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Is There Any Reason to Join a Newspaper Wine Club?

21 Oct

2473201134_4d6ae86788Wine club membership has its privileges… sort of.  Winery wine clubs are built almost entirely upon the benefits model with members enjoying perks like complimentary tastings, access to special bottlings, members-only events, discounts on wine and merchandise, opportunities to meet the winemaker or proprietor, etc.  These privileges make members feel special — like a part of the family in some cases —  and foster loyalty to the brand.  Now that a growing number of newspapers and magazines are getting into the wine club game, I’m curious as to whether or not the benefits model of belonging will translate.  Will the New York Times Wine Club, which is affiliated with the paper in name (and revenue) only, inspire the same kind of devotion as a winery’s club that is from a specific place where members can go visit and see the vines and meet some of the real people behind the wine?  My guess is no, but then again maybe it doesn’t matter.

What newspaper wine clubs are selling to their members is variety.  Precisely because they are not wineries, newspaper clubs can promote a variety of wines and brands from all over the world.  This is undoubtedly an advantage at a time when wine is more common on American dinner tables than ever before.  Many drinkers are now as familiar with Malbec as they are with Merlot.  Rather than sticking with just one varietal or one brand, more people want to experiment, and newspaper wine clubs are offering the opportunity for their members to do just that.

The problem, however, is the manner in which the wines are chosen, and by whom.  None of the wines offered in any of the major newspapers’ clubs are chosen by members of its editorial staff, rather the decision making is outsourced to a company that specializes in wine club sales.  From a journalistic ethics standpoint this makes sense.  A newspaper that runs a wine column cannot ask its editorial staff to choose wines for its wine club, lest they be accused of favoritism or collusion.  This is a pretty straightforward concept.  But, the concept is not equally applied.  The New York Times Wine Club is not called the Global Wine Company‘s Wine Club for a reason.  The wine club’s marketers want your thought process to go something like this:  “Oh, the New York Times has a wine club.  I like their wine column.  That Eric Asimov writes about some cool wines, so I bet their club will be pretty good.”  In essence, newspapers are trading on the very thing they are not giving wine club members:  wines chosen by their wine columnists.

Assuming members know this, and they might not unless they read the very fine print, what then are the benefits of joining a newspaper wine club, and what differentiates one from another?  Here is a brief breakdown of the wine clubs offered by the New York Times, USA Today, and the Wall Street Journal:

New York Times

What you get: 6 bottles per month of boutique wines from around the world, tasting notes, recipes, and related wine, food, and travel articles.  Guaranteed replacement of any bottle you don’t enjoy.
Cost of per year: Sampler level = $1,080 plus shipping; Reserve level = $2,160 plus shipping
Number of bottles per year: 72
Average cost per bottle: Sampler level = $15; Reserve level = $30
Wines chosen by: Global Wine Company

USA Today

What you get: 6 bottles per quarter of primarily good value wine, each shipment contains one “featured wine”, tasting notes, region and varietal information, and pairing recipes.  Members receive 10% off reorders.
Cost of membership per year: $327.92, including shipping.
Number of bottles per year: 24
Average cost per bottle: $11.66
Wines chosen by: My Wines Direct – a team of “experts” choose an initial group of wines for consideration, and the final selection is made by USA Today reader tasting panels.

Wall Street Journal

What you get: 12 bottles per quarter, plus an optional special holiday case, members receive the list of wines in advance and can opt out of any shipment, tasting notes, serving suggestions, and a refund for any bottle you find unsatisfactory.
Cost of membership per year: $559.96 or $699.95 if you opt for the special holiday case, plus shipping and tax
Number of bottles per year: 48 or 60 with holiday option
Average cost per bottle: $12.50
Wines Chosen by: Lionstone Sonoma

With the exception of the USA Today reader tasting panels, the wine selection process is completely outsourced erasing any link between the paper’s wine coverage (a potential reason for joining) and its club.  Across the board it seems that what’s being offered here is relative value and variety.  Many small local wine shops have clubs that offer these benefits, too.  Join one of those and you’ll receive wines hand selected by staff members who will be there the next time you want to drop in and talk about them.  It seems to me that the major benefit of newspaper wine clubs is revenue for the newspaper.  Tasting notes and pairing suggestions just aren’t dynamic enough to inspire loyalty or create excitement.  The first paper that differentiates itself by offering personal service, enhanced benefits like tasting seminars or winery access, and finds a way to put a name and a face behind its club might have some staying power, but for now there’s just not enough substance to justify joining one.


