The Wine Experimentation Campaign
I had chance to very briefly chat with Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon the other day. In the midst of a short conversation he explained his belief that we live in a "post-varietal" world.
This would put him in line with Appellation America (a Wark Communications client) publisher Roger Dial who also believes the future of North American wine culture is terroir driven.
This idea that we are moving toward a terroir-driven understanding of wine in America doesn’t necessarily conflict with the results of our most recent survey here at Fermentation. However, it doesn’t necessarily speak to the importance of the producers in the minds of consumers.
Asked which factor among Producer, Varietal, Region and Label Appearance is most important in deciding among wines $30 or more you’ve never tried before, fully 71% of respondents identified the Producer.
I wonder to what extent this overwhelming endorsement of the producer has to do with the amazing proliferation of new labels that have hit the market in recent years. With so much to choose from, many consumers simply return to what they know. This suggests that there is good reason to push consumers to experiment if the goal is to broaden the consumers’ experience, or even if it is to ask them to branch out and try wines from emerging wine regions.
While I agree with both Grahm and Dial that we are at the starting line of a movement that will lead more consumers to investigate new regions and hence new wines and new styles of wines, I’m convinced that the idea of EXPERIMENTATION must be sold to consumer. A "move beyond the ordinary" campaign of some sort, either at a low key or well-structured way, is probably necessary to hasten a movement toward region as the defining concept that motivates wine drinkers, rather than brand or varietal.
I believe the reason you obtained the results you did was because your survey did not allow a RANKING of the choices; there was only one alternative available. The questions were also unrealistic because they provided no context; we very rarely buy wine without some reason – chicken for dinner tonight at home/at a restaurant with friends/barbecue, new release from a favourite winery, visiting a particular region, stocking up our cellar, gift for friend/boss, and so on. Each could start us thinking in a particular way and we could be influenced initially by different factors.
Selecting wine is a “multi characteristic choice”. Depending on the reason for selecting a particular wine you can start from different points and go through a process which involves any or all of region, variety, producer, vintage, price and so on. If I’m having chicken for dinner I am not going to select a wine based on producer or region, I’m going to select varietal first – I might decide I want a Chardonnay and then jump straight to producer (Giaconda, Leeuwin Estate, …) or I might choose Margaret River and then consider Leeuwin, Pierro, etc. For another context I might want to try something from the Mornington Peninsula then choose Pinot Noir, then choose a vintage, then a price and finally a producer. The potential combinations, and the way of putting those combinations together, are numerous but, importantly, they are all combinations that work.
However, “producer” is a proxy for of all these things, certainly for smaller, quality wineries. To take a US example, if I said “Peter Michael” that instantly evokes Chardonnay, Knights Valley, high quality, expensive; in France “Didier Daguenau” instantly suggests Loire/Pouilly Fume, Sauvignon Blanc; in Australia “Clonakilla” instantly suggests Shiraz-Viognier, Canberra. In the same way, “Peter Michael” does not in any way link to Riesling, Clare Valley.
So, given only one choice, producer is the logical selection because of its surrogate role in representing everything to do with a particular wine. And in fact, this is exactly how Wikipedia defines brand – the symbolic embodiment of all the information connected with a product or service.
No other characteristic of a wine actually gives the same amount of information about that wine (assuming a reasonable knowledge) – producer gives you all you need; region will give you variety and a group of producers, variety will suggest region and a group of producers.
But none of this reduces the importance of regionality because we link, even if subconsciously, producer with region and that region’s suitability for particular varieties.