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Cheap wine can be intimidating

Cheap wine can be intimidating

OMG, $5 wine!

Sounds weird, doesn’t it? That cheap wine can be intimidating, given that cheap wine’s reason for being is that it’s approachable in a way more expensive wine isn’t. But too many wine drinkers who won’t buy a wine because it’s too expensive are also wary of buying a wine because it doesn’t cost enough.

The Wine Curmudgeon saw this again over the weekend, when a couple of old pals came to visit. They are far from wine snobs, and revel in finding value in cheap wine. But when I recommended the $5 Vina Decana from Aldi, one of them looked at me and asked, “But it only costs $5. How can it be any good?”

Fortunately, I am resilient in the face of adversity (as well as very stubborn). We went to Aldi, bought the wine, tasted it, and all was well. This experience reminded me, despite all of the progress we have made with cheap wine over the past decade, how much wine business foolishness we still have to overcome.

Yes, many of us have spent years proselytizing for cheap wine, and the improvement in cheap wine quality has been well documented. But we’re bucking a 50-year-old system that told wine drinkers that cheap wine wasn’t worth drinking, and that very cheap wine was even less worthy of their attention. This has been the point of wine education since the first wine boom in the 1970s, that price equalled quality. It was only sometimes true then, and it’s even less true today. Which is why it’s more important than ever to taste the wine before you judge it, no matter how difficult that may be.

Hence the idea of $4 or $5 wine, despite the success of Two-buck Chuck, is still something pink and sweet that comes in a box and is bought by old ladies with cats. That this isn’t especially accurate any more doesn’t seem to matter in the rush to upsell consumers to $15 and $20 wine that doesn’t necessarily taste any different, but is more hip and with it. Chloe, anyone?

Also, the continued need for people like me, as much as there shouldn’t be. Fortunately, I enjoy the work.

Image courtesy of Hagerstenguy via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license

 

 

Colorado Governor’s Cup 2014

Colorado Governor's Cup 2014Ten years ago, when I first tasted Colorado wine, I spent much of my time being polite. As in, “This is nice. Thank you for letting me taste it.”

Those days are long gone, as was amply demonstrated last weekend during judging for the fifth annual Colorado Governor’s Cup. The red wines were exceptionally strong, and though the whites weren’t as good, they were technically sound and professionally made. In the regional wine business, that’s an accomplishment.

The best reds were cabernet franc and petit verdot, two Bordeaux grapes that do well in Colorado and that the state’s winemakers have taken to with enthusiasm (and especially cab franc). My panel gave a gold and double gold to cab francs, and a gold to a petit verdot. And the best wine of the competition was a petit verdot, from Canyon Wind Cellars. The results are here.

The wines were varietally correct, but also distinctive and reflected Colorado’s terroir — not a lot of fruit, more dry than a California wine, yet complex and very long. This is not an easy style of wine to make, but the state’s winemakers have made great progress figuring out how to work with their terroir over the past decade.

Finally, a few words about my pal Doug Caskey, who oversees the Colorado Wine Board and has run the competition since it started. One reason I enjoy judging this event so much is that Doug brings together judges who understand that Colorado wine isn’t French wine or California wine and isn’t supposed to taste like it came from those places. Sadly, too many judges downgrade wines that are “different,” which has nothing to do with quality, but with a preconceived notion about what wine is supposed to taste like that borders on snobbery and elitism.

The two people on my panel, Tynan Szvetecz and Sarah Moore, were terrific in this respect, and it was a pleasure to judge with them. I’m always lucky to work with people who put up with my idiosyncrasies, and they were no exception.

Book review: Buy the Right Wine Every Time

Book review: Buy the Right Wine Every TimeTom Stevenson is a British wine writer and critic best known for his work with pricey and high-end wines, and especially Champagne. So what’s he doing writing a book that rates hundreds of wines with an emphasis on value, and where cheap wines are allowed to shine?

Writes Stevenson:

Inevitably the most widely available wines include many of the cheapest brands, an area of wine habitually avoided by critics. As such wines are almost exclusively purchased by most wine drinkers, those critics (myself included) have effectively disenfranchised most wine consumers. That is something I want to correct. …

Welcome to the fight, Tom.

