Tuesday, September 5, 2017

CHEATS, CROOKS AND TRICKSTERS (PART 1)

I've decided to do a series on scammers and other disreputable people I've come across in the wine industry over the many years of my career in it. I've also met many (many more) nice and reputable people as well and will do a parallel series on these. This is the first on the scammers.




I buy a lot of my wine from on-line sites where producers choose to move along excess quantities of good product at greatly reduced prices to avoid the risk of damaging the price perception by having them discounted on retailers shelves. Often the product is superb and bargains can be had but it pays to have a bit of knowledge on wine styles and regions and to do a bit of research before buying.
The bargains are becoming fewer however as the on-line sites are being used to not only quit over-stocked product but as a sales and marketing channel to move along volume of anything. I'll write about some of these in the future. This post is about a particularly nasty scam that I discovered.

About 5 years ago I saw a wine promoted on one of the sites I buy from that looked particularly attractive. It was advertised as a Hawkes Bay Syrah from the prestigious Gimblett Gravels area (the best for red wine in Hawkes Bay and which commands higher than normal prices). The advertised price was stated to be seriously below 'normal retail' and as I wanted some Syrah I bought it without doing proper 'due diligence'.
When the wine arrived and I cut the capsule and pulled to cork on a bottle I immediately noticed that the vintage, the region, and the vineyard name printed on the bottle was all different from what was stated on the label. I contacted the winemaker (from the on-line site I purchased the wine from) and spoke with him on the phone and via e-mail. Some of the e-mail correspondence is copied below.

I have removed the name of the winemaker, the name of the wine, the name of the original winemaker, the name of the real region and the name of the real vineyard/producer as I did not follow this up with a formal complaint to the official bodies:

(Actual e-mail copy)
Me to the winemaker selling the wine on an on-line site.
"I purchased XXX Gimblett Gravels Syrah 2009 On opening cork says 2010 YYYY (name of producer) from ZZZ (a South Island wine region) This is very serious. Contact me ASAP"




Reply from winemaker
"Good morning Peter and thanks for your e-mail. Congratulations on spotting the discrepancy with the cork. You are only the second person to spot this. The Hawkes Bay winery has deliberately used a different cork so it makes it even more difficult for someone to discover where the wine is from. As it is has only recently been bottled they also used a 2010 cork to make it even more difficult. At the end of the day, it’s what’s inside the bottle that counts and I’m sure you have discovered it is an extremely nice Syrah.Hope that answers your questions. Cheers"                




My response 
"Sorry I don't buy that. How can a Hawkes Bay Winery put (South Island region) on a cork and put a different vintage on it. I suggest that you come up with a better explanation that is not so flippant or I will take this further."

I then, using the information on the cork which had the name of the South Island wine producer, contacted the owner by phone and then e-mail: 
My email to the original winemaker  
"Hi YYY Tell me about the 2010 Syrah from ZZZ As you know I bought XXX "2009 Hawkes Bay Gimblett Rd Syrah" through (the on-line site) Its not Gimblett Gravels. The cork says 2010 YYY from ZZZ so is it yours? I have been speaking with (the winemaker at the on-line site) and told him the seriousness of it. I said that if I didn't get a proper explanation I was going to refer it to NZWine. At first he gave me some gobbledy goop about the winery deliberately using a different cork so it makes it difficult for someone to discover where the wine is from and that the 2010 cork used to maker it even more difficult.I told him this was garbage. I think he now knows the seriousness - that he bought cleanskins of the 2010 ZZZ Syrah from you and labelled up as 2009 Hawkes Bay Gimblett Gravels. I think they get shot in China for doing that if caught. He says he only sold 14 cases and has pulled the listing. He apologises and said it was a genuine mistake (for some reason). If this is correct and there was no deliberate intention to mislead then I won't take it to NZWine or elsewhere. If this is not the case then I have no option but to do so. The wine has obvious green edges and certainly doesn't taste like a HB 2009 wine so there's that. I have 5 bottles left from the 6 I bought. Are they worth keeping? Regards, Peter"

