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High wine prices? Pogo figured it out long ago

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Kudos to Jancis Robinson for decrying the hubris-inspired prices on so many of the world’s wines these days.

I don’t know if this is a new position for her to take, or one she’s held for years, as I have; but either way, it’s refreshing to see the most famous female wine writer in the world join the anti-high price crowd.

Jancis points out, in particular, three red wines, one from the Languedoc, one from Australia and one from our friend Raj Parr, a $90 Central Coast bottling I have not yet had the pleasure of reviewing. But since I know Raj, and I know California wine, let me share with you some thoughts.

First of all, it is simply fantastic that a new wine brand can charge $90 a bottle and expect to get away with it. I mean “fantastic” as in unbelievable, mind-blowing, and wrong. But what is even more unbelievable is that people are actually going to be lining up to buy that wine. Why?

For the answer, you have to look no further than the great People’s Republic of China. We Americans love to giggle at the Chinese, so pretentiously buying Lafite and putting it on the edge of the table in the restaurant so everybody can see just what they’re drinking. For we are defined by what we possess and consume, aren’t we? And if we lack the self-esteem to value ourselves intrinsically for who and what we are, then we turn to possessions, to fill that gap. I may be a worthless nothing, but if I can afford Lafite, that makes me better than you.

Well, I exaggerate, of course, but that is the view many Americans have of the Chinese. But let’s look at ourselves. Americans, too, line up to buy the most expensive, talked-about wines (if they can afford them). Why doesn’t everyone laugh Ray Parr right out of his shoes for attempting to foist an unknown, unproved wine on us at such a ridiculously high price?

Because he’s Raj Parr. He’s associated with Michael Mina. And that, my friends, is your window into the world of celebrity and wealth, a world closed to most of us. Yet the more closed it is, the more we want in, to make ourselves feel better than we are, to reassure us that we really are as good as the handsome, well-dressed and tasteful people whom we see laughing in the windows of Michael Mina as they dine on herb-roasted lamb ($47) washed down with Raj Parr’s new wine.

So you see the phenomenon is fundamentally psychological. Yes, it can be dressed up in Armani and Gucci and made to appear natural and tasteful, but this aspirational behavior, I would argue, is fundamentally neurotic. These vintners can get away with charging an arm and a leg for wines that–let’s face it–no matter how good they are, are not worth the price, because they take advantage of the human tendency to associate high price for quality, even when reason and common sense tell us this is a false association. In this sense, the enemy is not Raj Parr, or the Australian or Languedocian vintner charging those prices. No, as Pogo pointed out a long time ago, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”


Do “Zombie Wineries” Exist?

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I Googled the term (using both spellings, “zomby” and “zombie”) and came up empty-handed, but I’m hearing it bandied about more and more.

It refers to wineries that are in dead every respect, except that they still walk the Earth as though they possessed life. The Zombie Winery phenomenon is said to be most acute in Napa Valley, among high-end brands that got their butts kicked in the Great Recession, when demand for $50-and up Cabernets fell off the cliff.

Wineaccess, the online wine retailer, referred to “Napa’s crisis years (2008 to mid-2011)” in their most recent email blast, a suitably Götterdämmerung-esque description that communicates the angst that struck the valley at the Recession’s peak.

I well recall the rumors. Who’s in trouble? Who isn’t? Anecdotally, expensive wines–not just Cabernet Sauvignon–were suffering. Nobody really knew, in each specific instance, which wineries were hurting; only the proprietors and their bankers knew. But there were whispers. I asked owners every chance I could how business was doing: the answers ranged from “Great” (which I assumed to be an outright lie) to “Well, you know, these are tough times,” which at least was honest. The owner of one of the most famous cult wineries told me frankly, in that 2009-2010 period, that for the first time in the winery’s history, requests for inclusion on the mailing list had dropped, a kind of canary-in-the-coal mine symbol of the psychological toll the Recession took even on the well-to-do.

“Zombie” the word comes from Haitian Creole, which imported it from an African word; it referred to “an animated corpse” (Wikipedia). The word gained widespread currency with George Romero’s famous (and famously kitschy) “Night of the Living Dead” movie (1968), which depicted living dead horrors wandering the world, looking to shred, tear and devour (although the film itself never used the word “zombie”). A previous movie, “White Zombie” (1932), starring Bela Lugosi, however, imprinted the horrific image on the public’s mind of yet another form of monster (in addition to Frankenstein and Dracula, then popular among horror genre fans), one again based on a mutated human, stripped of living purpose except that it did not know that it was dead. (The self-knowledge of these mutants varies. Frankenstein had none, or very little, although he could feel tenderness. Dracula, of course, possessed full self-knowledge, which is what makes vampires so dreadful; what he lacked was moral compass, although it can be argued that, from the point of view of his kind, i.e., a vampire, his actions were fully in concert with morality as he understood it. Zombies, by contrast, are even duller and more primitive than Frankenstein, on a level of insectoid: If any movie in history ever depicted a zombie feeling tenderness or love, I am unaware of it.)

