Archive for the ‘Behind The Scenes’ Category
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Starting a new job can be scary. There are the simple unknowns of finding the restroom, meeting new colleagues and navigating company culture to the more nerve-racking aspects of figuring out what you were actually hired to do. Yet, as with other new adventures, it can be exciting to start with a clean slate.
While my first day of work at a wine importer coincided with the release of Beaujolais Nouveau and an office-wide celebratory lunch, my introduction to a non-profit organization was much less welcoming. My assigned office was not yet ready and finding a desk or even a chair for me proved to be a difficult task.
But, my experiences pale in stark comparison to Frédérique de Lamothe’s first week as Director of the Alliance des Crus Bourgeois du Médoc. Prior to her arrival in Bordeaux, Frédérique had spent her career in the jewelry industry, serving in several high level marketing roles. Her thought was to parlay her marketing skills from rubies to ruby-colored wines, but within the first few days of taking office, one might say that all hell broke loose. After only five days in her new role, the Alliance’s Cru Bourgeois classification of 2003 was annulled, ending several centuries of history.
Dating back to the Middle Ages, the inhabitants of the “bourg” of Bordeaux became known as the bourgeois. As successful merchants and craftsman, the bourgeois were able to purchase land in the area, which were referred to as the “Crus Bourgeois,” eventually developing a reputation for their wines. By 1855, when Bordeaux’s top châteaux were classified as Grand Cru Classé, there were 248 Cru Bourgeois estates recognized by the industry. A formal list of 444 Cru Bourgeois was registered with the Bordeaux Chamber of Commerce in 1932, but not submitted for ministerial approval. Such approval wasn’t sought until 2003, when the list of 247 châteaux (of 490 candidates) was published, but such approval was short-lived.
In 2007, the classification was completely cancelled, when several châteaux brought their grievances with the newly published list to the Administrative Court of Appeal of Bordeaux, which rules that the classification was indeed unfair since the previous decisions had not been made by impartial judges. Consequently, Frédérique and her colleagues were forced to start from the very beginning in creating a new system that would meet the needs of its members and solve the problems caused by the 2003 version. Instead of a master marketer, Frédérique became a master negotiator.
The period from 2007-2010 was filled with confusion and controversy, as protests from producers and their corresponding lawsuits kept the classification in limbo. Finally, after much hard work and negotiation, the Cru Bourgeois classification issues were resolved, with a new listing finalized for the 2008 vintage in September 2010.
In response to the controversy surrounding the 2003 selection process, the new Cru Bourgeois system became more of an annual quality assessment than a classification of châteaux or terroirs, governed by a rigorous set of guidelines. In this regard, a panel of paid wine professionals, exclusive of any château owners, selected ‘benchmark’ wines against which all 290 wines applying for Cru Bourgeois status were measured. This benchmark is adjusted annually, according to vintage quality. Tastings are conducted between March and July, while the wines are still in barrel, but a number of wines are re-tasted, randomly selected from various retail shelves in the market.
In the new system, the Cru Bourgeois status is only applicable to the château’s designated vineyards; no special cuvées are permitted. Moreover, there is no hierarchy within the classification – the previous designations of Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnnels or Superieurs were eliminated. This system appears to be working well, with 260 châteaux selected for the 2010 vintage. See the Cru Bourgeois’s website for the full and current list.
Meanwhile, on Bordeaux’s Right Bank, the St.-Emilion classification suffered similar setbacks, which still continue to plague its reputation. While the attacks on 2006 classification had appeared to be resolved with the publication of the 2012 classification in October, January’s newly filed lawsuits have called its validity into question yet again. Only time will tell whether these recent suits are legitimate gripes or just sour grapes, but it makes it challenging to keep track of the classification’s status. For now, the classification remains intact.
The changes to the Cru Bourgeois classification seem to have been met favorably by the organization’s members, if only as evidenced by the current lack of controversy. More importantly, these historic wines continue to hold a special place in today’s market for Bordeaux wines.
