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Winebits 328: Scottish wine, wine marketing, lawsuits

Winebits 328: Scottish wine, wine marketing, lawsuits

Scottish wine for a Scottish dish, haggis

? Talk about terroir: A Scottish winemaker — yes, that’s correct — says climate change has made it possible to make wine in his country. Christopher Trotter, a chef and food writer, wants to grow six acres of grapes in eastern Scotland, and says that the warmest weather in centuries will make it possible. One caveat: It’s still cooler than most of the world’s wine regions, so he has to use grapes that are cold hardy and that don’t necessarily make great wine. The article, from the Bloomberg news service, is also an excellent look at how warmer temperatures around the world will affect the wine business.

? A glass of Chloe, please: The Wine Group, which gave the world Cupcake, is making another marketing play, this time with a brand called Chloe. As Robert Joseph writes, the company’s approach has nothing to do with wine per se, but with how it is sold to the public. Chloe is being marketed like jewelry or perfume, costing about one-third more than the $10 to $12 Cupcake. This is The Wine Group’s particular genius, and which is rarely seen in wine, that it can position its brands as lifestyle products and get a premium for what will almost certainly be a very ordinary bottle of Italian pinot grigio (given the quality of its other wines). But, as many have noted, the people who buy these kinds of wines aren’t buying them for what’s in the bottle.

? Bring out the lawyers: The Wine Curmudgeon has always enjoyed watching companies sue each other over labels and brand names, and this one is particularly enjoyable. Beverage Digest reports that Diageo, the world’s largest drinks company, says family-owned Heaven Hill is trampling on its intellectual property in Canada with a product called Admiral Nelson spiced rum, which too closely resembles Diageo’s Captain Morgan spiced rum. How many billable hours will this require? The article discusses — seriously, I suppose — that one issue in the lawsuit will be how similar the character of Nelson, the greatest hero in British naval history, is to Morgan, who was a pirate. Sadly, wigs are no longer worn in Canadian courts, or this would be even more fun to watch.

Finding the next big wine region

Finding the next big wine regionHow does one find the next big wine region? Is it something the Winestream Media can anoint by giving out scores and fawning over celebrity winemakers? Is it something the industry can do, in the way Sonoma has been marketing itself? Or is it about the quality of the wine, where the region works its way into our consciousness without much help from anyone?

Or is finding the next big wine region one of those quaint 20th-century things, like VCRs and walkie talkie-sized cell phones, something that doesn’t make much difference in the post-modern wine world?

The genesis for this post came from a blog visitor, who wanted to know why I don’t do more to identify wine regions that offer wines that people come here to find. I’m not sure that’s true — see my support for Sicily and Gascony — but it did make me wonder. What will be the next Sicily or Gascony, and how do we find it?

I’m sure that we won’t find it from the Winestream Media. It has been hyping Austria for years, mostly for gruner veltliner, with little success. That’s because, despite the enthusiasm for gruner, there isn’t enough of it to matter. The next big wine region has to produce enough wine for people to be able to buy it.

I’m also leery of industry-sponsored next big things; that approach gave us pet rocks. This doesn’t mean there isn’t great cheap wine in Sonoma. Rather, Sonoma, for all its insecurities, is an established part of the wine world, and that’s enough to rule it out.

Which means the next big wine region will sneak up on us, like Sicily did. And, wherever it is, it will offer the following:

? Favorable pricing, which means $15 or less. Otherwise, Napa and Bordeaux would be the next big thing. Which they’ve already been.

? Grapes that aren’t chardonnay, merlot, and cabernet sauvignon. Because what’s the point of the next big wine region making the same thing that everyone else does?

? Professional quality, which means consistently made wine from vintage to vintage. This rules out much of the regional wine business, where one great vintage is followed by several ordinary ones.

? Sufficient distribution, as well as enough production, to get its wine into retailers. Unglamorous yes, but that’s probably why Greek wine hasn’t made much headway. There’s enough of it, quality is adequate, the varietals are interesting, and pricing is favorable. But unless you’re on the East Coast, it’s almost impossible to find Greek wine in a store.

So what regions fit those requirements?

? Italy’s Abruzzi, with red wine made from the montepulciano grape. The only problem here is that the wines, if not old-fashioned, don’t have the ripe fruit that American wine drinkers have come to expect.

? New York’s Finger Lakes and its incredibly delicious rieslings. Distribution, thanks to large producers like Konstantin Frank and Ravines, is much better than most people realize, though pricing might be too high.

