Two Italian wines from a Big Wine company, but only one of them tastes like it came from Italy
This is where we are in the wine business in 2019 – two Italian wines from the same Big Wine company, one of which is varietally correct, terroir-driven, and a pleasure to drink, while the other tastes like it was put together by a marketing company and is about as Italian as a pair of panty hose. Why does anyone think this will advance the cause of wine?
The wines are from Zonin1821, which owns nine Italian producers (as well as one of the best wineries in the U.S., Barboursville Vineyards in Virginia). Zonin1821 is best known for its $13 Zonin Prosecco, a pleasant enough bottle for a $13 Prosecco. But many of its wines are interesting and well worth drinking, and there are many worse Big Wine companies.
The insolia white wine ($14, sample, 12.5%), made by Zonin1821’s Feudo Principi di Butera subsidiary in Sicily, is Big Wine done right. The insolia grape is native to Sicily, and it’s not necessarily easy to work with. But the Butera is all should be – tart green apple fruit, lots of spice and almond, an almost stony finish and even some green herbs. It’s Hall of Fame quality, a white wine that is neither chardonnay nor sauvignon blanc and a reminder of how much value Sicilian wines can deliver. This is seafood wine – risotto with shrimp, perhaps?
Which brings us to the panty hose. The second wine is a sauvignon blanc from Zonin1821’s Ca Bolani in northern Italy’s Fruili region. Italian sauvignon blanc has long taken a back seat to pinot grigio, which probably explains why the Ca Bolani ($14, sample, 12.5%) tastes the way it does. Or, as a friend said when she drank it, “Why did you open this wine? You know I don’t like New Zealand sauvignon blanc.”
Which is exactly what it tastes likes – big, huge smacking gobs of grapefruit. It’s a well made wine, and there is even a little something trying to peek out from behind the grapefruit. And $14 isn’t a bad price. But none of that really matters, since it raises a larger question: Why would I want to buy Italian sauvignon blanc that tastes like it came from New Zealand? Isn’t that what New Zealand sauvignon blanc is for? Shouldn’t Italian wine taste like it came from Italy?
Apparently not. These days, the goal seems to be to make all wine taste the same, so it will be easier to market. Because Big Wine. Hopefully, no one at Butera will realize this and turn the insolia into Paso Robles chardonnay. Because then I would have another reason to worry about the future of the wine business.
Because corks are 19th century technology, and I don’t use a hand crank to start my car, do I?
The Wine Curmudgeon stands corrected. How could I have ever been so wrong about corks, and especially given how how much the cyber-ether loves corks these days?
How could I not see that corks are “the bodyguard of wine, more than a closure?” Or that corks are essential “when it comes to opening a treasured bottle… . the time-honored custom of pulling that cork and savoring the perfume as it escapes from the bottle.”
And some wine drinkers actually wonder why people make fun of us.
It’s the 21st century; corks are 19th century technology. That they’re still used on 70 percent of all wine speaks to how out of touch the wine business is with the 21st century. After all, do we still use a hand crank to start a car? It’s certainly more romantic than a key – or even, heaven forbid, a push button.
Much of the current kissy face for corks is apparently the result of another PR offensive from the cork business (none of which, for some reason, ever seems to include me). We get these periodically, to remind us that we should appreciate a closure that fails as much as five percent of the time and that requires a special tool. Because, of course, that’s part of the romance.
And some wine drinkers actually wonder why people make fun of us.
This is usually the part of my cork posts when the cork aficionados in the audience get red in the face, mutter under their breath, and cancel their subscription to the blog. How dare he criticize corks? Doesn’t he understand screwcaps may be OK for the junk he drinks, but that real wine requires a cork?
We’ll ignore the real wine crack. I’m used to it after all these years. But the biggest fallacy about corks is that they’re the only closure that ages wine properly. Because, as this study shows, screwcaps can age wine, too. They just do it differently.
Which brings us to the point that every cork marketing push overlooks. And why not, since it shows how irrelevant corks are in the 21st century? Almost all of the wine the world drinks – most estimates are more than 90 percent – isn’t made to age. Most wine is made to drink for dinner that night. So the closure, as long as it keeps the wine fresh and from spilling out of the bottle, doesn’t matter at all. But do we use the easiest, most convenient closure? Of course not. We’d lose the romance.
