Oct 132014
 

It’s Drink Local Wine Week 2014, and we kicked it off with a trip to TasteCamp in Hudson Valley, New York. For those in the know, New York is one of the top five wine producing states in the nation. When most people think of New York wine, however, they would most likely choose the Finger Lakes and maybe Long Island. Hudson Valley wine wouldn’t be high on their list. Well, I’m here to tell you that they make some pretty damned decent wine in Hudson Valley.

Is it the caliber of Napa Valley or Willamette Valley? Well, no, probably not. They still have some growing up to do; ironically, since they claim the oldest continually operating winery and oldest planted vineyard in the country.  They haven’t quite found their identity like the Finger Lakes has with cold climate varieties such as Riesling and Long Island has with Bordeaux varieties such as Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Cold climate varieties show a lot of promise, as do several hybrid varieties. Cabernet Franc could also be a contender.

That said, they have all the right ingredients. First, they are in the backyard of the biggest wine market in the country. By far, New York City is the 800 pound gorilla when it comes to the wine business. But, because they are so close, Hudson Valley wine has two major advantages: access and price.  Second, they have enthusiastic winemakers who work together to promote the overall Hudson Valley wine community. I was told by Yancey Stanforth-Migliore at Whitecliff Vineyard that they frequently meet with other winemakers to taste and critique their own wines. Third, they’re not afraid to ask for help. Several wineries we visited use outside consultants from the Finger Lakes, Long Island, and beyond. Ben and Kimberly Peacock of Tousey Winery regularly consult with Peter Bell at Fox Run Winery, arguably one of the best producers in the Finger Lakes area. And finally, they aren’t trying to be something they’re not. Unlike many wine regions who emulate Burgundy, Bordeaux, or Napa, by planting Chardonnay and Cabernet everywhere and try to produce “international-style” wine, Hudson Valley wines seem to embrace their uniqueness, whether intentional or not.

The attendees to TasteCamp had the opportunity to taste dozens of wines. The following are some of the standouts.

Millbrook - Hudson Valley Wine

The converted barn at Millbrook Vineyards & Winery.

Millbrook Vineyards & Winery

In 1979, John Dyson, former New York State Commissioner of Agriculture, purchased the old Wing Dairy Farm and converts it to wine production. A few years later, in 1985, Dyson hires winemaker John Graziano and Millbrook Vineyards and Winery is established as a commercial winery. Today, the winery farms roughly 140 acres, which probably places it among the largest in the Hudson River Region.  The winery is a converted barn and is really something to behold. It’s rustic, yet it really works for the area. I liked their Proprietor’s Special Reserve Hudson River Region Cabernet Franc 2012 ($30) and Proprietor’s Special Reserve Hudson River Region Chardonnay 2012 ($25).

Winemaker Cristop - Hudson valley Wine

Winemaker Kristop Brown with a little intro for TasteCamp attendees.

Robibero Family Vineyards

Harry and Carole Robibero purchased their 42 acre estate in 2003, and began making their own wines in 2007. Today, their winemaker, Kristop Brown, is pushing the Robibero family to grow and improve. They are small now, but have plans for gradual grown, and will be planting a new vineyard soon. I liked the New York State Cabernet Franc 2012 ($40) and the New York State Traminette 2013 ($19).

Benmarl Winery

Overlooking the historic Hudson River Valley, it’s 37 acre estate lays claim to the oldest vineyard in America. The winery also holds New York Farm Winery license no.1. Matthew Spaccarelli is Winemaker and General Manager, and he makes arguably the best Cabernet Franc I tasted all weekend. I liked the Seneca Lake Semi-Dry Riesling 2012 ($17.99) and the Ridge Road Estate Hudson River Region Cabernet Franc 2012 (N/A).

Whitecliff Vineyard & Winery

Michael Migliore and Yancey Stanforth-Migliore literally built Whitecliff Vineyard & Winery from the ground up in what was an empty field thirty years ago. They built the winery, they planted the vineyards, and they made the wine. They have a sweet story. They are both avid rock climbers and met each other while climbing the nearby Shawangunk Ridge. The ridge can be seen from the winery, and is the inspiration for the name of the winery. I liked the Estate Bottled Hudson River Region Cabernet Franc 2013 ($22.95) and New York Riesling 2013 ($16.95).

Tousey Winery - Hudson valley Wine

Tousey Winery may be humble, but they make damn good wine.

