Having resided in both Washington and Oregon, my reflections and insights begin with the vines and wines of these two states (Wa—gon). However, I never limit my creaky wagon to this corner of the world, as impressive as it is.
Medium gold with pointed aromas of ripe pineapple, watermelon rind, perfumed lilac, and nectarine. Medium-plus in body with moderate acidity, the palate brings honeycomb, lanolin, and more pineapple, all weaving into a compelling experience. Expressive and varietally spot on. (MW, April 2017)
In the February edition of Wine Business Monthly, Kevin O’Brien penned a noteworthy article filled with curious nooks and crannies.
Good news! Wine sales continue to grow, especially in the $10-$25 category. Sales of $6-$10 wines have meanwhile declined. This has resulted in the “premiumization” of the wine business. Even better, wine drinkers are lusting for honest wines. “. . . consumers are continuing to demand premium products across all beverage alcohol categories as they seek an authentic, high-quality experience.”
Of course, corporate wineries want in on this action, but only have a few options (beer drinkers, this should sound familiar):
Increase price of existing wines
Create new labels and reprice
Buy premium brands*
As a consumer, beware of number two and a flip side of three. Thankfully you aren’t being duped by numero uno.
In the face of falling cheap wine sales, corporate wineries with substantial vineyard holdings have the need to put that fruit to better use. Quick, put the marketing department to work! Slap a new, shnazzy label on the identical bottle of vino (or nearly identical), get the PR machine buzzing, and out of the corporate sphincter comes a glimmering new bottle for the new and improved price of $15 (formerly $8).
Massive producers have also used a related though sneakier tactic. “It should be noted that these large transactions, as well as several other completed during the year, were primarily focused on the brandrather than underlying vineyard or production facilities. A leading driver behind ‘asset light’ transactions is the flexibility in grape sourcing and resulting scalability of the brand.”
Decode: Corporate wineries gobble up a sexy, premium brand name, leave the vineyards and production facilities behind, and then put their less costly, already held vineyards to work under the newly acquired brand label.
Clever, clever, and harder to detect. The answer, the same tried and true answer, can be found in the following:
“The recent wave of wine industry transactions has been notable for its size and breadth. These acquisitions have been driven by suppliers’ desire not only to improve profitability through increased scale but also to remain relevant to their wholesaler and retailer partners. The past few years have seen several significant mergers between some of the country’s largest wholesalers and retailers. As the distribution funnel continues to narrow, wineries are finding access to the market increasingly difficult. . . . In general, larger retailers prefer to work with larger wholesalers in order to better integrate and simplify their supply chain and forecast demand.”
Corporate wineries need one of the big three distributors to move their product into the large retailers. It’s that simple.
Gallo Constellation Brands The Wine Group Bronco Wine Company
Breakthru Beverage Southern Glazer’s Republic National
Safeway Total Wine Costco Whole Foods*
The answer, my friends, remains the same. Shop your locally owned wine retailer, get to know your steward, and you will bring home bottles with authenticity, character, and value. You will also support three authentic tiers rather than the behemoths above.
*Premium brands = wineries producing $20+ wines
*Whole Foods has historically worked hard to diversify shelf space with large and small wineries. However, results at any given store vary by state, and market pressures continue to push retailers of this size to consolidate and simplify i.e. work with fewer distributors and reduce options on the shelf.
Pale lemon with subtle, youthful aromas of green apple, Bartlett pear, and slate. Dry leaning in to off-dry with noteworthy, well-integrated acidity. Length lacked luster, perhaps due to age. (MW, February 2017)
Medium ruby with purple undertones. Toasty oak leads with deep aromas of spiced plum and cherry pie following neatly behind. A well tuned wine with tannins, acid, and body all providing punctual counterpoints. Tart cherry makes its way into the mid-palate, and the finish proves satisfying. Think cabin in the winter woods with log fire cracklin’. (MW, February 2017)
Medium ruby with youthful red fruits and Red Vine aromas giving way to a pinch of cardamom. The soft, mid-light palate has but a trace of tannin followed by moderate acidity. A no fuss, no frills wine. (MW, February 2017)
Perhaps you’ve recently had an “Aha!” wine—the swirl, sniff, and sip that paused the spinning world. Maybe you’ve long ago fallen down the wine rabbit hole, and then started following the wine event calendars at your local wine shops. Or maybe you have ten years of wine geekery under your belt, and have participated in a monthly wine tasting group for a few years, where you endeavor to explore a specific varietal or region each gathering.
