Thursday, July 29, 2004

US consumption per capita vs. other wine-producing countries

How is it that the US, the fourth-largest global wine producer, ranks 35th in per-capita consumption? Countries with 3rd world level standards of living (Moldova, Uruguay, South Africa, Bulgaria, etc.) manage to consume more wine per capita. What drives US consumption to lag behind every other major wine producing country? What allows countries like Uruguay and the UK to consume more wine even after they have to import it?

I believe this is due to three factors:

1. Historical perception of wine in the US market
Long before the US became a major producer of wine, you could only get two kinds of wine here. Imported wines (French and Italian) that were expensive because its cost-prohibitive to ship wine in the bottle overseas, and poor-quality domestic wines (so-called "burgundy" and "chablis"). If you wanted decent wine, then, you had to pay for it. This reinforced the elitist image of wine that pervades the US unlike any other country. The rest of the wine-producing world sees wine as an everyday beverage because it is produced locally, at prices that are affordable. Hopefully, this has changed for the better in the US with increasing production of very affordable everyday wines.

2. High cost of wine domestically
Until the latest grape-glut (2001-2004), US wine prices were too high to encourage everyday consumption. The cheapest varietal wines of decent quality were $6 and up, well above a sixpack of similar quality beer or the per-drink cost of vodka. Wine-production techniques from Australia, coupled with an oversupply of grapes have encouraged producers to find more efficient ways to bring their product to market and have encouraged more competitive pricing. Fruit from the central valley of California that was once destined for Peter Vella in the box is now being crafted into higher-quality wines and creating new opportunities for profits at price points once untapped. Continued consolidation of production (Gallo and Constellation) will also continue to help prices.

3. Neo-prohibitionist sentiments in much of the US
Wine consumption is virtually non-existent in most of the midwest. Consumption, and therefore the focus of most wineries' salesforces, is centered around several major markets: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, Miami, Dallas, Seattle, etc. Many in the "heartland" don't drink alcohol of any kind, let alone wine and many others drink only beer or hard liquor. Oddly, the consumption pattern in the US is very similar to the county-by-county election results in 2000:
The larger cities consume more wine per capita (which makes sense, as they tend to have better restaurants, more hotels, conventions, tourists, etc.).

The bottom line is that consumption trends need to change. In order for them to change we need more affordable wine options (which we are getting) and a different cultural attitude toward wine (which we have failed at). However, continuing trends like screwcaps and more whimsical brandnames are a start, albeit a start down a very long road. . . . .

Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Premium growth for New World wine makers - Commentary 
This article states "The problem for New World producers is that while they have been far more successful at growing sales of their wines than their European counterparts in recent years, this has been primarily achieved by targeting the 'man in the street' with simple, unpretentious wines, branding, dynamic marketing and a flavour profile to appeal to the broadest range of palates."

The paragraph starts with "The problem. . . " but then fails to mention what the problem is - is it selling more wine?  making wines that are consumed by the unwashed masses?  successful branding?  Where exactly is the problem?  Unless there's a snide swipe being taken at making wines for the 'man in the street', I fail to see what has been 'the problem' with the recent sucesses of New World Wines (notably Austalia, South Africa, and Chile as they relate to the UK market).  The article goes on to show that in a single Canadian market, super/ultra premium wine sales are up and that Gallo is also looking to enter more upscale price points. . . . and the point is. . . . ? 

What it takes to produce a $100 bottle of wine

Just a link to and a few comments about one of my favorite articles on the wine-web:

David Coffaro has truly been an exception in the North Coast's wine industry.  He strives to make better wines at the same affordable prices and won't expand his production levels because that would require removing the sweet entertainment system he installed in his wine cellar (more barrels equals more money but fewer surround-sound movies on the big screen).

The article makes it pretty clear that you have to "work" pretty hard to produce an expensive bottle of wine.  It would be pretty unusual to see a wine that truly cost over $15 per bottle and if you spent as extravagantly as possible, you might break $20 (but only with the most expensive Napa Cabernet grapes and 100% new French oak).  In vinum lucrum indeed.....

Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Chateau "X", or "What the hell does that label say?"

Country of culture, stinky hairy armpits (and even stinkier cheeses), and wine labels that are just about as intelligible as ancient Mayan hieroglyphs...

Interesting thing about the French Chateaux and appellations, and the way they present wine to the world, is that they seem totally unconcerned that most people outside of France don't have a clue about the differences, say, between a Pouilly-Fuisse (Chardonnay) and a Pouilly-Fume (Sauvignon Blanc, Sauvignon Vert), since from the outside of the bottle all one can tell is that both are "white" wines. Nothing informs the purchaser about the fruit aromas they may find, the level of acidity, etc. By placing information on the labels (well, duh!...the whole point of putting a label on anything is to be able to know what's inside the container without having to open it) the consumer can mentally gauge whether or not it's the proper product for their purposes.

And really! Can you truly tell me that only the small stream separating Chat. Latour and Chat. Leoville Las Cases in Bordeaux is what makes the difference between a Premier Cuvee and something lesser in quality? They share all characteristics of the environment ("terroir" if you must use the phrase), so what can be the difference, eh? Perhaps the type of grape grown and the style of vinting?...I wonder...

But the French would rather you knew which community the wine was made in.
In the 13th century, when people didn't travel more than 20 miles in their lifetime this may have made sense, as each location's wines were a "unique" and exotic experience.
Or so it would seem - since very few ever traveled enough to prove this theory wrong!

This is the 21st century though, and unless you were a geography major in college, with an emphasis on France, you'll probably not really care about some far off "Chateaux X" with an impronouncible name that wants to have you shell out $50 on a blind gamble that they haven't put antifreeze in the wine again this year...

If you have some appreciation for wine you probably find the system used everywhere else in the World somewhat superior. By telling people what the type of grape that was used to make the wine, people will have an easier way to anticipate what flavors they will encounter.
Differences in climate and geology are extremely important, but why not tell the consumer what's in the bottle? Don't they think we can make an intelligent choice?

Then again, you may ask "why bother anyway?"...since the majority of French wine is really glorified vin ordinaire, does it matter if you know what type of ordinary wine you're consuming?
Perhaps the French are right, perhaps there are only two types of wine - red and white.
Perhaps, when choosing French wines, that's about all the thought process you'll need.


Wine Spectator Releases its Restaurant Awards

Wine Spectator's annual restaurant awards edition is out.  Over 3,300 restaurants made this "exclusive" list that was hand selected by WS editors.  Congratulations to all the "winners".  Why the sarcastic use of quotes?  Well, let's look at what it takes to "win" this award.  Applicants are required to submit a menu, their wine list, a cover letter describing their wine policies and (best of all) a non-refundable "processing fee" of $200.  For this, they receive a four-line summary along with the 3,300 other winners.  Plus, WS gets some cross-promotion going by sending each "winner" a certificate enshrining their place in this exclusive group.  The certificate does not mention what percent of applicants made the grade (my guess is 99%) but it does provide a prominent bit of free advertising for WS in the entryway of 3,300 restaurants.  

Is it worthwhile for WS to go to all this trouble?  The math tells us that 3,300 x $200 = $660,000.  Not bad, probably WS's most profitable issue all year.  That should keep Mr. Shanken in cigars for a while.....

Monday, July 26, 2004

Gourmet Magazine Scoops HJWOW on Riedel

Apparently, the latest issue of Gourmet has an article with a blind tasting of Riedel.  The conclusion (I haven't yet read the article) is that Riedel provided neither enhanced aroma nor taste.  Not sure what they benchmarked against, and I'll read the article before commenting further, but I'm not surprised yet.....

"Yeasts are winemakers, people are not."

