Category:Wine news

Winebits 448: Bloggers, wine retailers, bootleg liquor

bloggersThis week’s wine news: The feds go after unscrupulous bloggers, wine retailer speak, and bootleg liquor.

Transparency is all: The Federal Trade Commission has decided that “consumers have the right to know when they’re looking at paid advertising” when they’re on-line; hence, crackdowns on marketers who don’t tell us when they’re paying for content. Two cases in the past year, in which the Lord & Taylor department store and film studio Warner Bros. settled with the commission over unscrupulous practices, apparently mean the feds are serious. The Warner case was particularly egregious, reports clickz.com: “Warner Bros. gave the influencers advance copies of [a] game and paid them anywhere from hundreds to tens of thousands of dollars each to promote the game to their followers with specific instructions, including ‘not to disclose any bugs or glitches they found.’ ” At least we’re not that bad in the wine business. I think.

Retailer-speak: One of the difficulties with buying wine is that many of the the people who sell it have a completely different view of wine than consumers do. We worry about price and quality, and they care about almost everything but that. This interview, with an official at Florida’s ABC Fine Wine & Spirits, is a good example. It’s almost technical in its complexity, and the average consumer probably won’t be able to make much sense of it. But that’s how retailers think, and it’s not about what we want to buy.

Deadly booze: Almost three dozen people have died in India over the past couple of weeks from drinking toxic liquor they bought from a local retailer. The retailer, who was arrested, was selling the booze at one-sixth the price of a name brand; some two billion liters of bootleg alcohol are sold in India every year, compared to less than three billion liters of legal liquor. In addition, 11 officials, including seven policemen, were suspended for for allowing the booze to be sold.

Winecast 28: Bret Thorn, Nation’s Restaurant News

Bret Thorn

Bret Thorn

Restaurant wine prices are so high because restaurant costs keep going up. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they need to be so expensive, says one of the country’s top restaurant experts.

Bret Thorn, the senior food and beverage editor at Nation’s Restaurant News, knows more about the restaurant business than almost anyone in the country. So who better to ask why restaurant wine prices keep going up despite woeful sales?

We talked about that, as well as changes in the restaurant business that may alter the way we eat out — if we eat out at all in the coming decades — and are changes that the restaurant business still doesn’t completely understand.

To high wine prices, says Thorn, some restaurant operators see wine as a way to recoup increased costs, which include a higher minimum wage in some states and rising food prices. Those of us who buy wine in a restaurant may be shouldering more than our fair share of those rising costs.

But Thorn is an optimist, and says there are a lot of smart people in the restaurant business who might recognize an opportunity to sell more wine — especially if we let them know we think a four to one markup for a glass of $10 wine is too much. His suggestion? Politely and reasonably let the restaurant know you’d buy more wine if prices were more reasonable. And no, he said, a Twitter rant probably isn’t the best way to complain.

Click here to download or stream the podcast, which is about 16 1/2 minutes long and takes up 11.6 megabytes. The sound quality is mostly good, though I wasn’t able to get it to play on my Linux box. Windows is OK, though.

Winebits 447: Pennsylvania wine, Judgment of Paris, wine on TV

Pennsylvania wineThis week’s wine news: Pennsylvanians may be able to buy in the supermarket this fall, the 40th anniversary of the Judgment of Paris, and a new wine TV show.

Maybe by Thanksgiving: Pennsylvanians may be able to buy wine in the grocery store by the holiday if all goes well, reports the Post-Gazette newspaper in Pittsburgh. The well-written piece explains the obstacles to be overcome and the bureaucratic tussle to be negotiated for grocery stores to sell wine for the first time in the state’s history: They need to get a retail license, renovate their aisles to make room for wine, and to work with distributors to make sure wine shows up at the store. For example, since no distributor in the state sells to grocery stores now, wholesalers will have to set up the process from scratch. Again, another example of how cumbersome and outdated the three-tier system is.

Judgment of Paris: The Wine Curmudgeon mentions the 40th anniversary of the most important event in the U.S. wine business after Prohibition again for two reasons. First, this Jancis Robinson story focuses on Steven Spurrier, the Briton who put the Judgment together, something we don’t see much of in this country. Second, as you read this, I’m in Colorado with Warren Winiarksi, whose Stag’s Leap cabernet sauvignon was chosen best red wine in the blind tasting. Perhaps Warren and I can find time to record a podcast while we’re here if he doesn’t mind recounting yet again how the California wines bested the best wines in France.

