Thursday, May 28, 2015

The "overwhelmed wine consumer" is mostly a myth

People who understand wine often write about how confusing it is. How bad the wine industry is about educating consumers. How hapless wine buyers are overwhelmed by too much choice and too little information.

Turns out, like many assumptions -- especially ones this condescending -- it's pretty much bullshit.

Last month the American Association of Wine Economists published a 2014 working paper entitled "Drowning in the Wine Lake: Does Choice Overload Exist in Wine Retail?" The 41-page paper didn't get the attention it deserved because at first glance, its findings aren't revelatory.

But when you think about it, they are.

The survey was done by Douglas Zucker, director of operations at Stew Leonard's Wines in New York. He did the study in New York, and you can see where big wine companies would say that it's not Indiana and Wisconsin supermarket shoppers.

That said, there are more wine choices in New York wine stores than almost anywhere on the planet. If customers are going to experience choice overload, it's a likely place.

What's "choice overload?" It has been described in academic works for 40 years, Zucker reports.


Tuesday, May 26, 2015

What wine haters get right/wrong

Lots of people hate wine: not the taste of it, or the alcoholic effect, but the concept.

A couple times a year, a blogger will string together some existing anti-wine research and produce a popular post, or in the most recent case, video. It's usually a 20-something male author, not surprisingly, for this is the U.S. demographic group least likely to drink wine.

The psychology behind these posts is interesting. I hate TV sitcoms, and I'm sure I'm not alone, but I don't usually feel the need to insult something other people enjoy. Behind every one of these anti-wine posts I've read an author intimidated by wine; an author so irritated by not being an expert that he attacks the concept of expertise.

There's not much point in a wine blogger like myself refuting these posts and videos. My audience is wine lovers; anybody who would read my blog in the first place doesn't need me to defend wine.

That said, these anti-wine posts get a lot of things right before reaching the wrong conclusion. If only there was a wine-loving editor to step in at the last minute, these posts would be quite useful for a non-enophile audience.

Here's what the anti-wine crowd gets right:

* All wine opinions and ratings are subjective. There is no such thing as an objective rating. Anyone who claims otherwise is ignorant, arrogant or works for Wine Spectator.


Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The 10 best Canadian wines from Northern Lands

Some Canadian wines go well with mouth-caught salmon
The best Canadian wines can definitely compete on the world stage. That said, unless you're reading this in Calgary, you'll probably never see them.

I was one of several mid-NAFTA judges flown in April to Edmonton for an innovative, painstaking wine competition called Northern Lands. There were few enough entries -- 82 red wines, 73 whites, 27 other -- that each flight was judged by more than one panel on more than one day.

This obviously wouldn't work for a competition like the Concours Mondial de Bruxelles, which gets 8000 entries, so that each judge ends up tasting less than 2% of them. Every judge left Edmonton having tasted all the top awards winners, giving us all a survey of what's going on up there in the Great White North.

My overall impressions:

* Syrah is the best red varietal being made in Canada right now. Not only did a Syrah deservedly win overall Best Red Wine; its runner-up could probably have won as well.


Friday, May 15, 2015

Wine is a bad business, Cameron Hughes edition

Cameron Hughes
For the uninitiated, a winery is basically a license to hemorrhage money. Many smart companies like Coca-Cola have tried and failed.

Cameron Hughes is no fool, and he had a decade of success building a unique business model. But we learned last week that his company has been placed into receivership and he may be forced to sell.

The problem wasn't Hughes' initial innovative idea: buying wines out of tanks and barrels that famous wineries couldn't sell for nickels on the dollar, then selling them at Costco under his own name with lot numbers; i.e., Cameron Hughes Lot 218 Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon 2008. That line of business is still profitable.

The problem also wasn't Hughes' innovative direct sale business, where right now you can buy 2012 Russian River Pinot Noir, Napa Valley Meritage or many other choices for under $20. As Hughes expanded his market, he moved into buying excess quality grapes in big vintages like the last three and having the wines made in custom crush facilities. These opportunistic buys are also profitable, according to court filings.

Where Hughes fell down was in two things: 1) entering the mainstream battle for ordinary cheap supermarket wine and 2) getting financing to do it from a bank that apparently wasn't really acquainted with wine industry.

It's just the latest sign that wine is a bad business, if your grandparents didn't own vineyards, and if you hope to make a profit on the kind of schedule that pleases a bank or traditional stock investors.

Hughes is not insolvent, and he may be able to right the ship. But the bank he owes $15.3 million isn't helping. His representatives told the San Francisco Superior Court the bank forced him to sell bulk wine at a loss, rather than bottle it and sell it on his website. His side also said he and the bank agree he needs to get out of the mainstream "broad market" business, but disagree on how to do it.

I'm rooting for Hughes. But let this tale be a reminder to people who want to make a small fortune in the wine industry, because we all know the prerequisite for that.

Follow me on Twitter: @wblakegray and like The Gray Report on Facebook.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Perfection isn't perfect: Parker says only 50% of his 100-point scores are repeatable

More 100-point wines when the critic is lit!
If you read that a wine scored 100 points out of 100, you think, wow, that's an absolutely great wine. A perfect wine. Right?

It turns out that perfection, for Robert Parker, is as fleeting as the beauty of cherry blossom leaves drifting softly to the ground. Today your wine is a pink blossom; tomorrow it's a bare branch, possibly covered in birdshit.

Parker gave an interview to Drinks Business earlier this year for an article that will appear in its June issue. The magazine published excerpts online last week. I find this section astonishing:

How often do I go back and re-taste a wine that I gave 100 points and repeat the score? Probably about 50% of the time.
-- Robert Parker
Parker goes on to say that most -- not all -- of the time "I can understand why I did see it as perfect at that time."

Holy crap! How did this quote not roil the Internet?


Monday, May 11, 2015

Wine trade rumor: Santa Margherita, Terlato consider divorce

Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio is one of the biggest successes ever on the U.S. wine market. For 14 years in a row, from 1995 to 2008, it was the most popular imported wine in Wine & Spirits magazine's annual restaurant poll.

Tony Terlato introduced it in 1979. He created a sensation, and not just for the brand. Pinot Grigio, unknown before, is now the third most popular grape variety in America.

With apologies to Deutsch, which brought us Yellow Tail, I can't name an import company that did more for a wine brand or wine category.

And yet, in Italy last week I heard a widespread rumor that Santa Margherita is planning a divorce. It's a rumor and could be nothing more.

"We continue to work under the terms of our agreement with Santa Margherita," said Liz Barrett, Terlato Wines vice president of corporate communications. "I know there's many rumors out there. We don't comment on those."

If the story does come to pass, it reminds me of Mateus rosé.


Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Napa County should increase its minimum parcel size

Napa County is considering increasing the minimum parcel size required to build a winery, from 10 to 40 acres. This is a classist move that favors existing wineries and could prevent some small landowners from stepping up to join the elite.

It's also one of the best moves Napa can make right now to address its longterm growth challenges.

Napa County already has 395 wineries, including 49 grandfathered in on rural properties of less than 10 acres. It's likely that among the remaining 5,000 parcels of 10 acres or more, there's another Martha's Vineyard that would really shine if allowed to be made and bottled on its own.

Of course, Martha's is one of Napa's most famous vineyards, yet its owners have not needed to build a winery in order for its grapes to be recognized. Nor have they needed a winery to profit from their land, or increase its value.

Napa decided decades ago that its future is high-end agriculture. No region in the United States, and arguably the world, is better at turning a local name and image into stacks of money.

Napa can't really grow much more without hurting its image.