Thursday, August 28, 2014

Fireball Cinnamon Whiskey, Prosecco, Barefoot are hot; Syrah, mainstream beer are not

Fireball Cinnamon Whiskey is the hottest liquor brand in the country, and I'm not talking about the taste. It has added easily the most sales in dollar and volume over the last year, according to Nielsen. Two vodkas -- Tito's and New Amsterdam -- are runners up.

Yesterday, Nielsen's beverage alcohol head Danny Brager gave a presentation in San Diego about what's going on in the U.S. booze market. Here are the bullet points:

* Consumers are trading up in beer, wine and spirits.

* Mainstream beer sales are dropping. Beer classified as "below premium" (I don't know how cheap that means) is still 23.8% of all beer, but down 3.8%. Craft beer is only 7% of the market but it's up 12.2%.

* New items (new brands or weird shit like beer-wine hybrids) are fueling growth of the whole beer and wine categories, which would both actually have negative sales growth if you removed the sales of new items. However, it's possible that new items are just cannibalizing sales of established brands.

* Giant beer producers didn't get that way by being stupid about business. They're introducing a horde of weird new products to capture curious millenials' cash. Angry Orchard, Redd's fruit beers and Bud Light Lime-Rita and its sisters now combine for $1 billion in sales. None of them existed 3 years ago.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Porn star makes wine: an interview from the archives

Going through some old files last week, I found this story that never ran in its intended publication; the editor got cold feet. Never too late for a porn star-makes-wine story. This is the unedited original story from 2007.

“There are two things I have to ask you about: wine and sex,” I tell porn star Savanna Samson in our phone interview. “Which one do you want to talk about first?”

She paused; I imagined her doing that little lip-biting thing women do when they’re faking orgasms (I mean in the movies, of course.) Then she said, “Um, sex?”

Yee-haw! Samson, whose real name is Natalie Oliveros, has just released her first wine, an Italian red called Sogno Uno. That’s how a wine writer gets away with interviewing her.

But honestly, if I want to talk about gentle grape crushing or wild strains of yeast, I can call any of the hundreds of winemakers in the 707 area code. Yet very few of those winemakers can I ask about DP (that’s industry slang for “double penetration”).

“I always said I wouldn’t do more than three guys at once,” Oliveros says. “Then Chi Chi Larue, the director of ‘Savanna Samson, Superstar,’ wanted me to do five guys at once. I said, OK, for you I’ll do it.”

You gotta love that dedication. 
While Oliveros has to struggle to look like she’s enjoying quintuple penetration, she says girl-girl scenes are easier for her than for most porn stars.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The romantic mystery of Charles Shaw wines

Yesterday I answered the question "Why are Trader Joe's wines so cheap?" Today I want to explore why people care.

The most famous Trader Joe's wine is Charles Shaw, once known as Two Buck Chuck, but now $2.49 in most stores. Throughout my wine-writing career, I have been asked about Charles Shaw far more than any other wine. Screaming Eagle is a distant second. I have done stories about Barefoot and Yellow Tail, but I never get asked about them.

The most popular question is, "What do you think of Charles Shaw?" People ask this for a lot of reasons, including validation of their purchase decision. Some ask because they want to expose me as a wine snob.

People ask other questions about Charles Shaw too, like, "Is it consistent?" (answer: There's a lot of variation because they do several batches of each variety per year). Some ask which varietal I would drink if I had to pick one. (In tastings, I've had the best luck with the Shiraz.)

Many ask the question I answered yesterday, "Why is it so cheap?" This question is at the heart of the romantic mystery of Charles Shaw wines. Not only that, this question about Charles Shaw wines is central to wine appreciation for all of us.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Why are Trader Joe's wines so cheap?

Short answer: For the same reason that everything else at Trader Joe's is cheap. They're industrial agricultural products that are efficiently made and distributed.

The Internet got excited last week with the "news" from the Huffington Post that there are dead birds in Trader Joe's wines. The Huffington Post, which doesn't pay writers for most of its stories, exists mostly to prove that liberals are as gullible as conservatives. It got smacked down for running potentially libelous material and took the story off its site.

