The industry

Dear Readers: A few days ago I posted an entry to BiggerThanYourHead that brought the number of posts since its beginning in December 2006 to 1,500. That’s an average of 187 posts each year or slightly more than 15 per month. Perhaps it’s time to step back and get a little perspective.

Last week, Jonathan Cristaldi posted to an amusing and educational essay titled “10 Dirty Secrets of Wine (That Nobody Wants to Talk About),” an exercise that received quite a bit of comment on Facebook and on other people’s blogs. In his prefactory remarks, Cristaldi mentions among “sinister forces at play” in the wine world the “in-fighting among critics and bloggers.” Does such “in-fighting” exist, with its implications of envy, rivalry and hurt feelings? If it does, I hadn’t noticed, but perhaps I am isolated in my Slough of Despond here in what’s called the Mid-South.

One of the “10 Dirty Secrets of Wine” in the piece is “Wine Critics are not necessarily more qualified than bloggers.” Not necessarily more qualified. The point I take from this statement is that typically wine critics are regarded as more qualified than bloggers, but surely these loaded terms require definition. I assume that a wine “critic” is a person employed by a newspaper or magazine or online entity who is paid for his or her efforts, hence a “professional.” A wine “blogger” on the other hand is anyone who establishes a blog or has a blog designed and set up and then writes whatever he or she desires about wine, hence an amateur. The Federal Trade Commission certainly adheres to this view. That regulatory body made effective on December 1, 2009, a ruling that bloggers must disclose the source of products they review and whether those products were samples. (Didn’t know that, youngsters?) That stipulation does not apply to writers who review for print media, the assumption being that newspapers and magazines undergo editorial control that somehow makes the process more trustworthy and legitimate.

The distinction between professional and amateur is irksome. The widely held belief is that one is professional if you get paid for what you’re doing, while amateurs perform out of interest, involvement or love (as the word implies) without regular financial compensation. A professional can also be a person who is certified by an overseeing board or entity, having passed certain tests and qualifying procedures; amateurs typically lack such credentials. Yet since reviewing wine or being a wine critic, whether for a print journal or online, tends toward matters of taste and subjectivity, just as reviewing books or music or theater does, notions of who is professional and who is amateur become more tenuous. The real criteria rest in knowledge and experience, sensitivity and imagination and the ability to transform physical and emotional sensations, as well as history and geography, into evocative language.

How does one achieve such a state? Through constant reading and tasting and writing, through seeking out opportunities to experience a wide range of wines through regions and vintages, through travel, if possible, and visits to the home turf where grapes are grown and wine is made. The “professionals” who write for print outlets may possess all sorts of qualifications, but they are not infallible nor do they always display particular artistry or articulateness in their expression; the same may be said of many bloggers. As far as consumers are concerned, they need to find writers or critics or bloggers whose voices they admire and can engage with, whose intellects they find amenable and whose palates they trust. I started writing about wine in a newspaper column in 1984, before many of the marketing and PR people who send me press releases and samples were born, and I continued that weekly, nationally-distributed column for 20 years (and was a full-time reporter and critic). Did that make me a professional? And when I left the newspaper and launched myself online, did I decline from being a professional to being an amateur?

Those issues are ancient history, however, and wine-blogging and critiquing are about the here and now, as each vintage succeeds the one before, and producers around the world watch the weather and the climate for the minute (or dramatic) changes that make each year and harvest different. The issue I really want to approach is my own motivation for adhering to an avocation that takes up a good deal of time and space and produces little material reward except — and this is a big “except” — for the wine samples I receive and the occasional sponsored trip that I go on. My Readers are thinking, “Those should be reasons enough,” and indeed I don’t discount them, but there are other aspects.

Most important is the wine itself — a uniquely complex and evocative beverage and a perpetual reminder of our connection to the earth and its seasons — and the ability to follow producers and wines from year to year. One of the most gratifying factors in this endeavor is the contact I have with new, small wineries that send me their products for review. Next is the responsibility to My Readers, bless their hearts, who depend on me for honest and fair assessments of wines and for supporting historical, geographical and technical information, which to me is an essential part of writing about wine. Then there are the friendships I have made and that I treasure in many moments of tasting wine and food and sharing knowledge and experience and stories of travel and adventure.

Lord knows how many mass tastings I have attended over 30 years, those trade events where journalists carry a glass in one hand and a notebook in the other and move from table to table, producer to producer and swirl-sniff-sip-spit their way through a hundred wines. Not the best way to taste wine, but sometimes such events are the only way to be exposed to a broad range of products. Then there are the weekend mornings when I stand in the kitchen and taste through a dozen cabernets or pinot noirs or rieslings. My favorite way to experience wine though is with dinner at home, when LL and I sit down with a wine that I have held back and open it and take a sniff and taste and look at each other and whisper, “Holy crap, that’s good.”

