The Paradox of [Wine] Choice

I always look forward to the week between the Christmas and New Year holidays because that’s when the pace seems to slow down a bit and I can settle in to read The Economist‘s special double issue.

Of particular interest this year is the essay on page 123 called “Tyranny of Choice: You Choose.” The main point is simple, but the implications are quite broad, with particular relevance for today’s wine markets.

Good — Up to a Point

The simple point? Choice is good, but only to a certain degree. Too much choice is, well, too much and can sometimes stop decision-making dead in its tracks. I say that this is a simple point because we have all suffered from the problem of too many options overloading our preference systems. Or am I the only one who sometimes has trouble ordering coffee at Starbucks or a sandwich at Subway?

Government is a good example of this Paradox of Choice. One party rule is notoriously problematic.  Multiple parties provide useful competition. But at some point more political choice is really less –particularly less in terms of stability.  Fragile, shifting multi-party coalitions mean short governmental half-lives with no one looking after the whole since everyone’s focused on their own tiny slice of the electoral pie.

What makes The Economist article interesting is that it ties together so many elements of this dilemma, from literature to academic research and from potato chips to human reproduction.

Rollerblading Monstromart

Super-abundant choice is a fact of modern life. The Economist suggests that you …

Wheel a trolley down the aisle of any modern Western hypermarket, and the choice of all sorts is dazzling. The average American supermarket now carries 48,750 items, according to the Food Marketing Institute, more than five times the number in 1975. Britain’s Tesco stocks 91 different shampoos, 93 varieties of toothpaste and 115 of household cleaner. Carrefour’s hypermarket in the Paris suburb of Montesson, a hangar-like place filled with everything from mountain bikes to foie gras, is so vast that staff circulate on rollerblades.

One cost of this embarrassment of riches is confusion or, put another way, higher transactions costs. Making a choice means comparing the qualities and value of different options, which is difficult enough when there are only two brands of breakfast cereal, but mighty time-consuming and complicated when there are 200.

The Economist explores several dimensions of this problem, citing a Nobel Prize winning economist (Daniel McFadden), an Italian novelist (Italo Calvino) and cartoon character Marge Simpson!

Expectations have been inflated to such an extent that people think the perfect choice exists, argues Renata Salecl in her book “Choice”. … In one episode of “The Simpsons”, Marge takes Apu shopping in a new supermarket, Monstromart, whose cheery advertising slogan is “where shopping is a baffling ordeal”. “How is it”, muses Ms Salecl, “that in the developed world this increase in choice, through which we can supposedly customise our lives and make them perfect leads not to more satisfaction but rather to greater anxiety, and greater feelings of inadequacy and guilt?” A 2010 study by researchers at the University of Bristol found that 47% of respondents thought life was more confusing than it was ten years ago, and 42% reported lying awake at night trying to resolve problems.

Greater choice first delights us, then overwhelms us, then it can sometimes drive us crazy. There must be a “best” among all the rest. Which is it? And how will I know? The quest for the best can sometimes destroy the pleasure of the very good by introducing an unwanted but unshakable sense of doubt.

The Age of Anxiety

Which brings us to wine. It does seem like the problems of exaggerated choice apply especially to wine. Of those 48,000 items on the upscale supermarket shelves, chances are that 1500 or more are bottles of wine. Wine is the largest choice space in the modern grocery store, ten times richer in terms of the number of options than the #2 area (breakfast cereals) and much more complex.

Wine buyers have never had it better in terms of the number of choices available from around the world. And we’ve never had it worse regarding the possibility of confusion and the pressure to find our perfect wine. It’s the Age of Anxiety for wine.

I find it interesting that some of  the hottest products in the wine market seem to simplify wine just a bit and perhaps unintentionally  address this anxiety. Gallo’s inexpensive Barefoot brand wines have very done well in the last few years; most people view this as a price thing — the result of trading down. But Barefoot also offers consumers a more casual idea of wine that would appeal to anyone who wants to get out of “perfection” rat race and just enjoy wine without over-thinking it. (And every Barefoot bottle features a “Gold Medal” from a wine competition, giving buyers the security of a sense of quality.)

The hottest wine sectors today are Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc and Argentinean Malbec; is it a coincidence that these wines are easy to understand, with many good producers at various price points? The problem of choice still exists for buyers of these wines, of course, but perhaps more of the pleasure of choosing survives.

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Several people have asked about the series on BRIC wines.  Fear not — it will resume in a few days with a report on Russia,

DIY Wine Economics

I’ve just returned from a research trip to Canada to investigate the wine industry in British Columbia (watch for my upcoming report). The wines were very good and the scenery spectacular, but for some reason my attention kept being diverted to small storefront do-it-yourself wine making facilities.  So herewith a report on a Canadian phenomenon:  Wine Kitz stores.

The Old Pandosy Street Connection

Somehow we found ourselves on Pandosy Street in Kelowna, B.C.; I checked out the Wine Kitz store while Sue investigated a yarn shop on the next block. It was a very interesting visit. I have seen many stores that sell wine-making kits and supplies, including grape juice concentrate, yeasts, jugs, hoses, bottles and so forth, but this Wine Kitz was something else — it really got my attention.

Kim McLean and her husband James operate this shop, which has been in Kim’s family since 1976, first an an independent DIY wine operation, now as part of  Wine Kitz.  Wine Kitz is a franchise chain, started in 1959 as “Wine Art” with 70 stores across Canada. There were three stores in Kelowna, a wine, tourism and agriculture town of about 120,000 population, with another store just across the bridge in West Kelowna. There must be a lot of DIY wine on tap here to support four stores!

