This year, the Wine Curmudgeon has been overwhelmed with some of the most bizarre wine press releases ever. That I have not written the greatest rant in the blog’s history is because cooler heads prevailed. As several people said, “Jeff, no one cares about this but you.”
Perhaps. But several recent releases are worth noting regardless:
? State stores forever! New Hampshire is one of 17 control states, where the government sells beer, wine, and spirits or some combination thereof, and there aren’t privately-owned retailers. This has always seemed odd given the state’s almost libertarian politics — “Live Free or Die,” after all — and that contradiction does not bother the state’s liquor board. It dispatched a release touting the Washington Post’s endorsement of New Hampshire as “the best state in the country for wine drinkers.” That it was one man’s opinion, and not the newspaper’s, and that the piece had several errors (wine prices are not skyrocketing) didn’t seem to bother the board either. Or that you can buy wine in a grocery store from 6 a.m.-2 a.m. seven days a week in California. Or that Segura Viudas cava costs one-third less in Texas than it does in New Hampshire. My question: How much money did the board spend on the release, when it could have spent the money on cutting wine prices? (Hat tip to Tim McNally for sending this my way, who lives in New Orleans and knows a few things about the best states to drink in.)
? Roll out the barrels: The battle over oakiness in wine seems over, and those of us who prefer restraint seem to have won. Nevertheless, multi-national Diageo sees a market for very oaky wines, and has launched a brand called Woodwork — “delivering prominent oak influence.” Overlook the writing (the wine “celebrate[s] those who work hard to endlessly pursue their passions”) and this release is a revelation. Diageo admits the wine is made with wooden staves instead of an oak barrel, a common practice in cheap wine but rarely acknowledged. In this, the point of the wine is not winemaking, but adding wood flavor. That honesty is as refreshing as it is unbelievable. (Hat tip to W. Blake Gray for sending this my way; he expects the wine to be a big seller.)
? It’s EPICA! Does someone really get paid for writing this stuff? “EPICA Wines, the adventurous brand that inspires epic lifestyles, has announced the launch of the 2013 Malbec from Mendoza, Argentina. Aimed at millennials, EPICA Malbec was created to capitalize on the growing interest for the Argentinian grape.” Who knew malbec was an adventurous grape? Or that there was growing interest in it? I always thought it was one of the most popular grapes in the world, the fifth biggest import to the U.S. and one that has been around for decades. But then, my lifestyle is hardly epic.
? More screwed up than ever: Pennsylvania has been trying to reform its horribly messed up state store system — where the state owns the liquor stores — since as long as I have been writing the blog. Nothing has been done, despite widespread political and consumer support, and the latest proposal shows just how corrupt the system is. Supermarkets would be able to sell wine under the proposed law, but only four bottles per customer per visit. Nevertheless, a spirits trade group immediately denounced the plan, claiming that those four bottles would give the wine business an unfair advantage, since spirit sales would still be limited to state stores. It’s almost impossible to understand what’s going on here, other than to note that this is just another example of the many failings of the three-tier system.
? Britain’s wine pricing: Jamie Goode at the Wine Anorak has an excellent account of the wine pricing controversy in Britain, where most retailers substantially discount wine. And then don’t. And then discount it again. This must seem odd to those of us in the U.S., where discounting is accepted as a normal part of doing business, and where savvy consumers are eager to buy wine when it’s on sale. But British consumer advocates see this as nefarious — “[T]hese fake promotions are bad for wine, and a bad deal for customers, and I won ?t stop talking about them until supermarkets do the right thing and stop them,” writes Goode — and have spent the past couple of years fighting the biggest retailers over the practice.
? You’ve come a long way, baby: Jordan Salcito at The Daily Beast has discovered that women have broken through the glass ceiling and are now important winemakers. I’ll try not to be too cranky about this, but Salcito is about a decade late with this revelation. I wrote the same story for the American Airlines in-flight magazine in 2006, quoting many of the same women she quotes in her story. She also focuses on celebrity women winemakers, and misses the more important change, that Big Wine did most of the glass ceiling work, hiring women where they had never been hired before. Barefoot’s Jennifer Wall is responsible for 13 million cases of wine a year, which may make her the most important woman winemaker in the business. And her boss is Gina Gallo, whose company makes 80 million cases a year. Also, if Salcito doesn’t mind some writing advice, never, ever use a phrase like “pushing the envelope.” I expect more from the Beast.
? Get our your debit card: The Italian Wine Guy discovers that all it takes is $1,000 to subscribe to a dozen of the best on-line writing websites, including Jancis Robinson and Robert Parker. This is a pittance, all things considered, and speaks to the sad state of the business of wine writing. A subscription to the very ordinary Dallas newspaper costs one-third of that; regardless of anything else, the paper ?s management understands the business side of publishing in a way that hardly anyone in wine writing does. I get asked all the time why I don ?t charge or have premium content, and the answer is simple (regardless of my philosophy that it should be free) : No one would pay for it. There is no economic reason for them to do so.
? Wine regions are so 20th century: The Wine Curmudgeon has long argued that the post-modern consumer doesn ?t care much about appellation ? where the grapes come from that are in the wine. This has caused much consternation among some people, who have called me various names. Nevertheless, this is becoming increasingly relevant, as Mike Veseth points out on the Wine Economists blog. His argument, given modern supply chains and multi-nationals, is that wine will one day be made like fruit juice, with grapes from different regions blended in the same way Minute Maid blends apple juice from as many as six countries. Veseth calls this juice box wine, and has found an example: A Barefoot red blend from E&J Gallo called Impression, made with grapes from Spain, Australia, Argentina, and California.
? Take that, P. Diddy: The battle over ending Pennsylvania ?s state-owned liquor stores has never been without controversy, despite the hopes of my pal Dave Falchek. Still, who knew that rapper turned business mogul Sean Combs would get involved? The Commonwealth Foundation, which has long supported dismantling the state stores, used Combs ? luxury vodka to once again call for an end to the state system. Combs probably had no idea the three-tier system, of which state stores are a key part, could be so cutthroat. After all, he was only in the music business.
? What makes a winery successful? It's not the quality of the wine, says a survey of winery owners. Instead, it's five factors that have more to do with controlling costs than anything else, according to a study done by two professors at Sonoma State University ?s Wine Business Institute. Winery owners are more concerned with things like selling wine directly to consumers and developing a strong business strategy. The first is especially interesting, since direct shipment is such a small part of the wine business — as little as one percent. And the lack of concern about quality? And the industry wonders why it's in such trouble.
? State stores mean higher prices: A Michigan think tank has found that liquor prices are higher in Michigan and in the 17 other states where government acts as a statewide liquor wholesaler — the so-called control states. The Mackinac Center report estimates that residents of those 18 states pay 6.3 percent more for booze than the rest of us. The language in the news release gets a little hysterical, and I'm not sure the methodology is as good as it could be, but the point is well taken. When there is no competition, prices are higher — and you get wine kiosks.
? Does cheap wine cause recessions? Australian newspaper columnist John Birmingham asks "whether the problem with the economy isn ?t structural or political but simply attitudinal. We ?ve talked ourselves into a funk. We ?re buying cheap wine, holding our dollars tight, because we ?ve convinced ourselves that ?s what we need to do." A couple of caveats: Birmingham is talking about the Aussie economy, which doesn't compare exactly to our faux-recession in the U.S., and lot of this is written with tongue firmly in cheek (and in Australian, which makes it difficult to decipher in several places). But his approach made me smile. Who knew that those of us who like quality and value had such a significant impact on the economy?