Two years ago, the Bordeaux-based trade show Vinexpo, which now exhibits in Hong Kong, New York, and (soon) Paris, broadened its horizons and began touring with groups of influential buyers and press to lesser-known wine regions globally. The mobile version of the show, Vinexpo Explorer, was launched in Vienna last year, and organizers selected Sonoma County, Calif., as its 2018 destination.
Jackson Family Wines CEO Rick Tigner, who sits on the Vinexpo supervisory board, led the effort to bring the group to California, and the two-day showcase, produced by the Sonoma County Vintners, took place September 23 through 25. Events included a welcome reception at Buena Vista Winery, an industry update and global tasting presented by the Wine Institute, masterclasses at the Wine Spectator Learning Center at Sonoma State University, and myriad winery visits and dinners. Buyers also met one-on-one with wineries during fast-paced, “speed tasting” sessions.
Vinexpo Explorer presented the gathering of wine buyers and press from 27 countries with an opportunity to take a deep dive into the region and its terroir, personality, and the myriad wine styles produced in Sonoma County. Spirited interviewed some of these buyers, most of whom were first-time visitors to the region, to gather their firsthand impressions of Sonoma County wines.
What surprised Andrew Keaveney, wine buyer for Pembroke Wines (an importer, distributor, and retailer in Dublin, Ireland), was his discovery that, “It’s not just chardonnay!” Keaveney, who was on the hunt for ultra-premium cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir, already sells Schug Carneros Estate wines; he met with that winery along with Ramey Wine Cellars, MacMurray Ranch andFrey Vineyards during the speed tasting sessions. With California wines making up 10 to 15 percent of Pembroke’s portfolio, Keaveney’s clientele can be price sensitive, he says, but sales of mid-range imports are performing well. He sees growing interest in Sonoma County when compared to even five years ago.
Heiko Schimeczek is director of fine wine at Carl Tesdorpf, a Hamburg, Germany-based retailer with a second shop in Lubeck. Currently, his company’s website lists only five selections from California, but it caters to an active online wine club of 2,000 members. “We’ve sold Ridge Vineyards and Littorai Wines for 15 years and are specifically looking for Sonoma County crus,” says Schimeczek, who was particularly keen on Vérité, the cabernet franc-dominant Bordeaux blend from winemaker Pierre Seillan, which has achieved cult status.
In contrast to the growing interest in organic and biodynamic wines in the U.S., Schimeczek was matter of fact in saying sustainable production practices are not a factor in ultra-premium and luxury purchase decisions. During the speed tasting session, he was particularly impressed with the quality of Senses Wines and the diversity across the county’s 18 distinct AVAs. “The German market is under the impression that California only produces commercial wines,” he says. “I believe we’ll see growth in demand for California wine—and Sonoma County wine, in particular—when there’s more focus on fine wine.”
Schimeczek pointed to moderate price points as the most challenging for the retailer, as it’s difficult for California to compete with France and Italy at €35 for Bordeaux-style blends. As such, he focuses on sourcing entry-level and luxury wines.
Patrick Andriessen is a wine buyer for Colruyt Group, a “values-driven, family-owned business that’s Germany’s number one wine retailer.” With 5 percent of Germany’s retail wine market, Colruyt owns 550 wine shops and serves both on- and off-premise accounts as well as a robust online wine club. Asked for his general impressions about California wine, Andriessen didn’t mince words: “[Producers] here live in a dream. The domestic market in California is very strong and prices, in general, are high. However, you can invest for quality.” This was his first visit to Sonoma County, and he was favorably impressed with overall wine quality. “The wines were clean and American in style—fruit driven with volume and alcohol—with oak being dominant in many, although less so than 10 years ago.”
According to Andriessen, who’s been with Colruyt for three years, the company has tried several times over the past decade to succeed with California imports; he quickly cites four attempts that dwindled when interest faded due to high cost. And though online wines sales in Germany are growing, he says, the channel is still in its infancy. In Andriessen’s perspective, due to the pressure to compete with online pricing, an online-only model isn’t sustainable. However, the company is placing more emphasis on e-commerce sales, where €30 would be the average price point.
