Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Mailing List Hysteria - Rhys Vineyards

So, it appears that I just got on the active mailing list for Rhys Vineyards.

For those of you who don't know, Rhys Vineyards (pronounced REESE) is a fairly new California producer that has garnered a lot of press lately for producing pinot noirs that emulate the flavors, elegance, and restraint of the red wines of Burgundy. Burgundy, located in eastern France near the Saone River, is considered the benchmark location for pinot noir (and some would say all red wine varieties) in the world.

Though it is probably debatable whether pinot noir was first cultivated in Burgundy, historical records date viticulture to Burgundy from the early Dark Ages and show that the Cisterician monks farmed the pinot noir variety in the Clos de Vougeot vineyard from at least the early 1300s (and for those who are interested, there are still many modern producers who grow pinot noir in the Clos de Vougeot today). With centuries of trial and error, the Burgundians have (arguably) identified the best vineyards for the cultivation of pinot noir. And, unlike the Bordelais, who tend to blend all their wine together irrespective of vineyard, the Burgundians vinify and bottle the wines from the finest vineyards (identified as premier crus and, for the very best, grand crus) separately.

While California does not have the same history of pinot noir production as Burgundy, the state has been producing pinot noir for some years now, with demand skyrocketing after the release of Sideways. Arguably the most famous location for pinot noir in California is the Russian River Valley in Sonoma County. There, pinot noir flourishes because the Russian River Valley has a cooler microclimate than the rest of Sonoma County, but nonetheless produces wines that tend to lean towards the fulsomely fruity and marked with less restraint, structure, earthiness, and minerality (and much higher sweetness and alcohol) than those found in Burgundy. Although Russian River Valley producers argue that these characteristics are just hallmarks of their terroir, and not cellar techniques, agricultural practice, or other forms of "manipulation" as some have contended, they nonetheless produce wines that do not enchant those who first fell in love with the pinot noir variety through Burgundy.

And this is where Rhys Vineyards come in. Kevin Harvey, a Silicon Valley software mogul who had developed a taste for red Burgundy, decided one day to grow pinot noir in his backyard. As recounted in Mike Steinberger's Slate article, Harvey vinified the grapes in his garage and produced a wine that was "shockingly good," marked with the restraint, precision, and minerality of red Burgundy. Having, through "pure serendipity," stumbled on a great vineyard for pinot noir in his backyard, he abandoned plans to start a winery in Sonoma County and focused on finding plots of land closer to home...namely the Santa Cruz Mountains (for the full story, I recommend you read the entirety of Steinberger's Slate article, hyperlinked above).

What separates Rhys Vineyards from many others is Kevin Harvey's precise methodology for researching the soil and exposure of the vineyards he chooses to purchase. In many ways free-riding on the centuries long trial and error process of the Cistercian monks, Harvey looks for traits similar to those found in the vineyard of Burgundy: shallow soils with geological diversity (preferably with a high dose of limestone), cool climates, good exposure to sunlight without heat, and ideally a slope for drainage. Through his research, Harvey has found vineyards that produce pinot noir wines that are ripe, yet low in alcohol, and built with the structure (that is acidity and tannins) to age and develop complexity.

Thus, among burgheads, Rhys has developed a cult-status, being one of the few California pinot noir producers making overtly Burgundian wines. Which bring us to the issue of the "mailing list."

As Harvey remarked on a thread on Wine Berserkers, the mailing list is similar to Churchill's characterization of democracy---"It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried." Basically, for those of you who don't know, most California wineries run mailing lists through which they offer to sell wine to the general public. For small, cult producers like Screaming Eagle, Sine Qua Non, Carlisle, Alban, and, yes, even Rhys, their most coveted bottlings can only be purchased through the mailing list.

No problem, right? Just get on the mailing list and you can get that bottle of Screaming Eagle (if you have a spare $1000 on hand, that is). Not so fast. The issue is that because of the huge demand, only those few who got on the mailing list early get offered wine, while the Johnny-come-latelies, who want to buy because of the three digit Parker score in Wine Advocate with its rhapsodic tasting note describing the "hedonistic nose of jammy, brambly garrigued fruit coated with butterscotched church spices slathered on pain grille (yes, he means toast)," are placed on the waiting list.

And, here comes the kicker: in order to stay on the mailing list, one has to buy. Otherwise, you get dropped and replaced by one of the hundreds of dittoheads on the wait list. Well, at least you get your wine, right, even if compelled to purchase it? Obviously, since I asked this rhetorical question, you know the answer is no. Because, even if you are on the active mailing list, many are still on a wait list of sorts. That is because not all members of the mailing list are equal. Each person gets an "allocation" of wine and can only buy what the winery offers. The logic is that people on the mailing should all get an equal shot at getting wines without worrying that it will be bought up by just a few. However, those who have a record of buying more for a longer period of time get larger allocations, and more importantly, are allocated the wines that get the three digit Parker score with the ridiculous tasting note. All the others get offered only the entry level wines that the wineries are having a difficult time unloading. And, people keep buying the entry level stuff with the hopes of building enough of a purchase history to one day be allocated that single bottle of Screagle, SQN Pisoni Hillside Select Super Duper Reserve, Manischevitz Supreme+ Cubed, Gary's Vineyard of Bacchanalian Awesomeness, etc..