? Somewhere in Spain, and I wish I could do better than that. But Spain has 66 major wine regions, many of which produce wines amazing both in price and quality, and picking one instead of another is an exercise in confusion. Best guesses: Rueda, for whites made with verdejo, and Madrid, for red blends.

Image courtesy of Wine Folly, using a Creative Commons license

Wine terms: Flawed

Wine terms: flawedIn which the wine is spoiled, usually oxidized or corked, but that also takes in a host of more geeky flaws like volatile acidity and brett. Technically, there’s a difference between a wine fault and a wine flaw; a fault is a major defect, like oxidation, and the latter is less important, like brett. But both mean the wine is off, and the terms are used interchangeably, even by experts.

The good news is that very little wine, especially compared to 10 and 20 years ago, is flawed. Growing techniques and production methods for almost all of the wine we buy are infinitely better than they were, which means better quality grapes are combined with cleaner, more quality conscious winemaking. Hence it’s very difficult to find a flawed wine on a retail shelf.

The easiest way to detect a flawed wine? If it doesn’t taste or smell the way it’s supposed to. An oxidized wine will taste like bad brandy and a corked wine will smell of wet newspapers or a damp basement. Volatile acidity often smells like a band aid, while brett is like a barnyard.

In this, note the difference between a wine that is flawed and wine that is made poorly or in a style that you don’t like. An example of the latter is high alcohol, which I don’t like but is not a flaw — even though I wish it was. An example of the former are overly-bitter tannins. When we did our tastings at the Cordon Bleu, several of my students insisted that the wine was flawed because the tannins were very harsh. That tannins, by their nature, can be harsh and bitter never seemed to satisfy them, and neither did my explanation that tannin management isn’t a high priority in many cheap red wines.

No wonder figuring out wine prices is so confusing

No wonder figuring out wine prices is so confusing

Or not, as the case may be.

On the one hand, a news story citing several legitimate sources predicts “bad news for wine-drinkers, as California wine production is likely to go way down this year, and therefore already steep prices are going to rise.” On the other, a news story, citing a legitimate source, predicts an oversupply of European and especially Spanish grapes, with the resultant pressure on pricing. No wonder figuring out wine prices is so confusing.

How can both be possible? Three reasons:

? Parochial journalism, and especially in the first report. If most of the Winestream Media has difficulty understanding the economics of the wine business, imagine how difficult it is for non-wine writers, who don’t know the wine business or economics. One of the most important lessons for any journalist is that what happens elsewhere can affect you, even if that doesn’t seem intuitive. Because, given the law of supply and demand, cheap wine imports will mitigate higher domestic prices almost every time.

? Conventional wisdom. This is lazy journalism, in which a story is passed around as truth so often that it doesn’t matter whether it’s true or not. That’s how we ended up with the harbinger of doom story in 2012, epitomized by the infamous Time magazine headline, “Panic! Wine Prices Due to Rise.” Which never happened. Conventional wisdom, given that Internet journalism relies on links to other stories, which have relied on links to other stories, is particularly annoying in wine these days.

? The post-modern wine world, also known as the internationalization of wine, and where none of the old rules apply. Once upon a time, it was possible to predict wine prices despite parochialism and conventional wisdom. But that changed about 15 years ago; unfortunately, not enough people who write about wine prices understand what happened.

Wine of the week: Cave de Lugny M con-Villages 2012

Wine of the week: Cave de Lugny M con-Villages 2012One of the most amazing things about the Golden Age of Cheap Wine is that it’s amazing despite the dollar’s weakness against the euro. Its decline, dating to the beginning of this century, has increased the price of European goods by as much as 20 percent, and cheap wine has mostly followed suit.

Case in point are the French wines from Cave de Lugny, a growers’ cooperative in the Macon region in Burgundy, which makes some of the best grocery store whites in the world. The catch, thanks to the weak dollar, is that they aren’t priced like grocery store wines these days, costing $15 or more. Which is why I haven’t reviewed a Cave de Lugny wine in three years.

Which is also why the Wine Curmudgeon was so excited to see Lugny’s Macon-Villages ($10, purchased, 13%) at this price. And, frankly, I should have bought more than one bottle. It’s a chardonnay that is always dependable and always varietally correct, made in the traditional Macon style — no oak. That means some lemon and green apple fruit, lots of crispness, and a very clean finish that hints at the minerality of a more complex wine.

Serve this chilled with almost any white wine dish. And if you see other Lugny wines, like the Les Charmes, for $10 or so, don’t hesitate to buy it. You can enjoy it while pondering the mysteries of exchange rates and international banking.

