The times are a changing in the wine world

There was a quiet announcement this week that Alice Feiring has been chosen to chair a new award, Free Wine, at the annual Italian wine event Vinitaly.

Bravo!

Alice is a friend–all heart, smarts, passion and spunk. She has also been pioneering natural wine with unabashed frankness and tenacity for as long as I can remember.

One one level, I wanted to raise a glass and point to my post from 2012 where I imagined that the natural wine movement was indeed going mainstream.

That is naive of course.

Too simplistic a retort for a uniquely complex market with wildly nuanced relationships with a variety of consumer wine segments.

In the last 5-6 years the wine world has changed dramatically. We are in a renaissance reveling in innovation and excellence.

Small lot producers have populated the top of the wine lists and the top shelves at retailers the world over. Somms champion them, special events showcase them, the retail model pioneered by Chambers Street Wines here in New York has been innovated on everywhere.

It is certainly true that with winemaking innovation occurring everywhere I can buy an unsulfured bottle of amazing wine every day at below market prices 100 feet from my subway stop.

But something of far greater import is going on.

Beyond me certainly.

I believe that the process of aculturation that happened with organic food and ingredients, driven by stores like Whole Foods is just beginning to happen to the wine world.

Not everyone who shops at Whole Foods buys organic products. A very small percentage of consumers shop there at all, but from an awareness level of organic and farm to table produce, the explosion of green markets in urban centers and the scores of startups connecting farms to city residents, what they popularized has certainly trickled down.

Way down to the middle of the market. To every strata of generational uniqueness from the millennials to the baby boomers.

From what Alice Waters pioneered to the fortunate few in Berkeley back when to the Falafel stands in every neighborhood using organic produce and offering gluten free pita today.

This change has contributed to the rise of the wellness market where it touches how we view the world as consumers and what and where we buy with our expendable incomes.

Wine is not food of course.

And while many classify it as a luxury item they are missing the point.

Over the last two decades wine has slowly started to become part of the fabric of our culture.

It entered as a luxury item certainly, and in our unformed cultural state, our standards for taste were dictated by the unambiguity of the Parker point scale that kickstarted a movement that subsequently grew up and disowned it.

And by a host of pundits who aloof from the realities of the marketplace have defined excellence to their own standards. Not necessarily incorrect just increasingly more irrelevant and arcane.

This is why I’m excited about Alice’s work with Vinitaly.

Certainly there are many events and shops, blogs and tastings that are highlighting the changes in our wine world.

But what needs to happen now is—and I can’t believe I’m saying this honestly—not for natural wine to be known and adopted more widely but for a new era of wine as part of our culture to begin.

For new awareness by more people and a corresponding open language of appreciation to be created at a consumer level.

This will happen not only through the enthusiast wine community that I am very much a part of.

But through new communities and clubs that approach this in their own ways.

Smart groups who by understanding their markets and the unique way wine is part of their lives, will find a way to make it feel natural to them. New language to express what they like. New ways to buy and socialize it.

We are in the very primordial days where broader market segments are creating their own communities of interest and understanding about wine.

Where the consumer will internalize a vocabulary of appreciation of wine that is natural to their own speech. That is based on enjoyment and grounded in the curiosity that people naturally want to understand what satisfies them. To simply have fun.

That is what we do with food.

That is what we will do with wine. As part of our culture and part of how we interact with people.

So why is it important that Alice is chairing a new series of wine awards? Being given a microphone of influence to the market?

Alice is someone with very strong opinions, unique tastes but she approaches wine with openness, complete transparency and an understanding that it is about people and enjoyment.

She is simply completely unafraid to be different and that is what we need.

She may look at something obscure like the trend towards no sulfur added wines, but she will evaluate them, in her own words, for “emotional impact, liveliness and drinkability”.

She will bring the unique and the interesting to the many in language they can make their own. With approachability for people to learn from and enjoy.

This is why I applaud this.

A changing of the guard from the old generation to a new kind of expertise.

A new openness to change that speaks to enjoyment and the connection with a changing marketplace of people with a new set of beliefs.

A world where an ethos of taste can be a new criteria for excellence.

