The 16th century Benandanti fought the good fight – with fennel, no less – to protect Italy’s Fruili wine region
The 21st century wine business, what with tariffs, pandemics, and younger people who don’t like wine, has its full share of problems. But it doesn’t have anything on the 16th century wine business, when evil witches in northern Italy wanted to turn wineries into outhouses.
That’s one of the highlights (one of the many highlights, I might add) of a freelance piece I wrote for Meininger’s Wine Business Intentional: The battle between the Benandanti, good witches, to protect winemakers and wine drinkers in Italy’s Fruili region from a group of bad witches. The latter’s goal? To defecate and urinate in wine barrels, wine bottles, and wine glasses.
And a tip o’ the WC’s fedora to Jennifer Billock, the source for the story, and to my editor at Meininger’s, Felicity Carter. She has been urging me to find a good witch and wine story since the end of last year, and I was much glad I did.
More than half of the country’s convenience stores, like QuikTrip, now sell wine.
Convenience store wine sales in 2019 were flat, but that’s not necessarily bad news for the wine business
Table wine sales in U.S. convenience stores were flat in 2019, which seems like more bad news for the wine business. That’s because sales had increased 20 percent in dollar terms in 2018, the second year in a row that c-store sales outperformed the overall U.S. market.
In this, convenience stores have been one of the bright spots in the wine business over the past couple of years. Younger wine drinkers aren’t as put off by buying wine in a 7-Eleven as their elders are, and it’s more convenient for them, too — Pampers and wine on the way home from work. It also helps that stores have better selection than years past, and not just wine coolers and big boxes of sweet wine.
So Jeff Lenard, the spokesman for the National Association of Convenience Stores, says not to worry.
“I think the percentage of stores selling wine is the more important stat,” he emailed me this week during our annual discussion about the group’s wine survey numbers. “As we have seen with fresh items in stores, it takes time to grow the offer and raise awareness so that customers can expect to find quality wine in a store. And in many cases, it’s a wine offer that is more curated, so that’s even more difficult for stores to add.”
And Lenard may have a point:
• The number of convenience store selling wine increased some six percent in 2019 to more than 52 percent — a number that may be an all-time high. That’s an amazing statistic, given that wine sales in 7-Eleven, RaceTrac, QuikTrip, Speedway, and the like are illegal in many states, including New York and Pennsylvania.
• Wine sales decreased by one-half of one percent per store, which is a letdown from 2018’s robust growth. But it’s in line with overall wine sales in the U.S., so it shouldn’t be too surprising. In addition, says Lenard, it’s not unusual to see per store sales decrease when more stores offer a product.
• The number of stores selling beer and spirits barely grew, by about one percent each. So wine’s store growth is that much more impressive.
• Given how one parses the c-store numbers, as well as the unreliability of U.S. wine sales numbers in general, it’s possible that convenience store wine once again accounted for as much as 2 percent of all the wine sold in the U.S.
Meanwhile, early reports indicate that c-store sales will increase substantially in 2020 because of the pandemic, as stores picked up sales when restaurants and bars were closed.
Reconsidering the 2018 Evanta malbec: A year in the bottle made it much more enjoyable
The Evanta malbec, a red Argentine Aldi private label, has one of those weird cheap wine stories that make it so difficult to decipher cheap wine. The 2017 was terrific – $5 wine that tasted like it cost twice as much. In an addendum to that post, I noted that the 2018 wasn’t quite as well done – softer and less interesting.
So why did the 2018 Evanta Malbec ($5, purchased, 13.9%) taste almost like the 2017 when I bought it last month? Who knows? Maybe it was the extra year in the bottle that took off the soft edges and made it more appealing. Maybe it was bottle variation, when every bottle doesn’t taste the same. This is a common problem with cheap wines made in mass quantities.
Regardless, the 2018 is well worth buying. It’s not quite as structured as the 2017, but it’s still difficult to beat for $5: There are more tannins and acidity than in most cheap malbecs, which tend to leave those out in favor of lots of soft fruit to make it “smoooothhhhhh. …” The berry fruit isn’t overdone and there’s not a hint of sweetness anywhere. No wonder it has been mostly sold out at my local Aldi since the pandemic started.
