This week’s wine news: Why isn’t box wine more popular? Plus, identifying U.S. wine drinkers and restaurant wine trends for 2019
• No boxes, please: Box wine, despite its increasing popularity, remains a minor part of the wine business. It accounts for just four percent of wine sold worldwide by volume; box sales have declined in Australia, one of the few places where it’s popular; and younger wine drinkers prefer bottles to boxes. One expert thinks he knows why: The technology was developed for battery acid, and producers treated the wine they put in boxes much the same way, using it for lower quality products.
• Parsing the wine drinker: A study has divided U.S. wine drinkers into six groups in one of those exercises that only marketing types can understand. The study uses terms like social newbies and premium brand suburbans to divide us by age and demographics. As near as I can tell, the idea is that younger wine drinkers are more adventurous and older wine drinkers buy the same brands of chardonnay and white zinfandel over and over. Which, of course, isn’t all that new; perhaps it means something the marketing gurus in the audience?
• Restaurant wine trends: Of which there aren’t any in 2019, if this forecast from a restaurant consultancy is accurate. It lists 13 trends for next year, including higher prices, new spins on Asian food, and “motherless meat.” But it doesn’t say one thing about restaurant wine, which makes perfect sense given what we’ve seen of restaurant wine over the past couple of years. So don’t expect the conundrum that is restaurant wine — higher prices, mediocre quality — to be solved anytime soon.
This week’s wine news: Two wine analysts may be even less optimistic about the future of wine than I am, plus Internet retailer Wine.com calls for three-tier system reform
• Napa Valley worries: Author James Conaway, who has written three books about California’s most prestigious wine region, is “pessimistic and alarmed about the valley’s state and direction.” That’s the word from Mike Dunne in the Sacramento Bee. Conaway is afraid Napa will morph into a “viticultural Disneyland, vineyards as sideshows, wineries as thrill rides.” “I don’t see any hope,” he told Dunne. “It’s too late for it to become an agricultural Yosemite.” That’s as gloomy a view as I’ve heard, but not surprising given the news out of Napa in the past decade as the region tries to decide how to manage its unprecedented growth. When land costs as much as $1 million an acre, it’s difficult to sustain an agricultural vision.
• Boxes, bulk wine, and blends: Or how about a wine business where what we drink is made like juice boxes, and varietal character is as quaint as the blacksmith? Elliott R. Morss, PhD, isn’t quite that alarming, but it’s not far from what he writes to that scenario: “The growth in blends is also notable. It means customers are focusing less on specific grapes and region and trusting more on the bottler. As the blend demand grows, so will the demand for bulk wines. …” The blog article is a little geeky, but the trends that Morss outlines apply to all of us who want our wine to taste like the grape and region it came from.
• Three-tier Ecommerce? Wine.com, the largest Internet wine retailer in the U.S., wants to reform the three-tier system to make it 21st century e-commerce friendly. You won’t learn much more that that – if that much – from this very poorly written news release, which combines PR-, wine-, and supply chain-speak to create a language that even I had trouble understanding. The point, though, is that the retailer sees U.S. wine sales declining and wants to do something to make it easier for consumers to buy wine. Says one Wine.com official: “Limiting the market size of your own customers is not a recipe for growth.”
Reviews of wines that don’t need their own post, but are worth noting for one reason or another. Look for it on the fourth Friday of each month. This month: Maybe Christmas wine, maybe not
• Le Petite Frog Picpoul 2016 ($30/3-liter box, purchased, 12.5%): I really wanted to like this French white, made with the picpoul grape. But all it did was make me appreciate the Rene Barbier white that much more. The La Petite Frog is pleasant enough, with soft lemon fruit, but could be fresher and more lively; at the equivalent of $7.50 a bottle, it’s not two bucks a bottle better than the Barbier. Imported by Kysela Pere et Fils.
