Wine’s Cornucopia: An Illusion?

Do you feel overwhelmed when shopping for wine? The sheer magnitude of choices is daunting. There are wallabies and penguins and rabbits, oh my! Do you prefer to go Barefoot or wear Flip Flops, socialize with Old Farts or Fat Bastards, gnosh on Layer Cakes or Cupcakes, ride Red Bicyclettes or Red Trucks? The wine shelf is a cornucopia of variety. 

And it’s a lie. Sort of.

That’s the lead to my column in today’s Washington Post, and you can guess which phrase got cut. No matter. This is an important topic, because it cuts to the heart of our perceptions of wine and how we idealize it – or not. You probably do idealize wine, if you’re reading blogs like this one, but most of the people who buy a wine for dinner once or twice a month and read my Post column looking for bargains – well, they probably don’t. Most people don’t – for most, wine is a beverage, not unlike Coke or Pepsi, just with a kick and an air of sophistication. So in a Coke-or-Pepsi world, does it really matter that more than 50% of the wines sold in the United States are produced, licensed or imported by just three companies?

This column was prompted by a study out of Michigan State University about brand concentration in the wine industry. Jeff Siegel at The Wine Curmudgeon and Mike Veseth at The Wine Economist have also written provocatively about this study.

So I hope you’ll read the column and comment, both here and on WashingtonPost.com, to get a dialogue going.

Here’s a comment on the Post website from AnthonyR1978, a wine retailer.

As a wine retailer, I am constantly frustrated with customers coming in and asking for mass-produced wines like Cupcake or Kendall-Jackson. When told that we do not carry those labels, many customers walk out in a hurry and do not even bother to ask for other suggestions. On the other hand, I have many great customers who appreciate small production or unique, interesting wines so there is a greater interest in these wines that have character. Unfortunately, it is sometimes easier to sell these “corporate” wines rather than swim upstream trying to sell wines that no one has heard of.

I see many of these mass produced wines ending up in the hands of Millennials which has me worried about the younger generation. It seems they do not take the time to understand what it is they are buying and trying new things. To them it is easier to just buy the same wine they know and are familiar with. It is interesting to see how our beer culture has gone the opposite way with many people searching out microbrews in lieu of Budweiser and Miller.

This insight is a bit counterintuitive, because Millennials are supposed to be more adventurous, open to trying unusual wines out of the mainstream and not beholden to top critics and their 100-point ratings. Maybe when they buy wine to eat in, they’re more conservative?

What say you?

 

 

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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 Cheap Wine, Eastern US, France, Rants, Washington Post, Weblogs, Wine and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to Wine’s Cornucopia: An Illusion?

  1. The retailer’s comment is intriguing because it demonstrates the forest for the trees thinking that plagues the wine business. Perspective is all, and there is very little of it in wine.

    It’s not like Millennials are the only ones who buy the same wine over and over because it’s easier; K-J was around a long time before the Millennials showed up. It’s about education, something the wine business has never really been interested in. Until the wine business makes a serious effort to teach consumers how to appreciate wine, instead of using back label bamboozle to sell the product, this will continue to happen.

  2. Sharon Richardson says:

    Intimidation on the part of consumers is also huge. If I’m buying beer or soft drinks, for instance, I am fairly confident in my choices and know that my friends aren’t going to talk about me later because I had Heineken on ice (along with some select microbrews), or if I served Sierra Mist instead of Sprite. But with wine. . . Suppose I purchase something and it’s swill? Then I’ll look like a “rube” or a “hick” to my sophisticated wine-loving friends. Am I guaranteed a good wine if I shell out $50 a bottle? Am I guaranteed a good wine if the label is cute or arty? Am I guaranteed a good wine if I go with a “brand” name? Who knows? And I don’t have the time to educate myself when I just want to throw a dinner party. . . So I agree that the wine industry has to do a better job of educating busy consumers; and do a better job of paring back the 50,000 brands so it IS clearer what we’re purchasing; and, most important, not make us feel like hicks for not knowing what to buy!

    • Nancy Bauer says:

      I agree, Sharon. Choosing wine can be overwhelming. So rather than go out on limb, folks find it easier to just grab whatever bottle their friends brought to the last bash. For most – as you say – there’s no great desire, or time, for dedicated wine education.

      Maybe a place to start is encouraging wine buyers to rely more on sales staff for guidance – a marketing-focused “ask the experts” model. My romance with wine shop sales folks started a decade ago when, with some trepidation, I asked for help at Fern Street Gourmet in Alexandria for a wine-tasting dinner party I was planning. The suggestions were right on the money – and the cost was less than I would have spent if I’d just winged it, trying to impress with dollars rather than knowledge. And the expertise isn’t restricted to the small shops; I’ve found Total Wine’s floor staff to be equally impressive – and they haven’t pointed me toward Cupcake even once.

