Ask the WC 23: Wine prices, rose, South African wine

wine pricesThis edition of Ask the WC:  Has the wine tariff pushed up wine prices? Plus, why isn’t rose sweet and whether South African wine is worth buying

Because the customers always have questions, and the Wine Curmudgeon has answers in this irregular feature. You can Ask the Wine Curmudgeon a wine-related question by clicking here.

Greetings, WC:
Have wine prices gone up because of the tariff? I can’t tell, but I buy the same wine over and over, so I’m not a good person to ask.
Watching my pennies

Dear Pennies:
The biggest surprise with the tariff — to me, anyway — has been retailer reluctance to raise prices, and especially for the wines we write about on the blog. There have been exceptions, of course; I was in the country’s premier “natural food” grocer the other day, and it looked like every French and Spanish wine had gone up exactly 25 percent, the amount of the tariff. But many of the other retailers I have visited or talked to are making an honest effort to hold the line. I’m especially seeing many retailers bring in similarly-priced labels to replace the tariff wines. Which, all things considered, makes me a lot less cranky about the tariff. Still, as one Dallas retailer told me, all bets are off when the new rose vintages arrive in the next month or so.

Dear Wine Curmudgeon:
Is rose supposed to be sweet or not? Some taste like white zinfandel, and others don’t. When did this start?
Pinked out

Dear Pinked:
Rose is dry. White zinfandel is sweet. This used to be cut and dried. But in the wine business’ ill-conceived attempt to woo younger consumers, they’re sneaking residual sugar into “dry rose.” Typically, most European pinks are still dry, so you’re safe with French, Spanish and Italian wines. One way to tell: If the dreaded word smooth appears on the back label, I wouldn’t be surprised if the wine was sweet. Rose is supposed to be fruity, not smooth.

Hello, Wine Curmudgeon:
Am I starting to see more South African wine in the U.S.? Is it worth buying?
Curious

Dear Curious:
The answer to the first part of your question is yes and no — yes, because sales have increased substantially, and no because sales are starting from such a small base. South African wines, save for a burst of popularity in the late 1990s, have been few and far between in the U.S. But quality has improved markedly since then, and it’s possible to find Rhone-style red blends, whites like chenin blanc and sauvignon blanc, and even dry rose at a fair price.

Photo: “a Bourgogne” by miss_rogue is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 

Wine of the week: Chateau Bonnet Blanc 2018

Chateau Bonnet Blanc

Look — the Chateau Bonnet Blanc on a store shelf. In Pennsylvania, even.

Despite the gloom and doom surrounding cheap wine these days, we still have the Chateau Bonnet Blanc to drink and enjoy

The Chateau Bonnet Blanc is the $10 bottle I turn to when the rest of the wine world seems to be headed toward $50, whether because of tariffs, premiumization or what have you. And we’ve certainly had a lot of what have you’s lately, haven’t we?

How much quality does this wine deliver? So much that even the 2016, which was all I could buy in Dallas for the past couple of years, was still amazingly fresh and delicious when I had it in January. The 2017 never did show up here, and the 2019 has not arrived yet.

Which left me with the 2018 vintage of the Chateau Bonnet Blanc ($10, purchased, 12.5%), which was not a problem. How can it be? It’s Chateau Bonnet.

The 2018, as always, is a white blend from France’s Bordeaux that’s mostly sauvignon blanc with a little semillon and muscadelle. It’s not quite as brisk as the 2016, and there seems to be a little more soft citrus fruit mixed in with the herbs and minerality. Which is not a problem, and speaks to the producer’s skill and professionalism: Something that costs this little remains consistent in terms of quality, yet displays vintage difference is stunning.

Highly recommended, and a candidate for the 2021 Hall of Fame and Cheap Wine of the Year. Chill the Bonnet and drink on its own or with anything that’s not bloody red meat or covered up with cream sauce. And be glad it’s still with us, despite all the what have you’s.

Imported by Duetsch Family Wines & Spirits

Pricing note: All prices are suggested retail or actual purchase price before the October 2019 tariffs unless noted

 

Winebits 633: Supermarket wine prices, liquor stores, wine influencers

supermarket wineThis week’s wine news: Supermarket wine prices vary significantly from state to state, plus a study says liquor stores and high crime are related and the FTC is going after social media influencers

Supermarket wine prices: A home product review and renovation site says U.S. supermarket wine prices vary significantly by state, with Mississippi and Georgia selling the most expensive bottles. I mention this not because it’s news to anyone who spends any time on the blog, but because it’s always fascinating to see how non-booze sites deal with wine. To its credit, House Method, which did the survey, doesn’t draw any conclusions about why there is such disparity. (Or explain how it bought wine in supermarkets in states without supermarket wine sales.) The results, at the link, are interesting, if nothing else. Who knew red wine was less expensive in Hawaii than in California?

