Category:Wine rants

The wine premiumization stranglehold gets tighter

wine premiumizationA $28 rose sample arrived the other day, which says pretty much everything that needs to be said about the speed and ferocity of wine premiumization’s takeover of the wine business. The world needs a $28 rose like we need more terrorism, pestilence, and famine, but since the wise guys and their numbers say we want to drink more expensive wine, we’ve got one.

In addition, California grape prices continue to rise, despite what seems like a plentiful supply of grapes. That’s because the best quality grapes, which are used in more expensive wines, aren’t as plentiful, and their prices have increased by as much as 50 percent over the last couple of years. In fact, speakers at a recent trade seminar said that as prices continue to go up, wineries may have to use cheaper and lesser quality grapes to maintain their profit margins. In other words, $15 wine as the new $8 wine.

This embrace of wine premiumization also explains many of the dozens of high-dollar winery acquisitions over the past couple of years. Big Wine’s thinking (and even that at some not so big wine companies) is that it’s more efficient to buy an existing winery, which already has customers and a brand (as well as grapes), than it is to start from scratch. So if you have to overpay, so be it.

In this, quality seems to be the one thing left behind. I wrote in January that the push to premiumization has resulted in some of the worst winemaking I’ve seen since I started the blog, and things have only gotten worse. The $28 rose was not exceptional in any way, and that was one of the least offensive wines I’ve tasted this spring. A four-year-old California pinot noir not only had too much fake oak, but tasted purposely oxidized. I mentioned this decline in quality to a colleague the other day, not nearly as cranky, and he agreed with my assessment, and especially for wine from California and wine that costs as much as $20 a bottle.

That’s the difference between now and the bad old days before the recession, when it seemed like everyone was racing to charge $100 a bottle. Those wines were overpriced, but at least you could drink some of them. Increasingly, more and more premiumized wines are barely fit for the drain in the kitchen sink.

So until things change, hopefully sooner rather than later, we’ll just have to pour and bear it.

More about wine premiumization:
Premiumization: Are wine drinkers really trading up?
Is the U.S. wine boom over?
Wine prices up, wine quality down in 2016?

Beware wine vintage skulduggery!

wine vintageThe Wine Curmudgeon, ever vigilant in the cause of price, value, and quality, must sound a skulduggery alert about wine vintages. How serious is this? The headline to this post has an exclamation point, which I use only on the rarest occasions.

But this wine vintages alert deserves an exclamation point. Too many retailers, and especially grocery stores, have shelves stocked with cleverly named and cutely labeled wine, costing as much as $20, that are four, five, and even six years old. These wines were not made to age; even if they were, they haven’t been stored in ideal cellar conditions, but in warehouses and back rooms with minimal, if any air conditioning. And they’ve been driven around on trucks between these warehouses and back rooms, passed from distributor to retailer to distributor to retailer, in less than ideal cellar conditions, too.

It’s worth repeating – almost all of the wine made in the world today is not made to age, and almost everything we buy will go off in two or three years, whether it has oxidized, turned to vinegar, or has had something else ruin it. This is chemistry, and will happen no matter what the sales person says with his or her reassuring smile. (Not that I’ve ever had that happen to me.)

The rule of thumb: Don’t buy a rose older than a year old, a white older than two, and a red older than three. Check the winery’s website to see what the current vintage is, and if what you see on the shelf isn’t that close to the current vintage, you’re risking buying spoiled wine. Yes, there may be a tremendous discount, but all that means is that you spent less on something that you don’t want to drink.

That these older wines are still being sold speaks to retailer cynicism and to the vague idea consumers have that older wine is always better, and that too many retailers believe that what consumers don’t know won’t hurt them.

Cartoon courtesy of WholeCellar.com, using a Creative Commons license

Barefoot: Almost the best-selling wine in the U.S.

Barefoot

It’s not so much that Barefoot is No. 2 in U.S. wine sales, and poised to pass top-selling Franzia in the next year or so. Or that Barefoot’s sales grew by 5 ½ percent last year, out-pacing the entire U.S. wine industry (to say nothing of its competitors). Or that, at 18.1 million cases, it would be the sixth biggest winery in the U.S., the 15th biggest brewery, and the second biggest craft brewery.

What really matters is that Barefoot has done all of this in little more than a decade, and with almost no help from the Winestream Media or traditional wine marketing.

And the Gallo family – whose privately-held company bought the one-half million case brand in 2005 – is probably laughing and laughing and laughing. More, after the jump: Continue reading

How desperate is Big Beer?

big beerHow desperate is Big Beer to regain its stranglehold on U.S. beer drinkers? So desperate that it’s not enough to mock craft beer; now, even chardonnay is seen as a threat, and that has never been the case in the history of the United States. Beer consumption has outpaced wine since before we were a country.