Supreme Court: Regulate wine writing through three-tier system

Supreme Court: Regulate wine writing through three-tier system

Scalia: “So how does this affect what I buy through my wine club?”

A sharply divided Supreme Court ruled today that wine writing, since it’s mostly about selling wine and isn’t journalism, is not protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution. Instead, said the 5-4 majority, it falls under the 21st Amendment, which allows each state to regulate alcohol sales any way it sees fit, and which makes wine writing part of the three-tier system.

Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the majority, said: “First, state’s rights. Second, I’m an old white guy and I need to be told what wine to drink. Third, I thought wine writing was already about shilling for the industry.”

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in her sharply worded dissent, said: “Has Scalia ever actually read the Constitution? Or is he just making this up as he goes along?”

Reaction was swift:

? The National Association of Attorney’s General said it would publish guidelines to help each state regulate wine writing, including recommended winespeak terms and a primer on how to score wines.

? The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board said it would appoint a committee to take over Dave Falchek’s immensely popular Empty Bottles blog, and that the new version would be distributed through grocery store vending machines.

? The Wine Spectator praised the ruling, and a spokesman said: “We’ll be working closely with our partners in the production, distribution, and regulatory channels to assure that each benefits from the ruling, and especially us.”

? The Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission said wine writing in the state must now include references to football, sweet tea, and protecting the border. Or else, because its agents are armed. And don’t you forget it.

? Jeff Siegel, who writes the Wine Curmudgeon blog, announced he was giving up wine writing to return to the Burger King on Skokie Valley Road in Highland Park, Ill., where he worked the broiler as a teenager. “Yes, I’ll smell like a hamburger when I’m done with my shift,” he said, “but no will expect me to write that a Whopper has a bouquet of fresh heirloom tomatoes.”

The Court’s ruling came in Bonne vs. Parker, stemming from an incident at the 2014 Symposium for Professional Wine Writers that seemed really important at the time but, like so much about wine writing, is not that big a deal to the vast majority of people who drink wine.

More April 1 news:
? Gov. Perry to California: Bring your wineries to Texas
? California secedes from U.S. ? becomes its own wine country

Winebits 327: Pennsylvania, wine prices, women winemakers

Winebits 327: Pennsylvania, wine prices, women winemakersThe wine notes that usually appear on Tuesday are posting today because tomorrow is April 1 — and that’s time for the blog’s annual April Fools’ Day post.

? More screwed up than ever: Pennsylvania has been trying to reform its horribly messed up state store system — where the state owns the liquor stores — since as long as I have been writing the blog. Nothing has been done, despite widespread political and consumer support, and the latest proposal shows just how corrupt the system is. Supermarkets would be able to sell wine under the proposed law, but only four bottles per customer per visit. Nevertheless, a spirits trade group immediately denounced the plan, claiming that those four bottles would give the wine business an unfair advantage, since spirit sales would still be limited to state stores. It’s almost impossible to understand what’s going on here, other than to note that this is just another example of the many failings of the three-tier system.

? Britain’s wine pricing: Jamie Goode at the Wine Anorak has an excellent account of the wine pricing controversy in Britain, where most retailers substantially discount wine. And then don’t. And then discount it again. This must seem odd to those of us in the U.S., where discounting is accepted as a normal part of doing business, and where savvy consumers are eager to buy wine when it’s on sale. But British consumer advocates see this as nefarious — “[T]hese fake promotions are bad for wine, and a bad deal for customers, and I won ?t stop talking about them until supermarkets do the right thing and stop them,” writes Goode — and have spent the past couple of years fighting the biggest retailers over the practice.

? You’ve come a long way, baby: Jordan Salcito at The Daily Beast has discovered that women have broken through the glass ceiling and are now important winemakers. I’ll try not to be too cranky about this, but Salcito is about a decade late with this revelation. I wrote the same story for the American Airlines in-flight magazine in 2006, quoting many of the same women she quotes in her story. She also focuses on celebrity women winemakers, and misses the more important change, that Big Wine did most of the glass ceiling work, hiring women where they had never been hired before. Barefoot’s Jennifer Wall is responsible for 13 million cases of wine a year, which may make her the most important woman winemaker in the business. And her boss is Gina Gallo, whose company makes 80 million cases a year. Also, if Salcito doesn’t mind some writing advice, never, ever use a phrase like “pushing the envelope.” I expect more from the Beast.