In Search of the Best Pinot Noir in California

As wine connoisseurs know, regardless of one’s taste preferences, the most coveted wines in the world hail from the comparatively tiny region in France called Burgundy.  The red wine from Burgundy is made from the notorious and mysterious Pinot Noir grape.  No California Pinot can truly be compared to the most famous Pinot on the planet, Domain Romanee Conti, which is also known as DRC for short  Having said this, DRC, in my opinion, may have a California counterpart – none other than Marcassin.  Marcassin, which means young wild boar in French, is arguably the most coveted and most expensive New World Pinot Noir.  However, before we get to the story of how Marcassin came about, we ought to take a brief survey of what Pinot Noir is all about.

Pinot’s New World (as opposed to “Old World” wines such as those hailing from Europe) resurrection may have been triggered by thecultish 2004 film Sideways, where the film’s protagonist, Miles, extols the virtues of the Pinot Noir grape, as he deals with personal and professional challenges while wine tasting around Santa Barbara, California.  Pinot Noir wines are generally paler in color than other red wines.  They are often referred to as translucent and their flavors are more subtle than the typical cabs or merlots, or any other reds.
The Pinot Noir grape itself is weak and fickle; it struggles and suffers from a variety of ailments, and its genetic makeup causes it to be highly susceptible to mutation.   Despite the difficulty in growing the Pinot grape, prices for a bottle of Pinot Noir are generally more than a similar quality red wine from other grapes.  Typical Pinot Noir taste is cranberry, cherry, raspberry, vanilla, clove, licorice, mushroom, wet leaves, tobacco, cola, and caramel.  It is often considered a wine suitable for virtually any food, but many purists would submit that the best Pinot should be consumed on its own…or with very lightly flavored foods, such as Gruyere de Comte cheese.
Unlike stoical Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot is, indeed, temperamental and oscillates from perfection to disappointments.   As perhaps the most fickle grape, Pinot can have a range of flavors depending on the region that it is from, how it is produced, and how it is stored.  The wine’s vintage also matters, of course  In Burgundy, the Pinot Noir wine is typically herbaceous with aromas of earth, mushrooms, wet leaves, with notes of roses, fresh cherries, and various light floral hints.  As with cabs and other wines, California Pinots are bigger than those of the Old World.  They are fruit forward, offering flavors of sweet black cherry, raspberry, with secondary aromas of vanilla, clove, and caramel – just to name a few.  Incidentally, Oregon Pinots are lighter and more tart with flavors of cranberry and truffle mushroom.   Oregon Pinots are considered more austere than those from California.

Having tasted many of California’s high scoring Pinots, I have settled on Marcassin as the best expression of Pinot. It just so happens that Marcassin is also the rarest and the most expensive of California’s top Pinot Noirs.  
 Like most rare and expensive wines, Marcassin is often criticized as overrated and overpriced.  There is often some truth to this blanket criticism when it comes to any high scoring and tightly allocated wine made by a famous wine maker – regardless of whether they are the First Growths from Bordeaux or hyped up “Cult” wines from Napa.   I would agree thatMarcassin may be at times only marginally better than the runner ups, which I believe to be Pinots from Sea SmokeKistlerPeter Michael, and Aubert.   However, this marginal difference is what sets Marcassin apart.  Great wine often dwells on subtle differences and refinement.
Getting on the allocation list at Sea Smoke isn’t as difficult today as it once was.  Sea Smoke’s wines , (“Southing,” “Botella” or “Ten”)– are rich and concentrated, lacking the refinement of Marcassin. Viticulturist Mark Aubert has worked at Peter Michael and alongsideHelen Turley, but he is best known for his work with the producers of the extraordinarily expensive Napa Cabs: Colgin and Bryant Family. The wait to get on Aubert’s mailing allocation list is alsolong.  Peter Michael makes a great Pinot, but is best known for its dainty, Burgundy-styled Chardonnays, which have price tags similar to top-tier Burgundies.  Some of the lesser expensive and more accessible California Pinots worth drinking are Kosta Browne, Lynmar, Pahlmeyer, Rochioli, Skywalker, Williams Selyem.
These wonderful California Pinots are significantly less expensive per bottle, but as I pointed out, the so-called “marginal difference” in taste and character is actually substantial in the sense that it truly matters and sets Marcassin apart from other top tier California Pinots.  Price and value become somewhat relative when we look at top wines from Burgundy.  The restaurant retail for a bottle of Marcassin is a fraction of what you would expect to pay for a rare Burgundy.
High profile California winemaker, Helen Turley, made Marcassin into California’s first highly allocated and truly expensive Pinot Noir.  Even after the 2008 market collapse, the Marcassin mailing list is not easy to get on, and the secondary market prices for Turley’s Pinot are about $400 to $600 per bottle, depending on the vintage and where or how the wine is purchased.  Turley was arguably responsible in creating the cult wine phenomenon in California, with highly acclaimed wineries such as Aruajo, Grace Family, Bryant, Colgin, Screaming Eagle, Harlan, and a number of others.  In fact, just as influential in Napa as David Abrue, Turley has been the consulting winemaker for some of the best wineries in the country – Peter Michael Winery, Pahlmeyer, Colgin, Bryant Family, and many others.
Marcassin is Turley’s own label, which she owns in partnership with her viticulturist husband, John Wetlaufer. Together the couple produces just under 3000 cases of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, with approximately 80% of the wine sold to the privileged mailing list clients. The waiting list to join the allocation group is long, and is rumored to be near 5000 people.  After 2010, Turley has only produced Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from her estate 20-acre Marcassin Vineyard on the Sonoma Coast which came into full production in 2009.  Prior to that, Marcassin was made at the Martinelli winery in the Russian River Valley.
The winery is very private and is not open to the public. Turley is said to plant her vineyard very densely, severely limit yields. In her winemaking Pinot Noir clusters are de-stemmed, cold soaked with one pump over per day.  Turley uses natural yeasts, mostly new oak, and leaves the wines on the lees after fermentation.  Typically, the wines are aged five years before they are released.  Stylistically, Marcassin is rich and opulent with noticeable sweetness reflecting generous alcohol. Notwithstanding, the wine tends to show more balance than its California competitors.  Marcassin has a reputation for aging beyond what one would expect from California Pinots.

