Wines & Vines: A Global Perspective on Regional Wine Identity

The December 2014 issue of Wine & Vines is out and it features the usual mix of interesting and informative articles. This issue includes a preview of the sessions scheduled for the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium in Sacramento at the end of January, a “Best of 2014″ collection, a guide to building an urban winery and much, much more.

Great stuff — the wine industry is lucky to be served by top notch professional publications like Wines & Vines, Wine Business Monthly, Harpers Wine & Spirits, Beveragedaily.com,  Meininger’s Wine Business International, The Drinks Business and  other useful and informative publications.

Wines & Vines has for some time now included content from Practical Winery & Vineyard, which is edited by Don Neel. This month Don chose an article that I wrote for him last year to be featured in the combined publication. It is called “A Global Perspective on Regional Wine Identity: Think Global, Drink Local.”

The article is based on a presentation I made to a gathering of wine makers in Southern Oregon. Some of the remarks are aimed specifically at this under-the-radar region, where some great wines are being made, but I think many of the conclusions I draw are more general. I invite you to click on the link and read the column along with the other Wines & Vines articles.

Can Wine Change the World? Celebrating the 2015 Cape Wine Auction

Can wine change the world — make it a better place to live? It’s a quite a challenge (the world is a big place), but wine certainly can contribute to the task and the 2015 Cape Wine Auction is part of that story. Read on!

Auctions: Not Just About the Wine

How can a wine auction help change the world? There are several types of wine auctions and while it is generally wine that is bought and sold the wine itself isn’t always the point.

The big auction houses feature multi-day sales of rare wines and specialized collections, for example, where millions of dollars can change hands over a few lots of treasured vintages. The wine is the focus: sometimes to drink, sometimes to hold and resell and sometimes as conspicuous non-consumption collections.

Then there are very specialized auctions, like the Nederburg Auction in South Africa (I was the keynote speaker at the 2012 event). This auction is more for trade than investors of collectors. It was originally conceived as a way to make older and rarer vintages of the best South African wines available to restaurants and retailers so that consumers would have an opportunity to try these great products at their peak. There is an associated charity auction that raises substantial money for local youth programs, but the focus is on the industry and projecting South Africa’s topo quality brand at home and abroad.

Finally there are auctions where the charity element is front and center and where the packages on offer are not just wines but also wine-food-travel-adventure combinations that are meant to leverage wine’s central role to both broaden interest and frankly to increase the amount that the charities receive. The Auction Napa Valley, for example has raised more than $130 million since 1981 for community projects, including $10 million last year alone for local earthquake disaster relief. It is a model of how wine can contribute to social change.

Wine may be just a beverage to many and the wine industry just a business, but wine’s ability to bring people together and to focus their attention on the collective welfare is really inspiring and it is the reason that it is not ridiculous to think that wine (with a little help from its friends) can change the world.

The Cape Wine Auction

The AfrAsia Bank Cape Wine Auction, which will be held in South Africa on February 13-14, 2015, is not yet at the level of the Napa event in terms of dollars and cents, but it is off to a good start and has identified a worthy set of local non-profits to support including the Pebbles Project. The inaugural 2014 auction raised about seven million Rand (about $600,000) for charity and the 2015 event aims to exceed that amount by a good deal. The auction packages are fantastic — click here to view the catalogue of wines and experiences that are available.

The organizers seek to broaden the audience this time around by inviting more on-line bidding and by encouraging wine enthusiasts to schedule a visit to the Cape Winelands to attend the auction in person. Not everyone has the time and resources to do this, of course, but if you do it’s an invitation that is hard to resist. February is summer in South Africa and the weather is ideal.

Add to this the weakness of the South African currency, which now trades at a bit over 11 Rand per Dollar, making both an on-line bid and a tourist visit more affordable (it was about 8 Rand per dollar for me in 2012). Seriously, South Africa is a bargain right now if you hold dollars, pounds or euro.

Sue and I visited South Africa in January and it was one of the best wine tourist experiences of our lives – I even wrote a column speculating that the Cape just might be the best wine tourist destination on earth.  This appeal plus the obvious satisfaction that comes from helping the charities that the auction supports are good reasons to look into this opportunity.

