Book Review: The Goode Guide to Wine

9780520342460Jamie Goode, The Goode Guide to Wine: a manifesto of sorts. University of California Press, 2020.

The trouble with barbecue, at least here in the United States, is that everyone has their own particular idea of what it is and should be. Regional traditions and practices about what to cook (beef, pork, lamb) and how to cook it  and even how to cut (or chop) it have strong proponents. I suspect that duels have been fought (or fistfights, at least) over what is or isn’t barbecue.

Confronted with a fine example of Texas barbecue, for example, the best that someone from North Carolina might offer is the rather weak complement, “it’s good … but it ain’t  barbecue.”

I think this problem applies anywhere people have strong opinions and so it is a wine book problem, too. “It’s good, I guess … ” someone might say or write about a new volume on French wine, “… but it’s not my idea of a book about French wine.” The author’s right to have a different idea, which might in fact be the whole point, doesn’t always get the respect it deserves.

Jamie Goode’s new book is especially likely to suffer from this problem, so I encourage you to approach it with an open mind. Goode is one of the most fascinating characters in the wine business, which is quite full of characters generally. A scientist and former science editor, he began writing about wine on the web very early in the game and has for some time supported himself though writing and speaking about wine.

Goode brings that questioning scientific mind to his work as well as humor, imagination, and a lot of energy. I tell you this from personal experience (our paths have crossed in Cape Town, Napa, Porto, and British Columbia) that spending an evening talking and drinking wine with Jamie Goode is as exciting as it is exhausting. He’s a treasure.

Goode’s long list of books define what you might think of as Goode’s barbecue. They are tightly organized and draw heavily on his scientific background. I am a fan of these books because I can always rely upon Goode to take a technical question, explain it very clearly to me, weight the evidence, and draw a conclusion.

Goode By the Numbers

The Goode Guide to Wine is good, someone familiar with Goode’s previous books might say, but it ain”t Goode’s barbecue. Not so tightly organized and much more personal, it is a peek into the mind of this fascinating fellow as he travels the wine world, seeking out questions, weighing evidence, making up his mind. Since the mind is constantly churning around, the book is, too. Could make you dizzy. Takes a little getting used to.

413s1trpml._sx383_bo1204203200_One way to see this is to compare the basic structure of the Goode Guide with one of Jamie Goode’s previous works, I Taste Red: The Science of Tasting WineI Taste Red divides a little over 200 pages into 10 chapters. The Goode Guide is a little shorter in length, but has 56 chapters. So you can see that each chapter is much smaller, many just a couple of pages.

I read one review that especially objected to this, saying that it looked like a bulked-up Twitter feed. I don’t see it that way. Goode’s style here reminds me a little of one of my favorite books, Trout Fishing in America by Richard Brautigan. The content is completely different, of course, although Brautigan’s book is also a manifesto of sorts, but the short, punchy chapters drive the reader forward in both cases.

Like a conversation with the author, Goode’s ideas pile up as the discussion moves around and circles back. It’s left to the reader to sort things out sometimes, which is a responsibility I am willing to accept.

Boring Writers Beware

This is not guide to buying wine but a discussion of how to think about it. Chapters range from #1: The Heart of Authenticity to #56: Why It Matters. Good tells us that the first half of the book is aimed more at wine drinkers and the second half for the trade.  Each is a manifesto, of sorts, I suppose, but Goode undermines dogmatic notions. It’s OK to disagree with me, Goode says repeatedly, but first think about this … and this … .

Everyone who is a wine writer or works with them needs to read chapter 53, “How to succeed at wine writing by writing boring articles.” I warn you: once you’ve read insightful Goode’s account (including the insider bits) you’ll never be able to read wine articles quite the same way again.

The Goode Guide to Wine ain’t barbecue, but it’s really good. Highly recommended.

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New Yorker writer Calvin Trillin is my authority on barbecue culture. Trillin seems to like all sorts of things that are called barbecue, but the real thing for him is found at Arthur Bryant’s in Kansas City, Missouri.

Around the World in 80 Wines: New Paperback & 30% Discount Offer

discount

The paperback edition of my award-winning book Around the World in Eighty Wines is due out next month and Rowman & Littlefield is celebrating by offering a 30% discount off the list price of hardback, paperback, and Ebook editions.

You can order to book on the R&L website and apply the discount code RLFANDF30 during checkout. All the details (including five different ways to order) can be found in this pdf:  80WinesDiscountFlyer.

Inspired by Jules Verne’s classic adventure tale, Around the World in Eighty Wines is perfect for anyone who likes wine, travel, discovery, or just enjoys a good story. I’m glad Rowman & Littlefield is making the paperback available at this discount so more readers can join me on this wine-fueled trip around the world of wine.

Allegro con Brio: Celebrating 20 Vintages of Eroica Riesling

eroica

“Eroica” is the name given to Beethoven’s third symphony. It is a wonderful work, both elegant and powerful. And it was written to make a statement. First performed in the year 1804, it was meant to rally listeners to oppose the forces of tyranny.

“Eroica” is also the name given to Riesling wines made by a partnership between Dr. Loosen of Germany and Chateau Ste. Michelle of Washington State. “Eroica” is celebrating its 20th vintage this year, which is a good moment to think about how it began, how it developed, and what it means.

A False Start

The idea of a German-Washington Riesling nexus goes back a few years As I wrote in a 2010 Wine Economist column titled “Rielsing’s Rising Tide,” German wine producers played an important role in Washington wine’s modern development.

