Tag Archives: wine marketing

Winebits 596: Tariffs, wine writing, wine prices

Wine pricingThis week’s wine news: The booze business has discovered it doesn’t want tariffs, either, plus wine writing’s unique demographics and expensive wine doesn’t guarantee quality

No tariffs, please: The Wine Curmudgeon is not the only one who understands that tariffs are a mug’s game. Most of the booze business’ leading trade groups, including the Wine Institute, have asked the federal government to drop plans to tax European Union products. The story, from Shanken News Daily, is a bit convoluted, but the gist is that even people who never agree about anything else agree about this: “Entry level, everyday products are going to be affected just as much as high-end imported products,” said the CEO of the group that represents wine and spirits wholesalers.

An exclusive club: Tom Natan, writing on the First Vine blog, discovers one of the wine business’ underlying truths, “the uniform racial makeup of the wine writing world. … at least the part I experience at meetings and conferences — seems to be populated almost exclusively by White people like me.” He parses some intriguing numbers, including that almost one-quarter of U.S. business owners and bosses are women, but that only 4 percent of wine and spirits businesses are owned or run by women. And only one-fifth of those 4 percent are women of color. This is in marked contrast to food writing, he writes, which is much more diverse. Natan looks for reasons why this is true, but misses something else: Does this lack of diversity explain why the wine business is so obsessed with expensive wines – the kind that are preferred by its older, wealthier demographics?

Not so fast, expensive wine: Dan Berger, writing in the Santa Rosa Pres-Democrat (in the heart of wine country, no less), warns us that “wine buyers willingly accept being fed a diet of misinformation — or no information at all. They continue to buy wines based on marketers’ fictions, accepting lies or faux facts, and believing high prices indicate high quality.” And, just to be sure we understand, Berger asks: “Can you imagine buying a car without first gaining specific details about its specifications, and without taking a test-drive? How about buying furniture off the web that doesn’t give measurements or the material from which it was made?” But, and as been mentioned here many times, wine drinkers do that regularly, because we assume that wine is different than cars or furniture.

Wine status and image, not quality, may matter more to producers

wine status and imageA 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?

Have we reached the end of wine criticism?

wine criticism

“I’m tired of toasty and oaky. Where’s that damned thesaurus?”

Wine drinkers have little use for wine criticism. Do they know something the wine business doesn’t?

The Internet was supposed to revolutionize wine criticism, making it more accessible, more open, and more democratic. So what has happened in the 11 years I’ve been writing the blog, as we celebrate Birthday week 2018?

Just the opposite – wine criticism has become more button down than ever, a continually increasing jumble of scores and winespeak where every wine, regardless of quality, seems to get 88 or 90 points. Which raises the question: Have we reached the end of wine criticism?

More, after the jump: Continue reading

do it yourself wine review

Back label wine descriptions: What the jumble and winespeak on the back label really means

Back label wine descriptionsBack label wine descriptions can be as confusing as anything written by wine critics

The recent post about wine critics and their almost indecipherable wine descriptions reminded me that they aren’t the only ones whose goal is confusion and obfuscation. We also have back label wine descriptions for that.

In fact, back label wine descriptions may be more annoying, since their job is to help sell the wine. Who wants to buy a wine where the back label promises something that isn’t there? I’m not the only one flustered by this; a marketing official for one of the largest wine companies in the world told me it bothers good marketers, too. But many of the biggest producers contract the back label writing to third parties, so they’re stuck with what they get.

The other annoying thing? Yes, many of the worst examples come from cheap wine, but many also come from wine costing as much as $25. And what does that say about the $25 wine?

The following are taken from actual back label wine descriptions, with my explanation of what they really mean:

• Silky mouth feel: “We’ve removed the acidity and tannins and added sugar to cover up anything remotely resembling either, just in case any is still in the wine.”

• Unusual fruits like lychee nut and guava: Most wine drinkers probably haven’t tasted those, so the description does two things – first, shows that even a $6 bottle of wine can be exotic. Second, that the wine is deep and complex, even when it only costs $6. So shut up and buy it already. But then there is the other side of the descriptor.

• An alluring hint. … : “The flavor isn’t actually there, but if we suggest it, you’ll probably taste it and think the wine is better than it is.”

• Robust, with intense, dark fruits: “We’ve added as much Mega Purple as humanly possible.”

• A mocha finish with lingering oak: Regular readers here know what that is without any help from me – scorching amounts of fake oak, and then even more. And maybe even a little bit more just to be on the safe side.

• Freshly picked peaches (or apricots or even red fruit like cherries): “You’re damn right it’s sweet. But we’re not going to say that, are we?”

• A long, stony finish: “We couldn’t get rid of that odd, bitter taste in the wine, and we didn’t want to add any more sugar. So we want you to think that the bitterness is a good thing.”

Post-modern wine marketing 101

post-modern wine marketingHow wineries make decisions about what to make, how to sell it, and how to price it – and it doesn’t have all that much to do with what consumers want

The following conversation is fictitious, but it’s fiction that only someone who has spent the past 35 years working on the sales side of the wine business could write. That’s my old pal John Bratcher; yes, he said over a glass or two, this is exaggerated — but not all that much exaggerated.


Winery marketing genius: The winery needs another label to sell at a higher price. Because premiumization.

Winemaker: Like what?

Marketing genius: I had this dream the other night about a barbershop quartet singing the same song, but each singer was singing in a different language.

Winemaker: Wow, bizarre. Even for you.

Marketing genius: What if you took varietals that really don’t go together and put them in a blend no that other winery has made or has thought of making? Huh? Huh? Huh?

