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95 Points Are the New 90 in Bordeaux

In a recent article about wine values and speculating on wine, I mentioned the increasing frequency with which wines from Bordeaux were getting rave reviews. I also discussed this trend in an earlier article about Bordeaux en primeur, the futures buying program for Bordeaux wines. As a person who enjoys drinking Bordeaux wines, I'm excited by the improvement in quality. But, as someone who sees danger in the steep upward spiral of prices for wines from the most sought-after chateaux, the increasing availability of very good to outstanding wines signals further need for caution.

Top wines from top properties in Bordeaux have long claimed high prices. This is because the wines were very good to drink, aged well and were somewhat rare. Today, such wines are still good to drink and, if Robert Parker's predictions are to be believed, will age absurdly well. (He has said that the 2009 vintages from Chateau Margaux and Mouton Rothschild, among others, may age well for 100 years.) Yet, such wines may no longer be considered rare.

Does it make sense for these wines to be selling for $1,000 to $3,000 nearly three years before their release when these chateaux are producing tremendous, if not "perfect," wines every year now? Does it make sense when chateaux such as Pontet Canet are producing wines nearly as good from neighboring properties but are available for well under $200? The high production of places such as Chateau Margaux prevents their wine from being considered "exclusive" based upon availability in a single year let alone over a decade. It seems exclusivity is now based almost on extreme pricing. A wine is exclusive not because it's a rare great wine but because almost nobody can afford it.

I received a promotional e-mail today citing reviews from Robert Parker so full of praise and passion that my toes nearly curled. But, it also set me to wondering. How much better have the top Chateaux of Bordeaux gotten over the years? I decided to do a bit of research to find out.

I chose seven of the most coveted red Bordeaux to analyze: Chateau Haut-Brion, Chateaux Margaux, Chateau Latour, Chateau Mouton Rothschild, Chateau Lafite Rotchschild, Chateau Petrus and Chateau Ausone. I then went to Robert Parker's database and tallied their individual scores by decade. How many times did they receive 98 points or better, 95 to 97, 91 to 94 or less than 91?

I found a clear trend. The specifics varied only slightly from one Chateau to the next. I then tallied all of the results so that they might be more easily charted. The results were staggering. While it used to be that scores above 90 points were achieved in only the best years, now scores of less than 91 points are only handed out in only the very worst years. The chart below shows you exactly what I'm talking about.

parker_scores

Again, for the bulk of Bordeaux fans, the improvement in quality is fabulous news. Tremendous wines are available nearly every year for $25 to $100. But, it also makes me feel more than ever that the stratospheric pricing for the First Growths and a handful of others is now geared solely toward those people who collect expensive things simply because they are expensive.

Warming Threatens Future of Premium Napa County Wine Grapes: Research

A new study indicates that Napa County could suffer a loss of 50-70% in available acreage for growing of high-quality wine grapes by 2039. This decrease would be due primarily to an increase in the number of excessively hot days in the effected areas. The study was a collaborative effort led by Noah S. Diffenbaugh of Stanford University. It was published on June 30, 2011 in Environmental Research Letters.

Global_warming_graphic

The intent of the research was not to cause a panic or sudden rush to sell vineyard land. The goal was to generate projections of climate change impact on premium grape growing. That can be used in designing ways to adapt to the increased heat, thus reducing its impact. The researchers applied their projections to four premium wine growing regions: Napa County, Santa Barbara County, Walla Walla County (Washington) and Yamhill County (Oregon).

The most severe impact of global warming was seen on the growing regions of Napa County. That region, among those studied, already has the highest mean growing season temperature. Further increases in temperature due to global warming were projected to push much of Napa beyond the threshold appropriate for high-quality grapes. This is based both on 20 degrees Celsius being the maximum acceptable temperature for high-quality grape growing on any given day and A. Winkler’s Growing Degree Days (GDD) summation. On the Winkler scale, Napa County is currently categorized as a Region III (1671 to 1950 GDD), suitable for volume production of good wine. The study shows much of Napa Country transitioning to Region IV (1951 to 2220 GDD). That is also good for production levels, but wine quality decreases to acceptable or worse. The study only examined the impact of temperature on change on vines and grapes. It did not examine how temperature increases might impact water supply, weather patterns, etc.

More bad news is that it doesn’t take much warming to cause harm. An average increase of just a single degree Celsius would cause the substantial losses mentioned above, according to the stduy. However, as the researchers point out, that means finding ways to adapt to that one degree increase — essentially raise the maximum acceptable temperature from 20 to 21 or 22 degree Celsius — could eliminate all of those losses. Clearly, quickly finding effective means of adapting to higher temperature is critical.

The complete study is here: Climate adaptation wedges: a case study of premium wine in the western United States (it’s very technical, but not very long).

For more about growing degree days: Winkler A et al 1974 General Viticulture 4th edn (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press)

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for breaking wine news, information on events and more. Become a fan and join the NorCal Wine community on FacebookAlso check out our comprehensive Northern California winery listings. They are very useful for planning a tasting trip or just getting in touch with a winery.

This article is original to NorCalWine.com. Copyright 2011 NorCal Wine. Global Warming graphic by created by MikeEdwards. All rights reserved. Temperature change banner courtesy of NASA.

How Can Wine Shops Survive the Threat from Online Stores?

There's an interesting discussion going on within the Wine Business Network over at LinkedIn in the Wine Business Network. The premise is that small, local wine shops are suffering due to increasing competition from online resellers of wine. Whether or not this premise is even true will depend whether or not the state a given local shop is in allows shipment from out-of-state online resellers. Some states make that illegal, others make it incredibly difficult. And one can also debate whether such prohibitions benefit consumers. However, for the sake of this article which is an expansion on the comment I left in the LinkedIn discussion, we'll just assume the premise is true and momentarily set aside the consumer-choice issues.

