Friday, October 29, 2010

Market Conditions and Augustan Wine Imports Positioning: Part III of an Interview with Proal Perry, Founder

Earlier this week I sat with Proal Perry, Founder of Augustan Wine Imports, for what turned out to be two hours of dialogue on Augustan Wine Imports, current market conditions, and the company's response to the winds of change that are buffeting the industry.  In installment 1 of this series I reported on the Augustan origins and partnership with Premier while installment 2 looked at the company philosophy, goals, and organizational structure.  In this the third installment, Proal gives us his insight into current and future market conditions and addresses Augustan's positioning in that future market.

Prior to the onset of the current recession, there was already a move to greater concentration in the industry.  This was a troubling trend, in Proal's view, because larger companies tend to be less forward-looking than their smaller, nimbler counterparts.  Proal likes the idea of a large number of distributors in the Florida market as it results in more wine choices for the consumer and leads to stronger wine consumption.  On the other side of the equation, wine sales are inhibited by a lack of consumer knowledge and an intimidation factor.  Retailers have seized the opportunity to increase their sales by allaying the fears of, and providing education to, retail-level customers.

According to Proal, high-end wineries have historically been loath to sell their wines to independent retailers.  Rather, they have wanted their wines sold in restaurants because of the belief that that channel provided the greatest exposure for both the wine and the winery: the wine is prominently displayed on the wine list; the bottle is brought to the table and consumed by multiple persons; and while the wine is being consumed, the bottle is on display on the table for other diners to see.  Not so for the independent retailer, according to the wineries.  These high-end wines are never displayed on the racks in the store.  Rather, the retailer makes them available only to his/her best customers in a dark back room from where it goes into a collector's cellar never having seen the light of day.  And having provided no broad-based exposure to the winery in that market.

In today's straitened environment very few wineries are placing restrictions on where their wines can be sold due, in large part, to the current restaurant environment.  It has been a difficult time for small operators who, in many cases, lack the capital to ride through the rough times.  Further, it is toxic for startups who, even in the best of times, require two years from startup to profitability.

Proal Perry with the Talley Vineyards winery Rep.

On the consumer side, Proal sees the "top-end" buyers continuing to spend on their favorite collectibles.  It is the "aspirants," as he calls them, who have retreated from the market.  This particular type of customer lacked wine knowledge but bought it because it was "cool" and bestowed "status" on the consumer.  In today's environment this type of consumer has fallen back to wines that are more moderately priced.

With the "aspirants" retreating to the lower-priced end of the market, this segment is showing a marked propensity for trying a more diverse array of wines: diverse both in terms of styles and geography.  And producers are responding.  Good value wines from around the world have increased their presence significantly over the past two years, with independent retailers leading the way in providing customers with exposure to these products.

Proal sees the current market dynamics enduring for some time.  As he sees it, the $50-$75 retail price range has been hurt badly and may never regain its prior elevated levels.  The <$30 market, on the other hand, will continue to be robust going forward, especially given the fact that the quality of the wines produced at that level has improved dramatically over the past 5 years.  It has, historically, been been difficult to get "big spenders" to try lower-priced wines but as the quality of these wines have improved, they have become more open to giving them a try.

Given the foregoing market dynamics, and a strong sense that the <$30 market will continue to grow, Augustan has focused all of its referral assessment activity on that space.  Iconic (read high-end) wines will continue to be pursued as the opportunities present themselves.  A full listing of the Augustan portfolio can be viewed here.

With market positioning set, Augustan has to take all of the necessary steps to ensure that its customers are on board and are prepared to carry that message on to the ultimate consumer.  Augustan eschews the trade-show-type approach in favor of education-themed interactions with its customers which provides those retailers with the tools to then educate the end customer.  For example, last year, the company brought many of its producers to Florida for a three-city road show where small groups of customers had dedicated interaction time with each producer over a four-hour period.  This year the company is doing a number of education-themed sessions with customers in various markets to include a Fall show in the Orlando market where Master Sommelier Andrew McNamara will be leading a seminar on Grower Champagne and South America.

Well, this concludes what has been, for me, a fascinating view into the workings of a company and an industry through the eyes of a leader who has built a successful entity in the space.  I would like to thank John Allport of Augustan for facilitating the meeting with Proal and express my deep appreciation to Proal for taking the time to patiently walk me through the things which come so naturally to him.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Augustan Wine Imports Philosophy and Organizational Structure: Part II of an Interview with Proal Perry, Founder

I recently interviewed Proal Perry, Founder of Augustan Wine Imports, to gain insight into the company's response to current market conditions and am providing Proal's perspectives on this blog over the course of three posts.  Yesterday's post examined the company founding and subsequent partnership with Premier Beverages while today's post looks at company goals and organizational structure.

Augustan Wine Imports” goal is to be the most-valued company in this space that their upper-tier customers are doing business with. Meeting this goal requires, according to Proal, that the company exhibit the following characteristics: quality of service; knowledge; education; creativity; and innovativeness.

