Monday, March 29, 2021

Paying for online wine orders

Note: Many of you might have noticed that Blogger has now started sending out the email notice about new posts 24 hours after I put the post online. This is the fourth consecutive post where this has happened. There is clearly a bug in their system. If this situation seems silly to you, then complaining officially to Blogger might help.

Widespread wine availability has long been an issue, especially in the USA. In this case, it is a hangover from Prohibition, which ended by having the federal government simply hand control of alcohol distribution back to the states, who each then went their own way. So, the infamous three-tier system came into being, wherein a state-based distributor must act as one extra middleman between the purchaser and the source (The dilemma of wine availability, why you’re so angry about it, and why it just won’t go away).

The issue of online wine sales has come into sharper focus in the past year, with the increase due to Covid-19 retail restrictions (eg. Online alcohol sales tripled in 2020). This unplanned increase has apparently concentrated the economy in fewer hands (How Covid-19 supercharged the advertising ‘Triopoly’ of Google, Facebook and Amazon), and also helped make the rich even richer (The pandemic is accentuating a trend among billionaires). It has also high-lighted certain issues when trying to buy wine online (Seven things I’ve learned while buying wine online during the pandemic), including: unhelpful web-sites, variable pricing, poor wine descriptions, vintage substitution, and a hoard of future marketing emails.

However, one thing that is less discussed is the business of paying for the stuff online. An increase in online sales means an increase in online financial traffic; and it seems to me that neither the wine world nor the customers are quite ready for this.

Indeed, the only aspect that seems to get much media attention is wine fraud (eg. A new world of wine fraud). I guess that scams are a more exciting topic than the one I am raising here. My concern is with the individual purchaser, and how financial institutions are reacting to their customers making lots of online purchases, from lots of retailers, especially ones from overseas. How do banks and customers stay financially safe?

There are basically only two ways to pay online:
  • using a traditional facility provided by a bank or similar financial institution
  • using a purpose-designed online system.

Bank facilities consist mainly of cash cards and credit cards, which are linked to separate bank accounts. I am old enough to remember when credit cards did not exist, and your (single) bank account was accessed via a printed passbook. So, these cards are fiddly modern doo-dads to me, along with the existence of two accounts (one for each type of card). But I have gotten used to them over the decades. Cash cards were originally used in automatic teller machines (ATMs), to get actual cash; and credit cards were used at point-of-sale machines, where you got a copy of a scrap of paper (and the merchant sent one copy to the bank, and kept one copy for themselves). These days, ATMs are much rarer in many parts of the world, and merchants have electronic machines, in many places under a sign saying "No cash sales".

So, even going to a shop is a bit like buying online, except that the merchant can (if they choose) verify that you are, indeed, the owner of the card that you are using. Online verification is another matter altogether. Banks are rightly concerned about methods of online verification, including restricting use of their facilities until verification has occurred. For example, I recently discovered that my own bank, here in Sweden, requires me to manually "unlock" my credit card each time I use it online, and it remains unlocked for only 10 minutes. I have described this ridiculous requirement at the bottom of this post. Hopefully, it can be changed to something more customer-friendly.

The second payment type, purpose-designed online systems, include "Shop now, Pay later" systems, such as PayPal, Google Wallet, Amazon Payments (see Top PayPal competitors). These were designed originally as a sort of credit facility for use via an internet-connected computer. These days, they also include mobile apps for real-time payments using a smart phone or tablet (eg. we have Swish here in Sweden). They even include Bitcoin-type set-ups, in which you pre-purchase an electronic "coin", which can be used in lieu of any national monetary system.

So, you certainly have a choice. However, that choice is actually among a bunch of options designed for an earlier age. They have all been adjusted, bit by bit, to bring them into a more recent age. If we were to design something new, for use now, it might look quite different to any of the options that we currently have.

In essence, most of these set-ups simply provide a middle layer between you and a bank (so that they are sometimes called a Payment Gateway). The online facility might be linked to a bank account of some sort, and therefore subject to the bank's rules of use. For example, a PayPal account might be linked to a bank credit-card account, and any PayPal purchases simply appear as credit-card transactions. Unfortunately, in my own case, my Bank's manual-unlock requirement means that I cannot link my PayPal account to my credit card, because any PayPal transaction is definitely treated as a credit-card transaction, and is subject to the same need-to-unlock restriction. Alternatively, you might receive an invoice that you later pay separately via your bank, rather than by directly linking an account (eg. we have Klarna here in Sweden). This works much better for me; but it is currently restricted to local transactions, not international ones.

