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trouble-brewing-walmart

This is a reaction to this article originally reported by the Akron Beacon Journal and expounded upon best (so far) by Food & Wine here.

The premise of the suit is that WalMart willfully deceived customers into believing that their private-label beer brand, Trouble Brewing (get it?!?), actually brewed by Genesee is a true “craft beer” brand justifying a higher price point than non-craft beers. The shock here is not that WalMart took this circuitous route around forthrightness but, rather, that it wasn’t presumed to be the case from everyone from the start. I believe that there is a huge measure of caveat emptor in play here.

Keep in mind, that private label beer, wine, and spirits have been made for Costco, 7-11, Total Wine, Walgreen’s, Trader Joe’s, and many huge or widespread domestic retailers selling any alcohol throughout the US. This is nothing new. There is a measure of subverting the truth with nearly all of them, generally lies of omission. Where is the line drawn for true deception, though?

If I were a craft beer drinker in Boise Idaho shopping the beer aisle at the Overland Road WalMart Supercenter the first thing that would come to my mind when seeing Trouble Brewing (made in 2,285 miles away in Rochester, NY) is economy of scale—that in order to feed WalMart’s massive empire, this beer can not likely be a true “craft beer” made in a small brewery run by a couple of bushy-bearded beer-lovers chasing a dream. I have accepted these products in in practice and, to some degree, in theory because the waters have been muddy for a long time now. “Craft beer styles” (read: non-American adjunct lagers) are produced by several large, otherwise uninteresting breweries—from SABMiller to Sam Adams—to under the guise of being truly “craft”. It is largely a semantic argument at that scale. These Trouble Brewing beers are, at this stage in the game, virtually no different from the relatively high-production stuff that their sister brands, Pyramid and Magic Hat, foist upon the public from neither a quality nor truth in marketing perspective. These beers are simply a product of economy of scale to feed the vast WalMart supply chain and, I am sure, everything about them speaks to that, from the sophomoric packaging and marketing to the reportedly uninspired flavor profiles.

Make no mistake, this suit was not brought forth by innocent consumers who were shocked into action when they discovered they were duped. Craft beer drinkers are largely one of the most discerning, self-informed, and vigilant consumer segments in the world and this suit was brought forth by a craft beer consumer bent on enforcing transparency. As anyone who has ever read this blog will attest, I am absolutely for fighting for transparency in marketing, but I don’t genuinely believe that the wool was really being pulled over anyone’s eyes in this instance.

The core consumer that may toss these beers into their cart along with small appliances, housewares, toys, diapers, cookies, and cleaning supplies is probably not largely the core craft consumer up-in-arms over this. Most consumers outside the craft beer enthusiast market likely don’t care if it’s really a “craft beer”, only that it provides a favorable experience for the price. The argument in the suit that Walmart inflated the prices for the beers to put them in line with other craft beers as a deceptive practice is spurious. Honestly, many large-scale “genuine” craft beers have inflated pricing. All that matters is what the market will bear. If consumers feel they are getting good QPR from this stuff, what does it matter how much profit WalMart makes on it? Profit margin is their business.

To the larger part of the claim—the deception of craft provenance —WalMart may be trying to emulate craft beer, but nowhere on the packaging do they directly claim “craft” or its similars in any way.  The brewery is listed as Trouble Brewing with the same Rochester, NY address as many of Genesee’s other contract brewed products. This is all pretty easy to discern if you are a consumer who cares about that stuff. And that brings me back to my point that the vast majority of people inclined to even consider buying this stuff do not care about provenance as long as they don’t find out that it was made by poor children with a heavy metal-laden water source next to an electronic parts reclamation farm.

The clues of provenance, and scale, and, ultimately, honesty are all there in front of us with these beers and many other products that we just don’t care enough to be cognizant of and reactive to. No one can deceive you unless you are open and available to the deceit.

None of this is to suggest that I have grown less vigilant in my own pursuit of transparency in marketing. I strongly believe that there is a pervasive problem in marketing within an industry where the only regulations of import have to do with taxes and very little of substance to do with consumer protection. But this is another instance where we do not seem to take enough personal responsibility for our consuming habits. It is incumbent upon us to engage ourselves a bit more in our buying habits if we care about this stuff. Once we have made that commitment, the mere subterfuge becomes white noise and we can zero-in on the genuine deceit. Otherwise, all of the after-the-fact griping and class-action suits hold no water when real hard-core deception that actually hurts people comes along.


