Thursday, August 21, 2008

Exiled to Wine Siberia

The last post on Shiraz noted that forums were discussing the news that wine importer The Grateful Palate (TGP) was trimming it portfolio of Australian wines. At that time it was not clear which producers would be affected by the reorganization. The lists of who is still in and who is out were revealed by Dan Philips in letters to his distributors (August 7th) and suppliers (August 14th).

Those still in:
Ashton Hills Vineyard, Ballycroft Vineyards, Battley, Buckshot Vineyard, Burge Family Winemakers, Clarendon, Glaymond, Greenock Creek, Hare’s Chase, Hazyblur, Hobbs Wines, Kalleske/Pirathon, Kay Brothers Amery Vineyards, Lengs & Cooter, Lillypilly, Loan Wines, Majella, Noon Winery, Paringa, R Wines, Red Edge, Ringland Vitners, Rudderless, Samuel’s Gorge, Schutz Barossa, Tim Smith Wines, Trevor Jones, Tscharke, Whistling Eagle, William Downie, The Willows Vineyard

Those out:
Betts & Scholl, Cape D’Estaing, Clos Clare, Digger’s Bluff, Geoff Weaver, Gibson, Henry’s Drive, Hutton Vale, Lashmar, Longhop, Lunar, Mclean’s Farm, Nurioopta High School, Old Plains, Oliver’s Taranga, RBJ, Rockford, Rusden Wines, Scarpantoni, Shirvington, Silesian, Teusner, Torzi Mathews, Troll Creek, Two Way Range, Wild Duck Creek Estate

Philips notes that TGP’s portfolio now consists of “about 25 producers including R wines”. This is a considerable reduction from the zenith of some 70 producers in 2004, and does suggest that the market for Australian wine in the United States has contracted significantly over the last few years. The possible reasons for this loss of interest have been discussed ad nauseam on wine forum and won’t be repeated here. However Dan Philip’s communication to his distributors is worthy of examination because it smacks of a superiority which could lead one to think that Dan Philips has more control over the Australian wine scene than just his current portfolio.

Writing about the wineries that are no longer part of his portfolio Philips noted, “Some of these departed months ago, others in the past days or weeks, but all have been exiled to wine Siberia and will no longer enjoy life in the Distributor Collective of Fine Wines at The Grateful Palate.” Reading this I was immediately struck by three things. The references to loyalty suggested that producers may have left TGP, rather than being purged. And what did he mean by producers being exiled to wine Siberia, and what was this Distributor Collective? Then there is the reference to “party official Robert Farver”! Is Philips trying to establish his own little egalitarian experiment in the world of wine? Does being exiled to wine Siberia mean that producers outside of the collective can expect attempts to freeze them out of the US market? Or is it just an attempt at humor? If the latter is the case then it really is a joke that is in poor taste. Through TGP Dan Philips has been responsible for a considerable growth in imported Australian wine, but that has not come without some criticism. A number of the wines imported by TGP (and others) experienced significant mark-ups on the US market, especially if they received high scores from wine critic Robert Parker. Because of the three tier system in the US its highly questionable whether the Australian producers of these wines received a fair remuneration for their wines. Those profits would have been more likely to go to the importer and distributors with most retailers having to compete amongst themselves to sell wines being offered at, often, ridiculous prices. It is no wonder that the portfolio reduction came about “due to market conditions and a very clear message from virtually all of our distributors”; that reads to as “we have overpriced these wines and so the ones that you can’t distribute we’ll just dump”!

There is something else here that is a little worrying. Through TGP Dan Philips is very generous to those individuals who sell the wines he imports. Its not unusual for him to take a large group of individuals to Australia to explore the wine regions and to taste wine. There is nothing wrong with this. But there is a perception that he is too friendly with some wine critics, particularly a wine critic that has always claimed that his organization always pays it own way and avoids conflicts of interest. There are also rumors out there in the wine world that if you leave TGP then the scores you receive from a certain wine critic may not be all you expect. You have to wonder just how big that wine gulag is in Siberia? It will be interesting to see what scores the critics give to the wines that have ended up in Dan Philips’ wine Siberia. You can be certain that there will be more than just a couple of people following that story.

