How to Lose a Sale

Step one: Pull the cork on your winery’s award-winning Pinot Noir.

Step two: Fail to test the wine for flaws prior to pouring or test the wine and fail to notice flaws.

Step three: Pour two-thirds of the bottle to other tasting room guests (title shift, “How to Lose a Silly Number of Sales”).

Step four: Pour award-winning wine, while gloating over the award.

Step five: Fail to acknowledge a flaw (cork taint, aka TCA) when guest, backed by group of four other tasters, states the wine is corked. More specifically, taste the wine in question in front of the guest, then tell the guest that she is wrong. Do so while holding the questioned bottle, which now contains three ounces of award-winning Pinot Noir.

Step six: Admit to minimal wine experience during your time talking with this group.

Mission accomplished. Take a bow.

Tar, Barnyard, White Pepper, Compost

What makes expensive wine so expensive? I get this question more than almost any other. And it is a great question. Many layers weave together to create a wine’s price tag (Wine Economics Part I, Part II, and Part III only scratch the surface). However, a remarkable reality persists—the large majority of wine drinkers don’t particularly enjoy drinking expensive wines, especially the exalted wines of the Old World*. Blind tastings of regular folks have consistently shown no correlation, or even a negative correlation, between the wines they like and the price of the wine.±

A view from the patio at Bethel Heights in the Eola-Amity Hills AVA of Oregon

The tasting descriptors of lauded Old World regions provide clues as to why this phenomenon exists. Open a five year old Beaujolais Cru from Morgon, France, and the slate stoniness and tart acidity, along with the second-fiddle role of fruit aromas and flavors, shock many wine drinkers. Head south to the Northern Rhone of France, and the Syrah punches the palate with savory black olive, bacon, white pepper, and charcoal. Aged Bordeaux? Wet dusty road, tobacco, truffle, compost, and gravel, with fruit once again singing back-up. The list of the “great” wines goes on in similar fashion. And on. Karen MacNeil argues that Great Wine must display a degree of non fruitedness. See the tasting notes above, and you get her point. For most, though, non fruitedness dominates many of the  great wines, sucking the pleasure provided by the primary fruit flavors.∞

So why the hell does anybody want to drink the expensive stuff? Some argue that wine drinkers experience an evolution of the palate. In reality, the exploration of wine becomes academic. How does a presentation on the macroeconomics of suburban zoning arouse the minds of some fellow humans (this one’s for you, Mom)? The act of diligent study, over time, begins to stimulate neural connections that never previously existed. Consequently, hard work and forced study slowly shift into a pleasure inducing experience. In the words of Twain, “Then his work becomes his pleasure, his recreation, his absorption, his uplifting and all-satisfying enthusiasm.” Blessedly, for wine drinkers, we get to relish in the initial “work.” Absorption and enthusiasm grab hold, and the mind takes the reigns. How do soil, place, and grapes create this? No, winemakers in the Piedmont commune (village) of Barolo don’t add tar extract into their wines. So how does this happen? A wine enthusiast is birthed.

Enjoy the wines you enjoy. When the hard work takes you to a new place, step into the bizarre novelty that surrounds you.

The lush life of bud-break wine experiences.

The lush life of bud-break wine experiences

*Old World = Western and Eastern European winemaking regions, including France, Italy, Spain, Germany, Greece, and Austria, where winemaking first took root.

± http://www.wine-economics.org/workingpapers/AAWE_WP16.pdf

∞There is certainly an American bias in this article. This bias likely plays a substantial role in answering why Americans’ prefer cheap wines. Our processed food, salt and sugar-added diet likely skews our palate toward sweeter, fruit-driven wines. I would love to see a break down of “average consumer” wine preferences in Europe compared to the United States.

Chapter Deux

Starting today, I put all my chips into this world of bottled history and culture. Wagon Wine began in 2014 while I continued my full-time career teaching literature and writing. The site served as a creative outlet, a challenge to deepen my understanding of wine while writing engagingly. After a year of working both in the classroom and for a Willamette Valley producer, Fullerton Wines, I have accepted a full-time position with the Fullerton family. My wife says she can see the child-like wonder in my eyes—the thrill of fireworks on the fourth of July. I’m sure she can.

Expect more frequent posts as I jump head first, glass in hand, into my vinous ventures. I will also begin the WSET Level 3 Advanced Course in August as a way to broaden my perspective and palate. I anticipate the benefits of this study to flow into my writing and workplace.

A business trip to Elk Cove Vineyard this past week. Always beautiful in wine country, however, this site stands above the rest.

