Category:Wine rants

Four things that would make wine more fun to drink

wine

“Why didn’t the label say this was a sweet red wine?”

Four things that would make wine more fun to drink after a summer and fall spent traveling and tasting, because I really don’t want to have so many wine complaints:

? Better restaurant wine pricing. I mention this yet again not because I expect it to change, but because so few people in the restaurant business truly understand. I had a restaurateur approach me at a recent event to tell me how wonderful her wine list was. “We’re the only restaurant in this area that cares about wine,” she said. The list? Not awful, and even a couple of interesting bottles, but every wine, even the $8 Big Wine riesling, was marked up at least three times. This restaurant in a tiny town in Arizona was charging $40 for crappy grocery store wine, and the woman was proud of the list. How am I supposed to answer that?

? Back label honesty. I did a tasting this week for cheap holiday wines for a Dallas publication, and what struck me — besides how awful so many of the wines were — was how little the back label description had to do with what the wine tasted like. Soft, syrupy cabernet sauvignons without any tannins were described as elegant, while chardonnay made with so much fake oak that it hurt to swallow were said to be rich and full bodied. How about truth in labeling: “We made this wine to hit a certain price, and it really doesn’t taste like much, but what do you expect for $8?”

? If the wine is sweet, call it sweet. Why does the wine business insist on confusing consumers by leaving sweet off the label when the wine is sweet? I realize that the industry has taught “real” wine drinkers that sweet wine is inferior, and that only old ladies with cats drink it. But I’m tired of tasting wine labeled as dry that is sweet, and I have heard from many consumers who feel the same way. Besides, isn’t it possible that sweet wine labeled sweet would sell better?

? Lidl can’t get to the U.S.too soon. The German discount grocer, known for its quality cheap wines, broke ground on a U.S. distribution center last month, and should start opening stores in the next couple of years. If Lidl does wine in the U.S. the way it does in Europe, those of us who care about cheap wine will have an alternative to the wines in the second item in this post. Or, as my brother emailed me during a trip to Europe, “Love Lidl — great wine selection.”

For more on making wine more fun:
? Wine education: Four things you don’t need to know about wine
? Five things that make me crazy when I buy wine
? Five things the wine business can do to help consumers figure out wine

Bacon, wine, and what we eat and drink

bacon causes cancer

Yes, this much bacon at one sitting will probably kill me. No, I don’t eat that much.

World Health Organization doctors have found that bacon causes cancer. This should not be surprising. It’s no different than highway engineers announcing they need to tear down homes to widen a highway that we don’t want widened. It’s what they do, no matter how much we don’t like it.

That’s because, like the various federal assaults on drinking, the news about processed meat is nothing more than physicians trying to keep us healthy. It’s what doctors do, and it’s important to remember that it’s what we want them to do. But since most of the easy health fixes are decades long past, like clean drinking water, the polio vaccine, and antibiotics, they’ve turned to lifestyle issues to save us from ourselves. How else, for those of us who live in western industrialized democracies and don’t smoke, are we going to live longer?

Which is the rub. I long ago gave up desserts, eat just two eggs a week, only have red meat four or five times a month, and plan meals around beans, rice, and leafy green vegetables. But my doctor, a smart and funny guy, always asks when I’m going to start eating better.

It’s also the irony. Most Americans, by several measures, are living healthier lives. We’ve gone a long way toward ending smoking, we have made significant progress in cutting refined sugar, and, compared to the rest of the world, we’re practically teetotalers when it comes to booze. And even those who aren’t probably know they shouldn’t eat bacon every morning for breakfast, with a BLT chaser at lunch. That they still do speaks to other societal problems that have nothing to do with health.

But, like the highway engineers who want to plow over a historic neighborhood to build an expressway that we don’t really need, that’s not enough for our doctors. They want to know when we’re going to start eating better. It’s up to us to remind them that many of us already are, and that — as Julia Child always said — everything in moderation. My doctor could do worse than listen to her advice.

Shortlisted for the Born Digital Wine awards

born digital wine awards iOct. 26, 2015 update: Congratulations to all the winners, which didn’t include me. But that doesn’t take away from the importance of rewarding work written exclusively for the Internet.


