Category:Wine news

Winebits 646: Expensive wine, Grocery Outlet, drinking laws

expensive wine

“Oh no, expensive wine is endangered!”

This week’s wine news: Catching up with what’s going on that isn’t about rose

The future of expensive wine: Esther Mobley, writing in the San Francisco Chronicle, asks whether the coronavirus pandemic “will make luxury Napa Valley wine less relevant?” It’s one thing for me to write that on the blog; that’s the Wine Curmudgeon’s reason for being. But it shows old-fashioned newspaper gumption for Mobley to do it, since the Chronicle is the paper of record for luxury Napa Valley wine. Because as soon as I saw the piece, I knew Mobley’s bosses would be getting a variety of nasty emails, texts, and phone calls. “How dare she write something like that?” would have been the general tone.”We need her support more than ever, and she is tearing us down!” That’s when they usually threaten to pull advertising. And how do I know about stuff like that? Let’s just say it happened once or twice during my journalism career. Hard to believe, yes?

Grocery Outlet thriving: Grocery Outlet’s sales increased 25 percent during the first quarter this year, as shoppers flocked to the discount chain as food prices increased elsewhere. Grocery Outlet is known on the blog for its quality cheap wine, but its other prices can be as much as 70 percent lower than full-service supermarkets. That has helped the chain, with stores mostly on the west coast, attract shoppers who are still looking for value despite the pandemic, say analysts.

U.S. drinking laws: The BBC takes a look at how U.S. drinking laws have changed during the duration. The story isn’t the news organization’s best reporting – it’s too long, unfocused, and depends on weak sourcing (trade lingo!), but that it did the piece at all speaks to the momentous changes that the pandemic has brought to U.S. liquor regulations. Which, of course, you read here first. It also includes the obligatory quote from a U.S. medical official saying that we’re all burn in hell if we don’t stop drinking so much.

Winebits 645: California grape glut, grape DNA, Pennsylvania liquor board

grape glutThis week’s wine news: The California grape glut, especially for high end cabernet sauvignon, continues worse. Plus, the Aussies misidentify a grape, and more fun from the Pennsylvania liquor control board

California grape glut: How much excess is there in the California grape supply chain? There “is still more bulk wine available than there are buyers for it, and that makes bottle price increases difficult to foresee, even as wine consumption has risen sharply. It also means you might get better wine for the same money,” reports after a wine business symposium last week. In addition, there is apparently more bulk cabernet for sale today than at any time in the state’s history. The kicker? Much of the excess is in high-end caberent sauvignon, so we’re “going to see some grapes meant for the higher-end market coming into the middle range,” says Mark Couchman, managing partner of Vintage Supply Partners – and that’s good news for wine drinkers.

Whoops: Identifying grape varieties without benefit of DNA testing is difficult; for decades, Chilean producers thought the carmenere grape was merlot. A mixup has happened again, this time in Australia, where wines labeled with the petit manseng grape were actually made with the gros manseng grape. The mix-up has been going on for almost 40 years, when the misidentified grapes were purchased from France. The seller, too, didn’t know what variety the grapes actually were.

Only in Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, much beloved by the blog’s readers, has decided that closing all of the state’s liquor stores in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic may not have been such a good idea after all. It has reopened about 15 percent of the some 600 stores in the state-run system. But those lucky enough to have a newly re-opened store near them will have to drink what they buy. No returns are allowed.

Winebits 644: Flat wine bottle, wine lawsuits, artisan wine

flat wine bottleThis week’s wine news: Meet the flat wine bottle, plus one more yummy wine lawsuit and trying to define artisan wine

Bottle of the future? How about a 750 ml plastic wine bottle, made from 100 percent recycled material and is flat enough to slide through a mail slot? The Wine Curmudgeon is beside himself with excitement. “I was surprised by how little the wine bottle had changed in the last 200 years,” Santiago Navarro told Wine Business International magazine. His goal: Find a bottle better suited to home delivery and that would interest younger wine consumers. The article reports that the bottle is lightweight and environmentally friendly — and it didn’t break when dropped more than four feet onto a tiled floor.

Bring on the attorneys! Regular visitors here know how much fun the WC gets from wine lawsuits, and this one is even better than most. JaM Cellars, which makes Butter Chardonnay, has filed a series of lawsuits against The Wine Group, which makes Franzia Bold & Jammy cabernet sauvignon and Rich & Buttery chardonnay. JaM alleges that the Franzia products infringe on its trademarks and “is likely to cause consumer confusion, deception or mistake.” Where’s Shakespeare when you need him? The story in the link does a decent job of explaining a difficult subject, complete with sidebar discussing legal precdents. To me, though the best thing is that JaM has been suing other producers since 2013 to defend its trademarks. One would think that the money would be better spent improving the wine, but I’m just a cranky wine writer and not a marketing guru.

