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Back in the Saddle

I’ve decided that blogging is like working out.  Once you get in the habit, it’s easy, but you have to get in the habit.  After a week or so away, I’m back in the saddle again.

For now, a couple of interesting links to items that have occurred over the last several days.

A couple of items from the North Bay Business Journal ...

A couple of wine industry veterans, John Stallcup, a frequent contributor to wine industry journals and a marketer and Tim Hanni, a Master of Wine, are teaming up to create a complement to the salt and pepper shaker.

It seems that a combination of salt and acid can counter-balance some difficult to pair with wine foods like asparagus.  From the news article which can be found in its entirety at this link.

The pending product is based on knowledge of the basic tastes – salty, sweet, sour, bitter and savory, which is also known by its Japanese name “umami.” The seasoning uses salt, the acidity of spray-dried lemon juice, a mixture of ingredients that appeal to the savory basic taste along with other spices.

Mr. Stallcup first met Mr. Hanni five years ago when they created a consumer survey for the WineVision industry think tank. But what sold him on the product idea was a demonstration for sommeliers by Ms. Scott on how unseasoned steak and fish ruined the taste of six different wines, but the right amount of salt and lemon juice restored the wine flavors.

“It’s almost like a parlor trick, but it’s all physics,” he said.

Interesting ... the article also points out that the recently retired former President from Lawry’s salt has agreed to join the board.  Overall, I’m not sure what to make of this.  On the surface it seems like an ‘A-ha’ and then I’m reminded that people buy the Ronco pocket fisherman and I’m not so sure how ‘A-ha’ this might be.

In other news, if you have a Napa, Sonoma or other California vineyards you want to sell, in, say, the next 60 to 90 days Vintage Wine Trust, a vineyard related REIT, has registered with the SEC to go public.  A “Real Estate Investment Trust” essentially is a property owner that affords outside investment to fuel its portfolio.  To date, they have spent about $142M on property and will go public when they’ve spent $400M.  An IPO will fuel future growth.  For armchair entrepreneurs like me, this is a good way to get in on some of the action and it is the only winery/land investment vehicle of its kind. 

If nothing else, Joseph Ciatti, founder of Joseph W. Ciatti &  Co., a grape and bulk wine broker, and CEO of the REIT knows how to make a lot of money on the tertiary of the wine business.


“10-Clam Cam” and Too Much of the Good Stuff

You know a phenomenon is happening when you sign up for a shopping club for fifty bucks so you can buy $10 wines.

A loss leader?  I think not. 

So it goes as my Costco membership card showed up in the mail last week.  Sure, Costco is the largest retailer of wine in the country, but I long have had a membership to Sam’s Club and, really, as it is, I have enough paper towels and deodorant sticks in the house to last through a sustained Proctor & Gamble shutdown and, well, frankly, enough wine to last me through a winter of discontent, too, if I had to go a spell without shopping for food and wine stuffs. A membership to Costco was just extraneous. 

That was before the clarion call of vino became too strong ... 

It started with a quadruple set of circumstances.  Cameron Hughes came up in a professional conversation, I saw a news article on the so-called “10-Clam Cam,” I went to Wine 2.0 where they were pouring, and I’ve been contemplating how to reign in my ‘spiraling out of control’ wine buying into a more manageable (read: cheaper) stratosphere.  Or, put simply, I’ve been looking for a Lefevere family house wine.

Founded in 2001, Cameron Hughes wines have been growing in popularity over the course of the last several years.  Sold, for now, exclusively through Costco, with a noticeable hedged discomfort from the guy pouring the Cameron Hughes at Wine 2.0 last week when asked when they would be available elsewhere, the wines are generally priced anywhere from $7.99 to 13.99 and present themselves as wines that *could* retail for $30 - $50.

In a day and age where credibility in marketing is somewhat suspect and people actually go out of their way to avoid products that are advertised, the transparency of Cameron Hughes wine marketing is refreshing.  They completely expose the bulk wine market, spin it into a positive and make you feel like you are getting a deal. Sure Fred Franzia gets articles in Wine Spectator, but Cameron is one heckuva marketer that I would let go toe-to-toe with Fred for market savvy.

From the Cameron Hughes web site (excerpted):

- At the high-end of the wine business, winemakers make more than they need ...
- Winemakers are constantly trying new vineyard sources and discontinuing old sources.
- Many wineries sell off certain lots of wine before bottling for cash-flow purposes.
- Declassified wines that don’t fit the (need) for a $50 bottling make an outstanding wine value at $14.99.

