This wine premiumization meme is for you, wine business — enjoy
The blog’s wine meme survey has looked at why young people don’t like wine, the three-tier system, and trolling the cyber-ether for people who disagree with you. So how have we missed premiumization?
Until now, that is: The ultimate wine premiumization meme.
Of all wine’s problems — and there are entirely too many to mention — premiumization may be the one that makes me the craziest. Case in point: I got an email the other day touting a $25 gruner veltliner, a white wine from Austria. Check Wine-Searcher, though, and there are dozens of gruners in Austria that cost €4 or €5. How did an everyday wine in Europe become a luxury in the U.S.?
As a friend noted the other day: “We can moan and complain about wine prices all we want, but this is what it comes down to in the end: a $25 bottle of gruner. On sale. Is it any wonder hard seltzer is all the rage?”
So this wine premiumization meme is for you, wine business. Enjoy.
Photo courtesy of OME Gear using a Creative Commons license
No, NPR, most Americans haven’t been passed out on the the sofa during the pandemic, despite what your story says.
This time, it’s NPR that doesn’t do the reporting and accepts the neo-Prohibitionist arguments that drinking will kill us sooner rather than later
Yes, I understand about budget cuts and the changing landscape for traditional media. But that’s still not an excuse for the sloppy reporting in this story, which ran on Friday. It recounted the arguments – most not necessarily true – that the neo-Prohibitionists use in their attempt to once again outlaw alcohol in the U.S.
Hence, I will reiterate my offer to serve as a sounding board the next time something like this comes up. Because, frankly, you missed a lot:
• You also took at face value the claim that we’re drinking staggering sums of booze during the pandemic. Which isn’t true. Yes, the story in the link is a bit jargony, but the point is that overall wine sales are down because of restaurant closures. So, in fact, we’re drinking less wine during the pandemic (also borne out here).
• The story said more people die from alcohol-related diseases each year than from drug overdoses, which is damned scary – save for one thing. Drinking is legal and booze is easy to get. Drugs, if you need enough to overdose, usually aren’t legal or easy to get. It’s a lot more convenient to kill yourself with alcohol, since you don’t have to meet a guy in a parking lot to buy heroin or coke, or to forge an Oxycontin prescription and hope the pharmacist doesn’t notice.
• The story ignores the astonishing statistic that one-third of us don’t drink, which is among the highest abstention rates in the industrialized world. I’ll bet you didn’t know that. So, next time, you need to ask: How can we be drinking ourselves to death if so many of us don’t drink?
Finally, a few words about one of my favorite neo-Prohibitionist flummoxes, something called “alcohol use disorder,” and which figures prominently in the story. Health officials claim that 15 million of us suffer from this, but the definition is so broad that it includes me, the Big Guy, and almost anyone who takes wine seriously. After all, don’t we spend a “great deal of time… in activities necessary to obtain, to use, or to recover from the effects of drinking”?
None of this is written to denigrate the serious problems caused by alcohol abuse. It’s something that I’ve been writing about for decades. Rather, it’s to give you the background you need the next time you have to write a story about how we’re drinking ourselves to death.
But that’s the case with this effort from Australia’s Brokenwood Cellars, which does everything but call on the shade of Orson Welles to chant, “We will sell no one wine before its time.” Does the narration really say (around 0:30) that Brokenwood makes wine “to be drunk and enjoyed, savored and admired?” What else are we supposed to do with it? Spit it out?
Brokenwood wines aren’t readily available in the U.S., but appear to be critically respected. Which makes the ad that much more difficult to figure out — if you’re already well thought of, why bother with this? It’s the kind of faux image building that less respected brands do to puff up their reputation. If you make quality wine, why gild the lily with a shot of someone’s gnarled hands?
The latest Bordeaux wine marketing plan will probably fail, just as the others did, because it doesn’t understand that price is all – and Bordeaux costs too much for most of us to buy
Dear Bordeaux wine business:
I understand your current difficulties, what with the pandemic and the Trump tariff. I also understand how desperately you want to reach younger wine drinkers, since that will help with many of your current difficulties. Hence, once again, I take keyboard in hands to offer advice you don’t seem to be getting elsewhere – why Bordeaux is in such trouble with everyone under 35. Or even 40.
It’s price. Your wine costs too much, and anyone who isn’t a wealthy Baby Boomer probably isn’t going to buy it. There’s less and less quality $10 Bordeaux for sale in the U.S., and no one looks harder for these wines than I do.
