Has the next phase of the wine slowdown started?

wine slowdownToo many grapes, younger people who don’t drink alcohol, and slowing sales among all age groups are signs of a wine slowdown

Call it a tipping point if you don’t mince words or an easing of momentum if you do, but the results are the same. It looks like a major change in U.S. wine consumption is underway. Call it the post-recession wine slowdown.

Know four things:

• California wineries, faced with an oversupply of grapes from yet another bumper harvest and lagging sales, don’t seem to be buying as many grapes this year. In fact, their attempt to get out of grape-buying contracts in some parts of the state is causing controversy and bad blood.

Wines sales have slowed, so that even an industry cheerleader termed growth for this year at a “sluggish 0.2% projected pace.” These numbers, from the company that publishes the Wine Spectator, confirm what has been reported elsewhere many times – U.S. sales by volume won’t exceed the increase in the drinking age population for the foreseeable future.

• One of the world’s biggest spirits companies expects that the “low-[alcohol] and no alcohol cocktail movement will increasingly shape the bar world” in 2019. The report went on: “What is most notable, though, is the differing consumption habits of the younger demographic, with 46 percent of people under the age of 35 likely to order a mocktail (non-alcoholic cocktail), versus just 16 percent of over-35’s. “

Rob McMillan of Silicon Valley Bank, one of wine’s leading statistical gurus, says the industry is at that tipping point. McMillan says there will be more grapes than are needed to meet slowing demand, and that the industry must come up with a Plan B to sell its product in this more challenging environment.

In other words, we have too many grapes, younger people who don’t necessarily want to drink alcohol, and slowing sales among all age groups. But the industry is hellbent on selling more expensive wine as if none this was relevant – if it was still the heyday of scores and wine magazines in the 1990s and that post-recession premiumization would go on forever.

Consumers – and that includes most wine drinkers – vote with their debit cards. You can only sell overpriced and lower-quality wine for so long before they put their debit cards away. If that is happening now, and I think it is, then we have a wine industry selling something fewer people want to buy. And that is not a recipe for success.

Wine of the week: Ken Forrester Petit Rose 2018

Ken Forrester petit roseThe Ken Forrester petit rose may be the best rose no one has ever heard of

There’s no easy way to say this, so here it is: The Ken Forrester petit rose is a brilliant wine, consistent from year to year, and a tremendous value. But good luck trying to buy it, given the failures of the three-tier system.

In fact, the Ken Forrester petit rose ($10, purchased, 12.5%) is one of several top-notch wines from this outstanding South African producer that are difficult to buy in the U.S. Why? Because it’s South African wine, hardly the darling of the distributors or retailers; because Forrester isn’t a big winery; and because the winery has had importer problems for at least as long as I have been writing about it.

In a perfect world, where we could buy wine the way we buy pants and computers, none of that would matter. But since wine has the three-tier system, we have to make do. Which is a shame, because the rose is everything a great pink wine should be.

Look for strawberry aromas, but not the syrupy, overdone kind that poorly made roses sometimes show. There is fresh, just ripe raspberry fruit flavor, and the finish is precise and almost stony. All in all, the kind of wine to buy again and again. Highly recommended, and a candidate for the 2019 $10 Hall of Fame.

Winebits 563: Wine snobs, wine theft, legal weed

wine snobsThis week’s wine news: Are tasting notes the last refuge of wine snobs? Plus, a tragic end to one of the biggest wine thefts ever and Big Beer gets into legal weed.

Wine snobs: Tim McKirdy, writing in VinePair, strikes a chord with anyone who has struggled with a tasting note: “But convoluted tasting notes inevitably alienate at least as many prospective consumers as they entice. It begs the question: Is it time to change the way we talk about wine?” The answer, of course, is yes, and if McKirdy sometimes writes as if he composing a university research paper, his points are well made. “If wine industry professionals truly want to make wine more open and accessible — besides providing free wine education for all.” he says, “sommeliers and critics should carefully consider when to use technical language. In wine, as in most things, it’s better to keep things simple.”

