Category: Beverage Industry


This is a reaction to this article originally reported by the Akron Beacon Journal and expounded upon best (so far) by Food & Wine here.

The premise of the suit is that WalMart willfully deceived customers into believing that their private-label beer brand, Trouble Brewing (get it?!?), actually brewed by Genesee is a true “craft beer” brand justifying a higher price point than non-craft beers. The shock here is not that WalMart took this circuitous route around forthrightness but, rather, that it wasn’t presumed to be the case from everyone from the start. I believe that there is a huge measure of caveat emptor in play here.

Keep in mind, that private label beer, wine, and spirits have been made for Costco, 7-11, Total Wine, Walgreen’s, Trader Joe’s, and many huge or widespread domestic retailers selling any alcohol throughout the US. This is nothing new. There is a measure of subverting the truth with nearly all of them, generally lies of omission. Where is the line drawn for true deception, though?

If I were a craft beer drinker in Boise Idaho shopping the beer aisle at the Overland Road WalMart Supercenter the first thing that would come to my mind when seeing Trouble Brewing (made in 2,285 miles away in Rochester, NY) is economy of scale—that in order to feed WalMart’s massive empire, this beer can not likely be a true “craft beer” made in a small brewery run by a couple of bushy-bearded beer-lovers chasing a dream. I have accepted these products in in practice and, to some degree, in theory because the waters have been muddy for a long time now. “Craft beer styles” (read: non-American adjunct lagers) are produced by several large, otherwise uninteresting breweries—from SABMiller to Sam Adams—to under the guise of being truly “craft”. It is largely a semantic argument at that scale. These Trouble Brewing beers are, at this stage in the game, virtually no different from the relatively high-production stuff that their sister brands, Pyramid and Magic Hat, foist upon the public from neither a quality nor truth in marketing perspective. These beers are simply a product of economy of scale to feed the vast WalMart supply chain and, I am sure, everything about them speaks to that, from the sophomoric packaging and marketing to the reportedly uninspired flavor profiles.

Make no mistake, this suit was not brought forth by innocent consumers who were shocked into action when they discovered they were duped. Craft beer drinkers are largely one of the most discerning, self-informed, and vigilant consumer segments in the world and this suit was brought forth by a craft beer consumer bent on enforcing transparency. As anyone who has ever read this blog will attest, I am absolutely for fighting for transparency in marketing, but I don’t genuinely believe that the wool was really being pulled over anyone’s eyes in this instance.

The core consumer that may toss these beers into their cart along with small appliances, housewares, toys, diapers, cookies, and cleaning supplies is probably not largely the core craft consumer up-in-arms over this. Most consumers outside the craft beer enthusiast market likely don’t care if it’s really a “craft beer”, only that it provides a favorable experience for the price. The argument in the suit that Walmart inflated the prices for the beers to put them in line with other craft beers as a deceptive practice is spurious. Honestly, many large-scale “genuine” craft beers have inflated pricing. All that matters is what the market will bear. If consumers feel they are getting good QPR from this stuff, what does it matter how much profit WalMart makes on it? Profit margin is their business.

To the larger part of the claim—the deception of craft provenance —WalMart may be trying to emulate craft beer, but nowhere on the packaging do they directly claim “craft” or its similars in any way.  The brewery is listed as Trouble Brewing with the same Rochester, NY address as many of Genesee’s other contract brewed products. This is all pretty easy to discern if you are a consumer who cares about that stuff. And that brings me back to my point that the vast majority of people inclined to even consider buying this stuff do not care about provenance as long as they don’t find out that it was made by poor children with a heavy metal-laden water source next to an electronic parts reclamation farm.

The clues of provenance, and scale, and, ultimately, honesty are all there in front of us with these beers and many other products that we just don’t care enough to be cognizant of and reactive to. No one can deceive you unless you are open and available to the deceit.