Kudos to the many wineries and their partners who have collaborated to create the auction lots. Congratulations to Mike Ratcliffe and his team for the success of the 2014 auction and the great potential that the 2015 event displays. I hope the Cape Wine Auction gives the Napa folks a run for their money — that kind of race to the top can only benefit both the wine industries and the social initiatives that they support. Cheers!

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Here are the charities that the Cape Wine Auction supports.

The Pebbles Project
Mad Charity™
The Click Foundation
Community Keepers
Pinotage Youth Development Academy
Endurocad SA Endurance Academy
Hope Through Action Foundation
The Sustainability Institute
The CWG Protégé Program
The Anna Foundation

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Where will I be during the Cape Wine Auction? Not, there, alas. In fact, I’ll be about as far away as possible from South Africa — in Alaska, doing events to support  the World Affairs Council groups there. More about that in a future column.

Fear Beer? Sometimes the Best Wine is a Beer (or a Cider)

The theme of the Wine Industry Financial Symposium this fall was “Let the Good Times Roll,” but the news stories that came out of the two-day gathering were as much about potential threats as golden opportunities.  “Wine has nothing to fear but beer itself” is a typical example.

Connect the dots

No individual speaker focused specifically on craft beer and cider, but it’s fair to say that they were the 300-pound gorillas in the room. The reporters present picked up on a comment here and a mention there and effectively connected the dots. Let the good times roll? Or roll out the “beer” barrel? Hard to tell which was the stronger message.

I was one of the dots along with UC Davis dean Robert Smiley and others.  I spoke about the trends I have observed traveling the world in the past year and one of them is the rise of craft beer and cider and their growing incursion into the wine space. I see it everywhere and the people I meet are often surprised that it is a widespread phenomenon. I thought it was just something that’s happening here is a common response.

As if to illustrate my point, the post-conference reception featured a number of nice wines from Napa area wineries plus a Napa-based craft brewer who was pouring three or four interesting products. Can you guess what many of the wine people were drinking? You guessed right if you said that it was beer.

The price is right?

Which makes sense because sometimes the best wine is a beer (or a cider). That’s not just a fact of life, it’s also the title of a chapter in my next book, which is set for release next fall. The book is called Money, Taste & Wine: It’s Complicated and it’s a collections of essays, rants and raves about the crazy business of wine.

The gist of the chapter (and part of my remarks in Napa and also later in London at Wine Vision 2014) is that inexpensive generic wines can be pretty uninspiring in a world where  upscale consumers look for distinctive products like they find at Whole Foods and see on Food Network shows. For about the same price as that generic wine you can purchase a really distinctive craft beer or cider.  And while the best wines can cost hundreds, the top of the craft beer category is not that many dollars above the middle market. The relative cost of really distinctive products versus generic plonk can be much less for beer than for wine.

In other words, if you want to feed your terroirist soul, you might find craft beer or cider a very cost effective alternative to wine. Obviously I develop this idea more thoroughly in the forthcoming book chapter, but I think you probably get the idea already. Just go to an upscale supermarket and stare at the beer case and cider shelf for a while.  You may be impressed by the sophisticated products you see and the reasonable (compared to wine) prices they fetch.

I’m especially taken with the new ciders I’ve encountered. Ciders come in many types — blends, single variety, oak-aged and so on. There are even ice ciders that, like ice wines, are made from naturally frozen fruit.

No need to fear beer …

Beer and cider also have a number of supply side advantages over wine. Because grains and apples can be stored for months you can make batch after batch of beer and cider pretty much continuously through the year. With wine you get one shot at fermentation and that’s it. This gives beer and cider more production flexibility and permits small lot seasonal experimentation, too.

So should wine “fear beer” as the story headline suggests? No, but wine needs to take these products into account and respect them as strong competition. Honestly I don’t think craft beer and cider are threats, but I do see them as challengers. If we don’t want to lose customers to these innovative products, we need to up our game and make sure that wines at key price points have the quality to compete.

Wine Vision Takeaway Messages

Click on the image above to view my interview with BeverageDaily.com editor Ben Bouckley at Wine Vision 2014.

I’m back from Wine Vision 2014 and reviewing my notes in search of the most important takeaway messages. Not an easy task in this case, because the content stream was so rich and varied. Not sure whether the best ideas came from the formal program or casual conversations. That’s a sign that the organizers did their job of assembling a critical mass of thinkers and doers from inside and outside the global wine trade.