The critical success factors (CSFs) for goal attainment are (i) provision of high-quality wines to the market and (ii) the fostering of an entrepreneurial culture within the organization. The first CSF is of paramount importance and the company has implemented a rigorous screening process to ensure that only the highest-quality wines are offered to its customers. The second CSF is being addressed by giving a strong sense of ownership to the people in the field. The message from management to the field is “We are lending you a $1 million+ business that you should treat as your own. Invest in yourself by continually acquiring wine and industry knowledge and we will give you the support required to ensure your success.” A forcing function for this new management approach was Daniel Pink’s book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.

According to Proal, “The carrot and stick approach does not work; a perception of mastery of your environment does.”

Proal believes that commissioned sales forces spend too much time “chasing the money” and not enough time servicing the customer. In the Augustan scheme, salespersons are salaried and this allows them to devote whatever time is necessary to ensure a satisfied customer. In addition to salaries, salespersons have benefits packages and expense accounts. Proal sees the latter as an essential element of the salesperson “managing his/her own company.”
Augustan has a strong support structure facilitating the activities of the field force. The General Manager/Sales Manager reports directly to Proal and is charged with balancing responsibilities across the company. Two Portfolio Managers – one responsible for the U.S. and the other for the rest of the world – handle issues such as inventory, profitability, costing, and supplier contact and coordination. The Marketing Specialist handles referrals (The Company only solicits “iconic” wines.). New opportunities as assessed as a group. A prospect wine is tasted blind and assessed both on its own merit as well as against other potential entrants. Price does not enter the assessment until after the wine has been judged to have the type of quality that Augustan is pursuing.

When asked to categorize Augustan’s customers, Proal indicated that this was an issue they have been wrestling with for a while and had not fully resolved. Historically, a disproportionate share of the business had been with the restaurant trade but that is now down to 60% from the 70% level. On the retail side, they only do business with independent fine wine retailers. The retailers who depend on Wine Spectator “shelf talkers” are not their preferred customers. He wants customers who: (i) understand what distinguishes Augustan from the competition; (ii) want to partner with Augustan; and (iii) Augustan wants to partner with. Proal cites Tim’s Wine Market as an example of the ideal Augustan customer. Tim’s has been an Augustan customer from day 1 and, 15 years on, remains one of the company’s best customers.

In tomorrow’s post we will examine wine market conditions and Augustan’s response to the tumult.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Genesis and Evolution of Augustan Wine Imports: Part I of an Interview with Proal Perry, Founder

I recently interviewed Proal Perry, Founder of Augustan Wine Imports, to gain his perspective on the current and future state of the regional wine market and to expound on what actions, if any, he has taken to ensure that the company retains its relevance in these tumultuous times.  The interview took place at one of the most beautiful restaurant "setback" locations in the metro-Orlando area: the dock on the lake at Houston's.  Augustan had brought its local customers together on the dock for a lunch-time introduction of the Talley Vineyards offerings.

Once the customers and Augustan staffers had vacated the premises, Proal and I had the dock to ourselves and settled down for what turned out to be a wide-ranging discourse on the origin and evolution of Augustan Wine Imports, the company philosophy and operating principles, and the state of the broader wine industry.  The fruits of those discussions will be shared over three blog posts beginning with today's.

Proal Perry has a restaurant background and one of his frustrations while in that space was the unavailability of small-producer, estate-bottled wines in the Florida market.  Proal was trying to exit the restaurant business and began looking at opportunities to address this niche.  Bruce Neyers, the National Sales Director for the then fledgeling Kermit Lynch Wine Merchants, came to Florida at that time seeking a distributor for the company's products and suggested that Proal form a company for that express purpose.  Proal listened and Augustan Wine Imports was launched in 1993.  Proal's wife Connie joined the business 1 year later to focus on business operations while he focused on sales.

A number of factors contributed to the early-life success of Augustan: (i) the timing was right; (ii) Augustan was exploiting a niche that was unserved; (iii) there was little competition; and (iv) Augustan was not viewed as a threat by the large distributors.  Augustan was, according to Proal, one of the first small distributors in the state and after its initial success a number of smaller players entered the market.  There are now over 200 licensed distributors in the state.

As Augustan began doing business across the state, its business model became problematic.  The logistics costs associated with a small company trying to distribute small-estate wines across the state was steadily eroding profitability.  By this time, the company had brought on a number of European and domestic producers but had only one distribution center in South Florida from which to dispatch products across the state.  Distributing product to the Panhandle could mean that a truck would be gone for three days and be empty for two of those days.  If the company wanted to extend the model across the state efficiently and effectively, another path would have to be pursued.

The chosen path was a partnership with Premier Beverage.  Premier saw prestige value in Augustan and preserved that value by allowing its management to to retain a high degree of autonomy and independence.  Augustan saw value in Premier's distribution muscle (4 distribution centers across the state) and willingness to provide an environment wherein the founding vision of the company could be pursued in an untrammeled fashion.  Further, the partnership would allow Augustan to become even more specialized as it would now be representing a smaller group of suppliers.

