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‘Tis the season of the bubblies



The sparkling wine is pouring in, literally. August marks the high point of my receipt of California champers, as producers hope that good reviews in October and November will lead to brisk holiday season depletions, “as the last eight weeks of the year account for one-third of annual [U.S.] sales” of sparkling wine.

You may not know it, but the sparkling wine industry has labored for years to figure out how to convince Americans to buy bubbly year-round, not just for Christmas and New Year’s Eve. It’s not that they don’t want consumers buying it for the holidays; they just wish we’d drink as much of it between January-November as we do the last month of the year.

So why don’t we?

Well, for one, the sparkling wine industry has no one to blame but itself. For decades, it promoted bubbly as the wine of celebration: of weddings, birthdays and anniversaries, of winning a World Series or getting a promotion at the office, of buying a new home or concluding a treaty between nations, of toasting in the new year, of graduating university or launching a ship. In other words, a wine to drink just a few times a year. This is hardly a strategy designed to increase sales.

The worst offenders have been the French and the Californians. They just can’t figure out a way to persuade people to drink sparkling wine year-round, the way the Italians have with Prosecco or the Spanish have with cava. Of course, if you have an inexpensive brand like Korbel (average price: $13 for their basic brut, rosé, etc.), you’re likely to sell throughout the year (although the holidays still are peak time). But what of pricier bubblies? Schramsberg ’04 Reserve ($110), Iron Horse non-vintage Joy! ($189 the magnum), Chandon ’01 Etoile ($100), Domaine Carneros ’06 Le Rêve ($95) all are super-delicious, ageable wines I’ve recently reviewed (and scored at least 95 points), but oi, the sticker shock. Not that there’s anything exorbitant about a hundred bucks compared to Roederer ’05 Cristal ($249), Veuve Clicquot ’90 Cave Privée ($208) or Bolly ’04 Grand Année ($235), each of which my colleague Roger Voss recently scored at least 95 points; but those wines are, after all, Champagne; as Bordeaux is Bordeaux, Burgundy, Burgundy and Barolo, Barolo, the consumer is willing to get fleeced, no, make that willing to pay a premium for the privilege of knowing that he is drinking wines of great fame and historicity. But expensive California sparkling wine possesses neither.

Is this right, or fair? No. The best California sparkling wines are among the greatest of that category in the world. (I wish someone would set up a “Judgment of Paris”-type blind tasting between French Tête de Cuvée Champagne and the best of California. Count me in.) The problem is that the world doesn’t understand this. And that problem in turn goes back to the question of timing: If you’re only going to splurge on sparkling wine a couple times a year, it’s probably going to be French–even if it’s something as mediocre as Moët White Star.

Do people then drink with their palates, or their brains? All the evidence points to the latter. When we critics (some of us, anyway) taste blind, we try to eliminate the brain’s interpretive functions in such a way as to render the most objective possible judgment. Do we lose something, in the process, concerning the wine’s historicity, context and reclame–do we throw the baby out with the bathwater? Probably. Blind tasting always opens itself to this critique (just as “open” tasting lends itself to the critique of bias).

But how we critics taste is less important than how consumers experience wine, which is by looking at the label and knowing what they’re drinking. If White Star lends a certain prestige to the occasion, it doesn’t really matter that it’s an 84 point wine. What the wine lacks organoleptically, it more than makes up for esthetically or intellectually: its divots, so the speak, are filled in by information: This is French Champagne, an elevating perceptual experience, as would be “I am sitting in George Clooney’s Tuscan villa and there he is, mixing me a martini, wearing a loose silk robe.” You could be drinking the exact same martini at your in-law’s, with Dad watching ESPN in his drawers, but the frisson wouldn’t be the same.

I started out talking about California sparkling wine and ended up with George Clooney in Tuscany. Somehow there must be a connection. Re-reading what I’ve written, I see that I made it sound as if California bubbly were confined to two tiers ($13 and $100) but of course that’s not true. We have a wide spectrum in the middle tier ($20-$30) that is probably superior in quality to French equivalents. (Chandon, Mumm Napa, Gloria Ferrer and Roederer Estate in particular have been impressive the last few years.)

