Archive for April, 2008

Triple plus half retail!

Tuesday, April 29th, 2008

One afternoon a number of years ago, a local restaurateur came into my winery to order some wine from me. During the conversation, I asked if he had anymore of an older wine left in inventory. He said he wasn’t sure, since his cellar was so full that he had to develop another cellar in his basement to keep the inventory that was spilling out—then, he complained about slow wine sales.

I knew that this fellow charged too much for wine at his restaurant and so I asked if he ever considered lowering his prices. He looked at me as if I had just cursed his grandmother.

Here’s how the rest of the conversation went.

He, “If I lowered the price I’d lose money on each wine sale.”

Me, “But you just said that your wine sales are slow.”

He, “Yeah, the wine doesn’t sell as fast as I’d like it to sell, but that’s no excuse to give it away.”

Me, “You wouldn’t be giving it away. You’d be charging a little less so that you can sell the wine faster.”

He, “So what would be good about selling it faster at a lower price? Speed up my losses?”

Me, “First, you’d lower inventory carrying costs. Second, faster sales will likely increase wine sales over the course of the year, since the price will induce more people to buy more wine from you. In retail, the idea is called volume selling—you move more units and so in the end, you make less percentage per unit but more profit on overall sales.”

He, “That’s plain stupid. If I can’t get my full mark up, I’d never make a living.”

Me, “Right. I’ll see you in a few months to sell you another case of wine.”

These many years later, this fellow’s wine pricing remains disgusting. His formula is to price wine at triple plus one-half retail. For instance, he had a Vinho Verde on his list recently that retails for $7.00 a bottle. His price was $25.00 a bottle—he rounds up the half, of course.

Most restaurants aren’t as greedy as triple plus half—they usually go double plus half retail, which still is absurd, in my view.

I’ve heard the arguments from restaurateurs: they have glasses to clean and wine service to account for. But I don’t accept those excuses. Simply put, restaurants charge what consumers allow them to get away with charging. It will be interesting to see if this period of economic woe will have an effect on wine prices if restaurants start to sell less, but I doubt it.

To be sure, the price of wine in restaurants is a tired subject. I know, I’ve been talking about it for twenty-five years, much of that time trying to persuade restaurateurs when I sold them wine that they should consider reducing their prices. But like just about everyone else who complains to restaurants, I failed at persuading them.

Yet, every so often a smart restaurateur comes around and does what other restaurant people probably view as either stupid or insane—he or she prices wine a little better than the competition.

Recently, a wine bar called Terroir opened in Manhattan’s once grungy but now fashionable East Village neighborhood. The bar is owned in part by one of the city’s truly successful and innovative wine purveyors, Paul Greico.

At Terroir, Greico offers wines that are mostly under the radar, the ones that most critics and obsessive wine hobbyists don’t seem to care about but regular people who consume wine not as a hobby but as part of their daily routine do care about. When you search for or consume wine regularly, as opposed to collect wine or buy what you are told to buy, it pays to keep searching for new products and at new prices.

Greico’s wine prices are as under the radar in Manhattan as the wines, and I wish him all the best for his effort.

You can get a nice glimpse at his place by following the link below. The link will also give you a glimpse into what some wine geeks think about such matters. Pay special attention to the person who wanted to know if Terroir allows BYO.

I can think of three reasons to go to a wine bar and want to bring your own wine:

1. You are cheap.

2. You are uninterested in exploration.

3. You think that your wine cellar is the greatest thing since wine was invented.

If you fit any of the above, it’s probably best that you stay home and drink from your cellar. You probably neither will be nor have any fun at a wine bar.

Terroir

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
April 2008. All rights reserved.

Philosophy

Tuesday, April 22nd, 2008

It was quite a trip. My latest sojourn to New York City lasted three days. In that time, I crammed numerous meetings. Sadly, none of the meetings were wine related and so, I also managed to miss my daily muse.

Then, upon my return, I read a few blog entries by Tom Wark, at Fermentations. It seems that Tom is in a philosophical mode—and a deep one at that.

Tom’s postings concern the value of establishing a wine quality parameter. He seems to think that the task is insurmountable.

Tom’s basic point, I believe, is that quality is put forward in such a subjective manner by wine reviewers and critics, as well as by wine consumers, that an objective measure simply cannot be pinned down.

I agree, and I disagree—how’s that for being unequivocal?

