New Directions at Wine Enthusiast and Alquimie

winemag2I am hopelessly old school in some ways — I continue to resist the trend towards electronic publishing in wine, for example.  Although I read the Financial Times and Wall Street Journal on small screen devices, I can’t resist the look and feel of print wine magazines like Wine Spectator and Decanter.

So I am interested when old print publications take new directions (apart from the obvious and perhaps inevitable road to an on-line only existence) and when new print magazines enter the marketplace. Here are a couple of interesting recent developments.

Embracing Lifestyles at Wine Enthusiast

Wine Enthusiast magazine recently announced a major redesign and the change is more than skin deep. Yes, the physical design of the magazine has changed, but what’s new is something that is also really old.  Wine Enthusiast is called by that name because it isn’t just about wine, it is about the world of the enthusiast, the reader, who experiences wine in many ways.

Increasingly the wine enthusiast experience involves food and travel, for example, and the editors at Wine Enthusiast have chosen to embrace the lifestyle elements enthusiastically. Here’s a description taken from a press release that came my way

The newly redesigned Wine Enthusiast Magazine is back this month with even more lifestyle coverage! The April issue covers a variety of epicurean adventures from highlighting the golden age of classic chianti to a breakdown of trending party savers to the “Recipe of the Month: Banh Mi” and even a piece on the salty side of cocktails.  This issue further showcases the publication’s dedication to its FRESH and lifestyle focused revamp.

The new Wine Enthusiast (winemag.com) now delivers the best of epicurean culture through engaging and compelling content that is entertaining and “of the moment.” The new, fresh look better reflects the audience of contemporary wine drinkers while continuing to provide insights readers won’t find anywhere else.

The Buying Guide with ratings and tasting notes (for wine, spirits and beer) is still there, of course, but there is even more content than before relating to destination travel and food, chefs and recipes.  That’s no surprise, I suppose, since so much of our lives now bears the mark of trends and celebrities from Food TV and The Travel Channel and it makes sense that wine magazines would be part of this pattern.

Wine marketers have learned to play the lifestyle card and the Australians are betting heavily on it for their Restaurant Australia wine/food/tourism promotion. Wine magazines are on the band wagon with the rest of the media.

Although wine is my serious focus, I must say that I found the lifestyle aspects of the new Wine Enthusiast engaging and entertaining. Don’t judge me too harshly for this statement. It is easy to criticize the lifestyle marketing trend, but I think that magazines probably need to move this direction to stay relevant. Even Decanter, my favorite monthly wine publication, has its share of lifestyle articles and is in fact part of its publisher’s portfolio of lifestyle magazines in various fields.

Wine Enthusiast has not blazed a completely new trail, since this is where wine publishing has been going for some time, but rather has transformed itself  by more completely committing itself to the journey.winemag3

Alquimie: New Directions Down Under

Alquimie is a quarterly magazine from Australia. Edition Two arrived at my doorstep a couple of weeks ago and it has taken me a little while to really understand and appreciate it.

At first glance Alquimie  appears to be a sort of luxury lifestyle magazine full of beautiful photos and illustrations on rich paper stock (but minus the luxury good ads that you might expect to see). It reminds me a bit of Slow, the magazine of the Slow Food Movement or maybe a wine version of Granta. Both of these publications have a distinctive style and feel and pride themselves on taking their readers in serious new directions.

Alquimie (think alchemy?) is so beautiful and distinctive that at first I just wanted just  to page through it and to enjoy the sensations that the images evoke. It took a week or so before I finally sat down and actually started reading the articles. That’s when I really became a fan. Alquimie says that its goal is “Breathing New Life into Drinks” and I think it succeeds by breathing new energy into drinks publishing.

The magazine is divided into four parts, The Story, The Study, The Palate and The Excess and each contained something of interest in the issue I was sent. Since I’ve visited Australia, South Africa and Portugal in recent months I was naturally intrigued by The Study section, which included an excellent profile of South African Chenin Blanc, a report on the work of viticultural scientists at the University of Melbourne who are developing the Vineyard of the Future (look for more dogs and drones), and an introduction to some of the hundreds of indigenous Portuguese grape varieties.

The tasting notes in The Palate part of the magazine are real works of art and were used artfully in several articles, including one that sought wines to pair with a four-kilogram Wagyu rib eye steak and another that compared a 1990 Madeira wine with another from 1890.

Wine, beer and spirits are all in Aquimie’s domain, but milk? I was surprised and then delighted by an article called “What Ever Happened to Real Milk?”  about micro-dairies that are trying to bring back old school moo juice. I didn’t know that Momofuku had a milk bar — did you! (Karl — you once said that milk was all over — gotta rethink that!)

We also learn about an ultra-natural Tasmanian water so precious that it once sold in Europe for 22 euro per 750 ml bottle. The global financial crisis put and end to that market, but the water is still there and the passionate people behind continue to work to bring it to market.

Is this a lifestyle magazine? It certainly looks it with its high design, rich materials and hefty cover price (AUD 18 per issue).  But it is different and not just because there are no advertisements. It seems to me that it takes the lifestyle intent to engage with consumers at a deeper level than just products and pushes it much deeper and maybe in a some new directions.  A really impressive achievement. I wish them much success!

 

The One Diaper Wine Theory: South African Democracy After 20 Years

Wines of South Africa has released a series of videos celebrating the twentieth anniversary of democracy in South Africa. They call it The Democracy Series. I’ve inserted the first of the eight short films above, but I recommend watching them all.

Wine and Democracy: The Thandi Project

What do freedom, equality and democracy have to do with wine?  I don’t have a general theory yet, but I can tell you that they are very closely linked when it comes to South Africa. The birth of democracy coincided with the end of apartheid’s long years of isolation for the country and its wine industry. To a certain extent, the country and its wine industry were both reborn two decades ago.

As a reader noted in a comment to a previous article in this series, once upon a time not so long ago many people shunned South African wines and investments, etc. because of the lack of equal rights in that country. Things are much different twenty years on and The Democracy Series is a good way to make the point. Now, as I will try to explain below, a person with ethical concerns  might well seek out South African wines rather than boycott them.

