Serendipity is an amazing thing. I had just been thinking about how poorly the wine industry markets to women when friend/superflack Julie Ann Kodmur asked if I wanted to meet Sharon Kazan Harris. A Napa winemaker who had studied in Bordeaux, Harris also runs A Woman’s Palate, a wine education program for executive women. Like golf or fancy watches, wine is useful hobby for Lean-Inners in finance, law, tech and the like. While I wasn’t able to taste her small-production Chardonnays and Cabernet Sauvignon, we did talk at length about getting women more interested in wine — and getting the industry to notice.
A few highlights:
- 80% of wine under $18 is purchased by women. 80%! That’s a staggering number.
- Even women who are comfortable dropping $900 on a pair of shoes hesitate to buy a bottle of wine with a triple-digit price tag. “I worked with a large group of really successful Silicon Valley women and only one of them had ever bought a wine over $100.”
- She gives women useful tactics to deflect wine mansplaining. Introducing them to winemakers, which she does in her boot camps, provides the ultimate trump card. Nothing shuts up a wine bore holding forth on a bottle you’re drinking quite like interrupting him with “well, when I met the winemaker…”
- On the disconnect between “chick wines” and her reality. “I’m not going to close a deal with a wine named ‘Sassy Bitch.’ Would you?”
My conversation with Harris gave shape to some fuzzy questions that have been taking up way too much of my brain space lately. Is the wine industry so focused on millennials that it takes for granted the customers it already has (i.e., women)? When will marketers figure out that “on the nose” style of marketing to women (pink labels, the word “mommy” thrown around indiscriminately) is really unsophisticated? How do you get more women to buy fine wine? And are we really OK with stuff like this? Or these?
I moved to Westchester two years ago. It’s been great for our kids, jury’s still out on how it’s working for the grown ups. One thing I can say for sure though is that it’s taught me a lot about wine. Not what’s in the bottle, but the context around it — how people drink wine and what they think about it, outside the very insulated community of Manhattan and what a friend calls the “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” areas of Brooklyn.
Some thoughts so far:
Wine in many suburban restaurants = disappointing. More often than not, the selection is boring, the pricing unjust, and the wine service non-existent. One local place that calls itself a wine bar — as in, the name of the place actually includes the phrase “wine bar” — doesn’t list the producers on its wine list. Make fun of people all you want for always drinking the same Malbec or Sancerre, but they’re not wrong to be risk-averse. The odds of being disappointed and feeling ripped off if they try something new are high.
Wine retail, on the other hand, is kind of awesome. I’ve found more than a few great stores, and great prices, in the most unlikely places. One of my favorites, the Wine + Spirit Discount Warehouse, sits next to a Salvation Army in a sad New Rochelle strip mall. Walk past the aisles of Alize and Mike’s Hard Lemonade and you’ll find a good selection or wines at a steal — if Wine Searcher is to be believed, it’s the cheapest place to pick up wines from Kermit Lynch’s portfolio in lower Westchester. My local store, Blue Dog Wines, is a little gem. It’s a tiny space filled with crowd pleasers, a few esoteric finds and IPOB-approved Pinots. Full disclosure: the owner is helping me out with my latest wine project, a local Facebook group page where I lead an online tasting every few weeks. It’s young yet, but lots of fun.
“Drink local” means something else entirely. When it comes to wine selection, people really are beholden to the skill and tastes of the wine stores and restaurants in their immediate vicinity. (Yes, people order wine online, but shipping can be an expensive deterrent, plus wine.com is no help when you need to run out and buy some Prosecco for your neighbor’s dinner party starting in 45 minutes.) The universe of wine is vast and thrilling, but you’d never know it if your local wine store stocks the same boring bottles year after year.
The wine industry is insanely out of touch with how most people actually choose and consume wine. Do a better job telling people what the thing tastes like and give them a good story to hang their hat on. Stop with the overly precious food matching. No one is drinking your $15 Pinot Noir with game. They’re drinking it to accompany a burger or leftovers or an episode of Scandal. Get over it.
