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Winebits 324: WC favorites edition

Winebits 324: WC favorites edition

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

Francis Ford Coppola, wine, and family

Francis Ford Coppola, wine, and family

“I like to drink wine.”

Francis Ford Coppola spoke for 2 1/2 hours in Dallas last week, a monologue that covered his Academy Award-winning film career, his very successful wine business, and his grandchildren. But perhaps the most impressive thing was his modesty.

“I like to drink wine, but I don’t make wine,” he told the audience of 150 or so. “I don’t know how to do it. I suppose I’ve learned how it’s done, but that’s not why I do this. I like to drink wine.”

Which, in my 20-plus years of talking to celebrity winery owners, was the first time anyone has been that forthright. Talk to the entrepreneurs, actors, and musicians who get into the wine business, and they throw winespeak around like heart-shaped cards on Valentine’s Day. Maybe they figure that’s how they can make their bones. But Coppola didn’t say brix or clones, never mentioned scores or critics, and spent more time showing pictures of his family — and singing about them — than almost anything else.

There were literally dozens of wines available to taste at the event, but I’ll hold off writing about them. Conditions were not conducive to tasting, with so many people crammed into the lobby of a 1930s movie theater, and the more expensive wines were mixed in with the cheaper ones so it was hard to tell which was which. My general impression: the grocery store-style wines were solid, if a little ordinary.

And they weren’t the biggest attraction anyway. That was Coppola, not only the man who has made some of the greatest films in the history of the movie business, but someone who seems just as happy sharing snaps of his grandchildren as talking camera angles and gross vs. net. A few highlights:

? Coppola got into the wine business by accident, mostly because he liked the swing that was hanging from a tree when he and wife Eleanor wanted to buy a house in Napa Valley in 1975. The tree was in the front of the historic Niebaum mansion, and Coppola said he could see his 4-year-old daughter Sofia (yes, that Sofia) swinging on it. But the mansion included some of the best vineyards in California, and one thing led to another.

? The wine business has exceeded expectations, becoming one of the 30 biggest in the U.S. The 1.25-million case Francis Ford Coppola Winery includes the grocery store brands like Diamond, Rosso, and Bianco, while the high-end wine, including Rubicon, is part of the new Inglenook company, part of his effort to restore one of California’s first great wineries.

? “The biggest change in the wine business since I started? The number of wineries, and not just in Napa, where it’s gone through the roof. I traveled across the country once making a picture, and once we got past Virginia, there was no food and no wine. That’s all changed, and all for the positive. People are so much more knowledgeable, and have learned the more you know about wine, the more you enjoy it.”

? The best explanation ever for the mess that is “Godfather III:” “I didn’t want to make it. Whoever heard of ‘Hamlet III?’ But I had to pay off the bank.”

? Making “Apocalypse Now” taught him that past success never guarantees anything, and he told how he became so angry he threw his Oscars out the window and broke them. That’s because, given the piles of money the first two Godfather pictures made, he said, he assumed he wouldn’t have any trouble getting studio money for “Apocalypse.” Which is exactly the opposite of what happened, and he had to finance it himself.

? And That Movie? Coppola discussed it briefly, noting that it was both a financial and critical failure, and that he wasn’t too happy with it, either. I felt better.

Photo credits: Lisa Stewart

Take heart: Charles & Charles has three great cheap wines

Take heart: Charles & Charles has three great cheap winesTake heart, everyone who loves cheap wine. Charles & Charles has not only released its new, always excellent, rose, but a white and red as well.

“We try to have fun with the labels, and we want people to have fun drinking our wines, but that doesn’t mean we don’t pay attention when we make them,” says Charles Bieler, who was in Dallas this week to promote the inexpensive Washington state wines he makes with Charles Smith. “We couldn’t be more serious.”

