This week’s wine news: The wine snobs celebrate the holiday season
• Ice in a glass of wine? VinePair asks sommeliers when it’s OK to put an ice cube in a glass of wine, because we need guidance on this subject from people with initials after their names. The post, believe it or not, includes a section on how to properly add ice. It’s pieces like this that make me wonder if I’ve wasted the past 13 years writing the blog. How about this advice? Add a cube or two when you feel like it. Which, in Texas in August, we feel like a lot.
• The kindness of strangers? Mary Margaret McCamic, MW, writing on the Karolus Wine Imports blog, notes that “many of the most exciting bottles that I have enjoyed were the result of the generosity of collectors.” How does one respond to that? Does this mean that when the Big Guy comes over, and we dip into the wine closet for my latest $10 find, it’s not exciting? It’s pieces like this that make me wonder if I’ve wasted the past 13 years writing the blog.
• No affordable wine? Megan Krigbaum, writing for Punch, laments the loss of affordable Beaujolais on restaurant wine lists. She defines this as Beaujolais costing less than $100 a bottle. It’s pieces like this that make me wonder if I’ve wasted the past 13 years writing the blog. $100 is affordable? For whom? This also begs the question of Beaujolais’ availability on restaurant wine lists, and especially in the middle of the country. But what do I know? I put ice cubes in un-exciting $10 wine.
This week’s wine news: Wine.com reports 217 percent sales increase, plus restaurants are headed in the opposite direction and another critic ponders the need for toasty and oaky
• Wine.com sales: Wine.com, the U.S.’ biggest on-line wine retailer, ended the first six months of its fiscal year with a 217 percent sales increase compared to the previous 12 months. Can anyone say pandemic? Even without the increase in on-line retail caused by the coronavirus, sales for the previous 12 months were up 102 percent. One key to the jump: repeat sales from customers who pay $49 a year for free shipping, similar to Amazon Prime’s free shipping. Sales from those customers increased by about one-fifth more than overall sales for the past 12 months, as more of those customers bought more wine on-line. This raises the question again: How, once the retail world returns more or less to normal, will we be able to go back to thinking of on-line wine as something special, and not something we buy every day?
• Not so good news: Tom Wark, writing on the Fermentation blog, asks: “Do we allow a huge swath of restaurants across the country to simply disappear in the wake of COVID and state’s restaurant shutdown orders or do we act to aid these institutions?” This has been the elephant in the room as the pandemic continues, with restaurants — rightly or wrongly — bearing the burst of government restrictions. I don’t know that I agree with all Tom writes, but his piece is well worth reading.
As many as one in four say they anticipate forgoing restaurants – and restaurant wine – in the future
A Florida consultancy predicts that restaurant spending could fall by as much as one-half by the time the pandemic ends. Even more surprising, says its study: Consumers seem content to cook and eat at home. If true, this has tremendous implications for the wine business.
And if that happens, we could be looking at lower prices but also more winery failures – and especially on the high end, since that’s where much restaurant wine comes from. This might also lead to more winery consolidation, which means less consumer choice. The biggest wineries have the deepest pockets, and will be better able to survive a massive glut.
The results come from Florida-based Acosta, in a study called “COVID-19: Reinventing How America Eats.” It described what seem to be massive shifts in consumer eating habits: 44 percent report eating breakfast at home daily, compared with 33 percent pre-COVID. Similarly, 31 percent are eating lunch at home every day versus 18 percent pre-COVID, and one-third are eating dinner at home daily versus 21 percent pre-COVID. All of those people eating at home, says Acosta, translates into 31 to 50 percent less spending at midscale, casual and fine dining restaurants.
Don’t panic yet
But let’s look at the caveats:
• Acosta didn’t respond to a couple of requests for an interview. The study is based on “online surveys of Acosta’s proprietary shopper community” in early July, as well as industry data and “proprietary information sources.” Proprietary means the company doesn’t discuss how the survey works, which means it’s OK to be skeptical about the results. We know how Nielsen measures sales; we don’t know how Acosta divines its results.
• On the other hand, Acogta’s pessimism about the future of the restaurant business dovetails with most of the gloom and doom prognosticated elsewhere. USA Today reported in early October that 2.3 million restaurant jobs have been lost during the pandemic, while 12 percent of sit-down restaurant chain units that were open before COVID-19 had closed.
• The 40 percent restaurant wine sales number is misleading, since it’s measured in dollar terms. Given that restaurant wines tend to be more expensive, and that restaurant markups inflate that total, the amount of wine sold in restaurants in actual bottles is probably much less than 40 percent of the U.S. total. Hence, the loss of the restaurant market wouldn’t be quite as devastating, and it would also be mitigated by people buing less expensive wine at the supermarket.
• Some of the results in the survey require a second look. For example, “35 percent of consumers said they’ve discovered a new passion for cooking amid the pandemic.” Which is all well and good, but does it actually mean anything? And one-fifth to one-quarter of the respondents say they anticipate eating out less in the future, which is understandable in July but may not mean much next spring.
So, yes, more not good news for the restaurant and wine businesses. But maybe, given all the bad news we’ve had, not quite as bad as it seems.
This week’s wine news: High-end restaurants are selling their wine collections to raise cash to say in business. Plus, an Argentine winery may have stolen an artist’s work and more woes for legal weed
• So long, wine collection: Nation’s Restaurant News calls them “great wine cellar sell-offs of 2020.” High-end restaurants, which often spend years putting together award-winning wine lists, are selling their wines to stay in business during the pandemic. One New Jersey chain sold as much as 40 percent of its wine; a New York City restaurant turned its wine into $50,000 when it was closed in March and April. Said the restaurant’s wine director: “For us, if it’s between saving the cellar or the restaurant, save the restaurant. Product can be replaced, but you can’t replace the loyal staff members who have been with you for 10 years. A well-stocked wine cellar is of minimal value without the staff who sells it.” Restaurant wine pricing has come in for a lot of criticism on the blog over the years, but no one likes to see this going on.
