Monday, April 25, 2011

A whiter, cheaper shade of Bordeaux

Realistically, I will never buy a Bordeaux first growth with my own money again. Prices have reached the point where I can get several other expensive, great wines for the price of one bottle. Plus, the rush to feverish praise from writers who have tasted sample blends of wines that haven't been bottled yet -- and might not be the same when they are bottled -- leaves me wondering about the whole profession of being a wine critic.

Oddly, as Bordeaux reds have found an endless river of yuan, Bordeaux's whites have disappeared from most wine lists. Bordeaux is not the greatest white-wine region in France: that's unquestionably Burgundy. For that very reason, and because millenials are bored by Bordeaux (can't say I blame them, as Bordeaux futures are, in the US, a fogey's purchase), Bordeaux whites can be great value.

I recently tasted a half-dozen whites from the greater Bordeaux region; in other words, wines that are not from any of the famous sub-appellations. It warmed my heart that the two cheapest wines -- both under $10 -- were my favorites.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

One small story about Jess Jackson

Jess Jackson was a giant in the wine industry, and a deserving member of the Vintners Hall of Fame. I could write a long obituary about how he built an 5-million case winery from the ground up, vertically integrating everything, and insisting on high quality in every area. But I suspect the major newspapers and wine publications will have that covered.

I want to tell a small story about Jess, about a side of him that most people didn't see.

There's a tiny family winery in an unfashionable region in France, where the young siblings who took over were enthusiastic about the potential of their region. Jackson, on a trip to France, somehow came to taste the wines and meet the owners. I don't know how that meeting came about -- I'm sorry, because that's probably the best part of this anecdote. But in any case, Jackson pledged to help them transform their estate by selling their wine for them in the United States.

Jackson put the resources of his wine company at their disposal, including his winemaking consultants and his marketing team; the wines got cool, modern-looking labels. And the wines were really good.

However, while the wines got scores over 90 from Wine Spectator, retailers were simply not interested. The region was off the map, the wines had a suggested retail price over $20. Few would stock them or try hard to sell them even though Jackson's sales folks could wield the power of Kendall-Jackson Vintners Reserve Chardonnay to get retailers to pay attention (i.e., if you don't buy these French wines you might run out of one of America's favorite premium wines, and your customers might just find a new place to shop.)

The easiest thing to do for Jackson would have been to walk away. It wasn't his winery. They weren't his family. He tried to help them, and it wasn't his fault that the wines didn't sell.

But Jess had given his word. So his import company continued to buy several vintages of the wines even though previous vintages were backed up in the warehouse. This would enable the family to pay off loans they had taken on new equipment they needed to transform their lives.

There was a business meeting one day between Jackson's folks and a company that offered to get rid of these wines cheaply -- blow them out at a low price. By this time the unsold wines were a headache, and Jackson's business might have been best served by putting them on a flash site, taking a writeoff and moving on.

But Jackson's representative, in this meeting, insisted on preserving a certain retail price for the wines, and in getting them in stores where people could see them. It was a philosophy he used on his own wines as well, thinking that once customers came to see a wine as a $15 wine, they would never pay $20 for it. (In fact, retailers discounting K-J Vintners Reserve Chardonnay below cost has been a bother for K-J for years. Big-box retailers do it to get people in the door. Jess' response has usually been to raise the wholesale price to make the discount more painful.)

Jackson knew that, eventually, he would have to walk away from the French family's wines. He had already paid for his stock and could in perfectly good conscience do whatever he wanted with it. His concern was for the young French family's future; if their wines were established as $15 wines, no future importer would ever handle them because it would be impossible to make money.

Jackson wanted the wines in the public eye, and he wanted retailers to have incentive to hand-sell them. And he wanted to protect the price point. That's a lot to ask, and impossible to do profitably for the company holding the cases. So he willingly took a huge loss, giving a healthy profit to the middleman and an even healthier one to retailers.