Despite the ambiguous attitude of Americans toward sparkling wine, we’re drinking more of it than ever before: 17.7 million cases last year, according to the Wine Institute. However, that generosity does not appear to be extending to the most expensive wines: while sales of California sparkling wine last year were the highest in at least 25 years, “Moscato based sparklers [drove] the growth.” My personal feeling is that high-end California sparkling wine will never burst out of its straitjacket until consumers understand it: and they will never understand it until they’re taught to think about it in the proper way. Every reputable critic I know has been trying to elevate Americans’ view of sparkling wine for years. It’s an uphill battle.

Sparkling wines for the holidays: why not all year long?


The sparkling wines have been coming in over the last two months, as producers look for good reviews to use leading into the holiday season. They know they have to do well between now and New Year’s Eve, because that’s when they sell the overwhelming majority of their wine.

How did sparkling wine find itself in the trap of having its sales window of opportunity open for such a short period of time? It’s because the Champenois were the greatest marketers in the wine world. Man oh man, did they know how the sell the sizzle as well as the steak. Way back in the eighteenth century they convinced the world–well, Europeans and Russians, anyhow–that Champagne was the wine of glitz and celebration. The world took them at their word, and by the fin de siècle mauve decade of the 1890s, Champagne was the most famous wine in the world–for celebrating.

Double-edged sword, that. Most people only celebrate New Year’s Eve once a year. Maybe they have an anniversary, wedding, job promotion, birthday or some other special occasion to toast. But Americans by and large don’t see Champagne or sparkling wine as an everyday wine.

A few years back a discussion arose in which I was involved concerning how to persuade more Americans to buy the likes of Roederer Estate, Iron Horse and Schramsberg–in other words, California’s têtes de cuvée. The question producers wanted to know was how to persuade Americans to drink these as often as, say, a good Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir. My suggestion was to have the entire industry collaborate in a big advertising blitz, a marketing order similar to the Got Milk? campaign here in California. After all, a rising tide lifts all boats, right? If consumers could be broken of their habit of seeing bubbly as a special occasion wine, all bubblies–value as well as prestige–would enjoy increased sales.

The problem, from the point of view of the high-end producers, is that they don’t want to see their wines linked in any way to mass-produced sparkling wines, especially those made Charmat or bulk style. Of course, I totally understand. Of all wines, sparkling is most concerned with image. Still, there’s another side of that coin: the mass producers don’t necessarily want to be associated with the high-end wines. They’re the ones who pay for the advertising (Barefoot, Korbel, etc.), not the têtes de cuvée. They’re not about to push the sparkling wine category; they’re going to push their own brands in a way that offers little, if any, spillover benefit to the high-end houses.

I ran into one of California’s great modern day sparkling wine pioneers yesterday, quite by accident in Oakland. Michel Salgues for many years ran Roederer Estate. He left some years ago and I more or less lost track of him. Turns out he’s now the winemaker at a new Santa Lucia Highlands winery, Caraccioli Cellars, whose 2007 Brut Cuvée I tasted and reviewed less than a month ago. I gave it quite a high score (which will appear in the Dec. 31 issue of Wine Enthusiast), but it’s also a little pricey: $52. Michel and I talked about the reluctance of American consumers to pay a lot of money for sparkling wine.

This is, I think, a real challenge to Calfornia’s high-end sparkling wine producers. Even if someone does want a good bottle of bubbly, they’re more likely to reach for, say, a Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label (about $40), because they’re heard of it and because it’s from France (and they may even be aware of VC’s association with top prestige Champagnes). Yellow Label may not be anywhere near as good as, say, Roederer Estate’s L’Ermitage, which is about the same price, but they’ll buy it anyway because it comes with the insurance of being bullet-proof and with the image of France with all the prestige that implies.

I don’t know what the answer is to the dilemma of sparkling wine in America. The foundations of the problem were constructed over centuries, and its resolution will not take place overnight. All I, as a critic, can do–and I want to help–is to tell people that inexpensive bubbly is a great bargain that can be drunk regularly, and the high-end stuff is easily as good as anything in Champagne, with perhaps a few exceptions, and ought to be enjoyed as often as they can afford it. Beyond that, consumers have free will. You can’t make them buy something they don’t want.

