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Thanks, and No Thanks
By Linda Murphy
Nov 10, 2009
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I’m written dozens of wines-for-Thanksgiving stories, including one for the San Francisco Chronicle, which told readers where they could buy wine on Thanksgiving Day.  I was surprised to learn just how many wine shops are open on the holiday, saving the day for procrastinating shoppers. 

This isn’t that kind of column.  Instead, I’m giving thanks -- and no, thanks -- for some wine-related developments in 2009 that had me thinking about more than just what wine to serve with turkey and fixings.

It’s been a turkey of a year, for sure, with masses of people losing their jobs, houses, life savings and security, both economical and emotional.  While wine is a miniscule part of the equation, it can also be a salve, a beverage that brings families and friends together at meals, even in tough times.  If all one can afford is top ramen, enjoy it with a glass of Riesling. 

California bottles priced $50 and above are, as business analysts say, “dead” in this economy.  The Screaming Eagles and Harlan Estates still have waiting lists of buyers, yet some of California’s self-proclaimed “cult” wines, particularly $75-and-up Cabernet Sauvignons, are languishing in warehouses, the demand for them having evaporated as consumers dial in on value.  Sales of wines priced $15 and less have soared, and industry trend-watchers say U.S. consumers are drinking as much wine as they did a year ago, yet are spending less for it. 

Makers of high-end wines who have deep pockets and patience might see their wines become coveted again when the economy bounces back.  But when it does, will Americans have changed their wine-buying habits, choosing delicious wines at reasonable prices over more expensive wines with cachet, even when they can afford the latter?

The magic 8-ball says check back later.  For now, I give thanks … and no, thanks:

Thanks: To California winemakers who have, and continue to, bottle great-value wines that taste great, for $15 or less.  Bogle, Don Sebastiani & Sons, Dry Creek Vineyard, Geyser Peak, Hess Select, Kendall Jackson Vintners Reserve and many more have played the bargain-wine game for years and won over consumers for quality and consistency.  They’re here to stay.

No, thanks: To the recent flood of generic $$8 to $12 California wines made to take advantage of consumers’ thirst for bargains, and to give producers a place to absorb their excess grapes.  These wines have a “California” appellation, which means the grapes could have come from anywhere in the state, and have brand names so generic that it’s clear marketers didn’t spend much time on branding.  There is nothing wrong with these wines, yet they are boring versions of Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, and pretty much all taste the same.  They’re Two Buck Chuck “good,” yet sell for eight bucks more a bottle, and they’ll disappear when the flood of wine recedes.

Thanks: To producers who have kept the weight of their glass bottles moderate all along, and those who have reduced the heft of their bottles -- thus reducing their carbon emissions, and freight and shipping costs which are, of course, passed on to consumers.  Dry Creek Vineyard in Sonoma County, which I took to task here last year for putting its Endeavour Cabernet Sauvignon in a bottle I could barely lift, is scaling back (bravo!), as are many others. 

No, thanks: To those whose bottles weigh 4 or more pounds when filled.  Ego is at play here, as well as transmission of the message that the more “serious” the bottle, the better the wine.  There is no truth to that message.  Lighten up, everybody, and reduce your costs and carbon emissions. 

Thanks: To wineries that embrace organic/biodynamic/sustainable methods, installed solar panels, reduced their carbon footprints, and found natural solutions to problems.  It’s the right thing to do.

No, thanks: To wineries who think that planting cover crops and erecting owl boxes is worthy of a press release.  This is no longer news.

Thanks: To the 7-Eleven chain of convenience stores, which will stock its own wine brand, Yosemite Road, which will sell for $3.99 per bottle.  I’m for anything that gets consumers to choose wine over a bottle of Mickey’s malt liquor.  Just think of the pairing possibilities: Cabernet Sauvignon with beef jerky, Chardonnay with Corn Nuts and Sauvignon Blanc with sunflower seeds. 

Thanks: That I live in California, where direct-to-consumer wine shipments are not only permitted, they keep some wineries in business.  Vintners widely report that while their business through the traditional three-tier system has dropped during the recession, business through their tasting rooms and wine clubs has increased over 2008.  In times like these, there is such a thing as consumer loyalty.

No, thanks: Amazon.com’s decision to abandon its much-publicized plan to sell wine over the Internet.  The recent financial failure of its fulfillment partner, New Vine Logistics in Napa Valley -- the ship that was to navigate the complex alcohol sales laws in each state for Amazon -- scared off the world’s largest online merchant.  If Amazon can’t do it, can anyone find a way to ship wines to people in all 50 states?
Thanks: That alcohol levels of California wines seem to be creeping downward, based in part on generally cooler vintages, and pressure from consumers, retailers and media to keep alcohols below 15 percent.

No, thanks: To the California Zinfandels that continue to clock in at 16 percent alcohol and higher.  I find most of them undrinkable.

No, thanks: To Champagne producers, whose response to the global sales slowdown of expensive wines is to reduce production amounts, rather than lower the prices of their wines.  Shipments of Champagne to the United States were down 50 percent from January through May 2009, yet prices remained unchanged, because image is everything with Champagne, and to slash prices would tarnish that image.

Thanks: To Gloria Ferrer, Iron Horse, Mumm Napa, Roederer Estate, Scharffenberger and Schramsberg for producing California sparkling wines that are as fine as Champagne, and for most of the bottlings, much lower-priced.

Thanks: To U.S. charity wine auctions.  No matter how one feels about the extravagant parties, dinners and auction lots only millionaires can afford, there is no denying that proceeds from these upper-crust events, including Auction Napa Valley and the Naples (Fla.) Winter Wine Auction, hugely benefit their communities, paying for social services that would not otherwise be available.

No, thanks: To those cranks who complain that charity wine auctions exist only for the wealthy, and write angry e-mails when results of big-money auctions are published.  I’ve received more than my share of such missives, and I try to remind the authors that the hospital equipment used by their doctor, or the athletic fields upon which their kids play, might have been made possible by auction proceeds.

Big thanks: To vintner generosity.  In Healdsburg, where I live, the Wetzel family of Alexander Valley Vineyards donated $2 million to Healdsburg District Hospital, which was used to build a new emergency room named after the Wetzels.  I’ve yet to need the service, but I’m comforted knowing it’s there.  The late Rodney Strong, founder of Rodney Strong Vineyards, left $2.4 million to the Healdsburg Animal Shelter, which will open a new facility in 2010, replacing the run-down, overcrowded space from which I adopted two cats last year.  Philanthropy is important to many winery owners, and to the communities in which they live.  And what other industry donates as much product as the wine industry, which helps charitable organizations and schools raise money? I’m thankful to be involved with such a business.

And in case you’re wondering, Beaujolais, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Zinfandel, Gewurztraminer and Riesling are terrific for the traditional Thanksgiving table.  They work with tofurkey, too.