Friday, October 22, 2010

No hang time issues this year

No one will remember this harvest for the great weather, or the fantastic harvest conditions.
Frankly, I don't know anyone in the wine industry who'll miss seeing this year when its gone.

The wet weather we're starting to get right now will put the brakes on all but a few of the hardiest reds that were already close to picking. Everything else that could be picked should have been picked and in the wineries by now. White grapes still on the wine that see the cooler temps and moisture this weekend will probably not be useful for anything...
Below we see Zin which got totally sunburned and was dropped & left on the ground; the raisined portion was about 1/3 of the total expected. (By many accounts this year, it can be considered a success at only 2/3 crop...)
 Mother Nature (weather) sure did a tap-dance on our fortunes, and not in a good way (actually it was more like a mosh-pit, or slam-dance). While we could see the horrible effect of molds early in the year (and the threat of the EGVM - European Grapevine Moth), there was still hope for a decent year. But June had 16 days of fog, followed by a whopping 21 days of fog in July. August was even worse with 26 foggy days, and September started looking better with (only) 18 days of fog. The heat summation (degree-days) started to rise slowly through the year, and at a glance it looked like maybe most areas were doing OK but about 2~3 weeks behind schedule when compared to an "average" year in ripening, though that number is/was deceptive. The real culprit for our woes was the way the heat came when it came at all...during the foggy days it was limited to the late afternoon for just a few hours while there was still plenty of moisture for molds and botrytis to take hold. Many (myself included) started to think that pruning back a bit more to get some sun on the fruit was a prudent idea. Then the real heat hit - and it came in hard and fast!
Many days had a temperature swing of 50-plus degrees, with the vines going from inactive (too cold & foggy) to inactive (too hot & dehydrating) in a 3 to 4 hour window, providing more "degree days" without any real ripening benefit for the fruit. 8AM to Noon was the time when the vines were in the "happy zone" temperature-wise, and after that the vines had shut down and dehydration was the force at work.
Development was stunted. Sugars were all over the place - even within the same block - making decisions about when to pick really hard, with sugars soaring sometimes but the fruit still tasting green...pick or not? With more dry weather in the forecast, we played it safe for flavors, and applied more water to the fields hoping the vines would hang on and develop more flavor. We all held our breath and waited for more moderate temps, while we watched our hard work (and fortunes) wither in the sun. Some growers lost entire blocks of fruit at this point. Others like myself were lucky to only lose a portion of their crop. Still, what will we all do to make payments on our loans? I know quite a few who are still paying off last years' loans, and I'm not too sure how that'll play out in the end, but it won't be good for a period when all of us are tightening our belts due to the economy.
Still, harvest approached, and we could all see the nighttime temps dropping. Knowing harvest was essentially here, and having an estimate of how much fruit we'd be bringing in, all of us started doing the math for how to get all of it in the door in some sane fashion. But we won't get everything this year...the last of the whites should be in, but there's still more red out there which won't last too long with the wet weather we're going to be seeing this weekend.....

Labels: , ,

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

It's the Equinox, by Jove!

Well, today's a big day: Jupiter was in opposition yesterday and Uranus is in opposition today, then Jupiter moves into conjunction with Uranus today, then the Equinox occurs, then we have the full Harvest Moon in the sky (which frankly was spectacular in the near-full state this morning setting pale yellow-orange on the western hills of the Russian River valley....)!
Good lord! Where do we begin with all this?

Hmmmm. If you're a believer in biodynamics - or the impending Mayan Apocalypse - then maybe today's the day to pull out that "special" bottle of 1941 Inglenook Cabernet you've been saving just in case there's a preview of the Universe-in-all-Her-Glory smacking us poor humans about the ears! Earthquakes?! Tsunamis?! Tax breaks for the rich?!
Who knows what evils lay in wait for us at this troubled time. 
Wait- what's that up in the sky? It's a's a plane...No! It's Steiner-man, here back from the dead to protect us all with his wisdom of the ages!!
How would Steiner advise us to conduct ourselves today? Surely the father of biodynamics had some words to keep in mind?

First I should mention that Steiner's cosmology didn't include Uranus (discovered 1781), Neptune (discovered in 1846), or Pluto - though we have to cede that Pluto wasn't discovered until 1930, six years after his death. His philosophy was essentially a regurgitation of the Ptolemaic system based on Aristotle's armchair philosophy centuries before. So even though Steiner was no doubt aware that Uranus and Neptune existed, he didn't have a place for them in his ramblings on agriculture and the Cosmos since he wasn't creating anything new - just rehashing tired and outdated cosmology whereby the heavens were perfect and complete while the earthly sphere was the realm of decay and imperfection...
All of which had been tossed onto the rubbish heap since Galileo!

So there is nothing mentioned by Steiner about any opposition of Jupiter, Uranus (or any opposition, conjunction or even solstice for that matter), even though one would expect there to be some discussion of these events in relation to Jupiter, or the harvest moon, both of which he did know of...
What he did say about Jupiter was that it was...
"...the force of Jupiter, supplementing the cosmic force of the Sun, brings forth the white or yellow colour in the flowers..."
...and that Saturn influenced (controlled) plants with blue flowers, and Mars reddish ones. So perhaps we should swap that Cabernet for a Chardonnay, or maybe just any white wine would do today. And is there any omens, evil portents or warnings about a celestial line-up?
No, none. So even if someone believed that Steiner was brilliant, he couldn't apparently predict the Mayan Apocalypse, which he should have foreseen.

If you believe in Biodynamics, today would be a good day to go to the beach...and be sure to bury your head in the sand until the Heavens calm down again.

Labels: ,

Monday, September 20, 2010

An ill bit of rain

0.4" inches of rain fell here yesterday - which really isn't that much - but nothing good can come of it. It isn't uncommon to get a few showers starting in August and September (maybe one per month), and generally those are very weak with perhaps a half inch of rain total for the period Aug~Oct.

This year has been very cool and the threat of molds & botrytis have been on the horizon for months now with all the fog and dampness we've had in the Russian river basin. One of my neighbors was out last night spraying Stylet oil or Serenade on the vines with the hope of halting any further development of the rot. And at least it is clear this morning, though the forecast is predicting more fog midweek as the system which was here moves eastward. Otherwise the weather is supposed to be fairly sunny, which is good. But unfortunately what we really need is a bit of wind during the days following a rain with sunny days in the mid 80's to dry things out...and the breezes in the valleys probably won't be above 5~8 mph this week.

I'd estimate our pinot & chardonnay at roughly 4% rot going into the rain, and our zin a little bit less for the blocks which are nearest creeks or the river, but it is still present in the blocks with the tightest clusters even away from the river. The syrah is very loose, as is the cab and merlot, and there shouldn't be too much loss to botrytis in those, but the zin and syrah got hit a bit harder by sunburn and raisining during the hot dry weather we had a few weeks back, so they won't come through this unscathed either. There is a good probability that our loses due to sunburn and raisins will be 10% in the zin and 5% in the syrah. (most of that was self inflicted when we pulled more leaves and repositioned branches trying to get more sunlight on the fruit to speed ripening and help combat mold by allowing more air to circulate thru the canopy - just in time to get slammed with the 100+ degree heat!)

All in all it's going to continue to be a weird year as far as growing conditions are concerned, and now the biggest decisions to make are when to spray to keep the rot down, and which product will be most effective with the least application....

Pray for some dry wind to start blowing through the region for a few days!

Monday, June 28, 2010

More layoffs for Sonoma County winery powerhouse?

