A Tale of Biodynamics, Feiring and the Death of the Chronicle

 biodynamic

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,

Christopher Massie
Diplome D’Honneur de Sommelier

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Big Establishment Acknowledges the Blog-O-Sphere

 bigbusiness

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,

Christopher Massie
Diplome D’Honneur de Sommelier

your thoughts are always welcome:

chambertin@sbcglobal.net

Acknowledging the Nudges, Remembering Life’s Little Tales

Sunrise

I’ve been witnessing from my computer seat quite a bit of fury these past few days.  Along with that, I’ve left my mind completely open to every possible opportunity that presents itself before me.  The scenarios playing out are working both sides of my brain, rendering me both exhausted and yet somehow enthused.  And I’m hearing voices, as they almost scream some of life’s most basic lessons: “It’s hard to see the forest for the trees”; “Don’t wallow in the mire”; “People love a good train wreck”….

That last sentiment in particular is spinning virtually out of control in my mind as I view the blog world today.  That basic life moral also applies quite appropriately to many of the current situations I and my family face during these days, reported on through these blogs pages.  I had originally launched this blog at the beginning of 2009, after nearly a decade of composing letters to my customers, as a way of spreading the vinous news.  As a retailer of fine wine, with a passion for writing, offering literally a dozen new offers per week or more, presenting my thoughts via the blog-o-sphere seemed like the next logical step.

Taking that leap into the unknown opened my eyes to a world as of yet never imagined.  The world of blogging, in particular the world of wine blogging, is quite similar to a Houston or Los Angeles freeway at rush-hour.  For those of you experienced with that visual, you get the picture, for the uninitiated, imagine viewing millions of cars attempting travel on a road built for a few thousand.  As I began to explore the ocean of wine blogs out there, I wanted to find a bar and have a drink until rush hour subsided.

But I drove right on in, never deterred, never fearing.  This was going to be the year of my discovering, I was convinced.  Now, with nearly 70 blog posts this year alone (I told you I was passionate about writing), I have discovered some things.  Recent occurrences have me taking to the administrative tools within my blogs, these features forcing me to begin a closer examination of not just the blog world, but the wine world in general.  These examinations, born from curiosity, delved in to seriously – I have a LOT of free time on my hands – have me in a state of re-examination.

“Don’t wallow in the mire”.  I am by no means a highly religious guy.  Spiritual?  Yes.  But private and low key in that sense to be sure.  So when I go quoting statements from my grandfather’s sermons it’s a pretty big deal for me.  Lately, however, that little life’s lesson has been forgotten by not only yours truly, but a growing number of the folks I follow in the wine world.  And then today, as if in keeping stride with the little nudges I’ve been receiving these past two days – more on that in just a moment – one of the more recent folks I follow in the blog world connected me to a story.  This story, one of wallowing in the mire, has my thought processes running overtime.

In my 25 years plus in the wine business, I have most consistently focused on the upper end of the wine world: Burgundy (first and foremost), the best of the Rhone Valley, Alsace’s finest, Loire Valley treasures and the other most prized (by me and the critics) wines of France.  Also on my list of preferred wines have been the great wines of Piedmonte and Germany and a few of California’s treasured Pinot Noirs – the Pinot camp I’m in falls squarely at odds with most of today’s “Souper Pinots”, for the record.  There are certainly many other wines not listed here, but you get the gist; I’m an Old School Fine Wine guy.

The critics that I’ve followed throughout my career include the big names, you know who they are, I don’t need to spell ’em out.  And these top guns are now in what I might consider the twilight of their professional careers.  One in particular has faced medical down-time and other pressures, and while he would have the outside world believe he is as young as the day he left law school, we, his subscribers for the past couple of decades, have read his personal words and know the tale.  He has taken on many new co-authors to his magazine and the results have been mixed, receiving criticism from retailers, consumers, the blog writers and subscribers in general.  And while the magazine now boasts more than a hundred more pages than it did in the late 1980s, the content is under constant scrutiny.  But remember another of life’s morals: “Any publicity is good publicity”. 

Or is it?  That article I read this morning may be one of my mid-life turning points.  Published in Forbes, the tale shines a light on the impact of certain stories.  The Forbes author interviewed a man in question, a blogger, who had published a series of e*mail conversations between a certain powerful wine magazine’s co-author and another wine columnist.  I read that initial exchange, even re-posted it at my social networking site.  And then today I read the Forbes article.  As I said, that Forbes piece began some personal homework, and introspection.