At an average bottle price of $25.50, these are wines that offer excellent value given their complexity and elegance. Additionally, while the wines of many of the highly vaunted châteaux require significant time in the bottle to reach their peak, the Cru Bourgeois wines have some aging potential, but are ready and enjoyable to drink upon release.
This point was reinforced at a series of recent tastings held in New York. The Union des Grand Crus tasting event showed off the 2010 vintage of its members. Tasting wines from Château Figeac (St. Emilion Grand Cru), Château Gazin (Pomerol), Château du Tertre (Margaux) and Château Pichon-Longueville (Pauillac), it was clear that 2010 is an excellent vintage. But, these wines were tannic and oaky, in need of some bottle age.
Conversely, at the following night’s Cru Bourgeois dinner, wines from the same vintage reinforced its quality, but were lighter in tannins and more pleasurable to drink with the meal. I especially enjoyed the wines from Château Fleur La Mothe, Château Caronne Ste Gemme, Château Branas Grand Poujeaux, Château Paveil de Luze, Château La Fleur Peyrabon and Château Lilian Ladoyus.
In addition to launching the new vintage, the Cru Bourgeois has also launched a new visual image that it is using in connection with the official list. Designed by artist Virginie Saint Jeannet, the new image ushers in a fresh chapter for the Alliance as it embraces the future and continues to keep Frédérique busy with marketing these great wines.
Shakespeare told us that “A rose by any other name should smell as sweet” in Romeo and Juliet, well, by the same token, a wine by any other name, be it grape varietal, region or label should taste as good, or better; that is, if the region is as perfect for growing as Turkey and if the vintners are as adept, skillful and careful as we’ve met on this, our first leg of traveling Turkey for the WINE PORTFOLIO show.
… hmmm, perhaps this is what we should title our Turkey episode of Wine Portfolio. What do you think?
West Turkey is a region vast in stunning coastline and filled with an interesting combination of old-world archeological sites and new-world amenities. Known as the Aegean region, this is one of Turkey’s oldest wine areas, producing 55% of all of Turkey’s wine; and (perhaps by design!) an area that also boasts being home to Dionysos, the Greek God of wine.
Our Wine Portfolio television crew started out in Bodrum, a town renowned for its sexy, over-the–top boating and great night life. This was a chance for the team to relax from the flight, recharge and prepare for the regional filming of wineries soon to come. The Macakizi (or Queen of Spades) resort situated on one of the beautiful bays of Bodrum, is a boutique hotel with a laid back urban vibe that can be described as stylish Miami-chic. A stunning waterside bar, wonderfully comfortable corners to hide away in and a restaurant boasting a jaw-dropping view allowed us to go off and find our own way to rejuvenate. Hours later we met for dinner with Sahir Erozan, renowned Hotelier. He hosted us to an amazing 7-course tasting menu, each course perfectly matched with a Turkish wine. The young wine expert that designed our pairings was exemplary, and we came to learn that he had been designated Turkey’s second best sommelier two years in a row.
The wine we’ve been fortunate to try in the Aegean region has been vast in scope, we started at the Sevilen Winery in Ortaklar, a huge operation producing 900,000 bottles a year. Contrasting sharply, this winery produces one of the best Shiraz’s and Sauvignon Blanc’s in Turkey, which we got to discover during lunch under an ancient, hanging tree at the Winery’s own restaurant in Isabey.
We then spent a quick overnight at 7 Bilgeler (meaning 7 sages, referring to wise ancient philosophers from the region), a boutique hotel resembling a small open style castle. It’s a nice place to stay away from the crowds at the nearby UNESCO world heritage site of Ephesus.
