Plus, opening a sparkling wine bottle in just one take
Yes, this post ran about this time last year, but I wanted to put it up again for a couple of reasons. First, it’s timely — and a damn fine job, if I say so myself. Many thanks to host Michael Sansolo; his show is “Shopping with Michael” for the Private Label Manufacturers Association.
The other reason? Because this was the only video we did as part of the PLMA’s private label wine project. Our goal was to convince U.S. supermarkets to do for private label wine what European supermarkets do — high quality and low price.
But the pandemic edged our effort to the sidelines. And, more sadly, long-time PLMA president Brian Sharoff died at the end of the spring, and it was his vision that started the project. Brian gave me a chance to work on it, and I will always be grateful for the opportunity.
So, I’m posting this one more time for Brian. He is much missed, and not just because he always made fun of my hats.
“The situation isn’t good, but it’s difficult to make a monolithic assessment. The situation depends on where you are, and it can be all across the board.”
Colorado’s Doug Caskey has been one of the leaders in the local wine movement for almost as long as there has been one. He has been the executive director of the Colorado Wine Industry Development Board since 2000, and has served in a variety of roles with the Wine America trade group. As such, he is well-placed to discuss how the pandemic is clobbering regional wine.
Perhaps the biggest problem, Doug said, is that state laws classify wineries as bars. This means they suffer from the same restrictions as places people go to pick up girls and boys and to get drunk. Which, of course, is hardly the case with a winery tasting room. In addition, local wineries depend on events like weddings and concerts to stay in business, which are also limited by pandemic bar restrictions.
Among the topics we discussed:
• The recent spike in coronavirus cases doesn’t bode well for Drink Local, since wineries that have been able to re-open their tasting rooms may not be able to keep them open.
• The pandemic hasn’t been a boon for Drink Local at retail, despite all the glowing sales numbers. Consumers seem to be buying the best known brands instead of trying lesser known regional labels.
• The Trump wine tariff, advertised as a help to Drink Local, has actually been a tremendous hindrance. It has wreaked havoc on the wine supply chain, making it more difficult for local wines to get on store shelves.
• Yurts, as a solution to outdoor winter dining. Yes, yurts.
This edition of Ask the WC: Is the Supreme Court going to take a three-tier system case? Plus, what’s happening with wine prices and why does the WC dislike scores?
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.
Hi, Wine Curmudgeon: I really liked your post about buying wine illegally. Is there any chance we can get rid of all these stupid laws and buy wine like normal people? On-line wine buyer
Dear On-line: A variety of cases are wending their way through the legal system that could make it possible for us to buy wine from out-of-state retailers and on-line. They include my favorite, Walmart’s attempt to overturn a Texas law that says publicly-held companies can’t get a state retail liquor license. Talk about foolish. However, another case is attracting more legal attention — Lebamoff v. Michigan. Lebamoff, an Indiana retailer, sued to be allowed to sell wine in Michigan. In this, it directly addresses out-of-state retailer sales. Tom Wark, who follows these things in his role as executive director of the National Association of Wine Retailers, told me he thinks there’s a good chance the Supreme Court accepts Lebamoff. If so, it should decide once and for all whether Internet and out-of-state retail sales are constitutional. Having said that, there’s no guarantee the court rules in favor of direct retail shipping if it takes the case.
Dear Wine Curmudgeon: What’s going to happen with wine prices? I thought they were supposed to go down, but all I see is $15 wine in the grocery store. Cheap wine buyer
Dear Cheap: Your guess is as good as mine. The grape glut is real, here and in Europe, and I’m working on a post about that for next week. But I agree — prices don’t seem to have responded to an excess of wine on store shelves. The tariff, of course, is one reason. I also wonder if supply chain problems caused by the pandemic are limiting the supply. A limited supply means prices won’t fall, even if demand has decreased during the pandemic. So we will just have to wait and see.
Greetings, Charmingly Grumpy: I’m new to the blog.. How come you don’t use wine scores like everyone else? Inquiring mind
Dear Inquiring: Scores are one of the three or four worst things about the wine business (the others being corks instead of screwcaps, premiumization, and three-tier). They’re biased in favor of expensive wines, regardless of quality; they don’t give enough credit to “lesser” grape varieties or to white wine; and they reflect the critic’s taste and not necessarily whether the wine is any good. In this, they are a crutch for retailers, who can post 88 points and figure that’s customer service. I explain what the wine tastes like so you can make up your own mind.
