Vol 3 No. 2.4 off to Dry Creek Valley

The thin ribbon of a canyon beside the Silverado Trail leads from Calistoga to the Alexander Valley. It is a pleasant drive that opens up past the canyon to more vineyards and wineries. Most notable is Silver Oak Cellars in Geyserville just off Highway 101. It was an offshoot from their Oakville winery that has produced many of the great cabernets. It was built by Justin Meyer and Ray Duncan but some years ago Justin sold his interest to Ray and his partners. I only point this out to show the breadth in the Alexander Valley, which I could have spent more time in if I wasn’t conducting interviews for my book project.

Also note that north of Geyserville is Cloverdale, from which you can go over the mountain towards the coast and descend into the Anderson Valley, which also has many good wineries including sparkling wine producer Roederer Estate, owned by the French Champagne producer, Louis Roederer which produces their top of the line Crystal. But as you drop down into the valley the first you come to is Meyer Family Cellars, opened by Justin Meyer after selling his interest in Silver Oak. We stumbled upon this winery and not knowing about it entered the tasting room where Justin was working alone. Sadly, a few years later he died but the winery continues under his wife Bonnie, son Matt and his wife. Again, I had wanted to go up there but time was too short but Justin will be part of the book project.

The car’s GPS brought me to a series of turns until I was headed west again (to the south is the town of Healdsburg and the normal way I enter the Dry Creek Valley), and not paying too much attention realized the road had gone up a small mountain and as it rode the crest I noticed Ridge Winery, a fav, to my left and realized that I had ended up on Lytton Springs Road. From there it gradually descends until it turns and ends up in the valley on West Dry Creek Road. You can follow the road around the entire valley which is just over a mile wide at the widest part, the center filled in with wineries, and a few bridges for shortcuts crossing the creek. To the west is Lake Sonoma which closes the valley.

I turned left and drove to Lambert Bridge. On the corner is the Dry Creek General Store and Bar, operating since 1881. It is a must stop for us, to get a coffee drink or pick up a lunch for an afternoon picnic. Don’t miss it. It has a colorful history and good food. It is now owned by Gena Gallo of the Gallo family who owns a respected winery just down the road. Last December, the bookkeeper was just convicted of embezzling $416,000 over the prior seven years. The bar is a locals hangout but is supposed to be a great ‘dive bar’.

Drinking my latte, I drove back west to Unti Vineyards, a must visit. I discovered it around 1998 when I purchased some of their syrah on line. The next trip there, we stopped and never miss the opportunity of visiting their tasting room. It is no nonsense but they are so friendly that you immediately feel at home. I met with Mick Unti, the son of George who planted the vineyards in 1990, although the family had owned the land for decades. I learned from Mick their close ties to their native Italy and how they had planted sangiovese, along with barbera, segromigno, verdicchio, as well as the syrah. All are well-made and can hold up well to their Italian counterparts due to the combination of soils and climate, with afternoon breezes coming off the lake. I thought I might be able to use Unti for the book project and came away convinced of it.

After that it was across the bridge to the first Dry Creek winery I ever tasted: A. Rafanelli. The first time I tried their zin I loved it. We were at the former Heritage House in Mendocino, and it was recommended. The next day in town I found a case of 375ml bottles and we have been buying and drinking it ever since. The founder Alberto came over from Italy in the early 1900’s. Prohibition came and went and they produced grapes which were sold to other wineries. Then in 1979, son Americo turned it into a winery and then passed to son, Dave. Dave has kept the style the same but made gradual improvements in the wine which has a cult following and is a great value in the $40-50 range as is their only other wine, a great cab.The fourth generation is now making wine with daughters Rasheel (Shelly) the winemaker, and Stacy the operations manager. The winery is open by appointment only and production is small so it sells out quickly, mainly to fans who have been on the mailing list for years. I always knew that the family would be in my book project and after taking our glasses of zin to the far corners of the caves to talk, I am convinced of it.

My last stop was to be Montemaggiore, built and founded by Lise and Vince Ciolino. Being first generation winemakers wouldn’t seem to qualify them for the book project since they only began the winery on a hilltop on the south side of the valley, but I tasted their syrah when I was down on the Central Coast and spent the next year trying to find them. When I did, I saw why. Both had careers in the technology industry, Lise in marketing and Vince in sales. When the company was sold they got married and immediately bought the land and planted the vineyard as well as a beautiful villa. Lise’s father was a collector and her first wine was at Hermitage where she fell in love with syrah. She makes the wine and he is the viticulturist. In addition, he planted olive trees and makes award winning olive oil. They make reds, whites, and a rosé, but syrah and a cab/syrah blend are at the top of the list. They have a son, Paolo, who is a teenager now and just recently had an offer they couldn’t refuse on the winery. It occurred to them that they had only had two vacations in sixteen years, and both related to wine. When I contacted them about the book project they informed me that the winery had just been sold – however, they retained the name and would continue to make wine on a smaller scale at a winery friends own. I expect the quality to continue.

