Category:Wine trends

Wine terms: Smooth

smooth

This hardwood floor is smooth. Is that what wine should taste like?

The increasing use of the word smooth to describe wine – which is not supposed to be smooth – is one more reason why I worry about the future of the wine business

What does the word smooth mean? The absence of something rough — a definition that includes synonyms like bland, flat and mild.

So why has smooth become increasingly popular as a wine descriptor? Do we want wine that is bland, flat, and mild? Water is smooth – do we want wine that tastes like water?

I hope not. Wine is supposed to be balanced, where the various bits that make up a wine’s structure play off each other. Hence, the acidity and the alcohol and the tannins and the fruit and the oak and the mouthfeel and the minerality and everything else should be in proportion. Each bit has a part to play within that equation, and, best yet, the equation is never the same. Balance is going to differ given grapes and regions, so that balance for cabernet sauvignon from California will be different from balance for cabernet from France, just as balance for cabernet in general will be different from balance for chardonnay.

Now, things don’t always work out that way, but that’s the goal – not smooth. So why smooth?

Blame consolidation

The answer, I think, has its roots in the consolidation in the wine business. As more of the wine we drink is made by fewer companies, the logical, business-sensible thing to do is to develop a company style. That way, wine is easier to make, to market, and to sell. If a focus group likes a wine made in a certain style – say, bereft of tannins and acidity, with lots of ripe fruit – then the path of least resistance is to make all the wines in that style.

Or, as I write it in my tasting notes when I’m feeling especially curmudgeonly, smooooothhhhhhhhh.

That’s one reason why so many wines are so sweet these says, even when they’re supposed to be dry. A bit of sugar, usually in the form of white grape juice concentrate, flattens out all those rough edges. You can see this yourself with vinaigrette: Make one that’s a touch too tart, and then add a smidgen of sugar. The sugar brings the tartness into balance. But add too much sugar, and the vinaigrette turns smooth.

The irony about smooth?

Flavor, not smoothness, jump started the U.S. wine boom in the late 1970s. That’s when California introduced the “fighting varietals,” wines labeled as chardonnay, merlot and so forth. They tasted like their varietals and were fruitier and more flavorful than the blends that had dominated the market before that. I just finished a freelance story for American Demographics magazine that looks at the history of beer, wine, and spirits consumption in the U.S., and found that the success of the fighting varietals more or less coincided with the appearance of light beer, which made beer taste bland, flat, and mild.

Or, dare we say, smooth?

So it’s no surprise, said the experts I interviewed for the story, that Americans started drinking more wine, which wasn’t bland, flat, and mild. This is a trend that continued for almost 40 years, and it’s also why craft beer has been such a success – no one has ever accused a hoppy IPA of being smooth.

I wonder – is there a lesson to be learned here? When beer became smooth, people looked for something else that had flavor. Now that wine is smooth, should we be surprised that people are looking elsewhere for flavor?

Clean wine: Has the Winestream Media finally figured out why we need nutrition and ingredient labels?

“Quick — bring the wine in so we can get it through the rinse cycle before anyone notices.”

The clean wine uproar in the cyber-ether has been led by the Winestream Media, which usually doesn’t much care about things like that

The recent uproar in the cyber-eher about clean wine, and that it isn’t necessarily clean, may turn out to be a key moment in dragging the wine business into the 21st century. For the first time, a host of wine writers who usually spend their time talking about toasty and oaky and hip and cool are discovering the need for transparency in wine ingredients.

Who knew it would only take 12 years for them to get to this point?

The light bulb moment for me came last week, when Erica Duecy wrote a post for the popular VinePair site, headlined: “The Industry Set Itself Up for a ‘Clean Wine’ Reckoning.” Duecy didn’t mince words: “You might think this would be a wake-up call for wine companies, that they would lean into the problem, looking to engage millennials where they’re at (reading product labels and online), with the messages they want to hear (nutrition and product information). Yet that’s not what’s happening.”

Harsh charges. But what matters is not that Duecy wrote the post or even what she wrote, but that it appeared on VinePair. The site offers lifestyle-oriented wine, beer, and spirits coverage for younger consumers similar to what the Wine Spectator and Wine Advocate offer for their parents and grandparents – and that’s not necessarily Consumer Reports-like insight. Six recent VinePair posts: Cocktail influencers, an interview with a bourbon executive about “drinks innovations,” whether beer tastes better if it’s ”poured correctly,” Thai “moonshine,” and something called West Texas “ranch water” – which, apparently, we’re all drinking.

