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On that Prisoner deal: Brands without land? I don’t think so

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On the Sales road today in the midst of a busy week, but first I want to comment on the headline this morning that Constellation has purchased The Prisoner for $285 million.

I “get it” that some of these big wine companies are going after these mass brands, like Meiomi, which was scooped up by Constellation. [ED note: In a previous edition of this post I mistakenly said Meiomi was bought by Gallo. Mea culpa!] But here’s my question about this Prisoner thing: As the San Francisco Chronicle points out in their coverage of the deal, The Prisoner owns no vineyards; the way the Chron put it is that the sale “suggest[s] a significant departure from the model that has long dominated the wine industry, in which land carries the greatest capital. Now, it would seem, brand trumps land.”

I disagree. That’s an easy and fatuous conclusion for a reporter who doesn’t understand the wine industry to make. But guess what? Grapes don’t come from the sky. You don’t drive your pickup over to Grapes R Us and load up on Zinfandel fruit. You have to have vineyards, and, in the case of The Prisoner, if they don’t have the vineyard holdings to ensure quality fruit year after year, then the quality of The Prisoner has got to suffer, with the inevitable consequence that consumers sooner or later will figure out that the wine isn’t what it used to be.

I don’t mean to slam Constellation, but let’s face it, that company doesn’t have the greatest reputation for wine quality. All too often they seem content to let quality drift to a midpoint level, which they hope they can get away with for a long time. And perhaps they can. When it comes to these mass brands, consumers might not notice an ever-so-slight racheting down of quality. It’s the frog (or is it lobster?) in a saucepan of water on the stovetop: Gradually increase the heat and the poor thing doesn’t even known it’s being boiled until it’s too late.

Look: brands come and go. Mostly they go, because they lose their rationale and consumers then lose their reason for buying it. So, I wish Constellation good luck with this, but really, the conclusion that “land doesn’t matter anymore, brands do,” is dumb.

Anyhow, time to hit the road! Going down to Silicon Valley today for a wine lunch and talk about Jackson Family Wines Pinot Noir. Ciao until tomorrow.


A conversation with Press Club’s Aram Roubanian

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Aram Roubinian is the thirty year old assistant GM and beverage manager for Press Club, the hot, stylish wine bar and lounge on Yerba Buena Lane, tucked between Market Street and Yerba Buena Gardens. I asked Aram, who’s been there for five years, to tell me a little about Press Club.

Aram: Right after we opened, in 2009, the economy tanked. Trying times. The original concept was, we had contracts with different wineries—Miner, Chateau Montelena, Mount Eden, Hanna, Saintsbury and Fritz—with each occupying a different space. But it became apparent that wasn’t viable, so now, we showcase California wine, as well as Old World wines that inspired the wine renaissance in California, like classic Burgundy and Bordeaux. We also offer crafts beers and small plates, paired with the wine and beer.

SH: How would you describe your clientele?

AR: I’d say a Financial District crowd, mostly female, but professionals both men and women, and lots of corporate events, a nice range. I’d say the average age range is 30-40, but we do have some more mature clientele.

SH: What’s the customer’s sweet spot, price-wise?

AR: By the glass, $12-$14, and for bottles, $60-$80.

SH: What’s selling well?

AR: Whatever Sauvignon Blanc we have just flies off the shelf–doesn’t matter if it’s winter or summer. Our Pinot Noirs are very popular and, surprisingly, price point doesn’t matter. Our clientele likes premium Pinots and popular price points as well. Right now, our most popular Pinot is Stoller, from Dundee Hills, which is right in the middle, pricewise ($18 – $82). I’m also seeing a spike in Spanish wine; Tempranillo is very trendy. But the hottest trend going is Prosecco.

Aram

SH: What’s not hot now, compared to when you first came?

AR: Chardonnay is losing traction, especially the oaky style.

SH: Why do you think that is?

AR: I think it’s a little bit of what happened to Merlot after Sideways: a lot of people began to bash it–the media and, these days, everyone has Facebook, twitter, and a lot of people get their info from peers, as opposed to only from the media or a conversation with a sommelier, so I think of it as a whole collective, people were influencing each other. People call it “cougar juice,” the big buttery oaky Chards. It has this connotation that old women drink it.

SH: Kiss of death!

AR: Yes, right, especially for the female clientele, they don’t want to be perceived as older, out of touch. And also, with our younger clientele, they don’t want to drink domestic wines. Which is scary for the domestic market.

SH: Again, why is that?

AR: This Millennial generation, the rebels and hipsters, want to go back to more of the old world wines. But I feel like that too will change in time, and people will discover there’s wonderful wine everywhere.