None of this is to suggest that I have grown less vigilant in my own pursuit of transparency in marketing. I strongly believe that there is a pervasive problem in marketing within an industry where the only regulations of import have to do with taxes and very little of substance to do with consumer protection. But this is another instance where we do not seem to take enough personal responsibility for our consuming habits. It is incumbent upon us to engage ourselves a bit more in our buying habits if we care about this stuff. Once we have made that commitment, the mere subterfuge becomes white noise and we can zero-in on the genuine deceit. Otherwise, all of the after-the-fact griping and class-action suits hold no water when real hard-core deception that actually hurts people comes along.

Black Falcon (Falco subniger)

One resolute bird.

Earlier this week, the Atlanta Falcons made a curious and rare decision to listen and respond to its fan-base (press release). Upon the opening of its new stadium, the NFL franchise will charge far more fair and reasonable prices for its concessions.

Long irksome for sports fans, the cost of concessions has reached a point wherein it can cost more for a beer than a seat on a given night. Increasingly, only those named Walton, Hearst, and DuPont are able to enjoy a family outing to the ballpark complete with sustenance through the often four-hour events. To be fair, concessions are luxuries—not truly necessary to the enjoyment of the game—but they are, and should be, part of the experience (and can be the key to maintaining a positive experience/sanity for those with children). But, at what point is it reasonable for a team or venue to dictate the terms of bankruptcy for a family to enjoy the ostentatious luxury of some dogs and sodas?

Atlanta Falcons CEO, Rich McKay, no longer believes those terms are reasonable at all. Why? Because research consistently showed that concession prices, quality, and wait times ranked as the worst of all fan experiences. This is across all leagues, teams, and venues.  The Falcons, who just completed a new stadium, had the opportunity to right that wrong and lead the charge on new paradigm.

What does any of this have to do with the wine/beer/spirits industry? Well…in short, everything. Recognizing and reacting to broken practices is key to any business’s health, particularly when relating directly to customers. The lessons from the Falcon’s decision are powerful. What McKay and his team realized is that doing things the old way just because that is “how it has always been done” is not a sufficient excuse for poor customer relations. Sure, there’s lots of money to be made on jacked-up soft pretzel prices, but is it worth the cost of a positive overall fan experience?

Alcohol beverage retailer—are you buying a 10-case QD deal on National Brand × Red Blend and still selling it at full markup? That’s fine, but you must give your customers enough credit that they likely know what the competitive price should be. Trust me, your customers may be loyal as a matter of convenience but they shop around.

The Falcons identified this need to treat their customers as knowledgeable consumers and not simply as cash machines. They realized that there was a long-term cost associated with overcharging their customers in the concession lines and that is that they would likely eat and drink at tailgates before the game and hold off on the second beer or soft pretzel inside the stadium opting instead to save the money and get a proper meal after the game. In the short-term, under the old model, they may make better margin but they will have significantly lower volume.

The difference for you is that you do not have the captive audience that a sports franchise has. If a ticket-holder wants a drink or food during the game, they have to pay the whatever the concessionaire charges. If a customer walks into your store and doesn’t like the prices they see on the products they like to buy, they can walk out and go somewhere else. The Falcons still made the decision to cut their concession prices even though they have a captive audience because the trade-off of lower volume over time coupled with constantly disgruntled fans was not worth the extra margin on the short-term. You need to think the same way.

Respect your customers. Listen to them. Find ways to appease them—be willing to cut prices on what should be high-turn products, trial run customer requests at less than standard mark-up to be competitive with the market at-large, etc., and be fair and reasonable in finding alternatives to your customers when it simply doesn’t make good business sense to do exactly what they want. You are in this business for the long-haul anyway—the short-term margin losses will be made up over time with greater volume and happy customers.

Remember: there are always ways to make up the difference in margin. You can never make up the difference in lost customers.

A Bold Return to the New

Hello, long-lost friends and new contacts!

The drinktuition blog took a hiatus as life and rapid-fire changes in plan got in the way. Today marks a rebirth of my blog now aligned with the exciting foundation of my consulting business of the same name.