(Yuri Vanetik is a private investor and wine collector based in Southern California.)

USC beats #5 Stanford! Will Orgeron stay on as Head Coach?!

After Stanford’s big victory last week against the #2 ranked Oregon Ducks, conventional wisdom called for the Cardinal players to be worked up for their meeting with the USC Trojans with a Bowl Championship game in sight.  Indeed, Las Vegas oddsmakers gave Stanford the edge in the match with USC this last weekend – by more than a field goal.  But the Trojans pulled an upset and won their fifth game in a row under Interim Head Coach Ed Orgeron, beating Stanford in the final minutes of the game with a 47-yard field goal, 20-17.

Orgeron had been the Trojan’s defensive coach and was hoisted to his position after former head coach Lane Kiffen’s messy dismissal on the tarmac of Los Angeles International Airport after an even messier performance by the Trojans, losing on September 28 to Arizona State, 62-41.  But since then, under Orgeron, the Trojans are 5-1.

Athletic Director Pat Haden, himself a former USC starting Quarterback, is in the process of finding a new Head Coach for USC.  Orgeron, who had a dismal 10-26 record as the top coach at Ole Miss over three seasons, was surely not seen as a top candidate for the job when Kiffen was ousted.   But players have come to like Orgeron’s style, which fits the “USC culture” far better than Kiffen’s.  Orgeron uses positive encouragement, team pride, cheeseburgers and milkshakes to help motivate his players, and at USC that gets results.  Players, fans and alumni have come to love his style, and during the Stanford game the USC rooting section could be seen doing Orgeron-specific cheers during the game, and with much delight.  Simply stated, following a terrible start this year, Ed Orgeron has given USC fans something to cheer about.

Some sports organizations don’t share that enthusiasm.  NBC Sports published a piece on Sunday claiming that USC “is bad at hiring Head Coaches” and strongly suggests that Orgeron is not the right person for the job.  But the colorful, froggy voiced Orgeron has shown a lot of character in helping USC to salvage a good season and get a big win against Stanford.  Orgeron seemed to get a big endorsement after the Stanford game in a tweet from popular former head coach Pete Carroll.  Another big win against nationally ranked rival UCLA would make it almost impossible for Haden to not hire Orgeron, whom we think is just starting a new historic run for the Trojans.




Stanford Stands Out, Beats Oregon 2nd Year in a Row

Stanford beat the #2 nationally ranked Oregon Ducks Thursday night at home in Palo Alto with unexpected ease for the first three quarters, and staved off a late fourth quarter resurgence by Oregon to win 26-20.  Observers now say that Oregon’s hopes for the national championship in college football are dashed, and that the #5 ranked Cardinal, who have lost only one odd-ball game to Utah, will now lead the PAC-12 North division and probably go to the Rose Bowl.  In fact, if one or two other top teams stumble, Stanford may now have a real shot to play in the BCS championship game.

Stanford running back Tyler Gafney ran for a solid 157 yards in the game, and Stanford, to many college football observers surprise, looked like the more powerful and better conditioned team in much of the match.  Quarterback Kevin Hogan ran for a touchdown and did not throw an interception or fumble – his performance was close to flawless.

Marcus Mariota, Oregon’s Heisman trophy candidate this year, was 20-34 in passing connections and after a poor start, threw two touchdown passes in the fourth quarter.


California Cult Wines: Why Should We Care?

As the name suggests, “cult wine” is a somewhat opaque reference to a group of wineries in California that have a strong (almost a pseudo-religious) following among wine enthusiasts and collectors.  The dynamics of this cult oeno-worship are such that the typically very small supply is faced with a high demand.  At that point, economics kick in, and combined with the psychology of coveting that which is difficult to obtain, a cult wine is born.  In less hyperbolic terms, California cult wines are generally Napa wines that have the following characteristics:

1. Very small production;

2. A famous or (at least) a highly respected local wine-maker;

3. Very high scores from established critics – particularly Robert Parker;

4. High prices (approx. “retail” of $300 to $1000+ per bottle);

5. Sales through mailing lists that are preceded by waiting periods on a waiting list, with occasionally targeted small allocations to Michelin-starred restaurants and highly regarded charity auctions.

There are no absolute lines here, other than small production, great reviews, and vertiginous prices. Ultimately, cult wines are a marketing marriage of quality and branding.  There are many self proclaimed California cult wines, and so-called emerging cult wines… There is no absolute consensus and no actual classification as that in Bordeaux in 1855 establishing a rigid hierarchy. Notwithstanding, many would agree that the following wineries produce cult wines:

Screaming Eagle, Harlan, Grace Family, Colgin, Bryant, Aruajo, Sin Qua Non, Dalle Valle Maya, and perhaps a relative newcomer – Scarecrow.

The “second tier” of what might be considered a California Cult wine (but is up for debate) casts a much wider net, and might be comprised of such wines as: Hundred Acre, Verite, Abrue, Marcassin, Kapcsandy, Dana Estates, Levy & McClellan, Dunn, Ovid, Schrader, Saxum, and probably a number of others.  Some industry veterans explain that the original “cult” wines was Heitz Martha’s Vineyard, and indeed, Heitz Martha’s Vinyard from 1974 is epic, and in my opinion transcends the cult label, as arguably the most important wine ever to be produced in U.S.  It is only possible rival in terms of rarity and prestige might be the first bottling of Screaming Eagle in 1992.