In tomorrow's post I will share Proal's perspectives on the company structure, key success factors, and customers.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Esterházy Winery and the Burgenland (Austria) Wine Region

In yesterday's post, I established the historical basis for the prominence of the Esterházy name at the Austro-Hungarian tasting put on by the International Masters of Wine in London on October 12, 2010.  In today's post I will examine the Esterházy wine fundamentals as well as their wines that were exhibited at the tasting.

The Esterházy vineyards extend over 65 hectares, 48 of which are located in Austria between Eisenstadt and Lake Neusiedl, while the remaining 17 hectares are located across the border in Sopron, Hungary.  The vineyards are planted 35% to white varietals (Grüner Veltliner, Pinot Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Welschreisling) and 65% red (Blaufränkisch, Pinot Noir, Zweigelt, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon).  All of the vineyards on the Austrian side of the border are located in the Neusiedlersee-Hügelland/Leithaberg DAC sub-region of the Burgenland wine-growing region.

The Burgenland region encompasses 14,500 hectares (48,000 acres) and is further sub-divided into four sub-regions: Neusiedlersee (7,700 hectares), Neusiedlersee-Hügelland/Leithaberg DAC (3,650 hectares), Mittelburgenland DAC (2,100 hectares), and Eisenberg DAC/Sudbergenland (500 hectares).  Climatic conditions in Burgenland are unique in Austria and has made the area famous for its red and botrytized sweet wines.  The region averages almost 2000 hours of sunlight per year and this, coupled with the warm winds from the Pannonian Plains during the growing season, provides excellent conditions for varietals such as Blaufränkisch, Zwiegelt, St. Laurent, and Pinot Noir.  The humidity associated with Lake Neusiedel provides the right conditions for botrytized sweet dessert wines from Welschriesling, Chardonnay, and Scheurebe.

Within the Burgenland region, Neusiedlersee-Hügelland can be further sub-divided into three wine-growing zones, two of which are most important for our purposes.  In the north, vineyards are planted on the south-facing slopes of the foothills of the Leithagebirge.  The soil here is limestone with islands of granite and the dry wines from this area register a distinct minerality.  Wines (i) produced within a defined legal zone and (ii) made from Weisburgunder, Chardonnay, Neuberger, Grüner Veltliner, or cuvees of same (whites) or >85% Blaufränkisch (reds) can be marketed under the Leithaberg DAC.  Wines not conforming to the foregoing are marketed under the Burgenland designation.

The area around Rust, a town situated just west of Lake Neusiedl, is well known for its botrytized  Ruster Ausbruch.  The lake acts both as a temperature regulator and a warmth and humidity engine thus providing the conditions necessary for the generation of noble rot.

Prior to 2006, Esterházy wines were still vinified in the basement of the Schloss Esterházy in Eisenstadt. This situation changed in 2006 when the winery invested €6 million in a new, state-of-the-art winery at Trausdorff, which lies southeast of Eisenstadt.  The winery is equipped with such modern conveniences as sorting tables, cold maceration facilities, gravity flow mechanisms and stainless steel or oak fermentation capability depending on the wine style.

The first Esterházy wine at the Austro-Hungarian tasting was the Burgenland Blaufränkisch Föllig 2008.  The grapes for this wine were grown on heavy and deep soils in the Föllig vineyard which is planted with vines averaging 22 years of age.  The grapes were handpicked and fermented in 5,500-liter wooden fermenters, macerated for 18 days, and then aged in 100% new small oak barrels for 14 months before bottling.  The wines are 100% Blaufränkisch, reflecting an industry movement away from Blaufränkisch cuvees.  This was a medium-bodied, young wine with good acidity and medium-high tannins.  Both black and red fruits are very evident on the nose.

The second Esterházy wine was a Burgenland Welschriesling Trockenbeerenauslese "Kulm" 2004.  The Kulm vineyard is located near Lake Neusiedl in Rust, a great location for the development of noble rot.  The grapes are harvested and then gently pressed.  They are fermented in oak barrels using natural yeasts and stored for three months before bottling.  The wine is 100% Welschriesling.  It has 10.5% alcohol by volume and 257.2g/l of residual sugar.  It was very rich on the palate and exhibited quince, pears and exotic fruits on the nose.

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Esterházy Family: Politics, Culture, and Wine

During the course of the International Masters of Wine (IMW) Austro-Hungarian tasting, the name Esterházy kept popping up -- they had two wines on offer at the tasting; they were featured prominently on the seminar handouts; IMW speakers at the event continually thanked them for their support of the effort; and they had flown their winery chef in from Vienna to oversee the preparation of the lunch which followed the tasting -- and I was intrigued because it was a name with which I was unfamiliar.  I decided to learn a little more about the Esterházys and this post summarizes my discoveries.

The Esterházys were a Hungarian noble family who rose to prominence by dint of the efforts of Count Nikolaus Esterhazy (1583 - 1645) and who owed their steadily increasing wealth and influence to unfailing loyalty to the Catholic Church and the Habsburg Emperors.  The family wealth was based on large land holdings resulting from redistribution of seized Protestant lands, lands won from the Turks in battle, and lands which came into the family as the result of strategic marriages.  The family seat was Esterházy Castle in Eisenstadt, a region that was a part of Hungary until given over to Austria during the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the conclusion of WWI.