Many of the points that participants found particularly useful focused on new or emerging trends. Lots of discussion of new consumers (millennials, for example), new marketing opportunities (direct-to-consumer both generally and via in-home “meet the winemaker” type events), and new competitors within the alcoholic beverage category, some of which are so “innovative” that they seem poised to “jump the shark” into oblivion.

We were informed and entertained by presentations on what to do and — more critically — what not to do in social media relations (lots of cringing at the dumb things that smart people can do on Twitter and Facebook). And we were introduced to packaging and label innovations, including my first experience with Amorim’s new “twist off” Helix cork stopper/bottle package. Something for everyone at this conference.

 Big Bang Theory

My presentation probed four powerful forces that have shaped the wine world of today — the “big bang” of global wine production that has redrawn the world wine map, the new “lingual franca” of wine, which now defines the competitive landscape, the forces of disintermediation that have changed the game from monopoly to monopsony, and the “new wine wars”realignment of interests within the wine business.

Reading through press coverage and Twitter comments, I find that different people focused on different elements of my presentation, which is probably as it should be. In the video above, for example, BeverageDaily.com editor Ben Bouckley drills in on the importance of authenticity and the new wine wars and, in response to a question, I highlight LVMH wine chief Jean-Guillaume Prats‘ comments about sustainability. Lots of interesting ideas in the air.

UK Wine Trade at the Crossroads?

Wine Vision disappointed me in only one respect — not what was said but what wasn’t. In the run-up to the event I suggested that this was the perfect time and place for an open discussion of power dynamics in UK supplier-retailer relations. The Tescogate financial scandal seems to have nothing to do with the wine trade, I wrote, but it has created an opening where a discussion of power in the UK wine world might be usefully and openly engaged. As a recovering liberal arts college professor, open discussion is in my blood, so naturally I wanted to see it happen here.

But it didn’t happen and perhaps it never will. I tried to open the door in my presentation, drawing a parallel between UK wine retailers and Amazon.com in terms of power dynamics. But no one really jumped at the opportunity and in any case I was whisked off the stage before anyone could comment or ask a question. Time was up, I guess.

Pernod Ricard UK chief Denis O’Flynn attempted to suggest that supplier-retailer relations were at a “crossroads,” but without any more success than I had.  A panel on supplier-retailer relations managed to almost entirely avoid the topic. Interesting! It felt like a “Voldemort” moment (“he who must not be named,” for those of you who are not Harry Potter fans).

Race to the Bottom?

Maybe, as a friend suggests, it was just British politeness — must not say anything that might make someone uncomfortable. Or maybe it was, as the wise Adrian Bridge suggested, simply that nothing was going to change. Might be better to invest energy in areas where progress is possible. He’s probably right and I’m probably wrong.

But I really think that something has to change.  Retailers cut price to increase market share (in the process training consumers to think of wine as just another 3-for-£10 commodity). Then they push suppliers for lower costs to restore margins before another round of price cuts kicks in. The fact that the UK Treasury’s excise tax share of the transaction has increased so much only makes matters worse, eroding margins and accelerating the downward spiral spin.

The UK wine business is caught in a dangerous race-to-the-bottom cycle and it isn’t going to turn around unless and until something changes. Is it impolite to talk about this? Denial, as I like to say, isn’t just a river in Egypt.

I’m on the “State of the Industry” panel again in January at the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium in Sacramento. Look for further commentary there.

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The issue of supplier-retailer relations isn’t just about Tesco, but the fact of Tescogate puts that firm, the world’s largest wine retailer — in the spotlight. Dan Jago, the head of Tesco’s wine department, was originally scheduled to speak at Wine Vision, but withdrew when he, along with other department heads, was suspended pending the investigation. (It is now rumored that Jago will leave the company.) Laura Jewel MW, the head of Tesco’s wine development program, stepped in to replace him but  a week after the conference she seem poised to leave Tesco to take a position as UK and Europe director of Wine Australia. As Jancis Robinson said on Twitter, “Who’s left at Tesco?” Good question. Maybe some of the UK insiders at the conference knew about these upcoming changes and so avoided any situation where they might have to comment? Pure speculation.