Big congrats Alice! Choosing you is the wise choice for all of us!

Dinner with Hank & Caroline from La Clarine Farm

Screen Shot 2015-11-27 at 12.32.23 PM

I’ve been a fan of Hank’s winemaking since I met him and Caroline at a Chambers Street Wines tasting a few years ago.

He’s part of a community of California winemakers scattered across the state that have collectively redefined what the craft of making natural wine means in the new world.

This group of first generation winemakers, many nomadically sleuthing out small plots of unique and organic vines, have shifted the idea of natural wine making as less of a passive stewardship of the land to an active and more deterministic approach to the craft.

What I like to think of as improvisational winemaking.

Highly skilled individuals throwing themselves into the process, trusting the outcome and making their own rules as they go along.

I had the good fortune to be given one of twelve seats at a special dinner with Hank and Caroline and the David Bowler wine crew at Racines a few weeks ago to taste through eight vintages of Hank’s Cedarville Mourvedre.

From its first vintage in 2007–in Hank’s words a science experiment- to the 2014 with its big bouquet and a sexy vibrancy that graced my Thanksgiving table this year.

I simply can’t separate the wine from the pleasures of the evening and getting to know this couple a lot better.

La Clarine Farm sits north of Sacramento at 2600 feet in the Sierra foothills.

On one hand this is Hank and Caroline living the Idyllic dream, producing 30 thousand bottles of wine a year surrounded by goats, bees and a gaggle of vineyard cats on their own hillside plot.

On the other hand, he is an astute oenologist, thinking way beyond organic agriculture as the endgame and mashing up pieces of Rudolf Steiner’s biodynamic theories with the natural farming teachings of Masanobu Fukuoka.

Hank narrated the evolution of his winemaking on the Cedarville plot as we drank and ate. Diving into the foibles of the land, the vagaries of the weather, the nature of the Mourvedre grape itself.

Through the deep pours of each year, I was thinking about the evolution of the quite delicious wine but equally about the narrative. About how we are really talking about terroir and how winemakers themselves learn to trust the process and focus the results through their decisions.

How far this is from the romantic and bombastic ideas of some natural wine populists that the winemakers are simply riding the wave and tending the land.

How the winemaker by intent and by craft, by embracing the natural process is creating something very much their own. Where what they produce on one plot will be quite different from that made on an adjacent one by someone else.

And how what Hank is describing in an almost almanac-like vernacular, echoes very similar conversations I’ve had with Hardy Wallace of Dirty & Rowdy in Napa and Scott Frank from Bow & Arrow in Portland.

It was telling as well that sitting with this most wine geeky group for hours, we were talking about philosophy and music in the same breadths as natural approaches to wine.

This haphazard collection of random people–winemakers and trades people, me the tech guy, lawyers and bankers around the table were weaving this together effortlessly. Almost communally.

I came away thinking about how this ties into what I’ve called The Ethos of Taste that is getting ingrained into our very culture.

That while there is certainly a dramatic change in the wine world happening now, there is a true tectonic shifting of how we think about what we eat and our relationship to the world at large.

And a growing mass market comfort in pairing scientific knowledge and natural rhythms not dissimilar to what is occurring in functional medicine.

This is where the evening took me.

If it touched your fancy, I encourage you to look up Hank and Caroline’s wines.

They sell their wine priced to be fair. It is invariably a delight and sells out quickly.

Enjoy them, as they are truly delicious and interesting by any standards.

——————-

Big thanks to my friends David Lille and Ariana Rolich at Chambers Street Wines for saving a seat for me at this very special table.

To Chef Frederic Duca for a brilliant pairing menu and my buddy Arnaud Tronche ( Racine’s co-owner) Arnaud Troche for being the always generous host.

And to whomever deserves credit for the photo that I pulled off the web.

Searching for my own story in wine

I first connected with wine in the early ‘90s living in the Bay Area.

It wasn’t a bottle or particular dinner that was the big aha for me.

It was the human touch that drew me in, bonding with artisanal winemakers and their families who brimmed over with their love of vines and the lore of making wine.

