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What Prosecco tells us about the future of wine

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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?

Two things:

  1. Millennials coming of age
  2. 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.


Bloggers: stop the insults, now.

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There used to be sexism in the wine business. I know, because I know some wonderful women winemakers who began their careers in the 1970s and told me their stories. Even though they had winemaking degrees, they couldn’t get hired anyplace but the laboratory, because the white men who owned the wineries thought they’d be incompetent as winemakers.

Well, we don’t have sexism anymore, thank goodness. But we have another form of prejudice that’s just as pernicious: ageism.

Read, for example, this piece, from Snooth, that refers to “old white guys.” The author of the Snooth piece, James Duren, is quoting Jeff Siegel, the proprietor of a wine blog called winecurmudgeon.com. In the Snooth piece, Duren is writing about the demise of the point-scoring system (yes, again…yawn), and apparently came across something Siegel had written on his blog (I tried to find it but couldn’t, so I will trust that Duren is quoting Siegel accurately). Siegel was going on about how social media is changing wine is such fundamental ways that the entire sales and distribution chain is being upset, which, he claimed, is “something the old white guys can’t even begin to understand.”

Okay, let’s break this down.

First of all, Siegel isn’t exactly some cool young dude. Here’s a picture of him from his website

SiegelPhoto credit: winecurmudgeon.com

that makes it clear his younger self is fast disappearing in the rear view mirror. So words of wisdom, Mr. Siegel: Be careful whom you disparage. What goes around, comes around, in this world of karma.

But even worse than Siegel’s uncalled-for rudeness is its absolute incorrectness. I’ve worked with plenty of “old white guys” in the wine industry who are a lot smarter and more successful than Mr. Siegel will ever be. In fact, the winery owners and executives I know understand precisely how social media, online buying and all that is rocking their world. They’re trying to deal with it the best they can, the same as everyone else: the problem, as I’ve pointed out for years, is that there are no easy solutions.

Look: When you’re a little blogger, it’s easy to pontificate. That’s what some bloggers do: From the ivory tower of their desktops they type the most vapid absurdities into their computers, then hit the “Publish” button and think they come across like Einstein declaring the Theory of Relativity.

But not a single one of these bloggers actually runs a wine business! (If I’m wrong, let me know. But I don’t think I am.) They’ve never sold a damn bottle of wine, never had to hit gridlocked roads visiting with on-premise or off-premise accounts, never had to come up with a marketing campaign, never had to develop a winery website, never sent a wine sample off to a critic, never lived with the fallout of a bad review, never hosted a winemaker dinner, never had to meet a payroll for field workers and secretaries, never had to fix a tractor on a cold rainy morning, never stayed up for three days and nights doing a harvest. None of that, nada, zero, zilch. And yet they think that being a blogger puts them in a position to criticize older winery owners and tell them how to run their business.

Chutzpah!

What is this fear and loathing these not-so-young bloggers have for “old white guys” anyway? Their psychological hangup obviously is connected to their hatred of point scores, and of wine reviewing in general, which they claim is elitist. But then these same bloggers turn around and review wines (from free samples, of course), just like older critics do—and yet without the experience, without the chops, without the context.

Perhaps they’re just acting out subconscious frustrations they feel towards their own parents. Whatever the cause, their anger, rudeness and vitriol is not only ugly, but will hurt them in the long run, because one thing that doesn’t change about the wine industry is that it’s a small town where everyone knows everyone else, and people value respectfulness and kindness. You want to succeed in this business for the long run? Do your homework, learn your stuff, play nice in the sandbox, and wait your turn. You don’t have to tear others down to boost yourself up.

And as for social media completely disrupting the traditional sales model and replacing it with a bunch of “friends recommending to friends,” if you believe that, I’ve got a bridge to sell you. Ain’t gonna happen anytime soon. Social media has become a useful tool in the overall tool kit with which to market and sell wine, but it’s just that: a tool, and not even a very good one, if we’re going to be brutally honest. We’ve been having this conversation now for eight years and social media still hasn’t displaced traditional marketing and sales approaches. If it worked as well as people like Mr. Siegel claim, don’t you think proprietors would have dismantled their sales and marketing departments—thereby saving tons of money—and simply depended on social media? Of course they would have. But they know something that Mr. Siegel doesn’t: Social media doesn’t work as advertised by its adherents. Are these proprietors simply “old white guys who can’t even begin to understand” how the real world works? Or are they savvy businessmen who require proof, not simple, self-serving assertions, that something works? The latter, methinks. No, meknow.


