Dreaming of Detachment

I have a pretty good idea of how wines are marketed and how they are presented for sale. Having worked in wine communications for about 15 years I’ve had the chance to work with wineries of varying size, varying quality aspirations and from various regions.

But one thing I’ve never had the opportunity to do is work directly with a classed Bordeaux property or an equivalently hallowed estate. I’m talking here about  the Petrus, Cos d’Estournels, Mugas, Screaming Eagles and Domaine De La Romanee Contis of the wine world. It would be fascinating to work with a producer that is at once an icon of the wine world and also has only the problem of deciding how much to raise their price each year.

Understanding this perspective however is not as easy as it seems. There is more going on in these wineries’ heads other than the chant, "Aren’t we awesome and happy we are". So its interesting to see its representatives display the cavalier attitude that really must come with such a position in life.

Decanter Magazine has an article up that draws the curtains back every so slightly on that world. It is a story about a conference in England on Bordelais viticulture that some of the top names in Bordeaux attended. In the course of a panel discussion the issue of Bordeaux’s lack of appeal to the younger drinker was brought up.

Now, this is something of an issue for the folk in southwestern France. It seems that young drinkers worldwide really want nothing to do with the Bordeaux wine they can afford. Australian, American, Chilean, Argentine and New Zealand wine is much more to their liking.

This is important because presumably it has implications for when these drinkers age and start spending the kind of cash that puts them in the ballpark to buy great and greatly priced Bordeaux. It seems given what they are weening themselves on they may be more likely to turn to high quality and high priced wines from New World locales.

So, what was the response when the likes of Jean-Michel Cazes, director of the famed Lynch-Bages, was asked if it didn’t it makes sense to work with the average, lower priced Bordeaux producers to undertake the kind of marketing initiatives that made New World wines so popular with the younger set?

Cazes simply responded that the idea was "not so relevant to us".

Now, while I’m sure he offered up more than this that wasn’t reported, isn’t it fair to say that this is so purely dismissive of the plight of the average Bordeaux winery as to border on contempt?  Another way of looking at this is to understand just how far away and how much on another plane of existence the likes of Lynch-Bages and Chateau Latour are from their neighbors in Bordeaux, as well as their winemaking compatriots around the world.

Then there is this one. Bernard Magrez, owner of Graves grand cru classé Chateau Pape Clément, responded to the notion that the more people drinking lower priced Bordeaux today will move up to your wine tomorrow with more dismissivness. Saying the low priced sector of the market was "already lost", Bordeaux should focus on better marketing his and the rest of the classed and expensive Bordeaux wines.

So let me paraphrase Monsieur Magrez: "Screw’em. If they can’t sell their plonk that’s their problem. We on the other hand can and for good money too. So just give us the marketing Euros and we’ll take care of things."

That’s a pretty confident lot they’ve got there. And I think they can be confident of their status as the most important collection of wineries in the world. They’ve earned it and proved their viability over the course of 150 years.

But, it’s a bit short sighted too. The consuming class that came of age in the 1950’s through the 1980’s were taught, if they were so inclined to listen, that the best wines in the world came from France and the most prestigious came from Bordeaux. You know what though, that advice has changed for the generation of high end consumers who were reared in the 90s and 00s. The word is out among them: Great wine does come from Bordeaux…but it also comes from California, Italy, Spain, Germany, Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, Oregon, Washington, New York, Germany, Austria, Canada….You get the picture. There will be no more slavish visits to the Bordeaux aisle as soon as they get a few hundred dollar bills splashing around in their pockets.

Despite the rather practiced detachment of the top Bordeaux producers I think the French and the Bordelais in particular, will address this issue. The changes will be viticultural, enological, political, and in the realm of marketing. An industry that has so much to lose won’t stay complacent long. It’s change or die.

Now, does this mean I wouldn’t take on a First, Second, Third, or Fourth Classed Bordeaux property as a client? No. Besides the hoped for discount on wines, there is that studied detachment that would be interesting to cultivate. I’m just not sure how productive it would be.

Posted In: Wine Business


3 Responses

  1. David - November 30, 2005

    Interesting post Tom. I’m one of those young wine drinkers that aspires to put a cellar together sometime in my life. I’m fascinated by the history of Bordeaux and other wineries in France, but I couldn’t tell you the last time I drank a French wine or even saw a bottle being drank amongst my friends.
    Keep those over-ripened New World reds flowing my way, of course that’s just one young reader’s humble opinion for now.

  2. Derrick Schneider - November 30, 2005

    Curiously, I saw a similar attitude at play when the subject of blogs was presented to a Wine Spectator representative at the wine writing symposium I went to last year.
    When I commented that the blog-reader demographic is one that no wine magazine has hit, I learned the attitude in Shenken-land: Oh, they’ll grow into us. Probably true to some degree, but I found it a curious stance.
    It’s also one that virtually every company adopts when it’s so far ahead of its competitors. Or perceives itself to be.

  3. caveMan - December 1, 2005

    Hey Tom,
    Congrats on the 1 year anni..
    Unfortunately this type of arrogance is fine if you are a classed growth. Wine collectors the world over still understand that a properly aged Bordeaux (as well Barolo, Burgundy and other classic Euro bottling) is still the shit. Nothing in the new world that I have tasted (including 20 year old Harlan’s, Granges etc..) comes close to the elegance and power of great Bordeaux (and will it ever?).
    That said, the french need to educate the world of wine drinkers that patience reaps benefits… More and more people I know are starting cellars and ‘lesser’ Bordeaux are perfect 3-5 year keepers. I recently drank a magnum of 1996 Lamothe-Bergeron ($39) and it was stellar. One doesn’t need to be forking out the big bills for classed growth, the pleasure of Bordeaux can be had relarively cheaply.
    The new world stuff is great for drinking out of the barrel and french wine can’t compete with that, nor should they. They have 2 choices, try and join the mondovino or stay the course and teach all these new wine drinkers about why french wine is different and how it should be approached. I for one will do my part to back them up on that.

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