Tag Archives: wine rants

Wine history lesson 2: Maynard Amerine on quality, price, and value

maynard amerineLegendary UC-Davis professor Maynard Amerine told us 45 years ago that price was no guarantee of quality or value

One of the most intriguing things about U.S. wine history is how it repeats itself. Time after time, smart people warn the wine business about what will happen if it doesn’t pay attention to its customers. And, time after time, the wine business ignores the warnings – much to its detriment.

Today’s wine history lesson comes from legendary University of California-Davis professor Maynard A. Amerine, with wisdom from his 1976 book (written with UC-Davis math colleague Edward B. Roessler), “WINES: Their Sensory Evaluation.” It was perhaps the most important wine book of its time.

What made it so important? I asked Randy Caparoso, a long-time wine critic and restaurateur, who wrote about Amerine on the Lodi wine appellation blog. What struck me about his Amerine post was that the UC-Davis professor echoed the analysis of pioneering wine writers Leon Adams and Frank Schoonmaker, who earned their own blog post about a year ago.

“I think people like Amerine, Adams and Schoonmaker could clearly see the writing on the wall,” says Caparoso. “That’s because, even in the ‘50s and ‘60s, they personally knew many a well-heeled wine collector or connoisseur. Same for me during my career as a wine professional, which started in ’78. These kinds of people were already driving up prices with their mania for ‘great’ wines. This was the essence of Amerine’s quote, ‘Drink wine, not labels.’ … But what was true 50, 60 years ago was bound to get even worse in the 21st century, and it has.”

In other words, Amerine – like Adams and Schoonmaker – predicted the mess we find ourselves in: Too much ordinary wine, too much overpriced wine, and a wine industry that doesn’t understand that it has lost its audience because it has focused on either ordinary or overpriced wine.

Enjoying wine –without the fuss

Hence, three of Amerine’s eight guidelines for enjoying wine:

• You don’t have to be an expert to enjoy wine. It’s “nonsense… The expert may know why he enjoys a certain wine but he would be presumptuous to claim that he enjoys it more than the amateur. The latter may, in fact, enjoy a certain wine more fully than the expert precisely because he doe not have the knowledge and experience to make all the possible comparisons among wine.”

• Small wineries are not better just because they are small. “Some of the worst wines we ever suffered came from small, picturesque wineries. We hasten to add that some of the best also came from small wineries. It is the standards of the producer, and a fair amount of luck, that determines the quality of the wines produced, not the size of the winery.”

• Expensive wines are not necessarily better than cheap wines. “Some are, many are not. Price depends on many factors that are not necessarily related to quality. Those who buy wines on a price-basis deserve what they get. … But it is the quality of the wine, not the price, that is important. Some famous vineyards, secure in the knowledge that they have an established market, often charge whatever the market will bear. This means that the wines are sometimes not worth the higher price if quality alone is the criterion for selection.”

Photo courtesy of the UC-Davis Library, using a Creative Commons license

$10 Hall of Fame wine Falesco Vitiano cuts distribution in the U.S.

falesco vitiano

No, no, no… . not the Falesco Vitiano.

More bad news for cheap wine: Only the Falesco Vitiano red will be generally available

Italy’s Falesco Vitiano, one of the great cheap wines in the world, has cut its U.S. distribution. Only the red will be generally available; the white is being sold ”by special order” and the rose will no longer be sold in the U.S., according to a spokesman for the importer.

This is a shocking blow to those of us who care about cheap wine. The Vitiano has been in the $10 Hall of Fame since its inception, and the brand won the best cheap wine poll in 2013. Each wine is everything great cheap wine should be – in fact, what great wine at any price should be. That means varietally correct, terroir-driven, and interesting.

The winery didn’t respond to an email asking about the cuts. Reportedly, the brand was still selling some 200,000 cases a year, although not all of that was in the U.S. The spokesman for the importer, Winebow, e-mailed me that “the rosso (red) has been the driver of the Vitiano line.” Which, to the rest of us, seems to mean that the importer and producer didn’t think the white and rose sold enough to make it worth their trouble.

