Scratching the Surface of Sicilian Wine

I was intrigued when we were asked if we’d like to sample wines from a Sicilian cooperative winery. The history of Sicily’s wine industry — and the role of cooperatives within it — is a roller-coaster tale and such sagas in wine do not always have happy endings. I was thirsty to learn more about the situation today.

I learned about the history of Sicily’s wine sector from The World of Sicilian Wine by Bill Nesto MW and Frances Di Savio (see the Wine Economist review here). Wine in Sicily has been buffeted by a combination of shifts in the external markets and changing domestic incentives. It is no wonder that cooperatives arose to help growers navigate the ups and downs and gain a measure of control over their own destinies.  Cooperatives spring up in times of crisis, but it is their ability to adapt when conditions change that is most important.

Incentives Matter

Sometimes the economic incentives the cooperatives and other wine actors faced favored quality, but all too often quantity was the dominant strategy. This was particularly true during the years when EU wine policy unintentionally encouraged over-production of low-quality wines with no obvious market potential. These unsalable wines, the source of the famous EU “wine lake,” were bought up and distilled into industrial alcohol, a process that was not sustainable in economic, political, or environmental terms.

The wine lake days are gone — EU incentives now favor market-driven wine production — and the wines have changed faster than their reputations in many cases. Not all wineries have raised their game, however, and that inconsistency is a headwind.

The wines we sampled were from the Cantine Ermes cooperative, which was founded in 1998 in the Belice Valley in northwest Sicily. The cooperative is very large with 2373 members farming more than 12,000 hectares and operating 11 winemaking facilities.  In total Cantine Ermes produces 11.5 million bottles annually, which are sold in 29 countries around the world. Does this surprise you? Cooperatives are important in Italian wine, more important than most people realize.

Beyond Low-Hanging Fruit

One criticism I have heard of many Italian cooperatives is that they cut their own throats by focusing too much on bulk wine and private label products — they take this low-hanging fruit and fail to build the brands that might yield higher margins that would improve their economic sustainability.

Some of the deep dark red wine made in Sicily, for example, is sold off to be blended with lighter Italian reds to give the result more body, color, and alcohol — a practice that has been going on for a long time. Cantine Ermes gives attention to several brands, however, including the Vento di Mare wines that we sampled.

Vento di Mare means sea winds and so it was inevitable that we would ask our friends R and M to sample the wines with us. Their visit to Sicily was punctuated by gale force sea winds that nearly blew them off the island and caused sea foam to pile up on the shoreline like drifts of snow.

The three wines we tasted were screwcap-topped bottles of Grillo DOC, Nerello Mascalese IGT, and Moscato Frizzante that retail for about $12 here in the US — right about the center of the retail wine wall in today’s market.  The Grillo had nice varietal flavor and good balance. It seemed very versatile and would pair with many dishes as well as on its own. It was probably our favorite wine.

The red Nerello Mascalese was more intense and called out for a bold food pairing. Nerello Mascalese is the most-planted red winegrape in Sicilty according to my sources, and it was easy to see how it could be the foundation of a number of interesting blends as well as a single-variety wine.

The Moscato was fizzy and slightly sweet. Just 10.5% abv, the wine has a secondary fermentation for two months in an autoclave and then ages another two months on its lees. Aromatic (think orange blossoms) and nicely balanced. Like the Grillo it would work in a number of situations. Very pleasant indeed.

Sicilian Wine Ambassadors

We were impressed with the Vento di Mare wines and a bit surprised at the affordable entry-level price point. Other Cantine Ermes brands probe the higher reaches of the wine wall. I hope the attractive packaging and price point encourage consumers to give these wines a try (and that some restaurants see the potential for wine-by-the-glass sales). These wines are good ambassadors for Sicily and its cooperative wineries.

Since we aren’t able to travel to explore the wine world these days as we did in pre-pandemic times, we find it useful to focus on invitations like the one we received from Cantina Ermes. Clearly we have just scratched the surface of the wines of Sicily and the progress of Sicilian cooperatives, but we are encouraged, nonetheless. These are good wines that chart a path out of Sicily’s quantity-driven past towards a more sustainable future.

A Toast to Ferrari Trento & the Year of Sparkling Wine

2022 is here and a rear-view mirror look at 2021 reveals a number of interesting wine trends. High on the list of highlights is the surge in sales of sparkling wine.

It is conventional wisdom that wine consumption is occasion-driven. Generally packaged in a multi-serve 750 ml bottle, many consumers need a reason to pull the cork or twist the screwcap. (There are exceptions — I have friends who insist they need no excuse at all …)

Time to Pop a Cork?

Sparkling wine is even more occasion-driven here in the United States, where it is often reserved for special celebrations such as birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, and so forth. This fact was bad news for sparkling wine when we entered the time of covid in 2020 because those festive gatherings disappeared or were in any case much smaller. The spaces we think of for those celebrations such as restaurants were greatly diminished in number and scope. Sparkling wine sales took a big hit.

So one of the pleasant surprises of 2021 is sparkling wine’s rising sales volume in a relatively stagnant overall market.  Part of this is due to re-opening of on-premise venues where friends and family can gather over bubbles. But I think there is something more going on.

Consumption may still be occasion-driven, but it seems to me that the occasions have changed in at least two ways. First, given the impact of covid restrictions, it seems like many have opened themselves up to sparkling wine’s ability to brighten any day and not just Hallmark card celebrations. Thanksgiving at the Wine Economist household, for example, featured a different sparkling wine on each evening of the extended weekend. Bubbles work nicely with the rich food and they can sure elevate leftovers!

To Champagne … and Beyond!

A second change is that the sparkling wine spectrum, which starts with Champagne and then fans out in all directions in terms of style, grape variety, and origin, has broadened. Prosecco’s great pre-pandemic success has continued, but there is more to it than that.

An unlikely place to observe this important trend is on the victory podium of a Formula 1 race, where drivers have for some years now celebrated by gulping down and fiercely spraying jeroboams of Champagne.