So are there Zombie Wineries in Napa Valley? Undoubtedly. Was Clos Pegase one of them? I wondered about last week’s sale to Vintage Wine Estates and Leslie Rudd. It’s hard for me to think Jan Shrem “needed the money.” I always thought Clos Pegase was quite profitable, a thought reinforced every time I heard the announcer on my public radio station thank the Shrems for their “generous support.” And the wines, made by Richard Sowalsky, always are good and sometimes great. My hunch–and that’s all it is–is simply that Jan is ready for the next chapter in his adventurous life.

BREAKING: Moments after I posted this, the news came in that Viansa has been bought by Vintage Wine Estates. While Viansa is in Sonoma County, not Napa, it appears to have been a Zombie Winery:


When is a “flaw” not a flaw?

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Got an email from a wine director at a restaurant yesterday. She wrote:

Yesterday I was tasting through my wines by the glass to make new notes after going through some recent vintage changes when I smelled the 2012 ___ Sauvignon Blanc. I was so overwhelmed by the smell of rotten green pepper and shocked by the complete lack of the usual ripe grapefruit notes. I generally get excited when I come upon a wine with a flaw as I look at it as a learning experience I can share with my staff. But to my shock, most of my staff did not smell the same thing I did and no one smelled it to the extent that I did. I opened several bottles then went on to a new case but they all smelled the same to me. I was convinced there was a flaw but questioned myself that no one smelled the horrible things I did. I pulled the wine right away. So, my question is, is this strong smell considered a flaw or is it just bad judgment on the part of the winemaker and producer to release a wine like this?

(The wine director identified a specific New Zealand Sauv Blanc but there’s no point in revealing it here.) There are two points she made that leaped out to me, both of which are interesting enough to warrant a little chat.

The first was “most of my staff did not smell the same thing I did.” This points out the subjectivity of wine tasting. Whatever caused the green pepper smell that the wine director picked up on (and I couldn’t say that it was pyrazine because I haven’t tasted that wine), it seems that she was more sensitive to it than the rest of her staff. I myself am very sensitive to pyrazine, and I don’t much care for it if it exceeds a certain tipping point in a Sauvignon Blanc. But on the other hand, I’ve met people who are far more sensitive than I am to TCA and brett.

The second point is contained in the wine director’s question and is in some ways the more interesting one. “Is this strong smell considered a flaw or is it just bad judgment on the part of the winemaker?”

I don’t think it was a flaw, technically speaking, but it depends on how you define “flaw.” Generally, flaws in wine are considered to be egregious violations of the basic sanitary and chemistry things you learn in winemaking school. For example, a young white wine that is brown in color and smells old may have been oxidized; that is a flaw, but on the other hand, you want a degree of oxidation in some white wines (Sherry, for example). Aromas that are rancid also are considered flaws, but in some older wines (Priorats, for example), a little rancidity is considered desirable. And consider brett itself. Technically, it’s a flaw, but some winemakers (and wine drinkers) like a touch of it in their wines.

If we assume the cause of pyrazine smell is unripe grapes, can we call that a flaw? In one sense, maybe: I mean, you wouldn’t make a wine out of grapes that were 13% brix, would you? But if pyrazine’s a flaw, it’s not on the scale of letting a white wine get oxidized to the point of brown stinkiness. Pyrazine could be and usually is a vintage problem (and you can’t accuse Mother Nature of committing flaws). But it could be a marketing decision to bottle and sell a pyraziney wine (one that the winemaker may not want to put out there, but has to be sold anyway, for economic reasons).

Is it bad judgment to sell a wine that some people will think is flawed, like that New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc? Well, not necessarily. The wine director who emailed me thought it was flawed, but no one else on her staff did. It’s conceivable that, even had the winemaker known the wine was high in pyrazines, he would have green-lighted it anyway (assuming he had that power, rather than a sales director or owner), knowing that it wasn’t so excessive that critics all over the world would condemn it as cat pee.

So this question of what constitutes a flaw, and what doesn’t, is more complicated than you might think.


Can a wine be serious and unsnooty at the same time?

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What does it mean when people say Millennials want wines that are “more approachable” and less “snooty”?

You hear it everywhere, especially in the Blogosphere, but also in conversations about social media and in the columns of newspaper writers: for example, “Snooty is no longer where it’s at in the wine world,” and young people are seeking “more approachable and drinkable wines that are suitable for a range of dining and social occasions,” in the words of this article.

