Decanter’s Power List 2013: Globalization and China’s Continuing Rise

He’s still #1

The July issue of Decanter (the self-proclaimed “world’s best wine magazine”) is out and with it comes the Decanter Power List 2013 – a list of the 50 most powerful people in wine this year as determined by the magazine’s editors.

The Power List, which appears every other year, is great fun, both in the way that it spurs debate (my soccer-fan friends spend hours and hours debating similar lists for their sport) and because of the glimpse it offers into the way the world wine map is changing … or not.

Small World After All

What does the 2013 list reveal? Well, the #1 most powerful man (only 15% of those on the list are women) is once again Pierre Pringuet, CEO of drinks multinational Pernod Ricard. There are bigger wine companies – Gallo (Gina Gallo is #17 on the list) and Constellation Brands (#5 Robert Sands) but it is Pernod Ricard’s global reach and decidedly global strategy that sets it apart and makes Pringuet #1. Or so I believe, because one of the messages of this Power List and the last one is that globalization is now the way of wine.

The new #2

Asia is the key to the global kingdom, or so the list seems to say. Ten of the 50 listed luminaries have a strong Asian connection, including the new #2 (up from #8 last year) Wu Fei, head of the wine and spirits division of COFCO, China’s state-owned Cereals, Oils and Foodstuffs Corporation.

COFCO makes wine (Great Wall brand), invests in wine properties (Chateau Viaud in Bordeaux with more foreign acquisitions to come) and is a key potential partner for anyone in the world who wants to sell bulk wine into the Chinese market. It will soon start bottling Australian and Chilean wines to sell under the Great Wall label, with more international expansion planned.

COFCO’s (and China’s) influence is so strong that its association with Bordeaux flying winemaker Michel Rolland seems to account for his surge in the ratings from #18 last year to #7 in 2013. The China connection also might explain Aubert de Villaine’s meteoric rise from #30 to #8.

De Villaine is co-owner of Domaine de la Romanée Conti and that alone might justify a place on the list. But 2013 has been widely seen as the year that many Chinese investors and collectors lost interest in Bordeaux and turned their attention to Burgundy. So no surprise that DRC, perhaps the most sought-after Burgundy wine, would surge in the ranking.

New Names and Faces

There is always a good deal of churn in the Power List and this year is no different. I counted 14 new names, starting with #48 Judy Leissner (CEO of Grace Vineyards, China) and ending with #11 (John D Watkins, ASC Fine Wine, China) and #12 (Yang Wenhua, C&D Wines, China).

Not every new face has a Hong Kong or China link, but many do including # 44 Li Demei (Chinese consulting winemaker), #42 Paolo Pong (Hong Kong retailer and restaurateur), #27 David Pedrol (Chinese online wine retailer) and #23 David Dearie (CEO of Treasury Wine Estates, which is noteworthy for opening a vast 6000 square meter wine gallery in Shanghai).

Other new names on the Power List are Magdalena Gerber (#33 – she is CEO of Sweden’s wine monopoly, Systembolaget) and Bob Peter (#32, head of the provincial monopoly Liquor Control Board of Ontario). Systembolaget and the LCBO are two of the world’s largest wine purchasers and retailers (along with Costco, the U.S. leader, represented by Annette Alvarez Peters at #4 and Tesco’s Dan Jago at #14). Globalization can create a huge wine pipeline and this gives power to those who can fill it (like Pernod Ricard) and those who can empty it profitable (Costco, Tesco, Systembolaget and the LCBO).

More questions than answers

The U.S. is the world’s largest wine market today and it seems a bit under-represented on the Power List with only eight names, but they are heavily concentrated in the top tier: #9 critic Robert Parker, #6 Constellation’s Robert Sands, #5 distributor Southern Wine & Spirits’ Mel Dick and Costco’s Annette Alvarez Peters at #4.

It’s interesting to ponder the Power List because it raises more questions than it answers.  Who do you think really is the most powerful wine person in the world?

Why aren’t there more women on the list, especially from Europe where Jancis Robinson and Magdalena Gerber are the only female representatives? This is a question for the industry (and not just Decanter’s editors) to ponder. Will this year’s new faces still be around in two years when the next list is released? Where will the next group of new names come from?

And, of course, when will Decanter finally include a wine economist in the power list? I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

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Click on the links to read my analysis of previous Power List selections for  2011 and 2009.

Good to Great: Rethinking Chilean Sauvignon Blanc

“Good wine, great value” — that’s been Chile’s wine reputation for many years. And while this isn’t a bad thing by any means, it is a bit of a self-limiting category. “Great wines” might be a more desirable label, or maybe “great values, great wines.”  But things are changing in Chile. Is it time to rethink Chilean wine?

A Tale of Two Tastings

This post is inspired by a pair of tastings of Chilean Sauvignon Blanc. The first was in London at Decanter magazine’s headquarters, where a team of four experts tasted 80 Chilean Sauvignon Blanc wines for a report just published in the June 2012 issue. The tasters included Peter Richards MW, Mel Jones MW, Juan Carlos Rincon and Annette Scarfe.

The second tasting, a much more casual affair, took place 4500 miles away at our house in Tacoma. Sue and I were joined by three of my University of Puget Sound “Idea of Wine” students for a tasting of wines supplied by Wines of Chile. We tasted five Sauvignon Blancs (see wine list below) that were sent to us along with three Chardonnays that we tasted separately.

I was very interested to hear what my students would have to say about these wines. Abby and Marina studied abroad in Chile, so they brought some regional focus to the group. Ky is a quintessential Millennial wine “newbie” with a refreshingly open and thoughtfully candid attitude. They were the perfect tasting team to balance the experienced Decanter experts.

Upward Trajectory

Sauvignon Blanc is an important factor in the Chilean wine industry, as this table from the Wines of Chile Strategic Plan 2020 makes clear. Sauvignon Blanc is now #2 in the export dollar league table behind Cabernet and ahead of Merlot and Chardonnay. Exports of Sauvignon Blanc almost tripled in dollar value between 2002 and 2009 — much faster growth than Cabernet, Merlot or Chardonnay. Why?

