Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Recycle Bin, Week of Feb. 23

With much of the eastern part of the country in the grips of an unrelenting winter, thoughts of enjoying a refreshing white wine on the deck are almost too distant to grasp.  And so we attempt to comfort ourselves with thick sweaters, dreams of tropics climes, and rich red wines to soothe numb toes.  That's the theme of this week's recycle bin: warming reds that will leave a few extra bucks in your pocket to go towards the vacation fund.

2012 Ca' Momi 'Rosso di Napa' Napa Valley $10
A kitchen sink blend of cab, zin, merlot, and petite sirah.  It's got enough acidity to tip the hat towards the mother country while still packing enough heft to let you know it's from California.  Easy drinking.  Remarkable price - I thought the only thing you could get in Napa for $10 was a jaywalking ticket.

2012 Guenoc Victorian Claret North Coast $10
Rich, dense, and generously oaked, this meaty beast has almost too much brawn, but give it some air to settle down and a heavy beef dish to cozy up to, and you'll be rosy-cheeked and happy before long.

2010 Wellington Merlot Sonoma County $15
As compelling a nose as any Merlot can deliver.  Mid palate is lithe, with a fresh cross stitch of both aquamarine and borderline black fruit. The marathon finish crooks its finger, beckoning you back for another lingering taste. A lot of experience for the buck. Tough to believe this virile wine is over four years old.

2011 Olivier Hillaire Vin de France $10
Wow. Better known for his CDP, Olivier Hilaire is a part time baker, part time winemaker in the Southern Rhone. A general Vin de France blend of Grenache, Carignane, and Syrah, it's  priced at bargain $10 and delivers a surprising amount of depth and rusticity at the price point. Focused, and with nice balance of both fruit and place, I will likely go out and find more of this as soon as possible.
Rosso di Napa

Monday, February 23, 2015

Buying By The Numbers: 2012 and 2013 In California

This is far from a scientific exploration or in-depth analysis, rather casual observation as wines from the 2012 and 2013 vintages have begun to flood retail shelves. With that as a disclaimer, a quick look at how consumers can use vintages to help guide smart purchasing of California wines follows.

For purposes of contrast, it is helpful to start with 2011 as a benchmark since it will stand out in contrast as a particularly lackluster vintage in California. And what I really mean by lackluster is undesirable. Plagued by cold weather in late season rains, anyone who didn't pick early (which means almost everyone) found themselves either picking during rains or shortly after. Either way, precipitation preceding or during harvest has a universally detrimental impact on the quality of wines. That said, you're still likely to find plenty of 2011 wines (especially at higher price points) from California on retail shelves as wholesalers and retailers struggle to liquidate them. My advice: Let someone else do that for them.

By contrast, 2012 is widely characterized as a classic vintage - and not just because there was only one direction to head in from 2011. Cabernets, Chardonnays, and, in particular, Pinot Noir have all registered high acclaim. While I have not had enough exposure to Cabernets from 2012 to make an adequate comparison, I think this vintage is being celebrated as much as it is because we haven't seen this caliber of Cabernet-friendly conditions since 2009. The same goes for Pinot Noir. All in all, my advice is simple: if it's 2012, you are not at risk of getting an off year lesser quality bottle.

As for 2013, we are seeing mostly whites on the shelves now, with a few Pinot Noirs. Though 2013 yielded an early bumper crop in California, I believe it coincides with a deliberate dilution/reduction in quality for many popular and widely available wines. This is most prominently experienced in the $10-$20 range for Chardonnays that were very drinkable in 2012 and are of a noticeably lesser quality in 2013.  Most of the popular 2013 Chardonnays I've had appear to exhibit more extraction, more residual sugar, and generally a lot of clumsiness. These are all signs of manipulation in the cellar, which can typically be traced back to less expensive grape sources.

So, if you want to know where large wine companies' profits are coming from these days, they are putting lower quality wine under the same labels and at the same prices. My advice here is to scoop up 2012 Chardonnays in particular and enjoy those over the course of the next year.  Same goes for Pinot Noir. A bright spot is in affordable Sauvignon Blanc where some producers have returned to the classic California style of bright, grassy, green apple influence that makes those wines so lipsmacking and refreshing.