The changing role of the somm

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Predictions of the demise of almost anything are usually exaggerated, as Mark Twain had occasion to note. He was very much alive when it was reported that he had died. Along the same lines, neither are sommeliers about to go the way of the dodo bird, as suggested in this piece, called “Are sommeliers becoming obsolete?”, that appeared in the Chicago edition of Crain’s Business. (You may not be able to read the entire piece if you’re not a subscriber or a particularly adroit Googler.)

The author, Maggie Hennessy, suggests that today’s somms are becoming obsolete due to the phenomenon of “sommelier 2.0”– somms moving more and more into the business, management and financial sides of their restaurants. This not only takes them steadily away from wine, it forces them to concentrate on beer and spirits—beverages they may have only a passing knowledge of and interest in, but that are increasingly important to a restaurant’s bottom line.

I know a sommelier or two—or fifty—and I’ve seen definite changes in how they do their jobs. It used to be that the sommelier was driven more by the discovery of interesting wines and the personal passion she held for them. Of course, he or she had to contribute to the restaurant’s profits, but in the larger scheme of things, the somm was seen as adding a certain esthetic to the operation. It fell to the kitchen to be the profit center; one had the feeling that restaurant ownership felt the sommelier brought added value, in the form of a clear commitment on management’s part to a fine-wine program, which was something diners seemed to appreciate and expect.

Esthetics, unfortunately, don’t pay rent or employee salaries and benefits. The squeeze has been building on fine-dining establishments for years, and was vastly accentuated by the Great Recession, which forced many of them out of business, and compelled others to take a more draconian approach to the bottom line. This is when somms really began feeling the heat: Management said, in effect, “Show us how your monetary results in a return on the investment we’ve made in you, or else we’ll show you the door.”

This is understandable, but it also created a crisis for sommeliers, who suddenly found themselves in an existential dilemma. Were they first and foremost wine lovers whose primary task was to discover gems the public might not know about? Were they simply curators of bloated wine lists stuffed with First Growths and cult Cabs they, themselves, neither could afford nor particularly liked? Or were they mere tools of the CFO, part of a sales staff whose sole responsibility was making money by pretending to be independent arbiters?

Obviously, all somms participate to some extent in all three of these areas. It’s a matter of emphasis. But the point of the Chicago Crain’s article, with which I agree, seems to be that the emphasis has been shifting over the last seven or eight years. We see this, not only anecdotally, but in terms of the sheer numbers of sommelier accreditation programs out there, which is greatly increasing the applicant pool. There are more somms available for employment than there are jobs, frankly, and so management is able to select—not simply the most educated somm, but the one who is thought best able to make money. That requires sound business and management skills, not simply an extraordinary knowledge of wine.

So where does the somm go from here? Is he an endangered species—“becoming obsolete,” as suggested by in the Chicago-Crain’s headline? No. The fact that we’re talking about “sommeliers,” and in fact that so many people are talking about somms, means that we—in the industry, and those advanced consumers—have some weird kind of fascination with the cult of the somm. The sommelier has seized hold of the American wine-drinking imagination in a way few would have thought possible.

But the sommelier’s role is changing, radically, and we do need to recognize it. Less driven by passion than profits, today’s somm needs to be understood by diners in a different way: Not so much a pure messenger of extraordinary wines, or an objective educator, but a representative of the restaurant’s management. That, I should think, would shift our perception of the sommelier in dramatic and significant ways.


Wine, beer…and pot?

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As a longtime pot enthusiast, and the current holder of a California medical marijuana card, I’ve been glad to witness the acceptance of weed in America. If you’d asked me twenty years ago if I thought the legalization of marijuana (or gay marriage, for that matter) would occur in my lifetime, I would have said, No, especially not gay marriage. And yet, look how far we’ve come!

Yay America! Give yourself a pat on the back.

Still, I must admit my jaw dropped when I was reading the June/July issue of The Somm Journal and came across, on page 34, an article entitled “California Artisanal Hashish.” No, I thought, it can’t be what it looks like; this hash must have something to do with corned beef and potatoes for weekend brunch. (But why would that be in Somm Journal?)

