Like a Tax Cut for Wine Producers: ShipCompliant’s New AutoFile

I used to complain that the federal income tax is really three taxes in one. First comes the actual tax dollars that you have to pay. The time and trouble of record-keeping and so forth is the second tax and the third is the cost of preparing and filing the returns (or having others do that for you).

The Tax Tax Tax

I used to do everything by hand and sometimes the opportunity cost of the time I spent was almost as large as the check I wrote. Then came tax preparation software such as Turbo Tax and that cut the time cost quite a bit. Then the ability to import financial data directly into the tax program made things  better. Finally, free and efficient electronic tax filing arrived — modified rapture!

I’m still not a very happy guy when I am doing my income taxes, but I appreciate the fact that the process is more efficient now so that I can spend my time doing other productive things like writing this blog.

The Wine Regulation Tax

Imagine if you still had to do your taxes by hand, but that you had to do them for 40 different tax systems! The combined compliance costs would be an enormous drain on productivity. It would be tax tax tax forty times over. Yikes!

This is more or less the situation for any winery that is trying to do direct-to-consumer business in the 40 states that allow this activity. Each state has its own rules and regulation and each requires regular reporting , payment and so forth.  Although most of us imagine that the logistics of shipping are the main barrier to direct-to-consumer wine sales, the compliance costs are significant business barriers. They are like a tax on direct wine shipments and sometimes high enough to discourage wineries from entering the inter-state direct-to-consumer business at all or to limit it to just a few states.

Like a Tax Cut?

Which is why I was interested when ShipCompliant introduced its new AutoFile product yesterday. AutoFile has the potential to vastly reduced the amount of staff time devoted to multi-state direct-to-consumer wine sales compliance and to make multi-state operations more feasible. ShipCompliant estimates that a medium-sized winery shipping to all 40 states would need to file about 600-800 annual, quarterly, bi-monthly and monthly regulatory reports and tax filings in the course of a year, costing hundreds of staff hours. Their program does for compliance what Turbo Tax, account downloads and e-File did for my income tax experience.

You still have to pay the taxes and fees, of course, but reducing the costs of record-keeping and filing almost seems like a tax cut to me. AutoFile and products and services like it are small but import steps to make the dysfunctional US direct-to-consumer wine market a bit more efficient, which benefits both wine producers and consumers.

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Thanks to Tom Wark for letting me about this product.

Wine Innovation: Lessons from Portugal

Innovation is a hot topic in the wine industry these days. While some wine brands can depend upon their traditional markets, messages and products, many producers find themselves under increasing attack from “the crafts” — craft beer, craft cider and craft spirits.

One advantage that these alcoholic alternatives seem to possess is the heightened ability to adapt, evolve and excite — to innovate in various ways that keep customers coming back to see what’s new.

How wine got in this situation is a long story that I will tell another time and whether wine should even enter the innovation wars is something that is hotly debated. Some new wine products have been criticized as “pop wines” that debase and therefore threaten the whole product category — not a view that I endorse, but I can understand the concern behind it.

So I was very interested in looking at innovation during my visit to Portugal and I found it in many different forms. I thought you might be interested in a little of what I discovered.

Port: No Wine Before Its Time

Port, which is arguably Portugal’s signature wine, is an example of a wine category that is both timeless and highly innovative.  Timeless in the sense that Port wines have in many ways remained much the same for several centuries. White Ports, Ruby Ports, Tawny Ports — in fundamental respects these are the same today as they were 100 or 200 years ago. Almost nothing is as traditional as Port, with its stenciled bottles and historic brands.

This is a plus and also a minus. The plus of course is brand recognition — only Champagne was a stronger brand than Port from a name recognition standpoint. But it’s a minus, too, because that brand, like Sherry, is wrongly associated with one-note sweet wines. Like Rodney Dangerfield, they sometimes don’t get the respect they deserve.

And it is a minus because the traditional Port wine styles are exercises in patience in a very impatient world. Tawny Ports must be held by the maker until they are mature in 10, 20 or even 40 years. That’s a lot of time to wait with the investment time clock running. Vintage Ports need time, too, but this time the buyer is expected to patiently wait for the wine to mature.

