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Why is the red blend category so popular?



As Wines & Vines just reported (“Surging sales for red blend wines”), “[R]ed blends are growing more and more popular with consumers,” with the category, as measured by IRI, up 14% year-over-year. Red blends also accounted for the third-largest share of all DTC shipments over the past 12 months, behind only Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir.

That’s pretty stunning. Red blends have become the new Moscato, although just what fueled this phenomenon isn’t as explainable as it was in the case of Moscato, which benefited from a hip-hop halo.

What, then, is behind the popularity? Well, the brands driving the explosion, according to the Wines & Vines article—Apothic, Ménage a Trois, Cupcake and 14 Hands (and I might add Murphy-Goode’s Homefront Red)—all are inexpensive, averaging $10-$12, or even less, at retail. So that’s one reason: That’s right there in the sweet spot for an impulse purchase at the market, or for a restaurant for its by-the-glass program.

But there are plenty of other wines in that price point on the supermarket shelves, so why red blends? I have a couple theories. One is just the novelty factor, as it was for Moscato. Another is that, being proprietary wines instead of varietals, producers can come up with these user-friendly names that are quirky and easy to remember, and that have a certain feel-good quality that appeals to people who might otherwise be intimidated by wine. Graphic designers can have fun with the labels. Fun name + cute label + the right price = customer appeal and loyalty.

And the wines aren’t bad. I’ve tasted most of them, and they’re perfectly adequate for everyday occasions. But there is one thing about the IRI data, as reported in Wines & Vines, that’s problematic: the “red blend” category includes “Meritage wines”…”Rhone-style wines”…and “Italian-style blends…”. As Wines & Vines reports, IRI’s red blends/Meritage category is a broad one that includes both dry and sweet red table wines as well as more traditional Bordeaux-style red blends often called Meritage.”

As we all know, “Meritage” wines are Bordeaux blends in which no one variety exceeds the TTB’s 75% threshold for varietal labeling. I don’t know why or how “Meritage” wines have much in common with a typical red blend (Apothic, for example, is Zinfandel, Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon). Nor is it clear just how many Meritage wines were part of IRI’s data: at an average bottle price of $8.64, it wouldn’t seem that Meritage was a big part, but we just don’t know. Adding to the confusion, as Wines & Vines notes, is that the red blend category “includes both dry and sweet red table wines,” but we also don’t know precisely what those terms refer to. The article says the “hot brands…typically contain 1% or more residual sugar,” which is perceptibly sweet.

Well, we’re deep into the tall weeds of consumer analysis now, but perhaps the takeaway is that the red blend phenomenon isn’t as phenomenal as would appear at first blush (no pun intended). My hunch is that these red blend buyers are beginning wine drinkers, or just those who enjoy a little red wine and don’t want to give it any more thought than they give to their daily bread or milk. These consumers always have preferred sweeter wines: We in the trade make much of dry, varietal wines, but we tend to forget that there are millions of consumers out there who just want something simple to understand and pleasant to drink, that’s soft, fruity and a little sweet. That being the case, I think that red blends are here to stay, unlike Moscato. They’re also a great way for wineries to dispose of excess grapes and/or wine. And despite their inexpensive price, they’re really profitable. Which brings up a final point: White blends. Bordeaux notwithstanding, Chateauneuf-du-Pape is the idée originale of the red blend; there is a white Chateauneuf, but not much. In California, a few people have been making white blends for years, some of them, like Conundrum, successful brands, but something about white wine varieties seems to resist blending. Perhaps the innate character of the varieties is hopelessly obscured when mixed together. Anyhow, it’s a little weird that red blends are doing so well while nobody’s talking about white blends.

Santa Rita Hills Chardonnay: a tasting



I have to say the results were mixed in this latest tasting, which we did on Friday. All the wines were tasted blind. Several were stunning; most were delicious despite imperfections; a few were just average.

