The blog is off today for Labor Day, but will return tomorrow with our usual features. Until then, this cat doesn’t need scores, the Winestream Media or winespeak to decide that what’s in the glass isn’t what it wants to drink. Would that the rest of us could decide so easily.
There are many reasons for this, including the fact that lots and lots of wine is sold by lots and lots of independent retailers who aren’t tracked by companies like Nielsen. So why does this matter now? Because, according to one set of numbers, the wine business is in a pandemic-fueled crisis and things are going to get much worse before they get better. Or, if you believe these numbers, the past six months (as well as the past couple of years) are just a bump in the road and worrying about it is for small-minded people.
The reason for the discrepancies? Most agree that wine sales have declined since U.S. restaurants closed in March and April. What they can’t agree on is whether retail sales have made up most of the difference, so that the decline is insignifcant. Further complicating matters, based on yet more statistics, is that some insist sales are up for the year thanks to lots of foofry about the Internet, e-commerce, and wine delivery.
The WC wine business index
But no one has actually been able to figure out where we are seven months into the pandemic. Which is why the blog is unveiling the WC wine business index, where numbers aren’t the be all and end all. Instead, I’ve talked to retailers, producers, and marketers from around the country to see if I can sketch where the wine business is and what it means for consumers. Hence:
• There’s some desperate marketing going on in an attempt to boost sales. One major Texas wine event, forced to cancel, is trying to sell wine via email solicitations. Shudder. And one trade group wants you to buy its wine for the “iconic, uniquely-designed rose bottles that can be used for crafts and ingenious displays. …” Double shudder.
• Producer after producer, mostly smaller but also some larger, has told me that many of the 9,000 or so wineries that make up 90 percent of the U.S. total may be in danger of closing. The pandemic has shuttered their tasting rooms, and since most of them don’t sell much, if any, at retail, they depend on tasting room sales to stay in business.
• How about an Oregon pinot noir with a suggested retail price of $12.50? That means the street price is $10.99 or $11.99, almost unheard for Oregon pinot. In fact, most Oregon pinots that used to cost that little long ago went to $15 and $18. This points to way too much wine being made in Oregon, as well as slowing sales; the wine in question may be close to being sold at cost.
• The pandemic apparently clobbered the keg wine business, which has been a bright spot over the past couple of years. Wineries were putting their wine in kegs, just like beer, to sell to restaurants. But no restaurants means no need for keg wine. So keg producers are spending time and money to repackage their wines, often in boxes.
• Big Wine, save for a few glitches, seems to be doing better than most. One reason: It sells less wine, proportionally, to restaurants and more to supermarkets, which fits the pandemic consumer profile. In addition, consumers seem to be focusing on brands they know, and that fits the Big Wine product line.
And what about consumers?
Your guess is as good as mine. Most retailers tell me we’re trading down, and that Big Wine supermarket sales are OK speaks to that. And I’ve seen signs that some high-end wines, the $100 and up kind, are clawing for new business in a way they’ve never clawed before. That implies there is some trading down, though trading down from $150 to $75 isn’t exactly the traditional definition.
In this, there is still a lot of money in the hands of aging Baby Boomers, who will continue to buy their overpriced 92-point wine despite what else is going on. And the wine business will be happy to sell it to them to paper over any other problems.
So what’s the overall impression from the WC wine business index? That we’re in a holding pattern, though likely headed down sooner rather than later. Specific parts of the wine business are already suffering, and some are suffering badly, be it smaller producers or independent retailers.
But consolidation among producers and distributors has insulated the biggest companies from the worst of the pandemic. So expect to see two levels of pain over the next year or so: Something akin to an ankle sprain among the biggest companies, compared to a broken leg (or worse) among the smaller. And the consumer will get caught in the middle, which is exactly where the wine business likes us.
The WC has just the wines to pair with this plate of barbecue.
Labor Day wine 2020 — these wines will make your holiday that much more enjoyable
Labor Day marks the traditional end of summer, even a pandemic summer. Hence these wines, which should cheer up even a socially-distanced holiday barbecue. Churro, the blog’s associate editor, and the Wine Curmudgeon will be doing that, if Dallas’ 100-degree temperatures allow for it.
• McManis Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 ($12, purchased, 13.5%): This Lodi cabernet is balanced, and neither too ripe or too hot. Its New World fruit (black currants, even) and tannins actually hold everything together. This a big red wine that needs food, and especially red meat from the grill. Highly recommended.
• Anne Amie Cuvée A Amrita 2018 ($18, purchased, 12.8%): This goofy Oregon white blend with a bit of fizz is always enjoyable, and it’s even available closer to $15 if you look hard enough. The fizz is spot on, better than some Proseccos, and the sweetness is buried in the back behind some lemon and red apple fruit. Highly recommended, and just the thing for porch sipping.
• Schafer-Frohlich Dry Rose 2018 ($14, sample, 12.5%): This nifty German rose features ripe-ish strawberry fruit, a surprisingly full mouth feel, and a fresh — and not sweet — finish. Imported by Winesellers, Ltd.
