Category:Wine advice

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

The Wine Curmudgeon browser wars: Which loads the WC’s site the fastest?

browser war

Why I am wasting my time timing browsers when I could be drinking wine?

And is this post just about browsers, or is the WC trying to make a larger, wine-related point?

What better way to combine two of the Wine Curmudgeon’s favorite pastimes, wine and computers, than a browser war? Which application loads the WC’s website the fastest?

(And, for those of you who think there is more going on here than just browsers, you’re correct.)

I tested five desktop browsers, cutting and pasting the site’s URL into the browser’s address bar and clicking my phone’s stopwatch. I didn’t test Safari, since I don’t own Apple products. I tested Microsoft’s Edge on Windows 10, while I ran the others on Xubuntu 18.04, my Linux box.

The results:

• Opera 67: 3.11 seconds.

• Chromium 80 (the open-source version of Chrome): 2.99 seconds.

• Firefox 75: 3.73 seconds.

• Brave 1.5 (a new, tres chic, “privacy-oriented” browser): 2.42 seconds

• Microsoft Edge: 4.4 seconds.

So does this mean, as we look to enhance the WC site surfing experience, that everyone should switch to Chrome?

Of course not. The test, though well-intentioned, was hardly scientific. I didn’t include a key browser. I didn’t test the browsers on the same platform. And why should load time for the blog’s website matter in testing browser efficiency?

Which brings us to the larger point here – wine scores, since scores are as unreliable as my browser test. Are scores well-intentioned? Maybe. But that’s far from enough.

If you don’t like California merlot, what difference does it make if the wine gets 88 points? You still wouldn’t drink it. Because, even if Firefox had been the fastest browser, I wouldn’t use it because I don’t like the changes Firefox has made over the past several years. I’m still annoyed I can’t move the menu button from the right to upper left side.

In addition, scores have the same inherent bias that my test did by using Linux and Windows, instead of one or the other. If every wine critic who gave scores had the same palate, then we would know that an 88 was an 88 was an 88. But the platforms are different: Is the Wine Spectator’s 88 the same as the Wine Advocate’s? Is James Suckling’s 88 the same as Antonio Galloni’s?

And finally, how can I test browsers and leave out Safari because I don’t like Apple? That’s a lot like our red wine study, which showed a bias in favor of red wines. How can we depend on scores when the facts show us white wines don’t matter as much to the people giving scores?

So trust your palate. Drink what you like, but be willing to try different wines. Because using scores to figure out what to drink is as silly as wasting a morning running the WC browser wars.

More about wine scores:
Chateau Bonnet Blanc and why scores are useless
Scores, value, and the Wine Spectator top 100
Wine business slow? Then boost the scores

10 (mostly) wine-related activities to keep you busy while you’re at home

wine

So what do we want to do next? Bake bread or install Linux on your old laptop?

Because when there’s a crisis, the Wine Curmudgeon is here to help

March 21 update: Thanks for all the emails and kind words about this post. It has been one of the best read on the blog since this thing started. I’ll work on a virtual tasting and let you know whether we can do it. My only regret? No one has asked me to help them install Linux.

1. Try a wine you’ve never tried before. How difficult can it be, when you can’t buy toilet paper, to push your cart over to the supermarket Great Wall of Wine and pick out a $10 bottle?

2. Look for every corkscrew in the house and get rid of the ones you don’t want. How many corkscrews do you use? And do you really need this one?

3. Never, ever use the phrases “social distancing” or “sheltering in place.” This thing is bad enough; do we need to butcher the English language in the process?

4. Try a wine and food pairing you’ve never tried before. Chardonnay and frozen chicken pot pie? Tempranillo and quesadillas made with all the leftovers in the meat drawer in the fridge?

5. Install Linux on an old computer. You’ll be stunned at how easy it is. Really. I’ll even help if you want.

6. Hold a virtual tasting. I did that this week with my pal Jay Bileti, who lives in southern Arizona. We turned on Skype, opened two New World syrahs, and talked about the wines. That they weren’t even the same wines didn’t matter. The point was to taste and talk about wine, and it was tremendous fun. In fact, the more I think about it, there’s probably a way to do a virtual tasting through the blog, so that regular visitors can participate. If there’s enough interest, I will figure something out.

7. Bake bread. This is even even easier than installing Linux. This recipe is as basic as it gets – mix, knead, let rise, and bake. And don’t worry if you don’t have a stand mixer; you can use a food processor with a bread blade or mix by hand.