Time is Port’s friend because of what they do together in terms of the quality of the final product but, from an economic and market standpoint, time is also an inconvenient enemy and seemed to limit Port’s potential in the postwar years.

The answer to the time problem was an innovation that appeared in 1970, when Taylor Fladgate released their  1965 Late Bottled Vintage (LBV) Port.  LBV has the character of Vintage Port but is ready to drink when released, not 20 years later. It was not quite the Chateau Cash Flow killer app of the wine world, but it certainly breathed new life into the Port market at a moment when this was especially welcome. Some say that LBV saved the Port industry and I think this might be true.

Colorful Port

Red and white are the traditional colors of Port, but recently some makers have innovated to try to get the attention of younger consumers who have as little interest in their notion of grandfather’s Port as they do in their stereotype of granny’s Cream Sherry. Croft Pink Port and Quinta de Noval Black Port are examples of this innovative trend.

Pink Port is made in a Rosé style, with less skin contact and therefore fewer grippy tannins than Ruby Port. The Croft website is fully of cocktail ideas so perhaps this is a Pink Martini killer wine? Richard Hemmings, writing on the JancisRobinson.com website, makes the wine sound like an excellent option for the many Moscato lovers in your life.

97g/l RS, 4.2g/l TA. Raspberry juice, bubblegum, pink apples and fresh strawberries. Sweet and full on the palate, good concentration. Well balanced and smooth, creamy texture with a mouth-watering burst of fruit on the finish. Very good, not massively complex but a worthy product. (RH)

Noval Black is more traditional in style and color, with more of the tannins than the Pink. Less complex than my favorite LBVs, but interesting. I agree with the website’s chocolate pairing suggestions, although I haven’t tried any of the cocktail-type recipes. Here is Hemmings’ take on Noval Black:

Ruby reserve in style, with an average age of 2-3 years old. Aimed at younger consumers, as the flashy website attests! Fruity, jammy, figs and dates. Sweet and supple, with a glacé cherry flavour and a simple, satisfying style. (RH)

Product versus Process Innovation

So far I have focused on product innovation but I haven’t mentioned process innovation and that is a mistake ,as I learned from a winemaker during my stay in Porto.

George Sandeman of the famous Port & Sherry family invited me to taste through the Ferreira line of wines and Ports and of course the Sandeman Ports. How could I resist? Even better, we would be joined by Luis Sottomayor, Porto Ferreira’s award-winning winemaker.

The bottles and glassware filled the big table as we began to taste through the Casa Ferreirinha wines then the Ferreira and Sandeman Ports. The wines were eye-opening. From the most basic wines selling for just a few Euro on up to the super-premium products they were well-balance, distinctive and delicious. Not all the Portuguese wines that make it to the US market have these qualities.

I have a star in my notebook next to the entry for the Casa Ferreirinha Vinha Grande Red 2010, for example. A blend of classic Portuguese grape varieties from two Douro regions, it spent twelve months in second the third use oak. Easy drinking, soft tannins, nice finish, classy, well-made. Cost? About Euro 10. in the home market or $19.99 in the US.

“Delicious” I wrote next to the note for the Casa Ferreirinha Quita Da Leda Red, which comes from an estate vineyard just 1 kilometer from the Spanish border. It is the product of a small winery located within the company’s larger facility. Spectacular wine, special terroir, I wrote. US price is $64.99 and worth it.

As we tasted through the Ports I started to talk about innovation — Pink, Black and so on. Sottomayor stopped me in my tracks. If you want to really understand innovation in Portugal, he said, you have to look beyond new products to the work that is being done to improve the process in the vineyard and the cellar. This is where the real gains are, as seen in the table wines I had just tasted and the Ports I was about to sample.

Taste this LBV, Sottomayor said. The LBVs we make today are of the same quality as the Vintage Ports we made 15 years ago. And the Vintage Ports are that much better, too.  New products are part of the story of Portuguese wine innovation, but improved winegrowing and winemaking are just as important now and probably more important in the long run. Lesson learned!

