Tag Archives: wine samples

Winebits 642: Coronavirus wine roundup

coronavirus wine This week’s wine news: Coronavirus wine sales trends, more Pennsylvania legal foolishness, and virtual wine tasting samples

What comes next? Noted wine business analyst Christian Miller, a long-time friend of the blog, tells Forbes’ Liza Zimmerman that the coronavirus pandemic could finally slow wine sales later this spring, and the slowdown could last through 2021. The good news, he says, is that “Demand for wine is not going to dry up, or even diminish much, once the initial shocks are ridden out.” He also sees significant changes in the three-tier system as it struggles to cope with the pandemic. The former is pretty much what SVB’s Rob McMillan told the blog a couple of weeks ago, and the latter is something I wrote about last week.

More fun in Pennsylvania: Remember Pennsylvania closing its state-owned liquor stores? Remember state residents being asked to leave neighboring New Jersey and Delaware when they came in search of booze? Well, now the state is being sued by two wholesalers, who say the state is violating its own laws by refusing to let the wholesalers sell directly to retailers and restaurants. The details, not surprisingly since it’s Pennsylvania, are quite confusing. But it’s enough to know that the state’s liquor control board says it doesn’t have to obey that particular law because it is still studying it.

Bring on the samples! The Wine Curmudgeon knows that many of you in the cyber-ether have been worried that I would not be able to receive wine samples for virtual tastings during the duration. But have no fear. The federal agency that oversees that sort of thing said last week that not only wine writers, but consumers would be able to receive “small containers of wine” for virtual tasting. There’s lots of fine print, depending on which state you live in, but this is one more example of the pandemic pushing the three-tier system to the side.

Image: “wine” by Chas Redmond is licensed under CC BY 2.0 

Wine Curmudgeon Wine Sample Index: Heavy weather ahead for the wine business?

wine sample indexPremiumization’s role in the wine slowdown

It’s not scientific, but the Wine Curmudgeon Wine Sample Index indicates that the wine slowdown is here

The wine slowdown, much written about and much discussed, has officially arrived. How do I know this? The Wine Curmudgeon Wine Sample Index.

The wine sample index is my highly anecdotal and decidedly un-mathematical system for gauging the health of the wine business. When business is good, and no one needs a cranky ex-newspaperman to review their wines, I get fewer samples. When business isn’t good, then I get more samples – including bottles from high-end producers who usually dismiss me as not worth their time.

And this spring and early summer, I have received more samples than I’ve gotten since the recession, maybe three or four times the usual amount.

As noted, this is highly anecdotal and decidedly un-mathematical, and I’m not sure the blog’s official statistician would approve. But the pattern has been there since the blog started in 2007. During the recession, I got more wine than I could drink, including $100 bottles. But the samples dried up in the couple of years after the recession ended, when wine sales recovered and premiumization took hold. I don’t write about the kind of wine that has dominated the market since then, so why send me something to review?

But now, apparently, they need me. I’m getting samples from producers who haven’t contacted me in years, and they’re sending wines that cost $25 and more.  Just the other day, in fact, an email me offered a case of wine, only one of which cost less than $24 and five of which cost more than $30. Hasn’t the marketer ever read the blog?

Also intriguing

More samples are coming from people who want me to write about their wines in the hope that my review will generate retailer interest as opposed to sales. They want to use a good review to place the wines in more stores in more parts of the country. That also happens more often when wines sales are slow.

In other words, any port in a storm, and this storm is beginning to look particularly intense. Know that samples are an expensive form of marketing – not just the cost of the bottles, but the cost of shipping, which can run as high as $100 a package. But wine sales are so flat and so many people are so worried that spending all that money to send me samples looks like a better investment than letting the bottles languish on a warehouse shelf.

Will this storm turn into a category 5, Hurricane Wine Recession? The sample index can’t tell me that. One sign of optimism: I still don’t get asked to attend trade tastings, where producers and distributors show off their wines for writers, retailers, and the like. Those invitations ended after the recession, too. So if trade tasting emails start to arrive, then maybe it is time to batten down the hatches.

WC sample index: Cheap wine quality sinks to new low

cheap wine quality
How many more of these do I have to taste?

The current round of samples from Big Wine (and not so big wine) has not been worth drinking — to be polite

How bad has cheap wine quality become? So bad that most of the samples I’ve tasted over the past month have not been worth drinking. The always willing and ever amiable Lynne Kleinpeter tastes most of these wines with me, and even she has had enough: “I’ll drink anything, and I’m going to pour this one down the sink before you even ask what I thought of it.”

What has been wrong with these wines?

• So-called dry roses that are actually sweet, with about 1 or 1.2 percent residual sugar. That’s about as sweet as something like Apothic Red, E&J Gallo’s best-selling sweet red blend.

• Red wines that make no pretense of tasting like wine, but are instead loaded with extra sweetness, coloring agents like Mega Purple, and evil tasting fake oak. The red Lynne poured down the drain had so much cheap chocolate flavor that it made me gag.

• White wines reduced to inoffensiveness, with the acidity and freshness taken out. In one case, that included the calories – a reduced calorie pinot gris that tasted like club soda spiked with NutraSweet. This seems to be part of a trend I’ve noticed in a lot of corporate food, as well – remove the flavor and make the product as bland as possible. Why anyone thinks this is a good idea is beyond me.

This is the worst stretch of samples since I started the blog. The only thing that prevents me from calling them out by name is that snarkiness won’t solve the problem. Besides, I don’t want to give them any chance to show up in a Google search.

