Simply Irresistible? “Second-Cheapest” Restaurant Wine in Theory & Practice

secondLast week I wrote about the theory that you should always order the second-cheapest wine on a restaurant’s list. The second-cheapest wine rule as it is usually explained, is a naive application of game theory to the problem of ordering restaurant wine.

The premise is that the restaurant is trying to gouge its wine-drinking customers and that it does this by putting incredibly high mark-ups on the cheapest wine on the list. Diners are drawn to the cheapest wine because of the high general level of wine prices, the theory goes, and so the restaurant rakes in the dough when diners opt for the least expensive bottle.

So where does the second-cheapest wine theory come in? Well, since you are smart and know that the cheapest wine is a rip-off, you can “stick it to the man” by ordering the second-cheapest wine instead. Second-cheapest wine — the sweet spot in every wine list!

Game Theory in Circles

Now there is a lot that is problematic with this scenario, beginning with the premise (see below), but the game theory is bad, too. It implicitly assumes that restaurants are ignorant of the second-cheapest theory, which they obviously are not, and do not adopt a counter-strategy, which they probably would.

If an evil restaurant wine manager knows the theory and wants to rip you off, he or she can manipulate the situation by simply raising the mark-up on the second-cheapest wine, making it the worst deal of the list. It’s tit for tat, as they say in game theory (economics note: there really is a non-cooperative “prisoner dilemma” game theory strategy called “tit for tat.”)

Your logical response, I suppose, would be to shift to the third-cheapest wine since the second-cheapest is now a loser. But once the restaurant figures out your new strategy you will need to move up a notch again to avoid being ripped off. Play this out ad nauseum and you arrive at ultimate ridiculous rule-of-thumb: always buy the most expensive wine on the list.tumblr_lrp6a2atud1qmxjbzo1_400

And once the evil restaurant masterminds figure that out, your only recourse is obvious — buy the cheapest wine! (Or maybe just buy a beer.) That’s the problem with these rules of thumb  — they sometimes lead you in circles until your head spins.

More Than One Way to Play That Game!

The real problem with the second-cheapest rule is the premise — that the restaurant is always out to gouge you. Megan Krigbaum at Punch published an empirical investigation of second-cheapest by-the-glass wines at New York restaurants a couple of days after my column went live last week and she found several sommeliers who play the game by a different set of rules.

These restaurants want to get their diners to try interesting wines that will bring them back again and again and so they price them on the low side to induce otherwise cautious diners to sample them. Sometimes they even intentionally make them the second-cheapest wine because they think some of their customers won’t be able to resist the bait and will be rewarded with a very pleasant surprise.

Does this prove that the second-cheapest rule is valid — always buy the second-cheapest wine? Well, it shows that sometimes it will get you a nice wine at a restaurant that wants you to have a great experience and come back for more. And, to be honest, you probably don’t need a rule-of-thumb to have a great wine experience at a restaurant like that!

An Alternative Strategy

I have a one-word rule of thumb when it comes to restaurant wine: communicate. When in doubt, start a conversation. Talk about what you’d like to eat, like to drink, prefer to pay and challenge your server or sommelier to help find the right wine.

Some people don’t like to do this because they fear it shows their ignorance. They are the same people who won’t ask for directions when they get lost, I suppose.

The conversation strategy doesn’t always work — sometimes it will get you an up-sell pitch or expose a server’s lack of wine knowledge — but it strikes me as a better opening gambit than any price-based rule.

What’s the best way to talk with a sommelier? Read this article by Carson Demmond in the current issue of Food & Wine for some ideas.

Restaurant Wine Wars and The Curse of the Second-Cheapest Wine

bottomlineEdmund Osterland, M.S. Wine & the Bottom Line. Washington DC: National Restaurant Association, 1980.

Yes, that is a $100 bill that the corkscrew is drawing carefully from a bottle of wine in the illustration. It is the cover of a book that Master Sommelier Edmund Osterland wrote back in 1980 for the National Restaurant Association.

It was billed as a restaurant training manual, but it is really best seen as a manifesto written by someone who loves wine and who wants to see restaurants sell more wine and their customers drink more wine. Even today more than 35 years later it makes informative reading.

