Porto: Next Stop on the Wine Economist World Tour

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

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

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

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

>>><<<

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

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

Scan0004

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

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

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

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

Invisible Cities, Invisible Wines

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Empire of Imaginary Wines

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

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

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

Imaginary Wine: A New Wine Genre?

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

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

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

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

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.

>>><<<

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

Wine Wars Now Available as Audiobook

The audiobook version of Wine Wars has just be released by Audible.com.  Click on the book cover image to go to the Amazon.com page where you can listen to an excerpt, purchase the audiobook or get it free with a with a 30-day free trial of Audible.com.

Wine Wars is my first audiobook and I am interested to see how paper translates into an audio file.  It turns out that 261 pages of text take 8 hours and 31 minutes to read! Veteran narrator Clinton Wade is the reader and I think he does a great job.

Many of you who know me or have heard me speak have commented that you can almost hear my voice when you read the book, so I wonder if that holds up with the audiobook format?

If you have a chance, I’d appreciate it if you’d click on the image and listen to the audio sample for a few minutes. Use the comments section below to let me know if you think the book’s voice comes through effectively.

Plans are in the works for an audiobook edition of Extreme Wine, too. Watch this space for details.

Extreme Wine Experience: Bottled History at Seppeltsfield

P1060537Wine can be many things — geography, geology, culture, even poetry (according to Robert Lewis Stevenson). So it is no surprise that wine experiences — the real time, real life phenomena that leave such indelible impressions — can take many forms, too.

History in a Bottle

Wine is or can be bottled history, for example, and connect us not just with each other but with people and events from the past.  Sometimes this is purposeful as in collecting wines from particular years to commemorate marriages, births and other special events. But sometimes the historical narrative goes deeper. Wine as bottled history is what we sought when we visited Seppeltsfield winery in the Barossa valley and we found that and a good deal more.

The Seppeltsfield winery was founded in 1851, very early in the Australia’s wine history. The Seppelts were Silesian immigrants with ambitious plans to develop the region’s economy. Wine grapes and then a winery and a village and so on. A visit to Seppeltsfield today is an opportunity to experience this history in several ways.

Seppeltsfield wears its history proudly. The wooded picnic area by the car parks feels like it has been there for a long time, a sense that is reinforced as you walk into the winery complex, with old buildings decorated with elaborate ironwork grills that reminded Sue of New Orleans.

A Cascade of Wine

You can visit Seppeltsfield and just taste wines at the cellar door bar and the people we saw doing that were certainly having fun, but the programmed tours and tastings seem to be the way to go here. The Heritage Tour, for example, takes you through the restored family home where the Seppelts lived (tight quarters by modern standards, despite their wealth). A short walk across a creek-spanning bridge leads to old vineyards, warehouses (including one where a Master Chef episode was filmed) and — my favorite part of the trip — the old winery itself.

Built in 1888, the “gravity flow” winery cascades down a steep hillside. The grapes were delivered up top and the finished wine surged out the bottom with labor-saving gravity performing much of the hard work in between. Gravity flow wineries are always interesting but it is the scale of the this facility that got my attention — 120 big open top fermentation tanks reached from the bottom of the hill to the summit, connected by all manner of pipes and valves. At the time of its construction it was one of the world’s largest and most modern wineries! Now, over 125 years later, it remains an incredible sight.

The winery remained in use for a century (imagine that) until finally time and perhaps also deferred maintenance caused it to be shuttered. Restored and improved (the tanks are now lined with stainless steel) under the current ownership, the big wine plant is back in use, producing both the small quantity of Seppeltsfield still wines that are for sale at the winery and larger quantities of wine made under contract for other wineries. If the vineyard is the soul of a winery, the production facility is its heart and this heart is back at work pumping out both wine to fill the bottles and also revenues to finance the expensive plans to restore Seppeltsfield’s historical facilities.

P1060528

A Taste of History

The Heritage Tour let me see history, then we were offered a chance to taste it, too. Who could resist? Up the stairs we went to the second level where a barrel of fortified wine was kept for every year of the winery’s history since the 1880s. Many people don’t realize the quality and importance of Australia’s great fortified wines and this room with its deep aromas stressed the long history.

Would we like to have a tiny taste of wine from our birth years? Yes — who could resist — but Sue and I were born in the same year so we proposed to share a taste of our vintage and then to honor Sue’s father  back in Virginia by sampling his year — 1921. It was kinda of a scam to allow us to taste two vintages, I know, but it worked and we loved it. Wines this old are very different creatures as you might expect, but the taste of history was dark, rich, profound, moving. Quite an experience.

Seppeltsfield h0nors its own history by each year releasing a small amount of 100 year old fortified wine. We tasted 1913 (significant to economists like me as the year the Federal Reserve System was founded in the U.S.) and considered how much has changed and yet remained the same.  (Note: The Seppeltsfield website offers for sale a small quantity of 100 ml bottles of fortified wines dating  back to 1880. Not cheap, but probably priceless to the right person.)

We didn’t have time to sample all the experiences that Seppeltsfield offers. A tasting that features small plates paired with various styles of fortified wines was certainly tempting. And I’d love to return in the summer to enjoy the outdoor areas and the crowds that are drawn to them. But it is the history (and those great fortified wines) that I will always remember.

>>><<<

Thanks to Chad Elson for showing us around Seppeltsfield during our visit and providing the historical context for all that we saw and tasted. Thanks to Kym Anderson for sending us to Seppeltsfield to learn about Australian wine history first hand.

Extreme Wine Experience: Barossa’s Rockford Wines

rockfordWine is about stories and relationships and the experience that wineries provide their clients — buyers, visitors and wine club members — is very important. Wine tourists, for example, provide direct economic benefits in the form of hotel occupancy, restaurant business and of course cellar door and wine club sales.

