Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Winemakers working the streets

How many winemakers does it take to screw in a light bulb? One, They just hold the bulb in the air and the world revolves around them.

I wouldn't be able to pass that along were it not for a very good and self aware winemaker I know. In our little world, the winemaker is the head celebrity. They are the ones whose names are bandied about, and the ones whose mugs end up on the cover of Wine Spectator. It's no surprise that when they are in the market, they sell more wine than us civilians. Most winemakers recognize this is an aberration in the market, and that buyers are ALWAYS more likely to buy wine when a winemaker is there. Many of them further recognize that when they visit a market, it's the grunts that are putting together as good a day as possible. They will see routes that we never really see because of our obligations to run the B and C accounts as well, accounts they never will visit.

That said, there are actually winemakers out there that believe that they are better salespeople than us, and that they understand the market conditions better than we do. This, in part, is because it comes so easily to them. They also can have a valid take in some instances, when the sales reps are really sub par (and we know there's plenty of them out there). But there are winemakers delusional enough to believe that what we do (sales) is B.S. and that we're lucky to even be able to sell their precious products. I'm not going to recite the reasons why the finesse, politics, patience, hard work, timing, hustle, charm, quick wit and wisdom are skills you don't learn from racking or de-stemming. Instead I will simply say this: Unless you want to be a full time salesperson, you're going to need someone with the above attributes to sell your precious juice. No matter what you think of salespeople as a breed, you need to let them do their thing, and understand that it's apples and oranges when you're in the market. You are there to support, not compete. Don't get caught up in the idea that if you can do something we can't do, that gives you a higher rank. All salespeople are really "armchair winemakers", so it's no surprise that the amateurs sometimes actually believe they can outsell us. I'll give you a challenge, go work the market with wines that aren't yours. With wines you have no affiliation with, and give out your cell number, and occasionally show up for a reset at 6 in the morning, the day after hosting another winemaker for another winemaker dinner. Sound unappealing? That's OK, thats why you have us.

Friday, August 20, 2010

So what's the deal with Paso Robles?

Paso Robles is, in my opinion the northernmost outpost on the Central Coast appellation. I know that technically, it goes further north, but here is my reasoning: The Central coast is defined by the 3 transverse river valleys, Santa Ynez, Santa Maria and Edna Valley (about 30 miles south of Paso). It's these valleys, and the funneling of the marine influence east, that provide for the wildly diverse microclimates. The reason I include Paso is because of the Templeton Gap (excellent commentary on the topic from Jason Haas of Tablas Creek). As the mountains move from east/west to north/south, the Ocean breeze swarm north along the Santa Lucia Range. North of this, the climate is different, and a little more uniform based on elevation and proximity to the Ocean. I'm sure some educated veteran will jump all over this and give me 10 reasons why my classification is wrong. That's fine, but it's my take on it, and for my me to wrap my brain around this area, this is how I call it.

A lot of hay is also made about the Eastside vs. Westside debate. By many people's opinion, the 101 freeway bisects the region, and really makes it 2 separate appellations. It's like "Zin to the right, Rhone to the left". This is oversimplified. In reality, it's a serious of triangles. Remember that Templeton Gap? Well, as it pushes cool air north it gets trapped in all of these nooks and crannies. In theory, you could have a warmer microclimate West at a higher elevation than a high elevation further East, because the winds never make it to the higher elevation vineyards in the West but dissipate as they travel East with a constant low breeze. whew.

And then there's the soil. We all know Limestone is a buzz word, and I had always heard about the Limestone was a major reason for Tablas Creek and Calera further North selecting their vineyards. But I was always a little wary of how much Limestone could really be here. Ok,it's actually Calcareous clay (thanks again Jason), but for our intents and purposes, it's limestone. Well, there's a lot. As the plates collided to form the Santa Lucia Mountains, the former seabed on the south got shoved into the northern plate to give a ton of seafloor fossils and limestone, particularly in a crescent shaped formation stretching from Lompoc about 75 miles north, primarily on south facing slopes. Ask a vineyard manager about how often they find whale bones. What's great about limestone? Well, without getting too technical (and I've read up on this) there are 2 basic reasons why limestone is great a) it is a unique soil type that retains moisture, but only gives it to the plant in times of drought, and is a well draining soil that keeps it away from the plant during time of heavy precipitation. It's like internal drip irrigation without the soil erosion. b) limestone appears to transfer more vital nutrients directly to the grapevines more efficiently. This ultimately seems to help natural acidity develop better in the wines. For me personally, I observe a savory, umami quality in wines that grown in limestone, but then again, I may just be projecting.

