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Big Wine 2018: The good, the bad, and the ugly for consumers

Big wineBig 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.

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7 thoughts on “Big Wine 2018: The good, the bad, and the ugly for consumers

  • By Robert Arnold - Reply

    This is one reason why we cover and review the under $20 and under $10 wine (and spirits) market. Along the way, we hope to find and promote by review good tasting stuff in the value price tier. Hard to do. As a former small winery producer, I know how hard it is now to find a way through the noise and to find any kind of resale outlets.

    • By Wine Curmudgeon - Reply

      Which, of course, has been my reason for being for more than a decade. Welcome to the fight.

  • By Stephen Hoeft - Reply

    I have found my own solution to cheap wines with no character. I am working with a group of friends and we make our own wine. Typically we buy a half ton of grapes from local wine growers and crush about 10 different wines. We have been doing this since 2005 and we stay well under the 200 gallon pre family limit. Over time our product has improved and we have received gold metals at our county fair. The price not including the equipment that we have purchased over time is about $9 a bottle. There is hard work, but it is also a fun.

    I also suggest that you check to see if there is a local chapter of WINO in your area, or form your own chapter. This will give you the opportunity to find little known and discounted wines in your area. Staying local will give you a better chance to drink wine of interest and you help support your local area.

  • By John Brooks - Reply

    OK, Wine Curmudgeon,
    So, the biggies have us by the shorts. So What!
    Please, through Wine Curmudgeon, set up a method we can by your recommended “cheap” wine through you or an affiliate. I am sure there are enough frustrated WC readers who would jump at the chance of getting some of your recommended stuff. Let’s hear from you regarding this idea and see how we (you and your readers) can collaborate on making this happen.

    Sure, I drink Vella Cabernet, Merlot and Burgundy (especially mixed together in my own “cuvee”} and darn if it doesn’t taste as good as most cheap wine up to about $30 and sometimes better. Those that can afford Kermit Lynch (I’ve been a subscriber to that newsletter since it started, years ago) at over $100 per bottle – some even $800 per bottle -have my encouragement. But. They ain’t offering me a taste!

    At any rate, get your subscribers involved and maybe together we can succeed!

    Sincerely,

    John Brooks

    • By Wine Curmudgeon - Reply

      It’s illegal for me to sell wine, so that’s not going to happen. It’s almost impossible to set up any sort of affiliate program to sell wine for the same reason. So that’s not going to happen. Wine.com sometimes sells wines I review, and I link to that.

      The three-tier system that regulates alcohol sales restricts consumers, with rare exceptions, to buying wine from retailers in their state. And that, sadly, is not going to change, either.

      The consumer’s best bet is to shop at a local independent, who offers service and can order wines that may not be on the shelf but are available.

  • By Jon - Reply

    Me personally, if I owned or ran a wine shop I would have a small section with about 2 to 3 dozen selections called “Curmudgeon’s Corner” with a mix of your ongoing selections and your Hall of Fame picks.
    Best Regards,
    JDe

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