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Store-Brand Wine and Beer Sales on the Rise

According to market research firm IBISWorld senior analyst Steven Connell, Australian consumers are lapping up private label wines from big retailers Coles and Woolworths (the leading retailer in Australia). IBISWorld projects that 10% of Australia's domestic wine sales will be own-brand by 2013.

While I don't doubt his numbers, and this trend mirrors that of other products globally — from groceries to video game accessories — I don't completely buy his verbal analysis: "Drinkers have more choice and a more cultured taste. They will try more products and are more sensitive to price."

More choice; yes. Try more products; perhaps. More sensitive to price; undoubtedly. More cultured taste? That's debatable. Certainly, even here in the United States, at stores such as Trader Joe's, we see consumers buying private label bottles that hold excellent wines which have been sold to the store due to excess production. The private label deals allow wineries to get some cash for wine they can't sell at traditional retail prices due to the econony — and they can do so without hurting the wineries' own brands through drastic disounting. But, by and large, these bottles are selling because of price and the trust that consumers have in Trader Joe's selections, not because the consumers' "cultured taste" somehow divined that the mystery wine was going to be excellent.


I'm not dissing consumers, but the purchasing habits of various consumer segments are fairly consistent. Price shoppers shop price. While quality is of some concern to them, these consumers are sensitive to very small increments in price. They are also much less loyal to brands, in part because their previous buying decisions have also been based on price rather than brand. Clearly, if they try a new wine based on price and decide that it's complete swill, they won't buy more. But, they will very likely accept a somewhat lower level of quality in exchange for a dollar or two of savings. And, frankly, these consumers have become very accustomed to sweet, uncomplicated wines and would likely prefer those to higher-quality wines with unusual flavors or perceptible tannins. Woolworth's say that their own-brand wines are undercutting those of comparable quality by up to $5. That is a huge and motivating price delta in a product segment that tops out at roughly $15. Fortunately for these consumers, and for the stores, it's easier than ever before to create boring, yet friendly, fruit-centric wines at very low cost. [via Herald Sun]

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Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for breaking wine news, information on events and more. Become a fan and join the NorCal Wine community on Facebook. Also check outour comprehensive Northern California winery listings. They are very useful for planning a tasting trip or just getting in touch with a winery.

This article is original to Photos by Fred Swan. Copyright 2010 NorCal Wine. All rights reserved. Photo by Joe.

Avoiding Hometown Palate aka Throwing a Dinner Party

When Grand Prix motorcycle racers crash and go sliding down the track on their back, they have to be very careful when standing up. Their brain has become accustomed to the high speeds of racing and can trick them into believing that they have stopped moving while they are still sliding at 25 mph. If they tried to stand up at that speed, their boots could catch on the ground flipping them upright and then down, face first, into the pavement very hard. That would be a very painful lesson in the importance of a sound frame of reference.

Tasting wine is a low-speed activity and, as long as one doesn’t overindulge, risk of injury is extremely low. However, having a good and extensive frame of reference is still vital. There is great diversity in California’s grape varieties, terroir and winemaking styles. On the other hand, any Sauvignon Blanc wine from Napa Valley you might try is probably more similar to one from another quality growing area in California than it is to one from Marlborough or Sancerre. I make a concerted effort to taste a wide variety of wines from other parts of the world because those wines provide important points of reference for evaluating the qualities and value propositions for the wines of California. It is also rewarding from a personal standpoint because there are so many great and interesting wines made in other parts of the world.

Fitting “perspective” wines into my schedule can be difficult though. I don’t like to waste wine or money by opening something interesting for a quick sip and then dumping the rest, so there’s only so much I can taste by myself on a routine basis. The most enjoyable way to solve this problem is to throw big dinner parties for friends.

My wife and I did this just the other night. A great time was had by all and we tasted a lot of excellent wines. In preparing the menu, we didn’t obsess over wine pairings either. We just put out a lot of tasty, hearty food and opened wines that would stand up for themselves. It worked out just fine.

