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Strength from the Inside:  Rodney Strong Pushes On

As a student of business, and specifically marketing in business, I watch certain wineries to see how they handle themselves, reasonably detached, but with a certain brand affection—not unlike having a rooting interest in the NFL playoffs after your team has been eliminated.

Typically, the wineries I follow are mid-sized, but independently owned and largely available in national distribution—the toughest spot in the wine business, not capitalized by a larger company, yet not small enough where decisions can be made by the seat of the pants.  No sir, there are implications to consider.

Still, these wineries have a hands-on touch from the owners.

Two such wineries that come to mind are Dry Creek Vineyard and Rodney Strong Vineyards.

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Rodney Strong, in particular, is an interesting study subject and arguably on the cusp of outpacing mid-sized winery status at 800,000 cases of production. Yet, with them, it’s still reasonably easy to observe the machinations of leadership and market(s) positioning that make for fruitful observation.

The first thing to know is owner Tom Klein doesn’t shrink from leadership and he’s well respected by his peers.  To wit, he’s the Chairman of the Wine Institute for 2010 – 2011. 

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Another admirable trait about Rodney Strong is the fact that they understand that quality is always the best marketing.  You can have the greatest branding in the world, but at the end of the day the product has to support the “brand” in lockstep.  And, in my estimation, in addition to always being varietally correct and neo-Californian in style, Rodney Strong demonstrates significant QPR on virtually every wine within their segmented wine line-up.

As an analogy, when you see the schlubby guy with the beautiful wife and you remark to a buddy, “Man, that guy way outkicked his coverage” – that’s Rodney Strong’s price relative to quality.  You could throw darts blindfolded and hit a good Rodney Strong wine.

In addition to quality, their marketing acumen is apparent in two forms:

1) They have a well-segmented wine line-up that even a simpleton can understand

2) They have a sense of themselves and what’s important to them and how that message is carried forward in advertising

In regard to #1, I would hesitate to call Rodney Strong the “Toyota of Wine” – a phrase that instantly associates them as “solid,” “reliable,” “well-made,” “not too flashy, but stylish and contemporary.”  Yet, their wine segmentation definitely pays homage to an auto manufactures line-up of cars and, frankly, the comparison works both in form and function.

When Toyota created Lexus as their luxury brand and, in recent years, when Rodney Strong created their “winery within a winery” for Rockaway and Brothers Ridge, two wines that have distinctly separate brand elements from Rodney Strong, you know the comparison is appropriate.

See the below graph for Toyota’s car line-up and how that equates to Rodney Strong’s wine line-up:

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Secondarily, Rodney Strong’s advertising underwent some fine-tuning last fall to reinforce a very important aspect about their winery:  Place Matters.

In the hurly-burly that is the modern wine marketplace, it’s often hard to tell the provenance of a wine.  Rodney Strong, attempting to strike a more serious tone while elevating their advertising above me-too look-alike campaigns, is now indicating that, yes, where they grow the grapes is important, changing their positioning from, “From Our Place to Yours” to “Place Matters.”

Conceived by LA advertising agency, Sagon | Phire, Dan Wildermuth, VP of Marketing at Rodney Strong said, “It was felt that adding the people to the ad made it more casual and like many other casual brand ads.  We wanted to keep a level of seriousness and focus on the wine and its origin.  We are all about Sonoma County and the AVA’s we grow our grapes in and in this case, specifically Alexander Valley, Sonoma County.”

You can see the previous advertising below, followed by the current version.

In sum, wine lovers often like to talk about the lessons in the glass—the wisdom that wine offers, a reflection on humanity.  Yes, that’s true, but let’s not forget that wine can also offer other lessons as well – notably, how to run a good business with a focus on quality.

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The Meta View:  Right and Left Bank-Styled Meritage Blend Wines Trending in the U.S.

Trend watching in the wine world is something of a sport as Sommeliers, writers and pundits observe, parse, distill and then explain what is happening in the wine zeitgeist as the stories develop at the micro-trend level.  Reporting on the ripple in the pond, something that can penetrate the wine lover’s consciousness over the coming years as the story grows larger, influencers act as an agent for isolating and highlighting what is next.