I will never stop being amazed by the smart questions I get from people who think they don’t know “enough” about wine. Sometimes the “average wine drinker” (whatever that means) is a lot smarter and more adventurous than they’re given credit for.
For at least the third year in a row, I told myself THIS would be my year of Southern Hemisphere wines. I would shift away from my Euro/California preferences and discover all kinds of new delights from Australia, New Zealand, Chile. Carmenere and Central Otago, here I come!
Well, we’re more than halfway through the year and so far it’s been a mixed bag. A quick look at my Delectable profile shows that only 10% of my wines hail from down South. But. One of my favorite meals of the year so far was at the Musket Room, an homage to all things New Zealand with a menu and wine list that punch way above their prices. One of my few southern Westchester wine refuges is Bar Lees, an Australian joint in Mamaroneck. And a few months ago I met Ross Toombs, a fellow Pelhamite who imports wine from his native South Africa. He started his import business, Meridian Prime, 3 years ago, and works with a number of up-and-coming South African producers. He was kind enough to answer a few questions about his work and what’s new with South African wines (which, really — did I mention this already? — I need to drink more of.)
Being in the wine industry is obviously a fantasy career for many people. What do you love most about what you do?
I love being responsible for ensuring that the passion of the all the people making the wines (not just the winemaker) are transferred to everyone we interact with. I also love seeing the look of surprise and joy on the face of someone trying one of our wines for the first time. That is a gift that we keep getting and it makes it all worthwhile.
What is the biggest misconception about your job?
The biggest misconception is that it is quick and easy to bring another wine into the portfolio. The work to get a new wine to market is immense — but rewarding in itself. Another misconception is that the startup importer/distributor can’t take on the big guys head on and win. It is possible to act big without being big.
Why should people drink more South African wine?
The South African wine industry — and the country itself — is so unique in so many ways. These characteristics are captured in the wines themselves which are, like the country and the people, complex, beautiful and bold without being overbearing. South African winemakers have found an amazing balance between New and Old World wine styles (most often in the same glass).
Aside from your own, what wines are you most excited about drinking now?
I am most excited about drinking other South African wine producers that are hoping to be in the US market. There are some truly outstanding wines which American consumers would be lucky to have on their tables. For the wine adventurer South African wines provide an oasis of untapped gems.
What’s the most remarkable wine experience you’ve ever had?
Starting an import and distribution business has been that remarkable experience. For me it has been about meeting the amazing people in the industry as much as the wines themselves. With the wines I never anticipated the incredible experience that comes from drinking a glass of wine that captures the passion of the people you’ve met who made the wine. I wish everyone could meet the people that toiled in the vineyards, the cellars and the offices to get the wine all the way to your table. When you know these people and how much effort and skill goes into the process, every glass becomes a celebration of the collective achievement in getting a wine into the market.
VinExpo, one of the world’s largest wine trade shows, welcomed nearly 50,000 visitors last month — including yours truly. See below for a list, in no particular order, of what I learned from my whirlwind trip.
Warm climate wine producers have the coolest booths.
While the Piedmontese and the Burgundians took a low-key approach to their stands, not so the Corsicans:
or the Brazilians:
Gamay is full of surprises.
I know my way around a cru Beaujolais, but I was still (very pleasantly) surprised to taste the wines of Joseph Burrier. The wines are subtle and focused, and Burrier — a 6th generation winemaker — was chock-full of quotable observations. One of my favorites: “the key with Gamay is to avoid vulgarity.” There was nothing remotely vulgar about these wines. They’re the Audrey Hepburn of cru Beaujolais. Graceful, elegant and unadorned. My favorites were the 2011 Saint-Amour “Côte de Besset,” refined and delicate, and, at the other end of the spectrum the 2001 Fleurie les Colonies de Rochegrès. Here it is, on the right, next to one of its younger compatriots. (You know the tasting starts getting real when the winemaker pulls out the unlabeled bottles.)
