Wednesday, December 30, 2009

End of year thoughts

Here it is, the close of 2009. The interminable “best of” lists are everywhere, and as it is with individual wines, the many lists face agreement as well as disagreement. It’s all a great testament to the subjective tastes of people—which of course leads to wine.

Now that we are in the last stages of the “best of” blogs will certainly rack up their 2009 wine picks, and I will yawn with Jack at Fork & Bottle, as I can hear him all the way across the country.

Having said that, I particularly like Fredric Koeppel’s end of year list at his blog, Bigger Than Your Head—it’s a 12 days of Christmas list of sparkling wines, and it’s among the original-thinking lists to come around at this time of year. If I were so inclined to create a “best of” list, Fredric would be in the top few—he not only has things to say that don’t drip with self promotion; he can write.

In any case, it is the end of my third full year of blogging and I’ll be damned, I am running out of things to say.

One way to develop material for writing is to scan the Internet and pick stories that might appeal to readers. The problem with that method is that there are so many wine blogs these days that any good story that pops up seems to gain more coverage than is necessary. What’s worse, so many stories are the same stuff wrapped in new packages, as are so many online discussions.

So, on the eve of 2010, I am left not with something to say, but with questions.

How many times can the shortfalls of critics be discussed?

How many times can we cover the way wine producers (and critics) try to fool consumers into a false sense of security?

Is there a wine retailer conspiracy, as so many suspect?

Can the Commerce Clause ever be over-invoked?

How big can one wholesaler actually get?

How long will it take for consumers to learn to understand the messages found on a wine label? Will they ever?

In how many variations can one talk about the relationship between acid and sugar?

Is there such a thing as too much wood, or too many wood chips?

Do fruit-forward wines last in the bottle?

How many gallons of water does it take to add back to wine to make it palatable because the grapes were overripe and the wine was over the top in alcohol?

How many stupid wine gadgets can we laugh at, and how many do we have waiting for us in 2010?

Must we endure armchair winemakers alongside armchair wine philosophers?

Can we ever measure the amount of philosophy contained in one bottle of wine?

How many arguments must we engage in before (or if) one of us on either side admits to having learned something?

Do people really understand subjectivity, or do they care to understand it?

How many terroir-driven wines get requisite accolades, no matter their orange color?

While we are at it, can we define terroir to everyone’s liking?

Must we face the same worn arguments in 2010 that we faced in 2009, 08, 07 and before?

Finally, is there anything that someone can say in 2010 that will hold our interest and maybe even break new ground?

Let’s hope so.



If you are reading this entry anywhere other than on the vinofictions blog, be aware that it has been lifted without my permission (and without recompense), and that’s a copyright infringement, no matter that the copyright information appears with it.

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
December 2009. All rights reserved.

Saturday, December 19, 2009


Ah, for the days when top wines sold at about $4 a bottle—yes, I am old enough to remember. Besides, the 1970s isn’t that long ago.

Among the Bordeaux, Italian, and Spanish wines that were good to splurge on once in a while were a number of California wines of equal quality and at far better prices. These $3 and $4 bottles came from venerable names like Beringer, Beaulieu, Inglenook, Sebastiani, and Martini. The latter two producers were always standouts, especially in their rustic presentation of Zinfandel that spoke to wines from the earth.

Among the many times that I drank Martini wines I cannot remember having ever been disappointed either with the wines or their value. This was the case well after Louis M gave way to his son Louis P who gave way to his son Michael in 1977. Although I haven’t bought a Martini wine in a long while, I can say that from what I recently tasted, the Napa winery is still doing well for us consumers, and if you relate the value of the dollar today with its value in the 1970s, the price hasn’t risen at all.

Today’s Louis M. Martini wines are the responsibility of the multi-tentacle E. & J. Gallo Winery, and based on the back label of the Louis M. Martini 2006 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, Michael is still the winemaker who, “continues his grandfather’s tradition of crafting rich, complex and beautifully-structured wines.”

It isn’t exactly the description that I would have used for Martini wines of thirty years ago. For the purpose of this blog entry, however, the word that got my attention on that back label was “crafting,” which is different from winemaking, and which I'll get to later.

First, let me say that I take exception to most back labels because more often than not the writing is deplorable and because I hate being told what I’m supposed to taste in the wine; that’s my job. This particular back label description, however, wasn’t too far off from my personal description, although I have no idea what the back label means by “old-world complexities.” The only thing that description brought to mind was the way European monarchies used to in-breed.

In any case, for $27 suggested retail, the Louis M. Martini 2006 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon is quite a mouthful of dark fruits, lush body and firm, yet silky tannin, and at the labeled 14.2% alcohol, it does not come off hot. A nice wine.

The wine came to me free and unsolicited from the company’s promotion arm in San Francisco. The press release and description sheet that came with it did a good—and objectionable—job at telling me what I’m supposed to think about the wine, but what no one ever told me is who produced this wine.

It says on the front label that it’s a Napa Valley wine from Louis M. Martini—even has a near unintelligible signature at the right hand corner that is ostensibly the old man’s. I know that Gallo owns the winery, and I know that the winemaker named on the back label is Michael Martini yet, based also on the back label, I have no idea who actually made the wine.

The back label states that the wine was: VINTED AND BOTTLED BY LOUIS M. MARTINI WINERY, NAPA, CALIFORNIA.

Estate Bottled on a wine label tells you that the grapes were grown and the wine was fermented and bottled by the winery that owns the license, vineyard, and winery.

Produced and Bottled By... tells you that the winery that owns the license fermented, stored and bottled the wine, but not necessarily from its own grapes or grapes from its own vineyard.

Cellared By and Vinted By... are really rather meaningless, but they do tell you that the entity that grew the grapes and fermented the wine was not the entity that bottled and labeled it. In other words, wines with those designations on the label have been either assembled or stored, but not fermented or made, by the license holder.

If you want to kill some time, see if you can find the definition of the word "vinted" in a standard English dictionary.

Michael Martini may have crafted this Cabernet Sauvignon, and if so he did a fine job, but according to the label, neither he nor anyone at Louis M. Martini made the wine.

The problem that I have with this kind of label information is that under the rules it is perfectly possible that the same wine was shipped from its source to more than one winery. Following that trail, it is also perfectly possible that the same wine can be bottled under many labels and at many different prices.

Buyer beware: the romance of the wine isn't always reflected in the reality of the label.


If you are reading this entry anywhere other than on the vinofictions blog, be aware that it has been lifted without my permission (and without recompense), and that’s a copyright infringement, no matter that the copyright information appears with it.

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
December 2009. All rights reserved.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Wine Trials

When I first saw the title, Wine Trials, I immediately thought it had something to do with a recent story about phony wines that a collector discovered and was suing over—but I was wrong.

The Wine Trials refers to wine tastings hosted by Robin Goldstein and Alexis Herschkowitsch, two WSET certificate holders who are behind the Fearless Critic Restaurant Guide series. The tastings are organized in a successful effort to show that consumers and wine critics aren’t exactly synchronized. According to the results of these tastings, which have become annual events, wines that consumers prefer are generally inexpensive and not the same as the wines that well known magazines and critics routinely rate highly, and which are usually expensive.

According to Goldstein, the major difference between the Wine Trials tastings and the wine magazines or critics is that the latter do not taste blind. Anyone who isn’t a stranger to this blog knows how strongly I believe in truly blind wine evaluations.

Still, I have a problem with the Wine Trials take on the issue of inexpensive versus expensive wines as it relates to blind tastings.

Surely, wine evaluations should always be done blind, but whether blind or not, wines preferred by untrained tasters are likely to gravitate toward a taste for the easy to drink, smooth, on the sweet side, not too complex. These are the attributes that the common wine consumer is accustomed to and to whom the mass production wine industry caters. It stands to reason that in a blind tasting, consumers would prefer them over the more complex wines, which seem always to cost more, too. The seasoned wine geek normally eschews such wines, often deriding them. No matter their claim to the contrary, wine critics aim their evaluations and ratings at those wine geeks, because that’s where the lemmings with money are located.

This is not to say that the wines that receive high critic ratings are either better or worse than the mass-produced wines, and it is not to justify ridiculous prices many of the rated wines command. This is to point out that the Wine Trials tasting system is as biased on one side as the wine critics’ rating system is biased on another side. One must keep that in mind when trying to use one evaluation to discredit another. No matter how you cut it, each evaluation is audience-specific—that's why to me proper training is important for wine evaluations to mean anything of substance.

Having said that, I also believe that the Wine Trials performs a service for consumers by helping them understand the real meaning of wine, which is something that should be consumed for enjoyment and not because it costs a lot or receives certain numerical accolades. Simply put, the Wine Trials is a way to inform consumers to consider what they like and not what they are told that they are supposed to like in a wine. Such a message is a threat to self-appointed arbiters of taste and I am glad for that.

Last week, I had the pleasure of joining the Fearless Critics at a dinner to highlight a few of the 2010 Wine Trials picks. The idea was not only to show the quality of the inexpensive wines in the list, but to also show them with food. The following is my assessment of that evening.