One theory is that Chile has ridden New Zealand’s wave. Certainly Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc has opened doors and minds to Sauvignon Blanc, to the benefit of producers in South Africa, Chile and elsewhere.

But the Decanter tasters have a better theory: the wines themselves have improved as winemaking practices have caught up to the global “best practice” standard. Decanter’s team recommends buying the most recent vintage of Chilean Sauvignon Blanc not just for freshness but because they believe the quality of the wine making is improving every year.

That said, stuff sometimes happens and the Decanter team reported a few bottles that suffered from too much sulfur or excess acidity. We had the same problem — one of our five bottles pushed acidity to the borderline in our opinion.

Common Ground

Of the 80 wines that the Decanter team judged, two earned 5-star honors, twelve received four stars and 50 were “recommended” 3-star winners. Fifteen wines were judged “good values.” Is this a good showing?

Yes! A review of 121 Argentinean Malbecs in the same issue produced three 5-star wines, sixteen with 4-stars and 55 “recommended” 3-star wines. Twenty were declared good values.  Adjusting for the number of wines sampled, I think you’d have to declare it just about a dead heat between Argentina and Chile (a statement that is likely to provoke a response on both sides of the Andes!).

We enjoyed the wines and commented upon the French stylistic influence which made them a change from the New Zealand wines we often drink. How did they compare to the wines you drank with your homestay families in Chile, we asked Marina (upper photo) and Abby (shown with Ky in the lower photo)? We didn’t drink white wines, they both replied. Always red.

Good to Great

“At the top end, I think New Zealand is still ahead of Chile, because the experience it has counts for so much,” according to one of the Decanter reviewers. “But the very best Chilean Sauvignon Blancs are fantastic wines that can more than hold their own in a global context. Chilean Sauvignon Blanc is a fantastic value for money next to New Zealand, South Africa and the Loire, and that is its forte”.

Overall these wines were very good — we will certainly enjoy them with summer meals — and our ranking of individual wines matched very well to Decanter’s point scores. Yet we a little disappointed. Good, no question, but not great.

Or not yet great. If quality continues its upward trajectory, “great wines, great values” may soon be within Chilean wine’s grasp.

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Thanks to Wine of Chile for supplying wine, olive oil and spices for the tasting. Here is a list of the Sauvingon Blancs we tasted along with their U.S. suggested retail prices.

Casa Silva Cool Coast Sauvignon Blanc 2011 Colchagua Valley ($25.00)

 Los Vascos Sauvignon Blanc 2011 Casablanca Valley ($13.99)

 Cono Sur Visión Single Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2011 Casablanca Valley ($14.99)

 Viña Casablanca Nimbus Single Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2011 Casablanca Valley ($12.99)

 Veramonte Ritual Sauvignon Blanc 2011 Casablanca Valley ($18.00)

Questionable Taste [in Wine]

A review of Reading Between the Wines by Terry Theise (University of California Press, 2010).

It’s pretty easy to tell that Terry Theise isn’t an economist. The unofficial motto of economics is  degustibus non est disputandum, which is generally translated as “there’s no accounting for taste.” Taste is an individual matter, everyone is different and everyone’s entitled to their opinion. Accepting tastes as given is where economics begins.

Who Ya Gonna Call?

Terry Theise is worried about where a radical idea like this might lead. He sees taste as a slippery slope. You start with degustibus and pretty soon you start thinking that all ideas of taste are equal. If all tastes are equal, then it is obvious that majority should rule and, in any case, in the marketplace majority frequently does rule.

Since the taste of the masses tends toward the least common denominator McWine taste, the train of thought that starts with degustibus ends in a train wreck of poor taste and mediocre standardized quality. Accepting taste as given (instead of constantly questioning it) means giving up on taste. Someone’s gotta do something to stop this — who ya gonna call? Terry Theise!

I met Theise at the 2008 Riesling Rendezvous conference at Chateau Ste Michelle. He organized and moderated an end-of-the-day workshop on Old World Riesling Terroir. He was as complex, intense and interesting as the 15 German and Austrian wines we tasted. These were some of the most memorable wines (Hirsch, Nikolaihof, Josef Leitz and Dönnhoff) I have ever sampled presented in flights intelligently designed to help us drill down into the idea of terroir.

Almost Too Intense

Theise was so intense, so totally into what he has doing, that there were a couple of points where I just couldn’t stand it and had to take a break outside to catch my breath. At times his propensity to extended navel-gazing (in both English and German) was more than I could take, too.  But I always came back, drawn to the wines and the strong sense of place that each displayed and to Thiese’s addictive if sometimes irritating passion.

This book has the same intense energy and the same ability to frustrate — I like it a lot in small doses. Too much at a time and I feel overwhelmed.

Much of the book is a defense of elitism regarding wine — an attitude that I term Martian (after Martin Ray) using Thomas Pinney’s terminology (see Wagnerians versus Martians). Theise wants to “remystify” wine, for example. Attempts to make wine “accessible” so that the masses can understand and appreciate it have the bad effect of dumbing down consumers and dumbing down the wine.  Don’t de-mystify, Theise argues, educate and elevate.

Curse of the Blue Nun

It’s Theise’s business to sell wines, mainly German and Austrian Rieslings and some grower Champagne, and you can appreciate why his commercial experience would cause him to resist sacrificing authenticity for accessibility.  I’ve written about how the boom in simple cheap German wines in the 1970s nearly destroyed the industry (see Curse of the Blue Nun). If it could happen to Riesling, once the undisputed Queen of white wines, it could happen to any wine. To all wines. You see the problem.

So I could practically hear Theise moaning over my should as I wrote my last blog post on the Democratization of Wine. Making wine easier and more accessible? That’s the road to Hell.

And yet I think Theise and I could easily find common ground (especially if we opened a bottle of Dönnhoff as we talked about it). At one point in the book Theise backs away a bit and looks at the debate about wine from a broader perspective. There are some who believe that globalization has improved wine, he says, and they are right.  And there are others who fear that globalization will ruin wine. And they are right, too.

