You need to take the bag out of the box if you’re going to slap it.
This week’s wine news: College students take to cheap wine, retailers fudge with scores, and U.S. wine sales will remain flat.
• Don’t slap the bag: The Wine Curmudgeon was greatly heartened to see a food website at the University of Florida offer solid advice about buying cheap wine and insisting that cheap doesn’t mean bad wine (and that it linked to my site just hows smart the author, Abigail Miller, is). Writes Miller: “The cuter the label, the simpler the wine,” something I have been preaching for years and that producers assume we’re too stupid to understand. Plus, I brushed up on current slang – “bougie,” a derivative of bourgeois, as in “drinking wine is so bougie,” and slapping the bag, a drinking game that uses the bag inside boxed wine.
• Scores and retailers: A Massachusetts TV station discovered that the scores used to sell wine on shelf talkers at liquor stores in its area were playing fast and loose with vintage – that is, the wine that got a 90 was not the vintage for sale. It was something that the TV report found in eight of 10 stores. Said one retailer: “I guess it would be good to know that the winery has won medals, but I think that the consumer needs to look at the year, because the year will make a huge difference.” Sadly, despite the retailer’s observations, I’m told this is a common practice throughout the country.
• Not much growth: The U.S. wine boom has ended, and the market will grow at just about one percent through 2020. This compares to growth of 3.3 percent before the recession, a fact the short story mentions but doesn’t try to explain. Has wine become what marketers call a mature category, where we’ve seen all the growth we’re going to have? Or is there something else going on that no one can explain? My guess, given that so few Americans drink wine compared to other countries, is the latter.
• Take that, wine scores: Writes MJ Skeggs in the Portland Mercury about wine scores: “Yep, despite how the tasting industry (the magazines, star reviewers, bloggers, anyone with a palate and a keyboard) claims objectivity, it comes down to personal preference.” Couldn’t have said it better myself, though I’ve probably said it just as well many, many times. Skeggs lists eight other reasons to avoid scores, as well as the best alternative – find a good retailer and go from there. And how can one not recommend a wine article that includes a Spinal Tap reference?
• Tennessee grocery store wine: How big a deal is supermarket wine? More than 400 grocery stores in Tennessee started selling wine this month, the first time they were allowed to do so under new legislation. The fight to allow wine in supermarkets in the state dates to the 1970s, and has been called the biggest change in the state’s liquor laws since Prohibition. Where have we heard that before?
Some intriguing news about how wine retailing works just in time for the holiday shopping season.
? Best places to buy wine: W. Blake Gray ranks the nine best places to buy wine, and it’s not surprising that his top pick is the independent where someone waits on you. More important, though, is that he speaks rare truths about a couple of respected retailers: At No. 4, “You won’t find bargains at Whole Foods, but over $25 you will find interesting wines” and No. 8, where “there’s a widespread myth that Trader Joe’s wines are great values. Actually they are just cheaply sourced wines: an $8 wine there has the same markup as an $8 wine at ay other store, but most other stores put more effort into quality control.” That’s the kind of honest wine writing I wish we had more of on the Internet — and in print, as well.
? Because points matter: Australian wine writer Philip White details the sad and not exactly honest relationship between wine scores, wine writing, and wine retailing. “Put very simply, whether it ?s the wine shows or the shiny mags or books, the system of scoring wines has not done much to improve the average quality of the wines made in Australia. Rather, the scores are awarded according to fad, fashion and what needs to be sold, usually as dictated to the judging teams by their chair.” In other words, the only way retailers, producers, and wine media is with high scores, which don’t necessarily benefit consumers or the quality of the wine. Wonder if White is the down under version of the WC?
The most important part of the 2015 Wine Spectator top 100 isn’t the top-ranked wine or even the wines themselves. It’s this line, buried in the fifth paragraph:
Overall, the average score and average price are the same as in 2014 ?s Top 100: 93 points and $47 — an excellent quality-to-price ratio
That the magazine’s editors could write this speaks to how screwed up scores are and to how little the Spectator understands about the relationship between quality and value. A few thoughts:
? A $47 wine should get 93 points, if only because it costs $47. What’s the point of buying it otherwise? I could just as easily buy a $35 wine that got 90 points, which offers a better dollar per points ratio (a concept that, as I write this, makes my stomach turn).
? If I owned a winery and spent the millions of dollars necessary to make $47 wine and I didn’t get at least 93 points, the winemaker’s job would be in jeopardy. Baseball managers who don’t win get fired; why not winemakers?
? True value is a $10 wine that gets 88 or 90 points, a dollar per points ratio of .11, vs. the .51 for the $47 wine (sorry — couldn’t help myself). These are the wines that score-driven consumers have been to taught to buy, and I hear from them all the time. “Parker gave that $12 wine 90 points. Do you know where I can find it?”
? No score can guarantee whether you’ll like the wine. No. 21 on the list, with 93 points, is the Cloudy Bay sauvignon blanc from New Zealand. It’s a nice wine, but certainly not my favorite New Zealand sauvignon blanc and certainly not the 21st best wine of 2015 if I was doing the ranking.
? And, in one of those peculiarly Spectator leaps of logic, the rankings list scores and boast about them but the wines aren’t ranked by scores. Rather, they are chosen for “quality, value, availability and excitement.” Excitement? Did Fred Sanford judge the wines this year?