The Langguth family has been making wine in the Mosel for over 200 years. F.W. Langguth … became interested in international expansion in the early 1980s …  The success of Washington Rieslings from Chateau Ste Michelle and other producers caught Langguth’s attention and soon plans were under way for a major investment.

Langguth and local partners developed Weinbau Vineyard (now part of Sagemoor Farms) on the Wahluke Slope and built a $5 million 35,000 square foot state of the art winery in Mattawa. The winery was the second largest in the state at the time, behind only Chateau Ste Michelle’s big Woodinville facility.

The project lasted only a few years, alas, for reasons that I discuss in the 2010 column. But the winery and vineyards survived and helped accelerate the development of the Washington wine industry. Chateau Ste. Michelle, already an important Riesling producer in the 1980s, is now the largest maker of Riesling wines in the world. And Eroica is the flagship.

The James Brown of Wine

Winemaker Bob Bertheau tells the story that, on only his second day working at Chateau Ste Michelle, he found himself walking vineyards with Ernest Loosen of the famous Mosel winery Dr Loosen. Loosen was looking for a New World partner to help build global momentum for Riesling wines. I think of Loosen as the “James Brown of Wine.”  James Brown is famously “the hardest working man in show business” and Ernst Loosen works just as hard to make the world appreciate Riesling wine.

The partnership between the two companies is embodied in the friendship that developed between the two winemakers, which is easy to see and appreciate when the Riesling world gathers in Seattle every few years for Riesling Rendezvous.

Desert Island Wine

Many people are surprised when I tell them that Riesling is my desert island wine. If had to choose just one kind of wine to drink on a hypothetical remote island, it would be Riesling. Why? Because of its noble quality, of course, but more than that because of the great diversity of styles and expressions that Riesling offers. (People who dismiss it as simply sweet apparently don’t know what they are missing).  To paraphrase Dr. Johnson, a person who is bored with Riesling is bored with life.

It is appropriate, therefore, that Eroica is not just one wine but several.  In the beginning there was Eroica, an off-dry Riesling that raised the bar for Washington Riesling in terms of quality and also price. No one hereabouts was accustomed to paying more than $20 for a bottle of Washington Riesling. The fact that the wine is still around — and still commands a premium price — speaks to its ability to change perceptions.

There was a sweet wine, too. If you’ve ever had a TBA Riesling, you will understand why this was necessary.  Eroica Single Berry Select Riesling raised the bar again.  And eventually Eroica Gold appeared, made in the style of a German Gold Capsule Auslese Riesling. Richer, balanced, with a hint of Noble Rot. Delicious.

Eroica at 20 Vintages

Chateau Ste Michelle invited us to celebrate Eroica’s 20 vintages with them and sent us four Eroica wines that, along with Eroica Gold, make up the current line up. Tasting through the wines was a fascinating experience. The ice wine (Chateau Ste. Michelle & Dr. Loosen 2016 Eroica Riesling Ice Wine 266 cases, $60 SRP) was a thing apart, of course. A delicious example of a sweet wine with texture, aroma, layers of flavor, and balance. Residual sugar is 33% but of course this is beautifully balanced by lively acidity. Grapes harvested at 47 brix. Memorable experience in the same way as a fine Sauterne. I smile just thinking about it.

The other three wines are variations on the classic Eroica theme. We compared the current release (Chateau Ste. Michelle & Dr. Loosen 2018 Eroica Riesling  10,000 cases, $20 SRP) with an Eroica with some bottle age (Chateau Ste. Michelle & Dr. Loosen 2011 Eroica Riesling   60 cases, $35 SRP — Aged Eroica re-release program). Riesling can develop in wonderful ways and even a few years can make a difference. Sue preferred the freshness of the 2018, but I liked the development of the 2011. Both were delicious. Seriously, you should buy some Riesling to put down for a few years if you haven’t done this before.

The final wine (Chateau Ste. Michelle & Dr. Loosen 2016 Eroica XLC Dry Riesling 515 cases, $45 SRP) was fermented in wooden vats, aged on the lees for a year, and fermented dry. It is an idea that Loosen got from a wine his grandfather made years ago. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but was pleased with the elegance and balance. The special treatment added nuance, but didn’t distort the fundamental Eroica characteristics. Interesting. I don’t consider Eroica a sweet wine at all, but this drier version will surprise many Riesling deniers.

The main Eroica release is widely distributed, but the Ice Wine, XLC, and Gold can be harder to find. Here is a link to the CSM Eroica store.

Beethoven’s Eroica is a masterpiece that has been a source of inspiration for more than two centuries. Eroica Riesling was meant to inspire, too, and after 20 vintages we can taste the delicious result. Allegro con brio?  Yes, indeed.

Thanks to Chateau Ste Michelle and Dr Loosen and congratulations to Ernst, Bob, David, Lynda, and everyone else who’s been in the mix for 20 vintages of Eroica Riesling.

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If you haven’t listened to Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony recently, this performance is for you. The first movement is marked “allegro con brio,” of course!

 

Wine, Coronavirus, & the Falling Dollar

xratesWhat is going to happen to the value of the U.S. dollar as the coronavirus crisis unfolds? That was the question that a couple of wine economists (I was one of them) were asked in a zoom meeting back in May.