This season, however, the wine of choice wasn’t from France (although it was made from the same grape varieties using the same traditional method). It came from the mountain vineyards of Trentino in Italy and was made by Ferrari —  Ferrari Trento, the Trentodoc wine producer, not the Modena-based maker of the sleek red race cars with the prancing horse badge.

Ferrari Trento is one of the world’s leading sparkling wine producers. Earlier this year it was named  Sparkling Wine Producer of the Year at the Champagne & Sparkling Wine World Championship.  The brand is known throughout Italy and beyond. Indeed, Wine Intelligence named Ferrari the most recognized wine brand in Italy. That’s wine brand, not just sparkling wine brand.

When wine lovers think of sparkling wine in Italy, Ferrari Trento is on their minds (along with Prosecco maker Bisol 1542, a sister winery in the Lunelli Group). Ferrari Trentto exports 15% of their production to over 70 countries (the US, Germany, and Japan are the top three export markets). Italy’s domestic market accounts for 85% of sales.

Taking Ferrari for a Test Drive

We have been meaning to visit the Ferrari Trento headquarters for several years, but it just never happened and now with covid protocols the trip is postponed again. So Sue and I jumped at an invitation to participate in an online media tasting event with Marcello Lunelli, Ferrari Trento’s chief winemaker. We were sent three wines: – Formula 1 Limited Edition NV blanc de blancs, Ferrari Perlé 2016, and Giulio Ferrari Riserva del Fondatore 2008. All three wines are 100% Chardonnay hand-picked from high-elevation mountain vineyards in the Trentodoc zone. Super wines, but very different.

The NV Formula 1 spent 38 months on yeast but was noteworthy for its freshness. It’s the wine that new F1 Champion Max Verstappen can be seen chugging from the big bottle in the image above. Bone dry and refreshing — that’s my tasting note. It is too good to gulp down like that and I hope McLaren F1 driver Daniel Ricciardo doesn’t insist on a “shoey” — drinking the wine from his own sweaty shoe — the next time he’s on the podium.

The Perlé wine is a step up the ladder in terms of grape selection and winemaking — the wine rests at least 50 months on yeast. What struck us about this wine were its savory notes, which called out for food. It paired nicely with schnitzel and salad. About a million bottles are made each year, a significant quantity given that the entire Trentodoc appellation accounts for about 20 million bottles of sparkling wine each year.

The Giulio Ferrari Riserva del Fondatore is the summit for Ferrari Trento, with grapes from a special vineyard and aged on the yeast for at least 10 years. I admit that I haven’t had the nerve to pop the cork on this wine yet. It may be that everyone is more casual about sparkling wine occasions now, but this wine seems to demand a serious occasion, especially given its aging potential.

The Year of Sparkling Wine

It was fascinating to hear Marcello Lunelli talk about his wines and winemaking in the Trentodoc zone. The mountain environment presents challenges, of course, but also opportunities, he noted. The winegrowers expect climate change to increase growing season temperatures, for example, which can be mitigated to a certain extent by establishing new vineyards at even higher elevations.

Lunelli recognizes that wines like his are luxury products and you can see it in the glass, the bottle, the presentation. Given this, you might be puzzled at the images of Max and Lewis and the other F1 drivers chugging Ferrari Trento wines and spraying each other and the crowd. How does this make sense given the wine’s luxury cachet?

Well, I think it might be one of the many reasons why 2021, Ferrari Trento’s first year with Formula One, is my Year of Sparkling Wine. F1 is a global phenomenon and Ferrari Trento’s place on the podium sends a strong message to F1’s vast global audience about sparkling wine in general and wines from the Italian northeast in particular.

So a toast to 2021, the Year of Sparkling wine, and to Ferrari Trento and all the other producers who have made up appreciate the beauty of bubbles to enrich our lives.

A Keynesian Theory of Investing in Fine Wine

Fine wine has been a hot alternative investment category this year, as Blake Gray recently reported in his Wine-Searcher column. Fine wine investment is a very specialized field and anyone who is interested in taking the plunge is advised to get acquainted with research on the topic, especially including the reports from Liv-Ex, a leading fine wine trading platform.

Drinkers, Collectors, Investors

I divide the world of fine wine buyers into three over-lapping groups: drinkers, collectors, and investors. It is important to “know thyself” in this taxonomy. We are drinkers here at the Wine Economist household and, although we have a few special bottles squirreled away to share with friends at the right moment, it isn’t a collection or investment.

I have only a few friends who are really fine wine investors, although many of the collectors I know sometimes speak about their collections in investment terms. The key is what you do when a particular wine has reached its market peak. Do you drink, sell, or hold?

An investor sells, of course, and takes the profit if there is one. A collector holds because now the wine is ever more precious as a collectable.  A drinker has no decision to make — the wine is already gone. What do you do?

I was introduced years ago to a wealthy man who generously endowed scholarships at my university. He liked to talk about wine and economics, so we got along very well. “I never pay for my wine,” he once told me. For every case of fine wine he bought to drink he also bought one with the clear intention to sell for profit. The investment gains paid for the wines he drank and, since he sometimes shared bottles with us, I cannot criticize his logic!

Drinkers buy what they want to drink, obviously, which is a matter of personal taste. Collectors buy what they want to hold, which can be influenced by many factors including status and rarity (with a nod to economist Thorsetin Veblen, I have called this “conspicuous non-consumption”). What should investors buy? This got me thinking about John Maynard Keynes, one of the 20th century’s most influential economists.

Keynes and the Beauty Contest Dilemma

Keynes was an investor and a wine lover as well as an economic thinker, but I can’t find evidence that he invested in fine wine. From what I know he was more of a drinker, like me. When asked late in life if he had any regrets, he replied that he regretted that he did not drink more Champagne.

It is possible Keynes’s advice about investment in general can provide some useful insights into fine wine investment. Keynes once compared investment in the stock market to a kind of contest that was popular in the Sunday newspapers of his time. The newspapers printed pictures of a number of women and asked readers to rank them according to their attractiveness — a classic “beauty contest.” Times were clearly different — I cannot imagine such a contest today, can you?

