Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Time is Now for Grower Champagne!

Six years ago, I started an unposted blog with this paragraph:

Why is it that so many fine wine shops insist on carrying only estate-bottled Burgundy, Bordeaux, Rhone, California Cabernet Sauvignon, etc., yet when it comes to the Champagne department, the shelves are dominated by negociants? Before Terry Theise put a stable of Champagne estate-bottlers together wine merchants, and restaurants, could argue that they were too difficult to find. No more.

It's time to finish this post. Estate-bottled Champagne still represents a small fraction (about 6% now) of overall Champagne sales, but that's about triple the percentage it was six years ago, and more labels become available all the time. There is plenty of room for growth, however, since at least a couple of thousand grower Champagnes remain unknown outside of the region. The reality is that selling estate-bottle Champagne is still a struggle. It doesn't help that negociant Champagne houses produce a lot of delicious bubbles, or that they have a couple centuries of experience selling the idea of better quality, consistency and reliability through blending, not just across vintage, but across region and grape varieties. Add to that the fact that Champagne houses are terrific entertainers and hosts (with lots of impressive swag like ice buckets and stoppers), and you can understand how grower Champagne labels are still difficult to find in most wine shops and restaurants.

Estate-bottlers have, however, had an impact on the Champagne market beyond their grabbing 6% of total sales. Consumers are beginning to ask questions they'd never asked before, such as how could they tell when a specific bottle was actually disgorged; or what percentage of a particular negociant house's production came from estate-grown grapes. Champagne drinkers are paying more attention to place, noting differences between wines made from grapes grown in the Montagne de Reims as opposed to wine made from grapes grown in the Côte des Blancs, or the Vallée de la Marne. Many Champagne consumers are undoubtedly more discerning because of the presence of grower Champagne.

It was around the time that I started writing this entry, in 2011, that I decided to kick out the Grande Marques and sell only grower Champagne. I figured that as long as I had big name Champagne labels on the shelf, most consumers would opt for the safe choice and ignore the grower labels. Selling only grower Champagne would force most customers to ask for help, which would give me the opportunity to explain why we didn't have their favorite label and to sell them something so good they'd return for more. A few folks refused to consider an alternative, and headed to the next store - some of them expressed their frustration. Most, however, took my recommendations, and many came back for more grower Champagne.

Something else has happened. Instead of considering Champagne - and other bubbles - as something separate from red or white or pink wine, people are embracing the fact that Champagne, along with its relatives, is wine, with bubbles. This has happened in part because of the presence of grower Champagne, but also because a few wine merchants and sommeliers have embraced the fact that Champagne is a terrific and versatile match for so many foods. Sure, it's great to celebrate with bubbles - it's also great to drink good bubbles with take-out Chinese food, or potato chips, or pizza.

Raise a glass of grower Champagne to Terry Theise - and Kermit Lynch and Neal Rosenthal, among other great importers - for bringing us the distinctive, delicious wines of estate-bottlers. I've had personal experience with the growers listed below, though I'm sure I've missed a few.

Paul Bara
H. Billiot
Cedric Bouchard (Roses de Jeanne)
Roger Coulon
Rene Geoffroy
Pierre Gimmonet
Lancelot Goussard
Guy Larmandier
Jacques Lassaigne
J. Lassalle
Jean Milan
Pierre Paillard
Pierre Peters

As in Burgundy, there are houses that do both, produce wine from their own grapes as well as making some cuves from purchased grapes or a combination thereof. Veuve Fourny deserves special mention here. Small, quality driven, legally designated NMs (negociant-manipulant), have softened my stand on a RM (recoltant-maniopulant)-only Champagne section. Hey, it's wine - for every rule there is an exception.