Wine in a Box

Wine may be made in the vineyard, as they say, but it comes in a box at Wine Kitz and similar stores. Each box makes 23 liters of wine, or about 30 bottles from whichever sort of wine grape juice you choose. There are three quality tiers of juice available, starting with the Wine-Art line (CND 120 per kit) and moving up to Tradition (CND 138) and Ultimate (CND 185). (One USD equals about 1.03 CND at today’s exchange rate — that’s roughly par when you take FX fees into consideration.) The cheaper products have a higher percentage of juice concentrate while the more expensive tiers have more natural juice (and less manipulation). You can dial up the quality level depending upon your preferences and bank account balance.

The juice comes mainly from California, Australia and Italy. The juice selection is really quite broad. Merlot, Chardonnay and Shiraz, of course, but also Barolo, Chianti and Valpolicella. You can even make sherry and port-style products as well as various dessert wines.

The Secret of DIY Success

Why are kit wines so popular in Canada? One reason is the high retail price of bottled wine. Wine that you can make in a Wine Kitz shop for about CND 6 per bottle would sell for perhaps CND 20 or more in one of the province’s government liquor shops, Kim told me.

Checking around I found that Chateau Ste Michelle Columbia Valley Riesling sells for CND 14 in BC and CND 17 in Alberta. You can buy it for less than USD 6 at Costco in the U.S.  That’s a pretty strong incentive to make your own wine if the quality is anywhere close. You can, of course, set up your own home winery using the packaged juice as raw material to bring the cost even lower.

The ongoing recession is a second factor, Kim said. People are a bit more interested in saving money when the economy is uncertain. You can think of this as a trading down (to lower prices) effect, but I’d argue that it is more like “trading over” (to different wine experiences) since the product is both cheaper but also a bit more personal and fun.

A final reason is that it is easy to make this wine — much easier that you might think. A loophole in liquor laws allows Wine Kitz to streamline the winemaking process.

Amateur Antinoris  need invest only about 45 minutes per batch of wine — 20 minutes to initiate fermentation and another 25 minutes filtering and filling bottles when the wine is ready to go in a few weeks. All the work in between can be done by Wine Kitz staff on their premises using their equipment. You can be as involved as you want to be as long as you put in that minimum 45 minutes but you can also leave it to Wine Kitz. Honestly, you can’t get much easier than that.

One important rule: once you bottle your wine you must remove it from the store immediately. I asked Kim if her operation was highly regulated and she said it was — and that the easiest thing to do was simply to follow all the rules to the letter and avoid legal problems. Sounds like a good plan to me.

Back Room Confidential

The back room of the Kelowna store I visited was filled with glass carboys in various stages of fermentation and a satisfied young couple (from Switzerland if my ear is any guide) were happily bottling their latest vintage. Perhaps Canada’s longstanding policy of welcoming immigrants is another factor in DIY wine’s popularity — maybe they bring an interest in home wine making with them. But that’s obviously not the whole story. When I asked Kim about her customers she said they are just thirsty — they don’t come from a particular socioeconomic class or walk of life. They just want to make wine.  Interesting — wine-making as a popular home craft like scrap-booking.

I didn’t ask to sample any of the wine — this isn’t a wine rating blog and my opinion wouldn’t matter anyway. What does matter is what the people who come to stores like Wine Kitz think and there are apparently many happy wine drinkers among them (enough to keep four stores busy in a medium-sized town).

DIY wine is an interesting reaction to both the expense of commercial wines (especially in Canada) and the desire of many to be more a part of the products they consume (even if boxed juice is involved) — to be participants as well as consumers.

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Thanks to Kim McLean for taking time to show me around her Kelowna store and explain her DIY operation. The photos shown here are for typical Wine Kitz locations — not the Kelowna store I visited. Watch for additional reports form my BC fieldwork expedition.

The Democratization of Wine

As a known “Wagnerian” sympathizer,  I am naturally in favor of the “democratization” of wine. Power to the People is good, Wine to the People is even better (and sometimes equally difficult to manage). Recently I’ve run into a couple of stories that suggest that good wine may be trickling down to the masses in interesting ways.

Le Froglet Wine

The first story comes from Britain, where “wine by the glass” now has a new meaning. I’m talking about Le Froglet wine, which comes in ready-to-drink stemmed plastic cups. The special “glass” is sealed by a patent-applied-for process that replaces oxygen with inert gas before a peel-away airtight foil seal is applied, thus keeping the wine fresh (in the short term) in its unlikely container

The 187 ml serving of French Shiraz (really?), Chardonnay or Rose wine sells for £2.25 at Marks & Spencer stores.  This is wine that you can take anywhere and consume as you please, even if you only want a single glass. It is sort of a wine juice box in functional terms, if you know what I mean, but classier, with a stemmed plastic glass in place of the cardboard box and sippy-straw. I have seen Le Froglet here in the U.S. selling in the $3.50-$4 range.

Expert Opinion?

Le Froglet is noteworthy for several reasons, First, it seems to be very popular in Britain, where it has created a new market category. That doesn’t happen very often.

It has succeeded despite highly publicized expert opinion that the idea of takeaway “cuppa wine” is totally lame. James Nash, the inventor of the packaging and process, appeared on the popular BBC television show Dragons’ Den where supersmart investors took his product and business plan apart brick by brick, leaving him standing in a pile of rubble. Fuggetaboutit, they told him in no uncertain terms.

Interestingly, the people at retailer Marks & Spencer saw the same idea and came to a different conclusion.  They viewed the single-serving glass as a perfect place to put their line of Le Froglet French wines. I suppose with a name like Le Froglet they weren’t taking themselves too seriously. Why not wine by the glass to go? Why not indeed? And so they gave it a try. They seem to be pleased with the results.

An M&S spokesman said: ‘The glasses are merchandised in our ‘Food on the Move’ section, which is obviously the aisle people on the go head to – particularly office workers. ‘We think that they are proving popular with people who want to perhaps enjoy the summer with a glass of wine in the park as part of an impromptu picnic – either after work or for a relaxing lunch.