The message, as if you couldn’t guess, is that there are big bucks in restaurant wine if you do it right. But how?

Restaurant Wars

I found Osterland’s guide when I was writing my most recent book Money, Taste and Wine: It’s Complicated and Osterland’s manifesto became the inspiration for a chapter called “Restaurant Wars.” That title in turn was inspired by the Bravo network television series Top Chef.

There are many tense moments on Top Chef, a “reality” show where groups of talented culinary professionals compete in various elimination trials in order for one of them to emerge as the king of the kitchen hill. Perhaps the most stressful Top Chef episode of each season is a team competition called Restaurant Wars.

Randomly chosen teams of the surviving chefs must work together to open a pop-up restaurant for one night. They have to choose the restaurant’s name, the menu, decorate the space, purchase all of the glasses, dishes, and serving gear, train the wait staff and work the house. Oh, and they must purchase and prepare the food as well. The diners and judges compare the two teams’ results and pick a winner.

No one on the wining team can be eliminated, but someone on the losing team must go home, dreams in tatters. The trick to surviving the Restaurant Wars is not to be on the losing team and that means working together with the very people who you fear are trying to throw you under the bus. Easier said than done, which is why this is the episode that viewers love and the would-be Top Chefs hate.

Restaurant Wine Wars

Top Chef‘s Restaurant Wars have something in common with the wine experience in some restaurants. War is Hell we are told and Wall Street Journal columnist Dan Ariely says that restaurant wine is hellish combat. “The first thing to realize when picking from a wine list is that you are in a battlefield. This is a battle for your wallet—a fight between the restaurant, whose interest is to get as much of your money as possible right now, and your savings account.”

And it’s not an even playing field, either, Ariely says. “The restaurant’s owners have much more data than you do about how people make their wine decisions, and they also get to set up the menu in a way that gives them the upper hand.”

Osterland’s book was written to try to shift the combat from a wallet war to one where diner and restaurant work together to defeat the common enemies that keep them from having that enjoyable and profitable wine experience that both clearly desire. The fact that many still think of it as a fight over the bill all these years later shows that, while much has changed in the restaurant wine scene since 1980, much work remains.

Some of the advice could have been written yesterday. “Better informed, and with well-defined tastes, these “new “ consumers of the 1980s will also be very definitely interested in GETTING VALUE FOR THEIR MONEY.” The caps are in the original, which suggests that Osterland thought he needed to shout to get his readers’ attention. “Because they will be vastly more knowledgeable about wine, they will know the approximate costs of varying wines …  [t]hey will want to shop for the better values.”That paragraph has a contemporary ring to it, don’t you think?

“For the first time you will experience customers who enter your restaurant and ask to see the wine list before the menu. … YOU MUST MAKE WINE A MAJOR PROFIT CENTER.” Okay, okay – you don’t have to yell. But how?

Bluffer’s Guide to the Second-Cheapest511cm077stl-_sx307_bo1204203200_

Osterland called for improved wine knowledge among diners and restaurant staff and a lot of progress has been made here on both sides but much work remains. A WSET survey of British diners, for example, found that almost 20 percent of respondents said they generally bluffed their way through the process of ordering wine. They pretend to study the wine list, they said, and then carefully pick out the second-cheapest bottle.

This “second-cheapest wine” rule of thumb is not limited to just the British, of course, but I was amused when it showed up during a recent trip to London. Our waiter was obviously a bit impatient with the time we were taking ordering wine and so he just cut to the chase. “Why don’t you just order this one,” he advised. “It’s the second-cheapest.” Of course!

Why are diners so timid that they fall back on amateur bluffs and second hand rules of thumb? Wine can be complicated and intimidating, of course, but there is also the price issue to consider.

Perhaps the most radical part of Osterland’s manifesto was his plea for lower wine mark-ups, which he saw as a way to sell that elusive and profitable second bottle of wine to a party that might otherwise nurse the first bottle all night (or not buy any wine at all).

A General Principle?

