Alice Feiring has a piece on thedailybeast.com entitled “Big? Jammy? Not Anymore!” about the much-discussed turn in California winemaking toward lower-alcohol, higher-acidity wines. While she rightfully highlights a merry band of winemakers daring to be different, including Nathan Roberts (above) of Arnot-Roberts, she neglects to mention just how hard that alternate path is from a sales perspective. For decades, the basic sales model of California wine has been to make a wine, get a high score, then use that score to sell the wine through a distributor or a mailing list.
These nouvelle vague producers in the Sierra foothills and the outer reaches of Sonoma are not point chasers, by and large. Instead, they have emphasized the food-friendliness of this style of wine, cultivating relationships with sommeliers and using plum placements on restaurant wine lists to serve as a proxy for quality. They have gotten into key wine shops too and have a lot of buzz on them there Internets. Forging a new sales model is both risky and hard work. But it could be an even more important development for the American wine industry than the stylistic change.
Oh, and it turns out that it’s hard to get distribution and selling wine can be a lot harder than making it. And constructing a wine to get a 100-point score is risky. But if you hold one for a generation or two, you could make $50 million or even $500 million. These are some items in a “Wealth Matters” column in the NYT over the holiday weekend.
Of course, if you really want to make money from year one in the wine biz, do as Warren Buffett did and buy a wine and spirits distributor.
The story does provide some color to our previous discussions about how high costs, a search for ROI, and an aspirational product/lifestyle explain in part why there are so few tasty domestic wines under $15. Also, it was fun to learn that Jim Laube got a wine from a vintner via their mutual golf pro and then gave that wine 97 points. Fore!
The wines of Tyler winery get a thumbs up from me for the brilliance of the name alone–but also for what’s inside the bottle. I tasted a few of them recently at a trade tasting and was impressed with the lean, taut wines from a land known all too often for buxom chardonnay and pinot noir. (Check out this SF Chron article on some recent goings on in Sta. (!) Rita Hills.) Tasted blind, the balanced 2010 Tyler Chardonnay “Dierberg” would be difficult to place, with minerality not often associated with the Golden State, and a mouthfeel more Meursault than Marcassin. The 2010 Santa Barbara County Pinot Noir exhibits a toothsome quality with red fruit and good acidity. The 2009 Pinot Noir “Dierberg” sees some whole cluster and has tingly tannins with appealing red fruit and a snap of acidity. I’ll be keeping an eye out for Justin Tyler Willett’s wines.
I joked with someone at the tasting that I was probably predisposed to like the wines because of the name since it’s also mine. He told me that he worked at a wine shop way back when. They made a private label wine to sell in the store and to find the name, they looked in the phone book and found that Clark was the most popular name in the city after Jones and Smith. So they named their wine Chateau Clark and if flew off the shelves. But I think that’s what Willy van Shakespeare said: a wine named after you, will smell even sweeter.
We were reminded that Fred Franzia’s Bronco Wine Co. owns 40,000 acres of vines in the San Joaquin Valley, debt-free, which helps keep the wine price so low.
How big is a 40,000 acre vineyard? It’s about 50 times the size of Central Park, and, in fact, about three times the land area of Manhattan. So it must suck if you forget something at one end since there’s not even a subway in the Bronco vineyard.
The other day, I was speaking with someone who relayed a conversation that he had with a vintner in Temecula, an area with over 1,000 acres vineyards about an hour and a half from LA and San Diego. The guy asked the vintner why he didn’t try to make better wines. The vintner replied that he had a busload of bachelorettes coming through this weekend and one the weekend after that, implying he was already selling all his wine to locals more interested in quantity rather than quality.
It’s a problem that a lot of American wine regions confront: Long Island’s vineyards, Napa and Sonoma, the Willamette Valley, to name a few, are among all within a bachelorette bus ride from metropolitan areas. As a result, many wineries have policies banning buses and limos; free wine tastings are the rare exception, rather than the norm, in an attempt to push tourism away from quantity.
How to break out of the chug-a-lug trap and focus on quality? It’s a bit of a chicken and the egg problem: if there’s little local quality, then there’s mot much to support with your purchases; if there’s little financial reward, then there’s not going to be much quality. Locavorism may break the cycle though as foodies in a given area pay a premium for quality local foods, wine included. The Times today mentions one sommelier, Thomas Pastuszak at NoMad in NYC, who has 17 Rieslings from the Finger Lakes on his list. Clearly he is voting for quality from the Finger Lakes region with his checkbook.