Ms. Drinkwell’s Top 5: Shoulder Season Wines

13 Oct

boarding-bass-shiraz_1Welcome to shoulder season, that moment between the lows and the highs.  It’s a term used almost exclusively by the travel industry, but I don’t see why it can’t also be used in the context of wine.  In fact, it seems to fit quite nicely given that the wine industry is also a cyclical one with (usually) predictable high and low periods.  Wine sales are traditionally at their lowest during the summer months and peak during the November and December holiday season, which means that now, in October, we’re in the lull.

What’s so great about shoulder season is that it makes you think differently.  Ever dream of Christmas in Hawaii?  So does everybody else.  It’s as common as going into a wine store on New Year’s Eve and declaring that you want a bottle of Champagne.  Everybody wants Zinfandel and Pinot Noir on Thanksgiving and Beaujolais Nouveau on the third Thursday in November.  They want big, impressive (but not too expensive this year) California reds to wow friends or clients during the month of December.  In wine and in travel, it seems that everybody wants the same thing at the same time, often dictated by the weather or the holidays.  But, what if, as now, there is not discernable weather pattern to guide you, no big holiday to prepare for?  What do you drink?  And where in the world do you go to find it?

Below are five shoulder season suggestions from wine roads less traveled that are both budget friendly (all under $20) and perfect for milder weather.  Welcome to the delicious in-between!
* Importer, where applicable, and approximate retail price in parentheses.

2008 Quinto do Alqueve, Ribatejo, Portugal (Robert Kacher Selections, $12)

quinto do alqueve

So many Rhône varieties, so little time… and so much money.  I’m often disappointed by white Rhône because for all its heady aroma, it’s often flabby and overpriced.  This Portugese pour made from Fernão Pires is from the Ribatejo region, which lies about 40 miles north of Lisbon.  A superior stunt double for the French stuff in terms of quality and price, it offers a nose redolent of dried apricot and linden blossom.   It’s chiffon-soft mouthfeel is at first ripe with pineapple and mango but finishes a squeeze of meyer lemon juice to give it just the right amout of zip.

2008 Cor Cellars Alba Cor, Columbia Gorge, WA ($17)

Alba Cor

Not only is the Columbia River Gorge (the natural border between Oregon and Washinton), well,  gorgeous, it also produces some mighty fine wine, like this 52% Pinot Gris, 48% Gewürztraminer blend.  It’s lychee and rose petal aromas give way to full bodied flavors of clementine and dried nectarine that are stopped just short of sweetness by a backbone of mouthwatering acidity.

2007 Domaine de la Pepière La Pépiè Côt, VdP de Jardin, France (Louis/Dressner Selections, $16)


A Malbec by any other name would never taste like this.  Marc Ollivier’s very natural (only natural yeasts, no sterile filtration) Malbec, which goes by the alias Côt in the Loire Valley, is an elegant take on the variety.  One you’d never expect if your only experience has been in the form of brawny Argentine versions or even the inky, earthy offerings of Cahors.  No, here in the Garden of France Malbec is treated delicately and the finished product is a nearly clear garnet stunner that’s much more elegant than its drunken chicken label might imply.  Each pour brims with black raspberries, bing cherries, and violets.  Can’t get much lovelier than that.

2008 Palmina Dolcetto, Santa Barbara County, CA ($16.50)

palmina dolcetto

I admit that I have not traditionally been a fan of the Cal-Ital movement, primarily because I have found time and time again that Cali wines labeled as Sangiovese or Barbera are more or less unrecognizable as their stated varieties.  They have no character.  Thankfully, there are a handful of producers like Palmina, who are dedicated to upping the ante in the Cal-Ital game and are doing so with integrity and offering good quality at fair prices.  During shoulder season I like their Dolcetto, a friendly, easygoing wine filled with spicy cherry, rhubarb, and plum flavors that shows the characteristic Italian brightness (i.e. the acidity hasn’t gone down the tubes in favor of squeezing out extra gooey fruit).  Tasty and true.

2006 Bibich Riserva, North Dalmatia, Croatia (Blue Danube Wine Co., $18)


This blend of three grapes — Lasin, Plavina, and Babic — drinks like a lusty, dusty spiced Dry Creek Zin poured into a lithe dancer’s body.  There’s a lot of muscle here but it’s lean, meaning this wine’s berry spiced intensity is discovered slowly, one sip at a time, not in a single knock out punch.  A perfect red to ease you into heartier glasses come winter.

Want to Name our Wine? Become a Fan.