So instead of meeting at the winery, we had lunch in Healdsburg, and caught up on all of our adventures over the past several years. Rather than disqualify them from the book they will remain a part of it as the exception to the rule.

After lunch, I drove back over the mountains past the Petrified Forest and Old Faithful Geyser to Calistoga where our friends joined us.

The next day, we had some free time in the morning and I thought of an old standby to visit: Chateau Montelena, not far away. It had been several years since our last visit and it had changed for the better. The tasting room had stand-up round tables where an associate would discuss the wines with you. All seemed eager and knowledgeable and as always the wines were great. The chateau was built by Albert Tubbs in 1888 as a barrel making facility and is built of stone. It is charming with a lake and a few islands for members to enjoy. Bo Barrett, who succeeded father George as CEO still runs the winery with Matt Crafton, winemaker. Wife, Heidi, is arguably the busiest winery consultant in the valley and also owns La Sirena, while together they make award-winning Barrett & Barrett cabernets which have a cult following. They are busy people and Heidi will only accept consulting jobs within 45 minutes of home, where she flies a helicopter to reach some of the far reaching clients, so she can also be an active mother.

That makes Napa Valley a rap. Hope you enjoyed the trip and maybe found some new wineries to visit.

TB

Vol. 3 No 2.2 on the road to Napa

(Note: an apology for the delay in this post. The cold I had turned into an infection that has plagued me since. Finally, on my second course of medications, my body is winning the battle. Hopefully, I can get back on track to finish this story and tell of my most interesting vino experience that occurred last week. TB)

We drove up towards Napa taking Hwy 37 across to Sonoma and the heart of the Carneros Region. Carneros in Spanish means ‘rams’ (although it sounds like it would mean any animal such as cattle), and we were going to a winery on bay side Sonoma Raceway. I was familiar with the area because, besides taking a driving course at the track, a classmate from high school, Vicki Lott had married Sam Sebastiani and after a falling out with the family, they built Viansa Winery, a combining of both their names, here. It is like an Italian hill town and very charming. This, however, was not our destination but I mention it as this area is not on the radar for most Napa Valley visitors. We were headed for Ramsgate Winery, and when you reach the top of the hill it is situated on you are immediately stunned by the elegance of the winery. It is very modern but in an environmental way with an amazing use of blending wood with concrete. We were greeted in the atrium with two glasses of their pinot blanc to enjoy as we toured the winery with our guide. The wine was perfect and only added to the visual sensations.

Carneros is the best area in Napa Valley for pinot noir, and chardonnay, as it is not only the coolest region, but the proximity to San Pablo Bay provides cooling breezes even on the hottest summer days. That is not just my view but one that was expressed decades ago by great Andre Tchelistcheff, who was the inspiration for my book project. It took decades before the cooler climes of Santa Lucia Highlands and Santa Barbara County would be found to have similar attributes.

A friend of mine and a few of his long time friends decided buy the land and create the winery, and they have done wonders. Looking out on the marshes of the bay with gentle sloping vineyards pointing the way they are planting mainly the two varietals, Andre said would prosper. In the meantime, they are sourcing fruit from some of the best North Coast vineyards and their acclaimed winemaker, Jeff Gaffner, is producing great wines.

A group of friends could really enjoy just walking through the winery and finding one of the comfortable niches to relax in, or walk down the slope to a table and chairs and enjoy the natural look of the vineyard with the contrasting, yet not out of place, winery in the background. Note that reservations are required and while the costs are not small, they are in line with other new wineries. The point is, you get a lot for your dollar, something I failed to see in some of the other similar (not architecturally) wineries in the Valley. While they don’t have a restaurant, due to local ordinance, they have excellent pairings with their wines in their spacious event room overlooking the bay. Highly recommended. For more information visit their website at: Ramsgate Winery, the pictures alone are worth clicking.

From there we drove north to the Napa/Sonoma Road where there are several other wineries to visit, or you can keep going into the heart of Sonoma County wineries, some of which will be discussed in this series.

