Portuguese Wine Revisited: Respect! (What a Difference 2 Years Can Make)

The next few columns with be shorter than usual because Sue and I are Portugal. I will be speaking at the 10th Alentejo Vine and Wine Symposium in Évora next week.

We are in Porto today and it is great to be back. I was here in 2014 to speak at a symposium sponsored by ACIBEV. I had a great time (look for a “Flashback Friday” about that visit) and made many friends.

I had a number of striking experiences during my 2014 visit, but one really stands out. I met with a senior executive of one of the major wine producers and he wanted to know what Portugal could do to get more respect in the world of wine — and especially in Portugal.evora1

Portugal has great history, great terroir, great wines — but that greatness isn’t always recognized, he said. He was especially dismayed that Portuguese wine was not better respected within the country. Wine is a strong economic sector in Portugal and an effective ambassador for the country abroad. How do other famous regions get the respect that we lack? What can we do to change this situation?

I did not have answers that day, but it got me thinking (which was the idea, I believe). My investigations turned into a lecture that I have given several times on the subject “Secrets of the World’s Most Respected Wine Regions.”

I don’t want to give away the secrets here, but I can tell you that just a few months after the meeting in Porto the missing respect started to show up, at least on the international stage.evora2

Portugal has received lots of great press in the last two years and the wines have earned a growing share of critical and commercial success. As the image up top indicates, three of Wine Spectator’s top four wines of 2014 were from Portugal. And, as the second image shows, Portuguese wines are winners in the U.S. market. If this isn’t a sign of respect, I don’t know what is.

How about at home in Portugal? Does the Portuguese wine industry get the respect (and favorable government policy treatment) it deserves here? I will have to learn more before answering that.

In the meantime, there is much to discuss about Portugal’s wine industry because the market is evolving. Come back next week for a follow-up column that analyzes Portugal’s shifting wine export environment is more detail.

Speaking of respect …

Restaurant Wine Lists: Are Restaurants Leaving Money on the Table?

wine-list-waiterLast week I wrote about the concept of the Overton Window and speculated about what it might be able to tell us about the constantly evolving wine market. This week I follow up with an interesting study that finds a kind of “Overton” effect in restaurant wine programs and suggests that many restaurants may be leaving money on the table by the way they bind themselves to a particular narrow wine “window.”

The Backstory

Briefly, the Overton Window is a concept taken from the world of political analysis. It refers to the range of public policy options that are deemed generally acceptable at any particular moment. Political success, according to this theory, is all about either embracing the window to gain public support or finding ways to shift it in the direction you favor.

Financial Times columnist Tim Hayward applied the Overton Window concept to restaurant food. He noted that many creative chefs find themselves constrained by the customer Overton Window and the need to have “safety food” options like hamburgers, simple fish and chicken dishes, etc. so that customers feel comfortable coming to the restaurant.

If you choose to ignore the window conventions, you risk losing customers and ultimately your job. Hayward speculated that the most successful chefs stick to the window, but work on the edges to express creativity without leaving their customers behind.

I had more to say about this, of course,  including some comments about giant hairballs, so you might want to read last week’s column if you haven’t already done so.wine_beer

Wine Versus Beer and Spirits

The Overton Window is a new concept for me, but learning about it instantly reminded me of research that my friend James Davis did for his Master of Wine thesis, “Understanding consumer attitudes to large wine-brands as a purchasing cue in the United Kingdom (UK) multiple on-trade: a comparison of value and premium multiple outlets.”

The thesis is suitably complicated and probes many questions. I am going to simply (and probably over-simplify) and focus on just a couple of the results.

Davis wanted to understand the difference between wine programs in value restaurant chains (such  as Wetherspoon’s and Harvester  in the UK) and premium restaurant chains (such as Wagamama and Carluccio’s) and while he did not use the concept of the Overton Window, I think you will probably see why I think it applies.

Davis noted that when it comes to popular brands of beer and spirits, consumers expect to find them in both value and premium restaurants. The beer and spirits lists of the two types of restaurants aren’t identical by any means, but popular brands that are available in the shops are likely to be found in both types of establishments. This is consistent with the concept of staying within the consumer comfort and acceptance window.