The fundamental issue in all of these cases is security. With a massive increase in online purchases, we are learning a lot more about how to make online facilities safe. Advice such as The buying wine on-line checklist need to include recommendations for how to remain safe, as well as how to get what you think you are paying for.

The basis of any transaction is making purchases both easy and safe, simultaneously. This requires independent verification of the identity of the purchaser, and also authorization of the payment, but in some manner that does not inconvenience that purchaser. Wine purchases are not often very cheap, so it would be foolish for either the merchant, the bank or the customer to proceed with a transaction blindly.

Hence the concept of 2-step verification, in which an independent piece of information is provided by the purchaser, not just the access code for an account.

Back in the old days, all we did to authenticate an online purchase was provide a 3-digit code printed on the back of the credit card. However, this did nothing more than verify that we have access to the physical credit card, not that we are authorized to actually use that card. In the modern world, this is effectively useless, although the numbers are still printed on the cards.

So, these days, we are subjected to the potentially annoying process of providing a unique single-use verification code. This is usually sent to a mobile device associated with the person paying, who must then confirm that they received it. Simultaneous access to both the account and the mobile device is taken as independent verification. We are yet to learn whether this is a long-term solution; and it is certainly of no use without a mobile phone.

There are other, similar, processes, some of which can bypass the latter restriction. For example, here in Sweden we have BankID, which works via either a computer or a mobile device. Essentially, we provide a personal log-in code to identify ourselves, rather than being sent a code. Similar to the above, it is our simultaneous access to the computer or the mobile device (along with the credit-card account) that constitutes the independent verification — the computer version is very convenient when making purchases at home.

The bottom line is that making a transaction safe from the bank's point-of-view can make it inconvenient from the customer's perspective. We still do not have an ideal solution for merchant + bank + customer. For me personally, online purchases are quite safe in Sweden, but they may have been made a bit too safe, to the extent of being annoying, rather than helpful (as described below). I give my bank credit for trying to deal with the new world (but not yet successfully), whereas it seems to me that many other places are not even trying.

A credit card so safe that even I can't even use it, myself

My bank requires me to unlock my credit-card account for each online purchase. Otherwise, the payment will not be given the "okay", when the merchant's system attempts to electronically contact my bank for approval of my (alleged) payment. This contact does not always happen, of course. For example, small purchases may be approved by the merchant without contacting my bank, and they will simply appear on my credit-card account anyway.

This unlocking procedure requires me to use BankID to unlock the credit card, in order to make the purchase, rather than simply using it to approve the transaction. If I make a purchase using my computer, my bank thus adds oodles more clicks, making a mockery of Amazon's 1-click service, for example. :
open new browser window
navigate to bank login page
click login button
start hand-held device
start ID program on that device
scan QR code from that device
enter PIN code on that device
put that device away
back in the bank's window, navigate to credit card preferences page
click Change Permissions button to allow the merchant's request for money
confirm that change (which will apply for one hour only)
logout of bank window
close bank window.
So, 1-click becomes 1 + 13 clicks.

I can shorten this process by making payments using a mobile device. In this case, I can use my bank's app, which eliminates a few of the steps by talking directly to the other apps on the device. But this still cannot be described as customer-friendly.

Monday, March 22, 2021

Where on Earth does James Suckling think the best wines come from?

High-quality wine is made throughout the world. However, some places are widely recognized as being consistently better than others. There is even variation among places that regularly receive quality scores of 95+ for many of its wines. So, I though that it might be interesting to look at where the highest-scoring wines generally seem to come from.

To do this, I decided to choose a respected wine commentator, and then look at all of their high-scoring wines from 2020. James Suckling has recently released a series of reports with quality scores for last year's wine tastings, so I thought that it would be convenient to choose him.

In spite of the Covid-19 disruptions, Suckling reports that his team "managed to rate almost 18,000 wines" last year. Not all of these wines were the current releases, as many wines had multiple vintages tasted during the year, which you can read about in Our Top 100 Wines of 2020. However, the data that I have looked at here come from the nine Top 100 Reports (Regional):
  • Top 100 wines of Argentina 2020
  • Top 100 Wines of Australia 2020
  • Top 100 wines of Austria 2020
  • Top 100 Wines of Chile 2020
  • Top 100 Wines of France 2020
  • Top 100 Wines of Germany 2020
  • Top 100 Wines of Italy 2020
  • Top 100 Wines of Spain 2020
  • Top 100 Wines of United States 2020
Strictly speaking, these are not wine regions, of course, since they are all countries, within each of which there are multiple wine-making regions; and the vineyard area and the number of wines varies greatly between these countries. In particular, two of these countries cover entire continents, and the number of wines that could potentially appear in the lists is likely to be quite different. So, it is somewhat arbitrary to choose 100 wines per country; but these are the data that we have. Mind you, there are only a limited number of wines that are likely to be tasted by any given commentator, and it is likely that the best wines were included (among the others).