Thandi Wines, the subject of the first video in the series, is a good example of how wine and democracy can mix. Thandi, which means nurturing love in the Xhosi language, was started in 1995 on the initiative of Paul Cluver. A partnership that includes more than 250 farm worker families in Elgin, it was the first black economic empowerment project in the agriculture sector and is today one of the most successful of them. In 2003 it became the first Fairtrade certified winery in the world! Thandi’s success has been contagious: South Africa now leads the world in Fairtrade wine.

My South African friends point out  that not all black economic empowerment initiatives in the wine industry have been as successful as Thandi or the other examples shown in the video — much is left to do, they say — and more resources are needed. South Africa’s social and economic problems are very large and I think it is important that wine — one of the country’s most visible global industries — is part of the solution.

The One Diaper Theory of Development

My good friend Aaron, who works on economic and social development projects around the world, once told me that he aimed to change the world one diaper at a time. His point was that while a lot of attention is focused on big money projects, micro-initiatives that change living conditions for even just a few families can have great value when replicated and compounded over time and space. If enough people take small actions and together change enough diapers for a long enough period of time, the theory goes, pretty soon they will have changed the world.

I think of Thandi as a model of the one diaper theory put into practice for wine and when we visited Paul Cluver and his family we saw that there is actually more to it than the winery. We attended a children’s theater performance at the Hope@Paul Cluver outdoor theater, which is set in a eucalyptus grove on the Cluver farm. The profits from the theater’s programs support local efforts to deal with HIV, TB and terminal diseases and to care for the children of the stricken.  This is just one of several local initiatives that Cluver supports. Do you see the one diaper connection? We saw many other examples during our visit.

Moving Up The Ladder

Even though it is the largest South African export brand in the U.S., for example, there is no way that the de Wet family of Excelsior Wine Estate can by themselves solve all the economic and social problems in the Robertson region where they are located. So they take small but important steps: resisting mechanization, for example, to preserve farm jobs in a region with high unemployment and making a serious effort to promote workers into jobs with more responsibility, moving them up the ladder.

We saw this moving up notion at work when we visited Gary and Kathy Jordan at the Jordan Wine Estate in Stellenbosch. Attention to workers and their conditions was a founding principle at Jordan, where worker housing was built before the owners’ own home in the early years.  Jordan has encouraged farm workers to move up by sponsoring education, including advanced WSET classes in some cases. Jancis Robinson recently wrote about another innovative Jordan program to provide “South Africa Women in Wine” internships.

Education is obviously a key element of any one diaper program and we saw winery worker education  initiatives in many places. One of the most striking was at Durbanville Hills, which is a  partnership between drinks giant Distell and a group of local farmers. Social justice has been a goal from the start for this winery, which formally includes workers in the profit structure and on the managing board. Albert and Martin took us to a pre-school that the winery runs to get the children of farm workers off to a strong start. The winery support for education, paying school fees and so forth, continues as far as a child can go in school.

While South Africa’s economic and social (and health and environmental) problems remain daunting, the wine industry it taking a stand, which is symbolized by a seal that you will find on almost all South African wine.

The Democracy Series videos show us what is possible. There is much left to do, of course, and an understandable debate on when, what and how to move forward. Sometimes it seems like common commitment about what needs to be done is forgotten in disagreements about strategy and tactics. What’s important is that  debate does not become too divisive and that inertia continues to build and change takes place.

Because change is what’s important. Even if it comes one diaper at a time.

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Thanks to the De Wet brothers, Gary and Kathy, Albert and Martin, and Annette.  Special thanks to Aaron.

 

 

Groot Expectations: South Africa Confronts the Wine Bottleneck Syndrome

People think that growing quality grapes and making great wine are big challenges — and they are right — but that’s not the whole story. There are a great many obstacles and complications that taken together sometimes make selling wine even more difficult than making it. I call the problem the wine bottleneck syndrome

The bottleneck syndrome is particularly troubling for South Africa just now, which looks to the U.S. to pick up some of the slack left by a stagnant European market. (The South African flag even looks a little like a bottleneck design, don’t you think?)

The largest wine market is the world is hard to ignore, but when I was in the Cape Winelands two years ago to open the Nederberg Auction I sensed great uncertainty about how to get the job done.  Realistic goals, but few proven strategies when it came to the U.S. market.

A lot has changed in two years and now I sense greater confidence and see concrete plans in place. I’ll use this column to highlight a few of the initiatives we discovered on our recent visit.

International Cellar Door Sales

Last week I talked about the importance of wine tourism and South Africa’s many advantages. If there is a better region anywhere in the world for wine tourism I don’t know what it is. But the Cape is geographically remote from both Europe and the United States. Wine tourists who are used to making purchases and taking them home run into significant logistical problems.

What you need is a bit of “Star Trek” magic where you taste and buy the wine in Stellenbosch or Robertson and it magically appears at your door in London, Paris, Seattle or New York.  This magic now exists in the form of drop shippers in Germany and the U.S. who stock the wines in their warehouses and then quickly and efficiently ship them to Europe and the UK and U.S. addresses respectively in response to South African cellar door orders. A logistical solution to the wine tourist’s problem. Beam up my Sauvignon Blanc, Scotty!

I discovered the program when I spied a special offer notice at the Durbanville Hills winery tasting room. Buy 18 bottles (mixed cases allowed) and get free delivery to your home in Europe within 5 business days. Wow, what a service. Albert Gerber explained that they use a German  firm called Red Simon that specializes in sale and distribution of South African wines and handles remote cellar door sales delivery for a number of wineries.

Adinda Booysen at  the historic Lanzerac Wine Estate alerted me to a similar program here in the U.S. Cape Ardor is associated with Red Simon and operates in much the same way, although with some difference in terms of participating wineries and subject to the peculiar restrictions of U.S. wine shipping regulations. These long-distance cellar door sales programs have the potential to more successfully leverage the wine tourist market and to make sure that follow-up sales can be efficiently managed.

