Vol 4 No 5 – Why TB doesn’t collect wines anymore

In the late ’70’s Robert Parker started publishing The Wine Advocate. At first, it was sent out on copied paper, then, as it gained in popularity (and he began to rate more wines), Parker began publishing it in booklet form. The ‘hook’ of Parker was his 100-point rating system that TB has discussed here (Vol. 3 No. 16), and how, due to imitators, it has flooded the market with raters. Parker is clear about what he looks for in a wine, others not so much.

In contrast to the 20 point U.C. Davis system, which is a ‘quality’ measurement, and not intended to pit one wine or winemaker against another, the 100-point system(s) are highly subjective with from 15-25 points being subjective. This, and wine economics, has led to more and more wines with a 90 rating by at least one evaluator. As I discussed in that article and Vol. 3 No 14, you had better know what the rater looks for in a wine and determine if it meshes with your likes and dislikes. Who cares if Parker or anyone else likes it if you and your friends don’t. Sometimes you can buy two bottles of a high 80’s wine for the price of one 90 point wine…think about it!

The 1982 Bordeaux vintage was panned by writer William Finnegan, and then Parker challenged him by praising it in a move that would put Mr. Parker in the echelons of wine critics. As a result, TB was fortunate enough to buy a mixed case of futures (the store never offered that option again and I don’t think anyone else has), of mostly 2nd Cru wines. I stored them in my cellar and when discussing wine with a friend, he mentioned he had bought the ’82’s and recently opened one and didn’t think it was that good. I did the same and again it didn’t appeal to me as anything extraordinary. So in the early 2000’s I took many of my older wines to Butterfield and Butterfield in San Francisco and was pleasantly surprised about what they and a few other collectables sold for (’84 Heitz Martha’s Vineyard and a ’92 Screaming Eagle among others)…very pleased! In retrospect, I should have held on for a few more years but when you are talking about 1,000 percent returns, don’t quibble!

Then there is the fact that really old collectables not only don’t usually taste vibrant but they may be flat or worse, corked! I have had very few wines I loved that were older unless they came from the cellar of the winemaker, having not been transported (except to the tasting), and stored properly. As an old bartender used to say, “drink up, this ain’t no library!”

Then there is the growing problem of wine fraud. In the early ’70’s Bordeaux wines were incredibly cheap due to the ‘Italian Salad Oil’ scandal. Cheap wine was put in phony Bordeaux bottles and dumped on the market. Then, l’affaire du Pouilly Fuisse, where one of the top wine houses in France was bottling plonk under that name.

Two of the most famous fraudsters of late were Hardy Rodenstock and Rudy Kirniawan. The former was the best in creating authentic looking labels and filling the bottles with recent vintages of the same wine (smart), while the latter had a great pallette and would ‘blend’ wines to resemble the authentic wine. As if that wasn’t bad enough, it took some time before the auction houses, including Christie’s, caught on…or acknowledged any suspicions on the provenance of the wines. With any serious research they could have known, especially with Rodenstock’s greatest faux creation, the 1787 Chateau Lafite with the initials “Th. J.” on them. Not one, but dozens of these were ultimately sold and purchased by Malcolm Forbes, Bill Koch, and other wine experts. But the person most responsible for uncovering fraud was Laurent Ponsot, owner of Domaine Ponsot, who attended an auction featuring his Burgundies, and noted that one of the wines was a year before he started producing wine (makes you wonder if when is successful as a conman, forger, etc. the temptation to “get cute” is just too great, no?). So it is to Monsieur Ponsot and especially Bill Koch, that the wine world owes a big debt.

Ah, and here is another trick being done of late: purposely filling the bottles with ‘corked’ wine so it is even harder to tell if it is authentic and if it doesn’t taste right simply chalk it up to experience. Note that recently a huge Cotes du Rhone fraud was uncovered in France, meaning not just expensive collectables are subject to manipulation and fraud.

The inspiration for this piece came from TB’s favorite wine writer, Lettie Teague, who writes a weekly column in the Wall Street Journal. She is sensible, expresses herself well without putting on airs, and is creative and dedicated to the enjoyment of wine. See her two-part piece on wine fraud in the WSJ: What it takes to out sleuth wine fraud.

