This week’s wine news: U.S. organic wine may have suffered a serious setback when Frey Vineyards burned, plus customers want top-notch service and more bad news for restaurants
• Organic wine: Frey Vineyards, destroyed in last week’s wine country wildfires, was one of the leading organic producers in the country, one of only two or three with national distribution. Its destruction deals another setback to organic wine, which has never been as popular as other organic food products. It accounts for less than five percent of U.S. wine sales; that compares to the 13 percent market share for organic fruits and vegetables. I’ve written a lot about why organic wine does so badly in the marketplace, but the best explanation is so simple I’m embarrassed I didn’t think of it. Says Tyler Rodrigue, an organic viticulture consultant in northern California. “Consumers assume that wine, by its very nature, is pure and natural to begin with. Ask most consumers, and they don’t equate a vineyard with a factory farm the same way they do for other products. Vineyards are beautiful, and don’t look like a picture of a factory farm.”
• It’s all about customer service: The Wine Curmudgeon is the son and grandson of retailers, so this study from a company that tracks on-line reviews called Trustpilot isn’t surprising. We want better service when we shop on-line, even more than cheap prices. Which is what I heard when the subject came up at the dinner table, which was more often than not. Says the report: “ ‘Price’ only shows up around in 4-5% of 1-star reviews and in 10% of 5-star reviews, significantly behind the top five most common words.” Why does this matter to wine retailers? What’s more confusing than buying wine? What other category requires service to find something to buy that is enjoyable? In other words, fake discounts and shelf talkers blaring 92 points aren’t enough. We want a person to answer our questions knowledgeably and intelligently.
• Restaurant sales continue to slump: How bad has the restaurant sales slump become? So bad that the people who parse the numbers are desperatley looking for silver linings. Throw out the hurricane states from this summer’s sales figures, and the decline in sales from month to month are less than two percent. Not much of a silver lining, is it? Or, as the chart with the story shows, same store sales have declined for 11 of the past 12 months. We’ve written about this on the blog many times, since poor restaurant sales numbers usually mean higher restaurant wine prices, as operators increase wine prices to make up for losing money elsewhere. No doubt this will continue to happen.
So my friends in the restaurant business need to do some soul searching. Why does a 42-year-old video where John Cleese opens a wine bottle by holding it between his knees, and where he doesn’t get all of the cork out on the first try, and where he refuses to acknowledge that the wine – an expensive red Burgundy – is flawed, still matter?
Yes, some of it is because John Cleese is funny. Yes, some it is because this a well-designed website that deftly uses Google’s search algorithm to attract traffic.
But the real reason? Because this stuff still happens – four decades after Cleese made fun of it. And how frustrating is that? Consider that:
• The Big Guy reported last week from Bar Harbor, Maine – hardly a shot and beer kind of town – that the waiter left half of the cork in a bottle of pricey white Burgundy. He had to finish taking the cork out of a bottle of wine, which is inexcusable.
• A regular blog visitor from Texas emailed to say that not only did a waiter try to open the bottle between her knees, but couldn’t do it even then. She had to run to the bar to get it opened. Which is also inexcusable.
• A blog visitor from Califormia emailed that Cleese left out one other restaurant wine service aggravation: “Six people sit down in a restaurant, are given menus and one drinks or wine list. First words out of the server’s mouth, “Would anyone like something to drink?’ ”
We pay three and four times retail in restaurants for what are often crappy wines. What does it say about how little they care about our money that they can’t even give us decent service to go with the overpriced wine?
This 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.
British restaurant wine prices are ridiculously high, just like those in the U.S.
British journalist Matthew Bell is even more angry about restaurant wine prices than the Wine Curmudgeon is.
As he writes in London’s Daily Mail newspaper: “But if you think you’re paying a reasonable price for a decent bottle, think again. … restaurants are relying on the fact most of us don’t know much about wine to squeeze the biggest profits out of frugal diners.”
As Bell writes: “Take The Connaught hotel restaurant in London, which has two Michelin stars, and where a meal for two can set you back £300 (about US$381). A small glass of house white (125ml) costs £10 (about US$13). But go on-line and you could buy a whole bottle of the very same wine for just £9.70. That represents a mark-up of a staggering 500 per cent.”
There’s a terrific chart with the story showing the markups at four London restaurants – 300 percent for a couple of simple Italian white wines, 312 percent for a French red posing as a house wine, and 233 percent for another French red.
In other words, British restaurants are doing the same thing to their customers that U.S. restaurants are doing to us, and a London food critic calls it a big problem. Would that food critics in this country noticed the same thing.
And the results? Writes Bell: Those of us who don’t know much about wine are left “with an unenviable choice — either we pick the cheapest, and get ripped off; or go upmarket and spend more money, when all we ever wanted was a simple glass of wine.”
This week’s wine news: Internationalization wine guru Michel Rolland, plus bubbly for the Cubs more bad restaurant news
• The evil genius?: Michel Rolland is the French winemaking consultant who has popularized the International style; that is, he can make wine anywhere in the world so that it will taste like a 94-point Robert Parker wine. This is an incredible skill, even if it makes those of us who want terroir flee in terror. Rolland, in an interview with the Live-Ex wine stock market, is honest about his work — scary, but honest: “Quality is not the same for everyone: there are opinions that you share; others that you don’t share. My personal objectivity is a relative one in some ways. I do not take a wine and say whether it’s good or not: I try to make a wine that will achieve a goal. The goal is the market, the customer – in one or more countries.”
