Category:Wine rants

Wine blogging in the time of coronavirus

coronavirus

How many of us remember this from high school?

What’s the point of a wine blog in a world consumed by the coronavirus? Call it necessary optimism

Friday update: Thanks to everyone who left such kind comments and sent such considerate e-mails. Again, I didn’t write this post to elicit sympathy, but to try to offer a bit of perspective. And to those of you who sent less than kind e-mails? No doubt your pandemic pantry is well stocked.

Blog traffic has been down as much as one-half over the past couple of weeks, mostly since the coronavirus started its deadly expansion from China to western Europe and points in between. In addition, blog cancellations have increased steadily, even though I haven’t written about screwcaps, ingredient labels, overpriced California wine, or any of the other things that usually portend cancellations.

Frankly, it’s damned depressing to write posts that no one reads. I say that not to elicit pity, but to ask a larger question: What’s to be be done about wine blogging in the time of coronavirus? Does it matter? What’s the point? Does anyone really care?

The answer, of course, is incredibly complicated. On the one hand, don’t we all want to behave like Albert Camus’ narrator in “The Plague” – “a man who, faced with suffering and a common crisis, does what he must and becomes a leader and an example, not out of heroic courage or careful reasoning, but rather from a sort of necessary optimism?”

On the other, and no matter how absurd it may seem, we also have a need to overwhelm Walmart and Costco to buy hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes, household cleaners and staples like rice, pasta and canned food to build a “pandemic pantry” – just in case. And what about all that toilet paper?

And I can’t shake the feeling that the people who are supposed to be our version of Camus’ Dr. Rieux are more concerned with the stock market, the presidential election, and interest rates than they are with the coronavirus.

And maybe that’s the point, that the answer lies somewhere among all those contradictions. I am neither an epidemiologist nor a philosopher, but it seems that Jim Schutze, a former newspaper colleague and all around wise human being, hit on something recently: “We should be thinking about ways to keep doing what we need to do while minimizing our risk. It won’t work to try to shut everything down and hide in our holes. In fact, that will make things worse.”

So the blog will be here. If you read it, you read it. If you don’t, you don’t. But it will be here: Call it my small contribution to necessary optimism.

My apologies to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who wrote “Love in the Time of Cholera,”  and to everyone else who has used a play on that title for their recent coronavirus posts.

Update: Wine prices 2020

wine prices 2020Ignore the headlines — wine prices 2020 probably aren’t going anywhere

How can we have have excess supply and declining demand, and yet still see steady wine prices? Because this is the post-modern wine business.

Somehow, we’re at a point where the laws of economics don’t matter. Too many grapes and less consumer demand, as well as an uncertain economy thanks to trade wars, the U.S. election, and the coronavirus, should mean lower wine prices. We should see $15 wines cut to $12, $12 wines cut to $10, and so forth.

But not in this version of the wine business, no matter what the headlines say.

“Most people in the business haven’t a clue about very basic economic principles, such as supply and demand,” one mid-size California producer emailed me recently. “The $15 to $20 ‘sweet spot’ is not so sweet anymore.”

So what is going on here? Why is the wine business defying supply and demand?

First, thanks to consolidation, we have oligopoly pricing. That is, the producers, retailers, and wholesalers control such a large part of the market that they can afford to hold the line on prices. Prices may change, but they never change all that much or for all that long. One wine may be discounted, but then it’s replaced by another one, which is then replaced by another one. Case in point was a Dallas Kroger this week, when almost nothing was priced differently than normal — even previous vintage roses.

Second, we’re seeing the after-effect of premiumization combined with untenable cost structures. So many producers spent so much money establishing their brands at $15 or $20 or $25 that they can’t “afford” to lower prices. If they do, they will “ruin” their brands. In addition, production costs are so high for so many of these producers that lowering prices means they will sell at a loss, and then their bank won’t be happy.

So what will we see instead of consistently lower prices?

