Real wine is hard to find. The charade that populates most store shelves is a group of elixirs, created to poke and tickle the right taste buds. Made in the vein of Pepsi or Fritos, these commodity wines typically showcase excessive fruit, residual sugar, and serious chugability. These are circus wines with circus labels, and the industry has created a sometimes-impenetrable wall of them—one that obscures the wines made by real people, from real grapes, for our honest pleasure. . . .
Jancis Robinson recently wrote an article defending winemaking as an innately “craft” process*, and displayed deep concern over beer and spirits capturing the hearts and taste buds of the younger generations of craft beverage consumers. Robinson clearly feels threatened by the upswing in craft beer and spirits. The threat may be real, but the source is much more expansive.
Wine has the history and allure to stand firmly on its feet. With 10,000 years of wine history and with the first winery dating to Armenia 4100 BCE, the record shows that homo sapiens have an affinity for wine. Robinson herself also rightly highlights how the confines of vintage – a single chance each season – set wine apart from spirits and beer. Winemakers must work with the weather and climate to produce a wine that will undoubtedly range in style and quality due to the growing conditions. Beer and spirits, on the other hand, can be made much more consistently with an ability to scale volume rapidly.
The wine industry has reason for concern, and the rise of craft beer and spirits points to the heart of the issue without being the source. Craft wine costs more than craft spirits or beer. Craft wine starts at $12-$15, and more frequently sells for $20-$50 per bottle on retail shelves. This averages out to $4.00-$10.00 per drink SRP (5 oz pour). Craft beer often falls in the $1.50-$4.00 per drink (12 oz), and craft spirits cost $1.00-$3.00 per drink (1.5 oz). Simple economics pushes many younger drinkers toward craft beer and spirits – it costs less to enjoy something authentic, especially when drinking at home (also a trend that now pains the restaurant industry). My Millennial generation, of which I’m an elder, is the first generation to have “less” than our parents, and this will only become more evident as we age and retire. School debt, retirement woes, and slower and later wealth accrual adds up to a diminished economy for all. Craft beer and spirits enable younger generations to support smaller and local businesses while living within their means.
At the same time, boomers are now moving into their fixed income retirements, and some are no longer stocking cellars. “If I buy Bordeaux or Barolo today, I won’t be alive to enjoy them in their prime.” Some are drinking their cellars down – not building them – and many will join suit soon.
And cellars will not be built by the younger generations as they were by their parents. We, the wine industry of which I am a part, should fear this. Concern over beer and spirits is misguided – it’s yelling at the river overflowing the banks, rather than the poor environmental stewardship that drained the wetlands.
I will keep enjoying craft wine and beer – though less wine than I would enjoy if societal and economic circumstances were different.
*While the bulk of the wine on the market is not craft, the majority of producers are. A few large corporations produce tens of millions of cases of wine. However, tens of thousands of boutique producers craft relatively small amounts of transparent wines.
I have recently witnessed an industry wine buyer for a Minnesota retail account, and a multitude of wine consumers using Vivino to make wine buying decisions. For full disclosure, I am a “Featured User,” a designation given by Vivino to highlight a user as worthy of extra attention. Most Featured Users are wine writers or influencers. Having witnessed the increased use of Vivino to make buying decisions, I want to pause to test Vivino’s own claims, and ponder the growing power of this app.
Vivino suggests that their 5 star rating scale is equal to or better than the ratings publications like Robert Parker and Wine Enthusiast. For one, Vivino publishes all ratings, and so we get to see the bad apples. This isn’t true for some publications. Additionally, we get more reviews from Vivino, as millions of public users review exponentially more wines than a limited number of professional critics ever can.
But do Vivino’s claims add up?
