Monday, February 28, 2011

The blind leading the blind

Blind tasting is great. When we decide on a new wine to import, we try to make sure it goes through a fairly rigorous blind test whereby the prospective wine is tasted blind against its peers in the market. It needs to outperform in terms of quality/price/drinkability in order for us to proceed with it. With this exercise have we avoided many pitfalls in the past.

The good thing about blind tasting is that it forces you to leave your prejudices outside the room and you just focus on what is in the bottle.

We had some friends round for dinner on Saturday night and one of them brough a bottle with all the labels steamed off and the cork removed so that all hints as to what the wine might be were removed. He even hinted that the bottle the wine was in might not be the original bottle. All with a view to catching me out...I know, I have some devious and cunning friends.

So we tasted the wine. It was a white wine, I got that much right. The nose wasn't giving too much away, but on the palate there were some muddled "white wine" flavours, muted citrus fruits, nothing too obvious. There was also a good deal of residual sugar. It reminded me of Black Tower, the semi-notorious German wine from the 80s which my family consumed with gusto on Christmas Day when I was a teenager - the only day we drank wine with our dinner.

I thought it was a cheap German Riesling, drinkable if not very pleasant. Turns out it was German alright, but not Riesling - it was a Pfalz Pinot Grigio from Lidl which he bought on promotion at €3.39!

We have done the maths before too many times, but out of this €3.39, appprox €2.59 is going to the government, about 75% of the cost of the wine. It is probably below cost, apparently this wine costs normally €5.99. From the consumer's point of view, wine has never been cheaper - unpleasant, but drinkable wine at this price is pretty amazing.


As a wine lover, this is still bad value. The bottom line is that this is industrial wine. There is no soul, no love, no care and attention. It doesn't taste of Pinot Grigio, it does nothing for that fine wine region of Germany, Pfalz. It is alcoholic, sweet and it is cheap. There is a large number of people for whom that is enough, I know, but I am not one of them. I like wines that taste great, have a bit of character, are made by people who are passionate about what they do and, yes, offer great value for money.

I would rather pay a tenner for a bottle that I really enjoy than pay a fiver for something I can barely stomach. Wine is like any other food and you should think about what you are putting into your body.

As it happens, I had been having a Twitter conversation, a slight divergence of opinion on this very wine with Martin Moran, who had been recommending it. My point was that this wine will sell as part of the great race to the bottom anyway, so is he not better off to recommend something a little more interesting?

Martin's point was that he thought it was better than most cheap Italian Pinot Grigios and was a good option for people looking for a cheap wine.

I suppose we are both right, but I would rather have the argument with him over a glass of (preferably decent) wine in Ely rather than within the confines of 140 characters in public.

Martin is on @winerepublic and I am on @dalkeywine if any of you are on Twitter and would like to follow our occasional twitterings...

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Great Plans for Sainsbury's in Newry!

The depressing picture above is a taxi driver's view of a 3 mile tailback into Newry, taken a couple of years ago, the last time that duty on wine was increased. We all remember the daily traffic reports of traffic jams on the N1 as people flocked north to avail of cheap booze. Of course, while up there, they were buying groceries, clothes, TVs and aything else they could see.

The result of increasing excise duty was a net drop in the tax take. Not because people were drinking less, although consumption is dropping as well, but because they were buying in the North. And so, they put the duty back down the following year, the difference between the euro and sterling stabilised somewhat and people realised that the trip wasn't worth it.

Fine Gael are planning to put the duty on wine up by a euro per bottle by 2014. This does not result in an increase of €1 on the retail price. It is included in the bottom of the costing and thus any increase gets magnified by applying the usual formula for margin and VAT. In short a €1 increase in duty results in an increase of between €2 and €3 in retail price, depending on where you are starting from.

It would be catastrophic, not only for my business, but also for the whole restaurant and hospitality industry. Whatever hopes we have of increasing tourism could be forgotten about. At a time when we are desperately trying to offer value, cut costs and reduce prices as much as we can, this would be the straw that broke the camel’s back for many people in the wine trade.
So, if it goes ahead, it will:

- reduce the tax take for the government
- cost a huge number of jobs in retail and hospitality trade
- destroy tourism
- increase smuggling
- cause traffic jams for the lovely people of Newry

As you can see, I am not exactly in favour. The only hope is that they will be distracted by the next 100 billion we need for Anglo Irish or whatever other crisis awaits us!

Friday, February 4, 2011

Anne McManus shameless plug

Great local artist and fellow wine club member, Anne McManus is holding an exhibition of original paintings on a very timely “heart” theme in the Mill Theatre, Dundrum - starts tomorrow and runs till Feb 11th.

If you want something original and different and very nice for Valentine’s Day, or if you just want a nice painting, it will be well worth a look.

Rumour has it you might get a decent glass of wine as well…

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Wine Bubble

So, when did you realise there was an out-of-control property bubble in Ireland? Obviously, you will have realised it way before the Minister for Finance (now happily retired back in Offaly) or anyone else in the Department of Finace (unhappily still in situ), but was there a specific moment?

Was it when property in Dublin was more expensive per square metre than in Paris? Was it the articles about how a teacher/nurse/policeman could no longer qualify to get a mortgage big enough to buy a 3 bed semi within an hour of Dublin? For me, it was when AIB decided to sell all their buildings. It may have been 2006, not sure. It hardly matters.

There is something similar happening in the upper echelons of the wine world at the moment, most dramatically with a little wine called Chateau Lafite. About 5 years ago, you could buy the 2000 vintage for about €4,000. Now, it will cost you €24,000. The increase in price is being driven by demand from China, who have a particular fondness for this particular wine. Other first growths are also ridiculously priced. the price increases are not filtering down to the lesser lights in Bordeaux or anywhere else.

This is a bubble that will burst. The price will fall back to €4000 at some stage, but who knows when? For me, when a case of wine costs more than a decent car, it's equivalent to banks selling their own property.

If you have any first growth wines, sell them and buy almost anything else...

Bring in the New

We are in major spring-cleaning mode at the moment. The bin-end sale is over, Carol has done a great job on the shelves, we have cleaned out a load of crap from the back and now our focus is on giving the range a serious makeover.

At least 20 new wines are either in or are coming in over the next day or so and we will get that up to 50 by next week. Red Sancerre, new Syrah, new Australian wines, juicy Montepulciano, Cotes de Ventoux, Minervois, Viognier, Corbieres are just some of the new ones already on the shelf.

Some are on promotion - see for details; all will be on tasting over the coming weeks.

I still can't bring myself to sand and varnish the floor, though. I am standing by my story that the worn out floorboards add "character" !