More than the sum

But wine tourists and club members are more than the sum of their direct sale parts. They can ideally also become brand ambassadors for individual wineries and their regional associations.

One of wine’s major advantages over other fashionable beverages is its ability to capture a real sense of time and place and to connect people, product and producer in personal ways. You can add the wine experience to the list of strategies that successful wineries actively manage.

One of the great aspects of my job is that it allows me to survey different approaches to wine experience in many countries (Sue and I are in South Africa this month, for example, being wine tourists for a while  before I speak at a conference here). Today’s column is the first in a short series on Extreme Wine Experiences based on fieldwork we did in Australia a few months ago.

The Rockford Experience

Our first stop is Rockford Wines on Krondorf Road near Tanunda in the Borossa Valley. The wines we tasted were extremely good (including the iconic Basket Press Shiraz, of course, and the much admired sparkling Black Shiraz), but that’s not what made this an extreme wine experience.

The winery itself has a sense of place, with the shady trees, rustic stonework, corrugated steel roofs and very much still in use pioneer-era vintage equipment in the shed and cellar. Very atmospheric both outside and in, where fireplaces were lit to take off the chill. There’s a comfortable personality to the place that reflects the personality of the founder and winemaker, Robert O’Callaghan, who was nice enough to spend some time with us.

The Stonewallers

The members of the Rockford wine club are called Stonewallers and the name is significant on several levels. The winery has plenty of rustic stone walls, which I suppose is the obvious reference. But the Stonewallers are more than parts of the scenery — they are meant to be and seem to feel themselves to be a part of a family or perhaps the solid foundation of the operation.

Membership is limited as it often is in such cases, and wines are allocated. But, as O’Callaghan explained to us, the point of the club is to reward long-time supporters of the winery and to cultivate a long term relationship rather than to cash in on short term sales. You need to purchase from the winery for a number of  years before you might be invited into the club and then it is the persistence of your commitment rather than the size of the transaction that is rewarded.

An Inherited Trait?

Some folks of relatively  modest means are members, for example. We were told of families who saved up a little at a time over the year so that they might splurge at Christmas on their allocated half-dozen bottles of festive sparkling Black Shiraz.  The club stood by members having temporary fiscal troubles. And, yes, there had been some talk about whether Stonewallers could bequeath their memberships to favored heirs.

We happened to visit on the afternoon of one of the regular Stonewaller lunches, where members are invited to dine (at their own expense) in the winery and to enjoy the wines, the food and the company of fellow members. Back at our vineyard bed and breakfast (Blickinstal, on Rifle Range Road in Bethany) that evening we found that the other guests had come some distance in the middle of the week for the specific purpose of attending that luncheon.  There was a very strong sense of belonging among these folks, with one couple — the newest Stonewaller initiates — still almost giddy at their good fortune.

You can just imagine what ambassadors they must be, with their insider tales and first person accounts, and how well they must represent the wines and the winery to others. The atmosphere thus created seems to extend to wines not on the allocation-only list.

The O’Callaghans seem to have created a destination winery in an unlikely location half way up a dusty road a few kilometers outside of Tanunda. The thing that makes it extreme is that everything — the place, the values, the commitment to long term relationships — is at once so perfectly calculated and so completely authentic.

This is a place that knows what it is and seems to draw together people who wish to share — through wine and fellowship — those characteristics. So that’s extreme wine experience lesson one: wine and family. What’s next? A history lesson.

>>><<<

Thanks to the O’Callaghans for spending time with us. Thanks to Diana Phibbs for steering us to this fascinating experience.

Wine Economist World Tour Update

Sue and I are in Stellenbosch, South Africa today meeting with winemakers and tasting the great wines we have found here — look for a full report on our adventures in a few weeks.

The Wine Economist World Tour is picking up steam — here are details of some upcoming events.

From One Hemisphere to Another

On Thursday January 23 we will be at the Lord Charles Hotel in Somerset West, South Africa to speak at the Nedbank VinPro Information Day, which is the South Africa’s annual wine industry gathering. Click here for details. I’m really pleased to be back in South Africa and to be able to meet everyone and learn more about the wine industry here.

Fast forward to Tuesday, January 28 and we will be in Sacramento, California to speak at the Unified Wine and Grape Symposium, which is the biggest wine industry gathering in the Western Hemisphere. I am moderating the panel on “Using Data for Better Decision-Making” at 2 pm on Tuesday and then joining Nat DiBuduo and Jon Fredrikson in surveying “The State of the Industry” at 8:3o am on Wednesday January 29.

I’m also doing a book signing on Wednesday afternoon at 2pm at the Wine Appreciation Guild’s booth in the Unified’s trade show section.

Global + Local

I’ll be back at my home base in February, with several interesting local events on tap.

Join us in Seattle for a special wine talk and dinner sponsored by the World Affairs Council of Seattle on February 4, 2014. Click on this link for details.  Serafina and Cicchetti are the hosting restaurants, so you know the food will be extremely good. And we have chosen a global selection of “Extreme Wines” to go with it. Great food and wine, great fun and an opportunity to support the World Affairs Council and its programs. Hope to see you there!

Even closer to home, I’ll be speaking and signing books at the iconic King’s Books in Tacoma at 7 pm on the evening of February 13, 2014.

You can join us for another book talk and signing the following week at the University Place branch of the Pierce County Library at 7 pm on Thursday February 20, 2014.

Finally, we are looking forward to seeing all our east side friends at a wine and book event at the University Bookstore in Bellevue at 6 pm on Thursday March 13, 2014. Click on this link for details.

Hope to see you at one of these events or somewhere else down the wine road. Cheers!

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,762 other followers