Category:A Featured Post

Mini-reviews 132: Ava Grace, Tasca D’Almerita, River Road, Chateau Malescasse

ava graceReviews 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.

Ava Grace Sauvignon Blanc 2018 ($9, purchased, 13.5%): Light, almost riesling-y sauvignon blanc from California. It’s not bad if you prefer a less intense style, and it’s a fair value; it just tastes like there is a lot of winemaking going on in an attempt to make it less varietal.

Tasca D’Almerita Nero d’Avola 2016 ($20, sample, 13.5%): Premiumized Italian red from Sicily made in an international style, which means it doesn’t taste like nero d’avola and it’s not very interesting. Imported by Winebow

River Road Family Stephanie’s Cuvée Pinot Noir 2017 ($30, sample, 14.3%): Classic, post-modern cocktail party California pinot noir – heavyish, with lots of cherry fruit, almost no tannins, and only a hint of pinot noir character.

Château Malescasse 2016 ($25, sample, 14.5%): There are two ways to look at this French red Bordeaux blend. First, as a French wine that tastes French, with herbal notes, currant fruit, and that French mouth feel. Second, as an every day style of French wine that costs $25. Imported by Austruy Family Vineyard Import

The do-it-yourself “Wine during the duration” post

do-it-yourself wine

“Let me finish this glass, and I’ll see if I can find that Boston doctor thing. It has to be around here somewhere.”

What better way to idle away the hours than with a do-it-yourself “wine during the duration” post?

The blog’s annual do-it-yourself posts are some of its most popular: the do-it-yourself wine New Year’s resolutions and wine review. They allow us to skewer wine’s pomposity and, if I’ve done a good job, offer a few giggles. So why not a do-it-yourself  “wine during the duration” post?

So take a look at these suggestions for spending your time with wine during the duration. Use the drop-down menus, click the answer, and choose your favorite line. And keep in mind that some people think drinking wine during the duration, including a certain Boston doctor, will kill us sooner rather than later.

Those of you who get the blog via email may have to go to the website — click here to do so. As always, thanks to Al Yellon, since I stole the do-it-yourself idea from him.

The first thing I did after I had to stay at home was to:

My duration buying patterns have changed:

My duration drinking patterns have changed:

The biggest wine problem I’ve had during the duration has been:

All in all, I’d say wine during the duration:

Wine of the week: Le Paradou Grenache 2017

Le ParadouThe Le Paradou Grenache displays quality and balance for $11

Grenache is the Wine Curmudgeon’s kind of grape. It can make great cheap wine, but it’s not always easy to work with and it isn’t especially popular as a varietal wine.

So how excited was I to see the Le Paradou Grenache ($11, purchased, 13.5%) on a virtual store shelf? Quite excited, as you can imagine. And the Le Paradou didn’t let me down.

This French red is labeled Vin de France, which means it’s not part of the appellation system. These wines are notoriously uneven in quality, but this one offers value for money. Most importantly, it doesn’t suffer from grenache’s flaws – too jammy, almost sweet, too ripe, and practically cloying.

Instead, the Le Paradou is surprisingly balanced – not so jammy, but dark; berry fruit that is almost not ripe; a little spice or black pepper, something missing from all those overworked grenaches; and even a tannin or two hiding in the back. How often does that happen in grenache?

In other words, simple but not stupid, and the kind of cheap wine we need more than ever.

Imported by European Wine Cellars

Winebits 642: Coronavirus wine roundup

coronavirus wine This week’s wine news: Coronavirus wine sales trends, more Pennsylvania legal foolishness, and virtual wine tasting samples

What comes next? Noted wine business analyst Christian Miller, a long-time friend of the blog, tells Forbes’ Liza Zimmerman that the coronavirus pandemic could finally slow wine sales later this spring, and the slowdown could last through 2021. The good news, he says, is that “Demand for wine is not going to dry up, or even diminish much, once the initial shocks are ridden out.” He also sees significant changes in the three-tier system as it struggles to cope with the pandemic. The former is pretty much what SVB’s Rob McMillan told the blog a couple of weeks ago, and the latter is something I wrote about last week.

More fun in Pennsylvania: Remember Pennsylvania closing its state-owned liquor stores? Remember state residents being asked to leave neighboring New Jersey and Delaware when they came in search of booze? Well, now the state is being sued by two wholesalers, who say the state is violating its own laws by refusing to let the wholesalers sell directly to retailers and restaurants. The details, not surprisingly since it’s Pennsylvania, are quite confusing. But it’s enough to know that the state’s liquor control board says it doesn’t have to obey that particular law because it is still studying it.

Bring on the samples! The Wine Curmudgeon knows that many of you in the cyber-ether have been worried that I would not be able to receive wine samples for virtual tastings during the duration. But have no fear. The federal agency that oversees that sort of thing said last week that not only wine writers, but consumers would be able to receive “small containers of wine” for virtual tasting. There’s lots of fine print, depending on which state you live in, but this is one more example of the pandemic pushing the three-tier system to the side.

