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Has the wine establishment turned its back on wine scores?

The Wine Curmudgeon writes stuff like this all the time: “Why the 100-point system of rating wine is irrelevant.” In fact, I write about the foolishness of wine scores so often that Read More »

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Mini-reviews 74: White wines for summer

Reviews of wines that don’t need their own post, but are worth noting for one reason or another. Look for it on the final Friday of each month. This month, white wines Read More »

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Restaurant wine prices in Europe

The email from my friend visiting Spain not only waxed poetic about the wine, but about the prices: “Talk about cheap wine. Beautiful wine for €12, and the most expensive bottle was Read More »

wineofweek

Wine of the week: Maxwell Creek Sauvignon Blanc 2013

The Maxwell Creek Sauvignon Blanc is the wine that could destroy every assumption wine snobs, the Winestream Media, and the wine business make about cheap wine. It doesn’t taste cheap, it’s made Read More »

winenews

Winebits 391: Wine snobs edition

Because, sadly, wine snobs have been dominating the wine news lately: • Defending wine: Alder Yarrow, one of the most respected wine writers in the U.S., writes forcefully about the recent spate Read More »

Big Wine strikes again

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Big Wine

“Who do we want to buy next?”

That E&J Gallo bought J Vineyards, the highly-regarded California sparkling wine producer, last month was shocking, but it did make business sense. Gallo, for all its vastness, doesn’t make high-end bubbly and doesn’t have many successful restaurant wine brands, and J does and is. Plus, J owned 90 acres of prime Sonoma vineyards, making the deal even sweeter for Gallo.

So how to explain this week’s news that The Wine Group, second-biggest to Gallo among U.S. producers and with even less of a critical reputation, bought the fiercely independent and much beloved Benzinger Family Winery? The Wine Group has never shown any desire to make wine not sold in grocery stores, and its two biggest brands are Franzia and Almaden, the five-liter box cash cows.

Call it one more step in the Big Wine-ing of America:

The increasing consolidation in the U.S. wine business, something I wrote about at the beginning of the year. It is getting harder and harder for wineries that make less than one-half million cases to find distributors and space on store shelves. Benziger makes less than 200,000 cases a year, which wouldn’t even make it the biggest producer in Texas, and J sells only about one-third of that. Said the owner of a leading California independent: “My guess is that a winery really needs to be above 200,000 cases to really get the attention of a distributor. But maybe 500,000 is the new 200,000?” A distributor told me: “There are too many labels fighting for too few spots on the shelf or wine list. It’s crazy.”

• Family and independence, two hallmarks of the California wine business since the 1980s, aren’t enough anymore. These are just the latest sales involving long-time family wineries, which saw an opportunity to cash out to avoid succession problems, solve family disputes over winery operations, or to take advantage of Big Wine’s deep pockets. Sale prices weren’t disclosed, but one report said the J deal may have been worth as much as $90 million, which would make the Benziger price well into the hundreds of millions of dollars. Even of the sale price was half of that for each, which is probably more accurate, that’s a winning payout.

• It’s all about the land. Benziger, with sales of less than $10 million, is so small compared to the multi-billion dollar Wine Group that there is almost no way it could affect the parent’s financial performance. This makes the deal even more baffling, unless it was for the 200 or so acres of quality Sonoma vineyards that were part of the sale.

Will Big Wine run their new companies successfully? Certainly, if success is defined by profit. Otherwise, expect the new owners to do what new owners always do, despite best intentions and protests to the contrary — cut costs, eliminate unnecessary products (so say good bye to J’s lovely pinot gris), and “rationalize” operations. Gallo and The Wine Group won’t ruin J and Benziger the way Sears destroyed mail-order clothing retailer Lands’ End, but they won’t be the same wineries they were before the sale. That’s something we’ll have to learn to live with, because consolidation is going to be with us for a very long time.

More about Big Wine:
How to buy wine at the grocery store
Downton Abbey claret — wine merchandising for dummies
Big wine tightened its grip on the U.S. wine market in 2013

Wine of the week: Guy Saget La Petite Perriere Sauvignon Blanc 2014

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sagetThe crisis in the French wine business — too much overpriced wine, and too often crappy and overpriced wine — doesn’t apply to everyone in France. A variety of producers, who focus on the wine and not what the marketing department tells them to make, deliver quality and value. Guy Saget, whose family business dates to Napoleon and the French Revolution, is an excellent example.

The winery, like many of the best French producers, combines tradition and post-modern winemaking to make wine that actually tastes like wine and not grape juice with alcohol. The sauvignon blanc ($13, sample, 12.5%) demonstrates how successfully they do this. For one thing, it’s varietally correct — French sauvignon blanc that tastes like it came from France, with just enough citrus to be noticeable, but mostly minerality and a pleasing green quality that the tasting notes call fern.

For another, the grapes come from throughout France and not just the Loire, which lowers the price by about a third without substantially reducing quality. This is an everyday practice in California (see the Joel Gott sauvignon blanc), but isn’t nearly as common in France, where centuries of tradition make it more difficult to do.

Highly recommended, and especially for past vintages, which cost as little as $10. Serve this chilled with almost any summer salad, grilled chicken, or boiled seafood.

Winebits 389: Three-tier, lower alcohol, Prosecco

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Three-tierNevermore! What happens when the state booze cops arrest alcohol vendors at a food and wine event? The event gets canceled, and no one is quite sure what happened. That was the case at one of Sacramento’s most popular festivals, when the 2015 event was canceled after the 2014 arrests. Organizers said wine and beer vendors didn’t want to participate this year, given the threat of arrest. Why were the vendors arrested in 2014? Something to do with what are called tied-house laws, which regulate the relationship between alcohol producers and alcohol retailers and are integral to three-tier. The story is fuzzy about exactly what happened, but tied house enforcement can be capricious and over stupid things — even something as simple as a retailer using a producer logo that he or she got from the producer, and not through the distributor.

Not just for wine writers: The knock against the push for lower alcohol wines is that it is being powered by elitist wine critics (overlooking the fact that the most elitist of us started the high alcohol thing). The latter insist that consumers either don’t care or like high alcohol wines. Hence the welcome that Australian researchers, working with Treasury Wine Estates and a leading British retailer, are trying to develop lower alcohol wines that consumers will like. Said one researcher: “We would love to produce a wine with zero percent alcohol that tastes like 15 percent, but even if we get a quarter of the way, that would be good. Ten percent or 5 percent is also desirable.”

Alternative Prosecco: Apparently, there is a Prosecco shortage, though the Wine Curmudgeon has a difficult time believing this when he sees row after row of Prosecco, the Italian sparkling wine, on grocery store shelves. In which case, several leading Prosecco producers will make Prosecco-style wines from other countries, showing just how un-wine the wine business has become in its quest to confuse us to make money. One of the brands, called Provetto, is from Spain, and sounds about as tasty as its name implies. It will also sell for about the same as a quality bottle of cava, the Spanish sparkling wine, which raises all sorts of questions that would make me too cranky if I answered them.

 

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