Here’s hoping that my new-found digs (as a Central Market Wine Manager) will lead to an eventual placement of these “Natural” wines here in Texas!
via Cepage Noir
Here’s hoping that my new-found digs (as a Central Market Wine Manager) will lead to an eventual placement of these “Natural” wines here in Texas!
via Cepage Noir
Back in 1994, I joined a small, dedicated French-wine import company that would later change its name from International Gourmet Corp – as we moved away from including olive oils and vinegars in our offers – to European Wine Group. Our focus was bringing to America what we discovered in the artisanal, family-owned and operated estates of France’s most dedicated of boutique wineries. Expanding our selections to include Spain and later Italy, our name would change to signal our broadening collection, but our focus would never stray from our roots as a primarily French-wine focused operation.
During the 1990s, the job of selling wine was a different animal than it is today. I would spend 5 days a week on the road; visiting distributors on Mondays, their retailers on the following days, and wrapping up my weeks in front of those same distributor’s restaurant clients. If I made it home by Saturday night, I was lucky. Monday came, and I was on another plane, off to another city, checking into another hotel and lugging another set of samples through the streets of yet another bustling city or rural town. There were no Skype meetings, no teleconferences, precious little use of e*mail and most of us still preferred pagers to cell phones.
But perhaps the biggest difference between the prehistoric 1990s and today’s techie style of sales was the reliance on one particular method of promotion in particular. In the 1990s, Robert Parker, Jr aka The Wine Advocate was THE mode of transportation to the top for your wines as an importer/wine-maker/any type of person in the wine business. A rating in the range of 90 points or higher by the man with the golden palate practically guaranteed your wine a place in this country’s wine shops, no matter the size or scope of that shop; you could also bank on a place at the table in just about any style restaurant you sauntered through. Yep, the points got the placements!
Today’s importers face a very different challenge, however. Finding placements in a terribly crowded marketplace, further complicated by an ongoing recession, has forced importers, especially the relatively new ones, to change their approach. The new methods employed by innovative importers reflect this imperative need for creative marketing. Thanks to attacks from bloggers, authors such as Alice Feiring and other professional wine publications, Parker points simply don’t pull the weight any more. Indeed, to place the wines, you need another gimmick.
Enter the phrase, “Natural Wine”. Back in the 1990s, we conservative importers never dreamed of this moniker. We used terms long-considered staples of the industry. Words such as artisanal, boutique, family-owned, un-fined, un-filtered, terroir; these were our selling points. We described our wines with full sentences and long, sometimes drawn out, presentations. Then we concluded the dog-and-pony shows with the coup de grâce, the omnipotent PARKER POINT.
Today, gifted importers turn NOT to Parker, and NOT to long-winded discussions of earth, soil, climate, hillsides, blah, blah, blah. They turn, instead to describing a method of wine-making that succinctly describes every wine offered in their portfolio. Rather than take wine after wine in their presentation and labor over the specifics of Burgundy, the Rhone Valley, Languedoc, Jura, etc, etc, these new wave, highly educated importers spend their time talking it up with young, hip retailers on the theories of “Natural Wine” practices and how those transcendental ideas make better wine. And seeing as these brave new souls of the import world have the writings of Feiring and other respected journals and magazines on their side, perhaps they’ve tapped into a whole new method of self-promotion. And if the placements are coming, that’s the whole point!
One of these new wave importers, whose wines I’ve personally consumed – and loved – on many occasions, is offered below. And while we still cannot find them here in Texas (so typical for our antiquated three tier system and the useless distributors in this State), a search of winesearcher.com, or better yet, a call to them personally will do the trick:
Jenny & Francois Selections:
Importer of Natural Wines
Natural Wine Revolution Prevails!
2009 chemins de bassac isa Rose
2006 Domaine des 2 anes corbieres fontanilles
Link to full article:
NATURAL WINE WINNERS:
Precise elegant wines from Domaine Binner
Excellent natural white – Derain’s Allez goutons
COTURRI 2007 Testa Vineyards Carignane
Domaine Des 2 Anes 2008 premiers pas Corbieres
Link to full article:
Blog Update #72 A Tale of Biodynamics, Feiring and the Death of the Chronicle
The power of the bio-dynamic wine movement first revealed itself as I witnessed a surge in my social network connections that can only be described as unprecedented. On the 1st of May, I was leisurely working away on my latest business plan, content but far from satisfied at my less than 200 followers at twitter, where I go by the “handle” of Chambertin. I made a decision that day to get serious about the business plan, motivated in part by the untimely announcement that my dear wife, too, had fallen victim to this current economy. With both of us now out of work, it was definitely time to ramp up my efforts.
Those who know me, those who’ve read a blog post or newsletter from the past decade or so know: when I write, I have a LOT to say. Writing, composing my thoughts, requires time. And when I decide to share my ideas, ideals and passions through the written word, the pages begin to pile. Lucky for me, that’s precisely the sort of handicap that works in one’s favor when composing a serious business plan. The more expertise, devotion and research apparent between the covers, the better. And I had just reached the section devoted to our product selection criteria.
