October 26 2010
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.
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.
Scores for PV Georges de Latour taken as a screen capture from eRobertParker.com