With anyone who runs a big business, there will be stories of ruthless business behavior. Jackson seemed to generate those more than others, particularly when he was starting out in the 1980s. Much of his push to vertically integrate his wine business came from the sense that the old-boys' club of suppliers was giving the new lawyer guy a hard time on deals. I also heard him talk about that with the horse-breeding business; that the system was set up to reward insiders, and he had to fight it at every step.

As I said, there will be more complete obituaries of Jess Jackson elsewhere. I'm not going to attempt to put him in perspective, dealing with my own sadness today in losing a member of the Vintners Hall of Fame. Just two months ago, we were all touched when Jackson showed up at this year's induction ceremony. He had become so frail that he barely went anywhere but his home or the hospital, but he told the first person he saw at the ceremony that he just couldn't miss it.

I will remember the Jess Jackson who befriended a family, made them a promise, and stuck to it, even though it cost him a lot of money. In many encounters Jackson was the ultimate lawyer, carefully parsing the language of contracts and seizing on advantages. But in his heart, Jackson had the capacity and the desire to do business with a handshake, and he was a man of his word.

We'll miss you Jess, but we won't forget you.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Cabernet's secret: The glass doesn't matter much

Why is Cabernet Sauvignon so popular? Maybe because it's not very sensitive to the glass it's served in.

Otherwise, the mass appeal of Cab is a mystery. While truly great wines are made from it, most cheap Cabs are not very good, and most Cabs sold in America are under $15. For that kind of money, there are many better choices.

I always ascribed psychological factors to this: aspirational buyers and the halo effect from top scores for expensive Cabs.

But then, thanks to Maximilian Riedel, I actually tried a Cab and several other wines in a plastic urine sample cup. Under those conditions, the Cab kicked butt on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

Here's how it happened: I finally attended one of Riedel's glass lectures, this one for members of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Riedel meant to prove to his audience that they should drink Chardonnay out of a Riedel Chardonnay glass, Pinot Noir out of a Riedel Pinot Noir glass, etc. Since our only other options were a tiny ISO standard tasting glass and a plastic urine sample cup, most people preferred the Riedels.

Monday, April 18, 2011

The end of The Gray Market Report

As publisher and author of The Gray Market Report, it is my duty to report that it abruptly ceased publication on Saturday.

Once listed as the 5th-most-read wine blog in the world, The Gray Market Report made a series of bad investments that led to its precarious position.

After failing to acquire enough selenium to control the world market and enact monopoly pricing, The Gray Market Report met with an alien buyer who promised to deliver the entire world supply of unobtainium. The Gray Market Report arrived at the meeting point with a briefcase, and is still waiting, if you're reading this, you naughty fibber.

Further disastrous attempts at diversification for The Gray Market Report included Club Med Kabul (which is still receiving billions in federal aid), the Russian-language rights to the "Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark" soundtrack and a 1/3 interest in Ozzie Osbourne's yet-to-be-recorded Christian spirituals collection. (Highlight songs: "Sharon, There's A Guy Up There," and "Jesus Christ, Can't I Get Some Quiet Around Here?")

While The Gray Market Report has publicly acknowledged its troubles with alcohol, we would like to categorically state that The Gray Market Report has nothing to do with the ongoing federal investigations into steroid use, serial killings, and Medicare and social-security entitlements being wasted on the ill and elderly. We did not let anyone inject us in the stomach with anything, and we're prepared to give a different answer under oath.

While The Gray Market Report sits in the corner and thinks about what it's done, we would like to announce the advent of an entirely new, good-tempered website that never gets on anyone's nerves:

The Gray Report

Please welcome The Gray Report into your homes several days per week as it shares its completely serious viewpoint on the worlds* of wine, spirits, sake and food.

* If you think that's a lot of worlds, you've clearly never read DC Comics.

The Gray Report: "We've Taken The Gray Market Report Off The Market."

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Cameron Hughes wines tasting notes

Tasting with negociant Cameron Hughes is interesting because he is unusually candid about his wines. Maybe it's because he doesn't have the emotional commitment of a winemaker: they're not his children, they're just products he buys and sells.