That quote made me laugh out loud.  It really epitomizes the ongoing conflict between vit guys who believe that wine is grown in the vineyard and winemakers who believe they add the magic fairy dust to the grapes.  The truth probably lies somewhere in between,  depending on the actual wine being made (price point, varietal and appellation).   Recently along with the new phenomenon of celebrity chefs,  US wine culture has been elevating winemakers into stars, and consequently, the more attention they get, the less they actually do.  Winemakers who once did their own lab work, prepared their own work orders and actually knew how to work a press are now hiring additional layers of production staff to handle these day-to-day trivialities while they are shuttled from one autograph to another.  One wonders what a Turley really adds to a wine for her $250k annual retainer (and that doesn't get you 40 hrs per week, just her attention when required) that one couldn't get for a measly $125k annually for someone who will be there every day.

This type of thinking by winemakers (that what is done in the winery is the real key to great wine) can be seen in some very interesting places.  Take, for example, a custom-crush facility (this is where a 3rd party makes your wine at their facility for a fee) where fruit from a large vineyard is brought in by two different winemakers.  One, the star, wants "everything on the menu" performed on his grapes during fermentation while the second, the realist, asks for a standard 'crush and ferment'.  One of them pays $500 per ton and the other pays $300 per ton.  Which makes better wine?  The one who has a contract on the best blocks of the vineyard they share.....

Friday, July 23, 2004

Bitching about paying $5 to taste wine

Capitalism spoils trip to wine country

This might be the dumbest wine-related article I've ever read.  While claiming to be a "true-blooded believer in free-market democratic capitalism unencumbered by government regulation and taxation", Mr. Mortman then decries wineries for (gasp!!) trying to make a buck.  The horror!  The horror!

Those of us who live in wine country know that for years our roads have been filled with weekend tourists who would come up to get free booze.  Yes, its really that simple.  A free buzz while driving some beautiful country roads. 

The traditional argument for providing free pours was that you were promoting your brand, but after 5 or 6 other winery visits, what are the odds that your now-sloshed visitors will even remember what varietal you poured them, let alone the name of your winery?

Charging for pours is right for many reasons:

1)  People value something that they pay for (like advice) versus attaching no value to freebies.  Paying $5 encourages them to actually stop to taste and evaluate the wine rather than gulp it to get a refill.  They might, heaven forbid, actually ask a few questions of their server and learn a little, thereby (perhaps) retaining some small kernel of information that might spark a purchase of the same wine in the store.

2)  It allows the wineries to control crowds on busy weekends.  Virtually nobody visits a winery to taste Monday-Thursday and the overabundance of weekend crowds at popular wineries leads them to want to separate the wheat from the chaff.  Harsh, but hey this is capitalism isn't it?

3)  It gives the wineries some revenue for their product (capitalism rearing its ugly head again) and although Mr. Mortman was probably too cheap to actually purchase wines, many tasting rooms will credit your tasting fee toward the purchase of a bottle or two (which, Mr. Mortman, also comes at a cost, sorry).

4)  Preventing people from showing up just to get drunk lowers a wineries liability risk as well.  Charging for tastes cuts down on the DUIs and accidents and I (at least) think that's a good thing.

Perhaps Mr. Mortmann should take the short journey over to Fairfield when Budweiser still gives free samples after you go through their tour.  That might be more to his liking....

The French Allow Oak Chips? What's next - putting "Chardonnay" on the label?

Sacre bleu!!!  The end is near - the French are actually responding to market pressures!

Thursday, July 22, 2004

What are they smoking at "Wine & Spirits"???

I realize that virtually nobody reads Wine & Spirits magazine, but I'm pretty convinced that they get together to smoke a fat one before reviewing wines. Now I'm all for getting past 'leathery' as a descriptor for Merlot, but I'm having a little trouble even imagining what some of these smells and flavors would smell/taste like in wine.

I feel "unctuous" to write this, but is chestnut honey something I want in my Chardonnay or would it be better to wait for a wine with more traditional clover honey notes?

Some samples:

"...glows with heady, autumnal scents of apple orchards, chesnut honey, and beeswax..."

"...clean, elegant flavor, somewhere between flowers, and the nuttiness of fresh pea shoots..."

"...litany of seductive scents, brioche, fennel, scallion, salt and ozone, all integrated with its gentle cantaloupe and pear fruit...."