 

The Born Digital Wine awards, given to content created for the Internet, are a big deal. For one thing, there’s a cash prize, and that’s about as common as seeing a score on this website. For another, it speaks to the way wine writing is changing — and, oddly enough, how it hasn’t changed.

Which is not to say I’m complaining. That I’m shortlisted (or a finalist, as we say on this side of the Atlantic) in the best editorial/opinion category is a tremendous honor. And I do want to win, and not just for the ?500 prize. The recognition would mean a lot, too, that what I do still means something after all these years. As a friend pointed out the other day, I’m one of the few serial wine bloggers left — someone who writes every day and does it himself, without any other writers on the site, no collaborators, no one to offer a different voice or change of pace. Just cranky me, even after almost eight years.

Most of the other successful sites have adapted as the world has changed, adding writers, selling merchandise, doing affiliate marketing, and so forth. Which I’ve thought about, but never seemed to be able to do. Some of it is my lack of business acumen (as well as the fact that the business stuff annoys me), and some of it is the idea that I brought with me from the newspaper business: As soon people give you money for placement, objectivity becomes that much more difficult. And objectivity is why I’m here.

In this, we’ve seen a gradual and significant shift to the Internet for wine criticism. Yes, the biggest Internet sites are the websites for the biggest wine magazines, but the number of legitimate voices that exist that no one would have known about in the old days is amazing — many of whom are shortlisted with me. I proposed a panel for this year’s Wine Bloggers Conference on just that topic, since it may be one of the most important things in wine writing since scores.

Which never happened. The conference attendees, who vote on panel proposals, weren’t interested. Talk about irony. Even non-traditional wine writers, apparently, can’t see past traditional wine writing. So it shouldn’t be surprising that I won a Wine Bloggers award for best business blog, even though I write for consumers. My approach leaves many in wine scratching their heads. As one of the other shortlisted Born Digital wine writers, Blake Gray, has told me more than once, “You write for people who don’t drink wine.” And, as I have also been told, “Jeff, you write about wine, but you’re not a wine writer.”

At some point, we need to re-define wine writing so I’m not such an exception. How else will will we reach the women who buy Little Black Dress as a splurge because they see wine as too confusing to bother with the rest of the time? Or the men who are too terrified (and too manly to admit they’re terrified) to try something other than the same Big Wine cabernet sauvignon they’ve been drinking every week for the past 20 years?

So, yes, I want to win when the results are announced next week. But I also want to win because my shortlisted entry — how wine marketers, using the Downton Abbey claret as an example, confuse consumers to sell wine — offers more than traditional wine writing. And isn’t that the point of what the awards are about?

Wine Insiders wine club, and why more people don’t drink wine

wine insiders wine clubThe problem with the Wine Insiders wine club is not that the wine isn’t good, even though most of it isn’t. The problem is that the company behind the club doesn’t see wine quality as worth worrying about. Instead, its business plan is apparently based on the Holy Trinity of the wine business: fake pricing, hyperbole, and winespeak. Is it any wonder this makes wine companies lots of money but makes wine that much more difficult to enjoy, and especially for people who don’t know much about it?

I’m not the only one who figured this out; the Wine Dabbler took his anger a step further in a post entitled “The great Groupon wine rip-off:”

I received six different wines I had never heard of before, two bottles each. The wines we have tried so far are abysmal — and they all taste virtually the same! … I do not think that there are any violations of the law, but there are carefully planned and willfully executed violations of moral and ethical values.

As I wrote when I ordered, I got a red and white blend, plus a chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and sauvignon blanc. The advertised price for the six wines was $14.99 each with a 40 percent discount. But these wines weren’t worth $14.99, or even 40 percent off $14.99. They’re mostly Two-buck Chuck quality, made from the bulk wine that comes from the grapes that grow in California’s Central Valley by a company that makes bulk wine for just such purposes. The white blend, in fact, tasted a lot like those 4-liter boxes of Franzia — sort of sweet and probably made with French colombard and chenin blanc.