Again, far from scientific, but these rules of thumb should improve your chances of getting better bottles.  Cheers!

Monday, February 16, 2015

Three Tier Tantrums

People love to trash-talk the three-tier system (3TS) that controls alcohol sales in the US.  It's a recurring theme in wine writing circles with pretty much everyone saying the same thing ("Death to the 3TS!") And why not?  It's a ripe target with plenty to criticize.

The post-Prohibition laws that preserve distributors' margins and prop up an inefficient industry mandate this: retailers can only buy from in-state wholesalers and consumers can only buy from retailers.  In a time of overnight delivery and one-click purchasing, the model seems quaint and laughable.  Critics of the system complain that the three tier structure is too confining, limiting consumer choice and access to markets for smaller producers.  And these are the least of the complaints.

But as valid as those claims are, maybe there's a reason (besides consistent campaign donations to pretty much every state legislator in the country) why the 3TS survives.  Maybe, just maybe it's more efficient than we want to give it credit for.

This is a tough subject to write about because to really understand it, you've got to walk down some long corridors lined with economic theory.  And who the hell (besides me) likes reading about applied economics?  So, in an effort to make the logic more digestible, two graphics embedded below take a swing at explaining the impact of deregulation on the things we care about most: pricing and product selection.

It's tempting to pluck the low hanging fruit of economic theory.  If you subscribe to this approach, you probably follow these bread crumbs: Deregulation reduces barriers to entry, and invites competition and innovation.  Competition and innovation drive prices down.  The lower the barriers to entry, the broader the product selection.  And you'd probably stop there because that picture looks awfully appealing.

https://drive.google.com/a/bevquery.com/file/d/0BzgWxFzPILXHUGJDNlh5X1drekEBut the real world isn't quite so tidy. In the first flowchart (click for a larger version), take a look at the impact deregulation would have on prices. In the top left corner, we start with two high-level consequences of deregulation: more competition in the distribution tier and new ways of delivering products to consumers. Under the second branch, there's another triage point: bypassing the distributor versus bypassing both distributor and retailer. Just follow the arrows and you'll get the picture.

The second flow chart is organized the same way, but seeks to answer whether deregulation would result in better product selection.

 In both cases, the predicted outcomes seem to contradict the trail of bread crumbs described above. What's more is that they support the idea that the 3TS is already incorporating efficiencies of scale. Take it one step further and one could argue that the margins afforded the three tier supply chain actually support broader product selection than a low margin environment would.

 Is there still room for improvement and innovation? Of course. And fat margins inhibit any corporation's incentive to innovate. But things are not quite as dire as the vocal minority would have you believe. As with most inequities, what's probably most appropriate isn't a radical abandonment of 3TS for the sake of consumer-friendliness, but a calibration of what's already working.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Recycle Bin, Week of Jan. 26

Sorry it's been a while, but 2015 is off to a busy start.  In the works is a piece on restaurant wine pricing, which requires interviewing actual people, getting quotes approved, and composing something that sort of approximates the product of journalism. Besides working up a good thirst, this process certainly makes one appreciate people who write for a living!  Anyway, here are a handful of don'ts and do's.  Cheers!

2012 Fattoria del Cerro Rosso di Montalcino $15
Thinking that a few dollars more would buy that much more of an experience, this came home with a tag touting 91 points from some magazine or another.  Turns out the Chianti Senesi from the same producer at $11.99 was the better price to quality ratio. By a good stretch, too.

2013 Kendall Jackson Chardonnay $13
For decades (quite literally), this wine typified, if not defined, California Chardonnay. Often the butt of aficionados' jokes for its ubiquity, KJ Chard was also an incredibly reliable wine for sheer enjoyability. There aren't too many wines you can say that about and also find at pharmacies and gas stations. It's been years since I had checked in on this, so lacking any inspiration from other selections on the Chardonnay shelf recently, I grabbed for it. Whether it's a reflection of my own changing palate, or, more likely, gravitation toward a more popular (read: sweet) preference, what's in this bottle couldn't hold a candle to what was in it 10 years ago. Clumsy, cloying, and cheaply made, Jess Jackson is rolling in his grave. What a shame.