These hills and valleys, west of Buellton, are of course famous for running on an east-west orientation, allowing the cool maritime air to funnel in over the vineyards, so that, despite being at quite a southerly latitude—about the same as parts of Algeria and Tunisia—the climate is cool. The average water temperature in the Pacific in these parts is only in the low 60s, and the average high temperature in Lompoc, where the winds come from, in July is a measly 72 degrees, cooler even than in Burgundy.

The soils are variable: the appellation is not particularly large (30,720 acres), but spans two separate hill ranges and the valleys between them, making for differences in exposure and wind patterns, although it can be said that a fair amount of limestone makes the soils somewhat unique for California. This limestone can add a tang of minerality, especially to the white wines.

All of the wines were current releases, 2012s and 2013s. I bought most of them direct from the winery. The wines were poured about 90 minutes prior to the tasting, which enabled them to lose a bit of their chill, and breathe.

My top-scoring wine, at 96 points, was the Longoria 2013 Fe Ciega (13.5%, $50), a marvelous wine that only got better in the glass. So delicately structured, with such finesse, brilliant acidity, perfect integration of oak (only 18% new) and with bracing minerality. The vineyard of course is Richard Longoria’s own, located in the cooler, western end of the AVA. This is Richard’s first bottling of Fe Ciega Chardonnay, and what a stunning debut it is, an utterly captivating,  first-class Chardonnay.

Close on its heels—nipping, you might say—was the Liquid Farm 2013 “Four” (14.2%, $74). This is a blend of four vineyards (Rita’s Crown, Clos Pepe, Kessler-Haak and Radian) and is the winery’s most expensive Chardonnay. I gave it 94 points for its ripe flamboyance, chalky-minerally mouthfeel and superb peach, pineapple and nectarine fruit. “Very fine, dry, will age, “ I wrote.

Not far behind that was veteran Babcock, in the form of the 2013 “Top Cream” (14.5%, $45). At 93 points, it’s a big wine, flooded with apricots, pineapples, buttered toast and honey. All that volume could be a catastrophe, but Brian pulled this off with distinction. “Top Cream” refers to the layer of gravely loam in which the vines grow, although the wine itself is also creamy rich.

I also loved the Sanford 2012 Rinconada (14.5%, $45), which I gave 92 points. Although Richard Sanford long ago lost his eponymous winery, the fine Rinconada vineyard, which he planted in 1995 adjacent to the famous Sanford & Benedict Vineyard, in the southernmost hills of the appellation, continues to produce glorious wine. The perfume on this—pineapples, peaches, buttered toast, cinnamon—is alluring, while the wine itself turns citrusy and delicate, an “intellectual” Chardonnay, I wrote.

I liked the least expensive wine in our flight, the Kessler-Haak (14.6%, $29) enough to give it 91 points. It came immediately following the magnificent Longoria, and although made in a total different style—riper, bigger—it hardly suffered in comparison. Tiers of pear drop, white flowers, banana cream pie and butterscotch, and the complexity was fine.

After these five 90-plus wines we come to the 2012 Sandhi (12.8%, $36), low in alcohol as you’d expect, which I gave 89 points. I found myself lowering the score as the wine aired, because its initial impression, with a muted arom, lots of tart acidity and a certain thinness, never went away. In fact, since I had a “mystery” ringer in the flight, I wondered if this were the white Burgundy I’d snuck in. I settled on 89 points because it was elegant and “a food wine,” but it was really outclassed in richness by some of the other wines.

Just one point below the Sandhi, at 88 points, was the Bonaccorsi 2013 Melville (12.8%, $40). I liked it quite a bit, finding it “brimming with honey, tropical fruits, smoke and buttered toast,” but there was some peach-pit bitterness throughout that lowered the score.