Lots of dumping and heavy discounting. Some of this has been going on for months, and it was one reason why Treasury Wine Estate’s stock tanked at the beginning of February. The company either threw the wine out or sold it at deep discounts, often through non-wine outlets. One Dallas dollar store was selling $8 and $10 Beringer supermarket wines for $2.99 and $3.99 at the beginning of the year. That’s the picture at the top of the post.

Also, new, less expensive one-off wines. This happened quite a bit during the recession, and it’s one way for a producer to protect a $25 brand. They’ll sell their wine to someone else, who bottles it under a different name for $10 or $12 or $15. I’ve seen this already, too. My local Aldi is selling a “reserve” pinot noir for $10. It’s almost certainly more expensive wine that has been relabeled.

So, in the end, don’t expect your local retailer to lower prices. That would make too much sense in a business that is not much connected to reality any more.

Wine, strawberry fruit spread, and nutrition labels

nutrition labels

No thanks: Three tablespoons of this aren’t as appealing as a glass of wine.

The power of nutrition labels: A glass of wine has the same number of calories as three servings of strawberry fruit spread

The biggest surprise during last month’s Silicon Valley Bank State of the Wine Industry report was not the sad state of wine in the U.S. Rather, it was that Rob McMillan, the report’s author, said it was time for wine to acknowledge the need for ingredient and nutrition labels on its bottles.

This was revolutionary. Previously, only a couple of consumer groups, a handful of progressive wineries, and cranks like the Wine Curmudgeon wanted to see the labels. To the rest of wine, the labels were a waste of time – confusing, costly, and bottle clutter. Wine drinkers don’t need to be bothered with what was in their wine, and that was was that. And stop bothering us.

But McMillan’s argument turned that reasoning on its head. Wine, he said, is the most natural of products – grapes and yeast. Why, when younger consumers care more than ever about what’s in their food, should the wine business hide that?

“We can’t be more plant-based than wine – you put it in a tub and squish it and it turns into something else,” he said. “Yet we’ve got to this point where spiked seltzers are seen as a more healthful choice because of the clarity and transparency of the ingredients.”

Which, of course, is what some of us have been arguing for years. I was reminded of the good sense of this approach when I looked at the fact label on a bottle of Smucker’s Natural Strawberry Fruit Spread, where the front label puts the emphasis on “natural” and adds “No High Fructose Corn Syrup.”

A serving is one tablespoon, and there are 40 calories per serving of this “natural” product. In other words, I can drink a glass of wine, which has about 120 calories, or I can have three tablespoons of something called natural strawberry fruit spread. What do you think most consumers would choose?

And how has the wine business missed this connection all these years?

More about wine nutrition labels:
Nutrition labels: What wine can learn from two packages of frozen onion rings
The final “nutrition and ingredient labels for wine are a good thing” post
Wine falls further behind in nutrition and ingredient labels

TV wine ads: San Giuseppe Wines, because you can never have too much bare skin in a wine ad

This 2016 ad for San Giuseppe Wines reminds us that when in doubt, flash some skin

One constant throughout the Wine Curmudgeon’s TV wine ad survey has been model-quality men and women baring their skin. Which is exactly the case with this ad for San Giuseppe Wines, an Italian label that sells for about $12. How much longer could the shot last when the guy pulls himself out of the water?

My guess, since the ad is for pinot grigio, is that the swimmer is supposed to appeal to the pinot grigio demographic — the infamous women of a certain age who buy almost all the pinot grigio in the U.S.  The ad’s goal? Get them all hot and bothered so they will race to the store to buy San Giuseppe.

In this, it’s not necessarily any worse than any of the others in our TV wine ad survey. It’s just more of the same. Is it any wonder I worry about the future of the wine business?

Video courtesy of QUE Productions via YouTube

More about TV wine ads:
TV wine ad survey: Hochtaler box wine – even Canadians miss the point?
TV wine ad survey: 1980s Richards Wild Irish Rose
One more example why TV wine ads are so awful

Wine prices 2020

wine prices 2020

Damn those Europeans and their snotty wine. No self-respecting American likes that junk.