Defining Brand South Africa

Image really isn’t everything (the old Nike ads were wrong), but it matters a lot in the world of wine and South Africa’s wine image is still being defined here in the U.S. and in other markets. I have argued elsewhere that building a regional wine brand is everyone’s business — it is not just the responsibility of Wines of South Africa or Wines of Chile, etc. — and requires a multi-prong strategy. I have praised a group called Australia’s First Families of Wines, for example, for taking the lead in the ultra-premium export sector of that country’s wine industry.

piwosa

We were pleased to discover a similarly focus effort called Premium Independent Wineries of South Africa (PIWOSA). Like the Australian group, these wineries span the most important regions and present many different styles of wines. What they have in common is a set of values and a commitment to quality, which they seek to communicate to define their niche in the  marketplace and that hopefully will help define South Africa’s position, too.

Prominent on their website (and in the shared goals of the producers, I believe) is an ethics charter. Interestingly, the charter includes not just a set of abstract commitments but a statement of what it means in practice. South Africa seeks to identify itself with sustainability and ethical production and this group makes a strong statement.

PIWOSA isn’t the only private group that is taking the initiative to raise the country’s profile on world wine markets. The Cape Winemakers Guild  and the Nederburg Auction have a long history in this regard, for example, and the recent successful AfrAsia Bank Cape Wine Auction used Napa-style flair to raise money for charity and raise awareness of South African and its wines.

Three of the PIWOSA members — Paul Cluver, Jordan (Jardin here in the U.S. because of trademark considerations) and The Winery of Good Hope — have taken the next step by collaborating on import and distribution in the U.S. market, gaining scale and exploiting their shared goals and diverse products lines.

Developing Distribution Channels

We were also impressed with several other positive initiatives to develop Cape Wine distribution in the U.S. market.  Some U.S. importers and distributors have really embraced the potential of South African wine. For example, we found ourselves in frequent conversation with clients of Broadbent Selections, one of the leading importers with an impressive Cape Wine portfolio that includes A.A. Badenhorst, Cape Point Vineyard, De Wetshof, Delaire Graff, Dorrance, Sadie Family Wines, Savage, The Curator, Vilafonté, and Warwick Estate.

Broadbent (and they are not alone in this)  seems to be making a major investment in developing the South African premium wine market here in the U.S. and these wines are a great foundation. Our discussions with Mike Ratcliffe (Warwick and Vilafonté), Danie De Wet (De Wetshof) and Duncan Savage (Cape Point and Savage) revealed both distinctive wines and strong brand identities, both of which are surely necessary when taking aim at the cluttered and competitive U.S. market.

Some ambitious export projects are still in the development stage.  Distell, the South African wine, cider and spirits market leader with a portfolio of brands that includes Nederberg, Durbanville Hills, Two Oceans and Fleur Du Cap, is putting resources into a  focused assault on the U.S. market. I am hopeful that Distell’s initiative when it is fully implemented will be successful for its own select brands and will also help elevate awareness of  South Africa and its wines more generally.

When Size Does Matter

Volume is valuable in the U.S. market if only because the fixed costs of market penetration are high, so we were impressed by multi-tier programs, with higher volume premium wines paired with ultra-premium products. At Stark-Condé, for example, their limited production Stellenbosch and  Jonkershoek Valley Cabernets and Syrahs (which I compare to wines from Napa Valley’s Stags Leap AVA) share a distribution channel their more popularly priced M-A-N Family Wines, which are made from grapes sources from 30 farmers in the Agter-Paarl region. The resulting scale is a market advantage.

The M-A-N wines are both delicious and very good values — the Cabernet, Chenin Blanc and Pinotage have been selling for less than $10 recently in my area. The Pinotage will surprise any Pinotage-haters in your circle. The fruit comes from low-yield bush vines and the easy-drinking wine can give popular Argentinean Malbecs a real run for their money.

Although the market strategy is a bit different, Antonij Rupert‘s Protea brand is another developing success story. Rupert’s fine wines and its very distinct vineyard specific Cape of Good Hope brand are necessarily smaller production propositions. So having Protea with its ever-so-memorable bottle (Sue, who is a fiber artist, really loves the designs)  and wide distribution to lead the way is a plus.

Excelsior Wine Estate is currently the best-selling South African brand in the U.S. market and so they already have that useful volume that the M-A-N and Protea wines are growing into, but that doesn’t mean that they are standing pat. Sue and I recently saw Excelsior Hands Cabernet Sauvignon at a local Total Wine store. It is part of Total Wines’ “WineryDirect”  portfolio of directly sourced wines, which seems to now be a key element of that retailer’s business model.

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South African winemakers are trying many different approaches to breaking through the wine distribution bottleneck. Not all will be equally successful and some will surely fail, but I think the net result will be very positive, both for South African producers and for U.S. consumers, too. I plan to revisit this topic in the future to see what lessons can be learned.

Groot Expectations: Is South Africa #1 for Wine Tourism?

P1070944Sue and I returned from our visit to South Africa with many strong impressions and great memories.  Maybe the single thing that struck us the most is this: the Cape Winelands are a wonderful wine tourism destination. The best we have ever visited? Perhaps!

And this is important because wine tourism is now widely seen as playing a critical role in the industry. It is not just a way to sell wine at the cellar door (with direct sales margins), although that can be important to the bottom line. And it is not just a way to fill hotel beds and restaurant tables, although that is clearly important from an economic development standpoint.

A Sophisticated Industry

Wine tourists are also wine ambassadors, who carry a positive message back home with them. They sell the place, the people, the food, and of course the wine. That’s why Australia is betting so heavily on wine and food tourism to turn around its image on international markets. My friend Dave Jefferson of Silkbush Mountain Vineyards has recently called for more attention to promoting wine tourism in South Africa and I think he’s on the right track.

The South African wine tourism industry is very sophisticated as you might expect with people like Ken Forrester and Kevin Arnold involved. Forrester has made his restaurant 96 Winery Road a key element in his winery’s business plan and Arnold says that he sees filling hotel beds as a primary objective.  If the hotels are full of wine tourists, he is justifiably confident that his Waterford Winery will get its share of the business. They are two of a growing list of South African wine producers who have invested in the wine tourism strategy.

