This 1982 Black Tower TV commercial reminds us that TV wine ads don’t improve with age
Black Tower is a German wine, best known for its black bottle. In the 1970s and 1980s, when U.S. wine drinkers wanted sweet white wine, Black Tower played off Blue Nun’s success to enjoy a bit of popularity before heading to the back shelves of the liquor store. Where it remains, for $8 a bottle, in case you’re curious.
Which brings us to this bizarre Black Tower TV commercial from 1982. The brand’s marketing types probably thought they had to distance it from Blue Nun’s image, so they made it much more manly. A deep, dark voice reminds us the wine comes “in the towering black bottle” while faux Wagner music plays in the background. Frankly, after watching this, it feels like it’s time to conquer Europe.
The catch, of course, is that Black Tower was about as manly as a baby diaper. It was a sweet, soft wine, and the commercial crams that information in even though it doesn’t quite fit the rest of the ad. Plus, there’s a blond woman eating an apple, because all wine commercials have to have blond women (though I’m not quite sure why the apple).
Like I said, bizarre.
So one more example of the sad state of TV wine ads, whether today or 36 years ago. Is it wonder I worry about the future of the wine business?
What do wine drinkers want? That is, those of us who drink wine because we enjoy it and aren’t chasing scores, trying to impress others with how much money we spend, or aspire to become wine geeks.
I shouldn’t have to ask this question, but as I start to gather material for the blog’s 11th annual Birthday Week starting Nov. 12, it remains in the forefront. Because, as one Dallas retailer who usually doesn’t say things like this said the other day: “Why is the wine business starting to treat consumers and wine drinkers like they’re idiots?”
So what do wine drinkers want?
• Fair pricing. The point is not how much a wine costs, but whether it’s worth what it costs. Barefoot, regardless of anything else, usually offers $6 of value. How many $20 wines can say that? And, as noted too many times in the past couple of years, fewer and fewer wines that cost more than $15 are worth that much money – to the Dallas retailer’s point.
• Varietal correctness. Chardonnay should taste like chardonnay, merlot should taste like merlot and so forth. Why is this so difficult to do?
• Legitimate availability. I get at least one email a week from a reader saying she or he can’t find wines I’ve written about. This happens even though I try to write about wines that are generally available. So why the problem? Because the system is rigged in favor of the biggest wholesalers and the biggest retailers, but not the consumer. Hence, the most available wines are usually the least interesting, the least varietally correct, the least truthful about sweetness, and the most unfairly priced.
• Knowledgeable sales people. Why a Chicago-area grocery store wine salesman would be rude to my mom when she asked about a wine I had written about is beyond me. But behavior like that is becoming the norm – when you can find someone to help you.
Nothing demonstrates the conundrum that is restaurant wine pricing more than the jargony writing in this article. “Thinking of the list as a holistic set of offerings that compliment each other is key.” Does anyone have any idea what that sentence means? How will it help anyone put together a quality wine list? Plus, it should be complement, not compliment.
Hence, the problem we face with restaurant wine pricing. Not enough people who put together wine lists understand that pricing is more important than anything else. It’s not screwcaps vs. corks or treating wholesalers with respect, two pieces of advice in the article. If we can’t buy wine at a fair price, we won’t – and there is almost 10 years of post-recession wine sales data to prove that point.
We’re tired of paying $35 for a $10 bottle of wine, but no one quoted in the piece seems to realize that. The closest anyone came – “A list needs to contain good lower-end bottle prices, along with the well-known higher end [wines]” – still doesn’t address the problem. Most restaurant wine pricing is too high, and there’s no good reason for it.
And if these five experts don’t see pricing as a problem, what does that say about the rest of the restaurant business – who probably aren’t as expert or as successful? Is it any wonder I worry about the future of the wine business?
Too many grapes, younger people who don’t drink alcohol, and slowing sales among all age groups are signs of a wine slowdown
Call it a tipping point if you don’t mince words or an easing of momentum if you do, but the results are the same. It looks like a major change in U.S. wine consumption is underway. Call it the post-recession wine slowdown.
Know four things:
• California wineries, faced with an oversupply of grapes from yet another bumper harvest and lagging sales, don’t seem to be buying as many grapes this year. In fact, their attempt to get out of grape-buying contracts in some parts of the state is causing controversy and bad blood.
• Wines sales have slowed, so that even an industry cheerleader termed growth for this year at a “sluggish 0.2% projected pace.” These numbers, from the company that publishes the Wine Spectator, confirm what has been reported elsewhere many times – U.S. sales by volume won’t exceed the increase in the drinking age population for the foreseeable future.
• Rob McMillan of Silicon Valley Bank, one of wine’s leading statistical gurus, says the industry is at that tipping point. McMillan says there will be more grapes than are needed to meet slowing demand, and that the industry must come up with a Plan B to sell its product in this more challenging environment.
In other words, we have too many grapes, younger people who don’t necessarily want to drink alcohol, and slowing sales among all age groups. But the industry is hellbent on selling more expensive wine as if none this was relevant – if it was still the heyday of scores and wine magazines in the 1990s and that post-recession premiumization would go on forever.
