Friday, June 26, 2009

Cult Wine Oh Nine

Summer arrived in New York with a splash -- cold and wet -- but the trains are still packed out to Montauk, the Jamaica-stop on the Long Island Railroad has traingoers negotiating the politics of seating arrangements with sweaty seniors and the disabled, and the New Jersey Turnpike is packed from north Jersey to Exit 8. Flights are delayed. Market volatility remains high. All indicators point to a long and restless summer. 2009 has officially become the Year the World Stood Still while we collectively wait for indicators from analysts who inhabit think tanks that may one day reveal the Great Recession has left our shores for greener pastures.

And it's the wettest spring anyone can remember. Instead of drinking crisp sauvignon blanc and dry Mosel in poorly air conditioned rented apartments I’ve been opening cabernets and merlots which I briefly cool off in the fridge. Just last night we opened a Robert Sinskey 2005 Los Carneros Merlot ** that was nicely textured and tart. Beer just hasn't felt thick enough for this grotesque imitation of early summer, despite the fact that everyone from President Obama to Eric Asimov to Shea Coulson at Just Grapes have declared beer season officially open. I’ll admit, it seems particularly chic these days to be drinking beer in casually expensive looking cheap dark clothing. I just can’t bring myself to do it.

In the midst of this dare-say-summer I am going to post on Cult Wine prices. At first, this may seem to be in particularly poor taste. After all, no one has the money for $300 cabernet sauvignon from California, and even alluding to Cult Wines, let alone drinking them, is so out of fashion that one hesitates to mention the plethora of emails arriving daily intra-continentally.

But as cheap 2008 Bordeaux threatens to flood our shores, I am eager to defend American producers in difficult times. It’s just that this year I had hoped for some understanding from them, with corresponding price reductions, considering the ultimate demise of the investment banking industry and everything that went down the toilet with it. I had thought that, after Bordeaux released 2008 prices at up to 40% off 2007, our own Cult Wine producers would give us a break. Not much, of course, but something. To my horror and surprise, I was dead wrong.

I've considered the how and why of this for days as I prepared and researched this post, on such a wide range of topics as teenage mating habits to the migratory patterns of economists. (What less is expected of a wine blogger?) But the only thing I have found – and I have found it quite certainly – is that there are in fact six stages to grief when one is confronted by one's own inability to purchase Cult Wines. (Some will say there are only five stages of grief, so consider this the Kübler-McBride Theory of Loss.)

First, there is shock, as in, "Huh? Maybe I should refresh this email and see just ... oh, it's really real, they raised prices again. Could this be right?" And so on and so forth as I restart my computer, reopen my email, and recheck the release price, until it finally sinks in.

Second, there is denial, as in, "I’m not going to let this happen to me. I absolutely refuse to pay this price for wine. Ever. Never again.”

Third, there is anger, as in, “This release price is an insult to the buyer. I learned my lesson with 2005 Bordeaux. To hell with them. They all suck anyway.”

Fourth and fifth, there is fear, followed closely by bargaining, followed more closely by more denial, with a final bout of depression thrown in for good measure, as in, "Damn, if I lose my place on the list, I may never get it back again. I may not get my 2007 allocation! I may not get my Abreu! Only one bottle. Maybe two. Oh, but I can’t, not at these prices!" The fear and the bargaining and the depression go on for a good while.

Finally, there is resignation.

Now, here I digress, because resignation can take many forms. Resignation could, for example, take the form of, "Well, that's it. I just will have to drop the list and buy the wines from elsewhere, at retail, for less than the producer is selling it for. Oh, boo-hoo." And here it is worth mentioning that nothing looks meaner than releasing your wine to your “Release List” at a higher price than it can be had at retail! If the consumer can go out and buy your wine at his local liquor store for 80% what he paid you, why do you have a mailing list in the first place? It’s unlikely that anyone looking for Cult Wines is unaware of Wine-Searcher, and when he realizes he has been duped you will have permanently damaged your relationship with the consumer. So do the consumer a favor – stop allowing the second tier to value price your brands if you are going to first try and bilk the "club members." It looks greedy, and it leaves a bad aftertaste.

