Three things are clear after last week's post detailing the controversy over the increasing popularity of cheap wine. First, it's a topic that wine drinkers care about; the post totaled the third most number of visitors in blog history. Second, it deeply divides the wine business, with comments praising what I wrote as well as emails telling me I know nothing about the wine business and should pretty much shut up.
Third, and most importantly, the post and the reaction to it shows just how fragmented the wine business is, and that those of us who write about wine don't necessarily reflect -- or address -- the concerns of the vast majority of wine drinkers. The Winestream Media never pretended to do this, but the Internet was supposed to change that, to make wine writing more accessible to the masses. It is beginning to look like that has not happened, and the odds get longer every day that it will.
Most Americans, for whatever reason, don't drink wine. Forty percent of Americans don't drink at all, and the Wine Marketing Council, which tracks these things, says 20 percent of the U.S. adult population accounts for 91 percent of all wine consumption. Or, to put it as simply as possible, 8 out of 10 adult Americans have almost no interest in wine. The wine business, and by extension wine writing, focuses on the 20 percent, and mostly ignores everyone else. After the jump, how this affects our view of cheap wine:
That said, there is one thing about the numbers that I have never been able to understand. Why doesn't the wine business pay more attention to the 80 percent of us who aren't interested in wine? Why isn't more effort made to bring them into the fold? After all, if Proctor & Gamble discovered that 80 percent of the country wasn't using laundry detergent, don't you think they would do something about it?
The wine business, though, seems ambivalent about converting non-drinkers. The Wine Market Council figures focus more on the 20 percent, what it calls core wine drinkers, and how the industry can increase that number. And, if you look at how the industry markets wine and how most of us write about it, that appears to be what is going on. We're not making it easier to join the club, as Allison Davis so wonderfully ranted. This club is exclusive, and we aim to keep it that way. Nothing demonstrates this better than the wine media's fascination with Bordeaux, a region that produces wine that is so exclusive that even most of the 20 percent will never drink it. But we do love to write about it -- over and over and over and over.
The wine business' mom-and-pop nature also plays into this. As one of the commenters in the first post noted, many of the companies that make cheap wine enjoy huge economies of scale, so they can make money off something like Two-buck Chuck (which, ironically, seems to be sold largely to the 20 percent). This makes the smaller wineries, which are the face of the wine business in the U.S., crazy -- and I have the emails and comments to prove it. So, since the smaller wineries have enough trouble making money off $20 wine, they add to the backlash by criticizing all cheap wine.
Finally, people who like cheap wine drink YellowTail and Barefoot, and it's almost impossible to describe how much those wines are disliked by the people who do what I do. So cheap wine suffers for that, too.
Somehow, some way, we as wine writers (as well as the industry) must find an approach that makes the 20 percent happy, since you don't want to alienate your best customers, but that also gives the 80 percent an opportunity learn why wine is so wonderful. This is a problem that has increasingly concerned me, and I'm not sure I know the answer. But I do know I'm going to keep looking for one.