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Good Grape Goes on Hiatus

Date: Tue, Dec 6, 2011 Wine Tasting

“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans” said a very wise John Lennon and that’s exactly what has happened with me. My life has kept apace, even as I’ve made plans to be a respected wine writer.

By most standards, 2011 has been a very good year. I was a three-time finalist in the Wine Blog Awards, earning notice in the Best Overall Wine Blog, Best Industry Blog and Best Writing categories. I started contributing a wine column to Forbes.com. This site was named the 2nd most influential blog (and most influential wine blog) out of 4,000 blogs in a 2011 Wine, Beer and Spirits study by eCairn, a software company specializing in community and influencer marketing. I was a panelist at Vino2011 in New York City, I won a scholarship to the Wine Writer’s Symposium in Napa Valley, and I turned down enough worldwide wine trip offers to fill a two-month calendar.

Yet, wine writing has exacted a toll. I approach anything I do with a zeal and fervor that ensures me the success that I want and I’ve treated my wine writing as a full-time second job, to go alongside the job that I already have that requires 50 + hours a week.

Balance isn’t something that I’ve ever been very good at—possessed of an unassuming mien, a Midwestern work ethic, and a mental make-up whereby I cast myself as the underdog means that I am continually trying to prove something to myself, often times at the expense of real, true priorities.

Even more challenging is the fact that my standards for myself have been raised even as I’ve honed my writing chops. Instead of figuring out a system to find time shortcuts, the amount of time it takes for me to write has become more deliberate and expansive while my interest in writing has become more professional in nature – less blogging and more credible journalism requiring more work to exceed the bar that I’ve set for myself.

The net result of this, after full-time job plus wine writing, is the rest of my life has received scant attention for nearly seven years and I’ve created a nearly untenable situation for myself, a set of internal expectations that I can’t live up to, requiring a time commitment that I can’t manage.

However, most importantly, the expectations and time commitments that I have assigned to my wine writing isn’t fair to the other people in my life – notably, my incredibly supportive wife, Lindsay. She has been a saint the past six years, my blogging encompassing nearly the entire duration of our 6.5 year marriage. But, she is long overdue a husband that takes the trash out without prompting!

I’ll be around the Internets – commenting on wine blogs, doing the Twitter thing, staying connected on Facebook and I’ll probably start engaging more actively on CellarTracker and on the WineBerserkers message board, but I’m taking a hiatus from wine writing to recalibrate, shifting my time to the things that are the most important to me: Family and career.

Jeff

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Old World vs. New World in More Ways than just the Wine

Date: Sat, Nov 26, 2011 Wine Tasting

In the increasingly close quarters of our global village, Europe is responsible for bringing at least three different substantive and prodigious professional wine journals to market over the last several years. Each is written by a ‘Who’s Who’ of wine experts. Meanwhile, stateside, the U.S. has experienced an explosion of pithiness with amateur wine writers writing online.

This juxtaposition becomes relevant after reading a recent post titled, “Are wine blogs going tabloid” by professional wine critic and writer Steve Heimoff. In his brief post, with a decidedly American point of view, Heimoff summarizes his thoughts with the rhetorical query, “Why do certain bloggers revert to sensationalist stories that don’t, in the long run, matter?”

Good question. The easy conclusion suggests that controversy and hyperbolically bombastic articles lead to attention and traffic.

Certainly, two recent books that I’ve been reading bear out this discouraging notion: Newsjacking: How to Inject Your Ideas into a Breaking News Story and Generate Tons of Media Coverage and Celebrity, Inc.

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Both books cover similar ground in examining how brands can subvert the 24-hour news cycle for business benefit and how the 24-hour news cycle has been subverted by celebrities using easy technology while leading our news culture into tabloidesque territory.

When considered with Heimoff’s point, it is an easy deduction to suggest that 1 + 1 does in fact equal 2 – the sensational does sell and, by proxy, online amateur wine writers are a reflection of our larger media culture.

However, in suggesting this, there is at least one bigger contextual point being missed as well as a caveat. First, it’s an exclusive view that doesn’t take in the totality of the global wine media village and second, while sensationalism may sell, the lascivious isn’t always what’s shared.

No, it seems our schadenfreude and more primal instincts are kept private, while our shock and awe comes to the fore, at least according to one study.

The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania recently examined the most emailed articles on the New York Times web site in March of this year (link initiates a PDF download), looking for the triggers for what causes somebody to share an article, what makes one thing more viral than another?

Their conclusion? Positive content is more viral than negative content, but both, in general, are driven by “activation” – the notion that high arousal (emotive pleasure or outrage) drives shareable content. According to the research abstract:

Content that evokes either positive (awe) or negative (anger or anxiety) emotions characterized by activation (i.e. high arousal) is more viral. Content that evokes deactivating emotion (sadness) is less viral. These results hold (dominance) for how surprising, interesting, or practically useful content is, as well as external drivers of attention.

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This brings us back to my earlier mention regarding the European wine journals that have come to market in recent years. Simply, they’re an antidote to the U.S. proclivity for the vapid.

The World of Fine Wine, the family of Fine Wine magazines based in Helsinki and Tong based in Belgium all represent an Old World counterpoint to what can be deemed as the extemporaneous and superfluous coming from the New World.

As Tong publisher Filip Verheyden notes in the Tong manifesto (link initiates a PDF download) :

We live in times of “instant” gratification. If we want to talk to someone, we pick up our mobile phone wherever we happen to be. If we want to know something, we click an internet button. We’re going at 200 km per hour.

What we seem to forget in this race against time is the trustworthiness of this quickly-acquired knowledge, and that is something we have to find out for ourselves. But who takes the time to do it?

…The articles that appear in Tong demand the reader’s attention. You can’t read them fast and put them away; you have to take the time to understand. I’d say it takes an evening to read and think about each article. These are not issues to put in the recycling bin. Even after five years or more, each will continue to convey the essence of its theme…

The World of Fine Wine and Fine Wine magazine are both similarly endowed with length and verve.

My takeaway based on the Wharton research and the stunning dichotomy between what we’re seeing in the U.S. vs. European wine content is two-fold:

1) The sometimes sensational aspect of online wine writers, especially domestically, should heed the research and focus their pot-stirring ways on matters that provoke an emotional response from readers, ideally with a positive consequence – like HR 1161 for example instead of tired, lame attempted zingers aimed at Robert Parker.

2) In addition to a legacy sensibility about the nature and style of wine, the Old World is also drawing a culturally defining line in the sand in how they view and report on wine – it’s with substance, permanence and integrity.

The conclusion is anything but. However, as the world becomes a smaller place and the U.S. and our wine media becomes a part of the world chorus, losing lead vocal, I would hate for our place in the gallery to be rendered completely voiceless based on a lack of substance which is the seeming trajectory that we’re on.

It’s just a thought…

If you’re interested in seeing an example of Tong’s long-form think pieces, you can see examples here, here and here.

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Australian Wine:  The Once and Future King?

Date: Thu, Nov 17, 2011 Wine Tasting

You’ve never heard of Campbell Mattinson: He’s a young, urbane Australian wine wordsmith who forsakes the academically erudite and plaintive wine writing style of legends past for a muscular writing style that is jocularly loose yet incisive, showing every bit of the wunderkind talent of his global English-language contemporaries, Jamie Goode and Neal Martin.

Likewise, you probably haven’t heard of Mattison’s *new* wine book, Thin Skins: Why the French Hate Australian Wine first published in Australia in 2007 and now just released in America.

Seemingly stillborn upon its October publishing date in the states and updated with a scant epilogue where the author notes, “The headiness described in the early passages of this book is now long gone,” the book formerly offered in situ context on the boom and looming bust of the Australian wine landscape and is now something of an ipso facto think piece on the manifested reality.

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With recency in absentia as one negative checkmark, Thin Skins as a body of work brooks no favors for itself either. Even when first published four years ago, it represented a compendium of articles and profile pieces, individually quite good, but collectively never quite transcending its constituent parts, especially one that supports the premise of the title. And, unlike its subject matter, time has not aged the book into cohesion.

Worse still, brought to the U.S. market by publisher Sterling Epicure, the book is likely supported with little more than the gas it takes a truck to drive a meager allotment of books to an Amazon.com warehouse and the dwindling number of Barnes & Nobles that still populate the landscape, a veritable line item in an editors’ fourth quarter publishing spreadsheet under the header, “wine.”