Tousey Vineyard

Tousey Vineyard began as a family-run enterprise (and still is today) by Ray Tousey. The winery is now run by Ben and Kimberly Peacock – Ray’s daughter.  They are kind of the new kids on the block, but as such they bring a more modern sensability to a pretty traditional area. Kimberly and Ben are young and enthusiastic, and it shows in their wines. Their strong suit is their Rieslings, but they are make reds under a second label. I liked the Estate Grown Hudson River Dry Riesling 2013, Estate Grown Hudson River Riesling 2013, and Estate Grown Hudson River Reserve Riesling 2013. I don’t think the 2013 wines are officially released, hence no prices listed.

Hudson-Chatham Winery

I’ve known owner Carlo Devito for years. He was largely responsible for organizing TasteCamp this year. Quite frankly, he has a screw loose, but you’ll never meet a nicer guy. He’d give you the shirt off his back if you asked for it. But, he’s also a brilliant marketer and built Hudson-Chatham Winery into a powerhouse. His signature grape? Single Vineyard Baco Noir. I kid you not. And it’s good! I’ve had the priviledge of tasting through several vintages and several vineyards. they are really unique and something to seek out.

There were also several creamery visits, a distillery tour and tasting, and some sightseeing around the Hudson Valley, but that is a tale for another post and perhaps another blog.

Oct 012014
 

San FranciscoThe following is an article contributed by Master Sommelier Tim Gaiser. You can read more by Tim at TimGaiser.com.

October marks 30 years that Carla and I have lived in San Francisco.  We moved to California after I finished graduate school at the University of Michigan in January of 1984 initially setting in San Mateo because of the usual periodic housing shortage in the city.  Those first nine months in California can only be described as bleak with the stress of finding a job and living in an apartment with no light and the most alarming vomit-hued shag carpet. The only salvation was a shopping center across the street with a wine shop that we often visited–especially after experiencing the first several earthquakes.  Welcome to California!

We moved to San Francisco on October first of that year finding a one bedroom apartment on Russian Hill with spectacular views of the bay, Alcatraz, and all of Pacific Heights for a mere $650—and it had parking!  FYI the same apartment today rents for over $4K. It was never our intention to stay here for several decades but having two kids meant first finding day care, then pre-school, and on and on through high school in a blur commonly referred to as parenthood.  Contrary to a lot of negative press on the subject both our kids—especially Patrick about whom you’ll read more below—thrived in public schools their entire academic careers.  That being said the range of quality for public schools in San Francisco is just as extreme as in any other big city.  But just as knowing the producer in Burgundy is a no-brainer and mandatory for getting a good bottle, a parent in San Francisco simply has to be an advocate for their kid to get them into the right schools.  With special ed programs, and because our son Patrick is a special needs guy, it’s even more critical that a parent push to get their kid into the right class with the right teacher.  Carla was a champion for both Maria and Patrick and a huge part of their academic success. I will always be grateful to her for that.

When I’m on the road–which is all too often–I tell people I live in San Francisco and get the usual how lucky you are or what a beautiful city or what an amazing place. I invariably agree that yes, it’s all the above.  However, after living here for 30 years I have my own analogy for living in San Francisco that goes something like this; “it’s like dating a gorgeous expensive woman you can never really quite afford.” After thirty years, she—the city—is more expensive than ever thanks to Google and all my new high tech friends who have pushed rents and housing prices to beyond New York levels.  And she’s no fun anymore.  In fact, she’s a complete pain in the ass.  That’s my take on San Francisco.  Want proof? Enter exhibit “A,” a Friday night last summer.

Every second Friday night, the ARC center has a dance for its clients from 6:00 to 8:00.  If you are not familiar, the ARC is a national organization for people with disabilities.  Patrick is currently enrolled in a special program called ACCESS, offered through the unified school district in a space attached to ARC.  He will age out of ACCESS next May when he turns 22 and when he does, he will move right next door into ARC programs. But because he’s on site practically every day now, he knows almost everyone on the staff at ARC, as well as many of the clients.  Needless to say, the ARC dances are big fun for him as well as the rest of the clients and parents. But for Carla and me, the ARC dances also mean two hours to go on an actual “date.”