Hughes was surprised by flaws in some, although with his wide variety of sources (including many wines the original makers wouldn't release), his two winemakers (Sam Spencer of Spencer-Roloson and Mike Rayner, formerly of Havens), his early-release program, and his low prices, you shouldn't be surprised to find some duds. The key is to stock up on the hits.

Hughes told me five years ago that he released his wines before they were through bottle shock, so his customers should expect to let them rest for a few months before opening. That's still true for most of his wines, especially the reds, but now he waits to release the whites until they're almost ready.

Two things surprised me: He charges more for his white wines from Chile than from famous regions in California, and I liked all of them more than anything from our own backyard.

"Those guys (in Chile) know what they've got and they demand a premium for it," he said. It's ironic that I'm polishing up this blog post from the Sheraton Santiago (Iron Maiden is also staying here, and their fans hang out for hours at the breakfast bar hoping to catch a glimpse.) But that's exactly why I decided to run it now -- now that I'm here and drinking some of the great stuff Chile has to offer, I understand why Hughes is proud of his acquisitions, even if those are his hardest wines to sell.

These notes are short and, in a nod to my frequent reader Colorado Wine Press, everything I tasted is here, including the wines I hated. I did not rate wines I didn't like at the time, and am not going to try to rate them now: that's another discussion. But the tasting notes and my lack of a rating should serve as Caveat Emptor.

Cameron Hughes Lot 217 Russian River Sauvignon Blanc 2009 ($10): Pungent tropical flavors but a little soft in the mouthfeel. With that flavor I want more acidity. 84

Cameron Hughes Lot 225 Leyda Valley (Chile) Sauvignon Blanc 2009 ($12): Tart and pungent gooseberry and pineapple; medium-long tart finish. A winner. 90

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Cameron Hughes in his own words

"This is full malo Chard, a butter bomb. 'Cougar Juice,' we call it."

Few people understand the wine industry like Cameron Hughes. He grew up in Modesto, the seat of the Gallo empire. He worked at arguably the only other company quite as wine-biz savvy, The Wine Group, before launching his own eponymous label in 2001.

He doesn't make wine; instead he gets wines from other people who couldn't sell them. That means he's constantly in touch with wineries.

Michael Beaulac, now the winemaker at Pine Ridge, says, "I was at home one night at 8:00 and I got a call. It's Cameron Hughes. He said, 'I'm in a gay bar in Florida and I'm giving reviews to my salespeople and I thought of you.' (He was buying some wine from Beaulac's previous employer, St. Supery, but had barely spoken to Michael.) He had some questions and I answered them."

Hughes is most famous for buying declassified wines from famous wineries and selling them at a steep discount. But he also commissions wines, buys bulk wines and buys previously bottled wines and relabels them (he says scraping off labels costs $10 per case; recorking is $6/case).

His launch plan was brilliant. Initially he didn't even produce a product until he had a purchase order from Costco for it. But while selling direct to Costco helped build his business, he didn't want to be tied to one outlet, so he put his wines in general distribution in 2007. In 2009 he sold 250,000 cases, only 30% of it at Costco.

Hughes, an energetic 39, is not short on publicity. In fact, Lettie Teague's initial column for the Wall Street Journal was on Hughes, and it helped establish his brand for people who aren't Costco shoppers. I last wrote about him 5 years ago for the San Francisco Chronicle, and I wasn't sure what I could say about him that hasn't been said already.

It only took about 10 minutes in his office in San Francisco, where he shares a building with the Zynga dweebs* responsible for all those annoying Farmville announcements on Facebook, to realize that what's interesting is not what can be said about Hughes, but what Hughes has to say.

* Hughes says Zynga people never make eye contact, and though they're all highly paid engineers, the only time they buy his wine is when he has a $5 clearance sale.

Note: Tomorrow I will run reviews on all of Hughes' current releases. Stay tuned.

Hughes has a BA in English from University of Colorado-Boulder, but he immediately went to work as a cellar rat at Corbett Canyon.
"I first thought I wanted to be a winemaker. I saw the winemaker sitting at a desk all day looking at tables. I didn't want to do that."

