Thursday, December 27, 2007
According to independent research, Wine Spectator has 2,298,000 affluent readers who love wine.
The number occasionally climbs a bit, but the message, which appears regularly on one of the venerable magazine’s heavy, oversized pages, is always the same: If you’re ready to pony up a minimum of $36,170 for a four-color, full-page ad, call Miriam Morgenstern, the magazine’s vice president and associate publisher. Despite the high price tag, plenty of advertisers – including some producers of the wines that receive Wine Spectator’s highest ratings – heed the call.
Life is pretty good on the magazine’s pages. A beautiful brunette cradles a plate of eight oysters in her lap and a high-end sparkling wine in her hand; sportsmen fish an aquamarine river in Argentina’s scenic Malbec country; a butler with perfect posture delivers a silver tray to a beach along the Riviera Maya. Yes, life is pretty good for these exotic creatures called wine drinkers, but do their lives bear much resemblance to ours? Probably not – unless one of you is in the market for a Jaeger-LeCoultre watch from Vallée de Joux, Switzerland (page 71 of the current issue), a villa at Royal Lahaina (with private jet shuttle, page 55), or an Infiniti M with available multi-media drive, 14 speakers, and a leather-and-African-rosewood interior (page 3).
Due to forces beyond Wine Spectator’s control, however, all those high-end advertisers may one day find that the wine-drinking public has evolved dramatically from the exclusive club it used to be. Recent trends in how wine is sold, who’s drinking it, and where they buy it are tilting the scales firmly toward the little guy. This is great news if your love of a daily glass of wine exceeds the size of your wallet. But if you’re Miriam Morgenstern? Maybe not so great.
One thing that’s long separated the United States from other major wine-producing nations is that wine has never been known in our popular consciousness as a drink of the people. In the United States, Everyman drinks beer – cheap beer, and lots of it. That’s why we call him Joe Six-Pack.
But in 2005, Gallup announced that for the first time since the polling firm began to track alcohol consumption in the United States, more respondents chose wine than beer as their favorite alcoholic beverage. Middle-aged and nonwhite drinkers were a big force in this trend, with a considerable drop in the percentage of Americans between 30 and 49 who drink beer more often than other alcoholic beverages, and an increase of more than 17 percent in the number of nonwhite Americans who prefer wine to beer or liquor. And while the gender stereotypes of women favoring wine while men choose beer do bear out somewhat, the boys are catching on, too – with the percentage of men citing wine as their drink of choice rising nearly 10 percent since the early 1990s.
Although beer regained an edge over wine in the latest poll, released this past summer, the ascendance of wine is in evidence everywhere you look. In a nod to competitive pricing, restaurants are holding no-corkage-fee nights – and many are doing away with corkage fees altogether – while wine shops are grouping together bargain wines and giving them prime placement. Corner stores have gotten in the game, too. Forget Mickey’s Big Mouth – that little place down the street has tripled its inventory and now holds weekly tastings.
Just who is this new consumer that retailers and restaurants are so eager to please? Maybe it’s you. You’re an anti-snob with a lust for life and a desire to save both time and money when you shop. You may be intelligent and educated, health- and budget-conscious, and thirsty for knowledge about new varietals and grape-growing regions, what to look for in judging a wine, and how to pair wines with food. Then again, maybe you just think that nothing tastes more like grown-up soda pop than a nice oaky Chardonnay in the middle of a global warming heat wave. If pressed, you probably could name three or four appellations, and you’re pretty sure that “varietal” means a type of grape.
Whatever your tastes are, I’ll call you and your kind Wineaux. It seems an apt moniker, capturing both your sophisticated palette and your lack of pretension. My informal survey suggests that you typically spend between $8 and $15 per bottle, but you won’t scoff at a $2 or $3 bottle if it meets your standards for drinkability.
When Wineaux talk about wine, Two-Buck Chuck gets a frequent mention. Produced by Ceres, Calif.–based Bronco Wine Company and sold only through Trader Joe’s, Chuck became wildly popular soon after it hit the shelves. This was mainly a California thing, because while it’s legal for California producers to sell directly to retailers within the state, other states require producers and retailers to work through a distributor. So thanks to these distribution laws, as well as taxes and transportation costs, Three- or Four-Buck Chuck is likely the best you can do in North Carolina and Indiana.
What makes Chuck so special? The obvious answer is its winning combination of widely agreed-upon drinkability and a laughably low price. Then there’s also its standard bottle size, and the fact that that bottle contains a varietal. This isn’t a generic table wine sold in a jug or a box – this is Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, or Shiraz in a respectable 750 milliliter bottle. A drinkable $2 Cab in a bottle the same size and shape as Opus One? Back in 2002, that was big news.