This week’s wine news: The Wine Curmudgeon isn’t the only one thinks expensive wine is too expensive. Plus, we may be close to a victory over phylloxera, wine’s greatest scourge, and the trials of French wine in the pandemic era
• Too pricey: David Morrison, writing on the Wine Gourd, doesn’t mince words: Prices for high-quality wines “are outrageous compared to what they were half a century ago, relatively speaking. Put another way, high-quality wine is much less affordable these days.” His result is based on a study published earlier this year, which found that high-quality wine prices are much more expensive than what their inflation-adjusted prices should be. Apologists for expensive wine (for all wine princes, in fact) always cite inflation as the culprit, so it’s good to see two reports that show them to be wrong. In fact, inflation is rarely the issue; if I was up to it, I would do a post detailing how technology and supply chain efficiencies have wrung inflation out of much of the way wine is priced. Rather, the cause is premiumization and the idea that all wine should cost more because it should. When wine is touted as an investment like real estate, diamonds, and gold, instead of something to drink, how can we expect rational pricing?
• An end to phylloxera? Phylloxera is a louse that sucks the sap out of the roots of grape vines, which kills the wines. An infestation at the turn of the 20th century almost destroyed the French wine industry, and the louse still wreaks havoc on vineyards in the 21st century. It’s resistant to pesticides, and the only way to prevent it is to graft non-vinifera rootstock onto vinifera vines (vinifera is the species for the European wine grapes that make the world’s best wines, like merlot and chardonnay). Now, though, scientists may be one step closer to eradicating phylloexera after identifying its genome – the bug’s complete set of DNA. The research could eventually lead to resistant rootstocks, eliminating the need for costly grafting.
• Wine woes in France: The French wine market has collapsed, with the Trump tariff and the pandemic playing key roles. This piece from the New York Times tells the story all too well: “And so some of the succulent and subtle white wine for which this region is famous, nurtured on the stony, sunbathed Alsace slopes, will wind up as hand sanitizer.” One Alsatian producer is dumping one-third of its production – almost unprecedented. The story reminds us wine is made by people, some of whose families have been doing it for hundreds of years, and that trade wars have consequences that we may not consider.
Photo courtesy of Helena Lopes, using a Creative Commons license
So one would expect lots of comments, lots of emails, lots of flaming, right? After all, this is the Internet in the second decade of the 21st century, isn’t it?
In fact, just the opposite happened: Hardly a murmur of protest, hardly any comments, and only one person who canceled their email to the blog. In my world, cancellations are the mark of a controversial post – the more controversial, the more cancellations. But in this case, more people were worried that I would be arrested for illegally ordering wine from an out-of-state retailer than the number who called me names. How weird is that in today’s cyber-ether?
But, after parsing what happened over the past couple of days, maybe it’s not really weird at all. That’s because almost everyone who doesn’t have a vested interest in protecting the system accepts it for what it is – obsolete and inefficient on its best days, and corrupt on its worst. So why bother to complain? As one comment put it: “The three-tier system exists only to protect distributors – the health issue is pure hypocrisy. …”
Which speaks to a larger and more troubling point – not just about wine regulation, but about how the world works these days. The sense is that those in charge will do what they want to do, be it in politics, banking, Wall Street, technology, or the Internet, and that there is little the rest of us can do about it.
Frankly, that is a decidedly un-American approach, and it’s one I don’t believe in. If I did, I’ve wasted most of my professional life, and I know I haven’t done that. And it also explains why I wrote the post and set up the reverse sting – if the Winestream Media is going to acquiesce, that’s all the more reason for the rest of us to rouse as much rabble as we can. Which I have done my entire professional life, and which I will keep doing until I am buried, keyboard between crossed arms.
And, sadly, it also explains why so many people were worried I would be arrested. They’ve forgotten what the news media is supposed to do, which is journalism — and which is not reprinting news releases touched up with bad, punny headlines When I was a young newspaperman, this sort of thing was common – the Mirage Tavern, the bible that wasn’t in the room, and so many more. These days, newspapers are assets to be butchered to make even more money for their owners, who are usually already richer than the rest of us.
Am I the New York Times, and will this post change the world immediately? Nope. But every bit helps, and especially at a time when we need help so badly.
Barefoot wine review 2020: Get ready for a dose of sweetness with the rose and riesling — but at least the front labels let you know what’s coming
Call it knowing your audience: The Barefoot wine review 2020 bottles don’t pretend to be something they aren’t. Looking for a dry, tart, Provencal- style rose? Then don’t buy the Barefoot rose, which says “Delightfully sweet” on the front label. Want a nuanced, oily, off-dry riesling? Then don’t buy the Barefoot riesling, which says “Refreshingly sweet” on the front label.
