90+ Cellars – Innovation in a Bottle
The art of winemaking predates history. And with all the time and effort vintners have devoted to turning the fruit of the vine into a tasty beverage with just the right ethanol content, I would say job well done. Not much has changed in the winemaking business over the past 50 years. Once winemakers learned how to control oxidation and sanitation, the craft turned to scientific advances focusing on microbiology and chemistry. But the innovation that has affected my buying habits lately is more about the unique marketing techniques employed by Boston-based Latitude Beverage Company than it is about new winemaking methods.
As it was for many businesses, 2008 was an economically difficult year for the wine industry. Unlike manufacturing, a vineyard cannot simply stop growing grapes when demand drops. Farmers are stuck with a certain yield and must continue to make the same amount of wine each year. So if a winery is making premium wines that sell for $25 to $65 a bottle, they are in really bad shape. Those wines don’t move very quickly when the economy is slow, and dropping the price devalues the label.
In 2009, Latitude Beverage Company President Kevin Mehra decided to take advantage of this situation. He called on wineries around the world that were making premium wines and offered to buy entire lots for cash and sell them under the brand 90+ Cellars. The labels contain only the growing region and a lot number. The wineries’ names are never disclosed. Mehra is a modern day négociant. He brings to market a brand of wine by buying product from various sources without owning a vineyard.
A wine rating of 90 or higher is quite prestigious. (A wine rating is a score given to a wine by one or more critics after a blind tasting using a 100-point scale.) You can be assured that if this rating is deserved, the wine is excellent. Mehra’s company only buys wine from producers that have consistently received ratings of 90 or higher, thus the name 90+. This does not guarantee that each of his wines is rated at this level, but they all come from top producers.
Every négociant has a unique twist on how he brings a product to market, and the beauty of Mehra’s model is simple: When you pick up a bottle with the 90+ Cellars label, you are buying a wine that normally would sell for double or triple the price.
Two of my favorite 90+ Cellars wines come from the brand’s “Collector’s Series.” Lot 70 is a 2009 red wine blend from Maremma Toscana, Italy, about 100 miles north of Rome. The wine’s blend is not revealed, but I suspect cabernet sauvignon, sangiovese and merlot are the primary grapes in this “Super Tuscan.” It sells for $25.99, but wine of this quality would likely sell for $59 and up with a private label.
Lot 76 is a French Bordeaux blend that comes from the town of Saint-Emilion. It is labeled as a grand cru, but should not be confused with the Saint-Emilion Grand Cru Classé, a much higher priced wine. Merlot, the region’s primary grape, is generally blended with cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and malbec. You can buy this wine for $29.99, but it would likely sell for $55 or more when wearing its source label.
You should also be able to find another Super Tuscan labeled Lot 90. Mehra tells me that it may be even better than the Maremma. All of these wines are available in limited quantities, so I would recommend buying at least a few bottles when you find them.
90+ Cellars wines are widely available in the Merrimack Valley. You can get them at several supermarkets and wine stores, but the best selection I have found is at New England Wine & Spirits in Newburyport. The owners there are firm believers in this discount brand and will be hosting a special tasting of all available 90+ Cellars wines sometime in May. At $10 to $29 a bottle, 90+ Cellars wines are bargains you should not miss. Salute!
New England Wine & Spirits