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Joel's Blog

Thursday, 07 November 2013 14:15

This has nothing whatever to do with wine. But stay with me a minute.

Picture this: your computer monitor just died, so you head to Best Buy for a replacement. You find one you like -- it's priced at $199 -- and put the box into your cart. While you're in the store, you decide to waste a few minutes and head over to look at that fancy 60" LED TV you've been drooling over. You compare its picture to a few other big-screens, a clerk comes by to chat, and before you know it you've wasted almost half an hour.

"I've got to get out of here," you think. You head to the front checkout.

The cashier waves her scanner. "That'll be $287, plus tax," she says.

"What do you mean? It's $199! That's the price on the shelf -- I saw it when I put it in my cart!"

You head back to the computer department, just in time to see a clerk walking away. That $199 sign is in his hand, and a brand-spanking-new sign is on the shelf, next to the monitor you planned to buy. The new sign says $287.

Impossible? They'll do something about it? Alll you need to do is talk to a manager, right? They can't do that; it's against the law?

Not if they're Delta Airlines.

Sorry if I sound angry. But right now, I'm seething. A couple of hours ago, I was on the Delta website to book tickets to a family wedding. I'd selected the flights -- $199 apiece -- with no indication that I needed to hurry, such as "only 3 seats left at this price".

I was filling in the names on the next page, when I realized I didn't have Sally's Delta frequent flyer number. She was at lunch, and called me back twenty minutes later.

Sorry, too late. While I was waiting, Delta raised the price of the tickets.

Not $5 or $10. Not $20 or $30.

No, our tickets were now $287 apiece -- an increase of $88, or 44%. In the space of twenty minutes. Even though the tickets were already in my cart and I was in the middle of completing the information to purchase them.

Yes, I know, sucks to be me. The fine print on the website lets them to do this. Nothing is guaranteed until you've purchased the tickets. Yadda, yadda, yadda.

But what other business treats their customers this way? (OK, maybe the cable company...) What business is so arrogant that it doesn't even let a customer complete a transaction in progress, at the price that's been offered?

And the airlines wonder why people hate them.

A couple of years back, the Supreme Court told us that corporations are people. I'm no lawyer, so I'll take their word for it.

But if corporations are people, then Delta Airlines is a sociopath. Or, as Wikipedia describes it, "a personality disorder characterized by a pervasive pattern of disregard for, or violation of, the rights of others."

 
Wednesday, 25 September 2013 09:13

We’ve all said it. “That’s the stupidest thing I ever heard.”

And headed into the last quarter, the 2013 Best-of-Class trophy for Doofus Winery Policy goes out to Joe Herman at Karma Vista.

Last Sunday, four of us pulled off I-94 at the City of Coloma (Population: 1483) in the Lake Michigan Shore AVA. We turned right at McDonalds, drove a bit, and piled into the tasting room at Karma Vista Winery. I was looking forward to tasting their Sauvignon Blanc and Syrah, uncommon grapes in Michigan that Herman grows as well as anyone in the state.

Joe, a bullet-headed sixtyish gent of military bearing, stood behind the counter, along with two women serving the few other tasters. We asked for glasses and began to peruse the wine list. I asked Joe if he could slide a dump bucket onto the counter, from where it sat by the sink.”

“We’ll empty your glasses for you,” he replied.

“Oh, it’s not for dumping. We want to be able to spit while we’re tasting.”

“Sorry, we don’t allow people to spit here.”

I couldn’t be sure I’d heard that correctly. Or, more likely, he was having us on with some deadpan humor.

“You don’t allow customers to spit when they taste?”

“Our house. Our rules,” Joe Herman replied. The phrase slid out glibly, as if well-rehearsed and frequently used.

I had to ask. “Mind telling me why?”

“It’s off-putting to other customers,” Joe replied. “They don’t want to watch you spit.”

“And I don’t want to have to clean up your spit,” chimed up one of the women behind the counter, who’d been listening in.

Left: Spittoon. Right: Spittoon-denier.
Left: Spittoon. Right: Spittoon-denier.

