The Grande Dame of the Valais or Things aren’t always what they seem

Even though I can’t participate in the 2014 DWCC because of a scheduling conflict, I’d like to make a small contribution to help ramp up the excitement leading up to the event, so here’s a story about one of my trips to Switzerland twenty years ago, when I learned a valuable lesson about the wine business.

It was the mid-1990s, a time of uncertainty in the European wine trade because of several scandals involving illegal additives to wine. Because of the potential risks involved in selling bulk wine, Rioja made the decision to bottle 100% of its production inside the ‘denominación de origen’ and Porto made, or was about to make, the same decision, in this case, backed up by a government decree. Switzerland had been the leading purchaser of bulk Rioja because customs duties and taxes were lower for bulk than bottled wine and it was my job as managing director of the Rioja Wine Exporters’ Association to promote bottled Rioja. So we agreed on a plan to put Rioja’s bottled at source brands front and center to the Swiss wine trade and consumers.

Education was an important part of the plan so the first year we invited the wine lecturers of the major Swiss hotel and restaurant schools to visit us. The following year we began to offer seminars to the students in those schools. The idea was for me to give introductory lectures after which the local lecturers would add ‘Rioja’ to the curricula in the schools.

The lecturers decided to reciprocate for our having taught them about Rioja by inviting me to visit some Swiss wineries. One of these trips was to the Valais region, southeast of Lake Leman. We arrived at a pretty Swiss chalet in the mountains near Fully and went inside the garage under the house. We were greeted by a woman who showed us her winery (located inside the garage) that consisted of some polyester fermentation and storage tanks,  a manual filling device and some cases stacked in a corner.

I thought, “Why did they bring me here?” I was used to big wineries with huge stainless steel vats and row after row of barriques. Our hostess opened a several bottles of wine and gave us a plate of bread and cheese, at which time we went to the garden and sat at a picnic table for a wine and cheese-fuelled snack.

The wines and cheese were good but I couldn’t help wondering “Why did they bring me here?”

Shortly afterward, a big black BMW with Zurich number plates pulled up to the garage. Four guys in suits got out of the car and our hostess went to meet them. “Bankers”, I thought. One of the lecturers took my arm and beckoned for me to follow him to the garage. “Watch this”, he said.

While we looked on, our hostess poured a small glass of wine for each suit. They thoughtfully sniffed, swirled and sipped. The men asked to buy some cases of wine, whereupon our hostess remarked, “Now I know you. Fill out this form and next year I’ll sell you a case.”

I was speechless. My lecturer friend pointed out that our hostess was Marie-Thérèse Chappaz, one of the most famous winemakers in Switzerland whose wines were in such short supply and great demand that they were sold on allocation.

marietheresedetendueMarie-Thérèse Chappaz

(Credit:  vinsconfederes.ch)

The story doesn’t end here. Marie-Thérèse later showed us her vineyards on the steep slope of a nearby mountain. To harvest the grapes, the winery had installed cables attached to metal boxes to bring them down the slope to the winery.

Several years later during a wine marketing lecture to a group in the Canary Islands I told the story to a winemaker whose vineyards were on the side of a steep hill. I put him in touch with Marie-Thérèse. Later I heard that he had installed a similar rig in his mountainside vineyard.

The cables leading down the mountainside from the vineyard. (Credit 2012 UniversDitvin)

The cables leading down the mountainside from the vineyard.
(Credit 2012 Univers Ditvin)

It was my first glimpse at marketing low volume, high demand garage wines and I’ve never forgotten it. I tell the story to all my wine marketing students as a lesson about how to create demand in a crowded marketplace.

Even though I won’t be able to attend the 2014 DWCC, I hope the attendees have the opportunity to take a field trip to Fully in the Valais to meet Marie-Thérèse Chappaz. You won’t regret it.

Marie-Thérèse Chappaz

La Liaudizaz

CH-1926 Fully

www.chappaz.ch (the site is currently being revamped)

 

How important are vintage ratings?

From 2004 to 2012, the Rioja Regulatory Council rated four vintages ‘excellent’ and five ‘very good’. When 2013 was judged ‘good’, people here were surprised, because throughout the year conditions were so bad in the vineyards that we were expecting a much lower rating.

The Rioja Regulatory Council carries out an extremely rigorous tasting program of samples of wines from each new vintage. Winemakers from Rioja wineries are given anonymous samples to taste and grade. Some don’t make it – over 8 million liters in 2013. Once the samples have been tasted and accepted, their scores are plugged into a mathematical formula whose results determine whether the vintage is rated ‘excellent’, ‘very good’, ‘good’, ‘standard’ and ‘average’.

Preparing samples to be tasted by the panel

Preparing samples to be tasted by the panel

(Photo credit:  DOCa Rioja)

The fact that the formula assigned ‘good’ to the 2013 vintage is undoubtedly a tribute to the skill of Rioja winemakers.

Since every vintage rating is the average rating of the sum of the individual wines, I feel that the current nomenclature leaves a lot to be desired, especially when the lowest two ratings are ‘standard’ and ‘average’. In the past, the terms were excelente (excellent), muy buena (very good), buena (good), regular (so-so) y deficiente (deficient). It makes more sense to use the downward sliding scale of the past, but the Regulatory Council explains that the tasting panels reject the substandard wines that are therefore not eligible to be called Rioja so it makes no sense to declare a so-so or a deficient vintage.

A member of the Rioja tasting panel evaluating a sample

A member of the Rioja tasting panel evaluating a sample

(Photo credit:  DOCa Rioja)

Like many other aspects of the wine business, Bordeaux started the tradition of assigning ratings to vintages over a hundred years ago and was duly mimicked by other regions in France as well as wine producing regions throughout Europe, among them Rioja.

And, in keeping with its iconoclastic style, rating vintages has been mainly ignored by the New World.

To return to the question posed in the title of this article, in my opinion, vintage ratings are overrated. As a matter of fact, they can be downright misleading. I remember offering 1979 Rioja (‘normal’ i.e. not so good) to my European distributors in 1983 that bought it enthusiastically because it was a very good vintage in Bordeaux. We didn’t receive a single complaint about the wines from this vintage. However when we tried to sell 1980 (good), the same distributors asked for more 1979 because Bordeaux 1980 was so-so. Fortunately comparisons with Bordeaux are a thing of the past.

Wineries in Rioja treat vintage ratings like Parker scores. If they’re over 90, they advertise them. If not, they say nothing and nobody cares. And, because vintage ratings are by definition the average ratings of the individual wines, individual wineries can say that even though the vintage was only average, THEIR wine was excellent. Witness the recent press conference given by Alvaro Palacios in the UK who announced a ‘game changing’ 100% garnacha Rioja from 2013 from his family’s vineyard in Rioja Baja.

An agronomist engineer/winemaker has suggested a dual system of classification in our local newspaper: a rating of the harvest shortly following its conclusion which would include young wines, and a rating of the vintage, which would include the wines eligible for ‘crianza’ status after twelve months in oak. This would allow markets to understand the ageworthiness of very good and excellent vintages, the ones that would produce ‘reservas’ and ‘gran reservas’. It’s an interesting idea that in my opinion merits debate in the Regulatory Council.

Although most of the 2013 will be sold as young wine and crianza, Rioja can boast a run of very good and excellent vintages – crianzas, reservas and gran reservas from 2004 through 2011 that are currently in markets worldwide. Believe me, 2013 will not be a problem.