Friday, July 8, 2011

L’eft Bank in Madison: from the Sugar River to the world – Part III of III

MadisonWineScene (MWS) recently interviewed Michael Paré, Wine Merchant with L’eft Bank Wine Company, 4918 Triangle Street, McFarland, WI about the wine business.

Founded in 1985 by Mark Johnston with his handy Ford Pinto and a few cases of Burgundy, L’eft Bank has grown to become the leading distributor of fine wines and spirits in Wisconsin. What’s with the apostrophe in the name? See for an explanation, and why a picture of newts leads off this posting.

Previous posts discussed the wine importation/distribution business and wine sales to restaurants and retailers. This post will discuss trends in wines.

MWS: Any surprises – wines that have done better than you expected?
Michael: We just brought in a new producer – and I am not on their payroll – from just south of San Francisco by the name of Jason Stephens.  They brought in a Merlot, a Cabernet and then a Cabernet Syrah blend. I am not necessarily the biggest fan of California wines – I am not saying they are bad, but when I sit down at home to drink a bottle of wine and go to pull a bottle out of my basement I probably have a very small percentage of wines from California. Just my own personal tastes. And these wines just really impressed me a great deal. When I look to get samples to go out to my customers, with Madison’s customer base being very exploratory – they want to try things from all over the world, I don’t often take a lot of bottles from California, but I immediately got these samples out to take to people. I immediately showed them to Finn at Barriques and he got them the next week. They are really nice wines. I immediately had a restaurant want to pour the wines too and they are not inexpensive wines -- so that was a successful show.

MWS: Any disappointments – wines that have done worse than expected?
Michael: I am hard-pressed to like Argentine Cabernets. I like Argentine Chardonnays. Malbecs are great. Their Cabernets have not separated from the Malbec pack to really differentiate themselves. Napa Cabs have their own flavor, their own quality. I am still looking for the Argentine Cab that differentiates itself, that justifies itself.

MWS: How do you decide on allocations of highly rated wines?
Michael: We recently had a wine that was a 2007 Isole e Olena Cepparello. It is a pretty famous Super-Tuscan. The 2007 got really good press about a year ago and I had people asking for it then. And I said the only way that I can sell you that is if you are buying the 2005 or the 2006. [MWS: The 2007 got 96 points from Parker and is available from $55.67; the 2006 93 points, $51.49 and the 2005 92 points, $47.50.]

And so the way you do allocations is you look at who has already supported the winery, and supported them through the good and the bad. You cant just cherry pick and take all the best vintages and this is true of retailer and restaurateurs. If the winery is making a mediocre Merlot, and they say we need to sell this, then you need to help us sell it. It is the history that allows them access.

Wineries do this themselves when they sell to their wine clubs – if you want to go to Shafer winery, for instance, which we represent – you can buy their Cabernet, Chardonnay and Merlot from the winery, but you cant buy their Reserve Cabernet called Hillside Select until you have been in their wine club a certain amount of time, and you have earned your way up the line.

MWS: What do you think of the points system for rating wines?
Michael: The rating system is a crutch and so it is both good and bad.  

The original purpose when Parker started rating wines was that he was modeling himself after Ralph Nader as some sort of consumer advocate, that’s why it is called the Wine Advocate. As a consumer advocate for wine he was trying to force wine producers to stop counting on their reputation – you cant sell us a label any more -- and more on the quality of the wine in the bottle.

I think that is done in the sense that the quality of wine is better all the time everywhere in the world. Chilean wine was pretty dismal 10 years ago, and now they are making really great wines. Same with Argentina. Same with Australia, the whole bubble with Yellow Tail coming up and down, and that’s kind of going away. Same with manufactured wine, that is slipping away because people want more authentic things.

People who don’t know anything about wines, don’t have a retailer that they can go to, they need a crutch. I have always said to people when I worked in retail and they would ask, “What does this 90 point mean?” I’d say, “Find all the ones that are from the same person – whether it’s Parker or the Wine Spectator -- on the shelf and start tasting and figure out if it makes any sense to you. If it does then gauge yourself against that.”

