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Winebits 401: Randall Grahm crowdfunding, grape diseases, craft wine

crowdfunding ?Crowdfunding success: Randall Grahm, the Bonny Doon impresario, raised $167,857 in his crowdfunding attempt to develop 10,000 new grape varieties, beating the $150,000 goal. Which isn’t quite the same thing as the Wine Curmudgeon being named editor of the Wine Spectator with a mandate to eliminate scores, but is close enough. Most crowdfunding projects fail, and it’s even more difficult for projects that aren’t tech related (as Grahm and I discussed here) to reach their goal. That he did it speaks to the passion surrounding wine and Grahm’s skill at getting out the vote. And then there is this — how can one not appreciate a Salinger allusion?

? The end of Pierce’s Disease? Next to phylloxera, which almost destroyed the French wine industry a century ago, Pierce’s Disease is probably the most dangerous threat to the wine business. It’s spread by insects which inject bacteria into the vine, and the bacteria blocks water from going through the plant, which kills it. There’s no cure or treatment, and the only preventative is pesticide, which brings its own problems. Now, though, Texas researchers may have found a solution, using a combination of viruses injected into the vine to kill the bacteria. Much work still needs to be done, say researchers, but this is among the most promising developments in fighting Pierce’s in decades.

? It’s all about the adjective: Our recent discussion about craft wine brings this, from the Harris survey people, about how consumers react to terms like craft and artisan. The survey found that almost six in 10 think handcrafted or handmade “strongly or somewhat communicates that a product is high quality.” Artisan and artisanal and custom are next at 46 percent, while craft is at 44 percent. The most interesting part? That save for handcrafted, most of us recognize these terms for what they are — marketing jargon with no real meaning.

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The craft wine dilemma

craft wine dilemma

Which is craft wine and which isn’t?

How do you describe a wine that isn’t made by a multi-national and that doesn’t sell millions of cases? Is craft wine the proper description? And, if it is, how do you prevent the multi-national from describing its product the same way?

That’s the craft wine dilemma, as producers try to find terms to separate their wine from mass-produced grocery store plonk — even if their wine isn’t all that different.

There is no legal definition of craft wine, and borrowing the term from beer doesn’t help. Craft beer, which is assumed to be made by small, independent producers, is driving what little growth there is in the beer business, but craft beer includes Shiner and its 6 million cases and Boston Beer’s Sam Adams and its $2.9 billion in sales. Both belong to the Brewers Association craft beer trade group, demonstrating how empty the term is. Consider (and allowing for a 24-can case of beer vs. a 12-bottle case of wine) that Shiner would be tied for 12th on Wine Business Monthly’s top 30 U.S. producers list, just ahead of Bogle, and Boston Beer would be among the top three or four biggest wine companies in the country by sales.

The Brewers Association trade group guidelines don’t help much either, offering lots of PR speak (“Craft brewers tend to be very involved in their communities through philanthropy”) and little else. Also complicating matters: The rash of lawsuits over the past year from disgruntled consumers suing craft brewers and distillers because their craft products don’t seem to be that much different from the products made by multi-nationals, save for higher prices. No wonder there was such a spirited discussion on Tom Wark’s Fermentation blog this summer about the subject, looking for the best way to describe what Wark calls wine made by a “small, hands-on, privately owned, high-quality oriented winery.”

The craft wine dilemma reminds me of Justice Potter Stewart’s famous definition of pornography: “I know it when I see it.” If an 8 million case producer like Delicato Family Winery uses the term hand-crafted for some of its wine, does hand-crafted have any meaning? On the other hand, can a producer that mostly fits Wark’s definition be called a craft winery if its idea of quality is to make an overoaked fruit bomb designed to get 98 points and cost $100?

Establishing legal (or even trade group-agreed) definitions for craft and similar terms is the obvious solution, but most of the wine business will burn down the blog and carry me off with pitchforks for suggesting it. Still, given that some plaintiffs have won their craft definition lawsuits, maybe that idea is worth considering. Otherwise, it will be a long time before anyone solves the craft wine dilemma.

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Adding new wine terms to the dictionary

new wine termsWine is famous for using terms that no one can understand, so why not invent even more? Because the last thing we want to do is to help ordinary wine drinkers understand what’s going on, right? Hence, these new wine terms. (And I swear I made all of them up. Honest.)

? The ukelele: Someone who proclaims each new wine as the greatest ever — until the next trend comes along. Always forwarding articles from the Internet about Greek and Georgian wine, as well as gruner veltliner.

