Monday, November 12, 2007

Democracy and the New Wine World

I have been considering the proposition lately that numerous of the recent trends in the wine industry - led by high-end wines from the world's three or four greatest wine regions - may now be coming to a slow and somewhat grinding halt.

Over the past decade or two, we have seen an unprecidented democratization of so-called ultra-premium wine. In North America, and more recently East Asia, where much of the world's super-premium wine is now sold, a new breed of consumer has entered the marketplace in vast numbers, as economic liberalization and the enormous wealth creation it has wrought has expanded the fine wine and luxury markets exponentially. This trend has by now been aptly commented upon, to the extent that I can add very little here.

But this has left traditional traditional buyers and collectors - namely those already collecting 20 years ago and those who might well have been expected to be in this market anyway - scratching their heads. Their tastes are not those of the parvenue. Nor are their expense accounts, nor their tolerance for the sort of excess which tolerates the kinds of prices we've seen asked for wines from Burgundy, Bordeaux, and the Napa Valley over the past decade or so. The worst excess, as is so often the case, can be seen at the top of the spectrum. The inflation we've seen in the sector of the market which might be labeled "auction-worthy" has been almost unfathomable.

So, a wider consumption base has produced scarcity, and therefore higher prices. So what? Perhaps more interesting has been the changes taking place in the wines themselves. Traditional collectors historically understood wine to be a living, breathing thing - almost a friend, one that would be with them for many years, and whom they would visit periodically to catch up on things. They would see how things had changed, how the wine, their friend, developed over time. what new things might it say to them this time? what intriguing thing would the wine say next? As a result, great wines were afforded that status largely based upon their ability to age gracefully in the cellar. How they matured, changed and evolved over time - often very much for the better - was an important factor in determining their relative worth.

Today, even most of the most expensive wines are consumed within a few years, and most are consumed within just weeks of purchase. As a result, wines tend to be tailored to that schedule. Most are now far more approachable in their youth than has ever been the case, and most amply display the fruit-centered, sweet-tasting flavors that the new-wave consumer favors. Again, this development has been aptly chronicled, and any further comment might seem like piling on. It is a trend possible to defend, but impossible to refute, and one that coincides with the others mentioned above. Democracy has meant, inevitably perhaps, democratic tastes.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Supply and Demand

Many of my friends and acquaintances, just getting into wine, almost immediately come down with a serious case of sticker shock. Many came to wine by way of restaurant wine, or the wine press. Most live in California. There are two kinds of wine lover: the first is essentially an adventurer, who seeks an understanding of wine that is both broad and deep; his is a world of infinite wine-drinking possibilities, entailing a search for the unique character of various regions and grapes and winemakers. He is likely to have rudimentary knowledge of various winemaking processes, how they differ region-by-region, and is quite likely to be interested in the culture that produced the wine he's tasting. He may show some rudimentary academic interest in these subjects, and is probably also something of a student of regional culture and food - especially as they will enhance his enjoyment of particular wines. Just as he respects the subjective character of all matters to do with taste, such as art and food, his exploration of wine must necessarily include those not beloved by the press. He'll be the judge.

The second sort of wine enthusiast/consumer/collector is far more interested in following current trends in US wine, normally as laid out in the wine press. He eats out a lot, and experiences most of his wine for the first time in that context. He may collect bottles, but not based particularly on his own tastes, which tend not to be terribly developed. He hasn't tasted widely, and normally sticks to a category of wine he enjoys, without experiementation. He is indeed unexperimental by nature: a wine's route into his shopping basket must pass clear a first, critical hurdle: 90 points in his favorite wine publication. He vets his wines in this way, through the press; an "expert" must like the wine first.

This latter group is the one most likely to experience the sort of sticker shock I've been hearing about. Indeed, price follows demand, so as demand for wines from certain regions, made from certain grapes (Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon comes quickly to mind) climbs ever higher, driven by the fire of demand stoked (maybe even created) by the wine press, prices naturally rise. Behold, the sticker shock of the wine newby, who's heard all the hubub about cultish Napa Cab!

I do not experience first hand the sticker shock associated with wine. I like Chateauneuf, but the prices are beginning to defy sanity. This is not entireloy demand-driven. A stronger dollar would help a lot. But I long ago stopped buying these wines in any quantity. When a region or category of wine gets pricey, it is possible to view it as an opportunity: repalce that particular profile (hearty, rich, meaty in the cas eof Chateauneuf) with wines from elsewhere - and there is always an elsewhere!

By the way, which group do you belong?

