Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Wine and Disorder (and a Blanc du Bois)

In the Wine Sales System the people are represented by two separate, yet equally important groups. The Wineries who make and sell the wine and the Retailers who buy and resell the wine. This is a story of a horrendous retail representative.

This week I find myself in New Orleans, LA.  The last time I was here was almost ten years ago. I was here for an academic conference that also happened to be during Mardi Gras. This trip is much different with a toddler in tow.

Anyhow, yesterday I was at Rouses to get some sustenance for the week. The liquor laws here are obviously different than in CO. New Orleans actually allows the possession and consumption of any alcoholic beverage in an open plastic container in public. However, open containers are still prohibited in the rest of Louisiana. Alcohol is also sold in grocery stores in Louisiana. So while at Rouses, I per used the wine selection. I debated buying a $25 bottle of Louisiana Norton. I ended up buying a bottle of $15 Blanc de Bois.

I was looking for a second bottle and got to talking to a salesperson. I asked him if they had any wine from states other than west coast states. He told me they had New Zealand and Italian wine. I reiterated that I was looking for domestic wine and he said he had California, Oregon and Washington wine. When I again asked for non-west coast wine, he mentioned that Florida and Georgia make wine but that Rouses didn't carry any. I thanked him and continued looking on my own slightly annoyed.

Mr. Helpful saw me a few minutes later and decided to make another sales attempt. He asked me if I had ever heard of Sottano Malbec. I said no as he showed me the way to the South America section. He started his pitch by telling me this was the only 100% Malbec you could find from Argentina. Intrigued, I listened intently. He then proceeded to grab a bottle of Layer Cake. He turned the bottle to the back label and pointed to the notes that indicate hints of chocolate and spices. He then said that Sottano didn't add any of those things to the wine. I give him a puzzled look and corrected his assertion that any wines actually add flavors to the bottle (ok, a few do). I don't think I got through to him. He proceeded to tell me that wines that had added boysenberry were the most difficult to pinpoint. I politely thanked him and made my way to the beer selection.

The fact that a person whose job was to sell wine was suggesting that the flavors listed on labels were the result of artificial additives was beyond mind blowing. I've had arguments with ignorant salespeople about different blends and varieties, but had never met a completely incompetent salesperson who had suggested what this guy was. It had to have been a candid camera show that forgot to ask for a waiver. Really, when does the episode air?

Anyway, my first experience with Louisiana wine was accompanied, of course, by pickled okra. Turns out that isn't such an odd pairing. That leads me to my appreciation of the back label of the wine, which says, "All of our wines are being produced with one specific purpose in mind: to provide a distinctive regional wine to complement to the extraordinary cuisines of Louisiana." Awesome! Too bad the wine wasn't actually something to write home about. The nose of the 2010 Le Trolley from Pontchartrain Vineyards was clean and some hints of tropical fruits. It didn't taste as nice as it smelled. There were some green apple flavors, but mostly it was funky and bitter. $15 for an exceptionally average wine isn't exactly a value buy, but hey what else do you pair pickled okra with while you are in New Orleans? Oh, the Southern Pecan  Brown Ale and Sweet Potato Stout from Lazy Magnolia Brewing Company (Kiln, MS) were pretty good!

Friday, March 15, 2013

Tasting with Stéphane Derenoncourt

There are many different types of winemakers. Some make wine under their own name and are something of a one-man or one-woman show. Some have their own brand, but also consult for a few other wineries. Some our winemakers for hire and consult at one or many wineries. Regardless of who writes their check (or how big those checks may be), most winemakers love what they do and are passionate about wine. A few weeks ago, I sat down with a man who does all of the above.

From humbling beginnings in Saint-Émilion, Stéphane Derenoncourt made a name for himself in the 1990s and has since become a globally renowned winemaker that makes wine for more than 60 wineries (including two of his own) in a dozen different countries. He, along with Michel Rolland, is often referred to as a "flying winemaker." I met with Derenoncourt during my weekend in California for Premiere Napa Valley. I interviewed him for Decanter and we also tasted through the 2009 lineup of his Derenoncourt California wines.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

A Good Wine Seldom Mentioned Is Soon Forgotten

As I begin to read Doug Shafer's A Vineyard in Napa, a motto he attributes to his father, John, and founder of the renowned Shafer Vineyards made me think of the current debate about the state of wine criticism. "A good wine seldom mentioned is soon forgotten." To me, this maxim speaks volumes to me about how both we as writers/critics and consumers talk about wine.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Wine Should Be Dynamic

Yesterday, I mentioned that consumers want dynamic wines. On face value, that is wrong. Many consumers want the cheapest wine they can get. They want to drink the same boring wine night in and night out. After all, jug wine and cheap boxed wine (there is some good boxed wine...) make up the majority of Americans' wine purchases. When I refer to dynamic wine, I'm talking about wines that cost more than seven dollars a bottle. I am talking about people that talk about wine.

