Category:Wine rants

Downton Abbey claret — wine merchandising for dummies

downton abbey claretLet’s get the review of the Downton Abbey claret ($17, purchased, 13%) out of the way first: I liked it. It’s a Bordeaux blend with some blueberry fruit and a rough, gritty style that’s typical of cheap French red wine, the sort of thing I’ve been drinking most of my life. In other words, plonk.

The catch, of course, is that it isn’t cheap, costing about twice as much as it’s worth. But that’s the point, isn’t it? That $17 pays for more than the wine. It pays for the experience, and that’s what Carnival Film & Television Ltd., the show’s producers, are counting on. That, and that wine drinkers are as stupid as we’re supposed to be.

This is not a rant about TV and movie tie-ins; I own a Captain Kirk action figure and two Star Trek coffee mugs, and I’m proud of it. Rather, it’s about the wine business and the way it insults the intelligence of its customers, something that we see all too often. Call it celebrity wine or cult wine or whatever, it’s based on the assumption that wine drinkers don’t know anything about quality. Flash a shiny object in front of us, and we’ll reach for the debit card every time. Which, as regular visitors here know, is an attitude that makes me crazy.

And I got crazier reading the claret’s back label and promotional material. To paraphrase Dashiell Hammett, “I was trying to count how many lies could be found in them, and had reached four, with promise of more. ?”:

? This “is an elegant, dry wine. … ” “… with a silky finish.” Dry yes, but about as elegant as a summer day in Dallas and as silky as late-night diner coffee.

? The wine is made with “grapes from the renowned Entre-Deux-Mers (‘between two seas’) region of Bordeaux, France.” Yes, Entre-Deux-Mers is in Bordeaux, but it’s hardly renowned for claret, or even red wine. It’s a bulk wine region with some decent, cheap whites, more or less the French equivalent of California’s Central Valley.

? The wine was put together by a negociant, Grands Chais de France, founded in 1979, hardly “one of France’s great Chateaux.”

? Perhaps the worst: that the claret is age-worthy. It will age about as well as any other $8 wine, which means not at all. Legitimate claret, writes British wine critic Tom Cannavan, “can be the epitome of fine wine. The best wines exhibit a wonderful complexity of aromas and flavours, great elegance and refinement and an ability to age gracefully — some for a hundred years.” This ain’t that.

All of this is about words and terms that most consumers expect from wine in the vague way we do, but know very little about (because, of course, the wine business doesn’t care about wine education). Great wine is supposed to age, but most of us have never had an aged wine and don’t know why it makes a difference. Great wine is supposed to be elegant, but how many of us could describe what an elegant wine tastes like? And to expect most of us to know Entre-Deux-Mers is cynical even for a TV tie-in. No doubt the marketing types figured it was French, and that would be enough for the stupid Americans.

If Carson served this wine at a Downton Abbey dinner, he’d get a proper talking to; Hudson never would have let it in the house. If you want quality claret-stye wine for about $17 while watching the fourth season, try Bonny Doon’s A Proper Claret or Hess’ Treo Winemaker’s Blend. Or, if you want to spend $8 or $10, there’s Little James’ Basket Press Red, the kind of wine that entitles you to giggle at others who spend more for lesser quality because someone flashed a shiny object in front of them.

Rudy K. and neo-Prohibitionism

neo-ProhibtionismRudy K. is Rudy Kurniawan, the con man convicted last month for bilking wine collectors out of millions of dollars by passing off cheap wine as rare bottles worth thousands. The story, not surprisingly, was huge among the wine writing fraternity, both traditional and on-line, and a Google search yesterday turned up 1.8 million references to it.

On the other hand, a story that could affect every wine drinker — and not just those who can drop a couple of grand for a French first-growth that may or may not be real — was mostly ignored last year. That was the National Transportation Safety Board’s proposal to cut the legal drinking limit, which would be two glasses of wine for most women and three for men. Yesterday, there were just 37,000 Google references to the plan.

And some of us wonder why no reads wine blogs anymore. This contradiction, and what it says about wine writing and the wine business, is after the jump:
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The Do-it-yourself New Year’s wine resolutions for 2014

new year's wine resolutionsNew Year’s wine predictions, wine advice, wine trends, and the like are as common as $10 grocery store merlot. How does the Wine Curmudgeon know this? Because I’m almost as guilty as everyone else in doing them — almost being the key, of course.

Hence this opportunity for you to make your own predictions, in the spirit of the very popular Do-it-yourself wine review. Just click on the drop-down menus and your resolutions for 2014 are set (although those of you who get the blog via email or on Facebook may have to go the website to use the menus).

In 2014, I’m going to drink:

In 2014, I’m going to try to learn more about wine by:

In 2014, I’m going to spend:

In 2014, the most important wine trend will be:

In 2014, regional and local wine:

New Year’s resolution image from Joe’s Cafe and wine diet image from Chicane Pictures, using a Creative Commons license

The 2013 Curmudgies

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:

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Two wines from Aldi, and the differences in cheap wine

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.

More about Aldi wine:
? The Aldi wine experience
? Wine of the week: Aldi private labels
? The Five Day, $3 Wine Challenge: The results

 

Five things not to say about wine this holiday season

A-Hint-Of-BS

There but for the grace of of the wine gods. …

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.

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Price, value, and the California wine business

california wineDear 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.

Sincerely,
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