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Our blog: a conversation about wine

SURVEY SAYS -- I'm a big consumer of surveys. They show trends and changing interests -- key data for marketing people. The wine industry is rife with data for the same reason. Producers and marketers want to make money and they have to shift with emerging trends. It's how we explain the once popular but thankfully fading white zinfandel craze. It's how we explain the over-oaked chardonnays and sweet red wines.

The Wine Market Council recently unveiled a number of survey results that give us insight into matters like consumption and wine choices. I was particularly drawn to one report that showed consumers trading up to more expensive wines at the expense of lower-end wines. This is a natural progression for those consumers who are just starting to enjoy wines. Once you experience the joy of wine, you want something more special. Hopefully, you won't progress to where I am because your new interest can get pretty expensive.

But the trend does show the willingness of consumers to spend more on wine if the quality is there. In today's world, the quality is there. Wine producers are making better and better wine every year.

Here are some other interesting survey stats from the Wine Market Council:

  • Since 2000, the high frequency wine drinker segment (defined as those who consume wine several times per week or daily) has more than doubled – from 7.6% of all U.S. LDA (legal drinking age) adults in 2000 to 13% in 2015.
  • From 2000 – 2005, occasional wine drinkers (defined as those who consume wine once a week or less) surged from 18% to 26% of all U.S. LDA adults. This was driven by a drop in non-adopter adults (those who drink beer and/or spirits but not wine) from 33% of the legal drinking age population to 24%.
  • Between 2005 and 2010, there was a surge in high frequency wine drinkers from 7.9% to 13.9% of the LDA population, driven by the Millennials. This also accounted for a decline in the occasional wine drinker population from 26.2% to 20.3%
  • Between 2010 and 2015, there has been very little movement to wine drinking from the non-adopter segment, but the occasional wine drinker segment has grown slightly, and the high frequency wine drinker segment has declined slightly due to consolidation of the high frequency wine drinker segment.
    (Source of all above research: WMC – High Frequency Tracking Study, November 2015)


GREAT WINES FROM THE RHONE  -- E. Guigal makes several excellent, reasonably priced wines from the Rhone Valley. We’ve been fans of its Cotes du Rhone for decades, but have recently added its other wines to our go-to list.

We like the 2011 E. Guigal Crozes-Hermitage ($29) for its exuberant syrah flavors and opulent violet aromas. It’s a very pretty wine with layers of cassis, dark chocolate and black pepper. Because it’s the largest appellation in Northern Rhone, Crozes-Hermitage always has to defend itself. Yet it’s the region with some of the best values.

GALLO NOT JUST FOR THE CHEAP -- Several years ago when Ernest Gallo was still alive, Gallo made a premium chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon. Although consumers didn’t associate the largest wine producer with expensive fine wines, it was important for Gallo to prove to the world that they were capable of making a wine that would compete with anything in California.

I remember being impressed with those wines, but they eventually faded. Gallo had proved its point, but well-made, inexpensive wines were not at its core -- and, despite his attempt, consumers just didn't want a fine wine from Gallo.

That’s not what Jess Jackson -- another huge wine producer -- experienced when he took a similar course.  Jackson created Verite, a brand that commands prices of nearly $400 a bottle. The wines are still being made and, in fact, also command high marks from critics.

Just recently, I tasted four of Gallo’s Signature Series’ wines that reminded me of those expensive wines I so enjoyed a decade ago.. At $35 and $50 a bottle, they are more reasonably priced. Still, they have the same focus on balance and integrity.

The 2013 chardonnay ($35) from Russian River Valley was textured with delicious apple and lemon meringue flavors. I also liked the 2012 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($50) for its rich and ripe extracted dark berry fruit.

The Signature Series pinot noir, however good, was a little generic for me and the zinfandel at $50 was overpriced. 

THERE'S MERLOT, THEN THERE'S MERLOT -- I'm not a big fan of merlot. It's often vegetal and overripe. But the other day I opened a merlot from Matanzas Creek Winery and everything changed. Loaded with the varietal flavors of cherries and plums, it had the structure often lacking in cheap merlots.

A good merlot often needs help from cabernet sauvignon to give it better structure. But the Matanzas from Sonoma County didn't need any help. The difference is probably where the merlot is grown and how the vines are pruned. 

If you like merlot, this is a good one to sample. At $28 it has a lot of depth and character.

WAITER, THERE'S ALCOHOL IN MY WINE -- If you have left a party feeling a bit more inebriated than usual, it could be the alcohol content of the wine you consumed.

