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A Day in the Valley:  Tasting in Napa

Though the company I work for is based in Napa, I’ve never been on a tasting trip in Napa.  Kind of wacky, I know.  The reality is that I haven’t stayed over through the weekend for trips before and my through the week activity is head’s down work.  I was, therefore, very excited about a full Saturday line-up of tasting with my wife and another couple.

We started our day off this past Saturday at about 9:45 am with a visit to Grgich Hills, one of the few tasting rooms in the Valley that opens before 10:00 am.  We entered to a mostly empty parking lot and joined just one other couple who, obviously, won the “early bird” prize, beating us through the doors.  Grgich Hills was the perfect place to start the day. 

In what appears to be an untouched casualness from 30 years ago, Grgich Hills gets kudos for their very low-key tasting room, their wines and one of their tasting room employees who is one of finest examples of subtle salesmanship that I have experienced.  I wasn’t sure if I should hug the guy, invite him over to dinner or ask him why he wasn’t selling something where he could make a little money.  When he said that he collects Napa Cab but that he purchased a case of a particular Chardonnay because it was that good, I could feel my wallet separate from my back pocket. The reality is we didn’t get different treatment than any other guest at the winery that day, but the way tasting room employee told stories and gave everything a narrative arc while pulling bottle after bottle certainly made it seem like we were VIP guests. The Chardonnays shined here, the reds were serviceable and all of the prices are a bit dear, but this is a   great tasting room experience.  The couple we were with bought one of the library chardonnays and the tasting room employee waived all of our tasting fees, carefully wrapped up our glasses AND gave a trade discount    
since they were also in the business. Great place, Grgich Hills is.

Yelp reviews for Grgich Hills here

Next up was a winery tour and tasting at Mondavi.  The analogy I use for going to Mondavi winery is akin to a Catholic going to the Vatican.  I mean, you kind of have to go, don’t you?  Or, maybe said differently, it’s like the Asians associating Disneyworld with Americans.  That said, our tour actually turned out to be a pleasant surprise—well managed, brisk, and informative with a couple of fun surprises.  Color me a camera carrying tourist, but I got a kick out of being able to go into the demo vineyard to pluck some Pinot, Malbec, Cabernet, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay grapes to taste them in their natural state.

What I found most interesting about the tour, though, is the strict maintenance the tour made to Mondavi still being a family operation.  No mention of Constellation AT ALL.  Multiple references were made to Mondavi being a small operation, etc.  In fact, our guide indicated that Robert just celebrated his 94th birthday and that Margrit and Robert are in frequently.  The video in the fermentation room includes Tim Mondavi as head winemaker.

The tour ended with a tasting of the Fume Blanc, the Chardonnay and the Cabernet.  All in all, not a bad tour by any stretch of the imagination, in fact it was time and money well spent. But, certainly, it’s disingenuous to present the winery as a small family-oriented operation to the masses when that reality stopped two years ago.

Yelp reviews for Mondavi here.

We took a stop for lunch at V. Sattui—the California State Fair Winery of the Year for the third time in four years.  V. Sattui, for those that haven’t been, is something of THE populist winery in Napa and our visit didn’t prove any different.  A crush of humanity met us at around 1:00 pm and the grounds, deli and tasting room were thronged with people.  One of the unique benefits of V. Sattui is they are grandfathered in to some law and are able to serve food, which also means that every Tom, Dick and Harry that isn’t at Oakville Grocery is there around lunch time.

We enjoyed some sandwiches and expensive deli salads on the lawn before I picked up a couple of bottles of wine.  Kudos also go to the tasting room employee who knew, intimately, the buying laws of Indiana for consumer direct shipping and promptly had me sign up with a Xeroxed copy of my drivers license.

As a side note, V Sattui only sells from the tasting room and 23 of 28 wines submitted at the California State Fair won medals.  I’ll need to go back here during the week when I can actually enjoy some time there, without 1400 of my friends.

Yelp reviews for V. Sattui found here.