More bottles, more regular diners, more money. That was Osterland’s message then and it is a message to consider today. Are restaurants leaving money on the table because diners don’t put more wine bottles there due to high prices?

There may be specific cases where the second-cheapest wine rule works, I suppose, but it fails as a general principle. Are lower restaurant wine prices a good general rule, as Osterland proposed? Or are there specific conditions necessary for success? More to follow.

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Read this article to understand why you shouldn’t order the second cheapest wine, then look at this video to understand why people do.

Book Review: Riesling Rediscovered

John Winthrop Haeger, Riesling Rediscovered: Bold, Bright, and Dry. University of California Press, 2016.

John Winthrop Haeger’s new book is a worthy addition to a growing bookshelf on Riesling wines, including Stuart Pigott’s recent Riesling: Best White Wine on Earth. It is a thorough, rigorous and quite fascinating analysis of Riesling’s world, focusing on dry Riesling production in the Northern Hemisphere.

How Riesling Is Like Bach

Dry Riesling reminds me of J.S. Bach. Both Bach and Riesling are clean and precise without sacrificing a certain deep emotional engagement. And both invite serious study. If you enjoy Riesling (or Bach?) and have a nerdy interest in where it comes from, how it is made, and who is making it, this book is for you.

Riesling Rediscovered is split into two sections, but not Old World and New World as you might expect. The second half is a detailed examination of some of the main Riesling vineyards and producers in Germany, Austria, France (Alsace), Italy (Alto Adige), Canada (Ontario and British Columbia), and the United States (Washington, Oregon, and California).

These profiles, the result of extensive on-site research, are unusually detailed and informative — perfect for the reader who wants to drill down into a particular region or maker’s story.

The book’s first half provides a rather elegant examination of the Riesling experience, with chapter-length analyses of history, sweet and dry wine styles, production methods, the importance of clones, and Riesling habitats in the Old World and the New.

chateau-ste-michelle-dry-riesling-2013-bottleThe Sweet and the Dry

At the center of the book are several interesting issues. The first involves style. When you say Riesling to people they will often respond quickly that it is sweet and indeed for many decades Riesling was known and even treasured for its sweetness. Spectacular sweet Rieslings were at one point the most valuable and sought after wines in the world.

And then things began to change, even in Germany and Austria. Now it is the case that most Riesling wines around the world are dry and sweet Riesling is the exception. The rediscovery of Riesling as an elegant dry wine is one of the book’s important points.

Riesling’s reputation for sweetness, however, has been slower to change than the wines themselves, which is a problem for those who would like to see this wine’s domain expand. Consumers are too often surprised that what they pour from the bottle doesn’t match their expectations — either “too sweet” if they expect a dry wine or “too sour” if they expect something sweet.

The United States is a special case in this regard. The U.S. is not just the largest wine market in the world by total sales, it is also an important actor in Riesling. The U.S. is the second largest Riesling producer by volume after Germany, for example, and it is also home to the largest-selling Riesling wine in the world.

That would be Chateau Ste Michelle’s Columbia Valley Riesling from Washington State, which may also be one of the world’s great Riesling bargains. I have sometimes purchased this wine for less than $6 per bottle, a ridiculously low price given the quality.

Wine drinkers in the United States made the move away from sweet and fortified wines surprisingly late, but today by and large they prefer dry wines (the recent Moscato and Sweet Red phenomena notwithstanding). When it comes to Riesling, however, they talk dry but like to drink on the sweet (or “off dry”) side. Chateau Ste Michelle’s off-dry Columbia Valley wine vastly outsells its Dry Riesling twin.

And so the U.S. is the odd one out in world Riesling, according to Haeger — the last line of resistance in the movement from sweet to dry.The rediscovery of Riesling as a dry wine is still gaining momentum here.

Elephant in the Room?

I enjoyed Riesling Rediscovered quite a lot and learned something new on every page. I look forward to diving into the details again and again in the years ahead. But as big and tightly packed as this book is, the world of Riesling is bigger still. It obviously isn’t possible analyze every important vineyard or producer in the world (the vast Wine Atlas of Germanywhich appeared in 2014, shows how complicated this is for just a single country).

