Category:Wine news

Winebits 437: Wine fraud edition

wine fraudUsually, wine fraud revolves hugely expensive bottles most of us have never heard of, can’t afford, and will never drink. This week, though, wine fraud hits wines that many of us could drink.

• Wine competition fakes: Those of us who judge wine competitions have always suspected this happened, and it turns out we weren’t far off. The intrepid W. Blake Gray reports that the prestigious Concours Mondial de Bruxelles has two accused two producers of entering a better quality wine in a lesser quality bottle in last year’s competition. Each wine won medals; hence the fraud, since what the the judges tasted wasn’t what was submitted. Said the contest director: “It was really clear that it was not the same wine. It was completely different. The samples in the competition were much different than the samples in the supermarket.” The idea here is not to counterfeit poorly made wine, but to fool everyone and get a medal by substituting better made wine for the plonk.

• Not very Kosher: How about bootlegging Kosher wine at a Montreal synagogue? Police seized 650 cases of Kosher wine at the site, which was being sold to Jews for Passover in violation of the province’s liquor laws. The laws, similar to those in Pennsylvania, require that most wine be sold through stores run by the province, the SAQ stores. But since the stores carry little Kosher wine, it’s not uncommon for Jews to being wine into the province illegally and re-sell it during Jewish holidays. The Quebec liquor cops will have none of that; in 2010, another synagogue in Montreal was charged with illegally bringing in about 1,000 bottles of Kosher wine.

• Bait and switch: A class-action lawsuit claims chain retailer BevMo tricks consumers by using scores for wine in its stores that aren’t the same vintage as the wine being sold. That is, a sign in the store might say the wine got 92 points, even though the score was for a 2014 wine and the sign was being used to sell the 2015 vintage. The BevMo response is classic: It says displays a disclaimer regarding “vintage substitution:” “We always recommend customers check the bottle for vintage if they’re looking for a certain vintage.” Which, to the cynical among us, means the score listed is irrelevant, and implies that it is a trick.

Winebits 436: Mother’s Day wine, expensive wine, local wine

Mother's Day wineAgain, not cheap: Wine advice from general interest writers tends to confirm the stereotype that only expensive wine is worth buying – something that the Momtastic website is eager to push in this bit of Mother’s Day wine advice. There are nine recommended wines, and only one of them costs less than $18. The quality is OK, but there are certainly better values for the amount of money you’re asked so spend. The Guigal rose for $17? Who can’t do better than that if they have paid any attention to the blog for the past couple of years?

Taking expensive to new levels: Or, why the general public thinks wine drinkers are so snotty. Writes Lisa Carley for the New York wine Examiner, discussing a white Burgundy tasting at Le Bernardin in New York: “I was its guest – or was it my muse? It wasn’t the first time we’ve met, but my wine life is irrevocably changed by the experience. For the better? I hope. For the worse? Could be – what can compare to perfection? What in the world am I talking about?” If anyone is still reading, she tasted wines that cost as much as $750 a bottle at a legendary restaurant where lunch costs $85.

Making local a success: Disclaimers first: This story was written by my pal Dave McIntyre, and it features another friend, Andrew Stover. Nevertheless, what Dave writes about Andrew is true – he has brought local wine to the Washington, D.C., area, one of the toughest markets in the country. That’s the kind of place where people spend $85 for lunch and $750 (or more) for a bottle of wine, and if it ain’t chi chi, they ain’t spending. Somehow, Andrew has sold wine from from very un-chi chi like places like Pennsylvania, Texas, New York, Idaho, and Maryland to the retailers and restaurants who cater to those people.

Winebits 435: Wine lawsuits and legal foolishness edition

wine lawsuits

“We can win that moonshine thing easy.”

This week, more legal foolishness from the world of alcohol and wine lawsuits. Because, of course, even those of us who didn’t write “Bleak House” and “The Pickwick Papers” see the humor in lawsuits:

More Champagne foolishness: Our friends at the Champagne trade association have been at it again – what the post calls their “protectionist racket” – in a lawsuit to stop an English brewer from marketing a beer called “Champale” that is made with “Champagne-style” yeast and sold in “Champagne-stye bottles.” Yes, somewhere Dickens is laughing and reaching for his quill, though the report on the TechDirt website notes the brewery won the suit and will be allowed to use the name Champale. No doubt the Champagne bully boys will come up with another plan.