The very name Fleurie puts these wines at a disadvantage, says Burrier, as it inevitably prompts drinkers and even writers (ahem) to call these wines floral, charming, and unserious. He uses older vintages like this one to prove that Fleurie has a serious side. The wine is indeed drinking nicely now, and falls into what I think of as “October” wines.
Marketing can’t beat Mother Nature.
The boosterism that pervades events like this was no match for the cold (literally) hard reality of the weather. It was raining cats and dogs — or perhaps just cats if this whimsical sculpture installation was any indication:
In all seriousness, the horrible weather blanketing western France cast a pall on things. It remains to be seen how much the deluge will end up affecting the vintage, but, as they say in PR, “the optics were not good.”
The children are our future.
Tasting and drinking a lot of wine was great, but the best part of my trip was meeting the next generation of France’s wine professionals, from sommeliers to winemakers and everything in between. A young couple who had abandoned their life in Paris to start a winery in Savoie focusing on indigenous grapes. One sommelier with the extremely quixotic, and extremely worthy, pursuit of introducing French people to wines from around the world. (Not an easy task. One Parisian diner, upon seeing Vega Sicilia on his wine list, asked, “they make wine is Spain?”) A Bordeaux winemaker who took as much pride in his Bordeaux Supérieur as his Pomerol. France’s obsession with rules and bureaucracy has a way of sucking the life out of its brightest young people, so it’s beyond encouraging to see all this dynamism and creativity.
I was running late and feeling desperate. My friend’s dinner party had started 20 minutes ago, and here I was in an unremarkable wine store on an unremarkable corner of the Upper East Side scanning the shelves for a palatable wine at a palatable price. Next to the Chiantis was an under-$20 bottle of Morellino di Scansano, a name that was then unfamiliar to me. Good enough. It ended up being a happy gamble, a delicious, affable wine that everyone liked. Since then, I’ve always felt like Morellino was my trusty little friend and special secret.
Well, the cat’s out of the bag. A lot of investment has poured into Morellino di Scansano, situated in the Tuscan coastal region of the Maremma, and it earned DOCG status in 2007. The promotional machine is very much up and running, and a delegation of winemakers and local representatives were on hand for several events in New York this past week.
They were emissaries of quiet Italian elegance, where one tosses a Loro Piana sweater over one’s shoulder just so, and the winemakers speak of organic farming in perfect, British-accented English. (Although they’re not afraid to let down their guard. When I asked one winemaker what he thought of Italian food in New York, he admitted that “if I cooked pasta this way at home, I would be — how you say? — shot.”)
The wines are similarly mellow. They’re required to be at least 85% Morellino (that’s Sangiovese to you and me), but the remainder can be any number of varieties, including Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, or local faves like Ciliegiolo. You won’t find the bright assertiveness of Chianti or stately grace of Brunello di Montalcino here: Morellino is their kinder, gentler cousin. From the lineup of 8 wines offered, my favorites were the 2010 Poggio Argentiera Capatosta and the 2008 Fattoria Mantellassi Riserva Le Sentinelle. The former has the liveliness and structure that lesser Morellinos lack, while the latter makes a case for the wine’s darker, more brooding side. Both were exceedingly food friendly, and it would be tough to think of a tomato-based pasta sauce/burger/grilled pork chop they wouldn’t work well with. While the prices have climbed since my first encounter with Morellino — the wines are now in the $20-$30 range — their accommodating, up-for-anything nature has not.
If you’re an avid reader of lady magazines and blogs, you will recognize this frequent piece of shopping advice: don’t wait until the last minute before a big event to buy your super-special outfit. Desperation shopping rarely leads to good decision-making.