Fortunately all is not lost for the producers that have been exiled. Some, like Rockford, can’t even satisfy their Australian consumer base. Others have begun new relationships with importers and have seen significant increases in sales. What is more telling is that Australia has over 2,000 wineries and so if you only have 25 of them in your portfolio you might be more out in the cold than you think.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Major Importer of Australian Wines Trimming its Portfolio?

Just a week or two before we left for vacation in July I was offered deep discounts on wines from several Australian producers including J P Belle Terroir, Kay Bros, and Rusden. The reason given for the deep discounts was that the distributor was dropping these wines. I bought a few 6-packs and thought nothing more about it. Then today a thread on eRobert Parker’s Bulletin Board has become embroiled in a discussion about how many producers Dan Philips’ Grateful Palate, a significant importer of Australian wines, is dropping from its portfolio. Guess who imports J P Belle Terroir, Kay Bros, and Rusden?

The discussion on eBob suggests that some 18 brands would be dropped from the Grateful Palate (GP) portfolio. At present its anyone’s guess as to which brands are being cut but the non-GP brands being kept likely include Kalleske, Kays, Tscharke, Noon, Greenock Creek, and Majella. There may be others as well as the Grateful Palate portfolio of Australian producers imported by Dan Philips is long and includes many small wineries that make some outstanding wines. A sampling includes Burge Family, Glaymond, Tim Smith, Scarpantoni Estate, Shirvington, Samuel's Gorge, The Willows, Tim Smith Wines, as well those mentioned above.

The reason for this possible slashing of products is not clear, but both Michael Opdahl (Joshua Tree Imports) and John Gorman (Southern Starz) have contributed lengthy posts on the current difficulties being experienced by those trying to sell Australian wine into the US market; “Australia is one seriously screwed up wine category right now and desperately in need of a major make over.” John Gorman.

I certainly agree with some of the major concerns including the influence of the dramatic increase in the value of the Australian dollar against the greenback over the last 4-5 years and the confusion produced by the sameness of many Australian wines especially those in the $25-50USD price range. Another important concern, reflected somewhat in the sameness of many wines, is the limited exposure of the US market to the diversity of Australian wine. There many be millions of cases of Australian wine brought into the US each year but much of it comes either from the amorphous wine region called South Eastern Australia and/or reflects the lack of knowledge about Australian wine by the American wine consumer. Educating and refining the wine palates of a population as large as the US is a daunting task. For example, here is simple question. How many wine regions (called geographical indicators, GI) are there in Australia? Ten, twenty, thirty? Try 64! Next question – How many can you name?

Wine Australia has made some attempt to expand knowledge of the diversity of Australian wine with their Regional Heroes program but the audience that has some knowledge of how this works is abysmally small. More importantly even if consumers can describe the most important varietal or style from a region and its recognizable characteristics they may still be unconvinced as to why they should pay $50 for a Barossa Shiraz when they can get a Shiraz for $10 from South Eastern Australia. What is needed are clear definitions of why some wines are superior to others. A good example of how this can be achieved is the definition of wine styles for Rutherglen Muscat. If you appreciate this type of wine (as I do) then just a little reading makes very clear to you what defines a Rutherglen Muscat versus a Rare Rutherglen Muscat. A similar type of definition (and code of practice) could be applied to other wine styles. For example the spectrum of Barossa Shiraz could include generic Shiraz that comes from multiple vineyards versus that from single vineyard sites. The age of the vines could also be used to further refine the style. Selection of parcels of grapes or certain barrels could be used to highlight wines that are a wineries’ best exemplar of the region.