Cult wines are often seen as trophy wines to be collected, shown off, or put down in private cellars or storage facilities with an eye for future resale as an investment (an alternative asset class).  Unfortunately, as “investors” in California cult wines have learned during the recent economic crisis, the mythical mailing lists wilted away, and prices on most of the California cult wines dropped off – often even below the mailing list prices. Elin McCoy, writing for Bloomberg, points this out in her article, Cult Wine Crowd Drops Off Elite Mailing Lists with $350 cabs. “On wine Web site bulletin boards, collectors are trading tales of paring their lists. One planned to purchase from only three of the seven in-demand wineries whose mailing-list offers he received last month. Others are splitting their allocations,” she writes.

The emergence of the cult movement coincided with trends in the 1990s towards riper fruit and wines with bigger and longer fruit finish.  This was what presumably what earned high scores from the Warren Buffett of Wine – Robert Parker.  These wines are generally very expensive and with tiny production (often fewer than 600 cases per year) often commanded even several times their mailing list “release price” in the secondary market (i.e. speculators, auctions, restaurants).  This market crashed around 2008/2009.  Moreover, it has not come back, and it unlikely will to the same extent.  The three possible exceptions might be Screaming Eagle and to some extent Bill Harlan’s marquee wine, Harlan out of Napa.  The other wine that weathered the cult crash is Manfred Krankle’s Sin Quo Non, a strange brew born out of a barn-like winery with weird and sometimes risqué hand drawn labels, and an uber concentrated taste that drives the Francophile purists crazy.  It is hard to predict the future of these three cult survivors, and if I had to bet, I would probably pick Screaming Eagle as the only one that would at least maintain value.

The critics of California cult wines have a great deal to say, and they have been saying for a long time – even before the cult wine mystique was shattered by the economy.  There are two, none mutually exclusive positions.  The first considers California cult designation elitist, and judges the distribution methods and attitudes as undeservingly elitist.  The underlying notion is that great wine should not be treated as a material obsession.  The second view comes from serious wine collectors and wine “purists”.  These are typically collectors of French wines – mostly Bordeaux and Burgundy.  They claim that California cult wines have no history, no mystique of French terroir, and that they are over-engineered, relying on clever marketing to earn their status and their coveted 100 points from Parker.

It is true that the best vintages of top Bordeaux and Burgundy stood up to economic downturns better than high priced California or other elite new world wines.  The best Burgundy wine has continued to increase in value, and may claim the investment wine status even more so than its much bigger neighbor, Bordeaux.  Regardless, California cult wines or those that claim to be the new cults are generally great wines, assuming you like California wine.  I believe that many could age longer than 10 years, but most of them are not an investment.  Ergo, California cult wines are more for drinking, and should be enjoyed just as many other attributes of California.

(Yuri Vanetik is a private investor, philanthropist, and wine collector.  He resides in Southern California, and occasionally writes about wine, politics, and the economy.)

EBay can turn a distant World Series memory to cash

IMG_1166I was doing a little “spring cleaning” recently, sending some old, useless files to the trash, when I discovered two bright yellow and green ticket stubs for the seventh and final game of the baseball World Series in 1973.  The game was played on October 21st, 1973 during the day at the Coliseum in Oakland, between the A’s and the New York Mets.  Gazing at the tickets I realized I was there, almost forty years ago.

Aided with a little internet research, I re-lived the thrill of attending a World Series and in the Bay Area, let alone a decisive game.  Oakland won the game 5-2 and Reggie Jackson hit a 2-run homer.  Ken Holtzman was the winning pitcher for the A’s, and he even hit a double and scored in the third inning.  (Though the “Designated Hitter” rule had just been adopted for American League teams in 1973, the rule did not apply to World Series games until 1976.)  And the tickets caused me to think of Game 1 of that same series, also played in Oakland and which I attended, where I saw my idol Willie Mays, by then a Met and in his final season, make his last start ever and get his final hit in Major League Baseball, a single.  I thought it was great that Mays came back to the Bay Area as a Met, where he had played so long for the San Francisco Giants, to get his final hit before a sympathetic Oakland crowd, in a World Series no less.  Seeing “Mr. October,” Reggie Jackson, live up to his reputation with his Game 7 home run was equally a thrill.  I thought fondly of my Dad, now long departed, who I attended Game 7 with.

The memory of that series and especially attending Game 7 is a treasure to me.  I wanted to keep the memory.  But I also needed to get back to reality and clean out my files.  I decided that in this digital world, that I could best keep the memory of the game by putting a picture of the tickets in my iPhoto library on iCloud, where I could have access to them anytime, anywhere.  Thus I could send the old stubs to the trash pile.

Then it occurred me.  Maybe they were worth sharing with someone else out there.

I am not a big Ebay person but I do have an account and occasionally will go on-line to buy a knick-knack.  For example, not too long ago I got a really good deal on a special Lalique crystal sparrow that completed a set of four.  I bought a perfect piece on Ebay for about 20% the retail value.  I had never really used Ebay to sell anything, but thought, well, maybe there is someone out there that might get a kick out of these old tickets and have their own treasured memory.

So I posted the old stubs on Ebay for a seven-day auction.  The initial price was set at $1.99.  Over the weekend, the auction ended and to my surprise the old stubs sold for $37.66.  And buyer is paying the postage.  The face value of the tickets in 1973 was $30 ($15 each).  But today, forty years later, the value of the used ticket stubs on Ebay exceeds the cost of the tickets themselves.

Not everything that has a memory attached to it yields much interest on Ebay.  I have a 1,000 Russian Ruble banknote dated 1917, the year of the two Russian revolutions, but learned there are plenty of those types of items on Ebay that don’t really get any bids.  Perhaps the memories associated with 1917 in Russia aren’t good ones, at least good enough to cause much interest in the old, worthless Imperial currency.  A 1953 series $2 bill really isn’t worth much more than $2 on Ebay.

But a Bay Area World Series is surely different.  I hope my old World Series ticket stubs might similarly stir fond memories in their new owner, who might also have the space and knowledge to display and enjoy them for the history they represent.  And I’ll take a look at a picture of them every now and then in my photo library.

