Google+

Selling Wine in Mason Jars

I’m holding a bottle of wine it's taken me almost sixty years to make. I pull the cork and pour a few ounces into a more-or-less clean Mason jar. It seems we are going back in time.

Decades ago, when I was building a new fine wine distribution company, I would take winemakers that are now wine legends - Angelo Gaja, Dominique Lafon, Josh Jensen, Tony Soter, Cathy Corison, Richard Sanford and others around Chicago, where we would pour samples of their wines into small plastic cups and try to convince buyers to give these newcomers a shot. Needless to say, those buyers never got a glimpse of the true greatness of these wines and winemakers out of those little plastic cups.

Fast forward from the 1980's to 2017 and selling great wine is a lot more glamorous, right? Sharing your wines with the sommelier at Castagna or Nostrana could not be more pleasurable - if you make good wine that is. Yet, all to often, we've not progressed beyond those pitiful little plastic cups.

In states that allow both distributors and retailers to sell wine and spirits, the profits from spirits make their cash flow work. These profits from quick, large-margin spirit sales are the lifeblood of large liquor stores, which give them the opportunity to build broad, but slower selling wine selections. In states like Oregon, where spirits sales are ridiculously limited to state controlled “liquor stores” that means amazing wine and spirits stores like K&L, Binny’s and Zacky's cannot exist. In state controlled Oregon, grocery stores have a significant advantage over wine-only shops as they have many other products to give them the cash flow required to support the inventory in their wine department - just like full-service liquor stores in other states.

This means that I spend a lot of time in Oregon selling wine to grocery store buyers. While tasting wines with buyers in the back room of a grocery store out of old Libby glasses may not have the panache of sampling your wines in Riedel on white tablecloths it's just as important to your sales. Also, most of these grocery store buyers are just as serious as any sommelier. They too are passionate to find wines that their customers will love. Also, like a sommelier, they are out on the front lines and if the customer does not like a wine they are just as likely to blame them as to blame the winery.

It's not a bad system. Or, at least it used to be not a bad system. Fine wine and corporations do not mix well and management at some important Oregon chains are taking their local buyers out of the game and sending them home with Mason jars of wine in their backpacks.

No longer can you taste your wines with these buyers. You go into the back room, among the storage shelves of dog food and canned goods and pour your samples into well used Mason jars or some other even less glamorous receptacle. You pour your wines into old jars or bottles as the buyers are no longer permitted to taste wines on the job. Which, as that is a big part of their job seems, well for lack of a better word, stupid.

We go to a lot of work to be sure our wines are presented and sold in the proper condition. Pouring them into a Mason jar that is then tossed into a backpack, that may spend time in a hot car or that then may not be tasted for days is not fair to us or the final consumer. Grocery chains should treat both their wine buyers and the wines they buy with more respect considering the significant profit they generate for these corporations.

Next time you buy a wine in a grocery store you don't enjoy, please don't blame the wine buyer. The wine they tasted from that Mason jar after it had sloshed around in their backpack while they rode home on their bike on one of those one-hundred degree days last week probably did not taste much like the bottle of wine you took home.

In thirty years we've graduated from plastic cups to Mason jars. A long way, baby, we've not come.

Pursue Your Passion

This article first appeared in the Dracaena Wines blog series"Pursue Your Passion""the story of one person in the wine industry, as told by them"

It all started with Watergate. How topical is that? That scandal hit just as I started college. Armed with no passion except football at that time in my life I suddenly saw a bigger world and signed on to my college newspaper. I was going to be Woodward and Bernstein.

I packed on the history hours eventually spending a semester in Europe "studying" (Nixon resigned during my flight back). While I was graduated as journalist, just four years later I was part of a start up wine importer and distributor. Now instead of reading All the Presidents Men I was immersed in Lichine, Penning-Rowsell and Bespaloff.

What happened? On that trip to Europe I was introduced to wine and food. Having grown up in a land were food and drink were eptiomized by Pabst, Manhattans and friday night fish fries the experience was a revelation. A chain reaction was started. This growing transition from news to wine was fueled by my friend Don Clemens, who had landed job with Almaden Imports, who in those days (the late 70s) had a cutting edge portfolio. My mouth still waters today as I remember drinking Chapoutier Tavel with ribs at Don's apartment. There was no going back.

