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Winebits 334: Wine prices and the Winestream Media

Winebits 334: Wine prices and the Winestream Media ? It’s all about real estate: The Women for Wine Sense Napa Sonoma website (now there’s a URL) breaks down the price of a bottle of California cabernet sauvignon, and the cost of land makes up much of the difference between cheap and expensive. “Everything else being equal, Cabernet from the Stag ?s Leap AVA costs more than Cabernet from Lodi.” This is something that can’t be harped on enough, and is a key part of the cheap wine book. The other question the article poses: “Is the $50 wine really over 200% better than the $15 bottle or are you just paying to finance the winery ?s fancy tasting room?” Heavens, doesn’t the author know it’s not polite to ask those things in California?

? Another record harvest? There’s good news and bad news for wine prices, courtesy of Rob McMillan at Silicon Valley Bank, perhaps the world’s leading authority on the subject. Despite a record drought, California is on track for another huge harvest in 2014, which will almost certainly lower grape prices. But McMillan isn’t sure that will translate into lower wine prices, given the price increases producers haven’t taken over the past couple of years. The 2014 vintage may be about restoring margins, which have suffered since 2008 and the beginning of the recession. If that happens, then — as one astute blog visitor pointed out earlier this year — the hunt for great cheap wine, as opposed to just cheap wine, will become even harder next year.

? Wine writing’s Cold War: Those of you too young to remember the collapse of the Soviet Union might be a little confused by this interview with Chateau Montelena’s Bo Barrett (who apparently was the only person happy with the casting for the movie “Bottle Shock”). In it, he compares the current feud between the old Winestream Media, like Robert Parker, and the new Winestream Media, like Jon Bonne, to the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviets, which lasted some 40 years. It’s an interesting take, and one I hadn’t considered: “You ?re either with the Soviet Union or you ?re with the USA and NATO. What happen is as that broke down you have this global anarchy, and that ?s what I see with the Internet has created this democracy where people are voting with their feet, and the freedom to choose their own wines and different styles of wines has never been better.” Who knew we’d ever see NATO, the military alliance that includes the U.S. and western Europe, mentioned in a wine story?

The VinGarde Valise

The VinGarde ValiseRegular visitors here know how little use the Wine Curmudgeon has for wine accessories, and especially those that cost $199.99. Nevertheless, there is something about Barry Wax’s VinGarde Valise that makes me want to buy it. Maybe it’s that the video calls Barry the “wine accessories maven.” Regardless, imagine all the $10 wine I could take with me when I fly. Or throw down the stairs without breaking.

And yes, those are real bottles of Chateau Petrus in the video, perhaps the world’s most expensive wine. Barry assured me, though, that they weren’t his. The video, regardless, is much fun:

Wine term: Post-modern

Wine term Post-modernNo, the wine term post-modern is not something that usually shows up in the Winestream Media or on most of the websites with winespeak dictionaries. But post-modern is a crucial term in understanding the evolution of the wine business over the past couple of decades.

I adapted it from literature, where post-modern defines a style of writing that rejects the idea that narrative is the most important thing in the novel. In post-modernism, it’s not necessary for the plot to go from beginning to end, or to even make sense. Things just happen, and that’s what writers like Thomas Pynchon, Kurt Vonnegut, and Martin Amis explored.

An astute visitor has noted that winemaker Clark Smith wrote a book, published last year, called Postmodern Winemaking, and wanted to make sure that I gave credit where credit was due. I wasn’t aware of the book, or certainly would have. We apparently cover much the same ground with the term post-modern, though Smith focuses on the winemaking aspects, while I’m concerned less with the technical aspects and more about what it means for consumers (and Smith drops the hyphen, like a true post-modernist).

My view? In wine, post-modernism rejects traditional methods and benchmarks, just as post-modern literature rejects traditional narrative. That means terroir doesn’t matter, that varietal character isn’t important, and that alcohol levels are for old ladies. In this world, the only thing wrong with a 15.5% chardonnay without green apple fruit is that no one had thought of doing it before. The idea is to make wine the way the winemaker wants, free of the constraints that hampered the process for the past 500 years. Or, as one leading post-modernist wrote so memorably: “California promotes wines that don’t suck.”

The International style of winemaking, where winemakers in Italy or Argentina consciously try to make wine taste like it came from Paso Robles, is part of post-modernism, but it’s not the only part. What’s more important, and what’s often overlooked, is how Big Wine has adapted post-modernism to its purposes — to sell more wine without having to educate consumers.

Hence, dry red wines with sweet fruit that don’t taste dry; wines without tannins, because the casual wine drinker doesn’t like them — even though tannins are an integral part of red wine; and wave after wave of sweetish white wines, like moscato and Prosecco, where the wine is made to a taste profile and not necessarily to what the grapes give it.

The other thing that matters is that post-modernism is neither good nor bad. It just is. Martin Amis is a fine writer, but he makes me crazy. You don’t have to like those wines; rather, you need to know they exist and that they are in stark contrast to wines made in the traditional manner. I’m not going to tell you what to drink. Instead, I’m going to describe what the wine is like and let you make up your mind. And using the wine term post-modern is one more way I can do that.

How much should an everyday wine cost?

everyday wine costThe Wine Curmudgeon, working through his tasting notes on CellarTracker (the blog’s unofficial wine inventory web app) found this January comment for the 2007 Robert Mondavi Oakville cabernet sauvignon: “Nice every day wine at this price point.” The price? $45. Is that how much an everyday wine should cost?