It was only a few seconds later, reading the article, that I realized it was indeed about hashish, and specifically, how “Emerald Triangle farmers are fighting for the AOC classification as California reevaluates its medical cannabis industry.”

Hashish in Somm Journal? AOC classification? Photos of a dude tasting his “aged, artisanal hashish”? Yikes.

Well, Somm Journal is from the redoubtable Andy Blue and his business partner, Meredith May, two of the most successfully entrepreneurial publishers/editors in recent California history. Coming on the heels of The Tasting Panel magazine, maybe Andy has some new triumph in sight: The Smoking Panel magazine. And why not? If weed is going to be a legal, multi-billion-dollar industry in California (it’s already a multi-billion-dollar industry, but there’s still a huge fight between the feds and the state concerning its legality), then it’s going to need its own industry magazine. And who better than Andy to bring it to us?

What’s interesting, and something I hadn’t completely understood although I should have foreseen it, is that some of the same issues we see in beer and wine are now happening in marijuana production. Namely, the fight between large, industrial producers and small artisanal ones. We see that front and center in beer and wine, where artisans complain that the majors are producing soulless, chemically-treated and mass-produced products—a charge to which the majors are being forced to respond–and a new generation of consumers is siding with the artisans, and is moreover willing to pay a premium. Apparently, the same thing is happening with weed. “[S]econd- and third-generation farmers are coming out from the shadows to protect their heritage against the current trend of large corporations controlling cannabis production.”

Are they coming out of the shadows, or out of the smoke? Probably both. Regardless, the issues are timely. Heritage pot? Well, we have heritage clones in grapes, so why not in marijuana? Artisanal production? We celebrate craft beer, and in wine, all you hear about from somms these days is small artisanal producers. But an AOC system for weed? Yes. “California cannabis farmers are working with legislators to build appellation zones into upcoming regulations,” Somm Journal tells us, adding, “…wine-style AOC classification is what will save the farmers and allow California to become the only producer of artisanal hashish globally.”

That’s big thinking. Planetary, CGI thinking, even though Bill says he never inhaled. And no growing region is better suited to be the first appellation for hash and pot than the Emerald Triangle, that three-county (Mendocino, Humboldt, Trinity) hub, north of San Francisco, that’s been famous for weed-growing for decades. Anyone who lives there or has traveled through the rugged mountains knows the stories of plantations hidden deep in clearings in the forest; of innocent hikers getting their heads blown off as they unwittingly intruded into someone’s pot farm; of the local constabulary raiding fields, or the DEA showering down herbicides from helicopters; of pot gazillionaires who expanded into other, more legal, industries, including—gasp!–wine. (What, you think that didn’t happen? I first wrote about this in my 2005 book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River.)

Well, good for the pot farmers! And I will happily endorse the Emerald Triangle as the first weed appellation in the nation. When that happens (and I have no doubt it will), it will be only a matter of time before the Emerald Triangle is sub-appellated into smaller terroir-driven pot districts. Or is that too far-fetched? It’s one thing, I suppose, for wine experts to sit down at a formal tasting and discern the distinctions between, say, Diamond Mountain, Mount Veeder and Spring Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon. But somehow, it seems trickier to get high while determining the precise characteristics of, and differences between, pot from Yorkville, Willits and the Sinkyone Wilderness. I mean, you can’t spit. And who would take notes, or even remember the next morning? I have no doubt, however, that intrepid analysts are already hard at work at it, even as we speak. To them, I lift my glass of wine, followed by my medicinal pipe, and say, L’Chaim!


Announcing the end of the wine-and-foor pairing dictatorship

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Perhaps the most refreshing development in the world of wine is the gradual rejection of strict wine-and-food-pairing do’s and don’ts, in favor of “Don’t worry about it, if you like it, just do it.”

This liberating thought struck me as I was reading through this article in yesterday’s Napa Register which paraphrased MW Tim Hanni as “vehemently eschew[ing] wine pairing as a concept in both the East and the West, and encourag[ing] consumers to drink the wines of their choice with Chinese foods.”