A business trip to Elk Cove Vineyard this past week. Always beautiful in wine country, however, this site stands above most.

Here are a few articles I’ve had published elsewhere in the past month:

Chapter one stirred the pot.

Chapter Deux

After embarking up the first mile of trail, a metamorphosis . . .

Thank you all for your support.

A Romantic Ideal Must Tumble

I recently read an excellent article on “White Label wines” by Madeline Puckette and Co. over at Wine Folly. Except for one glaring bullet-point:

“Some wineries with tasting rooms will make a few own-vineyard wines, but will use bulk wine sources to make their cheaper, lower-end affordable bottlings. We’d ask what’s the point of selling something you pre-bought, rather than making at the winery? But it happens…”

It certainly does. Frequently. And understandably so.

First, what is bulk wine? Many established wineries at all quality-levels sell some of their finished wine on the bulk market. This is purchased by the gallon by other wineries or winemakers, typically at a fair tariff. Why would an established winery sell off the fruit (wine) of their hard-earned labor? Sometimes the wine is flawed. Other times it simply doesn’t make the cut for the premiere producer who grew the fruit and made the wine. One man’s trash is another’s treasure, though, and I have drunk many fine wines in the $12-$20 range that resulted from the latter. Finally, some producers sell finished, bulk wine to increase short-term cash flow. It turns out that bottling, labeling, marketing, selling, and then taking a hit in the three-tier system (producer, distributor, retailer) costs wineries a lot of money.

Punching down the cap of fermenting red wine.

Many wineries buy bulk juice, and for essential reasons. For instance, young wineries buy bulk to produce enough volume to create a viable business. Owning your own vineyards is an expensive proposition (understatement of the year at Wagon Wine), and buying fruit is also expensive as a result. Buying some bulk juice allows many new, small, and moderate-sized wineries to enter the market and sustain their business.

I certainly respect the notion that established wineries need not turn to the bulk market.

Thankfully, Madeline contradicts herself at the end by writing:

“We’ve pointed out several issues that white label wines can have, but we believe there’s a lot of potential with this segment of the market. The bulk wine market involves a lot of great wineries and great wines from special places all over the world. A lot of these producers are focused so much on making wine that they lack the resources to market it. Winemaking is very capital-intensive, and the winery may need to sell wines in bulk to raise cash faster than they can sell their own wines, even if the wine is perfectly good.”

Yep, and many young winemakers and wineries rightfully take advantage of this “perfectly good” juice to create their entry-tier wines. Perfectly understandable, and ultimately beneficial to us, the consumers.

So yes, Madeline, transparency matters. And not all bulk juice is equal. However, don’t take a sledgehammer to a nail. Bulk juice in entry-level bottles sustains many reputable, small to medium-sized family wineries.

The Tiers Produce Tears: Tear it Down

I recently returned from a marketing trip with my employer, a small Willamette Valley producer of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. As we explored the Minnesota market, meeting with local wine shops, three separate owners asked pointedly, “Will you be in Total Wine? If so, we won’t carry you.” Early in 2014, Total Wine & More entered Minnesota, grabbed hold, and shook it like a martini. A few locally-owned shops have closed, including the beloved Four Firkins. While appreciated by many buyers for their substantial selection and low prices—a reputation buoyed by titles like “2014 Retailer of the Year” by Wine Enthusiast—we should pause and reflect on the big box economics of Total Wine.

Total Wine carries an array of wines produced by medium to large producers. Their margins? Minimal—lower than any locally-owned shop can match. This clearly harms the boutique shops, but it also abuses the smaller wineries carried by Total Wine. Yes, Total Wine pays the same price to the distributors as any other shop, and so the wineries make equal money when sitting on the shelves of Total Wine. However, the low markup ultimately devalues any wine on the shelf, and consequently any brand on the shelf. Small to medium-sized boutique wineries only thrive if they create a value brand rather than a discount brand. Big box economics undercuts the value.

Let the sun shine upon the back alley short cuts that lure so many of us.

Let the sun shine upon the short cuts that lure so many of us.

Total Wine makes one exception to their minimal mark up philosophy—their private labels. They amass a fleet of private label wines, which they create through contracts with wineries around the world. “You make the wine, we’ll provide the label.” This model allows the producers to move volumes of mediocre to crappy wine easily, thanks to the serious power wielded by large entities like Total Wine. It also masks the grape growing and production facts, allowing Total Wine to mark these private label wines up substantially more than the other brands on their shelves. Total Wine stocks over 2,500 private labels, and sources report 53% of their sales come from these private label wines. This ultimately means that Total Wine’s management, and subsequently store employees, have an incentive to push the private label wines.