We then shot over to Silverado Trail, leaving a lot of the crowds behind and went up to Rombauer—by far the most picturesque winery I’ve been to, nestled onto a ridge with expansive views of the valley from its shaded tasting room.  If I had to choose a favorite wine, Rombauer Zin would make my top five and it’s also one of the wines that my wife and I use as a reference point for other Zins.  The tasting room here is small—there is room for just six or seven people without starting to go two-deep, and the tasting line-up is short—in keeping with the small array that Rombauer produces—Merlot, Chardonnay, Zinfandel, Cabernet and some specialty selections to sell from the web site and tasting room.     

I love this place, I love their wine.  I bought the Proprietor Selection Zinfandel made from Joan’s Vineyard, out in front of the tasting room, using head trained Zin vines. 

Yelp reviews for Rombauer found here.

And, to close the day, we shot down Silverado Trail to Silver Oak.  It was a great way and place to cap the day.  Ironically enough, Tom Walsh, the Tasting Room Manager had sent me an email on Friday after reading my post on Silver Oak last Thursday, inviting me down to the tasting room and extending an invitation for a free tasting for my wife, friends and me. 

Not one to turn down the extension of hospitality, I took Tom up on his generous offer and we wound down our day by trying the Alexander and Napa Valley Cabs, in addition to the Towmey Merlot.  A great visit and very hospitable place, made all the more pleasant by a complete lack of pretension.  Thanks goes to Tom for being a gracious host and for extending the invitation. 

Yelp reviews for Silver Oak found here.

All in all, a great tasting day in Napa Valley and a great introduction for tasting days to come. 


Good Grape Confessional

First, I should get this out of the way.  I’m starting to get bored with myself.  So, I can only assume that the people that read this blog from time to time are similarly getting bored.  I mean, I understand it’s tough to slog through 800 + words to get to a point, when I make one.  I’m working on it, believe me. 

Frankly, I think the challenge with my current state of boredom is the difference between knowledge and wisdom.  I have too much of the former and not enough of the latter.

I read a ton—too much, in fact.  I am a voracious consumer of information—30 + magazines a month (most if not all by subscription).  I mean, seriously, I don’t know a single other person in my entire universe that reads that many magazines, and especially not a neurotic nutball that feels guilt if the months pile up on Food & Wine magazine, for example.  And, I spend a lot of my life online reading blogs, etc. When I’m reading a book I’m reading non-fiction and I usually get through a book a month—most are wine and/or marketing/business related.  Sometimes they’re wine business books, just to make it easy for myself.

Simply put, I take in too much information that is intended to make me knowledgeable.  Ideas are great, but there’s a point of diminishing return when you can’t practically do all or them, or any of them, really. 

Sadly, in the last three years I’ve read just two fiction books that I can recall—Life of Pi and the Da Vinci Code.  Life of Pi made me cry and feel joyful and The Da Vinci Code gave me serious pause to reflect on the dogmatism that 12 years of Catholic schooling can give you.  My wife starts to steam because I still haven’t read Harry Potter despite the obvious emotional investment she has in the series—for Pete’s sake she took a day off from work to go to a recent Harry Potter book release party wearing a homemade t-shirt that says, ‘Ron is a Keeper.’  She was a mess when Dumbledore died, but I don’t know what any of this means in practical terms. 

Net-net, I’m on max information overload.  I’m about as plugged into the things I’m interested in as humanly possible.  I’m knowledgeable.  I’m mostly decent dinner conversation.  There’s not a whole hell of a lot in wine, pop culture, business or Notre Dame Football that eludes my grasp.

But, this is where the double-edged sword comes into play.

While I feel like I’m pretty knowledgeable, what I’m missing is wisdom—the wisdom that can be gained from reading fiction—the empathy you feel for well-drawn characters in a story that has a beginning, a middle and an end with a moral.

So, this post would normally be about wine customization labels and the obvious market that is being missed.  I got inspiration for the post from an ad in Rolling Stone magazine (yes, by subscription) for Converse shoes whereby Generation Y can customize their sneakers.  There’s lot of this customization stuff going on—in fact there’s probably some marketing case studies, too, if I searched for them (I’m not).  Heck, and have businesses built on customized t-shirts.  Common sense tells me that if one of these custom-label wine companies created an easy to use, highly flexible and customizable online label-maker and offered and marketed the ability for younger consumers to create their own cool labels then you’d really have a pretty cool business going.

