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Winebits 336: Wine competitions, restaurant wine, and lawsuits

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wine news restaurants competitons lawsuitsDo wine competitions work? Tim Atkin, a British expert, says they do, and paraphrases Winston Churchill: “Competitions are the worst way to evaluate wine, except for all of the others.” Which is something I wish I had thought of, given I have a poster of Churchill hanging in the office. Atkin’s take on competitions is thoughtful and makes several good points, including whether price should matter, quality of the judges, and that sometimes, wines do get lucky. His comments are most welcome given the current controversy over competitions, and that I’ll be judging two of them in the next couple of weeks.

Restaurants dropping wine from lists: Remember all those giddy articles about the progress wine was making with mid-priced chain restaurants, and how it meant they were finally going to take wine seriously? We might have spoken too soon. A new study has found that eight of the 10 biggest casual chains cut their wine selections by 17 percent in the eight months ending in March. The chains, including Olive Garden, Outback Steakhouse, Red Lobster, and Ruby Tuesday, may have decided that wine isn’t worth the trouble, but that craft beer and spirits are, says the study, calling the shift unprecedented. My guess? That, since the recession especially pummeled these kinds of restaurants, they did what they always do – relegate wine to what they consider its rightful place, out of sight and out of mind. Because wine is just too much trouble.

Bring out the lawyers: The Wine Curmudgeon loves a good wine lawsuit, and this one looks to be a doozy. A Napa Valley producer is suing  wine consultant for $1.6 million, claiming the latter didn’t do a good enough job making a $200 wine. The article, in the Napa Valley Register, is so full of giggles that I can’t do it justice here. My favorite? That the consultant went on vacation during a crucial part of the winemaking process.

Winebits 324: WC favorites edition

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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

Winebits 313: Wine trends, expensive wine, restaurants

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What’s next for wine in 2014? My pal W.R. Tish at Beverage Media has his predictions for next year, and they include price: “Since 2008, retailers have witnessed an unsurprising retreat in per-bottle spending, particularly among superpremium  wines. The phrase ‘$20 is the new $40′ is not so much a trend as the new normal as people are finding great value in budget-friendlier options.” He is also enthusiastic about prosecco, the Italian sparkling wine, for its combination of quality and value. What’s interesting here is that Tish writes for a trade magazine, and he is looking for  trends that consumers will see on store shelves and restaurant wine lists. Which means pricing, no matter how much the industry wishes otherwise, is not returning to pre-recession levels any time soon.

A very, very expensive wine: The most perfect bottle of wine in the history of the world, if the Winestream Media is to be believed, is the 1947 Cheval Blanc from Bordeaux in France. Someone who buys into that theory spent almost $200,000 recently for a case of the 1947, which got 100 points from Robert Parker. Said the agent for the buyer: “The price may seem high but compared to the true value of this lot, it’s not over the top.” Of course, what else would we expect him to say? By comparison, that $200,000 would have bought almost 1,700 cases of $10 Hall of Fame wine; three Porsche Boxster convertibles; or a 10-acre vineyard in Texas. I love wine, but if I had $200,000, it’s the Boxster.

Restaurant sales remain depressed: One of the reasons why wine prices haven’t picked up is that Americans aren’t eating out as much, depressing demand for restaurant wine. That trend looks to continue in 2014, and may well force restaurants that sell wine to do the unthinkable — price wine more fairly. I have been hearing rumblings that this will happen next year, and will write more about it in January. I asked one expert, point blank, why this should happen now when it has never happened before, and she told me the situation is more serious than it has been in recent memory. There seem to have been cultural, demographic, and economic shifts related to the recession (and which the story in the link discusses) that indicate that Americans are going to eat out less and less.

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