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. 2 No. 23…why care about someone else’s rating?

(TB must be getting old…just realized he had used this same title just two posts ago!!! Aarrgghh!! Growing old is hell! Hope this one works better and is more descriptive!)

Does a rating matter? Is it smart or dumb to buy wine based on someone’s rating. Here is a brief history of rating scores and how they work:

Prior to 1978, when Robert Parker started his newsletter which a year or so later morphed into The Wine Advocate, the only tasting scores were in professional tastings or wine festivals, state and county fairs, and others. The predominant scoring system was the one developed by UC Davis in 1959 (http://finias.com/wine/ucd_scoring.htm).  It is a 20-point system, which made it easy to combine scores and then average them to determine the best wines. Judges and their knowledge of wines varied and even in professional tastings, going through the lineup then reversing the order created confusion and inconsistency.

Years ago, I accompanied a friend who entered in Chili cook-offs. His chili was outstanding! We made it to the state level and then he lost. Why? Thanks to a friend who was also a judge I later found out that the chili right before his was mouth-burning hot and that is what caused him to lose. The next year he won the national title. Same goes for wine…on any given day, under different conditions, and with the same or other wines, huge discrepancies in scores can occur.

Parker’s contribution was the 100-point system which he compared to school test scores but with one major difference. 50 points is the base, meaning any wine will score at least a 50. Then there are several categories such as color, aroma, taste, etc., but here’s the biggie: 25 points is subjective! So one person might score a wine 100 and another as low as 75, even when all other categories are equal. Of course this is an extreme, but between 85 and 95? Clearly possible depending on what the reviewer likes in a wine. In addition, the 25 qualitative points vary from system to system. Parker for instance loves big, bold wines capable of aging, but since the majority of wines are purchased for immediate or near immediate consumption, that should not mean a thing to you, in fact, you might hate it. Read in Parker’s own words how it works: https://www.erobertparker.com/info/legend.asp

Not to confuse you, but so you can see the problem, here are rating classifications of several scorers: http://www.wine.com/v6/aboutwine/wineratings.aspx?ArticleTypeId=2

Parker came on the scene with the 1982 vintage of Bordeaux. Robert Finnegan, the former guru for buyers of these wines, panned the vintage. Shortly after, Parker declared it the vintage of the century. Goodbye Finnegan. Frankly, I bought a mixed case of those as futures on his recommendation. I didn’t, nor did some of my friends, see them as exceptional, but never mind, I sold them years later for a very healthy profit. Thanks, Mr. Parker!!!

Now read this:

“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

Huh? See, Parker is to himself and many others alleged to have the best tasting nose in the world. You know, insured with Lloyd’s of London for $1 million, like Bob Hope’s nose, or a singer’s voice.

As for his love of big, bold wines: he was criticized for years by Bourgogne winemakers for his lower ratings on his wines, finally some years ago he stopped rating them, turning it over to an associate. He is also a one-third partner in an Oregon Pinot Noir winery, Beaux Fréres, which to his credit he doesn’t rate…after all having his name gives it the imprimatur required to attract buyers anyway. Nothing wrong with that but compare and contrast to French burgundies and lo and behold  Beaux Fréres is not the same style and many Oregon vintners are now copying that style. If you like it fine, but TB prefers a pinot that is balanced and has more subtle flavors: to each his own.

Today there are literally dozens of critics using 100-point systems…some (many?) working with a distributor or retailer. Thus we have scoring escalation just like grade escalation in schools. Is 95, the new 90? If memory serves, in the 1982 vintage there were only two 100-point wines. That has increased and as one wine merchant quipped, “I can’t sell a wine with an 89 point rating; I can sell all the wine with a 90 rating but I can’t get them.”

Ah, but it gets worse as that translates into price! Not to mention 2008 when the Bordelaise were concerned about losing money in the financial crisis. No problem, the Chinese stepped in, buying up Lafite Rothschild, and other premier cru Bordeaux’s and driving the price to the moon, Alice, the moon! Of course, Lafite is a status symbol to wealthy Chinese. Most of it is given as gifts, or was, until the government forbid giving government officials gifts, and even when drunk it is commonly mixed with…I kid you not…tea or coke (the real thing not the drug)!  As with so many other products it has even been counterfeited the key being that Lafite is spelled with TWO ‘t’s on that label. That is where most Bordeaux wine goes today, and they have also bought up some smaller chateaux, the prestige ones are owned by conglomerates or mega-billionaires (too bad The Donald didn’t buy one of those when he instead bombed out on his ‘Trump Wine’).  The U.S. and Great Britain, once the primary markets were abandoned more or less due to the high prices…and by the way the use of herbicides and pesticides has grown at a time when other regions are cutting back.

