Big Wine 2018: The good, the bad, and the ugly for consumers

Big wineBig Wine’s continuing dominance over what we drink means less interesting wines to buy, as well as fewer places to buy them

This is the second of two parts looking at Big Wine 2018. Today, what Big Wine’s dominance means for wine drinkers. The first part – Big Wine 2018’s stranglehold by the numbers – is here.

My mother took a copy of the blog to a Chicago-area Kroger affiliate recently, looking for a wine that I had bought at a Dallas Kroger. The guy at the Chicago store looked at her as if she was crazy. “Why would we have something that was in Dallas just because we’re Kroger?” he asked her.

The conversation took place next to a huge aisle display of E&J Gallo’s Barefoot, which is in every Kroger store in the country. So who was the employee kidding?

Big Wine has changed the wine business in countless ways since I started doing this 20-plus years ago, but the biggest change is the idea of national brands. In the early 1990s, save for Kendall-Jackson chardonnay, there wasn’t a national brand like Tide detergent or Heinz ketchup. And even Kendall-Jackson wasn’t quite national.

Today, though, walk into a retailer anywhere in the U.S. and you’ll find at least a handful of national brands – Barefoot, certainly, as well as Yellow Tail, Woodbridge, and Kendall-Jackson. They may not be in smaller, independent stores, but they are in the supermarkets and chain retailers like Total Wine that are beginning to sell most of the wine we drink.

Big Wine’s dominance is not new, and it has benefited wine in so many ways – more women and minorities and improvements in winemaking standards among them. What’s different now, and what has developed over the past couple of years as Big Wine has gotten bigger, are the national brands — and they are not a benefit. Wine is not laundry detergent or ketchup.

The top 10 companies in this year’s Wine Business News ranking of the the U.S. largest producers account for about 80 percent of the wine made in this country. Almost without exception, they are national brand-style wines – technically competent perhaps, but boring and dull and devoid of varietal character and terroir. They are, says a friend in the wine business, the wine equivalent of a Big Mac – something to eat, but hardly worth eating.

After the jump, what Big Wine dominance means for wine drinkers and especially for those of us who want to drink quality cheap wine. Continue reading

The power of Big Wine 2018

Big Wine 2018

Three out five bottles on the grocery store Great Wall of Wine could come from just three companies.

Big Wine 2018 accounts for nine out 10 of bottles made in the U.S. How can that be healthy for the long-term growth of wine?

This is the first of two parts looking at Big Wine 2018. Part I, the numbers. Part II, what that dominance means for wine drinkers.

Nothing illustrates the power of Big Wine 2018 more than the half a pallet of Meiomi pinot noir sitting on the floor in the wine department at a Central Market in Dallas. Meiomi, owned by Constellation Brands, is mass market wine, not exactly what you’d expect to see by the case at Central Market, which positions itself as Whole Foods with a Texas twist.

But there it was. And why not? Big Wine is so big, as noted in Wine Business News’ annual ranking of the U.S. largest producers, that it can make almost any retailer an offer that it can’t afford to refuse.

In 2017, Big Wine continued to dominate what we drink, according to the Wine Business numbers. The 10 biggest companies accounted for 81 percent of the wine made in the U.S. In addition:

• The three biggest producers, E&J Gallo, The Wine Group, and Constellation, kept their market share from last year – almost 60 percent. In other words, they make three out of every five bottles of U.S. wine.

• The share of the top 10 companies actually declined from 2016, from 84 percent to 81. That’s not because they’re less powerful, but because the next 20 brands took business away. The Josh Cellars label, owned by Deutsch Family, was little known a couple of years ago. Today, though, it is the 12th biggest “winery” on the list, with 2.2 million cases. Stop and consider what that means: Two years ago, hardly anyone had heard of Josh Cellars. Today, it accounts for close to one percent of all the wine made in the U.S.

• The top 50 companies on the list represent 90 percent of U.S. wine production. Given that there are almost 10,000 wineries in this country, this means the other 9,950 make only 10 percent. Is that healthy for the wine business over the long term?

• In the first Wine Business list in 2003, a winery had to produce 350,000 cases to make the top 30. This year, that threshold had doubled. So yes, the big are getting bigger; given that wine consumption is flat, how long until that starts hurting the other 9,950 wineries?

• The 10 best-selling grocery store wines in the country are owned by Big Wine; Gallo owns No. 1 Barefoot, and No. 10 Apothic. These 10 account for almost one-quarter of sales as measured by dollars. That’s depressing enough, but measuring by dollars probably under-represents their dominance. These are cheap wines, most costing less than $10 a bottle, so they could account for as much as 40 percent if measured by cases sold.

