Category:Wine rants

One more time: The independent wine retailer is your best friend

independent wine retailer

No, this is not the selection at a quality independent retailer.

Only the independent wine retailer can save us from crappy wine and unfair pricing

The country’s pre-eminent “natural foods” grocer had two wine displays next to each other last month in a Dallas store. One wine was the kind you’d expect it to carry – Jules Taylor New Zealand sauvignon blanc, a terrific wine and especially for the $15 sale price. Next to it was mass produced schlock, a California chardonnay that uses intensive winemaking to taste sweet and buttery. It was also $15, and I saw the same wine for the same price at Target.

If a store that markets itself as carrying only the finest natural, organic, and sustainable products treats wine that way – junk next to excellence, and for the same price — how can we count on any retailer to offer quality and value?

Fortunately, that’s what the best independent wine retailers do. Because, as a wine business friend emailed the other day, “The consumer has a romantic view, with no idea of all the BS behind the curtain to sell the ocean of wine being made. And I feel the consumer is overpaying most of the time.”

The best independent wine retailers don’t do those things. They won’t sell you something like that chardonnay, where the bottle was probably the most expensive part of the product. In fact, most won’t even have it in their stores.

The best independent wine retailers understand that customer service matters, which is why they don’t carry junk. Better to sell you cases and cases of wine over the long term than six bottles of plonk and never see you again. And they price their products fairly, without the come-ons and phony discounts that dominate the marketplace. Right, Cost Plus World Market?

What makes a quality independent wine retailer?

To paraphrase from the cheap wine book:

• Does the retailer ask questions about your preferences, helping you figure out what you want – red or white, sweet or dry?

• Does the retailer let you ask questions? Do you feel comfortable asking those questions? Or do you feel you’re being humored in the way adults humor small children?

• Does the retailer answer your questions? Are the answers understandable or in winespeak? And, when you say you don’t understand what he or she means by leathery or oaky, do they explain so you do understand?

The best retailers do more than sell wine. They help you find wine that you didn’t know you would like. It’s easy to sell someone something that they already know about. What’s more difficult, and a mark of the best retailers, is to find something new – a Spanish albarino or French picpoul for an Italian pinot grigio, for example, or a fruity rose instead of a white zinfandel.

I’m lucky to have two top-notch independents in Dallas, and I have rarely been disappointed. I know if the wine is on their shelves, it’s probably worth buying. And I also know I can ask any question I want, no matter how Wine Curmudgeonly cranky, and I’ll get an intelligent answer. No one will sell me something because it’s on sale or because they get a bonus for selling it. They sell it because they want to make me happy.

And when’s the last time we could count on that in the wine business?

Putting all that scientific doom and gloom about wine into perspective

alcoholismThey’re telling us it’s about drinking. But it’s really about the social cost of alcoholism, which isn’t the same thing

The surprise about the recent study equating drinking alcohol with death is not that it gathered headlines. Of course it gathered headlines. The surprise is that so many reputable researchers said the headlines were overblown. Or, as University of Cambridge statistician David Spiegelhalter wrote after parsing the study’s numbers: “Come to think of it, there is no safe level of living, but nobody would recommend abstention.”

Aaron E. Carroll, who teaches at the Indiana University School of Medicine, wrote a reasoned critique in the New York Times. For one thing, he said, studies that amass numbers from other studies have inherent problems. For another, “just because something is unhealthy in large amounts doesn’t mean that we must completely abstain. … Consider that 15 desserts a day would be bad for you. This could lead to assertions that ‘there’s no safe amount of dessert.’ But it doesn’t mean you should never, ever eat dessert.”

What’s going on is a well-meaning attempt to cut the social cost of drinking, which is enormous. Alcoholism, in both dollars and misery, has been a scourge throughout recorded history. The federal Centers for Disease Control estimates that excessive drinking costs $250 billion annually and kills almost 90,000 people each year. There is also ample evidence that alcoholism devastates particular communities, be it native American reservations or blighted urban neighborhoods. The CDC, in fact, has proposed tighter alcohol retail regulation to help those communities. Do enough research, and you can even find suggestions that alcoholism played a role in the collapse of the Soviet Union.