Making wine on TV work: The Wine Curmudgeon has often lamented that wine makes for lousy TV, because an interesting wine TV show could help boost wine’s popularity in the U.S. That may change in August, though, when Hulu airs the English “TV Wine Show” featuring two British actors who apparently make women swoon – Matthew Goode (hope he doesn’t read this) and Matthew Rhys. I have not seen the show, but will watch it and review it. Goode and Rhys are going to have to be very sexy to overcome the plot description, though, which sounds like another wine TV yawner: “[W]ine pros travel the world to experience international wine culture from experts.”

Winebits 446: Cheap wine, retailer foolery, U.S. wine sales

cheap wine

You need to take the bag out of the box if you’re going to slap it.

This week’s wine news: College students take to cheap wine, retailers fudge with scores, and U.S. wine sales will remain flat.

Don’t slap the bag: The Wine Curmudgeon was greatly heartened to see a food website at the University of Florida offer solid advice about buying cheap wine and insisting that cheap doesn’t mean bad wine (and that it linked to my site just hows smart the author, Abigail Miller, is). Writes Miller: “The cuter the label, the simpler the wine,” something I have been preaching for years and that producers assume we’re too stupid to understand. Plus, I brushed up on current slang – “bougie,” a derivative of bourgeois, as in “drinking wine is so bougie,” and slapping the bag, a drinking game that uses the bag inside boxed wine.

Scores and retailers: A Massachusetts TV station discovered that the scores used to sell wine on shelf talkers at liquor stores in its area were playing fast and loose with vintage – that is, the wine that got a 90 was not the vintage for sale. It was something that the TV report found in eight of 10 stores. Said one retailer: “I guess it would be good to know that the winery has won medals, but I think that the consumer needs to look at the year, because the year will make a huge difference.” Sadly, despite the retailer’s observations, I’m told this is a common practice throughout the country.

Not much growth: The U.S. wine boom has ended, and the market will grow at just about one percent through 2020. This compares to growth of 3.3 percent before the recession, a fact the short story mentions but doesn’t try to explain. Has wine become what marketers call a mature category, where we’ve seen all the growth we’re going to have? Or is there something else going on that no one can explain? My guess, given that so few Americans drink wine compared to other countries, is the latter.

La Moneda Reserva malbec – the best cheap wine in the world?

La Moneda reserva malbecIs Chile’s La Moneda Reserva malbec really the best cheap wine in the world? Probably not. But it is a wonderful example of how screwed up wine is.

Where else but wine would a product that no one can buy in the U.S. make headlines throughout the country? “Walmart’s $6 red wine named one of the best in the world,” screamed Fox News. “Wal-Mart brand red wine named one of the best in the world,” shouted CNBC. And, my favorite, from the ultra-hip Daily Meal, “Walmart Brand Red Wine Costing $6 Named One of the Best in the World,” complete with diaper reference.

That’s because the wine business teaches us that only expensive wine is any good, and the U.S. media parrots that line whenever possible. No one in this country can buy the La Moneda Reserva malbec, because it’s a private label sold only at ASDA, a supermarket chain owned by Walmart in Great Britain. But who cares? It’s cheap! Really cheap!!

Can you imagine those news outlets doing the same thing for ketchup or blue jeans or a car that none of their readers could buy? Of course not. But it’s wine! That’s cheap!! Really cheap!!!

To their credit, my colleagues in the Winestream Media didn’t go quite as berserk when the La Moneda Reserva malbec won a platinum medal at Decanter’s World Wine Awards. Some noted that it’s odd that a Chilean wine made with malbec, an Argentine grape, did so well. Some made the point that much of the fuss was silly since no one could buy it. And none made any claims to quality, since none had tasted it.

I haven’t either. But since I’ve probably tasted more grocery store wine that anyone else in the world, I’d guess that the La Moneda Reserva malbec is likely well made and deserving of its medal. I’m a little concerned that one of the judges called it “a crowd pleaser,” which is wine judge for lots of fruit. But is it appreciably better than any other wine in the $10 Hall of Fame? What do you think?

Know, too, that this is almost certainly a one-off success, given the way private label works. The company that found the wine for ASDA, International Procurement & Logistics, supplies products based on pricing, not necessarily quality. ASDA wanted a red wine to sell at retail for £5.75 that it could make a certain margin on, and that’s what International Procurement looked for. It wasn’t about terroir, but the cost of grapes, and the quality was a happy accident.