In 1978, with zero experience, I talked my way out of journalism and into wine with a new job as the midwest rep of Peartree Imports, whose main brand was the Burgundian négociant Patriarche, but the portfolio was rounded out with a range of spirits guaranteed not to sell in 1978. I hit the books for my first sales calls - work-withs - with the sales team of Union Liquor Company in Chicago. I memorized each vineyard and the precise details of each spirit. On my first day I jumped into the salesman's car and we headed into Chicago's war zone. The main brand of these salesmen was Richard's Wild Irish Rose in pints. We'd get let in the back door of a fortified "liquor store" that consisted of several revolving bulletproof windows where customers would place their cash and, after spinning the window around, would get their pint of Richards. The salesman (there were no women in those days) would get his order for 100 cases of Richards, get paid in cash for the last order, then I had a few minutes to pitch my brands to the owner. I was not very successful. Then the owner would take his shotgun and walk us back to the car so no one would steal the wad of cash we'd just received. Even with this dose of intense realism I was not deterred.

The dismal state of the wine industry in those days ended up being an amazing opportunity. In 1979 I joined Sam Leavitt as a partner in the newly formed Direct Import Wine Company and over the next twenty years we built the first mid-west wine company focused on imported and then domestic estate wine. First came Becky Wasserman in Burgundy, Christopher Cannan in Bordeaux (and then Spain), Neil and Maria Empson in Italy then new upstarts from California like Calera, Spottswoode, Shafer, Corison, Iron Horse Soter and Sanford. Not far behind were Northwest wineries like Leonetti, Domaine Serene and Panther Creek. The first big break we got was selling the 1982 Bordeaux futures to the famed (but long gone) Sam's Wines. I literally got paid for these future deals with bags of cash often holding $20,000 or more. Chicago was the wild west of the wine business and, yes, [he too had a gun.]

This was a very special time for me. It was a great privilege to work with people of such integrity and creativity. They all inspire me to this day.

Then my partner wanted out and I did not have the money to buy him out so we were acquired by The Terlato Wine Group. I had a five year contract to stay, but those were some of the darkest years of my life in wine. Instead of integrity I was tossed into the world of simply moving "boxes". When my sentence was up I escaped to Italy for three years and due to the graciousness of extraordinary winemakers like Luca Currado (Vietti), Manuel Marchetti (Marcarini), Tina Colla (Poderi Colla) and Andrea Sottimano in Barbaresco I dug deeper into the spirit of what makes a wine great. Many hours in the cellar and vineyards with them brought me back to the world of wine I loved.

Refreshed and inspired I returned the the United States and now have spent almost 15 years divided between the vineyards of Napa and Oregon. During these years I have drawn on the knowledge and inspiration of all of the great winemakers I have known over more than three decades in wine. I will freely admit my winemaking heart now firmly resides in Oregon. There is a fresh spirit here. You just know the best wines are yet to come and I relish being a part of that energy.

In the end there is no final satisfaction in winemaking, because there is no such thing as perfection. The concept of a 100 point wine is simply absurd. However, while you may never be totally satisfied with any wine you make, you can be totally satisfied by experience of making them. There is a deep satisfaction at the completion of each vintage, be it great or difficult, that is not only deeply rewarding, but addictive. You have to come back for more.

I think we should start flowering in the Applegate Valley next week. Only in agriculture are you reborn every year.

“Ignore the Snobs, Drink the Cheap, Delicious Wine"*

This weekend there was a wine article in the New York Times by Bianca Bosker, but it was not in the Food Section, you had to veer over to the Opinion Section to find it. These days the Opinion Section of the New York Times has been a refuge I seek out when trying to reclaim my sanity in these insane political times in the United States. However, today there was little comfort there as, in addition to the missives from both the right and left assaulting Trumpism, I found a piece about wine. Well actually not about wine, but about the business of a beverage alcohol product that also uses the noun wine to describe itself.

“Ignore the Snobs, Drink the Cheap, Delicious Wine,” screamed the headline in the New York Times, but the word wine should have really been replaced by, “beverage alcohol produced from grapes,” but that would not have gotten nearly as many clicks. There certainly are cheap, delicious wines and I seek them out all the time. Oddly enough, considering this article, these cheap wines I like to enjoy on a regular basis are made in a natural style. Cheap does not have to mean “Two Buck Chuck”, which is produced with less integrity than Coca-Cola. At least Coca-Cola is honest about containing sugar, which industrial wines are not. Cola-Cola has to list the ingredients it puts in the bottle. Two Buck Chuck does not. Most people are all in favor of ingredient labeling for food products, yet for beverage alcohol not so much. The big wine producers shouldn't worry about ingredient labeling when it comes to their products. Those that grab their bottles of “Cheap, Delicious Manufactured Wine” are unlikely to be deterred.

