Living Bottle Shock (August 28, 2014)
In 1997 I published a book entitled Travels With My Corkscrew. (If I were ever to write the sequel it would have to be called Travels Without My Corkscrew. I cannot count the number of these gadgets I have lost to airport security staff by inadvertently leaving them in my carry-on luggage.)
In that book I wrote a couple of sentences which speak to my own history of wine drinking: "There are two stages in an oenophile's life. The first is the discovery of wine; the second, the revelation of fine wine." Niagara College flattered me by having these words painted on the wall at the entrance to their wine store. Not quite as portentous as Dante's words written at the gateway to hell: "Abandon hope all ye who enter here." But the words have a certain element of truth.
In nearly forty years of chasing the grape around the world I have come to understand that this notion of discovery not only refers to wine drinkers but also has some traction when it applies to the marketing efforts of emerging wine regions. I'm thinking specifically of Chile and Argentina. When both these countries entered the export market they did so with wines priced at bargain-basement levels. (Remember Fuzion Shiraz Malbec from Argentina that entered the Ontario market in 2006 at $7.45 and consumers went nuts over it? At one point the LCBO was reporting sales of 1,000 cases a day.)
When a region gets a reputation for low-cost wines that are actually drinkable, it's hard to take them seriously as a producer of fine wines that are expensive. If you get used to paying under $10 for what has become your house wine, you don't really feel inclined to fork out $50 and more for products from the same winery, let alone that region. You fall back on the old assumptions that only France can make wine that's worth spending that kind of money on.
How then does an emerging wine region convince the world that its vintners can make wines whose quality can rival that of Bordeaux and Burgundy and raise their prices accordingly? The earliest example of how this can be accomplished was in 1976 when Steven Spurrier, a young English wine merchant, put on a blind tasting in Paris, pitting California Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon against white Burgundy and red Bordeaux. California took top spot in both categories. You may have seen the Hollywood version, Bottle Shock.
This David-and-Goliath precedent was emulated with the release of Seña 1996, a Chilean blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Carménère, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot, created by Viña Errazuriz with help from Tim Mondavi. I participated in a blind tasting in New York featuring three First Growth Bordeaux and Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve alongside Seña. While Seña didn't win that bout, it did very well. So much so than an emboldened Edwardo Chadwick, the owner of Errazuriz, mounted a more ambitious tasting in 2004 in Berlin, orchestrated by the same Steven Spurrier – and a oenological circus that Chadwick would tour to seven other major cities around the world, including Toronto. At the initial Berlin tasting 36 European wine experts, after blind-tasted sixteen wines, put Viñedo Chadwick 2001, Errazuriz's flagship Cabernet blend, and Seña 2001 in first and second place, above icon wines of France, Italy and California. The results from other the cities were also very favourable to the Chilean upstarts.
And with that halo effect Errazuriz helped other producers of fine wine in Chile to raise their prestige and the prices of their wines. The last time Seña appeared in the LCBO's Classics Catalogue the 2008 vintage was listed at $99; Viñedo Chadwick 2006 was listed at $165. So much for house wine prices.