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The next big thing? Probably not

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We’ve seen it plenty of times before: “the next big wine variety” is just around the corner. But it usually turned out there wasn’t anything around the corner, except another corner.

Remember Sangiovese? In the late 1980s-early 1990s everybody swore it was the next big red wine. Cabernet Sauvignon, they said, was all well and good, but… And then there was poor Merlot, which had gone through its own “next big thing” earlier, but the pundits eventually decreed that it wasn’t good after all to achieve “next big status.” Thus, Sangiovese.

Why do we need “a next big thing” anyhow? We don’t, in reality, but “reality” needs to take account of the people in the wine industry who profit from a “next big thing” mentality. Those would be the so-called tastemakers: sommeliers and MWs, of course, who play an increasingly big role in the culture; wine writers (some of them), who have the journalist’s addiction to breaking “news”; and merchants, to some extent, who hope to capitalize on a “next big thing” by stocking their shelves with it before their competitors can.

Every few months, somebody discovers a “next big thing” and now, it’s the turn of the drinks business, a very good online journal that makes for must-reading every day. Their writers now tell us that “A native Armenian red and a white variety from the Peloponnese could be ‘the next big things in wine…’.”

Why would the authors have chosen two obscure varieties for stardom? Well, the white grape—Rabigato—because it’s “a high-quality and high-acid, age-worthy grape,” and the red– Alfrocheiro Preto—“for its ability to retain acidity, even in hotter climates.”

Understand, I haven’t had either of those wines. They do sound good and savory and, given the authors’ use of the word “lighter” to describe them, it sounds like they’re fairly moderate in alcohol. But “global potential,” as one of the writers asserts?

Several problems, at least in the U.S. (keep in mind that the drinks business is a British publication). For one, there is no Rabigato or Alfrocheiro Preto planted here (if there is, there can’t be more than a few acres). That means if either wine hits the jackpot, it’s going to have to be through an import. And imports have a hard time cracking the glass ceiling in this country. A few have made it (I’m thinking of Terlato’s Santa Margharita Pinot Grigio), but those usually benefited from big companies with large distribution networks. As far as I know, no large wine company is going to gamble on Rabigato or Alfrocheiro Preto. Why not? Because wine companies exist to make money, not lose it. They prefer to leave the risk-taking to smaller companies, and then, if things look good, they rush in and join the party.

So will small wineries do Rabigato or Alfrocheiro Preto? I doubt it. They have enough on their hands without having the headache of convincing people to buy and drink something they’ve never heard of and can’t even pronounce.

The truth is, America is a conservative country when it comes to wine preferences. People stick with what they know; their capacity to change is limited. Gatekeepers are more adventurous by nature, but there’s a limit to how much influence they actually possess among the public. Wine gatekeepers are like inside-the-beltway Washington pols: they live in a bubble that most people don’t really care about.


From the front lines in China: The end of the three-tiered system?

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China never developed the complex infrastructure for the distribution of alcoholic beverages that the U.S. has in the three-tiered system, and it might never, because e-commerce is becoming the distribution method of choice.

That’s according to an article in the Taiwan-based China Times, which says that e-commerce is preventing the emergence of “leading brokers or end retailers,” as they’ve arisen in this country. This is also having an impact on the price of wine in China: “the popularity of e-commerce firms have [sic] shrunk the profits of wine companies,” with “most” of them seeing huge revenue falls.

No one should be surprised. “The golden age of wine e-commerce is coming” to China, according to a Chinese businessman who co-founded one of the country’s biggest such firms.

One big wine e-commerce firm, Wangliu—said to be “China’s priciest”—is venturing beyond mere sales; “The fledgling company is also looking to engage wine connoisseurs offline, opening experience stores and private clubs in major cities across China.” It’s as if Southern Wine & Spirits was opening winetasting “experience” venues in New York, San Francisco and L.A.

