Category:Wine news

Winebits 607: Amazon wine, cheap wine, ancient wine

amazon wineThis week’s wine news: Amazon may deliver wine in San Francisco, plus one wine reviewer fails to find quality cheap wine and archaeologists discover an ancient winery

Amazon wine delivery: Amazon, twice thwarted in its attempt to sell wine over the Internet, may have found a way around the problem: Local delivery. The cyber-ether giant has applied for a license to open a liquor store at its San Francisco warehouse, where it would sell beer, wine, and spirits. Amazon’s license application says the store would be open 8 a.m.-4 p.m., but it would deliver alcohol from 8 a.m. to midnight. Oddly, this seems to be what Amazon has been doing in Los Angeles, without anyone finding out until Blake Gray visited the store. He reports that it seems to be violating a variety of California’s liquor regulations.

Where is all the cheap wine? All Winethropology’s Steve McIntosh wanted to do was buy “a mixed case of inexpensive wine. My target price range was $10-13, and my objective was to have some bottles around to enjoy with weeknight meals. Nothing extravagant, just a handful each of summer-friendly reds and whites.” Which, of course, is what most of us want. Does it seem like asking a lot? So what happened after visits to three independent retailers in and around Columbus, Ohio? “I failed. Miserably. Five bottles with an average price of $14 made it home with me. … Has wine become so expensive now that drinkable $10-12 wines are the unicorns of the industry?” Regular visitors here well understand what happened to Steve, since I’ve been lamenting the same thing for a couple of years. Steve’s analysis of premiumization is spot on.

A long, long time ago: Excavations in a northern Israeli hilltop town have discovered the largest Crusader-era winery yet found in that part of the world. The winery dates from the mid-12th century, when European Christians established a series of small kingdoms and principalities in the wake of the 11th century First Crusade. The area around the winery had been planted with vines during the Roman and Crusader periods. As such, it would have likely been the center of wine production in that region, where local grape growers would be required to bring their crops as rent or dues.

Federal appeals court slaps down Texas Walmart liquor stores

Texas Walmart liquor storeDoes the appeal court’s Texas Walmart liquor store ruling diss the Supreme Court?

Remember the Supreme Court’s June Tennessee decision about out-of-state retailers?

That’s the one that was supposed to free us from the shackles of the antiquated, Prohibition-era three-tier system of liquor regulation. If so, the U.S. Fifth Circuit of Appeals wasn’t paying attention. It ruled last week that a Texas law that forbids public companies like Walmart from owning liquor stores may not be unconstitutional.

In other words, Tennessee can’t discriminate against out-of-state retailers, but Texas may be able to discriminate against publicly-owned retailers.

Arghhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.

“We could be right back at the Supreme Court,” says Taylor Rex Robertson, an attorney with Haynes and Boone in Dallas. “The appeals court may have taken the easy way out.”

In this, Robertson says, the appeals court didn’t exactly rule that the Texas law is constitutional. Instead, it disagreed with the way the trial court judge analyzed the case and applied the law. Rather than make a decision, the appeals court sent the case back to the trial judge to do what needs to be done to analyze the case correctly. Call this a technicality, but one of the technicalities that oils the gears of the legal system.

And why not a technicality, since this is three-tier? If anything, the almost totally unexpected decision in the Texas Walmart liquor store case proves just how resilient three-tier is. Because it was a shock; the trial court had called the Texas law “irrational.”

Controversy, controversy, controversy

Still, it’s not like these kinds of contradictory decisions are unusual. In 2005, the Supreme Court ruling that allowed wineries to ship directly to consumers was supposed to end three-tier’s stranglehold. Until it didn’t.

Or, as a friend of mine put it: “Precedent? There’s no such thing as precedent when it comes to three-tier.”

Legally, the two decisions weren’t about exactly the same thing, even if an out-of-state retailer and a publicly-held retailer may seem to be pretty much alike to those of us who buy wine. But in the convoluted and tortured system that was set up to keep Al Capone out the liquor business after Prohibition, they’re vastly different. (Which, without boring you with legal-ese, is sort of why the appeals court did what it did.)

Hence, the Supreme Court ruled that barring out-of-state retailers wouldn’t necessarily promote the health and safety of Tennessee residents, which is the litmus test for a law’s constitutionality. The Supremes said an out-of-state retailer could just as effectively promote the health and safety as a local retailer. But in the Texas Walmart liquor store case, the appeals court said that there is no evidence that publicly-held retailers couldn’t promote the health and safety of Texas residents as effectively as privately-held companies could.

In other words, a Total Wine employee in Tennessee would card underage shoppers, fill out the state’s booze-related paperwork, and buy only from approved wholesalers more effectively than a Walmart employee in Texas would.

Arghhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.

No, I don’t know what’s going to happen next. The only certainty, says Robertson, is that the Texas Walmart liquor store saga isn’t gon away anytime soon. What I do know is that whatever glimmer of hope we had that it would be easier to buy wine in the near future has glimmered away.

Drawing courtesy of Peter Hudspith via Flickr using a Creative Commons license

Winebits 606: Bunny Becker, Ohio wine, alcohol preference

Bunny beckerThis week’s wine news: Bunny Becker, one of  the grand dames of Texas wine, has died. Plus an Ohio winemaker sees a return to the glory days and wine continues its fall from favor

Bunny Becker: Mary Clementine Ellison “Bunny” Becker, co-founder of her family’s Becker Vineyards in the Texas Hill Country, died last week at age 79. To quote Texas Monthly’s Jessica Dupuy, “Becker had a heart for making not only quality wine, but also quality connections with the people in her life.” She was always sweet whenever we met, and treated all she knew with kindness and respect.  Becker played a key role with husband Richard, an MD, as their winery grew from a vacation home along Hwy. 290 outside of Fredericksburg to one of the two or three most important producers in the state.

Glory days: The center of the U.S. wine business in the couple of decades before the Civil War was the Ohio River valley near Cincinnati, where Nicolas Longworth made world-acclaimed riesling-style and sparkling wines with the much maligned catawba grape. Winemaker Kate MacDonald, a Cincinnati wants to bring that back. She was a Napa winemaker who had a change of heart, starting the Skeleton Root winery in southern Ohio. “I think most winemakers and growers thought I was nuts,” she says. “But once I became aware of the legacy and read about the classical style of wines Longworth produced from American grapes, I was hooked. It became a calling of sorts to try to resurrect them.”

Almost third: Not too long ago, I was getting news releases proclaiming the U.S. as the biggest wine drinking country in the world. These days, though, wine has fallen to almost third in popularity in the U.S., barely holding off spirits. Gallup reports that 30 percent of us say wine is our favorite alcoholic beverage, compared to the 29 percent who choose spirits. The poll’s margin of error is plus or minus three points, which means wine may well have dropped from first in 2006 to last in this survey. The Wine Curmudgeon would be remiss if he didn’t mention this decline coincides with premiumization, but what do I know?

Winebits 605: Wine bottles, wine theft, Swedish wine

wine bottlesThis week’s wine news: Tablas Creek embraces lighter wine bottles, plus wine thief gets 18 months and Sweden’s wine industry

Lighter bottles: Jason Haas of the Tablas Creek winery in Paso Robles asks a question that has always puzzled me: “So, given that lighter bottles cost less and people seem to like them more, why are there still wineries using the heavy bottles?” The post, discussing the winery’s almost decade long switch to lighter wine bottles, is well worth reading. It offers insight into how wineries make marketing decisions – or don’t, as the case may be. Haas says the lighter bottles, besides the positive environmental impact, have saved the winery untold amounts of money. So what’s the answer to his question? Apparently, heavy bottles still denote quality to retailers and producers, if not to all consumers.

Wine scam: William Holder, whose wine storage scam bilked wine collectors out of their wine and as much as $1.5 million, will spend 18 months in federal prison. He has also been ordered to make restitution. Holder charged collectors for storing their high-end wine, but then sold some of it to retailers and brokers around the country. Hence, when the customers came to collect their wine, it wasn’t there.

Even in Sweden: David Morrison at The Wine Gourd writes about Swedish wine: The “main limitation of Swedish wines at the moment is that they are not good value for money” because of “high production costs associated with the small volumes.” We’ve heard that before, haven’t we? Morrison says quality seems to be good among the three dozen or so Swedish producers, despite the price/value problems. This is especially impressive since the Swedes have to grow hybrids that can handle the colder climate, and hybrids are notoriously difficult to turn into quality wine.

Photo: “Don’t forget the wine” by Sergio Maistrello is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 

Has wine with dinner been turned into binge drinking?

binge drinking

Please, neo-Prohibitonists: Stop these people before they binge drink again.

Yet another booze study characterizes responsible behavior as binge drinking

Another studying demonizing drinking showed up last week, replete with the flaws that have come to characterize these studies. The authors cherry-picked their study group, ignored relevant statistical data, and glossed over any socio-economic and demographic explanations for their conclusion. The result? Old people! Binge drinking!! Death!!!

The other thing that struck me about the study was its definition of binge drinking: four to five drinks in one sitting. In other words, drinking wine with dinner has become just as evil as frat boys chugging Everclear and men of a certain age pounding a six-pack after work and then passing out on the sofa.

