Three Stupid Traditions

For this month’s Monthly Wine Writing Challenge, Bill of Duff’s Wine the winner of last month’s Challenge, chose “Tradition” as this month’s theme. As is my normal, I thought about it initially, but when the ideas were a bit hard to come by, and realizing I had a few weeks to write the post, I put it off.wine-stain1-3

Well, this weekend, among the many basketball games, Tae Kwon Do practice, and homework battles, I realized that I had yet to really write anything for this month’s edition of the Challenge, so here goes….

There are many traditions associated with wine, and for the most part, I think there are good reasons for them. There is the “traditional” wine glasses with their long, often fragile stems. I do not have anything against the new stemless glasses (I even own a few), but I prefer to drink wine from a “proper” stem.Screen Shot 2014-12-26 at 8.06.27 AMSimilarly, while I would agree that champagne is easier to taste and appreciate when poured into a Chardonnay stem, there is something about drinking it from the traditional flute that entices me, so that is what I do (most of the time).

Or take the practice of having wine with dinner. Although it is not as prevalent in the U.S. as it is in Europe, we Americans seem to be gradually embracing this tradition and with every year we are making this tradition more our own.

I could go on, but I won’t for this post is not about those traditions that I embrace, but rather about a few traditions that have run their course and outlived their usefulness.

I am not talking about this B.A.B.--it's a Jeroboam....

I am not talking about this B.A.B.–it’s a Jeroboam….

B.A.B. There is little that gets me going more than the B.A.B. (Big Ass Bottle)–standard 750ml bottles that weigh a ton. I really have no idea where or when the “tradition” started, but for some reason, consumers associate big heavy wine bottles with quality wine. Although the tradition might be waning a bit, as far as I can tell, it is still alive and kicking—I just got a case of wine in B.A.B. from one of my favorite producers the other day. Not only does the glass itself cost more, but there is an environmental impact as well—additional energy and resources are used to produce, recycle (hopefully), and transport those big, heavy, obnoxious bottles.

Why do it? I have no idea as it adds absolutely nothing to the wine (think about it—how much time do you spend actually pouring the wine?).

I would like to think that the wine drinking public is not that easily swayed, but I am no idiot. There are countless instances where packaging is designed to influence consumers. [One of my personal pet-peeves is the tissue paper that you find in dress socks–why the heck is it there?]

Wine_capsule_on_a_bottle_of_Barone_RicasoliThe Capsule. The capsule (sometimes called the “foil”) is the covering on top of a bottle that was historically used to prevent rodents (or cork-eating bugs) from eating away at the cork while the wine was resting in the cellar. Originally, bottles were dipped in wax to form a seal, a process which was eventually replaced by the more familiar capsule—initially made of lead, but now made of tin. While the capsule might “look” nice and certainly has its roots in tradition, if you are worried about mice or cork weevils gnawing away at your precious juice, you have a much bigger problem on your hands than you realize (and please do not invite me over for dinner—I am busy that night). Not only do the capsules present a bit of environmental issue (when left on the bottle, it contaminates the glass cullet–what you call recycled glass), but it adds an unnecessary cost to the production of the wine (typically it adds about 10-15 cents, which does not sound like much, but when multiplied by ten thousand cases, you get the idea).

From beveragetradenetwork.com

From beveragetradenetwork.com

Three tier system. The three tier system (producer, distributor, retailer) was set up after prohibition to control and regulate the alcohol industry so as to prevent the excesses and debauchery that existed before Prohibition. There is far too much here to discuss in a couple hundred words, but one of my main issues with this “traditional system” is simple—there are fewer and fewer players in the middle tier (distributors/wholesalers), yet they are wielding considerably more and more power over the entire system. While some claim that the big box stores and internet retailers are slowly killing off the small, local, “ma & pop” wine shops, in actuality it is the Three Tier System that is precipitating their demise. The only way these shops (that do not exist in my state at all since the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is yet another tier here) can compete with the mass-discounting is by providing special, hard to acquire products—wines that distributors have little to no interest in carrying.

So while there are many traditions in wine that are worth preserving, I think it is important to continually evaluate traditions–many were “made” out of necessity but are no longer useful (and can actually be harmful). Just because it’s a “tradition” does not mean we should blindly perpetuate it.