On that ill-fated Friday evening we parked across from the ARC center on the corner of Howard and 11th streets (a reference that will be important later) and walked Patrick over to the dance.  We then clambered back in the vehicle and headed south on Folsom St. for a wine bar on Mission and 22nd where we enjoyed a glass of wine just weeks before.  Mind you, I knew full well we were taking a major risk.  I’ve lived in the city more than long enough to know what traffic and parking can be like in the Mission on a Friday night. The phrases FUBAR, impossible, and completely screwed come to mind. But we were game, and in serious need of a quality time together, so we set off in what was really just a sub-ten minute jaunt of less than 25 blocks.

Once there, we began the cosmic undertaking of finding a parking place on Mission St. or thereabouts which is somewhere between passing an NFL team through the eye of a needle or a Sauvignon Blanc getting 100 points in the Wine Spectator.  Dear readers, I really don’t have to tell you what happened next–but I will.  We drove around—very strategically mind you—for the next hour trying in vain to find a parking place, any parking place, within five to six blocks of said wine bar.  You might hazard a guess, and you would be correct, that we never did find that illusive parking place.  It was like the city in the form of my uber expensive girlfriend simply didn’t show up for our date—and she wasn’t even returning my phone calls, texts or e-mails.

I have to say that I handled driving around pointlessly for an hour with great patience and aplomb.  After all, if your expectations for success are somewhere near non-existent, even the least shred of success can seem life changing.  But that never happened either.  By now you’re probably thinking that we should have driven somewhere else, parked the car, and taken a cab to the joint.  But really? Seriously?  After all, we now had about an hour to get something to eat before having to retrieve Patrick.

After making the decision to bail on the wine bar, which was really quite easy, we headed back up Folsom street with the intention of finding a place close to ARC, thus salvaging whatever time we had left.  I told Carla to look at “Near Me” on her phone to find restaurants on the way.  But nothing interesting came up and in minutes we found ourselves parking in EXACTLY THE SAME PARKING SPACE we had just used an hour before when we dropped Patrick off.  I am not making this up.  But stay with me because this is where it gets good.

At the confluence of Howard and 11th Streets and across from the ARC building were two restaurants; a Mexican place and a pizza place.  We opted for the latter.  Before going on any further, I have to confess that I am not the person to ask when inquiring about the latest, coolest restaurants in San Francisco.  I travel a lot and eat out a lot on the road, so when I’m home I like to stay home and cook and, as you can imagine, there are more than a few bottles of wine downstairs in my garage.  That said, I was really not in the least informed about the pizza place we stumbled into because, after all, it was on the corner literally crawling distance from the car–and we were hungry, thirsty, and had little time left for dinner.  But this was not just any pizza place; this pizza place which will not be named was one of those establishments certified by the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana in Naples complete with a special wood burning pizza oven.

After the fact, Carla and I were to learn that there’s usually a line out the door at this place and the restaurant also doesn’t take reservations.  But on this Friday night the restaurant gods in San Francisco smiled on us, if only briefly, and we managed to grab the only open deuce.  Inside, the place was all austere concrete and cinder blocks with the enormous aforementioned certified pizza oven occupying front and center stage.   Quickly I noticed that we were the oldest people in the restaurant and so completely un-hip that we probably didn’t belong there. But screw it, I thought, we were hungry and now only had about 45 minutes before having to head across the street.

Eyeing the menu, I spotted five different choices for pizza offered that evening, all for the mere price of $25 a pie. Mind you, these were single size pizzas. Not a big deal. But then my eyes drifted over to the right side of the menu to the wines offered by the glass.  And here, meine freunden, is where it got interesting.  All the wines poured by the glass were from Campania, which wasn’t a surprise given the origin of the restaurant’s certification.  But more importantly, all the offerings were either orange wines or natural wines. I let out an audible groan. Carla, who has now has a zero tolerance policy for my reaction to poorly constructed wine lists and/or less-than-adequately trained servers, immediately responded with a terse, “Now what?” I told her about the wines by the glass.  She responded with something like, “Oh, it’s probably fine.” But I knew better.  I’ve tasted enough of both categories to be a fervent believer in modern winemaking technology and to be just as unappreciative of chemistry projects masquerading as commercially sold wine.  More on that later.