To test, I’ve logged in to my Vivino account and clicked through the “Best Wines under $20” in Minnesota, the “Best Wines between $20-$40” in Minnesota, and a smattering of other wines I’ve recently reviewed. Then I compared them to reviews in Wine Enthusiast (public) and Robert Parker (subscription). I’ve preferenced Wine Enthusiast, as it is a public source. The findings, which are compared to the above chart:
Best Wines under $20
- E. Guigal Côtes-du-Rhône 2013
- 3.6 stars (3356 ratings) 87 points Robert Parker
- 1000 Stories Bourbon Barrel Aged Zinfandel 2014
- 4.1 stars (7674 ratings) 90 points Wine Enthusiast
- J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines Seven Oaks Cabernet Sauvignon 2014
- 4.0 stars (2673 ratings) 87 points Wine Enthusiast
- Bogle Phantom 2014
- 4.0 stars (1278 ratings) 90 points Wine Enthusiast
- Pine Ridge Chenin Blanc – Viognier 2016
- 4.1 stars (578 ratings) 89 points Wine Enthusiast
- Whitehaven Sauvignon Blanc 2016
- 4.1 stars (3510 ratings) 89 points Wine Enthusiast
Best Wines between $20-$40
- Meiomi Pinot Noir 2016
- 4.0 stars (8463 reviews) 88 points Wine Enthusiast
- La Crema Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 2015
- 4.1 stars (1491 reviews) 90 points Wine Enthusiast
- Michael David Freakshow Cabernet Sauvignon 2015
- 4.1 stars (243 reviews) 90 points Wine Enthusiast
- Decoy Cabernet Sauvignon 2014
- 3.9 stars (6756 ratings) 90 points Wine Enthusiast
- Starmont Cabernet Sauvignon 2013
- 4.0 stars (210 ratings) 88 points Wine Enthusiast
- Ferrari Carano Siena 2014
- 4.0 stars (1127 ratings) 87 points Wine Enthusiast
- Allegrini Palazzo della Torre Veronese 2014
- 4.0 stars (1036 ratings) 91 points Wine Enthusiast
Selection of my Recently Reviewed Wines
- A to Z Wineworks Chardonnay 2015
- 3.6 stars (126 ratings) 88 points Wine Enthusiast
- Domaine Serene Evenstad Reserve Chardonnay 2015
- 4.1 stars (26 ratings) 92 points Wine Enthusiast
- El Molet Jumilla 2013
- 3.6 stars (18 ratings) 86 points Wine Enthusiast
- Domaine Tempier Bandol Cuvée La Migoua 2006
- 4.3 stars (34 ratings) 93 points Robert Parker
- Willamette Valley Vineyards Whole Cluster Pinot Noir 2016
- 4.0 stars (394 ratings) 89 Wine Enthusiast
A few data points stand out. First, ratings do have a strong correlation between Vivino and Wine Enthusiast/Robert Parker. 66% correlate within 1 point of Vivino’s chart. When the points fail to align within 1 point, Vivino typically scores the wines higher than the traditional publications. This rings true to my experience when using Vivino. Of the six wines out of alignment, five have higher ratings on Vivino.
Also of interest, note that the “Best Wines” segments created by Vivino (block 1 and 2 of data), all have massive numbers of ratings. Clearly the algorithm favors volume when deciding which wines qualify as “Best Wines.” On the flip side, three of the five wines randomly pulled from my recent reviews have a low number of ratings. Even those with more ratings pale in comparison to the (multiple) thousand reviews of the other wines.
This raises a question. Does more mean better or, in this case, “best”? I typically argue no. However, a wine’s accessibility matters when creating a public platform for the masses. With that said, lower production wines have often been crafted with a more careful touch. Do all like the result of low production wines? No. Many prefer the consistency and centrist styles made by larger producers.
To Vivino or not to Vivino? Do you value the data? Clearly millions do. I will continue to use it as a public source with a slick interface for researching a new bottle. As for reviews, it is a tool I will continue to use—one of many.
A few months back, Leslie Gevirtz of Wine Enthusiast interviewed Craig Wolf, president of the Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America.¹ Wolf strikes an upbeat tone, and Wine Enthusiast largely maintains that confident tenor. A closer reading, however, provides evidence that Wolf has reason to celebrate . . . at the expense of the consumer. “Let the good times roll” for the large and expanding mega distributors.
Wolf begins, “Our numbers have actually risen….People always see all these mergers at the higher level, but what they don’t see are all the small guys coming in to fill gaps….So, the number of wholesalers that are active across the country has increased.” The September 2017 edition of Wines & Vines states the following, “According to winery and distributor sources, in 1995 the United States had about 1,800 wineries and 3,000 distributors. Today, there were more than 9,200 wineries and nearly 1,200 distributors.²” A five fold increase in wineries, and a 60% reduction in distributors. At best, Wolf is intentionally focusing on a small window of time to bolster his (inaccurate) point. At worst, this is Trumpian era disinformation—smoke and mirrors.
