Thursday, July 12, 2012

$80 for a bad wine? My unsuccessful chat with a winemaker

How much is too much for a bad wine? And what responsibility do I, as a writer tasting it, have to tell the people selling it?

I was in Napa Valley recently tasting wines at a typical nouveau winery, purpose-built with a house attached, no expense spared, etc. Their Cabernets were decent and priced at the going rate of $100 a bottle.

This is not going to be a screed that Napa Valley Cabs are overpriced. Commodities are worth what the market will pay. I think Rolex watches are too expensive, but I'm not their clientele.

The owner was there; the winemaker, a consultant not an employee, was not. The owner, who had recently been to Bordeaux, was clearly proud of her wines after just 2 or 3 vintages and of Napa Valley, pronouncing, "Bordeaux can't do this" as soon as I had the first sip of very ripe fruit in my mouth.

The winery also makes a red blend, priced at $80, also not unusual for Napa Valley. One vintage of this was decent. But a second was a failure: it smelled overripe, of roasted fruit, but tasted thin. It didn't deliver any pleasure at all. I learned that the winery had problems with its Cab that year and didn't make one, so all the Cab grapes ended up in this wine.

A lack of pleasure might be acceptable in a $20 Napa wine, although the best course might have been to sell it in bulk to a big company that could blend in some fruity Central Valley grapes. But for $80, especially when you consider what people want when they pay $80 for a Napa Valley red blend -- generous fruit -- this wine seemed to have the potential to destroy the brand of a relatively new winery.

The owner wasn't the easiest person for me to deliver this opinion to; she added to her disdain of Bordeaux as we talked over lunch. But I had the opportunity later that day to visit with the winemaker at his own winery. So I gave him my opinion then.

I learned that the Cab was declassified because, after a cool summer, a sudden 115-degree day had ripened the sugars and begun to shrivel the grapes before the flavors developed. The winemaker felt a need to harvest but he knew the grapes just weren't that good.

But he was defensive about the wine. For one thing, it wasn't the $100 Cab, it was the cheaper red blend. Plus, "It reflected the vintage," he said.

I admire that kind of statement from Burgundy -- even though I don't buy 2003 Burgundies (and am beginning to feel that way about '09 Burgundy whites.) Yet Napa Valley and Burgundy have different clientele. I don't believe Napa red drinkers want to hear about vintage variation: they just want to taste the deep dark cherry fruit, the kind of thing about which the winery owner said, "Bordeaux can't do this."

I tried to make my point to him. He conceded that my analysis of the aroma/flavor profile of the wine was accurate. But even without the owner there, he defended the $80 price point. One reason is that the winery was expensive to build and there hasn't been much cashflow. The revenue from a few hundred cases of an $80 retail wine is not easily foregone.

I don't go to Napa Valley to argue with people*; it's the reason I hadn't told the owner in the first place. But I also don't like to see businesses undermine themselves.

* I do that here.

So I'd like to get your opinion on whether or not the winery is harming itself with this smells roasted/tastes thin $80 red blend.

I know the winemaker will see this post. I don't know if the owner will; she had no idea who I was and apparently doesn't read anything about wine except her winery's Advocate and Spectator ratings. But I suspect that somebody who does know her will read it, and if there's useful information in the comments, could point it out to her.

What do you think, folks: should she sell this wine for $80?

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  1. Clearly, she thought she could get away with that price. And I'm sure most wine drinkers wouldn't know it was a poor vintage. After all, "it cost $80, so it must be good (even if I personnally didn't like it one bit)".

  2. Placing the wine at an $80 price point because the winery was expensive to build and the cash flow has been poor is an interesting defense of the price. Shouldn't the wine be priced at $80 because it is worth it?.....that's what I thought.

  3. With such an incredible amount of competition, why would you even consider releasing a mediocre wine for $80? Consumers aren't forgiving about such things. Why would you even think of risking your winery's reputation?

    And it's never the consumer's responsibility to absorb the costs of building your fancy winery.

  4. Price always sells--whether it be high or low. Numerous studies have shown that people "prefer" the higher priced $80 wine even though it may be the same $10 wine in the tasting that they previously panned. If it doesn't sell, then it can be marketed to one of many CA negociant types.


