Guy’s Time: Brand Conscious or Brand Captive?


written by CARL DANBURY, JR.ThePrisonerLabel

Do you remember the first bottle of The Prisoner you drank? How about Meiomi Pinot Noir? Rombauer Chardonnay? Did drinking them make you feel special, like you had swiped El Corazon (the emerald in “Romancing the Stone”) from Jack Colton?

I, along with my wife and another couple, had my first taste of The Prisoner during dinner at Milton’s Cuisine & Cocktails about 10 years ago. Then, the wine sold for about $25 retail and $45 in a restaurant the quality of Milton’s. In 2003, winemaker Dave Phinney of Orin Swift Cellars produced only 4,500 cases (54,000 bottles) of The Prisoner with its clever label and unusual blend of five grapes (Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Petite Sirah and Charbono). From there, demand skyrocketed until Phinney partnered with Agustin Huneeus, the owner of Quintessa in 2010. In 2012, the once-somewhat limited production of The Prisoner had risen to more than 800,000 bottles per vintage and will now set you back about $40 retail and just under $60 in restaurants.

The past few years, as consumers ordered the brand’s three-county California Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, Meiomi became a retailer’s and a restaurateur’s go-to Pinot. Sourced from grapes grown in the cool growing regions of Sonoma, Monterey and Santa Barbara counties, both the Pinot and Chardonnay labels were recently sold to beverage conglomerate Constellation Brands Inc. for $315 million. The deal included only Meiomi’s existing inventory and brand, which was founded by Joe Wagner in 2009. Production had risen from 60,000 cases in 2010 to 550,000 cases in 2014, according to Impact Databank, and is on pace to surpass 700,000 cases this year, led by the brand’s Pinot Noir. So, if you enjoy the Meiomi Pinot Noir, and are not bothered in the least about paying 20 bucks a bottle for one of those precious 8.4 million bottles, by all means do so.

Meanwhile, Rombauer has maintained its family roots for the past 35 years and many trade pundits applaud their meticulous approach to grape cultivation and winemaking. Australian Richie Allen is Rombauer’s winemaker, and is charged with making 100,000 cases of its Carneros Chardonnay, which is approximately 60 percent of the winery’s total production. And, it is a very popular brand at the retail level, selling for approximately $36. But, Rombauer makes other smaller batches of Chard, as well as a Napa Valley Cab and a Carneros Merlot, and that’s where diligent exploration comes into play when it comes to wine.

Explore Majeure
The collective goal for most retailers, sommeliers, wholesalers, importers or brokers as well as discerning consumers is to find a wine that outperforms its price. Imagine if Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones was worth $14 million a year by today’s NFL contract standards, but we’d only be willing to pay him $8.5 million. When evaluating a wine, we might be willing to pay $20 for a bottle, but we want it to taste like a $35 bottle. An affirmative consensus of 70 to 75 percent of those who have tasted a particular wine means we are on the right track of selecting a good one.

David Mott, proprietor of Vino 100 in Alpharetta, accepts the challenge of finding wines that are far downstream from the mainstream, and helps his clients do the same.

“The fun part of the hobby is the treasure hunt. If wine is a hobby for you and you’re out there looking for those little golden eggs that aren’t super expensive, therein lies the challenge. Some wineries might not make a lot of the same wine and you might not be able to find it next week or next year, but as long as it lasts, it can be a jewel. If the wine tastes great, it’s got something significant about it and you can almost taste where it comes from, the perception then becomes that it’s an amazing value,” Mott affirmed.

Vino 100 isn’t your average package store. Hardwood floors, nice displays of both fine wines, cigars and concierge-like service separate Vino 100 from some larger package stores, and Mott and his employees aren’t exactly shy about calling a Cab, a Cab.

“I really respect wineries that tell you in the name or on the label from which vineyard(s) the grapes are sourced. Cristom Vineyards, Willamette Valley, Ore., is a good example. They make eight Pinot Noirs including four single vineyard selections, which have the name of the vineyard on the label,” Mott said.

