Category:Wine trends

Birthday Week essay 2020: Wine as expensive shiny baubles instead of something to savor and enjoy

cheap wine

“Ha! Just try and keep me from writing about cheap wine.”

How did we end up in a Peloton wine universe, when all we want is something to drink with dinner?

How does one keep cheap wine in perspective, given this year of living depressingly – the pandemic, the Trump wine tariff, the presidential election, the sommelier sex scandal? In fact, why even bother? Why not just load up on Winking Owl at Aldi, get hammered, and leave it at that?

And who would blame us if we did? Has cheap wine ever been worse off in the blog’s 13-year history? Yes, I know I seem to write that in each of the blog’s annual Birthday Week essays, and I am writing it again for the blog’s 13th birthday. But that’s because, sadly, it always seems to be true.

We’ve been dumped into some sort of bizarre Peloton wine universe, where everything is sold to us as an expensive, shiny bauble – even when it is neither expensive, shiny, nor a bauble. And, most infuriatingly, even if we don’t need it. I got a $17 sample this fall, and the tasting notes were past snotty (let alone indecipherable): “Polished fore palate with ample fine grain tannins on a generous mid palate.”

We want quality and value, and the wine business gives us $15 supermarket plonk because surveys say that’s the hot price point. The cost of the wine in that $17 sample, allowing for some crude math, was probably less than $4; does that mean the tasting notes cost more than grapes? We aren’t customers anymore, but lines on a spreadsheet, metrics to be parsed, trends to be analyzed, and preferences to be focus grouped.

How did we get to this point?

It starts with the state of the world, and is not exclusive to wine. It’s what one observer has called late-period capitalism, which is based on “taking beloved institutions and destroying everything that made them great so that a few billionaires can get even richer.”

Wine’s contribution is consolidation. Today, most of the world’s wine production is in the hands of maybe a couple of hundred companies, and the U.S. business is even more top-heavy. The top five producers account for about three-quarters of U.S. sales, even though there are some 10,000 wineries, while the two biggest distributors control half the wholesale business.

The result? An almost surreal wine market:

• Cheap wine that tastes cheap — poorly made, stemmy, and bitter, and produced for no other reason than to cost $3 or $4 a bottle.

• $15 wine made for a mass audience — sold in supermarkets and the biggest retailers, slightly sweet and “smooooth,” and where more money may be spent on label copy than on the grapes.

• Expensive wine that exists for no reason other than that it’s expensive, and which commands the fawning supplication of the Winestream Media.

The idea that wine should taste like wine, and that it is something that most of us can afford to drink with dinner – which was the idea of wine for much of the past 200 years – is a quaint, old-fashioned notion. Which only cranks like me still believe – because, of course, late-period capitalism.

So is it time for the Winking Owl?

Hardly. Wine is a pleasure, something to be enjoyed, and something that makes life more enjoyable. A glass of wine after a day of good writing is something to be savored and appreciated, not scored and cataloged and trophy-ized. Why should I let people whose idea of success is as offensive as it is self-defeating spoil it for me?

Yes, cheap wine is in a bad place – we’ve lost much quality cheap wine over the past couple of years thanks to producer and distributor consolidation, and consolidation has wreaked havoc with availability. And it’s not like availability was easy even in the good old days.

But there is still great cheap wine out there, it’s still worth looking for, and I’m going to keep looking for it. Call it the cheap wine version of grace under pressure – if something is worth doing, then we should do it, even when it may not be easy. No, finding great cheap wine won’t solve the world’s problems, but it may help us endure until we can figure out a way to solve them. That’s a fine job in and of itself, and one I am happy to do –because we must solve them.

More Birthday Week perspective on the wine business:
How do you write about quality cheap wine when the system is rigged against it?
Have we reached the end of wine criticism?
• 10 years writing about cheap wine on the Internet

Wine Curmudgeon most popular posts 2020

popular posts 2020

“Churro, we need to find a way to boost blog traffic. Your being cute didn’t do much.”

