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Wine competitions and wine scores

wine scoresThe Wine Curmudgeon’s opinions of wine scores are well known: Get a rope. So what would happen when I had to judge a wine competition that required judges to use scores?

The competition, the Critics Challenge in San Diego, was its usual enjoyable self, featuring wine I usually don’t get to drink as well as some top quality cheap wine. The scores? Meh. More, after the jump (plus some of the best wine I tasted):


Caveats first: The competition pays judges a $500 honorarium and reimburses expenses, and the weather in San Diego is always so much better than it is in Dallas that I’d do it just for the 70-degree temperatures.

But are those good enough reasons to give scores, considering how I feel about them? Probably not. I agreed to judge for two reasons: First, because if you’re going to criticize something, you should do it at least once, and second, because I have tremendous respect for competition impresario Robert Whitley. If Robert wants to do scores, then I’m willing to try it.

Having said that, the scoring process was underwhelming. In years past, we gave wines a silver, gold, or platinum medal; this year, we added scores to those awards. I’m still trying to figure out the difference between a silver medal wine with 87 points and one with 89 points, even though my judging partner, Linda Murphy, did her best to explain it to me. A silver is a silver is a silver, and I don’t understand why two points makes a difference. Or how Linda and I could give the same wine the same medal, but different points. How could one of us like the wine 2.2 percent more than the other (the difference between an 87 silver and an 89 silver)?

Still, there were some terrific wines entered:

? The 2013 Giesen Riesling from New Zealand ($15) was named best in class, an excellent example of the tremendous value available in New Zealand riesling.

? Linda and I agreed that the Yorkville Cellars 2012 Carmenere ($38) was platinum worthy, and it earned best in class honors. Carmenere can be off-putting, unripe and tannic, but this was an intriguing, rich, and earthy effort, with dark fruit and complex finish.

? I’ve been lucky enough to taste sparkling wine from Dr. Konstantin Frank in upstate New York three times since last fall, and each time it has been sensational. The 2007 Chateau Frank Brut ($25) won best of class, and the non-vintage rose ($21) grabbed a silver.

? The 2012 Nottage Hill Chardonnay from Australia’s Hardys ($13) won a platinum, which wasn’t surprising. Aussie chardonnay can often be $10 Hall of Fame quality; the catch, usually, is that the wines vary greatly from vintage to vintage, and what was tasty one year isn’t the next.

? A non-vintage red blend, called Kitchen Sink ($10), won a silver. It’s fruity, but well-made, and I’ve always enjoyed the Kitchen Sink white blend.

Are we facing a cheap wine crisis?

cheap wine crisis

“What happened to all that great $10 wine I used to drink?”

What if most cheap wine tasted mostly the same — the reds with sweet fruit and almost no tannins, and the whites a jumble of fruit and sugar, and maybe (or maybe not) a little crispness?

That prospect — terrifying as it is to those of us who care about quality wine we can afford to buy — is not as impossible as it sounds. The quality of too many of the cheap wines I’ve tasted this year, combined with a number of interviews with wine business executives, suggests the possibility of a $10 wine world dominated by just that kind of wine.

In 2013, reports Nielsen, wine priced $10 to $15 more than doubled the sales growth of wine from $6 to $10, and the average price of a bottle increased to $8. Contrast that with sales during the recession, when just the opposite happened. As Rob McMillan of Silicon Valley Bank told me, “I see this as reflective of the economy. There are improving sales conditions compared to last year… [Wineries see] improved opportunity in future years as consumers trade up again. I know the last part won’t make you happy, but the worst segment today is right below $10.”

We’re not there yet, but here are three reasons why we could eventually face a cheap wine crisis:

? Cheap wine production is dominated by the handful of biggest wine companies, whose reason for being all but guarantees that kind of technically correct but simple wine. Just three brands — Barefoot, Two-buck Chuck, and Yellow Tail — account for 8 1/2 percent of all the wine sold in the U.S. each year. Trinchero Family Estates, whose labels include Menage a’ Trois and Sutter Home, has five percent of the U.S market, according to the 2014 Wine Business Monthly top 30 wine companies ranking. How many of us have even heard of Trinchero?

