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Unicorn wines, and maybe unicorns in Napa

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When did all this talk about unicorns get so crazy? Suddenly, it’s unicorn this, unicorn that. Fifty-five million results on a Google search, of which this one, published earlier this year in Fortune, is most explanatory: “a unicorn is a private company, valued at $1 billion or more, and they’re seemingly everywhere, backed by a bull market and a new generation of disruptive technology.”

New, over-priced tech companies. Hmm. We’ve seen this before, haven’t we? Back in 2000 we called it the “dot-com bubble,” the catastrophic melt-down of a short era in which seemingly any company that ended with a dot-com enjoyed meteoric growth on the stock market. A good example was a startup called onsale.com. It was popular for a while after amazon.com got too expensive for most people to afford. I should know; I bought a bunch of onsale, and got slaughtered when it collapsed, along with all the other phantom dot-coms.

Now, the word “unicorn” is being applied to wineries. Wine Spectator picked up the term from Twitter back in 2013, quoting Raj Parr’s tweeted definition: “A [unicorn] wine that is ‘rare,’ ‘not seen much’ ‘special bottlings.’ Not always the most expensive but just hard to find.” By 2015, unicorn wines were all the rage in somm circles: the Wall Street Journal said “they confer[red] status not by cost but by the skill—or luck—it takes to acquire one.” Eater jumped into the fray, describing unicorn wines as a new category of wine taking hold in Manhattan—the once in a lifetime bottles that every sommelier dreams of drinking, and bragging about, before they die.” Eater’s list was exclusive to Old Europe, mainly France. You would never find a California wine on a unicorn list, especially not in Manhattan.

Most recently, here’s Wine Spectator again, with Dr. Vinny asking the question, “What is a unicorn wine?” and pointing out that the opposite of unicorn wines are “first-growth Bordeauxs, or ‘cult’ California Cabernets.” Interesting. Not that long ago “cult California Cabernets” were the hottest wines in the world, coveted by everybody. Can it have been only eight years ago that the San Francisco Chronicle called Aubert, Ovid and Sloan “six cult wines to covet”? Today, you won’t find them on anyone’s unicorn list. They’re more like your great-grandfather’s wine than something the cool kids drink.

By the way, the hashtag #unicornwine still gets a lot of play on Twitter, although the category finally seems to be opening up to include California wine—as long, that is, as it fulfills the requirements of being rare and impossible to get. Someone tweeted a link to an Instagram post from “Mcvino82,” who posted this pic of an Inglenook 1978 Petite Sirah with the hashtags #unicornwine and (funnily) #whereisfreddame.

So a nearly 40-year old California Petite Sirah just might qualify as a unicorn. Story time: Years ago, I was on one of my first assignments for Wine Spectator, to interview a wealthy rock-and-roll lawyer who lived in the Hollywood Hills and was a bigtime wine collector. As I pulled into his driveway, a UPS truck was unloading case after case of Dominus, Dunn Howell Mountain, Opus One, Petrus, Tignanello—you get the idea. As we shook hands I tried to make small talk and said, “Man, I see you like the good stuff.”

He pointed with his chin to the stacks of cases on his driveway and said, “That? Nah, I hate it.”

Wow. “Then why do you buy it?” I asked, mentally doing a financial calculation of the cost.

“Look,” he explained, “those are what I call ‘pissing wines.’ You know how, when you’re kids, you have contests to see who can piss the furthest? Well, ___ and ___ [and here, he mentioned some real Hollywood heavyweights] invite me to their homes, and they serve Petrus ’66, so I have to invite them here and give them Petrus ’64.”

I took that in. Then I asked, “So, if you don’t like these wines, what do you like?”

“Ahh!” he grunted, grabbing me by the elbow. “Let me show you.” He led me to his backyard, where he’d dug a storage cellar into the hillside. Rummaging through the racks, he pulled out a bottle. It was a Petite Sirah from San Benito County whose producer, even on that day 25 years ago, was long defunct. “This is what I like!” he exulted.

