? Get the lawyers: The indomitable Alice Feiring has no patience with wine that is not the way it should be, even if it’s Champagne: “I could not sip without tasting the scorched earth viticulture that still exists in Champagne. This was all sulfur and sugar and bubble. It was cynical. It was false. It was a traitor.” The bottle in question is from Trader Joe’s, Charles de Marques, and while I applaud and appreciate the honesty of her review, I would advise Feiring to get a good attorney. Because we know what the Champagne people do when someone does something that they don’t like. Right, Champagne Jayne?
? How legitimate is that review? Cornell researchers have developed a system that spots phony Internet hotel reviews called Review Skeptic, so the Wine Curmudgeon immediately tried it on a variety of Winestream Media wine reviews. Most were identified as real, which speaks to the quality of the algorithm, since it’s not meant to do wine reviews (and, unfortunately, doesn’t judge the quality of the writing). Given the possibility we could get computer-generated wine reviews sooner rather than later, Review Skeptic — even in its current form — could come in quite handy.
? Make it local: The annual National Restaurant Association’s chef’s survey has again identified local as the hottest trend for 2016 behind the restaurant bar. This marks at least the eighth year in a row that chefs see local wine as important, which makes the Wine Curmudgeon quite happy. Now, if we could only get Dallas chefs to understand why their colleagues feel that way, I would have one less thing to bellyache about.
? Lots of kinks to work out: Direct shipping, despite its successes over the past decade, is still a tiny part of the wine business, just single percentage points of the $17 billion in sales. One reason for that, of course, is three-tier, which makes it difficult for wineries to ship to consumers in different states. And three-tier has more to it than even those of us who think we know it can imagine; witness the lawyer suing Illinois wineries for not charging sales tax on shipping fees. This is perfectly legal in Illinois, where the law allows private attorneys to recover unpaid taxes on behalf of the state. Much of the coverage has been critical of the attorney, but that misses the point. Illinois law is vague on whether sales tax should be charged on shipping fees, so how how can direct shipping ever become more than a niche business if laws crucial to its success are as vague as the Illinois law? Because, given three-tier, this is certainly not the only vague, poorly written, or unclear law dealing with the subject.
? Nuts to Champagne: Prosecco has passed Champagne in sales at British grocery stores in news that is so shocking — given the British love affair with Champagne — that it should worry not only the Champagne business, but retailers around the world. If the British are buying Prosecco, the Italian bubbly that is at least half the price of Champagne, what does that means for retailers elsewhere? Has Champagne priced itself out of some markets? Do consumers prefer the softer, sweeter taste of Prosecco? Or are grocery stores playing a role in what’s going on? Even the story, from a British trade magazine, had a panicked tone.
Oct. 21, 2015 update: An Australian judge has ruled that Champagne Jayne Powell can keep her name, ruling that the French Champagne trade group “did not do enough to compel him to order Powell to cancel her business name or withdraw her trademark.” It’s not a complete victory, though. The judge also said that Powell had engaged in misleading or deceptive conduct in her “use, reference to, and promotion of sparkling wines while also using the Champagne name in relation to some of her social media posts,” and that part of the case will continue. She could still be forced to pay damages or make some other restitution.
Censorship used to be easy to understand. The secret police came to the door in the dark of night and you were never heard from again. Which is what makes the Champagne Jayne case so terrifying — the secret police have been replaced by lawyers working within the legal system of a Western constitutional democracy, and what they’re doing is as legal as it is morally reprehensible.
The French Champagne trade group, CIVC, is suing Jayne Powell, an Australian wine writer whose specialty is Champagne and sparkling wine and who calls herself Champagne Jayne. The trade group claims that Powell’s name, because she writes and teaches about other sparkling wine, violates the European Union ?s trade agreement with Australia that defines what can be called Champagne. CIVC wants an Australian court to make Powell stop using the name and anything associated with it, like email addresses, Facebook and Twitter accounts, and domain names. In this, they would force her out of business.
And, in a touch I love, Powell would have to “destroy all material marked with the name ?Champagne Jayne ?, including brochures, pamphlets, and other goods.” In other words, burning books.
