Wednesday, April 27, 2005

A death knoll for Burgundy...

(If you regularly read my blog this post may bore you to's about wine and I need to vent...thanks for humoring me.)

Is Burgundy dead?

Hell yeah it is! Working in wine retail I've seen many trends in consumption come and go. The latest trends to be cheap crap and pinot noir. By cheap crap I mean mega-performers like Yellow Tail, Charles Shaw, and just about anything else with a bright label with an animal on it that tastes like sugared yak bile. Yellow Tail Shiraz is now the #1 selling 750ml red wine in the US, replacing Blackstone Merlot. Both of these wines, although not with technical flaw, are crap. They're not good. They're reminiscent of butt-coffee flavored with Jolly Ranchers. It's sad really. People apparently are willing to sacrifice quality for savings these days. It's somewhat understandable with the current state of the American economy and the general weakness of the once almighty American dollar in the world market.

The other current, somewhat flukish, trend is pinot noir. Although pinot noir has always had a steady following among vinuous types, the phenomonon of the film Sideways has had a strange impact on the sales of this elegant varietal. Luckily, this trend is starting to supplant the popularity of merlot (As you may or may not know...I'm not a big fan of merlot. In fact the only merlots that I tend to like are the expensive ones that taste like cabernet sauvignon. Why not buy a cab instead?). You may remember Miles' line "I am not fucking drinking merlot!" Well said! Sanford Winery in Santa Barbara is almost out of wine. Apparently there's nothing left to taste at the tasting room because of the popularity of the film (there was a scene filmed in the Sanford tasting room). Our Michigan distributor that sells Sanford is out of their pinots. Every other distributor (I buy from just over 20 distributors in all) is bringing in pinot noir samples every week hoping to hop a ride on the pinot train. It's a train that's building speed and I believe many are banking on it being the next juggernaut.

I've noticed a trend in Burgundy's absolutely dead. Burgundies, both red and white alike, used to be one of the benchmarks of wine for centuries. Our Burgundy sales are absofrickinlutely flat. It's not possible for the sales to be negative, but they may as well be. I don't know if this trend carries similarities elsewhere (worldwide), but I've read enough trade articles to believe that Burgundy sales are stagnant across the US. I don't know how much of this rings true in major markets like New York, San Francisco, and Chicago, but I'm sure sales are down.

This can be attributed to several factors...

Although Burgundy has been held in the highest regard by wine SNOBS everywhere, wine is luckily beginning to become commonplace among the masses, not just the prudish economic-elite bluebloods. Wine is becoming accessible and now it's even GOOD FOR YOU!

There is still a bit of anti-French sentiment in the US. This backlash is most noticeable in working class/blue collar/red state areas. Dearborn, Michigan is a pretty good cross-section. When Dubya first attacked Iraq, French wine sales plummetted en masse. They still have not fully recovered. Bordeaux, Rhone, Alsatian, Loire, and VDPs have slowly risen back to about 2/3 of their former numbers. I can hear the crickets chirping in the Burgundy section. The fact that the other regions have picked up leads me to believe that anti-French sentiment has had very little impact specifically on Burgundy.

The dollar is crap and the Euro is strong as a bull. People keep saying how strong the Euro is, when in reality, it's the American dollar that's dangerously weak. European wine prices are the highest they've ever been. Incredible value wines are coming out of Chile, Argentina, South Africa, Australia, and Spain. Although Spain obviously lies under jurisdiction of the Euro, there are lots of smaller up-and-coming wine regions that are producing some stellar wines at affordable prices. The increase in European wine prices is mostly noticeable in France and Italy. German prices are up a bit, but their sales have never measured up to the two power-houses.