Feeling Autumnal.

 

I don’t believe I have done a whisky review here, so as the seasons change this just seems right. 

I taste a lot of whisky. It’s kinda my thing. Sure, I taste hundreds of wines every year, but whisky is second on the list. It is the one spirit category that intrigues me most and that, because of its ridiculous popularity of late, I have the opportunity to taste often. I tasted this with a rep one day and thought it a good value.

Canadian whisky is typically a category that does not inspire much interest (there are a few exceptions with Alberta Rye Dark Barrel, Forty Creek, Caribou Crossing, to name a handful of brilliant products that are not Canuck drams under the guise of US craft whiskies). Typically, I look to Canadians as whiskies of low impact on the palate and the wallet. Collingwood’s entry-level product is no different, though it has a bit more going on than those on the bottom shelf.

 

Appearance: copper-amber

Nose: caramel, rose, cinnamon

Palate: candied dates, caramel, cinnamon, maple taffy, wheat-heavy grassy grain

Mouthfeel: watery, unsubstantial

Finish: thins out fast and the low alcohol becomes readily evident with a charry astringency

 

A bit sweeter and more complex than Canadian Club or Crown Royal, but with a similar thinness expected of a blended whiskey. It is saved primarily by its sweetness which gives a superficial impression of character that just isn’t there under the surface. The added caramel color should fool no one on the palate as this is undeniably weak in richness and structure. The toasted maple staves show as just that on the palate, too—charry, sweet, and out of balance with the body-weight of the whiskey. The alcohol is definitely present but, fortunately, only as heat—not in that off-putting ethanol-y way. The 21 year-old expession shows richness and cohesiveness that this can’t even sniff (if you can find it, spend the scratch for it). Look, for under $30, this isn’t bad at all—I would just be inclined to relegate it to mixing.

2015 Los Dos Rosado


Well, that went quickly.

 

After a week of menu planning, I knew I wanted a Spanish (or Argentine) rosé to go with my gazpacho and avocado grilled cheese sandwiches. Linda went to the local shop with a short list and the store employee suggested this. I was indifferent toward it after a few “meh” vintages. This turned out to be the best value choice in the store.

 

2015 Los Dos Rosado (85% Garnacha/15% Cabernet Sauvignon) Campo de Borja 13.5%

A: shimmery peach skin pink with slight blue cast

N: straight-up ripe strawberry juice

T: soft, creamy strawberry and raspberry with gorgeous tangerine and strawberry acidity 

F: bright, refreshing acidity and faint anise-tinged tannins 

 

This is the absolute best choice for our dinner. Easily the best Los Dos (red or rosé) I have ever had. Juicy, but thirt-quenching. Enough fruit to work against the acidity of gazpacho as well as more than enough crisp acidity to blast off of the creamy avocado grilled cheese on brioche. Just right, baby bear!


 

2012 Fattorie Melini Terrarosa Chianti Classico

It’s not exactly big Chianti season, but it’s what I was in the mood for, so there you have it.

Sangiovese and Merlot from vineyards in the Sienese region of Chianti Classio.

2012 Fattorie Melini Terrarossa Chianti Classico DOCG 13.5%

A: Medium black-cored ruby no signs of oxidation

N: rich, plummy/black cherry, slight vanilla, dried violets

T: full and soft, plum and cherry front- to mid-palate

F: fairly soft tannins, licorice, mint, subtle dried violets

 

It’s Chianti, all right, but nothing special. 

Super-easy-drinking but there is little here to excite to sustain interest. What makes the best mid-priced Chianti exciting is overt secondary characteristics. Those are here—suppressed and obscured by a new-world ripe, plummy fruit—but not present enough to keep me interested. Don’t get me wrong, this is plenty tasty. For $20 I want more depth and engaging character.

 


Isn’t she lovely?

 

Perennially one of my favorite rosé producers of recent years, Château Gaillard is a wonderful small biodynamic wine producer from Touraine focusing entirely on Sauvignon Blanc and Gamay Noir. This “gris” is actually made exclusively of Gamay Noir.

