Dealing With The Media
Stick around in any business for long enough and sooner or later someone in the media will want to talk with you about something. Sometimes it goes really well, sometimes just OK. But someone once said "it doesn't matter what people are saying as long as they are talking about you." Or quoting you.
Back in January the local paper (the Sonoma Index-Tribune
) ran a nice little story about the building where our production operation is now housed. Reporter Sierra Jenkins spent half an hour with me on the phone and did a great job of quoting in context, and getting the context right:"One-man operation" is the most accurate description of Westwood Winery, according to winemaker and sole employee John Kelly. Westwood Winery and Castle Vineyards, both of which started as passionate amateur winemaking outfits out of a garage and developed into professional operations, are sharing a 7,500- square- foot space and various equipment in the Eighth Street warehouse. Both Westwood and Castle also operate tasting rooms on the Plaza. Castle's attracts steady foot traffic; Westwood's tasting room doubles as Kelly's office, and is located deep in the bowels of the Sonoma Courtyard Shops, down a narrow pink corridor off the Plaza. Many of these tiny wineries cut out the middleman. The growers see their grapes from vine to bottle and, in many cases, to the glasses of consumers who can buy directly through mailing lists, Web sites or visits to the tasting rooms. A number also sell to select restaurants and wine shops. The wines aren't cheap, ranging from $ 20 to $ 50 or more. Kelly aims to model an entirely new direct-to-consumer distribution model. His Plaza tasting room has a decidedly different feel -- more living room than bar -- influenced by his travels through Europe, where many tastings are given at picnic tables or in the kitchens of the winemaker. "I like that -- the intimacy and direct contact was a good thing. This is a friendly valley and we want people to feel like they're home when they get here," he said. Even as the biggest wineries have grown in size, the more diminutive operations have grown in numbers -- a trend Kelly said is fueled by a number of developments. For instance, many of the larger wineries that once bought from a variety of growers are now sourcing grapes primarily from their own vineyards, so small growers are selling to smaller operations or going into winemaking for themselves. At the same time, said Kelly, many people are taking money they've earned elsewhere and moving to the Wine Country to live what he calls the "gentleman winemaker lifestyle." "Then there are guys like me. We worked our butts off for other people and now we're doing something foolish for ourselves," he said with a laugh. Westwood makes about 1,000 cases a year. It was making 2,500 at one point, but had trouble moving that much wine. Distribution has become increasingly more consolidated in the past five years, which means it's harder and harder for small wineries to catch the eye of a distributor, who may already have a 2-inch-thick black book of clients.
Thanks, Sierra Jenkins -- I could not have said it better myself. But then, I guess I did...
Then there are other interviews that don't exactly go wrong, but could go better. For example, in the February 20, 2006 issue of Newsweek
, Brad Stone did an article on my friend T.J. Rodgers titled "The Rebel Vintner
". Mr. Stone called me for a 30 minute interview, looking for comments on T.J.'s deep commitment to produce the best Pinot Noir he possibly can. I made the mistake of saying something subtle in response to Mr. Stone's question of "Have you told T.J. to his face that he is crazy?" What I replied was "T.J. knows exactly how crazy he is." -- the implication being that you aren't crazy at all if you know how crazy you are -- which ended up coming out as "I think he knows he's nuts." And it was the last word in the article. Sorry T.J.
Pinot Noir "EXTENDERS"?!!
(Note: I first pulished this article in another blog, written under the pseudonym "John Falstaff.")
What is the world coming to? Falstaff was having a nice lunch with Falstaff, Sr. at Boon Fly Cafe
in Napa the other day. Sitting next to us were folks working for a couple of large-volume wine companies - one a producer and the other a negociant. The tables are a bit cramped and so it was impossible not to hear their conversation. Most of it was "blah-blah-blah" but Falstaff's ears perked a bit when they started discussing the short 2005 Pinot Noir crop.
Pinot Noir is near-and-dear to Falstaff's coeur gourmandise
, and the short Pinot crop in 2005 has been discussed in the industry for months, but this was the first I had heard - even inadvertently - from the perspective of the large bottler. Well, even for this cynic it was a bit of a shock.
These two were blithely discussing how they expected to deal with the shortfall by blending in what they both called "extenders
". The gist of it was something along the lines of "Syrah certainly works better than Cabernet, but anything light and bland will do..." I would have laughed out loud except that it would have been rude, and that these guys were absolutely serious.
Oh goodness. You see, dear reader, Pinot Noir does not blend well with anything
. Nada, nichts, zilch, zip. If it did, believe me there would be more red Burgundy in the world and prices for these wines would not be what they are, alas. But five hundred years of accumulated experience is not wrong. Oh sure, centuries ago - maybe even a few times last century - some of the strong wines of the Rhône would sneak up north to fortify the weaker Pinot in poor vintages, but even then everyone knew that the vintage in question was poor
The 2005 vintage here in California was not poor - far be it - it may be great
. But if one purchases 2005 Pinot from some of the bigger players one may never know it. Yesterday Falstaff was tasting a great Pinot from the 1999 vintage with a lady, who was a bit taken aback by the $50 price tag [OK, it was Westwood]. However, she said she tended not to drink much Pinot Noir, because her budget tends to the $15 range and the $15 Pinot Noirs out there just don't taste like Pinot to her.
