Friday, December 13, 2013

Private Labels Often Offer Great QPR Value

Ninety Plus Cellars Lot 101: Collectors Series Columbia Valley, Washington, Syrah, 2009

Ninety Plus (aka 90+) Cellars operate under the practice known in the 'old wine world' as a 'négociant', the French word for wine merchant/trader acting as a middleman consolidator. They buy excess production from producers and sell it under their own 'private' label. They seek out producers of high quality wines, wines that consumers might hold for special occasions, but strive to price it at 'every day' wine prices, at a fraction of the original price.

The practice is a derivative of the original négociant role dating back in France where négociants, or Wine Merchants/Traders, were the dominant force in the wine trade until the last couple of decades. Historically, owners of vineyards and producers of wine had no direct access to buyers and did not engage in the practice of directly marketing their product. The practice was perpetuated over time due to the arcane French inheritance laws where land and vineyard holdings were often split up amongst the heirs such that offspring owned only parts of a vineyard,  sometimes no more than a single row of grapes. The resulting fragmentation often meant that an owner of only a small portion of a particular high-quality single vineyard where that grower had insufficient wine from a parcel to vinify on its own. Negociants purchased and consolidated wines and engaged in bottling, marketing and distribution.

The négociant might buy already fermented wine in barrels or in bulk containers and may age the wine further, blend in other wines or simply bottle and sell it as is. Often the wine is already bottled or 'in glass' but not yet labeled. The result is sold under the name of the négociant, not the name of the original grape or wine producer. Some French négociants in earlier times had long lived and recognizable labels sourcing wines from the same producer's and region over time so as to develop their recognizable house style.

I recall when I started buying wine early in my collecting 'career', buying wines under the négociant's label. One example I distinctly remember was the popular négociant label, B&G from Barton & Guestier. I remember buying their non-specific 1975 vintage St. Emilion, which referred to the appellation but lacking any specificity of the individual source producer. Today, Barton & Guestier tout themselves as the first French brand name known to millions of consumers worldwide. They have been in the wine business for almost three centuries. They cite that their role and expertise 'guarantees regular quality, vintage after vintage, and reassures consumers in increasingly complicated markets'. They are present in 130 countries on 5 continents.

Over time,  prices for a premier cru associated with the more specific appellation or even specific vineyard, or producer were higher than for wines attributed to a larger area like a village or region. Grower's realized they could make more money selling off the production as the premier cru rather than blending it into a less specific appellation or more generalized label. This works in vibrant markets when there is sufficient demand for the higher priced quality wines. When markets collapse or when production exceeds demand, excess inventory creates opportunity for the negociant to acquire and market the premier product at value prices - often great opportunities of high QPR - Quality to Price ratios.

While it is a stretch to compare Ninety Plus Cellars in the same sense as the historic brand B&G, their role here is no less significant to the consumer. They started the company during the economic downturn in 2009 when demand for wines priced more than $20 a bottle fell and and inventories grew. Rather than discount their wines and erode the value of their brands,  some producers were willing to sell off excess inventory at the distressed market prices on the condition they would be marketed under the 90+ Cellar's label. 90+ Cellars obtains the excess production and is able to sell it at discounted prices on the condition non-disclosure of the their source (s).

Ninety Plus Cellars' goal is to seek out, bottle and deliver fine wine at discounted prices.  Of course their tantalizing name would imply they only seek out or offer wines rated a 90 or higher on the overrated 100 point scale. While that may not always be the case, they often offer good QPR opportunities, none-the-less. Their cover was 'blown' in one case when they obtained bottled but as yet unlabeled product and resold it with their own 'private' label, but when the wine was uncorked, the producer's identity was revealed on their original corks. Aha!

As soon as I tasted this Syrah at the local wine merchant Malloy's store in Naperville, I knew they had a winner, substantiating their claims that they had landed a top rated Syrah and were able to sell it at a deeply discounted price. I probably should have bought as much as I could obtain. Well actually, I did clean them out, and then went back for more when their next shipment arrived the following week. But I did leave some for others. I may regret leaving it behind!

This is a 2009 Columbia Valley, Washington, Syrah that they market under the label Ninety Plus Cellars, Collectors Series, Lot 101. The label specified that '250 cases'. Interestingly it doesn't say produced. How many cases were sold under some other, perhaps well known, perhaps higher priced label?

Dark inky colored, medium to full bodied, this full throttle Syrah reveals layers of blackberry and black currants fruits with tones of sweet vanilla, caramel and spice with hints of black pepper on a lingering smooth silky tannin finish.

RM 93 points.