Wine history lesson 2: Maynard Amerine on quality, price, and value

maynard amerineLegendary UC-Davis professor Maynard Amerine told us 45 years ago that price was no guarantee of quality or value

One of the most intriguing things about U.S. wine history is how it repeats itself. Time after time, smart people warn the wine business about what will happen if it doesn’t pay attention to its customers. And, time after time, the wine business ignores the warnings – much to its detriment.

Today’s wine history lesson comes from legendary University of California-Davis professor Maynard A. Amerine, with wisdom from his 1976 book (written with UC-Davis math colleague Edward B. Roessler), “WINES: Their Sensory Evaluation.” It was perhaps the most important wine book of its time.

What made it so important? I asked Randy Caparoso, a long-time wine critic and restaurateur, who wrote about Amerine on the Lodi wine appellation blog. What struck me about his Amerine post was that the UC-Davis professor echoed the analysis of pioneering wine writers Leon Adams and Frank Schoonmaker, who earned their own blog post about a year ago.

“I think people like Amerine, Adams and Schoonmaker could clearly see the writing on the wall,” says Caparoso. “That’s because, even in the ‘50s and ‘60s, they personally knew many a well-heeled wine collector or connoisseur. Same for me during my career as a wine professional, which started in ’78. These kinds of people were already driving up prices with their mania for ‘great’ wines. This was the essence of Amerine’s quote, ‘Drink wine, not labels.’ … But what was true 50, 60 years ago was bound to get even worse in the 21st century, and it has.”

In other words, Amerine – like Adams and Schoonmaker – predicted the mess we find ourselves in: Too much ordinary wine, too much overpriced wine, and a wine industry that doesn’t understand that it has lost its audience because it has focused on either ordinary or overpriced wine.

Enjoying wine –without the fuss

Hence, three of Amerine’s eight guidelines for enjoying wine:

• You don’t have to be an expert to enjoy wine. It’s “nonsense… The expert may know why he enjoys a certain wine but he would be presumptuous to claim that he enjoys it more than the amateur. The latter may, in fact, enjoy a certain wine more fully than the expert precisely because he doe not have the knowledge and experience to make all the possible comparisons among wine.”

• Small wineries are not better just because they are small. “Some of the worst wines we ever suffered came from small, picturesque wineries. We hasten to add that some of the best also came from small wineries. It is the standards of the producer, and a fair amount of luck, that determines the quality of the wines produced, not the size of the winery.”

• Expensive wines are not necessarily better than cheap wines. “Some are, many are not. Price depends on many factors that are not necessarily related to quality. Those who buy wines on a price-basis deserve what they get. … But it is the quality of the wine, not the price, that is important. Some famous vineyards, secure in the knowledge that they have an established market, often charge whatever the market will bear. This means that the wines are sometimes not worth the higher price if quality alone is the criterion for selection.”

Photo courtesy of the UC-Davis Library, using a Creative Commons license

Wine of the week: Mont Gravet Carignan 2018

Mont Gravet CarignanThe Mont Gravet Carignan offers value and quality and interest – impressive in any wine, and even more so for $10

This vintage of the Mont Gravet Carignan, a red wine from France, isn’t as amazing as the 2015, which was one of the great cheap wines of all time. But that doesn’t mean the 2018 isn’t a terrific cheap wine.

Because it is. The Mont Gravet Carignan 2018 ($10, purchased, 12%) is everything a great $10 wine should be – professionally made, varietally correct, and interesting. Why interesting?

• It’s not tannic, but it’s not the kind of “smoooooth” wine that a focus group would approve of.

• It’s made with carignan, usually used for blending. So it doesn’t taste like cabernet sauvignon, merlot or pinot noir. Which is OK, since it’s not supposed to.

• It’s both food friendly (burgers and fajitas) and something to drink when you feel like a glass of red wine. That just doesn’t happen much any more.

Look for berry fruit, not quite brambly and not too much of it, plus a little bit of earth (one of my favorite things about this wine every vintage). The  smidgen of tannins and acidity make the wine complete. Highly recommended, and should return to the Hall of Fame in 2021.

Imported by Winesellers, Ltd.

Winebits 668: Fake wine, winery values, money-back guarantee

fake wineThis week’s wine news: Italian police bust up a fake wine ring, plus bad news for high-end winery profits and Hardys money-back wine guarantee

Phony Sassicaia: Italian police seized almost 350 cases of fakes of one of Italy’s most famous wines, which can cost as much as $400 a bottle. Operation Bad Tuscan, reports Manchester’s Guardian newspaper, uncovered a ring that used cheap wine from Sicily to counterfeit Bolgheri Sassicaia, what the story called a “prestigious Super Tuscan wine.” The wine included fakes from the highly-praised 2010 and 2015 vintages. The wines, sold for two-thirds less than their usual price, were destined for Russia, Korea, and China. So far, 11 people have been arrested. Italy’s wine cops have been busy this year: They raided Sicily’s Feudo Arancio winery as part of a Mafia investigation into money laundering.

