This week’s wine news: Fredericksburg’s Cabernet Grill honored for its commitment to Texas wine, plus trouble in legal weed land and do we really need more wine gadgets?
• True to its roots: Fredericksburg’s Cabernet Grill has been named one of “America’s 100 Best Wine Restaurants” by Wine Enthusiast magazine for the second year in a row. It’s an honor much deserved – chef-owner Ross Burtwell has had an all Texas wine list for years, and long before drink local was hip and trendy. The list has 145 wines from 45 wineries, demonstrating that local wine pairs with local food. That’s something I’ve been able to enjoy during several visits to the Hill Country.
• Trouble in legal weed land: Constellation Brands, which sold off its cheap wine brands to pursue a future selling legal weed, lost more than $800 million on its investment in the first quarter of this year. The story in the link, from Shanken News Daily, tries to put the high in that low, as trade news reporting often does, but one question remains: Does Constellation understand what it got itself into? The bizspeak in the article doesn’t help with that much, and it wouldn’t reassure me if I was a Constellation shareholder.
• No more gadgets: David Cobbold, writing on Les 5 du Vin, repeats a warning the Wine Curmudgeon has uttered many times: Buying wine instead of gadgets is the best investment almost every time. Cobbold reviews a wine aerator, and his conclusion: Buy good wine, and don’t “worry about useless and expensive gadgets like this!” It’s a sentiment marketers ignore at their own risk; the number of gadget emails I get has seemingly proliferated as wine sales flatten.
Asimov gives N.Y. Times readers skewed picture of Texas wine
Eric Asimov of the New York Times is probably the best wine writer in the United States, offering what a friend of mine calls a “thoughtful, balanced but personal approach to wine drinking.” He shows his passion and his joy for wine, he writes clearly and directly, and he doesn’t talk down to his readers. Would that more of my colleagues did that.
That’s why I was so disappointed by Asimov’s recent article about Texas wine — or, more specifically, about a Long Island winemaking couple, Regan and Carey Meador, who moved their Southold winery to the Hill Country. In the process, the story implied, they were bringing civilization and much needed progress to Texas winemaking. The article, displayed prominently on the cover of the paper’s Dining section, was everything that has always been wrong with regional wine reporting – not just condescending, but reinforcing the stereotype that those of us in the provinces can’t succeed without help from our betters.
It was the last thing that I expected from Asimov, and I do not write this lightly. In fact, it took me almost two weeks to decide to write anything. Who wants to be called petty and provincial?
Besides, I respect Asimov immensely (though we have never met) and have written very nice things about him on the blog and in the cheap wine book. And he has been a tremendous supporter of regional wine, helping to give New York the due it deserves. So the last thing I want to do is to get into a cyber-spat with someone who does what Asimov does as well as he does it. And this is not about the Meadors; people who want to make quality wine are always welcome.
Rather, it’s Asimov’s characterization of Texas winemaking that deserves to be called out. It was what those of us who have done journalism call “parachute reporting” – you parachute into a place with little knowledge beyond general stereotypes, do a little reporting and get airlifted out, stereotypes intact, and knowing almost nothing more about the subject than you did beforehand.
So, given what I do here and the blog’s reason for being, as well as my work over the past decade with Drink Local Wine and the regional wine movement, know this about Asimov’s Texas wine story:
• Yes, as Asimov writes, Texas produces lots of middling, mass market supermarket wine (and I’ve criticized the industry for this and taken my lumps). But so do California, France, and almost every other wine region in the world, including New York. I’m sure Asimov has run across Red Cat a time or two.
• Asimov writes that Texas’ move toward varietals more suited to its terroir, as well as the presence of more open and free-thinking winemakers like the Meadors, is a new development. This is untrue; those movements were underway at least a decade ago. We showcased both at our first Drink Local Wine conference in 2009 in Dallas. I wrote about the same subject in 2016, “The Texas Wine Revolution,” for Texas Journey magazine. If I may quote myself: “What is a new, especially in the past 10 years, is the acceptance that Texas wine is not California wine or French wine or Italian wine. It is Texas wine.”
• Hence, it was especially annoying to read that a New York winemaker had to come here to save the Texas wine business from itself.
