Wine premiumization may be ending, but you wouldn’t know it by reading the Winestream Media
By most measures, the end of premiumization is underway. Wine drinkers have been opting for less expensive wine over the past six months, and, depending on which expert is talking, the trend will continue and perhaps even accelerate. In other words, lower wine prices and better quality cheap wine.
But it would be difficult to know this from reading the Winestream Media.
I don’t write this to be snarky (well, maybe, just a little), but to point out how difficult it is to tell what’s going on in wine from its most important media outlets. Wine-searcher.com somehow managed to run these two stories almost at the same time – “Premium wine falls victim to the coronavirus” and “Wine sales defy doom and gloom.” And this doesn’t include the site’s regular roundup of all things high priced – “Bordeaux’s most expensive wine,” “Napa’s most expensive wine,” and (my favorite), “Brunello 2015: Another perfect vintage.”
At the Wine Enthusiast, meanwhile, one writer was salivating over $40 California gamay, which is about as premiumized as wine gets that isn’t cabernet sauvignon. And the Wine Spectator has reassured us that it will continue to cover the 2019 Bordeaux futures market, despite what the magazine’s Bordeaux reviewer called the pandemic’s “rude interruption.”
Why is the Winestream Media treating this almost unprecedented moment in world history – and with all of the changes it looks like it will bring to wine – as just another minor sales blip?
• Because that’s what it does, and to expect more of it is expecting more than it is capable of. Yes, it may well be fiddling while Rome burns, but it doesn’t understand that Rome can burn. Rome is eternal, just like wine scores and $300 Napa cabernet.
• Because it doesn’t want to see what’s going on, as Richard Hemming, MW, explained to us last week. If wine writers write things the wine business doesn’t want written, there’s a good chance the wine writers will find themselves persona non grata. As Hemming said, there’s no reason consumers should necessarily trust wine writers.
• Because there aren’t really any good numbers to describe what’s going on, even if a wine writer wanted to write about it. We’ve noted this on the blog many times, and another example came up last week. David Morrison at the Wine Gourd has made a specialty of parsing wine industry statistics, whether sales or scores, and noted last week about one sales study: “The conclusions seem to vary from quite accurate to wildly exaggerated.”
So what’s a consumer to do? Buy wine you like, be willing to try something else, and wait to see what prices will do. We’ll almost certainly see prices drop before the Winestream Media discovers most of us aren’t all that interested in $40 California gamay.
Our red wine bias study has the Internet buzzing – and people are saying smart things about it
This week’s post about red wine bias among wine critics did everything that we hoped it would do: Get people talking about what our study means. There has been some tremendous discussion – not just here, but elsewhere around the cyber-ether.
My biggest surprise? That so many mainstream wine critics picked up on the study and offered serious comment, instead of dismissing it out of hand. That’s my mistake, in assuming the worst. My biggest disappointment? That not enough people saw the study as one more example of everything that’s wrong with wine scores.
Suneal Chaudhary, who crunched the numbers for the study and deserves an award for his efforts, said, “I’m starting to get a sense that there’s something about the scoring system that’s flawed in some way but can’t exactly put it in words at the moment. The other reaction I’ve seen a lot is that red wines are more complex and so they should rightly score higher. Which is a fine argument if it’s true — but I’m not sure if it is. Personally, I think whites have a different aesthetic to them. It’s like saying the smell of roses is more complex than jasmine or something, but does that make the smell of roses better?”
That was a common theme among the comments, emails, and discussions Suneal and I found – that only wines made with serious grapes deserve the best scores, and the only serious white grape is chardonnay (and don’t even think about mentioning rose). So, according to this argument, why should anyone be surprised by any kind of bias? It’s only natural and right.
Which, of course, made me very sad – the some animals are more equal than other animals theory.
A sampling of other reaction from around the Internet:
• A mostly favorable discussion on the Wine Berserkers site, which also surprised me. It’s the Internet – who says nice things?
• Winemakers, not surprisingly, were split. Those who focus on white wine (and several left comments on the blog) disagreed that red was more difficult or more expensive to make. Red winemakers, not surprisingly, said of that course red was more expensive and more difficult, so why shouldn’t it get higher scores?
