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Friday, February 26, 2010

So you want to be a wine snob?

Do you feel the need to:

-- Impress people with your knowledge?
-- Spend a lot of money?
-- Be serious about getting drunk?

If you do then you are a candidate for becoming a wine snob!

Following is a short list of things you should know. Read it, study it, and practice it. Many are lifestyle changes so this will take some work.

Warning: Don't practice on people you want to impress in case of a faux pas. Instead practice on family or other people that don't matter, maybe in-laws. Don't currently have any in-laws? Ex-in-laws are even better!

1. Where to get drunk
After work instead of stopping at the local watering hole for a cold one go into a trendy wine bar for a glass of Chardonnay (if you're female) or Pinot Noir (unisex).  If you are gay I'd suggest a Spanish wine.

2. How to get drunk
You can't just pour a glass and guzzle it down like a beer! You've got to smell it. (You have a cold? Drink scotch instead). You have to swish it around in your mouth because the mouth has different areas for acid, bitter, sweet, and some other stuff I can't remember. So apparently it's important to know all this before swallowing. 
Actually, wine is the only beverage where you spend a ton of money for it then spit it out! You may want to invest in a spittoon.
Luckily, after everybody has had a couple glasses and eases up you can guzzle all you want.

3. When you get hungry while getting drunk
Food pairing with wine is a difficult science and art. Few people understand it well. But once you're a wine snob whatever you say amongst your friends and guests will be right! Isn't this getting easier?

4. Disneyland for adults
You must visit Napa Valley. It's like Mecca for intoxicated snobs. When you go don't visit the hundreds of wineries open to the public where you'll find all sorts of riffraff (even Canadians)! The only wineries worth visiting are those that require an appointment at THEIR convenience. You know, God's gift to wine.

5. Glassware
There are dozens of varieties of wines: Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet, Pinot Noir, etc. (These four are the best ones). You need a different kind of glass for each. Don't be caught drinking Zinfandel from a Sauvignon Blanc glass. Jeezuss. If you're going to be that pitiful you may as well use a Mason jar like the Italians. What do they know? They've only been drinking wine for a couple thousand years.

6. Impressive wines
  • Note that the best ones have labels in unpronounceable French or German. Others may have artwork for a label. The label is most important.
  • Look for high alcohol levels--more bang for your buck.
  • Screw caps?  Ugh.   Screw caps = Gallo = drunken bums on the sidewalk.
  • Any wine worth touching your lips should have gotten at least 93 points from Robert Parker.   Don't know who Robert Parker is?  Doesn't matter, just be sure he gave the wine a good score.

7. Getting blotto'ed while eating out
When ordering wine at a restaurant:
  • The wine should be from Burgundy, Bordeaux or Napa.
  • It should be from the top 15% most expensive wines on the list.
  • Don't order a screw cap wine! It'll just lead to jokes about screwing in a restaurant.
  • When the waiter brings the bottle and shows you the label just nod approvingly even though you can't read it from six feet away in bad light.
  • Once he removes the cork he'll set it in front of you sometimes partially wrapped in the foil from the bottle (meaning he really knows what he's doing). Pick up the cork and smell it. The end with the wine stain on it, that is. It'll smell like vinegar, but that's OK. (The other end actually smells better). Look at the waiter and smile showing that you know what you are doing.
  • He'll pour just a bit in your glass. This is for your approval. Note that you are NEVER supposed to disapprove and say you don't want it.
  • Still, you must pick up the glass looking at the edges of the wine against the glass in the dark restaurant light. Then swirl the wine vigorously to wash off any soap left inside from their glass washer.
  • Take a little sip, swish it around in your mouth and, this is important, with your teeth clenched draw air into your mouth so you can hear the wine gurgle. If you're still up to it you can now swallow the wine and nod again to the waiter so he can pour some for everyone else.
  • A good waiter will come around a second time and pour the remaining wine in about half the available glasses. Someone will be left short so you'll want to order another bottle.
8. Impressive words
Key phrases worth memorizing:
  • "Oh boy, another over-malo'ed Chardonnay."
  • "Lots of terroir in this. You can really taste the dirt."
  • "I'm picking up a little sulfur/Mercaptans/Brett." (Your choice). 
  • "My friend Cal, the Sommelier (pronounced kinda like "smellier"), doesn't care for California Syrah."
9. Cults
In the wine world cults are actually good. In fact you should be on a few cult mailing lists. Better yet seek out the "pre-cults" to get a leg up on the less trendy. How do you recognize a cult wine? In California it will be a very small, very expensive Napa operation. The wines are not necessarily great. They are made to impress without having to actually drink the stuff. 
Look for cult winemakers. These folks are rock stars and you can be their groupie!
To help you understand how cults work check out the web page for Screaming Eagle Winery where you're made to feel small for even thinking about visiting to buy a $350 bottle.