Moonshine foolishness: This news has been around for a while, but it gives me the chance to comment on another of my favorite subjects, the corruption of college athletics. How else to explain the lawsuit filed against a craft distiller, who makes a product called Kentucky Mist Moonshine, by those guardians of higher learning at the University of Kentucky? Who, believe it or not, say they are the only ones legally allowed to use the word “Kentucky” for business purposes. Let me just say this, which should give you an idea how morally bankrupt I consider the university’s position to be: “Kentucky!” “Kentucky!” “Kentucky!” I will also note that the school’s basketball coach and his two assistants earn almost $10 million a year combined – a total that would pay the in-state tuition and room and board for almost 350 students. But we have to have our priorities, don’t we?

Big Beer foolishness: Diageo, one of the three or four biggest drinks companies on the planet, has won a significant lawsuit because a judge said any reasonable consumer should know that Red Stripe beer is not made in Jamaica and doesn’t use any Jamaican ingredients. This ruling comes despite the beer’s label, which says “Jamaican Style Lager” and “The Taste of Jamaica” and uses the same logo the beer uses when it is made in Jamaica and not made in Pennsylvania (in tiny letters elsewhere on the label). It’s good to know the justice system is hard at work protecting massive multi-nationals; maybe the Champagne people should have tried their case in front of this judge.

Google to WC: Maybe you don’t have to drop dead

google linksThe good news about the new Google links edict, in which the search engine giant will penalize bloggers who use samples for their product reviews, is that it shouldn’t harm the Wine Curmudgeon or anyone else who is a legitimate wine writer. The bad news? That we have to trust Google – a highly secretive company that doesn’t tell anyone what it does or why it does it.

That’s the learned opinion of Stephen Kenwright, who has been parsing Google’s search algorithms since 2003 for Branded3, a consultancy in Leeds and London in the United Kingdom that helps companies boost their search results.

I contacted Kenwright after Google’s March samples announcement, and he didn’t disagree that there was reason to be concerned. “What you wrote,” he said, “made a lot of sense. Google’s guidelines are open to interpretation.”

So how legitimate was my fear that those of us who use samples were being lumped in with the sleazes and scumbags who trade in links for scam and profit? Links matter because their quality and quantity are crucial in getting the best search ranking from Google, and those of us who write on the Internet live and die by Google’s search rankings. A crummy search ranking, and you can’t find me no matter how good I am. Links also matter to the producers who send us samples, since Google’s new policy will penalize them as well – even though they aren’t trying to cheat the system.

Said Kenwright: “You’re writing a review– are you giving the best possible advice? Or is there no real reason for the review and the link to be there? Then you’ll probably be penalized. If you trust Google to do the right thing, it probably will.”

The key word, of course, is probably. Kenwright said Google’s targets are bloggers and companies who pile on links for no legitimate reason – a highly-ranked Mommy blogger, for instance, who suddenly reviews rifle scopes, or a well-read travel site for backpackers that for no particular reason starts doing luxury hotel reviews.

“Ask yourself, ‘Is my readership interested in this product?’ “ said Kenwright. “Do your readers expect to see this review on this site? The deciding factor is whether the reviews are genuine or not.”

So producers can keep sending samples to those of us who do legitimate wine reviews, and I can keep using those samples in my reviews without sending the blog crashing and burning to the bottom of the Internet.

I hope.

The headline on this post refers to the infamous 1975 New York Daily News headline during New York City’s bankruptcy crisis.

More about Google and wine blogging:
Google AdSense, wine blogs, and Joe Camel
Google as the WC’s editor
Wine and sex

Winebits 434: Freixenet sale, consolidation, marijuana

Freixenet saleSay it ain’t so: Freixenet, the Spanish wine giant that makes so much of the cheap wine that I buy and drink regularly, may be sold. This is almost certainly not good news for those of us who drink the Rene Barbier red and white blends, Segura Viudas cava, or the more expensive Gloria Ferrer sparkling wines from California. The German company that wants to buy Freixenet, Henkell & Co., sells very little wine in the U.S.; how interested will it be in continuing to sell those labels if it gets the company? And this doesn’t take into account the concern that any new owner usually screws up the old brands just because — right, Alaska Air? So, if any of the Ferrer family members who own the company read this (and I have met a couple of them over the years): Please, please don’t sell.

Just more businesspeak: Want to know why so much consolidation is going on in wine? Then read this piece from the Supermarket News trade magazine. The article doesn’t address wine, but the sentiments and buzzwords used in it to talk about grocery store mergers describe what’s happening in wine — and that consolidation has nothing to do with improving products or benefiting consumers. How about “the … narrow approach to defining competition could hinder efforts to make the industry more efficient.” More efficient, of course, means firing employees and cutting costs, not providing a better product.