The rise of the global market for wine has raised the floor on wine quality, but has it also lowered the ceiling? Theise knows that the rising floor doesn’t need any help to sustain itself — the market will flush out flawed wines without his assistance. But someone’s got to keep the ceiling from collapsing and those great Rieslings and other unique wines from disappearing into the McWine vat.

Revenge of the Terroirists

It’s a matter of taste, of course. You might think the rising floor is great and that the ceiling is plenty high enough. Others might disagree. Well, if we can’t agree about taste, Theise writes, at least we may be able to agree about diversity and the need to preserve a great diversity of different wines.

I agree with Theise about the rising floor and I acknowledge that markets’ rationalizing tendency. But I am more optimistic than he is. I’m optimistic because the same global markets that allow for mass-production of wine also create the opportunity for small, quirky producers to find markets for their artistic output. (Josko Gravner is a good case in point.)

It’s not either/or. The market doesn’t either destroy small producers or preserve them, it does both. Finding a healthy mix is what we need to be concerned about.

I’m also optimistic because I believe that the the active force of globalization of wine has produced a reactive force that I call terroirism in my new book (watch for it in 2011). The terroirists will keep us from forgetting about the heights wine can reach and the diversity that wine can attain, even when we find ourselves reaching for ordinary everyday wine on Tuesday night.

Terroirists are key to the diverse future of wine. And Terry Theise is the über terroirist.

Open That Bottle Night 2010

Cam watches Ken nurse the cork out of a bottle of 1960 Taylor Vintage Port.

The last Saturday of February is a holiday for wine lovers: Open That Bottle Night (OTBN). It’s the evening when wine enthusiasts come together to share wine and stories.

Although the wines are the official reason for these gatherings, the people and their stories are what it is really all about.

This year Sue and I will be getting together with Bonnie & Richard, Ron & Mary and Michael & Lauri at Ken & Rosemary’s house in Seattle. Everyone’s bringing wine and a story about the wine and Rosemary is making another of her spectacular meals. I’ll report the specifics in a note at the bottom of this post.

Vino Exceptionalism

The premise of OTBN is that wine is different — or maybe that we are different when it comes to wine.  Americans are famously interested in instant gratification — we want what we want when we want it. That’s one reason the U.S. saving rate is sometimes a negative number. Can’t wait — gotta have it now. That’s our typical consumption profile.

Isn’t it interesting, then, that we sometimes behave in exactly the opposite way when it comes to wine. Yes, I know that 70% of wine is consumed within a few hours of its purchase. That is unexceptional.

No, what I’m talking about is our counter-stereotype tendency to tuck special bottles away and save them for … for what? For the right occasion, I suppose. For the moment when they will mean more than they do just now.  Sometimes it is about proper aging of the wine, but usually there is an intangible component that transcends the bottle’s contents. For whatever reason, it seems we need to be reminded once a year to get these wines out and enjoy them!

Frequently (in my case, at least) we hold them too long so that when the cork is finally pulled the wine within is a shadow of its former self.

Liquid Memory

The interesting thing is that it usually doesn’t matter that the wine has faded away. Turns out it was the story that mattered most. Liquid memory!

Dottie & John

John Brecher and Dorothy Gaiter invented OTBN in 2000 as a way to celebrate wine by releasing its pent up stories. Dottie and John wrote the weekly wine column for the Wall Street Journal until quite recently and each year they invited readers to send them accounts of their experiences, some of which appeared in post-OTBN columns.

It was quite an experience reading what other people were inspired to say by the wines they opened that night. Kind of a peek into their souls. I think that was the point, however. As Dottie and John wrote in their final column on January 26, 2010.

Wine isn’t a spectator sport. It’s utterly intimate. Don’t let anyone tell you what you should like, including us. Try wines broadly—there have never been so many good ones, at all prices, on shelves—and keep raising your personal bar for what is truly memorable, so that you are always looking for the next wine that will touch your soul and make you feel you’ve gone someplace you’ve never been before. It’s not about delicious wines. It’s about delicious experiences. May your life be filled with them.

Two Buck Chuck to Chateau LaTour

Dottie and John didn’t explain why they left the WSJ — word on the wine blogger street is that it was a simple cost-cutting move by Journal management — but many of us are interested to learn what will happen next.  The old WSJ wine column took a very broad view of wine, with reports that ranged from inexpensive bottlings like Two Buck Chuck to icons like Chateau LaTour.

John and Dottie were not very traditional or pretentious — they constantly pushed readers to try new wines, re-visit old favorites and think for themselves. I hope to see them reemerge on the wine scene soon. (Perhaps on cable TV?)

The Journal hasn’t given up on wine. The wine page has been filled by a variety of writers and topics since the first of the year. I suspect this is a short term measure until a permanent replacement is found.

Wine for Davos Man

It seems to me that the WSJ is very ambitious and is trying quite hard to become the Financial Times, rated by many as the world’s best business newspaper. The FT features a weekly column by Jancis Robinson, rated by some as the world’s most influential wine critic.  I expect Rupert Murdoch, the Journal‘s owner, to seek out someone of similar stature to anchor the Weekend Journal section (and attract wine-enthusiast readers).

Dr. Vino reports that the new columnist will be Jay McInerney, novelist and former wine columnist for House & Garden magazine. It will be interesting to see what direction McInerney (or whoever gets the job) takes at the WSJ. It is one of the world’s great “bully pulpits” when it comes to wine.

Jancis Robinson uses her position at the FT to promote fine wine in a global context to her audience of “Davos Man” global elites. She has been very effective at raising wine’s profile around the world.

Dottie and John embraced wine and globalization, too, but in a very American way for a broad American audience. They were effective, too, in the American context.

It will be interesting to see what direction the Wall Street Journal chooses, what idea of wine they embrace and what audience they hope to serve. In the meantime, it’s time to open that bottle.

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Update 3/26/10

This report just in from the New York Times dining blog:

The Wall Street Journal has confirmed rumors that Jay McInerney will be a wine columnist for the paper, but it throws in an unexpected curveball: his column will alternate, Saturday to Saturday, with one written by Lettie Teague.

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We had great wine, spectacular food and fascinating stories on Open That Bottle Night 2010. By the numbers: five and a half hours, ten people, thirteen wines, 75 wine glasses. Here are the food and wine menus — you will have to imagine the stories. Special thanks to Rosemary and Ken for hosting. And thanks to Dottie and John for inventing OTBN.

