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Marketplace Scratch Pad

Wine, women and the economy

Scott Jagow Aug 10, 2009

I just spent a few days in Napa Valley, so I have wine on the brain (or should I say in the brain?). Either way, here are some things I learned in wine country.

First, this was no ordinary tour of Napa. I’m fortunate to have a brother-in-law who is extremely knowledgeable about wine and is very well-connected in the industry. He’s taught me and my family a great deal about wine, and since we were celebrating my parents’ 40th anniversary, we did it up right. We had tours of a couple wineries that aren’t open to the public and VIP tours of ones that are. For his business, my brother-in-law buys fine wine in mass quantities so the wineries like to, well, wine and dine him.

One thing I leaned is that if you love wine and you can afford to go, now is the time to visit wine country. Just about all of the wineries were offering deep discounts. 50% off this, 40% off that. My brother-in-law told us one winery practically begged him to take a rather expensive wine off their hands because they needed to get rid of the inventory. The wine usually goes for about $100 a bottle wholesale. He bought a few dozen cases for his business at $29 a bottle.

I also learned that, as appealing as opening a winery might sound, the reality is very different. For the most part, you don’t make money making wine, not even in a good economy. Now, if you’re Robert Mondavi and you bought your vineyards in the 60’s or 70’s at $300 an acre, you’re gushing cash. Today, the price is $200,000 an acre and up. I did notice a lot of “for sale” signs along the prime Napa route, Highway 29, so perhaps the price is dropping. But I’m guessing not enough for a blogger to get into the business.

Still, I heard great stories about people who came from other industries to find a life in wine. They don’t have their own vineyards, but they’re working in the industry and making visitors like me jealous of their lifestyles. They got a degree in Viticulture or started out picking and crushing grapes just get their foot in the, uh, soil.

Alright, a couple of useful wine tidbits. The regulations state that in order to put the name of the varietal on the label, the bottle must contain 75% of it. So, when you see Merlot or Pinot Noir on the label, that means it has at least 75% of that grape in the wine. To put a region on the label, 85% of the grapes must come from that region. Napa Valley started this because people were slapping Napa on their labels as a marketing tool. Cabernet grapes from Napa can sell for $2500 a ton versus $200 a ton in other regions, so you can see why the rule exists.

The final part of the 75-85-95 rule is that in order to declare a wine “single vineyard”, 95% of the grapes must come from that vineyard. So if you see “Three Palms” Merlot, that means 95% of the grapes came from the Three Palms vineyard, which produces spectacular Merlot. I just drank a lot of it, so trust me on that one.

In general, though, Napa is Cab country. Sonoma is known for its Zinfandels and Merlots. If you see Carneros or Russian River on the label, you’ll probably get a pretty good Pinot Noir. Those are sub-regions of wine country that are cooler and better for growing thin-skinned Pinot grapes.

Just some things to consider when you’re at the grocery store.

But if you’re at the grocery store in Alabama, you won’t be able to buy this wine:

Alabama’s Alcohol Board of Control just banned it, apparently because one person found the nude woman on the label offensive and complained. Seriously? It’s a piece of art from an 1895 poster for selling bicycles. The only thing offensive about it is that she’s not wearing a bike helmet.

Let’s go ahead and give Alabama a heads up on the next nude label. Kendall-Jackson Winery has announced that a new wine honoring super horse racing filly Rachel Alexandra will be ready for the holidays. Jess Jackson is Rachel’s owner. I hear that less than 300 cases will be sold and that Rachel will be naked on the label. But I don’t think she’ll have a man on top of her, so maybe Alabama can let this one slide.

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