The same holds true for wine. One of the biggest differences I notice between the JV and the varsity wine drinker is that the former is much more likely to buy a wine just for a specific meal or occasion, whereas the latter picks up a bottle that interests her, whether or not she knows when or how or with whom she’ll drink it. To continue the fashion analogy, the same thinking that prompts someone to buy, say, a pair of crystal-studded pair of Giuseppe Zanotti platforms
with no clear idea of where she’ll wear them is what compels someone like me to buy a bottle of late-harvest Gewurztraminer here, a half case of Lambrusco there, and why not some Poire William while I’m at it? Just like the most fashionable person you know has the perfect outfit for everything from a summer BBQ to a night out with Beyoncé, the hard-core wine lover has just the right thing to serve her finicky mother-in-law, as well as the ideal bottle for her too-cool-for-Cab sommelier friend. If you’re looking for New Year’s wine resolution guidance, I’d suggest you adopt a similar stance and do as the fashion mags dictate: if you love it and can afford it, buy it.
We all have our prejudices. For whatever reason, I’ve always had a “thing” against Amarone. Too big. Too overwhelming. Too difficult to match with food. I appreciated that it’s a bit of an oddball wine, made in an oddball fashion — the grapes are dried before they’re fermented, concentrating the flavors in the wine — but that was the extent of my admiration.
I had the chance to challenge my opinions a few weeks ago, when I was invited to a tasting of 2001 Amarones made by some top, family-owned producers. These are wines that need a lot of time to develop, so even the 2001s were a bit rough around the edges. As a whole these wines are big, tannic, and dry. They also feature some unusual, striking flavors(the phrase “chocolate covered craisins” made more than one appearance in my tasting notes). I loved the chance to taste these wines. I loved hearing about them from the people who made them — or, at the very least, the sons and daughters of the people who made them. The 25-year old son of one producer said his father only just started letting him pick the grapes for their Amarone, because it requires so much expertise and care.
I admire these wines more than ever…but I just don’t like them. They don’t move me. Nor do I see how they would really fit into my life — I don’t think I’d enjoy them much on their own, and there are plenty of other big, intense wines I’d turn to for food matching first. So basically, Amarone is the vinous equivalent of this:
I mean, amazing shoes, right? I just can’t see myself wearing them.
If you follow wine media, you probably saw this article on Bordeaux from New York Times wine columnist Eric Asimov. If you didn’t, here’s the quick summary: the cool kids don’t like Bordeaux. It’s too Robert Parker. Too corporate. Too expensive. In our quest for the newest, the most “natural,” the most biodynamic, the most idiosyncratic wines, the stodgy châteaux on the banks of the Gironde seem hopelessly passé.
I get it, really I do. But. Wine lovers rejecting Bordeaux is akin to Americans hating on George Washington. It’s an integral part of wine’s history, its mystique, and its hold on our imaginations. Plus a lot of it tastes really, really good.
I was fortunate to experience this first hand a few weeks ago, when Snooth Editor-in-Chief Gregory Dal Piaz opened a few choice Bordeaux for a group of wine writers. The line up included:
1986 Cos d’Estournel (a little stern, but likeable)
1989 Cos d’Estournel (velvety and seductive, if a bit hollow)
1986 Lynch-Bages (corked, alas)
1988 Château Meyney
1989 Château Meyney (my favorite of the bunch – well-balanced, highly drinkable, and remarkably fresh)
1990 Château Meyney
No single wine was perfect, but each offered a snapshot of what Bordeaux can offer: elegance, balance, structure and, of course, longevity. Old-fashioned virtues, I guess, but ones that every wine lover should learn to appreciate.
Besides, without Bordeaux, what would the cool kids have to rebel against?
Back in grad school, I wrote a paper on the “dop” system. During apartheid, South African vineyard workers were regularly paid in alcohol. The results were predictably horrific. While no longer as common as it once was, this practice still exists. Its consequences are, quite literally, passed on to future generations: many farm laborers are women, and the Western Cape suffers from one of the highest rates of fetal alcohol syndrome in the world.