My name is the Wine Curmudgeon, and I am a binge drinker.

On Saturday night, I had five glasses of wine with dinner. We had hard-cooked eggs in mustard sauce for a first course, followed by a mock cassoulet (turkey, sausage, a duck leg/thigh, and white beans) served with rice and a cabbage salad. I opened the $10 Pigmentum Gascon white blend with the eggs, which was a terrific pairing (the wine’s citrus fruit complementing the richness of the egg). I drank the fabulous 2011 Bonny Doon Bien Nacido syrah with the cassoulet, and it was an even better pairing – dark, earthy food with a dark, earthy wine.

So how did a full dinner eaten over two or three hours with five glasses of wine turn into binge drinking?

Your guess is as good as mine. The five-drink definition (four for women) comes from the National Institute for Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism: Binging is “a pattern of drinking that brings blood alcohol concentration (BAC) levels to 0.08 g/dL This typically occurs after 4 drinks for women and 5 drinks for men – in about 2 hours.”

Not coincidentally, that 0.08 number is the legal definition of drunk driving in 49 states. If it’s illegal to drive after five drinks, then it’s easy to call something binging. Or, conversely, let’s lower the legal blood alcohol level to 0.08 since the experts call that binge drinking.

And do not think this is an apologia for alcoholism and drunk driving. I know first-hand the horror and pain of each. Rather, it’s a plea for a measured, reasonable, and rational approach to solving the problems they cause.

That’s because drinking is not the problem. Abusing alcohol is the problem. Trying to shame responsible adults into stopping behavior that isn’t shameful won’t do much to stop alcohol abuse. Didn’t the neo-Prohibitonists learn anything from Prohibition? Hopefully, they’ll eventually figure this out. Until then, I’m happy to do my part to explain it to them.

Photo: “company dinner” by Rivard is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0 

More about neo-Prohibitionists, booze studies, and wine drinking:
Cigarettes, wine, and cancer
Drinking, scientific doom and gloom, and perspective
The CDC alcohol death study

Winebits 604: Three-tier lawsuit, organic wine, printer ink

three-tier lawsuitThis week’s wine news: Three-tier lawsuit over pricing reminds us that booze regulation isn’t gong away quickly. Plus, is organic the future of wine, and why does printer ink cost more than vintage Champagne?

No discounting: Total Wine, the national liquor store chain, can’t discount wine lower than the state of Massachusetts says it can, ruled the state’s highest court. The decision overturned a lower court judgment in favor of Total, which said the chain could charge lower prices, and that they didn’t violate state law. There’s almost no way to summarize the judgment for anyone who doesn’t have a law degree and is familiar with alcohol wholesalers; it’s enough to know that the ruling (the pricing laws are “not arbitrary and capricious or otherwise unreasonable”) reminds us that three-tier isn’t going away quickly, despite what many people think.

Organic wine: An Italian high-end producer says the future of quality wine is organic. “I think it’s important to go organic, because today, we need to be careful about what we eat and drink,” says Salvatore Ferragamo, whose family owns Tuscany’s Il Borro. Since the vines absorb what is found in the soil, and since that is transferred in varying amounts to the fruit and into the wine, organic makes the most sense.

Very pricey: Those of us who have always wondered why printer ink was so expensive will not be surprised to learn that it’s 10 times more expensive than vintage Champagne, widely regarded as some of the best wine in the word. A British consumer advocacy group says printer ink costs around £1,890 per litre (about US$2,400), compared to £1,417.50 per liter (about US$1,756) for vintage Champagne from luxury producer Dom Perignon. The consumer group also reported that printer was more expensive than crude oil.

Photo: “Antinori Wines at Berkmann Grand Cafe Wine Tasting” by Dominic Lockyer is licensed under CC BY 2.0 

Winecast 37: Steve McIntosh, Winethropology

Steve McIntosh

Steve McIntosh

Steve McIntosh of Winethropology offers rare perspective on three of the of the most controversial developments in wine today.

Steve McIntosh’s view of the wine world comes from the middle of the country, which offers rare perspective. How many wine writers make do in a state when wine is not allowed to go on sale? His decade-old Winethropology blog offers solid reviews and incisive commentary about what’s going on these days.

We talked about three of the most controversial developments of the current wine business: the Tennessee Supreme Court case, and whether it will really upend the the three-tier system; premiumization and the role Big Wine and consolidation have played in foisting it on us; and whether the rose boom will turn into a permanent part of wine. Steve is a lot more cynical about rose’s future than I am.

Click here to download or stream the podcast, which is about 11 minutes long and takes up 4.3 megabytes. The sound quality is almost excellent; I’ve finally figured out most of the quirks in Skype’s new recording feature.