Jun 042012
 

As most guys will tell you (or at least those less well endowed), bigger isn’t always better. This is true. Take, for example, Danish potatoes. These pint-sized spuds are much more flavorful than their super-sized Idaho cousins. But, the converse shouldn’t be that big is necessarily evil. In coordinating wine selections for a New Zealand-themed event, my client wanted to shy away from the Villa Maria option I proposed feeling that it, “…seems like a large operation that gets grapes from wherever available.” I quickly assured him that, while yes, Villa Maria is a large company; it is at the forefront of pushing sustainable viticulture in the region.

In fact, having spent more than three hours with their head viticulturist driving from vineyard to vineyard to vineyard, many of which they do own, but also many they don’t, the message was loud and clear. They are getting the growers with whom they contract to implement better, more sustainable, practices in the vineyard.  And, closer to home, they are implementing organic practices in nearly a third of their owned sites.

Even before this visit, I have always liked Villa Maria. I’m not sure what first drew me to the brand, but (aside from the obvious observation that I liked the wines), they won my heart with their reliability, providing wines that are consistently good value and both varietally and regionally correct. If you’re looking for a Sancerre look-alike you’re out of luck, but if you want a Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc – they deliver. This latter point is especially important to a wine educator often sourcing class wines sight unseen (or rather, more worrisome, untasted). Consequently, I often feature the aforementioned wine in my Savvy about Sauvignon Blanc class.

With this favorable brand experience, I was thrilled to be introduced to Villa Maria’s owner, George Fistonich, at a trade tasting in September 2010. Meeting Sir George (he was knighted in 2009) for the first time, he was full of grace and warmth. Not only did he seem equally pleased to meet me, but, upon learning that we would be visiting his home country a few months later, invited us to come stay at his place (admittedly he knew that I was a wine educator and not just a general wine consumer, but still, I was both touched and impressed).

In this circumstance, his “place” was the company’s Marlborough-based winery, which includes a lovely guest apartment located atop the tasting room, complete with a combination washer-dryer (which we somehow managed to overflow our first night) and a cook’s kitchen outfitted with nearly everything we might want. Arriving on a Sunday night as the only guests in the multi-roomed unit, we chose the largest room for ourselves and enjoyed having space in which to spread out. (Sometimes, bigger actually can be better.)

I haven’t asked George Fistonich his opinion on whether size matters, but I can tell you that he probably never expected his venture to grow to such proportions when he first leased two hectares back in 1961. Now, with vineyards located throughout New Zealand’s numerous regions and three wineries (the two others are in Auckland and Hawkes Bay) one might say he is at the head of a full-fledged empire.

Although George was not present at his Marlborough estate during our sojourn, our paths crossed again the following year. This time I had the pleasure of sitting next to him during a lunch held in celebration of his 50th vintage. We talked about a lot of things, including wine, of course, but, he was not as one-dimensional as that. And, we obviously discussed my trip to New Zealand and my impressions of his country.

About half-way through lunch, George made a few remarks. Among other statements, George was keen to announce to all assembled that the flight to New Zealand was quite easy – suggesting that one board a plane on the west coast, have dinner, and then go to sleep, awakening in time for breakfast and an early arrival in the capital city of Auckland. [I think he may have also suggested the use of sleeping pills, but having just had an extremely negative experience in that regard —inclusive of fainting onto a fellow passenger while attempting to access the loo— I’ll suggest that you simply rely on a glass of New Zealand wine (presuming you’re flying Air New Zealand) and a pair of eyeshades.]

Returning to my side, George resumed our conversation, which now turned to travel. Adding to his aerial advice, George admitted that flying first class was relatively new to him and that he had previously helped to ease the discomfort of sitting in coach by using the meditative techniques he had studied years ago. Of course, he didn’t seem to have any complaints about the much roomier seats he now enjoys, proving once again that bigger may not always be better, but it certainly isn’t bad.

