Category:Wine news

Winebits 116: Pinot noir scandal, minimum wine prices, wine critics

? Fraud charges brought: French authorities have charged 13 with fraud for selling millions of dollars of fake pinot noir to Gallo for its Red Bicyclette brand. The public prosecutor recommended prison sentences and heavy fines for the defendants, who included executives from two wineries and five co-operatives, as well as negociant Ducasse and conglomerate Sieur d’Arques. Only the latter denied the charges. Between 2006 and 2008, Sieur d’Arques allegedly sold 3.5 million gallons of wine labeled pinot noir to Gallo that was actually merlot and syrah. For background, go here.

? UK closer to minimum pricing? More than a dozen directors of public health in Britain’s northeast have urged the government to introduce a minimum price for alcohol. The officials signed an open letter to ministers condemning the sale of alcohol at “pocket money prices.” The on-going minimum pricing controversy is a reaction to increased levels of binge drinking and alcoholism in the UK, which public health officials have called a crisis. They said a can of beer can be bought for a little as 22 pence, or about 35 cents US.

? Dump the critics: Tim Hanni, one of the first Americans to earn the Master of Wine title, says that wine critics are bunk. He told Oliver Thring of the Guardian newspaper  “that the critics utterly misjudge their approach, and that ‘matching’ wine and food is lazily unchallenged bunk. Everyone’s palate is different, their tastebuds their only guide, he says. It is an argument so radical that self-professed ‘experts’ wouldn’t even bother responding to it, were it not for the fact that Hanni is one of them.” Mr. Hanni is welcome at the Wine Curmudgeon’s any time — I’ll bring the $10 wine. Interestingly, my colleague Janice Fuhrman wrote about this topic just last week, and reached more or less the same conclusion.

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Winebits 115: Lighter wine bottles, 2009 wine sales, British bubbly

? One-third less bottle: The world's lightest wine bottle is on supermarket shelves in Great Britain. It weights 300 grams (about 10 1/2 ounces), 30 percent less than the standard bottle. This is another initiative from European retailers to reduce bottle weight and thereby cut carbon emissions. I did a story for the trade magazine Vineyard & Winery Management about this last year (unfortunately, there is no link), and the Europeans are much more serious about this than most U.S. producers are.

? 2009 was "brutal": That's from no less an authority than wine business consultant Jon Frederickson. "Usually, we're raving about how great the year was," he told a group of winery professionals and grape growers. "But this was probably the worst year you ever had." Shipments of California wine were down 4 million cases, a drop of nearly 4 percent from 2008 — the worst showing in 16 years.

? English wine smacks French: And we thought it couldn't get any worse for Champagne, which is enduring its worst sales slump in decades. But British producer Nyetimber recently won a blind tasting in Italy, besting some of the best Champagne houses, including Bollinger and Louis Roederer. (This reference has been struck out because the Wine Curmudgeon is boycotting Roederer products.) There were 52 entries in the category and Nyetimber was the only producer to have two wines make it into the top 17.

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Darryl Beeson, the Wine Guy

Darryl Beeson, The Wine Guy

One of the great moments of the Wine Curmudgeon's career came during my semi-regular appearances on Darryl Beeson's all too short-lived Dallas radio show. Every Sunday afternoon, Darryl would lead travel expert Kevin Kalley and myself through two hours of wine, food and travel.  Darryl actually made me sound knowledgeable.

Darryl died last week at 54, after complications following a car accident. He will be much missed.

One of the best things about this business is that there are so many good people in it. When I started writing about wine, Darryl was one of the leading wine experts in Dallas. He had worked for many of the top restaurants in town, and his work had appeared in a variety of prestigious publications. He knew everyone, and everyone knew Darryl. He was The Wine Guy, always nattily attired in sport coat and bow tie.