Wine Menu (listed by vintage year, not the order tasted)

Solter Rheingau Riesling Brut Sekt 2006

Casanova di Neri Brunello di Montalcino Tenuta Nuova 2004

Callaghan Vineyards Sonoita (Arizona) Padres 2003

Shanxi Grace Vineyards (China) Tasya’s Reserve Cabernet Franc 2003

Racines Les Cailloux du Paradis (Loire) 2003

Chateau Haut Brion Blanc 1998

BV Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (magnum) 1997

Champagne Charles Ellner Brut 1996

Chateau d’Yquem 1996

Paul Jaboulet Hermitage La Chapelle 1990

Chateau Figeac St-Emilion Premier Grand Cru 1967

Chateau Cheval Blanc 1961

Taylor Vintage Port 1960

Dinner menu

Rosemary Flatbread with Artichoke and Green Olive Spread

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Wild American Shrimp and Fennel Salad

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Roasted Tenderloin of “Wild Idea” Buffalo

Polenta with Cremini and Porcini Mushrooms and Mascarpone

Green Beans with Sautéed Shallots

Cranberries and Cherries in Madeira sauce

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“The Cheese Cellar” Cheeses

Gorgonzola Hand Picked by Luigi Guffanti

Piave High Mountain Cow Cheese

Sottocenere with Truffles, Clove and Cinnamon Rub with Ash Rind

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Panna Cotta with Blueberry Compote

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Chocolate Biscotti

Soft Amoretti Cookies Sandwiched with Chocolate Ganache or Raspberry Jam

Gourmet, Rachael Ray, Chardonnay Connection

1940-2009 RIP

I was trying to explain to my students the lasting importance of Robert Mondavi and I suddenly realized that Julia Child was the key. Mondavi tried to do for wine in America what Julia tried to do for food. This made me think about other parallels between our wine and food cultures — and the significance of the last issue of Gourmet magazine.

The End of Gourmet

Condé Nast announced yesterday that it was pulling the plug on Gourmet magazine, America’s signature culinary monthly since 1940. The cause of death, clearly, is the economic crisis, which has reduced advertising pages by over 30 percent. Gourmet‘s subscribers (there are nearly a million of them) will have to find something else to read on the still-cluttered Food & Lifestyles section of the newsstand. Bon Appétit (another Condé Nast title) is the obviously choice, although it is not a perfect substitute — more recipes I’m told, and less upscale travel and leisure.

Gourmet‘s obituary appeared everywhere — even on the front page of the New York Times. The Times made it clear that this wasn’t just a business decision (although Condé Nast assured us it was — the McKinsey consulting firm made the call). This is really the end of an era. And not a good end.

“It’s Rachael Ray’s world now,” the story declared, referring to the 30-minute-meal Food Network star; “we’re all just cooking in it.” Roll over, Julia Child (as Chuck Berry might have said) and tell Escoffier the news.

Rachel Ray Chardonnay?

Setting aside for a moment the premise of the Times article — that Gourmet defines the era — I wonder if what’s true for food in America is also true for wine? This must be a valid concern because it is he gist of the question that I’m most frequently asked by journalists — is the current slump in fine wine sales (especially wines selling for $20 or more in the shops) a temporary trend or a permanent shift in demand? Is this the end of an era for wine? When the economy perks up eventually, will people want to buy very expensive wines again? Or is the switch to cheaper, simpler wines (my made-up Rachel Ray Chardonnay) here to stay?

The question became more interesting as I read the Times article. I tried to substitute wine terms for food terms in the article and it seemed to make sense. Here’s what I mean.

The death of Gourmet [insert name of expensive wine] doesn’t mean people are cooking less [drinking less] or do not want food magazines [good wine], said Suzanne M. Grimes, who oversees Every Day With Rachael Ray, among other brands, for the Reader’s Digest Association.

“Cooking [wine drinking] is getting more democratic,” she said. “Food [wine] has become an emotional currency, not an aspiration.”

It has also become democratized via the chatty ubiquity of Ms. Ray [Gary Vaynerchuck?] and the Food Network stars. Ms. Reichl [the Gourmet editor -- insert Robert Parker or maybe Jancis Robinson] is a celebrity in the food [wine] world, but of an elite type. She [or maybe he] “is one of those icons in chief,” said George Janson, managing partner at GroupM Print, part of the advertising company WPP. But what harried cooks [budget conscious wine drinkers] want now, it seems, is less a distant idol and more a pal.

The substitution works, pretty well, don’t you think? And the McKinsey consultants surely did their job. Food and wine down the tubes. Maybe Robert Mondavi and Julia Child are both turning in their graves!

Exaggerated Rumors

But rumors of the death of both fine dining and fine wine are probably exaggerated, as Mark Twain might have said. Gourmet is an iconic brand and the fact that Condé Nast cut it rather than Bon Appetit surely does mean something. But we have to remember that print magazines themselves are an endangered species in this internet age. What information we consume and in what form are both changing very rapidly. Magazines will change rather rapidly in the next few years to remain relevant or else they’ll fade away. Gourmet isn’t the first and won’t be the last to bite the dust.

So I am not willing to declare fine wine (or the Gourmet food lifestyles) dead on the basis of this news alone. The question of whether Americans will return to their old wine-drinking habits when the recession ends remains open for now.

Note: A lot of great wine writing appeared in Gourmet over the years. Look for a future post that tries to understand the changing American wine work through the Gourmet lens.

Wine Festivals Uncorked

jancis

Jancis Robinson and Wine Economist Mike Veseth at the IPNC. Wine Festivals draw celebrity wine critics, who taste, talk, sign books, pose for photos and lend credibility to the event.

Wine festivals have become big business. So big that the Wall Street Journal publishes a guide to upcoming festivals in each Friday’s edition. Click here to see their online August festival listing.There are lots of different wine events, but I’m not talking about charity wine walkabouts here, where you make a small donation, get a few drink tickets and visit tables where random bottles of donated wine are poured. The modern wine festival is a lot more focused and sophisticated and designed to engage wine enthusiasts on a different level.

