Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Top Wines Off Your Supermarket Shelf

As much as I’d like friends to quiz me about a great $50 Pinot Noir, most of the inquiries are about supermarket wines.

I’ve written many times in the previous 90 columns about such wines and what I think is most palatable. I’m a fan of Mirrasou, Mondavi Private Selection, Smoking Loon, and a few others. All can be found for $10 or less at most markets.

One of the reasons I’m still writing this column is to share information and hopefully a little wine education. I see a lot of wine-related news every week. Most casual vino consumers aren’t going to be interested in the wine-geeky stuff I consume. But every now and then there is wine news that I think is not only interesting but helpful.

If you are a supermarket wine buyer, wouldn’t you like to know what others are buying and most consumers think are top brands?

A consumer research group, Symphony IRI, annually reports its Top 30 momentum wine brands. The report bases its chart on sales data, volume and dollar sales, volume share in the price range, and other measures.  More than 100 brands met the minimum sales of 100,000 cases to be considered.
In a report on winesandvines.com , the survey showed Cupcake wines repeating as the top such wine in the country. Next came Barefoot, Apothic, Liberty Creek – those previous three all owned by Gallo – then St. Michelle’s 14 Hands and Menage A Trois.

Gallo wines held down the number-eight spot with a familiar name, Fish Eye.  Bogle came in at 11th, Columbia Crest was 14th, J Lohr was 17th, Almos 18th, Mark West 19th, chateau St. Jean 20th, Woodbridge 22nd, Sutter Home 23rd, Yellow Tail 26th, Gnarly Head 27th, and Sterling 30th.
Overall, the survey reported, most of the brands had strong growth by improving quality and marketing. Prices were also down per bottle over 2010. 

If you looked at the entire list of 30 labels, what most folks might find surprising is one company owns seven of those brands. What shouldn’t be surprising is that company is the giant Gallo label.
What does all this mean? Not much if you’ve tried the wines and didn’t like them. But if most of your buying is from the supermarket, these labels are easy to find. Obviously, the brands sell well and many supermarket wine shoppers find them to be good wines.

Higher Priced Wines Re-gaining Market Share

At the other end of the spectrum premium wines are coming back. After the economic downturn of 2008, several Central Indiana retailers said they couldn’t move a bottle of wine that cost more than $20-$25. 

During the first quarter of 2012, wines at $20 or more grew in sales 24 percent over last year.
People still love their Cabernet and the bigger prices are also making a comeback. Cab sold more than any other varietal in the top price categories. When you look at those $20-plus wines, most are Cabs. Pinot Noir continues to rock wine drinkers’ worlds with a 32 percent gain over a year ago for wines above $20.

Howard W. Hewitt, Crawfordsville, In., writes every other week about value wine for 18 Midwestern Newspapers. Read his wine blog at: www.redforme.blogspot.clom

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Difference Between 2-Buck Chuck & $50 Pinot

Among wine novices the differences between $6 wine and a $100 bottle remains a mystery.

One of my favorite anecdotes on that comes from a speech at a Central Indiana Kiwanis Club. I talked for about 10-15 on wine basics and then one member asked about $50 wine and why that’s better than a cheap bottle. I knew the guy was a golfer. Somehow and someway I came up with one of my best adlibs.

“I know you play golf, right,” I asked. “Well tell me, why do you use a $250 driver when Wal-Mart has drivers for $40?”

It got a laugh but also made the point. More expensive products of any type are usually more expensive based on brand, marketing, craftmanship, and better quality raw materials. The same can be said of wine. There are many factors contributing to price.

While standing in a Paso Robles vineyard in 2010 the grower explained part of his vineyard was for his higher-end Merlot. Another part of the vineyard’s grapes were sold to a bulk wine producer. The grape grower annually ‘drops fruit” or simply cuts clusters from the vines. Just like a flower or fruit in a garden, when you give the vine less produce the result is richer and better product.

But the price has to go up. Dropping fruit reduced the growers harvest to about 2-3 tons per acre. The vineyard for the bulk wineries produces up to 7 tons of grapes per acre. Prices vary by region and prestige, but it’s fair to say for a region like California’s Sonoma County the average price for one ton of wine grapes is around $2,000. Wine prices start to make some sense when you do the math.

But let’s not stop there. Chardonnay is California’s most-planted grape so it can be purchased around the $1,200 a ton mark. Cabernet or Pinot Noir grapes from the best areas can command more than $3,000 a ton. (Statistics from Sonoma Ranches.com)

Though there are many variables, here are some fun statistics: 1 ton of grapes can produce two barrels of wine. Each barrel holds 60 gallons or 25 cases equaling 300 bottles.