SH: Where do you see the Millennials going in the future?

AR: I see a move towards more natural winemaking–that’s on everyone’s mind. Not a wine that’s necessarily certified organic or biodynamic, but a more natural process, with less pesticides, sustainable, and people are conscious about the environment, global warming. And I see more solar power being used; it’s growing in production. People want to know what they’re consuming. These days, there’s a lot of fillers in wine, and people are becoming more aware that wine can be easily manipulated. Ridge lists all the ingredients. I like that; I like the transparency there. But overall, I see people becoming a more self-sophisticated wine consumer. They realize, while they may have enjoyed consuming that buttery chardonnay and it was pleasure to the palate, they found out with a more delicate, balanced wine they could find more nuances and actually enjoy it more.

SH: Thank you Aram!


A vertical tasting of Beekeeper Rockpile Zinfandel

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Beekeeper Cellars started in 2009, a partnership between Ian Blackburn and Clay Mauritson. Mauritson owns the Madrone Spring Vineyard and was a principle in creating the Rockpile AVA, in 2002, They sent me a mini-vertical of four bottles of the Zinfandel, 2010-2013. I must say how wonderfully each of them shows off the terroir of the vineyard. These are big, voluptuous, heady Zinfandels, and they are picture-perfect exemplars of that style.

95 Beekeeper 2013 Madrone Spring Vineyard Zinfandel (Rockpile): $65. This beautiful, picture-perfect Zinfandel is ripe, dry and heady. The alcohol is quite high (15.4%), but the wine wears it well, with a slight, prickly heat to the superripe black currants, blackberry jam and black licorice. Thick, fine tannins and just-in-time acidity give it needed structure. I had never tasted a Madrone Spring Vineyard Zinfandel before, but I have reviewed several Mauritson Petite Sirahs from the vineyard, and except for an overripe ’08—a hot vintage—I came away with great respect for the grape sourcing; and, after all, Clay Mauritson co-made this wine. It really defines this intense, concentrated style of Zin. My friends at Connoisseur’s Guide gave it 97 points, and while I wouldn’t go that far, I know where they’re coming from. The fruit is complexed with dark chocolate, sage and black tea notes that grow more interesting with every sip. The wine will hold in the bottle for a long time, but there’s no reason not to drink it now.

95 Beekeeper 2010 Madrone Spring Vineyard Zinfandel (Rockpile): $65. The fruit is just starting to turn the corner, going from primary to bottle bouquet. Where the ’13 is all jam and licorice, this nearly six-year old Zinfandel tastes of dried fruits and prosciutto. It’s still vibrant and fresh, but, even with alcohol at a heady 15.4%, it feels light and lithe on its feet, an Astaire of a wine. Mid-palate, cocoa dust kicks in, sprinkled with cinnamon. The tannins are thick but so remarkably soft and silky, the wine just glides across your tongue. I have no doubt it will hold and change in interesting ways over the next 15 years, but it’s really compelling now.

94 Beekeeper 2012 Madrone Spring Vineyard Zinfandel (Rockpile): $65. There’s a succulence to this Zin that testifies to intensely ripe fruit, which of course the grapes do get in this hot, sunny appellation that rises above Dry Creek Valley. The wine brims with raspberries, blueberries, blackberries and mocha, while alcohol brings a pleasantly mouth-warming quality; fine acidity provides clean balance. Thirty percent new French oak is discernible in the form of toast and vanilla bean, but it’s completely balanced with the fruit. The tannins are smooth, complex and sweet. With a briary, brambly spiciness, this really is picture-perfect Sonoma Zin. It seems to be hovering at that interesting point where the primary fruit is evolving into secondary characteristics, shifting to reveal notes of bacon fat and leather. A wonderful, complete, wholesome Zinfandel, definitely big, but never ponderous. It should hold and evolve in interesting ways over the years.

94 Beekeeper 2011 Madrone Spring Vineyard Zinfandel (Rockpile): $65. The 2011 vintage was the coolest in a long time, and we certainly haven’t seen any cool vintages since. It was the year summer never came; grapes along the far Sonoma Coast in some cases failed to ripen, or were moldy, but Rockpile is a hot inland region. So here we have a wine that, while in the Beekeeper Rockpile Zin tradition, is somewhat more structured and not as massive as the ’10, ’12 and ’13. That’s in the wine’s favor. It still has the cassis and wild black currant fruit, the briary leather, and the spices, but there’s a savory herbaceousness, like dried sage and thyme, and tangy volcanic red rock iron. The wine has power, but also elegance and control: there’s a tension within that’s delightful, in no small part due to excellent acidity. Quite a bit of French oak, too, but it’s seamless. This distinctive wine makes a case for Rockpile Zinfandel even in difficult vintages that is persuasive. I quite like it. Only 90 cases were produced.