Remember, today is the last day to enter the Monthly Wine Writing Challenge (#MWWC14)! Here are the entries thus far (Please let me know if I am missing any!):

The Armchair Sommelier: A Digestif Tradition (aka, someone please put out the fire in my esophagus) *

Aseuba: Savored…Our unconventional tradition of Sparkling with Duck

Dracaena Wines: Riots for Tradition

The Epicurious Texan: Family Tradition

The Drunken Cyclist: Three Stupid Traditions

The Food and Wine Hedonist: Tradition

FoodWineClick: Barolo Boys: Tradition to Revolution to Tradition

Griffy on Wine: Traditions

JVB Uncorked: To Hell With Tradition

Leticia Noebauer: The viennese spirit of the Gemischter Satz

Please Bring Me My Wine: We’ve All Got Our Traditions!

Rockin Red Blog:The Tradition of Amarone

Still Searching for My First Growth: Taking on Tradition

The Sweet Sommelier: Tradition

Talk-a-Vino: Traditions of Wine

The Winegetter: Traditions, Oh, Traditions…

The Wine Raconteur: Tradition

About the drunken cyclist

I have been an occasional cycling tour guide in Europe for the past 20 years, visiting most of the wine regions of France. Through this "job" I developed a love for wine and the stories that often accompany the pulling of a cork. I live in Philadelphia with my lovely wife and two wonderful sons.
This entry was posted in #MWWC14, Monthly Wine Writing Challenge, Wine and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

28 Responses to Three Stupid Traditions

  1. Oh! I am so with you on that three tier system! It is insane! As for the bottle choice. I somewhat agree. We are in the process of choosing our bottles now. There is a huge range of weight that we can select from. Some of the bottle are SO light, I get the sensation you get of picking up an empty box that you thought was full. Then there are bottles that I feel like I’m working out at the gym. We are happy to be somewhere in the middle.

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    • So why did you settle on somewhere in the middle? Just curious–if you go for the least expensive (as long as quality issues are not compromised–you obviously want to avoid breakage) are you worried that the consumer will see it as “cheap”? Is it analogous to not wanting to set the price too low? I have heard stories of wineries not selling a certain wine when it was “priced to sell” but then, after raising the price, it sold out quickly!

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      • When lifting them, i didnt like the feel. I admit the light ones did feel cheap. It just didnt seem right. The neck was so thin i was concerned about breakage and the shoulders were so feminine I was turned off. I figured if Im turned off, others would be also. As for the other side if the spectrum, we know people think of that glass as a reserve wine weight. We will use the same glass for all, as long as we continue to like it. We dont believe you need to have heavy glass for reserve.

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      • I can see the breakage concern, but I really think the time for the ultra-heavy glass has passed…..

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  2. I like big bottles. When you pull one out, you make a statement and a commitment.🙂 That said, I don’t understand how people are willing to pay exorbitantly more for these bottles, because as you said, I don’t think it changes anything about the content. Saw a winery in Napa, where the price of a magnum was three and a half times the price of a single bottle. Rip those rich boys off!

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    • Oliver, I was talking about standard 750ml bottles that are really heavy–there is no advantage to them at all. Larger format bottles (magnum, jeroboam, etc.) are a different animal altogether. While I am not sure they are necessarily worth paying a premium (in my mind, a magnum should be no more than twice the price of a standard bottle), they are a better way to age wine as there is less air/volume of wine.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Ok, we’re on the same page then. These are indeed a pain in the neck. I didn’t get that part. Thanks for clarifying. Although, while I understand that there is more wine and less air, I guess I still consider the difference rather minuscule. But since I have not had aged magnums against aged standards, it’s hard to compare for me. And agreed, I am not willing to a premium for larger size bottles.

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      • Thanks for pointing out the confusion–I have added a bit of text to clarify that I am talking about the standard 750ml bottles that are really heavy for no apparent reason other than to give off the appearance of quality….

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Did not know any of that re the capsule…

    If we do away with the 3-tier system, wouldnt big producers just go ahead and buy up everything from top to bottom.

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    • The capsule is about as useful as male nipples these days….

