Winebits 580: The “Is legal weed taking over the world?” edition

legal weedThis week’s wine news: The many sides of legal weed and its effects – real, imagined, and anticipated – on the wine business

Not really: Tim Hearden, writing in Western Farm Press, callas legal weed “a shiny new object” – but doesn’t see it hurting the wine business much. “But they’d have a long way to go to make a serious dent in California’s $1.53 billion wine industry, and I’m not yet convinced they’ll get there, at least in the near future.” His point is common among those I’ve interviewed over the past couple of months: “The nascent cannabis industry is sure to grow. Cannabis-infused beverage consumption rose by 61 percent last year in states where it’s legal. But I see it filling its own niche, not toppling – or threatening — California’s world famous wine empire.”

Really? Legal cannabis use in Canada didn’t grow as quickly as anticipated after legalization, reports the Canadian government. In fact, the number of users barely changed since last October, when weed became legal. About 4.6 million, or 15 percent of Canadians aged 15 and older, reported using cannabis in the last three months, reported Statistics Canada. That’s the same number as reported in the third quarter and throughout 2018. The story doesn’t delve into reasons, but whatever the cause, few of the experts expected so little growth.

Yes, really: Analysts expect a $600 million market for cannabis-infused beverages in the next several years – if someone can find a cost-effective infusion process. Bloomberg News reports that the the catch is a major one, since alcohol is water-soluble and cannabis is not. That means alcohol is absorbed into the bloodstream quickly, but cannabis takes far longer. So the trick with cannabis-infused drinks is to find a way for them to mimic alcohol’s affect on the drinker. And so far, no one has quite figured that out.

Expensive wine 117: Jean Vesselle Brut Reserve NV

Jean Vesselle Brut ReserveForget scores: The Jean Vesselle Brut Reserve is amazingly wonderful Champagne

The Jean Vesselle Brut Reserve, as delicious and as well made a Champagne as I’ve had in years, shows once again why scores are useless. Its average on CellarTracker (the blog’s unofficial wine inventory software) is 88 points, or about what a quality bottle of $10 wine would get.

Because if the Jean Vesselle Brut Reserve ($44, purchased, 12%) is an 88-point wine, I’m Robert Parker.

This is an exquisite bottle of Champagne, sparkling wine from the Champagne region of France. It has layers and layers of flavor, including some of the yeasty creaminess that most high-end bubbly drinkers require of Champagne. But it’s so much more than than: A completely unexpected burst of crisp, wonderfully ripe red apple fruit followed by an almost spicy finish and tiny, tight bubbles popping to the top of the glass. In this, it’s bone dry and certainly not your grandfather’s Champagne, and I’m almost certain that accounts for the crummy scores.

Highly recommended, and as enjoyable with food (eggs at brunch, certainly, but also roast chicken) as it is for celebrations. Which is how I drank it – honoring my long-time pal and colleague James MacFayden, who is returning to his native Britain after more than two decades in the U..S. James will be much missed – not only for his fine palate, but for his bounty of Monty Python references.

Imported by North Berkeley Imports

Paid posts: Welcome to the 21st-century world of wine blogging

paid posts

Who cares if the wine tastes like vanilla cherry cough syrup? We’re being paid to say nice things about it. Stop acting so 20th century.”

Who cares about integrity or honesty or legitimate reviews? I’ll just run paid posts

The following email, asking me to run paid posts for a wine club, shows just how little the wine business cares about the people who buy its products. I’ve changed the name of the wine club (which is reasonably well known) so I don’t get sued; otherwise, it’s verbatim:

Hey Wine Curmudgeon Team,

Big Time Wine Club wants to create some new partnerships with influencers. Our wine club works with acclaimed wineries and vineyards to curate a portfolio of highly rated wines from all over the globe, and then bring those wines to lovers of great wine across the US. You have great blog posts, and I want to find out if we can work with you to create new content around a few of our featured wines. We have some ideas on potential Spring themes, but we are more than happy to talk with you on your ideas for incorporating wine!

We have wine available to send, some paid placement budget, and an affiliate program. I’d love to get your thoughts on the best way for us to work together. Are you available to talk wine this week or next?

The jargon is annoying enough, but what’s worse is asking me to pimp for their products — “create new content around a few of our featured wines.”  The only thing in the email that’s fair to consumers is the affiliate program, in which I’d get a tiny, tiny commission if anyone bought one of the wines I pimped for. The rest is an insult to me and to everything the blog stands for. As well as to you.

But hey, why not? It’s the 21st century. Facebook sells our personal information to dirty trickstersGoogle censors the Internet for the Chinese . The world’s biggest beer company owns a leading beer review site. So why shouldn’t I take the wine club’s money? It’s all about the cash, right? Integrity? Honesty? Principles? That’s just crap for cranky ex-newspaperman, who still think they’re supposed to write for their readers. That’s just so quaint, isn’t it?

Needless to say, I sent a polite email declining their offer. But how many of my colleagues didn’t?

Winecast 34: Dave McIntyre, Washington Post

Dave McIntyre

Dave McIntyre

Dave McIntyre of the Washington Post says those of us who care about affordable, quality wine should be worried about the direction of the wine business. But he says we can fight back.

Dave McIntyre, the wine columnist for the Washington Post, has spent the past decade fighting for affordable, quality wine — no scores or winespeak, but intelligence and passion. He’s one of the best wine writers in the country, and I’d say that even if we weren’t friends who suffered through interminable wine trip bus rides and even longer Drink Local Wine conference calls.

Dave and I talked about the challenges of the wine business in the second decade of the 21st century and what those of us who care about quality and value can do to overcome those hurdles. Something is very wrong, Dave says, when the average bottle of Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon costs $67. But there is hope, as our experiences with drink local demonstrate. Consumers will buy interesting wines that don’t taste exactly like each other, which is the promise of the regional wine movement.