The dollar’s going to stay strong, we both said. That’s what happens in a crisis. Investors rush to the safety and security of the dollar whenever there is uncertainty and risk. Ironically, the dollar sometimes rises even when the U.S. is the source of the uncertainty, but that’s another story.

Up and Down Economics

Zoom ahead a few weeks to the start of August. The dollar’s value unexpectedly fell dramatically in July as this chart from x-rates.com shows — the largest monthly drop in a decade. The sudden exchange rate change will affect the economy directly and indirectly in many ways — some even believe that it has contributed to the somewhat puzzling situation in the stock market, where values have risen recently despite bad economic and pandemic news. The cheaper dollar makes dollar-denominated  financial assets cheaper for foreign buyers, who look for capital gains when the currency eventual rebounds.

What happened? Why? And why does it matter for the wine industry?

Some people believe that a strong dollar is good and a weak dollar is bad, but the truth is that exchange rate shifts create many positive and negative forces and the net effect depends on the economic environment at the given point in time and  your particular circumstances. The strong dollar of the last few years, for example, made wine imports cheaper in dollar terms and discouraged wine exports — both big negatives for U.S. growers and producers.

But the strong dollar also tended to reduce the cost of equipment and supplies used in U.S. wine production including vineyard and cellar machinery, bottles, capsules, corks, and so on. The strong dollar also indirectly benefited the U.S. companies that import and distribute foreign wine and the on- and off-premise firms that sell it. Wine has a long supply chain and so there are complex exchange rate effects.

The falling dollar tends to reverse all this by increasing the cost of imported wine and wine production supplies and making U.S. exports relatively cheaper abroad.  If you run a vineyard in California, the reduced competition from imports is good news. If you run a distributor that specializes in imports this is more bad news in a year with lots of bad news to digest.

Elementary, My Dear Watson

Although the falling dollar caught me by surprise because I focused on the crisis effect, others who watched exchange rate fundamentals might have seen it coming. That’s because there were indications that the U.S. dollar was over-valued and ripe for a fall at some point.

When we say that a currency is over-valued, we mean that the exchange value is such that the currency purchases more abroad than it does at home. If you travel to Europe, for example, and your euro purchases seem cheap in terms of their dollar equivalent, it is an indication that the dollar is over-valued (and the euro under-valued).

bigmac

The Economist newspaper keeps track of how much currencies are over- or under-valued using their famous Big Mac index. As this graph shows, as of June 2020  the Economist index suggested that U.S. dollar was over-valued compared to all but three (Sweden, Lebanon, and Switzerland) of the currencies that the newspaper tracks.

The British pound was 25% under-valued relative to the dollar. Other wine country currencies: Canadian dollar (-11%), Euro (-16%), Australia (-19%), New Zealand (-23%),  Argentina (-38%), Chile (-39%), and South Africa (-67%). Logically, the U.S. dollar would need to fall quite a lot to restore equilibrium between the currency’s internal and external purchasing power.

In my experience, the Big Mac index is a reasonably good predictor of long-run exchange rate tendencies, but there are many other factors that impact the exchange rate in the short term. In particular, the flight to safety that many of us expected seemed very likely to overwhelm the trade-based adjustments that the Big Max index is based on.

None of the Above

But an article in last weekend’s Financial Times suggests that there is more going on than  adjustment based on “burgernomics.”  Faith in the U.S. as a safe harbor in the storm has weakened, according to the article, because of what is seen as a very poor response to the pandemic. The coronavirus continues to spread, the economy remains very weak, the Federal Reserve is running short of tools, and Congress is gridlocked. And have you heard that there is an election coming up? The eurozone looks like a calmer, safer haven by comparison.

Safer yet, in some eyes, is gold, which isn’t tied to any particular country. Buying gold is a way to vote “none of the above” regarding major currencies. (There’s also Bitcoin, but that’s another story;)

The price of gold hit a record high of $1983 per troy ounce last week. The high price is the result of some investors looking for safety and others making speculative purchases. Demand for gold for use in jewelry and so forth is down because of the pandemic’s impact on sales of the finished products.

Looking ahead, it is difficult to know where the dollar will go next. Financial markets tend to over-shoot — to zoom too high when they are rising and over-state declines.  So it will take a while to know whether July’s dollar decline will persist or if the currency will bounce back quickly.

So pay attention to the risks that exchange rate variability produces. Many wineries will find their exposure to exchange rate risk is small and difficult to identify. But if you have substantial foreign currency costs or revenue streams, you might think about hedging strategies to insure to some degree against unfavorable movements. And everyone ought to consider counter-party risk: are the people who owe you money exposed to increased risk? Will it affect their ability to fulfill their obligations?

 

 

Cooper’s Hawk Winery Leverages Its Unique Business Model

chw

It is time to circle back to check in on one of America’s most innovative wine companies: Cooper’s Hawk Winery & Restaurant.  Cooper’s Hawk has carved out an unexpected market segment (it is too big to be called a niche) and built a loyal following. Can its unique business model continue to thrive in today’s challenging wine business environment?

Cooper’s Hawk by the Numbers

The numbers are impressive. The big winery in Woodridge, Illinois produced 675,000 cases of wine in 2019, according to Wine Business Monthly data, making it the 29th largest wine company in the U.S. — just behind Hess Family Wine Estates and ahead of Wente Vineyards in the U.S league table. Grapes come from the main U.S. vineyard regions and select international sources.

The wines are sold exclusively through a 43-location restaurant/tasting room network that supports what might be the largest wine club in the world with nearly 450,000 members. That takes my breath away.