Legendary UC-Davis professor Maynard Amerine told us 45 years ago that price was no guarantee of quality or value
One of the most intriguing things about U.S. wine history is how it repeats itself. Time after time, smart people warn the wine business about what will happen if it doesn’t pay attention to its customers. And, time after time, the wine business ignores the warnings – much to its detriment.
What made it so important? I asked Randy Caparoso, a long-time wine critic and restaurateur, who wrote about Amerine on the Lodi wine appellation blog. What struck me about his Amerine post was that the UC-Davis professor echoed the analysis of pioneering wine writers Leon Adams and Frank Schoonmaker, who earned their own blog post about a year ago.
“I think people like Amerine, Adams and Schoonmaker could clearly see the writing on the wall,” says Caparoso. “That’s because, even in the ‘50s and ‘60s, they personally knew many a well-heeled wine collector or connoisseur. Same for me during my career as a wine professional, which started in ’78. These kinds of people were already driving up prices with their mania for ‘great’ wines. This was the essence of Amerine’s quote, ‘Drink wine, not labels.’ … But what was true 50, 60 years ago was bound to get even worse in the 21st century, and it has.”
In other words, Amerine – like Adams and Schoonmaker – predicted the mess we find ourselves in: Too much ordinary wine, too much overpriced wine, and a wine industry that doesn’t understand that it has lost its audience because it has focused on either ordinary or overpriced wine.
Enjoying wine –without the fuss
Hence, three of Amerine’s eight guidelines for enjoying wine:
• You don’t have to be an expert to enjoy wine. It’s “nonsense… The expert may know why he enjoys a certain wine but he would be presumptuous to claim that he enjoys it more than the amateur. The latter may, in fact, enjoy a certain wine more fully than the expert precisely because he doe not have the knowledge and experience to make all the possible comparisons among wine.”
• Small wineries are not better just because they are small. “Some of the worst wines we ever suffered came from small, picturesque wineries. We hasten to add that some of the best also came from small wineries. It is the standards of the producer, and a fair amount of luck, that determines the quality of the wines produced, not the size of the winery.”
• Expensive wines are not necessarily better than cheap wines. “Some are, many are not. Price depends on many factors that are not necessarily related to quality. Those who buy wines on a price-basis deserve what they get. … But it is the quality of the wine, not the price, that is important. Some famous vineyards, secure in the knowledge that they have an established market, often charge whatever the market will bear. This means that the wines are sometimes not worth the higher price if quality alone is the criterion for selection.”
Photo courtesy of the UC-Davis Library, using a Creative Commons license
Don’t believe the Wine Curmudgeon about the value of cheap wine? Then listen to the great Jacques Pepin
One criticism of the blog that has been consistent since it started: The Wine Curmudgeon doesn’t know anything about wine. Why else would I recommend cheap wine? This has come from blog visitors, sommeliers, and even other wine writers.
So I offer this, from legendary chef Jacques Pepin. He has cooked for several presidents of France, including Charles de Gaulle; written 36 cookbooks; earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree at Columbia University; and taught classes at colleges around the country. So he may know a thing or two about the subject.
Pepin talks about the role wine played on his series of cooking shows in the 1980s and 1990s, at the beginning of the U.S. wine boom. He thought it was important to introduce U.S. viewers to the joys of wine and food. He also thought it was important to point out that wine doesn’t have to be expensive: “I am not a snob about wine, you know. I usually buy a bottle under $10 or whatever, if you know what to buy.”
Which is where the WC comes in — because I have been here for 15 years helping you know what to buy.
This interview comes from a series Pepin recorded for the Television Academy Foundation, which has taped thousands of interviews with people from the history of TV — actors, producers, writers, hosts, and the like. The Pepin series is worth watching, and especially when he discusses his friendship and working relationship with Julia Child.
Her new book, “The Wines of Southwest USA,” is a candid look at wine in Texas, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico
Jessica Dupuy, through her work with media outlets like Texas Monthly, has been fighting the good fight for Drink Local for more than a decade. Her latest effort: “The Wines of Southwest USA” ($40, Infinite Ideas). It’s a candid assessment of regional wine in Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado. We’ll give a copy of the book away during the blog’s 13th annual Birthday Week, beginning Nov. 16.
