November 2007


In the Nov. 15 issue of Wine Enthusiast — “We’re No. 2!” — editor and publisher Adam Strum writes in his editorial that “prices of wine have actually decreased over the past years while quality has definitely improved.”

Is this statement true?

Strum repeats that “prices for wine are going down while quality is increasing across the board.” He continues: “Think about the flavor, mouthfeel and balance of a $10 wine 10 years ago and today. I’ll be glad to answer for you: No comparison. It’s just as dollarsign_01.jpg true at the $15 and $20 level. You can buy truly excellent, world-class wine now for $20 where 10 years ago that same amount would not have delivered the same quality.”

“The reason for this,” he says, “is competition.”

So, the issue doesn’t seem to be that prices for wine are going down, but that better wine is available in the $10 niche (or $15 or $20). It’s true that if one bottle of wine costs $10 and another costs $50, the average price is $30, while if four bottles of wine cost $10 and one bottle costs $50, the average price is $18. Those figures add up to more cheap wine on the market on average but not decreasing prices for wine in general. Of course Strum is writing in Wine Enthusiast’s “Special Value Issue,” so he has a bit of an ax to grind, and there’s not a thing wrong with that; it’s his magazine, and many terrific inexpensive wines are reviewed in this issue. I mean, I like to discover a great little cheap wine as much as the next person does.

Anyway, I disagree that inexpensive wines are necessarily getting better; some $10 and $11 wines from Australia actually aren’t as good now as they were 10 years ago; the specter of sameness and anonymity has fallen upon them. I do agree that we need to look to Spain, southern Italy and Argentina for the best values in cheap wines.

The truth, however, is that wine prices are going up, despite lots of cheap wine being available. If you’ve been buying wine or writing about wine for 20 years or longer, you know that this is the case. Just over the past decade, vineyard land has gotten more expensive, grapes have gotten more expensive and so have French oak barrels.

Perhaps one winery will serve as an example of the trend.

Morgan Winery was founded in Monterey County in 1982 by Dan Lee, who had made wine for Durney Vineyards and Jekel Vineyards. At first he concentrated on chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and several pinot noirs from Carneros and Monterey. Gradually, Lee turned Morgan into primarily an estate winery with the best wines derived from designated vineyards in what is now the Santa Lucia Highlands appellation. While I have quibbled from time to time about the amount of oak that might influence a particular wine — Lee is generally quite judicious with new oak — or feeling that a wine wasn’t up to the quality of its predecessors, I am usually grateful to try Morgan’s wines for their varietal purity, intensity and integrity.

Let’s look at the prices of a few wines from the Morgan stable for the past 10 years. I don’t mean this as a criticism of the winery but as an illustration of price trends in California.

The suggested retail price of the Morgan Sauvignon Blanc 1998 was $12; for vintage 2006, it’s $16, not a huge increase (33%) but still there.

When Morgan’s Cote du Crow’s Rhone-style blend of syrah and grenache debuted with the 2001 vintage, the wine cost $13; the price of the recently released Cote du Crow’s 2006 is $20, an increase of about 53% over five years. Morgan’s Metallico Chardonnay, which also debuted with the 2001 vintage, was originally priced at $20 and has only gone up to $22 with the 2006 version.

Morgan’s best pinot noirs come from Gary’s Vineyards, Rosella’s Vineyard and the Double L Vineyard. For 2000, their suggested retail prices were $38, $38 and $42 respectively; for 2005, the latest year, they’re all $55. (I’ll admit that I was startled when I saw those price sheets.) Now these wines are produced in very limited quantities, usually no more than 300 or 400 cases. Still over six vintages, they show an increase of 44% for Gary’s and Rosella’s and about 30% for Double L.

I realize that this comparison is not only simple but verges on simplistic. Still in a decade that has seen health-care costs and housing costs soar, it shouldn’t be surprising that it costs more money to make wine, considering the factors of land prices, maintenance, barrels (that damned euro!), marketing, wages and storage.

So, I think that Strum is optimistic when he says that prices are falling and quality is rising. If those conditions do come about, I’ll be first in line to toast to better days.

