Tag Archives: wine prices

Expensive wine, better wine and wine writing

Buried at the bottom of post on a Wired science blog, which recaps research on the expensive wine/better wine issue, is this:

If the only story we can tell about wine is its price, then our pleasure will always be linked to cost, even though this link doesn ?t exist in most taste tests. A much better (and more cost-effective) idea is to find some other narrative, to focus on aspects of wine that don ?t require a big expense account. Knowledge is free.

Which is a damning indictment of wine criticism — and by science writer and Rhodes Scholar Jonah Lehrer, no less. He writes that it's accepted scientific fact, based on robust research, that expensive wine isn't better wine just because it costs more.

Then Lehrer asks the question that no one in the wine business wants to ask, let alone answer: If there is no correlation between wine price and quality, why does wine writing insist there is? Why doesn't wine criticism deal with what Lehrer calls the subjectivity of taste: "We ?ve somehow turned the most romantic of drinks into a commodity worthy of Consumer Reports."

Regular visitors here know how the Wine Curmudgeon feels about that. What's interesting about Lehrer's post is the perspective he brings, which is to understand that there is more than "wine" going on when we drink wine, and he touches on neuroscience, psychology and even philosophy. What happens, he writes, is that "if we think a wine is cheap, it will taste cheap."

All of which, of course, is something that those of us who write about wine rarely take into account. Even I'm guilty of this sometimes. Championing cheap wine just because it's cheap is its own form of snobbery, and just as insidious as any other form of snobbery. What's better, says Lehrer (and what I hope I do more often than not), is criticism based on education. "We should realize that we can make our wines much more delicious, if only we take the time to learn about them," he writes.

Which seems so obvious, and yet is so rarely done.

Shocking news: We’re buying less expensive wine

This just in from the Los Angeles Times: People are spending less money on a bottle of wine!

Patrick J. Comiskey, a big deal in the Winestream Media (he’s a former sommelier and writes for Wine & Spirits magazine) reports in the Times that consumers aren’t spending $40 for a bottle of wine anymore. They aren’t even spending $25. They’re — wait for it — spending $15.

Writes Comiskey: “For many, $15 to $20 might be the new $25.”

Sigh. More, after the jump.

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Restaurant wine sales in 2010

There are a lot of interesting numbers to parse in Wine & Spirits magazine's 22nd annual restaurant wine poll, which covers 2010.

The restaurants surveyed reported that wine sales have increased after a two-year slump, and that consumers seem to be buying more expensive wines than they did in the past couple of years.

But it doesn't look like the old, "let's spend crazy money on wine" ways have returned, says Wine & Spirits editor and publisher Joshua Greene: "… [W]hether buying low end or high, most diners were looking to get the most out of their wine-buying dollars: They weren't spending on trophy labels. Sommeliers describe a savvier wine-buying public as we come out of the recession."

This is significant, because the poll tracked wine sales using the Zagat guide's most popular restaurants in the country. These restaurants, given Zagat's methodology, attract more affluent and upscale consumers who eat out more often than the rest of us and spend more money when they do. So if they have embraced the New Normal, imagine how little the rest of us are spending.

Also significant: The average price for the most popular wines in these restaurants was $62 — about what it has been for the past five years. Which is a damned odd statistic, given the sales slump during the recession, and I'm not quite sure what it means (besides that restaurant wine is overpriced). Most likely, according to what respondents said about their wine pricing, it means that restaurants didn't cut prices during the recession, which kept the average price up even as sales declined. Why they didn't cut prices is a question for another day.

The complete survey is in the magazine, which requires a subscription. But there are more highlights after the jump:

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Winebits 167: Patty Bogle, grape prices, Champagne sales

? Patty Bogle dies: Bogle, the matriarch of $10 wine powerhouse Bogle Vineyards, has died. She was 59. Patty Bogle and her late husband, Chris, built Bogle Vineyards from 18 acres of grapes into one of the best inexpensive wine producers in the world. The company ships more than 1.2 million cases of wine annually, and Wine Business Monthly ranked Bogle as the country's 14th-largest winery. She was diagnosed in 2007 with leukemia, which eventually killed her. She will be much missed by those of us who appreciate cheap wine.

? Grape prices below break-even? A followup to last week's item about the 2010 grape harvest and low grape prices: California producers say that although grape prices strengthened in 2010 from 2009, 2010 was not a good year and that many of the region ?s growers still face below break-even, especially those with expired contracts or grapes that aren't chardonnay or cabernet sauvignon. One analyst says he doesn't expect to see grape prices rebound until the 2012 harvest. Which means at least another two years of consumer-friendly wine prices.

