Will Wine Be Used as a Weapon Against the 1 Percent?

RichpoorIf I'm not mistaken, we are seeing the development of a strong cultural aversion to the now notorious "1 Percent". Put another way, there appears to me to be a strong and still developing cultural and political zeitgeist that includes diminished respect, and even distaste, for financial elite, their demonstrations of wealth, their political power and the issues they care about.

(Before someone mentions that I've used the term "zeitgeist" incorrectly by making observations of the present, rather than a past age, I know this already. Don't let my incorrect appropriation of this powerful word distract you.)

This movement to identify the uber wealthy as the enemy or indicative of cultural, political and economic trends distasteful to the larger middle class is I think likely to get stronger and more prominent during the upcoming presidential campaign. Clearly this view of the very wealthy will breed political movements and efforts. It will play a key part in national discussion of tax policy, campaign finance reform, and, more importantly, the nature of the middle class as this large sector of the citizenry is identified and defined in contrast to the sector of the citizenry that makes up the "1 Percent".

What plagues my thoughts is this question: What implications does this unfolding and developing national zeitgeist have for the wine industry?

In the first place, the wine industry has nothing to gain from the anti-One Percent mood. This is due to the simple fact that there are not enough thoughtful wine enthusiast of any demographic to combat the overwhelming view of Americans that wine is the beverage of the elite. Despite the proliferation of wine drinkers and wineries, wine remains a potent symbol of the wealthy, the rich, the elite and the pretentious.

What this adds up to is that wine could quite easily be deployed by cultural and economic activists as a symbol for the 1%, effectively linking wine to the economically dominant. That's not good for the wine industry. 

In fact, wine has always been a symbol of the rich in America, and never linked with the middle class. Ask yourself the last time you saw a presidential candidate play up their appreciation of wine…..I'll wait….while you search your memory…….

……Nothing right? That's right. Now consider the connection between beer and spirits and the middle class.

Of course the most important question is the degree to which wine's association with the 1 Percent might lead to a backlash against wine sales. I think this kind of impact is more likely if the economy were to descend into full blown recession or even depression, than as a result of simple animosity toward those who are perceived as the drinkers of wine.

That said, I see the value in an industry-wide marketing campaign to link wine consumption to middle class pursuits as a hedge against guilt by association. I believe this identification of the 1-percent as the cultural, political and economic victors will be an animating idea for quite some time, and at least as long as the issue of income inequality is with us. That could be quite some time. There are very good reasons to take even small steps to try to insulate an industry from damage that might result from association with the top 1%.

My primary concern, however, is how wine might be used as a symbol in politics. Wine and wine drinking strikes as one of the more easily deployed and easiest to understand symbols in a campaign's toolbox. Put a glass of wine in a candidate's hand and it is extraordinarily easy to convey them as an out-of-touch elitist, and this is never a good albatross to have hung around one's neck.

Imagine for a moment the following scenario. A presidential, senatorial or congressional candidate is discovered to be a buyer of Harlan, Screaming Eagle, Lafite, d'Yquem, Grange and other very expensive wines. Imagine that it is discovered that they have spent thousands upon thousands of dollars on these wines over the past year. Imagine a photo of this same candidate emerges that has them holding a glass of red wine up to their nose and they are clearly contemplating its aroma.

I'm no political genius, but even I could deploy these images and information to effectively portray this poor candidate as out of touch with the 99%.

The wine industry and its marketers have a tendency to follow the money and show up where the money shows up. The reasons should be obvious. Wineries and wine marketers regularly tout the prices their wines have achieved at auctions, the very glamorous venues at which their wines have been poured, the VIPs that consume their wines and the hoity restaurants at which their wines are served. I believe they need to be careful in doing this.

If I'm correct in believing that a zeitgeist defined by calculated political and cultural disconnection between the 1% and 99% is developing steam, the wine industry could in various ways find itself a victim of it all.


12 Responses

  1. Tim Beauchamp - January 19, 2012

    I don’t see it. Champagne: Maybe. If we were talking Blue collar vs. white caller or gender, I think the perception of preference for wine over other adult beverages would be significant (albeit, misplaced).
    But, I think that wine appreciation peaks well below the 99th percentile.

