Category:Wine rants

The Wine Curmudgeon does the Grape Collective interview

Wine Curmudgeon Grape CollectiveJameson Fink of the Grape Collective, an especially popular wine website, asked some terrific questions as part of their regular feature, called SpeakEasy. This gave me a chance to offer several insights into the wine business and wine writing. More than a few people may be annoyed at my answers, but that’s their problem. If we don’t stick up for ourselves as wine drinkers, who will?

The interview is here. A few highlights:

? “I talk to consumers all the time, and they’re scared to death of wine. They apologize for not knowing more or for drinking something that might offend me. In what other consumer good does that happen? Does someone apologize to their dinner guests for serving Maxwell House coffee?”

? Asked what wines offer the best value, I suggested Gascony, Sicily, rose, and cava. Not shocking to regular visitors here, of course, but I never pass up a chance to spread the good news. I have a feeling the Grape Collective’s demographic may not be exactly the same as mine.

? “Winespeak (and I got an email about this other day from a consumer complaining about exactly this) scares everyone else off. What can it possibly mean to someone in a grocery store that a $12 wine has notes of beeswax, other than to make them run in terror?”

? My 10 favorite food- and wine- related places in Dallas, which doesn’t include most of the things other people would recommend. Which says a lot about Dallas, actually. And what does it say about me that two of my choices don’t have websites?

? Question: “What ?s changed in the world of wine blogging since you started in 2007?” Answer: “Fewer quality blogs, more snarkiness and bitterness among those who did not become rich and famous because they thought they should, and less professionalism. … Wine writing is the best job in the world, and I don’t understand why so many of us, both online and in print, have such chips on our shoulders.”

Big Wine and crowdsourcing

Big wine crowdsourcingColumbia Crest is owned by Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, part of a one-half billion dollar company. La Crema is part of Jackson Family Wines, also a one-half billion dollar company. So why is each using a form of crowdsourcing, letting its customers make key winemaking decisions for one of its wines?

Because it’s not enough to make piles of money in the wine business anymore. You also have to be seen as local and accessible, and these multi-nationals (the eighth- and ninth-biggest producers in the U.S.) see crowdsourcing as the way to make them cuddly and artisan-like. Ask your customers for their advice about making wine, and how can they — and the rest of the wine world — not love you?

The Wine Curmudgeon can’t decide if this is incredible marketing or one of the most cynical things I’ve ever seen in the wine business, where cynical things are a dime a dozen. On the one hand, it’s a clever use for social media, which big companies have a hard time doing well. There aren’t too many opportunities for cute pet pictures on a multi-national Facebook page. And the crowdsourcing is certainly no scam — the companies have been honest and upfront about what’s going on.

On the other hand, it could be malarkey to make P.T. Barnum proud. Columbia Crest is making 1,000 cases of high-end cabernet sauvignon from its effort, not much when you consider its annual production is almost 2 million cases and it normally does 5,000 of this particular wine. La Crema churns out almost 1 million cases a year; it hasn’t announced how much the project will produce. First its crowd has to decide between chardonnay and pinot noir.

Plus, given the odds that each crowd could decide to make really crappy wine even with the best of intentions, how much input will it really have? Yes, each company says its winemaker will do exactly as instructed, but given how little most of us know about winemaking and how complicated it is, what are the chances of that happening? Because Columbia Crest and La Crema could turn into the wine industry’s version of New Coke if the wine turns out to be undrinkable, and one doesn’t get to be one of the 10 biggest producers in the U.S. by doing a New Coke.

There is one thing I am thankful for, crowdsoucing veteran that I am. At least the companies didn’t ask for cash to help pay for production, which is the most typical use for crowdsourcing — Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and the like. That would have been too much to deal with, even for the Wine Curmudgeon.

Five things that make me crazy when I buy wine

buy wine

Which price am I going to pay for this wine? And why are there so many prices anyway? It makes me crazy.