The importance of packaging is nothing to scoff at; of late consumption of jug and boxed wine has declined, in contrast to phenomenal growth in the sale of wines bottled with screw caps, a method wine producers agree ensures quality far better than cork closures. As Mary-Colleen Tinney wrote in the respected trade magazine Wine Business Monthly, such converging trends in wine sales and consumption point to the emergence of “a new category of consumers seeking ultra-value varietal wines priced between $2 and $5 per bottle.” You know, Wineaux.
Seekers of such low-priced wines got another boost soon after Two-Buck Chuck’s debut. In February 2004, the warehouse club chain Costco, which happens to be the nation’s largest wine retailer, filed a lawsuit accusing Washington State’s Liquor Control Board of anti-competitive regulation of the sale and distribution of wine and beer. Costco said the state was violating a federal antitrust law by requiring retailers to purchase wine and beer through distributors. The original intention of this Prohibition-era law – some version of which exists in almost every state in the country – was to inflate prices to encourage temperance.
In April 2006, more than two years after the original Costco suit was filed, a U.S. district court ordered Washington to stop enforcing major aspects of its regulatory system. Two months later, Washington’s attorney general appealed the ruling, as did the Washington Beer and Wine Wholesalers Association. As the legal wrangling continues, retailers in every state with a similar three-tiered distribution system have added incentive to mount legal challenges to those systems. There are a lot of variables affecting how this will play out, but one thing is clear: If the three-tiered system of alcohol distribution loses its middle tier, consumers will pay even less for wine.
But if they’re looking for information about the kinds of wines they typically buy, where can they turn? The easier question to answer is where they can’t.
Robert Parker is the world’s most influential wine journalist, and a highly controversial figure within the wine industry. The conventional rap on Parker and his Bordeaux-focused Wine Advocate newsletter is that the tyranny of his 100-point rating system is forcing the world’s wineries to abandon their regional differences for an oppressive American style of over-oaked, ultra-ripe, high-alcohol wines made from the same few varieties of grapes.
To be sure, winemakers gunning for good ratings customize their offerings to appeal to Parker’s rather narrow tastes. But the bigger problem, for Wineaux at least, is that Parker’s $75-a-year bimonthly newsletter is written for the Wineau’s antithesis: an affluent consumer who wants to be told what to drink and collect in order to impress. Accessible reviews would be useful to a Wineau; Byzantine ratings systems and imperious tasting notes are not.
“Below a 70 is a D or F, depending on where you went to school,” Parker patiently explains in the newsletter – and pity the winemaker who has not attended the school of Robert Parker. One white Chateauneuf du Pape earning a 62 on Parker’s scale “can hardly be called a wine,” he writes, adding, “Why put something this abysmal in a bottle?”
In fact, Parker’s tasting notes frequently stray from descriptions of texture, flavor, and aroma into what sounds an awful lot like management consulting. He suggests that the producer of a wine earning a 64 might perhaps “have second thoughts” about bringing his product to market, and calls the decision to bottle another 64-pointer “a mistake,” while noting magnanimously that “not all properties can afford to completely declassify their production in a disastrous vintage.” Wines getting a C are hardly spared the Parker tongue-lashing – “standard plonk” is a favorite. “If inexpensive,” he condescends, “they may be ideal for uncritical quaffing.”
The leading American wine magazine is marginally more accessible – and truth be told, the award-winning, 31-year-old Wine Spectator does what it aims to do extremely well. The quality of its writing and editing, photography, illustrations, and art direction are inarguably impressive, and its methods for judging wines are thoughtful and well-intentioned, with entire issues devoted to explaining and defending its ratings system. But with roughly 1,000 of the 12,000 wines the magazine’s editors taste each year priced at $10 or less, the Wine Spectator’s obvious priorities – quality first, price a distant second, and availability an even more-distant third – simply don’t match those of the average Wineau.
With Wine Spectator, it’s not so much what you say, but how you say it. A “highly recommended” cuvée is described as “dense and muscular, but also luxurious”; Two-Buck Chuck is dismissed as a “bulk-brand” success; a $6 blend is “rather simple.” The only reason the magazine wrote about Two-Buck Chuck in the first place is because of the cultural phenomenon it became; two-dollar wines usually don’t get the time of the day from Wine Spectator.