Davis noted that the conventional wisdom is that wine is different from beer and spirits when it comes to popular brands. Widely-distributed wines like Hardy’s and Jacob’s Creek are likely to be found in the value outlets, but are not typically found in the premium segment. In other words, the restaurant wine windows are assumed to be much different. His research of the chains’ wine lists generally confirmed this finding, indicating that the restaurants treated wine a bit different from beer and spirits in terms of the types and range of brands on offer.

So, if you are following me so far, it seems that restaurants may be using their wine lists to communicate their identities (as value versus premium) more than they do with beer and spirits. Interesting, but is wine really so different from beer, spirits and food? Are the value and premium wine windows so very different?survey-says

And the Survey Says …

Davis then surveyed consumers and he found that many of them would have ordered wine at the premium restaurants if there had been a popular brand on the list. In other words, the windows in the two types of establishments may not be so distinct as conventional wisdom suggest.

Perhaps restaurant wine should be a little more like restaurant beer and spirits  and not try to create its own special window?  To quote from Davis’s thesis: “Premium outlets that do not list any large wine-brands are missing out on sales according to the findings of the consumer survey and also the wine-list review.”

This seems to me to be consistent with Tim Hayward’s hypothesis about restaurant food. Consumers want those safety options and you ignore them at your peril. Given that a widely available “safety wines” might be pretty popular (think Kim Crawford Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, for example, or Mondavi Napa Fume Blanc) I am not sure about the logic of avoiding them entirely, even if you want to construct a list that probes the creative boundaries or defines an image.

How Different is Wine?

As I said before, Davis explores more topics and provides more analysis, but this is where I will stop. My purpose is simple: maybe we should re-examine what we think we know about what works best for restaurant wine.

I’m not recommending that fine dining establishments limit their wine lists to what a consumer can find a Kroger’s or Tesco, just suggesting that broadening the list to include more popular (and probably cheaper) wines that fall squarely within the generally accepted wine window might improve wine sales while making customers happy, too.

If a restaurant is willing to offer a gourmet hamburger to give nervous customers something to hold on to, maybe there should be more similar wine choices available. Many do this, of course, but sometimes it seems like all the attention is on other parts of the wine list.

I have written many case studies of different industries over the years and one thing I have found is that each sector confidently  believes that it is different from the rest. And of course important differences do exist. But it is wise not to ignore potential lessons from other product categories, especially when consumers see them as part of the same experience as they are likely to consider restaurant food and beverage choices.

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A quick note about limitations. Davis’s study is obviously limited to those value and premium dining multiples that he studied in the UK and the consumers he surveyed there. Use caution in generalizing to other countries and other types of dining establishments.

Also please note (as if it isn’t obvious) that my concern here is increasing wine sales and the restaurants may be more interested in other things. Perhaps there is more profit (or faster table turnover) with beer or cocktail sales.

Flashback Friday: Malbec & Maradona

51gap2blvbgl-_sx332_bo1204203200_Here is another Flashback Friday column in honor of Malbec World Day, which Wines of Argentina has set for Sunday, April 17. This is a book review from 2012 that links Malbec, Argentina’s signature grape variety, with Diego Maradona, one of that country’s legendary soccer stars.

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Ian Mount, The Vineyard at the End of the World: Maverick Winemakers and the Rebirth of Malbec. Norton: 2011.

Malbec and Maradona

One of the most stunningly creative student papers I’ve received in more than 30 years as a college professor was written by a first year student enrolled in my introductory International Political Economy class. We were studying Argentina’s latest financial crisis and she analyzed the situation not just through facts and figures but rather by telling the story of Diego Maradona, the legendary soccer player who achieved great success on the global stage but succumbed to the pressures, stresses and temptations that came with it.

Maradona is always measured against Pele, the Brazilian star who is often proclaimed the greatest soccer player in history, and every talented young Argentinean forward is compared to  him (Messi is only the latest “next Maradona”). But an air of tragedy is unmistakable despite Maradona’s heroic achievements. This same air, my student wrote, hangs over Argentina’s politics and economy, and then she proceeded to analyze Argentina’s political economy history in detail in  terms of the Maradona story. It was, in both conception and execution, a brilliant analysis.

Ian Mount’s new book on Argentinean wine, The Vineyard at the End of the World, is also brilliant and in much the same way. Like my student’s paper, it can be read at several levels. It is, first and foremost, a history of the Argentinean wine industry from its roots with the Spanish explorers to its current spectacular flowering.