Which raises one of the most contentious issues in wine, and one that doesn’t get enough discussion: How much should an everyday wine cost? This CellarTracker user (and no, I’m not going to name names) figures that an everyday wine runs the cost of a car payment each month, $315, and you only get to drink wine seven week nights a month to ring up that total. Even Eric Asimov at the New York Times, whose savvy is as good as it gets, figures discerning drinkers need to spend as much as half of that, in the $18 or $20 a bottle range.

My views on this are well known: One reason Americans don’t drink more wine is that we’re told we have to spend too much money to do so, and so we don’t. Or, as the guy who checked me out in a grocery store several years ago said, when he saw that I had bought several bottles of $10 wine: “Why are you spending so much money on wine?” And he didn’t say it nicely, either.

But my views aren’t the only ones. Hence this poll, courtesy of Ranker (the blog’s unofficial polling app): How much should an everyday wine cost? Click on the respective price range — those of you who get the blog via email may have come to the site to vote. The poll will run until May 22, and I’ll recap the results on May 24. Vote away, and don’t be shy about leaving your opinion in the comments.

Lists on Ranker

Wine of the week: Poggio Anima Uriel 2011

Poggio Anima UrielThe Wine Curmudgeon always tries to find wine that people who don’t drink much wine would like, all part of my goal of spreading the gospel to consumers near and far. So when I saw the Poggio Anima Uriel ($12, purchased, 13%) on the wine list at a Dallas pizza restaurant, I knew I was in business.

Sure enough, the friends we were eating with loved it, including the non-wine drinker in the group. She pronounced it as well done as pinot grigio — score another victory for Sicily and great cheap wine.

The Uriel is a white wine made with grillo, a Sicilian grape used mostly for marsala until the island’s wine renaissance of the past couple of decades. Since then, a variety of producers have turned it into tasty and inexpensive dry wines, and the Uriel is yet another example. Look for enough white fruit to be noticeable, a bit of almond on the nose, and wonderful freshness and balance. This is the kind of wine, after you take the first sip, that you know you’ll want to drink all night.

How enjoyable was the Uriel? So much so that it was close to the highlight of dinner, given that the pizza was — as happens all too often in Dallas — over-hyped to the extreme. My non-drinking friend had an entire glass, which is like the Wine Curmudgeon drinking an entire bottle.

Winebits 333: Prosecco and cava, buying a winery, and family wineries

Winebits 333: Prosecco and cava, buying a winery, and family wineries ? The Spanish understand these things: Imagine a California wine producer, facing intense competition for a foreign rival, and their reaction: “We must crush them!” But the Spanish, faced with the phenomenal growth of Prosecco over the past several years, have figured out that’s a good thing. “The Prosecco boom is helping to open minds and show that you don ?t need to wait for a special occasion to open a bottle of sparkling wine ? Prosecco and cava can be Monday night wines,” says Gloria Collell, the winemaker at Spanish cava giants Freixenet and Segura Viudas (and, in the interest of full disclosure, someone I know a little and like). Which, of course, is the Wine Curmudgeon’s approach to wine — drink it on Monday night (as well as Tuesday night, and so on and so forth). The interview, in the drinks business trade magazine, is worth reading for its sensible look at the sparkling business.

? The best due diligence: I’ve met a lot of new winery owners over the years, and too many of them admit they really didn’t understand what they were getting into. Now they have this to read, from Jonathan Yates at The Street: “There are always good buys in established wineries on the market as many of the sellers purchased without focusing on how the business model operates.” His three points — understand wine is made everywhere, understand the importance of the tasting room, and understand wineries as destinations — are as good as anything I have seen.

? Everyone owns a family business: The idea of local and the backlash against big and multi-national that started during the recession has even moved into wine. Casella Wines, the Australian producer that makes YellowTail, and has always been owned by the Casella family, has a new name — Casella Family Brands. Because, of course, nothing will better burnish the image of a brand that makes tens of millions of cases than the idea of family. It’s something E&J Gallo, still owned by the Gallo family, has always played up, and it’s even something that publicly-owned behemoth Constellation Brands, started by the Sands family and still run by it, tries to take advantage of. In wine, family and big are not mutually exclusive the way they are in so many other businesses.

Oregon’s example for the regional wine business

Oregon's example for the regional wine business

Christopher Mazepink: “It’s all about Brand Oregon.”

Those of us who care about regional wine are often frustrated by its “me first” approach, the way too many wineries act like little kids who hog all the toys. It’s always about what they want, even when that’s not what’s best for regional wine.

That’s why it was so refreshing to Oregon winemaker Christopher Mazepink talk about how far Oregon wine has come in the past 15 years, and why it has come so far so quickly. Fifteen years, given the centuries-long history of wine, is hardly any time at all.

“We put Oregon’s wine industry out front, before the individual brands,” says Mazepink, the winemaker at Archery Summit who was in Dallas for a big-time wine tasting. “It’s all about Brand Oregon. That’s pretty unique in the wine world.”

That approach, he says, has paid off in Oregon’s popular and critical acclaim. Yes, it’s important that the state’s wine quality has improved over the last decade and a half, and that it has become one of the world’s great producers of pinot noir. But it also matters that Oregon winemakers work together, help each other, and generally avoid the sniping and backbiting that plagues much of the regional wine business. It’s something I saw all too often during my time with Drink Local Wine.

“When I travel with Oregon winemakers, we don’t throw anyone under the bus,” says Mazepink. “We understand that what’s good for one winery is good for all of Oregon wine. It is Brand Oregon, and that’s what we talk about before we talk about our wineries.”

Would that more people in regional understood that approach — that it’s not wineries or even regions within a state that matter in the long run, but the entire state and everyone who makes wine in it. After all, it’s not that don’t have an example, because Oregon has demonstrated that it works.