China does have a handful of private distributors “who are looking to source wines, beers and spirits from suppliers,” and that segment traditionally has sold wine to on-premise and off-premise accounts, as the three-tiered system does here. But “there are not many big wine distributors,” like Southern, in China, with online or e-commerce wine distribution websites instead filling the void. This would seem to make distributing wines from smaller wineries—the kind that have trouble getting picked up by big distributors in America—easier in China, although the challenge for small wineries is the same there as here: for Chinese consumers, “brand name remain[s] today the leading factor that influence[s] purchasing choices…due to the great complexity…that make[s] wine difficult to understand.” The winery that can work the e-commerce market successfully, and also help the e-commerce company to intelligently explain its wine, should reap the benefits of success in China.


On the benefits of estate bottling

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At a meeting yesterday at Jackson Family Wines, several people made the point that wines that are estate bottled—that is, where the grape source is controlled 100% by the vintner, either by owning the vineyards or by longterm contracts—are preferable for wine quality to grapes that the winemaker has to scramble for each year, or that are not farmed to his or her exact specifications.

This got me thinking back to my days as a critic, and the wines I reviewed that I gave high scores to, yet were not made from grapes that could properly be called “estate.” So, as usual per Heimoff’s Axiom, not every rule in wine is iron-clad; there are exceptions to each, and in some cases, notable ones.

But I would have to say that, in general, having the precision control that estate bottled wines have is a huge plus. It’s not only a matter of where and how the grapes are grown; in order to quality for “estate bottled,” according to Wine Spectator, “the winery listed on the label owns or controls 100 percent of the grapes that went into the bottle, and the wine was crushed, fermented, finished, aged and bottled all in the same place, and that place has to be located in the same viticultural area that’s stated on the label.”

That’s a high bar to clear. If you think about it, each of those specifications might in itself be of minor importance, but when you add them all up and take them together, they make it far more likely that the resulting wine will be of high quality. Having that precision control over farming is certainly the most important of the “estate bottled” requirements, but to have the entire winemaking process “in the same place,” usually the winery or a facility located very nearby, removes the risky transportation elements that can drag down wine quality. You want to move grapes, must, fermented wine or bottled wine as little as possible; wine is living food, and doesn’t like being manhandled.

By the same token, a winery that has the means (intellectual and financial) to estate-bottle its wines is far more likely than one that doesn’t to invest in the highest winemaking talent available. Why go through all the trouble to estate-bottle your wine, only to have a mediocre vintner dumb it down?

These are all reasons why estate bottled wine almost always costs more than wine that isn’t estate bottled. The costs of production are higher.

I believe all of Jackson Family’s high-end wines are estate bottled; they include Mt. Brave, Stonestreet, Matanzas Creek, Verité, Freemark Abbey, Edmeades, Hartford, La Jota, Lokoya, Cardinale and Byron, in addition to many others. What a great portfolio. It’s one of the reasons why I took this job. Jackson Family Wines, IMHO, has the greatest portfolio of wines in the world, at almost any price point except the bottom feeders—a realm Jess had no interest in entering. If you know of another family-owned company that can make that claim, let me know.

I’ve resisted the temptation to boost or promote or praise the company that employs me for the last 3-1/2 months, since I took this job, and I’m not going to do it a lot. But I’m going to do it sometimes, including today, because it really has to be said: Too many people (so I’m learning) feel or think that all the brands under Jackson Family Wines’ roof are somehow or other Kendall-Jackson. That just isn’t true; in fact, it’s a perversion of the facts. While K-J accounts for the majority of bottles sold by the company (and, I suspect, the majority of profits), it’s simply one brand among many. Jess Jackson and Barbara Banke didn’t have to assemble this world-class portfolio (which includes high-end brands on four continents). They could well have been content to be “mere” billionaires off K-J. But Jess Jackson wanted to prove to himself, and to the world, that he could make wines to stand beside anything else, anywhere, in quality. He has done that—and estate bottling is a large part of the reason–but the story hasn’t adequately been conveyed. That’s part of the reason JFW hired me. I’m going to be telling that story, to sommeliers and other “gatekeepers,” and not just telling it, but proving it, by pouring them these wines to taste and see for themselves how great they are.