“What do you like about it?” I asked.

“I like it,” he replied, “because no one else can get it!”

That was the rock-and-roll lawyer’s unicorn wine. So, you see, there’s nothing new about the concept, only the word. And while we’re on the topic of fantasy, it looks like Napa may be getting ready to allow marijuana dispensaries within the city limits. It’s far from a done deal, but I can see a time when upscale tasting rooms selling sips of unicorn wines will also offer unicorn weed to inhale, leading to the very real possibility that tourists emerging from these establishments, staggering down the street, may visualize actual unicorns.

Unicorn2

Photo credit: goodmenproject.com


U.C. Davis V&E grads off to a promising start

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Speaking at U.C. Davis last night before a group of graduating students and faculty was really a thrill. As I told the audience in my opening remarks, to me, UCD’s Viticulture and Enology Department is like the Vatican City—not in a religious sense, of course, but as the spiritual center of winemaking in California, probably in the U.S., and as one of the greatest places to learn winemaking in the whole world.

As a budding wine reporter in the late 1980s and 1990s and on into the 2000s, many were the times I telephoned one of the famous professors there, to interview him or her for a story: Anne Noble, Andy Waterhouse, Mark Kliewer, Carole Meredith, James Wolpert, Linda Bisson, Roger Boulton, James Lapsley, Andrew Walker. These were often for articles of a technical nature, and I was always a little apprehensive that my ignorance of technical topics would bore these learned men and women. But they were patient with me, and I hope I didn’t make too many errors in my reporting!

Even before I was a wine writer, I was reading books by the likes of Maynard Amerine and Vernon Singleton, figures who were as historic, to a wine geek like me, as George Washington or Benjamin Franklin. I knew about Dr. Olmo, who created the “Olmo grape varieties,” although I never had the opportunity to interview him. I was aware of UC Davis’s history, its importance in the evolution of the California wine industry, and how nearly every winemaker I ever met in California seemed to have graduated from there. So in my mind, UC Davis’s V&E Department loomed large, and still does.

Dr. Boulton, who holds the Stephen Sinclair Scott Endowed Chair in Enology Department of Viticulture and Enology, was kind enough to give me an hour of his time. We toured the Robert Mondavi Institute and the nearby Jess S. Jackson Sustainable Winery Building,

BoultonDr. Boulton and the Jackson Sustainable Winery

both remarkable structures and centers of study and innovation, and both of them superb testaments to the legacies of two remarkable men. Then it was off to the Sensory Theatre, in the Mondavi Institute,

Theatre

for our actual tasting and talk. We went through five different clones of Pinot Noir all from the Cambria vineyard, in Santa Maria Valley, and all made identically, so that whatever differences there were had to come from the clones. That was interesting, and served the point of showing how different people discern different things in wine—even people of great education and training. Our conversation about the intricacies of marketing, critics and related topics became so involved that one of the event organizers had to cut it off, because time was up and the official program called for the presentation of awards to some of the top students. But afterwards, they had a most excellent barbecue on the lawn, and fortunately some of us were able to continue the conversation.

What a smart young group of future professional winemakers these grads are. Really brilliant, so well educated and conversant in the world’s wines. And they’re just getting started: most of them are now off to summer internships, in France, Chile, Napa Valley, all over the world—and then to their first jobs. Armed with such an excellent education, and with such smart, inquiring minds, they are a reassurance that the future of winemaking is in good hands.

 


As the Grand Crus are identified, prices will go even higher

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Those who read this blog and hear me speak know that I have been predicting the discovery or uncovering of small, stellar blocks within existing great vineyards in California and Oregon—blocks that can be called “grand crus” were we to adopt that French terminology. This process will take decades, but clearly it’s underway.

I have argued that this evolution of a vineyard into greater and lesser blocks or climats is inevitable. It happened in France and in Germany, and for the best of reasons: grower/vintners, usually monks, discovered over hundreds of years that some sites were naturally superior to others. These, they gave special names to, and when a market-based system of supply-and-demand replaced the old feudal system, these special blocks were prized, and priced, the highest.

