Poured with Pleasure

Bill Marsano’s blog on wine and spirits and cocktails: "If it’s good in a glass, I’m pouring it."

Month: July 2010

Zut Alors! Etc. Ad Nauseam

Historically, no one is half so good at clobbering the French as the French themselves. Only recall the Terror and the Paris Commune—or the current pummeling of and in the wine sector.

France is beset by an outbreak of Puritanism, of all things. Health loons want the government to treat wine treated as if it were a drug and ban all wine advertising. In a show of strength, the loons sued a publication that had published a wine review, charging that it thus had encouraged drinking—and they won, too. The National Cancer Institute last year advised teetotal abstinence, saying even very moderate consumption greatly increases the risk of cancer–for some types, by up to 168%. (The High Council for Public Health later officially rejected that recommendation.)

Meanwhile, France’s wine industry is in CTD Mode—as in Circling the Drain. Exports are down 30% over the past 30 years. Domestic consumption is plummeting, especially among the young, and some of the elders who still drink wine are buying imports. That raises the hackles of the CRAV (Comité Régional d’Action Viticole), a league of vinterrorists as elusive as the Scarlet Pimpernel and just as shadowy, too. (But not overly so, though: they are on Facebook.)

CRAV members are free with their fists and explosives both. They dynamite stores, vandalize rail lines, intimidate shopkeepers, and burn vehicles and warehouses. And by the time les flics arrive they’re gone, safe on the far side of the Gadroon border. (When the cops are in time, they don’t actually do anything except watch, as they are unwilling to interfere with what they call ‘social protest.’) CRAV’s ‘protests’ emphasize their demand that Sarkozy save their hides. They want subsidies and price hikes. They want high tariffs that will bully their fellow citoyens into buying French instead of foreign. And if they don’t get the relief they want? The CRAV does not shrink from saying that there may be blood—and if so, that it will be the government that is to blame. Naturellement: to the nanny-state mind, government relief at someone else’s expense is always the answer.

CRAV fire  A CRAV house-warming in the south of  France: the Tea Party was never like this.

GUESS THEY NEVER HEARD OF
[yellowtail]

And now like a coup de foudre (bolt from the blue) comes the heresy of Valérie Pajotin, top cork of Anivin, France’s new international marketing arm. Export success, she advises/warns the vignerons, means wine must be made like Coca-Cola. And soon, too. What she means is that it’ll have to be a] an industrial product and b] a crowd-pleaser. In short, enough already with the art of wine-making; with the sanctity of terroir; with the magic of the cellar; with the old attitude ‘We make wine as we wish and you’re lucky if we let you buy any’. Pajotin was clear: To offset spiraling decline at home and abroad, get off ton keisters and make the kind of wine the customers want.

The elite producers—makers of the famous and legendary wines we love so well and can’t afford—will be immune of course, as will probably most of the mid-price crowd. They’re not the ones who can’t shift their goods. But the many who make low-priced stuff that people aren’t buying any more—and there are thousands of them—will be urged, persuaded, encouraged (and some fear forced) to sell their grapes to gigantic wine factories. The factories will then bung them together indiscriminately and produce tsunamic quantities of market-friendly wines priced to delight the glad consumer.

Vindustrial wines, in short, is what they’ll be. They’ll feature varietal labeling, consistent quality and value for money. Nothing fancy, nothing schmancy. Adieu, château names (probably including most of the 50+ that contain the name Figeac); appellations likewise. Instead, under the Vin de France umbrella (itself a replacement for Vin de Table), there are to be just a few readily recognized standard brands. Some will be blends from a single region—but a very large one, not some 500-cases-a-year plot beloved of those in the know. Others will blend fruit from all over France. ‘Assembling wines in this way ensures a consistency of quality which will retain consumer loyalty by offering a constant taste from 1 January to 31 December,’ Ms Pajotin said. ‘It is what happens with consumer brands, such as Coca-Cola.’

This is un coup en traître or stab in the back, some say; they decry the ‘dumbing down’ and even destruction of the AOC system. On the other hand, the legitimacy of not a few appellations is open to doubt. (Recently six on Bordeaux’s Right Bank applied for a new shared appellation that would make it easier to sell their wine. As one member explained, ‘we all make basically the same wine.’ So what were those six appellations all about?)

‘An end to AOC?’ says ‘Stretch’ Léotard, the noted ballet dancer and knuckleball artist. ‘Tant pis! No one even knows how many appellations there are, and yet they are always making new ones, like Bordeaux Premier Cru and Reconnaissance de Cru Bourgeois. They have resuscitated the old Cru Artisans and are about to give new names to four old ones. I wonder will it affect the prices, don’t you?’

Despite the howls, it looks as if Anivin will get its way. French governments are past masters of bureaucratic bullying. The only time they come up short is when the opposition includes labor unions.

