Lessons of the Wine Business

I was talking to one of my best whiskey customers about wine last night, and the fact that he does business with a number of other stores besides K&L.

"I'm starting to get annoyed with ________, however," he said to me. "I'm not going buy as much from them anymore."

"Why's that?" I asked.

"Because they've screwed me over on a number of purchases—certain pre-arrival wines never showed up, but I bought from them because they had better pricing than other guys. Things like that."

"Ahhhh.....I see."

This isn't uncommon in the Bordeaux futures business—to guarantee a hot price on forthcoming wines, but then not actually have the ability to obtain the product. Our pre-arrival process is what put K&L on the map in the wine world—we had good prices, good service, and our customers always got their bottles. We might not always have had the cheapest price, but we were competitive and you could depend on us. That's still the case today.

What's funny, though, is that we still get a number of people who call and want us to match pricing with some of these shadier operations. As one of my colleagues once put it: they want the Nordstrom service with the TJ Maxx prices. Unfortunately, you have to pay a little more for quality service—that's just the way it is. We can't afford to pay our knowledgeable staff and have the cheapest prices on everything. That's the trade off. We do our best to have both, however.

It's not just wine, though. I get people all the time who want me to match prices with the Whisky Exchange in the UK ("Uhhh....sir, you're looking at the price in pounds, not dollars"), or with some store in New Jersey that doesn't ship out of state and doesn't seem to have the product they're advertising (Sir, have you actually clicked on the link? They're out of stock.....and apparently out of business, too")

It's a crazy world out there; full with all different kinds of expectations.

-David Driscoll



I've never travelled to the fabled Tales of the Cocktail festival in New Orleans, so I decided to live vicariously through Camper English, who posted this article about last week's events. My favorite part is the line from the Barcardi guy who called booze the new music for eccentric enthusiasts. The quote is: "Now that there are no more record stores, (snobs) have moved on to coffee shops and cocktail bars." I about fell out of my chair laughing, having spent years working at Tower Records in the Castro (and being a big fan of High Fidelity).

It's not just booze, though. Eating, drinking, and travelling have long replaced music, film, and literature as the topic du jour of modern snobbery. People are now looking to brag about where they've been and what they've eaten, rather than what they know or understand. You know what's funny to me about travelling, though? The fact that there's a new American tourist caricature circulating around the world that has completely replaced the old stereotype we normally associate with National Lampoon's Griswold family. You know—the loud, fanny pack-wearing, doesn't-speak-the-language, and is-insensitive-to-local-customs type of person?

Modern Americans are so afraid of being cast as one of these clueless tourists that they've gone completely the other way, swinging far back to the other side of the spectrum. I see it all the time when David OG and I travel, but I was revisiting some old episodes of HBO's classic Mr. Show last night and I couldn't believe it when I saw that person here (it was like reading American Psycho and realizing it came out in the 1980s). Skip to the 1:00 mark if you don't feel like watching Bob's hilarious exchange with the donut girl.

Bob Odenkirk and David Cross did this sketch back in 1996, but I never really began to notice this behavior until I started working in the wine industry in 2007. You can see how ahead of their time these two were!

Today's stereotypical American tourist wants you to know that they are not one of those run-of-the-mill, touristy Americans who goes to all the obvious, touristy spots and wears a fanny pack and speaks loudly and doesn't even try to learn the local language. No, no, no. They are an educated American who is sensitive to culture, and who has studied abroad, and who doesn't go to the most obvious tourist locations when they travel. They've worked on a farm in rural France and even stayed with a local family in Cuernavaca, where they traded chores for language lessons.

It's the ultimate irony, isn't it? The attempt to escape what was once seen as typical, normal American behavior has become something quintessentially American! It's the new version of the American snob.

-David Driscoll


!!!!!BRANDYFEST!!!!! August 19th @ Bar Agricole

That’s right, folks! It is ON! "If there's a Whiskyfest and a Beerfest, then someone out there should damn sure host a Brandyfest" we told ourselves while discussing the potential of public tasting. For the past few years, both K&L and Bar Agricole have been travelling to the far corners of France with importer Charles Neal, selecting our own custom Cognac, Armagnac, and Calvados brandies from small farmers to the great delight of spirits aficionados everywhere. Until now, however, there has been no way to taste all of these spirits in one place. For one night only we'll be hosting two groups (the first from 5:30 to 7:30 PM, and the second from 8 to 10 PM) on the patio at Bar Agricole for a tasting of our Pellehaut, Baraillon, Laballe, Ognoas, and Thorin brandies, along with food and cocktails from the boys at BA. All in all, you'll get the opportunity to try more than 15 of our special K&L selections, and sample the exclusive wares of Bar Agricole in a number of delicious libations, all while snacking on delicious hors d'oeuvres.

