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Winebits 343: Dave McIntyre, wine scores, and wine in the movies

Dave McIntyre

That’s Dave in the middle, and he should be smiling.

? More than well deserved: Who knew the Wine Curmudgeon would know someone who had won the same award as a Mondavi? Or the legendary Konstantin Frank, without whom U.S. regional wine would not have been possible? But that’s my pal Dave McIntyre, who was given the Monteith Trophy over the weekend for his work as a wine writer. Dave has done much for the cause of wine, including co-founding Drink Local Wine with me when people thought we were crazy. So it’s more than time that the wine world recognized the effort Dave has made, not only for regional wine, but for wine drinkers everywhere. Dave will be in Dallas in a couple of weeks, and I have laid in some Texas wine that we will celebrate with. Congratulations, my friend. But couldn’t you have worn a tie for a big deal like this?

? End the tyranny: Or so says Michael Woodsmall at the Grape Collective, calling for an end to the 100-point scoring system. “It should be duly noted that these scales don ?t take actual wine’s nuanced characteristics into account; they merely assigned values to general traits. … Also, it is no longer the seventies and eighties.” This sentiment is something the Wine Curmudgeon has long advocated, and Woodsmall makes an intelligent argument for the end of scores, even throwing in a little political theory to explain why the debate generates such controversy. This is a revolution, and the scoreists will defend the ancien regime until the bitter end.

? Hollywood and wine: The Wine Curmudgeon, in discussing U.S. wine culture in the cheap wine book, talked about Hollywood’s complete indifference to wine for most of the 20th century, and how this indifference reflected American views of wine. So I was more than pleased to see an academic study of the subject, supporting my views. Raphael Schirmer of the University of Bordeaux, writing for the American Association of Wine Economists, has found that as wine has become more popular in the U.S., so has wine become more popular in film. This is not just about Francis Ford Coppola owning a major wine company or movies like “Sideways;” rather, it’s the idea that we drink wine as part of our everyday lives, and the movies that are made reflect this.

James Garner on wine writing

james garnerJames Garner, who died over the weekend, was perhaps the best TV actor of his generation. He brought intelligence, charm, and wit to a medium that makes those qualities difficult to convey. In the 1950s, “Maverick” did for the western what Monty Python did for humor, redefining how to look at the genre. In the 1970s, “The Rockford Files” took the private detective, a tired and worn out format, and gave it new life.

So what does that have to do with wine and writing? Consider this, from Garner’s autobiography:

“I ?m a Methodist but not as an actor. I ?m from the Spencer Tracy school: be on time, know your words, hit your marks, and tell the truth. I don ?t have any theories abut acting, and I don ?t think about how to do it, except that an actor shouldn ?t take himself too seriously, and shouldn ?t try to make acting something that it isn ?t. Acting is just common sense. It isn ?t hard if you put yourself aside and just do what the writer wrote. ?

Substitute wine writing for acting, and the point is clear: We’re not better or more talented than other wine drinkers. We’re just more professional about it. And the minute we take ourselves too seriously, we lose sight of what we’re supposed to be doing. And wine writing is not supposed to be difficult, though so many of us try so hard to make it difficult.

A tip o’ the Curmudgeon’s fedora to my pal John Bratcher, a reformed actor, for pointing out the relationship between Garner’s words and wine writing.

Another study agrees: We buy wine on price

wine genome studyThe biggest surprise in the Wine Genome study from Constellation Brands, one of the biggest wine companies in the world? That one-fifth of us buy wine on price.

“We knew they were out there, but the widening span of the study showed how deeply the recession cut,” said Dale Stratton, the Constellation official who oversaw this version, the third, of the company’s Project Genome, designed to identify the most common types of of wine drinkers based on purchase behavior, motivation, and preferences. “The recession had a big impact and significantly changed consumer spending habits.”

Stratton laughed when I asked him about this. No, he said, it’s not that Constellation (whose brands include Rex Goliath, Mark West, and Robert Mondavi) didn’t expect price to be important. Rather, it’s that price-driven wine drinkers were the biggest category of the six, doubling the number of Enthusiasts — those who “love everything about the wine experience,” including researching purchases, reading reviews, and sharing wine with others. In other words, the Winestream Media’s audience. The other thing to note here? The Enthusiasts account for 15 percent of profit, compared to 14 percent for the Price-Driven group. Harrumph.

