Are Consumers to Blame for the Sorry State of #Wine?

It’s fashionable for wine scribes to bewail wine’s globalization – or mondalisation, as we francophiles like to say – the growing uniformity as countries around the world produce wines from the same grapes at excessive alcohol levels and abundant new oak. (Are there any forests left on earth, anywhere? Can’t we make barrels out of bamboo? It’s sustainable!) And there’s usually a one-word answer, or villain, for all of wine’s woes: Parker. Well, lately, a new villain has appeared as the cause of these unfortunate trends: Consumers.

STAMP OUT COMPLACENCY!


Yes, that would be you, or at least your neighbors. According to this argument, alcohol levels are creeping up because those are the types of wines consumers want to drink. Market forces, not critics, are driving wine styles. (Never mind that lemming-like consumers might be blindly following their favorite critics off a stylistic cliff.)

As Tom Wark, in his great blog Fermentation, recently put it succinctly and cogently (he writes no other way):

If you worry over the proliferation of big, high pH fruit bombs, don’t blame Robert Parker’s palate or Jim Laube’s [of Wine Spectator] preferences.

If you are troubled by the higher alcohol in wine these days, don’t blame new yeasts or new clones or global warming or the palate preference of critics.

If you worry about the invasion of non-traditional grape varieties pushing out traditional grape varieties in Old World growing regions, don’t blame corporate interests or globalist mindsets.

In every one of these cases the blame or responsibility falls on one entity: The consumer’s preference.

Wark’s argument is nuanced, and worth reading in its entirety. Here’s another nugget:

[A]s categories of consumer product begin to pick up a significant following, as wine has done over the past 30 years, the majority of products in a given category will take on a simpler, less complex character because most consumers in a large sample prefer simple [over] complex.

The consumer, as always, is king…but a simple King.

So market forces drive us toward the simple, the least common denominator (my term, not Wark’s). I can relate to that. Among the readers of my weekly wine column in The Washington Post, one in particular writes frequently to complain that I don’t recommend wines from Safeway or Total Wine & More, “America’s Wine Superstore,” favoring instead the small specialty stores that proliferate in the Washington area and make this a great place to be a wine lover. This guy refuses to drive an extra mile or two to a specialty wine shop, preferring the convenience and economy of the big-box store. That’s understandable. I prefer to buy my toothpaste, bandages, and ketchup at Costco because I can get the best prices and buy them all at once – but I also know these will be the same toothpaste and bandages that might cost a few pennies more at CVS or Walgreen’s, and the same ketchup that Safeway would rip me off for an extra nickel.

With wine, it is not the same. Those specialty stores – which, by the way, are just as likely as Total Wine to be in a strip mall down the road – offer small-production wines from family-owned vineyards that taste a world apart from the industrial sameness that feeds the beast of big-box stores and national supermarkets. They feature wines from local importers with small portfolios and distributors who represent cutting-edge wineries too tiny to grab the attention of the national distribution behemoths. Wines of variety and excitement, often without costing a whole lot more.

My job as a wine writer is not to justify a reader’s complacency. I want to prod readers out of their comfort zones away from the “simplicity” of industrial wine and encourage them to explore wine’s variety; to challenge their assumptions about what is good and lead them to discover for themselves the infinite array of flavors available to them for their simple glass of wine with dinner.

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About Dave McIntyre

Wine columnist for The Washington Post, co-founder of DrinkLocalWine.com, and blogger at Dave McIntyre's WineLine (dmwineline.com).
This entry was posted in Current Affairs, Parker, Rants, Weblogs, Wine, writers and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Are Consumers to Blame for the Sorry State of #Wine?

  1. Gregoire says:

    This is the whole point in choosing to follow a passion for wine. If you have no passion involved in your wine then buy the wine in the superstore and be happy because of price. If you are passionate about your wine, learn the story, nuance, history, and uniqueness with every savory sip, and be happy. Just because as Americans we are the most mass marketed to people on earth, for the most homogenized products in our huge economy, does not require us to lose our deeper interest in the pursuit of life’s more complex pleasures. I believe the WP wine writer’s job is to help readers explore the nuance of wine, and leave bulk wine discussions to the mass producers and big box stores themselves.

