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Five things consumers told me during the cheap wine book tours

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Five things consumers taught me during the cheap wine book toursFive things consumers told me during the cheap wine book tours, from last fall through this month:

1. They’re really, really tired of overpriced restaurant wine. I heard this a lot, but one instance stood out. Phil Cobb, the legendary Dallas restaurateur, was at one of the signings, and he asked me why restaurants charge so much money for wine. He said he always thought 2 1/2 times wholesale was a fair markup, but he sees prices that are much higher than that — including the $50 he paid recently. If Cobb, who can afford it and knows how the system works, thinks restaurant wine prices are too high, imagine what the others told me. So why haven’t restaurants figured this out?

2. White wine is for women, red wine is for men. This is something, despite all of the writing I do about wine marketing, that never occurred to me, and I’m still not sure I believe it. But a couple of El Centro College culinary students said that’s the way it seems to them, and they made a convincing argument. Look at the some of the best-selling brands and their names — Barefoot, Cupcake, Little Black Dress — and their biggest selling wines. Not too masculine, are they? For another, they said, look at pinot grigio, which skews heavily toward women.

3. Stop recommending wines that aren’t available. Yes, even the WC, who understands availability better than most, goofed up here. We tasted the 2012 Charles & Charles rose during my seminar at the American Wine Society conference, and a woman asked me where she could buy it. This vintage is sold out, I said, but the 2013 will be out in the spring. If it’s sold out, she said, and she looked like my mom the last time I messed up her kitchen when the food processor went blewy, then why did we taste it?

4. Don’t confuse me; just tell me what it tastes like. Consumers may or may not like scores (I heard both sides), but at least scores make it easier to buy wine. What doesn’t is the winespeak many of them find when they Goggle a wine they want to buy. One of the biggest laughs I got, every time, was my parody of post-modern wine writing, with its vanilla and leather and pomegranate descriptors.

5. How come we never knew about sparkling wine and rose? Consumers, who thought all sparkling wine was French and expensive, and that pink wine was sweet and un-manly, have embraced each with an enthusiasm that makes me almost giddy. That they’re willing to try each, let alone enjoy it, speaks to how far we’ve come in getting them off the California varietal merry-go-round.

America’s Test Kitchen finally figures out wine

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America's Test Kitchen finally figures out wine

Chris, do you need a bottle of cheap wine with that chicken?

America’s Test Kitchen, the PBS cooking show, has always pursued the best possible recipe with enthusiasm and skill. This, in a world of food TV that revolves around celebrity chefs who haven’t chopped an onion since culinary school, makes the program worth watching for anyone who enjoys cooking. Plus, bow ties are cool.

The catch, though, like so many other food programs, is that it never really understood wine, figuring more expensive was better because it was more expensive. This always seemed odd for a program that delighted in finding that the cheapest cocoa powder produced the best brownies.

Happily, this is no longer the case. In the new “The America’s Test Kitchen TV Show Cookbook,” the program embraces cheap wine with such gusto that the Wine Curmudgeon had to write this post. Consider:

• Slow-Cooker Beef Burgundy: “Don’t spend a lot of money for the wine in this recipe – in our testing, we found that California pinot noir wine in the $6-$20 price range worked just fine.” Mark West pinot noir, anyone?

• Coq qu Vin: “Use any $10 bottle of fruity, medium-bodied red wine, such as pinot noir, Cotes du Rhone, or zinfandel.” How about the Little James Basket Press?

• Sangria: “After trying a variety of red wines, we found that inexpensive wine works best. (Experts told us that the sugar and fruit called for in sangria throw off the balance of any wine used, so why spend a lot on something …?)” Rene Barbier Mediterranean Red, perhaps?

Call this another victory in America’s slow, steady march toward common sense in wine. And the producers figured this out, apparently, without any help from the cheap wine book. Imagine how much better the recipes would be if they had read it – think I should send Christopher Kimball a copy?

Happiness through cava and bratwurst

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Happiness through cava and bratwurst

So where’s the cava?

Or, how a small meat market in central Wisconsin sells cheap wine, makes money, and pleases its customers. In other words, happiness through cava and bratwurst.

“You’d be surprised how many times people walk in, see our wine, and tell us they never realized we had this great selection,” says Nick Vorpagel, whose grandparents opened Lake Geneva Country Meats in 1965. “How often does it happen? Frequently.”

Which isn’t surprising, given the way the wine world sees itself.  Wine comes in heavy bottles with corks and it’s supposed to be expensive, two traditions that proponents have been reasserting as wine sales have picked up over the past year. Throw in the foolishness that has been going on in the past month or so among my colleagues in the wine writing business, who are in a death match about what constitutes a proper wine writer, and it’s enough to make the Wine Curmudgeon take to his bed with a case of $10 Hall of Fame bottles until whatever this is passes.

But there’s no need, because smart retailers and wine drinkers, like Lake Geneva Country Meats and its customers, don’t need us or our silliness. How else to explain the meat market’s success with wine since 2005 — some 300 labels in butcher shop in a tiny town that Vorpagel happily admits is in the middle of nowhere. You’ll see very little high-priced wine and very little wine snobbishness; just, as Vorpagel describes it, “wines in the $10-$15 price range that are a little better than the price tag and that need to be good with food.”

Is it OK if the Wine Curmudgeon sighs contentedly?

“We’re really passionate about we do,” Vorpagel says. “We really believe in helping our customers have an enjoyable full meal, and what complements food better than wine? We’ve made the investment, and our customers appreciate it.”

The headline, by the way, comes from one of the market’s monthly wine tastings. This month’s featured Spanish wine, including Segura Viudas cava (and tip ‘o the WC’s fedora to my brother, who sent me the market’s e-mail). It was, says Vorpagel, one of the most enjoyable — but not as fun as the spring rose tasting, which will feature nine pink wines from around the world this year, up from three in 2011.

And just think: Vorpagel’s family figured that out without guidance from everyone is who supposed to be smarter about wine than they are. So I know where I’m getting the brats for my next cava party.

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