May 072012
 

An email arrives from WTSO and you immediately begin to salivate. Perhaps your heartbeat races and your pulse quickens. Thankfully, this isn’t porn-related spam, but rather a doorway into a semi-secret world of seemingly unheard of wine discounts. At 30-70% off original retail pricing, these time-sensitive deals offer up incredible values on a wide range of wines from lower-priced, large production wines to some of the world’s priciest such as Napa Valley Cabernets, Brunello di Montalcino and Bugindian Pinot Noirs.

So just who is this WTSO that sends such great e-mails? Cracking the code, WTSO stands for Wines Til Sold Out, a members-only, flash sale wine site and the brainchild of Elliot Arking. Elliot seems to have appeared from nowhere if you believe his LinkedIn profile. This is somewhat true since Arking launched WTSO in 2006. However, it only tells part of the story. Arking’s full resume encompasses work with several successful companies, including the purchase of Roger Wilco Wine & Spirits, a retail wine shop in southern New Jersey, with his brother Joseph, in 1982.

His son Jamie’s profile is more complete, chronicling his career in research and development and strategic marketing after receiving a Ph.D. in molecular pathology and, later, an MBA in Finance. Jamie logged in time at healthcare and biotechnology companies, taking up residency in D.C. and then San Diego, among other places. Sounding more like a Wharton professor than wine salesman, Elliot explained that he told his son to “always be on the income side of the ledger.”

With his own 30 years of experience in brick-and-mortar wine sales, Elliot was uninterested in online retailing when his nephew (Joseph’s son) first suggested it. But, his aha moment came when he viewed an electronics website that sold only one product at a time. He thought the idea made sense and offered a great value proposition. Adopting the same concept, Elliot and Joseph unveiled WTSO in the summer of 2006, building up its membership slowly, but steadily, over time and learning along the way. About four months after the initial debut, he tweaked one of the offers to include free shipping and noticed a big impact on sales. As a result, all orders now ship free of charge.

By 2008, WTSO had become a serious venture, at which point Elliot began to nag Jamie to return to the east coast and join the family business. As Jamie tells it, “He told me to stop … (expletive implied) … around and get home.” So he did, taking on the role of WTSO’s Chief Financial Officer.

Jamie jokingly complains that he doesn’t get taken along on tasting trips, but claims that his palate isn’t as sophisticated as that of his father and Uncle Joe. Despite his mock indignation about being confined to spreadsheets and numbers, Jamie seems quite giddy with the way things have evolved; clearly proud of the company his family has created.

Today, WTSO employs 30 people and has over $70 million in annual sales. The website generates $52 million, with the balance coming from sales through their app and other social media. Although their mailing list is quite extensive, approximately 140,000 active members account for the majority of purchases, who continue to buy again and again.

Given the Arkings’ devotion to customer service, such repeat business is to be expected. What might be surprising is the level to which they will go to make their members happy. Along these lines, WTSO uniquely provides a money back guarantee; if the customer has a problem with a wine for any reason –even if s/he just doesn’t like it – they will receive a credit for that particular purchase. Similarly, in tracking customers’ comments on the site, they discovered that a member had identified a corked bottle several months earlier, but not reported it. Elliot immediately reached out and offered a refund, much to the astonishment of the member.

Rather than sharing his opinions, by design, wines are marketed with their respective press scores since Elliot prefers third party endorsement to add legitimacy to a wine’s quality. On rare occasions, if a wine has been purchased in sufficient quantity, it may show up on the site again and will also be accompanied by members’ ratings.

While some have been critical of the flash site phenomenon, arguing that the approach is unsustainable long term, the Arkings disagree. They feel that wine will always be available to be sold in their business model. Moreover, they stress the positive influence that their site has on individual wineries – offering an important distribution channel with high impact and high thru-put to the consumer, such as the sale of 1,000 bottles in a single hour on one occasion.

