January 2006 Archives

Snob Appeal

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Got a message from a young American winemaker, Jason Burrus, working in Malta. Apparently one of his former UC Davis professors had sent around a story I wrote about Zelma Long for the San Francisco Chronicle. Zelma’s an icon of winemaking and a pioneer in making the wine industry a great place for women to work. While the story was mostly about her, it included some discussion of a new wine she is making in South Africa. The wine’s fairly expensive by some standards, because people in South Africa want desperately to be seen as fellow travelers with the great wine regions of the world, and a serious price tag is one way to make people notice you.

Burrus sent the following message after reading the story, which you can also read by clicking here.

“I enjoyed reading this article until I got to the point where her wines are selling for $50 and $70 a bottle. This is ridiculous. All of us, as UC Davis students and graduates, enjoy making top-class wines. But, isn't the the real reward in winemaking to make better wines at lower prices so that everyone can afford and appreciate fine wine? How many of us, as winemakers and viticulturalists, can afford to drink the fruits of our labor anymore? Stories like this just increase the snob factor of fine wine, something I think we as an industry are trying to move away from.

“I make wine in one of the poorest countries in the EU. Our most expensive, barrel-aged, Bordeaux red wine sells for $14. But the real success is our bread-and-butter wine, a wine made of Sicilian must of the varieties Catarratto, Ansonica, and Inzolia grown in high-vigor/yield style. This wine retails for $1.68 for 750 mL. Not only is it cheap, but it's actually good wine and it sells very well. Wines at this price and quality are a relatively recent event in this industry; they are the direct result of the advancements in hygiene, processing, and scientific knowledge that institutions like UC Davis foster.

“I will continue drinking wines like this others that sell for less than $5.00 on a daily basis, and those of $70 once or twice a year. So, which is the real success story here?”

First, I should answer his question. The answer is “Both.” I could not agree more that the wine industry needs to create more wine drinkers, particularly in the U.S., and that good wines under $10 are the best way to do it. I also agree with Burrus that technological advancements -- and willingness of people in "legacy" wine regions in Europe and the Middle East to adopt them -- have transformed wine drinking in those parts of the world. So what Burris is doing in Malta, and what countless other small producers like him are doing around the world, are absolutely a huge success story for wine. And good for him for choosing such an unusual place to write his chapter of that story.

At the same time, the wine Burrus calls “ridiculous” because of its price is also a success story. It’s a success story for South Africa, as well as for Zelma Long and her husband, Phil Freese. The two of them have always worked for other people’s wineries. Now they have one of their own, and they are making what I call a statement wine. The statement is that they believe South Africa can produce wine as good as anything else in the top rank.

This sounds like a fairly personal, perhaps even odd statement to make, but if you visit South Africa, which is transforming its society, economy and arts so fast it’s hard to believe (much less keep up with), you understand that it’s not a weird thing to want to declare to the world. It’s a cry from the heart of a whole nation.

Now that I am warmed up, I must also comment on Burrus’ claim that stories about people like Zelma Long "just increase the snob factor of fine wine."

I am pretty sure I am not a snob, I can say for damn sure that Zelma Long is not a snob, and I would be willing to bet that the vast majority of the people who drink her wine are not snobs either. They certainly have a lot more money than I do, but that does not make them snobs. It means they can choose wine for reasons other than the need for calories. They can choose to drink Two Buck Chuck or Screaming Eagle. They can buy wine because of the story behind it, which is what is attracting a lot of people to Zelma Long’s new wine. This does not make a person a snob. This makes them curious, and fortunate enough to explore their curiosity at $50 a bottle.

No matter how poor Malta may seem to Burrus, and how virtuous his $1.68 wine may feel to him, the $14 wine he makes is a pure luxury item. No one in Malta needs it. They buy it for pleasure, or to feel special. This does not make them snobs, and it does not make Burrus a snob for producing the wine itself.

The only thing that increases the snob factor of fine wine, in my opinion, is prejudicial behavior that is dismissive of others. I do not know Jason Burrus, and I don’t think he would consider himself prejudicially dismissive of Zelma Long. But throwing around terms like “snob” is a knee-jerk habit I see in a shocking number of young people in the wine business. All I can say is, look into it a little deeper before you slap a label on people or their preferences – especially when you get your paycheck from satisfying them.

This is the Year

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I’ve never done one of those “bold prediction” columns before. I’ve also never had a blog before at the beginning of a new year, where I could just call it like I see it. So here goes.

I predict that 2006 will be the beginning of end of the dominance of the 100-point scale for rating wine.

One of the surest signs is the long-awaited appearance of the new, improved “American Gold Medal Wines” for 2006. The first edition was interesting, but it felt like an amateur fan-zine for wanna-be wine geeks. The new edition is what the concept deserves: a well-designed guide that pretty much guarantees you will never buy another dud wine.

Here’s how it works. The editors of the guide get the published results from the top 20 wine competitions in the country. Then they organize them by grape variety, price level, and the kind of medal(s) they got. Let’s say you’ve got a party coming up and want a couple of cases of good Merlot that costs ten bucks or less. Go to the Merlot chapter, and there are almost two pages of them.

