Whenever the Wine Curmudgeon gets depressed about the quality of cheap California wine, Joel Gott’s wines always cheer me up. Gott not only makes impressive cheap wine, but he is passionate and committed about it, and believes that consumers deserve the best value possible for their money. Would that more California producers felt that way.
Case in point is the 2013 sauvignon blanc ($12, purchased, 13.9%). This is top-of-the line California sauvignon blanc, comparable to wines that cost as much as $10 more. Look for citrus (lemon and not grapefruit) and trademark California grassiness (the smell of a freshly cut lawn) in the front, but also some tropical fruit (melon?) in the middle, a quality most of the people who make cheap wine don’t bother with.
It’s not quite as impressive as the 2012, but that may be because it had just been bottled when I tasted it. Regardless, and assuming I can find it later this year for $10, it’s a candidate for the 2015 Hall of Fame.
Pair the sauvignon blanc, chilled, with grilled seafood or roast chicken, or drink on its own. And, when you do, toast someone who understands that most of us want quality wine we can afford to drink every day, and who makes wine for that purpose.
? Wine sales growth slows: And the reason may have been craft beer and flavored spirits, reports the Technomics consultancy. “The sluggish economy is creating ever more intense competition for adult beverage occasions,” says the report. “And today’s consumers ? especially Millennials ? have a broad drink portfolio that involves drink spirits, wine and beer, with flavor and occasion as key factors in the what-to-drink decision. Never before has the battle for share of glass been so intense.” Share of glass, indeed. The good news for wine, though growth was only 1.6 percent in 2013, is that total adult beverage volume declined 0.9 percent. Take that, beer.
Michael Green, formerly of the late and much missed Gourmet, is the other moderator. The panel is top notch: Dr. Richard Becker of Texas’ Becker Vineyards; Ralf Holdenried of Napa’s William Hill; and Sergio Cuadra of Texas’ Fall Creek.
How to win (and these are the rules for all Wine Curmudgeon contests): Pick a number between 1 and 1,000 and leave it in the comments section of this post. At about 5 p.m. central today, I’ll go to random.org and generate the winning number. The person whose number is closest to the random number wins the prize — and no, you can’t pick a number someone else has picked. Only one entry per person.
You may see the wine term problematic pricing or pricing is problematic in a review, and especially in one of the mini-reviews that runs on the final Friday of each month. It’s mostly what it seems: If it’s problematic, the wine’s price is a problem, and the problem is that it that doesn’t offer enough value for its price.
Still, this hasn’t been clear to enough people, and so the need for this post. One PR woman in particular wasn’t quite sure what it meant. Either I liked her wine or I didn’t, and what did price have to do with it?
Price, of course, has everything to do with it. It’s not enough that a wine is cheap (or expensive, for that matter). Does it offer more value than it costs? Or is it just cheap, like most of the $5 wine the big retail chains sell? Or is it marketing driven, where you’re paying for what’s on the label as much as for what’s in the bottle?
I asked the great Lynne Kleinpeter about this, because I trust her palate, in many ways, even more than I trust my own. If nothing else, she can be objective when she tastes the kind of wine that makes me want to write horrible, misanthropic reviews. Her answer: “When I would buy this wine at this price? If it was the only wine in the store, and I didn’t have a choice.”
Wine pricing doesn’t get more problematic than that.
So how many smaller wine companies should we buy this year?
Big Wine tightened its grip on the U.S market in 2013, with new figures showing that three companies accounted for more than half of all the wine produced during those 12 months. E&J Gallo, The Wine Group, and Constellation Wines totalled some 187.5 million cases of the 370 million produced.
Throw in the next three biggest companies — Bronco, home of Two-buck Chuck; Trinchero Family Estates; and Treasury — and that total rises to 241.4 million cases — about two-thirds of the wine made in the U.S. The top 30 by themselves account for some 90 percent; in other words, all the wine that those of us who write about wine love to write about? Hardly anyone drinks it. No wonder availability is such an issue.
? There is big, and then there is really big. No. 1 Gallo, with 80 million cases, sold more wine than the bottom 26 companies combined. That’s a staggering statistic, and speaks to Gallo’s understanding of the post-modern wine business — marketing, certainly, but also how to leverage the three-tier system and how to develop products, like sweet red wine, that elude other wine companies.
? Adding brands. “One of the things that surprised me was the number of big wineries that are not introducing new brands,” said Wine Business News editor Cyril Penn. “It’s mostly just the Gallo’s and Constellations of the world are doing a lot of that this year.” These so-called line extensions are another sign that the biggest companies see wine the same way Proctor & Gamble sees cleaning supplies and Campbell’s sees soup.
