Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Big Box Wine Retailers

Each sale of a heavily marketed branded wine from a supermarket is one less sale of a genuine terroir wine from an independent wine merchant.” -Jamie Goode aka The Wine Anorak

Happy holidays to my readers! Though I can only get away with saying that for another day or two!

This is the time of year for copious amounts of food, booze around of every corner, and lotsa parties. ‘Tis the season! December is a month where if you blink too fast, you might miss it. Time flies between work, office/client parties, family commitments, gift exchanges, potlucks, etc! Now is when you might find yourself with the need to purchase wine in quantity. Maybe you had a holiday party and you bought a couple mixed cases. Or maybe you need to buy a few bottles to give as gifts or to take to a party. You might be stocking up on bubbly for New Years Eve. The wine opportunities are endless in December. The question becomes, where do you get your wines for this gluttonous month? There are a few options (depending on where you live). These include: grocery stores, local wine shops, or big box retailers. This post will focus on big box wine retailers. They could include alcohol retailers such as BevMo! or Total Wine. Or they might include Costo, which is a big box retailer that carries wine. In my humble opinion, there are many problems with purchasing your wine at a big box retailer. I will highlight a couple issues below.

Problem #1: Big Box Retailers give a customer the illusion of choice

When you walk into a BBR (Big Box Retailer) you’re faced with wall to wall shelves of wine. So many choices you have! Or do you? I submit that you do not and that it’s an illusion-filled store of homogeneous wine. BBRs predominantly carry mass-produced wine, which is usually made by a commercial producer who purchases grapes en masse and makes wine on an industrial level. The wine has no sense of place (what we call terroir). More often than not, it is a “California Blend” or a “White Wine” or something of the like. If we’re talking about California wine at lower price points ($5-$10 retail), those wines will usually be chalk full of undesirable additives, chemicals, and/or preservatives, such as: commercial tannins, bentonite, flavor and color enhancing enzymes, carbon, synthetic polymers, and gum arabic. The wine is made to be approachable and pleasant (aka easy to drink). In wine geek terms, this means that the wine will be slightly sweet with a small amount of RS (residual sugar), have low tannins/acidity, and a lot of fruit on the nose and palate. Consequently, most all of these wines taste alike.

In essence, BBRs are warehouses of (generally) uninspiring, industrial wines. Note however, that BBRs carry high-end wines as well. These wines might be made well, however, they are still (usually) made in mass quantities. These are brands/labels that you see and recognize or that you would be proud to bring to a dinner party. Those wines also come with a cost. You can assume that a nice chunk of the price of that wine went to pay for their expensive wine-making facilities and towards the marketing of the brand.

Problem #2: Much of the price you pay is for the marketing of the wine, not the wine itself

With mass produced wine, part of the cost that you pay is the marketing budget. If you walk into a BBR and recognize a wine brand on the shelf, that has a cost associated with it. That company spent money to ensure that when you walked into the store, you would recognize their brand and purchase it. Some of these examples include: Yellowtail, Kenwood, Gallo, Blackstone, Sutter Home, Barefoot, etc.

Another cost is the promotion of the wine. Where is the wine placed in the store? At eye-level?  On an end cap?  Double exposed in the window and in an aisle? Many times the producer/distributor has to pay the BBR for desirable placement in their stores or in a print advertisement.

I don’t know about you, but when I spend $ on wine, I want it to be about the wine. I want to support someone who grows the grapes, who made the wine, and who believes in the art of wine-making. I want to support their livelihood.

I won’t share names, but I had a friend who worked (for a short time only) for a BBR. He was instructed to first ALWAYS recommend the wines that they direct imported. Forget if there was something else that worked better for what the customer wanted or that better fit within their budget. He had to be a puppet and recommend “their own” wines. So remember when I told you that you really don’t have more choices in places like this? This is what I mean. It’s an illusion.

This may seem like a bashing post on BBRs. In fact, it is not. This is my opinion on the shortcomings of shopping at a BBR. There are a lot of people who might live in small towns or who don’t have access to a local wine shop.  If you want to enjoy wine, you really don’t have a choice, and I understand that.  In that case, embrace the BBR. Be cautious with the “buy 3, get 1 free deals” or the recommendations from the staff. There is plenty of drinkable and enjoyable wine within those 4 walls….enjoy it, and don’t sweat the small stuff.