I thought of all this a few weeks ago, when Human Rights Watch released a depressingly familiar report on human rights violations in South Africa’s wine industry. It was a hot topic among wine people when it came out (see, for example, the post and comments here) and as I followed the debate, something struck me: this was the first time I’d ever heard wine folks talk about the people who actually work in the vineyard. We spend a hell of a lot of time obsessively analyzing pretty much everything else, from rootstocks to yeasts to soil composition, so our silence on this topic is notable.
And it’s not an insignificant point, especially for Americans. According to the Oxford Companion, “few reasonable observers would dispute a claim that [California's] clandestine, 600,000-member Mexican labor force constitutes CA’s greatest asset in the competitive arena of international fine wine production.” This workforce is not only large and hard-working, but also incredibly skilled and efficient. (No wonder producers were able to replant to Pinot Noir so quickly after “Sideways” came out.)
And if we’re really serious about the whole “natural wine/great wine is made in the vineyard” thing, then we need to talk to the people who are actually doing all the vine- and grape-coddling we wax rhapsodic about. The more I drink and study wine, the less I care about a given winemaker’s “philosophy” (talk is cheap) and the more I care about execution (how exactly does grafting work, anyway?) As wine writers and educators, my compatriots and I owe it to you to delve deeper here — and as wine consumers, you owe it to yourself to understand and appreciate all the hard work that goes into your glass.
So it looks like Recession #2 might be upon us soon, people. With my own personal double dip recession in effect, what with the new twins and all, I’m kind of freaking out. One thing I am not worried about, however, is my wine consumption. There are all sorts of relatively painless ways to economize on wine, which I will kindly share with you:
1. Box it up. There are some good box wines out there (even the New York Times thinks so), and ounce for ounce, they represent a great value. Serve it up in this adorable “vin de maison” carafe so people will think you’re charming, not cheap.
2. Ditch the glass. Yes I know, many restaurants have amazing wine-by-the-glass selections. But how many times have you gone out with a friend, drunk a few glasses between the two of you, and realized you could have gotten more wine, for less, if you had just ordered a bottle? Find a happy compromise on a wine you’ll both enjoy and opt for the full bottle.
3. Put a cork(age) in it. Bring your own bottle and pay the restaurant’s corkage fee, usually around $25. Of course, this makes the most sense when you have a pricier bottle to share. If you want to bypass the corkage fee, I’ve found that Asian and Middle Eastern restaurants are pretty flexible about letting you bring your own booze. Another option: scout out brand-new restaurants that don’t have their liquor licenses yet.
4. Try something new. A lot of the wines at the fringes of the wine store (ie, not California, France or Italy) can offer really great values. Portuguese whites are cheap and super-refreshing, and sherry is, pound for pound, one of the best value wines around. It’s also high in alcohol and served in smaller portions, so if you’re entertaining, a little goes a long way. Grab that can of Planter’s peanuts in the cupboard, fish out those olives from the back of the fridge, ask a friend to bring over some dried sausage or cheese, and call it a tapas party.
5. Be honest. Now is not the time to pussyfoot around. Tell the wine store salesperson or the sommelier exactly how much you want to spend. You may feel cheesy about it, but being straightforward will actually make their job a lot easier.
6. Free tastings. Every wine store worth its salt has ‘em. They’re a great way to new wines and avoid disappointment. (Even a $10 wine is a crappy value if you don’t like it.) If you taste something you like, make sure to tell the salesperson, so she can recommend similar wines in your price range.
7. Befriend a pregnant or nursing wine blogger. OK, so this one is a little specific. But when I was pregnant, and during my brief breast-feeding phase, I was mostly tasting, rather than drinking. I relied on friends to finish the bottles. I’m just sayin’, don’t be afraid to be opportunistic.