The family has long been a supporter and patron of culture and the arts.  The Esterházys were long-time supporters of Joseph Haydn, the famous composer, who served as their choir master from 1762-1790.  Even after he left the royal court in 1790, they continued to pay him a full salary until his death in 1802.  The family's support for the arts and culture continues today through the efforts of the Esterházy Foundation.  The Foundation's resources are drawn from the family's Austrian holdings and includes forestry, property, land and a winery.  The Foundation's cultural section manages its historical properties and art works and supports promising young artists from across the cultural spectrum.

The Esterházy family has a strong winemaking tradition which dates back well over 250 years.  Written records show that the first Pinot Noir (Blauburgunder) cuttings from Burgundy were planted by the family in 1758.  Until the construction of of a new, modern winery in 2006, the winery resided in an old cellar beneath Schloss Esterházy in Eisenstadt.

In a future post I will look at the Esterházy wines presented at the IWT tasting.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Krug Tasting: From solo to full orchestra

Such was the characterization by François Mateo, Krug's Business Development Manager, of the Krug tasting that I attended last evening.  The tasting, and subsequent champagne dinner, was organized and hosted by @wineontheway at Luma on Park in Winter Park.

A total of 20 people attended the tasting while 12 (different) people attended the dinner.  The wines tasted were the 1998 Krug Clos du Mesnil, the 1998 Krug Vintage, the Krug Grande Cuvée, and the Krug Rosé.

In setting up the tasting, Francois drew on a music analogy wherein he likened the Clos du Mesnil, which is 100% Chardonnay, to a solo while the Grande Cuvée, blended from multiple parcels of champagne varietals, was the full orchestra.  The tasting, then, was a journey from the solo on one end to the full orchestra at the other.  And then we would taste the Rosé.

The Clos du Mesnil is made from grapes grown in its namesake vineyard which is located in the heart of the village Mesnil sur Oger.  According to François, this vineyard has been planted to vine since

1698 and its grapes are the "purest expression of Chardonnay you can have in Champagne."  On the nose the wine exhibits bread, a stony minerality and citrus notes.  It is crisp on the palate with great acidity and a long finish.

Vintage wines are declared at Krug only when the year has something unique to offer.   According to François, Krug has a 7-member tasting committee which determines the still wines that will be a part of the final blend.  If, in the course of tasting the still wines of a particular vintage, the committee finds characteristics that set some portion of these wines apart from wines of the past, a vintage is declared.  A vintage speaks to the uniqueness of a particular year and reflects the "emotions of the wine tasting committee."

In our music analogy, the 1998 Krug Vintage is the sonata. The wine is a blend of 20-30 still wines.  With its mix of champagne varietals, it shows more strength, structure and maturity than the Clos.  It has notes of citrus and burnt orange and exhibits great energy and intensity.  François sees this as pairing well with a white fish.

The Krug Grande Cuvée fulfills the vision of the founder in that still wines from over 200 parcels are tasted to determine the final blend.  The still wines are vinified by parcel and go directly from the press to small oak casks where each lot is tracked individually.  Only the most vibrant wines make it into the Grande Cuvée with the remainder either sold off or placed into reserve.  After blending, the wines are aged on the lees for six years before disgorgement.  Each year's Grande Cuvée has 40-50% reserve wine in the blend.  This wine has bigger fruit than the previous two with apple, pear, and tropical fruit noted.  Breadiness is restrained while freshness and maturity are in evidence.  Powerful yet elegant.  This is the wine, according to François, that should be used to introduce someone to the Krug line.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Austro-Hungarian Seminar: Tasting and Lunch

The Austro-Hungarian Tasting Seminar, held on Tuesday, October 12, 2010, at the residence of the Austrian Ambassador to the United Kingdom, started at around 10:00 am as scheduled.  The seminar was held in a room above and to the left of the foyer and reception area and was set up such that the attendees faced the seminar panelists who were seated in a continuous line at tables arrayed across the front of the room.  A screen for projection of presentation material was above and to the right of the 

panelists’ location.

The Chair of the event was Elizabeth Gabay MW and she made a brief statement before introducing the Ambassador, His Excellency Mr. Emil Brix.  Mr. Brix welcomed us to his residence and the event and wished us the best as we embarked on this very important initial joint marketing effort for the wines of Austria and Hungary.After Mr. Brix’s welcome, Elizabeth explained the process and then turned it over to the panelists.

The tasting itself was organized into three flights.  The first flight -- Indigenous white varieties from Somló and Wachau -- showcased the native white varietals from these two important Austrian wine regions.  The second flight -- Hungarian Kékfrankos and Austrian Blaufränkisch -- sought to compare and contrast the wines made from this varietal (different in name only) in Hungary and Austria.  Flight three highlighted the taste and production methods of the Tokaji and Ruster Ausbruch sweet wines.
Each flight tasting was led by a team comprised of two high-ranking winery representatives, each of whom focused on a particular perspective.  In flight three, for example, Heidi Schröck of 

Weingut Schröck led the session on Ruster Ausbruch while Péter Molnár of Patricus Winery focused on Tokaji.  The wines for each flight were poured prior to the beginning of the flight session which allowed for short breaks between sessions.  Questions were fielded at the end of a flight session.