And now forty years later, the Oakland A’s, still playing in the very same stadium, are battling for first place in the American League West and perhaps yet another World Series bid.  I really hope the A’s can bring another World Series to California.  Then the cycle of such memory building can start all over again.  And my advice to any young people that might attend a next World Series game in Oakland, is cherish your memories, and “hold on to your ticket stubs.”


Vega Sicilia: Spanish Wine of Grand Distinction

Photo courtesy photogism, flickr

Photo courtesy photogism, flickr

In case you did not know, Bodegas Vega Sicilia is a Spanish wine. It is true that wine connoisseurs rarely speak about Spanish wines in the same breath as French or even Italian wines.  However, Vega Sicilia is the Spanish wine game changer – and unlike new world cult wines or even French Garagiste and quasi-Garagiste Pomerol upstarts – has been such for many, many years.  Vega Sicilia has been produced in the Ribera del Duero region of Northern Spain for over 150 years.  It is made primarily from tempranillo grapes, which are typically blended with cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and malbec. Tempranillo is a thick-skinned grape that ripens early (the word temprano means “early”) and has power and concentration with alcohol levels between 13.5 and 14 percent. The Vega Sicilia wine ages extremely well, and is not readily available due to high demand and small production.

Many wine authorities consider Vega Sicilia to be one of the most glorious wines that hails from Europe or the “Old World” as it is often referred to in among wine enthusiasts to contrast wine that are made in US or Australia – the “New World wines”.  Prominent wine critics believe that, at its best, Vega Sicilia transcends the paradigm of Spanish wines, and rivals the greatest Bordeaux and Burgundy wine.  This is not to say that the First Growth wines of the Bordeaux or the Nuevo Reich Petrus or the Garagiste leader, Le Pin don’t represent the venerated old world wine-making skills .  They do.   It is simply that arguably few can match the historical prestige of Vega Sicilia.

Even if you are not a fan of Spanish wine, you may have heard of Vega Sicilia, and if you tasted it, you may have fallen in love with this truly noble wine.  Its comparables may be the great vintages of the famous First Growths of Bordeaux.   It should be no surprise that behind many great wines lies a clever marketing story.  This is particularly true of some well regarded California wines.  This is not the case with Vega Sicilia.  Its winery is located in Valbuena de Duero. Its important history was not planned by high-paid wine or business consultants; it was not engineered by celebrity winemakers or erected by Wall Street egos.  It was made by history itself, with help from tradition and dedication.  It was made from ultra low yields and wine making that pays much attention to details.

Many believe its name refers to Saint Cecilia, venerated throughout Spain, explains John Mariani , who writes about wine for Bloomberg’s arts and culture section[I]. Although the exact origin of the name is not known, the word Vega refers to the green vegetation that grows along the riverbank of the Duero, and Saint Sicilia, is the patron Saint of musicians.  However, how the name came about remains a mystery.

The winery was founded by Don Eloy Lacanda y Chaves in 1864.  He brought French varietals like cabernet sauvignon and merlot to Spain’s wine region that became home to Vega Sicilia.  The story of this wine dates to the early to mid 1800s.  In 1848 a Basque landowner, Don Toribio Lecanda, met the bankrupt Marques de Valbuena and bought from him a 2,000 hectare estate, the Pago de la Vega Santa Cecilia y Carrascal.  At some point early on, the name was reduced to Vega Sicilia. For the first 16 years, the land was used for agriculture, until Toribio’s son, Don Eloy Lecanda y Chaves, founded the winery in 1864.  From Monsieur Beguerié in Bordeaux he bought 18,000 young vines of Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmenere, Malbec, Merlot and Pinot Noir. They may have made some wine at that stage, but most of the production went into brandy and ratafia.

In due course Don Eloy went bust and the estate passed to the Herrero family, and another Basque, Domingo Garramiola Txomin, who had trained as a winemaker at the Haro Oenological Centre. At first most of the wine was sold in bulk and – presumably – passed off as Rioja. When the Rioja vineyards had recovered from Phylloxera in 1915, Garramiola turned to making estate bottled wine. Initially this wasn’t a commercial venture, but was given away to aristocratic friends and acquaintances of the Herrero family. The quality of these wines was obviously not an issue: the 1917 and 1918 wines won prizes at the World Fair in Barcelona in 1929, an achievement still celebrated on the labels of Vega Sicilia’s Unico – the rarest and grandest rendition of the wine.

According to Julian Jeffs in Classic Wines of Spain, the winery changed hands in 1952, and again in 1966.  The next major change was not until 1982, when the Denominacion de Origen Ribera del Duero was established. This move meant that Unico (and the other wines) was no longer classified as a “simple” table wine. At the same time, the Alvarez family bought Vega Sicilia, and began to modernize and expand, a process which has continued, including the creation of new estates: Bodegas Alion in 1992, Bodegas Alquiriz (in Toro) in 2001, and Tokaj Oremus in Hungary, founded in 1993.  Ultimately, from about 1915 through 1980s was the sole beacon of consistent high quality in Ribera del Duero, and arguably in Spain.

The wine takes time to mature, and that is why it is often not released for at least 10 years after production.  “The rare wines of the Vegas Sicilia winery reach their peak after decades – if you can get them,” writes Stan Sesser for the Wall Street Journal, in his piece, “Spanish Greatness, With a Long Wait”[II].   Herrero family’s wine-maker, Dominigo Garramoila Txomin’s “faith is inspiring. He held an unknown wine back for over 10 years confident that it would eventually change the world. It did. That heritage continues; the 1970 vintage spent over 16 years in barrel before release,” explains Paul Coker, Sommelier at St Regis in Monarch Beach, California.

