Uncle Sam can't believe the criticism that cheap wine gets these days.
Tuesday is Tax Day, the deadline for U.S. residents to pay their state and federal income taxes. Which is an ideal opportunity for the Wine Curmudgeon to remind everyone about the blog's reason for being: cheap wine. What better day to write about wine we can afford to drink than the day our taxes are due?
One of the best things about new media is that it doesn't require a lot of bureauacracy or capital investment to do a story. In other words, when I need to write about something, I don't have to clear it with a boss or wait days or weeks or even months for it to wend its way through a printing plant and delivery truck.
I mention this because, since I first wrote about wine price trends for 2012 in January, a bunch of things have happened to make that post seem outdated. But if I was still writing for a newspaper, I wouldn't be able to ready update the post, and readers would be left thinking that wine prices in 2012 will go up.
Fortunately, since I'm not tied down to a traditional media publishing platform, I can correct that impression whenever it needs to be corrected. I've updated it once, and it looks like it needs to be updated again. More, after the jump:
As long as we’re on the subject of wine writing and its various deficiencies, consider this video. It pretty much puts everyone in the wine business in their place, from consumers to wine writers to retailers to restaurants to producers. Congratulations to VinnyFi1 at YouTube, who certainly knows how to cork a bottle.
The section about wine writers is priceless. The quote in the headline is from the video, and there are a couple of others that are almost as good, whether it’s calling the Wine Spectator the Wine Dictator or discussing how to hoodwink those 30-something wine types who want to be famous more than they want to know about wine. And calling restaurants burglars for their pricing strategies isn’t bad, either. Don’t know who VinnyFi1 is (and this is his only video), but the Wine Cumudgeon is jealous that he didn’t think of this first.
I’d also like to recommend a video called “96 points,” from Dalforno, also from YouTube, which pretty much says everthing that needs to be said about the 100-point scoring system. It includes the classic exchange: “What does a 96-point wine taste like? Between a 95-point wine and a 97-point wine.” Be warned, though, that the language is reminisicent of my days working on newspaper copy desks; if that’s a problem, you’ll probably want to skip it.
Two of the leading wine tracking consultancies have released their 2011 top brands surveys, at more or less the same time that one of the most influential wine bloggers in the cyber-ether asked if it’s true that wine writers don’t write about wine that people drink. Needless to say, the conclusion in the latter’s post was that yes, it’s true, and, more importantly, said the comments, why would we want to?
Let it not be said that the Wine Curmudgeon doesn’t appreciate irony.
The surveys were from Impact DataBank and SymphonyIRI. The wines that made the lists (and there is a surprising amount of overlap) were many that the Winestream Media goes out of its way to ignore: Cupcake; Apothic, the sweet red; Barefoot and its 10 million cases; and even YellowTail, which has shown amazing staying power given how old the brand is and how quickly brands fade away. The 2010 Symphony list is also worth noting.
I’ve written about this before. Actually, many times. But it’s worth repeating: The gulf between the wines that most Americans drink and the wines that most wine writers write about is stunning, and it’s a contradiction that exists in almost no other industry. What car magazine ignores entry level cars?
What’s even more amazing is that so few in the Winestream Media realize this, which is what made the Dr. Vino post so noteworthy. It’s not often that people with his credentials ask that question:
While it ?s true that a reader can pick and choose from a list of recommendations, it ?s still worth bearing in mind that if a reader were to have a $15 bottle of wine every other night, the total spend on wine a year would be $2,730, a significant figure for most household budgets.
This elicited a lot of hand wringing in the post and comments, because, obviously, cheap wine is not worth writing about. So what are wine writers to do? Or, as one comment put it, “Wine writers are in a tough spot. The elite vintners are the ones that pay their bills either directly or by allowing them access to wines that give them credibility. If they don ?t kiss their butts, they won ?t be relevant or worse won ?t have work.”
And people think I’m a cynic.
I’d like to suggest another possibility: That it’s OK to write about wines that people drink, even if they’re sold — shudder — in grocery stores and made — tremble — by huge multi-national corporations. There is plenty of terrific $10 wine available (though it requires a bit more effort to find than waiting for samples to show up at the front door). I’ve been doing it for almost four years, and I’d like to think I’ve had some success with it, to say nothing of being relevant.
But then again, what do I know? I write about cheap wine.
Too many restaurants have long alienated wine drinkers with lazy wine lists and greedy markups. Now, it looks like they have even alienated people who don’t drink wine.
NPD Group, one of the two or three best restaurant consultancies in the world, has found that consumers are forgoing costly soft drinks for free water. The reason? Diners are tired of paying overinflated prices for Coke, Pepsi, and the like — a trend that started before the recession, and only accelerated as they looked for ways to save money when eating out.
“Leaving off the beverage is the easy thing to do,” says Warren Solochek, NPD’s vice president of client services, and consumers are doing it with a passion. NPD reports that restaurant traffic has declined one percent over the past five years, but total beverage sales have dropped six percent.
Consumers, apparently, have three reasons for switching to water:
? The recession. Water is free, which can knock $10 off the bill for a family of four. “Consumers are working very hard to manage their spending,” says Solochek.
? Improved sensibilties. One glass of a soft drink in a restaurant costs as much as a six-pack at the grocery store, and consumers are noticing this more than ever. In this, says Solochek, there is evidence that our spending habits are genuinely changing, and that the post-recession consumer will be more practical in what he or she buys.
? Health perceptions. Soft drinks are mostly empty calories. Water isn’t.