Soon the server took our order.  I can’t recall which of the five pizzas I chose, but I clearly remember ordering two glasses of an Aglianico from a producer I’d never heard of.  The wine arrived quickly in two of those thick, heavy, and dense tumblers normally used in chain restaurants or bar fights.  Dismissing the fact that I was paying $13 for a glass of wine served in a something resembling a weapon, I put my nose in the glass.  Immediately all my internal wine flaw alarms went off.  If seven alarms is max in the firefighting world, then I was at nine alarms, meaning the wine had more than one serious flaw. Said Aglianico not only displayed a monumental level of VA—somewhere between floor varnish and Sherry vinegar—it also had an extreme level of brettanomyces. The combination made my eyes water, and when I went to comment about the tragic condition of the wine to Carla she just gave me the eye.  So I sipped the wine in pained silence, trying to imagine the less than hygienic conditions under which the wine was made.  I’m reasonably sure that the winemaker and his/her tribe probably had the best of intentions, but this was beyond the term “cellar palate” where one loses olfactory sensitivity because of working in a single wine environment for too long; it was more like “stable palate.”

Fortunately, the pizzas showed up just as I drained the last wicked drop of Aglianico.  I wanted another glass of wine—any wine but the Aglianico.  I chose the other red offered by the glass, only to learn from the server that they were sold out of it.  However, the restaurant had just gotten a new vintage of Piedrosso from her favorite producer that day and would we like to try it.  Of course!  After all, it had to be better than the previous wine.  I was wrong.  The Piedrosso arrived in moments in the same big clunky glasses and when I put my nose in the glass I literally saw the color brown.  The Piedrosso for anyone keeping score was the single most flawed glass of wine I’ve ever been served.  It displayed staggering levels of Brett and was oxidized—and it was spritzy!   It was as if the wine was still trying to sort itself out in the bottle after many tortuous years, hence my previous comment about natural wines as chemistry projects.  For the record, the pizzas were delicious–absolutely top shelf–even if they were a bit pricey.  Total cost of dinner, including 20% tip and tax: $124.  Experience of tasting “natural” wines: priceless.

Allow me a moment on my soapbox.  Regardless of the kinds of wines you feel best suit your menu, you as a professional buyer have an obligation to have a clue about what clean, well-made wine is and to offer your guests sound, well-made wines that are good values.   That’s the deal, and absolutely no exceptions, including orange and natural wines.  Further, in keeping with my Mom’s sage advice that it takes all types to fill up the freeways, I would be the first to admit that there’s room for just about everything in the world of wine.  But let’s not confuse unusual with flawed.  There’s a big difference.  And while it’s been interesting to watch the orange/natural wine camps, I’m also beginning to think that maybe it’s about time they had some kind of certification so the rest of us in industry know what the hell they’re doing—even if what they’re doing results in completely flawed wine.  After all, there are certifications for organic and biodynamic wine.  Why not for natural wines? I rest my case.

So, on that Friday night my latest date with the uber expensive girlfriend, otherwise known as San Francisco was—what a surprise—expensive, rushed, and agita-inducing.  Oh yes, she was completely unkempt for the occasion.

Aug 282014
 

Homersapien: Evolution of the palate

“A man loves the meat in his youth that he cannot endure in his age …”

Shakespeare from Twelfth Night

Last year I sat down to interview Yosh Han, internationally known custom perfumer. Like previous interviews with wine industry colleagues I wanted to deconstruct Yosh’s internal strategies for olfactory memory especially given that the range of possible aromas for perfume is exponentially far greater than wine. I wasn’t surprised to discover that Yosh’s strategies for remembering aromas were entirely based on visual very similar to most of the wine professionals I’ve interviewed. In a second session I met with Yosh and Amanda Holt, her assistant, (website) to create my own personal scent. We started with more than 50 vials of different aromas. The process was simple: she passed me the vials of an aromas one by one without telling me of the contents and I said either “yes,” “no,” “love it” or “hate it.” I then handed vials to Amanda who grouped them in said categories keeping aside the ones from the liked and loved categories. We went through several rounds finally narrowing down my favorites to seven: peppermint, rosemary, violet, waves (marine note), aloe, night queen (jasmine), teak, and something called washed suede. Yosh then blended them and tweaked the percentages until we both liked the results. The final scent, at least according to my wife Carla who knows infinitely more about perfumes and essential oils than I ever will, is a unisex scent that could be worn by either men or women. For the record, she likes it—a lot.