A good example of how selection of vineyards and barrels can be used to identify wines of increasing superiority is that used by Wayne Dutschke of Dutschke Wines. The St. Jakobi Shiraz is a single vineyard wine, the "Oscar Semmler" is a blend of the best structured and most mouth filling parcels of Shiraz from the St Jakobi vineyard and represents "the best of the vintage”, while the “Single Barrel Shiraz” is the best barrel from the harvest of the St Jakobi vineyard. That is an easy system to understand both in terms of what each wine represents and why each is priced differently. And no where near as confusing as the R wines of the Grateful Palate.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Striking Terror in the Heart of the Wine Drinker

Last Wednesday night I opened a bottle of Yangarra Estate Vineyard 2005 McLaren Vale Shiraz. A big, powerful wine, heady stuff, but with an unnerving streak of upfront acidity that cut right through the wine to the finish. On Thursday night that acidity made the wine unapproachable and I discarded it in favor of something more suitable for dinner. The Casa Quemada 2004 Syrah from Spain. Uh, oh. The cork came out with a red streak along its length. Pouring the wine into a glass revealed burnt, pruney, notes and a sharp acidity with a distinct note of oxidation on the palate. OK, I thought, its just a poor cork but Miranda’s comment of “It tastes like vinegar” didn’t help. Let’s open something else. How about a Chateauneuf-Du-Pape? The cork on a bottle of Domaine Pontifical (Francois Laget-Royer) 2003 came out stained red all over and the wine, even with its whiff of barnyard, also carried a dominant acidic flavor that sliced the palate to pieces. Simply not a pleasant drink. This was getting worrying. Two wines with evidence of leaking corks, both overly acidic and a third that developed the same character overnight. All three looked like they had prematurely aged. Has the cooling unit in my cellar failed? Normally its not a concern because I’m in and out of the Vintage Keeper almost daily, but we had been away for a month. Had the unit overheated during that time, shut down but then recovered before we came back? Foil cutter in hand, I went back to the cellar, that question gnawing at my gut. The tops came off four random bottles and all showed no signs of leakage. Feeling only slightly less concerned I wandered off to bed, only to lie there wondering if I shouldn’t go and open a couple more bottles. A little flash of wisdom came to me. If the cooling unit had failed and the cellar had heated then the corks on my bottles of vintage Toro Albala Don PX should have leaked because they are pushed in only three-quarters of their length and held there by string. Back to the cellar. Yes, the wine was along the full length of the cork inside the bottle, but there was no leakage. Maybe I’m OK. Let’s sleep on this and open some more wine tomorrow.

Next day. Crunch time. If this wine is stuffed I’m really going to be pissed-off. Encouragingly, the foil cutter crisply cut the top of the capsule and every turn of the Screwpull brought out more and more of a pristine cork marked only the words Penfolds St Henri 2002. Beautiful, but the faint orange/brown edge wasn’t cheering. A little riper and richer than the normal vintage of St Henri but all is in balance. Its not falling over prematurely, in fact, the depth suggests this will keep until the cooling unit does fail! I’m not going to need the Tums tonight. Even more encouraging was a glass of the Domaine Pontifical. Reaching past the poop and the drying tannins, it was now quite drinkable, the acidity subdued by twenty-four hours under vacuum. It looks like I just had a bad run of a few wines. That’s a relief because we have guests this weekend and I’m planning on opening some nice bottles. Still I wish that gnawing in my stomach would go away!

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

How Do You Select a Wine?

A recent report by Dr. Liz Thach (Professor of Management and Wine Business, Sonoma State University) suggests that the most important criterion in selecting a wine is having tasted it before, while the least important aspect is an alcohol level that is below 13%. What is interesting about these criteria is that they are almost universally consistent across the globe.

The study was done by universities in Australia, Brazil, China, France, Germany, Israel, Italy, New Zealand, United Kingdom and the United States, and was funded by the Grape and Wine Research Development Corporation (GWRDC) of Australia.

Your Chance to Influence My Wine Drinking

Our annual trip to Oz in early November is in the planning stages. This year its going to be somewhat of a marathon endeavor because we want to see what is left of the Murray River (at least the part that still has water) and so we plan on a road trip visiting NSW, Vic and SA. Naturally wineries will be on the agenda and I’ve put the early list below. We usually aim for about 4 wineries a day simply because I try to organize to spend a couple of hours with the winemaker/cellar door staff to talk about the wines; rather then just belly up to the bar for a few sips and talk about the weather.