I first wrote about Cooper’s Hawk Winery & Restaurant in a 2018 Wine Economist column. I was impressed with the vision — bringing wine country (and wine!) to consumers located far away from California vineyards. Customers enter through a “Napa-style” tasting room that includes a gourmet foods market space. The upscale casual restaurant features Cooper’s Hawk wines by the bottle, glass, or flight, with carefully-chosen pairings suggested for each menu item.  Wine club members can pick up their “wine of the month” at the tasting room, giving them an opportunity to sample other wines and to dine in the restaurant.

The thing that excited me about Cooper’s Hawk Winery back in 2018 was the fact that they were successfully engaging consumers in a new way and obviously building interest in wine in general while expanding their own customer base. Bringing a taste of wine country to the local mall or other nearby location might not work for everyone, but it obviously resonates with a lot of folks who can’t get to wine country themselves but still want a bit of that experience.

Epic fail: Sue and I have so far failed in our resolution to experience a Cooper’s Hawk restaurant first hand, but that makes sense in a way when you think about it. We spend a lot of our time in wine country, which is exactly where Cooper’s Hawk is not. So we were excited when we received an invitation to attend a celebratory virtual tasting of Cooper’s Hawk and other wines.

Go Big in Chicago

The occasion for the celebration was the announcement that Cooper’s Hawk’s new flagship location Esquire Chicago received a 2020 Best of Award of Excellence recognition from Wine Spectator magazine.  The 23,000 square foot facility features a 50-foot high wine tower and offers guests 1200 different wine selections. The list includes the Cooper’s Hawk wines, of course, but also hundreds of other wines from wine producers around the globe, which is a first for Cooper’s Hawk.

I suppose you could say that Esquire Chicago and the tall wine tower is at least in part a reaction to some of the key wine market trends of the last few years. Consumers have shown a willingness to broaden their comfort zone of wine styles and, via premiumization, to stretch the budget a bit, too. If the goal of the Cooper’s Hawk organization is to unlock consumer passion for wine by simplifying choice and controlling quality and value, Esquire Chicago aims to provide opportunities to turn the flame up a notch or two. Accordingly, the wines we tasted  in the virtual seminar included two wines from Bordeaux and two Cooper’s Hawk California blends.

Thankfully there was no attempt to create a “Judgement of Paris” result. The purpose wasn’t to probe whether Cooper’s Hawk wines are better than those from Bordeaux, but simply to taste and enjoy different wines of similar general types much as an Esquire Chicago guest might do in a tasting flight.  Perfect. So we sampled a left-bank Bordeaux, Chateau La Tonnelle, alongside a Cabernet-forward Cooper’s Hawk Lux Meritage blend made from Mendocino-sourced grapes. Then we tried Chateau Coutet from the right bank along with a Merlot-forward Cooper’s Hawk Napa/Sonoma blend called Camille Proud, a special creation of CHW’s Master Sommelier Emily Wines made to honor powerful women role models.

The wines were all very good and, because they were still pretty young, even better when we returned to them over the next two days. If these are representative of the kinds of experiences that Emily Wines and Esquire Chicago sommelier Jordyn Sotelo create, then I think their guests are in good hands.

How important is the Wine Spectator restaurant award? Those who attain it are obviously proud, but there are doubters, too. There was even a case of a hoax a few years ago when someone faked an application for the award and fooled the Wine Spectator staff. My opinion is this. There are wine enthusiasts (like you, perhaps) who seek out restaurants that take wine seriously and offer interesting wine choices. A Wine Spectator award is a way for the restaurant to signal consumers of their interest in and commitment to wine.  In a world of asymmetric information (the famous “market for lemons”) such signals can be very valuable.

Navigating Uncharted Waters

Any advantage is worthwhile in the current market environment. Although we did not talk about it during the celebration tasting, the shadow of the conoravirus pandemic is hard to avoid.  This is a difficult time to be in the restaurant business and not the best time for in-person tasting room sales, either. And, of course, Cooper’s Hawk has uniquely combined these two now-problematic areas to define its business model. Sounds like a recipe for trouble, doesn’t it?

But that doesn’t take into account the huge wine club, which seems to be proving itself even more important than before. With almost 450,000 members, the possibilities for engagement though virtual tastings (like ours, but scaled up considerably) are pretty much endless.  And curbside pick up of wine club shipments and to-go restaurant meals, too, where allowed,  ought to cushion somewhat the economic impacts while fostering relationships with sheltered club members.

So triple congratulations to Cooper’s Hawk: for their flagship Esquire Chicago restaurant, for the Wine Spectator recognition, and for their remarkable achievement in keeping so many club members engaged with wine during this difficult period.

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Thanks to Cooper’s Hawk for inviting us to the virtual tasting and to Emily Wines and Jordyn Sotelo for leading the discussion. Fingers crossed that readers everywhere will be able to safely visit CHW and enjoy their hospitality in person before too many more weeks have passed.

Long, Slow Road to Recovery for U.S. Wine

23-sep-2How long will it take for the economy to get back to normal? That’s the question I am asked most often these days, where “back to normal” is code for conditions at the start of 2020, before the coronavirus pandemic and the recession it has produced.

Try to Keep It Real (Compared to What?)

The answer to this question depends on how you look at it. If you are thinking about a world without concern for virus contagion, face masks, and social distancing, the answer might well be “never,” but only time will tell.

