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A Halloween wine tale 2013

A Halloween wine tale 2013

“My dear, did you know scores are the best way to learn about wine?”

The days were always shorter this time of year, thought Van Helsing, but they seemed to be getting even shorter — and darker. He shivered.

“It’s the damnedest thing,” said Jonathan Harker. “About Lucy, my fiancee?” Van Helsing nodded, took a sip of his brandy. “Lately, she has been drinking 15 percent, overoaked California chardonnays. And even some of those wretched zinfandels,” and he shuddered as he said it.

“That is damned odd,” said Van Helsing. He had known Lucy for years, and she had rarely spent more than $10 a bottle, and always for Old World wines, lighter and with character instead of alcohol. She had even introduced him to Gascon wine. Suddenly, Van Helsing understood why Harker was so worried. “How can I help, old chap?”

“Would you talk to her? She just brushes me off, calls me an old fuddy duddy who likes wines that suck.”


Lucy was in the library, a bottle of 15.2 percent California pinot noir open on the table. A pile of wine magazines was on the floor. Her face was pale.

“My dear, you don’t look well,” said Van Helsing. Lucy ignored him, all her attention focused on the glass of wine, dark and brooding. “Is everything all right?”

“I don’t know,” she said, fighting back tears. “Lately, I’ve felt so strange. I don’t sleep. I dream about Parker 98s — and I don’t even know what that is. I have this urge, all the time, to buy the most expensive wine I can find, even if I don’t like it.” She broke down, started sobbing. Van Helsing sat next to her, took her hands in his. “What’s wrong with me?” she asked.

“It’s serious, I know that,” he said, trying to fit the pieces together in his mind. “When did this start, my dear?”

“I’m not sure. I went to a party a couple of weeks ago, and one of the guests was a Count Cabacula, from Napa Valley. All my friends were impressed. He knew so much about wine.”

A chill went through Van Helsing, and the pieces started falling into place. “Count Cabacula, you say?”

“Yes, a very charming man. He’s new to this country, and was saying how much he liked it. So many young women who didn’t know about California wine. He’s even coming here tonight. He wanted to meet Jonathan’s sister, Mina.”

Van Helsing stood up quickly, trying to hold back the terror sweeping over him. “Lucy, did Count Cabacula mention something called scores?”

“Yes he did. How did you know? He said they were the best way to learn about wine.”

“Lucy, I want you to find Jonathan and Mina and get as far away from the estate as possible. Go to France. Cabacula still has enemies there. But please, for God’s sake, hurry. We don’t have much time.”

“What about Count Cabacula?”

“I’ll give him your regrets. He and I have unfinished business.”


There was a full moon. Van Helsing was in the drawing room, waiting, when he heard a voice cackling behind him. “So we meet again, my old friend.”

Van Helsing turned. Cabacula was standing in the window, holding a copy of the Wine Spectator’s buying guide. “A present for Lucy and Mina,” he said, and then laughed, and the sound filled the room. Van Helsing choked back a scream, fought to keep his composure.

“No more, Cabacula,” he said. “Your evil and twisted ways end here.”

“And how will you stop me, Van Helsing? Your puny weapons, those reviews that describe wines but don’t judge them, those critics who aren’t part of the Winestream Media? All are useless against me.”

“Not anymore,” said Van Helsing, pulling a book out of his overcoat. The book’s cover, with the brown hat and green bottle, glistened in the moonlight. Cabacula saw it, shrieked, drew back. “No, not that. Not that accursed thing.”

Van Helsing held the book in his right hand, arm outstretched, cover facing the count, moving toward Cabacula. “And this isn’t the only weapon we have now,” he said as the count kept backing away, fear spreading across his face, until he was trapped against the wall. “We have wine drinkers, lots of them, who drink what they want — sweet red wine, even — and don’t care about the other.”

“No, I don’t believe it,” said Cabacula, and he howled, such a dreadful wail that Van Helsing hesitated for a moment and Cabacula almost got to the window and freedom. But Van Helsing wasn’t going to miss his chance, not after the years of wasted opportunities. He blocked the count, pushed the book closer to his face, and Cabacula howled again, slumping against the floor.

Van Helsing worked quickly, taking a bottle out of another pocket. He unscrewed it and put the bottle, a $10 Sicilian nero d’avola, to Cabacula’s mouth and forced the liquid down his throat. The count gagged, tried to spit it out, but Van Helsing was the stronger one now, and the count swallowed the wine.