This must seem bizarre to Americans, given our right to free speech under the First Amendment. But it shouldn’t. Even though Australia’s free speech protections aren’t as strong as those here, this case is not about free speech as we understand it. It’s about intellectual property, and how post-modern business is using that concept to carve out an exception to our traditional free speech protections. First Amendment law in the U.S. focuses on preventing the government from censoring speech, but says little about groups that aren’t the government from doing it.
Case in point: The Cristal-Cristalino lawsuit, in which the luxury French Champagne won a judgment against the cheap Spanish cava and forced Cristalino to change its name. The federal judge who decided in favor of Cristal said the case seemed silly on the surface, but that she had to go by the law, and the law said any confusion about the name, no matter how small, must be decided in Cristal’s favor. Shortly thereafter, I got a letter from Cristalino telling me I had to obey the judgment by never referring to Cristalino as Cristalino and by replacing any reference to the old name on the blog.
In other words, I am being censored by a French wine company, regardless of the First Amendment.
This is why I have written this post, contributed to Powell’s defense fund, and urge everyone to join me in boycotting Champagne. Powell can’t speak for herself — she is under a court-mandated gag order. And if the CIVC gets away with this, and it seems like it will, then it sets a precedent for any business that doesn’t approve of what someone writes, wine or otherwise. Don’t like what I say about your wine? Then sue, claiming I used your brand name incorrectly. Don’t like what the New York Times’ Mark Bittman says about your fast food? Then sue, claiming Bittman infringed on your intellectual property. (Which is my hint to the Times — this affects all of us who practice journalism, just like Times v. Sullivan.)
Also depressing: The lack of outrage from the Winestream Media, few of whom have come to Powell’s defense. In one respect, this isn’t surprising, given that its business model is based on sucking up to the wine business. But one would think that someone would remember Martin Niemoller.
? “Apr s moi, le d luge“: Which would be the price of malbec after the collapse of the Argentine peso in January. Malbec is the national grape of Argentina, and its economic crisis will not only force down the price of its malbec, but prices of malbec regardless of origin as well as most cheap red wine. Because that’s how the law of supply and demand works. Or, as Lew Perdue at Wine Industry Insight wrote: “Think Australian invasion before the U.S. screwed up the value of its currency and sent the Aussie dollar soaring.” This is another example of why it’s so difficult to predict when wine prices will rise — too many moving parts to take into account. How can a company charge more for ts California grocery store merlot when the competition is dumping something similar, like malbec, in the U.S. thanks to a currency flop?
? How much did all that wine really hurt? Englishman Chris Chataway, one of the world’s great distance runners in the 1950s and who helped Roger Bannister break the four-minute mile in 1954, died in January. His New York Times obituary reported that Chataway ran a 5:48 mile when he was 64, 41 years later, but wasn’t entirely satisfied with the effort. One possible explanation: Chataway told a friend he had smoked 400 pounds of tobacco and drank more than 7,000 liters of wine (almost 10,000 bottles) since the 1954 race. Which demonstrates that he was not only a world-class runner, but a pretty funny fellow who enjoyed his wine, and which is also why this is blog-worthy despite the ban of health-related wine news.
? The power of price: Asda, the British grocery store chain, wasn’t selling much of its private label Pierre Darcys Champagne over the holidays. So it cut the price from 24.25 to 10 (from about US$40 to US$17). No surprise what happened next, is there? A British trade magazine reports that the supermarket sold almost 8 million worth (about $US13.4 million) of Pierre Darcys in the 12 weeks ending Jan. 4. That made the brand the fifth-best selling Champagne in Britain over the holidays, beating top names like Piper-Heidsieck and Taittinger — despite being sold only at one retailer. This, of course, is the other component in wine pricing: How do we account for the power of consumers?
Because, for most wine drinkers for most of the last 60 years, there were only two kinds of sparkling wine — French Champagne and the very cheap U.S. stuff that tasted like flat 7-Up (and that still dominates U.S. sales). There was bubbly from elsewhere, of course, but quality was poor and there wasn’t much of available, even if someone wanted to try it.
That has changed over the past couple of years, as I wrote in a story in this month’s Beverage Media trade magazine — and just in time for the holiday bubbly season, when we drink as much as half of all the sparkling wine sold during the year. In this, it ?s not so much that Champagne fell out of favor; rather, improvements in quality, increased availablity, and very good prices helped introduce consumers to the Spanish-made Cava, the Italian Prosecco and even fizzy moscato. And, as with sweet red and cheap pinot, consumers discovered they liked the wines.