Why this development is inevitable and unavoidable is because of the nature of wine: something in it, and in us, makes us sensitive to the slightest differences. We seek those differences, make judgments as to their relative merits, collectively decide which blocks are the best, and reward them, as the free market allows and even encourages.

Is this rewarding, this hierarchizing, justifiable? Is it based on true qualitative differences in the wines, or is it only the critical perceptions that we know can be shaped by marketing? Undoubtedly, a little of both. Great marketing cannot make a silk purse of a sow’s ear. It can, however, take two silk purses, both near each other in quality, and make one Prada and the other Sears.

As if in evidence of this line of thinking, Domaine Trimbach, the well-known Alsace winery, just announced that, for the first time, they are taking advantage of Alsace’s Grand Cru appellation system to market their wine, something they have been reluctant to do until now. Why? [W]e cannot today escape the grand cru any more because with all the media, with all the fuss and the buzz and whatever around the system,” says Jean Trimbach. Around the world, he argues, people know the names of the Alsace Grand Crus and demand them. The implication is that it’s not because a Grand Cru is better than a regular Alsace AOC wine, it’s because people “know exactly what the top grand cru[s] are, so you cannot escape the grand cru game any more.”

The grand cru game…is that all it is, a game? Is there any relevance to inherent quality? Or have the Alsatians, like the Bordelais and the Burgundians, been hoisted on a petard of their own making?

Being a fair-minded journalist, I must admit that the answer is not that simple—although we all wish it were. Those of us reared in this “game” of comparative terroirs have it emblazoned into our DNA that some plots are better than others. To deny that this is true is one of the few heresies of wine connoisseurdom. This is why land in Vosne-Romanée is much more expensive than land in Beaune, why land in Oakville is much more expensive than land in Paso Robles, even though, in a blind tasting, I can assure you that some Paso Cabs would give Oakville a run for its money.

Indeed, such is the power of appellation—or, I should more correctly say, the awareness of appellation—that we have a situation in which the price for an acre of “the choicest land” in Napa Valley is now $310,000, up a remarkable $40,000 over 2014.

“The wine grape vineyard market continues to operate in a universe of its own,” says an expert in land prices in yesterday’s Napa Valley Register, referring to a phenomenon known as “the pedigree of the parcel,” in which the “pedigree” is conferred as much by subjective factors as objective ones—and perhaps even more so.

Once a vineyard has been prized so astronomically, there’s only one direction to go: To find little pieces within the vineyard that can be priced even more astronomically. This is the basic duty of capitalism: to test what the market will bear. And, as another expert in the Napa Register article said, “Actual sales [i.e. prices] can go even higher.”

In other words, unless there’s a bubble—and I don’t see one coming—we’re in for more and more expensive wines from California and Oregon at the highest levels. There’s nothing to stop it. It is, indeed, inevitable.


On winery consolidation

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“There’s nothing new under the sun.”

That’s from Ecclesiastes 1:9, which also says, What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again.” One might have expected the Author of Authors to have taken the long view: not the next business quarter, but Eternity. So it is, or sometimes seems, for certain of us aging wine writers, who have seen and done just about everything—multiple times.

Now we have all this clamor about winery consolidation: Here’s an example, from Wines and Vines. The San Francisco Chronicle has another one, even calling the present era “buyout season.” And here is yet another, this one more specifically about Jackson Family Wines’ acquisition of Copain; the author, Dr. Vino, not surprisingly strikes a snide pose…but let us not digress from the formal point, which is that, yes, there has been a lot of buying activity lately on the West Coast, and not just JFW; Far Niente’s switch was big news. But the “nothing new under the sun” trope comes to mind because, when I first began writing about wine for professional publications, in the 1980s, the same thing was happening: much hand-wringing that all the little boutique wineries were being gobbled up. Every time there was a recession (1990-1991, the dot-com recession of the early 2000s, and certainly the Great Recession), the sky-is-falling prognosticators sounded the alarm: No more little wineries! But, somehow, family wineries remain in business—thankfully.