? “Let’s reboot this brand:” Favorite phrase of wise guy wine marketers who think changing the label and charging $4 more for ordinary grocery store wine will fool consumers and convince industry that premiumization is the next big thing.

? The wanker: Wine drinker, usually a man, who can find a flaw in every wine he has ever tasted. Also prone to proclaiming that the previous vintage of a wine was much better than the current vintage, even though he said the same thing when the previous vintage was the current vintage.

? The whiffet: Someone who always apologizes for the wine they drink, regardless of quality, and is constantly saying things like, “I’m sorry, I don’t know anything about wine.”

? “Running up the score:” Used to describe ratings-obsessed wine drinker who always adds points to whatever he bought (also usually a man), as in “Yeah, that Parker 97 was awesome, and I got such a deal on it” when it was actually a 92, the points were given by a clerk at his local retailer, and it cost $13.

? Scrooge McWine: Wine drinker (and again usually a man) who says loudly and often that all wine is overpriced, regardless of whether it costs $100 or $5. Sometimes, but not always, a wanker.

Image courtesy of Wine Ponder, using a Creative Commons license

winerant

The revolution in wine terms

wine termsWho knew wine terms had become more than they were? Certainly not the Wine Curmudgeon, who has been using words like sweet and dry and fruity for more than 20 years. But, apparently, I am not au courant, as a post at VinePair, describing “20 wine words most drinkers don’t know” reminded me.

My first question? Why, if these terms are so important and wine drinkers need to know them, how is it that most don’t? That would be like most food eaters not knowing what hot and cold means. “Hmmm, this soup is hurting my mouth. Is there a term to describe that?”

Second, one of the terms was hedonistic: “Robert Parker ?s favorite word. Wines that just blow you away. Parker likes hedonistic, but you can just say the wine is damn amazing.” Note to Adam Teeter at VinePair, who wrote the post and, save for an occasional lapse into cuteness, seems to know his business. Most wine drinkers don’t know who Robert Parker is and don’t care, so why do they need to know his favorite wine term? Plus, in 30-some years as a professional writer, wine and otherwise, I have never used hedonistic to describe anything. And I have had a fairly successful career.

Third, wine terms should be objective, like sweet and dry and fruity, and hedonistic (as well as ponderous, also on the list) isn’t. Parker may think those wines are damn amazing, but many of us don’t. We find them overblown and unenjoyable. What’s the point of using a term that tells someone they’re supposed to like something that they may not like?

Again, this is not to criticize Teeter, who is probably trying to help, but to point out yet again how most post-modern wine writing has little to do with the average consumer. It’s as if they’re writing a movie review that discusses camera angles and editing techniques instead of the plot, and then getting angry when someone asks them what the movie is about.

And what’s worse is that they call those of us — who want to write intelligently and clearly, who want to educate wine drinkers and not preach to them — a variety of not very nice names. I’m not going to link to them, because it’s not worth the aggravation and the Internet sniping that will ensue. But two prominent California wine writers have recently questioned whether people like me are competent to write about wine. Our sin? That we try to make it less intimidating and confusing, when real wine writers know wine is supposed to be intimidating and confusing. Otherwise, one of them wrote, what’s the point of learning about it?

How wonderfully self-absorbed and insensitive to the world around them they must be. Does this mean that we can’t enjoy wine unless we enjoy it exactly as they want us to? Nuts to that, and pass me some of that $10 Gascon white I like so much — the one that’s fruity.

Image courtesy of Westword.com, using a Creative Commons license

wine advice

Ask the WC 7: Winespeak, availability, Bordeaux

winespeakBecause the customers always have wine questions, and the Wine Curmudgeon has answers in this irregular feature. Ask me a wine-related question .

Wine Curmudgeon:
You use the term structure for wine, which sounds like a lot of jargon to me. What does structure mean?
Confused by language

Dear Confused:
Think of a wine’s structure like the structure of a house. A house has to have a foundation, a floor, and a roof. Leave one of those things out, and you don’t have much of a house. A wine, regardless of price, needs structure, too, and that includes tannins, fruit, and acidity in the proper proportions. Leave one of those out, and it’s like a house with a crappy roof — livable, but why would you want to?

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Hey Curmudge:
Where do you buy your wine? I know you try to find wines that are available, but how do you do it?
Curious consumer

Dear Curious:
I’m one of the few wine writers in the country who buys wine to review, and it’s probably more than half the wines I do. The rest come from samples that producers send, and that number has fallen significantly since the recession. I shop for wine at least once a week in two or three places. I go to grocery stores like Kroger and Albertson’s, independent wine shops (Jimmy’s and Pogo’s are two of the best), chain wine shops (we have Spec’s and Total Wine in Dallas), and specialty stores like Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, and World Market. That way, I can compare prices, see who has what, and talk to retailers and customers. I enjoy this, not only because it’s part of a job that I like, but because I come from a long line of retailers, and learned to appreciate this stuff when I was a kid.

