Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Vintners behaving badly: Huneeus charged in college admissions bribery case

Agustin Francisco Huneeus. From his company's website
This is a story of wealth and privilege, and how a public appearance last week by a man fighting a proposed Napa County environmental law ended up being surprisingly prophetic.

The federal case is so big -- 50 people were charged in six states -- that most individual details will be skimmed over. Here, I'm going to present some transcripts from conversations taped by law enforcement to show exactly what one man is accused of doing.

Agustin Francisco Huneeus, 53, president of Huneeus Vintners, was charged Tuesday in the college admissions bribery case filed by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Huneeus, charged with conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud, is a very successful vintner. His father built Concha y Toro from a small winery into Chile's largest. Huneeus himself was chief executive of Constellation Brands' fine-wine division before forming Huneeus Vintners with his father in 2004. The company owns Quintessa in Napa Valley as well as Flowers in Sonoma County and Benton-Lane in Oregon.

I like Huneeus; he has a rakish charm. My wife was dismayed when she learned he had been charged; she remembers his kindness and sense of humor. And I like his company's wines. All three of its main wineries are known for the kind of high-quality balanced wines I most enjoy.

He has a problem now, though, that goes beyond the charges themselves.

More than 90 percent of people charged with a federal crime plead guilty. And the great majority of people who plead not guilty are found guilty. The federal court system is stacked against defendants, way more than state courts.

But Huneeus has good reason to fight the charges, despite the odds. If he is found guilty of a felony, he may be forced to divest himself of the wine business he has helped build. State and federal laws differ on this, and I am not a legal expert; this is a question for another day.

For today, the question is, how bad is it for a parent to try to help his kid at any cost?




Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Let's awamori! Okinawa's native drink finds a home in San Francisco

Modern awamori production; not so different from pre-WWII (see below). Courtesy Voyagin
Yoshi Tome
Awamori is a really interesting beverage, historically and culturally. Yoshi Tome, owner of one of the most successful sushi restaurants in the San Francisco bay area, has decided to refocus one restaurant's menu to show it off.

Tome has owned Sushi Ran in Sausalito since 1986. The fine sake list at Sushi Ran has been, for many area residents, their first introduction to premium sake. But sake is not where his heart lies drink-wise.

Tome is from Okinawa, where awamori is the traditional drink of choice. He is a fan; he likes to relax with a glass of very well-aged awamori from his private stash.

Awamori suffered from World War II as much as any cultural product and has still not really recovered. But we have come to an era in liquor appreciation where what was once seen as its greatest weakness -- single distillation, instead of double -- may now have become a strength.

When Tome left Japan for the U.S., awamori was at its lowest ebb ever. Japanese made fun of it as firewater; a more primitive version of shochu, which was just beginning to rise in popularity.

This was an era when Japanese looked down on Okinawa in general. The onetime independent island nation of Ryukyu was annexed by Japan in 1868. U.S. forces took the islands in extremely bloody fighting in 1945 that killed one-third of the civilian population. The U.S. ruled Okinawa until 1972, when we handed it back to Japan. Okinawa had an independence movement (and still does) but Japanese in Tokyo tended to look paternalistically on the islands; not until the Okinawan music scene caught on throughout Japan did the islands really get respect.


Thursday, February 21, 2019

Cannabis and wine: People combine them, but restaurants and shops cannot

This looks like wine, but it isn't
Cannabis has been legal in Colorado for five years now, which means finally there is some legitimate market data. Here are some highlights from a seminar at last month's Unified Wine & Grape Symposium:

* More than 50% of American adults aged 21+ have tried cannabis at some time

* 32% of adults 21+ in fully legal states have used cannabis in the last six months

* 25% of adults 21+ in the 33 states where cannabis is legal for medical OR recreational use have used it in the last six months.

* In states where cannabis is legal, flower (the buds you smoke) quickly loses market share to edibles and concentrates. In Colorado, flower accounted for 69% of sales in 2014, but just 43% of sales in 2018.