Then we come to an 87 pointer. Sanguis is a label I’ve been acquainted with since meeting Matthias Pippig years ago. The wines seem somewhat modeled after Sine Qua Non. The reds can be spectacular, the whites exotic. This 2012 “Loner” (13.8%, $60) is 100% Bien Nacido Chardonnay, which means it is NOT Santa Rita Hills, but Santa Maria Valley, an AVA that’s right next door, and with a similar climate. It was included in the tasting due to a miscommunication with the winery. The first thing I wrote on tasting was “Ripe, California style,” packed with guavas and pineapple jam. My score of 87 was a difficult one for me to settle on. At various points the wine seemed oxidized, maybe even bretty; then, a few moments later it recovered its poise, then lost it, then regained it. Sometimes you get a wine you just aren’t sure how to deal with. This was one of those.

At 86 points was my “mystery” wine, a 2011 Meursault from Pascal Marchand. The vintage was by all accounts a good one but I must say this wine did not please me. Perhaps it’s my California palate. From the get-go I found it oaky, and the acidity was, I wrote, “brutal, almost sour.”

Eighty-six points was the best I could do for the Brewer-Clifton 2013 Hapgood (14.7%, $70). It was a bit hot in alcohol, although it did offer a great big mouthful of pineapples, peaches, lemons and minerals. I had started off giving it a higher score, but as the wine warmed in the glass the alcohol really showed through. Parker loved this wine, by the way. He called the winery’s 2013s “a significant change in style,” being “more exuberant…and ripe,” but in my opinion, this change, if in fact it occurred, was not favorable.

We also had the Brewer-Clifton 2013 “3D” (14.0%, $75), at 86 points another disappointment, although Parker loved it too. I wrote “disjointed” as soon as I smelled it; another taster called it “hostile.” It just seemed harsh and over-oaked.

Also scoring 85 points was the 2012 Sea Smoke “Streamside” (14.9%, $90). After the first whiff I wrote “Ripe, fleshy, maybe some brett.” It had solid pineapple and grilled oak flavors, but there was “something off” that made it clumsy and let the oak show through. It had sort of a sweet-and-sour Chinese sauce flavor. I think the main problem was the alcohol level. I realize this is a shockingly low score for this wine. Most critics were kinder. But you have to go with your impressions, and in a blind comparative flight like this one, I trust mine.

The somm phenom



What’s up with all these movies about sommeliers?

I’ve lost count how many there have been. Now, there’s yet another: Somm: Into the Bottle. Haven’t seen it, won’t see it, just want to understand what’s up with this. When did somms become the coolest, most movie-worthy demographic in America?

And not just movie-worthy, but heroic. I suppose you could make a movie about garbage men, but it would be hard to make them into compelling cultural heroes. IMHO, garbage men are greater American heroes than sommeliers. I mean, we could live without somms, couldn’t we? But we couldn’t live without garbage men.

So why are somms the new American icons? Complicated stuff, better left to leftwing college assistant professors of media (and I should know, I once worked in the Film Department of San Francisco State University). But let’s back up and see what we can figure out. Somms work with two things: wine and food. So we first have to figure out why people go to movies about wine and food.

Well, mostly they don’t. They went to Sideways—I’m still not sure why—and Sideways was purportedly about wine, but it wasn’t, really, it was a buddy road trip comedy that just happened to take place in wine country. Yes, they were able to lampoon the silliness of wine snobbery, and that helped. But Sideways was a phenomenon, and, in some ways, I think all these somm movies have tried to capitalize on the Sideways pheenom. They can’t, of course; they won’t. But I suppose the producers of Somm: Into the Bottle do a little prayer at night hoping it will be the next Sideways.

Nor do Americans much go to movies about food. Was “Julie & Julia” about food? In a way, but if the lead actress had been Meryl Fingerhut instead of Meryl Streep, no one would have gone. Now, food and wine have played important roles in supporting movies: I think of “Disclosure” and Pahlmeyer Chardonnay, for example, but, in the food world, you’d be hard-pressed to think of a movie that seriously dealt with cooking. That is the realm of T.V. But no movie has ever seriously tried to merge the two phenomena into one. “Somm” of course is ostensibly about wine, but everybody knows the milieu of the somm: the restaurant. Somms don’t work in wine stores: they work in places where people go to eat, and eat well. So the food tie-in is inherent in any conversation about sommeliers.

