Back to the Future of Napa Zinfandel

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Wouldn’t it be cool if you could travel back in time and tweak events just a little so that the past’s future (our present) would be better? That was the idea behind Steven Speilberg’s hit 1985 film “Back to the Future” and its many sequels.

Scientists are not optimistic that this time-bending strategy would work. They question whether a souped-up DeLorean sports car is the ideal time travel vehicle. And they warn of the dangers of changing history even a little. It’s dangerous to tinker with the past because of potential unintended consequences further down the road.

Tweaking the Judgement of Paris?

As I wrote in last week’s column, the present in Napa Valley is intensely focused on Cabernet Sauvignon, crowding out winegrape varieties like Zinfandel and Petite Sirah that once dominated vineyards here. What if we could go back to 1976 and alter the famous Judgement of Paris so that Napa Cabernet wasn’t the surprise victor of that France vs California taste-off? What would Napa Zinfandel be today if Cabernet Sauvignon didn’t so completely over-shadow it?271201_97be_oct17_3820

Zinandel, once the numero uno  wine grape variety in the Napa Valley, now accounts for only about 5 percent of vineyard acreage. Petite Sirah is just half a percent. But some of the wines that are made tell a fascinating “back to the future” story of what could have been.

Sue and I met with two devoted Zinfandel producers, Julie Johnson of Tres Sabores winery in the Rutherford district and Bob Biale of Robert Biale Vineyards in the Oak Knoll district to learn more about Zinfandel’s present and its potential future.

The Curse of Big Zin

Julie Johnson dry farms 40+ year old Zinfandel vines in a foothill vineyard niche that is shaded from the afternoon sun. The wine is aromatic, balanced, medium-bodied, with delicious fruit and spice. Such wines are not easy to grow or make, Johnson told us, and selling them is also a bit of a problem.

Recent Nielsen data reported in the August 2018 issue of Wine Business Monthly shows how far Zinfandel has fallen in terms of retail sales. Zinfandel is the 11th most popular varietal wine on the Nielsen list, wedged between Riesling and Syrah/Shiraz at bottom of the table. White Zinfandel outsells red Zinfandel by a substantial margin. Ouch! That really hurts.

Zinfandel buyers often expect big, ripe, boozy Zin, which is not a style that’s on the Tres Sabores radar. Store shelves are peppered with California appellation Zinfandels that are dark and strong (and sometimes a little sweet, too). They are the market’s idea of Zinfandel.

Wines like this sell in part because they can fit into the popular red blend or dark red category pretty easily. But the Tres Sabores Zin is a horse of a different color and many restaurant wine programs hesitate to take on wines like this, despite their quality, because they differ so dramatically from what they think consumers expect from a Zinfandel wine. The idea of Zinfandel with finesse is fading fast.biale

All In on Zin?

And so you have to be pretty committed to go all in on Zinfandel as Robert Biale Vineyard has done. Sue and I met with Bob Biale at his beautiful winery and tasting room in the Oak Knoll district. Bob’s father Aldo and the family’s heritage as winegrowers are the inspiration for the business, which makes 15 different Zinfandel wines as well as other varietals including a surprising Greco Bianco we were served directly upon arrival.

Bob is devoted to preserving Napa’s Zinfandel DNA through many efforts, including especially his work with the Historic Vineyard Society, which seeks to identify and preserve producing vineyards that are 50 or more years old. Tegan Passalaqua, who specializes in single vineyard old vine Zinfandel at Turley,  is also active in this group.

A few of these historic vineyards provide grapes for Biale’s wines, such as the Valsecchi Vineyards Carneros Zinfandel we tasted.  There’s just an acre or so of 100-year old vines, Bob told us, and they produce just 95 cases of wine. But the wine is very special — elegant and balanced like all the Biale wines. Fantastic. Seriously, some of these old vine Zinfandel wines made me think of elegant Pinot Noir. I wonder if these wines would age like a fine Burgundy? Hmmm.

Occasionally Biale is able to persuade a grower to plant a bit of Zinfandel when it is time to renew a vineyard rather than the more certainly profitable Cabernet . Maybe the site just isn’t right for Cab. Or maybe the winegrower has been influenced by Bob’s obvious devotion to the wine and its history. Doesn’t matter — with a little luck these could be the historic vines of the future.

Back to the Future?

I don’t think I can manage the Marty McFly trick and rewrite the past, so the legacy of the Judgement of Paris is safe. Napa is Cabernet Sauvignon territory and the valley has developed around the production and sale of luxury wines. The history of the pioneers and their Zinfandel and Petite Sirah is there, however, hidden in plain sight and ever-threatened by the Cab boom.

