Back of the Bottle: Interview with Craig Perman, Perman Wine Selection

April 04 2011 - 12:06 PM

Recently Brian Ziegler, the Chicago Foodies Wine Editor, decided to interview Craig Perman, proprietor of West Loop merchant  Perman Wine Selections, 802 W. Washington, and get some insight into consumer wine buying behavior and trends in the retail wine business.

Brian Ziegler: What are some of the trends you’ve seen in Chicago:

Craig Perman:  Keep in mind I have a lot of geeky customers–there’s the concept of natural wine making and there are several producers [I carry] – a 2009 Morgon Côte du Py Beaujolais from Jean Folliard ($29.99) , someone like Frank Cornelissen in Sicily in near Mt. Etna, which we have in magnum [the 2o06 Contadino]  ($70.00).   There’s a lot of debate about natural wine, but a lot of my customers love to drink it. Biodynamics was started by Rudolf Steiner, who cultivated biodynamic viticulture.  It’s a lot about the farm.  

He’s a philosopher and writer who incorporated a lot of science and mysticism.  He would fill a cow horn with manure and bury it into the ground and advocate harvesting according to the Celestial moon. Some people feel like it’s a load of shit.

There is development of new regions – there’s a lot of Croatian wines.

BZ: East European wines. There’s Hungary…

CP: Communism ended in Hungary [in 1989] and wineries were privatized in the early ’90s. Everything was founded in ’92 or ’93.   It’s quantity versus quality, and it was quantity in communism.  We’ve seen an emergence of quality.  We’re getting to the eighteenth or twentieth year of quality – and that’s what it takes for wineries to produce quality stuff.

BZ: How about Moldova and Georgia?  Lots of indigenous varietals.

CP: Not a lot of stuff from Moldova and Georgia.  There are over 200 distributors in Chicago – and there is probably someone from Georgia who brings wine to the Russian community.

BZ: I had a bottle from Herzegovina recently.

CP:  They grow international varietals – Cabernet Sauvignon in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Hungary and Austria grow Blaufränkisch–some of Burgenland [an eastern wine region of Austria] is part of Hungary – the Austro-Hungarian empire. 

BZ:  Any regions over the past few years that you feel offers a lot of value?

CP:  South America, without a doubt.   Argentina–I’m not a big fan of.  Chilean wine are very good. Other areas:  south of France – Languedoc is the area I’m most excited about – from Corbières and Saint-Chinian.  They’ve even split up Corbières into subappellations.   I can’t think of anyone knowing the subappellations of Corbières.  

Southern Italy – a lot of great wines from Apulia [Puglia].  

In Spain, a lot of Grenanche [Garnacha] comes from Aragon–Calatayud, Campo de Borja.   Rioja produces Grenache–the subregion of Rioja Baja.   In the central coastal area–Yecla and Jumilla.

Portugal is very exciting – dry table wines are very exciting – not just from the Douro.   But you have other areas – Dão, Bairrada.  The white wine we’ve always known about –the Vinho Verde. 

A lot of people come to me for Spanish wines.

BZ:  What regions do you believe get too much attention–oversaturated customer demand, like oaky California Chardonnay in the ’80s and ’90s?

CP: It’s called Malbec from Argentina – here’s the thing about Mendoza [the wine region in Argentina].   It’s a high desert plain and an irrigated desert plain.   They can irrigate– that leads to inconsistency.  The quality is there – I’m not denying that Malbec is tasty – it’s certainly not complex. A lot of Malbec is commercialized, it’s manipulated, it doesn’t have a story. Wine should have a story, something behind it.  Malbec is something behind the marketing.

I’ll tell you what is going to happen–in Australia there was a lot of commercially marketed wines. [alluding to the fallout of consumer perception of Australian wine and resulting decline in exports.]  And it’s not the way Australia is.  It’s a large’s not a realistic thing.

And there’s some talk around Achával Ferre charging $100 a bottle.  Argentina needs to do something to say to the world [what is] Argentina–that’s too much.  How do you differentiate between one hundred different Malbec brands.  To me that’s what I would say.

I really do hope Australia makes a comeback, and that it makes wonderful wine.  There are decent growers and I hope people do things with other varietals.

BZ:  What about Pinot Noir?

