Tag Archives: wine rants

Two wines from Aldi, and the differences in cheap wine

There are two kinds of cheap wine — those made to hit a certain price, like Two-buck Chuck, and those made to taste like wine, like the bottles in the $10 Hall of Fame. This is often a difficult concept to explain, since consumers assume price is price and don’t think much past that.

That’s why I was so intrigued by two $5 wines I bought at Aldi, the national discount grocer (and where most of the wine is private label). The wines — a Spanish tempranillo and an Italian red from Montepulciano — demonstrated this contradiction perfectly. The former was everything great cheap wine should be, enjoyable and a value, even at $5. The latter was made to cost $5, and I was reminded of that with every sip.

The quality of wines made to hit a certain price are notoriously inconsistent. That’s because, if the price of grapes increases, the wine contains cheaper grapes of lesser quality so it can maintain its price. Wine made to taste like wine is usually made with better quality grapes, so that it tastes the way it should. The producer either raises the price if grapes become more expensive or takes a smaller profit.

The tempranillo, Vina Decana 2010 ($5, purchased, 12.5%), tasted like tempranillo — cherry fruit balanced by crispness and some sort of combination of vanilla and earthiness. No, it’s not a Gran Reserva Rioja, and I realize all those adjectives might confuse the issue. The point is that the wine has a lot more going on than one would expect for $5, and someone paid attention to this when they made it. In this, it reminded me of the much beloved and sorely missed Solaz, perhaps the greatest cheap red wine of my wine writing career.

The Montepulciano, Violescent Montepulciano d’Abruzzo 2011 ($5, purchased, 13.5%), was just the opposite, made to cost $5 and that what it tasted like wasn’t as important as how much it cost. The wine was rough and acidic, almost green and unripe in an old fashioned “This is the way we churned out cheap wine in Italy before the winemaking revolution of the past two decades” style. It was drinkable, but we want more than that, don’t we?

The other thing this illustrates is that wine quality is not always a retailer’s top concern, and this is especially true for retailers like Aldi that sell on price. Their thinking is centered around product mix, shelf space, what’s available, and what has the best margins. The burden is on the consumer to decide if the wine is a value, and given how little time most of us have to worry about these things (and little experience and education, as well), that’s not as easy as it should be. What’s worse is that retailers count on that, and which is why too much wine is like the Violescent and not the Decana.

More about Aldi wine:
? The Aldi wine experience
? Wine of the week: Aldi private labels
? The Five Day, $3 Wine Challenge: The results

 

Price, value, and the California wine business

california wineDear California wine business:

I honestly don’t like writing nasty things about you. You make some of the best wine in the world, and I’d much prefer to write about that. But you drive me crazy, because you continue to do things that make it that much more difficult for me to be nice.

The most recent example came last month, when two of your wineries — two of my favorites, who know what I want to review — sent me samples. Did the samples include any of the great cheap wine they make? Nope. They were the usual overpriced big reds, including a 15 percent zinfandel, the kind of wine that I regularly rail against. These wines aren’t made because people want to drink them, but because you think you should make them. God only knows why, though I suspect the Winestream Media has something to do with it.

The wine business changed for our lifetimes five years ago, when the recession forced consumers to trade down and consumers discovered that they liked the cheap wine they found. In 2008, Americans drank more wine than they did in 2007, but spent less to do so. This is one of the most important moments in the history of the modern wine business, and I’m not the only one who has noticed it.

In addition, it parallels what’s going on with the rest of the U.S. economy. We’re not spending money just to spend money or buying stuff just to buy stuff; rather, we’re thinking about what we buy, and we want value as well as low prices.

I am reminded of this every time I buy wine. The most recent example came in September when I was in Kerrville, an affluent Texas resort town, and the two older Anglo men in line ahead of me were buying Franzia boxed wine and a big bottle of Rex Goliath. They could, from what I saw, afford to buy anything they wanted, and they bought cheap wine. Americans shop on price, no matter how much you wish they didn ?t. All you have to do is look at the sales numbers. No one buys those 15 percent zindandels with the big scores; they buy cheap pinot noir.

Some of you have figured this out, which is why wines like Barefoot and Cupcake have done so well over the past five years. These wines, as simple as they are, are cheap and offer some kind of value. But you can do better than that, and I don’t understand why so many of you don’t want to try. Or, having tried, given up. What’s so awful about making honest, quality cheap wine? Why do so many have to suffer through so much overpriced, overdone wine when you have the skill to make fabulous wine that is neither overpriced nor overdone?

This is not to say there isn’t a place for wine that costs more than $10 (and I’m getting a little tired of being accused of hating expensive wine just because it’s expensive). Ridge has earned popular and critical acclaim, and its least expensive bottle is $25. But that’s because it offers value at those prices, something that is sadly lacking at so many other producers.

Your customers understand this in a way that you don ?t. You’re still making and marketing wine as if it was 1995 or 2005, when a higher price meant better wine (or, if not better, more desirable), and value didn’t matter. The world doesn’t work that way anymore. Understand that, and everyone will be better off, including me. I can then drink your wine and not have to write you a letter like this.

Sincerely,
The Wine Curmudgeon

For more on wine, prices, and value:
The Treasury debacle
Retailers and wine prices
Wine of the week: Little James Basket Press NV
Five things the wine business can do to help consumers figure out wine

Winebits 287: Wine rants, Judgment of Paris, Champagne sales

? Maybe it ?s all the gloomy weather: Tim Atkin, an English master of wine, has had quite enough, thank you. He goes off on British wine, which he calls disgusting; cheap wine, which he says is rarely a good value (what makes English wine types so sensitive about cheap wine?); and pinot grigio, a ?mostly dull grape variety ? in a 10-item rant. I can ?t speak to most of his broadside, but I can shed some light on the cheap wine parts, which are the first three items. Atkin, like Jamie Goode in the post linked above, is limited by the perspective of the British retail system, where cheap grocery store private label wine dominates the market and is often sold below cost. Maybe it is as awful as Atkin says, and maybe there isn ?t any Sicilian or Gascon wine available in Britain (and almost certainly no Bogle, Dry Creek, or Yellow + Blue), but dismissing all cheap wine is unnecessary. Take it from someone who knows a thing or two about rants.

? Let ?s try it again: A second movie version of the Judgment of Paris, the 1976 blind tasting in Paris where California wine beat French wine, is in the works. Turns out that many of the key figures in the tasting weren ?t happy with ?Bottle Shock, ? the first film version of what happened, and want to set the record straight. Steven Spurrier, who organized the tasting, was so unhappy with ?Bottle Shock" that he threatened to sue. No word yet on who will play George Taber, the U.S. reporter who covered the event, but I know several 30-something wine writers who would be perfect for the part.

? Bring out the bubbly ? sort of: How far has the Champagne market fallen since the start of the recession? So far that sales in the U.S. still haven ?t made it back to 2006 levels. Most of the shortish story is a lot numbers mumbo jumbo to make it look like things are going better for Champagne than they are, but the most interesting fact? That Mo t & Chandon and Veuve Clicquot combine for approximately 60 percent of the U.S. Champagne market. No wonder cava and Prosecco are doing so well.