This was when everything began to change for our new business venture.
I took to composing my views on the products we will carry with the same passion I had always tried to convey in our previous wine shop. The full list of product selection criteria, known to us as our Mission Statement, may be viewed at the blog under the Philosophies tab (https://cepagenoir.wordpress.com/philosophies/). Our aim with our new direct to the consumer business is to offer to the market these wonderful organic and bio-dynamic wines we’ve discovered over the years, direct from the wineries, with no middleman. But first, I needed to describe in great detail, for the eventual readers of the business plan, precisely WHAT our wines would be. That Philosophies section was born from the pages of the business plan. So, too, was my next step.
I decided to begin searching the Internet for like-minded folk; authors, bloggers, wine-makers, wine-drinkers, basically anyone who shared with us this passion for the bio-dynamic world. I began with one of my vinous heroes, Alice Feiring, naturally, for it was her book, “The Battle for Wine and Love” that convinced me in the first place that I wasn’t alone in this quest. I began to link her updates to my twitter page, along with any others mentioning the bio-dynamic world. The results were like nothing I could have ever anticipated in my wildest dreams.
Today is the 6th of May and I am taking a short break from the business plan to compose this brief blog post. Not only to compose this post, but to announce that in this short span of a few days, while I have busily worked on the plan and posted bio-dynamic oriented newsletters and such to my twitter page, my followers have jumped from less than 200 to MORE THAN 1,000! The bio-dynamic brother/sister-hood is one of the most active, real and tangible movements in the wine world today. For anyone who remains a skeptic, you are truly missing the train!
Oh, and as for the Death of the Chronicle thing, I was referring to the local paper.
Through the research and development phase of this business plan we’re in, one point has become increasingly clear: Bordeaux is dead. The vast majority of the wine buyers today, the people who actually drive the industry, the people who truly fill the shopping carts and DRINK wine, are affectionately referred to as the “emerging” consumers. Emerging consumers, according to studies we’ve read in articles by Forbes, WineBusiness and Silicon Valley Bank, simply don’t care about the $50 and up price point where the vast majority of Classified Bordeaux hangs it hat. And the bio-dynamic world, so far as WE’VE found, hasn’t made a dent in this section of France (I’m open for corrections if anyone has any).
So it was with a chuckle that I opened my weekly Chronicle (Houston) to see yet another article written by the local wine writer on behalf of the behemoth local liquor chain. In this article, the paper interviews the giant liquor chain, asking them their advice on Bordeaux futures. I literally laughed out loud. The advice quoted was worthless, so 1990s, completely out of touch with reality and the prices quoted SO over-priced (please, someone tell these guys about wine-searcher.com) that to even consider the piece anything other than “fluff” would render the reader numb.
Dear Chronicle, R.I.P.
As I re-engage the business plan today, and begin anew the building of this bio-brother/sister-hood, I reconfirm our dedication to YOU, the intelligent, serious, curious, emerging wine buyers of America. We will soon emerge from the cocoon of required re-birth. And when we do, the beauty of the world’s most unique wines will once again be yours for the asking.
All the best in wine and life,
Diplome D’Honneur de Sommelier
Blog Update #71, 2009: Big Establishment Acknowledges the Blog-O-Sphere
My first introduction to the concept of applying numerical value to a wine as a way of declaring its worth came in the Summer of 1984. I was working as a bar back at one of the most prominent Continental restaurants of its time in Dallas, training under the watchful eye and palate of Franco Bertolasi. Bertolasi was a passionate man of all things food and wine. He was also quite generous. So it was not uncommon for even the youngest of his staff, including yours truly, to enjoy the final sips from bottles served at tastings that included such luminaries as the acclaimed 1982 Bordeaux, several vintages of DRC and verticals of Ramonet white Burgundy.
It was Bertolasi who introduced me to Parker’s Wine Advocate that Summer of 1984. Bertolasi preferred Parker’s singular position; Parker was a sole voice, claimed Bertolasi, a man without blemish and Parker’s guide was the most serious of its kind. I was told by my mentor at that time that the Wine Advocate had been founded on the principles that wine was to be evaluated with no consideration for its heritage nor its price. Further, I had been instructed, wine was to be reported on honestly and with no punches pulled. Bertolasi told me that Parker followed these rules and because of Parker’s principles, the Wine Advocate was the only guide to follow.
By the Spring of 1989 I was a subscriber to the Wine Advocate, having fully immersed myself in the retail side of the wine business after a few years in the restaurant trade. My first delivered issue, still a part of my library, was number 62, the annual Bordeaux Report, where Parker covered the vintages of 1986, 1987 and 1988. That was 20 years ago, 120 issues back and a difference of 60 pages and hundreds of wines when compared to the issue that I received in yesterday’s mail.
