What if a scientific study found that increases in wine alcohol levels were not related to global warming, but were a choice made by winemakers? How would that change the debate about high alcohol?
We're reasonably close to finding out. Julian M. Alston, the director of the Robert Mondavi Institute Center for Wine Economics at the University of California-Davis, is in the middle of research — perhaps seminal research — that could answer that question. Alston agreed to talk to me about his work with two caveats: First, that I emphasize that this is an on-going project, and that he hasn't reached any conclusions yet, and second, that he couldn't be too specific about the project because he has promised an exclusive interview to the Wine Spectator when he is finished.
Still, we had plenty to talk about. More, after the jump:
? Wine blogger awards: The finalists for the 2011 awards, which honor the best U.S. wine blogging, have been announced. The great Randall Grahm has been nominated in two categories — best writing and winery blog, while a couple of pals of regional wine have also been nominated — Lenn Thompson at New York Cork Report and Virginia's Swirl, Sip, Snark. Given the Napa-centric, industry-dominated focus of most of the finalists, the last two are huge surprises. Either is a deserving winner. And Grahm? They should just give him the best writing honor and then retire the award.
? Hogue goes screwcap: Yet another major winery has given up on corks. Hogue Cellars in Washington state, owned by multi-national Constellation Brands, will move all of its wines, including high-end reds, to screwcaps. Said Hogue's director of winemaking: "[T]his study shows that wines aged under the right screwcap closure over five years were better preserved, aged well and were deemed the highest quality." This is huge news, given that the biggest wine producers are often the most reluctant to give up on corks. No word yet on whether the cork producers have made a snarky video that says that guys who buy Hogue wines have bad breath, pimples and no luck with girls.
? The African wine business: Mike Veseth at the Wine Economist blog reports from the annual meeting of the American Association of Wine Economists. One topic? The future of the African wine business: "South Africa ?s markets of the future are Africa and India (not Britain and the U.S.) as wine consumption rises in these regions andfavorable wine market reforms are implemented (a particular problem in India, I believe, but probably in many parts of Africa, too). Wine markets shifting to Shanghai? That ?s interesting. To Nairobi? That ?s very interesting!" I wonder how the Wine Magazines would deal with that?
Haven’t regretted the decision one bit. Because that means we don’t have to read stuff like this: “New research by scientists at the University of Cincinnati has shown that too much alcohol can harm brain cells” and that binge drinking might be toxic. Leave your own punchline in the comments if you want, I’m wondering that if this was was new research, did the old research advocate binge drinking?
? French government weighs in: The controversy over skyrocketing prices for red Bordeaux increased this week when the French foreign minister said prices for the wines "are actually great value." The Bordeaux pricing mess has turned into great theater, especially since that's how most of us — who can't afford the thousands of dollars a bottle that the best wines command — get to enjoy Bordeaux these days. Can you imagine Hillary Clinton, the U.S. secretary of state, weighing in on Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon prices? But, to paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald, the French are different from you and me.
? HR 1161 update: Ignore the headline on the story that this links to, because it's not especially accurate. Instead, know that HR 1161, the direct shipping bill that everyone in the wine business loves to hate, is as dead as always. The bill has no sponsor in the U.S. Senate, which means that the Senate can't consider the bill. Which means it won't become law, and which means that those of you who buy wine directly from the winery in the 38 states that allow it will be able to continue to do so.
? China becomes leading producer: The Chinese wine industry makes more wine than the Australian industry does, which is just one more bad piece of news for the Aussie in a decade of what seems to be unrelenting bad news. The article, which is actually a video transcript, offers some interesting insights into the battle for market share between Chinese producers and the rest of the wine world.
? Certifying wine writers: Slate's Mike Steinberger weighs in on this winter's cyber-controversy about credentialing wine writers at the end of a longish piece about the value of earning the Master of Wine title. Says Steinberger, who does a better job than most of writing about the bits of the wine business that have nothing to do with tasting wine: "However, wine appreciation is an almost wholly subjective endeavor, and while some palates are more discerning than others, even the most experienced and knowledgeable critic is merely offering an informed opinion." Given Steinberger's stature, I guess I'm safe for a while longer from the certification police.