The suggestion is that some sort of cosmic alteration has occurred in the way younger consumers view wine, that this paradigm shift is revolutionizing the way wine is marketed (with, for example, Franzia WineTaps appealing to “growing demand [for] intriguing products”), and that “Specialty wines such as sangrias and chocolate wines” are aiming for the “sweeter taste profiles” the under-30s like.

In line with this blog’s continuing struggle to get at the truth, and hewing to its “the more things change, the more they stay the same” philosophy, I now dispel these modern myths with the wave of a hand. Begone!

Let’s break it down.

Of course consumers want wines that are less snooty and more approachable. Nothing new about that. “You certainly don’t have to be a wine expert to drink wine…For wine-drinking is fun. And wine isn’t difficult. Why consider it harder to serve than coffee, soda pop or beer? There isn’t any hocus-pocus, except for the so-called experts who as specialists have fun trying to make things complex and involved.”

That might have been written yesterday by any number of wine bloggers. But no, it was written by Mary Frost Mabon, then the food and wine editor at Harper’s Bazaar, in her 1942 book, ABC of American Wine. I cite it merely to illustrate the fact that more than seventy years ago writers were reassuring “ordinary” Americans that wine wasn’t “snooty” and that “preciosity in a wine connoisseur” (Mabon again) is laughable.

When I read this stuff about “more approachable and drinkable wines” my first reaction is that it’s sheer nonsense. Milliennials aren’t looking for “more approachable and drinkable” wines because these words have no meaning. They sound like they’re describing something real, because they hew to standard English syntax; but just because I can make up a proper sentence doesn’t mean it corresponds to something in reality. (“My unicorn just leapt over the radioactive rainbow.”) How is any wine “more approachable and drinkable” than any other wine that has ever existed? It all depends on what you like, right? Now, if “more approachable and drinkable” really means sweeter, then why don’t we just come out and say that Millennials prefer sweet wines to dry? Because it’s not true, that’s why. There’s no proof of that. The explosion of things like Moscato (and, yes, sangrias and chocolate wines) is indicative only of rising consumption of wine across all demographic groups, some of whom want their wines sweet while others like them dry.

What writers really mean when they say Millennials want “more approachable and drinkable wines” is that they want cheaper wines. This, too, hardly qualifies as a Eureka! moment, nor would it have come as a surprise 70 years ago to a producer (or 300 years ago to a London merchant). People, especially younger ones, always want value in their drinks, which is why The Wine Group, Bronco, Barefoot and so many other companies are doing so well.

So, you ask, is Heimoff saying that nothing ever changes? In a way, that’s exactly what I’m saying. Trends come and go–Moscato will fade back into semi-obscurity someday–boxed wines were inevitable once the technology developed–one day tequila is on top, the next day rum–sweet, fruity wine-based concoctions have been around from the days of Bali Hai through the coolers of the 1970s to today–young people always will like inexpensive wine but usually are willing to spend more as they age and earn more money–the Sun continues to rise in the east and set in the west–lazy or ill-informed wine writers continue to search for “news-like” information they can pass on with seeming authority–well, you get the picture.

I will stipulate the following concerning younger consumers: they want more interesting wines these days, wines that tell them stories and about which they can talk with their friends (and perhaps to the proprietor via social media). And this, they certainly have, in spades, in unprecedentedly open and interactive ways. But this is a double-edged sword for wineries. It makes the younger consumer easily the most fickle consumer in the history of the world. As soon as the story becomes boring–as soon as a more interesting story pops up (and I use the phrase “pop up” deliberately, in its latter-day urban sense)–the consumer moves onto the next thing.

I leave with this word of caution to wineries tempted to stroll down the “less snooty-more approachable” path: you may be headed up the garden path, leading to a cul-de-sac from which there is no escape. It’s one thing to make a wine-in-a-box and be content to sell gazillions of gallons of it (and this is in no way a criticism of such wines; among critics I’ve probably praised them the most, on grounds of quality-price ratio). But what if your ambitions as a winemaker are set higher than a boxed wine? What if you’re a garagiste or terroirist or someone seized with the notion of creating something awesome from your patch of ground? Some writers and customers always will “squint, swirl, sniff, sip, swish and spit” (in Mary Frost Mabon’s alliterative words), meaning in turn that these wines by definition become “more snooty” and “less approachable,” which is simply a way of saying that they become of greater intellectual and conversational interest, at least to those of us who care about such things. Do we really want this appeal to “less snooty and more approachable” to result in the end of pleasant discussions about wine, terroir, technique, varieties, aromas, finishes and all the other arcane topics we geeks love to talk about? I would hope not. Any winery that walks the serious quality walk but talks the “unsnooty and approachable” talk is trying to have it both ways, an unsustainable proposition that ultimately will please no one.