So be glad that British wine drinkers have a quality $10 wine to drown their Brexit sorrows with. But also wish the media in this country that went silly about a cheap wine being good would pay more attention to what’s on the shelves at their grocery stores. Maybe then we’d have better wine to buy in this country.

Winebits 445: Wine scores, Veramonte, Tennessee

wine scoresTake that, wine scores: Writes MJ Skeggs in the Portland Mercury about wine scores: “Yep, despite how the tasting industry (the magazines, star reviewers, bloggers, anyone with a palate and a keyboard) claims objectivity, it comes down to personal preference.” Couldn’t have said it better myself, though I’ve probably said it just as well many, many times. Skeggs lists eight other reasons to avoid scores, as well as the best alternative – find a good retailer and go from there. And how can one not recommend a wine article that includes a Spinal Tap reference?

Chilean winery sold: Control of Veramonte, once a star of cheap Chilean wine, has been sold to one of Spain’s biggest producers. This is probably good news, since Vermaonte’s current owners have presided over the wine as it has become more expensive and less well made. The new lead owner, Gonzalez Byass, makes Beronia, always quality cheap wine.

Tennessee grocery store wine: How big a deal is supermarket wine? More than 400 grocery stores in Tennessee started selling wine this month, the first time they were allowed to do so under new legislation. The fight to allow wine in supermarkets in the state dates to the 1970s, and has been called the biggest change in the state’s liquor laws since Prohibition. Where have we heard that before?

Is this the end of For Sale in Texas Only?

For sale in Texas onlyA proposed change to federal wine label laws could mean the end for wine that says For Sale in Texas Only – a term that implies that a wine is local when it might be made with grapes from anywhere in the world.

The Treasury department’s tax and trade bureau announced this week that it wants to revise the regulations that allow a wine to carry For Sale in Only designation. In Texas, we call it FSTO – which stands for For Sale in Texas Only – but you’ll see FSO labels in every state: For Sale in Colorado Only, For Sale in Pennsylvania Only, and so forth.

Under the new rules, wines labeled FSO won’t be allowed to list the vintage or the grape it is made with, like cabernet sauvignon or chardonnay. Currently, FSO wines can list both and look local in almost every respect, save that they don’t have a state name or other appellation on the front label. The only clue that they aren’t local is a line in small type on the back label that says FSO, and that only wine writers, wine geeks, and winemakers understand.

FSO is sometimes used to circumvent appellation laws when the wine isn’t made with enough local fruit for it to have a state name. This is unfortunately common in regional wine, and has been an especial problem in Texas for the past decade or so, as the number of wineries has almost doubled and grape acreage hasn’t kept up.

That’s because appellation laws require that 75 percent of the grapes used to make the wine must come from that state for it to labeled Texas (or whatever). If a wine is made with less than 75 percent local grapes, it must use the word American on the front label, something producers don’t like to do because it’s obvious that the wine isn’t local. And what’s the point of local wine that isn’t local?

Hence the FSO label.

It’s important to note that FSO isn’t illegal and that many producers use it legitimately. The problem comes when it’s used to disguise non-local wine as local. That, apparently, was the impetus for the rules change – a Georgia winery selling an FSO wine made with Napa Valley grapes in North Carolina, and which caught the attention of a key Napa trade group and the Napa Valley’s U.S. congressman.

In fact, a spokeswoman for U.S. House Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif)., who chairs the Congressional wine caucus, emailed me to say that FSO in the Georgia case was “a TTB labeling loophole” and “works against strict and rigorous labeling rules to ensure that consumers know exactly what they are purchasing.”

The actual rules proposal is almost indecipherable unless you practice liquor law. My thanks to Austin attorney Kimberly Frost, who did her usual brilliant job in explaining it to me. The new rules will limit FSO wines to terms like red wine or white wine on the front label, in the hope that producers will use the more accurate American appellation so they can list the grapes and the vintage..

One irony to all this? The new FSO rules may give regional producers incentive to buy California bulk wine and put their label on it. That means  we could see more California wine sold by wineries in the other 47 — Texas-bottled Russian River pinot noir, anyone? That’s because the revisions will allow producers to use grape names and vintage on California bulk wine, which they couldn’t do if they bought California grapes or grape juice and combined them with local grapes to make FSO wine.

The tax and trade bureau is taking comments until Aug. 22, but there’s no time frame on when the rules will take effect. My guess, given how slowly the agency works, is that we won’t see anything until the middle of next year, and it could be even later than that.