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. 3 …French Laundry update; Wine ‘Investment’ Clubs

According to the Napa Valley Register and other sources, most of the wine stolen from the French Laundry on Christmas Day was recovered in…of all places…Greensboro, North Carolina? Don’t have the details on how, or why it was there, OR how they located it. Those of you who have had property stolen know the frustration of having the property held pending trial – which in this case may or may not occur since they have no suspects in custody, or even identified. So where is the wine now? In the ‘safest’ place the authorities could find: the French Laundry’s OWN wine cellar. Wait…wasn’t that where it was stolen from? Worse, they cannot sell it until the investigation is complete. (Why does the evidence have to be held when there are so many ways of authenticating evidence today…and it is not ‘unknown’ for evidence to disappear even while in police custody (aren’t you shocked?)

Unanswered:

First and foremost: was the wine damaged? How was it cared for after the theft and AFTER the police recovered it? Would you buy the wine if you were dining there? Not TB, no way! Keller most likely would have done better had he been able to collect the insurance and buy more wine like it!

Next item on the agenda: According to the January 23, 2015 issue of Financial Advisor magazine, “more than half a dozen firms peddling wine investments, in the U.K. alone went belly up last year. “Why have there been so many flops?” There are lots of reasons…the article cites one fund, The Wine Trust, in the U.S., where investors put their money for eight years, but here’s the rub (at least to TB): they have $15-20 million in assets. When something goes wrong what can they do? Sell? To whom?

Another fund, Belgium-based, had wine assets worth 102 million Euros ($115 million in today’s market – $125 million according to the article which illustrates yet another risk: currency – at the end of 2012, then someone questioned their valuation methods! Like a fire in a theater, investors headed for that small ‘doorway’, and the fund could not meet ‘net redemptions’ (a not uncommon problem of any mutual fund – stocks, bonds, options, etc.

Besides ‘questionable’ appraisal methods (remember they use last price at auction…and there could be just one fool…or there could be trading among several holders…it happens in small stocks…and especially penny stocks, so why not wine? This is not to imply that the fund managers are dishonest (talking about wine), but they wouldn’t know why the price was being bid up if the ‘group’ consisted of several high-profile members.

Why would they do that? Why would a known billionaire and expert on wine have created counterfeit bottles and attested to their authenticity? Why did Cruse, a famous French wine negociant (not to be confused with a California firm with the same name), would risk, and eventually destroy the firm’s long-established  reputation by bottling cheaper wine as Pouilly-Fuisse? They were eventually charged, convicted and heavily fined. There have been several scandals, the worst being when methanol was put in Italian wine, killing six and injuring at least 30. The point is that wine prices are especially susceptible to scandal. To TB it is like people who don’t trust the U.S. Dollar, so they are investing in Bitcoins!

Back to investment clubs and the FA article. They discuss a 2009 bottle of Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte which rose by 143 percent between June 2010 and December of the same year! Meanwhile, French first-growth wines rose by 345 percent between 2005 and 2011 before falling 41 percent through November 2014. Let TB clarify this for you: that 41% decline is off the 345% which would reduce the gain to 203% – which means you had better have gotten in very early! Conversely, to get back to the high would require a 70% increase (something even stock investors fail to understand!).

But the real catalyst for price escalation was the Chinese, who shifted their attention from first growth Bordeaux to premier cru Burgundy, causing a reversal of fortune. Worse yet, the Chinese government cracked down on bribes of public officials (TB is SHOCKED), thus slashing demand. Recall TB’s comments in the first blog, citing Red Obsession, which stated that all of the great wine would be bought by the Chinese? TB’s response was: the same was said in 1988 – the year before the Japanese economy imploded and hasn’t recovered since then. Even diamonds aren’t forever, right Mr. Bond?

So TB will close with the same advice that he began this blog with: drink what you like, and buy what you like…not what some industry-anointed expert says you should…you will be happier and you will have more money in your pocket.

Until next time: don’t ‘stay thirsty my friends’ – drink up! This ain’t no library! (said by the bartender at an enlisted men’s club when TB was in the Navy).

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.