Maybe it had to be that way, but it is interesting to imagine an alternative universe where Zinfandel’s heritage is honored and celebrated to a greaert extent. I am glad that there are people like Julie Johnson and Bob Biale who are keeping the old vines and their memories of Napa days long past alive for us to taste today.

The Cabernet Boom and Its Discontents

Our recent trip to the Napa Valley provokes two columns: this one about the Cabernet Sauvignon boom and next’s week’s about Zinfandel’s uncertain future.

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What winegrape variety comes to mind when I say “Napa Valley …”? There are lots of possibilities. Chardonnay. Merlot. Sauvignon Blanc, of course! Hey, Larkmead makes a tasty Tocai Friuliano.

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But I’ll bet that your “fill in the blank” answer was Cabernet Sauvignon and there are several good reasons for this. Cabernet is a noble grape and many of the world’s great wines are made from it or with it. American consumers are in love with this winegrape variety. Cabernet Sauvignon has recently overtaken Chardonnay as America’s #1 favorite.

Cabernet is #1

According to recent Nielsen data taken from the August 2018 issue of Wine Business Monthly, sales of Cab wines totaled more than $201 million in the most recent 4-week period, up 3.9% from the previous year. That compares with $190 million and 0.5% growth for Chardonnay, which has for years topped the league table.  Next in line but far behind, is Pinot Gris/Grigio ($96 million / 1.3% growth) and Pinot Noir ($82 million / 2.6%). The fastest-growing category is Rosé, as you might have guessed, with 67% growth on a relatively small $22 million sales base.

Consumers love Cabernet Sauvignon and growers love it, too, because they see it as a potential solution to the their financial squeeze. The costs of land, labor, equipment, and supplies keep rising, but the prices of many grape varieties have been stagnant, putting pressure on profits and, in some cases, generating rivers of red ink.

The Cabernet grape price premium can be substantial according to the 2017 California Grape Crush Report. Cabernet grapes fetched $700 per ton on average in Lodi, for example, compared with $552 for Merlot and Chardonnay. A ton of Cabernet sold for $2209 on average in Mendocino county, $2352 in Lake Country, and about $3000 in Sonoma County.

Premium Prices

Napa county topped the list with an average Cab price of $7,421 per ton. That average translates into a $70+ bottle price using the one-percent rule of thumb. And that’s the average. The very best Napa Cab grapes from exceptional sites sold for $10,000 per ton and more. Lesser Cab grapes sold for less, of course, but still generally for more than other grape varieties. Cab Rules.

And it’s not just a California thing. Cabernet is now the most-planted winegrape variety in Washington state, too, with 62,200 tons harvested in 2017 compated with #2 Chardonnay’s 39,300 tons.  The overall average price of Washington winegrapes was $1200 per ton, with Cabernet selling at a significant premium at $1500-$1600 per ton.

No wonder more and more Cabernet is being planted wherever it might possibly grow successfully. Jeff Bitter, recently appointed President of Allied Grape Growers, presented the results of the 2017 California Nursery Report at the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium meetings in January. Bottom line: Cabernet is big and getting bigger.

The Nursery Report provides insights about what grape varieties are being planted or grafted, which foretells shifts in winegrape production a few years from now when the vines are productive. The 2017 report showed that 72% of new vines were red varieties with only 28% white. Cabernet vines accounted for an incredible 37.4% of all new vines followed by 19.5% for Pinot Noir and 16.7% for Chardonnay.

Cab Pipeline is Full

If you combine Cabernet with other varieties that are often blended with it (such as Merlot, Malbec, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot), they account for over 42 percent of all new California vines. I am not sure what the composition is of the vines they may have replaced, but I suspect the disproportionate emphasis on Cab and Cab blending grapes represents a significant net increase in future production.

Cabernet’s dominance is noteworthy, but the upward trend in Cab plantings is part of the long term trend that Benjamin Lewin MW described in his 2013 book Claret & Cabs: The Story of Cabernet Sauvignon. Zinfandel, not Cabernet, was the most-planted winegrape variety in the Napa Valley in the decades following Prohibition.

Zin was thought to  make the best Claret, according to Lewin, which of course is interesting because Claret is the name the British gave to Cab- and Merlot-based Bordeaux wines. Ridge made a “Claret”  in 1981, for example, from Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and Carignan and I’ll bet it was delicious!claret

Cabernet Sauvignon was a minor player on Napa’s wine scene, Lewin notes, although it made some historic wines including the great Beringer Cabs of the 1930s and the Beaulieu Georges de Latour Private Reserve wines that André Tchelistcheff made between 1938 and 1973.

The Napa Cab boom really picked up speed in the 1970s as new quality-driven wineries (think Robert Mondavi) focused on Cabernet. The Judgement of Paris in 1976 put Napa Cab firmly on the wine world’s radar.

