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Ta-Tas, Fair Trade and Vino

Please direct your attention to Palate Press where I write a not nearly frequent enough, but occasional piece on something that strikes my fancy in the wine world. 

As a friend of Publisher David Honig (who ironically lives about 3 miles from me), it’s always a pleasure to write something that gets scrutinized by editorial eyes given the dictatorial style I take here, free of editorial oversight. 

Today, as a Friday feature, I wrote a piece about Fair Trade wine and the month of October, Fair Trade Month, name-checking a new import company called Worthwhile Wine.

You can check out my story here.


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News, Notes and Dusty Bottle Items – Compost Heap Edition

Odds and ends from a life lived through the prism of the wine glass …

Missed by a Country Mile

Two weeks ago, I did a playful handicapping of Wine Enthusiasts Wine Star Awards making my guesses at the potential winners.  For the effort, I received a, “You are quite intuitive” comment from publisher Adam Strum and a, “They are VERY well educated guesses” from Communications Manager Jacqueline Strum. I subsequently basked in the notion of, “What if I nailed all of them …?”

What were my results against the actual winners announced, you ask?  I hit a measly four out of 11 categories correctly – not exactly a winning day if I were wagering …

My Bad Etiquette

A couple of months ago I wrote a post about my woeful disdain for the oft incorrect spelling of the word “palate” and the people who use it incorrectly.  Hard to believe, but there are wine enthusiasts (who should know better) who refer to their palate in writing as a “pallet” or a “palette.”  Now, I’m no grammarian, but it drives me nuts … and, well, I have another small peccadillo, too …

One of the joys of this digital interconnectedness is you make friends and acquaintances with people all across the country, and, if fortune favors you, the opportunity for privilege from PR folks may arise as well, even if far-flung. 

In fact, some of these newfound acquaintances and PR folks might invite you to events via email with an RSVP – usually an RSVP with difficult to discern contact information and no deadline.

Ahem.  My mother raised a polite boy grateful for fellowship and opportunity for experiences … but, can we all agree that an RSVP required invite when coming across email or Facebook to a mass of people that can be, at best, charitably described as an acquaintance coming from an acquaintance or professional contact, may be better served by not using the Mrs. Manners approved, but inadequate abbreviation for the French, “Répondez s’il vous plait?”

This isn’t a wedding for a dear friend, after all. 

How about using this instead of “RSVP” at the end of the invite:

“Thank you in advance for the courtesy of your reply so that we may conduct appropriate hospitality planning for guests of the party.  Please reply, “Yes, I’m coming” or “Regrets, I can’t make it” by this date at this time to this person via this email or this phone number.  Thank you and we hope to see you.”

It is simple, sets expectations and places the onus on the recipient to reply by a certain date and time while also absolving the guilt-inclined who don’t like to be ungracious by giving them their next action.  Easy peasy.

The World is Flat?!

There was a couple of month period last year when I thought the recession might bring the U.S. back to a cultural sensibility governed by U.S. provincialism, but no longer ... indeed, the world is quickly becoming a global village.

This is by no means analysis … more observation … but, the last couple of weeks continue to indicate the changing nature of our wine world with a strong international wine sensibility coming in (from almost everywhere, but the traditional Francophile movement) with our wine going out to Asia.

As examples, see the ability to buy a brokered vineyard in Argentina and Spain here and here.  Likewise, check out this article on a Hong Kong trade visit to the Finger Lakes and see also this article on Hong Kong’s increasing interest in Napa wine.

The time is coming hard and fast when the first decade of the 2000s is going to seem positively quaint from a global wine perspective.

Make note because we will all remember when …

Eastern Europe Here we Come

Speaking of the global wine village, the worldwide demand for attention from U.S. wine consumers continues unabated and either one of two things is happening – either my radar has become more finely tuned lately or Eastern Europe is starting to more heavily push their wine – how else to explain Web sightings of the wines of Slovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Serbia and Bosnia in the past couple of months?


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Follow the Story – Beaulieu Vineyard

An interesting thing happened last year with the release of the ’07 Cabernets from Beaulieu Vineyard – winemaker Jeffrey Stambor put his signature on the label of their more modestly priced wines. 

This isn’t of small significance.  And is, perhaps, a harbinger of things to come.  In the gentlemen’s way of the wine world a handshake means a lot, and, well, signing your name on something means even more.

Managed by corporate behemoth Diageo (and involved in a transaction as a financial instrument this summer), the quaint notion of a handshake may be blunted, but the value of a signature remains the same.  And, correspondingly, with the signature on the label, quality in the bottle has taken a sharp turn for the better, most notably at the high end, but not entirely removed from the low-end, as well.

Long a Napa bellwether, Beaulieu hasn’t been known for much over the last 15 years except for their history—the long history dating to 1900 and their legacy with legendary winemaker André Tchelistcheff, a mentor to Joel Aiken who handed the full winemaking reins to Stambor in ’09.

