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Part II: Interview with Roy Hersh of FTLOP – Douro & Port Wines

Editor’s Note: Following up our previous interview with Roy Hersh, creator of “The Love of Port”, we’ll tackle the American perspective towards Port wine. Go here to read Part I.

The question we posited to Roy was: When you’re in the USA, what is today’s average wine consumer’s attitude towards the Douro table wines and Port wines? How has it changed in the past 10 years?

Those are two very different questions. Let’s take Port and Douro wines one at a time to simplify this. Port is easier, only because Americans for the most part, really started to become familiar with Port in the mid-1990′s, with the emergence of the 1994 vintage in particular. Of course it’s a sweeping generalization, but please bear with me for a moment. This timing coincided with skyrocketing successes realized on both Wall Street and Madison Avenue, conjoined by the explosion of culinary talent in US restaurants. Money at the time was seemingly being made hand over fist, and there was a new found devotion to decadence and luxury items, such as Port and cigars before the bubble burst at the end of that decade.

This discovery of Port for the young baby boomers/Gen-X’ers, just happened to coincide with a vintage noted for three 100-point James Suckling rated Vintage Ports. The Port market here in the US, was sizzling hot at the time. For example, another 100-point rated Vintage Port, the 1977 Fonseca, had typically sold for $49 for three consecutive years before the “craze” hit. Within two years, the same retailers were selling this hot potato for well over $200 per 750 ml bottle. Additionally, the Douro had seen huge improvements in viticulture, the quality of fortification spirit, technology (e.g.robotics) and Port making itself. Nearly the perfect storm for Port: sweeping quality improvements, a hot and thirsty new US market and smoking hot economy, (at that moment; surpassing the UK in Vintage Port purchases, for the very first time in history!) and all the while, America was becoming more serious about wine in general.

Over the past decade, Port sales have changed in the USA. Simply stated, less is being sold. My take is that high alcohol products at the end of the meal have slipped in popularity due to significantly harsher penalties involving drunk driving regulations in the states. Also, the IVDP which used to do a much better job of promoting Port and educating American consumers and wine trade alike … had not continued on that same level in more recent years. So although quantities have mostly decreased by volume, there have been some improvements in terms of an increase in the value of the Ports sold to consumers in America. Ergo, instead of cheap Ruby and Tawny Port purchases, the special categories of fine White Port, LBV, Colheita, Tawny Port with an indication of age and Vintage Port, etc; picked up for numerous Port shippers.

One other dynamic should be noted: the American Port consumers’ availability of “options”. A decade earlier, there was no such thing as social media and consumers had to rely on wine magazines professional wine critics and expensive adverts to learn about Port and particularly, new vintages. Nowadays, younger consumers can see Tweets on their mobile devices when a friend is opening a bottle, just seconds after the cork is removed, or a picture of the label taken and sent by their cell phone camera. Today’s consumer can also read blogs from amateurs and/or pros, (not to mention community databases like CellarTracker or FTLOP’s which provide recent tasting notes), while keeping tabs on Facebook etc. There’s an entirely brave new world of information out there and the old channels are just that. This is a net positive outcome for the Port trade, which had been losing market share as their old customers were just getting older, along with the stodgy image that so badly needed a facelift. Attracting new and younger consumers and especially targeting more women … without requiring significant investment in advertisements had now become easily achievable given the shift in info dissemination.

Lastly for Port, the quantity of new players in the Port market many of whom have also become involved in Douro wine production has filtered into the USA. Old and new names that heretofore had never been seen in the USA can now be found. A handful of examples of this are names like: Pintas, Porto Quevedo, Quinta do Vale Dona Maria, Quinta do Vallado, Quinta do Vale Meão and Quinta do Portal, none of which were found in the USA a decade ago. There are many more examples.

That wraps up my views on Port, so let’s now focus on the Douro wine revolution and forays into the US market.

The average wine consumer in the US has little to no knowledge of Douro wines available on their retailer’s shelves. That being said, things are progressing, but slowly. There are so many domestic wines produced in all fifty states nowadays, that the competition for shelf space in either supermarkets or specialty shops is fierce. Wines made in America have three distinct advantages over imports:

  1. They don’t have to be shipped from overseas and go through an importer, which adds a 3rd tier of profit taking, in addition to margins already realized by distributors and retailers; therefore remaining price competitive.
  2. Domestic wine names are usually very easy to read on the label or pronounce, vs. the often difficult wine names from Germany, Italy, Spain and France … no less the Douro region of Portugal.
  3. The push to “buy local” or at least domestic products, has become more aggressive in recent years.

But I digress and will focus specifically on Douro wines, first with some historical perspective. Most Douro wine producers were either simple farmers that grew grapes for the large Port shippers, or until the past two decades they only produced Port. Things have been rapidly changing in the region though. Consolidation and acquisition of Port companies and Douro Valley quintas and vineyards has been rather dramatic in the past fifteen to twenty years. Some of the farmers decided to hedge their bets and produce and market their own table wines, realizing they could control their own destiny by doing so, as it is much simpler and less costly to make, than is Port. Although there were some producers of DOC table wines in the Douro prior to the aforementioned period, they could be counted on one hand.

