should your wine be safe as milk?

Monday, June 06, 2011

Think of your absolute favorite wine in the world. Your go-to wine, your can't miss wine, your pure pleasure wine. Do you want that wine to be consistent, reliable, the same great flavor year in and year out? Or do you want that wine to surprise you with its ability to be itself and yet be somehow unique in every vintage?

To put it this way, do you want that wine to be Humphrey Bogart – essentially the same great character in every movie he ever made? Or do you want him to be Johnny Depp – a funhouse mirror of an actor, capable of locking into any role in his own unique way, without being repetitive?

I ask these questions because they apply not only to wine, and actors, but to much of what we choose for pleasure in life. A recent New Yorker profile on PepsiCo (Snacks For A Fat Planet) noted that Pepsi's food and beverage brands "represent a kind of promise to its customers – a guarantee that the drinks and snacks are safe, and that the taste of them, that irresistible combination of flavors, will be the same every time."

Is that what the most successful wine companies also deliver? Is reliability – sameness – uniformity – the ultimate measure of a successful product? And if so, what's wrong with a wine offering "an irresistible combination of flavors" that you can call upon any time without worrying about the damn vintage, or wondering if the winemaker got a bug up her butt and bought used foudres in place of new Taransaud?

On a recent visit to Columbia Crest, the largest winery in the Northwest, with production now over two million cases annually, I spoke with newly-installed head winemaker Juan Muñoz. Extremely bright, personable, and experienced, Muñoz did as good a job as anyone at explaining how he tries to be both innovative and predictable.

"The brand and history, the winemaking philosophy, I take very seriously," he told me. "My immediate reaction to the question what is in store is to say 'who is this guy from Argentina to come in and change anything in this brand that has been so successful and represents a big chunk of what Washington is?'! So first of all is to let the winery do what we have been doing. The style, the winemaking philosophy should be above any winemaker. Thinking about that we’ll respect the tradition that was set up before me; and just add to it in my own way."

But respect does not equal blindly following a set formula. "Obviously, the wines are not going to be the same," Muñoz continued. "This new generation of people will have an impact. We’re young and excited, but we’ll be respectful to what people ahead of us have done. That said, the major changes might be the small lots – in 2008 we did Tempranillo and Malbec – I was born in Spain, studied in Spain."

Here's the kicker: "We want the transition to be seamless to the consumer. I want them to get the same quality they expect. We are excited and thrilled about terroir. It’s a responsibility to showcase terroir and showcase the people who are growing the grapes. We’re thrilled about small lot winemaking, and exposing our people to small lot techniques, and consumers to great sites throughout the state. You get into a region and discover it’s wonderful to grow grapes; then you start dissecting the region and find the places where the grapes are grown. I want to be part of that. People are making fantastic wines in Washington – cult wines, 100 point wines, wines people are getting excited about. We need to follow, to push that momentum. We are excited about that."

What do you think? Can you have it both ways, as Juan Muñoz suggests? Or do you have to choose one path or the other. And if so, which path would you, as a consumer, want to follow?

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

Oh boy! This is one of my favorite topics! The more I spend the more predictable I want it to be. One of my personal favorites is Andrew Will's Sorella. I enjoy some of the year to year variation but I rely on and enjoy the fact that this wine is going to be excellent every year. It is one of of the biggest reasons I am willing to spend 62.00/btl on it. If you get much variation and I have bought a 6 pack, or worse yet a case, I am going to be bitter and angry. When I'm exploring a new grape or new region or spending 20-30/btl I have no problem with some variation but again, the closer it gets to 30 the more careful you had better be. I'll forgive an "off" vintage (defined by me) of a $25.00 wine but not much more than that. There are too many really good wines that are predictable at 30.00+ and so my patience there is minimal. So I guess I am more of a Bogart person for my favorites.

Anon Wine Addict

Anonymous said...

Great subject. Can you have it both ways? Yes, with enough resources. But...you need to choose, like texting and driving you can get both done but can only do one of them well. If you're featuring consistancy, odds are you're finding "variation" as flaws rather than attributes. If you're featuring variation and terroir, constant wines may appear boring. I know there will be some disagreement but that's how I see it.

...and I always opt for diversity over consistancy in food, drink, music, acting, etc. isn't that why they call it a craft?

terroirist said...

Great post Paul - one of your best ever IMHO. I'm especially intrigued by this quote:

"We are excited and thrilled about terroir. It’s a responsibility to showcase terroir and showcase the people who are growing the grapes. We’re thrilled about small lot winemaking, and exposing our people to small lot techniques, and consumers to great sites throughout the state. You get into a region and discover it’s wonderful to grow grapes; then you start dissecting the region and find the places where the grapes are grown. I want to be part of that. People are making fantastic wines in Washington – cult wines, 100 point wines, wines people are getting excited about. We need to follow, to push that momentum. We are excited about that."

