The Haggler addresses Premier Cru

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The topic of wine futures has roiling the wine world recently. Yes, the lackluster campaign for Bordeaux 2014 futures has shaken some corners. But what I’m talking about here the payment and then non-delivery of futures at Premier Cru, a retailer in Berkeley, CA. Wine discussion boards have bubbled over with frustration as consumers have paid money to secure wines–some as long ago as the 2008 vintage–and are still awaiting delivery. Futures are tricky; complaints of non-delivery of wines sank 1855.com, a French retailer, into bankruptcy.

It’s great that the NYT’s The Haggler columnist, David Segal, took up the issue in today’s paper. While he provided an overview of wine futures and the situation at Premier Cru (including a few bons mots), he didn’t reach a resolution as the column often does while advocating on the behalf of consumers. Segal promises a second part of the column to follow next week.

In anticipation of next week’s column, if you are among the aggrieved it’s a good opportunity to further articulate your problems. There isn’t a comment thread on the article but you can comment elsewhere or write haggler@nytimes.com. Let The Haggler know your issues!

A lighter shade of Pinot

wrath_grapesThe stylistic clash happening in California has gotten attention in a couple of stories recently, both worth checking out.

The first, “The Wrath of Grapes,” by Bruce Schoenfeld in the NYT magazine, provides an engaging summary of recent goings-on in the Golden State. His narrative follows Raj Parr, a co-founder of In Pursuit of Balance, a group of California producers overtly making wines that favor restraint and elegance over bombast and fruit. He contrasts this with the style of California wines that Robert Parker has championed and ventures to London to attend a tasting with Parker. It’s a good piece; I’ll be adding it to the syllabus of my next NYU wine class.

The second piece is a bit more wonky–get ready for a discussion of grape clones, Vertical Shoot Positioning (*not* something from the Kama Sutra), and yeasts getting more ferocious. In it, David Darlington asks in re: Russian River Valley Pinot Noir: “Why are so many so monstrous?” Good stuff–I won’t offer any spoilers here but he does survey several winemakers and a climate scientists. The story appears in the April issue of Wine & Spirits (available online).

Canada’s beef with American wine

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Canada has a beef with the US. They’re pawing the ground and seeing red. Red wine, that is.

Such a dispute is rare for the two NAFTA countries that share the longest undefended border in the world.

The meat of the matter is, well, meat. Canada–and Mexico–complained last year to the World Trade Organization that US regulations were burdensome and discriminatory. The regs require that certain cuts of meat state on the label where the meat was raised (they are known as “country of origin labeling,” or COOL in the language of trade negotiators). They won last year and the US, as is our wont, appealed. Yesterday, the WTO ruled against the US.

This is where the wine comes in: if the US still doesn’t drop the labeling requirements, Canada will levy retaliatory tariffs! And they will be putting US wine in the bull’s eye of their targets! (Oh, and other things like potatoes, chickens and car parts.) Apparently, US wine sales in Canada amount to $1 billion retail according to one commentator–but given Canadian wine retail markups, that probably amounts to $200 million from US wineries. Still, the wine producers represented by the Wine Institute are fighting mad.

“In Canada it has taken decades to build the market for U.S. wine, and it could be irreparably harmed in an instant if Congress does not act [to repeal or amend COOL],” Robert P. Koch, president and CEO of the Wine Institute said in a press statement. Oh. Congress. Good luck with that.

Related on wine tariffs: “Shoppers Could Soon Have Difficulty Finding Meat’s Origin” [nytimes]
“Trade fight could raise tariffs on California wine” [pressdemocrat]
Appellate Body issues report on “United States — Country of origin labelling requirements” [WTO]

Wonk out with vineyard maps

everyvine
Have you ever wanted to check out exactly where your favorite domestic wines come from? You can take a look at aerial photos (exciting–grapes!), see block-by-block vineyard maps and get tons of geek-out info about vineyards on the site everyvine.com. Seriously, you can now impress your friends with not only the precise location, grape varieties, and topography, but also the growing degree days vs. the biologically effective growing degree days–oh my, you will be the life of the party!

I searched Rhys Skyline vineyard and found that everyvine even rates vineyards top vineyards with gold, silver and bronze medals–except for Skyline, which they rate platinum! Their algorithms even rate vineyard blocks. They don’t have every vineyard in America in there and I haven’t done a thorough analysis of how their rankings stack up. But it looks impressive and like something you could really get lost in for a few hours.

I read about it today in a post on Wired.com.

State dinner wines: a lucky 8 for Shinzo Abe?

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There was a state dinner last night at the White House–the eighth for the Obamas–in honor of visiting Japanese PM Shinzo Abe. About 200 people attended, new china was revealed (above), and “Iron Chef” Masaharu Morimoto was in da haus. Recall that Obama and PM Abe ate at the counter of sushi master Jiro Ono last year, so they clearly like good food.

But what vin-quiring minds want to know is…what were the wines? Would this be a lucky 8 for PM Abe given the lackluster wines the White House wine steward served previously?

