18 December 2008


Winemaking[1], for most of its best practitioners, is more about passion than it is about money. And a good thing, too, since – as the saying goes – the only way to make a little money in the wine business is to start with a lot of it. Even in good times, many of the most famous names are far, far less wealthy then their fame…or their prices…might lead one to think. And a surprising number of wineries of acknowledged excellence operate under the near-yearly specter of imminent ruin. One ill-timed hailstorm, one misstep in the cellar, and it’s all over.

Unfortunately, we’re in the midst of one hell of a financial hailstorm, and we’re going to see a lot more of this and this in the near future. Good people – whether they make extraordinary wine or not – are going to find that they simply can’t afford another harvest. Dedicated importers and retailers will shut their doors. Wine-savvy restaurants will stack up the tables and chairs one last time, and for good. It’s going to be ugly, probably for a good long while.

I have no words of comfort here. I can try to support those about whom I am most afraid with my purchases, and so can others, but the sad fact is that consumers are hurting as much as anyone, and thus the inevitable reality is that not everyone will be saved. When we come out the other end of this long, dark tunnel, the world of wine is going to look very different, and perhaps rather barren.

[1]And grape-growing.

13 December 2008

Theise me

Were it not for genius importer Terry Theise, many Americans would have no idea that there were Champagnes other than the biggest, most heavily-marketed names. He was certainly, many years ago, the majority of my introduction to the concept of grower-producer bubbly. And yet, despite his efforts, most people still don’t know these wines, and continue to slog through underperforming industrial sparklers best-known for the color of their labels or their low, low holiday pricing (though in my opinion, such wines are still grossly overpriced for what they are; someone has to pay for those flashy promotions, after all). I don’t mean to damn all major-label Champagne, because some of it is very, very good. But far too much of it isn’t, and one pays for name, reputation, and global availability rather than what’s in the bottle.

These wines – all sparkling, mostly Champagne, but with two foreign interlopers from another of Theise’s favored locales – draw plenty of critical acclaim, and are of regularly high quality, but what’s always most interesting to me is their individuality and their difference. Champagne – at least the non-vintage sort – has (as its major marketers would have us believe) long been about consistency, and the big producers, whether industrial or not, achieve this with careful blending of young and older stocks. Smaller growers can rarely afford the sources, the expense, or the storage capacity to do the same, and the result is greater site-specificity and a variation more akin to that of vintage Champagne. For those who value a wine’s ability to surprise as much as it’s ability to satisfy, for those who value terroir as much as the winemaker’s art, this is an incalculable benefit. And here’s another: by exploring such wines, you’re not only upping both the quality and value of your bubbly, but you’re supporting a wine culture more connected to its land than its advertising budget.

Schloss Gobelsburg Brut “Reserve” (Austria) – A blend of pinot noir, riesling, and grüner veltliner. Wet and sour with green pear and apple. Finely beaded, with hints of gunshot. Leafy. Powdery, ground-level dust and extremely sour watermelon come to dominate the finish, like a too-old Jolly Rancher (but dry). Fairly complex, long, and very tart. (12/08)

Bründlmayer Brut Rosé (Austria) – Pink and soft, with electrified crystal flowers that re-soften on the finish. A bit girly in its pinkish Hello Kitty-ness. Spun candy on the finish. Frothy. I’m not a fan. (12/08)

[label]Pierre Gimonnet Champagne Cuis “1er Cru” Brut Blanc de Blancs (Champagne) – Striking nose of rainforest rocks and humidity. Huge lemon brioche (sprinkled with grapefruit shavings) on the palate. There’s excellent balance between bitterness and acidity. Massively long and frankly gorgeous, with skins dominating right now, and a very trebly midpalate that I expect to mellow with a little age. (12/08)

Pierre Peters Champagne à Le Mesnil-sur-Oger “Grand Cru” Brut Blanc de Blancs “Cuvée Réserve” (Champagne) – Heady toast and pastry, ripe lemon, and Granny Smith apple. Very powerful with a fine baring of its minerality on the finish. The nose is just a little weird…an odd mix of youthful and advanced characteristics that don’t quite gel. Perhaps in time. (12/08)