Winemaker: Ah, well, we do have a little riesling we had to buy to get that zinfandel you wanted for your last big idea. I guess I could mix them with some of the barrels we had planned to use for a Bordeaux blend. Weird though, and the alcohol would be a little high.

Marketing genius: High, smigh, throw it together and we’ll come up with a really catchy name. Something like. … “Ship shape.” Charge $25 for it. Say it’s velvety smooth. … a wine made for sweet dreaming. And maybe throw in some chocolate cherry descriptors. Because Apothic.

Winemaker: Shut up, already.

Marketing genius: No, not shut up, but you’re on to something. … Shut Up… Put Up… Shot Put… Ship out… Upset… Set Point… Slipshod! That’s it! Slipshod! I am so unbelievably brilliant!

Winemaker: No, I was telling you to shut up. Why didn’t I go to law school like my mother wanted?

WC sample index: Cheap wine quality sinks to new low

cheap wine quality

How many more of these do I have to taste?

The current round of samples from Big Wine (and not so big wine) has not been worth drinking — to be polite

How bad has cheap wine quality become? So bad that most of the samples I’ve tasted over the past month have not been worth drinking. The always willing and ever amiable Lynne Kleinpeter tastes most of these wines with me, and even she has had enough: “I’ll drink anything, and I’m going to pour this one down the sink before you even ask what I thought of it.”

What has been wrong with these wines?

• So-called dry roses that are actually sweet, with about 1 or 1.2 percent residual sugar. That’s about as sweet as something like Apothic Red, E&J Gallo’s best-selling sweet red blend.

• Red wines that make no pretense of tasting like wine, but are instead loaded with extra sweetness, coloring agents like Mega Purple, and evil tasting fake oak. The red Lynne poured down the drain had so much cheap chocolate flavor that it made me gag.

• White wines reduced to inoffensiveness, with the acidity and freshness taken out. In one case, that included the calories – a reduced calorie pinot gris that tasted like club soda spiked with NutraSweet. This seems to be part of a trend I’ve noticed in a lot of corporate food, as well – remove the flavor and make the product as bland as possible. Why anyone thinks this is a good idea is beyond me.

This is the worst stretch of samples since I started the blog. The only thing that prevents me from calling them out by name is that snarkiness won’t solve the problem. Besides, I don’t want to give them any chance to show up in a Google search.

Rather, we have to understand what’s going on and refuse to buy these kinds of wines. That’s why I made another of my 12 wines for $100 trips last week.

First, the cynicism among wine companies big and almost big that we’ll drink anything that is priced in the current hot zone, about $12 to $18. The most disgusting wines I tasted were at the high end of that price range, festooned with clever names and tricky labels.

Second, trend hopping. I’ve gotten roses from companies that know as little about pink wine as my dogs do, figuring that if the label says dry rose everyone will buy it; isn’t rose the new moscato? That the wines are poorly made and don’t taste like dry rose doesn’t seem to bother them.

Third, lots and lots of cheap grapes in California, so they can do crap like this. That’s the worst part about what’s going on – the poor quality of the grapes being used to make more expensive wine.

How do you identify these wines so you don’t buy them? First, look for labels and names that talk about lifestyles instead of wine; one particularly wretched sample waxed poetic about hippies. Second, is there too much winespeak? The minute you see terms like “black pepper flavors followed by gentle oak spice,” run as far as you can in the other direction. Finally, these are mostly California wines, and my samples from other states and countries were drinkable, and sometimes even better than that.

More about wine samples:
The tyranny of wine samples
The return of the wine sample index

No, the Wine Curmudgeon is not your PR “partner”


PR people. do you get the hint?

Why do so many PR professionals think my job is to shill for them?

Today’s 21st century wine marketing question: Why do so many public relations professionals expect me to shill for their products?

I am asked to do that regularly, and got two just the other day – one offered me a “collaboration opportunity,” while the other asked: Could we “partner with you” in sending wines for review?


Let’s explain this one more time. The blog’s existence depends on the trust and goodwill I have earned over the past decade. People do not come here because I am collaborating or partnering (and don’t get me started on what an abomination that word is) with a producer, but for the exact opposite reason: Because they know I am completely independent, and probably too independent for my own good.

But since this is the 21st century, what I want or believe doesn’t matter. We’re all here to sell crap, because isn’t that what the Internet is for? And I’m just a blogger, so I couldn’t possibly be as smart or as sophisticated as the people offering to “help” me. And the idea that some of us think we have a moral obligation to be impartial, and that our responsibility is to our readers and not to a marketing flack or the hooey they’re peddling? Why, that’s as quaint and as old-fashioned as typewriters and carbon paper.

I’m not the only one, of course, who has to endure this. A.O. Scott, the New York Times film critic, saw it during the last Star Wars release: “The spoiler warning sent by the Disney empire instructed journalists to ‘continue to be our partners on this journey,’ and defiance is unthinkable, even if ‘partner’ is taken as a synonym for ‘shill.’ ”

So, for the benefit of everyone who thinks my job is to write nice things regardless of what I actually think (and for Disney, since A.O. Scott is sort of a friend of the blog), here’s how it works:

I’m a critic. I review things. I don’t accept payment or any other quid pro quos for my reviews. Send me a wine, and there are no guarantees. If you don’t like that, then don’t send me any wines. That’s fine with me.

And please, please, please. Don’t tell me you’ve read the blog and enjoy it when your next sentence says you want to partner with me. Because who is kidding who then?