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I came away from the tasting described above both richer and poorer. Richer because Sottomayor’s lesson about innovation will save me some money — as much as I enjoy Vintage Port and will continue to buy it, I now have LBV centered on my radar screen and it sells for a good deal less.

And poorer? Well, Sandeman and Sottomayor set up a little experiment for me, first letting me taste their 10-year old Tawny Ports and then the 20-year-olds. We like the 20s, George Sandeman said, because you can taste where they’ve been (the 10-year old wines) and also where they are going  (the 40-year old Tawny that I tasted next). The tension between youth and old age makes the 20-year old Tawny particularly interesting, he said.

And I am sad to say that I could taste exactly what he was describing. Sad? Yes, because 20-year old Tawny costs a good deal more than the 10 and for the rest of my life I am going to be paying that extra sum!

Congratulations to George and Luis on the great ratings that their 2011 Vintage Ports have received! And thanks to them and to Joana Pais for their help and hospitality.

Can Portugal Win the Wine Wars?

My recent trip to Portugal was eye-opening and will be the subject of Wine Economist columns for the next few weeks. I was invited to speak at a wine industry gathering held in association with a Portuguese wine festival called Essência Do Vinho at the historic Palacio dal Bolsa in Porto.  I will paste the program at the end of this post.

The conference was organized by ACIBEV (Associação dos Comerciantes e Industriais de Bebidas Espirituosas e Vinhos or Portugal’s Association of Traders and Producers of Spirits and Wine) which is an organization intended to help Portuguese producers work together on a wide range of issues of common interest.

Can Portugal Wine the Wine Wars?

The program was called “Pode Portugal Ganhar a Guerra do Vinho?”  or “Can Portugal Win the Wine Wars.”  My job was both easy and hard, Easy because I’ve spoken many times about Wine Wars, my 2011 book on the economic forces shaping the global wine industry.  But also difficult because I didn’t know very much about the Portuguese wine business when I agreed to give the talk and so I had to kick into student exam-cram mode.

I worked very hard to learn all I could before getting on the plane, but I knew that most of my education would be on-the-spot, talking with the people there.  I also needed to consider the rest of the program, particularly the speaker who would go before me,  Susana García Dolla, Vice Secretary General of Spanish Wine Federation (FEV) and a representative of the pan-European group Wine in Moderation. (Susana gave a fantastic talk!)acibev2

So I framed my remarks carefully and tried to leverage my fresh perspective on the wines of Portugal into something of value to the audience. There were a lot of messages, as Paul Symington noted in his commentary following my remarks, and I don’t think I pushed some them far enough in some cases (as he pointedly did because of his mastery of the issues in Portugal).  I thought you might be interested in one piece of the lecture that several people said they especially appreciated.

Wine Wars: Know Which War? Which Opponent?

The wine wars that I talk about in Wine Wars are the three economic forces that I see as shaping global wine: the push forces of globalization (the Curse of the Blue Nun) and the growing power of brands (the Miracle of Two Buck Chuck) and the push-back forces that seek to preserve and protect wine’s special place in life (the Revenge of the Terroirists).

Portugal is part of that war, I told my audience. The Portuguese practically invented globalization and are famous for global wine brands (Port is a powerhouse brand, for example, and Portuguese mass market branded wines such as Lancers and Mateus are famous). I could tell the whole Wine Wars story as a Portuguese story with very little effort. But that’s not the only wine war.

I quickly sketched several other wine wars that are important to understand. If you talk about a wine war to wine producers, they naturally think of the war in terms of the battle for sales and shelf space — the war that pits one winery against another. This seems like the critical battlefield, I think, because it is the most immediate one. But you can win in that arena and still lose the bigger contest if you ignore the other wars.

The Drinks War

Wine is also fighting what you might call the beverage war or the drinks war. In part because of globalization and the rise of branded wines and in part because of other factors (changing demographics prime among them), wine is increasingly seen as part of the “drinks” category of consumer goods that includes beer, cider and spirits.  You can see this as part of the democratization of wine (which is good) or a symptom that wine is losing its special place in the marketplace (not so good).