… and the reason I make that assertion of commonplace knowledge is that while my objective on KoeppelOnWine.com was to replace some pages every week and others every two weeks, constant readers will know that I often fail to meet that criteria, so I cry “Mea culpa!” — or “Meal culpa!” as they say in the restaurant biz — in apology for having left a page up for a month. Just yesterday, I wrote and posted a “Refrigerator Door Wines” page of inexpensive products for the first time since Oct. 24. In some compensation, instead of six or eight cheap stonecap_032.jpg wines, as I usually do, I offer 15, but, you will notice, these are not all positive reviews. My philosophy is to warn you away from the bad as well as urge you toward the good, rather like a preacher of the fire ‘n’ brimstone school. And I wonder, as I always do, why bad or mediocre or just generic wines exist? How, for example, could a producer, Washington State’s Stonecap, in this case, offer a borgianni.jpg terrific riesling (for the price), an undrinkable chardonnay and a bland cabernet sauvignon and sell each one for $11? Why do the wines, especially reds, in the $10 to $12 range of Australia’s largest producers — Penfolds, Lindemans, Rosemount — all taste so similar? Does that case have something to do with the fact that these once independent concerns are all owned by the giant Foster’s conglomerate? What’s interesting here is that Penfolds “Koonunga Hill” line, intended to sell for $11 or $12, I find merely average to forgettable, while the Penfolds “Thomas Hyland” line, priced at $13 to $15, offers far more authenticity and integrity. Should two dollars more make that much difference?

Unanswerable questions, perhaps, but that’s always been the purpose of art; let philosophers and scientists probe for meaning.

Take a look, anyway, at the current “Refrigerator Door Wines” page — not for wines you keep in the refrigerator door but the list you post on the outside of the door to remind yourself to stop by the store and pick up a bottle of wine for dinner — and notice that my favorite wines of the bunch are the two Penfolds Thomas Hyland wines, Shiraz 2005 and Riesling 2007, and the Borgianni Chianti 2005.

No “mea culpas.” Enjoy.

Let’s see. The United States is mired in ugly wars in Afghanistan and Iraq from which it looks as if there is no extricating ourselves. Since Sept, 11, 2001, the federal government has shown itself expert in all manner of lies and subterfuge, while civil clicquot_01.jpg liberties are being erased. Millions of Americans are without medical insurance, and millions of Americans are losing their homes to foreclosure. The effects of global warming grow more serious and seem irreversible unless drastic action is taken at every level of society. The gap between rich and poor, between the salaries bestowed on CEOs of companies and what their workers earn, has never been wider or more apparent.

And at this point, in anticipation, no doubt, of the coming Yuletide season, the venerable champagne house of Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin chooses to run this banner ad at the bottom of The Arts section of today’s New York Times:

The Yellowboam … is the most precious bottle ever crafted by Veuve Clicquot. This limited and numbered 3 liter edition is entirely handmade from harvest to labeling. For the occasion of its 130th anniversary, the Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label has been recreated using the world’s most precious leathers: ray, ostrich, and alligator. Each bottle is sealed with a foil covered in 22.4 carat gold and topped with a collectible, gold plated muzzle cap.

The edition consists of 3,600 bottles. Prices on the Internet range from about $2,000 to $2,400.

The motto on the ad?

“So Clicquot. So Responsible.”

How about: “So Sick. So Hypocritical”

… but waited until this morning to quaff a glass of the Georges Duboeuf version for 2007. What’s it like? Whataya think? The beaujolaisn3_01.jpg color is a winsome cranberry-magenta. The bouquet offers notes of strawberry jam, macerated raspberries and currants and whiffs of cinnamon and clove; the typical banana scent is quite subdued. In the mouth, it’s dry but juicy, with flavors of spicy currants and raspberries. It should be served slightly chilled. How so many writers and reviewers recommend the insubstantial Beaujolais Nouveau for the complicated Thanksgiving feast is beyond me, but tastes differ (unfortunately).

The whole Beaujolais-Nouveau-Third-Thursday-of-November phenomenon is certainly a modern marketing triumph. first 72780.gif engineered by Georges Duboeuf in the 1970s. The frenzy, in which jet airliners transport the stuff to far-flung countries so bottles can be opened at the minute after midnight on the third Thursday of November, boggles the mind. I mean, originally Beaujolais Nouveau was a strictly local ritual, a nice way to celebrate the end of harvest in Beaujolais. That it became a worldwide occurrence is amazing; something like 30 percent of the harvest in Beaujolais now goes into Nouveau.

Signs are not good, however, for the continuation of the Beaujolais Nouveau “tradition.” According to The Tocqueville Connection (here), sales of Beaujolais Nouveau in Japan, the world’s largest market — the Japanese have a keen eye for Western fads — will be off by 20 percent in 2007. Sales of Beaujolais Nouveau in Japan peaked in 2004 at 12.5 million cases; in 2006, sales sagged to 11 million cases; this year, sales are expected to sink to 8.4 millions cases. The case amount is expected to fall in the United States, also (though not as much as in Japan), due to the nasty relationship of the wimpy dollar to the conquering euro.