Issue 62, from way back in 1989, as I re-read it this morning, takes me back to the good ol’ days. Parker begins his report with the heading “(Optimism reigns supreme)” and offers the reader salient advice regarding the market, buying opportunities and the general nature of the world from the viewpoint of American wine buyers. His words and reviews are uplifting, straight to the point and read as if they are coming from the world’s foremost authority on the subject. I remember reading that first issue to be delivered to my tiny suburban apartment. I recall how it inspired me to begin writing my own newsletter. I simply remember how inspired I was – period.
I continued to subscribe to the Wine Advocate, as I do to this day, and Parker’s reviews were one of the driving forces behind my decision to enter the import business. That career move eventually resulted in a face to face encounter with Parker. I found myself representing several estates that were part of a particular broker’s portfolio from the Languedoc and Roussillon. Parker and this broker were scheduled to meet and I was invited to participate. That inaugural bird’s eye view from across a table covered with nearly 5 dozen bottles was my first exposure to the “real” Parker. A personality much too large to allow for others to say too much, my broker was practically silent that day and I – a man with hundreds of ideas and histories to share – was instructed to please keep my thoughts to myself. I wondered if perhaps Parker’s schedule was simply too busy that day to allow for a leisurely meeting and discussion of the wines. Shrugging off the cool nature of the meeting, happy to have had the chance to at least present our products, I and my partner exited and hoped for the best.
I fast forward to today’s issue, this Wine Advocate #182. Before I touch on the words Parker has elected to print, for his thousands upon thousands of paying subscribers around the globe to read, I have a few other personal thoughts to convey. I once posted to the bulletin board owned by Parker. It’s a free service and anyone in the world, supposedly, is allowed to post, comment and retort. But after witnessing the dismissal from that board of folks I respect and consider colleagues, I decided to call my time over there quits. Now I realize that Parker himself doesn’t handle the dismissal of people who post, and I also realize that Parker is not the man behind the delete button nor the censorship, but his name is on the welcome page; it is up to Parker to follow the premise he set down in the first published issue of the Wine Advocate. Suffice to say, my experience at “The Board” left me with an even colder feeling on my skin than that first face to face encounter many years ago.
There is also my perception of the handling by Parker of someone I have come to hold a great amount of respect for in the wine business. My wife gave to me as a Valentine’s Day present a book entitled “The Battle for Wine and Love”. Those who know the book know it well. Those who haven’t read it: GO GET IT! In the book, Alice Feiring interviewed Parker. Until reading that interview, in the context of reading the book, and with my own personal decades of experience adding credibility to that chapter, I continued holding hope for Parker’s return to grace. After finishing the book, and after today’s reading of issue #182, things are looking ever increasingly gloomy on the horizon.
Or are they?
Robert Parker, the Robert Parker manning the wheel behind the Wine Advocate is an attorney. He calculates his words, he finishes critical sentences with question marks: remember that scathing statement within a question regarding my old acquaintance Francois Faiveley? He waited months before announcing to a Houston-based on-line social network site that they should cease and desist with the use of his photograph as an avatar. Also in the social network scene, he seemingly chuckled at a completely fabricated site claiming to actually BE Robert Parker. Notices at his bulletin board now state he has taken measures to handle that issue, but it took weeks and pages of comments before he acted.
Point? Parker knows how to market, and how to cross promote. He does nothing without great thought and consideration for the outcome. Now I return to the comments publicly printed in today’s copy of the Wine Advocate #182.
Parker has once again taken to the task of covering the latest vintage of Bordeaux, this time it’s the 2008s in barrel. The tone is decidedly more dismal than that Bordeaux issue from 20 years ago: “With the deepening global economic crisis, I wondered what was the point…”. Yet it is not the tone regarding the economy that has me questioning Parker’s direction. It is his extremely public back-handed swipes at bloggers that has my mind and heart at unrest.
Parker has been attacked, he would answer, in books, by movie producers, in the papers and, yes, by bloggers. But Parker has always maintained his ability to keep his arguments with these critics where these retorts belong: either in the books they emanated from, or in interviews or on the web, or even in the papers. In all my days as a subscriber, I have NEVER seen him initiate a fight in the pages of the Wine Advocate. Today, he did.
Or, like I insinuated, did he?
Parker actually states, not infers, actually states, that many “notorious blogs” are authored by people who can’t “string a noun and verb together”. Further, Parker goes on to attack bloggers again (before he ever once delves into his details on the vintage at hand), classifying them as “rumor-mongering” and “irresponsible”. By that point, I needed a glass of wine. The issue had arrived late yesterday, friends had invited me to join them, and Lageder was beckoning. Had Parker truly dedicated the first nearly 1,000 words of issue 182 to bashing his “competitors”?
Or had he just acknowledged us?