Lastly, there is the resignation that takes the form of, "$%^&* it...I've come this far. Just send me the damn wine and to hell with you." This is done solely to stay on the list. And if buyers learn they could have gotten these wines later, for less, the Cult Wine producer has damaged his reputation with the ultimate consumer -- yet again.

Are some of the wines listed below worth buying? Yes. Many of them are. Cult Wines are some of the greatest in the world. The problem is that Cult Wine prices for 2009 are totally out of line with today's marketplace. No one is looking for these wines. No one wants these wines. No one even wants to be associated with these wines right now. So raising prices in this economy not only seems to me to be corporate suicide, it seems insulting to the core consumer. And that, my friends, is the anomaly in your Veblen goods market theory, the ghost in the Cult Wine machine.

Thus, consider this the anti-Veblen/McBride Theory of Prestige-Value Pricing in a Down Market, according to which, when “only the best” no longer equates to “only the most expensive,” brands built for the long haul can increase core market consumption by reducing prices inline with consumer expectations, increasing transparency and building long term relationships without sacrificing “prestige value.” For those concerned that a price reduction in this market is going to adversely affect their appeal to Cult Wine consumers, let’s just say that the 2008 en primeur Bordeaux campaign should have put that fear to rest.

Winter-Spring 2009 Cult Wine Release Schedule with pricing (where available)

Ridge Monte Bello 2007 $125
Quilceda Creek 2005 $140
Kistler 2006 avg. $85
Sloan 2005 $1100/3-pack OWC
Blankiet 2006 $185 (old vintages of this wine sell for $85. Why would anyone purchase the 2006 as a future release for 250% of the 2001?)
Kosta Browne (prices for single vineyard wines unavailable)
Hanzell $95 (major price increase…regretting now that I told them to increase prices.)

Peter Michael 2006 Les Pavots $185; chardonnays avg. $85
Ovid “Experiment” (second wine) 3 for $225
Merus 2006 $450/3 pack
Brewer Clifton 2006 avg. 65
Amuse Bouche ($1375/6-pack)
Coup de Foudue (I don’t even remember signing up for this list)
Pharoah Moans (Is this for real? Seriously, would someone stop putting my name on all these damn lists…)
Robert Foley 2007 Claret $110
SQN (white wine blend) $100
Paul Hobbs (single vineyard cabernets around $200)
Ramey (single vineyard cabernets up to $185)
Linne Calodo (a slam dunk producer, wish there were more of these)

DuMOL (RRV second wines $50+)
Scarecrow 2006 $600/3-pack OWC
Continuum 2006 $150+
Araujo sauvignon blanc $50
Futo $600/3-pack OWC
Sea Smoke (up to $100/bottle)
Tablas Creek (Panoplie $90)

Lokoya ($200/bottle)
Quintessa ($110+)
Colgin (IX Estate $290)

Arietta (varied)
Hundred Acre Deep Time $300
Kongsgaard (varied) $100-$175

Wind Gap (varied)
Pax Wine Cellars (varied)
Alban Vineyard (varied)
Araujo ($275 cabernet, $110 syrah)
Hundred Acre 2006 Ancient Way shiraz $600/3-pack OWC

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel Mini-Review

Dry Creek Valley has become a Mecca of sorts for those seeking world class zinfandel. And while I don't adhere to the particularly strident belief among certain producers and connoisseurs that Dry Creek Valley produces the "gestalt" of zinfandel, there is no question it produces some of the finest. The best wines are both plush and fruity with dark fruit notes like blueberries while maintaining low alcohol levels, good acidity, a velvety mouth feel and a lingering finish. Make no mistake about it, these wines will age gracefully. When done right, life expectancy can be well above a decade.

At the top of my list is Dashe Cellars. This is a polished estate that's received great press from Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast, Wine & Spirits Magazine, and Snooth. Perhaps more importantly, word on the street is incredibly positive (you're doing something right when your competitors speak highly of you). The 2006 line-up, including the baseline 2006 Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel *** is impressive. Rich and elegant, with a deep hue and sweet tannin, this is a plushly textured table wine to be enjoyed throughout an evening or during dinner.

