially in a place like British Columbia.
Nor is getting shelf space any easier, particularly in smaller cities and towns and more rural parts of the country. I suppose there’s some motive for a store to sell the local wines, but there’s probably more profit for them to sell distributor’s wines from large wine companies. Here in California wine country, I know that local markets do try to stock the local stuff. But the fact is that small family wineries generally have to charge more for their wine than a big wine company.
Here’s a shocking statement from the Vancouver Sun article: “it costs [small wineries] somewhere between $10 and $12 to produce a bottle of wine. If the price point drops below $17, a lot of them are going to be squeezed out of business.” It’s not clear to me if that “below $17” price point is wholesale or retail, but either way, those little wineries up in B.C. seem like they’re facing almost insurmountable odds against them.
In California, small wineries can get away with charging a higher price than they can in British Columbia, but even so they face a dilemma: Do they go up against the popular premium-priced wines from big wine companies (which is virtually impossible, and would probably mean they’d have to sacrifice quality)? Or do they produce a quality wine that costs more than a comparable wine from a big company? There will always be consumers that prefer to buy a wine from a smaller winery, even if it’s more expensive than they want to pay for, simply because it’s a small winery.
But the majority of American wine drinkers are looking for something affordable, and that’s exactly where the big wineries have the upper hand. With their economies of scale and ability to sink their profits into better farming and technology, the big wineries seem destined to grab more and more of the profits.
The only way out—and fortunately, it’s not a complete fantasy—is this current “artisanal” or “craft” movement we see that happened first in beer, then spread to spirits and, finally, wine. It’s wonderful that consumers, mainly younger ones, are committing themselves to products they sense are authentically made by smaller producers. This is not entirely a guarantee of quality, of course, but there is a sense in which small producers understand that the only way for them to compete with the majors is to make wines so good that consumers will happily pay a premium price for them. Of course, there’s an equivalent challenge for big wineries: they, too, have to be artisanal, or at least present the image of homegrown.
In reading about the great Eastern religions, I’m struck especially by the Taoist notion of wu-wei: “inaction.” Joseph Needham, the British sinologist, defined wu-wei as “refraining from activity contrary to nature.”
When I read that I thought of two things: First, it reminded me of the maxim, so popular today in some winemaking and critical circles, of minimalist technique. The allegedly artisanal, or natural, method of winemaking stresses a less-is-more school in which winemaker interventions are kept to a strict minimum. Many wineries promote the concept as part of their marketing. Google “minimalist winemaking” and go through the search results: you’ll see many familiar names.
The other thing I thought was that the concept of “natural law” has been used wickedly by ideologues and religionists for years in order to persecute behaviors which they find objectionable, because they think that such behaviors are “contrary to nature.” Whenever I hear that, it makes my blood boil. Who defines this “nature”? What is the source of this “nature”? Who’s to say what’s “contrary” to it and what isn’t?
Call me skeptical. Many things that are uttered sound good on the surface, but when you scratch below the surface you begin to see the contradictions pile up. A winery may boast of its “minimalist approach” but—not only do we have no real way of knowing what goes on in the cellar—we also have to wonder what’s so minimalist about pruning, using commercial yeast, barrel fermentation and aging, sur lie aging, pumping over, sulfuring, racking, and so on. Tom Wark, some years ago, blogged on this topic, remarking that “Those currently pushing the idea of ‘Natural Wine’ think they may be on to something transformational and important when in fact what they have done is mistaken the tail of the dog for its snout.” (The quote is courtesy of John M. Kelly’s blog.)
I think most people would agree that “doing nothing” is a silly idea, both in winemaking and in one’s life in general. Wu-wei has, of course, been exaggerated in the Western mind over the last century or two (ever since sinology arose as a serious pursuit) into the image of the robed monk sitting in full-lotus on some Himalayan cliff, subsisting on a teaspoon of rice a day. (Who cooks the rice anyway?) In order to live, you have to do things, and doing implies making judgments about what you ought to do, what’s the right thing to do, and how to prepare yourself for the consequences of your action.
These things are obvious. So why are we so attracted to this idea of “minimalism” in winemaking? We would not trust an automobile manufacturer that bragged of its minimalist approach to production. We might have a taste for minimalist art, but we would not condemn a highly-articulated painter—Renoir, say—for his acute detailing. I, myself, enjoy a film or television show that is decidedly not minimalist: True Detective, for instance. And minimalist restaurants that charge $150 for a decorative configuration on a huge plate? Not my style.