? Consolidation is all. Wine Business Monthly included its 2003 top 30 list, and 12 companies on that list are gone, sold or merged into bigger companies. In addition, five companies are on the 2014 list because they bought other companies to get big enough to make the list.
? Big isn’t as big as it used to be. One million cases used to be the hallmark of a big wine company. These days, it will only get you 18th on the list.
Is all this bigness good? For prices, almost certainly. The biggest companies can afford to sell wine for less and make up the difference on volume (to say nothing of their lower costs of production, thanks to economies of scale). Wine quality, at least technically, should also benefit, so now flawed or unripe wine. What’s less clear is what bigness means for value. Big Wine focuses on price and technical quality, and whether the wine is interesting is an afterthought. Hence all those $10 California merlots that taste the same.
The fear for those of us who love cheap wine is that, as the big get bigger, it will be more difficult to find interesting cheap wine. I’m seeing some of that this year, with producers sacrificing interest in favor of cheaper grapes to keep prices down. The last thing any of us want is for wine to turn into beer, where cheap means Budweiser and Miller Lite, and where it’s almost impossible to find the $10 values that exist in wine.
? Descriptors that bear no relationship to the wine, including “a lovely mix of chocolate and vanilla” and “wooded notes” — whatever that is.
Chalk it up to French marketing envy, under the mistaken impression that American consumers need that kind of foolishness. What does matter is the wine’s pedigree and what’s in the bottle, and both are impressive.
The Le Coq Rouge ($10, sample, 13.5%) is from the company run by Sacha Lichine, whose father was the legendary Alexis Lichine, one of the men who gets credit for introducing Americans to wine. The wine is mostly grenache, with enough red fruit to be pleasant but not so much as to confuse it with other, more over the top critter wines. It also has a bit of a back and soft tannins; in this, it’s a more modern version of another red blend from southern France, La Vielle Ferme, but more consistent and better made.
A tip ‘o the Curmudgeon’s fedora to Chris Keel at Put a Cork in It, who did a tasting with this wine when I did a cheap wine book signing at his store last month and put me on to the Coq Rouge. Because, otherwise, I wouldn’t have bothered, despite my best intentions.
Will empty tables force restaurants to change the way they approach wine?
Because the things that fascinate me about wine and that consumers need to know — and which rarely include toasty and oaky — keep making news:
? Distributor clout, once again: When in doubt, they get out the checkbooks, reports an Ohio newspaper group. The state’s beer and wine wholesalers donated $146,000 to Buckeye state lawmakers around the time the Ohio legislature passed a bill — apparently, without anyone knowing — that made it illegal for the world’s biggest brewer to buy more distributorships in the state. In addition, said the story, “both Republicans and Democrats benefited from the wholesalers’ cash. And donations sometimes rose noticeably around the time a key vote was scheduled.” My favorite part of the article is the quote that says the distributors, who have a constitutionally-protected monopoly that all but guarantees them profits, were saving Ohioans from the nefarious actions of an evil multi-national beer company. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black.
? Restaurant sales still slow: The restaurant business continues to struggle, says this story from Nation’s Restaurant News, and no one is quite sure why. Is it the result of the worst winter in 40 years? Is it a hangover from the recession, which never really ended for all but the most high-end restaurants? Is it a fundamental shift in the way Americans eat? The restaurant business matters in wine, as regular visitors here know, because restaurants go out of their way to hurt wine. And the slump in restaurant sales, which has lasted more than five years, may force changes in the way restaurants deal with wine, which means better quality and lower prices. Or so some very smart analysts have told me.
? The biggest wine companies: Mike Veseth at the Wine Economist looks at disintermediation, an economic term that refers to the specialization of labor. In this case, it’s about the number of employees needed to to make a case of wine. Not surprisingly, the formula is not as simple as it sounds, and speaks to the way post-modern business works — outsourcing, contractors, and the like. Many of the biggest wine companies don’t own vineyards or even wineries; one company, Castle Rock, produced 550,000 cases with just nine employees. “With product chain disintermediation, the number of people actually employed by a winery can be surprisingly small with that tiny workforce specializing in coordinating the various firms and contractors that make up the links in the chain,” wrote Veseth. What this means for consumers? Less expensive wine, of course, since disintermediation lowers the cost of production.
Image courtesy of Berenika, via stock.xchng, using a Creative Commons license