The fact of the drinks war changes things because now the real opponents are not other wine producers, they are the makers of other alcoholic and even some non-alcoholic beverages.  Your old enemy is now your best potential ally and the strategies that might have worked in wine vs wine battles are of little use. Wine vs beer, wine vs cider, wine vs spirits — those are the fights that matter now.

The new emphasis on innovation in wine (the topic of next week’s column) is driven in part by the drinks war and the need to confront innovative new challengers with new strategies.

The War Against Wine

The war against wine is part of the rising anti-alcohol movement in Europe and elsewhere around the world. We think of wine as the drink of moderation, but alcohol is alcohol to these activists, and so they seek to tax it, regulate it, restrict it, and generally discourage its sale, marketing and consumption.

We are familiar with the war against wine in the US because we lost it so tragically in the last century. The great experiment of Prohibition pretty much destroyed the US wine industry, which has still not fully recovered.

The war against wine is perhaps the most serious battle of them all, which is why Susana’s presentation was so important. She outlined the strategies and tactics that Wine in Moderation is employing in its efforts to present the positive case for wine and to counter anti-alcohol propaganda.

Can Portugal win the wine wars? Portuguese wines are attracting a lot of positive attention these days and I think it is about time that they were recognized. But it is a tough marketplace, with competition from every corner of the wine world. Portuguese producers need to work together (which is why ACIBEV’s efforts and the Wines in Moderation project are so important) in order to complete as individual wineries more effectively.

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Special thanks to George Sandeman, Eduardo Medeiros and Ana Isabel Alves of ACIBEV for their kindness and hospitality and to my discussants Paul Symington and Francisco Sousa Ferreira for their pertinent analysis.

Here is the program for the Porto event.

Can Portugal Win the Wine Wars?

10.00: Opening by Eduardo Medeiros, Administrator and Director of Bacalhôa ACIBEV Group

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10h10: Presentation of Manuel Novaes Cabral, President of the Port Wine Institute

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10.20: “Spain – A Promotion of Moderate Consumption” – Susana García Dolla, Vice Secretary General of Spanish Wine Federation (FEV)

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11h30: “Shifting Center, Rising Tide: Portugal in the Changing Global Wine Market” SPEAKER: Mike Veseth – Editor of The Wine Economist and Professor Emeritus, University of Puget Sound

Commentators: Paul Symington – Symington Family Estates Francisco Sousa Ferreira – Wine Ventures MODERATOR: Eduardo Medeiros – Bacalhôa Group, Director of ACIBEV

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12:45: Speech by George Sandeman, Director of Sogrape and President of ACIBEV

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!)

Extreme Wine Experience: The Stray Mongrel of Hentley Farm

Winery dogs are a ubiquitous presence. You see them everywhere. There are even photo-filled coffee-table books and colorful calendars devoted to them. Decanter, the self-declared “world’s best wine magazine” used to profile a winery dog on each issue’s final page. Always dogs — almost never cats (I once met a winery cat called “Muscat”). Go figure

Exception to the Rule

It comes as a bit of a surprise therefore that The Stray Mongrel of Hentley Farm is a wine, not a four-legged cellar companion. A blend of Grenache, Shiraz and Zinfandel (!), it received the 2013 Rob Schubert Trophy for the most outstanding red wine at the annual Barossa Wine Show Awards. The Stray Dog has a gnarly name, but it is really quite an elegant beast — it would have to be to win such a prize — and it represents the elegant spirit of  Hentley Farm very well.

We had the good fortune to visit Hentley Farm the day after the big prize was announced and Keith Hentschke, the proprietor, was glowing with pride. Recognition is always welcome — who can complain about good scores or reviews? — but this was something special and the warmth that filled the room was only partly the result of the fireplace’s glowing embers.

We came to Hentley Farms because we wanted to see what Hentschke and his team had created in terms of an extreme wine experience. Hentley Farm was started in 1997 and has evolved to align with very definite ideas of what it should be from the vineyard to the cellar to the marketplace.

This 360-degree vision of the supply chain and wine experience is something that Hentschke acquired over the years, starting at age 15 when he began to manage the family vineyard on through agriculture training, an MBA and work at Orlando, Nepenthe and other wine businesses. All this helped prepare him to launch Hentley Farm and to produce wines as distinctive — and unexpected — as The Stray Mongrel.