The winner of the reader contest wasn’t the entrant who got the answer right — because there was no right answer. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder or, as an economist would say, de gustibus non est disputandum. No, the winner was the person whose choices came closest to the choices of all who entered. The wisdom of crowds in action!

So, Keynes noted, while a naive person would just choose the photo that seemed the prettiest, a clever person would try to guess what others would do and rank them accordingly regardless of personal preference. And a strategic person would assume that others were clever and so take this into account.

The winner, according to Keynes, is the person who best guesses what other people will think other people will do. And that, my friends, was the foundation of Keynes’s investment strategy, or at least the part that he discussed in one of his books. You don’t buy shares in the company you think will be most successful, you look for the stock that other people (the ones who will buy the shares from you at a profit) will think other people (the ones who they hope will buy the shares from them) will favor.

Other People’s Money

Do you see how this analysis applies to fine wine investment? Wine drinkers buy what they like and so are likely to make wide-ranging purchases since wine offers such great variety.

Wine collectors sometimes buy what will impress their friends and try to guess what they might be and so their purchases are likely to have a much narrower range.  Wine investors, however, make purchases based on what they think other people will think other people will do with their money and so are likely to focus on a relatively small number of “blue chip” wines — those that are most likely to meet the “other people – other people” criterion.

Many have noted that the range of investment wines seems to have broadened to include some American and Italian wines in addition to top tier Bordeaux, Burgundy, and Champagne. That is a good thing, since investment markets should be broad and deep if they are to serve real investment needs by providing liquidity and the opportunity for diversification.

Otherwise investing in wine or anything else is a little bit like investing in emerging economy stock markets, which are often dominated by a small number of equities and experience boom-bust price behavior driven by liquidity dynamics.  If your 401K account includes investments on the Turkish stock market, you know what I am talking about.

Bottom line: I am not going to advise you whether to invest in fine wine or not or which bottles are most likely to pay off. But this advice I give freely: wine investor, know thyself!

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Sue and I wish all Wine Economist readers a happy holiday season!

Frogs, Tides, and Wine: the Adventure Capitalism Boom

How is the changing investment landscape affecting the wine industry? Some thoughts on adventure capitalism and wine (and frogs and tides at the very end).

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The cover story on the November 27 issue of the Economist newspaper was “Adventure capitalism: startup finance goes global.” It wasn’t, as this illustration might suggest, a story about Bezos and Branson and how their billions were powering rocket adventure tourism in near space. That’s interesting, but it’s another story.

VC become Ad-Venture Capital

The article traces how venture capital (VC) has gone from a niche investment space to something that seems to be much broader and more pervasive. VC is usually thought of as early-stage private investment in privately-held tech and science firms. The old world of VC was mainly focused on the US and just a few sectors — think Silicon Valley start-ups. The idea was to invest early on in what in the best-case scenario might turn out to be a unicorn firm — one that would achieve a billion-dollar valuation while still in private hands and then go public in a big way. Ka-Ching!

High risk is one reason the Economist calls this Adventure (rather than Venture) capitalism.  VC is inherently risky. The investments are by their nature illiquid and you need to hit the target with some very successful investments to offset the inevitable disappointments. I suppose it is a little bit like the old joke about the wine business — the best way to make a small fortune is to start with a big one. But of course some investors do very well indeed.

The Economist argues that VC is changing — being disrupted just as it has disrupted in the past. The VC world has broadened beyond the narrow set of sectors of the past and beyond the US. It has also changed as huge amounts of money have poured into VC firms. The fact that there are more investors taking risks doesn’t make the system less risky.

The Problem of Return-Free Risk

There are a number of factors powering the rise of adventure capitalism, but perhaps the most important is the scarcity of positive real returns in some traditional sectors and the consequent logic of assuming higher risk to achieve higher return. Necessity as much as entrepreneurship drives the trend.

It used to be said that US Treasury bonds were “risk-free return,” for example, and so good foundational investments for a variety of individuals and institutions. Now, an investment advisor I know says, Treasuries are “return-free risk.” The interest return is negative in real terms (below the prevailing rate of inflation) and prices are volatile. This fact forces investors to explore all the nooks and crannies of the financial world to meet their needs.

The VC boom isn’t the only example of their trend. You might not have heard of SPACs (special purpose acquisition companies) before this year, but they are now a big enough market niche to be going through their own boom-bust cycles. Some call them “blank check funds,” which suggests something about the times when high net-worth investors decide it is a good idea to hand a financial advisor (sometimes paired with a sports star or celebrity of some sort) a blank check to buy a private company.

There are also NFTs (non-fungible tokens) that sometimes trade for high amounts. I suppose there could be a SPAC that invests in funds that acquire NFTs — what could be better? And I understand there are active markets in virtual assets on metaverse platforms.

This Changes Everything?

If you want to consider how far investors will go to get a return, consider that huge amounts that some recording artists have received for their back catalogues of songs. A steady flow of fees from music streaming services apparently looks really good when the alternative is something like return-free risk.

The list of investors who are plunging into the world of adventure capitalism investing is amazing, including billionaires and speculators, of course, but also what we might usually think of as very conservative institutions such as university endowment funds and public sector pension funds. (I recently reviewed the endowment report of a major mid-west university that had 22% of its assets invested in private equity and venture capital.)

These institutional investors, who once focused on blue-chip investments, now find themselves pulled into higher risk illiquid investments by the gravity created by their need to achieve certain rate of return targets. Most institutions that I monitor aim to increase their private equity and VC profile in the future.

One important question is this: what happens to all of these investments when the economic environment changes, as it looks like it is doing now, with higher inflation pushing interest returns up and the big quantitative easing flows tapering off at least here in the United States?