But the era of prices going ballistic on a high, 90+ rating is coming to a close. A friend who owns a winery the 25-50% increases have withered, instead take a look online at any of the e-retailers. They show the list price, say $90, then offer them for $60…or even  $30. You never see a wine with a rating less than 90 there and the average is probably 92!

Then of course there is ‘Parkerizaton’. This is not his fault but winemakers are blending wine to get those high Parker ratings. So? So do you want to buy wine from anywhere in the world and have it taste the same…no character or terroir? TB doesn’t. Instead, he prefers wine made well in a style the winemaker chooses. He is risking his reputation and money to do that, just as he does when competing to the mega-producers who blend for consistency. As winemaker Carles Pastrana of Clos de l’Obac told Robert Mondavi when he visited his winery in Priorat, Spain: he used exactly the same blend of grapes each year. Mondavi said: that’s crazy, in different years you get varying amounts of fruit. Carles replied, “then I must be crazy. But tell me this, if you always make your wine taste the same why bother putting the year on the bottle” Mondavi was not pleased with this. Frankly, any large or ‘bulk’ producer must do this because those buyers expect the wine to taste the same every time. But Carles is not crazy…he is smart and passionate about his wine!

Lest I leave you thinking ill of Mr. Parker, remember an early statement of TB: globally good wine is chasing out bad. Several articles lately have criticized or outright condemned the 100-point systems. Frankly, many of those 90+ ratings, especially by sellers, are probably 87-90 point wines. What to do? Trust your local wine purveyor…support him/her over the supermarkets and big box wine stores that have appeared on the scene. In closing here is a joke that indicates whether  someone is a wine snob:

Customer tasting wine in a wine shop: “This wine is horrible, worst I have ever tasted.”

Clerk: “Really? Parker gave it a 90.

Customer: “I’ll take two cases!”

There you go…pay more and get less…less of what YOU like and as stated earlier, you are the only critic that counts…

Hope you enjoyed reading this as much as TB enjoyed writing it!

TB

©2016, Traderbillonwine.com

Vol 2 No 21…what’s in a rating?

Readers here know that TB has little or no use for ratings or wine snobs. Here’s why:

  1. a rating is simply someone else’s opinion of a wine…it doesn’t mean either you or your friends will like it and that means you may be throwing money away or at least spending way more than you need to. The cost is exacerbated by the ratings themselves with the goal to get at least a 90! Can anyone explain the difference to TB of an 89 versus a 90 point wine…because I couldn’t give you a clue.
  2. Prior to the late 1970’s ratings were not used except in professional tastings, and the primary one was the UC Davis 20-point system. Then came attorney, Robert Parker who decided there was too much compression in the ratings so he developed the 100 point system that he posited was easier to understand since it is the way the grading system in school works. That was fine when there was just ONE rater using it. Now there are at least a dozen and possibly double that number or more. Some of them are not independent or are compensated in one way or another for the rating. The stupidity is as one wine shop owner quipped: I can sell all the 90-point wines I have but can’t get them, but can’t sell the 89-point wines I have in stock.
  3. Looking inside the 100-point system you find the following: 50 of those points are a ‘given’. Plonk rates a 50! So why confuse things with that many extra points. Then there are categories for color, clarity, nose, and more with – get this…25 points that can be added to the score. Wow…so one judge might give it a 75 and another 100??? I am exaggerating the differences but you get the point (sic).
  4. One well-known early wine writer, Gerald Boyd, I believe, once wrote why would you buy a wine just because I like it IF you don’t know what I look for in a wine. Fair question, because many accept a rating without questioning and I can tell you I have had many 90 point or higher wines that, not only did I not find astounding, but guests at dinners failed to comment on. Nowadays, at $90 or more a bottle, that is throwing money ‘down the drain.’
  5. What prompted this post? After all, TB has discussed ratings before, including the 10-point system devised by another blogger who boasts of never paying more than $20 for a bottle of wine. Hence, he ‘deducts’ points for prices above $10 and adds points for cheaper ones. So let’s say two wines both end up with ‘7.5’. Which would you prefer? Dunno, but I do know that looking for value and a complex wine are not mutually inclusive.  It is a totally irrelevant system. It is like saying a Ford is as good as a BMW, adjusted for price…really? To whom? To someone you wouldn’t listen to! It began with an article called A Mathematical Approach to the Judgment of Paris, by David Morrison in (The Academic Wino) blog.
  6. Morrison begins with the scores of the Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon. “Its scores (out of 20) were: 10, 13, 14, 14, 14, 14, 14, 15, 15, 16, and 16.5. This means that the wine was judged to vary from Passable (10) to Very Good (16). More to the point, only three of the judges ranked it as their best wine of the day, whereas no less than five of them ranked the Château Montrose wine as their best, although it ranked second based on its average score.” If memory serves, the 11 judges tasted twice, the second time reversing the order, which no doubt led to the wide range of scores. This has been proven in the past and note that even for an experienced taster, the lingering taste of the prior wine can affect the score. Also, note that the point of the tasting was never to prove which area produced the best wine but that California wines could stand up to French wines. Trying to be fair, the tried to pick a vintage which would allow both wines to have matured, difficult since American wines due to higher alcohol (and perhaps more time in tannic French oak?). So they settled on what made them as equal as possible, at that time. Every year since , the  tasting has been replicated with  varying results proving that BOTH countries produce  great wines that mature at different times. Jancis Robinson wrote a great book, Vintage Wine Charts, which you can usually find for a couple of bucks on line. Incredible value. She has dozens of wines in it that she has tasted every year and shows them graphically so you can see where they plateau, sometimes dip for a couple of years, then eventually peak – some in five years or less, some in 30 or more. That is the test of a great wine. A good way to replicate this is with a case of a good wine. Have one bottle, or two a year, about six months apart and see when it tastes the best. When it has ‘peaked’, drink up!

In conclusion, there is only one wine critic that matters: you! If you don’t like it, you aren’t going to care if Parker, The Wine Enthusiast, or any other critic says…on the other hand, if you wish to be a wine snob, that is your prerogative too. But you are wasting your money. If you like Two Buck Chuck (which TB happens to find repulsive), so be it…or any number of cheap wines…including ‘pop’ wines. But try to take one night a week and try something new…that is a good goal. I would say that for most people you should be able to get a high quality wine for $30 or less…and anything over $50 is likely due to the rating – unless you have tried it and found it absolutely thrilling.

That’s my opinion…go get your own! Just enjoy your wine, whatever it may be!

TB

 

Vol 2 No 17…are you a Giffen or Veblen type?

The correct answer to that question should be: neither, and damned proud of it! There is no comparison between buying any wine of similar quality, whereas there is between a Rolex or Prada knock-off. After all it is you, dear reader, that should trust YOUR palette. Me, you ask? Yes, ‘you’ because if you don’t like it who cares what Trader Bill or Robert Parker, or any other critic says about it. Truth, TB does not consider himself an expert, just someone who knows what he likes and trusts his own palette. Of course, this only came after a few years of buying what Parker liked, then serving it at a dinner and no one raving about it. Is he wrong? No, not for him, but the downside of this is to get that coveted 90-point rating, producers are sending samples to labs who tell them what they need to do to make it one. In other words: how can you buy someone’s rating without knowing what she likes in a wine? I believe it was Gerald Boyd, who asked this in a column of his decades ago.

In economics, there are two ‘effects’ that violate the laws of supply and demand. Rationally, as the price rises there should be less demand for a product, yet some goods actually see an increase in demand above a price point. These goods fall into two categories:

Giffen Goods are goods that when the price is raised the demand increases. I would suggest that Apple computers and iPhones are examples of this. It tends to affect the middle class and below as they might see a perceived scarcity value

A Veblen good is similar then that as the price rises more people buy the product because of a belief (rightly or wrongly), that a higher price suggests better quality. This is applicable to wine, and to upwardly mobile people who want to be perceived as better off than they are.