10. Getting drunk at home
Your wine collection (remember, this is a hobby--it's going to cost you) should only contain wines that meet certain criteria:
  • You must have wine stored at home in a "cellar." The temperature in your "cellar" MUST be 55 degrees. No other temperature will work!  A cellar is required because the best wines require at least 20 years of ageing before they are drinkable.
  • Each wine should get 90-some points from someone who knows what they're talking about because they know what you should like.
  • Most wines should be either from obscure and expensive French wine houses or California wines that sell only by mailing lists. Don't bother with stuff you can find in a local store.
  • Nothing imported or from Napa should be less than $75 a bottle. Note that there are some areas of California where you can't find a wine costing $75 so it's best to limit yourself to Napa Valley.
  • You can, of course, have a couple bottles of crap laying around for guests who show up knowing you're a wine snob, but don't actually know anything about wine themselves, such as your in-laws.

(And if you already see yourself in some of this don't get too excited. It's all in fun. I see myself too. How do you think I know about this stuff?)

Sunday, February 21, 2010

2009 California Wine Sales

Current State

It's not a surprise 2009 sucked for retail sales, but not including wine!

Sales of California wine were down in '09. No shock maybe, but at the same time U.S. consumption of wine was up (guess you have to drown your sorrows).

From a Santa Rosa Press Democrat article the small and medium-sized wineries are hurting. The larger ones are able to import bulk wine from less expensive overseas countries. People are buying wine, but buying less expensive bottles. That shouldn't be a surprise.

The French aren't immune either according to this Business Week article.

Just a couple years ago you'd read about the lower end wines not doing so well, but the premium ones doing quite well. So things have changed. But for how long? Is this a short-term phenomenon or is it more permanent? That's the sixty-four thousand dollar question all retailers are asking.

Current Prices

The other question is what price ranges are affected and in what ways? For instance, is under $12 wine growing a lot, $12-$25 holding, $25-$75 falling fast, over $75 holding steady? (Or whatever).

When I look around locally I find $45 Pinot Noir, $35 Zinfandel, and $50 Cabernet everywhere. Well, it doesn't cost anywhere near 45 bucks, or 35, or 25, to make a bottle of Pinot. It's all about supply-and-demand and the demand isn't there now. It's pretty simple -- if you've lost your job or are afraid of losing it you are now eating hamburger instead of NY strip steak. Are you going to drink a $50 Cab with your burger or an $8 Malbec?

Most established wineries can survive with lower prices. Some wineries won't be able to because they're too far in hock. Too bad.

Reaction to the Economy

There are things wineries will do while waiting for the good ol' days to return:
  • Live in denial believing that people will always buy your wine and will not trade down to something less expensive. After all, if Screaming Eagle can sell out ...
  • Heavily discount to wholesalers. Instead of the middle-man paying, say, $25 for their high-end Pinot they're getting it for $15.
  • Run their own specials at the winery.  This works if most of their sales are direct-to-consumer.
  • Create a new, second label with the same juice at a lower price.
  • Sell their juice in bulk instead of processing it themselves. Sometimes I wonder how much Rutherford Cab is winding up in boxes.
  • Just lower their prices. Problem is the marketing-types have lots of theories as to why you shouldn't do this. California has a history of holding prices in past recessions.
Drinking Cheap
I was in the Safeway market looking for an inexpensive Pinot Noir. I was surprised by how many on the shelf were $20 or less.   Later I was in a discount liquor warehouse finding lots of local wines selling for half -- or less -- of suggested retail.