First, I agree with Tom because he’s gotten it right: self-appointed arbiters of taste are forced to make definitive proclamations. If they don’t, why would anyone listen to them? And the only way anyone can make a definitive proclamation, especially when that anyone has little or no technical training, is to be subjective.

The fact that wine reviewers and critics can lure others on board their ship of fools is because so many of us are insecure about our abilities. One of the most distressing revelations I gained while operating a wine tasting room was how often people seemed proud to proclaim their lack of knowledge.

Even regular wine drinkers often started out by saying that they didn’t really know much about wine. I countered with, “You know what you like, and that’s all there is to know.” And then, I shamefully proceeded to tell them what I thought they should know. This is the same methodology that critics use. I call it gaming the consumer.

The result of such a situation is reams of paper and digital print about what “I” find appealing and little discourse concerned with what it might be that “you” want. And why not? The words of critics spring from self-assurance, they have no need for another opinion; discourse is not their modus operandi. Under such conditions, quality is a moving target.

Where I disagree with Tom, is that I believe there are ways to establish quality parameters for wine. The point is, though, that they must be established and agreed upon.

Many wine consumers would agree that the smell of TCA is not part of quality in wine. Many probably would agree that wine isn’t supposed to be vinegar. Even the most self-assured critic is likely to agree that wine isn’t supposed to taste like Coca Cola—well, most critics might agree…

In my view, the best way to establish quality is to codify the technicalities of wine. The only way for that to happen is through an organized effort of technically trained people to create and agree upon technical parameters. Following that, an organized effort must make sure that wines are measured, and the parameters are met before they are subject to analysis by critics and reviewers.

Consumers are then assured that every wine that is reviewed has been rigorously passed through a quality analysis, and that the reams of paper and digital print produced by reviewers and critics are in fact what they have been all along: a bunch of subjective opinions. It might be fun not to let reviewers and critics in on the result of the technical analysis—a method that should underline their subjectivity.

Establishing quality parameters and exposing subjectivity for what it is are actually the easy parts. The more difficult task is the one that I believe Tom’s posts truly address—a few questions.

Do we have or should we have a relationship with wine? Why?

Why do we feel the need to agree or to disagree about wine?

What is it that makes us think that others should heed our proclamations?

What is it that makes any one of us imagine that he or she is the arbiter of taste?

Why do so many of us seem to need the approval of someone else before we can enjoy a glass of wine?

When did wine become a subject of philosophical thought rather than merely the lubricant that allows philosophy to flow?

Why can’t we simply enjoy something without having to dissect and obsess over it?

I’m sure Tom has other, more important questions in his head. In fact, I think that for a fellow whose function is to create and write PR for others in the wine industry, Tom may be thinking too deeply. If he keeps it up, he may find himself writing good books instead…

Tom Wark’s blog

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
April 2008. All rights reserved.

Wayward Tendrils

Friday, April 11th, 2008

Wayward Tendrils describes both the way of the grapevine and a wonderful little group of wine bibliophiles—yours truly included.

Most members of Wayward Tendrils are serious collectors of wine and food books and other writings on the subjects. As I am with all my interests, I don’t get too geeky about it: collecting books isn’t as much fun to me as reading them, and so I can live without owning an out-of-print book that I know is available at my local library.

Still, some things are unapproachable and because of that, they are more intriguing. Such is the case with Inaugural Medical Address About Wines, by John Michael Schosulan; Vienna, 1767.

Until the 19th century, especially in Europe, but also in the U.S., the custom was to study and write about medicine in Latin. To gain a doctorate in medicine in Europe required a thesis written in Latin. That is what Schosulan’s medical address was, a 55-page thesis concerning the properties of wine.

A Danish physician, Erik Sklovenborg, introduced 22 paragraphs of the dissertation in the latest Wayward Tendril’s Quarterly, a publication for members. Piero Perron, an Italian nuclear engineer with a “Jones” for Latin studies, translated the thesis.

Much of the medical benefits of wine that come to us today as news, were already believed in ancient times. Certainly, Schosulan believed much of it in 1767. Perron is also president of an Italian beer brewer’s association, but he admits that after translating Schosulan’s thesis, he developed a respect for, and began moderate consumption of wine.

In the translated thesis are wonderful passages about wine’s workings through our digestive and circulatory systems. Not to mention the marvelous things that wine can do for us (there is, however, mention of the downside of over imbibing). One of the many insights that caught my eye was Schosulan’s mention of the use of sulphur (we know it as sulfur dioxide, SO2).