And some wine drinkers actually wonder why people make fun of us.
Premiumization and internationalization have made wine more expensive and less enjoyable, as last week’s four bottles of wine and nothing to drink fiasco demonstrates
Have premiumization and internationalization become so common that finding a bottle of wine to drink for dinner is too difficult to bother with? That seems to be the case after last week’s four bottles of wine and nothing to drink fiasco.
I wanted a bottle to have with my version of the muffaletta, the New Orleans olive relish sandwich. I had four wine samples – three reds, none less than $15, and one white, $15, and they were from Italy, southern France, and Washington state. What did I drink with dinner? A $5 bottle of Vino Fuerte from Aldi.
How did this happen? How did I open four bottles of wine from different parts of the world, made with different grapes, and find none of them worth drinking? Call it focus group winemaking, in which each of the wines was made to taste a certain way in an attempt to please the so-called American palate while also meeting the “requirements” for a 90-point wine:
• Lots and lots of sweet fruit, no tannins worth noticing, and barely any acid for the red wines. The white was a bland, gloppy, fruity mess.
• The producers took every bit of terroir out of the Italian wine, a sangiovese from Tuscany.
• The $35 wine, a syrah from Washington state, had none of the power and earthiness it was supposed to have.
• The less said the better about the two French wines from the Languedoc, which were the biggest disappointment. If this is the sort of cynical winemaking the French have in store for us, there’s no reason to buy French wine we’re not familiar with.
So how do we find wine to drink for dinner? Shop at a retailer who recommends wine that you’ll enjoy and not what they think you should drink. Don’t be swayed by scores, cutesy names, or foolish back label adjectives. And, most importantly, trust your palate. If you don’t like something, no matter what the scores or critical acclaim, it’s probably a crappy wine.
Finally, if you’re wondering why I’m not naming these wines, it’s because they don’t even deserve the publicity that goes with this review. The idea that any publicity is good publicity is never more true than in the Internet Age, when Google gives us what we search for without any distinction about quality. And the only quality in these wines is in the producers’ imagination.
It’s not so much that Barefoot is No. 2 in U.S. wine sales, and poised to pass top-selling Franzia in the next year or so. Or that Barefoot’s sales grew by 5 ½ percent last year, out-pacing the entire U.S. wine industry (to say nothing of its competitors). Or that, at 18.1 million cases, it would be the sixth biggest winery in the U.S., the 15th biggest brewery, and the second biggest craft brewery.
What really matters is that Barefoot has done all of this in little more than a decade, and with almost no help from the Winestream Media or traditional wine marketing.
And the Gallo family – whose privately-held company bought the one-half million case brand in 2005 – is probably laughing and laughing and laughing. What are the most important lessons from Barefoot?
• Scores don’t matter; none from the Winestream Media showed up on the first page when I did a Google search for Barefoot scores.
• Advertising doesn’t matter; when is the last time you saw a Barefoot ad?
• Even retailers may not matter. Has Barefoot become the ultimate grocery store wine, plucked from store shelves by consumers without any advice, words of wisdom, or assistance from an employee (not that any exist to answer questions in a grocery store)?
In this, Barefoot may be the first Information Age brand, marketed almost entirely by a word of mouth that has been amplified by texts, Facebook recommendations, and whatever else people use to tell a friend what they like in the 21st century. What does it matter that Eric Asimov, perhaps the best wine critic in the world, doesn’t review the brand? Who needs him when a couple of your BFFs text you that the wine is cheap, super tasty, and smooth?
Which is the point in this post where someone, loudly and angrily, will proclaim: “But Barefoot doesn’t taste any good!”
And it’s the point where I say, “Good to whom?” Karen Carpenter’s music makes me crazy, but she sold more than 100 million records and one of her sappiest songs is in the Grammy Hall of Fame. I love the Ramones, but Joey, Dee Dee, Johnny, and Tommy sound like so much bad guitar playing to a lot of people (probably most people, if the truth be known).
