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Delhi Wine Club

Posted: Friday, January 29 2010. 13:15

Zest for Columbia Crest et Al

Al Portney, the vice president for international sales of Washington based Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, which owns several wineries including the biggest volume producer Columbia Crest, was in Delhi earlier this week, where he had an exclusive dinner with Subhash Arora, tasting and enjoying a few labels from their different estates.

‘You guys are having wife, mistress and another lover at the same time. Swinging times ....!’ Excerpt from my email to Al Portney in October 2008.

‘I have been working with Sanjay Menon for several years. Sonarys has been importing Chateau Ste. Michelle, Domain Ste. Michelle, Columbia Crest and L'Ecole 41 all from Washington State. Last year, we purchased Stag's Leap Wine Cellars in partnership with Antinori so I have been working with Brindco as well. In the past few months, we began working with Berkmann Cellars with several Washington, California and Oregon wines,was a part of the mail received from Al Portney earlier that day, to which I had responded instantly.

When you are a big public traded wine corporation, when you are the seventh largest wine company by volume in the USA, with annual revenues of $450 million and 12 ‘String of Pearls’ wine estates in Washington state, Oregon and California with interests in countries like Chile, when you are the biggest Riesling producer in the world where Germany is supposed to rule the roost, you can perhaps have the luxury of ‘a mistress and a lover, even when you have the wife.’

Al Portney is the Vice President of international sales for Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. He was in Delhi earlier this week when I met him at a private dinner accompanied by wines from Columbia Crest and other wineries belonging to the group. The ever-popular Zest Restaurant was the obvious choice for the venue due to its culinary excellence and diversity that affords one the opportunity to try various varietals with different cuisines.

On being introduced by Aman Dhall of Brindco which imports popular volume-based  brands from wineries like Columbia Crest, Erath, Eroica and Chateau Ste. Michelle, Al informs me he feels either we have met or corresponded earlier. Later I would be able to recover the above emails on my laptop.

The 30 year old Columbia Crest winery making affordable everyday Washington wines, touched the sale of 2 million cases in 2008. The Ste. Michelle group annually sells 6.5 million cases a year according to Al. This would put the average sales price of a bottle at around $6. ‘Although we are a big company, and account for 70% of all Washington wines, our wines are quality products. The average price of the top six wineries-Constellation Brands, Gallo, The Wine Group (Franzia, Glen Ellen), Forest’s, Trinchero is $3,’ adding that Ste. Michelle is similar to Kendall- Jackson which is now 8th in volume sales and slightly lower in the average selling price.

Al is very excited about Villa Antinori joining hands with the group only a few days ago to sign the agreement for imports into the US. Ste. Michel is already importing their wines while exporting to Italy. ‘We are also producing a red wine label jointly with them at Col Solare (it means ‘cold mountain’ in Italian) winery where we are also collaborating with Ernie Loosen to make Riesling,’ adds Al. ‘We cannot grow good Italian grapes so of course, the red wine is Cabernet based.’

The big feather in their cap was of course, the purchasing of Napa based Stag’s Leap Wine Cellar for $185 million in late 2007, again in partnership with Antinori (15% share). Stag’s Leap was the hero of the 1976 ‘Judgment at Paris’ conducted by Steven Spurrier when it beat the best of Bordeaux and had the Best Red Wine.

Columbia Crest Riesling with a low alcohol of 12% and Cabernet Sauvignon from the Columbia Crest at Rs.1200 in Delhi and Rs.1000 in Haryana,  are good value for money quality wines-a couple or three notches above drinkable daily wines. Brindco also imports the Merlot and Chardonnay as well.       

Columbia Valley Riesling is the highest selling Riesling label in the world with 800,000 cases pushed out every year, says Al. No wonder the group started hosting an annual Riesling Rendezvous a couple of years ago where one can taste and evaluate Rieslings from around the world.

Riesling is a very likely candidate to be the best mate for Indian food- especially for vegetarians. The same could be said of Sushi- both of which we had plenty of at the dinner. My second choice was the Oregon Pinot Noir which, retailing in the US for $20-24, was a delicious match for my taste buds and as Al summed it up ‘Fruit of the new world  and structure of the old world.’

Subhash Arora

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