Tickets are limited to 60 per group. They are $75 per person and that includes a pour of more than 15 selections, plus all you can drink cocktails and all you can eat snacks. Tickets are not refundable once you have placed your order, so please check your schedule before checking out!

Bar Agricole is at 355 11th Street in San Francisco. Tickets are listed by group below:

GROUP 1 – 5:30 to 7:30 PM

GROUP 2 – 8:00 to 10:00 PM

Tell your friends and neighbors! Tell everyone you know! This is going to be the best event in town. I'll be there, with Kyle and C Diddy, and maybe even David OG if we can fly him up.

-David Driscoll


More French Booze, Plus Two

Well, after that last little huff n' puff, I give you three wonderful new products that were not distilled in Indiana.

Germain Robin K&L Single Barrel Blend CB2014B Alambic Brandy $59.99 - Labeled as Blend CB2014B - Barrel #134, this is our second barrel purchase from California legends Germain Robin in Ukiah. Aged in French Limousin oak, this brandy begins with a lovely flurry of fresh fruit before settling into more classic Cognac flavors of caramel and subtle toffee.  The balance of this batch is impeccable and the brandy is decidedly better than the standard Craft Method in our opinion.  Germain Robin already makes an amazing and affordable brandy, so we weren't going to take a cask unless it was significantly better or different than the standard expressions.  In this case, it's both. Round, supple, but full of life and character. This is a bottle you won't want to miss. Only 200 bottles available.

Domaine d' Ognoas K&L Exclusive XO Armagnac $49.99 - We're back with another new release from one of our favorite French producers from whom we buy spirits directly! The seigneury of Ognoas dates back to the 11th century. For more than seven hundred years it was occupied by various lords and viscountesses until 1847, when the last remaining heir donated the property to the church. In 1905, the Domaine was passed over to the regional government and today the 565 hectare estate is run by the Conseul General des Landes and is operated as an agricultural school. The distillery at Ognoas is considered the oldest in Gascony and has been in operation since 1780. The estate has baco, ugni blanc, and folle blanche planted on site. Perhaps the coolest part of the operation is that Ognoas uses its own trees (from the 300 hectares of forest on the property) to make their own oak casks for maturation. A local cooper does all the work at the Domaine and selects the trees himself. Rather than another vintage selection, this year we opted for an XO marriage of vintages that brought heaps of rich flavor at a very affordable price point. Softer fruit and rich woody flavors permeate the intial sip, and the accents of spice and dark caramel carry through to the finish. There's no better deal in the $50 range.

Lost Spirits Distillery 151 Proof Cuban Style Rum $39.99 - Our madcap distiller friend Bryan Davis is back with a new 151 proof Cuban style rum that represents his best work to date. While Lost Spirits started off as a whisky operation, no one can argue that their best releases so far have been the Navy Style and Polynesian rums. They are taking the country by storm and this new Cuban style rum -- lighter and more focused on the sugar cane flavor -- just debuted at this year's Tales of the Cocktail. Despite its incredibly high proof, this rum drinks like a dream. The flavors are seamless and subtle, never funky or out of whack, and the cocktail mixing potential is endless. Plus, it's only $40! No one else is putting out rum of this quality, let alone of this value (and the label is absolutely gorgeous). Bryan Davis is killing it right now.

-David Driscoll



I read a really thorough article yesterday from the Daily Beast concerning a "craft" whiskey trend that's been going on for years: the fact that small distillers are purchasing bulk whiskey from MGP (formerly known as LDI), putting it into their own custom package, and posing as if they distilled it themselves; usually opting not to mention that the whiskey was made elsewhere (which is technically illegal). However, unlike many fine, outstanding people I know who care deeply about booze and its provenance, I'm not really all that offended by the idea of this practice. It's not that I don't care, or don't understand what's happening; because I do. I get why people think it's annoying, believe me.

1) Prideful producers who do distill their own whiskey have to compete against a cheaper product posing as a producing competitor. That's really annoying.

2) People think they're buying Iowa whiskey, or Oregon whiskey, or Wisconsin whiskey from a small, local producer, only to find out that they're buying bulk product from a plant in Indiana.

3) The practice is misleading, somewhat dishonest, and meant to capitalize on the sentimental nature of certain shoppers.

It's not like I haven't been doing my share to debunk these romantic tales. I've spent five years educating consumers about the fact that High West, Bulleit, Templeton, Old Scout, Redemption, Willett, Crater Lake, Dickel, and a slew of other rye labels are all made by the same distillery in Indiana, thinking they'll be shocked at the news. What I've found, however, is that the large, overwhelming, staggering majority of my whiskey customers do not care. One guy said to me last week:

"They don't all taste the same, though."

"That's true; they don't," I answered.

"Then what does it matter? There's still a difference between them. I'll just pick the one that tastes the best to me."