Some of you are aware of the quality of Howell Mountain wines, which is attested to as it being made a sub-appellation of the Napa Valley ava, in 1983, the very first. This was because of distinct characteristics such as the soils (volcanic), altitude, as high as 800 feet above the valley floor, which makes the temperatures more moderate (10 degrees higher in winter and a like amount cooler in summer while catching the evening breezes that blow over the valley floor), and creating a distinct terroir.

We arrived at Lamborn Family Vineyards, atop the mountain, which produces exceptional cabernet sauvignon and zinfandel’s. Mike Lamborn sat with us on his deck overlooking the vineyards and the distant mountains to the east and south.

I met Mike when he was a neighbor in, not to distant, Orinda, California. About eight years later I learned that he and his dad, Bob, one of the most interesting people I have met in the industry. They had to ‘unload’ some inventory that was costing them money by taking up warehouse space due to a distributor not fully promoting the wines. At the time, zin was all they produced, and it was very good as one would expect with winemaker/family friend, Heidi Peterson Barrett producing it. That was the beginning of a great relationship that drew me into the wine industry by frequent visits to the vineyard, pouring wine at events, and stimulating my interest in wine, beyond just a beverage.

I love Howell Mountain wines, and find the zinfandel’s far above other appellations. That may just be a preference but I believe, and have generally had agreement by winemakers that the spectrum of flavors is probably more distinct than any varietal except pinot noir. There is none that I like more and only a few that I would put in the same tier. As for the cab’s, they have Heidi’s imprimatur, guaranteeing an excellent wine now and for years.

You won’t find Mike’s wine in stores, which is similar for most of the other wineries I visited on this trip. The internet has opened direct client marketing and that plus membership clubs, allows most or all to be sold direct, saving a 35% haircut which is even more significant for a small winery operation. He does have a few select restaurants that he allows to serve his wine, another common trait.

Even though the Lamborn’s bought their two parcels before the land boom, selling the wine through distributors would significantly reduce profits, and for those purchasing land in the valley today at prices of $350,00 an acre, direct selling  is imperative.

Visits to all Howell Mountain wineries are by appointment only. This is due to avoiding congestion in this rural area, and similar regions, so contacting a winery you are interested in directly is the answer. Speaking of the congestion, even though we were there in February, and in the wettest winter since 1935, there is always late afternoon traffic on Hwy 29, especially between Rutherford and Calistoga. This was primarily due to the level of local drivers. It is dreadful during the tourist season.

As along the Central Coast, I have never seen the valley so lush and beautiful. It has been years since this last occurred. After our visit, we drove to Calistoga, at the north end of the valley, for what was the nicest lodging I have found, on a par with the aforementioned Petit Soleil in San Luis Obispo (and no I do not receive anything for mentioning any lodging or restaurant, it is a service to make readers trips more enjoyable). It is the Cottage Grove Inn. This former small trailer park just past downtown Calistoga is truly unique. Each room is a separate building and all have every amenity you can imagine. Like Petit Soleil, the wine and cheese hour features good wines, cheeses and other surprises, and a wonderful buffet breakfast. Want to be in the wine region but also be alone, this is the place to let down. If you are planning to visit the adjoining Alexander Valley, Dry Creek, Anderson Valley, or Healdsburg or head back to Sonoma, this is an outstanding location.

When we first came to Napa Valley in 1969 there was only one place to stay other than the hotel in St. Helena or in downtown Napa. We have stayed at several, beginning with the first and only in the valley, La Bonita motel just out of town on Hwy 29 in St. Helena. It is a traditional motor court motel, but they have kept it up and it gets high reviews for a reasonably-priced place to stay in the valley and in a great location. I was surprised when we drove past it and even more  I heard it was more than it looked like, confirmed when I went to their website. Imagine what the value of the land is!

More Napa wineries next.

TB

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vol. 3 No. 1 First blog of the year and what a year it could be for the wine industry

We are only 19 days into the new year yet a huge number of things that will affect the wine industry already. I will recap some of them from industry sources and my  own observations. Here goes:Winery sales – late last year the Vietti winery in Piemonte, Italy, was sold. Having visited with the patron, Alfredo Currado, some years ago, it was with a touch of nostalgia. The good news is this: his son Luca will continue as winemaker and chief executive. That is good news and comes a year after the American, Kyle Krause, purchased another Italian winery, Enrico Serafino. Krause has made a point of letting the prior owners continue to run the winery, and Vietti’s case that is one of producing high quality Barolo’s, and other fine wines. Krause says that it is to have a stake in his Italian roots. Earlier this month Stanley Kroenke, a billionaire who owns both the Los Angeles Rams and the Denver Nuggets and also Screaming Eagle vineyards, bought Bonneau du Martray vineyard, producer of perhaps the best Corton-Charlemagne, and has been owned by the same family since the French Revolution.In Burgundy sales are infrequent, especially one of this pedigree. I believe he too, will not change the operations of the winery.