I fell hard for the storied iconoclasts in the early days of Napa.

It was story upon story, people, land, bottle and taste—an easy going banter, layered with beliefs and craft, personal philosophies and science, passions and humility all in one.

Twenty-five years later, I still have a visceral sense of driving down a funky dirt road in the hills north of Napa to hang at the kitchen table with Art & Bunny Finklestein from Judd’s Hill. Talking art and gravity feed systems, vines and the weather, drinking wine and eating cheese mid morning on an Autumn Sunday.

Sitting on lawn chairs outside the barn with my friend Kelly Smitten along with Todd Anderson of Conn Anderson Valley tasting his 4th vintage, chatting and bowled over by the litany of natural science he was sharing, mouthing words and learning an entirely new language.

Or knocking on the trailer door on the way back to the city to buy wine from Cathy Corison before her winery was complete.

It was a step into something completely new yet reminiscent and familiar. Something that felt right at first blush.

I’d never heard of natural wine, knew little about the craft but there was a confluence of life experiences that came together.

There was no wine culture in my family upbringing.

Not a rural bone in generations coming from shtetls in Europe to live in LES and Patterson NJ, working in the Garment District on my mother’s side, the silk mills on my fathers.

I was a city boy, 70s hippy who had spent a few years in the back-to-the-land thing in British Columbia. Gardens, root cellars and bee keeping steeped in a youthful zealousness for all things counter culture and the Farmer’s Almanac.

From street smart kid to drop out to tooling around Napa as a tech exec rediscovering a new sense of an earlier self.

Too odd but true.

I want to say there was a gravity that pulled me, but this is more subtle, more happenstance as Andre Breton would express it.

I woke up this morning intending to write a long neglected interview with Scott Frank at Bow & Arrow.

But sitting here at 4.30am, samthecat on my lap, looking at a bottle of Gonin Altesse on the table from last night, it was my own story that wafted over my thoughts. Like a Proustian nudge.

I kept thinking back to those days in the 90s and the 70s before them, realizing the binds that tie and the core beliefs that define me today.

No one loves a great bottle of natural wine more than myself.

I’ll travel to the outskirts of Marsala, Sicily to drink skin-fermented Grillo with freshly caught sea urchins from the hands of a winemaker to obscure and small to be imported to the states.

This is not about wine. Not about wine blogging.  Not about new wine economies spurred on by the Etsy effect.

It’s about why something that has nothing to do with my work or life, how this connection and community, spur things more important than the wine itself.

Almost a palimpsest of something uncanny behind the realities of what we are tasting.

When we look at ourselves honestly we see a gaggle of oft disconnected things and passions, seemingly random.

If fortunate, we get to a moment of clarity that drive health issues to become companies we start to change how people eat to stay healthy. That drive the benefits of a great education to spending your time being a big brother and role model to lower income kids.

I’m looking at these pieces of myself hard and realizing the mess of influences have a theme and pattern that gets clearer as my memories reiterate themselves.

To my world and networks, I’m the wine guy. That marketer and businessperson who’s a geek and the one to hand the wine list to.

But it’s more than that, and that’s what bears thought.

I can weave a story about a bottle and winemaker with some skill. Hundreds of posts later are a case in point.

But the why of why I focus on the small and the obscure as the taste worth experiencing and the story worth telling is where the crux of this lies.

Why I’ve championed natural as a rewriting of the scale where interesting meets delicious in a new definition of perfection. Why I believe there is an ethos of taste that can change the world.

Why organic is truly an important idea beyond the certification?  Why individuality in winemaking is worth exposing when almost no one can find the wines and artisans I lionize?

This is worthy of a great pause.

And pause is all I have this morning.

I realize that this post is a bit like a Neil Young song, all rhythm and poetry at the start then fizzling off into an emotive silence.

But this indulgent idea of why I—and many others in my community—grasp onto wine with such passion is an idea well worth surfacing.

It is a lens that we need to turn on ourselves.

Why we love what we do with such passion is a larger, more personal and more interesting idea than the craft of winemaking itself or the uncanny abilities of a professional taster.

