Category:Wine rants

Why do you read about wine you can’t buy?

wine you can't buyHow frustrating is it to read about a wine you can’t buy? After all, how often do you read a review of a movie you can’t see?

Some of it, of course, is snobbery —  and yes, Winestream Media, I’m talking about you. Some of it can’t be helped, thanks to the foolishness that is the three-tier system. In the last month, I’ve tasted a $10 Gascon white and had friends tell me about a $15 red Bordeaux and a $10 Sicilian red that would be perfect for the blog. But the first is only available in southern California, and the other two are only found in the northeast. Which means the wines don’t have distributors in any other part of the country, and don’t meet the generally available criteria I use for the blog.

But there are other, less obvious reasons why you read about wine you can’t buy:

• To create demand for the wine. I get a lot of emails from publicity people offering me samples of wine from regions unfamiliar to U.S. wine drinkers and that have limited, if any, distribution in this country. They do so in the hope that I’ll write about the wine, even if no one can buy it, so that my review will convince an importer or a distributor that there is demand for it. Yes, it’s a little backwards, but it’s one way to get around the restrictions of the three-tier system.

• Because it’s the next big thing. Wine recommendations are often driven by peer pressure, and if one hotshot sommelier or writer praises something, then everyone else has to do so as well. We’ve seen this for years with gruner veltliner from Austria, which is difficult to buy outside of the East Coast. The most recent next big thing is Greek wine, which can be well done and offer value but is even more difficult to find outside of the East Coast than gruner. In fact, during our recent podcast, that’s what Wisconsin retailer Nick Vorpagel lamented about Greek wine.

• Available wine is boring. I’m paraphrasing here, but I’ve heard and read this countless times: “Why should I write about a wine that anyone can buy in the grocery store?” This isn’t quite the snobbery practiced by reviewers who purposely write about wine no one can buy, but it’s almost as bad. Again, do reviewers not do movies because they’re in 5,000 theaters nationwide?

Google to WC: Drop dead

Google

Google, why do you hate the Wine Curmudgeon so?

Google’s most recent edict to blog owners is another example of how it — and not the blog owner — controls blog content, and how the search giant punishes those of us even when we do the right thing. The new system says a wine writer who uses samples, but is transparent about where the samples come from, is no better than a sleaze bag who loads a post with paid links and pretends they aren’t.

At first, Google’s March 11 blog post, “Best practices for bloggers reviewing free products they receive from companies,” seems to make perfect sense, distinguishing between what Google calls “organic links” and links that are only there because the blogger is getting something — money, product, or more links — to put them in the post. Links matter to Google, because that’s one of the criteria used to give pages a better search ranking, and a better search ranking means more visitors to the blog.

So how could something like that affect me, or anyone else who uses only organic links? Because the blog post says that links that refer to an on-line merchant selling the product or to the company that makes the product aren’t organic. That means, I think, that every time I review a wine, whether a sample or not, and link to the winery, I will be punished by Google unless I use a specific “no follow” command in the link. To make matters worse, using “no follow” means I don’t get credit for the link, even though I’m not doing anything wrong. Talk about the worst of both worlds.

Ignoring for a moment that adding “no follow” makes writing posts that much more complicated (if anyone understands “no follow” after reading the link, you can explain it me), it also lumps me with the sleaze bags by assuming that I benefit from the link. In fact, I don’t. No one asks me to put them in, and most wine producers — notorious for their inability to understand how this stuff works — don’t even know the links are there. I add the links to help readers get more information about the wine, which used to be a best practice.

This is just another example of Google’s one-size-fits-all approach, in which it assumes all blogs are exactly alike because it’s easier for Google to think that way. Hence, any blog that contains product references must be trying to sell the product — which certainly isn’t the case for me or for anyone who offers honest reviews, whether wine or not. In Google’s world, though, there doesn’t seem to be such a thing as an honest review.

The headline on this post refers to the infamous 1975 New York Daily News headline during New York City’s bankruptcy crisis.

More about Google and wine blogging::
Google AdSense, wine blogs, and Joe Camel
Google as the WC’s editor
Wine and sex

How desperate is Big Beer?

big beerHow desperate is Big Beer to regain its dominance? So desperate that it’s not enough to mock craft beer; now, even chardonnay is seen as a threat, and that has never been the case in the history of the United States. Beer consumption since before we were a country.

Nevertheless, Miller Lite came up with this commercial, which says that women should take its product to a chardonnay event. Perhaps one of our visitors with ad agency experience can explain why chardonnay is a target, given that old white guys drink Miller Lite.

For all of my ranting about Big Wine, it has never done anything this stupid. The commercial is below — what were they thinking?