Alcohol amounts have been sneaking up like underwear, primarily because warming temperatures in wine growing regions have increased sugar levels in grapes. More sugar means more alcohol.  And, while critics have complained about the new style of high-alcohol wines, there has been little discussion about the effects on consumption and drunkenness.

University of California researchers tested the alcohol content of 100,000 bottles of wine from around the world and found that nearly 60 percent under reported the alcohol content.  The biggest offenders are producers of Chilean and Spanish red wines and Chilean and American white wines.

Most countries allow for a 1 percent swing in reported alcohol content and actual alcohol content. So, a bottle that says the alcohol is 14 percent could actually be 15 percent. Zinfandel made in hot areas like Lodi report alcohol content of 16 percent and above. A few glasses of wine with this much alcohol is going to impact you more than wine with a 13 percent alcohol level.

Producers of these high-alcohol wines are reluctant to report real alcohol levels. Not only are they less desirable, but they command higher alcohol taxes by the feds. The tax rate jumps from $1.07/gallon for wines with 14 percent alcohol to $1.57/gallon for wine between 14.1 percent and 21 percent alcohol.

Buyer beware.

ANOTHER LOOK AT FRANCISCAN -- Years ago I visited with Agustin Huneeus, who rescued Franciscan Estates from financial disaster. He had inherited the mantle from Justin Meyer, the famed winemaker that would go on to make outstanding wines at Silver Oak. The wines the Chilean-born winemaker were making were spectacular. He sold his interest in Franciscan in 1999 and channeled his energy into making premium wines for Quintessa.

But what happened to Franciscan? Now owned by wine conglomerate Constellation Brands, the wines may not have the excitement of what Huneeus produced at the time. However, they are solid, well-made wines with great value. It is a reliable wine I often select when in a restaurant.

For more on these wines, see "Our Column."

BUBBLES BURST IN 2015 -- It appears the global market for champagne saw a rebound in 2015. Global sales rose 2-3 percent over 2014. Now, there's something to toast.

Although champagne sales in France didn’t increase substantially, researchers say it at least stabilized after several years of decline. Most of the increase in sales were in the U.S., the second biggest market next to Britain. Rose champagne also sold well in Japan.

The stronger dollar abroad surely helped to boost sales in the U.S. But I also think an improving economy here – as opposed to most other world markets – encouraged consumers to spend more money on champagne, which is still considered a luxury item.

Less expensive sparkling wines, like Spain’s cavas and Italy’s proseccos, increased the competition for France. They generally are about a third of the price of real champagne.

At the risk of sounding snobbish, I’d take champagne over sparkling wine any day. You can find good champagne for $30 or less, especially around the holidays. American sparkling wine is often more expensive.

A CELLAR SURPRISE -- I was recently clearing out a few wines from my cellar that were probably past maturity. It seemed like a lot of the California wines were from the 2007 vintage. But I also found a 2007 Castello di Gabbiano Alleanza, a red Tuscan blend of 80 percent merlot, 18 percent sangiovese and 2 percent cabernet sauvignon. 

What a nice surprise. It was a hedonistic wine with rich,  forward black cherry fruit and a good dose of cocoa. This is one of a few wines whose profile really didn’t change after 8 years in the cellar. I remember tasting it when it was first released. It had the same forward character and fruit flavors.

The wine is a partnership between Giancarlo Roman of Tuscany and Ed Sbragia of California.

This is a producer to watch. All of its wines are good values. And, obviously, the wine can last.

BUILD A WINE CELLAR WITH CAUTION -- I recently was asked for advice on how to build a wine cellar. My friend made wine storage a goal for 2016.  Wine cellars are a lot of fun, but creating one is fraught with problems which you may not discover until it's too late. Proceed with caution, skepticism, and a big wallet.

Building a cellar is hot on my mind because I will be building a new home in Florida this year. One of the most challenging obstacles will be relocating my 700 bottles of wine to a climate that is considerably warmer than Maryland’s climate. Given my investment, I don’t want to make a mistake that can’t be easily undone once the room is walled up.

If you live in a moderate climate with four seasons, you may not need to artificially cool a room if temperatures change gradually and do not swing wildly. The ideal cellar temperature is 55 degrees F.  A Maryland basement is likely to naturally range from 65 to 75 degrees, unless it is temperature controlled. Air-conditioning may keep temperatures around 65, but it does not humidify the room. If you plan to keep wines for more than a few years, you need controlled humidity to prevent the corks from drying out.