What’s my favorite wine?


People are always asking me, “What’s your favorite wine?”, to which I invariably reply, “The one I’m drinking now.” If they press me, I’ll say Champagne (or sparkling wine). If they really want to get down with me, I’ll tell them Pinot Noir.

I decided some years ago I liked California Pinot Noir even more than Cabernet Sauvignon, but I was never entirely sure about it. Whenever I tasted a great Pinot Noir, I’d be thrilled not only with the wine itself, but with an appreciation of how far, how fast this variety has come in California. It would have been inconceivable in the 1990s for me to have preferred Pinot over Cabernet, and I think the same could be said for most of the working critics of that time. However by the late 1990s, certainly by the early 2000s, if someone knowledgeable had said they thought Pinot had overtaken Cabernet, at least nobody would have suggested a forced trip to the psycho ward.

As much as I’ve liked Pinot, the reason I wasn’t quite sure it was my favorite was because every time I did a great Cabernet flight, it would blow my mind and remind me once again that Cabernet had been my first love and, while I might have flirted a bit with this racy young upstart, Pinot Noir, I was destined always to return to Cabernet. Dance with the one that brought ya, the old saying goes, and it was Cabernet Sauvignon that had brought me to the ball.

So I went into the database today so see what my top wines have been so far this year, and, not surprisingly, Cabernet Sauvignon dominates the list. The top 5 are all Cabernet or Bordeaux blends. What is surprising, though, is that two of them are not from Napa Valley! Those would be Stonestreet’s 2007 Rockfall and Verité’s 2006 La Joie, both astounding wines. Of course, one could argue that both of them are from the west-facing slopes of the Mayacamas Mountains, separated only by an accident of geography from being in Napa County, instead of Sonoma County.

My #6 wine was Williams Selyem’s 2008 Litton Estate Pinot Noir, a wine I’ve loved ever since I first tasted it. (The name henceforth will be Estate, not Litton.) It’s a big Pinot Noir, not for the faint-hearted, and I guess you could criticize it for not being “Burgundian” enough, but that’s not a criticism I share. My #7 wine was a sweetie, Dolce 2006, and it should never be surprising to see Dolce appear on anyone’s top list. It’s consistently one of California’s great dessert wines. What perhaps is a little surprising is that my #8 wine is a sparkler: Schramsberg’s 2004 J. Schram Rosé, possibly the greatest California sparkling wine I’ve ever had the pleasure to review. After that, we revert back to Pinot Noir for the #9 wine, Joseph Swan’s 2007 Trenton Estate, which with its acids and tannins reflects its southern Russian River Valley roots. In tenth place, last but not least, is Qupe’s 2006 X Block “The Good Nacido” Syrah.

This list makes me happy and proud. It certainly wasn’t premeditated for me to have Cabernets, Pinots, a sweet wine, a sparkling wine and a Syrah in my Best of 2011 (so far) list. But there you are. What it tells me is how well California is doing in many different varieties, at least at the upper tier.

After that Qupe Syrah, #11 is another Syrah, Donelan’s 2008 Richards Vineyard, from Sonoma Valley. But get ready for this: #s 12-22 are all Cabernet Sauvignon or Bordeaux blends. I don’t see another Pinot Noir until #27, the Babcock 2009 Microcosm. So I guess I’d have to say, if you make me put my hand on a Bible in a court of law and swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth concerning my favorite wine, I’d say, “Based on the evidence, it would be Cabernet Sauvignon.” But in my heart of hearts, I wouldn’t really believe it.

A sparkling lunch, maybe a blind tasting


Besides the fact that the wine menu at Chez Panisse’s famous upstairs café has no sparkling wines from California — what’s up with that, Ms. locovore Alice Waters? –my sparkling wine lunch with Joy Sterling, Hugh Davies and Xavier Barlier was, well, sparkling.

Ms. Sterling (Iron Horse), Mr. Davies (Schramberg) and Mr. Barlier (Roederer Estate) represent the trifecta of sparkling wine in California. The trio had once previously gotten together (at Celadon, in Napa) to talk shop, which in their case was the state of tête de cuvée sparkling wine in California, and, as Xavier emailed me afterward, “One seat was empty. We thought: ‘Who would be the perfect 4th whose company is always a treat?'”