Wine, to TB, would be the latter. In terms of quality, labor, etc. a $20 wine should be better than a $10 wine so people will shun the cheaper one to own the higher priced one. But what about a $50 bottle and a $200 bottle? Is the higher priced one truly better? Let’s say it’s 10% better…or even 20% better. Was it worth paying 400 times more? We aren’t NASA where the success of a mission can depend on quality and for 98% reliability they might pay 400 times more (not talking about those $400 hammers we read about).

So pick your price range: for every day drinking, for when guests are over, or for a really special event. I suspect most of you will be much closer to the $50 wine than the one costing $200. Think about it.

But what causes this to occur? It could be ‘wine snobbery’ (after all we see this with whisky that has no aging potential…a definite Giffen good), or fear of being embarrassed, or any number of things.

There is a blogger (reversewinesnob.com), who says you should never pay more than $20 for a bottle of wine. Really? …and he knows this because? Then of course there is Two Buck Chuck (Charles Shaw), creator Fred Franzia, who says never pay more than TEN dollars for a bottle of wine…does this mean a price increase is coming???

The blogger even devised a tasting scale (although he admits to never having taken a wine course). Let’s say that two wines score an 8 and a 6 respectively. The first is $20 a bottle so he adjusts the rating down to say a ‘7’; the other gets boosted to say a 7 also. Obviously you liked the higher priced one more so your decision should not factor in price but enjoyment (as long as it is in your price range). I will make no further comments on this except to ask if being a ‘reverse’ wine snob is perhaps as being the real thing. You decide.

I suggest going to a good wine shop or liquor store that places a high emphasis on wine. As fellow blogger, Mike Veseth says, there is a ‘wine wall’ that is overwhelming and makes it very difficult to decide. In the wine shop you can get suggestions or perhaps advice on what wine you might like. I believe you will do much better this way than the ‘pig in a poke’ method at the supermarket.

Lastly, so you don’t think I am opposed to paying high prices for wine. Set your budget and work within it. I believe there is much better quality in the $20 range…even the $15, and perhaps that exists up to $30 a bottle. Above that the differences are very hard to detect (usually and for most casual drinkers). One reason is that the big producers know the price points and that keeps them pushing towards lower than higher to maximize sales. At the extreme is Two Buck Chuck which produces more than a million bottles a year (he also owns 40,000 acres of vineyards making Bronco the biggest vineyard owner in the U.S. The grapes are not hand selected, rather, he makes the rows as long as possible so the tractor reduces the number of times it has to turn around. Both ripe and unripe grapes are picked as well as anything else that wanders on to the vines (use your imagination). Also, when the wine goes to the stemmer or crusher further sorting is not done by hand – a necessity in a premium quality wine. If you like it, fine, but you do get what you pay for.

Think about that for a moment: winemaking is an art, yet we are attempting to turn it into a science just to please the palette of one man, who by the way, likes big, dare a say HUGE, bold wines with heavy tannins and often high alcohol. It is for that reason, he no longer personally rates Burgundy wines, having been demonized by those winemakers for trying to make their wines something they are not (unfortunately, some of our pinot noir growers in Oregon have followed his lead and tried to make a ‘power’ wine from one that is supposed to have subtle nuances). This is furthered by a winery he and his brother own there that did just that. He doesn’t rate his own wine, but does he have to? Isn’t a critic or a buyer going to ‘know’ that simply because he makes it, it must be the benchmark?

Part of the problem is our ‘elevated’ status of winemakers. In France, and Spain, there is no word for winemaker. In France, it is ‘vigneron’ or one who tends to the wines; the spanish use the term elevador, or one who tries to improve (elevate) the wine. That takes much of the ego out of it. I was once told by the pioneer California winemaker, Joe Heitz, that “people romantize wine…it’s farming…agriculture.” Of course, Joe was a farmer, and also one of the finest winemakers in America. He knew, as all people in the industry know, that you can do everything right and still end up with a mediocre or worse wine. If it is a bad year and you are a premium wine producer who cares about quality over profits, wouldn’t you sell the grapes in a bad year or produce them under a second label? Not so, in many regions, particularly Bordeaux where the prices move in one direction – even before the Chinese drove prices to the moon – and sadly they are aided by the critics. Did you know that Parker tastes the wine a week before the rest of the critics, and that in both cases assemblage has not occurred? That is the blending of the various barrels to achieve the best quality wine…note that we are still talking about wine that is just six months old! Furthermore, since Parker likes heavy tannins they provide him with a sample from a heavily oaked barrel, whereas the Europeans like softer tannins. Yet we buy based on these absurd ratings. Also, I believe that the critics fear writing a bad review as they might not be asked back, quel horror! Yet we salivate to find and buy these wines because we don’t trust our own palette…or worse, because we are ‘wine snobs’ who buy based on price and rating, not what appeals to us. Furthermore, the best wine in the world can taste awful, or at least not at its best, when paired with the wrong dishes.

