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Wine Spectator

It was the first magazine I ever picked up, and it got me hooked. Beautiful presentation, glitzy ads, and you count on seeing Marvin standing proudly in his photo, with his flashy watch pointing right at you. It’s the world’s most successful wine magazine – hands down.

I’ve always looked forward to reading the personal columns in WS and Decanter and others. It’s the possibility to give the reader real insight and opinion into the vast world of wine. So I was disappointed to read Laube and then Kramer’s columns in the most recent edition. I was bored to tears.

How is it when there are so many exciting things happening in the wine world that we get another article on service temperature? Haven’t we covered that already? These bizarre personal stories about how red wine spilt on his white carpet are out of place. Kramer is a knowledgeable guy. But I find so much of these columns to be philosophical about wine in a very airy-fairy way.

My eyes almost popped out when I read that Laube says fine red “wines are best in their youth, when they’re closest to the vine”. Surely not? I know everyone has different tastes, and even certain nations like France prefer drinking red wines younger than say the Brits. But closest to the vine? I had a Montelena 2008, 2004 and 1996 today. The older vintages had complexity and depth and development that only comes with age. That’s what fine wine is all about.

My favorite magazine for these types of columns is Decanter. It’s better written and more interesting.

Vega, Lopez de Heredia, Soldera, old colheita tawny from Kopke

To me, the mark of a producer up in the stratosphere is one that releases wines when they are 10 years old, or older. That is class.

Vega goes through the most amazing maturation process in cask and bottle. 10 years is generally the age on release. Lopez de Heredia in Rioja does a whopping 8 years in cask and 8 years in bottle before release. Their cellars are immense mazes of barrels stacked high. They even age their white for 10 years – stick that in your pipe and smoke it.

As for Kopke, we buy the 1974 tawny. And if you want there are stocks of other vintages, in the 60’s 70’s and 80’s. The level of complexity in these wines is off the charts.

Commercially, it can be very worthwhile. I worked for a Bordeaux negociant once who had stocks of lowly petits chateaux, but 50 years old. We went to Japan and Hong Kong and did well attended tastings with verticals spanning over a half century. Buyers went bananas. The brand image was created in those moments when tasters were blown away simply by the age, and the complexity of the wines.

When you visit a fine wine producer and they don’t keep a library I worry. It becomes so important to show the press and the key customers the ability of any fine wine to age, as that is the ultimate test.

Spanish Wine Tour this September

Spain has a certain feel to it. It’s totally different from other European countries. It’s warmer, more rugged, and very individual. In a way, these same characteristics translate into the wines.

The issue with wine these days, it seems to me, is that most red wines lack complexity, and yet somehow people seem to think that’s OK. Too many points are given for concentration and intensity, and it’s as if complexity was an added bonus – when in fact, it’s the key quality marker.

In part, this is because red wines are drunk too young for the most part. People are knocking back 08 Bordeauxs and 09 Napa Cabs. Complexity can take time to develop.

This is the key point that the Spanish have long figured out, and the Italians to a lesser extent. It MUST be the law that wineries are forced to cellar fine red wines themselves and release them onto the market when they are ready. That should be the law, like it is in Spain.

In Spain, you have to age a Gran Riserva for 5 years before release. Many age them for much longer. So the wine shows up in perfect condition, with complexity. All that for about $30. You can’t beat the quality/price ratio. Rioja still does it.

It’s a cost for the winery, sure, but more in terms of cash flow management. The stock does cost to finance, but it’s more the fact you delay selling and store wine. Look at the Champenois – many are aged over 6 years. Moet has 96 million bottles in stock at any one time, and growing. Hats off to Latour who finally took the plunge and will only release wine from the chateau when they are ready – around 8-12 years old.

So I’m excited to go back to Spain on our tour this September. Complex wines galore. Details at http://www.finevintageltd.com/wine-tours/spain/ – it’s an amazing trip.

SCREAMING EAGLE, THE NAPA CULT

I was seeing some friends on Saturday night and a guy dropped by. He happened to be the GM of Screaming Eagle.

This is still the leading name in cult Napa wines, selling for $750 on release, with a maximum of 3 bottles per person on the allocation list. There is a long waiting list to get on the allocation list. Every year almost everyone takes up their allotment.

It’s incredible. A dollar for every milimeter. The wine shot to fame with some perfect 100 Parker scores and then the 92 sold at the Napa Auction for…..$500,000 for one large bottle.

It’s shrouded in mystery. Nobody is allowed to visit except the absolute top brass in the press. This is part of the allure.

About 600 cases are produced. Some years more, some. In great Napa vintages the wine, when resold, instantly reaches over $1000 per bottle the moment it leaves the winery. If you hang onto it for a few years it can be worth 3-4 times what you paid.

Many cult wines don’t stay the course. But Screaming Eagle has thanks to the careful management of quality and commercialization.
The guy did have a barrel sample of something that we tasted. Although I’m usually pretty critical of these types of wines, it was amazing quality.

Chateau Montelena, the original Napa Valley 1st growth

Tucked away in the outskirts of Calistoga lies an icon of Californian wine. Chateau Montelena not only helped put California and Napa on the world wine map by winning the 76 Paris tasting but continues to be a highly sought-after collector’s wine. It’s a “must have”.

The property is still family-owned, and run by the Barretts. Bo and Heidi, husband and wife, must be the most talented and awarded winemaking couple in the world. Heidi is responsible for several cult Napa wines and 100 point scores, plus the most expensive bottle of wine ever sold at auction – for $500,000 if you’re wondering.