If you do have a choice, please support your local wine shop. They are everywhere….really, they are. Google it, check Yelp, post on Facebook, etc. I have been pleasantly surprised time and time again to find a wine shop in many small, unassuming towns across America. Those salespeople have no allegiance to any specific wineries, distributors, etc. The vendor reps aren’t going to give them free bottles for meeting sales goals, and they aren’t being held to a quota by upper management. The idea is that the selection in the store is pre-curated with only quality wines (note that quality does not mean expensive). The salespeople are truly there to help you and to demystify the process of purchasing wine.

Lastly, I want to quickly address the issue of price. A lot of people say that they shop at BBRs because it is cheaper. Is wine at a BBR really less expensive? Yes and no. Yes, many times you can find bottles cheaper at a BBR, than at an indy retail spot. BBRs may have paid less for the wine at wholesale (because of quantity discounts, which aren’t allowed in all states), and can thus offer better retail prices, promotions, etc.

I say: don’t buy those wines anyway! See above regarding mass produced wines. Yeah, you can probably get a bottle of Blackstone Merlot for $9 at Total Wine. But guess what, you can get a decent Italian Merlot at a local wine shop for maybe $11-$13. By doing that, you are probably supporting a smaller producer in Italy, who is making honest wines. And you’re supporting a small business in your community. Boom.

Happy New Year readers and thank you for allowing me to share my wine voice with you. I hope you have enjoyed my SOMMspirations…..wine inspirations from a sommelier.  Until 2016!!

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Vintastic Voyage: Amador County and Los Olivos/Lompoc

Even though the month of October was filled with nonstop studying, I still managed to make some time to head to the local wine countries in the area. This is the beauty of California.....from pretty much about anywhere, you are usually no more than 2 hours from land under vine!  At first I thought I shouldn't spend these precious weekend hours away from my books and flash cards. Then I realized that getting out and tasting is as important as memorizing my flash cards.  I'm glad I did, as I explored two areas I was not familiar with.

Amador County
Amador is about 45 minutes Southeast of Sacramento. My husband and I were in the area visiting an old friend and her new family, and she wanted to show me their local wine country. Amador was beautiful. There are the typical rolling hills/vineyard views, but there is also a distinct outdoorsy feel. Almost as if you were not too far from a forest, or the mountains.  There are 40 wineries in the Amador area.   The area is known for Zinfanel and the Rhone varietals (Syrah and Grenache).  Lodi, the Zin capital, is not too far from Amador. We first stopped at a delightful little gourmet food spot called Andrae's Bakery. We picked up fresh sandwiches, sardines, and some sweets for lunch. They had a really nice selection of artisan food products to peruse through as well.

Our first stop was my favorite of the day, Andis Wines. Minimal/sustainable decor (versus the usually cluttered wine country tasting room).  A great selection of wines to taste. We were lucky, as we got to taste with one of the winemakers. A charming young guy from Kentucky.  We loved getting to know him and hear his story as to how he ended up in Amador. I found the wines approachable and enjoyable. Nothing too overly complex or sophisticated. And honestly, sometimes that's ok. I don't want to always have to work for my wine. Sometimes I just want something quaffable and tastes good.

Next up was Jeff Runquist Wines. The tasting room was really busy, as they were having some sort of a wine club event. Good wines here. Though nothing I opted to take home.   I find that if I am too distracted in a tasting room (i.e. with a big group of people, or the tasting room is busy on its own), that I have trouble really getting "into the zone" of tasting.  I feel distracted and unable to truly give my time to the wine.  In those times I just focus on the company that I am with, and try to not take the wines so seriously.

The last stop was Dobra Zemelja Winery, and what an interesting place that was. The tasting room was in a "cave" underground that was built by the former owners Milan and Victoria Matulich, of Croatia.  Milan was there in the tasting room, and we were lucky enough to have him guide us through the tasting. He was a great guy and we heard all kinds of stories of his colorful life. He grew up in Croatia, and my friend that I was with had spent some time in Croatia, as his father was in the military. The wines, on the other hand, were nothing to write home about, and at times, difficult to drink.  However, the focus was not on the wines.  It was in laughing and listening to Milan share his interesting life story!

