This week’s wine news: Massachusetts is one step closer to allowing food stores to sell beer and wine, plus Microsoft axes people for AI writing and Amazon will open a traditional supermarket
• Massachusetts three-tier: Supporters of a ballot question that would let Massachusetts convenience and food stores sell beer are step closer to voting on the issue. The state’s highest court rule that an election to allow the sales was constitutional. However, supporters must still gather enough petition signatures to ensure an election. The Massachusetts three-tier system is complicated, even for for the U.S., with state and local governments each issuing liquor licences based on a variety of criteria. The ballot measure would let local authorities issue licenses allowing food stores to sell beer and wine over and above the current system.
• Thank you, Microsoft: The Wine Curmudgeon’s disdain for Microsoft is well known, but its recent decision to fire people in favor of machines is a bit much even for the tech giant. It will replace 50 journalists with artificial intelligence machines to edit news stories for the company’s MSN website. As noted on the blog, AI is coming – but it’s not here yet with something as simple as tasting notes. And asking AI to select stories and photos for the website – deciding story importance, how the pictures look, story and photo placement on the page, and so forth – is much harder than writing toasty and oaky (which I know from having done both for my entire professional career). But what do you expect from the company that gave us Windows 8?
• Amazon not go? Amazon will open a traditional supermarket – and not an Amazon Go store – in suburban Chicago. This is huge news, and not just for Kroger and Safeway. If Amazon is serious about the grocery business, it will have to sell wine. So will it follow the others and throw up a Great Wall of Wine with fake priceing plonk or actually do something creative to benefit wine drinkers? The new store isn’t far from my mom; after Illinois lift its lockdown, I’ll ask her to investigate for the blog.
This week’s wine news: Barefoot wine sells some 18 million cases a year, which is no doubt why Google likes it so much. Plus, a look at on-line wine sales and more news about artificial wine
• Big, big Barefoot: How much wine does Barefoot sell each year? How about 18 million cases? That would make it the fifth biggest producer in the country if it wasn’t owned by E&J Gallo, which is the biggest. In this, the various Barefoot brands could account for as much as 2 ½ percent of all the wine sold in the U.S. each year. Is it any wonder, then, that Google sends so many people who are searching for Barefoot to the blog? Or that three Barefoot items were in the top four of the most read blog posts in 2019? That Barefoot is thriving while the rest of the wine business is heading downhill speaks volumes – if anyone in wine is willing to listen.
• If Amazon can’t. … : One of the great puzzles in the wine business is Internet sales. Supermarkets in particular would love to do it, but three-tier makes it much more difficult than selling razors and mattresses, two categories that have been able to embrace e-commerce. Notes consultant Zac Brandenberg: “But neither market presents anywhere near the opportunity that beverage alcohol does. Wine alone is a $70 billion market with less than one percent commerce penetration — signaling an enormous untapped opportunity for retailers and wineries.” But how do supermarkets do that, when Amazon failed three times? Brandenberg suggests using the Internet for local delivery, just like the local Kroger, Wegman’s, and Albertson’s do for food. The cost could be enormous, but he says he expects retailers to do what needs to be done because the profits would be so immense.
• Hold the grapes: The company has a new name, but it says it’s ready to give the world wine made without grapes. Hence, an Italian-style sparkling wine made with a combination of ethanol (the alcohol bit), assorted flavors, and caramel color and beta carotene for color. Interestingly, the latter can oxidize, which would mean fake wine can go off just like real wine. We covered the story on the blog almost three years ago when the company was called Ava, but the questions remain. Why does the world need this?
This week’s wine news: Supermarket wine prices vary significantly from state to state, plus a study says liquor stores and high crime are related and the FTC is going after social media influencers
• Supermarket wine prices: A home product review and renovation site says U.S. supermarket wine prices vary significantly by state, with Mississippi and Georgia selling the most expensive bottles. I mention this not because it’s news to anyone who spends any time on the blog, but because it’s always fascinating to see how non-booze sites deal with wine. To its credit, House Method, which did the survey, doesn’t draw any conclusions about why there is such disparity. (Or explain how it bought wine in supermarkets in states without supermarket wine sales.) The results, at the link, are interesting, if nothing else. Who knew red wine was less expensive in Hawaii than in California?
• Less booze, less crime? That’s the approach one study is urging on Baltimore officials as city leaders rewrite its zoning laws, with an eye toward reducing the number of liquor stores and bars in the city. North Carolina researchers used a computer model that took into account homicide rates in Baltimore, as well as previous research that showed one-half of violent crime can be attributed to alcohol access. The result? The study found that cutting the number of alcohol outlets might reduce homicides by as many as 50 a year, as well as generate savings of as much as $60 million annually.
• Watch out, influencers: The Federal Trade Commission, which regulates advertising, will apparently clamp down on all those Instagram and social media influencers. The agency wants to know if consumers understand how influencers work; that is, that they are paid to endorse products and that they must disclose paid endorsements. This will matter in wine, given the increasing role influencers play in pushing products like rose.
This week’s wine news: Sommeliers pick supermarket wine, plus another shout out for wine ingredient labels and Kroger expands its on-line wine business
• Interesting choices: Vinepair asked sommeliers to pick quality supermarket wine, and what struck me as how un-supermarket so many of the wines were. How many of us go to the grocers to spend $60 for a bottle of Jordan cabernent sauvignon? And you can tell many of the sommeleirs had not bought wine at a grocery store lately, given the number of hard to find European wines they selected. Still, it was good to see Dallas’ Barbara Werley select Chateau Ste. Michelle and Houston’s Jay Pyle pick the Matua sauvignon blanc, a top $10 wine.