None of this news dampened the spirits of the annual Trophee Lyon-Beaujolais Nouveau (“the only official competition devoted to Beaujolais Nouveau,” and we’ll let that pass without comment), which on Nov. 11, meeting at the Radisson Hotel in Lyon, passed beaujolaisn2_01.jpg out 10 Grand Gold Medals, 70 Gold Medals and 23 Silver Medals to this year’s producers of Beaujolais Nouveau. Gosh, did they leave anyone out? Honorary chairman of the tasting, appropriately, was Naoki Watanabe, technical director for Suntory.

Meanwhile, go to KoeppelOnWine.com for reviews of 10 Beaujolais wines from 2006 from the Georges Dubouef stable, one Beaujolais-Villages and nine cru wines from villages allowed to put their names on the labels. They’ll make you forget all about Beaujolais Nouveau. These wines are imported into the United States by W.J. Deutsch & Sons, Harrison N.Y.

Image credits: top, cityfood.com; bottom, lefigaro.fr.

How many brands does Constellation Brands need, anyway?

Constellation, the world’s largest wine producer — $5.22 billion in sales from February 2006 to February 2007 — announced consellaionlogo.gif Monday that it paid $885 million for the wine business in the United States of Fortune Brands. Constellation, headquartered in Fairport, N.Y., gets five well-known wineries: Clos du Bois, Wild Horse, Buena Vista Carneros, Gary Farrell and Geyser Peak. Fortune is not selling its spirits brands, which include Jim Beam, Courvoisier, Canadian Club, Maker’s Mark, Dekuyper, Knob Creek, Laphroiag, Vox and lots more. Constellation also acquires some 1,500 acres of vineyards in Sonoma and Napa counties.

There seems to be no stopping Constellation, which appears to own everything that Fosters Wine Estates, E. & J. Gallo and The Wine Group don’t own. Constellation startled the wine world in late 2004 by buying Robert Mondavi Winery and by acquiring, in 2006, the Canadian beverage giant, Vincor.

So that you wine consumers understand the scope of Constellation, let me provide a partial breakdown of the mammoth company’s wine holdings, which are concentrated in four divisions: Centerra Wine Company, Inc.; North Lake Wines; Pacific Wine Partners; and Icon Estates.

Centerra (Canadaigua, N.Y.) includes these brands: Alice White, Arbor Mist, Cook’s, Covey Run, Inglenook, Monkey Bay, Robert Mondavi Private Selection and Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi, Talus Collection, Almaden, Manischewitz, Papio, 3 Blind Moose, Paul Masson Brandy, Rex Goliath, Toasted Head, Paul Thomas, Hogue, Vendange, Ste. Chapelle and Turner Road.

The portfolio of North Lake Wines, also based in Canadaigua, consists of more than 30 brands includes Farallon, Great Western, J. Roget, Marcus James, Paul Masson table wines, Taylor California Cellars, Vina Santa Carolina and Kelly’s Revenge.

Pacific Wine Partners (Monterey County, California) goes slightly up-market with its roster, which includes Blackstone, Black Box, Hayman & Hill and R.H. Phillips. This division imports from Australia Banrock Station, Hardys wines, Leasingham, Barra Valley Estate, Yarra Burn, Chateau Reynella and Starvedog Lane. From New Zealand it imports the popular Nobilo line of wines.

The big dog is Constellation’s Icon Estates, based in Napa Valley. Here the line-up of notable wineries — or brands — includes Franciscan Oakville Estate, Mount Veeder Winery, Robert Mondavi Winery, Estancia Estates and Ravenswood in California; Columbia Valley in Washington; Ruffino Estate in Tuscany; Drylands and Kim Crawford in Marlborough, N.Z.; Tintara in Australia’s McLaren Vale; Veramonte in Chile; and the dessert wine makers Inniskillin and Jackson-Triggs in Ontario.

These lists encompass only about half of the wine brands in Constellation’s stable, and we haven’t mentioned beer and spirits.

How does Constellation’s acquisitive nature affect the structures of the properties it buys and the quality of the wine?

That’s an open question. Hundreds of employees lost jobs after the Robert Mondavi acquisition. Mark Martin, a Constellation spokesman, was quoted in The San Francisco Chronicle as saying that it’s too early to know about job cuts that might occur because of the Fortune takeover, but said, “One of the things we look for is whatever synergies we can gain from the operations.” For huge corporations, of course, “synergies” depend on potential profits.