The author, Bianca Bosker, says, “The time has come to learn to love unnatural wines.” It seems to me the world, or at least Americans, love unnatural wines already. Most of what is thoughtlessly swilled down under the name “wine” is beverage alcohol made from grapes, and not very good ones at that. Americans need to understand that natural wines are good values too. Not every “natural wine” comes from some ultra-chic biodynamic Burgundy domaine, but they also come from impassioned winemakers selling under $20 Beaujolais, Muscadet, Valpolicella and includes wines from California, Oregon, Washington and the rest of the New World. There is a lot to choose from.

(You can read my recent article on what I feel defines natural wines here.)

In her article, Ms Bosker describes the process of producing industrial beverage alcohol from grapes. It made me realize that although soon I will have been in the wine industry for four decades, never once have I knowingly met one of these technicians and know essentially nothing about that end of the business. What was clear from this article is there are two winemaking worlds. One where a winemaker makes what they believe in and then seeks out customers that share their vision and those that make whatever beverage the marketing department says the consumer wants. Oddly, this last group includes everything from the cheapest to the most expensive wines. At least those on the low end of the price spectrum possess the integrity of honestly knowing the value of what they produce.

Winemaking technicians that pursue the corporate winemaking way are not to be disrespected. What they achieve is a technical marvel. To take an agricultural crop and produce hundreds of thousands of cases of a uniform, repeatable and stable commercial product that exactly matches the flavor profiles that your marketing department has defined is an amazing skill. I have no idea how they do it.

As a winemaker on the other end of the world from those described in this article, I was comforted by the support on Twitter from wine writers Eric Asimov and Alice Feiring and the general rage against the article on social media, but I think the wrath aimed at the writer was off the mark. She was simply reporting the truth. The beverage alcohol side of the wine business appears to dwarf those of us committed to terroir, sustainable agriculture and natural, or what I would call real wine. Real wine is an expression of time and place, while industrial beverage alcohol produced from grapes is, very simply, just another alcohol delivery system. Consumer flavor trials do not produce poetry in a glass, but they do provide a solid buzz.

In between the excesses of the extreme edge of natural wine movement and dull industrial wines, there is a whole world of excellent, more-or-less natural wines being made without one consumer focus group being involved. The article says, “the time has come to love unnatural wines.” But why? The shelves in wine stores throughout the United States are full of wines from Spain, Italy, France and the entire New World that are made in a natural way with minimal handling. Writes Bosker, “when it comes to sub-$40 wines - the winemaking process can be surprising high-tech.” That’s only true if you insist on buying neutral wines from big industrial producers. The simple truth is that the vast majority of winemakers in the world are small and make their wines in a more-or-less natural way. That under $40 price range is full of beautiful wines from Beaujolais, the Côtes du Rhône, Valpolicella along with New World Zinfandel, Syrah, Grenache and many other examples of delicious, more or less "natural" wines. There is only one thing the under $40 consumer, or those at the $9.89 average price quoted in this article, needs to do to drink natural wines and that is stop buying wines made from famous varieties like cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay from famous places like Napa, Bordeaux and Burgundy. Oh, there is one other thing, stop buying wines in most grocery stores and take the time to find a decent wine merchant. Buying wine from a real wine merchant that you have developed a relationship with is the most important thing you can do to save money in the long run.

When I first sit down and think about what kinds of wines we will produce at Troon in the next vintage, my first thoughts do not go to the consumer. First I think of the varieties and the vineyards we have and what I believe will be the best wines we can make from them. Then, when we make the best possible wines we can, I go out in search of consumers that agree with the vision that we have expressed in the wine. That is the advantage of not making very much wine. We can make what we believe in. The wine we make is an extension of us as people working in agriculture. I understand that those making hundreds of thousands, if not millions of cases, do not have this luxury. However, when you take all the small producers in the world making natural wines based on personal vision and nature and combine our productions we too make millions of cases.

The world is filled with both millions of cases of processed industrial wines and millions of cases of natural artisan wines. Often the prices are the same. You do have a choice.

Listening, Wine and Bach

My wife is out-of-town, visiting her sister. That means I can crank up the tunes. I was rockin' out tonight during dinner. My Sonos was shaking the house with - Glenn Gould's 1981 recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations.

What's fascinating about loud Bach is that you feel much the same as if you were listening to The Beatles or the Stones (yes, I'm old). The passion and beat makes you tap your toes. One of the compelling aspects of this recording (listened to loud!) is that you hear Gould's humming and grunts as he plays Bach with the same emotional intensity that B.B. King plucked Lucille on The Thrill is Gone.

Said Gould, "I believe that the justification of art is the internal combustion it ignites in the hearts of men and not its shallow, externalized, public manifestations. The purpose of art is not the release of a momentary ejection of adrenalin but is, rather, the gradual, lifelong construction of a state of wonder and serenity." Can you think of a better description of a great wine?

