Vol. 1 No. 20 …oh God…not another wine book!

Yes, friends, sad but true. I am working on a book ‘related’ to wine but more about the people who make it. In France, they are called ‘vignerons’ or tenders of the vines…did you know: there is no word for winemaker in France.

If one has an ego, and has made wine they might object, but the truth be known, wine is agriculture, even though it is known as the ‘wine industry’. Don’t take TB’s word for that…he was told that 35 years ago by the late, great Joe Heitz and if anyone want argue that, I would propose that he knew more about grapes, wine, and winemaking than most of the people on the planet.

My first experience with wine was…64 years ago…wait a minute, TB, you are only 70 (70-1/2 to the IRS unfortunately). It’s true: it was Christmas Day at my uncle’s house for our family dinner, my birthday was the next day. It had been decided that I should have a small ‘taste’ of wine in a glass and that is how my education in vino began. It was, not coincidentally, the first time I got drunk! It’s true! My dad was pouring and since I had finished the thimbleful of wine in my glass and he wasn’t paying attention…as they say, to the brim! I must have thought it was pretty good because all of a sudden my uncle looked at me and my eyes were rolling. Quietly, he got up and took me for a walk around the block – twice. By the time I got back I was okay…I didn’t recall the details but him taking me for a walk is still in my memory.

That implies that I now have 64 years of experience under my belt…well, sort of with a more or less imposed sabbatical from 6 to 18. When I was 20 I was at a training school at the Mare Island Naval Shipyard in Vallejo, CA. On weekends, we had two choices, more or less: go north for wine tasting in Napa Valley, or south to San Francisco. When the direction was north it wasn’t as much to admire the attributes of wine as to get a buzz…and it didn’t cost anything.

But I really became interested after I got married in 1969 – 46 years ago and counting. I had some incredible adventures tasting wine…we went to the new Robert Mondavi Winery in Oakville, the same year we got married…it was incredible then…against the other old buildings…and note that they were not right on top of each other but spread out. I knew nothing about the Silverado Trail side of the valley, Howell Mountain, Mayacamas Mountains, Sonoma, Etc. Carneros? What was that? …there was nothing there. By the way, I grew up in L.A. (Santa Monica), and recall the old Virginia Dare winery out by Ontario…not the stuff that memories are made of, just sweet (and not in a good way).

Okay, now you have some background, so you probably think I am going to tell you what you should and should not be drinking, that what I like is what you, dear reader should race down to the nearest liquor store or wine shop and stock up on – even if you don’t like it. That isn’t going to happen, because you are your own best wine expert, which could change if you decided you were interested in learning more and trying other wines so you can enjoy it more.

Not that you have to…you could sit back and drink Two Buck Chuck, which is more like $4 most places as the states make them pay more…like upchucking…sorry, couldn’t resist. No,I am going to mention wineries in the course of discussing the people who make them, and the wines they produce, and by virtue of the fact that I am writing about them you will know that I like them.

But as I travel from state to state (I already wrote my first write-up on a local winery here in Minnesota named Schram, if had had ‘sburg’ on the end of it many of you would recognize it immediately), but, no, this is a young couple I met and their passion captivated my interest. They have gone ‘all in’ in this venture and it shows. There are, I am sure, several (at least) like them in other areas of the country that we do not think of as ‘wine states’. Factoid: wine is made in ALL 50 states), I find that some of the wines can be pretty good and they are proud of their efforts.

There are a growing number of angry wine writers/critics out there. What are they angry about? About you getting ‘ripped off’ by paying more than $20 a bottle of wine as one blogger says. An another author says the same thing, in fact, he says he doesn’t want to see the winery, meet the winemaker, just pour it in my glass and I will decide. So much for the beauty and social benefits to wine. Hey, if I want to pay $50 for a bottle, I’ll do it…admittedly not often, but at least I will get a well-made wine with character, not some conglomeration from California’s Central Valley, that has no major flaws but what is it anyway?

By the way, Fred Franzia, head of Bronco Wines, makers of Charles Shaw, aka Two-buck Chuck. He produces 3,000,000 bottles a year, so yes, if he can make $1 a bottle, he should be happy. In fact, he says, “you should never have to pay more than $10 for a bottle of wine.” Hey, Fred, I get you…but I’m surprised you don’t cap it at $5…or is that a sign that a price increase is coming?

Now you have seen what put the focus of the book on the people behind the label…they are hardworking ‘farmers’. Furthermore, these are people I met years ago and have followed, and was pleased that they are willing to be interviewed for the book, some are friends, others merely acquaintances. The only exceptions are the people in other wine areas besides California, Oregon, and Washington.

