Because it’s not enough to make piles of money in the wine business anymore. You also have to be seen as local and accessible, and these multi-nationals (the eighth- and ninth-biggest producers in the U.S.) see crowdsourcing as the way to make them cuddly and artisan-like. Ask your customers for their advice about making wine, and how can they — and the rest of the wine world — not love you?
The Wine Curmudgeon can’t decide if this is incredible marketing or one of the most cynical things I’ve ever seen in the wine business, where cynical things are a dime a dozen. On the one hand, it’s a clever use for social media, which big companies have a hard time doing well. There aren’t too many opportunities for cute pet pictures on a multi-national Facebook page. And the crowdsourcing is certainly no scam — the companies have been honest and upfront about what’s going on.
On the other hand, it could be malarkey to make P.T. Barnum proud. Columbia Crest is making 1,000 cases of high-end cabernet sauvignon from its effort, not much when you consider its annual production is almost 2 million cases and it normally does 5,000 of this particular wine. La Crema churns out almost 1 million cases a year; it hasn’t announced how much the project will produce. First its crowd has to decide between chardonnay and pinot noir.
Plus, given the odds that each crowd could decide to make really crappy wine even with the best of intentions, how much input will it really have? Yes, each company says its winemaker will do exactly as instructed, but given how little most of us know about winemaking and how complicated it is, what are the chances of that happening? Because Columbia Crest and La Crema could turn into the wine industry’s version of New Coke if the wine turns out to be undrinkable, and one doesn’t get to be one of the 10 biggest producers in the U.S. by doing a New Coke.
There is one thing I am thankful for, crowdsoucing veteran that I am. At least the companies didn’t ask for cash to help pay for production, which is the most typical use for crowdsourcing — Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and the like. That would have been too much to deal with, even for the Wine Curmudgeon.
When I told a friend I was going to taste this for a possible wine of the week, she said, "Good luck. I've had it more than a few times, and I don't remember it fondly at all."
Which is understandable. Columbia-Crest makes the kind of wine that gets sold in national chain restaurants, where the staff's lack of wine knowledge is matched only by the managment's lack of concern about the staff's lack of knowledge. So if a bottle sits open for a couple of days and oxidizes, no one cares that the wine they serve to the customer is more or less undrinkable. It's also a grocery store wine that gets sold to grocery stores that don't sell a lot of wine, so if it sits in a hot warehouse and turns to vinegar, no one is any the wiser.
Which is why I wanted to try it. Just because a wine is sold in a chain restaurant or grocery store is no reason for the Wine Curmudgeon to write it off without tasting it. And, in fact, the cabernet ($10, purchased) is — if not a great wine — certainly better than my friend remembered. In this, it's a not only a value, but a big, hearty wine for those who like that sort of thing.
The cabernet has Washington state terroir, oddly enough, which you don't find in most mass-produced wines (and Columbia-Crest is owned by the same company that owns the even more massively-produced Chateau Ste. Michelle). That means it's got that dark, fruity, earthy cabernet flavor, as well as the tannins, that typify Washington state. California winemakers, on the other hand, go for a more rich and juicy approach.
The wine is a bit overwhelming at first, but let it sit for a few minutes — something else you don't have to do with most grocery store wines — and it opens up sufficiently. It's definitely a food wine: red meat certainly, and I drank it with Friday night take-out pizza, and that almost wasn't enough for it.
Columbia Crest is known, if it’s known at all, as a grocery store wine producer. As such, there are probably more than a few people looking at the headline and wondering what the Wine Curmudgeon is babbling about.
In fact, many mass market wineries make super-premium wines. Beringer does a well-regarded $100 cabernet sauvignon as well as $7 white zinfandel, and another Columbia Crest wine, a reserve cabernet, was the Wine Spectator’s top label in 2009. And Columbia Crest is owned by Chateau Ste. Michelle of $8 riesling fame.
So you shouldn’t be surprised that the Walter Clore ($30, sample) is a top-notch red blend (cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc). Look for red berry New World fruit, but tastefully done, with the requisite acids and tannins to complement the fruit. It is far from one-dimensional, as too many red wines at this price can be that have either too much fruit or too much alcohol. All in all, very impressive and another example of how well-made Washington state red wine can be.
Pair this with traditional red wine meals — prime rib, steak, and the like. I had it with pot roast and spaetzle, and it actually worked better than a much more expensive Sonoma cabernet. It would also make a fine gift for red wine devotees, what with the Holiday That Must Not be Named coming up.