The Wine Disconnect

“Disconnect” is one of my new favorite words. It nicely describes the split between two models of wine production: wines of commerce and wines of place. Whether a wine is of commerce or of a place can be determined by answering two simple questions: “Who grew the grapes?” and “Who made the wine?” If the answers are company names, there may be a disconnect from a somewhere (the place of origin) or a someone (who makes the wine) – and the wine is most likely commercial. If the ready answers are actual people’s names, the wine is likely of a place. Of course, there are gray areas between the two. Whether a product of commerce or of a place, wine comes to market through the same distribution channels so who sells it is not an indicator of a disconnect. Further, the label and the propaganda (shelf-talkers, back-labels sell-sheets, web-sites, etc.) don’t always tell you whether a wine is of commerce wine or of a place.

If there’s a story associated with the wine, we tend to believe the story is true. We can be wrong. Take for example the “Lulu B.” wines from the Languedoc. At one time, you could Google “Lulu B. wine” and you’d find a well-developed web-site where “Lulu” greets you with “Bonjour!” and introduces herself as the daughter of Rhone vigneron Louis Bernard. Here the truth disconnect begins. There was a real vigneron named Louis Bernard who sold his Louis Bernard brand to Jean Claude Boisset, an international wine producer with properties in France and the US who makes an array of wines (some of high quality and some less so). Boisset introduced a (then) new brand called “Lulu B.” And while the real Louis Bernard has a daughter, she does not go by “Lulu B.” In fact, the cute 20-something, beret wearing “Lulu B.” of the web-site and wine label is a creation of Boisset to give a back story and credibility to a new commercial product masquerading as a wine of place.

Conversely, a wine of place can look commercial. Peace Red is a well-packaged, value-priced wine from the Riverland of Australia. The label shows a peace sign formed of human figures. It doesn’t show you that Andrew Peace is the grower/winemaker or that Peace Red is perhaps the quintessential entry-level Aussie red blending Grenache, Shiraz, Mourvedre (Mataro), and Cabernet Sauvignon into a quaffable but character-full wine for everyday consumption at an impossibly low price. Despite the fact that they are more fruit-driven than terroir-driven, bargain-priced, and commercially-packaged, Peace wines are connected to a place and to an identifiable grower and winemaker. They are wines of place.

Wines of Place
Wines of place are from a somewhere – one region or growing area – and are grown and made by someone who is identifiable. Wines of place taste of that somewhere and reference that someone in that they show terroir character and some intrinsic winemaking style. I use “grown by” and “made by” in a loose sense and separately for good reason. The guiding philosophy may come from an owner or director rather than a viticulturalist or winemaker. The owner of Ch. Leoville-Barton, Anthony Barton, is not the winemaker but he is the motive force behind the wine. A big company may have a dedicated director or manager in charge who is “proprietary” in his focus on the winery. Ridge Vineyards is owned by Japanese pharmaceutical company Otsuka but run by Paul Draper who is both winemaker and “face” of the company. Many producers are not growers. The someone who makes the wine buys the grapes from the someone who grows them. Think about David Ramey buying Chardonnay grapes from Larry Hyde (Hyde Vineyard in Carneros). In this case you find two real someones, both dedicated to making the best wine possible. There’s can be question that Ch. Leoville Barton, Ridge Vineyards, and Ramey make wines of place.

Wines of place don’t have to be expensive. Note the Peace Red above as well as Ch. Bonnet Entrée Deux Mers, an under $10 blend of Sauvignon, Semillon, and Muscadelle from owner Andre Lurton. While Lurton is the “Prince of Pessac-Leognan”, he was born at Ch. Bonnet across the river where he invented the style of fresh, perfumed, bottled-young-to-drink-young wine now made by most Entre Deux Mers producers. Ch. Bonnet tastes of place and reflects the man who makes it.

With few exceptions, the great wines of the world are of a place where the grapes were grown and the wine was made. Producers (brands), whether vineyard owners or tied by contracts to a particular region or specific vineyards, are linked to the region. The names Louis Trapet (a domaine) and Louis Jadot (a negociant who also owns vineyards) both speak of Burgundy. Etienne Guigal (a negociant) and Ch. de Beaucastel (an estate) are linked to the Rhone. Iron Horse (an estate) and Siduri (who owns no vineyards) are tied to Russian River. Whether they own vineyards or buy grapes, each makes regional or vineyard-designated wines that speak of the places the grapes were grown. Wine has always been made this way.

