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?