Alright, got that off my chest. Now, have a great weekend!


Why do women drink more wine than men?

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I met yet another young (mid-20s) guy yesterday who told me he’s so into beer that he’s brewing it at home, while his girlfriend is a wine lover who’s always trying to up his level of knowledge about vino.

What is it anyway about this gender divide that separates the [beer] men from the [wine] women, anyway? I’ve always wondered about this. My friend and I went to a sports bar last night that was packed with kids in their twenties and I swear all the ladies were drinking wine and cocktails while all the guys were swilling suds.

I guess we could go through the usual litany that beer is “masculine” while fancy martinis and wine are “feminine.” Certainly the big beer producers capitalize on this perception with their advertising, which is geared to guys who like to crush empty beer cans against their foreheads, and to the women who love them.

A recent study, from Nielsen, says that women comprise 55% of wine drinkers in America. But things may be changing: “in the last decade, men have become avid wine drinkers while drinking less beer.” The wine industry has done a pretty good job chipping away at perceptions that it’s an elite, slightly effeminate beverage, but there’s still a long way to go.

In an hour or so, I’m heading off to Jackson Family HQ in Santa Rosa for a couple of days for meetings. Today will be pretty busy, but I’ll try to post something for tomorrow morning (Friday). Have a great day!


Wednesday wraparound: Boredom, urban wineries, and medals, medals, medals

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Once upon a time, people bought the wines they liked and had trusted over many years, because they knew they would not be disappointed.

It may have been a Gallo Hearty Burgundy, or a Sancerre or Pouilly-Fumé, a Chianti or Mateus or Wente Grey Riesling. The wines could always be found on the local supermarket shelf, and the price didn’t break the bank.

That was then; nowadays, we have “the paradox of choice. Overstimulated by so many options,” writes Joyce Goldstein, in Inside the California Food Revolution, “we have become accustomed to constant change and instant boredom.”

Granted, Joyce is talking about how and where we eat—the amazing proliferation of types of cuisine we have at our disposal. But the same could be said about wine. And this is making life very difficult for the small family winemaker.

I was hanging out yesterday with a guy who owns his own wine brand, but he’s not likely to in the future. Business is not good, and he, himself, doesn’t know what to do about it. He can’t afford a staff, which means he has to do it all: vineyard contracting, winemaking, sales, marketing (such as it is) and all the rest. This is obviously too much for one person, so the end of the road is near.

It’s a sad story, especially since I’ve known this guy and know what a terrific winemaker he is. But his plight is the direct result of Joyce’s observation about our food proclivities: We’re accustomed to constant change, and we grow quickly bored. Under those circumstances, someone might have bought my friend’s wine and enjoyed it. But that person will be reluctant to become a loyal customer because of this constant search for the new and different.

I don’t know what the answer is. There may not be one. Not every problem has a solution. And it’s not enough to warn a young person not to get into the wine business, because when you’re young, you’re starry-eyed and ambitious, and you can’t believe that all your dreams might not come true. They might not—but usually, people don’t realize that until they’re in the forties.

* * *

Our little, homegrown East Bay Vintners Alliance is preparing for their annual fiesta. This year it’s August 2, down at Jack London Square. This is the Oakland version of “the urban wine experience,” a keen piece of marketing wines made in our nation’s increasingly popular, hip cities. For whatever reason, the phenomenon (if that’s what it is) is getting widespread press. For instance, there’s an article in the latest issue of “Via,” the AAA magazine, called “Wineries go to town,” that includes several of the East Bay’s locals: Donkey & Goat and Rosenblum, as well as wineries in San Francisco (Bluxome Street) and Portland (Enso).

I’ll be at the August 2 event and hope to see you there!