There are several rumors circulating (with some very well informed parties providing me with confirming info just last evening) that there are more layoffs in the works for at least one major Sonoma County winery....
Ready to guess which?
  • one which has already had a few large rounds of layoffs in the past 18 months...
  • and has scaled back (mothballed & consolidated) a few of its properties recently....
  • and has management which currently seems to know no other answer to flagging sales than to cut its workforce...
  • management which also saw fit to raise the price of their main bread and butter product at the beginning of the recession...despite knowing the recession was on the way, and would negatively impact the next few quarters as their sales dropped due to the higher prices and the fact that distributors packed their warehouses at the lower prices, and then didn't deplete their stock like they had in the past.
Time's up! 
Put your pencils down, but don't worry, if you didn't guess you'll find out when it hits the paper...

The continued trend of consumers not to "trade back up" from the lower priced tiers they have gone to in the past 18 months is contributing to many changes in our industry - especially regarding wineries which used to seem beyond the grasp of such trivial things as market fluctuations....
Many people have suggested that this is mainly just a matter of time, and that given enough time the industry giants will rebound to the same stratospheric heights they used to occupy. Though many readers of this blog in the past will know that I don't give the Titans the same respect they do, and for good reason.

I was lucky to have realized long ago how much of the current fluff regarding the hierarchy of wines & wineries is just that...."fluff". People (consumers), have "traded down" for financial reasons, but quite a few have found enjoyment at the lower tiers (~$15/btl) which they used to think only existed at the $30/btl range.
I really don't think they are ready to go back yet, and the wineries which aren't looking to price their wines at a price to move right now are missing the boat. Any talk of "not losing price point" (read that as "prestige" & "ego") is not really realistic. To be sure, many will weather the storm even with that attitude, but the healthier ones will be - in my opinion - the ones which make it through the storm without having to sacrifice facilities and product lines to get there. Witness the recent changes with Beaulieu and Sterling being sold/leased by Diageo....these are some of the previously "untouchable" storied wineries now leased-back to provide "nimble" and "entrepreneurial" business opportunities for the Diageo group.

The bad news for the producers whom are filling the market needs now will be expected by consumers to continue providing these $15 wines which drink like $30 wines for the foreseeable future.

Labels: , ,

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Biodynamics is a Hoax!

Stu Smith of Smith-Madrone Vineyards & Winery in Napa has launched his own blog - dedicated to the exposure of Biodynamics as a hoax!

From his June 1 post:
"Welcome to “Biodynamics is a Hoax.”  I created this blog to offer an alternative view to Biodynamics and to engage the Biodynamic community in debate over the merits and efficacy of Biodynamic farming.  I challenge any Biodynamic farmer or supporter to defend the writings of Rudolf Steiner.  I submit that if you believe in science you cannot believe in Biodynamics, and the corollary is just as true, if you believe in Biodynamics you cannot believe in science.  As you can tell by the title I believe that Biodynamics is a hoax and deserves the same level of respect the scientific community has for witchcraft, voodoo and astrology."

Done in Stu's no nonsense style, and backed with his 40+ years of industry experience, this will be one blog not to be missed...
For those of you willing to try to defend Steiner, be sure to try to explain WHY Steiner suggested distributing "finely divided lead" over a rose garden would combat mildew (yes - that's elemental lead, Pb!)
Extra credit if you can reason why ANYONE could see Steiner as the father of ORGANIC FARMING -and all that is good agriculture- when he had such obviously crappy ideas as that whopper!

Labels: ,

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

If cows invented Biodynamics

So I was having a conversation the other day with a new acquaintance, and the subject of conversation (wine, what else do I ever talk about?) turned to biodynamic community, and how this person felt that it was so perfectly non-interventionist!

That got me to thinking: when is it NOT intervention to kill and sacrifice an animal in the hopes of having a better harvest? And all that they were regurgitating was in direct contradiction to the fact that the model they seem to have fallen in love with still intervenes from the very start of the farm/vineyard layout.....just like everyone else does.

But aside from that, it got me to thinking about biodynamics from the cow's point of view:

Absurd as this cartoon is, it illustrates the fallacy these people operate matter how hard they try to influence their crops with placing poop in animal skulls and burying it for 6 months, they will be as mistaken as the cows are that they are growing better dandelions by sacrificing humans for the effort.

On second thought, at least the cows are decreasing the number of humans which are a direct threat to them!

Monday, February 15, 2010

Lilac Theives and other Weirdness in Wine Country

GAYE LEBARON has her own set of recollections when she hears about the stimulus money that was supposedly set for use on the Napa Wine Train, and about how 20 years ago a group of Sonoma vintners hijacked the train (and later a bus full of tourists) and forced them to drink Sonoma County wines instead. But that's not the story I heard last week which reminded me of past weirdness here in wine country.

A man stealing ornamental plant clippings in Sebastopol attacked the owner of said plants - with a pair of pruning shears - and according to the PressDemocrat, Leo Brink, aged 51, now sits in jail on charges of attempted murder.

Leo - Dude, what were you thinking? How much were you possibly going to get for a few plants, and was that small sum of cash worth what you think the next 5~9 years a second-degree attempted murder charge will land you? Exactly what was the plant you were trying to take - marijuana? salvia divinorum? 
Dude I'll make this easy for you, there ARE NO PLANTS WORTH KILLING FOR...not the most famous clippings from Bordeaux, nor anything else. Period.

What it reminds me of: 20-some years ago, there was a string of lilac thefts through the Sonoma Valley which had everyone scratching their heads. (And I can attest that things like this stick in your mind when you make a living off of farm crops!) If my memory is correct, a group of workers from a Petaluma florist (or landscaper?) had set off to take the new blooms forcibly from the places they were growing. Now lilacs are very fragrant, but the blooms don't last very long after they've been cut, and they don't travel well. So there is definitely money to be made by the person(s) who can supply the myriad of hotels, B&B's, etc, in Sonoma County with a constant supply of fresh local flowers.

The plant hacking spree lasted a few weeks, with the thieves brazenly hewing huge portions of the plants off and speeding away with them, sometimes from under the bedroom windows of the sleeping owners. It all came to a stop when one woman (was it in El Verano? Glen Ellen?), seeing several men disemboweling her cherished plant, challenged them, and when they tried to speed off - gave chase in her car!
She had descriptions of the men, and a license plate number from the truck they used....which just happened to belong to the company they worked for.

The truck was traced, the men were caught and questioned, but I don't recall if there was much of a fine for the offenses. (The company owners later denied knowledge of the thefts, and of the use of the vehicle, which they said was supposed to be out-of-service being repaired.) Where this all leads to is this: there were a number of people with what seemed to be a minor black market in lilacs, and they were making money...but even though they had out-numbered the witness to their crime apparently had never contemplated using violence against another person for what was simply the theft of some flowers....
(Hey, Leo, take a note, eh?!)

More recently have been the thefts of fermenting must from a winery located between Sonoma and Petaluma (I think), which had been stolen using a bucket-brigade method to a waiting vehicle, and the attempted break in a few years back of a Russian River area winery where thieves had tried to come in through the roof using climbing ropes.
Again, nobody was hurt in either of those events.


Thursday, January 07, 2010

2010 won't be a smooth start...

2009 was a really rough year for the wine industry.  While early indicators show that wine sales will be up (in volume and dollars) over 2009, the sales generated per case fell for nearly every domestic winery and imports suffered from trying to maintain already sensitive price points (thanks to the weak dollar).  Every winery owner or sales manager that I talk to tells a similar story:  distributors are focusing more and more on the big guys, even to the point of allocating time and effort based on how much revenue each suppliers provides for them, and retailers are asking for more and more aggressive pricing.  One general manager told me “every time I offer what I think is a killer deal, somebody comes along and beats it”.  Many distributors are already reviewing their portfolios based on Q4 (Oct-Nov-Dec) performance and will be booting those that don’t cut it.  They will in turn move to smaller distributors and so on until, eventually, some are left out in the cold with no wholesale distribution at all.  They can go rely on their tasting room and club business (and try to prop it up by Facebooking and Twittering like everybody else), but I hear of wineries who have lost 50% of their retail business….ugh!