Dynamic wine doesn't have to mean the absolute best damn wine in the world. It just means a wine that evokes emotions. It means wines that change the way we think about wine. One of my favorite wines is a six-dollar Vino de la Tierra de Castilla, Casa Solar. When I was in college, my wife-to-be and I drank a case of it when we were wet behind the ears. It was the red wine we served at our wedding. Will it knock your socks off? No. But it means something to me. It evokes thought and emotion. It makes me think about life. It makes me think about my continued journey through the wine world. Pretty impressive for a low-80 point wine. Will it be dynamic for you? Probably not. Sadly, I haven't had a bottle for a few years, but just thinking about it makes me smile.

Dynamic also means wines speak differently to different people. I've had many wines that someone has rated a "perfect" 100-points. Some I've like, some I've really disliked. One man's treasure is an other's trash. I can say I've never had a perfect wine. I don't think such a thing exists. It almost makes me sad to think that people think wine can be perfect. Wine can be pretty damn near perfect, but just like infinity it can never be reached.

Dynamic also means a wine that changes. It can change in the glass. It can change in the bottle. It can change your perception of wine. It can change your mind. Good wines from places off the beaten path excite me. Wines and people that try to change the wine world are dynamic. One of the problems with the wine world is that so many people try to make wine static. By assigning scores to wine, they etch in stone a quantitative, and subjective value of a wine. Sure, they say there are footnotes in their publications that say a score is only what one person thought about a wine on a given day, but we all know that is not how a score is used in the real world. Scores are written on the foreheads of wines with permanent ink.

I am put off by scores because they pretend to be permanent. Rarely do you see a critic change his or her score by more than a point or two. Critics pretend to be infallible. If they admit they were wrong, why would consumers listen to what they have to say? The people who hand out triple-digit scores want to solidify their influence. They want their voices to be permanent. Nothing about wine is permanent. Not the color, not the aroma and not the flavors. Not the wineries and not even the pundits. But I hope that the discussion and the global conversation that is fervently heating up will be permanent. When you and I are long gone, I hope people are still talking about wine with as much passion as I like to think I am.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Wine World is Changing and Some Wine Writers ARE Losing It (Influence, that is...)

One of the favorite discussion items in the wine industry of late revolves around changes in wine criticism. Some recognize changes and others hold on to the belief that wine writing is a static enterprise. In the past few years, the rise of wine bloggers has caused traditional writers to get a bit defensive. This rise in the democratization of information is upsetting the critical dictators. Those in the ivory towers continue to say that wine criticism and the traditional media in which it has been conveyed is stronger than ever. Those that say otherwise are attacked as losing their minds. Regardless of the ridiculous amount of navel gazing going on, the short and skinny of it is simple: yes, the wine industry is changing and the role of wine criticism is a big part of that change. To say otherwise is to proclaim your stubbornness (or ignorance).

Friday, March 1, 2013

Restaurants need to get with the program

Restaurants in Colorado are missing the boat when it comes to being innovative and genuine with their wine lists. There are just over 100 wineries in the state, yet I can only think of a handful of wineries that appear on restaurant wine lists in the Denver area. Sure, some of the fault lies with the wineries. Many think they are too small to appear on a restaurant list and some just don't want to sell to restaurants. That's fine and good, but it is also a short-sighted perspective. Restaurants can and should be a vital partner in a wine industry.

When I was in Napa last week, the Napa Valley Vintners worked with 10 area restaurants to promote by-the-glass lists with only Napa Valley wine for Premiere week. Now, Napa has more than four times as many wineries and many orders of magnitude more acres of vineyards than Colorado so it is easier for restaurants to find local wines they want to place on their lists. I bring up the Napa comparison only because we are in the middle of Denver Restaurant Week (Feb. 23 - Mar. 8). I've eaten at two different restaurants and have been disappointed in the wine selections at each. Both wine specials at each restaurant were the exact same Gallo-owned brands. Sure, sponsorship for events such as Restaurant Week are important, but when a restaurant is trying to be innovative with its food, why not its wine? I only found one Colorado selection on their regular wines lists. Which leads me to my next point.

So many Colorado restaurants tout themselves are being farm-to-table or supporting local farmers. Yet, few have more than a token local wine on the list if any at all. Local beers and spirits appear on lists with much more frequency than local wines. Part of this has to do with the brewers and distillers being located along the front range whereas the wineries are much more spread out throughout the state and being more active promoters of their products. But a good deal of it has to do with restaurants being lazy. They only look the through catalogs that their beverage distributors bring them. Very few Colorado wineries actually have third-party distributors, but instead self-distribute their product.Yes, those wineries need to be more proactive in approaching select restaurants, but restaurants also need to show their support for local vintners by visiting the wineries and vineyards, too. Chefs are eager to find local greens and meats, but wine is often forgotten.

Now, I'm not advocating that any restaurant have a 100% Colorado wine list. But restaurants hold some responsibility in offering more than same five Colorado wineries. I should note that a few restaurants in the Grand Valley do a much better job of listing Colorado wine, but like it or not Denver and the mountain resort towns are the markets that matters most. The very knowledgeable Colorado consumers want to see that some thought went into the design of a wine list and not just wines that are easily available at the local liquor store, but with a 300% markup. Restaurants in other wine regions get this, why don't Colorado restaurants?