But Darryl always had time for people like me, then and now. I called him once when I was starting out to ask him if Beaujolais was a part of Burgundy. It's a simple question, but Darryl was happy to answer it, and he explained the differences to me without getting annoyed. I'm grateful we chatted on the phone about a month ago, and he was as generous as always with his kind words and advice.

His old pal Jim White, who runs the Savor Dallas wine festival and gave Darryl his start on radio in the 1990s, said it best: Darryl was a good soul, and there weren't many like him.

Direct shipping loses a big one

Nationwide direct shipping is not just around the corner and the maze of liquor laws known as the three-tier system that limits what wines we can buy and how we can buy them is not going to go away anytime soon — if ever.

That’s the bad news from a federal appeals court decision this week that upheld a Texas law that allowed the state to forbid non-Texas retailers from selling in Texas. The Fifth Circuit decision, Siesta Market, said that not only does the 21st Amendment, which repealed Prohibition, give the states almost unlimited leeway in regulating liquor sales, but that the 2005 Supreme Court Granholm decision that allowed winery direct shipping is very limited in its scope. Wrote the court: “Regulating alcoholic beverage retailing is largely a State’s prerogative.”

Or, as attorney Andy Siegel (no relation), who deals in alcoholic control issues, told me today: “I’m only a little bit surprised there has been been such a swing against Granholm. This is a sweeping, unequivocal response against Granholm.”

Four and half years ago, those of us who support direct shipping and a loosening of the three-tier system thought that the 2005 case, known as Granholm, was going to do just that. In Granholm, the Supreme Court ruled that state laws that discriminate against out-of-state wineries at the expense of in-state wineries were unconstitutional. In other words, states couldn’t allow consumers to buy wine directly from in-state wineries unless they allowed consumers to buy wine directly from out-of-state wineries as well.

At the time, Granholm was going to be the key that would unlock the three-tier system. I thought so, and wrote that. Siegel, a partner with Shackelford, Melton & McKinley in Dallas, told me that he saw Granholm as the dam buster. It unlocked winery direct sales; the next door to be opened would be out-of-state retail direct sales, in which consumers would be allowed to buy from any liquor store or on-line retailer anywhere. That’s what Siesta Market was about, brought expressly for that purpose. The pillars, Siegel said, would start to fall.

Currently, out-of-state retail is illegal under three-tier and Internet retailers like actually have a physical presence, like a warehouse, in the states where they sell wine to comply with the law. The reason for all this? The three-tier system — the legal framework that has regulated alcohol sales in U.S. since Prohibition was repealed. In three-tier, which exists in some form in every state, consumers (with some exceptions) must buy wine from retailers or restaurants, which must buy from wholesale distributors, who buy from the producers. Retailers can ?t buy direct from the winery and consumers mostly can ?t either. I wrote a piece for the on-line wine magazine Palate Press about three-tier, which offers a good description of how three-tier works and why it exists.

Instead, the Fifth Circuit decision locks the door again. Yes, it applies only to Texas and a couple of states in the South, and only to wine, but the precedent has been set. Other states and other courts looking for an excuse to limit Granholm will gladly quote it, and Siegel says it will be a powerful weapon. “This is an important decision,” he said.

In one respect, this decision should not be surprising. Granholm, in the past 4 1/2 years, has not been as sturdy as it seemed to be at the time. The states, which have a financial, social, and legislative interest in the three-tier system, found ways around it. In Michigan, for example, the legislature effectively prohibited shipments from in-state wineries to consumers, so that its ban against out-of-state wineries was not seen as discriminatory. Most of the lawyers I’ve talked to since then have said the same thing, and one predicted that the Supreme Court could eventually reverse itself on Granholm and reinstate the ban on winery direct shipping.

