Join the (wine) club? Part two.

Yesterday I started thinking and writing about wine clubs, with which I lack personal experience. I’ve gotten oodles of introductory offers over the years, and their initial shipment deals always look enticing. Today, in fact, a mailing from Laithwaites offers 15 bottles (representing 9 different reds) for $90 ($69.99 for the wine plus $19.99 shipping).

But surely not all wine clubs are created equal, and I have lots of questions. For instance:

Most importantly, are the wines – often labels that are unfamiliar – decent and do delightful discoveries abound?

  • How good is a club’s customer service?
  • Are the tasting notes discerning and well written, and any extra goodies that come along (wine openers, etc.) well made?
  • Once you get beyond the teaser-rate initial shipment prices, are club wines a bargain compared to retail prices for similar quality?
  • Would wine-snob friends be happy with the offerings if given a gift subscription?

So far, the best consolidated location I’ve found to compare and contrast wine clubs that are not specific to a particular winery is E-wineClubs.com. They’ve reviewed and ranked 30 clubs, but the reviews appear to be from 2011.

For winery-operated clubs, fresh market intelligence will be generated this year, thanks to a survey just announced by the Wine Market Council – a winery-dominated trade association that tracks U.S. wine consumer attitudes and behavior. But survey results will be targeted to club sponsors rather than consumers.

Wine club members, past and present, please weigh in! What are your caveats? Your recommendations? Help the rest of us navigate through this expanding universe of wine clubs.

Join the (wine) club? Part one.

I have no personal experience with subscription-model wine clubs. I have feared that selections will be disappointing, that I could do better making my own choices. At the same time, I know many clubs offer labels not typically available to retail buyers and at prices that can be attractive.

So maybe I’m wrongly biased and, if I picked the right club(s), I’d broaden my vinicultural horizons immeasurably.

Most wine clubs are one of two types: winery-sponsored clubs, through which a particular producer can deliver bottles, often those for which it can’t get retail distribution, directly to consumers; and unaffiliated clubs that source from multiple producers.

In the second category, a few clubs are associated with non-wine brands (e.g., Zagat, New York Times, Wall Street Journal) and some offer a specialized selection (kosher, sparkling wine, non-U.S., for example). NOTE: the Zagat and WSJ clubs are supplied by the same retailer, New Jersey-based The Wine Cellar.

Most clubs give subscribers some options – setting red versus white preferences, adjusting the delivery frequency – and make it easy to cancel at any time.

But clubs have pitfalls, notably around shipping: many are restricted in the states to which they can ship, and I can’t discern a coherent pattern to the limitations. For instance, Zagat ships to Massachusetts residents but Cellars Wine Club cannot. Wine of the Month Club apparently ships by wagon train to Massachusetts, as its site warns those residents to expect three- to five-week delivery times. The New York Times Wine Club notes that, in Indiana, it can ship only to certain ZIP codes. Utah and Pennsylvania residents (among others), you’re pretty much out of luck.

Tomorrow I’ll have more to say – and to ask you, dear readers – about wine clubs. In the meantime, does anyone have a wine club shipping story or lesson to share?

It’s a wine opener. No, a wine preserver. Or maybe . . .

What about both in one? I just read about Coravin, an ingenious new device that enables the extraction of wine from a bottle without pulling the cork, while simultaneously preserving the bottle’s remaining contents. For those of us who keep a bottle going over several days, this tool sounds like progress.

The Boston Globe yesterday described how Greg Lambrecht’s quest for a better wine-saver solution led him to invent one himself. An M.I.T.-educated nuclear engineer and owner of a medical device manufacturer, Lambrecht figured out how to draw wine out through a needle that pierces the cork, and to introduce an inert gas – in this case, argon – to pressurize the bottle. With this system, the oxygen that causes wine to deteriorate never enters the bottle.

Starting this week the Coravin 1000 system, including two argon capsules, is available for sale on the company’s website.

But is it affordable or practical? The introductory model costs $299. Coravin can raise the standard for quality at restaurants and wine bars committed to serving only the freshest by-the-glass offerings. And it gives collectors an exciting new ability to sample from the same bottle repeatedly, over months or years, so they can experience aging in real time.