I will have two or three people in each wine area. Are they the best? Some are, others are right up there, but all produce high quality wines. Hopefully, you will avoid the ‘$20 tops’ trap. On the other hand, I don’t believe there is a wine made worth more than $100. But wait, if you have the money, go for it. But the prices of the $1,000 and more wines are being driven more by speculators as most of this wine will never be drunk but traded like baseball cards…hey, didn’t that bubble burst?

Don’t take my word for this. Did you know that the second biggest tourist attraction in America – all of America – Napa Valley! Yep, right behind Disneyland, and from when I first went there and there was just a small motel in Rutherford (I believe), there are several and you can expect to pay as much as $1,000 a night – perhaps more to stay there. That means there are a lot of potential DUI’s going elsewhere after a day of tasting and many don’t have a designated driver at the wheel.

The biggest wine event in America, I believe, is the Napa Valley Wine Auction, where people can bid up others wines as they bid up theirs. What the hey? It’s all for charity. The most expensive bottle of wine sold there was a Jeroboam of Screaming Eagle cabernet produced by Heidi Barrett, wife of Bo Barrett, owner of Chateau Montelena. It sold for…drumroll please…$500,000, or $22,944 for a four-ounce glass. When told it sold for that price, Heidi said she was pleased, but added, “It’s wild, you drink it, and it’s gone. My brain doesn’t get it” That sums up TB’s feelings on expensive bottles but he was lucky enough to have been able to try many of the great wines before they reached those heights.

So what is a fair price for a wine? What you, winelover, are willing to pay for it, and if you enjoy it, who cares what Trader Bill or any wine expert says? It’s your life…your money…enjoy!

Now you have a brief synopsis of what the book is all about…don’t tell anyone else and let them steal TB’s idea. On second thought, maybe you should so I can sue them and be rich! Really Rich!


©Copyright 2015 TBOW, all rights reserved.

Vol.1 No. 19 …how sad it is…

As mentioned in TB’s last post, it was hard to focus on writing (impossible?) following that awful tonsillectomy. That said, time wasn’t wasted as he read several valuable wine books, and some that he found irritating but good tools of how he did want and did not want to write ‘his’ book. In later posts, I will provide names of the ones I found of value and a brief synopsis.

As one of the authors started out, “why another wine book?” That in itself is a valuable question as most aspects of wine and the industry have already been written abuut, both by ‘experts’ (pseudo-experts?), and those who are very angry…how can one be angry about something that lends to socializing and relaxation to life? Dunno. Who is the best judge of what is good wine? You, the consumer…all that matters is your taste and price range, not what TB or anyone else says. Therefore, while TB might mention a wine he truly likes, he won’t tell you to like it, nor will he EVER accept anything of value for any comments or recommendations – there are far too many that do!

What they are angry about is wine prices! One says “you should never pay more than $20 for a bottle of wine.” Never? Who says? That blogger and now author, who has never (by his own admission) even taken a wine appreciation course, and has devised a ten point rating scale where after HE has tasted it and evaluated it, and then subtracts points for each dollar above ten! This says that economics drives supply and demand, not pleasure. Of course with all those 90 and 95 point scores facing you when you go to purchase, you are influenced by them (or at least until you realize that your tastes might be different from the scorer, be it Robert Parker or some other ‘eggspurt’).  But do you buy a car based on price or on a rating provided by Consumer Reports or a car magazine? Would you buy a house based on price rather than location, location, location?

Winemaker Fred Franzia says, “you should never pay more than $10 for any bottle of wine.” Oh, how special! But who is Fred Franzia? He is the head of Bronco Wines…never heard of them? Then what about Charles Shaw, aka Two-Buck Chuck, the most popular (sic) wine in America? Frankly, if TB was Fred, he might say the same thing, but he isn’t! Just as some critics rate quality, or their definition of it, a growing number of writers and bloggers rate based on price (and some are compensated, either directly or indirectly for their comments), and again, who says that my taste in wine is the same as theirs?