Food and wine are central to our culture. They always have been but arguably now more so than ever. America, despite its problems, is and long has been the richest country on earth. People, even those at the lower end of the economic scale, have more money than most other people anywhere else. We all eat out: how much we spend is a personal decision, but eating out stimulates an interest in the kinds of foods we wouldn’t, or couldn’t, make for ourselves, if we were just at home. So this economic surplus we have actually stimulates our interest in cuisine. And America being a melting pot, of course, those of us lucky enough to live in cities have access to a virtual cafeteria of the world.

Then there’s wine, which has been a superstar for decades. It always lurked at the edges of cultural media, sometimes more, sometimes less, but for the last 40 years it’s been more, more, more. Sometime in the 1970s wine began to be the camel’s nose under the tent. Then the camel’s head. Then the entire camel. Usually with such massive cultural intrusions filmmakers come up with a genre, but they never really did with wine (the way they did with, say, war, or spies, or rom-coms). Still, the possibilities must glow in the eyes of some producers. Another Sideways?

Ultimately, Sideways proved nothing. It indicated nothing; it predicted nothing; it was a meteor that flashed, briefly, in the atmosphere, and then disappeared. So, in this sense, I think all these somm movies represent the dreams and ambitions of script writers, producers and actors who hope they’ll strike the big time. As for the somm phenomenon, their story is always presented in terms of the difficulties and challenges of becoming a somm and being certified. Struggle against the odds: that’s a great American film meme. I guess somms are the “Rocky” stars of the 21st century: Instead of having great bodies, running around in silk shorts and fighting for a living, they pop corks and make small talk with diners. Somms are young hipsters, mostly good-looking, and seem to be the lords of the nightlife of our great cities, at the center of it all, the focus of food, wine and cultural trends in America. It’s not entirely true, of course—the image is much greater than the reality—but it’s true enough for those of us who dwell in the wine-and-food bubble and are curious about these phantoms, a kind of resident spirit of the First Church of the Restaurant at which we all worship. So if you manage to see Somm: Into the Bottle, drop me a note and let me know if it’s any good. Maybe I’ll catch it someday on cable.

Have a great weekend!

On Merlot and Syrah. This is a good read if I do say so myself



For all the bashing that Merlot supposedly got in Sideways—and the conventional wisdom following that 2004 movie is that Merlot sales fell off the cliff, because Americans supposedly believed that, if Miles wouldn’t drink any “fucking Merlot,” then they wouldn’t either—Merlot sales actually remained pretty strong.

Yes, California has lost a little acreage of Merlot over the years—not much—but the message to producers, that consumers still like this wine, has not been lost. And, if you needed further proof that Merlot is still a very, very popular wine, then check out the Sonoma State University/Wine Institute’s latest consumer survey, as summarized in

You can see that, in terms of “favorite wine varietals,” consumers reported Chardonnay a strong #1, by a 50% margin. But guess what wine was #2? Hints: It was red. It was not Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir.

Answer: It was Merlot.

Now, granted, this survey covered relatively inexpensive wine: As the article states, the most common [bottle] price was $10 to $15.” This explains why the #3 favorite wine was White Zinfandel while #4 was Pinot Grigio. Cabernet Sauvignon, which is by far the most widely-planted red wine grape in California (second only in acreage to Chardonnay) was ranked only the #5 favorite wine. But I suspect that, had the survey targeted a higher price point—say, $20 and above—Cabernet would have scored higher.