      Big producers are already buying up tons of labels, I am not sure it would have any impact at all. Under the current system, smaller producers that I really enjoy have to rely on Direct to Consumer sales to move their wine. The Distributors have no interest in carrying wine from producers that make a couple thousand cases….

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  4. I think that you could repackage this article again if the subject of rant ever arises. Though for what it’s worth, I agree with you on all three counts.

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  5. Fiona says:

    This was such an interesting read. The winery with which I have an association has recently gone down the road of a BAB for a limited range wine. Three barrels of shiraz that lay on oak for three years, and which produced only 800 bottles. The Powers That Be decided that not only was a BAB necessary, but also a good cork and wax. The wine-buyng public have gone mad for it: not just because it is delicious wine, but because of the “recidivist” nature of the packaging. Which does everything you say to the cost of the product. On the upside, they expect to pay a premium price for it, and are. Go figure!

    Before I move off the packaging issue, I do agree that there is so much tied up with sentiment and perception with packaging that it’s really difficult to introduce something new. Another winery in our area has introduced a “green” range – plastic (PET) bottles that look like glass but are half the weight. They are using it as a second or even third label and it seems to have taken off. I have to say, though, that the wine (in my opinion) is not good. Begs the question: would they risk putting a premium wine into “inferior” packaging?

    Last comment: we have similar issues with distribution here, but seemingly a little less regulated. There are other, and major red tape and compliance issues, though. Most commodities need a distributor and its the large chain stores and its the distributors along with the red tape that kills the small enterprises – and the producers. Often in the cruellest ways….

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    • Interesting about the BAB–I was talking to a winery owner once and he told me that they had a wine that they thought was really good, but it would not sell. So they reduced the price and sold even less. Then they raised the price significantly. And it sold out in a couple of weeks.

      It sounds like a similar phenomenon on the PET bottles–the tree huggers (like me) are going to embrace anything that goes against tradition in favor of the environment–even if the product is not as good….

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  6. linnetmoss says:

    I so agree with you on the three tier system. In my state we seem to be limited to whatever the distributors feel like providing. It’s maddening to see recommendations in the NYT and then not be able to find the bottle. I was doing the Eric Asimov wine school thing, and I was NEVER able to obtain the recommended bottle.

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  7. Stefano says:

    Very nice post as always. As far as I am concerned, a bit like in the case of boxed wine, I am attached to the capsule – more specifically, the tin foil capsule (I despise plastic capsules). So, I hear you that they are not necessary anymore and they add up to the cost of the finished product, but if we took that reasoning to the extreme, then we would use plastic barrels with woodchips instead of oak or chestnut barrels for aging wine and then we would sell it either in a can or a (ugh…) box. Wine (and the enjoyment of wine) needs some beauty, some poetry, some romance – otherwise we would just turn it into another nondescript, soulless drink (I think we do not need more of those!) Of course, entirely in my view🙂

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    • Yes, plastic capsules are pointless. As for the tin capsules, I understand the nostalgia–it is part of the experience. But they really no longer serve a purpose, add cost, are bad environmentally, and they certainly do not affect what is in the bottle. Wood chips and plastic barrels definitely do affect what ends up in the glass, however, and for the worse. Same for the can (although I have never tried wine from a can–I just imagine it would taste “tinny”). I think there is plenty of beauty there, the capsule just adds a little window dressing, but I, for one, do not think its benefits outweigh its costs….

      Certainly a entertaining argument, nonetheless….

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Cheers, good article.

    BAB: Researchers in Australia (Prof Larry Lockshin) have worked out exactly how much extra glass weight contributes to perceived price. There is a direct correlation, customers think they are getting better wine. So wineries will continue to use them, until there is a shift in thinking.

    Capsule: The US should move to screw caps. They are better for the wine and better for the environment. But there is not the acceptance of them in the US like here in Australia.

    3 Tier System: Yeah, that sux. Not really a tradition, but a historical law from prohibition times. Good luck with it, glad I am in Oz.

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    • Yeah, I know about the heavy bottle=quality concept, but the wineries had a hand in creating that fallacy, so they should be at the forefront of debunking it. I agree with you 100% on screw cap–even for top-end wines. I have to get myself down to the land of Oz one of these years!

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