Having returned a month ago from Spain and Portugal, and seeing the values in wines there, I continue to be amazed at how people cherish ‘cult’ wines. Furthermore, how much more you can get by producing fewer bottles. Not only that, why people clamor to buy a 90-point wine by one of the half-dozen or more critics, yet shun an 88 or 89 point wine. It certainly isn’t economically sound given the huge jump in price between those two levels.

Do you honestly believe you can tell the difference between the two? Do you even understand the 100-point rating system that Parker thrust upon us nearly 40 years ago?

Originally, there was the UC Davis scoring system, of 20-points that broke it down in categories where you might award 1-3 points for color, clarity, nose, complexity, and an equal component taste. It was thus a way to determine if a wine is well-made. Parker changed all this with his 100-point system that he saw as mirroring school grades. It actually did it so well that is now suffers from the same affliction: grade inflation!

Originally,  Parker didn’t tell us how he did it but it comes down to this:

Of the 100 points, FIFTY are automatic: no criteria, so it is really a fifty point system. Then, similar to the UC Davis system, it is broken down into categories, but the real clincher is that 25 points are totally subjective, based on your overall opinion (the operative word here), of the wine. So let’s say it ‘aced’ all of the other categories. You add in the 50 points and you are at 75. Now, dependent on how it tastes to me, the critic, I could award 5, 10, 20 or even 25 points to the rating. A sham? No, because I know wine…and it damned well better taste the way I like it!

So what we have is a system that rewards the winemaker for ‘standardizing’ to my specifications the wine. In Europe, aka the old world, there is much more emphasis on terroir, the characteristics of the soils, site situation, micro-climes, and more in deciding how good the wine is. Well, in Bordeaux not so much, thanks to the 1855 classification that delineated the regions ‘based on quality’. Uh, not exactly, they took the five most expensive wines and determined that they must be the pinnacle, really. Then they built the appellations (St. Estephe, St. Emilion, Pomerol, etc.) around those vineyards. Beyond those first growths came 2nd’s, 3rd’s, 4th’s, etc. Beyond those you were outside the appellation. But is that meaningful? Not when Lafite Rothschild can buy an ‘adjoining’ vineyard ‘outside’ the appellation and blend it with their production. Furthermore, the big chateaux are mainly owned by corporations or billionaires now, and what do they want? To force out their neighbors, especially since 2008 when the Chinese got on board. Did you know that to be a ‘classified’ growth now you have to have a large parking lot, among other things, which has resulted in some formerly classified growths becoming losing their status. Some are irate, some say their customers know the quality of the wine so they won’t fight it…if they could, that is because the fix is in.

But it gets worse: at those prices they don’t want to lose a single grape. So they spray, from helicopters, pesticides and overuse herbicides, to insure a good yield, So, samples of all the classified cru’s were sent to a lab. Guess what? They had traces of chemicals – including a couple that are on the banned list! So much for quality, but if that was all, it wouldn’t be so bad. But their flagrant use of spraying is contaminating water supplies and more making children and others sick, but that is not their problem. Ever hear of Flint?

Don’t take TB’s word, instead read Vino Business, by Isabelle Sapporta, a French investigative reporter who for some strange reason hasn’t had a ‘hit’ taken out on her. Critics: why are you ‘outing’ this obscene behavior. Should we have to take a bottle for chemical analysis to insure it is something we want in our bodies? You decide.

In closing, my favorite quote is by famed winemaker Heidi Peterson Barrett, who when told a Jeroboam of her famed Screaming Eagle Cabernet sold for $500,000 at the Napa Valley Wine Auction, said she was pleased but added this: “it’s wine, you drink it, it’s gone.” Think about that and also the number of well-known people who end up auctioning off their wines because they realize they will never be able to drink them all (or even make a dent), in their lifetime (TB’s wife is known to accuse him of this and his cellar isn’t that big!).

Hope you enjoyed this…comments are welcomed!

TB

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.