Friday, June 25, 2010

Friday Lineup: The Price of Wine

Over the past few days, I have had several casual conversations about the price of a bottle of wine with colleagues in the trade and with my wife last night at dinner at Twelves Grill, our neighborhood BYOB in West Grove.

In each case, I said I really don't give much consideration to the price of a wine, whether I am tasting samples sent to me or sampling at wineries as I often do, other than to pass the SRP (suggested retail price) along to readers if I write about the wines in question.

I also said the only time I really seriously consider price personally is if

1. I am buying a bottle with my own money, or

2. Someone is paying me to consult with them on establishing their wine prices, which, thus far, no one has been bonkers enough to do, although I have has many casual conversations over dinner or in the cellar with winemakers about their pricing.

At VinExpo last year, my friend and colleague, Washington Post columnist Dave McIntyre, and I were tasting and commenting very positively on a fantastic bottle of Aussie red at 9 a.m. in the morning. Dave asked the winemaker the SRP for the U.S., then later commented to me, "I like it, but I don't know if I like it that much at $86 a bottle." And there you have the differences in philosophy. Dave and some other wine writers like to pontificate on what a wine is "worth," while I and some other writers are happy to describe the wine and its provenance and let the potential buyer decide whether he or she wants to spend that much. Sometimes I might be tempted to comment on the great value of an excellent wine being sold at $15 a bottle, but seldom comment the other way around.

Price, like beauty, is in the eye of the buyer, who may want to purchase a bottle to drink now or in a few years, give as an impressive gift, lay away for a child or grandchild, put in the cellar to impress people, retain as an investment to sell at auction when the price goes up or gambling debts mount, or give to charity. I have no intention of setting up shop within these potential buyers' minds as they make those decisions. A bottle that cost $20 or $200 or $2,000 will be "outrageous" to one consumer and a "bargain" to another, depending on why the wine is being purchased.

People who are new to the business often think price is just a matter of cost of goods and labor plus a profit. If the cost of producing a bottle is $10, give $2 profit to the producer, and the retail price will emerge at somewhere around $25 to $30 a bottle. Simple. Deal done. In real life, other factors come into play, such as the 3 Rs - ratings (Enthusiast, Parker, Spectator), rarity of the bottle if little is produced or remains available, and the reputation of the winery and the region.

Additionally, a producer - being a farmer - has to consider other factors, most notably quality and quantity of the harvest. Having a 30 percent crop reduction in a cool year might bode well for quality, but seldom can the producer simply raise his price per bottle to recover that loss. Plus there is investment. Drug companies love to point out the years of research costs that must be recovered in defending the prices of their medicines. The same is true of wineries who, say, need to replant three acres of old vines. Not only does it cost a lot to do that, but replanting also deprives them of any income off that land for three years or more. And they complain about the price of new oak barrels the way consumers complain about the price of bottles. Plus, if a wine has to spend extended time in barrel or bottle before shipping, there's the cost of carrying inventory.

Competitive pricing is another factor. For years, the trade mantra has been, "I can get the same quality wine at a lower price in Australia or Chile or Argentina," whenever a producer tried to sell a wine to importers or distributors or retailers or consumers. This particularly hits American East Coast wineries where production costs are higher by double digits than West Coast or foreign producers ("why" is another discussion). Local restaurateurs and retailers often complain that local wine pricing is not competitive. Yet local wineries - especially where I live in southeast Pennsylvania - find that it means something to consumers to buy good local wine even at an increased price. One, they like to buy local wine just as they like to buy local produce. Two, there is the social value of being able to go out with friends to the local tasting rooms for an afternoon of moderate drinking and lots of talking. Three, for lovers, it's a cheap date. Four, there is pride in having "my local winery," just as you identify with a certain football team or soccer club. Five, going to local tasting rooms provides entertainment for out-of-town guests. In short, there can be a built-in value added for a wine that costs more than an outsider perceives its true value.

Nowhere is competitive pricing more evident - and more fun to follow - than in Bordeaux. There are several reason for this. Bordeaux is the world's most-visible wine region. Production at the middle and top levels is sold through a level of middle-men - the negociants - who can influence price greatly but never set it, at least not at the top houses. Finally, Bordeaux has traditionally lessened the impact of carrying inventory by selling the wine in advance to these "negoces" who then sell the wine-in-progress in advance as "futures" to importers and retailers, who do the same to consumers. So in Bordeaux, setting the price on a new vintage is very complex and nerve-wracking for many producers. They have to ask, what was the reaction of the negoces, the trade and the wine press when the last vintage was officially tasted at just a few months old as barrel samples at primeurs in April of the following year? What did I charge last year? How much inventory of previous vintages is still on the market? What is the state of the world economy? If America isn't buying, can I sell it in China? What price will my neighbor or my competitors charge? Should I wait for them to "declare" first, or should I? Should I price before Parker gives the vintage - and my wine - a tentative score? This dance - called locally in Bordeaux "the campaign" - starts even before primeurs week is over and can extend two to three months into mid-summer with some vintages.