Nothing says “welcome” like sparkling wine, so we greeted our guests with Champagne:
NV Gosset Brut Excellence
(12% alc.)
Inexpensive for good Champagne at just $30, the Gosset is refreshingly crisp because it doesn’t go through malolactic fermentation. The freshness makes it an excellent palate cleanser and appropriate for a warm summer evening. It has enough depth of flavor to go well with lightly savory foods.

NV Billecart-Salmon Brut Rosé (12% alc.)
Rosé Champagnes are more expensive than their pale counterparts and the Billecart-Salmon, which is among my favorites, sells for around $70. The color is a very pretty salmon pink and the body and flavors are on the light side for rosés, gently crisp rather than creamy. It’s nice to sip its own but still has the heft to go with hors d’oeuvres. It’s excellent with mousse made from salmon or foie gras.

With hors d'oeuvres:
2000 Voyager Estate Semillon, Margaret River Australia
(14% alc.)
This is a wine I got at the winery and hand-carried back from Australia. It was less than $20 Australian at release, probably about $12 U.S. From one of the cooler regions in Australia, there’s always a fair amount of green on the nose and palate of this wine. But it’s an interesting and attractive green. When young, it’s grassy and tropically green. After ten years in my cool cellar it is still drinking very well. Some of the freshest fruit had subsided and an aroma of pine resin had emerged. This isn’t a shy wine and worked very well with the hummus, babaganoush, toasted pita and olives we had laid out for pre-dinner snacks, which is exactly why I’d opened it.

2005 Smith Haut Lafitte Blanc, Graves (13.5% alc.)
A Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc blend with evident yet not excessive oak treatment, this wine is drinking great right now and evolves quickly in the glass. To start, oak-derived flavors and matchstick were prevalent, but lovely white peach soon emerged. It was an interesting contrast to the Voyager Semillon which preceded it. People, such as myself, who complain about the price of California Sauvignon Blanc blends when they get over $30 or so should take note that this wine, a respected Bordeaux Blanc, goes for around $80.

This is a photo of the vineyard at Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte I took from my balcony when I stayed there a couple of years ago.

2000 Remoissenet Pére & Fils Puligny-Montrachet Les Combettes (14% alc.)
This was brought by a friend to whom we were all grateful; it’s an excellent wine. A white Burgundy with generous oak treatment, it had a lot of the flavors you’d expect from a California Chardonnay. It stopped well short of too thick, too oaky, too sweet or too anything though and wore the flavors like a silk gown. It was fleshy, but the richness was kept in shape by mouthwatering fruit. There was no sign of oxidation (which is sometimes an issue with white Burgundy of that period) and it seems like it still has some good years ahead of it.

For the main courses:
2003 Staglin Family Vineyard Sangiovese “Stagliano” Estate Vineyard Rutherford, Napa Valley
(14.8% alc.)
Well, I couldn’t avoid California entirely! I pulled this one out of the cellar because I thought it might go well with our dinner. One of the side dishes was a smoky tasting combination of cooked tomato and grilled eggplant. Sangiovese usually pairs well with rich tomato dishes and I didn’t have any Italian Sangiovese of a proper age. Perhaps that was fortunate, because everybody loved this wine. Some folks might have been concerned that, at seven years old, this wine would be past its prime. On the contrary, it was still extremely fresh with gorgeous plum, red fruit and a rich, silky mouthfeel. It went very well with both the tomato dish and the garlic- and dill-marinated, grilled leg of lamb. And it didn’t overwhelm the grilled chicken breast either.

1999 Veritas Winery Shiraz Mourvedre “Pressings, Binder’s Bull’s Blood” Barossa Valley, Australia (14% alc.)
This wine was a nice counterpoint to the Staglin. Whereas the Sangiovese was all about silky fruit, the Veritas was earth, leather and spiced meat. As the wine sat in our glasses fruit, including dried plum, emerged. It was also yet another good example of Shiraz from Australia that isn’t jammy and over-oaked. There have been loads of really good wines made there, and have been for decades, but they’ve been overshadowed in the public’s perception by the huge volume of cheap, sweet wines and a few low-volume but high-profile expensive wines that focus on maximum ripeness and extraction at the price of super high alcohol. Don’t throw out the baby with the Kool-Aid!