? The biggest companies, thanks to economies of scale and sales volume, can be profitable selling an $8 bottle where smaller companies can’t. Constellation Brands, after all, is a $4.9 billion company. So the smaller producers, who often make the most interesting cheap wine, have to find a more profitable price niche. Increasingly, as McMillan noted, that’s $15 and up.

? Increasing consolidation among distributors. This means fewer and bigger distributors, who prefer to work with the biggest producers. So even if a smaller company can make money with cheap wine, it may not be able to find a distributor to sell its wines to retailers. And, if it can’t find a distributor, it can’t sell its wines through retailers and restaurants because of the restrictions imposed by the three-tier system that governs U.S. wine sales.

Not encouraging news, certainly. But many people were predicting the end of quality $10 wine in 2007, and we know what happened then — the beginning of the golden age of cheap wine.

Image courtesy of The Economist’s More Intelligent Life blog, using a Creative Commons license

Wine of the week: Toad Hollow Chardonnay 2012

Toad Hollow Chardonnay One of the most difficult things about buying cheap wine is consistency. Given the way the system works, where production costs often matter more than quality, a great $10 wine one vintage is no guarantee of a great $10 wine the next vintage. Right, Meridian?

Fortunately, the Toad Hollow Chardonnay ($12, sample, 13.9%) is usually immune from that process. It has its up and downs since it was first made 20 years ago, but those are more likely vintage differences than pencil pushers squeezing the bottom line. When the wine is right, and the 2012 is the best vintage in several years, un-oaked chardonnay don’t get much better than this, even for wines that cost $15 or $18. It’s even a value at the suggested retail price of $12. If you can find it at $10, which it often is with grocery store discount cards, buy a case.

Look for green apple fruit in the front, a little tropical something or other in the middle, and some stoniness in the back. This is a clean and refreshing wine, without the fake oak used to make so many other wines at this price. But it also has some body, so it’s not as crisp as a sauvignon blanc. Drink the Toad Hollow Chardonnay on its own, or with summer salads, grilled chicken, and the like. If I can find it for $10 in Dallas, it’s a candidate for the 2015 $10 Hall of Fame.

Winebits 338: Wine snobs edition

wine snobs ? “I don’t drink that”: Radio host, wine judge, and raconteur Tim McNally addresses those of you, who, for no particular reason, refuse to drink certain wines. McNally takes on everyone who has ever turned up their nose at white, rose, riesling, imports, and most of what’s in between, calling it “something which is encapsulated in the ‘Don ?t screw me up with the facts lifestyle.” Plus, being a New Orleanian, he works in a football reference, which is nicely done.

? Enough with the tasting notes already: Someone, no doubt heir to the English comedic tradition that is so admired here, stuck fake tasting notes over the real notes on wines at a London grocery store. “Agile clam flavours with a suspicion of red kryptonite,” anyone? Or, as, Jake Wallis Simons writes in The Telegraph: “I doubt I’m alone in suspecting that it’s all just a case of the Emperor ?s new clothes.” Not that that sentiment has ever appeared anywhere on the blog, of course. The good news is that the world is changing, and the traditional tasting note — what the headline to this story calls “a load of old drivel” — seems to mean less than it used to.

? The truth about wine: This infographic from the Wine Folly website called “Being a Wine Connoisseur” pretty much says everything that needs to be said about too many wine drinkers (though it is a bit harsh on supermarket wine). My favorite: The “Wine over time” bit, describing how we feel about a crappy wine two hours after we drink it. Which, of course, is that it tastes much better. Wine Folly, which is part wine education site and part wine-related gifts retailer, does a very nice job, and makes me wish I had done some some of the things that it does.