Thankfully, unique Minnesota distribution laws allow some local stores to cleverly fight back.

Shop at locally owned and operated stores, wine and beyond. civiceconomics.com “Local Recirculation of Revenue”

This story, of course, is not unique to wine, and this fact only bolsters the message. We all benefit when we shop at locally-owned stores. Michael Pollan, food writer and journalist, first turned me on to the power of voting with my money. Every dollar spent is a vote for that product, that company, that retailer, and the business practices that support that chain of businesses. A son of a rural Minnesota business owner, I shouldn’t have needed Pollan to clarify the power of shopping locally. Yes, you may pay an extra dollar or two*, but the benefits so clearly outweigh the cost, sun to a grain of sand.

 

*Take advantage of case discounts at your local wine shop, and prices come nearer to alignment when comparing the superstores and small shops.

Sources:

Visions through the Mist at the Oregon Wine Symposium

Last week’s Oregon Wine Symposium provided plenty of fodder for this curious mind. A few tidbits for you, my beloved readers, to ponder and peruse:

  1. 2015, the warmest vintage on record in the Willamette Valley, will become the norm between 2035—2045. The wine industry and many others (NASA, ski resorts, Inuit villages, farmers more broadly) take the projections seriously. We should all abide. While we often focus on air temperature increases, ocean and soil temperature rise both pose unique risks, many of which we do not understand well (or at all). Microbial life in the soils, for example, will change with the soil temperature increases we see today.
  2. The Willamette Valley and western Columbia Gorge, two of the only true cold-climate growing regions in the United States, are better suited for the warming future, though varietals will have to shift over time to accommodate the changing environment. Large diurnal temperature swings* have set the Willamette Valley apart from most growing regions in the United States. Unfortunately, average low temperatures have risen faster than average high temperatures, which will result in the Willamette Valley losing its diurnal edge.Some cool climate, Columbia Gorge fruitSome cool climate, Columbia Gorge fruit
  3. Consolidation within the wine industry, nationally and globally, inserts agitating slivers into the healthy flesh of Oregon wine. Large distributors have merged (Glazer’s and Southern should concern us all, for example), and the pace of vineyard and winery buy-outs has accelerated. This challenges the heart of Oregon wine, known rightly as the land of small, family wineries and vineyards with a keen interest in sustainable, life-giving operations. 5,000+ case wineries represent but a quarter of the Oregon industry, and vineyards over 50 acres hardly exist. You juxtapose this to California or even Washington, and Oregon looks like the land of peasant farmers on petite parcels. However, Oregon wine has justly earned a reputation for serious quality. The small-scale often allows winemakers to craft wines that sing siren songs to our passing ears.
  4. The fellowship and collaborative spirit within the Oregon wine industry sets the state apart from the rest of the wine world. Global wine industry folks have interned, settled, or partaken in the Oregon wine scene, and the outsiders and insiders unanimously rave about the familial nature of the Oregon wine industry. When combined with the small-scale production noted above, Oregon wines truly offer something unique to the world.
  5. What do we mean when we say we smell “minerality” in a wine? This word appears to serve as a catch-all to describe any aroma or flavor that doesn’t fall into the fruit or oak categories. Wine reviews and tasting notes have seen a significant rise in its use, and yet tasters disagree over what minerality actually means. Are the aromas actually reductive sulfides in the wine, or do vines transport mineral compounds from the soil into the wine? Science tells us that vines cannot carry soil minerals to the grapes, and yet savvy tasters frequently speak of smelling granite, flint, or wet stone in their wine. While the origin of the aromas remains elusive, know that higher acid wines more frequently carry these mineral notes, and Old World wines more commonly contain this needed acidity. I suggest tasting Chablis or Mosel Riesling to experience minerality yourself.

*Diurnal temperature swings refers to the gap in temperature between the daily high and daily low. The larger the diurnal shift, the more acidity the grapes will maintain in the evenings while still allowing for ripening thanks to the warm daytime highs.

Money Can Buy

I, like any good wine shopper, seek out producers over-delivering for their price point. In the nearby Willamette Valley, this means $20-$35 Pinot Noir that tastes like the giants at $50-$80. Last weekend I stopped by Bergström Wines, a hallmark producer in the valley. What I found buckled my knees. The first swirl and smell of three of the four Pinots I tasted left me staggering. Life paused, oh my word, there is a fourth dimension kind of wines.