The current 25 percent European wine tariff, which may turn into a 100 percent covering all European wine, makes deciphering wine prices 2020 a sad and painful duty

Forecasting wine prices 2020 should have been easy. Combine too many grapes in California with fewer wine drinkers in the U.S. and Europe, and throw in the beginning of the end of premiumization. The result? Steady to lower wine prices, and maybe a lot lower, by the end of the year.

And then the tariffs happened.

The first, last October, seemed horrible. And then we heard about plans to impose a 100 percent tariff on all European wine, which would effectively double the price of every bottle of wine made in Europe and sold in the U.S. And suddenly, 25 percent didn’t seem so horrible.

Tariffs artificially raise prices, and economic theory says consumers then switch to cheaper, similar domestic products. But the similar products are not as cheap as the original, so the consumer is paying to prop up a domestic industry. Which pretty much explains the popularity of tariffs on goods like steel.

But there are very few $13 California wines that are similar to $10 French or Spanish wines. Wine isn’t finished steel. So in my search for a cheaper product, economic theory says I could well move from wine to something even cheaper, like beer or White Claw — especially if I’m buying wine on price. Which is the dark, dirty secret of the wine business.

In this, the tariff will push wine prices 2020 up, until demand weakens so much that no one will buy wine at the tariff-inflated prices. Then we will have shelves full of wine, including domestic, way too many grapes, and even weaker demand than before. How much fun will that be?

And, among all this mayhem, there would be little point to the blog. Somehow, I don’t think that’s supposed to be the result of a political dispute about aircraft parts.

Havoc and destruction

In this, the 100 percent tariff would come close to destroying the European wine business while wreaking havoc on U.S. wine retailing, distribution, and importing. That’s because the U.S. is the EUs biggest wine market, accounting for more than one-quarter of its exports. The tariff would all but eliminate the market for European wine in this country; who’s going to pay $30 for a $15 bottle? It would also lead to bankruptcies, layoffs, and business closings among retailers, importers, and distributors. That includes the largest wholesalers, who, I’m told, are just as worried about the end of the French wine market in the U.S. as their smallest competitors.

So I’m going to do something I have done but once in the blog’s history: Get political. When the publisher of the Wine Spectator and I agree about something, then there’s no time to waste.

The 100 percent tariff is nothing but spite, a finger in the eye of the EU for no legitimate reason by a Trump administration that apparently has no understanding of economics or tariffs. For it, it’s easier to tweet trade war bravado than to understand the implications of the Smoot-Hawley tariff in the 1930s. That U.S. citizens will suffer far more from the tariff than U.S. aircraft companies will benefit is beyond their comprehension.

And it’s not like U.S. aircraft companies need the help. Boeing, the focus of the original World Trade Organization ruling that led to the 25 percent levy, had $10.5 billion profit in 2018. That’s larger than the gross domestic product of 30 countries, and that’s just Boeing’s profit. Its revenue was $101 billion, which would make it the 177th biggest country in the world by GDP.

But Boeing gets a boost, while many U.S. wine retailers will get to go out of business. That seems fair, yes? The owner of a small wine shop in the Dallas area, with a wife and child, can ponder his fate (as well as ousted Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg’s $62 million farewell package) while he looks for work.

You can comment on the proposed 100 percent tariff — go to www.regulations.gov, enter docket number “USTR-2019-0003” and click search. Then, click “comment now” and explain why this is not a good idea. Comments are open until Jan. 13.

And those of you who disagree with me – you’re more than welcome to pay $20 for $10 wine. Enjoy the privilege.

The Wine Curmudgeon’s favorite posts of 2019

favorite posts of 2019

Don’t work so hard. No one is reading these posts, anyway.

These six posts weren’t necessarily the best read, but they were among my favorite posts of 2019

Welcome to the Wine Curmudgeon’s fifth annual year-end top 10 list — not the most-read posts on the blog, which anyone can do. These are among the best posts I wrote in 2019 and that didn’t get enough attention the first time around.

Again, these aren’t the best-read posts; Google takes care of that. Barefoot wine, anyone? These are the posts that I enjoyed writing, thought were important to write, or both.

