OpenTable looking to become more powerful

In an article in this morning’s New York Times, Open Table has announced plans to integrate suggestions and discussion into their site, emulating the popular Chowhound.com and Yelp.com formats.

This plays directly into Jermey Iggers and Andrew Zimmern’s recents posts regarding the role of the critic in restaurant decisions. If you use Open Table, and your restaurant suddenly has three negative posts, what might that do you to your business? Conversely, do you see the reader reviews eventually being entirely corrupted by self-posting restaurants?

This is a fascinating development in how the public discovers you as a restaurant, learns more about you, and decides to give you business. The implications are immense, especially as more and more diners and restaurants seem to be using Open Table.

If you are a restaurateur that uses Open Table (or chooses to not use Open Table) please comment! We would love to hear your opinion (and you don’t even need to tell us who you are).

Northern California wildfires

The Santa Rosa Press Democrat has done an excellent job keeping people up to the minute on the wildfires of Northern California. As of now, we have not heard of any damage to wineries or vineyards, but that could change with a moment’s notice.

You can go here for a current, up to the minute, constantly updated Google Map on the wildfires. Click on any of the fires listed on the left hand side for full details.

How to sell Tawny Port when it’s 90 degrees outside

(photo: City of Oporto by Flickr member Francisco-PortoNorte)

It’s late June and here in Minnesota the bugs are starting to come out and pretty soon by 3:00 in the afternoon that heat will start to be a bit too much for most people. Or maybe it’s the humidity … that magical invisible meteorological condition that separates us from Colorado (that and mountains, scenery, and outdoor baseball). Anyway, back to point.

When you’re in Minnesota and sell some of the best Ports made, June through mid September tends to be a pretty slow time. I hear it from every restaurant and retailer buyer I present them to: “Are you kidding? It’s way too hot outside for Port!”

So what do they do in Portugal? Think about it. Nobody consumes more Port than Portugal, yet they have heat waves the likes of which put us to shame. Heat and humidity are a way of life there. So what do they do? They chill it!

Try it yourself. Get some Graham’s 20 year tawny, or Smith Woodhouse 10 year tawny and put it in the fridge overnight. Then pour two glasses and microwave one of them until it’s just above room temperature. This is a great, quick education in taste sensations. The cooler temp brings out the acidity and liveliness in the port. It enhances the bright brown sugar aromas, the orange rind tang, the brighter dry fruit aromas. It’s downright REFRESHING. The one that is too warm is downright FLABBY, with the heat of the alcohol overwhelming the wine.

Last year, in Chicago, there were fourteen restaurants that were doing chilled Tawny Port offerings. The results were clear: it was a hit. Not gangbusters, of course, but enough to justify the ‘effort’ to do it (‘effort’ here being to put the bottle in the cooler and re-print the menu).

And retailers? Don’t forget that in many other states you would be banned from in-store tastings! Make use of our situation and chill down a bottle of Tawny Port to introduce you customers to a new favorite summertime sipper! Offer 20% off all Port between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Do anything to bring attention to that part of your shop!

That is simply money in the bank.

Farmer Fizz: the world of Terry Theise Champagnes

(photo: Terry Theise Champagne tasting, from Vinography.com)

Vinography had a great posting last fall regarding tasting through the Terry Theise Champagne portfolio. Alder always has wonderful information and descriptions, and it’s always a pleasure to read his blog. Many of you locally know Terry as the guru of German wine importing, and thanks to his many appearances in town he has developed quite the following (well deserved by the way. Terry was one of the first to truly shape my thinking on taste, scores, and food pairings). But there is a quiet, lesser known side to this fabulous wine personality: his love of Champagne and his ability to import some of the best “Farmer Fizz” around.

This term, “Farmer Fizz”, refers to the RARE producer in Champagne, France that actually grows their own grapes and bottles their own bubbly. Most are content (thanks to amazingly high grape prices) to sell to the ‘big guys’ and cash the check. But a small handful are fanatical about their own product.

Check out the article from Vinography on the Terry Theise Champagnes. And if you’re REALLY into bubbly you want to download the current Theise catalog (about 3MB) and read the first eleven pages … you’ll learn more about Champagne in an afternoon than you have all year long.

JUST ANNOUNCED: Terry has won a James Beard Award for “Outstanding Wine and Spirits Professional”! Congrats Terry!

For more education on the “Farmer Fizz” world (including a neat little trick for figuring out numerical French labeling codes) read this article from the 30 Second Wine Advisor.

The inflatable gorilla

We’ve all seen them, and it’s amazing how easy it is to rent one, but I don’t think wine retailers need inflatable gorillas. Maybe an inflatable Pinot Noir stem, or an oversized 1970 Ridge Montebello, but not a gorilla.