The heavens opened. Photo taken at a nearby vineyard before driving to Bergstrom.

The heavens open. Photo taken at a nearby vineyard before driving to Bergström.

It started with the 2013 Le Pré du Col Vineyard Pinot Noir. The aromatics took me to another realm. Nothing I have tasted has touched this wine. Strawberry, earth, and pine forest mingle seductively and profoundly on the nose. The mid-weight palate adds cherry cola and soft tannins. This is a knee-buckling, tear-inducing wine—memorable and awe-inspiring. Stellar.

Having tasted the Le Pré du Col, I honestly didn’t care what the rest of the wines tasted like. I could have simply basked in the afterglow of that singular experience. However, the line-up continued to caress my interest, never letting me down from my cloud. The 2013 Silice Pinot Noir followed with its own unique path to Pinot Noir enlightenment. Chocolate covered strawberry and cherry aromas lead with silky, pure, red-fruit on the palate. The fine-grained tannins and strawberry preserve acidity weave smooth layers into the medium-bodied core. An eye-brow raising wine that floats effortlessly between density and buoyancy. Stellar.

This is the first time I have rated two wines as stellar at one tasting. I still encourage all to seek the hand-crafted gems over-delivering at affordable price points. Bergström Wines reminds me, however, that some (only some) have earned the hefty tariffs they charge. If you have the opportunity to taste their wines or purchase a bottle, do not hesitate.

The Head, The Heart, The Slurp

I recently attended an Oregon Syrah tasting with a trio of Willamette Valley winemakers and a few other industry compatriots. We tasted through seven different Oregon Syrahs, including a vertical from Dion Vineyard in the Willamette Valley produced by Anne Hubatch of Helioterra. Violet-blue in color, the 2013 Dion grabbed me by the shoulders and force-focused my energy directly into the glass. Confident white pepper aromatics lead, followed by spice, blueberry, and boysenberry. Floral undertones add a lovely, gentle layer. This wine will excite those who respect and value Rhone Syrah—a mentally stimulating experience.

Other Syrahs from southern Oregon, especially the 2012 Cowhorn Syrah from the Applegate Valley, luxuriously warmed the heart with New World fruit. The Cowhorn Syrah danced a laser-line between density and buoyancy, fruit leather and black pepper. Wines this thick often fail to inspire, but Cowhorn manages to add layers of nuance into the folds of fruit.

Admittedly, Oregon winemakers and viticulturists have only now entered the dawn of this Syr-era. Few have plumbed current or potential vineyard sites with an eye for Syrah gold. The varietal has, however, found a home in Oregon, and the cool-climate Willamette Valley within. I expect to taste starlight from the misty cave depths once it settles into the embrace of well-selected Oregon vineyards.

A few days later, I dined with family at a casual mid-week gathering. My mother-in-law, a bargain wine shopper, opened a bottle of 2014 Blackstone Merlot from California. This sweet, grape slurpee of a wine lacked everything that makes wine sing. It declared itself robotically, centuries away from passing the Turing Test—Mass Market at its worst. It served as a reminder that $10 Washington flattens $10 California every time. Biased as I am, I challenge you: Apothic Red v. Two Vines, Menage a Trois v. Columbia Crest Grand Estates,  Bogle Essential Red v. Lone Birch Red. Let me know your results.

Cheers to wines that stir the head and the heart.

Evolution at the Corner of Wine and Education

A recent article by Levi Dalton provoked my interest, churning the cream within my mind. I have taught writing and literature for five years and hold an MA in Teaching. While I have cut back my appointment to pursue a career in wine, I continue to thumb the minds of students. If attuned, the young people in any classroom reverberate a pulse that mimics the larger society.

Learners value independence, more so today than in the recent past. A profound distrust of the old wisdom has slipped into young minds like a fog on cat’s feet. Even proven facts warrant a lifted brow, and we see these realities resonate through our politics.

In his article, Dalton predicts that sommeliers, the pedagogically elite servers of the wine world, will continue to fall out of favor (as a top sommelier himself, he is positioned to make such claims). Thanks to the easy access to information today, wine lovers and newbies alike can seek insight from apps, blogs, message boards, and publications. This crowdsourcing of knowledge diminishes the need for experts.*

The end of the chalkboard education, though not the end of chalkboard use in wineries. The tasting room at Syncline Winery.

The end of the chalkboard, shut-up-and-listen education, though not the end of chalkboard use in wineries. Photo taken in the tasting room at Syncline Winery.

