This week’s wine news: Dave McIntyre takes on Playboy wine, plus a potential link between Spanish wine and health and how to avoid winespeak
• Buy the bunny? Dave McIntyre at the Washington Post tries Playboy wine (yes, that Playboy) and finds it worth drinking – and in a review written without any horrible puns. Which, of course, is why Dave is one of the best wine columnists in the country. Who else would resist that temptation? Writes Dave: “Were there ‘flavors of cherry and dark fruits’ and spice notes of vanilla and toasty oak on the finish, as the press release boasted? Perhaps. I was impressed by the wine’s balance of fruit and acidity. It was lighter than I expected, rather than the heavy, confected wines all too common these days.”
• Of course it’s the wine: Spain, according to several international studies, is the healthiest country in the world. The chart, from Wine Industry Insight, doesn’t discuss why Spain is No. 1 and the U.S. is No. 35, but the Wine Curmudgeon has a thought: Could it have something to do with the quality of each country’s cheap wine? Call it the WC cheap wine and health index; there have been many more more Spanish wines on the blog in its 11 ½ year history than U.S. wines.
• Understanding winespeak: Alex Delany, writing for a website called Basically, says “Despite my best intentions, I sometimes hear wine words coming out of my mouth and have an out-of-body experience. ‘Hey, uh, you’re sounding a little insufferable, dude,’ I say to myself. I don’t want to be that guy. And neither do you.” How can I not recommend a piece that starts like that? His advice is good, makes sense, and includes what to do about the dreaded term, “mouth feel.”
Charles Bieler, right, and his father Philippe. They’re a long way from the pink Cadillac.
Charles Bieler is one of the best rose maker in the world; more importantly, he is one of the reasons the rose boom exists. For which we are all most grateful.
Charles Bieler was between jobs in the late 1990s when his father suggested Charles help sell the family rose in the U.S. Charles took up the challenge, painted a Cadillac pink, and traveled the country to convince retailers and restaurants to sell dry pink wine. As Charles says, that was at a time when everyone thought rose was sweet, and he truly wondered if dry rose had a future in the U.S.
Which, of course, it did. We talk about the rose boom, the pink Cadillac trip, and the challenges facing rose today — with advice on how to find the best cheap pink.
A Northwestern University study says the most successful producers focus on wine status and image, and not necessarily quality
Quality matters to most wine producers. But the status and image of their product may matter more in the U.S. market, says a study by two Northwestern University professors. The report, completed last fall in association with the Wine Market Council, found that the most successful wine companies focused on their products’ status before anything else.
In other words, when you’re staring at the grocery store Great Wall of Wine, the producers aren’t trying to sell you on how good their wine is; they’re trying to sell you on how special it is. This is especially true for wines costing more than $15 – the sweet spot for premiumization.
“We found that the most profitable producers, and those with the biggest margins, for them it’s a status game,” says Ashlee Humphreys, PhD, who co-authored “Status Games: Market Driving Through Social Influence in the U.S. Wine Industry” with Northwestern colleague Gregory S. Carpenter. “They don’t care so much about what consumers think as they want to lead the way, so the consumer will follow.”
In one respect, the study’s findings are not new. Those of us who focus on value and quality have always assumed neither was as important as toasty and oaky when it came to marketing wine. But this may be the first time that someone has actually investigated the question and found it to be true in a peer-reviewed academic journal. My favorite line from the study? “Embracing a wine-as-art approach, winemakers’ choices often contradict market-based logic.”
Producers sell their status message by focusing on wine’s so-called gatekeepers – the critics, sommeliers, and wine magazines that shape public opinion. The producers educate the gatekeepers about what makes their wine special, whether it’s a certain style like ripe fruit or a specific appellation like Napa Valley or a superstar winemaker. The gatekeepers then tell consumers the wine is worth buying because it is special, and that “special-ness” gives it a status that other wines don’t have. The consumer, given how confusing wine is, accepts the gatekeepers’ word as gospel and buys the wine. Call it wine’s trickle down effect.