And none of that even begins to describe that agony that alcoholism wreaks among friends and families. A friend of mine, an alcoholic, was reduced to living in his car at one point, and died surrounded by vodka bottles.

But well-meaning isn’t enough

Cutting alcoholism rates among native American youth, which are among the highest in the country, has absolutely nothing to do with whether I drink wine with dinner. It’s telling that Mothers Against Drunk Driving, perhaps the most high-profile anti-drinking group in the country, doesn’t go that far. MADD says the focus should be on the worst cases – the chronic abusers who drink and drive despite arrests, fines, and jail.

But the CDC and its neo-Prohibitionist allies have decided to target all of us. I’ve asked them why, and the standard response is that drinking is unhealthy. Which, as noted, is difficult to argue with.

My guess is that the neo-Prohibitionists are working off the success that anti-smoking groups have had since the 1964 Surgeon General’s report. Their mistake, of course, is that drinking and smoking are not the same thing. One can drink in moderation; one can’t smoke that way. And smoking’s social cost, as terrible as it is, is not like alcoholism’s. It’s rare anyone dies in their car because they’re addicted to nicotine.

Why anyone thinks that studies scaring social wine drinkers will stop alcoholics from drinking is beyond me; the issue is much more complex than that. Hopefully, the CDC and its allies will eventually figure this out, and we can come up with a reasonable and effective program to reduce alcoholism.

Until then, I’ll keep a wary eye out for those deadly desserts.

More about the CDC and drinking
The federal government’s three-drink limit
What the media didn’t tell you about the CDC alcohol study
Bacon, wine, and what we eat and drink

Health alert! Does the CDC know how dangerous Starbucks’ pumpkin spice latte is?

Starbucks pumpkin spice latte

Will the contents of that cup kills us as completely as three glasses of wine?

One Starbucks pumpkin spice latte may be worse for you than three glasses of red wine

The Wine Curmudgeon, ever vigilant to any threat to the nation’s health, has discovered that the much acclaimed Starbucks pumpkin spice latte may be more damaging to our bodies than wine. And, thanks to the federal Centers for Disease Control, we know how evil wine is.

The pumpkin spice latte will make its seasonal debut this week; several analysts said the coffee drink is key to the chain’s continuing profitability. As such, said one, “it offers customers what they want: ‘Fat, sugar and salt, plus the additional boost from caffeine.’ ”

In other words, a health minefield, and especially compared to demon wine. Consider a 16-ounce pumpkin spice latte made with two percent milk and whipped cream:

• That’s the equivalent of three glasses of red wine, or what most of us would drink with dinner. And most of us drink the latte in the middle of the day — almost a meal in itself.

Three glasses of wine are about 375 calories, while the latte is 380.

• Those three glasses of red wine don’t have any fat, cholesterol, or sodium. The latte has 22 percent of the recommended daily value of fat, 40 percent of saturated fat, 18 percent of cholesterol, and 10 percent of sodium.

In fact, Starbucks’ pumpkin spice latte may be even deadlier than a hot dog, and we all know how deadly a hot dog is.

So get with it, CDC. We know the link between fat, cholesterol, and heart disease. Let’s see a nationwide, peer-reviewed study on the health consequences of consuming flavored coffee drinks. Are they safe? Should we abstain completely? Or are they acceptable in moderation?

Yes, I know it sounds silly. But so does every pronouncement you make threatening us with imminent death if we don’t give up wine immediately. Are you serious about protecting the nation’s health? Or do you just want to bring back Prohibition?

Five wine stories you never need to read again

wine storiesYou don’t need to read these five wine stories again, because they don’t say anything anyone needs to know to enjoy wine

Wine writing can be repetitive and boring, and it’s just not because all too many of us write entirely too much about scores and toasty and oaky. It’s because certain stories appear over and over and over that always sound the same and that never offer information that matters to most of us.