  3. Rick Davis says:

    Wow…so many thoughts and words…so little space and time! Let me start with the bottom line first. I know at least four retailers in my area that invest consistently in the business of helping their old and new customers to become familiar with an ever-expanding number of wines…and they’re not only thriving — but business is booming! One in particular “always” has a dozen or more wines that customers may taste for free — and he’s all too happy to talk about each one and how it might compare to other more familiar wines. To boot, the line-up is swapped out completely each week! Hey, do the math…that’s a potential for 60 different wines every week…and even with repeat offerings of particularly popular wines…that’s a wealth of exposure to those who otherwise are inclined to be “rutters.” With a couple of exceptions, these retailers too don’t carry the “grocery store portfolio” of wines per se…but they’re also quite willing to place a special order for such wines…and they make a point of ensuring their customers know that…by way of their web site and social media endeavors — as well as some tastefully designed in-store reminders and flyers that are stapled to every receipt.

    It’s just my opinion…but retailers who feel it’s their mission in life to ensure their customers never taste another Kendall-Jackson or, God forbid, a Francis Ford Coppola wine “are” the problem! Sell people whatever it is they want or seek for cryin’ out loud…and if you still feel compelled to champion your cause…then do so in a manner that doesn’t demean or offend your customers. Why not offer loyal customers a special, non-threatening opportunity to come into the shop and “Taste the Alternatives” — e.g. specially-designed flights for those who might like Cupcake Chardonnay, K-J’s Vintner’s Reserve Cabernet or Gallo’s uber-successful Apothic Red Blend — etc.. That way, one can easily introduce the less adventurous to a nice Vouvray or Viognier, a stellar Monastrell or Garnacha, an Australian GSM or the proverbial Bordeaux red blend…and do it in a way that’s not the least bit condescending or confrontational. So “it is possible” for retailers to honor their calling while respecting their customers’ preferences.

    For those enthusiasts who chase the funky names and whimsical labels — I say good for them…because, if nothing else, it clearly demonstrates their complete willingness to try something different — given nothing more in reason or motivation than the “notion” of being a Skinny Girl, a Mad Housewife or an Arrogant Frog. Retailers take note — why not promote your Château Belair as the “wine of wisdom and good fortune” — or the “wine for those who are liberally conservative” or some such? Come on retailers…unstuff you pants, get off of that high horse and let your hair down a bit! The world…and the world of wine in particular…belong to those who don’t take life so seriously!

    All that said, I will never know the taste of the new wine by Layer Cake’s Jayson Woodbridge…who chose to promote his right to be concurrently insensitive and offensive — by naming it “If You See Kay.”

    • Thanks Rick, it is a fine line indeed. I have run successfully a wine store in Washington D.C. called Cleveland Park Wines & Spirits and I deal with the public daily and just had my own version of a sales over a bottle of Cupcake wines with a young lady that in our conversation pointed out that I was not a girl and was perhaps implying that I could not understand the label’s appeal to her? At any rate I ended up selling her a bottle of the Ten Sister’s Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc that was chilled and that had an attractive label as well with a great story, too of ten sisters and one brother and where I know Ellie that lives close to us that is the daughter of one of the ten sisters. I do not know what my customer’s response will be or if she will return even as I made her think and she asked me : ” But is it any good ? “. Anyway, I like your comments and appreciate whet you have offered and think you have some good points. As I said, it’s a fine line that we retailers walk in selling. For me a return customer that is happy and that is becoming more familiar with their own palate, accepting it, not fighting it, and working with it is one of the greatest accomplishments that I can attain. Cheers, Anthony ( TONY ) Quinn

  4. Thomas Matthews says:

    If I were a wine retailer, I would try to stock the wines my customers wanted to buy, even if that included Cupcake or Kendall-Jackson. I would also stock lesser-known wines that I admired, with the hope of building relationships with my customers and helping them develop and expand their palates. And I would realize that the same person might buy very different wines for different occasions.

    But whether Millenials are adventurous or not (and in fact, are probably both, depending on the occasion), I found this comment a non sequitur: “This insight is a bit counterintuitive, because Millennials are supposed to be more adventurous, open to trying unusual wines out of the mainstream and not beholden to top critics and their 100-point ratings. Maybe when they buy wine to eat in, they’re more conservative?”

    In my opinion, “critics and their 100-point ratings” are not the reason people are buying Cupcake wines; while we have reviewed a number of Cupcake bottlings (some of which are very good, by the way), Wine Spectator spends much more time reviewing wines from small, family-owned estates in far-ranging regions across, say, Italy and Spain. Our goal is to help people explore new wines, not limit themselves to big brands — the same goal as your “frustrated retailer”. That retailer should be hoping that more of her customers are reading wine writers, including Wine Spectator and this blog, instead of relying on mass-market advertising for wine recommendations.

