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Tag Archives: wine trends

Wine competitions and wine scores

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wine scoresThe Wine Curmudgeon’s opinions of wine scores are well known: Get a rope. So what would happen when I had to judge a wine competition that required judges to use scores?

The competition, the Critics Challenge in San Diego, was its usual enjoyable self, featuring wine I usually don’t get to drink as well as some top quality cheap wine. The scores? Meh. More, after the jump (plus some of the best wine I tasted):


Caveats first: The competition pays judges a $500 honorarium and reimburses expenses, and the weather in San Diego is always so much better than it is in Dallas that I’d do it just for the 70-degree temperatures.

But are those good enough reasons to give scores, considering how I feel about them? Probably not. I agreed to judge for two reasons: First, because if you’re going to criticize something, you should do it at least once, and second, because I have tremendous respect for competition impresario Robert Whitley. If Robert wants to do scores, then I’m willing to try it.

Having said that, the scoring process was underwhelming. In years past, we gave wines a silver, gold, or platinum medal; this year, we added scores to those awards. I’m still trying to figure out the difference between a silver medal wine with 87 points and one with 89 points, even though my judging partner, Linda Murphy, did her best to explain it to me. A silver is a silver is a silver, and I don’t understand why two points makes a difference. Or how Linda and I could give the same wine the same medal, but different points. How could one of us like the wine 2.2 percent more than the other (the difference between an 87 silver and an 89 silver)?

Still, there were some terrific wines entered:

• The 2013 Giesen Riesling from New Zealand ($15) was named best in class, an excellent example of the tremendous value available in New Zealand riesling.

• Linda and I agreed that the Yorkville Cellars 2012 Carmenere ($38) was platinum worthy, and it earned best in class honors. Carmenere can be off-putting, unripe and tannic, but this was an intriguing, rich, and earthy effort, with dark fruit and complex finish.

• I’ve been lucky enough to taste sparkling wine from Dr. Konstantin Frank in upstate New York three times since last fall, and each time it has been sensational. The 2007 Chateau Frank Brut ($25) won best of class, and the non-vintage rose ($21) grabbed a silver.

• The 2012 Nottage Hill Chardonnay from Australia’s Hardys ($13) won a platinum, which wasn’t surprising. Aussie chardonnay can often be $10 Hall of Fame quality; the catch, usually, is that the wines vary greatly from vintage to vintage, and what was tasty one year isn’t the next.

• A non-vintage red blend, called Kitchen Sink ($10), won a silver. It’s fruity, but well-made, and I’ve always enjoyed the Kitchen Sink white blend.

Are we facing a cheap wine crisis?

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cheap wine crisis

“What happened to all that great $10 wine I used to drink?”

What if most cheap wine tasted mostly the same — the reds with sweet fruit and almost no tannins, and the whites a jumble of fruit and sugar, and maybe (or maybe not) a little crispness?

That prospect — terrifying as it is to those of us who care about quality wine we can afford to buy — is not as impossible as it sounds. The quality of too many of the cheap wines I’ve tasted this year, combined with a number of interviews with wine business executives, suggests the possibility of a $10 wine world dominated by just that kind of wine.

In 2013, reports Nielsen, wine priced $10 to $15 more than doubled the sales growth of wine from $6 to $10, and the average price of a bottle increased to $8. Contrast that with sales during the recession, when just the opposite happened. As Rob McMillan of Silicon Valley Bank told me, “I see this as reflective of the economy. There are improving sales conditions compared to last year… [Wineries see] improved opportunity in future years as consumers trade up again. I know the last part won’t make you happy, but the worst segment today is right below $10.”

We’re not there yet, but here are three reasons why we could eventually face a cheap wine crisis:

• Cheap wine production is dominated by the handful of biggest wine companies, whose reason for being all but guarantees that kind of technically correct but simple wine. Just three brands — Barefoot, Two-buck Chuck, and Yellow Tail — account for 8 1/2 percent of all the wine sold in the U.S. each year. Trinchero Family Estates, whose labels include Menage a’ Trois and Sutter Home, has five percent of the U.S market, according to the 2014 Wine Business Monthly top 30 wine companies ranking. How many of us have even heard of Trinchero?

• The biggest companies, thanks to economies of scale and sales volume, can be profitable selling an $8 bottle where smaller companies can’t. Constellation Brands, after all, is a $4.9 billion company. So the smaller producers, who often make the most interesting cheap wine, have to find a more profitable price niche. Increasingly, as McMillan noted, that’s $15 and up.

Increasing consolidation among distributors. This means fewer and bigger distributors, who prefer to work with the biggest producers. So even if a smaller company can make money with cheap wine, it may not be able to find a distributor to sell its wines to retailers. And, if it can’t find a distributor, it can’t sell its wines through retailers and restaurants because of the restrictions imposed by the three-tier system that governs U.S. wine sales.

Not encouraging news, certainly. But many people were predicting the end of quality $10 wine in 2007, and we know what happened then — the beginning of the golden age of cheap wine.

Image courtesy of The Economist’s More Intelligent Life blog, using a Creative Commons license

The Washington state lesson in drinking local

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local wine trendsToday’s riddle: Which local wine was ignored, overlooked, and regarded as not real wine? The answer: Washington state wine, which got so little respect that a bartender at a Pasco restaurant once told me there was no such thing as Washington wine.

Hence the story I wrote for the Beverage Media trade magazine — that today’s best regional wine states are in much the same position that Washington was in two decades ago. Which means that retailers and restaurateurs who aren’t paying attention are missing a good thing (right, Texas?). The story’s highlights:

• Too many still don’t understand how popular local is. It has been a “hot topic” in the National Restaurant Association’s annual chef’s survey since at least 2010, and local wine was the second biggest alcohol trend.

• It’s just not that wine is made in all 50 states, but the Wine America trade group reports that the number of regional wineries in the United States increased almost 12 percent between 2011 and 2014 — in the aftermath of the recession — and almost doubled since 2005 — during the recession.

• The business types who are part of the three-tier system have figured it out, which kind of surprised me. The biggest regional producers are distributed by the biggest companies in the country; in Texas, for example, the two biggest distributors in the state handle most of the state’s best-selling wineries. It used to be almost impossible, even just 10 years ago, for a local producer to get a distributor.

• Retailers who support local make money off of local. Marketview Liquor in Rochester, N.Y., carries some 800 New York wines, and that’s not a new thing—the store has invested in local since it opened 33 years ago. How long ago was that? Not even I was writing about regional wine then.

• Quality has improved, too, even if no one wants to believe it. Washington’s wines are among the best in the world, and so are New York rieslings, Texas viogniers, and Virginia red blends.

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