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Tuesday, September 26, 2006

The American Consumer Inflation....and Deflation
When it comes to fine wine, it is well understood that you have to pay for the quality that goes into the bottle. Expensive new oak barrels, top of the line winery equipment, drastically low yields in the vineyards, labor costs and all that precious time that the producer needs to age the wine (costing them money) is all reflective in the fine bottle's sticker shock. These particularly expensive wine making practices do not interest me nearly as much as the surrounding qualitative issues that cause our wine purchasing wallets to shrivel in fear. Internationally, fine wine regions have different types of buyers. It's impossible to cover every category of consumer, so I will generalize for the purposes of my search.
American's buying habits are generally on extreme ends of spectrum, torn between frigid frugality and the ludicrously lavish. The practical consumer jumps all over bargains and generally looks at wine as a beverage. Yellow tail aside, this customer will aimlessly wander the Costco isles for the killer sale while munching up countless free samples of popcorn chicken in the deli section. Then we have our proverbially dichotomous buyer that is caught in between the 'wine is a work of art' mantra and the view of wine as a status symbol. Two components of the modern wine world play right into the themes of our fellow American consumer, points and branding. The cheapie 10 bucks for 90 points rule is a perfect match for our wallet conscious beverage buyer (and tailor made for Marlborough sauvignon blanc). As for the Ferrari driving Park Avenue resident, Opus One has become the shiekest of matches. Who cares if the Spectator only gave the '02 86 points, Opus One is the best because they say so (and everybody knows it, of course)!
The branding and points themes are not only relegated to the New World (as more Wal-Mart shoppers are looking towards the Languedoc and Loire for value, and blue chip Bordeaux can give a first growths worth of branding beauty to the high finance consumer) and the 'American consumer' is actually a mold that several other entities fit snuggly into, (we can't forget about the well-to-do investment Asian speculator, or the everyday European that drinks wine w/ every meal) so please excuse my generalizing.....and please excuse my run-on sentence.
That leaves that ever so illusive 'middle-ground American consumer,' such as me, which I will get back to in a second. Now, back to pricing.
Pricing for high end California cabernet (including 'cult cabs') generally does not take the vintage variation into effect. Release prices will stay stable, or rise w/ the brand's increasing popularity, regardless of what mother nature had to offer that particular year. True wine connoisseurs are pissed off by this pricing scheme when a so-so vintage produces a 'very good' Caymus Special Selection for the same price as an 'outstanding' one, but the New World laws of supply and demand will leave plenty of brand chasers to scarf those mediocre bottles up regardless of the quality/price ratio. So why should they lower the price in an off year if they are still selling at a premium price point? Who cares who my customer is, as long as that customer exists, and has deep pockets of course? With the rising popularity of California pinot noir, pinotphiles (such as me) are fearful that the days of 30 dollar premium pinot are numbered thanks to those lovely rules of supply and demand. The 'pinot cache' has almost branded itself, regardless of the region or producer. Big thank you to the ‘Sideways effect’ lending California cab an overpriced companion on the lofty Napa pedestal. European pricing is far too vast and broad an issue to tackle in its entirety so I'll just briefly venture into a pair of French and Italian regions to try and make sense of this issue.
