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Tag Archives: Big Wine

Winebits 324: WC favorites edition

winenews
Winebits 324: WC favorites edition

Will empty tables force restaurants to change the way they approach wine?

Because the things that fascinate me about wine and that consumers need to know — and which rarely include toasty and oaky — keep making news:

Distributor clout, once again: When in doubt, they get out the checkbooks, reports an Ohio newspaper group. The state’s beer and wine wholesalers donated $146,000 to Buckeye state lawmakers around the time the Ohio legislature passed a bill — apparently, without anyone knowing — that made it illegal for the world’s biggest brewer to buy more distributorships in the state. In addition, said the story, “both Republicans and Democrats benefited from the wholesalers’ cash. And donations sometimes rose noticeably around the time a key vote was scheduled.” My favorite part of the article is the quote that says the distributors, who have a constitutionally-protected monopoly that all but guarantees them profits, were saving Ohioans from the nefarious actions of an evil multi-national beer company. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black.

Restaurant sales still slow: The restaurant business continues to struggle, says this story from Nation’s Restaurant News, and no one is quite sure why. Is it the result of the worst winter in 40 years? Is it a hangover from the recession, which never really ended for all but the most high-end restaurants? Is it a fundamental shift in the way Americans eat? The restaurant business matters in wine, as regular visitors here know, because restaurants go out of their way to hurt wine. And the slump in restaurant sales, which has lasted more than five years, may force changes in the way restaurants deal with wine, which means better quality and lower prices. Or so some very smart analysts have told me.

The biggest wine companies: Mike Veseth at the Wine Economist looks at disintermediation, an economic term that refers to the specialization of labor. In this case, it’s about the number of employees needed to to make a case of wine. Not surprisingly, the formula is not as simple as it sounds, and speaks to the way post-modern business works — outsourcing, contractors, and the like. Many of the biggest wine companies don’t own vineyards or even wineries; one company, Castle Rock, produced 550,000 cases with just nine employees. “With product chain disintermediation, the number of people actually employed by a winery can be surprisingly small with that tiny workforce specializing  in coordinating the various firms and contractors that make up the links in the chain,” wrote Veseth. What this means for consumers? Less expensive wine, of course, since disintermediation lowers the cost of production.

Image courtesy of Berenika, via stock.xchng, using a Creative Commons license

Marketing foolishness, or ‘Yes, but what does the wine taste like?’

One of the most important developments in wine, and especially for consumers, is the upsurge in marketing. Yes, the business always marketed its product, but the approach usually focused on the wine.

No more. Today, it’s almost all about wine as lifestyle product. If the following are any indication of what’s to come, wine drinkers are in deep, deep trouble.

• From Trinchero Family Estates, one of the Big Six wine producers, for a new product called Fancy Pants: ““Fancy Pants has certainly struck a chord with consumers. It’s a memorable brand name with a stunning package, but more than anything Fancy Pants is about bringing ‘fun’ and ‘fancy’ to any occasion.”

• Also from Trinchero, for its best-selling Menage a Trois line: “As a seductive wine, Ménage à Trois wines are a perfect fit to watch ‘The White Queen’ series. STARZ urges viewers of ‘The White Queen’ to ‘choose your side,’ and at Ménage a Trois, we offer our consumers the chance to ‘choose your wine,’ with a portfolio that now includes 11 different varietals.”

I was going to write something snarky about each blurb, but what’s the point? Each is already snarky enough, and that certainly wasn’t the intention. Sadly, the people who wrote these, like this person, probably figure they’re award winners.

One day, perhaps, the Wine Curmudgeon will figure out why some producers treat wine drinkers like we’re idiots. Because I sure don’t understand it now.

Big Wine and the search for authenticity

One of the most important changes in the California wine business over the past decade has been the rise of Big Wine and the role it has played in the growth of better quality cheap wine. It’s a story that has not been told, and why I spent a lot of time writing about it in The Cheap Wine book. Otherwise, many of us, myself included, wouldn’t be here.

It’s a subject that David Michalski of the Unversity of California-Davis handles admirably in the spring issue of Boom. It’s longish and a trifle academic in tone, but stay with it. Michalski reviews four books centered around the idea of authenticity in wine, but to get there he must explain why authenticity has become an issue. Because, before the 1980s, the very nature of wine was authenticity. French wine tasted of France, Italian of Italy, and so forth.

Then, writes Michalski, came California.

This manifesto for a new taste, one in which California figured centrally, resonated with a new generation of wine-drinkers. It was a message tailor-fit for an industry looking to reinvent itself, too, as California positioned itself in opposition to the snobbery of Old World wine. And although many of the so-called new breed wineries had close connections to the older generation, the image of California as an innovator and a challenger forever changed a trade once dominated by European markets and taste regimes. It opened wine to a wider global audience. It gave encouragement to developing wine regions across the globe. And it gave license to winemakers, even those back in Europe, to experiment with craft and science in the service of wine beauty.

This, says Michalski, is the double-edged sword of Big Wine and globalization and a result of what happened in California – cheaper wines that make wine more accessible and democratic, but by their nature lack authenticity and the terroir that is part of authenticity.

In this, he finds a middle ground that not many others have discovered, though one I share: That globalization does not mean the end of authenticity, and that it’s possible for Big Wine to co-exist with it. “A fuller study of the way terroir works in today’s economy reveals the importance of local branding within the global economy, a phenomenon scholars of consumption call glocalization,” he writes.

Yes, a crappy word, but a concept that explains a lot. It explains how Sicilian winemakers can use modern techniques developed in California to produce high-quality wine that still tastes of Sicily. It’s how Gascon wine, barely a consideration outside parts of France a decade ago, can be sold by large U.S. retailers who wouldn’t carry it unless there was a demand for it. And it helps account for local wine, which wouldn’t exist without the improvements in viticulture and enology that started in California 40 years ago.

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