Premiumize this: Aspen, Colo., where people who make industries more efficient go skiing, may have shown us the future of wine sales. And it’s not good. The city’s seven legal pot shops outsold city liquor stores in March and April last year. In April 2015, city residents and visitors bought almost $1 million worth of dope, compared to about $860,00 worth of booze. Know that weed has been legal in Aspen for less than two years, which makes that number even more amazing.

My apéritif with Randall Grahm

randall grahmDallas, finally, seems to be taking to Randall Grahm. The Bonny Doonster sold out a winemaker dinner at the new and much-praised Rapscallion on Monday night, and Dallas winemaker dinners usually don’t sell out unless they feature men who make massive, gigantic Napa-style red wine that costs too much money. Plus, Grahm’s wines are starting to show up on store shelves here, something that hasn’t happened in years.

Grahm’s trip gave us a chance to hold another of our sort of annual visits, where we taste his wines and solve the problems of the post-modern U.S. wine business. This time, we talked before the dinner, which I didn’t stay for since I didn’t want to stop him from schmoozing with the paying guests (schmoozing being winemaker slang for mingling with the customers).

The highlights of our chat and a few notes about three of the wines served with the dinner:

• The California drought cut yields in 2015, but Grahm said that winter rain seems to have helped all but the worst hit areas. One side effect: Many grapes ripened early, so some 2015 wines won’t have as much structure or acidity, and could be more flabby. That’s something I’ve tasted so far, and it has been quite disappointing.

• He says he is “gaining clarity” about how to approach the Popelouchum Vineyard, where he hopes to create 10,000 new grape varieties (last year’s successful Indiegogo crowdfunding project). Grahm is especially excited about using furmint, a Hungarian white grape, and a native Texas rootstock, Vitis berlandieri, that does well in stony soils. Vines are growing on the property, though money remains a problem.

• On so many wineries — that don’t own land or winemaking facilities — being bought for so much money by Big Wine: “It’s like money in the political process,” he said. “Where does it all come from?” That Big Wine is buying producers for nothing more than their brand is difficult for long-time producers like Grahm to make sense of, given that wine is supposed to be about the land the grapes are grown on.

The wines, as always, were top notch. The new vintage of the Vin Gris de Cigare ($15, sample, 13.5%) was less Provencal and more Bordeaux than usual, with a chalky finish, a less crisp mouth feel, and darker, though still subtle, fruit.

The 2012 Le Pousseur Syrah ($26, sample, 13.4%) is what New World syrah should taste like — earthy, peppery, and spicy, with soft black fruit and the tannins to match, while the bacon fat aroma is textbook. The 2012 gets more interesting as it ages, particularly as the fruit softens. This syrah is my favorite Bonny Doon wine, and I’ve even paid for it. That it tastes so fresh and alive after all this time under screwcap should put all that cork and aging foolishness to rest.

The 2011 Le Cigare Volant ($45, sample, 14.2%) is a Rhone-style blend, mostly mouvedre and grenache, that takes this style of wine toward an elegance I didn’t think possible with Rhone blends. It’s also somehow a food wine (lamb?), a contradiction usually only seen in red Burgundy. Look for a long, long wine with sophisticated tannins, layers of flavor that are only just beginning to show, and cherry fruit in there somewhere. It, too, should keep aging — maybe even a decade.

Winebits 433: Rose, cheap wine, direct shipping

roseImportant rose advice: Dave McIntyre at the Washington Post, a long-time pal of the blog who was drinking rose when the hipsters thought Zima was cool, offers some rose wisdom and five roses to try, all of which is much appreciated: “After all, there are delicious pink wines made all around the world” he writes. “Pour a rosé you like, shed the cares of the day and consider your true priorities under the setting sun.” Is it any wonder Dave and I get along so well?

Cheap wine wisdom: The VinePair website, which usually offers practical wine advice, is mostly on track with this effort about how to buy cheap wine. Much of it will be familiar to the blog’s regular visitors, including the admonition to look for wine from less expensive places. I was a little confused, though, by the part about avoiding closeout bins, not because it’s wrong but because of the reason: “These are the wines a shop can’t sell, and that often means there was no one at the shop who was passionate enough to sell them.” Which isn’t always true; I’m more concerned with the age of closeout wines, because if they’re too old, it doesn’t matter who liked them. The wines will have faded and not taste like anything.

Arizona allows direct shipping: You can now buy wine directly from wineries in Arizona, the 42nd state to allow the practice. That’s the good news. This is an informative piece from our friends at the Wine Spectator, complete with informative map. The bad news is that winery to consumer shipping, and not retail to consumer shipping. The latter is still illegal in many states and often incredibly difficult when it is legal. One other note: Two of the eight states that don’t allow winery shipping are Utah and Pennsylvania, about as odd bedfellows as one can have.