Schosulan talks about protecting wine from the degradations of oxidation, which he quaintly refers to as “air.” He talks about topping up casks and adding olive oil as a film on top, of aromatic spices sprinkled on a cloth and then lit, or of lighting distilled alcohol, presumably to use up the air around the wine. Of all the methods, however, he points out that sulfur dioxide alone makes all other methods needless. Where have I heard that before?

I suggest anyone with an interest in wine books and wine history sign up for membership in Wayward Tendrils—it costs no more than a bottle of wine for a one-year subscription to the quarterly.

Being made up of a bunch of bibliophiliacs, Wayward Tendrils doesn’t seem to have a Web site. But there is an email address: tendrils@jps.net.

On another note connected to writing, Mike Steinberger has a fine piece of writing in Fine Wine Magazine, a truly expensive but well executed wine-centric periodical from Britain that, sadly, for me, I have yet to infiltrate as a writer.

Steinberger’s piece is about the wine critic/writing world of today. My only beef with the piece is that, like most, he seems to equate wine criticism with wine writing. I view them as separate functions.

The article has stirred a lot of online talk. Take a look at it for yourself, at:

FineWine

PS: I’ll be traveling next week. Will post my next entry the following week. I hope to have something to say after a few days in New York City.

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
April 2008. All rights reserved.

If you can’t stand the heat…

Friday, April 4th, 2008

Slowly heat up some sugar to 300-plus degrees Fahrenheit and you will soon have yourself some caramel; slice an onion and slowly cook it in almost the same manner and you will have caramelized the sugars in the onion; bake a head of garlic at 350 for about 40 minutes and you will get yourself a caramelized aroma plus a wonderfully sweet taste.

Cook a sweet brandy-fortified white wine at about 105 degrees Fahrenheit for a few months and you will have created a cooked wine called Madeira, which, to me, smells an awful lot like caramel.

Over on Robin Garr’s Wine Lovers Web site forum we’ve been discussing the subject of cooked wine. It’s quite a discussion for two reasons:

First, for an online discussion, it is tame, showing what adult communication can provide. With one or two exceptions, Robin’s Wine Lovers site is normally inhabited by less confrontational wine geek than on many other sites—certainly, it doesn’t suffer from a divisive moderator.

Second, after going around a few times with the discussion I have come to the conclusion that the word “cooked” to describe a wine that has been heat damaged somewhere in the traffic between producer and consumer may be a quick and easy way to describe the problem, but it may not be an accurate description.

Many wine geeks claim that a cooked wine smells like sherry. What they mean is that the so-called cooked wine smells oxidized. I am not so sure about that.

Granted, a wine that is exposed to heat will oxidize quicker than it normally would, but a cooked wine is exposed to excessive heat, to the point of Pasteurization.

To me, the overall smell of cooked wine is a pleasant kind of burnt sweetness. The overall smell of oxidation leans more toward acrid or decaying.

To my nose, the aroma of a truly cooked wine supersedes its oxidized component. When I smell the purposely-cooked Madeira, the more prominent among the aromas is caramel, with a hint of sulfurous reduction that reminds me of cooked onions—I pick up the oxidation but underneath the caramel.

In the first thread on this subject, someone mentioned that he has smelled butterscotch in heat damaged wine but never caramel. I find that interesting, too, because to make butterscotch you cook sugar as you would to make caramel but you add cream.

A major component in cream is lactic acid, which happens also to be a component in finished wine that has gone through malo-lactic fermentation, converting malic to lactic acid. So, it makes sense to me that the smell of butterscotch would show up in such wines if they become cooked.

Also, as a way of seemingly refuting my claim that caramel describes the smell of cooked wine, the gentleman who mentioned butterscotch also pointed out that caramel requires not only cooked sugar but also cooked amines (I presume in the sugar).

I accept that. I also accept that wine contains amines as well as sugar and ethanol, the alcohol in wine, which, when cooked, has a vaguely sweet smell. Wine that undergoes natural malo-lactic fermentation normally has a high amine count (Wikipedia provides a pretty good definition of amines—click below).

In the second thread on this subject, I recount a wine cooking experiment that I did the Cooked 2 link below.

All of this leads me to believe that when people identify a wine flaw with the descriptor “cooked,” they likely aren’t always talking about a wine that has been cooked. The question then is: what are they talking about?

Amine

Cooked 1

Cooked 2

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
April 2008. All rights reserved.