As I began to compose this article today, I mentally positioned myself on both sides of the table. The wealthy, powerful, seemingly soon to retire, actually somewhat humorous Parker as he composes the results of yet another Bordeaux issue. This is a part of the wine world we Americans who are considered the emerging wine buyers (the ones who drive the industry) are all but finished buying. How can Parker, “Mr. Bordeaux”, assist this part of the wine world? How can he draw attention to a vintage he now is touting as “dramatically better than I had expected”, a vintage including wines “that are close to, if not equal to the prodigious 2005 or 2000 vintages…”? Every person I know simply doesn’t care. How can Parker “save” Bordeaux?
And on the opposing side of the table, we have the current uproar from the bloggers. Forgetting the fact that they set themselves apart from the traditional critical media precisely because they felt ignored (or perhaps because they felt the wines they loved or their ideas were being ignored), bloggers are now fully engaging Parker by attacking him. But guess what? That’s working, too. Readers of the blogs, readers who came to the blogs searching for answers and searching for discussions on wines never explored by the “big names” of critical wine reviewing are now cross referencing. The bloggers are introducing their readers to a path to Parker.
As I made mention, I have never in my decades of reading the Advocate ever experienced Parker mentioning his competitors. Never once has Parker, in my memory, mentioned an opposing viewpoint – by name – prior to publishing his own thoughts on a region’s latest offers. Never has Parker, to my recollection, in a positive or negative way, talked about another method of wine reviewing in his own magazine.
Today, 20 years after my first paid issue of Parker’s Wine Advocate, the Big Establishment acknowledges “Us”.
All the best in wine and life,
Diplome D’Honneur de Sommelier
your thoughts are always welcome:
I arrived to work slightly ahead of schedule today, thanks mainly to my precious daughter’s insistence upon awaking long before dawn and alternating her loving parents through a bed-side ritual that had all three of us watching the sun come up. I’ll admit I do find some odd comfort in these not-too regular routines of little M’s; these middle of the night calls for conversation and comfort. Her brain is as active as Einstein right now, I know this to be certain, and listening to her now three-year-old mind as she shares her little middle-of-the-night fantasies is truly a wonderful part of being her Father.
I probably wouldn’t have slept much anyway last evening as I knew today was my scheduled appointment with Joe Dressner’s local representative. I had initiated this meeting after several evenings of digesting the new work by Feiring, a book that reminded me of so many of the wine producers I have so enjoyed for many years. Prompted by the passionate prose, though not needing much more than a nudge, I found myself one morning signing in at Joe’s website, reading up on current goings on and drafting a short letter that I hoped would not go unnoticed.
To my surprise and great elation, on the very next morning, Joe himself responded to that heartfelt note of mine, yet his tone was one of confusion. He came across as perplexed in his writing, not remembering the initial contact he and I had some 7 or 8 years back, also not seeming to recognize the loving moniker Feiring had bestowed upon him. I wrote back, this time with an even more personal tone, explaining my company a bit more and reminding him that Alice had nick-named after an initial meeting between they two many years earlier.
The final note between Joe and I was quite jovial, signed “Large Joe”, giving a slight nod to the pet name his “friend” Feiring places upon him, and he assured me that his local folks would be charged with taking great care of my needs. Joe has waited many years for a champion in the Texas market, it appears, and now that I had made the connection, all roads would be smooth. And while there had been a few of his wines in my shop up the street some years back, other than those few cases, shockingly, not one bottle of Joe’s stunningly pure and palate satiating wines had made their way to the Texas market. As I’ve said for years, Texas remains in a vinous time warp…
Returning to the event of my week now, the representative handling Joe’s wines here in Texas rolled into the shop just before noon, wine tote on wheels, wines properly chilled, reds at cellar temperature, ready for action. I asked her if she was familiar with my history with some of these labels and when she answered in the negative I guided her to a few pieces of recent and expired promotional material for the shop. Eyeing the labels in print, she was immediately relieved, admitting that when her company first engaged in business with Dressner not a soul in the organization had one clue as to the wine’s backgrounds or details. I explained that the juice in the bottles would be all that we would need and she happily grabbed a wine key – we were off!
The first wine my eager, excited palate was to engage this late morning was a Francois Pinon Vouvray from the 2006 vintage. One whiff of the aromatics and all previously engaged vernacular, all once-held-common-place “wine speak” went out the door! I’ve smelled a lot of Vouvray folks, and never has a Chenin Blanc once reminded me of that crystal clear stream that ran behind my Grandfather’s house. I could smell the stones, clean as a whistle, that we would collect from that river bed. There were aromas of pure minerals, a sense of yeast and of fresh bread. This wine was as bright as the sunshine on a mountain top, just as pure as a Spring day in the country. There were flowers and the fruit and acidity on the palate literally took my breathe away. I described the wine as a demi-sec, neither totally dry nor sweet, and when I finished my note taking, I had devoured half a legal pad page. Naturally, I bought quite a bit.