Appearance: copper-cored salmon

Aroma: fairly closed watermelon, fresh-cut grass, tarragon

Palate: watermelon rind, strawberry, delicate nondescript floral herbaceousness

Mouthfeel: creamy/silky with cut of acid throughout 

Finish: a bit of heat showing through a surprising touch of chalky tannins on the long, generously fruity finish

I’d normally prefer something a bit more crisp and refreshing on a hot summer day, but this is quite nice. It lacks the intensity of prior vintages but the complexity makes up for the softness.

 


Infinito? Sadly, finito.

 

My wife, Linda, made sure to stop off for two rosés on the way home after closing her shop this evening. We always crave rosé in the summertime and try to sate that craving every chance we get. With a dinner of locally farmed veggies in a slightly spicy Moroccan Ras el Hanout/coconut milk sauce, crisp but fruitful rosés fit the bill.

After a nearly two case binge on 2014 Zeni Bardolino Chiaretto last summer (last-year’s favorite), I thought that her purchase of this Santi Infinito, also a Bardolino Chiaretto, was a conscious decision, but it was simply a happy accident. This presents an opportunity to compare producers and vintages. 

Similar color and visually evident body-weight indicate, perhaps, a similar handling. Those attributes, sadly, are where the similarities end.

Wow! This is a different beast, entirely. The brightness and vibrancy of last-year’s Zeni is nowhere to be found here. Nor is the amazing tangy fruit length. Admittedly, last-year’s Zeni was an incredible outlier of the region’s production, so any comparison is unfair. It has been years since I have tasted the Santi rosé, so I have little basis beyond tasting prior vintages for understanding whether this is a function of vintage, yield, or winemaking choice—though, my suspicion is a combination of all with a heavy lean toward the latter. 

  • Appearance: pale, shimmery beet juice/peach skin pink
  • Aroma: subtle mineral-tinged strawberry 
  • Palate: big shot of up-front acidity that masks shallow peach and strawberry fruit which all drops off the palate almost instantaneously 
  • Mouthfeel: creamy richness that supresses the acidity and gives the impression that rich fruit is to follow…but it just isn’t there
  • Finish: non-existent 
Oh, well. Not a bad wine, but a wine wherein the most interesting thing is the front label’s curious use of an accent grave in (an also curious use of the quasi-French) “rosè”.

Lots of words on the label. One word in the bottle: “savor”.

 

As one who tastes tons of stuff it is somewhat rare that a product screams to me at first taste. This one has called me to action twice. Once to order a case into a shop I consult for regularly and again, several months later to buy for myself.

The sales representative for the local distributor that handles this product brought this by the shop for me to taste back in November and, despite my initial ambivalence (it is “only” Irish whiskey, after all), I immediately exclaimed, “This is one of the finest whiskies I have ever put to lip!”. Through the holidays (and months after) I hand-sold (read: proselytized) customers and friends to this stuff as a can’t-lose proposition. 

But time has a way of seeding doubt—founded or otherwise. I just was no longer sure that I read this right the first time. So, I finally broke down and bought a bottle for, um, further empirical study from the comfort of my recliner. 

Current analysis: this is one of the finest whiskies I have ever put to lip!

Lord Lieutenant Kinahan’s 10-Year Aged Single Malt Irish Whiskey is phenomenal. Sure, it lacks the hedonistic richness of top Bourbons, or the complexity of secondary characters of the best of Scotch, but this is not a whisky concerned with subterfuge. This is all about the purity of the malt expression in tandem with the simple, enriching expression of the Bourbon barrel oak. 

 

46% abv, 100% malted barley, 10 years in 100% used Bourbon barrels. 

Appearance: medium golden-honey yellow with greenish edges

Aroma: red cherry, orange peel, and red apple skins in baking spices

Taste: pretty much a reflection of the aromas but with a lighter fruit expression and pronounced sweetness; a pleasant dusty, feedbag maltiness; and a long honey, green oak, and cinnamon fade

Mouthfeel: a slick, creamy entry and a long, pleasantly hot finish even with a small, melted cube of ice 

 

Overall, I adore the purity of malt expression with the oak components rising through on the back-palate. This is an Irish whiskey that straddles the line between Bourbon and an unpeated Highland single malt. Suffice it to say that I really enjoy this.