    Thomas Matthews
    Executive editor
    Wine Spectator

  5. Sharon Richardson says:

    Amen, Rick Davis. I will say, however, that if you live in the supposed hinterlands of our Metro area, the grocery stores are just about our ONLY options for buying wines. In my part of Virginia we have state-run ABC stores and then grocery stores. I don’t see either of those wine-selling venues offering free tastings to help introduce consumers to wonderful alternatives to the big “brands.” I could fight traffic up 95 on a Saturday to try and reach Old Town Alexandria or trendy Arlington (or even come into DC or over into Maryland) to some of the retailers you describe — right after soccer practice and volleyball practice and band practice and running errands and cleaning house. . . (LOL) but I doubt that’ll happen. So I either serve “predictable” brand wines like K-J or Woodbridge (LOL), or I leave wine off my menu altogether.

  6. Dave,

    I can’t tell you how many times people have stepped into our tasting room at Annefield Vineyards and asked if we have Moscato. Since we are in the Southern half of the Commonwealth near the North Carolina line (the land of sweet tea), we expect a preference for sweeter wines and have a couple of things to suit them — and these are wines we generally do not present to restaurants, because the ones we sell to (so far) don’t have a need for them, and prefer something drier to complement their menus. If we had relationships with a Thai restaurant or two, they could present our off-dry wines as an alternative to Riesling, I suppose. I remember doing a tasting with a sommelier at a DC restaurant and he sampled our single off-dry wine at the time (at 2% residual sugar) and on tasting it he recoiled, virtually in horror. The funny thing is, his reaction was exactly the same that our sweet drinkers down South have when they try our dry wines.

    We make the kind of wine we like and want to be known for, but market realities call for having a thing or two that appeals to those who don’t share our palate (or vision). I agree with whoever said this is all about education, and we look at those who are limited in their experience as an opportunity to educate about different styles of wine.

    And going to a wine shop? It can be a geography lesson, at least for the adventurous. One of our favorite things to do is to patronize the very type of wine shop that wants to share the world with its customers. One near our house in McLean called Chain Bridge Cellars always has a fascinating selection. We’ll stop by, tell them we want a mixed case, give a price range (say, under $25/botttle) and they put together an always amazing assortment of very delicious selections. That’s when we pull out “Wine Grapes” by Jancis Robinson (et al.) to learn what is in each bottle and where it came from.

    Do the shops have to offer tasting events in order to get people to buy wines they’ve never tried? That’s an expensive proposition — take it from a winegrower. Yet the public — at least in Virginia — seems to be conditioned to expect that because of our multitude of wine festivals. Managing expectations is a mantra of ours, and essential for a long-term relationship.

  7. Frank says:

    For me personally, I tend to buy wine with pretty women on the label. If there are no pretty women labeled wines available, I opt for the bottle that the store ‘employee of the month’ selected as his/her favorite. Sorry, couldn’t resist – my crude attempt at humor.

    Seriously, excellent piece and great catalyst for discussion, Dave. I guess I can empathize with the retailer (AnthonyR1978), but I wonder how much he understands his customers? His statement; “It seems they do not take the time to understand what it is they are buying and trying new things.” Not to take this discussion too far off topic, but maybe, just maybe these Millennials (and others) look to wine as one of their ‘easy’ decisions for the day. Perhaps Anthony’s Millennial customers are suffering from a chronic case of information overload syndrome resulting from their 24 x 7 x 365 hyper-connected lives and perhaps they find comfort in familiarity (it’s a possibility). If their comfort wine happens to be produced/distributed by one of the 3 companies controlling 50% of the market, is it really that awful? Really?

    For the record, as someone who supports – via my wine checkbook – the smaller, lesser-known producers/vintners, I would not personally recommend these ‘big box’ type of wines to friends, but certainly do not view their consumption of such wines as a bad thing.

    I better align with the approach Thomas noted; “If I were a wine retailer, I would try to stock the wines my customers wanted to buy, even if that included Cupcake or Kendall-Jackson. I would also stock lesser-known wines that I admired, with the hope of building relationships…” Building relationships – amen brother!

    I appreciate Jeff’s comment, but disagree with his statement — “until the wine business makes a serious effort to teach consumers how to appreciate wine… this will continue to happen.” There seems to be a slight air of wine snobbishness in this statement (please correct me if I’m off base here and have misinterpreted the statement). This assumes that the consumers really do need to be enlighten for their tastes if they happen to like/buy those darned Mondovinoish big box brands.

    Though I get the point of this discussion and am being a bit cheeky, I’m not sure the “this” that Jeff references really is all that bad. What if Millennials do not ‘want’ to be educated?