You see, friends, we’re all amateurs.

Jim Barrett, founder of Chateau Montelena, deserves all the praise he has received in the tributes and obituaries published in magazines and newspapers and online since his death on March 14 at the age of 86. A successful attorney with a particular vision about what chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon wines should be, in 1969 he acquired a long-abandoned Gothic-style winery built in 1882 near Calistoga, in the northern part of Napa Valley, worked to restore the building and the property’s vineyards and, while the estate vines were too young to produce viable grapes, sought reliable vineyards as sources. The event that brought Chateau Montelena and California (and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars) to the astonished attention of the wine world was the famous or infamous Paris Tasting of 1976, organized by Englishman Steven Spurrier, at which Montelena’s Chardonnay 1973 — notice that the wines was a blend of grapes from Napa Valley and Alexander Valley — and the Stag’s Leap Cabernet Sauvignon 1973 placed first in competition with the best of white Burgundy and red Bordeaux. Though there has been been a great deal of controversy over the scoring methodology of the ’76 “Judgment of Paris,” the fact remains that, in this blind tasting with prestigious judges from the French wine, restaurant and publishing industries, the California wines involved performed extremely well, gratifying Americans, when the news came out, and embarrassing the French.

I have read many of the notices of Barrett’s death, and they refer, consistently, to his chardonnay that won the Paris Tasting. In the sense that he owned Chateau Montelena and was its guiding spirit, that assessment is correct. Only one writer that I have seen, though, S. Irene Virbila of the Los Angeles Times, noted the fact that the historic Chateau Montelena Chardonnay 1973 was made by Mike Grgich, and that by rights the wine should properly be referred to as his chardonnay. I don’t mean to denigrate or diminish Jim Barrett’s accomplishment in shaping Chateau Montelena nor that of his son Bo Barrett, who became winemaker with the vintage of 1982 (and became CEO of Montelena at his father’s death). I’m a fan of the Montelena wines and their combination of power and elegance, and I look forward to tasting and writing about them with every vintage. However, the neglect of Grgich’s contribution in this area reflects a general neglect in the media of winemakers below the celebrity level. It’s symptomatic of this issue that Grgich was also ignored in the movie Bottle Shock (2008, directed by Randall Miller), which purported to tell the story of Montelena and the ’76 Paris Tasting, but actually sensationalized it. Of course Grgich went on to partner with Austin Hills to establish what is now the venerable Grgich Hills Estate.

My point is that I receive press releases many times a day from marketing firms and wineries that extol the virtues of new releases and the glorious histories and geographies of the wineries, the wisdom and passion of their owners and proprietors, urging me to accept samples for review, but never mentioning the name of the winemaker. Isn’t that like publicizing a book without naming the author or a movie without mentioning the director?

In line with giving credit where credit is due, I try to be consistent in giving credit for the images used on this blog. So, the image of Mike Grgich is from; the photo of Jim Barrett (at top) and the label of the Montelena Chardonnay 1973 are so ubiquitous, however, that’s it’s difficult to tell whence they originated.

The term “small batch” originated in Kentucky’s bourbon industry as a way of indicating that a particular item was limited in production and generally received some sort of special treatment in the way of types of barrels, length of aging and selection of ingredients. Perhaps the classic or best-known roster of small batch bourbons consists of the quartet of Booker’s, Basil Hayden’s, Baker’s and Knob Creek (my favorite), from Beam Global Spirits and Wines Inc.; equally well-regarded are Blanton’s from Eagle Trace Distillery and Brown-Forman’s Woodford Reserve, but mentioning these products doesn’t begin to indicate the number of small batch and single-barrel bourbons and other limited edition whiskeys available, a number that increases every year. The success of these products — for which no real or official definition exists — seems to be fueled by clever marketing toward male and female Millennial consumers and their abiding interest in all things handmade, artisan-like and privileged or for older spirits devotees for whom single-malt Scotch has become too expensive. Not that small batch bourbon is cheap.

So popular is the notion of “small batch” and its implications of craft and care and specialness that the term has spread into or been hijacked by products in many other areas. As My Readers can see in the accompanying images, “small batch” now applies to soy sauce, tonic and fish sauce, and these are only the items that we happen to have on hand. The problem with the nomenclature of exclusivity, including “small batch,” “artisan,” “craft,” “green” and others, is that they are defined in the most nebulous manner or not at all and that their use has become so widespread as to render them meaningless. Such labels have become mere counters or status indicators in our vast marketplace’s tyranny of choice.