6 Oct

What do you do when you want some social media love?  Announce a contest to name one of your wines, hire Guy Kawaski co-founder of to judge it, and make becoming a Facebook Fan of the winery a requirement to enter the contest.  All of which Olson Ogden Wines is doing right now in a contest which runs through October 15.  The winner will receive a case of said wine, which is to be an under $20 “straightforward, easy drinking, and fruit forward, uncomplicated red wine that may be made up of multiple varietals including Syrah, Grenache, Pinot Noir, Merlot and Cabernet” and recognition on the label itself.  The catch? entrants must be 21 (of course) and submissions are only accepted on the winery’s Facebook Fan Page.

As of right now, Olsen Ogden has 552 fans on its Facebook page.  How many will they rack up by October 15th?  And, what will this social media stunt ultimately do for their brand?

Napa Valley: Easy to Hate, But Not Hard to Love

28 Sep

Napa Valley SignThere are many reasons to hate Napa Valley: the perpetual traffic jam that is highway 29; Costco sized tasting rooms full-to-bursting with tipsy tourists elbowing each other on the way to the bar; insultingly high tasting fees. ($30 for one 1 oz. pour!? Not for me, thanks.) In fact, just last week, Steve Heimoff referred to the Valley as a “Disney-fied mecca” in one of his posts, echoing Randall Grahm’s sentiment in his new book Been Doon So Long in which he refers to Napa Valley as “the adult theme park.”

I can’t say that I disagree with these sentiments.  In fact, when I am asked by out of town guests to host them on a Napa Valley wine tour there is much internal groaning and dread on my part, but a funny thing happens when I get there, I am absolutely jaw-dropped by the beauty of the place.  Every single time.  A visit to Napa Valley can be enchanting whether it’s your first visit or your 51st —  if you choose to look at it with a glass half full mentality.  Here are a few classics you can learn to love again, promise:

Robert Mondavi Winery – Yep, I’m going there (literally and figuratively).  Why?  Because it’s extraordinarily gorgeous.  Whether it’s your first time or not, drinking in the view of the To Kalon vineyard topped by a piece of wedgewood blue sky through the archway at the front of Mondavi’s mission style complex is undeniably breathtaking.  This is the quintessential Napa Valley experience, for without Robert Mondavi the tasting room and perhaps Napa Valley as we know it may not exist today.  Instead of lamenting how big and crowded and corporate it’s all become, why not bring a sandwich and have an impromptu picnic here while you watch all the giddy tourists go by?  (Whether or not you taste the wine is completely up to you.)

Heitz Cellar – Among the most well-respected Cab producers in Napa Valley, Heitz’s low-key tasting room is an oasis of calm among the chaos of Highway 29.  Those who overlook this winery in favor of its flashier neighbors (and there are many) miss out on one of the most relaxed, laid-back tasting room experiences in the valley.  In addition to the usual suspects, Heitz also offers some unusual ones for tasting, Grignolino and Petite Verdot among them.  Did I mention it’s free?  Yes, you can taste some good, very good, even excellent wines here any day of the week without dropping a dime on the experience.  Who says you can’t get something for nothing?

Mumm Napa – With one of the most informative tours on the production of sparkling wine to be had for free and without an appointment, Mumm offers a very good opportunity to get a little winemaking education.  I have taken many guests here and each has remarked on how much they enjoyed this particular experience and how much they learned at Mumm.  Plus, a sparkling wine pit stop is a refreshing change of pace from the onslaught of big, brawny Cabs that inevitably fill a Napa Valley day.  Okay, the wine tchochkes in the gift shop and the Santana Brut are a little ridiculous, but they’ll quickly fade from memory after someone brings you a glass of bubbly — Mumm has no tasting bar, only table service — while you enjoy the picturesque vineyard view.

Silverado Trail – I have been to Napa Valley many times for no other purpose than to drive this road, which runs parallel to the much more crowded and much less scenic, Highway 29.  Built in 1852, it was the first permanent road to connect Napa to Calistoga to the north.  Today, there are more than 40 wineries along the Silverado Trail, but most are nestled discreetly into the lush oaks and pines that line the road or tucked into small hillsides, making this drive feel much more bucolic and relaxing than a slog along stark 29 to the west.  Here, you still see hand printed signs advertising “goats for sale” and the occasional entrepreuer selling homemade pine cone wreaths from the back of a truck on the side of the road.  Driving Silverado feels a little like the Napa Valley of so many years ago, the one many of us long for but find increasingly difficult to recognize.

There are many experiences in Napa Valley worth having again.  What’s chronicled here are perhaps the most obvious, which are often the most overlooked.  But, what about the others:  the obscure, the odd, the unique, the unexpected?  They’re out there, even in a place as overrun with tourism as Napa Valley.  It’s all about setting out to find them.