And you have no one to blame but yourself. To most wine drinkers, Bordeaux means high prices and exclusivity, and you have been perfectly happy with that for years. Hence, I get offers from retailers pitching $650 bottles – on sale. And emails about academic studies touting your wine as an investment option – hardly what a 20-something wants to drink with takeout Chinese food.
But now that business is bad, you aren’t happy. But the catch is that you still don’t see price as the problem. Your new marketing campaign, aimed at young people, includes $30 wine. I rarely buy $30 wine, and I do this for a living. So why would someone else, who just wants wine because they want a glass of wine, spend $30?
Yes, yes, I know: Bordeaux makes the best wines in the world, gets the highest scores, and so on and so forth ad nauseum. Which is all well and good for wealthy Baby Boomers, but what does any of that have to do with someone who wants a half-bottle of wine for a Tuesday night dinner of leftover pizza? This is the thing you haven’t understood in years. You assume that all wine drinkers drink wine the same way – plan their meal, find the best wine for the meal, get out the corkscrew, pour the wine, and sit down and eat.
How much more Baby Boomer can you get?
Which leads us back to pricing: You already have the perfect entry level wine, the red Chateau Bonnet. It’s well-made, varietally correct, and offers an idea of what red Bordeaux is supposed to taste like. The catch? It costs as much as $18 in the U.S., which is almost twice its price not all that long ago. And the white is still $10 to $12 in this country, something that makes no sense at all. I love the red Bonnet, but it’s not worth $18.
That it costs $18 speaks to how you’ve lost touch with U.S. consumers, and why younger drinkers opt for a $6 Trader Joe private label from California – if they’re drinking wine at all. Figure out how to fix that kind of bloviated pricing, and you don’t need any fancy marketing plans to sell your wine to young people.
Hope this helps; I’m always ready to do more if need be.
The Wine Curmudgeon
Photo: “Bordeaux Wines at Fareham Wine Cellar” by Fareham Wine is licensed under CC BY 2.0
I hope not. Wine is supposed to be balanced, where the various bits that make up a wine’s structure play off each other. Hence, the acidity and the alcohol and the tannins and the fruit and the oak and the mouthfeel and the minerality and everything else should be in proportion. Each bit has a part to play within that equation, and, best yet, the equation is never the same. Balance is going to differ given grapes and regions, so that balance for cabernet sauvignon from California will be different from balance for cabernet from France, just as balance for cabernet in general will be different from balance for chardonnay.
Now, things don’t always work out that way, but that’s the goal – not smooth. So why smooth?
The answer, I think, has its roots in the consolidation in the wine business. As more of the wine we drink is made by fewer companies, the logical, business-sensible thing to do is to develop a company style. That way, wine is easier to make, to market, and to sell. If a focus group likes a wine made in a certain style – say, bereft of tannins and acidity, with lots of ripe fruit – then the path of least resistance is to make all the wines in that style.
Or, as I write it in my tasting notes when I’m feeling especially curmudgeonly, smooooothhhhhhhhh.
That’s one reason why so many wines are so sweet these says, even when they’re supposed to be dry. A bit of sugar, usually in the form of white grape juice concentrate, flattens out all those rough edges. You can see this yourself with vinaigrette: Make one that’s a touch too tart, and then add a smidgen of sugar. The sugar brings the tartness into balance. But add too much sugar, and the vinaigrette turns smooth.
The irony about smooth?
Flavor, not smoothness, jump started the U.S. wine boom in the late 1970s. That’s when California introduced the “fighting varietals,” wines labeled as chardonnay, merlot and so forth. They tasted like their varietals and were fruitier and more flavorful than the blends that had dominated the market before that. I just finished a freelance story for American Demographics magazine that looks at the history of beer, wine, and spirits consumption in the U.S., and found that the success of the fighting varietals more or less coincided with the appearance of light beer, which made beer taste bland, flat, and mild.
Or, dare we say, smooth?
So it’s no surprise, said the experts I interviewed for the story, that Americans started drinking more wine, which wasn’t bland, flat, and mild. This is a trend that continued for almost 40 years, and it’s also why craft beer has been such a success – no one has ever accused a hoppy IPA of being smooth.
I wonder – is there a lesson to be learned here? When beer became smooth, people looked for something else that had flavor. Now that wine is smooth, should we be surprised that people are looking elsewhere for flavor?
“Quick — bring the wine in so we can get it through the rinse cycle before anyone notices.”
