Real wine is hard to find. The charade that populates most store shelves is a group of elixirs, created to poke and tickle the right taste buds. Made in the vein of Pepsi or Fritos, these commodity wines typically showcase excessive fruit, residual sugar, and serious chugability. These are circus wines with circus labels, and the industry has created a sometimes-impenetrable wall of them—one that obscures the wines made by real people, from real grapes, for our honest pleasure. . . .
As a thunderstorm rolls across the prairie, Ben Banks rests a finished bottle flat and deftly hand-labels his new vintage release. Disturbing the zen of the moment, he looks up to give me a warm handshake. Banks leads the winemaking at Sovereign Estate, his family’s winery established in 2008 on the north shore of Lake Waconia, situated 45 minutes west of Minneapolis. Sovereign Estate comes highly recommended by friends in and outside the wine industry, as do neighboring wineries Parley Lake (2008) and Schram Vineyards (2013). It’s enough to pique my interest in the region, which is lauded for its soil, academic knowledge, and viticultural pioneers.
Soil and Successes
The existence of a thriving wine scene just a grape’s throw from the University of Minnesota Horticultural Research Center is no coincidence. “Our vineyard is five miles from the center,” says Steve Zeller . . .
Read the full article here at The Growler.
Jancis Robinson recently wrote an article defending winemaking as an innately “craft” process*, and displayed deep concern over beer and spirits capturing the hearts and taste buds of the younger generations of craft beverage consumers. Robinson clearly feels threatened by the upswing in craft beer and spirits. The threat may be real, but the source is much more expansive.
Wine has the history and allure to stand firmly on its feet. With 10,000 years of wine history and with the first winery dating to Armenia 4100 BCE, the record shows that homo sapiens have an affinity for wine. Robinson herself also rightly highlights how the confines of vintage – a single chance each season – set wine apart from spirits and beer. Winemakers must work with the weather and climate to produce a wine that will undoubtedly range in style and quality due to the growing conditions. Beer and spirits, on the other hand, can be made much more consistently with an ability to scale volume rapidly.
The wine industry has reason for concern, and the rise of craft beer and spirits points to the heart of the issue without being the source. Craft wine costs more than craft spirits or beer. Craft wine starts at $12-$15, and more frequently sells for $20-$50 per bottle on retail shelves. This averages out to $4.00-$10.00 per drink SRP (5 oz pour). Craft beer often falls in the $1.50-$4.00 per drink (12 oz), and craft spirits cost $1.00-$3.00 per drink (1.5 oz). Simple economics pushes many younger drinkers toward craft beer and spirits – it costs less to enjoy something authentic, especially when drinking at home (also a trend that now pains the restaurant industry). My Millennial generation, of which I’m an elder, is the first generation to have “less” than our parents, and this will only become more evident as we age and retire. School debt, retirement woes, and slower and later wealth accrual adds up to a diminished economy for all. Craft beer and spirits enable younger generations to support smaller and local businesses while living within their means.
At the same time, boomers are now moving into their fixed income retirements, and some are no longer stocking cellars. “If I buy Bordeaux or Barolo today, I won’t be alive to enjoy them in their prime.” Some are drinking their cellars down – not building them – and many will join suit soon.
And cellars will not be built by the younger generations as they were by their parents. We, the wine industry of which I am a part, should fear this. Concern over beer and spirits is misguided – it’s yelling at the river overflowing the banks, rather than the poor environmental stewardship that drained the wetlands.
I will keep enjoying craft wine and beer – though less wine than I would enjoy if societal and economic circumstances were different.
*While the bulk of the wine on the market is not craft, the majority of producers are. A few large corporations produce tens of millions of cases of wine. However, tens of thousands of boutique producers craft relatively small amounts of transparent wines.
I have recently witnessed an industry wine buyer for a Minnesota retail account, and a multitude of wine consumers using Vivino to make wine buying decisions. For full disclosure, I am a “Featured User,” a designation given by Vivino to highlight a user as worthy of extra attention. Most Featured Users are wine writers or influencers. Having witnessed the increased use of Vivino to make buying decisions, I want to pause to test Vivino’s own claims, and ponder the growing power of this app.