Friday, October 19, 2007

Now, I live in Fresno, and Fresno has never been, to my knowledge, mistaken for a culinary hotspot. It is a terrific town in many ways, a place I have always called home and whose restaurants I have enjoyed a great deal over the years. Many old-time places especially, with their long-standing clienteles and established (if sometimes odd) ways of doing business, are to me especially fun. But considering that we live in a town just a couple of hours from San Francisco, I think most honest folk would agree that our local restaurant scene has some real quirks.

Cue several new restaurants that have recently opened, or are in the process of opening,
always cause for anticipation, and sadly, dread.

Local wine lovers ask: "How spectacularly will this new restaurant overprice its list (a virtual given in my neck of the woods), and what flashy new marketing tools will it employ to pass off those same tired, mostly-corporate brands as $15 glasses of wine?" "How inept and silly will the wine service be?" How poorly will the list be constructed, and managed?"

What's the problem? The most noticable is the dominance of big restaurant chains (not talking about locally-based restaurant groups here), and the food they serve, which is occasionally copied by local entrepreneurs trying to hit on a winning formula for expansion and franchising. Fresnans love fried things, and they love big orders of fried things. There it is. Chains dominate the market here in a way which chokes local establishments, and makes the development of the culture of the 'neighborhood restaurant' extremely difficult to embed. Even the basics suffer, which is why a really good, local pizza place doesn't exist here.

A second problem is that every proprietor seems to want Reidel-and-white-tablecloth money from their customers - though without the provision of any actual Reidel stems or white tablecloths, or the other trappings that justify such pices: good, professional service; consistency from the kitchen; and front-of-house professionalism. I have long thought this drive upmarket was a mistake, with what would otherwise be good neighborhood restaurants promising more than they could deliver.

Nowhere is this clearer than in many restaurants' wine programs. Here, with a little thought and some expertise, restaurants could elevate te diner's experience, by giving some thought to the composition and pricing of their offerings, including those they choose to pour by the glass. This might begin to justify the astonishing prices (often 3 or 4 times wholesale, sometimes even more) eing charged by the restaurant. I hope to be wrong about the newest of these establishments; if Iam, I'll say so here.

Friday, October 5, 2007

What am I Paying For?

As wine prices continue to rise, particulalry at the upper end of the scale, the above question looms ever larger. Just exactly what is it that we're meant to be buying when we shell out a lot of dough for a bottle or case of wine?

In one sense, this is an easy question, with an easy answer: you're buying a scarce commodity. Price is not, of course, determined by any inherent quality in a wine, but by a number of factors which allow for its price to be determined. Only one of those is quality. In today's spot-fee world, it is no longer diffcult for large wineries to produce sound, pleasant and drinkable wine. Many do so every vintage, without a miss (see Columbia Crest or Meridian, for example), even managing to hit some real high notes every now and again. And they generally do this at very friendly price points. So why not simply stick to these?

Well, a lot of people should. These wines provide a lot of bang for the buck, are varietally correct, versatile with food, and consistent, ear after year. And these folks, and I generally count myself amongst them in this respect, tend to balk at the outrageous prices now being charged for their favorite varietals (oten cabernet) by well-known, so called boutique producers. Napa Valley is the most famous winegrowing region in America, and a bottle of cabernet from there may now cost many times what they are used to spending. Worse thean that, they may be in a restaurant whose markups can make the whole thing look like nothing so much as a ponzi scheme.

Now all this would be okay if, as once was the case, our consumer were getting something really special. If he were getting, say, an aged red wine of real distinction, one tannic and powerful, now with its edges softened and the full effect of its complexity and balance on display. Most poeple here think in terms of French wine, but for those of us who've had a '74 Mondavi Reserve or a '68 BV Reserve, we know that California can compete, and then some, in this area.

But that's not what our consumer is getting. He's getting a very ripe, "powerful" (I don't think we really understand that word any more), oaky fruit bomb that may be as high as 17 per cent alcohol, and which has almost certainly been released too soon from the winery and therefore tastes like nothing so much as a barrel sample-in-a-bottle. These wines generally have some flavors of dried fruit in them, too, the result of the grapes hanging for too long on the vines, and may well give the impression of sickly sweetness - even when they're fermented to dry - as a result. If this description sounds less than appealing, you might well ask yourself when you open your next bottle of the pricey stuff: just what IS it that I'm supposed to be paying for here?

Friday, September 28, 2007

Warm Weather and Varietal Selection

One of the things this blog hopes to articulate is the incredible diversity possible in viticulture and oenology. Whatever the role of large beverage corporations (a subject of tremendous controversy amongst wine folk), they do not seem to be a positive force for this sort of diversity.

