Tag Archives: wine rants

Update: Wine prices in 2015


wine pricesAt the beginning of the year, I wrote: “[T]he producer strategy for wine prices in 2015: Stealth increases — introducing new brands as well as new varietals and blends within existing brands to get us to trade up to a $15 bottle from $10, or to an $18 bottle from $15.”

The new brands bit was correct, but I missed on the stealth thing. Price increases this year, thanks to producers, distributors, and retailers eager to raise prices, have been anything but stealthy. They’ve been, plain and simple, price hikes like we haven’t seen in a decade. How about two Dallas-area grocery stores charging $16 and $18 for two French wines that cost $10 a year ago? Or a new Italian brand, priced at $12, that isn’t any better than the $8 Italian wine cluttering grocery store shelves? Or, and the saddest, a long-time Wine Curmudgeon California favorite that raised prices a little but also used much cheaper grapes to squeeze as much margin out of its product as possible?

Everyone I have talked to in the wine business has said the same thing: Get used to it.

• Forget the stronger dollar, which should make European wines cheaper. Producers are keeping the difference, and neither distributor or retailer is passing on any savings.

• Forget the past three record California harvests, which means none of this is about a phony grape shortage. In fact (and, as Steve McIntosh predicted in January), all those cheaper grapes are being used to cut costs, so that wine quality is suffering. I’ve tasted more crappy $12 and $15 wine this summer, bitter and unripe, than I have in years, and they’ve apparently been made with grapes usually used to make much cheaper wine.

• Forget the idea that consumers won’t spend money on something they don’t know. I tasted a $16 Spanish white, made with verdejo from the Rueda region, that tasted like pinot grigio, and I was the only one who thought it might not sell. I don’t know if arrogance is the right word, but I’m talking to a lot of producers who assume consumers will pay what they’re told to pay because the wine is so special. Special, of course, not having all that much to do with quality but with marketing.

Yes, producers can charge as much as they want for their wine. But there’s a difference between short-term gain and long-term profits, which is how the best businesses are run. When you run your business for short-term gain, you shouldn’t be surprised that wine sales have been flat for several years, or that consumers are more willing to try something besides wine, or that more than one expert is bemoaning wine’s future.

Just don’t say the Wine Curmudgeon didn’t warn you.

The tyranny of wine samples

wine samples

“Come on. .. they’re just wine samples. What could be wrong?”

One of the great contradictions in wine writing is that so many of us review wine that most of our readers will never drink. That’s because we don’t pay for the wine, but get wine samples — thousands a year for some of us.

The Wine Curmudgeon has always been suspicious of wine samples, not only because of availability, but because there’s not enough transparency. That’s why I try to buy most of the wine I review, and each review notes whether it was a sample. But wine samples are addictive, something I discovered a couple of weeks ago when a distributor friend brought four terrific (two of which were pricey) bottles for a dinner I was having. During dinner, as the five of us were passing the wine around, I thought “This is so nice — four wines I never would have bought, two of which are too expensive to buy, and I didn’t pay a penny for them. I could get used to this.”

The older one gets, the more the phrase “There but for the grace of God” applies (regardless of religious leanings). What if, all those years ago, I had started writing about something other cheap wine that I bought myself? What if I had stumbled upon wine samples — expensive, hard-to-find wine samples — through one of the newspapers I wrote for? In those pre-recession days, high-end wineries were throwing around $100 bottles like baskets of chips at a Mexican restaurant; what if I started pouring $60 Napa cabernet sauvignon for a weeknight dinner?

I would have become everything I hate about wine writing, of course. Yes, given my disposition, that’s not likely, but the idea is troubling. I had a lot of fun drinking those wines that Saturday night, which included a $40 sparkling and a $35 riesling, both from Germany. It’s not so much that they were delicious, though they were, but that I didn’t pick them out, I didn’t pay for them, and I didn’t have to suffer them if they weren’t any good (something that happens all too often with my cheap wine).

It was wine drinking the way everyone wants it to be — wonderful wine on the table without any muss or fuss, and I suddenly understood why so many of my colleagues accept it as normal and wonder about people like me. But, as I reminded myself when I was writing this piece, wonderful has nothing to do with it. The people who read the blog don’t get samples. They have to negotiate the terrors of the grocery store Great Wall of Wine, which is why I’m here. I’m not a wine writer to drink great wine that I get for free, but to help wine drinkers figure out what they like. And, in the end, that’s more fun than any amount of wine samples.


Dallas’ Lucia, restaurant wine, and doing it right


lucia restaurant wineRegular visitors here know that the Wine Curmudgeon dislikes restaurant wine almost as much as he dislikes oaky, alcoholic chardonnay. So it’s a pleasure — no, a duty — to let the world know when restaurant wine is done the right way.

That would be at Lucia in Dallas, an Italian-inspired restaurant in the city’s hip Bishop Arts neighborhood. Full disclosure: Jennifer Uygur, who owns Lucia with chef husband David, is a friend of mine. But, and she will be the first to tell you, I wouldn’t write this unless her wine list deserved high praise — almost all Italian, small but extensive, fairly priced, interesting, and missing the distributor-driven junk that even lists that get a Wine Spectator award have. It also has a Texas wine, which shows Jennifer’s commitment to doing things the right way.

Almost half the 50 wines cost around $50 or less, and the markups on most seem to be about two to one retail. This should be standard practice in the restaurant business, but it isn’t, something I have lamented many times. The list also reflects Jennifer’s wide-ranging taste, in which she wants not just quality, but something that is fun and different and a treat for her customers. What’s the point of wine otherwise?

We had two wines: First, Blanc de Morgex et de la Salle ($48 restaurant, purchased, 12%), made with a grape, prié blanc, from a region called Vallee D’Aoste, neither of which I had ever heard of. It’s a white with austere white fruit and lots of minerality, but it’s about more than a clean mouth feel. There is an almost chardonnay-like richness, which adds complexity and gives the wine something that’s as enjoyable as it is difficult to describe.

Second, Nervi Bianca ($52 restaurant, purchased, 12%), a white from Piedmont made with the erbaluce grape. Yes, I’ve heard of Piedmont, but the grape was a new one, and the region is much better known for its reds than its whites. The best way to describe the Nervi? Think of an Italian pinot grigio, but one with character, fresh white fruit, crispness, and minerality, absent the fussy tonic water aftertaste of pinot grigio.

Finally, the food was stunning. It reflects David Uygur’s Italian influences, his skill as a chef, and the idea that the food should be something for customers to eat and not something to help the chef get a TV show. Know two things: We had tajarin, thin, small egg noodles, with house-cured anchovies, toasted bread crumbs, and herbs that was one of the best things I’ve had in my life even though I don’t like anchovies; and there was no tomato sauce on the menu. None. At all. In Dallas, that’s close to heresy.

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