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Everybody Loves a Little Muckraking

Those fascinated with wine and the wine industry have much family fodder to regularly consider.  If it’s not the Mondavi’s it’s the Firestone’s.  Every turn of the calendar year leads to speculation anew about some family foible or fable coming to a close.

General Hospital has nothing on the wine industry.

And, wineries aren’t alone in these “Like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives” moments.

It turns out wine retailers have them, as well.

I read Inc. magazine as a subscriber so it took me by some surprise when I leafed through the magazine this past summer and saw a lengthy article on iconic Chicagoland wine retailer, Sam’s Wine & Spirits.

I thought then that it might make for an interesting blog post, but without a counterpoint to bounce it off of it ended up in the blog post graveyard—a bit of news without anything else to add to it. 

It wasn’t a happy story, either, not when the elasticity of family relations had crossed over from tenuous to potential temerity. 

It seems that ideological differences on growth and how to best go about it were getting in the way between the two sons of Fred, himself the 2nd generation to run the former bar that was now a significant fine wine retailer.

Darryl Rosen, (the eldest son of Fred) and younger brother Brian, it seems, were at odds over some ownership language and voting rights in the nuts and bolts of the business.

Likely in a fit of pique, Darryl told Brian, according to Inc. magazine, that he could buy him out.

And, Brian did.  Darryl has exited the business, Brian retains 20% ownership and a private equity firm owns the other 80%

It seems that Darryl has taken the lessons learned from running Sam’s and re-christened himself as a customer service guru—author/speaker/consultant complete with book that can be found at his site, found here.

Darryl interviewed with Megan Haverkorn from Wine & Spirits Daily last week in an interesting, if somewhat obtuse interview.  There’s even a couple of references to online wine sales that will leave you scratching your head.  As referenced above, this is the counterpoint I was looking for. 

The interview with Darryl was interesting for its relative lack of interest, frankly.  Consider that the news around the guy is that he sold his business to his brother in what some would consider an acrimonious circumstance, yet not a single question was lobbed about the buyout of one of America’s largest wine stores.  Secondarily, the guy, Darryl, just wrote a book on customer service called, ‘Surviving the Middle Miles’ and there’s not even an attempt at a decent plug, just an end of story sign-off mention.  I mean the title itself, a reference to long distance running, would begat a question, or a glancing reference, you would think. 


Read the Inc. magazine article (found here) and then go to the W & Spirits Daily interviews here and here and do your own deductions but, I would be surprised if Sam’s Wine and Spirits wasn’t an equally rich story of intrigue, money, family jealousy and desire for progress versus status quo as the Mondavi’s, without the romance of Napa Valley to cast it as a fable and a book to chronicle it all.

Postscript:  Wine Spectator’s trade magazine, Market Watch, reports in a story that is not online that Brian Rosen, now CEO and President of Sam’s, has just opened a 16,000 square foot store with plans for up to five more stores in 2008, bringing the total number of stores up from three to nine. 


News, Notes & Dusty Bottle Items Pt. II

Some quick hits and random thoughts … I wonder if getting your Master of Wine is harder than passing the bar exam, or taking your CPA test?  All three require an almost encyclopedic body of knowledge in a subject matter. 

I think most people want to discount the Master of Wine because of the subject matter, but I would be surprised if actual sheer knowledge and forced recall wasn’t greater than (or at least equal to) a CPA or Law exam. 

I’m not trying to fan flames here, but it would seem, without question, that the Master of Wine is tougher than the SAT, or, perhaps, even the GMAT—tests for which the questions come from a finite pool in a finite subject matter with an abundance of study aids available. 

Just my opinion …

I won’t go into how I did against last years New Year’s resolutions, but I will say that I did do one thing that I was very proud of—increase the clarity of writing voice on this blog, making it much cleaner to read.  And, I’ve basically taken my writing from being in the passive voice about 40% or greater to less than 10%.  Frankly, I had to because my wife, the English Lit. major, was going to scratch my eyes out if I didn’t… 

Ah, but this year as a New Year’s resolution is different: I think everybody should resolve to stop reading about the “green movement” on dead trees and start calling their recycling center to begin recycling.  It’s hard for me to buy into this greening of America when individual recycling rates are under 5%.