Yosh frequently blends custom scents for clients, not an inexpensive endeavor. I asked her about it and she said her client sessions were often like scent therapy where a client would often overload on a certain category like sweet smells (chocolate) or musk smells or floral smells and leave everything else out completely resulting in a completely skewed blend. At that point she would gently suggest to the client that a balance of different scents was needed for the best result and slowly guide them to include other categories of aromas. In a way she was expanding their olfactory universe and their appreciation for completely different and for them probably previously unnoticed scents and sensory experiences. I then asked Yosh was she liked best; what were her favorite aromas. I really wasn’t surprised to hear her say that she liked practically everything as long as it was high quality and done well. She immediately asked me what kinds of wines I liked best and I had to give the same answer; I like practically any style of wine as long as it’s balanced and made well. But it hasn’t always been that way and that got me thinking to how my tastes in wine —my likes and dislikes—have changed over the last 30+ years. It also made me ponder how one’s palate undergoes an evolution of sorts over time. With that in mind here’s a completely un-researched, undocumented, and otherwise reckless account of the evolution of a palate.

Warning: the following may contain elements of sarcasm, droll humor, parody, and otherwise snarky commentary.

Phase I

Phase I: Katy Perry

Wine as liquid sweet confection. If Starbucks really gets into the wine game this will be style numero uno to map across from the shockingly schlocky and uber sweet concoctions they shamelessly market as “coffee.” I will say no more. The wines from Phase I are usually pink or white in color and slightly-to-moderately sweet in style. Today we not only have Muscat in all its various forms but a new category of sweet red wines both of which have once again has left the industry scratching its collective head while scrambling to get the tanks filled, the wines sweet enough, and the labels catchy enough to be commercially appealing. It seems as if every generation finds a way to give itself permission to drink fruity and slightly sweet wines and the Moscato/sweet red thing is no exception. That’s simply because most of us, self-included, started in the way back machine of our wine careers by initially drinking wines that were off-dry to quite sweet and hopefully balanced by enough acidity so as not to resemble, well … Katy Perry. For me that was ‘70’ incarnations in the form of Lancer’s and Mateus rosés, odd vinous creatures packaged in cans called “wine coolers,” and the likes of Blue Nun, Reunite Lambrusco, and White Zinfandel. Not surprisingly, most were mass market brands with the mega-funds to promote on TV and in print media. Don’t get me wrong, everyone has to start somewhere and remember that anyone drinking any kind of wine is good for the industry. At this juncture it’s only fitting that I quote my Mom who once said, “It takes all types to fill up the freeway.” And of course, she was right. Ultimately one hopes that the Katy Perry crowd moves on to at least Phase II. But if they don’t it’s all good; no harm no foul.

Phase II

Phase II: Rombauer

Editorial note: I am NOT bashing Rombauer Chardonnay or the good people at the Rombauer winery in any way, shape or form here. They make good wine and they do a good job. Everyone should be as successful. Everyone got it? Good. Moving on. What Rombauer Chardonnay has to do with Phase II of the evolution of a palate? Simple: it’s all about novice drinkers graduating from innocuous, sweet mono-chromatic wines to a full-bodied and lush single varietal wine with layers of intense fruit flavors and the first taste of new oak—the latter of which will likely become the crack of their wine drinking world. Inhabitants of Phase II also usually become very interested in what they’re eating in terms of quality; this despite the fact that they will consume mass quantities of Chardonnay with any and everything including red meat. Eventually many in the Phase II club will crave for even more intensity and discover red wines. And like every toddler boy who first learns to walk, they won’t walk but will instead race full-bore, pell-mell directly into …. Cabernet Sauvignon!

Phase III

Phase III: Monster Truck Pull

Having developed a serious oak habit wine now becomes a full contact sport for newly minted members of Phase III. More often than not it’s a guy thing–no make that a group of guys thing—as in a group of guys in the backyard having just consumed half a grilled steer and the better part of case of very expensive California Cabernet. Now they’re moving on to cigars, Port and the inevitable and awkwardly emotional “I love you, man” moment. For denizens of Phase III, if it doesn’t have 15+% alcohol it’s not wine. They tend to eat lots of red meat and also develop a serious fortified wine habit because after all, Port is really loud wine too! Acquiring a whiskey (y) habit also may also happen at this point in the evolutionary phase which can actually be a good thing in terms of quality, style and terroir of the best malt whiskies and Bourbons. Needless to say, the hangovers experienced by Phase III members can be legendary. The discovery of amaro is therefore common in this phase and a medical necessity. I discovered Fernet Branca while in Phase III and it saved my life on just such an occasion. Alas, parenthood and advancing age can take their toll on members of Phase III. But a certain percentage of them at some point experience a life-altering vinous moment and move quietly into Phase IV.