The South Island winemaker's email response

"Wow peter , this doesn't look good at all, definitely my wine I have sold him cleanskins recently , with labelled cork (and I told him of it) but had no idea of his own labelling 'adventures' - in fact I looked at his website and couldn't see a (South Island) Syrah so thought he must be flicking it on by some other method.  I will call him and see what he is doing As for the wine, its obviously not HB but is quite reasonable - (Retail chain) in Auckland just had it in a May promo for Syrahs, (Wine magazine) mag had it as wine of the month too and it has got a few honourable mentions from various wine folk. Not as good as my 2011 which is killer stuff if I do say so - you need some of that. I'll give you a call once Ive spoken to (name of the on-line wine site). If you're up for a coffee that would be great - later in the week?? - obviously haven't seen you in a bit but would be good to chat. cheers"
*************


After my e-mails and conversation with the rogue winemaker in which I requested that he pull all advertising and promotion of the wine I took it no further. I kept an eye on the on-line wine site to make sure this happened and didn't see the wine again.

I should have made an issue of this I know as this kind of 'cowboy' activity brings our wine industry into disrepute but I was working in the industry at the time and didn't want any embarrassment to come the way of the company I was working for. I keep an eye on this winemaker as he is a regular producer of New Zealand wines but am not aware of any recent transgressions. Hopefully this threat of exposure gave him a bit of a shock. Hopefully.




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Saturday, June 10, 2017

WINE FOR O.A.P.s

I like Chardonnay. It's been my white wine of choice for my wine-drinking lifetime (which is a lot of years I can tell you).

I've flirted with other varietals both professionally and socially and can easily identify a Viognier or a Sauvignon Gris in a blind line-up but always return to Chardonnay. It's the best.

Chardonnay (White Burgundy) used to be called the 'Queen' of wines in the old lexicography of wine appreciation (Pinot Noir or Burgundy was the 'King').

In recent years the commercial popularity of wine accompanied by a democratisation of wine drinking and wine appreciation has raised the 'second-tier' white wines like Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, Viognier etc. to a point where good old Chardonnay has been nudged out.

One of the problems with the promotion of the 'second-tier' is that on average the cost of production of Chardonnay or at least good Chardonnay has gone up. Reduced plantings and volumes of chardonnay grapes means that costs cannot be amortised as much as before. Also, with the growth in popularity of wine and the dominance of supermarkets in selling it, wine producers are now making wine from the bottom up rather than top down.

OK, what do I mean by that?

In the past the norm was for a producer or brand owner to make the best possible wine they could that represented their region and carried their name. In making this the best bunches of grapes were selected and in final selection before bottling the best parcels of wine were chosen - volume depending on market conditions and demand. This left a lot (the bulk) of grapes and made-wine left over from the top selection which was used, on a tier basis, to fill second labels, third labels and then budget offerings. The beauty of this 'system' was that the lower offerings were generally pretty smart wines that had a lot of the expensive inputs (grape selection, barrel fermentation and ageing, oak usage etc) that the top wines had, especially the second-tier labels.

In recent years the demand for cheaper bottled and labelled wines has increased (there was always a demand for cheaper, everyday wine but this was usually sold in unlabelled packaging or in bulk). This has resulted in the wine giant companies who make their money from supplying supermarkets with millions of cases of fancy-labelled plonk. The wineries factories are set up to churn out this stuff like beer production. To further meet demand quicker growing varietals like Pinot Gris and sauvignon Blanc have been promoted and cheaper growing regions like Chile, Eastern Europe and China have gained in size if not reputation.

As a consequence the model has been tipped upside down - wineries primarily produce cheap wine to meet new market demands and, if they wish to have higher tier brands and labels they have to start from scratch. While it's easy to produce a lesser quality and cheaper wine from a base of really good and expensive wine (blending, stretching, barrel and tank selection etc.) the reverse cannot be done you can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear you can't make a quality wine from a cheap wine base.

Wineries and wine companies that want to make a good wine on top of the commercial wines necessary for their continued survival - in our case here - a Chardonnay - have to make the choice right from the beginning to have a dual process going. Of course smaller wineries can still do the top down approach but the volumes produced of the second and third tier labels are not great and are hard to find although I still look out for them on internet wine sites and ex-winery sales.