Wineries have survived for 15+ months on the strength of their balance sheets (and some are not as strong as others) and have drawn as much as possible on their bank credit lines.  The piper is drawing near and he wants to be paid.

Banks are caught in the middle as they have (quite honestly) allowed wineries to borrow more than they should.  Now, the more aggressive banks are caught with loan portfolios that are full of over-valued wineries with bloated inventories on the books for more than the wine will sell for.  If they move on one to foreclose, they risk being forced to write down the value of other loans.

Owners, meanwhile, are looking to sell like never before.  The problem is supply and demand – sellers are abundant and buyers are biding their time, waiting for better prices.  A drop in price, however, will often mean that the owner walks away with nothing once he’s paid back the bank (the one that let him borrow too much in the first place). Historically this is where we would see the larger players of the industry (Constellation, Gallo, Jackson, etc) stepping in to snap up desired properties as they came on the market.......however, even those keenly honed teams are eerily quite at the moment. There is enough unease about where we are in the recovery cycle to make even the biggest predators pause for thought. It's somewhat like seeing a bleeding man in the water, yet the sharks not only aren't circling, they're nowhere in sight.....
All in due time, it WILL happen, just not while those larger wineries still can't forecast where they'll be in a year.

Napa is particularly feeling the pinch as they've been raising prices to the point where everybody and their cousin has a $125 Napa Cabernet offering.  The problem is that consumers have been drinking cheaper Cabernet in the last year and they’ve found out that Napa is overpriced.  Generic Napa Cab isn’t worth $40 and the good stuff isn’t worth $125. (I was talking the other day with a wine newbie who wanted to know what the production cost difference between $20, $50 and $125 bottles of wine really was: the difference for the $50 bottle is $30 of "ego" I said, and the difference between the $50 & $125 bottles is an additional $75 of "stupidity"....). Now, everybody (and their cousins) will be forced to discount their precious juice to half price and now they don’t have the case inventory movement to buy the new French oak and pay the exorbitant prices they’re paying for custom crushing in a Napa facility, not to mention the $35 they’ll need to come up with just to package and bottle a case!

So what will 2010 bring, widespread panic?  Cabs and Dolcettos sleeping together? (sorry, that was just plain bad)

I suspect we will see the wineries who got in last get out first, unless they have pretty deep pockets.  Banks will have to move in some cases, and opportunistic buyers will snap up some real deals.  Prices for vineyards, grapes and wine aren’t likely to rise, so some will be forced to sell and there will be some bankruptcies, even some prominent ones.  The good news is that the thinning of the herd is a good thing for the long term, even if it’s painful for some in the short run. For the consumer who can afford wine (and hopefully that's still a large percentage of those who were buying two years ago) the discounts will continue.......

Labels: , ,

Monday, October 19, 2009

A week of rain and high humidity

Last week's storm has brought much needed rain at the expense of the remainder of the 2009 grape crop. Mind you the rain itself -all 5 1/2" of it- was not the worst part of the storm that moved through...

...the worst part has been a week of high humidity, and bunch rot compounding the problem.

Most growers and wineries pushed hard through the previous weekend to get as much of the crop in as possible, and maybe only 15~20% remained out on the vine through the storm, most of them reds which would fare better than whites. I would've given the fields a few days to dry out after getting 5.5" of rain, but the rush was on, and I saw people harvesting Chardonnay on Friday mud or not, hoping to get their fruit out before mold set in. Now it wouldn't have been preferable to leave a white grape out there for the storm in the first place, but I imagine it was due to their having too many blocks to harvest before the storm came in. They probably picked what they absolutely had to first, and put a few blocks off until after the storm hoping it wouldn't be as bad as predicted. Sadly, it was, and even if they avoided any rot issues they still have to contend with lower Brix due to the weather and water.

It started with the rain on Monday night a week ago, with rain falling continuously through Wed night. Thursday was supposed to be a day of drying out after the storm passed...instead we got another 1/4" of rain. When it finally got sunny on Thursday, it was 4 PM, and the humidity jacked up through the roof.

This takes us to Friday of last week....and sun, Finally!
However there was no wind and it remained near 50% humidity with highs in the mid 80's. NOT GOOD for the remaining grape crop out there, but a perfect environ for molds.

As we see in the satellite picture from Saturday, a large bank of clouds remained overhead and denied us the full sun we wanted. It was humid again, with broken clouds at the middle of the day and highs in the mid 80's. No help for the remaining grapes there...

Yesterday was better in a way as the temps remained lower, but no sun again as a marine layer sat over most of the area all day. The breeze was light, when there was one, and at least it wasn't as warm as Fri or Sat.

Today's water vapor map shows us smack-dab in a bunch of moisture, but hopefully this will give way to sunnier drier weather for the remainder of the week.
But it's raining now, and we're forecast to get 1/4"....hopefully that's all until the remaining grapes which are still viable are brought in.
Again, if you're into challenging fermentations, there is a lot of fruit which won't be harvested commercially this year, and you can probably still get a ton or two for a song.

Labels: , ,

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

5.25" of rain so far with this storm

...and its not over yet, thought here are only intermittent showers. Maybe another 1/4"~1/2" will fall before the skies break open to glorious sunshine...

Inside today, getting caught up on weigh tags and general cellar work order tracking. It's not the end of the month yet, but may as well get working on the drudgery of the job. I'm not going out into any vineyards for a while.

U2's "All I Want is You" is on the stereo, blasting off the walls. There are a hoard of samples on my desk that I have to taste and analyze, standing like soldiers of a small army threatening to charge my computer at a moments notice. And as I've tried to ignore them over the past week - doing only what had to be done to keep moving forwards - their ranks have grown. Soon I'll be over run!

[sigh]...Time to get back to work....

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Rain, rain...go away....

A little over an inch by the time I got up this morning.
September was a charm - 12 days had high temps in the 90's (two days it hit 100+) and 18 days with fog, avg hi was 85°, avg low was 48°, with sunny afternoons making for perfect ripening conditions.

I'm one of the lucky ones - I got my last fruit in the cellar early afternoon on Saturday. (I should qualify that, I brought in the last of the fruit I had budgeted for this year...that's off from what I SHOULD be normally doing by -15% due to the economy. Much of that was accomplished by green drop, not that I like to do that, but it was what I thought was the lesser of two evils. The other being letting it rot on the vine - though I probably would have found myself doing exactly what everyone else is, selling it for pennies a pound when it was worth more than a dollar a pound.) I know more than a few people who had buyers that couldn't get financing this year. Banks wouldn't lend them scratch to buy more fruit as they were unbalanced with what the creditors thought was too much inventory from past vintages...
Sadly, much of the fruit which was still out there was (is) some of the best. Late ripening Cab and Zinfandels that were worth the long wait. Many blocks will be offered to home winemakers this year as it either won't have a contract buyer, or will be deemed "compromised" by the rain we're having right now. If you're a garagiste, then this could be your year to shine, if you're ready to work around some low sugars - depending on what the next few weeks bring us....

For wineries, the spot market prices for grapes was already dropping like a stone with demand off as much as it was. Add to that the fact that many wineries can't fulfill the fruit contracts they had due to financing woes, and the market prices fall further. Then throw a big heaping spoonful of rain on top of that and it gets even worse...
Prices aren't just dropping into the basement, they're heading for the abyss.

The irony of years when there are great crops available which wouldn't be available otherwise is that you're either at full production capacity, or you have no money available to snap it up.

Labels: ,

Monday, October 12, 2009

Mystic Rhythms

"...The more we think we know about
The greater the unknown
We suspend our disbelief, And we are not alone...
We sometimes catch a window, A glimpse of whats beyond
Was it just imagination Stringing us along?
More things than are dreamed about, Unseen and unexplained
We suspend our disbelief, And we are entertained..."