Thin Skins seems destined for a hastened half-life and quick retreat to the remainder bin at Half-Price Books…it’s an ignoble fate heaped upon by my damnation.

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But, I’ve feinted purposefully, misdirecting by caveat because, despite everything I’ve mentioned having some inherent truth(including the author being very talented), Thin Skins is a wildly entertaining book that delivers on providing a teasing glimpse into a distinctly Aussie viewpoint on the factors that led to the Australian wine boom (Parker points, market forces, greed and drought) and in so doing the author makes three key points worth repeating:

1) The Aussie wine industry, save for its Gallo-like equivalents, is NOT happy about their country’s production being viewed globally as syrupy supermarket plonk

2) Our U.S. perception IS NOT reality regarding Australian wine; their wine industry has an abundance of refined, terroir-based wines from small vintners

3) The Aussie wine business will rise again on the international scene (in an entirely different form).

One key takeaway for me from the book is that Australia is remarkably similar to the U.S.

In the U.S., some reports indicate that 90% of the wine sold is “corporate” wine, the kind found at supermarkets across the country. However, what IS different is that 90% of our national conversation about wine focuses on the 10% of the wine production that ISN’T in the supermarket i.e. everything non-corporate – the boutique, artisan and interesting.

Yet, when it comes to Australian wine, we don’t continue our conversation about the small and beautiful. Instead of talking about the superlative, we view their entire country production through the lens of the insipid, the Yellowtail and other critters that cost $6.99 at Safeway.

American wine consumers would be rightfully indignant if the world viewed our wines not as we do, a rich tapestry, but as industrialized plonk from the San Joaquin Valley.

This is where Australian wine is at today—a ‘perception is reality’ mistake of colossal proportions.

While offering an abundance of stories from small producers along the way, Mattison suggests that while it may take time, with Australia having 162 years of winemaking history, the day will come, sooner rather than later, when Australian wine forsakes its near-term reputation and is viewed on the world stage as a wine producing country that can proudly stand next to its New World peers.

I wrote recently that I’ve noticed a slow change in tenor from American influencers regarding Aussie wine, they’re becoming more sympathetic, they’re starting to speak less dismissively and more optimistically and holistically about Australian wine, discussing the merits and great diversity in the land of Oz.

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Recent Symphony IRI sales data bears this out as well. According to a Shanken NewsDaily report from this week, Australian wine in the $15 - $19.99 category rose 23% in September. In addition, growth is coming from varietals not named Shiraz (see also syrupy supermarket plonk). Instead, Semillon, Riesling and Pinot Noir are showing growth.

Still, it’s not the land of milk and honey here in the states for Aussie wine, as it once was. Overall sales are down by volume and dollars, but as Mattinson alludes the correction in the U.S. market isn’t going to be pretty, but it will be healthy and it’s quite possible that Australia will decrease in overall volume and dollar sales from persistent decline at the low-end for years to come as the high-end grows, but not at a rate to replace what was lost.

The net sum of that doesn’t balance a spreadsheet, but it does balance mindshare.

Pick-up Thin Skins if you want to get turned on to a great wine writer while also enjoying a greater understanding of Australian wine – where it has been and where it’s going—perhaps not as a future King, but definitely not in its current role as court jester.

Campbell Mattinson’s Wine Site: The Wine Front

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Field Notes from a Wine Life – Cover Story Edition

Date: Sun, Nov 13, 2011 Wine Tasting

Odds and ends from a life lived through the prism of the wine glass…

The Wine Spectator Affect

When I received my November 15th issue of Wine Spectator on October 11th, featuring a cover shot of Tim Mondavi and an feature article on him and his estate winery Continuum, I captured some online research reference points so I could have a baseline to measure the effect that a flattering Wine Spectator cover story might have on a winery in the digital age.

Using Wine-Searcher, CellarTracker and Google Keywords search data to track various data points, the results, while not directly linked to conclusions, do indicate a small bump in interest as a result of the cover piece.

For example, Wine-Searcher data indicates that the average bottle price, an indicator of supply and demand, rose $2 month over month, from $149 a bottle to $151 a bottle.

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In addition, the Wine-Searcher search rank (always a month behind) indicates that Continuum was the 1360th most popular search in September. By Friday, November 11th the Continuum search rank had increased to 471st for the month of October. (See the top 100 searches for October here).

Likewise, interest at CellarTracker increased, as well. The number of bottles in inventory from October 11th to November 11th increased by 177 bottles, likely no small coincidence.

Finally, Google searches increased fivefold from an average of 210 monthly searches to approximately 1000 monthly searches.

What does this all mean? Good question. The truth is, a Wine Spectator cover appears to have moved the needle a bit, and while the easy route is to take a righteous Eeyore approach to mainstream media and its blunted impact in the Aughts, as contrasted to what a Spectator cover feature or glowing words from Parker meant just a decade ago, I believe a more tangible takeaway is to realize that these sorts of cover stories don’t happen in a vacuum and that Wine Spectator cover and feature was likely a result of weeks, months or even years’ worth of effort from a PR professional.

In an attention-deficit, social media-impacted, offline/online hybrid world of information consumption with mobile and tablets proliferating, in order to break through to (and ultimately assist) the consumer, the value of the PR professional, an oft neglected part of the marketing hierarchy, in reaching out and facilitating the telling of a winery’s story seems to be more important than ever.

It’s not about press releases, it’s about people supporting and telling the winery story, repeatedly, as a professional function – that leads to media notice, and that leads to 14 cases of wine being sold and inventoried at CellarTracker in a 30-day period of time. It’s perhaps obvious, but not adhered to.

Wine Labels

To me, a wine bottle is a blank canvas that can either inspire in its creativity or repel in its insipidness. While I have a reasonably conservative approach to the kinds of wine I want to drink relative to technological intervention, I am unabashedly progressive when it comes to the kind of wine labels that appeal to me. In support of my interest with wine packaging, I keep an eye on The Dieline wine blog to see what’s happening in wine label design (another example from The Coolist here) and I also pay attention to the burgeoning field of wine label design contests.

What say you about progressive labels? Like ‘em? Loathe them? I placed a poll to the right.

Below is a slide show of winners from the recent International Wine Label Design competition.

Reconciling the Contradiction

I will lobby the nominating committee of the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences on behalf of anybody who can help me understand how it is that in the span of a week I can see multiple research reports (here and here) on a revived sense of fiscal austerity by consumers yet other reports (here and here) indicate that wine above $20 is the fastest growing segment this year.

These two clearly don’t jive with each other, yet I’m witless to understand why wine is “trading up.” Help!

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Field Notes from a Wine Life – Autumnal Equinox Edition

Date: Wed, Nov 9, 2011 Wine Tasting

Odds and ends from a life lived through the prism of the wine glass…

The Power of Intent in Biodynamic Wine

I wrote a heady post in September about Biodynamic wine. The story is too complicated to summarize here (link to post), but one of the things that I touched on (and that interests me on an ongoing basis) is the notion of “intent” in the vineyard particularly as it relates to viticultural quality and Biodynamic preparations.

They say that you can taste “love” in a food dish, so, while not scientifically quantifiable (at least not yet), it stands to reason that extra attention and loving preparation with BioD preps. might have a positive benefit on the vines and subsequently the wines.

This notion of intent isn’t my idea; I culled it from Voodoo Vintners, Katherine Cole’s Biodynamic-related book published earlier this year (she has a different supposition about ‘intent’ than I do). A passage from the book notes, “The belief is that the preparations aren’t merely herbal treatments for plants; they’re carriers of the farmers’ intentions, which have been swirled into them through the powerful act of stirring. While it isn’t a requirement for Demeter certification, intention is that little bit of witchcraft that separates the most committed practitioners from the unbelievers.”

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My point in September and my point now is that “intent” isn’t witchcraft, its science – science that is still emerging and not completely understood.

To that end, I read an incredible, eye-opening, mind-bending article in the current issue of Time magazine about a new technology device called the BodyWave. An iPod sized device, the BodyWave is based on electroencephalography (EEG), the study of how brain activity excites neurons to emit brain waves that travel the central nervous system and can be measured.

So, here’s the thing. Not only can this BodyWave device measure the fluctuations in the brain’s electrical activity, but when connected to a computer it can perform functions based on brain waves.

It’s a holy crap moment to realize that by focusing brain activity somebody can shut off a valve in a nuclear power plant, via computer, with the power of their mind, as elaborated on in the article.