Elliot further emphasized that they buy in large quantities and pay right away and was quick to note that, upon purchase, they take delivery of all wines. Consequently, they have full control of the product (as well as the risk). This differs from some of the other flash sale sites that market on behalf of the winery, but don’t ever take possession of the products. This point of differentiation ensures that WTSO maintains the highest quality throughout the process, but also translates as good cash flow for the wineries which don’t make any money on inventory sitting in their cellars.

Additionally, Jamie suggested that they are helping smaller wineries find new customers that they wouldn’t otherwise find. As a follow up, he believes that their WTSO clients may ultimately become wine club members of a given winery, having been exposed to those wines through WTSO.

Looking ahead, Elliot admits that he takes a conservative view, begging the question, if it works, why change it, but does acknowledge the significant potential in growing their customer base. Accordingly, while there are no plans to add or alter the company’s activities, member acquisition remains a priority for the foreseeable future. All of which means that there might be a lot more people salivating over their inbox.

Apr 132012
 

Bernard DeLilleAmerica’s most visited winery isn’t in Napa. It isn’t even in California. Rather, with 600,000 guests annually, the imposing Biltmore Estate can be found in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Asheville, NC. With a driveway measured in miles (glad I don’t have to shovel it), the 1895 mansion was ahead of its time with electric lighting and an elevator and continues to be forward-thinking in its emphasis on being a self-sustaining estate. In this regard, the on-premise dairy was replaced with a winery in 1985.

Growing grapes in North Carolina is not an easy task. The humid climate wreaks havoc in the vineyard, encouraging the growth of mildew. Accordingly, healthy grapes at harvest are not a given. Despite these less than favorable conditions, Bernard DeLille has made wine at the Biltmore Estate for over 25 years.

The Burgundy-trained winemaker responded to an advertisement in 1986, intrigued by the opportunity to make wine in the U.S. Although he was working in Madiran and Jurançon (both in southwest France) at the time, DeLille welcomed the opportunity to produce wines without the rigid constraints of France’s appellation system. Accordingly, he packed up his wife, two children and their belongings and headed to North Carolina to begin his new position. Joining the staff under the direction of Philippe Jourdain, by 1991, he was promoted to the position of winemaker.

Given the challenges that North Carolina presents, along with the need to increase production, Biltmore Estate now sources grapes from California for many of its wines. In order to comply with U.S. regulations, wine production for these wines takes place in California. However, the estate vineyards have not been abandoned; DeLille will continue to make wines at home as well. In this regard, consumers can choose from two Blanc de blanc sparklers – one from North Carolina and the other from Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley. Two still Chardonnays are also similarly produced (Sonoma County and North Carolina). Not surprisingly, their red wine production centers on California.

A recent luncheon at New York’s Lincoln Restaurant provided members of the wine media to become acquainted with a selection of the Biltmore’s wines, including side by side tastings of the two sparklers and the two Chardonnays.

This new approach to winemaking has provided DeLille with many rewards. Yet, he admits that it can be complicated to keep up with the need to make wine in two different facilities, separated by an entire continent. But, on the whole, DeLille seems to have taken well to the balancing act required.

I wish I could say the same of the restaurant’s servers. In clearing the flutes and white wine stemware, both DeLille  and I were the recipients of a Chardonnay shower. Luckily, as a veteran journalist, I was wearing black and was consequently, soggy, but not visably stained.

All in all, it was a nice introduction to these wines, or rather, re-introduction, as I had visited the Biltmore Estate back in 1997 as a belated honeymoon. Thus, the winery has a special place in my heart and I appreciated the changes being made in expanding the Biltmore Estate’s range of wines.

Apr 032012
 

Wine blogsRecently, our friends at VinTank posted a blog article on The 9 Most Important Wine Bloggers in the US. It’s a great list, and we highly recommend reading all of them. But, in addition to these great industry luminaries, there are also a bunch of other wine blogs that we read on a regular basis and highly recommend. So, here is an addendum to Paul Mabray’s list in alphabetical order.