RUSH, Mystic Rhythms 1985
What, didn't anything front-page-worthy happen on Saturday October 10th, leaving the paper scrambling for something to fill the void?
 Kudos to the Press Democrat for giving away yet another front page spread - this time to Biodynamics.

Yet more free press for the Benzigers, and another shot of their comments as fragments left hanging for the public to absorb, without much in the way of explantion of the oddities they practice, and why or why not those practices should work. I do feel Guy Kovner was trying to write something that presented both sides...but it doesn't seem he understood the foundations of Biodynamics himself, or perhaps the editors didn't give him enough space to present it...
More likely it was the first. I doubt many people wold suffer through Steiner's Agriculture lectures if they didn't have to...I almost didn't finish it, and I had reason to read the damned thing! Maybe this reporter wasn't given enough time to research fully.

Shall I go into the multitude of errors he made in his farming philosophy? Maybe, but what I really want to focus on is the way wineries which practice this "spiritual science" -even though it has nothing to do with science- can capitalize on the articles it generates. Witness the quote by Mike Benziger:
“I can't look you in the eye and say it's better,” said Mike Benziger, head of the family-owned winery. “I can say it's different.”
Making biodynamic wine isn't about “technical perfection,” Benziger said. “It's about an authentic vintage, an authentic place.”
Notice that?
See the way in which he disarms you and "doesn't" throw mud in your eye, but then throws mud in your eye at the same time?
It's NOT about it being better...but it IS about BEING BETTER than the rest. The slight is that everything else is NOT AN AUTHENTIC vintage, and doesn't REPRESENT an authentic place

Answer me this Mike Benziger....if Biodynamics is so great, why is it you only bottle up ~30,000 gallons as BD certified and not ALL your production?
Is it because you don't have to risk your entire production volume this way, yet still get all the talking points?

Large companies are starting to take notice of the BD movement, and are looking to remove your talking points! For example, I have heard from several sources within Kendall-Jackson that they (one last year, and again this harvest) are now starting to farm using Biodynamic methods. I doubt they will convert their whole vineyard empire over to the practice, or even to get the certification, but undoubtedly they will have a few blocks they can use as a talking point. There are a few articles out in the past about how the Jackson empire had approached Biodynamics years ago [Alice Feiring], but passed on the idea of implementing it at the time.

Hopefully this move by large companies will sully the image enough for the "true believers" to abandon their odd ideas...
Read the article by Smith & Barquín at Fine Wine listing well thought out criticism of the movement, and link here to follow up on it with the comments.
In the meantime, I'll leave you with my past posts about the subject [link here].

Labels: , , , ,

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

More trouble on the horizon

There are many indicators that the recovery for the wine industry is NOT on the doorstep right now for some of the larger wineries. Normally, this time of year sees frantic bottling as wineries across the state try to get tanks emptied for use in the coming harvest. Not so this year....
Several larger wineries have suspended bottling of their wines off and on over the past 8 months. This is due to lackluster sales keeping the products in the warehouses instead of heading out to the consumers. If your warehouse is plugged full, you have nowhere to put the product. If you're going to have hold wine in a warehouse due to slow sales, the rule of thumb is to avoid the extra expense of putting the wine in the bottle in the first place. This saves the headache of needing to either decant the wines for bulk wine sale or remove the labels at the very least for another winery which might buy your wines from you to generate cash flow.
Some of the larger wineries I know have crews which are near panic, as they turn the proverbial spigots off and on again to drain tanks for the coming harvest. Also, there's only so much cleaning you can do when you're supposed to normally be bottling. Then there's a cascade effect as the wines normally to be trucked from one place to another no longer need to be shipped - so more truck drivers stand idle, and trucking companies start hurting. Wines no longer on the fast track to the bottle don't need as much work done to them, so the cellar crews start looking like they have too many people on them to the bean-counters, and discussion starts about cutting them back or temporarily having them work only partial weeks (if not to lay them off entirely until the next harvest starts). Lab analysis also is put on a back burner, so testing companies like Vinquiry or Enologix might be seeing reduced work loads. Then there are the companies providing labels, bottling glass, glue, corks, capsules, etc....all of which also feel the pinch from the lack of forward momentum on the bottling lines.
And it goes on from there....
The problem is that tanks should all be emptied for the harvest which has already started, and winery management will be trying hard to minimize capital outlay for bottling, while they create space needed for the incoming fruit. It is a very delicate balance to maintain, and requires a great deal of communication between the vineyard, cellar and the marketing teams.We all would have been better served by Nature if the current harvest was a bit smaller than normal, which it isn't. The only silver lining to our plight is that the harvest may run a bit longer than normal, and we may have time to turn the tanks over for another round without having to "short vat" too much of the initial onslaught due to the hot weather we're having.
What's it mean to the consumer?
There are some wines being discounted, but that shoe is only now starting to hit the floor. The bigger concern is for the financial performance of the wineries. This is their "stress test", where we will learn if their high paid marketing and promotion staff are worth their salt. But they hold a double-edged sword, as dropping the prices moves more product, but cuts the amount of revenue they generate (doubtless they had more profits penciled into their business plans, and one thing owners and bean-counters abhor is the dreaded "write down" of inventory valuation). Another problem for large wineries is that almost all of them have tried to position themselves up-market in the past few years, and that's the sector which is hurting the most. All we need to do is look to the article in the Press Democrat today to see many of the higher end wineries feeling the crunch. The tone of the article is spot-on, but some of the concluding thoughts are a bit optimistic...
Fred Reno is right that this isn't a 1~2 year dip...and three years is a bit too short also. I don't see the high end ever fully recovering...well, at least not until the next generation of wine drinkers hits the market. And even then, that prospect is "iffy". 
I'd say it's more likely to be "near" to where it was before this mess started within a decade, but owners and marketers will have a tough time getting the same people to buy the highest priced wines when their eyes have been opened to great tasting wines at lower prices. I liken it to my grandparent's need to have "mad money" in their pockets after they survived the depression, or their need to have a well stocked pantry decades after the end of those difficult economic times ("mad money" was their name for the $20~$50 they always had on hand in cash for quick purchases - people told them they were mad not to put all their money back into the banking system, which was deemed "bulletproof" after the government regulations were in place). Even though the danger was long since removed, they had a difficult time getting their heads back to the spend-freely attitudes they had prior to the bad times. I don't see the current purchasers going back in that direction, not that the sales of Two-Buck-Chuck will always be booming like they are now, but they won't go back to buying wines priced as high as they had purchased in the past.
What - and wine sales are down in restaurants? Because people don't want to pay double the price they'd pay in a retail environment to get the same wine? Do tell!
People are going to be much more frugal as they come back into the market. Wine sales in the high end are seeing something that should've happened a long time ago: a correction to deflate some of the ego driven inflation that has injected itself into the process.
So what if someone starts a winery from scratch and wants to put the first vintage out at $100/btl? 
I say let 'em fail. It's not pretty, but if you're stupid enough to put wines out there at that price right now, then you are getting what you deserve to see them stagnate and not move at all.
After all, it's frickin' fermented grape juice, nothing why were people paying those incredible prices to begin with?
If you're a winery owner or marketing type who asks me today what's going wrong with your business plan the first thing I'll ask you is, "why aren't you discounting more heavily?"

Labels: , , ,

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

"Inglenooking" revisited...