No wonder new investment flooded into Napa Valley and Cabernet plantings expanded rapidly, both in Napa and California generally. Now the steady rise has accelerated, taking on some boom-time characteristics. The cycle of higher Cab prices, higher vineyard valuations, and increased Cabernet plantings continues.

Stein’s Law

Cycles and booms are a common characteristic of agricultural and financial markets, both of which I have studied. There are two things I have learned about the booms. First, they are driven by internal logic that seems bullet-proof from inside the cycle.  People (like me) who try to call turns often end up looking like Chicken Little fools. So don’t expect me to forecast a Cabernet bust!

The other thing I have learned is that Stein’s Law always applies in the long run. Named for the famous economist Herb Stein, Stein’s Law is says that if something cannot go on forever … it will end. And I think that Cabernet prices cannot go on going up forever (especially with new plantings on the rise) any more than housing prices could defy gravity forever a dozen years ago, no matter how how much rising prices might seem baked in the cake at any particular moment.

That doesn’t mean that the boom must inevitably be followed by a bust — there are many possible adjustment patterns as Kym Anderson’s analysis of Australia’s winegrape cycles shows. In the meantime, Cabernet is crowding out other grape varieties, including those Zinfandel vines that were once the pride of Napa Valley winemakers. That’s where we are going in the next column.

Sue and I came to the Napa Valley with Zinfandel on our minds. Circle back next week to find out what we learned.

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The Boom Varietal image above comes from a 2011 Sky Pinnick documentary of the same name about Malbec, which is sort of the Cabernet Sauvignon of Argentina. I was pleased to be part of the cast for this award-winning film. The film talks about the rise of Malbec in Argentina and the understandable concern that the boom could go bust (Argentina has a history of boom and bust).

 

The American Wine Industry’s Achilles Heel: Labor

lodiI tell my friends that the wine business is a people business and it is really true. Relationships matter a lot in wine. One of the reasons that Sue and I so enjoy our work is the opportunity to meet and get to know so many wonderful people.

People are the wine industry’s strength, but they are also its Achilles heel and finding ways to adapt to a world with changing labor market conditions is perhaps wine’s greatest current challenge. We saw several aspects of the evolving labor crisis during a recent visit to the Napa Valley where I spoke at the California Association of Winegrape Growers’ (CAWG) summer conference.

Trouble in the Vineyards

We talked with a number of winegrowers who were understandably focused on their vineyards — how to get the hard work of winegrape farming done and the crop harvested efficiently in the current farm labor environment. Migrant labor policies are the main issue here and the impacts extend beyond winegrapes to virtually all California agriculture.

Farm labor generally means migrant labor, including a substantial proportion of undocumented workers. Current federal policy is decided unfavorable to the needs of farm employers and the progress is very slow to craft useful reforms.

Large-scale grape farming depends upon these workers, which is very risky because their work status and the policies that affect them are so uncertain. Mechanization — mechanical harvesting and also increasingly mechanical pruning — is the most direct response, which reduces labor uncertainty exposure even if it doesn’t eliminate the problem.

Matt Parker, the President of Silverado Investment Management Group, which farms 20,000 acres, told the CAWG audience about the strong mechanization dynamic driven by cost, uncertainty, and technical change. Mechanically-harvested grapes can be as good as hand-harvest grapes and are sometimes even better because an entire vineyard can be harvested quickly (and sometimes at night as in the photo above) with machines, whereas hand-harvest may take many days and grape quality can deteriorate.

Everyone we spoke with wanted to see the migrant worker situation resolved so that the cloud of uncertainty that hangs over their businesses and the lives of the workers might be lifted. But I didn’t hear many optimistic voices. Stay tuned.

Beyond the Vineyards

Harvest and vineyard workers are not the only labor market issue we found in Napa. A friend with talked with runs a business that is a major supplier of packaging products to the wine industry, with a large warehouse and light manufacturing facility south of the city. Labor was on his mind as he showed us around his operation.

Labor constraints limited the efficiency of the business, which was running one shift instead of the two or three that it could handle. Rising wages were a concern, of course, but availability was a bigger long term issue. Housing shortages and cost, transportation bottlenecks, and immigration policy all contributed to the uncertain availability of workers.

His solution was automation and his company is making major technology investments both to increase production flexibility and efficiency and to reduce exposure to labor cost and availability risk.

Truckloads of Trouble

One of the CAWG conference’s most interesting speakers was Yvonne Sams of G3 Trucking, a company that many vineyards and wineries rely upon to get grapes to the cellar quickly and at affordable cost during harvest.