The full Time magazine article is subscriber-protected (darn publishers that try to run a business…), but the intro. to the article is available here.

I’m a liberal arts guy, as far removed from science as one can get by education, vocation and lifelong learning interest, but I do have the ability to suspend my disbelief and it seems likely to me that in 10 years’ time the Biodynamic conversation is going to be around an entirely different set of conversational conditions than the current ‘bunkum vs. belief’ precept that we have now.

On Knowledge

I’ve never reconciled the “demystify” vs. “knowledge frees you” debate as it relates to wine. Many will say that wine is needlessly overcomplicated for the average consumer and the arcane aspects act as a barrier to entry.

Well, sometimes you find defining wisdom in the unlikeliest places.

Scott Adams, the creator of the cartoon Dilbert, noted in a blog post recently what I’ve thought, but have never been able to say quite so eloquently.

Indeed, you are what you learn. You don’t have to know much about wine to drink it, but it sure makes it that much more enjoyable if you lean into the door…

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Thanksgiving Wine Recommendation

Thanksgiving is the wine world’s national holiday. I get that. It’s my favorite holiday, too. But, the attendant wine pairing articles are exhausting. Does it really matter what you drink with Thanksgiving dinner? Nope. If it did, somebody, anybody would care that I’ll be having Sparkling Rose, German Riesling and New Zealand Pinot, but, really, nobody cares. At the end of the day, the below picture encapsulates what really matters when picking a wine for Thanksgiving (Hint: Focus on the food).

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It Was a Good Week for Lot18

My eyes bugged out like a virgin at a nudist camp when I saw that Lot18 secured $30M in additional funding. That money coupled with clarification from the California Alcohol Beverage Control (CA ABC) on some wonkiness in legalities, means the first week of November 2011 will go down as a watershed moment for Lot18.

Perhaps equally interesting to me is a passage noting, “Radical Transparency” in an email sent to Lot18 members from Lot18 (ostensibly founder Phillip James). The email noted:

As Lot18 moves into its second year of existence, our goal is to ensure that, with more money in the bank and compliance questions behind us, Lot18 can continue to deliver on its responsibilities to our suppliers and to our members alike. We must hold ourselves accountable to ensure we maintain trust with everyone who produces and consumes goods offered by Lot18.

We do this through a policy called Radical Transparency, which simply involves sharing more than was once considered wise. We believe in this because it drives our focus and ensures that all of our employees and our members feel that they have a role in shaping our future. Together we can create a service that will not only help you find great value, but also encourage you to spread the word to friends and family so that they may also share in the delight.

We’re all aware of “transparency” as an online buzzword the last several years. It’s a word that has been co-opted, commoditized and rendered meaningless, as well. It seems, transparency is really code word for faux sincerity and empathy and that makes adding the modifier of “Radical” to transparency all the more interesting.

These days, every new business success story comes with hagiographic mythologizing and I wouldn’t be surprised if, in this area, “Radical Transparency” is where Lot18 stakes their claim. After all, culture and customer service is already taken by Zappos.

Yet, radical transparency isn’t a new concept either. If you’re interested in seeing how a hedge fund called Bridgewater Associates (founded by Ray Dalio) has codified a brutally honest feedback loop see this profile piece from New York magazine and Dalio’s 123 page “Principles” document (worth the read).

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Shut the Front Door: A Vinsane, Pay-it-Forward, Drinks 4X the Price Wine Recommendation

Date: Wed, Nov 2, 2011 Wine Tasting

The problem with sleuthing out good wine under $10 is the recommendations usually come with provisos like, “This is pretty good for the price,” or “This isn’t bad for the style of wine.” Rare is the time that a wine recommendation for vino under $10 is just, “This is a fantastic wine.”

Who can blame the wine recommender for their caveats and written sleights of hand when they’re left to tout the middling amongst the insipid; the redemptive within the felonious? It’s like the back-handed compliment from the parents of an axe murderer who note plaintively from the front stoop, “He has a good heart.”

Adding insult to this injury, it seems like nearly all domestic wines under $10 are manipulated to appeal to a demographic. Far too often, they are oak chipped to a formula, softened, vortexed and plumped back up into a wine beverage complete with a label that screams, “Benignly vague and blandly appealing. I am inoffensive to a large group of people.”

And, forget about pairing under $10 bottles of vino with food. Do so only if your idea of wine pairing centers on condiments with artificial coloring and HFCS, so duotone are the wine flavor profiles.

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When it comes to what should be reliable international value wines, forget about it – most of them aren’t even has-beens, they never were. France and Italy – I’m talking to you. For a sawbuck, these are sad, middling, barely potable wines evocative of an athlete whose entire identity is wrapped up in jockdom, but for whom life’s fate never provided him acclaim beyond the local playground. The fact that these wines often taste like a sweaty gym sock may, in fact, be no small coincidence.

Harrumph.

What I want is what most wine consumers want: A non-spoofulated wine with quality that stands on its own—a good wine at $9.99 that is a good wine, period. No half-hearted caveats associated with it. If the wine pairs with dinner, instead of being a digestif, all the better. Tie me up, spank me and call me Shirley if this mystical and elusive under $10 wine also has any of the following characteristics: Organic, old vines, unfiltered, native yeast, judicious oak, and complexity whilst being food-friendly.

I’m pretty sure I won’t have to have any dalliances in the wine S&M dungeon save for one emerging country.

Recently, I started to see glimpses of where quality, inexpensive wines might be coming from in the future when I tasted through a sampling of wines from the Navarra region of Spain. One $5 bottle of wine was so screamingly good it defied the law of reason.

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And, then, I received a recommendation for Masia de Bielsa’s 2009 Garnacha, a Spanish wine from the Campo de Borja area in the Aragon region of Spain, southeast of Navarre and La Rioja. Adam Japko, a wino friend and author of Wine-Zag, and I did some horse-trading on bottles and he threw in a bottle of wine in a wine shipment to me and noted, “Curious what you think of this…”

What do I think? I think I owe you favors to last a month of Sundays for turning me onto a beauty.

Of course, wine recommendations don’t happen in a vacuum and the Masia de Bielsa 2009 Garnacha is no different even if it follows a certain circuitous Internet-borne dynamic that seems unusual even in this day and age of “brand vs. land, there are no secret wine values anymore…” online battle.

Jose Pastor is a wunderkind (30 years old) wine importer with a fast growing reputation amongst wine insiders for his portfolio of Spanish wines that are typically natural in style – producers who farm organically when possible, emphasize terroir, use ambient yeasts, filter sparingly and use minimal oak. In other words, his wines, and especially his inexpensive wine selections, are the anti-brand. Or, should I say, “They’re the antidote to brand wines.” The good stuff.

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Jose’s wines won’t have an end-cap in stores with promotional materials, nor will they follow you on Twitter or ply you with faux-flattery for a “Like” on Facebook. Ditto that for Pastor playing the points scoring game. He doesn’t do it. The wines and wineries in his portfolio simply represent something good and honest and rely on smart trade buyers who know good juice when they taste it and are interested in paying that forward to consumer’s one bottle at a time.

This formula isn’t a recipe for getting rich, but it is a recipe for long-term, slow-burning growth based on a purity of vision.

When Richard Schnitzlein, a longtime wine buyer in the greater Boston area, took over the wine section at Ferns Country store in Carlisle, MA in early 2011, he started to remake the selection of wines on offer and that meant much more diversity, spreading the selection from two distributors to 14 over a seven month period.

A part of that remaking was to engage Genuine Wine Selections, a wine distributor in Massachusetts, who carries the Jose Pastor portfolio.

When Genuine Wine Selections partner Dennis Quinn showed up at Ferns in the spring with samples to taste, the ’09 Bielsa was a part of the mix.

Enamored, Schnitzlein started stocking the wine. “Initially (the Bielsa) was a hand sell, but (it) soon became a wine that people were asking for,” he noted.

Japko was turned onto the Bielsa from Schnitzlein and mentioned the Bielsa on his site in June. A September Ferns promotion dropped the price on the Bielsa from $11.99 to 9.95 and that yielded 15 cases of the Bielsa moving through the door for Ferns including a stock-up from Japko.

Within a week of receiving my bottle from Japko, I had taken to the Internet to find this wine and I bought a case online from Marketview Liquor in New York state who sells it for $7.99 a bottle.

I’ve gifted a bottle to a friend at work, and, well, I’m writing extensively about this vino, too – my own pay-it-forward juju for having been tipped off to this wine.

