Monday, February 14, 2011

Wine Buyer's theories, deliberations and thoughts...

Wine Buyer's theories, deliberations and thoughts...

Bye bye 2010 and welcome 2011, hoping that it will be a better year! Isn’t it what we say every year?… except that lately, over the last three to five years, it has been more anticipated and especially more expected than ever before.

While parts of the world are at stake regarding politic, religion, power, civil war, terrorism, dictatorship, protests, strikes, unemployment, unsettled economy, man made catastrophes and other natural disasters due to unstable climate and rapid weather forecast changes and consequently logical earth evolution and adaptation in addition to Nature natural cycles and adaptation too, it seems that the market in the US isn’t great but somewhat feels thinly, slightly better. Yet people are still very cautious and prioritize needed things rather than indulging on unnecessary stuffs.

Hence, all these factors make for an uncertain and questionable future. In the long term, we will hopefully find solutions and will reestablish a certain balance and order to things. Yet, in the short term, for now, it is pretty difficult to predict the immediate future and how things will turn.

Therefore, this trembling world economy somewhat obliges us to look more closely at our bank statements and savings, and make lesser use of our wallet and plastic cards. It is true for pretty much everything in life like food, cloths, bills, furniture, etc… but when it comes to wine and spirits, which are once again part of luxury and special occasions beverages rather than daily routine drinks for most of us, it really means to search for rather inexpensive, or let’s say less expensive wine and spirits than what we could still afford only a few years ago.

Consequently and thankfully, my job has become even more challenging and more interesting than before because, despite continuing to be accurate and consistent during tastings, about the quality of the wines that I buy and the quality/value ratio, I need to be even more precise to determine greater quality and complexity in cheaper, or let’s say more affordable wine and spirits. It is not as easy as it seems, but it helps me to remain focus and determinate to find good values and great deals to satisfy my faithful clientele.

Before, let say 5-10 years ago, it happened that even if a wine wasn’t that great, but was just good, I used to buy it from time to time. It happened for different reasons: real bargain, friendship with the distributor, a little help for my friend, etc… (and a few more lame excuses that resurfaced here and there, even now from time to time but way less than before). But nowadays, with much more competition in the market than before (more retailers, but also much more importers and distributors than only 5 years ago), therefore, with a lot more wine & spirits pouring on the big Apple and elsewhere, I can now say NO as much and often as I please. And If I don’t love a wine why buy it? Why put it on the shelf if I only just like it? No, no, not anymore! I want the best for my customers and I don’t want any of them to go next door because one my wine displeased them. It might still happen, but I'm trying really hard to avoid it.

A welcoming, well maintained cozy store offering enjoyable, efficient, and responsive services dispensed by knowledgeable staffs is everything for sure in any retail business. But eyes-catching, informative and user friendly website with competitive prices, real bargain and frequent sales, in addition to abundant in-store tastings and events are the keys to success. Yet, most important of all, integrity and honesty in your manners and ways of treating yourself, your employees and more especially your customers will definitely open the door to greater longevity of the store. Not working with your customer’s budget, “bullshitting” and lying about an item (or more) to your customers will not only make you lose your own credibility but also the credibility of the store.

That is why, as I said earlier, being accurate during tastings and consistent in my taste and ways of tasting are very important and help me to remain focus and determinate to find good values and great deals to satisfy my faithful clientele. As a wine buyer, it is essential for me to taste thoroughly all the wines that I buy and put on the shelves, to offer the best quality/value ratio wines that I can find on the market and only get the ones that I really love, and not anymore the one that I just like.

Fortunately for us all, wine and spirits buyers and drinkers, the world market is overcrowded with wines and spirits from all around the world, due to recent surge of optimist entrepreneurs, investors and producers who, thinking that it will be quite lucrative enough, fiercely over the last 2 decades, nearly over-developed two of the fastest growing segments of earth agriculture: vine-growing and wine-making.

Which means that I have to taste much more wine and spirits than before (life is really difficult… I love it), but it also means that I get to say no and being more picky than ever before, more often. It is not going to arrange my already wildly known reputation of being a difficult, opinionated and picky wine buyer. But, it is for a good cause…

However, wineries and distilleries have been mushrooming everywhere around the world, even in places that we didn’t think that it was possible only about 10-15 years ago (Vietnam, Cuba, etc…). Consequently, the market is now over-flooded with thousands of brand new wines and spirits, and, like for science, medicine and especially electronic, it is difficult to keep pace with the new trends and new comers.

In any case, like with many other things in life, I realized that most benchmarks and gifted winemakers and distillers prevail. All the others are way too often only pale copies of their mentors and inspirations. Don’t get me wrong, there are great wines and other beverages made by young, innovative, talented and/or adventurous, spirited minds out there. And more and more smaller, artisanal producers come out of the dark to craft beauties and gems for the pleasure of our taste buds. But within the crowd of people trying and the resulting ocean of wine and spirits that submerges the market every year, only rare and few remain the best that are really worth putting on the shelves.