It was very obvious that each of the panelists attached great significance to these proceedings.  They each stepped out of their winery shoes and focused on the bigger picture of regional/country wines and the going-forward possibilities for co-operation between the wineries of the two countries.  They were earnest and focused and brought along a lot of supporting props (The attendees were bombarded with soil, leaf, and varietal samples.).
The audience, which seemed to be comprised primarily of wine professionals doing business in wines from one or the other of these two countries, was engaged and asked piercing questions whenever the opportunity arose.

At the end of the seminar, we migrated to the Empress Maria Theresia Room which had been set up for a buffet lunch.  The room itself was divided into two sections with the larger of the two serving as the eating space and the smaller as the serving station.  The luncheon was sponsored by the Esterhazy Foundation, one of the supporters of the International Masters of Wine.  The Esterhazy Winery had flown its Chef over to London to oversee preparation of the lunch.  A fine array of wines accompanied the luncheon.

The Hungarian Ambassador joined the group at lunch and made a small speech thanking attendees for participation.  The head of the International Masters of Wine organization also spoke at htis time and was especially grateful to the Esterhazy Foundation for all that they had done to help make the event a success.

Wines tasted at the Austro-Hungarian Seminar

The below is the “running order” of the Austro-Hungarian Seminar and Tasting held at the residence of the Austrian Ambassador in the UK on Tuesday, October 12, 2010.

Flight 1
Somló Abbey Winery - Olaszrizling 2009
Domaine Kreinbacher - Kőkonyha 2008
Hollóvár Estate - Hárslevelű 2009
Domne Wachau Grüner Veltliner 2009
Weingut Knoll Grüner Veltliner 2007
Domäne Wachau Riesling 2002
Susan Staglos, Wines of Austria
Roman Horvath MW, Domäne Wachau
Flight 2
Heimann Estyate - Baranya-völgyi Kékfrankos 2007
Gábor Karner Vitézföld Kékfrankos 2007, Mátra
Ráspi Estate - Gneis Kékfrankos 2007
Imre Kaló - Kékfrankos 2002
Weingut Krutzler Blaufränkisch Perwolff 2008, Südbergenland
Weingut Albert Gessellmann Blaufränkisch Hochberc 2007, Mittelburgenland
Weingut Esterhazy Blaufränkisch Föllig 2008, Burgenland
Weingut Prieler Blaufränkisch Goldberg 1999, Burgenland
András Kató, The Terroir Club
Silvia Prieler, Weingut Prieler
Flight 3
Domaine Disznókő - 6 puttonyos Tokaji Aszú 1990
Patricius winery - 6 puttonyos Tokaji Aszú 2003
Királyudvar Winery - 6 puttonyos Tokaji Aszú ‘Lapis Vineyard’ 2005
Heidi Schröck Burgenland Furmint Ruster Ausbruch 2007
Weingut Kracher Burgenland Scheurebe TBA Nr. 11 2006
Weingut Esterhazy Burgenland Welschriesling Trockenbeerenauslese “Kulm” 2004
Péter Molnár, Patricius Winery
Heidi Schröck, Weingut Schröck

Lunch Menu at Austro-Hungarian Wine Seminar

Attendees at the Austro-Hungarian wine seminar held at the residence of the Austrian Ambassador on Tuesday, October 12, 2010, were served a buffet lunch at the end of the seminar.  The lunch was sponsored by the Esterhazy family of Hungary and the menu was devised by the winery’s chef who was flown in to London specifically for the event.  Lunch was served in the Empress Maria Theresia Room of the Ambassador’s residence.
Pannonian Goose Liver Variations (Terrine, Praline, Pan-Fried) 
Salmon Trout with Greaves Cake and small salad
Viennese Veal Escalope and Potato Salad
Rainbow Trout on Potato-Crayfish Mousseline and Braised Beetroot
“Kaiserschmarren” with a Prune/Plum Puree and Elderberry Ice Cream
Pancake and Apricot Jam
The wines were accompanied by a number of wines from the relevant countries.
Domäne Wachau Grüner Veltliner Smaragd Achleiten 2009
Weingut Prieler Leithaberg DAC Blaufränkisch Leithaberg 2008
Heidi Schröck, Gerhard Kracher Ruster Ausbruch Schröck/Kracher 2006
Zoltán Demeter Furmint Lapis Vineyard Tokaj 2008
Domaine Kreinbacher Old Vines Cuvée Olaszrizling, Furmint, Hárslevelű, Somló 2007
Disznókő, Patricius, Királyudvar Tokaj Eszencia

Monday, October 18, 2010

Austro-Hungarian Tasting: The Setting

On Tuesday, October 12, 2010, The Institute of Masters of Wine held a tasting of the wines of Austria and Hungary.  The tasting, formally titled Austro-Hungarian Seminar, was held at the residence of the Austrian Ambassador to the United Kingdom (18 Belgrave Square, London) and was hosted by the selfsame Ambassador, His Excellency, Mr. Emil Brix. 