From that point, we moved further on into the Loire, this time to the village of Chavignol in the Sancerre region, to taste the wine of the Domaine Thomas-Labaille from the slopes of Les Monts Damnes, this, too, their 2006. This slope, just to the east of the more commercially recognized Vacherons, is so steep that one could never use a machine for harvest as has become so prevalent throughout the rest of Sancerre. The results of the tender loving care taken in the vineyard here shows up immediately on the nose; this again showed a brightness and purity rarely found in the region and the appley fruit on both the nose and palate made me want to set up a table outside and watch the day go by. Again, I bought this wine too for the shop.
As we began to move into the reds, I found myself daydreaming of my many trips through the Languedoc and my copious contacts, not to mention all of my tasting sheets resting just feet away in filing cabinets. Yes, we were about to experience one of the true masters of the Minervois universe, and I was bubbling over. Chateau D’Oupia’s “Tradition” label, again tasting the 2006, is produced from a parcel of Carignane that was planted just after the turn of the previous century – in 1908 or so. These 100 year old vines could never have continued offering their bounty in a world filled with pesticides or chemicals, never could these gnarled old beautiful vines survived today’s “modern” practices. So lovingly organic has this farm been tended that these work-horse vines offer the wine drinker a window into the past; a wine full of the life of the vineyard. There are pure and inescapable aromas of freshly turned soil, deeply pure and sun-kissed minerals, and the most succulent blue fruits that I’ve ever wanted to just pop in my mouth and allow to stain my teeth deep purple. This is wine of the Earth, a wine of the Sky and a wine of Mother Nature; and the wine screams of beauty. This is succulent, delicious, and both sublime and yet subtle. There is complete balance here and I bought every bottle they had. I’ll buy the next vintage and the next, as well…
Moving north now, I found myself this time taking over the conversation as we began to discuss the wines of an old friend of mine. Perhaps Texier won’t recall our 1 and only encounter, for it took place a few years back and at a time when he was represented by another importer. That first encounter, however, cemented in my palate a love for this negociant’s wines that lingers to this day, so tasting his wines again, for the first time in a couple of vintages, was thrilling. As I sit here with a large glass of Texier’s wine next to me, revelling in its transformation, I continue to be amazed at the depth of complexity this man brings to the humble class of wine we know as Cotes Du Rhone. Tasting his 2006 version, a wine adorned with a fanciful label, spoke volumes as to Eric’s talent. First, consider the color. I knew he was a naturalist when I first met him, and viewing his ruby / gem stone colored Grenache simply confirms his natural ways. Then comes the nose; a virtual spice box combined with every fresh herb imaginable, all rolling around in a bowl of fresh strawberries. We have a balancing act of power meeting grace and a complexity that this category has been sorely lacking forever.
We moved into Texier’s Chateauneuf du Pape from the 2005 vintage next and I literally had to take a seat. This is the wine resting in a very large-mouthed glass next to me as I compose my thoughts, some 8 hours later. The wine continued to deepen in color throughout the day, beginning the day already an impressive deep ruby red. These are extremely old vines Eric is working with, sourced from farms with vines as old as more than 85 years of age. This is a wine for your personal time capsule; a wine that requires one to have some special event that took place in the year of 2005 that you will celebrate 15-20 years from that vintage. The initial explosion of pure and unadulterated cardamom, all sexy and alluring, has now become brooding, darkly fruited and like a very, very fine and rare cigar. There is pure and pristine underbrush as well, the kind you expect from a fine Burgundy, but the dark pitched fruit is pure Chateauneuf. On the tongue this is as robust yet sneaky as an old wise man and only those with great patience will be rewarded when this toddler becomes legal. I’ve waited 8 hours for the wine to unfold, and it has done precisely as I thought it would; it ran from the gate, flashed it’s bare bosom, got caught by its Father, and has now retreated to its room for many years. Do not enter until 2020, you are not welcome.
As if my day had not already been fascinating enough, now we released, in perfect silence for my host is a true professional, the cork from a bottle of one of the most thrilling sparkling wines I have ever drank. This rosey colored wine, the color of a pristine pink hibiscus, with as much mousse as any Champagne you’ll ever consume, comes to us from the 2007 vintage and from the house of Renardat-Fache in the region of Bugey, not that far from Geneve. This is the land of Poulet de Bresse, a chicken so famous the French gave it its own appellation, and the culinary world finds this part of France a real turn-on. Drinking this sparkling wine is an experience like none other, one that I continue to find difficult to characterize. The flavors, perfectly demi-sec and mousse-packed, are the vinous equivalent of an exploding strawberry pie. The aromas combine the pure and other-worldly characters of a fine Chambolle-Musigny with the “feel-good” nuances of ‘Nilla Wafers. This wine grabbed my palate, daring me to move on, and I very nearly closed the doors for the day just to sit with this wine and contemplate the wine maker’s agenda. Drink this wine, oh ye of the Champagne disapproving lot, your life will be changed forever.