But when it comes to minimalist winemaking, people get all wet. I wonder why that is?
When is a “big brand” not a big brand? Is Apple a “big brand”? Sure it is, but everyone loves it. We don’t hear complaints about Apple not being “craft” enough to satisfy the most demanding of users. Somehow, Apple has managed to be a financial behemoth while still retaining the allure of the brilliance of the garagiste creativity that the two Steves, Wozniak and Jobs, embodied.
I think about such things because for a long time I’ve thought that some critics and tastemakers celebrate “small” for the hell of it, and by the same token bash “big” because they think anything big has to be corporate junk. Well, as I just tried to point out, Apple lends the lie to such thinking. Now, I get paid by a big wine company, Jackson Family Wines, that occasionally comes under criticism from some gatekeepers who say that a big wine company can’t produce fine artisanal wine. I think you know where I stand on that. Then I read this article in The Spirits Business talking about Diageo’s contention that consumers are not necessarily rejecting spirits produced by big companies (such as Diageo) just because they’re produced by big companies! Diageo makes such spirit brands as Barterhouse, Old Blowhard [love that name] and Lost Prophet which, I suppose, their marketing people want customers to think are made in a garage by a couple of bearded wild guys who take no prisoners and insist on the most artisanal processes, which, to judge by the impression I get from the coverage of wineries, breweries and spirit producers in magazines like The Tasting Panel, is all the rage these days among Millennials who insist on “authenticity.” The designation “craft,” whatever that means, seems to imply just this sort of little guy David fighting against the gigantic monster of corporate Goliaths. What Diageo replied is this, in the words of their CFO: “I don’t think Millennials are that bothered [about craft labels], but they do want authenticity. I do not see people rejecting big.”
Nor do I. Purists and ideologues might reject “big” for its own sake; consumers clearly don’t. A “big” wine company can also produce limited-quantity “artisanal” wines; what’s so intellectually indefensible about that? This raises the question of “transparency” which, alongside “authenticity,” is one of the two reigning monarchs of our marketing era. If somebody buys Old Blowhard, do they know it’s from Diageo, which also owns Smirnoff, Tanqueray, and Ketel One? I don’t know and I don’t care. What should Diageo do, put a giant skull and bones warning label on the bottle and say, “Beware, this is from Diageo”? If consumers care about such things, they can find out anything they want to know about anything in about 30 seconds using the Google machine. But most people want simply something great to drink that they can afford.
Which leaves us with the definition of “authenticity,” as used by Diageo’s CFO. What is “authenticity”? I don’t know. Do you? I like this quote from a Diageo guy who works on the spirits side: “As for what is or isn’t a ‘craft spirit’, that’s up for debate… not all small distilleries are craft, and not all craft distilleries are small.”
Amen. I’ve had awful wines made by tiny little producers. I’ve had fabulous wines made by wineries owned by giant corporations. I think this distinction between “artisanal” and everything else is a fabrication concocted by some people with agendas, and picked up by a gullible media looking for something cool to write about.
For the first time ever, wine, beer and spirits are equal in the eyes of the public, at least here in San Francisco and, I think, throughout coastal California. This is where cultural trends begin, so there’s no reason not to think this equality will not shortly apply throughout the country.
I make this claim because, as I keep my finger on the cultural pulse, it’s obvious to me that no one of this trio of alcoholic beverages can any longer claim cultural or culinary supremacy. For many years, wine was in the driver’s seat, due, no doubt, to San Francisco’s location as gateway to wine country. The fashionable people—those in the know, the ones who set the trends—preferred wine. Beer was for frat boys, while spirits were for boozy traveling salesmen at hotel bars imbibing Mad Men-style martinis.
How that has changed! Suddenly, beer became craft, not Bud Lite, and the most interesting people—the tattoo crowd of artisans, musicians, code writers, jocks—started adoring it. All you read about anymore were craft breweries, which were uber-cool. Stores such as Whole Foods and even Safeway vied to find the latest little microbrewery. Prices for individual bottles skyrocketed to $10, $15, $20. Beer labeling turned into High Art, the 21st century equivalent of the psychedelic rock and roll posters of the 1960s. Beer gardens opened featuring food as interesting as in any wine bar. Even women—traditionally not beer drinkers—turned to this newly fashionable drink.
