The American fascination with chardonnay has always intrigued the Wine Curmudgeon. Given the hundreds of other white wines in the world, why do we insist on only drinking chardonnay? This is not a knock on the wine, which I love, but if all I drank was one kind of anything, I’d give up drinking.
Which brings us to the Li Veli Fiano ($12, purchased, 12.5%), an Italian white wine from the Puglia region in the country’s boot heel and produced by a company that usually offers value and quality. Best yet, it’s made with the fiano grape, which is not chardonnay but should appeal to those who don’t like to venture too far from it.
Look for white pepper, a hint of nuttiness, and some pear fruit, backed up by lots of freshness and zing — zesty, even. This is not an elegant wine, but it is well structured and offers much more than $12 of value. In this, it’s a versatile wine, tasty on its own or pairing with almost every white wine dish you can think of — and yes, even a light cream sauce.
Highly recommended, and especially for anyone who wants to throw caution to the wind and drink something other than chardonnay.
? How big is big? One of the most difficult concepts to get consumers to understand is that their wine probably isn’t made by who they think it is. As noted here, Big Wine controls a majority of the U.S. market, and Big Wine includes many companies most of us have never heard of. Case in point: Trinchero Family Estates, a 20-million case producer that wants to be a 30-million case producer. And how many of us have heard of Trinchero, a California company? It’s best known for Menage a Trois and Sutter Home, but those are only a fraction of Trinchero’s production and its three dozen brands. If Trinchero makes it to 30 million cases, it will be as big as the entire U.S. wine business was in 1965.
“It ?s not that I ?m not optimistic, it ?s that the reality of the market when you look at the hard data of total table wine sales over the past three years following the recession,” says John Gillespie, the president of the Wine Market Council, which tracks U.S. wine drinking habits. The group released its 2014 report last week, and it seemed to be at odds with what the others have been reporting.
Gillespie’s point: After more than a decade of substantial growth, in which per capita wine consumption in the U.S. finally passed that of the early 1980s, sales coming out of the recession were nothing like the previous 15 years. Perhaps, says Gillespie, this more or less flat growth is the new normal, the sign of what economists call a mature market.
Which raises two questions: Why is this happening, and what does it mean for wine drinkers? Gillespie says it’s difficult to know why consumers do what they do, but that the Wine Market Council figures suggest some of us are drinking less wine and more craft beer.
My theory isn’t as nuanced (and doesn’t have Gillespie’s experience or data to support it) and should not be surprising to regular visitors. It’s about price; consumers don’t want to pay the higher prices the industry is trying to impose, and aren’t happy with the quality they’re getting at lower prices. Hence, they’re looking for something else to drink. The Silicon Valley Bank report said producers are focusing on premiumisation, the idea that better quality wine should cost more money. In this, they want consumers to trade up from their $10 and $12 bottles to $18 and $20 bottles.
Could the flat growth that Gillespie sees be consumers rejecting premiumisation? Will we start to look elsewhere, like craft beer, for value? If so, the wine business could face problems over the next decade, since producers expect pre-recession growth. If growth is flat, we’ll have more wine, and especially more high-priced wine, than there is demand for, and prices could collapse again, just like they did during the recession.
Which may be welcome news for consumers, but hardly anything the wine business wants to hear.
Paul Mabray, who knows this stuff better than almost anyone, says the end of the three-tier system is coming. It will probably be later rather than sooner, but Mabray is convinced that technology, combined with three-tier’s built-in inefficiency, will make the system obsolete.
The Wine Curmudgeon mentions this because my views on three-tier are well known. The system, which mandates how wine is sold in every state, says consumers can’t buy wine from the producer (with some exceptions), but must buy it from a retailer, who must buy it from a distributor. Buying wine from an Internet retailer, the way we buy clothes from Overstock.com or computers from New Egg, is almost always illegal. In this, three-tier is constitutionally protected, so we’re stuck with it until the end of time or until we reform campaign finance laws, which is about the same thing.
“Market access should not be constricted by antiquated regulations, but by market choice,” he says. “Yes, there needs to be regulation to enforce a regulated product but forcing it to go through a mandated tier structure is outdated.”
Mabray said this during last month’s Silicon Valley Bank State of the Wine Industry presentation, and I was so intrigued by what he said that we talked about the subject this week. He reiterated it during our chat: Trying to stop the advance of technology with artificial barriers is almost always futile, and three-tier will eventually break itself.
