Wine connoisseurs are a rare breed. Their personal views on wine can create market trends, inspire winemakers, and fire up demand for hitherto obscure varietals and blends. Some of them have become stars, and their subjective opinions are taken as the gospel truth. When it comes to spotting fabulous wines before anyone else has ever heard of them, personal taste is everything, and Jack Daniels has made a career of his own exceptional taste and his ability to develop lasting relationships with the world’s top winemakers.
Daniels, who is a co-founder of Wilson Daniels, Domaine de la Romanee-Conti’s exclusive U.S. importer, explains, “Wine tasting is subjective, and we all have our own palate, and our own taste profile. Your taste profile is different from mine. You may like the wines I like or you may prefer something else. I feel it’s the same thing with wine critics. It is common to see them continually awarding high scores to a particular style of wine that fits their taste preferences and profile. This, however, does not mean that the wines that receive lower ratings from them are not as good. It just means that individuals have their own, unique taste profiles.”
A New World wine aficionado — he has strong roots in the Napa Valley — with an Old World mystique, Daniels believes in the uniqueness of the wine tasting experience. “I don’t know of any product that is judged like wine,” Daniels says. “I don’t think anyone goes to a restaurant and does the same with food. Critics don’t go into such detail as they do with wine. Something about wine comes from the heart, and what your heart feels for a particular wine tells you what’s right and what’s not right for you personally. Sometimes, I will read a wine writer’s comments and find that’s not the way I interpreted the wine when I tasted it. That doesn’t make either one of us right or wrong. Much as we may try to remain objective, that objectivity is simply coming from different taste profiles, from our unique and personal experience of the wine.”
Taste is made up of many different components. Experience and expectations are key to understand the process of taste and preferences, and Daniels believes these are essential concepts the wine connoisseur needs to keep in mind at all times. “In some cases it could be the price point; a certain psychological tick connected to that. Sometimes people fail to recognize a great wine because of its price, style, or even color,” Daniels notes.
Because wine critiquing is so profoundly subjective, Daniel believes in keeping an open mind when reading wine reviews. “There are critics who judge that way, playing it safe by giving top scores only to well-known and expensive wines, and it’s unfortunate,” Daniels says. “In my personal opinion, people really need to keep an open mind when reading wine reviews, regardless of the reviewer’s fame. This does not mean that what the critic is saying is wrong, but it may not coincide with the reader’s preferences and taste.”
In other words, a poor review doesn’t necessarily make a wine bad. “You have to be able to taste wine, and even though it may not be your style preference, you can tell the difference between good wine and bad wine. If you taste a wine that is not stylistically in your range, it can still be a great wine,” Daniels says.
From Great Wines to Collectible Wines
Daniels credits his solid relationships and friendships with key wine industry players for his seamless return to Wilson Daniels, after selling the company and retiring for a few years. On the other hand, his unparalleled knowledge of fine wine puts him in an ideal position to try to unravel the mysteries of collectability.
When asked what makes a wine collectible, Daniels replies, “Scarcity; that’s a key component, alongside price, critical reviews, and history. Domaine de la Romanee-Conti has been around for over 1,000 years; they’ve had time to make a footprint in the market. Many wineries from the Napa Valley and elsewhere in California are starting to make their mark as well: Screaming Eagle, Harlan, Colgin, and Schrader Cellars. Over a short period of time, they have been able to make their mark. Their wines tend to be high in price, stylistic, and, generally, in short supply. And they receive consistently stellar reviews from the top wine critics.”
Scarcity and high demand make a perfect match for collectible wines, often working to their advantage when it comes to reviews. For over 15 years, Wilson Daniels has hosted an annual Portfolio Tour tasting event for tradespeople and media. This is where the quintessential best of Wilson Daniels’ cellar meets the public eye.
With the confidence of someone who has been in the wine industry for 50 years, Daniels explains, “The reviews that come out of our annual tastings are always the highest caliber. When you are dealing with properties that have built a reputation over the years, even some of the newer domestic ones I’ve mentioned, they are all very secure and very focused on the vineyard and what the vineyards represent for their wines.”
When it comes to the elusive characteristics that can make a wine critic praise a wine enthusiastically, Daniels has an interesting perspective, “Subconsciously, critics look at the above-referenced points. You build a reputation when you’re dealing with wine producers who are very focused on the vineyard and what the vineyards represent.” This is of the utmost importance in Daniels’ mind. The adage is common sense among the finest practitioners of the craft: you don’t make wine, you grow it. “This is the key ingredient,” Daniels says emphatically.
“If you have the worst grapes on the planet, you are not going make good wine no matter how great of a winemaker you may be. You absolutely have to have excellent grapes. As a rule, the most successful properties are really focused on the vineyard and that is the key ingredient of their wines,” he emphasizes.