Just yesterday, a Bloomberg article said perhaps half the U.S. wineries might be sold over the next five years, and recapped the sales mentioned above. This is not uncommon in Bordeaux, especially since 2008, when the Chinese went crazy (there is no other word for it), bidding up the prices of the best cru’s.

But here is the paradox: as wine has increased in popularity, and especially since the billionaires began buying up wineries and land, most producing small quantities that become cult wines, and with the help of flying winemakers and 100-point rating systems the price of the wine goes off the charts. In other words, they can only be afforded by ‘their kind of people’. But as I have pointed out in previous posts, several things have happened on the way to the wine shop:

  • The price jump that had occurred ever since Robert Parker created the 100-point, in reality 50-point system since the first 50 are a given, no longer causes the price of the wine to jump as it once did. While the intent was good, there are so many raters that if you can’t get a 90 from one of them, you should either stop making wine or sell the operation.
  • As commented on in this blog numerous times, globally, good wine is chasing out bad, but as that happens the number of wines in the next higher price group keeps increasing. 2015 was the first year that the fast growing segment was the $10-20 range. Prior to that it had always been the Under $10 category. Once you get above $30 it is stagnant. What is happening is basic economics and now just because your formerly $30 wine gets a 90+ rating, the price no longer jumps to $50, and so on up the wine chain. What’s a winery owner to do?
  • To understand this, we have to go back to what agriculture is in economics: is is a competitive industry where there is no pricing power. When I, in my former life as a wine snob went to ‘an uncle’s winery of a new-found friend, I thought nothing of it. However, it turned out his uncle was Joe Heitz! After spending the main part of an afternoon with he and his wife, I was hooked on this man’s personality and philosophy. What is wine? Agriculture…farming…nothing more, not romantic, and as such no matter what you are able to do, god and nature have the last word. That is humbling to anyone, but especially to people who are dependent on cashflow for their solvency. I came to this realization a couple of years later when I went to work for Merrill Lynch in San Francisco as an institutional bond salesman. Seeking to combine business with pleasure, I contacted all the big wineries…even Mondavi…and the story was the same: you grow the grapes, make the wine, bottle the wine, sell it to a distributor and wait for the money to come in so you can begin another year. Cash is always tight – except for one I contacted: Gallo! Gallo had millions at Bank of America and I saw an opportunity. When I worked for a bank I learned that BofA always…always…had excess cash so they were a SELLER of funds, not a buyer. I moved the banks money to two other banks and earned as much as 25 basis points more on it (0.25%!), and that was on over $100 million a day! So I told the money manager at Gallo that I could help them earn at least 25bp’s over what BofA was paying them. He said, “you know it, I know it, but if I did that even once I would be fired. Fired? You have to remember the relationship of the Gallo’s to their bank, then run by A.P.Giannini and a fellow Italian…that added to trust but mainly A.P.’s word was his bond. I believe at least until the bank was bought by Nations Bank, they continued to only deal with BofA.
  • Now if cashflow is your biggest problem, along with the things that can come up unexpectedly like phyloxera, glassy-winged sharpshooter’s, Pierce’s Disease, frost, late season hail, drought and more, you have to have a marketing plan. As your unsold wines decline your storage costs stop declining with them once you get to a certain level. Do you dump them? In the old days, that was an option but what if you are producing a $100 cab and have 50 cases left? Do you have your distributor take it off your hands or sell it to Trader Joe’s and see it on the shelves for $40 or less? Once that happens it is difficult if not impossible to get your price back up, and as more and more vintners are put in the same position it is akin to the old gasoline wars when I was a kid…and that is not good for the owner.
  • Your other options are to sell to an internet company, and an extremely popular one now is wtso.com (wine till sold out). They manage the offerings so they are up less than an hour but that wine discussed above might have to go for $29.95! But what did the winery have to sell to them for? Another popular option is to sell it to the Chinese. You might even get or exceed your own retail price and that could be the difference between success and failure.
  • Lastly, in ever wine region I go to in the U.S. more and more wineries are springing up. The prices have to be high enough to pay the mortgage, unless you are one of those billionaire buyers discussed above. Sadly, I see some rough times ahead for the industry which increases with the big box stores, especially Total Wine. They are also a threat to supermarkets with wine sections, liquor stores, and boutique wine shops. Now add to this the internet sellers and the price pressure, although they would like to see it go higher, has to, IMHO, decline and it doesn’t make me happy to say that as I believe they need to be compensated for their investment and labor.

