That does it. I’m starting an Internet campaign to “Save the Wine Geeks.”
We’ve always had a bad name (usually “snob” or “elitist”) and we can let that slide off our backs. But I’m tired of the Mainstream Media using “wine geeks” as voodoo pin cushions to make non-wine drinkers feel superior to those of us who spend our hard-earned money on wine instead of beer.
The latest offender is NPR, that bastion of fair-minded (read “liberal”) journalism, the radio station I try to wake up to every morning (their voices often lull me back to sleep), that I even donated a car to (well, the local DC station, at least), that I’ve even been quoted on and appeared on local talk shows. In other words, I love NPR. That’s why I feel let down by this latest and most egregious attack on people who like wine.
In case you missed it, NPR is touting the shocking conclusion that wine geeks get “fooled” into paying more for a wine if it has a fancy highfalutin’ name. The only thing worse than public radio reporting such claptrap is that it is based on an over-simplification of university research.
Okay, let me stipulate: I’ve been writing about food and wine for 17 years, and in that time I have almost certainly used “wine snob” or “wine geek” as a straw man to set up a story. (I know I have, because I’ve been accused of it, Thank you very much, Don Rockwell!) What I resent is not a literary device, but the rampant use of them/us/me to justify someone else’s insecurity about wine, an insecurity that they shouldn’t even have in the first place. (If you prefer beer or soda, fine with me, I don’t think lesser of you. Why do you have to cut me down just because I like wine and spend my time and money obsessing on it??)
[Okay, deep breath .... aaaaahhhhhh .... ]
The NPR piece is flawed in so many ways I don’t know where to start. Mostly, because it is purposely inaccurate.
The reporter, Charles Lane of WSHU radio in Fairfield, Conn., uses Long Island vintner James Christopher Tracy of Channing Daughters winery on the South Fork as an example of an unscrupulous winemaker who gives his wines fancy names like “Blaufrankisch” and “Tocai Friulano” so he can charge more for a bottle and dupe you and me. Never mind that Blaufrankisch and Tocai Friulano are the names of grape varieties, no different than Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot. (Except, well, they taste different, but then, would we expect NPR listeners to understand that?) Tracy didn’t make the names up just so he could jack up the price, no matter what this report says.
“These names will run you between $20 and $40 a bottle. And it appears that the doozies might make him more money than the bottles with simpler names.”
Really? Do real estate and labor prices in the Hamptons have nothing to do with the price? Is it just Tracy’s greed? The piece also makes fun of Tracy for calling one of his wines “Mudd.” Does Lane explain that Steve Mudd is the grower on the North Fork who planted some of the earliest vines in the current era of Long Island wine? No, that FACT wouldn’t fit his story.
As it happens, I was in the Hamptons last month and visited Tracy at Channing Daughters. So I asked him about this radio story. Here’s what he wrote in a return e-mail:
“This was kinda crazy. The reporter left a message about a wine study and could he talk about wine grape names, etc.” [So Lane apparently was aware these were grape names, even though he conveniently ignored that in his reporting.] “Before I even called him back this cool, funky reporter showed up with a giant mic already recording and started to ask questions!” [As a professional reporter I can say, not cool. Why ambush a winemaker, for crying out loud? Only if your intention is to make him look foolish.] “As always, I tried to answer as best I could and be hospitable and hopefully helpful. This is what came.”
Lane did not answer my request for comment on the NPR piece.
Lane anchored his story on marketing research by Dr. Antonia Mantonakis of Brock University in St. Catherines, Ontario. This gal’s got cred: She’s an experimental psychologist specializing in consumer behavior and marketing communications for Brock U’s Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute. I’m not sure I buy into her conclusions, having seen them presented by Lane (suspect) and in a short video about her study on her website. But her work is interesting and at least she answered my e-mails and filled in some of the missing details. My gripe isn’t with her – I think she’s as much of a victim of agenda-driven journalism as Tracy is.
In a nutshell, here’s what she did: Three separate groups were asked to taste a wine and answer a few questions. One group tasted the wine with no information about it; the second group was given an easy-to-pronounce brand name; the third a difficult-to-pronounce name. The conclusion that Lane latched onto was that test subjects who reported more knowledge of wine (the “geeks”) were likely to be willing to pay more for the difficult-to-pronounce name.
“But here’s the fun part — the more Mantonakis’ test subjects knew about wine, the more easily they got duped into thinking difficult wine names equaled pricier wines,” Lane concluded. “She says that’s because wine geeks will hunt for just about any subtle difference they can find, like a unique sounding name.
‘And if something is rare and unique then maybe it might be a higher value and maybe something that is more special,’ she says.
So that’s how you trick a wine geek. For the rest of us non-experts, all it takes is a bottle of something cheap and tasty, like Elephant on a Tight Rope.
Notice the quote from Mantonakis there. It applies to anything, not just wine. And of course wine lovers thrive on nuance and anything that sets one wine apart from another, even if it’s a funny sounding grape name. That’s why I scratch my head over this, because the conclusion seems unsurprising and unworthy of a news report. To me, the fluency angle suggests an inherent bias for foreign or foreign sounding wines. The conclusion could also be flipped around (as suggested by Mantonakis in that video and in the NPR interview): Consumers who don’t care that much about wine are likely to prefer one with a simpler easier-to-say name, like “Cupcake” for instance, or one with a cute little critter on the label, no matter what it tastes like.
All three test groups tasted the same wine, of course, one produced by the oenology students at Brock. So at least it was a good Niagara wine. And Mantonakis says her research wasn’t designed to ridicule anyone, but to shed light on how we make our purchasing decisions.
“I certainly didn’t mean for it to come across as if I was ‘making fun’ of more knowledgeable consumer in the NPR interview, but as you can understand and appreciate I’m sure, it’s difficult to capture all the details of an interview in a 3-minute clip,” she wrote in an e-mail.
But here’s what worries me: Somewhere on Madison Avenue, where today’s wine brands are created, there’s an unscrupulous marketing wizard relabeling bottles of Cupcake wines as “Chateau Petit Gateau” or “Kugelhopfchen” and jacking up the price.
Because after all, we wine geeks are easily duped.
A video of Mantonakis presenting her study is available here.