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.