Although Argentina has been a major wine producer for literally centuries, it has only arrived on the global stage in the last ten years. Within Argentina its long history is heavy baggage that sometimes weighs it down. For the rest of the world, however, Argentina is a new discovery and the lack of prior experience of and attitudes toward its wines has arguably been an advantage.

Mount fills us in on the history and serious readers will appreciate the added depth this gives to the appreciation of the wines themselves. It also provides an interesting contrast to neighboring Chile and its wines, whose history is perhaps better known. But that’s only the beginning.ce1509cd596b49b050639487b3d03dcc

 Lucky Survivors

Malbec is a second theme, which is understandable because Malbec is king in Argentina right now. Malbec from Argentina has been one of the hottest product categories in the U.S. wine market is the past few years. But today’s Malbec (like Maradona) is a lucky survivor of Argentina’s booms and busts – a lot of Malbec was grubbed up during the market swings and swirls. It makes me appreciate wines (like one of our favorites, Mendel Malbec) that are made from the surviving old vine blocks.

More than anything, however, this is a history of Argentina itself told through wine, making this a book that deserves a very broad readership. Based on my previous research, I knew that Argentina’s politics and economics were reflected in the wine industry, but I didn’t know how much. Come for the Malbec, stay for the politics, economics and personal stories of those who succeeded or failed (or did both) and try to understand the country and people of Argentina.

Significantly, the book ends with a sort of Maradona moment. In terms of wine, Argentina has won the World Cup with Malbec, although the country must share the glory with international consultants (like Paul Hobbs and Michel Rolland) and foreign investors and partners (too numerous to mention). But for all its strengths the industry is still somewhat fragile, struggling to overcome the problems of the domestic wine market that it still depends upon and the domestic economy in which it is embedded.

After decades of “crisis and glory,” Mount sees a  bright future for both Malbec and Argentina. Let’s hope he’s right and the Maradona moment passes.e91c4e409ca6d78d656bc85a82fa6422

Ian Mount’s new book is a valuable addition to any wine enthusiast’s library. Mount provides a strong sense of the land and people of Argentina and the flow of history that connects them. Argentina is unique, as Mount notes early on, in that it is an Old World wine country (in terms of the nature of its wine culture) set in the New World, so that its history is broadly relevant and deeply interesting.

I studied the Argentina industry before going there last year, but Mount taught me things I didn’t know in every chapter. I love Laura Catena’s Vino Argentino for its account of the history of wine in Argentina told through the Catena family story and now I’m glad to also have The Vineyard at the End of the World for its broad sweep and detailed analysis. They are must reading for anyone with an interest in Argentina and its wines.

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Editor’s note: The way this 2012 book review ends with the reference to a “Maradona moment” is timely because of the recent election of the Macri government. I wrote two columns on Argentina wine’s prospects for revival back in January 2016. Click here and here to read them.

Here’s a short video about Maradona.

Hamburgers, Hairballs & Cabernet (Oh My!): Opening Wine’s Overton Window

windowI started thinking about the Overton Window for wine after reading Tim Hayward’s “Food for Thought” column in the Financial Times a few weeks ago (“The steak-and-chips straitjacket” March 26, 2016). Hayward was talking about food but I can’t help thinking about wine.

The Overton Window is a political concept named for think-tank guru Joseph P. Overton (it is also apparently the title of a 2010 political novel by Glenn Beck).

The idea is that at any given time there are policies that the general public finds acceptable and politicians and policy-makers who work within this window will find more success than those on the outside. The window shifts over time as conditions and attitudes change either on their own or in response to the work of political philosophers or entrepreneurs.

Creative Tension

Hayward clearly likes the analytical framework that the Overton Window provides (once you first learn about it, he says, it’s hard to stop thinking in these terms) and his FT column attempts to apply it to the restaurant scene.  Many fine dining restaurants like to define themselves by their creativity, he writes, but they risk straying outside their customers’ Overton Window. It’s a difficult situation.

Add a fancy hamburger or steak-and-chips to the menu, he says, and you’ll make your customers very happy because they will know that they can always find something to eat. But will you lose your identity in the process and become just another place with good steak and chips? But, on the other hand,  can you afford to ignore the economic benefits of providing widely popular “safety” options?