Less booze, less crime? That’s the approach one study is urging on Baltimore officials as city leaders rewrite its zoning laws, with an eye toward reducing the number of liquor stores and bars in the city. North Carolina researchers used a computer model that took into account homicide rates in Baltimore, as well as previous research that showed one-half of violent crime can be attributed to alcohol access. The result? The study found that cutting the number of alcohol outlets might reduce homicides by as many as 50 a year, as well as generate savings of as much as $60 million annually.

Watch out, influencers: The Federal Trade Commission, which regulates advertising, will apparently clamp down on all those Instagram and social media influencers. The agency wants to know if consumers understand how influencers work; that is, that they are paid to endorse products and that they must disclose paid endorsements. This will matter in wine, given the increasing role influencers play in pushing products like rose.

Trump Administration backs off 100 percent European wine tariff

But we’re still stuck with the 25 percent wine tariff, and perhaps for at least another six months

wine tariff

Higher prices: This 1-liter bottle of French rose, about $12 before the tariff, now costs $2 more on sale at one national retailer.

The Trump Administration said Friday it would not raise its European wine tariffs to 100 percent, which would have included most of the region’s wine. That’s the good news.

The bad news? We’re stuck with the 25 percent tariff imposed last fall until the next review, set for August.

Still, this is much more than a half empty glass. The decision seemed to reflect the wine industry’s tremendous and almost unprecedented lobbying effort against the 100 percent tariff, in which representatives from each of the three tiers testified at U.S. Trade Representative Office hearings, blitzed the old and new media, and organized public anti-tariff campaigns. In this, groups that typically disagree as often as they agree worked together for the greater good.

For example, the Wine Institute, the trade group for California producers, has been working for years to change state laws to make it easier for consumers to buy directly from wineries. This has been opposed by most of the second tier, since wholesalers have a monopoly on selling to retail and restaurants under the three-tier system and don’t want to allow any exceptions. But the two groups were side by side in opposing the tariff.

“It was one of the rare cases in the industry when everyone’s interests aligned,” says Cindy Frank, a long-time wine industry executive who has worked as an importer, wholesaler, producer, and retailer and who testified at last month hearings before the U.S. Trade Representative in opposition to the tariffs. “It’s the one issue that has worked itself all the way through the three-tier system.”

So where does this leave us?

• The tariff decision was announced on Friday afternoon. This timing, after everyone leaves for the weekend, almost always means the people announcing the news didn’t want to talk about it. Which often means they did something they didn’t want to do, and so didn’t want to have to explain their decision. Still, that aircraft tariffs were increased, when the initial dispute was about aircraft, speaks volumes. The World Trade Organization ruled in October that EU subsidies to Airbus were illegal, and that the U.S could impose tariffs in retaliation.

• Credit some of the decision to our friend, the three-tier system. Apparently, Trump Administration officials didn’t understand what three-tier was or how it worked. Their questions, said several people who testified, assumed retailers, importers, and wholesalers could easily replace European wine with imports from other parts of the world, just as they would steel or soybeans. The officials didn’t know how severely three-tier restricts how wine can be sold in the U.S.

• Economic turmoil. The wine industry lobbyists, as part of their effort, did an excellent job in showing that higher prices for imported wine would lead to job losses, bankruptcies, and lost sales up and down the U.S. supply chain, whether big or small retailers, producers, importers or distributors, says Southern Glazer’s Barkley Stuart, the chairman of the Wine & Spirits Wholesaler Association’s board of directors.

• The tariff was re-examined four months after it was applied as required by U.S. law. This was a point of confusion after the October ruling, and I reported the process incorrectly in the “Does anyone have any idea what’s going on?” post (and since updated). The next tariff review, as required by law, must come by August. In addition, the WTO is expected to announce later this year that the U.S. gave Boeing illegal subsidies in retaliation for the EU subsidies to Airbus. If that happens, then there’s political cover for both sides to negotiate away the tariffs, but no one knows if or when that will happen.

• Retailers, pricing, and rose season. As reported here and elsewhere, retailers, distributors, and importers have worked together since October to minimize the 25 percent tariff’s effect on prices. But, as one Dallas retailer told me, all bets are off on holding the line on prices when rose season arrives in the next month or so.

Cheap white wine face-off: Sunshine Bay sauvignon blanc vs. Farnese Fantini trebbiano

cheap white wine face-off

Who needs Cage or Travolta? We have Sunshine Bay and Farnese Fantini.

Which of these two about $7 wines offer the best value in this cheap white wine face-off?

A variety of cheap white wines have served the Wine Curmudgeon well over the years, starting with the late and much lamented Hogue fume blanc. These are the kind of wines you buy in quantity, keep chilled, and know that when you drink it, the result will be quality, value, and enjoyment.

My current choice is the Farnese Fantini trebbiano, an Italian white that costs $8. But, with the appearance of Aldi’s Sunshine Bay, a New Zealand sauvignon blanc, that costs $7, is it time to make a change?

Hence, this cheap white wine face-off.

• Price. The Fantini is $7.99, less the 10 percent case discount. That works out to $7.19 a bottle. The Sunshine Bay is $6.95 at my local Aldi, so it’s cheaper – but probably not enough to make a difference.

