The Math and Market of Wine . . .

Mr. Erol Senel broadcasts one of my favorite podcasts right now, the “I Digress” podcast.  I listen to new releases on Mondays and find his love for wine is a common sentiment that he and I share, but beyond that we share an affinity for the motivational.  “I Digress” is focused on telling the stories of people who as Erol puts it, “get shit done”.  It was his insightful podcast about Dave Phinney, winemaker at Orin Swift which drew me in and left me wanting more.

In my online wine wanderings, after the podcast finished, I went looking for more on Dave and his somewhat accidental, runaway success that was his creation of  “The Prisoner” blend which he sold in 2010 to Huneeus Vitners.  I was aware of the sale to Huneeus and Dave’s respectable motives behind it, but Huneeus basically treated his creation like a real estate property flipper and sold to Constellation Brands for a whopping price tag.  I found myself suffering a bit of a mixed reaction.

“The move is the latest high-profile acquisition in a buying spree by Constellation. In November, the company purchased San Diego’s Ballast Point Brewing for $1 billion, three months after it bought Meiomi from Napa vintner Joe Wagner for $315 million.  As with the Meiomi purchase, the Prisoner Wine Company deal includes only a brand — no vineyards. These staggering brand prices suggest a significant departure from the model that has long dominated the wine industry, in which land carries the greatest capital.  “Our goal is to be a leader in the premium U.S. wine market and to continue to premium-ize our portfolio, and ‘super luxury’ is one of the fastest growing segments in the category,” said Bill Newlands, president of Constellation’s wine and spirits division.”

Link to SF Chronicle article found here.

Bravely, I share that The Constellation Brands model in my opinion is gravely sterilizing our restaurant wine options.  The delivery power of great wine to the masses is very important, and I appreciate that every story has two sides; a pro and con is always to be found.  But my frustration with this model comes from a heavy feeling that I can’t shake – I read the same wine list at so many +four star restaurants and don’t appreciate the lack of small producer representation, thanks to the umbrella brand of companies like Constellation. I treasure the wine programs at family owned dining rooms on Spring Street in Paso Robles, California or learning of tiny new labels while traversing the valley floor in Napa, prompting a pull to the side of a road because of the spotted gem of an unrecognizable vineyard.  It is hard for me to hate what Constellation Brands is doing, but it is easy to see these people aren’t winemakers, but money-making wine pimps from New York who don’t even hold a wine glass by its stem! They are bowl fondling businessman capitalizing our wine passions right to the bank, because those savages know this: there is money in it.  And like any market, the wine market is no different in that people buy for the brand, they don’t always buy to appreciate the creation.  When did a wine label become more valuable than the land the grapes are harvested on?

What pray tell, shall I do now with my concious?  How to … is it right to … enjoy it all?  Most people won’t care, but I have to.

To resolve this, I have reconciled myself to wine education and appreciation of history.  Understand what is family owned from the land to the label, and what is conglomerate owned.  Know what you are buying when you are buying it.  TRUST YOUR SOMMS.  TALK TO YOUR SOMMS.  Are you buying a bottle brand that is simply recognizable but you don’t know the story? Are you surprised that Paso Robles produces world-class Rhone style reds but you don’t see much of the Paso footprint in national wine programs?  Are you like me, constantly missing the taste of Washington wines unless you’re standing in Woodinville?  Please pay attention to the 750s coming out of regions other than the 16 AVAs in Napa or big label brands.  Seek the story, then buy your brand.  With that shift in approach, I suggest dear readers, that your entire wine experience will be in Technicolor.


Excerpt from “Secrets of the Sommeliers”



“Much like their forebears, few of today’s top U.S. Sommeliers came into the restaurant business planning to do what they are currently doing. But a common factor binds them now: a passion for wine that almost defies description.  Both their professional lives and their personal lives are centered around wine.  Their friends are wine drinkers.  They base meals not around what’s in the refrigerator, but around what they want to drink that night [authors note: guilty of same, nearly 100% of my meal planning time].  They routinely talk with one another about wine and read wine magazines in their spare time.  They travel to wine-growing regions on their vacations and spend their own hard-earned money collecting the very bottles that they open and serve every night.  Thus, the first step toward becoming a sommelier is to identify your passion for wine.  It need not be a lifelong passion, but it must be driving.”

~ Rajat Parr, Master Sommelier, Winemaker, Wine Director for Mina Restaurant Group, Partner/Proprietor, Sandhi and Partner/Proprietor, Domaine de la Côte

I identify so strongly with this writing, and often worry that I bore those around me who don’t draw such joy and obsession from wine as I do.  Call me a nerd, consider my pursuits foolish, fail to understand, maybe judge from your vantage points and wine experience.  Validation exists for me the moment I am moved to do crazy things like write this blog, maintain this site, pursue Sommelier status while not working in the field, cite this work and identify it to my passion.  Consider me, thrilled.

