Thursday, March 26, 2015

Wine Institute choice on arsenic: defend every wine or tell consumers to spend more?

Everyone expects the Wine Institute to be the main line of defense on the arsenic-in-wine story. That's its role. But it has a choice to make.

Should it defend the big players named in a class action lawsuit, or kick them to the curb and urge consumers to buy more expensive wines?

Either is a legitimate strategy. The 83 wines named in the lawsuit are cheap. Even the lawyers who filed the suit, in a press conference, urged people to spend more money on wine.

"The lower the price of wine, the more arsenic you are getting," plaintiffs' attorney David K. TeStelle said.

Only 11 wineries are named in the lawsuit, and there are more than 3000 wineries in California. Most of them must resent the fallout they're getting from the story, as all must explain to their customers that wine is at least as safe as brown rice, brussels sprouts and apple juice (products shown previously to contain arsenic.)

Is it more effective -- and more rewarding -- to tell consumers that all wine is safe, or that all wine above $10 a bottle is safe?

The decision is complicated because of an enormous omission from the list of defendants. E. & J. Gallo Winery, the world's largest wine producer, is not one of the 11 wineries named.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

"Certified Sustainable" greenwashing doesn't remove arsenic

From the CSWA website. How can 57% of the state's wines be sustainable when only 14% of vineyards are?
People have been asking, "Why did you take down your blog post Monday?"

I wrote a 1000-word essay about the arsenic-in-wine story. My main conclusion was that I wasn't bothered by the recent revelations about arsenic, as long as there was no greenwashing.

Then I discovered there is plenty of greenwashing, as more than 2/3 of the wines listed in the lawsuit are made by "certified sustainable" wineries.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Ordinary wines are often better than special reserves: Avignonesi edition

Virginie Saverys
Avignonesi in Montepulciano is under new foreign ownership and direction that is actually restoring, in some ways, its Old World taste profile.

Virginie Saverys, who comes from a Belgian shipping magnate family, bought the winery in 2009 after its Italian owners, two brothers, couldn't work together anymore. She quickly moved to take the winery toward using only estate grapes and to focus on Sangiovese, instead of the Bordeaux varieties that find their way into many wines of the region. She also is taking the vineyards biodynamic.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Where does San Francisco rank among world wine cities?

Sommeliers walk among us in San Francisco
A carpetbagger wine critic from New York recently gave San Francisco a middle finger from the window of his moving van about how SF's sommelier culture is dying. I don't want to get into all the rant's inconsistencies; Alder Yarrow has done a nice job of that.

What I want you to consider is the question in the headline. Where does San Francisco rank among world wine cities?

First, a little perspective. San Francisco is the 14th largest city in the United States, just behind Jacksonville, Florida and just ahead of Columbus, Ohio. Yarrow gives an incomplete list of at least 59 San Francisco restaurants that have a sommelier working the floor. For a city of its size, that seems pretty good to me, though I'd like to see the numbers for Jacksonville.

Most reasonable people would put San Francisco without much debate among the top 4 American cities for wine, along with New York (10x bigger), Los Angeles (4.6x bigger) and Chicago (3.2x bigger). A DC resident could make an argument for Washington. I think most wine people would put LA, Chicago and DC, despite their many great restaurants, behind San Francisco for wine culture. Just ask the many foreign wine producers who make San Francisco a key stop on their American tour itineraries. But feel free to make a counter-argument in the comments.

That leads me to non-American cities. How many cities, in the entire world, might be better for wine culture?

First, let's define "wine culture."

Thursday, March 12, 2015

I made my own tonic water

Chino's Danny Louie and Bittercube's Ira Koplowitz
Gin and tonics are about as complex a cocktail as you can get from two ingredients. Now I better understand why.

Bacardi is running a pretty cool program to push one of its gins: it's offering the chance for 10 bars each in 10 cities to make their own house tonic water, at Bacardi's expense.

It seems like a win-win promotion: 100 bars get the DYI cachet of their own house tonic. Bacardi pays for the tonic water, but likely sells more of its Bombay Sapphire East gin, although the bar can do anything it wants with the tonic.

I tagged along last week at Chino, a bar/restaurant I like in my neighborhood in San Francisco. Bar manager Danny Louie and I both made our own tonics.

We started with a syrup Louie made from Demerara sugar and added a few drops of quinine and citric acid. Then we had our choice of a dozen essences that a Wisconsin company called Bittercube produces. Some were exotic and seemed right for Chino's menu: Thai lemongrass and Vietnamese black peppercorn.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Dear wineries: Big wine & spirits distributors hate you

Southern Wine & Spirits Director of Sales Joseph Eger (crotch being grabbed) at the Hustler Club. Photo: Facebook/New York Post
The New York Post ran a story this week about Southern Wine & Spirits' Director of Sales dumping Champagne into an ice bucket while a stripper grabbed his crotch.

The sales director, Joseph Eger, was upset because Laurent-Perrier was moving its account to Winebow. Hard to blame L-P, when you look at what Southern thought of its product.

But that's exactly what most big distributors think of the wines they carry: interchangeable juice not as interesting as a stripper's grip.

The Post story is lurid, but it's also right on about distributors' attitude. It's an issue nobody talks about loudly in the wine industry for fear of retribution. But they talk about it to each other all the time.

What sucks about this for consumers is that this is why supermarkets and big wine stores tend to carry the same industrially made wines, because those are the ones that move most easily through the major distribution channels. If you want an interesting wine, you have to go to small wine shops that pay attention to small distributors.

Not only that, the big distributors make more money -- a lot more -- on each bottle of wine you buy that passes through their hands than either the winery or the store. You're paying for their lap dances!

Some wineries, particularly those outside the U.S., think they're fortunate when a big U.S. distributor agrees to take them on. Then a year passes and they've had about as many chargebacks for samples as actual sales, and they wonder, why isn't my wine selling?

Three reasons:

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

What people, critics hate in wine back-label copy

Did you know people hate to see the word "red" used to describe red wine?

Last month a Harvard psychology PhD candidate, Mark Allen Thornton, published the most interesting blog post on wine so far this year. Thornton is not a wine blogger. His parents are both wine microbiologists at Fresno State, so he's smart enough to do something more lucrative with his time than write about wine.

Thornton compared the text written on the back label of wines to ratings by critics (Wine Spectator and Wine Advocate) and the general public, as represented by community ratings.

His main conclusion was interesting enough: nobody likes wines that have the word "pasta" on the back label. This makes sense, because wine companies have peddled their leftover tanks of red wine as "pasta reds" for years. If you see "pasta" on a back label, avoid it.

But there's so much cool data in Thornton's post. I thought it would be a big deal, but I haven't seen any follow-ups, so I'm going to summarize some of the most interesting points. People responsible for writing wine back labels, pay attention.

1) As Thornton points out, nobody -- critics or people -- likes food pairings of any kind. I'm not surprised at this; the extremely specific pairings given by food magazines ("serve this wine with lightly grilled cod with a beurre blanc sauce") give me hives. But there's probably something deeper going on. If the label has to talk about food, possibly the wine just isn't that good. Also, see point 3 below.