Sometimes this subtle focus from influencer’s and wordsmiths is noticed, other times not so much (witness:  Riesling’s status as the next big thing for the last decade, consumers never quite receiving the memo).  Yet, this never-ending exploration of what’s new and interesting ends up being a self-fueling machine that fosters and builds intriguing storylines until the ideas become acknowledged reality, or are replaced by the new, new thing.

An example in the realm of wine (and an emerging trend to pay attention to) is the contrast between declining Bordeaux wine sales here in the states at the same time that Old World-styled California wines grow in mindshare and sales.  I call it the “Nü California” style – fruit forward, food-friendly, and dimensionally blended wines with a component of place evident.

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Not only is there a restrained “Old World-ish” style of California wine taking shape, but there are also specific nods that vintners are making to Left and Right Bank-style blends from Bordeaux.  Left Bank-style blends lead with Cabernet and Right Bank-style blends lead with Merlot and/or Cabernet Franc. 

What we are seeing in a post-Sideways world, related to Right Bank-style wines, are an increase in blends that lead with the formerly forsaken Merlot along with Cab Franc (sometimes taking center stage), despite long ago being given a Scarlet Letter as a, “blending varietal.” 

Here are three recent press examples highlighting the emerging trend of Right Bank-influenced wines done in a “Nü California” style (example one, two, and three).

Of course, emerging trends do not occur in a vacuum.  Sometimes, they are given lift.

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The Meritage Alliance has been working to grow mindshare and influence regarding Bordeaux-style blends since 1988.

Started by a group of winemakers who wanted to acknowledge the vintners art form of blending, paying homage to Bordeaux-style blends, yet creating a new name to be respectful of names and origins, Meritage, a made up combination of the words “merit” and “heritage,” has become wildly popular, joining the English lexicon in ways not normally associated with marketing-oriented naming conventions.

In an interview with Bill Smart, Director of Communications for Dry Creek Vineyard (DCV) and a marketing contributor to The Meritage Alliance helmed on a volunteer basis by Kim Stare Wallace of DCV, he noted:

“(We’d) like to have (wineries) use the term Meritage, whether it’s on their label or not to describe their blend.  Using the word Bordeaux to describe these wines is incorrect in my opinion.  Sure, the wines incorporate the Bordeaux varieties; however, that is where our similarities with Bordeaux end.  We are California wineries, producing wines in our style, to our taste, using the noble Bordeaux variety grapes.  In my opinion, the correct name for these wines is Meritage blends or Meritage-style blends.”

With firsthand experience with the Mariner, a consistently fabulous Left Bank-style Meritage blend from DCV, Smart knows that which he speaks …

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The Meritage Alliance boasts 220 members in the organization.  In 2011, they are poised to launch a consumer-oriented tasting in San Francisco similar to ZAP and the Family Winemakers of California tastings, increasing awareness of Bordeaux-styled California blends as a “Meritage.”

Of course, an emerging trend must have an upstart hero, as well.  Within the scope of growing awareness of Meritage blends and the niche of Left and Right Bank-styled wines, a pre-launch wine company called Virage is focusing on Right Bank-styled Nü Californian wines.

Named for the French word meaning a “turn in the road,” that’s exactly what has happened as a former investment banker and assistant to Karen MacNeil, Emily Richer, has swerved right and teamed with winemaker Aaron Pott of Quintessa and Blackbird fame.

Focused on the cooler climate growing areas of Napa Valley, Virage will highlight blends based predominantly on Cabernet Franc and Merlot.

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The Virage blend won’t be released until the fall of this year. I received an early, unlabeled bottling from Richer.  If early tastings hold true, you’ll be hearing a lot about this upstart.  Priced with a value sensibility at $45 a bottle with initial production slated at 900 cases and focused on re-shaping the perception of Napa as a hot weather Cabernet Sauvignon playground, Virage is poised to be a breakout star of 2010.

