This week’s wine news: Supermarket wine prices vary significantly from state to state, plus a study says liquor stores and high crime are related and the FTC is going after social media influencers
• Supermarket wine prices: A home product review and renovation site says U.S. supermarket wine prices vary significantly by state, with Mississippi and Georgia selling the most expensive bottles. I mention this not because it’s news to anyone who spends any time on the blog, but because it’s always fascinating to see how non-booze sites deal with wine. To its credit, House Method, which did the survey, doesn’t draw any conclusions about why there is such disparity. (Or explain how it bought wine in supermarkets in states without supermarket wine sales.) The results, at the link, are interesting, if nothing else. Who knew red wine was less expensive in Hawaii than in California?
• Less booze, less crime? That’s the approach one study is urging on Baltimore officials as city leaders rewrite its zoning laws, with an eye toward reducing the number of liquor stores and bars in the city. North Carolina researchers used a computer model that took into account homicide rates in Baltimore, as well as previous research that showed one-half of violent crime can be attributed to alcohol access. The result? The study found that cutting the number of alcohol outlets might reduce homicides by as many as 50 a year, as well as generate savings of as much as $60 million annually.
The bad news? We’re stuck with the 25 percent tariff imposed last fall until the next review, set for August.
Still, this is much more than a half empty glass. The decision seemed to reflect the wine industry’s tremendous and almost unprecedented lobbying effort against the 100 percent tariff, in which representatives from each of the three tiers testified at U.S. Trade Representative Office hearings, blitzed the old and new media, and organized public anti-tariff campaigns. In this, groups that typically disagree as often as they agree worked together for the greater good.
For example, the Wine Institute, the trade group for California producers, has been working for years to change state laws to make it easier for consumers to buy directly from wineries. This has been opposed by most of the second tier, since wholesalers have a monopoly on selling to retail and restaurants under the three-tier system and don’t want to allow any exceptions. But the two groups were side by side in opposing the tariff.
“It was one of the rare cases in the industry when everyone’s interests aligned,” says Cindy Frank, a long-time wine industry executive who has worked as an importer, wholesaler, producer, and retailer and who testified at last month hearings before the U.S. Trade Representative in opposition to the tariffs. “It’s the one issue that has worked itself all the way through the three-tier system.”
So where does this leave us?
• The tariff decision was announced on Friday afternoon. This timing, after everyone leaves for the weekend, almost always means the people announcing the news didn’t want to talk about it. Which often means they did something they didn’t want to do, and so didn’t want to have to explain their decision. Still, that aircraft tariffs were increased, when the initial dispute was about aircraft, speaks volumes. The World Trade Organization ruled in October that EU subsidies to Airbus were illegal, and that the U.S could impose tariffs in retaliation.
• Credit some of the decision to our friend, the three-tier system. Apparently, Trump Administration officials didn’t understand what three-tier was or how it worked. Their questions, said several people who testified, assumed retailers, importers, and wholesalers could easily replace European wine with imports from other parts of the world, just as they would steel or soybeans. The officials didn’t know how severely three-tier restricts how wine can be sold in the U.S.
• Economic turmoil. The wine industry lobbyists, as part of their effort, did an excellent job in showing that higher prices for imported wine would lead to job losses, bankruptcies, and lost sales up and down the U.S. supply chain, whether big or small retailers, producers, importers or distributors, says Southern Glazer’s Barkley Stuart, the chairman of the Wine & Spirits Wholesaler Association’s board of directors.
• The tariff was re-examined four months after it was applied as required by U.S. law. This was a point of confusion after the October ruling, and I reported the process incorrectly in the “Does anyone have any idea what’s going on?” post (and since updated). The next tariff review, as required by law, must come by August. In addition, the WTO is expected to announce later this year that the U.S. gave Boeing illegal subsidies in retaliation for the EU subsidies to Airbus. If that happens, then there’s political cover for both sides to negotiate away the tariffs, but no one knows if or when that will happen.
• Retailers, pricing, and rose season. As reported here and elsewhere, retailers, distributors, and importers have worked together since October to minimize the 25 percent tariff’s effect on prices. But, as one Dallas retailer told me, all bets are off on holding the line on prices when rose season arrives in the next month or so.
Who needs Cage or Travolta? We have Sunshine Bay and Farnese Fantini.
Which of these two about $7 wines offer the best value in this cheap white wine face-off?
A variety of cheap white wines have served the Wine Curmudgeon well over the years, starting with the late and much lamented Hogue fume blanc. These are the kind of wines you buy in quantity, keep chilled, and know that when you drink it, the result will be quality, value, and enjoyment.
• Price. The Fantini is $7.99, less the 10 percent case discount. That works out to $7.19 a bottle. The Sunshine Bay is $6.95 at my local Aldi, so it’s cheaper – but probably not enough to make a difference.
• Screwcap. Yes to both. This matters a lot, because I don’t want to go through a ritual when all I want is couple of glasses for no particular reason. This kind of wine should be open it and forget it.
• Quality. Are the wines professional and well made? Yes to both. Frankly, I was surprised. For one thing, there is still a lot of cheap, crummy Italian white wine in the world, and so didn’t expect much from the Fantini. But it is clean and crisp, without any off flavors or residual sugar. The Sunshine Bay, given Aldi’s track record in the U.S., was even more surprising. It’s much better made than similarly-priced New Zealand sauvignon blancs.
• Style. Do they taste like they’re supposed to? Yes, again, to both. The Fantini is lemon-lime-ish, simple but not stupid. The Sunshine plays up the New Zealand grapefruit style, but there;s a hint of tropical fruit in the middle, and the citrus doesn’t overwhelm the wine.