Overall, she says, wine quality is much improved — but that is still much room for improvement. “We’re still not at the point where people see local wine the same way they see local spinach from the farm down the road, or peaches or whatever. So in that respect, we still have a lot of work to do.”
Among the topics we discussed:
• Arizona may offer the highest upside among the states in the book, thanks to a core of impressive young producers.
• Colorado remains one of the most fascinating states in the country, since so much of its grapes are grown at altitude.
• The pandemic has hit regional wine hard, and there remains doubt about how well it survive when things return to normal.
• And finishing a book during a pandemic, with home schooling, is not the easiest thing in the world.
Seven things I’ve learned while buying wine online during the pandemic
Buying wine online during the pandemic has not necessarily been difficult. Aggravating in many ways, certainly, and especially for anyone who likes to visit wine shops. Virtual shopping is just not the same as holding a bottle in your hand and waving at the employee in the next aisle.
Having said that, there’s something to be said for buying wine at the keyboard instead of masking up and braving a retailer in a state where not everyone believes in science. So, seven things I’ve learned to make buying wine on-line easier during the pandemic:
• Retailer websites are what they are, and that isn’t Amazon – and there’s nothing you can do about it. When the pandemic started, several analysts told me that most retailer e-services weren’t prepared to handle the traffic they would soon get. So when national e-tailer Wine.com has to apologize because it’s having trouble filling orders, imagine how much trouble smaller retailers are having. Consider one Dallas retail site advertising 15 wines for $15 or less – three of which cost more than $15.
• Pricing is all over the place. The La Vieille Ferme French rose, long a Wine Curmudgeon staple, costs $8.99 on Wine.com and at Whole Foods; $6.99 at Total Wine; $14.99 for 1.5 liters, the equivalent of two bottles, at Kroger via Instacart; $8.95 at Central Market, the Texas version of Whole Foods; and $7.34 at Spec’s, Texas biggest retailers (but it isn’t for sale on Spec’s via Instacart).
• Bookmark the LCBO website – the government owned retailer for Canada’s Ontario province. It includes alcohol levels, something many retail websites don’t list. Because they don’t, I’ve bought too many whites and roses at 14 ½ percent, which is not what I want in a white or rose.
• Scores and winespeak dominate, which does most of us – since we aren’t looking for trophy wines – no good. How about a wine that “expresses citrus and floral notes reminiscent of hawthorn and vine flower. “ Oh yeah, hawthorn and vine flower. On the other hand, I’ve had decent luck with the star ratings on Wine.com; less than 4, and I know to stay away.
Where’s the wine?
• Availability is just as goofy as pricing, and not just for the wine made with weird grapes that I like. It’s even true for mass market products like the La Vieille. I bought it on Wine.com on Sept. 10, but when I checked the price for this post, about two weeks later, it was sold out. This vanishing act happens on other other retailer sites, large and small. Much of it stems from increased demand, as more of us buy wine online, as well as pandemic-related supply chain problems. Plus, as one retailer told me, they’re keeping less wine in inventory to cut costs. My advice? If you see something you like, buy more than one. No guarantee it will be there next time.
• Given this limit in selection, I’ve been forced to try different wines and different styles. Which has been terrific – who wants to get in a wine drinking rut? That includes a variety of South African wines, several from the New World, and even Italian sparkling.
• If the site doesn’t list a vintage, good luck – and many don’t. I’ve had wines as old as 2013 dumped on me, with not unexpected results – oxidized, spoiled, or vinegary. In addition, if the e-tailer is out of one vintage, it will substitute another (check the fine print on the site, which says whether they do this). That’s a problem when I’m buying a 2019 to review and get a 2016 instead. Hence, I’ve started leaving notes, specifying which vintages I’ll take, Otherwise, I tell them to skip that wine.
Finally, make sure to uncheck all the “We’re going to send you e-mails, e-mails, and more e-mails” boxes in the permissions in your account. Otherwise, you’ll spend more time deleting email than buying wine. And, no, Instacart, I don’t want to rate my delivery experience with Eric, no matter how many times you ask me.