So what is artisan? Artisan wine is one of those terms difficult to define. There is no legal standard, and Big Wine mostly uses the same production techniques as the smallest producer. And this news release, with its 40-word first sentence that is full of gibberish and jargon, doesn’t help matters much. It mostly does a mediocre job of promoting the company that says it’s going to help artisan wineries and doesn’t really say what it’s going to do to help them or what an artisan winery is. It almost makes me want to bring back the Curmudgies.

Texas restaurants and alcohol to go

alcohol to goNew state alcohol to go law has helped restaurants stay in business, and the change may be permanent

Shawn Virene, who owns the Houston restaurant a’Bouzy, doesn’t mince words.

“Hopefully, this will keep going for a while,” says Virene. “It’s really helped us with our cash flow during all of this. It has allowed us to pair wine with food and sell it at a reasonable price.”

The “it” Virene is talking about? The decision to allow Texas restaurants to sell alcohol to go during the coronavirus pandemic. a’Bouzy sells out its daily takeout specials – dinner for two, plus a bottle of wine for the cost of the wine in most restaurants. The wine specials, plus selling margarita setups, he says, has allowed him to hang on during the pandemic-caused restaurant closure in Texas.

And he may get his wish about the rule changes lasting longer than the duration. Texas Gov. Greg Abbot, a Republican, tweeted this week that “Alcohol-to-go sales can continue after May 1,” when Texas lifted its statewide stay at home order. Wrote the governor: “From what I hear from Texans, we may just let this keep on going forever.”

As Virene noted when we talked this week, the changes are as welcome as they are unprecedented. Texas does not allow restaurants to sell wine or spirits to go; the very idea is regarded as blasphemous, and even BYOB is heavily restricted. Meanwhile, the state’s open container law is written so that those of us who legally take an unfinished bottle of restaurant wine home could still be arrested.

So we truly are in a brave new world, as I noted in last month’s three-tier post.

The reason for the change? Because it boosts business, and easier access to alcohol, so far, does not seem to have made anything worse. Virene makes 100 to-go dinners daily, and he sells out by early afternoon. At his prices, that’s understandable. The most expensive dinner, crab-stuffed flounder for two, costs $69, and that includes a bottle of Champagne. Most are $44 or less, including coq a vin plus California merlot for $44; lasagna and Chianti for $32; and Taco Tuesday with Rioja for $39. The margarita setup, enough for a half-gallon with Jimador Tequila Silver, costs $32.

Virene says he can afford to do that because he doesn’t mark his wine up 3 to 4 times the wholesale price, which is standard restaurant practice. Rather, his markup is less than 2 to 1, because “I would rather sell you two or three bottles and know you had a good time, instead of selling you one bottle and know you went home thinking you had been ripped off.”

That’s the Wine Curmudgeon’s approach to restaurant wine. In this, Virene says other Houston restaurants seem to be adapting his to-go policy, thanks to the changes in the law. Maybe they will adapt his pricing policy, too.

Winebits 643: Wine archaeology, consolidation, periods and spaces

wine archaelogyThis week’s (mostly) wine news: Archaeologists recover centuries-old wine bottles, plus impending wine industry consolidation and whether a period at the end of a sentence gets two spaces or one

Old wine bottles: Regular visitors here know how excited the Wine Curmudgeon gets about wine archaeology. So there’s this: Scottish researchers have uncovered a massive mid-18th century glass factory whose cone furnaces once towered over the port district of Leith and supplied wine and whisky bottles to all corners of the British Empire. The Wine Spectator reports that the factory, near Edinburgh, may have produced as many as 1 million bottles a week. The factory’s downfall? The American Revolution, which cost the factory most of its business with the newly-independent United States.

More consolidation on the way? The Wine Economist tells us to expect consolidation among wineries and wholesalers sooner rather than later, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. Writes Mike Veseth: “Although much is lost in generalization, there is a tendency for larger distributors to focus their value chain on bigger retailers and larger wine producers.  Scale matches scale matches scale. This pattern magnifies an on-going movement to a two-speed wine market with those in the middle range (both domestic and imports) squeezed in the process.” This is not good news for consumers in wine business, which is already top heavy: the five biggest wineries make more than three-quarters of the wine sold in the U.S., while the three biggest distributors control more than half of the market. Fewer and bigger companies will restrict our choices even more.

Periods and spaces: This item, courtesy of Lifehacker, has nothing to do with wine. But it’s a welcome respite from wine and the coronavirus – a discussion dealing with a significant post-modern writerly conundrum: How many spaces follow a period at the end of a sentence? The answer, of course, is one. The confusion comes from typewriter days, when we used two spaces – period, space bar, space bar – to set the new sentence off from the old. But post-modern word processors don’t need our help to set the new off from the old. Still, the argument comes up every once in a while, and the Wine Curmudgeon is always happy to remind younger consumers how much silliness their elders get into.

