Changing U.S. Wine Industry: Will producers, distributors & retailers pivot?

Big-Data_-cartoon

2015 wine consumer data is revealing new pressures on the U.S. wine industry. These trends will create business opportunities and confuse brand strategy for years to come. We are already seeing several of these changes beginning and I believe the others are inevitable:

The strong dollar is affecting currency exchange and making it easier for European producers to compete in the U.S.

Climate change is changing growing regions in the U.S. already

Demand is slowly migrating from table towards premium wines.

Huge growth in Sparkling wines for every day consumption.

Changing state wine distribution laws are making it easier for Direct-to-Consumer business models to reach the consumer… and consumers are showing a DtC preference.

The Millenial Generation (born 1977-1995) has become the largest wine consuming age group, just surpassing Baby Boomers and bringing with it changes in demand and buying behavior.

U.S. off-site wine purchases are continuing their momentum and growing beverage revenue, adding sophistication to the wine buying community and increasing demand for wine education.

On-site beverage revenue growth is likely to follow and bring a more demanding clientele with it.

Growth in beverage (as a percentage of overall revenue) will increase the need for improved business skill-sets at smaller venues and individual outlets.

Sources for wine consumer demographics: recent Ship Compliant ™ and Wines & Vines ™ market studies.

Rampant Misconceptions

Premium wine sellers are still focusing on the Baby Boomer age group, mistakenly thinking it is still the largest wine consuming demographic. This fact will generate a window for new business opportunities with producers, distributors, off-site and on-site marketers who understand the changing demographic within the wine drinking community. In the next decade, the dominance of Millenials in the wine consuming public will grow (demographic data has shown – as we age, per capita wine consumption rises). In order to understand these changes. it is important to understand how Millenials buying habits differ from Baby Boomers.

Millenials tend to:

Be more adventurous in trying new grape varieties, labels and try imports.

Drink sparkling wines daily, rather than just on special occasions.

Be less single varietal focused and prefer blends.

Be willing to spend more per bottle of wine when they drink, but prefer craft beer and cider.

More per bottle spending, means likely more discerning palates.

Source data from recent survey by the U.S. Wine Marketing Council.

Crystal Ball?

So what to make of all this data?

  1. Distributors will have to make choices: add more value than simple logistics (education, more direct marketing, etc.), spend more money on lobbying to change state beverage laws back (methinks too late for that), or downsize.
  2. Producers will be able to dramatically improve profitability through establishing and growing the DtC channel. Producers will need to change focus to blended wines (similar to Europe). This will probably enhance AVA focused labeling and marketing.
  3. Over 50% of DtC wine shipments are to 5 states. Huge opportunity to develop new markets.
  4. Off-site re-sellers like grocery stores and on-site re-sellers like restaurants will become EVEN MORE focused on beverage as a share of their revenue.
  5. Demand for wine educators and trained wait staff will continue to grow.
  6. Pressure will grow on large wine producers coming from the premium segment of the market. Bringing EVEN MORE consolidation to the largest producers segment.
  7. Increasingly educated buyers will be even more willing to shop at warehouse stores with larger selections, but perhaps less personalized service.
  8. Changing climates will drive big swings from vintage to vintage in production. Examples:
  • 2015 Sonoma County: 36% drop in pinot noir crop.
  • 2015 Washington State: 8% drop in cool-climate Riesling crop, with 12% increase in warm-climate Cab Sauv… causing a net 2% growth in Washington State wine fruit production.

These vintage to vintage changes in available fruit will add volatility to pricing and may make it difficult to capture year-to-year fluctuations in fruit costs.

May You Live in Interesting Times!

The ancient Chinese curse may be very apropos here. Growth in both successes and failures are on the horizon for the wine business. No, it will not be overnight, but the next 5-10 years could drastically change the landscape.  I am quite curious to see where all this change will take us…

Many of these ideas represent my personal conclusions drawn from a wealth of new marketing data released this year. I hope you all enjoy my crystal ball!

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Getting into a Winemaker’s Head, After One Tasting?

In YOur HEAD cartoon

I am about to embark on a dangerous journey… trying to understand a winemaker’s thinking after one tasting session. Probably presumptuous, but I think a fun exercise for the imagination.