Goutorbe Champagne à Aÿ Brut “Cuvée Prestige” (Champagne) – Granadilla, crustacean cream, and paper over a chalky bedrock. Very spare and cylindrical in form, with a wall of minerality. Unfortunately, it never fills in, and never achieves any suggestion of grace. (12/08)

Jean Milan Champagne Oger “Grand Cru” Brut Blanc de Blancs “Spécial” (Champagne) – Delicate, with fine-grained crystals. Crisp but fullish acidity, ripe lime, and lots of molten metal…which hardens on the finish, driven through like a ramrod. Long and in need of time, despite the presence of lovely hints of maturity dancing around the aromas. (12/08)

[label]Jean Milan 2002 Champagne Oger “Grand Cru” Brut Blanc de Blanc “Sélection Terres de Noël” (Champagne) – Beautiful. Soft golden complexity, with a hint of curry dusting exotic flowers and heirloom apples. Very pure and gentle. Extremely long, eventually getting around to showing apples in every possible form, from flower to juice. Gorgeous. (12/08)

Gaston Chiquet Champagne “1er Cru” Brut “Tradition” (Champagne) – Wind-swept and cold, with rinds and hard-edged quarts. Frothy. Unconvincing in this company, and I’m surprised, because this is a wine I usually like. (12/08)

Marc Hebrart Champagne à Mareuil-sur-Aÿ “1er Cru” Brut “Cuvée de Réserve” (Champagne) – Brioche, yeast, mixed apples, and hints of stone fruit over paper. A bit frothy. Persistent. Just OK. (12/08)

A. Margaine Champagne à Villers-Marmery “1er Cru” Brut (Champagne) – At first, a perfect blend of fresh apple, grape, and sweaty yeast, with sharper slashes of lime sorbet later on. And then, it turns into a cherry-lime rickey. Vivid to the extent that it suggests neon, but clean, strong, and exceptionally long. One for the cellar, for sure. (12/08)

A. Margaine Champagne Brut Rosé (Champagne) – Ripe red cherry and cereal. Very balanced. Laser-like purity that softens just a touch more than I’d like as the wine lingers. Long, though. Steady-state. There’s potential here, but probably not enough to reach the pinnacle. (12/08)

Chartogne-Taillet Champagne Brut “Cuvée Sainte-Anne” (Champagne) – Very red-influenced, with ripe strawberries, rose hips, and leaves. Simple-seeming fruit is quickly followed up by waves of complex minerality (chalk seems to be the dominant component), and the finish is abundant with jewels and glitter. Very nice. (12/08)

René Goeffroy Champagne “1er Cru” Brut “Expression” (Champagne) – Almost minty, but at least herbal. Buzzes with electrically-charged freshness and static. Full of lovely gentility. Red-tinged fruit, but sprightly rather than deep. Fun. (12/08)

[label]René Geoffroy Champagne “1er Cru” Brut Rosé “de Saignée” (Champagne) – Sweet-glazed biscuit, fresh red fruit (strawberry, mostly…including the seeds). Pure and complex. There’s a fine foundation of stones ground into gravel, and a lovely, drying, mineral component to the finish. Very, very good, but far from its peak. (12/08)

Jean Lallement Champagne Verzenay “Grand Cru” Brut (Champagne) – Mist-shrouded but heady, with suggestions of animalistic wildness. Sauvage, perhaps, and that’s not something I’ve ever said about a Champagne not made by Selosse. Intense lemon-loam (as opposed to lemon-lime), clementine. Turns a bit unctuous as it broadens, and the finish is a bit of a disappointment in its lack of length. (12/08)

Jean Lallement Champagne Verzenay “Grand Cru” Brut “Cuvée Réserve” (Champagne) – Crushed strawberry and rather bodacious red cherry, leaves, and thyme. Smells fruit-sweet. Sizeable. Rolling watermelon rock candy on the finish, and then the tactile sensation of frozen metal to which one has unwisely stuck their tongue. I can’t quite figure this one out. (12/08)

Aubry Champagne à Jouy-les-Reims “Grand Cru” Brut Rosé (Champagne) – Tart cranberry somewhat overwhelms a core that leans more towards red and black cherry; this is a wine that leads with its acidity, and never takes its foot off the sour pedal. And is that hollyberry? Sharp and linear. Not really my thing; it’s more like an intermezzo that it is a beverage, though I suppose with the right accompaniment it could sing. Maybe an edgy berry dessert? (12/08)

12 December 2008

The thyme of our lives

[jean-baptiste sénat]“The man in black.” That’s my scribbled-down description of the winemaker we’ve come to visit, and it fits; he is, in fact, dressed head-to-toe in the color of night. Dark clothing, to befit a dark wine.