“Do the math,” people say, and here is the stunning winegrape trucking math. California produces about 4 million tons of grapes in a typical year (if there is such a thing). That is equivalent to 170,000 truck loads of grapes over the harvest season, according to Sams, with about 2000 truck loads on peak harvest days. The typical load travels about 40 miles. That is a lot of trucks, highway miles, and driver shifts.

Everything about this process is closely monitored and some elements, such as driver cab-time and break periods, is tightly regulated. Driver regulation is about to get more strict, with the result that each driver will be able to manage fewer loads than in the past. Thus the current driver shortage will likely increase. Sams reported that one trucking company now advertises on television specifically targeting women, who are under-represented in the industry, in the hopes of expanding the potential driver pool.

What’s the solution? No one wants to see their grapes rotting in bins waiting for a truck and driver to appear! Sams reported a number of initiatives. More trailers, for example, could increase efficiency by reducing the time that drivers spend waiting to load and unload. Ideally the truck and driver would appear just as the trailer is filled and then drop it off at the other end, picking up a new load while the trailed waits to be unloaded.

We also heard the basic outline of what you might think of as an Uber for truckers, which would allow truckers with available time to more efficiently match up with waiting loads.

Finally there is Elon Musk’s favorite strategy — autonomous trucks (Musk’s would be electric, of course) that need no driver but do require pretty sophisticated software and, as we heard from a representative of Verizon, would benefit by the roll-out of 5G cellular systems.

Napa at the Forefront

Many U.S. industries are struggling to cope with labor issues today. Agriculture, including wine grapes, struggles a bit more because of the traditional labor-intensive model and the relatively short half-life of freshly-harvested goods compared with manufactured products.

Napa, because of its high housing costs and transportation bottlenecks, is particularly affected. Napa’s wealth insulates it a bit, I suppose, but also provides resources for technological labor-replacing systems. As these case studies show, there is no escaping the wine industry labor crisis because it is not one problem, but many, that all negatively impact production, cost, and profitability.

As I wrote in a 2017 column on vineyard labor issues

Are the machines coming to a vineyard near  you? No, they are probably  already there and, as vineyards — even those in iconic regions — are replanted or renewed, you can be sure that one factor that will be considered is the potential to maximize technological compatibility.

Hand work in the vineyards is not going to disappear and many wineries will continue to rely upon  their teams of highly-skilled vineyard workers for years to come. But what we are seeing is that the business model associated with vineyard labor is changing rapidly. Technology, economics and anti-globalization politics are all part of the dynamic.

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Thanks to Sue Veseth for the photo of workers and machines at a night harvest in Lodi.

 

 

 

The IKEA of Italian Food & Wine? Welcome to FICO Eataly World

eataly1If you have ever visited an IKEA store I’m sure you have vivid memories of the experience. The stores are huge (30,000 square meters on average, I’m told, although there’s one in South Korea  that’s almost twice that size).

Each store is organized around a journey that customers take from room to room, space to space, category to category, pausing only at the restaurant for Swedish meatballs before passing through the check stands, their bags and carts filled with Scandinavian-inspired home goods.

IKEA of Food and Wine?

FICO Eataly World, located just outside of Bologna, Italy, reminds be a bit of IKEA, especially because of the journey its visitors take. But there are many differences, too. Eataly World is much larger than an IKEA store. At 100,000 square meters (over 1 million square feet!), it is more than three times the size of your typical IKEA and almost twice as large as that Korean super-IKEA. Food (and wine) are at the center of the experience. And Italy, not Sweden, is the guiding star.

Sue and I visited  FICO Eataly World during a recent stop in Bologna, where we lived for a semester some 20  years ago when I taught at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies Center there. We’ve visited other Eataly locations in the past — New York City, Milan, and the much smaller Eataly Bologna located in the historic center’s famous market, just steps from our old apartment on Via Pescherie Vecchie. But this one was different in more ways than scale.

FICO (Fabbrica Italiana Cantadina) Eataly World is located outside the city core, close to the convention centers that draw thousands of visitors to Bologna each year. Lots of free parking and regular bus service from the train station makes it easy to access. But the location on the outskirts changes things a bit — Eataly World is a stand alone culinary theme park destination where the other Eatalys we’ve visited have been more integrated into their neighborhoods.

The Eataly stores in New York and Milan bring a whole Italian market, with shops, restaurants, and vendors of fish, cheese, salumi, fruits and vegetables and so forth, all under one roof with all the hustle and bustle you would expect. The central Bologna Eataly is a little different — the bookshop is the main feature that I remember — but that’s because it is embedded in a historic bustling market just off Piazza Maggiore and does not need to recreate one. The food court, located across the alley from the main store, is a fine addition since our last visit.

