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Blue Apron wine: Disappointing and depressing

Blue-Apron-Wine

blue apron wineThis was going to be a glowing post about the wine program at Blue Apron, the home delivery service that supplies recipes and ingredients for home cooks who want to try something more adventurous than Wednesday night meatloaf. When Blue Apron wine debuted last fall, giving its customers the opportunity to buy wine paired for its recipes, I thought: “Finally. Someone in the food business understands wine.”

Which turned out to be as far from the truth as possible. The six Blue Apron wines that I tasted (all samples) were poorly made, rarely varietally correct, mostly old and worn out, and apparently came from a bulk house whose website seems more excited about label design than wine quality. Adding to the aggravation: I emailed Blue Apron requesting an interview in October, and was told to submit my questions in writing because its executives didn’t do interviews. I’m still waiting for the answers to my questions; maybe they didn’t want to tell me what I found out by tasting the wine (and I hope that the conscientious PR woman who sent the samples doesn’t get fired,  because none of this is her fault).

How depressing was my Blue Apron wine experience? The best tasting wine was a South African pinotage, and one rarely gets to say that about pinotage. Besides, if you’re trying to teach foodies about wine, why would you send them pinotage, a grape that is difficult to make into quality wine and isn’t widely available? The pinot noir, labeled Hilliard Bruce but vinted and bottled at the bulk company, was bland and faded. A Lodi vermentino tasted as much like the Italian grape as a crayon does, and a California sauvignon blanc was green, stemmy, and bitter with almost no sauvignon blanc fruit. The less said about the Spanish monastrell and California chardonnay the better.

In the end, the Blue Apron wine was no better than the wine club plonk I tasted last fall. If Blue Apron treated its food the way it treats its wine, it would not be a $2 billion company and startup darling.

The more I thought about this, the more I realized that Blue Apron wine has nothing to do with wine and everything with what marketers call adding value to the product. For an extra $65.99 a month, they’ll send you six “incredible” bottles that will “complement your upcoming Blue Apron meals.” In this, the company is giving its customers something they wouldn’t or couldn’t do on their own. If most Blue Apron customers subscribe because they love food and cooking, they’re less likely to know what incredible tastes like or how wine complements a meal. So six bottles (even 500-ml ones, about two-thirds of normal) for $10 each? Sign me up.

Which means Blue Apron wine is about selling Blue Apron and very little about teaching anyone about wine. I shouldn’t be surprised by this, but I really wanted to believe Blue Apron wine was the real thing. Even a curmudgeon has hopes.

Finally, to anyone who has subscribed to Blue Apron wine and wonders if all wine tastes like this, no, it doesn’t. The next time you want to pair your Blue Apron Lebanese Arayes (filled pitas), buy a $10 Bogle sauvingon blanc instead of the recommended Blue Apron sauvignon blanc. The Bogle tastes like real wine, and you get an extra couple of glasses for the same price.

Wine of the week: Chapoutier Bila-Haut 2014

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Chapoutier Bila-HautIt’s probably an exaggeration to call Michel Chapoutier of the renowned Rhone winemaking family France’s version of Fred Franzia, the man the U.S. wine business loves to hate. But the two have much in common — both are controversial and both do things that they’re not supposed to do. Chapoutier, for instance, has gone into the riesling business, something a Rhone producer has probably never done in all of France’s recorded wine history.

They even understand the U.S. market in a way that too many of their competitors don’t. What they don’t have in common is the quality of the wine; Chapoutier’s are much better than anything Franzia does these days, despite the latter’s claims to the contrary. The Chapoutier Bila-Haut ($15, sample, 14%) is a case in point: It’s a varietally correct Rhone-style red blend from the less known Roussillon region in southern France that appeals to both the commercial side of the market — its premiumized price (almost twice what it costs in Europe) and fruit forward style — and to those of us who think Rhone-style wine should taste a certain way.

Look for a hint of the earthiness and rusticity that I appreciate, but which isn’t overwhelmed by lots of red fruit (cherry?) and a richer mouth feel that has more to do with the New World than the Old. Having said that, it was quite pleasant and enjoyable, a red wine that will come in handy as spring arrives and that I would buy at $12 or $13.

Winebits 423: Kroger wine, direct shipping, Bordeaux

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kroger wineThe big get richer: The Wall Street Journal is reporting that Kroger wants to contract management of its wine and beer departments to Southern Wine & Spirits, the biggest distributor in the country, so that the grocer doesn’t have to worry about buying or stocking the shelves. If accurate, this represents another significant change in the way we buy wine and the choices we get when we do. For one thing, Kroger is one of the biggest wine retailers in the country, and has paid for political campaigns to allow supermarket wine sales in many states, including Texas. Second, Southern could favor its brands over those of other distributors, giving its products better shelf space. Third, and the story isn’t clear on this, producers would have to pay Southern for the privilege of having it manage the shelves, and how many small producers could afford to pay those fees? I’m going to follow this story, because if it happens, other big retailers will follow, and our wine-buying lives will get that much more difficult.

Rapid growth: The direct shipping market — wine sold to consumers directly from the winery and the only exception to the three-tier systemgrew eight percent last year, to almost $2 billion. Which is a lot, though some perspective is needed: the U.S. wine market totaled about $39 billion in sales in 2014, so direct shipping represents less than five percent of the total. In addition, direct sales are focused on consumers in just five states, and one of them is California, where shipping costs are less of a factor. Also, the cost of the average bottle sold directly is $38, which means most U.S. wine drinkers are priced out of the DTC market. (And a tip o’ the Curmdgeon’s fedora to Steve McIntosh at Winethropology for sending this my way.)

Cheap by whose standards? The Wine Curmudgeon has long advocated that Bordeaux’s sales problems in the U.S. are a function of price, and this gem from the Village Voice demonstrates that nothing has changed. It touts the value in the current vintages of Bordeaux, yet only one of the eight wines in the story costs less than $25, a $17 bottle from what’s called a satellite appellation — a lesser region of Bordeaux. To add insult to injury, the story says it’s difficult to find satellite appellation wines because they usually don’t have scores and you will have to consult a “Bordeaux connoisseur.”  Yeah, like most wine drinkers have a Bordeaux connoisseur in their phone. And aren’t we done with scores yet?

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