Los Olivos/Lompoc
The next field trip was to the Los Olivos and Lompoc area. I went with a couple girlfriends of mine for a fun Saturday field trip, and the first stop was Andrew Murray Vineyards in Los Olivos where my one friend had to pick up a wine shipment of hers.  And let me tell you, their tasting room is stunning. We were lucky enough, as we got to taste in the private wine club area, which was beautiful. A clean, sleek aesthetic, yet it still had a comfortable living room feel.

Photo courtesy of : Andrew Murray Vineyards

We tasted quite a few wines there. I found them a bit hard to distinguish, and came to the conclusion that a lot of the wines were still too young to enjoy. They were a bit harsh and the tannins and acid were a bit out of whack. I predict that a good chunk of the wines we tasted could benefit from 2-5 years in the bottle.

Drinkability/ageability of wines, is something that I am slowly starting to understand and be able to apply in the real world. I used to determine the quality of a wine based solely on what I was tasting that day. What I have learned is that a key part of that assessment is "where is this wine in its life cycle today?" Is it too young to drink, just right, or is it past it's prime? If it is just right, will the wine improve with age in the bottle? Or is this the best it's going to get? If the wine is too young, when will be the prime time to drink it?

In addition to the wine tasting, we also did a truffle chocolate pairing that was delightful! The chocolates had some interesting flavors such as white chocolate rosewater and milk chocolate star anise.  I walked away from Andrew Murray with a bottle of 2013 Syrah Alisos Vineyard.  This was $36/bottle and only 400 cases were produced. My note was that this wine was a tannin bomb.  But I saw some potential for aging.  This wine is a cooler climate Syrah.  30% whole clusters were used in the fermenters, and a bit of Viognier is blended in.  This wine will hold in the cellar for a decade or more.

Choclate truffles paired with the wines

Our next stop was Industrial Eats in Buellton for lunch. I had gotten some recommendations from blogger friends who had eaten there when the Wine Bloggers Conference was in the area in 2014. It is exactly as it sounds...an industrial place too eat. A super cool aesthetic and plenty of seating, including a large communal table in the middle. We split a Margarita pizza and a Caesar salad that was to die for. Great food and good prices...I highly recommend it.

Industrial Eats, Buellton

Then we were off to the Lompoc Wine Ghetto.  We were there on a Sunday, so quite a few of the tasting rooms were closed, which was a bummer. If you recall in an earlier blog post, I shared about Sashi Moorman (a Santa Barbara winemaker) who spoke to our class back in August. I loved his stories and values in regards to the wine business. He has his own winery in the area called Piedrasassi, and also makes wine for Stoplman Vineyards, both who have tasting rooms at the Ghetto.  Piedrasassi was closed, so we headed to Stoplman. One thing about the Ghetto is that it is a "no frills" kind of place. You literally feel like you are in an industrial/warehouse area that should not be open to the public.  The Lompoc Wine Ghetto is a community of urban winery tasting rooms in an industrial setting.  The first tasting room was opened in 2005 and now there are 26 tasting rooms onsite. It's not about hospitality there, it's about the wines. The gentleman who poured wines for us was a nice guy with a dry sense of humor. Stoplman had a range of very interesting wines in a no-frills setting. Unique blends and things such as a semi-carbonic Syrah and an unfiltered Rousanne. I would say that a good chunk of the wines we had here would greatly improve with bottle age. The tannins were a bit harsh and needed some time to mellow out. These were interesting wines...wines you have to work for. My friends didn't love the selection here...their palates are more accustomed to more approachable wines. And that is ok. The beauty about a wine country is that there is something for everyone. It's not about going to multiple tasting rooms and loving everything you try, it's about having an experience and seeing the multitude of wines that can be made in one area/region.

Our last stop was Ampelos Vineyard and Cellars, which was recommended by a cohort in my WSET class. They were the first biodynamic winery in the area. They definitely catered a bit more to the customers here. Multiple seating areas, a bar at which to taste, cheese/crackers available for sale, etc. The gals who worked there were cheery and had a decent amount of knowledge about the wines they were serving.

I hope you enjoyed this recap of my two most recent Vintastic Voyages.  Stay tuned for next week when I will discuss my opinions of Big Box Wine Retailers.  Right in time for Christmas!

Stoplman Vineyards at the Lompoc Wine Ghetto

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Please vote for the Monthly Wine Writing Challenge!