Wines of Commerce
The advent of multinational beverage companies (think Diageo, Pernod-Ricard, Brown Forman, LVMH, Constellation Brands, etc.) brings wine businesses that operate all over the world. One company may own vineyards and brands in several countries. These producers are not tied to a place and some of their brands transcend a local identity. Some aren’t even actual producers; they simply buy and bottle bulk wines and own no vineyards and no fermentation facility. Some offer products of commerce that disconnect a known brand from its historic connection; think of a wine labeled “BV” (with its Napa tradition) made from Central Coast grapes or a wine labeled “Chalone” (with its own tiny Chalone AVA) made from Paso Robles grapes.
Some brands get too big for their appellation. Kendall Jackson’s Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay outgrew its regional origin and is now a “California” wine blending grapes from Monterey, Santa Barbara, Mendocino, and other coastal areas. There is nothing wrong with this; one of the great wines of the world, Penfold’s Grange, is a multi-regional blend designated “South Australia”. In addition to insuring source and supply, K-J achieves quality consistency and is able to maintain style with a multi-regional blend. But, it is not a wine of place.

Wines of commerce offer a beverage that is “safe” and “sound”. Wines of commerce that come readily to mind are the afore-mentioned K-J Vintner’s Reserve, Woodbridge Cabernet, Yellow Tail Chardonnay, Beringer White Zin, and Moet & Chandon White Star. I know that the head winemakers at Beringer and K-J are Ed Sbragia and Randy Ullom, but I also know there is an army of people involved in growing, making, and blending K-J Vintner’s Chard and Beringer White Zin from vineyards all over California. I have no idea who the growers and winemakers of Yellowtail, Woodbridge, or Moet are; nevertheless, I know all are “safe” in that each is a familiar brand name and product that varies little from year to year, and “sound” in that all are well-made with good quality controls and generally no technical flaws.

While commercial wines are rarely the most interesting (they are generally without idiosyncrasy), they are generally consistent and reliable – in part because they are not from a “somewhere”. When grapes from several growing areas are blended, vintage variation is reduced and consistency is enhanced – but focus and specificity of place are diminished or eliminated. These wines are necessary and for many wine drinkers, they are just the ticket. They can have a least-common-denominator sort of appeal.
There are scenarios where the of commerce aspect can cause problems. As a cost saving measure, an Australian producer ships his bulk Chardonnay in a bladder inside a container to California to be bottled in lower-priced American bottles distributed around the US. Sounds smart but there are potential pitfalls. If the producer decides the brand is bigger than the association with Australia, he may blend in some South African or South American juice at the point of bottling. He may choose to save money on shipping by using an insulated container rather than a refrigerated container and so subject the wine to heat damage. A South Australian winery owner once told me that an insulated container was OK because “It’s winter here.” He was stumped when I informed him that it was summer in Houston and that, regardless, the wine would have to cross the equator.

A producer might decide to bottle something under his own label that comes from an area with which that producer is not normally associated. During California’s phyloxerra replanting, some big name producers (Woodbridge, Sebastiani, etc.) bottled Vin de Pays d’Oc (French) wines under their normal California-looking labels. More recently, Mark West and Gallo’s Redwood Creek have shipped Pinot Noir from Corsica and the Languedoc to the market with their standard California-looking labels and even kept the same UPCs on the bottles. The French wines aren’t awful but their flavor profiles have nothing in common with the wines they replaced. They are in fact deceptive.

I pick on bad commercial wine and deceptively labeled wines but I also pick on bad wines of place – which is why Spec’s only carries a few hundred of the over 8,000 wines of Bordeaux. At their best, good quality wines of commerce can make basic wine-as-a-commodity-beverage wine drinking more simple and quite affordable. They may “dumb-down” wine a bit but there are plenty of consumers who want exactly that.