8. Finish the damned novel. (Yes, I know that doesn’t apply to most of us, but the thing has been sitting in a folder on my computer longer than I care to admit.)

9. Order from wine.com. The on-line retailer has been a long-time supporter of the blog, but that’s not the reason why I’m including it here. This is a chance to see if on-line wine sales make economic sense for you.

10. Keep a list of every despicable PR pitch you’ve received since this mess started, tying the pandemic into whatever foolishness they normally pitch. Sadly, there have been dozens. Then make sure to never, ever use those PR people in the future.

Art: “LEGO Minifigure Enjoying Wine” by Pest15 is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 

 

Ask the WC 23: Wine prices, rose, South African wine

wine pricesThis edition of Ask the WC:  Has the wine tariff pushed up wine prices? Plus, why isn’t rose sweet and whether South African wine is worth buying

Because the customers always have questions, and the Wine Curmudgeon has answers in this irregular feature. You can Ask the Wine Curmudgeon a wine-related question by clicking here.

Greetings, WC:
Have wine prices gone up because of the tariff? I can’t tell, but I buy the same wine over and over, so I’m not a good person to ask.
Watching my pennies

Dear Pennies:
The biggest surprise with the tariff — to me, anyway — has been retailer reluctance to raise prices, and especially for the wines we write about on the blog. There have been exceptions, of course; I was in the country’s premier “natural food” grocer the other day, and it looked like every French and Spanish wine had gone up exactly 25 percent, the amount of the tariff. But many of the other retailers I have visited or talked to are making an honest effort to hold the line. I’m especially seeing many retailers bring in similarly-priced labels to replace the tariff wines. Which, all things considered, makes me a lot less cranky about the tariff. Still, as one Dallas retailer told me, all bets are off when the new rose vintages arrive in the next month or so.

Dear Wine Curmudgeon:
Is rose supposed to be sweet or not? Some taste like white zinfandel, and others don’t. When did this start?
Pinked out

Dear Pinked:
Rose is dry. White zinfandel is sweet. This used to be cut and dried. But in the wine business’ ill-conceived attempt to woo younger consumers, they’re sneaking residual sugar into “dry rose.” Typically, most European pinks are still dry, so you’re safe with French, Spanish and Italian wines. One way to tell: If the dreaded word smooth appears on the back label, I wouldn’t be surprised if the wine was sweet. Rose is supposed to be fruity, not smooth.

Hello, Wine Curmudgeon:
Am I starting to see more South African wine in the U.S.? Is it worth buying?
Curious

Dear Curious:
The answer to the first part of your question is yes and no — yes, because sales have increased substantially, and no because sales are starting from such a small base. South African wines, save for a burst of popularity in the late 1990s, have been few and far between in the U.S. But quality has improved markedly since then, and it’s possible to find Rhone-style red blends, whites like chenin blanc and sauvignon blanc, and even dry rose at a fair price.

Photo: “a Bourgogne” by miss_rogue is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 

Cheap white wine face-off: Sunshine Bay sauvignon blanc vs. Farnese Fantini trebbiano

cheap white wine face-off

Who needs Cage or Travolta? We have Sunshine Bay and Farnese Fantini.

Which of these two about $7 wines offer the best value in this cheap white wine face-off?

A variety of cheap white wines have served the Wine Curmudgeon well over the years, starting with the late and much lamented Hogue fume blanc. These are the kind of wines you buy in quantity, keep chilled, and know that when you drink it, the result will be quality, value, and enjoyment.

My current choice is the Farnese Fantini trebbiano, an Italian white that costs $8. But, with the appearance of Aldi’s Sunshine Bay, a New Zealand sauvignon blanc, that costs $7, is it time to make a change?

Hence, this cheap white wine face-off.

• Price. The Fantini is $7.99, less the 10 percent case discount. That works out to $7.19 a bottle. The Sunshine Bay is $6.95 at my local Aldi, so it’s cheaper – but probably not enough to make a difference.

• Screwcap. Yes to both. This matters a lot, because I don’t want to go through a ritual when all I want is couple of glasses for no particular reason. This kind of wine should be open it and forget it.

• Quality. Are the wines professional and well made? Yes to both. Frankly, I was surprised. For one thing, there is still a lot of cheap, crummy Italian white wine in the world, and so didn’t expect much from the Fantini. But it is clean and crisp, without any off flavors or residual sugar. The Sunshine Bay, given Aldi’s track record in the U.S., was even more surprising. It’s much better made than similarly-priced New Zealand sauvignon blancs.

