April 2006 Archives

Have you noticed what’s happening to wine regions? They’re getting sliced and diced into smaller appellations (officially designated winegrowing regions) all the time.

It used to be that if you knew the name of half a dozen California counties, you could hold up your end of a conversation about wine regions. Napa was the prime example. Now there are half a dozen different appellations between Napa Valley's two biggest towns, and more than a dozen within the Napa Valley appellation.

This is not just a Napa phenomenon. Recently I did some errands in Sonoma County and went through five different appellations without getting on the freeway. Willamette Valley used to be the place they made Oregon Pinot Noir. Now they’ve sliced Willamette Valley into a bunch of sub-appellations. (Can I interest you in some nice Yamhill-Carlton Pinot?) Same with Columbia Valley in Washington. (Anyone for a Horse Heaven Hills Cab?). Heck, even places most Americans don’t think of as wine states (Virginia comes to mind) are starting to pile up appellations.

It appears that this trend is only going to continue, so I have already started thinking about what we should do about it as consumers. My recommendation is that you pick a new, small appellation and adopt it as your own. After some study on the matter, I really believe there’s no downside to this approach, and plenty of upside.

First, you will make some fast friends. It’s no snap to start an appellation or carve one out of a bigger one, so the people who do it tend to be passionate boosters who will shower fans of their new creation with love. It’s always nice to be appreciated.

Second, those fast friends will have wine to share with you -- never a bad thing. Not only that, they will be eager to make that wine attractive to you, either by pricing it well or giving you access to the best they make because you actually care enough to learn about where it’s made. There’s a good chance you’ll be pouring stuff for your friends that they’ve not only never had, but never heard of. Great way to boost your wine cred.

Third, everything that goes on in that new appellation will be more fun for you than it is for everyone else. For one thing, you will actually know how to get there, how to get around, where to eat, all that stuff. For another, new appellations tend to have new wine events at which you can become a VIP just by showing up the first few years and being one of the few people on earth with that distinction.

And here’s the kicker: if you harbor some secret dream of making wine, either at home for fun or commercially, everything and everyone you need to make that dream come true will be located in that new small appellation that you have adopted.

Because it’s new, it’s more likely to have good grapes available for you to buy than established appellations will. (You can always get bad grapes anywhere.) Because you know the area already, you’ll know whose grapes you want. Because you’re a VIP, they’ll be more likely to sell ‘em to you – and teach you what to do with ‘em. Heck, they might even let you pick ‘em yourself, at the perfect moment.

There are a number of ways to find new small appellations near you. One is to visit a winery you like in a huge existing appellation and ask if there are any plans to carve out something smaller. This is going on all the time, and it could be going on in a wine region near you. Dry Creek calves off Rockpile, Rogue Valley gives birth to Applegate Valley, and so on.

Another is to search online – the federal Tax and Trade Bureau that regulates appellations in the U.S. posts appellation petitions on the internet for people to comment on. (With this kind of inside info, you could become a fan before there’s officially an appellation to be a fan of. That should make you really popular.)

The most adventurous way, though, is to try a wine with some totally unfamiliar appellation on the label and see how it grabs you. You slide by these wines on store shelves and wine lists all the time, right? Next time, reach out and pick one. The appellation doesn’t have to be near you, or even in your home state. If you really dig the wine, you can start learning about its place of origin and finding more of the wine to drink. Eventually you’ll plan a visit, and when you get there in person, it shouldn’t take long for your newly adopted appellation to start returning your affection.

Ultimately, vintners are creating more appellations for one reason: to get our attention. I say, let’s give it to ‘em, and see what they’ll give us back.

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

It looks to me like there are two kinds of wine regions: those that raise their hands overhead in victory or clap them in self-congratulation (Napa, sometimes Sonoma, and lately Lodi), and those that wring their hands in concern or scourge themselves (long list).

One of the hand-wringing areas that caught my attention was Mendocino County, mostly because I used to visit a lot for the scenic beauty, fly fishing, and, every now and then, wine. The lament I heard all the time was the same: “We don’t get no respect.”

It took me a while to figure out what was going on, but I finally got it clear in my mind. The growers in Mendocino did one of three things each fall: (1) ship their fruit in trucks to one of those hand-clapping, back-slapping places such as Napa or Sonoma where it got buried in a wine with a Napa or Sonoma appellation on the label, (2) sell their fruit to Fetzer, which made good mid-priced wine with Mendocino on the label, or (3) make their own wine that sold for a low price or mid-price no matter how good it was.