In other words, five wine stories you don’t need to read:

It was a great vintage: Vintage stories have been meaningless for years, and not just because post-modern winemaking technology has made vintage irrelevant for 95 percent of the wine in the world. It’s because every vintage story, regardless of what happened during the harvest, quotes someone as saying it was a terrific vintage. It might have been challenging or it might have been smaller than expected, but it was terrific. I saw this the other day with a couple of stories about this year’s Texas harvest: One story gushed about a bumper crop, while the other talked about lower yields but high quality.

Wine is good (or bad) for you: Regular visitors here know I’ve banned health stories from the blog almost from the beginning, mostly because almost all of them are silly. Wine, like just about everything we put in our body, is neither good nor bad. It’s how much we use. If we drink in moderation, there seem to be health benefits. If we don’t drink in moderation, there are no health benefits. You don’t need a PhD or MD to know that.

Corks are the ideal wine closure: One day, perhaps, someone will do a scientific study about the efficacy of corks. Until then, there is no reason to read any cork story. Most of the studies are paid for by the cork industry, so what would you expect the results to be? Let’s not forget that cigarette makers once claimed smoking was good for us, and they had the experts to prove it.

Such and such is the hot new grape varietal: Typically, these stories originate on the East Coast and quote high-end sommeliers talking about a wine made in such small quantities that no one except high-end sommeliers can buy it. The original hot new grape was gruner veltliner, and you can see how that turned out. When’s the last time you saw gruner on a store shelf? In the last couple of years, we’ve gone though Greek grapes like assyrtiko; the current favorite is the country of Georgia and its saperavi. The point is not quality, because some of the wines are terrific (if overpriced). Rather, it’s availability. How can a wine be the next big thing if there isn’t any to buy?

Such and such is the hot new wine region: When I started doing this, the hot new wine region in California was Paso Robles. So guess what a recent story identified as the hot new wine region in California? Paso Robles, of course. Some of this is the way the news business works, where each new generation of editors and reporters figure they’ve discovered something because no one else in their peer group knows about it. But most of it is just laziness.

It’s red wine, isn’t it? So enough with the sugar already

sweet red wineSweet red wine: It’s time for the wine business to admit it’s sugaring up our red wine and passing it off as dry.

The Wine Curmudgeon has been writing a wine of the week on Wednesday, alternating red and white, for as long as I have been doing the blog. But we almost didn’t have a wine of the week two days ago. Call it my aversion to phony sweet red wine.

I tasted almost a dozen reds from California, Oregon, Washington, Spain, and France to find something to write about. No luck: Most of them weren’t very good and some of them were hideous, a recent trend. What was worse is that more than half of them were sweet. Yes, sweet red wine – as in enough residual sugar so that my mouth had that cotton candy feeling after I finished tasting.

It’s one thing to taste so much bad wine; that’s the burden I accepted when I took on cheap wine. But that the wines are sweet, in addition to poorly made, is a new horror, and one that I refuse to accept.

Red wine, unless it’s labeled as such, is not supposed to be sweet. If it is, it’s Kosher. Or Lambrusco. And that’s fine. I have nothing against sweet red wine, and have enjoyed all sorts over my wine drinking career. But that the wine business – and Big Wine is not the only culprit here – has decided to “smooth” dry red wine by extreme winemaking or sweetening (sugar or white grape juice or whatever, depending on the law in the country where the wine is made) is a travesty. And I refuse to accept it.

Why is this happening? It’s a combination of things, based on the idea that labeling red wine as sweet is death in the marketplace. Didn’t the wine business spend 30 years telling us that the only people who drank sweet wine were crazy old ladies with cats? So we get “red blends” that are hugely sweet but are sold as dry to appeal to the rest of us. And that are flooding store shelves.

