Saturday, May 20, 2017

Wine Labels

There's a lot of down time in wine retailing this time of year so my mind wanders a bit, sometimes to frivolous things like wine labels.  Or is it frivolous?  Lettie Teague of the Wall Street Journal says, "A wine label with wide appeal is a wine's single greatest sales tool.  It can make a good wine more desirable and a bad wine more salable.  It is the sole emissary for the product on the store shelf and a source of great wealth."

If I may, my corollary would be - if the label sucks it doesn't matter how good the wine is because it's not going to sell anyway.  My proof lies in the tragic losses littering the annals of wine sales history.

So I looked around the store at the winners and losers in wine labels and made a couple of obvious conclusions.  The popular wines currently in the store must, by definition, have good labels just as the historic wines like Beaulieu Vineyards must be credited likewise since they have endured for generations.  No big surprises so far, right?

What about all of the rest; the plain labels, the busy labels, the serious labels, the funny labels, and so on?  Teague cites a New York retailer who believes twenty dollar and up retail wines should have a plainer, more serious label while lower priced wines can be silly.  I agree with that.  Moreover, if you look at French wine labels in general you can conclude that they take their product seriously.

But then there are the Orin Swift/Prisoner wines that have some of the most outrageous labels anywhere and they retail for $40-$50.  And they sell great (!) so I guess they must be aiming for an other-than-serious audience.

Here are some other winners:

Forty Ounce Rose is a French liter bottle rose in the store that sells purely because of the label.  I think it's supposed to resemble a malt liquor product and customers crack up as they purchase it.

Virginia Dare is a label from Coppola that I believe sells solely because of the packaging.  It features a pale yellow background with antique image of the historic personage from American colonial times. It also has an atypical bottle shape and embossed glass, all of which is very, very retro.

Carlin de Paolo is an Italian Piemontese label that features a slim older gentleman in baggy suit and turned-up hat striding across the label from right to left.  He looks comical, like he's on a mission of some kind.  This label also has that light yellow background that's easy on the eyes.

My Essential is a California label that features painters' swatches across the bottom of the label meant to approximate the colors of the wine's constituent grape types.  A larger swatch is front and center on the label to represent the primary type.  Customers regularly comment on how neat this label is.

So that's a snapshot of the popular wine labels in these parts.  Take it for what it's worth.  And for what it's worth, Teague says, "a great label can probably convince people to buy a bottle once but only a great wine will inspire them to do so over and over again."

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

What's Wrong with Australia?

Thirty years ago Australian wine was money in the bank for retailers.  Bring in anything Australian and have no fear, the stuff will sell and when that inventory is gone, re-order something else from down under.

But no more.  Australia doesn't sell any more.  What happened?  Who or what pulled the plug?

Here are six possible explanations:

     1. The Yellow Tail Effect.  This is actually a no-brainer.  When the cheap stuff with the catchy label arrived on these shores, the more expensive stuff stopped selling.  Cause and effect.  We live in a mass market world marketplace where those pipers call the tunes.  If they can do enough things right with their pitch and the stuff in the bottle is palatable, well, the rest is history.

     2.  The Quality.  Back in the mid-eighties when the first wave from Australia arrived, the quality was ridiculous.  Inexpensive wines were way too good, as in twice as good as California at any price point...and that's my point.  It's the oldest trick in the wine book.  Make it too good at first to get your foot in the door and then cheapen it over time.  Yellow Tail has done the same thing.  They're just better marketers.

     3.  The Marketing.  Australia flooded the eighties market with the cheap stuff and never marketed the exceptional stuff the way other wine countries do so the great whites other than Chardonnay never got promoted and they were better than the Chards.  The great reds were promoted in the nineties but the appellation system, the distinct regions of origin, never got the promotion it deserved so by the nineties average wine lovers' perception of Australia was that they only made cheap wine.

     4.  The 2008 Recession.  Everyone took a mega-hit in 2008 but the currency exchange rate with Australia post-2008 seemed to impact trade more so than with other nations.

     5.  The Style.  This is a personal theory of mine.  Any wine style that is blatantly over the top, exceeding the norms of international wine standards, that wine style is not going to last.  Australian reds have always been extreme fruit bombs.  Perhaps too extreme for most wine lovers.  I wonder how many people filled their cellars with the stuff and then burned out on the style.

     6.  And now for the real crusher...Global Warming.  The Australian vineyard environment is warm to begin with.  And now it's getting warmer.  Grapes ripen earlier leading to increased sugars leading to wines with higher alcohol levels leading to the wine styles just mentioned.  So while climate change is probably not responsible for the failures to date, if this climate thing doesn't change, the Australian wine industry may end up on the industry chopping block.

On Thursday the 11th of May at 5pm Ted Fields joins us with a tasting of Spanish reds.  Please join us.  

Monday, May 1, 2017

The Chinese Puzzle

Before his retirement a few years ago, wine salesman, Henry Leung, had quite a following here whenever he scheduled a wine tasting.  Henry was a former New York City restaurateur who was once featured prominently in the Wine Spectator magazine for his abilities to pair wines with Chinese cuisine.  That Spectator feature made it painfully clear that pairing wines with Asian food was not a strong suit for most of us westerners.

California Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, the popular go-to's for most of us, really don't seem to work with Asian foods.  Henry and a lot of other wine guys opted for the unctuous Gewurztraminer in particular because of its spiciness.  Others of us liked the idea of light dry or off-dry whites in general for our Chinese fare.  Last fall Lettie Teague fleshed out the problem in the October 8-9, 2016 Wall Street Journal offering several new options for creative pairings.

First of all, Teague states what we already know - there are actually eight different Chinese cuisines so it helps to know what we're up against!  Moreover, "a single dish can flood the palate with sweet, spicy, salty, and sour flavors, and sometimes, all at once!"  And the sauces that usually offer the best indicator for wine selection in European cuisine work just the opposite with Chinese foods.  Then on top of everything else, if you add soy sauce or other condiments, well, you might as well just grab a beer!

In general Teague feels red wines don't really work with Chinese food although lighter reds like Italian Dolcetto and French Beaujolais and regional Burgundies may have a chance because of there finesse. Big reds (and oaky Chardonnays) would just clobber the stuff.

Teague also defers to dry Rose as an acceptable choice although not with spicier fare.  She likes Rieslings (both dry and sweet) and other light whites with the spicy stuff.  But here's the go-to that really resonates with her - Champagne!  "Bubbles help clear the palate (like beer), counteracting the salt and the heat of the spice."  She says a sparkling rose may be the best of both worlds!

So why this post now?  Because we're loaded with stacks of sparklers in the store that are delectable bargains AND we have shelves of the primo stuff too.  After all, it is the season!

This Thursday at 5pm Tommy Basham joins us for a tasting of Spanish wines.  Please join us for that one.