Belgrave Square, the location of the Ambassador's residence, is one of the largest squares in London, comprising a full 10 acres.  It was developed on a plot of land previously called Five Fields by the owners, the Grosvenor family and has "... a fine range of terraced houses in the classical style on all four side surrounding the centre garden."  The square was laid out in 1826 and development was fully completed and occupied by 1848.  The Austrian Embassy has occupied the building at 18 Belgrave Square since 1871(or 1868 according to other sources) and for 30 years was the only mission of a foreign government to occupy space in the square.  The first Austrian Ambassador -- representative of the large Austro-Hungarian Empire --  to reside at 18 Belgrave Square was a Count who lived there with his Countess and 15 servants.

Upon ringing the doorbell, the door was opened and I was ushered into a foyer where my coat was taken from me.  I was then usherd into a further room where the reception area for the tasting was situated.  After my credentials were established, I was issued a name badge and ushered into another room to await the summons to go upstairs to the area in which the actual tasting was to be held.  The overarching sense that was conveyed by the architecture, plethora of paintings, and furnishings was of old Europe.  I felt as though I had stepped back in time; and I was transfixed.

It seemed very fitting; old world wines in an old world setting.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Bride Valley Vineyards: Steven Spurrier's British Sparkling Wine Project

In an earlier post, I wrote about the rise of the British sparkling wine industry and the “Judgement-of-Paris" moment experienced by Nytimber Vineyards when it won first place at the World Sparkling Wine competition over such luminaries as Bollinger, Louis Roederer, and Pommery.  A Wall Street Journal article of May 11, 2010, further highlighted this trend.  Another strong indicator that the British bubbly phenomenon might have legs is the fact that noted Bordeaux wine expert Steven Spurrier has jumped into the production end of the market with a venture called Bride Valley Vineyards.  I spoke to Steven about this initiative during a luncheon at Decanter HQ in the UK and this post relates the crux of that conversation, as well as follow-up communications.

Bride Valley Vineyards is a 75-hectare, bowl-shaped farm located in South Dorset, approximately 40 minutes from Kimmeridge, the village which gives its name to the geologic time period when the chalk soils stretching from Chablis to the south of England was laid down.  There is a lot of chalk on the lower slopes of the vineyard and while research has shown that 22 hectares are viable for vine growing, the estate has decided to concentrate on 10 of those 22 hectares for its wine production.  The vigneron of record for the vineyard is Arabella Spurrier, Steve’s wife. She is assisted by wine consultant Ian Edwards, co-owner and winemaker at nearby Furleigh Estates, a regional sparkling- (primarily) and still-wine producer.
Vines for the plantings were acquired from Papinieres Guillaume, supplier to such formidable names as Bollinger, Roederer, and Pol Roger.  A total of 12,500 vines were planted in 2009 at a density of 4100 vines/acre.  Special care was made to ensure that clones and rootstocks were matched with individually suited parcels.  A total of 1200 vines have been planted so far in 2010 and an additional 6000 will be planted in 2011.  At the completion of the planting program in 2011, five of the ten targeted hectares will be under vine and the distribution will be 50% Chardonnay, 28% Pinot Meunier, and 22% Pinot Noir.
Bride Valley Vineyards will produce two wines: a cuvee (consisting of 40% Chardonnay and the remainder a mix of the two Pinot varietals) and a vintage blanc de blanc.  The grapes will be vinified at Furleigh Estates and it is expected that the first vintage will be in 2011.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Review of Decanter Education's Mastering the Medoc and Graves course

Decanter (@Decanter, recently launched an education initiative (Decanter Education) designed to leverage its facilities, columnists, and wine experts to provide students “… unrivaled insight into the most fascinating and important wine regions in the world.” Decanter Education's offerings are divided into wine courses (£225; 10:30am – 3:00pm; three-course, wine-tasting lunch included) and evening master classes (£120; 6:15 pm – 8:30pm; welcome drink and refreshments included). The schedule currently provides for one wine course and one master class per month.

Launching an education initiative was a smart move for Decanter. It allows the company to take advantage of an existing base of experts, events staff, events facilities, and customers in a mutually beneficial manner. Further, by contributing to the increased wine knowledge of its customers, and being the source of that knowledge, Decanter aids customer retention on the magazine side of the business. Finally, students in this setting can be cross-sold on other Decanter products and services.

I first became aware of the Decanter Education program through where concise, clear descriptions of the offerings, speakers, and schedules were provided. Registering and paying for a class was a simple process conducted on the website. I registered for the course titled Mastering the Medoc and Graves, a course to be led by Steven Spurrier who, in my opinion, has made an outsized (if, at the time, unwitting) contribution to the success of Napa Valley wines. Email confirmation of the order, along with an attached invoice, was received shortly after the booking. There was a slight glitch in that the invoice referenced a September course while registration was for an October course. Email correspondence with Decanter confirmed that the course was in October and that a system glitch was responsible for the September reference on the invoice. Tickets were received shortly before the course date.