Here’s a snapshot of what my business is really about:

The drinks industry can be a daunting web of regulations, purchasing decisions, inventory management, staff training, marketing, and whatever else is thrown at you. drinktuition aims to demystify, simplify, and fun-ify the business you thought you were getting into.

As a consultancy, drinktuition will provide services that make simply doing business more efficient, better-targeted, and just plain easier to on-and off-premise accounts across Maryland—even Montgomery County! A unique perspective and strong contacts and friendships across all angles of this industry make drinktuition‘s services far-reaching and unlike anything anyone else an offer.

One of the main premises of drinktuition is to get small-to-medium retailers to lose the insular, proprietary mindset borne of, at best, uncertainty and, at worst, outright fear that is ultimately serving to make them compete against themselves. Many came into their business with no prior knowledge of the industry or insufficient understanding of all the angles. Many of them are so wary of what everyone else is doing that they chose to compete on things—product and mind-share—that they simply don’t need to. There is so much wonderful, viable product available and so many different ways of approaching your business that, for example, everyone can have their own identity without worrying about underselling the next little shop down the street by pennies on national brands while the big players and chains eat them alive on that model. Your business is in your control and the only thing you can control. Don’t just own it—OWN IT!  drinktuition will help you find the best way to reach the customers you want while alleviating the compulsion to care about what your “competitors” are doing. will serve as a community for independent thinkers from all aspects of the industry—retail, restaurant, bar, distributor, supplier, and producer—to share ideas and experiences that will help make your business easier to manage, stronger, more profitable, and(most importantly) fun!

Eventually, this blog will be an integral part of my website which will also serve as a community hub for wine/beer/spirit licensees in Maryland.

But, not to worry—the primary thrust of the blog will be the same, acting as a soap-box for all my quibbles with industry at-large as well as my ongoing drink experiences. Only now, more people will be actively involved in the discussion.

Thanks for sticking with me!

New Job

Beginning January 2, 2014 I will have a new job at Roots Market in Olney, MD. Managing a beer and wine department with a focus on sustainable/organic/biodynamic and local products, while not an absolute necessity to me, is in line with my personal philosophies (as is likely evident to many of you who have read my prior posts). Ideally, this will provide me with more time and material for this blog which has languished badly over the last year.

With that said, I wish you all joy akin to that which I am experiencing so far this holiday season. Merry whatever you’re into and happy next go-’round!

Chained Down


Lots of wine, yes, but this is all organically-produced 2005 Bordeaux from Chateau Grand Francais.

Fine beverage retailers in Maryland are deeply concerned about what appear to be the early stages of their government preparing for legislative approval of grocery and chain wine and beer sales. This action would change the competitive balance of beverage retail in a manner akin to a WalMart or Home Depot popping up on Main Street. I feel that not only is all not lost but that it is a unique time for action and empowerment amongst independent wine retailers. Fighting a predestined victory for such legislation is a waste of energy. Recognizing the situation before it happens provides an opportunity to expend that energy improving your market presence now to establish your brand and the invaluableness of your service.

Here are my comments from a recent LinkedIn discussion about this topic:

The only course of action for independent stores in these situations is to consciously, overtly, and proudly provide products and service unlike what would be available in grocery/chain settings. Most chains operate off of lists of proven market performers and buy mass quantaties of pedestrian product (at steep quantity discounts) off the tops of those lists to provide consumers a perception of value.
The consumers that independent stores wish to attract need to be trained now–before chains enter their market–that the ubiquitous California red blend that can be found “on sale” for $10 at the big stores, more often than not, represents cheapness, not value. The wine does not have to be undistinguished 300K-case-production bulk juice to be affordable–similar prices can be found in every category in the world of wine without compromise of care from vineyard to bottle, production standards, or uniqueness of character.
I do worry that many consumers have come to accept the homogenization of quality and flavor-profile that pervades the bulk production market (which is, admittedly, better than it has ever been even if incredibly boring) as the standard by which value is determined. However, I do not think it is too late to pull back the curtain and educate otherwise. The end goal is creating consumers who don’t simply drink wine; rather, comsumers who “experience” wine.