Hayward knows the British restaurant scene very well and he argues that the Overton Window has broadened quite a lot over the years, which has made it possible for creative chefs to provide a wider range of interesting foods. A good thing!

But he reminds us that the window’s “straitjacket” still holds. Wander too far outside its constraints (without that hamburger or other “safety dishes” to anchor you) and you risk being a critical success but a market failure. The most successful chefs, he argues, don’t think “outside the box” (to mix metaphors, but you get the idea), but rather work at the edges of what is generally acceptable, keeping creativity alive if contained.

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Like a Giant Hairball?

Hayward’s analysis reminds we of one of my favorite management books, Orbiting the Giant Hairball by Gordon MacKenzie. For MacKenzie, corporate bureaucracy, which defines acceptable policy, is a giant hairball and if you don’t fight against its gravitational pull you will be sucked into mediocrity.

But you need that pull to anchor you. Without the hairball and the discipline it imposes, creative people fly off into the cold reaches of outer space (and chefs, I suppose, fly off to bankruptcy court).

The trick, MacKenzie concludes, it to strike just the right balance and to orbit the hairball rather than zooming off into space or crashing into the hairball’s oily net. I think we all know people who suffered the two sad polar fates as well as some lucky ones who got the orbit balance just right, which I guess is equivalent to working happily and profitably around the edges of the window.

Windows and Hairballs in Action

My purpose in talking about windows and hairballs is to try to apply these flexible concepts to wine much as Tim Hayward has done for food. But before I go there it is necessary to circle back to base a bit. The Overton Window was conceived as a political idea and MacKenzie’s hairball was all about business in particular and organizations generally. Before we apply these concepts to wine, we should ask if they still apply on their home turf?

The political climate here in the United States is chaotic, with challenges from the left (Bernie Sanders), the right (Ted Cruz) and … well, where exactly is Donald Trump coming from? Has the Overton Window of acceptable ideas expanded (as Hayward suggests at one point in his column) to include all of this, which amounts to nearly everything? That’s not a window, it’s more like an amphitheater!

Or maybe the problem is that the population has fragmented and there is no single window any more, but rather a mosaic of windows that don’t really connect. Switching frameworks, has the hairball just lost some mass, so that the orbits are wider and more eratic? Or has it collapsed leaving us lost in space?

Isn’t This Supposed to Be About Wine?

Hayward is interested in how and why the restaurant menu Overton Window has expanded and why some previously exotic items are now clearly in the frame (think sushi, kimchi and kale) while others remain locked out (he cites cerviche, for example). We could ask the same sort of questions about wine. I know that Riesling fans always wonder when a broader audience will discover their favorite wine and move it more toward the center of the window.

Another application would be to look at the choices that wine shops and supermarket wine managers make when they decide which wines to stock and which to leave off the shelves. Some store selections are very conservative, sticking to the most widely purchased SKUs from the best-known makers, while others push the edges a bit.

Perhaps wine stores that go bust are, like Hayward’s über-creative chefs, guilty of pushing too far outside of the window, leaving their customers with an inadequate supply of “safety wines?”

But, inspired by Hayward’s analysis of create chefs and their steak-and-chips dilemma, I am particularly interested in thinking about restaurant wine and the choices restaurants make in compiling their wine menus. Come back next week for some interesting analysis.

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I couldn’t find a cool image of an Overton Window for wine, so I used this photo of the Berry Brothers & Rudd window in London when it was decorated with giant corks.This is a memorable image and a reminder that Berry Brothers must understand wine’s Overton Window very well to have stayed in business in their iconic shop at 3 St James’s Street since 1698.

Flashback Friday: Malbec World Day

Wines of Argentina has designated Sunday April 17 Malbec World Day 2016. That’s only a week away, so you had better get started thinking about how you will celebrate this holiday. Please use the comments section below to share your Malbec World Day plans.

Malbec World Day is a good excuse for a Flashback Friday column since Malbec has appeared frequently in these pages in the context of the Argentinean wine industry. Malbec was, for example, the subject of an award-winning  documentary called “Boom Varietal: the Rise of Argentine Malbec”  (see video trailer above) that provided my first (and so far only) opportunity to be a supporting character in a film.

