Sunday, February 25, 2007

Endangered Species

Tucked away in the back of the December 2006 issue of The Atlantic is an interesting article on the future of independent wineshops. With larger retailers and chain stores narrowing the already small margins on retail wine sales, the fate of these smaller shops is certainly in question.

Being an aggressive price shopper when it comes to wine, I often wonder if I’m contributing to the extinction of these shops. The city I reside in has a good variety of choices when it comes to buying wine: Sam’s Club, Total Wine & More, Green’s Beverage Stores, well-stocked grocery stores and several small wineshops.

I’m not a Sam’s Club person, so I don’t shop there, although they have a good selection and the prices are competitive. The grocery stores rarely have wine that interests me and the prices aren’t very good in general; I occasionally find an amazing bottle for some ridiculous clearance price.

I do the bulk of my shopping at Total Wine or Green’s. Having two large retailers—Total is an East Coast chain and Green’s is a local chain with stores in South Carolina and Georgia—doing business in the same city has dropped wine prices through the floor. They both have great selections.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I worked for Green’s for three years, but I’m certainly not what you would call an advocate for the company. I do, however, have some trusted sources of information with Green’s, which makes my shopping experiences much easier.

Total is well-staffed with salespeople who have varying degrees of wine knowledge. I am aware when I shop there that the company’s marketing tactic is to hard-sell customers on private label wine with high margins, and they pressure their sales staff to push these wines under threat of dismissal. I shop there occasionally because they have a larger selection.

Unfortunately, this leaves small wine shops in a tough position. They have neither the buying power nor the volume of sales to compete with the big boys. When I see wines that I know I can buy for $3 less elsewhere, I just can’t bring myself to do it, no matter how much I enjoy the wine shop experience. So I buy an occasional bottle that I haven’t seen anywhere else, but still with the knowledge that I’m paying a higher mark-up.

The retail margin on wine is shockingly small—usually between 25% and 35%. Large retailers have trimmed the margins even further. While I’m glad that people still enjoy the wine shop experience enough to patronize those places, I still can’t bring myself to do it. My wine dollars are too precious.

If the margins are 10% lower in the big stores, that means for every case of wine I buy, I get a bottle for free. Green’s kicks in a 10% mixed-case discount, which is like getting another bottle for free.

It’s worth mentioning that although these small wine shops put real effort into personal service, I’ve never found any of them to be helpful enough to make me shop there. I’m sure there are well-heeled customers that are waited on hand and foot, but for a $10-a-bottle shopper like me they don’t seem very interested in building relationships.

I think this is what the success of small shops depends on—knowing your customers, what they drink and taking good care of them. Knowledge also plays a large part.

“Wineshop owners can not only tell you what Aglianico tastes like, they can also pour you a sample. They can tell you what to serve it with—and give you a recipe,” writes Corby Kummer in The Atlantic.

That’s the sort of experience that will keep wine shops alive. Larger cities are more likely to be able to support smaller, independent shops, but smart owners in smaller market can cash in on quirky selections and the personal service that stores like Costco and Total Wine cannot replicate.

Independent wineshops might look to the example of independent bookstores, which have faced the same threat from Borders and Barnes & Noble. Those bookstores that have survived have using innovative marketing practices combined with old-fashioned customer service to develop loyal customer bases.

Unfortunately, wine shops can’t pool their buying power like bookstores have done, because of the complex systems of distributorships and laws that control wine sales. However, independent wine shops should be eyeing ways to cooperate with each other.

I hope that independent wine shops can find a way to survive. Wandering around a quirky, cool wine shop is one of the great pleasures of life for a wino like me.

And if you want to try a bottle of aglianico, look for Di Majo Norante Contado 2002 or 2003. This is a stunning example of 100% aglianico. Try serving it with your favorite lasagna recipe.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Low-Budget Livin'

If you’re anything like me (for your sake, I hope you’re not), the old checking account looks pretty empty this time of year.

After that money-sucking vacuum known as the Holiday Season, post-holiday bills and Valentine’s Day, I find myself hopefully scanning the floor of my car for loose change. Factor in those unexpected bills that life throws at you, and what you have is a recipe for Ramen noodles and Gallo Hearty Burgundy.

Even Wine Bogging Wednesday #31 is themed around box wines. Although they broadened it slightly to include “non-traditional packaging,” it’s clear that I’m not the only one pondering how to reduce their wine budget.