In addition, unbelievably, the Virage matches up with Pott’ bold quote in the San Francisco Chronicle when he told writer Jon Bonné that, “The best expressions of Cabernet Franc are much more interesting than the best expressions of Cabernet Sauvignon.”  The Virage, offering layer upon layer of nuance, is a tapestry compared to a Napa Cabs afghan of primary flavors.

Pay attention to Meritage blends and Left and Right Bank styles coming from California.  Below are reviews of the Virage and a Left Bank-styled wine from Napa compatriot Beaucanon.

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Illustration #1 and #2 credits:  Christophe Vorlet and copyright holder(s)
Interested in California Meritage/Bordeaux blends? Buy Wine Online: Purchase 6 or more bottles and get 50% off shipping with coupon code “grape35”


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A Wine with Real Providence

I made a clumsy foot slip while trying to navigate the wine purgatory that is my basement stairwell where over 100 bottles await their gustatory grave or longer-term respite in the subterranean bowels of my home.  The 2006 Swanson Vineyards “Alexis” Cabernet Sauvignon acted as the hurtling, blunt force object, initiating a domino-like downward seizure of dozens of bottles.  In surveying the aftermath, as broken glass settled and red wine leached onto the now soon to be replaced carpet, I realized that nary an “important” bottle had broken, including the Swanson.  It seemed as if the projectile-like wine had the guiding touch of providence.  As it turns out, Chris Phelps, Swanson Vineyards’ winemaker, makes another wine that is truly touched by the hand of God.

By way of background, for April fool’s Day, I wrote a jestful post indicating that I was starting an ecommerce web site selling church wine – Churchchug.com, as I called it; Sunday service being the province of wine plonk from specialty wine companies that now needed to find a consumer audience.  It was a slight attempt at humor on a day intended for just that.  Little did I know, however, that a Catholic church in St. Helena forsakes buying “church” wine that truly should be spit for wine made from Napa vineyards by a world-class winemaker.

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Reader Michael Haas, a parishioner at St. Helena Catholic Church, tipped me off to the church wine quality par excellence.  Fellow parishioner Chris Phelps, the winemaker at Swanson Vineyards, works with fruit from Larry Bettinelli’s vineyard management company, sourcing from Rutherford, Oak Knoll, Pope Valley and Yountville.  Every year for the last dozen years, Phelps and Bettinelli have collaborated to make 12 to 18 cases of Merlot and Cabernet for St. Helena Catholic Church, the past four years being Cab exclusive.

According to Phelps, “I would be confident to put (the) street value in the $30 - $40 bottle range.  We never announce our new releases, but we just ‘released’ the 2006.  Of course, the wine is priceless once it is consecrated.”

Phelps noted that the quality wine at St. Helena Catholic Church seems to be an anomaly, “I think most Catholic churches in Napa, Sonoma, (and) Mendocino counties still use a sweet, white muscatel – a fortified white wine.  It’s kind of surprising, if you think about it.”

Surprising, indeed.  How would you like to be a member of that church?  Suddenly, as a Catholic, I feel compelled to make mass a part of my next visit to the Valley for field research purposes.

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“Our parishioners have pretty refined taste in wine; they probably drink wine at or above our sacramental wine quality.  We do sometimes have inquiries about purchasing the wine, but we don’t sell it.  We have to keep an eye out for communicants at mass making a second pass in line for the cup, though,” Phelps said with a laugh.

But, what about the wafers that are consecrated into the body of Christ? 

Story tipster Michael Haas quipped, “If I could get our pastor to make a similar deal with Thomas Keller’s Buchon Bakery, we would never have to worry about Sunday Mass attendance.”

When not helping the church, Phelps utilizes an incredible resume that includes training in Bordeaux, an internship during the epic ’82 harvest, time spent at Chateau Pétrus and eleven years at Christian Moueix’ Dominus Estate in Napa Valley.  A seven-year stop at Caymus for various projects including a four year stint handling the reds from 1999 to 2003 and Phelps had over-proven his bona fides before joining Swanson in 2003.

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Today, Phelps says, “I consider what we are doing at Swanson to be sort of a renaissance, trying to elevate the level of everything we do from vineyard to bottle.”