Image: “wine” by Chas Redmond is licensed under CC BY 2.0 

Greenwashing, wine, and Earth Day

greenwashingCelebrate Earth Day by understanding the difference between greenwashing and wine that’s truly green

Wednesday is Earth Day, an annual event that reminds us that we need to treat the planet with more respect. As such, it’s the perfect time to talk about greenwashing – a marketing technique where producers, manufacturers, and other companies describe their products as environmentally friendly or sustainable even though they may be nothing of the kind.

Sadly, greenwashing is not uncommon in wine. This is the time of year when wine writers are inundated with news releases touting how green a wine or a wine brand is, even if the product in the release isn’t especially ecological. That’s because green products are rated more highly by consumers, and especially by the younger consumers who aren’t much interested in wine.

So why not flog green wine? It’s made of plants, isn’t it? How much greener does it need to be?

A lot, actually, and starting with the glass bottle. Wine bottles are notorious for their excessive carbon footprint, and even wine critic Jancis Robinson, who is about as establishment as wine critics get, has seen the light: “Consumers as well as producers really need to rethink the issue of wine packaging.” That so much wine is shipped in glass bottles all over the planet just makes a bad thing worse.

The other handicap facing wine? It’s almost impossible in this country to figure out how green a wine is. Federal laws regulating organic wine are confusing and contradictory – an organic wine is legally different from a wine made with organic grapes. Organic wine is mostly about not adding sulfites, while wine made with organic grapes is closer to what we think of when we think organic potatoes or tomatoes.

There’s sustainability, and then there’s sustainability

In addition, the leading sustainability standard, promulgated by the Wine Institute trade group, defines sustainable as winemaking practices that “are environmentally sound, socially equitable and economically viable.” Does this mean sustainability only makes sense if it’s profitable?

Several years ago, I wrote a green wine magazine story, and an organic viticulture consultant in northern California put it plainly: “Consumers assume that wine, by its very nature, is pure and natural to begin with. Ask most consumers, and they don’t equate a vineyard with a factory farm the same way they do for other products. Vineyards are beautiful, and don’t look like a picture of a factory farm.”

In other words, wine is made of plants, isn’t it? How much greener does it need to be?

This is not to say that many growers and producers don’t take green seriously. I’ve talked to many who spend extra time and money to do the right thing, and sustainability groups in the Napa Valley and in Lodi have produced impressive results.

But it’s just so damn easy to greenwash wine. A recent survey found that consumers were more likely to buy wine that used terms like sustainable and organic — and this makes it worth noting that more than two-thirds of the wines called out in the infamous arsenic lawsuit in 2015 could have been certified sustainable.

So the next time you see an ad touting a winery’s stewardship of the earth, give it a second look. There’s stewardship, and then there’s greenwashing. It’s the least you can do for Earth Day.

Image courtesy of GreenBiz, using a Creative Commons license

Is the coronavirus pandemic the beginning of changes to the three-tier system?

three-tier system

“Those poor saps in 2020. They’re stuck with the laws that were designed to keep speakeasies from opening, even though speakeasies don’t exist in 2020.”

Will the success of e-commerce and restaurant delivery during the pandemic eventually make it easier for us to buy wine, beer, and spirits?

This is the second of two parts looking at how the coronavirus pandemic has changed the way we buy wine. Today, will the pandemic lead to changes so it’s easier to buy wine on-line? The first part – finding value when buying wine on-line – is here.

Wine is being shipped to our homes, and we don’t have to sign for it. That used to be a felony in many states. We’re ordering wine from restaurants and liquor stores over the Internet, which was not only illegal in some states, but almost impossible to do even where it wasn’t.

All of this is because of the coronavirus pandemic, as state liquor cops relax enforcement of many of the laws that make up the three-tier system. Their goal is to help restaurants and retailers stay in business, and so the economic benefit outweighs enforcing the law.

Which raises a question about the future of the three-tier system, the set of state laws that govern how we buy alcohol in the U.S.: Will the success of Internet sales and restaurant delivery during the pandemic lead to changes that will make it easier for us to buy wine, beer, and spirits?

The answer, after a week of reporting, is almost certainly. Once the pandemic ends, say those I’ve talked to, it will be difficult for state regulators to return to the strict, Prohibition-era system that defines U.S. liquor laws. And that means more flexible e-commerce and home delivery regulations.

“My crystal ball is not particularly clear on this,” says Jason Haas of Paso Robles’ Tablas Creek Vineyard, one of the most thoughtful and erudite people in the wine business when it comes to discussing three-tier. “But I think it is clear that we as a society are not against lifting the restrictions. The fear was always that, if we did, the unknown might happen, that it would hurt business and alcohol would flood society. And those arguments would sound really silly after all of this.”

The genie is out of the bottle

For relaxing enforcement has worked. Wine.com’s sales doubled in March, while the Drizly home delivery service reported “greater shift to e-comm” that “is not only just maintaining, but it is growing.” All told, says the Rabobank consultancy, wine e-commerce has experienced “astounding growth” during the pandemic.

E-commerce and home delivery have traditionally been a tiny percentage of U.S. wine sales. Wine.com, the only truly national e-commerce wine retailer, does less than $150 million in sales each year, barely noticeable among the $70 billion U.S. wine market. Even the so-called DTC market, where wineries sell directly to consumers, accounts for just single percentage points of that $70 billion.

