? How tasting rooms work: Ever wonder why wineries have tasting rooms? Or if they make a lot of money? Or why a wine in the tasting room is often more expensive than in a store? Rob McMillan at the SVB blog goes a long way towards answering those questions, and asks one of his own: Do too many wineries use the tasting room to make money at the expense of the tasting room ?s ability to market the winery? This is the sort of analysis the wine business needs more of, and something that consumers need to know, too. It ?s one more advantage to know how the business works when it comes to buying wine.
? Breaking records: Remember that California grape shortage? Long gone, and probably not to be seen for a while. The official numbers are in, and the 2012 harvest set records. The crush totaled 4.4 million tons, up 13 percent from 2011 and 1 percent more than the previous high in 2005. Also significant: Red grapes accounted for more than half of that total, part of what may be a long-term trend toward red wine among consumers. Prices were also up quite a bit, in the double digits for many varieties, as producers were making up losses from the less bountiful 2010 and 2011 harvests.
? He was there: I ?ve never asked George Taber about the 1976 Judgment of Paris, probably the most important moment in the history of modern California wine. George, who worked for Time, was the only journalist present, and saw California wines best French wines in a blind tasting. You ?d think, as nosy as I am, I would have annoyed him about it over and over. Now I don ?t have to, thanks to this interview, which covers the event thoroughly: ?The story about the Paris tasting in Time magazine was only four paragraphs long. It was a secondary story in the Modern Living section, the filler. Nobody in the world except me will remember what was the first and more important story: It was about a new theme park in Atlanta ?. ?
Or, did George Taber really dress like that? Actually, I kind of like his Huggy Bear look (the original, and not the remake). Not enough men wearing hats anymore.
The painting, done in the style of Da Vinci ?s “Last Supper,” was commissioned by Peter Michael of the self-named Napa cult winery. Decanter, which published the painting, reports that the work depicts the moment when everyone at the tasting discovered that the California wines had ranked higher than the French ? ?a circumstance unthinkable in the mid-1970s. ? There ?s that British talent for understatement, no?
That ?s Taber, the only journalist at the 1976 event, at the far right. I asked him what he thought of the likeness, and he said it was closer to reality than his character had been in ?Bottle Shock, ? the movie made about the Judgment. There, apparently, he looked liked a chubby Columbo (played by Louis Giambalvo). Which, of course, George does not look like.
Want a bigger, easier to see version of the painting? Click on the picture, and then click on the painting at the Decanter page.
These should be the best days for cheap wine. The recession has focused the wine industry on wine that costs less than $10, and producers around the globe have been racing to put out as much inexpensive wine as possible. When a sparkling wine house like J does a $15 pinot gris, the world has definitely changed.
But a lot of people are not happy about this. The industry, despite its embrace of cheap wine, doesn’t really seem to have much affection for it. They’ll take the cash, much as they have always done with white zinfandel, but they really don’t want to be associated with it. Follow the business, and you’ll see news reports and interviews over and over about what really matters to them: When are consumers going to start buying wine that costs more than $15 again?
The wine media, even in the cyber-ether, has not been happy with the emphasis on cheap wine, either. Over the last several weeks, there have been a variety of posts and discussions about cheap wine’s popularity and that it’s not necessarily a good thing. The gist? That those of us who advocate cheap wine are missing the point, and that we care only about price and not about quality. Which is not necessarily the case.
The United States is not a wine drinking country. We are a soft drink country, and most of us don’t know anything about wine. What most of us do know is that wine is confusing and expensive and reserved for really special people who can talk funny about it. And anyone who loves wine who denies this is kidding themselves. I got a release the other day from a new wine club that said it would demystify and de-snobify wine — and then used the same foolish winespeak to describe how wonderful its wines were.
Given this, is it any wonder that most Americans buy wine strictly by price? Mark Bittman, the New York Times food writer and top-flight cookbook author, put this into perspective for me during an interview several years ago. Most people, he said, look at wine as an alcohol intake system. They drink wine because it makes them feel good. They really don’t care about the wine stuff. I see this every time I do a public event, and ask the audience if a $100 wine is 10 times better than a $10 wine. The audience, almost every time, offers a unanimous no. It doesn’t matter if they are right or wrong; it’s their perception that counts.
Which is the real problem, and one that the wine business — and those of us who write about wine — don’t address. We don’t do enough to make wine accessible. We don’t do enough to educate consumers. We want to be famous, and this goes for wine writers as well as winemakers. The dirty little secret of my business is that too many of us want to be Robert Parker, and that’s not going to happen by writing about Yellow Tail or Barefoot or by teaching consumers how to tell the difference between a $6 wine and a $10 wine.
Which, of course, is what I have always done here. That’s why the $10 Hall of Fame exists. That’s why I write 52 wines of the week every year, highlighting just those kinds of wine. The debate should not be about cheap wine, but about quality. Are there well-made cheap wines? Of course, just as there are well-made expensive wines. And are there poorly-made cheap wines? Indeed, just as there are poorly-made expensive wines. It’s no crime to make consumers aware of that.
In fact, our job should be to educate consumers about what constitutes quality, and how to tell the difference. And every time we give a point score and use words like licorice and toast, we’re doing just the opposite — and consumers reach for the wine that delivers the most alcohol for the buck.
Sadly, though, that may be a distinction that too many in the wine world don’t — or don’t want to — understand.
Buy this book. "A Toast to Bargain Wines" may not be everything you need to know about cheap wine, but it's close enough. George Taber, the author of several acclaimed wine books, including the legendary "Judgment of Paris," has nailed cheap wine in a way few others have — or have cared to.
"For years friends and passing strangers have been asking me to recommend 'a good bottle of wine for under $10 (sometimes $5),' " says Taber. "I could usually come up with something, but that experience got me to thinking that there must be a lot of people out there with that same question."