I write “probably” because there wasn’t any information about the wines — no information sheets, and most of the wines didn’t even have a cutesy back label with winespeak. No doubt the company didn’t want to tell anyone what was actually going on. I did get a sheet offering to sell me six bottles of fruit-flavored moscato for $9 a bottle (I’d guess it costs much less than half of that to make) and a “stunning” French rose, also six bottles for $9.99. I’ll pass, thanks.

On the one hand, I’m not surprised this was such a depressing experience. I’ve been writing about wine for too long to expect otherwise. On the other hand, that it was so depressing makes it that much worse. Can’t the ordinary wine drinker ever win?

Is wine the last bastion of the snob?

wine snob

“Trust me. I’m not dead.”

Periodically, one of my colleagues will lament that the U.S. isn’t more of a wine drinking country, and wonder what can be done to change that. I mention this not because I have the answer — I’m usually shouted down when I offer one — but because it ties into two recent items. First, the annual list of “Blue Chip” wine brands chosen by the company that publishes the Wine Spectator and that ranks wine by sales growth and profit margin. Second, an essay by New York Times film critic A.O. Scott, bemoaning what he calls the death of the film snob and how the movies are poorer for it.

Scott argues that the Internet and post-modern democracy have transformed film criticism, and that “the world of the Yelp score, the Amazon algorithm and the Facebook thumb is a place of liking and like-mindedness, of niches and coteries and shared enthusiasms, a Utopian zone in which everyone is a critic and nobody is a snob because nobody ?s taste can be better than anyone else ?s.” Who needs critics when we can decide what to watch based on the wisdom of the crowd, and even feel more confident about our choice?

Which, of course, is not how we do things in wine. Scott writes that: ” ‘Snob’ is a category in which nobody would willingly, or at least unironically, claim membership,” so I must assume he has never read wine criticism or discussed wine with the too many people who are too proudly snotty about what they drink. What else is brose but an attempt to turn $10 pink wine that anyone can drink — that anyone should drink — into something that only the most entitled among us can appreciate?

I’m not sure, after writing about cheap wine all these years, that the laments about the U.S. and wine aren’t about wine as much as they’re about the wine that the wine snobs think we should drink. After all, we’ve made tremendous strides as a wine drinking country, with per capita consumption higher than it has been since the 1970s and wine sales up even through the recession. But is that progress enough? Or do we have to progress as a wine drinking nation in the direction the snobs think best?

What if American wine drinking rates were the same as France’s, where the typical adult drinks a bottle a week, four times what we drink here? Because, to get to that point, more of us would have buy the wines on the Blue Chip list, like Barefoot, Sutter Home, Yellow Tail, and Cavit. Would that make the wine snob happy? I doubt it. They’d argue that it wouldn’t be enough that most of us were drinking wine with dinner, but that we weren’t drinking the right wine.

The irony, of course, is that all those everyday wine drinkers in France, as well as Spain and Italy, are drinking the local equivalent of Barefoot, Sutter Home, Woodbridge, Yellow Tail, and Cavit — or something even cheaper or more poorly made or both. The next time you’re in a European grocery store, check out the amazing numbers of wine brands that cost just a couple of euros. Hard to believe if you’re raised on wine in the U.S., where no one is supposed to drink that stuff.

The other irony? That there is a difference between snobbishness and criticism, and I’m surprised Scott didn’t make that point more strongly. A snob rejects anything he or she confiders inferior, even if there isn’t a good reason to do so. The best critics, and Scott is certainly one, detail the whys and wherefores, allowing us to make up our own minds. Good or bad isn’t even the point, which is why wine scores are so useless and why something as stupid as “Animal House” can be so much fun to watch. Rather, did that wine or that film or that restaurant do what it set out to do, and did it do so honestly and with respect for both the form and the consumer?

Otherwise, we might as well buy what the Wine Spectator tells us to buy, make fun of people who don’t drink “good” wine, and pat ourselves on the back for being so much better than everyone else.

Update: Wine prices in 2015

wine pricesAt the beginning of the year, I wrote: “[T]he producer strategy for wine prices in 2015: Stealth increases ? introducing new brands as well as new varietals and blends within existing brands to get us to trade up to a $15 bottle from $10, or to an $18 bottle from $15.”