That VinePair took on the foolishness that is clean wine speaks volumes about where wine reporting may be heading.

Journalism, anyone?

For clean wine is foolish, as the story in the first link in this post documents (full disclosure – it was written by my editor at Meininger’s Wine Business International). Ostensibly, clean wine is made with nothing but grapes, yeast, and pure intentions, but clean wine producers aren’t especially forthcoming about what’s in their wine or how the grapes are grown. They can get away with this because ingredient labels are optional, and there’s no legal definition of clean wine anyway. So wine marketed as clean, a form of greenwashing, could have used the same additives and the same pesticides (or even more of each) as my $10 stuff.

And make no mistake, clean wine is all about marketing. Using the term may allow some producers to charge a one-third premium for their products, even if they aren’t all that different from “un-clean” wine.

In fact, I wasn’t going to write anything about clean wine. My first nutrition and ingredient labels post ran in 2008, about the time the federal government first broached the subject. I’ve been covering it regularly since then: So why irritate myself by pointing out – yet again – that it’s the wine business’ fault that clean wine exists, since it’s opposed to the nutrition and ingredient labels that would show clean wine for the marketing flummery that it is?

But then I saw the VinePair post, and figured I should add my voice. What’s the point of a little irritation if we can actually change something?

Photo: “Hand washing machine and trough National Trust for Jersey” by Man vyi is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

More about nutrition and ingredient labels:

The final “nutrition and ingredient labels for wine are a good thing” post
Update: Nutrition labels and what the wine business doesn’t understand
Nutrition labels for booze

When there’s trouble brewing, who does the wine business call? Witches, of course

Where are the Benandanti when you need them?

The 16th century Benandanti fought the good fight – with fennel, no less – to protect Italy’s Fruili wine region

The 21st century wine business, what with tariffs, pandemics, and younger people who don’t like wine, has its full share of problems. But it doesn’t have anything on the 16th century wine business, when evil witches in northern Italy wanted to turn wineries into outhouses.

That’s one of the highlights (one of the many highlights, I might add) of a freelance piece I wrote for Meininger’s Wine Business Intentional: The battle between the Benandanti, good witches, to protect winemakers and wine drinkers in Italy’s Fruili region from a group of bad witches. The latter’s goal? To defecate and urinate in wine barrels, wine bottles, and wine glasses.

Take that, Trump wine tariff.

How does shape shifting into spirits sound? And the Benandanti fighting off their nemesis with shafts of fennel?

Take that, three-tier system.

And a tip o’ the WC’s fedora to Jennifer Billock, the source for the story, and to my editor at Meininger’s, Felicity Carter. She has been urging me to find a good witch and wine story since the end of last year, and I was much glad I did.

Photo: “Arger-Martucci Barrels” by ewen and donabel is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Convenience store wine sales 2019

convenience store wine sales

More than half of the country’s convenience stores, like QuikTrip, now sell wine.

Convenience store wine sales in 2019 were flat, but that’s not necessarily bad news for the wine business

Table wine sales in U.S. convenience stores were flat in 2019, which seems like more bad news for the wine business. That’s because sales had increased 20 percent in dollar terms in 2018, the second year in a row that c-store sales outperformed the overall U.S. market.

In this, convenience stores have been one of the bright spots in the wine business over the past couple of years. Younger wine drinkers aren’t as put off by buying wine in a 7-Eleven as their elders are, and it’s more convenient for them, too — Pampers and wine on the way home from work. It also helps that stores have better selection than years past, and not just wine coolers and big boxes of sweet wine.

So Jeff Lenard, the spokesman for the National Association of Convenience Stores, says not to worry.

“I think the percentage of stores selling wine is the more important stat,” he emailed me this week during our annual discussion about the group’s wine survey numbers. “As we have seen with fresh items in stores, it takes time to grow the offer and raise awareness so that customers can expect to find quality wine in a store. And in many cases, it’s a wine offer that is more curated, so that’s even more difficult for stores to add.”

And Lenard may have a point:

• The number of convenience store selling wine increased some six percent in 2019 to more than 52 percent — a number that may be an all-time high. That’s an amazing statistic, given that wine sales in 7-Eleven, RaceTrac, QuikTrip, Speedway, and the like are illegal in many states, including New York and Pennsylvania.