Eataly World’s vast scale suggests a grander vision. There are dozens of shops and stalls featuring distinctive foods from all over Italy, and 45 “eating points” — kiosks, cafes, restaurants — serving regional cuisine. There are 20 acres of small demonstration farms and vineyards, so you can meet the pigs and squeeze the grapes, and some of the final products are actually produced on site. We ran into a group of small children who watched in fascinating through a glass wall as a robotic baker made batch after batch of tasty cookies.

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You can make of Eataly World what you like — a place to shop or hang out, a place to eat and drink, or even an opportunity to exercise (you can rent bikes to shorten your journey time inside the big building). But education is an important function, too, both the organized classes that are always on offer and the one-to-one conversations with staff at each stand.

What About the Wine?

One of our goals in visiting FICO Eataly World was to see how they dealt with Italian wine. This is a big task as Italy is home to hundreds of grape varieties and thousands of wineries. I nearly went crazy trying to narrow the wine list down to a few important wines in my book Around the World in Eighty Wines. It would take an IKEA-sized facility to do real justice to the diversity of the wines of Italy — and that is more space than even Eataly World has to spare.

That said, the wine program we found was very good. There were 2000 wines for sale, organized by Italian region as they should be, ranging from modest to noble. More to the point, there were 100 different wines available by the glass or in flights.

A knowledgeable young staff member ascertained our interest in learning about Lambrusco and arranged a small tasting of two completely different ideas of the wine, both quite dry but one dark and powerful and the other lighter and fruity (see photo below). It was a good experience and a good way to learn about the wines and have fun, too.

Wine calls for food and there was a nice Bolognese restaurant attached to the wine shop — one food/wine option among many at Eataly World. We had lunch at a foccacia shop (we saw the foccacia being made in front of us). I had a sandwich with Mortadella and a glass of that dark Lambrusco — great combination.

So What?

So what should we think of FICO Eataly World and its ambitious wine program? Well, what do you think of IKEA? Personally, I find it kind of bewildering with the crowds, noise, and its cornicopia of products, most of which are irrelevant to my life. But I like to go there — yes, for the meatballs — because it isa place where I can get ideas and stumble upon things that I didn’t know I would like. It surprises and delights more than it confuses, I guess.

I kind of like FICO Eataly World in the same way I kind of like IKEA. Based on our single visit, it seems full of stuff that overwhelms but gives me ideas and a chance to stumble on something I wasn’t looking for (the Sicilian shop and its great cannoli and espresso).

But there is a big difference between IKEA and FICO Eataly World. Ultimately IKEA succeeds when it allows its visitors to find their own voice, in a way, through the designs that they choose and the products that they bring into their homes. That’s a big challenge and it says something about IKEA that it is so successful.

But Eataly World sets even a bigger challenge. It wants to tell the story of Italian food and wine and that topic is so vast and complex that it makes IKEA seem simple by comparison. I am not convinced that Eataly World really does justice to its mission, but how could it? It was fun to visit and see which elements of Italian food and wine culture stood out and which ones did not.

Sue’s take on Eataly World was quite positive. It was like a giant first-class IKEA food court where you wanted to try everything even though that would be impossible to do. She especially appreciated the educational components and loved the family-friendly animal exhibits. She thought that, taken on its own terms in both the food and wine components, Eataly World represents Italy very well.

Will we go back to Eataly World on our next visit to Bologna? I dunno. We were there on a quiet Friday morning. I’d like to visit the place when it is busier just to see if it feels like the Bologna market when it is crowded, which is pretty much all the time. But that Bologna market neighborhood is fantastic — Italy World — and I’m not sure Eataly World can compete with it!

If I had to choose between Eataly World markets and the real markets in the centro storico of Bologna, there is no question where I would go. I’d be having a glass of Pignoletto frizzante wine and a plate of Mortadella at Simoni’s  Laboratorio on Via Pescherie Vecchie every time rather than taking the red bus out to the fiera district.

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Here is Sue’s photo of two very different ideas of Lambrusco. Enjoy!

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Lost in Translation? Misunderstanding Old World and New World Wine

mv5bmti2ndi5odk4n15bml5banbnxkftztywmti3nte3-_v1_ux182_cr00182268_al_The idea that important things can get “lost in translation” holds true on many levels. Sometimes it is literally a translation problem, as Sue and I tried to switch between French and English on our recent trip to Languedoc, Roussillon, and the Loire Valley. For someone like me, who doesn’t speak French so much as just try to say some French words, there is a lot of potential for misunderstanding.

That’s America for You!

But sometimes the translations are from one culture to another and it is the built-in stereotypes that are the barrier, not the language itself. At one point, for example, I was telling a British wine writer about a recent Wine Economist column on the Illinois-based Cooper’s Hawk Winery and Restaurant, which has a wine club numbering almost 300,000 members — probably the biggest wine club in the world.