‘They are also popular with commuters who want to enjoy a drink on the train home from work to wind down. We have found that they are very popular in locations popular with tourists.’  The M&S winemaker, Belinda Kleinig, said:  ‘This is a really exciting step for M&S – our research has shown that our customers really like the greater convenience of lighter weight bottles so we thought we’d take it one step further with great quality wine ready to drink from a glass.’

The Benefit of Low Expectations

I think one key to Le Froglet’s success is that it exceeds everyone’s expectations (except perhaps the grumpy Dragons’ Den gurus). You don’t really expect the packaging to work, for example. You expect the seal to leak or the plastic glass to break. But apparently it works pretty well. Surprise!

And then there’s the wine itself. You logically expect it to be crap since it comes in such a goofy container. Who’d put good wine in something like this? But apparently the wine is surprisingly good. In fact, Decanter magazine recently announced that Le Froglet Shiraz has won a hard-to-get  Gold Medal in its 2010 global wine competition.  The award is actually for the bottled version of the wine, which sells for £5.49.   Decanter’s editor reported that

‘The bottle is a great value find. It’s fragrant and complex, with lots of dark fruit and savoury chocolate. The plastic glass version is a great idea, but given that the bottled version has a screwcap, won a gold medal and works out cheaper per serve, I’d probably buy a bottle and find my own glasses.’

One element of the democratization of wine is making it more convenient and Le Froglet certainly does that. Of course this convenience comes at a price. One £5.49 bottle of Le Froglet holds four £2.25 single-serving glasses, making the bottled product the  better buy. But that glass-bottle price ratio is about what you find in most restaurants, where the rule of thumb is that the retail price of a glass of wine is equal to the wholesale cost of the whole bottle.

Good, cheap and convenient seem to form a trilemma with wine — difficult to get all three at once.  Cheers to Le Froglet for making decent wine more convenient, even if it isn’t really cheap.

Burger, Fries and Syrah?

What could be more democratic than fast food wine? Sounds perfect, but it is hard to imagine a fast food restaurant that could find a way to serve wine here in the U.S. with our Byzantine regulatory system.

So you can appreciate my pleasant surprise when I was able to order wine with my dine-in meal at the Burgerville fast food outlet near Vancouver, Washington. Burgerville is a popular Oregon-based fast food chain that specializes in fresh, local and sustainable products.

Burgerville is designed to exceed your expectations about what a fast food meal can be and if you pay a bit more for the food you probably get more, too. The restaurants have always been very busy when I have visited, so people must think they are a good value. I certainly do.

Here is the sales receipt from our meal at the Salmon Creek Burgerville (the only store in the chain to offer wine by the glass so far). I passed on the upscale burger / fries / shake part of the menu this time to take advantage of seasonal offerings: a mound of Walla Walla Sweet Onion Rings (yum!) and two Full Sail Amber Ale Battered Albacore fillets with a side of Oregon cranberry-studded summer slaw. My beverage of choice, a $5.95 glass of flavorful and refreshing A to Z Wine Works Oregon Pinot Gris. Heaven! Fast food taken to a new level.

Burgerville offers three red wines and three white wines by the glass at this location priced at $5.95 and $6.95. I think I’ll have a glass of the Syrah with a bacon cheeseburger on my next visit!

Small Steps [in the Right Direction]

The wines sell pretty well, I was told, which is of course what I hoped to hear. The Salmon Creek store is testing the concept of what you might call premium fast food wine. This store was apparently chosen because it has a large and well organized dine-in area that made it possible to meet regulatory requirements.  (Don’t look for wine at the drive through window just yet, although with Le Froglet I suppose it isn’t completely out of the question!).

The democratization of wine?  We’re not there yet — wine is still more difficult to buy, sell and consume than it needs to be — but Le Froglet and Burgerville show what we are headed in the right direction. Wagnerians, rejoice!

Open That Bottle Night 2010

Cam watches Ken nurse the cork out of a bottle of 1960 Taylor Vintage Port.

The last Saturday of February is a holiday for wine lovers: Open That Bottle Night (OTBN). It’s the evening when wine enthusiasts come together to share wine and stories.

Although the wines are the official reason for these gatherings, the people and their stories are what it is really all about.

This year Sue and I will be getting together with Bonnie & Richard, Ron & Mary and Michael & Lauri at Ken & Rosemary’s house in Seattle. Everyone’s bringing wine and a story about the wine and Rosemary is making another of her spectacular meals. I’ll report the specifics in a note at the bottom of this post.

Vino Exceptionalism

The premise of OTBN is that wine is different — or maybe that we are different when it comes to wine.  Americans are famously interested in instant gratification — we want what we want when we want it. That’s one reason the U.S. saving rate is sometimes a negative number. Can’t wait — gotta have it now. That’s our typical consumption profile.

Isn’t it interesting, then, that we sometimes behave in exactly the opposite way when it comes to wine. Yes, I know that 70% of wine is consumed within a few hours of its purchase. That is unexceptional.

No, what I’m talking about is our counter-stereotype tendency to tuck special bottles away and save them for … for what? For the right occasion, I suppose. For the moment when they will mean more than they do just now.  Sometimes it is about proper aging of the wine, but usually there is an intangible component that transcends the bottle’s contents. For whatever reason, it seems we need to be reminded once a year to get these wines out and enjoy them!

Frequently (in my case, at least) we hold them too long so that when the cork is finally pulled the wine within is a shadow of its former self.

Liquid Memory

The interesting thing is that it usually doesn’t matter that the wine has faded away. Turns out it was the story that mattered most. Liquid memory!

Dottie & John

John Brecher and Dorothy Gaiter invented OTBN in 2000 as a way to celebrate wine by releasing its pent up stories. Dottie and John wrote the weekly wine column for the Wall Street Journal until quite recently and each year they invited readers to send them accounts of their experiences, some of which appeared in post-OTBN columns.

