Friday, February 23, 2018

Private label wines: Like a seat on a no-frills airline, people may complain but they love them

Damien Wilson
I started something rare recently, an intelligent discussion on social media, by tweeting my disdain for a fawning article about another tech company that knows nothing about wine "disrupting" the business by putting bulk wine in its own bottles.

Soon I found myself the least intelligent person in the cyber-room, as Felicity Carter, editor-in-chief of Meininger's Wine Business International, and Damien Wilson, an Australian wine marketing professor who teaches at Sonoma State University, took opposite sides on whether or not private label wines are good for consumers.

I'm going to give you that intelligent wine conversation, and a conclusion.

But first, a primer. Private label wines are everywhere but don't announce their presence. There's an ocean of bulk wine made cheaply in California's San Joaquin Valley, Australia, Chile, and elsewhere. What a private label wine does is attempt to make it seem like this wine was handmade by a person from a single place. Lately some private-label companies promote the winemaker who "made" the wine when in fact the wine usually just came out of a tanker truck.

However, that doesn't mean it's bad wine. We are in a golden age of minimum wine quality, when most of the bacteriological flaws that existed in wine a generation ago have been eliminated. The biggest arguments against private-label wines are that they're inauthentic -- pretending to be something they're not -- or that the taste is one-dimensional and boring.

For many wine drinkers, these are not negatives.

It's easy to side with Felicity Carter in this discussion, but to understand Damien Wilson's point of view, you have to consider how powerful name brand wines are in the U.S. market. California has thousands of wineries, many of them small and artisanal, but just three companies produced about 60% of all California wine last year, according to Wine Business Monthly.

Is there any real difference between bulk wine sold in an established brand like Mark West or Black Box, owned by Constellation, or Glen Ellen or Cupcake, owned by The Wine Group, or bulk wine sold to a supermarket with a made-up name like Bubbling Brook Cellars? In some cases the Cabernet is pouring from the same spigot. This is not to say any of it is bad: it's just cheap and, to the enophile, not very interesting. But plenty of consumers like it: Cupcake and Black Box are among the hottest brands in America. So why wouldn't people like the same juice in a different container?

Here's how the discussion went:

Felicity Carter
Felicity Carter: Private label is (mostly) a race to the bottom, Damien. The distributor gets the brand equity and can just change suppliers at will. It becomes all about what price they can get from suppliers. (Blake's note: that means the label doesn't change even when the wine comes from somewhere else.)

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

The fruits of war: two wineries of Lebanon

Naji Boutros
Naji Boutros went to Stanford and got a masters in artificial technology. He was a vice president at Merrill Lynch in London. Then in 1996 he made a visit home to Lebanon, to see his grandfather's old vineyard and hotel. It was in ruins, as was most of Bhamdoun, the village around it.

"The village was a Christian village, and it was massacred in the war, in 1983," Boutros said. "It was known as the Mountain War." The damage barely attracted any notice outside the region, but it had a profound effect on Boutros.

Boutros was one of two winery owners I interviewed at a Lebanese wine tasting in November. The tasting was chaotic, but there were some good wines, and I was able to spend a few minutes with the owners of the wineries whose wines I liked best.

Despite political turmoil, the wine industry is thriving in Lebanon, relatively speaking: more than 40 wineries make about 800,000 cases a year combined. The largest Lebanese winery, Chateau Ksara, is responsible for about a third of that. Twenty years ago, Lebanon had just five wineries. Lebanon's largest wine export market is, sadly, Lebanese restaurants in France, followed by retail sales in the UK. Lebanon would like Americans to learn about its wines beyond the delights of Chateau Musar. The wines may mostly be made from international varieties, but Lebanese wines are generally made with a European sensibility.

One huge advantage of buying these Lebanese wines is that they are already improved by bottle age. The difficulties in bringing them to market mean that 2009 is a current vintage for both wineries I'm writing about today.

Despite the destruction in Bhamdoun, Boutros kept thinking of the centuries old terraces on his grandfather's property, called Belle-Vue. He wanted to move back. "There's been a huge reconciliation in Lebanon," he says. His wife Jill, who he met as an undergrad at Notre Dame, was sympathetic.

So in 2000 they moved with their kids back to Lebanon and replanted.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Am I allergic to sulfites?

I created a decision tree to answer this popular question.

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

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

The Trump Administration may not be wrong about restaurant tip sharing. But here's a more simple solution

Chef Wong has a great idea on tipping
Restaurant servers make more money than line cooks. This is because of tipping. Many chefs are trying to change this disparity, but it's difficult. 

The Trump Administration plunged into the problem last year with a proposal that's not a bad idea: that restaurants could redistribute tips among all workers. This is exactly what many conscientious chefs have been trying to do for several years, as this 2016 New York Times story points out. But labor organizations complain that the way the proposed new law is written might allow restaurant owners to simply pocket all the tips.

Tip pooling sounds like a good idea if you think the person who cooked your food should make as much money as the person who brought it to you. But it is hard to enforce legally. And as high-end restaurants have discovered, it's hard to keep servers if they're not getting all the tips because they can get jobs elsewhere where tips are not pooled, whereas the working stiffs in the kitchen can't easily jump for higher wages.

The Obama Administration waded in on the side of servers, against cooks and dishwashers, in 2011. Subsequently some restaurants that tried to pool tips lost lawsuits. These are not cases where the restaurant tried to keep the money; somebody just wanted to equalize pay. Ironically, northern California's own loopy-lefty vegan Café Gratitude, which named its food things like "I Am Magical" (a veggie burger) and "I Am Transformed" (sweet potato tacos), was forced out of business by a lawsuit from servers who didn't want to share tips with the kitchen ("I Am Rapacious.")

It's too early to tell what will happen with the proposed Trump Administration rule. Labor organizations don't trust it, and maybe they're right, despite the appeal of the concept. Public comment ended this week. But I can offer a very simple work-around that I discovered while eating too much breakfast last year in Honolulu.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Fight back against Vladimir Putin: drink wine from Moldova

Landlocked Moldova is especially vulnerable to the Russian boycott of its wine
Hey wine lover: have you wondered recently, is there any way I can irk Vladimir Putin and fight Russian aggression while spending less than $20?

Yes! You can drink a unique and delicious wine, support freedom in Eastern Europe and stick a metaphorical corkscrew in Putin's eye, all by buying Rara Neagra from Moldova -- the Sonoma County of the former Soviet Union.

Moldova needs the help, as it is far more vulnerable to Russian meddling than we are. It's amazing that Moldova had the temerity to sign a draft association treaty with the European Union in 2013 because Russia could -- and did -- quickly crush its economy by cutting off its main export: wine. Moldovan wineries were selling most of their wine in Russia; now they are scrambling for new markets.

Stuck between Ukraine and Romania, Moldova is the poorest country in Europe. Its per capita income is half that of Albania. Agriculture is its main source of income and wine is its main product. Wine is so important that wine grapes appear on its currency and its citizens voted to rename its national airport "Wine of Moldova Airport."

In the Soviet era, Moldova was one of the USSR's main producers of wine, behind Georgia. It's simple geography, as Moldova is far enough south to ripen wine grapes. Its main growing regions are at the same latitude as Alto Adige in Italy, but it's not mountainous.

French varieties -- Chardonnay, Cabernet, Sauvignon Blanc, etc. -- have been planted there since the 1800s and they nearly pushed out the local varieties entirely. When a local businessman named Victor Bostan bought the Purcari winery and brand in 2002, he wanted to resurrect indigenous grapes, but there were none left in any of the country's commercial vineyards, says Purcari commercial director Artur Marin.