Thunder, Lightning, Elbling

17 Sep

lightningTwo things happened last week:  there was a thunderstorm in San Francisco, and I tasted 2008 Matthias Dostert Elbling Trocken Nitteler Leiterchen.  These two events were unrelated.  They did not even take place on the same day, yet they are inextricably linked in my mind.  Here’s why.

I am not a collector of things.  I do not have shelves full of tchotchkes or closets stuffed with shoes.  I do, however, collect wine.  I collect wine for the experience of drinking it, not of holding onto it (a skill at which I do not excel), and for me the quirkier the drinking experience, the more I am interested in having it.  Which is why I could not pass up the opportunity to taste Matthias Dostert’s Elbling.

Elbling is a white variety that grows primarily in the southern Mosel Valley in Germany (although it can also be found in Luxembourg) on the chalky, sandy soils that Riesling does not prefer.  At last count there were 583 hectares, or about 1,400 acres, of Elbling planted in Germany, making it number 23 on Germany’s depth chart, ranking behind Huxelrebe and a couple of spots ahead of Sauvignon Blanc.  Elbling’s low must-weights and high acidity make it the perfect base for the sparkling wine labeled as Mosel Sekt, for which it is most often used.  It is one of those grapes that Jancis Robinson doesn’t have much enthusiasm for, describing it as being “distinguished for its searing acidity” in the Oxford Companion to Wine.  And about that she’s right, of course.  The Dostert Elbling lit up my palate like the grand finale of a Fourth of July fireworks display, but there was something very pure about it too, like biting into a vibrant and perfectly ripe Frog Hollow peach.  There in the glass was the essence of summertime with all its sultry innocence.

Now, about the thunderstorm.  I live in San Francisco but, like many, I am not from here.  I was born and raised in the South, and as a consequence I miss summer thunderstorms, a rarity on the west coast.  Last Friday night, however, I was awakened mid-dream by the crack of a lightning strike.  It was a pleasant surprise, and I realize now, a metaphor for why I taste wine the way I do.  I am enamored of quirky varieties like Elbling because I crave the rush that comes from delving into unknown territory.  The road to Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, etc. is long and well-marked.  Not so with Elbling and grapes of its ilk.  For me, experiencing the quirkier side of wine satisfies my curious nature (for a bit), and holds out the hope of rediscovering the awe I felt when I discovered wine in the first place — the flash of brilliance I never knew was coming, but came to love.

The storm was a loud one, a window-shaker, and wholly unexpected.  The best kind.

Why Are California Wines So Boring?

10 Sep


photo by tryingmyhardest via Flickr

photo by tryingmyhardest via Flickr


I don’t want to be a hater.  I don’t want to pile it on to the upmarket California winemakers who, by all accounts, are in world of hurt these days, but there’s a big problem in Cali wine that no one seems to be willing to talk about.  California wines are boring.

Yesterday I tasted two very different wines.  From two different countries.  In two different price brackets.  It’s probably against an unwritten rule to compare them to one another, but it’s also human nature to do so.  I did.

Wine #1 was a Loire Valley Cabernet Franc without claim to a fancy appellation — it was VdP Jardin — retailing at about $15.

Wine #2 was a highly allocated, newly annointed by Mr. Parker 98 point Rhône blend from California, retailing for about $70.

The difference between them?  The Cab Franc had a personality.  It was charming, quirky even, in its two-thirds-of-the-way-to-rosé clear magenta hue with violet, plum, and fresh earth on the nose; mouthwatering raspberry and paprika on the palate.  So much going on for so little money.  The Cali red?  Its minty, dried wood aroma (hello, new oak!) translated on the palate to a massive, polished-to-a-spit-shine vanilla and vaguely berryish flavor.  I’ve tasted wine like this a thousand times before.  Technically perfect, like an air-brushed model on the cover of a magazine, it offers no surprises, no intriguing conversation.  No soul, just glossy packaging.  And, it was hot.  Why, I wondered, would anyone ever buy this when they could have 4+ bottles of the (far more fun and thus IMO superior) Cab Franc?

I taste lots of wine every week and inevitably end up pitting the best and the worst against each other in my mind: the snore of a Sonoma Coast Chard ($40) vs. a gorgeous as all get-out Grüner ($18); yet another big, alcoholic, hardly identifiable as Pinot Russian River Pinot Noir ($50) vs. a surprisingly layered beauty of a Sicilian Frappato ($20).  Unfortunately, in my mental rankings the California contenders typically fall to the bottom of the heap, largely because of the price to quality ratio.  I simply don’t want to pay $40 or $50 for an OK-but-nothing-special bottle from CA when I know I can find several intriguing, even complex, wines under $20 elsewhere.

