Friday, February 1, 2019

Millennials are talking but the wine industry isn't listening

In the last two weeks I watched two separate annual State of the wine Industry presentations. Both were focused on millennials and were worried that they aren't drinking as much wine as hoped.

The reasons why were all in the reports. But the wine industry is pretty much doing the exact opposite of what millennials are saying they want.

First, take a look at the two stories, then come back here and I'll explain. Here's the story from the Silicon Valley Bank report. I did not suggest or agree with this headline, but it's hard to blame my editor for trying to attract page views in a month that saw some of the largest layoffs in history for online news organizations. Clickbait helps pay my wages: Millennials now ruining wine as well

Second, here's the story from the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium. This headline is also clickbaity but reflects what was said: Wine and sex off the millennial menu

Now, forget about sex and smartphones. Let's talk about what millennials are telling the wine industry they want -- and how the industry is ignoring them

1. Millennials like healthy products

Why else would kombucha be so popular? Millennials care about what they put in their bodies.

So what's the wine industry's response?

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

People who make good wine have nothing to fear from cannabis competition

Graphics courtesy Silicon Valley Bank
The wine industry has been warily eyeing cannabis since before the first state legalized it. Now that a wave of legalization is spreading across the U.S., owners of small wineries are gettting nervous.

Wine sales are actually dropping for the first time in 25 years
Rob McMillan, executive vice president of Silicon Valley Bank's wine division, was especially gloomy about the future of wine in his influential annual report earlier this month. McMillan said millennials aren't buying as much wine as he expected, and they especially aren't buying expensive wine. (Here's a full story on McMillan's report.)

McMillan cited cannabis as one reason younger consumers aren't drinking as much wine. There is probably some truth to that, at the volume sales level.

Paradoxically, sales are dropping for the cheapest wines, even though supposedly-broke millennials can't afford wine. Sales for wines over $12 are continuing to climb.

Put these numbers together and here is the conclusion: Cannabis is not hurting all wine sales. It's hurting cheap wine sales. And not just with millennials. If you spend any time in cannabis shops in Northern California, you'll notice there are plenty of boomers buying weed. And as you can see from the next chart, it's not stopping them from buying wine.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Americans like sweet wines, but nobody talks about it. Missed opportunity for wineries, and media?

The question was, "How do you prefer your wine to taste? Check all that apply."
Dr. Liz Thach
Americans like sweet wines. Big wine companies know it. East Coast wineries know it.

The main people in the dark are the wine media: people like me. We usually write disparagingly about red wines with residual sugar, if we write about them at all. We drink in an ivory tower.

This is my main conclusion from Sonoma State University's American Wine Consumer poll, which was published last week. According to the survey, dry wines are enjoyed by only 36% of American wine consumers, compared to semi-sweet (45%) and sweet (38%).

I combined this story with another Sonoma State professor's gloom-and-doom seminar the week before about the outlook for small wineries and wondered, should more small wineries be making sweet wines?

I called Dr. Liz Thach MW, the professor of wine and management who led the survey, to chat. Here's an edited transcript.

Thach: Every time we've done this survey, we always get these same results. This is a survey of the everyday consumer in America.

Me: How do you choose the people to survey?

Thach: You try to get a representative sample of your target population. Our target population is the American wine consumer. We try to get a sample of at least 1000 people. We need to have at least 40 percent men and 60 percent women. It used to be 45 percent men and 55 percent women. We're using Wine Market Council statistics.

Me: Men aren't drinking as much wine as before?

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Christmas gifts for wine lovers

If you have a wine lover on your gift list, you might think the best gift is a bottle of wine. That's not untrue -- if you know them well enough to get a bottle they would find delightful.

Sometimes that's easier said than done. If you pick up a $12 bottle at Trader Joe's for your niece the sommelier, she'll thank you because she's polite, but she'll also look for the nearest opportunity to unload it.

Wine gadgets wind up in magazine stories this time of year because we all have to write holiday gift stories, but most gadgets are just more space-eating junk. (Exceptions are below).

Here are some gifts the wine lover on your list will enjoy. I guarantee it!

