Gaming the system


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Am I ever going to catch-up with the system? Do I want to? I started this wine adventure when the winedom was fairly small. There were the big brands like Mondavi Woodbridge, Cavit, Kendall-Jackson and Gallo and the like and “serious” wine and wine buyers & wine professionals were hardly in the same field or industry. This was in the late 1980’s and it remained that way for at least another 5-8 years. Then something happened. I am not sure why or how, but the giant volume wine producers started getting into the boutique part of the wine industry. A part that had generally been left alone.

My research in the last several years (in preparation for a start-up) all point to how small that boutique part of the industry still is. And yet big commercial wine companies have fought hard to put that passionate part of the industry in their stranglehold. As I look at the wine industry today, I still don’t understand why, but the fallout has been severe on the tiny slice of the wine industry that I and many of my colleagues came to love. That slice is equivalent of 10-15% of the total industry. Where do I get these numbers from? There are about 77 million wine buyers in the US of that only about 9 million spend more than $20 a bottle…ever. That plus the recent published research that found 150 wine brands represent 85% of all wine sales in the US. That’s wine brands folks. Gallo probably owns between 10-15 of those themselves, then add in The Wine Group’s, Diageo’s and Constellations of the wine world and you probably can get those 150 brands under a dozen or two of actual wine companies. Find a list of the wine labels owned by the Goliaths here.

Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon was a speaker at the recent wine bloggers conference and his speech (I read it, wasn’t there) hit on if not all the problems in the wine industry then at least most. In the speech he mentions that gaming the system contributed heavily to the changes and downward spiral of “my little slice” of the wine industry. My opinion is that he is referring to the ability of wine companies to use technology and data diving to figure out what the most important wine critics look for in a very highly rated wine. Rumor has it that Caymus analyzed the wines that The Wine Spectator and Wine Advocate rated 90 points and above and determined what  attributes were common and began working to farm, ferment and age their wine in a manner that would result in wines the critics were rating the highest. There is another culprit out there as well, a math genius who figured out how to charge wineries for the results of algorithms done on the two most influential wine critics The Wine Spectaor & The Wine Advocate. Thank you to Leo McCloskey and Enologix for helping game the wine industry and letting all those megabrands take over the charming part of the wine industry. My apologies to Leo, he is a smart wine person with some fine ideas it’s just like anything great. In the right hands it is good, in the wrong ones well…

It is the same as my view of Robert Parker 100 points and Wine Spectators. They did not create the problem of points, the wine marketing and sales teams did. The wine sales part of the industry began flogging the numbers to make numbers (cases). The retailers fell in line and then so did the wine consumers. I even did it for a short-time, I started selling wines on the street in 1994 and for a (short) bit sold on Parker ratings. But when a new vintage of a highly rated wine got a lower rating, I lost my faith. It was confirmed when a friends wine kept getting 88’s, 89’s and 90’s on first Parker rating, then getting higher ratings in Parkers 10 years later issues. After I had “retired” from the street, Ric (Forman) started making wine for his friend (& vineyard manager) David Abreu. David’s wine became a darling of The Advocate (a string of 100’s) while Ric’s own wine continued to wallow in the high 80’s and low 90’s. And I continue to prefer an aged bottle of Forman Cabernet to anything from Abreu with the same age.


Randall Grahm Do’on it right


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Great, but very long blog post on Randall’s site. I found it through two wine news outlets I follow: Wine-searcher and Lewis Perdue. Wine-searcher is new to this but seems to being a good job of it. Maybe doing this will help redeem them in in the eyes of all the luxury wine producers who see their price-points getting crushed and exposed on the search bot. Lewis Perdue is certainly someone to follow, he puts out a list of top wine business stories several times a week.

Please visit his site and blog and call the winery to buy some of his wine. Anyone this passionate about his craft deserves our attention. Also watch the speech here:

So here are a couple favorite bits from Randalls Rant:

anyone who entered the business – as a retailer, wine writer or wine maker – did not harbor the illusion that the wine business was going to make him or her rich. We did it because it was something that we loved. But some “visionary” individuals and companies perceived the possibility of unlimited sustained growth and began to build wine brands and wine empires.5 This, coupled with the consolidation and tumescent growth of a few wine wholesale companies and mega-retailers, has led to a sort of seamless virtual vertical integration of the wine business, with relatively few players controlling essentially the lion’s share of the game – a pretty good mirror of what has happened in the rest of the world economy.

