Charles Bieler, right, and his father Philippe. They’re a long way from the pink Cadillac.
Charles Bieler is one of the best rose maker in the world; more importantly, he is one of the reasons the rose boom exists. For which we are all most grateful.
Charles Bieler was between jobs in the late 1990s when his father suggested Charles help sell the family rose in the U.S. Charles took up the challenge, painted a Cadillac pink, and traveled the country to convince retailers and restaurants to sell dry pink wine. As Charles says, that was at a time when everyone thought rose was sweet, and he truly wondered if dry rose had a future in the U.S.
Which, of course, it did. We talk about the rose boom, the pink Cadillac trip, and the challenges facing rose today — with advice on how to find the best cheap pink.
A Northwestern University study says the most successful producers focus on wine status and image, and not necessarily quality
Quality matters to most wine producers. But the status and image of their product may matter more in the U.S. market, says a study by two Northwestern University professors. The report, completed last fall in association with the Wine Market Council, found that the most successful wine companies focused on their products’ status before anything else.
In other words, when you’re staring at the grocery store Great Wall of Wine, the producers aren’t trying to sell you on how good their wine is; they’re trying to sell you on how special it is. This is especially true for wines costing more than $15 – the sweet spot for premiumization.
“We found that the most profitable producers, and those with the biggest margins, for them it’s a status game,” says Ashlee Humphreys, PhD, who co-authored “Status Games: Market Driving Through Social Influence in the U.S. Wine Industry” with Northwestern colleague Gregory S. Carpenter. “They don’t care so much about what consumers think as they want to lead the way, so the consumer will follow.”
In one respect, the study’s findings are not new. Those of us who focus on value and quality have always assumed neither was as important as toasty and oaky when it came to marketing wine. But this may be the first time that someone has actually investigated the question and found it to be true in a peer-reviewed academic journal. My favorite line from the study? “Embracing a wine-as-art approach, winemakers’ choices often contradict market-based logic.”
Producers sell their status message by focusing on wine’s so-called gatekeepers – the critics, sommeliers, and wine magazines that shape public opinion. The producers educate the gatekeepers about what makes their wine special, whether it’s a certain style like ripe fruit or a specific appellation like Napa Valley or a superstar winemaker. The gatekeepers then tell consumers the wine is worth buying because it is special, and that “special-ness” gives it a status that other wines don’t have. The consumer, given how confusing wine is, accepts the gatekeepers’ word as gospel and buys the wine. Call it wine’s trickle down effect.
Hence the foolishness in so much wine writing
Which explains the pretentious adjectives in wine reviews, which are so pretentious that they aren’t adjectives but “descriptors;” the schmaltzy travel writing that gushes over wine regions, regardless of what they are; and the snotty restaurant wine lists, which don’t explain as much as they intimidate.
Note that this isn’t exactly fibbing. Napa Valley is a top-notch appellation. Rather, says Humphreys, the idea of status comes from “creating a difference for their wine that sets it apart from everyone else’s wine, and then selling that difference to the gatekeepers. They tell the gatekeepers, ‘We craft a beautiful wine,” and that’s what the gatekeepers report.”
This approach isn’t common for wines costing less than $15, where the reverse is mostly true, says the study. Producers hold focus groups to find out what consumers want, and then make the wines according to those results. Cheap grocery store wine is smooth and boring because that’s what the focus groups say they want. (Whether we actually want smooth and boring, or it’s a failing of the focus groups, is a discussion for another day).
So what’s a wine drinker to do who wants value and quality? Humphreys, who was a casual wine drinker before the study and is more serious now, laughed when I asked her. “I’ve never really thought about that,” she says. “Wine is a social experience, isn’t it? So shouldn’t you ask your friends what they like, and go from there?”
Perhaps. It couldn’t be any less effective than depending on the gatekeepers, could it?
• Celebrity wine ventures rarely come to a good end. Just ask Joe Montana. Or Dan Aykroyd.
• The wine business’ attitude toward women has been less than progressive. In this, it’s not as backward as Hollywood and it’s much better than it used to be. But there are still comparatively few female winemakers; the same is true for executives who aren’t in marketing.
• Your marketing types report you will be “hands-on” during production. You should clarify this with them, since some smart-ass wine writer will ask if hands-on during production means you will fly to New Zealand to pick grapes.
• The wine’s availability may be a problem. No one will be able to buy the wine from Amazon or in a grocery store in Manhattan, thanks to the three-tier system. Also, there’s no guarantee it will be in your neighborhood wine shop (so don’t get mad at Matthew when he tells you he can’t find it). Plus, since three-tier is constitutionally protected, there’s nothing you can do except complain to your distributor.
Four of the seven wineries on the 2019 Beard award semifinalist list are part of drink local
Four of the seven wineries that are semifinalists for this year’s James Beard Awards for best wine, beer, or spirits producer are regional. What does that say about how far we’ve come with drink local?
