Category:Wine Curmudgeon

Wine business history: The more things change, the more they stay the same

wine business historyIn the wine business, history repeats itself – and we know what premiumization, overpriced wine, and consolidation mean for consumers

Premiumization, overpriced wine, and consolidation are nothing new in the wine business. Go back 80 years, and wine business history is eerily familiar. In this, some of the earliest and most influential wine critics, including Leon Adams and Frank Schoonmaker, warned the industry about the mistakes it was making.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t quote Winston Churchill here: “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

Premiumization

Schoonmaker was a wine importer and wine writer whose 1930s’ “The Complete Wine Book” might have been the first attempt to explain wine to the U.S. consumer. In 1947, in a piece for Gourmet magazine, Schoonmaker lamented what sounds a lot like what we’re seeing now:

And in the past five years we have hardly seen any real vin ordinaire (by which I mean a common, inexpensive table wine) sold in America. The humble gallon jug virtually disappeared in 1943 from our wine merchants’ shelves; instead, the undistinguished reds and whites from the mass production areas of California appeared in fancy dress at a fancy price, and elaborate advertising campaigns were launched to convince us that bottles which we used to buy reluctantly for 60 cents were suddenly worth $1.50 and were being sold us as a special favor.

In other words, $15 wine is the new $8 wine.

Overpriced wine

Adams was perhaps even more influential in his time (the end of Prohibition to the 1960s or so) than Robert Parker was in his heyday. He is usually given credit for pushing the California wine business into the 20th century; he advocated for regional wine long before there was much of it; he helped start the Wine Institute; and he wrote several of the most important wine books in U.S. history.

He also had no use for over-priced wine, and regularly urged California producers to make wine that most of us could afford:

They should be as cheap as milk. High price wines are not for daily consumption with meals. Real wine drinkers know this; most Americans still don’t.

How spooky is that quote, that it’s still so relevant today?

Consolidation

Adams also saw the dangers of too few wineries producing too much of the country’s wine, something he first warned about shortly after World War II. He explained this in a 1974 interview:

The point was mine, and I think it has stuck to this day, that the little wineries should be encouraged to exist. The larger the number of small wineries that operate in the United States, the safer the big wineries are from attack, legislative attack in particular. If the wine industry ever fell into the hands of only a few major factors, the wine industry and the whole cause of wine would be in trouble. It would be endangered. … The big wineries have never agreed with me about the need to foster the small wineries. … My purpose is to encourage the use of wine, to introduce the use of table wine, which local wineries can do. Moreover, it’s especially to the advantage of California to thus expand the wine market, because with the ideal grape-growing climate of this state, California wines will always be the best buys.”

I wonder: How many of the biggest California producers have ever read that?

Photo courtesy of Sedimentality blog using a Creative Commons license

Wine Curmudgeon Wine Sample Index: Heavy weather ahead for the wine business?

wine sample indexPremiumization’s role in the wine slowdown

It’s not scientific, but the Wine Curmudgeon Wine Sample Index indicates that the wine slowdown is here

The wine slowdown, much written about and much discussed, has officially arrived. How do I know this? The Wine Curmudgeon Wine Sample Index.

The wine sample index is my highly anecdotal and decidedly un-mathematical system for gauging the health of the wine business. When business is good, and no one needs a cranky ex-newspaperman to review their wines, I get fewer samples. When business isn’t good, then I get more samples – including bottles from high-end producers who usually dismiss me as not worth their time.

And this spring and early summer, I have received more samples than I’ve gotten since the recession, maybe three or four times the usual amount.

As noted, this is highly anecdotal and decidedly un-mathematical, and I’m not sure the blog’s official statistician would approve. But the pattern has been there since the blog started in 2007. During the recession, I got more wine than I could drink, including $100 bottles. But the samples dried up in the couple of years after the recession ended, when wine sales recovered and premiumization took hold. I don’t write about the kind of wine that has dominated the market since then, so why send me something to review?

But now, apparently, they need me. I’m getting samples from producers who haven’t contacted me in years, and they’re sending wines that cost $25 and more.  Just the other day, in fact, an email me offered a case of wine, only one of which cost less than $24 and five of which cost more than $30. Hasn’t the marketer ever read the blog?