The study, which updated a 2004 effort, is full of surprises — unless, of course, you visit here regularly (and you can see a nifty infographic describing each group here):

? The third-biggest group, at 19 percent, are Overwhelmed, which means pretty much what it says: “I don’t enjoy shopping for wine, and find it complex and overwhelming. This, says Stratton, reinforces the need for wine education, not only for consumers but for those who sell wine — distributors, retailers, and restaurateurs. Hearing this was surprising enough, but I almost dropped the phone when Stratton said that winespeak is one of the reasons the overwhelmed are overwhelmed. Maybe, he said, retailers and wine writers should find simpler terms to use.

? Women, who have traditionally skewed higher for wine purchases at the lower end, are becoming more important at the higher end. The Enthusiasts, who were about 65 percent male in 2004, were close to 50-50 this time. “This means more women see wine as a hobby,” says Stratton, and that means more women attend tastings and shop at wine-specific retailers.

? Wine snobs, called Image Seekers, are still with us, and in a big way. They account for 18 percent of wine drinkers, but contribute 26 percent of profits, more than any other group. Given the wine they drink, that’s probably not surprising.

? Welcome the Millennials to wine, in the form of the Engaged Newcomer at 12 percent. This group is young, wants to learn more, and recognizes that wine is intimidating. They also spend more on a bottle than the other groups, about $13.

One other point worth noting: This kind of study is common for consumer packaged goods like laundry detergent and ketchup. That Constellation can do for wine what Proctor & Gamble does for its products speaks volumes about how much the wine business has changed, and that it is becoming more mainstream.

“Wine is increasing household penetration at a good clip, and the audience has broadened,” said Stratton. “And it’s going to continue to change, as the American population changes.”

Five things that make me crazy when I buy wine

buy wine

Which price am I going to pay for this wine? And why are there so many prices anyway? It makes me crazy.

Negotiating the Great Wall of Wine at the grocery store (or any retailer, for that matter) is difficult enough. But why is it that so many in the wine business go out of their way to make it even more difficult? Hence, the five things that make me crazy when I buy wine:

1. Wine shelved incorrectly, where Chilean wine is in the Spanish section, French wine is in the Italian section, and so forth. Some of my irritation is because I’m the son and grandson of retailers, and they taught me the need to stock inventory correctly. But most of it is because that kind of mistake makes it more difficult for people to buy the wine they want. If you’re looking for malbec, and it’s not in the Argentine section, you’re more likely to forgo wine or buy beer.

2. Sweet red wines that don’t say they’re sweet on the label. If I have trouble figuring out whether it’s sweet or dry, and I do, how much trouble does the average consumer have? Using the adjective smooth, which seems to be the winespeak of the moment for sweet, isn’t enough. You’re making sweet red wine because people want sweet red wine, so what’s wrong with telling them it’s sweet?

3. The boxed wine ghetto, where all the boxed wine — regardless of quality — is stuck on a dusty shelf in the back of the store or wine section. One reason that Yellow + Blue, a great cheap wine, isn’t better known is that it comes in a 1-liter box. That means you’ll find it with the Almaden and Franzia 5-liter boxes, and about the only thing the Yellow + Blue has in common with those is the box. It’s like putting Italian-made shoes next to flip-flops, and who does that?

4. Three — or four or even five — prices for the same bottle of wine. There’s the regular retail price. And the club price. And the sale price. And the “buy six, get a discount” price. And the “buy 12 and get a discount” price. The consumer isn’t sure what the price is, and ends up paying more than they thought they would. Which, sadly, may be the point.

5. That every winery in New Zealand seems to have a bay in its name — Oyster Bay, Monkey Bay, Destiny Bay, Cable Bay, Brick Bay, Pegasus Bay, Clifford Bay, Picton Bay, and so on and so forth. It’s one thing when the winery, like the respected and well-known Cloudy Bay, is actually located on a bay. But when the winery doesn’t exist, and the name is made up to sell private label wine or by Big Wine to establish a New Zealand brand, enough is enough.

Slider image courtesy of Houston Press food blog, using a Creative Commons license

Wine of the week: Cantine Colosi Rosso 2012

Cantine Colosi RossoSicilian wine has made such advances over the past decade that it was only a matter of time until the Wine Curmudgeon found some that weren’t worth buying. You know the kind of wine, one made to take advantage of being trendy, with too much fruit, not enough interest, and an inflated price.