“They are going to be different from year to year because of terroir and the growing conditions, [among other variables]. Other wines that are mass produced do their best to make their wines taste exactly the same as last year, particularly if their sales were good. They can, and have to, source grapes that mirror as closely as possible to their lower standards and blend them out as far as they can to accomplish their goal.”

While some discerning consumers like the challenge of uncovering esoteric ­varietals and wines from regions few others may recognize, there is still a majority that may choose wines that they don’t have to think much about during the purchase. Let’s call it the Yellow Tail or Mirassou syndrome.

“They crack open the bottle, pour a glass and don’t have to give it a second thought, almost like beer,” Mott related. “You don’t open a Budweiser and say, ‘That’s a good Bud,’ because it tastes like the last Bud you had. Conversely, when you taste a particular vintage of a well-made wine, it might be better than last year or it might be worse, but rarely is it ever the same. Wine hobbyists examine the differences and similarities of vintages, and really explore the characteristics. It comes down to whether it’s a hobby to you, or simply just another beverage that comes out of your refrigerator or closet.”

Rate This
Some consumers rely upon ratings from wine publications to determine what they should buy and what they should drink. Some retail stores use tags, or “shelf talkers” as they are known in the industry, to influence your purchase decision. Some use pushy salespeople to steer you away from what you really want and guide you to brands that offer the store a better revenue margin. But, if you want the straight scoop, seek out the retailers with an experienced wine sales staff, such as Hinton’s Savvy Cellar in Sandy Springs, Atlantic Wine in Buckhead, Duluth Package Store, Pop’s Wine & Spirits in Suwanee, The Gifted Ferret in Woodstock, Marietta Wine Market and Johns Creek Fine Wine & Crystal.

The staffs at each one of these stores will be the first to tell you, just because they recommend a wine, doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll enjoy it — but someone you share it with most likely will. Your sense of taste is different than nearly everyone else’s, and that means don’t rely solely upon ratings and recommendations for your purchases. Explain what you like about certain wines you enjoy, and let a knowledgable salesperson guide you. In time, you will discover other wines that you will enjoy, and you will be surprised that you do.

Tastes Great, Less Billing
Many Northside venues conduct wine tastings on a regular basis. That’s a great way to explore wine regions and varietals that you may not be familiar with. Amy Moreau, owner of Talk of the Table in the Collection Forsyth, conducts tastings every Thursday at 7 p.m., and seven one-hour tastings beginning Saturdays at 2 p.m. Participants sample six wines and three cheeses for $18 per person on Saturday, and for $16 on Thursday. Moreau changes the format to keep the events intriguing and revealing. Also on Thursdays after 12:30 p.m., Talk of the Table offers their Try & Buy wine specials, during which you can taste one white and one red wine, and buy them at a 10-percent discount. In addition, Moreau designed her store to display the wines she offers by flavor profile, not just by varietal.

“If a person says they only like Chardonnay, I lead them to where the medium- to heavy-bodied whites are, which includes Chardonnay, but also some French blends, Viognier and white Bordeaux, for example. So, if you like a heavier white, or perhaps a little oaky, these could be an alternative for you,” Moreau said.

“Every once in awhile, we’ll do a tasting called ‘Guess the Varietal,’ which includes three whites and three reds and the bottles are all covered. We provide tasting sheets that have flavor profiles written down, and then the guests match the wines with the grapes,” Moreau said. “I love to do those kinds of tastings because in a very practical way it proves the point. Yes, they might say that they like X, Y or Z, but they discover they like many more varietals they have never tried. I have people come back all the time and tell me things like, ‘Oh my gosh, you got me to like a Merlot, and I never thought that I would.’”

Moreau advises her customers to come to the tastings with an open mind and discover new wines. “You might not like a particular wine, but you can always dump it out. The best thing is that you may find a wine that you aren’t familiar with that you really do like.”

Upcoming Wine Events
Oct. 8
Arcadian winemaker dinner
at Zola Italian Bistro, Milton

Oct. 18
Marietta Wine Market-Art of Wine Expo, Marietta Educational Gardens

Nov. 7
Suwanee Wine Fest,
Suwanee Town Center

Nov. 8
Chateau Elan’s 19th Annual
Vineyard Fest, Braselton

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