Scores, stores and wineries: a new analysis

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Every day, I get blast email advertisements from wineries or wine stores touting the latest 90-plus point score from Suckling, Parker, Vinous or some other esteemed critic. Here’s an example that came in on Saturday: I’m reproducing everything except the actual winery/wine.

_____ Winery’s ____ Napa Red Wine 2013 Rated 92JS.

Notice how the “92JS” is printed in the same font type and size as the name of the winery and wine. That assigns them equal importance; the rating and critic are virtually part of the brand. Later in the ad, they have the full “James Suckling Review” followed by a full “Wine Spectator Review” [of 90 points]. This is followed by the winery’s own “Wine Tasting Notes,” which by and large echo Spectator’s and Suckling’s descriptions.

Built along similar lines was a recent email ad for a certain Brunello: The headline was “2011 ____ Brunello di Montalcino DOCG”; immediately beneath is (in slightly smaller point size), “94 Points Vinous / Antonio Galloni.”

We can see that, in these headline and sub-heads, through physical proximity on the page or screen, the ads’ creators have linked the name of the winery and the wine to the name of the famous critic and his point score. One of the central tenets of advertising is to get the most important part of the message across immediately and strongly. (This is why so many T.V. commercials begin with the advertiser’s name—you hear and see it before you can change the channel or click the “mute” button.) In like fashion, most of us will quickly read a headline (even if we don’t want to) before skipping the rest of the ad. The headline thus stays in the brain: “Winery” “Wine Critic” “90-plus point score.” That’s really all the winery or wine store wants you to retain. They don’t expect you to read the entire ad, or to immediately buy the wine based on the headline. They do expect that the “Winery” “Wine Critic” “90-plus point score” information will stay embedded in your brain cells, which will make you more likely to buy the wine the next time you’re looking for something, or at least have a favorable view of it.

This reliance of wineries and wine stores on famous critics’ reviews and scores is as strong as ever. There has been a well-publicized revolt against it by sommeliers and bloggers, but their resistance has all the power of a wet noodle. You might as well thrash against the storm; it does no good. The dominance of the famous wine critic is so ensconced in this country (and throughout large parts of Asia) that it shows no signs of being undermined anytime soon. You can regret it; you can rant against it; you can list all the reasons why it’s unhealthy, but you can’t change the facts.

Wineries are complicit in this phenomenon; they are co-dependents in this 12-Step addiction to critics. Wineries, of course, live and die by the same sword: A bad review is not helpful, but wineries will never publish a bad review. They assume (rightly) that bad reviews will quickly be swept away by the never-ending tsunami of information swamping consumers.

Which brings us back to 90-point scores. They’re everywhere. You can call it score inflation, you can argue that winemaking quality is higher, or that vintages are better, but for whatever reason, 90-plus points is more common than ever. Ninety is the new 87. Wineries love a score of 90, but I’ve heard that sometimes they’re disappointed they didn’t get 93, 94 or higher. Even 95 points has been lessened by its ubiquity.

Hosemaster lampooned this, likening 100-point scores to Oprah Winfrey giving out cars to the studio audience on her T.V. show. (“You get a car! And you get a car! And you get a car! And YOU get a car! Everybody gets a car!”) Why does this sort of thing happen? Enquiring minds want to know. In legalese, one must ask, “Cui bono?”—Who benefits? In Oprah’s case, she’s not paying for the cars herself; they’re provided by the manufacturers, who presumably take a tax writeoff. It’s a win-win-win situation for Oprah, the automakers and the audience.

Cui bono when it comes to high scores? The wineries, of course, and the wine stores that sell their wines (and put together the email blast advertisements). And what of the critics?

Step into the tall weeds with me, reader. A wine critic who gives a wine a high score gets something no money can buy: exposure. His name goes out on all those email blast advertisements (and other forms of marketing). That name is seen by tens of thousands of people, thereby making the famous wine critic more famous than ever. Just as the wine is linked to the critic in the headline, the critic’s name is linked to the 90-plus wine; both are meta-branded. (It’s the same thing as when politicians running for public office vie for the endorsement of famous Hollywood stars, rock stars and sports figures: the halo effect of fame and glamor by association.) There therefore is motive on the part of critics to amplify their point scores.