Friday, March 03, 2017

The Next Chapter

What is a "wizened" wine guy? It is someone who has tasted, drunk, bought and sold more wine than is probably healthy for most normal humans. That's me. Here's a brief synopsis of my career:

I secured my first full-time job in a wine shop in 1979 (Wells Discount Liquors, Baltimore), spent the next eight years in retail, then about twelve years working in wine distribution and importing. In 1997 I tried out running my own consulting business, working with a few retailers, a distributor, even a Maryland winery. About a year and a half later, on October 31, 1998, I opened my own shop, Chesapeake Wine Company, in Baltimore's Canton neighborhood. In January, 2016, I sold Chesapeake Wine, and on December 23, 2016, at the age of 61, opened Remington Wine Company,
in Baltimore's Remington neighborhood. I'm hoping this is the end of the ride, as far as stops in my wine business career.

At this point in my wine life I still learn something new about wine every day. In fact, the longer I do this, the less, I realize, I know. As for the business of selling wine? At this point in my career, I know too much. It isn't often I can be surprised by a visit from a distributor/importer sales representative or winery sales manager. Fairly often I know more than they do about what they're trying to sell me. The best of them pour some wine and let it do the talking, waiting for my response before contributing to the conversation. The worst talk while I'm tasting, worse still, telling me what I should be tasting. If the wine is good, I stop them, politely if I can. If the wine isn't worth tasting anyway, I let them talk - I won't be seeing them again. When it's the winegrower or winemaker themselves pouring the samples, however, I listen first, taste later, and often take notes after they've left, when I can collect my thoughts. Those visits, from the people with the vision, doing the work of growing grapes and making wine, are when I learn the most. If they're good, the wine they make is a reflection of their commitment, and you will hear me tell their story while trying to sell their wine. Occasionally, thankfully not often, I'll meet a winery owner who might have the cash to spend on his/her latest hobby, but in every other way has no business being in the wine business.

One of the most important things I've learned is that I can't - nor can anyone else - taste every good wine. When I first started doing this in 1979 I tasted at every available opportunity, thousands of different wines a year for the first eight years of my career. It's important to note that those thousands of wines were virtually all of the good wines available in the Maryland market at the time. Now it is impossible to taste everything. It is a classic buyers market, with far more supply than overall demand. My tasting numbers have tapered off since those early days, but I still average 1-2,000 a year. I was lucky to have survived the first few years - most Americans didn't know about spitting samples back then. "Tastings" could consist of dozens of wines - I am embarrassed to think about how many times I didn't remember driving home from a "tasting."

Today I take appointments with reps, and taste, selectively. After nearly twenty years of owning my own shop, I have long, mutually beneficial relationships with enough companies to stock our small shop multiple times with wine I have tasted and not purchased from these colleagues. Saying no to a good wine is tough, and I don't want to do more of it than I must.

So, going forward, I will try, on this latest attempt at regular blogging, to tell stories about new experiences which will inevitably include references to past experiences. Stay tuned.

Friday, August 05, 2011

Boo Hoo?

Kermit Lynch still contributes occasionally to his own newsletter (Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant) and I still prefer his entries to those of his staff. His descriptions are pared down to essentials, but they are poetic and evocative. I'd like to write as well someday. Having expressed my admiration and appreciation, it is time to offer some friendly criticism.

I just read Kermit's piece in the August 2011 KLWM newsletter that arrived by mail today. It is titled "On Vacation," and it is essentially a plea for pity - an expression of frustration about how the relative difficulty of his job is perceived. While acknowledging the fact that wine merchants do indeed work hard - long hours; in Kermit's case, many days on the road; in my case, lots of stock work (I'm betting Kermit hasn't done much stock work in years) - to expect pity from consumers is a bit silly - but to expect pity from winegrowers? Farmers? Hah! Farming is one of the toughest jobs I could ever imagine - long hours, back-breaking labor, constantly at the mercy of the weather - I'll take working in a wine shop any day. Tasting through mediocre or bad wine brought by lousy sales reps is no fun, for sure, but I'd rather do that than pick suckers off a few thousand vines (per acre!).

