This week’s wine news: Beard award semifinalists feature drink local, while three-tier wins a court victory and wine clubs lose
• Beard award semifinalists: Seven wineries, including four regional producers, are among the semifinalists for the 2020 James Beard Award for outstanding beer, wine, or spirits producer. The three are some of the top Drink Local winemakers in the country: Texas’ Kim McPherson of McPherson Cellars; Vermont’s Deirdre Heekin of La Garagista Farm + Winery; New York’s Nancy Irelan and Mike Schnelle of Red Tail Ridge Winery; and Virginia’s Rutger de Vink, of RdV Vineyards. The Beard Awards are the restaurant business’ version of the Oscars, so this is a big deal. In addition, given the way the final voting often turns out, earning semifinalist honors is the equivalent of winning for someone not on the East Coast or in a major media market. The finalists will be announced March 25.
• Score another for three-tier: A Mississippi court has ruled that out-of-state retailers can’t sell wine in that state, in a decision that left a couple of legal scholars scratching their heads. The decision itself isn’t surprising, given the way the three-tier system works to prevent an out of state retailer from doing that. What is odd, wrote the Alcohol Law Review, is that “this unanimous decision reverses the trial court’s decision. … This case served as a reminder of first year law school’s Civil Procedure class and examination of when personal jurisdiction kicks in. The opinion does not really address alcohol laws in depth.” But, as the blog’s liquor law expert has said many times, since when does three-tier have anything to do with alcohol law?
• Score one for wine drinkers: The blog has written extensively about problems associated with third-party wine clubs – those not run by wineries. Now, a lawsuit has agreed with us. Two national wine clubs have settled lawsuits alleging they broke California law by not notifying customers that their memberships would be renewed automatically. Direct Wines and Wine Awesomeness did not admit wrongdoing, but agreed to change their policy and pay $350,000 and $15,000, respectively, in penalties and costs. From now on, each will have tell a customer when their membership is being renewed, and can’t hide the policy in fine print or on an Internet link.
This week’s wine news: A chef devises weed and food pairings, plus an unhappy wine club member and another sensible insight into the recent wine and health foolishness
• Just like wine: Chris Sayegh, also known as the Herbal Chef, offered weed and food pairings at this summer’s American Culinary Federation conference in New Orleans. We didn’t have to wait long for that, did we? Bret Thorne reports in Nation’s Restaurant News that Sayegh doesn’t use street dope, but lab tested extracts “and you have to ease them into their marijuana high.” Thorne also notes that chefs who want to do these pairings should consult an attorney, since marijuana is not yet legal in every state.
• We knew this: A Connecticut man says he was ripped off by a wine club, which charged him for wine he didn’t order. The story is the usual sort of thing we’ve written about here, and it’s good to see other news media picking it up. My favorite part? Many of these clubs offer a money-back guarantee, but you have to return the wine. The man learned that it would have cost more than the wine was worth to return it, plus it’s illegal in some states for individuals to ship wine.
• One more sensible insight: Sara Chodosh, writing in Popular Science, offers one more intelligent take on the recent wine and health foolishness. “Suddenly moderate drinking is unhealthy. What happened?” There have been two systematic errors, say some researchers, that have been skewing alcohol studies for years, First, giant surveys like Lancet’s have been comparing non-drinkers to drinkers; this may introduce a statistical error called compounding. It’s too difficult to explain compounding here, but know that it can throw a study off. Second, that moderate drinkers may be more healthy for other reasons, and will also skew a study. Says a prominent researcher: “It’s fine to say ‘I enjoy drinking.’ Why do you need to worry about whether it’s good for you or not? Why not just drink every once in a while and enjoy it?”
This week’s news: Rose morphs into frose, wine club calls it quits, and supermarket wine for Pennsylvania
• Say it ain’t so: Just when we thought the hipsters were done with frose, someone wants to ruin cheap and delicious rose to make a sweet cocktail with it. This is another example of how people who don’t know anything about wine write about it, since the recipe lists something called “sweet rose.” Which, of course, is not rose but white zinfandel, and if you want to make cocktail with that, all you need is club soda and lemon and lime slices. Also infuriating: The concoction requires three other kinds of booze, which cost about $80. And that $80 would be better spent on 8 or 10 bottles of this. Or this. Or even these.
• Saying goodbye: Global Wine, which ran wine clubs for the New York Times and Wall Street Journal and came under scrutiny on the blog, has apparently gone out of business. Wine Industry Insight reports that the company has “decommissioned” itself and that it may have been purchased by a competitor. If so, that may mean a shakeout in third-party wine clubs, which supply the wine and marketing for retailers, magazines and newspapers, and non-profits that offer wine clubs. And that may be part of the consolidation that has had the wine business in a stranglehold over the past couple of years.
• Saying hello: A Giant Eagle in suburban Pittsburgh has become the first supermarket in the state to sell wine as part of Pennsylvania’s liquor reform legislation this year. Meanwhile, 200 groceries have applied for a wine license and 81 have been been approved. This comes as especially good news to the Wine Curmudgeon, whose readers in Pennsylvania will no longer have to leave sad comments on the blog that they can’t buy the wine I review at Pennsylvania’s state stores.