No profit here: The Seeking Alpha financial website details just how difficult it is to make money in the wine business, even – and especially – if the company makes high end wine. Analyst Ian Bezek is frank about Crimson Wine Group, whose brands include $100-plus producers Pine Ridge and Archery Summit: “Simply put, if a company like Crimson can only earn 26 cents a share in the best of times, and outright loses money during industry downturns, the stock isn’t worth a whole lot on a P/E basis.” That an analyst outside the wine business has noticed what’s going on with wine speaks volumes about the problems the industry faces, and that hopefully the industry will address.

Money-back guarantee: The Australians know how to sell wine: Hardys is offering its Aussie, British, and Irish customers a 100-percent refund if they don’t like the Hardys wine they bought. This is a brilliant idea, which is why (assuming it’s legal in the U.S.) we won’t see it in this country. The guarantee includes all the brand’s wines, from the US$80 Eileen Hardy Shiraz to the US$10 Nottage Hill label. Why brilliant? Because the biggest obstacle most consumers face with trying something new is that they don’t want to waste money on something they aren’t sure about. This promotion eliminates that uncertainty.

Wine review: Six white wines from New York’s Fox Run

fox runThese six white wines are some of the reasons why New York has come so far in wine quality

One of the great successes in Drink Local over the past 15 years has been New York state, which has grown, thrived, and earned rare critical acclaim. In fact, one of my great regrets with Drink Local Wine is that we never held a conference in New York’s Finger Lakes, home to some of the world’s best rieslings.

Fortunately, I’ve been able to taste New York wine regularly since the blog started, and so have been able to follow the Finger Lakes’ success. One recent example: Six white wines from Fox Run Vineyards, which was founded in 1984. Winemaker Peter Bell and co-owner Scott Osborn have long been ardent supporters of Drink Local, and I used to judge with Peter at the old Eastern International in upstate New York. His rant while we were tasting supermarket zinfandels one year has stayed with me since.

Each of these six wines are worth drinking, and several are even better than that (and most of the prices aren’t bad, either):

• Fox Run Silvan Riesling 2018 ($25, sample, 12.5%): This riesling shows why the Finger Lakes has earned its reputation. It’s long, complex, and intriguing, but also terroir-driven. That means it’s rich and full, but without the petrol or honey of a similar German riesling. Instead, there is zesty lime fruit and lots of minerality. Sill very young and probably needs a couple of years to open up. Highly recommended.

• Fox Run Dry Riesling 2018 ($15, sample, 11.7%): Very New York in style – oh so crisp, an echo of sweetness, a little lemon, maybe some oiliness (or maybe not), very long, and very clean.

• Fox Run Semi-Dry Riesling ($13, sample, 11.4%): This is exactly what an off-dry riesling should taste like — the sweetness is part of the wine, and not glopped on. This might have been my favorite of the batch, and I don’t go out of my way to find off-dry wine. Look for a bit of petrol and a bit of lime, both of which balance the sweetness. Highly recommended.

• Fox Run Traminette 2018 ($15, sample, 11.2%): This is a well made traminette, something never easy to do with this particular hybrid grape. There’s some spice, some tropical fruit, and noticeable (but not annoying) sweetness.

• Fox Run Chardonnay 2018 ($15, sample, 12.4%): One of the best domestic chardonnays at this price I’ve tasted in years — crisp green apple, clean, no hint of sweetness or the cloying tropical fruit that so many similarly priced wines have. If there is any oak, it’s hiding in the background where it should be. Tremendous value and highly recommended.

• Fox Run Kaiser Chardonnay 2018 ($15, sample, 12.5%) This tastes like Peter Bell’s take on all those fake, over-oaked, $12 to $18 supermarket chardonnays that make me crazy. Which, of course, it didn’t. Yes, the oak is pronounced, but the vanilla is balanced against the pear and apple fruit. If you like this style of wine, this will make you very happy.

More regional wine reviews:
Michigan wine 2019
Beard award semifinalists: One more victory for regional wine
Regional wine update: Virginia, Texas, Lake Erie

Call it the Cheap Wine Eater, and it’s out to premiumize the Federation

Can Kirk make the Federation safe for $10 wine by destroying the Cheap Wine Eater?

The Doomsday Machine, better known to the crew of the USS Enterprise as the Cheap Wine Eater, is trying to premiumize every wine in the Federation. Fortunately for wine drinkers from Vulcan to Rigel to Tellar, James Tiberius Kirk has a plan — overload the impulse engines on the damaged USS Constellation to destroy the Cheap Wine Eater.

This parody comes from “The Doomsday Machine,” the sixth episode of the second season of the original series. It has many of the bits that made “Star Trek” so much fun — a plot lifted from great literature (in this case, “Moby Dick”); an over the top performance by guest star William Windom, who does Ahab via Humphrey Bogart in “The Caine Mutiny;” Scotty in a Jefferies tube; and William Shatner’s impeccable Kirk, wearing his green wraparound tunic instead of the standard uniform top. And I can hear Kirk saying, “Premium-eye-zation” just the way he says, “Civil-eye-zation,” with that touch of a Canadian accent.