Regardless of your experience level, take another step. Curiosity desires knowledge and experience. Below you’ll find a collection of next steps, starting with the simple and moving toward the advanced.
The sheer number of wine regions and styles overwhelms many new to wine. Now is the time to get your hands on one excellent wine book, ideally a thorough and approachable romp through the core regions and styles. Importantly, reading this solid primer provides enough information to make the next steps more comfortable and pleasurable.
Windows on the World by Kevin Zraly
The Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil — Don’t let the title mislead. I find MacNeil’s writing creative and buoyant. Read all materials prefacing the wine regions, and then read a handful of core regions to whet your appetite. Move on to the next step before finishing the book.
Start seeking opportunities to taste 3-8 wines at a time. Tasting wines in isolation provides little insight. The connective and comparative judgments fall short when three weeks have passed between your two most recent glasses of Loire Sauvignon Blanc. Subscribe to a handful of local specialty wine shops’ newsletters. Most of them, at least the ones worth knowing, hold tastings either weekly or monthly. Whether it’s a flight of wines from around the world, or a comparative tasting of five Washington Syrahs, the experience will elevate your understanding of and pleasure with wine.
I can hear the moans. “Really?” Yes, really. Sitting down at a table with other wine curious individuals and a reputable teacher will take your understanding and appreciation to new heights. Depending upon the course provider, the costs need not be prohibitive.
Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET) — provides 4 levels of study. Level 2 is a great place to start for anybody who has already endeavored in steps one and two above.
Research “wine schools” or “wine classes” in your area. Many cities have unique institutions serving their communities, some of which partner with broader institutions like WSET.
Wine Tasting Group
This step can arguably be placed anywhere in the process. However, I have found most who participate in wine tasting groups have at least participated in two of the three steps above, if not all. Having a grounding in winemaking, regions, and styles greatly enhances a groups ability to dig in to thoughtfully procured flights. Plus, where else do you meet a group of 8+ wine lovers who want to gather weekly or monthly to focus on the wines at hand?
Take another step forward. The beguiling bottles that await will not disappoint. It is often a rabbit hole experience, and a wholly more pleasurable one than what we’ve started experiencing since January 20th.
Medium ruby with Old World charm in the form of slate, dried herbs, fresh raspberry, and an echo of leather. With moderate alcohol, the medium-minus body gives way to firm, underripe tannins and a tart finish. (MW, January 2017)
Juicy and plush with plum and spiced blueberry. Fine, ripe tannins contain a gentle string of acidity through the chewy core. A dusting of cocoa powder adds to the palate. A crowd pleaser, though falling short on dimensionality. Drink now—2020. (MW, January 2017)
Varietal: Red Blend (Zinfandel, Sangiovese, Blaufrankisch, and Malbec)
Medium violet with compelling aromas of slate, spiced blueberry, anise, and mint followed by a wisp of smoked jerky, adding allure. With svelte body, a density of flavor persists, followed by unflagging, gravelly tannins. A stimulating experience. Still wound tightly. Drink now—2022+. (MW, December 2016)
Dense purple with glass staining power. Plush plum declaratively takes center-stage, while a hint of raspberry and graphite linger in the background. Medium-plus in body with medium acidity, and firm, fine-grained tannins. Black cherry and barrel spice on the palate give way to a slightly misaligned finish, with alcohol overstaying its welcome. (MW, December 2016)