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Winebits 488: Cheap wine quality, nutrition labels, restaurant wine

cheap wine qualityThis week, three of the WC’s favorite topics – cheap wine quality, why nutrition labels matter, and restaurant wine prices

Bring on the taste test: An English wine shop hosted a blind tasting, and the £5 bottle (about US$6.50) beat four more expensive wines, including a $40 red Bordeaux. This does not surprise to the Wine Curmudgeon, of course, who has been advocating these sorts of blind tastings for years. The winner was a Spanish verdejo, Abadia Mercier, which is not available in this country. But almost any verdejo – a white wine that is fresh, crisp, and lemony – should do the trick if you want to try a similar blind tasting with your friends. Verdejos, like the Blume, have been the wine of the week on the blog for years, and almost all have cost $10 or less.

Bring on the nutrition labels: Millennials, who are supposed to the future of the wine business, like nutrition and ingredient labels – so much so that a recent study of snack foods should be a “wake-up call” for brands. “When you see a majority of that size say, ‘Fewer ingredients means a snack is healthier,’ that’s a pretty massive shift for the age group, said one of the men who did the study. “Being health-conscious is a smart move and it is transcending the generations right now.” Unless, of course, you’re the wine business, where telling us what’s in our wine is heresy.

Bring on the wine list: A journalist turned wine geek says restaurants charge more for wine that people are more familiar with, like cabernet sauvignon – “a ‘gimme tax’ on glasses of brand-name grapes like chardonnay and malbec. They could charge more because most drinkers see a familiar grape, go on autopilot, and think, ‘Give it to me; I don’t care what it costs.” I’ve never heard this before, though it does seem to explain why some familiar brands are marked up more than wines made with the odd grapes that I like.

Nutritional labels for booze

nutritional labelsOnce again, wine falls behind when it comes to nutritional labels

The nutritional label pictured here is for Bulleit Rye, and should be on bottles this summer (click to make it bigger). Is it perfect? No, since it doesn’t list all the ingredients.

But is it still better than almost anything the wine business has done or wants to do? Of course. Because the wine business still doesn’t think consumers want to know this stuff, still thinks it’s not possible to do on a wine bottle, and still thinks consumers act like it’s 1955.

But Diageo, the company that owns Bulleit, knows better. Understand three reasons why this label matters:

• A shot of Bulleit (which is a very nice rye and fairly priced) has 110 calories – about the same as a light beer. Anyone who doesn’t think that matters to consumers hasn’t spent any time in a grocery store watching people read canned soup labels.

• Notice the lines about where the rye was distilled and bottled. This addresses the controversy (and lawsuits) surrounding craft spirits and how they are made. Diageo is practicing transparency, something the wine business is terrified of doing. Call it MegaPurple paranoia.

• “Made using a 95% rye mash,” though confusing if you don’t know spirits, means the Bulleit has almost twice as much rye as required by law. Legally, it can contain as little as 51 percent rye; the rest would be barley, corn, or other grains. The wine equivalent would be listing how much pinot noir is actually in a bottle of pinot noir. Too many producers meet the 75 percent legal requirement, and flesh the wine out with syrah, grenache, petite sirah, or our old friend MegaPurple without telling us what’s in the other 25 percent.

Finally, my contact at Diageo went out of her way to help me with this post, even locating the Bulleit label in proof. I usually don’t get that kind of cooperation from Big Wine when I write about this subject. I don’t wonder why.

More about nutrition and ingredient labels:
Wine and GMO labeling
Update: Nutrition labels and what the wine business doesn’t understand
Nutrition labels coming to wine — finally

Wine falls further behind in nutrition and ingredient labels

Nutrition and ingredient labels

Not on my wine bottle, you don’t.

Costco is lending money to its small suppliers so the warehouse giant will have more organic food to sell. An on-line retailer has launched a campaign against misleading olive oil labeling. Class action lawsuits against food companies over extravagant claims are becoming increasingly common. And Walmart — the same company that has stood for everything that’s wrong with post-modern U.S. retailing for decades — has pledged to sell only cage-free eggs.

But the wine business, its head firmly buried in premiumization and the idea that consumers aren’t sophisticated enough, still sees nutrition and ingredient labels as an evil to be avoided at all costs. How is this possible, given all else that is going on? Why does wine act like it’s still the 1950s when everyone else seems to be marching boldly into the 21st century?

• Because we’ve always done it this way — what I like to call the cork mindset. Why do bottles still have corks, which aren’t the most efficient or effective way to close a bottle? Why do they still have punts, the hollow space on the bottom of the bottle, when technology has made punts obsolete? Because wine bottles have always had corks and punts, and if we get rid of them the world will come to an end!

• There isn’t enough room for nutrition and ingredient labels on the bottles, the so-called “label aesthetic.” Right, because there is so much on the back label that the consumer can’t live without. This also begs the question of how enlightened producers like Ridge and Boony Doon manage to fit ingredient labels on their wines.

• If we tell them what’s in the bottle, they won’t understand. Of course we won’t. We might also get angry and stop buying the wine. It’s not so much that federal law allows winemakers to use more than 60 things that have little to do with grapes (polyvinyl-polypyrrolidone, anyone?), but that we’ll find out that these “ingredients” are in wine that isn’t cheap. What would we do if our $18, 92-point bottle was loaded with Mega Purple to boost color and sweetness and aged with oak shavings in a bag because shavings cost two-thirds less than oak barrels?