By the end of the tasting, I had purchased more wine than my paltry budget would ever allow.
But my landlord is an approving sort, I’m certain he’ll allow a grace period…
All the best in wine and life,
Diplome D’Honneur de Sommelier
2439 Times BLVD
Houston, TX 77005
Stop for a moment and consider the impossible. Consider for just a moment that you found yourself the owner of a boutique business (that’s not the impossible, stay with me). Perhaps that business was centered around the world of art. Or perhaps you were one of the independent entrepreneurs of my time, the 1980s, who decided to have a go at the wine business. Perhaps you have a passion for designing the world’s finest all natural soaps, hand towels, children’s shoes or designer gowns for the elderly. Simply stop for a moment and imagine yourself an independent owner of a boutique business where there is ONE piece of your inventory that everyone considers virtually priceless – or at the very least, a piece of your inventory that is routinely considered your prized offering.
No matter the field of work, no matter the business we’re in, someone, somewhere, for some reason became THE expert in our arena. And with every expert, there comes the dissenting opinion. In America, the dissenting opinion is viewed with as much consideration, when it comes to matters of a commercial nature that is, as the words of the so called experts. As an example, consider how foolish it would sound if only one brand of children’s clothing were considered suitable for every child in America. Taken one further, no one in their right mind would settle for being told that there is only one type of steak worth buying; hell, on a given day of tasting wines with my suppliers, half of them are vegetarians; one a pure Vegan, one loves eggs. The point of this exercise, while appearing to move off-center, is that “experts” in a given field of ANY kind are always allowed only the amount of power we as consumers place upon them.
So I’ve come to a real cross-roads in my career. I’ve come to that moment, that impossible moment I asked you to consider, where I’m just not certain that the Mona Lisa is as beautiful as everyone thinks. I own a lot of Mona Lisa pieces. Who is going to finance the museum if the things everyone thinks are so beautiful are found not to be so, well, beautiful?
Perhaps being a tad melodramatic here, I’ll admit, but my thought process began with trying to figure out why a certain chain of events brought me to this point in the first place.
For as long as I’ve been in the wine business, from as far back as 1984, I have always respected Robert Parker, Jr., the man who authors The Wine Advocate. As a lad in the business, I read every page, every tasting note, every article, every book written by the man that I could get my hands on. I’ve also read countless other books and have multi-year subscriptions to every major and minor wine publication one could imagine – several that most folks have never heard of nor ever read. My respect for Parker came from years of reading his prose and knowing that those were HIS words and true feelings. Never once did he attack another person in the business of wine critiquing in the early years I read his magazine and never once did I hear a customer complain of a Parker review. Naturally, then, when I opened my wine shop ten years ago, there were to be found many, many references to Parker on the shelves and display cases. I pride myself on tasting every single wine before I add it to my collection, but once I did, if a note from Parker was available, so much the better; the shelf talker made my choices easier to sell.
As these ten years have gone by, many an importer has presented themselves to me, offering for my consideration their discoveries. One of my most favorite discoveries several years back were the 1999 Red Burgundies offered by Neal Rosenthal. So struck by these wines, offered to me by Neal’s then national sales manager Josh Raynolds (now a co-author for Steve Tanzer’s International Wine Cellar) that I bought and sold some 300 cases spanning every appellation and producer Rosenthal had to offer. And when one considers the one-man operation that my shop operates as, that’s a lot of 1999 Red Burgundy! That offer turned into another, this time Rosenthal’s offers from Cuilleron and the Southern Rhone, and the collections just continued to amass. Rosenthal’s Loire wines? An other-worldly experience that my palate continues to long for, to this day.
There were countless other importer’s wines I fell in love with as well. And many times, as in the case of Weygandt, the wines were adored by Parker. These are my Mona Lisa. And now, I stand at my fork in the road.
I’ve recently finished a book, a book by Alice Feiring. Those who have read the book know it well. Those who have listened to my thoughts on the book know that I share with Feiring many, many passionate thoughts. In particular, I have a great affection for the wines of Eric Texier. I have been drinking and selling the man’s wines for more than 5 years now. Also a love of mine, D’Oupia, Pinon and Radikon will be part of a focus tasting here quite soon. I carry many a wine from Wasserman, as well, as my long-time clients are fondly aware, having first made Becky’s acquaintance in the very early 1990s. I adore the wines of the Loire Valley, as does the great Feiring, having collected Joguet for more than 2 decades. Summarizing, I love great wine, and Feiring and I are very much on the same wavelength. Many of these wines, too are my Mona Lisa.
I visited the Louvre on a buying trip to France one year, returned there again a couple of years later while simply visiting an importer friend, Siler. Both times, I waited in line to view the Mona Lisa. Both times, the line was as long as the time before. This is a piece of art, a piece of inventory that keeps the folks walking through the door, this piece of work keeps the tails in the chairs, as my Grandfather said to his congregation.
