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james laube's wine flights

Aiming For Pinot Noir Value

Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Sep 6, 2006 2:18pm ET

Right idea. Wrong wine?

The other day, in a regular blind tasting, I sampled a new Pinot Noir, vintage 2005.

Nothing outstanding. Fresh, snappy cherry and strawberry fruit, which I rated in the good category (defined as 80-84 points on Wine Spectator's 100-point scale).

When the bag came off, I immediately recognized the winery name.

Acacia is one of California’s Pinot pioneers, and in recent vintages this Carneros-based winery has made some exciting wines. The 2002 Carneros (90 points, $20) was one of the greatest values I’ve tasted in recent years, and the winery somehow managed to make a staggering 20,000 cases.

Acacia calls the new wine A by Acacia, and it carries a California appellation (not Carneros, which is where all of Acacia’s other Pinots come from). It sells for $17, and 58,000 cases were made.

I like the idea – a larger-volume Pinot offering, a good wine at a decent price. But I wonder whether this will help or hurt Acacia’s reputation as it tries to win greater acclaim for its flagship, single-vineyard wines.

Or should the wine have been bottled under a different label?

Your thoughts?

Peter Czyryca
September 6, 2006 4:40pm ET
James, I think Saintsbury and Etude both offer superior pinots to Acacia. Granted, Etude is a higher price point - but the quality is there. Saintsbury prices are in line with Acacia's - and I've tasted all of their single-vineyard pinots, which come in around $38-40. Why Acacia is "watering" down their brand is very curious - and a shame considering neighbors in their neck of the Carneros woods are making quality pinot juice at reasonable price points.
Adam Lee
Santa Rosa, CA —  September 6, 2006 5:06pm ET
Jim,First off, I was wondering if you have tasted many 2005 Pinots thus far and what your general impression is of the vintage thus far? -- Then I would wonder if the Acacia falls into the general style of the vintage and how it fairs compared to the other 05s you tasted. It sounds like a nice enough wine and if the vintage proves to be good but not great then that may be sufficient, at that price point, to carry it. Especially given Pinot's current popularity. On the other hand, if it is a great year and this wine rates 80-84 then there will probably be better wines at close to the same price point out there and this may not be good for Acacia over the long haul.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  September 6, 2006 5:13pm ET
Adam, only had a few 2005s and they were excellent. I'm looking forward to the vintage since I know from comments from many winemakers that the wines are more elegant and lower in alcohol than perhaps the past two or three years.
Jason Kadushin
Seattle, WA —  September 6, 2006 5:36pm ET
This is a great idea but poorly executed. The biggest problem here is that the pricing. Acacia while a good producer of PN is not a premier producer as such there other PN bottling is priced at $25. Unfortunately, price sends a strong message in the wine industry. So what does this tell consumers? That there really is not that big a difference btw the bottlings. I'd love to see this done but by a producer with a stronger brand name that extend to the lower end bottling. In short there is not a big enough difference btw the "appelation line" and the "A" line. The guys who got how to do this really well were at ravenswood - see their avg pricing as to how to develop a three tiered line up (state blend, appellation, vineyard).
Claude Pope
Raleigh, NC —  September 6, 2006 5:43pm ET
I guess it all depends on the branding strategy of the wine maker. We've seen both strategies executed successfully. I'm drinking a good Australian Pinot Noir now from the Adelaide Hills area bottled under the Turner & Cole label rather than the vineyard's flagship label - which I'm told sells for $45. The T&C wine sells for $15. Millions of Americans buy Mondavi Woodbridge and yet will still pay north of $50 for a top rated Mondavi cab. Now, think of the Penfolds labels vs. their Grange, or even the Bordeaux's grand cru's and their "second wines". I would maintain that it's not the strategy itself, but the execution. I'd like to know if you have any examples where you think it hurt the winery.
Greg Malcolm
St. Louis, Missouri —  September 6, 2006 7:00pm ET
At $17.00, I would not consider an 80-84 point wine to be a good QPR. There are enough Pinot's in the 90 point range that sell for $20, as you noted.I don't know if it will hurt Acacia's reputation, but I don't see myself going out and buying it. You can get better wine for the same price, or, conversely, spend much less for 80-84 quality.
Philip Tartaglione
NJ —  September 6, 2006 9:05pm ET
Reputations are being shelved. This is big business. This is not branding strategy done by the winemaker. It is a building strategy of the corporation that purchased Acacia from Chalone Wine Group a couple of years back. These decisions were done in a board room in CT, not amongst the vines and vineyards of Carneros. They have applied the business philosophy that I will call "George Steinbrenner 101" to Pinot Noir. Pinot is mega popular. Most wineries can not supply the needs. There have been out of stocks at distributor level, brand after brand. Suddenly, out of thin air, Acacia has a California appelation Pinot with 58,000 cases available.Cha-Ching
Colin Haggerty
La Jolla, California —  September 6, 2006 9:27pm ET
I think that it is a mistake not to use a different label. To an old guy like me (49), Acacia still spells quality. IMHO, this will work for a year or two, as newbies think that they are buying Acacia quality. Thereafter, (again IMHO), this will only tarnish the Acacia brand.
William Newell
Buffalo, NY —  September 7, 2006 9:44am ET
The classic case of diluting a brand name is Robert Mondavi Winery, which used to have a great reputation (and great wines), but then began producing 2nd, 3rd and 4th tier wines like Private Selection, Coastal and Woodbridge. If wineries want to produce for the mass market, they should use a different brand name, not tied to the premium wine's brand.
Dave Joyce
Winston-Salem, NC —  September 7, 2006 5:51pm ET
With Acacia now being part of Diageo, the giant UK drinks conglomerate, the focus is to have a wine for every market niche. Last year they created the Chalone Monterey series, taking the great name that Chalone had built and marketing a sub $16 PN and sub $14 Chard. Both turned out to be excellent wines for on premise accounts (specialty retail and restaurant). We carry it and feature both in our shop, and our customers have made it a solid performer. To find a decent sub $16 Pinot these days isn't easy, and the Chalone Monterey is quite nice with good flavors and richness.