Then there's Quivira Vineyards, a family run Demeter certified estate whose 2002 Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel ** was chunky and polished at the same time, not overripe, and not too dense, with good texture and Zzzzing! on the finish. Drink up though, this wine has reached its apogee. I expect the 2006 to start drinking nicely now.

I'd be remiss not to mention A. Rafanelli, whose 2005 Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel ** at 14.8% alcohol is nearly opaque, closed on the nose, but features wonderful blackberry and very mild woodsy notes. This needs time to shine, and goes down like water.

Just what is it about Dry Creek Valley that produces exceptional zinfandel? According to Michael Dashe, who previously made zinfandel at Ridge Vineyards, "The combination of the well-drained rocky soils and the special ocean-influenced climate in Dry Creek combines to make some of the most complex and flavorful zinfandel grapes in the state. In particular, the fog that rolls up the Russian River and Dry Creek valleys in the mornings, even in the summer and fall, cool the vines and help the grapes retain acidity as they ripen. The resulting grapes show much more balance (because of the acidity balancing the fruit flavors) and beautiful black raspberry and black cherry fruit that is characteristic of the region."

A note of warning is in order though. Due to their increasing notoriety these wines aren't exactly cheap, with a $30 average price. And price isn't going to be a good guide in finding quality Dry Creek Valley zinfandel. There are a number of $30 zinfandel-bombs out there which really should be taken off of shelves. Some of these are flawed: cloudy, wild, 16+ percent alcohol wines that have no place being on store shelves, but the name Dry Creek Valley sells, so that's unlikely to change. Caveat emptor.

Perhaps a case in point is the 2003 Albini Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel I purchased for $31 at a wine store in Brooklyn Heights. I mention this wine only because despite all its failings, with its cloudy appearance, hot funk on the nose and gritty cocoa underneath, this is one hell of a sexy wine. In other words, if you could bottle the Bridge & Tunnel club scene, sans brassier, a touchy feely sweaty mob and no questions asked, this is exactly what you would get. Now ... I'm not bringing this home to mommy anytime soon, but trust me, this is definitely worth a looksee.

And if anybody asks, just tell them you were "experimenting."

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

2005 Ch. Latour a Pomerol ***

Ok ... I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that I haven't been overly impressed with the 2005 Bordeaux I've tasted to date. I know what you're thinking. You're thinking this guy doesn't know squat. And maybe you're right. But after all the hype and hoopla surrounding this vintage, I've been drinking these Cru Bourgeois wines and wondering why they aren't better. At least one wine I tasted was clearly flawed; most of the others were just boring. The only wine I truly enjoyed was a 2005 Lalande de Pomerol *** Granted, I haven't started in on the classified growths yet, but in a region that produces over 700 million bottles of wine, and unquestionably the finest wines in the world, why should I have to pay more than about $25 for a really good bottle of wine from an excellent vintage?

Then I got this email the other day from America's Wine Shop, advertising the 2005 Latour a Pomerol for $35. This is by no means cheap, by today's standards, but I've loved this vineyard since I tasted a bottle of the 1998 a few years ago, and couldn't resist the offer. Besides, for my own sanity, I needed to try a 2005 Bordeaux that I could enjoy.

Latour a Pomerol is roughly 20 acres of gravel interspersed by loam and clay, planted 90% merlot and 10% cabernet franc, with an average age of 35 years. Farmed and produced by Jean Pierre Moueix, the wine is aged in one third new oak barrels, lending the wine very smoky and mildly spicy notes. Dark and thick, and very tannic, probably like most 2005 Bordeaux, this wine needs plenty of time to develop, but there is very good fruit and complexity underneath.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

1975 Ridge Vineyards Monte Bello **

There's a school of thought out there that American claret doesn't age as well as Bordeaux. Regardless of whether you subscribe to this point of view, and I don't, there should be little doubt about the age worthiness of Monte Bello. Considering this fact, I find it amazing that you can find thirty-four year old Monte Bello at auction for a fraction of the cost of a first growth. And that is how we came upon the wine we opened last night.