I have been doing far too much traveling for brand promotion and sales these past few months. Sales are finally starting to creep upwards again though, so hopefully the recession is on the way out.
Anyway, I was looking through a list of "Top Wines form Argentina" while on a flight back to California, and was somewhat amused to see Inglenook as the #3 brand (Chablis, same wine is in the #13 spot as well).
Inglenook? Really??
I had lost track of that brand a few years back when it was still low-end California bulk wine. Anyway it still shows up in the #10 spot (for Burgundy), #15 (Chianti Classico), and finally in the #20 spot (Rhine). Not bad to have your brand in 4 of the top 25 positions....but even so, it is still extremely sad when you remember the rich heritage of the Inglenook name.
Inglenooking is a term used within the industry referring to a high-end brand which is then shifted down-market to capitalize on the previous successes. In the case of Inglenook, it was once the highest end Cab from Napa Valley, with the 1941 Inglenook Napa Cab having a perfect 100 score retrospectively bestowed upon it by the Wine Spectator. Bottles of that vintage can still fetch almost $25,000 each. (Yeah, that's right...$25k for each bottle!)
Now THAT's a of the Napa wine heap....or at least it was for a while....
It was relegated to California plonk as the brand was expanded and moved in larger format bottlings onto the lower shelves of the supermarket displays. Now it seems to have been further globalized by its corporate handlers...

Labels: , ,

Friday, June 26, 2009

The body's not even cold yet

I can't believe that City Winery is already trying to make money off of the death of Michael Jackson. To wit, I have the latest email from them (7:46 PM last night - a scant 5~6 hours after MJ's passing):
Granted they want to do this tonight, and they feel they have to work fast at it...but really, do we have to do this?
I suggest we rename the event "City Winery's Tasteless Tasting", and the subtitle should be "How to Milk the Legacy of a Dead Celebrity"...
From the email:

5 Wines paired with 25 songs, $25
City Winery will celebrate Michael Jackson's career with a mix of music and wine by paying homage with a wine pairing—listening to 25 of his classic songs with wines paired with 5 eras of his music. As Michael has touched the entire world with his music, City Winery brings its own special way to honor him with loud music from the venue's concert sound system accompanied by 5 selected wines for this once-in-a-lifetime memorial. Starting with a toast to the King of Pop, to a young period with the Jackson 5, smooth textures, developing into deep and complex personalities, and funky tastes. Michael Jackson's flavors will be lingering in our minds and age for long after he is gone.

Needless to say that Michael Jackson's connection to wine was, shall we say, "infamous" as it came to light during testimony in his trial for child molestation....and that's not really the sort of thing we should be remembering him for. What will be "lingering in my mind" is the poorly thought out marketing idea this was/is, and the aftertaste of desperation it leaves on my impression of City Winery. They get $25/head for playing some music & capitalizing on a dead celebrity.

Quite frankly, this is as offensive as it gets. Maybe South Park got away with their Steve Irwin joke only 2 weeks after his death, but pairing wine with MJ?
What, will it be served out of soft drink cans and be called "Jesus juice"?

And dudes - the guys' body isn't even cold yet. Talk about disgusting.

I'm open to anyone from City Winery who'd like to rebut this. Feel free to pony up & let us all know how you justify this sordid event...

And for those of you out there who feel like I do, here's their email address from their website (I've already forwarded this posting to them):


Thursday, June 25, 2009

France "dysfunctional"

Top wine industry insiders have labeled France (and Bordeaux in particular) as "dysfunctional".
I've been saying that for years....maybe they don't read the Zinquisition?
Highlights from the Vinexpo conference via
'Bordeaux should be selling everything,'says Tony Spawton, an associate professor for wine marketing at  University of South Australia.
This is blatantly false...he's implying that just because it carries a Bordeaux appellation it should sell, but there are always less desirable wines from any locale, and just because it's Bordeaux doesn't make it GOOD wine...
'The fact the world's leading wine region is having to distill wine is a bad sign,' said Spawton.
What? They've been doing it for years...why wasn't it a bad sign back then? Weren't they paying attention??
C'mon, I've been blogging about the perpetual "crisis distillation" program and its ill effects since 2005....
Another speaker, UK wine writer Robert Joseph - who produces wine in France - said dysfunctionalities in Bordeaux, and France in general, existed at many levels.
He cited a 'lack of wine branding, poor marketing - with the exception of Champagne' - and the fact that Bordeaux customers are 'blackmailed' into buying.
No $hit...again, something I've been saying since '05...
Well, who knows. maybe they'll get their act together and finally move into the 20th century. Then they'll only have one more century to make up for to be on par with the rest of the world!
I've saved the best quote for last:
'The biggest change will be producers actually asking themselves who is drinking, why, and questioning the blind assumption that there is a market out there for this kind of wine.'                 -anonymous French wine producer
 Yeah, that would be a change for the better, wouldn't it?

Labels: ,

What's going on at Foster's Wine Estates?

I hear rumors flying about layoffs at Foster's Wine Estates...
Two I can confirm, but the number & locations of the others are still amorphous...some reports are saying there may have been many more, but until I can get my sources to confirm where and when they are happening I don't have concrete info to pass along. I will update as soon as I can....
It is interesting to note that Foster's was until very recently looking for a few more production staffers for their North Coast operations. I counted three local openings on for that company, but only two are production positions, and six positions advertised there total with locations all the way to Florida. Perhaps this is a management /marketing department weighted reduction? But perhaps this was in the works for a while as Foster's has been in the process of separating their wine and beer portfolios from each other, and follows on the heels of some $240 Million worth of vineyards and property going onto the market (which they likely won't see full price on). They have also recently changed the marketing director for their Australasian Wine division. Reports are that they originally were looking to sell off their wine holdings, but couldn't get a good price for the ~$4 Billion estimate they were hoping for.
Not good news for the industry as the California layoffs continue from the big players.
So far we've seen Kendall-Jackson, Diageo, and Brown-Forman...all of them tightening their belts back toward the start of the year (Feb~Apr).  Is Foster's now joining the ranks?
Good luck to you all out there....

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Copia: an idea too large for the canvas

“Our mission is fairly simple: we are essentially leading an effort to reopen Copia for the benefit of the community and preserve as many of Mondavi’s goals as we can, but in [a] sustainable way,” said John Salmon, a member of the Coalition to Preserve Copia, created about four months after the December bankruptcy announcement. [link to article here]
So in this context I take it "sustainable" is used to mean "keeps itself afloat"?
And perhaps "for the benefit of the community" means "give them another place to drop their hard earned cash"?

You have to hand it to Ol' Mondavi...he did mean well, and his vision was on the grand scale. Years ago I was talking with an artist friend of mine at her house, and I spotted a large canvas (maybe 4'x8') with a panorama in various stages of completion across it. I commented on how it must be nice to have the ability to put together such a painting, when she said that it was a pain in the ass because it wasn't falling into place. And her killing comment was that overall the idea was "too large for the canvas"...
It was beyond anything I could ever do and I told her so, but to an artist that's little consolation. Her disappointment lay in the fact that the project wasn't what she had envisioned in her mind's eye - that she couldn't translate what she imagined onto canvas. It just wasn't coming out of her and onto the fabric.
I think Copia has the same flaw.
Build a huge complex right in the middle of Napa, design it for international food and wine events...but in the end, fail to get the locals (who are needed for supporting something like this) to buy into the idea they need to use the center too. Too much pretension, perhaps? Maybe it was a pricing issue or management structure issue, we probably won't know for sure because it was likely a combination of factors. Don't get me wrong, there's always room for another pretentious complex in Napa (or so the conventional wisdom goes)...provided you can convince the clientele of that. Hell, you could probably build a Castle and get people to pay for it...damn, that's been done already. But Copia couldn't draw enough people. Didn't it always operate in the red? Wasn't there a huge amount of cash needed every year to keep it operating?
I think the logical thing to do is carve the complex into manageable chunks and sell it to various businesses which want a beautiful spot on the Napa River. There's a huge parking lot for them all to share, and some of the garden plots on the south side can be turned into stores or restaurants, but I think we need to scrap most if not all of Mondavi's visions for the place and think up some of our own.
Bully for John Salmon and the group for thinking about how to preserve what's there. The reality is that people need to see a reason to go there, and by people I mean PLURALITY! Many people need to use the spot, and that means a mix of business types and of different price and pretension strata . It's bold to declare that you'd love to keep the old vision alive, but sometimes that's the danger. It failed because it was "too big for the canvas"...and a new vision is needed for what that property will hold in the future.
And what happened to that old picture I started this rant with?
I saved it from destruction by the artist, and put it up in my house for a number of years. Later, after I had grown weary of looking at its incomplete nature I locked it away in my storage to collect dust. It was finally destroyed by one of the floods we have from time to time around here when the water got several feet deep in my barn.
Hopefully the complex formerly known as Copia fares better.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Nobody "makes" Wine Anymore