Buyers like me watch this fast evolution with interests and opinions, but remain cautious not to let our taste buds and palates get to hasty conclusions and bad buying decisions.

Spirits, which were pretty stable and safe for the last 40-60 years, even saw their world rocked by a growing wave of modernized and altered versions of highly recognizable benchmarks.

Take for example Vodka, which was usually made from fermented substances like grain and potatoes, it now adorns new profiles being crafted with grapes and other fruits. I hear you say: “It should be Grappa then!” Yet not really, because Grappa is obtained by distilling "pomace" and grape residues (mainly skins, but also stems and seeds) left over from winemaking after pressing. Therefore the distilled component is different and distillation process also differs from Grappa. Therefore, Vodka nowadays can be made pretty much out of anything and still being called Vodka. An idea that was surely unthinkable only 20-30 years ago.

And for wine, same thing! After World War II and consequently due to the baby-boom generation, wine was overproduced in the 1960s and 70s. Producers couldn’t keep up with the demand of a world population that suddenly double in 30-40 years, from 2.5 billions in the mid-20s to more than 4 billions by the mid-60s. A lot of chemically enhanced fertilizers and machine were used. Herbs and plants in the vineyards were suddenly considered bad and useless and unhealthy, and after multiple spray were looking rather unhealthily and uniformly yellow instead of their original bright and lively colors.

Then, while more and more wineries mushroomed everywhere, the end of the 70s and beginning of the 80s saw an evolution in the wine world, vinification, ageing and bottling processes were fully done at the property rather than at the local cooperatives, or by the Négociants, like it used to be only a few decades before. The world population increased to about 6 billions. Critics like Robert Parker Jr., Wine Spectator, Stephen Tanzer and importers like Neal Rosenthal, Kermit Lynch, and many more timidly led, as pioneers of an America having great interest in wines, the way to educate the American palates about wines from the rest of the world.

Also in the mid-70s, Steven Spurrier organized the Tasting of Paris (Judgment of Paris, 1976), which, in my opinion, was more a publicity stunt than anything else; yet it allowed California to be recognized and put on the map of world class producing wine regions along Bordeaux and Burgundy. An eyes-opening experience proving to the French that they were not the only one that could make great wines and putting on pedestal an American area that will now rival some of the most established French and other prestigious European wine regions like Rioja, Ribera del Duero in Spain and Piedmont and Tuscany in Italy. Due to high demand, production increased. And somewhat influenced by certain critics and newly-recognized-future-flying-winemakers, new oak treatment with medium-to-heavy toast burn became the norm, led by Bordeaux and California where vanilla and toasted bread flavors dominated the fruit. Heavy chemical treatments were still occurring massively everywhere.

In the 90s, human being aspired to a new social consciousness, new wood ageing became less important, stainless steel tanks appeared everywhere in many shapes and forms, and organic method had a renaissance. People in general came to the conclusion that we needed to be green once again and step back in the trails left by our recent ancestors. Suddenly, we had to be good again with Nature to preserve the earth and the soil and all the life that it encompasses.

Nowadays, Us, people of the 21st century like to give names and words to things that already existed before but were spoiled, forgotten or neglected for the past 100 years due to supposedly to rapid progress and better solutions systems. Yet and fortunately, after spoiling, neglecting and rapidly destroying the earth and its natural ecosystem, especially since World War II, we recently came to the conclusion that what our ancestors were doing without real science but rather by listening the cycles of Mother Nature and being attentive, cautious, methodical and more especially a bit less disruptive with the environment, was probably better and more appropriate to healthier results.

My grandfather, which was a winemaker, was an earthy man and a man of earth, spending most of his time outside from 6am to 7am (+) and actively living at Nature pace, always busy doing something in the vineyard, or in his orchards of multiple fruit trees, or in his garden planted with many herbs, plants and vegetables, or even with his animals: hens, roosters, rabbits, dogs, cats, fish and birds amongst other things. He lived the farm life paced by Nature rhythms from dawn till dark. He didn’t need the television forecast to know what will be the weather for the next few days. It was instinctive, habitual and the result of knowledge, know-how and other experiences passed on from Father to son from previous generations started hundreds of years ago.

People like him were just paying attention about the signs of Nature and seemed to know more accurately than nowadays approximate forecast and previsions, what will come their way depending on the reactions of the animals and the plants and the changes in the atmosphere and in the air. Just by observing and obey ancient ritual and processes and ways of doing things at a certain given time and periods during the day, the week, the month or the year, they knew instinctively how to do and apply in their life what we have nearly lost and will be soon forgotten, if we don’t go back to it faster: taking the time to watch, observe, understand, comprehend and apply the right method, treatment and process with the utmost respect for Nature and the environment. Think about it….