The situation is similar in the American wine industry, in which labeling lingo like “reserve,” “old vines,” “limited production” and a variety of other terms proliferate and are entirely unregulated; I mean, what does “Vintner’s Reserve” mean? No producers in California, of course, want more federal interference with labeling or vineyard and winery practices, yet wouldn’t consumers benefit if they knew that for a particular Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon meant 1,000 cases as opposed to a “regular” bottling of 20,000 cases or that “Old Vines” actually meant that a wine was produced from a vineyard where the vines were planted in 1919? Without some sort of indication, terms like “reserve” and “old vines” are as meaningless as “green” or “artisan” on a box of “gourmet” crackers.

Not that, as in Europe, such notions as “reserve” such be regulated precisely, but neither is it sufficient that labels offer such vague reassurance as “Our Reserve Cabernet is strictly limited in production” or “Our Old Vine Zinfandel was made from our historic and heritage vineyards in Sonoma Valley.” Posh! Just tell us how limited that production was or how old those vines are. It’s that simple. I don’t think we need state or federal rulings that a reserve wine must be limited to a certain number of cases and aged according to a determined regimen or that “old vine” must mean older than 50 years, as long as producers tell us what the details are. And that goes for “small batch” bourbon, soy sauce and tonic too. Any term that’s imprecise or used as esthetic, ethical or moral coding is just a marketing tool intended to impress, coerce or confuse the consumer.
So, how “small batch” is a small batch bourbon? Beam’s Knob Creek is produced in about 200,000 cases annually, compared to Jim Beam, which totals about 6 million cases. Some 160,000 cases of Woodford Reserve were made in 2010; Jack Daniels comes in at nearly 10 million cases. It took a considerable amount of time on Google to find these figures. Small batch whiskeys made by smaller distilleries may be much more limited.

You’ll notice that the soy sauce pictured above, made in Louisville by the Bluegrass Soy Sauce Co., is not only “small batch” but “microbrewed” and “single barrel.” The wraparound label indicates that the bottle sitting on the desk next to me is No. 89 from batch 340-10. In terms of soy sauce, this attention to minutiae is either inspiring or precious, but we still don’t know how small this “small batch” is.

.. and here are a few of them, in no particular order, so don’t over-analyze.

When will wineries and importers stop introducing variations of moscato — Pink Moscato! Blush Moscato! Marilyn Moscato! — as if they were ahead of the curve and not on the caboose of a trend? I’m not dissing moscato per se; a young electrician at the house yesterday told me that his favorite wine was the moscato at Olive Garden, and who am I to quarrel if that’s what he enjoys? The beef here is with the marketing of moscato as if the launch of some winery’s White Zin Moscato or Purple Passion Moscato represented great strides not only in the wine industry but in the tastes and cultural aspirations of all Americans. And I really don’t think it’s a good idea for Clairette de Die, the lightly sparkling white wine from east of the town of Valence, in the southern Rhone Valley, to market itself in the United States as “French Moscato Bubbly.” I mean, please …

When will producers of and zealots for so-called “natural wines” lose their holier-than-thou attitude? Grapes are natural; wine is artifact.
Why don’t my fellow wine bloggers understand that writing critical and even negative reviews and commentary is necessary for balance and credibility, as well as a test of and goad to producers, importers and marketers? I once heard a prominent writer about wine (this was on a train from Milan to Verona, long before blogging was a gleam in anyone’s eye) say to his acolytes, “I never write anything negative about California wine. The industry needs all the help it can get.” Friends, you don’t help an industry by soft-pedaling its flaws and deficiencies; you help by pointing them out and opening the path to improvement. At WBC12 a few months ago, a blogger said to me, “Life is too short to write about bad wine.” My reply was, “Life is too short for my readers to drink bad wine.”

Why does California reduce wines like pinot grigio to their lowest common denominator? Is the idea that Americans will drink anything bland and innocuous as long as it’s crisp and tingly and especially if they’re sitting in a bar? Was that question rhetorical? Certainly Italy turns out and exports masses of bland innocuous pinot grigios; does that mean that scores of wineries in California must produce similarly characterless pinot grigios to capture market share? Are they that cynical? Was that a trick question? (I’m happy to add that a handful of wineries in California and Oregon turn out excellent pinot grigio or pinot gris wines.)