The variety of wine tourism experiences is striking ranging from vineyard safaris at Waterford to a stately home visit at Antonij Rupert to luxurious spa facilities at Spier. We loved the lush gardens at Van Loveren in Robertson and the warm Klein Karoo feeling at Joubert-Tradauw in Barrydale.  The opportunity to sip Riesling during a children’s theater performance in the forest at the Paul Cluver Estate in Elgin was memorable.  There is always something new around the corner.

Our photo collection from this trip seems to have an equal number of images of beautiful scenery and mouth-watering plates of food. I think wine tourists will be struck both by the physical beauty of the Cape Winelands and by the high quality restaurants that a great many of the wineries feature.Jordan lunch

A  Sticky Experience

The splendid winery restaurant opportunities in South Africa may come as a shock to many Americans who are used to touring at home since in the U.S. the rule seems to be that food and wine should not mix – at least not at wineries. That’s wrong, of course, but the result of America’s archaic alcohol regulations.

I think the restaurant at Domaine Chandon may be the only one of its kind in Napa Valley, for example. And of course in some states including New York wine sales in supermarket settings are forbidden. Wine and food — a dangerous combination!

One key element of the wine tourist business is to create an experience that makes visitors slow down, stop and take a a little time to let the impressions sink in – a “sticky” experience if you know what I mean. Vineyard and winery tours can do this and various sorts of specialized tasting and pairings experiences work, too, but maybe nothing is quite as effective as the opportunity have a great meal  in a fabulous setting along with the wine you have just sampled.

The list of great winery restaurants in South Africa is very long – some of the highlights from our brief visit are Jordan (where Sue enjoyed the beet salad above), Diemersdal,  Stark-Condé, Lanzerac, Glen Carlou, La Motte, Kleine Zalze, Fairview and Durbanville Hills (the view shown in the photo at the top of the page  is of Cape Town and Table Mountain at sunset as seen from the Durbanville Hills restaurant).

So what are the keys to being a wine tourist in South Africa? Well, first you have to get there, of course, and I think many people wish that there were more direct flights to Cape Town. Our SEA-LHR-CPT route on British Airways was long and tedious as you might imagine, but pleasant and efficient by contemporary air travel standards.

Wine Tourist Checklist

Once you are on the ground, will  need a couple of essentials. Here is my short list.

First, a rental car with a GPS unit. You can do a little wine touring without a car, of course, booking one of the many day tours out of Cape Town. The historic Groot Constantia winery is actually on one of the routes of the hop-on hop-off tourist bus that shuttles visitors to all the main scenic location. But renting a car opens many more doors. The roads in the Cape wine region are mainly quite good and and the region itself is fairly compact, so driving is certainly an attractive option.

South Africa drives on the same side of the road as Britain and Australia but the adjustment if you have to make it is relatively easy. You will need the GPS because many of the wineries are a bit off the beaten path and while GPS units all have their quirks, they are extremely useful here.

Second, buy a Platter’s Guide as soon as you hit the ground in Cape Town. You can get a physical copy or a digital subscription, but be sure to get a Platter’s Guide.  Most people will buy this guide for its ratings and recommendations of the current release wines of just about every South African producer, which we found very helpful even if subjective ratings need to be used with care. But the wine ratings are not the whole story.

I especially like Platter’s  for its detailed factual information about each winery, which I see as a necessary prelude to a successful visit — plus the practical contact and visit details, including GPS coordinates. Many wineries are on unnamed roads, so it is necessary to have the latitude and longitude coordinates and Platter’s data is very up to date.

These resources, plus a sense of adventure and a curious nature, are the essential equipment for a successful South African wine tourist trip (common sense helps too — as the sign at Groot Constantia says, don’t feed the baboons!).

If you would like to go beyond the basics, I heartily recommend Tim James’s excellent 2013 book Wines of the New South Africa, which provides more depth and detail concerning the history of South Africa wines, the grape varieties, the regions and many of the wineries. I studied this book before our trip and the effort paid off.

I love maps, but I could not find a wine atlas of South Africa here in the U.S. As we were leaving the Cape area Cobus Joubert gave us a lovely Cape Winelands wall map that he has produced and I wish I knew about it before we came. It is an impressive and beautiful document with a map of the wine regions on one side and basic information about the wineries (including those critical GPS coordinates) on the other. Not essential, I suppose, but very useful and very desirable and it is a great addition to my collection.

What if you can’t travel to South Africa? Then I guess they have to get their wines to you. I’ll talk about the new wave of export plans that will make South African wines more widely available in the U.S. market next week.

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P1070630I am known to love the braai, South Africa’s national feast. Meat grilled over wood coals, salads and veggies, wine and friends. Can’t beat it. Nothing brings South Africans together like a braai.

Special thanks to Albert and Martin at Durbanville Hills, Meyer at Joubert-Tradauw and Johann at Kanonkop for inviting us to join their braais!

Groot Expectations: South Africa Wine Report

P1070420South African wine is not as well known as it should be (and soon will be) here in the United States, which is both surprising and not. You might think that South Africa would have a higher profile given its long history and large wine production, for example.

Cape winemakers produced about 10 percent less wine than Chile in recent years, about 10 percent more than Germany and about four times (!) the total wine production of New Zealand (according to OIV statistics).

That, my friends, is a lot of wine. Given those figures and how ubiquitous Kiwi, German and Chilean wines are, you might expect to see a South African wine on every shelf or nearly so.

South Africa Surprises

But numbers aren’t everything in this case. South Africa produces a lot of wine and much of it is consumed at home or shipped off to Europe, the traditional export market for more than three hundred years.

The lack of a strong presence in the U.S. market is due to this and to other factors. The South Africans like to say that Americans don’t seem to know very much about geography and I think this is true although not exclusively a Yankee trait.

Some Americans are surprised to learn that South Africa is a country and not a region, for example, but even my friends who follow soccer and therefore know that South Africa is the country that hosted the 2010 World Cup are often surprised to learn about South African wine.