With Chalone, we actually have found that most customers buying in the Monterey label price point have never tried (or heard of) the Chalone estate wines. We have found it actually helped move customers up to the estate as a "special occasion" wine in that they now knew the brand.

I am happy to hear the decent comments on the "A for Acacia" Pinot. In that price range a "good" on the Wine Spectator scale is not something you see everyday. I have yet to taste the "A" wines, but am meeting with our Diageo rep next week and will get a chance to try them. I was also a CWG shareholder for a long time. Most of us old line CWG shareholders cashed our buyout checks with a big smile (the price had never been that high in 10 years), but worried about the possible consequences. In my opinion, Diageo has done some pretty good things since the acquisition in broadening the CWG winery offerings and in putting out some good new brands such as Orogeny without killing the quality of the old CWG brands.
Randell Phalp
Lenexa, KS —  September 11, 2006 8:31pm ET
I tend to agree with you, on this one James. As a retailer, it is hard to convince the initiated and uninformed consumer of the merits of a $100 Beringer Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Private Reserve 2001 when the name Beringer is so inexorably linked in their mind with $5 bottles of pink plonk. Perception is one's own reality, and without evidence to the contrary, it will forever remain so.

I think that is why VW has trouble moving a car like the Passat. After all, who wants to spend upwards of $30K for a VW (or worse, $98K for a 12 cylinder Phaeton)? Could you imagine if Yugo or Fiat reorganized and announced it was going to start building luxury automobiles to compete with Mercedes and BMW? And how many buyers of $6 bottles of Barfoot Cellars NV will suddenly change their mind an pick up Barefoot Cellars Reserve wine instead for nearly twice the price?? Not many, I assure you.

It seems so much easier, however, to move from quality to value than the other way around. Since Acacia has already established their reputation as a quality producer, perhaps they will get away with A by Acacia , featuring it as a value brand from a quality producer.

Randy

Randell Phalp, Grandview Red-X LiquorsGrandview, MO
Randell Phalp
Lenexa, KS —  September 12, 2006 12:12pm ET
I tend to agree with you, on this one James. As a retailer, it is hard to convince the initiated and uninformed consumer of the merits of a $100 Beringer Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Private Reserve 2001 when the name Beringer is so inexorably linked in their mind with $5 bottles of pink plonk. Perception is one's own reality, and without evidence to the contrary, it will forever remain so.

I think that is why VW has trouble moving a car like the Passat. After all, who wants to spend upwards of $30K for a VW (or worse, $98K for a 12 cylinder Phaeton)? Could you imagine if Yugo or Fiat reorganized and announced it was going to start building luxury automobiles to compete with Mercedes and BMW? And how many buyers of $6 bottles of Barfoot Cellars NV will suddenly change their mind an pick up Barefoot Cellars Reserve wine instead for nearly twice the price?? Not many, I assure you.

It seems so much easier, however, to move from quality to value than the other way around. Since Acacia has already established their reputation as a quality producer, perhaps they will get away with A by Acacia , featuring it as a value brand from a quality producer.

Randy

Randell Phalp, Grandview Red-X LiquorsGrandview, MO
Jeffrey Spurlock
Laguna Beach, California —  September 12, 2006 6:47pm ET
Let me preface my comments with the caveat that I have not thought Acacia's recent PN offerings have been up to par (something I would say is true for Carneros in general, for that matter).

Having said that, I believe this strategy is ill-advised. For consumers, almost any time a brand offers a "watered-down" version there is a very serious risk of diluting (pun intended) the perception of the brand's entire line. A different label would have helped to avoid that result, and as an additional benefit knowledgeable consumers would feel they are getting "negociant-type" wines.

Second, the price is far from value-oriented. It seems even Wine Spectator's "Best Value" ratings are usually around $10, and almost always are less than $15. In my quest for lower-cost PN, I have found several I would rate at least "good" (e.g., some of the recent bottlings from Gallo of Sonoma, Meridian, Mark West, and Castle Rock, to name a few). In the $15-$20 range there usually are some Pinots from Willamette Valley and Russian River that are much better than good.

All in all, I believe Acacia missed the boat on this one.
John Rater
minneapolis minnesota usa —  September 13, 2006 9:01pm ET
Everyone wants to get in the restaurant wines by the glass game at $7 to $10 a glass, especially at my restaurant. So these wineries take the short approach and buy central coast grapes or north coast grapes or wherever they can get decent fruit in california. Its all about volume and money and if Mondavi is an example it may come back to bite you in the butt.

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