Asked and Answered

What's the wallaby on the label of that shiraz trying to tell you? What about the syrah label featuring a generic chateau? Dear Dara answers all your peskiest wine questions.

Meanwhile, the Australian dollar sank. It was super-low when those first cases of Yellow Tail showed up. It was worth 80 of our cents in 1996, sank to 50 cents five years later, and is now about back where it was. It took a few years for the various vines that were planted to come to maturity and start bearing fruit, but they did a few years ago, and here we are. The Australians have more grapes than they know what to do with, so they mess with them, and send them here and to Europe.

Mess with them how? Australian mega-producers also have massive state-of-the-art wine-making facilities (which they had to build once their grape supply doubled) and some engage in what wine traditionalists call "better wine-making through chemistry," manipulations such as using acid or enzymes to enhance fermentations and get deeper fruit extracts, adding sugar to boost alcohol levels, concentrating fruit musts, micro-oxygenation to essentially pre-age the wine, adding color additives like Mega Purple, and various manipulations to get the acid in a wine lowered, and the pH raised.

Then they put them in affordable bottles with critter labels. Ever seen that thing on the Yellow Tail bottle? That's actually not a kangaroo, but a yellow-footed rock wallaby, and its runaway success inspired a zillion critter followers. Look for animals on the labels of Wallaby Creek, Koala Blue, Little Penguin, Thirsty Lizard, and Four Emus, all out of Australia; Monkey Bay from New Zealand; and something called Burrowing Owl from Canada. According to the Nielsen ratings—yes, they do Nielsen ratings of wine—critter labels accounted for $600 million in wine sales last year.

So, government irrigation projects plus tax shelters plus cute animals equals you drowning in affordable, likable Australian critter wine.

Don't think it's always going to be like this. After two years of massive over-supply, the Australians appealed to their government for some kind of financial package to help the suffering farmers, and the government said no dice. Tens of thousands of tons of grapes were left to rot in the fields for the last harvest, and growers across Australia are "mothballing" their grape vines, pruning them back and giving them only the tiniest amount of water so that they won't produce fruit for a few years.

With the grape supply lowered, Australians expect the Australian-wine glut to come to an end sometime in 2007, and we may well look back on the time when all the cheap wine was Australian as a weird historical blip. Right now only half a percent of Australian wines sold in this country retail for more than $15, and Australia is basing its future on getting that number up. If you like cheap and cheerful critter wine, buy it now.

However, if you hate cheap and cheerful critter wine, but enjoy irony, consider this: Australia right now is desperately trying to try to figure out how to be France, with the big-ticket wines, vineyards that sell out their entire production before a bottle is ever filled (ever heard of wine futures?), and such. Meanwhile, France is desperate to figure out how to make a French Yellow Tail, as they have had a wine glut of their own; they've been reduced to turning hundreds of millions of bottles of basic wine into ethanol to fuel cars. Look for cheap French varietal wine experiments in your local liquor store over the next few years, as they attempt to horn in on Australia's territory. What's French for critter? We'll find out.

Dear Dara,

Why does Surdyk's have so many more Rieslings than everybody else? How do they get those Surdyk's-label Rieslings? Moreover, why is it the selection in wine shops is all so radically different?

—Riesling Lover in Minneapolis

Dear Riesling Lover,

Prohibition haunts us still. You remember Prohibition, right? With the flappers, the speakeasies, and the way alcohol was banned? Well, when Prohibition ended, the government instituted something known as the three-tier system, which was designed to make sure that there could be no monopolies in liquor. The three tiers—the alcohol maker, alcohol middleman (the distributor or importer), and the final alcohol seller (the store)—all had to be separate businesses, and none could be owned by another. This bit of regulation ultimately meant that the wine shop is the freest market there is: Minnesota has some 40-odd wine importers and distributors, as well as a few liquor distributors, and a host of heavy-hitting independent liquor stores.

This means that we have competition—true competition, not the illusion of competition you get in, say, a big-box store where soft-drink makers pay for prime shelf space and invent new products just to keep the other guys from being seen. The three-tier system is what allows our independent liquor stores to have such extensive selections: Surdyk's has more Rieslings because they want to, and no one can stop them or has cared to outbid them. It's the same reason that Haskell's has more Burgundy, Solo Vino and Sam's Wine Shop have more Spanish selections, and Hennepin Lake Liquors has more California stars.

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