C'mon Kermit, you know as well as I that our jobs are more about pleasure than anything else. We work pretty hard to put smiles on peoples' faces, but as jobs go, there are plenty that are way more difficult. Relax - appreciate the fact that many people would love to do what you do to make a living. And enjoy the fact that you have done your job extraordinarily well.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

It was great to read Eric Asimov's article in last Wednesday's New York Times (13 July 2011) about the Aube, Champagne's most southern sub-region. A photo of Cedric Bouchard gracing the front page of the dining out section is great news for this under-appreciated region. It was also great to get some tips on other producers in the Aube.

Having carried Champagne from Aube producers for several years, I should add a house that Asimov did not mention in his article: Moutard, in Buxeuil. Francois Moutard makes terrific wine from both Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, as well as grapes such as Pinot Blanc, Petit Meslier and the rarest of all, Arbanne. His cuve "six cepages" contains all six varietals (add Pinot Meunier to the other five heretofore mentioned) - it is delicious as well as instructive. His Arbanne cuve is unique, and worth searching out since it is the only 100% Arbanne wine I've ever seen. All in all, though the basic Brut Reserve, 100% Pinot Noir, is the workhorse - both delicious and a remarkable value.

Another Champagne note: After a visit from one of Alain Sacy's children, I am happy to report that while the Louis de Sacy label bears the "NM" - indicating it is a negociant-manipulant - 100% of their fruit comes from vineyards owned either by Alain or his brother, who "sell" the fruit to the corporation called Louis de Sacy, which they own. Cool, a 20,000 case (annually) estate-bottler!

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Old World to New World, and Back?

It could be argued that Syrah and Malbec have done better for themselves in the New World than they ever did in the Old World.

Syrah at its most famous - for wine geeks, that is - is grown in France's northernn Rhone, most notably in Hermitage and Cote-Rotie. But it wasn't until the past 20 years or so that Syrah was grown in quantity in the southern Rhone (and Languedoc-Roussillon), where the bulk of the Rhone Valley's wine is produced and exported. When cuttings were shipped off to Australia in the mid-19th century, the name changed to Shiraz, and the grape, whatever you want to call it, flourished. Far more Shiraz is grown in Australia than has ever been grown in France. Shiraz replaced Merlot as the most requested red wine grape in the USA (how long has it been, 10 years?), but fads only last so long here, and Australia ran into trouble by subsidizing exports of cheap wine - not the best strategy for a place so far away.

Malbec started off in Bordeaux but was pretty much pushed out by the Cabernets (Sauvignon and Franc) and Merlot. It moved southwest, to Cahors, where it is still grown with some success, but Merlot followed it there, and most recent efforts include some Merlot in the blend. Where Malbec has taken off, however, is in the New World, specifically Argentina. In Baltimore, and I suspect most of the USA, Malbec is now the most requested red wine in retail shops.

The Argentine version of the Malbec is, like the Aussie version of Syrah, plush and fat, often jammy. The French, like the rest of the Old World winegrowers, were late to the varietal marketing game, and most of their efforts have been, well, less than successful. France isn't so good at plush and fat - thank goodness, and no offense to the New World because the fun is in the differences and it would be so boring if wine tasted the same no matter where it came from! - no, France is good at dry, balanced and, well, earthy. So, how can France get back into the action? I've tasted a couple of wines in the past year or so that might contain the answer.

The first was a Malbec from Cahors, made by Georges Vigouroux, called Gouleyant. It's got all of that nomenclature on the front label - Malbec prominently enough, though not in a smaller font than Cahors. More important, it's big and rich for Cahors, which seems to appeal to my New World wine customers, while still balanced and earthy and somehow French, which works for my Old World wine customers. It is the number one selling Malbec in the store. The second is a Syrah from the Languedoc, made by Domaine Croix Belle. I resisted purchasing this last year only because interest in Shiraz had declined so precipitously it didn't seem worth the effort to sell a French version. Tasting the '09 yesterday, however, the wine is too good, regardless of grape variety, to ignore. It also succeeds in much the same way the Vigouroux Malbec does - big and rich for France, but still structured and balanced enough to be recognizable as French.