The Wine Curmudgeon’s most popular posts 2020: Not necessarily about cheap wine, and a lot fewer visitors

What does one make of a blog about cheap wine when a majority of the most popular posts weren’t about cheap wine — or  were even wine reviews?

That’s where we find ourselves as the blog celebrates its 13th annual Birthday Week. Only four of the top 10 posts from November 2019 to November 2020 were sort of about cheap wine. And one was about as far removed from cheap wine as possible — a six-year-old post about the $300 Coravin wine opener at No. 10.

Ordinarily, I’d blame all this foolishness on our overlords at Google, whose search engine algorithm has more to do with sending visitors to the blog than anything I write. But the past 12 months also saw a precipitous decline in traffic, about one-third from last year’s 600,000 or so visitors. That no doubt also contributed to the bizarre top post results — fewer visitors exaggerates the importance of the posts that do get traffic.

So what caused the drop? The pandemic, almost certainly, combined with the U.S. presidential election. There were other things on people’s minds that didn’t involve finding a $10 wine that doesn’t taste like alcoholic grape juice. Even sites like Linkedin, which should be immune, may have had some traffic declines.

Which I understand. The problem comes if traffic doesn’t recover if and when we get back to normal toward the end of next year. What’s the point of a wine blog where no one wants to read about wine?

The top 10 posts of 2020:

1. The four-year-old “Barefoot wine: Why it’s so popular.” This was the top post in 2019, as well, and was No. 7 in 2018. But it didn’t make the top 10 in 2016 or 2017, which makes no sense given how the Internet is supposed to work.

2. The Kim Crawford wine ad critique, which moved up from fifth in 2019. There are 38  comments, most very harsh about the ad; that’s not only a lot of comments for the blog, but that so many people agreed with me is also unusual.

3. The 10-year-old Barefoot wines (again) post was third for the second year in a row. How does a post that old get so much traffic? Ask our overlords at Google.

4. The residual sugar post was fourth, after being second for two consecutive years. This is something I am quite proud of, that wine drinkers can come here and get practical information to help them make intelligent decisions.

5. The Louisiana shrimp boil wine and food pairings post l call it my contribution to making the pandemic a little less difficult It’s also the first wine and food pairings post to make the top 10.

6. Ask the WC 1 — another pandemic-specific post, I think. It offers cheap cava suggestions, though why a seven-year-old post that was only partially about cheap cava is beyond me.

7. The 2020 $10 Hall of Fame. Long gone are the days when that year’s Hall of Fame was the most visited, and a couple of others would be in the 1op 10. Again, I have no idea why, and it’s more than a little sad.

8. Will the pandemic bring permanent changes to the three-tier system? This is self-explanatory — and  one of the few hopeful things to come out of this year.

9. A post about discount wine retailer Grocery Outlet. Which, hopefully, is coming soon to a town near you.

10. That damned Coravin post. I wonder if it’s because I actually discussed its value to wine drinkers, instead of fawning over it like most of the Winestream Media.

A few other thoughts:

• The $10 wine category was 34th for the second year in a year. Double sigh.

• The various five-day, $3 wine challenge posts dropped out of the top 10. The highest ranking one was 15th, and again, I have no idea what that means. One would think this would be a very popular pandemic-related post.

• My undercover, illegal interstate wine shipping post was 16th, which isn’t bad since it didn’t post until the end of July.

More about the blog’s top posts:
2019 top posts
2018 top posts
2017 top posts

Wine tariff update: It looks like things are going to get worse before they get better

tariff warNew 25 percent EU spirits tariff threatens to ratchet trade war up another notch

The good news about repealing the 25 percent Trump European wine tariff? The administration that levied it will be gone in a couple of months. The bad news? A couple of commentators don’t see the Biden Administration as being necessarily more friendly toward trade and the European Union.

Alan Beattie, writing in The Financial Times, says the new administration won’t be as loopy on trade as Trump’s was, but that the days of free-traders Bill Clinton and Barack Obama won’t soon return. A Biden Administration won’t rush into anything, and while saying it believes in free trade, may not do what we want or hope it will do.