The Invisible Wine

Ignorance is therefore one reason why South African wines are not better known but there are others. South Africa reentered the global wine market in the 1990s, which in retrospect was a critical moment for the world of wine. Australia, New Zealand, Chile and Argentina all had “coming out” parties within the span of a few years. It wasn’t always easy to get noticed with so much new wine on offer.

Easy to get lost or forgotten — ask Bulgaria, which had previously had an important presence in UK supermarkets! South African wines were among the replacements in the UK, but had less success in the US market, which is structurally difficult to penetrate and hotly contested by both domestic and international firms. Add to that logistics issues and some early problems with consistent quality and you can begin to see why South Africa got off to a slow start.

But times have changed and Sue and I wanted to see how South Africa was changing, so we flew to Cape Town where I gave the keynote speed at the NedBank VinPro Information Day program, a meeting of more than 500 wine industry leaders, and tried to learn as much as we could in a short (three week) period of time.

Intense and Extreme

It was quite an intense (and extreme) experience as we visited 30 wineries, talking with owners, winemakers and export and marketing executives. I will paste the list of wineries at the end of this post to give you some idea of who we met and where we went. This was Sue’s first visit; I was here in 2012 to open the Nederburg Auction (click here to read about that visit and to see all the columns about South Africa).

A lot has changed in just a short period of time and I will be writing about what I learned in the next few Wine Economist columns. Perhaps the biggest change I found was in a clearer sense of direction.

When I visited two years ago many winemakers knew that they needed to explore new paths (entering or reentering the US market was the most common topic of conversation but perhaps that’s because of my American roots), but when and how were usually questions without answers. They had some idea of what had not worked in the past, but no clear sense of what to do differently this time.

Great Expectations

Fast forward to our many conversations this year and the change is dramatic. Many perhaps most know what they want to achieve and they have developed clear strategies to get them there. The plans are not all the same (nor should they be) and they probably won’t all succeed (that’s the wine business for you), but there is a certain confidence as they put their best feet forward. We were impressed!

Next week I will tell you more about our reasons for optimism about South African wine. And then, since I am an economist, some necessarily dismal science perspectives since wine is such a difficult game and dark clouds and silver linings are difficult to separate.

Finally, we want to tell you about a few of the extreme wine people we met on this trip. Wine is a people business as most of you already know and it is the people of South African wine who are the greatest reason to be optimistic about its future.

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The image at the top of the page is a painting of four seasons of wine at Klein Constantia Estate.

Here is a list of most (but not quite all) of the wineries and winemakers we visited on this trip. Special thanks and deep appreciation to everyone who took time to meet with us!

Groot Constantia

Klein Constantia Estate

Cape Point Vineyards

Lanzerac Wine Estate

Glen Carlou

Paul Cluver Estate

Spioenokop Wines

Iona Vineyards

Joubert-Tradauw

 De Wetshof Estate

Excelsior Estate

Springfield Estate

Van Loveren

Durbanville Hills

DeGrendel Wines

Diemersdal Estate

Fairview Winery

De Toren Private Cellar

Jordan Winery (Jardin in the U.S.)

De Trafford Wines

Warwick Estate and Vilafonte

Waterford Estate

Backsberg Wine Esate

Stark-Condé Wines & MAN Vintners

Rupert & Rothschild Vignerons

Anthonij Rupert Wines

La Motte

Kanonkop Wine Estate

Has Tom Stevenson Written the World’s Most Useful Wine Buying Guide?

Tom Stevenson, Buy the Right Wine Every Time: The no-fuss no-vintage wine guide. Sterling Epicure, 2014.

Has Tom Stevenson written the world’s most useful wine buying guide? Well it depends upon which part of the wine world you are talking about. If you are trying to figure out which of the famous Classification of 1855 first-growth Bordeaux wines to lay down to drink in 2034 or to buy en primeur for future auction sale, then no. This is not the book for you. It will do  you absolutely no good. Save your money!

If, on the other hand, you live in the world of the beginning or early-intermediate wine consumer, then this just might be the best book I have seen for you. And it comes from an unlikely author, because I associate Tom Stevenson more with the rarefied atmosphere of the one percent than the gritty world of the 99 percent (he’s an expert on fine Champagne, for example, and writes for The World of Fine Wine) .

White Zinfandel? Really? (Well, Why Not?)

Reading the preface, Stevenson seems to be as surprised as the rest of us. “When I started this project,” he writes, “I did not imagine in my wildest dreams that I would end up recommending the likes of White Zinfandel or Blossom Hill, let alone White Zinfandel from Blossom Hill.”

The trick, which is difficult to pull off, is to simplify without dumbing-down. Stevenson’s method is to begin by breaking down the world of wine according to certain styles and grape varieties. So far so conventional. Then, within each category, he recommends a short list of wines that meet his three criteria. First, he likes them. You might disagree with his taste because de gustibus is after all non disputandum,  but telling people to try wines that you like makes more sense that pointing them towards stuff that you think they should like.

The second criterion is that the wine must be pretty widely available and not the invisible or imaginary wines that some critics like to praise. Then, finally, the wines must be consistent from year to year so that vintage isn’t the critical factor. Yes, I know this rules out most Red Burgundy wines, but so be it in Stevenson’s book (to be fair, he does actually list a couple of Red Burgundy wines, however.) Beginners have enough trouble finding wines they enjoy without the added complication of vintages, he suggests. Save this for the more advanced wine drinkers. A limiting constraint, but not an unreasonable idea given the target audience.

And so you begin by looking for a style you like or would like to try, Then you find lists of wines in “recommended,” “highly recommended” and “to die for” categories, with rough price ranges supplied. Head to the supermarket or wine shop with this list and you will probably find something to try — or at least that’s the idea.

Onward and Upward

What if you like the wine once you get home? Well, here is where Stevenson earns his pay. The main part of the book is a collection of profiles of the specific wines he recommends along with “next step” recommendations for each one. Did you enjoy that Kendall Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Zinfandel? What to try something more intense and of better quality? Look for a bottle of Ravenswood Lodi Old Vines Zin! Want something better but a bit less intense? Go for a single vineyard Zinfandel from Ridge. Want to try something completely different in this vein? Look for red wines from Croatia or Primativo from Puglia.

