Andrew Stover has been fighting the good fight for Drink Local from inside the wine business, “importing” regional wine to the Washington, D.C., area
Andrew Stover has been one of the good guys for regional wine for a decade, “importing” local wine to the Washington, D.C., area. This is especially impressive since Andrew is a distributor, a part of the wine business that has not always been kind to drink local. He brings wine in from more than a dozen states and distributes it to some of the most prestigious restaurants and retailers in the D.C. area. Jose Andres, anyone?
I’ve known Andrew since the early days of Drink Local Wine, and he has always been passionate about local wine and supportive of the cause. We talked about how he got started with local wine, why it has suddenly become the darling of the Winestream Media, and what comes next.
No, this is not the selection at a quality independent retailer.
Only the independent wine retailer can save us from crappy wine and unfair pricing
The country’s pre-eminent “natural foods” grocer had two wine displays next to each other last month in a Dallas store. One wine was the kind you’d expect it to carry – Jules Taylor New Zealand sauvignon blanc, a terrific wine and especially for the $15 sale price. Next to it was mass produced schlock, a California chardonnay that uses intensive winemaking to taste sweet and buttery. It was also $15, and I saw the same wine for the same price at Target.
If a store that markets itself as carrying only the finest natural, organic, and sustainable products treats wine that way – junk next to excellence, and for the same price — how can we count on any retailer to offer quality and value?
Fortunately, that’s what the best independent wine retailers do. Because, as a wine business friend emailed the other day, “The consumer has a romantic view, with no idea of all the BS behind the curtain to sell the ocean of wine being made. And I feel the consumer is overpaying most of the time.”
The best independent wine retailers don’t do those things. They won’t sell you something like that chardonnay, where the bottle was probably the most expensive part of the product. In fact, most won’t even have it in their stores.
The best independent wine retailers understand that customer service matters, which is why they don’t carry junk. Better to sell you cases and cases of wine over the long term than six bottles of plonk and never see you again. And they price their products fairly, without the come-ons and phony discounts that dominate the marketplace. Right, Cost Plus World Market?
• Does the retailer ask questions about your preferences, helping you figure out what you want – red or white, sweet or dry?
• Does the retailer let you ask questions? Do you feel comfortable asking those questions? Or do you feel you’re being humored in the way adults humor small children?
• Does the retailer answer your questions? Are the answers understandable or in winespeak? And, when you say you don’t understand what he or she means by leathery or oaky, do they explain so you do understand?
The best retailers do more than sell wine. They help you find wine that you didn’t know you would like. It’s easy to sell someone something that they already know about. What’s more difficult, and a mark of the best retailers, is to find something new – a Spanish albarino or French picpoul for an Italian pinot grigio, for example, or a fruity rose instead of a white zinfandel.
I’m lucky to have two top-notch independents in Dallas, and I have rarely been disappointed. I know if the wine is on their shelves, it’s probably worth buying. And I also know I can ask any question I want, no matter how Wine Curmudgeonly cranky, and I’ll get an intelligent answer. No one will sell me something because it’s on sale or because they get a bonus for selling it. They sell it because they want to make me happy.
And when’s the last time we could count on that in the wine business?
It’s still possible to buy quality $10 wine; just avoid the cute labels and marketing gimmicks
Premiumization has made it that much more difficult to buy quality cheap wine, but it’s still possible. The key, as I have written before, is to concentrate on value and ignore cute labels, scores, and marketing gimmicks. That’s how the wine business tricks us into paying $15 for $8 worth of wine. Which is why we have the cheap wine checklist.
Having said that, there’s not a stinker in the lot, and the average is still around $10 a bottle. Suck on that, premiumization:
• Cusumano Insolia ($12). This Sicilian white has long been a favorite, even though it has experienced some quality ups and downs. Regardless, it was one of the wines that helped put Sicily on the wine geek map. The red, made with nero d’avola, is worthwhile, too.
• Falseco Vitiano Rosso ($10), One of the great moments in my wine writing career was meeting Riccardo Cotarella, whose family makes these wines. Year in and out, $10 or $14, the red, white, and rose are some of the world’s great wines regardless of price.
You don’t need to read these five wine stories again, because they don’t say anything anyone needs to know to enjoy wine
Wine writing can be repetitive and boring, and it’s just not because all too many of us write entirely too much about scores and toasty and oaky. It’s because certain stories appear over and over and over that always sound the same and that never offer information that matters to most of us.
In other words, five wine stories you don’t need to read:
• It was a great vintage: Vintage stories have been meaningless for years, and not just because post-modern winemaking technology has made vintage irrelevant for 95 percent of the wine in the world. It’s because every vintage story, regardless of what happened during the harvest, quotes someone as saying it was a terrific vintage. It might have been challenging or it might have been smaller than expected, but it was terrific. I saw this the other day with a couple of stories about this year’s Texas harvest: One story gushed about a bumper crop, while the other talked about lower yields but high quality.
• Wine is good (or bad) for you: Regular visitors here know I’ve banned health stories from the blog almost from the beginning, mostly because almost all of them are silly. Wine, like just about everything we put in our body, is neither good nor bad. It’s how much we use. If we drink in moderation, there seem to be health benefits. If we don’t drink in moderation, there are no health benefits. You don’t need a PhD or MD to know that.