• Blog reader Patrick Sirridge’s observation was one of the most astute: “In my view, many wine critics/writers follow the herd and provide higher ratings for higher priced reds,” he said in an email. “Even more modestly priced reds get the benefit of the doubt regarding quality and complexity and thus get higher ratings. Bias in favor of reds – sure.”
• Another blog reader, Bob Henry, found several old magazine articles and blog posts discussing this subject, including an interview with Robert Parker in what was then called Wine Times and today is the Wine Enthusiast. In the interview, which is at the link, Parker said that some red wines are indeed more serious than others, and that his scoring system reflects that. I wonder if Parker would disavow that comment today – or if the Wine Advocate still uses that approach.
You can download a PDF of the report here.
Do experts rate red wines more highly than white wines, regardless of price, vintage, and region? Does this mean there is a critical bias in favor of red wines?
That may well be the case. Data scientist, wine lover, PhD, and former college math professor Suneal Chaudhary did the numbers, analyzing more than 64,000 wine scores dating to the 1970s and taken from the major wine magazines. The results are something I’ve been trying to get a handle on for years, the idea that critics favor reds over whites. The details are after the jump: Continue reading
This week’s wine news: Wine recommendations most of us can’t afford, plus the feds help with alcohol levels and the market for natural wine
• Pricey, pricey, pricey: How about a list of fall and winter wine recommendations where all but four of 20 wines cost more than $20? Sadly, that’s what happens when you ask restaurant wine types for wine advice. It’s not that there aren’t some excellent wines in the post from Bloomberg News (the $22 Domain Berson Chablis, for one) and that these people don‘t know their business, but let’s be honest. I didn’t want to spend $145 for my once in a century wine if the Cubs win the World Series; who is going to do it because the weather is cooler? Making matters worse is the headline: “20 wines you need to drink this fall.” No I don’t. The only one who got the pricing right was Ryan Arnold of Lettuce Entertain You, a restaurant company in Chicago started by one of the world’s great restaurateurs, Rich Melman: a $16, a $17, and a $30 wine.
• More accurate: W. Blake Gray reports that a change in the way the federal government approves wine labels will mean more accurate alcohol percentages on the label, and perhaps the end of the ubiquitous 13.5 percent. “In many cases wineries have to submit the label for approval before the final blend of the wine has been decided,” he writes. “They have to guesstimate how much alcohol the actual wine will have. That means label approval has driven many winemaking decisions, which is bad for everybody.” Now, since they won’t have to list the alcohol percentage to get the label approved, they can make the wine and put the correct alcohol level on the label afterwards. That’s not only better for producers, but consumers as well. One reason we see 13.5 percent on so many labels, even if the wine isn’t really 13.5 percent, is that it’s easier to do that for a variety of complicated and legal reasons.
• Not too many people: The Wine Curmudgeon frequently laments the wine fads passed along as fact by the the Winestream Media, and it’s a pleasure to see a serious discussion about whether natural wine is anything more than one of those. “Are sales in this niche finally starting to have a global impact – or is it just a hipster bubble that could burst as fast as a poorly made pet-nat?” asks the Wine Business International trade magazine (full disclosure: I freelance regularly for the magazine). The conclusion: Assuming one can define a natural wine, since there is no accepted standard other than an organic wine isn’t natural enough, “market share in most countries has yet to reach even the first percentage point.” Case closed. Now we can go back to arguing about something important, like the efficacy of scores.
Astronomers were surprised to find that some comets produce alcohol, as well as sugar, as they travel around the solar system. “We found that comet Lovejoy was releasing as much alcohol as in at least 500 bottles of wine every second during its peak activity,” said Nicolas Biver of the Paris Observatory in France.
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:
? Do the comets know about the three-tier system? Lovejoy was producing the equivalent of 150,000 cases an hour, and we all know that the country’s distributors aren’t going to let that happen without them. They’ve paid entirely too much money to state legislators to let a comet ruin things. And I can only imagine the horror if Lovejoy passed anywhere near Pennsylvania, with its state store system.
? Will E&J Gallo, the Big Wine producer that has made hundreds of millions of dollars of acquisitions this year, buy the comet to add to its portfolio? A sweet Lovejoy red, since the comet threw off sugar, would slide in nicely next to Gallo brands like Apothic and Barefoot on grocery store shelves. And how could a back label that said “Comet Lovejoy wine — out of this world” miss?
? 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?
Photo courtesy of Adam Block Photos, using a Creative Commons license