Monday, April 27, 2009

When winemakers follow the wrong lead

A rather thought-provoking title, I felt that it was time to enter the ring after reading all these discussions about influential wine critics and major wine publications.

I have been watching the wine industry evolved into a position of a global giant thanks, in part, to several wine journals and wine critics who emerged in the late 80's and helped change the perception of wine as a snob drink to one that has become a regular choice beverage for many. The rapid and continuing growth of the North American wine market also created the need for wine reviews and quality ratings, turning some into very influential publications and star personalities - giving truth to the words "The medium is the message" as written by the famous Canadian, Marshall McLuhan.

As in any industry, there is always danger when wine reviews and critics become a source of influence rather than a guide that they once were. This leads me to the very issue as indicated by the title of this blog. Many colleagues will agree with me that the style of several wines being made these days no longer express the true character of the regions where they come from. It becomes obvious when you start speaking to winemakers who justify their new style due to a change in customer preference as indicated by higher demand for wines made popular by certain critics.

This happened to me in Bordeaux where I tasted a selection from a group of winemakers in St. Emilion. As many of us are familiar with the style of this region - elegant, nicely perfumed and velvety.., I just could not believe what my palate was assaulted with: aggressive tannins, lots of oak and massive extraction - none of the elegance and finesse I was expecting. I actually thought that they were trying to fool me by pouring some Pauillac wines! Then I asked a simple, but vital question: Why the change? Answer: Parker!

Let's look at the market since the 90s. Wine consumers are a finicky bunch, and while many are dependent upon wine reviews and recommendations from various journals, they also follow a collective trend in a particular market. A good example is the ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) trend in response to the Chardonnay craze in the 90s. This was followed by another equally important trend: Unoaked wines (typically applied to white wines than red). Suddenly, consumers became confident enough to make their own choices, and some in the industry listened. These developments came at a time when there was an explosion of new wines flooding the North American markets.

Yet, here we are in the 21st century. Every time I taste wines from producers who are eager to enter a new market, nearly half of the wines are over extracted and lacking in distinguishable character of a varietal or region. Very often, they try to create wines that follow a particular style in keeping with what they perceive as the new trend in wine. Thus, wines that would have tasted according to their classic flavours now offer distinctly varied taste profiles that, in many cases, are so far from their original taste. Sadly, many producers are guilty of this crime, and they come from every wine region you can think of.

Thankfully, there are still a great number of winemakers who are truly dedicated and passionate about their work. They understand that each wine reflects the character of the terroir where their vines grow. In the end, that's how wine making should be followed, and not because of some powerful critic whose idea of a good wine is one that Dr. Frankenstein would also prefer.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Being a foodie makes selling wine a breeze

It used to be that cooking well was seen as something only a Cordon Bleu graduate could accomplish. For years, except for a few die hard followers of Julia Child, this domestic endeavor was mostly performed without any care for flavours and creative input, and many found cooking an unexciting chore, save for weekend barbecues and the required roast turkey at Thanksgiving and Christmas. This was the typical scene in North America until the nineties.

These days it's exciting to see so much interest among young people about cooking, thanks to the Food Network and other TV shows on Travel and Food. Cooking has become a COOL thing to do and, suddenly, the continent is full of foodies who, not only love food, but are also eager to try new and exotic ingredients. Just look at the number of cookware shops that have set up around the country, and the cooking schools that proliferated due to the growing demand from people who are taking the plunge; not to mention the many food and wine magazines that are now a common sight on the racks.

As a wine merchant, being part of this fascinating evolution is important in successful wine sales. Here's why: knowing about food preparation, spices and flavours provides me with valuable information that allows me to propose the right wines to my customers. Think about it. If you have no clue how the food is prepared or tastes, how can you possibly suggest the right wine?

Over the years, my passion for cooking dishes from various cultures has actually helped me provide correct wine matching advice, even in restaurants that were not always wine-friendly. Sadly, there are some in the wine industry who just couldn't care less about this and they continue to perpetrate the old, one-dimensional rule: white with fish, red with meat. It does not take a lot of work to learn a few basic cooking tips, but it is essential to achieving success in wine sales, as more and more consumers are actually becoming food and wine savvy.

Just imagine the possibilities for wine matching once you become familiar with spice aromas and flavours. Food that you would not have served with wine could now work with rosé, white, red or sparkling. It's all in the flavours in the final dish - the opportunity to expand your skills in making the right wine suggestions.


Monday, April 13, 2009

Next generation winemakers in Europe

I always look forward to visiting Europe several times a year in search of new wines to import into Canada and Asia. Each time, I am fascinated to meet a few young winemakers who are quietly making a name for themselves by creating wines that are exciting and fresh, without sacrificing terroir and tradition.

One such visit brought me to the Roussillon, a rugged and beautiful region of Southern France, near the border of Spain. The first time I visited this region was in 1995 on a recommendation of a French wine writer in Canada who hails from the area. Through my contact, I was kindly introduced to the region's respected Dean of Oenology who took me on as an ardent student of the region's wine history and showed me around vineyards and wineries he consulted. Back then, I saw an incredible potential for making top quality wines that reminded me of Santa Barbara, California

Sadly, this first visit was a real disappointment in terms of finding consistent quality wines, save a few producers like Domaine Gauby and Sarda Malet, as well as excellent Banyuls and Muscat. I came back to this region 3 more times, still unimpressed as before.