Pat is content with his naturally cooled, below-ground cellar and his wines don't seem to suffer any. Personally, I prefer a controlled climate that guarantees temperatures and humidity – but it comes at a price. Cellars for 500-800 bottles can cost anywhere between $3,000 and $6,000. You may prefer to take your chances and invest that money in wine.  But some people, like those without basements, may not have a choice.

For more information, I’ve provided a guide to building a wine cellar on another page, called “Wine Help.”

-- Tom

YOU'RE DRINKING WHAT? -- I’ve attended way too many holiday parties in 2015.  Maybe I'm being unreasonable in deploring parties in general. I detested them when I was working because they cut into my time alone. If you work long hours alongside a horde of people all week, you crave privacy – or at least quality time with your spouse and the dog. But it's so anti-social and impolite to refuse the generous invitations of friends.

But now that I’m retired, a convivial gathering among friends breaks up the monotony of privacy. Weird, no?

Even the best of parties brings out the drinking prejudices of people. For a long time, I looked down on the drinker who brought to a party her own sickly sweet moscato because nothing the host offered would appeal to her. There also is to dislike the snobbish collector who drinks only wines as big as his head and the lush who can’t get enough prosecco.

In more sober moments, I realize that my own prejudices are no better (no moscato or German wines for me). So, who am I to ridicule the single-minded imbiber? Well, because hypocrisy is so much fun.

I don’t like people who come to wine-tastings and refuse to taste anything except their favorite varietal. I don’t like people who say they don’t want anything sweet, but gets a sugar rush after consuming their third full glass of sweet chardonnay or pinot noir. I don’t like the trim athlete who says moderation and Pilates keep her trim, then pounds down a bottle of chardonnay to prove it.

I like wine: red, white, pink, foreign and domestic, with or without bubbles, fortified, cheap or expensive. I try not to be snobbish or admonish people who think white zinfandel is good.

Somewhere in this diatribe is a new year’s resolution.

-- Tom

But is it really worth $740? -- I'm stumped when people ask whether a wine could ever be worth $100? Can it be that much different than, say, a $15 wine? Well, what about a wine that cost $740? It's all relative, isn't it? That kind of money means nothing to a Wall Street financier or Arab sheikh. But to those of us eking out a living in a middle-income burg, $740 is a down payment on a car 

Pat and I and our families recently gathered around Pat's dinner table to sample two grand crus from Burgundy. The first was the 2013 Joseph Drouhin Charmes-Chambertin ($300) and the second was the 2013 Joseph Drouhin Clos de Beze ($740).

This respected Burgundy producer is one our favorites. Over the years we have tasted most of its pinot noirs and chardonnays, all exquisite but not as highly priced as these two. The anticipation was great, but inevitably the questions surfaced: why are they this expensive and what makes them different from vin ordinaire?

First, prices are mostly driven by the price-and-demand market forces. Burgundy prices are generally very high, especially for grand crus. Second, Drouhin lowers yields in these prized vineyards. In fact, the yield in the Clos de Beze is 20 percent less than what the law allows for grand crus.

We have tasted hundreds of pinot noirs in 2015 alone, but nothing comes close to this pair in quality. But the difference is so hard to describe. There is a magical combination of intensity and elegance that symbolizes grand cru Burgundy. While West Coast pinot noir is often heady, forward and viscous, Burgundy is light in color but big in concentration. West Coast pinot noirs clobber the palate with fruit so thick you can spread it on toast; Burgundy dances on the palate and makes you think about what you are tasting.

Neither of us can afford to buy these wines -- but we would like to.

-- Tom

IS YOUR GLASS HALF FULL?-- When people talk about their glass being half full or half empty, they are usually referring to optimism. But a recent study from the Behaviour and Health Research Unit at the University of Cambridge is referring to the amount of alcohol you consume.

Oh, goodie, another study.

Researchers found that the bigger the glass, the more alcohol you are likely to consume. They conducted a study in an English pub and found that sales of wine increased by 9 percent when the staff used larger glasses. (Beware the restaurant that introduces big goblets the next time you visit).

This really isn't a surprise. I have found that a bottle of champagne goes a long way when I pour it to guests in flutes. People just feel guilty asking for a third pouring even though the total consumption is probably less than the glass of chardonnay I pour them next.

The researchers conclude that their subjects may have been drinking more because their judgment of consumption amounts was poor. So, a second serving in a big glass could have been half of a bottle.

I like wine -- red and white -- in a large glass but I pour small servings to give me room for a second and third serving.

All of this serves as a good reminder when the party circuit is at full throttle. Don't fill those big glasses as you serve your thirsty guests.

-- Tom