2005 Bordeaux has got just about everyone's panties in a bunch (not unlike '00 and '03) by asking for 4 figures plus per BOTTLE for a product that the customer won't even see until 2008! A wee bit crazy? Sure, but oh those speculators are still salivating over the promise that the price will continue to rise. More sure of an investment than in the Dow Jones, the Bordeaux futures parade is truly a unique bird. But this bird pays attention to vintage variation, thanks to the accountability they now have from the wine critic crowd. Prices for '04, an off vintage, were less than 40% that of the slothful '05s. While hype and critical acclaim fuel outrageous increases in the bottled 'works of art' (which, by the way, have centuries of track records to back up their claims of durable quality), more humble voices will softly speak of future price reductions on the upcoming sour vintage.
A sensible idea, right? A high quality vintage should call for prices to reflect an improved product in the bottle and vice versa. Especially for an area such as Bordeaux, or Burgundy for that matter, with much more fickle climates that produce greater variations in their wines from year to year as compared to the golden sunshine state of California.
Another controversial matter was that of 2002 Barolo and Barbaresco in Italy (the Piedmont region). Piedmont, which produces wines from nebbiolo (the king of Italian grapes), had strung together 6 stunning vintages until 2002, which rained cats and dogs for nearly the entire summer. With the dilution of '02, Piedmont did NOT change their prices from the previous year, which was outstanding. Initially, from my American perspective, that jerks my chain. Why would I buy a mediocre wine for the same price as the previous year's outstanding effort? Well, there is a flipside to that coin. In spite of 6 consecutive banner years for the nebbiolo grape, Barolo and Barbaresco prices were relatively stable. When the hopefully spectacular 2004's are released in a couple years, the prices will be, well, stable. Boring huh? From an Italian perspective, pricing fluctuations that drop too low will stain the reputation of their king grape, and too high will scare consumers away. So they are the Goldie Locks of prices, one that is jusssst right.
Well, it's still expensive, but not stratospheric (with the exception of Angelo Gaja). Remember, Italians drink wine w/ nearly every meal, and even so-so Barolo will go swimmingly w/ food, you'll just have to drink the 2002's earlier. My bet is they'll still sell.
Italy also has their share of status Super Tuscan premium brands like Ornellaia, Sassicaia and Tignanello, to name a few. Do you think they lowered their 2002 prices? Hah! Much like the Californian tradition of pricing, there are plenty of BMW owners out there whom will brag to their buddies about drinking a '02 Sassicaia. Who cares what year it is, it's Sassicaia!
Anyways, where does it leave me, the middle-ground consumer? Feeling pretty stupid I guess. I will pay more money for a quality bottle, whether it's from South Africa or Chile, from '01 or '03. I'm not hooked on collecting verticals, so brands don't do much for me, unless they have the uncanny consistency of Insignia or Lafite. I like great wine, obscure or popular, trendy or cheesy. I will pay more money for a wine that has a track record, heritage and cultural attachment (a classified growth from Bordeaux). I will also pay more money for a wine that is illusive, or has decades of age under its belt (assuming they are quality wines). If you can sip something that still has vibrancy and was conceived during WWII, with the character lines to prove it, then it's worth paying more money for it (even if you don't drink it, the 'baseball card collector' in me still appreciates the value). A tough to find single vineyard wine (that actually tastes like a single vineyard wine) is also something I'll throw my money towards, if I'm lucky enough to find it.
In an ideal wine world, the Bordeaux system of pricing seems to be sensible, but the 'vintage of the century' concept leaves my wallet with a bad case of indigestion. A man's gotta know his limitations, and the 2005 vintage is on crack, as are some of the '00 and '03 chateau. Perhaps a moderate version of the Bordeaux pricing concept, as a 30 dollar off year and 300 dollar rock star year just seems a bit too wide a gap.
If Robert Parker can reasonably quantify a wine's merit (w/in a standard deviation of error, of course), shouldn't we be able to do the same for its cost? Just like New York City real estate, I wonder if we are dealing w/ an unburstable bubble. Shame on you crazy consumers!