Vega Sicilia is one of the most highly regarded and unusual wines, claim its quasi-fanatical followers world over. Of its two top labels, called Unico and Unico Especial, the first is released only after aging for at least a decade in barrels and bottles, compared with three years for the best wines from Bordeaux. The second, Especial, is a blend of grapes harvested in three different years, a rarity in the world of red wine, so the bottle doesn’t have a vintage date on it. And if Vega Sicilia’s winemaker is dissatisfied with the quality of the harvest in any year, the winery will refuse to produce a single bottle of Unico. This has happened four times in the last two decades: 1992, 1993, 1997 and 2001, points out Sesser.  Less than 7,000 cases of Unico are produced each year, and only about 10 percent of the production enters the U.S.  Paul Coker further distinguishes, Vega Sicilia by pointing out that, “unlike most top estates, Vega Sicilia will never sell off its wine to lesser estates. If the wine doesn’t go into Vega Sicilia, maybe it goes into their Valbuena (one of the greatest Reservas of the Ribera.) If it isn’t great enough for Valbuena, it is completely distilled into neutral grape spirit and made into brandy.”

Ultimately, Vega Sicilia is a true connoisseur’s wine.  Its commercial success is an externality of the implementation of the winery’s creed to patiently produce a special wine in the grandest of European traditions.  “There is no sign at the Vega Sicilia winery and no tasting room, and anyone uninvited who knocks at the door will be turned away. Waving a wad of money to buy a bottle of wine will do you no good; nothing at the winery is for sale,” points out Sesser, underscoring that it is no simply a commercial venture, but an artisan’s creation.  “The story of Vega Sicilia is the story of Spanish wines: a beautiful dichotomy of respect for heritage and a belief in greatness obtainable through innovation,” posits Coker, summing up the essence of this great European wine.   The faith in the future continues today with an oak forest that has been planted on the estate. When ready, this will allow Vega Sicilia to produce their own corks to prevent any outside influence that could compromise quality.

(Yuri Vanetik is a wine collector who lives in Southern California.)

[I] Mariani, John, “Spain’s Vega Sicilia Holds Its Own Against Bordeaux Wines,” May 3, 2013, Bloomberg.

[II] Sesser, Stan, “Spanish Greatness, With a Long Wait”, February 20, 2010, Wall Street Journal

Yasiel Puig’s Overnight Success and All-Star Nomination

yasiel puig

If you don’t follow baseball, you may be unaware of the controversy simmering around Dodgers rookie Yasiel Puig.  He came up from the minors less than two months ago, has played on a level comparable only to that of the early

Joe DiMaggio, and has singlehandedly (okay, with both hands) lifted the Dodgers from the ignominy of overpaid underperformer status into credible pennant contenders.  Fans nationwide gleefully wrote him onto the All-Star team by online ballot.

Puig has played fewer than 40 games in the Major Leagues.  The Dodgers, who had a lot of money, now have a lot less, because they agreed to pay him $42 million over seven years.

Old school baseball players and their managers take offense to the All-Star designation for a player who has barely gotten his uniform sweaty.  But the people want Puig, and Puig they shall have, when the All-Star Game takes place in New York next week.

Baseball traditionalists believe that All-Star status is something one earns over time.  Casual fans couldn’t care less about a player’s body of work; they’re just interested in stars, which Puig, at least for the short term, now is.  Sports talk radio commentators recognize that baseball has a phenomenon in Puig and that the All-Star game is a marketing showcase.  Failing to include Puig, therefore, would be an unpardonable offense.

Puig had the good fortune to come of age in the age of American Idol, when you can become a star literally overnight.  You don’t have to spend years paying dues; you just go viral.   Consider the difference between yesterday’s Frank Sinatra and today’s Psy.  Sinatra toured with big bands for years before he hit; Psy, the Korean voice of Gangnam Style (two billion YouTube hits and counting) became a planetary legend with one video.  If extraterrestrials exist, they are probably on Alpha Centauri doing the horse dance and singing, “Hey, sexy lady!”

And so it is in sports.  LeBron got his $60 million deal with Nike before he stepped on an NBA court.  Andrew Luck signed to quarterback the Indianapolis Colts for $22 million prior to throwing a single NFL pass.  And now Yasiel Puig has parlayed eight undeniably great weeks into eight figures.

The veteran players may or may not begrudge Puig the money; they definitely resent his sudden All-Star status.  That’s because they come from a world where what you do over a long period of time defines who you are.  Puig, baseball’s flavor of the month, leaves a sour taste in their mouths.

In baseball, hitters and pitchers “solve” one another.  Meaning that tendencies are analyzed and baseball experts do everything that can to drag outliers back to the mean.  In the sport’s language, the goal is to create a “book” on a player: identify his weaknesses and capitalize on them.  The fastball hitter may have trouble with a slider; a particular pitcher may struggle to keep the ball down.  Once word gets out, it’s much harder for a phenom to keep up that initial momentum.

This may or may not happen with Puig.  He could be the next Henry Aaron.  Or not.   He could also run into serious trouble.  If you listened to sports talk radio the week before the Dodgers elevated Puig to the majors, the topic was the fact that he had enormous trouble coping with authority.  Not quite “cancer in the clubhouse” material, but the verdict among baseball men was that he was too immature to handle the pressures of the big leagues.

So now they’re putting him front and center at the All-Star Game.

There’s something to be said for the old way of doing things, where you had to earn your stripes, pay your dues, work your way to the top.  That way allows people to make their mistakes in private, before all eyes are upon them.  Those of us who are a little older and come from that world are grateful that YouTube didn’t exist when we were in our twenties or Facebook when we were in our teens.  We’re very happy, thank you, that the mistakes we made in our callow years aren’t on our permanent technological record.

I have no problem with Puig playing in the All-Star Game; he’s definitely a star and baseball is the world’s worst sport at marketing itself.  We’ve just seen what happens to people, especially those in the public eye, who receive too much too soon.  From Aaron Hernandez (New England Patriot accused of homicide) to Lindsey Lohan (actress accused of everything), it often turns out that sudden success is no gift from the gods.

I wish Yasiel Puig the greatest of success, personally and professionally, not that he’s ever heard of me or cares about receiving my blessing.  I want him to stay on the baseball diamond and not the police blotter and enjoy his newfound celebrity.

It used to be that it took ten years to become an overnight success.  In today’s world, it can take ten years to get over having been one.