Minervois is a known name, thanks to a lot of hard work on the part of a relatively small number of dedicated producers, importers, and retailers, but it’s most definitely not a well-known name, and the search for greater affirmation is a long, uphill struggle against the forces of multinational marketing. It doesn’t help that a lot of the wines that carry the name never really rise above mediocrity…though given the lack of acclaim and monetary reward that follows those that do, the desire to put in the necessary work has to come from somewhere other than the hope of remuneration.

The vignoble of Minervois is visually and functionally hardscrabble, and that probably doesn’t help in the elevation of spirits. Staring at a field of rocks from which gnarled vines struggle to emerge and plump up a few angry grapes isn’t like gazing over the verdant plains and hillsides of certain other regions, nor are many vines neatly trained into efficiently-pickable rows. One can see the work that will be necessary, and the heartbreak that sprouts from the earth, and the indifference that droops from the leaves, in every beaten-down vine. And yet the region is absolutely carpeted with vineyards. That’s a lot of despair to crush, press, and ferment. But it’s a way of life, and that’s not easily abandoned.

Thankfully, there are a few producers who put in the necessary work, and their truculent, embittered vines have decided reward the attention with a grudging but admirable harvest of quality. Jean-Baptiste Sénat is one such producer.

…continued here.

10 December 2008

Hurry boy, she's waiting there for you

[simspon statue]Well-stuffed and liberally liquored, we feel ready to brave the winds and head back to the hotel. Or so we think. Just a few blocks from our destination, it feels like a hurricane has arrived. Theresa thinks she sees something blow out of a woman’s bag, and turns to tell her.

“Hurry! Catch it!” The woman is pointing across the road. The abrasion on my eyes is profound, and I can’t quite see what she’s looking at.

Suddenly, Theresa pipes up. “My glasses!”

And there in the middle of a busy street, describing a ten-foot diameter circle in a constantly-swirling cyclone of wind, are her glasses. They skip and glide across the ground, a mere wisp of color against the asphalt. Cars pass over them, uncaring, and still they blow. Seeing a brief break in traffic, I leap out to try and stop them with my foot, but they lift and hurtle skyward…then plummet back to the earth. A truck approaches, honking.


…continued here.

08 December 2008

Oregon, going, gone?

[vines at Bella Vida winery, Willamette Valley, Oregon]Marketing. It’s really not my thing. I’m mostly immune to it, and though I am as frequently awed by its most adept practitioners as I am repelled by their best work, I’ve no discernable skill at it.

So it’s somewhat amusing to me how often I get asked, by those who make and sell wine, for an opinion on how they might a better impression on the market. Usually, but not always, it’s a foreign concern wishing to sell more – or at all – in the States. In fact, I just got back from South Africa, where this question was much on the minds of many of the winemakers with whom I swirled and spat.

While I was traveling, Thad over at Beyond the Bottle invited my comment on a piece he’d written, itself a follow-up to a winemaker’s thoughts on how to market a decidedly non-foreign wine region: Oregon. Since this is a place I’ve actually been, and a state that produces a rather larger number of wines that I like than is the norm for other domestic sources, I took a special interest in the topic. Herewith, then, a few thoughts from a someone who knows nothing about marketing. And what could be more valuable than that?

The contrast between the two essays to which I’ve linked is interesting, even though they cover some of the same ground. On one hand, we have a winemaker talking about wine as a niche (some would argue luxury) product and how to market that product to a knowledgeable audience. His idea is to find the hook, the mnemonic, the attention-grabbing uniqueness that will move his state’s wines into the public consciousness. And he suggests their fundamental “Oregon-ness” as that hook.