How that will happen involves lots of supply chain geekiness, but Mabray is convinced that Internet technology — the same thing that has allowed Amazon to make money by selling diapers for next day delivery, unheard of a decade ago — will come to wine. Three-tier as we know it will break down because it will be too expensive and too complicated to work the way it does now. Even the distributors, who have the most to lose, will want to change it to make it more consumer-friendly.
Perhaps. One reason our views are so different (besides my crankiness) is that Mabray sees an economic model ruled by efficiency. I see an economic model ruled by state legislatures with vested interests, whose idea of a supply chain is something you tow your car with. I hope he’s right about this, but I won’t be surprised if he isn’t.
The supermarket Great Wall of Wine is the Rubik’s Cube of wine buying, with hundreds and hundreds of bottles to choose from, confusing pricing, and no one to ask for help. But it is possible to buy quality wine at the grocery store, and you don’t even need to know much about varietal or region. Just keep these grocery store wine tips in mind:
? The cuter the label, the more simple the wine. This means there is little balance or interest. Instead, they’re what producers call easy to drink — red wine with lots of sweet fruit and almost no tannins, and white wine with almost honeyed fruit and the minimal amount of acidity necessary to make it palatable. Whether these wines are good or bad isn’t the point; rather, is this the kind of wine you want to buy (or avoid)? If it is, then these labels are a clue.
? Who makes the wine? This is almost impossible to tell, since most of the wine in the grocery store usually comes from a dozen or so producers — our friends at Big Wine — and they would prefer you don’t know. So look for something like ?Produced and bottled. , ?Vinted and bottled. , or ?Imported and bottled. The location that follows usually identifies the parent company, so that many Gallo-owned brands say Modesto, Calif. The ?imported ? line may have a company name similar to the name of the multi-national that owns the brand, so that CWUS is part of Constellation Brands. A more complete list is in this post.
? Decipher the back label. Pay attention to the choice of words, and not what they mean. Simple, less interesting wines rarely describe themselves as fresh, clean, or earthy. Rather, they use terms like rich, plush, luscious, and even roasted. Also, chocolate and caramel show up more often than not, especially in very ordinary red wine, along with badly written homages to oak — vanilla bean is one of my favorites.
? Beware older vintages with steep discounts, especially if the wine wasn’t made in the U.S. This is often a sign the wine has been sitting in a warehouse, sometimes for years, and is more likely to have gone off. The supermarket, which may have bought the wine for pennies on the dollar, doesn’t care if it’s spoiled; who returns bad wine to the grocery store? One rule of thumb: Be wary of white wine older than two years and red wine older than three.
Juv y Camps is one of my favorite cava producers, offering a little more style than the $10 and $12 cavas that I like so well, and this rose does just that. Look for ripe, red juicy fruit (strawberry?), made more in the style of a French cremant (sparkling wine from France not from the Champagne region) than most cavas. So it’s a little rounder and richer, which gives the wine a more pleasant and creamier mouth feel.
Drink this chilled on its own or with something grilled or roasted, be it shrimp, chicken, or beef. It’s the kind of wine to serve with dinner, enjoy, and then smile at how much you enjoyed it.
The world of California chardonnay has gone in so many directions over the past decade that it’s sometimes difficult to keep track. First, everything was toasty and oaky, then there was the backlash against toasty and oaky, and then there was the backlash against the backlash. Meanwhile, alcohol levels shot up by a point or more, giving us chardonnay that was hot as some zinfandels, close to 15 percent. Except when they weren’t.
Through all of this, a handful of producers ignored the trends and did what they did best. One is the Jordan chardonnay ($30, sample, 13.7%). Vintage after vintage, it’s dependable, well-made, and varietally correct. This, in the hipster world of California chardonnay, is often seen as damning with faint praise.
Which is foolish. What’s wrong with doing something correctly every year? The Jordan is the archetype for California Russian River Valley chardonnay, with green apple fruit, oak more or less in balance, and a rich mouth feel. This vintage is a little less oaky and more crisp, with a bit of apricot in the mix.
The Jordan chardonnay is better with food, and especially with classic chardonnay dishes made with cream sauces. But given the extra acidity in this vintage, don’t shy away from from roasted fish or chicken ballotine. Highly recommended (even for the holiday that must not be named), and regular visitors here know how fussy I am about chardonnay.