Wine pricing skulduggery

Wine pricing

“This must be a good deal — we spent $40 to save $4.”

It’s bad enough that post-modern wine pricing is designed to make wine buying even more difficult, but what happens when retailers take wine pricing confusion to another level? Call it wine pricing skulduggery, and it turns out wine isn’t the only category that suffers from it:

The fake volume discount. Store A sells Rene Barbier white for $6.99, but offers a 10 percent discount if you buy four or more bottles. Store B, about 10 minutes away, sells the same wine for $5.99. Drive the extra distance, and you can buy four bottles at store B for less than the discounted price at store A ($23.96 vs. $25.16). Or you can buy two bottles at store B, which is all I wanted, and not have to listen to someone at store A tell you that spending $13.98 to save $2.80 makes good sense.

• The previous vintage two-step. This is the time of year when retailers start to get the current vintage, 2014 for reds and 2015 for whites. So beware older vintages with big signs proclaiming deep discounts, like store C did with the 2013 vintage of the legendary Domaine du Tariquet Classic. It was “marked down” from $12.99 to $10.99, even though it’s usually about $10. That’s bad enough. But since it was a previous vintage, the retailer likely got it from the wholesaler at a significant discount so the wholesaler could get it out of the warehouse. In other words, store C is selling the wine for the normal price, even though it probably paid less for it and there’s a good chance that the 2013 suffered after sitting in a warehouse for two years.

• The private label shuffle. Also saw this at store C (though store A is notorious for doing the same thing): A California red with a cute name and a bright and enticing label, in a big display promising all sorts of things a $15 wine can’t deliver. Look at the back label, and the bottled and vintaged information mentions a company no one has ever heard of. That’s because the company only exists to sell this wine to this retailer, and the $15 price is not as much a reflection of the wine’s quality but how much margin the private label company promised it could deliver to the retailer. In other words, $8 wine in $15 clothing.

Depressed? That’s understandable, given how many retailers think wine drinkers are ripe for the picking. As I noted in the cheap wine book: “The best retailers do more than sell wine. They help you find wine you didn’t know you would like.” Obviously, the retailers mentioned here never read the book.

Cheap wine: What do I expect?

cheap wineA visitor left a comment the other day in the first $3 wine challenge post: “Hey, it cost less than $3. So what did you expect?” Hence this post, because even though a cheap wine doesn’t cost much, that doesn’t mean it has to taste cheap:

? Varietal correctness. Cabernet sauvignon should taste like cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay like chardonnay, and so forth. Otherwise, what’s the point? Should we just have two gigantic Big Wine vats, one red and one white, and everything can come out of that?

? Value for money. No, a $3 wine isn’t going to taste like a $100 wine, and I don’t expect it to. I do expect it to offer value and to be the best $3 wine it can be. Otherwise, what’s the point? If we just want cheap crap to get drunk on, then we can drink Thunderbird and Night Train.

? An honest effort from the producer. The wine business’ cynicism is what keeps wine from being more popular in this country, and too much cheap wine proves that point. Producers make junk like the $3 challenge wines, or this wine club plonk, because they’ve taught Americans — like the man who left the comment — not to expect anything better. Or, even worse, the wine business knows most wine drinkers don’t know any better, think the $3 swill is OK because it costs $3, and are too confused to figure out what’s going on.

All of which is a horrible way to sell anything, and especially horrible for something that’s as much as fun as wine. Can you imagine what would happen if the car business worked that way? Which, as it happens, the car business once did, and the result was the very flammable Ford Pinto. One day, perhaps, the wine business can give us cheap wine as satisfying as today’s cheap cars (like my much beloved Honda Fit).

Until then, I’ll keep expecting more than they want to give us.

Blue Apron wine: Disappointing and depressing

blue apron wineThis was going to be a glowing post about the wine program at Blue Apron, the home delivery service that supplies recipes and ingredients for home cooks who want to try something more adventurous than Wednesday night meatloaf. When Blue Apron wine debuted last fall, giving its customers the opportunity to buy wine paired for its recipes, I thought: “Finally. Someone in the food business understands wine.”

Which turned out to be as far from the truth as possible. The six Blue Apron wines that I tasted (all samples) were poorly made, rarely varietally correct, mostly old and worn out, and apparently came from a bulk house whose website seems more excited about label design than wine quality. Adding to the aggravation: I emailed Blue Apron requesting an interview in October, and was told to submit my questions in writing because its executives didn’t do interviews. I’m still waiting for the answers to my questions; maybe they didn’t want to tell me what I found out by tasting the wine (and I hope that the conscientious PR woman who sent the samples doesn’t get fired, because none of this is her fault).