First Class from the Ground Up

The initial strategy at Hentley Farm was to focus on exports, but then the global financial crisis turned things around a bit and now the Australian market itself is the priority and the cellar door experience the key. The idea, as I understand it, was to create first class wine and a first class wine experience from the ground up with as much attention to the business side of things as to enology and viticulture. Hentschke warmed to the opportunity to talk about markets, marketing and so on, so we learned a great deal about his carefully calculated approach.

There are many interesting aspects to the Hentley Farm approach. The wine club, called simply the Loyalty Program on the webstie, impressed me by offering a choice of progressive levels of expenditure and engagement. It reminded me very much of museum memberships and symphony and opera donor clubs, with very clear expectations about financial commitments and benefit levels.

Restaurant Australia Realized

Sue and I came to Hentley Farm having spent a week at Savour Australia and it seems to me that Hentschke’s winery is the very model of the branding approach — called “Restaurant Australia” — that was launched at that meeting. The idea behind Restaurant Australia, as I have written before, is to appeal to upscale tourists through their interest in food and wine. Come for elevated cuisine, enjoy the great wine then go home and tell your friends about an idea of Australia that is little in common like the “shrimp on the barbie” Yellow Tail tales of the past.

Hentschke and team seem to have realized the power of this relationship well before the current campaign launch, so Hentley Farm’s visitor center pairs a warm cellar door facility with The Restaurant, which features multi-course tasting menus paired with the estate wines. (The Restaurant was named South Australia’s restaurant of the year for 2013.) It brings in the patrons, who seem delighted to find a destination restaurant in this surprisingly quiet valley. The wine hook, because there should be one, was clear and successful. Hentley Farm wines with the meal, of course, and then also a credit to be applied against Hentley Farm wine purchased that day at the cellar door.

One of the challenges of designing a wine tourism experience is to get the target audience to “stick” — to stay around long enough too be engaged and for a strong impression to be formed. The restaurant, with its elaborate (and not inexpensive) tasting menus asks  visitors to make a significant time commitment. Perfect if you want to communicate the sense of the place.

Chance and Circumstance

We ran into some new friends we had met in Adelaide at the Barossa Valley farmer’s market in nearby Angaston and asked about Hentley Farm. The Restaurant? Fantastic! Did you use the credit to buy the wine next door? Of course! Would you go back? Can’t wait! It was really an enthusiastic response from a sophisticated wine industry couple and provided a bit of unscientific evidence that the Hentley Farm strategy does its job.

The wine, the food, the experience. Hentley Farm brings it all together and provides a model for others in the wine business who seek to design an experience to capture the imagination of sophisticated wine enthusiasts.

I think there is a real winery dog at Hentley Farm and maybe he is a mongrel — I don’t really know. But if a mongrel is the product of chance and circumstance, Hentley Farm itself is just the opposite — a well-conceived and designed wine destination.

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Thanks to Keith Hentschke for finding time to meet with us.

CSI Fine Wine Edition

  • Crime doesn’t pay.
  • The best way to make a small fortune in the wine business is to start with a big one.

What happens when you combine these two old sayings? Well, you would think that it would add up to the fact that if crime doesn’t pay, then wine crime really doesn’t pay. But that may not be true. How else can we explain the recent fine wine crime wave, which may well be just the tip of the iceberg.

Wine Crime Wave?

Most of the attention has been focused on Rudi Kurniawan’s recent conviction for wine fraud — the first federal criminal prosecution and conviction for wine counterfeiting. This dramatic crime and the revealing trial has really captured the public’s imagination in part, I think, because of the romance associated with rare wine and the “lifestyles of the rich and famous” environment of the crime, the criminal and the victims.

There’s also a bit of what you might call a “Lance Armstrong” effect. The crime went on for years along with accusations, defenses and denials. Then suddenly there was the trial, the conviction and the house of cards collapsed. Now we are left to wonder how widespread this sort of wine fraud might be and what wines are true and which are false. The conviction isn’t the end of the story, only the beginning of the next chapter in the mystery.