I found myself posting little phrases from Feiring’s book to a social network sight I belong to as I read through her book. Her words have a way of moving me and I wanted to share these words with anyone who cared to follow. One of my followers was a man who has contributed more than 10,000 entries to Robert Parker’s online bulletin board. Additionally, this man has as his avatar at Parker’s bulletin board a photo with himself and Parker; I’d say he and Parker are at the very least close acquaintances. After my third or so post to my humble social network site, sharing my tidbit from Feiring’s book, this man, this Parker buddy, un-followed me. Coincidence? I personally do not believe so. Why? Ask Feiring. She was kicked off the bulletin board in 2007 for posting an opposing viewpoint.
Oh, such drama, my cross in the road. My decision to make. I sat watching the sun go down last evening, wrestling with this demon, pacing the floor, searching for answers.
Then I came to work today and set about my daily routine. I offered for sale a group of wines. Some with Parker reviews, some with Tanzer reviews, some with no critical reviews at all. Some that simply were attractive to no one but me.
Each and every one of these, to some degree, sold. Each and every item, well priced and offered to our clients honestly and with no thoughts of the politics of Parker and Feiring behind them, to some degree, sold. No one had to throw Mona Lisa out, no one had to sell only the crown jewel as considered such by only ONE journalist or author. Parker would probably have not liked one of the wines, Feiring would have probably hated 4/5ths of them. But each of them sold.
I decided that my story of the day, even if not a single person reads it, should be a tale with a moral; an entry into a blog that acts as a personal reminder of the reality of the retail world I call my daily job…
Our customers will decide the Mona Lisa of the wine world; our customers decide what author is their vanguard.
We merchants should just have fun watching the wealthy authors duke it out.
My wife and I tucked our daughter into bed last night, our evening’s ritual resulting in our collapsing on the couch as we gathered our reading materials and flipped a coin to select our delivery menu for dinner. We wouldn’t change our routine for the world, for these are the times in our life that are most precious to us, these are the years we cling to as we watch our little M becoming her own self. We elected Chinese take out on this Thursday night, my wife settled in to her chic-lit novel and I re-engaged my new, most favorite book – the book my wife bought me for Valentine’s Day – a book by Alice Feiring.
When I read the pages of Feiring’s book I experience something truly surreal. I have traveled so many of the exact same roads, met so many of the exact same people, tasted so many of the exact same wines – and shouted from so many of the exact same mountain tops. So many times my writings to the few who read my newsletters and blogs have contained the same passionate expletives concerning the direction of wine and the business that I elected as my career path more than 25 years ago. When I read this woman’s words, I can very nearly literally imagine myself in a balloon, floating above her as she stands in these vineyards and as she tastes wines and as she shakes her head in front of the vultures of the commercial wine industry.
I read with great glee into the wee hours of the morning on this particular Thursday night, as the clock in the kitchen rang mid-night, as the next chapter beckoned me. My vinous soul-mate had now captured me for at least another half hour as she ushered me into the story of her relationship with yet another of my heros: Becky Wasserman. Any person who has ever known me is keenly aware of my affection for the Queen of Burgundy. I’ve written of The Woman and her wines for many years, publicly offering my thoughts with the launching of my blogs at the start of this year.
It was Becky’s wines, and those of Kermit Lynch, that fostered in my palate, at the ripe old age of nearly 18, a never-to-die love of the juice of Burgundy. It would be those precious wines that would find me saving every extra dime I could muster to sponsor my more than a dozen trips to the Cote D’Or over my career. So passionate for the wines from Gevrey to Santenay had Becky unknowingly made me that I found myself spending 2 harvests in Pernand Vergelesses just to understand this land’s terroir even better. For all my time here, the gracious Paul Cadieu presented me with a framed diploma, something I’m proud to hang on my wall, even if few understand its merit. So one may understand that reading the pages, discovering that Wasserman and Feiring are friends, well, it gave me joy – and great hope for my future.
Reading those pages also brought back the glorious April of 1990. I was working for one of the giants of the liquor industry, finding my footing, and the company paying my salary was a major client of Wilson Daniels. Just prior to that April, over the Christmas holiday preceding, I had sold so much wine for the company – Burgundy to be precise, thank you – that I had found myself in the company of one Mr. Haas, the son of the owner of yet another powerful Burgundy import company, this one called Vineyard Brands. I had familiarized myself with “lucky’s” brands – Gouges, Mongeard-Mugneret, and others – and had been selling them to my customers in a frenzy.
