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Price, value, and the California wine business

california wineDear California wine business:

I honestly don’t like writing nasty things about you. You make some of the best wine in the world, and I’d much prefer to write about that. But you drive me crazy, because you continue to do things that make it that much more difficult for me to be nice.

The most recent example came last month, when two of your wineries — two of my favorites, who know what I want to review — sent me samples. Did the samples include any of the great cheap wine they make? Nope. They were the usual overpriced big reds, including a 15 percent zinfandel, the kind of wine that I regularly rail against. These wines aren’t made because people want to drink them, but because you think you should make them. God only knows why, though I suspect the Winestream Media has something to do with it.

The wine business changed for our lifetimes five years ago, when the recession forced consumers to trade down and consumers discovered that they liked the cheap wine they found. In 2008, Americans drank more wine than they did in 2007, but spent less to do so. This is one of the most important moments in the history of the modern wine business, and I’m not the only one who has noticed it.

In addition, it parallels what’s going on with the rest of the U.S. economy. We’re not spending money just to spend money or buying stuff just to buy stuff; rather, we’re thinking about what we buy, and we want value as well as low prices.

I am reminded of this every time I buy wine. The most recent example came in September when I was in Kerrville, an affluent Texas resort town, and the two older Anglo men in line ahead of me were buying Franzia boxed wine and a big bottle of Rex Goliath. They could, from what I saw, afford to buy anything they wanted, and they bought cheap wine. Americans shop on price, no matter how much you wish they didn ?t. All you have to do is look at the sales numbers. No one buys those 15 percent zindandels with the big scores; they buy cheap pinot noir.

Some of you have figured this out, which is why wines like Barefoot and Cupcake have done so well over the past five years. These wines, as simple as they are, are cheap and offer some kind of value. But you can do better than that, and I don’t understand why so many of you don’t want to try. Or, having tried, given up. What’s so awful about making honest, quality cheap wine? Why do so many have to suffer through so much overpriced, overdone wine when you have the skill to make fabulous wine that is neither overpriced nor overdone?

This is not to say there isn’t a place for wine that costs more than $10 (and I’m getting a little tired of being accused of hating expensive wine just because it’s expensive). Ridge has earned popular and critical acclaim, and its least expensive bottle is $25. But that’s because it offers value at those prices, something that is sadly lacking at so many other producers.

Your customers understand this in a way that you don ?t. You’re still making and marketing wine as if it was 1995 or 2005, when a higher price meant better wine (or, if not better, more desirable), and value didn’t matter. The world doesn’t work that way anymore. Understand that, and everyone will be better off, including me. I can then drink your wine and not have to write you a letter like this.

Sincerely,
The Wine Curmudgeon

For more on wine, prices, and value:
The Treasury debacle
Retailers and wine prices
Wine of the week: Little James Basket Press NV
Five things the wine business can do to help consumers figure out wine

Wine of the week: Hardys Nottage Hill Pinot Noir 2012

BT008501-ARDAGH-460g-PinotNoir-NottageHillWhen we did this year’s great cheap pinot noir tasting, Diane Teitelbaum and I were surprised at how many wines labeled as pinot noir didn’t taste like pinot noir. Regardless of anything else, cheap merlot tastes like merlot, cheap chardonny tastes like chardonny, and so forth.

But that wasn’t the case with the pinots. There were some exceptions, but the most of the wines we tasted made us wonder: Was what the wine business considered pinot noir changing to meet pricing and consumer demands?

Fortunately, the Hardys ($10, sample, 13%) shows what can be done when the winemaker and the Big Wine company that pays for the wine want to make pinot noir that tastes like pinot noir. Even more amazing: This is an Australian wine, and Australia is hardly prime pinot noir territory.

Nevertheless, this is quality cheap pinot — not nearly as fruity as most of the wines we tasted in June and with more structure. There is a beginning, a middle, and an end, and not just the juicy fruitiness that is what most other cheap pinots offer. Look for a telltale pinot herbal aroma as well as muted cherry and raspberry fruit. And while it’s not to be confused with a $75 red Burgundy (pinot noir from France), it will more than do for those of us who don’t have $75 for a bottle of wine. Highly recommended, and a candidate for the 2014 $10 Hall of Fame.

Winebits 304: Celebrity wine, wine critics, 7-Eleven

? Does celebrity wine sell? It all depends, says a study from a group of Canadian researchers. The Wine Curmudgeon mentions this because he banned celebrity wine news from the blog for just this reason, that the idea of celebrity wine is about the celebrity and not the wine, and that’s more or less what the study says. The Brock University report found that “a more prestigious sport like golf received a higher ‘fit’ level than a sport such as wrestling, which is not commonly associated with the product category of wine.” Also, celebrity endorsement meant less to more knowledgeable wine drinkers than to the less well versed. In other words, celebrity endorsement in wine works about the same way it does in most consumer goods.

? Cranky old men: Kyle Schlachter at Colorado Wine Press has written one of the best put-downs ever of wine writing, wine critics, and the Winestream Media. It’s satire taken to the next level, and though it gets a little insider-ish, it’s still pretty damned funny: “This generation, your generation, that reads these blogs and whatnot, really needs to figure out how to learn about wine. If you don’t listen to experts, how will you ever learn what good wine tastes like?” Sadly, I know people exactly like that, and who still don’t understand that wine is about finding what you like, not what others tell you to like.