However, the idea of drawing in customers sure has appeal. Retailers in Minnesota lament the summer as ‘beer season’ or ‘everybody’s at the cabin’ … but you may be able to do your own version of a gorilla:

  • 20% off all summertime whites. Have a dot or a marker of some sort on all the light bodied, higher acid selections. This works wonders … I met a retailer from Florida who mops up the competition by doing this every year.
  • “Baker’s dozen” sale … mix and match twelve and get one free (lowest price, of course). Do the math … this is, at most, just 8% off but you’d be surprised how well it works.
  • Even better — buy six, get one free. This is, at most, 16% off — a fair discount for you to take for seven bottles going out.
  • Sale on all screwtop wines, which skew toward the crisp, summertime selections anyhow. Call it a ‘screwed up economy’ sale if you want to be sassy about it.
  • 20% any pre-chilled wine all summer long! Watch you become THE STORE for the last minute shoppers on their way to a party. I think this could be HUGE for you, and it’s a good way to leverage cold box placements with your wholesalers.
  • 15% off all wine when the temperature is over 90 degrees. Make a show of it. Buy one of those remote thermometers and build a display around it with signs and arrows and balloons. Then go 25% off if it’s over 95 degrees. Wouldn’t it be nice to have masses of wine shoppers on the hottest days of the year?

Is ‘distinctiveness’ a virtue in wine?

One of the hot topics in the wine world for the last three years has been the ‘globalization’ of flavor profile. We have all heard the stories and many have tasted the results … Pinot Noir that is more like Syrah, Cabernet from fill-in-the-blank that is loaded with hedonistic flavors, overt use of oak in white wines from traditional regions, etc. There is much SAMENESS in many wines.

But I want to take the discussion on a different path … I believe DISTINCTIVENESS in style is a virtue that should be kept separate from the question of QUALITY of a wine. This is a personal opinion, and many disagree with me, but let me explain…

I had a wine yesterday that I didn’t really care for. It was a single vineyard Pinot Noir from California that retails for about sixty bucks, but for this discussion it could have been anything. From the first sip I thought to myself “It just doesn’t have what I like in Pinot. Not enough of the silky texture, not enough earthy aroma. It’s a bit closed and unlike any Pinot I’ve ever had from there.” Upon doing some research, I found that this producer used little to no oak on this wine, and fermented only with wild yeasts. What I had become used to from this region were wines that were homogenized and guilty of ‘sameness’. So even though I didn’t like the the wine much, it became a wine I found great intellectual pleasure in drinking, because it expanded my horizons about this grape and this region … even though it is not a wine I would seek out for personal purchase.

Another fine example are the wines from Rioja producer La Rioja Alta (label above). These wines are completely original in style, described by many as the ‘cleanest traditionally produced wines around.’ The Vina Alberdi Riserva from La Rioja Alta has aromas of black cherry, orange rind, dried leaves, and tobacco! One of the more amazing things about this wine are the fully resolved tannins (many thanks to Annette Peters for explaining that to me!). The wine is packed with tannin, but because the tannins are wrapped in glycerin in finishes smooooooooth. Again, not for everybody, but it’s distinctiveness is what makes it oh so intriguing. (Side note — one of the single best food and wine combinations of my life was this wine with charcoal grilled dry aged rib eye covered in saut√©ed wild hen-of-the-woods mushrooms).

How does this wrap into the wine business? Last week I was tasting with a local chef and he commented on a Syrah I was serving him being distinctive – for him in a really bad way … how he didn’t like the aromas (too much dried blood/meat … he likes macerated black raspberry), didn’t like the mouthfeel (quick lift of acidity at the very end of the finish … he likes softer wines), “I’ve never thought a Syrah could possibly taste like this! Blagh!” was the comment. As I was putting the bottle away he said “I’ll take two cases.”

“What? I thought you didn’t like it.”

“Doesn’t matter what I think and there’s nothing technically wrong with the wine. I know my customers come here to have their wine minds expanded. The last thing they want is the same old same old. This wine is perfect for them. Ship it tomorrow.”

Kudos to him. That takes guts.

The youthful face of France

The Saladin Sisters

This past January I went to France motivated by the opportunity to find the newest and best emerging wine producers. I covered over 3,000 kilometers from Champagne all the down to Rousillon near the Spanish border in the span of ten days. I tasted with 114 producers and more than 1,000 wines. I have been traveling to France since the mid 90s and the fresh, new feeling of both the way vineyards are managed and wines are made has evolved, but with an eye on keeping tradition.

The internationalisation of wines that is a topic of controversy in many wine discussions seemed farther away in France than anywhere I have been in the last few years. The eye is on quality, the identity of place, and a huge swing towards better winemaking technique and a greater understanding of the science of vinification than ever before. The average age of most of the wine producers I met was about 32 years. A big shift with most of the winemakers is that they have travelled, made wine in other countries, and have the knowledge and wisdom of their fathers in their pocket along with education that comes with advanced schooling and seeing talking to other winemakers around the world.

Most were husband and wife teams, or fathers and sons, sisters, all of them family operations to be sure. I was invited not only into their cellars but also into their homes. I ate and drank with them in their kitchens, bounced their kids on my knee, saw the hardship of vineyard work on their hands, and the overwhelming sense of pride they had. Their names are on the labels, and their hearts are in the bottles.

As a result of this trip, there are new wines arriving in the Minnesota market this week … these are wines that have never before been in America. (If you’re having guests over from New York City or San Francisco, be sure to serve one of these … they can’t buy it back home! Ha!). They include a fantastic and affordable Sauvignon Blanc from Touraine in the Loire Valley (Rin du Bois), a whole line up of organically farmed gems from the Southern Rhone (from the Saladin sisters, pictured above), and a gem of a Sancerre (from Eric Louis).

Over the next two weeks I’ll post tasting notes of each of these wines for you, and tell you some of the stories about the properties.