This edition of Ask the WC: Why are so many dry red wines sweet, plus understanding varietal character and counterfeiting cheap wine
Because the customers always have questions, and the Wine Curmudgeon has answers in this irregular feature. You can Ask the Wine Curmudgeon a wine-related question by clicking here.
Dear Wine Curmudgeon:
I bought a Spanish red wine from Campo Viejo the other day, and it was really sweet. I thought it was supposed to be dry. What’s going on?
Sick of sugar
Welcome to the scourge that is sweet wine labeled as dry — mostly with reds, but also with some whites. I wrote about it here, and the situation keeps getting worse. A leading Dallas retailer told me a couple of weeks ago that it’s part of the plan to get Millennials to drink wine, and he agreed with me: it’s a stupid idea. I also talked about this with a younger man who works for one of the biggest distributors in the country, and he thought the whole thing was pretty funny. If I’m already drinking cocktails or craft beer, why am I going to switch to wine because it’s sweet?
I consider myself a fairly typical wine drinker. I buy a wine a second time based on how much I liked it and how much it costs. I have no idea if something is “varietally correct” and to be honest I have no idea what a chardonnay is “supposed” to taste like. I just like what I like.
A typical wine drinker
That’s a fine approach as far as it goes. But if you want to take the next step and get even more value for your money, then you should learn about things like varietal correctness and what a chardonnay is supposed to taste like. Otherwise, all wine tastes the same, and what’s the point of that? One of the things I love about wine is the differences, and how grapes can taste so many different ways.
I saw something on the Internet the other day that wine fraud is a super serious problem affecting wine at all prices. Do I need to start worrying about it for the wine you write about?
Concerned about counterfeits
No need to worry. This is another of those Winestream Media stories made to sound like it matters, but really doesn’t. Most counterfeiting is for expensive or rare wines that most of us will never see in a store, let alone buy. There’s no money in counterfeiting cheap wine because so much of it is made. It’s the same reason no one counterfeits dollar bills, but does $20s and $100s instead. If it costs $5 to make a phony bottle of wine, what pays more? Counterfeiting a $10 bottle or a $500 bottle?
More Ask the Wine Curmudgeon:
• Ask the WC 17: Restaurant-only wines, local wine, rose prices
• Ask the WC 16: Grocery store wine, Millennials, canned wine
• Ask the WC 15: Wine consumption, wine refrigerators, wine tastings
This week’s wine news: Texas liquor retailer sues the Texas ABC, plus a restaurant tries to solve the industry’s wine problem and Italian authorities seize fake Prosecco
• Texas ABC lawsuit: The Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, which has been plagued by scandal, mismanagement, and more scandal over the past several years, is in even bigger trouble. Spec’s, the largest independent retailer in the state, has sued the agency for malicious enforcement. The federal lawsuit is the result of the TABC’s attempt to fine Spec’s $700 million after a lenghty investigation a couple of years ago.. The catch? Two judges dismissed the agency’s suit against Spec’s, saying the charges were completely unsubstantiated. Why does this matter to wine drinkers in the rest of the country? Because it might mean the end of the TABC when the state legislature meets early next year. It almost dissolved the agency two years ago, and pressure is mounting to kill it in the upcoming session. If that happens, it will send a message to liquor cops across the country about how they enforce three-tier.
• One last chance: An English restaurant chain, emerging from bankruptcy, says its new plan revolves around selling better quality wine. Says the new wine buyer for the Argentine-themed Guacho: “It’s always the big wineries [who are represented] – those who can afford PR, travel and marketing. But there are so many super-interesting smaller wineries in Argentina. It’s my duty to champion those guys. If no one gives them a chance they’re never gonna get an importer.” It’s a fair plan, the idea of moving away from Big Wine, and stands an even better chance of working if the chain keeps fair pricing in mind.
• Lots and lots of fake Prosecco: Italian police have seized more than 80,000 cases of Prosecco from two producers. Police said each added extra sugar to the wine during fermentation to increase the alcohol content and exceeded their production quotas. The authorities became suspicious after finding some two tons of sugar at the wineries. No doubt the wineries should have been more subtle.
