So Many Vines, So Little Time

Writing from the edge of the Russian River in Sonoma

It only feels like a couple of weeks but as I write this it’s been six months exactly since Peg and I left Galewood (12/12) and drove across country in two cars with a cat on downers, a memorable and somewhat exciting trip but that’s a story for another day.

Much has taken place in our lives – finding an apartment for which we paid more in rent than our new mortgage, then finding a house in a very tight and expensive market and then a contractor to remodel the bathrooms and create a fabulous kitchen that I wish I’d had 20 years ago, all quite time consuming and fraught with delays and stress. I could go on but that’s not why I’m here.

I’m here to tell you about wine and weed and the very changing face of wine tasting in Napa and Sonoma and of course Bordeaux, yes Bordeaux – it’s the first event I went to in San Francisco not long after we got here and just as I’m writing the “Whine” Amazon scoops up Whole Foods sending the grocery and liquor industry scrambling to comprehend the impact that their respective industries will fell from the new combine, trust me – it will change everything.


AMZN and WFM. – Brian Rosen is the former CEO of what was at one time America’s #1 wine retailer, Sam’s Wines in Chicago. Read with interest his thoughts on the Amazon and Whole Foods merger published on a wine industry web site.

Rosen first shares his thoughts on cross country wine shipping and how troublesome  and expensive it is and his premise is that, “ …the acquisition takes all that away…and puts the independent liquor store (Famous Liquors) officially on the endangered species list followed in a close second by the independent grocer.” Point being that there are Whole Foods in 38 states. “It is perfectly legal to ship to an end user within your own state. Costs are cut down by proximity. Time to deliver is cut down by store location. Price is cut down because Whole Foods and Amazon have effectively created the nation’s largest online/offline retailer. Groceries…will be ordered by Prime customers and so will the booze, now more than ever. Whole Foods/Amazon will get a 50% share of consumers that want to round out their virtual shopping cart with adult beverage.

Whole Foods“The independent grocer and liquor store owner will suffer greatly. No longer will the consumer stop by the wine shop on the way home from work, they will send it in advance to be delivered within an hour. That sale will be booked at AMZN and WFM.”

Bordeaux – Over the last few decades there has been a shift in Bordeaux; certainly pricey, highly rated, age-worthy wines are still in evidence although the past few vintages have been tough weather wise ‘13 is better than horrible ‘12 and ‘14  called the “…best of the lessor vintages” is better yet with ‘15 and ‘16 projected to be off the charts. However more and more vintners have recognized the shift of world-wide palates, i.e. many younger wine lovers are looking for wines that can be consumed early alongside their favorite contemporary meals and the ’14 vintage fits into this search almost by accident.

“The 2014 wines come from a quite normal vintage, grapes got ripe, the wines taste great, a bit better for right bank Cabernet that left bank Merlot”, says Paul Wagner who represents the Bordeaux folks from Napa of all places. “These are 10 year aging wines (short time for Bordeaux) but they’re making wines now that are delicious when young and only get better with age”,  my point exactly.

Wine and Weed – “I get $2,000 a ton for my Pinot Gris grapes, whereas I can make potentially $2,000 or more per pound of cannabis,” says a small production wine maker in Mendocino County north of Sonoma. “We have 31,000 plants out here for grapes, so I’m pretty sure I can handle 300 to 500 cannabis plants.” So what’s the big deal you say, good for the wine maker, but this is the 5000 lb. gorilla in the room. Magnify that statement by 100 or 1,000 or more folks who are in the grape business and may want to go into the weed business when it becomes legal in California next year. It’s such a concern that I’m going to a “Wine & Weed Symposium” in August here in Santa Rosa to get a feel for what’s going to happen.

Consider that medical weed is already legal and going strong and that there is already a real labor shortage of workers who spend all day in the sun or cold and damp – depending on the time of the year, caring for vineyards and who will be offered better jobs tending plants in climate controlled warehouses, for better pay. That labor issue has wine makers already considering more mechanized farming that may in fact mean having to change the style of vines and result in rougher handle of a fragile product resulting in maybe not the same wine you’re used to and at a higher cost. There’s already a growing issue of demand for existing warehousing and zoning that’s already driving up the cost of local, non-weed business.

On the other hand not all is lost just yet, Phil Coturri, a viticulturist who oversees the vineyard at Kamen Estate in Sonoma, Calif. Mr. Coturri sees marijuana as a complement to wine rather than a competitor.  “How you grow it really affects the flavor and the high of the pot,” Mr. Coturri said. “If it’s grown in a greenhouse, it’ll be a lot different than if it’s grown in the hills. It thrives in certain soils and with a long growing season.” Just as with wine, the marijuana industry is diverging, Mr. Coturri said, between inexpensive plants grown in quantity indoors or hydroponically, and marijuana that, like good wine, has a sense of place.

“There is going to be a high-end marijuana industry, with distinctive strains and distinctive effects,” Mr. Coturri said. “And then you’ll have your ‘Walmart pot,’ your ‘Yellow Tail of pot’ that will be insipid.”

Hold your breath on this issue, get it, hold your breath, it’s going to affect beer, liquor and wine sales and costs in the very near future.

Napa Cabernet – I can’t tell you how frustrated I am to find every winery large or small charging a hefty “tasting fee” $15-20 and more per person. Even everyday Geyser Peak only samples their “premium wines” which they had to develop just for the tasting room. Much of this is driven by the desire to be like Napa (high end) and cater to the dot.comers that drive up from Silicon Valley on Sat/Sun and can spend like drunken sailors.

“Any land that’s in Napa Valley, in the watershed of the Napa River, that can be planted to Cabernet and produce a good crop of Cabernet is being planted today, and they can make a call and sell the fruit for $5,000, $6,000 $7, 000,” (a ton) said Tony Correia, president of a real estate appraisal firm. Nearly every available plot in Napa County is getting planted to Cabernet and growers and wineries are also pulling out other varieties rather than absorb the opportunity cost of not growing Cabernet. He also mentioned there has been “great” Sauvignon Blanc in Napa County ripped out for Cabernet Sauvignon and expressed a concern that some appellations might be in jeopardy of becoming mono-varietal.

In Sonoma County, Correia said Pinot Noir “is driving the bus,” and the average price for an acre of Pinot vines could approach $200,000 this year. “The demand is very strong, and there’s just a limited supply of high-quality Pinot Noir vineyards,” he said.

Might I remind you that these folks are really high end farmers and they respond to the same human nature as hog and beef producers and egg producers, record number of eggs are now depressing the market. It’s the old adage that if it’s selling let’s make/grow more and then the market fills up and pork chops are $1.49 at Caputo’s, which by the way, I miss very much as the price of food out here is high but the quality and the selection are weak.

And let me finish on a bubbly note. I struck up a conversation at the Hilton bar in SR with the brand manager for the Gallo folks in Florida; he was in town hosting business types on a big tour. One of the many things he told me is that your favorite Prosecco, Lamarca is blended using tasting panels of customers not wine makers, so it appeals to a wider audience. I’ll try to have better news next time.

That’s my Whine and I could be wrong…

Woody Mosgers, cooks, caters, drinks and matches wine and food in Santa Rosa Sonoma at