Grapes for better wines are handpicked, sorted, and treated like new born babies. Bulk or mass-market wine can be machine picked, machine sorted, and blended or aged in huge vats and barrels. The big-price wines are aged in small lots. I like to think of it as getting more love and attention.

Next comes marketing and reputation. You can search the cost of a bottle of wine and find a lot of different explanations. But it’s fair to assume that a single bottle of wine can cost from a few dollars to $40 or $50 to produce. France’s Revue de Vin De France reported just a couple of years ago that Dom Perignon Champagne costs about $30 a bottle to produce. But the world’s best-known bubbly retails for  nearly $200.

J. Lohr and Louis Martini make really good $15 Cabernet  and its available at Kroger. Robert Mondavi Reserve wines sell for $135-$165 a bottle. Mondavi is a wine made with better products, more craftsmanship, and a big name with a big marketing budget.

Is there a huge difference in the taste? Frankly, the differences are for more discerning palates. If poured an expensive wine, I believe even a novice will note it’s pretty good and clearly better. But how much is that worth for most wine drinkers?

Helping the average drinker find $12-$15 wines that taste like $20-$30 wines is why I write Grape Sense.

Napa/Sonoma Still Reign Supreme

Oregon’s Willamette Valley is one of the great wine vacation destinations in the U.S. Washington’s Walla Walla region is emerging behind its rich and soft red wine blends. If wine travelers insist on California travel check out the Zins, Pinot Noir and interesting blends of Mendocino County. If you like your wines big and bold at an affordable price, try Paso Robles on the Central Coast.

But if you’re really into wine and want this country’s most unique – and expensive – wine vacation, sooner or later you have to go to Napa and Sonoma counties north of San Francisco.

Wine and wine tourism finds its roots in this country’s most famous wine valleys. I recently spent a couple days there, the first time in five years, and still find it the Mecca for wine lovers.

The area comes with a word of caution for the average wine tourist. Sonoma County lodging and restaurants are not inexpensive. And Napa Valley makes Sonoma look cheap!

Anything above a national chain motel, and there aren’t many of those, can run into the hundreds of dollars nightly. Those national chains can be found at competitive rates ranging from $100-$150 a night. The nicer inns and lodges go for $250 and up. Things won’t be quite as expensive in Sonoma but close.

There are pizzerias, bistros, and burger places in the two counties which are affordable. The real experience is to shop the local groceries, most of which have deli counters where you can pick up great sandwiches. The finer dining establishments compete with any in the world. The French Laundry, Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto, and many others offer world-class dining.

But people go for the wine and there is no place quite like Napa. Robert Mondavi winery is the heart of this Mecca of American wine. The late icon gets and deserves so much credit for bringing American wine to the world and bringing the world to Napa Valley. His mission-designed winery is a must stop. There are two tasting rooms. The first is for most tourists and wine consumers where you can taste his entry level wines for a modest fee. The reserve tasting is $30 per person. But in this region the pours are generous and a tasting can easily be shared between two persons. Don’t be shy; the tasting room folk are comfortable with sharing.

I recently tasted through five of Mondavi’s high-end Cabernet bottles in the reserve tasting room and thoroughly enjoyed the experience and the wine. The price points ranged from $135-$165. Another highlight is Joseph Phelps winery on the other side of the valley. Phelps makes the iconic Insignia blend which is the closest thing to Bordeaux this side of France. It’s a Cabernet driven wine with other traditional blending grapes. It has consistently been one of the valleys most highly-rated wines for 20 years. It also sells at $200 a bottle.

Okay, those prices may create sticker shock for many and they should. But you can go to tastings and enjoy these wines then you start to understand price differences.

The average tasting room fees range $10-$20 for a normal tasting. If you want to taste the really good stuff at the premier label wineries, be prepared to shell out $25-$50 per person for the experience. A few of the wineries even require reservations just to taste. All wineries in the region have very nice websites which spell out fees, hours and locations.

Recommendations based on personal visits:

Napa: Mondavi, Sawyer Cellars, V. Satui, Andretti, Miner, Joseph Phelps.
Sonoma: Chateau St. Jean, B.R. Cohn, Kokomo Vineyards (and visit Hoosier native Erik Miller), Gloria Ferrer (sparkling wines).

If you’re a Pinot fan, journey into Sonoma’s Russian River Valley: Merry Edwards, Inman Family Vineyards, Gary Ferrell, Davis Bynum, Arista, and Rochioli.