Big Wine’s continuing dominance over what we drink means less interesting wines to buy, as well as fewer places to buy them
This is the second of two parts looking at Big Wine 2018. Today, what Big Wine’s dominance means for wine drinkers. The first part – Big Wine 2018’s stranglehold by the numbers – is here.
My mother took a copy of the blog to a Chicago-area Kroger affiliate recently, looking for a wine that I had bought at a Dallas Kroger. The guy at the Chicago store looked at her as if she was crazy. “Why would we have something that was in Dallas just because we’re Kroger?” he asked her.
The conversation took place next to a huge aisle display of E&J Gallo’s Barefoot, which is in every Kroger store in the country. So who was the employee kidding?
Big Wine has changed the wine business in countless ways since I started doing this 20-plus years ago, but the biggest change is the idea of national brands. In the early 1990s, save for Kendall-Jackson chardonnay, there wasn’t a national brand like Tide detergent or Heinz ketchup. And even Kendall-Jackson wasn’t quite national.
Today, though, walk into a retailer anywhere in the U.S. and you’ll find at least a handful of national brands – Barefoot, certainly, as well as Yellow Tail, Woodbridge, and Kendall-Jackson. They may not be in smaller, independent stores, but they are in the supermarkets and chain retailers like Total Wine that are beginning to sell most of the wine we drink.
Big Wine’s dominance is not new, and it has benefited wine in so many ways – more women and minorities and improvements in winemaking standards among them. What’s different now, and what has developed over the past couple of years as Big Wine has gotten bigger, are the national brands — and they are not a benefit. Wine is not laundry detergent or ketchup.
The top 10 companies in this year’s Wine Business News ranking of the the U.S. largest producers account for about 80 percent of the wine made in this country. Almost without exception, they are national brand-style wines – technically competent perhaps, but boring and dull and devoid of varietal character and terroir. They are, says a friend in the wine business, the wine equivalent of a Big Mac – something to eat, but hardly worth eating.
After the jump, what Big Wine dominance means for wine drinkers and especially for those of us who want to drink quality cheap wine.
The good: Big Wine’s dominance means there will aways be cheap wine to buy, despite premiumization and the wine industry’s obsession that we trade up from Barefoot and Yellow Tail. That’s because these companies understand the need for cheap wine as part of their portfolio, and they can afford to produce it at a profit. But we’re left with a question I ponder often: Do we want to drink cheap wine just because it’s cheap?
That’s the bad. Big Wine’s control of the market, and especially over cheap wine, means we’ll get fewer choices. Smaller companies can’t afford to compete in the $10 market, where profit is measured by pennies a bottle, so they don’t bother. This may be the most disturbing trend in wine since the end of the recession, as smaller wineries have pulled out of $10 wine because they can’t make money.
So we’re left with smooth, easy drinking wine made for people who don’t necessarily like wine, but who like smooth and easy drinking.
That’s the ugly. And it’s going to get uglier. Big Wine’s control of the market also means it can take up shelf space at the expense of the well-made, interesting, and value-driven cheap wines I write about. Case in point? My mother’s experience. Why carry a $10 wine from a smaller producer that may sell a couple of dozen bottles when you can sell a couple of thousand bottles of Barefoot? And make the world’s biggest wine company happy in the process?
So expect to see fewer interesting wines at retail, even at independent stores. That’s because, as well-made cheap wines are forced out of large retailers for the next wave of Barefoot and Yellow Tail, they won’t have a place to go. And if they go to independents, they’ll force out wine already there, since shelf space is limited. And then we won’t be able to buy those wines.
And who will the losers be in this? Not the producers or retailers – just wine drinkers. Talk about cutting off your nose to spite your face.