While nostalgia is wonderful, it doesn’t come close to approximating the withering demands of market forces and the reality is that Parker failed to provide a review of the flagship Cabernet, the Private Reserve Georges de Latour, from 2002 to 2005 with scores the decade prior being something of a hit-and-miss mixed bag for a $125 bottle of wine.  For many wineries, as the high-end goes, so it goes for the low-end wines.

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Attention from Parker has changed though and that is likely a result of conscientious investment in Beaulieu from the mothership.

Stated as an outlier, the thrust of this post is not the signature on the bottle, a symbolic gesture indicating the winemaker stands firmly behind the product, but the fact that while Beaulieu seems to be keeping their investments in raising the stakes on their winemaking reasonably close to the vest, the proof is in ratings. 

Utilizing a “winery within a winery” concept made familiar with Rodney Strong’s introduction of the same internal benchmarking, Parker said of the 2007 Private Reserve Georges de Latour:

“One of the most dramatic revelations in my California North Coast tastings was the resurrection/renaissance of Beaulieu Vineyard, one of the historic names in California winedom. This was the source of some extraordinary Cabernet Sauvignons in the fifties, sixties, and early seventies, but the winery fell on hard times and was sold (it is now owned by the gigantic Diageo company). However, they have come back with a vengeance over the last few vintages. Michel Rolland, the brilliant wine consultant, was brought in to help resurrect the Private Reserve program, and it appears his magic has spilled over onto the other wines as well.”

Aside from the 95 score from Parker, given in the December 2009 issue of Wine Advocate for the 2007 Private Reserve Georges de Latour Cabernet Sauvignon, Ray Isle also has a flattering, lengthy piece in the current issue of Food & Wine highlighting the turnaround at the winery.

Lest anybody get too caught up in the fumes of wine marketing and the internet, the simple fact remains that Parker moves markets and the old way of doing business is still productive.  For those keeping score at home:

Diageo and Beaulieu made a commitment to increasing quality originating a “winery within a winery” concept and hiring Michel Rolland

Based on PR, sampling, outreach from the winery, or the fact that Rolland was involved, Parker revisited the wines and gave high marks

Around the same time, outreach for a visit to Isle was made resulting in an article in the current November issue of Food & Wine

Beaulieu is now advertising Parker’s comments (as seen in the The Quarterly Review of Wines, Summer 2010, and presented below)

Changing perceptions in the wine business is a long-term game that starts with money and focus before traversing through influencers and media that trickles down to consumers.  This was the case 25 years ago and is still largely the case today.

To do my own “trickle-down economics” litmus test on Beaulieu, I picked up both the 2006 and the 2007 Beaulieu Napa Valley Cabernet found in my market at around $16.99.  The differences between the ’06 and the ’07 are stunning, and doing a side-by-side tasting is an experiment I advocate for anybody interested in examining the direction wineries make to resurrect market demand.  Simply, the ’07, as compared to the ’06 is lush, ripe and has smooth tannins.  While the ’06 is hard, tannic and not entirely pleasant, the ’07 by comparison is a value gem, lacking the precision of what one might expect from the Private Reserve, but tasting wholly like a quality wine that lives peacefully in the shadows of its big brother.

Beaulieu—worthy of a winemaker signature on the bottle?  Yes.  However, that is just one indicator of a level of intent. Perhaps, more importantly, the takeaway is to follow the story (and the money) that still begins in the vineyard and winery,  goes through Parker, the most influential critic in the world, and ends with influence on the consumer as represented by popular media coverage and advertising, all as a winery navigates a complex marketplace to affect change in perception … and sales.

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Reference Article

Ray Isle Food & Wine article on Beaulieu

Graphic Attribution

Scores for PV Georges de Latour taken as a screen capture from eRobertParker.com


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What Comes before Wine Ratings?

If you haven’t read the research summary published earlier this week from Master of Wine Tim Hanni, a story picked up by Jancis Robinson, please do so– it has radical implications on the wine world.

Seriously. 

In a study conducted with Dr. Virginia Utermohlen, MD, Associate Professor at Cornell University, Hanni and Utermohlen created a sensory table of four basic types of tasters.  In their research, based on a large sampling of consumers, they juxtapose two of the four classifications of tasters: “sweet” and “tolerant” (those that are likely to prefer big red wines) and find that “sweet” tasters may have greater taste sensitivity.

The crux of this research biscuit, so to speak, is the fact that the long-held belief that sweet wine drinkers are simply unsophisticated, entry-level drinkers who need to educate their palates might be incorrect prevailing wisdom akin to Iraq harboring weapons of mass destruction.

Again, just to reiterate, the research suggests that those wine drinkers categorized as favoring “sweet” wines may have the highest level of taste sensitivity.

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That’s significant.

Yet, make no mistake; you have to really parse the 16-page research summary to gather this, which is what happens when you have a big idea person coupled with an academian. Now, granted, research (including wine research) that has the opportunity to reshape consumer paradigms happens every day – literally.  And, as we all know, science and our collective consumer consciousness aren’t necessarily bedfellows otherwise we’d all forsake our high fructose corn syrup laden products and live in Yurts drinking wheatgrass juice in between Namaste yoga sessions.  Yet, I can’t help but have a takeaway from this research that indicates this is something to pay attention to, even if it’s only the first step in changing an entire industry’s sensibility.