I think that laws, both state and federal, have given many small or local wine shops a substantial break. I'm not saying that they aren't facing difficulties now. However, those they do face are coming later and are, in many cases, much milder than those faced by local shops of other types. The most obvious example is bookstores.

Faced with challenges from Amazon and others online plus big-store brick-and-mortar chains, particularly Barnes & Noble and Borders, the mom-and-pop bookstores are almost all gone. Even stores which seemed like invincible institutions in bookish towns, such as Cody's in Berkeley, have disappeared. It seems that only those shops with a particular niche (rare books or depth in a single topic) are hanging in there in any volume. And, unlike wine in states such as NY, best selling books and magazines can be sold in grocery stores and on any street corner.

In the long run, wine shops do face virtually the same threat though. I'm not a shop owner and haven't thought for countless hours about the issue, but one fairly obvious tactic for the local shops is to offer customers things that they value but can't get online. I would suspect that these include: excellent personal service AND a personal, human-to-human relationship, wine tasting, winemaker dinners, wine education, wine descriptions that go beyond tags with Parker Points, help with specific food pairings, specialization in local wines, and the ability to provide wine (chilled if need be) that can be consumed in 30 minutes (rather than the customer needing to wait until after the next UPS delivery). Of course, many local shops offer a lot of this already. They are probably more successful than their competitors who do not. And some of these techniques can also help the small shops compete against large brick-and-mortar stores, such as BevMo and Costco, as well as supermarkets in those states that allow them to sell wine.

I think it's also essential that the small stores reach out to those customers who may be online-oriented through that medium. Not doing so means a huge loss in mindshare. One question on the LinkedIn message thread was from a shop owner who wondered if he should list his stuff online even though his price on a given wine might be $2 higher than that of other online outlets. It seems clear to me that, while he might not gain every sale of that wine to his regular customers because of the price delta, not selling online guarantees that he won't get any of the sales at all. Some is much better than none. And, while services like wine-searcher.com make it easy to comparison shop, if he does a good job of driving his storefront customers directly to his site and adds additional value there, most will not bother with comparison shopping. But don't just go online, get on Facebook too. [A study released today showed that Facebook reached 52% of active social network users in February and that time spent there by the average user was six times higher than that of the nearest competitor (MySpace).]

Online shopping is not only about price comparison. It's about convenience and selection. I shop online when I don't have time to go to a store. I shop online for things I might not be able to find locally. And I especially shop online when one of my favorite stores sends me a note about something really interesting. I rarely compare prices and never do so on bottles that are less than $20. When I do shop online, I do it with a store where I also feel I've established a genuine relationship. (My preferred online store also has a local physical presence.) By engaging with existing customers online, via email and via social networking, local shops may well be able to hold their own. And they might be able to broaden the apparent breadth of their inventory by offering products that they don't stock but can reliably source through distribution. It's much easier to sell people on future delivery online than in a storefront.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on this topic.

This article is original to NorCalWine.com. Copyright 2010 NorCal Wine. All rights reserved.

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for breaking wine news, information on events and more. Become a fan and join the NorCal Wine community on FacebookAlso check out our comprehensive Northern California winery listings. They are very useful for planning a tasting trip or just getting in touch with a winery.

Starting a Boxed Wine Rebellion

Wine in a box isn't a new phenomenon. I remember seeing boxed wines in family-oriented restaurants at least 30 years ago. The boxed wine back then wasn't very good and neither was the quality of the packaging, but it served a need.

These days, the technology for boxed wine is much better. The liners and spigots maintain an air-tight seal even as the box empties. And the wines don't taste of plastic. Companies like TetraPak have also developed smaller wine boxes, similar to some juice cartons, that are small and light enough to be carried in a hiker's backpack. However, for the most part, the quality of the wine one finds in boxes has not improved all that much.

Some box wine companies, such as Black Box, have been edging toward goodness. Yet, I've still not found a boxed wine that I could truly recommend. For now, the only boxes of wine I can get behind are those that hold twelve bottles.

I'm not alone in this view and the topic of a high-end, or at least very good quality, boxed wine was raised at last week's Symposium for Professional Wine Writers. Tom Johnson of Louisville Juice was one of the instigators of the conversation, asking who might produce the first $80 box of wine. Eric Asimov of the New York Times offered his thoughts on boxed wines yesterday in his column.

Checking In on Location-focused Social Media Apps

To say that social media applications are hot right now would be a gross understatement. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and (still) MySpace have hundreds of millions of devotees. In February alone, Facebook drew almost 119 million unique visitors who each spent, on average, nearly 6.5 hours on the site. This made them the #3 web brand for the month, behind Google and Yahoo. And compare those numbers to the #4 web brand, MSN/Windows Live/Bing. This Microsoft group had just 3% fewer unique visitors but their time on site was only one hour and forty minutes. So, with almost the same number of eyeballs, Facebook had roughly 9.4 billion more hours of use. That's billion with a "B." [For more Nielsen data on web usage, see this article at MarketingCharts.com.]

Using social media applets on smart phones has also taken off. The combination of a phone's mobility and its ability to determine location has spawned a new range of social media applications that make it easy for you to tell all of your friends not only what you're doing but where you are. The first of these apps I remember seeing was Loopt, but Gowalla and especially FourSquare seem to be the market leaders now. FourSquare alone claimed to have more than 500,000 users a week ago and it appears that they've added an additional 100,000 users in the past 10 days, in part due to SXSW check-in mania. Personally, I've found that it is an easy way to interact with my friends and that FourSquare check-ins generate comments.