Publishing that initial mini-brawl between the two powerful wine-writers brought a lot of traffic to the blogger’s web-site.  Like the moral preaches, “People love a good train wreck”.  But here’s the most telling tale.  The blogger openly admits that his one-day, busiest recorded traffic day to the blog was NOT that day.  In fact, that blogger’s busiest day came with the publishing of a story on growing moss in an empty wine bottle for parents looking for a unique chemistry class experiment for their kids.  That was another nudge, the first real push into this re-examination; “Wait a minute”, I thought, “let’s look at MY numbers”….

And there it was, just waiting for me to discover: my single most-traffic-receiving day at my blog so far was a day when I offered the public a positive, glowing review on a wine that I had recently discovered.  In that review I told my readers of my research using the internet to secure the best price in the country and I went into great detail covering the wine’s background.  I offered tasting notes based on my decades of tasting literally hundreds of thousands of wines – more than a million perhaps – and I followed up that report with an email to my list of readers.  That was my site’s busiest day.  And never once did a drop of mud hit the floor.

That Forbes article went on to discuss the emergence of the new wine drinking culture.  A culture born with computers in every room of the house, a group of young folks who turn ever increasingly to the internet for information on their wines.  I’m from the old school, admittedly.  I grew up with subscriptions to magazines as my learning tool.  Today, evidenced by an informal poll I’ve taken over the past 2 days, folks under 30 years of age, those folks I’ve casually engaged in conversation at local wine-selling retail establishments, either do not read the Wine Advocate, or have never heard of it.  Overwhelming, observation points to these young wine drinkers looking to their friends and trusted wine stewards for advice.  It is we “old-timers” who are keeping the big names of wine criticism alive.

But as a former merchant who once catered to the “old-timers”, I, and my now closed business are beacons the industry should pay attention to, just as this Forbes article mentions.  The “old-timers” (and that’s my vernacular, NOT Forbes), have all but ceased buying wine, having amassed collections of wine that they are ever-increasingly becoming aware they will never consume.  Add to that realization that we’re in a depressed economy for the near to possibly semi-long term, and one can see that the “fine wine” side of things is going no where, fast!

And if today’s wine buyers, the young crowd, the actual buyers in this market and economy aren’t interested in the big boys of wine criticism, and the folks who add traffic to the blogs prefer to read our blogs when there’s something positive to read, perhaps it’s time to truly reconsider my personal path.

Earlier on in this piece, I mentioned receiving little nudges these past few days.  I’ve been contacted through my social network site by William&Mary and the town of Short Pump, to name but a couple of the encounters recently.  And now, this Forbes article, forcing me to truly examine not only my methods of blogging, but the community of wine buyers requiring serious attention.  Where is all of this pointing?

The first and most obvious direction is a visit to Richmond, VA.  This forest of trees surrounding me has me slightly blinded to the signs so innocently nudging at me these past fews days.  From that point?  Remember another of grandfather’s sermons: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”

All the best in wine and life,

Christopher Massie
Diplome D’Honneur de Sommelier
Houston Wine Idealist

for those interested in the Forbes article:

http://www.forbes.com/2009/04/23/robert-parker-squires-steinberger-vaynerchuk-opinions-contributors-wine-advocate.html

Houston Wine Idealist Week II

As a consumer in this nation’s 4th largest city, I now find myself in a very different position than the one I held over the past decade.  From 1999 until very recently, I was a merchant of fine wine, offering the city’s inhabitants wines that could best be described as exclusive, esoteric selections from a man with a decidedly passionate palate.  I’ve been in the wine business since 1984, as a retailer under another’s coat-tails, as a restaurateur, an importer, a wine-maker while I trained for my diploma in Burgundy and finally as an independent business owner. 

Through these more than two decades, I’ve spent my days tasting up to 10 wines, 5 to 6 days per week, accumulating what could most likely be described as millions of tasting notes.  Sometime many years ago, when my brain absorbed the intricacies of computers, I turned to collecting my thoughts on wine through the keyboard, having penned my thoughts to paper over the years preceding.  All that to say, I have a lot of experience tasting, evaluating, judging and commenting on wine; there are filing cabinets, dead trees and now hard drives packed with data to substantiate my claims.