Hence the foolishness in so much wine writing
Which explains the pretentious adjectives in wine reviews, which are so pretentious that they aren’t adjectives but “descriptors;” the schmaltzy travel writing that gushes over wine regions, regardless of what they are; and the snotty restaurant wine lists, which don’t explain as much as they intimidate.
Note that this isn’t exactly fibbing. Napa Valley is a top-notch appellation. Rather, says Humphreys, the idea of status comes from “creating a difference for their wine that sets it apart from everyone else’s wine, and then selling that difference to the gatekeepers. They tell the gatekeepers, ‘We craft a beautiful wine,” and that’s what the gatekeepers report.”
This approach isn’t common for wines costing less than $15, where the reverse is mostly true, says the study. Producers hold focus groups to find out what consumers want, and then make the wines according to those results. Cheap grocery store wine is smooth and boring because that’s what the focus groups say they want. (Whether we actually want smooth and boring, or it’s a failing of the focus groups, is a discussion for another day).
So what’s a wine drinker to do who wants value and quality? Humphreys, who was a casual wine drinker before the study and is more serious now, laughed when I asked her. “I’ve never really thought about that,” she says. “Wine is a social experience, isn’t it? So shouldn’t you ask your friends what they like, and go from there?”
Perhaps. It couldn’t be any less effective than depending on the gatekeepers, could it?
This week’s wine news: We’re going crazy for Aldi and Lidl, plus a high-end wine theft and wine is missing from the country’s political divide
• Discount grocers: A report from a leading consultancy says discounters Aldi and Lidl “are here to stay. People are very happy with this format.” The Bain & Co. study says the two European chains have as much as 30 percent of the market in some parts of the country, an amazing number given how new each are to the U.S. The thing that matters to wine drinkers? That the two chains are investing heavily in high quality private-label products: “They’re not just filling shelves with something cheaper.” That’s what Aldi and Lidl do in Europe with wine, and if we haven’t seen that yet in the U.S., the report is one more reason to hope the chains will upgrade their U.S. wine inventory to its European level.
• No lock can stop them: A Chicago wine collector says the men he rented his condo to stole almost $50,000 worth of wine, including what he called an $8,000 bottle of Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon. The story, from a Chicago TV station, is rife with errors, including the name of the Napa winery. But the story is worth noting several reasons. First, I once lived in the same neighborhood, near Wrigley Field, and there were no condos with $8,000 wine then. Second, because the TV station has a long and proud history, and shouldn’t screw up like that. Third, because the story doesn’t explain why the condo owner was so lax about security for what was termed a “short-term rental.”
• No wine, please: A study outlining the booze preferences for Republicans and Democrats includes lights of light beer and bourbon, but wine is mostly missing from the results. And no, I have no idea what that means. Wine does seem to skew Democratic, save for cabernet and riesling, but the preferences are not nearly as striking as those for bourbon – decidedly GOP – and tequila and vodka, much more Democratic.
• Celebrity wine ventures rarely come to a good end. Just ask Joe Montana. Or Dan Aykroyd.
• The wine business’ attitude toward women has been less than progressive. In this, it’s not as backward as Hollywood and it’s much better than it used to be. But there are still comparatively few female winemakers; the same is true for executives who aren’t in marketing.
• Your marketing types report you will be “hands-on” during production. You should clarify this with them, since some smart-ass wine writer will ask if hands-on during production means you will fly to New Zealand to pick grapes.
• The wine’s availability may be a problem. No one will be able to buy the wine from Amazon or in a grocery store in Manhattan, thanks to the three-tier system. Also, there’s no guarantee it will be in your neighborhood wine shop (so don’t get mad at Matthew when he tells you he can’t find it). Plus, since three-tier is constitutionally protected, there’s nothing you can do except complain to your distributor.