Young Haas and his side kick approached me in the wine section of this rather imposing liquor store where I was performing my magic and suggested I consider a trip to visit their producers. The seed was planted, I would not be deterred, I was off to Burgundy; the Mother Land was beckoning. I emptied my paltry savings account, with absolutely zero regard for how I would pay rent upon my return (WOULD I return?), accepted the bargain that came from my then-Mother-In-Law that allowed for us to use her frequent flier miles, and away I went. Burgundy, here I come…
I spent a full week in Burgundy on that trip, only wasting enough time in Paris to land, find a bus to the rental car location and hit the Autoroute. Contrary to what may seem obvious based on my town of current residence, I am not a big city fan, I prefer the country, so the quicker I could escape Paris, the better. Besides, I had spent the time on the flight memorizing the map of the Cote D’Or so I wanted to test my skills. Would I be able to recall, without looking, the Villages as we made our way down the R.N. 74? My travel companions, all 3, were not nearly the Burg-heads as I, yet I remained steadfast in my resolve; this was MY trip. Burgundy is our ONLY mission.
I visited as many of the Vineyard Brands’ estates as one could possibly fit into one week’s itinerary. Literally a dozen rolls of film, perhaps more, were exhausted, and I remember to this day the nearly knock down fight I had with my now-ex when we split; the photos of that trip and the couch were mine! We visited the 8 fingered Theirry Matrot, finger-less from rose trimming with his wife, if I translated him properly. And there was the trip to the gorgeous Chateau in the Cote de Beaune with its ivy covered cellar walls and limestone entrance. Probably the most memorable, though I couldn’t have known it at the time, was the meeting with the Father himself, Henri Gouges. This meeting was only a few years before his death and the personal attention he gave me on that day, allowing me a tasting of his wines from my birth year – 1966 – is one etched into the deepest corners of my mind. So many others were so very generous to me that week, exposing my mind and palate to the riches of this land I continue to adore. But it would be a late arrival to one stop – and the subsequent cancelled meeting – that would change my life forever.
In Burgundy, particular to this region and more so than any other I’ve visited in France, punctuality is demanded; not required, demanded. I arrived half an hour late for a particular appointment one afternoon that April to find my scheduled host departed. Deflated but undeterred, I decided to head to Vosne Romanee to try my luck. We had no appointment, but I knew some names.
In Vosne Romanee proper, the tiny little Village nestled at the base of some of the most sought after vineyard parcels in all of Burgundy – if not the world – there is an address of one Aubert de Villaine. Many a story has been told of this man’s famous history, of his family’s estate known as Domaine de la Romanee Conti, most tales certainly more glowing and illuminating than one I could dare to offer. Amazingly, however, as one reads tales of the history of this Domaine producing the much coveted $10,000 bottle of wine, there are precious few collections that include personal photographs of the cellar and chais. As yours truly waited outside for de Villaine to authenticate my credentials, such a lack of photographic evidence would not be this visitor’s err.
I had knocked at the door on this glorious day in April of 1990 and de Villaine himself, quite unusually, had come to see who was calling. In my broken French I explained that I worked for a client of Wilson Daniels, naming my employer of the time, and asked if per chance we could have a visit. Explaining that the Domaine took no visitors without express pre-arranged itineraries, but with a gentlemanly offer to check his cellar master’s availability (in perfect, almost British-like English) de Villaine asked us to wait, leaving us momentarily. My travel companion, the one burdened with photo-taking responsibilities, went to work.
The front of the building was covered to the second floor window with the most pristine and well kept budding red roses that I had yet to experience. Rounding the back side of the house, we gazed into the courtyard at what seemed so innocent. This was the entrance to the chais itself; the entrance to the barrel room housing finished bottles and resting barrels of Romanee Conti in Francois Freres oak barrels at nearly $7,000 per bottle at that time. It was all so quaint and unassuming; a yellow garden hose not quite rolled all the way in, little white flowers just in bloom at the entrance to the cellar itself. Yet everything, including the pebbled drive was immaculate. Is this really happening? I am really here?
De Villaine came round to find us, smiling, almost jovial, thanking us for being at the property. My initial reaction was one of grief. I just knew we were going to be escorted out with only photos to show for our daring decent on this dynasty. “Come with me”, he said instead, and we were escorted down the stairs into the cellars of the most remarkable Domaine in all of Burgundy. The cellar master smiled, grabbed the wine thief and my mind floated away.
I was not even 25 years old in that moment in time yet my palate was as alive and precise as it has ever been. I was tasting from barrel the 1988s and my amateur tasting notes from those memorable days, to this day kept in a file drawer with so many others I’ve collected over time, contain vernacular that include words we all come to recognize when in the presence of true greatness. My photo-taking travel companion, Marcy, shot one last photo on that day, God bless her, one that remains today thumb-tacked above my computer. As we finished our mind numbing affair on that glorious afternoon, just before exiting the chais I was photographed with my hand resting upon a perfect barrel of Romanee Conti. My eyes are just slightly glazed over, my circa-1980’s horn-rimmed glasses riding high on my nose, my Elvis hair-do in perfect form.
I had done the DRC.
I had done it; and the proof in pictures and on my palate was forever a part of my life.
All the best in wine and life,
Diplome D’Honneur de Sommelier
2439 Times BLVD
Houston, TX 77005