"...spice released by a tight kernel of jasmine pearl green tea to the sky breaking open with the sun. The flavors are balanced between the fat of a nectarine, the juiciness of a ripe orange and the flintiness of cracked stone..."

"...the combination of quice and flint, the freshness of rainwater, the acidity of yellow heirloom apples..."

"...scents of green tea and honey enrich the sweet marmalade flavors...."

"...roasted nut scent of oak carries over softer wheat and chammomile aromas...."

"...the same bristly acidities, the piercing taste of spring onions, the clarity and freshness of water from a cool spring.....velvet texture, the lithe florals to lift it out of that texture, the nuttiness of young green shoots to match roast sweetbreads...."

Wednesday, July 21, 2004

The French are worried?

Now why would the French be worried? 

Maybe because their overall exports have slumped dramatically?
Maybe because they were passed (blown by would be more accurate) by Australia in the US market, suffering an 8% drop in exports to the US in 2003?
Maybe because their system of appellations has failed compared to modern branding concepts successfully employed by the Aussies?

more on this later....

Wine Marketing Campaigns - Part 1

Wine Marketing Campaigns. . Part I

Despite some evidence that Gen-X and Millennials are drinking more wine and definite evidence and recognition that the industry is losing ground with 'marginal drinkers' (despite the success of the Charles Shaw brand, but that's a different article). The wine industry, collectively and individually, is doing its right best to bore young adult consumers away from wine consumption. Marketing campaigns seem to be designed to be as boring and staid as possible, reinforcing the very perceptions that limit wine sales growth. Maybe that's what they think the 35+ demographic likes, nice boring ad campaigns. And marketing to women? Forget about it.

Wine ads on TV are almost universally bad. Remember the Woodbridge TV ads "Wood, as in a wine barrel, and Bridge, like. . .well, a bridge. Woodbridge" (Dear Gopia - Goddess of Abundance, do they really think that sells wine???), and their other ad, a non voiceover number, something about bridging generations or social situations. Sublimely horrible. Most TV wine ads are seasonal and simple reaffirmations of the brands. KJ and Gallo put out some nice unexciting TV ads (Gallo usually supports a launch with a TV ad campaign, example, Gossamer Bay, Turning Leaf, Bella Sera, etc). We've all had our fair share of schmaltzy Tott's and Cooks "champagne" ads around the Christmas/New Year season. Chandon had a fairly good TV ad this past holiday season, except you could only see it on the Food Network on cable. Prime time ads, forget about it.

But let's look at print ads. Generally horrible. And usually found in wine and lifestyle type magazines. So why market to people who already drink wine. Aaahhhh, yeah, I have no idea either. Oh I could give a rather convincing marketing argument, but nothing that would pass in the light of real world.

So what is the problem? Image. The industry and few wineries want to tarnish the image of wine as sophisticated and lifestyle oriented by using humor and irreverence and maybe a touch of prurience to sell (there are notable exceptions, which will be covered in another article). And there in lies the problem. By the very industry that produces it, wine is NOT considered a beverage, to be consumed with equal pleasure with food or by itself. Rather it is a lifestyle choice. Rather it is something to be savored and contemplated in combination with food only. That's the dogma, it runs deep and is perpetuated daily not only by the industry but by a majority of the food and beverage service industry.

The wine marketing council's ads ( are a fair attempt, but where is the follow-up? The event sponsorships? No, no, it’s the number of 'media impressions' that count. Let's go crazy for a moment. Let's pretend wine is a beverage, an ALCOHOLIC beverage even. Why spend millions for TV and print ads reinforcing the pretensions of wine to a demographic that already drinks wine? If wine sales in the United States are going to grow beyond the lethargic current rates then the IMAGE of wine has to change. Target the 21-35 demographic, target women, try some packaging variations, make the image of wine fun and unpretentious and market wine like a, say it with me now, a BEVERAGE.

How exactly? The Huge Johnson World of Wine has a plan. Stay Tuned . . .

Large Wineries Losing Market Share to Small and Medium Sized Wineries???