The new brands bit was correct, but I missed on the stealth thing. Price increases this year, thanks to producers, distributors, and retailers eager to raise prices, have been anything but stealthy. They’ve been, plain and simple, price hikes like we haven’t seen in a decade. How about two Dallas-area grocery stores charging $16 and $18 for two French wines that cost $10 a year ago? Or a new Italian brand, priced at $12, that isn’t any better than the $8 Italian wine cluttering grocery store shelves? Or, and the saddest, a long-time Wine Curmudgeon California favorite that raised prices a little but also used much cheaper grapes to squeeze as much margin out of its product as possible?

Everyone I have talked to in the wine business has said the same thing: Get used to it.

? Forget the stronger dollar, which should make European wines cheaper. Producers are keeping the difference, and neither distributor or retailer is passing on any savings.

? Forget the past three record California harvests, which means none of this is about a phony grape shortage. In fact (and, as Steve McIntosh predicted in January), all those cheaper grapes are being used to cut costs, so that wine quality is suffering. I’ve tasted more crappy $12 and $15 wine this summer, bitter and unripe, than I have in years, and they’ve apparently been made with grapes usually used to make much cheaper wine.

? Forget the idea that consumers won’t spend money on something they don’t know. I tasted a $16 Spanish white, made with verdejo from the Rueda region, that tasted like pinot grigio, and I was the only one who thought it might not sell. I don’t know if arrogance is the right word, but I’m talking to a lot of producers who assume consumers will pay what they’re told to pay because the wine is so special. Special, of course, not having all that much to do with quality but with marketing.

Yes, producers can charge as much as they want for their wine. But there’s a difference between short-term gain and long-term profits, which is how the best businesses are run. When you run your business for short-term gain, you shouldn’t be surprised that wine sales have been flat for several years, or that consumers are more willing to try something besides wine, or that more than one expert is bemoaning wine’s future.

Just don’t say the Wine Curmudgeon didn’t warn you.

The tyranny of wine samples

wine samples

“Come on. .. they’re just wine samples. What could be wrong?”

One of the great contradictions in wine writing is that so many of us review wine that most of our readers will never drink. That’s because we don’t pay for the wine, but get wine samples — thousands a year for some of us.

The Wine Curmudgeon has always been suspicious of wine samples, not only because of availability, but because there’s not enough transparency. That’s why I try to buy most of the wine I review, and each review notes whether it was a sample. But wine samples are addictive, something I discovered a couple of weeks ago when a distributor friend brought four terrific (two of which were pricey) bottles for a dinner I was having. During dinner, as the five of us were passing the wine around, I thought “This is so nice — four wines I never would have bought, two of which are too expensive to buy, and I didn’t pay a penny for them. I could get used to this.”

The older one gets, the more the phrase “There but for the grace of God” applies (regardless of religious leanings). What if, all those years ago, I had started writing about something other cheap wine that I bought myself? What if I had stumbled upon wine samples — expensive, hard-to-find wine samples — through one of the newspapers I wrote for? In those pre-recession days, high-end wineries were throwing around $100 bottles like baskets of chips at a Mexican restaurant; what if I started pouring $60 Napa cabernet sauvignon for a weeknight dinner?

I would have become everything I hate about wine writing, of course. Yes, given my disposition, that’s not likely, but the idea is troubling. I had a lot of fun drinking those wines that Saturday night, which included a $40 sparkling and a $35 riesling, both from Germany. It’s not so much that they were delicious, though they were, but that I didn’t pick them out, I didn’t pay for them, and I didn’t have to suffer them if they weren’t any good (something that happens all too often with my cheap wine).

It was wine drinking the way everyone wants it to be — wonderful wine on the table without any muss or fuss, and I suddenly understood why so many of my colleagues accept it as normal and wonder about people like me. But, as I reminded myself when I was writing this piece, wonderful has nothing to do with it. The people who read the blog don’t get samples. They have to negotiate the terrors of the grocery store Great Wall of Wine, which is why I’m here. I’m not a wine writer to drink great wine that I get for free, but to help wine drinkers figure out what they like. And, in the end, that’s more fun than any amount of wine samples.