California, Livermore Valley AVA

This last week I stopped into a highly regarded producer from this wine growing area. My first time visiting the Livermore area. The only wine I had previously tasted from this AVA was a sub $20 Cab Sauv from Concannon and it was not pleasant. Well, adventure feeds the soul, right?

Steven Kent Winery

An ineresting stop, because it was clear that the winemaker had a vision for the wine he was producing. So here are my impressions of the winemaking strategy and why:

Work with What You Got

Guess #1 – This area seems to have a cooler climate than Napa Valley and the soil is more fertile. You can taste it in the wine: less alcohol, less phenolic development, a little vegetal in flavor, more red (than black) fruit and thinner viscosity. So, the first decision: what style of wine do you make from this fruit? These wines were all trying to be “Old World” with a new world twist: very fruit forward, attempting balance (albeit without much structure), little to no new oak, no American Oak, and keep the alcohol low (no chaptalizing). This winemaker fully embraced this approach and it appeared to be a clear decision in all the wines I tasted.

Consumers Want Less Expensive Wine to be Easy Drinking

Guess #2: This isn’t my opinion, but it is clearly this winemaker’s view. Every general release wine I tasted was very fruit forward, had little to no tannins and medium (or less) acidity. This winemaker clearly believes this is what sells at this price.  Personally, while I understand many consumers enjoy this style… I am sorry, I just can’t drink it. I would rather have a wine cooler. You just can not drink this stuff with food…

Silky Soft Textures Sell Wine

Guess #3: This winemaker experiments heavily with aging red wines on the lees. It is the only possible answer for how smooth these reds are… and by the way, my favorite style component from this winemaker (another common Old World technique). It really makes an impression. It actually makes the the general release wines even easier to drink (if that is possible). Every wine I tasted was trying to be soft…

Only Collectors and Educated Wine Consumers Enjoy Wine with Structure

Guess #4: So, when the tasting room manager discovered I am a trained Somm, they broke out the wine club selections: reserves and single vineyard wines. These wines had structure: with high acidity and medium (or higher) tannins. Honestly, I was a little offended when I realized what was going on. I guess educated wine buyers are all rich… just because you are allowing more contact with the skins and including some stems in the maceration and ferment, doesn’t mean the process is more expensive. These red wines spent 18-24 months aging in the barrel, just like most good reds.

Conclusions

As it turned out, I enjoyed the tasting! It is fun imagining you can get into the winemakers head. You don’t normally find such clearly defined characteristics in a winery’s breadth of a single vintage. The club wines were good, but they weren’t big on value… These wines were fruit forward, complex, structured and very silky. One word of caution, before deciding to seek out this producer, you must settle on a preference for red fruit flavors in your wine. There wasn’t much in the way of blackberry, plum, or black currant flavors to be found.

Wine Tasting Notes

NV La Ventana Barbera, Livermore Valley – Retail $36

Nice nose of red cherry and cinammon. All bright, fresh red cherry on the palate. The mouthfeel was a touch creamy. The tannins were low and the acidity was medium. A nice fruity table wine that is meant to drink before dinner. It had no over-whelming characteristics, therefore a balanced feel, but virtually no structure. There was a touch of dark chocolate on a short finish.

2010 Pinot Noir, El Coro Vineyard, Sonoma Coast – Retail $48

The nose was of red hard candy. The palate was cough syrup and spice. This wine did not taste like a cool climate Pinot (Sonoma Coast). It is so fruity, I would have guessed Carneros, if tasting blind. Low tannins and medium acidity. ** UPDATE** 3/6/16 – Upon researching this vineyard, I found it is actually in Carneros! BAM! Fun to nail it! C’mon they need to train their people…

2012 Lot 29 Red Blend, Livermore Valley (Bordeaux Blend) – Retail $36

Fresh cherry on the nose. Palate is of brown butter, then red cherry following. There are medium tannins and high acidity. Too much oak… and it is strange to taste such strong cherry flavors in a Bordeaux blend.