But, like I said, I’m getting bored with myself and ideas are great to a point, but sometimes action is more interesting.  Or, absent action at least having the wisdom to know the good ideas from the bad is pretty cool, too.

I think I’m off to read a good book, but before I get to the fiction I’m reading Henry Miller’s Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch—it’s a non-fiction, supposed to be kind of like a first person blog before there were blogs. It’s supposed to be packed with wisdom, too.  Maybe it will give me some ideas. 


The Greatest U.S. Wine Marketing Story

Maybe there’s a better or more valid U.S. wine success story than Silver Oak, but I’m hard pressed to say who might match or get the best of the folks in Oakville for incredible sustained success AND cachet.  Veritable legends in application and reputation—two facets that seldom ever collide in reality.

On the cusp of the opening of their new tasting room and shortly after the release of their ’03 Alexander Valley Cabernet, the Silver Oak Midas touch seemingly continues unabated. 

Silver Oak is the equivalent of Peyton Manning having a Super Bowl MVP season every year for the last 15 years to 20 years. 

The crux of this post is based on speculation, however.  So anybody with fangs readying to make a comment, just simply note that speculation supported by anecdotal evidence, word of mouth and the fact that Silver Oak is available in all 50 states plus D.C. and Puerto Rico underpins the notion that they have production of 50K cases or more.

What’s the big deal, you say?  The wines are good, but they aren’t sublime, nor are they on the level of a Screaming Eagle or a Harlan Estate’, right?  The ratings are decent, but they aren’t breaking 95 anymore and sometimes they hover in the mid to high 80s—great, but nothing spectacular particularly when the Czar of Wine Ratings, Robert Parker, is bestowing 90 points plus to value imports from Chile and elsewhere—wines that can be purchased for $15 or less. 

The big deal, of course, is that 50K cases for wines that are completely allocated and have a retail price point of around $65, and have annual, well-attended release parties, are generally well-reviewed by the major consumer mags and have a luxury, cult cachet with stark raving fans is something worth taking note of. 

Did I mention that speculation indicates they do 50K + cases a year in sales with all of the wine being allocated?  Did I mention that they have star raving fans, even if the wines are serviceably reviewed, but not chartbusters?

That’s damn close to printing money.

I think the psychology of people that follow and stay in the jetstream of Silver Oak releases is a marketer’s dream.  It’s Silver Oak, after all … the legend-making is incredible.

I’ve personally enjoyed Silver Oak on just one occasion—an expense account dinner at MIX at the Mandalay Bay in Vegas last spring—I’m thankful for the customer who didn’t care that it was $180 a bottle on the wine list and we had a party of 15 requiring four bottles, to start.  Who knows why he selected it, but Silver Oak is annually one of the 10 most popular on-premise wines according to Wine & Spirits magazine.  I really enjoyed the wine, even if I didn’t think it was a tremendous food wine. 

I’m in Napa this week for business and looking forward to a visit to Silver Oak this weekend.  I, fortunately, didn’t have to pick up the tab when I first tasted Silver Oak at the restaurant, but I will pony up the $10 tasting fee this weekend … it is, um, well, Silver Oak after all.

For addt’l reading, see this article from the Fall of ’06 in the San Francisco Chronicle (excerpted below).

The team: Owner Ray Duncan, originally an oil baron from Colorado, started the winery in 1972 in partnership with winemaker Justin Meyer. In 1994, Meyer chose Daniel Baron, then general manager at Dominus Estate in Yountville, to succeed him as winemaker; Baron’s still the man with the purple hands at harvest time. In 2000, Duncan bought out Meyer’s interest for nearly $120 million.

The wines: Silver Oak makes only two wines, Cabernet Sauvignons from Alexander Valley ($60) and Napa Valley ($100). The $10 fee gets you a taste of both. I preferred the elegant 2002 Silver Oak Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.