Thursday, September 07, 2006

The thrill of the chase
I've always been into film, and 'Sideways' in turn exposed me to wine, an even more expensive obsession. The main character of the film, pinot noir, is a less intimidating, sweet seduction that happened to open my doors to the reason why wine can be so fascinating (and painful). The 'Miles phenomenon' that caused an upswing of American pinot popularity, coupled w/ my favorite restaurant in New York, 'The Metro Cafe,' pinot became my training wheels to the vine.

Sweetly ripe California pinot has such a sensually overwhelming quality that all fanatics can truly appreciate. Before becoming a fully-fledged wine geek, I found it very difficult to put it into words why I became so smitten on a beverage that I used to consume from a box. Initially, it became a mission of locating that wine and buying a truckload of it. It must be that one special bottle, surrounded by a sea of liquid debris, which wound my clock. Then I progressed to reading up on the region (it took me months to properly pronounce 'appellation') and figured that California must have some sort of sweet spot for this grape. It started w/ the Santa Lucia Highlands and Gary Pisoni. I swore that god was a man w/ long mangy hair who drove around in a weathered jeep, smoking far too much weed. I did my research.

My fascination progressed to the Russian River and Mendocino cool county regions, w/ brief stints in and out of Oregon's Willamette Valley. Considering this was all happening before my era of dumping hundreds of dollars on monthly fees to the Wine Spectator and raging Robert Parker newsletters, I came full circle back to Miles and Jack in Sideways. It was time for the Central Coast.

I must have watched that movie 25 times. I memorized all the music, punch lines, and of course, the wineries. I got so transfixed on that film that I played the Los Olivos Cafe scene in slow motion just so I could discover exactly what bottles they were ordering on that drunken evening. Kistler, Pommard, Whitcraft....obsessed much?! The bottle that got me, for whatever reason, was Sea Smoke Botella. Why? Who the hell knows, the bottle looked cool. Everything they were drinking must be heavenly, c'mon this is Sideways! Miles won't soil himself w/ anything merely quaffable, right?

Upon my research I was elated to discover that Sea Smoke's Botella bottling was their cheapest in the line, retailing roughly at 30 bucks. Score! One minor problem, the two words that I would learn to loathe more than any other in the English dictionary...mailing list. You simply can't get it, and if you want it bad enough, be prepared to put up 3 figures plus for it. The concept of 'limited production artisanal cuvees' had yet to seep into my vernacular and burst my virgin bubble.

Long story short (fast forward 18 months, and plenty of midnight obsessing over elusive bottles I couldn't try); I planned a trip Napa Valley w/ my girlfriend. The Napa trip was special for countless reasons, with two major highlights.
  1. I proposed to my girlfriend in the Stag's Leap District (to which she thankfully accepted)
  2. We hightailed down to Santa Barbara County in an entirely impractical Jeep Wrangler (my childhood fantasy mobile) in search of the Holy Grail, the Sea Smoke.

Months prior to the trip I had regretfully signed up on Sea Smoke's limited members mailing list, only to discover it was laden w/ a distasteful 'points per purchase' system that I was basically screwed out of. My trip immediately became melancholy when I learned that Sea Smoke didn't even have a winery! Their wines were fermented and aged in rented space inside an industrial sector of a shady little town called Lompoc, where the locals referred to the collective park as the 'wine ghetto.' Believe it or not, it is quite a popular concept amongst upstart, boutique wine producers to make their 'garage wines' in such a fashion. My fiancée and I actually visited the ghetto for a showcase of Fiddlehead cellars renditions of sauvignon blanc and, of course, pinot noir.

Dejected, we went for a ride through the Santa Rita Hills gorgeous sweeping slopes of hallowed pinot noir vineyards. We passed Sanford & Benedict, Fiddlestix vineyard, and the oh, so sacred Sea Smoke. So now it was time to strike gold, a backyard smuggle…..

Or not, but there was still reason for hope. My fiancée telephoned a wine bar she found in an obscure news column that was located in Lompoc. No one answered, but an oddly exciting voicemail proclaimed that they specialized in 'hard to get wines' w/ particulars like Clos Pepe, Foxen, Sea Smoke were mentioned. I didn't get too excited, considering that dozens of New York City restaurants that I had visited in the months before claimed to have Sea Smoke on their wine lists, but alas we just sold out (a HUGE pet peeve of mine). What a tease, update your damn lists! I was willing to pay, regardless of your 100 percent mark-up. Don't you want my money?! Anyways, I didn't get too excited.

The trip out to Lompoc was eerie. The roads were desolate; the sounds of silence filled the air w/ an odd suspicion of foul play. Californians certainly don't pride themselves on directions, considering this was one of the various moments of our trip that we became hopelessly lost. Being lost in a town as sketchy and barren as this definitely leaves an odd shiver in your bones, but we pressed forth to the isolated street that the wine bar claimed to be on. Maybe the place closed down? Perhaps there'd be some half empty Sea Smoke bottles strewn across the cold streets? Hmmm, the odd facade to the bar did have a subtle beam of light peeking through the windows as we stepped closer. Here goes nothing!