It was quite an experience reading what other people were inspired to say by the wines they opened that night. Kind of a peek into their souls. I think that was the point, however. As Dottie and John wrote in their final column on January 26, 2010.

Wine isn’t a spectator sport. It’s utterly intimate. Don’t let anyone tell you what you should like, including us. Try wines broadly—there have never been so many good ones, at all prices, on shelves—and keep raising your personal bar for what is truly memorable, so that you are always looking for the next wine that will touch your soul and make you feel you’ve gone someplace you’ve never been before. It’s not about delicious wines. It’s about delicious experiences. May your life be filled with them.

Two Buck Chuck to Chateau LaTour

Dottie and John didn’t explain why they left the WSJ — word on the wine blogger street is that it was a simple cost-cutting move by Journal management — but many of us are interested to learn what will happen next.  The old WSJ wine column took a very broad view of wine, with reports that ranged from inexpensive bottlings like Two Buck Chuck to icons like Chateau LaTour.

John and Dottie were not very traditional or pretentious — they constantly pushed readers to try new wines, re-visit old favorites and think for themselves. I hope to see them reemerge on the wine scene soon. (Perhaps on cable TV?)

The Journal hasn’t given up on wine. The wine page has been filled by a variety of writers and topics since the first of the year. I suspect this is a short term measure until a permanent replacement is found.

Wine for Davos Man

It seems to me that the WSJ is very ambitious and is trying quite hard to become the Financial Times, rated by many as the world’s best business newspaper. The FT features a weekly column by Jancis Robinson, rated by some as the world’s most influential wine critic.  I expect Rupert Murdoch, the Journal‘s owner, to seek out someone of similar stature to anchor the Weekend Journal section (and attract wine-enthusiast readers).

Dr. Vino reports that the new columnist will be Jay McInerney, novelist and former wine columnist for House & Garden magazine. It will be interesting to see what direction McInerney (or whoever gets the job) takes at the WSJ. It is one of the world’s great “bully pulpits” when it comes to wine.

Jancis Robinson uses her position at the FT to promote fine wine in a global context to her audience of “Davos Man” global elites. She has been very effective at raising wine’s profile around the world.

Dottie and John embraced wine and globalization, too, but in a very American way for a broad American audience. They were effective, too, in the American context.

It will be interesting to see what direction the Wall Street Journal chooses, what idea of wine they embrace and what audience they hope to serve. In the meantime, it’s time to open that bottle.

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Update 3/26/10

This report just in from the New York Times dining blog:

The Wall Street Journal has confirmed rumors that Jay McInerney will be a wine columnist for the paper, but it throws in an unexpected curveball: his column will alternate, Saturday to Saturday, with one written by Lettie Teague.

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We had great wine, spectacular food and fascinating stories on Open That Bottle Night 2010. By the numbers: five and a half hours, ten people, thirteen wines, 75 wine glasses. Here are the food and wine menus — you will have to imagine the stories. Special thanks to Rosemary and Ken for hosting. And thanks to Dottie and John for inventing OTBN.

Wine Menu (listed by vintage year, not the order tasted)

Solter Rheingau Riesling Brut Sekt 2006

Casanova di Neri Brunello di Montalcino Tenuta Nuova 2004

Callaghan Vineyards Sonoita (Arizona) Padres 2003

Shanxi Grace Vineyards (China) Tasya’s Reserve Cabernet Franc 2003

Racines Les Cailloux du Paradis (Loire) 2003

Chateau Haut Brion Blanc 1998

BV Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (magnum) 1997

Champagne Charles Ellner Brut 1996

Chateau d’Yquem 1996

Paul Jaboulet Hermitage La Chapelle 1990

Chateau Figeac St-Emilion Premier Grand Cru 1967

Chateau Cheval Blanc 1961

Taylor Vintage Port 1960

Dinner menu

Rosemary Flatbread with Artichoke and Green Olive Spread

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Wild American Shrimp and Fennel Salad

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Roasted Tenderloin of “Wild Idea” Buffalo

Polenta with Cremini and Porcini Mushrooms and Mascarpone

Green Beans with Sautéed Shallots

Cranberries and Cherries in Madeira sauce

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“The Cheese Cellar” Cheeses

Gorgonzola Hand Picked by Luigi Guffanti

Piave High Mountain Cow Cheese

Sottocenere with Truffles, Clove and Cinnamon Rub with Ash Rind

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Panna Cotta with Blueberry Compote

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Chocolate Biscotti

Soft Amoretti Cookies Sandwiched with Chocolate Ganache or Raspberry Jam

Curse of the Blue Nun

Writing about Riesling got me to thinking about great  German Rieslings and, because I am a Dismal Scientist after all,  I also started thinking about the not-so-great German wines that define that country for wine drinkers of a certain age.  And so, inevitably, my thoughts strayed to memories of Blue Nun.

I haven’t thought of Blue Nun wine in years. I remember it from the 1970s as an unsophisticated Liebfraumilch wine in a tall thin blue bottle with a blue and white-clad nun on the label. She reminded me a bit of the “Flying Nun” television show (starring Sally Fields) that ran from 1967 to 1970. The wine was about as serious as the TV series, but apparently it sold hundreds of thousands of cases to aspiring wine drinkers like me.

I didn’t know that it was still around until I spotted it on a BBC television show about wine. It was a miniseries featuring Oz Clarke, notable British wine guru, and James May, co-host of the popular automobile series “Top Gear.” Oz and James were touring California with wine expert Oz trying to teach neophyte James a bit about wine. James resisted, put off by wine’s snobbish elitist ways.

Terrible. Disgusting. Must be European.

