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Winebits 356: Big Wine edition

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wine news big wineBecause it’s always worth knowing what the six companies that control 60 percent of the U.S. wine business, plus their biggest competitors, are up to:

The biggest producer you’ve never heard of: Delicato Family Vineyards makes 5 million cases of wine a year, almost all of it Great Wall of Grocery store stuff, and almost all of it in anonymity. You might have heard of some of its brands, like Bota Box and Gnarly Head, but the winery itself is perfectly happy to be little known. That’s why this two-part interview (here and here) with Delicato president and CEO Chris Indelicato, conducted by the Shanken News Service is worthwhile. Indelicato talked about wine prices and that another big harvest in California this year will mean lower margins for producers, if not lower prices for consumers; that we’ll see more cheap pinot noir that doesn’t exactly taste like pinot noir because consumers want it; and that consumers are smarter than they used to be. Which doesn’t exactly jibe with doing Bota Box pinot noir and what Indelicato calls the consumer’s demand for soft — i.e., sweet — red, but who am I to argue with a 5 million case producer?

• Big companies, big results: Each year, the Impact trade magazine names its Blue Chip Brands, which have to meet growth and profit targets. Not surprisingly (at least for those of us paying attention), one of the Big Six, Constellation Brands, and Diageo, in the top 15, account for nearly one-third of the 2014  of Blue Chip Brands for beer, spirits, and wine. Constellation’s wines included Woodbridge, Black Box, Estancia, Ruffino, Kim Crawford, and Simi, though Diageo’s brands were all beer and spirits. I’d also mention that all but one of the Constellation wines cost $10 or less, but that would probably be preaching to the choir.

Big and getting bigger: The news release itself is close to useless, full of jargon and terms most of us don’t understand. But the gist is what matters: That Chile’s Concha y Toro, the biggest Latin American wine producer with $950 million in sales, is growing at a rate of 18 percent a year. That makes it one of the 15 biggest wine companies in the U.S. market, with more market share here than Diageo.  Again, this is a company that most wine drinkers don’t know (though they have likely heard of Fetzer, which Concha bought in 2011). In this, it’s another example of how the biggest companies continue to tighten their grip on the market.

Two UNT classes and one very important wine lesson

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young wine drinkers

You can always trust a man in a hat who talks about cheap wine.

This has not been the best of times for the Wine Curmudgeon, as anyone who has visited the blog over the past three or four months may have noticed. The posts have been a little crankier, my patience has been a little shorter, and the supply of quality cheap wine has seemed ever smaller. As I have written in a post for later this month, “the wine business has a lot to answer for.”

But I’m feeling refreshed and ready to do battle again, thanks to last week’s visit with two classes at the University of North Texas’ hospitality school. The students’ enthusiasm for wine; their willingness to entertain the idea that they can drink what they want without orders from on high; and their joy at learning new things about wine did much to wash away the grime and irritation of the summer and fall.

They reminded me, as I told them about the myths that dominate wine in the U.S. and prevent us from enjoying wine the way we should, that wine is supposed to be fun. One of my favorite things to do at a class or tasting like this is to ask who liked a wine, and then ask who didn’t. Then, I ask someone from each group to explain why — and almost always, the person who didn’t like the wine disliked it for the same reasons that the person who liked it did. That is, someone said it was too sweet, but someone else said it was just sweet enough, or someone said it wasn’t fruity enough and someone else said it was too fruity.

The look of recognition on their faces when we do this is always gratifying, and it was especially gratifying last week. Because when I see that look, I know they’ve figured out that everyone’s palate is different, and that it’s OK to like a wine, or not, based on their palate and no one else’s. I know they’re beginning to understand that that they don’t need reviews or scores written by bunch of old white guys sitting in a New York office. I know they can see that if they drink enough wine with an open mind and pay attention to what they’re drinking, that they can do wine all by themselves.

Which is why I started doing this all those years ago. Because, as Elvis Costello so aptly put it,

I wanna bite the hand that feeds me
I wanna bite that hand so badly
I want to make them wish they’d never seen me.

For more on young wine drinkers and their effect on the wine business:
The future of the wine business
Five things consumers told me during the cheap wine book tours

Photos courtesy of Leta Durrett

The difference between cheap wine and wine that is made cheaply

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cheap wine

Quality? Who cares about quality?

It’s not enough to advocate cheap wine; consumers need to know how to tell the difference between cheap wine and wine that is made cheaply. The Wine Curmudgeon was reminded of this yet again when I struggled through the 2014 five-day, $3 wine challenge, where the producers cared more about price than they did about quality.

The knock against cheap wine used to be that it couldn’t be made well. That hasn’t been true for at least two decades, but the argument has remained the same. Much of the blame for this rests with producers, who have been content to use improvements in winemaking and grape growing to make palatable wine, but not much more.

Call it, as one retailer told me, the wine equivalent of fast food. It fills the hole, and that’s all the consumer thinks it’s supposed to do. Ironically, this means value isn’t as important as it should be. Two Jack in the Box tacos for 99 cents are both cheap and a value, but why would you eat them unless it’s 2 a.m. and you’ve been drinking all night?

Wine should be more than that. Otherwise, we might as well drink light beer — same buzz, fewer calories, and just as cheap. Hence, how to tell the difference between cheap wine and wine that is made cheaply:

• Is the wine varietally correct? Does the cabernet sauvignon taste like cabernet sauvignon, the merlot like merlot, and so forth? Or have all the varietal differences been taken out, in favor of making a smooth wine?

• Is it interesting? Most boring cheap wine tastes the same. The reds have lots of sweet fruit, some fake oak, and a minimum of tannins and acidity — another way to get to smooth. Chardonnay made this way tastes of vanilla and apple sauce, riesling is sweet and nothing more, and pinot grigio has a dollop of sweet white fruit and a vaguely turpentine flavor. An interesting wine is the opposite: You’re eager for the second sip, and you taste things that you make you smile.

• Does the label seem like it got more attention from the producer than the wine? After you’ve tasted the wine, does the it taste as cute or clever or hip as the label implied it would taste? Or is it just ordinary grocery store merlot?

• Do you want to buy it again? Not, “I’ll buy it again because it’s cheap and tasted OK,” but “Wow, that was really good. I want to share this with all my friends.” This is not an easy concept for most wine drinkers, who are so happy to find a wine that doesn’t offend them that they convince themselves that the wine is better than it is.

• Did the winemaker make an effort, or just go through the motions? And no, you don’t have to be a wine geek to figure this out. Crappy writing is crappy writing, and you don’t need a PhD in English to see the difference. Shoddy clothing is shoddy clothing, and you don’t need Vera Wang to tell you why. All you need to do is pay attention to what you’re drinking, something else we’re afraid to do because it’s wine, and we’ve been told we don’t know enough to have an opinion.

More about cheap wine:
Can cheap wine do this?
Cheap wine can be intimidating
When cheap wine tastes cheap

Image courtesy of The Wandering Palate, using a Creative Commons license

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