Will writers and marketers ever stop calling zinfandel the “all-American grape”? Oops, this just in: Fortuitously I received an email press release that offers these words: a Sonoma County Zinfandel representing the robust flavor of America’s most famous indigenous grape. And this: Zinfandel is our most prized American heritage grape. I won’t out the person who wrote these words or at least sent them to me, but the email came from Nike Communications on behalf of Joel Peterson, who must be thrilled, and Ravenswood. For the last time people, do your research! The zinfandel grape is as European as chardonnay, pinot noir and alicante bouschet.
Am I the only one who thinks that $750 for a currently released bottle of Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon is a tad overweening? I’m referring to the releases of 2009 for the Screaming Eagle and Harlan Estate Cabernet Sauvignon wines. Each is firmly ensconced among the elite ranks of the most highly sought-after Napa Valley cult cabernets, and the CEOs, multinational lawyers and powerful media moguls and agents who collect such wines (and have places secured on the wineries’ coveted waiting lists) don’t give a flying fuck about the price or my quibbles. One could argue that $750 for a bottle of Screaming Eagle or Harlan Estate is pocket change compared to prices for top-rated chateaux of Bordeaux for 2009 such as Mouton Rothschild ($1,106 per bottle), Lafite-Rothschild ($1,552) or, a true eye-opener, Petrus ($4,053); these are average prices from Collectors have been screaming (haha) about the cynically inflated prices of their favorite Bordeaux wines, even in so-so years, for at least a decade. On the other hand, those prestigious, if not legendary properties and many others in the regions of Bordeaux possess track records of excellence (with fluctuations, of course, sometimes dire) going back 200 or more years. The first vintage of Screaming Eagle was 1992; the first vintage of Harlan Estate, the 1990, was released in 1996. Perhaps we need to wait 20 or 30 years to see how these wines fare and if they’re worth the price.

Why do wineries send me samples of Big Deal, limited edition wines with beautifully designed and printed information sheets and histories of the properties and the people involved and full-color images of gorgeous vineyard landscapes and their striking contemporary multimillion dollar wineries and tasting rooms, all this information enclosed in an embossed folder made from the sort of heavy, incised paper that popes employ for official pronouncements, but they don’t include the price of the wine?
Why do producers in emerging or suddenly popular vineyard regions think that by throwing their indigenous grapes or traditional wines into French barriques they will create greatness measured on some spurious international scale (or catering to some mythical “American palate”), when they should be happy with the charming and authentic wines they were making? Take the grüner veltliner grape, which (primarily) in Austria turns out completely delightful, spicy, racy, nicely nuanced white wines of undoubted appeal at reasonable prices, I mean about $16 to $25. Were these goals enough for the Austrian winemakers? Nooooooooo, they had to put their grüner veltliner wines in French oak barrels to pump up the character, to, um, deepen the depth, to broaden the scope, and they jacked up prices to $50, $60 and $75 a bottle. Did they make great wines? Of course not. They eliminated all the qualities that made grüner veltliner wines desirable in the first place and produced bad imitations of bad California chardonnays.
Sources of the question mark images: 1.; 2.; 3.; 4.; 5.; 6.; 7.; 8.

The Wine Bloggers’ Conference that I attended last month in Portland was my first. Will I attend next year’s conference in Penticton, British Columbia? My feelings are ambivalent, but today I want to put forth the argument that I should be the keynote speaker for WBC13, in which case, of course, I would certainly participate.

(And a brief aside to the WBC organizers: There cannot be two keynote speakers at an event, as there were, so to speak, this year. The keynote speech is the grand introduction to or the grand climax of a conference or convention. All speeches that occur before or after the keynote speech are simply speeches and ought to be billed in some other fashion.)

Why should I be the keynote speaker for WBC13?

First, because I’m an active blogger who tries righteously to post four or five times a week, though I don’t always attain that goal. In 2011, I posted 196 times, which equals one post every 1.8 days. Keynote speakers for previous Wine Blogger Conferences included Eric Asimov and Jancis Robinson, both estimable writers and judges of wine, and, I’ll admit, far more famous than I am, but hardly active bloggers. This year’s relevant keynote speech was given by Randall Grahm, controversial and outspoken owner and winemaker of Bonny Doon Vineyards. (The irrelevant “other” keynote speaker was Rex Pickett — you remember Sideways — whose event I skipped and later was congratulated for doing so by many of my wine blogging colleagues.) Grahm’s talk was entertaining, funny, informative, personal and, finally, just profound enough for the audience to take something important away with them. In other words, exactly what a keynote speech should be, and I applauded along with the rest of the room. (Here’s a link to the speech.)

The problem is that Grahm posts to his blog, Been Doon So Long, so infrequently that last year he entered only six posts; I know, he’s busy running a winery and making wine, but my point is that as keynote speaker for WBC13, I would share with my audience the similar blogging experiences of finding time to deal with the wine samples, finding time to taste the wine, finding time to write and post, finding time to walk the dogs and exercise and run errands and make a living outside of blogging and haul all those bottles out to the street for the garbage truck and not feel guilty for not posting often enough.

Second, I bring to wine blogging a history that’s almost unique in our little kingdom. What I mean is that I started writing about wine in 1984, before some wine bloggers or other participants in WBC12 — as several sweetly reminded me — were born, as in “Wow, you started writing about wine before I was born!” I wrote a weekly print column for 20 years, one that was distributed to newspapers around by country by the Scripps-Howard newswire. When the column ended (not my choice), I launched in December 2004 a magazine-format website,; my blog,, came in December 2006, and for a while I ran both the website and the blog, but that was a hell of a lot of work, so I dissolved the website in April 2008.