* Branded products are taking over. In Colorado, branded products are up to 44% of sales, which is even more impressive when you consider flower is not branded in the state. 96% of edibles in Colorado are branded. Willie Nelson, Bob Marley and Snoop Dogg have cannabis brands; so does Goop. No wonder Constellation, wine brand-sellers extraordinaire, is investing in cannabis.


Friday, February 1, 2019

Millennials are talking but the wine industry isn't listening

In the last two weeks I watched two separate annual State of the wine Industry presentations. Both were focused on millennials and were worried that they aren't drinking as much wine as hoped.

The reasons why were all in the reports. But the wine industry is pretty much doing the exact opposite of what millennials are saying they want.

First, take a look at the two stories, then come back here and I'll explain. Here's the story from the Silicon Valley Bank report. I did not suggest or agree with this headline, but it's hard to blame my editor for trying to attract page views in a month that saw some of the largest layoffs in history for online news organizations. Clickbait helps pay my wages: Millennials now ruining wine as well

Second, here's the story from the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium. This headline is also clickbaity but reflects what was said: Wine and sex off the millennial menu

Now, forget about sex and smartphones. Let's talk about what millennials are telling the wine industry they want -- and how the industry is ignoring them

1. Millennials like healthy products

Why else would kombucha be so popular? Millennials care about what they put in their bodies.

So what's the wine industry's response?


Tuesday, January 29, 2019

People who make good wine have nothing to fear from cannabis competition

Graphics courtesy Silicon Valley Bank
The wine industry has been warily eyeing cannabis since before the first state legalized it. Now that a wave of legalization is spreading across the U.S., owners of small wineries are gettting nervous.

Wine sales are actually dropping for the first time in 25 years
Rob McMillan, executive vice president of Silicon Valley Bank's wine division, was especially gloomy about the future of wine in his influential annual report earlier this month. McMillan said millennials aren't buying as much wine as he expected, and they especially aren't buying expensive wine. (Here's a full story on McMillan's report.)

McMillan cited cannabis as one reason younger consumers aren't drinking as much wine. There is probably some truth to that, at the volume sales level.

Paradoxically, sales are dropping for the cheapest wines, even though supposedly-broke millennials can't afford wine. Sales for wines over $12 are continuing to climb.

Put these numbers together and here is the conclusion: Cannabis is not hurting all wine sales. It's hurting cheap wine sales. And not just with millennials. If you spend any time in cannabis shops in Northern California, you'll notice there are plenty of boomers buying weed. And as you can see from the next chart, it's not stopping them from buying wine.


Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Americans like sweet wines, but nobody talks about it. Missed opportunity for wineries, and media?

The question was, "How do you prefer your wine to taste? Check all that apply."
Dr. Liz Thach
Americans like sweet wines. Big wine companies know it. East Coast wineries know it.

The main people in the dark are the wine media: people like me. We usually write disparagingly about red wines with residual sugar, if we write about them at all. We drink in an ivory tower.

This is my main conclusion from Sonoma State University's American Wine Consumer poll, which was published last week. According to the survey, dry wines are enjoyed by only 36% of American wine consumers, compared to semi-sweet (45%) and sweet (38%).

I combined this story with another Sonoma State professor's gloom-and-doom seminar the week before about the outlook for small wineries and wondered, should more small wineries be making sweet wines?

I called Dr. Liz Thach MW, the professor of wine and management who led the survey, to chat. Here's an edited transcript.

Thach: Every time we've done this survey, we always get these same results. This is a survey of the everyday consumer in America.

Me: How do you choose the people to survey?

Thach: You try to get a representative sample of your target population. Our target population is the American wine consumer. We try to get a sample of at least 1000 people. We need to have at least 40 percent men and 60 percent women. It used to be 45 percent men and 55 percent women. We're using Wine Market Council statistics.