Now, we ain't so good with cipherin' round here, but we're having a bit o' trouble figurin' out how small-to-medium sized wineries gained market share over big wineries.  You see, we happen to have shipment figures for California wineries last year.  The claim that small wineries gained 5 points of volume share does not seem possible.     
                                                                             2003                  2002
Total CA shipments      (in cases)                193mm               206mm 
Shipments from wineries >1mm cases       172mm               182mm
Shipments from wineries <1mm cases        21mm                  24mm
Small wineries % of total                                 11.0%                11.8%

Bronco, maker of "Two-Buck Chuck" grew by 5 million cases alone, and none of the other big guys reported material drops, so from where did the small wineries take their cut?!?!

When we look at revenue, small wineries probably sell for about 2.5x per case when compared to the big guys.  Let's assume its about $32 per case for the big guys and $80 per case for the little guys.  Therefore, we can assume that the .8% volume growth translates to about 2% in revenue (or $80/$32=2.5 x .8%).  Where did the article's 11 points of revenue gain come from then?

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Copia - An Abundance of Pretension

Copia -

Let me just state up front that Copia, "The American Center for Wine, Food, & the Arts" was and is a complete and total waste of money. It has done nothing to promote wine in the United States. For those who haven't kept up with valley news in the last couple of years, valley residents forked over $30 million for this thing. Its Mission Statement reads like this:

"COPIA: The American Center for Wine, Food & the Arts is a cultural museum and educational center dedicated to exploring the distinctively American contribution to the character of wine and food in close association with the arts and humanities, and to celebrating these as a unique expression of the vitality of American life, culture and heritage."

Aside from being one of the most convoluted descriptions of purpose for any organization not associated with the US Government, it almost screams "Fun, frivolity, and irreverence will not be tolerated here". Oh sure, in and of itself, maybe it's been ok for the redevelopment of downtown Napa (Would you like a Cheverolet with that Seared Ahi Salad?) but what has it really accomplished. The celebration of American wine and food? Maybe the celebration of "How we can possibly rarify the image of wine in American culture, more so than it already is".

Copia is the edification of exactly what's wrong with the perception of wine in America. It is indeed a museum, a museum to the myriad pretensions that keep wine from popular acceptance in the United States. In the Copia vision, wine is NOT a beverage. No, no, that would be horrible. To conceive of wine as popular beverage to be consumed at whim and without ceremony. Heresy! Wine is a mystical embodiment of nature and art and should be treated as such. We should run through the vineyards, strumming a lyre, and quoting Latin aphorisms about wine.

But go right ahead; pay your $12 admission and drink deeply of the acceptable perceptions of wine, food, music, and art. You cannot have one without the other, and you cannot drink wine as a beverage. It is well that Copia is located in Napa, shielded from the rest of the country, because the United States has enough hang-ups on wine without it being in a more prominent location.

Cheers & Jeers


  • Bonny Doon - great value wines, going against the trend, humor, satire, having the balls to make wine "fun"
  • Kendall-Jackson - for success in bringing in more consumers through subtle modification of their wines over time ("palate brainwashing")
  • Rosenblum - great value zins, doing all they can to save threatened old-vine-zin vineyards in the East Bay from developers
  • Marietta - successfully going against the grain by making primarily a blend (not a single varietal) and offering it for a reasonable price
  • David Cofarro - Keeping prices reasonable, making great blends, staying true without selling out and increasing production.
  • Bogle  -  Fighting the good fight at under $10.  Not many independent, family-owned wineries can play there anymore, especially while increasing sales at 20% over last year.