It gives me no pleasure to write this having made so many friends in all areas of the wine business, but if you find a wine you like…and I don’t mean Two-Buck Chuck…support them. I, no longer buy any wine from big companies…the last was when Mondavi sold out to Constellation Brands…and the same goes for beer where my favorite was Stella Artois, but now is part of the merged conglomerate SABMiller/AmBev. Strictly craft brews for me from now on. It doesn’t matter one iota but if more and more people take a stand there is still hope.

Even winemakers need a little love…show it to them.

TB

 

 

Vol.2 No. 28 – are today’s wine prices sustainable?

Building on the theme of ‘good wine forcing out bad, globally’, there is far too much wine out there to allow prices on premium wines ($30+) to be sustainable (not to be confused with organic, sustainable, biodynamic).

Why? Consider that last year for the first time the biggest growing segment shifted from the $10 and under bracket (dominated by Two Buck Chuck), to the $10-20 range. As before, there was little to know growth in each level above $20!

therein lies the rub: more and more wines, aided and abetted by 90+ ratings are trying to price their, often unknown label with ‘comparable’ wines, of the same varietal and region, even though those wines have spent years establishing themselves. I have never seen so many new labels from so many regions that get a high rating (remember TB is opposed to paying attention to ratings since they may not be the same as you look for in a wine).

As a result, more and more labels are being seen on the internet, most notably at www.wtso.com, where you get great value, especially if you buy the number of bottles required (usually 3-4 depending on price), and no sales tax outside of New Jersey. They will even store your purchases for you in their temperature controlled warehouse for up to a year! But, while the savings are very good they are distorted by the ‘comparable value’ shown. Often these are not wineries at all but buyers of ‘sourced’ fruit, albeit often from name vineyards. But that also tells you something: why would someone who owns say the Bien Nacido vineyard sell it elsewhere IF they could sell all they produce?

Since 2008, high priced wines (except Bordeaux shipped to China, Burgundy’s and a few others), have seen declines in wine club membership…and don’t fool yourself, those are seeing it too….yes, even the $300 wines and higher…names you would recognize.

So, what is the solution, without cutting price and having a wine merchant, mainly a big box store, sell it for much less? Once that happens and the word gets out they cannot increase their prices…their future is cooked.

Enter China, and despite risks of copyright protection, at least no one in the U.S. knows what they are selling for, and the lack of transparency means that they will still be thought to be cult wines. Oops!

I will not tell the names of some of these cult wines but you would recognize many of them. Remember, a winery is about cashflow and storage costs eat heavily into that. TB’s advice: think hard before you get on the list of a highend cult wine. Also, keep looking in that $20-30 range for the best values. As TB has said before, once you get above $50, most people would not be able to perceive the quality.

Well, safely above my goal of averaging two issues a month (average), this will be the last issue for 2016. Best wishes for the New Year!

P.S. my wife stumbled upon  a non-alcoholic wine label, FRE. Correction, “alcohol-removed wine”. Hmmm, I found out the label is owned by Trinchero Family, behind Gallo, the second largest family owned wine business in the world. Contrasting to all the other ‘stuff’ out there, FRE, makes a Brut, and several others, including still wines. We bought it so we could celebrate the New Year with our grandson’s. Price: $5.50. Think of this: now you can have wine with dinner with friends who don’t drink alcoh9l for religious or other reasons. Will give you feedback, and hope you will do the same!

Vol. 2 No. 26 – are 90+ ratings worth the price?

There is a popular website, Wine Till Sold Out (wtso.com), mentioned in post 24. I have used it and recommend it but with a caveat: every wine they offer has at least a 90 point rating. They are offered at deep discounts to the ‘retail price’. I am not challenging them on it being accurate, I am saying that when a wine gets a 90+ rating (and if you can’t get at least one from the dozens of raters out there – some with self-serving interests – you shouldn’t be in the business!), the winery ‘creates’ a suggested retail price that ‘they’ cannot sell below which is why you shouldn’t buy wine when visiting a winery unless it is hard to get. If you really like the wine then join their wine club. One reason I do like buying direct is that the haircut is huge due to our three-level marketing system which serves no one well, least of all the producer and the consumer.

A couple of years ago, a friend with a highly respected, but small winery, noted that when the high ratings, especially by Robert Parker, come out, the price of the wine is no longer surging. It may be at the winery which is trying to capitalize on the rating but not like before. Furthermore, just because it is priced at $50-100 doesn’t mean it will be bought there. That is a function of so many wines receiving ratings of 90 or above.