The bigger wineries who dominate the industry and populate the wine shelves (nearly 80% of retail wine around the world is sold through supermarkets and the very large format stores) who choose to still produce top quality brands and labels (for PR reasons essentially to gain wine-writer support and successes in wine competitions) don't need to employ the trickle-down method with these wines and generally, unless bullied by the supermarket customer or have made a mistake in production planning, price the wines according to the expensive inputs they have used.

Whew!

So what does this mean for me as a recent old age Pensioner and you my readers reader?

Bad news I'm afraid.

The type of Chardonnays I like to drink are the top-tier ones: made from ideally bunch selection grapes from low-yielding vineyards; barrel fermented in new oak; barrel aged in a mixture of new and seasoned French oak barrels and held back for 18 months before release.
Montrachet would be a good choice.

Try and find this for under $500 a bottle


It is becoming increasingly difficult to find the second-tier wines that have been made like this and even the third-tier wines (that might have had a percentage of the real stuff in the blend) are not a patch on what they once were. The canny big wine companies now market ordinary shit with sub-branding like "Reserve', 'Selection' etc. that means bugger-all.

I've written in the past about brands like Selaks that had Selaks Reserve Chardonnay which was a pretty good and fair-priced drop. Unfortunately no longer. The wonderful Selaks Founders Reserve Chardonnay seems to have disappeared from supermarket shelves - hopefully it hasn't been discontinued. I bought a bottle of Selaks Reserve Chardonnay 2015 for $12 the other day (not the Founder's Reserve) and guess what? It was very very ordinary and a pale imitation of the wine under this label of a couple of years ago. To try and be fair to Selaks I then bought a bottle of Montana Reserve Chardonnay 2016 for $13. It was very ordinary.

Bummer!

I'll still look out for deals on the top wines but I fear that these will be few and far between.
I'll have to change my wine drinking choices. Not to Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Gris which to me is just lolly-water, but to Riesling and Gewurztraminer which fortunately New Zealand makes some of the best examples in the world and, at least at this time they are very affordable.


Saturday, March 11, 2017

CONFUSED? I AM.

I bought some Matahiwi Estate Chardonnay on-line a while ago and then forgot about it. That was prescient.



Last night I dug one out of the cellar, chilled it, opened it, tasted it and gasped. Not at its outstanding quality as I'm sure the on-line seller raved about inducing me to buy a case, but at its ordinariness bordering on awfulness.

The wine is lean, woody and tart.

The leanness is from poor fruit. The woodiness is not nice vanillin oak but that varnishy, splintery and bitter character that comes from being too long exposed to cheap wood staves or planks. The tartness is not refreshing but that bitter lemon character from lemon skins.

Intrigued as to why I bought this and not having to hand the blurb that the on-line seller had used I read the back label.

Now I must say here that over the years I've written many back labels. On most occasions this has been a sincere attempt to inform the buyer about how the wine was crafted and what the winemaker considers are the primary elements of the wine's aroma and taste. On other occasions it's been a marketing exercise where the descriptions used bear little relationship to the actual wine. The 2015 Matahiwi Estate Chardonnay is definitely a case of the latter. This is what I found:

"Sourced from two vineyards in Hawkes Bay, this chardonnay has lovely nectarine and melon fruit with a spicy oak nose. Ripe citrus with a nutty creaminess and a toasty oak finish".

Well, I don't know what hallucinogenics the writer of that was on and if he/she was drinking chardonnay at the time it wasn't the 2015 Matahiwi Estate. It sounds more like a Te Mata Elston or something from the Sacred Hill stable.



My view of wine labels is that the best use of them is for the diner left at the table at a restaurant has something to read when his/her partner nips off to the toilet. I can't really think of another use. Now that smartphones are in almost everyone's pockets the abandoned diner has no shortage of things to read and listen to thereby making the back label completely redundant apart from the legal mandatories like name of producer, name of wine, alcohol and additives.



Nevertheless after I'd recovered from the blatant lie by the winemaker or the marketing person I read the other crap that was written.