Hello readers.  On Monday I published a post entitled "To Pair or Not to Pair, That is the Question".  This post was entered into the Monthly Wine Writing Challenge hosted by The Drunken Cyclist, a fellow wine blogger.  The topic is "pairing" and was selected by last month's winner, JVB Uncorked.  You can read his winning post HERE.

The instructions are simple:

1. Read my post HERE
2. Vote HERE
3. Wash, rinse, repeat!

Voting Begins: Tuesday December 8
Voting Ends: Monday December 14
Winner Announced: Tuesday December 15

Thank you for your support! Cheers!

Sunday, December 6, 2015

To Pair or Not to Pair, That is the Question #MWWC21

*This post is being entered in the Drunken Cyclist's Monthly Wine Writing Challenge. See more details here. The winner last month was Jim van Bergen of JVB Uncorked. He won with this post on the topic of “variety”.  Jim also selected the topic of “pairing” for this month’s challenge.  Enjoy!

**Please vote HERE!

“Pairing” is a very popular topic on wine blogs. This past month, every other blog seems to have a post on “Turkey Friendly Wines” or “Wines to Pair with your Thanksgiving Meal”, etc. Wine pairings are everywhere: wine pairing dinners at local restaurants, food pairing suggestions in an eblast from a local wine store, articles in food and wine magazines, etc. However, it is my belief that regular people don’t give two shits about wine pairings. This obviously does not include somms, people in the business, wine students, or aficionados. We (usually) do care. We understand how and why the Champagne brings out the briny, salty sea water in the oyster. We understand why a high acid pinot makes a nice foil to that piece of grilled salmon. When I dine out in my native Los Angeles, I love to read through the full food and wine menus to get a sense of what was going on in the minds of the chef and the somm when they created those menus. Why did they make the decisions they made? How do the wine selections complement the food and how can I maximize the relationship of the two (without breaking the bank)?

Newsflash: most people are more than happy to drink Yellowtail, Kenwood, Gallo, Blackstone, Sutter Home, Barefoot, etc. These all fall in that $5-$8/bottle sweet spot for grocery store wines. This, my friends, is most of America. They pop into the market to pick up fixins’ for dinner and grab the $7.99 bottle of red wine on the end cap of the wine aisle. Done. It was a 5-second decision that had nothing to do with how the wine would work with the fat content of the steak they were making. And I think that’s ok. I’m not gonna lose sleep over it. I’m not gonna hang my head in shame of my American wine-drinking brothers and sisters who ignore the ridiculous notion that food and wine must ALWAYS be consumed with the purpose of elevating the experience.

Everyone has a different experience with wine, and I can’t expect them all to be connoisseurs. That is one thing that I will call out some of my fellow wine bloggers and fellow wine students on: they focus too much on the high-end. Sure, good (and usually expensive) wine is awesome. There really is some insanely delicious stuff out there in the high-end market. But I find that the more people know about wine and study wine, they tend to leave behind the more “pedestrian” wines. There is something about drinking a light and refreshing Frascati out of a simple cup with a simple pasta dish while in Rome/Lazio. Or going over to a friends house for dinner and enjoying their favorite homemade comfort food dish with a cheap ass bottle of wine. Those are experiences and they are part of life. I don’t ever want to turn into that wine person who lambastes people’s choices of wine the second you leave their house, or who bad mouths their friend who served Cooks “Champagne” for their wedding toast. Wine is not as important to all people as it is to you. Get over it.

In my opinion, context is everything. For example, the other night I made a PB&J sandwich for dinner. Why? Because I was hungry, because I had nothing else in the house, and because I felt like it. I also drank a glass of bubbly with it. And it was fucking delightful. I didn’t consciously “pair” the sandwich to the bubbly (obviously). I just wanted both, and didn’t give a shit if it paired correctly or what people would think about it. On the other hand, I might cook a nice meal of chicken picatta on another night, and enjoy that with a creamy Carneros Chardonnay or a white Burgundy. Context.

The bottom line is that most of the time, I am NOT pairing my food and wine. Most of the time I eat what I want to eat and drink what I want to drink. Sometimes it’s just about what bottle we have open from last night and what protein is sitting on a plate defrosting in my fridge. It’s as simple as that.

Somehow this post ended up as a rant on some level...oops! But hey, sometimes you’ve gotta just voice your mind and live unabashedly. The more I learn about wine, the more I want to maintain my belief that Wine is Democratic. It is for everyone and meant to be enjoyed by everyone.