Importantly, Suckling notes that his Top 100 wines are not necessarily the highest scoring wines. That is, the rank order within his lists is not the numerical order by score: "I ranked the wines in this list first on quality (scores) and then prices. And finally I used what I call the ‘wow factor.’" I am therefore simply assuming that the 100 scores that I have do, indeed, represent the top-scoring wines for 2020 from each region. Note, also, that, technically speaking, these data are left-censored (since the scores lower than the top 100 are unknown).

Having compiled the 100 scores for each of the nine regions, we can plot a graph (frequency histogram) of those scores. These graphs are included at the bottom of this post. For a direct comparison, though, it is much simpler to use a box-and-whisker plot, as shown next. Each of the nine regions, as labeled, has a summary of their 100 scores shown vertically. If we take Italy as an example, the summary has a central box, with a thin whisker both above and below, plus an asterisk. The box indicates the range of the central 50% of the scores, while the whiskers show the remaining 50% of the scores. The asterisk is an outlying (unusual) score that is separated from the rest.

What this graph shows us is that Austria, Chile and Spain generally had fewer top-scoring wines than did Australia, France, Germany, Italy and the USA, with Argentina being intermediate between these two groups. So, now we know where James Suckling thinks the best wines tasted during 2020 came from.

The individual graphs at the bottom of this post make it clear that Italy was very consistent (most wines got 97 points), as was Austria (but at 94 points, instead), that Australia did very well (most wines got 96 to 98 points), Spain had good but not great wines (no 99- or 100-point wines), and France did surprisingly poorly (not even one 100-point wine).

You may make of this what you will. Suckling is certainly not biased for or against the New World wines, for example. For me, I am sad to see that New Zealand is missing, along with Portugal.

This final series of plots count how many wines (vertically) received each of the scores (horizontally), for each of the nine wine regions. These are the complete data as summarized in the box-plot above (click to enlarge).

Monday, March 15, 2021

How much does the Wine Curmudgeon's world overlap with mine?

The answer, surprisingly, seems to be: about one-third. Read on, to see how I arrived at this conclusion.

Jeff Siegel (the Wine Curmudgeon) has announced that he has now gone underground — as from today, his blog will forever be behind a subscriber-only paywall. Financially, one can hardly blame him, because a freely available web-site is no way to make a living.

Not unexpectedly, however, this move has engendered a few negative comments from some of his audience, giving various reasons for not paying up. The one that is particularly relevant to me is this:
Several readers noted they wouldn’t be moving to the paid version of the blog because it was difficult finding many of the wines I review.

For me, this is a no-brainer. The collection of wines available in the USA and in Sweden do not necessarily overlap too much. This also applies to other non-Swedish web-sites about value-for-money wines, of course (eg. Reverse Wine Snob in the USA, Best Wines Under $20 from Australia) — see my post on Finding inexpensive wines.

So, wine availability is a big issue, if a wine site is solely about recommending wines. Fortunately, most wine blogs do mention other things along the way; and it will be a pity for me to lose the Wine Curmudgeon's broader insights.

While pondering this issue, it occurred to me to find out just how many inexpensive wines might actually overlap between the Curmudgeon's world and my own. So, I sat down with his listing of the 2021 $10 Wine Hall of Fame (plus some other bits and pieces). This list has c. 70 recommended wines that cost in the vicinity of 10 bucks:
I considered wines that cost as much as $13 or $14 to take into account price creep and regional pricing differences.
I then went through the online catalog of my local liquor chain (Systembolaget), looking for these wines as best I could (the names are not always exactly the same). I actually did not do too badly, as listed below.

There are 13 wines that would (just) fit the Curmudegeon's criterion:
  • Château Bonnet Rouge, 2018 $14
  • Château Bonnet Blanc, 2020 $11
  • Rosé de Bonnet, 2019 $13
  • Matua Organic Sauvignon Blanc, 2020 $13
  • Domaine du Tariquet Classic, 2017 $10
  • El Coto Crianza, 2016 $11
  • McManis Viognier, 2019 $12
  • McManis Petite Syrah, 2019 $13
  • d'Arenberg The Stump Jump GSM, 2017 $13
  • La Vieille Ferme Rosé, 2019 $12
  • Marqués de Riscal Rosado, 2019 $12
  • Perelada Cava Stars Brut Organic, 2018 $13
  • Perelada Cava Brut Reserva, nv. $14

Note that the three Bonnet wines have now been deleted from the Curmudgeon's list, because price creep has made them too expensive in the USA (but not in Sweden).