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Winebits 114: CellarTracker, celebrity wine, wine sales

? More plaudits for CellarTracker: Big-time praise for the Wine Curmudgeon’s favorite wine inventory software from the Winestream Media. Jon Bonne’ in the San Francisco Chronicle says it may be “wine’s new killer app.” Of course, this comes after he says he always viewed the system with skepticism, apparently because it didn’t allow for a way for users to efficiently track critics’ views. Not quite sure why that should make a difference, but I respect Bonne to give him the benefit of the doubt. CellarTracker has many strengths, not the least of which is that it’s free and that it works. The data base includes almost every wine in the world, including the obscure cheap ones that I drink. Plus, creator Eric LeVine is in the middle of several snazzy upgrades.

? Mariah Carey gets her own bubbly: The Wine Curmudgeon may have to institute a ban on celebrity wine, much as he did for wine health news, if this keeps up. But it looks like Carey has some sort of licensing deal with a Champagne house for something called Angel. Pretty good piece in the Wine Spectator about what’s going on. And do you like how I resisted the urge to call Carey a pop diva?

? The new normal: I’m going to write more on this later, but a quick note about the latest report from the Wine Marketing Council, which keeps an eye on sales trends for the California wine business. Or, as industry trade Wines & Vines put it: “Fragile consumers … are less interested in spending their money than in repairing their balance sheets. For the wine industry, that translates into slow growth, lower prices and younger fans who are drinking more at home than at fancy
restaurants.” That’s not news, of course, to regular visitors here, but it is an interesting perspective from an industry that has not especially focused on any of those things over the past decade.

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Winebits 113: U.S. wineries, minimum pricing, cheap wine imports

? Growth in U.S. wineries: There were 6,223 wineries in the United States in November 2009, reports Wine Business Monthly, a 6 percent increase over 2008. About half of the wineries are in California, a figure that has been consistent for the past four years. The interesting news — and what matters for regional wine — is that 10 states now have more than 100 wineries: Not just California, Washington and Oregon, but New York, Virginia, Texas, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and
North Carolina. In addition, the regional numbers in the study are almost certainly not up to date. Texas’ wine trade group reports almost 200 wineries, about 50 more than the study, and I’m sure the other top regional states are equally under reported.

? Minimum wine prices in UK? The item last week that consumption would decrease 40 percent in Great Britain if binge drinking were eliminated elicited enough interest to note that one of the solutions being proposed to the abuse is minimum pricing. Critics say the country’s four
major supermarket chains sell booze below cost as loss leaders to attract customers, so the plan would force them to sell beer for at least 6 a six-pack (about US$10) and 4.50 (about US$7.50) for a bottle of wine. Needless to say, that would never happen in the U.S., and it is quite controversial in Britain.

? Chilean exports soar: Anyone who doubts that Americans have changed their wine drinking habits should note that Concha y Toro, the Chilean producer that makes a host of sub-$10 wines, saw exports rise 22 percent in 2009. The company’s two biggest export markets Great Britain and the U.S.

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Winebits 112: Recyling wine bottles, binge drinking, Aussie update

? Wash and reuse: A California man, who wondered why the United States has to recycle wine bottles by melting them, is looking for a better way. His company, Wine Bottle Recycling, wants to collect, clean, and redistribute 3
million to 5 million cases’ worth of used wine bottles each year by
sometime in 2010.

? Heavy drinkers prop up industry: A British study has found that alcohol sales in the United Kingdom would drop by 40 per cent if everyone drank responsibly. This is an astounding number if true, and is part of an on-going debate in Britain about the health woes caused by too much drinking and calls for a minimum price for wine, beer and spirits. I haven’t seen comparable numbers for the United States, but if these figures are anywhere close to being correct, I wonder how different they would be in the U.S.

? More bad news from Down Under: Depressed grape prices are getting personal in Australia, where growers are finally understanding what is going on: “Not just Australia, but the whole world was awash with cheap wine. The
growers were facing serious cuts — not only in the price they would be
paid per tonne of grapes, but to the number of tonnes they sold. For Mr
Calabria’s 40 growers, that meant each would lose, on average, about 20
per cent of their income. Some would be paid less per tonne than it
cost them to grow the grapes.”

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