Category:Wine news

Winebits 609: Winery values, rose, Indiana wine

winery valuesThis week’s wine news: Have winery values, once seemingly exempt from the laws economics, started to decline? Plus, rose as a lifestyle and Indiana’s Oliver winery.

Declining values? Have California winery values, which seemed to be exempt from the laws of economics, started to decline? Silicon Valley Bank’s Rob McMillan thinks so, citing the changing economics around the wine business. “The short answer to the headline question for today is there are still plenty of buyers but overall they are being a little more selective, and your winery and vineyard are probably not worth more than they were last year,” he writes. “Without going into details on a long topic, we are presently oversupplied on grapes and bulk wine from most regions, and the upside to higher sales is for today more limited than the past. …” If McMillan is correct, and he usually is, then the situation is markedly different from almost anything in the past three decades. Napa Valley land prices, for example, didn’t lose value during the recession, even though the rest of the country saw land prices drop by double digits. There’s a lot of math and financial-speak in the post, but the sense is that we’re in a world no one expected to see.

Rose as a way of life: Who knew that rose instilled a wine culture in the U.S.? That’s the gist of this Forbes blog post, which otherwise seems like a plug for rose from the French region of Provence. Which is not surprising, since the Provence rose trade group has one of wine world’s best marketing programs. It’s a also a plug for high-end rose, including one that costs $190 a bottle. Its producer describes it as “gastronomic rose” — no doubt to differentiate it from the $10 plonk the rest of us drink.

Only in Indiana: Regional wine scores another victory with the Mainstream Media in this feature about Indiana’s Oliver Winery, “the largest winery in the Midwest, it’s perhaps the largest winery east of the Mississippi – or, at least one of the largest – and it’s the 44th largest winery in the United States.” The Wine Curmudgeon is always happy to see regional wine in the news, showing once again how far ahead of the curve we were with Drink Local Wine.

Photo: “vineyards” by mal.entropy is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 

Winebits 608: Wine writing, weed sommeliers, driver-less tractors

wine writing

Kingman Ag Services’ driver-less tractor

This week’s wine news: The Italian Wine Guy ponders wine writing, plus cannabis sommeliers and driver-less tractors for the vineyard.

Talking down: Alfonso Cevola on his Italian Wine Guy blog, describes a conversation with a colleague. The latter, describing post-modern wine writing: “I have often been left with a depleted feeling, as if the writer was talking above me, to a more enlightened, more illuminated crowd. What an awful feeling, for a wine writer to make a wine lover feel bad about wine. But it is happening more and more on a regular basis.” This, of course, is something the Wine Curmudgeon has tried not to do; in fact, not talking down to readers has been my reason for being since I started wine writing in those long ago newspaper print days. Hence, Alfonso’s advice: “Pick your influencers with care. Make them count. Forget about how many ‘followers’ or ‘likes’ they have. Use your power of discernment, for those whom you follow will lead, for better or worse. You decide, not Instagram or Twitter. Not the influencer. It’s up to you.And up is where we want to be.”

How about an MC? That’s master of cannabis to go with Master of Wine and Master of Sommelier. And why not, says a Canadian workplace study looking at employment opportunities in 2030. The CBC reports that the study’s experts “felt it won’t be long before there’s money to be made as an expert on the best varieties of cannabis to consume. Having help to find flavour profiles that suit your personal tastes could make sense as cannabis continues to become more widely available following [Canadian] legalization last year.” Perhaps the best part about the survey? Its authors say there’s not necessarily any data to back it up, but that it’s a “a compelling and playful way to look at how work may evolve.” What a refreshing change of the usual run of studies – wine and health, anyone? – that pass themselves off as legitimate when they may not be.

No driver needed: They’re called autonomous tractors, and one looks like a post-modern armored personnel carrier. But we know them as driver-less tractors. Kingman Ag Services, which farms about 8,000 acres of wine grapes, pistachios, watermelons, cotton, and other crops in California’s San Joaquin Valley, rolled one out this summer. The tractors can be operated near the land, but also at what the story calls “great distances,” further reducing the need for expensive and hard to find farm labor.

Follow-up: Paul Tincknell and the woes of wine marketing

More examples showing that wine marketing lacks imagination and doesn’t focus on why people drink wine

Last week’s podcast with Sonoma wine marketing guru Paul Tincknell elicited a fair amount of comment, especially since it ran at the end of the summer when most people have other things to do besides listen to podcasts about the decades-long failure of wine marketing.

As one reader emailed me: “Commercials showing people drinking grocery store wine at swank parties? People get paid for coming up with that stuff?”

Paul received some feedback, too. A colleague shared data with him about a 2009 wine consumption survey: “The results,” Paul emailed me, “are fascinating and confirm that – guess what! – people drink wine with family and friends at meals or in casual situations.” The colleague told Paul that the survey results were given to almost every important wine marketing and trade group in the country, but that, “of course, the industry immediately ignored their work.”

In other words, the business has known for at least a decade how U.S. consumers enjoy wine and the best way to market to them: Show people drinking wine at dinner with their friends and family. That hardly seems like a creative reach. (And we’re not the only ones who have seen this — check out this rant from Paul Mabray, who is generally regarded as one of best wine and consumer experts in the country).

Instead, we get epic silliness like the Kim Crawford “Undo ordinary” commercial, a long-time favorite of blog readers. And, no, it didn’t get an almost unprecedented 33 comments or become one of the blog’s most visited posts because everyone thought it was cutting edge genius.

In fact, Kim Crawford (owned by Big Wine’s Constellation Brands) seems to go out of its way to show up in these kinds of analyses. Paul sent me two especially foolish commercials; the one that made me giggle the most is at the top of this post, called “Make it Amazing.” Who knew I had sway my butt just so to be a cool, sophisticated wine drinker? The other, called “Elevate the Moment,” looks like something from a short-lived 1990s PBS series about rich people.

Is it any wonder I worry about the future of the wine business?

Video courtesy of Kim Crawford Wines via YouTube using a Creative Commons license

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