International Pinot Noir Celebration

The International Pinot Noir Celebration (IPNC) in McMinnville, Oregon is a good example of the state of the art in wine festivals today. Sue and I attended the grand tasting last Sunday (a chance to sample dozens of Pinot Noir in a beautiful but hot outdoor setting), but the real deal for serious Pinot lovers is the full three day festival. For a fee of about $900 per person (not including lodging) you spend your days in tastings, seminars and vineyard tours and your nights under the stars at grand dinners.

The festival attracted winemakers from Oregon, California, Washington, Canada, France, Austria, Australia and New Zealand — quite an international lineup in a recession year.

I’m told that about 400 people attend the big festival — many of them come back year after year — and I would guess that another 300 or so came to the grand tasting on Sunday, so the festival’s total budget must approach a  half-million dollars. More than enough to pay the expenses of wine critics and celebrities (like Jancis Robinson above).

What’s In It For Me?

It is interesting to consider what brings all these people together? Yes, yes, I know that it must ultimately be about buying and selling wine, but that doesn’t fully explain it. No wine typically changes hands at events like this and there are probably more cost effective ways to market wine, from the supplier standpoint, and cheaper ways for consumers to fill their glasses, too. So what’s really going on?

One reason winemakers travel so far to attend these festivals is to communicate with other producers and to taste and compare their wines. Although I still don’t fully understand it, I have observed a subtle kind of dialogue when winemakers taste together. Information about taste, technique and status are all transmitted in the glass. Professors go to conferences and communicate by reading papers. Winemakers go to festivals and taste each others’ wines. It is easy to see who has the more sensible approach to intra-industry communication.

I suspect that there was a lot of producer dialogue at the Pinot festival because the wines that we tasted did not have much in common except the genetic pedigree of the grapes used to make them. Although the world wine market is moving to a lingua franca based upon grape varietal labeling (Chardonnay not Chablis, Pinot Noir not Burgundy) it is very clear that wines made from Pinot Noir grapes can have extraordinarily different textures, flavors and aromas. depending upon who makes them, how and where.

The Old World naming system (based on place not varietal) sure has its merits in the wineglass where terroir is actually experienced — too bad it works so poorly in the cluttered supermarket aisle when wines are bought and sold.

I met more than one winemaker who told me basically that she came to Oregon to prove something — to prove that good Pinot Noir could be made in X  where X = Oregon, Austria, California, Australia — fill in the place — only Burgundy has nothing to prove.

Hemispheric Exchange

A good deal of business gets done whenever producers come together, as you might expect. Partnerships, consulting services, distribution agreements and so forth are frequently arranged.  The McCrone vineyard wines made by Ken Wright Cellars and Ata Rangi are a good case study of the sort of  connections that probably could only happen in face-to-face meetings at a wine festival.

Don and Carole McCrone

Don and Carole McCrone

Don McCrone is a distinguished retired politics professor turned distinguished active winegrower. His vineyard outside of Carlton, Oregon  produces amazing fruit, which winemaker Ken Wright turns into a wonderful single-vineyard bottling. Don and Carole McCrone met the  winemakers from New Zealand’s famous Ata Rangi winery at IPNC a few years ago and were encouraged by them (while tasting each others’ wines, no doubt) to scout out vineyard properties in Martinborough.

Now the McCrones spend half of the year in each hemisphere supplying grapes to both Ken Wright and Ata Rangi for “McCrone Vineyard” wines. Are there any other winegrowers with vineyard designated wines in both hemispheres? It is an extreme example of the sort of cross-fertilization that can happen behind the scenes at major wine festivals.

Relationships not Transactions

I think that the most important function of wine festivals is to establish and build relationships. I always say that wine is good, but wine and a story is better. Wine and a relationship (even a superficial one with the grower, the winemaker, or other wine enthusiasts) is best of all. Doug Tunnell, winemaker at Oregon’s Brick House, explained to me that he brings his wines to IPNC every year to maintain contact with the people who attend. I got the impression that it isn’t so much about selling wine as honoring  relationships.  I think elite makers recognize that investing in relationships with customers (and with wine critics and journalists and all the others who attend these events) pays dividends down the road. Winemaking and relationship-building both require a long-term perspective.

The fact that many people come back to IPNC year after year suggests that they value the relationships, too, both with the producers and with each other. I have written that wine always tastes best when it is shared with others who enjoy and appreciate it. This may be especially true with festivals like IPNC, which tend to attract participants who are especially focused on a particular wine or region.

What I Think I Have Learned

So here is what I think I have learned from my fieldwork at wine festivals so far, both at IPNC and elsewhere, on both sides of the table, both pouring and receiving wine.

Wine festivals aren’t really about the wine, they are about the people, the conversations and the relationships. The role of the wine is to bring the people together and to give them something to share in a way that is impossible to recreate electronically.

Wine, or really the sharing of wine,  is a personal  relational experience in an otherwise increasingly impersonal transactional world.  That people seem to appreciate this sort of experience (and seek it out, even at high monetary cost and even in a deep recession) suggests something about its scarcity, don’t you think?

Decanter’s Wine Power List

Decanter, the self-proclaimed “World’s Best Wine Magazine,” takes its rankings very seriously. Wine rankings, of course,  and, in the July 2009 issue, Power rankings. Who are the most powerful people in the world of wine and what does the power list tell us? Let’s see if we can find the message in this bottle.

The Power List

The names on the power list are very interesting but the story that they tell about wine today is perhaps more important. Here are the first ten (top ten) people on the list.

