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Our Present Viewed from the Past
By Linda Murphy
Nov 8, 2011
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Fifteen years ago, as a prelude to the Sonoma County Showcase and Wine Auction, a press conference was held at Mark West Estate in the Russian River Valley.  At the time, the Sonoma County auction received very little media coverage, and for various reasons: It was dwarfed by the Napa Valley Wine Auction (now Auction Napa Valley); some of Sonoma County’s marquee wineries did not participate; Sonoma Valley vintners had their own freewheeling auction-cum-party that siphoned off some media from the county event; writers don’t find much news to report from charity auctions other than the total take, celebrity attendees, and if Robert Mondavi sells the shirt off his back (which he did at the 1991 Napa auction).

So the Sonoma County auction PR committee, which I chaired in 1996, decided to give journalists a meaty reason to write about the event.  It staged a press conference that featured heavy-hitting wine folks predicting the state of the Sonoma County wine industry in 2000 and beyond.  More than 30 writers attended the conference, and if they recall, many of the prognostications turned out to be spot-on.

Mike Lee, proprietor/winemaker of Kenwood Vineyards, foresaw what he termed a “tsunami” of wine flooding the market by 2000, based on an explosion of vineyard plantings in the mid-1990s.  Indeed, California was awash in wine in the early 2000s, a development that led to the emergence of the bargain wine category, with many wines priced at $10 or less yet produced from quality vinifera grapes. 

The tsunami also made possible Fred Franzia’s Charles Shaw “Two Buck Chuck” brand, which continues to sell at Trader Joe’s stores on the West Coast for $1.99 per bottle, and elsewhere for approximately $2.99.  Two Buck Chuck and other under-$10 wines -- drinkable yet bereft of complexity -- are not everyone’s cup of tea, yet they introduced hordes of consumers to bottled wines stoppered with corks.  It’s hoped that some will upgrade their wine-drinking habits from such simpleton wines, though if they don’t bless ’em for making wine a part of their meals and lifestyle.

Julia Iantosca, winemaker for Lambert Bridge Winery, explained at the 1996 conference how the then-recent availability of French clonal material to California grapegrowers would increase diversity and grape quality, and lead to wines being labeled not just as “Chardonnay” or “Pinot Noir,” but as “Dijon Clones Chardonnay” and “Clone 667 Pinot Noir.”

Of course, Iantosca was right.  California Pinot Noirs too numerous to mention now are labeled as “Dijon Clones,” or with the specific clonal numbers (667 and 777, for example, for Pinot Noir).  Morgan Winery in Monterey County produces a “Twelve Clones” Pinot Noir, and Sea Smoke Cellars in the Santa Rita Hills of Santa Barbara County has a flagship Pinot called Ten, blended from 10 clonal selections in the estate vineyard.

Nabbing Helen Turley, winemaking consultant to myriad Sonoma and Napa wineries favored by critics Robert Parker of the Wine Advocate and James Laube of Wine Spectator, was a coup for the Sonoma County PR committee, and she delivered an address that emphasized Sonoma as “pre-eminent for Burgundian varieties.” The owner of the Sonoma Coast based- Marcassin vineyard and wines predicted better matching of grape varieties to meso- and microclimates in Chardonnay and Pinot Noir vineyards, and said grand cru-caliber sites in Sonoma County would emerge over time.  Today, there are several, among them the Hirsh, Monte Rosso and Rochioli vineyards, and some Dutton Ranch sites.

Brice Jones, president of Sonoma-Cutrer Vineyards, kept his press conference topic to himself until the presentation, and his most evocative prediction was that screw caps and other alternative closures would be increasingly used to solve the problem of TCA, a chemical compound found in some natural corks that causes wines to smell and taste musty and of wet cardboard.  Corks still have wide acceptance -- and cork manufacturers have worked hard to eliminate TCA since 1996 -- yet Jones was correct in his crystal ball-gazing, as cork alternatives have become commonplace for wines at all price points.

Jon Sebastiani informed press conference attendees of the wine-buying power of 20-something consumers and advised wineries to take an anti-snob approach in marketing to that age group.  Jon founded, with Jeff Bundschu of Gundlach Bundschu and Mike Sangiacomo of Sangiacomo Vineyards, the Wine B.R.A.T.S.  organization (Benefiting Responsible Adults of Tomorrow’s Society), which grew to more than 30 chapters and 45,000 members nationwide.

Although the original Brats aged past their 20-something date, they introduced GenXers to wine and laid the foundation for wineries marketing to younger drinkers.  Today Millennials -- those age 35 and younger -- are the target market for California wineries, who attempt to reach them via social networking (Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, etc.), and through storytelling, unusual varietals, smart packaging and affordable prices.     