Also intriguing

More samples are coming from people who want me to write about their wines in the hope that my review will generate retailer interest as opposed to sales. They want to use a good review to place the wines in more stores in more parts of the country. That also happens more often when wines sales are slow.

In other words, any port in a storm, and this storm is beginning to look particularly intense. Know that samples are an expensive form of marketing – not just the cost of the bottles, but the cost of shipping, which can run as high as $100 a package. But wine sales are so flat and so many people are so worried that spending all that money to send me samples looks like a better investment than letting the bottles languish on a warehouse shelf.

Will this storm turn into a category 5, Hurricane Wine Recession? The sample index can’t tell me that. One sign of optimism: I still don’t get asked to attend trade tastings, where producers and distributors show off their wines for writers, retailers, and the like. Those invitations ended after the recession, too. So if trade tasting emails start to arrive, then maybe it is time to batten down the hatches.

Technical difficulties: The blog’s RRS feed and email service may not be working correctly

The blog’s email and RSS feeds may not be working correctly

Update, 2 p.m. Monday: We think it’s fixed. It wasn’t when this morning when I first updated this post. Today’s email didn’t go out, but we;ll figure out how to get it to you. Thanks for your patience. If you’re still having problems, please let me know.

If you get the blog via email or RSS feed, you may not see what you’re supposed to see. Both services starting hiccuping on Friday afternoon when we tried to fix something else. That means you may see something that says “WordPress resources at SiteGround” on your email and RSS — and no, no one is quite sure why that is there.

I’m working with the blog’s web guy and the company that handles the RSS and email feeds to fix the problem. Hopefully, we can get it straightened out today, but bear with us. The site itself is fine, and you can check out the latest posts by going to winecurmudgeon.com.

The fifth do-it-yourself wine review

do it yourself

Drinky gets it now: How could he have missed the red wine’s playful mushu pork elements?

Once more, we take aim at winespeak and pomposity — the blog’s fifth do-it-yourself wine review.

The annual do-it-yourself wine review remains one of the most popular posts on the blog. And why not? You too can sound just as foolish as those of us who get paid to do it. Because doesn’t everyone want to write something as memorable as “My, I find this wine to be complex yet simple in its approach to life. It lifts my spirits and appeals to my inner child while satisfying my need to be an adult.”

So write your own wine review, using the drop-down menus in this post. Just click the menu and choose your favorite line. 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 idea from him, plus Luke Rissacher’s wine review generator and Lawrence Sinclair at Quora, from whom I also stole some great stuff.

In the glass, this red wine:

I smelled the wine, and:

I tasted the wine, and:

All in all, I’d say the wine:

More do-it-yourself wine reviews:
The second do-it-yourself wine review
The third do-it-yourself wine review
The fourth do-it-yourself wine review

Coming soon to a YouTube near you: Wine Curmudgeon videos

Wine Curmudgeon videosIs the cyber-ether – let alone the wine world – ready for Wine Curmudgeon videos?

Is the Wine Curmudgeon going to be the Internet’s next viral sensation? We’ll know early this summer, when the first of two wine videos I made this week goes live.

I did the videos, featuring helpful, useful information about summer wine and restaurant wine, for the Private Label Manufacturer’s Association. The videos are part of the trade group’s quest to convince U.S. retailers to step up their private label wine effort – because, of course, Winking Owl. I’ll post a link when the summer wine video goes live.

The experience was unique. How else would an ink-stained wretch see a process that involves makeup, story conferences, green screens, and long discussions about what I should wear? I haven’t spent that much time worrying about my clothes since since my mother picked them out. I should also mention that I have spent much of my writing career gently mocking – or worse – those of my friends who did have to worry about that stuff. I suppose I will have to endure their gentle – or worse – mocking now.

The goal with each video was to avoid winespeak as well as the deadly dullness that overwhelms most wine videos (even those with big names and big budgets). We wanted to offer information that wine drinkers could use when they were staring at the supermarket Great Wall of Wine. Which I think we did.

A very large tip o’ the WC’s fedora to Sonia Petrocelli, the videos’ producer, and Richard Dandrea, who wrote them. Both made the process infinitely easier than I thought it would be, and their patience with my ignorance of all things video was much appreciated.

Two days judging European grocery store wine

grocery store wine

Imagine those wines costing €5 instead of $15.