• Give me back my art: An Argentine winery has allegedly stolen a drawing from a well-known U.S. artist, using the art work to decorate its box wine. ArtNet.com (bet you never thought you’d see that link on a wine site) reports that Shantell Martin says Bodegas San Huberto lifted the label for the company’s Aminga Malbec from drawings she made for a work she created for a 2017 show at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo. There’s a picture of the box and the drawing at the link, and they do look quite similar. The story also says Martin’s work appears to be ripped off regularly, and once by retailer Lane Bryant.
• Local rose: Just when the WC gets all flustered about the future of Drink Local, I read this in the Southern Illinoisan newspaper in downstate Carbondale (where, a long time ago, I was a general assignment reporter). The Illinois Grape Growers and Vintners Alliance launched an aggressive and seemingly expensive marketing campaign this spring to make rose Illinois’ official state wine, and “unite” the industry with a common product. Give the WC’s enthusiasm for Drink Local and pink wine, what could be a better idea?
• Not just in England: Oz Clarke, one of the patriarchs of modern wine writing, says English wine won’t become more successful or more popular until more people can afford to buy it. This is a lesson that emerging wine regions, whether in the U.S. or elsewhere, never seem able to understand. It’s one of the biggest problems with Drink Local, where producers don’t understand that people are more likely to buy $15 wine than $30 wine, no matter how noble the $30 wine is. Clarke told a wine seminar that it was crucial to get “really good bottles of still wine in front of people for the same price as, say, New Zealand.” Wise words, indeed.
“Hopefully, this will keep going for a while,” says Virene. “It’s really helped us with our cash flow during all of this. It has allowed us to pair wine with food and sell it at a reasonable price.”
The “it” Virene is talking about? The decision to allow Texas restaurants to sell alcohol to go during the coronavirus pandemic. a’Bouzy sells out its daily takeout specials – dinner for two, plus a bottle of wine for the cost of the wine in most restaurants. The wine specials, plus selling margarita setups, he says, has allowed him to hang on during the pandemic-caused restaurant closure in Texas.
And he may get his wish about the rule changes lasting longer than the duration. Texas Gov. Greg Abbot, a Republican, tweeted this week that “Alcohol-to-go sales can continue after May 1,” when Texas lifted its statewide stay at home order. Wrote the governor: “From what I hear from Texans, we may just let this keep on going forever.”
As Virene noted when we talked this week, the changes are as welcome as they are unprecedented. Texas does not allow restaurants to sell wine or spirits to go; the very idea is regarded as blasphemous, and even BYOB is heavily restricted. Meanwhile, the state’s open container law is written so that those of us who legally take an unfinished bottle of restaurant wine home could still be arrested.
The reason for the change? Because it boosts business, and easier access to alcohol, so far, does not seem to have made anything worse. Virene makes 100 to-go dinners daily, and he sells out by early afternoon. At his prices, that’s understandable. The most expensive dinner, crab-stuffed flounder for two, costs $69, and that includes a bottle of Champagne. Most are $44 or less, including coq a vin plus California merlot for $44; lasagna and Chianti for $32; and Taco Tuesday with Rioja for $39. The margarita setup, enough for a half-gallon with Jimador Tequila Silver, costs $32.
Virene says he can afford to do that because he doesn’t mark his wine up 3 to 4 times the wholesale price, which is standard restaurant practice. Rather, his markup is less than 2 to 1, because “I would rather sell you two or three bottles and know you had a good time, instead of selling you one bottle and know you went home thinking you had been ripped off.”
This week’s wine news: A comprehensive look at the sommelier cheating scandal, plus the wine tariff sinks French wine imports and wine list foolishness
• Sommelier cheating scandal: The trade website SevcenFiftyDaily takes a long, thorough, and comprehensive look at the 2018 sommelier cheating scandal – some 4,000 words. It’s mostly well done, fair, and reaffirms the suspicions that those of us had about the lack of transparency surrounding what happened: The “events of the past year raise broader questions about an organization—and the title it confers—that’s one of the wine world’s most powerful. And not just for the trade: With the 2012 release of the film Somm, which details the efforts of four Master Sommelier candidates to pass the exam, and its subsequent appearance on streaming services like Netflix, many consumers have come to view the MS title as the standard of wine culture.”
• Plummeting exports: The 25 percent U.S. tariff on some European wine has pounded French wine exports to this country, says a French government official. They dropped 44 percent by value in November 2019 from the previous month, after the import penalty went into effect on October 2019. The story also says that the “tariffs have been especially painful to producers at the lower ends of the market, where a 25 percent price hike can turn an affordable bottle into a once-in-a-while luxury.” We should know something this week or next about the next stage in the trade war after the World Trade Organization rules on a complaint by the European Union about illegal U.S. subsidies to Boeing. It was illegal EU subsidies to Boeing competitor Airbus that started this mess.
• Incomprehensible wine lists: A recent Vinepair podcast takes on a subject guaranteed to make the Wine Curmudgeon crazy: The “many wine lists floating around out there that seem to revel in being inscrutable to all but the most sophisticated and educated wine drinkers.” The podcast talks about the problem, explains why it doesn’t have to be one, and offers more pointers on buying wine in a restaurant.