Tuesday, February 20, 2018

The Wine Business

Back in March of 2014 we posted about the 2013 film documentary, Somm, which I thoroughly enjoyed, albeit guiltily as the four main characters obsessed in their pursuit of the Master Sommelier credential.  Not only was that pursuit expensive ($2,000+ per test) but the accrued knowledge to pass the test seemed to be more about a drive for self-satisfaction than about practical vocational information.  But the wine business can be like that.  If we're in it we tend to get caught up in the minutiae.

Today we're posting about the far from glamorous grunt work of the wine business and once again we're taking our cue from Lettie Teague of the Wall Street Journal from an article entitled "A Closer Look at the Making of a Sommelier."  In that article Teague says the physical work often leads to an early retirement from the profession by age fifty.  Really?  I'm way older than that and I'm still hefting cases.

Also in the article she says the pay isn't that good (unless you're in a great restaurant) and there is continual pressure to "upsell" your patrons.  Frankly, your raison d'etre is to increase the revenues at the end of the day and that increase really needs to be substantial enough to justify your employment.  I think that comes closer to the truth about why sommeliers get out of the business.  Are you starting to see where I'm going here?  It's a job with performance pressures like any other.

The wine business attracts all kinds of personalities.  What we all have in common is we all get the wine bug, that romantic notion that there is more to the stuff than just getting an alcoholic buzz.  We want to learn about the history, chemistry, agriculture, and anything else that's culturally related to wine and we want to feel accomplished in this field we have chosen.  Then we take a job and reality whacks us in the face.  It's a job.

Most sommeliers and other restaurant people (and retailers) who are interested in this field end up working for distributors, importers, brokers or other businesses further up the wine food chain.  Not only is that where the money is but if one of your values is self-determination then that's where you want to be.  Me?  I just don't have good sense.


This Thursday at 5pm James Murray leads us in a tasting of 2016 Scarbolo Italian Sauvignon Blanc, 2015 Zorzal Argentine Malbec, 2015 Domaine du Somali Minervois and 2014 "A Proper Claret" from Bonny Doon of California.  Please join us. 

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Pecorino (the wine, not the cheese)

You learn something new every day it seems.  This week I learned about an Italian wine grape called Pecarino which has nothing in common with the Pecarino cheese except I am told they go well together.  I learned about Pecarino wine by way of a vendor tasting here last week.  There were three Italian whites in the lineup and the Pecarino was clearly the winner as far as I was concerned.  It was straw-yellow in color, floral in the nose, and minerally and fruity yet dry to the taste, which brings us to what is wrong with Italian white wines in general.

First of all let me say that Italian white wines are some of the finest white wines on earth;  fine, being the operative term here.  You talk about subtlety and nuance!  Treat these wines with the utmost respect.  Serve these wines on your finest platter before dinner!  What's wrong with Italian whites, with all humility, is there are so many that are so similar (in that fine sort of way) that the poor retailer can't stock them all for a wine-buying public that is not yet ready for that degree of fineness (finesse).

Compounding this logjam of delicacy is the fact that the Pinot Grigio category is way too successful.  It surpassed Chardonnay in sales in this store long ago.  It's hard to get around that sales monster to offer the legions of others that no one has ever heard of, wines that are much more European in style than the Pinots that are shipped here.  Their lightly acidic structure frankly yields a winier flavored product in contrast with the forward cocktail pinots we like so much.  These alternative Italian whites really need a table setting with seafood entrees and sauces to show their potential.

Pecarino also has a great story behind it.  The name comes from the culinary habits of the sheep in Central Italy.  Pecarino means "little sheep" and those guys apparently loved to dine on the sweet wild grapes of the region to the point where the low yielding Pecarino grapevines have had to be propagated back to commercial viability from near extinction.  That effort was begun in the 1980's and now yields the high quality dinner wine we have in the store now.


Please join us at 5pm Thursday the 15th for a tasting of Italian wines.  Brian Espaniol leads us in a tasting of one Pinot Grigio and three blended reds.  Not coincidentally Italian cheeses will be on the table!

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Syrah and California Pinot Noir

I can't believe it's been over two months since I've posted!  While the holidays have certainly been a factor in this lapse, other interests must have tripped me up from fulfilling my obligations here.  Anyway here's what I'm thinking about now...

Some of the finest big red wines in the world come from the northern Rhone Valley of France and by definition those wines are Syrah-based.  North of the Rhone Valley lies Mecca, Burgundy, where the finest Pinot Noir in the world originates.  While Syrah works wonderfully as a blending grape, Pinot Noir, by virtue of its stature in the wine world, stands alone as a varietal.  Except...when the rules have been broken and the two are mixed together.

The rules, by the way, are French rules.  Laws, actually.  Syrah is not allowed to be blended into Burgundian Pinot Noir.  Not even in a bad vintage when the pinot could use a little beefing up with the stronger Syrah.

In California things are different.  If a California wine is labeled as Pinot Noir it only needs to be 75% pinot.  The other 25% can be anything, but because Syrah is such a wonderful blending grape it seems to have become the go-to for that purpose.

So what does Syrah add to Pinot Noir?  Syrah from cooler climes offers blackberry, mint, black pepper and tannin or, my favorite description, violets and tar.  Syrah from warmer climes gives a blend soft tannins, jammy fruit, licorice, anise, and leather.  Does that description sound familiar?

From their own website Meiomi Pinot Noir is described as having "blackberry, black current, dark chocolate, cola, espresso, and vanilla."  According to princeofpinots.com it also has approximately three times the sweetness of French pinot.  So what's going on here?

In 2011 Constellation Brands, the second largest wine company in the world bought Meiomi from Joe Wagner of Caymus fame, for $315 million dollars.  Whenever a label like Meiomi changes hands it usually is just the label that is being sold.  Constellation already owns enough Pinot Noir vineyards and they don't need the winery.  They also own Mega Purple, the most popular branded additive used in domestic wine making.  Mega Purple is a grape concentrate that is capable of covering a multitude of sins in mediocre wines.  So that in combination with likely 25% Syrah will yield the style of wine marketed as the domestic industry leader, Meiomi.

In the wine business we say, "You have to sell it."  In this case the makers of Meiomi have done a wonderful job of selling their product.  In our store at this time we have two Meiomi knockoffs according to princeofpinots.com, Diora and Mark West Black.  Diora is priced similarly to Meiomi while the Mark West is half that price.  So if Meiomi is your cup of tea stop in and try our Diora or Mark West.  Maybe they're even better than Meiomi!


This Thursday at 5pm David Rimmer joins us for a tasting of three Italian reds and a French Sancerre.  David has the best wine portfolio in this market so we strongly urge you to be here for the tasting.  Please join us!