The Wine Curmudgeon spends two days in grocery store wine heaven

Imagine a delicious, fresh, cherryish Italian red for about $6. Or a Hungarian riesling, taut and crisp, for about $7. Or a $3 pinot noir – a little tart, but still more than drinkable.

Welcome to the world of European grocery store wine, which puts the junk that passes for supermarket wine in the United States to shame. I spent two days last week in Amsterdam judging the Private Label Manufacturer’s International Salute to Excellence wine competition, where my group tasted 112 wines made for and sold by grocery stores around the world. (Full disclosure: I’m consulting for the PLMA in its quest to convince U.S. retailers to step up their private label wine effort. Because, of course, Winking Owl.)

I couldn’t have been happier. For the most part, the wines – and especially those sold in Europe – were cheap and well made. Many would have made the $10 Hall of Fame, including the Italian red. Which, frankly, was spectacular. It was made in Tuscany with a local version of the sangiovese grape called morellino and was bright and fresh and interesting – all for €5. That’s less than the cost of a bottle of Barefoot, and half the price of a bottle of Cupcake.

In this, almost all of the wines we judged were everything I wish cheap wine in the U.S. would be – mostly varietally correct, mostly tasting like the region it came from, and widely available. Or, as the other judges on my panel, all Europeans, said to me at one time or another, tongue firmly in cheek: “Jeff, we didn’t know you had it so bad in the states.”

Little do they know.

That was the good news. The bad is that there are still too many obstacles to getting that quality of wine in your local Kroger, Aldi, Ralph’s, Safeway, and Wegman’s. Not surprisingly, the U.S. liquor laws and the three-tier system are at the forefront.

One judge, who used to be the buyer for one of Europe’s biggest grocers, said the regulations and restrictions governing U.S. wine sales are indecipherable to most Europeans – even those who are paid to figure them out. It has taken years to understand the system, she said, and it has been a long, tedious process.

In addition, the U.S. lacks Europe’s sophisticated private label supply chain. In Italy, for example, the supermarket buyer can make a couple of phone calls to get the morellino. Here, by contrast, retailers usually have to work through bulk wine brokers, a much costlier and more complicated process.

Still, if what I tasted is any indication, there are dozens of reason for optimism.

More on grocery store wine:
Aldi wine road trip
Can grocery store private label wine save cheap wine from itself?
Wine terms: Private label and store label

Paid posts: Welcome to the 21st-century world of wine blogging

paid posts

Who cares if the wine tastes like vanilla cherry cough syrup? We’re being paid to say nice things about it. Stop acting so 20th century.”

Who cares about integrity or honesty or legitimate reviews? I’ll just run paid posts

The following email, asking me to run paid posts for a wine club, shows just how little the wine business cares about the people who buy its products. I’ve changed the name of the wine club (which is reasonably well known) so I don’t get sued; otherwise, it’s verbatim:

Hey Wine Curmudgeon Team,

Big Time Wine Club wants to create some new partnerships with influencers. Our wine club works with acclaimed wineries and vineyards to curate a portfolio of highly rated wines from all over the globe, and then bring those wines to lovers of great wine across the US. You have great blog posts, and I want to find out if we can work with you to create new content around a few of our featured wines. We have some ideas on potential Spring themes, but we are more than happy to talk with you on your ideas for incorporating wine!

We have wine available to send, some paid placement budget, and an affiliate program. I’d love to get your thoughts on the best way for us to work together. Are you available to talk wine this week or next?

The jargon is annoying enough, but what’s worse is asking me to pimp for their products — “create new content around a few of our featured wines.”  The only thing in the email that’s fair to consumers is the affiliate program, in which I’d get a tiny, tiny commission if anyone bought one of the wines I pimped for. The rest is an insult to me and to everything the blog stands for. As well as to you.

But hey, why not? It’s the 21st century. Facebook sells our personal information to dirty trickstersGoogle censors the Internet for the Chinese . The world’s biggest beer company owns a leading beer review site. So why shouldn’t I take the wine club’s money? It’s all about the cash, right? Integrity? Honesty? Principles? That’s just crap for cranky ex-newspaperman, who still think they’re supposed to write for their readers. That’s just so quaint, isn’t it?

Needless to say, I sent a polite email declining their offer. But how many of my colleagues didn’t?