Yet the system doesn’t solve the oxidation problem for screw-cap bottles. And, until Lambrecht produces a cheaper model, most consumers will likely stick with a less-expensive wine-preservation option such as Vacu-Vin.

I’m delighted, though, that entrepreneurial drive and scientific know-how are being applied to improve the wine-drinking experience for us all. Thanks, Greg Lambrecht!

Have corkscrew, will travel?

Last week I wrote about buying wine while you’re on the road, which raises the issue of traveling with corkscrew in tow. Going by car, bus or rail, the corkscrew question is merely a matter of personal preference. But when going by air, the opaque and sometimes-changing TSA rules for prohibited carry-on items should make some travelers carefully consider their packing lists.

When I fly and I’m going to check my bag, I don’t hesitate to pack a corkscrew (generally the cheap one I picked up in Paris years ago) inside.

Cheap-o corkscrew for travel

Cheap-o corkscrew for travel

Some veteran flyers say simple pulls are safe to bring in your hand luggage; others insist that standard waiter’s corkscrews – those with retractable foil-cutting knives – are now okay since the TSA earlier this year revised its list of prohibited items to allow carrying on blades shorter than four inches.

My advice, given screeners’ discretionary powers and aversion to sharp objects, is to pack a corkscrew in your carry-on only if you don’t care if you have to surrender it at the check point.

In any case, once I’ve arrived at my destination, I’m always glad I brought along my three wine-related travel essentials: aforementioned corkscrew; Vacu-Vin pump; and a rubber stopper (or two).

Vacu-Vin pump and stopper

Vacu-Vin pump and stopper

To my fellow corkscrew-toting travelers, can you pass along any air-travel advice or anecdotes?

In defense of rosé

>Rose1

Eric Asimov’s “Wines of the Times” column yesterday relayed the apparently pervasive disdain wine professionals have for rosé wines. Asimov does not count himself in this contingent, and expressed appreciation for this wine type in general and for specific bottles he and his sommelier tasting team sampled for the column.

But if the dismissive attitudes of Asimov’s tasters represent the consensus view in the industry, I’d like to offer a counter opinion.

First, there is a reason many wine drinkers enjoy – and some even adore – rosé. Rosés in the bottle are beautiful to look at, so it follows that sipping them is an aesthetically pleasurable experience for many people. (Studies have demonstrated that the color of substances we consume affects how they taste to us.)

Second, the variety of rosés being produced has exploded over the past few years, offering casual drinkers as well as serious connoisseurs a range of wines never available before. Many adventurous drinkers are delighted to explore these new choices, a number of which are priced below $15.

Provence used to hold a near-monopoly on rosé production, and its standard grape blend usually included some mix of Grenache, Syrah, Cinsault and Mourvèdre. This southern region of France continues to turn out what are arguably the world’s highest quality rosés but its monopoly has certainly evaporated. This summer’s Sherry-Lehmann catalogue, besides its Provençal selections, lists rosés from the Rhône, Vaucluse and Bordeaux regions of France, along with Argentina, Spain, South Africa, Sicily, Lebanon, Long Island, Napa and Sonoma – and this roster is far from exhaustive.

These new production areas mean that rosé is now being made with red varietals never before associated with this wine type – Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec and more.

Is all of this wine great or even good? No, but the same is true for reds and whites.

Do all of the rosés now on offer adhere to a “standard” style? Not at all, given the numerous regional and grape varieties involved. Some wine experts may insist that rosé should fit an aperitif profile, that is, light, with mineral tones. But why must there be orthodoxy? Why can’t a diversity of rosé styles evolve?

Wine makers are responding to consumer demand by producing more of it. A story published last year in Yahoo News stated that Nielsen Company reported a 14% year-over-year increase in 2011 in the U.S. sales, by volume, of rosé, marking the seventh consecutive year of growth.

Just because it’s popular doesn’t mean it’s bad.

Wine aficionados get political

When it comes to influencing state laws controlling the wine industry, lobbyists have traditionally hailed from the ranks of wine producers, wine retailers, wine wholesalers and wine distributors. As of late June, wine drinkers now have their own voice, through a new organization called the American Wine Consumer Coalition (AWCC).