One additional change that I am resolving to make is to drink more white wine.  I drink 90% red and 10% white.  I think I might change that up in 2008.  Why?  I’m tired of drinking red wine clunkers.  White wine, predominantly, is easier to make technically correct and pleasing at lower price points.  And, my palate is much more giving for whites.  I don’t need to have my socks knocked off by every under $20 bottle of red that I drink, but I’m growing weary of being non-plussed.  Drinking white solves that dilemma for me and will probably save me a good amount of money in the process.

Or, maybe not … perhaps I should stick with reds … according to a recent article in the New York Times (thanks to Wine Canine for the pointer) … a recent medical survey in The American Journal of Epidemiology showed that, “drinking 8 to 14 glasses of wine per week, particularly red wine, was linked to as much as a 60 percent reduction in the risk of developing a cold. The scientists suspected this had something to do with the antioxidant properties of wine.”  Sign me up for more reds and less colds, I guess!

Or, I could just drink 375 ml half bottles.  Dr. Debs points out a site called Half-Wit Wines that features over 1000 ½ bottles, Half-Wit was recently featured in a Wall Street Journal article (with a reference to the New York Times already I’m searching for a USA Today reference just to make sure I have my national newspaper bases covered) that had columnists Dorothy Gaither and John Brecher calling half bottles, by the headline, the, “next big thing.”

I really like the idea of Half-Wit wines and in a moment of “open-palm-slapping-forehead ‘why didn’t I think of that’ ” it dawned on me what a great idea it is to have an online store featuring only 375 ml size bottles. 

In fact, my wine of the year just happened to show up on my door step today in six little hand-dandy half bottles. 

I had a bottle of the 2003 Arzuaga Crianza in a traditional size bottle and fell in love with its rich complexity and layer after layer of flavor.  This wine is a stunner.  Think of fresh black cherries at their peak of ripeness floating in a combination of Kirsch, Chambord and Kahlua, with balanced acidity and enough oak to make this go the distance and you come close to approximating this nectar of the Gods.  When I went to replenish and get a couple more bottles of this to hold, I could only find the ’03 in 375’s.  If you’re interested, has it in stock.

… Changing the subject, I’m always a sucker for a wine-related diversion.  If you have five minutes to burn check out and search for wine.  You’ll find instructions for wine box projects, making bum wine and a bunch of other wine-related projects that sound good on paper.  Or check YouTube, perhaps the greatest time waster yet invented.  Somebody sent me a four minute clip of A Capella Christmas carols—that’s time I’ll never get back.



News, Notes & Dusty Bottle Items

Menu for Hope is currently conducting its 4th annual giving campaign for charity.  This worldwide effort, organized by Pim from foodie blog Chez Pim, unites food and wine bloggers from around the globe and offers tremendous prize opportunities for the casual blog reader across a spectrum of interests.

Of course, prizes aside, and the prizes are great (Who wouldn’t want a taping of WinelibraryTV at their house with Gary V. and $500 worth of wine in tow?), the real reason to give is that donations benefit the UN World Food Programme—the world’s largest food and aid program, working in 75 countries.

While much focus, domestically, at this time of year is on local giving, our global village increasingly demands a guiding touch that centers the world over.  This fundraiser raises our center of attention upwards and around us, using the Internet to leverage time and distance.

A couple of interesting things stand out with this worthy program—first, almost 90% of funds donated find their way to needy recipients—a stunning figure and a positive indicator of the monies raised finding their way to people that need it, not administration.  Pim, nor any of the regional organizers, including our wine blogger extradonaire, Alder from Vinography, take a red cent for their organizational efforts.  Secondarily, on a local level in my town, Indianapolis, I volunteer with a very worthy organization that provides culinary job training to a sector of society trying to get on their feet while at the same time providing meals to local shelters.  Our biggest fundraiser of the year does around $40K.  The fact that Pim’s project can mobilize the energy and effort of so many people –virtually- in order to give back $60K is a feet in and of itself.

Join me in giving to this very worthy cause.  You can see a list of prizes for which your $10 donation enters you into a raffle here.