I’m sure my company is not always a treat, but Joy’s, Hugh’s and Xavier’s is, for me, and as Chez Panisse (where parking is impossible; both Hugh and Xavier got parking tickets afterward) is only a couple subway stops away, I eagerly assented. Joy proposed, as a matter of logistics, that we structure the first part of the conversation this way: each person would explain why he or she was at the luncheon. That was fine with me, but I did ask to be allowed to go fourth (without multiplying), since it was no doubt clearer to them why they were there than it was to me, other than that I’d been invited.

After hearing them out, I intuited the following. Each was aware of his winery’s position and reputation in the hierarchy. Each was proud of its tête de cuvée (which means, if my high school French is correct, head of the class, i.e., the top wine the winery is capable of producing). And each, in his or her own way, came thiiiiissss close to admitting that selling an expensive wine, especially an expensive sparkling wine, isn’t the easiest thing to do these days.

They were concerned that such French wines as Dom Perignon and Cristal were grabbing market share for prestige bubbly in the U.S., even though (in their opinions) these wines are mass-produced and not particularly distinctive. (Xavier shared a case production figure for the former that, literally, blew my mind, but I can’t repeat it without risking a lawsuit.) I told them they must fight, fight, fight against the slanders that perpetually are hurled against California wine. When some Europhile puts it down, call him out. Expose the lies. (I’m afraid I got a little worked up at this point, but I think Hugh liked it.)

Finally it was my turn. They were asking me for advice. I gave it. “First, you can’t just sell tête de cuvée. You have to sell the entire category of sparkling wine, in order to persuade Americans it’s not just for holidays and weddings. Sparkling wine is the most versatile food wine in the world. If you can convince people to buy more, they will naturally buy it at whatever dollar level they’re prepared to invest. A rising tide lifts all boats.”

I’m not certain that argument worked. At least one of what Joy dubbed The Three Mousseketeers seemed dubious. After all, they wanted to advance the cause of their têtes de cuvées, not of some $8 bulk process “Champagne” manufactured in the tens or hundreds of thousands of cases.

I continued. “And you must get the tastemakers on your side, the writers, bloggers, sommeliers who have influence.” They agreed, but Joy pointed out that somms are less influential these days because people aren’t going out to expensive restaurants. All right, that left writers. That raised the question, which writers do you reach out to? And in what format? Here were the three of them, focusing in on one writer (me), which, I pointed out, was a time-consuming and expensive way to influence the Fourth Estate. Wouldn’t it be better to travel to a few important cities and host tastings with an invited audience of 10 or 12 influential local writers, instead of doing dozens of one-on-ones?

That’s when the discussion got interesting. One point of view was that no format is as successful as a one-on-one. Another, opposing viewpoint was that these collective group tastings are irresistible to writers, providing the venue is well-chosen and the wines are alluring. After much back and forth, Joy put forward a suggestion. What if I, Steve, hosted a tête de cuvée tasting in San Francisco? We could decide whom to invite (not just locals, but New York, L.A., etc.). We could expand the California presence from the three têtes de cuvées they represented to all wineries with a tête de cuvée (e.g. Chandon’s Etoile, Gloria Ferrer’s Carneros Cuvée, and so on). We could throw in some number of real Champagne têtes de cuvées, including Dom and Cristal. We would do the tasting blind. I asked the three of them, “Wouldn’t that be risky for you? I mean, if your wines came in last and the Champagnes came in first?” They all smiled knowingly. Joy said, “I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

We’d all had our share of sparking wine by then, some of us more than the others; and maybe this happytalk of a big blind tasting was just a bunch of bubbles, fizzing and evaporating into Chez Panisse’s rarified atmosphere. But I have a hunch it will happen. I’ll keep you posted.

How much info is too much info for consumers?


A sparkling wine house recently sent me a bunch of their new non-vintage sparkling wines for review, but they didn’t include the varietal composition or case production numbers, so I emailed back their P.R. manager to inquire.