“Well, that’s America for you,” my new friend replied. “Everything’s big.” Well, actually, that’s not true. America certainly is big in many ways — it is the world’s largest wine market, for example — but that’s not an explanation in this case. Cooper’s Hawk’s massive wine club isn’t typical of wine clubs in the U.S. or anywhere else. It is an exception and invites further study precisely because it is unique for the U.S. or any wine market. Viewing it through a “big America” lens doesn’t really help at all.

Which brings me to this: we were gathered in Perpignan for a briefing and tasting of some of the wines from Roussillon. The English/French translation was going pretty well, but cultural elements were still problematic. At one point one of the appellation ambassadors was explaining the rules of the local wine game. The wine grapes used in the AOP wines were specified and the proportions dictated too — no less than x percent and no more than y percent of this or that grape.

Everything’s Mandatory or Forbidden

An American journalist in the back of the room raised his hand and asked the obvious question. Why require these particular proportions of the specified grapes? The New World subtext was clear (I am fairly fluent in New World, so trust me about this): why make the particular blend mandatory?  To an American, the AOP system sometimes seems a bit like the old Soviet Union, where (according to an old joke) everything was either mandatory or forbidden. Why not just let the winegrowers be free to make the best wines that they can using whatever proportions they think best?

But that’s not the question that the local experts heard because they were steeped in Old World wine culture, where requirements like this are baked in the AOP cake and more blending freedoms comes with a lesser IGP designation. So they answered the Wine 101 question they thought they heard, which was why blend grape varieties at all and  talked about the benefits of blending vs single grape variety — not why require a particular grape blend. Needless to say, neither side of the conversation found the exchange very satisfying and happily everyone quickly moved on.

(The American journalist vented that he planned to write a column titled “Stupid French Wine Laws,” but I am glad to say that he didn’t.)

The problem is, in part, is a question of the importance of typicity. Making good or at least marketable wine is the aim in the New World, the idea of crafting the wine to be  typical of a  particular region is literally a foreign concept.

In the New World, in fact, “typical” is sometimes used as a put down — that’s so typical! In the Old World, however, typical often means true-to-type, satisfying a standard, and is a good thing. When we were in Carcassone, home of cassoulet, the thing I wanted most was typical cassoulet, not some fusion mashup, as good as it might be.

Old versus New World Regulations

AOP rules are meant to assure that designated wines are true to the local standard. American appellation rules,  on the other hand, are geographic indicators that have little to say about what’s in the bottle apart from where the grapes are grown and the wine itself made (the Cooper’s Hawk winery is in Illinois, for example, and it therefore cannot put “Napa Valley” on the label of a wine that is made entirely from Napa Valley grapes — it must use an American appellation).

I do not see much evidence that Old World appellation rules are invading the New World (although there are some who advocate greater regulation), but we met a number of Old World producers who are learning to think and speak New World. Sue and I have seen more and more emphasis on the less restrictive IGP wines, for example, and there are several reasons for this.

Lesser is More?

One reason for the move to IGP and other “lesser” designations is that many winemakers simply want to freedom to make interesting rather than typical wines and this can be a good thing. Don’t forget the influence Super Tuscan wines have had in Italy. Sometimes, as we saw in Valpolicella a few years ago, the IGP wines are produced to fill unexploited market niches.

Climate change is another reason for winemakers to look beyond AOP rules. Changing climate undermines the logic of winemaking rules established decades ago when growing condition might have been much different. We heard this discussed on our trip to France, but I can’t really tell how much it is driving this particular movement compared with market forces, which are surely very strong.

I am not sure there is much that can be done about the translation problem, but I am going to try a bit harder to see things from both the Old and New World sides, so that less  understanding is lost along the way.

Discovering the “Invisible” Cooperative Wineries of Languedoc and Roussillion

caramanyThey say that there is strength in numbers, which may explain why wine cooperatives tend to emerge during periods of crisis, when individual winegrowers are practically powerless to defend themselves and only collective action holds hope.

The cooperative in Caramany, the Vignerons de Caramany, was founded in 1924 in response to the Phylloxera crisis. It experienced ups and downs in the century that followed and seems to be thriving today — a good sign for Caramany and for French cooperatives generally.

Strength in Numbers

Caramany is a village of 150 inhabitants in the Pyrénées-Orientales scenic L’Agly valley in Roussillon. It has its own appellation:  Côtes du Roussillon Village Caramany. The cooperative has 50 members, some of them quite small holders,  growing mainly Carignan, Grenache and Syrah.

We were in Caramany to learn about its cooperative and its wines during our recent press tour to Languedoc, Roussillon, and the Loire Valley. Cooperatives were on our radar because they are very important in all these regions as they are in Europe generally. Cooperatives produce about 70% of all wine in Languedoc, for example, making their success critically important to the wine industry.