There are also 11 wines that are on his list but are outside the required price range in Sweden:
  • La Valentina Montepulciano d´Abruzzo, 2016 $17
  • Banfi Centine Toscana, 2018 $16
  • Banfi Centine Chardonnay Vermentino, 2018 $16
  • Banfi Centine Rosé, 2018 $16
  • LAN Crianza, 2016 $16
  • McManis Pinot Noir, 2019 $17
  • McManis Cabernet sauvignon, 2019 $17
  • McManis Zinfandel, 2018 $17
  • McManis Chardonnay, 2018 $17
  • Casteller Cava Brut Nature, nv. $16
  • Naveran Brutissime Cava Brut, nv. $18

All in all, these lists are longer than I expected — there appears to be anything up to one-third overlap between the two wine worlds, although prices do vary a lot.

While I will not be able to avail myself of any future Curmudgeon wine reviews, I figure that I could do a lot worse than check all of these listed wines for myself — some of them I already know (and I agree with the Curmudgeon's recommendations).

Monday, March 8, 2021

How do you store your wine?

Most wine drinkers apparently do not have a "cellar", in the sense of a collection of wine that they will drink at some time in the future (How soon is wine consumed after purchase?). However, many of us do; and that immediately raises the specter of where to keep the bottles, and how to find one to drink with dinner tonight.

In 2019, Lettie Teague noted (Why wine lovers resist Marie Kondo-ing their cellars):
Many oenophiles I know -- myself included -- don’t have a system to keep track of the wines in our cellars. We buy bottles and put them away. I’ve definitely lost track of wines thanks to this methodless method over the years ... I’ve found whites deep in my racks that were a bit past their prime, and reds squirreled away in a EuroCave wine cooler that were almost completely over the hill.
From: The Official Guide to Wine Snobbery

I recognize that this apparent lack of method does have a method. The idea is that finding a bottle you have forgotten about is part of the fun of having a wine collection. (Talking about that collection is probably the main fun, though.) The forgotten bottle is an "expected" surprise, in the sense that it will definitely happen, even if we don't actually plan it. However, this seems to me to be a rather expensive way of being surprised, especially if it turns out to be a disappointment.

Mind you, most wine cellars are not arranged in a totally haphazard manner. For example, some people seem to prefer arranging things by region or grape type, or basing things on vintage date (Four ways to organize and manage your wine cellar). If so, then it is only within the groupings that things can get a bit vague.

Long ago, I decided that I want to control my vinous surprises, at least partly because I am not in the financial league that can afford to spend a lot of money on wine. (I know that I am not supposed to admit this: after all, a certain appearance of financial credibility is desirable in the world of wine cellars.)

My method actually grew out of necessity; and I mention it only because I have never heard anyone else suggest it. I did not have a basement or other separate location for storage; and nor could I afford a fancy place to store it (see Buying a wine cellar). So, the location was going to be in the bottom of a wardrobe or closet (where other people might keep their shoe collection). This is stable and dark if the cupboard is not opened very often. However, it seemed obvious that I should also keep the wine bottles within used wine boxes, which would enhance the temperate stability and darkness.

So, I simply decided to arrange the boxes by year of intended drinking. Upon purchase, I would decide on what might be a suitable year (or years), and I then stuck the wine (or wines) in the appropriate box (or boxes). When any box was full, it was sealed, and then remained undisturbed until the relevant year arrived.

At the beginning of January each year, I would open the appropriate boxes (4—5, if my wife and I have one good cellared wine per week). Then I would get my surprise, as I found out what wines I had squirreled away. Some I could remember buying, and some not. These bottles then get moved to a separate "drink soon" location, from which I select a wine each time I want one. The rest remain undisturbed.

So, like the squirrels, the hoard gets consumed while it is still in good condition. I like that, and I can certainly recommend it.

It is for this reason that I still use this system, even though I now have somewhere to store the wines in shelves, downstairs. A set of shelves is assigned to each year, and that is where I put new purchases. I do not need any fancy computerized inventory system to keep track of my bottles, and I do not need to worry about any of them missing their best drinking window. Nor do I need to hire a consultant to help me get organized; and I certainly don't have to remember what bottles I have, unless I especially want to.

I can still, of course, worry about the storage conditions, especially if the humidity gets a bit high, which it can do in summer. There must, after all, be something to wonder about, or why have a wine collection at all? As Leonard S. Bernstein once noted (The Official Guide to Wine Snobbery): "Every wine snob respects the thermostat."