Wine Investment Booms

So how is this a wine story? The Economist is right that investments in risky and illiquid assets is no longer limited to traditional venture capital firms and Silicon Valley sectors. It is hard to follow the wine business in 2021 without noting all of the investment activity. Acquisitions (Sycamore’s purchase of Ste Michelle Wine Estates, for example), SPACs, and big moves by some institutional investors, too. Lots of money searching for returns in winery and vineyard investments.

Everyone seems to want to get on the NFT bandwagon, for example. Even Penfolds, the iconic Australian brand owned by Treasury Wine Estates is piling in. According to one report,

Australia’s most celebrated wine-maker is going digital with the announcement that Penfolds is teaming up with non-fungible token (NFT) marketplace BlockBar for an innovative new project. The partnership will see a limited edition NFT tied to the impossibly rare Penfolds Magill Cellar 3 barrel made from vintage 2021. According to the iconic Australian brand, only 300 will be made available, for the cool sum of USD$130,000 (AUD$180,00).

And Penfolds isn’t the only producer to exploit interest in NFTs. Barossa winemaker Dave Powell is offering the entire 2021 vintage of his wine through sale of NFTs. Is the wine’s value greater when linked to a NFT? Many apparently think so in the same way that some firms are trying to raise their profile by linking to blockchain (Square, the payments company, is now Block).

Better than Birkin?

Fine wine has done very well as an “alternative” investment in this environment and I have received several emails promoting funds to invest in fine wine assets. According to a recent article in Forbes, fine wines topped the list of alternative investments over the last decade, a list that includes blue chip art and furniture, classic autos, and colored diamonds. Wine’s rise to the top of the pile was noteworthy because it has now outperformed the previous leader … handbags! Gosh those Hermès Birkin bags did really well — I assume you have a bunch of them in your retirement portfolio, yes? Nah — me neither.

I think it is clear that wine is part of the adventure capitalism story — how could it escape such a broad, powerful trend? So the questions I asked above apply to wine, too. What happens when the economic environment changes, as it seems to be doing now? Which of these investment strategies will endure and which will fade away?

Frogs and Tides

Many, including the Economist, seem to be enthusiastic about the adventure capitalism trend and all that goes with it, but it makes me nervous. It seems to me that this is a process that normalizes risk without actually reducing it. Having taught university classes on financial crises and written a couple of books on this topic, I take risk very seriously (and I don’t think I am alone).

The current investment environment in wine and more generally reminds me of the parable of the frog in the pot on the stove. The water heats up slowly, so you kind of get used to it. Once you realize that things have started to boil up it is too late.

I will therefore be watching closely as the monetary life-support system tapers off and interest rates rise. As Warren Buffet is supposed to have said, you never know who is swimming naked until the tide goes out!

Gearing Up for the 2022 Unified Wine & Grape Symposium

The Unified Wine & Grape Symposium is North America’s largest wine industry gathering — a vast trade show and ambitious collection of seminars and presentations with something new and useful for every wine professional.

The 2020 Unified was the last in-person wine conference that Sue and I attended before the pandemic closures and protocols hit. So we are looking forward with more than the usual amount of excitement to the 2022 Unified, which is scheduled for January 25-27 in Sacramento.

Trade Show by the Numbers

Last year’s Unified was a virtual event and a very good one, but wine is a people business and nothing can fully replace the in-person experience. The two-day trade show will take place in the newly renovated SAFE Credit Union Convention Center on January 26 and 27. Covid protocols will be followed, of course.

You will find 760 booths and 40 large vineyard and winery machinery areas filled with just about everything anyone might need to grow grapes and make and sell wine. If you want to know what’s new, this is the place to find out.

If you haven’t been to the Unified before, you might enjoy reading New York Times wine expert Eric Asimov’s report on his visit to the trade show in 2017. It is interesting to see the event through Asimov’s critical eyes.

Problems and Opportunities

The 2022 conference program features an expanded three full days of meetings January 25-27. The typically ambitious agenda is organized around wine industry problems and opportunities as the Daily Schedule makes clear. There is a strong emphasis on positive take-aways — practical approaches to dealing with wine industry issues and information to help us all make sense of our changing world.

The wine world has changed dramatically in just a short period of time and the themes of this year’s program take this into account, with sessions on environmental shifts, smoke taint problems, new marketing directions, and attracting and retaining essential talent. Two sessions are in Spanish.

State of the Wine Industry

Once again this year I will be fronting the Wednesday morning “State of the Industry” session. I’ll set the stage by analyzing the changing wine market from a global perspective then the all-star line-up takes over: Danny Brager (changing consumer trends), Steve Fredricks (the supply side of the wine market), Mario Zepponi (investment trends, M&A activity), and Jeff Bitter (grower trends and issues).

Danny Brager returns to the podium at the session’s end to recognize wineries that were particularly successful navigating the wine dark seas in 2021. Lots of information and analysis packed into a 2-1/2 hour session.

I don’t have to tell you that 2021 has not been the easiest year for those of us in the wine industry, so look forward to honest, straightforward analysis with a focus on practical strategies as we move ahead into the uncertain future.

The Unified is back. See you there!

What’s New (and Not-So-New) in Port Wine

I was binging on YouTube videos from Kevin Zraly’s 2009 “60 Second Wine Expert” series when I stumbled upon his take on Port wine. Sue and I are fans of Port, so I was a little disappointed to see Zraly reinforce some of the attitudes that hold back the growth of the Port market. Port? Complicated to understand and you should really only think about drinking it when your kids are asleep, it is cold and snowy outside, you have a warm fire in the fireplace, and a loyal dog at your feet. That was the  Zraly video’s advice on Port.

This isn’t how I think of Port and it isn’t a picture that is really helpful to Port producers who want to draw consumers into the Port experience. Maybe talking about Port in a beat-the-clock 60 second video doesn’t do it justice. What are Port producers doing to get their message out?

Taylor’s Port Season

There is no particular season for Port at the Wine Economist household — different types and styles of Port lend themselves to different occasions year around. Summertime backyard meals, for example. seem to begin with our favorite White Port spritz, often featuring Taylor’s Chip Dry. Taylor’s and its parent, the Fladgate Partnership, have put all their chips on the Port market — they do not make any other styles of wine, which means they need to expand the perceived Port-drinking windows beyond Zraly’s snowy snowy night.