Phase IV

Phase IV: Oh Blinding Light …

In Phase IV the wine drinker moves from full contact to nuance the result of a beautiful sadness of life moment usually at the hands of a great bottle of Burgundy. Instantly wine goes from collision to filigree and along with this blinding light moment often comes the realization that the “where” of a wine can be more important than anything else. Such mystical moments sometimes occur while traveling to so-called sacred home turf environs such as Burgundy, Jerez and the like. Initiates of Phase IV also cross an invisible line from “eat to live” to “live to eat” and planning dinner while having lunch is a common affliction. Potential downsides to Phase IV often involve becoming a hopeless and equally insufferable Francophile snob with the victim never returning to a balanced vinous state. Extreme cases involve joining various wine societies or clubs that require secret handshakes, wearing pastel sashes with medals and ribbons, and even—god forbid—the donning of long Obi Wan-like robes. With their recent spiritual conversion Phase IV rangers are notorious for demeaning big-ass Cabernets—the same big-ass Cabernets they were only recently hoovering at an alarming rate. Further, they may take to slamming any wine for having too much alcohol or for not being authentic–whatever the hell that means. Ahem.

Phase V

Phase V: It’s a Small World …

Phase V is really an extension of Phase IV; here the individual has their first great Riesling experience and with it the blinding realization that wines with residual sugar can be cosmic—as great as any wines on the planet. Moreover, these same delicate, slightly sweet and acid-crazy wines are among the most versatile food wines that exist. Phase V regulars often drink more white wines than red and crave what is in reality insane levels of minerality and acidity regardless of what’s in their glass. But they also “get” simply made country wines with the right intensity of fruit and a good acid balance (that acid word again). And if they haven’t rediscovered Champagne and top quality sparkling wines (think Franciacorta) in Phase IV they do so with a vengeance in Phase V. Italy looms large for red wines in Phase V again for the acid/minerality thing and Phase V’ers will put up with various amounts of VA and brett to get their fix.

Phase VI

Phase VI: “Even the Irish …”

The above short quote from the brilliant Mel Brooks movie (soon to be a blog post unto itself) Blazing Saddles. Those who make it to Phase VI have traveled full circle in that they have no problem drinking slightly sweet wines. In fact, someone who gets to this point in palate evolution LOVES slightly sweet wine but with a huge caveat: it HAS to be good as in top Vouvray Demi-Sec or Spätlese/Auslese Riesling. But more importantly they like—no make that love—practically every kind of wine as long as it’s well made; from shockingly acidic Brut Zero Champagnes to bone dry and austere VORS Palo Cortado Sherries to top Cabernets from Coonawarra to VA-laced old school Piedmontese Barolo to decadently succulent TBA’s from Austria or Germany. As Mayor Olson Johnson of Rock Ridge said, “Aw, prairie sh*t… Everybody!”

Reprinted by permission from TimGaiser.com.

Jul 172014
 

2014-06-30 20.23.43No one can accuse John Geber of lacking imagination or lacking enthusiasm. He exudes enthusiasm from the moment you meet him and, as for his imagination, well, it runs rampant.

Most people riding their bicycles past an abandoned building would keep on riding, but not John. Instead, while cycling through the Barossa Valley one day, he chanced upon a chateau for sale and decided to buy it on the spot. After the deal had been made, John called his wife to share the news. The couple are clearly made for each other since she first asked him how many bedrooms the chateau contained rather than the more rational question: “Are you insane?”

John’s new purchase was originally built in 1890, and as the largest chateau in Australia it is the size of three football fields and three stories high. After the deal closed, the chateau was eventually fully renovated and its vineyards restored, giving birth to the Chateau Tanunda brand of wines.

Among Chateau Tanunda’s previous marketing efforts, John used to bring 20 people down to Australia each year to visit his property. But, he recognized that such an approach was inefficient and changed tactics. John decided to do what any reasonable person (oh right, we already decided he was insane), he bought a yacht; now, he brings Australia to the U.S.

