Wine Talk

Snooth User: Michael Bennett

From a winemakers point of view.

Posted by Michael Bennett, Mar 11, 2013.

Before I retired I did a stint as chairman of Hawkes Bay Vintners (all the wineries in Hawkes Bay) and was asked to write a short article for the local newspaper. All the wineries offered tasting of most of their wines and sometimes I felt, the public didn't really understand how enthusiastic winemakers were about their product.

"Lets do the wineries this weekend!"

A phrase to make the most hardened winemaker cringe! In the 60's and 70's the phrase meant just that and the winemakers didn't object too much because sherry and port were the order of the day and not much reference to grapes was required. We could make more sherry from a ton of grapes than God could put into them! Customers would sit in the cellar's convivial atmosphere and tipple for an hour or two before wending their way home with enough under their arm to last until next time. It was a way of life in Auckland's western suburbs and to a lesser extent , in Hawkes Bay, but times were to change.

Someone noticed that the climate of Hawkes Bay was not too different from that of Bordeaux and winemakers arrived from other parts of New Zealand as well as Australia and France and their interests were in quality table wines . In the late 70's and early 80's wines were produced on a small scale which astonished overseas experts with their ripe fruit character and long lingering finish.. In the early 80's regulations were installed that forbade the addition of water to 'stretch' wine quantities, and , wonder of wonders, it tasted better!

The people of Hawkes Bay are fortunate. They have on their doorstep, the opportunity to aquire some of the finest wines in the world; not only that, but frequently the chance to taste before they purchase. What other business does this as a matter of course, (except for cheese- another fine art!) . No winemaker that I know will expect you to buy a wine that you dislike, but all would like to think that you will buy it if you like it. The intention is the crucial issue. Bear in mind that the winemaker, or his staff, know his wines well and can guide you in the logical sequence of tasting. He or she may ask questions regarding your preferences, not to be nosey, but to avoid assaulting your palate with a wine style which you may find unpleasant. Not only will your palate be offended but an automatic Government "donation" will be involved in the form of excise tax, as well as the commercial cost to the winemaker. The taster who asks to try the 'Chardon' will be told that Chardonnay is not Chardon, and with all due respects to Penfolds Wines both wines are unlikely to be appreciated by the same palate!

Only the consumer can tell a good wine. To paraphrase the poet, beauty is in the mouth of the beholder, and this is how it should be. A dusty bottle of Chateau Petrus may set you back a small fortune, but to one who dislikes a dry red wine it is a 'bad' wine, best taken to the nearest Hawkes Bay winemaker, who will probably give you a half a dozen bottles of anything you like to make you feel better! French champagne makers, when not sueing Antipodean bubbly makers, produce a wine considered over rated or even unpleasant by some, but fortunately there is still a hardy band of us who would drink enough to float the Rainbow Warrior if the opportunity is offered.

When next you visit a Hawkes Bay Winery, spare a thought for the winemaker. He loves his product and wants you to love it too but does not expect miracles. He frequently lives in the winery during vintage, when his hands are stained purple and grapes won't stop fermenting because it's Sunday, he labours at the mercy of the weather , like any farmer, the government does not love him and never has. Even after all this, he will try to recommend another winery, if you don't like ANY of his wines, but he may cry after you have gone!

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Replies

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Reply by gregt, Mar 11, 2013.

Nice post Michael, and welcome!

I just spent the evening with a group of people from Ribera del Duero. The owner, winemaker, sales reps, US reps, etc. They are trying to drum up interest in their wine. This weekend I'm having dinner with one of the great winemakers from Rioja. Everyone has the same question - how to sell their wines and I tell them the best way is to get them into the hands of the people who are finally going to buy them.

A lot of people go visit wineries as a diversion and to me, that's a shame. I kind of wish those people wouldn't bother but places like Napa have made it a vacation option. But there are still many people who go to the wineries to learn, to taste, and to make a connection. When they do, they're customers for many years, so it's worthwhile to develop those relations.

I don't know how things are in NZ, but I do know that in most of Spain, the wine tourism is in nascent states and the people who make the treks from the US are very interested in wine and almost always buy from the places they visit. Problem is getting it back here!

But thanks for your thoughtful post and I hope you post more!

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Reply by Michael Bennett, Mar 12, 2013.

Thanks Greg,

We (and Australia) have certainly been affected by the world financial meltdowns but to a lesser extent. The Asian market is fairly bouyant and we are seeing a lot of tourists from Japan, China, Taiwan and Korea and their interest in wine seems to be growing. With the population bases of these countries we could never supply the demand anyway and our market will always at the top end because we will never be cheap.