Negotiating the Great Wall of Wine at the grocery store (or any retailer, for that matter) is difficult enough. But why is it that so many in the wine business go out of their way to make it even more difficult? Hence, the five things that make me crazy when I buy wine:

1. Wine shelved incorrectly, where Chilean wine is in the Spanish section, French wine is in the Italian section, and so forth. Some of my irritation is because I’m the son and grandson of retailers, and they taught me the need to stock inventory correctly. But most of it is because that kind of mistake makes it more difficult for people to buy the wine they want. If you’re looking for malbec, and it’s not in the Argentine section, you’re more likely to forgo wine or buy beer.

2. Sweet red wines that don’t say they’re sweet on the label. If I have trouble figuring out whether it’s sweet or dry, and I do, how much trouble does the average consumer have? Using the adjective smooth, which seems to be the winespeak of the moment for sweet, isn’t enough. You’re making sweet red wine because people want sweet red wine, so what’s wrong with telling them it’s sweet?

3. The boxed wine ghetto, where all the boxed wine — regardless of quality — is stuck on a dusty shelf in the back of the store or wine section. One reason that Yellow + Blue, a great cheap wine, isn’t better known is that it comes in a 1-liter box. That means you’ll find it with the Almaden and Franzia 5-liter boxes, and about the only thing the Yellow + Blue has in common with those is the box. It’s like putting Italian-made shoes next to flip-flops, and who does that?

4. Three — or four or even five — prices for the same bottle of wine. There’s the regular retail price. And the club price. And the sale price. And the “buy six, get a discount” price. And the “buy 12 and get a discount” price. The consumer isn’t sure what the price is, and ends up paying more than they thought they would. Which, sadly, may be the point.

5. That every winery in New Zealand seems to have a bay in its name — Oyster Bay, Monkey Bay, Destiny Bay, Cable Bay, Brick Bay, Pegasus Bay, Clifford Bay, Picton Bay, and so on and so forth. It’s one thing when the winery, like the respected and well-known Cloudy Bay, is actually located on a bay. But when the winery doesn’t exist, and the name is made up to sell private label wine or by Big Wine to establish a New Zealand brand, enough is enough.

Slider image courtesy of Houston Press food blog, using a Creative Commons license

Winebits 341: The Neo-Prohibitionists’ new study

Neo-Prohibitionist studyA roundup of the recent news from the Centers for Disease Control that excessive drinking is killing 1 in 10 working-age Americans, another scientific study in the Neo-Prohibitionist effort to stop us from drinking by scaring us to death. And where no one bothered to check this out:

? NPR’s sobering picture: The bad pun is there because, believe it or not, someone working for a major U.S. news outlet used the pun in the story. The report, written by Nancy Shute, says 1 in 6 of us binge drink, but doesn’t question one of the study’s definitions of excessive drinking: eight drinks a week for women and 15 for men. Which implies that most core wine drinkers in the U.S. are binging, including the Wine Curmudgeon. So why is two glasses of wine with dinner excessive? I expect more from NPR, which usually does better reporting than its competitors and doesn’t accept on faith whatever the government says.

? Got to have charts:The Washington Post’s Lenny Bernstein seemed quite surprised at the statistics in the study, including what he called “the eye-opening charts included in the report.” Maybe. But there were almost 15,000 homicides in the U.S. in 2012, according to the FBI, while the CDC attributed about half of those to excessive drinking. That difference is what’s eye-opening to me: That about the same number of us killed someone and weren’t drunk when we did it. Does this mean we need to regulate sobriety?

? Get rid of booze, get rid of the problem: The solution to all of this? “.. [I]ncreasing alcohol taxes, regulating alcohol outlet density, and avoiding further privatization of alcohol retail sales.” Which, of course, is exactly the aim of the NeoDrys — regulate drinking by making it more expensive, reducing the number of places where we can buy it, and keeping government involved in selling it, as in Pennsylvania. This is instead of outlawing drinking, which didn’t work the last time. That education, and not regulation is the answer seems to be beyond their understanding. Perhaps someone can explain why Pennsylvania, with some of the most restrictive liquor laws in the country, had the same death rate as Illinois, where you can buy scotch at the drug store, or Louisiana, where drinking is a tourist industry?

Is Texas wine at a crossroads?