I arrived at Decanter for my course on the morning of October 8. I was early but, after making my way to the reception area, was welcomed warmly by Emma Franc, Events Manager, who also has Decanter Education as part of her portfolio. This was only the third class given to date so senior management was still very much engaged. The Managing Editor, Guy Woodward, came over and spent time with the attendees, even taking us on a tour of the Persons of the Year vineyards on the 10th floor balcony. According to Emma, this initiative was one that had been bandied about for a bit but was only launched after she received some additional assistance (Joanna Przygoda, Events Executive) for the events side of the business.

The classroom setup was immaculate. A coffee and pastries table was set up towards the back of the room and a wine station – with all the bottles to be tasted -- was set up to the right of the entry door. Beyond that there were four rows of seating, each row consisting of two tables, each with two seats, and each angled in towards a dividing passageway. At each seating position, there were: two mats, each having named places for five wines; a bottle of water; course materials; and a tray with nuts, crackers, and grapes. The two seats shared a spittoon. At the front of the room was a large screen for the projection of presentation materials and, off to the right of the screen, a desk and chair and, studiously reviewing his presentation materials, Steven Spurrier.

The class started a little late to accommodate a few stragglers. Guy Woodward welcomed us formally before turning the class over to Steven Spurrier.

In his opening remarks, Steven mentioned that it was going to be a tasting course (new information to me) and proceeded to briefly introduce the course materials on our desks; material which, he said, would provide us with the required theory. At Steve’s direction the servers poured the initial two wines and continued to pour on his command for the rest of the class.

The wines which served as the basis for the class were drawn from a variety of producers and vintages in the Medoc and Graves. Steven walked us through the tastings, illustrating how each chateau and vintage was reflective of its region /commune of origin. He demonstrated a deep knowledge of the Left Bank and the families and corporations that make wine there. His presentation was peppered with personal anecdotes and tales of corporate battles over Left Bank properties, the telling of which took them from labels on a bottle to living, breathing personalities possessing the strengths and being prone to the petty jealousies that afflict us all.

I enjoyed the class and consider it a privilege to have tasted through this array of Left Bank wines with one of the world’s foremost experts on Bordeaux. I felt especially good about where we were tasting these wines; at the home of one of the leading wine publications in the world. There was something missing though, and, after giving it some thought, I arrived at the conclusion that it was context. While the course is titled: Mastering the Medoc and Graves, we were not provided an overarching framework at the beginning of the class; and how tasting these specific wines would allow us to attain those objectives. On a more personal note, I would have liked a mini-lecture at the beginning of the class. That being said, the material covered was of extremely high value.

At the conclusion of the session, we made our way to a large conference room, overlooking the Tate Modern, for lunch. Lunch was a spectacular affair with a gourmet menu and four additional wines and Decanter’s event experience was on clear display here.

The combination of excellent food and aged wines made for a very collegial atmosphere and the establishment of potentially valuable contacts. Steven was a gracious host at lunch as he continued to talk us through the wines that accompanied the meal. At lunch I conversed with him about his sparkling wine initiative and I will report on that in a future post.

All in all, a very informative and socially rich event. The unique melding of high-quality, expert-led education and insightfully facilitated post-course socialization – which included the speaker, event coordinators, and students – made for a very fulfilling day.

Keep doing this Decanter.

Lunch Menu at Decanter's Mastering the Medoc and Graves course

Attendees at the Decanter Education course titled Mastering the Medoc and Graves, held at Decanter HQ on October 8th, 2010, partook of the following lunch menu.


Course 1: Terrine of duck confit, green salad and plum sauce

Course 2: Rack of Cornish Lamb with mustard-mint crust, pea mousse, fondant potato & honey glazed roasted carrots

Course 3: Bitter chocolate tart


Chateau Doisy-Daëne sec Bordeaux 2007

Domaine de Chevalier 2004

Château Pontet Canet 2002

Château Poujeaux 1996

Wines tasted at the Decanter Mastering the Medoc and Graves Course

Attendees at the Decanter Education course titled Mastering the Medoc and Graves, held at Decanter HQ on October 8th, 2010, tasted the wines listed below in the indicated order.

1. Vieux Château Gaubert, Graves 2008

2. Château Smith Haut Lafitte Blanc, Graves 2007

3. The Society’s Exhibition St Julien, Amiral de Beychevelle 2006

4. Château d’Angludet, Margaux 2005

5. Pauillac (ex Château Latour) 2005

6. Château de Pez, St Estephe 2005

7. Château Smith Haut Lafitte, Pessac-Leognan 2003

8. Château Branaire-Ducru, St Julien 2003

9. Château Rauzan-Segla, Margaux 2001

10. Château Calon-Segur, St Estephe 1998

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

A Visit to Decanter

Decanter (@Decanter,, the self-styled “World’s Best Wine Magazine,” recently held a Master Class on the Medoc and Graves at its corporate headquarters in London. I attended the class and found the Decanter facility to be interesting in its own right.