We’ve gotten so used to mandatory wine-and-food rules that it’s hard to understand just why we adhered to these arbitrary injunctions for so long. I suppose it all started long ago, in Old Europe, although I don’t think that, in the 19th century, the esthetic tastemakers of wine were as ideological about pairing as were more modern, mainly American writers. Once Prohibition ended and a spate of wine books appeared on the scene, the rules were elevated to near-sacred status, with writers declaring with Papal infallibility what to eat with what to drink. That tendency towards rigid ideology in taste seems peculiarly American.

The inflexibility persisted well into modern times. I think the first book I can recall that began to bend—not break—the rules was “Red Wine With Fish,” David Rosengarten’s and Josh Wesson’s 1989 tome, which began to loosen the shackles. That book made a dent, but only a little one: the field in which I worked, wine writing and reviewing, helped to keep the old walls from tottering, for the simple reason that our editors expected us to recommend foods with the wines we wrote about, and it hardly would have been suitable for me to write, “Drink this Pinot Noir with anything you friggin’ want, because it really doesn’t matter.” I mean, that would have been a good way to lose your job!

Hence, I’d sit there, after the review was finished, and rack my brain to discern what foods I thought the wine would be magical with. Sometimes I’d browse through my extensive collection of cookbooks for ideas. And I was perfectly serious and sincere.

Yet, as the years passed so pleasantly, I found myself increasingly uncomfortable making such restricted judgments. In my own personal life, off-stage and in the non-visible comfort of my home, I tended to drink just about anything with anything else: Chardonnay with a hamburger, Pinot Noir with brown rice and tamari sauce, Zinfandel with sole, Sauvignon Blanc with lamb chops. I enjoyed it all, and, while I felt vaguely guilty about being so dogmatic in my published writings, didn’t really worry about it.

How refreshing it is to reach a point where America has become a mature wine-drinking country where people don’t feel the need to adhere slavishly to somebody else’s rules. Having said that, I’m sure that somebody is going to write in and say that wine critics themselves are obsolete dinosaurs imposing their ivory tower pronouncements on the plebes below. I don’t agree. Consumers still need and want somebody with more time and knowledge than they have to break it down and explain the ins and outs of wine to them. What they don’t want or need are authoritarian ideologues who threaten them with purgatory if they don’t obey the pairing rules. At this rate, we might, here in America, reach a point where wine critics are anachronisms. We’re not there, yet. But I’d be perfectly happy to see that day arrive.


That Constellation-Meiomi deal? Land is more valuable than brand

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I sometimes wonder if the general public knows how much land acquisition is a strategic consideration in many of the winery deals that have gone down in California. Sometimes, these acquisitions don’t make any sense, on the face of it; you wonder why in the hell winery X bought winery Y. But if real estate is part of the deal, it can make a great deal of sense.

Such seems to have been the case with Constellation’s purchase of Meiomi, announced yesterday. Not on Contellation’s part, but on the Wagner family’s.

Meiomi’s proprietor, Joe Wagner, of the family that famously owns Caymus, Belle Glos, Mer Soleil and other wineries, told Shanken News Daily that he was selling Meiomi for an unbelievable $315 million because the deal will give him the liquidity necessary to become a much larger landowner. Wagner says he hopes to amass 2,000-3,000 acres of California vineyards over the next five years.”

“A much larger landowner.” That’s the game the major players are playing these days. Everyone assumes several things: (a) the U.S. appetite for wine will only grow, (b) exports of U.S. wines overseas also will grow, especially as trade deals like the TTP go into effect, and (c) supplies of grapes are only going to tighten as the best appellations and regions get planted out. Under such circumstances, buying vineyards now—or selling a superhot brand like Meiomi for a fortune, in order to buy land later—is smart.

Did the Wagners start Meiomi, back in 2006, in order to sell it after it became hot? Who knows? But I doubt that they, or anyone, could have guessed how wildly successful Meiomi would become. I suspect they started it because, nine years ago, the country was still in the throes of its “Sideways” fascination, and the Wagners surmised, correctly, that you couldn’t have too much good Pinot Noir. Probably, they figured Meiomi would be a nice, profitable little brand, like Mer Soleil or Belle Glos: an affordable Pinot Noir, from coastal vineyards. Myself, I don’t particularly care for it—too sweet, like candy; in a tasting of other Pinots, the sweetness sticks out like a sore thumb. But Americans, at least the ones who buy Meiomi, are gobbling it up: Wagner told Shanken that Meiomi is on par to sell 700,000 cases this year. Perhaps the Wagners looked into their crystal ball and figured out that Meiomi has had its fifteen minutes and is on the way down. This would not be the first winery that Constellation bought that had already reached its zenith.