Much more can—and should—be done to ensure preparedness for a healthy transition into this new market landscape, but this is the core idea. Wine consumption should be an experience, not a task. Now is the time to engender that philosophy in your store and in your customers.

Last week I was afforded the honor of accompanying a small group of American wine professionals on a trip to French wineries represented by Bourgeois Family Selections (Asheville, NC). Our group included Jean-Philippe Bourgeois (president of B. F. S.), Jem Emery (B. F. S. office manager), Martin Von Ellen (N. E. sales manager for B. F. S.), Tom Lally (Sales Manager, Okoboji Wines, IA), Steve White (Wine Brands Manager, Click Wholesale Distributing, WA), Chris Horn (Wine Director, Purple Café, WA), and our chauffeur, Alain Paquet. This trip covered most of France’s major wine regions and a total of 16 wineries were visited/represented over the course of seven days. 

Posts will be in a day-by-day account.
This was my first ever international travel experience and it all went surprisingly smoothly. Dulles to JFK (4-hour layover) to Paris-CDG by 6:15 am. It was snowing upon arrival in Paris, but that only delayed pick-up from the airport by half-an-hour to 9:40 am.

Not enough sleep on the flight over.

From here I met with the group on our Mercedes Sprinter van (outfitted for traveling bands — which later became known by the group as “The Disco Bus” for it’s blue LED interior lighting and odd French radio selections) — and off we went to our first winery visit.

Champagne Philippe Fontaine

Gorgeous place with the river running under the mansion and a watermill located at the back.

It was snowy and cold (about 30° F max) in Balnot sur Laignes. Our rear-wheel-drive van could not make it onto the snow-covered property, so we hoofed it a bit. We were greeted by the lovely couple of Salomé Fontaine-Garcia and Louis-Antoine Garcia who gave us a thorough tour of the property and explanation of their viticultural and winemaking methods.

Gyropalettes for riddling.

Just a little limestone here.

The Fontaine’s grow Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, Chardonnay, and somewhat surprisingly, Pinot Blanc (from which they make a 100% varietal bottling) in both Balnot sur Laignes and Riceys. These images are from the main property in Balnot sur Laignes.

From here we retired to the Fontaine’s charming little home in the village of Balnot sur Laignes. Here we met up with the winemaking patriarch, Philippe, who preferred to keep a low profile throughout our visit. This is where we tasted all the current bottlings of their production and enjoyed a lovingly prepared lunch — heated at a neighbor’s house due to a lack of electricity in their home at that time — including an incredible smoked salmon and foie gras terrine. The family was incredibly kind and generous with their time, energy, and passion while providing us with a wealth of information about their wines and the warmth of their home.

All the cuvées of Champagne Philippe Fontaine.

  • Brut Tradition: 70% Pinot Noir/30% Pinot Meunier — rich, soft lemon curd and light toastiness in an almost extra-dry style but with striking acid and a keen minerality
  • Cuvée des Lys: the oddball of the bunch made with 100% Pinot Blanc (the family does not feel that Chardonnay makes for a good sparkling wine and chose Pinot Blanc after an off-the-cuff experiment) — higher-toned than the Tradition and with more spice evident on the nose and back-palate
  • Brut Reserve: same blend as Tradition — palate of very rich and gentle apple and restrained acid, lusher mouthfeel than those preceding
  • Brut Prestige: 40% Pinot Blanc/35% Pinot Noir/15% Pinot Meunier/10% Chardonnay —very spice-driven nose with mouth-filling baked apple and cinnamon on the palate, super-satisfying
  • Brut Millésime 2007: 100% Pinot Noir — kind of the disappointment of the afternoon with a very tight nose and closed palate showing only a bit of toffee
  • Brut Rosé: 50% Pinot Noir/50% Pinot Meunier — beautiful strawberry color, floral/ yeasty nose, palate of mixed berries and dried flowers with a soft yeasty note on the finish
Day 1, Part Two: Beaune to follow…