Have you noticed how nobody "makes" anything anymore?
Take a look at the picture of Heinz Ketchup, and pay particular attention to the "Grown Not Made*" slogan  below the tomato:

Compare these two statements:
      "Wine is made in the vineyard"
      "Ketchup is grown, not made"
Say, where in either of those statements is there room for the person who takes the ripe fruit and processes it into the end product that graces your tables? I can see an argument for the farmer being present in either case, but not anyone else, and this is not right.
Originally I had contemplated posting on the "Death of the Rock Star Winemakers", a breed which has declined over the past 5~7 years. Sure, there are still many big names out there, but the frequency you used to hear about all but the top hoity-toity "rock stars" has all but died off. And while I feel this is still a valid topic I might get around to in the future, one of the reasons winemakers roles are being downplayed actually eclipses the topic completely. But I do see the point, after all who needs a winemaker if the fruit has done all the work already?
I was going to start by mentioning how the last few years have had more involvement from owners, with winemakers public exposure as "rock stars" diminishing. The main reasons were the need of the owners to make sure that if/when a winemaker left their brand, that the "loyal" following that had migrated there with them didn't then leave. But I think the real reason is that winemakers as a whole are being displaced by the rush back to authenticity and naturalness - by the need to be greener than the next guy - even to the point that we remove ourselves from the equation entirely...and I mean ALL of ourselves, not just winemakers!
And that is why something as common and kitsch as ketchup is now modeling itself as having been dropped into the bottle by Mother Nature herself, without any interference from mankind at all!
The "authenticity" debate maximizes value of non-intervention while minimizing role of the winemaker and cellar staff. This also allows the owners of the brand to maintain the focus of the trade upon what THEIR vision is, and not that of the winemaker (who was making sure the fruit was harvested properly, fermented correctly, then blended, filtered and bottled correctly). We see the people who do all the heavy lifting get the shaft in the PR/Media, while the brand continues forward as an unblemished rose or virgin snowbank, neither of which had been contaminated by the Human hand.
But WE ARE part of Nature...and we DO need to make decisions about how fruit is handled, and what the final taste should why can't we acknowledge that? 
I'll acknowledge here that we are the only species which has developed the earth (for both good and ill) to the extent it's been changed...
But why is it that Mankind isn't allowed to "make" wines anymore? Why is it preferable that "we" haven't made anything? Why does "manipulate", which foremost means "to handle, manage, or use, especially with skill in some process of treatment or performance", get used in nothing more than its negative connotations when referring to foodstuffs - and wines in particular? Certainly there are reasons people have gone this route, and there have been numerous times in the past that fraud has occurred - and no doubt it will happen again in the future, and not just with the highest priced bottles...but I fear we've gone a bit overboard in our reaction. Listen carefully to all the winery representatives talk up their wines at the next big tasting you go to. Likely that the majority of what you hear will be about how fantastic the vineyards are and how "the wine is made in the vineyard"...
I know many people who read this blog will have gotten tired of hearing this explanation, but much of this is rooted in the 17th century Romanticism and the back-to-nature movement it spawned. However, it now goes to lengths that dismiss many natural treatments which were in play back then as well as now: isinglass, egg whites, milk protein (casein) are all now somewhat vilified in the popular wine press as "manipulation" (only negative connotation). 
Filtration, too, is a victim of the authenticity drive, and is spun by many producers as a evil process which robs the wine of fruitiness, structure, or both. Frankly I don't let anything I work on go out the door without filtration - it's your last chance to secure the wine from subsequent spoilage of microbes present in the wine. And that means better consistency for the consumer, which is never a bad thing. Does filtration diminish your wines somehow? Not in my experience. But I do take good care to educate all the staff on how to do it properly, as its when its done wrong that you can screw up your wine. If everyone is vigilant and well versed on how to get it done, then there shouldn't be any problem - though I'll acknowledge that there's quite a spectrum of opinion on this subject, and you'll no doubt hear from well educated people on the other side of that argument as well.
They'll have different experiences, and I can respect that and their different opinions here.
But I still don't think you can separate Man from Wine. 
Wine just doesn't exist without willfull interference from mankind, any less than ketchup could exist without mankind. Raise a glass in honor of your favorite cellar, and remember ALL the people it takes to bring that product to your table - from the vineyard through to the grocery store.

Labels: , , , , ,

Thursday, June 04, 2009

In Tweetum Lucrum?

I had the misfortune recently of having to sit through a few presentations on how wineries can use social networking sites like Twitter, Facebook, Myspace, etc. to further their own marketing ends. Maybe it was the sheer lack of data in the presentations, but frankly I don’t buy it and my read from the other attendees suggested that they felt the same way. I just don’t think that wineries will be able to effectively use these sites to sell their wines, at least not in enough quantity to justify the investment of time and money. 
And certainly not enough to justify spending $10k/Mo for 6 months as some people are looking to do!
Let me give you my reasons:

1. Wine consumers crave an authentic experience. Without a doubt, the continued proliferation of wine brands and the inertia of the industry to consolidate as beer and bourbon have done is the ability of a winemaker or winery owner to give a consumer a genuinely personal experience. The only way for this to happen in web 2.0 is for winemakers and winery owners (not heads of the marketing department!) to commit several hours each day to blogging, facebooking, tweeting, etc. I know lots of winemakers and lots of winery owners and exactly zero of them have the time to commit to this. Even during a strong economy, these people are working non-stop and have no time for that “instant-response” needed in social media. I see many wineries start down this road with the best of intentions, but then they can’t follow through with something so minor as a simple blog update, due to time constraints. My own Twitter personality suffers form exactly this...maybe when I'm on the road I can tweet occasionally, but otherwise I just don't have the time to post in a stream-of-conciousness fashion.
2. As a corollary to the above, concepts like Murphy-Goode’s (a brand owned by Kendall-Jackson) are doomed to fail because they lack authenticity as well. Wine consumers want to hear from the winemaker or the owner, they don’t want some hired gun whose full-time job is to tweet and give status updates to be selling them on a brand made by somebody else. They want Mr. Murphy or Mr. Goode (neither of whom is involved in the brand anymore) to give them updates and tell them about their “honest” “artisanal” and “hand-crafted” wines. In the Jackson’s favor, they do have David Ready Jr. as the winemaker (the original partners being Murphy, Ready & Goode), but even so the tweets they get more than likely will be from the person they hire and not him. This also invites the consumer to look for Murphy-Goode's winery in the hopes of finding the authenticity they desire, only to sadly have them realize that the M-G team sold the brick & mortar facility they had to a Sonoma custom crush company and the wines are now made at various K-J wineries instead.
[2a.  In the application legalese fine-print for the job referenced above, there is a nice clause about how the "Winery" doesn't need to hire ANYONE if they don't feel they have the right candidate in their applicant pool. Now this is boiler-plate standard release clause for the "Winery" to back out of the deal should they feel it isn't going in the right direction...but should they actually NOT HIRE anybody for the position then they risk losing any sort of authenticity and credibility they might have otherwise. I mean, they've already reaped the rewards of this whole stunt, right? I have seen many, many Tweets, articles, emails and blog postings about what appears to the outside world as a Dream Job in the wine industry (and its been described as such in many articles)...if they then DON'T hire, they look like they've been shilling the brand the entire time because of all the media buzz they've collected to date. Plus, they're owned by K-J which just laid off 15~20% of their workforce a few months ago, and let's face it, there's already enough bad feelings in the industry regarding the business moves that Jess Jackson and his team have made in the past 25 years. Add to that impression a guy who sacks his labor, continues to buy expensive horses, and then pays $60k to someone to sing like a canary (Tweet!) about his wines. Albeit that they were apparently solid business decisions which have put them ahead of the pack in many ways (some might say ruthlessly), but a failure to cement this carrot-and-stick-type-PR-event would do nothing but reinforce the already jaded consumer that K-J was more interested in the mighty $$ than in the reality that people now expect them to make good on the reward they offered for keeping this brand in the public consciousness for the past few months. And why do I use "Winery" in quotes when I mention this topic?...because the "Winery" is K-J, not the M-G that many people might associate with the brand on the face of the offer. The stakes are high for a failure to complete the deal...]