(New York Times best selling author Michael Levin runs, America’s leading provider of ghostwritten books.)

What To Give Your Grad This June: A Taste Of Reality

graduation college debtParents want two things of their newly minted college graduate offspring:  that they get a job, and that they don’t move back home.  Here’s a short list of books guaranteed to get them off your couch and into the working world.   As a bonus, these books will also help replace the nonsense your kids “learned” in college with a short course in reality.

So here goes.

We’ll start with a dose of reality about the economy.  Keynes Hayek: The Clash that Defined Modern Economics, by Nicholas Wapshott (W.W. Norton, 2012).  John Maynard Keynes, British and well-spoken, advocated governments printing money in order to prime the economy.  Frederick Hayek, an Austrian who spoke English in an impenetrable manner, thought that governments shouldn’t interfere with the business cycle.  This intensely readable book will help your grad understand why we’re $20 trillion in debt, and maybe make him think twice about running up his shiny new MasterCard.

Next, spirituality.  Where Has Oprah Taken Us?: The Religious Influence of the World’s Most Famous Woman by Stephen Mansfield (Thomas Nelson, 2011).  Oprah’s tumultuous early life story and rejection of traditional Christianity, in a third of the pages Kitty Kelley requires.  More importantly, the book shows how Oprah essentially singlehandedly moved America from religion to a fascinating but often contradictory and uneasy blend of spirituality from a wide variety of New Age and Eastern sources, as administered by a coterie of Oprah-approved authors including Deepak Chopra, Marianne Williamson, Gary Zukav, Louise Hay, and Eckhart Tolle.  If your kid has a mishmash of spiritual ideas, this book will explain why.

Sticking with media for one more book:  Trust Me, I’m Lying:  Confessions of a Media Manipulator, by Ryan Holliday (Portfolio, 2012).  Why you can’t believe anything you read online or see in the news.  How manipulators (including the author, by his own admission) bend the rules of news delivery to cause you to believe whatever they want you to believe.  So freeing from the tyranny of media lies that it could also have called, “Our Eyeballs, Ourselves.”

Now, some good news.  According to Peter Diamandis, in his new book Abundance:  The Future Is Better Than You Think (Free Press, 2012), technology will move the “bottom billion” out of poverty in our lifetimes.  His thesis:  tech gurus got rich earlier in life than 19th century robber barons and therefore have the energy, technological know-how, money, and competitive nature to solve the problems of lack of access to clean water, healthcare, education, banking, and other vital needs.  Far more inspiring than if Chopra, Williamson, Zukav, Hay, Tolle, and the Dalai Lama themselves all came to your home, held your hands in theirs and sang “Kumbaya.”

More good news:  The Next Hundred Million:  America in 2050, by Joel Kotkin, (Penguin Press, 2010).  Here the happiness is sociological.  Post-Christian Europe isn’t getting married or having babies.  Scary China’s got all boys and no girls, so their workforce will age and their population will plummet.  Who will run the world in 40 years?  Why, America…where religion and values prevail, people are having lots of kids, and the suburbs and exurbs, not the dirty cities, hold our future. The book will show your kids that despite the left-wing critiques of America they received in college, we’ll still be the greatest nation in the world by the time they retire.         Of course, Social Security will have run out a long time ago, so financially, they’ll be on their own, but that’s not Joel Kotkin’s problem.

Next, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, by Charles Murray (Crown Forum, 2012).  We’re actually two nations, the controversial and irascible Murray argues, one comprised of super-Zip Codes, where highly educated people do yoga, run marathons, marry one another, know nothing of NASCAR, and send their kids to top universities, where they emulate their parents and punch their tickets for the economy’s top tier.  The other America:  working class towns where people get tattooed but not married; have babies but not jobs; and find no dignity in the kind of work with which their fathers supported their sorry behinds (e.g. factory jobs, night watchmen).  The result:  two economic classes pedaling rapidly in opposite directions, with dire results for our nation’s future.  Chilling and irrefutable.

Your kids love that new-fangled Internet, so let them also read The Master Switch:  The Rise And Fall Of Information Empires, by Columbia Law School prof Tim Wu (Alfred A. Knopf, 2010).  Wu shows how the Internet may well end up out of the hands of the people and under strict government and business control, as did the telephone, radio, and TV before it.  An intriguing guide to the intersection of power and technology.

Finally, what about love?  In a disposable culture, how can you make love last?  Ask John Grey.  Not the one who wrote Men Are From Mars.  The other John Grey, whose book, Relationship Tools For Positive Change (Leap Frog Press, 2005, is a must-read for people who want to keep their relationships longer than they keep their smartphone.  Fabulous, practical, necessary.

So there you have it.  A dose of reality for college grads, or for anyone who wants to understand what’s really happening in the world.  And if reality is too much, they can always just watch Oprah reruns on the couch in your basement.

(New York Times best selling author, Amazon Kindle Number 1 business book author, and Shark Tank entrepreneur Michael Levin runs, America’s leading provider of ghostwritten books.)

Masseto: The Superstar of Super Tuscans

masseto wine

Photo courtesy dalecruse, flickr.

What do a Russian winemaker, a scion to one of Italy’s most famous merchant families, and a little Tuscan hillside planted with olives have in common?

The answer is Masseto — perhaps the ultimate expression of merlot. Hailing from Tenuta del’Ornellaia, Masseto easily rivals the world’s top wines and is often compared to Château Pétrus, the legendary wine from Bordeaux. It’s Italy’s gold standard.

Although Masseto is coveted by wine collectors, there are some little known facts about its origins.

The story of Masseto began when the scion of a famous Tuscan negociant family, Marchese Lodovico Antinori, founded a small estate on land his mother gave him as a gift.

Called Tenuta dell’Ornellaia, the property is located in the coastal area of the Tyrrhenian Sea in the town of Bolgheri, where some of the best wines in Italy are produced.

