A New Year at The Wine Economist: Looking Back at 2014 and Ahead to 2015

This is the final Wine Economist post of 2014 and a good moment to look back at 2014 and ahead to 2015.

Looking Back at 2014

The year that is just ending was full of interesting experiences, many of which were reported here. I was fortunate to be asked to speak at wine gatherings in five U.S. states (Washington, Oregon, Idaho, California and Virginia) and four foreign countries (South Africa, Portugal, Italy and the U.K.).

The largest audience was over 2000 persons at the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium’s “State of the Industry” session. The smallest? Well, just a handful of people braved the harsh weather to come out for one local bookstore event earlier in the year, but they made up for small numbers with mighty enthusiasm.

The happiest audience? It would be hard to top the crowd that attended a Seattle World Affairs Council “extreme wine” dinner talk in February. Great food, wine and people and lots of extreme wine stories to tell.  I appreciate everyone who takes the time to come to one of my talks whether the audience is big or small.

Looking Forward to 2015

2015 looks like it will be a busy year, too.  I’ll be returning to the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium next month to contribute to the “State of the Industry” panel. Then I go north to Alaska to do two events in support of global education there. I’ll give a Wine Wars s talk for the Juneau World Affairs Council on February 11, 2015 and then forge on to Anchorage for an Extreme Wine fund-raising dinner event on February 12 for the Alaska World Affairs Council. I’m proud to help support global education through these World Affairs Council events.

One of the things I enjoy the most is speaking to regional wine groups, trying to bring a global perspective to their local discussions  and discourage intellectual “cellar palate.” This year I’m fortunate to be talking to the Idaho Wine Commission annual meeting in Boise on February 17 & 18, 2015 (here is the agenda) before going on the the Winery & Grower Alliance of Ontario “Insight 2015″ conference in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario on March 3, 2015. Both of these regions produce some stunning wines and are seek to attract the recognition they deserve. I’ll try to give them some food for thought.

On the publishing front, a new book is scheduled for 2015. , Money, Taste & Wine: It’s Complicated, will appear in August 2015. Yes, Amazon will let you pre-order that! And there’s a paperback version of Extreme Wine in the wings, too. Looks like a busy year already and it hasn’t even officially started!

Best wishes to Wine Economist readers. I wish you all health, happiness and great wine in the New Year. Cheers!

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Here’s a short video of highlights from Wine Vision 2014 that’s just been released. Thought you’d find it interesting.

Are Wine Prices Too High? Or Too Low? (Wine’s Golden Age & Its Discontents)

ukwineAre wine prices too high? Or are they too low? Two prominent wine writers raised these questions in different columns and it is worth pondering them separately and then together.

Tim Atkin: Race to the Bottom

Tim Atkin recently complained that British wine prices are too low in a column titled “Mad Frankie Fraser and the Price of Wine.” The average price of wine in the UK has risen slightly in recent years to £5.50  (about $8.75 at recent exchange rates), but the increase is mainly due to rising taxes (I have called this the UK government’s “war on wine”), which disproportionately impact lower-priced wines.

UK consumers resist paying more (having been trained by supermarkets to look for loss leader 3-for-£10 sales and BOGOF promotions), so the tax burden has been shifted back onto producers, who apparently have had to cut corners to cut cost and try to hang onto what were already slender margins.

The result, Atkin says, is that the quality of the average bottle of wine is now very low, which damages the reputation of wine generally. You used to be able to find a few nice wines at £5, Atkin says, but not any more with the tax soaking up so much of the retail price. £5.50 is the average and so if these wines are unworthy of attention, you can just imagine what must be true of the many wines selling for less.

Wine needs to cost more to be better, according to Atkin. Some UK consumers have figured this out, of course, and so the market, which is always segmented, has become even more bifurcated with one market for decent wines and another for mediocre stuff.

The problem is approaching crisis, according to Atkin. “I hesitate to say this, but maybe what wine needs is a minor scandal that exposes the way bargain basement wine is made, blended and traded,” he writes.  “Otherwise, I can’t see the UK’s polarised wine markets converging. It would take more than a sadist with a pair of pliers [the Mad Frankie Fraser of the column title] to change the wine buying habits of a nation.”

The Amazon-ification of Wine?

Atkin focuses on the impact of low prices on wine quality in the particular UK market environment, but there are other reasons to be concerned about bargain pricing. In the publishing industry, for example, some people are concerned about the larger implications of Amazon.com’s continuing quest for market share through low prices for books and ebooks.

The argument here is that by driving the price of books so low Amazon risks turning literature into a commodity. In the short term it might get more books and articles into more hands (and Kindle e-readers). But since consumers have a tendency to equate price with value, will this ultimately devalue the entire industry? Will literature become simple interchangeable “content?”

You can see how this argument might apply to wine. If wine is so cheap that it is no longer seen as having any special qualities, will it lose its distinctive identity and become just an alcoholic beverage, vulnerable to competition from beer, spirits and cider? Has this already happened? Perhaps it is has in the UK, especially if Atkin is right about collapsing quality.