Consumers – and that includes most wine drinkers – vote with their debit cards. You can only sell overpriced and lower-quality wine for so long before they put their debit cards away. If that is happening now, and I think it is, then we have a wine industry selling something fewer people want to buy. And that is not a recipe for success.
First, fame and fortune, and now a sommelier cheating scandal
Wine’s biggest secret is that it’s a business, just like coal mining or car manufacturing. That’s because it pretends to be something else, this huge family of wine lovers where yes, we have to make money but that’s not the main reason we do it. Which is just more hypocrisy to anyone paying attention, and which the sommelier cheating scandal amply — and sadly — demonstrates.
Know that I’m not tarring the innocent with this brush. The cheating scandal, revealed last week by Esther Mobley in the San Francisco Chronicle, involved a master sommelier giving a list of the wines to be used for the blind tasting portion of the 2018 exam to one of the candidates. The accused has apparently been struck off the Court of Master Sommeliers, and everyone who took the test will have to take it again. No one has said that the cheating goes past that, though Mobley noted that 24 people passed the 2018 exam, compared to 274 in its almost 50-year history. Still, the organization that runs the certification has seemingly been open and transparent about what happened.
Sommelier-ing has become an industry in and of itself – movies, even. Sommeliers are the current rock stars of the wine business, perhaps even more quoted and revered than the celebrity winemakers who used to dominate the discussion. Or, as this story amply demonstrates – “curated by a master sommelier for taste” – why not cheating if those are the results? Talk about pedestals; only someone with initials after their name can decide if wine is worth drinking.
The best perspective on the sommelier cheating scandal came from someone who must take the exam again. The person, who asked not to be named, told the SevenFifty Daily website: “I will probably be one of the candidates who will not retake the exam. I know this is not the intent, but I feel like a martyr. I am embarrassed, though I did nothing wrong. I want to find a different industry to work in. I want this to be over.”
Why this is happening has been well documented, here and elsewhere. Whether it will continue is a point of much contention. The wine business is betting its future that premiumization is here to stay, and that consumers will happily pay $20 for wine that used to cost $10. Others, meanwhile, who are looking at data instead of wishfully thinking, see a wine world with an unsustainable pricing model.
Know the following six things about wine value 2018, where value is defined as wine that is well-made and fairly priced and usually costing less than $15:
• Yes, value still exists – in Spain, parts of Italy, and some of southern France. Many of these wines are still made to reflect terroir and treat their grapes accordingly. Use the category menu to the lower right to search for wines from these countries.
• Pricing is starting to devolve into three tiers. First, cheap and poorly made wine, costing $12 or less, marked by cute labels and gushy winespeak. Second, gimmick wine, often red blends with manly names that are sweet but are passed off as dry, costing from $12 to $18. Third, “collector wine” at $20 and more, labeled as better than anything else and priced that way – even if neither is true.
• Most of the Winestream Media don’t care about any of this, and so don’t write about it. Instead, we get point scores – all remarkably in the high 80s or low 90s – for what seems to be every wine, regardless of quality or price.
• Producers will intensify their focus on premiumization next year, which means two things: First, new, higher-priced brands, and two, price increases for established brands. There has been much more of the former than the latter since the end of the recession, and it could mark as sea change in the wine business if producers can make price increases stick.
It’s one thing to pay $9 for a glass of wine in a restaurant, even if it’s marked up four times and it wasn’t that much of a wine to begin with. At least it’s in a restaurant, where there’s food and a table and someone waiting on you and a glass for the wine and maybe even a comfortable chair. Which, of course, is the exact opposite of post-modern airline service.
Your three $9 wines – a red blend, a rose, and a sauvignon blanc – are apparently private label. I couldn’t find the wines listed for sale anywhere, including Wine-searcher and CellarTracker. Hence, the wine likely costs you about $2 a glass – a markup to delight even the most markup-conscious restaurateur.
And none of this takes into account the quality of American Airlines wine. There were a scattering of reviews on Vivino; the rose write-up (3 stars out of 5, which translates to a 60- to 70-point wine for those who care about that sort of thing) didn’t fill me with confidence: “However, the finish has a lot of steel/metallic elements … quite abrasive.” Yummy, huh?
The other thing that’s annoying? You serve real beer, including Fat Tire and Goose Island. What did the beer drinkers do to deserve that? Do you think they’re better than wine drinkers? Or smarter in some way?
And yes, I understand you can do this. In our “unregulated, nuts to the customer because we’re an oligopoly and there’s nothing you can do about it post-modern airline world,” you can charge as much as you want, be it for baggage, fares, meals, or wine. But that doesn’t mean I have to like it or drink it. Bring me a Fat Tire, please.
So understand my job is to tell my readers about overpriced wine. I can’t do anything about $30 to check a bag, but I can do something about this.
Yours in the battle against overpriced wine, The Wine Curmudgeon