You can argue with the criteria, you can argue with the ratings and you can argue with the specific recommendations — as economists like to say, it is disgusting not to dispute — but I think it is hard to argue with this as a way for people to move forward in their appreciation of wine. Imagine a wine tasting club that took this book as their guide for weekly tasting. I think they could rather effectively advance their appreciation of wine within a year without breaking the collective budget — and this strategy could be successful even in parts of America that because of regulatory constraints are poorly served by the wine retail trade.

There are lots of surprises here until you stop and think and then they make sense. There are a disproportionate number of Washington State wines recommended, for example, which makes sense since they are very both good (Stevenson must like them) and widely distributed. Lots of wines by “big vat” producers like Gallo, too. The Cabernet Sauvignon list includes Alamos, Louis Martini, Gallo Family Vineyards, Redwood Creek and Turning Leaf brands, all of which come from the Gallo portfolio.  And a great many wines from Australia, just to remind you that while these wines may have fallen from fashion a bit but they continue to be both good to drink and good values.

Dead Ends, First Steps, More Surprises

I was also surprised to find Stevenson did not list any top-rated “to die for” wines in some categories and then  left out the merely “recommended” category in others. The reason? Well I suppose that the real “too die for” Sauvignon Blancs are either too hard to find or too subject to vintage variation. On the other hand, there are so many great and reliable Riesling wines in the market (starting with the “to die for” selections: Pewsey Vale The Contours and Jacob’s Creek Steingarten) that there is no reason to dip down below the “Highly Recommended” part of the list (indeed, the inexpensive Chateau Ste Michelle Dry Riesling listed here is a mighty nice glass of wine!).

So what about that unexpected recommendation of the Blossom Hill White Zinfandel? It’s a perfectly decent wine, Stevenson writes, technically well made and consistent — no reason why someone shouldn’t drink it if they like that style. But then they should take a few steps up or over and see what they think. Maybe try a Kir made with Moscato DdAsti with a bit of Cassis for color if you want something more intense. Or perhaps try a dry Rosé from the Rhone or a Rosado from Navarro if you’d like a bit more elegance. Something different? How about Riesling?

Seen in this way, the White Zin isn’t so much a dead end destination as the first step on a journey. And Stevenson gives you the  outline of  a map to guide you. Who knows where it could lead?

I was surprised by this book — very pleasantly surprised as you can probably tell — and I am happy to recommend it. It would make a great gift for that younger or newer wine drinker in your family or group. And you might enjoy reading it yourself before gifting it on.

Has Tom Stevenson written the best wine guide ever? Can’t say — it’s too much a matter of taste and circumstance. But it is a very useful addition to the wine guide bookshelf.

Disintermediation: How Many People Did It Take to Make Your Wine?

How many people does it take to produce a case of wine?  Well, it depends on how you look at it — and the number may surprise you.

When you think about all of the steps in the process from vineyard to cellar to bottling line and so forth, it seems like a lot of different people must be involved although the degree of labor-intensity necessarily depends on many factors. Where wages are high as in Europe and the United States, more of the steps are likely to be mechanized compared with Chile or South Africa, for example.

And there are economies of scale at certain production levels. But it still seems like lots of hands are needed to produce a bottle of wine.

(In The Wine Economist’s very first post, I counted about  twelve workers needed to simply bottle a vintage of Fielding Hills wine.)

So how man of these  people will a winery end up employing? All of them, you  might think, if you have that romantic image of an estate winery stuck in your head, where all of the production from vines to wines to finished product takes place on the same property.

Specialization and the Division of Labor

But this picture ignores the fact of disintermediation, which I wrote about a few weeks ago. Disintermediation is basically Adam Smith’s theory of specialization of labor applied to the entire product chain. Instead of specialization within a business (specialized vineyard labor and cellar crews, for example) you have different businesses specializing in each function within the process. That traditional estate winery is deconstructed into perhaps a dozen different specialized business units.

Thus, for example, many wineries rely upon outside contract labor firms to maintain the vineyards and harvest the grapes and thus do not have such workers listed directly on their payrolls. Many also contract with mobile bottling lines to handle that important function. And of course buying grapes is a way to disintermediate compared to growing them yourself and buying wine from others takes desconstruction one additional step.

With product chain disintermediation, the number of people actually employed by a winery can be surprisingly small with that tiny workforce specializing  in coordinating the various firms and contractors that make up the links in the chain.

Small is Beautiful?

How small can the  winery staff be (which is another way of asking how far can you push disintermediation)? Well, the data provided in Wine Business Monthly’s annual  “Review of the Industry” issue (February 2014) gives us a glimpse at how disintermediation is working in the American wine industry. Here are WBM’s data for the 30 largest wine companies in the United States.

Rank

Wine Company

U.S. Production

Number of Employees

1

E&J Gallo Winery

80 million cases (US, estimate)

85 million (global, estimate)

4000

2

The Wine Group

57.5 million

1000

3

Constellation Brands

50 million (US)

64 million (global)

6000 (global)

4

Bronco Wine Company

20 million

n/a

5

Trinchero Family Estates

18.5 million

1000

6

Treasury Wine Estates

15.4 million (US)

32.1 million (global)

1140 (US)

3600 (global)

7

Ste Michelle Wine Estates

7.5 million

800

8

DFV Wines

7 million

600

9

Jackson Family Estates

5.5 million

1000

10

Diageo Chateau & Estates

3.8 million

2700 (US & Canada)

11

Viña Concha Y Toro (Fetzer)

2.7 million (US)

30 million (global)

308 (US)

12

Korbel Wine Estates

2.3 million

450

13

Bogle Vineyards

1.7 million

95

14

CK Mondavi Family Vineyards

1.6 million

120

15

J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines

1.55 million

250

16

Don Sebastiani & Sons

1.5 million

90

17

Francis Ford Coppola Winery

1.25 million (est)

n/a

18

Precept Wine

1.1 million

350

19

Foley Family Wines

950,000 cases (US)

1.45 million (global)

400

20

Rodney Strong Vineyards

820,000

164

21

Caymus Vineyards

800,000 (est)

n/a

22

Vintage Wine Estates

800,000

280

23

Boisset Family Estates

750,000 (US)

6.5 million (global)

n/a

24

Wente Vineyards

750,000

550

25

The Hess Collection

700,000

140

26

Mesa Vineyards

650,000

n/a

27

Domaine Chandon

625,000

217

28

Castle Rock Winery

550,000

9

29

Michael David Winery

420,000

150

30

Purple Wine Company

400,000

60

You can see that the degree of disintermediation varies quite a bit within the US wine industry with wineries of similar production size often directly employing very different numbers of workers (see Don Sebastiani & Sons versus J. Lohr)  and wineries with about the same direct payrolls pumping out vastly different amounts of wine (compare The Wine Group, Trinchero, and Jackson Family Estates).