2013 Cabernet Franc, Livermore Valley – Retail $48

Nose of red cherry, herbal mint and cinnamon. The palate has red and black cherry and allspice flavors. Medium-high elegant tannins and high acidity. The wine has a silky mouth-feel and a long spicy finish. My favorite wine of the tasting. Based on the other wines tasted in Livermore Valley, this might be a good location for cool-climate Cab Franc…

2013 Cabernet Sauvignon Lencioni Vineyard, Livermore Valley – Retail $65

The winemaker had some guts here… this wine had a slightly vegetal nose. I can appreciate the courage there. I have tasted many Cabs that were a touch vegetal and amazing! The palate was of black cherry and blackberry with cinammon and a touch of butter on the finish. The wine had high tannins and high acidity. The mouth-feel was nice and silky.

2014 Cabernet Port (fortified with brandy)

I was told this was a tawny style port… ooops! Not even close. A heavy medicinal nose. Tasted exactly like red cherry cough syrup with herbs and mint added. the fruit was too fresh to be a traditional tawny port. Definitely complex, but not really enjoyable.

 

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Baldacci Family Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Stags Leap

Baldacci

Baldacci Family Vineyards

Black Label Cabernet Sauvignon

Stags Leap District, Napa Valley

Tasting Note:

Beautiful Napa Cab in the middle of its drinking window! Drinking Baldacci Stags Leap Cabs over the last 20 years, I am struck by how they always over-deliver at their price. This bottle cost $46 in 2010 and is drinking like a $70+ Napa Cab! Blackberry and black currant on the nose with tar and leather. Still fruit-forward after 8 years of aging, with blackberry and black currant in front, transitioning to a mid-palate of dark chocolate, leather, underbrush and tar. The wine has a lengthy, slightly hot finish. Gorgeous rich mouth-feel, full and sensuous. The tannins have resolved well and are just under the surface. The acidity is high, but this paired perfectly with a rib-eye steak. Without food, the acidity would have been a bit much. The signature Cab character of graphite and tobacco are missing, but regardless, my wife and I really enjoyed this bottle with steaks for dinner!

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Filed under Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, Stags Leap District, Wine by Varietal, Wine Tasting, Wine Tasting Notes

Italian Wine Tasting

venice pic

Wine Tasting

Alessia’s Italian Ristorante with Vinifera Imports

Mesa, AZ

I enjoy Alessia’s and it had been several months since I had visited last. So, with my wife busy and a free evening on the horizon, I decided to grab a bite and enjoy a wine tasting event. John Carr (Owner) has a good palate and a pretty fair depth of Italian wine knowledge and his wife Shari is a killer chef. If you’re in the East Valley of the Phoenix Metro, definitely make it a point to stop by. The experience won’t disappoint.

Vinifera is not my favorite Italian Wine Importer, but they have several labels I enjoy. I didn’t know the wines being tasted that night in advance, so I was hoping to be surprised.

Wine Tasting Notes

Barberani Ovieto Castagnolo 2014 (white blend)

Most enjoyable wine of the evening. Nose of lemon curd and herbs. Palate was of rich lemon meringue and a touch of spice. Tremendous coating mouth-feel – this wine had spent a substantial amount of time on the lees. High acidity, but balanced enough not to make it over-bearing without food. Well done white wine, that could be drunk on its own, or paired well with fish and pasta in white cream sauce. At $16/btl retail, a good value.

Cascina Chicco Barbera d’Alba Granera Alta 2013

Most disappointing wine of the evening. It was very much a rustic Old World style Barbera and not my favorite approach with this varietal. This was a food wine only. Barbera is capable of so much more, when in deft hands such as Vajra. Black cherry and alcohol on the nose. Completely over-oaked. Palate is not fruit-forward. In front, you get brown butter and smoke transitioning to sour black cherry. Poor, watery mouth-feel and medium-high tannins. Long finish of brown butter, if you like that sort of thing. At $22/btl retail, I wouldn’t rush out and grab this wine.