The problem with the Wine Insiders wine club is not that the wine isn’t good, even though most of it isn’t. The problem is that the company behind the club doesn’t see wine quality as worth worrying about. Instead, its business plan is apparently based on the Holy Trinity of the wine business: fake pricing, hyperbole, and winespeak. Is it any wonder this makes wine companies lots of money but makes wine that much more difficult to enjoy, and especially for people who don’t know much about it?
I’m not the only one who figured this out; the Wine Dabbler took his anger a step further in a post entitled “The great Groupon wine rip-off:”
I received six different wines I had never heard of before, two bottles each. The wines we have tried so far are abysmal — and they all taste virtually the same! … I do not think that there are any violations of the law, but there are carefully planned and willfully executed violations of moral and ethical values.
As I wrote when I ordered, I got a red and white blend, plus a chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and sauvignon blanc. The advertised price for the six wines was $14.99 each with a 40 percent discount. But these wines weren’t worth $14.99, or even 40 percent off $14.99. They’re mostly Two-buck Chuck quality, made from the bulk wine that comes from the grapes that grow in California’s Central Valley by a company that makes bulk wine for just such purposes. The white blend, in fact, tasted a lot like those 4-liter boxes of Franzia — sort of sweet and probably made with French colombard and chenin blanc.
I write “probably” because there wasn’t any information about the wines — no information sheets, and most of the wines didn’t even have a cutesy back label with winespeak. No doubt the company didn’t want to tell anyone what was actually going on. I did get a sheet offering to sell me six bottles of fruit-flavored moscato for $9 a bottle (I’d guess it costs much less than half of that to make) and a “stunning” French rose, also six bottles for $9.99. I’ll pass, thanks.
On the one hand, I’m not surprised this was such a depressing experience. I’ve been writing about wine for too long to expect otherwise. On the other hand, that it was so depressing makes it that much worse. Can’t the ordinary wine drinker ever win?
The Wine Curmudgeon’s antipathy toward most non-winery wine clubs is well-known; too many of them sell mysterious wine for too high prices, and the wines are picked by “experts” who are rarely identified. And none of this takes into account the clubs’ shipping charges.
Nevertheless, I am always checking to see what’s new, which is what any good reporter should do. Hence my recent order from a company called Wine Insiders. It claims it approves only five out of every 100 bottles that its experts sample and offers a double satisfaction guarantee (whatever that is).
The come-on? Six bottles of wine, advertised through an insert in one of those mailed to the house coupon things. The club offers 40 percent off the $14.99 price plus 1-cent shipping. Sends like a hell of a deal, even though I don’t know what I’m getting save that the wines are “Delicious reds and refreshing whites.” I know, I know. I’m trying to keep an open mind, too, since the first rule of wine writing is not to make any judgments until you taste the wine. But that $14.99 sounds like grocery store pricing, where the club/member price is $12.99, the sale price is $10.99, and the six-bottle price is $8.99.
Which is why I’ll write more after I taste — which is here, and was about what I expected. If not worse..
Still, this reminds me of the record clubs that were so popular when I was kid. You got tapes (or vinyl, even, if you’re an old white guy) for pennies, the catch being what was called negative option billing, which made you liable even if you didn’t order the music after the first shipment. And the music after the first shipment came with higher than retail prices and expensive shipping costs. As one clever reporter wrote: “Record clubs may have introduced several generations of America’s youth to the concept of collection agencies. …”
Wine Insiders doesn’t do negative option billing (though some wine clubs do, or something similar where you have to buy a certain amount of wine). Still, the concept is eerily familiar, with the very cheap introductory offer and then what seem to be very high prices for the wines you can buy after the first time, like a $25 cava and a $23 rose. The former is from a producer who does a similar $15 cava, while the latter is apparently made by the same Provencal winemaker that does this $9 rose.
But always an open mind, and I would like nothing better to be wrong. Because then I got six great wines for $36, and those are Wine Curmudgeon prices.
For more on wine clubs:
• Wine clubs: Are they worth the effort?
• Wine through the mail: The do’s and don’ts of direct shipping
• “Our panel of experts”
Global Wine Company, the subject of a post in May that discussed third-party wine clubs and the “experts” who pick their wines, has decided that transparency is the better part of valor. Global, which runs wine clubs for The New York Times, the Washington Post, Williams-Sonoma, and several others, has started listing the buyers and their credentials on the wine club websites.
Martin Reyes, one of Global’s buyers, emailed me after the post ran, but not to tell me I should mind my own business. Instead, he thanked me for the post, saying he had been trying to convince the Global bosses that it would be better to name the experts and not leave consumers wondering. “I figured you might enjoy knowing briefly what came out of this. The screenshot below was a watershed moment for us. … You sir, are awesome. Thanks again.”
That screenshot, pictured above, is also part of the Times club website. It’s a new section that tells club members who buys the wines and why they’re qualified to do so. Not difficult to do, good for business, and — more importantly — the right thing to do.
The power of the press, even when it’s a cranky ex-newspaperman who likes cheap wine and does it all by himself. Maybe there’s something to this blogging business after all.