Here is a column from back in 2011 that honors all Malbec producers by revisiting Mendel Wines (a bottle of Mendel Malbec is on the short list of possibilities for our Malbec World Day celebration along with a “flashback” tribute Malbec from Colomé called Auténtico).

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Balance is the key to great wine (and profitable wine business, too). I was reminded of this truth many times during our visit to Mendoza, where wine makers are trying to chart a course between and among several extremes:

  • Competitive export sales versus the challenging domestic market;
  • Reliable value wine sales versus potentially more profitable premium products;
  • Popular and successful Malbec versus TNBT — The (speculative and uncertain) Next Big Thing.

The key to long term success involves finding the right balance in this complex economic environment.

I want to use this post to consider three types of balance that I think are particularly interesting in Mendoza – the balance between crisis and opportunity,  local and international winemaking influences and the simple tension between the old and the new.  We learned about all three dimensions during our brief visit to Mendel Wines in Lujan de Cuyo.

Crisis and Opportunity

Mendel is both very old and quite new.  The vineyards are old, planted in 1928. Somehow these Malbec vines survived the ups and downs of the Argentinean economy. The winery is almost as old and has a certain decaying charm. It stands in stark contrast to Salentein, O. Fournier, the Catena Zapata pyramid and the many other starkly modernist structures that have sprung up in this part of the world.

The winery project is quite new. Mendel is a partnership between Anabelle Sielecki and Roberto de la Mota and is the result of a balance between crisis and opportunity. When economic crisis struck Argentina ten years ago, opportunities were created for those with vision and entrepreneurial spirit. Anabelle and Roberto seized the moment and purchased these old vines and well-worn structures for their new super premium winery project.

That their impulse was timely and wise may not have been obvious at the time (crises are like that), but it is perfectly clear now. Wine Advocate named Mendel one of nine “Best of the Best” Argentinean wineries in a recent issue.[1]

Old and New

The winemaking that goes on in Mendel is also a combination of old and new. The technology is modern, of course, with stainless steel and French oak very visible. The setting, however, constantly reminds you of the past and the vineyard’s and winery’s history. Walking through the winery, for example, I was struck by the big original concrete fermenting tanks – a blast from the past for sure.

No, we don’t use them to ferment the wines anymore, Cecilia Albino told us, but we put them to good use. Peek inside. Sure enough, the tanks were filled with oak barrels full of wine aging quietly in the cool environment.

Mendel also illustrates the balance between local and global that characterizes wine in Argentina, where much of the capital and many of the winemakers come from abroad.  Roberto de la Mota, partner and chief winemaker at Mendel, personifies this balance. Roberto is the son of  Raúl de la Mota, who is sometimes said to be Argentina’s “winemaker of the [20th] century” so important was his work in developing quality wine in this country.

Roberto naturally grew up in the wine business both here and in France, where he sought advanced training on the advice of Emile Peynaud. He was the winemaker at Terrazas, Chandon’s still wine project in Mendoza, and then at Cheval des Andes, a winery with connections to Château Cheval Blanc. I think it is fair to say that Roberto’s resume represents a balance between local and global, between deep understanding of Mendoza terroir and knowledge that perhaps only international influences can provide.

Local and Global

I asked Roberto if it was important that Mendel is an Argentinean project and not owned by a foreign multinational. Yes of course, he said, but he hesitated a bit and I think I see why. Many of the influences and markets are international, but people, vines and inspiration are  purely local. Not one or another, but intertwined, balanced.

And this thirst for a complex balance defines the future. Talking with Anabelle over coffee in Buenos Aires, she was ambitious to break into new markets – Hong Kong, China, and so forth. Anabelle is an architect — another field where global and local intersect.

Meeting with Roberto at the winery in Mendoza, he was interested in learning even more about his vines and terroir so as to better develop their potential. And to bring more of the classic Bordeaux grape varieties (like Petit Verdot) into the mix.

Mendel has charted its balanced course quickly, purposefully and well.  It is a perfect illustration of both the tensions that define wine in Argentina and the potential for success if a clear but balanced path is boldly taken.


[1] The other “Best of the Best” wineries in Wine Advocate issue 192 are Achaval Ferrer, Alta Vista, Catena Zapata, Viña Cobos, Colomé Reserva, Luca, Tikal and Yacochuya.