The prevailing wave of wine is brands created to fit certain markets and niches. These wines aren’t necessarily different from one-another in the bottle, it’s all a matter of manufactured perception through labeling and target marketing. These wines are almost wholly the stock-and-trade (they are merely commodities, after all) for the growing number of large wines conglomerates that have taken over our head-space (and retail floor space) thereby all but eliminating the impact of the largely unmarketed products of integrity. (These themes are touched on in some of my prior posts here and here and here —sense a pattern?)

Certainly, smaller, independent wineries; distributors/importers with vested interest and genuine love for their products; and retailers with passion to engage consumers on the front-lines are doing their parts. The problem lies with the efficacy of the marketing of flashy, lifestyle-focused branding (with, at best, pedestrian product in the bottle) on a highly susceptible public. This new wave of highly-focused target marketing is successful because the target audiences have not become so inundated with it yet that they have built up a subconscious immunity.

With so much white noise—and that is what almost all traditional (read: passive) media marketing has become—it can be nearly impossible to separate the wheat from the chaff. The new target models subsist on feeding into the venues with which their targets interact with most. By creating mini-games centered on the product, full-webpage encapsulator and cursor-activated ads, manufacturing a “community” (make no mistake, you’re not a voice, you are simply a paying resident) via social media apps, etc. what once was solely passive becomes active—active engagement requires consciously giving oneself over to the ideas and ideals presented. You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile!

Dystopian? You bet!The antidotes are fatigue and broader consciousness. Fatigue just kind of happens in many people, but not all. Eventually, the effects of any marketing (particularly ones that require action on the part of the target not just to buy, but to simply function as marketing) become subconsciously burdensome. Sometimes (though, oftentimes, not), once that has happened the target becomes more broadly conscious of what has been perpetrated upon them. Others have an innate sensitivity to this from the start and realize when the marketing master control system is gaming them and manage to stay one step ahead.

The latter group needs no help from people like me on the front-lines, though it is always wise to encourage them to “spread the gospel”. For the former, however, it is possible to make in-roads. The keys are being cognizant enough of your customers (listen) to determine where they are open to counter-suggestion and to, little-by-little, chip away the marketing-generated barriers to experience. The wonderful thing about those so easily swayed by target marketing is that they are clearly open to suggestion if you can just squeeze in on a one-on-one level. It starts with a simple “if you like this, I think you’ll really enjoy this” proposition and an agreement of future conversation about that new experience. Whether that experience was a hit or a miss is largely irrelevant as you have now made at least an exit ramp onto an in-road to direct human interaction over force-fed virtual interaction.

This is the first step to trust. Trust doesn’t exist in the new marketing model—it trades only in fear. Fear of the new, fear of not fitting in, fear of self-challenge, fear of dissatisfaction, et al.. Trust exists only through tangible experience and is far harder to shake than fear. Fear is something to submit to or overcome—trust is something to be gained or lost. The negative results of both are fed by passivity. While it sounds a bit lofty, I believe, that if a consumer is passive, it is incumbent on me as not just a salesperson but as an ethical, socially responsible human being to be proactive and foster trust as one tiny step to help ensure that we are not left with a race of mindless automatons.

This active engagement has permutations across all levels of wine sales (from winery to distributor to retailer/restauranteur). Just making/recognizing/carrying a good product and hoping for the best is insufficient. We are all responsible for helping our customers (often, our friends) to have genuine experiences that they enjoy and will share with others. The receptivity is there waiting to be engaged. Do it!

So, I challenge you—wine salesperson, winemaker/winery representative, consumer—to be less passive and save humanity. 😉

...your next stop: who the heck knows 'cause the print is so tiny and it doesn't tell you where you're headed anyway.

Going down?

Going down?