 


Black Falcon (Falco subniger)

One resolute bird.

Earlier this week, the Atlanta Falcons made a curious and rare decision to listen and respond to its fan-base (press release). Upon the opening of its new stadium, the NFL franchise will charge far more fair and reasonable prices for its concessions.

Long irksome for sports fans, the cost of concessions has reached a point wherein it can cost more for a beer than a seat on a given night. Increasingly, only those named Walton, Hearst, and DuPont are able to enjoy a family outing to the ballpark complete with sustenance through the often four-hour events. To be fair, concessions are luxuries—not truly necessary to the enjoyment of the game—but they are, and should be, part of the experience (and can be the key to maintaining a positive experience/sanity for those with children). But, at what point is it reasonable for a team or venue to dictate the terms of bankruptcy for a family to enjoy the ostentatious luxury of some dogs and sodas?

Atlanta Falcons CEO, Rich McKay, no longer believes those terms are reasonable at all. Why? Because research consistently showed that concession prices, quality, and wait times ranked as the worst of all fan experiences. This is across all leagues, teams, and venues.  The Falcons, who just completed a new stadium, had the opportunity to right that wrong and lead the charge on new paradigm.

What does any of this have to do with the wine/beer/spirits industry? Well…in short, everything. Recognizing and reacting to broken practices is key to any business’s health, particularly when relating directly to customers. The lessons from the Falcon’s decision are powerful. What McKay and his team realized is that doing things the old way just because that is “how it has always been done” is not a sufficient excuse for poor customer relations. Sure, there’s lots of money to be made on jacked-up soft pretzel prices, but is it worth the cost of a positive overall fan experience?

Alcohol beverage retailer—are you buying a 10-case QD deal on National Brand × Red Blend and still selling it at full markup? That’s fine, but you must give your customers enough credit that they likely know what the competitive price should be. Trust me, your customers may be loyal as a matter of convenience but they shop around.

The Falcons identified this need to treat their customers as knowledgeable consumers and not simply as cash machines. They realized that there was a long-term cost associated with overcharging their customers in the concession lines and that is that they would likely eat and drink at tailgates before the game and hold off on the second beer or soft pretzel inside the stadium opting instead to save the money and get a proper meal after the game. In the short-term, under the old model, they may make better margin but they will have significantly lower volume.

The difference for you is that you do not have the captive audience that a sports franchise has. If a ticket-holder wants a drink or food during the game, they have to pay the whatever the concessionaire charges. If a customer walks into your store and doesn’t like the prices they see on the products they like to buy, they can walk out and go somewhere else. The Falcons still made the decision to cut their concession prices even though they have a captive audience because the trade-off of lower volume over time coupled with constantly disgruntled fans was not worth the extra margin on the short-term. You need to think the same way.

Respect your customers. Listen to them. Find ways to appease them—be willing to cut prices on what should be high-turn products, trial run customer requests at less than standard mark-up to be competitive with the market at-large, etc., and be fair and reasonable in finding alternatives to your customers when it simply doesn’t make good business sense to do exactly what they want. You are in this business for the long-haul anyway—the short-term margin losses will be made up over time with greater volume and happy customers.

Remember: there are always ways to make up the difference in margin. You can never make up the difference in lost customers.


20140121-155602.jpg

Watching the snow swirl around the city from my fogged-up windows is mesmerizing. Beer is Yards “Poor Richard’s Tavern Spruce”–very appropriate for the weather.
Time well spent.


The Final Round

The Final Round


I spent all day yesterday with friends and colleagues tasting and judging Maryland wines. This is the fifth year I have been a judge in this competition and each year provides new insight into the direction Maryland wines are headed. After years of dominance by white wines in the competition, the last few years showed the current success and tremendous potential of red wines. This year, whites seemed to dominate again. There was no clear evidence to me that this was due to vintage conditions across the board, rather, some redirection by winemakers toward working with new or more historically successful varieties.
With red and white varieties sharing the stage on more equal footing in the enormous final rounds of gold medalists in this and prior year’s competitions bodes quite well for the future of wine quality on the whole in our state. Congratulations to all Maryland winemakers for their efforts to release the best possible wines.

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