But the biggest omission — the elephant in the room — is the entire Southern Hemisphere. Any list of the most important dry Rieslings would surely include wines from Australia, for example, along with some from New Zealand, Argentina, Chile and South Africa. Australia does not even appear in Haeger’s index. Pewsey Vale Museum Reserve  “The Contours,” one of my desert island wines, is nowhere to be found.

The reason is purely practical, Haeger explains — no disrespect intended!  The world of Riesling is gloriously big and growing. Any single study has to draw the line somewhere and Haeger needed to do so here to finish this book in just five years. Haeger chooses depth over geographical breadth and that’s understandable. But I hope he has a second volume in the works!

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Riesling and Bach? Am I nuts? Well, here’s what I mean.

Five Things I Think I Learned at the Napa Valley Wine Writers’ Symposium

wine-words1Sue and I are back from the Professional Wine Writers’ Symposium at the Meadowood Resort in the Napa Valley and it is time to reflect upon the experience. Herewith some notes and a list of five things that I think I learned about the wine writing business.

Anatomy of an Amazing Experience

The wine writers’ symposium has been going on for about a dozen years and it is an amazing experience. The idea is that you bring together a faculty of experience professional wine writers to teach, coach, mentor and help network a group of rising star wine writer participants. (This year’s “student” group was so well qualified that the student and faculty roles sometimes reversed — a good thing.)

The setting is fabulous. Classes and accommodations are at the Meadowood Resort, which is also one of the sponsors along with the Napa Valley Vintners association and the Culinary Institute of America’s Greystone Napa Valley campus. Bill Harlan of Harlan Estate wine fame co-founded Meadowood and actively supports this initiative. The CIA’s sponsorship derives from its wine education program for budding hospitality professionals.

People come to the symposium to learn to be more effective wine writers and especially to find ways to be more successful on the professional side of things — career development and income generation being important factors. Sue (who was a career and writing coach) and I (one of the speakers) came to learn more about how the wine writing business fits into the wine industry generally and of course to meet all the talented participants.

Reflecting upon four days of intense activity at Meadowood, the CIA Greystone and a tasting at the historic Charles Krug winery, I have come up with a list of five lessons we took away from this experience.

Lesson One: An Industry in Transition

The wine writing business (Jamie Goode would correct me here — the wine communicating business) is an industry in transition. Ironically, although wine is more popular and integrated into popular culture than ever, the number of traditional media outlets for wine writing has declined. There are fewer newspaper wine writing jobs, for example, and fewer newspapers, too.

There is more wine content available to consumers than ever before, but much of it is on the web and provided for free by both professional and amateur authors. Some of the amateurs are highly qualified, of course, but their freely provided content makes earning an income in this field more difficult.

The internet and the move to mobile communications are disruptive technologies generally and the wine writing business is no exception. That said, disruption creates both challenges and opportunities and the key lies in choosing a strategic response.

Lesson Two: How Wine Writers Are Like Actors

Wine writers are a little like actors from an economic point of view.The most commonly repeated line among aspiring actors, it is said, is something like “My name is Robert and I will be your waiter tonight.” Day jobs may suck, but having a secure source of income is very useful. Being an actor is hard. Making a living acting is even harder. Ditto wine writing.

A small number of wine writers do very well indeed! They work very hard and earn good incomes, achieve a certain level recognition and even celebrity. Most wine writers, however, work very hard and scramble to scrape together a living with multiple jobs and non-wine writing projects — the economic equivalent of an actor’s waiter gig.

Even the most successful contemporary wine writers pursue multiple disciplines, however, generating content for newspapers, television, the web and organizing sponsored tastings, wine classes, consumer programs and much more. Jancis Robinson used to jokingly refer to her wide-ranging set of activities as “the empire” although an economist would recognize it as a diversified business model built around a core expertise.

Hong Kong-based Jeannie Cho Lee MW’s “empire,” for example, includes books, university teaching, her food and wine website AsianPalate.com, a job advising Singapore Airlines on their wine selections, a television series, magazine articles and much, much more.

