Saturday, August 16, 2008

Are There Cracks in Napa's Glass...And Can We Make Them Bigger?

There was an interesting article in the Napa Valley Register yesterday, warning Napa Valley producers that they are not the only game in town anymore. If Napa is to continue its hegemonic position in the wine world, the article's author writes, it needs to refocus its attention on what it does best.

The author points to a new high-end restaurant in Oakland that doesn't have a single Napa Valley wine on its list as proof that Napa is beginning to take for granted its place in the wine world. And while I don't think that there will ever be a time when Napa isn't the dominant wine region in the US, other regions, like the Livermore Valley, need to do more to bring their wines to a larger restaurant and wine shop audience.

I am deeply conflicted about selling wine through the three-tier system. First, the system only benefits the smallest subset of participants: namely the large distributors, mega brands, and the politicians who receive enormous contributions from the distributors. Small brands are not going to succeed long term presenting their wines this way. They do not have the marketing muscle, case volume, profit potential, or visibility that the mega-brands do. Most distributor sales reps are paid on commission, and when it comes to putting bread on the table, it is the order and not the brand building that takes priority. Secondly, I prefer to know what those who consume my wine think of it. Through direct sale at the winery and through our wine clubs, I have the honor of talking with a great many people who tell me exactly what they think. The gratification and responsibility is immediate.

The conflict comes, though, from the fact that looking askance at an opportunity to tell my story, to pour my wine for someone who hasn't tasted yet, is too important to pass up, no matter how it comes about. If a wine region, like Napa did starting in the 1970s, bands together to show the larger world what it can do, and it continually produces better and better wine, it has a chance
to succeed as a group in this incredibly competitive business.

What do you think? Do you search wine lists for Livermore Valley wines? Are you seeing more good wines coming from Livermore today than 5 years ago? What can we do better?

5 comments:

Tim Corliss said...

Hi Steven

Living here in the Livermore Valley, I am frustrated by what I perceive (as a consumer) as a lack of focus on quality here. In the events I've attended, I don't hear wineries talking about the same things the Napa wineries talk about like "making wine in the vineyard", "managing yields" and so on. I get the sense that Livermore wineries are happy just being so so with no interest in trying to improve the quality. At one event I was at, I was able to listen in to some winery owners talking, they all seemed like they had achieved their own "rock star wine maker" status.


It is disappointing for me, especially since I see the valley as having potential, especially with Rhone varietals, since the weather is very similar to the Southern Rhone.

I hope that the attitude in the valley changes. From where I sit, you seem to be the only winery in the valley focusing on quality.

Steven Mirassou said...

Tim:

Thanks very much for the comment. The challenge for the Livermore Valley is to have as many winegrowers as possible understand that they are producing wines in one of the (potentially) great areas in the world. It seems a waste to me to not take what we have here and invest in better farming, smaller production, and communication of this effort to the larger world.

At Steven Kent we have begun to approach the level of quality of which, I believe, we are capable. We have used a number of different vineyards for our Cabernet production, some better than others. Each shared one quality that only time will ameliorate: youth. As our vineyard sources have gotten older, the quality of the wines has increased, in my opinion.

We are certainly not the only ones who believe in the potential of Livermore. Karl Wente's 2005 Nth Degree Cabernet, is a gorgeous example of the quality that Livermore can and ought to produce. The Merlot from Picazo Vineyard, the Bordeaux blend from Deer Ridge are exciting wines of quality.

Though, I am, by nature, impatient, I can definitely see that long-term belief in the appellation backed up by good, hard work in the vineyard and cellar will yield significantly stunning and inspiring results in the next 10 years.

I appreciate very much your confidence in Steven Kent, enjoy reading your posts and empathize with your current viewpoint. It is up to all of us to remove the doubt and answer the questions.

Cheers,

Steven Mirassou

Rob from Marin said...

I'm not sure I ever had a Livermore wine prior to a couple months ago. A friend came over for a dinner party and brought along a bottle of LaRochelle that we had, and we (not her) were somewhat shocked at the quality of the wine, on par with some cult Pinots that we've had and sometimes paid dearly for.