As you can see from their recent promotional video, Taylor’s has declared “Port season.”  Fun, festive, romantic, a glass of Taylor’s LBV Port seems to make any occasion special. The trick, of course, is getting that first glass poured so that people can see what they have been missing.

New Looks and Old

They say that you can’t judge a book by its cover, but everyone does it all the time. You eat (and drink) with your eyes first, the ubiquitous “they” also say, so it isn’t surprising that Port producers are tweaking their packaging in many ways to try to catch consumer eyes.

Graham’s Six Grapes Reserve Port is versatile and delicious — Sue like’s it with dark chocolate “cat’s tongue” treats. Symington Family Estates, which owns the Graham’s brand, has freshened-up the presentation with a redesigned bottle that tweaks the presentation in subtle ways to give a more premium look and feel.

Down the road at Taylor’s you can find both old and new packaging efforts. The new is the Chip Dry Portotonic, a White Port Spritz in a can.  Pretty radical for Port! At the same time, Taylor’s has launched a series of special Reserve Port packages that invoke Port’s long history by drawing on bottle designs from the past. The most recent edition is called “The Mallet,” Here is the history behind this unexpected bottle shape.

At the beginning of the 18th century, bottles were hand blown and bulbous in shape. They could not be laid on their sides and were therefore unsuitable for long term ageing. Instead, they were used mainly to convey the wine from the wine merchant’s cask to the consumer’s table. Because bottles were expensive, they were re-used and often displayed the crest or initials of their owner.

As the 18th century progressed, bottles became taller and more cylindrical.  The early bulbous ‘onion’ shape gradually evolved into a more elongated, straight-sided bottle with a longer neck.  The first stage in this evolution was the appearance of the ‘mallet’ shaped bottle which had become well established in England by around 1730.  Like their predecessors, the first ‘mallet’ bottles were squat in shape.  Their sides were often tapered towards the shoulder rather than completely parallel. However, by around 1750, the ‘mallet’ bottle had developed a more cylindrical form.  This Limited Edition bottle is inspired by the ‘mallet-cylinder’ bottle from that period, the immediate predecessor of today’s cylindrical wine bottle.

Cocktail Hour for Port 

Although it is hard to top a glass of Port by itself, there is no denying that it also makes a great base for cocktails (as the White Port spritz example shows). The combination of great flavor and lower alcohol (compared with spirits) is very appealing.

Graham’s Blend No. 12 Ruby Port has been introduced to fill this market niche and it comes in this colorful bottle, which hints at the fruit flavors to be found within. The idea is to appeal to consumers who don’t drink Port but are interested in experimenting with cocktail beverages. As Vicky Symington notes,

It has been great to see people explore the Graham’s range after discovering port through the Blend Nº5 White Port, often in a port & tonic. We are confident that Blend Nº12 will also resonate with people who don’t typically drink port – be it as a delicious and approachable straight serve or mixed in a long serve.

The Classics Endure

I admire that Port can both change and endure. It adapts to satisfy each generation as it emerges, but doesn’t forget who it is. That’s something we can all appreciate.

So I wasn’t completely surprised when Sue announced her choice of a wine to pair with dessert for Thanksgiving:  Sandeman 30 years old Tawny Port that we received as a gift on a visit to Porto. The back label advised to pour the wine into large glasses and let it sit a short time to allow the aromas to unfurl themselves.

Your patience will be rewarded, the label advised. And it was! Cheers to Port wine and Port lovers everywhere.

An Economic Theory of Thanksgiving Wine

Thursday is Thanksgiving Day here in the United States and many of us will gather with family and friends for the holiday feast. If you have been invited to share Thanksgiving with others (and if you are interested enough in wine to be reading this column), then you must confront a perennial problem: what wine should  you bring?

Deadweight Loss?

Why is the choice of a gift wine an economic problem? Well, it isn’t much of a problem if you plan to drink it all yourself. Then you should just buy what you like — but don’t expect to be invited back next year!

Since the point will be to share the wine with other guests, the choice is more difficult because just as you can’t be sure exactly what dishes will be served, you cannot be certain what wines the other guests will like the best.

There is a pretty good chance that you will experience what economists call a “deadweight loss” which is more or less where the benefit that the guests derive from your wine is less than what they’d have gained from a simple cash transfer.   The story (which is possibly true) is told about the time Malcolm Forbes threw himself an extravagant birthday party where the guests were served some of the rarest, most expensive wines on the planet. Forbes went from guest to guest pouring the evening’s show-stopper wine. Finally he came to Warren Buffet. Wine? said Forbes with a smile. No thanks, Buffet replied. I’ll take the cash!

Warren Buffet understood the concept of deadweight loss and wanted nothing to do with it!

The Problem of Other People’s Money

The problem is asymmetric information. You know your own preferences and budget situation pretty well and so you have a fairly good idea of what you are giving up when you buy an expensive bottle of wine as a gift. But you don’t know the preferences of the other guests very well or whether they would prefer your wine or a simple cash payment to be spent on something else. You can’t be sure that their gain is greater than  your loss.

This leads (I hope you are following along) to the conclusion that you are most efficient when you spend your own money on yourself because you can fairly well calculate both the gain and the opportunity cost. You are less efficient (in terms of deadweight loss) when spend your money on others. You are even less efficient when you spend other people’s money on yourself. And you are hopelessly inefficient when you spend others people’s money on other people. What do you think?

So it would seem like the most efficient thing to do would be to decline that dinner invitation and stay home with your wine. How sad! No wonder economics is called the “dismal science.”

It’s Not About the Wine

But here’s the notion that saves the day. Thanksgiving is not really about the wine (or the turkey or the green bean casserole), it is about the sharing. Thanksgiving is more public or communal good than private good. And so, if you do it well, the particular elements of Thanksgiving including the wine will play a secondary role to the general warmth of the shared experience.

