Friday, September 28, 2012

Wine critic vs. wine writer (which is more important?)

A few recent posts by W. Blake Gray got me thinking about the difference between wine critics and wine writers. Wine critiquing and wine writing are two different activities that are often confused as the same thing. Dave McIntyre, wine columnist for the Washington Post, eloquently explained that "the writer tells wine's story in a way that hopefully gets the reader thirsty, while the critic can tell the reader which wines are worth buying." This isn't to say that they are mutually exclusive, and in fact most wine critics will claim they do both. But can someone do both at the same time? To paraphrase McIntyre, critical analysis of wine (i.e., blind tasting) takes wine out of its context, but for wine writers context is the story.

Friday, September 21, 2012

What's a winery's responsibility?

What is a winery's responsibility? Is the responsibility to the consumers or to itself? Should a winery always strive to make the best wine possible or should it simply offer commercially viable (i.e. not flawed) wine at a fair price? Should a winemaker only make wine he or she likes or should consumer preferences be considered? Should a vineyard be planted with popular variety, such as cabernet sauvignon, because it will sell or should a lesser-known variety, like petit manseng, be grown if it is better suited for the site?

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Bring on the alternative packaging

Colorado wineries are doing a lot of things well. In the past year, a handful of wineries have redesigned their labels. More and more local wines can be found on Denver restaurant wine lists. I've noticed James Molesworth of Wine Spectator tweeting about tasting Colorado wines on more than one occasion. Most importantly, the quality of what is in the bottle is improving with every release. Those are all good things that help the industry improve as a whole.

However, there is one wine industry trend that hasn't really found its way into Colorado wineries: alternative packaging. Before I go on, I will concede to the fact that The Infinite Monkey Theorem has made a splash with its canned wine. A few other wineries are also selling wine to restaurants in kegs, but consumers don't get to see those kegs sitting on retail shelves. Other than the enterprising TIMT, I can't think of another Colorado wine sold in anything but glass bottles. No bag-in-a-box. No Tetra Pak cartons.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Is Colorado wine really too expensive?

Last year, a Westword blogger posted about why Colorado wine still sucks. One of her statements was that Colorado wine is too expensive. Yet in her next statement about marketing issues (with which I agree), she picked the winery with the most expensive bottles as getting it. A few weeks ago, Wine Spectator posted a blog about Long Island wines being expensive relative to other wine regions. The attack on the price of regional wines seems to a common theme whenever someone is trying to rationalize why these wines aren't as popular as mass-produced wines. The one thing I don't get is how people can compare boutique wineries with industrial wine factories. Colorado wineries are not going to be able to produce hundreds of thousands of cases of $6 wine with cute animals on the label, but compared to Napa Valley and Walla Walla, Colorado produces some reasonably priced wine. I can count on one hand the number of bottles of Colorado wine that sell for over $50. Sure, across the board the quality may not be equivalent, but neither is the product when you compare Colorado to California's Central Valley or Australia's Riverina and Riverland regions. So, is Colorado wine really too expensive?

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Is all press good press?

Sometimes the truth hurts. Last week, Ben O'Donnell of Wine Spectator wrote an article about the image problems facing Long Island wines. The article struck a nerve with one Long Island winemaker, Kareem Massoud of Paumanok Vineyards, because he thought O'Donnell "missed the whole story." Massoud commented on the original story and his comments were republished by the New York Cork Report. Massoud inferred that O'Donnell was unfairly highlighting the negative aspects of the industry when he should have been praising the positives. O'Donnell did not wax poetic about Long Island wines, but he was honest and optimistic.

Sadly, I think Massoud missed the bigger picture. There is no hiding from the fact that many consumers perceive wines from states not named California, Oregon or Washington as being inferior. Glossing over the image problems is not going to solve them. O'Donnell's assertions were not unfounded. I can assure you that wines from New York, Colorado, Virginia, Michigan and even Iowa can be pretty damn good, but nevertheless a perception still exists that prevents many people from even giving these wine regions the chance that they deserve. Perhaps people that wouldn't give Long Island wines the time of day may want to try them simply because Wine Spectator decided to write about them. This is a good thing.

I thought that O'Donnell did a fair job of writing about why a negative perception of Long Island wines exists and how wineries are working to change that perception. He did offer praise where it was due. Sometimes wineries don't like to hear constructive criticism. I have tried telling a few Colorado winemakers that they may have issues, ranging from winemaking flaws to label design, with some of their wines. Often my concerns are met with defensive denials. It is hard to grow an emerging wine region in market share and overall quality when many in the industry turn a blind eye to inconvenient facts. But perhaps the most important thing O'Donnell did with his article was to raise the level of discourse about "local" wine. All too often smaller and newer wine regions are forgotten by the powers that be; media and otherwise.

Restaurants can be invaluable to fostering growth in an emerging wine region. As O'Donnell also explained, Long Island wines are often not widely distributed, yet may be found on the wine lists of top Manhattan restaurants. The same can be said for Colorado wines. "I remember tasting Colorado wine 5 years ago when I first moved to Denver" Jensen Cummings, executive chef at Row 14 Bistro & Wine Bar, told me. Cummings continued, "Not impressed, was an understatement." Sadly, many consumers feel the same way. When wine drinkers have a less then impressive California wine, chances are they will still buy another California wine in the future. However, one bad experience with a local wine is often the nail in the coffin. Even if they give the local wine region another shot, it can take years to clear the bad taste out of their mouth. "It wasn't until last year that," Cummings admitted, that he "blind tasted some CO wines and I was flabbergasted how good they were." Row 14 now offers an array of Colorado wines on the wine list to complement the local ingredients in Cummings' dishes. "I am constantly visited by winemakers and importers from around the world and when given the opportunity to blind taste them I give them a CO wine," added owner David Schneider. "They are always impressed and never guess that the product is local." Turning skeptics into evangelists is a step in the right direction.

I think that the increase in restaurant acceptance of local wines is starting to create waves in the media as well. Over the past few days, former Wine Spectator editor James Suckling has posted about Virginia and British Columbia wine on his website. Suckling isn't exactly known for pushing the envelope in exploring new wine regions, so his willingness to publish content about two overlooked regions is promising. Wine Spectator has been a bit better than most other traditional media outlets, but stories about wine regions in the other 47 states are still rare. New York and Arizona seem to get the most love, but they did recently publish an interview I conducted that focused on Colorado. I predict that as the general public becomes more aware of local wines, publications like Wine Spectator will write about them more.

But back to my main idea. Should Long Island wineries be upset with Wine Spectator for discussing issues that they are facing. I don't think so. I think that wineries should use this type of media mention as a stepping stone for improvement and consumer awareness. While not focusing on the problems, emerging wine regions need to accept that they have quality and consistency issues, be willing to learn from criticism and turn any press into good press. Emerging wine regions need to turn more skeptics into supporters and even evangelists.