Thursday, June 27, 2013

How to sell wine before it's finished and alienate people

There are so many ways to sell wine it can make a vintner's head spin. Finding the easiest and most efficient way is the goal of every winery. Case in point: en primeur. Every spring, the châteaux of Bordeaux invite the wine world to come taste the wines that are sitting in barrel from the previous harvest. En primeur is a method for selling wine while it is still in barrel. It is often referred to as "wine futures." Payment is made 12-18 months before the finished wines are bottled. The idea behind the system is that wines may be cheaper during en primeur than when they are released on the open market. Though, with the exorbitant prices the top châteaux now charge (Mouton Rothschild, Château Margaux and Haut-Brion released their 2012 wines at €240 per bottle ex-negociant, and that was roughly 33% less than the release price of the 2011 vintage!), investment opportunities are not going to be as easy to come by as they were in the early 1980s.

Many wineries around the world offer future wines for sale, but the producers of Bordeaux have been fine tuning their system for what seems like eternity. The system has been in place in Bordeaux for centuries. Why do they do this and why do other producers attempt to do the same? Well, producers benefit from the early cash flow. They also often sell their entire inventory before the finished wines are released. Pretty good deal, huh? It's almost like printing money. Or at least painting your own masterpiece...

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Consumers looking for a voice...

Last week, the American Wine Consumer Coalition launched. The organization, led by Tom Wark and David White (among others) is set to give a voice to the people most affected by the wide array of wine regulations, but are regularly ignored during the process of creating those laws. If you've ever been told you can't drink a certain wine just because you live in a certain state, the AWCC (sounds more like an athletic conference, but other acronyms are probably worse) is for you. Here is the group's manifesto:

The unique needs and desires of the American wine consumer have for too long been ignored by lawmakers as special interest groups have used the legal and regulatory system to protect their own interests at the expense of consumers. This is neither fair nor in the interest of the wine consumer. Wine consumers have the right to be heard, to be part of the entire process devoted to the regulation of wine and to have access to the broad range of products in the national marketplace. Anything less is unacceptable.
  • Wine Consumers ought to have the legal right to purchase the wines they want as long as a licensed entity agrees to sell them the wine.
  • Wine Consumers deserve a well-regulated marketplace designed to give them access to the wines they want.
  • Wine Consumers have a right to be consulted on the creation and passage of state and federal laws that impact their access to wines.
  • Wine consumers ought to have the legal right to have shipped to their home or place of work wines they legally purchased in-state or out-of-state.
  • Wine Consumers ought to have the right to carry with them or ship home a reasonable amount of wine they’ve purchased and legally own after visiting an out-of-state wine region.
  • Wine Consumers and their interests must be accounted for equally alongside those of producers, wholesalers and retailers when legislation and alcohol policy is considered.
Specifically for Colorado residents, consider the following that it is illegal for you to receive a shipment of wine from an out-of-state retailer, you are not allowed bringing your own bottle of wine to your favorite restaurant and only one location of a chain grocer is allowed to sell wine. Some people feel that allowing grocery store sales would hurt the small, boutique local wineries, but I personally (not in any association with my employment with the State of Colorado) think that the ability to deal with fewer buyers rather than a different buyer for ever licensed retailer might help local wineries with distribution. Retailers also have to buy wine from a wholesaler (luckily CO wineries can operate as their own wholesaler) and cannot buy directly from West Coast wineries; further restricting what wines you have access to. A few things have slowly started to change in the Centennial State. Only in the last few years has Colorado allowed sales on Sundays and we can now bring unfinished bottles of wine home from a restaurant!

But we still have a long way to go to catch up to much of the rest of the country. The AWCC is determined to make consumers' voices part of the wildly secretive and out-of-date system that determines how, where and what we can drink.

So, consider joining and supporting the American Wine Consumer Coalition. Then, help by spreading the word on Facebook and Twitter. You can follow the AWCC at @wineconsumers and Facebook.com/AmericanWineConsumerCoalition.


