Monday, April 15, 2013

Richard Serrano of L’eft Bank: Selecting Domestic and Austrian Wines -- the Joys of Grüner Veltliner – Part III of III

MadisonWineScene (MWS) recently interviewed Richard Serrano, Wine Manager of spirits and domestic and Austrian wines with L’eft Bank Wine Company, 4918 Triangle Street, McFarland, WI about the wine business.

His bio on the L’eft Bank site ( states: Raised on beer and tequila since the age of 12, Richard had his first sip of White Zin at the age of 26, and declared it righteous. A bottle of cheap Chilean Merlot followed a week later, and there was no turning back. After a brief flirtation with high-alcohol fruit-bombs, two years in wine retail tempered and matured his palette. He now spends his time in the Sisyphusian pursuit of finding Domestic wines that emphasize balance, purity, and terroir. Known as the company hothead, he spends his off time listening to acoustic blues, reading Decanter, and trying to find old bottles of Roussanne on closeout.

Previous posts discussed selection of wines and wine producers. This post discusses Austrian wines and changes in the wine industry.

MWS: Why Austrian wines?
Richard: That’s a darned good question.

For me, Austria is a labor of love. I drink more Austrian wine at home than anything else, mainly because I love dry, crisp, acidic white wines and that’s what Austria does best. I don’t know of a country that does it better.

I have an accelerated palate with regards to how it has developed over the years, because I taste so much wine. If I was still drinking as a consumer, I might still be in love with Cabernet. The more wines I am exposed to, I just end up with dry, crisp, acidic white wines and I love the reds because of their freshness and the acidity. They are wonderful with food. It just becomes cliché for certain wine geeks to say that wine needs to go with food, and I don’t always say that because I am an American, and I will also cocktail with wine. But when I cocktail with wine I also want high-acid wine.

For me, Austria is where it’s at -- and the ageability of those white wines is unmet. The Rieslings, you can lay them in your cellar and they will dance on a Napa Valley Cab’s grave. They will go the distance, but aging wine is a difficult game and I don’t recommend it for most people.

MWS: Is Austrian wine a difficult sell-through to the final consumer as well as to retailers?
Richard: Very difficult.

What L’eft Bank has done with Austria is very much a labor of love. We are known as the place to go to for Austrian wines.

Most distributors will have one low-end Grüner Veltliner and that’s it. We carry not only various price points, I am crazy enough to carry different regions. So if you want Grüner Veltliners from the Kamptal region I have got them, if you want Grüner Veltliner from the Wachau region I have got them.

The wines really show off their terroir and those different growing regions will certainly reflect in the wine. They are wines we are going to bring in because we believe in them. They may not make us tons of money and it will take longer to sell the inventory since it is harder to find those retailers and restaurants that will get into it as well, and sell them. But it can be done.

Ten years ago no one knew what Grüner Veltliner was and were kind of afraid of it. Five years ago people were still afraid of it. Nowadays every independent larger or higher-end retailer has a Grüner Veltliner section. More and more restaurants have them. Places like L’Etoile have been championing Grüner for some time. Now you see Grüner Veltliner stacked in grocery stores and people just grab it off the stack without thinking too much of it. If they are trying those then they start to delve into more expensive Grüners if they want to treat themselves.

MWS: You have been in the wine business a while. What changes have you seen?
Richard: I have seen an explosion in wine awareness and consumption and that has been a good thing.

Along with that there have been lots of people looking for business opportunities and as I said earlier that’s led to a flooding of labels, a flooding of different wineries, multiple SKUs, and a bit of a confusion in the marketplace for the consumer. Some people have taken shortcuts and you see a lot of bad wine out there. You are seeing more wineries start to fail and that’s bound to happen.

I have seen younger people – the Millennials – being more open to tasting anything, so when you hear of the growth of wines like Albarino from Spain, or Grüner Veltliner from Austria – a lot of that is being driven not by baby-boomers but by Gen-X and younger.