Wolf goes on to say that, despite the recent consolidation trends, “(I)t hasn’t affected the consumer because the number of SKUs has only grown over that period of time.” If we can trust that the number of SKUs (individual wines on shelves) has increased, we must ask whether the quantity also brings us quality. As the article posits, the number of “private labels” has increased recently. Large to mid-sized retailers contract wineries to produce private labels so they can offer exclusive products with conveniently opaque pricing, which allows for dramatic markups and profit margins. The wines within the bottles? Too often mediocre at best, an unavoidable reality when asking large wineries or custom crush facilities to make a wine that tastes like plum juice concentrate or cherry jam with Hi-C for $2.40 per bottle.
With the number of wineries today, the demand for distribution is great. Many of these producers craft authentic and intriguing wines. As wineries boom, distributors serve as gatekeepers, deciding which wineries and wines deserve to come to your market. Somebody must certainly filter what sits on the shelves and restaurant lists. However, when consolidated mega distributors, well known for using corrupt practices to buy shelf space and restaurant lists³, serve as the gatekeepers, we have reason to be concerned.
The WSWA serves as a mouthpiece for the large distributors, while offering small benefits to mid-sized members. The association exists to solidify the dominance of the middle tier in our three tier system. I, for one, hope we can give more power to consumers. The WSWA certainly doesn’t have this interest at heart.
³ Previous article about distributor corruption: http://wagonwine.com/2016/12/05/the-sandbox/
“How you doing, Grandpa?”
“Well, it’s no fun getting old,” wheezed my great-grandfather Wes. Then, a deep breath. It was meant as a direct response to a rote question. It frequently left me grinning uncomfortably.
For many, aged wine contains an aura of near mythical power. Hold a 30 year old wine in your hands, and you hold history, even time itself. We are taught that aged wines bring new depths to explore, and we hear a similar message about elderhood. I have certainly felt this rapture when holding aged bottles of wine.
Too often, however, the rapture doesn’t extend to the tasting experience.
In truth, most wines (and humans) don’t age gracefully. While recently drinking a bottle of 1998 Brunello, I (again) held a wine in my hands that undoubtedly tasted better 10 years earlier. I’m not talking about $10 grocery store wine, which surely should be drunk young. Most well-crafted wines made with great care do not benefit from 20+ years of cellar aging. More of us, collectors included, would do well to drink our wines with 5-12 years of age on them. In this window, we run little risk of pulling a cork on a worn out bottle, and the resulting experience will provide a surer pleasure for a broader audience. Between a wines youthful release and tired, raisened age rests an ideal window when a wine holds both fresh fruit, and complexing, intriguing layers that only time can add.
I can already hear the scoffers. “Is this clown really telling me I can’t age my First Growth Bordeaux for 30 years and find glorious fruit and captivating aged aromas and flavors?”
Of course not. For most, however, wines of this ilk are out of reach. And to those scoffers, I bet them their cellars that I will enjoy fewer tired, no-fun-getting-old wines, and many more in their prime of life. And when I win their cellars, I’ll start pulling the corks.
The mystique of aged wines leads collectors to buy futures from many fine Chateaus and Domaines, but a disturbing number of these stunning wines rest for decades holding nothing but the promise of vinegar 30 to 40 years in the future. We’ve sanctified the status of aged wine to the point that many dare not touch their pearl-white treasure.
Perhaps as I age, I will find new meaning in the brittle aromas and flavors of dried fruit and leather. In the meantime, I will enjoy my wines while I know they will please.
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 brand rather 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.