? Making it more convenient: 7-Eleven made news a couple of years ago with its version of Two-buck Chuck, Yosemite Road, citing the growing demand for wine from its customers. The company took that one step further last week, announcing that it would sell expensive wines in its stores, including $50 bottles from Napa’s Stag’s Leap. This news is not as shocking as it sounds, given the role of the biggest wine companies in the business today. Stag’s Leap is owned by Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, a one-half billion dollar company, and 7-Eleven will also sell wines from the $3.2 billion Constellation Brands and the $3.4 billion E&J Gallo. An independent producer, worried that its wine in a convenience store would destroy its reputation, wouldn’t sell it there. But the multi-nationals, given a chance to sell lots of wine to a mammoth retailer, have fewer qualms. They just want to move product, and 7-Eleven, if Ste. Michelle wanted it to, could probably sell all of the 130,000 cases Stag’s Leap makes annually.

Expensive wine 55: Clos Beauregard 2011

10287066t.jpg.pagespeed.ce_.mJCh4SDNle.jpgThe email asked if I wanted to taste some affordable red Bordeaux, the cabernet sauvignon and merlot blends that are the wines that remain the standard by which the rest of the world’s red wines are judged.

And, because affordable in Bordeaux means something completely different than it does to the Wine Curmudgeon, I got this.

Which is not to say that the Clos Beauregard ($36, sample, 13%) was not a terrific wine, because it was, and I had a wonderful time drinking it with the Big Guy. And, tasting this, it reminded me why red Bordeaux is still held in such high esteem, especially since Beauregard is regarded as a middling producer, good but not great.

The wine is mostly merlot with bits of cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon to round it out, enough black fruit to be noticeable, and with a heft and body that New World merlots aren’t interested in. It’s a typical example of the kind of wine made in Pomerol, an area located on what’s called Bordeaux’s right bank.

A couple of high-end reviews of this wine described it as lush, which points to the difference in style between Old World and New World wines. Lush, in France, means the wine isn’t earthy in the way so many French wines, even the most expensive, still are. In California, lush means the fruitiness starts before the bottle is opened and ends a day or so after the bottle is empty. It’s a difference that is to be valued, regardless of which style you prefer.

 

Sex sells — even for wine in the 1970s

The goofy thing about this 1979 TV commercial for Lancers Rose is not the clothes they’re wearing or the woman’s hair (kids, ask your parents and grandparents about those) or even that it’s for Lancers. The wine, still available but not nearly as well known, was a million-case seller in the years before the U.S. wine boom in the 1980s.

What’s most interesting is that the woman needs a bottle of wine to serve the rock star; the inference is that any woman in the target demographic who has a bottle of Lancers in the fridge will end up entertaining a hot guy. Update the clothing and hair, change the musical style, make it a little more risque, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see a similar ad for a current brand. Yellow Tail, perhaps? Or Little Black Dress?

I’ll leave any judgements about what that says about the wine and advertising businesses to you (and a tip o’ the Curmudgeon’s fedora to robatsea2009 at YouTube for the video).

One billion bottles of Yellow Tail

yt.jpegOr more than 10 billion glasses, if you’d prefer.

Despite everything — the jeers from critics, the blame for sinking the Australian wine industry, its role as one of the first livestock wines — Yellow Tail has thrived. How about these numbers?

The company, despite its struggles with the pricey Aussie dollar, recorded its best year ever in fiscal 2013, with sales by quantity increasing 8 per cent. Meanwhile, some 11 1/2 million cases a year are sold in the U.S., making it the most popular foreign wine in the country. That’s impressive to begin with, and even more so for a brand that didn’t exist before the beginning of the 21st century.

In all of this, Yellow Tail helped change the way Americans drink wine, as important as Two-buck Chuck and the arrival of the multi-national wine companies. If nothing else, it was one of the first of the international style wines, fruity and easy to drink, and it was cheap.

Yellow Tail boss John Casella makes no apologies for this. I’ve met him twice, and each time I was part of a group made up of wine types much more highfalutin‘ than the Wine Curmudgeon. Casella just stared them down, politely, and his refrain was the same: “If consumers want a simple, fruity wine at a fair price, what’s wrong with giving it to them?”

Nothing, of course, which is why his company has produced 1 billion bottles. I’m not a Yellow Tail fan, and only one of the wines has been reviewed here in almost eight years. They are too fruity and too simple; I prefer wines that are more interesting, and there are many at the same price.

But lots of people don’t like those wines, or can’t find them, or even know they exist. And this has helped Casella build what may be the most successful wine company in Australia. That’s the thing to keep in mind when you read the other pieces about Yellow Tail’s milestone, articles that will almost certainly focus on the stuff in the second paragraph of this one. Yellow Tail’s success makes the company so easy to dislike that too many of us lose sight of why it is successful — and what that means for wine.

Wine of the week: Maculan Pino & Toi 2012

pino_toiCue moody music.

The phone rang. The voice on the other end was sharp, abrupt. “You da Curmudgeon? I gots some cheap wines for ya. Go ta dis place” — and he mentioned a retailer in Dallas that specializes in Italian wine — “and tell ’em Ace sent ya.” And then he hung up.

Shift scene to a neighborhood that has seen better days. I adjusted the brim on my fedora, pushed open the door. I got an up and down from the guy behind the counter. “Ace sent me,” I said. He pointed to the back of the store.

Which is where I found the Maculan ($8, purchased, 12.5%), a white blend from the Veneto region in Italy’s northeast. It’s made with two lesser known grapes, pinot blanc and toi, the latter of which is actually friulano but is called toi in that part of Italy. The result is an amazing wine — refreshing and clean, with green apple fruit, and even some kind of a finish. The pinot blanc adds a floral aroma, whilte the toil contributes that uniquely Italian white wine character that can best be described as bracing.’This is an amazing value for $8, the kind of wine that makes me wonder how I missed it in my decade-plus pursuit of cheap wine. But I’m certainly glad I was tipped to it now; highly recommended, and a candidate for the 2014 $10 Hall of Fame.