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Slinging Wine

I just finished reading Wine & Philosophy, a gem of a book edited by Fritz Alloff, featuring essays by a number of notable wine writers and experts like Matt Kramer, Jamie Goode, George Taber and others.

I received this as a review copy from the editor, Fritz.  He and I don’t know each other and I would generally defer any comment whatsoever if I didn’t think it was meritorious.  That said, if you’re interested in the contemplative side of wine, the brainy aspect that comes out philosophically in the midst of your third glass, the socially lubricated part of the wine experience that makes the grape such an interesting subject, than Wine & Philosophy is the book for you.

Amidst skillfully cultivated, cross-referenced and footnoted essays covering a range of topics from the culture of wine, wine criticism, wine and metaphysical notions and wine and politics, is a highly readable book that creates conversational fodder for a month of Sundays, or a year of late night weekly tastings, whichever is greater.

I’m no simpleton, though, by my own estimation I am pretty normal, so, perhaps not coincidentally, one of the more interesting aspects of the book to me was an anecdote within an essay called “Who Cares If You Like It, This is a Good Wine Regardless,” by George Gale.

Gale is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and tells a story of “slinging” in the mid-70’s in Kansas City.

Now, if you’re anything like me and wish wistfully that you had been a part of a generation that seems, in minds eye, much cooler or romantic than your own (the Beat Generation in the 50s for me) than you’ll understand that Gales’ description of wine, Kansas City and mid-70’s is very, very cool.

He says in part:

In the mid-1970s, my home of Kansas City, Missouri was one of the hottest new wine centers in the North America:  the market was opening up, wild growth in sales and consumption was observed, and an enormous buzz around wine and everything connected with wine swept the city.  At the center of this excitement was a core of a dozen or so young wholesalers, retailers, restaurateurs, hoteliers, and one winegrower-winemaker who was also the wine columnist for the Kansas City Star.  Needless to say, with such energy and passion available, the group soon developed a competitive sport focused on wine:  slinging.  Just as in its namesake –gunslinging- the new sport involved challenge and duel, but with bottles of wine as the weapons rather than guns.  The sport worked like this.

Your doorbell would ring, and there would be two or three of the group, with or more bottles of wine hidden away in brown paper bags.  Consider yourself slung” someone would say, and the group would barge into the room.  Wine glasses were fetched, and the slingee would then be faced by “The Three Questions”: what is the grape, appellation, and vintage?  After a suitable amount of tasting and sloshing around in the mouth, the slingee would have to stand and deliver, making a stab at answering the question.

Gale’s story continues and he makes a larger point about empirical analysis in a subjective subject, but to me, the point he really, really made is about shared community.  And, in our own little epicenter within the context of wine bloggers, we can do an increasingly better job of working together to “sling” given this great communication vehicle called the Internet.  And, because, frankly, others will look back at this period of time and those involved with their own little bit of envy.

Wine & Philosophy invites a lot of questions and provides a lot of answers for those looking for deductions.  Pick it up online at amazon.com—it will be money well spent for any discriminating wine lover. 


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Parker Does Wine Certification

While certainly not new news as it dates to September of this year, there hasn’t been much of a ripple in the wine blogging world or offline wine press regarding the launch of the Robert Parker and Kevin Zraly wine certification program.

Frankly, this under-reporting surprises me.  In my opinion, this certification program, if properly executed, has the opportunity to topple the perilously perched, fractured and very inconsistent world of wine certification and leave a lasting legacy for Parker that lasts long after his famous palate has ceased to provide relevancy to the wine world.

Hyperbole?  I think not. 

How can this fawning not be hyperbole?  It’s simple.  Besides the obvious notion that Kevin Zraly has long written and updated the definitive starter book for wine enthusiasm, the fact that they are creating a three-tier certification program spanning enthusiasm to expertise means they are swallowing up the entire spectrum of consumer fandom as an entry to being a Connoisseur, before heading to being an “expert.”  Reportedly, the “expert” level will rival those of professional certifications and include a meeting for a blind tasting with Parker and Zraly.  Basically, there is an opportunity to brand an entire generation of wine education online while consolidating consumer education with that of professional education into one gold standard for wine knowledge.

What they aren’t saying, however, is that this is a likely attempt to vertically consolidate the completely fragmented wine certification market under the aegis of Parker. And, while this may, initially, be presented to consumers, that can’t be the long-term target.  Consumers don’t get certified.  Consumers get educated.  Professionals get certified.  This is clearly called a “Wine Certification” program.

The program starts with eight individually administered tests, covering various regions that make up the first stage of the three stage certification.  Each test is $30, is taken online and timed to be have the 50 questions completed in less than 60 minutes.  A passing score is 80/100, a “B” on the standard academic 100 point scale.

Naysayers should hold their tongue in applying any punditry to an 80 not being a serviceable score in the world of wine scoring.