Consider:

• The idea that there is an “American palate,” in which we won’t drink something unless it has enough sugar to make us cry rock candy tears. This makes me crazy, since most wine in the U.S. is dry and has been for decades. And everyone made a lot of money over the past 30 years selling dry wine.

• Copy cat marketing. E&J Gallo’s Apothic, the first legitimate sweet red blend, is a huge seller. So everyone else has to have their version of Apothic.

• The cynicism that has become part of doing business in the 21st century. We’re not wine drinkers to them; we’re vast hordes of focus groups to be manipulated in search of profit. This story bears repeating: A former Proctor & Gamble executive once told me he could get a focus group to do anything he wanted – which, he said, was the point of focus groups.

So be warned, wine business. I won’t mention any names now. I’ll give you one more chance. But know that from now on: If the wine is sweet, and you don’t label it sweet, I’m calling you out. I’ll have a permanent post here, listing the wines. And yes, I’m just one cranky wine writer. But we have to start somewhere.

Update: Dumbest pop culture wines 2018

Handmaid's Tale wine

“Don’t blame me for The Handmaid’s Tale wine. I’m not evolved enough to think of something that stupid.”

Add the since-canceled Handmaid’s Tale wine to the list of dumbest pop culture labels

We’ve added a wine to the dumbest pop culture wines 2018 list, one that is so colossally stupid that it makes the list even though it was canceled. Because, of course, it was so colossally stupid.

Wine drinkers unite: We don’t have to put up with The Handmaid’s Tale wine.

The geniuses behind this foolishness is a company called Lot 18, which specializes in branded wine. It has also given us wine based on Game of Thrones, Saturday Night Live, and Lord of the Rings – products without which the republic would have collapsed.

At best, the idea of Handmaid Tale wine is in poor taste. At worst – and many in the cyber-ether pointed this out – it celebrates a totalitarian culture that denigrates women and where rape and torture are accepted public policy. Hardly a positive marketing environment, if someone had spent 15 seconds thinking about it.

Hence, Lot 18 and MGM (which does the Hulu series) decided to cancel the wine. Neither offered an explanation – just took the wine website down. That no one said anything was probably a good idea, given promotional material used to sell the wine:

“Completely stripped of her rights and freedom, Offred must rely on the one weapon she has left to stay in control – her feminine wiles. This French Pinot Noir is similarly seductive, its dark berry fruit and cassis aromatics so beguiling it seems almost forbidden to taste.”

“Almost forbidden to taste?” Is it any wonder I worry about the future of the wine business?

Hendrick’s gin: How to do a TV booze commercial

This Hendrick’s gin TV ad puts most wine advertising to shame

A friend of mine, a woman who hits the wine demographic sweet spot, doesn’t drink gin, doesn’t buy gin, and doesn’t like gin. So I asked her to watch this Hendrick’s gin TV commercial.

“Wow,” she said. “I want to buy Hendrick’s gin.”

In other words, one more example of how the booze business – save wine – understands TV advertising. We get the Roo; spirits drinkers get something clever and enticing.

What makes this commercial work?

• The bit about “oddly infused with rose and cucumber.” All gin is infused with herbal and vegetable flavors, but this ad defines the point of difference between Hendrick’s and other gins.

• The animation, a cross between Terry Gilliam and William Gibson. It fits perfectly with the rose and cucumber line.

• No cliches. No almost naked babes, no wine drinking stereotypes, no frat house humor. This is a classy product, says the ad, and you’ll enjoy it. Would that someone in wine understood that approach.

I was talking to a friend the other day, a leading wine industry type, and wine marketing came up. His point was almost chilling: What passes for quality wine marketing, he said, is convincing people Carlo Rossi is a real person.

No wonder I worry about the future of the wine business.

Video courtesy of Hendrick’s Gin via YouTube, using a Creative Commons license

More about TV wine ads:
What was James Mason doing making a Thunderbird TV commercial?
Is this the greatest TV wine commercial ever?
TV wine commercials aren’t getting any better