Over the years I have set up 3 wineries (and a cidery) as well as for working for others but the most prestigious of these was Te Mata Estate . They export to the UK and also the USA and they aren't cheap but they are good! Their aim has always been quality first and this was a great advantage to me when I was winemaker. As long as I could justify on quality I got whatever I wanted in the way of plant and machinery,

My problem was on each project I got so involved and excited by the new job that I forgot to ask how much I was getting paid!!!   :-)

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Reply by penguinoid, Mar 12, 2013.

Thanks for the interesting post -- I always enjoy visiting wineries, particularly if the winemaker or someone else knowledgeable is there to discuss the wine with. I'm not in NZ, but hope to visit some day -- including Hawke's Bay!

I do know how disappointing it is to have someone visit your cellar door and not buy anthing, though, so I always try to buy at least a bottle or two unless I really, really dislike the wine (only happened once or twice, luckily).

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Reply by gregt, Mar 12, 2013.

Well I learned a new word. Thanks again!

"Cidery".  Never heard it before. I like it. First stuff I ever drank too much of happened to be apple wine. To this day, I generally avoid fermented apple juice in any form, although I do have some good cider from France in the fridge.

"I always try to buy at least a bottle or two unless I really, really dislike the wine"

Funny. I have  a friend who can't control himself. We were standing in front of a winemaker one day and he was telling us about his wine, poured it into glasses for us and we tasted. My friend turned to me and can't ever speak sotto voce, and he announces, "This is terrible. Let's go. I don't want to drink this."

How do you recover from that?

And the wine wasn't even all that bad!

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Reply by Richard Foxall, Mar 12, 2013.

My main problem with "going wine tasting" is that the wineries have compensated for the prevalence of people who are treating it as an activity on its own, not a chance to go where the wines are made, talk to the actual staff, maybe get a sense of the land its grown in, but just to go to as many places and try something famous.  At Ridge, you can add Monte Bello to any tasting for $10--but you pay for all tastings.  I prefer tastings at stores that focus on regions or at trade shows when I can pull off an invite.  (Thanks to GregT for getting me into that.)  I do try to buy at least one thing, and often that's a function of my sunk cost if the tasting was not gratis.  But sometimes, as when traveling, it's impractical to buy something.  So when I visited Amity, I couldn't really buy anything, but I liked the wines quite a bit, and have bought a fair number of bottles and convinced others to buy still more.  It was a good investment on their part to rebate my tasting fee (we bought some fudge for our kids, knowing it wouldn't last until we got to the hotel).  Wineries that are not busy should consider that good will and good wine go a longer way than tasting fees.  Porter Creek is another that has treated me well, and we bought wine without regard for the tasting fee--I have no idea if there was one. 

What to do if you don't really like the wines, or think they are worth the money?  Well, recently, my wife and I made an appointment to taste at a very highly regarded Pinot producer.  They do several tastings per day, timed by half hours or hours.  There was a pretty good sized group at our tasting time.  The pourer, as is often the case, was not terribly knowledgeable--couldn't answer questions about cooperage, whole cluster fermentation, yeast inoculations or much of anything else.  The wines they were pouring were either too young or just too acidic for my taste--they would have been better off pouring something that showed better so you could buy in anticipation of your wine's development.  About 2/3 the way through the flight, we quietly moved to the back of the group, herded our children to the door, and slipped out without a word.  I'm sure they slightly noticed, but they sell plenty of $40+ bottles and we won't be missed. 

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Reply by Richard Foxall, Mar 12, 2013.

Great OP, by the way--please stick around and contribute as much as you can.  Your experience is invaluable.

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Reply by Michael Bennett, Mar 12, 2013.

 My friend turned to me and can't ever speak sotto voce, and he announces, "This is terrible. Let's go. I don't want to drink this."

LOL!! Had he just had an ice cream?

Most winery tasting here are free, there might be the occasional 'vertical' tasting of the same wine over several years where you buy a ticket for the event, but most of the small wineries, (up to, say 500tonnes) not only are they free but you would normally get access to the winemaker or his assistant, so it can become quite a useful conversation. A lot also have restaurants attached, and emphasize the wine with food aspect. One of the wineries that I set up, St George Estate, was the first winery to have a restaurant , (run by my wife) back in 1985 and the public received it so well that now there's dozens of them. St George looked like this in it's early days:


 

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Reply by Michael Bennett, Mar 12, 2013.

Later we got into special events catering , like a fund raiser for the local Cranford Hospice, then my wife could get carried away with the menu!!

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Reply by duncan 906, Mar 13, 2013.

I have visited a few wineries in France and the one on Jersey and have found it interesting.La Mare wine estate on Jersey also has a restaurant on site.I like the opportunity to taste wines back to back so as to make comparisons.This is another reason why I always try to make the annual London France Show because there is a chance to taste and buy many different wines

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Reply by EMark, Mar 13, 2013.