I like to have this information so I can share it with readers, if I think it’s appropriate. For example, a reader might like to know if a wine should be easy to find (with a case production of, say, 10,000), or whether it might be very hard. Readers might also enjoy understanding what’s in a blend, aside and apart from the actual score and review.

The P.R. person (who gave me permission to use her name and that of the winery, even though I subsequently decided not to) quickly sent me the information I asked for. But she also emailed: “We do not normally give varietal percentages for sparkling wines as these are non-vintage products which include a percentage of reserve wines for consistency and complexity. I find that people looking for this information don’t readily understand that concept; they think of these percentages as they would for still wine blends.”

This puzzled me. On the one hand, I agreed that most people probably don’t understand the concept of how a non-vintage wine can be as good as a vintage wine, since all their lives they’ve been told by “experts” that “vintage” is the highest thing a wine can aspire to.

And I also understand that most people probably don’t know that a good non-vintage sparkling wine will have a certain percentage of expensive older “reserve” wines blended in, for richness and complexity.

However, I didn’t get the connection between that, and why the P.R. person didn’t like to reveal varietal percentages. So I emailed her again to ask.

This time, she called back, and we had a good conversation. She said, “With sparkling wine, what I believe is that the percentages aren’t as important as how much aged wine goes into the blend, and how much lees, and that, as a non-vintage product, it’s blended for consistency.” (She means “consistency of taste,” not consistency of varietal composition.)

I agreed with that, too. But as I thought about it, I replied, “What you say is true. But I think people want more information these days, not less, in the name of transparency. Of course, with all that extra information, that gives them a greater responsibility to understand it appropriately and in context. Which in turn gives us educators more responsibility to explain these things to people.”

The P.R. person explained that she was telling her sales people the same thing she told me: she discourages them from revealing the varietal composition in their sparkling wines, because she doesn’t want them leaning on such crutch phrases as “This wine has 40% Pinot Noir and 40% Chardonnay.” I can see how a harried sales person might fall back on an easy sell like that. After all, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are prestigious names that practically sell themselves. And next year, if the wine contains only 35% Pinot Noir, the buyer might think it wasn’t as good.

Beyond that, few people have heard of Pinot Meunier, which goes into several of the winery’s bubblies. That might cause some buyers to wonder why a grape they never heard of, and which they might easily think is inferior, is going into a high-end sparkling wine. Of course, Pinot Meunier is widely used in the greatest French Champagnes, but most people don’t know that, and even if you tell them, they might not believe it. As they say in politics, as soon as you have to explain yourself, you’ve lost the argument.

I do completely understand the P.R. person’s point of view. Selling wine is very different from writing about it. When you’re a writer, you want as much information as you can get, in order to have the fullest palate (as in the artist’s palate) to paint your word-picture. It’s all about freedom of information, and the more, the merrier.

When you’re a sales person, you want to say the things that will persuade your customer to buy your wine. Sometimes, success depends on, not what you say, but what you don’t say.

Still, when all’s said and done, I’m on the side of complete  information (although I’m not sure if I favor listing all wine’s ingredients on the label). If we — critics and wineries alike — don’t collaborate on educating consumers, who will? We can’t bemoan their ignorance, and then do nothing to correct it. I’ve made the same observation when it comes to wineries not putting the name of smaller appellations on their labels. This happens from Santa Ynez Valley to Arroyo Grande to Atlas Peak. “Nobody’s ever heard of Santa Ynez Valley,” people will tell me. “But everyone’s heard of Santa Barbara County.”

I ask them back, “How do you expect them to hear about Santa Ynez Valley when you won’t tell them about it?”

“That’s not our job, it’s yours,” they frequently reply.

Well, yes, it is my job, as a wine writer and educator, to let people know where a wine really comes from. But it’s also the producer’s job, isn’t it?

All I’m saying is that we’re in a new age. People want to know the facts. I think they can be trusted with the facts. They don’t want information selectively spoon fed to them in tiny amounts because somebody thinks they can’t handle the truth. And besides, a smarter wine consumer is more likely to spend more money than an ill-informed one. I don’t have any studies that prove that, but I’ll bet you anything it’s true.

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