You sometimes have to look closely at a wine label to know that a cooperative has made the wine — seeing Caves Coopérative for a French wine or Cantina Sociale Cooperativa for an Italian one is a sure indicator, but sometimes the link isn’t clear, especially if the wine is sold through a negociant or, as is increasingly the case, made for a private label customer such as a supermarket.

Invisible but Important

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According to the latest edition of the Oxford Companion to Wine, cooperatives probably account for more than half of all the wine produced in the big three Old World wine countries: France, Italy, and Spain. These “invisible wineries,” as I have called them, are one of the most under-appreciated elements of the global wine market despite the commercial success of some of the wines. One of the top-selling Prosecco wines on today’s market — La Marca — is produced by a second-level cooperative — a cooperative of cooperatives.

Some Italian cooperatives — I am thinking Alto Adige and Piemonte in particular — are know for their high quality. But cooperatives in the south of France have the opposite reputation, which they continue to battle to change. It is easier to produce new, better wines that a new reputation.

The Vignerons of Caramany impressed us with their commitment to making delicious, market-friendly wines, which we sampled while eating a Catalan barbeque lunch that included snails grilled over live coals, grilled meats (including delicious blood sausage), and a variety of salads. One wine (see top photo) was a tribute to the past, but others looked to the future.

tremoineThe Reserve Rouge Carmin, for example, is a blend of Grenache, Syrah, and Carignan (the Carignan was vinified with carbonic maceration while the Grenache and Syrah use conventional methods) that was one of my favorites. Delicious with the food we were served and impressive generally. Its packaging is modern and appealing and it sells for a premium price — about 8 to 10  euro, as I recall, which is impressive for a wine from this region.

There were wines from other cooperatives at the lunch and they were also noteworthy. The Rivesaltes Ambré from the Vignerons de Trémoine is a terrific sweet wine that I could sip  all day.

Sleep No More

So what has changed to make these cooperatives (and many others that we learned about) so different from the stereotype of sleepy, inefficient (and sometimes not very clean) cooperative cellars? Well, it isn’t that the cooperatives have simply become stronger — more strength through more numbers — because that’s not the recent trend. Cooperatives seem to be under attack to a certain extent, with the next generation of winegrowers looking beyond old practices to new market opportunities. An association of independent producers has been formed in Languedoc, providing a different sort of strength in numbers through collective marketing not production investment.

Some of the new independent projects are inspired, I was told, by Department 66, a wine project initiated by Dave Phinney and located in the Maury appellation of Roussillon. Its Grenache, Syrah, Carignan blend D66 wine sells for $38, which is a super-premium price for this region. A special old vines Grenache-Syrah blend received a 95-point score from Robert Parker and retails for $175. That would sure get my attention.

More than anything I think it has been competition that has stirred French cooperatives to raise their game — competition in the retail market and also competition between and among the cooperatives for the declining group of potential grower-members. Competition is disruptive but has obviously been a good thing and the results are clear when you consider the achievements of a relatively small cooperative in a tiny appellation such as the Vignerons de Caramany.

If other cooperatives are moving in the same direction as the ones we learned about on this trip. then the future of the “invisible wineries” is bright.

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Thanks to everyone we met on our trip to France and to the wine regions of Languedoc, Roussillon, and the Loire for hosting us.

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VinoVip al Forte: Money, Taste, & the Future of the Italian Wine Industry

What’s holding back the Italian wine industry and how can it change to be more successful in the hyper-competitive global market environment? These questions brought us to a Tuscan seaside resort last month. Read on to see what we discovered.

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vinovip1The icons of Italian wine gather in Cortina D’Ampezzo for a few days every other summer to spend some time thinking, talking (and, inevitably, eating and drinking) in contemplation and celebration of their wines. The event, VinoVIP Cortina,  has always focused on taste, wine, and the inspirations and sacrifices that winemaking entails.

What Do We Talk About?

This year the event moved to the Tuscan coast, the famous resort town of Forte dei Marmi. The focus of VinoVIP al Forte shifted, too, from taste and wine to money and wine. We always talk about taste, someone told me, now we need to discuss the business side of wine with equal passion, candor, and serious purpose.

Alessandro Torcoli, editor of Civiltà del Bere, which organizes VinoVIP, invited me to lead off the program, inspired (or maybe provoked) by my book Money, Taste, and Wine: It’s Complicated. I was honored to be on the roster, which included Angelo Gaja, Prof. Attilio Scienza, Allegra Antinori, and Piero Mastroberardino and other notables.  Quite a line up!

