Category:Wine news

Winebits 657: Expensive wine, phylloxera, French wine

This week’s wine news: The Wine Curmudgeon isn’t the only one thinks expensive wine is too expensive. Plus, we may be close to a victory over phylloxera, wine’s greatest scourge, and the trials of French wine in the pandemic era

phylloxeraToo pricey: David Morrison, writing on the Wine Gourd, doesn’t mince words: Prices for high-quality wines “are outrageous compared to what they were half a century ago, relatively speaking. Put another way, high-quality wine is much less affordable these days.” His result is based on a study published earlier this year, which found that high-quality wine prices are much more expensive than what their inflation-adjusted prices should be. Apologists for expensive wine (for all wine princes, in fact) always cite inflation as the culprit, so it’s good to see two reports that show them to be wrong. In fact, inflation is rarely the issue; if I was up to it, I would do a post detailing how technology and supply chain efficiencies have wrung inflation out of much of the way wine is priced. Rather, the cause is premiumization and the idea that all wine should cost more because it should. When wine is touted as an investment like real estate, diamonds, and gold, instead of something to drink, how can we expect rational pricing?

An end to phylloxera? Phylloxera is a louse that sucks the sap out of the roots of grape vines, which kills the wines. An infestation at the turn of the 20th century almost destroyed the French wine industry, and the louse still wreaks havoc on vineyards in the 21st century. It’s resistant to pesticides, and the only way to prevent it is to graft non-vinifera rootstock onto vinifera vines (vinifera is the species for the European wine grapes that make the world’s best wines, like merlot and chardonnay). Now, though, scientists may be one step closer to eradicating phylloexera after identifying its genome – the bug’s complete set of DNA. The research could eventually lead to resistant rootstocks, eliminating the need for costly grafting.

Wine woes in France: The French wine market has collapsed, with the Trump tariff and the pandemic playing key roles. This piece from the New York Times tells the story all too well: “And so some of the succulent and subtle white wine for which this region is famous, nurtured on the stony, sunbathed Alsace slopes, will wind up as hand sanitizer.” One Alsatian producer is dumping one-third of its production – almost unprecedented. The story reminds us wine is made by people, some of whose families have been doing it for hundreds of years, and that trade wars have consequences that we may not consider.

Photo courtesy of Helena Lopes, using a Creative Commons license

Winebits 656: Paper bottles, Argentine wine, “athletic beer”

paper bottlesThis week’s wine news: Johnnie Walker scotch will use paper bottles, plus political tensions in Mendoza threaten Argentine wine, and get ready for “athletic beer”

Paper bottles: Johnnie Walker scotch and its multi-national owner Diageo are doing something wine claims isn’t economical – paper bottles. Reuters reports that, starting early next year, the whisky will be available in containers made from wood pulp that meets food grade standards and is fully recyclable. In other words, we’re stuck with $7 wine in glass bottles with some kind of cork, but a $23 bottle of Johnnie Walker Red can come in a milk carton? In addition, paper bottles for Lipton tea and Pepsi are also expected to launch next year. Is it any wonder I worry about the future of the wine business?

Argentine wine woes? Argentina, which always seem to be on the brink of political turmoil, is facing threats of secession from Mendoza, its world famous wine region. The Financial Times reports that “Mendoexit” became a possibility after Argentina defaulted on its international debt for the ninth time and the central government blocked the $1.2bn Portezuelo del Viento dam, billed by local media as the “development project of the century.” So far, secession doesn’t seem likely – it’s technically illegal – but the political upset can’t make it easier for Argentine producers to do business.

Is that like low-carb pizza? The Wine Curmudgeon offers the following, the beginning of a news release for Athletic Brewing, with a minimum of comment: “Lululemon, Spartan, Peloton, Kashi, Beyond Meat …brands not on the radar of American consumers 15 to 20 years ago. Fueling their rise to prominence — Americans’ increasing interest in living healthy, being mindful, getting active, and seeking balance. One of the last industries to understand and truly attack the trend is the beer industry, and one American craft brewer, Athletic Brewing, has changed that and unlocked an entirely new market in the $116 billion beer industry — the ‘athletic beer’ category.”  Who knew non-alcoholic beer would help me achieve balance in my life?

Wine tariff update: Has Europe made the U.S. an offer to end the tariff that it can’t refuse?

wine tariffEuropean officials say illegal aircraft subsidies will be re-paid, so there’s no need for the U.S. wine tariff

The European airplane manufacturer at the center of the U.S. wine tariff controversy says it will increase loan repayments to France and Spain to convince the United States to settle a 16-year-old dispute over billions of dollars of aircraft subsidies.