What makes expensive wine so expensive? I get this question more than almost any other. And it is a great question. Many layers weave together to create a wine’s price tag (Wine Economics Part I, Part II, and Part III only scratch the surface). However, a remarkable reality persists—the large majority of wine drinkers don’t particularly enjoy drinking expensive wines, especially the exalted wines of the Old World*. Blind tastings of regular folks have consistently shown no correlation, or even a negative correlation, between the wines they like and the price of the wine.±
The tasting descriptors of lauded Old World regions provide clues as to why this phenomenon exists. Open a five year old Beaujolais Cru from Morgon, France, and the slate stoniness and tart acidity, along with the second-fiddle role of fruit aromas and flavors, shock many wine drinkers. Head south to the Northern Rhone of France, and the Syrah punches the palate with savory black olive, bacon, white pepper, and charcoal. Aged Bordeaux? Wet dusty road, tobacco, truffle, compost, and gravel, with fruit once again singing back-up. The list of the “great” wines goes on in similar fashion. And on. Karen MacNeil argues that Great Wine must display a degree of non fruitedness. See the tasting notes above, and you get her point. For most, though, non fruitedness dominates many of the great wines, sucking the pleasure provided by the primary fruit flavors.∞
So why the hell does anybody want to drink the expensive stuff? Some argue that wine drinkers experience an evolution of the palate. In reality, the exploration of wine becomes academic. How does a presentation on the macroeconomics of suburban zoning arouse the minds of some fellow humans (this one’s for you, Mom)? The act of diligent study, over time, begins to stimulate neural connections that never previously existed. Consequently, hard work and forced study slowly shift into a pleasure inducing experience. In the words of Twain, “Then his work becomes his pleasure, his recreation, his absorption, his uplifting and all-satisfying enthusiasm.” Blessedly, for wine drinkers, we get to relish in the initial “work.” Absorption and enthusiasm grab hold, and the mind takes the reigns. How do soil, place, and grapes create this? No, winemakers in the Piedmont commune (village) of Barolo don’t add tar extract into their wines. So how does this happen? A wine enthusiast is birthed.
Enjoy the wines you enjoy. When the hard work takes you to a new place, step into the bizarre novelty that surrounds you.
*Old World = Western and Eastern European winemaking regions, including France, Italy, Spain, Germany, Greece, and Austria, where winemaking first took root.
∞There is certainly an American bias in this article. This bias likely plays a substantial role in answering why Americans’ prefer cheap wines. Our processed food, salt and sugar-added diet likely skews our palate toward sweeter, fruit-driven wines. I would love to see a break down of “average consumer” wine preferences in Europe compared to the United States.
I recently read an excellent article on “White Label wines” by Madeline Puckette and Co. over at Wine Folly. Except for one glaring bullet-point:
“Some wineries with tasting rooms will make a few own-vineyard wines, but will use bulk wine sources to make their cheaper, lower-end affordable bottlings. We’d ask what’s the point of selling something you pre-bought, rather than making at the winery? But it happens…”
It certainly does. Frequently. And understandably so.
First, what is bulk wine? Many established wineries at all quality-levels sell some of their finished wine on the bulk market. This is purchased by the gallon by other wineries or winemakers, typically at a fair tariff. Why would an established winery sell off the fruit (wine) of their hard-earned labor? Sometimes the wine is flawed. Other times it simply doesn’t make the cut for the premiere producer who grew the fruit and made the wine. One man’s trash is another’s treasure, though, and I have drunk many fine wines in the $12-$20 range that resulted from the latter. Finally, some producers sell finished, bulk wine to increase short-term cash flow. It turns out that bottling, labeling, marketing, selling, and then taking a hit in the three-tier system (producer, distributor, retailer) costs wineries a lot of money.
Many wineries buy bulk juice, and for essential reasons. For instance, young wineries buy bulk to produce enough volume to create a viable business. Owning your own vineyards is an expensive proposition (understatement of the year at Wagon Wine), and buying fruit is also expensive as a result. Buying some bulk juice allows many new, small, and moderate-sized wineries to enter the market and sustain their business.
I certainly respect the notion that established wineries need not turn to the bulk market.
Thankfully, Madeline contradicts herself at the end by writing:
“We’ve pointed out several issues that white label wines can have, but we believe there’s a lot of potential with this segment of the market. The bulk wine market involves a lot of great wineries and great wines from special places all over the world. A lot of these producers are focused so much on making wine that they lack the resources to market it. Winemaking is very capital-intensive, and the winery may need to sell wines in bulk to raise cash faster than they can sell their own wines, even if the wine is perfectly good.”
Yep, and many young winemakers and wineries rightfully take advantage of this “perfectly good” juice to create their entry-tier wines. Perfectly understandable, and ultimately beneficial to us, the consumers.
So yes, Madeline, transparency matters. And not all bulk juice is equal. However, don’t take a sledgehammer to a nail. Bulk juice in entry-level bottles sustains many reputable, small to medium-sized family wineries.
