Thursday, April 24, 2014

Wine Fraud and Lessons for You...Yes, You!

Some big names have been involved in some high profile cases regarding fake wine lately: Bill Koch vs. Eric Greenberg, Rudy Kurniawan duped lots of people (including Bill Koch) and more recently, Julian LeCraw, Jr. filed suit against an auction company.

So what, those guys are buying bottles worth tens of thousands of dollars that are decades, or even centuries old. What does that have to do with me? 

The lesson these collectors learned was that if something looks to good to be true, it usually is. Anyone can fall victim to scams, the Koch brothers are worth so much they can afford to stick their nose into everyone's business. A member of the Forbes family bought a bottle reported to be part of Thomas Jefferson's collection (read about that story in The Billionaire's Vinegar).
Smart people, taken in by charlatans.

Okay, okay, I get it..but what does this have to do with me?

You and I are unlikely to be shopping for 100+ year old wine or bottles priced at five figures each but this is still relevant. Hucksters and weasels will always exist. You should be aware of them.

Everyone loves a bargain but beware of closeouts and blowout sales. The wine business operates on lean margins, 15% to 30% is the norm. Larger markups are found but no one doubles or triples their cost like you sometimes see in clothing, for example. In department stores you see half off sales all the time, not so in wine stores. So, when you see deep, deep discounts be wary. Don't avoid entirely but be careful.

The online market is full of wild prices, I have seen a New Zealand sauvignon blanc advertised as low as $8.99 and as high as $19.99. Be sure to check the vintage if you're shopping online, especially with white wines. A sauvignon blanc for $10 that you see in your market at $15+ may not turn out to be a good buy if the vintage is two or three behind the current release. And that's before considering the shipping and handling, which can easily go beyond three dollars a bottle, or any return shipping/restocking charges should you try, and be allowed to, send unsatisfactory product back.

Also, if you buy remotely you can not monitor the storage temperature or the conditions during delivery. My experiences with shipping wine have been mixed. On most occasions the bottles have arrived in excellent condition but I had one experience involving bottles hot to the touch - I happened to be home when the delivery company brought them, in a non-air-conditioned truck. I, of course, refused the product.

People shop for deals all the time, myself included, but there is a point where I am more than happy to pay an extra dollar or two in order to insure either correct handling or an easy, local place to return subpar merchandise. I am especially sensitive to the shipping concerns living in a city where sunny and 80 degrees is possible pretty much anytime and 90+ degrees is a guarantee for months at a time.
When wine is exposed to heat, it takes very little time to damage it. Even locally it is wise to pay attention to the shop and how they care for their inventory. I was in the business a long time and I know some wholesalers load their trucks the night before and leave them outside overnight, even in the summer. Those same trucks leave for the day and are sometimes still delivering after 5pm. They are also rarely air-conditioned. Ever been in a truck helping a friend move in the summer? Then you know how fast those temperatures rise.

For a few years a place I used to work bought distressed inventory, heat damaged, from some very big names in Burgundy. The wines would be offered at about 40-50% off of their usual retail price. People snatched them up faster than it seemed possible. We told as many people as we could that they should drink the wines soon because they would not age well, due to serious heat exposure, but I'm sure some cellared their bargain treasures too long. The wines were tasty in their youth but were unlikely to stay that way.

The company also bought huge truckloads of closeouts from time to time, these shipments rarely included anything worth drinking at any price. The sales staff disagreed with offering these wines for sale but were told it was happening anyway. We did our best to discourage purchases when we could but people clung stubbornly to their "deal" over a similarly priced wine that was in great condition and tasted good.

After Katrina, I heard rumors of wine being sold off in bulk to south of the border destinations despite having prolonged exposure to extreme temperatures. Who knows if any disclosures reached the end consumers for those bottles.

Wineries sometimes have an off vintage where the wine simply is not as good as usual. They will sometimes dump that product into a market when the next vintage is ready to ship. You might find a relative bargain but will you like the wine?

There is no guarantee of perfection in your glass but it is a step in the right direction. There is an old axiom in the business, "There is no good wine, only good bottles" - meaning even two bottles purchased from the same case and stored identically won't necessarily taste exactly the same. Increase your odds of finding good bottles by shopping locally with reputable have heard me say this before and you will hear it again.

All right, now I understand what you're saying...

Monday, April 7, 2014

Rapid Chiller...but for Sparkling Wine?