Thanksgiving Day Heist

The Thanksgiving Day wine heist in Seattle was a grittier affair but perhaps equally interesting to wine crime buffs. I’ve been trying to piece together what happened from published reports and private sources. The more I learn about it the more this crime reminds me of something from a television show — CSI or maybe Mission Impossible!

Here is what I think I know.

Two “common thieves” (plumbers by trade, according to the Seattle Police) broke into the wine storage facility operated by Esquin wine merchants in the SoDo neighborhood (SoDo stands for South of the Dome — the Kingdome sports stadium in this case, which was demolished by implosion in 2000). They ransacked 15 of the 450 private storage lockers in the climate-controlled facility and made off with more than 200 cases of wine valued at more than $600,000.

If you are doing the math, that’s an average of more than $3000 per case or more than $250 per bottle. I’m guessing that no Two Buck Chuck was taken!

The break-in was ingenious — the perpetrators apparently cut a hole through a wall and brought the wine out case by case. Police report that the crooks spent  13 hours selecting their wines and then driving the loot to another warehouse less than a mile away. Their SUV getaway vehicle had limited capacity, so they had to make 9 round trips. Although they blacked out all the security cameras that they could, apparently this was not completely successful and some images of the crooks and their SUV’s license plate were captured.

You would think that “common thieves” would not be terribly discriminating wine shoppers — after all I suspect that most of the bottles and cases at this storage facility were of some value. Why not just smash and grab? But that’s not what happened.

Making a List, Checking it Twice

The bad guys apparently worked from some sort of shopping list, taking specific wines and vintages and leaving the rest. I’m told that the only Washington State wines taken were Quilceda Creek and Corliss, for example. Leonetti and Andrew Will? Apparently not up the discerning crook’s standards! I understand that wine was not just stolen, but also moved around and mixed up during the extended shopping spree and a few of the victims are apparently having to sort out which wines are theirs and which belong to someone else as well as which bottles have gone missing.

A good old-fashioned paper trail of evidence helped solve the crime and now opens the door to other possible heists. The first criminal captured had apparently kept receipts from a home improvement store — great idea in case you need to return an item! — and police used the day/time information on the paper to access security camera footage showing the suspect and his accomplice buying  the hardware used in the criminal act.

According to the Seattle Times a second paper trail opens the door to an earlier wine crime.

A shipping label found in Harris’ wine-storage locker led detectives to a San Francisco wine consultant, who told police he purchased $100,000 of wine from Harris and another man in April or May, charging papers say. Through an online search, Detective Don Jones determined there had been a large wine theft in the Bay Area in March, the papers say.

Covering Their Tracks

KOMO news report added a another Mission Impossible-style detail about the carefully plotted plan to crack the wine storage facility.

New details from the charging documents filed Monday reveal police found a journal labeled “The Plan” in Harris’ SUV. The journal reportedly included a step-by-step guide to the crime, a list of needed equipment, steps to destroy any evidence, steps to ship the wine and how to leave the country.

In addition, police found a book titled “Thinking  About Crime,” as well as printed out documents called “Is it Accidental Fire or Arson?” and “How to Commit the Perfect Crime,” inside Harris’ house, according to the charging documents.

Where does the arson come in? Well, the thieves planned to cover their tracks in the most comprehensive possible way. They cut  gas lines and expected the building to blow up. Good fortune prevented any loss of life and good police work captured the criminals. Some of the victims are more upset about the idea of the flaming cover-up plan with its potentially tragic consequences than the actual robbery.

So case closed for now — the thieves in custody and a good chance that most of  the wine (minus one  empty Champagne bottle) has been recovered. But are these two common thieves the whole story? Or is there a criminal mastermind (not necessarily Rudi K) still at large making up a shopping lists for clients too smart to buy fakes but maybe not too smart to avoid stolen goods? Good question!

So welcome to the new era of wine crime where the questions a fine wine enthusiast needs to answer now range from red or white and Burgundy or Bordeaux all the way to real or fake, stolen or legit? Cheers!

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I can’t resist adding the opening credits from the Mission Impossible television show.

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