Economists often distinguish between “monetary” and “real” economic factors. If you think in monetary terms — stock market valuations, for example — we are already most of the way back. Our modest Wine Economist retirement account is pretty much back to its January 1, 2020 level thanks in part to a few trillion dollars of Federal Reserve and federal government stimulus, which has done a lot to prop up valuations.

But if you are looking at the “real” economy, where output, jobs, and incomes are what count, then the scene is not so serene. A recent report by The Economist Intelligence Unit is titled “A Q3 recovery, what Q3 recovery?” and it warns that the hoped-for big economic bounce in the third quarter of the year is no longer likely. Other business news reports that appeared over the weekend tell a similar story. Here is a link to a summary of the EIU report.

Down the Drain?

The EIU projects that when all the dust settles the U.S. economy will shrink by about 5% in 2020 compared with the previous year. That performance is roughly on par with forecasts for Japan, Canada, and Germany, The other G7 nations will envy a mere 5% decline. The EIU projects that growth rates in the UK and France will be closer to minus 10%, with Italy’s situation a bit worse.

How long will it take for these countries, which are all important wine markets, to return to their pre-pandemic levels of economic activity?  The EIU projects that the U.S. will get there first, but not until Q3 of 2022 — about two years from now. Japan, Canada, and France will be next, hitting the pre-pandemic level in Q4 2022.  Full recovery for the UK will wait until Q4 2023 followed by Italy (Q3 2024) and Japan (Q4 2024). Long road. Slow progress.

In general, the EIU reports, output in the G7 countries in Q3 2020 will be about the same as it was in 2016. Four  years of growth down the drain.

Economic forecasting is an inexact science, or maybe a black art, so you cannot bank on these specific numbers. This is especially true right now given the unknown unknowns about global public health, economic policies, and potential election surprises. But the fact that conservative estimates now suggest a long, slow economic recovery is something we need to digest.

Wine’s Particular Challenges

There are special concerns for the wine industry. An economy isn’t like a train, where all the cars are connected and move at the same speed. Different sectors adjust at different speeds and sometimes move in different directions. While wine is influenced to a great degree by overall economic trends, some particular paths to market are especially influenced by the coronavirus pandemic.

On-trade sales and DtC sales via tasting room visits will likely be slower to recover than retail sales, which we can see now as California has closed down indoor dining and cellar door operations for the second time. And this isn’t the feared “second wave” of infections — that isn’t expected until fall. This is just the echo of the first wave.

It is also important to remember that our 2019 “normal” wasn’t a terrific situation for wine. American wine was challenged by slow growth of demand, supply that was so abundant that vines needed to be pulled, and growing competition from other countries as well as other beverage alcohol categories. Curse you White Claw! U.S. wine producers need to do more than recover volumes, they need to adapt to evolving reality, too.

Simple Pleasures

So it is important and even inspiring to see how active many in the wine industry are in adjusting to what they think the new normal will be. Joana Pais, director of communications and public relations for Sogrape, the important Portuguese producer, told me in an email about the wine tourism situation in Porto and the challenges she and her colleagues face.

Travel to Portugal was booming before the pandemic and wine tourism in Porto and the Douro benefited.  These travel flows collapsed during the spring and are only slowly rebuilding. “It is true that tourism is scary slow,” she writes, “but let’s face it as an opportunity to rethink the purpose of hospitality and work on developing truly incredible experiences, enjoying the simple pleasures of life!”

She’s right about that and more. As I wrote in Around the World in Eighty Wines, wine’s great gift is its ability to give us pleasure. So long was we keep that front and center wine’s future is secure. But the challenges we face on the road to the future are daunting.  The next two to four years will test our collective resilience, but I hope they also excite our imaginations.

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I am already starting to think about what wine market situation will be in January 2021 when the next Unified Wine and Grape Symposium takes place. The conference and trade show will be virtual this time around, reflecting the reality of the pandemic and the uncertainty that must necessarily cloud plans for large gatherings. It will be different, that’s for sure, but there are opportunities, too.

 

Bastille Day Reflections: Libertè, Ègalitè, Rosè

Rose auroreToday is July 14, France’s national day — Bastille Day — and it is a good moment to consider Rosè and the democratization of French wine and wine in general.

One thing that I like about Rosè is that is symbolizes to a certain degree the classic values of freedom (libertè) and equality (ègalitè).  There isn’t any fixed recipe for Rosè. Winemakers have considerable liberty in choosing grapes, blends, and styles. And Rosè levels the playing field a bit, too, allowing less well-known regions to compete with the elites.

I have friends who tell me they just don’t like Rosè — and I believe them — but which Rosè offends them? There are so many different styles that it seems like there would be something for everyone. If you don’t like Rosè maybe you just haven’t tried the right one yet. Sue and I have sampled Rosè wine all around the world (see this list of global Rosè wines of note from the recent Decanter wine competition) and enjoyed pink wine’s diversity of hues, flavors, and aromas.

 Libertè, ègalitè

French wines are traditionally identified by place, a practice that privileges a few elite regions and their wines. Bordeaux. Burgundy. And especially Champagne. This is not an accident. As I wrote in my book Money, Taste, and Wine: It’s Complicated, the appellation system was more or less invented by Champagne producers to protect their sparkling wines first from copycat wines produced elsewhere and then from sub-standard quality wines made at home.  Only Champagne was Champagne, which consigned many first-class French sparkling wines to the third class carriage.