Nevertheless, Miller Lite came up with this commercial, which says that women should take its product to a chardonnay event. My guess is that wine is seen as a Millennial drink, and someone found a study that said Millennials are forgoing Big Beer for wine. Perhaps one of our visitors with ad agency experience can explain why chardonnay is a target, given that old white guys drink Miller Lite.

For all of my ranting about Big Wine, it has never done anything this stupid. The commercial is below — what were they thinking?

Wine, food, and truth in labeling

farm-to-fable-ledeimageSerious food writing may be more rare than serious wine writing. Usually, it’s poetic rhapsodizing about quinoa and kale, beatifying this week’s hot chef, and barely paying attention to quality, price, or value.

That’s why it was such a pleasure to read Tampa Tribune food critic Laura Reiley, who wrote that some chefs in her region are – and there is no more accurate way to say this – liars. A variety of Tampa area restaurants that claimed they used local ingredients not only didn’t use them, but were buying the same corporate food from the same distributors that sell to the chain restaurants that those chefs love to hate.

Best yet, many of the chefs didn’t understand why they couldn’t lie about it. As one told the newspaper, “We try to do local and sustainable as much as possible, but it’s not 100 percent. For the price point we’re trying to sell items, it’s just not possible.”

So why does this matter to wine? Because, as regular visitors here know, wine also plays fast and loose with labeling. Artisan and hand-crafted, anyone?

The latest: The federal study that found that about one-quarter of wine labels incorrectly listed the amount of alcohol in the wine. Can you imagine the outcry if one-quarter of the ketchup in the grocery store made the same sort of serious labeling error?

At some point, someone who isn’t looking for an arsenic fast buck will do for wine what Reiley did for Tampa’s phony farm-to-table restaurants. And then, when the U.S. consumer finds out that their favorite $20 bottle of wine, with its expressive boysenberry and toasty mocha flavors, used Mega Purple and highly-processed wood chips to get those flavors, there will be hell to pay.

Finally, a note to newspaper bosses everywhere: Read Reiley’s story. See how well done it is. And just imagine that you had the guts and good sense to do something like that at your paper. Maybe the business wouldn’t be in such bad shape, would it?

Illustration courtesy of Tampa Tribune using a Creative Commons license

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

Why the Kroger wine proposal should terrify anyone who drinks wine

Kroger wine

Spanish chardonnay? Seriously?

Kroger wants to hire the biggest distributor on the planet, which controls about one-third of the wholesale market, to manage the wine departments in its stores. This is such a terrible idea for consumers that even the federal government — which has mostly abandoned its oversight of all but the most basic parts of the wine business, like labels — said it was probably a terrible idea.

There are many reasons why the Kroger plan is terrible (and you can read about them here and read why Kroger finally dumped the plan here). But the main reason is what you see in the photo with this post, which I took at my local Kroger. Anyone who would use it to promote Spain does not care about wine — or Spain, for that matter. They only care about selling wine, which is hugely different. As such, they don’t care about quality, terroir, or value. They care about selling us wine in the easiest way possible, and if that means the wine is crappy or overpriced or not what we want, so be it. Margin, ring totals, and sales per square foot are what matters to Kroger.

Because:

Verdejo, a Spanish white grape, is sort of like sauvignon blanc — if the sauvignon blanc is soft and lemony. However, many aren’t (like this one and this one) and if I buy a verdejo expecting tropical fruit or minerality, I’ll spit it out and never drink verdejo again. But we’re just Americans who buy wine at the grocery store; what do we know?

Albarino is not like pinot grigio at all. In any way. That this sign would compare them attests to how little the wine part of the promotion has to do with reality, unless the reality is selling wine.

• No, I do not want to try some Spanish chardonnay. The Spanish do not want to try some Spanish chardonnay. Most Spanish wine producers do not want us to try some Spanish chardonnay. They want us to drink Spanish white wine made from Spanish grapes like viura, verdejo, and albarino, not wine made with an international grape like chardonnay that is only made in Spain to sell to Americans who buy wine at the grocery store; what do we know?

I’m lucky in Dallas, where there are two top-flight independent retailers and two chains that are pretty good. So I don’t have to buy wine at the grocery store, as so many of you do, and as so many more will as supermarkets soon sell the majority of the wine we buy.  I don’t expect Kroger to care as much as an independent retailer, but it would be nice if the chain pretended it cared. That Kroger and its ilk won’t even do that much, that they will treat wine as if it was laundry detergent — and which is the key to the terrible distributor management proposal — shows how difficult it might soon be to buy quality wine at the grocery store. This Spanish nonsense, sadly, might be a sign of even more terrible things to come.