  2. Ah, to be a wine consumer and to be blamed for all that is wrong with wine. That certainly absolves the industry for all of the problems that they cause, doesn’t it? Apparently, as one Aussie commenter noted (http://bit.ly/pggyVy), we’re also responsible for the wine recession, because we just won’t buy all that expensive wine that our betters tell us we should buy.

    • Well, I do think Tom Wark was being slightly tongue-in-cheek, in his blunt, straightforward way. We’ve also read that producers make high-alcohol wines because they can and because they want to, not because Parker twists their arm. But they make them because they sell – ergo, because consumers like them. The counter-movement against high-alcohol wines is being led in part by writers with different palate perspectives; if it succeeds, these writers may take credit, just as Parker could legitimately take credit – rather than blame – for promoting the riper style. I don’t want to put words into Parker’s mouth, but I suspect he’d rather credit the consumers, too!

      • Yeah, Dave, but who do the high alcohol wines sell to? I’d love to see some real numbers about who buys high alcohol wines and how much of it is actually made, as opposed to the rest of the wine in the world. Over the past several months, this idea of two wine worlds, where there is elite wine and the wine the rest of us drink, seems to me to be more and more accurate.

  3. miguel lecuona says:

    The distribution chain is not blameless. Nor is government. State shipping restrictions stifle choice and penalize the small producer and the small importer. I like seeing new online retailers like Lot 18 but am frustrated by Texas (insert many other states) laws criminalizing many purchases. Big distributors moving large quantities to big retailers is a rational outcome of this system, and as fuel transport prices rise it will only get worse.

    Count me among those who more and more, screen for alcohol levels. Have yet to hear anyone complain, “nice wine but I wish it had more alcohol”. Even among scotch swilling friends!

  4. Ian Lipner says:

    It’s absolutely absurd to blame the consumer for declining quality levels of artisan product.

    Is it difficult to provide a beautiful and distinctive product and still turn a profit? Absolutely. But is profit the top goal of wine-making? That’s the question that is being answered by the producers. It is only producers who seek to maximize profit that have changed their wines for the benefit of the coffers. Their pursuit of profit then, is to blame – not the consumers’ willingness to drink what they’re selling.

    Consumers do no thinking on what to plant, how to ferment it, or even what shows up on their local wine store shelves. They buy from the wines made available to them by producers and importers and selected by the retailers. When choosing a wine, they are mostly confined to a multiple choice question. It is only the connoisseur who has set aside time for an essay answer – and he must work hard to find the full range of possibility. Some producers even delight in hiding themselves from the average consumer under the veil of cult designations.

    How ironic it is to serve only bacon to your dinner guests and then point to their apparent enjoyment as evidence of their lack of nuance. Does the fact people like bacon mean they only want to eat at Chili’s and are the reason you can’t find a decent pork terrine at Safeway? Absolutely not.

    If people prefer lesser efforts, it means you are not reaching people with your best efforts. Perhaps it’s because you don’t know how to speak their language, because you underestimate their ability to appreciate the efforts, or because it simply is not as profitable to do so. I suspect in the wine industry, it’s all of those.

    But the consumer’s fault? Hogwash.

    • Well, as Tom Wark says in his comment below, artisan producers are trying to make money, too – but they are aiming at a smaller slice of the market. It would be great if we could go back to the good ol’ days when first-growth Bordeaux was $4 a bottle, but we can’t. Those of us willing to pay $15-$20 for a really good bottle of wine will keep small importers in business. Those for whom $40 is “everyday” (and I’ve met a few of those) can keep at least some of the cult wineries going. But the average price paid for 750ml of wine in the US is about $5. That’s the market (consumers) speaking, so the majority of wines produced will be geared toward that price range. And most of those will be inferior wines.