Face it, wine is a commercial product and thus subject to the business cycles and push-and-pull of capitalism. The average small family winery seems to have a life cycle: from startup to sale is, maybe, thirty years. And that makes sense. A guy or gal begins the winery in his or her twenties or thirties: thirty years later, he’s looking forward to Social Security, Medicare, and sleeping late, and may not have the physical capacity or the emotional temperament to continue the hard work of making and selling wine (especially if he’s also managing a vineyard). The kids may not want to continue in the family business. So what’s an aging winemaker/proprietor to do? Sell. It has always been that way and always will be. So there is no need to fret about this current wave of activity. It’s actually quite normal, and besides, I bet you that for every winery acquisition you read about in the news, five new family wineries are starting somewhere else in California or Oregon.

How many California wineries will make it to 100 years? Well, one or two already have: Beaulieu and Buena Vista, but they’re no longer owned by their founders. Inglenook planted their first grapes in 1871, but they’ve had multiple owners including, now, Mr. Coppola. Anyone else? Gallo’s going strong after 83 years; it’s likely they’ll hit the century mark. But compared to, say, Antinori (since 1385), California and Oregon wineries are just wee ‘uns. “What has been done will be done again.” Ain’t it the truth.


Red blends and old vines: A connection?

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I realize that the connection between the modern popularity of “red blends” and old-vine vineyards is tenuous. But I think a case can be made that not only ties them together, but presents evidence that our taste in wines is pretty much what our distant ancestors’ was. In other words, Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

That red blends are huge in the marketplace is proven by IRI data. Red blends beat all varietal types in case sales over the 52-week period in America ending Feb. 21, 2016. As Lettie Teague, in the Wall Street Journal, put it, slightly more than a year ago, “domestic red blends are some of the most sought-after wines in the market today.”

In fact, so cool have red blends become that Nielsen recently called them “the craft beer of the wine category—hip, different and trending.”

But precisely why they’re so popular is less easy to analyze, it seems to me. True, as Lettie points out, red blends “are cheap and they’re easy to drink.” But so are a good many other red wines. I don’t think the fact that they’re blends influences consumers in any particular way; the consumer may not even understand what a “blend” means, as opposed to a varietal; and I’m not sure the industry has figured out a way to calibrate “coolness,” except in a retrospective way that is not particularly predictive. Besides, I bet the same consumers who buy red blends also (contrarily) believe that varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir are the best red wines. So, from a consumer-psychology point of view, the explanation of the popularity of red blends is ambiguous.

Probably it’s as much a question of branding than anything else. The most popular red blends are known, not for being blends, but for their brand names; and branding, as an advertiser will tell you, is the greatest accomplishment a product can achieve. Still, one factor—connected to Lettie’s “easy to drink” comment—may be that a blend, be it red or white, can make for a more complete, wholesome wine, because a single variety on its own may contain divots—imbalances of acidity, or aromas, or flavors, or mouthfeel, or tannins, or bitternesss—that a blend can compensate for.

By this I refer to the gestalt of a wine—when the sum total of its collective parts is greater than any of the individual parts alone. But this isn’t some modern discovery of our enlightened age. Vintners appear to have long understood it, which may be why the old Italian-American immigrants to California planted their vineyards to many different varieties. This often is explained as their solution to vintage challenges: early ripeners could compensate for early rains that hurt late ripeners, and vice versa. No doubt this is true, but I think the Italian-American winemakers also knew that a mélange of varieties in the vineyard could give them richer, rounder, more complete wines.

