Category:Wine rants

Have we reached the end of wine criticism?

wine criticism

“I’m tired of toasty and oaky. Where’s that damned thesaurus?”

Wine drinkers have little use for wine criticism. Do they know something the wine business doesn’t?

The Internet was supposed to revolutionize wine criticism, making it more accessible, more open, and more democratic. So what has happened in the 11 years I’ve been writing the blog, as we celebrate Birthday week 2018?

Just the opposite – wine criticism has become more button down than ever, a continually increasing jumble of scores and winespeak where every wine, regardless of quality, seems to get 88 or 90 points. Which raises the question: Have we reached the end of wine criticism?

More, after the jump: Continue reading

TV wine ads: Drink Black Tower, invade a foreign country

This 1982 Black Tower TV commercial reminds us that TV wine ads don’t improve with age

Black Tower is a German wine, best known for its black bottle. In the 1970s and 1980s, when U.S. wine drinkers wanted sweet white wine, Black Tower played off Blue Nun’s success to enjoy a bit of popularity before heading to the back shelves of the liquor store. Where it remains, for $8 a bottle, in case you’re curious.

Which brings us to this bizarre Black Tower TV commercial from 1982. The brand’s marketing types probably thought they had to distance it from Blue Nun’s image, so they made it much more manly. A deep, dark voice reminds us the wine comes “in the towering black bottle” while faux Wagner music plays in the background. Frankly, after watching this, it feels like it’s time to conquer Europe.

The catch, of course, is that Black Tower was about as manly as a baby diaper. It was a sweet, soft wine, and the commercial crams that information in even though it doesn’t quite fit the rest of the ad. Plus, there’s a blond woman eating an apple, because all wine commercials have to have blond women (though I’m not quite sure why the apple).

Like I said, bizarre.

So one more example of the sad state of TV wine ads, whether today or 36 years ago. Is it wonder I worry about the future of the wine business?

Video courtesy of Sean Mc via YouTube

More about TV wine ads:
TV wine ad update: Does this Kim Crawford commercial make sense?
Chill a Cella: Now we know why more Americans don’t drink wine
When Blue Nun ruled the wine world

What do wine drinkers want?

wine drinkeresWine drinkers want mostly simple things. Why is that too much to ask?

• Wine prices: What do wine drinkers pay for a bottle of wine?

What do wine drinkers want? That is, those of us who drink wine because we enjoy it and aren’t chasing scores, trying to impress others with how much money we spend, or aspire to become wine geeks.

I shouldn’t have to ask this question, but as I start to gather material for the blog’s 11th annual Birthday Week starting Nov. 12, it remains in the forefront. Because, as one Dallas retailer who usually doesn’t say things like this said the other day: “Why is the wine business starting to treat consumers and wine drinkers like they’re idiots?”

So what do wine drinkers want?

• Fair pricing. The point is not how much a wine costs, but whether it’s worth what it costs. Barefoot, regardless of anything else, usually offers $6 of value. How many $20 wines can say that? And, as noted too many times in the past couple of years, fewer and fewer wines that cost more than $15 are worth that much money – to the Dallas retailer’s point.

• Truth in labeling. If a wine is sweet, say it’s sweet. Why is that so difficult to do?

• Varietal correctness. Chardonnay should taste like chardonnay, merlot should taste like merlot and so forth. Why is this so difficult to do?

• Legitimate availability. I get at least one email a week from a reader saying she or he can’t find wines I’ve written about. This happens even though I try to write about wines that are generally available. So why the problem? Because the system is rigged in favor of the biggest wholesalers and the biggest retailers, but not the consumer. Hence, the most available wines are usually the least interesting, the least varietally correct, the least truthful about sweetness, and the most unfairly priced.

• Knowledgeable sales people. Why a Chicago-area grocery store wine salesman would be rude to my mom when she asked about a wine I had written about is beyond me. But behavior like that is becoming the norm – when you can find someone to help you.

What the people who do wine lists still don’t understand about restaurant wine pricing

restaurant wine pricingRestaurant wine pricing is the key to a successful list – why is that so hard to figure out?