Vivino suggests that their 5 star rating scale is equal to or better than the ratings publications like Robert Parker and Wine Enthusiast. For one, Vivino publishes all ratings, and so we get to see the bad apples. This isn’t true for some publications. Additionally, we get more reviews from Vivino, as millions of public users review exponentially more wines than a limited number of professional critics ever can.
But do Vivino’s claims add up?
To test, I’ve logged in to my Vivino account and clicked through the “Best Wines under $20” in Minnesota, the “Best Wines between $20-$40” in Minnesota, and a smattering of other wines I’ve recently reviewed. Then I compared them to reviews in Wine Enthusiast (public) and Robert Parker (subscription). I’ve preferenced Wine Enthusiast, as it is a public source. The findings, which are compared to the above chart:
Best Wines under $20
- E. Guigal Côtes-du-Rhône 2013
- 3.6 stars (3356 ratings) 87 points Robert Parker
- 1000 Stories Bourbon Barrel Aged Zinfandel 2014
- 4.1 stars (7674 ratings) 90 points Wine Enthusiast
- J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines Seven Oaks Cabernet Sauvignon 2014
- 4.0 stars (2673 ratings) 87 points Wine Enthusiast
- Bogle Phantom 2014
- 4.0 stars (1278 ratings) 90 points Wine Enthusiast
- Pine Ridge Chenin Blanc – Viognier 2016
- 4.1 stars (578 ratings) 89 points Wine Enthusiast
- Whitehaven Sauvignon Blanc 2016
- 4.1 stars (3510 ratings) 89 points Wine Enthusiast
Best Wines between $20-$40
- Meiomi Pinot Noir 2016
- 4.0 stars (8463 reviews) 88 points Wine Enthusiast
- La Crema Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 2015
- 4.1 stars (1491 reviews) 90 points Wine Enthusiast
- Michael David Freakshow Cabernet Sauvignon 2015
- 4.1 stars (243 reviews) 90 points Wine Enthusiast
- Decoy Cabernet Sauvignon 2014
- 3.9 stars (6756 ratings) 90 points Wine Enthusiast
- Starmont Cabernet Sauvignon 2013
- 4.0 stars (210 ratings) 88 points Wine Enthusiast
- Ferrari Carano Siena 2014
- 4.0 stars (1127 ratings) 87 points Wine Enthusiast
- Allegrini Palazzo della Torre Veronese 2014
- 4.0 stars (1036 ratings) 91 points Wine Enthusiast
Selection of my Recently Reviewed Wines
- A to Z Wineworks Chardonnay 2015
- 3.6 stars (126 ratings) 88 points Wine Enthusiast
- Domaine Serene Evenstad Reserve Chardonnay 2015
- 4.1 stars (26 ratings) 92 points Wine Enthusiast
- El Molet Jumilla 2013
- 3.6 stars (18 ratings) 86 points Wine Enthusiast
- Domaine Tempier Bandol Cuvée La Migoua 2006
- 4.3 stars (34 ratings) 93 points Robert Parker
- Willamette Valley Vineyards Whole Cluster Pinot Noir 2016
- 4.0 stars (394 ratings) 89 Wine Enthusiast
A few data points stand out. First, ratings do have a strong correlation between Vivino and Wine Enthusiast/Robert Parker. 66% correlate within 1 point of Vivino’s chart. When the points fail to align within 1 point, Vivino typically scores the wines higher than the traditional publications. This rings true to my experience when using Vivino. Of the six wines out of alignment, five have higher ratings on Vivino.
Also of interest, note that the “Best Wines” segments created by Vivino (block 1 and 2 of data), all have massive numbers of ratings. Clearly the algorithm favors volume when deciding which wines qualify as “Best Wines.” On the flip side, three of the five wines randomly pulled from my recent reviews have a low number of ratings. Even those with more ratings pale in comparison to the (multiple) thousand reviews of the other wines.
This raises a question. Does more mean better or, in this case, “best”? I typically argue no. However, a wine’s accessibility matters when creating a public platform for the masses. With that said, lower production wines have often been crafted with a more careful touch. Do all like the result of low production wines? No. Many prefer the consistency and centrist styles made by larger producers.
To Vivino or not to Vivino? Do you value the data? Clearly millions do. I will continue to use it as a public source with a slick interface for researching a new bottle. As for reviews, it is a tool I will continue to use—one of many.
