Welcome to the second annual Curmudgies, presented each year to the people and institutions that did their best over the previous 12 months to make sure that wine remained confusing, difficult to understand, and reserved for only the haughtiest among us. The 2012 Curmudgies are here; the 2013 awards are after the jump:
There are two kinds of cheap wine — those made to hit a certain price, like Two-buck Chuck, and those made to taste like wine, like the bottles in the $10 Hall of Fame. This is often a difficult concept to explain, since consumers assume price is price and don’t think much past that.
That’s why I was so intrigued by two $5 wines I bought at Aldi, the national discount grocer (and where most of the wine is private label). The wines — a Spanish tempranillo and an Italian red from Montepulciano — demonstrated this contradiction perfectly. The former was everything great cheap wine should be, enjoyable and a value, even at $5. The latter was made to cost $5, and I was reminded of that with every sip.
The quality of wines made to hit a certain price are notoriously inconsistent. That’s because, if the price of grapes increases, the wine contains cheaper grapes of lesser quality so it can maintain its price. Wine made to taste like wine is usually made with better quality grapes, so that it tastes the way it should. The producer either raises the price if grapes become more expensive or takes a smaller profit.
The tempranillo, Vina Decana 2010 ($5, purchased, 12.5%), tasted like tempranillo — cherry fruit balanced by crispness and some sort of combination of vanilla and earthiness. No, it’s not a Gran Reserva Rioja, and I realize all those adjectives might confuse the issue. The point is that the wine has a lot more going on than one would expect for $5, and someone paid attention to this when they made it. In this, it reminded me of the much beloved and sorely missed Solaz, perhaps the greatest cheap red wine of my wine writing career.
The Montepulciano, Violescent Montepulciano d’Abruzzo 2011 ($5, purchased, 13.5%), was just the opposite, made to cost $5 and that what it tasted like wasn’t as important as how much it cost. The wine was rough and acidic, almost green and unripe in an old fashioned “This is the way we churned out cheap wine in Italy before the winemaking revolution of the past two decades” style. It was drinkable, but we want more than that, don’t we?
The other thing this illustrates is that wine quality is not always a retailer’s top concern, and this is especially true for retailers like Aldi that sell on price. Their thinking is centered around product mix, shelf space, what’s available, and what has the best margins. The burden is on the consumer to decide if the wine is a value, and given how little time most of us have to worry about these things (and little experience and education, as well), that’s not as easy as it should be. What’s worse is that retailers count on that, and which is why too much wine is like the Violescent and not the Decana.
The holidays are fraught with peril for wine drinkers, and especially for anyone who is intimidated by all the wine drinking going on. Which, truth to tell, is more of us than most of us care to admit. Or, as one 20-something woman asked me during a Cheap Wine book signing (shamless plug alert!), “Is it OK if I bring this $5 wine to a party? Will people make fun of me?”
Hence this guide, because we don’t want to embarrass any of our fellow wine drinkers. Because there but for the grace of the wine gods. …
1. “I can’t believe you’re drinking sweet wine.” Some of the best wine in the world is sweet — rieslings, whether from Germany, New York or elsewhere, and dessert wines, including the $550 French Chateau d’Yquem. Yes, pink moscato or red raspberry is not highly rated by the Winestream Media, but who are they to judge? After all, don’t they believe in the magical gateway wine?
2. “I used to buy that, and then I learned more about wine.” This actually happened to me. A guy I knew saw I was buying an ordinary French red, and said I should buy his French red. Which I did, and it was a waste of money — more expensive and not any better. I learned an important lesson that day about wine and peer pressure. Which is to ignore it.
3. “I just bought a bunch of 92-point wines, and they were only $30 each — such a deal.” Any wine that costs more than $15, given the foolishness of points, should score 92 points. At least. In fact, given the rampant score inflation that has apparently going on over the past couple of years, anyone who spends $30 a bottle for a 92-point wine shouldn’t be bragging about it. They should be consulting the $10 Hall of Fame.
4. “Texas wine? Haven’t they given up on that yet?” You can substitute your local wine region here, but the sentiment is the same. Despite all of the progress we have made, too many wine drinkers, wine critics, and wine snobs still insist they know best about regional wine because they didn’t enjoy the glass they had when Jimmy Carter was president.
5. “The last time I was in Napa, I had the most amazing wine. … ” Wine travel snobbery is among the worst, implying that the only amazing wines can be found by people rich or lucky enough to go where the wine is made. This is obviously not true; the Wine Curmudgeon has found some amazing wines digging around the closeout bin at his local Italian wine specialist. Which is 10 minutes from my house with free parking.
Dear California wine business:
I honestly don’t like writing nasty things about you. You make some of the best wine in the world, and I’d much prefer to write about that. But you drive me crazy, because you continue to do things that make it that much more difficult for me to be nice.
The most recent example came last month, when two of your wineries — two of my favorites, who know what I want to review — sent me samples. Did the samples include any of the great cheap wine they make? Nope. They were the usual overpriced big reds, including a 15 percent zinfandel, the kind of wine that I regularly rail against. These wines aren’t made because people want to drink them, but because you think you should make them. God only knows why, though I suspect the Winestream Media has something to do with it.
The wine business changed for our lifetimes five years ago, when the recession forced consumers to trade down and consumers discovered that they liked the cheap wine they found. In 2008, Americans drank more wine than they did in 2007, but spent less to do so. This is one of the most important moments in the history of the modern wine business, and I’m not the only one who has noticed it.
In addition, it parallels what’s going on with the rest of the U.S. economy. We’re not spending money just to spend money or buying stuff just to buy stuff; rather, we’re thinking about what we buy, and we want value as well as low prices.