What’s truly fascinating about this development is that it’s strictly about soft drinks. Restaurant wine sales have also declined, but Solochek says that’s because wine drinkers aren’t eating out as much. Instead, he says, we’re buying a bottle of wine and eating at home, where we don’t have to suffer those 3-for-1 markups. That soft drinkers are joining us in our disgust does not bode well for the restaurant business, which has traditionally used high prices for beverages, hard and soft, to boost profits. Those soft drink markups can be as high as 10-to-1.
And, to its credit, the restaurant business is aware of what’s going on. Solochek says owners and operators understand they need to be more innovative in how they approach beverage service, whether it’s for alcohol or soft drinks. This is one reason why many restaurants are pushing craft beer and signature cocktails; restaurant beer sales more or less held their own during the recession, thanks to the popularity of microbrews.
I’ve seen some of this change in Dallas, where a variety of restaurants are cutting wine prices and re-doing wine lists. Stephan Pyles, owned by the celebrity chef of the same name, has made over its list, focusing on more local, more interesting and less expensive wine. That this is happening at a restaurant where price resistance should not be a problem speaks volumes about what’s going in elsewhere in the restaurant business.
Does this mean the days of the 3-to-1 markup are over? Let’s not go that far quite yet. But it looks there will be changes, and we’re seeing some of them now. When groups as different as restaurant wine and soft drink consumers have something in common, we’re certainly not in Kansas anymore.
The Wine Curmudgeon’s recent foray into sweet red wine brought Riunite to mind, which those of us of a certain age will remember (how fondly depends, of course, on how much Riunite one drank in those days). Riunite was one of the first sweet reds, but even then, it wasn’t polite to call the wine sweet — it was “soft.”
YouTube has a surprising number of vintage Riunite commercials, as well as a bunch that re-do the brand for more modern sensibilities (part of a program called Riunite Reinvented that the producer held several years ago). The older commercials, most from the early 1980s, sport a bouncy, Gloria Gaynor beat; some incredible late 1970s clothing styles; and the infamous jingle, which worms its way into your head like a computer virus.
I chose this commercial (courtesy of DrMagic) mostly because it was a bit different — wine and food pairings were not exactly common back then. Wine with tacos? But if you want to see any of the others, in all their well-scrubbed, hard-smiling model glory, do a YouTube search for “Riunite commercial.” Because it is so nice.
The latest research seems to confirm the newest trend in wine — that some of us are better at tasting wine than others. The study, conducted by researchers at Penn State and Brock University in Canada, found that the so-called experts can taste subtleties in wine that the rest of us can’t.
This is just another in a long line of studies about wine palates that separate the world into people with various degrees of wine tasting ability. A Yale scientist, Linda Bartoshuk, divides the world into three groups: Super tasters, about 25 percent of the population; tasters, about 50 percent; and non-tasters, about 25 percent. The first group is above average, the second is average, and the third is below average.. Women are a little more than twice as likely to be super tasters as men, according to her work.
The Wine Curmudgeon is not here to argue with the science behind this research. There is little doubt some of us taste wine better than others, just as some of us jump higher or dance better than others. But what does bother me is the assumption too many people take from these studies, and especially from the news reports of these studies — that if you’re not a super taster, you can’t possibly enjoy wine.
I was quite possibly the worst softball player in the world. I couldn’t throw, my swing was slow and powerless, and I ran like a cardboard box. But I loved playing softball, whether it was in gym class or recreational leagues. Yet, by applying the logic that is inherent in so many of these stories about wine tasting ability, I should not only should not have enjoyed softball, but I never should have played it because I was so bad at it.
This is silly, and it’s one of those things that drives me crazy about wine — and goes a long way toward explaining why more of us don’t drink wine. Why bother to drink wine when we’re told only an expert can appreciate its flavors? It’s more or less what this story implies, and I run into it almost every time I talk to wine drinkers about drinking wine.
The first two things most of them do is apologize for not knowing more about wine and for drinking what they assume is crappy wine. Then they ask me how I can possibly taste all the flavors in wine; I must be special or something. (Obviously, they never saw me play softball.)
In other words, they are intimidated by my wine knowledge. That I have been drinking wine regularly for more than 25 years doesn’t make them feel better. Or that I taste almost 500 wines a year. Or that I talk to winemakers and other wine types all the time, asking questions and learning things. The consumer side of the wine business is so screwed up that most wine drinkers don’t see a difference between how I approach wine and how they approach it. That they only buy wine a couple or three times a month at the grocery store isn’t enough to explain why I know more than they do. It must be their fault; they must be flawed in some way.
Their only flaw, as my pal Dave McIntyre has admirably pointed out, is that they don’t pay as much attention as we do. But they have a ready made excuse. They myth, as perpetuated by the experts and their allies in the Winestream Media, is that that they can’t possibly appreciate what they’re drinking.
Or, as a wine drinker named Allison Davis put it so brilliantly last fall: “There is no safe place to really learn about wine. There aren’t any places where you can ask a stupid question. If you ask a question, it’s as if the attitude is, ‘Why don’t you know this already?’ instead of ‘Why would you know this?’ Because wine is so complicated, and there is so much to learn and who has the time to figure all this out?”
So they don’t bother. After all, they don’t have a good enough palate.
One day, perhaps, the wine business will figure out that everyone is entitled to enjoy wine, regardless of palate. Until then, I’ll keep reminding everyone that wine, like softball, can be fun regardless. And who better to know than someone who ran like a cardboard box?