This week’s wine news: A wine lawsuit involving a teeter-totter, plus a wine marketer says the industry is its own worst enemy and declining retail customer service
• Another lawsuit: Regular visitors here know how much the Wine Curmudgeon enjoys wine-related lawsuits (and has even been, slightly, part of one). So it is with a fair amount of glee that I report this suit, via Wine Industry Insight – a small Napa Valley winery suing a large importer over a label where an elephant is on a teeter-totter. Yes, I know this is serious business for the parties involved, and trade dress and intellectual property are important legal concepts. But still, an elephant on a teeter-totter?
• It’s not the Millennials? Someone in the wine business actually agrees with the Wine Curmudgeon about wine being its own worst enemy. Leandro Cabrini, the founder and CEO of Wild Yeast Media, writes: “We are killing [the wine business] with our snobbery and a refusal to listen and see what’s going on around us. We refuse to adapt, maintaining that everything is (and should be) the way it was 20, 30, 50, 100 years ago. Do you know what happens when we don’t adapt? We die. We don’t care about our consumers. … “ Wow. Hard to believe, but maybe someone will actually listen to Cabrini.
• Speaking of which: Customer satisfaction with supermarkets dipped over the past year amid an overall decline in all retail, according to the American Customer Satisfaction Index annual report. Why does this matter to wine drinkers? Because grocery stores probably account for more than half of the wine sold in the U.S., and as much as 75 percent in some states. Reported the study: “Service personnel are less helpful and courteous in person and over the phone. The checkout process is slower and rates lowest.” Is it any wonder I always recommend a quality independent retailer for wine shopping?
Four of the seven wineries on the 2019 Beard award semifinalist list are part of drink local
Four of the seven wineries that are semifinalists for this year’s James Beard Awards for best wine, beer, or spirits producer are regional. What does that say about how far we’ve come with drink local?
The four wineries are among the 20 semifinalists for the top booze honor in this year’s food and wine version of the Academy Awards. The regional honorees are McPherson Cellars in Texas, RdV in Virginia, Red Tail Ridge in N.Y., and La Garagista in Vermont. All four are terrific wineries that do credit not just to regional wine, but to winemaking in the U.S.
It’s also worth noting that the two California wineries among the semifinalists are Winestream Media favorites – the self-named wineries from Cathy Corison and Steve Matthiasson in the Napa Valley. That wineries from Lubbock, Texas, and Bethel, Vt., are on the same list with Corison and Matthiasson would have been unheard of 10 years ago.
Best yet, they don’t make the same kinds of wines that the two Napa wineries make, or the other honoree, Red Willow in Washington state. Their wines speak to the terroir of each producer – something else that makes regional wine so exciting. Just as Italian wine shouldn’t taste like French wine, U.S. regional wine shouldn’t taste like it comes from California.
It’s safe to recommend almost any wine from these four, with the caveat that availability will be spotty if you don’t live in that state.
Consider these wines:
• The McPherson Tre Colore (about $10) is a red blend using the Rhone varietals Texas has figured out. Yes, the rose is terrific, as is the rousanne, but the Tre Colore is the ultimate weeknight wine – well-made, a tremendous value, and just fruity enough (dark berries) without being annoying. I’ve known Kim McPherson a long time, and it’s a pleasure to write this post about the winery.
• The RdV Rendezvous (about $85) is a Bordeaux red blend that shows the great progress Virginia has made over the past 20 years. It’s complex, dark (black fruit), interesting, and layered. If a regional wine is worth as much as a great wine from France, Italy, or California, it might be the Rendezvous.
• New York state is best known for its rieslings, but the Red Tail Ridge blaufrankisch (about $26) makes a case for red wine. Blaufrankisch is an Austrian grape, so it can handle the unpredictable Finger Lakes winters. I drank this wine, earthy and herbal, with my Drink Local co-founder Dave McIntyre; the restaurant’s wine list was infinitely more interesting than the food.
Finally, congratulations to Jennifer Uygur, who owns Lucia in Dallas with chef-husband David. David is a Beard semifinalist for Best Chef: Southwest. Even if he doesn’t win, they will have the satisfaction of knowing Lucia is one of the best restaurants in the country.