Now that was offensive. My friends and I take pride in discreet spitting behavior.

That would mean daintily lifting the receptacle to the mouth (or, when appropriate, lowering the mouth to the receptacle) and quietly discharging our sputum. Certainly not taking aim and projectile-spitting from across the tasting room.

For the record, I normally spit everything at tasting rooms. Especially when I’m visiting multiple wineries or driving, both of which applied on Sunday.

I’ve been allowed – and frequently encouraged – to spit at wineries on six continents. From Chateau Margaux all the way to some joint in the backwoods of Costa Rica where the wine was so spoiled that you didn’t spit by choice; you spat because you were terrified that one swallow might kill you.

I’ve discharged into elegant floor-standing brass spittoons, decorative ceramic carafes, and paper Dixie cups. I’ve spit while seated next to Master Sommeliers (who, by the way, nearly always elect to spit); and standing alongside guys “doing” a wine trail who look and act like they should have started spitting several hours earlier.

But until Sunday, I never ran across a winemaker of such surpassing narcissism that he forbade visitors to spit his wine.

And then along came Joe. His House. His Rules.

It’s possible that Joe Herman – a sixth-generation southwest Michigan farmer – is so busy as grower and winemaker that he doesn’t get to spend much time in the tasting room. Maybe he’s never encountered such newfangled ideas as designated drivers or TIPS certification.

So take it from me, Joe, if you haven’t run across folks on their eighth winery stop of the day, or those swells in a hired limo who never even consider whether to spit or swallow. By mid-afternoon on the wine trail, the guys who eagerly slurp everything you’re willing to pour are more obnoxious to other visitors than those of us who taste and spit.

And I doubt that your fellow winery owners – or the MLCC – want you to make a designated driver choose between swallowing or not tasting at all.

But Joe is right about one thing. He owns the winery, so it’s His House. His Rules.

Which sounds a lot like Forrest Gump. As in, "Stupid is as stupid does."

 
Thursday, 14 April 2011 03:29

UPDATE, APRIL 22: One of the "six wines to die for" detailed below -- Chateau Fontaine's 2010 Leelanau Peninsula Gewurztraminer -- took the trophy yesterday for Best White Wine at California's Pacific Rim Wine Competition. It's not yet been released to the public.

Twenty-two Michigan wineries showed up to pour at the Michigan Wine Showcase in Bloomfield Hills on Monday, April 11, under the auspices of the state's Grape and Wine Council, abetted by Master Sommeliers Claudia Tyagi and Madeline Triffon.

For many of us, this was first contact with a critical mass from the much-touted 2010 vintage. Straight to the bottom line: the 2010 whites live up to the hype. The best of them combine the ripe aromatics, flavors and body of 2007 with the underlying food-friendly acidity of a typical Michigan vintage.

Chateau Fontaine's Dan Matthies
Chateau Fontaine's Dan Matthies

Not everyone at the Showcase poured 2010. In fact, a majority of the wines, and all of the reds, came from the less-heralded 2008 and 2009 crops, plus a few late arrivals from 2007. Some were also tank samples, or "behind the table" pre-releases that didn't yet show their best. Time constraints also kept me from tasting every wine in the room.

But overall it's clear that most winemakers took advantage of 2010's early spring and long summer to ripen their grapes fully, yet surprisingly few showed traces of the over-ripeness that causes acid to drop out and tips a wine into flabbiness. Definitely a top vintage.

Here are a half-dozen wines from the Showcase that whipped my palate to attention. Half are 2010 whites, and all but the first are new releases that may not yet have made it to winery websites. Some are already available, others arrive soon, as noted. 

L. Mawby "Consort", Leelanau Peninsula. Not a new release, but sometimes it's easy to take long-time members of Larry Mawby's bubbly family for granted, especially those you haven't tasted in a while. This off-dry "Sec" counterpart to his "Brut" Blanc de Blanc arrives with full Methode Champenoise pedigree, from Leelanau Peninsula Chardonnay grapes. The slight sweetness enhances the rich, creamy side of the varietal's apple flavors -- more toward Golden Delicious than fresh-picked Granny Smith. Something to serve alongside steamed lobster with drawn butter, or equally satisfyng on its own.