The Spectator’s last issue of the year is typically devoted to its “Top 100” list – this month these were the Wine Spectator editors’ favorites from a pool of more than 15,000 newly released wines. The criteria for inclusion are high scores (the Spectator relies on a 100-point system comparable to Parker’s), large production, value pricing, and “an X-factor we call excitement.” The least expensive wine among the top 10 on that list runs $35 and, at number two, just happens to be Santa Cruz-based Ridge’s Estate Chardonnay 2005. The cheapest wine on the entire list? Three $11 wines, a Columbia Crest 2004 Merlot, a 2005 Yellow Tail Shiraz and a 2005 Athiri Rhodes Rhodos. The top-10 wines average $100. For the price of all 100, you could buy five 42-inch flat-panel plasma TVs.
There’s another list in that same year-end issue, Great Values of 2007, which features 55 recommended wines under $15. But with only one of these wines priced under $10 – it’s a $9 Sociedade Agrícola Seixais, of which a scant 210 cases were made – even this list isn’t very user-friendly for Wineaux looking for something to bring home for dinner on a Tuesday.
Truth be told, the magazine’s most eager and receptive readers probably aren’t even the anti-Wineaux looking to learn how to collect. More likely, they’re employees of specialty wine PR firms, like Berkeley-based Paige Poulos Communications. Poulos is the reigning queen of this scene, and a first step for many wineries wishing to improve their wines’ scores is to hire a firm like hers to arrange meet-and-greets with – or otherwise get on the radar of – the heavy hitters from the most influential wine publications and columns.
An aristocratic tone and pillow talk with a posh PR firm probably aren’t surprising coming from a $50-a-year magazine so proudly aimed at affluent consumers. But can’t our local dailies be relied on to provide respectable wine coverage in an area increasingly famed for its vintners?
Not the Salinas Californian or the Monterey County Herald. The Californian offers a small “Wine of the Week” box in their weekly “Ink” entertainment insert designed to cater to the younger set – content generated completely by Monterey County Vintners and Growers. Though the Herald recruits George Edwards of the Wine Market in Pacific Grove to produce an online column to talk wine and field questions, their print coverage is almost non-existent.
In contrast, the San Francisco Chronicle provides decidedly populist coverage in a weekly wine section that wins praise from local Wineaux. A Chron editorial pushed for Chuck as the official state wine, in response to State Senator Carole Migden’s bill to give Zinfandel that designation, and the paper has also recommended boxed wines. But price is not the wine section’s primary concern.
Just when it looks like the world of wine journalism is conspiring to keep you clean and sober, we offer proof that the wine glass is half full. “Wineau,” our new wine review column which debuts in early 2008, will champion wines for the people, abandoning traditional wine speak for straight talk about what to drink without breaking the bank. We will invert the typical wine review process, eschewing ratings systems, turning a blind eye to PR pitches, and sparing you our thoughts on how that Chateau Nouveau Riche smells like the essence of raindrops. That winery that only made 200 cases of a wine that everyone’s raving about? Not our thing, because availability is a key concern. To find the wines that we’ll review, we’ll shop where you shop – at Monterey County corner stores or select specialty shops; supermarkets like Safeway, Albertson’s, or Whole Foods; or a branch of a discount retail chain like Cost Plus, Costco or Trader Joe’s.
Another chief concern will be price. During those shopping trips, we’ll ask the manager to point us toward the cheapest wine in the store – that’s our starting point. From there, we’ll find two other budget wines of the same varietal from the same region.
Then comes the fun part. Those three wines will be tasted in regular blind tastings, with a minimum of two tasters, usually more. For every token winemaker in our group, we’ll include a lover of rotgut. For every erudite comment about a petulant nose or flabby texture, we’ll include a layman’s loud-but-uneducated opinion. We’ll describe a wine’s taste in language that’s accessible even to those who don’t have a special interest in wine beyond drinking it.
In addition to rants and raves about taste – and the facts you need about price and availability – we’ll offer up the basics and the back stories on the varietals we cover and the regions we visit. (That way you can visit them, too, in case that private jet is in the shop.) Some weeks we’ll go retro – Blue Nun, anyone? Some weeks we’ll share a scandal or two, a favorite memory, a raucous anecdote – that X factor we call excitement. Because it’s never just about the wine – it’s about the romance that all of us like to associate with a good bottle, no matter what its price. Even the cheapest wine has value in how it makes you feel, what it makes you think of and whom you choose to share it with.
So read our column and take it shopping. Then find some compelling company, unscrew the cap, and enjoy. Luxurious, but also rather simple.