I didn't have an answer for that because he was completely right. Here was a guy who simply cared about the taste, not the story. If your primary concern is flavor (which is what we all like to think dictates our purchasing decisions), then the news that your favorite "craft" whiskey is really made at MGP in Indiana isn't really all that devastating. It's only the people buying on the specs who are annoyed (as I've written in the past, buying purely on specs is often a way to guarantee your own disappointment). Most casual drinkers could care less about where their whiskey comes from as long as it tastes good and has a proportional quality to value ratio—and, honestly, the MGP ryes are often both cheap and tasty. As one commenter on the Daily Beast article wrote:

So pompous, ignorant snobs who wouldn't know a single malt from a chocolate malt get ripped off. Where do I go to care about this?

With the exception of whiskey geeks on the internet, this is actually how most people I meet react to the MGP story (Devious practices being pulled on eager enthusiasts? Why is this news?). But as a self-proclaimed spirits geek, and someone who cares about alcohol and strives his hardest to find the most authentic, charismatic, and interesting spirits on the planet, why am I not outraged? Because, as one of my favorite rappers Slick Rick once said: this type of shit happens everyday.

Human beings are obsessed with authenticity, originality, and natural ability, yet we continue to idolize and be fooled by those claiming to present us with hyper-versions of these assets—those hoping to bask in our collective awe. This duplicitous behavior, in my opinion, isn't so much about getting paid as it is about ego and giving people what they think they want. In my thirty-four years on this planet, I have watched a number of people pose as if their own natural ability were responsible for their success—much like those "craft" distillers in the article who believe they actually had something to do with making the whiskey. When certain people are hungry for attention and accolades, they're always going to do what's necessary to obtain them. And they are always going to lie about how they did it. I've been watching it happen my entire life.

- How many athletes have broken records and shattered the limits of what was physically possible, claiming that their own natural ability was the only thing at work in their achievements?

- How many celebrities, from A to D-listers, have had plastic surgery, tummy tucks, face lifts, and physical enhancements, then claimed that diet, exercise, and hard work brought them their good looks? (read this story for a fun look at how far this fad has gone)

- How many of my friends in high school cheated on exams, took short cuts, and lied about ethnic backgrounds and achievements on their college applications, then got accepted to Harvard and Stanford, and had the balls to say it was their own intelligence that got them there? At least twenty (including my "native American" friend who got into UCLA because of her stunning 2.9 GPA).

- How many authors have written books about personal struggle and overcoming diversity, only for us to find out it was all a hoax? More than we know, but James Frey's A Million Little Pieces is a good place to start.

- How many Cognac producers will tell you that they add nothing to their brandy, and that the flavor and color are due to 100% French oak maturation and quality fruit? Answer: all of them. Truth: maybe a handful of them actually don't use boise or caramel coloring.

There are many things in life that continue to baffle and annoy me, like why does that guy on the freeway think he can go 55 mph in the fast lane and not yield to faster drivers? However, wondering why "craft" distillers lie about their whiskey isn't on that list. I already know the answer to that question. It's the same reason that Barry Bonds lied about taking steroids to break both the single season and all-time home run records. It's the same reason that girl at the bar said she had surgery for a deviated septum and not a cosmetic nose job. It's the same reason that cases of celiac disease have gone up 2000% in the face of the new gluten-free dieting fad. And it's the same reason that people who have fake British accents claim to have "picked something up" while living abroad for a year. Some people want to be seen as special, significant, and superior—and they are willing to delude both you and themselves to do so (watch HBO's Eastbound and Down for a HILARIOUS take on this subject).

In the end, if every one of these bottlers were to print "distilled in Indiana" on the label and follow the law as it is written, I don't think it would make all that much of a difference to consumers. Even when the information is right there on the bottle, it's often ignored in the face of the bigger story (which is why these people know they can lie!). Every single day I have customers tell me they love that delicious Bay Area-distilled Bourbon—you know, St. George Breaking & Entering (despite the fact that the label clearly says "Kentucky"). I have daily vendors coming in, telling me about their new "craft" whiskies—100 % self-distilled—even though it says "Indiana" right there on the bottle. People often don't read labels, or pay attention to detail. When this happens, it's quite easy to take advantage of a little white lie. Once you've been burnt, you just learn to be skeptical all of the time (as I've said before: assume that everyone is lying to you).

Rather than depend on a government-approved label to tell me what's what, I just look for the play. If you're really interested in the truth, a few words on a piece of paper isn't going to cut it. We'll all need to be a little more like Sam Rothstein from Casino:

If it seems too good to be true, it probably is. But that's hardly news to me, nor is it all that upsetting, because it's what I've come to expect in life. The TTB should definitely start enforcing the distilling laws as they've been written, but it's not going to stop people from being human. Nor will it make the whiskey in your bottle taste any better.

-David Driscoll