As I write trade pieces for such publications as Beverage Media in the U.S. and Drinks Business in the U.K., I absolutely love to report on these pricing issues and especially Bordeaux' campaign dance. Writing about both wine the drink (for consumers) and wine the business (for the trade) is a delightful experience that is worth those 12-hour days when traveling or at home trying to meet deadlines.

But to answer the question for a consumer, "Is the wine worth the price?" - you tell me.

Wines of Interest

2006 Rubicon Estate ($145). Fans of Rubicon Estate will certainly enjoy this one - smooth, mellow red and purple fruits with an underlayer of forest floor and ripe tannins. To me, however, it could use a bit more stuffing for the long haul and a bit more definition in the middle palate.

2009 Montecillo Verdemar Albarino ($14). Very refreshing white from Spain's Rias Baixas, it has fresh green flavors with a light creaminess, and is more floral than vegetal in impact. Good spicy notes around the edges. A party or a table wine.

2007 Peter Lehman Clancy's ($16). This is a very satisfying red in the style of most of Lehman's reds - good balance and some leaness to go with dried blackberry and raspberry fruits and a touch of violets. Blend of Shiraz, Caberbet Sauvignon and Merlot.

Until next time...

Roger Morris

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Friday Lineup: In Vino Verite'

Above top - Verite' winemaker Pierre Seillan shows a list of dozens of "micro-crus" he sources for grapes that go into the three Verite' wines. Center - Seillan at the wheel of his prized 1941 Buick Eight. Bottom - at a celebration reception and dinner at Redwoods, Seillan pours a drop of Verite' for owner Jess Jackson.

Jess Jackson delights in telling the story about giving his partner and premier winemaker, Pierre Seillan, a wake-up call in Bordeaux earlier this year to let Seillan know Robert Parker had given the three 2007 Verite' labels a combined rating of 297 points out of 300 - 98, 99 and 100.

"He was surly when he answered," Jess laughed as he told the story at a celebration reception and dinner on Thursday at the Jackson estate at Redwoods high above Healdsburg in Sonoma County. "It's 4 a.m. here," Jackson said, mimicking the protesting Seillan. "Then I played a guessing game with him with each wine. 'Was it over 95?' Pierre asked. 'You're getting warm'." Finally, Jackson relinguished the three scores - 98 points for the 2007 Le Desir, 99 for the 2007 La Muse and a perfect 100 for the 2007 La Joie.

"I can't go back to sleep," Seillan said. "I need to go for a walk."

"Give me a call when you get back," Jackson chuckled.

The next day, Friday, June 18, I got to enjoy one of the best Friday Lineups I will ever post:

Wines of the Week

2007 Verite' La Muse (99 points). Touch of eucalyptus from somewhere in the nose. Beautiful fruit intensity and lots of soft, pecan-shell tannins. Black raspberry flavors float throught with an underlayer of earthiness and brownie/macaroon cakiness. In spite of the loads of fruit, it finishes with a surprising and excellent leanness. (Merlot dominated blend.)

2007 Verite' La Joie (100 points). Big Cab nose with lots of currants aromas. The flavors fall in the middle purple-fruit range ahead of a bombardment of tannins, that will help ensure a long aging, and a very long finish. Rich and complex wine, very much in the Parker-Rolland sphere. The strength of the wine is straight down the middle of the palate. Touch of forest floor on the undertaste and hints of chalk, though not creamy. (Cabernet Sauvignon dominated blend.)

2007 Verite' Le Desir (98 points). Getting 98 points in this lineup is like scoring 15 under par in the Masters only to have Tiger card 20 under. Nose very much like a Pomerol. Still tight, though generally more dimutive than its sisters. Hints of cherry stems (good) and graphite. Lovely finish that beautifully concentrates the fruit and acidity. Also more spice in this one, with nutmeg and other baking spices in the finish. (Cabernet Franc dominated blend.)
Release date is September 1 with La Muse and Le Desir priced at $720 and La Joie at $800.

Until next time...

Roger Morris

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

A New Category: Cougar Wines

A couple of days or so ago I did a Facebook post about reorganizing my cellar according to vintage and made mention of having several California reds from the 1980s. There were a couple of responses about 30-year-old Cabs, as though they had passed some quality statute of limitations.

I like a variety of wines and love to guess how classic Bordeaux reds will age when I taste them from the barrel barely six months old. But I've always loved the classic structure and lean finesse of older wines, and my wife and I regularly pull 20- or 30-year-old everyday wines from our cellar that are perfect for dinner.

But not every one believes.

So I've decided to promote a new class of wines - "cougar wines" after the name given to women of a certain age who may not have the bloom of youth but who proudly wear the patina of experience.