There are gaps in the list, especially for Orange and Canberra; and the Clare list is probably too heavy with red wine makers. So if you feel like adding a few names, and the reason why you think we should visit, please do. (NOTE: The numbering is not in any order of preference and we haven't yet make enquiries to the wineries so its not a list of the order we will visit either.)

Orange wineries
1) Canobolas-Smith

Canberra wineries
1) Clonakilla

Rutherglen wineries
1) Buller and Son
2) Campbells
3) Chambers
4) Morris
5) Stanton & Killen

McLaren Vale wineries
1) Marius
2) Mollydooker
3) d’Arenberg
4) Redheads Studio
5) Mitolo

Barossa wineries (Day 1)
1) Dutschke
2) Trevor Jones

Barossa wineries (Day2)
1) Seppeltsfield
2) Tuesner
3) Winter Creek
4) Red Nectar

Clare wineries
1) Kilikanoon
2) Neagles Rock
3) Tim Adams
4) Pike
5) Jim Barry

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Australian Wine Reviews Get a Needed Boost

Two of the more active online sites posting reviews and commentary on Australian wines have announced that they will merge to form what will arguably be the internet site for information on current wine releases and wine news from Australia. The new partnership will be under the banner of Campbell Mattinson’s THE WINE FRONT which came into being in 2002 and has steadily grown to be a major resource for content on Aussie wine, winning the 2005 Wine Press Club Wine Communicator Award, as well as being a two-time finalist at the World Food Media Awards. The other partner is Gary Walsh’s Winorama which over the last three years has achieved the reputation of being a major source of (free) reviews of current release Australian wines. Mattinson and Walsh believe they can publish between 200 and 500 wine reviews each month in addition to the ongoing news and feature articles/videos that formed the foundation of THE WINE FRONT site. There is no online, or even printed, resource which I can think of that has this level of focus on Australian wines. One other feature that will be unique to the new site will be the “Double-Take” review where Mattinson and Walsh review the same wine, side by side. Some examples of this novel format have already been posted.

The merger of these two online sites is excellent news for lovers of Aussie wines. Both Mattinson and Walsh are well known and respected within the Australian wine community with Mattinson in particular being that rare breed of accomplished and enthusiastic wine writer with an excellent palate, and a true if somewhat biased fervor for all things Australian in wine. Walsh, an Englishman, has an excellent palate and his well crafted reviews are often infused with wit. His love of wines from that often neglected wine region, the Hunter Valley, adds a depth to the appreciation of Australian wines that is missing in much of the online and print media.

Subscription to the new site will be $39.95AUD per year. This is an extraordinary value when compared to other media that publish regularly on Australian wines including Winestate, Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast, Decanter, Australian Gourmet Traveller – WINE, Jeremy Oliver, etc. The only possible competition in the near term would be James Halliday’s Australian Wine Companion because of its wealth of reviews from Halliday’s yearly review of thousands of wines. However the new site, with its reviews of current releases should soon rival Halliday and will be more useful to those wishing to obtain reviews before buying a current release. The site should also eclipse Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate which only publishes once a year on Australian wines and now has a reviewer with far less exposure to the Australian wine scene than either Mattinson or Walsh. The only thing THE WINE FRONT might gain from the Parker model would be a search facility similar to that used on his online site.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Save Miguel?

The Portuguese cork industry has begun an ad campaign designed to argue for the greenness of corks versus screwcaps. But you would be hard pressed to figure that out from the internet campaign which has actor Rob Schneider searching to discover who Miguel is and how to save him.

In Australia the campaign will include a letter to winemakers from cork maker Amorim extolling the ethical virtues of cork. But with 70% of wine bottles in Australia already under screwcap it is going to be hard sell, even if the Girl Guides are onside!.

Perhaps the better question might be - Is Miguel worth saving?