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How bad are things out there? Don’t ask


You need look no further for proof of the transfer of wealth from West to East than the three major wine auction houses, which will have sold a record $200 million in sales by the end of this year, thanks to “Asia’s thirst for fine French vintages.”

It used to be that westerners, and particularly über-rich Americans, gobbled up all those Moutons and Lafites, but no more. Now, it’s the Chinese. That giant sucking sound you hear is a few trillion dollars fleeing across the Pacific on their way to Hong Kong.

I was talking about the dismal state of the wine industry again yesterday with a group of winemakers and some marketing guys with whom I had lunch. (Oliveto, cannelloni, mmmm…) I’m basically an optimist at heart — you have to be — but really, things are just awful out there. Vintners are slashing prices, inventory is building up, producers are trying to sell off anything they can just to pay their bills, and meanwhile, there’s another vintage in the pipeline. Can’t tell Mama Nature to hold off for a year!

Yes, there will be a vintage in California in 2010, but the question everybody’s asking is, what kind will it be, and what size? About this time of the year, “vintage reports” flood my email in-box, sent to me by wineries, regional winery associations and P.R. firms. I glance at them, but my B.S. detector usually screens out much if not most of the claims. You get the real scoop from casual (and off-the-record) conversations with people. This vintage seems to be suffering from several problems. First and foremost, obviously, is the cold weather. It is simply extraordinary and unprecedented and one of these days the meteorologists are going to have to explain it to us. I’ve been harping on this subject for the last six months. Everything is late this year, everywhere, and some things are so late, they’ll never get ripe. Does anybody seriously expect heavy rain to hold off until Nov. 21? Yet that’s how long it’s going to take some of the thick-skinned reds, like Cabernet Sauvignon, to ripen.

The growers tore holes in the canopies over the summer in an attempt to hasten the ripening process, but then we got two heat spikes that fried the exposed grapes. Somebody told me it was 117 in Calistoga. 117! Doesn’t take long to turn an exposed berry into a shriveled raisin at that temperature. That was Mama Nature being cynical. As you get closer to the coast, where they grow thinner-skinned varieties, the problem is mold. The cold weather, coupled with near-incessant fog and last Spring’s heavy rains, never really let the soil dry out. Botrytis and other nasty fungi are going to be a problem. There will be places and pockets and individual vineyards and wineries that do just fine; there’s no such thing as a wipeout vintage; but 2010 could be the closest California’s come in quite a while.

Then again, maybe not. Maybe we’ll have two months of dry, pleasant weather. Of course, we first have to get through this weekend, when they’re forecasting the first rains of the season in the North Coast. Nothing heavy, no reason to panic, and if it turns sunny and windy afterward, all it will do is wash the dust off the grapes. Maybe. But right now, people are chewing their fingernails. In a way, the best thing that could happen would be an extremely small crop, and that’s just what I think it will be.

It’s the damned uncertainty. I think people are traumatized by the events of the last two years. It explains the rise of the Tea Party. They’re angry and confused and they blame both parties. I personally don’t think a lurch to the right is going to help this country recover. The problem is essentially all that money heading over to China, and I can’t see a Tea Party Congress being able to do anything about that.

But I’m supposed to keep politics out of my blog, so I’ll just leave it at that. Keep your fingers crossed for good weather in California, root for the little family wineries that are struggling, and (Warning! Obscure Boomer cultural reference to follow) keep watching the skies!

How to build a super premium wine, Asia-style


I’ve always been skeptical when a high-end winery turns out a lower-priced line of ordinary wine it then tries to burnish with the halo effect of its own prestige.

This happened most famously, of course, with Mouton-Rothschild, whose Mouton-Cadet, an indifferent wine, patently trades on the Mouton sheen. In California the best known instance was at Robert Mondavi, and helped ultimately to cause the family to lose control to Constellation. Sometimes, upscale wineries that decide to play the low-price game do so under a different brand. Learning from the Mondavi debacle, they hide the visible connection between the original, prestigious parent brand and the cheap new bastard child.

