This week’s wine news: An update on organics, organic wine, and natural wine
• Not a whole lot: Organics are one of the fastest growing categories in the food business, but not in wine. This piece from Vinepair doesn’t say so explicitly – it’s mostly boilerplate about two-year-old harvest numbers – but that’s what the Wine Curmudgeon is for. In 2016, about two percent of the cabernet sauvignon harvested in California was certified organic. In other words, not much at all. Given the growth in organics in the U.S, it’s always puzzled me why so little organic wine is produced. The best answer: That most consumers assume that all wine is more or less organic, which is hardly true.
• How natural is natural? One of the biggest controversies in wine is about natural wine – wine made without pesticides, chemicals or preservatives. Having said that, don’t be surprised if you haven’t heard about it, since natural wine has an even smaller share of the market than organic wine. This piece from England’s Guardian newspaper does a fine job of exploring the controversy: “Advocates of natural wine believe that nearly everything about the £130 billion (about US$174 billion) modern wine industry – from the way it is made, to the way critics police what counts as good or bad – is ethically, ecologically and aesthetically wrong.”
• The other organics: Meanwhile, the U.S. organic market grew 6.4 percent in 2017 – a little slower than usual but still huge growth from a big base. The value of all organic products sold in this country is almost $40 billion, about the same amount as all wine sales sin the U.S. How stunning is that number? Especially since organics are just five percent of the U.S. retail market. Says the head of the biggest organic trade group: “Consumers love organic, and now we’re able to choose organic in practically every aisle in the store.” The key word there, of course, is practically.
This week’s wine news: Wine recommendations most of us can’t afford, plus the feds help with alcohol levels and the market for natural wine
• Pricey, pricey, pricey: How about a list of fall and winter wine recommendations where all but four of 20 wines cost more than $20? Sadly, that’s what happens when you ask restaurant wine types for wine advice. It’s not that there aren’t some excellent wines in the post from Bloomberg News (the $22 Domain Berson Chablis, for one) and that these people don‘t know their business, but let’s be honest. I didn’t want to spend $145 for my once in a century wine if the Cubs win the World Series; who is going to do it because the weather is cooler? Making matters worse is the headline: “20 wines you need to drink this fall.” No I don’t. The only one who got the pricing right was Ryan Arnold of Lettuce Entertain You, a restaurant company in Chicago started by one of the world’s great restaurateurs, Rich Melman: a $16, a $17, and a $30 wine.
• More accurate: W. Blake Gray reports that a change in the way the federal government approves wine labels will mean more accurate alcohol percentages on the label, and perhaps the end of the ubiquitous 13.5 percent. “In many cases wineries have to submit the label for approval before the final blend of the wine has been decided,” he writes. “They have to guesstimate how much alcohol the actual wine will have. That means label approval has driven many winemaking decisions, which is bad for everybody.” Now, since they won’t have to list the alcohol percentage to get the label approved, they can make the wine and put the correct alcohol level on the label afterwards. That’s not only better for producers, but consumers as well. One reason we see 13.5 percent on so many labels, even if the wine isn’t really 13.5 percent, is that it’s easier to do that for a variety of complicated and legal reasons.
• Not too many people: The Wine Curmudgeon frequently laments the wine fads passed along as fact by the the Winestream Media, and it’s a pleasure to see a serious discussion about whether natural wine is anything more than one of those. “Are sales in this niche finally starting to have a global impact – or is it just a hipster bubble that could burst as fast as a poorly made pet-nat?” asks the Wine Business International trade magazine (full disclosure: I freelance regularly for the magazine). The conclusion: Assuming one can define a natural wine, since there is no accepted standard other than an organic wine isn’t natural enough, “market share in most countries has yet to reach even the first percentage point.” Case closed. Now we can go back to arguing about something important, like the efficacy of scores.
? Love that sweet wine: Moscato sales increased by what one trade magazine called "a staggering 73 percent" in the 52 weeks that ended Jan. 7, 2012, and the wine business wise guys are trying to put all sorts of spin on that news. The report in the link credits pop music stars like Kanye West, who sing about moscato, but the Wine Curmudgeon has another, more likely, theory. Americans like sweet wine. Which, of course, none of the wise guys want to admit. My electrician, who wouldn't know Kanye West from Cornel West, has become a big wine drinker. His favorites: Pinot grigio and moscato, and his wife likes sweet red wine. Not coincidentally, buried at the bottom of the story in the link, was this: "… small but growing categories included unoaked Chardonnay and sweet reds."
? Natural wine backlash: Renowned Rhone producer Michel Chapoutier has denounced natural winemakers as out-of-touch hippies making defective wines, reports Decanter magazine. Chapoutier told the magazine that natural winemaking ? which doesn't allow techniques like adding sulphur dioxide to stabilize the wines ? "…is a connerie. It is rubbish. It ?s like making vinegar, bad vinegar. How can anyone allow toxic yeasts to develop so that these inhabit the wine?" This should make for an interesting back and forth, since proponents of natural wine are equally as shy as Chapoutier about advancing their cause.
? Annoying restaurant wine practices: Two of the most annoying restaurant trends in the Zagat Survey's 2011 list were wine related, which should come as no surprise to regular visitors here. Overzealous wine pouring, when the waiter or waitress won't let you sip wine before they show up for a refill was No. 3, while No. 5 was wine glasses that are too big. Interestingly, inflated restaurant wine prices didn't make the list. Perhaps, like death and taxes, we've just accepted those something we can't do anything about.