"The Phoenix has long been seen as a symbol of renewal. The Matahiwi Phoenix symbolises the rebirth of winemaking in the northern Wairarapa after the period of prohibition in the early 1900's (sic). New Zealand wine pioneers recognised the region as an ideal environment for grape growing, as did Alastair Scott when he returned from London to his homeland in 1998 to establish Matahiwi Estate. Matahiwi is a place recognised by Maori as a windy and exposed area sheltered by the high mountainous Tararua ranges to the west. These wines, produced by winemaker Jane Cooper, show just how the Wairarapa has earned a reputation for producing some of the best wines in the world."

The blurb then goes on to describe the chardonnay in the bottle.

What the fuck?
I'm a marketer and used to all sorts of advertising and marketing bullshit but this is incredible.
Apart from the dodgy grammar and incorrect use of punctuation these are some of the outtakes for me:


  • What the hell is the use of the phoenix for? Apart from being a good logo/badge device for the front label why is it there? Is it because disgruntled wine drinkers burned down the first winery after tasting the wines?

  • How can a place be windy and exposed at the same time as sheltered?

  • After all that rubbish about Wairarapa producing 'some of the best wines in the world' the writer goes straight on to say that this chardonnay was 'Sourced from two vineyards in Hawkes Bay'.

So, my impressions?

Unimpressed by the wine.
Flabbergasted at the verbosity of the wine description.
Appalled at the poor editing and allowing a Hawkes Bay chardonnay to be introduced as the epitome of Wairarapa winemaking.




Friday, January 20, 2017

VILLAGE IDIOT





I've wittered on in the past about the benefits of blending wines especially if one of them is a bit below par.

Last night when I collected Her Indoors (H.I.) from the bus station we went to a local wine bar/restaurant before heading home.
I had the ever reliable Trinity Hill Chardonnay (one of the basic ones but still damned good for the price) and H.I. had a Central Otago Pinot Gris. I won't name the brand but it was bloody awful which made its price:quality = value equation way below par. This wine was made from unripe fruit a fact which the winemaker was evidently aware as he/she poured in bags of Chelsea's finest during processing. See here:  

       CHELSEA MORNING   

 The result was a sharp and thin wine with an unpleasant sweet finish. Frankly I thought that we had got over this sort of winemaking but there you go. If it had been a bag-in-the-box wine or one of those that Robert from Moera buys for $6.99 at his local supermarket I would kind of accept it, but this was priced like all the other Central Otago wines. Expensive and overpriced.

Anyway, H.I. is pretty good at tasting wines and she said "taste this" as she passed her glass over to me. This of course immediately made me suspicious as if she had a glass of Taittinger Compte, Roederer Crystal or a Montrachet of any vintage there'd be no way in hell that I'd be able to get a sip of it so I cautiously accepted the glass and came to the conclusion of which I've already bored informed you.

She then hailed the wine waiter-type guy and, from the list, ordered a decent Marlborough Riesling (Te Whare Ra I think) and proceeded to blend the two together. The result although not being brilliant certainly made the C.O. wine drinkable.

Tonight I'm enjoying a glass or two of chardonnay.
This is good for a few reasons: firstly because as I've been ill since before Christmas I haven't been drinking any alcohol; secondly as I did some good work today I feel that I've earned it: and, thirdly I've made a blending discovery.

We had family staying with us during Christmas and New year. They like good wines and brought a few treats up with them. As I wasn't drinking I didn't really take too much notice of the wines that were opened and consumed.
Today H.I. pulled out a bottle from the wine fridge. It was a Kumeu River Village chardonnay 2015.



It seemed full when lying down in the stack but had been opened and only one glass used from it.
We deduced that Chris, one of the guests had opened it, consumed a glass of it and then forgot about it. We tried it and the fruit quality is certainly there but it was a bit sharp with a poor finish. This wine has been open for more than 3 weeks. There weren't any overt oxidative characters but it was a little but 'flat'.



Recently I bought a case of Smoking Loon 2014 chardonnay on the web. It was promoted as a '98 point winning wine' which means that it should be almost perfect. The 98 points were awarded by a Californian wine competition so I guess has to be looked at sceptically. See here:



WHAT'S THE POINT?