I asked her for a specific example and she mentioned that the night before she had had a bottle from - wait for it - one of the two producers whose conversation I had overheard. (Wasn't Jung such a genius?). In her exact words, "...it tasted like a generic red wine, without much aroma or interest, and pretty dead and flabby in the mouth; not at all like this
..." (indicating the glass we were sharing).
Big guys, pay attention. This was a damning indictment
. Here was a hot, urbanite, twenty-something, working in the restaurant industry, who is laughing at the "Sideways" hype because the wines labeled as "Pinot Noir" which she can afford do not meet her educated expectations for the varietal.
Word to the wise - you get what you pay for. A while back Falstaff wrote
about the caveats associated with inexpensive - cheap - wines, and shared a few tips on how to drink well for less. Do yourself a favor and drink real Pinot, not the "wine-derived beverages" that large producers should be apologizing for.
Estate Vineyard Planning 2006
We have had a string of clear days in the 70's here, making me think about the vines coming out of dormancy. This would be -- hmmmmm, let's see -- the THIRD of FOURTH year in a row where warm weather in February wakes the vines up early. This is not necessarily a problem in itself, except when an early budbreak is followed by a long stretch of wet and/or cold weather
. As it has been for years now. In 2005 late-April frosts and rains during bloom in late June devastated the Pinot crop. Quality of what we harvested was high, but the costs of production weren't even close to being covered by the yield.
It did not help that our frost control was ineffective in 2005. Wind machines do no good at our site, where cold air does not pool below warm but rather settles in a never-ending stream off the hillsides above our vineyard. Last year I had sourced a low-volume water spray system, but that got nixed when the supplier got caught up in a patent dispute. Today I am looking at a quote on a new system that uses more water, but still less than a standard spray head. We'll see. In the meantime I'm praying for a warm Spring.
Following the short 2005 Pinot crop, I'm about 100% sure that at least two of the winery-operated vineyards I have been buying Pinot from (Castle and Nicholson Ranch) are not going to sell to me in 2006. Call it the "Sideways Effect" perhaps, but there is a general feeling in the industry that Pinot Noir sales are taking off like Merlot did in the 90's. Frankly I think it is a lot of marketing people engaging in wishful thinking. Whatever; going forward I'm not going to have enough great Pinot to meet my modest production targets.
Barring another set of weather like 2005, the Estate Vineyard should fill in most of the shortfall from the two vineyards I'm going to lose. So far (after ONE crop year -- ha!) it looks to me like the Estate is capable of producing fruit at least as distinctive as what I am losing. I'm just going to need more.
For the past couple of days I have been working on sourcing vines to plant this Summer. I already have a couple acres each of Dijon clones 115 and 667 on 101-14 rootstock on the Estate. I'm hoping to add at least an acre each of clones 777 and 943 on a Riparia-like stock this year.
Next year I'm thinking that I will bud over about half of my 667 vines to clone 114 based on results I have obtained from the fruit I have been buying off the Castle Carneros plot, where the clone 114 produces the lovliest of wines. Clone 114 Pinot is mercurial -- when it is good it is very, very good. At some sites I have seen it is not so good. I think its performance is related to crop loading, and as I tend to balance my Pinot at the low end of reasonable the 114 should do well at the Estate.
02.04.06 The Spectacular 2005 Wines
Well, the week of meetings with the business partners went pretty well. We congratulated ourselves on the milestones achieved in 2005 - and there were many
- and worked toward a solid capital growth plan and re-invigorated marketing strategies. Several of the guys came with me to the trade show at the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium
in Sacramento. They had never been to one of these and it was a real eye-opener for them.
During the meetings we spent a day tasting the 2005 vintage out of barrels - it's hard work (no, seriously) but somebody has to do it. Though my partners aren't much experienced in tasting wines this young, there was real surprise and acclaim for their concentration and drinkability, and real pleasure that the wines made from our first Annadel Estate grapes have turned out so well. Once again, I was struck by the depth and structure of nearly every wine we have in barrel. At this time I would say they remind me of the 2003 vintage in some ways, but with the bright aromas and silky textures of our great 1998's.
I decided the other day that I had waited long enough, and finally checked the malic acid levels in the wines for the first time since the end of alcoholic fermentation. Some winemakers stress out during the malolactic fermentation and test every week. I'm not one of them. In my worldview, the malolactic bacteria are doing more for the wine than converting malic acid to lactic acid, and I want to give them time to complete these tasks. The wines tasted good in ensemble, most of the barrels were no longer outgassing, and the lab analyses showed that the residual malic acid levels in all the cuvées were sufficiently low, so I added their first doses of sulfur dioxide at the end of January.
Later this month I hope to bottle our three cuvées of 2003 Pinot Noir: the Haynes Vineyard Napa Valley, the Nicholson Ranch Vineyard Sonoma Valley, and the Sonoma-Carneros. Yields were low in all three vineyards in 2003, and I have only seven barrels - or about 175 cases - of each. When last tasted, these wines were showing very closed, with pronounced acid structures in all three.