I used to get frustrated when wine wasn’t the centerpiece of gatherings, some of which were actually organized to celebrate the wine. But then I got over it. Wine is doing its job when it makes everything else better. Don’t you agree?

This fact changes a bit how you might approach your choice of a Thanksgiving wine to share. Cost is nearly irrelevant. Picking a wine that draws undue attention to you (and  your fine taste or great wealth) almost defeats the purpose.  A modest wine that makes everyone smile — maybe something with bubbles? — will serve very well. And then you can concentrate on what Thanksgiving is really about.

That said, no one will complain if you bring a nice Port, Madeira, or Sauternes to savor at the end of the meal.

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Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. Enjoy the wine and the feast and most of all each other!

Three Things I Learned About Wine Marketing from Kevin Zraly

Eric Asimov‘s recent “The Pour” New York Times column on Kevin Zraly and his career in wine is titled “The Accidental Wine Educator” and it is required reading for anyone interested in making or selling(or drinking”  wine. It is a fine tribute to Zraly, an iconic figure who has done (and is still doing) so much to shape the American wine market.

Zraly is forever linked to Windows on the World, the fantastic restaurant at the top of New York’s World Trade Center back in the days before 9/11. His work there produced the Windows on the World Wine School, and a popular and influential book, The Windows on the World Complete Wine Course.

My first experience of the Zraly magic happened many years ago. Sue and I had the pleasure to dine at Windows on the World just once — in the company of her parents, Mike and Gert. I can remember everything about the view (the Statue of Liberty seemed like a bright little jewel down in harbor far below us) and the company, but alas nothing in particular about the food. I’m pretty sure that the wine we drank was a modest cru Beaujolais — a choice that Zraly (who probably put the wine on the list) would approve because of its ability to pair with many meal choices.

I finally met Zraly and experienced his magic in person in 2015 when I spoke at an Italian wine conference in New York City. The weather outside was terrible — one of those frigid winter blasts — so we were all holed-up in the Waldorf-Astoria hotel — we pretended it was a cruise ship filled with Italian food and wine — best voyage ever!

Zraly was there to give a seminar on Italian sparkling wines and it was the hottest ticket on the program. A big crowd struggled to fit into the room and when I looked around the audience was a who’s who of wine. No one — me least of all! — wanted to miss whatever Kevin Zraly had to share with us.

But Zraly fooled us. He looked out at his audience and decided to “flip” the classroom, deftly orchestrating and organizing a terrific seminar where the audience took the stage, with Zraly as the wise stage manager and conductor. There was a ton of wine IQ in that room, but I think everyone came out knowing more than when they went in. And it was Zraly what did it. Amazing.

Asimov’s NYT column gave me a chance to remember and appreciate those moments and it also made me think about the secrets of Zraly’s success and how those secrets need to be constantly remembered and refreshed. Here are three things Zraly taught me.

Wine Won’t Sell Itself

I suspect that most people who came to the Windows on the World restaurant were interested in having a bottle or glass of wine with their meal. It was part of the experience. But that doesn’t mean that they didn’t need help. Zraly realized that the success of his wine program depended on his staff, their knowledge of wine in general and the restaurant’s wine list in particular, and their ability to answer questions and guide diners towards that three-star wine experience they were seeking.

And so he became a wine educator offering classes first to his own staff and then, eventually, to the public through the Windows on the World Wine School. Zraly’s evolution from wine expert to wine educator in order to sell wine reminds me of someone I met at the Walla Walla Saturday Market a few years ago. He was selling organic meat (goat and chicken, as I recall).  “I’m a redneck educator,” he said by way of introduction. His products sold for premium prices and he understood that consumers wouldn’t pay those prices unless they understood the benefits of his free-range organic goods. So he had to educate them before he could make the sale.

No one has to buy a particular wine or wine at all, but the more they understand about wine the more likely they are to be drawn into the world of wine. Zraly has probably helped sell millions of cases of wine over the years through his work as a strictly-not-redneck wine educator.

See Wine Through the Consumer’s Eyes

If you want to get a sense of Zraly’s wine class, simply pick up a copy of his best-selling Windows on the World Complete Wine Course. The book is based on the course and you can sometimes hear Kevin’s voice as you read it.

A lot of wine books are organized around geography: old world regions, new world regions, with sections on wine grape varieties and other topics. But people aren’t thinking about the world atlas when they sit down in a restaurant to order, so if you want to reach them you need to start from a different place.

Zraly’s book is organized around a restaurant wine list. Red wines, white wines, sparkling, Rosé, and so on. The goal isn’t to make the reader a wine expert, it is to make them comfortable choosing a wine from a wine list and knowledgeable enough to make pleasing choices.  Indeed, as Zraly reveals in the Asimov article, some of his first students signed up because they were intimidated by the wine list or were afraid to make poor choices.

This is a great example of meeting customers where they are, not where you might want them to be. If the problem is dealing with the wine list, then make the wine is list the focus of the effort. You don’t have to have advanced WSET credentials to enjoy wine with dinner (at least I hope not).

When Consumers Move, Follow Them

When the covid pandemic hit many wineries had to shut down their tasting rooms and find other ways to connect with customers. Some had more success than others and it will be interesting to see which of these practices and strategies endure as the world of in-person experiences re-opens.

Zraly has followed his customers, too, and in the process has entered a global arena. When wine consumers moved on-line during the pandemic — to Zoom meet-ups and web-retailers —  Zraly shifted gears to form a partnership with Wine.com for a series of one-hour classes that have run through the fall (the final class in December is on Pinot Noir).  Tuition for the Pinot class is $100 and the wines, purchased through Wine.com, are about $300 more. Not inexpensive, but not too costly, either, given the quality of the wines and the rare opportunity to have a Kevin Zraly experience, albeit virtually. I hope Zraly and Wine.com continue their partnership in the future.

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A thousand thanks to Kevin Zraly for all he has taught us about wine and how to sell it. And thanks, too, to Eric Asimov for his NYT profile of this great wine educator.