  • Robert Mondavi - for continuing to sell out the flagship brand through low-end plonk.  Overheard: " you mean Mondavi makes Napa wine?  I thought they just made Woodbridge".  Also for the Papio brand, some of the worst labels and a horrible brand name.
  • Southcorp -  for nearly ruining many hugely successful Australian brands by completely destroying their UK business and missing the boat while [yellow tail] kicks their ass in the US ("where'd those 7 million cases come from?")
  • Franzia - for his Napa Ridge brand and his argument that "you don't expect French toast to come from France do you?"
  • Jim Laube and the Wine Spectator - for publicly "outing" BV's TCA problem and severely punishing their sales in the marketplace.  Such a problem could have been handled diplomatically (not publicly) with much less severe repercussions.
  • CK Mondavi / Krug -  for continuing to make the same tired wines and taking up space in Napa that could be better used by a younger, more dynamic company with vision.  Also for continuing to trade off the name with their "family"

Rumor Mill

For those living in a van down by the river, Sutter Home / Trinchero Family Estates recently completed its acquisition of Folie a Deux, a small winery with a go-nowhere brand located on the right side of highway 29, just north of St. Helena.  Wine pundits have been wondering for months why the TFE guys would shell out $17 million for a property north of their own very successful tasting room (north being less desirable as fewer tourists get beyond the pretty baubles, $9 burgers and window dressings of St. Helena).  It appears that TFE is poised to make Folie a Deux the home for its Trinchero brand, which has been.......uh.....struggling to separate itself from the Sutter Home brand, to put it very diplomatically.  This will allow TFE to bifurcate their Napa business into completely distinct locations and (hopefully with better winemaking) allow the Trinchero brand to thrive.  Not coincidentally, this will also set the Sutter Home brand apart, thereby cleaning it up for an easier sale to Constellation or Gallo.......

The greatest trick Riedel ever played was convincing the wine world....

Don't know if you've ever had the misfortune of sitting through a presentation on Riedel's crystal wine glasses, but the basic pitch is that they claim that the actual shape of the glass causes the wine to hit your tongue in such a way as to bring out the best in the wine.  They actually make an entire line of differently shaped wine glasses so that you don't have to soil your tastebuds by having a wine with a base of white seashell minerality poured onto your tastbuds for crisp apple tart.  Check it out for yourself, I can't make this stuff up....
Now, as a serious collector you can't pour your guests Cabernet in a Chardonnay glass anymore!  Non!  You must have a set of each major varietal (at a cost of roughly $125 for a set of 6)!  Assuming regular breakage (hey, these aren't made of stainless steel), we're talking over $1,000 for a decent set of drinking glasses!!!
That's the beauty of it all and a tip of the cap to the marketing genius of Riedel (not that it takes much to part the wine snobs from their money).  The best part is that it's a complete scam!  Tasting room employees and wine educators think its pretty funny, but do little to dispel the myth.  Want to help?
Try this.  Put 5 pours from the same bottle into four glasses intended for that varietal and a fifth "ringer" glass that feels the same on the lips and is of the same height, but not intended for that varietal (try for a Bordeaux-based red and a Burgundy-based white for example).  If Riedel is correct, you should be able to pick out the ringer every time........."hmmmmm, wait - let me try those again.  Are you sure one of the glasses is different?"
The kicker though, has to be that they have specially designed water glasses! My! Now if your water has a little sulphurous note to it, and you'd like to showcase that to your dinner guests, you can select specific water glasses for the job...perhaps a water glass highlighting the minerality of the local groundwater instead? Just the right accent for that feral 'Possum Almandine you're serving to the out-of-town relatives this fall.    Tres Martha Stewart!
And don't even get me started on how stupid it is to buy leaded glassware to use for acidic beverages like wine...decanters & glassware with lead content will leach it into the wines.
What idiots!

Monday, July 19, 2004

Oldest U.S. Wine Cellar Discovered,1145,2540,00.html
"Apparently there was a law in 1636 that made it illegal to sell wine in bottles,"   -  Seems like the wholesaler network was active even 350 years ago.  The original colonies were probably forbidden from shipping wine directly between them, they would need a wholesaler to be certain that young Puritans didn't order alcohol when they were underage.
The Archaeoligists also uncovered an original text of a study from Motto/Kryla/Fisher in which Vic Motto is quoted:  "This shall be a tremendous year for the small, luxury wineries of Jamestown.  We forecasteth nought but tremendous growth.  All indications of a down market are witchcraft and the work of Satan!"