We were greeted at the door with a glass of sparkling wine—blind. My first impression of the wine was that it contained a minimum of about 2% residual sugar; I didn’t like it. I questioned the decision to serve something that sweet as an aperitif, and it did not enhance the Alsatian tart that was served with it. In addition, the wine showed minimal complexity—no yeastiness, which I seek in sparkling wines. Until I learned otherwise, I thought it was Prosecco with small bubbles!

It turned out to be a two-time Wine Trials top sparkling wine pick: Domaine Ste. Michele N/V Brut, Washington State.

The sparkling wine seemed to prove my earlier point concerning the general consumer preference for easy to drink, smooth, on the sweet side, not too complex…

The first course was roasted red beets and frisée salad with goat cheese over apple.

The wine was Domaine Wachau 2007 Gruner Veltliner, Federspiel Terrassen.

It had a fine nose but it was rather thin on the palate, lacking the signature Gruner spiciness. With either the beets or the apple, it was a bust, but with the goat cheese, it was quite a good match.

The lobster bisque that followed was among the best I have tasted recently. It came with a small crab cake seated atop what tasted like a mashed potato but was billed as a sugar cake.

Unfortunately, the bisque was almost marred by the Marques de Caceres 2007 Rioja White.

The wine was woody, slightly oxidized, and truly D.O.A. when put up against the fabulous bisque. (I have since been informed that this wine was produced in stainless steel, and after reading a few reviews of this wine, with so many references to fruitiness, I'm baffled. Maybe this is a case where we should have been tasting blind and I was guilty of making a pre-conception evaluation.)

Have you ever tasted a monkfish “osso buco?” I can now say that I have, and that I liked it—a lot. It sat over well-prepared, al dente saffron risotto alongside two ribs of a rack of lamb, over sautéed spinach, which was too mushy to be called sautéed.

Other than the spinach, the dish was nicely done and this time the wine pairing was perfect.

It was Bodegas Lan 2005 Rioja Crianza, a wine with hints of dark fruit and light wood, finished with interestingly subdued but still available tannin.

The next course, the cheese plate included a fine Gruyere which was unfortunately accompanied by a nondescript blue cheese.

The blue cheese did not pair with the wine at all, but the Gruyere showed a distinct affinity for the Altano 2006 Douro Red, which was solid, if medium bodied. I loved its enduring finish.

Finally, I am not much on desserts so I was not likely to eat the chocolate cupcake with the hot chocolate inside it and what tasted like a cherry sorbet but was not listed on the menu.

The wine was a raisin-like, sweetness restrained and delightful Patras Kourtaki Mavrodaphne non-vintage. It made me glad that I ate the chocolate, as the two were made for each other.

Responsible for the food was the Swiss chef, Claude Solliard, at Seppi’s Restaurant, at Le Parker Meridien. In all, it was a fine evening, although I wondered how many of those everyday consumers eat such meals with such wines.

It appears that Robin and Alexis are onto something, but the Wine Trials message could use some refining. Untrained wine evaluations may get you a wine that you like at a decent price, but it really doesn't dispute the claims of professional critics.

I expect that over time, Wine Trials will get the refinement it requires and it will prove to others that the price of solid wine need not be prohibitive.

Wine Trials

If you are reading this entry anywhere other than on the vinofictions blog, be aware that it has been lifted without my permission (and without recompense), and that’s a copyright infringement, no matter that the copyright information appears with it.

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
December 2009. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

SPAM, spam, SPAM, spam, SPAM, spam...

As if it seemed at all possible, the Internet has given SPAM a bad name. This product (chopped pork shoulder meat with ham meat added, salt, water, sugar, and sodium nitrite) produced by Hormel Foods Corporation, which came up with the name to replace its Hormel Spiced Ham product, got many people through World War II, especially in England, and thanks to America’s Lend lease program.

The accepted etymology of today’s “spam” with a lower case, is the 1970 Monty Python sketch in a restaurant where SPAM rules and SPAM is spoken and sung incessantly—SPAMming the dialogue.

Years later, on the earliest message boards of the Internet, piling on of the word SPAM was used to crowd out certain people’s messages, a practice that morphed into an actual message of no consequence repeated over and over.

Today, we know spam as a separate word that refers to generally unwanted email, or posts in online discussion groups, or in the comment sections of blogs.

Over the years, I’ve received my share of spam on this blog, each of which is screened and zapped before making it to the screen (or in some cases, right after).

By way of email, spam is prolific. My IP server screens the truly viral stuff, plus the ones from illegitimate email addresses. I get to look at them online and can choose to have them sent to me or zapped. But valid email addresses that I have not listed for my server to zap wind up coming to me, so my share of spam hasn’t ended.

Lately, I’m receiving a lot of spam from wine clubs, PR people that work for wineries, some wineries themselves, and people with wine accessories to sell. Some of it is legitimate and welcome, but most of it is the annoying spam. What bugs me about it is that I have no idea what methods these people use to find my multiple email addresses.

One assumption I make is that by participating in online discussion boards (which I haven’t done for months and don’t plan to ever do again), by commenting on other people’s blogs, and by generally surfing the Internet for information my email trail is sniffed, despite the privacy messages that every outfit issues these days but that I have never taken seriously.

Besides the annoyance of receiving unwanted solicitations, I also wonder what it is that I must have said or done online to make anyone believe that I would endorse the next stupid and useless wine accessory, or the next wine gimmick, or the next winery with lots of money but nothing interesting to drink, or the next best wine expert in the universe.

I make every attempt to persuade people to think of me as a major curmudgeon who cannot be persuaded by wine ratings, cannot be enticed with praise, cannot be snared into shilling, cannot be made to write a non-story, and cannot be bought (well, if the price is really right—maybe). Yet, the spam keeps coming.

When I re-started a wine column in a local newspaper that I had abandoned a few years ago, I sent an email to all local wineries to let them know that I was interested in what they were doing. I explicitly told them that I did not want to know about their special holiday events or their new pricing structure, etc., as I was not to be considered an extension of their promotion effort. What I want from them is information about their vineyard and winemaking program that was either new or innovative, information about their plans for sustainability, and other hot topics.

What do I get from the majority of these wineries? Email about their holiday events and their latest sale prices—spam, to me.

Ever wonder why Hormel hasn’t tried to prevent the use of its trademark?
We writers obsess over such matters, as we must be extra careful about trademark use.
Well, if you owned the trademark to a word so widely used that typing it into the Internet could get you here SPAM would you try to stop that word from being used?

If you are reading this entry anywhere other than on the vinofictions blog, be aware that it has been lifted without my permission (and without recompense), and that’s a copyright infringement, no matter that the copyright information appears with it.

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
December 2009. All rights reserved.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Crying uncle

Once more, I allowed myself the masochistic enjoyment of entering into a debate about wine evaluations and ratings. Each time I get into one of these debates is always scheduled to be my last, but for some reason I can’t stay away. It’s possible that I am guilty of the identical trait that I level against wine critics: hubris.

This is the issue in a nutshell: wine critics claim generally that experience is far more important than knowledge; I claim that without knowledge, experience is only as important as the lessons learned from it.

What critics mean is that if you have many years of experience tasting and consuming wine, then you have enough information to make quality assessments concerning wine.

My claim is that in order to assess quality you first need established standards and then you need to be trained in identifying them. It’s simply not enough to have been tasting wine for some time.

About tasting wine, most critics claim to taste wine blind, but do they?

Sure, most reputable critics taste wine without knowing who produced it, but they also taste the wine knowing what it is: a Chardonnay, a Pinot Noir, etc. That’s hardly a blind tasting.

Perception often gets in the way of an assessment. If you know you are tasting Chardonnay your brain will seek those traits in a Chardonnay that you have come to know through experience, but your brain may also overlook those traits in the wine that detract from its varietal characteristics—or, your brain may simply fabricate the traits that it expects should be there but may not be there.

We taste with our senses, but we make decisions with our brain.

Remove advance perception (hints) and people’s tastes mechanisms become confused. The trained, knowledgeable taster picks up the hints on his or her own. If you can’t find Chardonnay traits in the wine, it’s either you or the wine at fault; there are ways to find out which.

The other problem with wine criticism is its insistence on working from a purely subjective base and then passing it off on the consumer as if it were an objective result—in the form of a score. When you look into the scoring system and what each number means you find that the numbers are tied to vague concepts of quality that cannot be duplicated consistently among tasters. This situation is tested when a truly blind tasting includes multiple tastes of the same wine yet produces a wide variance in results.

The reason for this problem is that assigning a number to a concept says absolutely nothing about the thing being evaluated. The emphasis is on the person doing the evaluation.

I both blame and understand the wine industry for the situation in wine criticism. On one hand, the industry hasn’t decided definitively what constitutes wine quality or if it has, it doesn’t seem to be telling anyone. On the other hand, having a volume of favorable opinions floating around has opened up a marketing tool for wineries (many critics no longer report on the wines that they hate).

Whenever these debates get going, someone is sure to say that if I were to win the argument, I’d be taking the soul and enjoyment out of wine by making the quality assessment technical. It’s a specious and diversionary accusation. Critics can’t have it both ways: are wine evaluations about quality or are they about enjoyment? Quality standards can be measured; enjoyment is a nebulous concept that changes from person to person.