More on Big Wine:
Big Wine takes over
Big Wine growth 2016
Big Wine to become one company

Enough with the Champagne glass conspiracy already – can’t we just drink and enjoy?

Champgne glass

$60 will buy two Reidel Veritas Champagne glasses — and won’t we sleep better at night after that purchase?

Once again, we’re being told that we aren’t drinking bubbly from the correct glasses, and we’d better stop – or else

A couple of months ago, when I wrote about the most recent Champagne glass conspiracy, I thought we were done with worrying about what a Champagne glass should look like. The glass in that post was so over the top that only the geekiest among us would pay attention. And the rest of us could enjoy our bubbly in whatever glasses we had, content that the wine business has passed us by.

Silly me.

Once again, we’re being told that we aren’t drinking bubbly from the correct glasses, and that we must spend $30 a glass to do it the proper way. It’s called the Veritas glass from our friends at Reidel – with a wider middle and narrow top, two design changes that are supposed to help us enjoy more aromas and flavors. No, this isn’t as bizarre as the cement mixer glass from the previous post (which also needs to be dusty to work most efficiently), but it’s overkill nonetheless.

Most of us spend less than $15 a bottle for sparkling wine. Why do we need to pay twice as much for the glass? Why can’t we enjoy our bubbly in whatever glasses we have and be done with it?

Because this is wine, and if they aren’t telling us what to do, they’re reminding us that what we do is wrong. And, by the way, spend more money.

I wrote this in the previous Champagne glass post, and it’s worth repeating: “What difference does the design make to the vast majority of wine drinkers? Can we tell the difference between the bubbles in a flute glass and in the cement mixer glass? Isn’t the wine just as enjoyable in the former? The answers: Almost certainly not, and of course. And I can’t imagine most of us want to drink wine out of a dusty glass.”

But then again, what do we know? We’re just the slobs who pay for everything.

Wine of the week: Mulderbosch Rose 2017

mulderbosch roseThe Mulderbosch rose demonstrates, once again, that you don’t have to spend more than $10 to get terrific pink wine

Is the Mulderbosch rose pink wine for The Holiday that Must Not be Named? Check.

Does it have a screwcap? Check.

Consistent quality? Check.

Tremendous value? Check.

Tasty? Check.

In other words, South Africa’s Mulderbosch rose ($10, purchased, 12.5%) is everything a great cheap wine should be. And, believe it or not, widely available – grocery stores, even.

The 2017 vintage (which we’re getting now because the southern hemisphere is six months ahead of the northern in the harvest cycle) is much fresher and more flavorful than the 2016 that I tasted at the end of last year. That’s a reminder that most roses don’t age well, and you should always buy the most recent vintage and never one that is more than 18 months old.

The Mulderbosch is an odd rose since it’s made with cabernet sauvignon, which is a heavier-tasting grape than rose needs. But that’s rarely a problem with the wine; this vintage shows a little cabernet zippiness and some blackberry fruit, as well as a classic rose clean finish. Highly recommended, and a candidate for the 2019 $10 Hall of Fame.

Imported by Terroir Selections

Winebits 528: Utah liquor, canine bars, and flavored wine

Utah

“Bring on the craft beer!”

This week’s wine news: Utah, despite some of the strictest anti-drinking laws in the country, sees more booze consumption, plus craft beer and shelter dogs and flavored wine

Only in Utah: Mormon-dominated Utah has some of the strictest anti-drinking laws in the country, something we’ve noted many times before. So why do alcohhol sales keep increasing every year, up three percent per capita from 2106 to 2017? State officials say its because of more residents from out of state plus thriving tourism. Which, of course, overlooks all those anti-drinking laws, including the most stringent DWI regulations in the U.S. It demonstrates a point that we’ve been making on the blog for years, that anti-drinking laws don’t slow consumption. Education does, but hardly anyone wants to invest in that. It’s easier to get tough.

Craft pooches? Who knew that we would one day take our pets to a do-themed bar? But that’s what happened in suburban Portland this week, when Fido’s Taphouse opened. Its owners say Fido’s is the first of its kind: “Fido’s blends foster housing for shelter dogs with a craft beer tap room. Patrons will be able to drink craft beer and play with shelter dogs, with the goal of rehoming these dogs to loving owners.” It’s an odd approach (even allowing for the PR person who used “rehoming,” which is not a word). I’m more concerned, as someone who has owned dogs his entire life, about people who drink beer while contemplating adoption. Hard to make a rational decision, isn’t it?