The famous Classification of 1855 established a pecking order for Bordeaux wines. It is not a big stretch to move to the idea that wine in general is rank-ordered, with the most famous names at the top. France has lots of different wines (even more different wines than cheeses, if that is possible), but they are not equal, at least in the marketplace.

This situation is changing. The popularity of Prosecco has weakened Champagne’s hegemony. Besides, the joyous gatherings where special corks are popped are fewer and smaller in the age of Covid-19. Bordeaux, which priced itself into irrelevance in some ciercles, has descended a bit with softer prices flowing out of this year’s unusual en primeur circus.

The Pink Wine Boom

But the biggest force in the growing democratization of French wine is Rosè. Sales of French Rosè were booming in the U.S. before the crisis and continue to be very strong. Indeed, French wine today rides on a pink wave. This is apparently true even within France, where reports suggest that pink outsells white wine in French supermarkets. Incroyable!

Yes, I know there is a hierarchy within the Rosè world. Provence is a first among unequals in the opinion of some. But even taking this into account, I think that Rosè is the wine of French democracy. What is Rosè after all? It is not a region (Rosè is made all over France and the world). It is not a grape variety, either. Rosè wines from all over France and sometimes all over the world are often displayed together in shops and supermarkets, giving humble appellations and obscure grape varieties an opportunity to compete on their own terms, which does not happen very often in the world of wine.

An Arrogant Frog?

carte-domaines-paul-mas-2017Three wines that we received from Paul Mas illustrate these points very well. Les Domaines Paul Mas is an ambitious family wine business rooted in the South of France. Paul Mas reminds me of Jackson Family wines in California. Jackson is best know for its high-volume Kendall-Jackson wines, especially the popular Chardonnay. But when you look more closely you see a collection of focused, high quality wineries that together explore the complex possibilities of the region’s terroir.

Paul Mas is a little bit like that. You might know it best in the U.S. for its popular Arrogant Frog wines. Labels feature a snooty but suave wine-drinking, beret-wearing frog. The wines were fine when I first encountered them, as I recall, but the marketing was the thing that caught my attention. Arrogant Frog is still with us (there is a Chateau Arrogant Frog) and better than ever, but under Jean-Claude Mas’s leadership the firm has grown and focused its attention on the specific terroirs of Languedoc and Rousillion. We tasted and appreciated several of these wines when we visited Languedoc and Roussillon two years ago. So we were pleased to get the chance to focus on the pink wine portfolio.

Three Shades of Pink

We tasted three very different Paul Mas Rosè wines. The first is the Côté Mas Rosè Aurore, a blend of Grenache, Cinsault, and Syrah with the IGP Pays d’Oc designation. You get a full liter of this fun wine for about $12.99. Full of flavor, the packaging (see image above) emphasizes casual elegance and screams “picnic.” Picnics can be rustic or elegant and this wine would work either way. You would not regret opening this bottle on a warm day in the company of friends (social distanced friends, of course).

Next came Chateau Lauriga, a Syrah and Grenache blend, AOP Côtes du Roussillon, with a retail price of about $20. Lighter, more elegant, a very different take on Rosè, which is as it should be since both the blend and the terroir are different. A bit more serious, too, if you know what I mean.

We enjoyed both these wines with early summer meals, but our favorite was the Domaine Lauriga Le Gris. I’m not sure what made this wine stand out, but we just loved it. Could be the grape variety, terroir, or maybe the older vines (43 years old) made the difference.  Le Gris is 100% Grenache Gris, designated IGP Côtes Catalanes. At about $14 per bottle, it sits comfortably in the Rosè market sweet spot.

A Mind of Its Own

Do you see why I associate these and other Rosè wines with libertè and ègalitè?  Speaking of libertè, there’s one more Rosè wine I want to tell you about.

liberteOur friend Caro Feely (author of several  excellent wine books), invited us to zoom into a virtual tasting with members of Chateau Feely‘s wine club. Chateau Feely is a biodynamic estate in Saussignac, about an hour from Bordeaux. Caro’s books document the challenges and satisfactions Caro and family experienced as they worked endless hours to make their vineyard sustainable in every sense. I recommend the books to anyone who is thinking about buying a vineyard to winery.

The subject was Rosè and the intimate internet audience was pleased to sample two of Feely’s fine Rosè wines, an experience that might have changed how they think of Saussignac, Rosè, or both. One of the wines especially caught my attention.

It is called Libertè. Made with native yeasts from Cabernet Sauvignon grapes (one of the approved varieties for Bergerac AOP), the wine exploited its freedom by taking an unusually long time to complete fermentation, thus earning its designation. It is a wine with a mind of its own. Everyone agreed that Liberty’s taste is something special.

So please raise a glass of Rosè and join me in a toast.  Libertè, ègalitè, Rosè!

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If you want to know more about Rosè you should read Elizabeth Gabay’s recent book on the pink wine revolution. Here is our review. 

Einstein’s Law & Washington Wine

einsteinEinstein said that everything should be made as simple as possible … but not simpler. At some point further simplification loses the essence of whatever is being studied. I am pretty sure that he was talking about physics, not wine, but I think the concept applies here as well.

I was reminded of Einstein’s Law when I learned about what the Auction of Washington Wines is doing to try to spread the word about this region’s dynamic wine scene. Usually the auction is an in-person event and so the impact is limited a bit by attendance constraints. This year, however, they’ve gone virtual, which opens up expanded possibilities. And they’ve partnered with the world-class story-teller, Karen MacNeil, to spread the word, simplify the story, but not too much.