What was most surprising to me in the results was how poorly Syrah performed: It was #12, dead last, the choice of only 10% of respondents. That put it behin even Malbec and Muscat (whose glory days are fast disappearing). This is very odd, given a few heartening factoids gleamed from recent Crush and Acreage reports in California, among them that planted acreage of Syrah is decreasing in the Central Valley (where it peaked around ten years ago), but is increasing in prime coastal areas especially the Central Coast, and that even though the average price per ton paid by buyers for Syrah grapes has risen only a disappointingly low 5% over the last decade, that was a statewide average: If you look at prime growing areas (Napa Valley, Santa Barbara County, Sonoma County), Syrah grape prices are up a healthy average of 13.6% over the last ten years. That’s not bad, for a variety that, anecdotally at least, has been pronounced dead in the water. (The joke has been going around for years: “What’s the difference between a case of Syrah and a case of venereal disease? You can get rid of the V.D.”)

So as usual when it comes to statistics, there’s a little bit of everything. Syrah lovers can take hope that the grape and wine are poised for a comeback. Syrah bashers will find evidence that they’re right and have been all along.

Still, there’s plenty of Syrah in the ground in California, at least 21,000 acres, more even than Sauvignon Blanc. Those grapes aren’t going away anytime soon, so what should producers do with them? Well, some wineries have established cult reputations for their Syrahs (Sine Qua Non, Colgin, Alban, Saxum and so on), but they are so far off the chart in terms of price and rarity that we can effectively discount them from our calculations as outliers. Other Syrah producers do indeed face a dilemma: not a huge one, but a pesky one: They have enough of a loyal fan base for their Syrahs, but it’s not growing, and may be shrinking (this is where consumer research really helps, but not all wineries have the resources to do it), so they have to figure out what they’re going to be selling—which means what consumers will be buying—five, ten and more years out. You can always bud your Syrah over to another, more popular variety, but it does take a little time for the transition; a vintage may be lost in the process. And what would you bud it over to anyway that makes more sense?

My own hunch is that Syrah will always have a solid foundation, a “floor” if you will. Problem is that the floor level is likely to remain pretty constant, so producers are going to have to fight it out among themselves to attract loyal customers, and these sorts of fights, necessary as they are in the business, are not things that Chief Financial Officers look forward to. There is one other option: GSMs. I think Rhone-style red blends from California have a good future. You don’t have to call them GSM on the label; they don’t have to strictly be blends of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre; there’s no reason you couldn’t blend Syrah, Grenache and, say, Tempranillo, or Merlot, or Petite Sirah, give it a proprietary name, and make a pretty damned good wine. (Paso Robles has been doing a good job in this.) The advantage of such blends is that they don’t suffer from the “Syrah” word (if, in fact, you believe that consumers shy away from that word out of confusion with Shiraz, or Petite Sirah, or for other reasons they’ve adapted to). If you believe that consumers have a bias, conscious or not, towards Syrah, then sales-wise you’re always starting from behind the starting line, which is a huge disadvantage: you first have to overcome that consumer gap in trust. If, on the other hand, you’re selling a proprietary blend or a GSM, you’re right on the starting line: no harm, no foul, may the best wine win. Can a winery come out of nowhere and establish a reputation for cult Syrah? Yes, in theory. Several from Washington State have done it. Here in California? Probably not.

Looking towards Sauvignon Blanc’s future



I’ve long thought that the most puzzling, frustrating and potentially exciting grape variety in California is Sauvignon Blanc.

It’s such a tease. Somehow, we tend to think of Sauv Blanc, if we think of it at all, as an important variety, one of the most important white wine grapes in the world. And yet, Sauvingon Blanc never seems to achieve nobility, to rise to the critical heights of Chardonnay or Riesling. True, we praise it in places like Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé; we celebrate it from Marlborough, and even here in California (where few winemakers take Sauvignon Blanc seriously), we rightfully get excited by the odd bottle here and there: A rich Mondavi To Kalon I Block, a dry, citrusy Duckhorn, a spicy Matanzas Creek Bennett Valley, a art, grassy Brander.