This would all be well and good IF the wine didn’t deliver.  If it were crap wine, it would just be another example of lipstick on the pig.  But, here’s the thing: this is pretty good wine!  Good certainly for $10, and maybe good for $20-25.  I take a small amount of exception to the assertion that these could be the equivalent of $50 wines, but not enough to stop me from going to Costco and buying a ton of this stuff.

At the Wine 2.0 tasting last week I lingered for much longer then I should have tasting through the entire line-up of reds—a couple of Cab’s, the Barbera and a Merlot.  Each of them were, seriously, a very good value.

If you’re like me and a one-club shopper kind of person (in the form of Sam’s Club), I cannot urge you enough to throw down the dough to go get a Costco membership and get in on some of these everyday drinking wines.

Sigh.  Now, if could just get Cameron to update his blog which has sadly laid languid since this past August. 

Don’t hold that against him, though, he’s probably busy drinking his own good juice. 



Midnight Cellars 2002 Nocturne Syrah

I got a call the other night from a friend of mine who went with me on my Central Coast wine jaunt this past summer.

He had pulled the cork on a Cabernet from a small family winery called Dark Star Cellars that we had happened into and it was much better than his minds eye (or taste buds) recalled.  That tasting room visit in and of itself was memorable because the co-owner and wife to the winemaker had a certain pleasantness that rubbed off and we were also joined in the tasting room by a bachelorette party of recent Notre Dame graduates.

Nothing spells F-U-N like a bachelorette party plus I grew up in South Bend and I’m a die hard Notre Dame fan, so a common bond was struck as we tasted down the list.

I had enjoyed the Dark Star Cab a couple of months ago and forgot about it.  But, his call prompted me to do a second look at my wine stash to see what was left from the rapidly dwindling couple of cases that I purchased.

Nope.  No Dark Star left, but I did have the Midnight Cellars 2002 Nocturne Syrah.

We had gone to Midnight Cellars just before Dark Star Cellars and that visit to Midnight Cellars stuck with me as a bit of an enigmatic event.  The tasting room had wine competition ribbons all over the place, but all of the energy and vigor of a morgue.  The guy that did our tasting had woken up on the wrong side of the bed and showed us only marginal, that is to say very slight, interest.  He did open a fresh bottle of the Nocturne and proclaimed that it showed better after decanting.  I therefore have no idea why he poured us our taste 30 seconds after opening, but, then, I did say it was an enigmatic visit.  We gave it a good swirl and drank.

I am, however, the kind of guy that tasting room manager’s love because regardless of my assessment of the tasting, the winery or the wines, I always buy a bottle of what I deem to be the best wine within the price range that I’m willing to plunk down.  This was one of those situations where I eased into my tithe to the church of wine and picked up the 2002 Nocturne Syrah—their best seller and a multi-medal winner.

Interestingly, there’s a blurb of an article on and a feature in the November issue that talks about the business of wine competitions.  It notes:

Wines are increasingly facing a very competitive playing field, and most producers are looking for a way to single out their wines to the consumer.  A medal can help tremendously with marketing efforts.

It did with me as the Nocturne consistently wins medal after medal at all sorts of country fair wine competitions. 

When I opened the Nocturne, it was a tightly wound ball of dark fruit and white pepper and not much else.  Likely called Nocturne because it will stain your teeth the color of night, I sipped it, pondered it, and then drank the rest of the glass.  In my house a bottle lasts for about three days—I Vacu-Vin it and put it in the fridge and it holds up for me.  I drank a glass of the Nocturne the next day and it had opened up a bit, it wasn’t nearly as tight, but still somewhat inaccessible—to the point that I just chalked it up as a wine I didn’t enjoy.

Oddly enough, the third night, when the wine was at room temperature, it opened up and blossomed.  What a beautiful wine this was showing to be.

In a highly unscientific, non-blind, aired out for three days wine rating, I gave this guy a 17 on the UC Davis 20 point scale.  My notes say:  Dark berry fruit, spice and oak on the nose with blackberry, mulberry, a bit of cherry, toffee with firm tannins and a medium long finish.

Later, in doing some research, I found a Wine Enthusiast rating from late in ’05 that gave it an 85 and noted, “There’s plenty of fruit in this country-style wine.  The fruit consists of all sort of black and red berries and stone fruits, with an edge of espresso and oaky caramel.  The country is in the rugged texture, which calls for a good steak.”

Definitely a steak.  I think they call it a country-style wine because of all the country-style medals, but nonetheless the three-day wait was worth it for this one.  Just make sure it gets some air. 


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