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Thanks to Wine Vision for inviting me to speak! It’s a  well-organized and very successful event — worth the long flight from Seattle to London. Thanks to participants and fellow speakers for making this such an interesting and worthwhile conference.

MacPhail Wine Lounge & The Barlow: A Sebastopol Terroirist Destination

We were in Northern California a few weeks ago and decided to try to break away from the strong gravitational pull of Napa Valley to explore the terroir away from the Highway 29 corridor. We were looking for wines that could capture a sense of place — and we found them — but we also stumbled on an exciting wine-food-tourism cluster called The Barlow hidden in plain sight in Sebastopol, just off Highway 12 west of Santa Rosa. Lots of interesting wine economics on display! Here is a rambling report of our trip.

A Terroirst Tour

Our terroirist tour took us first to Pride Mountain, a fascinating winery located high on Spring Mountain (Pride is the family name of the owners). Some of the vineyards are on the Napa side of the AVA border and some are on the Sonoma side — the labels tell you the percentages of each. Interestingly, to meet certain fiscal rules, there are actually two wineries — one in Napa and the other in Sonoma with a line in the concrete crush pad to separate them. The wines are  blended only after they’ve first been accounted for in their home AVA. Wonderful tour, very interesting wines, beautiful location and bizarre regulations!

Once across the mountains in Sonoma we headed for DeLoach and Gary Farrell, where we tasted a number of single-vineyard Pinot Noirs. Both these wineries have changed ownership in the course of their existence — brands change hands frequently these days — and both seem to be in good hands now. Boisset has converted the DeLoach estate vineyard to biodynamic viticulture. Gary Farrell has no vineyards of its own, but sources grapes from a number of excellent growers.

We had one more stop on our list: MacPhail wines, another terroirist Pinot producer. The wines were wonderful, but they weren’t all that we discovered.

MacPhail Family Wines

MacPhail Family Wines has a roundabout history. It started when the people at Hess Family Wineries decided they wanted to develop a brand to highlight single vineyard California Pinot Noir. Hess President Tom Selfridge asked grower Jim Pratt to handle the vineyard side of things and to recommend a winemaker, who turned out to be James MacPhail. For a while the Hess wines, produced under the Sequana brand, and MacPhail’s own wines were made in MacPhail’s Healdsburg facility.

Eventually it became clear that the two projects — MacPhail’s own and his wines for Hess — were going in the same direction, so Hess put its backing into the MacPhail label. The wines, mainly from the Green Valley and Russian River Valley areas (with one wine sourced from the Santa Lucia Highlands down south) had a real sense of time and place.  Our favorite was the 2012 Toulouse Vineyard Pinot Noir from the Anderson Valley. Delicious!

Based on what we learned at MacPhail on this trip and our stop at Glen Carlou in South Africa in January, I’d say that Hess does an exceptional job of using the resources of a large company to unleash terroirist potential on a smaller scale. Hess makes wine on four continents — soon to be just three when they complete the sale of Peter Lehmann to the Casella family of Yellow Tail fame.

The Barlow Project

Hess and MacPhail were looking for a site for a tasting room facility when they learned of The Barlow  project in nearby Sebastopol. Located at a crossroads on the site of an old apple processing facility (Sonoma is almost as famous for apples as for wine in some circles), The Barlow was conceived as a wine-food-arts cluster in a series of cannery-style buildings.  It’s a farm-to-fork and grape-to-glass kind of vibe rendered even more authentic by the agricultural heritage of the place.

Cult Pinot maker Kosta Browne (now owned by the same people who operate Gary Farrell, The Vincraft Group) was one of the anchor tenants of the project, with the winery spread over three buildings. La Follette’s tasting room is located here as well as the MacPhail Tasting Lounge.  The Barlow project also includes a craft brewery and a distillery (now they need a cider maker, don’t you think?). There are shops, a market, street fairs and a number of eateries.

We were particularly impressed by Zazu Kitchen + Farm, which is a sort of temple to pork products and local wines, featuring products from Black Pig Meat Company. Do pork and Pinot make a good pair? Oh, yes!

An Economic Development Model

How do you use wine to revitalize a run down area? How do you use wine tourism as a tool of economic development? These are questions that I am asked fairly frequently. The Barlow shows one approach that, while not easily replicated everywhere can still provide lessons.