After that, she encouraged us to come out to Livermore and sample more wines. We visited 6-7 places since then, some great, some good, some not-so-great, but all of them were much more friendly and seemed more focused on small-quantity high-quality wines than if you had visited a random sampling of Napa wineries.

We've since purchased over 6 cases of wine from Livermore and love coming out there.

So there is some proof that word-of-mouth does work over time. Another way we tend to experience new wines or new regions is through small independent wine shops and their recommendations, as well as certain restaurants that have sommeliers that we trust implicitly. Evangelizing to those folks in particular clearly must pay off.

We've done our part as well, opening bottles that we've purchased (especially those small-batch Pinots which can really knock someone's socks off) and possibly sending a few more people toward your valley.

If we have guests in town that want scenery, we still take them to the Russian River Valley, but if they want bang-for-the-buck wines (and a very nice downtown & restaurant scene) we actually would drive the extra ~45 minutes to head east.

Steven Mirassou said...

Rob:

Thanks for the insights and for the support. There is no question that the third-party endorsement from the knowledgeable sommeliers and wine shop owners can help propel a wine region forward. I think Livermore needs to do a better job in this area.

I am glad you enjoyed the Pinots at La Rochelle and hope to meet you at the Winery some time soon.

Steven Mirassou

Michael said...

This is a tough nut to crack. Typically, when at a restaurant, I do not purchase a bottle of wine (since I usually bring my own with me) but I always traverse the wine list. Occasionally, when something peaks my interest, has been something I have wanted to try or is an apparent value I will go ahead and buy at the restaurant. Otherwise, I usually look to wine shops, stores, online stores and the wineries themselves for purchases (new and repeat offenders alike).

I agree Napa has cracks in its glass, but by no means is an imminent breach upon us. I feel that if their prices continue to rise like they have in the last handful of years, we could see more people in “discovery” mode again looking for something new, something fresh, something reasonable. It is no coincidence that magazines and newspapers publish a bang for your buck value section.

Another concern is size. When production is in the tens of thousands of cases per year (for one particular bottling) it is astonishing the level of quality that is to be maintained. Along these lines, I can’t help but wonder if these organizations find themselves running scared. That is to say, that the ultimate goal is the high rating and approval from Parker, Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast, etc. It seems like good press lends itself to better sales so is it farfetched to think some produces may make their wines with these authorities in mind? Moreover, what if the rest of us don’t like what Parker likes, for example?

Size on a grandiose scale can also be a promoter of poor customer service. For example, when you’re so big that you have a call center for your wine club I feel removed from the winery and more like a patient calling an advice nurse somewhere hoping a doctor calls me back at some point and that nothing falls through the cracks. I don’t want to be a mere line item in the economic workings of a mega corporate owned winery. I have a name and as a club member it’s nice to be called by name rather than #16169. At a larger winery in Napa, I might be #16169, but at least my face is recognized if my name is not always recalled, but this seems to be a waning practice in the region.

As far as Livermore goes, I think the wine on the whole has improved over the last 5 even 10 years. I absolutely agree that some wine makers seem to aspire to the rock star status and are very laissez faire about their wines, but others seem to be focused on quality. Recently, a friend and I visited Eagle Ridge on Tesla Road and liked their Petite Sirah. Bodegas Aguirre makes a nice Petite as well, but enough about my soft spot for a good petite. John Christopher has had some interesting and decent wines, as are some of John Evan’s wines at Big White House. Wente’s 2003 Nth Degree cab struck me much like a fine Alexander Valley cab, such as that from Ferrari-Carano.

You alluded to the banding together of Napa wineries in the 70’s and their subsequent success. Can such a model repeat itself in Livermore, or should Livermore Valley wineries crash the next Judgment at Paris in true Rock Star fashion? I think like-minded producers who are passionate about the quality of their wine could band together if they had a visionary to get behind and a path laid down for them. I know the passion exists for some Livermore Valley wine makers, but who of them will craft a vision that could create a band of wineries that could deepen that crack in Napa’s glass? Even if Livermore cannot close the disparity with Napa, it sure would be fun to try.