This is yet another blow to anyone who loves wine, but doesn’t want to pay $15 or $20 for focus group plonk aimed at aging baby boomers. The Cotarella brothers, whose family-owned company makes Vitiano, are winemaking legends. One of the great moments in my wine writing career came in 2008, when I interviewed Riccardo Cotarella and we talked about the need for great cheap wine.

One other thing to know: The current vintages are older than usual – the red is 2016 (and there seems to be a lot of 2015 available, too), and the white is 2018. I drank the 2016 red the other night, and it was still enjoyable, though starting to fray around the edges. I haven’t tasted the white since the 2015 vintage, which I had in 2016. I haven’t seen the white or rose in stores since, and now I know why.

savoie rose

Wine meme update: Let’s not forget about premiumization

premiumization memeThis wine premiumization meme is for you, wine business — enjoy

The blog’s wine meme survey has looked at why young people don’t like wine, the three-tier system, and trolling the cyber-ether for people who disagree with you. So how have we missed premiumization?

Until now, that is: The ultimate wine premiumization meme.

Of all wine’s problems — and there are entirely too many to mention — premiumization may be the one that makes me the craziest. Case in point: I got an email the other day touting a $25 gruner veltliner, a white wine from Austria. Check Wine-Searcher, though, and there are dozens of gruners in Austria that cost €4 or €5. How did an everyday wine in Europe become a luxury in the U.S.?

As a friend noted the other day: “We can moan and complain about wine prices all we want, but this is what it comes down to in the end: a $25 bottle of gruner. On sale. Is it any wonder hard seltzer is all the rage?”

So this wine premiumization meme is for you, wine business. Enjoy.

Photo courtesy of OME Gear using a Creative Commons license

More wine memes:
One of the greatest wine memes ever?
Distracted boyfriend meme meets the wine business
Federal appeals court slaps down Texas Walmart liquor stores

Once more, how not to report a wine and health story

wine and health

No, NPR, most Americans haven’t been passed out on the the sofa during the pandemic, despite what your story says.

This time, it’s NPR that doesn’t do the reporting and accepts the neo-Prohibitionist arguments that drinking will kill us sooner rather than later

Dear NPR:

Yes, I understand about budget cuts and the changing landscape for traditional media. But that’s still not an excuse for the sloppy reporting in this story, which ran on Friday. It recounted the arguments – most not necessarily true – that the neo-Prohibitionists use in their attempt to once again outlaw alcohol in the U.S.

Hence, I will reiterate my offer to serve as a sounding board the next time something like this comes up. Because, frankly, you missed a lot:

• What’s the bias of the people you’re interviewing? In this case, the story quoted several federal health officials warning us that we’ll kill ourselves if we keep drinking the way we have been during the pandemic. This is where you should have noted these are the same people who said drinking a bottle of wine is the same as smoking 10 cigarettes and that wine with dinner constitutes binge drinking.

• You also took at face value the claim that we’re drinking staggering sums of booze during the pandemic. Which isn’t true. Yes, the story in the link is a bit jargony, but the point is that overall wine sales are down because of restaurant closures. So, in fact, we’re drinking less wine during the pandemic (also borne out here).

• The story said more people die from alcohol-related diseases each year than from drug overdoses, which is damned scary – save for one thing. Drinking is legal and booze is easy to get. Drugs, if you need enough to overdose, usually aren’t legal or easy to get. It’s a lot more convenient to kill yourself with alcohol, since you don’t have to meet a guy in a parking lot to buy heroin or coke, or to forge an Oxycontin prescription and hope the pharmacist doesn’t notice.

• The story ignores the astonishing statistic that one-third of us don’t drink, which is among the highest abstention rates in the industrialized world. I’ll bet you didn’t know that. So, next time, you need to ask: How can we be drinking ourselves to death if so many of us don’t drink?