Before I decided on retail as a professional goal, I first found my way in the restaurant business.  My very first position was one as a back waiter, working with a fantastic man of wine at a “5-star” (using the Dallas Morning New’s Rating System at the time) establishment called The Riviera.  That man introduced me to professional wine critics and the theory of scoring wine, and my now 25 year old history with Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate was born. 

That introduction lead to my eventual subscription to the Wine Advocate, one that began with issue 62 way back in 1989.  That first issue arrived to my tiny apartment in Arlington, a suburb of Dallas, and it was barely 40 pages.  Now to most, indeed to me, as I contemplate the launching of my own consumer mag, 40 pages sounds like quite an accomplishment.  But if you could see this issue 62 sitting here in my library, alongside every single subsequent issue up to the current release (I throw nothing out) you’d realize something: Parker has changed.

Issue 62 was very different from today’s Wine Advocate.  It was tiny, by comparison, for one thing – and as mentioned, I say that with due respect.  But the most glaring difference are the words, the descriptions themselves.  I’ve followed Parker for more than 25 years.  And I can personally tell you that his palate and his reviews of wines have most certainly changed.  This letter is not designed to lay out a specific wine to wine comparison, that debate plays itself out over the pages and decades of the Advocate.  Suffice to say that wines carrying the monikers of elegant, refined, feminine, etc, found far less play in the pages of Wine Advocate as my subscription carried me through the years. 

The types of wines I gravitate towards, indeed the wines that comprise nearly all of my collection, fall squarely in the “refined” category.  I’ve taken my palate through the vinous alphabet, if you will, and I’ve landed where I have for many reasons.  And I’ve found over this past decade in particular, that when I have ample opportunity to expose the willing palates around me to multiple wines over multiple tastings, very often it is these more subtle wines that win the day.  But it takes time, patience and a willingness to explore and engage the wines; tasting and spitting 90 wines a day will not allow one’s palate to appreciate the subtle side of life.

So now that I’m a consumer, where do I turn for my wines?  This is a question that has been asked not only in MY house, but also in the houses of many folks who have e*mailed me with the same inquiry.  The wine industry as a whole, indeed Houston in particular, remains fascinated with the wines designed to capture one’s attention as a taster is making their way through a large collection of wines in a taste and spit mode so as to review some 1,000 wines per month; big, fat, soupy, high alcohol wines, “show-me” wines in other words, are the ones that garner the praise.  Subtle wines, wines with terroir, wines that work best at the table, WITH food, simply find themselves left out, buried under a sea of cassis and milk chocolate.

Where do we turn?  Judging by the nearly 60 locations, with a shop on every corner, it would appear that the obvious answer for Houston wine buyers would be the company known as Spec’s.  Reading in this month’s My Table Magazine however, as a consumer, I find cause for serious doubt:

“The drawback at Spec’s with the cheeses, as with the discounted wines and some other packaged items, is that the product is sometimes — too often, in my opinion — past prime.  Be sure to check the expiration dates before purchase.”

          — Mike Riccetti, My Table Magazine Issue 90 April / May 2009

Problem is, wine has no expiration date; you only know it’s bad if a professional taster, with experience, explains to you what has happened.  So, if Spec’s is not the answer, where do we turn fellow consumers?

That is precisely why I am launching this program.  Will this program ever become a magazine?  Will this program ever even be consumed?  That’s up to the good people of Houston, TX.  But one thing is certain, I’m launching it.  One week ago, I scratched the surface as I stepped foot into the wine-bar scene.  Now, it’s GO TIME.

I call this thing: Houston Wine Idealist.

The goal is as my goal has been from the dawn of my career:

“Dedicated to the discovery and enjoyment of the World’s Finest Wines.”

I’ll be working through these pages to help my readers locate great wines, at the very best possible prices on the Planet, while searching for Houston’s best wine-bars and wine-related “joints”.

Sounds simple, right?  I promise you, heads will roll (probably mine, first), and names will be named.  But my goal is one as a consumer.  I’m on THIS side now, and I’m not going to take this laying down.

I invite you to join me, and let’s see where this vinous journey takes us.