However, I would sell a kidney before I would resort to drinking swill. It’s not that I’m a snob; it’s just that once your taste buds get acclimated to drinking good wines, there’s no going back.

So in the spirit of thrift, here is a short list of some my favorite bargain wines:

Hardys Nottage Hill Cabernet Sauvignon - Shiraz 2003$5.99
This is my current undisputed champ of good and cheap. Balanced and stylish, this rises way above most inexpensive Aussie red. Perfect for when you want something to drink and enjoy, without feeling the need to contemplate or savor every sip.

Trapiche Malbec Oak Cask Mendoza 2004 - $7.99
The last three vintages of this wine have been so consistently good that it’s earned a permanent place in my pantheon of everyday reds. The go-to wine for pizza, burgers and unexpected guests.

Columbia Crest Two Vines Shiraz 2003 - $4.79
Perhaps a little a too fruity for some people’s taste, but this is an amazing value for the money. It’s displays great varietal character, and the fruitiness goes great with spicy foods. The wines of Columbia Crest are some of the best values around.

Domaine de Pouy Vin de Pays des Côtes de Gascogne 2005$5.99
Crisp and zingy, this a perennial favorite for summertime quaffing, but it also make a perfect match for shellfish, white fish or light chicken dishes in the winter. It’s a blend of ugni blanc (trebbiano) and colombard.

Smoking Loon Viognier California 2005$6.79
Think Sunday brunch and spicy crab cakes. Fat, juicy and delicious – this is the most reliable inexpensive viognier out there. Smoking Loon is part of the Sebastiani wine family.

If you want to spend a couple more dollars, here are two reds that will make you forget you’re drinking under $10 wine:

Terre Nero d’Avola Sicilia 2003$8.99
Lots of people have never even tasted a Sicilian wine. This one is complex without being over-powering – raspberry, cherry, spice and earth. And at $9 a bottle, you won’t feel bad about having it with take-out pizza and Sopranos re-runs.

Di Majo Norante Sangiovese Terre degli Osci 2005$8.99
Licorice and violets for $9 a bottle? Count me in. Inexpensive sangiovese can be really good or really bad; this is the former – deep, complex and wonderful. I will even go so far as to say that it gives one a glimpse of the amazing heights that sangiovese can achieve.

On a side note, both the Terre and the Di Majo Norante are Leonardo Locassio Selections from Winebow. I’ve had some excellent wines from this group lately, which I’ll write more about soon. Keep your eye out for that name on the back label.

These are obviously prices from my local retailers, but hopefully some of these are bargains where you live also. They all are widely distributed nationwide.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Valentine's Day Recap

Call me a cynic, but Valentine’s Day has gotten way out of control. I won’t bore you with my rant on the over-commercialization of this once sweet-and-simple holiday, but let’s just say that I was not one of those rose-buying, dinner-reservation-searching, last-minute-shopping-in-desperation men.

Actually, I spent a large portion of yesterday making arrangements to acquire a new water heater and have it installed, as my old one had ruptured during the night. Not only did I accomplish this mission, I also had time left over to prepare a wonderful Valentine’s Day feast for my sweetheart, Ms. E.

The menu was pretty simple. I grilled a couple of marinated tuna steaks and paired them with my roasted garlic mashed potatoes and sautéed spinach. The tuna was a perfect medium rare; the potatoes were creamy and delicious; and the spinach was pretty good considering I can’t cook vegetables to save my life.

My other nod to V-Day is always some really good wine. This year we started out with Roederer Estate Brut Rosé NV, which is always lovely and was a perfect match to the meal.

We moved on to Cellers Scala Dei Cartoixa Reserva 2000 (goes well with dark chocolate), which is from Priorat in Spain. I love the wines from this region, and this wine is a perfect example of why.

It’s a blend of 48% cabernet sauvignon, 47% garnacha and 5% syrah. It’s also round and full-bodied with lots of dark fruit, nuances of chocolate and spice, and a long, silky finish. While it normally retails for around $30 a bottle, a friend in the business got me some at $10 a bottle.

Why? Because the distributor was getting rid of it.

I’m certain that most people who looked at it either didn’t know what it was or thought they could never sell it. Oh well, their loss is my gain.