Willamette Valley Pin . . . No. Stop there. Riesling. Willamette Valley Riesling. For winemakers and the wine obsessed, this combination brings little surprise. For most, Riesling sounds like an afterthought in the land of world-class Pinot Noir. Enter Weinbau Paetra. Buy, pop, swirl, and see.
Bill Hooper worked his way into a few fine wine shops before starting with The Wine Company, a well-regarded, independent distributor of fine wines. After marrying a German gal, he eventually flew the coop and spent time in Pfalz, Germany studying viticulture and winemaking at the Wine and Agricultural school in Neustadt an der Weinstraße. He is one of only two American graduates in the 115 year history of the school. After returning stateside, Oregon became the clear mecca for a rabble-rousing Riesling producer. He founded Weinbau Paetra, a micro-production label crafting uncompromising Riesling (and more). Expect to find Bill’s wines in fine wine shops across the Twin Cities metro and Portland, and you can’t find finer American-made Riesling. The “K” Riesling, his entry wine and an homage to the Kabinett Rieslings of Germany, will give you a taste of what to expect. After tasting, you’ll explore further. I’ve known these wines as cult-worthy, and after tasting more broadly understand that the money can follow the mouth.
I had the fortune of attending the 2017 Willamette Barrel Auction, a lavish, riotous event featuring some of the top producers in the valley. At the after party, magnums galore graced the bar. 1999 St. Innocent Seven Springs Vineyard and Shea Vineyard Pinot Noir, 2012 Alexana Revana Vineyard Pinot Noir, Adelsheim 1993 Elizabeth’s Reserve Pinot Noir. It was a hell of a night. The showstopper? A bottle of 2001 Chehalem Riesling (Ridgecrest, I believe, and possibly 2000). Age had treated the wine oh so kindly. Petrol, steely minerality, and a dash of fruit weaved itself into a mesmerizing work of art.
Riesling has captured the attention of somms and wine explorers. If you have an interest in figuring out why, while adding some affordable, cellar-worthy bottles to your stash, give a go with Paetra’s Riesling lineup.
A few months back, Leslie Gevirtz of Wine Enthusiast interviewed Craig Wolf, president of the Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America.¹ Wolf strikes an upbeat tone, and Wine Enthusiast largely maintains that confident tenor. A closer reading, however, provides evidence that Wolf has reason to celebrate . . . at the expense of the consumer. “Let the good times roll” for the large and expanding mega distributors.
Wolf begins, “Our numbers have actually risen….People always see all these mergers at the higher level, but what they don’t see are all the small guys coming in to fill gaps….So, the number of wholesalers that are active across the country has increased.” The September 2017 edition of Wines & Vines states the following, “According to winery and distributor sources, in 1995 the United States had about 1,800 wineries and 3,000 distributors. Today, there were more than 9,200 wineries and nearly 1,200 distributors.²” A five fold increase in wineries, and a 60% reduction in distributors. At best, Wolf is intentionally focusing on a small window of time to bolster his (inaccurate) point. At worst, this is Trumpian era disinformation—smoke and mirrors.
Wolf goes on to say that, despite the recent consolidation trends, “(I)t hasn’t affected the consumer because the number of SKUs has only grown over that period of time.” If we can trust that the number of SKUs (individual wines on shelves) has increased, we must ask whether the quantity also brings us quality. As the article posits, the number of “private labels” has increased recently. Large to mid-sized retailers contract wineries to produce private labels so they can offer exclusive products with conveniently opaque pricing, which allows for dramatic markups and profit margins. The wines within the bottles? Too often mediocre at best, an unavoidable reality when asking large wineries or custom crush facilities to make a wine that tastes like plum juice concentrate or cherry jam with Hi-C for $2.40 per bottle.
With the number of wineries today, the demand for distribution is great. Many of these producers craft authentic and intriguing wines. As wineries boom, distributors serve as gatekeepers, deciding which wineries and wines deserve to come to your market. Somebody must certainly filter what sits on the shelves and restaurant lists. However, when consolidated mega distributors, well known for using corrupt practices to buy shelf space and restaurant lists³, serve as the gatekeepers, we have reason to be concerned.
The WSWA serves as a mouthpiece for the large distributors, while offering small benefits to mid-sized members. The association exists to solidify the dominance of the middle tier in our three tier system. I, for one, hope we can give more power to consumers. The WSWA certainly doesn’t have this interest at heart.
