The shortage of California wine is rippling through the system, causing serious if not quite catastrophic consequences.
Winery principles tell me that when their sales forces fan out across the country, buyers are unhappy at the lack of supply and in some cases are personally blaming the winery!
I’m sure that distributors as well as retailers both on and off premise find themselves in an uncomfortable position when wines they’ve sold for years are suddenly unavailable. Of course, the rational part of them knows that no one at the winery is responsible for short crops: Mother Nature is.
But there’s a vein of paranoia that runs through the end users of the three-tiered distribution system like a low-grade infection, and sometimes these buyers can’t be sure if the winery really is low on supply, or is just cutting them out and pretending to be short.
It’s bad for the winery. If buyers feel the winery is shorting them, they might turn to someone else they can get product from, thus terminating what might have been a long relationship.
We’ve all been reading about a wine shortage, for instance here and here, which cites BofA Merrill Lynch that “Global supplies appear to be tightening simultaneously,” with government policies in Europe and Australia deliberately discouraging production, while bad weather in South America had the same effect.
The problem is exacerbated by increasing demand from China for U.S. and particularly California wineries, some of whom are selling a surprisingly high percentage of their top wines there.
Several highly placed producers have openly fretted to me about the shortage, wondering what their companies are going to do. But the truth is, they have few options. They can’t turn to Oregon because crops there run so short due to natural circumstances. Washington has huge, fertile spaces in the east, but that state’s frequent hard winter freezes intimidate California producers, who aren’t used to having entire vineyards wiped out in a single night.
The 2012 vintage, California’s biggest ever, threw the industry a lifejacket, throwing it into temporary balance, but it probably won’t be enough to overcome the result of prior years of below-average crops, coupled with increasing demand. As Gomberg Fredrickson’s Jon Fredrickson told the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium earlier this year, “California ran out of wine.”
The result? Higher prices. The trend is especially notable at restaurants, where by-the-pour prices are inching up. It’s curious that all this is happening just as the country (and world) seems to be emerging from the Great Recession, putting a little more money into the average consumer’s pocket. Are consumers willing to dig deeper for their daily Pinot Grigio and Merlot? I expect they are–and that’s good news for wineries that have gone through the hell of the past five years, and survived.
I was reading the other day that Ningxia, the Chinese autonomous region (roughly equivalent to a U.S. State) in north-central China, “will introduce the first winery-based classification system in China within the next few months.”
The article explains how there will be “6 classes in this classification.” The director of the governing body [of the] Ningxia Development Bureau for Grape and Flower Industry explained its rationale this way: “In order to ensure quality, we raise the bar for entering the classification.”
Ningxia, in case you don’t know, is China’s largest-producing wine area, with a continental climate. Summer highs run to 63-75 degrees, with moderate rainfall. The foreign wine community is interested. Earlier this year the Portuguese government invested millions in the Ningxia wine industry. French companies that have invested in Ningxia include LVMH and Pernod Ricard, according to Jancis Robinson.
Jancis titled her article “China’s most promising wine province?” (but note that hedging question mark). She recently went to her first Ningxia Wine Festival–only to find that “Riedel got there several days before me.”
And whither Riedel goeth, so goeth sales.
Ningxia’s largest domestic producers are Changyu and Dynasty, who together own 20,000 acres of vineyard land. Meanwhile, the China Petroleum and Chemical Corporation as well as the household appliance company Midea have begun investing in Ningxia’s wine industry. That oughta tell you how big the Chinese think this thing is getting.
I haven’t tried any Ningxia wines, but two years ago the Decanter trophy for red wine from the Middle East, Far East and Asia went to a 2009 Bordeaux blend from Ningxia province called Jiabeilan, produced by Chateau Helan Qingxue, which also won a silver for its Classic Chardonnay and a bronze for a Riesling.
But back to the point: does China need a classification system? Here’s China Daily’s argument that it does:
“it is still difficult for many Chinese customers to determine the class of that they are buying. According to knowledge of persons in wine business, this is due to the fact that nation-level wine classification does not yet exist,though some wine practitioners do follow their systems they developed on their own. It is obvious not convenient for general wine consumers.”