Could this be part of the solution to France's declining wine export woes? For small wine merchants like me, yes (though we still sell plenty of traditional French appellations). For the market at large? Global warming seems to be making it possible for France to make good New World style wine, and they've got lots of vineyards. Stay tuned.

Friday, July 08, 2011

Selling Wine Without Points

This is an old rant of mine, but every once in a while something happens here at CWC that reminds me why I haven't read a Wine Spectator in about ten years. Two couples come in to do a Tuesday Tasting. I started them off with a Prosecco (Gasparini - Asolo, Italy). They enjoyed it; even the one guy who professed not to like bubbles grudgingly admitted liking it. One of the guests then asked me if the Wine Spectator had liked the Gasparini. I responded that I had no idea, that in fact, I hadn't peeked at a Wine Spectator in years. She seemed surprised, even a bit taken back. I then explained that if I waited for the Wine Spectator to mention a particular wine, even a particular wine region, I would end up being like most other wine shops - a follower instead of a leader. I went on... probably went a bit overboard, but she started it!

I explained that I was one of the first stores in Maryland to carry a Prosecco, certainly the first wine bar in Maryland to pour Prosecco by the glass, when we opened in 1998. In fact, we were pouring Prosecco years before any restaurant in Little Italy thought about doing such a thing. Leaders start trends, followers reap the benefits - more press attention, more product availability. The reason there are dozens of Proseccos available in Maryland today (there were two brands in Maryland when we opened) is that the market leaders expressed interest, and suppliers responded to our interest.

Is Prosecco the sole example? No - here's a short list of other trends (grape, style, region, method) that we have helped lead the way on (listed roughly from oldest to newest, dates are approximate):

Shiraz (virtually non-existent in the USA just 30 years ago) - about 1980
Spain (specifically Ribera del Duero, Albarino, Priorat/Montsant/Terra Alta) - 1987
Prosecco (fits in about here - I worked for the first Maryland importer/distributor of Prosecco) - about 1990
Viognier - 1993
Malbec - 1995
Torrontes - 1995
Gruner Veltliner - 1996
Estate-bottled Champagne - 1998
Cremant (de Jura, de Bourgogne, de Loire) - 2000
Organic/Biodynamic winegrowers - 2000
Rose (as in dry pink wine, still and sparkling) - 2000

Of course, I'm not alone; there are a handful of us in each market. And I didn't invent any of these things - this is wine, after all, and it's been around for ages, so there isn't a whole lot that is actually "new." A trend usually gets started with one wine - for some reason, it makes a strong impression, we start searching for similar experiences - next thing you know, customers catch on, ask for more, go to other stores and restaurants searching, distributors catch on, then, perhaps, a few years later, the Wine Spectator.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

What Wine Geeks Drink on July 4th

First, many thanks to the salesman who left a message on my voicemail. He wanted to sell me a blog-writing service, based on his observation that while my entries were interesting, they didn't occur regularly enough. To that end I will attempt to make a daily blog entry.

I am often asked by customers walking into Chesapeake Wine Company the first time, if we carry other alcoholic beverages besides wine. Unfortunately I am prone to giving a smart-ass response like "If you walk into a store named Blah-Blah Discount Liquors, do you ask if they carry other alcoholic beverages besides booze?" I've gotten better, though - usually I take the time to point out our small but high quality selection of spirits and beer.

Fact is, I'd be bored just drinking wine. I couldn't have imagined spending July 4th drinking only wine. Sure, I drank some great bubbles at the store - we were open 'til 5pm, and I generally encourage the staff to have some fun on days like the 4th - it was mostly Paul Bara Champagne Brut Rose. But once we made it to our July 4th festivities, I mixed it up; a couple of Coronas, a margarita, then a few glasses of a terrific dry pink Loire Valley Pinot Noir made by Eric Chevalier (like the Bara, a Kermit Lynch selection). By the way, there is no truth to the conventional wisdom that mixing alcoholic beverages causes hangovers. Over drinking causes hangovers, period.