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Friday Fishwrap
What The Real People Are Drinking

By Charles Olken

It is easy enough to know what the wine geeks are drinking. Just pick up the San Francisco Chronicle or the New York Times and read their wine columns. You will be hearing about Albarinho and Ribolla Gialla, Trousseau Gris and Grenache. And, if and when the conversation turns to Chardonnay or Pinot Noir, you can bet your eyeteeth with great confidence that the wineries recommended will not have crossed the radar screens of anyone less than a bona fide wine geek or a San Francisco sommelier.

I have no argument with the idea that stretching one’s wine wings is a good thing. Learning about, tasting, exploring lesser known grapes and their producers is part of the fun for me as a one of those wine geeks who can throw back a bottle from a fifty-case production and be happy even if I may not see the wine again for months or years. But, that kind of behavior is totally, absolutely foreign to the everyday knowledgeable wine drinker.

I run into several hundred of them last night at a party in honor of a good friend and art gallery owner. She invited her best customers in to see what was new in her inventory, and Connoisseurs’ Guide was there to pour the wine and rub elbows with this well-heeled group of art collectors. Just one small point of information is needed to make the story complete. These were not the uber-wealthy buyers of old masters but professional working folks who like a good thing to hang on the wall but carry it home in their Volvos, not have it delivered in the Bentley.

I took along a couple of cases of wine that carried the CGCW recommendation, most of which were the usual varieties—Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and California sparkling wine. There were also a few unknowns in the mix, mostly for the fun of challenging the attendees to try something new.

Well, it turns out that the crowd was pretty knowledgeable. But, not so much as to reach geekdom. A few anecdotes will tell the rest of the tale.

The sparkling wine was the single most popular item. Almost everybody, it seems, enjoys a good glass of the bubbly. But what struck me as unexpected, proving that I am part of the geek world, is that these folks more often than not referred to the wines as “Champagne”, not as sparkling wine. Somehow, the verboten use of “Champagne” as a generic term for sparkling wine has not taken hold outside of geekland. It has been decades now that the inner wine world has made the switch. Not so the nicely heeled wine-drinking world.

You might then conclude, as I started to do, that the attendees really did not know their onions from a rutabaga. But, you would be as wrong as I turned out to be. Because when these folks turned to still wines, they showed plenty of knowledge and interest. The Gary Farrell Chardonnay went in a flash. Not only did people know of this winery’s continuing success with the grape, but they knew that the Farrell style was on the higher end of the brightness scale and the lower end of the buttery scale. Not everyone wanted that style of wine, and several folks came back looking for something else, including a Chardonnay from the Yorkville Highlands up in Mendocino immediately adjacent to the Anderson Valley. They may have shied away from the Albarinho, but they had plenty of curiosity about the lovely, balanced Chardonnay from Wattle Creek, from a winery of which they knew little or nothing and appellation that was also new to them.

And the curiosity did not end there. I brought along a Pinot Noir from Marin County. No one had ever seen one before, but all the Pinot drinkers tried it, on either their first glass or their second. Where in Marin, they asked. How much grows there, they asked. Will Marin Pinot be the next big thing, they asked. A second unusual Pinot was from Saintsbury, sourced in Anderson Valley. It turns out the Saintsbury was a recognizable name, and most of the folks who recognized it, also knew it was located in Carneros. And the fact that this was a wine from Mendocino made it more interesting, not less.

There was the usual group of Napa Cab drinkers, but fewer than I expected, and, on the whole, this pretty well-informed crowd had moved on from Napa and Cab to Pinot Noir principally, if they did not stick to the bubbles or the Chardonnay.

They did know their onions, except for those growing in the inner circle of wine intellectual land, and they had a pretty fair sense of wine geography. That they still use the term “Champagne” with no guilt (I would do great penance if I said Champagne when referring to California sparkling wine), and they had less interest overall in the totally unknown.

But, what struck me again, as it does when I pour wine for my neighbors, is the largest mass of wine drinkers are not geeks. They know what they like. They are delighted to expand their knowledge in bits and pieces, but they are happy drinking up Gary Farrell Chardonnay and Russian River Pinot Noir and Riverbench Blanc de Blancs and are not in the least part of the geeky crowd that some journalists and sommeliers think is the audience.

It is not that these people are too dull to be part of the wine conversation. They are the wine conversation, and it is the Ribolla Gialla crowd that it too hip for its own good. The inner geeks are preaching to a very small choir and they have forgotten the large numbers of people who drink Saintsbury and Gary Farrell and David Ramey and Grgich Hills.


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Real People?
by Bill Haydon
Posted on:8/16/2013 12:39:14 PM

Real People, Charlie?  How very Palinesque of you.  I always tend to metaphorically picture you as Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino snarling, get off my lawn at the Europeans.

Here is another indication of what the real people are drinking: 35-18-50.  Imports hit 35% of the US wine market last year.  They were 18% in 1999.  They are projected to hit 50% by decade's end.  That's on the macro level.  On the micro level, just try and take a bottle of Saintsbury Pinot Noir or Mark West Chardonnay around to restaurants and retailers in Chicago, New York, Boston (or even San Francisco!) and see how far you get compared to offering them authentic European "Albarinho and Ribolla Gialla, Trousseau Gris and Grenache."   Keeping in mind, the cultural trends that develop in these markets will eventually filter down to the rest of the country...not the other way around.

Better go grab your piece, Charlie.  There seem to be a lot of Europeans on your lawn.


Real People
by Kurt Burris
Posted on:8/19/2013 5:58:10 AM

Bill:  Having sold both Portuguese Albahrhino and Grgich Hills at various times in my career (in the Sacramento/Tahoe area) I agree with you, but only to a limited extent.  While most of the buyers, at least at the restaurants I like and can afford to eat at, are far more interested in a cool new import than another expensive Napa Chard or Cab, there are a lot of steakhouses out there that buy those wines by the pallet.  The esoteric wines are not mainstream, at least yet.  That being said I wouldn't want to try to launch a new $50 Napa Cab of Chard label right now.  You need name recognition to get in the big boys door. 

by TomHill
Posted on:8/19/2013 6:43:35 AM

Charlie Sez: "it is the Ribolla Gialla crowd that it too hip for its own good."

   Awwwwwww, gotta lay off those Ribolla folks. GeorgeVare (RIP) is hardly one I'd label as "hip". You were there last year...that's about as "un-hip" as it gets. True....some of those hair-do's the Ribolla makers have wouldn't look all that hip on you or I. But those folks are just simply wearing their passion for Ribolla on their sleeves and I applaud them for their efforts to find a niche for something that's never gonna be the next big wave.

   If there's anything "hip" about the Ribolla movement (not sure I'd call it a movement....more like a small hiccup), it about some of the "hip" writers/bloggers/somms/etc who are jumping on board the Ribolla bandwagon just to set themselves apart from the crowd. Truth be known, most of them wouldn't recognize a Ribolla if it hit them upside the head, nor really have no idea why the like (if they do) Ribolla..other than it may be the next "hot" thing.



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