That’s all, folks!

(c) traderbillonwine 2018

If you are interested in some fascinating stories on wine fraud, TB recommends:

Dinkelspiel, Frances: Tangled Vines: Greed, Murder, and an Arsonist in the Vineyards of California

Potter, Maximillian: Shadows in the Vineyard – extortion of Domaine Romanee-Conti

Wallace, Benjamin: The Billionaire’s Vinegar – The Jefferson Ch. Lafite

Not related, but a fascinating story of wine deception against the Germans in WWII by the French Underground:

Don & Petie Kladstrup: Wine and War

Isabelle Saporta: VINO Business, The Cloudy World of French Wine  you might never want to buy another Bordeaux after reading this…especially if you believe in sustainable wine

 

Vol. 1 No. 9 …what is good wine?

(TB is really anxious to report on my trip to northwest Spain but I saw a blog today that just had to be reported in the wake of the arsenic ‘scare’: people are already increasing their price points on wine or as the TV show was called we’re  movin’ on up! Will try to get the Spain articles in this week. TBOW)

Customer: This wine tastes terrible!

Merchant: Really? Parker gave it a 90!

Customer: I’ll take two cases!

Don’t be that customer! Trust what you like, not what Robert Parker, Michel Rolland, or any other critic says is a good wine. For one thing, you  might serve it to friends and they might have the same tastes as you and like the customer, think it tastes terrible. $50 down the drain and worse, perhaps ruining a good meal (putting aside for a later column which wines pair well with food).

First, ‘good’ is a relative term: compared to what? Is a wine ‘good’ for a Cab? Is it good in the $50 and up range? Is it good value? Is it good by itself? …with food?

As TB writes this column those thoughts come back again and again. We have all heard someone tell us that is a good wine,  but then tried it and found it ‘so-so’ – or worse! A few decades ago Gerald Boyd, a prominent San Francisco-based wine writer, wrote an entire column that essentially asked this question.

He said, how can you accept a wine writer’s recommendation without knowing what he looks for in a wine? Does he like big, bold, tannic wines, like Robert Parker?  At the other end of the spectrum the late Robert Lawrence Balzer who wrote in the Los Angeles Times? An eccentric, pioneer wine writer who accomplished many things in his 99 years but who could talk as glowingly of Gallo Hearty Burgundy or Sutter Home White Zinfandel (they pioneered it in the 1970’s and Balzer wrote a column saying they were ‘on to something’, even though there is no such thing as a white Zin, a red grape that produces what we now know as a ‘blush’ wine), as a first growth Bordeaux.

This is the point of TBOW: you be the judge, not some recognized expert. Two of the most respected wine writers are Jancis Robinson and Hugh Johnson have had a ‘lively’ debate over which is better: Bordeaux or Burgundy? Since I have a friend who can‘t stand Pinot Noir (it makes him ill, and we have tried to trick him but somehow he always has the same reaction), it proves it is in the ‘nose’ and taste buds of the beholder.

Think of wine as NASA would: the cost difference between 90% reliability and 100%, or even  95%. Wine is not a matter of life or death so a wine that is 90% as good as a $100 wine (very subjective, of course), can cost as little as $25-30. If you want the expensive wine and can afford it, more power to you, but TB would suggest that fewer and fewer people either an afford an expensive bottle of wine or do not have the inclination (there was a time that this writer wanted and collected them but that is in the past having some that were disappointments when he finally drank them).

I want to recommend a great wine blog, www.thewineeconmist.com by Mike Veseth who is an economist who has chosen to study wine. In today’s blog (3.31.15), he discusses the impact of the financial crisis on wine consumption (actually all consumption was impacted). Wineries have seen their wine clubs ‘wither’, and downward pressure was exerted by wineries and wine shops who were finding it difficult to move their inventory,  significant discounting occurred in th ‘dead zone’ of $20 and up wines. As a table in the blog shows, sales of wine selling up to $8.99 a bottle are off (and will likely be more so with the new  arsenic ‘scare’). Meanwhile wines  from $9.00 to $11.99 have had increased sales of 7.2%; contrast this to wines from $6.00 to $8.99 which have declined by 3.2%! Below that level they are off from 0.1%- 1%. More significantly, wines selling for $12..00 to $14.99 are up by 10,6% and wines selling for $20 or more are up 15.7%! This is significant since total wine consumption  for the 52 weeks ended 12/6/14, as reported by Wine Business Monthly, was up just 3.4%! Think about it!