It’s about ourselves and why this community–not others–is the icon we wave as what inspires us.

Share if you’d like from your own experience.

For myself, this meme is one I’m going to stick with.

As honestly–that line between a winemaker’s story and our drive to share it–is truly the story worth sharing.

The consumer conundrum in the wine world

Wine is an almost ineffable anomaly.

As much as I truly love the people, the sensations of place, the memories on my palate, as a marketer few things confound me more than the dynamics of this market.

This stems from a market conundrum that I can articulate but after mulling it over and over, find hard to fathom.

The modern wine market is grounded on the promise of the web as a foundation for communities of interest and an infinite number of micro brands. A true matrix of connections bouncing from a hillside in the Sierra Foothills literally around the world to countless touch points.

Take a look at where we are today.

Thousands of artisanal winemakers across the globe are making astoundingly interesting wine, each with an individual brand connected on the social web, with tens of thousands of enthusiast consumers.

In an almost one to one relationship, we call our favorite winemakers by their first names, sell out dinners with them when they roll through town, and invariably purchase their wine one bottle at a time from our local shops.

People sitting in Greenpoint have a personal relationship with Fabio from Ambiz Winery in Spain. Someone in Tokyo with Hardy Wallace from Dirty & Rowdy in Napa.

This is the Etsy effect—but without Etsy.

This is the web of connections with mostly terrestrial and disconnected points of commerce.

A transactional reality without a marketplace.

This is Anomaly #1. There are three of them.

As much as this exemplifies the concept of a global local community, wired on the back of the web itself, it is studiously retro and analog by nature.

How many wine enthusiasts have a wine app on their first or second screen on their phones?

Within my very broad networks, globally through the #winelover community, locally tied into the NY community and nationally through my interest in natural wines, almost zilch.

Too crazy and counterintuitive.

Built on the web, grounded in connections and need to buy and taste, yet app or even site wise, simply not there.

Take that further.

With the exception of winery direct to consumer and some wine clubs, wine in an ecommerce platform simply doesn’t exist.

Forget Amazon’s three time failure. There are many tombstones of great ideas to buy wine online under the monikers of natural or gen y or whatever. Most have been non starters.

A multi-billion dollar market. A wired community. A strata of heroes and rock star personalities, yet nada for online navigation and purchase.

Exceptions there are. Wine Searcher for one. Some signs of life in the local delivery segment but for the most part, this is true.

That is Anomaly #2.

And now to the strangest piece of all (and where I will raise some hackles).

Wine as a culture is so information rich yet compared to any other segment that drives an enthusiast community, content light.

There are really excellent wine writers, many of them friends, yet few true thought leaders from a market wise.

When I think of market drivers for this world, there are only two—Eric Asimov from The Pour and of course the grand dame of the wine world Jancis Robison.  This is the top of a very short and wide ladder.

When I asked two wine writer friends up for ‘best of’ writing competition how many people are reading their excellent work on their own blogs or in places like Palate Press, the numbers were between 500 and few thousand.

What!

Tastings at shops and conventions are overcrowded with people all dressed up, carrying a social dose of alcohol buzz and soaking up juicy topics like the intricacies of dosage! This is a billion dollar business. There are over 20,000 members in the #winelover community alone.

I can’t fathom this but it is most certainly true.

And that is Anomaly #3.

I write this post with true love of this amazing beverage and a community of people that enhance my life.

As someone who has blogged about wine off and on for a decade.

As someone whose embrace of natural wine has changed my ethical worldview.

And as someone who put his money and time where his mouth was and spent two years trying to build a commerce community and then shuttered it. Albeit some 20,000 strong, it couldn’t crack the market code and get beyond me personally as the brand. RIP thelocalsip.

This post is both an exclamation of affection and undying interest for what wine means to me.  Why most everyday I jump off the subway and spend 30 minutes and $30 dollars buying yet another bottle with a story to ponder over dinner.

I build brands and markets for a living and maybe that is why this so interests and confounds me.

I think of these anomalies with a head nod towards the inscrutable nature of it all. A smile that maybe these anomalies themselves are part of the wonder of it all.