Does Barefoot taste like Grand Cru Burgundy? Nope, but no one says it does. Does it taste like the kind of wine a critic or an experienced wine drinker would like? Nope, but they don’t drink it, do they? Barefoot is a technically competent, if not very interesting, wine that is sold to people who – and this is what almost no one but the Gallo family understands – the wine business has scared away from buying anything more demanding. You don’t need to understand winespeak or to know what an appellation is to enjoy Barefoot. It comes in a bottle, not a box, and all you need is $7 and a glass. What’s wrong with that in a wine world with $350 wine openers?
This approach may have helped Barefoot become the first national wine brand, sold throughout the country the same way Heinz ketchup and Tide detergent are. I try to visit grocery stores whenever I travel, and Barefoot has been in all of them, whether a tiny Brookshire’s in very rural East Texas, a convenience store on the Gulf Coast, or a Safeway in downtown San Diego.
Those of us who love wine shouldn’t see those 18 million cases as something to complain about or to make fun of, the way too many of us did with white zinfandel. Rather, it’s an opportunity to show people who already drink wine how much more is out there that they might enjoy. Because isn’t that what wine should be about – each of us helping each other find something fun to drink?
Chart courtesy of Shanken News Daily, using a Creative Commons license
The Wine Curmudgeon, being a sort of academic these days, understands the need to publish, garner attention for your institution, and prove how wonderful you are. That’s the way the Ivory Tower works in the 21st century, and I’m more than willing to do my bit. But that still doesn’t excuse this kind of behavior — yet another wine and sex study showing that wine and sex make people happy.
This one comes from the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, where researchers discovered that booze and sex rated highest on the study’s ?pleasure scale, ? beating out volunteering, religion, and childcare. Shocking news, I know.
To its credit, the study looks for legitimacy by noting that governments, faced with policy decisions, want to find out what makes its citizens happy. But even the most loopheaded government (do you hear me, Texas?) has to know that drinking and sex make people happy, while doing housework and being sick, which ranked low on the scale, don’t. So claiming public policy benefit isn’t quite what it seems.
Six years ago, I banned wine health news from the blog, after the infamous Italian study that revealed what every teenage boy has known for as long as there have been teenage boys: If you get a girl drunk, she is more likely to have sex with you, as the noted researcher William Shakespeare discussed. Apparently, little has changed in the wine and health world in those six years.
Finally, this study has been knocking around the cyber-ether for three years. That it showed up a couple of weeks ago when I was looking for something else speaks to the power of Google in determining what we find on the Internet, and that Google thinks we want stories about wine and sex. And yes, I have used the term wine and sex five times in this post to make Google happy; isn’t that what content providers are supposed to do?
Ain’t the Internet grand?
This is not a term you’ll find in the wine magazines or in any other of the Winestream Media. For one thing, their eyes roll around in their heads like the high school kids in the “Porky’s” shower scene when they taste tarted up wines (and speaks to the number of old white guys who write about wine). For another, it’s something that too many wineries are embracing — including those who know better — in reaction to the recession, increased competition, and the mistaken impression consumers want these wines.
In this, a tarted up wine is exactly what it sounds like, and this definition of tarted up from the Urban Dictionary is spot on:
If you’re going out, most likely to get laid, you get “all tarted up” — in other words, get dressed up, put your best clothes on, wear very few clothes.
A tarted up wine is dressed to sell, which means that it has been stripped of all character save one — lots of sweet fruit flavor, which is often reinforced by adding grape juice concentrate or the dreaded MegaPurple concentrate. This is perfectly legal and very common, and especially in cheap wine (though it’s not unusual in expensive ones, either). The sweet fruit covers up a variety of winemaking flaws and poor quality grapes because it makes the wine taste sweet, even if it’s dry. And since the sweet fruit overwhelms the tannins and acid, it gives the impression that the wine is “smooth” — the ultimate goal of every consumer wine tasting focus group.
The term has its roots in Randall Grahm’s writing; the Bonny Doon impresario has long argued that some wines are made the way plastic surgeons enhance women’s breasts — the more jiggle the better. Peter Bell, the winemaker at New York’s Fox Run Vineyards, also helped me figure this out during a long morning judging grocery store zinfandels, sharing his expertise on the technical skills needed to turn wine into Kool-Aid-style wine coolers.