And no matter which route they took, they didn’t like it.

Now that Fetzer’s cutting back on production or putting more wine into brands based in Paso Robles and “California,” there’s less of option 2 for people in Mendocino to wring their hands over, which means more of options 1 and 3.

Here’s the bad news: option 1 isn’t going way anytime soon. The marketing people like to say that Napa and Sonoma have more “brand equity” than Mendocino and therefore the “highest and best use” of Mendocino’s grapes is to go into the other counties’ wines. The truth is that Napa and Sonoma have ten to twenty times as many wineries as Mendocino, those wineries have hundreds to thousands times more customers, and they therefore have an insatiable thirst for cheap, good fruit – Mendocino’s specialty.

Here’s the good news: option 3 is looking pretty darn good these days. I have recently run some benchmark, whole-appellation tastings in Mendocino County, staffed by winemakers, wine buyers, wine writers, even some of those clever marketing people. The best thing about these tastings has been the astonished, relieved looks on the judges’ faces.

WineCountry.Com Food Editor Heather Irwin attended a couple of these tastings, and didn’t hide the fact that she was expecting “a train wreck” from the latest one. (She wasn’t the only one who had that apprehension, just one of the few to cop to it. Remember, a lot of these people are hand-wringers from way back.)

But the fact is, the wines rocked.

It used to be that if you got a couple of dozen Mendocino wines together on the table, you could count on a handful that made you snicker, a handful that made you say, “Well, not bad,” and a bunch that you forgot an hour later. Sometimes the same winery would have a wine or two in all three categories. It was that random.

Not any more. One tasting I did in December had 38 Anderson Valley Pinot Noirs from 2003: no corked wines, no cooked wines, no cock-eyed wines. And a whole bunch of really sleek, elegantly powerful wines, the kind you wish you had a case of. (And which you could conceivably have a case of, because they’re not overpriced and oversubscribed yet.)

Another tasting, with 32 Yorkville Highlands wines, just a few couple week ago, included reds, whites, and rosés. Chardonnays, Cabernets, Pinot Noirs, Syrahs. Not a dud in the bunch. Just one good wine after another, including some eye-openers from rare white grapes.

They’re going to be releasing the third vintage of Mendo-only “Coro” red blends from all over the county in June, and I can tell you from crawling all over the first two vintages that these wines are not just really well made, they’re a whole ton of fun to drink.

So lately I’ve started wondering when the growers and winemakers in Mendocino are going to stop their sobbin’ and start shoutin’ out a little. They’ve got the fruit, they’ve got the wine, and they’ve still got all that scenery. (And all those rivers with all those fish!) They really need to update their attitude, and I’m feeling like it’s only a matter of time at this point.

Before they do that, though, the rest of us should drink up hearty while prices are still low and the wine’s still easy to get. Got to make the “highest and best use” of our wine-buying dollars, right?

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

Judgment at Paris, Revisited

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Thirty years later, how do California wines stand up against their French counterparts? You make the call.

Thirty years ago, a young British wine retailer had the big idea to put a group of unknown Napa wines up against some the Grand-Cru wines of France in a blind tasting. So utterly outrageous was the premise that almost no one, but a single journalist from Time Magazine, bothered to even attend the event. At the time the idea that these young, New World vintners--including Chateau Montelena and Stag's Leap Wine Cellars--would even be considered in the same class as the Bordeaux and White Burgundies of  France was utterly implausible.  C'est impossible.

Scarcity Pricing

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When I am speaking or teaching and it comes time for people’s questions, one topic takes over every time: wine pricing. People have endless curiosity about why wine costs what it does, what’s the best wine for the money, what’s the most overpriced – you name a wine pricing angle, I get a question on it.

Often I wind up explaining about scarcity pricing, which is just the ancient law of supply and demand in silk lingerie. (Listen, if people on food shows can describe pork sausage – pig parts stuffed into intestinal linings – as having “sex appeal,” then I can dress up economics in something flirty.)

Scarcity pricing works like this. If enough people want a wine you make, you can put the price up higher and higher until they stop buying it. On the other hand, if you’ve made a large quantity of wine and need to make sure you sell it all, you can take the price down lower and lower until enough people decide it’s a bargain. Pretty simple.

Also powerful. So powerful, in fact, that it totally trumps wine ratings. In other words, if two wines get the same score but one is scarce, its price will almost always be higher. If you look around, you’ll start to see this everywhere in the wine business. In fact it’s an embedded part of the business model for many smaller producers.