This is the why a point scale can never hope to define, or explain, much less quantify the experience of wine. It is too complicated to boil down this complex interaction of humans and nature over literally thousands of years to a decimal point.

Dinner tonight was pressure cooker wine-braised pork short-ribs (90 minutes) with a reduction made from the broth and for the wine 2010 Donkey & Goat "Five Thirteen" El Dorado, Red Wine Blend (47% grenache, 21% syrah, 16% mourvèdre, 10% counoise, 6% cinsault). Like Gould, this wine hummed and grunted in the background during its performance with a whiff of volatile acidity and a little funk, but like Gould it delivered. Exciting and fun it lifted the dinner to a new height. How many points? Don't insult it.

As Bach proved and Gould restated, there is real power in refinement, elegance and discipline. Power itself is not something to be revered. Powerful wines get high points because, as Gould said, they deliver "a momentary ejection of adrenalin." I think in winemaking a little reflection on Gould's thoughts on the justification and purpose of art can be applied to our craft. All to often we pursue the external, not the internal, or nature's purpose for wine.

To repurpose the Gould quote, the purpose of wine is not the release of a momentary ejection of adrenalin but is, rather, the gradual, lifelong construction of a state of wonder and serenity. Powerful wines may give that injection of adrenalin on the first sip, but they do not deliver a sense of wonder and serenity instead becoming trophies to hoard.

It takes courage to let your own personal vision and passion show through in your work. You'll be hard pressed to find wine brands that roll off your tongue that have even a bit of courage.

When you first hear the humming on Glenn Gould's recording of the Goldberg Variations (both the 1955 and 1981 versions) you think something is wrong with the recording. Then, with repeated listening and a little homework on your part you understand that you are hearing something personal and truly expressive. With compelling, memorable wines the experience and requirements are the same.

It's not how loud it is, it's how well you're listening.

Rationally Natural

A very happy tempranillo indigenous yeast fermentation 

A very happy tempranillo indigenous yeast fermentation 

Natural wine and biodynamics seems to promote irrational flame wars on the Internet. I have faith in science and personally have trouble buying some of the more voodoo practices myself. On the other hand I can’t argue with the results. Many of the wines I find the most compelling are made using natural winemaking concepts and from vineyards farmed biodynamically. My goal is to become rationally natural.

The intensity of these debates is hard to comprehend after you’ve fermented two hundred tons of fruit without a bag of yeast in sight. My vision of becoming rationally natural is simple: only do what you have to and when you have to do something don’t use bad stuff. Simply minimize or eliminate inputs everywhere.

There is something emotionally rewarding about simply putting grapes into a fermenter and removing the lid a few days later to find fermentation starting without a bit of help from you. It makes you feel more connected to the wine. However, this is not magic, it’s science. When winemakers use cultured yeast strains they knock-off all the indigenous yeast with a dose of sulfur. Then they add their selection of Saccharomyces cerevisiae and it’s off to the races. When our grapes go into a fermenter no sulfur is added so the indigenous yeasts start a less direct process. At the beginning of our fermentations many types of yeasts are present to compete with each other for food. One of the reasons yeast cells produce alcohol is to kill off the competition - not the best system as eventually they kill themselves off. As the fermentation continues the weaker strains of yeasts are killed off until at the end only Saccharomyces cerevisiae, the bad boys of the wine yeast world, are there to take the wine to dryness just like those using cultured yeasts. The difference is that with many types of yeast having been part of the fermentation each adds a nuance, no matter how small, that adds layers of complexity to the wine.

I find wines fermented with indigenous yeasts to have more complex aromatics and a different feel on the palate. Texture in wine is very important to me and I believe much of what consumers refer to as taste is actually the texture of the wine. Building texture is a priority in winemaking for me and I feel fermentation with naturally occurring yeasts enhance the mouthfeel of a wine making it more lively and fresh. Often I find wines fermented with cultured yeast to be more one-dimensional, more focused on basic, straightforward dark fruity flavors. However, certainly this is not always the case as there are hundreds of outstanding wines made with selected yeast cultures.

Obviously what yeast you use for fermentation is only one part of what makes winemaking natural. Personally I’m not big on certifications. I like the idea of taking the best of each and weaving your own relationship to the land and your wine. There is something to be learned from biodynamics, organics, the ideas of Masanobu Fukuoka in the One Straw Revolution and many others. Studying all of these concepts and finding the practices that match your vineyard and region is the best solution for me. The only goal should be what will help me make the best wine possible. Just choosing one discipline does not well represent the complexities of nature.

Being rationally natural is simple: only do what you have to and when you have to do something don’t use bad stuff. That makes sense to me both scientifically, emotionally and rationally.