Wednesday, June 22, 2011

It's easier to say no than to have to break up with a winery

Since starting ampelography some 2+ years ago, I have thought a lot about what it takes to be a good rep/ supplier/ distributor/ winemaker/ buyer/ blimp pilot/ NBA free agent, etc. I had not, until now, thought too much about what it takes to be a really good winery partner. This, to date, has been my biggest failing.

I have assumed (despite my Father's clichéd warnings) that good wine + nice people would make good supplier partners. Sadly, it's just not that simple. I have learned that there are many hurdles to overcome when building a portfolio, and working productively with wineries. Here are some of the finer points I will now check on when looking at new producers:
  • Do they run their business well? Desperation NEVER sells wine and makes you do bad things for branding.
  • How is their consistency? Are the wines correct? always? Ever make any big mistakes? Do they really know what they're doing?
  • Do they understand that the tasting room isn't the same as the street?
  • Do they average less than one National Sales Manager/ year?
  • What are their expectations? Are they realistic?
  • Do they have a good distributor strategy?
  • Do they respect you as the primary communication channel to the distributor and on the streets?
  • How are their organization skills? Do they return emails, phone calls, etc?
  • Can they keep you abreast of pricing, inventory, etc.?
  • Tech Sheets? Marketing materials? graphics? anything?
This is just the tip of the iceberg, sadly. There are many tremendous wineries that make great wine AND are great people, but either don't understand the tiered business, or even the wine business. It sucks. But now I know to be a little more careful and thoughtful when selecting wineries. These are not issues that I can easily fix, but they are completely avoidable. It's not just about the wine, but I will always try to keep it MOSTLY about the wine.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Adelaida Cellars

Spending time in Santa Barbara in the early 2000's, I was exposed to, but not intimate with Paso Robles. To me, at the time, the wines seemed to be good, not great, and certainly more rustic. I was exposed to endless overcooked Zins and Petite Sirahs, which tainted my initial impressions. Being that I am a devout Rhône-head, I was intrigued by some of the early proponents of these varieties such as Tablas Creek and l'Aventure. My interest was piqued by the possibilities.

Fast forward to 7 years later, as I was forming ampelography, I was approached by Paul Sowerby, the Sales Manager for Adelaida Cellars. I was familiar with Adelaida, and always had some affection for the wines from my early years in the industry, but hadn't tasted the wines in some time. As Paul guided me through a dozen or more wines, I was impressed by the balance and structure of these wines. The reds had no "over/super ripeness" and perhaps more impressive, the whites were just beautiful with a healthy dose of minerality. Where had these wine been? Why were they discovering me, when in reality, I should have come across these sooner. It was one of those moments of epiphany.

The subsequent summer, I took a trip out to Paso and spent the day with Paul in the vineyards and with winemaker Terry Culton in the cellar. Terry had clearly put his mark on the wines, which is to say a minimal hand. Terry worked at, among other places, Calera (which has always been one of my all time favs). Calera and Josh Jensen are known for being proponents of Limestone soil. Coincidentally, but probably not, Adelaida is largely situated on Limestone. This made perfect sense. Here's what I didn't expect: Adelaida is quite climatically cool. Most of their vineyards are 1800 ft above sea level and just a few miles from the Pacific as the crow flies. Tremendous air flow and marine influence from the Pacific + the Templeton gap from the south have really made this area unique within Paso Robles. So much so that there is a proposed AVA including a handful of additional top producers within this microclimate to be hopefully called: The Adelaida District.

Adelaida dates back to 1981, but the vineyards that comprise it are in some cases, much older. The oldest Pinot Noir vines south of Sonoma are here, at the HMR Estate. No one is sure of the clone, but it's cool climate, limestone soil, 40+yr old pinot vines that are naturally low yielding. Yeah, the wine is pretty good. In fact, it's one of the most unique, yet totally pinot-like wines I've ever had. The true stars though are the Rhône blends. Syrah and Mourvedre put on quite a show varietally speaking here, but once they are blended with the usual suspects, you get the sense of a wine with an amazing pedigree. The same holds true of the whites, the stars there are of course, Rousanne and Grenache Blanc.

It's easy to become cynical in the wine business, after a while you think you may have it all figured out. Then a small producer from a pristine corner of Paso Robles knocks on your door, and you begin to realize how much you still have to learn.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Randall Grahm Ohio interviews parts 1-4

Our good friend, Austin Beeman, interviewed Randall Grahm back in March while I was chaperoning him around Ohio.. This very well structured and respectful interview was conducted one morning in Akron. Randall has some tea, and was quite engaging. Kudos to Austin's interview style, I've seen countless "professionals" step all over Randall's thoughts. These are the first 4 parts of 10.

Austin has a video blog called Understanding Wine HD, you can also follow him on Facebook.
This isn't his first go-round with a world class wine personality, and his interviews are always fascinating.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Affirmation Society

Political talk radio, opinioned bloggers (ahem), sports talk, all are seemingly controversial, however, the reason for their existence is they make people feel better about themselves. As we form opinions, we lack confidence to make those opinions into conviction immediately. It takes time for these ideas and opinions to become part of our fabric. Pundits that say what we are thinking help us to become more confident in these fledgeling beliefs, until we feel that our opinions are fully affirmed. The rate of this transformation is more about our own self-confidence than the conviction of the person delivering the message.

Now place this in the context of a wine salesperson. Let's assume that most wine salespeople know how to talk the talk, but few reach a point that they have confidence in a vacuum. In other words, their affirmation comes from other sources as well. The further you go into this industry, the easier it is to be intimidated by very knowledgeable and loud (or even worse, knowledgeable and quiet) buyers, suppliers, etc. The lower our confidence (which is different from knowledge), the more we need affirmation to give confidence.

We all hate scores. We all rail against bias, ad selling glossies, smokers palates, etc, it's a very tired topic. Fine, and as much as I hate press, I love it for selling wine. I'm not talking about selling to accounts or consumers. It also works on reps, in fact, it probably works more on sales reps than anyone. As a supplier, it's important for the rep to have total and utter faith in you product. Absent of existing sales and momentum,I can't always just tell someone that I have great wines. Sometimes I need back up or affirmation. The best place to find that is in those loathed glossies. Once a rep starts to get confidence in the wine, they carry themselves differently, they are prouder and can now use this new-found conviction to help affirm the next person's belief.