In California you can find blends, sometimes just labeled as Red Table Wine, that are inexpensive and quite decent. Other ideas are to search out appellations that aren't as expensive (such as Napa vs. Lodi) or varietals (such as Cabernet vs. Mouvedre).

In fact, if you still want the premium wine, but on a lower budget "trading down" on the varietal is a good way to do this. If you like white wines try Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Gris instead of Chardonnay. The best Sauv Blanc in California is probably Merry Edwards and retails in the upper-$20s -- a lot less than the high-end Chardonnays. If that's still too much there are plenty of Sauv Blancs priced in the teens. If you drink Cab look for inexpensive Merlots. Merlot is somewhat out-of-favor now so that has affected the price.

I was reading through the Wine Spectator's list of 100 top wines of 2009. There are a number of them under $20 -- mostly from South America or Australia -- just a couple white wines from California. What's with that??

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Amador County Wines

We spent a long weekend in the Sierra Nevada foothills in Amador County, part of California's Gold Country.   This is a lesser know wine area of the state.

The oldest American vineyards still in production are here, but the area has only been on the map for wine since maybe the mid-1980s though it seems to have really boomed in the number of tasting rooms in the last five years.

It took awhile for them to "find themselves" as they went from Zinfandel and some Cabernet to more Barbera, Sangiovese, and Rhone varietals.   Zin is still king, but Cabernet, thankfully, is fallen behind as it never was very good.   (If you've never had a Ruby Cabernet from the Sierra foothills you haven't missed anything).

Life was a bit tougher in the gold mining days
(From the Sutter Creek Cemetary)

This trip we stopped at these wineries:
  • Amador Foothill - a longtime favorite
  • C G Di Arie
  • Convergence
  • Cooper
  • Driven - a display of cars and trucks, mostly rust buckets.  This guy apparently has TWO hobbies that got out of hand!
  • Jeff Runquist - Appears to be the closest thing Amador has to a cult winery.
  • Nine Gables
  • Scott Harvey - He's been making killer Zins for a long time.
We've been to Amador Foothill, Nine Gables and Scott Harvey before; the rest were new to us.  For what it's worth I bought wine from Amador Foothills, Cooper, Jeff Runquist and Scott Harvey wineries.

At Amador Foothill Winery we came across a rare wine (to California) called Aglianico from southern Italy. Aglianico traces its origins back to the Romans and the Greeks. It's full-bodied with noticeable tannins and acids. Sort of a cross between Barbera, Petite Sirah and Cabernet.

At Scott Harvey Winery we had "Vineyard 1869" from the oldest Zinfandel vineyard in the country--136 years old and counting with less than 200 cases produced by Scott (some of the grapes are sold to others).  The winery had an original document on display proving this to be the oldest vineyard around.  There's lots of local drama around this claim--do a search on "grandpere vineyards" if you are interested.    Whatever, the wine was damn good, but a bit expensive for a Zinfandel.  I guess you're buying history.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Late Winter Photos

This first photo is of Mt. St. Helena at the north end of Napa County.  Taken from Calistoga Road between Napa and Sonoma counties on 1/30/10.   You can click on the photos to enlarge.

These are Russian River Valley photos taken a couple miles west of Santa Rosa. The first also shows Mt St Helena in the background.  Photos taken 2/10/10.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Reasonably Priced Pinot Noir, part 1

This Pinot got banned in Alabama cuz she's nekked
So if you're reading this in Alabama destroy your monitor now!

Pinot Noir is expensive. Worse, paying $45 for a bottle does not guarantee it'll be good. So I'm on the lookout for something in the $20 plus-or-minus range. 

The prices listed with each wine below are suggested retail / what I paid. As they say, "Your mileage may vary."    The wines are listed from my favorite to least favorite.

I expect this will be a continuing quest that's why this is "Part 1."

2007 MacKenzie Russian River Valley, $25 / $14

It's a single vineyard, plus was produced and bottled by MacKenzie. With a little searching I found a Shelton-MacKenzie company with the same address as Carol Shelton wines.

