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The difference between cheap wine and wine that is made cheaply

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cheap wine

Quality? Who cares about quality?

It’s not enough to advocate cheap wine; consumers need to know how to tell the difference between cheap wine and wine that is made cheaply. The Wine Curmudgeon was reminded of this yet again when I struggled through the 2014 five-day, $3 wine challenge, where the producers cared more about price than they did about quality.

The knock against cheap wine used to be that it couldn’t be made well. That hasn’t been true for at least two decades, but the argument has remained the same. Much of the blame for this rests with producers, who have been content to use improvements in winemaking and grape growing to make palatable wine, but not much more.

Call it, as one retailer told me, the wine equivalent of fast food. It fills the hole, and that’s all the consumer thinks it’s supposed to do. Ironically, this means value isn’t as important as it should be. Two Jack in the Box tacos for 99 cents are both cheap and a value, but why would you eat them unless it’s 2 a.m. and you’ve been drinking all night?

Wine should be more than that. Otherwise, we might as well drink light beer — same buzz, fewer calories, and just as cheap. Hence, how to tell the difference between cheap wine and wine that is made cheaply:

• Is the wine varietally correct? Does the cabernet sauvignon taste like cabernet sauvignon, the merlot like merlot, and so forth? Or have all the varietal differences been taken out, in favor of making a smooth wine?

• Is it interesting? Most boring cheap wine tastes the same. The reds have lots of sweet fruit, some fake oak, and a minimum of tannins and acidity — another way to get to smooth. Chardonnay made this way tastes of vanilla and apple sauce, riesling is sweet and nothing more, and pinot grigio has a dollop of sweet white fruit and a vaguely turpentine flavor. An interesting wine is the opposite: You’re eager for the second sip, and you taste things that you make you smile.

• Does the label seem like it got more attention from the producer than the wine? After you’ve tasted the wine, does the it taste as cute or clever or hip as the label implied it would taste? Or is it just ordinary grocery store merlot?

• Do you want to buy it again? Not, “I’ll buy it again because it’s cheap and tasted OK,” but “Wow, that was really good. I want to share this with all my friends.” This is not an easy concept for most wine drinkers, who are so happy to find a wine that doesn’t offend them that they convince themselves that the wine is better than it is.

• Did the winemaker make an effort, or just go through the motions? And no, you don’t have to be a wine geek to figure this out. Crappy writing is crappy writing, and you don’t need a PhD in English to see the difference. Shoddy clothing is shoddy clothing, and you don’t need Vera Wang to tell you why. All you need to do is pay attention to what you’re drinking, something else we’re afraid to do because it’s wine, and we’ve been told we don’t know enough to have an opinion.

More about cheap wine:
Can cheap wine do this?
Cheap wine can be intimidating
When cheap wine tastes cheap

Image courtesy of The Wandering Palate, using a Creative Commons license

Winecast 22: Jerry Lockspeiser, wine guru

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Jerry LockspeiserJerry Lockspeiser has done many things during his wine career in the United Kingdom — producer, negociant, consultant, salesman, and writer. Through much of it, his focus on been on cheap wine and what Lockspeiser calls the normal wine drinker; those of us who want to buy a bottle to have with dinner and who don’t want to mess with any of wine’s foolishness.

The biggest lesson in wine over the past decade? That consumers discovered “they didn’t need to pay a lot of money for a good drink,” he said. That’s preaching the gospel, no?

Lockspeiser and I talked about:

• The improved quality of cheap wine, and that the improvement was led by the Australians and Californians.

• Why the wine business insists on selling expensive wine and trading up perfectly happy wine drinkers. Hint: It’s about money.

• How winespeak is one of the biggest problems facing consumers, and why the wine business doesn’t understand the problem.

• Some of the best advice I’ve seen for negotiating the Great Wall of Wine at the grocery store (yes, they have it in Britain, too), including tips on pricing.

Click here to download or stream the podcast, which is about 16 minutes long and takes up almost 8 megabytes. The sound quality is very good, with only a couple of squeaks and hisses even though Lockspeiser was in London. Skype — the unofficial VoIP provider for the blog — was in exceptionally fine form.

Winebits 347: Ordering wine, Big Wine, Treasury wine

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ordering wineWhat does it say that this is even necessary? The Daily Meal website offers advice on “How not to sound stupid when ordering wine,” the need for which makes the Wine Curmudgeon cringe. But it’s mostly good advice, and I will likely borrow some of it when I revise the cheap wine book. My favorite of the six: “Tell the server how much money you’re comfortable spending. It’s their job to point out a wine or wines you’ll enjoy that fit your budget.” The catch, of course, is that too many restaurants spend as much effort on server training as I do preparing to run the marathon in the  Olympics.

There’s Gallo, and there’s Gallo: The blog has spent much time discussing how Big Wine dominates the wine business, but never with quite this much humor. Marnie Old at Philly.com points out that someone who doesn’t want to drink an E&J Gallo wine often ends up drinking it anyway (and is even nice to Gallo in the process, which one rarely sees on the Internet). By her reckoning, 15 of the most recognizable grocery store brands are Gallo, dating to the 1970s.

Bring on the bidders: Regular visitors here know that the Wine Curmudgeon is trying to finance his retirement to Burgundy by buying low on ailing Treasury Wine Estates and pockting zillions after the company is taken private. The good news is that it looks like a third private equity group wants to bid for Treasury. The bad news is that the stock price still isn’t going anywhere, and I may not even get a bottle of Burgundy out of this. I’m also starting to feel a little guilty, since the new owner will fire thousands of people, pay off the executives who ran Treasury into the ground, and give themselves huge bonuses for doing the deal. It’s hell being sensitive when money is involved.

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