• The Hill Country, which Asimov visited, is not the most important place in the Texas wine world. It gets the most tourists (think Red Cat again), but the High Plains near Lubbock produces 80 percent of the grapes and most of the best grapes. Because, among other reasons, Pierce’s Disease in the Hill Country — the grapevine version of the Black Death. So judging Texas wine off a visit to Fredericksburg is hardly the entire picture. And by the way, it’s not Hill Country, as the story referred to it, but the Hill Country, in the same way it’s Queens, and not the Queens.
• And since the Hill Country is not the center of the Texas wine business, Asimov apparently didn’t taste Brennan Vineyards’ viognier, always among the best in the country; McPherson Cellars’ Tre Colore, a red Rhone blend that speaks to terroir; and Haak Cellars’ amazing Madeira-style wine made with blanc du bois. None have anything to do with Fredericksburg. And it also seems that he missed Perdernales Cellars outside of Fredericksburg, with its terrific tempranillos.
So that’s a more complete picture, and one I wish Asimov had seen. He could have called Russ Kane, who probably knows more about this stuff than anyone, or Texas Monthly’s Jessica Dupuy. Either could have recommended Texas wine producers who would have been able to offer more perspective.
The old saying that any publicity is good publicity still rings true, but accurate publicity is even better.
Texas wine is making inroads in the least likely places
• The shock of seeing a Hampton Inn – yes, a Hampton Inn – with a Texas wine on its Happy Hour list is almost indescribable. I’ve been in chain hotels in some of the biggest cities in the world that didn’t have any local wine. But a Hampton Inn in Amarillo? It’s hardly the garden spot of wine country. But the Bar Z winery is in the area, and someone, somewhere in the chain bureaucracy let the hotel do the right thing. This is just one more example of drink local’s move into the mainstream.
• I grew up in Chicago where you can buy any kind of booze at the drugstore; a fifth of Scotch at midnight, anyone? And I’ve spent lots of time in California, where you can buy a bottle of gin in the grocery store at 7 on a Sunday morning. But I will never understand the drive-thru liquor stores so common in so many small towns in rural Texas. I passed a couple of them between Dallas and Amarillo, and there were cars in line in each.
• One is never out of Texas wine country. It’s 350 miles or so between Dallas and Amarillo, and almost all of it is in the middle of nowhere. So what did I pass, about 40 minutes northwest of Denton? Brushy Creek Vineyard. Again, if someone had told me there would be a winery in this part of the state when I started writing about Texas wine, I would have laughed.
This week’s wine news: Captain Obvious strikes again – a study says customer service matters in selling wine. Plus, the end of a Texas wine era and a victory for direct shipping
• Believe it or not: A new study has discovered that customer service is more important than anything else in selling wine from winery tasting rooms. Or, as Paul Mabray, who probably knows more about winery tasting room sales than anyone put it, “File under nothing could be more obvious.” In other words, we have one more wine-related study that does nothing to help the wine business adapt to the 21st century. My grandfather, who sold blue jeans to farmers in central Ohio, knew about customer service 80 years ago. Then again, he didn’t have to publish or perish.
• The end of an era: The WC didn’t talk about Texas wine over the weekend; the Kerrville Fall Folk Festival and its annual Texas wine panel is no more. I will miss the event, and not just because I got to promote Drink Local. Kerrville was an adventure in and of itself. There is irony, too, since local wine has become a Winestream Media darling, and one of the events that helped it achieve that status is gone. Yes, a Texas wine panel was added to the Memorial Day festival, but it’s not the same thing.
• Hooray for Mississippi: A judge threw out an attempt by Mississippi’s liquor cops to stop residents from receiving wine from out-of-state retailers and wine clubs. It’s a ruling that could be significant in the continuing fight over three-tier reform. The Associated Press reports that a Rankin County judge dismissed the state’s lawsuit, though his written ruling offered few details. It’s another blow to state attempts, says the story, in restricting direct to consumer wine sales.
The Winestream Media continues to say nice things about regional wine and Drink Local
The irony is not lost on those of us who endured the slings and arrows of the Winestream Media a decade ago when we said Drink Local and the idea of regional wine mattered. Today, mainstream wine publications, on- and off-line, are racing to see who can hype local the most.