I (more than) touched on all of this earlier on here and here, but this brilliant paper provides some wonderful visuals of the Twilight Zone of wine in which we currently find ourselves. The pin-points of the pretty little radial clover flowers of industry consolidation on the map are becoming fewer every day. As a result, the percentage shares of the major players are growing exponentially (particularly after 2011-12’s dramatic M & A trend). At this rate, that grey block (“Other Firms”) that currently comprises around 18% at the bottom of the share infographic will be relegated to the right-side by the end of 2013.

This trend is alarming in its scope. The major wine/beverage conglomerates are acquiring not only large growth brands, but small labels, independent wineries, and vast acreages of vineyard land all over the globe. This is in response to the growth of wine consumption in the US, but also as a hedge against poor bulk production rates in off vintages. Scores of family wineries and diligently managed vineyards are being lost to support all the new marketing driven brands that the last several years of bumper production created.

Example—MegaWineCo (MWC) created their new California super-premium lifestyle brand, ‘Sweet Release’ (“it’s rim-lickin’ good”—a sweet Syrah/Zin blend and a Moscato/Riesling blend) four years ago. The ad campaigns on WEtv and (it exists, look it up ’cause I ain’t linking it) are paid through 2013 and are in full-swing. The weak 2010 and 2011 growing seasons threatened to limit production on this massive growth brand so MWC is forced to buy up juice from every bulk grower they can (regardless of region/country of origin) to make up the difference. In order to avoid this in 2012 and going forward, MWC makes, um…”offers that can’t be refused” to acquire 200+ acres of Central Coast and North Coast vineyards (as well as some in Chile and the Languedoc, just in case). Whew! Crisis averted…for now. And then the next brand is unveiled. Ad infinitum.

Caveat emptor. It has now become more incumbent on the consumer to determine what they are buying while the marketing department of MWC stays one-step ahead in making it harder to distinguish. Seem disingenuous (at the least)? It is. The wines may taste just fine for the money, but what is the real cost? Well, real choice is severely limited, but most importantly, less diversity is the sacrifice. Have you noticed that a lot of wines are virtually indistinguishable from one-another lately? That’s because they really are identical (or damned near it) with different labels. Brand A with the classic eggshell label and serifed font in red and black sells to men over 35, so create Brand B by simply slapping a label with lightning bugs and a quarter moon in pastels on the same product and you got yourself a brand that sells to women 25 and over. How does a lack of transparency in these instances help you in any way?

If this irks you or matters to you even a little, start by looking for “produced and bottled by” or “estate grown and bottled by” (along with “family owned” or “independently owned”)—not “vinted and bottled by” or “made and bottled by”—on domestic wine labels. It’s no guarantee of quality or that such wine will be a better value than the mass-produced stuff, but at least you’ll have a starting point of provenance—some tangible entity to specifically hold accountable for your drinking experience. From there it’s all a matter of personal preference.

Good luck!

On Being “Big”

Big in size. Bigger in heart.

Reading this article from the San Fransisco Chronicle brought back a lot of the strong feelings I had for the boutique wine shop I managed until early this year. I loved that shop as a consumer for many years and then as its manager for four-and-a-half years. The one-on-one, first-name-basis personal interaction with a customers and autonomy to create a small environment to my vision is irreplaceable. It still has an important place in my heart and in my development as a wine professional.

But is small in size and scope necessarily the answer for providing the best service to customers? While that was once my closed-minded and ardent belief, I can now confidently say, “I think not!”.

Working for a fairly large store (albeit, an independently-owned single unit) over the last several months has dramatically changed my perspective. While speaking to a sales rep for a large distributor yesterday, I casually mentioned that big doesn’t mean impersonal with respect to distributors or retailers—our general experience as a consumer society has just skewed us into that perception. We have all had experiences ranging from sterile to downright inhuman in large retail environments, but if we really think about it, scale is not at the heart of those experiences. It’s all a matter of the intellectual, philosophical, and emotional investment of those who interact with customers every day.