This is food for thought, although the theory depends upon a lot of assumptions.  Some say that Amazon.com’s book prices are not so cheap as they once were because the company needs book profits to fund its rapid expansion into other markets.  Are book prices too low? I don’t know. Are wine prices too low? Or …  are they too high?museo

 Matt Kramer: Museum-ification

Here in the United States Wine Spectator columnist Matt Kramer is concerned that wine prices are too high. His article is called  “The Museum-ification of Wine: Have ultrahigh prices distorted our understanding and enjoyment of wine?” and its clear that the sort of wine he’s concerned about is much different from the nasty, cheap stuff that Atkin finds so revolting.

Fine wines are a luxury, Kramer notes, but it used to be possible to actually drink them occasionally and to really enjoy their special qualities. Now, however, the prices of the best wines get bid up to stratospheric levels and the top wines become trophies that are collected and exchanged but not necessarily consumed.

Kramer gets to taste these wines on occasion because he’s an influential wine writer, but even he isn’t able to actually drink them — to enjoy them in the ordinary way that wine is meant to be enjoyed. For the rest of us who are not famous wine writers, the wines might be like works of art in a museum. Look but don’t touch (or sip).

“Now, tasting for exploratory or analytical purposes, such as occurs with critics or anyone’s learning experience, is not only essential, but admirable,” Kramer writes. “But there’s a limit. If you’re buying wines only to “taste,” then you’ve museum-ified wine. And that, I feel free to say, is not just mistaken, but genuinely wrong. It objectifies wine. It denatures the experience, transmuting pleasure into comparative performance.”

Touchstones No More?

I framed this issue in a less sophisticated way in my 2013 book Extreme Wine (see chapter 5 on “Money Wine”), focusing on cultural significance. I compared the great Bordeaux wines to grand opera not museum displays. Once upon a time opera was the music of both the masses and elites, I wrote — everyone knew and sang, whistled or played the tunes and arias — it was a basic cultural reference point. And fine Bordeaux was once a fundamental reference point for wine in about the same way.

But things have changed. Opera, with its elaborate productions, costumes, orchestras, singers, chorus and sometimes dancers, is now perhaps the world’s most expensive art form and the prices of the best Bordeaux are sky high as well. Both risk being priced beyond the means of wine and music lovers and must work to maintain there relevance. Bordeaux almost disappeared here on the Pacific coast (Costco seems determined to bring it back now, if the current wine selection is any indication — or maybe they just got screaming deals).  Opera’s niche seems more secure, but is still vulnerable.

I  develop this idea in greater detail in Extreme Wine but hopefully you get the drift of the argument from this quick summary. Both opera and Bordeaux are still great and we love them, but they are now different in terms of their cultural significance, no longer the touchstones they once were.  Have they become museum-pieces as Kramer argues? Perhaps.

A Golden Age Slipping Away?

So are cheap wines too cheap and fine wines too expensive? Prices are what they are from an economic standpoint (it’s that demand and supply thing), but we can evaluate their effects. I think both Atkin and Kramer make good points, although it is hard to know how to change the dynamics they have identified.

Fortunately the cheap wine situation is different here in the U.S. where the war against wine was fought and lost back in the Prohibition era. It took a long time to recover, but we’ve won many battles since then and wine is on the upswing. I think the Two Buck Chuck revolution of the early 2000s raised the standard for inexpensive wines, for example. Today’s inexpensive wines  are not to everyone’s taste, but they undeniably achieve a commercial standard that the British, with their high taxes, might envy. The high prices at the top that Kramer bemoans and the problem he outlines exists just about everywhere, however.

Jancis Robinson recently called this a golden age for wine  and said that our challenge is to make the most of  it. I think she’s right.  Atkin and Kramer are doing their part to try to keep all the gains we’ve made from slipping away and we should help out.

It may be cold comfort to some, but there is a world of wines that exist between the extremes that Atkin and Kramer represent. Wines that are interesting and sometimes inspiring — and that people can and do buy, drink and enjoy.  That’s what we all should do at this holiday time of the year. Embrace the golden age: find these wines, share and enjoy them as they should be enjoyed.

So two cheers to the golden age of wine, with a third cheer in reserve to use if reserve if we can find a way to navigate the obstacles that Atkin and Kramer have charted. Cheers to all!

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Opera + Champagne = Cheers to Wine Economist readers all!

Wines & Vines: A Global Perspective on Regional Wine Identity

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

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

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

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

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

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

Auctions: Not Just About the Wine

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

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

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

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

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

The Cape Wine Auction

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

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

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

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

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

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Here are the charities that the Cape Wine Auction supports.

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

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

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

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

Connect the dots

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

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

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

The price is right?

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

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

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

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

No need to fear beer …

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

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

Wine Vision Takeaway Messages

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

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

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

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

 Big Bang Theory

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

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

UK Wine Trade at the Crossroads?

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

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

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

Race to the Bottom?

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

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

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

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

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

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

MacPhail Wine Lounge & The Barlow: A Sebastopol Terroirist Destination

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

A Terroirst Tour

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

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

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

MacPhail Family Wines

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

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

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

The Barlow Project

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

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

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

An Economic Development Model

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

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

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

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

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