If wine critics care about credibility then they should gladly embrace establishing a universal evaluation system instead of a calibrate-to-my-fabulous-palate system.

Still, I’m so overwhelmed by this subject and my inability to persuade the critics that I have decided to join them. That’s right: I’m crying uncle and becoming a wine critic, and here’s my system.

First, noticing that wine rating systems have inflated over the decades anywhere from a 10 to a 100 point scale, I’ve devised the ultimate scale: 200 points.

Second, since I already know that I am evaluating wine, and every wine that I evaluate will claim to be wine, in my system every wine starts with 100 points for being what it says it is.

Third, my system is so simplified that you the consumer don’t even have to wonder about my talent, experience, knowledge or anything else. If I don’t like a wine, it receives 101 points. If I like it, it receives 200 points—end of story.

If you agree with my score, then we are calibrated.

If you don’t agree with my score, what’s wrong with you? This stuff is quality.

Geez, wake up fellah! Have you as much experience as I have?

Happy Thanksgiving—I’ll return soon after this holiday fades into the past.

If you are reading this entry anywhere other than on the vinofictions blog, be aware that it has been lifted without my permission (and without recompense), and that’s a copyright infringement, no matter that the copyright information appears with it.

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
November 2009. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Shocked, shocked!

Patient: “Doctor, doctor, Claude Rains is in my brains or at least one of his characters is. All day long for the past week my mind has repeated over and over, ‘I’m shocked to learn that people cheat!’”

Doctor: “That’s probably because people do cheat and also because you’ve been told this over and over. When was the last time that you remember someone telling you that people cheat?”

Patient: “Hmm. All this past week.”

1. Decanter magazine reported that an Australian wine writer has written wine tasting notes without ever having tasted the wines. Skinner

2. The Wall Street Journal reported that critics and wine reviewers are just like the rest of us—none of us can accurately reproduce our own tasting notes and ratings. WSJ

3. A Rochester, NY news anchor outed a blatant attempt to pass off paid for advertising as free wine expertise. WHAM

4. The head of the Specialty Wine Retailer’s Association tells us that the Wine and Spirit Wholesalers repeat and repeat lies so that they can maintain their distribution monopoly.

Doctor: “Well, I can see why you might have had this recurring thought in your brain. It seems that much has been going on lately in the wine world—much crap, too.”

Patient: “Doc, it doesn’t bother me so much that there are cheats, mainly because I’ve known it and have been saying it for years to anyone who would listen. Although, I don’t call them cheats; I call it gaming the system, the system being that so many people have no security about their own palates and their own ability to seek out what they like in a wine that they have presented the charlatan class with a fantastic opening.”

Doctor: “Charlatan? Isn’t that a little strident?”

Patient: “OK, call them mountebanks instead. What should we call people who make voluble claims to skill or knowledge? Nice? Honest? Real? Friendly? Of course, there are other words to describe people paid for practicing deception…”

Doctor: “I’m sorry to interrupt, but your time is up. We’ll talk about this next time. Ok?”

Patient: “Sure. I’ve got to go anyway. I heard about a great deal on a Parker 95 that a retailer has on his shelf for a price that is too low to pass up, even if the 95 was issued for a previous vintage of that wine…”

Doctor: “Do you mean that retailers also cheat?”

Patient: “I didn’t say that. I don’t pay you to put words or anything else into my mouth.”

Doctor: “Oh, but you do. However, like a wine geek, you don’t like to face reality.”

Arguing again

If you are reading this entry anywhere other than on the vinofictions blog, be aware that it has been lifted without my permission (and without recompense), and that’s a copyright infringement, no matter that the copyright information appears with it.

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
November 2009. All rights reserved.

Thursday, November 12, 2009


Have you heard that every palate is a snowflake?

What a lovely sentiment; its meaning is, of course, that we have individual and unique palates.

Now aren’t we special.

Presumably, the snowflake concept tells us that wine is subjective and that what one person finds tasteful another may not. But it says even more than that. If no snowflake is alike, then the millions of wine consumers in this world account for millions of palates, and not one is like another therefore, talking about what you taste in a wine is akin to talking to yourself.

The problem with this snowflake concept is that many who say such things happen to also be people who make a living telling the rest of us what individual wines taste like or they are people who tell us what the wines they want to sell to us taste like. Really now, if every palate is a snowflake, then how can someone else's wine description possibly benefit the rest of us?

Maybe those who tell us what to taste in a wine do so because they are endowed with a universal snowflake decoder. Or maybe at birth they were given the gift of a snowflake that represents the entire blizzard. Or maybe the snowflake sentiment is disingenuous drivel.

My suggestion to wine reviewers: please, dispense with the metaphors. If we are the individual arbiters of our own taste, through our own palates, then it seems that you have some explaining to do concerning the benefit of your wine review.

On the other hand, if you truly believe that yours is the accurate and superior snowflake—just say so. That way, we’ll know that we should disregard our own sensory information and go by yours.

If you choose this route, would you consider shedding the number ratings and just get on with the lecture?

Snowflake or no snowflake, some of us are math as well as palate impaired.

If you are reading this entry anywhere other than on the vinofictions blog, be aware that it has been lifted without my permission (and without recompense), and that’s a copyright infringement, no matter that the copyright information appears with it.

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
November 2009. All rights reserved.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

A True Wine Culture

Have you heard about the drop in interest in high-end wines because of the crummy economy—you have heard about the economy?

Think about it for a minute: the economy tanks and among the things that tanks with it are sales of wines that most of us can’t afford to drink regularly. What does that say about wine and about us?

Many of us find it easy to wax romantic over the notion that Europe is a wine culture, a place where families drink wine together everyday at meals, and although there’s evidence that things are changing in Europe, the wine culture thing has been true for quite some time. But what exactly do Europeans drink everyday?

It’s doubtful that most Europeans can afford a daily dose of Petrus, Giacosa, Pesquera, or the latest in Grosse Gewächse wines. No, that’s not the everyday wines of Europe. In fact, in every European country that I have visited, the everyday wines generally come pouring out of nondescript carafes or they are each country’s version of the Italian Vino Da Tavola; in other words, comparable to an American low-priced wine.

A true wine culture doesn’t talk about it all day, as many of us do. A true wine culture doesn’t spend its time searching for Nirvana in numbers. More important, a true wine culture doesn’t flee the product at the first sign of an economic downturn. That’s because in a true wine culture, there’s always a carafe nearby of solid, healthy wine either made by your father, your friend, or the family with the vineyard and winery down the road.

In a true wine culture, you don’t need labels, you don’t need age restrictions, you don’t need ratings, and you certainly don’t need 50 states with 500 separate regulations. In a true wine culture, you don’t need Wall Street to guide your wine drinking habits. And in a true wine culture, you should be able to get wine stamps with your food stamps!

Also, in a true wine culture, the lower cost products are a lot better than some of the plonk I’ve tasted lately because I can no longer afford the better stuff.

PS: I do wonder about the wine critics who tell us about those marvelous $30 and $40 bottles of wine for lunch. One for lunch and one for dinner everyday, and I’d be eating, er, drinking all my book sale profits, if I ever make any.

If you are reading this entry anywhere other than on the vinofictions blog, be aware that it has been lifted without my permission (and without recompense), and that’s a copyright infringement, no matter that the copyright information appears with it.

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
November 2009. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Decant this

A literary agent once took a copy of a memoir proposal of mine and without saying anything about why or what he had done, he sent it back with a yellow mark over every appearance of the word “I.”

His message got through loudly and with painful clarity.

The agent provided me with a needed look into potential self-absorption on the theory that a good memoir is as much a good story as any novel, and although a memoir centers around one person, that person need not be the absolute center of the story.

Maybe wine critics and reviewers can use this lesson.

The other day my friend Mitch posted on a wine forum a piece published in Scientific American 2004; volume 291; issue 5. It was by Andrew L. Waterhouse, a professor in the department of viticulture and enology at the University of California at Davis. The piece concerned itself with decanting wine.

While Waterhouse laid out his rationale for decanting either red or white wine, the section Mitch quoted offered little in the way of scientific reasoning. Essentially, Waterhouse reiterated what many people believe: younger red wines benefit from decanting because they, “can be harsh or astringent if consumed directly after opening the bottle,” older reds may benefit from decanting because it “…leaves the sediment behind, yielding clean wine,” and whites don’t benefit from decanting because “…decanting actually results in a wine with much less of the aroma than the winemaker intended,” and “…because white wines contain fewer tannins and pigments, they don't produce the same quantity of sediments that red wines do.”

Nothing of what Waterhouse said isn’t true, but the blanket statements are so definite that it makes me ask: where’s the proof?

A brief conversation ensued on the forum and Mitch went on, as he often does, to post a few scientific excerpts—he is a scientist by training and occupation, and he is interested in the science behind the concept of decanting wine. More to the point, he’s trying to find out what happens to a wine when it is decanted and whether or not there is any way of knowing beforehand what the outcome of decanting will be.

Mitch got one truly long-winded response from a wine reviewer. This was when my agent entered my mind.