Blue Nun appeared in a sequence where James bet Oz $100 that he couldn’t identify an ordinary everyday wine in a blind tasting (from a plastic beer cup, as it turned out). Oz sniffed and swirled and made a bad face. Terrible, he said. Disgusting. So bad that it couldn’t be from America – market-savvy Americans would never make a wine this bad. This could only come from the Old World.

“Blue Nun!” he shouted, winning the bet, although I suspect that colored bottle gave him an unfair clue. Here is a taste of the show. The Blue Nun episode is not available online, but this will give you a good sense of what the show is like.

I’m not sure that Blue Nun is really that bad, but Oz Clarke’s revolting reaction is telling.  Blue Nun and brands like it established Germany’s place on the lower tier of the World Wine Wall in the 1970s. The wines may not have been as cheap and nasty as memory suggests, but they were not expensive and sophisticated, either. They were the face of German wine abroad and that face, like the Blue Nun herself, was more or less a colorful cartoon version of the great wines of Germany.

The First Global Wine Brand

Blue Nun was by some accounts the first truly global mass market wine brand, an unexpected distinction for a German wine. Its story therefore has some bearing on the globalization of wine. Blue Nun’s roots go back to 1857 when Hermann Sichel started a wine business in Mainz. I know little about the early days of Sichel’s firm except that it managed to survive the political and economic chaos of the ensuing years, which in retrospect seems like a considerable achievement.

The real story begins with the 1921 vintage, said to be one of the best. Sichel sought to export these wines, especially to Great Britain, and the Blue Nun label was invented to facilitate sales abroad. One source holds that the nun on the label was originally clad in standard issue brown robes, but a printer’s error turned them blue and thus a brand was born.

The brand and the famous vintage it represented found a market in England, selling more than 1000 cases a year in the 1930s (quite a lot for a single brand of wine at that time) according to the official company history.  The volumes increased after World War II, rising to 3.5 million bottles a year in the UK in the 1970s before sales collapse back to 800,000 in the 1980s.  The quantity quality trade-off finally came back to haunt Blue Nun, it seems, and the fashion for red wine started by the famous French Paradox discovery did not help either.

Blue Nun, it seems was the original victim of the Curse of the Blue Nun: the simple, sweetish wines that make you will also break you. As tastes changed and wine drinkers sought to move up-market, Blue Nun wine petered out (although 800,000 bottles is hardly a trickle). Passé to some, a joke (as with Oz and James) to others, that was and to some extent is Blue Nun.

It is an over generalization to say that the whole of German wine suffered the Curse of the Blue Nun, but there is some truth in it. Great wines continued to be produced, of course, and snatched up by the educated wine elites (although not at the high prices they once earned), but Brand Germany was Blue Nun, Black Tower and their Liebfraumilch shelfmates. German wine hit its lowest point.

Blue Nun and the New Globalization

I am an optimist about globalization and wine (that’s why next book is called Grape Expectations) and this attitude extends to German wine. The bad news of the crisis of quality is matched by the good news that German wines have changed, even the big brands. Black Tower has moved upmarket into affordable quality wines, not just Liebfraumilch and not just white wines, either. It is the top German brand today.

Sichel sold the Blue Nun brand to Langguth, another German maker, who also upgraded the wines. Blue Nun is once again a major brand, selling 5 million bottles in Britain alone in 2005. It is a German brand but, significantly, reflecting the current wave of globalization, not just a German wine.

Popular wines from around the world are imported to Germany where they are bottled under the Blue Nun label. There are Languedoc Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, California Zinfandel, Australian Shiraz, Chardonnay from Chile, and a Rosé from Spain, for example. There’s even a Pinot Grigio from Germany, although its unlikely origin is not easy to learn from the front label.[i]

Blue Nun Light is low alcohol (0,5%), low calorie (27 calories per 100 ml glass). Tastes great, less filling.

My personal favorite (perhaps because I’ve never tried it) is Blue Nun Sparkling Gold Edition shown here. It’s a light fizzy wine infused with flakes of 22 carat gold leaf that glitter in the glass.

Young women seem to be Blue Nun’s target market according to both published sources and the look of the advertising copy. Women buy more wine than men, so this is not a crazy strategy, and young women are the market of the future, although the assumption that they are especially attracted to shiny floaty things like these gold flakes is sad if true. The idea that the attractive female image of the Blue Nun might particularly appeal to women never occurred to me … until now.

German wine is back, but it has changed. Quality has improved – even the mass market brands offer some good wines – but the reputation lingers, the legacy of the Curse of the Blue Nun.


[i] The ad copy says it is from the “sunny Palantine region,” which sounds Italian but isn’t. The geographical designation is Pfalz, Germany. I’m sure it is quite good as Pinot Grigio goes.

Awaken, Bacchus!

I’ve spent the last two weeks watching a nine-part Japanese television miniseries that is based upon a 20+ volume Japanese manga (graphic novel) called Kami no Shizuku (Drops of God).

Have you heard of it? No? Then read on because Kami no Shizuku seems to be changing how millions of people are thinking about wine. Maybe it will change how you think about wine, too.

The Sideways Effect

Wine enthusiasts like to think of wine as a very serious subject, all vintages and terroir and malolactic fermentation and so on. It is hard for us to accept that something as sacred as wine could be influenced by popular culture.

But we know that it happens. The 2004 film Sideways, for example, is said to have set off the Pinot Noir boom in the United States and brought to an end a previous Merlot bubble. It also romanticized wine in a way that cannot have hurt wine sales overall.

No wonder wine tourists come to the Santa Barbara area to drink the same wines, eat the same foods and visit the same wineries as the film characters Miles and Jack (played by actors Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church).

Tokyo Wine-Quake

Sideways had a big effect on the wine world. The Kami no Shizuku effect seems to be several orders of magnitude larger. The reason you may not have heard about it is that this wine-quake is centered in Tokyo, not New York, Los Angeles or London.