But motive alone does not prove a case nor make anyone guilty. We cannot impute venality to this current rash of high scores; we can merely take note of it. Notice also that the high scores are coming from older critics. Palates do, in fact, change over the years. Perhaps there’s something about a mature palate that is easier to please than a beginner’s palate. Perhaps older critics aren’t as angry, fussy or nit-picky about wine as younger ones; or as ambitious. They’re more apt to look for sheer pleasure and less apt to look for the slightest perceived imperfection. With age comes mellowness; mellowness is more likely to smile upon the world than to criticize it.

Anyhow, it is passing strange to see how intertwined the worlds of wineries, wine stores and wine critics have become. Like triple stars caught in each others’ orbits, they gyre and gimble in the wabe, in a weird but strangely fascinating pas de trois that, for the moment at least, shows no signs of abating.


Tasting with the MBAs

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Did my annual tasting session/seminar for the U.C. Berkeley Haas School of Business Wine Club last night. This must have been my tenth year, something like that. This time, I brought along my friend and Jackson Family Wines colleague, Vito Parente, an expert on Italian wine. I figured the MBA students would want to learn more about Italy, and Lord knows, I do too. I think of Italian wine as the ultimate challenge: you could study if for a lifetime and still barely scratch the surface.

Vito gave a really instructive powerpoint and as usual these budding MBAs asked the greatest questions. You can always tell when someone asks a great question when the person being questioned says, “Wow, that’s a great question,” as Vito frequently did. I had told him that these supersmart young kids have curious minds that would surprise him with their ingenious queries, and indeed they did.

VITO Vito explaining the intricacies of Barolo

After the slideshow the conversation turned towards things of a marketing nature and I told the students this: “Consumers your age are the obsession of the industry. They want to know what you buy, and why, and what you’ll buy in five years. They want to know if you’ll be as influenced by a handful of major critics as your parents and grandparents have been, or if you’ll turn more towards peer recommendations and crowd-sourced opinions like CellarTracker. And the truth is, nobody really knows.”

I shared my long-held opinion that, because wine is the most complicated thing to buy in America—there are something like 4,500 wineries in California alone, and another three or four thousand in the rest of the country, not to mention the thousands of imported brands—consumers will always value the reviews (and scores) of critics, without whom they would be helplessly overwhelmed in the supermarket Wall of Wine. Vito asked them if, while shopping for wine, they’re influenced by shelf-talker scores, and they said Yes—even if they don’t know the source of the scores, the number is a reassurance. And some of them didn’t know who Parker was and seemed surprised to learn that one person could have that much influence.

Anyhow, we had a great time, Vito and I, and I hope they invite me back next year!


Wine Country: gated communities?

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It comes as no surprise to me that Napa County is the seventh least affordable housing market in the country.

We know that places like San Francisco, Marin and Manhattan are unaffordable to all except the wealthiest of our citizens, but Napa? True, it’s never exactly been Motel 6 country, but in Napa City you didn’t used to need millions of dollars to afford a fixer-upper.

Now you do. The media price of a home in Napa just it $545,000, about one-half that of a house in San Francisco, but 2-1/2 times more than the average price of a U.S. home.

The reasons why are not hard to discern: Napa Valley, like all of California’s valleys, is visually beautiful. The weather is outstanding. San Francisco is only an hour away (depending on traffic). Ski country to the east, the Pacific to the west, lakes, mountains and wilderness all around, what more could you ask for? Throw in the glamor of wine, and the cost of entry suddenly shoots sky-high.

It wasn’t that long ago that Napa City was a dumpy place. The upper classes didn’t live there, or even visit; they went to St. Helena, or Calistoga, or the south valley to dine, or drove into the Bay Area. But in the 1990s and early 2000s the city began all that work along the riverfront. Hotels and posh resorts went in, along with expensive restaurants, and voila, Napa City became chic. And now, the French are invading Napa Valley: S.F. Eater reports that, “From Mount Veeder to Calistoga, Napa estates are selling fast to Bordelais vintners.” In other words, when it comes to real estate prices, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

The situation “on the other side of the hill” in Sonoma County is pretty much the same, at least in Healdsburg, which by the year 2005 had become so tony, it started topping the list of wine destinations to visit and spend a lot of money. Today, Healdsburg’s average home price is higher even than Napa’s: $699,600, although Sebastopol’s is even more, at $725,000. (I think that Healdsburg and Sebastpol are not populous enough to be considered “housing markets.”)

Funky $ebastopol! Where is the pot and patchouli crowd going to live? Maybe Guerneville, where the median home price is a comparative bargain, at $366,100.