The approximate 1100-word response to Mitch’s exploration of decanting included numerous personal pronoun references but not one bit of scientific evidence either for or against decanting wine, which in effect renders it a rather long piece of opinion writing. Nothing new there with wine critic/reviewers, but it does leave me wondering if they can ever get out of their heads, even for just five minutes. There are times when the science behind wine is too baffling even for those who know the science, imagine what you are getting back from those who haven’t a clue but have volumes in opinions.

Here’s an idea for those interested in the affect decanting might have on wine:

Get four bottles of the same wine. Set a time for a blind tasting. One hour before the set time, open two bottles and let the wine sit in one bottle for an hour and pour the other bottle of wine into a decanter to sit for an hour. Five to ten minutes before the tasting, open a third bottle and pour wine into a glass. When the tasting time arrives, pour the first two wines into a glass each, open the fourth bottle and pour wine into a glass and have someone taste all four glasses of wine right away without telling that person what you are trying to find out.

Let the person tell you how each wine smells and tastes—nothing more.

Do the above experiment more than once with different red and white wines until you are certain that you know whether or not to decant wine in the future; either that, or don't bother decanting at all.

Ask Jamie Goode about decanting and see what you get back:

Ask Emile Peynaud about decanting and see what you get back:

Ask Ronald S. Jackson about decanting and see what you get back:
(go to page 566)

Whatever you do, don’t ask a wine reviewer or critic about decanting wine.

If you are reading this entry anywhere other than on the vinofictions blog, be aware that it has been lifted without my permission (and without recompense), and that’s a copyright infringement, no matter that the copyright information appears with it.

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
October 2009. All rights reserved.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Not a tweet--a squawk

OK, this blog post is all opinion, and in keeping with the subject matter, I call it “squawk,” as in crow noise or a loud, raspy tweet.

Certainly, all you wine blog readers and Tweeter-savvy have heard of Fledgling. You haven’t? Well, get over to Steve Heimoff’s blog (see link below).

Fledgling is Twitter’s new wine, to the tune of a $10,000 investment with Crushpad, the winemaker.

For those who may not know it, Crushpad is a so-called custom crush winemaking facility, which literally means that you pay them, tell them what you want, and they will make it for you. You are responsible for selling, advertising, marketing, and even designing the packaging for your wine—with their help, of course. This is the outfit that brought us Vayniac Cab, made for Gary Vaynerchuk—you’ve heard of him, haven’t you?

The people at Twitter say they got the idea to have a wine brand from employees at the company who also happen to be Crushpad customers.

Light bulbs flashed: if we can use Twitter, the latest gift from God, to network our new brand, we can make a killing.

Not exactly: Twitter claims that the wine is for charity, or at least $5 of its $20 price tag is. The charity is Room to Read.

Am I the only one who finds the incongruity behind the fact that a company that invented a way to pare inanities to 140 characters wants children to learn to read? Talk about newspeak?

I’m not sure yet if I even like Twitter, but I’m certainly getting tired of celebrity wines and networking schemes connected to wine brands. This is truly cheapening the soul of the product.

There’s a reason that only a choice number of people on this earth can offer beautiful wines to the rest of us—it has something to do with study, talent, and passion. What happens to all that when everyone is a virtual winemaker—worse, what happens to the wine when no one makes it except a committee?

I hate this whole idea. But the part in the interview that truly set me off is when Steve asked this question of Crushpad CEO and Prez, Michael Brill:

“What is the significance of this, beyond raising money for charity? I mean, Crushpad getting involved in social media. You’re already calling it “social winemaking.”

…and Brill answered:

“We’re all about getting people involved in the winemaking process and co-creating a product with the customer.”

If that isn’t the most asinine comment about wine that I’ve read in my whole career I don’t know what is. I just finished talking about what I think of winemaking by committee and from afar, and now this fellow talks about getting even more people involved in making wine. What a concept—a reality show that isn't on TV!

All right, so Crushpad was a good idea to capitalize from those who love wine, want to make their own, but haven’t the stones (and I don’t mean Biz Stone) or money—or both—to go out and do it, you know, like grow grapes, press them, ferment them, nurse the wine, bottle it, and deal with every supplier, bureaucrat and annoyance that comes between the harvest and the bottled nectar.

All that stuff gets in the way, yet you want to tell your friends and neighbors that you own a wine label—fine. But puleeze, don’t have the boss try to make it sound like this is just another good old American networking event to “get involved.”

Custom crush for the consumer is a business built on an ego trip. There’s no disgrace to admitting that, but it is unseemly to try to explain it as more than what it is.

Steve Heimoff blog

If you are reading this entry anywhere other than on the vinofictions blog, be aware that it has been lifted without my permission (and without recompense), and that’s a copyright infringement, no matter that the copyright information appears with it.

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
October 2009. All rights reserved.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

FTC and Social Media

If you have been in a coma, away from computer access, or generally impervious to the blogging world, you might have missed the big to-do recently concerning new disclosure guidelines by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). This is the federal organization that keeps watch over “truth-in-advertising,” among other things. You can see how well this outfit does its job by watching a few television ads, especially the pharmaceutical ones—does the name Jarvik bring up memories?

Among the many things the FTC tries to curtail are connections between celebrities and the products that they endorse. Being paid to do a TV ad is not exactly the same thing as saying something in the ad that isn’t true.

One of the things that did in the Pfizer ad with Dr. Jarvik (the man who engineered a heart pump) was that the ad showed consumers that since Jarvik takes Lipitor he’s able to row a boat, but the guy rowing the boat was a double. That is not truth in advertising.

The rowboat affair was a worse offense than the possibility that Jarvik, who has an MD but has no medical license, may have been practicing medicine on TV without a license when he recommended Lipitor. The point was that consumers were not informed that he is not a practicing physician and the word “doctor” left the impression that he was.

Along with overseeing what goes on with TV, radio, and print ads and endorsements, the FTC now plans to get serious about the Internet. Regarding online network marketing, the Commission says:

“The Commission disagrees with the assertion that modern network marketing programs are just updated versions of traditional supermarket sampling programs. The primary goal of those programs was to have the shopper who tasted the advertiser’s product continue down the grocery store aisle and purchase the product. The primary goal of the new viral marketing programs is to have these individuals ‘spread the word’ about the product, so that other consumers will buy it.”

Its viral nature is one fear the FTC has about the Internet, and it is a fear that doesn’t seem aimed at wine reviewers. It’s aimed at social networking.

Another thing the new FTC ruling looked at is the concept of endorsement. Here’s what they have to say about that:

“The Commission does not believe that all uses of new consumer-generated media to discuss product attributes or consumer experiences should be deemed ‘endorsements’ within the meaning of the Guides. Rather, in analyzing statements made via these new media, the fundamental question is whether, viewed objectively, the relationship between the advertiser and the speaker is such that the speaker’s statement can be considered ‘sponsored’ by the advertiser and therefore an advertising message…is the speaker: (1) acting solely independently, in which case there is no endorsement, or (2) acting on behalf of the advertiser or its agent, such that the speaker’s statement is an ‘endorsement’ that is part of an overall marketing campaign?

Even if that consumer receives a single, unsolicited item from one manufacturer and writes positively about it on a personal blog or on a public message board, the review is not likely to be deemed an ‘endorsement,’ given the absence of a course of dealing with that advertiser (or others) that would suggest that the consumer is disseminating a sponsored advertising message.”

Those two paragraphs alone should alleviate the concern of wine bloggers, provided they are not endorsing wines for anyone and provided they are not asked by anyone to produce a review. I’m remembering a conversation months ago when Tom Wark expressed on his blog, Fermentation, dismay that wine bloggers agreed to work with a marketing team—that could easily be seen as an endorsement by the FTC, and Tom was correct to point it out. But he was also screamed at by many bloggers.

In the last two FTC paragraphs above the words “consumer-generated,” and “new media” appear. This points to another contentious issue with wine bloggers.

The FTC clearly states that, with regard to product reviews, its new disclosure guidelines apply to new media (social media online). If free samples of product come with strings attached, the FTC holds the print media outfit and the advertiser to the same rules of endorsement as it holds any other media; it just does not require that the print media make disclosure to its readers. The reason it gives for this separate treatment is that the reviewer is an employee of the print media (magazine, newsletter, or newspaper). The reader knows this, and also knows the lines of responsibility. It’s understood that the review is at the end of that line.

The problem that the FTC has with the consumer-generated media is that it is impossible for both the consumer and the FTC to understand and know the lines between the producer/advertiser/marketer and the reviewer. Because of that ambiguity, the FTC requires that some social media product reviews must come with a disclosure, and that it is the advertiser/marketers responsibility to tell that to the reviewer.

In addition, it’s the advertiser’s responsibility to make every effort to ensure that what a blogger says is accurate. Here’s what the FTC says about that:

“The Commission recognizes that because the advertiser does not disseminate the endorsements made using these new consumer-generated media, it does not have complete control over the contents of those statements. Nonetheless, if the advertiser initiated the process that led to these endorsements being made—e.g., by providing products to well-known bloggers or to endorsers enrolled in word of mouth marketing programs—it potentially is liable for misleading statements made...”