So I have three pieces of post V-Day advice:

1.) Never buy roses for Valentine’s Day.
2.) If you haven’t already discovered the wines of Priorat, start now.
3.) Try marinating tuna steaks in Stubb’s Pork Marinade (trust me, it’s good).

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Wine Blogging Wednesday #30

Wine Blogging Wednesday is turning out to be a dangerous thing for me.

Normally, I drink bargain wines. I religiously stay under $15 and whenever possible under $10. I’m not afraid to admit it—I’m poor.

While others were working hard to improve their station in life and raise their income levels, I was…hmm…well, I can’t seem to remember, but apparently my attention was focused elsewhere.

So, I drink inexpensive wine (not to be confused with cheap plonk). No big deal. But then WBW comes along and gives me a reason to splurge for the occasional bottle of something nice.

The utility bill will just have to wait.

Tim Elliot of Winecast is our distinguished host for this round, and the topic is New World syrah. This is an easy topic to accommodate because it seems syrah is the “It” grape for winemakers from Washington State to Australia and everywhere in between.

I selected Luca Winery 2004 Syrah Altos de Mendoza ($30), which was recommended to me by a trusted source. The 2004 vintage is a blend of 85% syrah and 15% malbec. 800 cases were produced, and it was bottled unfined and unfiltered.

If you find yourself with an extra 30 bucks, go buy a bottle. You won’t regret it.

I decanted it for 45 minutes or so before pouring on the advice of the aforementioned trusted source. In the decanter, the color was an inky purple and the aromas drifting out were all black fruit: blackberry, plum and blueberry.

Once in my glass, the nose had opened up to include vanilla, eucalyptus and tar. The first sip was a silky mouthful of blackberry, plum, vanilla, tea, earth, tar, cola and licorice. Not necessarily in that order.

This is a serious bottle of syrah. The longer I sipped and swirled, the more layers of flavor and smell I discovered. If you have the opportunity to drink this wine, do so very slowly. You will be rewarded.

Laura Catena, of the well-known Argentine winemaking family, is the proprietor of Luca Winery. Named after her first son, the winery focuses on making small-production wine from low-yield, high-elevation vineyards in Mendoza. The average vineyard elevation for this wine was 3,020 feet.

The Catena name is synonymous with quality in Argentina. Nicolás Catena, Laura’s father, produces some of Argentina’s most highly respected wines, along with the Alamos brand, which is priced for poor souls like myself.

After tasting this wine, I may have to spring for a bottle of some of the family’s other wines. It certainly left no doubt in my mind that the wines currently coming out of Argentina, syrah and otherwise, can lay legitimate claim to being among the world’s best.

Not to mention, they are still a relative value. Although $30 is a bit steep for my thin wallet, a wine of this quality would run you twice as much (or more) if Napa or Hermitage was on the label.

So...don't cry for me, I'm drinking Argentina.

I just couldn't pass that up.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

A Twisted Tasting

I really like people who march to the beat of their own drummer.

With that in mind, I’ve been wanting to try some of the wines from Twisted Oak Winery and winemaker Jeff Stai. Many of us in the wine blogosphere have gotten to know a little about Twisted Oak and Jeff (El Jefe) through the winery’s blog, El Bloggo Torcido, and Jeff’s frequent comments on other blogs.

Unfortunately, Twisted Oak wines have not found there way to my part of the world. However, the Gods of Good Fortune smiled upon me, and I recently received a box with two bottles of Twisted Oak 2003 California Murgatroyd and, of course, a rubber chicken.

When they are not involved in rubber chicken distribution, Twisted Oak produces an eclectic line-up of wines from varietals such as verdelho, albariño, temperanillo, grenache, syrah and petite sirah.

With a blog called El Bloggo Torcido, a wine called the Spaniard and a collection of typical Spanish grapes, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to determine that Twisted Oak has a decidedly Spanish flair.

Which brings me back to the Murgatroyd, this wine is a blend of 36% cabernet sauvignon, 31% tempranillo, 19% petite sirah and 14% grenache. This wine grabbed my attention partly because the interesting blend of grapes. It reminds me of some of the wines coming out of the Priorat region of Spain, which usually incorporate cabernet sauvignon and grenache, along with some other grapes.

On a side note, any wine named after the catch-phrase of a cartoon character from my youth automatically gets a few extra points in my book.

The Murgatroyd is a deep purple with lush aromas of blueberry, cinnamon and a touch of vanilla. The flavors are soft and round with blueberry,raspberry, mint, vanilla and just a hint of oak. I decanted it for 30 minutes of so before drinking, and it continued to open up nicely while we sipped it over dinner.