Modesto’s Tight Ship

The most interesting winery from this standpoint is obviously Castle Rock, which sells more than a half million cases of wine but directly employs just nine people! Wow, that’s just amazing — about 61,000 cases of wine for each person on the payroll. Of course it takes many more people working for contractors and so forth to actually get the job done. Castle Rock is a disintermediation machine!

As the Wine Business Monthly profile of Castle Rock notes, the company does not own any wineries or vineyards. The original business model was based upon opportunistic bulk wine purchases that were then bottled by others and brought to market. Now the business is built around long-term contracts with vineyards and production wineries that also grow grapes and make wine for others. WBM reports that the portfolio includes about 20 different wines at any time, many of them relatively site-specific offerings.

What if giant Gallo embraced disintermediation to the same degree as Castle Rock? Well, the math is easy to do. Gallo makes about 150 times the amount of wine, so it might in theory be able to reduce its direct employment from 4000 workers to 9 x 150 = 1350 people on staff. I suppose that you could look at that number and conclude that Gallo is way over-staffed at the moment.

But I see it the other way. Given that Gallo does own wineries and other production functions that Castle Rock eschews, I’d say that folks in Modesto run a very tight ship!

Off the Beaten Path Wines

There’s a chapter in my book Extreme Wine that is titled “The Invisible Wine” and although it examines many types of wines that are so nearly impossible to find that they might as well be invisible (including the famous “Twenty Dollar Bill Wines”). It ends up championing those wines that are so local, so tied to a particular place, that they rarely appear elsewhere. These wines are a terroirist’s delight and I treasure them when I find them on my travels.

There’s a problem with these wines, of course. You sometimes have to travel to where the wines are made to be able to taste them — and not everyone can do that. But I like to talk about them anyway if only to encourage my readers to look for the unusual, the local, and particular in wine and to boldly buy and celebrate them.

I’m pleased to see this same spirit on view in the February 28, 2014 issue of Wine SpectatorInside the glossy cover you’ll find a major article called “Off the Beaten Path” where many of WS‘s editors and contributors recommend their favorite under-the-radar wines.  Although some of the selections are more extreme than others, I think the overall project i is interesting and useful.

Some examples? Harvey Steiman proposes that we look beyond Pinot Noir in Oregon and consider some of the great Chardonnays made there (including the Roco Chard, which we like a lot). He also suggests Australia beyond Shiraz and Malbec from other places than Argentina (we like the Columbia Valley Fidelitas and Southern Oregon Abacela that he recommends).  James Laube sends us in search of Tannat, Torrontes and Pinotage (we like the recommended Kanonkop a lot).

Although it might be said that not all of the many recommendations are very far off the main wine road — Sherry, Tawny Port and Cru Beaujolais certainly have established reputations, for example) I think we have to remember that Wine Spectator has a broad audience and it is not ridiculous to think that its readers should actually be able to find and purchase the wines it recommends or at least wines very much like them. And in any case many wine drinkers probably fall into a rut from time to time and even a gentle nudge is worthwhile. (See note below.)

That said, a more forceful push would not be unwelcome and so I applaud Maryann Worobiec for proposing red wines from the overlooked Sierra Foothills and North American Tempranillo. And, since I am in Porto this week to speak at a Portuguese wine industry meeting, I have to admit that I am a big fan of Dana Nigro for recommending that readers seek out the under-appreciated Touriga Nacional wines from the Douro.

If I could change one thing about this nice article it would be to try to have more value wines listed. I often recommend that consumers look for unusual varieties or wines from unexpected places because, a bit like port and sherry, they are undervalued in the marketplace relative to their quality. I still believe that this is true, but it might not be easy for a new wine consumer to appreciate this fact given the prices of some of the particular wines listed in this article. Adding a value wine to each category would invite in a larger audience for these wines.

Thanks to the Wine Spectator team for giving its readers a nudge off the beaten path.

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My recent column on Invisible Cities, Imaginary Wines generated some interesting comments that are also relevant to this post.  My column was a reaction to Eric Asimov’s article about the complaints he received from some of his readers that the wines he praised were often nearly impossible to find — really off the beaten path (unlike most but not all of the Wine Spectator’s recommendations).

Several people who left comments or contacted me off-line noted that there are importers and distributors who are really committed to making small production wines as available as possible. Consumers ought to support them and so should wine writers.

One very useful suggestion was that wine reviews ought to include the name of the importer or distributor along with a phone number. That way it would be relatively easy to track down a particular wine. And if that wine isn’t available, one reader suggested, the importer/distributor would be well placed to recommend a similar wine to try instead.

That sounds like a good idea to me and I note for the record that it is the standard practice at The Wine Advocate, the subscription-only journal that Robert Parker founded. Perhaps other publications could do the same — if not in the print publication itself then perhaps on their websites. (Some academic publishers have now started to put the often extensive footnotes and bibliographies on the web as a keep publication costs down while preserving scholarly integrity!)

Porto: Next Stop on the Wine Economist World Tour

The Wine Economist World Tour  is stopping in  Portugal this week (click on the link to see all the tour stops).

ACIBEV (Associação dos Comerciantes e Industriais de Bebidas Espirituosas e Vinhos or Portugal’s Association of Traders and Producers of Spirits and Wine) has invited me to give the keynote speech at their annual meeting, which is being held on February 28  in association with the big Portuguese wine festival called Essência Do Vinho at the historic Palacio dal Bolsa in Porto.