The news couldn’t get much better than that, could it?

No word from U.S. trade officials on the European offer, which was made on Friday afternoon. But several European government representatives said over the weekend that with the repayments, there’s no reason for the U.S. to continue the 25 percent tariff on French, Spanish, German, and British wines, as well as the levy on airplane parts and a host of other food and alcohol products, including whiskey and some Italian cheeses. The French finance minister was adamant: The U.S. must remove tariffs imposed on European products such as French wine, he told Reuters.

Reuters also reported that an industry source said the manufacturer, Airbus, made the concession because Europe and the U.S. are at “an impasse and need to get out of it. It is a way to show good faith and open the door to find a solution.”

In fact, the tariff has wreaked havoc on U.S. wine imports, the whiskey business on both sides of the Atlantic, and even airplane manufacturing. French wine exports to the U.S. have declined by as much as one-half since October 2019, when the tariffs were imposed. The U.S. Distilled Spirits Council, a trade group for whiskey producers, said U.S. and European companies “have suffered enough.”

And, because the Wine Curmudgeon appreciates irony, it’s worth noting that Airbus has stopped production of the plane that caused the tariff row, citing slow sales. In other words, we’re having a trade dispute about a product that no longer exists.

More about the European wine tariff:
The Trump zombie wine tariff
Robin Hood takes on the wine tariff
Panic wine buying

Geyser Peak gets a new owner – can that save the brand?

geyser peak

“Seriously — someone put riesling in this?”

Geyser Peak, once a great cheap wine brand, has seen sales fall by one-half and quality sink perhaps even more

Dear Robert Pepi Jr.:

I see you are the consultant for the new owners of Geyser Peak, once one of California’s great cheap wine brands. This is welcome news, given your family’s long tradition with sauvignon blanc, the varietal that made Geyser Peak one of California’s great cheap brands. Is it possible that you can convince the wine’s new owners to restore its $10 sauvignon blanc to greatness?

I ask this because American wine drinkers are eager for a $10 California label that offers consistency, quality, and value. Because, as we have too often noted on the blog, that’s almost impossible to find anymore. Geyser Peak was once once of those wines and a member of the $10 Hall of during the blog’s early days. In fact, the Big Guy used to joke that he knew it was summer in Texas when he started drinking Geyser sauvignon blanc.

But that hasn’t been the case for a long time. Your new bosses are at least the brand’s fifth owners since 2007, and the last owner drove sales from around 300,000 cases a year to half that. And no wonder. The last couple of times I tasted the wine it was, to be polite, crummy. Who mixes riesling with sauvignon blanc unless there is an ulterior motive?

Plus, the quotes I read from the new bosses didn’t fill me with confidence: “500,000 cases. … growth potential. … expanded sales force. … honing our focus.” Shudder – nothing about making quality wine in any of that, is there?

Earlier this year, a leading wine industry analyst said California desperately needs “sexy brands at $7 or $8 per bottle. …” Which you and the new owner have the chance to do with Gesyer Peak (and a $10 price would be fine, too). Grape prices have declined, so it will be possible to buy better quality grapes to put in the wine. The brand has a long history of quality – how more reassuring than marketing it as, “Great Geyser Peak wine is back, baby!”? And maybe you can even convince the new owner that this would be the perfect way to bring younger consumers to wine – cheap, fruit forward, and a product that tastes like wine.

As always, I am ready to help in any way I can.

Yours in quality cheap wine,

The Wine Curmudgeon

Photo: Librestock, using a Creative Commons license

Winebits 655: Winespeak, wine real estate, Lidl


“So tell me — what kind of customer input do you get on these volumetric brands?”

This week’s wine news: Importer Frederick Wildman invents perhaps the greatest winespeak term ever, plus wine country real estate is “sluggish” and discount grocer Lidl’s effect on pricing

Bring on the winespeak! Frederick Wildman & Sons, in a news release of little interest to most of us, used the term “volumetric wine brands” to describe the cheap wine it sells, including Ruinite and Bolla. The Wine Curmudgeon read this and knew he had struck winespeak gold. “Volumetric wine brands” is the perfect winespeak term – confusing, completely made up, and having no real relationship to English as we know it. I understand that the company doesn’t want to call the wines cheap or supermarket or mass market, but volumetric? Why not just volume, to signify that it sells a lot of those wines? Is it any wonder I worry about the future of the wine business?