Fontodi Chianti Classico 2010

Fontodi is an old Italian producer with a long history… and that traditional approach shows. 2010 was a great year in Tuscany for wine and I was hoping for something exceptional. Instead, it was very average. A quality Chianti, but traditional and unexceptional. Nose of red cherry, mushrooms, bramble and rubbing alcohol. Slightly sour red cherry and menthol on the palate. Very high tannins. Medium mouth-feel and high acidity. Short to medium finish. Would be a great pairing with red meat and pasta with red sauce. At $40/btl retail a decent value.

Fontodi Chianti Classico Vigna del Sorbo Riserva 2008

Best red wine of the evening. Very weak nose and definitely needed a little time to open. The palate was more complex than the other wines that evening. Fruit forward with black cherry and a touch of black currant, mushroom, leather and bramble on the mid-palate, with a weak bitter chocolate finish. Medium high tannins and high acidity. Well-balanced and the best mouth-feel of the reds that night. I enjoyed this wine and it is just entering its drinking window, 2016-2021. At $70/btl retail, I would pick a well-priced quality Brunello first.

Valdicava Brunello di Montalcino 2010

Unless you have a nice cellar and ten more years to wait, stay away from this wine. Black fruit and menthol on the nose. Very high acidity and very, very high rustic tannins. Maybe a touch fruit forward, but the acidity and tannins overwhelm everything. Impossible to assess much else. This is an Old World Chianti-style Brunello. All the things I love about Brunello are missing: good mouth-feel, balance, elegance… This wine should not have been bottled as Brunello. The grapes may have originated in a vineyard there, but the style has Chianti written all over it and at $135/btl retail, forget it.

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Predicting the Future of Wine Programs and the Restaurant Trade?

outdated

Why is a cartoon commenting on the impact of changing technology showing up on a wine blog… I selected it, because a changing landscape is all too familiar where technology is concerned. Wine consumption is changing in the U.S.. Can the industry adapt?

Predicting the Future of Wine Service

I have been meaning to write this post for a couple of weeks now, since Shanken News Daily published some interesting data. It appears a changing U.S. consumer profile is transforming the wine industry. Shanken recently published information from the U.S. Wine Market Council. It holds some fascinating insights into the challenges coming for wine marketing in the very near future…

  • Frequent drinkers (>1/week) are now 13% of all U.S. wine drinkers and 35% of all wine sales.
  • Millennials now comprise 36% of all U.S. wine drinkers nationwide compared with Baby Boomers at 34%.
  • High-end wine buyers (defined as those regularly purchasing bottles above $20 retail) now account for 36% of frequent drinkers, compared with just 21% five years ago.
  • Frequent drinkers are consuming 18% more wine now than they were two years ago, while occasional drinkers are consuming 8% less.

These are trends to note and they carry a clear message ( I believe):

  • Millennial consumer data shows them to be more adventurous and willing to explore wine more thoroughly (previous Shanken News data).
  • Frequent drinkers now comprise more than 1/3 of the market.
  • Frequent drinkers are spending more per per bottle.

Looks like a recipe for major change…

Can On-Premise Food & Beverage Adapt?

Mark Norman (industry consultant)  recently wrote a nice piece (link: Sales at Restaurants Plummeting?) regarding this and it had me thinking. Restaurants will definitely be hurt. Per site beverage revenue must increase to support lower margins and increased inventory. There will be no other choice, if they wish to maintain a successful beverage service. This changing consumer demographic is a clear indication: wine distribution’s typical approach to restaurant sales will need to change AND restaurateurs will need more training and knowledge to cater to this new group of consumers. The pressure will be on and it won’t just be about improving wine knowledge and acquiring a broader cellar with a more diverse price offering. The more important differentiator is likely to be business skills. Better marketing, inventory management, ROI and cash flow analysis will be key indicators of quality restaurant wine programs. Interesting times are coming!

