Category:Wine rants

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

Is $15 wine the new $8 wine?

$15

“Why does this $15 wine taste a lot like that $8 pinot grigio I bought last week?”

Is $10 wine the new $100 wine?” was one of the best-read posts on the blog at the beginning of the recession, explaining why cash-strapped consumers were trading down — and that they were shocked to find that wine quality at $10 was much better than they had been led to believe. Today, as we deal with a glut of overpriced and poorly-made wine, often by reputable producers, it’s my sad duty to ask: Is $15 wine is the new $8 wine?

Over the past 18 months, I’ve tasted so much junk at $15 that even I’m surprised, and I’m the one who included a section in the cheap wine book that said that the $12 to $18 range — “the province of ‘Big Wine’ marketing — offered the least value. But what I’ve tasted since the end of 2014 has been even worse than that, $8 of value dressed up in a $15 bottle.

How has this happened?

 A determined effort by producers, mostly big but also smaller, and in regions like Lodi and the less well known parts of France, to separate what they make from the so-called “cheap wine” that we’re not supposed to be drinking. They’ve done this by creating new products with flashy labels that are made the same way as their old wines and at more or less the same cost, but retail for more money. This way, they’re creating the impression that the new wine is worth the extra money, when it’s mostly the emperor’s new clothes. Or, as a boss at Treasury Wine Estates calls it, “masstige.”

 Wretched grapes. Those of us of a certain age remember when wine was made with unripe and poor quality grapes. Unripe grapes gave the wines a green, almost crab apple quality, and poor quality grapes left the wines thin and bitter. Those grapes, which seemed to be long gone, are back and particularly in whites. I’ve tasted $15 chardonnays and pinot gris that were practically gaggable, the sort of wine you spit out and wonder what the producer was thinking.

 The increase in grocery store wine sales. This means we’re buying more wine on our own, without help from knowledgeable retailers. And that means we have to depend on the front and back labels more than is good for us. And if the front label is cute and the back says smooth and chocolate, we’re sunk, and end up paying more for the wine than it’s worth.

There is a cynicism at work here that’s more depressing than anything else, and something that wine — even when it did these sorts of things — never really enjoyed doing. But those days seem to be over.

What’s wrong with California expensive wine?

California expensive wineNothing, actually. But what happens when one of the world’s top wine writers picks only a handful of California labels as her best expensive wines in the world for 2015? If you’re a California expensive wine devotee, it’s time to panic, and many did on Twitter and elsewhere. If you have a little more perspective, Elin McCoy’s choices speak to how much great wine is made in the world, and how even those who buy pricey wine sometimes don’t understand the need to try something different.

McCoy’s list of the 50 best wines for $50 or less in 2015 had just seven wines from California. Excluding the six Champagnes on the list, that meant 7 of 44 — just 16 percent of the best expensive wine in the world — came from California. Is it any wonder so many howled so loudly? It’s one thing when I criticize California for making such ordinary, grocery-store cheap wine. But expensive wine? That’s the Napa and Sonoma reason for being, and if those regions don’t dominate lists like this, their supporters figure something must be wrong.

But as McCoy said when I asked her about it, “Those seven wines were more than from any other place but France, so I guess I don’t feel I neglected California too much.” And, she added, the list doesn’t have any wines from Chile, Argentina, and Washington state, which also make great wine.

Hence perspective, something too many American wine drinkers lack. Because it’s not enough to have 17 percent — it must be 50 or 60 percent or even more. Because, dammit, expensive California wine is the best wine in the world. Everyone knows that. And if you don’t, you don’t know anything about wine (and no, I’m not going to link to the blog posts that say that — no need to start the new year with a flame war).

Which is that lack of perspective. I’ve written many times that California makes the best wine in the world, cheap or expensive, but only when it wants to. The rest of the time, it’s content to make wine other people think it should make, be it a focus group or the Winestream Media. And if anyone complains, we get the speech in the previous paragraph.

Or, as one noted wine competition judge told me when we discussed this, “California wines have gotten boring, for the most part. Same ole, same ole, year in, year out. … I can appreciate the box they have built for themselves. Why mess with success? But no one wants to discuss it because we are all so close to those people and that industry, but the reason I love Old World wines so much is that they are interesting, with unexpected, often delightful, surprises. And every year, they are different.”