Photo: “Wine” by CyberMacs is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 

Winebits 642: Coronavirus wine roundup

coronavirus wine This week’s wine news: Coronavirus wine sales trends, more Pennsylvania legal foolishness, and virtual wine tasting samples

What comes next? Noted wine business analyst Christian Miller, a long-time friend of the blog, tells Forbes’ Liza Zimmerman that the coronavirus pandemic could finally slow wine sales later this spring, and the slowdown could last through 2021. The good news, he says, is that “Demand for wine is not going to dry up, or even diminish much, once the initial shocks are ridden out.” He also sees significant changes in the three-tier system as it struggles to cope with the pandemic. The former is pretty much what SVB’s Rob McMillan told the blog a couple of weeks ago, and the latter is something I wrote about last week.

More fun in Pennsylvania: Remember Pennsylvania closing its state-owned liquor stores? Remember state residents being asked to leave neighboring New Jersey and Delaware when they came in search of booze? Well, now the state is being sued by two wholesalers, who say the state is violating its own laws by refusing to let the wholesalers sell directly to retailers and restaurants. The details, not surprisingly since it’s Pennsylvania, are quite confusing. But it’s enough to know that the state’s liquor control board says it doesn’t have to obey that particular law because it is still studying it.

Bring on the samples! The Wine Curmudgeon knows that many of you in the cyber-ether have been worried that I would not be able to receive wine samples for virtual tastings during the duration. But have no fear. The federal agency that oversees that sort of thing said last week that not only wine writers, but consumers would be able to receive “small containers of wine” for virtual tasting. There’s lots of fine print, depending on which state you live in, but this is one more example of the pandemic pushing the three-tier system to the side.

Image: “wine” by Chas Redmond is licensed under CC BY 2.0 

Greenwashing, wine, and Earth Day

greenwashingCelebrate Earth Day by understanding the difference between greenwashing and wine that’s truly green

Wednesday is Earth Day, an annual event that reminds us that we need to treat the planet with more respect. As such, it’s the perfect time to talk about greenwashing – a marketing technique where producers, manufacturers, and other companies describe their products as environmentally friendly or sustainable even though they may be nothing of the kind.

Sadly, greenwashing is not uncommon in wine. This is the time of year when wine writers are inundated with news releases touting how green a wine or a wine brand is, even if the product in the release isn’t especially ecological. That’s because green products are rated more highly by consumers, and especially by the younger consumers who aren’t much interested in wine.

So why not flog green wine? It’s made of plants, isn’t it? How much greener does it need to be?

A lot, actually, and starting with the glass bottle. Wine bottles are notorious for their excessive carbon footprint, and even wine critic Jancis Robinson, who is about as establishment as wine critics get, has seen the light: “Consumers as well as producers really need to rethink the issue of wine packaging.” That so much wine is shipped in glass bottles all over the planet just makes a bad thing worse.

The other handicap facing wine? It’s almost impossible in this country to figure out how green a wine is. Federal laws regulating organic wine are confusing and contradictory – an organic wine is legally different from a wine made with organic grapes. Organic wine is mostly about not adding sulfites, while wine made with organic grapes is closer to what we think of when we think organic potatoes or tomatoes.

There’s sustainability, and then there’s sustainability

In addition, the leading sustainability standard, promulgated by the Wine Institute trade group, defines sustainable as winemaking practices that “are environmentally sound, socially equitable and economically viable.” Does this mean sustainability only makes sense if it’s profitable?

Several years ago, I wrote a green wine magazine story, and an organic viticulture consultant in northern California put it plainly: “Consumers assume that wine, by its very nature, is pure and natural to begin with. Ask most consumers, and they don’t equate a vineyard with a factory farm the same way they do for other products. Vineyards are beautiful, and don’t look like a picture of a factory farm.”

In other words, wine is made of plants, isn’t it? How much greener does it need to be?

This is not to say that many growers and producers don’t take green seriously. I’ve talked to many who spend extra time and money to do the right thing, and sustainability groups in the Napa Valley and in Lodi have produced impressive results.

But it’s just so damn easy to greenwash wine. A recent survey found that consumers were more likely to buy wine that used terms like sustainable and organic — and this makes it worth noting that more than two-thirds of the wines called out in the infamous arsenic lawsuit in 2015 could have been certified sustainable.

So the next time you see an ad touting a winery’s stewardship of the earth, give it a second look. There’s stewardship, and then there’s greenwashing. It’s the least you can do for Earth Day.

Image courtesy of GreenBiz, using a Creative Commons license