Level II of the certification—Connoisseur of Wine (CW) will launch in March of ’08 and Level III—Expert of Wine will launch in September of ’08.

I will watch this certification program with curiosity to see how the business development relationships take shape in order to expand influence.  Parker, long notorious for forsaking any advertising and anything that smacks of implying a cozy relationship, will have to expand his reach in order to create anything close to approximating market definition.  That said, however, there is a tremendous opportunity to create some standardization around wine knowledge and now is a good time to seize that opportunity.  With consumption trends up across the board, having something approximating a consistent baseline of knowledge is sorely needed in the wine industry and subsequently for its customers—wine is increasingly transparent and the industry is seen from the inside out by consumers.

Likewise, it will be interesting to see if they do any sort of online effort to increase awareness—having some sort of online badge for wine bloggers would serve their interests, as well as the bloggers, aiming for a high-level of integrity. 

I’m starting the Level I courses.  Anybody interested in joining me? 


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Innovation in The Wine Industry, Again

Okay, I’ll take the bait.  I can be taken in by a clever pr campaign.

Last week I received a bit of a teaser campaign in three parts.  I suspect several of my wine blogging colleagues received the same packages—an anonymously sent picture of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers with a hang tag note that that says, “Matched Perfectly.”  A couple of days later I received two aces from a deck of cards with a hang tag note again noting, “Matched Perfectly.”  Finally, a day later comes a bottle of wine from Riddling Bros., a marketing firm that has created a spec. wine package and positioning called “Goes With Cellars …”

If my research is correct, the lead principal, Fred Schwartz, is an advertising agency vet with his own company, Fred & Company, which provides creative and strategic consulting to the wine industry.

It’s interesting then to note that the concept of “Goes With Cellars …” is virtually identical to that of “Wine that Loves …” Many bloggers will recall the surge of P.R. that followed the introduction of “Wine that Loves …” in the spring of this year.  Many bloggers had an opinion that wavered somewhere between indifference to derision, but then, we’re not the audience, either.

The concept is simple, and in having conversations with Tracy Gardner, the principal for the Amazing Food Wine Company, the umbrella organization for “Wine that Loves …” it’s genius in its simplicity.  Taking a page from the concept of Blue Ocean strategy whereby research is conducted to find uncontested market space and then executing a product strategy to address that unfulfilled demand, the “Wine that loves …” and “Goes With Cellars …” concept simply creates wine that does not have any varietal, appellation or country of origin information, but is matched to the food that it would be served with; food that is commonly eaten by a wide swath of Americans like grilled steak, grilled salmon, pasta, roasted chicken, etc.

From a practical perspective, it makes perfect sense—most wine is consumed the same day it is purchased, and usually it is purchased at the grocery store when other dinner provisions are being picked up.  Why wouldn’t this be a good idea?

I now also have full context on why Tracy, in my conversations with him via work with my employer, was incredibly secretive—secretive to the extent that I initially thought him a bit paranoid.  He apparently knew what I wasn’t thinking about—a good idea will be quickly replicated.

Besides the idea flying in the face of wine enthusiasts for whom knowledge and esoterica is stock in trade, I suspect this concept in its original form with “Wine that Loves …” and its secondary form, “Goes With Cellars …” has a tremendous opportunity in the market.

Goes With Cellars appears to be targeting a more finite audience with more specificity in its wine—Beef:  Peppercorn Steak with an associated recipe whereas “Wine that Loves …” is broader with just simply, “Grilled Steak.”

Anybody that thinks that both of these concepts are fads that will meet a timely death would do well to recall a publishing phenomenon started a decade ago called the, “For Dummies …” series.  These are general reference books aimed at a broad audience that were quickly copied in the market by a host of competitors including “The Complete Idiot’s Guide.”  Both of these series were initially met with a lot of resistance from the intelligentsia and academians who derided the “dumbing down” of information in such a crass, pandering format.

There are a lot of parallels between our wine scenario and this publishing scenario, and 10 years later we know the outcome and success of the book publishing opportunity.  The “For Dummies …” brand is now, by many estimates, as recognizable as Coca-Cola, Starbucks and McDonald’s.

Time will tell which of these wine concepts becomes the “For Dummies …” of the wine world, but I suspect one will.


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The Holiday Season Wine Book Gift Pack

I think most wine lovers have a bookshelf full of wine books.  Few other niche subjects are so ripe for publishing to an at once wonky yet socially hungry audience eager to demonstrate their knowledge, hence the perpetual stream of new titles.

We’ve seen some recent publishing around wine as a topic that combines the more esoteric convergence of our favorite subject with weighty, more philosophical concerns.  I’m talking about books like Wine & Philosophy edited by Fritz Allhoff and Questions of Taste edited by Barry C. Smith, for example.

And, we’ve seen non-fiction wine-related books take a turn to the more narrative oriented.  Think of books like House of Mondavi by Julia Flynn Siler and To Cork or Not to Cork and Judgement of Paris, both by George M. Taber, not to mention older titles like The Far Side of Eden by James Conaway.