But the wine is good. It is rich and buttery and almost 'thick' compared to the usual Hawkes Bay chardonnays I drink.
On tasting the Kumeu River wine I didn't want to chuck it just because it had been open (albeit refrigerated) for such a long time, so blended it with a bottle of the Smoking Loon that was in the fridge.
The result is stunning. It is easily the best chardonnay (blend) that I've drunk for quite some time.
I'm now thinking about buying some bottles of Kumeu River Village chardonnay 2015 to open simultaneously with every bottle of Smoking Loon I open.





Wednesday, March 30, 2016

"NEVER MIX THE GRAPE WITH THE GRAIN" ...

.... so goes the old adage.



Conventional wisdom has always said that drinking beer and moving on to wine is a mistake as the consequential hangover will be a doozy. It's never been clear as to the quantities involved that cause these dire consequences but the threat was always there.

Worse still was moving from wine to grain based spirits (although in my experience wine based spirits like Cognac can also produce unwelcome results.).

No-one knows the origin of this 'conventional wisdom' and it's been dumped amongst all those other old wives' tales like:


  • Chocolate causes acne
  • Cracking knuckles leads to arthritis
  • Shaving causes hair to grow thicker
  • Double bass playing leads to madness*
  • Feed a fever, starve a cold
etc.

The medical profession is no help in this either as they say that while there is no correlation between mixing drinks and the severity of hangover the different alcoholic percentages between beer, wine and spirits can lead to the drinker underestimating the strength of the higher alcoholic strength drink after drinking the lesser alcoholic one. Translation - it's the quantity of alcohol that causes the drunkenness and subsequent hangover, not the type of drink.




OK.

But ...... on St Patrick's Day last week I went up to the local club which I'm a member of ( it's a nice community club along the lines of a Cosi club or RSA with pretentions to being a 'Gentleman's'  club even though you can wear shorts and a T-shirt). I had a Guinness and a Kilkenny (beers) to celebrate old Pat's special day. These drinks were about 4.5% alcohol and about 330 ml each equivalent to about a glass and a half of wine at 14% alcohol. I went home and drank two glasses of chardonnay making the total equivalent less than a bottle of wine.
The next day I felt like shit.


This last Easter weekend we had 3 friends to stay who arrived separately on Friday and left separately on Tuesday. Through the 4 days we consumed copious amounts of wine from Rieussec Sauternes and Coleraine red through outstanding chardonnays and pinot noirs through to Champagne, Deutz rose and some simple pinot gris, cabernets and chardonnays. Between the five of us we drank about 20 bottles!
That was about a bottle each per night. I felt fine each morning - good enough to swim, bush walk, do gardening and enjoy (non religious) the Easter weekend.

So.

About that old wives' tale? It might just be true about the danger of mixing the grape with the grain.

I'll have to keep an eye out for hairy palms!














* Not certain that this one isn't true.




Sunday, January 24, 2016

BACK AND GLAD OF IT

In the past I've complained about the dumbing down of wine offerings by retailers in New Zealand.

This has been as a consequence of the rise of supermarket dominance of wine retailing and the decline of the wine and spirit merchant.



Sure this has been a process that has taken 30 years but it is a shame.
Big supermarkets with their volume buying power screw down suppliers, dumb down product offerings by forcing downward product engineering because of price pressure and set  difficult hurdle rates that encourage the promotion of budget and value wines.


Wine and spirit merchants have disappeared as supermarkets deal with wineries, importers and distributors direct.


Small wine shops, not being able to compete with supermarkets on price, parking and convenience resort to stocking their stores with RTD's and cheap spirits (that supermarkets by law cannot sell) and wines become an afterthought.



Well, I haven't really changed my mind on this but having lived overseas for the last 2 and a half years I can look at the local scene and favourably compare with what is going on in for example the UK.

United Kingdom has for centuries been the wine hub of the world, being exposed to all forms of wines from nearly all countries of the world.


The traditional wine and spirit merchant model was created there along with specialist wine shops, wine bars and many things 'fine-wine'.



The growth of multiple grocers (supermarkets) over time like in New Zealand has led to the demise of many of the traditional wine and spirit merchants, the high street chain retailers and hundreds of specialist wine shops. There has of course been a resurgence of small, family run wine shops but these represent a tiny percentage of the total. The multiple grocers - Sainsbury's, Waitrose, ASDA, TESCO, Marks and Spencer etc spend millions of pounds telling consumers that they have the perfect selection for them. Sadly this is like American television catering to the masses and dumbing things down to the lowest common denominator. Most of shelf space is now taken up by cheap offerings from Spain, South Africa, Argentina, South of France, Chile, Australia and, sadly, inferior bulk produced Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand. So much for the wine hub of the world.