I am reminded of this every time I buy wine. The most recent example came in September when I was in Kerrville, an affluent Texas resort town, and the two older Anglo men in line ahead of me were buying Franzia boxed wine and a big bottle of Rex Goliath. They could, from what I saw, afford to buy anything they wanted, and they bought cheap wine. Americans shop on price, no matter how much you wish they didn ?t. All you have to do is look at the sales numbers. No one buys those 15 percent zindandels with the big scores; they buy cheap pinot noir.
Some of you have figured this out, which is why wines like Barefoot and Cupcake have done so well over the past five years. These wines, as simple as they are, are cheap and offer some kind of value. But you can do better than that, and I don’t understand why so many of you don’t want to try. Or, having tried, given up. What’s so awful about making honest, quality cheap wine? Why do so many have to suffer through so much overpriced, overdone wine when you have the skill to make fabulous wine that is neither overpriced nor overdone?
This is not to say there isn’t a place for wine that costs more than $10 (and I’m getting a little tired of being accused of hating expensive wine just because it’s expensive). Ridge has earned popular and critical acclaim, and its least expensive bottle is $25. But that’s because it offers value at those prices, something that is sadly lacking at so many other producers.
Your customers understand this in a way that you don ?t. You’re still making and marketing wine as if it was 1995 or 2005, when a higher price meant better wine (or, if not better, more desirable), and value didn’t matter. The world doesn’t work that way anymore. Understand that, and everyone will be better off, including me. I can then drink your wine and not have to write you a letter like this.
The Wine Curmudgeon
For more on wine, prices, and value:
• The Treasury debacle
• Retailers and wine prices
• Wine of the week: Little James Basket Press NV
• Five things the wine business can do to help consumers figure out wine
There has been a lot of news about wine prices holding steady lately, but it’s been mostly economic — studies, analysis, and so forth. That’s the kind of stuff, as accurate as it is, that is sometimes painful for consumers to read. Not many of us worry too much about grape tonnage.
On the other hand, it’s very easy for consumers to understand low prices, like these in a maling sent this week from Total Wine, the large regional retailer that wants to be a national chain:
? Barefoot pinot noir for $4.97, almost 30 percent off the suggested retail price.
? The 2009 Groth Oakville cabernet sauvignon, a previous vintage, for 12 percent less than the current vintage’s $57.
? Bogle chardonnay, a mainstay of the $10 Hall of Fame, for $6.97.
? A previous vintage of King Estate pinot gris, about as dependable as a $17 wine can be, for $11.97.
? Perrier-Jouet Grand Brut, a holiday Champagne staple, for $39.99 — 20 percent off suggested retail.
Some of these, like the Barefoot and the Bogle, are likely loss leaders — priced to lure customers to the store in the hope they’ll buy other, more profitable, wines. But the prices also speak to two other trends. First, there’s still a lot of unsold wine in the supply chain left over from the recession, and especially expensive wine. Until those wines are sold or disposed of (right, Treasury?) they will continue to drag down prices. The Total mailing also had previous vintages from Cakebread, Chimney Rock, and Silver Oak, each expensive and popular California producers.
Second, competition among retailers is fiercer than ever, with liquor superstores growing 15 percent since 2008, three times faster than their conventional counterparts. Total, with almost 100 stores, wants to double revenues to $2 billion by 2016, while BevMo, with 144 stores mostly in the west, wants to expand outside its base. All that competition — which is especially brutal in Dallas, where Total opened last year — means more discounting in an attempt to build market share. And that means more low prices.
Throw in the economy, which has been treading water for at least a year, and the idea that wine prices are going to go up anytime soon is as silly as the Wine Curmudgeon using wine scores on the blog.
The Wine Curmudgeon, despite his brilliance as a writer, is a lousy businessman. How else to explain that former Treasury Wine Estate CEO David Dearie earned A$2.4 million (about US$2.25 million) for running his company into the ground, while I have been giving away, for free, the wisdom that could have helped Treasury avoid this year’s 53 percent drop in profit?
One more time, for those who still aren’t paying attention: The U.S. consumer buys wine on price. The challenge for wine companies, whether multi-nationals like Treasury, Napa cult wineries, or the thousands of other producers around the word, is to add value so that the consumer gets more than their $10 worth. Some do it with cute labels and marketing; some do it with points and high scores; and the best do it by giving us $12 or $15 worth of wine for our $10. (Go here for almost seven years worth of examples of how the best do it.)
Treasury did none of those. Instead, it looks like it did the absolute worst possible thing — it charged us $12 or $15 or $18 for $10 wines, a technique called masstige that was part of its business plan. I spend some time on this in the Cheap Wine Book, though I didn’t realize what masstige was when I wrote it. Rather, I noted that wines that cost between $12 and $18 seem to offer the least value, “probably because producers don ?t improve the quality of the wine as much as they increase the price and gussy up the label.”
Think of masstige as a cross between mass market products like Two-buck Chuck and Barefoot and luxury labels like high-end Champagne. Masstige is apparently very common in cosmetics, where the added value comes from the prestige a product provides because it costs more money. This approach may still work in cosmetics, where the value difference between Revlon and Clinique remains well established even though the products are quite similar based on what’s in the jar. But in wine, the idea that expensive is always better (as noted here and elsewhere many times since 2008) is something that the consumer has rejected.
Interestingly, I’m not the only one who has realized this. An analyst, discussing Treasury’s problems, said “the underlying problem in the U.S. is not inventory, it’s the health of the brands, because of underinvestment in marketing.” Which, as mentioned above, is one of the three ways for producers to add value.
Want to make money in the wine business? Treat the consumer fairly, and the consumer will reward you. That’s the lesson the recession taught, and it’s really not any more complicated than that. Which is probably why I never thought I needed to charge for the advice.