GEORGE BALLING: Of vintages and marketing

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In one of his recent columns, fellow Coeur d’Alene Press columnist Bill Brooks took a “big-box wine store” to task over discrepancies between the “shelf-talkers” on wine displays and the bottles they were selling. He is right on a number of points, but he missed some important ones too.

Vintage is vitally important regardless of the wine or which wine region it comes from. Many things from weather, to crop size, to the chance of wildfire, to changes in the wine-making team and beyond, can influence any vintage of any wine. Most wine growing regions also have several microclimates that can influence the grape growing and explain, for instance, why Tuscany had a pretty great year in 2012, but to the north in Piedmont, within the same country, 2012 was very challenging.

Ratings matter too when it comes to vintage and “shelf-talkers.” Many “shelf-talkers” displayed over the bottles will trumpet a score of 90 for this or 100 for that, but if the vintage is different, we have no idea whether it received similar praise.

Here are the larger issues though. First, most of the big-box stores, from grocery stores to those who specialize in beer wine and spirits, are driven by their private label business. Private label wine refers to the practice of buying wine in bulk after it has already been fully vinted, then bottling that wine and slapping your own label on it. These big-box operations are clever though, unlike Costco, where you know the private label bottles since they say Kirkland on them. The other big-box operations come up with names to hide what they are really selling; names like “Sunset Vineyards Winery” or “Vintner’s Hill Winery” aren’t wineries at all, rather a name to disguise the private label wine.

I still maintain that the most important thing about any bottle is whether you like it or not. With respect to these private label operators though they should at least disclose what they are doing, allowing the consumer to have full information on what they are buying. I’m certain Bill would advocate for the same thing, because here is the rub… while vintage variation happens regardless, it is likely even more pronounced when it comes to these private label products since it may not even be the same winery producing the “juice” in different years.

The other point that is vital is that no “shelf-talker” will ever replace the advice of your trusted wine professional. Our local community here in North Idaho has many professionals that can guide you to the right bottle. Here at the dinner party we talk regularly to grape growers and winemakers worldwide. We learn about their growing conditions every year, good or bad. We learn what their goals are for each wine from each year and what they have done to adapt to what nature throws at them. This knowledge is invaluable, and we share it with you and use it to help us pair you with the best bottle of wine for you.

At the big-box operations that focus on their private label business, salespeople are compensated based on selling the private label product over winery made wines. At some places this practice has gotten so out of control that a growing number of wineries and winemakers will not allow their product to be sold in these chains. In fact most prominent producers, like DRC (Domaine de la Romanée Conti) that Bill mentioned specifically, all the way to small local producers, will not allow their products into these stores.

If you choose to shop at these chains versus the great wine shops here in North Idaho, be prepared to ask the questions. Is this wine from a winery, or is it a private label bottling? Are you paid more if I buy your private label wine than this bottle from a winery that I know and like? When you ask the salesperson at the big-box store about one of your favorites and they say, “well if you like that wine you will really like this wine,” stop and ask them, “is this a private label wine?” You have the right to know and base your buying decision having all the information.

In our shop, if we don’t have the bottle you are looking for we are always willing to get the specific bottle you want. We do it for customers all the time, whether it is just a single bottle or more, we are happy to order them in for you, ensuring you get the best wine for your taste. It should be no other way.

If there is a topic you would like to read about or questions on wine, you can email or make suggestions by contacting the Healthy Community section at the Coeur d’Alene Press.

• • •

George Balling is co-owner (with his wife Mary Lancaster) of the dinner party, a wine and gift shop in Coeur d’Alene by Costco. George is also published in several other publications around the country. After working in wineries in California and judging many wine competitions, he moved to Coeur d’Alene with Mary more than 10 years ago to open the shop. You can also follow us on Facebook at!/dinnerpartyshop.

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