Category:Wine trends

Bigger wine glasses: Marketing ploy, health risk, or just coincidence?

bigger wine glassesA British study says we use bigger wine glasses than ever before – but do we know why we do?

A friend of mine is convinced that wine bottles hold less than they used to, insisting that she only gets two glasses from a bottle instead of the four or five of years past. It turns out my friend is onto something, though not quite in the way she thinks. It’s not that the bottles hold less, but that we’re using bigger wine glasses. Lots and lots bigger.

That’s the surprising result from a 2017 British study that found that wine glasses were one-sixth smaller in the 1700s and have gotten bigger since then. That means a full-to-the-rim glass 300 years ago was the equivalent of half a pour today – 2 ½ ounces vs. a typical 5-ounce glass of wine (or five glasses to a 750 ml bottle).

The study was conducted by health researchers and appeared in a British medical journal, so it focused on the effects of too much drinking. In this, say the authors, the evolution of bigger wine glasses might be related to alcoholism and binge drinking (the latter a particular problem in Britain). If the glass is bigger, aren’t we going to drink more?

The authors are careful not to go much further, emphasizing that “greater affordability, availability, and marketing of alcohol products, and more liberal licensing. …” has led to increased drinking in the last 75 years. We’d also have to know alcoholism rates starting in the 1700s, plus wine consumption (gin, in fact, was the British drink of choice in the late 17th and early 18th centuries). And then we would still need to figure out a way to correlate that data to begin to understand if there is a relationship between excess drinking and bigger wine glasses.

The missing link

I doubt that link exists, given the often astonishing levels of drinking in the pre-industrial West. What’s more interesting is why glass sizes increased, something else the study doesn’t do much with. One reason was technology – the development of lead crystal n the late 17th century made it possible to produce less fragile and larger glasses, while the discovery of the Pyrex process in the late 19th century made even bigger glasses common.

In addition, what’s the relationship between improved wine quality and larger glasses? Bigger glasses allow us to better appreciate the wine’s flavors and aromas. Who knew that was necessary – or even possible – given the poor quality of most wine until the beginning of the 20th century?

Finally, how could the authors overlook the role of capitalism, which not coincidentally took root in 18th century Britain? Perhaps the reason for bigger wine glasses is as simple as marketing. The rise of capitalism and industrialization meant there were more and more rich people who wanted to show off their new wealth, and what better way to do that than with fancy wines served in fancy glasses? Isn’t that one of the joys of capitalism? That someone will always be around to sell us things we don’t really need, and that especially applies to wine glasses.

Graphic courtesy of The Guardian, using a Creative Commons license

Why so many retailers suddenly want to sell you sangria

sangriaSangria is cheap to make, offers huge margins, and retailers apparently want it to be the next big thing after rose

Notice more sangria displays in supermarkets and other retailers? Do you seem to be getting more sales promotions from stores like World Market? The reason: Sangria, apparently, is going to be the next big thing after we get tired of rose.

Why sangria, and especially as a follow-up to rose? That’s because sangria is everything a retailer loves: It’s easy to mass produce, it offers huge margins, and it’s sweet. Because, of course, Americans want something sweet.

Note, too, that this not a criticism of sangria. It has a long and honorable history as the solution for old or poorly-made wine – add some sugar, slice some citrus, mix with a little water, and enjoy. I’ve done it many times. And, oddly, enough it was trendy a decade or so ago.

The difference here? Many of the current crop of sangrias are industrial products, manufactured to fill a perceived marketing niche. It’s not like the world suddenly acquired an overwhelming thirst for sangria. Rather, it’s profit. Why else would one of the top specialty grocers in Dallas replace a chunk of a top-notch Spanish wine section with sangria? Because the margins can be double those of wine.

The good news is that some of these wines, thanks to federal law, have an ingredient label. Hence, you can see what has been done to tart up the product – whether high fructose corn syrup has been substituted for sugar, if citric acid has been used instead of fruit juice, if it contains the dreaded “natural and artificial flavors,” or is made with sangria extract.

So drink with care. And hope that this kind of sangria goes the way of moscato, perhaps my favorite next big thing that wasn’t.

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.

More evidence that Drink Local is here to stay

drink localThe Winestream Media continues to say nice things about regional wine and Drink Local

The irony is not lost on those of us who endured the slings and arrows of the Winestream Media a decade ago when we said Drink Local and the idea of regional wine mattered. Today, mainstream wine publications, on- and off-line, are racing to see who can hype local the most.

So allow me a smile. And I promise not to say I told you so too loudly, or to say it too often. Right, Dave?

This summer, it seemed like everyone from the Guild of Sommeliers to a trade magazine run by the people who do the Wine Spectator have waxed poetic about local wine. Plus, I’ve been told that a major wine website, run by a big-name critic, is doing a huge blowout about regional wine this fall. Plus, these:

Vinepair’s screaming headline especially pleased my inner cranky newspaperman: “Your Guide to the Finger Lakes, the Most Exciting Wine Region on the East Coast of America.”