My choice? I’ll probably stick with the Fantini, since it’s more food friendly. But for those who like the New Zealand style or want a little more heft in their white wine, the Sunshine Bay is an excellent alternative. And I will keep buying it.
Brill left a comment about last week’s blog post about the future of AI wine writing. That led to our phone conversation this week, where Brill said improved technology has made it possible to create the Chateau Bonnet review with a minimal amount of human programming. All you need, he said, is a database of wine terms, wine regions, grape varieties, and so forth. That information, combined with advances in neural network research that have helped scientists better understand how to program machines to “think,” led to the review software and to the Bonnet review.
In this, Brill said, a machine’s ability to “write” longer and more coherent sentences has improved tremendously. Before, he explained, an AI story might be half readable and half nonsense, and the most it could create was a 10-word sentence. Today, those numbers are 90 and 10 percent, and it can write a readable 10-sentence paragraph.
How the machine does this, needless to say, is incredibly complicated. It makes predictions about what comes next in a sentence based on the words that came before, a process that is much more like writing than previous AI efforts; those were more like filling in a template. Here, the AI has “learned” that a mineral-driven wine is crisp and fresh, and not oaky and flabby, so it picks the former phrase to follow mineral-driven instead of the latter.
Which is why the Chateau Bonnet Blanc effort is not a bad tasting note. It’s mostly accurate (save for the bit about aging) and it conforms to the rules of grammar and the sensibilities of wine. That the machine wrote the review without tasting the wine is impressive, and knowing only the cost and some characteristics, is impressive. And more than a little spooky.
And not just because an AI is cheaper to hire than I am. Brill said advances in machine writing could eventually make product reviews useless. Some of that happens today on Amazon, where it’s not uncommon to see badly written AI reviews praising a product. But the situation could get even worse as AI writing improves.
A top-notch AI could flood Amazon with machine-generated positive (or even negative) reviews, with the resulting effect on sales. Or it might be possible for one restaurant to force another out of business with an AI-written campaign on Yelp.
The McManis petit sirah ($10, purchased, 13.5%) is a reminder of the early days of the blog, when petit sirah was used to make quality cheap wine – a little plummy, a bit rich, not especially tannic, and just enough acidity for balance. Today, it’s mostly used to make sweet, “smooth,” flaccid red blends that cost $15 or $16, because someone somewhere thinks that’s what younger consumers want.
The McManis is the exact opposite of that, one of the best petit sirahs I’ve had in years, regardless of price. There is sweet dark plum fruit, but this is not a sweet wine. Plus, subtle acidity and the correct tannins. In this, it’s a reminder that California used to give us some of the world’s best cheap wine. Drink this with everything from takeout pizza to fancy meatloaf, and it wouldn’t be so bad on its own after a hard day at work, either. And you could do a whole lot worse using the McManis as a gift for the holiday that must not be named later this week.
This week’s wine news: A comprehensive look at the sommelier cheating scandal, plus the wine tariff sinks French wine imports and wine list foolishness
• Sommelier cheating scandal: The trade website SevcenFiftyDaily takes a long, thorough, and comprehensive look at the 2018 sommelier cheating scandal – some 4,000 words. It’s mostly well done, fair, and reaffirms the suspicions that those of us had about the lack of transparency surrounding what happened: The “events of the past year raise broader questions about an organization—and the title it confers—that’s one of the wine world’s most powerful. And not just for the trade: With the 2012 release of the film Somm, which details the efforts of four Master Sommelier candidates to pass the exam, and its subsequent appearance on streaming services like Netflix, many consumers have come to view the MS title as the standard of wine culture.”
• Plummeting exports: The 25 percent U.S. tariff on some European wine has pounded French wine exports to this country, says a French government official. They dropped 44 percent by value in November 2019 from the previous month, after the import penalty went into effect on October 2019. The story also says that the “tariffs have been especially painful to producers at the lower ends of the market, where a 25 percent price hike can turn an affordable bottle into a once-in-a-while luxury.” We should know something this week or next about the next stage in the trade war after the World Trade Organization rules on a complaint by the European Union about illegal U.S. subsidies to Boeing. It was illegal EU subsidies to Boeing competitor Airbus that started this mess.
• Incomprehensible wine lists: A recent Vinepair podcast takes on a subject guaranteed to make the Wine Curmudgeon crazy: The “many wine lists floating around out there that seem to revel in being inscrutable to all but the most sophisticated and educated wine drinkers.” The podcast talks about the problem, explains why it doesn’t have to be one, and offers more pointers on buying wine in a restaurant.
The Bonny Doon X-Block syrah is magnificent California red wine, combining the Old World with the New World
Those of us who love savory syrah – that is, where the wine is earthy and funky instead of being stuffed with sweet fruit, like the Australians do it – were especially sad when Boony Doon’s Randall Grahm sold his legendary winery at the beginning of the year. Grahm was famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) for many things, but I don’t think he ever got enough credit for wines like the Bonny Doon X-Block syrah.
Grahm was able to combine an Old World approach to syrah with California’s riper and richer fruit. In this, the Bonny Doon X-Block syrah ($48, purchased, 13.5%) is an amazing wine – funky enough for those of us who want that, but fruity enough so as not to turn off people who think funky is a slang term 50 years out of date.
The X-Block is a step up from Grahm’s Le Pousseur syrah, which costs about half the price. But it’s more than worth the added expense: There’s the smoked meat, bacon-y aroma, a bit of pepper and spice, soft tannins, and full, rich black fruit. Open the wine about an hour before you drink it, and serve it with anything beefy or smoky or both. In addition, it’s still young and should age for at least a couple of more years.
Highly recommended, and just the gift for someone who likes savory syrah, what with the Holiday that Must not be Named coming up later this week. So long, Randall. It was a hell of a ride.