And that’s because the three-tier system was set up to make it difficult to do anything other than buy wine in a restaurant or retailer. And that’s because the goal of the three-tier system, which took effect when Prohibition ended in 1933, was to keep Al Capone out of the liquor business. I’ve written extensively about why this happened, on the blog and in the cheap wine book, but the reasons almost don’t matter anymore. It’s enough to know that even though this is the 21st century and Al Capone has been dead for 73 years, we’re still stuck with a liquor regulation system that makes no sense in the Internet age.

But maybe not for much longer.

“The genie is definitely out of the bottle,” says Cameron Hughes, whose self-named winery has been one of the country’s pioneers in DTC sales. “This shows we can operate successfully without ruining the intentions of the three-tier system, so why should have to sign up for it again once the pandemic is over?”

And the wine industry executives I talked to aren’t the only ones who think change is coming. The Wine & Spirits Wholesalers Association, which has lobbied successfully on behalf of three-tier for almost 90 years, is apparently worried, too. It warned U.S. consumers about “black market liquor” shortly after many states eased three-tier delivery restrictions. That the only thing most of us know about black market booze is from old movies is irrelevant to the wholesalers; they’ll do almost anything to save the system that gives them a constitutionally protected monopoly to distribute alcohol.

Coming next

“Relaxing the rules has always been the goal,” says Matt Crafton, the winemaker at Napa Valley’s Chateau Montelena. “So why not make that permanent?”

So what might happen – or not – once the pandemic winds down? Any changes probably won’t happen immediately, but even later rather than sooner will be a welcome change:

• The law that requires every wine sold in the U.S. to have a distributor won’t change, so the wholesalers trade group can rest easy.

• More and easier home delivery from retailers, restaurants, and wineries. It’s possible the rules will be changed in various states so that more wine shops and restaurants can take Internet orders – and how much better would it be to order wine with your takeout food? The catch here is restaurant pricing. Will restaurants realize they’ll have to improve on their three and four to one markups to be competitive?

• The end to signing for wine deliveries, the hassle that the delivery companies hate as much as consumers do. So far, the republic hasn’t ended without signing for wine, and, says Hughes, “in the 21st century, there has to be a better way for Fed Ex and UPS drivers to deliver wine than to check ID.”

The buying wine on-line checklist

buying wine on-lineHow to find value when you buy wine on-line

This is the first of two parts looking at how the coronavirus pandemic has changed the way we buy wine. Today, part I: finding value when buying wine on-line. Friday, part II: Will the pandemic lead to changes so it’s easier to buy wine on-line?

More of us are buying wine on-line than ever before – Nielsen says e-commerce alcohol sales increased an unimaginable 291 percent in the 52 weeks ending in March. And direct sales from wineries were up by 40 percent over the same period.

But how do we know that we’re getting value when we buy wine on-line? Never fear; that’s why the Wine Curmudgeon is here. I’ve spent the past month buying wine on-line to see whether it’s a practical alternative during the duration. The answer, not surprisingly, is that it all depends, and it’s not necessarily about how much the wine costs.

Know, too that not all on-line wine retailing is the same. Buying wine directly from the winery has almost nothing in common with buying wine from a retailer — limited selection and different laws among them. In addition, your neighborhood wine shop is likely to offer better value than a chain retailer, if only because they’ve seen you in the store and don’t want to tick you off. To most chains, you’re nothing more than a digital account floating in the cyber-ether.

Keep these five points in mind when buying wine on-line:

• Vintage. Some retailers list the vintages for the wines; some don’t. If they don’t, there’s no guarantee you’ll get the current vintage. A Total Wine in Dallas sent me the 2016 vintage of a white wine; the current vintage is 2018. The 2016, not surprisingly, let much to be desired.

• Substitutions. Make sure you don’t allow the retailer to substitute its choice if what you want is out of stock. I was offered a California red for my Spanish tempranillo, which are hardly the same thing. Yes, the retailer is supposed to tell you about the substitution when they make it, but this doesn’t mean it always happens.

• Selection. Some retailers, like Spec’s in Dallas, only offer part of their inventory on-line. The Spec’s near me has one of the best wine assortments in the U.S.; on-line, though, it’s mostly supermarket plonk.

• Retailers vs. delivery services. Companies like Drizly and Instacart are delivery services that contract with retailers. This means limited selection and almost always higher prices. It should say on the website if a third-party delivers for the retailer.

• Shipping and delivery. Two things have traditionally slowed on-line wine sales – restrictive laws and the high cost of shipping and delivery. Sometimes, I think the latter is the bigger stumbling block. I bought 17 bottles from wine.com in March, and the shipping charge worked out to almost $3 a bottle. My order from Total Wine cost me $10 for delivery plus a 15 percent tip, again adding about $3 a bottle to the total. Is the convenience worth the extra money? Only you can decide that.

Image courtesy of The Healthy Voyager, using a Creative Commons license

More about wine buying and value:
The cheap wine checklist
How to find a good wine retailer
Follow-up: Just because it’s a cheap wine doesn’t mean it’s worth drinking