After reading the many blogs that are “up in arms” over this issue and then reading the FTC explanation of the new guidelines I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s nothing for reputable wine bloggers to worry about—provided they simply state the facts. To me, the crucial point of the new FTC guidelines is summed up in the following paragraph:

“…a blogger could receive merchandise from a marketer with a request to review it, but with no compensation paid other than the value of the product itself. In this situation, whether or not any positive statement the blogger posts would be deemed an ‘endorsement’ within the meaning of the Guides would depend on, among other things, the value of that product, and on whether the blogger routinely receives such requests. If that blogger frequently receives products from manufacturers because he or she is known to have wide readership within a particular demographic group that is the manufacturers’ target market, the blogger’s statements are likely to be deemed to be endorsements…”

The FTC wants the advertisers to tell the bloggers that they must make a disclosure statement with their reviews.

The FTC also threw down a gauntlet to bloggers that I find interesting.

“…to the extent that consumers’ willingness to trust social media depends on the ability of those media to retain their credibility as reliable sources of information, application of the general principles embodied in the Guides presumably would have a beneficial, not detrimental, effect.”

The way I see it, wine bloggers have two options when they review wine: buy the wine or make a disclosure statement on the blog explaining that the wine was free but there were no strings attached to the review—none—and be sure to be able to prove it in the unlikely even that FTC asks (in an interview, one FTC spokesman said plainly that they haven't the intention to monitor the thousands of blogs on the Internet, which once again implies where their focus is).

It’s probably a good idea to also say how you go about evaluating the wine (blind, not blind, with food, without food, with a group, by yourself, under water, on a mountaintop, whatever). It has nothing to do with disclosure for the FTC or for legal reasons, but it would make sense to the consumer.

If you are reading this entry anywhere other than on the vinofictions blog, be aware that it has been lifted without my permission (and without recompense), and that’s a copyright infringement, no matter that the copyright information appears with it.

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
October 2009. All rights reserved.

Monday, October 5, 2009


Control the grapes

Agricultural Research Service (ARS) is a scientific research agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. ARS scientists recently revealed that they think they are closer to improving grape hardiness in North America.

Like certain trees and shrubs, grapevines shed their leaves in the fall. Scientists have been looking for the genes that control the process in the hope that they can help breeders identify cold-tolerant traits for establishing new grape varieties.

Geneticists at an ARS unit established at Cornell University's agricultural station along with others at the University of Minnesota and South Dakota State have been studying the wild North American species Vitis riparia because of its unusual trait to start shedding in late August in New York, when daylight drops below 13 hours daily while other vines retain their greenery.

By crossing Vits riparia with the French hybrid species variety Seyval, which is insensitive to day length, the researchers learned that when grown in a greenhouse a chromosome of the crossed vine guides the growth cycle. But when grown in the field, the crossed grapevine seems to react to multiple functions that include day length, sunshine, rain, and temperature.

If scientists can map what makes grapevines cease to develop and go dormant, they believe they may be able to control the activity so that North American vineyards can benefit from extended grapevine life cycles. That would be good.

Control the state

After Repeal of Prohibition in 1933, states were given the freedom to regulate their commercial wine industries. Some states decided not only to regulate commercial wine traffic but also to control its wholesaling and retailing.

Pennsylvania is one of about 18 so-called Control States. The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (PLCB) not only makes the rules, it also buys wines from producers and importers and it sells wine to consumers. Many residents of the state think it’s a horrible system that limits choices, and the Finger Lakes region certainly benefits as many Pennsylvanians come here to buy what they cannot get in their state.

It appears the PLCB is ready to relinquish a piece of its grip and give the private company, Simple Brands, Conshohocken, Pa., the chance to provide kiosks where wine can be dispensed. Yep—dispensed.

In a pilot review, kiosk wine dispensers will be placed in up to 100 grocery stores throughout the state. To check for age and identity, a consumer must insert a driver’s license. The picture on the license is matched with a video image of the consumer taken by the kiosk.

The kiosk also has a built-in breath sensor that supposedly takes an accurate blood alcohol reading instantly, without the consumer doing anything more than breathing normally. Right.

Like Big Brother, PLCB workers monitor the kiosk transaction from a remote location somewhere, and they lock out anyone the kiosk claims is underage or drunk.

The Big Brother aspect, the fact that the kiosk takes only credit cards (something that many Americans have lately learned to shed) and that its choices can’t be much in that little vending machine, make this one of the dumbest ideas I have ever heard, and all in an attempt to maintain CONTROL.

If you are reading this entry anywhere other than on the vinofictions blog, be aware that it has been lifted without my permission (and without recompense), and that’s a copyright infringement, no matter that the copyright information appears with it.

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
October 2009. All rights reserved.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

It's In the Stars

When I arrived in the Finger Lakes region 25 years ago, there were just over a dozen wineries in operation and about five of them were giants.

Today, there are over 100 Finger Lakes wineries. The only giant remaining is lately acting like it might be stumbling off its beanstalk.

Billed ad infinitum as “the world’s largest wine company,” the starry-named Constellation Brands has for more than a year been issuing press releases concerning its shrinkage in the galaxy. The latest shrinkage is the company’s intent to sell off or donate the Widmer Wine Cellars’ (circa 1888) vineyards and facility and to move the three or four New York State brands produced there into the company’s Canandaigua Wine Company facilities.

When the Constellation news broke in the blogging world, one fellow wondered what the New York-based giant company has done for the New York wine industry lately.

One answer might be that Constellation supports the NY Wine and Grape Foundation, the industry's state-sponsored promotion arm.

Still, it is mystifying to this writer that “the world’s largest wine company” is located in the Finger Lakes region but seems unable to help advance the cause of the local or state wine industry. Instead, it has systematically over the past year cut its interests in maintaining vineyards in the Finger Lakes. As for wine: I remember attending a Bob Dylan concert at the performing arts center that is located in Canandaigua (and connected to Constellation) but could not find a bottle of either Finger Lakes or New York wine among the wine concessions.

Despite the vanishing giants and Constellation, the New York wine industry, which comprises about a half-dozen appellations, is now home to more than 275 wineries—I believe the Finger Lakes region accounts for nearly half that number; the region has been on a growth path for the past 25 years, with much of the frenetic pace taking place within the last decade.

Yet, something is strangely amiss. Constellation’s actions notwithstanding, no fewer than a dozen people within the local wine industry have intimated that at least a dozen Finger Lakes wineries might be on the precipice.

An astute journalist doesn’t take such off the cuff remarks as truth, especially when people with competing interests make the remarks. But the fact remains that, with all its resources, the giant Constellation doesn’t seem to see the future in its home turf, and maybe that’s a window into some sort of truth. In addition, a few years ago the region couldn’t produce enough of its signature grape—riesling—but this year, the region has excess Riesling wine inventory plus, tonnage prices for the 2009 harvest have either remained flat or dropped.

What’s going on?

I wish I knew, as the promotion message is as bright and positive as promotion messages are intended to be. Yet, a dozen separate industry insiders have alluded to a problem, and I am forced to take that seriously.

Back in the 1980s, not yet at the top of his fame, but famous enough to be interviewed in magazines and newspapers, the critic Robert Parker once told an interviewer that the New York wine industry's future success is limited to being local. I don’t know what he based that opinion on, but it sure seems like he was prescient. No matter how much we hear about the Finger Lakes region and its stellar Riesling wines—which they are—there’s still a tremendous gap between the wine consumer and the wine region.

Part of the problem is that the region is graced mostly with small wineries that were not started with wads of Silicon Valley or vanity money, which leads to another part of the problem. By not being backed with money, the region falls behind both in ambition and in direction, not to mention production volume, which is manifested in a lack of national distribution.

The region is stuck in a chicken-egg conundrum: no national distribution maintains low visibility; low visibility does not attract national distributors because distributors do not generally promote and sell wine—they warehouse and distribute it. The wine industry and individual wineries are responsible for promotion and sales, and without enough money to do that, the Finger Lakes industry cannot attract national attention and therefore cannot attract national distribution. (That scenario is general. A few wineries enjoy distribution wider than just their home state or region.)

Some national magazines have lately taken notice of the Finger Lakes and Long Island wine regions and, who knows, maybe one day the recognition will pay off. Until then, the New York wine news focus is on that lumbering giant with eyes on the galaxy but can’t seem to see what’s in front of it—about a half-dozen appellations, most of which produce top-notch wine. Instead of investing in that top level of the state’s wine possibilities, the giant seems to be divesting itself of most ties with the local industry by first abandoning its vineyards and who knows what will be next to go.

If you are reading this entry anywhere other than on the vinofictions blog, be aware that it has been lifted without my permission (and without recompense), and that’s a copyright infringement, no matter that the copyright information appears with it.

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
September 2009. All rights reserved.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Champagne redux

A second consideration of the problems in the Champagne region covered in the previous Vinofictions post points to the possibility that the Champagne region and its 2009 marketing problem may be telling us much more.

Generally, as inventory builds, wholesale and retail prices should fall. Conversely, as inventory shrinks, prices should rise. Of course, the two movements are based on demand, and in the case of Champagne, rising inventory clearly says that demand is not growing as fast as production.

You might logically ask: with rising inventory of Champagne in the cellars, why aren’t prices falling?

The prices should fall, but they won’t—at least not for now.

We all know that Champagne’s image is one of luxury. It’s too bad for general wine drinkers that it is, since the sparkler is a fabulous product to pair with a variety of foods and, well, it’s just a fabulous product—period.