• Corks are the ideal wine closure: One day, perhaps, someone will do a scientific study about the efficacy of corks. Until then, there is no reason to read any cork story. Most of the studies are paid for by the cork industry, so what would you expect the results to be? Let’s not forget that cigarette makers once claimed smoking was good for us, and they had the experts to prove it.
• Such and such is the hot new grape varietal: Typically, these stories originate on the East Coast and quote high-end sommeliers talking about a wine made in such small quantities that no one except high-end sommeliers can buy it. The original hot new grape was gruner veltliner, and you can see how that turned out. When’s the last time you saw gruner on a store shelf? In the last couple of years, we’ve gone though Greek grapes like assyrtiko; the current favorite is the country of Georgia and its saperavi. The point is not quality, because some of the wines are terrific (if overpriced). Rather, it’s availability. How can a wine be the next big thing if there isn’t any to buy?
• Such and such is the hot new wine region: When I started doing this, the hot new wine region in California was Paso Robles. So guess what a recent story identified as the hot new wine region in California? Paso Robles, of course. Some of this is the way the news business works, where each new generation of editors and reporters figure they’ve discovered something because no one else in their peer group knows about it. But most of it is just laziness.
This edition of Ask the WC: Dependable grocery store wines, plus, Millennials and wine and canned wine
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 .
Dear Wine Curmudgeon: I buy most of my wine at the grocery store, and you don’t review a lot of grocery store wine. Are there a couple you can recommend? Supermarket shopper
Dear Supermarket: Of course – Bogle is always worthwhile, and Line 39 and Hess from California usually are, too. The Villa Maria (closer to $15) and Matua sauvignon blancs from New Zealand are typically well made. Many of the roses offer value, like the Charles & Charles and the Bieler Sabine. There is a catch, though, even with these wines — grocery store pricing. One day the wine will be $10, and the next day it will be $18, and there is no rhyme or reason why.
Hey Jeff: Aren’t you wrong about the lack of interest in wine among younger generations? I thought I saw a study a couple of years ago that said Millennials were the biggest consumers of wine in the U.S.? Curious
Dear Curious: I think you’re referring to the infamous Wine Market Council study, which was shunted to one side and never spoken of again. I’ve been told there were problems with the methodology. Most studies since then, including this one, aren’t optimistic about Millennials taking up wine the way the Baby Boomers did.
Hi, WC: What do you think about canned wine? Isn’t it kind of cool? Tired of bottles
Dear Tired: Canned wine is like the rest of wine. Some of it is terrific, some of it isn’t, and much of the excitement is marketing driven. The smart people I’ve talked to say canned wine has a future as an alternative like boxed wine, filling a niche in the market. My other problem, besides the middling quality/price ratio for too many of them, is that I don’t like to drink out of a can. I don’t drink beer that way, either.
The Wine Curmudgeon pairs wine with some of his favorite recipes in this new, occasional feature. This edition: three wines with Wisconsin-style bratwurst and sauerkraut
There are bratwurst, and then there are local, butcher-shop brats prepared in the Wisconsin bratwurst style. That means brats poached in beer with onions, peppers, garlic, and spices. Yes, you can use grocery store brats, but it’s that much better with the local product. Can I recommend Lake Geneva Country Meats, a long-time pal of the blog?
Since this is a wine blog, I poach the bratwurst in wine instead of beer. Use one-half bottle of a fruity, dry white wine; almost anything but an oak-infused chardonnay will work. The other key? Add a well-drained can of sauerkraut to the poaching liquid after you take the bratwursts out and simmer. I use 69-cent grocery store kraut, which works as well as the more expensive, plastic-bag version. The sauerkraut picks up the flavors from the poaching liquid, and becomes something other than just sauerkraut. Plus, you don’t waste all the flavor in the bratwurst-infused poaching liquid.
A tip o’ the WC’s fedora to Nick Vorpagel at Lake Geneva, the third generation of the family business and a fine wine guy, too. Who else would hold a cava and Wisconsin-style bratwurst tasting? Hence, cava works with this dish, so enjoy the blog’s legendary $7 Cristalino. Click here to download or print a PDF of the recipe.
But consider these wines, too:
• Falesco Vitiano Bianco 2017 ($12, purchased, 12%): This Italian white is one of the blog’s all-time favorites, and pairs with sausage as if it was made for it. Imported by The Winebow Group.
• Foncalieu Le Versant Rose 2017 ($10, purchased, 12.5%): One more $10 French pink that does everything rose is supposed to do. Plus, it doesn’t cost as much as bottle of white Burgundy. The Foncalieu is crisp, has a hint of red fruit, and ends with a pleasing, almost stony finish. Imported by United Wine & Spirits
• Castello di Gabbiano Chianti 2015 ($8, purchased, 13%): This Italian red is usually one of the best of the cheap Chiantis, though I noticed some bottle variation this vintage. Otherwise, competent as always — lots of tart cherry, earthiness, and soft tannins. Imported by TWE Imports
Looking for wine value from Europe? Importer James Gunter’s advice: Don’t be afraid to try regions and varietals that you may not know
James Gunter started in the wine business standing behind a cash register. Today, he runs Wines with Conviction, a top-notch small importer that specializes in France. His wines are uniformly well made and well priced, whether it’s a $10 Gascon white or a high-end white Burgundy.
We talked about Gunter’s approach to finding great values: Look for producers who have been overlooked by the big companies; don’t be afraid to try wine that isn’t cabernet sauvignon or chardonnay; and especially don’t be afraid to try regions you’ve never hard of.