Luckily, for me, my tastes for wine tend to be more old world, so I have managed to avoid the California cult-wine mailing list shit show. Back when I didn't know what I liked, I tried to sign up for several cult mailing lists, but, thankfully, usually never got off the wait list. To this day, I still get a postcard from Alban every fall and spring, sadly informing me that I have yet to make it to the elect of the mailing list and getting the opportunity to purchase their Zin-fully delicious Rhone Rangers. I did once get promoted to another mailing list, and they informed me via my credit card account by charging me for the full allocation without bothering to call me first. Thankfully, I managed to talk to the winery, and with some convincing (and intervention from the winery owner himself) managed to reverse the charge and get my ass off the mailing list.

But, here I am, now on a mailing list for Rhys. To Rhys and Kevin Harvey's credit, they don't play the ridiculous games that most other cult wineries pull with their mailing list. First, they offer an allocation, but don't force you to buy wines you don't want to buy. Purchasing any wine will keep you on the mailing list, no matter if its the cheapest or most expensive allocated. Furthermore, you don't have to buy every time they make an allocation. You can skip one so long as you buy once a year. They have also been fair about the waitlist...because they have increased production this year with vines from a vineyard now deemed suitable for cultivation, everyone on the list was offered a small allocation of highly rated and regarded wine. While the most coveted wines were already taken by those on the active mailing list, they were still offering to those on the waitlist wines that were in high demand, and not just some negociant plonk they were seeking to unload (to be fair, their negociant plonk is also reputed to be of extremely high quality, though it appears they don't make them anymore).

But, nonetheless, even on this relatively fair-minded mailing list, there is still plenty of cause for hysteria. I have been on the wait list for over a year, when in fact I was on the active mailing list when I first signed up, but declined to buy anything from my allocation last year. After discovering I was waitlisted after not receiving an allocation for Spring 2011, I began to panic. I thought I had blown my chance, to be condemned to receive the semi-annual postcard sadly informing me about my waitlist status as I get to read about all the other mailing list members crowing on the Internet wine boards about their allocations. Lamenting to a friend about my "plight," she told me point-blank, "you're screwed."

The reasoning was Rhys was not only getting plaudits from Parker and Antonio Galloni of the Wine Advocate, representing the mainstream fruit-bomb wine press, but also reviewers respected by the burgophiliac, anti-flavor elite nerdlings (namely Allen Meadows and John Gilman). Rhys was even garnering grudging respect from spoof-a-phobic, vin jaune-swilling, amphora aged pineau-d'aunis loving, wine geeks on the Internet boards, who would rather risk blindness and drink antifreeze than an oaky and overripe red burgundy imported by North Berkeley Imports, much less a California pinot. There was no way Rhys would be able to keep up with the demand since they seemed to have pulled the hat trick of getting unanimous acclaim from every corner of the oeno-sphere.

There was of course the option of buying from someone else's allocation (there were so many "offers you couldn't refuse"). On Wine Berserkers, numerous people, seeking to boost their purchase history record, were offering to those not on the waiting list a bottle or two from their allocations. And, much like slinging crack on a Baltimore street corner, this was a Faustian bargain. By buying through them, I could get a bottle, but, in the long run, to accept such a deal would only condemn me to an even longer stay in waitlist purgatory. This is because buying from others only boosted them through the hierarchy of the mailing list, ever expanding their allocations as they took credit for MY PURCHASES! It would also keep people on the active mailing list that normally would have been dropped for not buying. To quote Cicero, O tempora! O mores! But, there it was. With a simple PM (private message), an e-mail, even a clandestine rendezvous in an offline (that is face to face meeting) I could get the forbidden nectar of Rhys. But, at what a cost.

With this whirlwind of hysterical paranoia swirling in my head, when I was offered an allocation this time, of course I jumped on it. Not to get the wines, mind you, but to be a member of the elect! Well, here I am, now a captive on the active mailing list. I've beaten the odds. While I wasn't allocated anything from the celebrated Home Vineyard (Harvey's backyard), I am still on the list. And with enough sweat, perseverance, and most importantly, dollars, can one day struggle my way up to the top of the heap, getting that single bottle of Home Vineyard to nurse, cradle, cellar, and not drink until I'm on my deathbed. God help me.

(And, if you want anything from my allocations, PM me and I can hook you up...muhahahah!)

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