Here, in no particular order, are my favorite posts of 2018:

• I wrote two wine video parodies this year, and neither did as well as they should have. I know why: Wine is not supposed to be funny; it’s supposed to be $40 worth of serious. Besides, how is Google going to send someone to a post about Bogey, Casablanca, and saving cheap wine? But how can anyone pass up the “Shaft” parody?

• The WC gets all hip and with it, writing a distracted boyfriend meme post. Who else can combine Gen X and Millennial humor with a wine rant?

Premiumization, overpriced wine, and consolidation are nothing new for wine. In 1947, one wine critic lamented the lack of quality cheap wine; another wrote in the early 1970s that California was focused too much on expensive wine and not enough on wine people could afford to drink.

Sweet Chianti, anyone? Because smooth. Because soft. And because women don’t want to drink dry red wine. Is it any wonder I worry about the future of the wine business?

• A study revealed that most wine producers may care more about status and image than quality. Maybe this news was so obvious in the second decade of the 21st century that no one needed to read about that kind of study.

More on the WC’s favorite posts:
Favorite posts of 2018
Favorite posts of 2017
Favorite posts of 2016

A Wine Curmudgeon Christmas Carol

“More Mega Purple. … more. … and even more!”

Scrooge’s post-modern wine Christmas Carol leaves a very bad taste in his mouth

Marley was dead. And good riddance, thought Scrooge. Marley had actually suggested making wine people could afford to drink, and marketing it to consumers who weren’t aging Baby Boomers. Who needs that? sneered Scrooge.

Not him. He was No. 9 on The Most Important and Smartest Wine Geniuses List compiled by one of the wine magazines.

Now, if he could only get rid of that damned Cratchit, his winemaker. She kept insisting on using only pinot noir in the pinot noir and cutting back on the Mega Purple. And she had even been talking using ingredient labels for the wine. Obviously, Scrooge thought, she wasn’t a team player.

Scrooge’s iPhone 11 beeped. The face of a woman appeared with the text. Spam, thought Scrooge, and he deleted it. But the face popped up again.

“Do you recognize me?” asked the face.

Scrooge deleted the text again, but the face was still there. He looked at it, and he remembered his early days at the winery. Man, they had made some great wine then, like those $8.99 California field blends. But what was the point? The wine hadn’t been smooth, so no focus group would have approved.

Scrooge put the phone down, picked up the remote, turned on his 65-inch smart TV. Another face appeared, this time a man with a red beard. “Do you recognize me?” he asked.

Scrooge changed the channel, but the face was still there. Then it faded, and Scrooge saw Cratchit in the winery. She was blending grapes, and Scrooge recognized those damned Rhone varietals she kept trying to sneak in. I told her to dump that stuff, he thought. She knows she is supposed to make merlot, and she also knows it had better be more than a little sweet. Because women don’t like dry red wine.

I guess she didn’t believe me when I told her we only wanted team players, thought Scrooge. And if you’re not a team player, you can look for a job elsewhere – even if it is Christmas and even if you need the health insurance because your son Tim is sick.

Scrooge walked into the kitchen, past the Viking Tuscany range and opened the SubZero Pro refrigerator. He wanted a glass of that fake oak, 15 percent chardonnay that his marketing director said would sell like crazy.

A third face appeared, with glasses, a hat, and a scruffy beard. “I know you recognize me,” said the face.

Scrooge blinked, and then he seemed to be in some sort of home, surrounded by several other ancient winery executives. They were telling stories about the old days, when ordinary people drank wine, and they laughed and smiled and almost cried in their happiness.

Then he was back in his kitchen, in front of the SubZero, and the bearded face was still there: “Well?” it asked.

“I’m just one man,” Scrooge said. “We have to start somewhere,” said the face. And Scrooge nodded in agreement. Maybe those Rhone varietals were a good idea after all.

A tip o’ the Curmudgeon’s fedora to Charles Dickens, who will hopefully forgive me for taking such wine-themed liberties with his story.