The moral of this story? Finding a gem of a wine for $10 or under isn’t a hopeless process, but you do have to sift a lot of muck to find the gold nugget. In my opinion, you’re more likely to find a gem by keeping your ears open for word of mouth recommendations from wine-inclined friends or a local wine shop then to take to the wine aisles of your supermarket wine section playing brand roulette. Here, the internet and Wine-searcher.com is your friend, as well. In addition, Spain is a country that is producing some excellent wines across all price tiers, and my very recent and very anecdotal track record at the lower-end has been very good. And, finally, it pays to know people. It pays to know what Jose Pastor is all about, and it pays to know the Richard Schnitzlein’s and Adam Japko’s of the world who freely share where to find the good stuff, even if finding the good stuff requires an Importer in California, a wine buyer in Massachusetts, a generous friend and internet ecommerce.

2009 Bielsa Vinas Viejas Garnacha

Huge, pure nose with mulberry juice, black cherry, orange peel, earth and a meaty savory quality that gives way to an expressive palate with plum, black cherry, spice and fresh squeezed orange juice. The finish lingers with plum, pepper and earthiness. This is a varietally correct, gorgeous, natural, unfiltered wine that screams for food and would be a bargain at 4X the price. Highly recommended. At under $10 a bottle, you’d be foolhardy not to find this wine.

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Field Notes from a Wine Life – Media Edition

Date: Fri, Oct 28, 2011 Wine Tasting

Odds and ends from a life lived through the prism of the wine glass…

Rex Pickett

If you’re not reading Rex Pickett’s (author of Sideways and Vertical) blog, you are officially remiss.

Pickett is a gifted writer who cranks out perfectly incubated long-form posts with turns of phrase that are both wry and rich, offering insight into the machinations of publishing, film and stage that few culture vultures grasp.

Pickett recently wrote an extensive (3900 word) post on the reasons why a film sequel to Sideways (directed by Alexander Payne) would not be made from Vertical, Pickett’s book sequel. In doing so, Pickett offered a discursive meditation on Payne’s artistic pathos and the factors that may be playing into Vertical’s stall on the way to celluloid.

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Unfortunately, Pickett removed the post after re-publishing a second version that deleted much of the armchair psychologist rumination he originally channeled from Payne’s psyche. An email inquiry to Pickett on why he removed the post (in either iteration) has gone unanswered.

If I were a muckraker, I would publish the post because Pickett’s deletion of the post from his site did not delete the post from RSS feed readers like Bloglines or Google Reader. But, I’m not a muckraker…

Hopefully, Pickett will revisit the topic in a manner that is less confessional and more elucidation because it was worth the extended read time. Until then you can read the other posts on his site and gain tremendous insight into the vicissitudes of the publishing process, what the afterglow is like after capturing the cultural zeitgeist and how he’s helping bring Sideways to the theatre with a stage version.

It’s definitely recommended reading.

A Discovery of Witches

While we’re on the topic of books and authors (and with Halloween around the corner), a reinforcing mention goes to Deb Harkness of Good Wine Under $20. Earlier this year a little book she wrote called, “A Discovery of Witches” was published and immediately shot up the best sellers lists. The movie rights were acquired this summer by Warner Bros, likely securing Harkness’ financial future in the process.

While I read fiction infrequently (the last fiction book being Vertical by Rex Pickett), those that I know who can tell the difference between kindling and a classic call A Discovery of Witches “mad genius.”
Any conversation about a wine blogger doing good should begin with Deb Harkness who is now dabbling in rarified air. Pick up her book if you haven’t yet.

Bargain Wine Books

There’s little doubt, in the prolonged US economic malaise we’re experiencing, that “value wine” and “bargain wine” are hot topics. Heck, an entire channel of business has been defined with “Flash” wine sale sites. Given that, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that a couple of wine books would be published with this specific focus.

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What is a surprise is that the books are authored by wine writers with real chops engaged in offering a deeper narrative than the slapdash compendiums of wine lists that has passed muster in years gone by.
Just in time for the holidays, Natalie MacLean has Unquenchable: A Tipsy Quest for the World’s Best Bargain Wines publishing on November 1st and George Taber, a wine writer on a tear with his fourth book in six years, has A Toast to Bargain Wines: How Innovators, Iconoclasts, and Winemaking Revolutionaries Are Changing the Way the World Drinks publishing on November 15th.

An Idea worth Duplicating?

Celebrity deaths come in threes and new wine ideas come in twos.

We’ve seen this duplicative market entry in recent years with winery reservation systems CellarPass and VinoVisit and now we’re seeing it with quasi-wine search engines.

WineMatch and VinoMatch are both in the early stages of launch purporting to help a consumer match their likes with wines they might enjoy.

Meh. The problem with these sites isn’t that consumers don’t need help finding a wine they like, the problem is that most wine consumers don’t understand what kind of wine they like. Yes, it’s the tannins that dry the back of the mouth and its residual sugar that makes that K-J so delectable…

By the time consumers figure out their likes and dislikes graduating beyond the “go-to,” they don’t care about having somebody help them “match” their wines to their tastes because they’re on their own adventure.

It’s just my opinion, but these sites face looooong odds of finding consumer success and short of the slick willy seduction that happens with some wineries who haven’t been bitten and as such aren’t twice shy, they won’t find *any* success. But, I’ve been wrong before, at least once.

Pictures and Pithiness

While we’re on the topic of online wine services, I’m not sure whether I should be happy or aghast that I’ve been a habitu of the online wine scene for long enough to see a derivative – it’s like watching a remake of the movie Footloose when I was saw the original in the theatre.

There’s a new wine site called TasteJive that takes the concept of a wine blog called Chateau Petrogasm, popular in 2007 and 2008, to new heights.

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Around the premise that a picture is worth a thousand words even if that picture has nothing to do with wine, they have created a site that provides nothing but visual metaphors with a 140 character description for finding wines you might like.

I loved the idea of Chateau Petrogasm, I like the idea of a perfectly crafted 140 character slug, but I’m very uncertain about the community aspect of TasteJive—the users who control the uploading of pictures and descriptions.

As noted mid-20th century photographer Diane Arbus said, “A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know.”

Not exactly a recipe for success in bumping into a wine.

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On Self-Actualizing Wine Interest, Purple Pages, the Kindle Fire and Gutenberg

Date: Sun, Oct 23, 2011 Wine Tasting

While it has been cited that we’re living in a “Golden Age” of wine writing, what is interesting to me these days is NOT the subject of wine writing.

My interest is in a broader understanding of the consumption of the wine writer’s output – self-identified wine interest by consumers who are seeking out wine information. This is a seismic shift more important than the vagaries of who writes what, where, when and for how much.

Something much bigger and amorphous is at work.

It used to be that people self-identified by their job or some other affiliation that produced recognition from others, a status-marker of sorts—“I work for IBM, I have two kids and we’re Protestant.”

However, nowadays, people, principally online (which is moving center stage in our life), are self-identifying by their personal interests which, often times, diverges greatly from their profession and their family situation.

Look at Twitter profiles or a body of status updates from somebody on Facebook. People are no longer duotone and defined by work and family. They’re multi-layered and complex and defined by their interests. The modern day self-description goes something like this: “Passionate about wine and travel. I build furniture, follow the San Francisco Giants, and work in a non-profit by day. I also volunteer to ensure clean water for sub-Saharan Africans. Dad to two wonderful kids”

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In diamond-cutting terms, it’s more Peruzzi than table cut and it seems we’re all on a journey to be the most interesting man person in the world.

This kaleidoscopic advancement in sense-of-self is a very important development because, on an individual level, we tend to project externally how we see ourselves in the mirror. By stating publicly online that we’re a wine enthusiast, a foodie, a jazz lover, who does dog rescue and loves college football with a fascination for all things digital, it’s like writing down a goal. A goal written down means something to most people and people are likely to actuate their activities around it, even if aspirationally.

This is a very subtle point and I hope I’m conveying it faithfully: Societally, we’re changing how we view ourselves, we are stating how we view ourselves and consequently we’re more likely to pursue knowledge around those interests because we’ve put it out there.

In Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, we’re all self-actualizing.

So, when it comes to wine writing, while I’m very happy for Alder Yarrow’s assignment in writing a monthly column for Jancis Robinson’s Purple Pages, I also tend to look at it within a much broader context because there will be more Alder Yarrow Horatio Alger-like stories in the years to come.