Enviro-Cool in the UK has developed a rapid chiller called V-Tex. They describe it as a reverse microwave and it looks impressive. The big pitch seems to be for retail outlets so customers can chill their beverages and the retailer can save huge amounts of energy. This would be accomplished by eliminating all, or most, of the coolers, especially the open ones that also chill inefficiently. The video that starts when you land on the page lasts maybe two minutes and the demo taking place for cooling a can is impressive. Apparently this contraption also is capable of sanitizing the can during the chilling process before it reached your lips.
It all looks great until you reach the tail end of the video on the home page and the personal sized option is shown with a wine bottle, specifically a sparkling wine bottle. To be even more specific I think it might be etoile from Domaine Chandon, but that detail is not the important part.
Pay close attention after the woman selects the wine bottle option. She then gets a choice of size (how cool is that!?!?) and then we get a shot of the cooling process. The bottle is being vigorously spun and and vibrated. There is no way that is good for anything carbonated. Guess there's still work to do...I look forward to their tweaks and final product.
For now the best method remains to get a wine bucket (or similar receptacle) add ice and water (about 60/40 or 70/30 respectively) and wait about five or six minutes. People tell me salted water will make this process even faster but I've never bothered. I have more patience than Homer Simpson.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Biodynamic Rebel: Hero or Liability?

A biodynamic producer in Burgundy, Emmanuel Giboulot, is being threatened with a fine and possible jail time for not spraying his vines to control a pest (Decanter article, Alice Feiring article). The glassy-winged sharpshooter (leafhopper) has been a concern in California for a while but has not reached catastrophic levels. France is now having issues as well.
Spraying Pyrevert apparently kills the leafhopper but Giboulot claims it kills other living things necessary for a balanced environment in the vineyards. Because the pesticide is "plant-based" some argue it will not harm his organic status. Others say the pesticide may not even do what is intended but may harm "birds, other animals, even the winemakers."
It is incredible to me that the use of an inarguably toxic product (at a minimum, it must be poison to some bug) could be forced upon a farmer making different choices. He claims to have not seen any of the bugs in his vineyard so he is hardly the cause of an ongoing infestation.
His vineyards appear to be blocks rather than the norm in Burgundy where rows, or even partial rows, are all a producer may own. The fractionalized nature of the region makes it nearly impossible to farm organically. I watched a helicopter swoop in on the hill of Corton one day and attempt to apply some sort of treatment to a couple of rows of vines. The application swirled in the rotors' downdrafts and ended up being dispersed across a much larger area than appeared to be intended. A neighbor with this approach could get the Pyrevert applied whether Giboulot approved or not. He might not even be aware it happened. This is not a recommendation, just an observation.
So far, he has resisted and garnered lots of support through a petition with more than 40,000 signatures. It seems some lessening of the punishment is likely. April 7th is supposed to be the date they announce the verdict.
I'm torn about what to root for. I applaud his right to not employ toxic treatments for so many reasons. Should the government be able to force us to apply chemicals that may or may not be effective and certainly have other, perhaps unknown, risks. Will the government reimburse him for any adverse effects to his vines, wines or people working there?  A recent study has corollated use of pesticides and low sperm counts in France. History tells us to be wary of "quick fix" solutions because we only learn all of their hidden costs with time.
On the other hand, I do not applaud people who choose not to immunize their children and I would loudly cheer the government if they enforced that and banned all of the anti-bacterial wipes, lotions and soaps people use incessantly. I eschew these things like the plague believing we'll all be tougher, stronger and healthier if we let little, weak bugs make us a little sick once in a while rather than building up some superbug that might kill us. I don't like colds but I prefer them to death.
I would be very frustrated if my vineyard succumbed to the leafhopper because my neighbor didn't do what he was supposed to do to protect himself and those around him. We don't live in a vacuum, our choices have repercussions for others. I wonder if farmers of vineyards adjacent to his have signed the petition? It will be interesting to see what punishment Emmanuel Giboulot will receive.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Big Implications for No More Free Alcohol