I’d surprise my party guests with the Huntington Wine Cellars 2002, which won a gold medal and best-of-class distinction from the Los Angeles County Fair in 2005. But you could also pick from plenty of reliable, big-name wineries.

The beauty of this concept is that you can trust it.

In contrast, all the 100-point rating schemes are black boxes, meaning you don’t really know how the scores got awarded. Was Robert Parker sitting at the winery, tasting with the winemaker? Was Stephen Tanzer tasting 20 wines in his office in New York or 50 wines in a tasting room in Walla Walla? Was Jim Laube really tasting blind or did he know whose wines were in the bottle? I’m not saying they are manipulating us, I’m saying we don’t know which conditions applied to which wines. There are too many variables, too much subjectivity, too few checks and balances.

It's exactly the opposite with medals.

The wine competitions are blind, the conditions don’t change, and every wine goes through the same process. There are three to five people on every panel that conducts initial scans of the wines that are entered, and then the whole group of judges at the competition votes on which wines get the top awards. Often the people who run a competition in one part of the country judge for other competitions in another part, to keep current with best practices. Some of the judges are the same, too, ensuring some consistency on a national basis.

At my first competition, for the Dallas Morning News, my panel captain was Dr. Robert Small, who runs the LA County Fair competition. I did not know this at the time, so I had no preconceptions. He turned out to be a thoughtful, careful judge, good at communicating his point of view and also at making sure our panel did not just pump out a bland consensus. I must not have embarrassed myself too badly, because he subsequently invited me to judge at his event.

Last year, my panel at LA County Fair included Debbie Zachareas of Bacar restaurant in San Francisco, Wes Hagen of Clos Pepe winery and vineyard in Santa Barbara County, and Mark Gardner, who heads the Lodi Woodbridge Grape Commission. I pride myself on being able to concentrate for long periods without losing my edge. These people were razors for three days. In the lunch line I spotted dozens of people who command similar respect.

A couple years back, I was on a panel that had a lot of Italian wines. At one point I had a quick exchange in Italian with the judge next to me, Antonio Paolini, from the newspaper Il Messaggiero in Rome. Just wanted to make him feel welcome. To my amazement, everyone at the table joined in – in Italian. Did they know their Italian wine? Oh yes they did.

The point is, the competitions are legit. You can quibble about which ones are the best, but the medals are meaningful across the board: not one man’s opinion, but the results of a grueling competition involving winemakers, winegrowers, wine buyers, wine writers, and wine collectors. With the new “American Gold Medal Wines,” you can turn those results into better buying decisions with every bottle.

So feel free to ditch the numbers and go with the medals this year. Heck, according to this man’s opinion, everyone will be doing it.

- Thom Elkjer
Check out my regular wine coverage at www.winecountry.com.

Recently tasted 38 Dry Creek Zinfandels, almost all from 2003. The winemakers at my table were leery. The heat that summer, they said, was the worst in memory. They called the year a “winemaker’s vintage,” meaning that the quality of the wine was in human hands more than it usually is, because the weather was so freakish.

Dry Creek has got pretty much perfect Zin conditions, and a reputation for producing well-balanced, stylish wines with a great combination of fruit flavors, floral aromas (think violets) and spices (white pepper comes to mind). In most years, winemakers can let good grapes be the story. Frame them up in a little oak and send them out into the world.

Not in 2003.

The high heat had magnified Zinfandel’s tendency to ripen unevenly in the vineyard, so the fruit was not rich, ripe and jammy. It was more cooked, strained, or stewed. This part was definitely not the winemakers’ fault. It’s what they did next that I can’t understand.

For some reason, the route that dozens of winemaker took was to load up on oak. Many of the wines were hot, astringent, and un-fun – the opposite of what most of us want from Zinfandel.

A couple of the winemakers at the table were shaking their heads as we sampled wine after wine that featured big doses of charred wood. Some offered explanations – but withdrew them as soon as they had spoken the words. One winemaker said that the problem was that “the oak is showing through more because the fruit was a little overcooked.” What this means to me is, “overcooked fruit came into the winery, and we put too much oak on it.”

To be fair, every vintner at my table for the Dry Creek Tasting had a wine in the tasting, and every one of them was 100% Dry Creek Zin. This means they did not use other grapes, or Zin from other areas, to save their bacon. In other words, they gutted it out and did what they could, as winemakers, to bring in a good wine.

On the other hand, none of them selected their own wines as standouts. As one vintner said as he left the table hours later, “when we’ve got to douse Zinfandel with that much oak, even in a winemaker’s vintage, something’s wrong.”

So what is that “something?” One of my go-to guys, Mark Bowery, is a retailer and restaurant wine director with a tremendous palate and huge ability to coax people to try new things. He says that consumers “just want to be blown away,” and that’s why oak and alcohol are headed up, up, up.

Could it really be that we consumers are rewarding winemakers for burying even friendly, easy-going grapes like Zinfandel under too much oak?

- Thom Elkjer
Check out my regular wine coverage at www.winecountry.com.