Wine business history: The more things change, the more they stay the same

wine business historyIn the wine business, history repeats itself – and we know what premiumization, overpriced wine, and consolidation mean for consumers

Premiumization, overpriced wine, and consolidation are nothing new in the wine business. Go back 80 years, and wine business history is eerily familiar. In this, some of the earliest and most influential wine critics, including Leon Adams and Frank Schoonmaker, warned the industry about the mistakes it was making.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t quote Winston Churchill here: “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

Premiumization

Schoonmaker was a wine importer and wine writer whose 1930s’ “The Complete Wine Book” might have been the first attempt to explain wine to the U.S. consumer. In 1947, in a piece for Gourmet magazine, Schoonmaker lamented what sounds a lot like what we’re seeing now:

And in the past five years we have hardly seen any real vin ordinaire (by which I mean a common, inexpensive table wine) sold in America. The humble gallon jug virtually disappeared in 1943 from our wine merchants’ shelves; instead, the undistinguished reds and whites from the mass production areas of California appeared in fancy dress at a fancy price, and elaborate advertising campaigns were launched to convince us that bottles which we used to buy reluctantly for 60 cents were suddenly worth $1.50 and were being sold us as a special favor.

In other words, $15 wine is the new $8 wine.

Overpriced wine

Adams was perhaps even more influential in his time (the end of Prohibition to the 1960s or so) than Robert Parker was in his heyday. He is usually given credit for pushing the California wine business into the 20th century; he advocated for regional wine long before there was much of it; he helped start the Wine Institute; and he wrote several of the most important wine books in U.S. history.

He also had no use for over-priced wine, and regularly urged California producers to make wine that most of us could afford:

They should be as cheap as milk. High price wines are not for daily consumption with meals. Real wine drinkers know this; most Americans still don’t.

How spooky is that quote, that it’s still so relevant today?

Consolidation

Adams also saw the dangers of too few wineries producing too much of the country’s wine, something he first warned about shortly after World War II. He explained this in a 1974 interview:

The point was mine, and I think it has stuck to this day, that the little wineries should be encouraged to exist. The larger the number of small wineries that operate in the United States, the safer the big wineries are from attack, legislative attack in particular. If the wine industry ever fell into the hands of only a few major factors, the wine industry and the whole cause of wine would be in trouble. It would be endangered. … The big wineries have never agreed with me about the need to foster the small wineries. … My purpose is to encourage the use of wine, to introduce the use of table wine, which local wineries can do. Moreover, it’s especially to the advantage of California to thus expand the wine market, because with the ideal grape-growing climate of this state, California wines will always be the best buys.”

I wonder: How many of the biggest California producers have ever read that?

Photo courtesy of Sedimentality blog using a Creative Commons license

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