? Champagne sales still flat: The recession hasn't ended for the champagne business, where sales are still 12 1/2 percent behind their 2007 peak and industry officials says they're still worried about the business and its immediate future. On the other hand, reports the just-drinks.com Web site, some producers may be finagling sales figures to prevent the industry officials from releasing excess inventory to the public, which would depress prices. The Wine Curmudgeon, of course, has a solution for champagne, which is too often overpriced. Stop acting like OPEC and let the market determine what your product is worth.

Winebits 167: Grape prices, Robert Parker, corks

? Grape crush third highest ever: California crushed 3.7 million tons of grapes in 2010 — the third-largest crush to date, reports WineBusinessNews.com. The good news for consumers? California grape prices fell by almost seven percent, and so wine prices should continue to be "consumer-friendly" for the next couple of years. Otherwise, the figures are quite contradictory, and trying to make sense of them is not easy. Some of the numbers show that the price for Napa grapes declined by more than seven percent, which would be a crisis of epic proportions. On the other hand, says the magazine, looking at another set of figures, maybe they increased one-half of once percent.

? Changes in the Robert Parker empire: Jon Bonne at the San Francisco Chronicle details key changes in the way Robert Parker — the most important person in the wine business — will review wines. The story is very long, and a lot of it is very inside baseball, but there are a couple of things worth noting. Parker is going to review fewer California wines, which Bonne called "stunning news," and the critic who will take over California probably won't be all that different from Parker. "Those awaiting the demise of big, hedonistic cult wines are probably out of luck," wrote Bonne.

? Corks to shoes: Our friends in the cork business, who keep insisting that you're not one of the cool kids unless you drink wine that has a cork closure, have enlisted the Grammy Awards to spread their message. Wines sealed with cork will be served at a fundraiser honoring Barbra Streisand and at the official Grammy celebration. Plus, the corks will be recycled to make shoes. Which raises an important question: When did the Grammy awards become cool again?

2011 wine price update

Some thoughts to follow up on the December post about what the experts are calling consumer-friendly wine prices in 2011:

? Italy invented pinot grigio as a wine to sell in the United States, but the recession may have helped change Italy’s pinot grigio dominance. Alfonso Cevola, the Italian Wine Guy, has done an analysis of selected U.S. pinot grigio sales for 2010, and California looks like it will replace Italy as the varietal’s top producer. There are a couple of couple of caveats, says Alfonso, but his conclusion looks solid. And the reason California is passing Italy? Cheaper wines, such as Barefoot, which are replacing Italian brands that cost $10 or more. “Value wines still reign,” he wrote.

? How far have white zinfandel sales fallen? So far that Beringer, which is among the top two white zinfandel producers in the country, is not only price cutting, but marketing. And the last time anyone needed to market white zinfandel in the U.S. Never, probably. Beringer is giving away a downloadable single from crooner Michael Buble, and has teamed with Buble to pair wine, songs, and food. This is a lot of trouble to go to sell a $7 wine.

? The Wine Economist blog has put much of what has happened over the past couple years in perspective, and has discovered consumer-friendly pricing in the process.  “As I am writing this, the neighborhood Safeway is offering an extra 20% off any wine selling for $20 or more,” noted Mike Veseth, who posted that the sales increase in more expensive wines that has the industry so excited is almost certainly coming from this kind of discounting.

? A few Dallas-area, very consumer-friendly prices from the past couple of weeks of shopping: Rodney Strong chardonnay, about $15 list, for $10; Wente chardonnay, about $15 list, for $10; and House Wine, a very nice red blend from Washington state, usually $12 or $13, for $10. Looks like it’s time for a House Wine review.

The Freakonomics view of the wine business

Stephen Dubner is the co-author of the popular Freakonomics books and blog, which look at economic theory from a less than traditional perspective. In this radio interview transcript, Dubner talks about wine prices and the wine business, and whether price reflects quality and whether the experts are really experts.

A couple of the Wine Curmudgeon's pals show up, including Robin Goldstein of The Wine Trials, and it's a decent discussion of the objective vs. subjective nature of wine quality and wine prices. Which is nothing new to regular visitors here.

But anyone who appreciates what we do on the blog will love this. Dubner quotes his Freakonomics co-author, Steven Levitt: "My approach to buying wine for gifts is simple: I go in the store, and I look for the label that looks the most expensive of anything in the store. And I make sure it costs less than $15, and if it does, then I buy it."

Maybe I should should send each of the Steves a tin of Wine Curmudgeon M&Ms.