The four wineries are among the 20 semifinalists for the top booze honor in this year’s food and wine version of the Academy Awards. The regional honorees are McPherson Cellars in Texas, RdV in Virginia, Red Tail Ridge in N.Y., and La Garagista in Vermont. All four are terrific wineries that do credit not just to regional wine, but to winemaking in the U.S.
It’s also worth noting that the two California wineries among the semifinalists are Winestream Media favorites – the self-named wineries from Cathy Corison and Steve Matthiasson in the Napa Valley. That wineries from Lubbock, Texas, and Bethel, Vt., are on the same list with Corison and Matthiasson would have been unheard of 10 years ago.
Best yet, they don’t make the same kinds of wines that the two Napa wineries make, or the other honoree, Red Willow in Washington state. Their wines speak to the terroir of each producer – something else that makes regional wine so exciting. Just as Italian wine shouldn’t taste like French wine, U.S. regional wine shouldn’t taste like it comes from California.
It’s safe to recommend almost any wine from these four, with the caveat that availability will be spotty if you don’t live in that state.
Consider these wines:
• The McPherson Tre Colore (about $10) is a red blend using the Rhone varietals Texas has figured out. Yes, the rose is terrific, as is the rousanne, but the Tre Colore is the ultimate weeknight wine – well-made, a tremendous value, and just fruity enough (dark berries) without being annoying. I’ve known Kim McPherson a long time, and it’s a pleasure to write this post about the winery.
• The RdV Rendezvous (about $85) is a Bordeaux red blend that shows the great progress Virginia has made over the past 20 years. It’s complex, dark (black fruit), interesting, and layered. If a regional wine is worth as much as a great wine from France, Italy, or California, it might be the Rendezvous.
• New York state is best known for its rieslings, but the Red Tail Ridge blaufrankisch (about $26) makes a case for red wine. Blaufrankisch is an Austrian grape, so it can handle the unpredictable Finger Lakes winters. I drank this wine, earthy and herbal, with my Drink Local co-founder Dave McIntyre; the restaurant’s wine list was infinitely more interesting than the food.
Finally, congratulations to Jennifer Uygur, who owns Lucia in Dallas with chef-husband David. David is a Beard semifinalist for Best Chef: Southwest. Even if he doesn’t win, they will have the satisfaction of knowing Lucia is one of the best restaurants in the country.
Dave Falchek, the executive director of the American Wine Society, is more optimistic about wine’s future, and especially with younger consumers
Dave Falchek, the executive director of the American Wine Society, gets a different perspective on the future of the wine business, what with being around wine drinkers more often than most. As such, he is more optimistic about wine’s future, and especially with younger consumers.
Dave’s point: There are millions of Americans turning 21, the legal drinking age, and there is no reason to assume they won’t be interested in wine just because the rest of us are so cranky about the subject. Younger consumers are more open to new ideas, so why not wine, he asks? Just don’t assume it’s going to be the same thing their parents and grandparents drink.
In this, Dave knows of what he speaks: The AWS is the largest and oldest organization of wine drinkers in the United States.
An analysis of studies that looked at how labeling on food packaging, point-of-sale materials and restaurant menus prompted consumers to eat fewer calories and fat; reduce their choice of other unhealthy food option; and eat more vegetables.
What more do we need to know about the efficacy of labels? How much better off would wine be if each bottle listed calories, fat, and the like? Wouldn’t consumers benefit to know that there are about half the calories in a glass of wine than in a jelly doughnut? Wouldn’t they feel better knowing their wine was mostly fermented grape juice instead of something like Dr Pepper – with its 250 calories, high fructose corn syrup, and four percent of the daily value of sodium?
The wine business disagrees, and just not because it doesn’t want consumers to know wine sometimes has a lot more in it than fermented grape juice. Instead, I will get emails and comments citing another part of the study: Consumers “also selected 13 percent fewer other unhealthy food options such as sugar-sweetened beverages, alcoholic beverages, non-alcoholic caloric beverages, french fries, potatoes, white bread, and foods high in saturated fat, trans fat, added sugars or sodium.”
My answer: Doesn’t wine need to do something drastic when it’s compared to french fries, white bread, and sugar-sweetened beverages? When consumers think your product is as nasty as french fries, you’ve got nothing else to lose.
So read this, and know the way the world is going. And know that the wine business is headed in a completely different direction.
Why do Valentine’s Day wine reviews offer so much overwritten prose and overpriced plonk?
Valentine’s Day brings out the worst in the wine business – overwritten prose and overpriced plonk. Is it any wonder the Wine Curmudgeon refers to it as The Holiday That Must Not Be Named?
Hence the following, which – sadly – demonstrates the point after the most basic of Google searches:
• From something called The Spruce Eats: “… Cupid claims some serious turf when it comes to wine for your Valentine.” If so, Cupid should know better than to recommend a 7-year-old rose, which would likely taste like pink paint varnish.
• Most of the wines recommended in this Town & Country post are more than adequate, if a bit pricey. But doesn’t someone at a big-time magazine like Town & Country care about writing? Am I the only one who thinks a line saying that one wine is “just like the slightly sweet kiss from your special someone” should be edited with extreme prejudice?