More to the point however, and within a bigger picture, what Alder writes now and in the future on his own site or at Jancis’ site is likely going to be viewed by an increasingly larger audience who, based on the aforementioned self-actualization, have become more inclined to seek a wide-range of information that supports a myriad of personal interests, including wine.

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This online growth in information-seeking is, indeed, a very good thing particularly for the wine business who is caught up in a focus on Gen. Y, when the more important point is that there is a mass of people of all ages who have increasingly ready access to information online that allows them to easily pierce the veil of wine. And, the implications for that for shouldn’t be understated because the view of the wine world is likely to be altered to be much more inclusive of all types of viewpoints – think the streets of New York instead of Pottery Barn.

The Kindle Fire tablet by Amazon.com may represent the next step in this evolution, driving the potentiality of mass on-the-move content delivery. No, it’s not as important as the printing press or any other God Complex hyperbole that is assigned to Steve Jobs, but it’s an important step forward nonetheless.

Where laptop computers are functional machines designed to execute work, and tablets (like the iPad) are a lightweight, portable device that act as a multi-functional hybrid between a smartphone and a laptop, here comes the Kindle Fire which is a device designed almost exclusively for content consumption, all kinds of content – blogs, digital magazines, digital books, videos, music, etc.

The Kindle Fire, to me, is a device that enhances the trend we’re seeing in the increased complexity of how we define ourselves because here’s a device that lets users pursue content around their interests anytime, anywhere and it’s reasonably affordable at $199, at least half the cost of other tablets on the market.

For example purposes, let’s say I have an interest in German Riesling, but I don’t really want to buy another paper-based book because I already have a stack of 14 books at my bedside that I haven’t read (or, perhaps, I don’t buy that many books, period). Likewise, it isn’t convenient for me to read a book on my laptop because, well, that’s not really a form factor that works for me because I’m already hunched over my laptop for 12 hours a day. In addition, I don’t want to print out a 150 page pdf because that’s paper I have to carry around. Previously, with all of the aforementioned caveats, I would have let a deep dive into knowing more about German Riesling be a fleeting thought—an opportunity that would lay fallow.

Ah, but the Kindle Fire will let me consume this German Riesling content in a nice, portable, convenient, lightweight manner that is designed to do expressly that. I’m now looking forward to pouring through Terry Theise’s 2011 German Riesling catalog and reading part II of Mosel Fine Wines 2010 vintage report.

All of this distills down to an essential takeaway: When Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press with movable type, the tangible output was the ability to have ready access to print books. However, the bigger impact was the spread of knowledge which led to the Renaissance period which inalterably changed the culture of the world.

That’s where I think we’re at now, particularly with wine and the spread of information. The conversation can be about who is writing and where they come from, but the conversation with far greater impact is what the end game is for this mass adoption of personal nuance lived out loud.

In simpler terms, the wine writer, like Descartes in the Renaissance era, had a great, lasting influence, but the Renaissance period was much bigger than Descartes.

The key for the wine business in this seismic shift in wine affiliation and the pursuit of information thereof is to decide whether they want to support the status quo and perpetuate business as usual or open themselves to all kinds of thought.

Wine writers already are and so are the consumers seeking out this information.

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Field Notes from a Wine Life – Power Structure Edition

Date: Sun, Oct 16, 2011 Wine Tasting

Odds and ends from a life lived through the prism of the wine glass…

Naked Wine and Occupy Wall Street

It’s not hard to notice the parallels between the natural wine movement and Occupy Wall Street - both are valid causes sorely lacking coherence and a rallying point that would move them from fringe head-scratcher to mainstream momentum.

Natural wine is about purity of wine expression—shepherding grapes grown without chemicals to the bottle with as little human manipulation as possible, representing the place where they came from in the process.


Occupy Wall Street is about re-calibrating the world’s best economic system – capitalism—to preserve the middle-class, the labor force that has allowed the U.S. to create the most productive economy in the world.

Neither movement represents fringe radicalism as some would have you believe. I look at both as being valid inflection points and, at their core, about keeping a balance between big and small, allowing every man and woman an equal opportunity at pursuing success around their particular truth.

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What reasonable person would deny the validity of either if not clouded by confusion?

One idea well-conceived and well-communicated can change the world, but, unfortunately, both the natural wine movement and Occupy Wall Street are prevaricating from their essential truth, rendering them both toothless and feckless.

No need to crib from Che Guevara, but appealing to base logic and the common denominator would do both movements some good.

Just one man’s opinion…

On the Aussies, Redux

A few weeks back, I noted how the Australian wine industry was poised for a rebound in public perception due in part to two things happening in concert – public backlash to Yellow Tail wine, what I call the, “Derision Decision,” and an unspoken coalition of influencers recognizing Australia’s artisanal wine production – the antithesis of Yellow Tail. I cited recent sympathetic mentions from Jay McInerney in the Wall Street Journal and Dan Berger, wine writing’s current patriarch, as proof points.

You can add to the list of sympathetic mentions about artisanal Australia with recent mentions from Jancis Robinson and James Suckling.

Don’t sleep on Australia. It’s making a comeback slowly, but surely in public perception.

Tim Mondavi and Wine Spectator

Thomas Matthews, the Executive Editor for Wine Spectator magazine (WS), has commented on my site a few times. Each of these instances has been to protect or project Wine Spectator around its editorial goals.

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Good on Thomas for not being afraid to get in the ring. Certainly, WS takes its fair share of shots from the wine chatterati, mostly with grace and aplomb.

Lest I cast myself as anything but objective, I should note that James Laube’s article on Tim Mondavi and Continuum in the current issue of WS (November 15th issue) is everything right about what mainstream wine media can offer wine consumers that online wine writing (mostly) doesn’t –long-form, depth, first-person access and an effort that takes weeks and not hours.

Laube’s piece is excellent - well-written and balanced; acknowledgement thereof is in order.

Besides the Wine

Jordan winery has two wines – a Cabernet and Chardonnay, but they really have a triumvirate in terms of things to buy. Jordan focuses on food and wine as being partners at the table and, to that end, any purchase from Jordan should also include their olive oil. Wow!

The Jordan olive oil makes Trader Joe’s EVOO seem like Two Buck Chuck, comparatively speaking. A little whole wheat Barilla pasta, some homemade pesto using the Jordan olive oil and some artisan bread in five minutes a day and you’re assuredly living the good life. The rub is I wouldn’t pour the round Jordan Chard with the pesto, probably a Sauvignon Blanc, but don’t let that dissuade you from picking up their olive oil – it’s good stuff.

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Field Notes from a Wine Life – Story Edition

Date: Fri, Oct 7, 2011 Wine Tasting

Odds and ends from a life lived through the prism of the wine glass…

Words aren’t enough

I give to thee…the worst wine ad of all-time and that’s without delving into the ponderous name of the wine or, why, inexplicably, the back of the laptop in the photo has a big sticker for Ass Kisser ales

…In the main visual, three people are huddled around the boss giving him “Ass Kisser” wine…Isn’t the point of being a brown-noser to do it subtly? Who randomly gifts their boss right before their employee review?

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Even if you view this ad as schlocky hipster irony, it’s still bad and makes you wonder if the advertising sales guy at Wine Enthusiast couldn’t do a solid for his client and suggest creative that, well, actually makes sense.

Or, maybe being horrible was the plan – like a movie that becomes a cult hit a decade hence…so bad that it becomes a lofty ideal for bad, enjoying a following because of its campy nature.

Bad Week for Eric Asimov?

On both Tuesday and Wednesday of this week, Eric Asimov, the New York Times chief wine critic was taken to task for different reasons by Matt Kramer at Winespectator.com and Steve Heimoff at his blog of the same name.

This is interesting because wine writers of a certain stature very carefully call their shots amongst their peers.

Normally the shots are fired up (Parker) or down (bloggers), but usually never sideways amongst writers in the same strata.

To watch Asimov, as seemingly decent of a guy as you’ll find, called onto the rug by two notable wine writers, to me, speaks to something much bigger.

With Parker stepping aside and Antonio Galloni receiving glancing admiration for hitting a stand-up triple by dint of his current position at the Wine Advocate, at the same time that the wheat and chaff are separating with wine bloggers, somebody has to step into the fray as a public foil for other wine writers to target.