(Just to clarify: There are most likely no dead birds in Trader Joe's wine. There are, however, thousands of dead insects. More on that below.)

The question of Why are Trader Joe's wines so cheap? is still out there, so I'm going to answer it.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Tasty can of sake rises from the rubble of a tsunami

Suisen brewery was utterly destroyed by an earthquake and tsunami in 2011. Seven employees (out of only 57 total) died.

It was a challenge just to keep going for the 67-year-old brewery. Amazingly, only three years later, not only is Suisen back in business, it's exporting its sake for the first time.

That sake -- called Kibo -- is delicious, cheap, and perfectly packaged in a 180 ml can for about $5.

I wish more sake was sold in cans for the American market. People often compare sake to wine, but it's a brewed product more like beer, and is preserved better in cans than bottles. And, as Suisen president Yasuhiko Konno says, "You can just open it and drink it."

Konno, 68, said he thought about giving up in the disheartening days after his business was washed away. But sake, like wine, is a regional product with the taste of terroir, and Konno's neighbors considered Suisen sake part of their lives.

After the tsunami
"Many people in the Rikuzentakata area told us they want to drink our sake," Konno said by Skype from Japan. "They said, 'You're going to rebuild the kura, right? I want to drink it again.' "

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

If you can't make great wine, tweet

Here are the top 10 wineries Monday on Vin Tank's "Winery Social Index":

1. Four Cousins (South Africa)
2. Barefoot Cellars
3. Wine Sisterhood
4. Biltmore (North Carolina)
5. Castello di Amorosa (
6. Chateau Ste. Michelle
7. South Coast Winery (Temecula)
8. Iron Horse Vineyards
9. Mezzacorona
10. Tarara Winery (Virginia)

The top 10 apparently is calculated using Facebook likes and Twitter followers.

I'm constantly reading boring blog posts about the wine industry and social media. This list is a pretty good demonstration of the value of it.

My readers, for the most part, are wine savvy. How many of these brands would you spend your own money on?

Chateau Ste. Michelle makes great value wines. I might buy an Iron Horse bubbly. The rest of them?

The ratio is the same through the rest of the top 50. There are about 8 of the next 40 that I would spend my own money on, even though many are not expensive wines. I think I'll make fewer enemies today by not revealing which 8. Go look for yourself and come up with your own number.

So apparently wineries' social media may have value for wine sales -- but not so much for wine lovers.

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

Monday, August 4, 2014

Here's a rarity: a simple, useful, elegant wine gadget

Wine Thermals. Mine is plain brown.
There aren't many good wine gadgets. Most are superfluous crap meant to keep the cycle of useless Christmas gifts spinning. Even the ones I like usually end up gathering dust in a cupboard somewhere.

In the few months since I got a Wine Thermal, I've used it every time I had a white wine. I can't say that for any other wine gadget in the house. (I've moved away from fancy corkscrew devices and am using a very basic model.)

It's attractive, effective and extremely low-tech. I like it so much I feel the need to say that nobody is paying me to write this. In fact, it's going to be a welcome surprise for the Montana-based company.

The Wine Thermal is a block of concrete with a wine bottle-shaped hole in it. You store it in the freezer. When it's time to serve a white wine, you put the concrete block on the table, and put the bottle in it. Simple as that.

The Thermal keeps the wine at a steady, cool temperature more effectively than an ice bucket. With an ice bucket, you always have to worry about overchilling, so you're constantly moving the dripping bottle in and out of the ice bath. You can just leave it, dry, in the Thermal. It keeps the bottle cool for at least 90 minutes; I haven't asked longer of it than that. While it does leave a little condensation on the table, it's a whole lot neater than an ice bucket.

It's a simple, elegant device that you can use every day; it gives your dinner table a touch of the trendy urban industrial-restaurant look. When you're done with the wine, you put it back in the freezer.

I was waiting for it to be available on Amazon, so I could reap 4% of the sales from any click-throughs, but two months have passed since I got it and I'm still using it all the time, so what the heck. You have to order it (for $65 plus $5 shipping) directly from the Montana-based company, Angle 33. Here's their website.

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