Which, frankly, is a much welcome development in this, the blog’s 13th Barefoot review. Few things are more annoying than Big Wine — or smaller wine, for that matter — claiming a wine is dry when it tastes like sweet tea. Barefoot, the best-selling wine brand in the country (depending on whose statistics you believe) has the courage of its convictions. And good for it.
The Barefoot wine review 2020 features the non-vintage rose ($5, purchased, 10%) and the non-vintage riesling ($5, purchased, 8%). Both are California appellation. The sweetness is obvious, and especially in the riesling. In the rose, it tries to hide in the background — and then you swallow, and it hits you.
The rose tastes of strawberry fruit, and has lots of acidity in an attempt to balance the sweetness. Which doesn’t exactly work — just sort of offers a counterpoint. The riesling smells like oranges (perhaps some muscat in the blend?) and then the candied sweetness hits and covers up what little fruit flavor (apricot?) was there. A smidgen of acidity is around somewhere, sort of like the cool of a summer morning before it gets hot, and then the like the coolishness, the wine gets sweet again.
In this, these wines deliver what the front labels promise, though the back labels are marketing hurly burly — “smooth, crisp finish” and “hint of jasmine and honey.” But if you want a $5 sweet wine that is cheap and sweet, then the rose and the riesling fill the bill.
“Quick — get the wine unloaded before anyone spots us.”
The Wine Curmudgeon buys wine from an out-of-state retailer – even though it’s illegal
A case of Domaine Tariquet was delivered via Fed Ex to Wine Curmudgeon international headquarters in Dallas this week. The shipment violated the laws of two states – that of the retailer who sold me the wine, and Texas, which forbids shipments from out-of-state wine retailers. Welcome to the sham and hypocrisy that is the three-tier system.
Why a sham? Because the liquor cops in Texas and in the retailer’s state both know I bought the wine, since Fed Ex and UPS send so-called common carrier reports to the agencies. The Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission received the electronic paperwork saying the order was shipped to my house; the retailer’s state alcoholic enforcement agency got the same thing when the order was shipped.
So why did my reverse sting operation work? Because each state doesn’t always enforce the interstate retail ban, according to a prominent liquor law attorney.
“It’s not high on the list of priorities,” he told me. “Most of the time, unless someone objects to that kind of sale, they don’t do anything about it. It’s like enforcing the speed limit on a highway. The police may not enforce it for a long time because they have other things to do – until someone complains about speeding, and then they set up a speed trap.”
And, now – hypocrisy
Interstate retail shipping is banned in most of the U.S. in the interest of “public health and safety” – the legal doctrine that has overseen liquor law since the end of Prohibition. Yet, more than a century later, state regulators and legislators still insist that it’s not safe for me to order wine from a retailer in another state. Yet, if it’s so dangerous, why isn’t it enforced more often?
The July 8 lawsuit, says the prominent liquor attorney, fits a pattern – interstate shipping bans are often enforced only when wholesalers and distributors press the issue. In Ohio, Wine.com and the other retailers weren’t buying from Ohio distributors, as required by law, but from distributors in other states. This lost business, combined with the dramatic drop in restaurant wine sales during the COVID-19 pandemic and increasing legal direct-to-consumer wine shipments in Ohio, probably had the wholesalers “crapping in their pants,” e-mailed an Ohio wine business consultant who has worked with the state’s distributors. No wonder, he wrote, that they pressured Ohio authorities to sue the interstate retailers in an attempt to redirect the lost business and revenue their way.
So where’s the public health and safety?
And, in fact, the news release announcing the lawsuit barely mentioned “public health and safety.” Instead, it emphasized lost tax revenue and lost retail sales, quoting an Ohio retailer and distributor. In addition, the Wine & Spirits Wholesalers Association, the national distributor trade group, issued a news release saying the same things. The attorney general’s spokesman didn’t respond to two requests for an interview for this post.
Keep in mind that this post isn’t about defending an illegal practice. If anyone violated the law, they should be punished, whether Wine.com (which is a long-time supporter of the blog) or me. And this post doesn’t advocate selling liquor without regulations — we certainly need regulation, but regulations that are fair and efficient.
Because selective enforcement isn’t either. If interstate wine shipping is truly dangerous, then the ban needs to be enforced. Because if the ban isn’t enforced, then it follows that interstate shipping isn’t as dangerous as it’s supposed to be. And if that’s the case, why have the ban at all?
Boys, we need to tell everyone who is tired of buying crummy, overpriced wine about the Wine Curmudgeon. Tell them to click here, fill out the form, and get the Wine Curmudgeon in their mailbox every day -- for free.