Thad Westhusing, on the other hand, takes a broader view, examining everything from wine tourism to price points in an effort to wrestle the problem to the ground. But neither he nor Hatcher really question the latter’s assertion that Oregon and the associations to be made with that place are the path to sales glory.

That may be, and I find thoughts with which to agree from both, but I think they’re missing the key point. The problem is pinot noir.

Oregon, for better or worse, has hitched its wine fortunes to this supremely expressive but finicky and expensive grape. Though there’s pinot gris, chardonnay, pinot blanc, a little sparkling wine (question: why not more?), and the occasional outlier variety, the consumer is, first and foremost, presented with a range of pinot noirs as the representatives of Brand Oregon. It’s a sort of marketing monoculture, and while it’s taken for granted in the Old World and frequently codified in Europe’s stringent appellation laws, it’s somewhat of a rarity in the anything-goes New. Most New World regions plant a diverse range of varieties (many of them, alas, painfully unsuitable for the terroir) and then let the shifting winds of popular taste do the marketing…or, when necessary, the winnowing.

The problem with doing it the other way – the Oregon way – is that success or failure are entirely subject to the public appetite for one specific product. Now, it happens that we’re still in the boom years for pinot noir, and whether one identifies it as a continuing post-Sideways effect or something else, the fact is the public loves its pinot. However, it must be noted for the record: not nearly as much as it loves its chardonnay or pinot gris/grigio.

Given that, shouldn’t Oregon be going gangbusters, since they’ve got pinot noir to sell and an allegedly avid market to sell it to? Maybe, but…well, see, there’s a problem. Oregon’s not the only modern monoculture in town. There’s the Central Coast of California, which has been around for a while but which has really exploded into the public wine-drinking consciousness over the past few years (and that is attributable, in large measure, to the aforementioned movie). There’s the Central Otago in New Zealand…and in that same country, Martinborough and the Waipara/Canterbury region.

So what’s the calling card of the Central Otago? Pinot noir. The Central Coast? Pinot noir. Martinborough? Pinot noir. The Waipara? Pinot noir (and riesling). What’s previously-monocultural Marlborough, widely known for it’s sauvignon blanc, planting a lot of these days? Pinot noir. How about Germany, the still-beating heart of rieslingdom? They’re making a big name for themselves these days among a subset of the wine geek set with their spätburgunder…a/k/a pinot noir. Meanwhile, the Russian River Valley, long a source for succulent pinot noir, hasn’t gone away. Nor has the Anderson Valley. And there’s still that other place…what’s it called?...oh, yeah. Burgundy. They make just a bit of pinot noir there, still, and despite centuries of fame and reverence, many commentators think it’s only getting better.

But why should pinot noir be a special problem? It’s not like people have any trouble selling chardonnay from pretty much every grape-growing region in the world, right? Didn’t I just say that there was an ever-escalating demand for pinot?

Sure, but the grape carries some baggage. It’s notoriously fickle on the vine, and when it does grow well, it requires careful shepherding and lowish yields to show its quality. That means that wines made from it are almost always going to be expensive versus other varieties. Cheap pinot noir is, with very, very rare exceptions, either dismal or – pumped up by the steroidal winemaking much-employed by the industrial set, and yet the primary source of cheap pinot – grossly unrepresentative of the variety and its qualities.

Moreover, its nearly unparalleled (among red grapes, with only nebbiolo as a serious contender) ability to reflect site-specificity results – as it always has in Burgundy – in a small blizzard of single-vineyard bottlings, regular and reserve bottlings, and/or differently-named blends. In other words, where cabernet might be responsible for a wine or two at a given winery, pinot noir can sometimes fill a case. Without duplication.

So where does that leave the pinot noir producer? Holding a dozen fairly expensive wines, each produced in relatively small quantities, and having to convince an already-saturated market of their quality when they’ve got similarly-priced options of quality from all over the globe, plus a few centuries of wine culture nagging that for the same amount of money they could be drinking “the real thing”: Burgundy.

In Oregon, or in fact anywhere the grape is grown, I suspect the urge to “buy local” trumps other factors (and the ability to visit and taste before purchase helps this along). Certainly that’s what they do in Burgundy, as well as all the other regions I mentioned earlier. But selling the wine at home…that’s not the marketing challenge, is it? The challenge is selling the wine elsewhere.