Given the notorious insecurity Chinese consumers experience about buying wine (unless it’s a world famous cult brand, which not even most upper-middle class Chinese can afford), it’s no wonder that local authorities will try to convey a golden halo on their wines, in the form of such classifications. There is, though, an arriviste mentality here: China is so anxious to be accepted on equal terms with the West that they’re importing our customs and traditions even before they have had time to develop organically.
China might take pause and understand the limits and dangers of classifying wineries. In France, it’s led to a rigid, price-based sclerosis that hasn’t really served the consumer. The Chinese might also look at California’s aborted attempts at classification. There was Roy Andries de Groot’s wackily ambitious 1982 effort, “The Wines of California.” The most notorious was Jim Laube’s 1989 attempt, “California’s Greatest Cabernets,” in which he created five “Growths,” like in Bordeaux. Jim’s intentions were honorable, but he proved, albeit inadvertently, that it cannot and should not be done.
And can you imagine the squeals of protest when some Chinese wineries are left off the classification list altogether, or earn a rank they feel is dishonorable? The Chinese no longer are a people to sit by mutely while “the authorities” make decisions from the top down. They want to have a say in things. For all these reasons, and more, I’d advise the Ningxia Development Bureau for Grape and Flower Industry to stay away from this sticky wicket. Let the market create the classification, not the government.
and then wake up at 6 a.m. the next morning (this morning, as you read it), there’s not much time or brain matter to come up with a detailed blog post. So today, there won’t be one! I’ll just say Le Cirque is old-fashioned NY, glamorous and retro. You expect the Rat Pack to come noisily in, already drunk. The wine list is Classic, which is to say it caters to a wealthy clientele who knows what they like and doesn’t want to be surprised. The food? So-so, from what I could tell. You don’t go to Le Cirque for culinary adventurism.
The Red & White Bash itself was loads of fun. The band played the Charleston,the crowd was happy, while the pretty acrobats in their swinging moons smiled down on it all like guardian angels. There were skinny guys on stilts and wine, lots of wine, oceans of wine. I didn’t drink much there (I never do when I’m “on”), just a few lovely glasses: K-J 2006 Stature (still with years of life ahead), a nice, buttery Gallo Chardonnay from the Santa Lucia Highlands. By the time we got to Le Cirque all I wanted was a dirty Ketel One martini.
Now I’m in our midtown hotel (The Hudson), with two hours to get it together and get to JFK. I cannot wait to see Gus.
Have a great weekend. I’ll be more coherent on Monday morning when the topic will be…CHINA!
I like rosé wine, but for the longest time I didn’t think California had many good ones. There were all sorts of problems. I found a Renwood 2005 “too watery for recommendation,” a fairly common problem for a type of wine that’s delicate to begin with. Another set of issues arose with a Dominari 2005, from Napa Valley: “heavy, with bizarre medicinal flavors and a sugary finish.” That’s pretty common, too. I’m not sure what causes the medicinal stuff, but residual sugar in a thin, simple wine is awful; and R.S. was one of the biggest problems Cali Rosé had. Then there was the vegetal smell I found in a 2005 Big House “Pink Wine.” Unripe and pyraziney.
There used to be a restaurant in the Financial District called Vertigo. (It’s no longer there; Vertigo Bar, in the Tenderloin, is decidedly not the same place!) I had read that Vertigo claimed to have the biggest rosé wine selection of any restaurant in San Francisco–maybe America, for all I remember; this was about 12 years ago. I called them up and asked if I could drop by and taste through the lot. They said, Sure. (Being a wine writer does have its advantages!) I sat at the bar and went through 25 or 30 wines. Just about each was stunning. Blew me away. Some pale and delicate, others darker and fuller. But all dry, dry, dry, and crisp, crisp. Those are rosé’s first duties: to be dry and crisp. And not a one of them was from California. All French.
Oh, now I get it (I thought to myself). This is what rosé is supposed to be. I never forgot that tasting. It remains the bar to which rosé must rise, in my mind.
Then, for the next decade or so, I didn’t pay much attention to rosé. If it came in, I reviewed it. There wasn’t much, maybe 50 bottles a year. Every once in a while, a wine writer would write about rosé, usually as spring or summer was coming on, and claim it was enjoying some kind of comeback. I never believed that. Some years ago, there was that group, Rosé Avengers and Producers, that my old friend Jeff Morgan was behind. But they didn’t seem to gain much traction.