There is a laboratory in Napa where a winemaker can take a sample of his wine and have it analyzed. By chemical analysis and especially phenol’s, they can tell her what she needs to do to make a 90 point wine…guaranteed! …and it works as they have been doing this for well over ten years! So much is this process utilized (some call it ‘chemical soup’), that the number of 90 point wines has gone off the charts…how many times have you seen a wine in a store with an 80 something rating? One store owner even said, “I can’t keep a 90-point wine in stock and I can’t sell a wine with a 88 rating.” If that 90-point only buyer is you, you have become a wine snob…but isn’t just as bad to say ‘never’ pay more than $20 or some other arbitrary number…by the way in 1970’s prices that is about a $5 wine…about what Mondavi, and other major producers were able to get for their wines (if you doubt this, I have bottles with $4.95 price tags on them…one is a Mondavi Cab. I also paid a ‘huge’ $25 a bottle for the Heitz Martha’s Vineyard, which I purchased a case of from Joe when it was released. It was so good I suddenly realized that I was down to ONE bottle! There is one bright side to those high ratings (Robert Parker, who was extremely stingy with his 100-point ratings on a scale he devised or at least made famous, has now give well over one hundred wines a 100-point rating…absolute perfection, and not just a bit of grade escalation): while the 90 plus ratings attract buyers, the awards are not causing the prices to jump as much as before…just bought more.

I held on to that bottle and finally sold it at auction with my Bordeaux wines and a bottle of Screaming Eagle. The Eagle sold for $800 at auction and the Heitz for $400! I couldn’t afford to drink either one, and as then-winemaker at Screaming Eagle, Heidi Barrett said after a Jeroboam of her wine sold at the 2000 Napa Valley Wine Auction for $500,000 (to put that in perspective that equivalent of six bottles worked out to just under $23,000 for a four-ounce glass): “It’s wild. You drink it, and it’s gone. My brain doesn’t get it.” …and if Heidi’s doesn’t, ours shouldn’t even be able to fathom the idea.

This brings us to another conclusion: most wines at even $100 aren’t within the reach of (or desire?), most people. Back in the late 1980’s it was being touted that the Japanese would buy up all the great wine in the world…well, they didn’t since their economy imploded in 1989 and hasn’t recovered since. Then in the documentary Red Obsession, they projected that the Chinese would do it…and like the Japanese their obsession was with only the top first growths from Bordeaux and Burgundy. There was a setback however since much of those purchases were for ‘gifts’ to business associates and to grease the palms of government officials. That put a damper on the price escalation but not enough to stop the top Bordeaux from selling for well over $1,000 a bottle!

But where are these wines going? Again, dunno. But they are being shipped to warehouses where they are traded – much like bitcoins – with no actual deliveries made. Some of these warehouses have sustained losses and at least one went bankrupt…still the prices continue to rise. To TB, it is a toss-up between who is the bigger fool: the bitcoin or the Bordeaux buyer? Meanwhile, the winelover is being cheated by not ever being able to taste these wines.

Back to the anger. In the preface to one wine book, an author who has asserted to teaching more than a thousand wine classes, and even more wine expos, states: “I am beholden to no one in the wine industry. I am a nonlistener to wine talk and a nonbeliever of wine publicists, and I have zero interest in winery owners, winemakers, and their glad-handing gunsels. ‘Shut up and put it in the glass,’ I say. I am difficult, I admit it. But it’s the best way I’ve found to wade through oceans of mediocre wine in my search for pearls.”  You aren’t difficult…you are impossible!

I purposely give no attribution to these two gentlemen, however I am indebted to them for focusing me on what I want MY book to be about: the faces behind the wine.

Contrary to the author cited, I have met dozens of winemakers and wine advocates (not you, Mr. Parker), in the U.S. and Europe. Most of them are hard workers who consider themselves in agriculture, as Joe Heitz told me. Look at their hands…some of the women in the industry have hands and faces weathered by the sun working in something they love. I first had wine when I was six years old! SIX! It was Christmas and it was decided I should have a very small sip of wine…but my dad was pouring and without realizing it filled my glass after I had had my sip. I liked it and soon my uncle saw my eyes rolling in my head and very discretely took me for a walk around the block. From about 18 I tended bar at my other aunt and uncle’s parties. I was fascinated by wine, and later Trader Vic, the greatest mixologist of all time. When I lived in San Francisco I was fortunate enough to meet him….that is where I settled on Trader Bill as a moniker – both for my earlier financial blog and now my wine endeavors (I like it that Trader Joe’s is also on a similar vein and will discuss theirs, Costco’s and now Total Wines in future posts), and  Now that I am 70, I have about 52 years of experience with wine…yet, I would consider myself an advocate…not an expert!

I have long contended that if you taste wine in a setting where you have access to the owner/winemaker, not some twenty-something college student being paid to pour and maybe recite a few lines about the wine and the winery, you will mentally score the wine higher…and that, folks, is a good thing.

That is enough for now, with more on the book in later posts.

Thank you for reading,


©Copyright 2015 TBOW, all rights reserved.