Posted on | November 25, 2013
Written by | W.R. Tish
December is when pundits apply their power of precognition to a wide swath of endeavors. Here is a rundown of some wine developments that gathered momentum in 2013 and promise to resonate in 2014 as well.
Once upon a time, saying that a wine was on a certain wine list held real street cred. Then came the Ratings Era, and 90 points became the thumbnail of authority. Well, the pendulum may be swinging back. The documentary film Somm was released this year on the big screen in several cities; it garnered excellent reviews and gained 10,000+ Facebook fans. Consider also the rising number of wine directors becoming owners/partners in high-profile restaurants: Rajat Parr at RN74 in San Francisco and Seattle; Alpana Singh at The Boarding House in Chicago; Robert Bohr at Charlie Bird and Patrick Cappiello at Pearl & Ash in NYC.
And quietly, a strong contingent of Master Sommeliers have been joining the wine trade in management positions. Recent winery hires include two in Napa Valley—Jennifer Heuther at Cliff Lede, Jason Heller at Dana Estates—and Michael Jordan at Jackson Family Wines. Christopher Bates has left Hotel Fauchère to focus on his Element Winery. Devon Broglie is a global buyer for Whole Foods. And Sabato Sagaria has moved from F & B Director at The Little Nell to Chief Restaurant Officer at Union Square Hospitality Group. Bottom line: respect for somms is on a steep upswing, and their influence in the wine trade is growing.
The Quest for Uniqueness
At a fall portfolio tasting, when I asked the owner of a mid-size importer-distributor what trends he was seeing, I expected to hear about types of wine. He answered simply: “Everyone wants an exclusive.” And why not? With the internet and smartphones at shoppers’ disposal, sharp-pencil retailers realize that offering wines people can’t find around the corner makes more sense than ever.
The pursuit of exclusivity is part of a more general effort by stores to distinguish themselves from the competition. This has also led to renewed support for local wines; a boost in private labels; and fresh attention to boutique (or “micro,” if you prefer a hipper term) California wines. Excellent examples: Arnot-Roberts, Bedrock, Martian Ranch, Forlorn Hope, Trombetta and Donkey & Goat.
Meanwhile, restaurants are just as motivated to avoid familiar brands—perhaps even more so as the last thing a restaurant wants is for people to think they are paying for a glass what a full bottle would cost at the store down the street. The days of restaurant-only bulk brands like Copper Ridge are waning. Today’s on-premise hero wines are often offbeat and food-friendly—but obscure enough to allow for healthy margins.
Next Up in Blends
Red blends have become a thing. The easy-to-grasp concept, catchy labels, modest price points and smooth-’n’-juicy flavor profiles have added a new dimension to the wine scene.
Looking ahead, expect white blends to get more exposure and acceptance, especially those with softer, less acidic styles. Recent new entries of note: $10 or under, the Hess Collection’s Amalaya and Concha y Toro’s “Coastal White”; at $15, Brassfield Estate’s “Serenity”; and at $20, Franciscan Estate “Equilibrium.” High-end white blends should see more action as well; witness the well-deserved critical acclaim for the Rhône blends of Tablas Creek and Matthiasson’s sublime mix of Sauvignon Blanc, Ribolla Gialla, Semillon, and Tocai Friulano.
Value: It’s Relative
Since 2008, retailers have witnessed an unsurprising retreat in per-bottle spending, particularly among superpremium wines. The phrase “$20 is the new $40” is not so much a trend as the new normal as people are finding great value in budget-friendlier options. Some glowing examples can be found in California Cabernet Sauvignon—which does not bode well for trophy bottlings from Napa Valley. Josh Cellars North Coast Cabernet, marketed by Deutsch Family Wine & Spirits, is red hot at about $15. Mettler Family Vineyards 2010 Cabernet (SRP $25) is the best wine I can remember trying from the Lodi AVA. And the Gallo “Signature Series” Cabernet, with SRP $40, rivals peers at twice the price.
Among regions to watch, Paso Robles stands out, with California’s characteristic ripe fruit plus considerable intensity on display, but at price tags that don’t shock. The region is still relatively unknown to consumers, but it has been a prime target for vineyard development among big firms over the past decade. One winery at the top of the Paso hit list: Daou Vineyards. Their Cabernet, carried by Southern Wine & Spirits and RNDC in many of the 40 states it is in, has sold so well that they are already into the 2012 vintage (SRP $25). Daou also makes luscious Viognier and several blends that may never make it outside the tasting room because club sales are accounting for most of the estate production.
Prosecco—Movin’ On Up?
Prosecco has embedded itself in the American wine vocabulary—and palate and budget. What many Americans do not realize is that the quality and consistency of the many Proseccos available here have been enhanced by the wine gaining official wine-region status. Truth be told, we may never care—at least not in the way enophiles care about AOC Champagne; and Prosecco’s official grape, Glera, may never even merit cocktail-party trivia status. It’s just Prosecco, and we’re fine with that.
But when it comes to all things consumable, Americans do tend to respond well to upgrades and spinoffs, and the brand to watch in this regard is Valdo (est. 1926), a Pasternak import and the #1 Prosecco in Italy. Not only was proprietor Pierluigi Bolla instrumental in coordinating the onerous political campaign needed to create the DOC, he has been leading innovation in the bubbly itself. Earlier this year, Pasternak brought in a delightful $15.99 Valdo Brut Rosé (technically not Prosecco; Glera is a white grape, so the rosé is 70 Nerello Mascalese). And for 2014 we can expect broad rollout of the just-launched Valdo “Oro Puro” Prosecco Superiore DOCG. Translating as “Pure Gold,” the new Prosecco is sourced from Valdo’s best hillside vineyards and gets extended aging, yielding a finer perlage and elegance along with lush pear and golden apple fruit. If Valdo can build a better bubbly, at a price ($19.99) that is still about half that of basic Champagne, Americans may well embrace Prosecco even more deeply.