It will be interesting to see, for example, what happens to Sonoma County’s Clos du Bois. Founded in 1976 by Frank Woods, the winery now produces about two million cases of wine annually. It’s a popular restaurant brand for inexpensive chardonnay, merlot and gewurztraminer, though its upper-tier Alexander Valley red wines, Marlstone (a Bordeaux-style blend) and Briarcrest (100 percent cabernet sauvignon), have long lost the luster they displayed from about 1978 through the late 1980s. Will Constellation engineer a revival of Marlstone and Briarcrest while expanding the exposure of the moderately priced tier, or write them off as lost causes?

The redoubtable Dan Berger posted an essay on the Constellation acquisition of Fortune’s wine brands to the Appellation America website on Tuesday (here), in which he discusses the issues that occur when large companies swallow up wineries. His conclusion? Sometimes it helps; sometimes it hurts. It depends on the companies involved.

For months I had been eying a bottle of Fattoria le Fonti’s Vito Arturo 1997 (about $45) at Buster’s, my neighborhood wine and arturo1.jpg liquor store. Finally, when we were scheduled to have dinner last night with a friend at one of our favorite restaurants, I thought, “Now’s the time.” The fact that a 10-year-old bottle wine was still lying on the shelf seemed neither here nor there, though I had to wonder why nobody looking for a special wine had been encouraged to buy it; anyway, the wine has a great reputation — I had tried the fabulous 2001 in New York last year — and the store takes care of their products, so I wasn’t particularly worried. The wine is 100 percent sangiovese, made from a single vineyard from the estate in Tuscany. The wine ages 16 months in barriques, that is, small French oak barrels.

The restaurant is Bari, which specializes in the cuisine of southeast Italy, with emphasis on seafood, though the menu includes simple pasta dishes and a couple of red meat entrees, polpette (veal meatballs) and a beef filet, one of each of which LL and I ordered. After appetizers and a bottle of white wine — the engaging Inama Vin Soave 2006 — we asked the waiter to open the Arturo ’97.

The first whiff brought a burst of mint, cedar and eucalyptus, almost as if we were smelling an old-style Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon. Then the bouquet revealed touches of toasted hazelnuts, dried lavender and violets and macerated black currants and cherries. While we ate our entrees, the wine continued to expand and develop, so by the time we were onto the cheese course, it really started showing firmness and character.

For cheeses, we chose a Gorgonzola, a Piave Vecchio and an aged Pecorino. All the cheeses were good, but the Pecorino was memorable, rich and dry, a little nutty, a little waxy, almost caramel-like but notably clean and earthy. By now the Vito Arturo ’97 was in its element, broad and generous, taut with acid yet soft in texture, filled with notes of spiced plums and spiced currant jelly with hints of orange rind and black Pekoe tea. It was fabulous with the Pecorino, a truly balanced marriage of wine and cheese and all their elements.

The store where I got the Vito Arturo ’97 has a magnum of the wine. I’d better go buy it Monday before someone else gets it.

An issue that animates the world of wine blogging revolves around accepting samples of wine from producers and importers or On, no, it must be a bribe! their public relations representatives. Some bloggers state unequivocally on their home pages that they never accept samples, therefore ensuring the high-minded quality of their integrity. Others mention in every review where the bottle came from or was encountered, that is, if the blogger bought it or had it at a restaurant, tried it at a trade tasting, sipped it at a friend’s house. The implication of both of these positions is clear: Accepting a free bottle of wine is tantamount to open bribery and public corruption.

That’s sheer hooey.

I mention these matters because Tom Wark at Fermentation: The Daily Wine Blog — and, bless his heart, Tom really does keep us all on the crackling edge of the wine industry’s most important concerns — had a post (Oct. 25, “For Immediate Release”) about the supposed or potential effects of press releases on wine writers and the characteristics of a good press releases, about which he knows more than anyone. In the midst of a typically provocative column, Tom quoted from an essay written on Thomas Pellechia the previous day on his blog VinoFictions. Let me also quote from that essay:

“When I stopped posting tasting notes my original intent was that since I get paid to write articles and books about wine I did not want ever to be accused of shilling for one or more wine producer.”

And:

“I cannot imagine how to explain having written a tasting note that agrees with a press release concerning a free bottle that I had received, even if I knew that I hadn’t cheated — to me, the perception of a conflict of interest is damning enough.”

Now Pellechia is a thoughtful and sincere writer (whom I have never met), so I don’t mean what I’m about to say personally, but I believe that these sentiments are off kilter, or, let me put it this way, so punctilious that they are self-defeating.

