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’03 Kendall-Jackson Grand Reserve Merlot

In the pantheon of wine industry luminaries, there is no way you can’t call Jess Jackson one of the leading lights.  He doesn’t have the mythology of Mondavi, but just the same he’s cut a large national profile with his everyday drinkers like the ubiquitous Kendall-Jackson Vintners Reserve Chardonnay. 

Clearly Jackson is a figure that through his own iconoclasm has created the very antithesis of just that notion—a model that others have followed:  wine, a variable product, wrought variable through artful blending.  Yellowtail and other wines at higher price points all owe a debt of gratitude to this model championed by Jackson and modeled from other consumer goods like McDonald’s and Starbucks.

In fact, a recent LA Times articles makes that same exact analogy in a nice piece that examines Jackson’s influence, albeit at a very high level.  And, separately, In a quote that is simple in its beauty, Jackson is quoted as saying regarding his entry into the wine business, “I was attracted by the lifestyle. I wanted to get away from law and become a farmer ...”

Silently, a nation of wine drinkers nod their head in agreement.

You can read the article here.

For my review of the ’03 Kendall-Jackson Grand Reserve Merlot, please hit this link.


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America’s House Brand

As I walked past end-cap display after end-cap display at a couple of different wine retailers, it dawned on me that Castle Rock and Concannon are both vying to be America’s house brand.

It makes some sense, if this is indeed either of their intent.  Both have polished, sophisticated winery packaging and positioning in the market.  Both are in the $9 to $12 price range and both have a well-represented line-up of red wine varietals. The Concannon has an incredibly heavy bottle that speaks to that intangible quality of “heft = quality” that can sometimes sucker you and Castle Rock has a classically stylized label that reeks of class in an American bourgeoisie kind of way.

And, more importantly, there is a place in the market for them, as wine consumers trade-up to more expensive wine—the general population seems more inclined to pick up the $11.99 bottle than the ‘same old, same old’ at $7.99.

In this regard, both of these wines deliver based on intended market and quality to price.  Certainly, you won’t look deep into the glass for the answers to all things mysterious, but you won’t come away disappointed for having pulled the cork.

My reviews of the respective Cabernets for Castle Rock and Concannon are below.

‘05 Castle Rock Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon

‘04 Concannon Selected Vineyards, Central Coast, Cabernet Sauvignon


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’04 Gravity Hills Tumbling Tractor Zinfandel

Sometimes you find a wine that belies its packaging.  Depending on the type of packaging, sometimes it ends up good and sometimes it ends up not so great.

When you see primary colors and some shtick, usually it’s not so good.

This is a good one.

When I picked up the ’04 Gravity Hills Zin, I did so based on a wine monger recommendation.  It was on end-cap and on sale—$13.99 – so I didn’t think much about it.  “It’s a decent Zin probably, but nothing special,” I thought to myself.

“A Paso Zin with flashy packaging—it’s probably bulk wine dropped into a bottle with an eye-catching label,” said my inner skeptic.

This purchase was six or seven months ago, damn near a half-life for wine at this price point, and in the interim I have pulled the cork on plenty of other stuff, and bought plenty of wine, as well.  This week, though, after drinking three clunkers in a row, I was ready for something decent and opened the Gravity Hills almost out of mercy.  A fourth clunker in a row, on the streak I was on, wouldn’t have surprised me, or even aggravated me.

Fortunately, the Gravity Hills does, indeed, belie its packaging and is a good wine.  It’s a good wine for $13.99 and a good wine for much more than that.

And, upon further inspection, I need to give Gravity Hills a break, because their packaging, while demonstrating some eye-popping primary colors, in addition to holding some superb Zin and presumably an equally good Syrah, also masks a pretty interesting story, too.

The name Gravity Hills comes from the steep evaluation of their vineyards.

From their web site:

At Gravity Hills, farming is an uphill battle, but we’re not alone…

Mosel, Germany: so much topsoil washes down when it rains that workers have to haul it back up in buckets.

Priorat, Spain: too steep for tractors. Only mules are surefooted enough to pull the weeders and plows.

Côte Rôtie, France: vineyard workers in the “roasted coast” rope themselves in with harnesses at harvest time.

So, why bother?