• Wine sales decreased by one-half of one percent per store, which is a letdown from 2018’s robust growth. But it’s in line with overall wine sales in the U.S., so it shouldn’t be too surprising. In addition, says Lenard, it’s not unusual to see per store sales decrease when more stores offer a product.

• The number of stores selling beer and spirits barely grew, by about one percent each. So wine’s store growth is that much more impressive.

• Given how one parses the c-store numbers, as well as the unreliability of U.S. wine sales numbers in general, it’s possible that convenience store wine once again accounted for as much as 2 percent of all the wine sold in the U.S.

Meanwhile, early reports indicate that c-store sales will increase substantially in 2020 because of the pandemic, as stores picked up sales when restaurants and bars were closed.

Photo: “Priceless” by Greenville, SC Daily Photo is licensed under CC0 1.0

More about convenience wine store sales:
Convenience wine store sales 2018
Convenience wine store sales 2017

Follow-up: The sham and hypocrisy behind the three-tier system

three-tier system

“Ain’t it grand to be doing journalism again?”

Was the cyber-ether outraged by my three-tier system post? Nope. It mostly agreed. And that may be the biggest surprise of all

The blog’s traffic for the two days after Thursday’s three-tie system post was greater than any two-day period in the past 18 months, about three times normal.

So one would expect lots of comments, lots of emails, lots of flaming, right? After all, this is the Internet in the second decade of the 21st century, isn’t it?

In fact, just the opposite happened: Hardly a murmur of protest, hardly any comments, and only one person who canceled their email to the blog. In my world, cancellations are the mark of a controversial post – the more controversial, the more cancellations. But in this case, more people were worried that I would be arrested for illegally ordering wine from an out-of-state retailer than the number who called me names. How weird is that in today’s cyber-ether?

But, after parsing what happened over the past couple of days, maybe it’s not really weird at all. That’s because almost everyone who doesn’t have a vested interest in protecting the system accepts it for what it is – obsolete and inefficient on its best days, and corrupt on its worst. So why bother to complain? As one comment put it: “The three-tier system exists only to protect distributors – the health issue is pure hypocrisy. …”

Which speaks to a larger and more troubling point – not just about wine regulation, but about how the world works these days. The sense is that those in charge will do what they want to do, be it in politics, banking, Wall Street, technology, or the Internet, and that there is little the rest of us can do about it.

Frankly, that is a decidedly un-American approach, and it’s one I don’t believe in. If I did, I’ve wasted most of my professional life, and I know I haven’t done that. And it also explains why I wrote the post and set up the reverse sting – if the Winestream Media is going to acquiesce, that’s all the more reason for the rest of us to rouse as much rabble as we can. Which I have done my entire professional life, and which I will keep doing until I am buried, keyboard between crossed arms.

And, sadly, it also explains why so many people were worried I would be arrested. They’ve forgotten what the news media is supposed to do, which is journalism — and which is not reprinting news releases touched up with bad, punny headlines When I was a young newspaperman, this sort of thing was common – the Mirage Tavern, the bible that wasn’t in the room, and so many more. These days, newspapers are assets to be butchered to make even more money for their owners, who are usually already richer than the rest of us.

Am I the New York Times, and will this post change the world immediately? Nope. But every bit helps, and especially at a time when we need help so badly.

The sham and hypocrisy behind the three-tier system

three-tier

“Quick — get the wine unloaded before anyone spots us.”

The Wine Curmudgeon buys wine from an out-of-state retailer – even though it’s illegal

A case of Domaine Tariquet was delivered via Fed Ex to Wine Curmudgeon international headquarters in Dallas this week. The shipment violated the laws of two states – that of the retailer who sold me the wine, and Texas, which forbids shipments from out-of-state wine retailers. Welcome to the sham and hypocrisy that is the three-tier system.

Why a sham? Because the liquor cops in Texas and in the retailer’s state both know I bought the wine, since Fed Ex and UPS send so-called common carrier reports to the agencies. The Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission received the electronic paperwork saying the order was shipped to my house; the retailer’s state alcoholic enforcement agency got the same thing when the order was shipped.

I’m not going to name the retailer or its state; let the liquor authorities do their own investigating. Click the links to see the address label and the alcohol warning label that said the package wasn’t olive oil. Also, everyone quoted in this post was given confidentiality, since I committed a crime with my purchase.

So why did my reverse sting operation work? Because each state doesn’t always enforce the interstate retail ban, according to a prominent liquor law attorney.