The article in the trade magazine was called “Winning the wine game: Experts share advice for building great lists,” and the five people quoted all seemed to be smart, savvy, and knowledgeable. So what the was the one thing that almost none of them mentioned as a way to build a great wine list? Sensible restaurant wine pricing.

Nothing demonstrates the conundrum that is restaurant wine pricing more than the jargony writing in this article. “Thinking of the list as a holistic set of offerings that compliment each other is key.” Does anyone have any idea what that sentence means? How will it help anyone put together a quality wine list? Plus, it should be complement, not compliment.

Hence, the problem we face with restaurant wine pricing. Not enough people who put together wine lists understand that pricing is more important than anything else. It’s not screwcaps vs. corks or treating wholesalers with respect, two pieces of advice in the article. If we can’t buy wine at a fair price, we won’t – and there is almost 10 years of post-recession wine sales data to prove that point.

We’re tired of paying $35 for a $10 bottle of wine, but no one quoted in the piece seems to realize that. The closest anyone came – “A list needs to contain good lower-end bottle prices, along with the well-known higher end [wines]” – still doesn’t address the problem. Most restaurant wine pricing is too high, and there’s no good reason for it.

And if these five experts don’t see pricing as a problem, what does that say about the rest of the restaurant business – who probably aren’t as expert or as successful? Is it any wonder I worry about the future of the wine business?

More about restaurant wine pricing:
The John Cleese/Fawlty Towers guide to restaurant wine service
Winecast 28: Bret Thorn, Nation’s Restaurant News
British restaurants to customers: Sod off

Has the next phase of the wine slowdown started?

wine slowdownToo many grapes, younger people who don’t drink alcohol, and slowing sales among all age groups are signs of a wine slowdown

Call it a tipping point if you don’t mince words or an easing of momentum if you do, but the results are the same. It looks like a major change in U.S. wine consumption is underway. Call it the post-recession wine slowdown.

Know four things:

• California wineries, faced with an oversupply of grapes from yet another bumper harvest and lagging sales, don’t seem to be buying as many grapes this year. In fact, their attempt to get out of grape-buying contracts in some parts of the state is causing controversy and bad blood.

Wines sales have slowed, so that even an industry cheerleader termed growth for this year at a “sluggish 0.2% projected pace.” These numbers, from the company that publishes the Wine Spectator, confirm what has been reported elsewhere many times – U.S. sales by volume won’t exceed the increase in the drinking age population for the foreseeable future.

• One of the world’s biggest spirits companies expects that the “low-[alcohol] and no alcohol cocktail movement will increasingly shape the bar world” in 2019. The report went on: “What is most notable, though, is the differing consumption habits of the younger demographic, with 46 percent of people under the age of 35 likely to order a mocktail (non-alcoholic cocktail), versus just 16 percent of over-35’s. “

Rob McMillan of Silicon Valley Bank, one of wine’s leading statistical gurus, says the industry is at that tipping point. McMillan says there will be more grapes than are needed to meet slowing demand, and that the industry must come up with a Plan B to sell its product in this more challenging environment.

In other words, we have too many grapes, younger people who don’t necessarily want to drink alcohol, and slowing sales among all age groups. But the industry is hellbent on selling more expensive wine as if none this was relevant – if it was still the heyday of scores and wine magazines in the 1990s and that post-recession premiumization would go on forever.

Consumers – and that includes most wine drinkers – vote with their debit cards. You can only sell overpriced and lower-quality wine for so long before they put their debit cards away. If that is happening now, and I think it is, then we have a wine industry selling something fewer people want to buy. And that is not a recipe for success.

The sommelier cheating scandal: Once again, wine reminds us it’s big business

 sommelier cheating scandalFirst, fame and fortune, and now a sommelier cheating scandal

Wine’s biggest secret is that it’s a business, just like coal mining or car manufacturing. That’s because it pretends to be something else, this huge family of wine lovers where yes, we have to make money but that’s not the main reason we do it. Which is just more hypocrisy to anyone paying attention, and which the sommelier cheating scandal amply — and sadly — demonstrates.