Although Bordeaux prices are noticeably up, they're still roughly priced in unison with the quality of the vintage. Prices in Burgundy, not unlike Napa, just keep going up every year regardless of the quality of the vintage, in leaps and bounds, pricing themselves out of the market. This leaves the most collectible Burgundies to be scavenged by the uber-elite. However, the numbers of the uber-elite, have dwindled since the burst of the dotcom bubble. The economy is in the shitter and people aren't spending money like they used to. I believe that Burgundy's best hope in this area is the burgeoning of the Asian market. It's big and getting a lot bigger.

Burgundy's biggest problem is likely the quality/price ratio. Red Burgundy is made from pinot noir. Pinot noir is one of the world's most fickle grapes. Burgundy has been compared to a "mine-field". Great vintages are few and far between and when they are great they're likely to be priced out of reach. Producers like Domaine Romanee-Contee are the best example. is scarce...but it's out there. Would you pay over $1500.00 for ONE bottle of f'in pinot noir (Romanee-Conti) or $1000.00 for ONE bottle of chardonnay (Montrachet)? I certainly wouldn't...and I can't because I don't have that kind of money (I work in the wine business for chris'sake). I've never had a DRC wine and I probably never will. I have had opportunities to taste some great wines with friends and customers, but they don't buy Burgundy. You can get a GREAT pinot noir from California or Oregon for less than $50.00 a bottle. Often better than a French counterpart for 10 times the price.

I'm the first to admit that I'm not the world's biggest fan of pinot noir, chardonnay, and Burgundy in general. I respect them, but I generally would prefer to drink something else. I will admit that a good white Burgundy can be astounding, and I'd rather drink a white Burgundy over a red any day. They can be great! However, I'm still waiting to taste one of those "life-changing" Burgundies that everyone is talking about. I've been with groups of people that were opening that "very special old Burgundy" expecting them to behold and bow down to the world's greatest wine...only to be disappointed beyond belief. "Hmmm...maybe I aged it too long." No shit!!! Did you actually believe that a 30 year old Pommard or Gevrey-Chamberting would maintain a deep color and be laden with gobs of upfront fruit? No!!! It's going to be brown, dead, and generally ass-nasty bad.

I have personally not purchased a bottle of Burgundy in about 6 or 7 years. I have opportunity to taste them and none of them strike a chord. The ones that I may like are probably over $100.00. I'd sooner buy a Carneros chardonnay or a Willamette Valley pinot noir any day. Carneros and the Russian River Valley in California and the Willamette Valley in Oregon have long been established as reliable regions for growing pinot noir. Santa Barbara and Mendocino are hot on their tail. The key word is "reliable". California and Oregon Pinots are much more reliable than red Burgundies. Weather is the most important factor followed by modern winemaking skills and technology. The weather in Burgundy is much less predictable and many of the winemakers are not willing to embrace 20th century thinking (yes...I do realize that this is the 21st century). California and Oregon pinots are consistently outperforming red Burgundies in blind-tastings. Even the French are picking American winners in blind-tastings. The world, like Robert Parker, although they may not admit it, want rich fruit-filled wines that are delicious NOW. Burgundy better wake up and come to its senses.

Burgundy is no longer the jewel in the crown. If Burgundy is ever going to survive and perform as well as it used to in the world wine market it's got to embrace change. This means lowering prices, embracing technology, better marketing, and lowering the "snob appeal" of Burgundy. Perhaps, most importantly, they can accept the world trend of wines that are fresh, fruit-filled, and TASTE GOOD. If they have to uproot and move further south (out of Burgundy) or even to California or Oregon to make better wines maybe they should. "In Vino Veritas"..."In wine there is truth"

Wine speaks for itself. Burgundy had better start playing the same game everyone else is or they may as well give up. Producers like Vision Cellars, Siduri, Roessler, Argyle, Mendelsohn, Saintsbury, Panther Creek, Consilience, and many others are making great pinot. Catch up, Burgundy, or you're screwed! The coffin is ready to be nailed shut...



Blogger Kathleen said...

I love it when you say you are not a fan of Merlots, since I never liked them. *ssshhh* We won't discuss my general dislike of red wines...

11:09 AM  

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