Category:Wine trends

Winecast 36: Rose winemaker Charles Bieler

Charles Bieler

Charles Bieler, right, and his father Philippe. They’re a long way from the pink Cadillac.

Charles Bieler is one of the best rose maker in the world; more importantly, he is one of the reasons the rose boom exists. For which we are all most grateful.

Charles Bieler was between jobs in the late 1990s when his father suggested Charles help sell the family rose in the U.S. Charles took up the challenge, painted a Cadillac pink, and traveled the country to convince retailers and restaurants to sell dry pink wine. As Charles says, that was at a time when everyone thought rose was sweet, and he truly wondered if dry rose had a future in the U.S.

Which, of course, it did. We talk about the rose boom, the pink Cadillac trip, and the challenges facing rose today — with advice on how to find the best cheap pink.

Click here to download or stream the podcast, which is about 22 minutes long and takes up 8.4 megabytes. This is longer than usual, but Charles is passionate about the subject. The sound quality is very good; Skype’s new recording feature still has some bugs, since it is a Microsoft product.

Wine status and image, not quality, may matter more to producers

wine status and imageA Northwestern University study says the most successful producers focus on wine status and image, and not necessarily quality

Quality matters to most wine producers. But the status and image of their product may matter more in the U.S. market, says a study by two Northwestern University professors. The report, completed last fall in association with the Wine Market Council, found that the most successful wine companies focused on their products’ status before anything else.

In other words, when you’re staring at the grocery store Great Wall of Wine, the producers aren’t trying to sell you on how good their wine is; they’re trying to sell you on how special it is. This is especially true for wines costing more than $15 – the sweet spot for premiumization.

“We found that the most profitable producers, and those with the biggest margins, for them it’s a status game,” says Ashlee Humphreys, PhD, who co-authored “Status Games: Market Driving Through Social Influence in the U.S. Wine Industry” with Northwestern colleague Gregory S. Carpenter. “They don’t care so much about what consumers think as they want to lead the way, so the consumer will follow.”

In one respect, the study’s findings are not new. Those of us who focus on value and quality have always assumed neither was as important as toasty and oaky when it came to marketing wine. But this may be the first time that someone has actually investigated the question and found it to be true in a peer-reviewed academic journal. My favorite line from the study? “Embracing a wine-as-art approach, winemakers’ choices often contradict market-based logic.”

Producers sell their status message by focusing on wine’s so-called gatekeepers – the critics, sommeliers, and wine magazines that shape public opinion. The producers educate the gatekeepers about what makes their wine special, whether it’s a certain style like ripe fruit or a specific appellation like Napa Valley or a superstar winemaker. The gatekeepers then tell consumers the wine is worth buying because it is special, and that “special-ness” gives it a status that other wines don’t have. The consumer, given how confusing wine is, accepts the gatekeepers’ word as gospel and buys the wine. Call it wine’s trickle down effect.

Hence the foolishness in so much wine writing

Which explains the pretentious adjectives in wine reviews, which are so pretentious that they aren’t adjectives but “descriptors;” the schmaltzy travel writing that gushes over wine regions, regardless of what they are; and the snotty restaurant wine lists, which don’t explain as much as they intimidate.

Note that this isn’t exactly fibbing. Napa Valley is a top-notch appellation. Rather, says Humphreys, the idea of status comes from “creating a difference for their wine that sets it apart from everyone else’s wine, and then selling that difference to the gatekeepers. They tell the gatekeepers, ‘We craft a beautiful wine,” and that’s what the gatekeepers report.”

This approach isn’t common for wines costing less than $15, where the reverse is mostly true, says the study. Producers hold focus groups to find out what consumers want, and then make the wines according to those results. Cheap grocery store wine is smooth and boring because that’s what the focus groups say they want. (Whether we actually want smooth and boring, or it’s a failing of the focus groups, is a discussion for another day).

So what’s a wine drinker to do who wants value and quality? Humphreys, who was a casual wine drinker before the study and is more serious now, laughed when I asked her. “I’ve never really thought about that,” she says. “Wine is a social experience, isn’t it? So shouldn’t you ask your friends what they like, and go from there?”

Perhaps. It couldn’t be any less effective than depending on the gatekeepers, could it?