Support yourself with a single type of work (magazine editor? wine book author?)? Yes, it is done — Eric Asimov, the chief wine critic of the New York Times is an example — but that’s the exception not the rule. Need to create that diversified empire. And then hope for some luck, too.

Lesson Three: No Single Path

There is no single sure path to success in wine writing. Some of the top people in the field are Masters of Wine or Master Sommeliers, for example, but others like Asimov are self-taught. That said, I noticed that a great many of the talented “students” were seeking WSET credentials. The detailed wine knowledge is important, of course, but this is also a way to signal potential clients of serious commitment, which is useful in a crowded and competitive marketplace.

It seems to me that many of the successful writers leveraged specific assets effectively. Jamie Goode was a successful science editor, for example, and the scientific foundation of his writing clearly differentiates his product. Decanter contributor Jane Anson’s deep knowledge of Bordeaux gives her a comparative advantage.

The day of the generalist (I am thinking of our fantastic keynote speaker Hugh Johnson, who seems to know everything about wine) seems to be passing or perhaps has passed as a business model.

Specialization is important, whether by market segment, winemaking region, or wine issue area. But, as noted above, the ability to make connections and to communicate across several platforms is also critical to success.

Lesson Four: Passion is Not Enoughpassion-portugal-red-blend-77x300

The writers we met who seem to have the greatest success share drive and passion, but they are also strategic in the way that they invest their time and other resources, entrepreneurial in seeking out and making their own opportunities, and multidisciplinary. They leverage their core comparative advantage effectively to make themselves valuable to clients and readers, not simply to be more visible to the public.

Let me repeat part of that. They think about their clients and audiences and what they can do to create value for them. Then, of course, they have to persuade their clients of the return on investment and convince them to share some of those returns with them.

More work is needed to measure the value created by high quality wine communications and to distinguish it  from freely available web content, for example. The statistics we heard about low and stagnant “dollars per word” freelance writing rates suggest that  professional wine writing has low value, that its value is not widely appreciated, or perhaps that professional writers are in a weak negotiating position when it comes to writing fees. (Alder Yarrow argued that this is due to an over-supply of wine writers.)

Lesson Five: The Value is There

Ironically, even as the average return to professional wine writing has declined, its importance to the industry has actually increased as the wine industry becomes more competitive with other sectors that compete for sales and attention.

Wine writers tell wine’s story and story-telling is a valuable skill. Consumers do not just sniff with their noses and slurp over their tongues. Lots of things smell good or taste good. The key, it seems to me, is to engage the imagination and take wine enthusiasts on a journey and the people we met at Meadowood and others like them are skilled and valuable guides.

Or at least that’s the lesson I take form the substantial investment made by the symposium sponsors. Napa Valley Vintners, Meadowood and the CIA will  get some direct publicity from the symposium itself (this column, for example) but the real payoff comes down the road as all the participants become more effective in their work and better able to tell the Napa Valley story and the story of wine more generally.

The sponsors actually kicked up the investment a notch this year. In the past most “students” paid symposium expenses while a small number received fellowships to offset cost. This year a new “all fellowship” model was rolled out, with fewer “students,” high admission standards, and full-tuition fellowships. Plans are coming together to build an endowment to sustain the full fellowship model into the future. I like the forward thinking behind this.

There was a lot to absorb at this conference and I am only scratching the surface here, but these are some of the things I think I learned at Meadowood.

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Thanks the symposium’s organizers for inviting us to take part and to the sponsors for their generous support of the program. Thanks, as well, to all the Napa Valley wineries who donated the wines we used in classes and the meals and receptions. Shout-outs to so many including especially Jim Gordon, Julia Allenby, and Antonia Allegra.

Sue and I also want to thank Cain Winery for inviting us to an intimate dinner they hosted at Terra Restaurant in St Helena where we had a glorious meal and tasted Cain Five wines from 1986, 87, 97, 98, 2006, 07, 10, 11 and 2012. It was an awesome experience. Thank you!

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Say, when is someone going to write a song about wine writing? Try substituting “wine communicator” into the song at the appropriate place and see if it works. Cheers.