• The story overlooks the tremendous progress that has been made with legitimate drinking problems, like underage and binge drinking, alcoholism, and drunk driving. For example, alcohol-related crashes have declined by almost one-half since 1985. I’ll bet you didn’t know that, either.

Finally, a few words about one of my favorite neo-Prohibitionist flummoxes, something called “alcohol use disorder,” and which figures prominently in the story. Health officials claim that 15 million of us suffer from this, but the definition is so broad that it includes me, the Big Guy, and almost anyone who takes wine seriously. After all, don’t we spend a “great deal of time… in activities necessary to obtain, to use, or to recover from the effects of drinking”?

None of this is written to denigrate the serious problems caused by alcohol abuse. It’s something that I’ve been writing about for decades. Rather, it’s to give you the background you need the next time you have to write a story about how we’re drinking ourselves to death.

Yours in quality journalism,

The Wine Curmudgeon

 

TV wine ads: Australia’s Brokenwood Cellars, and how wine commercials haven’t changed in 50 years

Is there really any difference between this 2016 TV wine ad and any made almost 50 years ago? Which is sad, isn’t it?

Remember all those corny 1970s TV wine ads we’ve dissected on the blog? Who knew someone would make the same kind of ad almost 50 years later?

But that’s the case with this effort from Australia’s Brokenwood Cellars, which does everything but call on the shade of Orson Welles to chant, “We will sell no one wine before its time.” Does the narration really say (around 0:30) that Brokenwood makes wine “to be drunk and enjoyed, savored and admired?” What else are we supposed to do with it? Spit it out?

Brokenwood wines aren’t readily available in the U.S., but appear to be critically respected. Which makes the ad that much more difficult to figure out — if you’re already well thought of, why bother with this? It’s the kind of faux image building that less respected brands do to puff up their reputation. If you make quality wine, why gild the lily with a shot of someone’s gnarled hands?

More about TV wine ads:
TV wine ads: Does Stella Rosa’s sweet fizzy red commercial do what Big Wine can’t?
TV wine ads: San Giuseppe Wines, because you can never have too much bare skin in a wine ad
TV wine ads: King Solomon wine, because “Tonight … the king is in town”

Video courtesy of Rollingball Productions via YouTube

The Bordeaux wine business, younger wine drinkers, and why the twain isn’t meeting

The latest Bordeaux wine marketing plan will probably fail, just as the others did, because it doesn’t understand that price is all – and Bordeaux costs too much for most of us to buy

Dear Bordeaux wine business:

I understand your current difficulties, what with the pandemic and the Trump tariff. I also understand how desperately you want to reach younger wine drinkers, since that will help with many of your current difficulties. Hence, once again, I take keyboard in hands to offer advice you don’t seem to be getting elsewhere – why Bordeaux is in such trouble with everyone under 35. Or even 40.

It’s price. Your wine costs too much, and anyone who isn’t a wealthy Baby Boomer probably isn’t going to buy it. There’s less and less quality $10 Bordeaux for sale in the U.S., and no one looks harder for these wines than I do.

And you have no one to blame but yourself. To most wine drinkers, Bordeaux means high prices and exclusivity, and you have been perfectly happy with that for years. Hence, I get offers from retailers pitching $650 bottles – on sale. And emails about academic studies touting your wine as an investment option – hardly what a 20-something wants to drink with takeout Chinese food.

But now that business is bad, you aren’t happy. But the catch is that you still don’t see price as the problem. Your new marketing campaign, aimed at young people, includes $30 wine. I rarely buy $30 wine, and I do this for a living. So why would someone else, who just wants wine because they want a glass of wine, spend $30?

Yes, yes, I know: Bordeaux makes the best wines in the world, gets the highest scores, and so on and so forth ad nauseum. Which is all well and good for wealthy Baby Boomers, but what does any of that have to do with someone who wants a half-bottle of wine for a Tuesday night dinner of leftover pizza? This is the thing you haven’t understood in years. You assume that all wine drinkers drink wine the same way – plan their meal, find the best wine for the meal, get out the corkscrew, pour the wine, and sit down and eat.