All States have wineries, and the best States have the most

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Kudos to the New York Times (and to Eric Asimov, if he had anything to do with it), for this superb interactive map showing how the number of wineries has spread across America from 1937 to the present. If you hover the cursor over any one state, it tells you the number of wineries in it.

(I hope the Times link works without you having to buy an account and sign in. If it doesn’t, try this link.)

It was eleven years ago, in 2002, that North Dakota became the fiftieth, and final, U.S. state to have a winery. Today there are more than eight thousand in all fifty states, scattered from northern Maine to south Florida, eastern North Carolina to Texas, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to Arizona, and, of course, from southern California on up to the Washington-Canadian border.

On the map, wineries are depicted by blemish-like rose-colored circles, with the biggest circles signifying 500 wineries; and the most, and biggest, circles are right here in the Bay Area and Northern California. The Central Coast of California also has some big circles, as do Washington State and Oregon, the Finger Lakes and Long Island regions of New York State, and the Alleghenies, mainly Virginia. Texas, too, is getting blotchy, as is Colorado, especially along the Front Range. If there’s a viticultural desert in this country, it’s the Great Plains, where Kansas, Nebraska and the Dakotas (but, surprisingly, not Oklahoma) are remarkably blemish free, as are Wyoming, Utah, Nevada and Montana. Whether this is due to issues of terroir or culture (either or both of which may be unsuitable to the development of an indigenous wine industry), I couldn’t tell you.

I like to think that a wine-drinking America is a better America. Our Founding Fathers drank wine, including fortified wines like Madeira. Jefferson famously cultivated grapes (or tried to) at Monticello, and to Jefferson is attributed one of the most accurate quotes about wine in history: “No nation is drunken where wine is cheap; and none sober, where the dearness of wine substitutes ardent spirits as the common beverage.” Teetotalers, at least those that make it into the media (usually as politicians or religious leaders), seem like mean, intolerant people, with a rigidity that demands everyone else hew to their ideology, or else. Such an attitude is antithetical to the real spirit of wine, which is best suggested by the Prophet Isaiah’s hope for “a feast of fat things full of marrow, of wines on the lees well refined.”

I’ll drink to that!


Just what we need–Not!

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When I started writing about wine, I met a lot of wealthy collectors. They had cellars in the tens, if not hundreds of thousands of bottles, almost always the usual suspects: Bordeaux First Growths, Burgundy Grand Crus, Yquem, and California Cabs that were popular then, like Dunn Howell Mountain and Opus One.

I would talk with these gentlemen, who seemed perfectly normal in every respect, except for the obsessive-compulsive disorder they seemed to suffer from in their mad accumulation of wine. But the fact was that they were crazy-passionate about wine, which was good. If they went a little overboard, well, that was their business, not mine.

It wasn’t until a few years later that I came to learn about collecting wine, not for the pleasure of aging and drinking it, but for investment. At first I was surprised, although maybe I shouldn’t have been.  Then I came to see it as pernicious. Reselling wine to make a profit drives up the cost of wine, which is bad, but it also is responsible, at least in part, for the way so many people still perceive wine: as a snobby, elite thing. Every time people read about a bottle that costs $50,000 or $100,000, it reinforces that notion that maybe they better stick to beer.

During the Great Recession, investing in wine for resale seemed to drop off a bit. But now, it’s roaring back, in troubling ways. For instance, here’s Fox News reporting two days ago that an Italian firm is asking for a minimum investment of $50,000 to invest in a wine portfolio that’s pretty much exactly the same as a stock portfolio.

And here’s Forbes, that bastion of capitalism, writing on the same phenomenon, also from Wednesday, with the punchy headline, “Will More Collectors Turn Wine Into Cash?” Seems that rich collectors already are offering their wine cellars as collateral for loans, the same way they put their expensive art works and jewelry on the line.

Normally I couldn’t care less what the über-wealthy do with their Barolo, but it somehow seems wrong, in spirit if not in the law, to commoditize wine that way. It bothers producers, too. Last year, Nick Gislason told me how troubled Screaming Eagle’s ownership was by the aftermarket. Here Nick does his level best to produce a great wine, and some percentage of the people on the mailing list just flip it onto eBay or wherever, sending the price soaring ever higher, distorting markets, and placing, not only Screaming Eagle but, by some inevitable domino process, other wines (Harlan, for example) impossibly beyond the reach of ordinary people. And don’t think the domino effect stops with the cults. It trickles down.

Here’s another negative effect of investment-mania: It can result in grotesqueries like this one, in which a pair of “wine collectors from New York” are suing celebrity chef Charlie Trotter for selling them an allegedly counterfeit bottle of 1945 Romanée-Conti.

This sort of thing is no longer about wine, or pleasure, it’s about money, profit and fear. Nothing cool about it, and not what this industry needs, or deserves.

 

 


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