Just in the past year or so the fastest growing segment of the wine market in the U.S. finally moved up from the under $10 range, to the $10-20 range, which is good, although that isn’t hurting Two Buck Chuck much. In post 25, my Ten Commandments of Wine, I suggested moving up a notch and seeing if you can notice an appreciable difference. I also suggested that very few except true enophiles can find differences above the $30-40 range, and fewer still above $50.

This bring me back to WTSO: the savings are incredible – from the winery-set price – but most of the wines I see there I have never heard of before, meaning many are buyers of fruit, make the wine, using time-tested formulas for 90 point ratings (again, let me emphasize my dislike of the 100 point system, and preference for the UC Davis 20 point system). Most of those ratings are achieved by following Robert Parker’s taste buds.

Don’t misunderstand, prior to Parker, there was no quantification (except in tastings at fairs, etc. or the famous Judgment of Paris tasting which brought California wines to the fore. What he did was to set a standard of quality. Originally, many wines received ratings of 86-90, fewer 90-95, and only a handful above that with only a couple of 100 point ratings. Now, a winemaker who can’t expect a 90 rating wouldn’t think of submitting her wines for close scrutiny, because as one store owner quipped, “I can’t sell any wines with an 89 point rating, but I can sell all the wines with a 90 point rating, but I can’t get them.”

So, as TB has been fond of saying: globally, good wine is chasing out bad (TBC excepted). But it has now reached absurdity since most couldn’t discern the difference between an 87 point wine and a 90 pointer.

Think of a ’90’ as being the initiation fee at a club. Those achieving it either ‘jack up’ the price immediately, or in the case of a well-known brand like Lafite-Rothschild, the demand from the Chinese does it for them. Bordeaux producers making large volumes of wine set their price and sell all of it (albeit no longer in the U.S. and U.K., the former principal purchasers), but the ability for other producers to do that has dissipated due to the huge number of competitors. Remember too, that a rating is on the ‘type’ of wine or the varietal, which you may or may not like. A good friend, cannot stand and recognizes any Pinot Noir and won’t/can’t drink it. I know, we have tried repeatedly to fool him and it almost makes him sick…must be some chemical inherent in the wine (?).

So now you have millions of gallons of wine in warehouses (expensive), in the producers cellars (taking up valuable space), and on retailers shelves. What’s a winemaker to do? Enter WTSO, which from what I can determine is one of the few that is approved of by the producers (based on limited questions).

Imagine you are a producer with a big inventory overhang. You could offer them to a distributor at a low price (provided the wine is not being offered publicly, such as an older vintage), for a pallet (roughly 50 cases or 600 bottles), and get immediate cashflow – the mothers milk of a winery. WTSO, unlike Trader Joe’s or other retailers, will offer it on their site, but they are generally up for an hour or less before being ‘sold out’.

The offering looks like this:

93 Pt. La Mannella Brunello di Montalcino 2011
93 rating and 65% off!

Free Shipping on 3 or more


Comparable Price*: $85.00
Yesterday’s Best Web Price (With Shipping): $N/A
Our Price:

$29.99

Buy Now

wine bottle Description
Appellation Brunello di Montalcino
Unit Size 750 ml
Varietal/Grapes Sangiovese
Vintage 2011
Country Italy
Region Tuscany
Alcohol Content 14.50

Here are the key points:

1.Comparable Price – nebulous because most have no ‘comparable’. Do they mean what it would cost in a wine shop? Winery (they used to say ‘retail price’ which was the one set by the winery per law).

2.Yesterday’s Best Web Price – lately they are like this one with a strikeout through the price, so it is useless.

3. Their price and discount to the ‘comparable price’. Also the number of bottles you need to purchase to get free shipping – a very good deal! the number of bottles required for this is inversely proportional to the price (i.e. $100= 1 bottle; $20 = 3 bottles, etc.)

4. The point rating can come from any number of critics, WTSO members (?), Wine Spectator, Wine Advocate, etc., so you have to know which ones are reliable and which have their own interests at heart.

Before you think this is a scam consider, that it is an offering price, you have all the information you need (and some you don’t) to make an informed decision. That is all that business ethics require. I have purchased wine from them and found contacting customer service easy and responsive. I purchased some wine that was delivered in extremely hot weather. When I checked the bottle temp it was 90 degrees! They replaced it for me at no cost and held it until I felt it was safe to deliver and pointed out that they will hold the wine for you for up to a year (they ship quickly so if you are going to be away for a few days have them hold it, since a signature is required).