Or, as one very perceptive retailer told me: “They really don ?t care where it ?s coming from, as long as it ?s different. They aren ?t the same old, same old California sparkling wines or the same Champagne. They ?re not the same wines that have been around now and forever. ?
The story ?s highlights and a few other thoughts:
? Bubbly consumption increased by 14 percent from 2007 to 2012, compared to four or five percent (depending on the report) for all wine. Much of that growth came from non-Champagne categories, and especially from Spain (up almost five percent in 2012) and Italy. The Italian surge has been phenomenal, accounting for two-thirds of the increase in imported sales in 2012.
? It’s almost impossible to underestimate the improvement in quality over the past several years. It started with Cava and moved on to the Italian wines, all of which are cleaner, more consistent, and with fewer off notes. They taste better, as simple as that may sound.
? Bubbly drinkers are more open minded than ever, willing to try something that doesn’t come from Champagne. Much of this can be traced to price, since these wines cost as little as one-tenth of Champagne, but it’s also about more adventurous palates. That a sparkling wine made with xarel-lo or glera could be worth drinking never occurred to previous generations of sparkling wine drinkers, who were quite snobby about their bubbly.
? We’re drinking sparkling with dinner more than ever before, which is a very welcome development (as regular visitors here well know). Again, this rarely happened with Champagne, which was seen — and is still marketed — as something for a special occasion.
? Sweet sells, and especially for the Italian brands. The difference is that some of the wines are not just sweet, but well made, something that isn’t necessarily true for many of the sweet reds.
? The generational divide that we’ve seen elsewhere in the wine business has shown up here, too. Younger wine drinkers are more likely to try non-Champagne wines, not only because they’re less expensive but because they don’t know or care that they’re only supposed to drink Champagne. That’s one reason why cocktails made with sparklers are so popular. Who else but someone who wasn’t a Champagne snob would want to drink something like a Bellini, which is made with peach juice?
The occasion required a sparkling wine for celebration, and it required more than cava. So the Wine Curmudgeon, spotting the Heidsieck ($56, purchased, 12%) on the shelf at a local wine bar, opted for Champagne. And why not? How often does the Cheap Wine Book go on sale?
Champagne has long been one of the great contradictions in my wine drinking life. I love Champagne, but I have little use for the Champagne business. It embodies everything that makes me crazy about the way wine works ? little regard for consumers, pricing that bears almost no relationship to reality, and the idea it can operate like it ?s 1953 and not 2013.
But they do make nice wine, and the Heidsieck is no exception. Look for lots and lots of caramel at the front, giving way to layers and layers of flavor, including white fruit and a mineral finish that has been described as almost iodine by some of my colleagues. This is not a subtle or especially elegant Champagne, and bears more than a passing resemblance to the mass Champagnes, like Veuve Clicquot, that I don ?t much care for. But it is incredibly well made and a perfect example of this style. And we had a fine time celebrating the book.
The story, though written for the European market, is well worth reading because it documents the trend we ?re been talking about here for several years (and not just because I ?m trying to put together The Cheap Wine Book). Today, when consumers have a choice between two quality products, they ?re more likely than ever to buy on price. Champagne exports declined 2.8 percent last year, while non-Champagne sparkling wine accounts for 70 percent of the European market.
In other words, we ?re buying more cava and prosecco and so are the Europeans — and that it ?s not Champagne doesn ?t seem to bother us.This is shocking news, and especially for the Europeans. Their market never, ever worked that way.
This also demonstrates the continuing evolution of the wine market into two tiers ? everyday wine drinkers, who are mostly ignored by the Winestream Media, and a much smaller, score-driven minority that still buys wine the old-fashioned way and is doted on by most of the wine world.
And how cheap are these wines? Cava costs ?8 (US$11) or less in most European retailers, while prosecco ranges from ?5 to ?15 (about US$7-$20). Those of you who buy either in the States will note that ?s pretty much what we pay for it. Call it the pricing power of the biggest multi-national wine companies (cava giant Freixenet ?s annual production is about two-thirds of the entire Champagne region), and they ?re more than willing to trade margin for market share ? another theme we ?ve discussed in detail here.