Multiple 'High Street' chains like Majestic and Oddbins are fighting a rear guard action but are seeming to struggle. They too are limiting their quality selections in favour of cheaper, value and budget brands and products from the aforementioned regions.

In the UK there are of course still some outstanding importer/distributors who still have the top wines of the world (Corney and Barrow, Harrod's, Berry Bros and Rudd, Adnams etc but unless you are a millionaire or are prepared to take out a second mortgage the offerings are generally beyond the average wine drinker.



As an average wine drinker I was very disappointed at the offerings in the supermarkets and high street stores that I visited. The Australian, New Zealand and Californian sections were particularly poorly represented. Being familiar with the stunning quality and exceptional value that can be found from these regions it is inexcusable that the retailers don't bother stocking them, preferring to dumb down their selections to match the undiscerning buying preferences of the majority of their customers. Shame on them.

This responsibility is left to the small independent wine shop owner whose enthusiasm drives him/her to find great examples but whose buying power restricts them on range and affordability.

When it comes to on-premise the situation is even more dire.
The wine bar is a sad reflection of what it once was or could be. The selections overall tend to be ordinary and the offerings by-the-glass pathetic. What are these operators thinking when they expect people to come in and buy a bottle when they may only want a glass or two. The ideal of a wine bar is in being able to try two or three different wines at a sitting, not to plough through a bottle.

Pubs are worse with plenty of beer choices with real ales and boutique breweries but they can't be stuffed when it comes to wine, generally having an indifferent white and an indistinct red as the choices and wonder why I and other say no thanks. I guess if we default to beer they are happy as there is more margin in that for them.



The most shameful are the big tourist hotels whether they be Hiltons or Travelodges. The food and beverage managers have been instructed to keep margins down and prices high so the wine by the bottle or glass will be some dire Riverlands crap from Australia or an undrinkable concoction from Argentina - all at astronomically high prices.

So.
Where is this going?
Why back to Godzone of course.
At least in good old NZ the wine offerings in supermarkets while not being very broad in terms of countries of origin, will be very comprehensive in terms of New Zealand, Australian (and emerging California) varietals and the prices, compared to the UK are brilliant.

The wine bars and pubs and restaurants and cafes in NZ generally have a good selection of wines by the bottle and by the glass (could still improve but are better than Canada, UK and Europe).


Monday, February 3, 2014

EVERYONE DOES IT



We went to Cosi Fan Tutte yesterday at the Canadian Opera Company.
The performance was outstanding with seamless performances from the excellent cast. The set decorations were striking, albeit quirky. The director is a bit odd choosing to take literal interpretations of Mozart's opera e.g. the school for lovers alternate title for the opera is taken as the setting of a School for Lovers with students taking notes on the various characters' performances and actions. He also uses Frida Kahlo's "Two Fridas" painting as an overlooking backdrop. This features a visceral depiction of exposed hearts on the characters which is a bit obvious really.

I'm not a great fan of Mozart opera, preferring the Italian ones that have a bit of edge to them but I have to admit that the music was very lyrical and pleasant. A lot of opera depends on some big numbers linked by a lot of pretty boring filler. Mozart's kind of lacks the big numbers but instead has all very pleasant filler. Nice.

Toronto Opera at the Four Seasons centre use the sur-titles way at the top of the stage. This is generally OK for Rossini or Verdi but Mozart is a bit wordier so you had to continually look up to read the translations. The New York Metropolitan has little screens on the back of each seat so all you have to do is cast a quick look down to read the translations. You can also select a language which is pretty neat. In Auckland years ago they did a trial of a transparent screen across the fron to f the stage with the translation projected above the heads of the performers. This was an excellent idea but got discontinued probably because of some miserable old scrotes who felt that it was detracting.



Another meaning for Cosi Fan Tutti is "Women are like that" ie: inconstant kind of like:

LA DONNA E MERAVIGLIOSO



"It's over now - do you want to hear a song"