Starting about a year ago, I found myself thinking about rosé again. It started subtlely; I’m not sure why. Then the new year was upon us, and people started sending me a lot of rosé, to get reviews in time for the warm season, I guess. And all of a sudden, I was talking about rosé to anyone who would listen. I recently told Chuck, my intern, that in a way, rosé is the most interesting wine now being produced in California.
Really!?!? That’s a pretty radical thing to say. But I just said it. There’s more good rosé (which is to say, dry and crisp) than ever before. Is it the recent cool vintages (2010-2012)? Is it a change of mindset among producers? The influence of sommeliers? It is true that the best new rosés are coming from very small producers who may be in close touch with the on-premise market. As usual with such things, it’s impossible to pinpoint a reason.
Here are some rosés I’ve really enjoyed over the past year: Kokomo 2011 Pauline’s Vineyard Grenache (Dry Creek Valley); Minassian-Young 2011 (Paso Robles); La Grand Côte 2011 L’Estate (Paso Robles); Sanglier 2011 Rosé du Tusque (Sonoma County): Muscardini 2011 Alice’s Vineyard Rosato di Sangiovese (Sonoma Valley); Birichino 2011 Vin Gris (California); Balleto 2011 Rosé of Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley); Luli 2012 (Central Coast); Lynmar 2012 Rosé of Syrah (Russian River Valley) and Chiarello 2012 Chiara Rosé of Zinfandel (Napa Valley). All over 90 points, and not one of them more than $22, except for the Chiarello, which is $35.
Rosé, along with Champagne, is the most versatile food wine. It’s also a nice gateway wine for Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio and Moscato drinkers looking to get into red wine. If I was a winemaker today, I’m not sure what my main focus would be, but I’d definitely have a rosé on the list. (The one variety that I think is hard to do rosé with is Cabernet Sauvignon. Too heavy and full-bodied. Merlot is tough, too.)
Lots of work-related travel coming up. I’m off to New York for a quickie tomorrow to attend the big Red and White Bash, Wine Enthusiast’s 25th anniversary celebration, at the Hudson Hotel, on West 58th, in busy midtown. From the sound of it, it’s going to be quite the par-tay. I already have my red and white “costume,” and Chuck lent me a really cool papier-måché mask he bought in London.
Then next week, it’s up to Geyserville for the Alexander Valley Cabernet Academy. This is an offshoot of the annual Taste Alexander Valley consumer event, but the Cabernet Academy is an invitation-only thing for sommeliers. They fly in from all over the place for a series of seminars–four in all–which I’ll be moderating, at different locations throughout the valley.
The idea is to see if there are terroir differences between the southern, middle and northern stretches of Alexander Valley. This is a topic I hadn’t given much thought to before, so in the next week, I plan to study it. My impression, up to now, is that the major distinction in Alexander Valley terroir is between mountains and flatlands. If you take a property like Stonestreet, or Verité, they have to have an Alexander Valley appellation even though they’re thousands of feet up in the Mayacamas. That’s the same AVA all those wineries along Route 128 have, down on the valley floor, which makes no sense at all.
The late Jess Jackson tried for years to get his mountain vineyards under a new appellation. The mountain they’re on historically has been called Black Mountain. Jess wanted it changed to Alexander Mountain. He lost that one, a rare defeat for a man who seldom lost anything in his long, illustrious life. I don’t care what they call it, but that mountain does need a separate appellation.
At any rate, I think the temperature is a little hotter the further north you go in Alexander Valley, as it is in Napa Valley. The average high in July in Cloverdale, for instance. Is 93 degrees, while mid-valley, at Geyserville, it’s a little over 90. At Healdsburg, in the southernmost part, the average July high is 88.8 degrees. So there is that spread. But this is a simplistic way of looking at things, as there’s so much more involved. Along the Russian River, the soils are deep and fertile. As you climb the benches and get into the mountains, they become drier, thinner and less rich in nutrients. The mountains also are cooler, an important consideration in such a hot place.
