Apples and the Nature of Wine Consumption

GravApples A story in the NY Times today on the sorry state of the Gravenstein apple market in Sonoma County provided a reminder of the primary force that moves the wine industry.

If you like seeing more Pinot on the market, don't thank the movie Sideways.

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

If are trouble 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.

In explaining why the unique (and very tasty) Gravenstein apple, once planted all across West Sonoma, has nearly disappeared and been replaced, Daniel Sumner, professor of agricultural economics at the University of California, Davis, hits the bulls-eye:

"You can say the culprit is wine grape growers, but I would say the culprit is wine drinkers. “f my wino friends were to decide en masse that Sonoma County wine wasn’t as good as they thought it was, and the snobs went in the other direction, the Gravenstein would come back.”

By this he means if consumer demand for Gravenstein apples were greater than that for Sonoma County wine, then the Gravenstein would bring a higher price for the grower, thereby facilitating more plantings (or at least less ripping out of trees). In other words, its a case of consumer demand dictating the supply.

Wine lovers who want to blame critics for pushing a particular style of wine should remember that the word of the critic is nothing but the word of the critic until consumers take action. Clearly consumers have taken the action of buying wines of greater intensity, higher pH levels, higher alcohol levels and that carry familiar names. And yet, the critics of these wines and the slow and steady move toward producing these wines never find it practical to declare, "If it were not for wine buyers, we would not find these simple and similar big and bold and extracted wines of sameness all over the marketplace." Instead, they have tended to blame the critic or the retailer or globalism.

The consumers' palates are to blame, if there is blame to be considered.

That said, I would point out the following: When you aggregate consumer preference for just about any product, money will be made by providing the simplest and least complex rendering of that product. Note that I did not say that aggregated consumer preference creates a demand for products of "lower quality". No. It's about something with few moving moving parts, less to consider, easier to understand.

Take the media, as an example. Most of what is consumed on television is extraordinarily simple fare. Reality shows, for example, tend to depict the simplest of human emotions and motivations. Certain contests that do well on TV also tend to be of the simpler type, including the brutishness of football, the simplicity of ball-in-hole sports, while slightly more complex contests such as chess and bridge don't fare nearly as well.

The secondary point is this: as 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 and complex.

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

11 Responses

  1. Daniel Darden - September 2, 2011

    Outstanding Article Tom, You nailed it 😉
    Long live the Simple King!

  2. Josh - September 2, 2011

    “the brutishness of football”?
    Come on! You’re playing right into the prissy pinky-in-the air wino stereotype here.
    The visceral aspect of football is wonderful and captivating. Huge men running at high speed and colliding with one another is fantastic theatre, but football is anything but simple. It’s chess with human beings. It’s warfare without bloodshed (for the most part).
    The best things in life are simple on the surface, and provide an immediate reward with little effort. But the best things in life also have many layers of complexity, just like football. It’s that the complexity is optional. You don’t need to understand why a 3-4 D needs an all pro mike linebacker to succeed to enjoy watching the game.
    Bridge? Really?

  3. mari kane - September 2, 2011

    Hang on, Tom. Aren’t there other factors attributed to the decline of the Gravenstein? Isn’t the fact that it was too delicate to ship long distances without brusing part of its downfall. Gravs were usually pressed into sauce and juice, like at that now-closed factory on Hwy 116 in Sebastopol. Sure, the surrounding orchards were replaced with grapes, but wasn’t that accelerated by the Gravenstein’s limited marketability?Wikileaks quotes Slow Flood USA saying that only 1/3 of the Grav crops are of premium market quality.
    I have a 40 yr old Gravenstein tree at our home in Forestville and it’s now dying a slow death. Wonderful tasting fruit, but not so perfect looking, perhaps why it was squeezed out of the market. Makes for great apple crisps though.

  4. Tom Wark - September 2, 2011

    Isn’t this just another example of market forces at work: consumers don’t want bad looking fruit.

  5. Tina Morey - September 4, 2011

    Hi Tom,
    “In other words, its a case of consumer demand dictating the supply.” I agree with this statement, however, consumer demand must begin somewhere and it typically begins with someone in a particular industry espousing a product, which then hits mainstream public–I call it the mob mentality and mobs can begin with one single person. Thanks for the article.

  6. Jeff - September 5, 2011

    This is just another case of:
    “What came first, the chicken, or the egg?”
    You could have easily translated it into:
    “What came first, the high octane wine, or the critics score?”