The experience: It’s for connoisseurs, or those who want to be. With only two wines to taste, and no distractions, you’re expected to focus on what’s in your glass. All questions and comments are taken seriously. When I told the staffer I preferred the Alexander Valley wine and joked that I had cheap tastes, she gave reasons why the Napa wine costs more, including pricier silk-screened labels and a higher percentage of purchased (as opposed to estate-grown) grapes. When asked if Silver Oak was harvesting yet, the staffer pulled out a refractometer and explained testing for sugar level. The $10 tasting fee seems steep, but you do get a nice souvenir glass, and all the information you can consume.

Bonus points for anybody that can tell me why the 2002 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, released in February of this year, should provide drinking pleasure until 2028 according the winery.  But, the 2003 Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon released just a couple of weeks ago, the first Saturday of August, should provide drinking pleasure until 2026, so sayeth the winery.  Why the discrepancy in the ‘Best by Date?’


Another Notch on the Belt

Ah, I was able to put another State Fair notch on the old belt.  You know the kind, the one that indicates it’s been loosened by a good measure.  Say what you will, but one of the highlights of my summer is an evening spent enjoying the twilight, humanity and a lot of fried food; a complete gorging on state fair food, the only time most reasonable souls, who normally eschew the “Roach Coach,” eat food prepared in cramped, sweaty conditions – mobile aluminum boxes—, comestibles prepared in boiling oil and moderately unsanitary conditions.

Makes you want think of wine, huh?  Um, not really.

The Indiana State Fair wrapped for another season this past Sunday and I spent a glorious Saturday night eating roasted corn on the cob, fried cheese, grilled cheese sandwiches, corn dogs, elephant ears, ice cream, lemon shake-ups and a bunch of other stuff in a calorie binge the likes of which I’m not likely to see again, at least until Thanksgiving. 

I was racking my brain for decent wine/food pairing while I was inhaling a corn dog in two bites, but came up mostly empty—that is until we ventured through the agricultural buildings and saw our foodstuffs in a decidedly more natural state.

Nothing says nature like seeing the sheep barn.  And, some baby sheep, or lamb, were living in splendor for their city trek to Indianapolis for nine days. 

Ah, a rack of lamb.  Now we’re talking wine …

I’m not explicitely sure what the excerpted content laws are, but the American Lamb Board had the marketing machine in full effect at the fair with pamphlets and brochures aplenty—all designed to increase consumption of the wool-yielding friends in front of me.  The Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil was cited as wine pairing resource numero uno for the American Lamb Board and, frankly, I learned something.  Lamb is a damn versatile pairing match to wines (light reds, of course, and also whites).

Since they excerpted from Karen MacNeil, I’ll do the same.  Did you know that lamb can be paired with:

Pinot Noir:
Crown Roast of American Lamb with a cherry wine sauce

Zinfandel: Cumin-spiced lamb shanks

Syrah: Fennel crusted rack of lamb with roasted pepper and sultana raisin marmalade

Merlot/Bordeaux blend:  Roasted or grilled leg of lamb seasoned with rosemary

Cabernet: Lamb t-bones

Sauvignon Blanc: American lamb and goat cheese pizza with rosemary and sun dried tomatoes

Pinot Gris/Pinot Grigio: Light pasta dish with American lamb, fresh vegetables and extra virgin olive oil

Chardonnay:  Lamb shoulder roast with roasted root vegetables

Asian-inspired lamb stir-frys, Thai-inspired lamb salads, Moroccan lamb kebobs

Curried lamb stew

That’s a pretty good covering of the wine varietal spectrum.  Now, if I can just get the fair to help me save about 4200 calories and start actually serving lamb – perhaps the Cumin-spiced lamb shanks with a glass of Zinfandel – I’d really be on to something. 


The Back Door Wine Outlet:  Fine Wine for Less

I recently read a blurb about the Wine Outlet in Seattle, Washington.  A big part of owner Richard Kinssies’ positioning is bargain wines—consumer wines that have been discounted by wineries and distributors.  He positions this as wines that are purposely being marketed as a bargain because of a label change, a switch to screwcap from a cork, etc. 

A “closeout” wine retail model is an interesting business model and one that is not duplicated, that I am aware of, virtually anywhere else in the country.

But, why?