Maybe why this remains so personal. Why a shared love of skin-fermented Grillo in discussion on a plane creates a true bond with a total stranger.

I’m not certain this world needs any disruption at all.

It does warrant acknowledgement for its uniqueness and its wonder.

And the power of it to make life better.  The mystery of it as a true bond amongst the most diverse community I know.

It certainly has that from me.

Marketplace pricing in the natural wine market

The internet’s greatest accomplishment is the flattening of the economic landscape, making the concept of a global local an economic reality for the artisanal maker market.

In the wine world this has empowered the smallest producer to build global markets of interest for their wines.

True for tiny, under the radar, producers like Christian Ducroux ,who I’ve never met, though buy my allocation every year. True for the most talented of the west coast natural winemakers who have fostered communities across the world with astoundingly small productions. Many whom I consider friends.

I’ve blogged about this often, and my passion for this approach, this community and the power of the web to tie this together is a common meme for me.

But it’s the cost plus pricing of the natural wine market and the resulting marketplace effect that has been getting my attention lately.

As a primer, all product pricing exists along the continuum of cost plus (what is costs to produce and what you need to live) and market driven (what the market is willing to pay at a premium).

The natural order of things is that prices go up as brands grow and value is more and more implied. People charge what they can. Think Porsche, Lululemon and of course the wines of Gannevat.

But more and more I find myself asking at tastings with small natural winemakers, Why don’t you charge more?

Natural wine is by definition an unscalable process.

Smaller plots, smaller yields and manual processes are the rule. And in the new world where land and grapes are both expensive, this is exacerbated. It’s an artisanal and resource intensive activity at its core

So what’s going on?

From an economic perspective of course this is counterintuitive.

Smaller producers with growing brands should create just the opposite. This should be creating allocations and a replaying of the Napa cult trends from the 90s.

Certainly some of the prices are creeping upwards and I see the beginning of price hikes in some of the most well known artisanal producers.

I had to step back  to marketplace economics rethought with web dynamics to understand what is going on.

There has been an artisanal revolution in wine. This is unarguable.

People are making wine naturally everywhere. Production per average producer is actually going down as the number of small producers gets larger.

And the quality of the product is increasing as information on best practices is shared and the palettes of the consumers become more sophisticated and demanding.

This is a perfect marketplace storm of supply and demand in the natural wine market.

Large and growing consumer demand on one side. More and more small producers charging just what they have to on the other feeding the supply chain.

The bar for quality, the competition for shelf space and mind share has on an average leveled the pricing.

So interesting.

So fascinating that what has been happening for a decade in the software and services market with open competition is happening in the luxury markets of the wine world

I am just starting to understand this.

Take a walk around your larger artisanal wine shop. Maybe what—2000 different skus across maybe 700 producers from around the world.

It is not a leveled pricing by any means. It’s a broader range with an average defined by the breadth of choices.

At the top end, you have producers like Ambyth and Els Jelipin where enthusiasts like myself put out their dollars to support these extreme and wonderful projects.

You will have the crazy low end of Ducroux and my newest find from Portugal, Filipa Pato selling for $12 a bottle.

And a huge spread in between of styles and prices.

From the garages in Berkeley and coops in Portland.  To impossibly small generational brands hanging onto the sculpted cliffs above the River Sil in Ribeira Sacra.  From the moon shaped spheres crafted out of volcanic stones in the Canary Islands.

From $12 to $80 a bottle.

I’ve know for a decade that there was a change happening in the tastes and ethos of the consuming wine loving public.

And we all know that we are living in the golden age of wine. Choices, diversity, quality, inventiveness and ubiquitous access everywhere. Down the street or online.

What I didn’t realize is that we were setting a marketplace effect in place.

That unfettered supply and demand was creating an open market effect in the most complex and regulated world of the wine and spirits distribution here in the states.

That cultural change made possible by the connecting threads of the web was transforming the economics of the very market itself.

Marketplace economics, community platforms, changing tastes and culture coming together to reshape the wine world.

How often is something this powerful good for everyone involved?

Consumers, producers, importers, distributors and retailers.

This is something we can all raise our glasses to.