The point is that they try to serve their clients needs (both buyers and sellers), and judging from the volume of transactions, do both well. You, the buyer get the wine at a reasonable price, while the producer helps cashflow without damaging the value of future offerings.

But if they have a dozen or more offerings each and every day, what does this tell you about the retail price? It is too high…that’s Econ 101!

That translates to value for you, but note that ‘cult wines’ don’t face this problem: they have member lists, usually full and not taking names, small production, perhaps 250 cases, and if you want that, and can afford it, go for it. Personally, I would rather see the winery get 100% of the retail price, rather than distributors (some of whom are less than reputable and some downright lazy). The problem with wine club membership is this: shipping adds greatly to the cost, but in many areas like Minnesota, where TB lives, you ae not going to be able to get many of the best wines without joining.

As the popular phrase goes, “it’s complicated”.

Hope you found this useful and remember to support wineries you like, local wine shops that provide information and tastings, and keep trying new wines and ‘inching’ up your prices, that goes for restaurants where the biggest markup is on the cheapest wines.

Best,

Trader Bill ©traderbillonwine.com 2016

 

 

 

Vol. 2. No.24…TB’s new, improved rating system for wines!

In 1972, TB graduated from college and taken a job at Western Bancorp (later First Interstate Bancorp and now part of Well Fargo), in the Investment Department where he and his boss and mentor, F. Alden Damon, managed the bond portfolios of the 11 smaller banks. Those were largely comprised of municipal bonds, so he learned to distrust Moody’s and S&P bond ratings as they were higher for similar credits on the East Coast than west of the Mississippi.

Deciding to go back to school to work on a Master’s, at night, he had a finance class that required a term paper. He submitted one on “A New System for Rating Municipal Bonds”. The prof questioned him on it and said if you pursue it don’t expect a good grade, because Moody’s and S&P already do that. Really? Frustrated but determined to continue with the project he worked on it, drawing on some research of a predecessor at WBC. Focusing on New York City, TB showed how that rating should have been much lower than the ‘A’ it carried, for many reasons including demographics, amount of debt service, and several other factors. Figuring he would probably get a ‘B’ or even a ‘C+’, he didn’t put his heart into it. In other words an adequate job but not a stellar one, thanks Dr. Dunn!

When the papers were graded, mine had an ‘A1/A+’ on it…huh??? Furthermore, he told the class it was the best he had received and even read it to the class. What caused his change of mind? NYC’s problems were finally coming out and it was on its way towards the biggest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history! What had the rating agencies done? Lowered it to ‘Baa/BBB)’. In other words, using ‘my’ rating system would have predicted dire if not drastic possibilities, while the agencies glossed over it.

What is the point? Well, besides prof’s needing to encourage new thought, it is that all ratings are not created equal. Nothing is more true than subjective tasting of wine.

Consider the Judgment of Paris tasting the showed the quality of California wines was on a par with French wines. Quel horror! Even then on the second pass when they reversed the order there was some differentiation but generally close, except for the French judge who called it a travesty. They were using a system similar to the UC Davis 20-point system mentioned in the previous post. Imagine if they had been using the Parker (or similar) 100-point system, where 50 is the base and after all elements, 25 points are subjective – that’s 1/4 of the total and 50% of the scoring area! Gimme a break!

Parker defends his system but adds (as mentioned in that post):

“Scores, however, do not reveal the important facts about a wine. The written commentary that accompanies the ratings is a better source of information regarding the wine’s style and personality, its relative quality vis-à-vis its peers, and its value and aging potential than any score could ever indicate.”  Robert M. Parker

Got that? They are meaningless comparing one rating with another on the same time, even under the same variables but when they are at different times independently, they are absolutely worthless!

Now drag that across, not the current three bond rating agencies, but perhaps two or three dozen wine critics with varying palettes and desired flavors (not to mention potential conflicts of interest by who they may represent – TB is shocked at this! Shocked!)

As mentioned in the prior blog, we have rating escalation (where no one tries to get you to buy a wine with a rating less than 90! So we have a lot of 91-93 ratings, fewer but still many 94-95 ratings and fewer still with 95-98 and 99-100 ratings. But even Parker has increased the number of 98-100 ratings since 1982 when he rated just two bordeaux wines that high. Here is a link to  a list of his 100-point scoring wines…you decide:  http://www.wine-searcher.com/robertparker.lml

So TB got to thinking. IF there is compression, we need a bigger scale. Here is TB’s proposal of a 1,000 point rating system!!! Consider that there would them be 100 categories of wines – 100 times the number in the current system. Imagine telling your friend that you own a 1,000 point wine and his is only a 980. What plonk that must be!