Future of the Certified Sommelier

I don’t have a crystal ball, but I don’t think it is too far-fetched to think we will be seeing CS, MBA on biz cards in the coming decade. Somm exams should start including more business related content. As this new group of consumers starts driving larger restaurant wine inventories, more sales volume and lower profit margins, it will justify the need for improving business operations and accounting skill-sets. I like where this is going…

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Winemaker Interview – Billo Naravane of Rasa Vineyards

Please follow my winemaker interview series! You can find this and other interviews at the following link:

 

Winemaker Interview Series – Billo Naravane

 

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Filed under Cool Climate Wine, Walla Walla Valley, Wine Industry, Wine Tasting, Winemaker Interview

2012 Reynvaan Syrah In the Rocks

Reynvaan Pic

 

Reynvaan Family Vineyards – Walla Walla, Washington

Walla Walla Valley AVA

Wine Tasting Note

Do you enjoy Syrah from the Northern Rhone region? Cote Rotie AOC perhaps?

If you have enjoyed a quality bottle from the Northern Rhone and added it to your “wines of distinction” list (like I have) seek out a bottle of Reynvaan Syrah and experience a domestic producer that understands this style well. Everything about the Reynvaan wine speaks “Northern Rhone”… meatiness, earthy, floral. Many casual wine drinkers I have introduced to this style have had a difficult time wrapping their heads around it. My wife tasted this wine tonight and immediately said, “this is good… wait, I don’t think I like it.” This is that kind of wine – soft, supple, appealing… until the complexity shows on the palate… and you wonder, “is wine supposed to taste like this?”

Tasting this wine in the first hour after opening is a shame… the real wine doesn’t reveal itself and open until the 3rd and 4th hour. Tasting note after 4 hours open:

The nose carries strong raw meat aromas, with blackberry and mulberry fruit, floral violets and a touch of nail polish. The wine is fruit forward on the palate with blackberry and black currant, has a dark chocolate mid-palate and a floral violet with oily tar finish. After four hours, some of the freshness of the fruit is lost, but the classic Northern Rhone profile is revealed… that oily texture and tar finish. Wow, for 25% – 50% less than Cote Rotie, this wine can be acquired in the U.S. The wine has medium-high acidity, but only medium tannins. The lack of tannins throws the balance off a bit, but the plush, oily texture is right on. This is a well-made wine from a vineyard managed to produce fruit to match this style. The evolution of flavors and textures in the last four hours leads me to believe you should give this some time in the bottle to realize its true potential: peak drinking window 2017-2018. This is not a wine I would choose to experiment with for extended bottle aging.

Well done! If Matt Reynvaan could have squeezed a bit more tannins from the skins/stems, this would have been world class, at the absolute pinnacle of wines made in this style.

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Filed under Cool Climate Wine, Syrah/Shiraz, Walla Walla Valley, Wine Tasting, Wine Tasting Notes

A Tale of Two Red Cities

In the USA, Walla Walla Valley AVA is fast approaching premier status as a red wine producing region. The highest accolades are coming from Merlots and Syrahs, but the area produces well-made Bordeaux Blends too. From a critic’s perspective, this area is a serious alternative to the Napa Valley region… especially, if you prefer the Napa wines produced before the mid-to-late 90’s.

The over-arching theme in Walla Walla is the pursuit of Old World styles of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah. If you enjoy the popular New World style of heavily-oaked, fruity Cabs coming from Napa (like Caymus and Silver Oak) very few of these Walla Walla wines will find their way into your cellar. Syrah aside, I have chosen three of the oldest producers in Walla Walla as effective examples of the diverse styles of Bordeaux Blends that represent this growing region: Walla Walla Vintners, Seven Hills Winery and L’Ecole #41. I visited all three last month and was fortunate enough to do a deep-dive with each.

WWV Pic

Walla Walla Vintners

Walla Walla Vintners was the exception for the entire area. I met with Bill Von Metzger the winemaker and we discussed the winery founded in 1995 in-depth.  Their growing area on the East side of the valley (closer to the mountains) contains the only sites I found that have managed to dry-farm in the region. They prepared their estate vineyards for irrigation, but have not needed the system. Although, if the drought continues, they expect that may change next year. These wines validated once again the impact of dry-farming. All the wines I tasted tended to be more concentrated and textured, perhaps squeezing more out of the terroir.

Bill is a locally educated and trained winemaker. In my experience, this can be an impediment to good winemaking. Exposure to a broad sampling of world winemaking styles tends to develop better winemakers. Although in this case, Bill transcends his background… I think, primarily due to his keen curiosity and desire to experiment. I thought Bill showed a deft hand at pursuing the Napa Valley style… at half the price. Of my twenty some-odd tastings in Walla Walla, this was the only winery embracing the challenge and successfully producing this style in their cooler climate.

