Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Does Size Matter?

Once again taking our cue from Lettie Teague in a Wall Street Journal article from a year ago, we ponder the question, "What the heck difference does it really make whether a wine company is a big corporation or a mom and pop?"  Does size really matter?  Do the soulless conglomerates that effectively run the commercial wine industry deserve credit for making a better product than the guy on the tractor farming his forty acres?  Or is the soulful little guy better by definition?

The question is perhaps more relevant today than ever before.  The conglomerates own the chain store wine departments while that guy on the tractor is very possibly stretched to the limit financially mired in a career that wasn't supposed to be this hard.  Bucolic setting.  Simple life.  Do the rudimentary chores in the vineyard and when the time is right make the wine and God willing...it is good! Voila!

If only it was that easy.

The corporate guys have it all over our tractor guy in every way.  They have teams of employees managing the vineyards and making the wines and those vineyards aren't vineyards in any way like the tractor guy has and the wineries bear no resemblance to the farm wineries.  We're talking industrial farming over great expanses and wineries that look more like oil refineries, all of which provide the wherewithal to make things happen even in bad years.  It just doesn't seem fair.

So let's get to the point.  What about the product?  Which is better, small production or large?

My thirty-eight years or so in the business inform me that what the big guys have done is nothing short of amazing.  Back in the sixties and seventies jug wine quality (and that's what it was back then) was hardly palatable compared to boutique quality and that's putting it nicely.  So the quality leap accomplished by the large scale producers that we see today clearly outdistances the boutiques who frankly didn't have to leap at all since they were already there.  With advanced technology and the brain power to operate it, the big guys have clearly won the race.  That and the dollars to buy the boutiques they wanted to fill their portfolios kind of guarantees their success.  So the bad rap the corporate guys get needs to be relegated to the dustbin of history.

What the big guys cannot claim is authenticity or distinction of place of origin which is antithetical to the basic mass marketing model of wine production.  In order to please most tasters one must not offend anyone so the product has to fit the profile the popular palate appreciates.  That the giants do quite well.  So the fifty and hundred dollar Cabernets live up to industry-set standards and Joe Six Pack gets a pretty darn good everyday bottle of wine at the end of the day.  And this is good.

Please join us this Thursday at 5pm when David Rimmers pours tastes of two fine whites, Roussanne and Viognier, and two great reds, Cotes du Rhone (Syrah!) and Savennieres les Beaune (Pinot Noir).  These wines are new offerings to this marketplace and should display authenticity.

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.