We assume wine drinkers trade up, but much of the evidence says otherwise.
Trading up is one of the most basic assumptions in the wine business, fitting hand in glove with the concept of a gateway wine. The idea is that one starts drinking wine with the gateway — something cheap and probably sweet, like white zinfandel — and then moves up in price and quality, eventually buying expensive, highly-rated wine and talking like someone who writes for the Winestream Media. Talk to enough people in the wine business, and they’re convinced — or they let themselves be convinced — that this is the way the world works.
It’s much more difficult, though, to figure out whether this actually happens. More, after the jump:
Reviews 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. This month, in honor of the U.S. budget mess, some really cheap wine:
? La Granja Tempranillo 2012 ($4, purchased, 13%): This Spanish red, also from Trader Joe’s, is a very simple wine that is more tempranillo-like than tempranillo. Lots of cherry fruit and acid, but they aren’t balanced; rather, they cancel each other out. Probably worth $4, but better wine doesn’t cost that much more.
? Line 39 Chardonnay 2011 ($10, purchased, 13.5%): Fairly typical grocery store chardonnay in the late 20th-century style, with green apple fruit and more fake oak than I like. Nothing really wrong with it if you like this kind of wine.
Rebecca Gibb, the Wine-Searcher editor who has won a bunch of big-time wine writing awards, said she was impressed. ” ?I love this book,” she wrote me in an email. “It ?s refreshingly honest with no BS winespeak. Coming from a family which imbibed Lambrusco and Liebfraumilch at Christmas as a treat, the content was right down my alley. A great mythbuster for consumers, and a good reminder to us wine geeks that most people don ?t give a rats about the 1855 classification or flouncy tasting notes.”
Wow. That’s the kind of stuff that makes the even the Wine Curmudgeon less cranky. Maybe there is something to this book writing thing.
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.
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.
When 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.
? 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.
The 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.