Flashback Friday: Revisiting Open That Bottle Night 2010

Tomorrow is one of my favorite days of the year, Open That Bottle Night! It is a holiday invented especially for wine lovers.

In honor of OTBN, here is a Flashback Friday column excerpt that returns to a rather fantastic celebration in 2010. Enjoy! (And use the comments section to let everyone know what bottle you uncorked this year!)

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The last Saturday of February is a holiday for wine lovers: Open That Bottle Night (OTBN). It’s the evening when wine enthusiasts come together to share wine and stories.

Although the wines are the official reason for these gatherings, the people and their stories are what it is really all about.

This year Sue and I will be getting together with Bonnie & Richard, Ron & Mary and Michael & Lauri at Ken & Rosemary’s house in Seattle. Everyone’s bringing wine and a story about the wine and Rosemary is making another of her spectacular meals. I’ll report the specifics in a note at the bottom of this post.

Vino Exceptionalism

The premise of OTBN is that wine is different — or maybe that we are different when it comes to wine.  Americans are famously interested in instant gratification — we want what we want when we want it. That’s one reason the U.S. saving rate is sometimes a negative number. Can’t wait — gotta have it now. That’s our typical consumption profile.

Isn’t it interesting, then, that we sometimes behave in exactly the opposite way when it comes to wine. Yes, I know that 70% of wine is consumed within a few hours of its purchase. That is unexceptional.

No, what I’m talking about is our counter-stereotype tendency to tuck special bottles away and save them for … for what? For the right occasion, I suppose. For the moment when they will mean more than they do just now.  Sometimes it is about proper aging of the wine, but usually there is an intangible component that transcends the bottle’s contents. For whatever reason, it seems we need to be reminded once a year to get these wines out and enjoy them!

Frequently (in my case, at least) we hold them too long so that when the cork is finally pulled the wine within is a shadow of its former self.

Liquid Memory

The interesting thing is that it usually doesn’t matter that the wine has faded away. Turns out it was the story that mattered most. Liquid memory!

Dottie & John

John Brecher and Dorothy Gaiter invented OTBN in 2000 as a way to celebrate wine by releasing its pent up stories. Dottie and John wrote the weekly wine column for the Wall Street Journal until quite recently and each year they invited readers to send them accounts of their experiences, some of which appeared in post-OTBN columns.

It was quite an experience reading what other people were inspired to say by the wines they opened that night. Kind of a peek into their souls. I think that was the point, however. As Dottie and John wrote in their final column on January 26, 2010.

Wine isn’t a spectator sport. It’s utterly intimate. Don’t let anyone tell you what you should like, including us. Try wines broadly—there have never been so many good ones, at all prices, on shelves—and keep raising your personal bar for what is truly memorable, so that you are always looking for the next wine that will touch your soul and make you feel you’ve gone someplace you’ve never been before. It’s not about delicious wines. It’s about delicious experiences. May your life be filled with them.

Post OTBN: Here’s What We Opened

We had a delicious experience on Open That Bottle Night 2010: great wine, spectacular food and fascinating stories. By the numbers: five and a half hours, ten people, thirteen wines, 75 wine glasses. Here are the food and wine menus — you will have to imagine the stories. Special thanks to Rosemary and Ken for hosting. And thanks to Dottie and John for inventing OTBN.

Wine Menu (listed by vintage year, not the order tasted)

Solter Rheingau Riesling Brut Sekt 2006

Casanova di Neri Brunello di Montalcino Tenuta Nuova 2004

Callaghan Vineyards Sonoita (Arizona) Padres 2003

Shanxi Grace Vineyards (China) Tasya’s Reserve Cabernet Franc 2003

Racines Les Cailloux du Paradis (Loire) 2003

Chateau Haut Brion Blanc 1998

BV Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (magnum) 1997

Champagne Charles Ellner Brut 1996

Chateau d’Yquem 1996

Paul Jaboulet Hermitage La Chapelle 1990

Chateau Figeac St-Emilion Premier Grand Cru 1967

Chateau Cheval Blanc 1961

Taylor Vintage Port 1960

The Food Menu 

Rosemary Flatbread with Artichoke and Green Olive Spread

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Wild American Shrimp and Fennel Salad