“Sluggish” real estate? Has the pandemic done what no other economic force has been able to do – depress the price of California wine real estate? That may be the case, according to Decanter. A northern California Realtor told the magazine that the vineyard market was “a bit sluggish” overall. If true, this is groundbreaking, since prices have been going up for 20 years despite the bubble and the 2008 recession. Still, there is plenty of pricey land for those interested. Decanter lists three properties, and all appear to cost at least seven figures.

Lidl and wine prices: Does discount grocery Lidl influence wine prices? Perhaps, if one can believe this study from the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. It found that grocery retailers located near Lidl stores set their prices for key staple products up to 55 percent lower compared to their stores in markets where Lidl is not present. The study doesn’t mention wine specifically, but Lidl is famous for its cheap, quality wine in Europe. That’s why it has appeared frequently on the blog since it announced its U.S. expansion several years ago. But the company hasn’t been able to repeat that success here and has cut its growth plans; it recently listed much of its north Texas real estate for sale.

Photo: “Rose wine is really hot in Istanbul” by leyla.a is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Winebits 654: Wine education, cheap wine, wine and salads

wine education

Don’t expect to get wine if all you order is a salad in some California restaurants.

This week’s wine news: Legendary importer Terry Theise says wine experts are the problem with wine, plus a food site recommends cheap wine and California liquor cops say salad isn’t a meal

Wine education: Legendary importer Terry Theise says experts are the problem with wine education: “I want my dry cleaner to be an expert in removing stains, but a ‘wine expert’ is a pathetic thing to aspire to be. And there is Thing-1 that’s wrong with wine education. Its frame of reference is unfriendly, even hostile.” Theise goes on to echo the charge that wine education has turned into job accreditation, making it more about higher salaries than anything else. That someone of Thiese’s stature wrote this is remarkable; it’s the kind of thing that those of us who aren’t part of the establishment complain about. That he did can only help us haul wine into the 21st century.

Cheap wine: The Delish website lists 24 cheap wines, and mostly gets it correct. Yes, there is a $23.99 wine (not cheap!), and it contains the usual sort of annoyances when someone writes wine blurbs from tech sheets. For instance, it would probably be worth mentioning that the $10 Stella Rosa Peach is a little sweet and a bit bubbly, and just not that ” Peach and almond notes burst straight out of the glass.” But any list that includes the Giesen sauvignon blanc and Dibon cava is worth noting.

Don’t order the salad: California’s liquor cops, in defining what constitutes a meal as restaurants reopen during the pandemic, have decided that salads don’t count. This means restaurants won’t be able to cut down their menus and include only salads and similar items (chicken wings) and still expect to sell alcohol. Yes, this is both Kafkaesque and quite funny, but it’s not unusual. I remember the same confusion during college in Evanston, Ill., in the late 1970s. Bars were illegal; the only way you could get a beer in a restaurant was to order something to eat with it. So we had french fires or chili; the former won’t cut it in California, though.

Photo: “Nicea salad” by nvarchar is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Winebits 653: Tony Terlato, Canadian direct shipping, recycled beer

Tony Terlato

Tony Terlato

This week’s wine news: Legendary importer and producer Tony Terlato dies, plus one Canadian province won’t make it easier to buy wine and Guinness recycles leftover beer

Tony Terlato: Tony Terlato, whose self-named company was one of the U.S.’ leading wine importers and eventually became a high-end producer as well, died last week. He was 86. Among Terlato’s accomplishments: Popularizing Italian pinot grigo in the U.S. I was lucky enough to meet Terlato in the blog’s early days, at a massive high-end California wine tasting in Dallas. He was polite and a gentleman, even though he had no idea who I was. Terlato’s philosophy always struck a chord with me, even though his wines were usually too pricey for the blog: “No matter what you’re doing, if you’re not making decisions for quality reasons, you’re going backwards. Quality is the only thing that endures.”

Ontario says no: Canadian liquor laws, if not quite as convoluted as many of those in the U.S., have their own special charm. The province of Ontario, for example, has decided not to make it easier for its residents to buy Canadian wine from elsewhere in the country, reports Currently, Ontario residents can’t buy wine directly from a producer in other provinces, but must buy it from the province-owned liquor stores, the infamous LCBO. Apparently, the LCBO didn’t want to lose its monopoly.

Beer into Christmas trees: Hundreds of thousands of unused kegs of Guinness have been used to fertilize Christmas trees during the coronavirus lockdown, reports Britain’s Press Association. The project is one of several undertaken by the Irish brewery to use millions of liters of stout, beer and ale from closed pubs and bars. This is only the second time Guinness reduced operations to the minimal level required to keep its yeast stocks alive in the past century.