So let's hear it for cougar wines. There will be more on this subject.

Until next time...

Roger Morris

Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Friday Lineup

A weekly commentary on selected wines tasted. All wines are tasted pristine and with food.

Wine of The Week

2007 De Martino "Legado" Reserva Maipo Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($15). Pure, deep blackberry flavors at their best. Complex fruitiness without being fruit forward. Nice balancing acidity. Very good wine for price.

I tasted several of De Martino wines this week in New York at an event held by Opici, importer for the Chilean winemaker, and the wines were all very enjoyable, especially the Chardonnay (see below) and Carmeniere. (Two or three of the reds had a rubbery/pungent earthy nose that wasn't present in the taste and which mostly dissipated with time.) In addition to the quality of its wines, De Martino is known for sourcing its fruits from a variety of locations throuhout the country, rather than expecting the same region to produce quality in all varietals. Additionally, some of its labels are made with organically grown fruit.

Wines of Interest

2008 Wild Rock Central Otago Pinot Noir ($21). A wine light in body, this Pinot has beautiful, pure, varietally correct cherry fruit flavors and a hint of chalkines. It is not as lean in the finish as similar Pinots from Burgundy - which is both good and bad. On the one hand (or palate), I expected a richer finish with more gravity. On the other palate, it nevertheless has a long and haunting aftertaste. Either way, it makes a nice summer sipping wine and can even be served lightly chilled.

2007 Mount Veeder Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($40). This is a lovely wine for drinking now or for cellaring. It has dark blackberry flavors with finishing hints of vanilla and tannic sootiness reminiscent of Cab Franc. Even though it has 14.5% alcohol, it is not a big wine, but rather one of those smooth, balanced, delicious drinking Cabs that made many of us first fall in love with Napa Valley reds during the 1970s.

2008 De Martino "Legado" Limari Valley Chardonnay ($15). This is both a very enjoyable and a very interesting wine, starting with its floral nose of fresh clover and continuing with its lemon cream middle body and a vanilla finish. It has a touch of residual sugar, but not too much. The interesting part is that it comes from a small valley in Northern Chile which is much closer to the Equator than the white-grape vineyards around Santiago. Yet the ocean proximity maintains the grapes' freshness and acidity.

Until next time...

Roger Morris

Friday, June 4, 2010

The Friday Lineup

A weekly commentary on selected wines tasted. All wines are sampled pristine and with food.

This week's tasting: Whenever I receive multiple samples from a winery, I usually taste and write about them individually over a period of weeks. And if I'm doing a comparative tasting - say, of several Alexander Valley Cabernets - then naturally I'll taste them together at the same time right after they are opened and then again in a few hours or the next morning. Anything good leftover is dropped on our neighbors' door steps.

But last week I was suddenly presented with a mixed half-case of 2007 Burgundies - three whites, three reds - from the esteemed house of Bouchard Pere & Fils, I knew exactly what I would do. Over the next several days I tasted them one by one, some at home, others at BYOBs, and today I devote this edition of The Friday Lineup to the Bouchard Six.

Wines of The Week

2007 Bouchard Meursault Perrieres 1er Cru ($88). Delicious and bold - nervy, lush green (not unripe) fruit with hints of chalk supported by mature toasted oak and a finish of fine, austere acidity and minerality. Can a wine be both full and lean at the same time? This one can. An excellent food wine (we had it with plump crab cakes) and one that is at its most exciting fresh out of the bottle.

2007 Bouchard Corton Charlemagne Grand Cru ($141). Great fruit essence, a long minerals-driven finish with a fresh acidity, followed by a pop-up of toasty oak. Objectively, this is probably the better wine - fuller, more mature, very good balance - but the liveliness of the Perrieres might make me choose it in a game of "If you could only choose one..."

2007 Bouchard Beaune Greves L'Enfant Jesus 1er Crus ($97). When I took the first sip, there was the tangible sensation of a liquid blanket of velvet slipping across my tongue followed by an apple acidity. Wow! Light and elegant with flavors of cedar, green olives, tart cherries and hints of smoke.

Wines of Interest

2007 Bouchard Le Corton Grand Cru ($97). Quite lean and elegant with flavors of small, wild strawberries and red cherries. I had this for my birthday dinner at Twelves Grill, our neighborhood restaurant, and it went very well with the surprising combination of small, rare duck breast and mild wild board sausages. That prompted sending a glass back to the kitchen - cooking very good food should also have its rewards.

2007 Bouchard Meursault Domaine ($45). A very sensible wine with some of the spirited, racy green fruit of Perrieres and CC, but with a broader middle palate of whey and lees. Very good and very versatile.

2007 Bouchard Bourgogne Pinot Noir Reserve ($21). A good, basic, everyday Burgundy, so we shouldn't ask too much of it. Good cherry fruit, some notes of coffee, and very lean with nice acidity.

Until next week...

Roger Morris