This week’s wine news: More Chinese fake booze, plus soaring Napa land prices and good news for ice wine drinkers
• Fake booze: The Chinese just can’t seem to get a break when it comes to alcohol fraud. This time, reports thedrinksbusiness.com. Police in two provinces broke up counterfeiting rings earlier this year, one specializing in the fabled Chinese spirit baijiu, while the other filled empty bottles with cheap bulk wines and sold them as big name wines costing as much as RMB 3,000 (about US$431). The magazine says the fake wine had “convincing labels and caps.” Note to Chinese wine drinkers (as well those in the U.S. who buy this stuff): I write about wine, and I can’t get most of the wines they’re selling you. What does that say about the wines’ provenance?
• Real estate boom: Want to buy an acre of prime vineyard land in California’s Napa Valley? Then be prepared to pony up as much as $5 million, reports Lew Perdue at Wine Industry Insight. The chart that details these prices is as depressing as it is fascinating – even some Sonoma vineyard land is approaching Napa prices, something that has never really happened before. In other words, as land prices rise, more and more of the best California wine will be priced out of the reach of most wine consumers, and could even pressure prices upward for the wine we can afford to drink.
• Ice wine: Warm winters in the U.S., Canada, and Europe over the past decade have drastically cut the quality and quantity of ice wine, which is so sweet and amazing that it can be worth what it costs – $60 or more for a half bottle. The good news is that it has been cold enough in Michigan this year so that a couple of wineries will make ice wine this vintage, what one winemaker calls a rarity that always sells out. One of the great moments in my teaching career came when I let a Cordon Bleu class taste ice wine; they loved me forever.
? Ouch, that hurts: Lest anyone thinks that the Wine Curmudgeon is especialy cranky about California wine, consider this from Anthony Gismondi in the Vancouver Sun: "There isn ?t much California wine under $20 of any interest in this market unless you are a fan of wines that have no sense of place or that pander to marketing types who are bent on dumbing down wine to the level of Coca-Cola, and in the case of the reds that includes getting some cola flavours into the wines." No doubt this criticism, which is becoming increasingly common, will be disregarded by the wine business. After all, Gismondi is Canadian, and they spell funny, too.
? Make your own fake wines: Businessweek thoughtfully offers this guide to producing counterfeit wines in the wake of yet another counterfeit wine scandal. My favorite bit? That taste is no guarantee that the wine is fake, since the taste of wine changes as it ages — and since most fake wines are aged, the buyer is stuck. Those $10 wines I write about are sounding better and better, no?
? Forget the pairing — put it in the wine: Drinks Business magazine reports that a chocolate-infused wine called Chocolate Shop has surprised its creators with what the the story calls surging demand, selling 100,000 cases in the U.S. in 2011, and perhaps as much as 50,000 cases in the United Kingdom this year. The brand is doing so well, in fact, they are looking at new products, including caramel and and white chocolate wines.
? What's in a name? A lot, if you make Budweiser beer. Anheuser-Busch, the multi-national behind the brand, has threated a small Argentine winery called Budini. The latter's name is too similar to Bud, says Anheuser-Busch, and you'd better change your name or else. Which Budini has done; it's now Bodini in the U.S. The Wine Curmudgeon wonders if everyone who has a child named Clyde will now have to change it to Claude, given the Budweiser Clydesdales. I'm baffled as to why so many huge companies are so terrified of smaller companies with barely similar names. No doubt this is one of those things that, to paraphrase Mel Brooks, company bosses have to do to protect their phony baloney jobs.
? Getting drunk: An article by Michael Apstein in the San Francisco Chronicle notes that higher alcohol wines get people drunk more quickly. This doesn't get much attention in the discussion about high alcohol wines (even I don't talk about it much), but it should. Apstein says two glasses of 15 percent wine can get you more drunk than two glasses of 12 percent wine, taking into account weight, gender, and how often you drink. Even though the alcohol content of the wine increases only one-quarter (from 12 to 15 percent), the blood alcohol content goes up by 35 percent. For some people, that will put them over the legal limit.
? Fake Chinese wine: How about walking into a Beijing grocery store and finding counterfeit wine, including "bottles of Bordeaux wine that have been diluted with sugared water and had coloring agents and artificial flavorings added, before being sold for exorbitant prices." That's the situation in China, where more bottles of some high-end wines are for sale than were ever produced. I wonder: Would the Chinese have this problem if they weren't so obsessed with expensive wine. Who is going to counterfeit a bottle of $10 wine?