Sun-exposure, wind-stress and quick drainage on slopes produce unique, complex wines.

How steep are we talking, anyway?

Our vineyards slope from 20° to 45°.
• *Most cars can’t climb hills with a slope over 30°.
• *Nine out of ten avalanches occur on slopes from 25° to 45°.

In ski terms:
18 – 22° = Green
23 – 30° = Blue
30 - 35° = Black
40° = Low end of extreme mountaineering!
60° = A quick and certain death!

Huh, who knew?  These grapes are from hills that are as steep as a Black Diamond ski run.  I guess I’m just damn glad I don’t have to work the vines, all I have to do is get out a corkscrew—something I recommend you do as well with this tasty Zin.

My review is here.


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Chalk One Up for the Little(er) Guy

If you ever want to see drama in the wine industry separate from a grape cluster’s vigorous fight to ripen during veraison, then troll the businesswire occasionally.  You’ll see the occasional scuffle that resembles a high school break-up between the quarterback and the homecoming queen. 

In this case at least, the winery is prettier, more popular and has more friends.

I excerpt this story only because it highlights the occasional absurdity of the three-tier system in delivering wine to our store shelves … and it also highlights how ridiculous some of our human foibles are in the workplace …

Ahem, from the businesswire, I note that Michael-David winery won a lawsuit yesterday against their distributor, Frank-Lin, in a California judgment that validates the rights of wineries.

The press release says in part:

In a verdict that will reverberate through the California wine industry, a jury confirmed on Friday October 12th that California vintners have the right to terminate open-ended agreements with wine distributors at any time upon reasonable notice and for any reason - without the requirement of paying a “termination” fee or any other form of compensation. After an intensely contested trial which spanned five weeks, it took a Stockton jury less than two hours to deliver a verdict resoundingly rejecting distributor Frank-Lin Distiller’s claim that it was entitled to share in the value of the growth of the Michael-David brands because Frank-Lin had represented the winery in California.

Standard issue “We won,” language and I want to be extra careful because I have not been privy to any of the proceedings of the case, just the press release issued by the victors, but it notes further that:

Upon being told by the winery that its distribution agreement was being terminated upon reasonable notice in 2006, Frank-Lin withheld payments in excess of $350,000 for wine purchased. Frank-Lin later sued Michael-David Winery for $8.9 million in damages and asserted that a standard California wine industry practice binding wineries existed.
The standard practice Frank-Lin alleged was that an oral distribution agreement with goals could be terminated only for cause, and then only after written warnings and an opportunity to cure were given. This, Frank-Lin asserted, supported its claims and justified the enormous damages sought.

Frank-Lin also claimed that an “oral contract” was made, after the relationship commenced in 2002 and before it ended in 2006, because Michael-David Winery complimented Frank-Lin personnel from time to time, such as “thanks for the great work” and “we look forward to working with you” – common messages of encouragement. The jury found for the winery on all counts and rejected all of Frank-Lin’s oral contract and “industry practice” claims.

So, how did this thing break down?  I’m speculating, but I don’t think I’m too far from the truth; it probably went a little something like this:

Michael-David Winery signs a contract with the distributor saying a bunch of legal stuff, but basically that either party can terminate the relationship at any time with written notice—probably 60 days.

Michael-David Winery, at the start of the year, has a yearly planning meeting with the distributor and they verbally discuss goals for the year—like, for example, the distributor will move 10,000 cases in a year.

This is a verbal conversation with many non-verbal cues exchanged between the winery and the distributor.  They are sizing each other up.  The distributor makes broad proclamations about how good their sales guys are and all of the accounts they sell to, while not completely committing to moving 10,000 cases.  Meanwhile the winery bluffs the distributor, mentally earmarking them for 10,000 cases, while saying that other markets are anticipating doing 13,000 cases.  It’s a shell game. But, frankly, the distributor is most worried about the cash they have tied up with the 1000 cases they initially bought. Why?  Easy! Because Bob, the distributor’s accountant, is a jerk who’s always twisting a knife on the distributor VP of Sales for making too large of upfront buys, and the VP is cursing the wine’s ugly label that scuffs easily — based on comments that their best customer made to a sales guy, who relayed them to the sales manager, who relayed them up to the VP, who is the only guy in the meeting from the distributor side.  The label scuff thing soon becomes “institutional fact” and the de facto knock against the brand at the distributor. But the distributor nods and smiles and says, “We’ll give it a shot.”