What prompted these thoughts was a recent article in the online journal, Luxist. They interviewed Prince Robert of Luxembourg, the managing director of Domaine Clarence Dillon (DCD), which owns the Bordeaux chateaux Haut-Brion and La Mission Haut-Brion. DCD has launched a new brand, Clarendelle, which makes red, rosé and white wines from Bordeaux that retail here in the States for just north or south of $20. Production seems to be between 60,000-65,000 cases. The grapes are bought from producers throughout Bordeaux.

In the interview, the Luxist reporter was very flattering to her subject, the Prince. She told him, “It will be nice for customers to walk into a wine store and find $20 to $25 bottle of wine with a name on it like yours that represents quality. Who wouldn’t want to buy it?” The Prince did not demur, nor did the reporter press Prince Robert when, in response to her question of how Clarendelle is blended, he replied, “We are doing the same exercise we do when we make Chateau Haut-Brion every year,” as if there were qualitative parallels between Clarendelle and Haut-Brion, a Bordeaux First Growth. Nor did the reporter follow up when Prince Robert said his goal is “to create a super premium brand from Bordeaux that goes beyond the chateaux.” This suggests, to the average reader, that a negociant brand, made from leftover grapes in Bordeaux not good enough to go into top crus, can be as “super premium” as the wines from “chateaux,” a nonsensical statement on its face. Any Bordeaux producer can call himself a “chateau,” but most consumers will assume, quite mistakenly, that the word “chateau” applies only to the Lafites, Latours, Moutons and, yes, Haut-Brions of Bordeaux.

The Prince has been hitting the streets promoting Clarendelle. There’s a story in this Japanese magazine, “Lisa Your Family Magazine,” that calls Clarendelle “a trendy wine” (that’s what the link on Clarendelle’s website says). The Prince recently told the Chinese publication, Beijing Youth Daily (BYD), that “Clarendelle has incorporated the balance, elegance and spirit of Haut-Brion,” and in the course of that Q&A, the following howler occurred:

BYD: If you compare Clarendelle with other class-one wines from Bordeaux area like Mouton Cadet, how do you think Clarendelle differs from all other wines?

PRL: Please don’t make comparison between our wine and others…Clarendelle does have a very limited production…and it is super premium.”

Limited though the production may be, Clarendelle is sold in at least 18 countries, and is served in Conrad Hilton Hotels and on Swiss Air Lines.

Prince Robert also went to Moscow to promote Clarendelle. The article in Passport Moscow says “Clarendelle is a super premium class wine and is the new project of Prince Robert,” which words sound right out of Prince Robert’s mouth. Then the Prince is quoted as saying, “We trust, that connoisseurs of wine search for names which they trust and which represents alternatives to existing brands. Creating Clarendelle, the team of our wine makers aspires to find and make the best of the potential of Bordeaux terroir and from the from centuries of knowledge which this region possesses”. The typos and other mistakes are no doubt due to translation or language difficulties, but the underlying gibberish is clear.

Is Clarendelle wine any good? I haven’t had it, but my colleague, Wine Enthusiast’s European editor, Roger Voss, has. He scored it between 83 points and 87 points. He called the 2005 red “awkward [and] stalky” and said it left “bitterness” in the finish. But then, Roger is an accomplished wine taster, impossible to fool with associations with “chateaux,” and not likely to believe a wine is trendy because it says so in a magazine. Nor is Roger the type to describe Mouton-Cadet as a “class-one” wine.

Maybe I’m being too harsh on the Prince. A guy’s gotta do what he’s gotta do, especially these harsh days when First Growth Bordeaux is a hard sell to everyone except Asian billionaires. Still, it rubs me the wrong way when people like the Prince — who is basically a P.R. guy in an expensive suit — take advantage of the gullibility of naive people by telling them falsities, such as Clarendelle is like Haut-Brion because it’s made from the same grape varieties. Wide-eyed reporters in Moscow and Beijing actually believe that kind of thing. Then they write it up, and their even more credulous readers believe it, go and out seek the wine, tell their friends, and there you go: A trend is born. Clarendelle ends up being a “class-one” super-premium wine, even though it’s just another supermarket brand.