I flew through the door w/ the awkward grace of a middle aged superman, beamed to the wine list (hopefully updated) w/ cautious hope and anticipation. The waitress answered my plea in a nonchalant fashion, 'of course we have Sea Smoke, what's the big deal?' I almost strangled here in disbelief, wanting to reach across to the bottle and suck down the ruby colored Bacchus juice. Price wasn't an issue, although surprisingly enough the menu was more than fair. All wines served were offered by the bottle, glass and taste. Sea Smoke by the taste? Hah!

I swished, swirled and swooned in my stem-less Riedel glassware during a moment that was tantamount to a young man's first experience w/ peanut butter and jelly. It was my Graceland, in the middle of a California ghetto w/ my soon to be wife...things couldn't be better! With wine there is this exhilarating sense of experiencing things again, for the first time. That 'first kiss or 'first love' can come multiple times, with a sting that's just as painful (especially w/ pinot). We would later learn that the owner of the establishment has particular favor w/ Kris Curran, the winemaker for Sea Smoke. You see Kris has no warehouse, nor cellar to store any of his wines (I guess that's a drawback to working in the wine ghetto). The owner, being a resourceful Lompoc local (and apparently a well-to-do pilot of sorts), offered Kim generous storage services in return for some extra favor on the vaunted 'mailing list.'

I later convinced the gentleman at the wine bar to part w/ one of his 2003 Sea Smoke Southing bottles in exchange for 125 dollars. The thrill of the chase continues to give me fresh excitement and enliven my passion for wine; much like those all too familiar junior varsity butterflies that the bench-warmer gets when called to action late in the game. The thrill of the chase also provides me w/ the peace of mind to justify all these ridiculously expensive wine purchases. If only my fiancée saw it that way.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

He's gotta be a Yellow Tail fan...

A critic's responsibility
Wine critics pride themselves on providing consumers w/ precious information. Whether it be a hidden value discovered, or an over priced hack-job avoided, critics are an invaluable tool for consumers w/ neither the time nor resource to taste the sea of bottles available for retail purchase. While a wine aficionado’s dollar can go a lot farther now thank to various publications bevy of tasting notes and numerical evaluations at their fingertips, I believe there are inherent shortcomings in the current mold of your average critic's recommended reviews. My particular issue does not concern the realm of a taster's subjectivity, nor the published marathons of abstract poetic jargon used to describe a wine's flavor, not even whether or not scoring a wine by points is relevant (or soulless, for that matter). My problem is one of heat.

I know, you’re a tad confused at my nebulous comment, but let me back up a minute. I have to reiterate how powerful wine critics have become. Not only do high praise and 90+ point scores bode well for wine sales and recognition, they further influence how wines are made. I don't need paragraphs of support to prove that Robert Parker's consummate California push towards riper fruit, longer hang time (best utilizing what the sunshine state's terroir has to offer) and more impressively styled, blockbuster wines has had an effect on how California producers make wine. During the 90's, when California wine giant Tim Mondavi was shaping his wines w/ more of an elegant, Bordeaux-like fashion, Parker slammed him w/ awful reviews (which lead to crappy sales and a convenient change of heart in his winemaking methodology). There is a slew of examples how winemaker's apprehension from bad critical reviews (and lackluster profits) has greatly determined their wine making philosophies, but the Mondavi & Parker struggle should suffice for the purpose of my point.

Back to heat. By heat, I mean the impression that an overly alcoholic wine leaves in your mouth, burning your tongue like the California sun after a wretched Napa Valley heat wave. You see, in order to have "Parker pleasing" opulent, plush and unctuously textured wines, you need riper grapes. As grapes ripen, they accumulate sugar (measured in brix). Fermentation converts all this excess sugar into alcohol. Obviously a consequence of ultra-ripe California grapes is an alcoholic elixir tantamount to an after-dinner fortified port. I've bitched about this in various posts, but I have decided to propose a solution, which requires cooperation from the wine writing collective.