The first key is the cluster approach used here. Not one winery but three, building some critical mass The second is that it’s not just wine, but wine, food, art and so forth. The third is that while these experiences can be designed and created, they should not be manufactured — an element of authenticity is surely needed. Each of The Barlow’s tenants– including MacPhail and Zazu — has the quality to stand on its own, but like a good wine blend the whole of the community that has been created is greater than the sum of its parts.

As you can tell, our Napa-Sonoma visit was a success. We found the terroirist wines we were looking for and we found something more in The Barlow.

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Thanks to the people at Pride Mountain, Gary Farrell, DeLoach and MacPhail for their hospitality. Thanks as well to my former student Grant who welcomed us at the Adobe Road winery tasting room on Sonoma square. We loved their distinctive wines, including especially the Kemp Vineyard Dry Creek Valley Viognier. Special thanks to Lowell, Dorothy, Allan, PJ and Holden for their assistance.

Book Review: Best White Wine on Earth

Stuart Pigott, Best White Wine on Earth: The Riesling Story. Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2014.

I was surprised when I saw that Stuart Pigott had titled his new book on Riesling “Best White Wine on Earth.” Best white wine? If you know Pigott or have followed his work you have to guess that the original title was “Best Wine on Earth.” Someone must have talked him into the more limited claim — or maybe I’m wrong and there’s a red wine that he thinks is better than Riesling.

But I don’t really believe this. I run into Pigott every few years when he comes to Seattle to serve as master of ceremonies at the Riesling Rendezvous meetings that Chateau Ste Michelle and Dr. Loosen organize and his passion for this wine is beyond question. He writes about Riesling a lot on the web and in books, but it has been a while since he’s published a book in English (he lives in Germany these days). You can see that he wanted to make up for lost time here.

Rodney Dangerfield of Wine

The book is just crammed with information, opinions and interesting ideas that will reward the diligent front-to-back reader and also the enthusiast who likes to dip in here and there. The book’s organized in three main parts. The first two chapters tell you just about everything you might want to know about Riesling the grape and the wine, including a rather thorough break-down of where the aromas, textures and flavors come from and why.

Along the way you will take the Stuart Pigott Acid Test, learn the truth about sulfur, cork and screw-caps and encounter documentary evidence that good Rieslings once commanded higher prices than first-growth Bordeaux wines. I’m sorry for Riesling’s diminished status (think of it as the Rodney Dangerfield of wine), but I have no complaints about price — Riesling is one of the great bargains of the wine world today and I take advantage of that fact whenever I can.

Tour of Planet Riesling

The book’s core is a tour of Planet Riesling, which you would expect to begin and end in Germany, but it doesn’t. One of Pigott’s themes is that Riesling really is a global phenomenon, with fine wines of different styles being made in many parts of the globe. So we begin in the American northeast — New York, Ontario and Michigan. There are stunning wines being produced here and I appreciate Pigott drawing attention to them. Next stop is the west coast — Washington, Oregon, British Columbia and California.  The section on the “Great Riesling Desert” is especially clever — who would think that great Riesling would come from the arid vineyards of Eastern Washington? But they do and Pigott explains how and why.

The tour continues in Australia and New Zealand then on to Austria and finally Germany. Well, actually Germany is not the very last stop because it is followed by a chapter on “Riesling’s Lone Rangers” that goes east (Eastern Europe) and south (Chile, Argentina and South Africa).

It is hard to complain about coverage in a book that spans so much territory, but I wish there had been room for more detail about Chile and South Africa here. I’ve had some stunning wines from both places, especially the South African Rieslings from Elgin (shout-outs to Paul Cluver, Spioenkop, and other Elgin Valley wine farms).

The Top 100 List

Wine enthusiasts love lists and Pigott feeds this thirst in the very last chapter that presents the author’s global Top 100 Rieslings divided into groups of 20 by style with a final listing of the best extreme “Riesling Blade Runners.” But before he lists his Top 100 Pigott gives us a shopping list. What are the best Rieslings that you can buy for less than $15 or £10?

You will probably not be surprised to know that six of the ten value wines are from Washington State (three from Riesling specialist Pacific Rim, two from Chateau Ste Michelle plus Charles Smith’s “Kung Fu Girl”),  two are from Germany (the Leitz “Eins-Zwei-Dry” and “Dr. L” from the Loosen Brothers) and one each from New York (Red Newt Circle) and Ontario (Cave Spring Niagara).  Germany may be Riesling’s motherland, but it is clear that America is its successfully adopted home, especially when it comes to the quality/price ratio.