So we know what the Wagners get from the deal: a boatload of cash that will finance future vineyard and/or land purchases. And what of Constellation? They get a super-famous brand that flies off supermarket shelves, which is really the Constellation business model. I can’t see Meiomi getting better in the future—that would be asking too much of Constellation. But with all their access to grapes, they can grow Meiomi forever, keeping it affordable even as production approaches a million cases.

There’s another thing about buying vineyard land: it’s always there for other purposes besides vineyards. Zoning regulations mean you can’t just do anything you want, but investing in land has been the most secure place to put your money since the beginning of time. And in the case of coastal California, if you happen to have a few extra hundreds of millions of dollars, you can buy some pretty fabulous property that will only increase in value. Whether or not it’s in vineyards in ten or twenty years, you don’t really care; that land is going to be extraordinarily valuable no matter what happens (unless coastal California disappears into the sea in the Big One).


On reviewing again, after a brief sabbatical

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Getting my chops back as a taster isn’t hard at all. It’s like bicycle riding: once you know how to do it, you can take some time off and then get right back on and go places.

As I wrote yesterday, I’m going be reviewing wines here on my blog, after 1-1/2 years off. But it’s not like I ever stopped tasting. I reviewed Jackson Family Wines for the winery newsletter, and—let’s face it—I didn’t exactly stop drinking! I found myself instinctively reviewing and rating every bottle that I came across. Old habits die hard.

The question sometimes comes up with wine critics, Can’t you just drink wine without analyzing it? Well, no. I mean, anyone who purports to think more than the average Joe about wine probably gets analytical about it. The one question I can never get away from is, What is this wine’s quality? Is it super-duper? Is it average? Does it suck? I think we all do that, those of us in the industry. We make value judgments.

That doesn’t mean that every time I have a new wine, I’m writing a little mini-review in my head. But there is a form of thought, consideration and judgment that wouldn’t be very hard for me to put into words, if that was my wont. Nor does it mean that I can’t enjoy a wine that’s average. I can. I’ve known people in my life who wouldn’t have been caught dead drinking anything less than a First Growth or Grand Cru. I felt (and feel) sorry for them. Snobs. But then, I also feel sorry for folks who only drink plonk, and claim that there’s no difference between wines anyway, so why spend a fortune when you can get the same thing for eight bucks? That’s not true. I wonder if they say the same thing about automobiles, or stereo systems, or clothing?

So here I am, getting back into the reviewing business. But I’m not going to let it to be like it was at Wine Enthusiast, when I often felt like a prisoner in a cage made of wine bottles. So much wine coming in, more and more everyday, and you have to taste and review every single one of them. It cuts into your social life, I can tell you that, and becomes a tedium. I doubt if some of the more famous critics, who taste scores if not hundreds of wines a day, will ‘fess up to that. But it does. I don’t think I ever let the tedium get in the way of my reviews, though; and it’s also true that alcohol stimulates me, so that even when I’m tired, wine perks me up. There were days when I felt like I couldn’t face another flight, so tired was I; but as soon as I jumped into it, my fatigue went away, and the sheer intellectual and physical challenge stimulated my body and mind and allowed me to perform. Going to the gym can be that like: every serious gym rat knows that, on those days when you feel like your dogs are draggin’, if you can get to the gym you have the best workouts.

I have no expectations about where this reviewing thing is headed. I’m playing around with the idea of charging a reviewing fee; there’s a lot of work involved in wine tasting (picking up boxes at the UPS Store, breaking down the cartons, dealing with the Styrofoam, washing and recycling the bottles only begins to describe it), and after all, I have bills to pay, like everyone else. It doesn’t seem to me that charging for reviewing would “taint” my reviews, but I’ll leave it to my readers to decide if they think it does. (Troll alert: I don’t care what you think.) I mean, if a steveheimoff.com review has potential value to wineries, then I’d think the least they would want to do is sustain me at a fair price. Right?


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