The Grand Barossa Cru yacht has kept John “on the road” quite a bit in past several months. Setting sail from Boca Raton, FL on May 6th of this year, the yacht has traveled the eastern seaboard, during which time it visited 18 different ports of call and held 65 events over the course of 60 days. The boat and crew arrived in New York City in late June, entertaining wine and lifestyle writers with Australian cuisine, a brief jaunt in the harbor and, of course, the Grand Barossa wines.

Additionally, John shared his three key messages with us:

  • “Australia is not a brand called Yellow Tail
  • The Barossa Valley is one of the five most important valleys in the world of wine and the only one located in the Southern Hemisphere
  • The Barossa Valley is the “Napa Valley” of Australia, at a third of the price, and it has more varieties than just Shiraz.”

During the voyage, we had the pleasure of tasting several wines including Riesling, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz. Among my favorite was the Chardonnay, which despite having a small portion fermented in French oak, is surprisingly fresh and elegant. As John noted, “We are not carpenters.” All of wines had great, vibrant acidity and were well suited to enjoy with food, whether at home or on a sea cruise.

Jul 122014
 

As a wine publicist, in addition to a wine blogger, I probably look at wine events in a slightly different way than most other attendees. I can’t help it. I’m always looking at how things are organized and what I believe is their effectiveness. One of my biggest criticisms of wineries in general, and especially of European producers, is their tendency to over-complicate their marketing programs. These companies miss the point that they have ONE shot at making an impression. Yet, many of them consistently try to stuff ten pounds of crap into a five pound bag. By doing so, they dilute their main message and confuse their audience. When dealing with the average consumer, this can cost you the sale of a bottle or two of wine. When dealing with influencers like wine media or trade, it can cost you more than that.

Wines of Portugal Brunch

Here’s an example… At this week’s Wine Bloggers Conference (#wbc14) the Wines of Portugal hosted a brunch for all the attendees. What a great idea! Yet, in many ways, I feel they missed the mark. Take a look at the menu above. Notice anything? They served cuisine from four different regions, each paired with three different wines. The cuisines chosen were from Portugal (obviously) and three former areas where the Portuguese had colonies/influence. What was the message here? That Portugal was once a great empire and a shadow of it’s former glory? Probably not what they were going for.

Okay, looking past that, I get that they were trying to show that Portuguese wines can pair with different types of cuisine. But, the dishes were served out of hotel trays, not plated. Okay, this may be a preference thing, but food from hotel trays rarely show well. It’s too reminiscent of the school cafeteria. Again, not the image they were probably looking for.  They could have easily communicated this more effectively with ONE dish from each of these areas, plated and served. Why three?

In addition, there was very little information provided about the wines themselves. What were the varieties used? What were the regions, and what made them unique? Why is Portuguese wine relevant? How is the health of the category overall? These are key pieces of information that they failed to communicate.

Lines at Brunch

Oddly, for 300 people, they only had four pouring stations with each of the three wines, which led to long lines of thirsty bloggers waiting for their turn. They also had to juggle their small plates of food, while attempting to taste the wine. I couldn’t really figure out how the wines were segmented, or what the message was.

Okay, so what was the overall goal here? Having worked with European clients extensively over the past ten years, I can read between the lines. The Wines of Portugal wanted to show off that they are sophisticated, cosmopolitan, and food friendly. Okay, they may have achieved that. Was it a benefit to the individual producers? Doubtful. I’d wager that very few of the bloggers in the room will remember or care what each of the wines were. They were too busy having “fun” with the food and beverage. If I was one of these wineries, I’d want to see some blog posts or social media activity specifically about my wine, not just general comments about the brunch.

So, how would I have done it differently? First, I would have reduced the number of dishes served and really focus on the best-of-the-best dishes from each region. Make the focus less on the food, and more on the wine. Second, I’d ditch the pairing idea. Few consumers care about wine and food pairing, and that is generally who reads these blogs. Third, I’d increase the number of tables for wine pouring and segment the wines by DO. This would give each of the wine regions and the individual producers a chance to shine and position them in a way that differentiates them from the other areas. Finally, I would have more information about the wines available for the attendees. Whether it be signage, handouts, maps, etc. There should be something.

So, what are the key points you want your audience to walk away with? You’ll have no more than three pieces of information you can convey, and often only ONE. What should it be? Every winery or wine region should think about that before embarking on any marketing program.

In the end, I’m sure that the Wines or Portugal will consider this event a success, but I can’t help but feel that the impression they conveyed to the group was confused and ineffective.