But still… When I was a wine critic, I used to wonder (and I’d ask winemakers all the time) why somebody in California didn’t make a Graves-style Sauvignon Blanc, that is, using techniques including barrel fermentation and new oak aging and sur lies, and blending in a little Semillon for fat, gras. I didn’t mean for them to do so in a heavy way: there were plenty of over-oaked, buttery, over-worked Sauvignon Blancs (and plenty with too much residual sugar), and we didn’t need more of those. I meant for someone to do the job right.

But few were. And so heavy and clumsy were the few attempts to make a white Graves-style wine that most vintners largely gave up on new oak, going to neutral wood, or no wood at all, a style that coincided with the unoaked movement in Chardonnay and aromatic whites. They also did something very good: planted Sauvignon Blanc in the right places (not too warm, not too cold) and, in the best cases, began to express real terroir from their vineyards, treating Sauvignon Blanc royally instead of planting it, as so many do, in the most fertile soils, where the vines overcrop and yield dull wines–and the worst thing you can do with a dull wine is to oak it.

So, with these thoughts in mind, I read this article in, where an M.W. says that Sauvignon Blanc, in order to reach “its full potential” and “go to the next level,” requires “ageing in oak.”

Granted, the M.W., Richard Bampfield, is referring to French Sauvignons, but his analysis is well suited to California. He is very careful to point out that, when he calls for oak, it has to be “well done,” a “little bit of oak” applied by “someone who really knows what they’re doing.”

Those are very important qualifiers: as we all experience, oak can be heavy-handed, over-potent and artificial, or it can be discrete. Bampfield criticized certain white Bordeaux for being too oaky, which reminded me of my problems with too many California Sauvignon Blancs, in which winemakers seemingly thought they could improve any Sauv Blanc by plastering it with new oak.

Everybody always says, in California, they’re looking for a viable alternative to Chardonnay, and you can count me in. I love Chardonnay for its richness, creaminess and opulence, but we do need a sleeker, racier wine as a fancy-food white alternative. I have no problem with the abundance of everyday Sauvignon Blancs, Pinot Grigios and so on out there, but I do think that there’s room in the American marketplace for a very good Sauvignon Blanc, with some oak, in the $30-$40 retail bottle range. But for some reason, few consumers seem willing to go there—perhaps because few gatekeepers tell them it’s all right to spend some money on California Sauvignon Blanc. It’s time for these sommeliers, educators and communicators to get that message across—and it’s time for more wineries to step up to the plate and improve their Sauvignon Blanc game.

Another inquiry into the selling power of social media



in which we consider Elaine Chukan Brown’s (Hawk Wakawaka) contention that social media “has…created…a revolution in what it means to sell wine.”

Hawk Wakawaka is one of our finest wine bloggers. She is absolutely correct to state that “social media has dramatically changed how information is shared” and that “Wine experts and consumers alike now more often share information about wine via social media channels such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and wine blogs.” She may even be right when she says that, due to social media, “consumers today are swayed far more by the influence of their online peers rather than expert authority,” although that is an allegation and a belief, not a fact, and I don’t see any way to prove it.

But, even allowing that social media is this big, important phenomenon in communication, I don’t think she’s right when she implies (but doesn’t come all the way out and say so directly) that social media actually can sell wine—to a degree where it actually matters, and not just a few bottles here and there. The closest Elaine gets to expressing that is when she says “[social media] engagement can lead to consumer consideration and review of wines that otherwise might not have been seen by the traditional wine critic.”

Can’t argue with that. Yes, if you tweet the heck out of your wine, you’ll get it in front of eyeballs that might not otherwise have seen it (and, by the way, getting seen by lots of eyeballs is not a guarantee of the wine’s quality!). The question is, is social media a reliable way for a winery to actually sell wine? Is it worth the cost? Does it offer a good return on the investments of time and money? After all the rah-rah chatter about social media (most of it on social media), what does it actually accomplish for wineries when it comes to bringing in the bucks?