³ Previous article about distributor corruption: http://wagonwine.com/2016/12/05/the-sandbox/
This one has been in the works for months. Originally slated for Wine Tourist Magazine, WTM unfortunately closed their doors as a publication two months before going to print. After exploring a few homes for this piece, I landed on posting it on Medium. Enjoy here:
Beyond this Medium article, I have two more pieces in the works, one for Growler Magazine. Stay tuned.
The couple month hiatus has been the result of a cross-country, permanent move to Minnesota, my bride’s torn ACL amidst the move, the 2017 Willamette Valley crush (flew back), and a month on the road telling the story of the lovely little wine company that employs me. Life is full and wonderful. Expect this site to start firing on all cylinders again soon.
“How you doing, Grandpa?”
“Well, it’s no fun getting old,” wheezed my great-grandfather Wes. Then, a deep breath. It was meant as a direct response to a rote question. It frequently left me grinning uncomfortably.
For many, aged wine contains an aura of near mythical power. Hold a 30 year old wine in your hands, and you hold history, even time itself. We are taught that aged wines bring new depths to explore, and we hear a similar message about elderhood. I have certainly felt this rapture when holding aged bottles of wine.
Too often, however, the rapture doesn’t extend to the tasting experience.
In truth, most wines (and humans) don’t age gracefully. While recently drinking a bottle of 1998 Brunello, I (again) held a wine in my hands that undoubtedly tasted better 10 years earlier. I’m not talking about $10 grocery store wine, which surely should be drunk young. Most well-crafted wines made with great care do not benefit from 20+ years of cellar aging. More of us, collectors included, would do well to drink our wines with 5-12 years of age on them. In this window, we run little risk of pulling a cork on a worn out bottle, and the resulting experience will provide a surer pleasure for a broader audience. Between a wines youthful release and tired, raisened age rests an ideal window when a wine holds both fresh fruit, and complexing, intriguing layers that only time can add.
I can already hear the scoffers. “Is this clown really telling me I can’t age my First Growth Bordeaux for 30 years and find glorious fruit and captivating aged aromas and flavors?”
Of course not. For most, however, wines of this ilk are out of reach. And to those scoffers, I bet them their cellars that I will enjoy fewer tired, no-fun-getting-old wines, and many more in their prime of life. And when I win their cellars, I’ll start pulling the corks.
The mystique of aged wines leads collectors to buy futures from many fine Chateaus and Domaines, but a disturbing number of these stunning wines rest for decades holding nothing but the promise of vinegar 30 to 40 years in the future. We’ve sanctified the status of aged wine to the point that many dare not touch their pearl-white treasure.
Perhaps as I age, I will find new meaning in the brittle aromas and flavors of dried fruit and leather. In the meantime, I will enjoy my wines while I know they will please.
I recently had the fortune to sit down with Aurélien Fiatdet of Terroirs Originels and Tom Monroe of Division Winemaking Company for an exploration of cru Beaujolais. Held at the SE Wine Collective, Aurélien led an intimate group through a 15 minute overview of the region before pouring seven distinct Crus ranging from the 2016 vintage to 1995.
For decades Beaujolais was cast aside as a land of cheap, monodimensional Beaujolais Nouveau. This “one trick pony” had much more to offer, however. Inspiring grower producers existed through the years, but wallowed in the shadows. No hyperbole. Top level Crus sold for $9-$12 in the American market, leaving no margin for these small production winemakers. Thanks to the persistent efforts of a handful of independent producers (Gang of 4), the rise of prices in Burgundy/Bordeaux/Rhone, and the megaphone of somms, cru Beaujolais has gained traction.
Rightfully so! These wines hail from high elevation vineyards ranging between 800-1700 feet with ideal granite and volcanic soils. The wines tasted at this event come from a group of producers that farm their estate vineyards with serious care, and the wines receive small lot treatment—hand harvesting from bush vines, semi-carbonic maceration with a large portion of whole clusters, and aging in large neutral oak foudre or concrete vats. The resulting wines sing the praises of the varietal, Gamay, and the unparalleled terroir for this grape.
Tom Monroe, co-leader of the tasting, champions Gamay himself, making more Gamay bottlings each vintage than any other Oregon producer. Other revered winegrowers, including Brick House, Chehalem, Bow & Arrow, have also dabbled, some for decades. With the cool-climate of the Willamette Valley well-respected for the other Burgundian varietals, it makes sense that the region would test the vinous waters of Gamay. And they have found success. Festivals like I Love Gamay and national press evidence the varietals growing reputation in Oregon.