My presentation analyzed key trends in the global wine markets and one of the points I made concerned brands. Brands are a powerful tool for wine marketing, I argued, because consumers find them so useful. It can be easier for a consumer to understand (and remember) a brand in a crowded retail setting. Trustworthy brands encourage consumers to open their wallets and pull more corks. If you approach the topic of money and wine from the consumer’s point of view, it is impossible to ignore the importance the brand.

Branded Wine and Its Discontents

But there is a risk. Branding can go too far in making wine user-friendly, I argued, citing what I have called Einstein’s Theory of Brands (Einstein said that everything should be as simple as possible, but no simpler — can you see how this could apply to wine?). Brands are back as a key wine marketing element, I said, although they are evolving along with wine buying consumers.

Italian wine features some iconic brands, including Gaja, Antinori, and Mastroberardino, of course. But the single most powerful Italian wine brand based upon volume of sales in the U.S. market is actually Riunite Lambrusco, a sweetish sparkling red wine made by a cooperative winery in Emilia Romagna and imported into the U.S. market by marketing powerhouse Banfi. It is the best-selling imported wine in U.S. history.

Brands and their power were on the minds of other speakers as well and formed one interesting theme of the conference.

Italian Wines at French Prices

gajaAngelo Gaja is famous for the high prices he asked for wines early in his career. People thought he was crazy and some, he told the audience, were even angry with him for asking French prices for his Italian wines. French  wines benefited from a reputation for higher quality. Italian wines, even excellent ones like Gaja made, were thought to be in a different, lower class.

No one is shocked by Gaja prices now — he has proved his wines to be worth what he asks — but, he said,  the same status upgrade cannot be said about Italian wine more generally.

Gaja stressed the importance of raising average bottle price of Italian wine exports and building stronger brands is part of that process. Cooperative wineries, he proposed as an example, should focus less on producing anonymous private label wines for foreign retailers and invest more in building their own brands so as to increase average bottle price and raise margins.

This was the first time that I have heard Angelo Gaja speak and I can report that he is a powerful orator who is not shy about stating his opinions. He presented a to-do list of things that the Italian wine industry needs to change, and quickly. Quite an experience!

Beyond “Small is Beautiful”

Piero Mastroberardino’s brief concluding presentation was much different in style from Gaja’s (much more professorial — in a good way), but no less of a challenge to the status quo. Mastroberardino’s topic was the Italian wine system — the industrial organization of the wine sector– which is made up primarily of cooperatives and small family firms. Indeed, it is not too much of an oversimplification to say that the family vineyard or cellar is the fundamental economic unit of the wine industry.

Family ownership presents a trade-off, Mastroberardino noted. As I discussed in Around the World in Eighty Wines, family wine firms have many advantages over corporate structures, which is why the wine sector generally has more family firms (some of them quite large — think Gallo) than other global industries.

But there are disadvantages, too, which was Mastroberardino’s point here. Scale can be limited and the strength of the brand affected by the fact that it is so closely associated with the founding family. In a world where scale and strong brands are important, family firm limitations sometimes get in the way. It is time, Mastroberardino said, to move beyond the “small is beautiful” idea of the Italian wine sector.

Mastroberardino called for more attention to building scale and strengthening brands to increase the competitiveness of the Italian wine sector and there was some evidence during the conference that others appreciate this point. Allegra Antinori, for example, spoke about how the Antinori family have adopted a new ownership structure in order to strengthen the firm’s long-term financial sustainability. A trust locks up ownership for a 90 year period, giving the firm stability and accumulating resources for future needs.

Theory & Practice

Sue and I spoke with Gianluca Bisol about Bisol’s partnership with Lunelli, which was initiated in 2014 in order in part to give family-owned Bisol the leverage it needed to expand forcefully into global markets. Bisol’s Prosecco and Lunelli-owned Ferrari Trento’s sparkling wines may sometimes compete with each other for shelf space, but they mainly work strategically to open market doors. It’s the sort of initiative the Mastroberardino’s analysis suggests is a necessary next step.

Gianluca expressed great satisfaction with the partnership and early indications are that the winery’s recent rebranding efforts, which stress history and terroir, are enjoying success.

The conference ended with a grand tasting at La Capannina di Franceschi, a famous disco located right on the beach. What a blast! Based on this sample of Italian wines, which featured many white and sparkling wines because of the summer seaside location, the Italian wine sector has no trouble with taste and wine. It is important that they now give more attention to money and wine and we are glad to have made a small contribution to the emerging conversation.

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Thanks to Alessandro Torcoli and everyone at VinoVIP for their hospitality during the conference. Special thanks to Sylvia Conti and Maria Gilli of the Italian Trade Agency for their help and support. Sue and I clearly enjoyed ourselves and learned a lot from everyone we met! Here’s a photo of the two of us taken by Megumi Nishida at the post-conference lunch.

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