  5. Good analysis and dialog can't compete with the process of natural selection Blake. This winery will be what it is, and consumers will do what they will do in response. They will evolve or die.

    Good concepts and aspiring new star winemakers do need a source of cheap used equipment and realtors will be eyeing that commission. I predict mulch for more fertile ideas will result, but not necessarily a bad thing for wine in general.

    The cycle of life....

  6. The customers will cast their vote at the cash register.

    At least they have room for improvement!

  7. I know in Temecula that his can be a problem. Not that Temecula is the same as Napa in style but there are some good wines being made down there. It takes just one guy (or a few) to over-price his wines with lower quality to create a bad reputation for others who are making good wines at similar prices. What makes it worse is when they submit these wines for judging or to a publication.

  8. Thanks for writing this. I think that many consumers suspect that in the world of wine there is unconventional practices used for pricing wines, but you have delivered this from the horses mouth.

  9. Maybe people will cellar it for a few years and the consumption will be spread over time, thus insulating the owner from the shock, it would be the Advocate taster coughing and spewing that would be the hint something is wrong, but then maybe they will view it in context of a poor year.

    I don’t think the bucks are worth the whack to the rep, and by the way the Wine Consultant made the wine so of course they is going to defend it or be down one client.

  10. I agree with Ryan - "The customers will cast their vote at the cash register."

    Any chance you'll name the winery???

  11. I hadn't heard of it before. It made me more comfortable writing this without naming the winery. Say of that what you will.

    I have to point out the irony of somebody who won't name themselves asking that question.

  12. I sincerely HOPE that the marketplace votes with its dollars, and somehow punishes the winery for selling $80 crap. But am I confident that it will happen? No.

  13. lol what joke. Some rich chick rolls into Napa with an attitude... produces a measly three vintages of overly ripe, (presumably) syrupy (glycerinly) sweet Cab with (probably) 60-80% new french oak for 11 months and is uppity against the people who pioneered the stuff. All in one visit, eh? Sounds like a typical story hailing from the wacky world of corporate-class, number hungry Napa. lol... what.A. Joke.

  14. As she said herself, "They can't do this in Bordeaux." ;)

  15. It doesn't cost me anything to make decisions with someone else's money. However, decades as a marketer tell me that selling goods that don't meet or exceed expectations at a luxury price point isn't effective long term. People may be swayed by price into thinking the wine is good. But they are perhaps equally likely to pull that wine out at an important dinner and be embarrassed in front of their friends or clients. It may hurt short term cash-flow to bulk out some wine, but it is also expensive to try to repair a broken reputation.

  16. The hazards of cost-based pricing... I thought the understanding was that you don't make money on a boutique winery in Napa Valley, at least not for a very long time. Seems better to build your brand at that early stage, as presumably you have the money to ride out the storm. Who wants to have their name associated with a crummy wine, regardless of price?

  17. $80 for bad wine(not even decent) will nave to hurt the winery in the long run.
    I sometimes wonder if all those swanky wineries in Napa are making money. The capital invested in the architectural projects seem so astronomical....they must be selling a lot of wine at $100 a bottle.
    I draw the line at $50 retail. Will only pay more than that if it's something very special.

  18. Tough choice for the winery, on some level, though the owner's arrogance made it relatively easy from another angle. Novice drinkers go to Napa to spend money on luxury goods. Nothing says luxury like a high price. If you want to move this wine in the tasting room, it needs a big number attached to it.

    But in the broader market experienced wine drinkers know $80 can buy you an outstanding wine in almost any style. This producer will end up with a bad reputation by not placing quality ahead of the price point.

  19. It could be that this bottle of 80.00 of Cab was just really lousy, or just wasn't to your taste.

    Putting on my publicist's hat for a moment, I wish this winery owner had been coached to be a little more humble about her project and wines going into that meeting with you.

    What I have found over the years with critics and winemakers is that even if the critic does not subscribe to a style of the wine made, they will still be a bit more positive about the wine/project over all if the owner presents as being somewhat humble and still on a learning curve...or, if they're stuck up, they better be really smart and entertaining. Writers will put up with ego if it's interesting, at least.