Know that I’m not tarring the innocent with this brush. The cheating scandal, revealed last week by Esther Mobley in the San Francisco Chronicle, involved a master sommelier giving a list of the wines to be used for the blind tasting portion of the 2018 exam to one of the candidates. The accused has apparently been struck off the Court of Master Sommeliers, and everyone who took the test will have to take it again. No one has said that the cheating goes past that, though Mobley noted that 24 people passed the 2018 exam, compared to 274 in its almost 50-year history. Still, the organization that runs the certification has seemingly been  open and transparent about what happened.

Sommelier-ing has become an industry in and of itself – movies, even. Sommeliers are the current rock stars of the wine business, perhaps even more quoted and revered than the celebrity winemakers who used to dominate the discussion. Or, as this story amply demonstrates – “curated by a master sommelier for taste” – why not cheating if those are the results? Talk about pedestals; only someone with initials after their name can decide if wine is worth drinking.

Consider that someone who earns an MS can make twice as much money – high six figures, in fact – than someone without the distinction. Which, regardless of anything else, is all the incentive one needs to cheat in 21st century America. Because, as a good ol’ Texan famously told me at the bar at Louie’s, “If you have to ask how much money is enough, you don’t understand the question.”

The best perspective on the sommelier cheating scandal came from someone who must take the exam again. The person, who asked not to be named, told the SevenFifty Daily website: “I will probably be one of the candidates who will not retake the exam. I know this is not the intent, but I feel like a martyr. I am embarrassed, though I did nothing wrong. I want to find a different industry to work in. I want this to be over.”

How sad is that? Isn’t wine supposed to be fun?

Wine value 2018: Where we’re at today and what could happen next year

wine value 2018Six things to know about wine value 2018

Wine value 2018 has become perilously close to an oxymoron – a contradiction in terms with little real meaning. Even the Australians, who are famous in most of the world for their cheap exports, are lamenting premiumization and the disappearance of value.

Why this is happening has been well documented, here and elsewhere. Whether it will continue is a point of much contention. The wine business is betting its future that premiumization is here to stay, and that consumers will happily pay $20 for wine that used to cost $10. Others, meanwhile, who are looking at data instead of wishfully thinking, see a wine world with an unsustainable pricing model.

Know the following six things about wine value 2018, where value is defined as wine that is well-made and fairly priced and usually costing less than $15:

• Yes, value still exists – in Spain, parts of Italy, and some of southern France. Many of these wines are still made to reflect terroir and treat their grapes accordingly. Use the category menu to the lower right to search for wines from these countries.

• It’s almost impossible to find value in U.S. wine for $15 or less, save for a brave few brands that are almost single-handedly holding out (and even they have occasionally wavered).

• Producer consolidation, which I once thought would keep prices in line, hasn’t. We’re this much closer to an oligopoly pricing model, where a handful of large companies decide what to charge and everyone else is happy to follow along. Remember, three out of five bottles on the grocery store Great Wall of Wine likely come from just three mega-wineries.

• Pricing is starting to devolve into three tiers. First, cheap and poorly made wine, costing $12 or less, marked by cute labels and gushy winespeak. Second, gimmick wine, often red blends with manly names that are sweet but are passed off as dry, costing from $12 to $18. Third, “collector wine” at $20 and more, labeled as better than anything else and priced that way – even if neither is true.

• Most of the Winestream Media don’t care about any of this, and so don’t write about it. Instead, we get point scores – all remarkably in the high 80s or low 90s – for what seems to be every wine, regardless of quality or price.

• Producers will intensify their focus on premiumization next year, which means two things: First, new, higher-priced brands, and two, price increases for established brands. There has been much more of the former than the latter since the end of the recession, and it could mark as sea change in the wine business if producers can make price increases stick.

More about wine prices and wine value:
Has all the value gone out of California wine
Restaurant wine prices 2018
What is value in wine?