• Screwcap. Yes to both. This matters a lot, because I don’t want to go through a ritual when all I want is couple of glasses for no particular reason. This kind of wine should be open it and forget it.

• Quality. Are the wines professional and well made? Yes to both. Frankly, I was surprised. For one thing, there is still a lot of cheap, crummy Italian white wine in the world, and so didn’t expect much from the Fantini. But it is clean and crisp, without any off flavors or residual sugar. The Sunshine Bay, given Aldi’s track record in the U.S., was even more surprising. It’s much better made than similarly-priced New Zealand sauvignon blancs.

• Style. Do they taste like they’re supposed to? Yes, again, to both. The Fantini is lemon-lime-ish, simple but not stupid. The Sunshine plays up the New Zealand grapefruit style, but there;s a hint of tropical fruit in the middle, and the citrus doesn’t overwhelm the wine.

My choice? I’ll probably stick with the Fantini, since it’s more food friendly. But for those who like the New Zealand style or want a little more heft in their white wine, the Sunshine Bay is an excellent alternative. And I will keep buying it.

“Crisp and fresh:” AI wine writing strikes again

ai wine writingWill AI wine writing eventually make wine tasting irrelevant?

This is a mineral-driven wine that’s crisp and fresh, with a flinty edge. It is very tangy, with zesty citrus, giving a bright character. It needs time to mature, so wait until late vintage.

That’s a review of one of my favorite $10 wines – the Chateau Bonnet Blanc, a white French Bordeaux. But I didn’t write it, and neither, technically, did any other human wine critic.

Instead, it was written by an artificial intelligence – the Wine Review Generator created by long-time wine industry executive Michael Brill. Brill, who also does tech, software, and AI consulting, wanted to find out if he could “teach” a machine to write tasting notes.

And, for the most part, that’s what he did.

Brill left a comment about last week’s blog post about the future of AI wine writing. That led to our phone conversation this week, where Brill said improved technology has made it possible to create the Chateau Bonnet review with a minimal amount of human programming. All you need, he said, is a database of wine terms, wine regions, grape varieties, and so forth. That information, combined with advances in neural network research that have helped scientists better understand how to program machines to “think,” led to the review software and to the Bonnet review.

In this, Brill said, a machine’s ability to “write” longer and more coherent sentences has improved tremendously. Before, he explained, an AI story might be half readable and half nonsense, and the most it could create was a 10-word sentence. Today, those numbers are 90 and 10 percent, and it can write a readable 10-sentence paragraph.

How the machine does this, needless to say, is incredibly complicated. It makes predictions about what comes next in a sentence based on the words that came before, a process that is much more like writing than previous AI efforts; those were more like filling in a template. Here, the AI has “learned” that a mineral-driven wine is crisp and fresh, and not oaky and flabby, so it picks the former phrase to follow mineral-driven instead of the latter.

Which is why the Chateau Bonnet Blanc effort is not a bad tasting note. It’s mostly accurate (save for the bit about aging) and it conforms to the rules of grammar and the sensibilities of wine. That the machine wrote the review without tasting the wine is impressive, and knowing only the cost and some characteristics, is impressive. And more than a little spooky.

And not just because an AI is cheaper to hire than I am. Brill said advances in machine writing could eventually make product reviews useless. Some of that happens today on Amazon, where it’s not uncommon to see badly written AI reviews praising a product. But the situation could get even worse as AI writing improves.

A top-notch AI could flood Amazon with machine-generated positive (or even negative) reviews, with the resulting effect on sales. Or it might be possible for one restaurant to force another out of business with an AI-written campaign on Yelp.

And who would know the difference?

Wine of the week: McManis Petit Sirah 2017

mcmanis petit sirahThe McManis petit sirah: $10 California red wine that is well made and speaks to quality and value

California’s McManis family, despite the trials and tribulations of the post-modern wine business and the faint-heartedness of others, still cares more about quality than focus groups. The McManis petit sirah is just one of the family’s many wines that proves that point.

The McManis petit sirah ($10, purchased, 13.5%) is a reminder of the early days of the blog, when petit sirah was used to make quality cheap wine – a little plummy, a bit rich, not especially tannic, and just enough acidity for balance. Today, it’s mostly used to make sweet, “smooth,” flaccid red blends that cost $15 or $16, because someone somewhere thinks that’s what younger consumers want.

The McManis is the exact opposite of that, one of the best petit sirahs I’ve had in years, regardless of price. There is sweet dark plum fruit, but this is not a sweet wine. Plus, subtle acidity and the correct tannins. In this, it’s a reminder that California used to give us some of the world’s best cheap wine. Drink this with everything from takeout pizza to fancy meatloaf, and it wouldn’t be so bad on its own after a hard day at work, either. And you could do a whole lot worse using the McManis as a gift for the holiday that must not be named later this week.

Highly recommended, and a candidate to for the 2021’s  $10 Hall of Fame and Cheap Wine of the Year.