Wine glasses

Glasses break. We always need more. Look for a simple design, and don't spend too much money. More expensive glassware is often handblown and thus even more likely to break.

I usually buy wine glasses at Cost Plus World Market, but I admit I'm intrigued that this is a product Amazon has decided to make as part of its Amazon Basics series, like batteries. It does make sense: if you need 4 today, you're going to need another 4 soon enough. I have not tried Amazon's glassware but I probably will.

A Coravin

The Coravin is a revolutionary system that allows you to take a glass of wine from a bottle without pulling out the cork, so what's left in the bottle stays fresh longer.

I'm in the middle of reviewing a new $1000 version of the Coravin and I haven't yet decided whether I'll recommend it to readers at Wine Searcher, who can afford $1000. I will say this: a Coravin is a gift no wine lover will reject. We're all curious about it. The plastic one at left is only about $200. Buy it here.

Wine charms

Need something cheap? Wine charms hook around the stem of a wine glass so you can tell your glass from your friends'. They're invaluable at parties. I'm still using a set I got as a present years ago, along with a few others I have picked up since.

Good books that are about wine, but not intros to wine

The problem with most year-end wine book lists is that many of the best books about wine aren't really of interest to a wine lover. I know that seems paradoxical, but we don't need a book that tells us what we already know.

Here are some excellent books that a wine lover will enjoy.

Wine and War: Interesting history of Nazi occupation of French wine country

The Botanist and the Vintner: Phylloxera nearly destroyed wine as we know it. A scientific hero's journey

By the Smoke and the Smell: This one's about artisanal spirits, and it will make the reader thirsty for some

Wine Grapes: The reference book I use more than any other, it tells the history and current state of every commercial wine grape in the world. A must-have for people who like offbeat varietals

A good bottle of amaro

Most wine lovers enjoy amaro, the Italian bitter drink meant as a digestif, but they won't necessarily think to buy a bottle for themselves (and if they do, that means they can use another). A bottle of amaro will last much longer than a bottle of wine. In past years I have recommended whiskey or brandy, and those are also fine ideas: get the wine lover something nice that he wouldn't buy himself. I'm switching to amaro because of the rising price of whiskey. If you're going to buy somebody an artisanal Bourbon now, you have to be very sure they'll love it. In contrast, they can fall in love with an amaro they haven't tried before.

One reason amaros are interesting to wine lovers is that they're very different from each other. My favorite is Braulio (buy it here), but currently I'm enjoying a bottle of Amaro Dell'Erborista (buy it here). There are lots of good choices in this category.

A birth-year wine

That's always going to be welcome. It's also easier to buy than you might think: Just go to Wine-Searcher, put the year into the search engine, and you'll see all the wines available.

For the heck of it, I put in 1979 and came up with 1660 wines! There are a bunch of red Bordeaux from that year for under $100.

You can obsess over which is the best one to buy, but don't bother. I can tell you that, as a serious wine lover who knows vintages matter, I am going to exclaim with surprise and delight if you hand me any bottle from my birth year, no matter what it is. You have my permission to buy the cheap one.

Try entering your (friend's) birth year here. Happy holidays!

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

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Trump, tariffs, and trade barriers to U.S. wine in France: the real facts

Annoyed by French President Emmanuel Macron's ability to stand in the rain and honor World War I dead, our own President Donald Trump tweeted about unfair trade barriers that have prevented French people from drinking more U.S. wines:
A clutch of Francophiles hit social media in the aftermath because they hate Trump and assume he's wrong about everything. But he's not. He's a little off base, because tariffs are not the issue, but this is not a bad tweet by Trump's standards. Let's look at the real facts.

1. Trump starts off absolutely correct. France does make excellent wine, and so does the U.S. Don't lose sight of that.

2. French people would drink U.S. wine if it were cheap enough -- at the low end. Don't kid yourself about the glories of Burgundy and the Jura blah blah blah. French farmers have been overturning tanker trucks bringing cheap bulk wine from Spain because that wine has been taking away their market.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Endorsements for the November 2018 election in San Francisco

This might be the most pivotal election in the U.S. since the Civil War, but locally it's all about school boards and ballot propositions.