Yesterday’s Santa Rosa Press Democrat talks about this in focusing on one particular winery, Carlisle, whose Willowside Road Vineyard was planted in 1927 (by an Italian-American) and contains at least 39 separate, distinct varieties (Carlisle’s owner, Mike Officer, had the grapes analyzed at U.C. Davis). Carlisle long has coveted these old-vine vineyards and, as the Press Democrat article notes, “he helped found the Historic Vineyard Society (historicvineyardsociety.org).” Many vintners, particularly in Sonoma and Napa counties, deserve credit for helping to preserve these antiquarian treasures. I want to mention one, Don Hartford, of Hartford Family Wines, who has been instrumental in protecting old-vine Zinfandel vineyards. This is a labor of love, but it pays off: Hartford’s vineyard-designated Zins, such as Dina’s and Fanucchi-Wood Road, obtain very high scores from the major critics.

The question of why these old vineyards can perform so spectacularly fascinates me. One explanation is that the vine roots have dug deep into the earth, encountering minerals that don’t lay near the surface. Another is that their yields are so low. A third possibility is precisely what I’ve mentioned, that they contain numerous different varieties that make for a more complex wine. Who knows? But they are treasures. If you’ve been buying the newer red blends that are popular and inexpensive in the market, you might want to search around for a harder-to-find old-vine red wine from Napa or Sonoma. It will cost you more, but it will open your eyes to the magic of some of these old-vine blends, which are among the great red wines of the world.

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While I am affiliated with Jackson Family Wines, the postings on this site are my own and do not necessarily represent the postings, strategies or opinions of Jackson Family Wines.


Whither Syrah? Nobody really knows, and neither do I

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There, I said it. When it comes to predictions about Syrah, it’s the blind leading the blind.

When you’ve been around this industry for a while, as I have, you hear certain memes resurrected over and over. One is “Zinfandel’s new face.” Another is “Why don’t Americans like Riesling?” Still another is some variation of “Up-and-Coming Varieties.” But perhaps the most regular is exemplified by Wines & Vines’ new blog post, “Is Syrah Hitting Bottom or Finding Its Niche?” written by a talented writer, Andrew Adams, who’s been with W&V since 2012, and—unlike many wine writers—has actual dirt-in-the-boots winemaking experience.

Andrew was coming off a Washington State trip and so naturally had good things to say about Syrah. He struggled in his mind to understand how the Syrahs he tasted could be so good, while at the same time, Syrah sales have been tanking for years.” How can this be? It is, as the King of Siam said, a puzzlement.

We can begin explanations with the theory that Americans don’t understand what Syrah is because they’ve heard of Petite Sirah and Shiraz and can’t tell the difference. That is perfectly understandable. Most consumers are busy enough without having to understand such arcane distinctions. This suggests that the “wine industry,” whatever that is, needs to do a better job of explaining Syrah to people, but that’s easier said than done. Wine writers have tried for years, with very little success; writers have to do more, but wineries should not depend on them to solve their Syrah problems.

Gatekeepers such as sommeliers and merchants are also part of the solution, but the problem there is that, being sales-oriented, they’re not going to put much energy into pushing a variety they perceive as a poor seller. Can’t blame them for that. So, given the under-performance or under-interest of the media and gatekeeper sellers, there’s not much more than can be done.

But what of quality, you ask? Well, as Andrew correctly notes, there are fabulous Syrahs out there, not only from Washington State but California (my bailiwick). Individual wineries that have developed a reputation for Syrah will be able to sell it, but overall, I think the challenge here is that Syrah isn’t different enough from Cabernet Sauvignon for consumers to “discover” it. Cabernet is so embedded in their heads as the #1 full-bodied red table wine that it will take a gargantuan effort to make them think of Syrah as an alternative. When it comes to lighter-bodied wines, there’s no shortage: Pinot Noir is the undisputed leader, Tempranillo is coming on strong, and there are many other candidates; but Syrah is not lighter-bodied. For Big Reds, Cabernet Sauvignon is like FDR during the ‘30s and ‘40s: so dominant a force, so overwhelming, that no other candidates found the oxygen to break through.

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While I am affiliated with Jackson Family Wines, the postings on this site are my own and do not necessarily represent the postings, strategies or opinions of Jackson Family Wines.


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