CP:  At least it’s a truly complex varietal that tastes like where it comes from.   There already is a problem with Pinot Noir in California.   Producers who sell at $40 to $55 a bottle.  They could get rid of these at restaurants at $120 a bottle [before the recession].  Now that price point has slowed down, and in retail you have a problem.

BZ:  Does Pinot Grigio fall in the same category?

CP: Pinot Grigio is another thing.  [BZ: Santa Margherita at $25 a bottle?]     This business is a low margin business – 100 percent machine harvested, and the yields are high. 

I was just in Las Vegas.  All the people have deals in place to get wine in certain places.  They have a new villa to go skiing in Alto Adige. That’s not what I do here.  

Pinot Grigio/Pinot Gris is an interesting grape varietal. It’s not a fad that goes away or will go away.

BZ:  Some of my favorite Pinot Gris is from Alsace.

CP:  It can also be real super intense – viscous.  Alto Adige is higher elevation – Alsace is a sunny, dry climate–the second least rainfall of any département in France.   The Vosges Mountains block the rain, so the grapes have natural ripeness.

BZ: Any favorite producers from Alsace?

CP: There’s so many great producers.  There’s one not in this market I love – André Kientzler. I think highly of producers like Marcel Deiss, although he does a lot of co-planted wines– Gemischter Satz–you spread a lot of grape varietals into one wine [and they are grown, harvested, and fermented together].   It’s block by block–different parcels. 

For dessert, Zind-Humbrecht makes a lot. Hugel has great dessert wines.   Sélection de Grains Nobles back to 1989.   $1251 for a six pack.  [It includes] two bottles of Gewurtztraminer.  I have some Domaine Weinbach Schlossberg.  Close de Capucins.   

You’ll hear more from Pinot Noir from Alsace.  Alsace has gotten a bad rap [about their] Pinot.   [Climate change has improved the ability to grow Pinot.]

BZ:  Have you seen a curtailment in consumer spending?

CP: It’s not consumer spending quality.  I don’t think people are spending less [per bottle] but they’re not taking full cases.   I relate this to everyone’s job.  Everyone is working harder for less result.  In my business we’re working harder to sell a few bottles.  I still sell $200-300 bottles of wine, and last year I sold more $100 bottles of Barolo, but it’s not quick and easy.

In Chicago, we’re not as hard [of a market] but it is harder.   And you have a lot of Fortune 500 companies, not like Portland, where I used to live, and did not have a lot of Fortune 500 companies.

BZ:  What else do you see in the next couple of years from consumers?

CP:  Evolution of information in wine.   The consumers are extremely well-educated. They try obscure things – Corsican wine, Croatian wine, biodynamic Cabernet Franc from Penedès. People are actually interested in them.  The way we write and create links to a web site.  People actually care and click through all the stuff, and with all the trends the wine world is even.  You can be small because of all this stuff.  

You can have physiological ripe wine like Argentina, which is exposed to a warm climate. Turkey, Lebanon, Israel–that will probably be the next big thing, where there is cheap labor.   South America has low labor and history –old vines are very important. 

In the US, Arizona, Colorado, and Texas – but this will take time.  

BZ: What about Michigan?

CP: It takes a while for vines to get older and better viticulture.  It’s difficult–hard for me to sell American wines from newer areas.  Or you can get Rioja Reserva that is more complex.  

BZ:  Europe has gotten ungodly expensive?

CP:  Has it? Look at my Six for $60.  There are places where there are plenty of good producers who can be expensive or inexpensive.   

BZ:  Let’s take Hugel Jubilee.  The 2000 vintage went for about $20 a bottle for a Riesling. More recent vintages are now at $50 a bottle.

CP: I’d argue $50 for Hugel Jubilee Riesling is a good value. It’s also one of the great vineyard sites in Alsace.  Its Jubilee wines are situated on the Schoenenbourg and Sporen Grand Cru sites, though they are not labeled as such because Hugel opted out of the Grand Cru designation.

BZ: A lot of it is the Euro-Dollar exchange rate.

CP: True, but a lot of it is the labor rate.  It costs eleven to thirteen Euros per hour for help in the vineyard versus a dollar an hour in South America…maybe less for seasonal help.  It’s four to seven times more for the typical cost than Chile or Argentina.   It’s a big difference in the price of wine.

Everyone wants organic and biodynamic wine–there’s a lot of specialized treatment.  People expect to pay a bit more for these wines.

Perman Wine Selection
802 W. Washington
Chicago, IL 60607

–Brian Ziegler