I do believe that there is a “critical mass” point, however. Larger corporate retail entities do, typically, create a staff of uninvested drones largely due to poor wages, lack of managerial support, and fostering a feeling of expendability amongst its employees—particularly the front-line staff who have the most direct customer contact. A truly positive customer experience is very rare under such circumstances. Growing into a regional chain or larger almost always causes a disconnect between the original principles and mission of the founders and its satellites. It simply is not practical for the individualistic personality that created success to spread effectively to the employees of chain stores who have no real experience with those founding intangibles. Employee pride is always built on “feel” and not on a strict doctrine or delineated and enumerated employee manual.

However, making a broad generalization like “smaller is better” in retail wine is just silly. To me, it’s a matter of determining what constitutes “big” as a matter of consumer perception and at what point a retail owner comes to terms with what is “big enough”. Smaller only serves niches better. A large, independent store with an in-store ownership presence and employees chosen and nurtured for their personability and their unique skills has the potential to excel at serving the masses as well as specific niches. The key to meeting that potential is keeping the focus on the customers.

You’re a young professional who just started drinking wine and thinks that Cupcake Moscato is the greatest wine ever? That’s cool, for now.

You’re a sixty-something construction foreman who has always drunk Jack Daniels because that’s what your dad used to drink? That’s great, keep it real.

You’re a homemaker with kids who likes to sip on KJ Chardonnay throughout the day because it’s a known quantity that has never let you down? Whatever floats your boat.

You’re a college kid who only buys Natural Light for bang-for-the-buck or Pinnacle Whipped because it ingratiates you with the sorority sisters? Whatever gets you through the night, kid—there’s always tomorrow.

You’re a points-hound who refuses to shake the habit in the face of the constant internal struggle tha,t even if you don’t like a wine, it got 90+ points from Parker so it must be good therefore you must buy it and try to like it? Well, you are Einstein’s definition of insane: “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. I don’t abide it, but I’m not likely to change your mind, so have at it—you and your money will soon be parted.

You’re a person who always wants in on the undervalued gems that only someone like me who tastes 50+ wines, beers, and spirits every week can let you in on? Let me show you.

You’re a consumer that wants to try new things but needs to be led by the hand by someone you feel you can trust to make a decision for you? I’m your man.

You’re a member of the rising class of Gen-X-ers and Gen-Y-ers who are into experiences and want to try as many different things as possible because the thrill of exploration is worth the pitfalls of ending up with something you don’t like? Atta boy!

See, my large store can serve you all wonderfully. And, with committed ownership, management, and staff, we will continue to try to improve our ability to serve you. Small enough to ensure direct customer interaction and encourage personal relationships. Big enough to make sure we never run out of KJ Chard and Natural Light but also so that we have more space for the off-beat, unusual, rare, and prestigious. In fact, one of the great benefits to being larger is being more comfortable with bringing in niche product that may not turn for a while because the high-turn product keeps everything afloat.

A large store does not have to sacrifice any of the things that makes a small store appealing. It just needs to be run by people who understand when big is “big enough“.

Mr. Wolf & Racquel

“Just because you are a character doesn’t mean that you have character.”

“Just because you are a character doesn’t mean that you have character.”
                                              —Mr. Wolf (Harvey Keitel), Pulp Fiction (1994)

Every now and then we all crave something that surprises us. There are certain foods, drinks, movie genres, music styles—whatever—that on any given day we will say we don’t care for or out-and-out abhor. But sometimes our brains like to play cruel little games with us.

Two weeks ago I was craving a hedonistic California Pinot Noir. I left the wine shop I work for empty-handed, having fought the urge to submit to this inexplicable, base instinct, expecting it to pass. Oh, sure, I don’t mind those wines when I taste them (in fact, I often quite like them), but drinking them—getting through a glass or more—is, generally, an abhorrent notion to me. This is the classic Robert Parker conundrum: rates high in tasting, but is ponderously difficult to drink. As one who far prefers the lean finesse of most Burgundian (or, even, Willamette Valley, Oregonian) Pinot Noir, even the thought of California Pinot Noir frequently makes me shudder simply because experience has taught me that I can’t enjoy more than a few sips and, like most people, I like to drink my wine as well as taste it.