Flavored wine? No, apparently not, reports Flavorman, the Beverage Architects (and no, I am not making this up). The Louisville, Ky., company says “Maple, the sweet sign of spring and uniquely North American ingredient, is the top trending flavor for the upcoming year. It is famous for its complex sweetness and unmatched flavor. More recently, it is front and center for its role as an alternative sweetener and extensive list health and nutritional benefits.” The bad news for wine drinkers? Sadly, there will not be any maple flavored wine – only “Matcha Tea, international coffee blends, botanical-heavy beverages both alcoholic and non-alcoholic and in craft beverages including sodas, beer and spirits.” How will we ever survive?

Results: The fourth $3 wine challenge 2018

$3 challenge 2018

Does this guy know how lucky he was not to drink wine with me last week?

The $3 wine challenge 2018: The wines were awful again — how can anyone drink this junk?

The worst part of the $3 wine challenge 2018 is that I wanted to like these wines. I wanted to find something that cost $3 that tasted like wine and that I could buy and enjoy.

Fat chance.

Like last year, and the year before, and the year before, the wines were mostly hideous. This group was made to resemble grape juice with alcohol. Think Welch’s — an overwhelmingly grapey aroma, a little less sweetness, tartness instead of acidity, watery and thin, and without the tannins that every wine should have. These are wine for people who don’t like wine.

Which the producers understand. The bottle — with a cork, for crying out loud — cost more to produce than the wine itself. This should tell you how much appearance matters, and how little quality counts.

The $3 challenge 2018

I drank a $3 merlot with dinner every night last week to attempt to answer the question: Can a wine drinker live on really cheap wine? Or are the ultra-cheap wines just cheap, without any redeeming enological value? Each of the wines was purchased, and all but one was American and non-vintage.

Two-buck Chuck merlot 2014 ($1.99, 12.5%). The Trader Joe’s private label had the blueberry aroma it should have had, though a little forced. Very fruity, with sweet berries, plus unexpected tannins. They weren’t especially natural (liquid tannins, perhaps?), but at least they were there. Surprisingly drinkable and merlot-like, and the only one that tasted anything like wine. But not as well made as the Black Box merlot, which is about the same price.

Three Wishes merlot ($2.99, 12.5%), the Whole Foods private label. How can a retailer that prides itself on quality sell something this wretched? Smelled like expensive grape juice, and tasted like it, too. No tannins, no acidity, and a dirtt chocolate fake oak taste on the finish.

• The Winking Owl merlot ($2.89, 12%) from Aldi (but may be available elsewhere) had a thick and heavy taste, even though it was surprisingly light in color. Smelled like merlot, with some blueberry, but that was as palatable as it got. There was noticeable residual sugar, even though the wine claimed to be dry, the usual missing tannins, and battery acid-style acidity.

Oak Leaf merlot ($2.96, 12.5%), the Walmart private label was more of the same — the Welch’s grape juice approach, both in aroma and taste; so of course, no tannins. Plus, and oddly, it was a little heavy and in the back. A very annoying effort.

Bay Bridge merlot ($2.99, 12.5%), the Kroger private label and sold at Kroger, Fred Meyer, and Kroger-owned banners. This, as it usually is, was the worst of the five. Smelled like blueberry Kosher wine, and a little tinny for good measure.  Charred chocolate from the fake oak (oak powder?), plus a little varnish-like taste in the fruit.

More on the $3 wine challenge:
Results: The third $3 wine challenge 2017
Results: The second $3 wine challenge 2014
Results: The first $3 wine challenge 2013

Bic lighters, wine corks, and screwcaps

How quaint: Let’s use a lighter to push open a wine cork

Those of you holding out, who still think wine must have a cork closure, should watch the entire 1:46 of this video to be reminded that wine corks are 19th century technology.

Yes, it’s a neat party trick. But that’s what people used to say about wearing a lampshade, and we don’t do that anymore, do we? And, sadly, I have encountered more than one bottle over the years where the cork was pushed up like that and no one took a lighter to it. That’s called sitting in a hot warehouse.

A wine closure, like any other food seal, should be easy to use and safe for both the product and the consumer. None of which, as the brave fellow here demonstrates, applies to corks. Only wine would make the product so complicated that it discourages people from buying it – and let’s not forget that the gadget used to open the wine can cost more than the wine itself.

In other words, when’s the last time you needed a corkscrew to open a bottle of ketchup?

Video courtesy of Hacker 007 via Youtube, using a Creative Commons license