1996 Chateau Montrose, St. Estephe, Bordeaux (12.5% alc.)
I had a quartet of this wine and wanted to open one as they are just now supposed to be entering their prime drinking window. According to Robert Parker, that window should extend for at least 15 years, so I’ll leave the rest in the cellar and not even think of opening one until the next World Cup, or perhaps the one after that. [It’s totally drinkable now, I’d just like to see how it changes.] It is a very good wine that probably would have shown even more complexity given more than the quick splash in a decanter that I gave it. Aromas and flavors of earthy, smoky black plum and currant fruit were matched with powdery tannins that are fairly well integrated at this point. In one of his notes on this wine, Parker says that it’s 72% Cabernet Sauvignon but, due to the ripeness of that fruit, tastes as if the wine includes a lot more Merlot than it does. We hadn’t seen that note prior to the tasting and we all did, in fact, peg it as mostly Merlot.

1993 Joseph Swan Vineyards Pinot Noir Steiner Vineyard, Sonoma Mountain, Sonoma County (12.1% alc)
Note the low alcohol! This wine was a stunner. The color was ruby with pink overtones and it was a bit cloudy. I suspect that it is unfiltered. There were loads of juicy strawberry on the nose and palate and enough other things going on to make it pretty interesting. You’d need a lot of willpower to swirl and sniff it over an extended period of time though. It just tastes too darned good and disappeared in a hurry. I’m really glad I’ve got another bottle or two in the cellar.

For dessert:
1969 Baixas D’Agly Rivesaltes Vin Doux Naturel
(17% alc.)
Another wine brought by a friend, this was dangerously good. A dessert wine that could have been made from any of about half-a-dozen different grapes but probably includes quite a bit of Grenache Noir, it tastes great and is far too easy to quaff for a wine with this much alcohol. It had a red-orange color and smells and tastes similar to Australian Rutherglen Tokay, though the Rivesaltes is much more restrained. I got stewed cherry, raisin, wood, cold tea and very complex spice. Though the wine is of the 1969 vintage, it will have been recently bottled, the wine quite possibly having been stored in big (20 gallon or more) glass jugs for decades. High sugar, alcohol and acidity mean that it will last for decades even now that it’s in bottle. But why wait? [I can't find a good link for this winery, but here's the wine at J.J. Buckley.]

NV R.L. Buller Rutherglen Tokay (18% alc.)
Since someone had mentioned that the Rivesaltes reminded them of Rutherglen Tokay, I just had to pull out one of those. The similarity is definitely there — especially the cold tea — though, as I mentioned above, the Rutherglen Tokay is much more concentrated. I also get a lot of sweet, stewed rhubarb and caramel that I didn’t get at all in the Rivesaltes. Rutherglen Tokay has nothing to do with the Tokay, more properly “Tokaji,” of Hungary. The Aussie wine is made with late-harvest Muscadelle grapes that are further dried, fortified early during fermentation to retain sugar levels, and then left to further concentrate in wood barrels for an extended period of time. The final product is a blend of wines from multiple vintages. It has a dark amber appearance with a slightly greenish rim and is almost like syrup. The sweetness of these wines is very, very high though it is prevented from being cloying by high acididty. That said, it’s still not a wine that you drink a lot of at one time or that would disappear as quickly as the Rivesaltes.

NV Yalumba Museum Reserve Muscat (18% alc.)
Of course once we started discussing Rutherglen Tokay, the topic of Rutherglen Muscat came up so I had to open one of those for comparison too. This particular example is from an older selection of vintages than the Buller Tokay and was therefore darker in color — nearly mahogany. While the two wines have similar levels of sugar and alcohol, the flavors and aromas are very different. Rutherglen Muscat is made from Muscat Blanc a Petits Grains, often called Muscat Canelli or Muscat Frontignan in California. This grape is distinctive for the floral and sweet white grape aromas and flavors it gives to wine. These characters give the Rutherglen Muscat what some might consider a feminine bearing while the Rutherglen Tokay is masculine. Of the two specific wines we tried, the Yalumba is definitely the highest quality, though both are quite good (in small doses — they come in 375ml bottles and we have more than half of each left).