The Signature Grape Syndrome

The temptation to violate Einstein’s law is strong. Wine people look at the success of New Zealand and Argentina,. for example,  and decide that a single signature grape is the answer. I have argued that a signature variety is no silver bullet and, in any case, what grape variety would Washington choose? Riesling makes sense. Chateau Ste Michelle is the world’s largest producer of Riesling wines. Merlot had proponents for a while (pre-Sideways).

Cabernet Sauvignon was the recent favorite, but too much was planted both in Washington and parts of California, and it is not the easy sell it once was.  And there are lots of other contenders including Syrah, Grenache, Cabernet Franc, and rising Tempranillo. No one grape variety rules them all … or should.

waWashington’s wine diversity is a blessing for consumers, but a problem for marketers. No wonder the Washington State Wine Commission went to the other extreme in choosing a new logo. Some of my wine friends admire the austere graphics, but I think it simplifies too far.  What story does it tell? Einstein would not approve, although I am not sure what alternative he’d suggest. He’d probably just pour another glass of great Washington wine and leave it at that.

Happily the new logo is part of a useful package of resources to help wineries tell their (and Washngton’s) story. And I don’t think anyone will mistake WA wine for the logo of Wawa, the Pennsylvania-based gasoline and convenience store chain.

Washington Wine Storybook

Karen MacNeil and the Auction of Washington Wines have to simplify, too, but virtual platforms allow more depth and detail.  They’ve organized a series of on-line interviews and tastings, each with a particular theme.  Wines for each session are available for purchase.

wawine

A webinar on Washington wine “trailblazers” (originally web-cast on June 18  but you can still watch the video) brought together pioneers Allen Shoup, Rick Small, and Marty Clubb. Shoup, Small, and Clubb have seen the Washington industry grow from just a hand full of wineries to over 1000 producers. MacNeil begins the conversation by asking, did you always know this was going to be a success? Good question. Click on the image to hear their answers.

The second webinar, which first appeared on July 2, focuses on the next generation, giving a sense of the dynamic of this young industry. Andrew Januik, Rob Mercer, John Bookwalter, and Caleb Foster are featured.

Next up (on July 16, so you still have time to place your wine order) is a program on women in Washington wine featuring Leah Adint, Lisa Packer, and Jessica Munnell. The status of women in the wine industry is one of Karen MacNeil’s particular concerns, so this session is an opportunity to add this important issue to the mix. Hopefully future programs can explore issues of diversity and inclusion in even greater depth and breadth.

Three Ps: It’s Complicated

Other programs in the series will explore the topics of terroir (Red Mountain) and grape varieties. There’s no way they can tell the whole story of Washington wine any more than the previous sessions could, but they aren’t likely to violate Einstein’s Law, either.

Sometimes complicated things need to be understood in complicated ways, so there is plenty of room for future webinars to examine the great diversity of Washington’s “Three Ps,” the people and their distinctive visions, the places (the varied terroir), and the plants (the grape varieties that thrive here).

Wine, Recession & the Fed-Ex Effect

botThe impact of the evolving coronavirus recession on the wine industry is complicated. It seems like you get a slightly different story depending on when and where you look.  One way to think about this situation is to analyze  other industries where the impacts might be easier to discern. Fed-Ex, the package delivery giant, offers several potential insights.

Business is Booming, But …

How is Fed-Ex doing in this environment? A recent report from The Economist newspaper provides some clues. You’d think that business would be booming, since so many consumers have turned to on-line shopping and home delivery in the past few months. Of course there is competition to consider. United Parcel Service is a strong competitor. And Amazon.com has developed its own package delivery service. But there is plenty of delivery business to go around. So Fed-Ex must be doing well, right?

Well, yes and no. Home package delivery is booming, but bring those boxes to your front door is a high cost part of the business. And the costs of protecting the workers who process the packages have increased, too. So the business surge has put pressure on margins.

And the most profitable part of the business — which is bulk shipment to businesses — has actually fallen as overall consumer spending has decreased, reducing the pull-through effect. Higher margin deliveries to businesses and retailers have been only partly replaced by lower margin deliveries to you and me.

Fed-Ex announce quarterly earnings after market close on Tuesday of this week.  The MarketWatch.com report noted that

Commercial volumes were down significantly due to worldwide business closures, but there were surges in residential deliveries for its FedEx Ground business and in transpacific and charter flights for FedEx Express, which required incremental costs to serve.

The company also incurred in about $125 million in increased operating costs related to personal protective equipment and medical and safety supplies for its employees, as well as additional security and cleaning services to protect them, it said.

Quarterly earnings were well below the level of a year ago, but much better than analyst expectations. The company’s stock rose in after-hours trading. It sounds like
Fed-Ex is managing the unavoidable big squeeze pretty well under the circumstances.

Lessons for the Wine Industry

Can you see how the Fed-Ex effect relates to wine? It isn’t a perfect parallel, but the surge in supermarket and on-line wine purchases is one side of the coin — like the boom in Fed-Ex home delivery — and if we focus just on that we end up drawing the wrong conclusions.

Higher operating costs and stagnant overall sales, when lost on-trade business is taken into account, are the rest of the story for wine. Depending on where your business is in wine’s market constellation, you might find yourself doing quite well or, like Fed-Ex and many other firms, caught in a squeeze.