* * *

Not to knock my friends who organize and judge at the California State Fair’s wine contest, but a headline like “Thousands of medals awarded in State Fair wine completion” doesn’t exactly gain my respect. According to the local ABC affiliate, “There were 2,829 wine entries in this year’s competition. A panel of judges awarded 2,068 medals to competitors.” That’s a lot of medals: nearly half of all the wines won one. Bragging rights are, of course, the payoff for winning a medal—but something about this kind of inflated result makes me think of Garrison Keilor’s witticism about the kids of Lake Wobegon: “and all the children are above average.”

Have a good day!


Is the drive toward ever-newer wines a form of OCD among critics?

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The search for “the new” is the story of California. Whether it was the reinvention of the self, or the society, the Golden State always has lured those restless with the existing order, and anxious to replace it with something innovative and, they hope, better.

This reinvention reinvents itself constantly. Nowhere is it better reflected than in our cuisine, as Joyce Goldstein’s book, Inside the California Food Revolution, makes abundantly clear. But we have to look no further than the current contretemps over what makes wine “balanced” to see it in another, and possibly ideological, form.

Joyce wrote her book to chronicle the rise of California cuisine, with its emphases on freshness, locality and seasonality, but she turns her eye also toward the evolution of California wine. “As California chefs began cooking more innovative food,” she writes, citing names like Ridge, Chalone, Calera and Bonny Doon, “they began seeking more innovative wines.”

By “more innovative wines,” she meant wines that aspired to something greater than the jug ‘burgundies,” “sauternes” and “rhines” that dominated production up until that time (around the 1960s and 1970s). This surely was innovation which was needed; if California ever was to become a wine state (and it seems to have been destined to), it would have to turn more towards a European system of proper appellations and noble varieties.

It worked. But we also have to admit that there was much to be admired in those old wines, with their faux names. They were cheap, they were clean, they went well with food, and they were pretty good, if my memories of what I drank in the late 1970s (just as that era was trailing off) are correct, and I think they are. Those old jug wines were vin ordinaire that appealed to vast numbers of American consumers, and without them blazing the trail, the rise of the boutique winery would not have been possible. Far from condemning them, we ought to celebrate them.

Still, that period of innovation—the boutique winery era–was a good and necessary one. We come now to another period, which may prove to be more of a hiatus than a legitimate tipping point. It is characterized by a somewhat noisy cadre of wine writers, critics and restaurateurs critical of what they perceive as wines whose alcohol levels, fruit extraction and oak render them “unbalanced.” Rather, this cadre says, wines should revert back to their original purpose, of being less assertive and more amenable to accompanying food, rather than dominating it.

Which sounds rather like the role the jug wines played in this country post-Prohibition through the 1970s. They were wines to be enjoyed as part of the overall experience of dining and socializing, not wines that demanded to be the diva-like stars of the table. Now, it’s good that we have a movement that desires to see wine restored to its proper place in the hierarchy; but where the new critics have a bit of ‘splaining to do is this: there is nothing particularly affordable about the wines they celebrate. Unlike the jug wines of the past, which anyone could afford, these new darlings of the School of Balance can be as pricey as the big, oaky varietal wines they decry.

It would make more sense for a critic to scream from the rooftops the virtues of under-$10 wines that could slake the thirst of a nation that’s not as wealthy as it used to be. That would be one thing; I could jump onboard that train. Instead, the critics of the big California style are calling for a new elitism: of low-production wines, made by people they perceive to be personally interesting—wines with modest alcohol levels, and moreover made from grapes that in some cases aren’t even fully ripe. This is the result of the increasingly strident call for “more innovative wines,” which sometimes seem like it has more in common with obsessive-compulsive disorder than with providing us with wines of deliciousness. But then, every wine writer/critic also is a journalist, and journalism, in its essence, is the insatiable search for the new, the radical, the innovative, the undiscovered. That is the strength of good journalism: it prods a complacent culture onward. That also is the weakness of journalism that seeks simply to unearth whatever happens to be new that day, and disregards what is lasting. Innovation, for its own sake, is meaningless.


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