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,


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