Unwittingly, it might be Asimov for reasons entirely opposite of Parker’s hegemony. Asimov’s palate for wine seems food-friendly and balanced; he takes an egalitarian approach to wine for the people without pretense and he doesn’t score wines.

In other words, Asimov is bizarro Superman to Parker’s swashbuckling empiricism and, perhaps, even a greater danger to the Ivory Tower of legacy wine media than the mere jealousy that passed for poking at Parker.

Just a thought…

It’s all about the story

The wine business has always been excellent at storytelling. Virtually every winery has their origin story and that of their dirt down pat, even if not very compelling.

So, it is with interest that I’ve been watching Facebook’s recent changes keeping in mind that founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg has emphasized emotional resonance, narrative and storytelling – factors that extend well beyond consumers using Facebook to “Tell the story of their life,” as Zuckerberg noted. This will be inclusive of the brands that use Facebook for engagement, as well.

I was further intrigued after reading parallel news reports that Randall Rothenberg, President and CEO of the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB), is singing the same song.

He notes in an article in Advertising Age, “Technology innovations are irrelevant to the future of advertising and marketing unless a more fundamental activity is understood, honored and advanced: the craft of storytelling.”

A quick Google search for “Mark Zuckerberg F8 Keynote” and “Randall Rothenberg MIXX Keynote” will yield a number of stories all occurring in September. There’s no question about Facebook’s influence and the IAB is the thought-leader for digital advertising. Between the two of them, they present an imposing shadow of influence on digital marketing.

If I were a winery with an understanding that digital marketing is a tsunami of change that is important, I might start revisiting my winery story for some fine-tuning…

Two books that I recommend to bone-up on the elements of good business storytelling are: The Story Factor and Made to Stick.

On Sweet Wines

In an article this week from the San Francisco Chronicle called “Beginner drinkers get a crush on sweet red wines,” E.&J. Gallo VP of Marketing, Stephanie Gallo, noted: “There is a major shift going on in the U.S. wine drinking culture. First, we noticed that regional sweet red blends were doing particularly well in Indiana, Texas and North Carolina. Second, our consumers were asking if we produced a sweet red wine after tasting our Moscato at events.”

Good Grape readers had the scoop on this months ago when I wrote:

How Sweet it is – The Growing Sweet Wine Trend in early October, 2010

And

Move over Moscato and Make Way for Sweet Reds in February of this year

Just saying…

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An Interview with the Hottest Design Shop in the Wine Business:  Proof Wine Collective

Date: Mon, Sep 20, 2010 Wine Tasting

In the realm of the thousands of providers who support the domestic wine industry, label designers hold a high place of esteem despite being under-acknowledged and under-appreciated. However, one young, hot design shop in San Luis Obispo is changing that, bringing progressive label design to the forefront of the industry, and starting a revolution in the process.

Started by twentysomething business partners Josh McFadden and Philip Muzzy, Proof Wine Collective is proving that the story of a winery doesn’t necessarily have to equate to a staid label. In doing so, they’re also bringing attention to the fact that, ultimately, a well-crafted label isn’t merely a piece of a wine brand, it is the brand. A well-crafted label is the portal through which a wine consumer, who may never visit the winery or its web site, transposes their feelings on the wine and their future affinity for the winery.

Like all good accidental entrepreneurial stories, Proof Wine Collective has a good one, as well. Working harvest in the Central Coast a mere three years ago, McFadden found himself assisting a number of upstart wine companies on matters of marketing and design and before he knew it, instead of being a harvest intern, he was an owner of a design business serving those same upstarts. Muzzy joined him as partner in crime. The name of the business pays homage to the quid pro quo relationship the business has with several of the wineries. Muzzy says, “Our Collective Winery members hold a special position to our business. Proof began in order to support producers like them, we currently have seven: Alta Maria, Sans Liege, Folkway, Autonom, Herman Story, Field Recordings, and Native9 ... one for every day of the week ...

They were our first clients, now they’re something different. They are our brothers, our advisors, our mentors; our alter egos if we made wine. Our business started to help out these legit producers who are the underdogs of the industry: small, underfunded owner/operators. They were grocery store clerks and farm hands. They are the Young Turks of the wine industry ...”

I caught up with Proof partner Philip (the rapper to co-partner Josh’s DJ’ing) for an interview. It’s a long read, but well worth it to get a keener glimpse into the sensibility (and the creative process) that is upending the business of wine label design. Plus, Josh and Philip are exceedingly bright guys, the kind of young, smart guys you root for because they have a vision for their work that takes most other people decades to develop.

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Readers who are interested in following wine packaging trends more closely should visit a newly launched blog that is dedicated to the art of wine packaging—an offshoot of the most popular packaging design site on the Internet (The Dieline), The Dieline Wine features the best wine packaging the industry has to offer with regular contributions from the guys at Proof.

A compendium of Proof work caps our interview.

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Good Grape: Tell me about the collaboration with the Dieline Wine packaging blog. How did that come about and what do you hope to contribute?

Philip Muzzy / Proof Wine Collective: The editor of The Dieline, Andrew Gibbs, found Proof through a mutual friend and posted our work something like 16 times in one day. A week or so later Andrew told me about The Dieline Wine and asked if Proof might be interested in writing some articles. We decided that this would be the perfect way to share our unique perspective with the rest of the world.

We believe there are far too many disconnected elements between the design industry and the wine industry. We are some of the few people who are in a position to see this and we feel it is our responsibility to do something about it. We hope that by contributing to the Dieline Wine we will have the opportunity to educate the design industry on the basics of the wine industry and vice versa. This is important because real design isn’t about a fancy picture, market trends or something that looks good on a computer screen. It is about an experience—a moment—that a person shares with the thing they hold and see and smell and feel. It’s about conveying emotion and giving that person a reason to get excited about the experience. We believe that once the design and wine industries understand this, there will be an abundance of new ideas and an urge to apply creativity to every part of the process.

Good Grape: I view Proof Wine Collective as cultural anthropologists that create something that visually resonates with people. Is that a fair statement to you?

Philip Muzzy / Proof Wine Collective: As consumers of culture we believe that where things come from matters; history matters. Our goal is not just to sell a story but also to help people explore the story on their own. We don’t derive our inspiration from market analysis and reports but from our own experience as wine buyers, as wine drinkers, as winemakers and wine sellers, because we’ve been in every one of those positions.

Good Grape: Do you find clients “get” the design samples that you initially present to them after it goes through the Proof blender of ideation?

Philip Muzzy / Proof Wine Collective: We honestly don’t show clients a lot of (work-in-progress) and we don’t ask them to direct the work while it’s in progress. It was a struggle at first to have them trust us, but now that we’ve had some successes, it’s a lot easier. Keeping the client out of the design process is important because they’re coming to us with a problem that they’ve been unable to solve. We go wherever the problem leads in order to solve it. The more they try to tell us about the problem and about what they’re looking for, the more everything will dead end.

Our creative process doesn’t start until we believe that we understand the client. We deconstruct who they are: their dreams, winemaking philosophy, personal history, what the wines they make say, and where they fit in the marketplace. We find allegories to their story and these truths guide our direction, in this way we ensure that what we create is an honest extension of our client, even if it’s not what they imagined.

We don’t want to show them a design until we believe it’s finished; and it’s not finished unless we believe that the package, story and wine align. Once we present them with an idea and we’re behind it, very few changes are made—if any.

Good Grape: Where do you draw the line with clients – that balance of fighting for the vision and not compromising for “safe” and “the client is always right.”

Philip Muzzy / Proof Wine Collective: When we started out, people called us arrogant. We were young, outspoken, and had very high standards. For the most part we remain all these things, but people don’t seem to mind it, now that they know our ideas work. We’ve always been very selective about the wineries we work with. We have to believe in our clients and they have to believe in us. We’ll give almost anyone a meeting, listen to their story, and give advice if we think it might help, but we only take on clients with whom we feel we can build that fundamental trust. Compromise is an easy solution for two parties that don’t know how to speak one another’s language. In the end, we’re looking for clients who respect all the work we put into what we do and are willing to push the limits.

Good Grape: You do most of your work out of the Central Coast, a relatively new wine making region, where you’re pushing the progressive envelope. Thoughts on that progressiveness relative to Sonoma and Napa, more mature wine regions?