Restaurant Wine Prices: They’re Either Too High or Too Low

homskrimThe final panel discussion at this year’s  Professional Wine Writers’ Symposium in the Napa Valley was devoted to restaurant wine lists (students from the Culinary Institute of America’s wine program attended along with the wine writers). “Wine List: Friend or Foe?” was the topic and New York Times critic Eric Asimov was the moderator.

Bottle Shock

There was a lot to talk about because everyone seems to have an opinion or a pet peeve about restaurant wine, but time was limited and when I saw one of the panelists, Andrea Robinson, shortly after she smiled and struck a “wine economist” chord: “I wish we could have talked about price elasticity of demand,” she said.

Price elasticity of demand? Yes! That is how we economists talk about how consumers respond to the prices of different products and it is a fascinating question when it comes to restaurant wine.

The wine world knows Andrea Robinson as a Master Sommelier, wine book author, television presenter and former dean of the French Culinary Institute, but I know her as a keen student of economics and she and I are conspiring to organize an occasional series of Wine Economist columns that explore the fascinating issue of restaurant wines and their prices, which actually began a couple of weeks ago with my piece on “Restaurant Wine Wars and the Curse of the Second Cheapest Wine.”

Warning: Economics Content

You probably studied price elasticity of demand in your Econ 101 class, but in case you are a little rusty about the concept, here is a quick review. Price elasticity of demand is a measure of how responsive a product’s buyers are to changes in price. If the demand is elastic, then a relatively small change in price results in a proportionately greater change in quantity purchased. If the demand is inelastic, on the other hand, that same change in price produces a proportionately smaller change in quantity purchased.

The difference between elastic and inelastic demand is very important, especially when it comes to something like wine in restaurants. If the demand for wine-by-the-glass in  your bistro is elastic,for example,  then lowering the price results in a big enough boost in sales to increase wine revenues. Money from new purchases more than offsets the revenue lost from lower price on the wine you would have sold at the old price. Does that make sense? So lowering price increases wine revenue if the demand is elastic.

If the demand is inelastic, however, then cutting price is a revenue-losing proposition. The small increase in additional sales is more than offset by the money you lose due to lower per unit revenue on existing sales. You would need to raise price (if the competitive environment allows) to increase total revenue.

Oversimplified bottom line: all else being equal lower prices are worth exploring if the demand is elastic, but higher prices may be a better choice if there is an inelastic demand.

They’re Either Too High …

What is the right strategy for restaurant wine? Are wine prices too high as many consumers complain? Or are they too low? This is a surprisingly complicated question if only because there are so many different types of restaurants in different market environments and competitive situations and of course so many wines to choose from, too.

The case is very far from the economist’s ideal of perfect competition. Finding the sweet spot where both diner and restaurant benefit is necessarily pretty difficult and with alcohol revenues so important to restaurant bottom lines, making a strategic error could be costly.

Restaurants are right to worry that they leave money on the table if they price too low, but they should also be concerned about lost customers and sales if prices are too high. If I go to a restaurant and there are bottles of wine on just about every table, I have to think that the wine program is doing something right.

If you ask consumers about restaurant wine prices, most complain about high mark ups. The rule of thumb, for example, is that a glass of wine in a restaurant is priced at the wholesale price of the entire bottle — this strikes many diners as excessive. And the mark-up on bottle wine can be very high, indeed, compared with retail prices.

Or Not High Enough?

But sometimes the problem is that the price isn’t high enough. I visited a local brewpub a few weeks ago where a well-known local chef was making his famous spaghetti sauce for a limited time. The deep red sauce called out for a red wine, so that’s what I asked for even thought my only choice was the seldom-ordered house wine.

It wasn’t an exceptional wine, but it was better than my other choices for that particular meal and when I got the bill I discovered the wine’s cost: $4.75. Gosh, I haven’t paid that little for a glass of wine in years!

At that price there was no way I was going to get the pairing the pasta called out for. If only they’d brought in some better wines and raised the price!  I would buy more wine at the higher price (assuming the higher quality, of course) and dine there more often, too.

The Bargain Wine Curse

This isn’t the only situation I’ve encountered where the wine price isn’t high enough. I spoke at a symposium about Italian wine last year and one session featured a group of sommeliers from high end New York restaurants talking about their trade. One of the panelists explained his job as follows.