As someone whose vision has been known to open and expand markets for certain regional wines, Daniels has a lot to say about current trends in the fine and collectible wines market, “Burgundy is on a real row, and they have been for some time now. The prices seem to be escalating quite quickly, yet the demand hasn’t slowed down at this point. Bordeaux, I think, is starting to make a comeback. They had some very good vintages, but, over the years, there have been peaks and valleys. They’ve been in a valley, and I think they’re soon to peak again.”
As the nuanced market of collectible wine transforms and expands, Daniels strives to keep an eye on the big picture, which allows him to identify some worldwide trends, “It’s a very fickle market, and I think the greatest stride of any varietal is Pinot Noir. It probably has the biggest upside, and you can look at Oregon as an example, and the notoriety that they’re getting from their Pinot Noirs, their high marks and reception.”
While Wilson Daniels’ main sources of business may still be the more established properties, when it comes to Pinot Noir, Daniels champions a variety of emerging wine regions. “Russian River, Sonoma County, Sonoma Coast, Central Coast, and Santa Maria all hold much promise,” Daniels says. “There are some outstanding Pinot Noirs coming from these areas now. And the same goes for New Zealand. There is just a lot happening with the varietal. I remember, when I got into the wine business, Pinot Noir was not highly recognized, and now it’s very much a sought after varietal.”
In discussing the red variety of Pinot, Daniels displays some of his insider’s knowledge about the grape’s history in the wine industry, “It took grape growers a while to figure out where a Pinot Noir should be planted; how it should be grown; how you vinify it, and so on. Unlike the Cabernet Sauvignon grape, which is heartier and more robust, the Pinot Noir is more delicate and sensitive. Now, winemakers are making great strides, and the future is full of promise.”
Both classics and neglected varietals can strike big at any time. According to Daniels, “Cabernet and Chardonnay are still highly sought after varietals. Sauvignon Blanc is also on the rise. Merlot has had its struggles, but it seems to be gaining traction. Syrah is also coming on strong as a result of new vineyards being planted in California and other strategic wine producing regions.”
Present and Future of Winemaking
Daniels is as hopeful about the development of winemaking technologies as about the bright future of Pinot Noir. “Even in Burgundy, where there is a long tradition, they have taken on new farming and production methods,” he says. “More wineries are going into sustainable agriculture; some are taking it even further and adopting biodynamic agriculture. More and more wineries are farming in this manner, and the resulting wines tend to take on a more natural, earthy minerality.”
Another shift in the winemaking paradigm has taken place in recent years. According to Daniels,“Winemaking is evolving to be more hands-off than in years past. If you work the vineyards right, handle the grapes within the winery right, babysit, and give the process loving care, you don’t necessarily have to sit there and try to make a recipe. There was a time when we saw a lot of recipe winemaking going on. Young winemakers were coming out of oenology school and making wines that began tasting too similar; most notably in the Chardonnay varietal. But they have now graduated from that style of winemaking, having learned to be more stylistic and to make the wine the vineyards are giving them. Thus, they are producing a very diverse cross-section of wines from the same variety.”
The Best Wine in the World
Despite the importance he attributes to evolution, Daniels continues to believe that tradition remains the gold standard for wine. “The first wine you’ve tasted and liked becomes your benchmark. You judge other wines from that perspective,” he says.
He takes a deep breath when asked about the greatest wines he’s tried lately. It seems that there are so many it’s hard for him to pick a few. To settle the matter, he reverts back to his all-time favorite. “There is one wine that does stick with me,” Daniels says. “People often ask me what is the greatest wine I’ve ever tasted. I can honestly say it was the 1978 Domaine de la Romanee-Conti Montrachet. Of all the white wines and red wines, that’s probably the greatest wine.”
“Somebody else is going to give you a different answer,” he warns. “They may have a taste preference that steers them in a different direction. Personally, I believe it is just something you taste and feel. From my perspective, it had all the ingredients of what I am looking for, and its taste profile was stunning. I’ve tasted a lot of other great wines, going back to the 1891 Biondi Santi Brunello, one of the longest-lived wines in the world. This wine is still good today. It’s just magnificent. But, again, I go back to the ‘78; it is still the finest wine I’ve ever tasted, be it red or white.”
When urged to describe the taste of 1978 Romanee-Conti Montrachet, Daniels offers his take on what makes a wine outstanding, “Which one do you like better: a New York steak or a ribeye steak?” he quips. “It just had the taste profile, the mouth feel, and the finish I prefer. A wine can only be great if it has a long finish. A wine can taste good and not have a long finish, but for a wine to be great, a long finish is a must.”
According to Daniels, one should still be able to taste a great wine twenty or thirty seconds after swallowing it. He elaborates, “The Montrachet stuck the whole day with me, so, it was memorable.”