At Dimatique Fine Wines in Jakarta, Indonesia, National Key Account Manager Anastasia Dewi Maweikere works with an impressive portfolio of ultra-premium and luxury brands. “Sonoma County wines are suitable for our market, and demand is growing,” she says. Given her country’s 90 percent import tax though, like Schimeczek, she sees market demand for entry-level wines destined for on-premise accounts and little price resistance in the luxury tier. She was delighted with the quality and style of the wines she tasted during meetings with Donelan Family Wines, Kosta-Brown Winery, Mauritson Wines, Silver Oak Cellars, and St. Francis Winery & Vineyards.
Caribbean buyer Marian De Vertenil represents Vintage Imports in Trinidad and Tobago, a family-owned business founded in 1996 to serve a wholesale market that was both limited and overpriced. The company sells wholesale and retail, with Burgundy wines being 30 to 40 percent of its business. “Trinidad is very price-driven and Tobago not at all,” says De Vertenil. She was impressed with the wines she tasted from Gary Farrell Vineyards & Winery, Alexander Valley Winery, and Seghesio Family Vineyards, calling them “excellent.”
Sonoma County zinfandel was the variety that took several buyers and Sydney, Australia-based journalist and educator Peter Bourne by surprise. “I began working with California wines as a retailer in the 1980s, and I always thought of zinfandel as a rustic, robust variety,” he says. “The zinfandel wines I’ve tasted during this trip turned my head.”
He was also delighted to find consistency and very high quality across several vintages of pinot noir, saying, “Pinot noir is the variety that’s attracted the Australian market back to California—and to Oregon, as well.” When asked to compare Sonoma County to a region in Australia, Bourne aligned it with the Mornington Peninsula, largely due to maritime influence and varietal diversity.
Canadian Rob Nellis is founder of buyersandcellars.com, a newly launched e-commerce site developed with sommeliers and chefs in mind. A Wine & Spirit Education Trust educator at Vendange Institute in Ottawa, Nellis discovered a work-around to the restrictive import regulations imposed by the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO). According to Nellis, five cases of any given wine can bypass the lab tests and long wait times that larger shipments would otherwise spend in customs. When asked about the punitive import duties imposed by LCBO, Nellis, who’s shopping for ultra-premium wines, says, “Above $70 per bottle it simply doesn’t matter.”
“The Russian River Valley AVA has a stronger reputation in the UK fine wine market than Sonoma County as a whole,” says Patrick Schmitt, director of the London-based trade publication The Drinks Business. He also pointed to Seillan’s 2012 Vérité as a wake-up call, describing it as extraordinary. “If asked to name my desert island wine region, I’d have to go with Sonoma County,” he says. Schmitt was clearly smitten with his discoveries and, in particular, noted the wines made by David Ramey.
London-based Sarah Knowles, MW, wine buyer for the Wine Society, a members-only wine club that buys direct and imports, visits the California market every other year. With the Wine Society list focused on Old World regions, Sarah still has a lot of flexibility in making selections for the 25 percent of the list that’s devoted to New World producers.
Taipei, Taiwan resident and owner of Whitetable International, Powell Yang, who, like the majority of buyers, is also an importer, distributor, and retailer, had the final word: “Currently, 15 percent of our portfolio is devoted to wines from California, and we see that percentage growing.” Yang has adopted an event-driven model and hosts blind tastings and dinners to showcase and sell ultra-premium and luxury wines. With Burgundy wines accounting for 60 percent of sales, he was scouting for pinot noir wines above $75. “We’re not seeing much movement in the first growths, and I attribute that price sensitivity to websites like WineSearcher,” he says. “Consumers are now looking to pay a global average price for that caliber of wine, which makes it tough to compete.”
Yang lived in Napa Valley for several years before returning to Taiwan in 2009. During the speed tasting session, he met with Cruse Wine Co., Arista Winery, Marcassin Wine Co., Senses Wines, and Three Sticks Wines, looking for wines that can demonstrate to his skeptical clientele that California wines have the ability to age.
As his 2012 Vérité was receiving rave reviews during a final dinner, winemaker Seillan spoke eloquently about his decision to make wine in Alexander Valley. “There’s no limit to the discovery in Sonoma County, a place where we can make the best wine in the world. We’re not competing with or copying Bordeaux, we’re transmitting the message of the terroir.” As a self-professed “servant of the soil,” his remarks struck an emotional chord with the global wine-buying audience, for whom expression of place is clearly a priority.
Until next time
As the Vinexpo Explorers gathered before their final dinner together of the trip, Beaujolais was announced as the location Vinexpo Explorer 2019, slated for late September.