If you enjoy Napa Cabs, try these wines. They may not quite reach the level of the premium Napa producers, but my goodness, not at $75+/btl either. The quality is good and the value is undeniable.

SHW pic

Seven Hills Winery

Seven Hills is THE Old World French Bordeaux style producer in Walla Walla and one of the first wineries founded in the area in 1988. I met with Erik McLaughlin, an executive and manager at the winery. Erik and I discussed the history of wine growing in the region, their growth and philosophy. Seven Hills produces wines that compare very favorably to Bordeaux labels. All their wines have a lighter, sometimes silky texture with a good acidic and tannic backbone. Refined, balanced and built for aging, but approachable enough when young to be an excellent companion to a steak dinner. The tasting room is at the winery in a very urban setting, but the atmosphere from the 100+ year old building enhances the tasting experience.

We talked briefly to Casey McLellan the winemaker and founder and I heard from both of them their total commitment to this style, even in the face of New World style California wines achieving their popularity over the last decade. A great story and I believe a good business decision. These wines are some of the best of what I call “restaurant style” wines, made to accompany food and at the right price to be fairly affordable after the three tier distribution system delivers it.

If you enjoy red wines originating in Bordeaux France, try these wines. Again, these do not quite reach the level of premium Bordeaux producers, but comparable quality is sold at half the price (or less) of their Old World competitors.

Schoolhouse photo

L’Ecole #41

L’Ecole is the most notable example of a winery in the region that best walks the fence between the two styles. Founded in 1983 in an abandoned school house, they have grown substantially into a large commercial winery. I have been drinking their wines since the early 2000’s and do miss the hometown, small business atmosphere from those early days. Is it OK to be nostalgic for the old building facade, before the face lift? Then again, I also preferred the previous cute label too. Yes I understand the idea – “Time and Tide (progress) stops for no man”. I met with Ben Dimitri the tasting room manager and we talked about L’Ecole history and past vintages.

It was interesting to discuss the story of the 2004 vintage in Walla Walla. It was the coldest growing season in memory for the area and few local vineyards were able to produce ripe fruit at harvest. 10+ years ago, Washington State was still a fledgling wine region and the largest producer in the state (Chateau St. Michelle) offered the early Walla Walla producers the opportunity to source fruit from their warmer Columbia Valley vineyard locations. What a generous and smart move…  Missing a vintage year back then would have seriously hurt the local industry and slowed the momentum being built with consumers. The topic arose, because I mentioned that my wife and I drank a 2004 Ferguson (lost in my cellar somehow) last year and it was good. The bottle handled the 10 years of age well, but was at the outside edge of its drinking window.

If you enjoy red wines originating in Bordeaux France, but would prefer an easier drinking more approachable style… L’Ecole is your ticket. Once again, think half the price.

Diversity and Value

If you notice, there are two common themes here: diversity and value. Try these Walla Walla wines. If you are more than an occasional, casual wine drinker in particular, seek them out. These can easily become your choice for the value section of your cellar.

Wine Tourism

This area has a long way to go as a wine destination, but it was significantly more welcoming than my last visit seven years ago. Any sous chefs reading this post looking to start a premium cuisine restaurant, please consider Walla Walla. A well-run, properly promoted gourmet restaurant will be successful here, without the competition you would find in other top wine regions. Currently, the food is only slightly better than average at the local restaurants, even at expensive establishments. With all the fresh fruit and veggies grown locally, this would be a perfect location for a farm-to-table concept. Producing world-class wines right in their backyard, Walla Walla has to be the next wine destination to hit the foodie scene. I look forward to my next visit and enjoying a much more vibrant restaurant scene.

Walla Walla Premium Bordeaux Style Producers

Leonetti Cellars and Woodward Canyon Winery are the two oldest wineries in the Walla Walla AVA. I have tasted their wines and they are excellent, but priced to match, or exceed their Bordeaux and Napa competitors. These wines are every bit as good, but I find it hard to see the value. Frankly, I would rather drink the established producers I know from Bordeaux and Napa, with much larger production and greater availability. This post was meant to highlight the value in Walla Walla. These producers do not fit into that category.