As if church involvement, winemaking and devoted Scoutmaster and family man responsibilities were not enough, Phelps has started his own label using fruit from St. Helena Catholic Church pal Larry Bettinelli’s estate vineyard in Yountville. 

The name of his label?  “Ad Vivum.”  A Latin phrase for, “To the Life.”

With Phelps’ record of success and quality, a delicious glass of 2006 Swanson “Alexis” Cabernet Sauvignon in my hand and notions of $30 + dollar equivalent wine at communion at a small Catholic Church in St. Helena, I think we should all give a brief toast “To the Life.”

2006 Swanson Vineyards “Alexis” Oakville Cabernet
SRP:  $75 (received as press sample)
ABV: 14.8%
Production: 1306 cases

Tasting Note:  Brooding nose opens like an alley after the rain.  Blackberry, black currant, smoke, iodine, steak juice, sage and menthol that gives way to dense blackberry juice and more menthol on a nicely acidic and well-balanced mid-palate.  Medium fine tannins in a chalky finish indicate time in the bottle is needed, along with a hunk of herb crusted prime rib.
Score:  92


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Focus on:  Mirror Wine Company

Launching what is now an annual, vigorous conversation amongst pro football pundits: “Who should be the first player selected in the NFL draft,” two quarterbacks with intermingling paths were chosen first and second in the 1993 NFL draft inciting the now annual speculation turned conversational sport from the football talking heads while in the process sparking a friendly and competitive personal journey of success that continues between the two to this day, now off the gridiron and in the wine industry. 

Drew Bledsoe, a prep quarterback from Walla, Walla before matriculating to nearby Washington State University, was the first selection in the ’93 NFL draft, chosen by the New England Patriots. 

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Rick Mirer, similarly, a local boy “done good” from Goshen, Indiana became a three-year starter for the University of Notre Dame, just a half-hour from home, before becoming the second selection in the same draft, chosen by the Seattle Seahawks.

This dual “degree of separation” story continued as Drew Bledsoe later was replaced as starting quarterback of the Patriots, infamously losing his job to injury and a young Tom Brady. Charlie Weis, who later went on to become the head football coach at Mirer’s alma mater, presided over the decision as the Patriots Offensive Coordinator.

Today, nearly 20 years later, after successful football careers that lasted more than a decade each, both quarterbacks are now making their mark not by eluding defensive end’s and throwing touchdowns, but by crafting high-end Cabernet.

Bledsoe and his Washington state wine project, Doubleback, has been featured in several media profiles recently.  Looking at the other half of this former NFL quarterback dynamic duo, the subject of my focus is Rick Mirer and his Mirror Wine Company, based in St. Helena, California.

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(On a personal and parenthetical note, having grown up in South Bend, IN, home to Notre Dame, as a lifelong fan now turned wine enthusiast, Mirer figures prominently in my collegiate memories—many a Saturday in the early 90s made better by a Notre Dame victory, including the legendary Snow Bowl game against Penn State in 1992 when, as a senior playing his last game at Notre Dame stadium, Mirer rallied the Fighting Irish to a 17-15 victory in the final seconds.)

Nearly a decade ago,  during a four year stretch from 2000-2003, a period of time in which Mirer played on both sides of the bay, spending two years with both the San Francisco 49’ers and the Oakland Raiders, his proximity to “wine country” sparked an interest in matters of the grape.  In particular, it was while he was with the Raiders that Mirer struck up a friendship with Jeff Smith, proprietor of Hourglass, the high-end Napa cab specialist, charting the beginning of his post-football career.

Already wine curious with a taste for California Cab, and having had discussions with Bledsoe about collaborating on a wine project, Mirer had his wine epiphany during a dinner at Tra Vigne, with an ’98 Hourglass and Smith’s company.

Mirer notes in an interview with Good Grape, “(Bledsoe and I) started thinking about doing something together maybe 10 years ago. There were lots of good ideas in those early talks. I believe the best idea of all was to have two separate programs that we can share and be proud of.  Walla Walla is home for him and he’s started something really cool there. I wanted to stay in (California) and (a) Napa (wine) was a perfect fit for me. So far so good.”