The on-going comic book series, written by Shin and Yuko Kibayashi, first appeared in 2004 and has sold more than half a million copies in Japan alone. The Nippon television series that I’ve been watching on DVD premiered in January 2009 and reached millions more.

The Kiyabashis were ranked number 50 in Decanter magazine’s July 2009 “Power List” of the wine industry’s individuals of influence. Kami no Shizuku is “arguably the most influential wine publication for the past 20 years,” according to Decanter.

Most influential in 20 years! Wow. You can get a feel for the phenomenon by reading this English translation of some of the graphic novel volumes.  (Note: click on the images to move to the next page. Don’t worry if it appears to be in Japanese — the English shows up once the story begins. Read the story panels from right to left on each page the way the Japanese do.)

Kami no Shizuku has set off a wine boom in Asia, where, much as with Sideways, enthusiasts rush to taste the fine wines (mainly from France, mostly Burgundies and Bordeaux) that are featured in each storyline. The rising sales of these iconic wines has been good for these particular  producers, but I think the bigger effect has been to draw millions of Asian consumers into the market and help them to develop a personal sense of wine.

The Da Vino Code

I’ve been trying to decide how to explain Kami no Shizuku and why I think it has had such a profound effect on wine is Asia and soon, perhaps, around the world. One reason is that it is a good story and that it always important. The Nippon TV series is pretty much a soap opera and you know how addictive those are!

But I think the real factor is that Kami no Shizuku presents a different idea of wine.  Wine is presented as a sort of mysterious but not impenetrable secret  society (think Da Vinci Code), with its own history, geography, rituals language and traditions. It is a mystery waiting to be solved.

The reward for mastering its intricacies is a sort of divine communication (hence “Drops of God”).  Wine can communicate a time and place, an emotion or experience.  Tasting wine even allows the living to talk with the dead, in a way that the story makes clear but I won’t reveal here.

A Hundred Flowers

You can get a small sense of this communication by watching the music video with scenes from the television series I have embedded into this post. Our young protagonist is upset with his wine-obsessed father for never leaving flowers on his mother’s grave. He always leaves wine — Domaine de la Romanée Conti Richebourg 1990, if you are interested — not flowers as a proper grieving husband/father should.

Later, as he begins to learn the language of wine and unlock its secrets, he discovers that this Burgundy is the truest expression of the love the flowers are meant to represent — not a dozen flowers, but a field of them.  Watch the video — you’ll get this point and more. And so the journey and the complex exchange of ideas, feelings and emotions begins.

Awaken, Bacchus

“Awaken, Bacchus,” he says, when he wants to move beyond the physical senses to taste the memories and emotions that lie hidden in the wine glass. Who wouldn’t want to have such a transformative experience? Who wouldn’t want to see what mysteries wine can be revealed?

Kami no Shizuku seems to have unleashed two forces in Japan and perhaps eventually around the world. One is the competition for status and self-esteem through the conspicuous consumption of the trophy wines featured in the comics and television series. This materialistic competition is even part of the plot! It is nothing new, although I’ll bet the French producers are thankful for it during this economic crisis.

The other is a different sort of quest — this one for meaning and fulfillment — with unruly Bacchus an unlikely guide. The competition here is more subtle and inward-looking, but the rewards are much greater (another lesson of the story).

Both quests are important from an economic standpoint, but it is only the second one that has the potential to awaken a new kind of audience for the pleasures of wine by waking up the Bacchus inside us all.

What [Wine] Women Want

I’m always interested in the questions my students ask about wine and so I look forward to their final papers, where they have pretty much free rein to pick the questions and search for answers. My Fall 2008 class seemed to be particularly concerned about what I think of as ethical questions – wine and the environment, for example, and fair trade wine. I wrote about their papers here.

My Fall 2009 group was very different in terms of their interests and “wine personalities” — and they were disproportionately female — and their choice of paper topics reflected these facts.

All in the Family

Three questions attracted more than one student’s interest and so are worth noting here. Marc and Isabelle both wrote on the future of family wineries. They are both business majors and interested in the fact that an unusual number of wineries, including very large ones like Gallo, Boisset and Yellow Tail, are family firms not private partnerships (The Wine Group) or public corporations (Constellation Brands).

Their papers examined the problems and limitations of family-owned businesses and what industry-specific advantages might account for the success of family wineries.

Wine, Women and their Health

Two students, Kelly and Libbie, decided to use their backgrounds in science to probe questions about wine and health in more detail than is typically seen. Kelly wrote on the chemistry of the “red wine paradox” while Libbie examined the question of whether pregnant women should drink wine. The conventional wisdom, of course, is that moderate wine consumption (2-3 glasses per day, especially red wine and especially with meals) provides positive health benefits except for pregnant women, who are specifically told to avoid any alcohol on government-mandated warning labels.

The research papers showed that the health issue is more complex than is generally appreciated and provided a surprising answer to the question, should expectant mothers drink wine? Although there are obvious problems with excessive alcohol consumption, research studies indicate that very modest wine consumption (in the range of one glass a couple of times a week, as I recall) can provide health benefits to both mother and baby.

It is obviously a delicate balance, however, and the fact of rising alcohol levels in wine (which I wrote about here) makes getting the balance right increasingly problematic.

What Do [Young] Women Really Want?

Two of my favorite papers were written by young women who wanted to know more about how wine companies tailor their marketing to their particular demographic. Elyse examined marketing to the so-called Millennial generation and Anna focused on wine brands designed to appeal to young women like herself. Women purchase more wine than men and young women are the key wine buyers of the future, so it makes sense that wine companies would try to target and develop this market.

Anna identified the wine brand pictured above as an example of marketing to young women. She noted that brand name, the choice of colors and several other factors made Bitch wine particularly attractive to young women wine buyers, especially those who are new to wine. Take a close look at the label and I think you’ll see what Anna is talking about. Pink label, sewing (female stereotype) imagery, Bitch rhymes with stitch, even the little hearts and crosses that suggest needlepoint.