• Style. Do they taste like they’re supposed to? Yes, again, to both. The Fantini is lemon-lime-ish, simple but not stupid. The Sunshine plays up the New Zealand grapefruit style, but there;s a hint of tropical fruit in the middle, and the citrus doesn’t overwhelm the wine.

My choice? I’ll probably stick with the Fantini, since it’s more food friendly. But for those who like the New Zealand style or want a little more heft in their white wine, the Sunshine Bay is an excellent alternative. And I will keep buying it.

Wine and food pairings 8: Not quite ramen soup

ramen soupThe Wine Curmudgeon pairs wine with some of his favorite recipes in this occasional feature. This edition: three wines with an improved version of perhaps the most notorious of cheap food, ramen soup

Ramen soup is the supermarket plonk of the food world – cheap and almost nasty. But who cares when it costs as little as 20 cents a serving?

The Wine Curmudgeon cares, of course. Why denigrate your body when you can make ramen soup that tastes better and is still cheap – and actually offers nutrition?

The secret is vegetable stock, which is as simple to make as boiling water and adding vegetables (onion, carrot, celery, and whatever else is in the refrigerator) with some salt, pepper, and olive oil. Let it cook for 20 minutes, strain, and you have practically free flavor for the soup – without the horrors of the ramen packet mix.

Putting together this soup is almost as simple as the store version. Again, there is no specific recipe other than using the best quality Asian noodles you can afford. So use what’s on hand — if there’s leftover chicken, put in the soup. If there’s leftover lettuce, put it in the soup. The key is to add ingredients you like, including a soft cooked egg (just like the pros).

Finally, a tip o’ the WC’s fedora to Frankie Celenza, the host of a cooking show called “Struggle Meals,” who made the recipe I adapted. Celenza can be corny, silly, and over the top, but he is also passionate about food and cooking. He wants his viewers to enjoy cooking, to understand how much fun it can be, and to realize that they don’t need to spend money on pricey ingredients or fancy appliances to make cheap, delicious meals.

Sound like anyone else we know? Would that we could find someone like Celenza to explain the joy and wonder of wine to younger consumers.

Click here to download or print a PDF of the recipe. These three wines will pair with the ramen:

• Boffa Carlo Arneis 2017 ($15, purchased, 12.5%): This Italian white is stunning, and especially for the price. It’s a beautiful, almost elegant wine, with subtle lemon and stone fruit, nuanced minerality, and whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Highly recommended. Imported by Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits

• Innovacion Rose 2019 ($11/1-liter, purchased, 13.5%): This Argentine pink, sold at Whole Foods, is a long-time WC favorite. This vintage should develop a little more fruit as it ages, but is already enjoyable — clean, bright, minerally, and a hint of berries. Imported by Winesellers Ltd

• Bodegas Matilde Cava Totus Tuus NV ($14, sample, 11.5%): Well-made and competent Spanish sparkling that is much more California in style than cava. The fruit is more chardonnay-like apple and there is lots of caramel on the finish. Good for what it is, but not exactly cava. Imported by Peninsula Wines

More about wine and food pairings:
• Wine and food pairings 7: Classic roast chicken
• Wine and food pairings 6: Louisiana-style shrimp boil
• Wine and food pairings 5: America’s Test Kitchen pizza

Slider photo: “Rome Elite Event: wine, food and nice people” by Yelp.com is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Panic wine buying

panic wine buying

Panic wine buying, as the Wine Curmudgeon stocks up before a possible 100 percent European wine tariff.

The Wine Curmudgeon, faced with the prospect of a 100 percent European wine tariff, does some panic wine buying

The picture pretty much says it all. I spent an hour or so last week at Dallas’ biggest wine retailer, stocking up in case worse comes to worst. The result? 28 bottles of wine for $290. It’s good to know that the Wine Curmudgeon hasn’t lost his touch in the face of an international crisis of epic proportions.

A few thoughts after my panic wine buying:

• Lots of gaps on the shelves. Lots. I bought the last two bottles of the Chateau Bonnet white, and there wasn’t any Chateau Bonnet red or new Hall of Fame member Azul y Garanza, the $11, 1-liter Spanish tempranillo. Apparently, I’m not the only one who has panicked.

• Lots of cheap wine I haven’t seen before. It looked like the retailer had done some buying, too, stocking up on inexpensive European wine before the 25 percent tariff raised its prices. I bought some of these new wines, and will report back as the situation warrants.

• I even bought California wines. This included the always dependable McManis as well as the Shannon Wrangler red blend, which was the wine of the week 4 ½ years ago. Oddly enough, the wine cost $2 less this time.