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Filed under Bordeaux/Meritage Blend, Cool Climate Wine, U.S. Wines by Region, Walla Walla Valley, Wine by Varietal, Wine Tasting, Wine Travel

Is There a Standard for Quality in the #Wine Industry?

enjoy pic

Many wine consumers and industry professionals would assert that a “good” wine is any wine you enjoy. So, with a product where individual taste influences demand so heavily, is the concept of “quality” relevant? As I hear from consumers quite often, “I like, what I like”… I read and hear this point discussed often, but in direct contradiction, both the industry and consumers generally accept the role wine critics play as the arbiters of quality. The question has to be asked, if there is no generally accepted criteria with which to make that judgement, is attempting to assess wine quality a complete waste of time? Is there any value in professionals establishing standards for quality in the industry?

Is Measuring Quality Necessary?

There are three major sources* in the world wine industry for education: Wine Critics/Writers, The Court of Master Sommeliers and well-respected University Degree Programs (i.e. UC-Davis). By definition, in order for these sources to write, serve and teach wine, they must clearly establish generally accepted ideas defining quality and recognize trends in the industry supporting it. Are established quality standards really necessary, or even appropriate? I see so much vehement commentary on discussion boards regarding this topic – the idea of general consumer preference versus professional palates driving the industry…

slope

My recent posts have generated comments from within the industry suggesting I am on a slippery slope in asserting that one producer makes better wine than another. I don’t agree. Wine Critics do this everyday. Although effectively, this can only be justified if you establish a consistent, understandable criteria. Somm training does define a generally accepted wine profile for quality. This is based on an important premise: “in an assessment, it is not possible for one wine to taste better than another, but it is possible to be of higher quality**.” Learning to recognize and emphasize structure and balance as the major components of wine quality is emphasized over and over again.

On a personal level, I do enjoy wines that show these characteristics. You could argue that the training influenced by wine service professionals has fashioned my palate, or it may be that as my palate became more experienced, it naturally turned to these types of wines. In the industry, we have a responsibility to bring perspective, educate and in-turn help enrich the wine experience for wine enthusiasts newer to the calling. So, being a passionate wine enthusiast and having some professional training under my belt, I feel a responsibility to act as an industry ambassador in this regard.

There is so much variability and diversity in wine that there can be no absolutes. Consumers can and should drink what they enjoy, but there must also be a generally agreed upon model for quality that the industry can aspire to. Is it fair that Critics, Somm training organizations and Universities establish that model for the general public? I suppose it would depend on your point of view… Although, if personal preference were the only criteria, there would be no common point of reference.

I would be in favor of exploring another model, but I would hope demand would not establish that criteria. So, until we find another way, please don’t kill the messenger… Some wines simply ARE of higher quality than others, regardless of whether they have a large following, or not.

Fairness and Perspective

In deference and respect for all the hard work and commitment from everyone in the industry… I always attempt to be even-handed and often do agonize over fairness. All types of wine should be made for all the different palates in the world and my perspective on wine quality is simple: please, just offer a vision that is true to your product.

(* In the U.S. there is a fourth recognized source: The Society of Wine Educators.)

(** My effort to paraphrase an important principal in formal wine training)

Footnote: I find it fun and interesting that recent opinions expressed on this blog have rubbed a few people the wrong way. In response – I am not willing to assess wine like a kid’s soccer tournament… where win, or lose, everyone receives a trophy. I am offering the following disclaimer for those who want to believe I presume to be a formal authority on the wine industry… No, I am not an MS, but I certainly have received more formal training than many wine critics I have met. This website reflects MY study, personal thoughts, opinions and experiences regarding wine. I hope you enjoy my perspective…

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Filed under Wine Critics, Wine Education, Wine Industry, Wine Tasting

Is a Trained Palate Necessary to Produce Fine Wine?

old-new world

Old World Wine Styles

I have been doing interviews and visiting with several Washington State wineries this week and the discussion struck a chord, providing an interesting personal realization… not all Owners, Winemakers and Growers have developed a broad understanding of world wine styles. Over the last several years writing about wine along the West Coast, I had assumed I was speaking with professionals that had all spent time developing  a palate and tasting styles from around the world. I now understand, this is not a formal requirement for a degree in Enology and the Somm training I received is really quite a different area of study. This week brought the issue to light for me and helped me to understand why being familiar with world wine styles can be an important element in producing quality premium wines.