` • A sparkling World Series: This is one part of the Cubs’ World Series victory that I will skip: a Chicago Cubs bubbly. It’s a $25 California sparkling wine that has been sitting in the bottle, apparently waiting to be labeled depending on what happened in November. Plus, the specs don’t sound good — it’s one or two points higher in alcohol than most bubbly, and the dosage — the sugar and wine mixture added to the wine before the second fermentation — seems high for a dry wine. I’ll stick with cava, thank you.
• More bad news: Restaurant sales hit a three-year low in October, and the number of people eating in casual dining restaurants declined for the 19th time in 2o months. This is more bad news for restaurant wine, since it’s being used as to compensate for declining sales. If you have fewer people in your restaurant, you need bigger checks, and those bigger checks are coming from higher wine prices. But consumers, says one analyst, aren’t fooled: “The wide price gap between grocers and restaurants remains a major factor in this year’s depressed same-store sales at restaurant chains.” We’re staying home, watching Netflix, and buying something at the grocery store, and that may include wine with our takeout chicken.
This week’s wine news: Big Wine and the new Stags Leap lawsuit, plus buying cheap restaurant wine and wine’s history
• One more time: One of the great wine lawsuits was Napa’s Stag’s Leap vs. Napa’s Stags’ Leap, which was settled 30 years when a court ordered the apostrophes you see in this sentence. Now, the two sides, each owned by Big Wine, are suing each other over the stag in their names — the return of the Stags Leap lawsuit. Stag’s Leap, owned by Chateau Ste. Michelle, is suing Stag’s Leap, owned by Australia’s Treasury, claiming that a new Treasury wine called The Stag infringes on its name. Treasury says The Stag has nothing to do with Stag’s Leap or Stags’ Leap, and is actually taken from an Australian winery. Where is Monty Python when we need them?
• The cheapest: We’re not the only ones fed up with high restaurant wine prices. British food critic Jay Rayner, reports The Telegraph newspaper, says we “should only buy house wine in restaurants in protest at complex and overpriced wine lists,” and that “expensive wines should only ever be bought in shops and enjoyed at home.” Which sounds like a fine plan, and something I have mostly done for years. Rayner, speaking at a literary festival, said he was eating at one of London’s most chi-chi restaurants: “I asked the waiter if he could find me a bottle of pinot noir for under £50 (US$61). He looked at me as if I was some kind of scum on his heel and he couldn’t so I then called him back and said, ‘there’s one for £49, you didn’t even know your own wine list.’ ”
• The oldest? Archaeologists have found a 6,100-year-old winery in a cave in the Armenian mountains, making it perhaps the oldest winery in the world. The researchers found a drinking bowl, a grape press, a cup, and fermentation jars in the republic, which borders Turkey and Iran near the Black Sea. The India Times reported that UCLA’s Gregory Areshian, the co-director of the excavation, said the wine made there may be similar to a modern unfiltered red wine and may have had a similar taste to a merlot. Yes, but Areshian didn’t answer the most important question: How many points did the wine get?
This week’s wine news: Screwcaps replaced by glass? Plus thoughts on wine writing and wine prices
• Watch the heat: Here’s a reason not to use screwcaps – you can’t tell if the wine has been damaged by heat. This matters with expensive wine, says Penfolds’ Peter Gago, who makes very nice expensive wine. Who wants to buy a bottle of top-end red only to find out it’s off because it has been stored or shipped in conditions that are too warm? thedrinksbusiness website reports that a weeping cork – where some wine has leaked out – may mean the wine has been exposed to intense heat. Also, if the bottle gets too hot, the capsule – the cork covering – is pushed up. Neither happens with a screwcap, because it’s a better seal. In this, says Gago, glass will eventually become a better closure for expensive wine than either cork or screwcap. That’s a unique look at closures, and one that doesn’t apply to almost all the wine we drink since it costs less than $20 and isn’t around long enough to suffer heat damage.
• Still awful: Erika Syzmanski is one of my favorite wine writers, mostly because she doesn’t write about wine. This is not damning with faint praise, but that Syzmanski understands there is more to wine writing than toasty and oaky. This piece is an excellent example, discussing not just why wine writing isn’t as good as it should be, but offering her ideas about what needs to be done: “This, fundamentally, is what makes me cringe when someone asks me about whether wine writing is becoming better, or whether we’re helping to make wine more accessible. Adding ramps to buildings is great, especially when we don’t destroy the architectural beauty of a good set of stairs doing so. Appreciate the stairs, keep the highfalutin’ publications, but simultaneously add a ramp for people who need or want to read something written more like Buzzfeed than like The Atlantic.” Which, of course, is what I have been arguing for years, though without her patience.
• Grocery store wine: One reason supermarkets are so eager to carry wine is that they make more money on wine and have more control over the price. And that is becoming true for restaurants as well, which helps explain why their prices are so out of line. The grocery business is in the midst of what the experts are calling food deflation, where wholesale prices are decreasing, which means they can’t charge as much, and which means their profits are lower. This is starting to happen with restaurants, too. So how will restaurants prop up the bottom line? Continue to overcharge us for wine, to make up for what they can’t charge us for food.