We purchased a lot of three bottles from an Acker Merrall & Condit auction recently for as much as I would expect to pay for a single bottle of the same vintage of Mouton Rothschild, which I have tried, and didn't enjoy as much as I did this wine. I opened the bottle in the worst condition of the lot, with a high shoulder fill and slightly torn label.

Unquestionably beyond its prime, with a cork bloody red three-quarters through, this wine nevertheless turned from brick red in the bottle to a nicely deep hue of sunset purple in the decanter. Whiffs of blue fruits, olive tapenade and milk chocolate emerged from the glass after two hours. Perfectly enjoyable, but not as lively as the '76 or '78.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Pax is Back ... And This Time It's Personal

In the spring of 2008 I learned that the winemaking prodigy behind Pax Wine Cellars, monsieur Pax Mahle, was leaving the eponymously named venture and striking out on his own, once again. Rumor had it that disagreements with co-owner(?) and world renowned collector Joe Donelan led to the (what may be termed in retrospect) inevitable split. Emails for more information went unreturned.

This presented a problem for me -- the consumer: should I keep buying the wines, even though Pax was no longer making them? I felt like the friend of a divorcing couple who met the pair as a pair. I was in a state of limbo - not sure who to trust. The divorcing couple revealed nothing about their troubles, which always means the worst. When the time came, I found myself still buying a couple bottles of one of my favorite Pax Cellars Wine, the Kobler Family Vineyard Russian River Valley Syrah, thinking it would be the last time.

Then, just this Monday night I received an email from Pax and Pam ("Punky") Mahle introducing their new venture, Wind Gap Wines. Pax had surprisingly gentle words for his former partner's venture, saying, "The Concept at Pax Wine Cellars was a complete immersion in and study of Syrah—using the same grape and largely the same appellation with a focus on specific sites with differing soils and climates to make the wines unique. With the help of a dedicated team of growers (and countless hours of spent in the vineyards) we produced some remarkable wines and learned a great deal. Wind Gap is the culmination of all we have learned from working so diligently with Syrah." As a side note, Pax has retained his relationships with some former growers and will be releasing their wines under his name label.

The current release includes:

2007 Sonoma County Chardonnay
2007 Russian River Valley Pinot Gris
2007 Brousseau Vineyard Chardonnay
2006 Booker Vineyard Paso Robles Grenache (mmmm....Grenache....)
and a 2006 Sonoma Coast Syrah

Prices range from $32 to $45, about 30% less than Pax Wine Cellars. Future releases will include:

2007 Grenache, James Berry Vineyard, Paso Robles
2007 Syrah, Castelli-Knight Ranch, Russian River Valley
2007 Syrah, Griffins Lair Vineyard, Sonoma Coast
2008 Chardonnay, James Berry Vineyard, Paso Robles
2008 Pinot Noir, Woodruff Vineyard, Santa Cruz Mountains
2008 Alder Springs Rhone White Blend, Mendocino County

Not to be outdone, I received an email from Pax Wine Cellars just last night. Pax is now a "100% family owned winery" (albeit by the Donelans, not the Mahles,) and their "compass is pointed towards bringing you a select number of single vineyard syrah wines ... along with preeminent Rhône inspired blends." Pax Wine Cellars has scaled back the number of its releases, all of which are now pure thoroughbreds:

2007 Nepenthe (a full throttle blend of white Rhône varietals)
2007 Cuvee Moriah (a Chateauneuf du Pape GSM blend)
2007 Walker Vine Hill Vineyard Syrah Russian River Valley (a former RP 95 wine)
2007 Obsidian Syrah Knights Valley

To toast Joe and Pax's new ventures, last night I opened a bottle of 2004 Pax Wine Cellars Kobler Family Vineyards Syrah Russian River Valley *** (previously reviewed) a deep blackberry colored wine, with outstanding crushed black pepper, mellow blackberry notes and dark cocoa on the long finish. I wish both Wind Gap and Pax Wine Cellars success in their new ventures. These are two owners who know exactly what they want and how to get it: high quality wines.