The extreme high end Bordeaux have priced themselves (been priced?) out of the range of all but a small percentage of consumers. Also, new laws in China which prohibit giving gifts (Lafite Rothschild was a favorite), have cut back on Chinese demand and the ‘spec  wine’ buyers have seen the values of their wine consortiums plummet. Also, you will find this hard to believe but there is counterfeiting  out there! No…not wine! Yes, wine and it is as old as Thomas Jefferson’s era. One would be wise to consider wines as consumables and stop gambling on demand and thus prices of rare wines continuing to rise.

In the movie, Red Obsession, the statement was made that the Chinese would buy up all the best wines in the world. TB chuckled at that because in 1989, just before the Japanese economy tanked, the same was said of Japan! Funny how that same year the went into a tailspin and have never emerged from it. The same may be true for China, and take TB’s word for it: no wine is worth even $100, except for the historical value, but do you feel lucky? It might be fake!

TB

©Copyright 2015 TBOW, all rights reserved.

Vol. 1 No. 2 …do I care what Parker/Rolland think?

I’ve looked at wine from both sides now,
from up and down, and still somehow
it’s wine’s illusions I recall.
I really don’t know wine at all.

– with just a tad of literary license from Both Sides Now, by Joni Mitchell

If the above causes you to ask if he doesn’t know wine, why write a blog? TB would answer, “I know something about wine but I don’t know what you, dear reader, like. Neither do the guru’s: Robert Parker, who gave us the 100 point grading system back in 1978, and which is now copied by at least half a dozen other wine writers/critics; or Michel Rolland, who consults for over two hundred wineries, and whose goal is to bring the same attributes to all of them. Rolland was immortalized in Mondovino, as a Tiparillo-smoking, jovial fellow being chauffeured all over France…and elsewhere in the world, along with the Mondavis (not to be confused with the MonDAVIES – Bob’s estranged brother). Interestingly, Mondavi was at its zenith when the documentary came out in 2004, but then was sold to Constellation, and has lost its aura…and when you lose your aura in wine, the fall from grace – Can be a long plunge.

Let’s get this straight: if you like Two Buck Chuck (now $3.89 by the way), or Gallo Hearty Burgundy, who is Parker, or Rolland, or Trader Bill, or anyone to set you ‘straight’? What a boring world it would be if everyone liked exactly the same wines…oops, the wine snobs already do which has escalated the price of those 90-100 point wines as speculators, not consumers, buy them and trade them among one another further driving up the price. Some people have never even seen the wines they own and never will.

In Red Obsession, it was said that the Chinese could become the buyers of all the Bordeaux in the world. Flash back to about 1988 and the same was being said about: the Japanese! Arigato! If you don’t believe this, go to this link, just published today: Lower wine prices, less Chinese demand

The above is as negative as you will see in this blog and it is not intended to harm anyone named, but when TB saw this cartoon (sorry, unable to find it so will just have to quote it), at his 50th birthday on the Napa Valley Wine Train, it became indelibly printed in his brain:

Customer tasting at wine shop: “This wine is terrible!”

Clerk: “Really? Parker gave it a 90…

Customer: “I’ll take two cases!!!”

That epitomizes the wine snob who knows little about it but thinks he can look smart by serving and pointing out, “this is a 90-point wine.” It brings about the question: when is the last time you saw a wine displaying a rating below 87 in any store?

In Sideways, Miles was the epitome a wine snob (by the way, it was more disgusting than funny in the book). He loathed Merlot – as if there were no good Merlots, only plonk. He had obviously never tried a Duckhorn, especially the Three Palms, or any of the other wines not produced for the ‘cocktail’ crowd. Instead, he loved Pinot Noir, especially Burgundies. Yet his favorite wine was Cheval Blanc, a beautiful St. Emilion, which is…100% Merlot (in the book he only mentions Chateau Petrus, also 100% Merlot)! For all you France haters, how do you think they feel about us for all those ‘burgundies’, and ‘chablis’ we sold for a couple of bucks a bottle?…not to mention Champagne!

