GREAT WINE, BUT WILL IT SELL?

I recently tasted a series of sensational Amarones (meaning the great bitter in Italian) from the very traditional house of Bertani. Unlike the facilities at Allegrini and Masi,  Bertani makes their wines the same way they made them for the past century.  The grapes are dried on straw mats in open-air rooms. There are no state-of-the-art, humidity and temperature controlled rooms with fans blowing to quickly dry the grapes. Once the passimento stage (drying of the grapes) is completed, Bertani then ages their wines for seven years in large casks called botte. This extended time in botte allows the wine throw all its sediment in the casks. This causes four positive attributes. The wine becomes extremely stable. It does not require filtration. The wine will not continue to lose color. And lastly, the wine will not go through the normal open and closed periods most collectible wines experience.

There is another factor at work here that requires explanation:  

Wines are made up of water, unfermented sugars, alcohol, and everything else is collectively referred to as dry extract .  Wines that are bigger, darker, and have thicker textures, have more more dry extract than wines that are lighter, have less color, and have finer textures.  Wine however, like any other liquid, can only hold a certain “weight” of soluble solids in solution. So it follows that wines that carry more solids than can ultimately remain in suspension, will at some point, drop out excess dry extract, in the form of sediment, as it ages. Wines that are particularly heavy with dry extract will start throwing a heavy sediment, creating something of an avalanche of anthocyanins (color pigment), polyphenols and tannins. As the word avalanche suggests, these elements are swept out of solution, carrying along with it dry extract that the wine could have otherwise held. The end result can be a former heavy-weight wine that can be out of balance with sharper acids than one that did not initially have as much dry extract at bottling. 

The big surprise is how clean the wines are after hearing about their very traditional methods of production. I expected to get an aldahydic, oxidized wine that was pale in color. I expected to taste an experience rather than a great wine. Bertani’s Amaroni were nothing of the sort. They were remarkably clean and very powerful. The mind blower was the first Amarone I tasted from them that was 45 years old, but tasted 20 years old. Incredible! This was a great wine. Fortunately for Bertani, their sense of tradition has precluded them from following the world-wide trend toward maximum extraction, allowing their botte aged wines to have exceptional color and richness even at forty years from vintage.

The wine that followed was beautiful, and similar in character to the 1967, but was from the much more recent, 2003 vintage.  European wines from the 2003 vintage have largely been dismissed as being from the hot vintage: and are unfairly characterized  as over-ripe, not ageable  and not classic. I have seen hundreds of exceptions to these harsh generalizations. In fact many producers made superb wines in 2003.

Bertani’s 2003 Amarone was impressive. Dense in concentration and power, rich with fruit, but no excessive over-ripeness, little to no volatile acidity – no off flavors at all.  These are all things that have plagued traditionally made Amarones for decades due to the nature of their production. This is the reason many producers like Masi, Allegrini and Bussola to name three, introduced sweeping changes in to their production of Amarone. Bertani however, seems to have figured it out, without sacrificing their tradition and flavor profile.

The 2004 Amarone which followed, was more plum and blackberry fruit driven, with similar intensity and power. While, this would be considered the better of the two vintages, though I really didn’t have a marked preference to either. The ’03 and ’04 were notably similar, and shared a definite familial identity to the 1967.

These were stunning wines, without a doubt. The cost, as with many Amarones, was very high. With a wholesale of $586 per six pack, retail would be between $130 and $145 per bottle depending on mark-up.It was clear that they had been having some problems selling the wines, because they were offering a free bottle of the 1967 (with a claimed wholesale value of $580) with each six pack of the 2003 vintage. With the 2004 vintage, the supplier was offering a bottle of 1980 ($360 wholesale) Amarone, as additional discount.  This is where things get a little messy.

This “free” bottle is funded, usually by money that has been budgeted for the importer’s marketing departments.  There are never any bottles floating around to be given out as freebies. Budgets must be met, if a company is to pay it’s bills and employees.  How it works is this: a budget is set at the beginning of the year, including a budgeting income (from selling wine).  If the Amarone is not selling, the budgeted income is not being met.  They cannot simply cut the price of the wine (because everything is already budgeted for the year), without funding coming from some source that is already in the current budget.  This source of funding is almost always from the companies marketing department.  The marketing departments of large firms, have large budgets to meet these kinds of demands that routinely crop up. This kind of action by the marketing and sales departments are obliquely called, ‘pricing and programming’. Until an new budget is drawn up the following year, a winery or an importer cannot drop the pricing of their wine, or the budget will not be met.  Because the importer (in this case Palm Bay) and Bertani, cannot just simply lower their front-line pricing mid-year, they are forced to confuse the value of their wine by giving away these older bottles. It also allows them the kick down the road with this stop-gap effort by the sales division and marketing division.  Unfortunately, it is highly likely that upper-management will not really know how critical their pricing issues are, because by hook or by crook, sales and marketing have met their numbers. When they sit down to create a new budget, it will be very similar to the previous one. At the street level, the sales division and the marketing division will have to solve this problem the following year again, but not for a several months.

I noticed that the visiting Italian Sales Manager for Bertani was paying particular attention to the 2007 Valdicava Brunello di Montalcino that retails for $109.99. I told him that it wasn’t selling well.

Not with 98 points from Suckling?” he asked.

“No, it’s just sitting there.” I responded, hoping he’d see the corollary to his wine.

Tasting the Legends

Tasting the Legends (Photo credit: jamesonf)

THERE IS ONLY ONE DAL FORNO.

With the success of Dal Forno and Quintarelli, and their shockingly high prices, most Amarone producers have doubled their prices over the past decade. I’m sure they reason, that Dal Forno is only a little bit better, and yet is five to seven times more expensive than their wines. This makes them feel they must to raise their price to maintain the perception of quality. But the fact is, Dal Forno isn’t selling well at $550 a bottle. The distributor recently sold the Dal Forno Valpolicella at half its original price, with a buy one, get one sale. Still, even with this drastic price reduction the wholesale price worked out to over $70 a bottle, roughly five times the price of Valpolcellas from other good producers. Granted, those producers don’t make a Valpolicella like this! Exceptionally dense and dark, with brooding fruit, gripping tannins framed by plenty of oak, and oh, bone dry. I mean dry, like old world wine, indicating relatively lower alcohol (I didn’t look.) With the new vintages of Dal Forno, the prices have come down by almost $150 a bottle. Testament to mis-reading the buying public, even by the top tier wineries.

Realistically, though, there is only one Dal Forno Amarone, one Hommage de Jacques Perrin, one Domaine Romanee Conti, and only one Screaming Eagle. Only a few wines, however good, can transcend a genre, and command absurd prices. Others cannot follow the escalation of price, even a fraction, because the market will not support it. The majority of all other wines must have at least the appearance of value.

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