Tap Your Inner Michel Rolland

On a wholly separate note, I must point out that Crushpad’s recent announcement of their Fusebox wine blending kit is a small stroke of brilliance.  I love it.  And, it plays nicely with the Crushpad mission of bringing the art of winemaking to the populace. 

I did a post last year (found here) on the increasing activity I was seeing in consumer-based blending.  I thought then, as I think now, that the market is ready for a product –with bumper rails on it— that allows consumers to do blending to come up with a “Joe Consumer” proprietary blend.

I have my very own Fusebox blending kit awaiting my pick-up at a friend’s house in Ohio (darn Indiana is still six months to a year off from having a bunch of wineries shipping here) and I’m anxiously awaiting my chance to do a little blending project.

The kit includes (excerpted from the web site):

Blending is the highest art form in wine making, where good wine is transformed into great wine. It’s also a lot of fun.

With Fusebox, blending moves from the exclusive domain of the winery into your home. Perfect for entertaining with friends, Fusebox is a fun way to learn how the pros do it and enjoy your blends in a matter of minutes.

Each Fusebox blending kit includes:
• Six 375 mL bottles of blending wine, made from some of Napa’s finest vineyards
Cabernet Sauvignon(2 bottles) , Merlot, Petit Verdot, Malbec, Cabernet Franc
• One 375 mL bottle of Mystery Wine
You try to unlock the components
• Four pipettes
• Graduated cylinder
• Four wine evaluation cards
• Four tasting placemats
• Recipe cards
• Vinography aroma card
• Corkscrew

The one downside I can see straight away is that if you find a blend you like you can’t have Crushpad blend a case of it for you, but that will probably be alleviated in the future, once some success has been found.  They say that the real value Michel Rolland plays for the wineries he consults with is his palate in blending.  I’m looking forward to unleashing my inner Michel Rolland and I’ll write about the experience soon. 


Is the Prevailing Wisdom in Online Wine Sales Wrong?

Last week, the #1 online wine retailer as picked by “Internet Retailer” magazine, released their top 100 wine list for 2007.

In a nod to the power of citizen engagement, released not a top 100 based on their tasting panel, or critical score, though scores are represented in abundance, they released the top 100 wines based on unit volume sales—the sheer amount of wine sold to customers.

It’s an interesting twist and it does offer a few surprises. From their web site:

You’ll see customer reviews on 91 of these wines and independent professional ratings of at least 90 points on 84 of them. Seventy-five are priced below $20, and well-known premium brands such as Silver Oak, Caymus, Veuve Clicquot, Jordan, Rombauer, Grgich Hills and Conundrum also made the list.

What’s the surprising thing to me?  I think most people engaged in the wine world online hold the belief that wine sales online is a growing and complementary channel to existing retail—people buy wine online that they can’t find in their local market—a supplement to their local wine shop.  It’s not a reach to say that these wines are probably on the smaller production side, perhaps boutique in nature, if you want to use that word.

Secondarily, I would presume that, assumptively, based on shipping costs, or the just simply the notion of buying wine online, it’s a commonly held belief that higher price point wines are sold via the Internet.

It’s not a stretch to think—smaller production wines at a higher cost are finding an audience—this is the Longtail in practice, a theory that posits that (excerpted from Wikipedia) that products that are in low demand or have low sales volume can collectively make up a market share that rivals or exceeds the relatively few current bestsellers and blockbusters, if the store or distribution channel is large enough.

So, color me surprised when the top 100 wines at include 75 wines under $20 a bottle and such nationally distributed stalwarts as Hogue, Big House Red, Concannon, Columbia Crest, Smoking Loon, Conundrum, Pillar Box and Columbia winery.

You can find each of these wines, for the most part, in every state in the country.  Most of the wines listed above are in the top 25 in sales and several are under $12 bucks a bottle.

Ironically enough, Pinot Noir, the hottest varietal in wine, enters the list at #55 and just four of the top 100 are Pinot’s.

Interesting stuff.  I feel like I’m reading a Superman comic book with Bizarro Superman where everything I know to be true is the exact opposite.