My intuition about the blend was dead-on—this wine is very reminiscent of a young Priorat. I’m also willing to bet it will gain even more complexity with a little more bottle age.

Most of the grapes for the Murgatroyd come from the Vallecito and Tanner Vineyards in Calaveras County, the remainder come from the Bokisch and Silvaspoon Ranches in the Central Valley. Because not enough of the grapes come from the same region, the Murgatroyd is labeled simply as California wine.

I wondered if this is akin to really good French wine that ends up being labeled as Vin de Pays (which several of my favorite French wines are). So, I put the following questions to Jeff via e-mail:

Me: Since you know the source of the grapes, why is it labeled as a California wine?

El Jefe: Two of the vineyards are in Calaveras, and two of the vineyards are in Lodi. Since Lodi is not in the Sierra Foothills, we had to go with California. To call it Calaveras we would have to have a higher percentage of Calaveras fruit in it.

Me: What are your thoughts about labeling a high-quality wine with the California designation?

El Jefe: I don't think there is anything deeply wrong with it (I think it is a nice state), but I would prefer not to. It helps that we are up front with the blend and vineyards, and that the wine is popular and it tastes good. Future vintages will be "Calaveras County" AVA!

I always wondered if having to use the California designation on more expensive wines was a bit of a “black-eye.” It certainly doesn’t bother me, but I’m sure some wine buyers associate the California designation with cheap, mass-produced wines.

In any case, Twisted Oak Winery is a great example of what I hope will be the next wave of California wineries: wineries that produce interesting and different wines from grape varieties they are passionate about and not just the “grape du jour.”

Another bit of related good news—Jeff informs me that hopefully I’ll be able to buy Twisted Oak wines down here in the South before to long.

And you can’t beat that with a rubber chicken.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

From the Gutter to Cloud 9

Even though I couldn’t make it to the 16th Annual Zinfandel Festival (which for me would be the equivalent of nirvana), I did get a chance to enjoy a really smokin’ good bottle of zin recently.

I realized when I began this posting that I haven’t written anything about zinfandel thus far. It’s odd because I really love zin. Unfortunately, most of the zin that’s available in my price range is pretty uninspiring.

It’s ironic that such a humble grape now commands such a high price. I’ve had some decent zins in the $15 range, but to get something really interesting, $20 is something of a starting point.

Which is why I relished every sip of the Cloud 9 Winery Seity Zinfandel 2003. It isn’t exactly cheap—$30-ish retail, and I had it at a restaurant, so it was even pricier—but it was worth every penny.

The grapes are sourced from the Seity Vineyard in Amador County, which is one of the best (if not the best) areas for zin growing. Instead of paraphrasing from the winery’s Web site, I’ll let them do the “talking:”

"Seity is Cloud 9’s first vineyard-designated wine - from a vineyard that unquestionably epitomizes Cloud 9’s drive for quality and distinctiveness. This 10-acre vineyard is home to the oldest Zinfandel vines on Earth, with proof of existence dating to 1869 when the vineyard was listed as a descriptor on a deed from the U.S. Geological Survey. The roots plunge to a depth of nearly 20 feet, passing through multiple soil layers and adding unique flavor components and complexity that can only be found in such a historic vineyard. Lying on a north-facing slope in the Sierra Foothills, the vineyard flowers and ripens later than most and is typically the last vineyard to be harvested in Amador County. The colder temperatures result in increased pigmentation build-up – creating a dark red wine with intense flavors, including chocolate and coffee – two endemic characteristics of this unique vineyard."

Are you drooling yet? I know I am.

The aromas explode out of the glass: strawberry, raspberry, tea, vanilla and spice. On the palate, the flavors are an enticing blend of red and black fruit, sweet spice, vanilla and, yes, coffee and chocolate. Then, the angels start singing.

Okay, maybe that last bit is a bit of an exaggeration, but that’s roughly how I felt.

It’s a shame zinfandel doesn’t get the respect it deserves. Alternately, it’s a shame that while it gets little respect, it’s still hard to find inexpensive zin that’s worthwhile. Zin makes the perfect pizza/burger wine, and for a chili fanatic like myself, it pairs very well with hot and spicy foods.

Any recommendations on good, cheap zin?