In a conversation on the Huffington Post, AWCC founder and executive director Tom Wark pinpointed the impetus behind the coalition: the plethora of anti-consumer state laws that inhibit consumer choice around buying and consuming wine. As examples, he noted that Massachusetts bars the direct shipment of wine to state residents. Pennsylvania controls all retail wine sales through its network of “state stores” – although there are moves by Governor Tom Corbett and the legislature to abolish this state monopoly; stay tuned for progress on that front . . . .

Additionally, Wark pointed out, 36 states ban purchases from out-of-state retailers; 17 prohibit buying wine along with groceries; and a number of states – including my home state, Indiana – have “blue laws” that ban wine sales on Sunday.

Can a group like AWCC have any realistic hope of standardizing wine-consumer laws and regulations across the U.S. to benefit customers? It’s an ambitious mission but as long as states retain control over the laws in this realm, I am skeptical.

Nevertheless, AWCC’s Action Alerts provide informative updates on various state initiatives affecting wine sales; they’re worth reading and the group is delivering a great service by compiling them for us.

My iconic wine

Iconic1

Until I became a regular buyer and consumer of good-quality wine, my wine drinking was occasional, utterly casual, and fairly unobservant.

Sure, I’d enjoy a wine in the moment; I might even make mental note of names and labels to look for next time I was shopping.

But I was not paying attention to what made a wine distinctive; I was drinking without savoring, without appreciating who produced it or where it came from.

Then, in the early ‘90s, a particular wine became a personal habit. I tried it on the recommendation of a friend. It was not a 95-pointer, not lauded in the wine press, nor rare and/or expensive. Yes, it was an import, which set it somewhat apart from garden-variety California wines of a similar price (it went for around $7 back then; it currently sells for not much more).

But what made this wine special for me was that it marked the beginning of my wine education. For the first time, I really paid attention to a wine’s sensory attributes – its color, taste and aroma. I learned the story of its ownership and noted its French connections. Its story made the wine more interesting than if I hadn’t known, and helped stamp it with distinctiveness.

With a similar curiosity I began seeking out other wines. The wine experience engaged me on multiple levels – intellectual as well as sensual. I embraced the pre-shopping research, the wine store browsing, and of course the ultimate reward, the tasting and the drinking.

Did this particular wine change me? It certainly played a role; it’s a great-value wine and reliable choice for everyday drinking. Rather, I think it’s better described as a catalyst that set me on a delightful journey that continues today.

The wine? Los Vascos Cabernet Sauvignon, from Chile’s Colchagua province.

It’s been awhile since it was my go-to red, but I’m eager to try it again. Stay tuned; I’ve just picked up a bottle and I’ll be passing along my tasting notes soon.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear about wines that are special to you and why!

Corks or caps?

Caps & corks

Lately I’ve encountered a number of wines sealed with screw-top caps rather than corks, probably because I’m deliberately drinking mostly $15-and-under wines these days. But price along with provenance are becoming less and less predictive of a given wine’s use of cap or cork.

Nearly all the South African wines I’ve tried recently employ screw caps. Many Australian and New Zealand producers have switched to caps as well.

Even the French are evolving! At Amanda’s Restaurant in Hoboken the other night, our 2010 Matrot Bourgogne Blanc was capped. The wine was delicious but we couldn’t help feeling that the quick twist of the wrist by our server sapped all the romance out of the bottle-opening ceremony.

A few wine regions are sure to resist the growing move to caps. You won’t find a Rioja that is not bottled with a natural cork, thanks to Spanish law requiring use of natural corks in order to secure D.O. status. (Spain, a major cork producer, in recent years has surpassed Portugal to become the world’s largest producer of cork.)

We’ve heard the arguments, cap versus cork, including the fact that corks (natural as well as synthetic) can break down, causing oxidation and other spoilage of bottle contents; that caps are cheaper and easier to use but may not engender graceful aging of fine wines.

The technical debate may get partially settled by a study now underway at UC-Davis. Natural cork-, synthetic cork- and cap-sealed bottles of 2011 CADE Sauvignon Blanc are being monitored – and tasted! – for oxidation and other chemical changes. Results are due out the end of this year. Even so, the question of how metal caps influence long-term cellaring may need continued investigation.

For me, caps are fine but I expect I’ll always prefer the satisfying pull and pop of natural cork.