Based on my 28 years experience as a journalist, wine writer, freelance writer and blogger, what would I tell my audience at WBC13?

<>I would say, Revel in the spontaneous and improvisatory nature of blogging, but at the same time remember that professionalism counts. Good spelling, grammar, punctuation, word order, sentence structure mark the difference between the serious writer — or the writer who can be taken seriously — and the hit-and-miss amateur.

<>I would say, Don’t merely be a wine-blogger, but be a person who writes about wine on a blog. Not many degrees may separate those concepts, but they are significant indicators of intention and accomplishment.

<>I would say, O.K., however spontaneous or improvisatory you want to be, because after all this is the Internet and that, you may say, is the whole point, and all questions of grammar, spelling and so on aside, be accurate — in terms of history, geography, tradition, names, brands, grapes, personalities — get it right. Write, for example, that Chablis is made from sauvignon blanc grapes or that Santa Ynez is near Santa Cruz, and it will be difficult for you to be taken seriously as a wine writer, either by readers or wineries.

<>I would say, Be skeptical. Once your blog achieves some healthy measure of readership or reputation, you’ll be inundated by information and narratives designed to persuade you to like a product, to mention a product, to trade a link for your (free) content. Ignore them all except the ones that politely say something like, “We’d like you to try our wine. If you have any feedback, we’d appreciate it.” Remember that even the text on the back label of a bottle of wine is a form of marketing, so why would you quote such a thing in your review? Sure, it’s exciting to get the attention of wineries, importers and PR and marketing agencies, and while it’s necessary (and sometimes a pleasure) to work with them, remember that they’re all trying to sell you something.

<>I would say, Be critical, by which I don’t mean negative but discriminating, thoughtful, disinterested, judicial — all of these qualities based on knowledge, experience and extensive tasting — but when it’s necessary to be negative in tone and judgment, be that too. “Life Is Too Short to Drink Bad Wine” goes the placard we see in many retail stores, but my motto is “Life Is Too Short for My Readers to Drink Bad Wine,” so when I get a bad one, I tell them about it. It’s fine to be enthusiastic, but temper your enthusiasm with taste and tact.

<>Finally, I would conclude my keynote address for WBC13 with a recitation of Fredric’s Three Rules for Blogging and Life, and I would ask the assembled bloggers, writers, journalists and others in the trade to repeat after me, like a gospel call and response:

1. Be honest!
Be honest!!
2. Be fair!
Be fair!!
(General hilarity, applause, cheers and acclaim.)

In the New York Times recently, dance critic Gia Kourlas wrote of a young ballet dancer that “[her] lifts were daring, twisty things without being crass.” In what manner could a dancer’s movements be crass, since ballet we think of as the epitome of elegance and grace? By being overstated or emphatic or by being extended beyond the logical necessity of the physical or narrative arc; by calling attention to themselves at the expense of the entire range of motion and delivery; by sentimentalizing or sensationalizing the aura of the dance through slickness and complacency and ego.

These characteristics of what might comprise crassness in ballet amount to a definition of vulgarity, and they can be applied to a multitude of materials, objects and concepts other than dance. The Chrysler Building, for example, is elegant and graceful; a 10,000-square-foot imitation of a Loire Valley chateau plunked down on a small lot in an old suburban neighborhood is vulgar. Mad Men, for all its soap opera drama, is elegantly and cogently written and presented; the so-called “reality shows,” the Jersey Shores and American Idols and the Kardashians and endless knock-offs, take vulgarity to steroidal impact. Among recent movies, Winter’s Bone, for instance, stands out for the elegance and economy of its story-telling, its sense of truth-in-narrative and acting; all the latest revved-up, computer-generated, violent and witless comic book and super-hero films and the obscene amounts of money that go into the production and marketing of these spectacular behemoths represent a peak moment in the vulgarity of American movie-making and culture .

And wine?

Yes, wine can also be vulgar, by which I mean a wine whose treatment sensationalizes a grape’s aspects instead of allowing them a natural and authentic expression; a wine whose inherent character is obliterated by the ego of its winemaker and manipulator; a wine whose making bends it out of proportion to its — to borrow from the first paragraph — logical necessity, range and delivery.

A zinfandel or cabernet sauvignon or syrah/shiraz wine whose super-ripe grapes and high alcohol content, say, 15.5 or 16 percent, manifest themselves as cloying, jammy sweetness and a hot, unbalanced finish — to which we could add bouquet-and-flavor trashing toasty new oak — is decidedly an example of vulgarity. A chardonnay, pumped up like a be-drugged athlete with barrel fermentation, aging in high-toast barrels and malolactic fermentation so that it turns out tasting like pineapple custard, roasted marshmallows, guava cream and marzipan — quoting the approving descriptions in a well-known wine publication — is another example of the vulgarization of an unsuspecting grape that can’t fight back.