There is still plenty of bad wine in Paso, and even more, solid, commercial quality inexpensive grapes grown in the Northeast of Paso. But the real story is the diversity of grapes and microclimates available here. It's so diverse that there isn't one variety or group of varieties that has emerged as the showcase. Rhone, Bordeaux, Italian, Spanish, Zin, Petite and even Burgundian varieties are all excellent from top producers. Contrary to my previous skepticism, Paso is a world class grape growing region that is still in it's world class infancy.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Getting Schooled in Santa Barbara

I am fortunate enough to be able to visit many of my winemaker friends every so often, and I ALWAYS learn a thing or 2. As I am in the midst of my current Central Coast tour, a few things have occurred to me.
  1. Pinot Noir wants to be blended-Not with other grapes, but with itself. Tasting through barrels yesterday, I saw 3 equal components of what is often revered (rightfully so), of one California Best Pinots. Each of the 3 components came from the same vineyard, had the exact same oak regime (11 months so far in 20% new French). The variable was that is was 3 different clones vinified and aged separately. They couldn't have been more different. In this rare moment, just a few months before the final blend, but long enough to have developed their own personalities, you could see where it was going and why it is such a complex finished wine.
  2. Santa Barbara is many things, this week I learned that it is not only Bordeaux but also Loire-We have been waiting for a long time for the Bordeaux wines to be great from SB County. there have been many recent bottlings that prove that they're on the right track. I tasted a 100% Cabernet yesterday that was as good as anything I've had from Santa Barbara, and competes very well against the very best of the new world. Priced in the low $30's, this could give Quilceda Creek a run for their money. That far Eastern edge in Happy Canyon is REALLY exciting. I also tasted a 1999 Cab Franc this week that blew my doors off. Old, pre-phylloxera roots and minimal intervention. This was varietally correct and absolutely rockin. A winemaker friend was with me, and we were just floored by what this was. Cab Franc as the Loire-ians (I really have no idea what you call someone from loire, Chinoions? Chinonoise?). so 2 Bordeaux varietal bottlings that really showed something that I just haven;t seen elsewhere in California, and these are "after thought" varietals out here.
  3. Syrah needs to be ripe-Conventional Wisdom has shifted so far over to the European sensibility, that we recite what wine is "supposed to be" by rote. I've also been guilty. The fact is, Syrah is one of the most complex grapes, if it ripens. It can be highly serviceable when underripe, and offensive when overripe. But the fine line that more and more winemakers are afraid of, is ripe. This should never be confused with jammy or sweet. Ripe creates 2 things you just can't get without a steady hand 1) Secondary flavors and aromas, like olives and juniper berries 2) Higher, but still integrated alcohol. We are all very afraid of high alcohol wines, but let go of your fears. In some, rare cases, in the right hands, you need the alcohol to give it weight. It's like finishing a great sauce with a pat of butter, it gives it that finish you really need. So while we all shun and run from the "parkerized" wines, maybe it's not that simple. Maybe you can't tell a book by it's cover.
So pretty good couple of days, I didn't even mention the amazing Chardonnay, Sav Blanc, Viognier and Grenache Blancs I tried. Maybe I'm a homer, but what has happened in Santa Barbara County, from a quality standpoint, just blows me away. Next, I wax poetic about Paso

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Foodie Cred Check

Are you a foodie? There are a hundred names for that term now, but you know what I mean. Have your Simpson's quotes turned into Anthony Bourdain quotes? Have you drawn a line in the sand to say what precisely you won't eat (usually somewhere in the offal category no doubt)? Do you recount Iron Chef and Top Chef like you recount Football games? How do you feel about Rachel Ray? we have definitely begun turning into a nation of foodies. This isn't a food blog though, this is a wine blog, specifically, a wine business blog.

So what does being a foodie have to do with being successful in the wine industry? Short answer: everything. Longer answer: your credibility.

At this stage in your career, it's unlikely for you to turn back and go back to the restaurant business. Hopefully, you got some good foodie chops while you were in it. Hopefully, you speak chef. What does that mean you ask? Well, it's hard to describe, but it's knowing the shorthand when someone orders a steak Medium Well. You know what it means when an employee calls to talk to the chef (they're not coming in), or why you want to strangle the waiter for saying a fish is mild, like salmon or tuna. There is a comfort within a restaurant that you can't pick up from any books or cooking shows. The rhythm of a bustling restaurant is like the tide. If you do a dinner or a tasting, it says a lot about your foodie cred in the way you move, the way you say "corner" or "behind". If the chef likes you, you WILL sell more wine.

Chefs are becoming celebrities in their own right these days. all of us can name drop til the cows come home. Regardless of their fame level, they're still chefs before celebrities. If you sell them wine, don't kiss their ass. Don't get your picture taken with them. Don't ask them to autograph your menu, or magazine cover. The tough thing to do is to be the person that loved them before they were famous. Again, you can't go back and do it now. The good news though, is that the people that make chefs famous are slow moving, you should be able to pick up on it beforehand, and treat them like you're genuinely interested in their cooking. Then again, chefs are like dogs and bees, they can smell fear (and B.S.). Be a genuine foodie. If you can't love that aspect of this job, my advice to to see if anyone needs a widget salesperson.