But, as I sat in my wife’s clothing shop trying to kill time until closing, the pull became stronger. I couldn’t take it anymore and walked to the wine shop down the street. My presumption was that this would be a swift and easy shopping trip. The typically more opulent style of California Pinot Noir is very popular and bottlings are a dime-a-dozen (well, they’re exceptionally common, but are actually more like $25+ each). I knew going in what I wanted: ideally, Carneros Pinot Noir that I hadn’t actually tasted before but that had an established track-record of sweet fruit, spice, sage, and smoke…under $20.

Selection based on my criteria was slim and I quickly had to adjust to a broader region and wider price-range. I stood in the aisle of California Pinot Noirs hemming and hawing to myself (sometimes audibly) over my criteria-reduced handful of wines’ speculative crappiness/projected boringness/over-pricedness until I settled on one that I had overlooked in the seemingly endless 20 minutes spent poring over the same seven square feet of shelving. I recently enjoyed this winery’s Cabernet Sauvignon very much, so this was, ostensibly, a safe bet. A second, deeper issue had just silently introduced itself.

Without getting into the particulars of the impact of vineyard site to a given variety of wine grape, most experienced wine drinkers understand that two wines made with the same grape grown in vineyards 25 miles apart can taste dramatically different from one-another. The problem in this case is the wine doesn’t really show any common varietal character.

Of course, many makers of cheaper Pinot Noir blend in large amounts of Merlot, Syrah, or Carignan to beef-up flavor and body-weight, extend, and reduce costs of their wines. But that was not the case here. This was a 2009, 100% Pinot Noir grown in Carneros and bottled in Calistoga, California. My perception is that the combination of vineyard site and the winemaker’s established understanding of working with Cabernet Sauvignon (and relative inexperience with Pinot Noir) undid this wine. Opaque red-black in the glass and on the palate. Was it bad? Not really, if judged as a “red wine”. But it was, at best, a questionable representation of Pinot Noir. If tasted blind, my guess would have been a Syrah/Grenache blend, and a purely blackberry-fruited, rich, firm, and over-oaked tannic one at that. It had no spice, herbaceousness, smoke, or any measurable sense of terroir (other than its darkness). This was, undoubtedly, the work of a Cabernet Sauvignon master using the same heavy hand with a far less aggressive grape. It could have been enjoyable (if a bit over-priced) if sold as a “Napa Red Wine” rather than a Pinot Noir.

Caspar & Dane

“That’s why we gotta go to this question of character…”

“That’s why we gotta go to this question of character…”
—Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito), Miller’s Crossing (1990)

This problem came up during a wine competition I was judging a couple of years ago. All of the judges agreed that the wine in question was tasty but I argued that it didn’t deserve to medal because it did not show any varietal typicity. I eventually acquiesced so as not to be difficult and it got a silver medal in its category. But this Pinot Noir situation makes me question whether I shouldn’t have made a stronger argument.

I think varietal typicity matters a lot. Wineries have proven for the last century that it is possible to retain some varietal characteristics while expressing region and a winemaker’s proclivities. Not doing so can be catastrophic. If a consumer doesn’t get a product that resembles in any way what they were expecting, then that is, at best, a disappointment for the consumer and, at worst, a big sales problem for the winery. Repeat buys of that product are unlikely. Vineyards will be pulled up and replanted with something else—a heavy expense. Word-of-mouth can damage the brand forever.

So the question is: Does varietal typicity matter to you?

(As a side-note, two days later I got the Pinot Noir I wanted—Villa Mt. Eden, Sonoma 2009. Ripe cherry, strawberry, cola, mesquite, light sage. Bizarre craving fulfilled.)

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