Middle Ground
While it is easy to talk about the disconnect between commerce and place, there is some middle ground. Constellation Brands; owns (among many other brands) Blackstone, Woodbridge, and Rex Goliath along with Robert Mondavi and Ravenswood, and Simi and Franciscan. While the first three are decidedly commercial and the last two are clearly wines of place, Robert Mondavi and Ravenswood, as brands, sell both wines of commerce and of place. Mondavi’s Private Selection and Ravenswood’s Vintner’s Blend wines are clearly commercial. Mondavi’s Napa Valley wines (Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon, Carneros Chardonnay, etc.) and Ravenswood’s county-series wines (Sonoma Zinfandel) and vineyard-designated wines (Old Hill Zinfandel) are clearly excellent wines of place.

Sometimes there are elements of commerce and place in the same wine. Some wines are made in such a “corporate style” that, even though all the elements are present to yield a wine of place, the wine is made so “safely” that the finished wine is as bland and “dumbed-down” as if it had been blended from grapes from multiple continents.

Finding Wines of Place
So you get the disconnect and you want to drink wines that taste of the somewhere and reference the someone. You want to drink wines of place but how do you find them? Spec’s sells wines of place. Spec’s also sells all the commercial wines you’ll find at the grocery or big-box-club-stores. In fact, Spec’s 2410 Smith store in Houston stocks over 10,000 wines and Spec’s Brody store in Austin now stocks over 5,000 wines (with more added every day). Most are wines of place. How do we find then all? We find wines three ways: our wholesalers bring them to us, we find them ourselves, or we work with specialist brokers.
Our wholesalers bring us mostly American wines and strong international brands. Many are wines of commerce and but some are of place. Both types arrive through the same distribution channels but the wines of commerce get more attention from the big wholesalers – which makes sense since they are the big brands. Still, the best wholesale reps seek out the wines of place to show their clients. I taste with wholesalers and their suppliers almost every day in my office as we look for the best from both groups.

The wines we find come from visits to trade shows such as Vinexpo or VinItaly and visits to the producing properties where we work directly. In June, Spec’s owner John Rydman and I spent a week wandering the aisles of Vinexpo looking for new wines and trying to reconnect with some old favorites who have slipped away. Spec’s Italian wine buyer Joe Kemble does the same thing at VinItaly. I spend weeks every year visiting producers in France (especially in Bordeaux, Burgundy, and the Rhone), Spain, Portugal, Chile, and Argentina as well as all around the US. Joe regularly visits producers in Italy (as well as tasting in Houston with our Italian suppliers). We buy the best and bring them into Spec’s stores to sell.

Many of the wines of place Spec’s sells come from specialist brokers who generally focus on one or two countries, regions or types. Chris Lano (Stacole), Neal Rosenthal, and Dan Kravitz (Hand Picked Selections) focus on France. Hand Picked also has some great value wines from Spain and Argentina. Vine Connections focuses on Argentina. Jorge Ordonez and Steve Metzler (Classical Wines of Spain) focus strictly on Spain. Vinifera Imports and Leonardo LoCascio (Winebow) focus on Italy. These importer’s names on a bottle is an assurance that a wine is of a place.

One of Spec’s challenges is informing you about these wines. Most of the Winery Profiles seen in our SPEC’s UPDATE emails are on wineries of a place. Watch for upcoming Supplier Profiles focusing on Chris Lano, Dan Kravitz, Neal Rosenthal, Jorge Ordonez, etc. and the wines they import for us. If you want to try a wine of place, ask the staff in the Spec’s wine department. They’ll take you to the K-J Vinter’s Chard or the Beringer White Zin – but they’ll also tell you about Verget Macon-Villages (a brilliantly balanced, un-wooded Chardonnay from the southern part of Burgundy in France) or Ninet de Pena Rosé (a drier-style but still fruit-driven, very food-friendly pink quaffing wine).

Is the wine you drink a wine of commerce or a wine of place? Now you know. If you want a commercial wine, Spec’s offers the lowest prices, best selection, and immediate availability. If you feel the disconnect and want to drink wines of place, Spec’s is almost the only game in Texas because we spend more time and resources than anyone else to find the best wines of place and get them into our warehouses and stores in the best condition – we only ship in refrigerated containers and trucks – and sell them to you at the best possible prices.

– Charles M. Bear Dalton

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