Forget the back-handed compliments: the Sangliere Juliette is cheap, enjoyable, and well made wine
Two things are worth noting about the Sangliere Juliette, a rose from southern France. First, like so many roses these days, it’s a previous vintage that is still worth drinking. Thank the rose boom for that; not that long ago, previous vintages faded as quickly as snow melts.
Second, cheap wine still sucks, regardless of how well made it actually is. That’s the conclusion of several of the reviewers on CellarTracker, the blog’s unofficial wine inventory app. “OK for $11…” “Typical but nondescript. …”
Is it any wonder I worry about the future of the wine business? What more do wine drinkers want? The Domaine de la Sangliere Juliette 2018 ($11, purchased, 12.5%) is exactly what it is supposed to be – top-notch $11 pink wine to chill, open, and enjoy. When did we get to the point where a wine this well made and this inexpensive isn’t worth drinking? Why must every wine cost $25 or $45 or $65 so it can offer an experience only to be recorded in the most winespeaky of tasting notes?
Look for almost tart strawberry fruit, a mouth feel that is almost austere (there’s hardly any residual sugar to confuse your taste buds), and a clean and kind of stony finish. In other words, the sort of rose to keep on hand when you want a glass or two, or to open for a Labor Day barbecue.
This week’s wine news: Walmart gets an ally in plan to open liquor stores in Texas, plus Cracker Barrel adds booze and Amazon plans full-sized supermarket without checkout – unless you’re buying alcohol
• Walmart lawsuit: The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has filed a brief supporting Walmart’s attempts to open liquor stores in Texas. This is a big deal; the chamber of commerce, though pro-business, usually doesn’t choose between businesses. In this case, the Texas Package Stores Association, which represents most of the state’s liquor retailers, is Walmart’s arch-enemy in the liquor store lawsuit. No word yet on when the Supreme Court will decide whether to accept Walmart’s appeal. Most recently, a federal appeals court ruled against Walmart, agreeing that a Texas law that forbids publicly-owned companies from getting a retail spirits license is constitutional.
• Cracker Barrel booze: Cracker Barrel, the interstate highway restaurant chain known for a front porch and souvenir shop, has added 60 restaurants to the number of locations selling beer, wine and mimosas. That brings the total to 80; the restaurants are in Florida, Kentucky, and Tennessee. This is an interesting experiment, given that many of the chain’s stores are in the South, where there are still religious objections to drinking, and that many of its customers will get back on the interstate to drive hundreds of miles after eating.
• Amazon Fresh: Remember all the fuss in the cyber-ether when Amazon opened its Amazon Go convenience stores, which didn’t have traditional checkout? Then get ready for more excitement. The e-tailer has opened a 35,000-square-foot store in suburban Los Angeles, with the goal to help shoppers avoid a checkout line. Except, of course, if they’re buying wine or beer. As we noted here when Amazon Go opened, there was an employee to check ID, and one reporter noted: “There was nothing fancy or high-tech about this when I went to peruse the beer.”
Food & Wine’s Ray Isle is spot on about which corkscrew to use and how to use it
One of my favorite moments teaching wine students came when I demonstrated the various corkscrews. The students, most of whom had never used one of any kind, were especially baffled by the waiter’s corkscrew, which is standard restaurant equipment. This video, from the great Ray Isle of Food & Wine, would have been a huge help.
Isle, one of the best wine critics in the country, covers all of the bases, showing how each corkscrew works and why the waiter is the best of a bad lot. Because, as regular visitors here know, all wines should have screwcaps.
Video courtesy of Food & Wine, via You Tube, using a Creative Commons license
“Damn, look at that review. The WC is in a foul mood this month.”
Reviews of wines that don’t need their own post, but are worth noting for one reason or another. Look for it on the fourth Friday of each month. This month, four wines you probably don’t want to buy, because I’m really, really tired of tasting wine that is so unpleasant.
• Saint Cosme Côtes du Rhone 2019 ($15, purchased, 14.5%): This French red used to be one of the most dependable $15 wines in the world. But this vintage is almost undrinkable. That’s not because it’s flawed or off, but because it has been manipulated to taste like it comes from a second-tier producer in Paso Robles – lots of sweet fruit, not a lick of tannins, and this hideous violet candy smell. Imported by Winebow
• Avalon Pinot Noir 2018 ($11, sample, 13.5%): This California red is the sort of pinot noir people buy because it’s cheap, and not especially because it tastes like anything. Think grape juice flavored with fake vanilla oak, in case any of you enjoy that.
• Jadix Picpoul de Pinet 2019 ($12, purchased, 14.5%): This French white is heavy and hot, and not anything picpoul should be – fruity, tart, and refreshing. Why would anyone make picpoul like this? Imported by Aquitane Wine Company
• Montalto Pinot Grigio 2019 ($12, sample, 12%): Someone, somewhere thought that Americans would love sweet Italian pinot grigio, and this is the result. My question? Why — isn’t there enough dry pinot grigio in the world? Imported by Mack & Schuhle