Beginning in the 1960s, Bolgheri became the center of the “Super Tuscan” wine revolution — instead of planting traditional Italian varieties, many vintners started producing wines from French grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot, which they felt were better fits for the area’s soil and climate.

When Antinori received the property, he decided to breathe new life into the vineyard, as he wanted to make wines that could rival the best from Bordeaux. So he hired André Tchelistcheff, a Russian who became America’s most influential winemaker, as a consultant.

By that point in his career, Tchelistcheff had worked with dozens of now famous wineries and counseled countless men and women, many of them now retired, who went on to become prominent winemakers in their own right.

But most of his 56-year career was spent in California, where he was associated with Beaulieu Vineyards in the Napa Valley, and especially with Beaulieu’s signature wine, Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon.

“Well, when I think of wine, I think in French,” he would say. His long Slavic face and high cheekbones recalled portraits of Nijinsky or an icon of some forgotten Orthodox saint. He was a diminutive man, barely reaching five feet tall, and when he smiled his slanted eyes seemed to close entirely.

The vines at Tenuta dell’Ornellaia were planted in 1981, and Tchelistcheff believed the property could excel with a variety of plantings.

So the property was planted to Cabernet Sauvignon (38 hectares), Cabernet Franc (12 hectares), Merlot (38 hectares), Petit Verdot (7 hectares), and varietals Sauvignon blanc (2,5 ha), Viognier (0,5), Petit Manseng (1 ha), all of which have adapted perfectly to this part of Tuscany.

The vineyards extend over two adjacent areas that are separated by Bolgheri‘s famed Cypress Avenue. There are 99 hectares of vineyards in all, 41 surrounding the Tenuta, and the remaining 58 in an area known as Bellaria, which is closer to the sea.

Today, of course, Super Tuscans need no introduction. From Ornellaia to Solaia to Sassicaia, this area of Italy produces some of the most sought-after wines in the world.

Masseto was born almost by chance in 1986, when Antinori and his winemaker, Hungarian oenologist Tibor Gal, together with Tchelistcheff, decided to vinify their merlot separately. The merlot came from the property’s “Masseto” block, a tiny, 7-hectare parcel on a hill, with soil made up of clay and sand where olive trees had resided.

“Masseto’s soul and backbone come from the compact clay in the central part of the hill, while the hilltop’s sandier and rockier soil, adds elegance,” explains Axel Heiz, who is the estate winemaker.  Masseto’s name comes from the word “massi” which means large rocks, referring to the hard clods of gray clay that form in the soil.

Although a very small amount of “Merlot di Ornellaia” was released with the 1986 vintage, the official release of Masseto took place in 1987.

This small release quickly became a collector’s item sold in auctions all over the world. Masseto has received numerous accolades and perfect to near-perfect scores from the most renowned wine critics.  Today, about 35,000 bottles of Masseto are produced each year.  Michel Rolland, a highly influential Bordeaux-based oenologist, has been consulting with Masseto since 1991.

Those who prefer French wine to Italian have sometimes referred to Masseto as “that amazing French wine made in Italy.”  Notwithstanding these opinions, most wine enthusiasts view Masseto as a distinctly Italian creation.  The hallmark of Masseto is its power and impressive tannic structure. Most vintages are elegant and complex with intense yet measured aromatics, boasting impressions of perfectly ripe red and dark berry fruit, along with hints of balsamic herbs, smooth spices, and cocoa. Masseto’s mouth-feel is dense, rich, and powerful, with silky tannins reminiscent of Right Bank Bordeaux. Yet, it is different.  A very long, leisurely finish reveals a good acidity and concludes clean.

(Yuri Vanetik is a private investor and wine enthusiast who resides in Southern California.)

Reasons to Go BIG: Large-format bottles for the serious wine collector

Photo courtesy photogism, flickr

Photo courtesy photogism, flickr

Any serious wine collector is likely to incorporate large-format wine bottles in a collection, regardless of whether the collector is focusing on new world wine (i.e. California’s famous “cult wines” such as Screaming Eagle, Colgin, Aruajo, Bryant Family, Grace Family, etc.) or old world wines from France or Italy (such as the famous First Growths or the burly Barolos and Brunellos, or the rich and raisiny Amarone that Italy is so famous for). The attraction is predicated on rarity for the proverbial trophy collectors and on better aging of the wine due to a more stable environment of a large container.

This ultimately translates into better auction sales – greater value for the collection. For example, at a record-breaking May 2007 auction in Chicago, a case of 89 Chateau Petrus sold for $38,240. At that same auction, two double-magnums (the equivalent of eight bottles) of the same wine and vintage, 1989 Chateau Petrus sold for more than $45,000. That translates into 3.0 liters less of the same wine for an additional $7,000.

Why do collectors and wine lovers pay a substantial premium? The answer is three-fold:

  1. Scarcity
  2. Better Juice and Aging Potential
  3. Presentation

Large Formats Are More Recherché

Rarer generally translates into more expensive. One of the main reasons certain wine increases in value (other than the scores it receives from wine critics such as Robert Parker) is small production. Expensive wine tends to be rare because it is produced in relatively small quantities, and over time there is less of it, since it gets consumed.

Rare wines in large bottles command higher prices because there are much fewer large bottles than regular size bottles. It is just that simple.  This is the basic rule of the marketplace: Supply and demand. Great wines in large-formats are rarer than their “regular” bottle counterparts.

Typically, wineries that produce collectible wines designed for aging, bottle much fewer large-format bottles. Large-format bottles are reserved for special collectors, charity auctions, winery displays or private collections of the proprietors or their friends and family. Many large-format bottles are often special releases used to showcase outstanding vintages, mark a winery’s special occasion (i.e. new release, anniversary, construction of a new building, etc.) or be auctioned for charity.  It is important to note that not all large-format bottles are super-expensive.  Even though none are a typical bargain, some are accessible to a broader base than the just the super-wealthy.