Philip Muzzy / Proof Wine Collective: All design is beholden to its context. While it’s true that the Central Coast gives us some leeway, if the question was, “If Proof were in Napa would what we do look the same,” that answer would be no. We’re not in the business of making things crazy, but we’re also not into being safe. We’re about making things that are appropriate and unexpected. Our clients have flexibility and that allows us to have flexibility. (In correspondence) You termed our designs as “fresh” and “edgy” and that’s part and parcel of the wines we work with and their appellations. In Napa, Proof would still be “fresh” but would feel familiar in a different way.

Good Grape: Do you consider the art aspect and permanence of a bottle after drinking, aside from the pull of a good label on the shelf?

Philip Muzzy / Proof Wine Collective: Wine itself has permanence. A wine must be able to maintain constant relevance because it could potentially be consumed in 20 years. This is a part of the culture of wine, that it’s about sharing a moment of history. It’s like Mouton Rothschild, by featuring a different world-famous artist on their label every year they’re saying: “every vintage of our wine is a unique expression of our history, and this is the level of experience you should expect from what we’ve made.” They’ve been able to maintain a permanence and relevance not simply because of their first growth status, but also because they’re able to deliver on that promise. We approach the work that we do with a similar level of seriousness and far-sightedness. We are always looking to make a lasting impression and work with producers that we believe can deliver that as well. It is the coming together of experience and expectation into a surprising new whole that makes a bottle art, and not the package alone.

Good Grape: Like an artist, do you feel like your body of work says “something?” Do you want it to speak to somebody as a statement or an evolution?

Philip Muzzy / Proof Wine Collective: We think of our work as an evolution. We approach every project with special attention on empathy for the end consumer. For instance, take $5 wines. A lot of our friends drink cheap wine and sometimes we do too. When Proof was starting, we never thought we’d be making labels for $5 wines. Yet we do it today because novice wine drinkers and price sensitive consumers are so marginalized by the industry at large. These consumers need advocates working inside the system; we hope to be those advocates. As Proof continues to evolve, we are actively seeking out these sympathy gaps in the industry and trying to fix them.

Good Grape: In the pantheon of design what’s more important to you – striking visual or typography?

Philip Muzzy / Proof Wine Collective: We respect both schools of thought. We switch back and forth depending on the needs of the project. Neither visuals nor typography can give you everything you need, and neither is fundamentally necessary to tell a story (for instance Chapoutier’s use of braille on his labels). The most important part of design is communicating a message in a way that incites action and frames an experience. That should be done by any means possible.

Good Grape: Thanks for taking the time to chat guys. Your work is really fresh. Keep on pushing boundaries.

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The Entrepreneurial Spirit:  Muehlhausen Glass

Date: Sun, Sep 19, 2010 Wine Tasting

Perhaps it is no coincidence that I love technology start-up’s (both working in them and watching others develop) alongside my passion for wine – both are, typically, small businesses imbued with an infectious, “we can change the world” entrepreneurial enthusiasm.

Regardless of whether it’s a business trying to make a difference in a neighborhood, a technology company trying to change the way we work and play, or a winery or wine-related company that has enough moxie to think that doing something differently can strike a chord, there’s a lot to admire about people who are willing to fail in their quest for success.

No disrespect to denizens of Corporate America, but I’ve found a different joie de vivre and a commitment to “living life out loud” with those brave souls who forsake relative security for the challenge of creating something from nothing.

Given that context, I’m starting a periodic series of posts focusing on upstarts in the wine business. These “focus” stories won’t typically be about wineries, but rather ancillary businesses in and around the enjoyment of wine. These are usually people that love wine and want to pursue their passion, but they are also people for whom the entrepreneurial call doesn’t beckon towards the vineyard.

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We start the series off with Meuhlhausen Glass, owned by glass artisan Ryan Muehlhausen and assisted by his Uncle, Steve Thompson. Muehlhausen lives and works on Lummi Island, a small island in the San Juan Islands off the coast of Washington state, equidistance between Vancouver, CA and Seattle and known for their arts community. There, Meuhlhausen launched a Sommelier wine glass, amongst his other work with functional glass as objet d’art.

Each wine tumbler, similar in style to the Riedel “O” series, is hand blown using borosilicate glass (think impact resistant Pyrex measuring cup glass) worked to a thinness appropriate for a wine glass. Each glass, using a technique developed by Meuhlhausen, has subtle striations (called micro-aeration™), in the interior of the glass to aid aeration and development of the bouquet for the wine.

Originally conceived as a one-off gift for Uncle Steve, a wine lover, designer and brand consultant living in Santa Barbara, California, both soon saw greater possibilities for the unique glass and the technique of putting ridges on the interior of the glass.

A web site, RMHglass, and a trademark for “micro-aeration” was soon borne to bring the unique, one-of-kind wine glasses to market.

Of course, it’s not a start-up story without some hardship. The first challenge is the obvious – the glass is handmade, each taking an hour to make. Muehlhausen developed a technique to create the aerating striations, and the experience, time and craft involved to create each piece is reflected in the price—$40 per glass. While this is significantly less expensive than the Riedel Sommelier glass series (and without the reputation, as well), Meuhlhausen’s ability to produce a quantity of glasses is humble and the price reflects the handmade nature.

And, while other glassmakers tout “hand-blown,” the Muehlhausen is truly a no-mold glass with no mass manufacturing process. Each glass is a handcrafted, artisan work of art. According to Muehlhausen, “Production is never easy. Making sure that glasses are consistent without giving them a machine made look is challenging. But the challenge is part of producing a product that is both appealing and unique.”

This artisan effort, and the notion of a glass made from borosilicate instead of crystal – without a stem—is in conflict with the notion of it being a tasting glass for Sommeliers and wine professionals. No stem, no crystal, and a technical innovation not corroborated with clinical testing nor marketing like what Riedel can provide creates an educational battle in both mindshare and understanding with cynical trade veterans.

Learning from their mistakes and honing their craft, both Muehlhausen and Thompson are listening and adjusting.

According to Thompson, the business lead for the duo, the Muehlhausen tumbler seems to resonant as a luxury wine product, a special occasion glass for that special bottle with wine enthusiasts. Given that adjustment for consumer positioning instead of the trade, the glass needs a stem for connoisseurs equally set in their ways, which Muehlhausen will be adding for a launch with luxury wine products company, Image of Wine, this fall.

Scheduled for release in time for the holiday season, Image of Wine will carry the revamped stemmed Muehlhausen glass for wine lovers who appreciate the nature of one of a kind piece of art with their vino.

Certainly, it’s very early in the story of the development of Muehlhausen Glass. Ryan is very much an artist, doing his work for the love of it and the meaning that is gained by creating art that is appreciated by its eventual owner. He notes, “These glasses are carefully hand crafted and intended to be both functional and fun. I hope that people enjoy drinking out of them as much as I enjoy making them. The stemless micro-aeration glass is just the beginning for us so be sure to look for additional glasses coming in the future.”

Wine enthusiasts think nothing of buying a $40 bottle of wine. Next time you pull the cork on a nice bottle, plan ahead of time and also enjoy that one-of-a-kind wine with a one-of-kind glass, supporting two different types of wine-related artistic craftsmen in the process.

Postscript
Thompson, the more ardent wine lover of the two, recommends the following Central Coast wineries:
Donati
Terry Hoage Vineyards
Tre Anelli
Gainey
Artiste

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Two for the Road:  New Books in Food and Wine

Date: Fri, Sep 17, 2010 Wine Tasting

When I read a magazine, I often spend as much time looking at the advertising as I do reading the magazine. And, no, I’m not an advertiser’s dream; generally I’m examining the photography for tricks and scratching my chin ponderously wondering, “How did they do that?”

We’ve all seen the ads – the Big Mac that actually looks not just edible, but downright delicious, the bottle of beer with perfectly manicured bottle “sweat,” or the bowl of cereal that has the milked nestled in and on the flakes in a manner that my 2% cow juice can’t touch.

Perhaps I am the only one, but, with a lifelong interest in advertising and with “food porn” omnipresent in our food and wine culture, I have an interest in learning more of the whys and wherefores for how these lush product shots come about.

Enter a new book called Food Styling. Written by Delores Custer, who is something of a rock star in the little niche of food stylists, this book is a treasure trove of knowledge.

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Admittedly, the book has limited usefulness for the layperson with its textbook-like focus on the business of being a food stylist, but man oh man the stuff you will learn by reading this book.

Have you ever wondered how food stylists ensure that the turkey in professional Thanksgiving photos look like George Hamilton’s spawn? A baste of Angostura bitters with Kitchen Bouquet seasoning sauce, yellow food color and a couple of drops of dishwashing detergent, that’s how.