Elegance, Success, and Tears at Table 65

“Your smile is your logo, your personality is your business card, how you leave others feeling after having an experience with you, becomes your trademark.”

I cannot credit those words to any particular person but I wish I knew who first said them.  They are the truth of my personal ethos for success in business.  Fancy dinners, considerate wine choices, expensive gifts emblazoned with corporate logos, flashy buzzwords, [and really] all things aside, authenticity can not be forced.  It is needed from every level of your organization, from every entree on the table, from every soul  and every touchpoint present in the intersection of your dealings.  When it happens, and everyone shows up – the synergy of winning takes flight.    

One look at this table and I thought, where else would I want to spend an evening with my colleagues and precious clients?  Avant Table 65 inside the Rancho Bernardo Inn is set behind glass doors at the entry of the restaurant, so you feel a bit like shiny salt water fish in an aquarium.   Notably, the prized feature is the circular table located inside a professional chefs kitchen. Regardless of how large the private space behind glass walls was, the feel is surprisingly intimate and we quickly forgot for the night that we were fishes being gawked at. Offering personal time with the service team, prix fixe personalized menus, a dining space separate from restaurant floor noise, it was the ideal location to host clients for what turned out to be the most fun business dinner that any of us had ever had.  We hooted, we hollered, we plotted April Fool’s jokes, we lingered over two hours to our delight.  More below, but first, the wine:

A quick survey of my guest preferences at Table 65, and with guidance of the Sommelier onsite at Avant, I was led to select an organic, light bodied red wine against the California fusion fare that Avant specializes in.  I expected all the perfumed aroma, translucent color, ripe fruit, easy body, and cool climate cranberry that I got from my table pleasing bottle of Penner Ash Estate Vineyard Pinot Noir from the Willamette Valley.   The northwest wine region of the United States is characterized by fruit forward wines, and if you associate Cab as King in Napa, you can deduct that Pinot Noir is King to the Willamette Valley.   If you’re ever in position to select wine for a table of people, Pinot Noir is a finicky grape, but a beautiful wine with wide appeal; a safe choice for anyone new or old to the spectrum of red wine.  A number of my guests had fish entrée meal preferences at the table, everybody having wine wanted red, and I had one specific request for organic wine, so the Penner Ash fit the bill nicely.

Generally pleasing, the disposition of Pinot Noir is like your easy-going, no drama best friend, who is reliable and can always be counted upon when meeting new friends for the first time.  The Penner Ash has no stage fright either; the bottle appeared on stage at appetizers through to desert and was a crowd pleaser until the end.  A last-pour, standing ovation came during the encore performance – a vanilla bean salted caramel cheesecake adorned with pumpkin puree.


Avant Wine Cellar Looking Into Table 65

Now that the technical of wine is aside, I must apologize.  Apologize for having TOO MUCH FUN at dinner so much that I can’t articulate the magic in fairness to you or to the quality of time spent crying tears of laughter at dinner that night.  We ended up staging pranks in the parking lot, traveling the property like a college frat house.  If I ask for time with my clients at dinner, it is time away from their families, it is time away from their regular resting patterns, time that deserves the respect and effort of forging a real bond with them.   Wine and excellent food alone cannot do the trick.  You have to bring YOU to the table, and I think that is the ultimate secret of the best Sommeliers.  The search for business relevance is constantly on my mind when it comes to my professional, non-wine student life.  Finding success in the boardroom is much like finding success at a dinner where your guests are your clients.  You can’t fake your way through a wine list any more than you can fake your way through a sales pitch, or an investigative deep dive into mutual business operations.

Winning at both business, and business dinners, involves the crafting of a client experience that matches their needs, tastes, and preferences, with your talents, your understanding, and a strong individuality of your personal brand.

Take the time.  Master that.  And above all else, have FUN.  Enjoy the souls you share your table with!


The Chef’s Experience on Table 65

This one’s for my oenophiles.

Settled in the Rancho Bernardo hills of Southern California lies Avant inside the Rancho Bernardo Inn.

The Table 65 experience is a delightful option for those looking for an elevated dining experience, connected right to the action of a restaurant wine room and private kitchen.  I’ve just booked this table for an intimate, private wine dinner next month.  The Chef will design a custom menu in accordance to seasonal California fresh fare, and I am working with the restaurant to select options and pairings for my clients [translate: moonlighting in culinary, obviously].  Full experience and complete review with Avant Chef and Avant Sommelier is coming soon!  Stay tuned, friends.

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