Monday, April 11, 2011

California State Fair exploits wine judges

For the second year in a row I received an invitation to pay my own way to judge the California State Fair Home Winemaking Competition. Last year I sent the organizer a snarky response and he got defensive, but  he sent me an invitation again anyway. I'm going to run his email below; I'll bet I don't get invited by Tom Sawyer to pay to whitewash a fence again.

A little background: Wine competition judges are often unpaid, but are in every other case I know of  reimbursed for transportation, given a hotel room -- it's a safety issue, it's impossible to taste 65 wines without absorbing some alcohol -- and fed nice meals for the duration of the event. I'm judging at the Concours Mondial, Europe's most prestigious wine competition, again next month under those parameters. I enjoy judging, I get a free trip to Luxembourg, and I won't have to worry about driving anywhere after tasting.

Wine competitions make money on entry fees. Some competitions charge wineries more than $100 per wine entered. The California State Fair charges only $12 - $18 per wine to home winemakers, depending on how many wines are entered. Thus when the organizer claims more than 1000 wines were entered last year, the revenue was probably more than $15,000.

I'm not saying the competition organizers are getting rich. But I'd like to know where that $15,000 is going. Read the email: You'll see that it's not being spent on the judges; not even on reimbursing mileage. And while I've had some great homemade wines, particularly from the Contra Costa Wine Group, as a whole they aren't the easiest on the palate. You'll also note that Tom Sawyer isn't satisfied with the way you've been whitewashing, and expects you to improve.

I'd like to know if home winemakers would mind paying $1 more per entry to reimburse judges' expenses, considering the extensive notes expected; please comment below if you have an opinion. Also, since I'm not going to do this, if you read the email and think, 'That sounds like fun!" let me know and I'll put you in touch. Let that be my contribution to the state of home winemaking.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

What exactly is "balance"?

Geoff Kruth, Ray Isle, Wells Guthrie, Sashi Moorman and Raj Parr (L-R)
My column in Wine Review Online this week is about one of the most exciting wine events in San Francisco in ages: the "Pinot Noir: In Pursuit of Balance" seminar hosted by RN74 sommelier Raj Parr.

The column is a little cynical (who, me?), as I virtually wave the Stars and Stripes in the faces of all the Francophiles who attended. Just to clarify: Loved the event, love the Pinot makers who attended, love most of their wines, and I really love the fact that California winemakers are "in pursuit of balance."

Which is what, exactly? The alternate column I could have written would say that the reason many American consumers don't seem to prize it is because we in the wine media do a lousy job of describing it. And with all the media firepower at this seminar, we didn't do any better.

Ray Isle, wine editor at Food & Wine magazine, cited Potter Stewart's famous quote about obscenity: "I know it when I see it." Villa Mount Eden winemaker Jeffrey Patterson said, "When I can drink the whole bottle and the last glass is better than the first."

The best definition came from Master Sommelier Geoff Kruth, who said, while putting an empty glass upside down on his head, "I learned this from Gary Pisoni -- a balanced wine is one you can wear as a hat at the end of the tasting."

Monday, April 4, 2011

Warning: Uncertified wine writer

Sometimes people ask, "How did you start writing about wine? Were you a sommelier?"

My answer is usually, "I drank a lot." It's meant to be a laugh line, but it's also true. I got the wine bug in 1990, began mentioning specific wines in food and travel articles in 1997, and wrote my first serious wine articles in 2001. So now I've been writing about wine for a decade, but I have never had any official certification.

Last week I decided to change that. I took the Certified Wine Professional exam at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone.

I'm not sure exactly why I took the test. I'm probably not going to get more writing assignments as a CWP, and in fact, if I were stupid enough to write a blog post announcing that I took it, and then I don't pass (results arrive in three weeks), some editors would probably never give me another assignment.

The 2 1/2 hour test covers literally the whole world of wine. Some of the 120 multiple-choice and true-false questions asked about the primary grape variety in Barossa Valley, what grape makes up Savennieres, and whether most grapevines are irrigated in Washington state.