This makes “Buy the Right Wine Every Time” (Sterling Epicure, $14.95) the ideal complement to the cheap wine book. I didn’t want to list wines, which is what the blog is for. Stevenson does, and includes not only Winestream Media favorites like Cakebread and Dom Perignon, but lots and lots of cheap wine, including $10 Hall of Fame mainstays like Bogle and Seguras Viudas. It even includes — gasp — favorable entries for white zinfandel, which surprised even Stevenson.

The ratings list 382 wines by price and “recommended,” “highly recommended,” and “to die for.” They mostly avoid winespeak (though comparing the Santa Rita sauvignon blanc to nettles probably won’t help most $10 wine drinkers), and include a much welcome link to similar wines, the goal being to help readers try something different. That’s such a good idea that I think I’ll steal it for the blog.

Most importantly, and the true genius of the book, is that the wines, whether cheap or expensive, are “widely available.” This is a refreshing approach given all the upset about wine availability these days. The drawback is that a lot of very ordinary cheap wine is included, and probably too much from Australia, but it points to the difficulties availability presents to those of us who have to buy wine. My only criticism of the book: Not enough rose, and no roses from Spain or the U.S.

That someone like Stevenson has discovered that cheap wine is part of the wine world — and that it is one key to spreading the gospel of wine — is just another indication that the wine world has changed for the better. And who doesn’t want that?

Wine of the week: Aragonesas Los Dos 2012

Wine of the week: Aragonesas Los Dos 2012One of the joys of wine is stumbling on something enjoyable when you least expect it. Which is also one of wine’s frustrations, since stumbling on something enjoyable doesn’t mean it’s going to be generally available.

Which pretty much sums up the Los Dos ($8, sample, 14%), a Spanish red blend made with garnacha and syrah. The producer, Bodegas Aragonesas, a decent-sized Spanish winery, doesn’t list the wine on its website, which means the wine may be a one-off made for the export market or not made every year. Hence my concern about availability, given the way these things work.

Still, if you can find the Los Dos, it’s worth buying. It’s not quite $10 Hall of Fame quality; it’s too simple, even for a $10 wine. But it delivers much, much more than its $8 cost. Look for garnacha-style red fruit (cherry?) and a certain richness in the mouth. There isn’t much else going on, but the fruit and alcohol don’t overwhelm the wine the way I thought they would. It’s clean and professional, and someone tried for balance when making it, which isn’t usually the case with wines targeted for the U.S.

This is a food wine, for red meat and barbeque, and a very pleasant and welcome surprise. Assuming we can find it on a store shelf, of course.

Winebits 328: Scottish wine, wine marketing, lawsuits

Winebits 328: Scottish wine, wine marketing, lawsuits

Scottish wine for a Scottish dish, haggis

? Talk about terroir: A Scottish winemaker — yes, that’s correct — says climate change has made it possible to make wine in his country. Christopher Trotter, a chef and food writer, wants to grow six acres of grapes in eastern Scotland, and says that the warmest weather in centuries will make it possible. One caveat: It’s still cooler than most of the world’s wine regions, so he has to use grapes that are cold hardy and that don’t necessarily make great wine. The article, from the Bloomberg news service, is also an excellent look at how warmer temperatures around the world will affect the wine business.

? A glass of Chloe, please: The Wine Group, which gave the world Cupcake, is making another marketing play, this time with a brand called Chloe. As Robert Joseph writes, the company’s approach has nothing to do with wine per se, but with how it is sold to the public. Chloe is being marketed like jewelry or perfume, costing about one-third more than the $10 to $12 Cupcake. This is The Wine Group’s particular genius, and which is rarely seen in wine, that it can position its brands as lifestyle products and get a premium for what will almost certainly be a very ordinary bottle of Italian pinot grigio (given the quality of its other wines). But, as many have noted, the people who buy these kinds of wines aren’t buying them for what’s in the bottle.

? Bring out the lawyers: The Wine Curmudgeon has always enjoyed watching companies sue each other over labels and brand names, and this one is particularly enjoyable. Beverage Digest reports that Diageo, the world’s largest drinks company, says family-owned Heaven Hill is trampling on its intellectual property in Canada with a product called Admiral Nelson spiced rum, which too closely resembles Diageo’s Captain Morgan spiced rum. How many billable hours will this require? The article discusses — seriously, I suppose — that one issue in the lawsuit will be how similar the character of Nelson, the greatest hero in British naval history, is to Morgan, who was a pirate. Sadly, wigs are no longer worn in Canadian courts, or this would be even more fun to watch.