 
Monday, 20 September 2010 20:00

I spent "A Day in the Vineyard" last Sunday, leading a group visit to three southeastern Michigan vineyards / wineries, in cooperation with Michigan Agritours. We were out to sample ready-to-pick grapes from the vine and watch freshly-crushed juice all abubble in its fermenters.

Memo to self: To instantly grasp the relationship between the flavor of grapes as an agricultural crop and their value-added vinous offspring, NOTHING beats chowing down on a healthy handful of Gewurztraminer at Glaciers Edge Farms. Just remember to spit the pits; these ain't no Thompson Seedless.

Then it was on to the cellars and tasting rooms of Sandhill Crane and Chateau Aeronautique to sample their wines -- all decent, a few very good.

Finally, back on the bus for the run home, and the inevitable question I'd been dreading:

"Those wines were great, better than we'd expected. Where can we buy them?"

Tonight I'm speaking at a dinner in Grand Rapids that features wines from Brys Estate and Gills Pier. Sometime after dinner, I expect the same question.

"Where can I buy them?"

For the top wines in the state, my answer is invariably the same: "You'll have to visit the winery, or order them from the winery's website."

Which, to all but the most dedicated consumers, means they'll never taste those wines again.

There's a connection between that fact and the articles from Dan Berger and the LA Times on MichWine's front page that bring up the disrespect Michigan wines get from residents of their native state. If consumers can't easily find and enjoy Michigan's top wines, then most of us will judge Michigan wines by those we're able to find: in the neighborhood supermarket or party store.

And most of those aren't the wines I'd like our state's industry judged by, even if they do represent some of our largest producers. After all, we don't critique California's wine industry based on labels like Gallo, Franzia and Two Buck Chuck.

By now, I've heard every standard responses a hundred times. Most of Michigan's best wines come in tiny quantities that couldn't go into widespread distribution. Many of the best wineries are small and relatively inefficient, and could never afford the discounts required to sell at wholesale.

None of these are wrong. They all have validity.

Still, as I get ready to walk into Grand Rapids' University Club for tonight's dinner, I can't help but wish I could point the folks I'll meet tonight down the street to buy a bottle of 2008 Chateau Aeronautique Cabernet Franc Reserve or 2007 Gills Pier Cabernet / Merlot.

Our Michigan wine industry's reputation would be much the better for it.

 
Thursday, 16 September 2010 02:01

Last Friday I popped in to see Larry Mawby, near Suttons BayLarry Mawby. He was busy-as-ever in his cluttered-as-ever winery backroom -- tanks, lab equipment, desks, multiple computers and screens jumbled into a way-too-small space that looked like its last top-to-bottom cleaning came a decade back. Maybe longer.

The day before, on September 10, he began to pick Leelanau Peninsula grapes for L. Mawby sparklers -- his second-earliest harvest start-date ever. He mentioned that this year's weather totally scrambled the vineyards' usual ripening order. Since grapes for sparkling wine start life with way less sugar than their non-bubbly brethren, he's among the first to kick off northern Michigan's 2010 grape harvest.

Being first in the region isn't an unfamiliar role for Larry. By my reckoning, this is his 33rd harvest on Leelanau. His vines went in shortly after Bernie Rink's at Boskydel, but before just about anyone else on the Peninsula.

In the early years, he made eccentric still wines with whimsical names and poetry on the label. By today's standards, most of them weren't very good. And the poetry? Well, I've frequently called him Michigan's answer to Randall Grahm, of California's Bonny Doon. Some of his articles for Michigan Wine Country magazine were classic; they're still preserved on his website .

L. MawbyOver the years, I've imposed on him several times, and he's seldom been too busy to help out. In 1998, he accepted an invitation to be our first-ever winemaker-in-residence at the annual MoCool wine bash. When MichWine started in 2007, he was the go-to guy for a piece to extol northern Michigan wine country. His response -- the blank-verse "Ode to the Leelanau" -- remains one of MichWine's most-visited pages.

