The wine business has much to answer for

wine edcuation

Whatever you do, don’t help me make an informed decision about what to buy.

It was bad enough that the woman, standing in the Texas winery tasting room, proclaimed that Texas wine wasn’t any good, and that she suspected the Texas wine she was drinking came from California. What was worse was when she told the tasting room employee that she only drank cabernet sauvignon and malbec, and that she wasn’t going to drink this red blend because she wouldn’t like it.

What struck me, as I watched this scene unfold over Labor Day weekend, was that it was so wine ? the woman’s dead certainty she was correct, despite knowing nothing about what she was talking about; the refusal to try something different, because it was different; and the sense that the winery was trying to put something over on her.

And this doesn’t include the other foolishness I’ve seen this fall, like the woman at a Kroger Great Wall of Wine with $50 worth of beef in her cart who was agonizing over $10 cabernet sauvigon and who couldn’t have been more confused if she had been trying to read the Iliad in the original Greek. Or the bartender at a chi chi Dallas wine bar who treated me like I was an idiot because I wanted to talk about Texas wine and cheap wine.

Does that happen with any other consumer good? Only wine, and for that we have the wine business to thank. More, after the jump:

? Who needs education when we can make money playing to our customers’ fears and prejudices? I spent 20 minutes at Grapefest this year trying to convince a man who only drank $25 corporate cabernet that the world would not come to an end if he tried a quality $10 cabernet — and with almost no success. You’d have thought I was trying to talk him into walking naked down the street.

? Who needs education when we can make money marketing cute labels and clever names that have nothing to do with what’s in the bottle?

? As one blog visitor emailed me about a great cheap wine that befuddled him with the winespeak: ?How can it be any good when they describe it the way they do? What does beeswax taste like? How many people have ever tasted it

Yes, other businesses market that way, whether it’s Detroit implying that its cars will help you get hot chicks or Tide intimating that its detergent will make everyone in your family love you. The difference, though, is that those products deliver in a way wine doesn’t do often enough. Detergent really does clean clothes, and you can’t sell detergent that doesn’t. Cars work, and there are penalties if you sell one that doesn’t.

Wine, on the other hand, has no such requirement. Sell junk, but name it so that it appeals to women ages 21 to 34, and you’ll make a Hot Brand list. Make swill, but put just the right winespeak on the back label, and since the terms sound fancy enough, the wine has to be worth buying, doesn’t it?

Wine has become a $36 billion a year business using that formula, which is why we’re still using it. What I’ve never understood is why no one realizes how much bigger and more profitable it could be if we helped the woman I saw in the tasting room enjoy wine, and not just drink it. No wonder I’m so curmudgeonly.

13 thoughts on “The wine business has much to answer for

  • By Matt - Reply

    Thank you! Hoping to make my own wine some day (yummy stuff for a low price), but working on the corporate wine side of things right now, I see this everyday. I’m convinced sometimes we’d sell more of the lower priced stuff if we just jacked up the price and attached more fancy names to the flavors/aromas in the wine. Is is right to “fool” your customers if you can?

  • By Blake Gray - Reply

    Jeff, I’m not sure we can blame the wine industry for this. There is a boatload of real, useful information of wine out there, as you know because you write some of it yourself.

    Sometimes you have to blame people. For the same reason that there are parents who give their kids Coca Cola in baby bottles, there are women who only drink Cabernet and Malbec. There are just a lot of stupid people in the world.

    It’s not just wine. Start talking to people about what kind of clothes they wear or headphones they use. And let’s not even begin talking about people’s beliefs on politics or science.

    Some big wine companies are better at marketing to stupid people than others. But if you took all that marketing away, it wouldn’t make those consumers smarter.

    • By Wine Curmudgeon - Reply

      You are, as always, too kind in saying nice things about me, Blake. Yes, sometimes wine drinkers are their own worst enemies. But the industry, including our colleagues on the writing side, are more than happy to reinforce those prejudices. That $25 corporate cabernet guy had to learn the one thing he knew from somewhere.

  • By Karen - Reply

    Aww! For a curmudgeon you have a downright warm and fuzzy view of human nature. While I wholeheartedly agree with you calling out the wine industry for selling pretentious swill, I think that works because it appeals to (many) people’s vanity. They don’t drink wine because they like it so much as it affords them an opportunity to show off and snub others. That’s not exclusive to wine drinkers – it’s pretty common among so-called “foodies” and fashionistas and lots of other consumers too. No amount of wine education will ever change that because human nature just is what it is. So while the industry could do a lot more to help the confused lady in the grocery store, not sure there’s much anyone can do for someone who goes to a Texas winery to proclaim Texas wine bad without even tasting it. Education only works on minds that are open enough to absorb the lesson.