Finding the next big wine region

Finding the next big wine regionHow does one find the next big wine region? Is it something the Winestream Media can anoint by giving out scores and fawning over celebrity winemakers? Is it something the industry can do, in the way Sonoma has been marketing itself? Or is it about the quality of the wine, where the region works its way into our consciousness without much help from anyone?

Or is finding the next big wine region one of those quaint 20th-century things, like VCRs and walkie talkie-sized cell phones, something that doesn’t make much difference in the post-modern wine world?

The genesis for this post came from a blog visitor, who wanted to know why I don’t do more to identify wine regions that offer wines that people come here to find. I’m not sure that’s true — see my support for Sicily and Gascony — but it did make me wonder. What will be the next Sicily or Gascony, and how do we find it?

I’m sure that we won’t find it from the Winestream Media. It has been hyping Austria for years, mostly for gruner veltliner, with little success. That’s because, despite the enthusiasm for gruner, there isn’t enough of it to matter. The next big wine region has to produce enough wine for people to be able to buy it.

I’m also leery of industry-sponsored next big things; that approach gave us pet rocks. This doesn’t mean there isn’t great cheap wine in Sonoma. Rather, Sonoma, for all its insecurities, is an established part of the wine world, and that’s enough to rule it out.

Which means the next big wine region will sneak up on us, like Sicily did. And, wherever it is, it will offer the following:

? Favorable pricing, which means $15 or less. Otherwise, Napa and Bordeaux would be the next big thing. Which they’ve already been.

? Grapes that aren’t chardonnay, merlot, and cabernet sauvignon. Because what’s the point of the next big wine region making the same thing that everyone else does?

? Professional quality, which means consistently made wine from vintage to vintage. This rules out much of the regional wine business, where one great vintage is followed by several ordinary ones.

? Sufficient distribution, as well as enough production, to get its wine into retailers. Unglamorous yes, but that’s probably why Greek wine hasn’t made much headway. There’s enough of it, quality is adequate, the varietals are interesting, and pricing is favorable. But unless you’re on the East Coast, it’s almost impossible to find Greek wine in a store.

So what regions fit those requirements?

? Italy’s Abruzzi, with red wine made from the montepulciano grape. The only problem here is that the wines, if not old-fashioned, don’t have the ripe fruit that American wine drinkers have come to expect.

? New York’s Finger Lakes and its incredibly delicious rieslings. Distribution, thanks to large producers like Konstantin Frank and Ravines, is much better than most people realize, though pricing might be too high.

? Somewhere in Spain, and I wish I could do better than that. But Spain has 66 major wine regions, many of which produce wines amazing both in price and quality, and picking one instead of another is an exercise in confusion. Best guesses: Rueda, for whites made with verdejo, and Madrid, for red blends.

Image courtesy of Wine Folly, using a Creative Commons license

Wine terms: Flawed

Wine terms: flawedIn which the wine is spoiled, usually oxidized or corked, but that also takes in a host of more geeky flaws like volatile acidity and brett. Technically, there’s a difference between a wine fault and a wine flaw; a fault is a major defect, like oxidation, and the latter is less important, like brett. But both mean the wine is off, and the terms are used interchangeably, even by experts.

The good news is that very little wine, especially compared to 10 and 20 years ago, is flawed. Growing techniques and production methods for almost all of the wine we buy are infinitely better than they were, which means better quality grapes are combined with cleaner, more quality conscious winemaking. Hence it’s very difficult to find a flawed wine on a retail shelf.

The easiest way to detect a flawed wine? If it doesn’t taste or smell the way it’s supposed to. An oxidized wine will taste like bad brandy and a corked wine will smell of wet newspapers or a damp basement. Volatile acidity often smells like a band aid, while brett is like a barnyard.

In this, note the difference between a wine that is flawed and wine that is made poorly or in a style that you don’t like. An example of the latter is high alcohol, which I don’t like but is not a flaw — even though I wish it was. An example of the former are overly-bitter tannins. When we did our tastings at the Cordon Bleu, several of my students insisted that the wine was flawed because the tannins were very harsh. That tannins, by their nature, can be harsh and bitter never seemed to satisfy them, and neither did my explanation that tannin management isn’t a high priority in many cheap red wines.