Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Look west, Colorado (think big, act small)

Colorado is not California. That statement shouldn't surprise you. Colorado shouldn't try to be California. Colorado can make equally good, yet different wine. However, Colorado should try to learn from California. California invented the wheel when it comes to the modern wine industry. Colorado shouldn't try to reinvent that wheel. Re-imagine and improve the wheel, sure, but not reinvent it.

Not only should Colorado try to learn from California, Colorado wineries should try to learn from the world's largest wine company: Constellation Brands. Constellation owns over 100 wine, spirit and beer brands across the globe, and yet the average consumer is probably unaware that the wine they love may actually be a part of a large multinational corporation instead of the small family operation they think. No, Colorado wineries are not going to become global powers; I say this because Constellation owns some of the most famous California wine brands. Two of Constellations' wineries are the focus of this post. Through these wineries, Constellation thinks big (real big), but in many cases acts small.

Case in point: Robert Mondavi Winery. Now, Constellation had nothing to do with RMW until they bought out the Mondavi family in 2004. Nevertheless, they sell the story of the winery as if it were their own, as smart marketers should. The story of Robert Mondavi should be of considerable interest to Colorado wineries, yet I wonder how many actually truly understand what he did.

Robert Mondavi started his eponymous winery in 1966 after he left his family's Charles Krug Winery. At the time, there were only about 25 wineries in the Napa Valley. The wine industry was relatively small and like a placid lake. French wineries were at the helm of the ship. Mondavi through a pebble in the water and started a ripple that is continuing still making waves to this day. Colorado wineries need to get on one of those waves and start splashing themselves.

Mondavi learned from the best French wineries that wine was part of a lifestyle. One key to that lifestyle was how wine accompanied food. However, at that time wine was not a staple on the American dinner table. For those of you that watch Mad Men, you may have noticed that French wine is the only wine you see on the Draper's table. Portuguese wines like Lancers (the music on their website just adds to their prestige...) and Mateus were also considered premium wines. Mondavi set his course to change that and to prove to the French elitists that American wines could rival the best France had to offer and should be rightfully placed on the American dinner table.

When he built his winery, he made sure to include a commercial kitchen where chefs could come and prepare meals overlooking his prized To-Kalon Vineyard. He daringly poured top French wines alongside his wines and meals prepared by skeptical chefs. Mondavi want to show the world that American restaurants should start to sell American wines to accompany American cuisine. In the 1980's, American learned to cook and the increased development of regional American cuisine helped legitimize an American wine industry that had been devastated by Prohibition and only just begun to reemerge decades later.

He did all this by not trying to promote only his winery, he promoted all of California. Once people were convinced that California could make quality wine, he pushed Napa Valley wine. He promoted his peers in the valley just has much as he did his own winery. His philosophy was that a rising tide raises all boats.

Too often I see Colorado wineries trying to sell themselves as they knock their neighbors. This creates confusion amongst consumers and damages the states' reputation as a whole. Mondavi would disapprove. Colorado wineries need to promote Colorado wines. Colorado wine accounts for less than 2% of all wine sold in the state. When consumers actually discover Colorado wine, then can wineries start to sell their regions. Right now, the Grand Valley and the West Elks designations are probably meaningless to the average consumer. A few individual brands might be somewhat known, but wineries need to do a better job of selling each other. And I mean this literally. I know I've gone on this rant before, but wineries shouldn't try to make a wine for every consumer. They're just not big enough. Wineries that make excellent reds should stick with reds and not try to make mediocre whites or sweet wines just because the RV crowd from Texas wants them. What Colorado wineries can do is buy their neighbors' white wine and sell it at their tasting room. This accomplishes the goal of promoting other wineries while not diluting their own quality.

Another thing that Colorado wineries need to do is address the culinary gap that exists. Mondavi did it by inviting chefs to come cook in his kitchen. I only know of one winery, Balistreri Vineyards in Denver, that has a commercial kitchen on site. When writers and industry professionals visit a winery, there is no better way to showoff than to have a world-class meal in view of the vineyards. Wineries that attempt to serve food hire a catering company. This suffices most of the time, but isn't exceeding expectations the goal?

When I was in California last year (this article has been a long time coming...), I visited both Robert Mondavi Winery and its sister, Franciscan Winery. I tasted many delicious wines at each, but what really stood out was the meal I had at Franciscan prepared by their Executive Chef. Yes, not only do they have a kitchen, but they have their own chef. Having a meal prepared at a gorgeous winery with a chef intimately connected with the wines is a huge advantage for a winery. It also helps having the financial backing of a huge corporation to make this possible.

There is a ray of hope for this happening in Colorado. As I said previously, Balistreri Vineyards included a kitchen in their brand-new Denver facility and Top Chef winner Hosea Rosenberg has settled his Blackbelly Catering there. Balistreri now offers a lunch menu, created by Rosenberg, seven days a week. On the other side of the mountains, Grande River Vineyards in Palisade is bringing Chef Jill Peters (daughter of owner Naomi Smith) on board with plans of building a commercial kitchen on site. More wineries need to follow suit.

Colorado shouldn't necessarily try to emulate California in every way, but it could do worse than to copy a few key ideas that helped California wine, and Constellation Brands, become the global powerhouses they now are.

One final note, I've been shying away from sterile wine reviews, but wanted to share a few highlights from my tastings at Robert Mondavi Winery and Franciscan:

2007 Robert Mondavi Winery, Vine Hill Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville

A beautiful wine. The aromas just leap from the glass; a lovely smokiness, dark fruits, cloves and cinnamon are balanced by a suggestion of tobacco. The intensity of the nose is met in the mouth with loads of blackberries, chocolate and strong, yet not overpowering, dusty tannins. The flavors linger on the palate for quite some time. 15% abv Sample $85. Very Good/Excellent

2008 Robert Mondavi Winery, Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley

A youthful bright red wine fills the glass. On the nose, red and black fruits are complemented by a healthy dose of earth and roasted herbs. Olives, coffee, dark red and black fruit mingle with the gentle garrigue flavors and ripe tannins to create a beautiful complexity on the palate. 15.5% abv Sample $135. Very Good/Excellent

2009 I-Block, Fumé Blanc, To-Kalon Vineyard

This 100% barrel-fermented sauvignon blanc is an opulent wine. It shows a rich butteriness on the nose that is balanced by typical aromas of cut grass and melon. The texture is oily and there is saline quality to it. Great fruit flavors are dominated by melons and a slight citrus component. A haze of smokiness also floats over the wine. 14.5% abv Sample $75. Very Good

2007 Franciscan Winery, Magnificat, Napa Valley

A blend of 71% cabernet sauvignon, 26% merlot, 2% petit verdot and 1% malbec. Lots of blackberry and raspberry on the nose along with a noticeable amount of alcohol. Grippy tannins show through the dark fruit and generous pie spice flavors. It is dense, yet supple with a long finish. 14.5% abv Sample $50. Good/Very Good

2009 Franciscan Winery, Cuvee Sauvage Chardonnay, Carneros

A stereotypical big, rich California chardonnay that actually is in control of itself. This wine is barrel fermented in mostly new French oak with only wild, native yeasts from the vineyard. There is a lot of vanilla and coconut on the nose. The smokey, buttered popcorn flavors are complemented by bright lemons and pears on the palate. Overall, this is a big, yet well-integrated oaky chardonnay. 14.5% abv Sample $40. Good/Very Good

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