  7. The Sediment Blog - September 6, 2011

    Is it valid to compare consumer preferences in (1) an industry where consumers are influenced by blogs, books, newspaper columnists, videos and, indeed, a polished marketing industry – and (2) an industry where consumers make an uninfluenced personal visual/taste driven decision at point of purchase?
    Haven’t noticed too many apple blogs lately…

  8. Dave McIntyre - September 6, 2011

    Tom – Critics don’t want to blame the consumers because they are our readers. Editors frown on us criticizing readers — especially subscribers! We want consumers to follow critics, but we want them to follow us, not the other guys. That’s why we blame other critics for anything we don’t like. And sakes alive let’s not make wine accessible to everyone, because then no one would need us, and we’d be writing ourselves out of work.
    More seriously, though, as more people drink wine but drink simply, we writers should poke at the complacency/simplicity of our readers and urge them to explore beyond their comfort zones. I have one or two very vocal readers at The Washington Post who criticize me regularly for not recommending wines that are available at Total Wine & More, “America’s Wine Superstore,” or Safeway. This guy doesn’t want to drive an extra mile or two to a specialty wine store that is probably just another strip mall down the road from where he normally shops. But I want to point out the fantastic values he could find for just a few dollars more than his simple grocery store plonk.
    Our job should be to promote complexity in the sea of simplicity. Or something like that. Thanks for the thoughtful post, as always.

  9. Russ Kane - September 6, 2011

    Oh bummer! Now I feel guilty eating my favorite Fuji apples instead of red delicious.
    It’s your fault Tom. 🙂

  10. Russ Kane - September 6, 2011

    I will just have to wash down my sorrows with a bottle of 15.5% alcohol Pinot Noir. That will fix it, don;t ya think?

  11. JohnLopresti - September 6, 2011

    Hi, Tom, and thoughtful commenters, I would like to point to some historical perspectives about a few concerns Tom expressed, and add to those an observation of my own.
    pH was an early point of contention during the time California wine was in the process of challenging and winning over some fine traditional wines in a contest judged in France. RAMondavi and others were morphing the CA wine industry, and UC Davis joined the modernization effort by providing a wide range of research as well as training students in new ways, drawing much from European vinification standards, but matching those classical wine designs to the sodapop or whiskey American motif of carefree living.
    Mondavi had to contend with 1,000s of acres of table grapes and some wine grapes, all of whose producers were situated in zones too hot for premium distinct varietals. Excess heat in the vineyard meant high pH must.
    So, there was a marketing matchup between the new wave which wanted to extend plantings in winegrape adapted climates, challenging the loud bulkwine marketing voices from CA’s central valleys. Product design included this dispute over why the palate could taste more of the range of flavors and aromas in fine wine compared to jugwine, and there was some limited effort to examine the classical wine design as superior in visceral effects, including psychoactive components, when compared to bulk process wines. Bulk wines with high pH continued to be way cheaper to purchase, and enologists were still evolving ways to work with winegrape regions I, II, and some of region III, in designing vineyard plans that would produce more European-like wines, that is, lower pH.
    Aging factors are influenced by pH at bottling, as well; so are the colors, flavors, and oxidation components which occur during binning the bottled wine, or, at a minimum, warehousing it transitorily. Bulk wine producers favored preservatives; fewer chemical manipulations were needed in premium winemaking styles than in bulkwine. Embarrassing arguments were kept sub rosa.
    The issue of low pH (=high acidity) wines also got confounded with the early difficulties growers and winemakers had selecting marketable varieties and clones, both scion and rootstock. Vendors began reporting trouble selling Americans on gewurztraminer; grey riesling and other rieslings struggled to keep shelf space; chardonnay clone selection, as well as sauvignon blanc, also were arduous endeavors underway; and growers, along with their client wineries, had a narrow range of choices available. It was notoriously difficult to obtain pinot noir material adapted to the northcoast of CA; the enologic and viticultural sciences were nearly trade secrets. And there was often a quid pro quo kind of barter required to bring those materials to the New World of the 1980s, as CA began to lead the world into modern winemaking.
    There’s lots more. I will end there, my abbreviated recollection of some of the early history of CA wine product design. The arguments are more subtle now, but actually are as strongly felt as Tom’s first post, above.
    Let me say, I miss the checkerboard agriculture of Alexander Valley. I sold oat hay from fields I helped sharecrop there for quite a few years. I purchased sorghum for the cattle from one farmer. Prune orchards soon got agronomically displaced by Region I premium distinctive varietal winegrapes, once soil amendment science began to solve site specific problems; as did pear orchards in Region II. Much, in fact, was shared learning adapted from France and other classical winegrowing regions.
    I, too, miss the once ubiquitous Sebastopol area gravensteins, though some are available in the organic counters at the generic supermarket grocery in a Region III up-valley area of which I know. And Sebastopol can claim now proudly its Region I heritage as a winegrape region.
    Consumers still need convincing, and good wines are helping make that case.

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