    In my humble opinion, she blew it with you when she said "Bordeaux can't do this." That reveals a sense of entitlement, immaturity and naivety that I think just lead the rest of your experience with her down the wrong path, almost irrespective of the wine. Had she been one of those big Cab ballers in Napa, she may have been able to pull off that kind of bravado, but instead, she kind of ended up looking a little silly.

    I mean, if she started by saying something like, "Listen, this particular vintage posed a problem It was a little tough at the end because of heat spikes, but we believe in the potential of our estate. We still haven't seen our best vintage, but I think this is a good demonstration of what we can potentially achieve here."

    You're very honest, Blake, so you still wouldn't have liked the wine; it's not to your liking and you found some flaw there and the price too high...but would you have viewed the entire meeting a little differently had she approached in the manner above I suggest?

  20. For some reason, the post above won't let me publish my name. It's Sao Anash.

  21. Sao: It's a good question. I told that story to a few people before writing about it; the winemakers winced. If Heidi Peterson Barrett or Helen Turley had delivered an opinion like "Bordeaux can't do this," they have the experience to make it worth hearing. Not somebody who just spent two weeks in Bordeaux for the first time and declared there's no wine there worth drinking.

    But she hasn't hurt her brand; I didn't name it for reasons of my own (I don't want wineries to fear my tasting their wine, a longer debate.)

    You would have coached her to at least know who her media visitor was. But if she was the sort of person who cared about that, she probably wouldn't be the sort of person who builds a multimillion dollar winery to make yet another run-of-the-mill $100 Cabernet in the first place, and thinks the world is waiting for it.

    You can coach clients, but you can't change them.

  22. Another issue is Napa has to get it together in the next 10 years.
    With global warming in 15-20 years, yes “they will be able to do THIS in Bordeaux”, it has already started. Her view is very last millennia.

  23. Sao: I have been thinking more about your question and decided that you're absolutely right.

    I'm sure there are lots of people with huge egos who have the social skills and training to at least appear humble. Had that been the case, I might have had the discussion of the bad $80 wine with her. She might have thanked me for my candid assessment, said "We'll take that under consideration," and moved the discussion on. I might have forgotten it entirely, but certainly it wouldn't have stayed with me as long as it did under these circumstances. Now I don't have any taste memory of what her good wines were like (though I have notes), but I vividly recall the bad one.

  24. Perhaps the bigger question to ask the owner is whether or not she's considered the long-term impact on her reputation, and winery 'brand' by selling sub-par vintages at premium prices for short-term game. Wine-making is a business, but it's also an art, and a lifestyle choice. People buy wines based not just on flavor, but also on trust -earned, not given - in the winery to deliver as promised. At least you confirm suspicions by those of us similarly burned at the register . Cheers.

  25. Bad wine dilutes the brand, and you can easily sell it off as bulk. It's a hit financially for one season, sure, but it avoids potentially serious consequences to the value of the brand.

  26. someone mentioned how expensive it is to re-build a winery's reputation/brand? I know Pezzi King is undergoing that process right now. I am not saying PK sold sub-par wine @ a high price point! I am only pointing out that a winery can't afford to take anything for granted, least of all selling a wine they know is sub-par and not adjusting the retail down(the winery that Blake is highlighting here)

  27. A very good article. Truth be told..... just based on production costs, etc...$80 is too much for a really good wine, let alone a bad one. I often wish we could break down the cost of a wine as - wine price= (actual cost of production + the "ego tax" added for name recognition, etc..).... I am firmly entrenched in the industry and love great wine as much as the next guy, but at the end of the day, it is still +/- 5 glasses of grape juice.

  28. Late to the game on this blog. Bad wine will hurt the winery a lot faster than they think. Like, within a day, or a minute. After all, don't we hear all day long about instant ability to reach Zuckerbergs' 900 million, and tweets' millions, within a minute or two of looking away, still standing right there at the tasting bar, and tweeting?

    Did Robert Mondavi ever recover from traipsing across that Wooden Bridge???

  29. Maybe the winery owner should just call the $80 wine RESERVE, that will alone justify the price tag ;)