Rather, we have to understand what’s going on and refuse to buy these kinds of wines. That’s why I made another of my 12 wines for $100 trips last week.

First, the cynicism among wine companies big and almost big that we’ll drink anything that is priced in the current hot zone, about $12 to $18. The most disgusting wines I tasted were at the high end of that price range, festooned with clever names and tricky labels.

Second, trend hopping. I’ve gotten roses from companies that know as little about pink wine as my dogs do, figuring that if the label says dry rose everyone will buy it; isn’t rose the new moscato? That the wines are poorly made and don’t taste like dry rose doesn’t seem to bother them.

Third, lots and lots of cheap grapes in California, so they can do crap like this. That’s the worst part about what’s going on – the poor quality of the grapes being used to make more expensive wine.

How do you identify these wines so you don’t buy them? First, look for labels and names that talk about lifestyles instead of wine; one particularly wretched sample waxed poetic about hippies. Second, is there too much winespeak? The minute you see terms like “black pepper flavors followed by gentle oak spice,” run as far as you can in the other direction. Finally, these are mostly California wines, and my samples from other states and countries were drinkable, and sometimes even better than that.

More about wine samples:
The tyranny of wine samples
The return of the wine sample index

The return of the wine sample index

wine sampleThe Wine Curmudgeon is getting more wine samples than anytime in the past decade; what does that say about the wine business?

Almost eight years ago, as the recession tore holes through the wine business, I wrote a post about the Wine Curmudgeon Wine Sample Index – that is, you could tell the state of the wine business by how many samples I got.

The wine sample index has returned, and it may offer several insights into what’s going on with the wine business these days. Why does the sample index make sense? First, I never got as many samples as many of my colleagues, one of whom actually had to add a room to his house to store all that wine. That means the samples that I get are sent to me for a reason and just not because my name is on a media list. Hence, someone, somewhere thinks I can help sell their wine. So if I’m getting wine that I don’t usually get, something is happening.

And I’m getting wine that I don’t usually get, maybe four or five times as much this spring as at anytime since the recession started. The biggest producers never really stopped sending samples, but I’m also getting more European wine and wine from smaller U.S. producers.

What does all this mean?

• First and foremost, business is better. That I’m getting samples, which are expensive – the cost of wine and especially the cost of shipping – means even small producers feel confident to spend money on marketing. More winemakers are visiting Dallas, something else that dropped off precipitously during the recession.

• That the Internet has become an acceptable way to write about wine. Ten years ago, I had a PR person ask me how they could tell the real wine writers from the fakes in the cyber-ether, on the assumption that most of us were trying to scam free wine. In this, quality content and quality visitors – like my readers – matter as well.

• Producers may be getting smarter about who they want to review their wine. Those who don’t have huge marketing budgets understand that a niche Internet wine writer who focuses on their kind of product is a good fit. Several PR people told me they want to send me wine because they think my readers will be more interested than those at more general audience or higher end wine sites or magazines. That approach, if widespread, is revolutionary.

• Premiumization, at least among some producers, is all important. I’m getting more $15 to $18 wine, even though there is less chance I am going to write about it. But they still want to send it to me. They aren’t always happy with my review, but that’s a story for another day.

The tyranny of wine samples

wine samples
“Come on. .. they’re just wine samples. What could be wrong?”

One of the great contradictions in wine writing is that so many of us review wine that most of our readers will never drink. That’s because we don’t pay for the wine, but get wine samples — thousands of bottles a year for some of us.

The Wine Curmudgeon has always been suspicious of wine samples, not only because of they are often less available and more pricey, but because there’s not enough transparency. That’s why I try to buy most of the wine I review, and each review notes whether it was a sample.

But wine samples are addictive, something I discovered a couple of weeks ago when a distributor friend brought four terrific (two of which were expensive) bottles for a dinner I was having. During dinner, as the five of us were passing the wine around, I thought: “This is so nice — four wines I never would have bought, two of which are too expensive to buy, and I didn’t pay a penny for them. I could get used to this.”

The older one gets, the more the phrase “There but for the grace of God” applies (regardless of religious leanings). What if, all those years ago, I had started writing about something other cheap wine that I bought myself? What if I had stumbled upon wine samples — expensive, hard-to-find wine samples — through one of the newspapers I wrote for? In those pre-recession days, high-end wineries were throwing around $100 bottles like baskets of chips at a Mexican restaurant; what if I started pouring $60 Napa cabernet sauvignon for a weeknight dinner?

Would I have become everything I hate about wine writing? Given my disposition, that’s not likely, but the idea is troubling. I had a lot of fun drinking those wines that Saturday night, which included a $40 sparkling and a $35 riesling, both from Germany. It’s not so much that they were delicious, though they were, but that I didn’t pick them out, I didn’t pay for them, and I didn’t have to suffer them if they weren’t any good (something that happens all too often with my cheap wine).

It was wine drinking the way everyone wants it to be — wonderful wine on the table without any muss or fuss, and I suddenly understood why so many of my colleagues accept it as normal and wonder about people like me. But, as I reminded myself when I was writing this piece, wonderful has nothing to do with it. The people who read the blog don’t get samples. They have to negotiate the terrors of the supermarket Great Wall of Wine, which is why I’m here. I’m not a wine writer to drink great wine that I get for free, but to help wine drinkers figure out what they like. And, in the end, that’s more fun than any amount of wine samples.