Prosecco Market Competition Bubbles Up

The Prosecco market here in the United States continues to evolve rapidly.  Prosecco has surged in only a few years from a little-known type of Italian sparkling wine to the phenomenon we see today. Amazing!

Once upon a time what Prosecco that you might find on store shelves was pretty basic stuff — or it seemed that way at the time. I remember recommending Prosecco to my university students for their commencement celebrations — they’re all good, I’d tell them, you don’t have to spend more than you can afford.

They are all pretty much still good, but Prosecco is more nuanced now and I encourage friends to explore the Prosecco Pyramid, starting with DOC wines at the base, moving up to DOCG and the Rive wines, and topping out with wines from the magic mountain of  Cartizze. The amazing thing is that top-tier Prosecco often costs less than baseline Champagne — something that students (and many others) can appreciate.

This year has seen the birth of Rosé Prosecco DOC — a pink blend of Glera and Pinot Nero grapes — which adds another facet of Prosecco to think about and enjoy. Recently we’ve received three sample shipments that show how the market for Italian sparklers is evolving. Here is my report.

The Prosecco Battlefield Expands

Chances are that there are many different Prosecco brands available on the shelves of your local wine shop or upscale supermarket, but odds are very good that you will find La Marca and Mionetto. They are top sellers in part because consumer enjoy the wines, but also because they are easy to find.

La Marca is an interesting case because its great success is powered by production scale and distribution muscle. We drove by the big La Marca factory a few years ago when I was giving some lectures at the famous Conegliano wine school and were suitably impressed.

La Marca is a second-level cooperative, we were told — a cooperative of cooperatives. I could be wrong but think that the smaller cooperatives make and supply the base wines, which then undergo secondary fermentation in La Marca’s big autoclaves.  The result is the popular sparkling wine in the familiar bottle with the sky-blue label.

You see La Marca everywhere here in the US because it has a distribution partnership with Gallo, the world’s largest wine producer. How do I know this? Well, Gallo is so big that it has its own UPC “zip code.” Look at the UPC on the back of a bottle of La Marca and you’ll see that it begins with 85000. That’s Gallo-ville’s neighborhood. Any wine with that kind of UPC is either made by or distributed by Gallo.

La Marca and Gallo are a tough competitors, so I am interested to see how a new contestant fares in the Prosecco battleground: Ca’ Furlan Prosecco DOC. The wines are the result of a partnership between winemaker Alessandro Furlan and U.S. wine firm Regal Wine Imports. Priced at $11.99 for both the Ca’ Furlan DOC Extra Dry Cuvée Beatrice and the Ca’ Furlan Prosecco DOC Rosê Cuvée Mariana, the wines are intended to compete head-to-head with La Marca, Mionetto,  and other market leaders. Plans are to import about 70,000 cases of the Prosecco and 7500 cases of the Prosecco Rosé.

We were impressed by the Cuvée Beatrice when we paired it with duck rice for dinner recently. Sue especially enjoyed the peach notes that emerged as the wine warmed up a little. Is there room in the mainstream market for another attractive Prosecco brand? Well, the market is growing so  I’d say there is still time to join the party. But it is a very competitive environment — wines need to have quality, value, and strong distribution to succeed.

Celebrity Prosecco (and the No Carb Option)

Celebrity wine is a thing (a big thing, actually), so it is no surprise to discover the wine shown at the top of this column, Bellissima Prosecco DOC Brut, the new Christie Brinkley project.

The celebrity connection is modest on the bottle label (“Con Amore, Christie Brinkley”) but it is unavoidable elsewhere. “Bellissima by Christie Brinkley” proclaims the QVC.com  offer, “sip and savor these pours from the celebrated model, actress, & entrepreneur.”

Shopping channels like QVC have become big time wine outlets. A search for “wine” on the QVC website brings up celebrity offerings from Christie Brinkley and Martha Stewart, a couple of Food Network celebrity chefs, and a variety of Vintage Wine Estates packages including some from Shark Tank star Kevin O’Leary a.k.a. Mister Wonderful.

I try to have an open mind about celebrity wines. Sometimes the link to a famous person is more than just vino-exploitation. When NFL great Drew Bledsoe started his eponymous winery in Walla Walla, for example, it seemed to be a sincere effort to connect with the town where he grew up and much of the wine community rallied around him and his project. The wines were really good right from the start and Bledsoe has made good on his commitment to help the region grow.

So sometimes the stars align such that a celebrity wine makes good and makes sense. But this doesn’t happen all the time, so there is always a nagging suspicion that, as Kevin O’Leary might say, it’s really all about cashing in for the m-o-n-e-y.

The Bellissima line-up includes Prosecco DOC Brut and Prosecco Rosé DOC, both made with organic grapes, and white and pink “zero sugar” sparkling wines, the white made with organic Glera grapes and the pink with Pinot Grigio grapes. Organic, vegan, zero-sugar, zero-carbs, celebrity endorsement — lots of boxed ticked here and online comments suggest that some diabetic drinkers are happy to find a wine with the carb numbers they are looking for.

That got me thinking — how does a zero (less than 0.5 g/l residual sugar) wine compare with Prosecco? A typical Prosecco Extra Dry product has about 12-15 grams per liter residual sugar which translates into less than  2 grams per glass. The Bellissima Brut has 6-7 g/l or less that 1 gram of residual sugar per glass, which means a lot fewer carbs than a glass of fruit juice, for example, and only a little more than the zero-sugar products. All the Bellissima wines come in at 11.5% abv.

Our tasting team did a comparison tasting of the Brut and Zero-Sugar sparkling white and we found both very drinkable. The Prosecco Brut was softer with more fruit, the Zero-Sugar was happiest paired with a charcuterie plate Sue prepared. Both seemed like they could stand on their own in the market even without a celebrity or wellness connection. Although I guess it defeats the idea of zero-sugar, I think I might like the zero-sugar wine best in a Bellini cocktail.