California is the reason I fell in love with wine in the first place, and yet I seem to be falling out of love with California wine.  It’s sad.

Are charming, exciting, well-priced Cali wines even out there anymore, or are they extinct?

Ms. Drinkwell’s Top 5 – California Wine Edition

1 Sep

i heart wineIn honor of California Wine Month, I’ve put together a short list of some of my favorites, recent and perennial:

Best Chardonnay with the Worst Name
2007 Wind Gap Chardonnay Brousseau Vineyard

There’s a nice story on the Wind Gap website about how the vineyards are planted along wind gaps and how the wind shapes the flavors of the wines, and I’m sure this is all true, but the name is just plain bad.  However, the wine is so good that I developed temporary aphasia upon tasting it.  So what’s it like?  Marilyn Monroe in a bikini –voluptuously built with each curve counterbalanced by acidity so racy it’s practically electric.  And, there’s so much minerality in each sip, it’s like there’s a quarry in the glass.  In my opinion, no Cali Chard has ever tasted as Chablisienne as this one while still managing to capture essence of opulent California style.  

Best Version of a Variety No American Can Pronounce 
2007 La Clarine Farm Mourvèdre Cedarville Vineyard

It’s awkward that I never know how to say the name of this grape correctly (moor – ved, or  moor – ved – druh?).  No matter, I’ll just call La Clarine’s version good stuff.  It reminds me of a solid French country wine — not too fancy, not too polished, not too expensive — and best of all, not too over the top.  The kind of wine you keep reaching for again and again with pleasure.  It’s a much leaner rendition than you might expect coming from this notoriously hearty, big boned variety, and that’s probably why I like it so well.  It checks all the right boxes: violets, leather, dusty blackberry, savory spice, but it’s not heavy handed.  Rather, it’s like the fresh faced girl next door — pretty in its youth without a trace of makeup.

Best New Zin that Could Give Ridge a Run for Its Money
2005 Hunnicutt Zinfandel Napa Valley, Chiles Valley District

I’ll admit to being biased against Napa Valley Zinfandel.  For me, it just doesn’t possess the nuance or subtelty that can be achieved with a well made version from Dry Creek or Russian River Valley.  So when I bounded into work on a recent day to be met by a rep with a lineup which included Hunnicutt’s Napa Valley Zin, I felt pretty confident that an underwhelming tasting was to follow.  Ah, hubris!  I was wrong, of course, which is the great thing about great wine.  It kicks your ass back into line  in the most delicious way, which is exactly what  Hunnicutt did for me with its rose petal, bing cherry, and pink peppercorn potion.  It’s delicate without sacrificing lush texture or lusty fruit.  Quite the impressive balancing act.

Best and Most Thoughtful California Wine Blog
Tom Wark’s Fermentation:  The Daily Wine Blog

OK, OK so Tom Wark doesn’t write exclusively about California wine, but he’s located in California and his “day job” as I understand it is in Public Relations where he is responsible for promoting many California wineries large and small. If you’re not reading Tom Wark’s blog, you should be. Why? In addition to being a dependable (he really does blog everyday!) and articulate voice, Mr. Wark is honest and self-reflective in his posts.  He’s continually striving for ways to connect wine to themes larger than himself, and he won’t sacrifice this aim to cover the hot new trend simply because it’s timely.  This blog — unlike so many others — isn’t gimmicky; it doesn’t exist to gossip or break news.  Rather, it’s a meditation which if you let it, just might teach you something about yourself.  Fermentation is exceptional because its author is at once true to his subject and to us.
I think I want to be Tom Wark when I grow up.

Best Crazy Genius California Winemaker/Marketer
Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon

Clearly this is not breaking news.  Randall Grahm has been making and marketing wine since I was in grade school.  I will forget for a moment that the Bonny Doon website makes me a little queasy with all of its spinning, and that I once submitted my resume for an open position and never received a response.  Anyone who has the balls to sell off two of the most profitable divisions of his company in order to concentrate on producing bizarro biodynamic wines using grapes most California wine drinkers have never heard of (Erbaluce? Albariño? Nebbiolo? Dolcetto?) is impressive (and borderline insane) enough.  But, to sell those wines, lots of them, and make customers fall in love with them (and him) is unthinkable for anyone except Randall Grahm.  Combine with this a recent appearance on Oprah and a forthcoming book and there’s no single person out there who’s doing more to promote California wine than this guy.  Yeah, I know it’s been said before, but the truth is always worth restating.

Want to add to my list?  Bring it on in the comments!