Our next stop was Urla, where we met entrepreneur, arborist and wine maker Can Ortabas, owner of the world’s largest palm tree farm and Urla Winery. An enigmatic personality, we followed him through his farm and vineyard learning of his passion for horticulture, the earth and, of course, his wines. Urla winery is focusing its efforts on revitalizing lost indigenous grape varieties such as Urla Karasi, a delicious, robust red grape once thought to be lost forever. A rare treat is a glass of their Nero D’Avolo and Urla Karasi blend!
We then headed for Manisa, a picturesque three-hour drive inland, to Selendi Winery. Started by Akin Ongor, ex-COO of Turkey’s largest private bank, Selendi is a small winery featuring reds only, and primarily blends, their 2010 blend was our favorite, heavy on its Merlot content this first-rate wine is reminiscent of something you’d find from Bordeaux.
We’re on our way to the Thrace region now, or Trakya region if you’re Turkish. Stay tuned for more during our journey through Turkey, and Turkish wines!
– The Wine Portfolio Crew
An email arrives from WTSO and you immediately begin to salivate. Perhaps your heartbeat races and your pulse quickens. Thankfully, this isn’t porn-related spam, but rather a doorway into a semi-secret world of seemingly unheard of wine discounts. At 30-70% off original retail pricing, these time-sensitive deals offer up incredible values on a wide range of wines from lower-priced, large production wines to some of the world’s priciest such as Napa Valley Cabernets, Brunello di Montalcino and Bugindian Pinot Noirs.
So just who is this WTSO that sends such great e-mails? Cracking the code, WTSO stands for Wines Til Sold Out, a members-only, flash sale wine site and the brainchild of Elliot Arking. Elliot seems to have appeared from nowhere if you believe his LinkedIn profile. This is somewhat true since Arking launched WTSO in 2006. However, it only tells part of the story. Arking’s full resume encompasses work with several successful companies, including the purchase of Roger Wilco Wine & Spirits, a retail wine shop in southern New Jersey, with his brother, Joseph Arking, in 1982.
His son Jamie’s profile is more complete, chronicling his career in research and development and strategic marketing after receiving a Ph.D. in molecular pathology and, later, an MBA in Finance. Jamie logged in time at healthcare and biotechnology companies, taking up residency in D.C. and then San Diego, among other places. Sounding more like a Wharton professor than wine salesman, Elliot explained that he told his son to “always be on the income side of the ledger.”
With his own 30 years of experience in brick-and-mortar wine sales, Elliot was uninterested in online retailing when his nephew (Joseph’s son) first suggested it. But, his aha moment came when he viewed an electronics website that sold only one product at a time. He thought the idea made sense and offered a great value proposition.
Adopting the same concept, Elliot and Joseph unveiled WTSO in the summer of 2006, building up its membership slowly, but steadily, over time and learning along the way. About four months after the initial debut, he tweaked one of the offers to include free shipping and noticed a big impact on sales. As a result, all orders now ship free of charge.
By 2008, WTSO had clearly become a serious venture, at which point Elliot began to nag Jamie to return to the east coast and join the family business. As Jamie tells it, “He told me to stop … (expletive implied) … around and get home.” So he did, taking on the role of WTSO’s Chief Financial Officer.
Jamie jokingly complains that he doesn’t get taken along on tasting trips, but claims that his palate isn’t as sophisticated as that of his father and Uncle Joe. Despite his mock indignation about being confined to spreadsheets and numbers, Jamie seems quite giddy with the way things have evolved; clearly proud of the company his family has created.
Today, WTSO employs 30 people and has over $70 million in annual sales. The website generates $52 million, with the balance coming from sales through their app and other social media. Although their mailing list is quite extensive, approximately 140,000 active members account for the majority of purchases, who continue to buy again and again.
Given the Arkings’ devotion to customer service, such repeat business is to be expected. What might be surprising is the level to which they will go to make their members happy. Along these lines, WTSO uniquely provides a money back guarantee; if the customer has a problem with a wine for any reason –even if s/he just doesn’t like it – they will receive a credit for that particular purchase. Similarly, in tracking customers’ comments on the site, they discovered that a member had identified a corked bottle several months earlier, but not reported it. Elliot immediately reached out and offered a refund, much to the astonishment of the member.