I'm betting if you read this article from Todd A. Price about the state of Louisiana deciding to strictly enforce a law about free alcohol, you may have missed the bigger implications. Troy Hebert took over as commissioner of the Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control (ATC) and began a much stricter interpretation of the laws than his predecessor. Todd writes, "as detailed in the ATC handbook, nothing of 'utility value' can be given to bars or retailers." This will change the way events, charitable and otherwise, happen in Louisiana until some changes to this bizarre law are made. (Restaurants are not specifically mentioned but they are included as "bars.")
As is all too often the case, laws regarding liquor are unusual and subject to even more unusual interpretations. Liquor, beer and wine wholesalers are not allowed to give away anything of value to their customers. This includes pint glasses, corkscrews, menu covers and alcohol. Keeping big companies from, essentially, purchasing clients allows for a more even playing field. The concept makes sense but the reality does not. Enforcement is challenging. What business is going to call in a complaint about getting free stuff? Third parties doing so only amounts to hearsay. Big distributors can afford the risk of thumbing their nose at the law despite threat of fines or being shutdown for a few days. Smaller wholesalers might be put out of business by a stiff enough penalty and therefore the playing field tilts unfairly.
Mr. Price does a good job of explaining the impact on fundraisers so I won't re-explain that here. Suffice it to say that, again, the bigger companies can afford to continue their support at a much higher level than smaller operators. The larger impact on the bottom line due to having to donate not only one's cost of goods, but also the potential profit as well might put the pinch on charities around the state. Do most charities even have a liquor license allowing them to purchase alcohol directly from wholesalers?
Here's the big picture that is not addressed. Here's what this means to you, the consumer. One large wholesaler has already stopped doing free tastings. That means their products are no longer available to sample at various retailers and grocery stores because donating bottles to be poured certainly has value. So far, most other companies are doing business as usual on this front but that could change at any second.
Still not concerned? You should be. Martin Wine Cellar is not hosting their Once Upon A Vine event in 2014 and, while I don't know specifically, I'm willing to guess it is over concerns about the new enforcement of this law. At big events like this the wine is always donated and so are some people. Various wholesalers send their staff to pour their wines, this is supposed to guarantee proper information for customers and should also create some incentive to not overpour.
Martin's could certainly purchase the bottles and use all of their staff to pour but the event would suffer. First of all, the ticket price would increase, maybe even double. Second, consumers would potentially be trying to learn about wine from delivery drivers or deli clerks, there are not enough wine professionals at Martin's to cover all those tables. Third, they could reduce the number of tables to allow proper staffing but then the event would be smaller while the ticket price would likely have to remain the same.
How will the New Orleans Wine and Food Experience handle this situation? Will NOWFE no longer have knowledgable people behind the tables (I might argue that happened years ago...maybe I should ask if NOWFE will no longer have the appearance of knowledgable people behind the tables.) Will the ticket price escalate? So far, it looks like business as usual for them but the wines are all donated and so are the people pouring the wine so how can they do this?
In the end, limbo is the name of the game. If you ask questions, you draw attention to yourself. If you ignore the talk around you at least you can claim ignorance if you get caught. It will be interesting to see how this all plays out and to see if any distributor gains some advantage by ignoring the law.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Yeast & Alcohol, Science & Magic, Government Regulations

Wine Spectator reports a yeast strain has been found that "produces lower-alcohol wine." The article got my attention because too many wines are marred in some way by high alcohol. However, too many wines are also ruined by residual sugar. So, I read the article.
Wineries have a vested interest in bringing down alcohol levels because wine is more heavily taxed once they cross a certain percentage. According to the TTB, over 14% alcohol by volume the tax rate moves from $1.07/gallon to $1.57/gallon. That's a significant jump.
There is leeway to adjust the number by choice, however. The Electronic Code of Governmental Regulations (a little less than halfway down the page in case you're the one person actually clicking these links) states that below 14% alcohol a producer has 1.5% leeway to claim a different alcohol. Above 14% the option reduces to 1%. So, if your wine tips the scale at 15% just label it 14% and pay the lower tax. If you're 15.1% you're out of luck or you need to lie. I am convinced that some zinfandel producers adjust up to make the wine seem more powerful and intense.
Anyway, other than that simple method to "reduce" your alcohol content, this yeast strain is another option.
"The yeast in question, Metschnikowia pulcherrima, was singled out from a pool of about 40 different species chosen for their ability to ferment sugar and produce ethanol under anaerobic conditions during four days of culture. But Metschnikowia pulcherrima, or AWRI 1149, achieved the greatest balance of lower alcohol and negative side effects." (Wine Spectator, from the article linked above.)
One of the side effects is ethyl acetate, i.e. smell of nail polish. I'll take fruit aromas with a little heat on the nose from alcohol over that any day.
Science can keep trying to dissect and fully understand the process of turning grapes into wine but I firmly believe there is some synergy and maybe even magic that will never be completely understood, and I like it that way. In the meantime wineries, if you want to lower your alcohol percentages, just do what the government allows. 14% pinot noir? ViolĂ  12.5%. 15% chardonnay? No problem...abra cadabra, 14%! Now that's magic.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Two New Posts on NOLA Propaganda!

In case you hadn't already found them, two new posts hit in the last few days on NOLA Propaganda. The first is about avoiding a rut and continuing to explore while looking at the learning process in a different way. Have fun with it!
The second is a long piece about inexpensive box wines - perfect for the parade route!

Hey, pour me something mister!

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Wine, Food, Horses and Me!

My other writing has occupied much of my time lately making this space seem unloved. That is not the case.
An exciting new project for me began this month with America's Best Racing. The blog will feature food and wine and tie it into horse racing...three of my favorite things! Expect stories about dining in cities with race tracks, wine with horse connections, food and drink available at various race tracks and more.
Here are the first two pieces.
An introduction to me and my introduction to horse racing.
And, just in time for Valentine's Day, horse racing is for lovers! You might win big in more ways than one.