Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Big Box Wines Redux

My response to a post by Adam Mahler at the Untangled Vine. Adam, I would comment directly to your blog, but you've disabled comments. Normally, I wouldn't reply to another's opinion, but since Mr. Mahler has a published wine column, I felt it was important to reply to a number of misconceptions or opinions with which I disagree.

"Big Box Wine
This is a golden age for the wine consumer. There have never been so many high quality selections from every corner of the globe. Wine is getting better and more consistent. But, just like the rest of the world, the wine market is wrought with over-consolidation. The big guys keep getting bigger, and the small guys keep losing distribution. The question that everyone keeps forgetting to ask is: Is this ultimately good for the consumer?

I share this concern regarding consolidation despite my disagreement with some of your generalizations.

Let’s explore the way a grocery chain or retail chain makes wine purchase decisions. Most wine that is purchased in this country is purchased in either a grocery store or drug store..."

You're forgetting that Costco is the largest retailer of wine in the country. I wouldn't consider an outlet that sells first growths and limited Napa releases to suffer from the ills you imply. Costco does not carry the same products in all locations and actually tailors its offerings to the local markets (i.e. they don't place the first growths in the Vallejo location but do in the Marin location due to their demographic experience). Further, I find the quality of wines at Costco and Cost Plus World Market to be very good, and both are very significant players in the retail market.

".......Now let’s look at the winery’s side of the equation. The winery can decide to make the best wine possible, but production goes down, as does cases available for sale. Lower yields translate to higher quality wine grapes. "

At the $5 price point, sure, but your argument is uniformly against all mass-produced wines at all price points. Any evidence of this with, say, $10 and up wines? Does 4 tons per acre uniformly yield a better wine than 5? Any evidence of this? I've tasted wines from blocks yielding over 6 tons to the acre that were superior to wines yielding under 4. Its a gross oversimplification to reduce quality to vine yields.

"Or they can decide to make more wine, and see if it competes favorably with other wines at a certain price point. The big companies run on such small margins, that the second scenario doesn’t favor the small or medium sized guy. "

Most big guys run on 40-50% margins, its the AMP (advertising, marketing & promotion) that makes the difference as you point out below.

"...The big producers constantly sacrifice quality for quantity. This is not because they are evil, or malicious. They are doing the best they can, but at the prices that consumers are paying for grocery store wines, consumers are demanding this quality, or lack thereof. "

I don't follow. If "big conglomerate winery" makes a $15 wine, is it automatically of lower quality than the $15 wine of a smaller winery? Do small wineries automatically make good/great wines? BS. I've had many positively horrid wines from small wineries. Most importantly big wineries make good wines at all price points (quality tends to rise as price rises, no matter the size of the producer). They absolutely dominate in the sub $10 category domestically, but that's not a quality issue vis a vis small wineries but rather one of scale as you point out with the national distribution issue (placements in national grocery/drug chains can't be achieved by little guys).

"These wines tend to be mediocre for the same reasons everyone wants school class sizes to remain small (trust me). When the teacher(grower)/ Student (grape) ratio is too high, the teacher has a difficult time controlling what is absorbed. Rather than teaching (growing high quality grapes) the teacher is too focused on damage control, you don’t want the students to rot, er grapes, er, you get the idea. The wine produced is always the result of the average quality of grapes. The larger the crop, the more difficult it is to keep the quality high."

Sure, for sub-$10 wines you may get some "plonk", but I don't think that this applies to all large production wines. Many large producers get scores in the high to mid 80's with lots of 100,000 cases and above (see below)! If the mid 80-scoring wines aren't good enough for you, then you're probably not shopping the supermarket for your wine anyway! Most wines are of "supermarket quality because that's what most consumers want. If consumers demand better by voting with their dollars (as they have year after year), wines will get better (as they have year after year).

"Finally, the big producers have marketing and advertising dollars to further entrench themselves in the marketplace. Small guys can’t do this. OK, so what do you do? Well, first, the only time you should ever, and I mean ever buy wine in a grocery store, is if the person who makes the wine buying decisions for that store is employed at that store. In Toledo, that means, oh, about a half dozen stores (you should be able to figure out who this is). Or, you can buy your wines in a wine shop. These aforementioned stores offer something that the big chains can’t- high quality small producers. They are able to stock whatever they like, with quality always being the most important factor. These stores rely on consumers that put quality ahead of convenience. Just remember, if a store doesn’t have someone available to answer your wine questions, you need to go somewhere that does. There’s too much great wine out there to settle for mediocrity!"