And difference brings perspective.

The 2015 Curmudgies

2015 curmudgiesWelcome to the 2015 Curmudgies, the fourth time we’ve given the awards to the people and institutions that did their best over the previous 12 months to make sure wine remained confusing, difficult to understand, and reserved for only the haughtiest among us. This year ?s winners:

? Worst news release: Another banner year for releases that insulted my intelligence, committed any number of grammatical errors, and did nothing to promote the product. The winner is 24-Group PR & Marketing for a release for Three Hunters Vodka, which included this foolishness (and a hat tip to my pal Tim McNally, who sent it my way): “We live in a time when some of the most important choices we make come prepackaged and predetermined by companies who know nothing about us. The decisions we make about the things we put in our bodies are constantly manipulated by clever and misleading advertising, and misconceptions about nutrition and health.” Why would anyone write that about vodka? Also, it is a classic example of the pot calling the kettle black.

? The regional wine award, or the more things change, the more they stay the same: To every restaurant in Dallas, and there are too many to list here, that doesn’t carry Texas wine. This is a disgrace given the improved quality and availability of Texas wine in the second decade of the 21st century, and speaks to the restaurant wine mentality that makes wine drinkers crazy. If Lucia can find a Texas wine to include on its otherwise all Italian list, so can the rest of you.

? The three-tier system is our friend award: To the 200 Minnesota cities that, thanks to one of the oddest state liquor laws in the country, operate their own liquor stores. As the Star-Tribune newspaper reports in a solid piece of journalism, “In 2014, 34 Minnesota cities, all outstate, lost a total of $480,000 on their liquor outlets ? money they had to backfill from their own coffers. Another 60 outstate cities saw sales drop from the previous year.” Given how much trouble so many cities, big and small, have doing basics like police and fire protection and garbage pickup, that some want to run liquor stores is mind boggling.

? The Wine Spectator will always be the Wine Spectator: For James Laube’s February 2015 blog post, which included this: “If you want to save more and waste less [on wine], consider how much money you spend on wine that you don’t drink, and how many bottles of wine you opened last year that should have been opened sooner.” Wine that we don’t drink, huh? Wine that we let sit in the cellar too long? Wish I had those problems. That one of the Spectator’s top columnists wrote about it speaks to how little the magazine has to do with how almost all of us drink wine.

? Would someone please listen to this person? The positive Curmudgie, given to someone who advances the cause of wine sensibility despite all of the obstacles in their way. The winner this year is Forbes’ Cathy Huyghe, who spent the month of November writing about the wine that most of us drink, and not what Forbes’ one percenters drink. “…[I]t has turned out to be one of the most eye-opening projects I ?ve ever done. … The longer I ?m a wine writer, the further away it ?s possible to get from the wines that most people drink.”

For more Curmudgies
? The 2014 Curmudgies
? The 2013 Curmudgies
? The 2012 Curmudgies

Scores, value, and the Wine Spectator top 100

Wine Spectator top 100 The most important part of the 2015 Wine Spectator top 100 isn’t the top-ranked wine or even the wines themselves. It’s this line, buried in the fifth paragraph:

Overall, the average score and average price are the same as in 2014 ?s Top 100: 93 points and $47 — an excellent quality-to-price ratio

That the magazine’s editors could write this speaks to how screwed up scores are and to how little the Spectator understands about the relationship between quality and value. A few thoughts:

? A $47 wine should get 93 points, if only because it costs $47. What’s the point of buying it otherwise? I could just as easily buy a $35 wine that got 90 points, which offers a better dollar per points ratio (a concept that, as I write this, makes my stomach turn).

? If I owned a winery and spent the millions of dollars necessary to make $47 wine and I didn’t get at least 93 points, the winemaker’s job would be in jeopardy. Baseball managers who don’t win get fired; why not winemakers?