In this, Bieler is as passionate as the labels are unconventional — think 30-something winemakers as urban music superstars. Our discussion covered the costly winemaking techniques not usually used for cheap wine but found in Charles & Charles wines; high alcohol, and why the Charleses don’t like them; the changing face of the wine business and the need to attract new wine drinkers; and that rose is quickly becoming an acceptable wine to drink in a way that I never thought it would be (and for which Bieler didn’t treat me like a cranky old man).

Most importantly, we tasted the wines, which are priced at $13 but can be found for as little as $10 (and all were samples):

? Charles & Charles Rose 2013 (12.6%): This is consistently one of the best roses in the world, fresh and crisp with red fruit, and the 2013 is no exception. The best news is that production almost doubled for this vintage, so there should be plenty of wine to go around.

? Charles & Charles Chardonnay 2012 (13.3%): Bieler emphasized the wine’s French style, but I saw more Washington state, with a touch of oak, rich fruit, and a subtle balance. It’s practically subversive, given what most cheap chardonnays taste like.

? Charles & Charles Post No. 35 2012 (13.6%): This red blend, cabernet sauvignon and syrah, was my favorite of the three. It’s a stunning wine for the price, dark and interesting but with telltale Washington state black fruit and amazing tannins. The catch? The 50,000 cases are almost gone, thanks to a 90-point review in the Wine Spectator. How dare it deprive us of such a wonderful wine.

Finally, consider this irony: We met at a restaurant where there was only one wine on the list that cost less than $30, and most were overpriced and quite ordinary. Maybe I should have mentioned the Charles & Charles to someone there?

Wine of the week: Lungarotti Torre di Giano 2011

Wine of the week:  Lungarotti Torre di Giano 2011The Wine Curmudgeon tries desperately not to let the wine geek inside him get out, but sometimes it’s very, very difficult. I know I need to taste more cabernet sauvingon and merlot, but, as my pal the Italian Wine Guy says, “If it’s got two grapes no one has ever heard of, you’re going to like it.”

Which bring us to the Lungarotti ($15, purchased, 12%), a white blend from Italy made with three grapes that mostly fall into that category — vermentino, trebbiano, and grechetto. Wine drinkers might know one of them (vermentino isn’t all that rare), but all three? The wine geek in me was salivating. Trebbiano, of course, is the Italian name for my beloved ugni blanc, star of so many fabulous Gascon wines. And the grechetto may be the geekiest of all, a grape that has shown up in only one reveiw here in seven-plus years.

Best yet, the wine did not disappoint, even for $15. It’s a funky and fun blend that tastes more sophisticated than it should, a sign that someone took pride when they put it together. It’s clean and fruity (a little bit of lime zest?) and almost floral, but also crisp and refreshing. Floral wines, typically, aren’t that, another sign of quality. Highly recommended, either with seafood or on its own, and even for those who don’t have a wine geek hiding inside.

Winebits 323: Sweet wine, three-tier, high alcohol

Winebits 323: Sweet wine, three-tier, high alcohol

Where do we go? Obviously, not anywhere where three-tier doesn’t exist

? Bring on the Apothic: E&J Gallo, one of the biggest wine companies in the world, is making a play for the British market, and is using its sweet red wine to do the job, reports the Harpers trade magazine. The article describes Apothic as a blend of five grapes, though doesn’t mention that it helped pioneer the sweet red movement in the U.S. Rather, it quotes a Gallo official, who says the wine is “very different from previous Gallo brands, and very polarizing.” Still, he says Apothic is selling better than expected, and has been picked up by most of the country’s major grocery stores. It’s odd that Harpers doesn’t mention that Apothic is sweet; its stories are usually better reported than that. Did the writer leave it out on purpose or just not know? Or figured no one in the UK wine business would care?

? Play that dead band’s song: The Wine Curmudgeon has often noted that Alabama can be in a completely different universe when it comes to wine distribution and sales, even allowing for the eccentricities inherent in the three-tier system. Like this. And this. But this one is nifty, even for Alabama. The state legislature wants to pass a law that would make it more difficult for retailers in Montgomery County, which includes the city of Montgomery, to switch distributors. Imagine the clout that’s required to get a bill like that through, which benefits just a handful of companies. It speaks to the immense power of distributors and why three-tier remains so well entrenched in the supply chain.