Uncomplicated grapes whose primary purpose is to provide diversion and delight — thinking of Austria’s gruner veltliner — are vulgarized, let’s say it, perverted by a similar process and sold for $50 and $60 and $75 a bottle. You would think that European winemakers might know better than to throw an avalanche of new oak at a basically decent charming wine in an attempt to elicit a measure of specious “greatness” from it; all that effort produces is an imitation of bad California chardonnay.

Give me, then, a wine that’s spare and elegant and lithe; a wine whose well-considered time in oak, if it even needs such treatment, provides support and suppleness and shades of nuance; a wine that honors the nature and potential of the grape or grapes from which it was made and, if possible, the place where those grapes grew; a wine that is not burdened and overwhelmed by inessential technical prowess; give me, above all, delight and daring, confidence and authenticity with a little risk and individuality, like that ballerina who knows the steps and the movements, all the classical requirements, by heart yet invests her performance with added spirit, those “twisty things” that lift her into otherworldly beauty.

Ballerina image from; Kim Kardashian image from

Answer? Ready?

E&J Gallo’s Carlo Rossi brand.

Yes, the wine in the bulbous 1.5-liter bottle that we — of a certain age — glugged down in graduate school and thereafter, until knowledge, experience and more or less financial stability pointed us toward more sophisticated and better quality wines, a process that opened doors to a vinous world beyond our ken: that label captures 7 percent of the entire wine market in Poland. Add Gallo’s Barefoot label, and the figure climbs to a 9 percent share of the Polish market for the giant Modesto-based company. For Carlo Rossi alone, that’s about four million liters annually, amounting to 3 billion PLN or 9.3 billion dollars. (Duh, I think that should be $1.1 billion; see the comment from sharp-eyed math whiz Jim.) The population of Poland is only about 38.2 million.

My attention was drawn to this phenomenon by a news item, issued on March 21, by Just Drinks (and reported by other sources) that Central European Distribution Corporation had signed an agreement with Gallo to distribute its products in Poland for three more years. CEDC is one of the world’s largest producers and distributors of vodka, as well as a major presence in Poland, Hungary and Russia for the multitude of whiskeys and other spirits and liqueurs that it imports. The company was founded by William V. Carey in 1997, as an outgrowth of a defunct company he and his father had exporting beef to Poland. Carey remains CEDC’s chairman and CEO. The company is headquartered in Warsaw but keeps an office in the United States.

There was an actual Carlo Rossi, that is, Charlie Rossi, a longtime salesman for Gallo who was related to the family by marriage. He went to work for the company in 1953, and in 1962 the Carlo Rossi Mountain Red label was released. Production of Mountain Red ceased in 1975 and Carlo Rossi Paisano, of which I and my then wife and our friends drank many a glass, stepped up to the plate as the label’s mainstay. Rossi was the spokesman for the brand and in the 1970s was somewhat of a pop culture figure because of the ubiquitous television commercials and his famous slogan, “I like to talk about wine, but I’d rather drink it.” In the commercials, Rossi looked as if he meant what he said. He died in Modesto — seems fitting — in April 1994 at the age of 90.

In the intervening years, the Carlo Rossi label has expanded considerably. In addition to Paisano, the line includes, for reds, Burgundy, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chianti, Merlot, Sangria and Sweet Red (isn’t that redundant?); for whites, Chablis, Chardonnay and Rhine; and then Blush, Vin Rose and White Zinfandel. These are available in 1.5 or 3 or 4-liter jugs or 5-liter boxes.

I contacted Ewa Wielezynska, vice editor-in-chief of Magazyn Wino, based in Warsaw, for her assessment of the situation.

“This single brand made California the best selling region in Poland,” she said. “I’m not even sure if people know that it’s from California, maybe they think it’s Italian. Carlo Rossi is in every country site, in every gas station in the deepest provinces. The day that Carlo Rossi is dethroned will be a day when Polish people actually start to like wine.”

Wielezynska said that in Poland advertising alcoholic beverages over 7 percent alcohol is forbidden under the Education in Sobriety law, but “Gallo is very clever in their strategy, so they advertise their products through virtual events, concerts and CD promotions.”

Here’s an example of a Carlo Rossi promotion tied to Fashion Week Poland:

Meet me at Carlo Club, anyone?

My answer to the question posed in the title of this post would be “No,” but who am I to contradict the research, development and marketing arms of such companies as W.J. Deutsch & Sons and Treasury Wine Estates? (Treasury Wine Estates is the former wine division of the Fosters Group, which underwent a “demerger” of wine from the brewing business in 2011.)