Click here to download or stream the podcast, which is almost 20 minutes long and takes up 7.2 megabytes (and that’s Dave’s dog, Ringo, chiming in at the end). The sound quality is very good to excellent; we used Skype’s new recording feature, which works surprisingly well for a Microsoft project.

Wine of the week: Melini Chianti Borghi d’Elsa 2017

melini chiantiThe 2017 vintage of the Melini Chianti is as different as it is unexpected

Something odd is going on the current vintage of the Melini Chianti, an almost always dependable $6 red wine. Either the wine is genuinely softer and fruitier, or someone dumped many bags of sugar into the barrels.

The Wine Curmudgeon prefers to think it’s the former. If there is added sugar in a cheap wine as venerable as the Melini Chianti ($6, purchased, 13%), then it’s time to go back to sports writing. And who wants to do that?

Because this Italian red, made with sangiovese from the Chianti region of Tuscany, is much rounder and less sour than it has been for years, with a sort of sweet cherry fruit and a kind of forest floor finish where it didn’t have much of a finish at all before. It’s about as far from the simple, tight-cornered, and tart cherry Melini as possible.

It still mostly tastes like Chianti, but more of a New World version. Again, I don’t know that this is a bad thing as much as it is unexpected. And the Melini still pairs with the usual sorts of red sauces, takeout pizza, and the like.

So chalk the change up to a vintage difference, and hope for the best next time.

Imported by Frederick Wildman & Sons

Winebits 579: Super Bowl, robot bartender, liquor museum

super bowlThis week’s wine news: The WC’s readers didn’t desert the blog during the Super Bowl, plus a grocery chain installs a robot bartender and a New York City booze museum

Thank you, readers: This year’s Super Bowl must have been as lackluster as the score indicated, since the blog didn’t suffer its usual 30 percent drop in traffic. In fact, visitors increased 21 percent over a typical Sunday, the second year in a row for better than average numbers during the game. I’m not sure why – maybe it was everyone avoiding the third successive Yellow Tail commercial. “It tastes like happy” was dumb, but it was still a marked improvement over two years of the Roo.

Do you tip it? Gelson’s Narkets, an upscale grocer in southern California, has added the Somabar robot bartender to a couple of its in-store wine bars. The machine – which loads containers of booze and mixes the cocktail in 10 seconds, uses lower-proof spirits to mirror almost two dozen drinks, including margaritas and cosmopolitans. This allows wine bars to skirt licensing issues that prevent them from serving drinks with full strength spirits.

Thousands of items: A house on Staten Island is home to the Booze History Museum, with more than 1,000 artifacts in two rooms – a jumble of signs and statuettes, hundreds of different Russian liquor labels, and 10 glass cases of booze-related bric-a-brac. Says its founder: ““When you’re talking about alcohol, it’s always just drunken driving or breaking up families. Nobody talks about how many people are getting relaxation, how many people are getting enjoyment from drinking alcohol, how many people are getting together because of alcohol.”

Big Wine 2019

Big Wine 2019Big Wine 2019: It still has a stranglehold on what we drink, but the biggest companies aren’t quite as big

A funny thing happened to Big Wine 2019: The three biggest companies didn’t dominate the market in 2018 the way they did in 2017. Neither did the top 10. But the top 50 still sell 90 percent of the wine made in the U.S., according to the 15th annual Wine Business News magazine survey,

In other words, it’s business as usual for Big Wine. They’ve just rearranged the profits.

Still, before you get too depressed, know that the magazine study acknowledged that the wine business is in trouble, citing the usual reasons – aging Baby Boomers, competition from craft beer and spirits, and the neo-Prohibitionists. Or, as the woman who runs the company that makes the ubiquitous Kendall Jackson chardonnay told the magazine: “It seems tougher this year and it probably will be tougher next year. It doesn’t seem like it’s as easy as it was.”

Which, hopefully, is good news for those of us who are tired of higher prices, declining quality, and more plonk on the shelves. If Big Wine sees the problem, maybe they’ll do something to fix it besides putting sugar in dry red wine.

Among the highlights

• Sales by volume were almost flat, from 403 million cases in 2017 to 408 million in 2018. That’s a 1.2 percent increase, far less than the growth in the legal drinking age population. Which means younger drinkers are drinking something else or aren’t drinking at all.

• The average price of a bottle of wine sold in 2018 was $14, which includes restaurant sales. Hence, the number is higher than the average usually cited for retail sales, $9 or $10 a bottle.

• Imports, as a share of U.S. wine sales, were only 23 percent. That’s also much lower than the numbers usually cited, which range from one-third to 40 percent of all the wine sold in the U.S.

• E&J Gallo controls 17 percent of U.S. sales, and its Barefoot brand accounts for almost 5 percent of all the wine sold in this country. Which succinctly describes the power of Big Wine.

• The share of the three biggest producers – Gallo, The Wine Group, and Constellation Brands – fell to 55 percent in 2018 from 60 percent in 2017. The share of the top 10 companies declined for the third year in a row, from 84 percent in 2016 to 81 percent in 2017 to 78 percent in 2018. Was this decline caused by premiumization, since these producers tend to have the least expensive wines? Or was the cause something more ominous, related to the decline in wine’s popularity?

• The magazine said there are 10,047 wineries in the U.S. Take out the top 50, and the other 9,997 sold 31.5 million cases in 2018, or about 3,150 cases each. The average Big Wine company sold almost 6 million cases – making it almost 2,000 times bigger. Which, regardless of any changes in the market share among the 50 producers, shows just how top heavy the U.S. wine business is.

More about Big Wine:
• Big Wine 2018
• Big Wine 2017
• Big Wine 2016