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Roasted Tenderloin of “Wild Idea” Buffalo

Polenta with Cremini and Porcini Mushrooms and Mascarpone

Green Beans with Sautéed Shallots

Cranberries and Cherries in Madeira sauce

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“The Cheese Cellar” Cheeses

Gorgonzola Hand Picked by Luigi Guffanti

Piave High Mountain Cow Cheese

Sottocenere with Truffles, Clove and Cinnamon Rub with Ash Rind

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Panna Cotta with Blueberry Compote

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Chocolate Biscotti

Soft Amoretti Cookies Sandwiched with Chocolate Ganache or Raspberry Jam

Four Faces of Sustainability at the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium

sonomaSue and I recently returned from the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium in Sacramento and we noted several important themes in the meeting rooms, on the trade show floor and in our many conversations with wine industry colleagues. One significant recurring topic was sustainability, which was also on the lips and minds of the people we met last November at the SIMEI meeting in Milan. Here’s a brief report.

Sustainable Sonoma

The week  began with the announcement that the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission had received the Governor’s Award for Sustainability, California’s highest environmental honor. The group, which represents more than 1800 grape growers, set an ambitious goal two years ago — to have 100 percent of the county’s vineyards certified sustainable by 2019. Did I say ambitious? Make that very ambitious!

And yet they seem to be doing it, increasing the proportion of vineyards with third-party sustainable certification from one-third in 2015 to 48 percent this year. Overall 64 percent of the county’s vineyards have had a sustainability assessment and the proportion continues to grow. It is obvious that Sonoma County winegrowers appreciate the importance of sustainability and are making impressive progress.

Will they achieve 100 percent sustainability by 2019? That’s a big goal and complete compliance may be difficult to achieve. But who would have guessed that they could come so far so quickly. I would not bet against them.

Fred Franzia’s Lecture

The next day’s program featured a luncheon speech by Fred Franzia, the head of Bronco Wine Company and Mr. Two Buck Chuck to his legions of fans. Franzia doesn’t give many public speeches and this event sold out quickly. The room was packed with industry executives and winegrowers.  (You might enjoy this article about the speech from the Italian wine press — I love the headline “Un Irriverente Fred Franzia Scalda Sacramento.”)

Franzia’s speech ranged over many topics. He honored important figures in California wine, talked about his own family’s long history in wine, and made some pointed comments about current wine policies. He also announced the sale of the one-billionth bottle of Charles Shaw wine and Bronco’s acquisition of the Petri Wine name from The Wine Group and the return of that name to Bronco’s historic Escalon winery. Petri was at one time the largest winery in the U.S., dwarfing current world production leader Gallo.

Bronco is involved in a number of important sustainability initiatives (for example it recently received a Zero Waste Gold certification), but Franzia’s speech focused on a topic of particular importance to the growers in the audience: water. Franzia noted that many growers in the San Joaquin Valley have been slow to adopt drip irrigation technology to their large vineyards. He explained the benefits of this technology and called upon the group to be better stewards of scarce water resources.

Sustainable State of the Industry

Once again this year I moderated and spoke at the big “State of the Industry” session on Wednesday. Last year all three of us who spoke talked about the importance of sustainability in different aspects of the wine business and the topic appeared again this year, but in a different guise.

Nat DiBuduo of Allied Grape Growers found himself with the unhappy task of telling the audience that it looked like thousands of acres of vines would need to be grubbed up in the San Joaquin Valley. Why? A combination of ageing vines, unmarketable grape varieties, falling demand in the value wine category and higher profits in other crops, especially tree nuts. Not the news Nat wanted to give. He planted some of those vineyards himself and hates to see them go.

Does the perfect storm of changing market dynamics spell doom for winegrapes in the Central Valley? A restructuring is needed, Nat said, but the key is to move the business upmarket to higher quality. There is a growing market for higher quality wine made from better grapes and sustainability is part of that package, he advised. Environmental and economic sustainability are not enemies, they need to be partners in this key winegrowing region.