? Spanish bubbly sales rising: Which is not a surprise to anyone who has tasted the wines. Sales of Champagne in the U.S. are down more than 20 percent from 2007, according to Impact Databank. Know what has made up the difference? Cava, of course. Sales for the three biggest Spanish sparklers are up 12 percent since 2007, pretty impressive given the recession. In fact, says Impact, more cava is now sold in the U.S. than Champagne.
? Too expensive for Parker? An odd report from the French news agency AFP, in which it quotes Robert Parker, the most important person in the wine business, as saying Bordeaux wine prices are too high. Which would be like the Wine Curmudgeon saying $10 wine prices are too low and should be higher. Parker is the main reason no one, save the world's wealthiest people, can afford top-end Bordeauxs. In fact, if that's not bizarre enough, Parker says the top producers should cut their prices 10 to 20 percent, and should not rely on the Chinese market to boost sales. It was enough to make me reach for a bottle of cava.
? Wine glasses by the stem: The most recent episode of Law & Order: Criminal Intent was loosely based on the controversy surrounding Robert Parker and a German wine collector. How loosely? Only a major wine geek would have noticed. Which, I guess, is one of the reasons why I'm here. Of more interest to the Wine Curmudgeon, though, was one of the opening scenes, when the characters were tasting what was supposed to be a 250-year-old red Bordeaux owned by George Washington — and every single one of them was holding the wine glass by the stem, just like big deal wine tasters would. I was impressed; that level of detail usually escapes TV producers.
? Wine's new demographic: The Wine Curmudgeon, in one of his other lives, used to write a lot about marketing, and marketing in the past decade meant selling products to the U.S.' fastest-growing ethic group, Hispanics. (Ask me why so many Spanish-language ads have grandmothers in them.) So what's the newest advice for wine markets? Target Hispanics. Better late than never, I suppose. Of course, since the wine business does such a lousy job of marketing to everyone, why should we expect it to be current in this phase of its approach?
? Good news on the sales front: Especially if you sell cheap wine. Sales rose almost 5 percent through the first four months year, according to Symphony/IRI, and among the leaders were Barefoot and Bogle (and most of the brands listed were $10 or less) How zeroed in are consumers on less expensive wines? Sparkling sales, traditionally the most expensive part of the market, were up almost 10 percent, and led by some of the least expensive — prosecco and asti from Italy. The wine world is changing significantly around us; is anyone in it noticing?
? What’s in a private label? We’ve had discussion here over the years about the difference between national brands and store brands and private labels. This article, from an Alabama newspaper, is a sound, easy-to-follow explanation of private label and who makes the wine for retailers like Walgreen’s, Wal-Mart, and Costco. And, notes wine columnist Pat Kettles, Dollar General is going to have to find someone to make the wine it wants to sell.
? When critics collide: Eric Asimov in the New York Times has the story of two influential critics and their reaction to Chateau Pavie, a hip and with-it red Bordeaux blend that is usually well received. Robert Parker calls the 2010 Pavie brilliant, while John Gilman calls it, believe it not, bad and unpleasant. Which is, of course, one of the great things about wine, that two such reputable critics can completely disagree. The Wine Curmudgeon has actually tasted Pavie, and while it wasn’t the 2010, I can see where Gilman was coming from. Which means I can also see where Parker was coming from.
? Love that cheap wine: Decanter, the British wine magazine, has released its annual wine awards. Many of the award winners will be difficult to find in the U.S. or too expensive or both, but one of them is a favorite around here — the French chardonnay, Cave de Lugny, which sells for abut $10 in the U.S. It was not only the least expensive among the top 10 chardonnays, but it shared the list with some high-dollar white Burgundies from Montrachet and Chabilis and an $80 Aussie label.