How depressing was my Blue Apron wine experience? The best tasting wine was a South African pinotage, and one rarely gets to say that about pinotage. Besides, if you’re trying to teach foodies about wine, why would you send them pinotage, a grape that is difficult to make into quality wine and isn’t widely available? The pinot noir, labeled Hilliard Bruce but vinted and bottled at the bulk company, was bland and faded. A Lodi vermentino tasted as much like the Italian grape as a crayon does, and a California sauvignon blanc was green, stemmy, and bitter with almost no sauvignon blanc fruit. The less said about the Spanish monastrell and California chardonnay the better.

In the end, the Blue Apron wine was no better than the wine club plonk I tasted last fall. If Blue Apron treated its food the way it treats its wine, it would not be a $2 billion company and startup darling.

The more I thought about this, the more I realized that Blue Apron wine has nothing to do with wine and everything with what marketers call adding value to the product. For an extra $65.99 a month, they’ll send you six “incredible” bottles that will “complement your upcoming Blue Apron meals.” In this, the company is giving its customers something they wouldn’t or couldn’t do on their own. If most Blue Apron customers subscribe because they love food and cooking, they’re less likely to know what incredible tastes like or how wine complements a meal. So six bottles (even 500-ml ones, about two-thirds of normal) for $10 each? Sign me up.

Which means Blue Apron wine is about selling Blue Apron and very little about teaching anyone about wine. I shouldn’t be surprised by this, but I really wanted to believe Blue Apron wine was the real thing. Even a curmudgeon has hopes.

Finally, to anyone who has subscribed to Blue Apron wine and wonders if all wine tastes like this, no, it doesn’t. The next time you want to pair your Blue Apron Lebanese Arayes (filled pitas), buy a $10 Bogle sauvingon blanc instead of the recommended Blue Apron sauvignon blanc. The Bogle tastes like real wine, and you get an extra couple of glasses for the same price.

Fred Franzia and the future of the wine business

Fred FranziaFred Franzia, the man the California wine business loves to hate, reminded us why last week when he spoke to the wine industry’s most important trade show. “One billion bottles of Two-buck Chuck,” he said to the audience, and I can imagine almost all of those in attendance cringing. Because the last thing the 21st century California wine business wants to be known for is very ordinary $3 wine sold at Trader Joe’s.

Still, Franzia is one reason why California is the most successful wine region in the world. His successes, whether becoming one of the first to sell competently made cheap wine like Two-buck Chuck or pioneering the Big Wine model that is the blueprint for the industry’s domination today, are indisputable. But his speech also revealed why so many in California wine who aren’t Gallo and Constellation aren’t prepared for the rest of the 21st century.

That’s because it was written through the lens of his family’s three generations of success, which was built on better winemaking technology, an unparalleled knowledge of the supply chain, and a canny insight into the Baby Boomers who transformed the way Americans drink wine. Franzia’s Bronco Wine is an example of 20th century manufacturing at its finest — give the consumer a quality product at a fair price, and make sure the retailers who sell your product make lots of money, too.

Those days are long gone. Does Apple really care about its retailers? Does Whole Foods really care about the manufacturers who supply its stores? And does Amazon really care about anyone other than Amazon? Know, too, that Amazon became the largest retailer in the U.S. and it got there without selling a drop of wine.

Yet Franzia spoke about the wine business as if none of that mattered. His talk was firmly rooted in what has been, and not what will be. He was particularly critical of the recent Silicon Valley Bank report that spoke of serious challenges facing the wine business as the Boomers age and consumption declines, dismissing the report as irrelevant because it didn’t accept the truths that he has seen over the past 50 years.

He also quoted Mel Dick of Southern Wine & Spirits, the largest distributor in the world, who has said famously that if U.S. per capita consumption was as big as the French, we’d drink 1.6 billion cases of wine a year — five times what we drink now. The catch? Besides the French wine culture, they don’t have distributors, and buying wine there is as easy as buying a baguette. Which, of course, is not the case in the U.S. That Franzia doesn’t realize that the three-tier system damps down wine consumption and is increasingly irrelevant in the 21st century is not surprising, because he still sees distributors as crucial to wine’s success as perhaps they once were.

One of my regrets in some 20 years of wine writing is that I’ve never interviewed Franzia; the couple of times an interview seemed possible, something fell through. That’s because I admire and respect what he has done, and if nothing else for his constant harping about too-high restaurant wine process. And his success with Two-buck Chuck revolutionized the wine business, something for which many of his colleagues will never forgive him.

But past success is no guarantee of what will happen in the future, and it’s not change that matters as much as how one adapts to change. And change is coming to wine, whether anyone wants to believe it or not — even if you’re Fred Franzia.

Fred Franzia cartoon courtesy of The New Yorker, using a Creative Commons license