Tuesday, June 18, 2013

A winery without a tasting room, but flavor to spare... (2011 Ruby Trust Cellars releases)

Few, if any, Colorado wineries operate like California wineries. Generally speaking, that is a good thing. Colorado is not California and its wines are going to be as equally different. Yet, merlot, cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay are still Colorado's most planted varieties by acreage. Many of Colorado's vintners still think they can compete with California on these major varieties. Sure, the quality might be there, but consumers will more than likely go for the known commodity rather than take a flyer on the local juice.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Wine as a cocktail ingredient

There has a been a fair bit of media coverage of late about ingredients used to make wine. I haven't seen too much attention to wine itself as an ingredient. Mimosa: Sparkling wine and orange juice. Everyone knows that. Sangria: recipes vary, but generally wine, brandy, juice or soda and fruit. Two of my favorites also come from the Iberian peninsula, but are not so common as their punchy cousin. Kalimotxo is red wine and cola. Tinto de verano (this sounds great right now in this record Colorado heat...) is red wine and La Casera Limón (any lemon-lime soda works). In most cases, the cheapest wine possible is used. Yet, does that need to be the case? Should it be?

Monday, June 10, 2013

An antagonistic approach (a reputation you get when you question authority)

This weekend, a colleague of mine introduced me to a friend of his at the third annual Colorado Urban Winefest. Part of his introduction include a reference to my wine writing. He referred to me as an "antagonistic blogger." Both of those terms are used pejoratively in the world of wine writing. Now I have no problem being called a blogger. I write about wine on this blog. I have also contributed to Palate Press, Sommelier Journal, Wine Spectator and Decanter. So I am a wine blogger, and I also consider myself a wine writer.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Wine as a food or a lifestyle?

In the New York Times last week, Eric Asimov wrote an article about how little consumers pay attention to what ingredients are actually in wine. This article sparked a 6-page long (and still going) thread on the Wineberskers online forum about ingredient listings on labels and was the catalyst for a multi-day Twitter discussion between Bruce Schoenfeld, Keith Levenberg and myself (there were a few others in there, but those were the principals) about marketing wine as a food. Asimov pointed in his article out that Americans "weigh the nutritional, environmental, humanitarian, aesthetic and even political consequences of what they cook and consume," but do not do the same for wine. He concluded that perhaps if we were to start considering wine as a food that "standards for quality and authenticity" may start playing a part in wine consumers' purchasing decisions. I figured that this post would be much more conducive to laying out my argument than the restrictive nature of Twitter.

I actually disagree with Asimov on two points. First, many, many Americans don't give two seconds worth of thought about any consequences of what they eat. More than one in three Americans is obese; and that number is rising every year. Cheap and easy is easily more important to more people than any nutritional, environmental, humanitarian, aesthetic and even political consequence of food (or food-like product). Why would people care what is in their wine when products like sodas, hot dogs and chips are considered a traditional American meal. How many people look at the ingredient lists of those foods? Those three "foods" aren't even food. Now don't get me wrong, I've consumed all three in the last week, so I definitely live in a glass house. But wine is already confusing enough to the average consumer that they don't want to think about what's in their bottle of chardonnay.

On top of that, and as Asimov started his article, wine is still considered to be "natural" product. I don't have the numbers to back me up, but I'd be willing to bet that most people think only grapes are used to make wine. Just as when you buy an apple or orange juice, you probably assume that's all you're getting. I think people actually consider wine a food. People might like chardonnay more than merlot just like they like Golden Delicious more than MacIntosh. Perhaps wine is not thought as a natural accompaniment to the nightly dinner table (well, Europeans might, but not most Americans), but neither are apples. Consumers also think of wine as a glamorous lifestyle choice. But can wine be both?

When I saw Bruce Schoenfeld (who I often agree with, but love to argue with) tweet, "promoting wine as a lifestyle adjunct comes at the expense of promoting it as a staple food ... Not saying one or the other is better, but they're kind of mutually exclusive," I had to jump into the discussion. Bruce (for some reason I just can refer to him as Schoenfeld) was hitting on the point in Asimov's article that treating wine as a food would cause more consumers to care about the ingredients that go into making a bottle of wine (not all remain in the finished wine). Asimov and Bruce both are correct in there assessment that in America wine is most often marketed as an aspirational product and not generic food. "Drink my wine because it'll make you fun or make you more alluring," is the premise of most wine ads. There is the occasional, "drinking my wine will make you feel like you're at this beautiful, pastoral place when you're just on your couch." But by and large there is no "Got Wine?" campaign in the United States. There is no push to make a place for wine on your dinner table.

That's not to say there couldn't be. And that happens to be my main point in my argument with Bruce. He can think what he wants, and I'd love to shake the hand of a person that has actually changed Bruce's mind. Commodity and luxury are not mutually or intrinsically exclusive of each other. Why do people buy those asinine 2002 Chevrolet Earnhardt Signature Monte Carlos? The car itself serves the same purpose of a regular Monte Carlo, but offers the aspiration to be like a NASCAR driver (yay, I know how to make left turns...). Same could be said about designer jeans or lots of other products. Even foods like bison, heirloom tomatoes and farm-fresh eggs could be considered luxury staple foods. Marketing wine as a generic foodstuff and a glamorous aspirational good can and does happen.