NC Shebang Eighth Cuvee California $13
Made by Morgan Peterson, son of Ravenswood founder Joel Peterson, is this entry level kitchen sink blend.  Though Morgan has become known for his Bedrock Zinfandels, this is a heck of a bottle for the money.  But, and this is a big but, it needs time and air.  On day one it was large, clumsy, and flabby.  Day two saw some improvement, but it wasn't until day four (!) that it really delivered.  Structured, powerful, and true to its name, it channels Ridge Geyserville from many years ago.

2013 Luzon Blanco Jumilla $12
Vibrating with energy and crackling with lip-smacking tartness, this unsual Spanish white from a region better known for its over-extracted reds is a terrific surprise.

2012 Matane Primitivo Puglia $12
If they made Zin in Italy, this is what it would taste like.  Wait, what?  Primitive is Zin?  Well, that explains it!  Terrific Tuesday night wine that'll be coming home again.

2013 Edna Valley Vineyards Pinot Noir Central Coast $13
A pleasant, if boozy, fruit-driven Pinot that over delivers for the price. What it lacks in complexity it makes up for in enthusiasm.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Columbia Winery Current Releases

The Columbia winery - not to be confused with Columbia Crest - has a long, storied history in Washington state. By pure coincidence, it was the first Washington winery I set foot in back in the mid 90s. Today, by virtue of what appears to be a newly-struck marketing agreement, the rebranded Columbia Winery bottlings should be found and widely available nationally. It's also nice to see that they've come into the broader market with an aggressive pricing structure. Though the prices listed below are suggested retail, I suspect that in most places you will find them for a few dollars less. That puts them in real competition with the other major Washington wineries. I think they will compete just fine.
2013 Chardonnay Columbia Valley $15
Generous and spacious, though not cloying or overly residual from weight. Pleasant, if two dimensional, but a value at the price.

2012 Cabernet Columbia Valley $16
A penetrating nose is followed by big, deep fruit with light framework. Flavors are blue-black with gentle acidity. Plump and relaxed. 

2013 Merlot Columbia Valley $17
Did they get the Merlot bottles confused with the Cabernet bottles? Far more similar to what you're likely accustomed to from Cabernet then Merlot. Taut, more structured, and possessing some nice high toned notes on the finish. Data point number 103 as to how Columbia Valley will be the epicenter of Merlot's much-deserved redemption.

NV Red Blend Columbia Valley 'Composition' $17
Without a doubt my favorite of the four. Interesting that it is a non-vintage, but I'm not going to hold that against it one bit. Terrific structure, good grip, and mouth coating, powdery tannins all stitched together in a bespoke fashion for terrific results. I will be seeking this out again in the near future.  Bravo.

Friday, January 9, 2015

The Worst Time of Year To Buy Wine

Higher Prices, Fewer ChoicesWTF?

By now the tree is curbside, the stockings have been boxed up, and the last of the wrapping paper and gift boxes have been recycled.  And if your cupboards are at all like ours, they look like they've been ransacked.  So, you think to yourself that, with the insanity of the holidays behind in the rear view mirror, you'll restock your wine supply.  What follows may cause you to think twice.  At least for a little while.

This is by no means supported by a critical mass of scientifically-collected data - or any data beyond the central Ohio market - but there's ample, casually-observed evidence to suggest that one resolution wine marketers made this year was to gouge consumers as much as possible.  Compounding higher prices are deliberately low inventory levels (most prominently at independent wine shops).  In other words, higher prices and fewer choices.  What the heck?

The inventory situation is pretty straightforward - with shelves depleted from the holiday rush, what better time to schedule an inventorying of products?  Particularly for smaller business that don't have sophisticated inventory management systems, the fewer the items to inventory the better. Besides, in anticipation of the typically quiet first quarter, retailers are in no hurry to unnecessarily invest in inventory that will sit stagnant for a while.  One retailer also told me that this time of year gives them a unique opportunity to "clean house" and make some careful choices about what new wines to bring into their store.  This is in full view at many wine shops, where the shelves have as many gaps as bottles.  While a small business owner's rationale for running lean is understandable, it sure is an unsettling sight.