“It’s not high on the list of priorities,” he told me. “Most of the time, unless someone objects to that kind of sale, they don’t do anything about it. It’s like enforcing the speed limit on a highway. The police may not enforce it for a long time because they have other things to do – until someone complains about speeding, and then they set up a speed trap.”

And, now – hypocrisy

Interstate retail shipping is banned in most of the U.S. in the interest of “public health and safety” – the legal doctrine that has overseen liquor law since the end of Prohibition. Yet, more than a century later, state regulators and legislators still insist that it’s not safe for me to order wine from a retailer in another state. Yet, if it’s so dangerous, why isn’t it enforced more often?

The answer can be found in the July 8 decision by the Ohio attorney general to sue Wine.com and six other interstate retailers for selling wine to Ohio residents in violation of the state’s interstate shipping ban. Yet, according to two people with knowledge of the attorney general’s suit, Wine.com has been selling wine in Ohio in violation of the ban for more than a decade – and the Ohio Division of Liquor Control knew it was doing so and exchanged letters with the company acknowledging the practice.

The July 8 lawsuit, says the prominent liquor attorney, fits a pattern – interstate shipping bans are often enforced only when wholesalers and distributors press the issue. In Ohio, Wine.com and the other retailers weren’t buying from Ohio distributors, as required by law, but from distributors in other states. This lost business, combined with the dramatic drop in restaurant wine sales during the COVID-19 pandemic and increasing legal direct-to-consumer wine shipments in Ohio, probably had the wholesalers “crapping in their pants,” e-mailed an Ohio wine business consultant who has worked with the state’s distributors. No wonder, he wrote, that they pressured Ohio authorities to sue the interstate retailers in an attempt to redirect the lost business and revenue their way.

So where’s the public health and safety?

And, in fact, the news release announcing the lawsuit barely mentioned “public health and safety.” Instead, it emphasized lost tax revenue and lost retail sales, quoting an Ohio retailer and distributor. In addition, the Wine & Spirits Wholesalers Association, the national distributor trade group, issued a news release saying the same things. The attorney general’s spokesman didn’t respond to two requests for an interview for this post.

Keep in mind that this post isn’t about defending an illegal practice. If anyone violated the law, they should be punished, whether Wine.com (which is a long-time supporter of the blog) or me. And this post doesn’t advocate selling liquor without regulations — we certainly need regulation, but regulations that are fair and efficient.

Because selective enforcement isn’t either. If interstate wine shipping is truly dangerous, then the ban needs to be enforced. Because if the ban isn’t enforced, then it follows that interstate shipping isn’t as dangerous as it’s supposed to be. And if that’s the case, why have the ban at all?

Photo: Odd Truck” by oliva732000 is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Wine tariff update: Has Europe made the U.S. an offer to end the tariff that it can’t refuse?

wine tariffEuropean officials say illegal aircraft subsidies will be re-paid, so there’s no need for the U.S. wine tariff

The European airplane manufacturer at the center of the U.S. wine tariff controversy says it will increase loan repayments to France and Spain to convince the United States to settle a 16-year-old dispute over billions of dollars of aircraft subsidies.

The news couldn’t get much better than that, could it?

No word from U.S. trade officials on the European offer, which was made on Friday afternoon. But several European government representatives said over the weekend that with the repayments, there’s no reason for the U.S. to continue the 25 percent tariff on French, Spanish, German, and British wines, as well as the levy on airplane parts and a host of other food and alcohol products, including whiskey and some Italian cheeses. The French finance minister was adamant: The U.S. must remove tariffs imposed on European products such as French wine, he told Reuters.

Reuters also reported that an industry source said the manufacturer, Airbus, made the concession because Europe and the U.S. are at “an impasse and need to get out of it. It is a way to show good faith and open the door to find a solution.”

In fact, the tariff has wreaked havoc on U.S. wine imports, the whiskey business on both sides of the Atlantic, and even airplane manufacturing. French wine exports to the U.S. have declined by as much as one-half since October 2019, when the tariffs were imposed. The U.S. Distilled Spirits Council, a trade group for whiskey producers, said U.S. and European companies “have suffered enough.”

And, because the Wine Curmudgeon appreciates irony, it’s worth noting that Airbus has stopped production of the plane that caused the tariff row, citing slow sales. In other words, we’re having a trade dispute about a product that no longer exists.

More about the European wine tariff:
The Trump zombie wine tariff
Robin Hood takes on the wine tariff
Panic wine buying