Beau’s Barrel Room – Beau’s a relative newcomer to the wine blogosphere, having only been doing it since the end of 2009. He’s an insider himself, selling wine for a living. His focus is mostly on reviewing wines and reporting on events and wine regions. We always enjoy reading his posts.

Luscious Lushes – Written by Thea Dwelle, this blog is a true reflection of her larger than life persona. Thea is one of the veterans of the wine blog world and she knows what she’s talking about. She is a fixture at local wine events, and she takes her wine drinking very seriously. She has a day job outside of wine, so the fact that she posts so often is impressive.

My Wine Education – Michelle Lenz is as good as they come. She is a writer and trainer by trade and it’s reflected in her blog. Few are better written or as insightful. Not being a wine expert when she began, this blog has been a journey through her education. She’s another old-timer, having written her blog since 2004.

Vinopanion – Ward Kadel is the brain (they don’t get much smarter) behind this anthology of wine. Ward is a cancer researcher by day and wine hero at night. Not only does he write this blog, but he;s also the West Coast Ambassador for WineLog.net and one of Le Wine Buffs.

The Wine Curmudgeon – Jeff Siegel is your old-school journalist. He’s been writing about sports or wine for more years that we can count. Jeff is the former wine columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, but now devotes most of his time to his blog. He specializes in reviewing less expensive wine, which is perfect for most of us. He’s also the driving force behind the Drink Local Wine movement.

Wine Predator – Gwendolyn Alley (aka Wine Predaor aka Art Predator) loves writing and wine. She teaches writing at the local University and coaches people on becoming better writers. She is a free spirit, which is reflected in her writing. We just adore her.

There are many other blogs that are worthy of this list, but if we were to include them all, we’d run out of bandwidth. We like highlighting other blogs though, so you should expect to see other lists like this in the future.

Mar 292012
 
FLIWC Wines

Photo Credit: Tracy Ellen Kamens

Dozens of wine judges descended upon Rochester, NY last weekend to participate in the Finger Lakes International Wine Competition, the largest charitable wine competition in North America. Beating all previous records, this year, the competition drew 3,298 entries, representing all 50 states, 5 Canadian provinces and 22 countries. The 64 judges themselves hailed from throughout the U.S. as well as Canada, South America and Europe. Another claim to fame were the 67 ice wine entries, thought to be the largest judging of ice wines anywhere.

If you read this publication with some regularity, you will have noticed that a few of the contributors have had the privilege to serve as a wine judge this year. However, my colleagues’ experiences judging at various competitions were likely much different than mine. Did we judge flights of Chardonnay? We sure did. Pinot Noir? You betcha. But, we were just as often served a flight of Concord, Muscadine, fruit wines or hybrids.

While most of the judges have been trained to evaluate American and French-American grape varieties, we were certainly stumped by a few and had to ask for some assistance as to what a perfect example of the variety might smell and taste like. Léon Millet, anyone? I think I met him once. Our table was a bit rusty on Marquette (aside from the fact that they have a good basketball team). But, all in all, it is precisely this exposure to these wines that bring many of the judges back year after year. And, certainly these wines deserve as fair an evaluation as their more well-known cousins.

This competition is also special in the way that it brings the Rochester community together, in more ways than one. Established with the sole purpose of raising money for Camp Good Days and Special Times, a summer camp for children affected by cancer, FLIWC attracts a significant volunteer base of locals to help out with uncorking, pouring, tabulating and glass washing, among the many Herculean tasks required over the two-day competition. Several years ago, the competition drew volunteers Jeff Stabins and Nancy McCullough together, who recently celebrated their third wedding anniversary.

It was on an equally celebratory note that the judges had the opportunity to visit a few of the award-winning wineries the day after the competition. Of course, as the bearers of such great news, they were thrilled to see us. And, despite having tasted over 200 wines each on the previous two days, somehow were just as eager to taste their wines and toast their success.