The other bad news? This week’s 25 percent European Union duty on U.S. rum, brandy, vodka and vermouth – one more tax as part of the Airbus-Boeing aircraft parts dispute, whose sad, pathetic history has turned into something only Dickens would recognize. This is in addition to a 25 percent tariff on U.S. bourbon and other whiskeys that took effect in June 2018, while Trump retaliated with the wine and Scotch tariff last fall.

In other words, all of us who were cautiously optimistic about being cautiously optimistic were probably too optimistic. Whatever signs there were that the EU was willing to compromise with the Biden Administration disappeared with the most recent tariff. Spirits producers on both sides of the Atlantic were already reeling – one trade group puts the sales losses at more than 30 percent for Scotch labels in the EU and more than 40 percent for U.S. brown goods companies. Hence, it’s difficult to see one more tariff as a sign of good faith.

Having said that, the Financial Times’ coverage of the U.S.-EU tariff war has been universally gloomy, so that’s one thing. More importantly, we’re all adults here, and rational people on both sides must realize that throwing tariffs at each other to settle a dispute that has already been mostly settled (both aircraft companies have renounced the illegal subsidies) seems pointless – as well as economically dangerous. And isn’t the economy in enough trouble as it is?

Winecast 54: Melanie Ofenloch and wine’s #MeToo moment

Melanie Ofenloch

Melanie Ofenloch: Yes, wine has a good old boys network.

“It’s something that is so pervasive and such a part of the fabric of how men feel they can take things. It’s just not right.”

Melanie’s post about the podcast and the sommelier sex scandal

Melanie Ofenloch writes the Dallas Wine Chick blog, and is well regarded for her work. But that’s not her day job — she is a long-time top-level marketer, and she has traveled the world for a variety of multi-national companies. As such, she lends a unique perspective to wine’s #MeToo moment.

And, not surprisingly, says Melanie, the Court of Master Sommelier sex scandal is no different than anything she has seen in the business world. The surprise is that so many people accepted it as part of the culture. But the stories that have come out, she says, don’t even scratch the surface.

So why were people in wine so complacent? Why did it take so long for this to come out? Why did it happen in wine, which prides itself on being different? And what can be done to fix it?

Click here to download or stream the podcast, which is about 13 minutes long and takes up almost 9 megabytes. Quality is mostly excellent.

Expensive wine pricing and snobbery have been institutionalized, legitimized, and even admired

expensive wineCan’t afford to buy one of the world’s great wines? Then lump it

This is the second of two parts looking at the conundrum that is wine pricing today – we’re awash in cheap, often crummy wine, while the prices of the world’s great wines are at all-time highs. Today, part II: How we got to the point where no one but the ultra-rich can afford the world’s great wines. Part I: The grape glut, and what it means for consumers.

The problem with expensive wine prices is not that they are expensive or that wine snobs are eager and willing to pay them. We’ve always had both. Rather, it’s that never before in the history of wine has pricing and snobbery been institutionalized, legitimized, and even admired. We’re at a point where people buy the world’s great wines not to drink them, but to keep them in a vault and watch them appreciate in value, using their acquisitions to prove their superiority to the rest of us.

How screwed up is that?

But that’s where we are, and it’s the reason why the world’s great wines cost thousands of dollars a bottle. Consider: I can pay for a place to live for a month, or I can buy a  2016 Harlan Estate cabernet sauvignon for $1,450 at a Dallas retailer. By one estimate, prices of the finest wines have increased eight-fold since the early 1990s, even after inflation.

On the other hand, the price of decent everyday wine, despite premiumization and inflation, is probably about where it was when I started the blog in 2007. I could buy Domaine Tariquet for $10 then, and it’s more or less $10 today.

So how did we get to this point?

Much of it has to do with the seismic shift in U.S. wealth distribution over the past 40 years, where we’re approaching disparities not seen since the Depression. More millionaires mean more people with more money to spend, so why not spend it on wine? Isn’t that what rich people do? Or, as Sports Illustrated’s Jonathan Wilson has called it, the greed of late-period capitalism.