For example, consider Boston, this author’s current hometown. It’s a very Europhile market, as I’ve noted before, and a lot of very good New World producers have unsuccessfully beaten their skulls against the seemingly closed door of our avid wine culture. But even for those local consumers who are willing to explore beyond their beloved Burgundy, the available options quickly move beyond staggering to merely bewildering. Felton Road or Belle Pente? August Kesseler or Arcadian? Ata Rangi or Patricia Green? Not to mention the fact that there’s always the “…or d’Angerville?” option lurking in the background. They’re all pretty much the same price here, after all, and while they all have enticing qualities, only the truly pinot-obsessed will want to fully explore the full range on a regular enough basis to qualify as a reliable source of sales. That subgroup, repeated across hundreds of communities, may be enough to escalate a few wineries’ sales, but it’s not enough to accommodate all of them.

So what’s the solution for Oregon? I don’t know (remember: Marketing ’R’ Not Us). I don’t think that grubbing up pinot noir and planting…I don’t know, lagrein…is the answer. Because the wines are quite good, or at least they can be in capable hands, and if they think selling pinot is hard…. I’m not sure that selling “Oregon-ness” is the answer either. New Zealand tried that with their “the riches of a clean, green land” campaign, and I don’t know that it made much of a difference in their wine sales (though it has helped tourism, by all accounts…and it would probably help more were New Zealand not a zillion miles from everywhere). Further, I’m not sure this is the differentiator some might want it to be. Vermont – much closer to my market – is full of crunchy earth-mother environmental goodness and beauty, not to mention a wealth of fine agricultural products, but it doesn’t make me want to drink their wines, and I don’t think the stuff they are really good at (e.g. cheese) is pushing Vacherin Mont d’Or off, say, New York shelves; it remains a niche product for a niche, local market that knows and has regular access to that product.

Also, I’m not sure tourism is the answer. Wine regions everywhere point at Napa and ask, “why can’t we have that?” Well, first, I think much of Napa would very much enjoy it if someone else would take the tourists for a while. But the obvious thing is that Napa benefits almost immeasurably from its proximity to San Francisco, just as the newer California tourist hotspot of the Central Coast benefits from its proximity to Los Angeles. Portland is a nice city, but it’s certainly no San Francisco or L.A.

The best thing a wine region can do – and this is the advice I’ve always given, when asked – is to get into the desired market and really work it. That means sending the best and brightest to whatever places have been targeted and keeping them there for a while, or at least promising they’ll be back every few months. Work the retailers and the restaurants, and maybe even the press (most of the non-national wine press doesn’t really move much wine, but sometimes every little bit helps). Do some public dinners, which I think are absolutely critical in creating demand and name recognition. Plant representatives at stores’ regular wine tastings. Do the big wine fairs, and while there do tutored tastings.

And make it about more than just the individual producers. Yes, by all means, sell the names on the labels. But everyone who makes wines from its grapes benefits if some critical mass of people who know how to pronounce “Willamette” correctly is reached, and for that to happen everyone – or at least a large enough subset of everyone – has to work together to push all the categories that need pushing: pinot noir, Brand Oregon, whatever appellations are involved, and individual wineries’ products.

This is all marketing 101, I’d think, and yet it’s surprising how hard it is to get people to leave their wineries and saturate their target market. The farmer mentality, maybe, and non-corporate winemaking doesn’t leave a lot of down time for travel. What helps is government money, but in its absence wineries – many of which make much less money than the average consumer might think – have to do it themselves. If that means voluntarily pooling resources, then that’s what it means.

Otherwise, I see little hope. Major critics have been giving perfectly fine ratings to Oregon wines for years, and yet not enough has happened. There’s going to be no Sideways 2: Wasted Weeks in the Willamette. California – hopefully – isn’t going to tip its vines into the ocean and make beachfront out of Fresno, nor are New Zealand (and Germany, and Burgundy) going away. Words, print ads, flashy handouts…they aren’t going to get it done. The wines need to be under the noses and in the mouths of potential consumers.

Oregon needs a hook, yes. But the hook it needs is the one in a hotel room, on which its best winemakers and marketing gurus hang their jackets as they make their case to a new market, customer by customer.