I recently returned from a marketing trip with my employer, a small Willamette Valley producer of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. As we explored the Minnesota market, meeting with local wine shops, three separate owners asked pointedly, “Will you be in Total Wine? If so, we won’t carry you.” Early in 2014, Total Wine & More entered Minnesota, grabbed hold, and shook it like a martini. A few locally-owned shops have closed, including the beloved Four Firkins. While appreciated by many buyers for their substantial selection and low prices—a reputation buoyed by titles like “2014 Retailer of the Year” by Wine Enthusiast—we should pause and reflect on the big box economics of Total Wine.
Total Wine carries an array of wines produced by medium to large producers. Their margins? Minimal—lower than any locally-owned shop can match. This clearly harms the boutique shops, but it also abuses the smaller wineries carried by Total Wine. Yes, Total Wine pays the same price to the distributors as any other shop, and so the wineries make equal money when sitting on the shelves of Total Wine. However, the low markup ultimately devalues any wine on the shelf, and consequently any brand on the shelf. Small to medium-sized boutique wineries only thrive if they create a value brand rather than a discount brand. Big box economics undercuts the value.
Total Wine makes one exception to their minimal mark up philosophy—their private labels. They amass a fleet of private label wines, which they create through contracts with wineries around the world. “You make the wine, we’ll provide the label.” This model allows the producers to move volumes of mediocre to crappy wine easily, thanks to the serious power wielded by large entities like Total Wine. It also masks the grape growing and production facts, allowing Total Wine to mark these private label wines up substantially more than the other brands on their shelves. Total Wine stocks over 2,500 private labels, and sources report 53% of their sales come from these private label wines. This ultimately means that Total Wine’s management, and subsequently store employees, have an incentive to push the private label wines.
Thankfully, unique Minnesota distribution laws allow some local stores to cleverly fight back.
This story, of course, is not unique to wine, and this fact only bolsters the message. We all benefit when we shop at locally-owned stores. Michael Pollan, food writer and journalist, first turned me on to the power of voting with my money. Every dollar spent is a vote for that product, that company, that retailer, and the business practices that support that chain of businesses. A son of a rural Minnesota business owner, I shouldn’t have needed Pollan to clarify the power of shopping locally. Yes, you may pay an extra dollar or two*, but the benefits so clearly outweigh the cost, sun to a grain of sand.
*Take advantage of case discounts at your local wine shop, and prices come nearer to alignment when comparing the superstores and small shops.
- Star Tribune “Total Wine Uncorks Booze Battles in Minnesota” June 29, 2015
- Wine Business Monthly “Private Label Wine Brings New Brands to Market” July 2015
I, like any good wine shopper, seek out producers over-delivering for their price point. In the nearby Willamette Valley, this means $20-$35 Pinot Noir that tastes like the giants at $50-$80. Last weekend I stopped by Bergström Wines, a hallmark producer in the valley. What I found buckled my knees. The first swirl and smell of three of the four Pinots I tasted left me staggering. Life paused, oh my word, there is a fourth dimension kind of wines.
It started with the 2013 Le Pré du Col Vineyard Pinot Noir. The aromatics took me to another realm. Nothing I have tasted has touched this wine. Strawberry, earth, and pine forest mingle seductively and profoundly on the nose. The mid-weight palate adds cherry cola and soft tannins. This is a knee-buckling, tear-inducing wine—memorable and awe-inspiring. Stellar.
Having tasted the Le Pré du Col, I honestly didn’t care what the rest of the wines tasted like. I could have simply basked in the afterglow of that singular experience. However, the line-up continued to caress my interest, never letting me down from my cloud. The 2013 Silice Pinot Noir followed with its own unique path to Pinot Noir enlightenment. Chocolate covered strawberry and cherry aromas lead with silky, pure, red-fruit on the palate. The fine-grained tannins and strawberry preserve acidity weave smooth layers into the medium-bodied core. An eye-brow raising wine that floats effortlessly between density and buoyancy. Stellar.
This is the first time I have rated two wines as stellar at one tasting. I still encourage all to seek the hand-crafted gems over-delivering at affordable price points. Bergström Wines reminds me, however, that some (only some) have earned the hefty tariffs they charge. If you have the opportunity to taste their wines or purchase a bottle, do not hesitate.