I have read the endorsements of the San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco Bay Guardian, Los Angeles Times and Sacramento Bee. I have also read the candidates' statements on Smart Voter (which I highly recommend visiting because you can see your specific ballot.) I want to commend Tim Richmond for keeping the Guardian's endorsements alive even after the death of the print publication. He interviews all the candidates and that's a lot of work. I also want to commend the Chronicle, which has done a better job than ever before of endorsing in many races and putting all its endorsements in one easily accessed site that is open to non-subscribers.

If you are outside of San Francisco, please vote Democrat for Congress this time regardless of your political beliefs. We need the balance in the system to prevent a slide into autocracy, and it's obvious the GOP isn't going to do it. The rest of this post is for Californians.

US Senator

Kevin DeLeon

I recently read "Season of the Witch" and gained an appreciation for how earnest, politically centrist Dianne Feinstein helped rebuild San Francisco as appointed mayor after the assassinations of George Moscone and Harvey Milk.* I thank her for her many years of public service. But "politically centrist" is not what California needs in a Senator right now. If the Democrats pull off an upset in the Senate, Feinstein's seniority will get her some committee chairs, but Democrats need committee chairs who don't have a lifelong record of accommodating the GOP. Moreover, everybody is tiptoeing around this issue because they don't want to sound ageist, but I'm gonna say it. Feinstein is 85 years old. If she is re-elected, and doesn't die in office, she will serve through her 91st birthday. That's too old. DeLeon was good as state Senate president and is as qualified as any of our state politicians for this job.

(* She is not the witch. It's a song title. The book is about rougher times than these in San Francisco. Highly recommended.)

District 12, House of Representatives

Nancy Pelosi

Like we have a choice. But to be fair, Pelosi represents current Democratic values way more than Feinstein.


Newsom. Courtesy San Francisco Chronicle
Gavin Newsom

Newsom had some serious opposition in the primary, but now his opponent is a businessman endorsed by Donald Trump who is pro-border wall and doesn't believe in climate change. I'm done here.

Lt. Governor

Ed Hernandez

Real estate developer Eleni Kounalakis used her family's wealth to buy a spot in this race despite never having won political office before. If you're going to buy an office, this is a good place to start, a heartbeat from the governor's chair (which I have sat in!) Hernandez has been in the state legislature for 12 years. He's not the most exciting candidate, but it's not the most exciting job, and he is more qualified than Kounalakis.

Endorsements continue after the jump

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

My guilty pleasure wine: admitting my youthful transgression

Opening ceremony for a wine competition. I think they're supposed to be ... pollinated?

This story is about one of my guilty pleasures: a transgression of my early drinking days.

It's about a wine I would never have the courage to praise to a professional crowd: a cheap, sweet, mass-produced wine, screwcapped before that was cool, and I didn't even believe it was made from grapes. I liked it and was ashamed to say it.

The one on the right is better; sealed with a synthetic cork
Here is the wine in question: Kuei Hua Chen Chiew. It's made in China by Beijing Dragon Seal Wine Co., and until last month I didn't realize that's a government-owned winery.

When I lived in Tokyo we used to eat sometimes in a southeast Asian restaurant that served spicy food, and their drink menu was limited. I don't like beer, so this is how I discovered Kuei Hua Chen Chiew (I believe it's pronounced Qwee Wa Shen Shew, but I could be wrong.)

For decades, I thought this was plum liquor. The bottle doesn't say -- I think. My then-girlfriend, now my wife, reads Mandarin, and she couldn't glean any information from the bottle.

But she has a sweet tooth and she loooooved Kuei Hua Chen Chiew, which she thought was a cheap, industrial Chinese version of umeshu (people call umeshu Japanese plum "wine," but it's actually made by infusing plums in shochu, which is a distilled spirit.) Kuei Hua Chen Chiew cost about $5 US per bottle in Tokyo and you couldn't get a bottle of anything else that cheap, other than the lowest-grade shochu.

I was young. We drank cheap.