That's a common theme when you mention Larry in northern wine circles: he's always available to help. In an industry whose public face of goodwill among friendly competitors can mask behind-the-scenes backbiting and petty jealousies, I've seldom heard an ill word about Larry. Instead, other winemakers go out of their way to talk about how he proffered much-valued advice when they were starting up, or lent them a piece of equipment, or offered to make their sparkling wine at his winery.

M.Lawrence SexOver the years, some things changed. His wines improved, developed bubbles, and began to receive national recognition. He married. He wrote less. He fought and beat cancer. He took on a partner.

These days, he's mayor of his home town, Suttons Bay. And his M. Lawrence brand -- made in a separate facility where it gets its bubbles from secondary fermentation in tanks -- brought the business success that had previously eluded him, especially through its most talked-about label, "Sex". Larger production quantities require him to import some of the M. Lawrence base wines from outside Michigan, although the L. Mawby brand remains Leelanau-grown.

On this visit, Larry mentioned that he now distributes wine to ten states. But he'll need to slap a new name on the latest M. Lawrence creation -- "Detroit" -- if he wants to sell it outside Michigan. It seems that Federal regulators -- who didn't bat an eyelash over approval of "Sex" -- recently decided that the new wine's name falsely implies it's made in the City of Detroit. It won't be allowed to cross state lines without a different moniker.

It's nice to know that some things never change.

 
Tuesday, 07 September 2010 06:42

A funny thing happened on the way to my September column in The Ann Arbor Chronicle.

The column highlighted Spotted Dog Winery, a micro-winery in Saline that successfully markets its kit-made wines through a raft of local retail stores. It recently announced an expansion that will triple its capacity to 3000 cases, in order to meet demand for its wines -- and managed to land admiring press coverage not only on annarbor.com, but a filmed-on-site segment on Detroit's Channel Spotted Dog Winery2 .

Whatever your take on kit wines -- and mine isn't especially positive -- when it comes to selling them, many small, from-scratch Michigan wineries would do well to emulate Spotted Dog's example.

They've assembled a smart package of local-oriented branding, attractive labels that jump off the shelf, and slick marketing -- including a retail store display that probably looks irresistible to many grocers and some specialty stores eager to offer more made-in-Michigan products. (Never mind that most of the grapes grew in California or Australia.)

They've also hired a salesperson to represent them to retailers throughout the metro Detroit area; their website claims you can now buy Spotted Dog wine at close to four dozen stores.The winery's co-owner, John Olsen, plans to grow that further once the expanded winery begins operation, in the next few months.

Kit wineries do have some built-in advantages that allow them to concentrate on marketing. Their cost for raw materials is low and highly predictable. They don't spend any time worrying about weather, vintage variations, and growing (or buying) grapes. They don't have to pay for expensive crushers or presses. Their consistent-quality wines pretty much make themselves, without tweaks. Inventory can expand quickly if needed to meet demand, whatever the season.

But from-scratch wineries start with a number of advantages, too. They can brand their labels with grape varietals, vintages and geographic identities. They can schedule attractive events around the seasonal growing and winemaking cycles. Local wine trails and the state Grape and Wine Council offer them numerous marketing opportunities.

And, when everything else is said and done, there's one overriding advantage: well made from-scratch wines taste better than anything that comes out of a pre-packaged, pasteurized kit.

It's almost as if Spotted Dog knew that it had to work harder on its own to survive in the marketplace -- and taught itself to have the loudest bark on the block.

So why don't more small Michigan wineries do a first-rate job packaging and marketing their wines? And why can I find Spotted Dog in more stores around Ann Arbor than most other Michigan wineries of a similar size, including those right in my own backyard?

What do you think?

 

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Links to wine news from Michigan and elsewhere. Use the Contact Form to let us know what should be here.

KIM'S SECRET STASH

Recently-deceased Korean dictator Kim Jong Il was a wine geek (and reputed alcoholic) with a 10,000-bottle cellar, according to ex-Slate wine columnist Mike Steinberger. Kim earlier gave up Hennessy Cognac on doctor's orders.