So allow me a smile. And I promise not to say I told you so too loudly, or to say it too often. Right, Dave?
This summer, it seemed like everyone from the Guild of Sommeliers to a trade magazine run by the people who do the Wine Spectator have waxed poetic about local wine. Plus, I’ve been told that a major wine website, run by a big-name critic, is doing a huge blowout about regional wine this fall. Plus, these:
• Vinepair’s screaming headline especially pleased my inner cranky newspaperman: “Your Guide to the Finger Lakes, the Most Exciting Wine Region on the East Coast of America.”
• The Guild of Sommeliers has run one piece and is doing another, both written by the very knowledgeable Jessica Dupuy (full disclosure: she interviewed me for the second story). They look at “emerging American wine regions.”
Finally, my favorite regional wine story was in Market Watch, a trade magazine owned by the same company as the Spectator and notorious for its parochial, New York-centered view of the world (which I know because I used to write for it). The story looked at Texas wine; that it did speaks volumes about how far we’ve come in convincing people that Drink Local is a legitimate part of the wine business.
This week’s wine news: A regional wine roundup, featuring more deserved good news and one intriguing conundrum
• Bring on the regional wine: Jessica Dupuy, perhaps the top regional wine writer in the country, tells Sommelier’s Guild readers that “While California, Washington, and Oregon continue leading in both sales and overall familiarity, an exponential increase in wine production and vineyard plantings in New York, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and beyond has started to paint a more definitive picture of the future of American wine.” Her best bests for top regional wine? Texas, Michigan, Arizona, Colorado, and New York.
• Bring on Michigan wine: Paul Vigna, another top regional wine journalist, agrees about Michigan: “Now I’m a believer, having tried samples of everything from still wines to sparkling, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Gewurztraminer.” This is no surprise to those of who have followed the state’s success, despite weather that doesn’t always cooperate and the state’s up and down economic climate.
• But not at Cooper’s Hawk: I met Tim McEnery about the same time we started Drink Local Wine; Tim had a restaurant in suburban Chicago called Cooper’s Hawk that made wine. But it wasn’t Illinois wine – it was made in Illinois using grapes from California. Tim’s business model was based on the assumption consumers didn’t especially care where the wine was from. Needless to say, we had a discussion or two about the idea. Today, as Mike Veseth notes in the Wine Economist, Cooper’s Hawk is the 34th biggest winery in the country (bigger than Hall of Fame regular McManis) with 30 locations in 30 states. Cooper’s Hawk has always been a conundrum for those of us who support regional wine, since there’s nothing particularly local about the product. What does its success say about the drink local movement, which has also had its share of successes?
But in those eight years (I missed 2016 because of a conflict), I’ve seen two things: the growth and maturity of Texas wine, and the increasing enthusiasm for it from the audiences at the wine seminars.
I’ve been hard on Texas wine over the past couple of years, and deservedly so. But that shouldn’t obscure the improvements over the past decade, which have been on display at the wine seminar every Labor Day weekend. The wines are more professional and are made for wine drinkers, and there are fewer of the home-schooled wines made because the winemakers liked them that dominated the industry at the end of the 1990s and the beginning of the 2000s. That’s why there are so many Texas wines on store shelves, another change from 2008. Better quality means more retail outlets.
All of which has been terrific. But the audiences have been even more fun – smart, curious, and eager to embrace Texas wine. All they wanted was quality wine at an affordable price. This always reminded me that there was an audience for local wine, and that it was up to the winemakers to reach that audience. If you don’t make something people want, they don’t have to buy it, no matter what the Winestream Media implies.
We didn’t sell out every year, but we had large crowds most of the time. This included our regulars, people who came to the seminar every year. We had our hecklers, too, including one man who gave the panel moderator, John Bratcher, such a hard time you’d have thought we were discussing something important, like the survival of the republic.
And the best part came when the audience booed the one person every year – and there was always one person – who said Texas wine and local wine didn’t matter.
The other three things I’ll never forget about the festival? The legendary Rod Kennedy, who made the entire thing possible. The music, of course – Cook a chicken! And the traffic police, because you’re not supposed to drive faster than 5 mph, no matter how difficult that is to do.
Image courtesy of the Kerrville Folk Festival, using a Creative Commons license