Now consider Cloverdale. If you know it, it’s as the one-stoplight town, at the crossroads of Highway 101 and Route 128, in the center of the Alexander Valley. Entrepreneurs have tried for years to gussy up Cloverdale, but the farm town firmly resisted their efforts, remaining stubbornly rural and slightly shabby.

Until now.

Sonoma Magazine asks, “Could Cloverdale be the next Healdsburg?” They reference New restaurants and boutiques. A coffeehouse that’s a community gathering place. A burgeoning arts scene. Fresh ownership of tired businesses. Summer concerts on the plaza that draw 2,000 adults and kids. City slickers, drawn by the rustic beauty and calm, are relocating to Cloverdale — some bringing high-end businesses with them.”

It’s not really likely that Cloverdale will be the next Healdsburg. There’s not enough housing stock, and I think that local zoning laws would prohibit development from occurring. Still, Cloverdale might turn into a kind of Los Olivos of the north, a precious, expensive tourist mecca of galleries, cafés and upscale inns. (Cloverdale actually is the most centrally-located town from which to explore Alexander Valley’s many charms.)

As a homeowner myself, I am benefitting from this stupendous rise in coastal California real estate values. My city, Oakland, is “poised to be the Bay Area’s hottest [housing] market in 2016,” says the San Francisco Chronicle.

Still, I worry about the people who can’t afford to live here, or anywhere else along the coast. From San Diego and La Jolla up through Big Sur, Silicon Valley, San Francisco and northward into wine country, California is becoming a Disneyland for the privileged classes. I don’t know the answer, any more than anyone else. This trend may be unstoppable, except for one force stronger even than the market force of supply and demand: the San Andreas Fault.

QuakeMap


A new wine book, and some 23-year old predictions

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Every wine writer eventually has to make the Big Decision: How deep into the tall weeds of technicalities do you want to go?

I’m talking about everything from solar radiation and new vineyard roping systems to row spacing, different types of trellising, spraying, leaf pulling, clones, rootstocks, the chemical properties of grapes and wines, the details of carbonic maceration, cold soaking, skin contact, yeasts—and I’m just getting started! After all, this is why students spend years at V&E school.

Some writers are naturally attuned to these things and actually get a pretty good handle on them, but most don’t. I’m in the latter camp. I know a lot about wine tasting, history and California, but I’ve largely avoided tackling that university-level stuff any more than I had to—as I suspect most writers have. You can get by quite well with a minimum of knowledge in this business, although it does help to have some technical books on your shelves to look stuff up if you really need to know.

I do have a couple books, but recently a publishing company sent me a book I wished I’d always had: The Business of Winemaking, by Jeffrey L. Lamy (Board and Bench Publishing, San Francisco). Lamy, who just died, was an Oregonian with deep roots in the wine business; his hard-cover book is really an indispensable guide to wine writers. Want more information on the distribution system, phylloxera, different kinds of tanks? Look it up in the index. This may not be a book to read yourself to sleep at night, but it is the best source of technical information I’ve seen.

************

And, on a different topic, I was doing some Spring cleaning and there in my bookshelf I found the June, 1993 issue of Decanter with the cover story, “What Will You Be Drinking in the Year 2000?” Being a Baby Boomer who was told (by the experts) that by the year 2000 we’d all be using our personal jet-packs to travel, I have an irresistible urge to see how wrong prognostications can be. So what did Decanter say?

Well, they had a bunch of different people make predictions. Here are some of the ones that weren’t quite accurate. I won’t name names, but they are (or were, in 1993) some of the biggest names in the business). One pundit said that Eastern Europe would offer the best value for the money. Didn’t happen, at least not here in the States (although, who knows, maybe it will someday). The same pundit predicted that Bordeaux and Burgundy would be “finished” and would be “buried.” That didn’t happen either. Two very famous personalities said that Cabernet Sauvignon’s position would be challenged by Syrah and Merlot. Wow. Talk about wrong.

A number of the pundits predicted that China would “develop dramatically” by 2000. I don’t claim to have much knowledge of Chinese wine, but I don’t think that in 2000 there was much going on there, quality-wise. Maybe there is today.

One interesting question was whether Champagne would continue to be the world’s best sparkling wine. Some (Hugh Johnson) said yes. But some people predicted that other regions (Australia, California, South Africa, Chile, Moldova) would rival Champagne. I, personally, think Champagne still beats California, but the best of California (hello Schramsberg) is pretty darned good.

Anyhow, it just shows to go that even the smartest people don’t have crystal balls.


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