      What gets my goat is when readers complain that I ignore them because I don’t recommend wines they can find at Safeway. (There have been a few, but very few.) I want to help them explore the great variety wine has to offer, but they only want me to justify them in their choice of industrially produced wine.

  5. Les Hubbard says:

    As a part-time wine sales person who interacts with consumers on a day to day basis, I must agree that Tom Wart is as usual, insightful and again correct. When I view the two wine walls in our store, one domestic the other imports, the selections clearly reflect what consumers want to buy because our business model is based on high turns and low margins. Parker did not create the market for high alcohol fruit bombs, consumer tastes did by their purchases. I decry his 100-point scale but recognize that many consumers use it and those from Wine Spectator and others to daily from shelf talkers make their wine selections. My personal tastes may be far different from Parker’s and other critics, but when you operate a retail business you sell what consumers are willing to buy. Clearly, in Maryland our selections are limited to what wholesalers are willing to offer and their largest sellers are indeed the lowest common denominater wines. Thankfully, there are some selections from some small producers of more artisan wines, typically sold by smaller specialty retailers.

    It was those small specialty retailers who over the last half century helped me learn about and select wines outside my comfort zone. Their owners and sales people are to be commended even if today they represent but a small market niche compared to the Coscos, Total Wine and other volume retailers. They taught me how to pair lower alcohol wines with my food selections, hence, my belief that wine should usually be accompanied by food. Yes, I’m also a Francophile, but not a wine elitist as I spend time attempting to find best buys among selections under $20 per bottle, those that challenge wines costing two or three times that amount. Thus, I’m not likely in the majority of regular wine consumers who ultimately determine the selections available in the marketplace.

  6. Miguel Lecuona says:

    Good points on this topic. One more point on wine consumption and purchasing — correct me if I’m wrong but women drive the purchase cycle as much or even more than men in terms of retail shopping — I wonder how much this varies by channel… Is there any data about women vs men buying supermarket vs specialty shop, or even red vs white? Or “daily drinkers vs over $25 bottles”… Judging from our own fridge, convenience, selection and quantity discounting matter a lot in what actually comes home, but I see even more variety in my wife’s purchases than I do in my own. She scours the aisles for the elusive quarry, the perfect $10-15 white. We occasionally lock in on one until it is depleted, then look for another. She does not exclude the major producers, but I’d say repeat purchases are less than 1/3 of the total.

    The closest we have gotten to our quarry on a mass production scale is when Roederer Anderson Valley goes on sale for $17.99… and it meets the easy-alcohol-enjoyment test too. Otherwise I see lots of Iberian varietals and Sauvignon blancs and a few Grigio cousins coming through the kitchen door. Very few Cali Chards, though.

  7. Tom Wark says:

    Dave:
    Thank you for the kind words.
    As it turns out, I was not being tongue in cheek. Vintners large and small are in the business of making wine to make money the same way small and large soap producers are in the business to make soap to make money.

    Those making the kinds of wine that some deride as being mass market wines, high alcohol wines, manipulated wines, etc. are 1) not bad wines and 2) produced because more people will buy these wines, no matter what the reason. In the end, the consumer is responsible for their purchases and tell the producers with their purchases what to produce.

    At the same time, small and tiny producers of wine have no intention of losing money. And many of them make wines that very different form the mass market wines. Yet there is clearly a market for these wines too. Yet, not as large as the the market for mass produced styled wines.

    The marketplace is truth.

  8. Tom Wark says:

    Ian Lipner said:

    “It’s absolutely absurd to blame the consumer for declining quality levels of artisan product.”

    What gives you the impression that artisan wine products are declining in quality?

  9. Ian Lipner says:

    Tom: I was referring to the lead, “wines from the same grapes at excessive alcohol levels and abundant new oak” I don’t think Dave was referring to jug wine.

  10. Pingback: Weekly Virginia Wine News Round Up: 9-10-11 | Virginia Wine Trips

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