EcoVolt Waste Water Innovation

Sustainability has many faces and we found lots of them on the trade show floor. The Unified is the western hemisphere’s largest wine industry gathering, so it attracts a diverse crowd, including entrepreneurs working on projects to help wineries that are committed to sustainability to achieve their goals.

We saw a number of interesting products, but the one that especially caught my attention was the EcoVolt Sustainable Wastewater Treatment system from Cambrian Innovation. Cambrian is a biotech company that was spun out of MIT labs in 2006. The EcoVolt product uses a proprietary bio-electric process to remove more than 99 percent of contaminants from waste water (and wineries generate a lot of waste water), in the process producing methane gas, which an integrated co-generation process converts into heat and power. Microbes do the heavy lifting, cleaning the water and producing the gas, and innovative technology brings all the pieces together.

I was particularly interested in the EcoVolt Mini, which is housed in a standard 53-foot shipping container (see image below) and scaled for wineries producing 200,000 to 500,000 cases per year. Bigger units scaled to larger needs are also available. With so much water used in the cellar, the need for products like this is clear.

Four Faces and More

I like that Cambrian’s product addresses several aspects of sustainability — water, power, cost — in this innovative way. If the goal of a sustainable wine industry is going to be reached we are gong to need a lot of faces involved — of regional organizations, growers and winemakers beyond the North Coast and innovators both inside the wine sector and those bringing ideas from other areas.

For a long time it has seemed to many of us that sustainability was often more talk than action. Lots of people talked about sustainability, but real progress was sometimes hard to see. Have we turned a corner? Are we really moving ahead? We saw positive signs in Sacramento.

 

How to Make a Small Fortune in Wine … Story-Telling Time in Napa Valley

Sue and I are in Napa Valley, California this week to participate in the 2016 Professional Wine Writers Symposium at Meadowood Resort. The symposium is a project of Meadowood Napa Valley, the Napa Valley Vintners Association and the Culinary Institute of America. The theme this year is “Taste Locally, Publish Globally.” You can read the program here.

No Joke: Writing About Wine Business

Sue is a career and writing coach and I am going try to convince the participants to think seriously about writing about the wine business as well as more conventional topics such as wine-makers, wine regions and wine tasting. My talk is called “How to Make a Small Fortune Writing about the Wine Business.” The title, as you have already guessed, it a variation of the world’s oldest wine joke, which begins “How do you make a small fortune in the wine business?”

small fortune

(In case you haven’t heard the joke (which seems unlikely) I will provide the answer at the end of this column.)

The symposium takes place in rather regal settings. The Meadowood Resort looks like a fantastic place (I’ve not visited before) and we have classes at Meadowood, the CIA Greystone facility (the historic Christian Brothers winery) and local wineries.

I have taught in many types of classrooms around the world (ask me about the Communist-era blackboards in an old university classroom building in Prague), but nothing as elegant as this!

Wine and the Dismal Science

And we are in rather illustrious company, too. Hugh Johnson and Jay McInerney are the headliners, but really all of the speakers and coaches are headliners in my book. You can see names, faces and read bios here.  My talk is sandwiched between McInerney and the New York Times’s Eric Asimov. No pressure!

I am a little bit of a fish out of water here. I am not really a wine writer (I can see some of you nodding in agreement!). I’m an economist who studies and writes about the global wine industry and most of my talks are aimed at the industry audience. Wine and the dismal science — an unexpected pairing but a very interesting one.

No Complaints!

Don’t get me wrong —  I have no complaints about being included in this wine writer group. The perks of writing about the wine business are pretty appealing, including the chance to rub elbows with these wine celebrities and to learn from them and from everyone here like the student I hope ever to be.

I think everyone will have fun at the symposium but, returning to the theme of my talk, this is real business not a holiday junket. It is business to the participants, who make their living writing about wine. And it is all business for the organizers, too, who have a strong interest in nurturing wine communication.

Wine is all about telling stories, so how smart is it for the Napa Valley industry to invest in the story-tellers? Very smart and very forward-looking.

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OK, here is the promised punchline. How do you  make a small fortune in the wine business? You know the answer. Start with a big one!

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