When Walmart is more progressive than the wine industry, something is very, very wrong.

More about nutrition and ingredient labels:
• Update: Nutrition and ingredient labels for wine
Update: Nutrition labels and what the wine business doesn’t understand
Nutrition labels coming to wine — finally

 

Winebits 420: Drinking is evil edition

drinking is evilThe neo-Prohibitionists were in the news again last week, reminding us that drinking is evil and we’d better quit — or else.

? Stop drinking and do it now: The British government has decided that “there is no ‘safe’ level of alcohol consumption and drinking just a small amount may in fact increase the risk of some cancers.” As part of this, the government is lowering the amount of alcohol that one should drink to about six glasses of wine a week, and telling drinkers to abstain two days a week to allow their livers to recover. And all those studies that point to a red wine health benefit? Nope — there is “no safe level of alcohol consumption” for the middle aged.

? Wine producers are liars: I wasn’t going to write about this, since the study has several problems — as one of its authors admits — but a reader’s email changed my mind. The study intimates that U.S. wineries lie about the amount of alcohol in their products to get us drunk. And when that happens, who knows what evil lurks just around the corner courtesy of Demon Rum? This story is also another reason not to pay too much attention to wine coverage in the Washington Post that isn’t written by my pal Dave McIntyre.

? Bring on the labels: One reaction to the neo-Prohibitionists has been Big Wine’s enthusiasm for nutrition labels, which is about the only good thing associated with the neos. The latest convert is the world’s biggest beer company, which pledged to include full nutritional and calorie information on 80 percent of its United Kingdom beer packaging by the end of 2017. “Consumers are getting savvier about their daily calorie consumption and are actively looking at nutritional information,” said a spokeswoman. “While the EU continues to discuss the best way forward for nutritional labeling in our industry, we want to give consumers the information they need at their fingertips to make well informed choices and enjoy our products responsibly.” We’ll ignore that most of the companies who do this are doing so to get ahead of the liquor cops.

Update: Nutrition and ingredient labels for wine

Nutrition and ingredient labels for wineThe Wine Curmudgeon’s views on nutrition and ingredient labels for wine are well known: The wine business is missing an opportunity to reach younger consumers by stonewalling the labels.

But not everyone shares my view, and my piece in the current issue of the Beverage Media trade magazine looks at the topic from a variety of perspectives. The highlights of the article, as well as a few of my thoughts, are after the jump:

The technical term for the labels is “servings facts,” and they can look like the chart on a can of soup or bottle of ketchup or (oddly enough) the paragraph style on something like ramen noodles. Late last year, the federal government issued a regulation to allow wineries who want to add serving facts to do so, but they still aren’t required.

But that’s just the beginning:

• One of the difficulties in following developments is that different federal agencies have different label responsibilities. The Food and Drug Administration oversees food labels, because they includes nutritional content. The Tax and Trade Bureau, which oversees alcohol regulation for the U.S. Treasury, makes rules for alcohol-related labels and uses different criteria. So what’s required for tomato soup may not be good for wine.

• The wine industry’s opposition to serving facts has not wavered in the decade-plus that the labels have been under discussion. It cites cost, a too-crowded label, burdensome regulation, and the government’s inability to enforce the law on imported wine. One of the best examples of their fear? This article (behind a paywall), written by a couple of lawyers for Vineyard & Winery Management magazine, “Requiring ‘Serving Facts’ on Wine Labels Could Prove Costly.” My favorite part of this article: Since wine is consumed for pleasure, it doesn’t need labels.

• A serving facts label includes serving size, and the industry is worried that its idea of serving size could be radically different from the federal government’s, especially on higher alcohol products.

• There is also the unspoken fear, says Bonny Doon’s Randall Grahm, that wineries “don’t want people to know the various tricks and certain stylistic effects that they use on their wine.” This includes the 60-some ingredients legally allowed in wine that aren’t grapes, including Mega Purple (grape juice concentrate used to darken red wine), oak chips, and things like egg whites and isinglass, a fining agent made from fish bladders, and something called polyvinyl-polypyrrolidone, an industrial adhesive.

• The industry is also worried, says Grahm, a long-time proponent of labels, that any additional sulfite information would “freak out” consumers, given the great urban myth surrounding sulfites.

Update: Wine nutrition labels

Wine-label-serving

Not coming soon to a wine bottle near you — the nutritional content of wine.

In which there is no update at all. Which probably means that the plan to put a box with the calories, ingredients and the like on wine is dead.

The official word from Thomas Hogue, the spokesman for the the federal agency overseeing the proposal, is that there is nothing to report about what is officially known as "serving facts" information for wine. The proposal has taken many shapes since it was first brought up in 2003 (so long ago I wrote a newspaper story about it, which appeared in another form here), but it would mostly look like the current serving facts box on light beer.

Representatives of WineAmerica and the Wine Institutute, the trade groups that represent most of the country's wine producers, also said they weren't aware of any developments. They have followed the proposal because their members, for the most part, don't want to be forced to add the labels.

More, after the jump:

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