Just as well, says my friend and stevedore Gros Tonnage, the rotund and orotund King of the Marseilles Piers: ‘Here in France, the idea of pleasing the customer is a novelty at the best of times and anathema the rest, so quite a few producers are going to get what les rosbifs call the “short, sharp shock.” It will do them good. Since it took them this long to recognize Coca-Cola, I can’t wait till they discover Deux-Buck Chuck.’

Maybe it will all come down to this:

FullFrameCRAVlabel

Here endeth the lesson.

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Price Cuts? Anecdotal Evidence, and an Anecdote

2007 Pahlmeyer Napa Valley Chardonnay Front 

Who’d have thought we’d ever see Pahlmeyer Chardonnay hawked at 40% off? Yes, some other California Cult wines have seen cuts already, but Pahlmeyer was still a bit of a shock. Yet there it was in my newsletter from Grapevine Cottage: the 2007 Pahlmeyer Chardonnay, $41.99 a bottle (under $38 with the 10% case discount). That’s a shock on the order of the one a few years ago when someone at Mondavi unloaded some remnant cases at a fire-sale price. It was the first time Opus One was offered by Trader Joe’s, and likely the last.

Grapevine Cottage is a little outpost in wine-loving Zionsville in alcohol-hostile Indiana, whose legislature never misses a chance to stick it to retailers. For example, if Grapevine Cottage were to ship the bargain Pahlmeyer—even in-state—it would be a felony (only Indiana wineries are allowed to ship): customers must go to the store. The latest legal irritant: Retailers must check the ID of every customer ordering drink every time or risk a $1000 fine. (Restaurants are exempt, suggesting that the law is aimed at store owners.) Nevertheless, GC’s owner, Doug Pendleton, somehow survives, even thrives through good service, good pricing and a durable sense of humor. It helps that he’s scooped the world on the Pahlmeyer. The winery itself is out of the 2007 (Doug is doubtless stalking the ‘08). Online prices from other retailers run from a little less to a whole lot more—but only and always for Pahlmeyer’s second wine, called Jayson.

The Anecdote

Pahlmeyer was pretty much an insider’s secret until 1994 and a fateful meeting at the intersection of Hollywood and Wine. Here’s what happened: At Spago, two movie bigshots were chewing on lunch and a script problem. The script, titled Disclosure, was from a novel by Dr. Michael Crichton, a reliable hitmaker: his latest, of many, had been Jurassic Park, so Disclosure was obviously going to be a big deal. The script, centered on a newly promoted boss who tries to trap a married subordinate in a career-wrecking sexcapade on the office sofa, has a role-reversal twist: The evil boss is a smoking-hot woman, her victim a man. In the book, her lure is blunt and dull. She says essentially, ‘C’mon, I’ve got condoms.’ Not only dull but vulgar. The movie needed something better, something suggestive that oozed temptation. Something box-office sexy.

About then Wolfgang Puck breezed by. He’d just received his allocation of Pahlmeyer and–as smart hosts of smart restaurants do–he was pouring for his A-List clients. The movie men sipped it and much as they liked the taste they especially liked the name. Pahlmeyer–it sounded classy, arcane, hard to get. And so, just like that, it was in the movie.

Hard to get indeed. During shooting in Seattle the go-fer sent to fetch it couldn’t find a bottle anywhere. Desperate (a go-fer’s job is not merely to go but to come back with), he called the winery in the hope of scrounging a freebie. Jayson was not amused. He said, "My chardonnay costs $25 a bottle." And hung up.

Jayson was brought up to speed a little later: the film’s producer called to gently explain the potential value of product placement. Jayson was skeptical. Even the fact that Budweiser had paid a bundle (said to be between $250,000 and a cool, frosty million) to put a can of their suds into Tom Cruise’s hand in Top Gun didn’t impress him. He told me later that the whole business seemed ridiculous. But anyway, he said, ‘I sent him two cases. What the hell.’

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Months later Jayson saw Disclosure—and still he wasn’t impressed. Audiences, however, were. After seeing Demi Moore lick her lips over the Pahlmeyer–and Michael Douglas–they rang Jayson’s phone off the hook as soon as they cleared the theater. They stuffed his mailbox. They cleaned him out. ‘I’d made 400 cases,’ he told me. ‘I could have sold 400,000.’ Later releases of the film—to foreign theaters, video, cable and network television–had the same result. "I had to get a new mailbox," Jayson said. "Mail arrived in huge plastic bins." Even today he still gets a few extra orders after Disclosure airs on late-night cable.

Soon the $25 price, to quote the poet-pugilist Mike Tyson, ‘faded to bolivian.’ It has been $70 for some time now, so $41.99 is practically stealing.

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