• Norton Malbec Reserva 2014 ($16, sample, 13.5%): Premiumized grocery store red from Argentina that is about as boring as possible, and with entirely too much oak (even if I liked a lot of oak). It is focus group wine, made for the Cellar Tracker user who wrote: “Nice, smooth and very drinkable, especially at this price point.” Imported by Guarchi Wine Partners.
• Seaglass Pinot Noir Rosé 2016 ($10, purchased, 12.5%): This California grocery store pink was more than I expected, with barely ripe strawberry fruit and surprising freshness instead of the cloying, almost sweet quality, that some of these wines have. It’s a little thin on the back, and not quite up to a wine of the week, but you won’t be unhappy by buying it.
• Tenuta Marsiliana Maremma Toscana 2012 ($32, sample, 14%): This Italian red, a Super Tuscan heavy on the cabernet sauvignon and merlot, is professionally made, but doesn’t suffer from being more New World than Old in an attempt to get 92 points. Look for more black fruit and less acidity than in a traditional Tuscan red, but it does have that earthy finish and elegant tannins. Highly recommended, but availability may be limited.
Why spend $25 for California red wine when the Black Box merlot costs just $4?
It’s not so much that the Black Box merlot is the wine of the week; I’ve written about Black Box over the past nine years. What makes it newsworthy these days it that it’s not all that different from wines that cost five and six times as much.
How far has the wine business fallen?
The three-liter Black Box merlot ($16, purchased, 13.5%) is sitting on my kitchen counter next to a bottle of $25 Santa Barbara pinot noir. The wines are so much much alike that it’s terrifying – the same overdone chocolate oak, the same very berry fruit, and the same direct, simple structure. Yet, the pinot costs six times as much (since one Block Box is equal to four bottles). What’s even more terrifying is how they aren’t alike – the Black Box merlot has acidity and tannins, and tastes like California merlot. The pinot noir has almost no varietal character, and is another example of cynical, post-modern winemaking.
Know, too, that the Black Box merlot is as it has always been, competent cheap wine that probably isn’t worth writing about. But the discounting that is so common these days has turned it into a tremendous value. The suggested retail price is $25, which is $6 a bottle, but you can easily find it for as little as $15. At that price, it would be a serious contender for the 2017 $10 Hall of Fame if not for the horrible oak, which tastes like not unlike those band candy chocolate bars.
So buy a box, have a glass when you want, and giggle at all those maroons who spent $25 to get what you got for $4.
Reviews of wines that don ?t need their own post, but are worth noting for one reason or another. Look for it on the final Friday of each month.
? Vin Vault Pinot Noir 2013 ($20 for 3-liter box, sample, 13%): This California red, part of E&J Gallo’s assault on the booming box wine business, offers much more than $5 a bottle worth of value (since a 3-liter box equals four bottles). Look for red fruit and soft tannins, though it tastes more like a red blend than pinot noir (and my guess is that it has been blended with lots of grenache or syrah). Still, it’s pleasant drinking and a huge step up from most $5 pinot noir.
? Marqu s de C ceres Rueda 2013 ($8, purchased, 12.5%): This version of the Spanish white from one of Spain’s biggest producers is made with the verdejo grape. It’s much more balanced than previous vintages — the lemon fruit is more rounded and it’s less harsh. A steal at this price, though it’s still a simple wine, and its tartness may put some people off.
? rido Malbec 2013 ($10, sample, 13.7%): Just another Argentine grocery store malbec with lots and lots of sweet red fruit, some tannins that don’t really fit with the sweet fruit, and not much else. It’s an example of why I liked this malbec so much.
? Avalon Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 ($10, sample, 13.9%): This California red is not the old $10 Napa Avalon cabernet, one of the great cheap wines of all time and which now costs as much as $18. But it’s professionally made, if hardly complex, and mostly a value with soft tannins, black fruit, a little mouth feel, and some acid to round it out. If you’re in a grocery store and need a red wine for dinner, this will be fine.