However, Tom and most other Oregon producers still genuflect east in the morning as they tend their Gamay vines, or punch down the cap of fermenting Gamay must. Beaujolais reigns supreme. The wines swirled and tasted last week provide the evidence.
Notes from the two standouts with a list of the other wines tasted:
2016 Pascal Aufranc Vignes de 1939 Chénas ($17): Bold aromatics of ripe raspberry, white pepper, and granite fold lusciously into the mesmerizing palate, which provides pleasing yin-yang tension and structure, all boding well for the present and at least a decade in the cellar. 25 acre vineyard. 92 points.
2013 Domaine Pascal Aufranc Lingum Julienas ($20): Medium purple with dry cherry, kirsch, and dried marjoram seducing the senses. Nice delineation through the palate with a pinch of pepper adding intrigue. 20% neutral oak. 92 points.
- 2015 Robert Perroud L’enfer des Balloquets Brouilly ($17)
- 2015 Lucien Lardy Les Thorins Moulin-à-Vent ($20)
- 2015 Jean-Paul Thévenet Vieilles Vignes Morgon ($30)
- 2005 Pascal Aufranc Vignes de 1939 Chénas
- 1995 Robert Perroud Pollen Brouilly
In the February edition of Wine Business Monthly, Kevin O’Brien penned a noteworthy article filled with curious nooks and crannies.
Good news! Wine sales continue to grow, especially in the $10-$25 category. Sales of $6-$10 wines have meanwhile declined. This has resulted in the “premiumization” of the wine business. Even better, wine drinkers are lusting for honest wines. “. . . consumers are continuing to demand premium products across all beverage alcohol categories as they seek an authentic, high-quality experience.”
Of course, corporate wineries want in on this action, but only have a few options (beer drinkers, this should sound familiar):
- Increase price of existing wines
- Create new labels and reprice
- Buy premium brands*
As a consumer, beware of number two and a flip side of three. Thankfully you aren’t being duped by numero uno.
In the face of falling cheap wine sales, corporate wineries with substantial vineyard holdings have the need to put that fruit to better use. Quick, put the marketing department to work! Slap a new, shnazzy label on the identical bottle of vino (or nearly identical), get the PR machine buzzing, and out of the corporate sphincter comes a glimmering new bottle for the new and improved price of $15 (formerly $8).
Massive producers have also used a related though sneakier tactic. “It should be noted that these large transactions, as well as several other completed during the year, were primarily focused on the brand rather than underlying vineyard or production facilities. A leading driver behind ‘asset light’ transactions is the flexibility in grape sourcing and resulting scalability of the brand.”
Decode: Corporate wineries gobble up a sexy, premium brand name, leave the vineyards and production facilities behind, and then put their less costly, already held vineyards to work under the newly acquired brand label.
Clever, clever, and harder to detect. The answer, the same tried and true answer, can be found in the following:
“The recent wave of wine industry transactions has been notable for its size and breadth. These acquisitions have been driven by suppliers’ desire not only to improve profitability through increased scale but also to remain relevant to their wholesaler and retailer partners. The past few years have seen several significant mergers between some of the country’s largest wholesalers and retailers. As the distribution funnel continues to narrow, wineries are finding access to the market increasingly difficult. . . . In general, larger retailers prefer to work with larger wholesalers in order to better integrate and simplify their supply chain and forecast demand.”
Corporate wineries need one of the big three distributors to move their product into the large retailers. It’s that simple.
Gallo Constellation Brands The Wine Group Bronco Wine Company
Breakthru Beverage Southern Glazer’s Republic National
Safeway Total Wine Costco Whole Foods*
The answer, my friends, remains the same. Shop your locally owned wine retailer, get to know your steward, and you will bring home bottles with authenticity, character, and value. You will also support three authentic tiers rather than the behemoths above.
- *Premium brands = wineries producing $20+ wines
- *Whole Foods has historically worked hard to diversify shelf space with large and small wineries. However, results at any given store vary by state, and market pressures continue to push retailers of this size to consolidate and simplify i.e. work with fewer distributors and reduce options on the shelf.