When you think of luxury, do you also think of it as a volume commodity?

Almost 300 million bottles of Champagne have been sent into the market each year lately—that equals 25 million cases, and that represents 60 million gallons! Surely, a case can be made for more affordable Champagne on the market.

A great portion of Champagne is under the control of a conglomerate known as the LVMH Group, the LV refers to the super luxury Louis Vuitton Company. LVMH controls Moët & Chandon, Veuve Clicquot, Ruinart, Mercier, and Krug.

Luxury companies are adept at cultivating customers with money who are willing to ask few questions and pay more for the privilege of enjoying the luxury mystique behind a brand name—it’s a formula of success that has spawned a global frenzy over brand names. The concept of branding is so pervasive that individually we are nothing unless we become recognized brands.

Companies that deal in luxury image brands have every interest in keeping their image up, because the profit margins are fantastic so long as there isn’t a problem like an economic meltdown or major across-the-board recession. At that point, in order to keep the profits up, luxury goods companies must go all out to reduce their costs so that they can meet the weaker demand but at the same high per-unit price to consumers lucky enough to still afford it.

With most consumer goods, profits flow to many who simply move things around. That’s why Champagne middle merchants are in line with LVMH to get their grape buying costs down while maintaining Champagne prices to consumers at present levels—and so, the 2009 Champagne harvest will be cut (maybe in half and maybe by government decree) to slow Champagne inventories and to reduce Champagne maker’s costs.

An argument can probably be made that the so-called luxury market shines a glaring light on the gullibility of people with money, but there is nothing wrong with producers and merchants wanting to protect and maintain their exorbitant profits; that’s capitalism.

Unfortunately, capitalism also means that for luxury brand names to maintain their status in a recession it’s the suppliers who suffer. In this case, the farmers who are being told how much grape volume they will be allowed to sell in the 2009 harvest. Farmers take the loss because they haven’t the luxury of charging a luxury company an arbitrary price—here prices are set by the buyer and not by the seller.

Put all this into perspective and it looks pretty much like class warfare: the corporate elite sticking it to the laborer.

In this case, the corporate elite is also sticking it to the consumer because, since they are in the position of holding too much inventory, they could easily reduce the price of Champagne and let more of the public get to try some. While a move like that could potentially open up and create a new market for Champagne, it would also mean that the luxury brand would have to antagonize its rich customers, making both the brand owners and the rich feel uncomfortably like the rest of us.

It isn’t all about grapes and wine.

If you are reading this entry anywhere other than on the vinofictions blog, be aware that it has been lifted without my permission (and without recompense), and that’s a copyright infringement, no matter that the copyright information appears with it.

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
September 2009. All rights reserved.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Appellation downside

In 1908, the French government made plans to delimit the geographic area that would be the appellation called Champagne. The decree came after years of disaster in the region from a phylloxera devastation of about 15,000 vineyard acres, a string of bad vintages, and the complaint that grapes from outside the Champagne region were being bottled as Champagne, giving bottlers and merchants profits and leaving Champagne growers in the lurch.

The 1908 decision was not the first attempt by the government to fix matters. Its first response was a law that demanded any wine labeled Champagne include a minimum of 51% from local grapes, but it was not enough to stem the growers’ frustrations. Since Champagne producers held all the clout, they sent representatives in the field who were paid a commission based on how low they could get grape prices from growers, forcing growers to compete with one another at their own disadvantage.

The government’s delimiting plan also failed at first. It did not include the Aube district of the region, which housed the region’s recognized capital city, a fact that did not sit well with growers in that district. In 1910, riots began slowly and blew up in January 1911. The growers’ targets were the wealthy wine producers; they smashed equipment and facilities throughout the region. When mobs burned nearly the entire village of Ay, the government sent in troops.

In an attempt to appease the Champenois in the Aube district, the government wound up creating more animosity, this time in the Marne district where growers did not like their status being reduced by the elevation of the Aube. Soon, however, the breakout of World War I saved the day, as everyone suddenly had even bigger problems—Champagne was a major passageway between Germany and France during the war.

It wasn’t until 1935-36, when the Champagne region gained DOC status and a classification system to control grape prices among the villages. Over the decades, it’s been up and down, as this or that problem resulted in this or that group complaining.

In 2009, it’s the producers and merchants doing the complaining. Champagne sales are dropping like a thermometer in a Finger Lakes winter. In 2007, 338 million bottles of Champagne moved out; in 2008, 322 million bottles sold; and the projection for 2009 is under 300 million bottles will sell. The British and American markets seem to be the cause of much of the problem.

Reducing the harvest is the only way for producers not to add to their already bloated inventory of Champagne in the cellars where an extra full year’s supply is already being held. Building anymore inventory would surely put downward pressure on prices to export markets (Champagne prices in France have already dropped). Producers and merchants have no interest in telling the export market that Champagne is cheap.

It looks like for the first time in its history, Champagne enjoys agreement among growers, producers, merchants, and the government about what to do.

Well, not so fast.

Producers and merchants want to cut the harvest in half, but the growers aren’t sure about that plan. You see, merchants and producers want to keep prices for the wine buoyant but they have no plan to pay a higher price to growers for less volume. Growers are expected to take the loss from a reduced harvest.

The joke in farming is that it is the only business that buys retail and sells wholesale. A farmer is that rare vendor that does not get to set the price of its own goods. That’s because producers and government continually intervene to either cause serious price drops or serious price increases (sadly for farmers, it seems to work out mostly as price drops). In grape farming, there are those appellation controls for farmers to deal with and worry about.

Forget the effect of a bad economy farmers suffer even worse from the fallout of public policy or of bad producer forecasting for and marketing of the end product. In the case of Champagne, if the farmers and the merchants cannot come to agreement on the harvest figure, the government will step in and set a number. Any farmer who exceeds the government’s imposed limit would then have a legal problem on his or her hands.

If there is a down side to appellation controls, this is it: Champagne grape farmers will be told how much revenue they will be allowed to take in for their 2009 labor, and without an avenue for recourse.

If you are reading this entry anywhere other than on the vinofictions blog, be aware that it has been lifted without my permission (and without recompense), and that’s a copyright infringement, no matter that the copyright information appears with it.

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
September 2009. All rights reserved.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Define dogma

It’s been my experience that whenever someone starts a conversation with the words, “you should,” the listener will soon be standing in a morass.

You can almost bet that the person who says, “you should,” will be strident. It’s sad, especially when you realize that the most strident opinions often don’t come from the ones who do the work—they know better.

“You should” really means that the opinion-maker thinks too much and probably doesn’t do enough. That’s why it is such a joy to listen to grape growers and winemakers talk about reality, and that’s why the 2009 vintage on the East Coast puts to shame those who would cling to dogma—nature has no use for exact formulas.

Five words have been in the wine industry spotlight lately; they pop up on wine blogs, in wine opinion pieces in print, in discussions at wine tastings, at seminars and conferences, and even—sad to say—at some dinner tables. The words are:


How many of us know the definition of each word?

No fewer than 8 definitions apply to the word organic. Here’s the one that seems to suit grape growing best.

organic as an adjective: belonging to a family of compounds characterized by chains or rings of carbon atoms that are linked to atoms of hydrogen and sometimes oxygen, nitrogen, and other elements.

organic as a noun is a substance, especially a fertilizer or pesticide that presumably meets the adjectival form.

Once you understand the definition, the methods for “organic” viticulture are made clear to you.

Only one official definition seems to apply to the word biodynamic.

Biodynamic: a method of organic farming that treats farms as unified and individual organisms emphasizing balancing the holistic development and interrelationship of the soil, plants, animals as a closed, self-nourishing system.

The extension of biodynamic farming from simply organic and taken from Rudolf Steiner’s spiritualistic musings ties the word and its practice to the occult. (It should be noted that Steiner abstained from consuming alcohol, a fact that makes it seem silly to associate his name with grape growing practices but then, people do eat raisins.)

After removing the two definitions that apply to music and one definition that applies to card playing, the word natural still has 12 definitions, with the highest number of permutations of the word summed in this phrase: relating to nature.

Today, there is a wine growing and production school of thought that calls itself Natural. After listening to some of its proponents, it became clear that they don’t care to entertain completely the meaning of “relating to nature.” This is one of the movements that seems to really be all in the mind, even when it attracts people who actually do the work. The contradictions are so great it renders the concept weak at best. For an understanding of it, take a look at the discussion on Alder Yarrow’s blog—link below.

Green enjoys 13 definitions, five of which refer to the wine industry—three for grape growing and two for the environment.

When the word green is used in conversations about wine, unless it specifically addresses the color of leaves in the vineyard, it mainly refers to environmental considerations. It is a difficult concept to pin down if only for the intensity of calculation necessary to take into consideration every single environmental impact made by farming vineyards, producing wine, packaging and distributing wine, and promoting a business (how is the electricity for a business computer generated?).

In other words, to be a green company depends on the shade of green one seeks and/or accepts.

The word sustain enjoys less definition and more synonyms or alternative words like “maintain, nourish, suffer, continue, prolong, protract, and uphold.”