The people who come to my famous restaurant, he said, want to have a good time and they want to spend a lot of money on wine. Spending a lot of money on a bottle of wine is part of the luxury dining experience they come for. My role is to make sure that we have a lot of very expensive wines for them to buy. No kidding. That’s what he said and when I thought about it, I decided he might be right for his specific restaurant and its high-roller customers.

The particular focus of the symposium was on wines from the South of Italy and at one point I asked the sommeliers how these wineries could be more successful in the restaurant space? If I was at a winemaking conference I think I would have got an answer about viticulture and winemaking practices and if it was a wine marketing meeting the answer would have looked at branding and positioning.

But instead the answer from one of the somm’s was quite different. If they want to get wine in my restaurant, they have to do something to make it more expensive. Most of the wines are inexpensive and my customers want to spend more than that on wine.

Wow. I guess this explains why the restaurant reviews in the Times sometimes make a note when a wine list features a number of affordable wines, where affordable sometimes means $100 or less depending upon the type of restaurant! Do you suppose there are some diners who avoid restaurants with relatively affordable wines?

It’s Complicated

And so, as the subtitle of my last book suggested, it’s complicated and this is the first in an irregular series of columns that will explore different sides of the wine price question. As you can see, it is not just a question of wine mark-ups but also an issue of which wines are on the menu, since some choices are by their nature cheaper or more expensive.

With Andrea’s encouragement, I am going to put together a couple of columns that look at restaurant wine prices in theory and in practice and report on interesting research done by a Master of Wine.

I would like to test the hypothesis that under certain circumstances a restaurant will benefit from lowering its wine prices either by reducing the mark-up or by intentionally including types of wines that are less expensive (from less famous regions, for example — see Jancis Robinson’s FT column on under-rated wine regions).

I am reaching out to Wine Economist readers for help. I am looking for real world evidence about the impact of different wine price strategies. Can you suggest “natural experiments” that can shed light on this question? Or do you have relevant personal experience as a sommelier, restaurant owner or wine consumer that you’d be willing to share? If so, then please use the comments section below.

 

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Too high or too low? That reminds me of a tune from the 1940s. Enjoy!

Craft Wine? Craft Beer’s Innovation Edge (and What Wine Can Do About It)

battlePeople in the wine business tend to look at each other and see rivals like in the old Mad Magazine Spy vs Spy comic strip. In the battle for shelf space, consumer attention or critical praise, it usually seems like it is wine versus wine.

But hardly anyone lives by wine alone and these days the biggest competition is often less from other wineries (or wine regions) than from other products like craft beer, craft cider and craft spirits that have captured consumer imaginations. The battle for shelf space is real, but its not the only battle.

Keys to Craft Beer’s Success

Craft beer in particular has enjoyed great success in recent years and many of us see the unexpected fall in demand for wines priced at $8 per bottle and below here in the United States as one consequence of the craft beer boom.

Craft beer has many advantages. The margins can be great, for example, and you are not limited to one vintage per year. You can crank out new batches every week or so and it is possible and even desirable to experiment with seasonal recipes or riffs on classic styles from around the world.

Innovation is hot on the craft beer aisle, with literally dozens of different styles, blends and mixes that are constantly rotating in and out of the market. It is kind of fascinating. Wine comes in a world of assorted grapes and styles, too, but innovation tends to take the form of unusual wine brands or packaging, for example, more than experimental products.

Rocky Wine: Don’t try this at home!

Jamie Goode wrote about the time that Randall Grahm experimented with adding “minerality” to his wine by tossing some rocks to the barrels. There was an interesting effect, Grahm said. The stones added “far more complexity and greater persistence on the palate.” But the health department shut the operation down.

Winemakers are like brew-masters in that both groups are constantly experimenting and trying new things, although not all of them are as extreme as Randall Grahm’s rocky vintage. The brew industry seems to be more open to the commercialization of these products.

Maybe wine can bring more of these experiments to market in small or large lots to add another layer of complexity and interest?  Well, what about the barrels themselves? Barrels come in many types and are used in a variety of ways in wine.There is a history of product and process innovation both with barrels (think Gaia in Piemonte) and without them (the current popularity of unoaked Chardonnay).