It Is Better Wine

Frank Martell, a former wine expert at Bonham’s who now runs the wine department at Heritage Auctions, points out that there is “history of better stock being bottled in large format glass.”  If you go back to anything made pre-1960s, he explains, “those were wines that were blended in racks, rather than the tanks wine makers use today.” It made homogenous blending very difficult. Consequently, certain barrels of finished product would be higher quality, and usually, more tannic. That stock would usually be bottled in large-format bottles for better storage. Because those batches were also generally more tannic, they also would have been more fresh and elegant upon opening. “This is also another part of the reason older magnums command not double or even triple but sometimes quadruple value,” points out Martell.

Without getting overly technical, we know that wine ages through oxidation. There is a fairly small amount of oxygen trapped inside every wine bottle.  The space between the wine and the cork is called ullage, and older bottles can often show a shoulder fill – greater ullage. This is often predominantly a result of oxidation, which occurs naturally over time.

A big wine bottle has less oxygen relative to the volume of wine, which means that the wine oxidizes more slowly. Think of the ratio of air to liquid in big bottles. Slower oxidation tends to lead to a longer aging and slower and better maturation. This, in turn, effects aromas, and the overall stability of the wine, yielding wine that can age longer, given proper storage conditions (where the bottle in left in the dark with stable cool temperature and sufficient humidity to protect the integrity of the cork).

Ergo, large bottles will age better and longer, and tend to be more robust – more resistant to temperature irregularities (that can occur from power outages, moving bottles to a different location, etc.).

Master of Wine Jancis Robinson noted that only around the top 10 percent of all red wine and top 5 percent of all white wines can improve significantly enough with age to make drinking more enjoyable at 5 years of age than at 1 year of age. Additionally, Robinson estimates, only the top 1 percent of all wine has the ability to improve significantly after more than a decade. It is her belief that more wine is consumed too old, rather than too young, and that the great majority of wines start to lose appeal and fruitiness after six months in the bottle.

If you want to put a bottle or a collection of bottles away for a great occasion such as a wedding, birth of a child, anniversary, successful closing of a business transaction or a birthday bash many years in the future, a large-format bottle is a better choice. Slower oxidation means that large-format wine bottles will reach their peak long after 750 milliliter bottles have reached their prime.

The larger volume of liquid in a large-format wine bottle takes longer to warm or cool and is therefore more resistant to potentially damaging temperature fluctuations. This may be a benefit if you have less than ideal cellar conditions.

The Ultimate Trophy – Big Is Beautiful

There’s nothing like bringing out an impressive, large bottle at a big celebration like a wedding or anniversary party. They’re an immediate attention getter.  These bottles are often adorned with special labels.  Some of the big bottles are etched for more distinction, and can even serve as decorating accessories after the wine is long gone! It is not unusual to spot them as displays at snazzy restaurants.

Many will argue that part of the magic of great wine is the communal enjoyment – sharing it with friends and family at a meal or a tasting. Big bottles not only have the command presence, but actually obligate (or at least provide a reason for) their owners to open them for a large group. The old image of rusty jugs of cheap vin de table aka cheap plonk  (i.e. Blue Nun specials) at fraternity parties generally do not come to mind these days.  Big bottles are an image statement.

Collectors seek out what is rarer, more expensive, and more desirable, and highly desirable wines presented in large-format bottles epitomize rarity in the wine collector world.

Downside to Big Bottles?

So is there a downside to collecting big bottles?  There are a few to consider:  Pricing, handling and storage, risk and sale.

In terms of pricing, large-format wine bottles don’t offer price savings. In fact, the larger the bottle the more it costs per liter, as can be deduced from our discussion of the rarity, longevity, and the trophy-effect of big bottles. As we had noted, big bottles generally command a premium in the marketplace.

Pouring directly from a large wine bottle is probably a bad idea. Besides having to heft a heavy bottle, the wine can come out under enough pressure to knock a glass out of your hand. Large bottles should be poured into decanters, and may require purchasing a pouring instrument.

Opening big wine bottles can be a pain. The corks of large-format wine bottles have a larger diameter than standard bottles, but they are usually normal in length. Be certain you have a firm grip in the cork with the corkscrew and start pulling very gently, making sure the cork is moving and sliding free from the glass instead of bulging next to the corkscrew insertion point. Once the cork is moving, you should have no trouble.  Some large bottles may require using 2 cork screws.

Where do you chill your Balthazar of champagne? Empty the fridge and slide it in? Lay it in the bathtub?

When it comes to big bottles, storage is obviously a problem for most collectors. Fitting a bottle larger than a magnum in your wine cooler or wine cabinet is not easy. Even fancy wine cellars may not have adequate space to accommodate large format collections.

A collector may need to simply keep the big bottles in their original packaging (original wood). In Martell’s experience, the biggest cause for ullage problems is imperfect storage conditions that generally do not include enough humidity or where bottles are stored upright.  This allows the cork to dry up and permit more oxygen to evaporate more of the wine.  This is the flip side of the ullage advantage of collecting large glass.

Finally, there is no room for mistakes when it comes to large-format bottles. Traditionally, a wine collector will buy a case of wine they want to age and drink a bottle once a year or so to track its development and determine its maturity. With a big wine bottle, once it’s opened you’re done; you have to drink it. Finally, the market for selling particularly ultra rare and expensive large-format bottles is obviously a smaller market.  You may be auctioning them off to restaurants or the super wealthy collectors who can appreciate and afford such a big statement bottle, and have room to store such a prize.

The Final Vote

Still, the benefits of collecting wine in large-format bottles outweigh the drawbacks by a wide margin. Whether you are an ego-driven investor or a drinking purist, bigger bottles deliver value, better wine, and the ultimate in bragging rights.  Still, the biggest advantage to big bottles is that historically and due to their size they deliver better wine.  Adding large-format bottles to a collection pays off both for those focusing on building a rare valuable collection, as well as to those who collect predominantly to enjoy drinking wine, but want to plan for special occasions in the future.

(Yuri Vanetik is a private investor, philanthropist, and political coalition builder. He is the principal of Vanetik International, LLC.)