Sustain is a wide concept. In fact, those who practice sustainability in the wine business could very well be talking solely about how to keep their business afloat in this terrible economic climate. That desire does not necessarily include the concepts of organic, biodynamic, green or otherwise. To sustain a business takes what it takes.

Likewise, nature doesn’t care whether or not a grape grower farms organically. What nature delivers is what nature chooses to deliver. This fact was brought home on the East Coast, in the 2009 (anti) growing season. It was a bonanza year for all the mildews known to grape farming (not to mention the Japanese beetles whose populations have been exponential in the East for about six years).

Some producers and farmers say they kept up with their organic methods—some gave up. Even those who kept up are forced to admit that the levels of copper and other organic materials required as sprays in 2009 were excessive and could be damaging to the balance of the soil (copper is an organic material that is not easily washed away from the soil).

Tell you the truth, I haven’t the slightest idea where I intended to take this blog entry. I’m a firm believer in as natural a farming as is possible, in the truest sense of the word. I grow much of my own produce—even in winter, as I have a greenhouse. Petro-chemicals do not get near my produce—usually. There have been times of stress that forced me to relent, which is why I don’t fault a grape grower faced with large scale destruction who does what needs doing.

I suppose what I really wanted to say is that I abhor dogma. I abhor it even more when it comes from the keystrokes of thinkers rather than of doers; thinkers should get off their asses and go find out what it is to do the job, the way those invested in grapes and wine are forced to find out.

Natural wine

(Anyone reading this blog on a site other than Vinofictions are made aware that it has been used without permission--a violation of my copyright.)

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
September 2009. All rights reserved.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

What wine blogs can do for you?

Liz Thach, Wine Business Professor at Sonoma State University wrote a synopsis of a wine blogging study done at the university; her report appeared at (link below).

Ms. Thach starts her story with an emphatic yes to answer the question whether wine blogs have an impact on wine brands. She recommends that wineries pay attention and then she produced a list of what wineries should be doing. But before getting to the list, she passed along some astounding information.

There are more than 700 blogs devoted to wine (and the blog count continues to grow). She got that information from a list that Alder Yarrow compiled a while ago for his blog,

What about overkill? At, say, 1,000 blogs (it’s coming) and with 52 weeks in a year, how much duplication and contradiction do you think is possible? The wine print magazine world never came close to approaching that kind of influence.

The many wine blogs out there today come in approximately 14 languages with English accounting for most of the blogs.

After developing sampling criteria, Thach’s study group followed 222 blogs for a content analysis. It turns out that blogs fall into several categories. By far, the top category (by number of blogs) is wine reviewing. There are far fewer blogs by wineries than either wine review, wine and food, and wine education blogs. Wine business, winemaking and viticulture, and “other” blogs are the three bottom on the list—vinofictions likely is at the bottom of that category; someday, I’ll discover the secret to titillation.

Less than 50% of the sampled blogs included advertising. In her report, Ms. Thach dutifully noted that bloggers have discussed the ethics of accepting advertising from brands that are reviewed. She did not, however, give the outcome of the discussion. The report mentioned that the 222 blogs in the study managed to name more than 800 different wine brands over the course of the study.

Thach is a business professor and so her report focused on the business angle of blogs for wineries: how best to capitalize from their existence. Mainly, she claims that wineries with especially small PR budgets need to monitor blogs because there is a following of consumers and that's good for advertising on blogs.

The professor gave another reason to monitor blogs, which has to do with the “Wild West” atmosphere of the blogging world. Thach called it “democratization of media.” She pointed out that there are bloggers who may know what they are talking about and there are bloggers who may not. The latter group can hurt with negative reviews and comments. She doesn’t mention it, but bloggers without knowledge can also pass along a lot of misinformation.

Not long ago, Wines and Vines Editor, Jim Gordon, addressed the issue of blogger knowledge. He urged bloggers to become responsible by gaining knowledge before spouting off. On that subject, I know exactly what he means. An awful lot of people have a tendency to tell others how to grow grapes and produce and market wine without spending an ounce of energy to study the subjects beyond what they drink, what they are told, and what they choose to believe.

Ms. Thach ended her report with a list of seven things wineries need to do to stay on top of the wine blogging explosion. They are common sense suggestions and probably aren’t being done by most wineries because they are time consuming plus, they are connected to a technology that many wineries have yet to understand.

As I read the report, I wondered what I would have done in the days when I operated a winery had I this opportunity to monitor, and to attempt to control, the message being spread about my wines. As I thought, I could not help pondering the monumental danger that lurks with the citizen-generated social media revolution. There’s a kind of blackmail quality to having judgment passed on a product or brand by people who may or may not have knowledge or smarts, let alone taste. And what about those who may have an agenda of their own?

If I operated a winery today, I would definitely want to monitor the blogging world. I would be quite afraid of the impact it could make on my business should some nut garner enough nuts to follow the lead and start a massive negative campaign, maybe because I refused to send free wine, or because I pissed off someone’s brother at my tasting room. This kind of thing happened to a California sparkling wine producer, and I read a news report that it might have been a disgruntled family member who started the negative online campaign.

In any case, it looks like the academics are getting a handle on what blogs and social media can do for wineries.

Does anyone know of an academic study to determine what all these blogs can do for wine consumers that isn’t already being done?

The Thach study

If you are reading this entry anywhere other than on the vinofictions blog, be aware that it has been lifted without my permission (and without recompense), and that’s a copyright infringement, no matter that the copyright information appears with it.

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
August 2009. All rights reserved.

Monday, August 17, 2009

It's the sign of the (NY) Times.

Not long ago, after having taken to task a blogger for what seemed to me like a lapse in journalism standards, the blogger called me “an old school journalist.” The message was that times are changing and guys like me ought to get used to it.

Of course, my response was that if journalism has come to the point of blurring the lines between standards and gratuitous conjecture, then old school I’ll remain.

Speaking of old school, this is no dig at Eric Asimov (he does a fine job) but when Frank Prial left the NY Times weekly wine column, it was a big loss.

The people seeking scores and direction to the futures market didn’t care for Prial’s wine writing. Instead of wine reviews, Prial wrote wine stories. Surely, because of the personal experiences, some of his information was one-sided, biased, and even could be mean-spirited (like the time he said that white wine gives us something to do with our hands). But his columns generally included tidbits as well as important bits of information, and they always came wrapped in a literary package, which is why some of his die-hard fans mourned his leaving.

In fact, there was a time when reading the NY Times was a pleasure almost akin to the old pleasures of the New Yorker Magazine. These days, however, while the latter is close--but not up to--its old standards, the former seems to have slipped immeasurably, to the point where being concise often means writing convoluted English—and the “corrections” column in the paper these days is almost as long as feature articles.

Not to worry. The NY Times has the answer to its woes. The newspaper is going into the wine club business. Why not?

The wine club business is like those credit cards that started popping up a few years ago seemingly issued by the companies that have their logos attached to the cards. Of course, the company credit cards have always been issued by banks or credit card companies that are parts of banks, no matter whose logo is on them. And so, Global Wine Company will operate the NY Times Wine Club. That company does with wine club partnerships the same thing that credit card companies do with other businesses—they handle the transactions for a fee. The only difference may be in how the fee is applied and who pays it.

No matter who issues the credit card and no matter whose logo is on it, the consumer gets to buy on credit, receives some sort of bonus or points benefit, pays the same introductory low interest on outstanding balances (that rises to Mafiosi proportions as time goes by), and goes into penury when the outstanding balances become anvils.

No matter who runs them, wine clubs perform one service: they ostensibly bring together the consumer with “unique” wines or at least wines with a “unique” story. Some clubs tout their ability to save consumers loads of money; some clubs tout their ability to make consumers feel special; and some clubs simply sell plonk and make it seem to consumers like they are saving money while being members of an exclusive group of connoisseurs.

In the case of the NY Times Wine Club, consumers are promised access to wines from small, family-run wineries at an average $15 a bottle and below, based on volume.

Global Wine Company calls the NY Times a partner. A quick glance at the Global Wine Company Web site shows they have a few partners. It also shows that many of the wines available at one partner’s site are available at the other partners’ sites—so much for exclusivity. And each partner offers about the same discount of 20%, which is what a good shopper can normally get at a good “bricks and mortar” retail shop—so much for saving money.

There is, however, something exclusive going on at least at one of the partnerships: that outfit charges an average 10% and more for the same wines that two other partners of Global Wine offer—so much for feeling special.

One of the pleasures I get from wine is shopping for it. I like people, so I like talking with the retailers and the checkout cashiers. I also like touching what I intend to buy, reading its labels, looking at the package, comparing its price with the prices of the hundreds other wines in the shop—hell, I even like the smell of a wine retail shop, which seems always to have a residue of a bottle broken long ago but not quite out of the carpet yet. You can understand, then, why I don’t get the wine club craze.

I do understand the Internet craze, and that is what wine clubs have tied into. In fact, that’s what journalism is tying into also, and that’s why companies like the NY Times have had to seek new revenue streams. Wine is a $30 billion industry in the U.S. The NY Times is a big business, too. Seems like a perfect pairing, no?

Seems to me like rare steak with Auslese; but again, I don't get the club craze.