Monday, March 1, 2021

Do different wine critics agree on value for money?

There are only two things I really need to know about a bottle of wine that I am thinking of buying: 1. Is it good value for money? 2. When should I drink it? Let's look at the first question in this post. (Other features, such as possible food pairings, I can work out later.)

I have written several times about evaluating value-for-money, when searching for wines (see "Value for money" under the "Labels For Posts" list at the right of this page. One simple idea is to compare the current bottle price with a quality score from one or more wine commentators.

We all know that different wine tasters can come up with very different opinions (and scores).* However, a somewhat different question is whether they agree on which wines are value for money, irrespective of the actual score they give. This involves the relationship between their points and the cost of the wine — high points for low cost = good value for money.

It therefore becomes relevant to ask whether we would get the same outcome depending on which commentator we choose. The degree of between-commentator variation is another topic that I have discussed before (eg. Are wine scores from different reviewers correlated with each other?  Does the relationship between critics' scores differ by wine type?).

So, it seems reasonable to wonder whether the assessment of value-for-money also differs between commentators. Note that value-for-money is not directly related to price, as expensive wines often get high scores from both professionals and amateurs — these wines may or may not be worth that expense.

To answer this question, I will be comparing two sources of wine scores available here in Sweden, which I have used in posts before: Jack Jakobsson at BKWine Magazine, and Johan Edström at Vinbanken. These commentators are discussed in the post on: Are wine scores from different reviewers correlated with each other?

Here, I will be using the procedure that I outlined in the post on: Calculating value for money wines. For new wines, both of our commentators produce scores out of 20, representing increasing quality, and also report the (standard) bottle prices (in Swedish kronor, SEK). We can simply plot price versus score; and we can calculate the financial cost of each quality point (ie. divide kronor by points, to get a kronor-per-point value).

So, I have gathered the data for last year (2020) from both sources. That particular year was a bit disturbed, of course, resulting in a few data anomalies (see my post How close are repeated wine-quality scores?). However, this should not affect my analysis (when different scores appeared, I simply averaged them).

This process yielded data for 589 wines from Edström and 512 wines from Jakobsson, with 487 of the wines being in common (the commentators could not get to taste all of the released wines, due to Covid-19 restrictions). We could start our analysis by simply looking at the relationship between the scores, for the shared wines. This is shown in the first graph, with each point representing one wine. The pink line would represent equal scores for each wine, while the black line shows the actual relationship.

Score comparison

This shows that the Edström scores are generally higher than the Jakobsson scores, for the same wines. Furthermore, only two-fifths (39%) of the scores are related to each other. This emphasizes that the quality scores themselves do differ between the two critics.

However, our question is about value for money, not the scores themselves. This is plotted in the next graph, encompassing all of the wines. Each point still represents one wine, showing its price (vertically, logarithm scale) and its score (horizontally). The Jakobsson scores are in blue and the Edström scores are in pink. The lines represent the two exponential relationships between price and score. Last year, $US 1 ≈ 9 SEK.

Value for money comparison

As expected, the Edström points lie to the right of the Jakobsson ones, due to the higher scores. However, the relationship between price and score is not that different between the two critics — about half of the variation in price is related to the score (higher scores generate higher prices). So, it seems that the two critics do have roughly the same opinions in terms of the wines' value for money.

We can look at this directly by calculating the number of kronor that each wine cost per quality point assigned. This is plotted in the next graph, for the shared wines. As usual, each point represents one wine, with the pink line representing equal assessment of value for money by the two critics, and the black line showing the actual relationship.

Value for money direct comparison

As you can see, the two critics do, indeed, have almost equal assessments. That is, in spite of their differences in scoring, their assessment of value for money is very similar.

This is very good for me, of course, as a consumer. I can use either critic to identify wines for purchase, if I am interested in trying new wines that are identified as being of particularly good value. This is, of course what I do do — I buy wines that I know and like, and I also buy new wines to try. As noted in the previous post, my preferred "wine recommendation system" is actually people, not a computer (Wine recommenders, and the tyranny of choice). In this case, it will make little difference which person I choose (I just need to allow for the difference in scoring). The best-value wines are simply those in the bottom-left corner of the final graph.

* Consider these two reviews, for the Château la Brande Tradition Cabernet Franc 2018 (Fronsac):
Christian Stojkovic:
Full-bodied, great aroma with ripe fruit of cherries, black currants, plums, herbs, oak and coffee, and a good, long aftertaste. In a really good vintage like 2018, Bordeaux can deliver such a good wine for relatively little money. 17 points.
Jack Jakobsson:
Slightly wet dog, young, floral with a little hyacinth, acidic. 14.5 points.