And then spirits graduated from the preferred drink of the cigarette and “quicker liquor” crowd to the province of the mixologists, the coolest crowd there ever was. Bartenders became as famous as NFL quarterbacks or guitar-thumping thrash rockers. Magazines like The Tasting Panel featured hot, handsome, sexy mixologists in tatts and Panama hats: it was no longer unusual for an aspiring, up-and-coming kid to want to pour in a club. The top restaurants expanded their wine lists to include beer and every kind of spirit there is. In San Francisco, the Valencia Corridor sprouted almost overnight from being a dull stretch of used clothing stores and cheap apartments to the hottest, trendiest neighborhood in San Francisco, largely due to the bars and restaurants where new cocktails were invented overnight, using the weirdest new ingredients.
And so the stage was set, in the Recessionary years, for us to re-emerge from that awful darkness into a new time where you can no longer define which cultural club someone belongs to based on what they drink. Everybody drinks everything. It’s simply a matter of how they feel at the moment. The die-hard Cabernet drinker discovered trendy infused-vodka cocktails, or rediscovered the retro gimlet. The burly Giants fan discovered that Chablis—the real stuff—isn’t just for girls. The ladies turned to Sierra Nevada or Lagunitas to drink with their charcuterie. And we’re all the happier for it.
This is good news, of course, but it also means that all producers are going to have to compete that much harder. The drinking population of this country always will have its limits due to a variety of factors that inhibit some people from imbibing. So it seems to me that creativity is going to be the je ne sais quoi that sells products. This, of course, reverts to marketing, that mysteriously opaque religion which everyone professes to understand, but doesn’t.
Prosecco, as you know, has been on a roll lately, but when you read headlines like this:
“PROSECCO OVERTAKING CHAMPAGNE AS SPARKLING WINE OF CHOICE”, you know that something far more important than the ephemeral popularity of a particular wine is happening. Why is Prosecco so hot?
- Millennials coming of age
- The Great Recession
Concerning Millennials, they “aren’t earning as much money as their parents did when they were young,” a situation that’s even worse for Millennial women. Saddled with student debt, they’re unable to afford homes, and in general are feeling financial pressures in a way their parents (my generation) never did (at least, until the Great Recession struck). So when it comes to discretionary spending, Millennials are spending downward.
Speaking of that Great Recession, it impacted all of us. Trillions of dollars went down the drain. “The wealth of most Americans down 55% since recession,” CBS MoneyWatch headlined in 2013. We’ve made some of that back since then, but Americans of all ages still are feeling the pinch, which is why U.S. economic growth has been so sluggish.
Under the circumstance, you have to consider two things concerning sparkling wine: quality and price. Simply put, Champagne is expensive, Prosecco isn’t. The average price of a bottle of French Champagne on a restaurant wine list is $117. I couldn’t find anything online concerning the average price of Prosecco, but on Snooth, they list many Proseccos, mostly below $20 a bottle, so even if you double that for a restaurant wine list, it’s only about $40.
And qualitatively, as we all know, a good Prosecco is as satisfying as Champagne. So why would anyone choose to buy Champagne, except for image and perceptions?
For me, the issue here isn’t about Prosecco per se, it’s about the average American looking for less expensive wines than perhaps her parents used to. I was up in Napa Valley yesterday, and we were chatting about expensive wine, and how and if these pricy bottles of Napa Cab will continue to exist into the future. Someone asked me my opinion, and I replied that I’ve been wrong in my prognostications so many times in the past that I’ve basically given up on the prediction game. But still, a part of me just can’t see folks who are, say, in their twenties today spending $50 or $60 per bottle retail as they hit middle age, or spending $100-plus for a bottle in a restaurant. I just think some things in America have fundamentally changed: the Great Recession, as I said, but something else: We’ve become a more frugal country, less apt to consume conspicuously. The outrages of the super-rich have changed our sense of right and wrong; our moral compass has swung back to what it was at this country’s beginnings: living simply.
At the height of the Great Recession, there was much talk of “The New Frugality,” as for instance here and here; everyone agreed it was a reality, and the only question was whether it would continue once the Great Recession lifted. Well, the Great Recession now has lifted (the country actually hasn’t been in recession for years), but, as Forbes noted just last year, “an enduring ‘New Frugality’…has Americans of prime working age, mainly 25 to 55, spending less, working less, and buying cheaper.” That, it seems to me, is likely to mark this nation for many years to come. It’s why people are preferring Prosecco to Champagne, and why we’re likely to see a similar switch in other wine types, if it hasn’t already happened.