Plus, why sit passively when you can learn yourself? Participation in wine classes at local wine shops and formal wine schools has risen significantly in recent years. This aligns with modern learners’ desire for independence. The wine curious and lovers both prefer to participate in learning and decision-making rather than passively receive “truth” from an expert. I speculate that a survey of wine educators would corroborate that they have seen a corresponding rise in the questioning, doubting, and challenging of the old wine wisdom. Lord knows the wine elite have built one glitzy kingdom—the new generation has arrived with loupes* in hand.

Case in point. While listening to a panel of winemakers and industry elite from the Finger Lakes region at the 2015 Wine Bloggers Conference, one winemaker from a leading producer espoused the importance of moving the second-tier producers away from hybrid and native varietals. The use of grapes such as Maréchal Foch and Catawba tarnished the reputation of the region as a whole. Madeline Puckette, founder of the lauded website Wine Folly, raised her hand and asked, “Why are hybrids so inherently crappy?” Blasphemy! A defense of varietals lesser-than the great vinifera varietals of Cabernet Franc or Riesling!

“There is nothing permanent except change.”

As a Millennial waltzing between the poles of wisdom and modernity, I respect the role of expertise. The foundations of wine knowledge and science have led us to a brave new wine world. However, experimentation, newfound regions and varietals, and individual palates deserve the attention they declare today.

Hopefully I have made some butter.

 

*This is clearly debatable. It remains a strong perception of many millennials none-the-less.

*Loupe = a small magnifying glass used by jewelers and watchmakers.

Let It Be

The glorification of native yeasts. Can you hear it? “We only use natural yeasts. We let the terroir of this place speak by allowing the yeast from the vineyard to transform the wine.” Those who spend time in wine country chatting with winemakers or tasting room staff have heard this line once or tw. . . enty seven times. I would like to buy into the raw, back-to-nature ideal presented by these well-intentioned enthusiasts. Inoculating wine with cultured, laboratory yeast represents our modern desire to control and manipulate that which needs no help. Right? Let the wine speak of its place.

Unfortunately, relatively recent science* has demonstrated that the reality may fall short of the ideal. Cultured yeast strains, present in wineries from yesteryear or boots or guests, take over fermentation after the alcohol level reaches about 3-4%. The native yeast strains get beaten out by the strains refined in labs. Some natural yeast advocates, however, still contend that this initial, short-term fermentation with native yeast adds complexity to the wine not found in cultured fermentations.*

We certainly have more to learn.

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow

A recent exchange added a significant, suggestive layer to my understanding. I entered a conversation with Jeff Weissler of Pairings Portland and Alex Fullerton, winemaker at Fullerton Wines. Jeff is a self-described natural wine nut, and spends his energy proselytizing for biodynamic and organic wine and vineyard management. At one point, Jeff declared that all truly sustainable winemakers use native yeast fermentations. A bit taken back by this, I continued to listen, but with questions percolating and brow furrowed. Upon leaving, I cornered Alex. “I thought native yeast fermentation was rhetoric?” Alex effectively laid out the argument. Resident yeast fermentation fails miserably when attempted by large-scale wineries with pesticide and herbicide-laced vineyards. Not only is their scale often too large to tend the more fickle fermentation process of resident yeasts*, but the gallons of synthetic pest controls have stripped away the resident yeast’s ability to thrive or even live. The musts* of industrial fermentations require gobs of cultured yeast to withstand the barren, sickly environment created by chemical-laden agriculture.

2015-11-08 12.37.37

Evidence of another “natural” affect of eastern Washington viticulture—vine damage due to frost. This is a biodynamic vineyard in the Columbia Gorge AVA.

We now have significant insight into the winemaking process, knowledge our predecessors could never imagine. Despite the progress, wine science has miles to go before most viticulturists and oenologists will sleep. At this moment, though, we can use native yeast fermentation as a measuring stick,  a stamp of approval verifying a wineries respect for the land and process.

 

*http://www.winebusiness.com/wbm/?go=getArticleSignIn&dataId=119835

*https://winemakermag.com/758-wild-yeast-the-pros-and-cons-of-spontaneous-fermentation

*Resident yeast: A term for yeast that ferments wine without intentional additions of cultured yeasts. Typically native yeasts begin the fermentation followed by strains of cultured yeasts. Perhaps the most apt description of what most call “native” yeast.

*Must: the pressed juice, skins, seeds, and sometimes stems of red wines prior to and during fermentation.