Then, after Alexander Valley, I’m off to the Kapalua Wine & Food Festival, where I’ll be co-hosting, along with Michael Jordan, M.S., a tasting of the Cabernets of Pritchard Hill. (Michael told me he was inspired to organize this tasting after reading the article on Pritchard Hill I wrote last year for Wine Enthusiast. The confirmed winemakers and wineries for our panel at this point are Phillip Titus (Chappellet), Andy Erickson (Ovid), Phillipe Melka (Brand), David Long (David Arthur) and Carlo Mondavi (Continuum). This panel will be a high point of the festival, but only one of many: as you can see from the schedule of events, Kapalua is a fabulous four days of some of the greatest wines and winemakers in California (not to mention food. I’m assuming the hotel has a gym where I can burn off the calories!). I can’t wait to go. My only regret is that Gus won’t be able to come with me. He loves the beach.
Mike Veseth, the wine economist whose blog posts and occasional research papers I always look forward to reading, published another thought-provoking piece last week.
It’s about what he calls “context-sensitive” tasting, a term I’d never heard before, but one I’ll use going forward, because it’s snappy and useful.
My readers know that I tend to be obsessed with the mechanics of tasting: single-blind, double-blind, open. As a Gemini (not that I believe in astrology, but the characterization of Geminis as being able to see things from multiple points of view certainly applies to me), I can appreciate the pros and cons of all three approaches.
Double-blind really makes you think hard and deep. Single-blind gives you just enough context to judge whether or not the wines are good examples of their class. And open tasting gives you the complete context that can make the wine-drinking experience so multi-dimensional.
The problem with these three approaches, or at least the first two (single- and double-blind) is that they’re fundamentally incompatible with consistency of judgment. The same wine, tasted blind on multiple occasions, will impress even the most professional reviewer differently, leading to questions concerning reality. What is the wine really like? It’s not really like anything; it all depends how you experience it.
(Of course, if you’re tasting openly, you can be 100% consistent. You can also be 100% biased based on what you know you’re tasting!)
This is why Veseth titles his post “In Vino Veritas?” with the question mark playing a pivotal role. The conventional wisdom, among the general public who read wine critics, is that there’s something “real” or “true” in wine that critics are in a unique position to perceive and describe. Well, there is something “real” in wine, but it’s not what critics perceive and write about, it’s what a wine laboratory measures with instruments. You can determine everything from aluminum to zinc in wine. Those things are “real” and “true,” but they obviously are not things critics look for, nor are they things most consumers care about.
Thus, Veseth writes, “our impressions of wine is [sic] context-sensitive–perhaps more so than we really want to admit.” This conclusion chagrins him, but it shouldn’t.
So is there “reality” in wine, beyond a lab analysis of its chemical and physical properties? No. In that case, proponents of open tasting have a point when they say, in effect, “Why bother tasting blind if you know the results are not replicable?” And furthermore: “Since open tasting is reliably the most consistent method of tasting, it also is the most trustworthy.
Well, yes…but then, why was it so hard to get anyone from the Wine Advocate to state, in no uncertain terms, that they do taste openly, instead of dancing around the issue for so many years? To the best of my knowledge, it wasn’t until Antonio Galloni told me that he does (you can read his quote here, from last year)
that anyone from the Advocate organization. And Antonio did so not only with candor, but with passion: he strongly defended tasting openly at high-end properties, whether in Burgundy or the likes of Harlan Estate. Why, then, does TWA’s website, presumably written by Robert Parker, say, “When possible all of my tastings are done in peer-group, single-blind conditions (meaning that the same types of wines are tasted against each other and the producers’ names are not known.”? Admittedly, this is Parker talking…he pointedly says “my” tastings, not “our” tastings, so maybe he was implying, very gently, that not every review in TWA is the result of a “peer-group, single-blind” tasting.” Or maybe standards have changed since he wrote those words.
Well, I don’t mean to criticize Antonio’s method,or anyone else’s, since, as I said, each approach has its strengths. In the end, consumers have to decide what methodology they want their critics to use. To tell you the truth, I don’t think most consumers care. But they should. If all the wine critics in the world tasted blind, the hierarchy of pricing and tiers would fall down and crack, like Humpty-Dumpty, and all the King’s men couldn’t put it back together again.