Table wine has been produced in Douro vineyards for centuries, (even before Port) yet commercial bottling for consumers only dates back to the 1920’s and the first great wine from the Douro, Barca Velha, began in 1952. The renaissance really commenced in 1990, when a young Dirk Niepoort made his very first table wine, Robustus. A few others took to experimenting too, and Douro wines progressed with lots of mediocrity being bottled in those years and very few benchmark wines vinified. From the mid-1990’s through the end of the 20th century, several dynamics changed the landscape in the Douro, forever.

A group of young university trained oenologists and viticulturists emerged boldly on the scene, (many from Vila Real’s excellent school, UTAD). Viticultural improvements juxtaposed with major leaps in technology, aided these budding winemakers. Several consulting oenologists from outside of Portugal, came to work in the region, which brought fresh ideas and techniques to local winemaking that was just gaining a foothold in producing quality DOC wines. Understanding the indigenous grape cultivars took some time too, whether ancient field blends, (the norm in Douro vineyards at the time) or the newer block plantings which began to sprout with far more frequency after 2000. The Douro wine revolution is really only 10-12 years old if one considers high quality wine production essential for a region. There were successful “experiments” prior to that, but they were few and far between.

The new millennium saw a very significant uptick in the quality of dry wines produced in Douro vineyards. In the first half of the decade, vintages like 2001, 2003, 2004 and 2005 all delivered some spectacular examples of what was possible. Dirk Niepoort even proved that exemplary white wines could be made as well, and today there are dozens of excellent versions of fine whites throughout the region, even though the production of red wines remains far more significant to the success and sustainability of the region. Douro wines found open markets across Europe, and have been extremely popular in Portugal, where Douro remains the finest DOC producer in the country today. The wines also made their way to Brazil of course, and more recently to Asia and former Portuguese colonies in Africa as well.

For the most part, the United States caught on to Douro wines in the early 2000’s too. Only a select few wine consumers had been introduced to Douro wines in the USA prior to that, likely hundreds not thousands, but that’s just conjecture. Nevertheless, doing business in America is tricky and costly, and small Douro volumes from small producers were very hard to introduce to such a massive market … especially for those hoping to deal with a single importer. Many challenges were presented.

Paving the way into the US were the Symingtons, initially with a sleek lineup of multi-tiered red Douro wines complemented by one white (now two); replete with their family-owned and firmly established import company based in California. Sogrape’s “Casa Ferreirinha” selections were also brought to the USA early on, as Broadbent Selections, Inc. launched them successfully throughout the country. Additionally, an upstart group of small producers banded together to call themselves, The Douro Boys. Dirk Niepoort was the centerpiece of this talented force which included a handful of promising single quinta growers turned producers, willing to pool their marketing skills and resources to promote one another’s wines as well as their region and country. The individual members of the Douro Boys have become some of the most successful and recognizable names in Portuguese wine overall (here in the USA too!): Niepoort of course, Quinta do Vale Meão, Quinta do Vale d. Maria, Quinta do Crasto and Quinta do Vallado. Prior to the Douro Boys, only the pioneering Niepoort had any real impact in the USA, mostly with Port wine but several of Dirk’s table wines made quite a splash with those paying attention back then. The aforementioned players have since opened doors in the United States for others in the Douro to follow and subsequently Portuguese table wines from the other emerging regions.

Americans are still in their infancy learning about Douro wines, open-minded having realized this is the same region (and grapes) that Port comes from. At least some consumers here have learned that much and wine mag critics’ coverage and bloggers too have increased focus in the past half-decade. I am not talking about the few dozen serious Douro wine aficionados residing in the USA, but the average American wine consumer. Quantities produced aside, pricing was an issue as several producers initially tried introducing their premium quality Douro DOC wines with equally premium pricing. I can appreciate that logic and stratagem, aware of the costs associated with production in Douro’s very difficult growing region, but US consumers in general, were less accepting of what they considered “over-priced” and heavy tannic wines early on.

The American wine consumer was used to the Australian wine model that took root here in the mid-1980’s, in which large quantities of easy-to-approach, inexpensive wines were introduced with catchy names and vibrant labels. Douro wines with less attractive ultra-traditional packaging, difficult names to pronounce, that required several years of cellaring — met with significant resistance early on. From price and practicality these wines seemed to baffle consumers willing to venture off the beaten wine path. Prior to the early part of the 2000’s, there were a few exceptions to that rule, but very few.

In more recent years, several Douro producers have reassessed their plans when approaching the US market and have introduced value oriented wines as a counterbalance to their high end products. It has certainly helped in gaining access to willing distributor networks and ultimately, precious shelf space. Others, like Oscar Quevedo, have chosen to look at the USA as a long term investment project and smartly launched a focused portfolio of approachable and affordable table wines, supported by high quality Port products. Quevedo realized the advantage of gaining a small foothold in the United States, initially rolling out in a limited number of states, then slowly expanding from there, promoting through social media.

Understanding the challenges of selling into 50 disparate markets and facing somewhat stringent labeling requirements has prevented some small DOC producers from even considering taking positions here and after making one exploratory visit they often decide to move on to less difficult marketplaces. Those willing to either find importers on both coasts or just focus on limited geographic markets have seemed to be a recipe for success that has paid off for a number of smaller sized Douro producers. As for the expanding interest in Douro table wines among American wine consumers, the future seems bright as imports continue to increase and new products and producers are entering the market with confidence.