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Jeff:
I have tried a few red Bordeauxs, and most are not very good in the $10-$20 range. I like many California cabernet sauvignons and red blends, and am not put off by the “earthiness” of French wines. But most of the Bordeauxs I ?ve tried are just harsh and bitter. Any suggestions for reasonably priced Bordeaux would be appreciated.
Searching for French value

Dear Searching:
You aren’t alone — Bordeaux has priced most wine drinkers out of its market, whether from greed, infatuation with China, or French stubbornness. It’s almost impossible to find quality red Bordeaux for less than $20 a bottle, as you note (Chateau Bonnet and one or two others being the exception). Instead, we get poorly made wine, whether with unripe grapes or raw tannins — just like the bad old days. Ironically, we talked about this in my El Centro class last week, that the wines that most Americans used to drink to learn about wine are now too expensive for most Americans to drink.

More Ask the Wine Curmudgeon:
? Ask the WC 6: Box wine, wine closeouts, open wine
? Ask the WC 5: Getting drunk, restaurant wine, wine reviews
? Ask the WC 4: Green wine, screwcaps, mold

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Residual sugar in wine, with charts and graphs

residual sugarOne of the blog’s most popular posts over its 8-plus year history is about residual sugar. That’s because it uses English instead of winespeak to describe what residual sugar is and what makes a sweet wine sweet. And that residual sugar is the sugar from the grapes that’s left over after fermentation; more residual sugar makes a sweet wine, and the absence of residual sugar makes a dry wine.

Two things are missing from that post: Nifty charts and graphs, mostly because the Wine Curmudgeon is not a charts and graphs guy, and an update that better describes how dry wines can seem sweet thanks to post-modern winemaking techniques, which include adding sugar or something similar (corn syrup, grape juice concentrate) to the almost-finished product. That’s one reason why a dry wine with 14.5 percent alcohol, where there is an absence of residual sugar, can seem sweet.

Plus, I never really explained how residual sugar is measured and the various levels of sweetness, since it confuses me. I have problems with g/L, which is grams per liter, as well as converting it into percentages, which I do understand.

But, thanks to two terrific websites, we not only have charts and graphs, but more insight into adding sugar to already-fermented wine, as well as how to measure residual sugar and what the measurements mean. My thanks to Liquid Party Works, which has one of the former and some of the second (which you can find at the link), and to Frank Schieber at MoundTop MicroVinification, whose chart detailing sweetness levels is perhaps the best I’ve ever seen (even if it’s not all that pretty). That’s the one at the top of this post.

White zinfandel, for example, would be in the 3 percent category, while a dry riesling and some sweet reds, like Apothic, would be in the 1-3 percent category. Doesn’t get much more straightforward than that.

wine news

Winebits 374: Wine snobs, wine grapes, lawsuits

wine snobs ? Because we’re better than you are: The Wine Spectator reports that the next big grape will be cabernet franc, mostly because of its “gossamer structure.” The Wine Curmudgeon has absolutely no idea what this means, because, as the article points out, I’m one of the many who aren’t hip enough to appreciate the grape. Plus, there are cabernet franc wines at trendy places in Manhattan. Plus, quotes from sommeliers. Need we say more? This is the kind of wine writing that makes me grit my teeth, knowing I still have so much work to do.

? Something besides the usual: The always erudite Andrew Meggitt writes that wine drinkers should not limit themselves to the usual, but should be willing to experiment with wine made with different grapes and from regions that aren’t California. And, somehow, he doesn’t use the word gossamer once. Meggitt, the winemaker at Missouri’s St. James, has been working wonders with norton for more than a decade, and also recommends vignoles, chambourcin, and riesling. Maybe I can introduce him to the writer at the Spectator.

? Bring on the attorneys: How else to explain this sentence? “Beam Suntory ?s lawyers have argued that a reasonable consumer would understand that having ‘handmade’ on a label does not infer that no machines were used throughout the entire production process.” No wonder my mother wanted me to go to law school — you can make words mean what they don’t, and get paid lots of money for it. This is from yet another deceptive label spirits lawsuit, arguing that it’s not possible for a multi-million case brand to be handmade or handcrafted or artisan. So far, the suits target spirits, but the Wine Curmudgeon’s advice makes sense: Don’t wait for a judge to tell you to change your labels.