The chateau has immense charm, showcasing the history of Napa back to the 1800’s. The cellars have recently been renovated, promising even higher quality in years to come. It’s powered by solar, and the vineyards are meticulous.

If there was one winery in the USA that I could dream of working for, well, it would be Montelena. So I am thrilled that dreams come true, and that I will be collaborating with Chateau Montelena starting in July.
To learn more about this Napa Valley 1st growth visit
http://www.montelena.com/

Yquem and Birthday party balloons

So Yquem decided not to release en primeur in 2011. Smart move. With prices collapsing there’s no point in offering a benchmark icon from a superb vintage at a discount, just because Europe’s going down the tubes.

This is the type of brand strategy move that works wonders. Yquem essentially turned its back on the market and said no. It’s not for sale. Of course, you need deep pockets to do that as the appeal of cash to finance such an expensive operation is more than highly appealing. but the result is that Yquem’s brand image just got even stronger.

But if you are in the fine wine luxury game then these are surely the types of moves you have to make. Why more top red wines producers don’t age their wines until they are ready to drink is beyond me. If you are wealthy enough to run a winery then ageing it until it is ready to drink would seem like the obvious final step in quality control.

In Napa, some of the wineries choose to tie a bunch of balloons to a sign saying something like “Killer Cab” and leave it outside their gates, as if that would entice people and make them think that this was a “must have” wine. You definitely had me with the balloons – that was the trick…

Cruising up the Silverado trial yesterday I noticed the balloons were out in full force. Really? Really? Do you honestly think that a luxury brand should have balloons out trying to catch people’s attention and beckon them in? In such a sophisticated region, surely this is not the way to go.

What separates Petrus from the rest of Pomerol? Is Petrus always better quality? No. But is the brand image in a different galaxy? Yes. Do they enter shows and seek medals, or allow visitors to the property? No. And, like Yquem, they most definitely don’t tie balloons to their sign so people will remember them.

The Bordeaux En Primeur Charade

What a charade. Every year it’s the same, with a few twists and turns.

The charade, in a good vintage with a buoyant economy, starts off with the proclamation that it’s the “vintage of the century”, again. Granted, you can have a great idea of quality even a few weeks before the harvest. So the campaign starts before the grapes are picked.

The media machine that is the Grands Crus jump into action, travel the globe, and focus on a discussion about vintage. Bordeaux is about vintage. Many regions are not. This is to the Bordelais’ advantage as they can strike when the quality is top notch. Other places should try and market vintage more if they want to make major price jumps.

The wine writers then flood the internet with reports on what a great year it is, and pepper it with the usual quotes from top producers. “We have never seen a year like this before…”, “with our vineyard and winemaking techniques we will make the best wines we ever have”.

This filters through to the mainstream primeur trade buyer, who then tells all their customers. Why? Primeur is a great time for lots of people to make lots of fast money. Paid in advance, fast transactions, no stock holdings if you so choose. Sell millions of dollars worth of wine on the phone and email, in a heartbeat. 10-20% margins, maybe more, and no financing needed. The customer owns the stock and pays for it immediately.

At least this is the way it typically works, except in ridiculous monopoly primeur systems in Canada where the buyers finally gets the wine by waiting in a queue outside a store on “release day” to run in and grab bottles, and all this happens 3 years after the vintage. Can you imagine calling that primeur?

The primeur games continue with Bobby P’s arrival. Nobody else matters. Not even Wine Spectator. Parker moves the market. He tastes, open label I might add, and in late April the scores are released.
Anyone who got over 95 considers increasing their price by 25-50% from what they had in mind. If you got 100, and it’s a great vintage, then the sky’s the limit. And it really is. I mean 1000 Euros for a bottle of wine. Cheval Blanc was close to that in 2010.

The trade buyers start to mount their campaign against the chateaux reasoning that their customers “simply will not stand for unreasonable price increases” and calming for “calm and being sensible”. The likes of Farr and Berry and so on start saying “we will not buy” in an effort to keep the Bordelais from going crazy. It never works.

The first big gun is released usually around mid to end April, giving an early indication of the percentage increases that might come. It could be up 45% on 2008. WOW. And the campaign then roars into high gear, with massive price increases that boggle the mind, and buyers then snap it up because it’s a great vintage that has been well marketed.

In 2011 it isn’t so. It’s a major correction. Nothing much is selling. This is in large part because of the woes in Europe and elsewhere. Who has $1000 to spend on a case of wine they won’t see for 2-3 years? And that would be a cheap chateaux. Primeur is a luxury. And Spectator’s recent statement about the wines being sold at a discount to the bottled wines is, in matter of fact, false. You can lose money. 97 Bordeaux leaves a scar on many merchants.

Anyway, the fact remains that the chateaux, the negociants, and the whole Bordeaux PR network is so strong, so far ahead of any other luxury wine (except the Champenois perhaps) that they are the ones typically in charge. They have created such demand.

And the demand is there because, in terms of quality, there is still no other wine quite like it. Say what you will about this Chilean red and that Hawke’s Bay Cab outdoing the 1st growths, well maybe if you taste them in their infancy, but certainly not at their peak. The quality of the best wines is in a different galaxy because they have…complexity.

Spanish Whites

I was pleasantly surprised to find some very good Spanish white wines because this isn’t the country’s forte. When I think of Spain it is the stunning reds of Rioja, Ribera del Duero and Priorat that spring to mind.

But the value for money of these whites was excellent and I liked the blends of indigenous varieties combined with the classic international ones. The Albarino variety is definitely worth checking out.