Barrels are a source of innovative inspiration in other parts of the beverage market. I have seen oak-aged ales and ciders and I have seen spirits that were aged in sherry barrels, for example. Working with barrels has always been a legitimate if sometimes controversial variation on wine tradition. Maybe we can do more with them?

Jacob’s Creek Experimentscab

Jacob’s Creek, the Australian winery that is part of the Pernod Ricard empire, has released two new wines that explore this notion. They are called Double Barrel Cabernet Sauvignon and Double Barrel Shiraz. The wines are first aged in traditional oak and then they get a relatively brief second aging in used spirits barrels — Irish whiskey for the Cab and Scotch whisky for the Shiraz.

The idea isn’t to make the wine taste like booze — if you want to taste whiskey (or whisky) the obvious thing to do is to taste whiskey (or whisky) — but as with  oak barrels in general, you use them to see what subtle influences they bring to the finished product.

Sue and I were invited to participate in an experiment with these wines and so we received bottles of the two Double Barrel wines plus samples of each wine before the whiskey barrel treatment. We sampled the wines last week with Jacob’s Creek winemaker Ben Bryant via video link-up.

It was interesting to compare the “before” and “after” wines. The “after” Cab (made from grapes sourced from Coonawarra) was richer on the palate than the “before” wine  — the biggest difference was more texture than flavor. The delicious Barossa Shiraz was more dramatically transformed and our clear favorite of the two (I think the Cab simply needs to age a bit longer and both wines were probably still a bit shaken up from shipping).  I thought I could detect a subtle Scotch whisky influence in the Shiraz, but I suspect that was the power of suggestion. In any case it was an interesting experience.shiraz

“I thought this might be just a gimmick,” Sue remarked when we were finished with the tasting. But she concluded that the whiskey/whisky barrel aging did make the wines more interesting and different without fundamentally altering their identities. Something new — which is just what many (but not all) wine consumers are looking for.

The Next Big Thing?

So are whiskey barrels the next big thing in wine? Should you rush to try to corner the market on used Bourbon barrels just in case? (Too late — Fetzer makes a Bourbon barrel-aged Zinfandel called 1000 Stories.)

No. But these wines are an interesting addition to the menu, don’t you think? I see them as a thoughtful attempt to experiment within the tradition of wine much as the craft beer producers have been doing in their space.

Winemakers have long experimented in the privacy of their cellars and labs. Barrel tasting with a winemaker never fails to uncover something out of the ordinary. It would be interesting to see more of these products reach the market for us to try and to provide wine with an even more dynamic presence.

I guess I am calling for the broader commercialization of what you might call “craft wine.” Fresh ideas, small lots, variations on the traditional themes but with some added flair. Not for everyone, that’s for sure, but the craft beer and spirits boom shows that there are many consumers who are interested in a more dynamic concept and some of them are being drawn away from wine.

Beer has made an effort to learn some of the secrets of wine’s strong appeal. I think those of us on planet wine should return the compliment. Done thoughtfully, innovations like Jacob’s Creek Double Barrel can help wine compete with beer for the palates and pocketbooks of today’s consumers — and do it without undermining the fundamental idea of wine.

Craft Beer Raises the Stakes: PicoBrew

There is even more competition coming from the craft beer world! Earlier on the same day as the Double Barrel tasting I attended a presentation by Bill Mitchell, the CEO of a start-up company called PicoBrew, and angel investor Karl Leaverton.gfc_pico_productimage_1

PicoBrew uses advanced technology to allow home brew-masters to create their own professional-quality craft beers, either using their own recipes or those provided by other users or famous craft breweries. Quality, precision and control are selling points, but so is convenience — the magic happens in a sleek web-enabled counter-top brewing appliance. Wow.

But making distinctive beer is only part of the attraction. PicoBrew uses the web and social media tools to allow home brewers to share their discoveries and their stories. Seems to me that the sort of person who would have a geeky interest in fine wine might fall in love with the advanced DIY possibilities of this product.

Beer has made big strides from the bad old days of the 1970s. Cider has surged and craft spirits are very hot. Wine, as I have written before, needs to up its game to compete in this dynamic market environment, but do it without sacrificing the fundamentals that make wine so special.

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Thanks to Jacobs Creek and Vanessa Dones at the thomas collective for inviting us to participate in this web wine tasting event.