    • By Wine Curmudgeon - Reply

      Wow — more cynical than I am, Karen (though very well written).

      I’d like to think, given what I do for a living, that everyone is open to education. Otherwise, it’s time to go to law school.

  • By Todd - VT Wine Media - Reply

    It’s not too curmudgeonly when you are talking common sense, even if it seems bludgeoning. It is easy to point at the industry which has so much power to shape the experience both in the glass and marketplace. However wine consumers are more empowered than ever to seek out the story and substance of which they sip. Only the lazy can make excuses.

  • By Joe Gargiulo - Reply

    Jeff,
    I agree w/ you (the wine industry is mostly responsible for the misinformation) and Karen (a pretentious segment of wine consumers is more interested in bragging about designer wines than drinking them). Keep ’em comin’ ??? Joe G

  • By Andrea Fulton-Higgins - Reply

    Well all I can say is….you get what you pay for. Wineries pay about $10/hr. and it shouldn’t surprise anyone that a lot of tasting room employees are relatives/friends of the owner, or of someone associated with the winery. The work is seasonal and usually part-time. I have worked in tasting rooms, and the job can be too hectic to do anything but pour and sell. There is little training beyond making sure guests are over 21, pushing the wine club, and how to use the cash register. Wineries put too much emphasis on using valuable face time telling customers about soil, vineyard sites, clones & other technical details that the average consumer has no interest in, and not enough emphasis on things like food affinities & serving temperature.

    • By Wine Curmudgeon - Reply

      This not a knock on the people in the tasting room, who did a wonderful job with the woman. I would have thrown her out.

      Rather, it’s about a system that plays to the woman’s fears and prejudices.

  • By Todd Shanks - Reply

    Great article, but I not sure the onus is on the wine industry as much the consumer. I don’t believe the beer industry is going out of it’s way to educate it’s customers. Yet beer drinkers or at least craft beer drinkers are very adventures. If they have never heard of it they want to try it. They will travel hours to get a chance of trying some sour that you never see on draft. There is something about wine that people feel like they have to pretend they know something about it. The less they know the more they pretend. I still think there is an underlying stigma with wine snobbery, thus people can’t just go with the flow and learn for themselves. I could go on for hours on this subject. I sell wine for a living and I can tell you many more stories that would make you shake your head on how ignorant people can be. I have often thought about a blog on such a subject. But writing is not one of my strong suits. I would be more than happy to share my stories with you if you would be so inclined to hear them.

  • By Tom Barras - Reply

    Wine is like many other pursuits and hobbies that require some self education. If you have no idea what is in the glass, and are not willing to learn about it, then anything will be adequate, as long as it does not offend. Charles Shaw at 60 million cases to date proves that.

    Further, Wines like Skinny Girl, Butterfly Kiss, and Cupcake sell an emotion, not an aroma, not a flavor, nor a taste. It is up to the ultimate consumer to bear some responsibility for their buying decisions.

  • By Craig B. - Reply

    Wow! One of the best articles Iv read in a long time! I couldn’t agree with it more! I am a Sommelier at a steak house and intensionaly set up what has been recently called a “rouge wine list” by one of the top crapy winers in the country, Rouge because I didn’t not put K.J., Mondavi, Beringer, Ch. St. Mich., Cupcake, Apothic, Layer Cake or even the ” upscale swill” like Silver Oak, Jordan or Cakebread! People were pissed! This industry is changing in a couple of different directions! Since our recession the middle class who once drank Silver Oak but can’t afford to anymore are trying to compisate by watching the in crowd and following them so they can still have that image! On the other side there are the former Silver Oakers who actually know a little about wine who are making the leap to try new wines that are far better and half the cost and are amazed at what they are finding! Boutique wineries are on the rise because of education! If I can get a Frenchman from provance to drink a Texas rose’ that he blindly chose over the other, we can do this with the rest of the brainwashed wine drinkers!

    • By Wine Curmudgeon - Reply

      Thanks, Craig. The best thing a wine drinker can do is try something different, but the system makes it hard.

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