Besides, as one California winemaker told the San Francisco Chronicle’s Esther Mobley: “I’m starting to come to terms with the fact that wine has always been a luxury commodity. Unfortunately, it’s a beverage of privilege.”

And what better way to leverage that privilege than with Liv-Ex, the stock market for wine? Buy a bottle, put it away, and watch it appreciate in value. Who cares if it spoils or goes off? The point is not to drink it, but to use it to amass even more wealth. And, since the supply of fine wine is limited, the more it’s in demand, the higher the price will go. And, as Eric Asimov pointed out in last week’s New York Times, demand is increasing thanks to all that wealth.

How sad is that? Great wine reduced to a share of stock.

The irony, of course, is that legitimate stock markets serve an economic purpose, to help companies raise capital. Amassing wealth is a benefit, and not a stock market’s reason for being (as it is with Liv-Ex). The other irony? Liv-Ex is a lousy way to amass wealth. Its Fine Wine 50 index has increased 26 percent in five years, or about what an ex-sportswriter who writes about wine could do with a mediocre mutual fund. The Dow Jones Industrial Average, on the other hand, has increased about twice that much.

Long-term effects

So why does this matter to the rest of us? Shouldn’t we happy with our Tariquet and leave it at that? Let the snobs waste their money. And don’t we have more important things to worry about, like the increasing disparity of wealth?

Yes, obscenely expensive wine prices are a result of the disparity, not a cause. But know two things: First, that these prices work their way down to the bottom, so every $1,000 bottle of Harlan ends up raising all prices. The Mulderbosch rose, a pleasant enough wine, now has a suggested retail price of $17 for no good reason at all, save rising prices elsewhere. In fact, that’s the sham of premiumization — we’re paying more money for the same  quality wine and not a better bottle.

Second, and more important, can you imagine a world where only the most wealthy are allowed to look at great art and to read great books? You’re not rich enough for Picasso or Rembrandt or Shakespeare or Jane Austen, so lump it.

That’s not a world I want to live in. Do you?

Photo: “Wine Auction” by alans1948 is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The WC Wine Business Index: Four more signs the wine glut is upon us

grape glutThe grape glut means there’s lots of cheap wine on the market, from Aldi to Costco to Albertson’s

This is the first of two parts looking at the conundrum that is wine pricing today – we’re awash in cheap, often crummy. wine, while the prices of the world’s great wines are at all-time highs. Today, part I: The grape glut, and what it means for consumers. Part II: How we got to the point where no one but the ultra rich can afford the world’s great wines.

How do we know the wine glut is upon us? Because the Wine Curmudgeon’s Wine Business Index tells us so. How about $2 wine in many of Albertson’s California stores? An Aldi chardonnay where the bottle probably cost more than the wine inside it? Or a constant flow of samples this fall of cheap wine that I’ve near heard of before?

In other words, there are lots and lots of grapes in California, and neither the Trump tariff or increased on-line sales have done anything to fix it. And why do we care about a grape glut? Because if there are too many grapes, we’re going to see cheaper wine prices, thanks to the law of supply and demand. This doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll see lower prices on established wines; rather, what I’m hearing is that producers are “inventing” cheap wine brands or making private label wine to soak up excess grapes.

First, though, what you need to know about the WC Wine Business Index. It’s my attempt to overcome the contradictions, inaccuracies, and confusion that are inherent in most wine statistics. I interview retailers, producers, and marketers from around the country to see if I can outline where the wine business is and what it means for consumers.

Alive and well

And from what I’ve found, the glut is alive and well:

• Consider Albertson’s Sea Ridge wines, which have been marked down to $2.21 from $3.49 in many of the chain’s West Coast stores. At that price, the supermarket is more or less selling the wine at cost. (And a tip o’ the WC’s fedora to blog regular Nick Angel for sending this my way.)