A couple of months later when sales velocity isn’t on a trajectory that comes near 10,000 cases, the winery National Sales Manager, who has a bonus closely tied to case load and can’t stomach any under-performance, because he doesn’t have a distributor in a different market doing significant upside to offset, gets antsy and compares the relationship to other distributors they have put in place in other markets, and they invoke their 60 day contract clause to move to another distributor who is willing to sign up for and commit to 8,000 cases, not the 10,000 originally intended, but better than the winery was going to get from the original distributor who was namby-pamby about actual annual performance, while underperforming in quarterly performance.  This should preserve the National Sales Manager bonus, especially if the 4th quarter goes as planned.

Then, the first distributor, the original guy, gets mad because he wasn’t made aware by the winery that the winery was mad in the first place, even though they are woefully behind the 10,000 case marker that the winery walked away from the January meeting thinking was a commitment and the distributor walked away from thinking, “If we’re lucky and the freaking labels don’t scuff.” And, even so, the distributor thinks, if the winery is mad, they should at least flag the situation so we can try and pacify them.

Despite these gyrations, the winery leaves Distributor A for Distributor B.

So, what does Distributor A do?  He sues the winery because he got the rug pulled out from underneath him on a marquee brand that he passively over-committed to and undersold, and the entire sales team subsequently missed their bonuses because they couldn’t backfill the revenue.  The VP had to use his savings instead of his bonus money to take his family on vacation, and he’s bitter at the winery for hosing him on 30% of his annual compensation by putting his numbers in the dumper.  He convinces the principals to sue.  They claim that they would have sold 18,000 cases a year for the winery if their contract hadn’t been broken and the distributor therefore should receive damages for the next 5 years worth of business plus some extra dough for damage of reputation in the marketplace. A lawyer decides that’s worth $8.9 million.

And, oh, by the way, the first distributor says, we had an oral contract because the winery gave some ‘atta boys’ to the sales guy that handles their premiere account, a retail customer who chronically grouses as a negotiation tactic (“Ah, the labels scuff on you and you can’t sell the damn stuff,” he says), but ended up taking 40 cases on sell-in, at which time the winery says to the distributor sales rep, “Mike, nice work.  I’m looking forward to our ride-along.”

Meanwhile, the winery is galled because they just want somebody who will sell their wine and now they have to deal with a lawsuit from dudes that were buying them rounds of golf just six months ago.

Got all that? 

What is the moral of the story? 

Being a grape, struggling for nutrients, attempting to survive and thrive against a blazing sun, poor soil and no rain, generally harsh elements, to ripen during veraison, might be a touch easier than actually selling the stuff. 


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Open Call for Winery Recommendations

Please help a wine blogger out.  With the recent news that Indiana is now open to consumer wine shipping up to a 24 case annual limit, I have a lot of buying ground to make up.  Some estimates have our states winery availability at approximately 5% of that of California and New York.

Consider this a cause.  The two most popular wine blogs in the U.S. are Vinography.com (San Francisco) and Dr. Vino (New York).  Imagine what could happen with Good Grape (Midwest/Indianapolis) if I could only increase my accessibility to wine by doubling it from 5% to 10%.  I could act as a national bridge to these two coastal leaders.

Not only am I committed to making a dent into that 24 case limit, but I’m also committed to finding a bunch of wine that I haven’t yet discovered through my own diligence or by virtue of finding something new at my local bottle shop.

Please help me fill my cellar!

So, I’m opening it up to you.  My request of ye olde reader:  please leave a comment and answer this question:  if you had to make a single recommendation for your favorite winery, a little known gem that didn’t cost a car payment for one wine club shipment, to somebody that respected your opinion, who would that winery be? 

To get your mind started about recommendations, I’ll start with my top five wish list for wines that I will/want to buy online or via their wine club.

Dover Canyon
Tablas Creek
Kosta Browne (Perhaps the best wine I’ve had this year)
Hartley Ostini/Hitching Post wines
Channing Daughters

Thanks for your help—know and understand that you’re helping me spend money in a positive and worthwhile fashion. 


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