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Category Archives: Wine trends

Once more about wine clubs: Wine Insiders

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wine clubsThe Wine Curmudgeon’s antipathy toward most non-winery wine clubs is well-known; too many of them sell mysterious wine for too high prices, and the wines are picked by “experts” who are rarely identified. And none of this takes into account the clubs’ shipping charges.

Nevertheless, I am always checking to see what’s new, which is what any good reporter should do. Hence my recent order from a company called Wine Insiders, which claims that it approves only five out of every 100 bottles that its experts sample and offers a double satisfaction guarantee (whatever that is).

The come-on? Six bottles of wine, advertised through an insert in one of those mailed to the house coupon things, for 40 percent off the $14.99 price plus 1-cent shipping. Sends like a hell of a deal, even though I don’t know what I’m getting save that the wines are “Delicious reds and refreshing whites.” I know, I know. I’m trying to keep an open mind, too, since the first rule of wine writing is not to make any judgments until you taste the wine. But that $14.99 sounds like grocery store pricing, where the club/member price is $12.99, the sale price is $10.99, and the six-bottle price is $8.99.

Which is why I’ll write more after I taste. Still, this reminds me of the record clubs that were so popular when I was kid. You got tapes (or vinyl, even, if you’re an old white guy) for pennies, the catch being what was called negative option billing, which made you liable even if you didn’t order the music after the first shipment. And the music after the first shipment came with higher than retail prices and expensive shipping costs. As one clever reporter wrote: “Record clubs may have introduced several generations of America’s youth to the concept of collection agencies. …”

Wine Insiders doesn’t do negative option billing (though some wine clubs do, or something similar where you have to buy a certain amount of wine). Still, the concept is eerily familiar, with the very cheap introductory offer and then what seem to be very high prices for the wines you can buy after the first time, like a $25 cava and a $23 rose. The former is from a producer who does a similar $15 cava, while the latter is apparently made by the same Provencal winemaker that does this $9 rose.

But always an open mind, and I would like nothing better to be wrong. Because then I got six great wines for $36, and those are Wine Curmudgeon prices.

For more on wine clubs:
Wine clubs: Are they worth the effort?
Wine through the mail: The do’s and don’ts of direct shipping
“Our panel of experts”

 

More insight into the gibberish of wine back labels

winetrends
wine back labels

The relationship between back label descriptors and price for red wine (from Mark Thornton’s study).

Mark Allan Thornton, the Harvard PhD student who has done groundbreaking work trying to make sense of the gibberish that is wine back labels, has done it again. His second study has found that the back labels on cheap and expensive wine seem describe the same flavors with dfferent adjectives, depending on how much the wine costs.

“The presence of ‘dark’ indicated a less expensive wine on average, whereas the nearly synonymous descriptor ‘black,’ which appears in the same flavor cluster, was strongly associated with the back labels of more expensive wines,” he told me in an email. “In other words, I think these results suggest that people may use different words to describe the same flavors depending on whether the wine is expensive or cheap.”

The good news? That the goal of the study was see if certain flavors could only be found in more expensive wine. Given that the first study found what Thornton calls a “quite modest” relationship between price and quality, given what’s written on the back label, this is even better news for consumers. If you want dark fruit flavors, you’re just as likely to get it with a cheap bottle as an expensive one.

So what’s the catch? As Thornton notes, wine back labels are not unbiased reviews, but marketing material. Hence, the study starts with a strike against it. In addition, he says, finding enough wine back labels to work with to overcome this handicap is problematic, given how unwilling the wine business is to share data (also a problem in the first study).

Still, the conclusion is worth pondering (and probably isn’t all that surprising give how confusing back labels are), as are several other highlights:

• White wine descriptors vary more with price than red wine descriptors do, which doesn’t seem to make much sense. My guess? Maybe the presence of sweet white wines offer more opportunity for variation.

• Balance and complexity, which should be the goal of every winemaker, are useless as back label descriptors. Balance was used on cheap, but not expensive, white wine, and not at all with red wine. Complexity had no correlation with red wine pricing and appeared on expensive white wine. Does this mean wine marketers don’t think cheap white wine drinkers care about complexity and figure we’re not smart enough to understand that it will be difficult for a $5 red to be as complex as a $100 red?

• Vanilla, oak, and color were associated with more expensive wines, while dry, clean, and tropical were associated with less expensive wines. Again, this is baffling, since clean should be a goal for every wine.

For more on wine back labels:
Back labels and the flavor of lynches
How to buy wine at the grocery store
Making wine easier

Update: Wine prices in 2015

winerant

wine pricesAt the beginning of the year, I wrote: “[T]he producer strategy for wine prices in 2015: Stealth increases — introducing new brands as well as new varietals and blends within existing brands to get us to trade up to a $15 bottle from $10, or to an $18 bottle from $15.”

The new brands bit was correct, but I missed on the stealth thing. Price increases this year, thanks to producers, distributors, and retailers eager to raise prices, have been anything but stealthy. They’ve been, plain and simple, price hikes like we haven’t seen in a decade. How about two Dallas-area grocery stores charging $16 and $18 for two French wines that cost $10 a year ago? Or a new Italian brand, priced at $12, that isn’t any better than the $8 Italian wine cluttering grocery store shelves? Or, and the saddest, a long-time Wine Curmudgeon California favorite that raised prices a little but also used much cheaper grapes to squeeze as much margin out of its product as possible?

Everyone I have talked to in the wine business has said the same thing: Get used to it.

• Forget the stronger dollar, which should make European wines cheaper. Producers are keeping the difference, and neither distributor or retailer is passing on any savings.

• Forget the past three record California harvests, which means none of this is about a phony grape shortage. In fact (and, as Steve McIntosh predicted in January), all those cheaper grapes are being used to cut costs, so that wine quality is suffering. I’ve tasted more crappy $12 and $15 wine this summer, bitter and unripe, than I have in years, and they’ve apparently been made with grapes usually used to make much cheaper wine.

• Forget the idea that consumers won’t spend money on something they don’t know. I tasted a $16 Spanish white, made with verdejo from the Rueda region, that tasted like pinot grigio, and I was the only one who thought it might not sell. I don’t know if arrogance is the right word, but I’m talking to a lot of producers who assume consumers will pay what they’re told to pay because the wine is so special. Special, of course, not having all that much to do with quality but with marketing.

Yes, producers can charge as much as they want for their wine. But there’s a difference between short-term gain and long-term profits, which is how the best businesses are run. When you run your business for short-term gain, you shouldn’t be surprised that wine sales have been flat for several years, or that consumers are more willing to try something besides wine, or that more than one expert is bemoaning wine’s future.

Just don’t say the Wine Curmudgeon didn’t warn you.

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