  1. Richard Sands, USA, Chairman, Constellation Brands
  2. Robert Parker, USA, wine critic
  3. Mariann Fischer Boel, Denmark, EU Commissioner for Agriculture
  4. Mel Dick, USA, Southern Wine & Spirits (wine distributor)
  5. Annette Alvarez-Peters, USA, Costco wine director
  6. Dan Jago, UK, Tesco wine director
  7. Jean-Christophe Deslarzes, Canada, President of Alcan Packaging
  8. Jancis Robinson, UK, wine critic, author and journalist
  9. Nicolas Sarkozy, France, President of France
  10. Pierre Pringuet, France, Pernod Ricard

Since Decanter is a British magazine with very small US distribution you might be surprised that three of the top ten positions (and both of the top spots) are held my Americans, but don’t be. Constellation Brands is the largest wine company in the world and accounts for one out of eight bottles of wine sold in the UK. And Robert Parker is best known for his ratings of French wine, not Napa bottlings, which is important to British buyers and merchants. The presence of Sands and Parker at the top of the list does not reflect any sort of US-centrism, just the realities of the global marketplace. It really is a global list. Or at least, like those famous New Yorker cover illustrations, the globe as seen from London.

I won’t list the second ten names (out of 50 in total), but the I think they illustrate the global reach of the wine market today: America, China, Chile, Australia, Spain and so on. Even India, an emerging wine market, makes the top 50 ranking.

The list is complete and up-to-date (Gary Vaynerchuck, the US internet wine guru, shows up at number #40), but there are some interesting gaps. Fred Franzia, the godfather of Two Buck Chuck, is nowhere to be found, for example, despite his obvious influence on the US market, while Judy Leissner of Grace Vineyard in China, who perhaps represents the future of Chinese fine wine, makes the “Ones to Watch” list.

No wine economists make the list, alas. Greg Jones, the respected Southern Oregon University wine climatologist, is the only professor (#33). Maybe next year …

The Story

It is fun to see who makes the list and who doesn’t (why Jancis and not Oz?), but the ranking is more interesting if you strip out the personalities and consider what market forces they represent. Herewith my version of this  story.

The world of wine is very unsettled. Although wine is one of the most fragmented global industries (much less concentrated than beer or spirits, for example), size matters more and more as consolidation continues. [Hence the power of Constellation Brands, Pernod Ricard and Southern Wine & Spirits.] Reputation matters, of course [Parker and Robinson], but the world is changing and everything is up for grabs from how and where wine is sold [Costco and Tesco] to how the bottle is sealed [Alcan].

Although change is generally associated with New World wine, this is no longer the case. The biggest threats to “business as usual” for Old World wine come from inside the European Union itself. On one hand, the new EU wine regime [Mariann Fischer Boel] will pressure Old World wine to compete with the New World head-on and without continuing EU support. On the other hand we have an unexpected prohibitionist movement [symbolized by Sarkozy] that seeks to regulate wine like the Americans do (even as some parts of America are changing) — as a dangerous controlled substance. It is thus imperative for Old World wine to master the tricks of the New World industry — tricks that Constellation and Southern and Costco symbolize.

These changes take place, of course  within the context of the expanding global market, global climate change and a continuing global economic crisis (that’s where a wine economist would have been a useful inclusion).

I won’t pretend that the Decanter Power List is a scientific ranking (Decanter doesn’t claim this in any case), but it is an interesting peek into how wine insiders view their industry. I’ll be curious to see how the names and the story lines change when the next Power List appears.

The Bottle Shock Effect

First Sideways, then Bridget Jones.  Now Bottle Shock.  How will the new film about the 1976 Paris tastings affect the wine market?

The Sideways Effect

Sideways (a 2004 film by Alexander Payne) is famous for helping to provoke a global Pinot Noir boom.  A soliloquy (see below) on the thoughtful, fragile glories of Pinot spoken by an equally thoughtful, fragile character named Miles was enough to get thousands of wine enthusiasts to set aside their usual glass of Merlot and pull the cork on a bottle of Pinot Noir.

“Um, it’s a hard grape to grow … it’s thin-skinned, temperamental, ripens early … it’s not a survivor like Cabernet, which can just grow anywhere and thrive even when it’s neglected. No, Pinot needs constant care and attention … it can only grow in these really specific, little, tucked- away corners of the world. And only the most patient and nurturing of growers can do it, really. Only somebody who really takes the time to understand Pinot’s potential can then coax it into its fullest expression.”

Movie messages matter when it comes to wine, I guess.  This conclusion was recently reinforced by the Bridget Jones effect, noted in Britain, where the film character’s tendency to drown her sorrows in glasses of Aussie Chardonnay caused the market for these wines to tank.  Apparently wine drinkers want to be thoughtful and fragile (Pinot) not pathetic (Chardonnay) and movies are where they pick up their cues. Who knew?

This makes me wonder how a new film called Bottle Shock will affect the wine market.  Bottle Shock is loosely based on Steven Spurrier’s famous 1976 Paris tasting of French and California wines, which George M. Taber wrote about so well in his book The Judgment of Paris. Napa Valley wines (Chateau Montelena Chardonnay and Stag’s Leap Cabernet Sauvignon) were top rated at the tasting and this surprising result is said to have put California wine on the map.  It is interesting to speculate if Bottle Shock will have as much influence as Sideways.

Bottle Schlock

I have my doubts.  Sideways was actually a pretty good movie (not that I am qualified to judge) whereas Bottle Shock strikes me as a less serious effort.  A fruit bomb of a movie, if you know what I mean, but not a lot of depth or complexity.  It is Merlot to Sideways‘ Pinot Noir.

Alan Rickman is funny in a sort of Terry-Thomas way as Spurrier, but the two main male characters seem to be slightly modified younger versions of the Sideways cast – one is an oversexed surfer dude with a good heart while the other is, well, fragile and thoughtful. Do you see the resemblance? The female love interest is obviously a younger version of the Sideways Maya character. Not much character development here and many of the plot elements are predictable and cartoonish.  This is not necessarily a barrier to commercial success, however.

The movie says that it is based upon a real story (the one that Taber covered for Time magazine), but it takes incredible liberties with the facts.  Most of the nouns (people, places, things) are wrong in some way although some of the numbers are correct (1976 – check – got the right year).

1976 Paris Tasting Scores

Chateau Montelena’s winemaker, Mike Grgich, is left out entirely even though he is a central figure in the true story. Warren Winiarski, the winemaker at Stag’s Leap, is nearly as invisible.  I feel sorry for others, like George Taber and Paul Draper (who made the Ridge Monte Bello), who appear only as crude caricatures. Artistic license, I suppose.