Take Biodynamic method for example, regarded by some as the first modern ecological farming system originated out of the work of Rudolph Steiner, it is simply the result of researches of organic and sustainable cultures applied into a scientific calendar following the natural cycles of Mother Nature in accordance with the movement of the stars and the influence of the rotation of the moon mixed with a few recipes to naturally enhance the soil and recreate a proper environment amongst which the vines and other plants and trees and life in general can naturally and biologically regenerate themselves.

All this knowledge about organic and biodynamic "savoir-faire" that was almost innate for generations and existed for centuries before we recently gave it a name, nearly disappeared by the beginning of the 20th century, but was gathered and put into books and scientific methods by now renown searchers and doctors who somewhat amputated modern men of this all natural six sense: instinct, which was only the biological, rational and methodical result of the other five senses applied to everything that surround us in our everyday life: vision, hearing, smell, taste, and touch.

However, we are less and less often using our senses and especially instinct, and definitely not anymore with Mother Nature. We are now totally devoted to speed and progress, but we are not learning anything about surrounding anymore, the animals, the plants, the earth in general. Even if comprehensive movies and documentaries are made about the fact that we should preserve Nature, the environment, the extreme diversity of the fauna and the flora of little planet, rare and few are the ones that really pay attention or even care.

Yet, many winemakers around the world have adopted sustainable, organic and / or biodynamic farming cultures and methods, and we should all follow these examples, for a healthier planet and a better future for our children (I have two now, I have to be optimistic and hope that things will change for the better).

Things have never changed so fast than over the last 20-30 years. The cadence has accelerated in term of progress and lightning fast changes. In the last 100 years, we talked about changes happening in generations, which was approximately every 25-30 years. Then it became more like every 15-20 years, then from 10 to too rapidly 5 years and nowadays, we speak in term of every 6 months to a year maximum. It is specifically true for science, medicine and technologies, but it also true for wine and spirits making. The competition is fierce out there and new comers continue to appear every year.

About 40-50 years ago, out of the 195 countries in the world, barely 40 countries were producing wine and spirits with a significant import-export market, and only about 15-20 remained the top leaders, the model tank engines on which most other wines profiled themselves for years before reaching their own status, taste, characteristic and Terroirs.

Nowadays, more than 75 countries produce their own wine and spirits for local and export market. Even in the US, out of 50 states, now 38 are firmly producing wines including 6-8, also producing for the export market (California, Oregon, Washington, New Mexico, New York, Michigan, Virginia, etc…) and some the remaining 12 too have locally scattered vines and wines.

Like everything else, the world wine and spirits market is evolving at rocket speed, with methods and trends that also evolve and step into modern technologies, or sometimes comeback to traditions too. Like the recent trend of abandoning oak barrels and vats and stainless steel tanks to favor bare concrete tanks without the usual resin epoxy or even glass lining, or even to bring back from the ocean deeps and the Roman and Greek ruins from which they were inspired, the buried ancient ceramic and dirt Amphorae(s), which were the original container in which wine was contained thousands of years ago.

Therefore, whether reenacting the gestures and habits done for the past 4000 years by our ancestors and their nearly infallible and recognized methods and knowledge, or stepping into the future led by computerized machines and most updated gems of technology, the wine and spirits world will always remain an active world producing happiness, moments and momentum for people who know how to appreciate and share great food, wine and spirits to have good times with family and friends with earthy, healthy agricultural products coming from around the world.

As I said earlier, it makes my job more challenging but also more fun and rewarding. But one thing is sure, no matter what, I will always continue to discover and taste to provide you with the best of what I can find. I never say NO to taste something, whether it is food, wine, spirits or any other beverages, because life is too short and I don’t want to die stupid. Consequently, it is good for me to experience as many things as I can.

And as I always say: “Everything that you can eat or drink deserves to be at least seen, smelled and tasted for your personal knowledge, education and experience; even if not everything should be consumed!”

Think about it…


LeDom du Vin

Step into the Green! Drink more Biodynamic, Biologique and Organic wines and spirits and food) from sustainable culture and respect the environment! Support the right causes for the Planet and all the people suffering all around the globe! Also follow projects and products from the Fair Trade, an organized social movement and market-based approach that aims to help producers in developing countries obtain better trading conditions and promote sustainability. Also support 1% for the Planet, an alliance of businesses that donate at least 1% of their annual revenues to environmental organizations worldwide. "Commerce Equitable" or "Fair Trade" is evidently and more than ever a needed movement connecting producers and customers, to be aware of others and their cultural and traditional products based on high quality, natural components and craftsmanship.

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