That’s a lot of work – that’s somebody who really wants to get into wine -- and a lot of times people just want an easy buy. Ratings help us sell wine, but they can be detrimental.

I mentioned the Super-Tuscan, because it got a huge rating, people were just clamoring for it, and you look and they never bought the wine before, and they never bought any wines from that winery before. They don’t really care about the winery, they just want the score. So you just give them a copy of the score and say, “There you go, have a nice day. That’s $50, thank you.”

MWS: Which price points are the fastest growing?
Michael: The fastest growing category has been the $15 - $20 category. I don’t see a lot of high-end sales – over $30 wholesale, probably $45 - $50 retail. [MWS: SVB Financial – the leading commercial bank in lending to the wine industry -- is projecting fine wine sales to grow by 11% - 15% in 2011.  They define fine wines as wine selling at more than $20 a bottle.]

MWS: Which wines/regions/producers are doing well?
Michael: California is always the leader. It’s so much easier for a consumer to look at Cabernet from California on the label than to worry about a lot of more traditional French labels.

Italy, for a lot of young consumers is kind of a mess. I recently had someone say to me “Barolo is my favorite grape.” Barolo is a town; the grape is Nebbiolo.

When you don’t have to think about the wine and understand the label that well, and it just says the grape varietal, it’s so much easier. [MWS: Interestingly it was a Frenchman, Alexis Lichine, who, when the U.S. was cut off from French wine supplies during World War II, convinced California wine makers to label their wines according to the grape varietal – Pinot Noir, Chardonnay... Until then California wine makers had slapped names like Burgundy and Chablis on their product. See for a description of Lichine’s fascinating life.]

We need a lot of German wine education on our website, we have a lot of German wines to sell. [MWS: An excellent explanation of German Riesling wine labels can be found from L’eft Bank at:]

MWS: Which restaurants’ wine lists do you like?
Michael: I love Italian wines, so I love Papavero’s and Lombardino’s wine lists. They are deep into Italian wines. Papavero’s has about 20 – 25 wines, most of them are available by the glass and by the bottle, they are all Italian, they have never poured a Pinot Grigio. They want to do something different, and they want t0 do something that is cutting edge. I appreciate that.

MWS: What do you like to drink?
Michael: Oh gosh, wine.

When I first started getting into wine I really loved Rhone wines. I have learned that I like Chateauneuf-du-Pape when they are young, not necessarily so much when they are older. So if I look at a bottle that is three years old, I am more likely to enjoy it than one that is 12. That’s the nature of Chateauneuf-du-Pape; whereas when I drink older Bordeaux I love those. When they are younger I think they are a little bit less interesting.

Austrian wines. Grüner Veltliner – they are so good.  There’s a producer called Schloss Gobelsburg and they have wines that start around $15 all the way up to $70 a bottle and I try to sample as many of their different ones as possible. The other one is called Brundlmayer.

And dry Rieslings from Germany. In Germany they drink dry Riesling and they export a lot of their sweet stuff. Dry German Rieslings are really spectacular. JJ Prüm is a really great producer. He is right in the heart of the Mosel and he has parcels in all of the famous vineyards and so typically what a producer will do is they will bottle single vineyards, and they will bottle each at different ripeness levels, so you will have the Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese… and if has 10 vineyards, he can easily have 30 wines. It gets to be pretty crazy. They can be pretty expensive wines, he is right in the heart of the Mosel and so he can command a higher price. Selbach is another of my favorite producers. Also in the heart of the Mosel within 10 miles of Prüm. Josef Leitz – their Dragonstone.


  1. Cabernet from California and Italy are superb. But many are on par with Australian vintages as well.

  2. Michael Paré is known for his great taste in wines. L’eft Bank Wine Company also have great aged wines in their cellar.

  3. Its weird that I also heard this Phrase before “Barolo is my favorite grape.” I always remind them that Barolo is a town and the grape is Nebbiolo.

  4. I would agree that Chardonnay from Argentina is great, but a Chardonnay from Australia tastes even better. I have not tasted an Italian Cabernet yet. I think I should try buying one online to see how this wine tastes like.

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