Texas wineTexas wine may be approaching a crossroads, something that was evident during the 31st annual Lone Star International wine competition this week. That’s because some of the best wines at the competition weren’t Texas, but included California wines sold by Texas producers. Which is not supposed to be the point of what we’re doing here.

Years ago, when a lot of Texas wine left much to be desired, what happened this week wasn’t unusual. Or, as I told the competition organizer when I first judged Lone Star in 2005, “Give us better wines, and we’ll give you gold medals.”

Given the revolution in Texas wine quality and production over the past decade, I had hoped those days were gone. But the uneven quality of many of the wines I judged, this year and last, has me wondering. Has Texas wine reached a plateau, where quality isn’t going to get any better given the state’s resources and climate? Or is something else going on?

After the jump, my take on what’s happening: Continue reading

“Our panel of experts:” Irony and non-winery wine clubs

wine club expertsThird-party wine clubs — those that aren’t part of wineries — have always made the Wine Curmudgeon smile. How about the website that rates wine clubs, and that also rates the wine clubs that the site operates? Or the wine club that offers “first-class” cabernet sauvignon from Spain, a concept that makes as much sense as coming here to find cult wine recommendations from Napa Valley.

Typically, most third-party wine clubs don’t tell you the wines you’re going to get or how they pick the wines you’re going to get. They trade on the group’s name, but are otherwise separate; hence a newspaper wine club is a marketing tool that has nothing to do with the newspaper’s wine reporting. Mostly, there’s flowery language — “small-batch wines of real flair and value,” which means absolutely nothing when you try to parse it — and lots of promises about how good the wines are. Plus tasting notes, because all wine needs tasting notes, doesn’t it?

Which makes me wonder: Most of us wouldn’t buy shoes this way, sight unseen and trusting to someone else’s judgement. So why would we buy wine this way?

My newest smile is Global Wine Company, which runs the New York Times and Washington Post wine clubs plus those for retailer Williams-Sonoma, More and Food & Wine magazines, and celebrity chef Michael Mina. Check out the people who run the company — accountants and bankers, and a woman who helped make the PowerBar famous. There is no mention of the “panel of experts” who pick the wines, and about the only wine-related information I could find was this: “GWC handles all global wine sourcing, state compliance, and customer fulfillment, which enable partners to expand their brands into wine and drive recurring revenue.”

Mmmm, drive recurring revenue. How yummy does that sound?

Enough with the wine and food pairings already, because you’re not helping the cause

wine and food pairings

Since you don’t have any cheese, I assume you don’t have any wine pairings either?

The Wine Curmudgeon’s thoughts about pairing wine and food have evolved significantly over the past decade. I still think pairings are important, but if you don’t like big red wine, what’s the point of telling you to drink big red wine with certain food? All I ask is that you’re open-minded enough to consider pairings and don’t dismiss them as more wine foolishness.

Having said that, it’s not easy for wine drinkers — and even the most experienced among us — to keep an open mind. That’s because the wine business insists on overwhelming us with pairings that are at best impractical and at worst silly. How can we be expected to take pairings seriously when so many suggestions have so little relevance to what we really eat?

For example (all taken from fact sheets and back labels):

? A $10 Chilean pinot noir with paella. This is not to denigrate the Spanish classic (though I’ve never been able to master it), but to note that most of us will never taste paella. So why would anyone suggest it as a pairing, and especially for an every day wine?

? A high-end Napa Valley sauvignon blanc with “any fresh well-made cuisine.” Because, of course, the alternative is so appealing: Pairing a wine with any stale, poorly-made cuisine.

? A $10 Argentine cabernet sauvignon with “of course, our traditional Argentine asado.” I do this for a living, and I had to look up asado (which is lots of beef grilled outdoors over a wood fire). So how is anyone else supposed to know what it is?

The best way to do this? Keep it simple, like Gallo did with its 50th anniversary $7 Hearty Burgundy: chili. Which would work, by the way. Or even, as Rodney Strong does, leave them out, since no suggestions are better than silly ones.

More on wine and food pairings:
? The myth of of wine and food pairings
? Pairing wine with fast food
? Wine and food pairings: Do they matter?