Sun 18 Feb 2007
Imagine that you are a bottle of Chianti, created from grapes won by soil and climate and human sweat from a well-tended vineyard on a picturesque Tuscan hillside, nurtured in a winery with educated craft and hard-earned knowledge, bottled and corked and sent out into the world with hopeful expectation.
How do you — the bottle of Chianti — get from that sun-burnished hillside, that ancient stone winery, to a table in a city in the United States of America?
You take a circuitous path. There’s the broker in Florence who makes the deal with the importer in New York that brings the wine on a boat and, if you’re lucky, in a refrigerated container, called a “reefer,” to these shores. The importer has contracts with wholesale distributors in many states, though perhaps not all over the country if it’s a small importer, and ships the wine by truck — and if you’re lucky it’s a refrigerated truck — to various cities within its territory. The wholesale distributors in those cities, in turn, sell the wine — you, the bottle of Chianti — to retail stores, restaurants and bars with whom it has dealings. And in one of those stores, somebody buys you and takes you home.
Think of the costs involved: The cost of farming the grapes and making and aging and bottling the wine; the cost of trucking it to a seaport where it’s loading onto a ship; the cost of unloading the wine and taking it to the importer’s warehouse; the cost of promoting the wine, paying the marketing firm for advertising or at least for setting up a few lunches for journalists and retailers and restaurant people; the cost of shipping the wine inland, to Albany and Baltimore, to Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, Louisville and Atlanta. The cost to the wholesaler of storing the wine — and too many wholesalers, by the way, do not have chill-rooms for wine — and paying their employees who are out hitting the stores and restaurants to sell the wine, and finally the retailer, who has rent and insurance and overtime and so on.
It seems like a miracle that we can still buy nifty little Spanish and Italian wines for $8 and $10. It also seems as if the guy getting the short end of the stick is the farmer working in the vineyard.
Anyway, I bring up these matters, and specifically the bottle of Chianti, because I recently bought at a retail store in Memphis, a bottle of Chianti 2003 produced by the firm of Giacomo Mori. Let me say this right now: In almost 23 years of writing about wine, this is the best “basic” Chianti level wine I have encountered; it’s a model, an exemplar, of what Chianti ought to be.
Let me remind readers, briefly, that three levels of Chianti exist: First (and so familiarly) is Chianti, produced in a large area of that name between Florence and Siena, large enough that quality varies widely. The image of Chianti as a light, cheap acidic wine consumed in inexpensive Italian restaurants, dripping candles stuck into the empty bottles, persisted for generations and perhaps has finally faded, because quality is improving. Next is Chianti Classico, a smaller region (though perhaps too large for consistent quality) in which the blend of grapes and barrel aging are subject to regulation, as is the case with the smaller and theoretically more prestigious category, Chianti Classico Riserva.
So, the point is that I bought this Giacomo Mori Chianti 2003, and it turned out to be terrific. It’s packed with spice, black fruit flavor and floral elements, all of these of the fresh and dried nature, as well as black tea, orange rind and soft, chewy well-integrated tannins. Unlike so many red wines in Tuscany today, this one is aged in large casks, not small oak barrels, so there’s little oak influence. The chief character here: Lovely purity and intensity, balance and integration.
The average retail price for this wine is $19 or $20, though an Internet search revealed princes ranging from $15 to $23. Whoa, FK, you’re saying, I like my Chianti to run about $12 or $14. I mean, we’re talking about a simple, basic wine here.
I understand that, but there’s nothing simple about the quality, the authenticity or the integrity of this wine. I think it’s definitely worth $20.
On the other hand, I paid $34, and I’m pretty steamed about that.
As I have pointed out in this post, myriad factors contribute to the cost of a bottle of wine in its progress from birth to the customer’s wine-glass, and I don’t expect a wine made in California or shipped in to New York to cost the same in Memphis as in those places. But a little better ratio would be nice. I recently wrote with high praise, for example, on this blog and on my website about the Logan Sleepy Hollow Vineyard Chardonnay 2005, from Monterey County. The suggested retail price is $18; I paid $20. OK, two bucks more. I can live with that.
However, charging $14 more for a bottle of wine than the average national price seems not just, well, downright mean but counter-productive. The retailer may be justified in passing on his expenses and the cost from the wholesaler to the customer, but how many consumers, realizing that they have paid 70 percent more for a wine than the average price, will decide not to shop at that store?
The Giacomo Mori Chiantis — there’s also an excellent single-vineyard “Castelrotto” — are Marc de Grazia Selections imported by Vin DeVino in Chicago.