This definitely turns my view of what the conventional wisdom is related to wine sales and it also tells me that –positively—the adoption of buying wine online is accelerating at an incredibly fast rate.

E-commerce, back in the day, a decade ago, used to be nice to find things and have them delivered that you couldn’t find locally.  E-commerce quickly moved into a function of convenience, however.  In the late 90’s, buying a book at become simpler then navigating the Barnes & Noble. 

I’ve held the belief that wine sales online today, was akin to general e-commerce, like buying a book circa 1997, a matter of sourcing that which was scarce.

The list tells me that wine sales online is now moving to more of a matter of convenience—having something show up on our door instead of going out to buy, particularly when a lot of the wines listed in the top 25 and can be found at your grocery store, liquor shop, or on end-cap at a big-box retailer.

The funny thing about change and adoption of new practices is that you occasionally, but more rarely, have the wisdom in-line while the events are occurring—more frequently the evident truth lags just a bit of time, attendant hindsight.

I would have to say that the list, while we’re still in the nascent days of wine sales online, is an evident truth and our future hindsight is present today.


Even a Blind Squirrel … Wine Blogging Wednesday ...

Whenever somebody who is interested in wine, but not completely comfortable with the subject asks me where I buy wine, I usually glance over the question and make a recommendation for where I think THEY should buy wine.

Invariably the question is a leading one in order to find a spot that satisfies a couple of criteria—reasonably priced and giving of the ability to shop with a modicum of dignity for those that don’t like to enter the fray of retail help with the winemonger. 

My recommendation?  Cost Plus World Market.  Don’t laugh.  I’m serious.

These worldly purveyors of home bric-a-brac and housewares, found in most major cities, also have a decent, mid-priced wine section in most stores.  Frankly, you could send a blind man into the wine section and he would come away with an affordable, eminently quaffable wine. 

Yes, a blind squirrel finds a nut occasionally and a reluctant wine consumer can find a good wine at World Market.  Unless I lose my wine blogging cred. here, note that I’m saying “eminently quaffable” not “eminently profound.”

The Cost Plus World Market wine section is like Garanimals for adults.  Confidence runs high when risk is low.

This store is a good choice for a couple of reasons.  First, the selection is carefully edited with a manageable number of SKU’s per wine region—Australia, French, California, etc.  Therefore, the mind-numbing array of wine is reduced for the casual buyer.  Second, the wines are all in the premium category, so you’re eliminating the plonk for your casual wine drinking friend who might be persuaded to go $5.99 as opposed to $12.99, all things considered equal, if he’s at the grocery store.  Third, most of the wines they sell at World Market are well-reviewed and value buys according to professional wine reviewers.  You’ll see lots of decent to good wines from Smoking Loon, Castle Rock, Rosenblum, and others. 

So it was as I entered World Market just this evening to pick up a Petite Sirah for Wine Blogging Wednesday.  World Market was not my original destination, but a good spot nonetheless.

The wife and I are in the midst of moving domiciles in Indianapolis, so I’ll now have a couple of wine shops a touch more convenient to me, even if I am noting that one such store happens to close at 7:30 pm, as I found out when I pulled in the parking lot at 7:43.  I felt like pulling a Chevy Chase from the movie Vacation, and demanding that Wally World open.  Alas, I beat a hasty retreat around the corner to find my Petite Sirah and 10 other impulse bottle buys at the emporium of African masks made in China. 

I picked up the 2006 McManis Family Vineyards Petite Sirah as well as the 2005 Jewel Petite Sirah, both Lodi region wines.

As you would expect for Lodi wines at a Cost Plus World Market in Indianapolis, IN for $9.99 a piece, both delivered admirably and capably at price point.

The Jewel, in particular, was a touch more fruit forward and complex with a hint of toasty oak on the finish.  The McManis, a nice wine, yes, just seemed a little less refined in the head to head tasting.

This month’s Wine Blogging Wednesday is a good one, highlighting Petite Sirah, a wine that is too frequently given short shrift amongst domestic wine drinkers.  But, as I mentioned, even a blind squirrel finds a nut now and then and you can find a couple of decent nuts at your local national chain of house warmth goodness, particularly in the California Petite Sirah wine section.


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