This is huge news, given that one theory supposes that comets crashing into the the Earth 3.8 billion years brought with them the carbon-based organic molecules, like alcohol and sugar, that may have jump-started life on our planet. Which is all well and good, but comet Lovejoy wine raises equally important questions for those of us who worry about those things:
? Can the Winestream Media adapt its tasting notes to comet-produced wine? Toasty and oaky, given how cold it is in space, just aren’t going to work. Maybe something like “hints of vacuum linger on the finish”? And how do you a score a comet wine? Does it get 92 points just because it’s from a comet? Or do you take points off for that, since outer space is not Napa Valley?
? The big get bigger? An industry analyst says Diageo, one of the biggest wine producers in the U.S., should merge with beer giant SABMiller to increase profits as the global drinks business slows down. Talk about Big Wine: the combined company would total $8 billion in sales, and its products would include Miller beer, Johnnie Walker scotch, and Rosenblum and Sterling wines. How do we know the speculation is more than gossip? The news story included the word synergies, as in the combined company would save money because it had them. As regular visitors here know, synergies — which, like unicorns and wood nymphs — exist only in the minds of those who believe in them, and are always given as an excuse for a multi-national merger. Because, otherwise, what’s the point?
? A wine snob temper tantrum: The Italian Wine Guy, who knows more about Italian wine than almost anyone else in the world, recounts his experience with a wine drinker, and it’s not pretty. The customer wanted a 100-point Robert Parker Brunello, and he wasn’t going to suffer anything as foolish as advice from one of the most knowledgeable Italian wine people in the world. What’s worse is that the customer was rude about it, treating the Italian Wine Guy as if he was some idiot foisted on the customer by an inept store owner. This is the harm in scores, regardless of anything else: If all we do is buy wine by scores, we cheat ourselves of all wine has to offer. It’s snobbishness of the worst degree, as bad as the snobs who make fun of people who drink sweet wine.
? Calling wine by its regional name: The U.S. and the European Union have been arguing for some 20 years about strengthening the international agreement that prohibits U.S. producers from calling their sparkling wine Champagne and stops French companies from calling their potatoes Idaho. Now, though, the two sides may be close to an agreement, thanks to a U.S. compromise. The article, from the Conversation.com website, is long and little legalish, but it does a good job of explaining why these trade laws exist, why the U.S. traditionally didn’t care for them, and what might happen next. Who knew Feta cheese was a deal-breaker?
The Wine Curmudgeon writes stuff like this all the time: “Why the 100-point system of rating wine is irrelevant.” In fact, I write about the foolishness of wine scores so often that you’re probably tired of reading about it. But what happens when a member of the wine establishment, someone who uses the word “somm” in everyday conversation, says “the future of wine ratings and recommendations will rely largely on friend recommendations and approval.”
It means wine scores are one step closer to going to where they deserve to go.
Jonathan Cristaldi, who wrote all of that, is about as wine establishment as you can get — an instructor at the Napa Valley Wine Academy and deputy editor for The SOMM Journal and The Tasting Panel Magazine. In other words, he does not espouse the wonders of $5 wine at Aldi or complain about the Winestream Media.
So when Cristaldi says the 100-point scale and wine scores are increasingly irrelevant, it means something. How many of the old white guys who keep defending points were once called a new ?Wine Prophet ? by Time Out New York magazine? Writes Cristaldi:
More and more people will learn of wine ?s complexities through social engagement. Friends and confidants (trade and non-trade) will replace the lone critic and his bully pulpit. Wine drinkers will realize the power and worth of a discerning palate because of the value their friends place on such expectations.
The key here is that Cristaldi isn’t writing for consumers, the 95 percent of us who will never spend more than $20 for a bottle of wine and don’t care one way or the other about scores when we buy Little Black Dress or Cupcake. He is writing for the elite, including the five percent who buy high-end wine; everyone who has helped to make scores part of selling wine over the past four decades and has helped it become the shell game that it is today.
There won’t be a need for wine scores as we know them, says Cristaldi, because of that social engagement. This is more than the social media that the old white guys like to make fun of because they just know that Facebook and Twitter are stupid, but a fundamental change in the way the wine supply chain works. Today, when a retailer or restaurateur buys wine, the distributor’s sell sheets — a handout they give customers — include Parker and Wine Spectator ratings and other wine scores. Because, as one top Dallas chef-owner told me, if the wine gets 95 points in the Spectator, he has to have it, whether he wants it or not.
But in Cristaldi’s future, retailers and restaurateurs will buy wine because someone they know and respect recommends it, and the score will be just one part of that. And, given social media, they can check those recommendation in seconds, whether with a text, a tweet, an Instagram picture, or in apps like Vivino, Delectable, or CellarTracker. He calls this new breed ?social sommeliers, ? because they participate in “the social conversation about wine.”
These people, who are younger and include women and people of color, aren’t waiting for the distributor’s sell sheets with wine scores; they’re already talking about the wine with their colleagues around the world long before the distributor arrives. This is something that has never happened before in the history of wine, and it’s something the old white guys can’t even begin to understand. They think sell sheets are still the cutting edge.
And, finally, if you still think this is all silliness, know about a conversation I had with a 20-something wine drinker during a cheap wine book appearance. Why should I buy your book, he asked me? Who needs it? I can do this — and he twiddled his phone with his thumb — to find a good wine to drink.