So what’s my solution? If I’m limited to just one form of tasting, I prefer single-blind. The way around this is transparency. Every review that anyone does should have a little symbol next to it: TO (yasted openly), SB (single-blind), DB (double-blind). That way, consumers who cared would know, and if someone was concerned with bias, they could dismiss a TO wine.
Benjamin Lewis writes, in his superb new book, Claret & Cabs, that the Left Bank of Bordeaux, and to some extent the Right Bank, is undergoing an identity crisis, as more and more Classified Growth chateaux bottle second wines.
It used to be that the handful of chateaux that made a second wine used grapes that were considered not good enough to go into the main wine. But that started to change in the 1990s and 2000s. “[S]econd wines have become profit centers in their own right, and are no longer simply a way to mop up lots that are not successful enough to include in the grand vin,” Lewin writes. “Often enough they have become a separate brand in all but name.”
The result are wines that “have improved significantly” and, with the great 2009 and 2010 vintages, “seemed to reflect their origins more clearly” than the grand wines. In fact, Lewin quotes Bruno Eynard, director of Chateau Lagrange, that “The second wine of a great year today is better than the grand vin of a minor year previously.” !!!
Lewin is not suggesting that proprietors are reducing the quality of the main wine, only that there is now competitive selection to make it into the second wine–with the corresponding result that many chateaux now have a third brand, as well, often bearing a simple communal AOC.
This ties into a phenomenon we’re also seeing here in California, in which top Cabernet wineries, usually in Napa Valley, produce a hierarchy of wines. As readers of my reviews probably know, it is far from certain that the most expensive wine (which may be a vineyard designate or barrel selection) is “better” than the second wine. I’d say that in about one-third of the cases, it is not. (Whether that makes the second wine a value, or the main wine a rip-off, is debatable.) But when the winery has a third tier that bears a simple Napa Valley appellation, the chances of it being pretty ordinary rise significantly. Not naming names– my reviews speak for themselves–but some Napa wineries are releasing these third-tier Cabernets that frankly aren’t worth the price, but merely trade on the winery’s name.
There was a time when vintners had some pride in what they turned out. If they had a lesser quality wine, they’d bulk it out on the market, or else bottle it under a different brand name and do everything in their power to hide the link to the parent winery. Inherent in this strategy, obviously, was the possibility of a reverse one: Some marketing whiz, at some point, would have said, “Wait a minute. Why are we hiding the connection? If we actively promote it, we could charge more money for the lesser wine.” (Mouton-Cadet, anyone?)
Someone in the room, I would think, would have objected that a low score on the lesser wine would taint the image of the main wine. But with the Recession and the current struggle for survival, even of some pretty famous wineries, the marketing message increasingly is triumphing over the moral message.
Last year, Joe Gallo asked me a question: Was Opus One good or bad for the Robert Mondavi brand? I’d never thought about it, so I asked him to give me a few seconds to think about it, and then I said, “Good, because it associated Mondavi with prestigious Bordeaux.”
“Wrong,” Joe Gallo admonished me. “It was bad, because Opus One took all the best fruit, and the Mondavi reserve suffered.”
He may or may not have been correct: certain critics in the 1990s faulted Mondavi Cabernets for lacking power, but that wasn’t necessarily because “Opus took all the best fruit.” Tim Mondavi repeatedly insisted he was not interested in making powerhouse wines, preferring a French style; the criticism that the wines were light (which I never bought into) was therefore a misunderstanding of the winemaker’s intention.
However, Joe Gallo’s argument does underscore the danger when a winery, with only limited access to superior fruit (and what winery has unlimited access to the best fruit?), tinkers around with second and third tiers. Usually, something gets hurt: either the top wine is lowered because quality grapes are diverted from it, or the second or third tier suffers because it has only inferior grapes. This is not to say that a winery cannot successfully produce separate tiers that are each quite good on their own: Freemark Abbey reliably does (with Sycamore, Bosché and the Napa Valley), and so does Stag’s Leap (Cask 23, Fay and Artemis). But I’m afraid they’re more the exceptions that the rule.