One of Treasury’s numerous brands, labels and wineries is the venerable Beringer, which is launching a brand called Be. — the period is part of the name — aiming at “sophisticated women who seek a more chic, stylish yet casual approach to wine,” according to Stephen Brauer, managing director of Beringer, quoted in Shanken News Daily. Be., which rolls out in April, will feature a Chardonnay and Riesling and, inevitably, a Pink Moscato and Pinot Grigio; the price will be about $13. Does Be. capture the essence of “woman” and all for which she stands? Perhaps someone at Beringer or Treasury has been reading Robert Graves, one of whose later poetry collections was titled Man Does, Woman Is. Another Treasury brand, by the way, is Emma Pearl — how many hours and meetings went into that name? — whose target audience is women 30 and over. The price of the Emma Pearl Chardonnay and Merlot is $16, indicating that women who buy Emma Pearl are better off financially that the target audience for Be., i.e, they’re older and have jobs.

Coincidentally, W. J. Deutsch, the importer based in Harrison, N.Y., is introducing a label called Flirt, aimed at “female consumers” — age and demographic not specified — that will cost about $11. First to be released is a blend of syrah, zinfandel and tempranillo from 2010.

We have seen this phenomenon before, in products such as Brown-Forman’s Little Black Dress label and the Folonari Pink Pinot Grigio, imported by Frederick Wildman & Sons. I don’t know what the sales figures are on these wines; perhaps women flock to them like passenger pigeons darkening the skies of 19th Century America. One imagines the meeting rooms of adult beverage conglomerates filled with junior-grade executives pondering Freud’s infamous question: “What does a woman want?”

The women I know who love wine would gag rather than drink something patronizingly called Flirt or Little Black Dress, because what they want from a bottle of wine is a well-made, authentic product whose price reflects its quality. And isn’t that what we all want from a bottle of wine? I realize that we live in a contemporary cosmos of niche marketing; even so-called Millennials are, for marketing purposes, now divided into two groups, those ages 18 to 25 and those 25 to 32. We also live in an age governed by the Tyranny of Choice, so we can go into a grocery store and stand bewildered before a dozen varieties of Cheez-It Baked Snack Crackers (a trademark of Kellog) or Pringles (a trademark of Procter & Gamble). Indeed, the range of wines foreign and domestic in large stores is daunting, and consumers need help in choosing the right bottle for their purposes.

Still, do women really want wines that are “cute” or “fun” or “stylish” or “chic”? Are those truly the criteria women would use in selecting a bottle of wine? Or do they not mind being condescended to by the cynical machinations of corporate marketing divisions and their PR agencies and advertising minions? Where will this trend stop? Surely coming soon will be wines labeled “Dumb Blond,” “Barefoot and Pregnant” and “Can’t Live with ‘Em, Can’t Live without ‘Em.”

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The “pinotgate” scandal is old news, but the settlement in the class-action suit occurred a few days ago.

Wine industry giants E&J Gallo and Constellation Brands agreed to a $2.1 million payout to consumers who purchased bottles of their inexpensive California wines filled with merlot and syrah passed off as pinot noir by a wily French entrepreneur. That’s right, whoever bought bulk wine for Gallo and Constellation between 2006 and 2008 was fooled by the plonk that would be pinot — 20 million bottles-worth — and approved it for sale under several labels selling to American wine-drinkers for $5 to $8. The Gallo labels were Red Bicyclette, Redwood Creek and Turning Leaf; the Constellation brands were Farallon, Rex Goliath, Talus and Robert Mondavi Woodbridge. (Constellation acquired Robert Mondavi in December 2004.) The fake pinot noir, from the Languedoc-Roussillon region, was shipped to our shores by a firm called Sieur d’Arques, who had purchased the bulk wine from the culprits in the deal, Ducasse Wine Merchants. A dozen Frenchmen were convicted of the fraud last year but got off (seems to me) with slaps on their manly French wrists. You can practically hear the argument: “Zut alors, it’s just a bunch of Americains. What do ze know about le vin anyway?”

Consumers may receive up to $21 even if they do not have receipts from purchasing the wines mentioned above. I know that I certainly saved my receipt from the bottle of Red Bicyclette I bought in 2007. For details of the settlement — and to see if you are entitled to a few bucks — visit frenchpinotnoirsettlement.

What tickles my admittedly perverse funny-bone is the idea that the buyers at Sieur d’Arques, Gallo and Constellation had no idea that they were purchasing bottles of merlot and syrah with perhaps a bit of pinot noir blended in. Perhaps they should have followed the advice on how to tell if a wine is pinot noir from the folks on the website of Sunset magazine, quoted by Jill Krasny writing for Business Insider:

Check the color. Pinot grapes should be nearly transparent.