Perhaps the biggest error is the most basic: who won?  Although California wines came out on top in both red and white competitions, they also came dead last (see the actual rankings and judges’ scores at right).  In fact the bottom two Chardonnays were from California (Veedercrest and David Bruce) as were the four (out of 10) bottom Cabs (Heitz, Clos du Val, Mayacamas and Freemark Abbey).

If the Paris tasting was judged as a team competition, France versus California, rather than a rating of individual wines, I think you might reasonably conclude that the whites were a dead heat while the French won the battle for the reds, depending upon how you calculated the team scores.  As you can see here,  however, the variations among the judges was almost as  great as among the wines, so clear winners and losers are difficult to determine. Toss out a couple of judges or bring in some new ones and the rankings could change quite a bit.

The movie didn’t do anything to correct the record in this regard, but that would be asking too much of a simple film. Instead it concludes with the Spurrier character’s prediction (with 20/20 foresight) that soon we’d be drinking wines from all over the world, Australia, New Zealand, South America, South Africa and so on.  So globalization was the real winner of the competition.

The Bottle Shock Effect?

It is unclear as yet if there will be a Bottle Shock effect in the wine market of any kind, but if there is, what will it be?

One thing that we can predict is that the specific wines featured in the film will experience a boom.  This means Chateau Montelena more than any other wine because it is the focus of the film.  It is hard to say if this effect will extend to the other Paris tasting wines or to quality California wines more generally.  A local wine shop organized a tasting of recent releases of all the California wines in the 1976 competition in celebration of the film, so perhaps Bottle Shock will encourage events like this on various scales and have a broader effect.  Even so, the world of quality California wine extends far beyond the few wines that went to Paris thirty years ago.

Perhaps the best possible result would be if Bottle Shock somehow helped demystify wine, taking it out of the hands of the critics, who do so badly in the film story, and empowering ordinary people to trust their own tastes.  That would make Bottle Shock a really useful film.

But I doubt it will happen — it is hard to break away from our acquired dependency on wine critics.  We tasted the famous California wines “blind” at the Bottle Shock event I attended, for example, which naturally encourages you to think for yourself (a good thing, even if it isn’t my favorite way to taste wine).  But we were also given a set of “expert” tasting notes and challenged to smell and taste the same things the critics did, (as a way to identify wines none of us had previously tasted), which kind of defeats the purpose.

Mark Twain warned his readers to think for themselves and not to get “drunk on the smell of another man’s cork.”  It seems to me that’s the most important message of Bottle Shock.  I hope it gets through.

Attack of the Super-Cuvées

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the different strategies winemakers use to sell their products and I find myself coming back again and again to a particularly good column by Andrew Jefford in the June 2008 issue of Decanter magazine.  Jefford demonstrates how important economic factors are in shaping what gets poured into your glass.

Bordeaux, Burgundy and Super-Cuvée

Winemakers generally find themselves working with variable quantities and qualities of fruit and the individual wines made from that fruit.  What should be done if some of the raw materials are much better than others as is typically the case?  Blend them all together?  That’s what happens sometimes, especially in the less sophisticated cooperatives in Southern Europe.  The result is often a whole that does not exceed the sum of its parts.  Historically, Jefford explains, there are two dominant approaches to the problem of wine quality to take into account variable wine quality.

The first is the Bordeaux strategy.  The best lots are blended into the grand vin — the one that sells for a high price (in good years at least).  Good wines that just don’t make the cut for the grand vin go into a second label.  Lesser wines are sold off on the bulk market or even a third label.  The system is transparent, relatively consumer friendly and the wines are as good as the vintage allows.  In The Wine Advocate’s report on 2005 Bordeaux, for example, the grand vin Latour (96+ points, 12,000 cases) costs $1125 while the second wine Les Forts de Latour (92 points, 10,000 cases) is less than $200.  A third wine, designated simply Paulliac (89 points) sells for about $60.  Something for everyone, I guess, and a pretty clear hierarchy of wines, although not every Bordeaux producer listed in Parker’s guide displays such a clear link between price and apparent quality.

Burgundy provides a second model, according to Jefford.  The top wines are released as individual vineyard-designated wines and the remaining wines are blended together in to an appellation-designated wine.  I am not an expert on Burgundies, but I have seen this in Oregon, where some wineries release a one Willamette Valley Pinot Noir along with several vineyard designated wines.  This makes the wines very interesting if you are able to taste them side-by-side, but it can otherwise be confusing.  I think it shifts a bit of power to the wine critics and specialists.  But that’s fine if the terroir really comes through and the wines are significantly different.

The third strategy, which Jefford links to the Rhône, is to create a tiny amount of a sort of super-wine that is made, more or less, to gain high scores from wine critics.  I know that wine makers always say that they don’t make wines to get high scores, but a few have privately told me that big Parker numbers are so valuable that they don’t hesitate to make some wines to try to impress wine critics like RP.  Most customers won’t have a chance to buy the Parker wine, it is true, because the production is so small, but the benefits to the winery’s reputation may extend down the line and boost prices and sales of the other wines.

Money, Taste and Power

“Let’s set aside the question of income,” Jefford writes, because he is concerned with the effect of the three systems on the quality of the wine.  The Burgundy system, with its stress on terroir, makes sense when there really is terroir, but otherwise he argues in favor of the Bordeaux plan because it produces more complete wines, wines of good “disposition,” as he puts it. Wines that are good to drink.

The Super-Cuvée strategy, he fears, makes wines that are good to taste (and rate), but not to drink because they are wines of “accumulation,” monster wines, where winemakers seek high scores by adding more and more layers of identifiable attributes to the super-wine at the expense of the quality, complexity and completeness of the wines that make up the bulk of production.

On the face of it, Jefford’s critique of super-wines and the rising power of critics associated with them is based upon taste, but as the column continues it is quickly apparent that he cannot leave the wine economics out of it, because it is at the heart of the problem. The Bordeaux model doesn’t just make better wines, he suggests, but also better incomes in the long run for all producers.  The simplicity of the single Grand vin strategy makes wines more understandable and a “perfect building block,” as he says for a reputation.  He credits Bordeaux’s use of this system in part for their consistently strong reputation and ability to attract investment and maintain strong prices.  He contrasts this with the “chaos and frenzy” of the Super-Cuvées and the “false intellectual challenge” of the many single-vineyard offerings.  Pretty strong words, I would say.