But for many wine enthusiasts, the wine regions in close proximity don’t offer the kind of quality that they could order from 17 different local(ish) wineries. As my research from a few years ago showed, while local wine is almost always the best option from a greenhouse gas perspective, the carbon footprint of wine is greatly reduced by a boat journey as opposed to truck, sometimes to a surprising degree, and lighter packaging also offsets sheer distance. Thus many wine enthusiasts I’ve spoken with about the issue over the years would rather support a grower with a similar mindset to theirs, be it organic or stylistic, rather than a strictly local one and hope for GHG efficiencies en route or perform offsets elsewhere in their lives.
I’m interested to hear from you: which do you think represents the greater opportunity for improving quality particularly in far-flung or emerging domestic wine regions, tourism or locavorism?
American wine under $15 is a difficult category. And domestic pinot can be downright dicey. And charity wines often sacrifice quality for the good of the cause.
So it was with skepticism that I tried the Grochau Cellars, “Commuter Cuvee” 2010 recently. Sold in Portland at $14.99 with a portion of the proceeds going to a bicycle safety non-profit. It’s actually a gulpable pinot noir with good acidity and the bing cherry note often found in Oregon pinots. It glides in at 12.5% alcohol; if there’s a better pinot noir available in the US under $15, I have yet to try it.
I spoke with John Grochau about how he could offer a 100% pinot noir for a reasonable price. Grochau has cycled at a high level for about 20 years (he even won a race last year) but into the front-of-house in the restaurant business, which led him to make his own wine label, sourcing fruit from various sites around the state and making the wines in Portland. In 2010 he found a vineyard site with 22-year-old vines whose owner was suddenly looking to sell 20 tons of fruit. It was a cooler vintage, which John prefers, but enough for good ripeness (the grapes were 22 Brix). He made this wine in actual barrels, which is decidedly rare for pinots at this price point. He also added some of the wines that he selected out of his higher-end pinots. It’s a low-margin wine, he admits, but he’s doing it again: The 2011, also from a cool vintage, will be released soon.
Thanks to site reader Gabe for pointing out this wine in the comments of a previous post. A perfect wine for National Bike Month!
It’s no secret that the US Postal Service is in dismal financial shape. Last week the Senate passed a bill to take steps to right the sinking ship. One of the unusual steps in the bill is good news: allowing the USPS to ship beer and wine.
This is a great idea for several reasons. First, as more bills and checks get sent electronically, you still can’t download wine and beer through your computer (despite some attempts) so it is a defensible category for the USPS. Second, it will provide more competition to UPS and FedEx, which may bring prices down. Although wine is unavoidably heavy, the USPS is already working on 2-, 4- and 6-bottle flat rate shippers. Third, it gets the discussion of wine shipments in the news so that more people can realize how silly it is that retailers can only ship to 14 states legally. Fourth, if the USPS revenue stream gets hooked on booze, then the liberalization of wine shipments will have gained a powerful ally in Washington–and in every state. Fifth, it would demonstrate what a red herring the underage issue is. Sixth, wine in the mail–how fun is that?
Timothy Egan has a piece up on the Opinionator column of the NYT with a provocative thesis on the correlation between teetotalism and presidential leadership: “The nondrinkers, at least over the last century or so, were terrible presidents.” Our country has a history of both binging on alcohol and abstaining so it is in an interesting lens for looking at leadership. However, it’s not perfect since Nixon liked wine but his presidency undeniably ended in disgrace and even Herbert Hoover apparently once had a large wine cellar. (For a timely, overseas example on whom voters have yet to render final judgment, President Sarkozy is also a teetotaler.)
But in gazing at the drink preference of Mt. Rushmore’s faces, George Washington liked Madeira and became a whiskey distiller after leaving office, Jefferson, of course, was the best friend wine geeks ever had in the White House, Lincoln once had a liquor retail license and later owned a tavern and Teddy Roosevelt apparently had a nightcap from time to time.
Clearly defining good and bad presidencies skates a little close to partisan coloring for this blog. But Lincoln had a good perspective: “The problem with alcohol, he said, was not that it was a bad thing, but a good thing abused by bad people.”