We need to speak up on behalf – this is maybe a little self-serving here, forgive me – of those who are innovating new styles, or preserving something precious: an old style, an old variety, respecting the authority of a great terroir. The reality is that with the consolidation of wholesale and gradual disappearance of fine wine retailers every day, great and maybe just very good producers are losing access to markets. We have to speak up for those wines that don’t have goofy, eye-catching labels, flavor profiles that are not squarely down the Middle of the Road, and will never be floor-stacked in Safeways.8

Wine List Whining & More

Wine List Whining & More.

via noblewines.

Let’s revisit the wine list again. I’ve done a bit of wine buying and selling in my day and even I feel the pressure of choosing a wine for a group of friends at a restaurant. If it is a short list it doesn’t take much time to find a wine, the question is often which is the wine that will fit everyones financial constraints and work with the most palates and foods. A smaller list may allow for a quicker decision but on most small lists I only find a small group of wines I am willing to entrust to my guests. The setting that I find most grueling is a dark, loud dining room with a list on some esoteric paper with too many fonts and font sizes.

Look it’s pretty simple, for a restaurant the wine program is a revenue center. Don’t make it difficult for the buyers. If you do they’ll skimp or skip. Maybe even the wine experience will sink the whole dining experience and send a group of dollars going to some other place.

The whole concept of selecting wine for a table is wrought with little pitfalls and if a restaurant allows those pitfalls can become large ones that can turn-off customers. As a former Sommelier and current consultant to restaurant wine programs, I have experienced many of these pitfalls. The goal for any wine program should be happy customers through the whole spectrum…newby to wine geek. This is a very difficult task but important.

Domaine Bertagne Nuits-Saint-Georges Aux Murgers 1er Cru

If anyone is interested …1st come 1st served on this limited production wine from Domaine Bertagna in Vougeot. The estate has been owned by the Reh family of Reichsgraf von Kesselstatt in Mosel since 1982. The estate has hit its stride starting with the 1988 vintage according to Clive Coates. This is a serious Burgundy Estate with significant changes and investments over the past decade.

Location is key in Burgundy and you could throw a rock into the Grand Cru Clos du Vougeot from the back of the Bertagna facility. Their vines in Nuits St. Georges are in some prime real estate as well.

The wines are all hand harvested in small boxes and brought into the
winery for sorting. After about a one week cold soak, wines are fermented in stainless steel for about three weeks at up to 28 degrees. The wine then goes in small barrels for about 18 months before assemblage for bottling. The Murgers sees about 30% new wood. The price is $400 for 6/750ml. See attached Decanter Review.

Also attached a picture of the cellars…yup even the Bourgogne Hautes
Cotes de Nuits sees the same care – half barrel aged and half stainless. Sourced
from vines sitting on limestone slopes just above the Nuits St.
Georges, the HCDN Called” Les Dames de Huguettes” is darn good Pinot
Noir priced at $200 /12 750ml.

Please let me know if you are interested in the wines of Domaine Bertagna.

What Wine Starts a Recession?

The catalyst for starting this blog about my experiences in the wine & restaurant world was this NY Times article in which Sanford Weill calls for the break-up of those “too big to fail” banks. Reading this article brought back the memory of the original deal in which Sandy Weill and John Reed agreed to create the first “too big to fail” Bank, a little company named CitiGroup. I was in the room during that deal, serving fairly expensive wines to them and their bankers, executives and others at a little wine dinner in the Wine Cellar of The ’21’ Club.

That was 1998, I was the Sommelier there until February 2000 and had some amazing experiences with both celebrity people and celebrity wines. With the Merger Dinner of Travelers Group and CitiCorp, the wines were nothing unusual which was typical for such dinners. The wines ranged in list price from $90 to $200 a bottle. These where the price point of the wines I would choose for guests booking the Cellar Room for dinner. The cost was $450 a person and that included five courses paired with wine chosen by the Sommelier. Typically such corporate merger events used wines that were priced in a fashion that is neither cheap nor ostentatious. This was not the case for other dinners and events. Often the celebration of a holiday for a successful company or an IPO would create far more interesting discussions about wine selections.

Culinary Adventures

My Culinary Adventures started by accident many years ago. I stumbled into the Culinary world via a Colorado Ski Bum experience in which I had planned on using my newly acquired Ski Instructors Certificate. Being a Ski Instructor (especially as the newbie) is more about Bunny Slopes than Steep & Deep as I had hoped when I landed in Denver and headed for Summit County and Vail. A cooking shift from 3pm to 11pm offered more money and more time to enjoy the real skiing of Colorado. And that is where my Adventure began.