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.”
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.