When Michiko Kakutani, chief book reviewer for The New York Times, and Jonathan Yardley, the Pulitzer Prize-winning book columnist for The Washington Post, give positive reviews to books, they are not shilling for the author or the publisher. They’re doing their jobs, as they are when they write negative reviews. I reviewed books for the newspaper where I work for 20 years, and I was book page editor for 15 of those years. We received in the mail an ungodly amount of books, thousands of books, piles of books a year. So when we reviewed books, we were writing about books we received free. This is the practice at every newspaper, magazine and online media outlet in the world that reviews books. Nobody worries about conflict of interest because there is none. The book is not a bribe; it’s a copy to be read, used, written about for good or ill, that is, if the book is chosen for review.

Over 20 years, I wrote many negative reviews of books, ranging from mild objections to outright scorn. Guess what? The publishers didn’t stop sending books, and they made no attempt to adjust my attitude toward them as publishers or the authors whose work I criticized. It’s the nature of the reviewing business, and when it comes to reviewing anything of cultural or monetary worth that reviewers have access to for free — books, movies, music, wine (restaurants are different because the presence of the establishment and the experience are immediate and very close to home) — the coins of the realm are not chiming shekels and crisp currency but honesty and respect.

I’ve been reviewing wine since 1984, in a nationally distributed weekly print column for 20 years and on the Internet thereafter. As is the case with every wine reviewer, I have written about wonderful, legendary wines; nice little quaffing wines; real dogs of wines. Many of these wines were sample bottles, and when I have felt obliged to point out that a wine is as worthless as rust in a drainpipe, then I have done so, neither with exhilaration nor with heavy heart but simply as part of what I do. People — producers, publicists, the public — need to know these things. Everyone is harmed when mediocrity is not exposed. In fact, it’s by exposing mediocrity, as well as passing out praise when it is due, that we earn reputations for honesty, objectivity and fairness. That’s all part of being professional.

So when Pellechia says that he originally stopped posting tasting notes because he gets paid to write articles and books about wine, I think he’s on the wrong track. Tasting wines — whether sample bottles or not — and posting informative notes seem to me an inextricable part of experiencing and thinking about wine and providing opinion, information and education to readers, whether on a restricted level of friends and colleagues, or to the public. And let’s face it: Americans, even those who drink wine, don’t know a lot about it, where it comes from, how it’s made, how it gets to their tables; opinion (that is, opinion based on knowledge and experience), information and education are exactly what they need.

Pellechia goes on to say, in his essay, that he also decided that he didn’t want to post tasting notes because (1) he wouldn’t base his own wine buying on someone else’s opinion and (2) he didn’t think that anyone else should buy wine based on his opinion, and I have to respect that personal point of view.

On the other hand, if I’m out and about and someone comes up to me and says, “Hey, I bought that Wine of the Week from your website and it was terrific” or “I got a case of that wine you recommended for a party and everyone enjoyed it,” then I feel as if I’ve provided a public service, made some consumers happy and perhaps imparted some knowledge and awareness about wine, and I don’t give a damn if the bottle I tasted and recommended was free or not.

Image credit: Productdose.com.

… is food poisoning. Which felled first me and then LL after we dined Thursday night at a new restaurant I was reviewing. Yes, a restaurant’s worst nightmare: The dining critic gets food poisoning. It ain’t a pretty circumstance for the diner either, lemme tell you, after about eight hours of cramps, violent vomiting and, um, other explosive eruptions. Needless to say, I missed work Friday and lay prostrate most of Saturday, weak, exhausted and, for some reason, aching all over. I did keep down some scrambled eggs and toast last night and I had my tea and toast for breakfast this morning; as I write this post I’m eating soda crackers and sipping ginger ale. LL took care of me until Saturday evening, when she said, “You know, I’ve been feeling pretty queasy since this afternoon.” Yep, it hit her too.

The culprit? Either the crab cakes with remoulade sauce or the calves liver I ordered. LL had a tiny bite of each; I finished off the rest. Did the food sit out too long? Had it not been refrigerated adequately? Was it already spoiled when it came from the purveyor? The point is that somewhere along the line, someone wasn’t careful enough.

Now, here’s the dilemma. Do I out the place? A charge of food poisoning can kill a restaurant. Do I review the restaurant as if nothing had happened? Call the restaurant to let them know? Drop the review altogether or wait a few months? I confess to not being keen about going back soon.

It’s interesting, in a way, that in 20 years of reviewing restaurants for my newspaper — 20 years this coming January — I have never been stricken with food poisoning. What are the odds? I’ve had plenty of bad or bizarre meals, but never this. The problem is, there’s no defense; even tainted food, I now understand, can taste fine, but once you’ve swallowed it, you’re done for.

So, excuse me, but I’m actually not feeling quite up to scratch.