One of TB’s favorite wine writers in San Francisco…sadly, he can’t recall the name…once spent a column on wine writers. He posed: how can you use someone’s wine recommendations without knowing if what they like in a wine is the same as what you look for? Good question…any takers?

Also in Sideways: it was amazing how Miles always brought out the best and most expensive wine when he was trashed! By the way, TB has had this happen after several glasses of wine at a dinner and had that urge to (and satisfied it), bring out some of his best bottles…with little or no recollection of how they tasted with the palate numbed. There’s a lesson here!

TB observed ‘the Sideways effect’ almost immediately when in wine shops the Merlot came down from the eye level shelf to the bottom, changing places with the Pinot Noir…and TB has had some not-so-well -made Pinots. Note that Robert Veseth, now professor emeritus at Puget Sound University, observed the same thing and wrote a paper on it from an economics point of view, the impetus for his blog The Wine Economist and a new career.

Let’s go back to the Parker/Rolland paradox: for all the good they did in improving the quality of wine – globally – they have homogenized it…like buying one brand of milk over another…ok, maybe buying Coke (the drink) over Pepsi. What is missing is something found in the best wines: terroir (tere-wahr).

Terroir is the summation of all that goes into a wine from the soils and climate, to the way the vines are planted. It is what distinguishes a Heitz Martha’s Vineyard from other Cabernets, or a fine Chablis with its flintiness, from any other Chardonnay.

Now for the consequences: imagine a farmer growing corn, and some ‘expert’ comes along and says he is rating your corn an 87? What would he do? Escort the guy off his farm…and probably not in a pleasant way. But take away all the romanticism and wine is just that: farming, and farming means you can do everything right and still have a bad crop…you hope, (pray ?), for the best. But the farmer doesn’t see the price of his wine double or more with a 100 point score, instead the independent wine buyer who does his own research pays for it. Relief may be in sight as this 2015 prediction states: 2015 wine predictions

On this you don’t need to take TB’s word. He was told this by none other than Joe (Joseph) Heitz. TB, with a group of friends, which included Joe’s nephew from Reno, Nevada, was invited to lunch on the Heitz’ deck and enjoyed some of their Riesling and wonderful sausages on a beautiful Napa morning. This was followed by a tour, in which, Joe said that vineyard land could not go any higher and still allow the buyer to make money. I bought a case that day of the 1974 Martha’s Vineyard Anniversary Cabernet…$40 a bottle, I believe. Remember, Heitz was the most sought-after Cabernet Sauvignon in America. At that time Mondavi Cab was about $7.50 a bottle (don’t laugh, TB bought the 1972 with $4.95 price tags). In 2000, TB put some of his older wines up for auction, including his last bottle of the Heitz: it sold for $400 – is any wine worth that much? It’s WINE, not art, and meant to be consumed…and don’t forget old wines don’t taste anything like they did when young.

If you want proof of just how much impact Parker and Rolland have had consider this article published on Aug. 6th 2014 – my 45th wedding anniversary by the way – remember 1976 was pre-Parker AND Rolland, then came the conversion (capture?); are we about to go round trip? You decide…1976 Wine Judgement: then and now

Maybe you should just trust your own taste buds. If you like a wine, buy a case of it and drink it over the next 3-5 years…be able to serve it a dinner when it might be worth 2-3 times what you paid for it. That is the fun of wine…not ‘hoarding’ it, right?

If you can find it, Jancis Robinson wrote a book, Vintage TimeCharts, which graphs how wines she tasted lasted over the years…it is extremely valuable in knowing just how long most wines will keep, and how long the best can keep. It tracks wines from as far back as 1989 to 2000…some of the best! Highly recommended, and here’s the good news if you are interested: you can buy it online for $4.95 or less! A wonderful addition to any wine library. TB would add that Jancis is one of the great wine writers, long on fact, short on ego.

Well, dear reader, hope you found this as interesting as the trip down memory lane was for TB. Ah, but there are a million wine stories in the Naked City…this is just one of them (anyone remember?).

TB

©Copyright 2015 TBOW, all rights reserved.