Following that Tra Vigne dinner and an introduction from Smith to winemaker Rob Lawson, former General Manager at Napa Wine Company during the influential and formative period in which cult Cabs like Colgin and Bryant come of age, Mirer would soon launch Mirror Wine Company so named at the suggestion of Lawson, and a phonetic coincidence to the oft-mis-pronounced way of saying “Mirer.”

Starting with the 2005 vintage, now sold out, Mirror is on the cusp of launching a Sauvignon Blanc to go alongside the Cabernet sourced from Oakville and St. Helena fruit.  A single vineyard from Howell Mountain will likely round out the wine offerings in the future with production anticipated to stay small, not exceeding 1200 cases or so.

Envisioned as an allocated offering, but more elastically available given the economy, Mirror is available in select states, mostly California with spot distribution in Illinois, Indiana, and New York.  I picked up my bottle at a wine shop in Mishawaka, Indiana, a stone’s throw from the campus at Notre Dame where Mirer is still a local legend.

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At $75 the ’06 Cabernet is a lush beauty in the cult Napa Cabernet tradition with a price tag that DOESN’T match.  Bargain hunters looking for velvety Napa Cabernet would do well to pick up the Mirror.  I do have some question about the ageability of this wine given the fact that it drinks like it’s at its peak right now with minimal decanting, but buyers who live for the moment will be triumphantly pleased like a touchdown strike to win the game.

Tasting Note: Opens with some dustiness, big blackberry, spice and dark chocolate on the nose before giving way to a lush, velvety smooth mid-palate.  Tastes like 72% cacao Ghirardelli chocolate bathed in Kirsch and crème de cassis liqueur, dashed with nutmeg with a menthol undertone.  Seamlessly balanced and structured with a silky, velvety smooth, rich character.  An impeccable wine and worth every penny of its $75—so good in fact, I bogarted pours to our guests while eating our Saturday night NY strips, unsure of their appreciation for this beauty. Score:  94/100


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On Robert Mondavi Day, Prize Winners and Legacies

Sunday, May 16th marked the unofficially official Robert Mondavi Day, the 2nd anniversary of his passing.

In observance of and memorial to Mondavi’s leadership to the California wine industry, I ran a prize giveaway in conjunction with wine accessory company True Fabrications in order to maintain an annual pebble size ripple of awareness, particularly for wine enthusiasts both new and old for whom a historical benchmark is critical, akin to understanding that Dr. J pioneered the slam dunks that Michael Jordan perfected.

Based on random number selection, I’m pleased to announce that Good Grape reader Ranndy (yes, two n’s) Kellogg from the greater Chicagoland area is the winner of the $150 prize package, with a very generous late addition of a one year subscription to Wine BlueBook (WBB)  from friend of Good Grape and WBB publisher Neil Monnens ($25 value).

Ranndy, already a wine enthusiast, now has a number of accessories to add to his wine fandom arsenal.  Thanks to all who entered the contest by leaving a comment.

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For my own observance of Robert Mondavi Day, I wanted to drink a California wine that, if not quintessential (a Reserve To Kalon, perhaps), at least typified all that is great about Robert Mondavi’s contributions to the domestic wine world as we know it. 

I selected the 2007 Continuum red blend from Mondavi’s son, Tim Mondavi – a wine project also supported by Mondavi’s widow, Margrit Biever Mondavi.

Provided by the winery, the 2007 blend from Oakville and mountain fruit is a precursor to entirely estate grown mountain fruit for Continuum in the ‘08’s and beyond—though if the 2007 is any indication, there isn’t much sense messing with a good thing.  The wine is a 60% Cabernet / 22% Cabernet Franc / 18% Petite Verdot blend and the best review by score I’ve ever given a wine.  To call it stunning is to suggest that Audrey Hepburn might have lacked refinement, as in “stunning” isn’t an adequate enough descriptor.

The Mondavi legacy certainly lives on, a modern day manifestation befitting the name of a legend. In Tim’s words, “For four generations our family has created a continuum of wine excellence, enhancing the celebration of life.”

Indeed.

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