Italy Beyond Prosecco

If you are a fan of Formula One auto racing you will have seen that the victory celebrations now feature drivers slurping from huge bottles labeled “Ferrari.” You might assume that this is wine from the famous Ferrari racing team, but you would be wrong. Ferrari Trento is an important producer of sparkling wines in the Italian north-east and this is a reminder that there is much more to Italian sparkling wines than Prosecco.

While Prosecco is made from Glera  grapes using the method of secondary fermentation in autoclaves, Trento DOC wines and Franciacorta feature familiar Chardonnay and Pinot Nero (Pinot Noir) grapes and classic secondary fermentation in the bottle.

We recently sampled Cantine Monfort Cuvée ’85 Trento DOC Brut, for example. A blend of 90% Chardonnay and 10% Pinot Nero secondary fermentation using the classic method, it is a different animal from Prosecco and a reminder that Italy’s treasure house of wine includes a wealth of sparklers worth exploring.

Gosh, this is a delicious wine. Makes me realize I need to pay more attention in the Trento DOC wines and the other great sparkling wines Italy has to offer.

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Here is an Entertainment Tonight segment about Christie Brinkley’s Prosecco. BTW I know many readers will associate Brinkley with swimsuits, so I wonder if you think the wine label, which refers to Botticelli’s famous painting of Venus, is somehow swimsuit-inspired? What do you think?

Wine Book Review: Ch’ Ch’ Changing California

On California: From Napa to Nebbiolo … Wine Tales from the Golden State edited by Susan Keevil. Académie du Vin Library, 2021.

Steven Spurrier, through both word and action, has left a remarkable enduring legacy to the world of wine, including the wine book publisher Académie du Vin Library. The Library’s very ambitious wine book list collects both classic works and new contributions (including Spurrier’s own A Life in Wine) that break from the typical “Wines of ____” (fill in the country or region) mold to address a variety of topics from many personal and professional perspective.

From Bordeaux to California

On Bordeaux, a collection of essays about that famous wine region, appeared last year. Given Spurrier’s central role in the famous 1976 France vs California “Judgement of Paris” tasting, On California seems like a natural next step, officially released last week and available directly from the publisher  and via the usual sources including Amazon.com.

Much like the Library itself, On California collects classic and new perspectives on the Golden State’s wine industry. Unevenness is the typical fault of edited volumes like this one, but I have to say that the 39 essays and excerpts by 35 different authors hang together very well and make informative and enjoyable reading.

Perhaps that’s because of the strong thematic thread that runs through the volume: change. And change is everywhere here. The wine, the industry, the climate, even the history, which although quite short is now long enough that a certain amount of revision is needed. What fun to read excerpts from early essays by the likes of Hugh Johnson, Gerald Asher,  and Harry Waugh alongside some of the pioneers and shapers including Warren Winniarski, Paul Draper, and Randall Grahm. Mix in Elin McCoy, Elaine-Chukan Brown, and many others and you have a complex, balanced blend indeed.

Change and resilience — two key California characteristics — are everywhere in this book, but perhaps especially in a series of chapters that trace the challenges that California wine has faced over the years. Hugh Johnson writes about Prohibition years, Jon Bonné examines the New California that emerged from the ashes, Norm Roby charts the return of Phylloxera, Elaine Chukan Brown addresses drought, wild fire, and environmental change, and finally Clare Tooley MW tackles the threat to California wines form the rising  marijuana industry. Fascinating reading.

Here Comes The Judge  (ment)

If you connect the dots of California + Steven Spurrier + Change you inevitably arrive at the 1976 Judgement of Paris and so it is inevitable that the famous tasting appears here with both an excerpt from George Taber’s excellent book on the subject the commentary from Spurrier and others who had a hand in the wines and the event itself.

The Judgement of Paris, where wines from California were rated higher than some famous French wines by a panel of French judges, did it change everything? No, but it changed quite a lot. It certainly made French producers question their hegemony. I have argued that maybe the biggest impact was in the way it changed Americans’ attitudes about their own wines.  Suddenly there was respect after the long dark decades that followed Prohibition. The wine boom that was launched continues today.

It is interesting to speculate what California wine would look like today if France had won the 1976 competition.  I ask this question with a sense of irony because, depending upon how to look at it, the French really did win (or at least didn’t lose)! Talk about revisionist history!

Here are the average scores (out of 20 points) for the red wines. The winner was Stag’s Leap by a nose.  Stag’s Leap won if we add up and average the points, but did California win?

14.14 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars 1973
14.09 Chateau Mouton-Rothschild 1970
13.64 Chateau Montrose 1970
13.23 Chateau Haut-Brion 1970
12.14 Ridge Vineyards Monte Bello 1971
11.18 Chateau Leoville Las Cases 1971
10.36 Heitz Martha’s Vineyard 1970
10.14 Clos Du Val Winery 1972
9.95 Mayacamas Vineyards 1971
9.45 Freemark Abbey Winery 1969

If we judge the Judgement as a team sport and not an individual competition, the conclusion changes a bit. The four French wines scored 2, 3, 4, and 6 while the California wines ranked 1, 5, 7, 8, 9, and 10. Even if you throw out the two lowest-ranked California wines to make the team’s equal in size, the result seems clear: Team France gets the gold.

The points table was a little different with the white wines. Although a California wine topped the list, I think you’d have to say the team competition was pretty much a dead heat. Still an impressive showing for California.

The situation gets even more interesting, as several studies have shown, if you dig down into the judges’ individual rankings, which varied enormously from one to another in their relative scores.  The final result could have been much different, too,  if the scores were treated as ordinal rankings rather than cardinal measures that can be summed up and averaged.

Does this finding matter? No. Not now. And probably not in 1976, either. The idea that California and France could be put on the same table was radical then, so the fact of Spurrier’s tasting was enough to raise eyebrows. The discovery that some of the French tasters could not tell which was which was quite a shock. That would have been enough to jump-start the changes that were already on the way.

Thanks to Académie du Vin Library and the many authors for their hard work and insights. Change is still in the air in California and On California connects the past and present with the emerging future. Well done!