Suicide: A man charged with stealing more than $1.2 million worth of rare wine from Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon apparently killed himself last week while his lawyers waited for him in court. The BBC reported that Nicolas De-Meyer, who was Solomon’s personal assistant, fell from the 33rd floor of the Carlyle Hotel in New York. Police said De-Meyer had used the money from the sale of the stolen wines to fund a 14-month globe-trotting adventure. He was facing up to 10 years in prison.

Big Beer and weed: One more multi-national booze company is getting into legal marijuana. Molson Coors Canada has foremed a joint venture with Canadian cannabis producer The Hydropothecary Corporation, or Hexo, to sell cannabis-infused drinks. Called Truss, the new company will develop non-alcoholic, cannabis-infused beverages for the Canadian market, following the country’s vote to legalize the recreational cannabis. This is at least the third deal between a leading alcohol producer and a Canadian company to get into the legal weed business.

The sommelier cheating scandal: Once again, wine reminds us it’s big business

 sommelier cheating scandalFirst, fame and fortune, and now a sommelier cheating scandal

Wine’s biggest secret is that it’s a business, just like coal mining or car manufacturing. That’s because it pretends to be something else, this huge family of wine lovers where yes, we have to make money but that’s not the main reason we do it. Which is just more hypocrisy to anyone paying attention, and which the sommelier cheating scandal amply — and sadly — demonstrates.

Know that I’m not tarring the innocent with this brush. The cheating scandal, revealed last week by Esther Mobley in the San Francisco Chronicle, involved a master sommelier giving a list of the wines to be used for the blind tasting portion of the 2018 exam to one of the candidates. The accused has apparently been struck off the Court of Master Sommeliers, and everyone who took the test will have to take it again. No one has said that the cheating goes past that, though Mobley noted that 24 people passed the 2018 exam, compared to 274 in its almost 50-year history. Still, the organization that runs the certification has seemingly been  open and transparent about what happened.

Sommelier-ing has become an industry in and of itself – movies, even. Sommeliers are the current rock stars of the wine business, perhaps even more quoted and revered than the celebrity winemakers who used to dominate the discussion. Or, as this story amply demonstrates – “curated by a master sommelier for taste” – why not cheating if those are the results? Talk about pedestals; only someone with initials after their name can decide if wine is worth drinking.

Consider that someone who earns an MS can make twice as much money – high six figures, in fact – than someone without the distinction. Which, regardless of anything else, is all the incentive one needs to cheat in 21st century America. Because, as a good ol’ Texan famously told me at the bar at Louie’s, “If you have to ask how much money is enough, you don’t understand the question.”

The best perspective on the sommelier cheating scandal came from someone who must take the exam again. The person, who asked not to be named, told the SevenFifty Daily website: “I will probably be one of the candidates who will not retake the exam. I know this is not the intent, but I feel like a martyr. I am embarrassed, though I did nothing wrong. I want to find a different industry to work in. I want this to be over.”

How sad is that? Isn’t wine supposed to be fun?

Aliens (no, not that one): A wine parable (sort of)

aliensWhat happens when aliens from another galaxy discover wine – and the scores that go with it?

“I don’t understand,” said Brzyx. “What’s the point?”

“We’re humans,” said Miller. “We rate things. We list them. We rank them. That’s what we do.”

Brzyx’s accent was thick, but Miller could understand it without too much trouble. And why not? If its species was advanced enough to travel hundreds of light years to get to Earth, they could certainly speak passable English.

“But why can’t you just enjoy it?” said Brzyx. “It’s different, this wine, from anything we have at home. It’s pleasant. It’s – what’s your word? – enjoyable. I like the – what are they? – fruit flavors. I like the feeling I get from the thing you said was alcohol.”

“None of that is enough for us,” said Miller. “We have to sort things in order, top to bottom, first to last.”

“But scores?” said Brzyx. “All they do is spoil the fun, take the joy out of this wine thing. What possible difference could it make to anyone if something is 91 points or 92? Who can even tell the difference?”

“They claim they can,” said Miller. “It’s a huge business – lots of multi-million dollar companies, hundreds of experts claiming to know more about wine than anyone else. Telling people what kind of wine they should like.”

Brzyx sighed. At least Miller thought it was a sigh. It was kind of hard to tell.