Welcome to the wine business, Sarah Jessica Parker

sarah jessica parker wineSome friendly advice as you embark on Sarah Jessica Parker wine

Dear Ms. Parker:

Several news reports say you’re starting your own wine brand, a sauvignon blanc and rose from New Zealand. I figured someone should offer you a few words of wisdom, since the wine business, in its own way, is as treacherous as acting. Which, of course, you know a little about.

• Celebrity wine ventures rarely come to a good end. Just ask Joe Montana. Or Dan Aykroyd.

• The wine business’ attitude toward women has been less than progressive. In this, it’s not as backward as Hollywood and it’s much better than it used to be. But there are still comparatively few female winemakers; the same is true for executives who aren’t in marketing.

• Your marketing types report you will be “hands-on” during production. You should clarify this with them, since some smart-ass wine writer will ask if hands-on during production means you will fly to New Zealand to pick grapes.

• The wine’s availability may be a problem. No one will be able to buy the wine from Amazon or in a grocery store in Manhattan, thanks to the three-tier system. Also, there’s no guarantee it will be in your neighborhood wine shop (so don’t get mad at Matthew when he tells you he can’t find it). Plus, since three-tier is constitutionally protected, there’s nothing you can do except complain to your distributor.

• The news stories say the rose will be dry. Please hold them to this. The 21st century wine business treats sweet and dry the same way Hollywood treats net and gross. In other words, it lies.

Hope this helps. If you have any other questions, let me know.

Yours in wine,
The Wine Curmudgeon

Beard award semifinalists: One more victory for regional wine

local wineFour of the seven wineries on the 2019 Beard award semifinalist list are part of drink local

Four of the seven wineries that are semifinalists for this year’s James Beard Awards for best wine, beer, or spirits producer are regional. What does that say about how far we’ve come with drink local?

The four wineries are among the 20 semifinalists for the top booze honor in this year’s food and wine version of the Academy Awards. The regional honorees are McPherson Cellars in Texas, RdV in Virginia, Red Tail Ridge in N.Y., and La Garagista in Vermont. All four are terrific wineries that do credit not just to regional wine, but to winemaking in the U.S.

It’s also worth noting that the two California wineries among the semifinalists are Winestream Media favorites – the self-named wineries from Cathy Corison and Steve Matthiasson in the Napa Valley. That wineries from Lubbock, Texas, and Bethel, Vt., are on the same list with Corison and Matthiasson would have been unheard of 10 years ago.

Best yet, they don’t make the same kinds of wines that the two Napa wineries make, or the other honoree, Red Willow in Washington state. Their wines speak to the terroir of each producer – something else that makes regional wine so exciting. Just as Italian wine shouldn’t taste like French wine, U.S. regional wine shouldn’t taste like it comes from California.

It’s safe to recommend almost any wine from these four, with the caveat that availability will be spotty if you don’t live in that state.

Consider these wines:

The McPherson Tre Colore (about $10) is a red blend using the Rhone varietals Texas has figured out. Yes, the rose is terrific, as is the rousanne, but the Tre Colore is the ultimate weeknight wine – well-made, a tremendous value, and just fruity enough (dark berries) without being annoying. I’ve known Kim McPherson a long time, and it’s a pleasure to write this post about the winery.

The RdV Rendezvous (about $85) is a Bordeaux red blend that shows the great progress Virginia has made over the past 20 years. It’s complex, dark (black fruit), interesting, and layered. If a regional wine is worth as much as a great wine from France, Italy, or California, it might be the Rendezvous.

• New York state is best known for its rieslings, but the Red Tail Ridge blaufrankisch (about $26) makes a case for red wine. Blaufrankisch is an Austrian grape, so it can handle the unpredictable Finger Lakes winters. I drank this wine, earthy and herbal, with my Drink Local co-founder Dave McIntyre; the restaurant’s wine list was infinitely more interesting than the food.

Winemaker Deirdre Heekin at La Garagista uses hybrid grapes, and that alone would have kept her off this list for most of the past 75 years. That means grapes like la crescent and brianna, bred to withstand a Vermont winter and very difficult to make quality wine with.

Finally, congratulations to Jennifer Uygur, who owns Lucia in Dallas with chef-husband David. David is a Beard semifinalist for Best Chef: Southwest. Even if he doesn’t win, they will have the satisfaction of knowing Lucia is one of the best restaurants in the country.