As a consumer not in any way connected with the industry, I perfectly understand the "let's go winetasting" mentality.  I live in pretty big metropolis, and going winetasting is very much akin to going for a drive in the country.  I am out of my milieu--maybe with friends but, more likely, with just my wife.  This may be a bit presumptious, but I bet that deep down (or maybe not so deep) the wineries appreciate the "let's go winetasting" crowd.  A good percentage of thes become true wine afficionados.  

Now I also agree that the best experience is getting to meet the winemaker or the owner.  It has not happened very often to me, but when it has happened, my enjoyment and, of course, my education increased immensely.

The minimum I expect is courtesy and, please, a bit of enthusiasm from the tasting room attendants.  Yes, more often than I care to remember it seems like the tasting room personnel seemed bothered that was interrupting his/her day.

Next it would be nice if the attendant was knowledgeable.  This, again, is pretty hard to find.  Many attendants are part-timers and they know only slightly more than most of their clietele.  So, they can answer most questons any way they want and not worry too much about being challenged.  Of course, then the taster goes out the door and the next day tells his work colleague that he learned that real Zinfandel is supposed to taste like raspberries.  Hey, that's what they told me at the winery.  So, it must be true.  That is even a better source than the internet.

I'm OK with tasting fees, but I really appreciate it if they are waived or credited towards a purchase.

Tip jars bug the heck out of me.

Like Penguinoid, I always buy something.  I find that more often that not, even if I did not care for a particular wine in the tasting room I like it with a meal.  I guess I'm not terribly discerning

 

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Reply by fibo86, Mar 13, 2013.

Here is a beaut for you. NSW government is looking on adding another tax to all winery tasting rooms (not tasting fee-some wineries already have this) in the region. Placing the already over taxed winery into a corner possibly causing closures of all tasting rooms attached to wineries in the region.

So what does this mean for wine tourist?

Any other state Western Australia, Victoria, South Australia, Queensland and Australian Capitol Territory.

Too bad if you wanted to go from Hunter Valley to Bondi Beach or see the difference between a Chardonnay from Orange (regional NSW) one from Hilltops (Young close to Canberra) or even another regional area call Cowra, Cabernet from Hilltops to cab from Mudgee (regional NSW part of the great dividing range).

http://www.nswwine.com.au/pages/NSW-Wine-Regions.html

So in general I'm disheartened by the fact our government (NSW) is placing  a whole industry for only one state in what could be a troubling situation.

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Reply by penguinoid, Mar 13, 2013.

Emark -- I agree the "lets go wine tasting" crowd aren't always bad -- just a bit disappointing if they taste without buying, particularly if the winery doesn't charge a tasting fee. But, can't be helped.

I do agree it's not so nice if the tasting room staff make you feel like you're inconveniencing them. So sorry for bothering you by supporting your business! But this isn't just restricted to wineries. You get it in shops and restaurants too. Not ideal in any case.

With regard to finding knowledgeable staff, I think it's hard to find staff who have retail experience AND wine knowledge. Most businesses seem to prioritise retail experience over wine knowledge. I have quite good wine knowledge, for example, but no retail experience, so haven't ever found work in wine retail.

fibo86 -- do you have a web link with more information on this tax? I'm not sure I quite follow your post.

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Reply by fibo86, Mar 13, 2013.

Sorry Penguinoid I don't as at this point it is only something that is in the thought process of our money hungry New South Wales government.

Although our taxes start @ 29% wine equalisation tax aka wet tax, for some reason it was to make sure beer and wine stayed at a reasonable price (hahaha).

I guess basically it means it won't be worth opening the tasting room doors in any winery in NSW.

I will try to find the info for you the broad cast for you.

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Reply by gregt, Mar 13, 2013.

emark - you're exactly the type of person the wineries should be marketing to. What I'm referring to is the group of guys who head out only to get drunk and don't know or care anything about wine, or the bachelorette parties, or anyone who really couldn't give a damn about wine. That's not you - you care. Maybe that's being elitist. Maybe there's one or two in the crowd who will remember and pick it up if they had a good time. I don't know.

I'm all for getting the wine into the hands of the ultimate consumer and bypassing the distributors, importers, etc., I just had a meeting with some people from Spain about exactly that issue - they're trying to sell and can't quite figure it out.

So maybe there's a second way. Maybe the big tours that come thru and don't give a damn could have one tasting, and those who care a lot more and might be willing to pay to talk to someone knowledgeable  could have a different experience.