How much more Baby Boomer can you get?

Which leads us back to pricing: You already have the perfect entry level wine, the red Chateau Bonnet. It’s well-made, varietally correct, and offers an idea of what red Bordeaux is supposed to taste like. The catch? It costs as much as $18 in the U.S., which is almost twice its price not all that long ago. And the white is still $10 to $12 in this country, something that makes no sense at all. I love the red Bonnet, but it’s not worth $18.

That it costs $18 speaks to how you’ve lost touch with U.S. consumers, and why younger drinkers opt for a $6 Trader Joe private label from California – if they’re drinking wine at all. Figure out how to fix that kind of bloviated pricing, and you don’t need any fancy marketing plans to sell your wine to young people.

Hope this helps; I’m always ready to do more if need be.

Your pal,

The Wine Curmudgeon

Photo: “Bordeaux Wines at Fareham Wine Cellar” by Fareham Wine is licensed under CC BY 2.0

wine terms

Wine terms: Smooth

smooth

This hardwood floor is smooth. Is that what wine should taste like?

The increasing use of the word smooth to describe wine – which is not supposed to be smooth – is one more reason why I worry about the future of the wine business

What does the word smooth mean? The absence of something rough — a definition that includes synonyms like bland, flat and mild.

So why has smooth become increasingly popular as a wine descriptor? Do we want wine that is bland, flat, and mild? Water is smooth – do we want wine that tastes like water?

I hope not. Wine is supposed to be balanced, where the various bits that make up a wine’s structure play off each other. Hence, the acidity and the alcohol and the tannins and the fruit and the oak and the mouthfeel and the minerality and everything else should be in proportion. Each bit has a part to play within that equation, and, best yet, the equation is never the same. Balance is going to differ given grapes and regions, so that balance for cabernet sauvignon from California will be different from balance for cabernet from France, just as balance for cabernet in general will be different from balance for chardonnay.

Now, things don’t always work out that way, but that’s the goal – not smooth. So why smooth?

Blame consolidation

The answer, I think, has its roots in the consolidation in the wine business. As more of the wine we drink is made by fewer companies, the logical, business-sensible thing to do is to develop a company style. That way, wine is easier to make, to market, and to sell. If a focus group likes a wine made in a certain style – say, bereft of tannins and acidity, with lots of ripe fruit – then the path of least resistance is to make all the wines in that style.

Or, as I write it in my tasting notes when I’m feeling especially curmudgeonly, smooooothhhhhhhhh.

That’s one reason why so many wines are so sweet these says, even when they’re supposed to be dry. A bit of sugar, usually in the form of white grape juice concentrate, flattens out all those rough edges. You can see this yourself with vinaigrette: Make one that’s a touch too tart, and then add a smidgen of sugar. The sugar brings the tartness into balance. But add too much sugar, and the vinaigrette turns smooth.

The irony about smooth?

Flavor, not smoothness, jump started the U.S. wine boom in the late 1970s. That’s when California introduced the “fighting varietals,” wines labeled as chardonnay, merlot and so forth. They tasted like their varietals and were fruitier and more flavorful than the blends that had dominated the market before that. I just finished a freelance story for American Demographics magazine that looks at the history of beer, wine, and spirits consumption in the U.S., and found that the success of the fighting varietals more or less coincided with the appearance of light beer, which made beer taste bland, flat, and mild.

Or, dare we say, smooth?

So it’s no surprise, said the experts I interviewed for the story, that Americans started drinking more wine, which wasn’t bland, flat, and mild. This is a trend that continued for almost 40 years, and it’s also why craft beer has been such a success – no one has ever accused a hoppy IPA of being smooth.

I wonder – is there a lesson to be learned here? When beer became smooth, people looked for something else that had flavor. Now that wine is smooth, should we be surprised that people are looking elsewhere for flavor?