3. How to close the sale? I can see social networks generating fans and followers, but how do you get a fan to stay brand loyal when your wine is $14.99 at Safeway and Gallo’s new brand is running a deal for $11.99? Wine consumers, due to the 9,000 wine brands in this country, are notoriously fickle and have been increasingly “trading down” lately to lower-priced wines. I don’t see how you convert followers into sales, and most importantly, how do you measure the conversion from one to the other?

4. You say the answer to #3 is not to sell through Safeway but to use the internet? The internet in general has not been a boon to wine sales. Yes, there are successes out there (Wine Library), but there have been some big failures too (the first several iterations of Further, ask a winery owner or winemaker if they’re able to rely on web-based marketing, eschewing travelling the major wine markets like they were 5 or 10 years ago. Those that I run into say they’re having to do it more than ever due to the challenges of the economy as well as lack of distributor commitment to any non-corporate brands. I know I'm travelling much more than I have in the past for just this reason. Few wineries sell more than a single-digit percentage of their monthly sales through their website and most all will tell you that club sign ups come from their tasting room, not from the web and this after most wineries have had websites for 10 years or longer. If not by now, by when?

5. Being marketed to is a turn-off on the internet. Web users are increasingly bombarded with ads and messages, most of which are ignored. Overt marketers are shunned. The social network proponents concede this up front and will tell you that you have to engage on a different level. Tell your story less directly, interact with wine pages and sites other than your own, be personal not preachy, etc. Frankly, I think that just dilutes your marketing story and makes you a friend – the type of friend whose parents own a winery and whose parents expect to get free tastings and other comps when they show up. Me, I rarely buy wines from friends in the business because I expect them to bring some when they come to my house….If I’m going to buy your wine, I’ll buy it because I like the quality and/or price, not because you ‘friended’ me. 
6. In support of #5 above, I feel the need to mention the sheer lack of any sort of "style" or "etiquette" by wineries when dealing with the web currently - blogs in particular. I'll hold up a comment on my post the other day by "Trecini", which appears to be nothing but a veil blogger ID from a company shill of the same name...
I was "honored" with a comment on my post the other day by said blogger, and the entire 188 words were nothing more than a PR note re their wines. What a turn off! Talk about how NOT to do was clumsy, just outright clumsy!
And if we want to make it appear that we've "just been to a blind tasting party and discovered the wines" from said winery, maybe you should choose a blogger ID name which isn't so obviously transparent. (BTW, tracking down this ID brings you to a "blog" which was created within the past week and touts 2 [yes, TWO!] posts; the first is a word-for-word repost of the 188 words left in my comments section, the second is an ad for a wine brokerage.)
In case you're looking for the comment proper, don't bother yourself as I've already deleted it (I have a copy in my email of the original).

Now I’m not suggesting that wineries give up and ignore web 2.0 altogether, but I think it should be approached with a healthy skepticism until someone actually demonstrates that they can convert followers into consumers. Today’s wine environment is more challenging than I can remember and one’s focus needs to be on getting the best sales results for one’s time spent.

Maybe following the sales performance of Murphy-Goode would be the bellwether here. I’ll check back in six months and let you know how they’re doing.

Labels: ,

Friday, May 29, 2009

News from the trenches

After a few weeks of traveling to visit several key account markets (Sonoma County, San Diego, Phoenix), I have compiled some notes regarding what actual servers in restaurants have been experiencing. Note that none of this is scientific data or taken from scanner data reported by retail stores, rather from first-hand reports of day-to-day observations by servers.

Overall, the concerns of the public aren’t the same as those of us in the industry. The topics which seemed most important didn’t cover cult winemakers, hang time, acid and yeast additions, biodynamics or organic wine methods, etc. Because of this I find it refreshing to hear it directly from the people who are serving the public from time to time. Some of this is due to the economy, some is seasonal, and hopefully a bit of it is the wine drinking public becoming more informed about wine.

The restaurants I was talking with are mainly in the middle of the price range spectrum, though maybe 25% were more on the high-end side than true mid range. All were stand-alone restaurants; I wasn’t talking with any chains. Here’s what I heard - please remember that these are generalizations from ~24 establishments:
  • Zinfandel sales seem to be holding where they always have been, but are flat otherwise (this always seems to be the case, but was interesting when you consider that many people are experimenting with reds other than Merlot and Cab Sauv and Pinot…)
  • Sauvignon Blanc sales are gaining on Chardonnay sales (some of this is seasonal), a lot of people reporting the public is tiring of 100% malo-lactic white wines
  • Patrons don’t appear concerned with high reputation wines as much as they want to get some “tasty juice on the table” at a decent price, and to this end “cult winemakers” and “image/ego buys” are not the deciding factors when patrons are ordering , though some “conspicuous consumption” is still taking place (before you flood the comments section with hate-mail, let me say “yes, this is a generalization”, and I imagine the impression would have been different had I talked with more higher-end establishments)
  • The public is starting to catch on that high prices don’t automatically confer a high coefficient of enjoyment, and are increasingly drawn to wines which actually taste good and haven’t been priced out of the stratosphere
  • French wines are down overall right now, while the Italians and Spanish are replacing them (price for quality drinking is in play)
  • French Champagne sales are down while Prosecco is on the rise (sadly, California Sparkling isn’t filling the void instead…not that I find anything “wrong” with Prosecco…)
  • Syrah seems to be the new experiment for patrons who have had enough Cab and Merlot…as one wine buyer said “people are looking for more ‘bang’, but with approachable wines…not over complicated and with tannins which are easier on the palate”…another made it a bit over-simplified and said “people want something purple, that tastes “purple”, without having to think about it to enjoy it”…(we've seen this before; I don't recall how many times I've heard about how Syrah was going to be the next "hot" varietal, only to have it slip back to "ordinary" status...)

The most shocking news that I have to report is that incidences of corked wines seem to be up across the board – regardless of the price range of the bottle or country of origin. In fact, this is the one thing I heard repeatedly while I was out and about. Some reported it’s now double or triple what it was just a few years ago. The majority of the accounts I talked to seemed to think the wineries were switching to lower grades of corks to save money, and this may or may not be true but I imagine the respective wineries would point the finger back at the cork suppliers. That it seems to be across the board leads me to two thoughts: that more people are cognizant of what cork taint is and are willing to send those wines back, and that there might be an actual increase in the number of bottles with defective corks as well.

In the end you and I can talk 'til we run out of breath about vineyard blocks and additions to must or wine, or about how Mark Squires may have traveled to and from various tasting events, but the public seems more concerned with getting the best tasting wine for the buck.

Labels: ,

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Add another voice to the lists!