? True value is a $10 wine that gets 88 or 90 points, a dollar per points ratio of .11, vs. the .51 for the $47 wine (sorry — couldn’t help myself). These are the wines that score-driven consumers have been to taught to buy, and I hear from them all the time. “Parker gave that $12 wine 90 points. Do you know where I can find it?”

? No score can guarantee whether you’ll like the wine. No. 21 on the list, with 93 points, is the Cloudy Bay sauvignon blanc from New Zealand. It’s a nice wine, but certainly not my favorite New Zealand sauvignon blanc and certainly not the 21st best wine of 2015 if I was doing the ranking.

? And, in one of those peculiarly Spectator leaps of logic, the rankings list scores and boast about them but the wines aren’t ranked by scores. Rather, they are chosen for “quality, value, availability and excitement.” Excitement? Did Fred Sanford judge the wines this year?

The end of the wine business as we know it?

wine businessThe one consistency about the wine business, as we celebrate the blog’s eighth birthday, is that the big get bigger, and that there isn’t any room for the small. Or, as a distributor friend of mine put it the other day, “It’s all about consolidating or dying in this world of global megacorps.”

Gone are dozens of companies that made wine that I enjoyed — producers that were bought or folded or absorbed by other companies, many of which are also gone. Remember Hogue, which made a quality $10 sauvignon blanc in the 1990s? It was purchased by the Canadian Vincor, which was soon gobbled up by Constellation. That entire process, three complicated financial transactions worth tens of millions of dollars, took place in just five years.

The difference these days is that the big are bigger than ever, and today’s small companies used to be considered big. The 10 biggest wineries in the U.S. account for about 71 percent of all the wine sold, based on figures from 2014 from Wine Business Monthly, and this amalgamation is happening on the distributor side, too, with the 10 biggest wholesalers controlling two-thirds of the market.

Throw in consolidation among retailers, and Big Wine will soon be selling to Big Retail through Big Distributor, and a handful of companies will control what we drink — the prices, the quality, even what it’s supposed to taste like. It will be the end of the wine business as we know it.

In this, there will be two markets for wine, what economists call bifurcation (and which is happening elsewhere in the U.S. economy). In the first, called the mass market, Big Wine will make as many as four out of every five bottles sold in the U.S — competent though often overpriced grocery store plonk with little varietal character and designed to appeal to specific demographics, the way laundry detergent and yogurt are. In other words, “smooth” wine.

In the second, called the luxury market, what’s left of the traditional wine business, both producer and distributor, will sell wine costing more than $20 to people who can afford to buy it, and whose spending will keep the dwindling number of traditional retailers and small distributors in business.

The idea that wine quality has anything to do with price will be as quaint as getting a letter in the mail. Instead, we’ll buy wine because the name speaks to our lifestyle or the label pops or any of the hundreds of other marketing techniques that Big Wine uses. And why not, since merlot will taste like zinfandel which will taste like pinot noir. For $15 at the grocery store, we’ll get fruity red wine with soft tannins and chocolately oak, and the Winestream Media will give these wines 88 points and gush at the value. The wine on the luxury side may remain varietally driven; what’s the point of paying $300 for white Burgundy that tastes like vanilla extract? But since it will be too expensive for all but a few of us, we’ll never know.

Sound too depressing to be true? Just another Wine Curmudgeon rant? Maybe, but there’s evidence it’s already happening in Great Britain: “A two-class wine market is emerging in the UK as some wine drinkers splash out and others are increasingly drawn to hard discounters,” and where the amount of wine sold is decreasing, but its value is increasing. Which, not coincidentally, almost happened in the U.S. this year.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the past year trying to decide whether to keep writing the blog, given the way things are going. I’ve always been an anachronism, a wine writer who writes about wine for people who don’t know much about it, but these changes threaten to make me as useless as a typewriter. What’s the point of writing about quality cheap wine when there may not be any?

But I’m also stubborn. If all this happens, someone has to remind the wine business that they’re turning what we love into an alcoholic version of soft drinks, and that some of us want more than Mr. Pibb and Dr Pepper. So I’ll hold on for as long as I can, keyboard in hand, rants at the ready, my Gascon whites and my Sicilian reds and my crisp roses nearby, and I’ll keep repeating: “Do not go gentle into that good night. … Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”