Sunday, January 13, 2019

California Dreamin’ - Chardonnay Sidebar 1. - The Fighting Chance

California Chardonnay. An odd phrase. Round and chunky in sound, those two words. A little shushy, followed by an ay! Why not? What did I have to lose? I was working on the commercial side, a little ultra-fine wine company trying to find something that the clients would need, so we could go by the account more than once every 21 days. And we were going pretty good with a white demi-sec from France, Cotes de Bergerac. But people’s tastes were evolving drier (or so they said) and California didn’t have exchange rate issues. The wines could be had by truck and train, and transported to flyover country quickly, and often, to ease on the cash flow for the owner of the fine wine company.


At the time the premium end of things wasn’t what it is now. People were pouring wine in carafes, and not because it was cool. A grand cru Chablis from France could be had for a reasonable price, and California would be compared to it. The strategy at the time was to call it “Chablis” and compete on price over quality.

The key, in commercial terms, was turnover. This is in a time when the Chardonnay “brand” in California wasn’t as strong as it has become.

It might have seemed like a search for the bottom, in terms of the metrics of selling Chardonnay from California. At the bottom end, you had to contend with low cost white European imports, and they were cheap! The idea of a California Chardonnay of quality and selling in the grocery stores (in states that allowed it) for $4.99 was a goal. Not Everest, but a marathon distance run, at the least.

Mike Benziger and Cevola, ca 1983
It just needed the catalyst. Around that time, Bruno Benziger arrived on the scene with his brood and a hopeful new line – Glen Ellen.

When you think of those larger-than-life figures that cross one’s path in this world, they make an indelible mark. In the wine business I’ve had many of those moments - Robert Mondavi, Zelma Long, Brother Timothy, Mike Grgich, Joe Heitz, Sue Hua Newton, Koerner Rombauer. Bruno Benziger was one of those giants.

Bruno made a fortune in the east coast with a company he sold, called Park-Benziger, and he moved the family out to Sonoma. Ever the entrepreneur, with a nose for trends and a lust for life, it was the next chapter of a large and fast-moving vision. His ever-enduring wife Helen was all in, as were the scads of kids they had. The place was a zoo. But Bruno had a vision. It was one big family adventure.

Helen Benziger and grandchild
I spent some time with them over those years, in Sonoma and in the Texas market, barnstorming and blitzing. It was an exciting time to actually be part of a brand-building and genre-smashing category. Chardonnay became “Fighting Chardonnay” and it was a heady race.

Now, this isn’t to say we were uplifting the palates of wine drinkers in America. Although there could be some argument made for bringing folks from the generic “Chablis” that American wine drinkers were guzzling to a varietally designated one. Not even France or Italy were into grape variety labeling. It was Chateau this or Castello that, never Sangiovese. Or even Bordeaux Blend. The Californians drove the varietal train. And it was gearing up.


Soon, other wineries jumped on the train. The most ominous one would be Kendall-Jackson, but at the time they were just starting up. Fetzer was gearing up, as was Robert Mondavi, and many négociants type brands like Stratford and Vincent-Claudi, which had seen the wave and was producing already in 1980. The key was to first be under $10 retail. And then the race to $4.99 depended on how much wine you had to sell and how low you were willing to go in your margins. There’s the old joke about the retailer who went so low he sold it at a loss but said, he “made up for it in volume.” It wasn’t quite that bad, but the stakes were high.

This had little or nothing to do with the premium producers who were aiming to compete (after 1976) with France for the share of White Burgundy that was more prevalent on wine lists, especially on the east coast and spreading west like influenza. It affected us in Texas, which at the time (1983ish) still had a big commitment to French wines and French restaurants. They were the epitome of fine dining and fine wine. It was even a large factor in the restaurant scene in Los Angeles, 400 miles to the south of Napa. I remember working in a restaurant in Hollywood (1978) and tasting my first Puligny-Montrachet, having an “oh shit” moment. California Chardonnay at that level just wasn’t as widespread as it is now.

But the American wine locomotive was gathering steam, and the fine wine producers in Napa, Sonoma and all across California were emboldened by the fighting Chardonnay phenomenon in retail (especially grocery stores, in those states where grocery could sell wine) to use the momentum to trade up the clients to a better, more premium chardonnay. And companies like Kendall-Jackson and later on, Rombauer were perfectly timed to catch them on the way up.

Glen Ellen "fighting category" floor display at a gourmet Dallas grocery store - ca 1986


In the meantime, Glen Ellen was kicking ass. And Bruno and the Benziger clan were well on their way to make several more fortunes...



wine blog +  Italian wine blog + Italy W

4 comments:

  1. Seems like only yesterday. Salesman are always amazed when I tell them what a Big Brand Glen Ellen used to be. Nice old pic of Simon & David's too
    Thanks for the stroll down memory lane
    DW

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  2. David,
    thanks for checking in... Yeah, you were there, building your huge brand too...good times!

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  3. Great history here, Alfonso. Those names either collectively or individually evoke such a dynamic, gutsy era. But aside from that, I'd like your insight on this comment: "But people’s tastes were evolving drier (or so they said) and California didn’t have exchange rate issues." I'm not interested in exchange-rate issues as much as evolving tastes, and would like your candid view: Have wine consumers been gravitating to drier wines? If so, is it out of their own true preferences or are they being coerced into liking dry wines by critics, scores, somms, etc.?

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  4. hi Mike,
    I think Jeff Siegel, the Wine Curmudgeon, nailed it when he said on his blog, "Sweetening dry wines and calling them dry ain’t going to do it."

    I still think many folks talk dry and drink sweet. And with many more folks starting to drink wine (maybe not the millennials but the older Gen X'ers and folks who are just starting to get into wine), the comments I have gotten from them (anecdotally) seem to reinforce that. Probably, in America there are 10% of wine drinkers who really appear to prefer "dry" wine.

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