Does this mean that CSM is going to start seeking out unique sites for the production of terroir-driven (single vineyard) small-production wines? My guess is that the focus will remain on high volume supermarket wines that are their cash cow. I don't think you can even talk about terroir with regard to wines produced in huge quantities by blending from multiple sources. I'm glad to see that Juan Muñoz appreciates terroir, but I don't see how he's going to apply that appreciation to the bulk of the production at CSM. Wines such as Columbia Crest Grand Estates are definitely in the Humphrey Bogart category - and I'm sure the management wants them to stay there. Personally, I love tasting vintage variation in wine - for me, it's a defining characteristic of the beverage - variety IS the spice of life. I don't think I've ever ordered the same cocktail at the JGB in Waitsburg, I just tell Jim to "make me something" - if he's making it, I know it will be superb. Quality craftsmanship such as this is certainly apparent in winemaking. A truly talented winemaker is tuned in to his/her terroir and knows how to craft interesting wines from almost any vintage - vive la différence!

Stephanie LaMonica said...

it's all about the type of consumer you're trying to reach or the consumer you are. it's like someone who wants a print/knock off of a great work easily manufactured, or the great work itself, valued for its individuality of expression. we just had a table made by a buddy artisan wood-guy and i gave him parameters (size, hopeful materials) and knew his expression of a table would be 1. his alone, 2. just right for our home, and 3. no-one else would have this table. i didn't know what i was going to ultimately get, but i knew his style and in the end, it's a gorgeous table. i could've gone to ikea to get something WAAY cheaper, and mass produced and "safe" -what i see is what i get - but if i can go the individual route, that's where i'll go.

from a brand standpoint, i believe you do need to decide which you are -- for you can't be everything to everyone, and you'll die a slow death trying. as far as marketing schlock, if someone tells me wine is made in the vineyard, i would expect it to show yearly variation. if you tell me wine is made in the winery, then i expect it to be more manipulated and gussied up than joan rivers, for consistency's sake. and if an industrial wine company with deep marketing pocket that enables it to tell almost anything it wants starts telling me about "terrior" [sic] (that's for you, paul)? i truly don't know what to think.

PaulG said...

Good comments, all! Terroirist, my impression (based on a very thorough tour of the facility, and a lot of questions) is that Juan is going to continue to expand upon projects already in place. CC has been doing small lot, limited edition varietals and blends for awhile now, offering them to mailing list/wine club members. They have the ability to make small lot wines in much the same way as a boutique. I've seen the barrels, believe me. Of course they also do huge amounts of more standardized wines. I hope they will focus on specific terroir-driven sites as they work to improve the boutique-style stuff. We shall see. Stephanie, I love the artisan wood-guy example. We did the same sort of thing with our dining room table. Just as you say, it cost more, it's totally unique, we love it. But that said, I don't think I'm being tricked by an industrial wine company with deep marketing pockets. At least I hope not. I've been at this a long time, and I know how to sniff out b.s.

Stephanie LaMonica said...

not worried about you being tricked, paul! c'mon! just all those other millions of untrained BS sniffers. you know as well as i do, at a base level, the industry is rife with ridiculous stories, all because people are trying to differentiate through words, not wine. my feeling is that most consumers don't understand that because i believe the industry has inadvertently done a bang-up job of making it so confusing through the proliferation of these stories -- so many brands, so many of these stories; hard to know what wine truths are anymore. then you have a behemoth of a company, CSM, making millions of cases of more-or-less industrial wine, and then they throw the T word in to THEIR story. it makes me want to lock my doors!

Dave Malone said...

I say go for it, Columbia Crest! In my opinion they make one of the most consistent wines in their Grand Estates label, but I have no problem with them exploring invidual terroirs. Given the variations from vintage to vintage, its very difficult to make the wine taste "the same," but I do believe great wineries can show a particular "house style" unique to them given the vintage characteristics. So to answer your question, I believe a winery can have it both ways, and more power to them if they can pull it off. Keep pumping out great, inexpensive, consistent efforts (Grand Estates) and have all the fun you want experimenting with small lots. There are enough wine geeks out there like me willing to give these small runs a try. :)

Todd said...

Terroirist,

I, too, found this post interesting. I've been told by folks in the industry about the importance of "consistency" - but I always ask "At what price? Boringness?" Unless you have the "luxury" of growing where there is limited vintage variation, if you fight the vintage you'll wind up sacrificing some quality or declassifying significant portions of production in challenging vintages.

As to CSM and winemaking, I found this article from the Coos Bay paper on Erath (a CSM brand) very heartening. I've always liked Gary and his wines. This article reinforced what I've seen, tasted and heard. It is super if they take this approach at Columbia Crest as well.

http://theworldlink.com/lifestyles/food-and-cooking/article_82665447-d2e0-5c26-9a40-a1327f07e76e.html

Chris Wallace said...

Washington offers possibly the best viticultural climate anywhere to achieve consistency. It is not as prone to the variations in weather from vintage to vintage as many other parts of the world. WA vinters who want to achieve consistency have a leg up on the rest of the world. So I think it is quite possible for a Washington vigneron such as Mr. Munoz to make his claim; much more so than say a Burgundian vigneron.

To answer your question, no, I don't want each year's release to be a carbon copy of the last. I want the basic house style that has attracted me to the wine to be somewhat consistent, but I also want to see subtle differences that reflect the vintage characteristics. While staying true to his style, I would like the winemaker to take whatever advantage he can of each years climatic conditions and have that show up as subtle, not radical difference.

PaulG said...

Chris, very well stated. I totally agree.

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