The Power of Positive Globalization

There’s a lot of particular things to like about this book, but as someone who has written extensively about globalization (see my 2005 book Globaloney for example), one of the things that I like best is Pigott’s general attitude toward the global spread of Riesling culture. Rather than doing as some would and finding fault with this or that he embraces the opportunities the global mix creates. He does this specifically in a section titled “What is Positive Globalization and How Can You Do It Too?” but really it’s infused throughout the enterprise.

Do you have to love Riesling as much as Stuart Pigott to enjoy this book? Of course not! But his enthusiasm is contagious and its hard to read this without feeling that familiar urge to run to the wine shop and come home with a few bottles to explore. Riesling of course — after all, it’s the greatest white wine on earth.

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Surefire holiday gift idea: this book plus one of the wines mentioned in it.

This book makes me thirsty  for more than wine. I’ve heard through the grape-vine that John Winthrop Haeger is working on a book about dry Riesling around the world. Can’t wait to read it when it’s finished.

Wine Vision, Tescogate and Shifting Wine Market Power

Wine Vision, the CEO-level global wine conference to be held in London next week, looks like it will be an unusually interesting gathering because of the issues that have risen to the top of the wine industry agenda as a result of the recent Tescogate scandal.

A School for Scandal?

Tescogate? The scandal, for those of you who don’t follow UK retailer news, is that the big supermarket chain Tesco is reported to have used various financial manipulations to overstate its earnings by a whopping £250 million.  The value of the company’s stock has come crashing down and high-level heads have rolled. Investigations continue.

Tescogate has changed perceptions of this big retail chain among investors, consumers and regulators.  A “word cloud” of web references to Tesco today might look much different from the innocent image above  that I found on the internet — maybe more like this one, which was created to display public opinion about bankers a couple of years ago. What do you think?

Inevitable Wine

Wine inevitably enters the Tescogate story because Tesco is the world’s largest retailer of wine and, although the wine program is not at the center of the investigation, the scandal has prompted many in the trade to give voice to long-held concerns. Their complaint is not so much accounting fraud as near as I can tell as a pattern of unequal relations between retailers and suppliers that is not just limited to Tesco and probably not just limited to wine either.

The issue is power and it is something that was already part of my planned Wine Vision presentation when the Tescogate news first broke. I’m still trying to decide exactly  how much attention to give it in my talk. A number of factors have shifted power in the global wine industry — away from those who make the wine in favor of those who can sell it. It’s not the first time that it has happened and its not just a wine thing, either. Because the wine gets sold a lot of people are happy for now with the situation. But power is power and you’ve got to pay attention to who has it, what kind and how it is used. Fill in your favorite Machiavelli saying here!

The Rules of the Game

In my other life as a university professor I have often written about power. Power comes in many forms. Hard power is the ability to impose your will. Soft power is about influencing the environment in which choices are made. Relational power comes from your resources versus those of your opponent. Structural power comes from the organization of the system — the rules of the game — and the leverage that results.

Tesco and other large-multiple retailers can be seen to have all of these types of power, but structural power is probably the most important. They write the rules of the game to an important extent. Because they are the gate keepers to the retail shelves, they really don’t need to throw their weight around to get lower prices and other benefits from suppliers. The suppliers will fall over themselves to make sure they stay in the game.

Wine suppliers in many cases drive down their own margins because they are afraid that someone else will do so first to grab scarce shelf territory or private label bulk wine sales.

An Opportunity for Dialogue

Concerns among suppliers are not new, but there is a sense that people were previously afraid to speak out and the Tescogate scandal has created an opening where the issues of producer-retailer power (and not just about Tesco) can be more safely and openly discussed. And that’s a good thing.

The Tescogate  chatter has brought the concerns and frustrations of the wine suppliers to the fore and there is a lot to be learned from listening to the discussion. But then what? It looks to me like Wine Vision is shaping up an interesting place to see how the conversation unfolds because of the people on the program (including Tesco’s Laura Jewell MW) and the people in the audience.

If there is every going to be an opportunity for an open discussion of the (un) balance of power in the wine industry, this will be it.

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