But back to the gouging.  A swing through the wine aisle at the grocery store the other night was an eye-popping experience.  So aghast was I that I skipped the wine and went to another store, and then another - where I found the same thing: wines which two weeks ago were one price are now significantly more expensive.  What is "significantly more expensive"?  Check out this chart:

These are just a handful of nationally-available, domestically-produced wines almost everyone is familiar with and the prices of which I found so audacious, which is why I chose them.  Certainly there are brands (like Bogle) and many international wines which appear to remain steady, too.  And, sure, these observations are in just one of the country's major markets, but hikes of this magnitude across such major players are as coincidental as they are subtle.

The question is, why?  As tempting as it is to attribute something so stark to one evil cause, the truth is usually to be found in a few causal factors.  Seasonality could be playing a role, wholesale inventories could be legitimately low following a terrific holiday season, or maybe it's part of a diabolical scheme by Big Wine to put their hands into consumers' pockets.

Wait, what?  Put their hands into consumers' pockets?  Turns out others pay attention to this stuff, too.  Jeff Siegel over at the Wine Curmudgeon thinks price increases will come less overtly, via the fabrication of new brands and fancifully named wines to sell the same juice at higher prices.  Here's what one distributor told him:
“The perception is that the economy is doing well, gas prices are down, and there is more disposable income in folk’s pockets...The suppliers want to reach into that pocket and get some while the time is ripe. I think there are going to be more price increases than I would have originally thought.”
The good news is that the free market provides consumers with a very powerful weapon to combat greed: an apathetic wallet.The supply chain can hold out only so long before economic gravity forces their hand to recalibrate pricing.  I'm guessing you can hold out a lot longer.  So, if you're as disgusted as I am by this, think of it as an opportunity to do some inventory reduction of your own (read: raid your cellar).  Or maybe take the opportunity to branch out and try some things you haven't before.  It won't be too long before Big Wine gets the message.  And in the meantime, you'll still drink well.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Recycle Bin, Week of Jan. 5 - Starting The New Year Off Right

Happy New Year everyone!  Resolutions?  Not really, but maybe some emerging habits worth focusing on, like sticking to the $12 challenge.  It involves kissing a lot of frogs, but there really is a lot of great wine out there for $12 or under.  Also, getting out of the Chardonnay rut - again, plenty of other terrific whites out there, they just require experimentation.  Finally, is there any enjoyable California Cabernet out there that hasn't been price-hijacked?  These themes and more await in 2015.  In the meantime, some winners and losers of late...

2012 Bogle Sauvignon Blanc California $8
Fresh, vibrant, and lively. What's not to love at this price?  But enjoy on opening, as the next day is loses its sizzle.  Value and drinking pleasure here.

2013 Fattoria del Cerro Chianti Colli Senesi $12
Harmonious, gentle, pleasing, and life-affirming. Love it and love drinking this bright wine.  Case buy that I can no longer keep to myself.

2012 Domaine de la Royere Luberon "l'oppidum" $10
Good on opening, with black, rich fruit. Nothing terribly distinctive, however. A few hours later, though, patience was rewarded - it turned. For the better. Much for the better. At this price, it's on my short list.

2011 Famille Perrin Cotes du Rhone Reserve $12
Fine, but more expensive and forgettable than the exceptional 2010 vintage of the same bottling.
2012 Chateau Pegau Cotes du Rhone $20
Having had such success with inexpensive Cotes du Rhones, I allowed myself to get talked into this pedigreed wine, which I now regret.  Made by the same people behind the celebrated (and prohibitively expensive) Domaine de Pegau Chateauneuf-du-Pape, this CDR was supposedly introduced so that mere mortals could obtain something with "Pegau" on the label.  Maybe they should just stick to CDP.  This overpriced wine is very closed thanks to a tightly wound texture and dominating Syrah character. Almost impossible to enjoy now - even on day three of being open. Probably worth revisiting it a few years to see if it loosens up and sheds it's introversion, but only if someone else is buying.