    I say let consumers – Millennials or otherwise – enjoy their Cupcake KJ Charles Shaw Reserve Red Blend. Drink What You Like or something like that.

    Cheers everyone!

    • Perhaps “appreciation” wasn’t the best word to use, Frank (so much for writing for a living).

      I don’t care what anyone drinks, be it white zinfandel or cult cabernet. That’s been my mantra for all the time I’ve written about wine. All I ask is that consumers be willing to try different things and expand their horizons, and that’s where education comes in — and that’s something I have also tried to do for as long as I have been writing about wine. Why does this wine taste differently than this wine? Why is this wine $10 and this wine $50?

      The wine business doesn’t give consumers the knowledge to take that next step, and isn’t interested in giving it to them. It’s easier to sell by labels or scores.

  8. Jennifer M. says:

    I work for a small, family-owned winery in New Jersey (yes, we make some pretty good wines here) and the majority of our customers are Millennials – young, successful people who enjoy a nice bottle of wine every once in a while. But I think our success with this age group is two-fold: one, we offer live music on the weekends (an enticement to bring them in); and two, our wine maker is always out on the floor educating the customers about wine and the wine-making process. Our customers feel a personal connection with us that translates into brand loyalty and more sales.

    Of course, representatives from Gallo and the Constellation Group can’t be in every liquor store all the time. The draw to these wines is not a personal relationship, but price point and consistency, something that is much appreciated when you are young and on a budget!

    I think that exposure to wine, even Barefoot or Flipflop, opens the door to curiosity and exploration. Should a retail store be responsible for cultivating that curiosity? It makes sense that an increase in information and a little wine education would lead to increased sales. What store wouldn’t want that?

  9. terroirradio says:

    Ladies and Gentlemen,

    It’s fermented grape juice. Although we in the wine blogosphere put wine on a much higher and deeper plane, I would surmise that at least 50% of the population (if we took the big boys market share into account) buys wine much as we do a pair of sneakers. I make this statement, not to denigrate or degrade their buying decision, but to put things into perspective.

    If you look at a pair of Nikes (U.S. 41% market share), does that make you a ‘sellout’, or an uninformed consumer? That may be the opinion of a hard-core triathlete or gold-medal contender that has custom equipment made for them. But that is a very small percentage of the population. How would you feel if, walking out in the gym with your shiny new ‘nice’ $100 trainers, some jock looks at you, and snickers to his friend…

    ‘Mass produced, wouldn’t perform for my needs…’

    I am a wine geek. I love everything about it. I get excited for mycorrhizae and low production Malbec, and get paid to talk to consumers and industry folk alike about it. However, many of my friends don’t. In fact, they shut down after 60 seconds of my rants on pH and acid (unless we are taking some). Though I may have a greater understanding of wine, it is not my place nor position to make them feel inadequate for purchasing a bottle, box, or Tetra Pak of the latest critter brand. It is my job to commend them for supporting a family (contracted fruit owned by growers) that nurtured and picked this fruit they are enjoying, and, if at all possible, enhance their daily lives by sharing it with friends in fellowship. If they want to get more serious, offer that needed education with passion, and a light-hearted nature in finding where vino fits into their existence on earth. It is not rocket science, but sometimes we make it such. And, like Nike sponsoring a sporting event that brings their product to many, larger corporations of wine does the same in how they market their wares. Do I drink the Kool-Aid? No. But I respect their place in the wine world.

    We are ambassadors of wine, big or small, million plus cases or less than one hundred.

    Let’s act like it.

    Cheers,
    William

  10. terroirradio says:

    Reblogged this on TerroirRadio and commented:
    Want a look at the ‘business of wine’? A good discussion on the state of affairs and how we interpret it.

  11. gdfo says:

    There have been more than one instance of a Wholesaler asking/paying a friend or relative to go into an establishment and ask for a specific brand that the establishment does not carry. I know this for a fact.

    Aside from that any restaurant or retailer should develop their own philosophy about what they want to be and what they want to sell.

    Are some retailers missing sales? Yes. Are they missing out because they do not carry a brand that does not fit in with what they want to be known for? No. They can always tell the customer that they would be glad to order that item for them, how many bottles would they like to purchase and when can they pick them up, perhaps a deposit is in order.

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  13. Norman Holly says:

    Millenials are entitled to whatever swill they prefer; but in constantly seeking good dry wines for my table, I wish to avoid the mass productions (Gallo? Not that dishwater) and concentrate on those that represent the careful attention of their producers. So I purchase from wineries when possible, but would also like to patronize local wine shops whose personnel really know the products they carry. In this regard, I have been disappointed with Calvert-Woodley, and wish that the lovely lady who owned Mayflower would return. So, where is the shop owned by AnthonyR1978? I’ll go there for some good advice.

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