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Tag Archives: wine quality

Is $15 wine the new $8 wine?

winerant
$15

“Why does this $15 wine taste a lot like that $8 pinot grigio I bought last week?”

Is $10 wine the new $100 wine?” was one of the best-read posts on the blog at the beginning of the recession, explaining why cash-strapped consumers were trading down — and that they were shocked to find that wine quality at $10 was much better than they had been led to believe. Today, as we deal with a glut of overpriced and poorly-made wine, often by reputable producers, it’s my sad duty to ask: Is $15 wine is the new $8 wine?

Over the past 18 months, I’ve tasted so much junk at $15 that even I’m surprised, and I’m the one who included a section in the cheap wine book that said that the $12 to $18 range — “the province of ‘Big Wine’ marketing — offered the least value. But what I’ve tasted since the end of 2014 has been even worse than that, $8 of value dressed up in a $15 bottle.

How has this happened?

• A determined effort by producers, mostly big but also smaller, and in regions like Lodi and the less well known parts of France, to separate what they make from the so-called “cheap wine” that we’re not supposed to be drinking. They’ve done this by creating new products with flashy labels that are made the same way as their old wines and at more or less the same cost, but retail for more money. This way, they’re creating the impression that the new wine is worth the extra money, when it’s mostly the emperor’s new clothes. Or, as a boss at Treasury Wine Estates calls it, “masstige.”

• Wretched grapes. Those of us of a certain age remember when wine was made with unripe and poor quality grapes. Unripe grapes gave the wines a green, almost crab apple quality, and poor quality grapes left the wines thin and bitter. Those grapes, which seemed to be long gone, are back and particularly in whites. I’ve tasted $15 chardonnays and pinot gris that were practically gaggable, the sort of wine you spit out and wonder what the producer was thinking.

• The increase in grocery store wine sales. This means we’re buying more wine on our own, without help from knowledgeable retailers. And that means we have to depend on the front and back labels more than is good for us. And if the front label is cute and the back says smooth and chocolate, we’re sunk, and end up paying more for the wine than it’s worth.

There is a cynicism at work here that’s more depressing than anything else, and something that wine — even when it did these sorts of things — never really enjoyed doing. But those days seem to be over.

Wine prices up, wine quality down in 2016?

winetrends
wine prices

“$12? Didn’t that wine cost $10 last year?”

Don’t expect good news for wine prices or wine quality in 2016, and it’s more than my curmudgeonly cynicism saying so. The wine industry’s best price forecaster expects price increases next year, while a wine blogger who has been spot on about decreasing quality over the last couple of years sees more of the same.

Wine prices, says Rob McMillan of Silicon Valley Bank, will go up slightly next year, citing what looks to be a reduced harvest in California over the past three blockbusters, low gasoline prices, and producer optimism that they can raise prices. In addition, says McMillan, the numbers so far this year suggest that prices have been increasing, even though overall sales have been modest.

Interestingly, he doesn’t use the word premiumization to describe what’s going on, given that McMillan was one of the first people to identify the trend, that U.S. wine drinkers are trading up to more expensive wine. In fact, he seems almost surprised that prices will go up, given that “the the world’s economies are still struggling and our own [economy] isn’t setting any record.”

McMillan doesn’t define slightly, but my guess is that we’ll see as much as a dollar or so on a $15 bottle of wine, not that it will be that obvious. Those $9.99 wines will go up to $10.99, but there will various discounts, like case and club membership, to soften the blow. Plus, we’ll see even more new wines in the $12 to $15 category, as producers entice wine drinkers to spend a couple of bucks more for the same kind of wine they bought before.

As to quality, let me quote my pal Steve McIntosh at Winethropology. “The wine world is going to hell in a handbasket,” he emailed me, citing this post, in which he details (and it’s excruciating) how California winemakers are bastardizing wines that cost as much as $20 so they taste the way a focus group thinks they should taste.

In this, his post dovetails with what I’ve tasted over the past year, as producers focus on manipulation to push wines in the focus group direction and paying less attention to grape quality and varietal character in the process. This has been the case not just for wines from California, but from France, Spain, and Italy. A distributor friend, who has been in the business for 20 years, said he has seen wine quality go backwards, toward where it was in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In fact, so many wines have been so poorly made that I’m thinking about posting negative reviews, something I never thought would be necessary. But these wines are so dishonest that someone needs to call them on it.

I expect a wine to taste like wine, and not what Steve calls cough syrup. But apparently that’s too much to hope for these days.

Can we use wine back labels to figure out wine quality?

winenews
wine back labels

Mark Thornton: “The words — and not what they mean — on wine back labels are a clue to wine quality.”

Because, finally, someone has discovered a way to measure the relationship between what’s written on wine back labels and the quality of the wine.

The breakthrough came from a Harvard Ph.D. student named Mark Thornton, who took data from 75,000 wines in the Wine.com inventory, and compared what was written on their back label — and not what the words meant — with ratings from the site’s users and from wine critics.

The findings? That certain words appear on the back labels of wines of lesser quality, while certain words appear on the back labels of wines with higher ratings. Thornton told me he knows this isn’t perfect, given how scores and wine ratings work, and he wants to improve that part of the study. In addition, he wants to refine the way his software decides which words to analyze, perhaps eliminating regions and better understanding phrases, like grilled meats instead of grilled and meats.

What does matter is that Thornton’s work is apparently the first time anyone has done this kind of research, making it as revolutionary as it is helpful in deciphering the grocery store wall of wine.

Thornton, whose parents teach in Cal State Fresno, says this study interested him because it’s about wine, which he likes, and because it ties into his PhD research, which deals with how we describe things. One of the concepts this study takes into account is called “naive realism,” in which we assume that what we sense has to be true for everyone, when it obviously isn’t. Which dovetails neatly with wine.

Thornton’s findings confirm many of my suspicions about wine back labels, as well as how critics use descriptors. The word clouds on his site summarize the results; I’ve set them up so you can see them more easily here for the consumer ratings and here for the critic ratings.

These are among the highlights of the study:

• Restaurant food pairings or terms like pasta appear on the labels of the lowest-rated wines. Thornton says this may well be because the wine doesn’t have any wine-like qualities to recommend it.

• Words used to describe sauvignon blanc — grapefruit, herb, clean — show up on the critics’ lowest-rated white wines. This is not surprising, given that sauvignon blanc has always garnered less respect from the Winestream Media than chardonnay.

• A location on the back label seems to indicate lower quality white wine; “handcrafted” is in the higher quality word cloud. For reds, “value” and “soft” are poor-quality words, while “powerful” and “black,” probably used to describe black fruit, infer higher quality. Handcrafted is especially interesting, since it doesn’t mean anything in terms of wine production.

Finally, a word about prices, which is also part of the study. Thornton divided the consumer ratings into five price ranges, and there was little difference in perceived quality between the first three ranges. In other words, you get more value buying the cheapest wine. Shocking news, yes?

The critic price-value rankings were even more bizarre. The worst value came from wines that got scores in the mid-90s, while wines in the high 90s (and even 100) were less expensive, and the best value wines were around 90 points. Thornton says he isn’t quite sure why this is true, though it may have something to do with critic bias. My explanation is simpler: Wine scores are inherently flawed.

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