Now tasting notes and scores given by critics can sound deceivingly familiar. For example, a right bank Bordeaux from Canon La Gaffeliere during a banner vintage (like '95, or '98) can be described as 'huge, impressive, blockbuster, spicy, long, etc.' Sounds good right? 95 points, a classic rating...I'm in! Now, to contrast I'd like to mention a deceptively similar example in a 2004 Alban Syrah. 'Wow, massive, silky tannins, massive, rich, spice, etc.' Alright I am Para-phrasing but you get the idea. Here's my issue (and this isn't a California stab, I love a lot of their wines):

The Alban Syrah has well over 16 percent alcohol....I'm drunk just thinking about it. The 10 plus year old Bordeaux (nearly all merlot, by the way) is barely pushing 12 percent alcohol. Both of which were given rave reviews, inciting consumers to buy. Now a savvy wine aficionado appreciates the differences between Bordeaux and Central Coast Syrah, but after reading the reviews of both wines in the Wine Spectator (or Wine Advocate, whatever), the consumer is interested in having both wines in their cellar. While these wines have a substantially different 'buzz power,' the critic doesn't yet guide the consumer on how these dramatically different wines should be enjoyed. The point I'd like to make is that wine is almost never drank in isolation. Wine is a source of intellectual, as well as passionate pleasure. The dinner table is still the most common of places to find wine as an accompaniment, but w/ the advent of sheik wine bars and their rise in popularity there has been an expansion in the social versatility of America's new favorite beverage. The 'foreign' concept of having wine w/ lunch, which initially led me to believe that the French were sots, is actually slowly coming into favor in America's more dynamic urban areas.

Now Bordeaux wines need little illumination as to where they belong. In good vintages, red Bordeaux has the acidity, tannin and balance to match up to a wide variety of cuisines, and, w/ its modest alcohol levels, it isn't a prohibitive mid-day selection. But what about the beast John Alban created (and critics universally love)? Granted it's undoubtedly impressive. Hell I'd yell out 'wow' if I were sticking my nose into a glass, but what do we do w/ this dolled-up drunken dog? Will it be the replacement for my after work scotch? That animal will liquefy just about any food on the table (and send me home early for fear of being slapped w/ a DWI from the local authorities). So do we just sit around it in astonishment? Considering it resembles port, perhaps the sweet tannin are better matched up w/ the after dinner, dessert fare?

Listen, I don't want to be insulting, but the critics created this monster and now we have to deal w/ it. I don't believe wines of this girth should be panned, because it would be counter-intuitive to what the critics have been promoting in California. I do think that a threshold has to be created; I suggest an alcohol level of 15%, in which critics need to start deducting points. James Laube of the Wine Spectator has said "wines can be big and balanced," which I agree w/, but how big is too big? Wines w/ alcohol levels that exceed 15% must be handled in a particular way. I suggest:

  1. Creating a separate category for these wines in each periodical’s critical review section. The alcohol level needs to be stated in the review.
  2. If the review is laudable, some suggestion should be made on how the wine critic believes the wine would be best consumed (wine is typically, in fact, a complement isn't it?).
  3. The score should be reduced accordingly w/ each degree the alcohol exceeds 15%. The overwhelming majority of the wine consuming population would agree that 16.4% alcohol is 'too much,' which obviously affects balance (which should affect score, but I don't think it has been nearly as much as it should).

The benefits to this are two-fold. One, the consumer will not be fooled into making a regrettable restaurant purchase based on a score that didn't take practicality of pairing into account. Two, it will begin to moderate the aggressive techniques that winemakers (especially Rosenblum, the iconoclast Helen Turley, Fess Parker and John Alban) have adopted in response to Parker's past California criticism. He told them to take advantage of their climate, they responded extremely, in my opinion, now it is time to make the pendulum balance out. If critics punish the overzealous, over-ripe alcohol bombs, things will come back into balance. If critics continue to praise overly alcoholic subtlety killers, things will only get worse.

It is the critic’s responsibility to soften the roar of the animal they have created. If they don't, we'll be forced to keep our California Zinfandels locked in the Brandy closet. Nothing like a 99 point rated nightcap!