To begin to answer these important questions, consider that, if you compare a list of the 30 biggest U.S. wineries in 2004 compared to 2014 (and thanks to for doing such a fantastic job), it’s amazing to consider that the list practically hasn’t changed at all in eleven years, which is to say: pre-social media and post-social media. Gallo topped the list both years. Constellation and The Wine Group jockeyed for second and third, Bronco veering between fourth and fifth. Also at the top were Trinchero, St. Michelle, Delicato, Jackson Family Wines, Diageo, Treasury, and so on. To quote, “Though there are now [2015] 8,287 wineries in the U.S., WBM 30 companies represent nearly 90 percent of the domestic wine sold annually in the U.S. by volume.” In fact, “The three top companies by themselves represent more than half of U.S. case sales.”

I don’t think these top 30 wineries consider social media as the most important of their “how to sell” strategies. Rather, they focus on such traditional things as a trained sales force, pricing strategies, paying attention to consumer trends, forging good relationships with distributors and key accounts (on-premise and off-premise), courting wine writers (including bloggers) and a host of other proven best practices that social media has had barely any impact on. Yes, these wineries practice social media—but the people who run them and are responsible for their bottom lines have always understood that social media—for all the nice things it accomplishes—is not the magic bullet for sales that so many proponents of social media claim it is.

I think Elaine also is misled when she claims that social media has “led to fewer wine critic positions” and to “the near demise of print media.” Those are charges we heard in 2009 and 2010, but we shouldn’t be hearing them today because we now know they’re not true. I don’t know how you would take a census of “wine critic positions” in America: many small papers seem to have a local gadfly, while many of the leading writers are widely syndicated, and just about every regional magazine I’ve ever seen has a wine section. There have never been very many paid wine critics in America, simply because the market for them has been small; but I don’t think there are fewer today than there were in 2004. (And, if you consider all the wine reviewing blogs, you could argue there are more wine critics than ever. Well, actually, there’s at least one fewer critic today than in 2004: Me.)

As for the “near demise of print media,” what’s the evidence for that? Print media did come disastrously close to falling off the cliff in 2009-2010 but that wasn’t because of social media (although social media adherents said it was), it was due to the Great Recession which caused advertising revenues to plunge; and advertising, not sales or subscriptions, is what pays the bills at print publications. Last time I checked, magazines like Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast, Food & Wine, The Tasting Panel, Wine & Spirits and others seemed to be doing quite well.

Look, the importance of social media has never been questioned by me on this blog. But I have wondered, and I continue to, just what impact social media has on sales, especially for smaller wineries—the 8,200 that will never make the WBM 30 list. It can’t hurt them; it can help around the edges. It’s fun, and can enable proprietors to think differently about their wineries. It may be helpful in promoting customer loyalty (but so were old-fashioned wine clubs, tasting rooms and newsletters). But social media cannot replace sales teams and all the other traditional best practices I described above. To believe in it so uncritically is to believe in the Easter bunny, Santa Claus and the tooth fairy.

Is Chardonnay “back”? No, because it never left. Plus, a comment on wine writing



There long has been a lot of Sturm und Drang about an “anything but Chardonnay” movement, but it was all talk and no action. As usual, elite “gatekeepers” pronounced Chardonnay passé (and felt all the more elite for doing so); meanwhile, hundreds of millions of Americans, apparently not having gotten the memo, continued to love Chardonnay. It never “went” anywhere, so how can it “come back”?

Well, it has, according to this article, from the drinks business, that says “consumers are getting into [Chardonnay] all over again”—at least down in Australia, with “the Chinese” poised to “go wild” for it “in time.”