Break down the flavor. “Sniff for cloves and cinnamon, violets and mint, mushrooms and loam under the fruit. And taste for licorice, olives, espresso?…”

Scrutinize the weight. Pinot should be delicate and silky, not full-bodied and “dramatic.”

(Olives and espresso? Those qualities seem rather anomalous for pinot noir.)

‘Scuse me while I fall off my chair laughing. When was the last time you tried a pinot noir wine whose color was “nearly transparent”? (I assume that the intention was to say “wine” rather than “grapes.”) When was the last time you tasted a pinot noir that was “delicate and silky”? I’m talking particularly about pinots from California and Oregon, where alcohol levels of 15 percent or more are common, where the wines are deeply extracted for opaque, brooding color and super-ripe, syrah-like flavors, where “full-bodied and dramatic” pinot noirs are as reckless as deductions on Mitt Romney’s tax return. Every week I taste purported pinot noirs that display all the character of a syrah or zinfandel in their darkness, richness, extreme spicy qualities, extravagant textures and burdensome tannins. I recently came across a producer of limited edition, high-end pinots whose motto is “Bold Decadent Daring.” Whatever happened to “Reticent Elegant Balanced”?

No wonder the noses and palates at Gallo and Constellation couldn’t tell that the “pinot” they were buying was actually mostly merlot and syrah. (We have to assume, of course, that they cared. Would I be cynical enough to suggest that the big deal for Gallo and Constellation was not that they bought fake pinot but that they were bamboozled by the French?) What’s a nose and palate to do when so many pinot noir wines, even made from 100 percent pinot noir grapes, carry all the effects of merlot or syrah or zinfandel? And if the result of farming the vineyard and tinkering with the wine is a pinot noir that resembles syrah, why bother with making pinot noir in the first place? Just make freakin’ syrah and be done with it.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it today and probably in the future too. Winemakers who do not try to bring out the best qualities of their grapes, that is the character inherent in the grapes grown in the most sympathetic and advantageous soil and climate, are making wine in bad faith. A high-alcohol, deeply extracted, super-ripe, excessively spicy pinot noir of which one is compelled to say, “That certainly is a syrah-like [or zinfandel-like] pinot noir,” does not have the right to the name pinot noir. I’m not saying the all pinots not made in Burgundy must slavishly follow the Burgundian model; obviously geography, latitude, elevation, climate and soil will impose their subtle or not-so-subtle influences. The pinot noir grape, however, performs at its best when it is allowed to assume its gratifying and paradoxical blending of elegance and power, of delicacy and sinew, nuance and structure, transparency and luster. Winemakers should pay heed to what grapes know best about themselves and want to express most eloquently; everything else is an exercise in ego.

By the way, the composition of the Red Bicylette Pinot Noir 2009? 86 percent pinot noir, 7 percent syrah, 7 percent merlot.

This little item in The New York Times caught my eye, and that is, the official wine of Lincoln Center, the great performing arts complex in Manhattan, is supplied by William Hill Estate Winery, in California’s Napa Valley. Wonder how many beautifully dressed and bejeweled patrons of the arts know that the wine they’re sipping at the center’s receptions and galas is made by a winery owned by E.&J. Gallo. That’s right, Gallo, the world’s second largest wine company, purchased the William Hill facility and vineyards in July 2007, another in a series of sales and acquisitions that the producer had undergone since 1992. And in other wine-related news, the booth that Lincoln Center maintained at this year’s Fashion Week in New York — begging the question of why Lincoln Center needs a booth at Fashion Week — featured a Kim Crawford wine bar. Kim Crawford is a winery in New Zealand, specializing in sauvignon blanc, riesling, chardonnay and pinot noir, that since 2006 has been owned by Constellation Brands, the world’s first largest wine company.

Who chose these wines for Lincoln Center to celebrate? What kinds of deals were made? Why does Lincoln Center align itself with giant global corporations when New York City is a vibrant hub of the wine world where every style and type and price of wine is available? Most important, why is the Official Wine of Lincoln Center not a product of New York state? What a boon it would be for the state’s neglected wine industry if the planners and PR people at Lincoln Center positioned the might of their attention and money behind Long Island and the Finger Lakes, where a multitude of excellent, delicious and accessible wines are made. On the other hand, what a boost it would be if the restaurants of New York would do more than pay lip-service to New York state’s wines by including the safe and obligatory two bottles on their wine lists, if even that many. Eat local? New York restaurants are all about that concept. Drink local? Never.

Anyway, as far as Lincoln Center is concerned, faced with the marketing power of Gallo and Constellation, the wineries of New York don’t stand a chance.

Image of Lincoln Center from

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