Here is a comparison to all three scales:

20-point       100-point                                         1,000 point

Appearance                            0-2                    0-5                                                     0-50

Color                                        0-2                     <             included in Appearance        >

Aroma/Bouquet                    0-2                    0-15                                                    0-150

Volatile Acidity                     0-2                     n/a

Total Acidity                          0-2                     n/a

Sweetness (sugar)               0-1                      n/a

Flavor (!)                                 0-1                    0-20                                                 0-200

Astringency                           0-1                      n/a

General Quality*                  0-2                    0-10                                                    0-100

*Only subjective category in UCDavis system; In 100-point it also included potential for further evolution and improvement – aging.

TB’s system has the advantage of making broader distinctions between a 94-95 point wine…TEN whole points…wow! Hopefully, you see this charade for what it is, because IF that became the norm, it would be even more impressive to say “my wine is a 950, yours is just a 940…peon!” But here is the incredible thing: even more price escalation! Because those ten points might now mean $50 more cost to the consumer! Yet it still might not impress if your guests tastes weren’t aligned with the raters.

UC Davis

17-20  Wines of outstanding character having no defects

13-16   Standard wines with neither outstanding character or defect

9-12     Wines of commercial acceptability with noticeable defects

5-8       Wines below commercial acceptability

Since Robert Parker’s was the first, here is his rating meanings:

  • 96-100 — Extraordinary; a classic wine of its variety
  • 90-95 — Outstanding; exceptional complexity and character
  • 80-89 — Barely above average to very good; wine with various degrees of flavor
  • 70-79 — Average; little distinction beyond being soundly made
  • 60-69 — Below average; drinkable, but containing noticeable deficiencies
  • 50-59 — Poor; unacceptable, not recommended

Here is a link that show the minor differences in various 100-point systems. if the same person was using any of the systems they should not vary by more than a point or two.  http://www.wine.com/v6/aboutwine/wineratings.aspx?ArticleTypeId=2

Now to throw a monkey-wrench into the works, here is a personal story: in 1976, TB moved to Reno, Nevada on a job transfer. We met lots of people but they only liked beer (guys) and wine coolers (girls). One day, one of them asked if I could teach them about wine. Having brought dozens of bottles with me in the car and wondering how they held up TB said he would do it, with one caveat: they would have to work. How so? They would have to score the wines using the UCDavis system which was the only one at the time. At first they balked, but reluctantly agreed. There were eight wines in the tasting, and it was amazing how close their scores were when they had to evaluate the variables of the wine. As a ringer however, TB inserted a bottle of Gallo Hearty Burgundy at the end. Bingo! That one took best overall.

So what did we learn? That differences in preferences can be overcome by paying attention to everything that comprises a wine…to hell with the critics. This is especially true when a winemaker can take his wine to a lab in Napa, Bordeaux, or other places and be told what they need to do to get a 90 rating from Parker. That is the problem with ‘Parkerization’. Question: do you want to live in a world where all the wine tastes the same? Not TB!

As they were leaving, they asked TB to arrange a trip down to Napa Valley. It was agreed but as they were leaving one friend came up quietly and said that his uncle owned a small vineyard there and we could probably visit it. Oh sure, no problem the then-wine snob, TB said. Only when we got down there did we find out that his uncle was Joe Heitz! His wines were the most coveted in California at the time. We spent a lovely Sunday on their deck drinking Riesling with sausages from the Sonoma Cheese Factory (there was none in Napa at the time!). Then Joe and Alice took us on a tour of the winery culminating with a tasting of their wines, including the 1974 Martha’s Vineyard Cab. TB loved it so much he bought a case at $25 a bottle…most expensive wine I had bought at the time! It was so good, however that whenever we had someone over we had a bottle…until there was just one left. Never drank it and finally sold it at auction for $800, more than recovering my cost of the entire case (also sold a bottle of 1992 Screaming Eagle, it’s first vintage made by Heidi Peterson Barrett, for $1,200 – a Jeroboam sold at the Napa Valley Wine Auction for $500,000, the highest price ever for that auction – along with many 1982 Bordeaux I bought on Parker’s recommendation but didn’t personally care for as did some of my friends who also bought futures. That was the vintage that ‘established’ Parker as the reigning guru, Robert Finnegan, had panned it, and was over-ruled by Parker.

What does TB drink today? Mostly wines in the $20-$40 range except for wines that are bought from the winemakers who have the passion I want. Not big estates, not corporate owned entities. Wines that taste different from year to year and are produced for the pleasure of the owner/winemaker…not some critic.

Another lengthy one but hope you found it interesting…and useful.

TB