This is kind of an old style PN in that the alcohol is moderate and there's definitely acid on the finish.  Enough fruit and good backbone to make it a nice food wine and it should age a bit.

A good wine with decent complexity for the price.  A food wine.

2007 Kenwood Russian River Valley, $18 / $9

This wine retails for $18, but you can usually find it for under $15. Sometimes well under $15.  Gary Heck of Korbel owns Kenwood.  He has billions of tons of Pinot growing along the Russian River so there's no shortage of "free" Pinot grapes for them.

I've had this wine in the past because it's always seemed a good deal and it still is.   The '07 drinks young as there's a bit of a tannic and acidic bite.   It's a little floral and herbal with a sour cherries though the wine is a bit on the light side, but still a good accompaniment to food.

A good Pinot, not great, but I've had $45 ones that aren't as good.

2007 Husch Anderson Valley, $23  / $17

Much more on the spicy side rather than fruit-forward though I picked up sour cherries.  A bit of a rough, acidic and tannic finish though not out of balance.  Decent complexity.  But if you like lots of cherry fruit then this isn't your wine.

As it's tough to make a bad Zinfandel in Dry Creek Valley it's also nearly impossible to make a bad Pinot in Anderson Valley.

2007 French Rabbit, $10 / $9

This is one liter of French Pinot in a "Tetra Pak" rather than a bottle. It's advertised as earth-friendly packaging. It's from the Boisset family--the same folks that own Deloach Winery and turned them biodynamic.   They don't say exactly what the box is made from, but it seems to be paper products and it's recyclable.  Most of the descriptions on the box were about the advantages of the packaging rather than about the wine. I have a new tag line the family might want to use on it's products, "Saving Mother Earth, one glass of wine at a time."

The box is a good idea as it's light, shatterproof, easy to open and reseal, plus easier to sneak into a ballgame or movie ...

I wasn't sure whether I was getting a new world fruit forward wine or an old world Pinot with stinky smells the Burgundy lovers crave.  It's new world with balanced fruit (not fruit-forward), easy-drinking yet enough acid to stand up to a meal.  I'd call it a good wine with no real flaws.   Not complex and not dripping with Pinot characteristics, but enjoyable and a heckuva deal.   Remember, it's nine bucks for a full liter so that comes out to $6.75 for a 750 ml bottle.   Definitely one of the better deals in Pinot Land.

2006 Gallo Family Sonoma County, $16 / $10

I've found this wine selling for $9 or $10. I picked this bottle up at a Safeway market while noticing quite a few Pinots for under $20 on their shelf, but many had a California, North Coast or some other broad appellation. Doesn't mean they're not good, but I just wasn't sure where the fruit might be from -- or maybe I shouldn't worry in this price class.

Good body, some distinctive floral notes ("distinctive" doesn't necessarily mean "good"), and not much in the way of varietal characteristics. Muddy, murky. The only wine of these listed here that I'd consider flawed.  I dumped most of it down the drain.

One of these "bottles" is out of place!

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

"Buyer's Market"

I saw the latest copy of Wine Spectator declaring it's officially a buyer's market as I was checking out.

I think I had figured this out about 15 minutes earlier.

I was in a local discount liquor store, the Bottle Barn, in Santa Rosa specifically looking for a couple inexpensive Pinot Noirs.  There was a difference since the last time I was there in the fall.    Some of the prices were amazing.   You could be a kid in a candy store!

There were lots of wines under $20.   What's more remarkable are the wines going for about half of their suggested retail price.    Though lots of wineries are not discounting.   I would say many wines in the $20-$40 are however.

Some I noticed were:
La Czar Russian River Pinot - Retail $35, for $13 !!
Lake Sonoma Dry Creek Zinfandel - Retail $22, for $11
Valley of the Moon Syrah - Retail $18, for $10

When you think about what the winery's are selling these to distributors for to have them retail for half or less of retail all I can think is, "There are people desperate for cash flow."

I came out with four bottles of Pinot Noir for about $60.   How good they all are we'll see.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Selling Wine in Tough Times

The Recession

This isn't the first tough period for California wineries and it's not the last. And it'll be temporary. The big question is, which wineries will survive?