One winery that has been doing this for a long time is Beaulieau Vineyards, but they suffer somewhat in the execution. Years ago I was out there and I paid for the "reserve" tasting or whatever they called it. It was in a different building. The guy pouring didn't know a damned thing - he was a retired janitor or something who did the job part-time. No harm in that, but he was pouring a corked wine and I pointed it out. His response was that nobody else had complained. He thought I was a ball-breaker. It was an older vintage of GdL and I told him if he opened a fresh bottle and it tasted the same, I'd pay for it. He said it would be different because it would be fresh and he refused.

 

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Reply by EMark, Mar 14, 2013.

Yes, Greg, I realize that I did not write my essay well enough--the bachelorette parties and abusers are a different ilk.  In that regard, I understand the wineries' problem.  The story you tell of the BV Library tasting is also very unfortunate.

And, Penguin, I also agree with you in that hiring staff for a tasting room is not unlike the problem in most retail stores or restaurants.  I'm sure that turnover is terrible.  So, the staff rarely hangs around long enough to become knowledgeable.  My guess is that there is no easy solution to this for tasting rooms that are "walk ins" (one exception being Merry Edwards about which I have posted in the past).  I guess I should visit more "Appointment Please" wineries.

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Reply by penguinoid, Mar 14, 2013.

I do wonder why wineries don't hire people who have little/no retail experience, but are knowledgeable about wine. Surely it'd be easier to train someone in basic retail than in basic wine knowledge? I'm sure I'm missing something here, though.

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Reply by Richard Foxall, Mar 15, 2013.

Other than running a register, what major retail skill are they hiring for anyway?  Even when I was a teenager working at the Gap, I understood that product knowledge was part of your retail skill set.  (Never forget when my semi-secret crush showed up one day, and came out of the dressing room to ask, "Do you think this sweater is too tight?"  I mean, you're paid to know the answer, right?)

Seems to me they could hire a retired wine geek to do those jobs, or someone who is young but into wine and wants to meet folks.  At Porter Creek, the guy was a totally wine fanatic who had really wanted to work at Chambers St. when he lived in NYC.  No excuse for not having better trained folks,unless it's just a way to give the family neer-do-well a job. 

I think EMark and GregT really have the whole conundrum down.  Yahoos, bad, outreach, good.

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Reply by penguinoid, Mar 16, 2013.

I dunno -- just going on my own experience here. I've looked for jobs in wine retail and found that most places (including cellar doors) inisist on previous retail experience.

I've found jobs in chain shops that don't state that they require previous retail experience and applied, but they do favour people with retail experience, so they've go the job instead. From talking to some of their staff, it's clear they favour retail experience over wine knowledge. They always tell me they're impressed with my wine knowledge, but apparently not enough to employ me.

Oh well, I have a studentship now...

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Reply by gregt, Mar 16, 2013.

Because if you had retail experience and you're willing to stick with it, that's a big part of the equation. Some customers can be jerks and a lot of people just don't want to deal with them. I would check your references to find out how you dealt with difficult, rude, insulting, or simply stupid customers. And how you dealt with people who tried to steal. Wine knowledge is irrelevant when it comes to human relations.

That's just the customer side of the equation. The other side is you, but it's hard to tell when you're interviewing someone if that person is going to be friendly, charming, helpful, or if that person is going to be so interested in showing that he is  super cool and has "attitude" that he's going to alienate your customers. Will he take a call on his cell phone while serving a customer? Will he respond to questions without rolling his eyes and sighing? And so on. 

To be honest, wine knowledge doesn't really help you in all that many places in the wine business, other than as a winemaker. If you can sell cars, you can probably sell wine. If you can manage a clothing store, you can probably manage a wine store. If you want to be a sommelier or something, then maybe some wine knowledge will help but I think that's mostly because you can BS about it.

You can tell someone that the acidity in some wine will cut through the duck fat, or the fruit in some wine will compliment the pork chops. Doesn't mean it's true at all and doesn't mean that anyone else will agree, but you give the customer some comfort that its the right selection.  It's once again people skills, not wine skills, but that's where the wine jargon helps. And in fact, it's not really wine knowledge that you need then, it's knowing some buzzwords, some cliches, and something about the wine you happen to have in stock, which is the only thing that the customer cares about anyway because that's what they're going to buy.

The ideal thing would be great retail experience plus extensive wine knowledge. If I had to choose one or the other though, I'd go with the great retail experience and teach you about wine.

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Reply by penguinoid, Mar 17, 2013.

GregT - I can see your point, though I'd hope I was getting more than made up rubbish from wine retailers.

For this reason, I did try getting retail work outside the wine sector, but found they all wanted previous retail experience too. I can understand why businesses might not be willing to take a risk on untrained staff, but no help to me. I should have got a supermarket job when I was in school...!

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