Perhaps I’m missing something in the wine value-chain that somebody can point out to me. 

Wine is one of the few consumer goods where the general populace isn’t engendered to brand, making a “deal” an even more attractive buying lure.

Think about it.  Sure wine is discounted on end-caps and promo when a new vintage is coming in, or a distributor needs to move inventory.  But, this is mostly traditional retailing practice and not something that the consumer is immediately in tune with, outside of a wine that *appears* to be a perceived bargain i.e. inexpensive—this is seller action, not consumer marketing/buying tactic.

I recently picked up some Bonny Doon Riesling that was a “buy one, get one for a penny” kind of thing and these wines were a big stinking mess of petrol and suppressed fruit—scarcely drinkable, too.  But, oddly enough, I wasn’t upset that the wines were crappy, I was kind of happy that I got a bargain—two bottles for $10.

Such is consumer psychology. 

When I see normal wine *sales* I don’t immediately think “bargain” I think that the retailer is simply taking less mark-up than they otherwise would making me question their pricing strategy in the rest of the store.  I don’t think I’m alone in this—which makes the notion of full disclosure an even more important lure.

Perhaps, taking a page from the Cameron Hughes book of marketing transparency, this is an idea whose time has come—a $10 wine that has quality at $30.  But, instead of this being positioned towards a single wine in a negociant model, it extends to the retailing practice of wine in general.  Everybody loves a bargain. 

Costco moves merchandise with a real and perceived lack of mark-up.  “Outlet” malls dot the countryside whereby name brand goods are sold for significantly less than you could get them in a branded retail outlet.  I would hazard a guess that better than 50 percent of Polo shirts are bought discount; I know mine are—purchased for $25 bucks instead of $55 at a department store.  Discount retailing moves inventory for the manufacturer and serves as a branding gateway drug to other high quality goods that aren’t discounted elsewhere. But, the wine industry doesn’t seem to follow.  There are complementary examples to the “outlet” mall model:  the “Big Lots,” “Dollar Store” or other discount retailers whereby name brand goods can be found at a significant discount.

When I buy Campbell’s soup four for a dollar instead of the normal .87 cents, I don’t get upset at the store when I have to pay normal retail, I’m glad for the deal I got previously.

This model in the wine industry?  Not so much.

Wineries first argument would be “brand preservation.”  But, my argument would immediately cite any number of luxury brands that engage in this model.

The wine industry even has names for wineries that sell all they make—“allocated.”  The rest of the industry tries to match production to demand, sometimes less than successfully.  What’s not sold is moved by the distributor, written off, tasted at charitable functions or moved into the vaunted “library” program.

Would it be healthy for the wine industry to have a proliferation of “outlets” that move otherwise dead inventory?

I think so. 

Imagine with me for a second:  you go to a hypothetical retail store called “The Backdoor Wine Outlet” with a tagline of “Fine Wine for Less.”  The store itself is shaded from significant natural light, is kept at a constant and steady temperature of 55 degrees, consumers are offered a loaner fleece to keep the chill off, the store is well-maintained and well merchandised with recommendations for peak drinking i.e. if it’s an ’01 Cab, a tasting note would indicate that it’s best between ’04 and ’12.  I then know that this baby, in addition to being discounted, in addition to being well cared for in a chilly store, is probably drinking pretty well right now.  All of the wines for sale are wines that are in the 80 percent of the 80/20 rule i.e. they are not the ones with a lot of sales velocity despite being in distribution.  These are wines that don’t move that quickly for reasons of attention, label design that doesn’t “pop,” label scuffing, or whatever reason there is and they need to have marketed action in order to get sell-thru.

I’m guessing that if a wine retailer, in a state with a lot of brand availability, joined Kinssies’ in this model they would see significant success.  Inventory would turn quickly and repeat customers would be frequent because they know that a bargain is always at the ready and they’re likely to run into something new.  If you add a “money back, no questions asked, guarantee” I’d feel confident that you could define a niche.

I have a habit of asking questions, some of which that don’t have easy answers, but what am I missing here?  Why wouldn’t a re-positioning to the customer, using hallmark tactics from retailers of other consumer goods, work for the wine industry?


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