? But it’s in Scientific American: Those of us who write about wine regularly argue about high alcohol, often to no effect other than name calling and snarkiness. But consider this — a report in a respected journal that’s not about wine headlined “Wine Becomes More Like Whisky as Alcohol Content Gets High” and that includes news of a new yeast that allows winemakers to produce fruity wine without high alcohol. Plus, there’s Latin in it, which always impresses me. More importantly, does an article in something as prestigious as Scientific American help mend the rift between the pro- and anti-high alcohol factions? Almost certainly not, unfortunately. The two sides just don’t like each other, and personality — and not wine — has become all.

America’s Test Kitchen finally figures out wine

America's Test Kitchen finally figures out wine

Chris, do you need a bottle of cheap wine with that chicken?

America’s Test Kitchen, the PBS cooking show, has always pursued the best possible recipe with enthusiasm and skill. This, in a world of food TV that revolves around celebrity chefs who haven’t chopped an onion since culinary school, makes the program worth watching for anyone who enjoys cooking. Plus, bow ties are cool.

The catch, though, like so many other food programs, is that it never really understood wine, figuring more expensive was better because it was more expensive. This always seemed odd for a program that delighted in finding that the cheapest cocoa powder produced the best brownies.

Happily, this is no longer the case. In the new ?The America’s Test Kitchen TV Show Cookbook, ? the program embraces cheap wine with such gusto that the Wine Curmudgeon had to write this post. Consider:

? Slow-Cooker Beef Burgundy: ?Don’t spend a lot of money for the wine in this recipe ? in our testing, we found that California pinot noir wine in the $6-$20 price range worked just fine. ? Mark West pinot noir, anyone?

? Coq qu Vin: ?Use any $10 bottle of fruity, medium-bodied red wine, such as pinot noir, Cotes du Rhone, or zinfandel. ? How about the Little James Basket Press?

? Sangria: ?After trying a variety of red wines, we found that inexpensive wine works best. (Experts told us that the sugar and fruit called for in sangria throw off the balance of any wine used, so why spend a lot on something …?) ? Rene Barbier Mediterranean Red, perhaps?

Call this another victory in America’s slow, steady march toward common sense in wine. And the producers figured this out, apparently, without any help from the cheap wine book. Imagine how much better the recipes would be if they had read it ? think I should send Christopher Kimball a copy?

Mini-reviews 57: Bonterra, Carlos Pulenta, Da Luca, Tormaresca

Mini-reviews 57: Bonterra, Carlos Pulenta, Da Luca, TormarescaReviews of wines that don ?t need their own post, but are worth noting for one reason or another. Look for it on the final Friday of each month.

? Bonterra Zinfandel 2011 ($16, sample, 14.5%): More old-style zinfandel than new, with brambly black fruit and alcohol in balance instead of a fruit-infused cocktail that makes you reach for a glass of water after a sip and a half. Another winner in my recent zinfandel streak, and a treat to drink.

? Carlos Pulenta Malbec Tomero 2011 ($15, sample, 14%): Fairly-priced Argentine red that doesn’t have too much black fruit — which means it’s drinkable and not syrupy — and somehow manages to be mostly balanced. A very pleasant surprise.

? Da Luca Pinot Grigio 2012 ($13, sample, 12%): Disjointed pinot grigio with requisite tonic water at back but also weird fruit in the middle, almost tropical. Not much better than grocery store pinot grigio but at almost twice the price.

? Tormaresca Chardonnay 2012 ($9, purchased, 12%): How the mighty have fallen. This white, like the Tormaresca Neprica, used to be value-priced quality wine. Now, it has just one note — lots of what tastes like cheap fake oak, with very little fruit or interest. Very disappointing.