Agreed, mediocre wine makes life not worth living whether from your neighbor's backyard, a 2,000 case producer or a "mega winery" - but let me offer some brands and products from big producers and you tell me why they are inferior....

Acacia 2002 Pinot Noir Carneros 90 points (WS) 20,400 cases
Chalone 2001 Chardonnay 88 points (WS) 26,000 cases
Estancia 2002 Cabernet 87 points (WS) 150,000 cases
Yellow tail (gasp! the devil!) 2003 Shiraz 85 points (WS) 1.9 million cases!!!
Rosemount 2002 Shiraz (SE Australia) 88 points (WS) 1.09 million cases!!!
Edna Valley Chardonnay 2000 89 points (WS) 143,000 cases
Robert Mondavi Cabernet Reserve 1999 94 points (WS) 20,000 cases at $125 per bottle!
La Crema Chardonnay 2001 88 points (WS) 50,000 cases
Bogle Petite Syrah 2001 87 points (WS) 75,000 cases
Blackstone Chardonnay 2003 86 points (WS) 100,000 cases
Geyser Peak Sauvignon Blanc 2003 85 points (WS) 75,000 cases
Fetzer Sauvignon Blanc 2002 85 points (WS) 596,000 cases
Smoking Loon 2003 Chardonnay 85 points (WS) 35,000 cases (Best Value)
Kendall-Jackson 2003 Chardonnay Grand Res 88 points (WS) 50,000 cases
Camelot 1996 Chardonnay 91 points (WS) 62,000 cases (Spectator Selection)
Bonny Doon Big House Red 150,000+ cases
Bonny Doon Pacific Rim Riesling 75,000+ cases
etc. etc.

I don't think we need to throw the baby out with the bathwater just yet, there's good (and bad) from wineries of all sizes. You might think me an apologist for the big guys. I'm not. I buy good wines that I like, no matter who produced them (although there are some wineries (both big and small) whom I dislike and avoid). I encourage others to do the same.


Blogger adam mahler said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

August 02, 2005 1:52 PM  
Blogger adam mahler said...

Nicely Stated!

You are correct, this article is a generalization, and all generalizations are false. This article was for the general population of Toledo, Ohio-not necessarily the most sophisticated wines audience in the world, although, very endearing in their sincerity. In order to get them out of chain-hell, I needed to give them a fresh perspective on the whole thing. Why complicate the good fight with details and exceptions. BTW we don't have Costco here, and Ohio has state mandated markups, so there are no wine discounters either. It simply is a convenience/ selection/ knowledge game out here.

I do appreciate your thoughts and comments on the state of affairs.

Adam Mahler

August 02, 2005 1:52 PM  
Blogger Huge said...

A shame you don't have Costco, Cost Plus, Trader Joe's et.al. I can only imagine the Hell it must be to be confined to Supermarket wines only (Five California Chardonnays, Five Aussie Shiraz etc.). Wine shops are certainly your best bet, as you note.


August 02, 2005 2:39 PM  
Blogger adam mahler said...


Wine ratings by WS of these large producers leaves me skeptical at best. When I was a wine buyer, I processed hundreds of wines every week. I was always alarmed when I saw someone trotting out a respectable rating for a giant producer, the quality was rarely remarkeable. I am not a conspiracy thoerist, but I have seen an awful lot of world class wines that got 86-89 ptys, and then I turn around and witness absolute mediocrity scoring 91 pts on a be-weekly basis. The numbers don't lie...

August 07, 2005 2:45 PM  
Blogger Huge said...

Well, a correlation has supposedly been established by the folks at www.wineangels.com between WS ad revenues and scores. However, I know alum from WS who swear up and down that the tastings are blind.

I don't really want to comment on that in this thread, so I will reiterate that I have had many bad wines from small wineries and many outstanding wines from meg-wineries. While its chic to laud the small guys and bash the big ones, its often done as a knee-jerk response, not something based on actual tastings....


August 08, 2005 9:09 AM  

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