It was a fun and tasty dinner with excellent, wide-ranging conversation. Sometimes we even talked about the wine! My favorites from the evening were the non-sparkling French whites, the California reds and the Rivesaltes. I’m looking forward to the next time I need to recalibrate my frame of reference.

If you enjoyed this article, please share it! Icons for popular sharing services are at the right above and also below.

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for breaking wine news, information on events and more. Become a fan and join the NorCal Wine community on FacebookAlso check outour comprehensive Northern California winery listings. They are very useful for planning a tasting trip or just getting in touch with a winery.

This article is original to Copyright 2010 NorCal Wine. All rights reserved

Drink with Legends, Eat Like a President

President's Day is an odd holiday. Many Americans get the day off work, but there aren't any traditional celebrations or fireworks displays. It falls too soon after Thanksgiving and "The Holidays" for another big family reunion. Mid-February is too cold for barbecues or a day at the beach. There's no scrum at the Hallmark store with people trying to find the perfect card for their favorite... president. President's Day is officially Washington's Birthday, but Abe Lincoln's birthday is just over a week earlier, so George got merged. If it weren't for those desperate car dealership owners dressing up like Washington "to attract people," our founding father wouldn't get any love at all.

All of that being the case, you probably don't have big plans for February 21, 2011, President's Day. But I do. And you can join me as I hobnob with a Who's Who of wine and food. We'll drink great wine, taste foods that have been served at State Dinners and  dishes prepared by celebrity chefs. And we will honor the careers of five people who've had a huge impact not only on California wine, but the global wine business. Doesn't that sound a lot better than a night at home with a glass of whatever's still open in the fridge from Saturday night? Yes, I know that House and The Chicago Code are on. DVR.

The gala event takes place in St. Helena at the Greystone Campus of the Culinary Institute of America (aka CIA). If you've not been there before, it's worth the trip just to check out their facilities.

The occasion is the induction of five new members to the Vintners Hall of Fame. The new inductees are: Joel Peterson (Ravenswood), Dick Graff (Chalone), August Sebastiani (Sebastiani), Bob Trinchero (Sutter Home and Trinchero wineries) and Vernon Singleton (U.C. Davis). For more information about the inductees, see this article.

The featured guest of honor is former White House Chef and CIA graduate Walter Scheib.

Luminaries who have promised to attend include winemakers, vineyard owners, winery proprietors, writers, political leaders and scholars. Here's a partial list: John Aguirre, Gerald Asher, Andy Beckstoffer, Boots Brounstein, Darrell Corti, Randall Grahm, Violet Grigich, Hal Hufsmith, Agustin Huneeus, David Kent, Darioush Khaledi, Robin Lail, Dick Maher, Mike Martini, Carole Meredith, Margrit Mondavi, Gavin Newsome, Joel Peterson, Don Sebastiani, Don Sebastiani Jr., Vernon Singleton, Garen Staglin, Bob Steinhauer, Jack Stuart, Dorothy Tchelistcheff, Mike Thompson, Bob Trinchero, Andrew Waterhouse, Warren Winiarski, and Phil Woodward. There are no velvet ropes at this event. Say "hello," shake their hand, "buy" them a drink.

Festivities start at 4:00 p.m. PST. They include a celebratory reception, featuring wines served at White House dinners, the Vintners Hall of Fame induction ceremony, and a celebrity chef walk-around dinner in the CIA at Greystone’s teaching kitchens.

Proceeds provide scholarships for the Rudd Center for Professional Wine Studies at the CIA at Greystone.

Tickets for the program are $175 ($100 tax-deductible) and may be purchased by visiting For more information on the 2011 Vintners Hall of Fame Induction celebration, please contact Cate Conniff-Dobrich, 707-967-2303 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

For more information on the Vintners Hall of Fame and to view the list of former inductees with their photos and biographies, please visit

If you enjoyed this article, please share it! Icons for popular sharing services are at the right above and also below.