Have you ever been curious about how the wafts of steam come up so alluringly from a burger photograph? A water soaked tampon (euphemistically called a T-28 in the biz) that is microwaved will provide, “localized steam” right behind the bun.

But, what about the “sweat” on the beer bottle that I mentioned? An application and buff of Turtle Wax car wax and hand applied water beads via a syringe does the trick.

The milk in a cereal shot? While many use Elmer’s glue, the author uses a combination of shortening and Wildroot hair grooming lotion to make the cereal tantalizingly float.

The perfect grill marks on the steak that Man has been measured against since time immemorial? Yeah, that’s placed with a metal skewer that has been heated over a gas flame.

Food Styling is full of dozens and dozens of other tips and tricks of the trade including how to fake a wine – if a food photograph needs a glass of wine and there is no wine on hand some Kitchen Bouquet diluted with water can approximate a hue from Pinot Grigio to Port.

I wish I wouldn’t have bought this book because I have zero use for it in the long-term, but for gleaning tips and tricks and developing knowledge that will help you deconstruct the food beauty shots that we see in food magazines, it’s a priceless and fun read and worth purchasing for the pearls of wisdom and factoids that you can drop in kitchen conversations in the future. Recommended to read, but check it out from the library.

Oldman’s Brave New World of Wine by Mark Oldman

Just when you think every possible nook and cranny of the wine 101 book category has been explored, out comes a book that takes a unique and valuable spin on the beginner to intermediate wine genre.

Oldman’s Brave New World of Wine is an evolution of sorts from Mark Oldman’s first title published in 2004. That book, Oldman’s Guide to Outsmarting Wine, is THE benchmark book for a wine introduction and a book I’ve recommended to friends over and over again. This time around, Oldman, a judge on the wine TV reality show The Winemakers, focuses on 46 under-appreciated varietals and puts his trademark accessibility spin on the varietals, hoping to expose the quirky to a wider audience.

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The premise of the book originated at professional tastings that Oldman attended where fellow wine insiders would get excitable and passionate about an off-the-beaten path varietal. Taking this cue, Oldman’s book is focused on bringing these niche wines to larger awareness.

From the introduction:

“… Now you can trot the globe from the comfort of your own dinner table, sampling a new region or grape every night of the month if you so desire. The diversity of wines and their quality and affordability has never been greater … so my mandate crystallized: it was time to build a bridge of knowledge from the insiders to everyone else, revealing wines that so electrify me and my fellow wine pros – opening the curtain on what I call the ‘Brave New Pours’ …

For beginners and the experienced alike, “Brave New Pours” … provides escape hatches for enthusiasts caught in a Stockholm-Syndrome-like dependence on mainstream wine types.”

Mostly, Oldman nails it again. His writing voice is warm, down-to-earth and accessible and the book itself is peppered with short chapters on varietals like Txakoli, Moschofilero and Lambrusco – varietals that are widely available at good wine shops, but also mostly sitting under a layer of dust based on non-familiarity and our own ruts of wine drinking with the familiar.

With quotes from notable wine aficionados, tables and taste profile comparisons, the book is very thoughtfully laid out and a valuable read as a primer on varietals that even the most ardent wine enthusiast likely isn’t familiar with.

There are, however, some questionable misses in the book – is New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and Gewrztraminer that under-appreciated? Overall, the book lives up to its promise and over delivers in a breezy way while also including some nuggets that careful readers will notice, as in a quote from Master of Wine and Master Sommelier Doug Frost who says, Left Foot Charley Pinot Blanc from Michigan is so compelling. I honestly can’t think of another Pinot Blanc that has gotten me this excited.”

Recommend reading and recommended for purchase.

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Everybody’s in the Online Wine Media Pool.  Now What?

Date: Tue, Sep 14, 2010 Wine Tasting

With the launch of the Connoisseurs’ Guide to California Wine (CGCW) online (well covered here, here and here), save for Ronn Weigand and his Restaurant Wine newsletter, every notable professional wine personality, writer, pundit and critic is now online in a meaningful way, alongside thousands of bloggers. This, of course, begs the question: Now What?

And, no, I’m not waxing hyperbolic, either. Literally, by far, the vast majority of wine luminaries—both bright and flickering—are practicing their craft online with some significance.

To wit, in addition to the launch of CGCW a week or so ago, I also just received notice that the finest global wine periodical on the planet – The World of Fine Wine – has launched a blog of sorts, as well – published once weekly on Friday’s. The TWoFW site will have contributions from several bright wine writers including Peter Liem and Bruce Schoenfeld.

Meanwhile, dozens of wine blogs are pushing the envelope of quality and blurring the lines of understanding about where exactly high quality wine writing can come from.

When Tom Wark from Fermentation says, “Wine lovers find themselves living and drinking in a ‘Golden Age’ of wine writing” he’s not kidding.

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However, this “everybody’s in the pool” reality has given me pause to consider not the considerable depth of online wine writing, but, rather, the sheer breadth of commentary on wine and the fundamental question, “Who is reading all of this stuff?”

I cannot help but feel that wine writing, and by extension online wine writing, is entering into a phase of (pardon the hackneyed idiom), “Too many chiefs and not enough Indians.”

Online wine writing lives in the equivalent of a small town that has 19 four-star restaurants. Good food, not enough customers.

Quite simply, this might be a “Golden Age” like bebop jazz in the 40s, Beat literature in the 50s, or Laurel Canyon folk rock in the 70s, but online wine writing, unless I have a blind spot where I normally have 20/20 acuity, isn’t a movement and there won’t be a historical legacy that will be written, instead it will be a footnote denoting evolution.

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What this means, unfortunately, is there is no glory to be found in hindsight infamy. And, therefore, the focus, everybody’s focus, in the here and now, should be on spreading the word about all of the fabulous wine writing online lest all of the toil live in ignominy.

Put another way, a who’s who of wine writer’s writing online is great, and it’s even better that its complemented by some truly talented pro-amateurs, but it sure feels like there aren’t enough wine enthusiasts who care, or read it – and, it’s everybody’s responsibility to help change that.

Now, I do need to be clear, this isn’t a rant about making wine more accessible, or less intimidating. It’s not a bromide against mainstream glossy wine magazines, either. Nor is this a straw man argument about mainstream media and online wine media and who “gets” what. This is more of a statement about the way we go about our information consuming lives and how we share that for the betterment of everybody.

Of all the wine blogs, wine web sites, and –essentially—the entire sum of my online web habits are sequestered in isolation between me and my browser. I don’t talk about it much—not with my Miller Light swilling buddy, my wife, or my wine tasting group.

I’m guessing you’re the same.

HuffPo, the contents of my RSS feedreader, the wine sites I am a visitor to, my pay subscriptions to Notre Dame football web sites, the digital marketing newsletters I read, all of my fairly routine information consumption habits happen in isolation. And, I’ve never had a conversation with anybody that comes close to approximating, “Hey, where do you get your wine information.”

No, I think each of us that live our wine enthusiasm online, either by writing or reading, do so without much sharing offline to our fellow wine enthusiastic friends and family.

This has to change.

It has to change because we are living in a “Golden Age” of wine writing, but only a very small percentage of people who are wine-interested pursue their interest online. And, lest the online wine scene, again, where every notable wine luminary is now present, wants to operate in the din of a small room instead of an amphitheater, the audience for all of this fabulous writing has to become larger.

So, here’s my challenge to every reader of this site: every garden starts with a seedling. We all know at least six people in our friends and family circle who are self-identified wine enthusiasts who read nary a word about wine online (or offline, for that matter). Do me a favor, and send them an email and say, “Bob, I know you like reds, you should really start checking out this site to keep current on the wine scene.”

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Then, include the links for the wine section of Alltop and a link to John Gillespie’s weekly email newsletter highlighting wine columns.

Both of these services act as a fine gateway for deeper knowledge, an adjunct to Spectator and the Wine Advocate for which most are familiar. Of course, there will be plenty of opportunity to work on diving into the nuances of the online wine scene, RSS feeds, feed readers and assorted minutia, but for now, the focus has to be on casting a wider net to get the wine-interested into the online wine scene so all of this writing has a worthy audience.

So, please, I beg of thee, act now, send that email and the net result can be a wine information society that is healthy and growing instead of a niche, running parallel with the growth of wine consumption in America while democratizing wine in the process.

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