Peter Granoff, proprietor of Virtual Vineyards in 1996 (the precursor to today’s Wine.com), agreed with Sebastiani that the Internet would become an important place for consumers to purchase wine in the year 2000 and beyond, citing as reasons convenience and the availability of timely information, customer service and wide diversity of product offerings.  Raising the technology bar, Granoff said, would produce tremendous growth in online wine sales, and he could not have been more correct, as the majority of California wineries and retailers now use e-commerce to sell wine.

Laurel Glen Vineyard owner/winemaker Patrick Campbell said the decreasing number of distributors and the resultant homogenization of choice were on a collision course with consumers’ desires to have access to all wines.  He was right, as consolidation of wholesalers has continued unabated in the United States, with smaller producers having difficulty getting the attention of distributors, and the big producers carrying most of the clout.  Online sales have helped deliver wines to consumers who cannot find what they want in stores, although some states are still closed to direct-shipping of alcoholic beverages, and others have statutes that make it difficult to receive wine at one’s doorstep.  (Thank goodness direct shipping is one of the few things that still works in California).

Campbell predicted that the three-tier distribution system -- producer sells to wholesaler, wholesaler sells to retailer, retailer sells to consumer -- would eventually fall apart, “because consumers want access to wine and wineries want access to consumers.”  Only with mutual free access, like virtually every other legal consumer good, will America become a truly open market for wine, he said.  Unfortunately, Campbell’s free market is still in the future, as distributors continue to hold a death grip on how wine and other alcoholic drinks are sold in the country. 

Jess Jackson of Kendall-Jackson Winery didn’t nail his predictions, either.  He announced at the press conference that he would seek approval of a “California Coast” American Viticultural Area (AVA), which would run nearly the length of the state and inform wine buyers that grapes grown in this massive appellation would come from cool, coastal conditions that are favorable to many grape varieties.  Jackson also sought in 1996 to have the varietal content requirement for wines be increased from 75 percent to 85 percent, “to give people more of what they think they’re getting” in a bottle, he said.  Neither proposal came to pass .

So where are they now?  Sadly, Jackson and Mike Lee died in 2011.  Lee and his partners sold Kenwood Winery to Gary Heck of Korbel Champagne Cellars in 1998, with Lee remaining winemaker until 2003.  He turned to consulting and worked as winemaker for Patianna Organic Vineyards in Mendocino County until the time of his death.  Since 1996, Jackson and his family expanded its wine portfolio to include dozens of brands spread throughout California.  Kendall-Jackson continues to be of one the highest-performing wine brands in America, and specialist brands include Cambria, Hartford Court, Stonestreet, Freemark Abbey and Verite.

Iantosca is a winemaking consultant, with her most visible client being Lasseter Family Wines in Sonoma Valley, owned by Pixar Studios animation guru John Lasseter and his wife, Nancy.  Brice Jones sold Sonoma Cutrer to Brown-Forman, and after a short stay with the brand, moved on to found Emeritus Vineyards in the Russian River Valley, where he specializes in Pinot Noir.
Turley has cut back on her consultancy to focus on Marcassin, her vineyard and brand of Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs that command $125 per bottle or more.  After producing her wines at Martinelli Winery, where she is the consultant, Turley and her business partner husband, John Wetlaufer have built their own winery in Windsor, in Sonoma County.   

Campbell, who founded Laurel Glen in 1977 and produced his first Cabernet Sauvignon from the Sonoma Mountain Vineyard in 1981, sold the property to Bettina Sichel in 2011, yet will continue to produce his Reds, ZaZin, Vale la Pena, Terra Rosa and Tierra Divina wines from Lodi and Argentina.

Granoff is back to bricks and mortars wine sales -- with online ordering, of course -- as co-owner of Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant & Wine Bar in San Francisco and Oxbow Wine Merchant in Napa.  Sebastiani owns Alexandra Gianna Vineyards in Napa Valley and the KRAVE Jerky company, make of gourmet-flavored meat jerky products.
And as for the Sonoma County Wine Auction? The vintner/grower organizations from Sonoma County and Sonoma Valley have merged and produce the Sonoma Wine Country Weekend; it features a walk-around wine and food gorge-fest at MacMurray Ranch in the Russian River Valley on the Saturday of Labor Day Weekend, and the Sonoma Valley Harvest Auction at Cline Cellars in Sonoma the following day, plus winemaker lunches and dinners. 

The weekend has been a smash hit with consumers, selling out each year.  It’s great fun, the auction draws impressive funds for local charities, and celebrity watching remains entertaining.  Still, there is very little a journalist can write about in the way of news from such an event. 

If only the Sonomans -- and other wine marketing organizations for that matter -- would conduct press conferences such as the one we staged in 1996, so that I can get a leg up on what’s going to happen in the world of wine in the next 15 years, and write and plan accordingly.