In this country, if grape growers thought that Chardonnay was a dying variety, they wouldn’t continue to grow it. While it’s true that, between the years 2004-2013, Chardonnay increased only very modestly in acreage in California, at least it increased (unlike Merlot and Zinfandel). It’s still the top-selling wine in this country, red or white. So can we please begin looking at Chardonnay for what it really is—a noble variety that’s being made better and better all the time, not as buttery, oaky and sweet as it used to be, but much more balanced? Take it from me: You don’t have to be ashamed for loving Chardonnay anymore, because—it’s baaak!

And speaking of Chardonnay, one of my faithful readers, who read this post from last week, sent in the following comment:

You mentioned that Boomers saw the cultural “wisdom” of their elders as prejudiced and outdated.

Many young wine drinkers see the wine “wisdom” of their elders as prejudiced and outdated.

Three examples:

  1.  The way establishment wine writers view the wines of “The Other 47 States.”
  2.  The Hegemony of Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay.
  3.  The bias against pink wines as ‘not-serious.’

Well, let me address each of those. I suppose it is true that “establishment wine writers” view the wines of the other 47 states (presumably, California, Oregon and Washington being the exceptions) as in a lesser light. How could it be otherwise? California wine, in particular, has dominated the national scene (and the quality scene) for, like, forever! But I, myself, am acutely aware that I’ve never had the privilege of tasting wines from about 44 of the 50 states, so I would never presume to say they’re not as good as ours. But if you think about it, a wine writer has to make a living: and there are multiple reasons why the wines of other states get overlooked. One is it’s hard to get tasting samples. Another is it’s hard to find outlets to write about them (you can write an article but if a reputable magazine won’t publish it, what’s the point?). If I write an article on “Napa Valley Cult Cabernet” a lot of people are going to want to read it. If I write an article on “The Tempranillos of Tennessee,” I doubt if anyone would even click open the link. So you need an audience and, in the case of most U.S. wine, there just isn’t one for most of the wines of the other states except for places like OR, WA, NY, VA and a few others (although that is changing). Cold, hard fact.

The Hegemony of Cabernet and Chardonnay. Well, this is a true accusation, and it’s one I’ve bemoaned in the past. Still, the truth is the truth: These are America’s top varieties. The customer is never wrong. Cab and Chard also are two of the world’s “noble” varieties and while we can argue about what that means, one thing I think we can all agree on is that Cabernet (whether you like it or not) is one of the world’s greatest red wine grapes and wines, and Chardonnay (ditto) one of the greatest white grapes and wines. So, again, articles and reviews concerning Cab and Chard are simply of more inherent interest than they are for many other varieties.

The bias against pink wines. Look, pink wine—rosé—has had more favorable press in the media over the past few years than any other wine type! “Brosés” are all the rage; blush wine is everywhere! So you can’t say pink wine isn’t getting its fair share of publicity. Now, is pink wine “serious”? What do you mean by “serious”? It doesn’t fetch the price of luxury reds or whites, but then pink wine is often saignée wine, or made from younger or lesser quality grapes, so it’s not meant to be “serious.” What it is meant to be is seriously good and easy to drink and with the right foods, the best possible wine. So I’m not a rosé basher, and neither is any other reputable critic I know. Would the other critics give a rosé 99 or 100 points? Probably not. You can make a case they should, but if you were a critic using the 100-point system (or puffs, or stars, or letter grades, whatever) you probably wouldn’t give a rosé your highest rating, either. In wine reviewing, there have to be standards: wine is not like the children of Lake Wobegon, where they’re all above average. Some wines are average, some are below average, some are above average and some are way, way above average, “average” being an abstract quality tier that exists in the wine writer’s mind. Rosé in my experience is never “way, way above average.” I admit I haven’t reviewed a lot in my years (maybe 1,000 or so), but I can’t actually recall a single one that blew me away—the way I can for Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, or various European wines.

Anyhow, it’s very easy to knock wine writers if you’re not one!

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