Those drinkers will try anything. Baby-boomers are kind of stuck in a Cab/Chard/Pinot world and if you try and introduce something to them, their response is often “I have never heard of that” and you see that on their face, and that means since they have never heard of it, they are never going to try it.

Younger people are saying, “You have a Mencia from the Bierzo region of Spain, let’s give it a whirl. You have got Txakoli from the Basque region, let’s try it.” That’s been wonderful to see – a more diverse American public out there – in what they are drinking at least.

MWS: Favorite wines, besides Austrian?
Richard: I am a big Riesling guy. I don’t brand-manage Germany but I love Germany.

Anywhere there is good Riesling being grown, I am on it. I probably carry more domestic Riesling than I should, but I keep finding better and better domestic Riesling. Ten years ago it was hard to find good stuff, mainly because Riesling is like Pinot. It really reflects where it is grown. You need good hillside land to grow good Riesling and in the past nobody would plant Riesling on a hillside in California because you can make so much more money if you plant Cabernet.

Also, if you know how to read a German label, it actually provides you with a ton of pertinent information. I love the label for that, but at the same time I bemoan the fact that it’s really hard to get this stuff across to the American public.

MWS: Any surprises?
Richard: Before the Sideways effect [MWS: the 2004 movie Sideways elevated the fortunes of Pinot Noir while sinking those of Merlot] there were those of us in the industry who were always championing Pinot Noir, and it was a hard sell. I remember the days when it was really hard to sell Pinot Noir, and I couldn’t get people, especially men, to stop drinking Cabernet and start drinking Pinot Noir. I would see them drinking Cabernet with fish and I would say to them that I know you wont drink white, but at least try Pinot – the grace and elegance of Pinot instead of the white – so that was a tough one. I knew a lot of other young buyers at the time in retail, and in restaurants, and we were all pushing Pinot Noir, and it was slowly growing and then the Sideways effect came about and Pinot just took off, and I saw people drinking Pinots that I would never have expected. That was a good thing. But it also led to a sea of cheap, bad Pinot that is out there right now. But that’s ok. People need affordable Pinot.

When I got into the industry Viognier was poised to become the next Chardonnay and it became a huge failure. That kind of surprised me at the time.

Riesling is one of the fastest growing categories in this country as far as consumption. That’s been a wonderful surprise to me, although it is growing from a very tiny base. *

I would not have expected Malbec to explode the way it has but when you break it down it is not a big surprise. Malbec was at the right place at the right time when the recession hit. There was a ton of great, cheap Malbec. You can find so many wonderful Malbecs between $9 and $20. And it gives the American palate what they want – it is a pretty big, rich style of red wine, it’s got some chunkiness, it’s got some chocolaty notes. It’s in that category of Bordeaux varieties.

And it is easy to say.

It is not difficult for an American to say the word Malbec.

* On the L’eft Bank website, Richard has this to say about Riesling: Also, for most Americans, Riesling, the greatest grape of all, gets no respect. Riesling, with soaring acidity and an ability to match with so many foods, is frowned upon. Riesling, the grape that reads terroir better than even Pinot Noir, is looked at askance. Many Americans would say that they only drink "dry" wine, at the same time guzzling a caramel latte. I can perfectly understand all this, given what has historically been passed off as Riesling. (Do you think the average Liebfraumilch drinker knows it's made from Muller-Thurgau?)
As I wipe away the tears I take solace in the knowledge that Riesling currently has the highest percentage of growth among all grape varieties. Granted, it's from a small base, but the category is on the rise. Plus, Millennials seem to have much less fear of hock bottles than baby-boomers. And for every 5 people that recoil when I offer them a glass of Donnhoff Trocken, there will usually be one person who will be convinced, and start down the Riesling path. (This is not easy. It takes blood, sweat, and tears to turn people onto Riesling, but we can't be deterred. And I'm only discussing DRY, since selling off-dry Spatlese is a whole other set of issues.)


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