Forward to February 2009 at a Muscat Conference in Perpignan where a wonderful surprise awaited me. Not expecting much based on my previous experience, I simply went around the hall tasting samples. Quite suddenly, I started noticing an upward trend in quality and style in many of the booths I visited: Domaine Tour Vieille, Domaine des Schistes, Sarda Malet, Piquemal, Mas Cremat, to name a few. Finally, I met a young man at a small table where I tasted what I considered the finest white wine I have ever tasted in years: Domaine les terres de Fagayra Maury Blanc 2008: exquisite, luscious and well balanced. I'm even at a lost for words here.

The wine came from Roc des Anges, a new domaine owned by a dynamic young couple, Stephane and Marjorie Gallet. Stephane was a winemaker at the famous Mas Amiel in Maury, and Marjorie came from the Rhone valley where she worked at Yves Cuilleron and Pierre Gaillard. This couple has truly captivated me and renewed my hope for the Roussillon.

For me to go crazy over a wine is rare, as I have always been a tough taster and quite unrestrained about my assessment, good or bad, of any wine during a tasting. But this was a real discovery, completely unexpected and even made me giddy (if I can use that word). This is what I call a WOW moment - when everything just falls into place. I rarely have this experience, even when tasting top grand crus.

Next on my list is Guillaume Nudant, a 25 years old winemaker at Domaine Nudant, his family estate in Ladoix Serrigny. Unassuming, shy and smart, he is making some of the finest wines in the region, as evident in the very fine Aloxe Corton, Nuits St. Georges and Corton Charlemagne, to name a few. He is the 5th generation in the Nudant family of wine producers and negociants. As he proudly shows his small plots of Premiere cru and Grand Cru vineyards, one can see that passion runs in this young man's blood.

In La Morra, Piemonte, I have been following the progress of Rocche Costamagna under the direction of winemaker, Alessandro Locatelli, whose family owns the property for 4 generations. Over the last 15 years, Alessandro has been fine tuning his wines to express their natural character and complexity, and he has won several medals and top ratings for his efforts. Today, the wines of Rocche Costamagna stand out in major tasting events for their consistent quality and superb craftsmanship - there is not a sign of massive oak or atypical flavors one finds in Barolo these days.

The same kudos goes to Paolo Avezza and Lorenzo Ruris - close friends, each owns a small property in Asti where they produce outstanding Moscato, Barbera and Dolcetto that will impress even the toughest critic. Again, they represent the next generation of winemakers that are changing the views of the fickle market.

In Hagenbrunn, a small town near Vienna, another young couple is getting a lot of media attention these days for their Gruner Veltliner DAC and single vineyard wines such as the GV Sätzen-Fürstenberg 2007 (90 Parker) under their winery label, Weingut Schwarzboeck. Rudi and Anita run a neat winery operation that turns out award winning wines made by Rudi in their small, 20-hectare vineyards around Hagenbrunn.

It's refreshing to know that the wine world continues to grow with enthusiastic winemakers who are committed to making their own stamp on quality wines. They, along with many more who are not mentioned in this blog, represent the future of wine as emerging markets develop a taste for this wonderful fruit of the vine. Decades from now, we will look back at these passionate individuals and thank them for their hard work and dedication.


Thursday, April 2, 2009

Wine by the Glass: The road to wine discovery

Over the years we have seen a rise in the number of wine bars in cities and towns in North America and Asia. It wasn't long ago that all you could get were the house red and white wines (normally unpalatable and cheap) available by the glass, half liter and bottle.

This exciting evolution shows that consumers on both sides of the Pacific are developing an appreciation for better quality wines, thanks, in part, to the many wine journals and newspaper wine articles that are readily available in the last 10 years, as well as movies such as Sideways and Bottle Shock; not to mention several wine related shows on the Food Network television.

Yet, despite this unprecedented growth, many establishments are still stuck in their old ways by offering the most uninteresting selections that are over priced and usually oxidized. Many are unwilling to take the risk of opening bottles that may not sell quickly; not having the right equipment to preserve open bottles; or simply not buying the idea of having several wines available by the glass as economically sound. In both markets, the real culprit is actually the price for a glass of wine. Read: Needs to be lower. The old system that relied on wine sales as the MAIN source of revenue needs major revision. Read: Wine and spirits sales should be part of the overall revenue. I never understand why a wine that wholesales for $15.00 becomes $50.00 a bottle and $13.00 per glass in many restaurants and wine bars. Imagine if this same wine was offered at $28 per bottle and $7.00 per glass? Here's what I would do if I was a customer: I would order 2 glasses instead of one.

You can see where I'm going with this. It is a no-brainer. Sure, some of these establishments would say that they need more than 200% markup to cover costs. Here's my answer: the more expensive your pricing, th
e less you sell, vice-versa. Of course it does not help that some cities have higher taxes or monopolies which charge high markups. Still, if we use the same wholesale price of $15.00, why can't they offer it for $28.00 per bottle?

I remember one of my earlier visits to Turin as a guest of the Italian Trade Commission along with several wine importers from Canada. One memorable part of this trip was the last dinner in the city where we were all amazed at the low price for quality wines that were on the restaurant list. As expected, we went crazy ordering bottles that were priced at a fraction of what we would pay in Canada.

As the title of this post suggests, wine by the glass program is a road to wine discovery. Just imagine new wine consumers having access to several exciting selections that change each week, all priced below $10.00 per glass. If you are the wine bar proprietor, you'd be smiling all the way to the bank. Why? Your spot becomes the hottest destination for wine lovers to discover new wines without having to buy a bottle. This has been proven in many cities. But you have to do more than just serve offer wine. In Italy, France and Spain, many places provide small plates of bite size goodies to accompany your wine, gratis. Read: Goodwill and loyal clientele.

Leo J. Baduria