Does it happen often in the U.S.? Nope. But travel to Europe. In Spain, ask for a glass of tinto at a bar and you'll be brought a glass of red wine and a tapa. The bartender most likely will not tell you anything about the wine. The wine's brand is a mystery, yet the brand exists. And I'm sure the winery that made that wine has several other wines that they market as a premium wine. Wine is both a staple food and an aspirational good in Europe. I've only spent an evening in France (and I ate pizza...) and never been to Italy, but I've heard anecdotes about house wine there too being just a generic wine.

Some restaurants in the U.S. also have brand-less house wines, but wine is definitely on fewer tables. My in-laws drink lots of house wine. They don't care what brand it is, they just order a glass of white wine at a restaurant. The fact that many fewer tables are graced by wine is not from wine being inherently incompatible as a lifestyle good and a staple food, but more from America's puritanical history. European history is steeped in wine. American history is not. In fact, it was outlawed for more than 13 years less than a century ago. Nudity and sex are also taboo in the U.S. (though slowly becoming less so) whereas in Europe or Asia the naked body or a sexual act is not something mutually exclusive from decency. Our culture is the reason wine is not usually considered a nightly dinner accompaniment. Marketers in the U.S. know this and have used the wine as a lifestyle campaign to their advantage. But that's not to say wine couldn't be marketed as a food. Wineries would just be barking up a tall tree if they were to attempt that approach.

Though someday the wine as a food campaign may not be so difficult in America. Take the Drink Local Wine movement. All 50 states now have wineries. Today, America wine isn't as much as a special product from the mystical land of California, but something that is much more approachable. Much of the argument for local wine supporters is that wine can be every bit as local as local cheese or local vegetables. Local wine should be considered (considered, not mandatory) when thinking about eating locally. The locapour crowd is much more wine as a food oriented than people that only want to drink top Napa or Bordeaux wineries. Yet, the locavore movement is also about aspiring to a certain lifestyle. And so the circle continues...

Monday, June 3, 2013

A (sort of) defense of the proposed new BAL standard

Blake Gray should lay off the hyperbole pills. Of course his blog views might decline a bit, but his posts might be a bit more believable if he did (I happen to agree with lots of what Blake says, but I don't mind throwing stones at CA writers' hornets nests). Last week, he wrote a few posts about what he called a "Draconian DUI proposal." If you haven't already read about the NTSB's recommendation to create a nationwide 0.05% blood-alcohol level limit that would change the legal drunk driving standard. Gray claims that such a change could "put an end to dining out as we currently know it."

Now, I'm not a proponent of the proposal, but I do know that lowering the BAL from 0.08% to 0.05% would definitely not put an end to dining out. In fact, I am going to make a factless claim that very little would change. The calculation of blood alcohol content is only possible on a case by case basis, so it is hard to say exactly what this lowering of the limit would mean in terms of actual consumption, but as a general estimate only one drink per hour will make a average sized person legally intoxicated whereas currently it takes about two drinks per hour. Perhaps a few law-abiding citizens would order fewer drinks and a restaurant might lose a couple of bucks. Probably not.

A few more people might get pulled over and issued DUI citations, but are the impairment differences between 0.08 and 0.05 really that dramatic that law enforcement officials will notice that many more people driving under the influence? Probably not.

I doubt that the recommendation will see the light of day. After all, the NTSB has no jurisdiction to lower the BAL. That power rests with each state. And since when do all the states get in line and voluntarily do the same thing? Now, if changes in highway funding were tied to lowering the legal limit, then we might see some action.

I am confident that nothing will come of this draconian proposal because it is unpatriotic. I am sure that Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachmann will rise to the occasion and keep us from turning into Europe. After all, every European country, except for the United Kingdom, have BAL standards at or below 0.05%! And Russia, of all places, has a zero tolerance. Perhaps Palin will be patriotic enough to call for increasing the legal limit back to 0.1% just so we're less like her neighbors across the strait. If you ever watched any of those Russian dash-cam videos on Youtube can make your own assumptions on how the zero-tolerance thing is working out...

So sleep well tonight, Blake, dining out as we currently know it can be taken of the endangered activity list.