Frankly, this expansion of the publishing profile is refreshing to me, and likely all of you, as well.  You can only publish the introductory guide to wine so many times, even if it seems another ½ dozen or more pop up annually—like mushrooms after a hearty spring rain.

As the holidays near, I’ve given thought to the books that I would gift to the budding oenophile—a combination of introductory text and books that look at wine from a broader context.  Here’s my list of Top Six books that I would gift along with an honorable mention or two.  What are the books that you would replace from this list and with what other titles would you replace them?


#1) The Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil

#2) Oldman’s Guide to Outsmarting Wine by Mark Oldman

#3) Windows on the World Complete Wine Course by Kevin Zraly

#4) How to Taste:  A Guide to Enjoying Wine by Jancis Robinson

#5) Making Sense of Wine by Matt Kramer

#6) American Vintage:  The Rise of American Wine by Paul Lukacs

Honorable Mention: The Accidental Connoisseur by Lawrence Osbourne

2nd Honorable Mention: Wine Style:  Using Your Senses to Explore and Enjoy Wine by Mary Ewing-Mulligan and Ed McCarthy

Please leave a comment and tell me how badly I’m missing the boat on a particular book, or, of course, feel free to agree.


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Wine Blogging Wednesday:  Silver Burgundy

Note to self:  Do not, under any circumstance, go back to the large Indianapolis wine shop that I hate to go to, even though they have the largest and best Int’l wine selection in the city, without a definite shopping game plan to get in and out without engaging the staff. 

Why?

Because if their scurrilous retail price gouging isn’t enough to tip you over the edge, than their brow beating retail sales people are …

Alain, the same guy that over charged me on Saturday for to many discarded Opus One and Grange wooden boxes (they charge $6 bucks per box—can you believe it – for something they get for free for buying the wine it comes in—and I bought three and was charged for six) is the same guy that got mad (very annoyed) at the notion of “Silver Burgundy.”

Hey, I’ll be the first to admit, I’m no Francophile, and the mistake was mine, I should have never mentioned “Silver Burgundy” but Alain got down right mad when I suggested that I was looking for a “Silver Burgundy—something from the Côte Chalonnaise and the Mâconnais.  I have to bring a bottle to a tasting tonight.”

Go ahead, you can have a laugh at my expense; it was truly a Clark Griswold moment.  I didn’t read Brooklynguy’s post close enough.  So, Alain, the Frenchman, probably by way of his parents eating baguettes in Detroit, floor salesperson, says, “Who said Silver Burgundy? Was it Joe from National?” 

He was mad that somebody was spreading bad information and apparently had it on good account that somebody at National (a distributor) was the idiot.  I quickly retreated and then over-explained that “No, no, it’s an online tasting, a Wednesday once a month, everybody gets wine around a theme and …oh, forget it.” 

He quickly looked like he still had some residual anger left over from being mad at the stooge that was telling me to buy a “Silver Burgundy” (Sorry Brooklynguy, while I didn’t cite you by name, I let the fictitiousness of you as an organizer take the fall) and confused at the online stuff all at the same time.

I quickly grabbed a bottle, to just simply disengage from the verbal intercourse and I picked a bad bottle in the process.

How do I know it’s bad?  Because I may not trust my French wine knowledge, but I do trust my palate and this is one lifeless, thin, tart, mouth drying Burgundy devoid of fruit.  It’s the kind of stuff that you would think would be turned into a cleaning solvent or a fuel by-product by the French when they destroy wine, except, well, this stuff made its way over to the states.

The Matthiew di Brully 2005 Mercurey “La Perriere” is not simply just unexceptional—It’s completely and utterly bad.  How else do I know it’s bad?  I don’t think it’s distributed in very many places.  A search of the Internet—Wine-Searcher, WineZap, etc turns up zero, zilch, nada on this wine—no review, no nothing.  The only thing I could find on this wine was a Cork’d review from “iowines” and a rating of 92 out of 100.  Hmm … 92 out of 100.  “iowines” is based in Des Moines, Iowa … hmmm … let’s look at this wine, why yes, of course, it’s imported by Wine Adventures in Des Moines, Iowa.  What an incredible coincidence.

Despite the miss on the WBW wine, I do take it in stride because I did learn a couple of very valuable things—#1)  Alain is very concerned about the correctness of understanding French wine and “Silver Burgundy” is not correct in his world view and #2) stretching out of my comfort zone is always a good thing because I will go back and find a wine from Côte Chalonnaise or Mâconnais and celebrate Wine Blogging Wednesday properly and more privately on some random Tuesday in the near future.  It will be a “make good” and the point in time I will also secretly apologize to Broonklyguy for letting him take the brunt of the verbal diarreah from Alain when it was my own ineptness in the first place ... ah, well.  What is next month’s theme?


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