Bordeaux-Parker embrace has a deadly third party


Are wealthy Chinese wine buyers “opening [Bordeaux] with their friends, rather than just using them as an investment,” as the Bordeaux Wine Council attested last week, or are “Speculators, not drinkers…likely to be the biggest Chinese buyers of Bordeaux,” as a Decanter survey, also released last week, just found?

The two statements can’t both be true.

I can understand why the Bordeaux Wine Council, a P.R. arm of the Bordeaux wine industry, would want to convince itself, and the world, that the Chinese are actually drinking their Bordeaux, and not using it like poker chips. [Disclosure: this blog has the honor of being on the Council’s blogroll, one of only nine to make the cut.] It doesn’t do Bordeaux’s image any good to be associated with rampant speculation.

The Council also is sensitive to the rather severe hit the Bordeaux market in China suffered earlier this month, when media around the world revealed that the “unprecedented speculation” is now giving rise to “fears of fraud…among the super-rich in China” concerning fake wine, as was reported, for instance, by The Telegraph.

The article reported unbelievably obtuse demand among China’s nouveau-rich for 2009 Bordeaux, and quoted a Hong Kong broker as saying people were “coming in with blank chequebooks saying, ‘Just tell me the number I need to write’.” That kind of blind madness naturally greatly increases “the opportunities for fraud,” the article said.

The proximate cause of the madness was (who else?) Parker’s pronouncement that “2009 may turn out to be the finest vintage I have tasted in 32 years of covering Bordeaux.” [Of course, if the ’09s are duds, Parker can always say, “Well, I said may…”.] If that sounds familiar, it’s because it uncannily resembles what he wrote of the 2005s: “One thing I am sure of after twenty-eight years of tasting Bordeaux wines every March is that 2005 can not be compared to any previous vintage in my experience.”

The Man does know how to turn a phrase! (And if anybody can come up with “greatest vintage ever” statements from Parker for other vintages, you win a free subscription to this blog.)

It’s obviously not in Bordeaux’s or in Parker’s interests for anyone to think the Chinese are just a bunch of fools buying up fake “Lafitte” from unscrupulous con men.

Fine wine must avoid the taint of fraud like an STD. Bordeaux has done a pretty good job keeping its hem out of the mud for centuries, but then, there’s never been a market as unsophisticated, gullible — and rich — as China. Although only about 14 million of its population of 1.3 billion currently buys wine, they do show an alarming naivete, and China’s potential down the road, as it gets richer, is clearly staggering. The Bordelais, with a centuries-old eye to emerging markets (Russia, Britain in the early 1800s, America in the 20th) know it. Mouton Cadet just opened their first wine bar in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou, where they will pour, not only their plonkish basic Bordeaux (which my great colleague, Wine Enthusiast’s French editor Roger Voss, gives fairly dreadful reviews to), but d’Armailhac, Clerc Milon and, yes, Mouton itself. Never mind that falsely-labeled Mouton Cadet already has made its appearance in China. Can Mouton Rothschild be far behind?

Bordeaux and Parker are so intertwined, it’s almost like they co-brand each other. Parker essentially brought Bordeaux back from the dead with his 1982 declaration of the vintage, and France in turn returned the favor, with former President Jacques Chirac awarding him the Legion of Honor.

The Western world, where both Bordeaux and Parker made their reputations, is one of law, orderly commerce [usually] and a go-for-the-jugular Fourth Estate dedicated to fraud-busting. China is a whole other ballgame. If fake Bordeaux — and fake Rhône and California wines, which Parker also reviews — become a significant problem in China, that could mar everybody’s reputation. And you can bet it’s already happening. “California wineries also face a threat common to many industries in China — copycats,” reported this article from the San Jose Mercury News just two weeks ago. It quoted Wu Jianxin, owner of a Beijing wine club, as saying, “There are a lot of fakes and the government has one eye open and one eye closed…The fake wine industry will employ a lot of people.”

Wineries stand to lose more, in the way of reputation, than does Parker, whose personal integrity is undoubted. Still, the partnership between Parker and the Bordeaux wine trade in China now has a third seat at the table: crooks. How will they both handle it?

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