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for breaking wine news, information on events and more. Become a fan and join the NorCal Wine community on FacebookAlso check outour comprehensive Northern California winery listings. They are very useful for planning a tasting trip or just getting in touch with a winery.

This article is original to Copyright 2010 NorCal Wine. Some text from Balzac Communications, used with permission. All rights reserved

Wine Bloggers in Action at the North American Wine Bloggers Conference

I'll provide my thoughts on the 2011 North American Wine Bloggers Conference in a separate article soon, as well as separate articles on my perceptions of the Virginia wine world and Charlottesville, VA as I experienced them. But for now, please enjoy a few photos of wine bloggers in action at the conference.


Wine blogger and social media master turned winemaker Hardy Wallace (Dirty South Wine, @dirtysouthwine, @dirtyandrowdy) at the opening of the 2011 North American Wine Bloggers Conference in Charlottesville Virginia.

Was Hardy a) shocked that I had a camera, b) shocked that I didn't have a wine glass, c) hoping someone would squirt wine into his mouth from a boda bag or d) just being Hardy? I'm thinking all of the above. :-)


Wine writer, wine critic, wine blogger and overall font of wine knowledge Jancis Robinson MW (, @jancisrobinson) takes notes during a session detailing the terroir of Virginia's wine country. Jancis has been not just an educator but an inspiration to countless people serious about wine. It was great to have her there.


Wine and Spirits magazine associate editor Luke Sykora shows more focus than my camera during the session on Virginia terroir at the 2011 Wine Bloggers Conference.


Luiz Alberto (The Wine Hub, @thewinehub) was illuminated by his screen and fueled by coffee Saturday morning while posting highlights from the Virginia terroir session on Twitter.


Co-organizer Joel Vincent (@joelvincent) tells us what's what before break-out sessions began on Friday in Charlottesville, Virginia. Always listen to people with halos.


Blogger Joe Herrig (Suburban Wino, @suburbanwino) captured the color of Cabernet Franc at Jefferson Vineyards outside Charlottesville, Virginia.


A bevy of bloggers and one giant head try to remain calm in the face of empty Riedel glasses at Jefferson Vineyards while winemaker Andy Reagan (far right) slowly backs away from the wineless writers.


Double Wine Blog Awards nominee Richard Jennings (RJonWine, @RJonWine) gladly accepts property from a wine thief in the barrel room at Pollak Vineyards in Greenwood, Virginia. Nick Dovel of Pollack aids and abets.

Richard's thorough, honest and provocative article on this most recent wine bloggers conference is an important read for those who attended this conference or have thoughts on attending those in the future. Through honest appraisals and the ensuing discussions we can help guide future conferences.

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for breaking wine news, information on events and more. Become a fan and join the NorCal Wine community on FacebookAlso check out our comprehensive Northern California winery listings. They are very useful for planning a tasting trip or just getting in touch with a winery.

This article is original to Copyright 2011 NorCal Wine. All rights reserved.

Measuring the Value of Wine Blogs

Do wine blogs have value? It's a hot question right now and people are taking sides. Wineries want to know how to allocate their PR and ad efforts. Print writers with dwindling roles want to know if they should go rogue, or at least round out their personal brand, by starting a blog. Magazines want to know if bloggers will kill them or make them stronger. Social media analysts want to know if blogging will be a legitimate sector in the new economy or just a distraction from real productivity. Bloggers are looking for positive reinforcement. Derrick Schneider represented the various points of view very well in the San Francisco Chronicle on Sunday.

Discussions about value inevitably turn to quantification of value. That has now generated arguments about whether or not individual wine blogs can stimulate sales through reviews of specific wines. Skeptics say no and some go on to dismiss blogs overall because it's difficult to prove that they move the needle. Proponents offer anecdotal evidence that blogs can indeed cause sales to spike. But no matter which side you take, sales generation is a very poor way to determine blog value.