Rather than sharing their opinions, by design, wines are marketed with their respective press scores since Elliot prefers third party endorsement to add legitimacy to a wine’s quality. On rare occasions, if a wine has been purchased in sufficient quantity, it may show up on the site again and will also be accompanied by members’ ratings.
While some have been critical of the flash site phenomenon, arguing that the approach is unsustainable long term, the Arkings disagree. They feel that wine will always be available to be sold in their business model. Moreover, they stress the positive influence that their site has on individual wineries – offering an important distribution channel with high impact and high thru-put to the consumer, such as the sale of 1,000 bottles in a single hour on one occasion.
Elliot further emphasized that they buy in large quantities and pay right away and was quick to note that, upon purchase, they take delivery of all wines. Consequently, they have full control of the product (as well as the risk). This differs from some of the other flash sale sites that market on behalf of the winery, but don’t ever take possession of the products. This point of differentiation ensures that WTSO maintains the highest quality throughout the process, but also translates as good cash flow for the wineries which don’t make any money on inventory sitting in their cellars.
Additionally, Jamie suggested that they are helping smaller wineries find new customers that they wouldn’t otherwise find. As a follow up, he believes that their WTSO clients may ultimately become wine club members of a given winery, having been exposed to those wines through WTSO.
Looking ahead, Elliot admits that he takes a conservative view, begging the question, if it works, why change it, but does acknowledge the significant potential in growing their customer base. Accordingly, while there are no plans to add or alter the company’s activities, member acquisition remains a priority for the foreseeable future. All of which means that there might be a lot more people salivating over their inbox.
I’ve come to the conclusion that you drink wine with more than just your nose and taste buds – your memory also plays an important part in the process.
That’s why people often gravitate towards the same grapes, the same terroirs and the same brands when they choose their wine. Certainly, for me, memory is the primary reason I’ve developed a mania for wines from La Rioja, in Spain.
This February, I was lucky enough to travel with Jody Ness and the crew of Wine Portfolio to experience the wines of this venerable region first-hand; and it’s colored my experience of drinking them ever since.
Just a whiff of the earthy combination of mountain-grown Tempranillo and old oak is enough to whisk me back to the amazing food, stunning scenario and warm hospitality I experienced on my trip to Spain.
But there’s more to it than that.
For example, when I bought a bottle of 2005 Marques de Riscal Reserva today, I chose that wine because I’d been lucky enough to visit the Bodega where it was made. While there, I witnessed every step of the journey that turns a plump, juicy grape into a rich, rewarding drop of wine.
It’s knowing that journey – and the passion and precision which went into it – which makes every mouthful so flavorful.
Let me share the journey my wine went on with you. It makes it taste just that much better:
As the resident Brit, my colleagues and friends state-side are constantly quizzing me about the upcoming wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton. To be honest, I’m not much of an authority on royal happenings – but I am at least able to shed some light on what the three-hundred guests toasting the royal nuptials will be drinking.
The word on the street is that William and Kate personally requested non-vintage champagne from Epernay-based, family owned winery Pol Roger – most likely their Brut Réserve.
If you’re not familiar with Pol Roger, don’t feel bad. As a fairly small, if venerable, winemaker, their products are currently only available in Europe and Australia – retailing for around 30 EUR for non-vintage. Despite a fairly exclusive market share, Pol Roger have both history and reputation to boast about. They’ve been making champagne since 1849 and list Sir Winston Churchill as their most loyal customer (they even produce a vintage Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill to recognize that fact.)
If you’re looking to toast the royal wedding and don’t have access to Pol Roger, a good alternative that also comes with royal approval is classic, non-vintage Bollinger. This was the fizz Prince Charles toasted with at both his bachelor party and his wedding to Princess Diana in 1981.