Dr. Jim Lapsley understands this when he’s quoted in the research press release and says:

“(This information) will require some major changes in attitudes, wine education and the correction of worn-out stereotypes and myths, but this finding offers the wine industry a great opportunity to develop an overlooked but large and accessible wine market segment and to expand wine consumption.”

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What Hanni and Lapsley are alluding to is the fact that as soon as the rest of the wine world figures out what Conundrum and Rombauer have figured out – that wines with residual sugar (RS) sell in the fine wine segment—and begin working towards undoing the stigmatization of RS in wine, they’re going to have an opportunity to welcome many customers at higher price points, wine drinkers who are currently dealt with as redheaded stepchildren, twice removed.

Ironically, and definitely unwittingly, I’ve covered very similar terrain in my observations in posts the last couple of weeks.

First, two weeks ago, I wrote about the emerging trend of sweet wines in the U.S., wines that are noted for having residual sugar instead of being a winking secret; wines that are stepping from the side stage of the wine world and more to the fore – a burgeoning trend with Moscato being an example.

Then, earlier this week, I wrote a post discussing why our current state of wine education that goes an inch deep and a mile wide in providing global wine knowledge was flat-out wrong.  I said an early stage movement towards helping consumers define their wine style preferences would help them progress in their comfort level as a natural progression down a path of engaged wine enthusiasm – this needs to occur BEFORE wine education in order to give education enough context to be valuable.

Information without context is knowledge.  Information with context is wisdom.  And, the wine world needs more consumers that are wise.  Period.

I noted that without this basic, fundamental “wine style” building block, nascent wine drinkers could be bled off into cocktails and beer, areas where it’s easier to get your head around what you like.

Hanni, as quoted in his research summary says much the same when he notes:

“Could the ‘Sweet’ group’s passion for wine be ignited if sweeter wines were more acceptable and more available?

As a part of that story, I referenced both Josh Wesson and his Best Cellars retail stores on the east coast and the book Wine Style by Mary Ewing-Mulligan, both are champions of understanding your so-called “wine style,” a methodology that I wholly endorse.

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Besides the obvious with the sweet wine post, the second post I wrote regarding wine education is relevant because understanding your wine style preference is philosophically in line with Hanni’s cause and findings. 

Both Hanni and Best Cellars have a simple and similar quiz that consumers can take that can help them identify, in the case of Hanni, their “Personal Taste Sensitivity” and with Wesson’s system, their “Do you know what you like?” quiz that maps to the Best Cellars wine classification system.

In our business world, particularly with service-based businesses, there is usually a methodology in place that gives comfort to the customer that the service-provider knows what they are doing, that they are going to solve a problem and not merely the symptom –it’s holistic, and nearly prevailing by the likes of our biggest of brightest companies.

Yet, in the wine world, there is no such methodology for engaging a customer; there are a bunch of unrelated tactics and a mass of confusion, not the least of which is the point scoring system, which contextually has no alignment with my personal likes and dislikes.

Yet, Hanni’s research is seemingly rock solid, Josh Wesson’s Best Cellars merchandising system was groundbreaking over a decade ago, Mary Ewing-Muligan and her book is incredibly thorough, reasonable and sound.

All are swimming upstream against the beast of, “This is the way it is.”

But, change agents know that the way things are done today, don’t always have to be the way things are done tomorrow.

What the wine industry desperately needs to create is a hybrid methodology combining elements of Hanni, Wesson, and Ewing-Mulligan’s quizzing and classification system, adopt it as a supported standard and then promote it as a classification system that welcomes wine drinkers into wine by helping them understand their taste preferences before steering them towards those preferences, regardless of the type of wine, sweet or otherwise.

There will be plenty of time for education, and the myriad of other things that compete for consumer mindshare, but the basics are helping a consumer understand him or herself first.

To answer the question of the headline, “What comes before wine ratings?”  The answer is clear to me and it’s not found in a wine bible, or a 900-page coffee table book, it’s found in putting the power of ennobled choice in the hands of the consumer via a widely acknowledged and accepted methodology, supported by the wine industry.

Reference Links

Tim Hanni’s Research Summary

Tim Hanni’s Survey Summary

Jancis Robinson’s story

Mary Ewing-Mulligan’s Wine Style web site

Tim Hanni’s Taste Preference Quiz

Best Cellars wine preference quiz


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Just a Thought for a Thursday

Chile, Rhone, Soave, Champagne, Beaujolais, U.S. appellations and that’s just the press release related news I’ve seen in the last day.  Many people (myself included) want to give short shrift to the wine business for not necessarily being great marketers, but wine does know its PR.  In fact, at any given moment, there are hundreds of wine-related PR campaigns going on in the U.S.—all attempting to create lighting in the bottle, that magical confluence of time, place and circumstance in order to be the next sales equivalent of Pinot, or Malbec, or Sauvignon Blanc ...

It has me thinking about the battle for supremacy of another kind ...

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