The title of the program is “Pode Portugal Ganhar a Guerra do Vinho?”  or “Can Portugal Win the Wine Wars” and I am calling my talk “Shifting Center, Rising Tide: Portugal in the Changing Global Wine Market.”

This will be my first visit to Portugal and I am looking forward to meeting everyone and learning all that I can about this fascinating country’s wine industry. And of course I look forward to sharing what I have learned both in researching Wine Wars and Extreme Wine and through my recent fieldwork in Australia, South Africa and here in the United States.

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We had a sellout crowd for the World Affairs Council of Seattle’s  Extreme Wine dinner and talk earlier this month. It was such fun to work with the WAC and Serafina/Cecchetti restaurant teams. I thought you might like to see the menu and pairings that we came up. I paired a story about the wine for each course and I think everyone came away excited about the World Affairs Council, impressed with the restaurant and its food, wine and service and of course ready to continue to explore the fascinating world of wine!

Thanks to Gilbert Cellars for supporting the WAC by donating their port-style wines for the cheese course!

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From Marco Polo to Eric Asimov: Invisible Cities, Imaginary Wines

Kublai Khan is old and tired and his empire is vast and fraying at the edges. It is impossible for him personally to  know his great domain, so he studies his atlas and sends emissaries to be his eyes and ears and bring back reports. His favorite eye-witness correspondent is Marco Polo, with whom he sits for days on end in the palace garden, turning gestures and then words into vivid images of otherwise unseen cities via the advanced technology of the human imagination.

Are the stories and the cities they represent truth or fiction? It is impossible for Kublai Khan to know for sure since they cannot easily be verified. Some of the tales are fantastic and understandably raise doubts. But they all seem to contain an ehpemeral kernel of truth, which makes the invisible cities important even if they might only be figments of the imagination.

In any case, Marco Polo advises, the truth is in the hearing, not the telling, since each listener (or reader, I suppose) will shape the words to reflect their own experiences, anxieties and desires. The same accounts, he advises Kublai, will produce entirely different images when he eventually tells them again back home in Venice.

Invisible Cities, Invisible Wines

Do you recognize this story? It is the from one of my favorite books, Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities (1972). This is a book that I have read and re-read perhaps 10 times, with those bits of truth always just beyond my reach (perhaps this is why Kublai Khan spends so much time with Marco Polo).  It is a great book, but what does it have to do with wine?

I was inspired to dig out my copy of Invisible Cities by a recent column by New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov called “Why Can’t You Find That Wine?”   Asimov uses the article to respond to readers who are frustrated that the fabulous wines he often praises turn out to be nearly impossible for them to actually experience. Asimov writes that,

Often plaintive and occasionally hostile, the missives arrive regularly by email, snail mail and phone: “You have an uncanny ability to discuss wines that are difficult if not impossible to find,” one California reader wrote in June.

And this from a reader in New York: “Once again, I have wasted more than a half-hour trying (in vain) to find where in New York City to buy wines mentioned in your column.”

Asimov is sympathetic to his readers’ frustration and explains how the almost hopelessly fragmented US wine market (a lasting legacy of Prohibition) makes it nearly impossible to talk about important wines if you limit your list to only those that can be found in all the nation’s many marketplaces. (He usefully provides hints and strategies for consumers to use to track down special wines.)

My goal is to explore what I think makes wine so thrilling. I’m seeking wines that inspire, with stories to tell and mysteries, perhaps, to conceal. Sometimes deliciousness is enough. But often, the flavors and aromas are only part of what a wine conveys. It’s the rest of the message that’s so fascinating. Part of the joy is for consumers to take part in this journey and make up their own minds. It hurts when they cannot.

Many of the wines that Asimov finds inspiring are produced or imported in tiny quantities with very limited distribution. The wines are real, but for most of Asimov’s readers they might as well be imaginary since their only chance to experience them is to imagine them much as Kublai Kahn imagined Marco Polo’s cities.

The Empire of Imaginary Wines

“I fervently wish all drinkers could find what they want. I sympathize with those who can’t,” he writes, ” But the simple solution — choosing only wines that are easy to find — is worse than the problem.”  That’s because Asimov sees his mission not just to report but to elevate and inspire — to excite our imaginations and to draw attention to those who somehow through their winemaking are able to bring us a bit closer to an ephemeral kernel of truth.

Those are my words, not his, but you get the drift. And do you see how how Asimov and Marco Polo are connected? They both tell us stories about a world too vast for us to ever really know. There are, I am told, about 80,000 different wines for sale in the United States today — far too many for any of us to really know and appreciate even if they were all available to us in one easy to shop aisle., which of course they are not. They are a bit like Kublai Kahn’s vast empire (and we are a bit like him, I suppose).

Eighty thousand wines? That seems like a lot, but there are probably even more. Wine Business Monthly reports that there are about 8,000 wineries in North America and if each produced just five different wines that would account for half the total.  Could the rest of the world with its many thousands of wineries supply the rest? My goodness yes.

Imaginary Wine: A New Wine Genre?

So we really are in Kublai Khan’s position, aren’t we? The difference, I suppose, is that unlike him we are not satisfied with a glimpse of the truth to inspire us — we really want to see the invisible cities and to taste the invisible wines and won’t be satisfied until we do.

I am sure that Asimov is right — it is best for him to tell us about inspiring wines even if we can never really know them, since the accounts may inspire us even if they also frustrate us. (There is a place, however, for accounts of the visible wines, too, don’t you think?) But perhaps we need to take the next step. Asimov’s wines are real, but if we cannot taste them ourselves wouldn’t inspiring stories about fictional wines be just as good — or maybe even better?

I guess what I am asking is if there is a place the wine world for fantastically fictional descriptions of imaginary wines (and  not just those fake bottles that Rudy K produced) that would make us rethink wine the way that Marco Polo’s stories made Kublai Khan rethink his (and our) world? We could never actually taste the wines, but perhaps they might still  elevate and inspire. Life does at least sometimes imitate art!

What do you think? If you were Marco Polo describing an imaginary wine to Kublai Kahn, what would you say?

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