“So you have all these wine experts spending all this time and money – scarce resources on your world – to give something as wonderful as wine a score, instead of using those resources to solve your world’s real problems, like hunger and poverty?”

“That’s pretty much it,” said Miller.

“Now humans make sense,” said Brzyx. “All that time and energy for nothing. No wonder you’re still stuck in this solar system and we had to find you.” He took a sip. “But I do like the wine.”

Almost middle of October book giveaway

book giveaway

Win an audio copy of “Corkscrew” in our book giveaway

And the winners are: Bobeica Ghenadie (15) and Irene Sterling (71). The winning number was 110 (box on right). 


Today, for no particular reason except that the Wine Curmudgeon likes to give things away, we’re giving away two audio copies of  – “Corkscrew,” Peter Stafford-Bow’s memoir as a professional wine buyer. Or, as one review put it: “A wholly inappropriate gift for any wine lover.”

Complete contest rules are here. Pick a number between 1 and 1,000 and leave it in the comment section of this post. You can’t pick a number someone else has picked, and you need to leave your guess in the comments section of this post — no email entries or entries on other posts. Unless the number is in the comments section of this post, the entry won’t count.

If you get the blog via email or RSS, you need to go to this exact post on the website to enter (click the link to get there). At about 5 p.m. central today, I’ll go to random.org and generate the winning number. The person whose entry is closest to that number gets the two books.

The new U.S. Pizza Museum is missing just one thing – wine

u.s pizza museum

My Old Style days are a thing of the past — today, it’s wine and pizza.

Four wine-related exhibits for the U.S. Pizza Museum

The new U.S. pizza museum – in Chicago, of course – is a wonderful idea. The only thing that seems to be missing is wine.

Which we can’t have if the museum is to be taken seriously (despite the usual pizza whining from Manhattan). The Wine Curmudgeon knows this because, before I wrote about wine, I wrote about pizza. Those were the halcyon days of Pizza Today magazine, working for the great Bruce Allar and knowing the joy that was the annual Pizza Expo trade show. Where else could anyone get so excited about flour and yeast but at Pizza Expo in the Las Vegas convention center?

I also lived pizza, growing up in Chicago and understanding the symbiosis between cheese, a proper thick crust, the correct tomato sauce, and Italian sausage. Those were the days of Dave’s Italian Kitchen, the pre-chain Giordano’s, the Silo in Lake Bluff, and cold, leftover Rosati’s pizza for breakfast. And yes, I used to drink Old Style with pizza, but I write about wine now, don’t I?

So if the museum doesn’t have a wine and pizza exhibit, then the Wine Curmudgeon will do something about it. Consider these possibilities:

• Always pink: rose with pizza. A French chef, long before the rose boom, told me the only proper wine for pizza was pink. So why not Cuvée des 3 Messes Basses Rose ($10, purchased, 13.5%), a solid, well made southern French rose with tart berry fruit, some minerality, and the necessary freshness and crispness. Imported by Kindred Vines

• Chianti, tomato sauce, and pizza. Any of our cheap Chiantis would work, as would any sangiovese-based wine from Tuscany in Italy. The Monte Antico Toscana, a sangiovese blend, offers fresh cherry fruit and the Italian earthiness I so enjoy.

• Regional pizza and regional wine. One of the things that surprises me about pizza is someone somewhere always seems to be doing something new with it (though you can probably guess how I feel about pineapple as a topping). Given the success of Drink Local, a top-quality Missouri norton like the St. James Estate Norton ($15, purchased, 13.5%), full of spice and dark black fruit, would complement even the unique St. Louis style of pizza.

• Why not seafood? I first saw shrimp on pizza at Gino’s in Houma, La.; despite my Chicago roots, it took me just 12 seconds to accept it as legitimate. In fact, seafood is a common topping in much of the U.S., like the clam pizza popular on the east coast. Seafood-friendly white wine, like the Fantini Farnese Trebbiano d’Abruzzo ($8, purchased, 12%). It’s less tart and crisp, but more spicy and chalky than ugni blanc (the French version of the trebbiano grape) as well a little citrus fruit. Imported by Empson USA.

Photo courtesy of the U.S. Pizza Museum, using a Creative Commons license