I'll reprint his comment here, as it bears repetition well:
"Stuart Smith recently wrote a great letter to the editor (of the Chronicle?) responding to the Dolan-Benziger school of non-stop BD promotion, practiced with nothing but anecdotal claims of efficacy, and plenty of marketing hype. As Stu pointed out the problem with the BD promoters is that it puts the rest of us at a competitive disadvantage. There are a few accounts that won't buy anything but organic and BD wines. Those of us who are more concerned with making delicious, well-made wines are fortunate, so far, in that most people care most about wine quality, not BD hokum.

When you look deeper into BD, beyond what the winery proponents choose to talk about, you find some truly wacky stuff, as if the common BD practices aren't enough already. Steiner was a paranormal fancier and clairvoyant. There are lots of spirits of various kinds. There are sylphs and fairies that move light and water into the plant and gnomes in the earth that tell the roots and worms what to do --- I'll bet there wasn't much about that at the seminar!

Careful, minimal input viticulture ought to be the standard, but the antiscientific-religio-cultish stuff at the heart of BD will eventually send it back where it belongs .... I hope."
I'll add a quick HALLELUJAH!, and use this post as a PUBLIC CALL TO ARMS for those responsible winemakers out in the field to publicly join the crusade against this modern-day mumbo-jumbo! Make yourselves heard!!
Join the Zinquisition!

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Distilling a 'Why Biodynamic" conversation

Well, I did go to the "Why Biodynamic?" conversation at the Sonoma County Day School last Friday eve. Mrs Johnson and I both went, and though the proceeds were to benefit the Sonoma County Wine Library, I'm glad we each saved $5 by buying our tickets beforehand.
I'll post some highlights in a moment, but I must say I was disappointed the Q&A section was so short that it only allowed for 3 questions to be put to the panel. They were [Thank God!] skeptical in nature...
For the introduction: I'll thank Jeff Cox for his observations, but I have to point out that gravity is NOT an invisible force. (Cox dropped his glasses case from one hand to the other to demonstrate that not all forces were "seen".) We can see and demonstrate its effects, and can predict how it acts. You are correct, it is not VISIBLE (we don't see strings pulling objects toward the Earth or Moon, but that's not the same thing), and the fact that we can't SEE it does not imply that other unseen and yet un-demonstrable forces exist.
Also -and this is important- the Moon DOES NOT influence when women menstruate. This has been proven incorrect time and time again, and Mrs. Johnson would like me to let you know that if what you implied WAS true, then women -as a group- would all menstruate at relatively the same time in the lunar cycle, which she can personally attest to that they don't. She further wanted me to mention that there is only one planet that all the women live upon, and there is but one moon to influence them all, so the assertion implies that women should be in "synchronicity" of some sort. They are not.
Period. [pun intended!]

Alan York  
BioD since 1971, never farmed Organic –went straight into biod, Louisianan good ol’ boy

- Old Yeller & Agriculture course were the only two books he’d read at the time (funny, but hard to believe that’s true)

- Read Agriculture, but didn’t understand anything that Steiner had said…

- Very entertaining! I'd love to talk with the man over some period of time, maybe 1 of the dozen people I’d pick to be stranded with on an island for a week (reminded me of Gilligan – not in an inept way, but too much of the folksy-ness would get to be a real drag)

- We don’t “grow” anything, the plants grow themselves, we just create environments for plants to grow to their potential. We are co-creators with nature, not destroyers.

- biodynamics is an art, not a scientific venue [sadly this seems to be lost on the practitioners who later assert that it IS scientifically proven or provable...]

- Farmers should try to foster a “closed system” [qoutation marks are his, not mine], though that’s not fully possible, to avoid destroying one portion of nature in favor of another

- waste stream becomes fertility stream w/ composting

- DIVERSITY of plants and organisms is the indicator of success and fertility, so don’t focus on just one organism

- Goal of biod is “diversity”, conventional agriculture goal is simplification by removing unwanted organisms [“reductionist”]

- Agriculture removes more than just minerals: life forces & soul forces, which must then be replenished into the environment [interesting, and yet unproven theory of BioD, upon which I'd say most of the conflict with non-believers stems from]

- Cosmic Hierarchy: physical sphere (represented by minerals) – life sphere (plant life) – soul sphere (animals) – spiritual sphere (humans)

Paul Dolan  
Organic for many years, recently has converted to biodynamic, sons still somewhat skeptical [thank God again!].

- Read AG course & didn’t understand it either (like York) but had York as a guide to help him through it (fallacy of blind leading the blind?)

- Don’t feed the plants: feed the soil, or better yet feed the environment, and life will flourish

- Create bug highways for beneficial insects to control the bad bugs

- [after Q from Cox RE “we are part of nature…why don’t we trust it, why don’t we trust preps (witchcraft, voodoo)"] “…we nicknamed the system “moo-joo”…”

- [Cox: vortex is recurrent form in nature: water going down the drain to tornadoes, to galaxies. Shape focuses forces into the center of the form…] Dynamization is process to bring the ethereal forces into the material realm using this recurring natural pattern.

- Dynamization by hand is best, but “flow form” is used to create same effect [this is where the practitioner creates a sculpture like a waterfall, where the water is theoretically mixed continuously in each successive pool...and thus "imprinted" with the desired cosmic energies...]

- Captured rainwater is used for the preps, passes thru flow-form first. Groundwater has mineral components which are “imprinted” with the site already and is considered inferior.

- Cow horns used because they follow the vortex form…manure from female lactating cow (!) is collected for the process [Dolan buys organic manure from outside his farm to use for this process]

- Homeopathic doses used [must be powerful stuff! or maybe it doesn't make a difference that you're using so little because it has no effect anyway!]…manure formula benefits “life force” (microbial life)

- silica formula promotes qualitative “soul force” and governs aromas, flavors, colors, etc., [supposedly] everything that we associate with quality.

- Difficult to attribute qualities to the compost preps… [“weenus” factor in play, wussed-out answer, maybe they don’t exist and that's why this is difficult?]

- Organic cert vs. Biod cert: Biod is also yearly independent party inspected [biod is not so much policing as “counseling”, he says, but that raises some interesting questions whether practitioners are held to the same standards all over the place]

- 10% of area on farm might be left fallow to avoid monoculture (doesn’t need to be “natural” just different than the main crop)

Terroir? Freshness factor brought up as possible explanation for better tasting produce. No further discussion on that point.

Okay! Now on to the questions that were asked....

Q does BD rid you of phylloxera, Pierce’s, etc?

Dolan: We were ORGANIC back in the 90’s while there was Phylloxera outbreak, and many neighbors had to tear out their AXR-1 rootstocks. Bonterra didn’t have to. Overall health seems to have been better, more resistant to those pressures…while a few vines were affected, it wasn’t widespread swaths like the conventional farmers were being hit with. It seemed to be weaker individual vines. We did have hoppers and mites when we changed over. to biodynamic, but they seem to have reached a balance with our beneficials and we don't have a problem now.
[Currently he doesn't have an example of BioD defeating pests like the Q asks...]

Q is there a commercial aspect to this practice?

A [Dolan passes to York] [pause] Yes, we are in business (dead silence from the audience), and we need to continue to make a profit like all businesses.

Q I have chickens, and have been organic for many years, but no cow. Can I be BioD?

A if you aren’t using the preps then you aren’t biod. “Biodynamics is organic-plus” (dead silence from the audience – especially those organic farmers present that I know!) in the fact that it fosters these etheric forces using the preps.

Q you can’t have a "closed system", which you placed in quotes, so how does it work?

A [York]  it is the effort towards the goal, not the attainment which is important. It has to be a stretch. If we don’t stretch then we aren’t going to fulfill our (human) potential.

Well, that about sums it up.
Entertaining evening. And while there were some positions outlined, there was no persuasion to be had.

The biodynamic food and wines that were poured in the lobby afterwards were all serviceable, but nothing I'd be running out to get. "Good", not "great", and certainly nothing discernable that I'd ever be able to pick out from the numbers of other good, servicable wines out on the market...