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What’s that gizmo in the photo above? Well, Amazon.com is experimenting with drone delivery. Fed-Ex has tested an autonomous delivery robot.

 

Holiday Flashback: How the U.S. and Canada Almost Destroyed Wine

patriotic_pourThese are tough times for many people in the wine industry, especially those who depend on bar and restaurant sales for much of their income. The restrictions necessary to address the coronavirus pandemic have had many unintended consequences.

The wine industry has been shut down before and took decades to recover. But the story isn’t exactly what you might expect. This special holiday week flashback column takes us back to 2015 to tell the story of how, in very different ways, the U.S. and Canadian governments almost destroyed their respective wine industries.

The U.S. government is considering imposing 100% tariffs on some wine imports from Europe, an act that would hurt both European producers and many in the U.S. wine trade, too. The unintended consequences of acts like this are serious business.

Have a happy and safe 4th of July holiday.

Unintended Consequences: How the U.S. & Canada Almost Destroyed Wine

March 17, 2015

At one point in Kym Anderson’s new book about the Australian wine industry he reflects on what can be done to shorten that country’s current wine slump and to get things sailing again on an even keel. One of his suggestions caught my eye:

“Governments need to keep out of grape and wine markets and confine their activities to generating public goods and overcoming market failures such as the free rider problem of collecting levies for generic promotion and R&D.”

This is more than the simple Adam Smith “laissez-faire” idea. Anderson’s book clearly demonstrates the law of unintended consequences — how well-meaning government policies sometimes have had unexpectedly negative side-effects. No wonder he recommends a cautious approach to wine and grape policy.

I was reminded of this when I was researching the history of the Canadian wine industry for a recent speaking engagement in Ontario. I was struck by Canada’s experience with Prohibition in the 20th century, how it differed from the U.S. experiment, and how both ended up crippling their wine industries but in very different ways. Here’s what I learned.

How U.S. Prohibition Crippled the Wine Industry

The great experiment in Prohibition in the United States started in 1920 and lasted until 1933. The 18th Amendment outlawed the manufacture, sale or transport of intoxicating beverages, including wine. Most people assume that the wine industry collapsed as legal wine sales and consumption fell and this is partly true but not the complete story. Commercial wine production almost disappeared, but wine consumption actually boomed.

How is this possible? There were three loopholes in the wine regulations outlined in the Volstead Act. Wine could still be produced and sold for medical purposes (prescription wine?) and also for use in religious services (sacramental wine). This kept a few wineries in business but does not account for the consumption boom, which is due to the third loophole: households were allowed to make up to 200 gallons of wine per year for “non-intoxicating” family consumption.

Demand for wine grapes exploded as home winemaking increased (but not always for strictly non-intoxicating purposes). Total U.S. vineyard area just about doubled between 1919 and 1926! But the new plantings were not delicate varieties that commercial producers might have chosen but rather grapes chosen for their high yields,  strong markets.

Thus did Prohibition increase wine consumption in the U.S. but it also corrupted the product by turning over wine-making from trained professionals to enthusiastic  amateurs working in often unsanitary conditions. The home-produced wine sometimes had little in common with pre-Prohibition commercial products except its alcoholic content.

Americans drank more wine during Prohibition, but it was an inferior product. No wonder they dropped wine like a hot stone when Prohibition ended. That’s when the real wine bust occurred and it took decades to fully recover. Do you see the unintended consequence in this story? But wait, there’s more …

How Canadian Prohibition Crippled Its Wine Industry

Prohibition started earlier (1916) and ended earlier (1927) in Canada and took a different fundamental form. With support from temperance groups, consumption of beer and spirits (Canada’s first choice alcoholic drinks) was banned as part of war policy with the stated intent of preserving grain supplies for vital military uses. Consumption was forbidden, but production of beer and spirits was still allowed for export, which accounts for the boom in bootleg Canadian whiskey in the U.S. in the 1920s.

Neither production nor consumption of wine was included in Canada’s ban on alcohol, although wine sales were limited to the cellar door. What made wine different? Maybe grapes were not as vital to the war effort as grains, although John Schreiner cites the political influence of the United Farmer’s Party in his account of this period in The Wines of Canada. Wine became the legal alcoholic beverage of choice for Canadian consumers and production boomed. By the end of Canadian Prohibition there were 57 licensed wineries in Ontario (up from just 12) to serve the big Toronto market.

Wine sales increased 100-fold, according to Schreiner, but “It would be charitable to describe the quality of the wines being made in Ontario during this period as variable,” he writes. The market wanted alcohol and set a low standard of quality, which many producers pragmatically stooped to satisfy. No wonder wine production collapsed at the end of Prohibition as consumers went back to spirits and beer.

Unintended Consequences

Thus did government policy in both Canada and the United States create wine booms during their respective Prohibition eras, but the worst kind of booms: bad wine booms. Quality suffered as quantity surged. It is no surprise that consumers turned away from wine once other beverages were available. It took decades for these industries to recover.

Both the Canadian and U.S. wine industries are vibrant and growing today, having recovered from the crippling effects of poor quality wine. But they both are still hampered by other policies — especially regarding distribution and sales — that date back to the end of Prohibition. Economic policies can obviously have unintended effects and the shadows they cast can be long indeed.

No wonder Kym Anderson is skeptical about government interference in the Australian industry. Prohibition is an extreme case, to be sure, but such cases clearly show the unintended consequence potential that exists even with other seemingly harmless proposals. A cautious approach makes sense.