The full menu is reproduced below so you can see the wines with the various course. The headline is that the head of the Sonoma Marketing Board (is there such a thing?) must be grinning like a cheshire cat since it was an all-Sonoma lineup. A vinous grand slam (or wait, with three wines, would that only be a triple?). First up was 2013 Ryo-fu Chardonnay from Ken and Akiko Freeman, followed by the 2010 Morlet Family Vineyards “Joli Coeur,” a pinot noir from the Sonoma Coast, and finally, the 2007 Iron Horse “Russian River Cuvee.”

While Sonoma is a wonderful place, It’s not clear what was driving Daniel Shanks, the White House Usher, in featuring the all-Sonoma lineup: there are other great places making wine in America. I personally would have included a domestic dry riesling as a white because there are some good ones now; they are also spring-y and pair well with Asian foods. And Luc Morlet, wow, one of his wines hasn’t been featured since…oh, last year’s dinner for Francois Hollande. Again, same comments as Sonoma: there are a lot of great pinot noirs being made in the US, so why the repetition, Mr. Shanks? And Iron Horse is frequently served (btw, this specific wine is not on their web site so it could be a sweet sparkling wine, which Shanks has served previously).

The champagne toast was replaced by a sake toast. Full menu follows below: Read more…

China’s vineyard area vaults past France

vineyard_area
More acres of grapes are now in China than France. The total vineyard area in China is 1.97 million acres (799,000 hectares) according to new stats presented yesterday in Paris by the OIV, the International Office of Vine and Wine.

Although vineyard area includes grapes for both winemaking (what we’re interested in) and table grapes (those can be good too), the rise of plantings in China over the past 14 years is staggering. Vineyard area in the EU is part of the Common Market Program and is governed by EU agricultural policy, which has been moving to reduce marginal vineyards through a policy known as “grubbing up” and limiting new plantings through a zero-sum formula of planting rights. Unhindered by such policies and with wine consumption rising, China’s vineyards were bound to overtake key EU countries one day. So far, however, it is in quantity only. Oh, this headline caught my eye the other day: “The head of China’s biggest wine brand admits its wines are terrible.”

The US remains the world’s largest wine consuming country. Check out our interactive chart below–be sure to click to see whether each market is growing or shrinking!

Data from OIV

New York Times wine club on ice

new_york_times_wine_clubMembers of the New York Times wine club residing in New York are not receiving wine–and shipments might not resume until July.

The Albany Times Union has a detailed account of the wrangling that has led to the suspension (indeed, on the NYT wine club site, New York is not even an option for sign-ups–the wine club continues in other states). The NYT wine club is run by a group called Global Wine Company and does not, as the Club’s web site states, make selections with the NYT wine critic or members of the newsroom. The Club offers six-bottle shipments for $90 or $180 on various monthly schedules. Global Wine Co also fulfills the club shipments for the Williams-Sonoma, the Washington Post and Food & Wine.

The Times Wine Club told its New York subscribers last week that it would have to suspend shipments until July because of uncertainty over New York’s rules and regs about shipping. However, the State Liquor Authority spokesperson told the Times Union that the Club’s local retailer had stopped doing business with them since Global Wine Co, based in California, had received cease-and-desist letters.

I’m not a huge fan of wine clubs in general–I’d opt for spending a monthly budget at a local store where the wine discussion is free and you have more choices to get exactly what you want. But there’s no reason that New York consumers should not be allowed to subscribe.

While this particular incident revolves around the Gray Lady, what consumers and businesses need is to get out of a gray area: hopefully the new head of the NY SLA will clear the air and issue understandable guidelines for businesses to ship into and out of the state.

The wine boom turns 21 – but is acting aged

wine_market_growth
When wine consumption shot higher in 1994, little did wine consumers know that they were uncorking one of the greatest bull markets in recent history. Every year since then, wine consumption has grown making the wine boom now 21 years old–old enough to buy itself a drink, legally, were it a human.

But the growth, which slowed in the wake of the recession, has lost steam but continued to edge higher. Last week in New York City, John Gillespie of the Wine Market Council, a non-profit trade association whose mission is to grow the wine market, presented data on the latest trends. From 1994 – 2007, only one year had less than 2% growth, the recession year of 2001. But since the Great Recession starting in 2008, although every year has seen growth, the growth has been slower with only one year exceeding 2%. Why is growth slowing and what does it portend?

These were the main questions behind the presentations. Growth is slowing because of the rise of craft beer (not exactly hard to see coming), but also, Danny Brager of Nielsen said, because some consumers are trading up, drinking less but more expensive wine. Brager also pointed out that beer consumption is in secular decline having fallen from 60% of the market share of alcoholic beverages in the US in 2000 to 52% last year–and much of the rise of craft beer is at the expense of big, boring beer. He also said that of the 125 packaged goods that Nielsen tracks, growth is sluggish across the board, so wine is outerforming 90% of them.

As to the future, John Gillespie wondered if the wine market is at a tipping point, which could spark a return to strong growth, or a turning point, which would point downward. While he didn’t come down on either side, the sinister organ music playing in the background, releasing a murder of crows into the auditorium and eerie sound of a creaking door slamming all led to a general impression. (Ed. note–dramatization.) We shall see what happens over the next year but if I had to guess, I’d predict more of the same slow growth.

Of course, the best way to really boost consumption would be to lower prices. And the only way that would happen is a legal change, such as eliminating the mandatory three-tier system and its layers of markups. Chance of that happening: infinitesimal.

See more stats from the presentations over on my Twitter feed.


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