Making wine easier

wine advoceThe wine industry has had a revelation: Wine is too difficult.

First, an important British advertising executive told the industry: “You’ve seen it ? the way people in restaurants nervously pass round a wine list. It’s fear. You as an industry have encouraged that fear. The wine industry is the most fragmented market I’ve seen. Fragmented, confusing, impenetrable.”

Then, Tom Klein, the new president of the Wine Institute, said more or less the same thing: “In general, we need to make wine more accessible to everyone. It can be a bit intimidating to some people. Could we do a better job at explaining wine and making people more comfortable? Yes, but that’s beginning to happen.”

What’s going on here? Has the wine business finally come to its senses? Can we expect real change and not just lip service? Will we finally see labels that do more than patronize with cute design or confuse with jargon and platitudes?

It’s not news that a problem exists, though it is news that people in the industry have noticed it. This is an industry, after all, that thinks a back label for a grocery-store quality wine that says “Our Pinot Grigio … is reminiscent of a pear cupcake with white chocolate” is effective marketing. Which it’s not. For one thing, the wine doesn’t taste like that. For another, why would anyone want it to?

We can thank the recession for this new perspective. It has wreaked havoc with the wine business model — sell expensive wine to people who don’t understand what they’re drinking. Since the mid-1980s, this has been a fabulously successful approach, with sales and consumption reaching all-time highs.

Even many of the companies that make cheap wine succumbed. No one, and I mean no one, knows more about selling wine than Gallo, yet this is the description the company uses for its Barefoot chardonnay: “Golden and smooth, with a sweet vanilla aroma, our medium-weight Chardonnay is full of honeyed peach and Fuji apple flavors.” Fuji apples? In a $6 wine? We’re approaching peach cupcake territory here.

This is why it’s going to be difficult for the wine business to change. It dislikes change (corks, anyone?), and cute and confusing has been around so long that it is ingrained in the industry’s being. It’s like losing weight. I know that I shouldn’t eat takeout pizza if I want to drop a few pounds, but it’s just so easy to pick up the phone and order and worry about losing weight later.

This is not to say that there haven’t been positive developments, like the International Riesling Foundation’s sweetness guide. The group has developed a sensible, easy-to-decipher label symbol to tell consumers just how sweet a particular style of riesling is. The problem, though, is that the rest of the wine business is busy telling consumers they’re a bunch of yahoos if they drink sweet wine.

So what needs to happen?

? A recommended, industry-wide standard label, based on the riesling foundation example, that offers information that consumers need. How dry is the wine? What temperature should it be served at? How fruity is it? What grapes is it made with (since a wine that says merlot can be 25 percent something else)?

? Education, education, and more education. How about a Wine Institute road show, featuring top winemakers, that travels the country giving wine education seminars?

? Making wine for wine’s sake, not as line extensions or to take up shelf space. In some grocery stores, there are more wines for sale than cereals. What’s the point of that? All it does is confuse the consumer.

And, as always, the Wine Curmudgeon is ready to do his bit.

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