Me: Men aren't drinking as much wine as before?


Thursday, December 6, 2018

Christmas gifts for wine lovers

If you have a wine lover on your gift list, you might think the best gift is a bottle of wine. That's not untrue -- if you know them well enough to get a bottle they would find delightful.

Sometimes that's easier said than done. If you pick up a $12 bottle at Trader Joe's for your niece the sommelier, she'll thank you because she's polite, but she'll also look for the nearest opportunity to unload it.

Wine gadgets wind up in magazine stories this time of year because we all have to write holiday gift stories, but most gadgets are just more space-eating junk. (Exceptions are below).

Here are some gifts the wine lover on your list will enjoy. I guarantee it!

Wine glasses

Glasses break. We always need more. Look for a simple design, and don't spend too much money. More expensive glassware is often handblown and thus even more likely to break.

I usually buy wine glasses at Cost Plus World Market, but I admit I'm intrigued that this is a product Amazon has decided to make as part of its Amazon Basics series, like batteries. It does make sense: if you need 4 today, you're going to need another 4 soon enough. I have not tried Amazon's glassware but I probably will.


A Coravin

The Coravin is a revolutionary system that allows you to take a glass of wine from a bottle without pulling out the cork, so what's left in the bottle stays fresh longer.

I'm in the middle of reviewing a new $1000 version of the Coravin and I haven't yet decided whether I'll recommend it to readers at Wine Searcher, who can afford $1000. I will say this: a Coravin is a gift no wine lover will reject. We're all curious about it. The plastic one at left is only about $200. Buy it here.

Wine charms

Need something cheap? Wine charms hook around the stem of a wine glass so you can tell your glass from your friends'. They're invaluable at parties. I'm still using a set I got as a present years ago, along with a few others I have picked up since.

Good books that are about wine, but not intros to wine

The problem with most year-end wine book lists is that many of the best books about wine aren't really of interest to a wine lover. I know that seems paradoxical, but we don't need a book that tells us what we already know.

Here are some excellent books that a wine lover will enjoy.

Wine and War: Interesting history of Nazi occupation of French wine country

The Botanist and the Vintner: Phylloxera nearly destroyed wine as we know it. A scientific hero's journey

By the Smoke and the Smell: This one's about artisanal spirits, and it will make the reader thirsty for some

Wine Grapes: The reference book I use more than any other, it tells the history and current state of every commercial wine grape in the world. A must-have for people who like offbeat varietals

A good bottle of amaro

Most wine lovers enjoy amaro, the Italian bitter drink meant as a digestif, but they won't necessarily think to buy a bottle for themselves (and if they do, that means they can use another). A bottle of amaro will last much longer than a bottle of wine. In past years I have recommended whiskey or brandy, and those are also fine ideas: get the wine lover something nice that he wouldn't buy himself. I'm switching to amaro because of the rising price of whiskey. If you're going to buy somebody an artisanal Bourbon now, you have to be very sure they'll love it. In contrast, they can fall in love with an amaro they haven't tried before.

One reason amaros are interesting to wine lovers is that they're very different from each other. My favorite is Braulio (buy it here), but currently I'm enjoying a bottle of Amaro Dell'Erborista (buy it here). There are lots of good choices in this category.

A birth-year wine

That's always going to be welcome. It's also easier to buy than you might think: Just go to Wine-Searcher, put the year into the search engine, and you'll see all the wines available.

For the heck of it, I put in 1979 and came up with 1660 wines! There are a bunch of red Bordeaux from that year for under $100.

You can obsess over which is the best one to buy, but don't bother. I can tell you that, as a serious wine lover who knows vintages matter, I am going to exclaim with surprise and delight if you hand me any bottle from my birth year, no matter what it is. You have my permission to buy the cheap one.

Try entering your (friend's) birth year here. Happy holidays!

Follow me on Twitter: @wblakegray and Instagram @wblakegray and like The Gray Report on Facebook.