My lunch with Provence

Provence roseRegular visitors here know how much the Wine Curmudgeon loves rose, and how much I want to share that enthusiasm with the rest of the wine world. Hence my excitement to attend a Provence rose lunch this week, given that that Provence (located in southern France on the Mediterranean) is to rose what Napa Valley is to cabernet sauvignon and Burgundy is to chardonnay.

And I was not disappointed. Rose accounts for 80 percent of Provence’s production, and its producers have learned a thing or two in the 1,500 years they’ve been making it. The region’s grapes are cultivated specifically to make rose, and not to make something else where the rose is an afterthought. And there’s even a rose research center — call it the UC-Davis for pink wine.

Best yet, Provencal rose is still cheap, something that the lunch’s host, Wines of Provence, emphasized at every opportunity. Talk about being in pink wine heaven.

The best wines we had, and one of them wasn’t even rose (prices are suggested retail, which will probably be a couple of dollars less in the store):

? Domaine Houchart Rose 2013 ($15, sample, 12.5%): One of the best roses I’ve ever had, with depth and a roundness that most pink wines at this price, no matter how well made, rarely have. Not too much fresh red berry fruit, crisp, and bone dry. Chill this, and you’ll never want another wine all summer.

? La Vidaubanaise Le Provencal 2013 ($15, sample, 12%): A notch below the Houchart, but that’s hardly a criticism. More fresh red berries, nice acid balance, and even a little melon on the back. Another terrific value.

? Chateau de Berne Terres de Berne 2013 ($20, sample, 13%): It speaks to the wine’s quality that I’m including it here, since it’s not $10. A flowery aroma, almost white fruit flavors, some spice (believe it or not), and so fresh it was hard to believe. Availability may be limited.

? Rimaresque Cru Classe Rose 2013 ($24, sample, 13%): Rose for people who think they need to spend more than $10 for wine, with a rich mouth feel, minerality on the back, and a little more heft, given that cabernet sauvignon is one of the eight grapes in the blend.

? Domaine Houchart Rouge 2011 ($15, sample, 14.5%): How a red wine with this much alcohol can be this light and enjoyable is apparently one of those things you pick up in 15 centuries of winemaking. A blend that shows off its grenache and carignan, with cherry fruit and some spiciness. Highly recommended, and don’t be afraid to chill it a bit.

Vote for your favorite Wine Blog Awards finalist

wine bloog awardsBut you can’t vote for me, because I didn’t participate this year. Winning last year was enough — time to spread the wealth around and let the world see how many great blogs and websites there are.

The list of finalists is here. The quality of the finalists this year is outstanding, even without me. But if you’re going to vote, a few thoughts:

? My pal Alfonso Cevola is listed for best single subject blog for On the Wine Trail in Italy.

? Jon Thorsen, who does the Reverse Wine Snob and writes about cheap wine, is listed for best wine review.

? W. Blake Gray, who brings a reporter’s sensibility to what he does at The Gray Report, is a finalist for best writing.

Consumers appreciate screwcaps more than we know

screwcaps

Screwcaps and fireplaces? Yes, there’s a link.

The Wine Curmudgeon’s long battle for screwcaps has had its ups and downs, and I’ll admit I get discouraged. It’s difficult enough tasting as much bad wine as I do, but when you have to struggle with a cork first? Talk about hitting yourself in the head with a brick and not knowing enough to stop.

Still, there have been bright spots despite the backlash against screwcaps over the past several years, be it chatting with the Doon Master or this, from someone who appears to be a 29-year-old, fairly ordinary wine drinker who wasn’t even talking about wine at the time:

The worst part of it is, I ?m burning [wood in a fireplace] not for heat, but for aesthetics. It ?s like, ?Wait, this is actually pretty hypocritical. ? It ?s very similar to the idea of a cork in a wine bottle instead of a screw top.

Thank you, Ryan Matzner of New York City. And a tip o’ the Curmudgeon’s fedora to Vivian Yee of the New York Times, who was savvy enough to recognize a great quote when she heard one. That’s newspapering the way it’s supposed to be done.