• SevenFiftyDaily, an on-line trade magazine, has discovered Texas wine: “Why Cotton Farms in West Texas are becoming vineyards.”

• The Guild of Sommeliers has run one piece and is doing another, both written by the very knowledgeable Jessica Dupuy (full disclosure: she interviewed me for the second story). They look at “emerging American wine regions.”

• The Los Angeles Times found out that Colorado had wine, which surprised the writer given the state’s reputation for craft beer.

Finally, my favorite regional wine story was in Market Watch, a trade magazine owned by the same company as the Spectator and notorious for its parochial, New York-centered view of the world (which I know because I used to write for it). The story looked at Texas wine; that it did speaks volumes about how far we’ve come in convincing people that Drink Local is a legitimate part of the wine business.

More about wine prices 2018

wine prices 2018

In what reality is $30 wine affordable?

Wine prices 2018: Are too high prices unsustainable? Is a bubble forming?

Twice in the last week, completely unbidden, a retailer and an importer complained to me about too high wine prices. No one was more surprised than I was.

After all, the Wine Curmudgeon is supposed to care about this, not people who make their living selling wine at what I consider too high prices. But the wine world is so upside down in the second decade of the 21st century that even this is possible.

So yes, a small sample size. But I’ve been doing this a long time, and those things just don’t happen. It’s a man biting a dog story – it happens so infrequently that it’s news when it does, even with a small sample size.

Specifically, the two men were complaining about too high red Bordeaux prices, the wine from France, and how they have screwed up the marketplace. Their point: When the most prestigious are priced too high – $800 for a bottle of Cheval Blanc, anyone? – that raises the price for every other red Bordeaux, regardless of quality (the economic theory of substitutes). Plus, it also props up the prices of prestigious red wines elsewhere in the world, as well as less prestigious wines.

You and I see this every day when we buy an ordinary bottle of red French wine. Or, rather, when we don’t buy one because the prices are too high. I paid $18 for a delightful red blend from the Languedoc, Chateau La Roque, which should not have cost $18. It’s from a minor region and made with grenache, not cabernet sauvigon. But the substitute theory prices it at $18 because “better” wines cost $25 and $30. It’s the same reason all those syrupy, over-ripe California reds cost $18. It’s not the land cost or the quality of the grapes, but the substitute theory.

So what does it mean that the importer and the retailer complained to me about this? Is it an indication that a bubble may be forming and this kind of pricing is unsustainable? There seems to be evidence for this. A highly respected economist who studies the wine business has told me twice this summer that U.S. sales are flat and he is not optimistic about the future. And then there is the Wine Curmudgeon sample index – not very scientific but which seems to make more sense every year. This spring, for example, a PR flack pitched me “affordable” $40 wine – a Twilight Zone version of reality that only someone in the wine business could believe.

So we wait and see. And hope for the best.

More about wine prices 2018
July update: Wine prices in 2018
Restaurant wine prices 2018
Expensive wine prices in the real world

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.

July update: Wine prices in 2018

Wine prices in 2018Wine prices in 2018 aren’t necessarily going up, while premiumization may be taking a huge hit

Is premiumization – the idea that we’ll buy expensive wine just because it’s more expensive – wearing out its welcome? That may be the case after looking at what’s going on with wine prices in 2018.

In fact, higher wine prices in 2018 (as well as next year) don’t seem nearly as certain as they did six months ago. That’s when I wrote: “Look for wine prices 2018 to head upward, and not just because of premiumization.” No one is happier than I am that I might be wrong.

What has happened to change all of this?

• Continuing flat wine sales. Every time I see the numbers, I’m reminded of the Wine.com study that says everything that needs to be said: “With little to no organic industry growth, it’s all about battling competitors for market share. Brands swap from one wholesaler to another, and wineries and wholesalers have been consolidating through [mergers]. But these moves are largely just shuffling the deck, rather than growing the total pie, and do very little for the long-term health of our industry.”

• Trouble for Big Wine. How about this bombshell from Constellation Brands, the second-biggest wine company in the world? Its growth in volume for the previous 52 weeks through July was higher than its growth in dollars – the exact opposite of premiumization. Is this a sign consumers are cutting back? Note, too, that neither of the increases was impressive, and the dollar increase was a whopping 0.6 percent.

• Surprising consumer reluctance to spend money on more expensive wine. I see this every time I shop for wine, whether grocery store, wine shop or liquor store. Consider this the other day, from a Dallas Aldi. A man was buying six bottles of the chain’s knockoff, $8 Prosecco, and not the $12 La Marca you can get at the Walmart down the street. Meanwhile, the woman in line in front of me had organic chicken, a couple of organic dairy products, and three bottles of $3 Winking Owl. What does it say that she was spending a substantial premium for food but doing the opposite for wine? Yes, a small sample size, but I see it over and over.

Something is going on, and despite other pressures – inflation, the weak euro – consumers are holding the line on their wine purchases. Will the industry recognize this and adjust accordingly with lower prices?