Bitch Bitch Bitch

She called particular attention to the back label. Some wines use the back label to provide production details or tasting notes. Bitch wine, however, just says “Bitch bitch bitch bitch …” and so on.

Would Anna buy Bitch wine? Probably not. She found the packaging appealing, but the lack of more detailed information about the wine itself was a real negative. She might have tried it a few months ago, she said, but after taking our class she knew too much about wine (and asked too many questions) to respond positively to this marketing scheme even though the imagery attracted her.

Bitch seems to be wine for women who are beginners in wine, she said,  and Anna isn’t a beginner any more.

Olive Garden and the Future of American Wine

How an investigation into trends in restaurant wine sales leads to an unexpected discovery.

Reading Down the Wine List

Everyone knows that restaurant wine sales are down as the recession has reduced both the number of diners and their willingness to spend a lot of money on wine. One of the best sources of news on restaurant wine sales is the Wine & Spirits magazine annual restaurant issue, which surveys selected wine-friendly restaurants and reports sales trends.

The W&S data give only part of the picture, however, since they tend to survey restaurants with more sophisticated wine-enthusiast customers. What’s happen to wine sales a bit further down the food chain?

Two studies by Ronn Wiegand (publisher and Master of Wine) in the current issue of Restaurant Wine report that US restaurant wine sales were off by 5.5 percent by volume  in 2008 while sales of the Top 100 wines fell by just 3.5 percent. This suggests some consolidation in this sector, which will make sense once I tell you what the best selling wines are.

The drop in restaurant wine sales overall is less than the numbers I’ve seen for upscale restaurants. One reason for this discrepancy as I understand it  is that Wiegand’s figures come from distributors, who report sales to all restaurants and on-premises establishments, not just purchases by select restaurants. So this gives us a picture of the broader market.

America’s Best Selling Restaurant Wines

Upscale restaurants of the sort that receive Wine Spectator awards get the most attention in the press, but casual dining restaurants are where the volume of wine sales is greatest. The top ten individual wines (by volume not value of sales) in 2008 were (drum roll) …

  1. Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay
  2. Cavit Pinot Grigio
  3. Beringer White Zinfandel
  4. Sutter Home White Zin
  5. Inglenook Chablis
  6. Ecco Domani Pinot Grigio
  7. Mezzacorona Pinot Grigio
  8. Copper Ridge Chardonnay
  9. Yellow Tail Chardonnay
  10. Franzia White Zin

None of these is an expensive wine and the #1 K-J is probably the costliest of the lot. The best selling restaurant (“on-premises”) wines are high-volume, widely-distributed inexpensive wines – just the sort that recession-ravaged consumers who want to trade down (in terms of price) and switch over (to a more relaxed view of wine) might find appealing.

Using the rule of thumb that a glass of restaurant wine sells for about the wholesale price of the bottle, these wines would sell from about $5 (for the Sutter Home) to maybe $8 (for the K-J Chard) per glass — and I suspect that a lot of this wine is sold by the glass. An affordable luxury, as they say.

Who Sells the Most Restaurant Wine (and How)?

If you are someone who dines mainly at three star restaurants where the wine list is really a leather-bound book that is handled with biblical reverence (and White Zinfandel must be a typographical error), the facts I’ve just stated about what America drinks when it dines out are probably pretty discouraging. But don’t give up hope just yet.

If you want to see the state of the art in American restaurant wine programs, follow your nose in the direction of the local shopping mall and get in line for a table at Olive Garden. Olive Garden’s 691 restaurants sell more wine than any other restaurant chain in the United States and its sales and education programs are a positive part of the transformation of American wine culture. Olive Garden is the optimistic future of American restaurant wine.

How does Olive Garden, a chain best known for its bottomless salad bowl and endless supply of tasty bread-sticks, sell so much wine (half a million cases in 2006, according to one source, probably much more than that today)? The short answer is education. Americans like wine and enjoy having it with food, but they are intimidated by everything about wine and need education before they are comfortable embracing wine. You’ve gotta learn ‘em before you can turn ‘em (into mainstream wine consumers).

The educational process at Olive Garden starts with staff, the people who are best placed to influence customer choice. Early on, Olive Garden established a relationship with the family that owns Rocca delle Macie winery in Tuscany. Specially selected staff travel to Italy each year to live, shop, eat, drink, cook and in general soak up knowledge and experience that can be used and shared back home — a  nice employee incentive that pays off in higher wine sales.

Back home, in partnership with several California wineries, Olive Garden has established a similar institute in Napa Valley.  Many restaurants expect that their wait-staff will pick up wine knowledge – Olive Garden really works at it by providing literally hundreds of thousands of hours of training. Of course, it has the chain-wide scale to make this investment pay off.

Selling Wine By Giving It Away

So Olive Garden staff are likely to know their wine list (37 wines from Italy, California, Washington and Australia, 35 of which are available by the glass) and which wines match well with different dishes, but how to you get patrons to try them – and especially to move out of their comfort zone and try something new?

The answer is … wait for it … to give away free samples! Patrons at many Olive Garden restaurants (this is America — local regulations vary) are offered small samples of different wines along with advice on menu pairing. The Italian house wines are the Pincipato brand made by Cavit that sells for $5.35 a glass and $32 for a 1.5 liter bottle meant to be shared family-style. Bottle prices of other wines range from $21 for the Sutter Home White Zin on up to $110 for Bertani Amarone. Most choices are in the $24-$34 range.

Olive Garden takes the free sample idea seriously, giving away 30,000 cases of wine in 2006 and presumably more today. That’s about 3-4 million tastes, according to my back-of-the envelope calculation. And it’s worth it, both in terms of wine sales and customer satisfaction. Customers like the wine, once they’d had a chance to try it, Olive Garden says, and it helps them enjoy the whole family dining experience more. No argument here — I can see how having one of those 1.5 liter bottles on the table would help a family relax and enjoy their meals.