Winecast 35: Dave Falchek, American Wine Society

dave falchekDave Falchek, the executive director of the American Wine Society, is more optimistic about wine’s future, and especially with younger consumers

Dave Falchek, the executive director of the American Wine Society, gets a different perspective on the future of the wine business, what with being around wine drinkers more often than most. As such, he is more optimistic about wine’s future, and especially with younger consumers.

Dave’s point: There are millions of Americans turning 21, the legal drinking age, and there is no reason to assume they won’t be interested in wine just because the rest of us are so cranky about the subject. Younger consumers are more open to new ideas, so why not wine, he asks? Just don’t assume it’s going to be the same thing their parents and grandparents drink.

In this, Dave knows of what he speaks: The AWS is the largest and oldest organization of wine drinkers in the United States.

Click here to download or stream the podcast, which is about 11 1/2 minutes long and takes up 4.2 megabytes. The sound quality is very good; Skype’s new recording feature is still a Microsoft project with all that means.

The final “nutrition and ingredient labels for wine are a good thing” post

ingredient labelsOne more study shows consumers use ingredient labels and that it influences what we buy

The Wine Curmudgeon has long advocated nutrition and ingredient labels for wine, but the response has been silence punctuated by more than a few cat calls. So, rather than continue to elicit abuse, consider this the final post on the subject. I can’t make the point any more forcefully other than to report this story:

An analysis of studies that looked at how labeling on food packaging, point-of-sale materials and restaurant menus prompted consumers to eat fewer calories and fat; reduce their choice of other unhealthy food option; and eat more vegetables.

What more do we need to know about the efficacy of labels? How much better off would wine be if each bottle listed calories, fat, and the like? Wouldn’t consumers benefit to know that there are about half the calories in a glass of wine than in a jelly doughnut? Wouldn’t they feel better knowing their wine was mostly fermented grape juice instead of something like Dr Pepper – with its 250 calories, high fructose corn syrup, and four percent of the daily value of sodium?

The wine business disagrees, and just not because it doesn’t want consumers to know wine sometimes has a lot more in it than fermented grape juice. Instead, I will get emails and comments citing another part of the study: Consumers “also selected 13 percent fewer other unhealthy food options such as sugar-sweetened beverages, alcoholic beverages, non-alcoholic caloric beverages, french fries, potatoes, white bread, and foods high in saturated fat, trans fat, added sugars or sodium.”

My answer: Doesn’t wine need to do something drastic when it’s compared to french fries, white bread, and sugar-sweetened beverages? When consumers think your product is as nasty as french fries, you’ve got nothing else to lose.

So read this, and know the way the world is going. And know that the wine business is headed in a completely different direction.

More about nutrition and ingredient labels:

Wine and GMO labeling
Update: Nutrition labels and what the wine business doesn’t understand
Nutrition labels for booze

Some not so happy Valentine’s Day wine reviews

valentine's day wine reviewsWhy do Valentine’s Day wine reviews offer so much overwritten prose and overpriced plonk?

Valentine’s Day brings out the worst in the wine business – overwritten prose and overpriced plonk. Is it any wonder the Wine Curmudgeon refers to it as The Holiday That Must Not Be Named?

Hence the following, which – sadly – demonstrates the point after the most basic of Google searches:

• From something called The Spruce Eats: “… Cupid claims some serious turf when it comes to wine for your Valentine.” If so, Cupid should know better than to recommend a 7-year-old rose, which would likely taste like pink paint varnish.

• Did you know that “It seems most women enjoy sweeter, sparkling, and rose wines. … Most men like red wine. …”? That’s the wisdom from Wine Club Reviews. Does that mean the Big Guy and I, with our love of white Burgundy, don’t count as men?

• Most of the wines recommended in this Town & Country post are more than adequate, if a bit pricey. But doesn’t someone at a big-time magazine like Town & Country care about writing? Am I the only one who thinks a line saying that one wine is “just like the slightly sweet kiss from your special someone” should be edited with extreme prejudice?

• And, to show that even Google and Amazon aren’t perfect, this: “Shop Valentine Wine – Amazon – Free 2-day Shipping w/ Prime‎.” Which, of course, is illegal in the U.S. and explains why the link goes to listings for wine glasses and wine t-shirts.