Fortunately, the Cantine Colosi Rosso ($10, purchased, 13%) isn’t one of those. It’s a red blend, mostly nero d’avola, and the kind of wine that has helped make Sicily what it is today. It’s almost certain to go in the $10 Hall of Fame next year, and has been one of the great joys of my wine drinking this summer. Look for juicy, fresh cherry fruit, and drink it by itself (yes, really) or with any kind of grilled food, be it burgers, sausage, or chicken.

The Rosso was missing the Sicilian earthiness that I like and expect, but it didn’t make any difference. This is an Italian wine that’s about fun and happiness and enjoying your food and the people you’re with. The Rosso doesn’t get in the way and doesn’t demand attention the way so many other wines do (and they know who they are). It’s content to complement what you’re eating or what you’re doing, and isn’t that what every great wine is supposed to do, regardless of price? It’s our great luck that this costs $10 and not two or three times that.

Winebits 342: High alcohol, wine real estate, and the norton grape

high alcohol wine ? No more high alcohol, please: The British government, searching for some way to curb the country’s binge drinking problem, wants to limit the alcohol content of the house wine sold in pubs and restaurants to 12 1/2 percent. This is stunning news, even to the Wine Curmudgeon, who thinks lower alcohol is almost always better than higher. Somehow, I don’t think — regardless of any Neo-Prohibitionist developments here — that alcohol limits will ever happen in the U.S.

?More money than they know what to do with: The recession in the high-end part of the wine business is over, if people with more money than everyone else are any indication. The Grape Collective reports that “lifestyle” buyers, who don’t necessarily want to make wine or grow grapes but who think it’s tres chic to own a piece of wine country, are back in the market. Says one analyst: “Lifestyle buyers want a gorgeous house with a vineyard view, and then possibly a small source of income. They ?ll generally take their grapes to a custom crush house and either sell or simply give away as business gifts. ? The middle six figures will get you something in Tuscany, and Napa is actually a little less expensive. Maybe it’s time for the Wine Curmudgeon to call his Realtor.

? You can’t beat the norton: Vinepar takes a look at the norton grape, long one of my favorites and too often overlooked in the U.S. The piece is a solid introduction to the grape, which thrived in this country at the turn of the 20th century and still makes delicious red wine. The best look at the norton? In Todd Kliman’s fascinating book, “The Wild Vine.” Or, as I wrote when I reviewed it, “Kliman offers some much-needed insight into the history of American wine. It’s a perspective that says, ‘Look, pay attention. Long before Robert Parker and scores and California, there was a U.S. wine industry. And if a few things had happened differently. …’ “

Wine review: Rodney Strong Merlot 2011

Rodney Strong merlotRodney Strong is an example of how sophisticated the California wine business has become. It makes $15 wine that is sold in grocery stores, but is of better quality than most grocery store wine. It has a line of very high-end reds, aimed at the Winestream Media and the people who read it, and which are about as different from its $15 wines as possible. In all of this, Rodney Strong produces more than 800,000 cases a year, making it the 20th biggest winery in the U.S., according to Wine Business Monthly.

That Rodney Strong can do all three of those, and do it mostly well, speaks to California’s dominant role in the wine world. It’s not only the best place to grow grapes, but its business model is the best, too. The idea is to make wine the way Detroit makes cars, with something for grocery store consumers, something for people who want to spend more, and then the very high end stuff.

The trick to this approach is not sloughing off. The quality/value ratio at the bottom has to be as impressive as at the top, or you’ll never get anyone to trade up. The 2011 Rodney Strong merlot ($17, sample, 13.5%) shows how much care goes into the wines. The 2011 California vintage was one of the coolest in decades, but that didn’t stop a lot of producers from making their usual over-extracted, over-alcoholic, over-oaked wines — even though, thanks to the cool vintage, they had to use a fair amount of sleight of hand to do it.

But not the Rodney Strong merlot. It tastes like it came from a cool vintage — fresh and juicy, no cloying red fruit, a touch of oak at the back that makes the wine better and not like caramel candy, and almost spicy in a French sort of way. It’s about as honest a California merlot as I’ve had in years, in which the winemaker makes what the grapes give him or her, and not what the focus groups want (“smooth,” “sweet fruit”).

Highly recommended, and not just for dinner (beef and lamb almost certainly). This is a gift wine, to show someone you want them to drink interesting wine, and that you found a very interesting one for them to drink.