Now, let's be clear: large companies are very good at a range of things. All of these, however, are undertaken in the service of corporate profits. Knowing this can be quite freeing: eyes wide open, when it comes to wine.

Let me give you an example of how this might effect the way we think about their role in wine. Large beverage corporations will always be interested in widening their consumer market. They will not be interested in the inherent quality of their product, except as it relates to their ability to market their product. No one at Pepsi would care a whit if the quality of their beverage were to fall, if it helped the company reach a larger consumer base - and in so doing, increase profits. should the market prove insensitive to inherent quality, then that should not be a corporate goal. That goal is profits, and in the marketing of a product in pursuit of profits.

This is how it should be. Don't look to beverage conglomerates for great, distinctive, special wines. You likely will not find them. Oh, occasionally the sort of Phelps Insignia argument is made, but those wines exist for brand prestige purposes, not the artisanal pursuit of excellence. Get over it.

Monday, September 24, 2007

An Open Letter

This is a rejoinder to Dan berger's recent article, wonderfully entitled The Cola Generation , found at

Let me say that much of this, as you point out, has been happening for many years. Many (even one of your readers) says that the market should speak - and indeed it has, and continues to do so.

It cannot be seriously contended that the American palate is not oriented to the sweeter side of the spectrum. It patently is. But wine is only a small part of the culinary world - why should wine escape this wider trend?

And the flavors are the point here; alcohol is I believe a secondary (if malign) feature of this kind of winemaking. Your critic's point, namely that you are elitist in asking for individuality, a sense of place, and balance (even finesse), is surely wrong. I certainly think that asking relatively expensive wines to be redolent of place is well within the bounds of reason. As a consumer of these wines, I would insist on it, especially at the higher price points. These traits, with ageability and complexity, are part of what I'm paying for. Perhaps at lower price levels one could simply accept power, or concentrated fruit flavors. everyone likes a nice BBQ wine, and some would say that that's why God made Zin. But we live in California, where prices for such simple creatures often approach silliness.

I also disagree with the notion that you (and by extension Dunn and Corti, and presumably anyone who agrees with you on this point) are elitist. This doesn't pass a test of basic logic. Indeed, you are the opposite, in that instead of following the focus groups toward oblivion, you are actually trying alert a wide audience - in effect, share with many others - the great assets traditionally found in the world's greatest wines. If you were trully an elitist, you'd simply keep quiet, promote the crowd-pleasers, and drink the really profound stuff with your friends - for significantly less money, as they would remain obscure. Some regions, which do not easily produce wines in this international style, remain relatively so. The Loire, Beaujolais, the Jura, the list could go on. Instead, you spotlight these fine producers and regions - and good for you for doing so.

Indeed, should we wish to do so, we could (indeed, some already are) democratize the wine world, by providing balanced wines with great flavors that tell of place, and weather, and many other characteristics of the site and circumstance of the vineyard, for relatively little money. Instead, we let focus groups lead us to adult Kool Ade. But I submit that poeple are already becoming tired of this "international" style. Always led by the high end, and always by the cutting edge markets, other wine styles are finding their way into the vernacular. No such thing (yet!) as a Gruner with oodles of sweet fruit and glycerol.

When it comes (and they always come), the backlash will be fierce.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

A Backlash in the Offing?

I begin this blog (indeed, the activity of blogging altogether) with a question: is there a reaction a-brewing against the prevailing winemaking wisdom which emphasizes power, concentration, ripeness and, sadly, high levels of alcohol?

The answer seems to be, at the moment, "Maybe."

Restaurateurs and retailers here out west are beginning to notice a few things which may indicate the affirmative. While several possible reasons suggest themselves (fatigue, faddishness amongst folks looking for the new and different in all things, etc.), I think the most important is a growing and savvy sector of the wine-drinking population interested in wines that come from somewhere other than California. Particularly interesting is the connection being made between certain varietals not normally seen in California winemaking (like Albarino and Gruner, to name two from these past summer months) and their traditional homes. This has led, I think quite naturally, to a heightened interest in the rest of the wine world - a good thing in a state that tends naturally to be most interested in its own produce.

Yet this interest in the rest of creation has also led also to a greater interest in wine and wine-making STYLES and FLAVOR PROFILES not normally associated with this state's wines. (I'm sure I've had a "delicate, feminine, nuanced Napa Cab recently, but by gosh I can't remember it.) So if a sector of the California winemaking establishment takes note of this, and creates wines for some of those interested in these new/old wine profiles and styles, so much the better, and so much the richer for all of us.

But, as they say, the jury's still out. We will watch this space with great interest.