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Five things that make me crazy when I buy wine

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Which price am I going to pay for this wine? And why are there so many prices anyway? It makes me crazy.

Negotiating the Great Wall of Wine at the grocery store (or any retailer, for that matter) is difficult enough. But why is it that so many in the wine business go out of their way to make it even more difficult? Hence, the five things that make me crazy when I buy wine:

1. Wine shelved incorrectly, where Chilean wine is in the Spanish section, French wine is in the Italian section, and so forth. Some of my irritation is because I’m the son and grandson of retailers, and they taught me the need to stock inventory correctly. But most of it is because that kind of mistake makes it more difficult for people to buy the wine they want. If you’re looking for malbec, and it’s not in the Argentine section, you’re more likely to forgo wine or buy beer.

2. Sweet red wines that don’t say they’re sweet on the label. If I have trouble figuring out whether it’s sweet or dry, and I do, how much trouble does the average consumer have? Using the adjective smooth, which seems to be the winespeak of the moment for sweet, isn’t enough. You’re making sweet red wine because people want sweet red wine, so what’s wrong with telling them it’s sweet?

3. The boxed wine ghetto, where all the boxed wine — regardless of quality — is stuck on a dusty shelf in the back of the store or wine section. One reason that Yellow + Blue, a great cheap wine, isn’t better known is that it comes in a 1-liter box. That means you’ll find it with the Almaden and Franzia 5-liter boxes, and about the only thing the Yellow + Blue has in common with those is the box. It’s like putting Italian-made shoes next to flip-flops, and who does that?

4. Three — or four or even five — prices for the same bottle of wine. There’s the regular retail price. And the club price. And the sale price. And the “buy six, get a discount” price. And the “buy 12 and get a discount” price. The consumer isn’t sure what the price is, and ends up paying more than they thought they would. Which, sadly, may be the point.

5. That every winery in New Zealand seems to have a bay in its name — Oyster Bay, Monkey Bay, Destiny Bay, Cable Bay, Brick Bay, Pegasus Bay, Clifford Bay, Picton Bay, and so on and so forth. It’s one thing when the winery, like the respected and well-known Cloudy Bay, is actually located on a bay. But when the winery doesn’t exist, and the name is made up to sell private label wine or by Big Wine to establish a New Zealand brand, enough is enough.

Slider image courtesy of Houston Press food blog, using a Creative Commons license

“Our panel of experts:” Irony and non-winery wine clubs

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wine club expertsThird-party wine clubs — those that aren’t part of wineries — have always made the Wine Curmudgeon smile. How about the the website that rates wine clubs, and that also rates the wine clubs that the site operates? Or the wine club that offers “first-class” cabernet sauvignon from Spain, a concept that makes as much sense as coming here to find cult wine recommendations from Napa Valley.

Typically, most third-party wine clubs don’t tell you the wines you’re going to get or how they pick the wines you’re going to get. They trade on the group’s name, but are otherwise separate; hence a  newspaper wine club is a marketing tool that has nothing to do with the newspaper’s wine reporting. Mostly, there’s flowery language — “small-batch wines of real flair and value,” which means absolutely nothing when you try to parse it — and lots of promises about how good the wines are. Plus tasting notes, because all wine needs tasting notes, doesn’t it?

Which makes me wonder: Most of us wouldn’t buy shoes this way, sight unseen and trusting to someone else’s judgement. So why would we buy wine this way?

My newest smile is Global Wine Company, which runs the New York Times and Washington Post wine clubs plus those for retailer Williams-Sonoma, More and Food & Wine magazines, and celebrity chef Michael Mina. Check out the people who run the company — accountants and bankers, and a woman who helped make the PowerBar famous. There is no mention of the “panel of experts” who pick the wines, and about the only wine-related information I could find was this: “GWC handles all global wine sourcing, state compliance, and customer fulfillment, which enable partners to expand their brands into wine and drive recurring revenue.”

Mmmm, drive recurring revenue. How yummy does that sound?

Enough with the wine and food pairings already, because you’re not helping the cause

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wine and food pairings

Since you don’t have any cheese, I assume you don’t have any wine pairings either?

The Wine Curmudgeon’s thoughts about pairing wine and food have evolved significantly over the past decade. I still think pairings are important, but if you don’t like big red wine, what’s the point of telling you to drink big red wine with certain food? All I ask is that you’re open-minded enough to consider pairings and don’t dismiss them as more wine foolishness.

Having said that, it’s not easy for wine drinkers — and even the most experienced among us — to keep an open mind. That’s because the wine business insists on overwhelming us with pairings that are at best impractical and at worst silly. How can we be expected to take pairings seriously when so many suggestions have so little relevance to what we really eat?

For example (all taken from fact sheets and back labels):

 • A $10 Chilean pinot noir with paella. This is not to denigrate the Spanish classic (though I’ve never been able to master it), but to note that most of us will never taste paella. So why would anyone suggest it as a pairing, and especially for an every day wine?

 • A high-end Napa Valley sauvignon blanc with “any fresh well-made cuisine.” Because, of course, the alternative is so appealing: Pairing a wine with any stale, poorly-made cuisine.

 • A $10 Argentine cabernet sauvignon with “of course, our traditional Argentine asado.” I do this for a living, and I had to look up asado (which is lots of beef grilled outdoors over a wood fire). So how is anyone else supposed to know what it is?

The best way to do this? Keep it simple, like Gallo did with its 50th anniversary $7 Hearty Burgundy: chili. Which would work, by the way. Or even, as Rodney Strong does, leave them out, since no suggestions are better than silly ones.

More on wine and food pairings:
The myth of of wine and food pairings
Pairing wine with fast food
Wine and food pairings: Do they matter?

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