Once you know what you’re looking for, examples pop out everywhere. Here’s a good recent example that you can go verify for yourself, if you’re so moved.

Wine Spectator, in its April issue, gives two Sonoma County Chardonnays the same numerical rating: the dread 89. This rating officially means “very good” verging on “outstanding.” Unofficially, for winemakers, it means “kiss of death.” But I digress.

What first caught my eye concerning these particular wines was how similar they sounded. The reviewer found them both “sleek” and “elegant” with “citrus” and green apple” flavors. There were other similarities as well, which would be apparent to you if you read the back pages of Wine Spectator closely over the years, but you get the point: two remarkably similar wines from the same grape and same appellation, with the same descriptors and the same quality rating.

In a world where wine ratings ruled, these wines would cost the same. But they don’t, and scarcity is the reason why.

The first wine was listed in the review at a quantity of close to 10,000 cases and priced at $17 a bottle. The second wine was listed at just a shade over 300 cases. It tastes like the other wine, and according to expert testimony merits the same score, but there’s just a few hundred cases of it. So where do you suppose its price lies? Twice as high as the first wine? Three or four times as high?

Try more than ten times as high. Try $175.

I can think of only two rational reasons to pay ten times as much for what amounts to the same fermented grape juice. One is that the 10X wine is going to mature into something the $17 wine will never become, and 10 years from now it will taste ten times better. I say this is a rational approach, though I doubt hardly anyone is going to actually take it. For one thing, there’s a good chance it won’t work out and the $175 will be an expensive bet that didn’t pay off. For another, most people don’t hold Chardonnay long enough to find out what it becomes.

The far more likely rational approach has to do with scarcity: the desire to drink something hardly anyone else will get to drink. In other words, paying $175 for a bottle of wine is rational behavior if you want the scarcity as much as the wine itself. Some people want that, and they’re willing to pay for it.

If what you really want is to drink good wine, however, then it’s not rational. It’s nuts.

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

Recently got to be a fly on the wall – make that the trellis post – while a grower I know interviewed candidates to purchase his wine grapes.

With maturing Pinot Noir vines in a unique site in a name-drop appellation, he was in a good position physically. His grapes had also gone into vineyard-designated wines in a couple of recent years, so there was evidence of their quality. But he was still a local secret, because that wine was made in the appellation by a small producer. Now he would find out if his vineyard was ready for prime time.

The first prospective purchaser arrived on the stroke of 8:00 a.m. as appointed. A winemaker with his own label, he already makes wine from two other vineyards in the appellation as well as four vineyard-designated bottlings from a neighboring appellation. All are svelte, supple and delicious. He listened mostly, but occasionally asked practical, pertinent questions – the kind you would ask if you were going to be making the wine yourself in six months’ time. He was particularly respectful in asking about the local vineyardists who had planted the vineyard and were taking care of it now.

When I sensed it was time for money to come up in the conversation, I moved off a ways and studied a swale in the vineyard that ensured it stayed well-drained even through the recent weeks of daily rain. The interview ended, the winemaker departed, and soon it was time for interview number two.

This time the purchaser was more than half an hour late. A wine marketer who had recently moved out of the corporate suite, he was seeking his first grapes from this appellation. His young label had produced one Pinot Noir from another appellation, apparently to good notices. He had a lot to say about the wine industry, wine marketing, and wine sales. Much of it was interesting and amusing.

It became clear that while he was the face of his brand, others would actually make the wine (and the vineyard management decisions) behind the scenes. One clue to this was his questions about the vineyard: more about its perceived position in the local pantheon than about its practical aspects relative to wine production.

As he got the answers to his questions, it dawned on me that the very qualities of the vineyard that had intrigued the winemaker – its unusual clone and unusual location – seemed to be liabilities in the marketer’s eyes.

Yesterday the word came that it will be the winemaker, not the marketer, who gets the grapes. I’m sure both would produce good wine from the vineyard, and that the grower would be getting fair compensation either way. But I had to admit, I felt happy that the punctual, practical, down-to-earth winemaker would be the one to control the grapes’ ultimate destiny.

Certainly we need smart marketing to help make wine more affordable and accessible to more people. But when it comes to exceptional small vineyards in exceptional places, it’s good to know there are still exceptional winemakers attentive enough to find them and express their essence as wine, not product positioning.

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

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