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.
We’ve lamented the state of restaurant wine on the blog quite a bit this year, and it’s always one of the most common questions I get when I talk to wine drinkers. But lamentable is nothing new. Even James Bond, the coolest spy in the world, must endure it.
Witness this scene from “Diamonds are Forever.” You’d think a Bond villain posing as a waiter would know that a claret is a red wine from Bordeaux. How else is he is going to be able to kill Bond without being killed himself?
The Wine Curmudgeon interrupts the regularly scheduled rant about crappy restaurant wine – I found a wine bar that does it the right way.
It’s the Wine Thief, located in the Omni hotel in Fort Worth, two things that make its excellence even more amazing. First, Fort Worth is not a wine town, and second, hotels are notorious for their indifference to wine. Nevertheless, the Wine Thief does one of the best jobs I’ve seen in 20-some years of paying for wine in restaurants. I bought a bottle of an excellent Faiveley white Burgundy, about $20 retail, for $45 – a price and quality combination that I find in a restaurant about as often as I run scores on the blog.
What makes the Wine Thief work?
• No hotel mentality, which means there aren’t any crappy, very overpriced wines. Hotel wine markups are probably the worst in the world (five to one, anyone?), and the wines are often as bad as the markups.
• Texas wine. And not just one, but from five producers. Because, said general manager Phil Natale, “We get visitors from all over the world, and they want to have local wine. So we need to have some for them.”
• Fair pricing, and not just for the white Burgundy. Most of the markups seemed to be no more than three to one, and some seemed to be less. “We want the pricing to be attractive enough so that customers will want to buy a bottle,” said Natale, about as subversive a thing as I’ve ever heard a restaurant person say.
• An interesting wine list, almost devoid of the distributor-driven stuff that dominates in restaurants. I saw a half dozen quality labels that I have not seen on lists in years, Sicilian and Loire sparkling among them. Natale told me he did this to be different, which was the Wine Thief’s reason for being.
Restaurant wine prices are too high, which prevents restaurants from selling more wine and restaurant customers from drinking more wine. Everyone understands this but restaurants (see the cheap wine book and various academic studies); nevertheless, the people who run them seem content to charge higher prices, sell less wine, and make even less money.
The Wine Curmudgeon was reminded of this again on Saturday night during dinner at Urbano’s, probably Dallas’ best-known BYOB restaurant and where the food is more or less moderately priced. During the 2 ½ hours we were there, everyone was drinking wine, most of the tables had more than one bottle (including sparkling and rose, not a common sight), and hardly any of the wine I saw was grocery store plonk. The table next to us, in fact, came prepared with a very expensive wine carryall that contained several pricey bottles.
What was the reason for all that wine? Urbano’s charges $5 per bottle for corkage, so no one had to pay $50 for a bottle from a mediocre wine list. Instead, a table of of four will spend $10 at Urbano’s for two bottles of wine, cutting the bill by at least one-third.
The caveats? Urbano is small, with fewer than a couple of dozen tables, and its reputation as BYOB means it attracts wine drinkers. But given the traditional Dallas antipathy to wine – the bottle at my table when I go out usually gets more than a few stares from the sweet tea drinkers – every table at Urbano’s that had wine speaks volumes about the difference price makes. Because, as our waitress told me, 80 percent of their customers bring their own wine.
So, once again, a plea for fair restaurant wine pricing. I don’t expect wine so cheap that it competes with retail pricing. But would it be so awful if restaurants only doubled the price of the bottle that cost them $10 instead of tripling it?
• Not so fast, Big Wine: A group of Australian family producers, angered by Big Wine companies who market their “family” roots, have issued a furious denunciation of the practice. “I’m really sick of the latest trend for corporate misuse of the term ‘family’ when promoting wine brands that were sold by the family founders eons ago and conning wine loving consumers and trade alike,” Robert Hill-Smith, the fifth-generation vigneron at Australia’s oldest family-owned winery, Yalumba, told the The Weekend Australian newspaper. Hill-Smith said Big Wine subsidiaries portraying themselves as family companies undermined the validity of family-owned businesses actually owned by families. This is a fascinating story; wineries never air this sort of thing in public, though they say it in private all the time. It also speaks to Big Wine’s need not to be seen as big, something that never seems to bother General Foods or Procter & Gamble. Why that is I’ll leave to the experts.
• Score one for the Italians: The Wine Curmudgeon regularly bemoans the lack of wine education in the U.S., which is why this Italian proposal is so impressive: Children 6 to 13 would spend one hour a week learning about Italy’s wine industry as part of the national education curriculum. “We’re not trying to teach kids to drink – although even if we were it wouldn’t be so bad,” said the sponsor of the legislation. “It’s been shown that knowledge creates responsible drinkers. But this is just an extra subject that will enrich the education of our students. We make children study music in school without expecting them to become musicians.” Hopefully, the various neo-Prohibitionists who are trying to roll back U.S. drinking laws will note this and pause for a moment.
• Won’t they ever learn? A website called Elite Daily, with 2.8 million Facebook likes, ran a piece about how to buy wine in a restaurant and impress your date in the process. The story, supposedly written with advice from a top wine retailer, repeats almost every misconception about restaurant wine I have lamented since the blog started. Gruner veltliner! Plus, it recommends buying white wine from France’s Loire, which is a wonderful idea save for the fact that many wine lists, and especially those at mid-priced restaurants, have little, if any, white Loire. Or we should buy cabernet franc from Spain, which hardly exists. Or we should buy a wine called Rhone Rangers, which is not a wine, but a group of producers in California who make wines with Rhone grapes. Maybe we can enroll the people at Elite Daily in the Italian school wine educations classes.
• Quality cheap wine: The U.S. has become the world’s biggest export market for vinho verde, the green, slightly fizzy wine from Portugal. This isn’t that surprising, given the U.S. desire for quality cheap wine and the Portuguese effort to to upgrade vinho verde quality over the past decade. The wines are much better made than they were when I started tasting them all those years ago, and prices are still mostly the same. One odd bit in the release, though: “As producers throughout the region revamped and upgraded their wineries, many went a step further adding boutique hotels, day spas and tasting rooms to accommodate the growing number of visitors.” Who knew day spas were such a factor in wine consumption?
• Expensive California wine: Our wine drinking colleagues in Great Britain have a difficult time finding affordable California wine, reports Harry Fawkes in Decanter. We know about that, don’t we? Fawkes writes about am especially hip London wine bar, where “all the wines that looked interesting from the USA were over fifty pounds, which even for an enthusiast, is a high price to experiment.” Or, about US$70, which is more than even we’re asked to pay here. Fawkes says the high prices were caused by taxes and distribution costs, but mostly because California producers don’t have any incentive to sell wine overseas since they sell most of what they make here. Which, oddly, are the same reasons that are cited here.
• I, Winemaking robot: An Italian researcher has invented a robot that makes wine, writes Thomas Pellechia in Forbes. No, it doesn’t look like one of Will Smith’s pals (or Isaac Asimov’s, for that matter). Instead, it’s more like an intelligent wine tank, named Genesis and that holds one-quarter ton of grapes. Genesis crushes, ferments, and adjusts the grapes inside itself, using software designed by the researcher, Donato Lanati. This raises a variety of questions: Does Genesis have a subscription to the Wine Spectator so it knows what’s current with the critics? Was it designed to know to add Mega Purple? And what does it think about terroir? Which gives the Wine Curmudgeon something to ponder as I sip my next Italian wine: Do Data and Picard discuss terroir?