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The $300 Coravin question

The $300 Coravin question

Even after the Coravin, sealed like new.

Coravin is the new, hip, and incredibly well-reviewed corkscrew that lets you open a bottle of wine without taking out the cork. As such, it is as revolutionary as the company says. But it’s the $300 Coravin question that remains unanswered: Is it necessary to spend that much money on a wine gadget?

Make no mistake: the Coravin does what it says it does. Shasha Dotras (that’s her in the photo) impressed almost everyone who saw her demonstrate the opener recently at Pogo’s in Dallas. The hollow needle, which has a hole in the sharp end, pushes through the cork, argon gas is fed into the wine, the wine flows through the needle, and the opener’s handle works like a spigot. Pull the needle out, the argon gas fills the empty space, and the cork expands to fill the hole left by the needle. The wine remains mostly as fresh as before the Coravin.

But is that it works enough? If it costs $300, then it had better be worth $300 worth of wine, be they 30 bottles of $10 wine or three bottles of $100 wine (and that doesn’t include $11 each for the argon capsules). And that’s a difficult standard for any gadget to meet.

Further complicating the price/value discussion is that most of us don’t need the Coravin. There are four glasses in a bottle of wine. I open a bottle at dinner, and I have two glasses and the person with me has two glasses. When are we going to use the Coravin? And most people who don’t finish a bottle are more than happy to replace the cork or screwcap, put the bottle in the fridge, and drink the rest later. The idea that oxidation exists and could spoil their wine is something only wine snobs worry about.

So who would benefit from the Coravin? Professionals who taste a lot of pricey wine one glass at a time, but that can hardly be a market big enough to make a difference. Maybe there’s demand for a restaurant version, though given the level of training at most restaurants, breakage would probably make the Coravin prohibitively expensive.

This leaves everyone who has a cellar stuffed full of expensive wine, has lots of money to spend on gadgets, and sees wine as something to collect and not necessarily drink — probably less than five percent of the U.S. wine drinking population. In other words, the Winestream Media’s typical wine drinker. Which no doubt explains this. And this.

In this, the Coravin may well be to wine what the granite counter top is to home renovation — it sells well and is really nice to have, but isn’t going to make dinner any easier cook or taste any better. Which answers the $300 Coravin question for me.

Wine of the week: Joel Gott Sauvignon Blanc 2013

Wine of the week: Joel Gott Sauvignon Blanc 2013Whenever 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.

Winebits 325: Corks, Mateus, wine sales

Winebits 325: Corks, Mateus, wine sales

Everyone knows the cool kids only drink wine with corks.

? When in doubt, a poll: The cork business announced last week that more than 9 out of 10 wine drinkers associate natural cork with higher quality wine. Which is about as surprising as the Wine Curmudgeon announcing that he wrote a book about cheap wine. We can question poll methodology, who paid for it (and the release is very vague about that), and the like, but none of that is as important as the way the results are phrased. It doesn’t say that wine closed with cork is “better.” It says: “Consumers associate higher quality wine with cork.” Of course they do. What else would we expect, given that most wine drinkers still make screwcap jokes? Even “experts” who are supposed to know about wine are still writing that junk. No wonder I’m so cranky so much of the time.

? What happened to the bottle? Periodically, someone will announce they’ve re-marketing a Baby Boomer wine brand, figuring that people in their 50s and 60s will get a kick out of drinking the same wine they did when they were in their 20s. Mateus, which accounted for one-third of Portugal’s wine exports in the 1980s, is doing just that in the United Kingdom, releasing four new wines that are nothing like the rose the Boomers grew up. A Portugeuse zinfandel blend, anyone? Or a chardonnay and Maria Gomes blend? They’re spending 2 million (about US$3.3 million) on the effort, too, which seems like a lot of money for wine no one will be especially interested in.

? 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.

Win two Savor Dallas tickets

Win two Savor Dallas ticketsAnd the winner is: KT, who picked 653. The winning number (screen shot below) was 797.

Win two Savor Dallas tickets for a Saturday winemaker tasting panel co-moderated by the Wine Curmudgeon, who may also mention a thing or two about the cheap wine book (and have some for sale).

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.

The seminar is at 11 a.m. March 22 at Bob’s Steak and Chop House in Dallas.

randon savor

Wine terms: Problematic pricing

Problematic pricingYou 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.

Big Wine tightened its grip on the U.S. market in 2013

Big Wine tightened its grip on the U.S. market

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.

The report, Wine Business Monthly’s annual ranking of the 30 biggest U.S. wine companies (requires free subscription), follows up on last year’s Michigan State study that found that Big Wine controlled about 60 percent of the U.S market. The two studies didn’t use the same methodology (Wine Business Monthly doesn’t include imports like Yellow Tail, but apparently does include foreign brands owned by U.S companies), but the trend is obvious. The big are getting bigger.

A few thoughts about the results:

? 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.

Wine of the week: Le Coq Rouge 2012

Le Coq Rouge The Le Coq Rouge is a perfect example of why you shouldn’t judge wine before you taste it. Because it offers plenty of reasons to do just that:

? Cutesy label. How many chickens, birds, and assorted fowl have we endured over the years?

? Odd Rolling Stones referece in marketing material, because Coq Rouge means Red Rooster in French, and the Stones covered Howlin’ Wolf’s “Little Red Rooster.”

? 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.