There are very specific reasons why different Old World regions in France, Germany, Italy, Spain (etc.) have developed these famous regional styles. The obvious one is to produce wines that pair properly with local foods, but I wanted to explore one other in particular more carefully:

  • The 100’s of years of trial and error with local varietals, learning to accommodate local growing conditions and make the best wine possible.

This is the reason why the world views the best expression of Syrah to come from the Rhone, or the best expression of Nebbiolo from Barolo / Barbaresco, Chenin Blanc from Vouvray, Riesling from the Mosel, etc. These varietals have been produced in these regions for generations and for the wine enthusiasts out there who have not taken the time to explore them, start now! Your imagination will be awakened and you will discover whole new horizons you never realized existed. (back on topic though) Take a minute to think about how this issue should impact domestic wine production… you can present the argument that New World wineries are pioneers, working in new regions and developing their own unique styles, but since when is this done in a vacuum?

The best analogy is fine cuisine. Chefs travel all over the world to taste different styles and then return to the U.S. to introduce what the industry calls “fusion” cuisine. These chefs forge entirely new dishes by taking classic styles from around the world and “fusing” them to create new, unique dishes all their own. Understanding the “classic” wine styles of the world is equally as important… to compare and contrast how our New World terroir can be the same, or different, and to blend the best of both worlds to achieve the best expression from each of our domestic wine regions.

the-different-types-of-wine-by-style-and-taste

Is Wine Style Important?

Having interviewed quite a few winemakers over the last couple of years, I have come to understand how important wine style really is. Having a working understanding of tasting fruit in the field and selecting a style of wine that best complements that vintage is critical to producing a quality product. I tasted a Mosel style Riesling on this Washington trip from a winemaker who obviously understood how that should taste and how to achieve it. Has he traveled to the Mosel and studied with winemakers in the region? No. Does this winemaker have a large cellar, a trained palate and have regular exposure to taste aged wines from around the world? Yes.

Terroir Influence

The new Rocks AVA here was made famous by Christophe Baron and his Cayuse label. He persevered through the jeers and disbelief of local winemakers when he planted these vineyards, because he recognized enough similarities between this appellation and the Northern Rhone region to fuel his certainty that this area would produce world class wine. The local industry has come around to his thinking slowly, but the results have been hard to ignore. Tasting other local wines from this AVA, it strikes me as amazing that some of these wineries are not producing wines that express the interesting terroir of this place. Why else make wine here? I wonder, have they not taken the time to train their palates to recognize the Northern Rhone profile this area can produce? Or, is it they haven’t taken the time to research the winemaking techniques that can help to achieve it? Or, will it require the generations of wine experience (like in Europe) to realize it fully? On the other hand, maybe it is a simple lack of belief that this style of wine can sell out every year… Most of these Rocks AVA Syrah’s have a funky, meaty background that enhances the rich fruit-forward character of the wine. I realize this is not for everyone, but I would venture to say, a small AVA like this could never produce enough of this style of wine to exceed the world-wide demand for it.

Conclusion

I am thoroughly convinced, having a winemaker with a BS in Enology is not enough alone to make premium wines. All the involved parties (Owners, Growers, Winemakers) should be able to taste the impact of regional vineyard management and winemaking techniques in the wine. Tasting that impact is a start. It can help to hone a palate. The next critical step is the commitment to study and compare similar wines produced in their classic region of origin. Each and every vintage (warm, cold, or moderate year) has to start in the vineyard tasting the fruit and fine-tuning the vision for the style of wine that will be made. The revelation here is:

  • To make premium wine, it requires more than just enthusiastic commitment to its production. You must have a passion for its consumption!

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