I see lot of buzz and employment offers around branding and social media. Somehow re-establishing their existing brand with consumers or twittering will increase sales in a down economy.


I've seen wineries in the past year raise tasting room fees to help cover sales shortfalls. How dumbass is that? This is the kind of thing that happens when people without a customer's perspective make decisions directly affecting customers.

What Customers Want

This is soooo easy -- VALUE. You can't just slap "Napa Valley Cabernet" on a bottle and charge $90 or "Russian River Pinot" on a bottle and charge $45 if you're not well-established in that market.

If people have traded down from N.Y. steak to hamburger it's clear they're also trading down from $50 Cabernet to $8 Malbec.

Unfortunately, California has a history of not lowering prices when sales go south. Marketing types believe you have to maintain the perception between price and quality. But there are"tricks" such as putting the juice under another, lower-priced, label.

I'm on my own quest right now to find drinkable Pinot Noirs for under $25. I'll let you know the results later.

Customer Relationships

It's not about "brand" and "tweets" in these times. More than ever it's about relationships with their best customers. And connect and building relationships with new ones. Many want to be seen as friends of their favorite wineries and want to be treated special. "Special" can be an impromptu tour, a reserve bottle opened, or a two minute chat with the winemaker.

A Winery's Biggest Asset

Some will say their vineyards or winemaker, I give them partial credit for those. Others will fail completely saying it's something like their brand recognition or their Facebook presence.

By far a winery's biggest asset are their ambassadors. These are the people who promote a winery and its wines telling others things like, "What a great winery" or "What a great Chardonnay." It's the best advertising and it's free. These people are primarily wine club members, but also their biggest buyers and other enthusiasts that aren't in the club.

I love Siduri, Russian Hill and Stryker wineries, and don't mind telling anyone personally or on the Internet. I'm not in any wine clubs and I'm definitely not their best buyer. It's great free advertising for them when someone asks on a wine forum, "What wineries should I visit when I'm in Sonoma?" and I respond.

Identify Key Customers

Obviously, the wineries know their own wine club people, but often don't know their top ten purchasers, and rarely others that are enthusiastic about them, but don't belong to a club or spend a lot of money with them.

Wine Club Members

Their single most important asset. What do they do special for their club members?

  • Discounts - Everybody does this
  • Events - Most people do this--everybody should. It's mostly for people local to the winery. They should charge a fair price to attend--just enough to cover costs. Members should be able to bring friends. Everybody does luncheons or dinners. Are there any fun events like blending seminars, picking grapes, etc? Is the winemaker at the events? Does the owner do the barbecuing? What do they do for people who can't travel to the winery very often?
  • Keeping members - What do they do at at the member's first and second year anniversary because, statistically, this is when they will drop out? How about birthday cards signed by the owner? Members should be family. Whenever I'm present in the tasting room and a new person signs up for the club I always say (loud enough for all to hear), "Welcome to the family!"
  • Drops - Lots of people will want to drop shortly after joining. Maybe they get home and realize, "OMG, we joined eight wine clubs while we were on vacation!" So they call up and ask to cancel. There should be an incentive to get them to stay.
  • Treatment - Is the wine club manager available when club members show up? Do they have a special tasting maybe in a separate room with the wine club manager? Or do they belly up to the bar when it's two- or three-deep with everyone else?

Customer Contact

Have you ever called a winery after opening a bottle of wine that was bad--maybe corked? What was the response?
A. Told to take it back to where you bought it.
B. Asked you to describe exactly what is wrong and how it was stored.
C. They apologized and sent out a replacement for free.

Rock Stars

The winemaker and owner are celebrities to most customers. They should have lots of contact with customers, especially club members and big buyers. Part of the winemaker's job is to answer customer questions, sign bottles, and be at winery events. If they don't like being the center of attention then maybe they should be the assistant winemaker. (Just kidding, kinda)

Wine Sales

Overall, wine sales are up, but travel to the wine country is down. People are still buying wine and there is an opportunity to see them buy more, but maybe not the $45 Pinot Noirs.