Domaine de la Romanee-Conti boasts several other vintages that have become some of Daniels’ favorites, “The ‘85 and ‘86 are great, but the ‘78 still, for me, is the best. You probably could not find a ‘78 Montrachet today. And if you did you’re likely going to pay $15-20,000 dollars for it.”
What the Future Holds for Domaine de la Romanee-Conti
As an enthusiast of the French winery, Daniels exercises his acute sense of wine industry trends to offer a forecast of Domaine de la Romanee-Conti’s future. “I don’t have a crystal ball to see into the future, but I don’t think anything quite like Domaine de la Romanee-Conti is going to come along any time soon,” Daniels says. “It’s something that is totally unique in the world of wine. There is nothing else like it. It commands the highest respect and the highest prices. Anyone who buys it rarely asks the price, but they always ask for more.”
As the company he co-founded celebrates its 37th vintage as Domaine de la Romanee-Conti’s exclusive importer, Daniels elaborates on the secret of that relationship’s success. “We have a great understanding of it,” he says. “Because of the experience we’ve had through the years, we have seen it escalate to the pinnacle of the wine universe. It’s become so popular that counterfeiters have seen an opportunity to profit from its fame.”
Because of this, Wilson Daniels is strict about where and to whom it sells the wine. For Jack Daniels, the history of the vineyard is a key element of Romanee-Conti’s importance, “The French military salute when they pass it. The vineyards are considered hallowed grounds. I doubt you will ever see anyone but a Frenchman own any part of the domain; I don’t think France would allow it.”
Wine Regions to Watch
While the world’s most valuable wines tend to come from established regions, Daniels has faith in the future of many up-and-coming areas, especially in the New World. “I think New Zealand will be thrust forward in the wine world,” Daniels says. “The quality of the Pinot Noirs coming out of New Zealand’s central Otago are just extraordinary and, quite frankly, they can compete with some of the greatest wines coming out of Burgundy. The Chardonnays coming out of the northern part of New Zealand, like Kumeu River Chardonnay, are world class. If you put it in a blind wine tasting with white Burgundies and some of the great California Chardonnays, they’re going to come out at the top or near the top.”
Many factors influence a wine’s standing in the international market, and as someone who knows how to get unique wines to the top, Daniels is very aware of the hurdles producers face. “There are many as-yet-undiscovered producers who are making absolutely extraordinary wines,” he says. “They just need to get those wines out in public and in front of people, so that people can have the opportunity to try them and see how extraordinary they are.”
Although his heart is divided between the Napa Valley, France, and Italy, Daniels sees potential blooming the world over. “More and more, I am enjoying the Malbecs out of Argentina,” he says. “I think they’re learning how to grow them, how to make them, and what to do. And I think some of the Malbecs are extraordinary. I think you’re also going to see wines from Spain and Portugal making a big impact on the market. I think they’re taking on techniques and using methods of growing and production that showcase their wines at a much higher level.”
Daniels also believes that Hungary, relatively unknown as a wine producing country, has a lot going for it, and Wilson Daniels has acted accordingly. “We were the first ones to bring The Royal Tokaji Wine Company, Tokaji Aszú, back to the U.S. after the fall of the Soviet Union in the early nineties.” The communist government was not a big believer in creating exclusive wines, so the winery had to be rebuilt from the ground up. The results have been very auspicious so far, Daniels says.
“The wine has been accepted extraordinarily well. It wasn’t at first; it had to be built, we had to get it in front of the people, and we had to place it in the right circumstances. People have embraced it now, and know that it’s a great wine. It’s unique and fun to drink, and it makes for some very interesting dinner pairings because of the way it’s made and its taste profile.”
The former Napa Valley aficionado still sees great potential in several U.S. wine regions. “There are a lot of opportunities here, and, of course, in California and Oregon. Washington State is an emerging market,” Daniels notes. “I don’t think there’s any specific area that has a handle to become the biggest, best tomorrow. There are a number of places that have that opportunity. And I tend to take a global approach to wine. It’s exciting to look at all these emerging regions and wineries and try to project where they are going to be next year, in ten, twenty years’ time. On a certain level, it is true that almost anything can happen, but at the end of the day, I like to trust my instincts. I’ve had a good run so far.”
Since its founding in 2003, Vinfolio has been dedicated to trading in rare, high quality wines for the collectors’ market. Located in San Francisco and Napa, we are a company of wine experts who understand the value and importance of wine provenance. Thus, we offer wines from Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, the wine Wilson Daniels so proudly brought to the U.S. To find exclusive direct sale and auction deals on Romanee-Conti and other collectible wines, and keep up-to-date with new releases from the world’s top wineries, visit Vinfolio today.