• Thank you: Mike Veseth, The Wine Economist, says “I believe that wine, beer, and spirits will eventually be required to list their ingredients and nutritional data. I wonder what would happen if wine were to take a voluntary step and be more transparent now as a way to shape the narrative?” Which is good news for those of us who have fought long and hard for ingredient and nutritional labels and to convince to join the 21st century. Veseth’s reasoning is well taken: “We might think wine is special — and it is in many ways — but we shouldn’t assume that it is immune to the forces that are making transparency, accountability, and technology more important every day.”
• Good luck: Kroger has expanded its on-line wine store to 19 states and Washington, D.C, offering – get this – some four dozen wines “selected by winemakers and sommeliers for their quality, value and flavor profiles.” I wonder: Is it a coincidence that one of the wines is the Matua sauvignon blanc? You can check out the store at this link – just click on one of the states listed in the menu. Selection is limited, and most of the wines aren’t well known. But it is intriguing that Kroger is trying something that mighty Amazon gave up on long ago.
This edition of Ask the WC: Understanding supermarket wine, plus plastic wine bottles and returning corked wine to the store
Because the customers always have questions, and the Wine Curmudgeon has answers in this irregular feature. You can Ask the Wine Curmudgeon a wine-related question by clicking here.
Guru of cheap wine:
Your review the other day about the Evanta malbec from Aldi said it was a supermarket wine. I don’t understand. What is that?
Likes cheap wine
There are two kinds of supermarket wine — more generally, mass market wine of varying quality made by the biggest producers and sold mostly in supermarkets. More specifically, and what I was talking about with the Evanda, is wine made exclusively for supermarkets, the private label wine made famous in Europe for quality and value and that we don’t see much of in the states. These private label are only sold in one retailer, like Two-buck Chuck in Trader Joe’s.
Hi, Wine Curmudgeon:
What are your thoughts about plastic wine bottles?
Plastic wine bottles are another of my quixotic quests (like the Linux desktop). They are a terrific, non-traditional way to bottle wine that the wine business has shown almost no interest in. Plastic bottles — which are the same size as glass — were supposed to be the next big thing in the 1990s and again last decade, but nothing ever happened. Their advantages are obvious: Much lighter than glass, so cheaper transportation costs, more durable, and easier to recycle. But they never became popular. But then again, we’re still using corks, so why should I be surprised?
Can you return a bottle of wine to the store if it’s corked or off in some way?
Of course. Just make sure you have the receipt and return it in a timely manner. Having said that, some stores have goofy return policies where they’ll charge you a restocking fee or only issue store credit. And some stores, even though they say they’ll accept returns, get cranky about it. Then you know not to shop there again. As noted many times here before, the best independent retailers want your business over the long haul, so will be happy to take a flawed bottle back.
More Ask the Wine Curmudgeon:
• Ask the WC 18: Sweet red wine, varietal character, wine fraud
• Ask the WC 17: Restaurant-only wines, local wine, rose prices
• Ask the WC 16: Grocery store wine, Millennials, canned wine
Cleaning out the notebook after tasting European grocery store wine
A few more thoughts after judging the Private Label Manufacturer’s International Salute to Excellence wine competition at the beginning of April, where my panel tasted 112 wines made for and sold by grocery stores around the world. (Full disclosure: I’m consulting for the PLMA in its quest to convince U.S. retailers to step up their private label wine effort. Because, of course, Winking Owl.)
• One odd contradiction: The best cheap European wines in the states, including cava and cabernet sauvignon, weren’t that great in the competition. I was especially surprised at the poor quality of the cava, which usually costs $10 here and is almost always a value. But the other judges told me that there wasn’t a lot of well-made €5 and €6 sparkling in Europe.
• We tasted a lot of wine made from grapes we never see in the U.S. This makes sense – why try to sell something like a white wine from Lugana in Italy in a country devoted to chardonnay? But it’s also a shame. Lugana is made with the verdicchio grape, which may or may not be an Italian version of my beloved ugni blanc (there’s some DNA confusion). The best one we tasted was stunning – crisp, fresh, and sort of lemon-limey, and for about €5.
• There’s sweet, and then there’s sweet. The panel spent a fair amount of time talking about residual sugar, and how much of it makes a wine sweet. In the U.S. we consider a wine dry if it contains as much as .08 percent residual, and something like Apothic, at 1.2 percent or so, is considered sweet. In Europe, the others said, the Apothic is seen as very sweet, while dry ends around .05 percent..
• Europeans don’t get to taste much U.S. wine. This surprised me, since we drink so much European wine. But, as I was reminded, most U.S. wine is sold in the U.S., and save for some Big Wine brands like Barefoot, there is very little wine made in this country that makes it to Europe.
Finally, the competition was held at the Amsterdam Hilton, where John Lennon and Yoko Ono held their legendary 1969 bed-in for peace. Their suite is still there, and you can stay in it for €300 a night. The bed-in business impressed me no end, given I still own considerable Beatles vinyl. But not, however, the 30-something Czech judge sitting next to me. Yes, he said, he knew who John Lennon was, but can we get back to tasting wine?
Photo by Dave McIntyre