My apologies to all in the cast featured here, as well as to the late Star Trek impresario Gene Roddenberry. A tip o’ the WC’s fedora to Mike Leo on YouTube, where I found the original scene, as well as Star Trek Transcripts, which has the original dialogue. And all silliness like this owes a debt to WineParody, whose Robert Parker epic is the standard by which these efforts are judged.

Make sure you turn captions on when you watch the video; you can make the captions bigger or change their color by clicking on the settings gear on the lower right.

Churro, the blog’s associate editor, contributed to this post

More wine and film parodies:
Robin Hood
Enter the Dragon
Shaft

New study says we’ll be eating – and drinking – more at home, even after the pandemic ends

restaurant wine

USA Today reports that 2.3 million restaurant jobs have been lost during the pandemic.

As many as one in four say they anticipate forgoing restaurants – and restaurant wine – in the future

A Florida consultancy predicts that restaurant spending could fall by as much as one-half by the time the pandemic ends. Even more surprising, says its study: Consumers seem content to cook and eat at home. If true, this has tremendous implications for the wine business.

That’s because about 40 percent wine sold in the U.S., measured by dollar sales, is sold in restaurants. So if that market goes away, there’s going to be even more wine glutting the market – and there’s already a glut.

And if that happens, we could be looking at lower prices but also more winery failures – and especially on the high end, since that’s where much restaurant wine comes from. This might also lead to more winery consolidation, which means less consumer choice. The biggest wineries have the deepest pockets, and will be better able to survive a massive glut.

The results come from Florida-based Acosta, in a study called “COVID-19: Reinventing How America Eats.” It described what seem to be massive shifts in consumer eating habits: 44 percent report eating breakfast at home daily, compared with 33 percent pre-COVID. Similarly, 31 percent are eating lunch at home every day versus 18 percent pre-COVID, and one-third are eating dinner at home daily versus 21 percent pre-COVID. All of those people eating at home, says Acosta, translates into 31 to 50 percent less spending at midscale, casual and fine dining restaurants.

Don’t panic yet

But let’s look at the caveats:

• Acosta didn’t respond to a couple of requests for an interview. The study is based on “online surveys of Acosta’s proprietary shopper community” in early July, as well as industry data and “proprietary information sources.” Proprietary means the company doesn’t discuss how the survey works, which means it’s OK to be skeptical about the results. We know how Nielsen measures sales; we don’t know how Acosta divines its results.

• On the other hand, Acogta’s pessimism about the future of the restaurant business dovetails with most of the gloom and doom prognosticated elsewhere. USA Today reported in early October that 2.3 million restaurant jobs have been lost during the pandemic, while 12 percent of sit-down restaurant chain units that were open before COVID-19 had closed.

• The 40 percent restaurant wine sales number is misleading, since it’s measured in dollar terms. Given that restaurant wines tend to be more expensive, and that restaurant markups inflate that total, the amount of wine sold in restaurants in actual bottles is probably much less than 40 percent of the U.S. total. Hence, the loss of the restaurant market wouldn’t be quite as devastating, and it would also be mitigated by people buing less expensive wine at the supermarket.

• Some of the results in the survey require a second look. For example, “35 percent of consumers said they’ve discovered a new passion for cooking amid the pandemic.” Which is all well and good, but does it actually mean anything? And one-fifth to one-quarter of the respondents say they anticipate eating out less in the future, which is understandable in July but may not mean much next spring.

So, yes, more not good news for the restaurant and wine businesses. But maybe, given all the bad news we’ve had, not quite as bad as it seems.

Wine of the week: El Coto Rioja Blanco 2018

El Coto Rioja BlancoThe El Coto Rioja Blanco delivers once again – quality Spanish white wine for $10

El Coto, one of my favorite Spanish producers, understands how to make great cheap wine – and that it’s just not about what’s in the bottle.

Does that sound odd, especially coming from the Wine Curmudgeon? Not at all. Because not only is the wine top-notch, but the El Coto Rioja Bianco doesn’t waste money on a heavy bottle with a punt, which so many $15 supermarket wines still do. Plus, it comes with a screwcap. What more could the WC ask for?

So drink and enjoy the El Coto Rioja Blanco 2018 ($10, purchased, 12%), a white wine made with almost all viura. That means it doesn’t taste like chardonnay or sauvignon blanc. Rather, it’s viura as it should be: Tart, lemony, and simple without being stupid. Plus, it’s also consistent from vintage to vintage without being boring, perhaps the third hallmark of a great cheap wine after quality and minimal marketing costs. Hence, the kind of wine to buy because you know it will offer quality and value every time. And buy more than one bottle at a time.

This vintage of the El Coto Rioja Blanco may be a touch light on the back; I couldn’t tell because I enjoyed it so much that I drank it without paying enough attention. Regardless, it’s well worth drinking, and especially at this price and especially given the tariff.

Imported by Opici Wines