Decanter is located in the Blue Fin Building at 110 Southwark Street in the heart of the Southwark section of London, hard up against the Tate Modern (which, by the way, is featuring a magnificent Gauguin exhibition which runs through mid-January 2011). Visitors and tenant employees enter the building lobby through revolving glass doors but employees continue to the elevators through a card-activated turnstile system while visitors are diverted to a security desk to be credentialed for entry. Credentialed visitors are provided with a photo-bearing, 1-day pass which allows entrance into the commercial nerve centers of the building.

Decanter’s offices are on the 10th floor and, after exiting the elevator, the visitor walks across an air bridge to access the reception area. The vista and view are stunning. You are walking from the building’s central core to offices which are glass-walled both on the outside as well as the side facing the core. This allows a view of the activity within the office as well as through the office space to the London skyline beyond.

The visitor is buzzed into the Decanter reception where he/she is welcomed by two smiling receptionists.

The Blue Fin Building runs straight up and down to its maximum capacity for the first 10 floors.  Beginning with Floor 11, however, the building retreats inward to begin a new, less-expansive journey to the sky.  This retreat has resulted in patio-like, open-air spaces on the 10th floor, spaces which have been taken advantage of to provide a recreation area on one side of Decanter and a mini-vineyard on the other.

Passing from the reception area to the office spaces beyond, the first room on the left is a glass-walled conference room/classroom where the Master Class was held. Continuing along the central passageway, on the right-hand side, just before exiting to one of the open-air areas, is the Decanter tasting room. The room has a waist-high counter running along its walls and hundreds of wine bottles resident thereon.

A giant spittoon has pride of place in the center of the room. The tasting room is managed by Mark O’Halleron, the Tastings Executive.

Earlier in the year I had participated in the online launch of the 2002 Dom Perignon, an event which was held in, and broadcasted from, this same tasting room. I was tickled pink to be walking around in that same room a few months later.

Out through the rear door, and to the right, there is a gravel-laden, oblong garden which is planted to vine, some of which are fruit-laden. The Decanter Editor, Guy Woodward, who took us on a tour of this area, indicated that each vine had been planted by a Decanter Person of the Year and a metal tag adjacent to each vine showed exactly who had planted the vine.

I have heard about urban vineyards but this one takes the cake.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Urban Wineries: Brooklyn Winery Visit

Based on information contained in a New York Times (NYT) Diners Journal article of September 12, 2008, urban wineries can be classified as falling under either the “Red Hook” model or the “Crushpad” model. The Red Hook model is named after an urban winery located in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn wherein the facility houses a full commercial winery in an urban setting and the grapes are sourced from other vineyards and processed at the facility. In the Red Hook winery case, according to the NYT, the owners located their facility in Brooklyn to stand out from the wineries on Long Island as well as to be close to the wine directttors of the NYC restaurants. The Crushpad model, on the other hand, caters to the amateur winemaker by providing the environment and direction to aid in realizing his/her wine production dreams. The Brooklyn Winery, located in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, falls into the latter category.

Brooklyn Winery is a self-described small-lots crush facility which sources Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Riesling fruit from New York vineyards and Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Petit Syrah, Sangiovese, and Chardonnay from California. The 8,000 sq. ft. facility is divided into a production area, a barrel storage room, a wine-bar with a small-plate kitchen, and a patio.

Brooklyn Winery is slated to fully open to the public on October 18. When I visited on Monday, October 4th, it was a beehive of activity as construction workers toiled feverishly to get the social facilities ready for the grand opening.

With the main entrance caught up in the construction activity, I entered the winery through the receiving area. The winery proper is located just beyond the receiving dock and is populated with shiny new fermentation tanks, de-stemmers, crushers, and other winery paraphernalia.

Just off to the left of the production area, and entered via large, double-paned, wood-bordered glass doors, is the barrel storage room, which has capacity for 500 barrels.

Just in front of the barrel storage room, and still under construction, are the wine bar, small-plates kitchen, and patio.

The current Brooklyn Winery location was a former night club and a significant amount of modification was required to transform it into a structure that met the business requirements. Overall, the floor required the biggest structural modification to meet the winemaker’s requirement for a modern winery floor with excellent drainage.

Upon completion the winery will be able to accommodate up to 300 people for special functions. Such functions will be catered by a neighborhood caterer with whom Brooklyn Winery has established a partnership. The company is a fully bonded winery but also has an on-premise license and will exploit that capability by operating a 7-day-per-week wine bar with small-plate capability.

Brooklyn Winery’s customers will fall into three categories, with some overlap within the categories. The major customer group will be the fledgling winemakers, a group which will run the gamut from wine newbie to accomplished collectors. This is the heart of the business. The second class of customer will be the ones frequenting the wine bar for wines and small plates while the third group consists of entities that rent out the facility for special events. Management sees the capacity for 500 customers at full run rate but this is somewhat in conflict with the goal of 30% production devoted to house wines.

Customer projects are initiated with a planning session where all the parameters for making the individual’s wine are nailed down. Customers will be guided through the entire process by winemaker Conor McCormick. After fermentation, customer wines are placed into used oak barrels. Little to no oak influence is exerted on the wines from these neutral barrels. Where necessary, oak staves are added to impart relevant flavors and scents. Customer wines are stored in barrel for 1 year before they are ready to drink.