• Aldi’s $8 Exquisite California chardonnay. It comes in a heavy bottle (about 21 ½ ounces) with a deep punt and a heavy foil cap. This is could well be a “shiner,” said one long-time Sonoma winemaker. That means the wine was bottled by another producer, but sold to Aldi at a discount. “I haven’t tasted it,” said the winemaker, “but it would have been produced by someone who thought they would sell it for $30-plus a bottle, but it became ‘albatross inventory’ and got sold real cheap.”

Costco’s Kirkland Sonoma chardonnay, which has sold for $7 or $8 for the past couple of vintages That’s an almost unheard of price, even for a deep discounter like Costco. It works out to about $3 a bottle for the wine (allowing for $2,400 a ton for chardonnay and 756 bottles to a ton). So, somehow, the cost of production and any profit has to come out of the other $4 or $5. (Another tip o’ the WC’s fedora to blog regular Walter Blood for sending this my way.)

• Sample after sample of wine costing $15 and less from producers I’ve never heard of. Typically, this only happens when there are excess grapes and chance to make a wine at high margins even at lower prices.

Having said all of this, one Napa winemaker told me she doesn’t expect the glut to last much after the 2020 vintage. This year’s harvest almost certainly won’t be as big as 2019’s, which will limit production. So the future for prices as we go into 2021 remains uncertain.

Wine history lesson 2: Maynard Amerine on quality, price, and value

maynard amerineLegendary UC-Davis professor Maynard Amerine told us 45 years ago that price was no guarantee of quality or value

One of the most intriguing things about U.S. wine history is how it repeats itself. Time after time, smart people warn the wine business about what will happen if it doesn’t pay attention to its customers. And, time after time, the wine business ignores the warnings – much to its detriment.

Today’s wine history lesson comes from legendary University of California-Davis professor Maynard A. Amerine, with wisdom from his 1976 book (written with UC-Davis math colleague Edward B. Roessler), “WINES: Their Sensory Evaluation.” It was perhaps the most important wine book of its time.

What made it so important? I asked Randy Caparoso, a long-time wine critic and restaurateur, who wrote about Amerine on the Lodi wine appellation blog. What struck me about his Amerine post was that the UC-Davis professor echoed the analysis of pioneering wine writers Leon Adams and Frank Schoonmaker, who earned their own blog post about a year ago.

“I think people like Amerine, Adams and Schoonmaker could clearly see the writing on the wall,” says Caparoso. “That’s because, even in the ‘50s and ‘60s, they personally knew many a well-heeled wine collector or connoisseur. Same for me during my career as a wine professional, which started in ’78. These kinds of people were already driving up prices with their mania for ‘great’ wines. This was the essence of Amerine’s quote, ‘Drink wine, not labels.’ … But what was true 50, 60 years ago was bound to get even worse in the 21st century, and it has.”

In other words, Amerine – like Adams and Schoonmaker – predicted the mess we find ourselves in: Too much ordinary wine, too much overpriced wine, and a wine industry that doesn’t understand that it has lost its audience because it has focused on either ordinary or overpriced wine.

Enjoying wine –without the fuss

Hence, three of Amerine’s eight guidelines for enjoying wine:

• You don’t have to be an expert to enjoy wine. It’s “nonsense… The expert may know why he enjoys a certain wine but he would be presumptuous to claim that he enjoys it more than the amateur. The latter may, in fact, enjoy a certain wine more fully than the expert precisely because he doe not have the knowledge and experience to make all the possible comparisons among wine.”

• Small wineries are not better just because they are small. “Some of the worst wines we ever suffered came from small, picturesque wineries. We hasten to add that some of the best also came from small wineries. It is the standards of the producer, and a fair amount of luck, that determines the quality of the wines produced, not the size of the winery.”

• Expensive wines are not necessarily better than cheap wines. “Some are, many are not. Price depends on many factors that are not necessarily related to quality. Those who buy wines on a price-basis deserve what they get. … But it is the quality of the wine, not the price, that is important. Some famous vineyards, secure in the knowledge that they have an established market, often charge whatever the market will bear. This means that the wines are sometimes not worth the higher price if quality alone is the criterion for selection.”

Photo courtesy of the UC-Davis Library, using a Creative Commons license