The Burgundy and super-wine strategies depend in different ways on the power of wine critics (like some of those who write for Decanter).  Wine critics validate the legitimacy of single-vineyard offerings and create super-markets for the Super-Cuvées.    It would be interesting to study what factors lead winemakers, especially New World producers, to choose one approach over another.  Perhaps it is terroir.  Perhaps it is scale, training or philosophy.  Or perhaps it is access to wine critics and the power they can have in the marketplace.  Watch this space for more research on this interesting question.

Tyranny of the 100 Point Wine Scale

Wine rating systems are like the weather — everyone complains about them but no one does anything. Paul Gregutt thinks he knows why.

Wine by the Numbers

There are many ways to rate or rank different wines and consumers are very interested in trying to understand what they mean and how to use them. That’s why my column on wine rating systems, Wine by the Numbers, is one of the most popular posts in this blog’s brief history.

Twenty-point rating systems are popular in Europe in part, I understand, because that is how papers are graded in French high schools. Here in the United States the 100 point system that Robert Parker popularized and many others use dominates in part, I suppose, because that’s how our papers were graded in school. Any simple wine scoring system is problematic, however, since a good deal of information is necessarily lost when the attributes of a multidimensional product like wine are reduced to a single number. Wine isn’t like gasoline, where the critical components can be captured, like octane, in a single number.

But there are other problems, too. Paul Gregutt (PG), wine critic for the Seattle Times and Wine Enthusiast magazine, explained the limitations of the 100 point scale and the tendency toward “grade inflation” in his recent book, Washington Wines & Wineries:

This practice of promoting wine, a multi-faceted, subjective sensory experience, simply by broadcasting numbers has gradually devalued the numbers while shrinking the original 100-point scale. At first blush, such a rating system sounds generous, allowing room for a lot of subtlety in the grading curve. But in actual practice it’s not a hundred point scale at all, nor even close.

It has become a ten point scale. Wines rated under 85 are ignored completely. Wines rated 85 to 89 must be marketed as value wines – those numbers only work for wines priced at the low end of the scale. If your wine is going to sell for $15 or more, it must hit 90 points at least. One prominent retailer even makes a point of selling (at discount) wines that have scored the “dreaded” 89. Once a wine moves up the ladder from there, it becomes increasingly rare and expensive. As a result, wines scoring 95 or above are virtually unobtainable for the average consumer.

Although the ratings are “devalued” in terms of their utility, they are also “inflated” in terms of their commercial importance. It would seem that consumers might be better served if someone would re-center the scale so that it uses more of the 100 point range and is therefore potentially (and only potentially) a more accurate guide to quality. This would obviously lower the average score, however. Who is going to be the first to break the pattern and give merely good wines average scores, 70 or 75 instead of 85 so that 85 (B+) means something?

Revising the 100-Point Scale

PG decided to try in his book on Washignton wine. Instead of rating individual wines, he rated the wineries themselves in terms of a modified 100-point scale that gives marks for style (30 points), consistency (30 points), value (30 points) and the winery’s contribution to the development and improvement of the Washington wine industry (10 points).

How did the wineries rate? Quilceda Creek, with its perfect 100 Robert Parker point Cabernet Sauvignon, also got a perfect PG score (30/30/30/10). Leonetti ranked second with 98 points (30/28/30/10). So far so good. The trouble comes further down the list where some prominent wineries get scores in the 70s, 60s, and 50s. The scores make sense when you break them down into the four factors that PG evaluates, but the raw numbers are sort of shocking when you see them for the first time or out of context. (My university students know this feeling, I suspect. It happens when they get their first college papers back after several years of high school grade inflation.)

PG writes about the reaction to his winery rating on his website in a column titled “Time to Dump my 100 Point System?

Comments from readers and reviewers have been largely positive. Some have embraced my scoring; others have simply accepted it and moved on to the book’s other assets. But within the ranks of the industry itself – wineries and distributors in particular – there has been an awkward silence.

There is little doubt that this book’s sales have been seriously impacted by 1) the decision not to include 3/4 of this state’s wineries and 2) the scoring system itself. One winery veteran, after some prompting, took the trouble to explain why his winery wouldn’t sell or promote the book, even though I had given them one my highest scores.

“Our problem with promoting your book,” the winemaker said, “is that, in spite of the wonderful written praise, we’d spend all out time explaining our B+ grade.” PG is trying to decide if he should scrap his ratings for the next edition of his book (if you have an opinion you can contact Paul through his website PaulGregutt.com).

The First Mover Disadvantage

It is hard to know what to say about this. On one hand I admit that my first reaction to PG’s winery rating scale was neutral to negative, but then with some encouragement from Karen Wade I looked at it more closely and decided that it was actually pretty useful to me as a consumer — so I guess I am the source of some of the positive feedback PG received. On the other hand, I understand that no winemaker is going to take out an ad that boasts “Rated 72 by Critics!” — even if that’s a very good and appropriate rating by the scale being used.

I think we have to admit that re-centering the 100 point scale is a hopeless task and move on. The first mover in point reform will suffer the sort of criticism that PG reports. The only way to do it would be for everyone to switch scales at once. I don’t see that happening.

So what should we do about the ratings? For my part I’m going to try to get my students, who are very much into wine ratings by the time they come to me, to use the UC Davis 20-point scale. I think it might work because (1) they aren’t used to thinking in terms of 20 points and so they will have more open minds about what scores mean and (2) I like the way it breaks down elements of sensory perception: 4 points for appearance, 6 points for smell, 8 points for taste and 2 for overall harmony, according to my copy of The Taste of Wine by Emile Peynaud. Using the Davis scale will encourage them to make up their own minds about what they see, smell and taste. That’s a good thing.

In the meantime I think Paul Gregutt’s experience suggests both why the 100 point system should die and why it probably never will. My advice to Paul: keep the analysis in your book, which is terrific, but kiss the 100-point ratings goodbye.

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