The clean wine uproar in the cyber-ether has been led by the Winestream Media, which usually doesn’t much care about things like that
The recent uproar in the cyber-eher about clean wine, and that it isn’t necessarily clean, may turn out to be a key moment in dragging the wine business into the 21st century. For the first time, a host of wine writers who usually spend their time talking about toasty and oaky and hip and cool are discovering the need for transparency in wine ingredients.
Who knew it would only take 12 years for them to get to this point?
The light bulb moment for me came last week, when Erica Duecy wrote a post for the popular VinePair site, headlined: “The Industry Set Itself Up for a ‘Clean Wine’ Reckoning.” Duecy didn’t mince words: “You might think this would be a wake-up call for wine companies, that they would lean into the problem, looking to engage millennials where they’re at (reading product labels and online), with the messages they want to hear (nutrition and product information). Yet that’s not what’s happening.”
Harsh charges. But what matters is not that Duecy wrote the post or even what she wrote, but that it appeared on VinePair. The site offers lifestyle-oriented wine, beer, and spirits coverage for younger consumers similar to what the Wine Spectator and Wine Advocate offer for their parents and grandparents – and that’s not necessarily Consumer Reports-like insight. Six recent VinePair posts: Cocktail influencers, an interview with a bourbon executive about “drinks innovations,” whether beer tastes better if it’s ”poured correctly,” Thai “moonshine,” and something called West Texas “ranch water” – which, apparently, we’re all drinking.
That VinePair took on the foolishness that is clean wine speaks volumes about where wine reporting may be heading.
For clean wine is foolish, as the story in the first link in this post documents (full disclosure – it was written by my editor at Meininger’s Wine Business International). Ostensibly, clean wine is made with nothing but grapes, yeast, and pure intentions, but clean wine producers aren’t especially forthcoming about what’s in their wine or how the grapes are grown. They can get away with this because ingredient labels are optional, and there’s no legal definition of clean wine anyway. So wine marketed as clean, a form of greenwashing, could have used the same additives and the same pesticides (or even more of each) as my $10 stuff.
And make no mistake, clean wine is all about marketing. Using the term may allow some producers to charge a one-third premium for their products, even if they aren’t all that different from “un-clean” wine.
In fact, I wasn’t going to write anything about clean wine. My first nutrition and ingredient labels post ran in 2008, about the time the federal government first broached the subject. I’ve been covering it regularly since then: So why irritate myself by pointing out – yet again – that it’s the wine business’ fault that clean wine exists, since it’s opposed to the nutrition and ingredient labels that would show clean wine for the marketing flummery that it is?
But then I saw the VinePair post, and figured I should add my voice. What’s the point of a little irritation if we can actually change something?
So one would expect lots of comments, lots of emails, lots of flaming, right? After all, this is the Internet in the second decade of the 21st century, isn’t it?
In fact, just the opposite happened: Hardly a murmur of protest, hardly any comments, and only one person who canceled their email to the blog. In my world, cancellations are the mark of a controversial post – the more controversial, the more cancellations. But in this case, more people were worried that I would be arrested for illegally ordering wine from an out-of-state retailer than the number who called me names. How weird is that in today’s cyber-ether?
But, after parsing what happened over the past couple of days, maybe it’s not really weird at all. That’s because almost everyone who doesn’t have a vested interest in protecting the system accepts it for what it is – obsolete and inefficient on its best days, and corrupt on its worst. So why bother to complain? As one comment put it: “The three-tier system exists only to protect distributors – the health issue is pure hypocrisy. …”
Which speaks to a larger and more troubling point – not just about wine regulation, but about how the world works these days. The sense is that those in charge will do what they want to do, be it in politics, banking, Wall Street, technology, or the Internet, and that there is little the rest of us can do about it.
Frankly, that is a decidedly un-American approach, and it’s one I don’t believe in. If I did, I’ve wasted most of my professional life, and I know I haven’t done that. And it also explains why I wrote the post and set up the reverse sting – if the Winestream Media is going to acquiesce, that’s all the more reason for the rest of us to rouse as much rabble as we can. Which I have done my entire professional life, and which I will keep doing until I am buried, keyboard between crossed arms.
And, sadly, it also explains why so many people were worried I would be arrested. They’ve forgotten what the news media is supposed to do, which is journalism — and which is not reprinting news releases touched up with bad, punny headlines When I was a young newspaperman, this sort of thing was common – the Mirage Tavern, the bible that wasn’t in the room, and so many more. These days, newspapers are assets to be butchered to make even more money for their owners, who are usually already richer than the rest of us.
Am I the New York Times, and will this post change the world immediately? Nope. But every bit helps, and especially at a time when we need help so badly.