Tom's blog

Wine may be a last-minute decision

How many times do you walk into a wine store without a clue about what wine you want to buy? Do you peruse the shelves for the most interesting label, resort to buying an old stand-by or ask the merchant for a recommendation?

A recent survey by market researcher IRI found that 40 percent of consumers who buy alcoholic beverages don't know what they intend to buy when walking in a store. Of the other 60 percent, 21 percent of them change their minds. In short, they know they need something for tonight's dinner but haven't had the time to think about it. So, they pass through the store looking for inspiration, then land on a pretty label they know nothing about. Hey, if the label is pretty, maybe the wine is too!

This finding should add fuel to the fire of start-up wineries who fashion weird and eye-catching labels to snag buyers even if their wines suck. But the survey also showed that Baby Boomers drink wine more often:  

Maybe I exaggerate and most of you at least know you need a cabernet sauvignon to go with tonight's steak or you need a bottle of French champagne to toast your anniversary.  But please don't be gulled by pretty labels. 


VEGAN WINE? -- I'm not big on vegan or gluten-free wine. Hell, I don't even understand it. If you're going to dump poison (alcohol) into your system, why worry about animal products?

So what is a vegan wine? A cloudy one with little things floating around. That's because it isn't filtered -- a process that requires gelatin (bones and connective tissues), eggs and other animal byproducts.  Red Truck and Frey are two producers considered pro-vegan.

It's not that I embrace filtering, a process that arguably strips a wine of flavor. Wine critic Robert Parker Jr. for years has endorsed unfiltered wines. You just have to get past their cloudiness and suspended crystals -- something that most consumers seen as a spoiled wine. Consumers unfamiliar with this natural process have returned cloudy wines to retailers and restaurants.

But embrace cloudy wines because they are vegan-friendly? Not me. I'm having steak with my cabernet sauvignon -- filtered or unfiltered.

A TAKE-NO-PRISONERS DEAL -- Not many prisoners have a record like The Prisoner.  Created by wine genius David Phinney of Orin Swift Cellars in 2000 it was an instant success. People lined up for this heady wine and by 2010 it had grown to 85 million cases a year. Phinney sold it to Huneeus Vintners for a cool $40 million.

As good as that investment was, it didn't come close to Agustin Huneeus' windfall of $285 million when he sold The Prisoner Wine Co. to Constellation earlier this year. Mind you, there are no vineyards to justify this ridiculous price -- it's just the name that Constellation bought. Similarly, Constellation paid $315 million for the Meomi brand.

I thought about all of this as I sipped on the 2015 vintage of The Prisoner, a rich, electic blend of zinfandel, cabernet sauvignon, petite sirah, syrah and charbono. It's a serious wine with layered fruit flavors of plums, cherries, raspberries, chocolate and spice. But, as much as I like it, I don't get its value. There is a graveyard of trendy cult wines and another one around the corner to displace The Prisoner.  

I realize they are building a competitive luxury portfolio, but is this the one to lay out this kind of money? Production of the company's five wines has grown to 211,000 cases and at $47 per bottle for the red blend there is money to be had  in this prison.  But can these sales continue to rise? Obviously, Constellation thinks so and it is a successful company. 

GROWER CHAMPAGNES ROCK -- Champagne's grande marques -- those large houses that dominate the market -- are in denial about how grower champagnes are chiseling away at its foundation.  The growth of this market -- only 5 percent of sales so far -- challenges the tradition-bound process of how champagne is made.

Grower champagne is essentially wine made from a grower's grapes. For years small growers have sold their stock to big houses who pay for the marketing and distribution to get champagne sold overseas. Nicolas Feuillatte, for instance, buys grapes from 5,000 growers.

 It's been a good partnership between producers and growers, but several growers want a bigger return and they want their family name on the bottle. The handful of renegades who struck out on their own a decade ago has grown to more than 250 today.

Many years ago I visited with the couple that operates Chartogne-Taillet. The contrast with my visit to Moet & Chandon on the same day couldn't have been more stark. I sat at the family dining table with Elisabeth and Philippe Chartogne and met their children just home from school. At Moet I was greeted by several employees and led around a million-dollar crushing facility. Moet & Chandon makes 26 million cases a year -- it's vaunted Dom Perignon is 5 million. Chartogne-Taillet produces about 8,000 cases. It's also less than half the price of Dom Perignon.

Grower champagnes reflect the terroir because the single-vineyard grapes are not blended. A champagne house can draw from hundreds of vineyards in many different regions and vintages. They strike for consistency in style while grower champagnes want to reflect only their vineyard.

Just recently, I participated in a tasting of six grower rose champagnes -- a real delicacy. Many of these champagnes have lower dosage. A high dosage -- sugar added to the bottle after disgorgement to determine its sweetness -- is often high to mask imperfections. I loved the frivolity of the Champagne Marc Hebrart Brut Rose ($53) and the weight of the complex Champagne Jean Lallement Brut Rose ($63).  Champagne Geoffroy Rose de Saignee Brut ($65) was the only one made in the saignee method.

Most of these champagnes are imported by Terry Theise, who cut his teeth on small-production German wines but is responsible for making these grower champagnes more available in the U.S.

The trend reminds me of the slow growth of craft beer. The large beer makers didn't take them seriously at first, but over the years they have eroded sales. I see nothing but growth in grower champagnes.