The Olive Garden website continues the education process for customers who develop an interest, with basic Wine 101 information along with an interactive guide to pairing specific wines with particular menu items.

Confidence Game: Olive Garden, Costco and Trader Joe’s

The Olive Garden system sells wine, obviously, and it sells the idea of wine in a very healthy way. Olive Garden customers are more likely to try new wines and have fun with wine, I think, because they trust the Olive Garden brand.

Olive Garden has obviously invested a lot in its wine program and in research about what will appeal to its customers. There is less perceived risk in trying something new at Olive Garden. This is perhaps especially  important in selling some of the Italian wines, where both the producer (Mandra Rossa, for example, or Arancio) and wine name (Fiano or Nero d”Avola) would be unfamiliar to most diners.

In a way, Olive Garden has the same advantage when it comes to selling wine as Trader Joe’s and Costco. The seller’s trusted brand gives buyers confidence in making an otherwise uncertain purchase.

Olive Garden is big enough and smart enough to make the investment required to pursue this wine strategy. It’s a good thing in terms of the development of a healthy American wine culture, but it does contribute to the consolidation of the industry noted at the start of this post. Olive Garden needs large, reliable supplies of each wines to make its system work (minimum quantity 7500 cases, I think), which rules out smaller producers.

But Olive Garden doesn’t have to be everything to everyone and there is plenty of room in the marketplace for other types of restaurants and wine programs. If Olive Garden helps introduce middle America to a healthy idea of wine, it will have done a great service.  And I think that’s exactly what’s happening.

Will Wine Jump the Shark?

To jump the shark means to go ridiculously over the top in a desperate attempt to stay relevant.  The term derives from a famously terrible episode of Happy Days where a character called The Fonz jumped over a dangerous shark on water skis (Fonzie wore the skis, not the shark, in case that wasn’t very clear).  The stunt was supposed to keep viewers glued to their screens, but it ultimately failed to delay the perhaps inevitable demise of this long-running classic TV series.

Wine Comes to Reality TV

Fonzie jumps the shark

Fonzie jumps the shark

I wonder if the recent wine boom has reached the point where it “jumps the shark” — turns from a positive long term trend to a self-destructive short term craze.  You never know when this could happen.  The rising interest in wine, the growing number of wineries, and the fantastic popularity of wine lifestyle products continues with no end in sight.  Maybe it’s more than a rising trend — maybe it’s become a bubble.

I was worried for a while about the celebrity wine phenomenon.  Maybe this was the start of the sort of silliness that culminates in a shark-jumping, bubble-popping tragedy (to mix metaphors rather extravagantly).  But, having thought about it a while, I’m not so concerned (see next blog entry).  I am not entirely comfortable with celebrity wine, but I don’t think it does any particular harm.  But now there’s this: wine is about to enter a  more terrifying terrain of popular culture, one that lies beyond simple celebrity:  reality TV.  This has me worried about the future of wine.   Very worried.

You Can Almost Blame the French

A press release arrived yesterday from the Côtes du Rhône winemakers industry association.  They are pleased to announce that they are the sponsors of The Wine Makers, a reality competition television show that will be aired in early January 2009 on — get this — PBS, America’s national public television network.

As near as I can tell from the website and YouTube.com videos, The Wine Makers will be a lot like those other television reality shows such as Top Chef and Project Runway.  A dozen aspiring winemakers from all walks of life are selected (from a pool of over 500 applicants) to gather in Paso Robles, California for a set of competitions. Someone will be ejected from the contest each week until there is only one winemaker left.  The winner’s prize includes the opportunity to launch a wine label and a trip to France.  Celebrity judges from the world of wine appear each week to vote contestants off of the vineyard or out of the cellar.  You know how it works.

The downside of this project is easy to see:  making wine is reduced to a silly competition among amateurs and semi-amateurs.  We are encouraged to root for and against these contestants and cheer or moan when their inevitable errors force them off the show.  Reality shows generally highlight personalities and play up conflict.  They sometimes focus more on the harsh realities of life than the happy ones. Needless to say I wasn’t too thrilled to imagine wine trivialized in this way when I read the press release.  And I wasn’t very happy with the French, either, for sponsoring the show.

It is interesting to speculate about the  motives of the Rhone Valley winemakers in sponsoring this project.  The contestants won’t be making Rhone wines, of course — the show is set in California and Rhone wines can only be made in France — but it sounds like they will be making what are sometimes called Rhone Ranger wines — New World wines made from Rhone valley varietals like Syrah and Viognier.  Perhaps, in a rather unexpected turnabout, the French producers hope to raise their profile in the U.S. through sponsored association with New World Rhone wine wannabes.  Hmmm.  I guess I’ll have to wait and see how that plays out!

No Wine Before Its Time

And maybe I should withhold judgment about the whole reality show idea, too.  On one hand, I am put off by the idea of a reality winemaking competition.  On the other hand, the show’s producers promise that the competition will lead us through all of the stages of making wine.  So maybe there will be a significant educational component and instead of trivializing wine it will make us better informed about it.  I am all in favor of wine education and if it comes packaged in a reality TV format, well that might be OK.

I guess I will have to watch the show to find out.  Will I come away feeling like I’ve closed my wine knowledge gap with Master of Wine Jancis Robinson just a little?  Or will I feel more like The Fonz, speeding recklessly across the lake toward a ski jump and shark pool dressed only in a pair of Speedos and a motorcycle jacket?  I guess only time will tell.

Check you local PBS listings for The Wine Makers in January 2009. Are you interesting in being a contestant in the planned second season of the show?  If so, visit the website to learn how to apply.

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