“You know something? That’s nice,” said Cabacula, “kind of earthy and interesting. Guess that shows what I know about wine.” And then he died, his body shriveling into nothing, and the wine poured onto the floor where the body had been.

Van Helsing took a deep breath, closed his eyes. “I just hope you stay dead, you damned fiend,” he said, and wondered: Could his quest finally be over?

A tip o’ the Curmudgeon’s fedora to Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, and Hammer Films for giving me something terrific to steal. The photo is courtesy of Hammer Films, using a Creative Commons license.

Wine of the week: Purato Catarratto Pinot Grigio 2010

PURATO-CAT-PG-2013-okOne day, no doubt, the Wine Curmudgeon will stop writing about Sicilian wine in gushing, rapturous tones. I just hope it doesn’t happen anytime soon.

The Purato ($7, purchased, 12.5%) is a white blend from Sicily that, once again, offers everything a great cheap wine should. It’s interesting, which means it does more than just shove fruit in your face. It provides ridiculous value, even when it’s not a previous vintage (as this is). And it’s a delight to drink, which means the bottle is empty and an hour has gone by before you realize what has happened, and you’re wondering why you didn’t buy more of this when you had the chance.

Catarratto is a grape native to Sicily that has traditionally been used to make marsala, a sweet dessert wine. It’s increasingly being used to make table wines as part of Sicily’s wine renaissance, and blending it with pinot grigio is just another of those things the Sicilians have done that has turned out better than anyone could have imagined.

Look for lots of white pepper and a little pinot grigio fruit (maybe a lemon drop that isn’t sweet?), and without any of the bitterness or boredom that is the hallmark of too many Italian pinot grigios. This is a seafood or roast chicken wine, or even something to drink when you want a glass of wine and you don’t want to be bothered by any wine foolishness. Highly recommended, and if this isn’t in the 2014 $10 Hall of Fame, I should skip doing it.

Winebits 305: Halloween wine

The Wine Curmudgeon does not do Halloween and wine; it’s more than a little forced, all those vampire and pumpkin wines that will go on sale at two-thirds off next week. But since that doesn ?t stop the rest of the wine world from indulging, a few thoughts about what’s out there:

? One more time: The site rounds up every possible Halloween-style wine, from Bogle’s Phantom to something called Evil Chardonnay (I will leave the jokes to the audience). I shouldn’t be too hard on this post, despite the cliches and the same list of wines that appear in these sorts of things year after year. That’s because it includes a regional wine from Kentucky, Bone Dry Red. Which practically redeems the post.

? No more puns, please: David Dixon, at a regional Texas newspaper website, spares no sensibilities in what he calls his fourth annual Scary Wine column. He dusts off the vampire fangs. And digs up a veritable coffin-load of ghoulish grape elixirs. These are wines, he writes, that will cast a spell on your gruesome gathering. I know, I know. I need to calm down about this. At least he didn’t pair wine with caramel corn.

? Halloween wine labels: I suppose that’s OK, given that the piece suggests putting them on wine you’d drink at any time of year, using a couple of specialty retailers. Though the recipe for Blood Red Sangria did make me gnash my teeth. What color is sangria the rest of the year, Not Blood Red? I know, I know. Take it easy. Even the Simpsons don’t do a funny Halloween episode every year.


Do wine drinkers trade up?

trading up

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:

Continue reading

Mini-reviews 53: Epicuro, La Granja, Turning Leaf, Line 39

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:

? Epicuro Nero d’Avola 2012 ($6, purchased, 12.5%): This Trader Joe’s red tastes almost exactly like California merlot, with lots and lots of black fruit and not much else. This is the international style of winemaking at its best (or worst, depending on your point of view).

? 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.

? Turning Leaf Chardonnay NV ($8, sample, 12.5%): Offers quality and value, in the way that its pinot noir did during this summer’s cheap pinot tasting, though it’s more varietally correct. Fresh with a little green apple, and very little fake oak. A simple wine does not mean a stupid wine.

? 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.

Cheap wine book featured on Wine-Searcher

The website has an excerpt from the book, and you’ll get to read the introduction for free. Which, of course, is so well written that those of you who have not yet bought the book (because, sadly, there are people like that) will want to return here to buy your autographed copy.

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.

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.

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