Incidentally, if you are in the market for a classical radio station or a Boston newspaper, the Times has one of each up for sale. On the other hand, if you are interested in, say, Breggo wines (a nice little producer in the Anderson Valley north of Mendocino) right now they are listed at three Global Wine Company partner sites, at two different prices.

Maybe the Times can do better.

Global site

If you are reading this entry anywhere other than on the vinofictions blog, be aware that it has been lifted without my permission (and without recompense), and that’s a copyright infringement, no matter that the copyright information appears with it.

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
August 2009. All rights reserved.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Manipulating critics?

A long ago acquaintance of mine, Craig Goldwyn, started up but no longer operates the magazine International Wine Review.

One of the things that Craig did, and that was to be respected, was to institute a policy that for regular review in the magazine, wines were bought off the shelf.

The magazine hosted a wine competition, too. Wines submitted for evaluation in the competition had to already be on the market, so that the reviewers would evaluate what consumers can buy. Plus, Craig’s team randomly bought wines at retail to compare with the competition submissions.

As simple and smart a policy as the above was, it is not the general rule for some of the major wine critics today.

The general system is to evaluate wines supplied by producers and/or importers. The Robert Parker franchise likely does not go out and buy the wines at retail before, during or after they have evaluated them. Often enough, wines are evaluated before the wines are released to the market.

In other words, major wine critics don’t practice quality control of their product—they don’t test what they are evaluating either for consistency or for accuracy.

It’s been suspected by some for many years that a few producers would take advantage of the ability to manipulate the critics by sending to them a wine under one label for evaluation, but sending to the marketplace a different wine under the same label. Since the critics don’t check up on them, the chances are that a great numerical rating has helped move inferior product in the marketplace more than once.

The evidence clearly shows that tasters can be fooled by ratings, but that subject is for another blog entry. The issue here is either fooling or manipulating critics.

2005 Sierra Carche is from Spain’s Jumillia region. Jay Stuart Miller, one of the critics working under the Parker franchise, gave the wine 96 points.

Later, after consumer reports that the wine they bought was pretty awful for a 96-point score, the importer, Well Oiled Wine Company, said that they uncovered a mistake and that one of three lots of that wine had been mislabeled and sent to market. In other words, a different wine was labeled as 2005 Sierra Carche.

Was that the wine Miller had evaluated?

According to the importer, the two other lots were lab tested and found to be sound. The only explanation they could give to address the bad bottles on the market is bottle variation. But with so many consumer complaints, that sounds like a truly lame explanation.

The rest of the story is involved and it includes the requisite and justified sniping by wine geeks at wine producers, importers, and critics—see below links.

Sniping aside, the point of this situation is that first, wine critics should compare what the producer provides for evaluation with what the importer brings into the U.S.--mostly, they don’t.

Second, wine critics should taste blind, make their assessment and then have the labels and pricing revealed to them--mostly, they don’t do this either. They know the (ostensible) identity of what they are evaluating, which seems rather easy for bias to seep in, knowingly or not.

Third, wine critics should never, ever evaluate at the producer’s place of business (except when doing a barrel evaluation for futures).

This episode is the second in the past few months that involves one particular critic under the Parker franchise. The franchise on the ebob wine forum site mishandled the first episode so poorly that it was painful to watch. So, what do they do this time around?

Read it for yourself.


And here’s another link

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
August 2009. All rights reserved.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Dormant Commerce Clause--indeed!

The Specialty Wine Retailers Association (SWRA) is engaged in a battle with the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America (WSWA) and rightly so. SWRA is unhappy that WSWA enjoys such protections in states to preclude retailers from shipping wine to consumers who live in other states.

The problem with the battle is that WSWA, sadly, has the 21st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution on its side, at least that’s how the courts see it--all the way to the Supreme Court.

In 2005, when the Supremes issued a ruling that supposedly opened wine shipping across state lines, the ruling was so narrow that whether or not it benefits consumers remains an open debate. But then, neither the 21st Amendment nor individual state’s alcohol control boards are trying to benefit consumers.

The 21st Amendment is protecting state’s rights: in this case, the right to regulate what our still Calvinist culture believes is an evil. In turn, the state alcohol control boards are protecting their excise tax revenue—even though they may claim otherwise: the NY State alcohol control laws are supposedly in place to protect against organized crime.

Irony of irony: the money organized crime made during Prohibition is now being made by many state legislatures, and perhaps a few WSWA members just to keep everything in the family.

The proof that SWRA is engaged in a futile effort came with the Supreme Court 2005 decision. The decisions simply stated that States cannot block out of state commerce to protect in state commerce. That’s all it said.

The ruling said nothing about setting limits to how expensive or how cumbersome states can make the commerce. And, the ruling said nothing about licensing restrictions. Ever since the ruling, expensive and licensing restrictions have been the main weapons in those states that choose to circumvent unfettered commerce.

A few weeks ago, NY State’s 2nd Circuit Court of Appeal held that it is not unconstitutional for the state to block wine shipments from out-of-state retailers direct to consumers—and what was the reasoning of the court?

Judge Wesley referenced the Dormant Commerce Clause of the Constitution that bars states from blocking interstate commerce through protective measures.

According to, here’s what the judge said:

“The commerce clause normally prohibits states from passing laws that discriminate against out-of-state economic interests unless those laws ‘advance a legitimate local purpose that can not be adequately served by reasonable nondiscrimanatory alternatives.’

“However, the Supreme Court has made it clear that the 21st Amendment alters Dormant Commerce Clause analysis of state laws governing the importation of alcoholic beverages.”

The judge refers to precedent and he also refers to Justice Kennedy’s notes in the 2005 case where he explicitly stated that the narrow ruling would not have an effect on the states' right to restrict alcohol sales—Kennedy went on to reason his statement by making the Calvinist view concerning the special evil that alcohol represents.

In order for SWRA and for consumers to win this battle, it would take an amendment to the 21st Amendment to the Constitution. That would take an act of Congress, something I’m afraid is about as likely to happen in my lifetime as the possibility of real and valuable health care reform.

In fact, the alcohol and health care reform issues are related. In each case, lawmakers are beholden to an industry and in each case, lawmakers have told the citizenry to go fuck itself.

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
July 2009. All rights reserved.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Don't touch that rule

A few days ago, wine writer Panos Kakaviatos wrote from Strasbourg, France a brief story for Meinninger’s Wine Business International that covered a problem in Alsace concerning two hundred or so Alsatian wine producers who attacked the region’s Alsace Viticultural Association (AVA) because they say the association wants to change the rules.

Remember that I wrote twice in the past few months concerning how I feel about the so-called appellation system in the United States that essentially tells consumers where grapes are grown and wine is made, and nothing much else?

This Alsatian story is about appellation rules, and it puts me in a quandary. I don’t know whether to be for or against the Alsatian authorities.

My dislike for the appellation system here at home is rooted in the fact that the system does not even try to understand and recognize whether or not certain grape varieties should be grown in certain places. Plus, the system is mute concerning how wine can be treated in order to preserve its expression of the appellation or American Viticultural Area (AVA)—the “terroir.”

Our system boils down to just another marketing scheme but with government providing cover. Not that the Europeans don't use their system in their marketing, but there is something behind the rules.

The other AVA, the one in Alsace, has put on the table a discussion of reforms that would change the way Alsatian grand cru wines are labeled. Right now, the majority of producers market their products as varietal wines. The changes may include a requirement to drop varietal labeling.

The grand cru system was developed in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Certain geological and climate conditions were considered and about 4% of Alsace’s vineyards were classified “Grand Cru” status. The grand cru system allows only four grape varieties: Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris, and Muscat.

Note: other grape varieties are used to make wine in Alsace, but they are not allowed in the grand cru wines.

Since the Alsatian system came so late in history, many Alsatians are unconvinced that it tells the world much about the appellation. A number of producers with vineyards located within grand cru boundaries choose not to apply the grand cru status to their label at all—not a bad reason for them to be concerned about a change that drops varietal labeling.

This is where my problem comes in: I like the way Alsatian wines are labeled. But if I am so set in the European style appellation system, why would I not like the Alsatians to go to a strictly “vineyard location name” system?

Because I’m used to the varietal labeling, and I do not know all of the 51 grand cru vineyards that would be involved in the reform. Plus, Alsatian grand cru wines are not known for their multi-blending the way in which most European appellation wines are handled. It's just that in Alsace, the wines are known by their grape varieties.

As for the possibility that the grand cru system may not really tell the consuming world much, the president of an AVA grand cru section is also a grand cru producer, Jean Michel Deiss. He does not use varietal labeling for his wines and of course, he is pushing for the change. Plus ça change, etc., Monsiour Deiss!

This issue leaves me a little queasy. Here I am hoisted on my own petard because I am either too lazy to study the 51 grand cru locations or too uninterested in change. At the least, I have a better feel for how hard it will be to do anything about the U.S. appellation system, despite that our varietal labeling is only a 75% solution, literally.

Still, it would be nice to have a U.S. system that makes, say, a vineyard-designated label, or the word “reserve” on the label an official guarantee of something instead of just marketing. But I'm open-minded now.

It's possible that we should do nothing and let marketing rule the world.

Panos' article

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
July 2009. All rights reserved.