  2. Roger Beery - January 19, 2012

    I guess its like cars. No one is called elitist for driving a car…it’s just when they drive a Bentley (as an example). I don’t think the gal who enjoys her nightly $10-$15 bottle is less likely to drink wine because a candidate buys expensive wine. If they are going to use wine to show the candidate is out of touch…they probably have more examples from their life that will be used as well, like a Bentley…or at least an MB. 😉

  3. Tom Wark - January 19, 2012

    Roger…look at Newt and Tiffany’s. If I had the right photo or information about a candidate and wine I could construct a pretty devastating attack that would resonate with many of the 99%.

  4. Todd - VT Wine Media - January 19, 2012

    I understand your concern, and there is not enough moscato in the world to turn the minds of those who think that cheap beer is a good indicator of character. That said, if I have faith in anything, it is that if wine were portrayed negatively, as a blatant symbol of wealth, a fair number of us 99% would likely protest, and #OWS would become Occupy Wine Stores.
    Hopefully there will still be some deep discounts from cult wines going under. 😉

  5. Jason - January 19, 2012

    For the most part, I agree that as this rich vs poor zeitgeist (a term I didn’t even realize was meant exclusively for the past, by the way, which I find unnecessarily limiting) develops, wine is likely to get more bad press than good. On the other hand, I just don’t see the potential for any serious damage to the industry. Sure, a candidate may be perceived as elitist if he’s photographed with wine – indeed, even if the wine isn’t expensive – but that’s because, as you noted, wine is already associated with elitism.
    I think, however, that the growth of wine consumption in the US (we drink more wine than France now! Not per capita, but it’s something) suggests a growing acceptance of wine as an everyday beverage too. Say a candidate is photographed drinking wine that isn’t all that expensive. It might initially paint him as elitist, but then the oenophile candidate could give a speech about hardworking American winemakers and the fact that every state has a winery, the innumerable Americans who drink wine, or otherwise create some patriotic associations. Or more likely, he could just point to something expensive his opponent buys, in which case wine would still emerge relatively unscathed once it had come to light that it was inexpensive.
    Might it hurt a candidate when it’s revealed that he’s been spending thousands of dollars on single bottles of wine? Sure. But let’s be honest: if he can afford to do that, he probably is out of touch with most of his constituents, and I’ll bet wine isn’t his only excess. I don’t see that sort of information damaging all of wine so much as…well, the 1%. Might it force a change in the marketing strategies and/or a decrease in price for these top tier wines? Maybe. But I think that’s a good thing, because I’d like to be able to afford one someday.

  6. Jeff - January 19, 2012

    This post, its thoughtfulness, and the questions it asks is exactly why you are in your own 1% of online wine writers.
    Great premise, great thoughts. And, perhaps, my greatest takeaway is I would love to have this conversation over a bottle (or three), the evening wrapped up with a scotch, a stogie and some Charlie Parker in the background.

  7. Gretchen - January 19, 2012

    Tom, that would be a tragedy. Wine has always been a drink of the people. Even political types. Madame Defarge might have been knitting codes for the French Revolution but she was running the neighborhood wine shop.

  8. Marcia M - January 20, 2012

    Yes, there’s strong evidence of a growing divide (chasm!) between the 99%ers and 1%ers to the point of great anti-1%er vitriol.
    Is there potential backlash against the wine industry if it’s associated too heavily with the 1%ers? I doubt it. But we already see it to a certain extent: the periodic bashing of Robert Parker. Parker symbolizes the 1%ers within the industry. He gets to sample the finest, live the ‘wine lifestyle,’ etc.
    Of course, he isn’t up for election. Politicians, on the other hand, are always in the spotlight. Photographed with a baby, s/he get a thumbs up as family-friendly. Photographed with a gun, advocates and detractors spout their defense or condemnation respectively of the politician. Photographed with a beer, the politician may be deemed ‘understanding of the common man.’ Photographed with wine and the same politician *may* be deemed ‘elitist.’
    However, as pointed out by other commentors, this merely provides a great opportunity for the wine industry to take the spotlight, touting wine as a great, relaxing beverage for the common man (or woman) to enjoy.
    I think the only time the 99%ers get genuinely upset about a politician drinking fine wine is when the 99%ers learn their tax dollars paid for that bottle of wine.

  9. Mark Wallace - January 20, 2012

    Not to worry. The wine industry will be fine. It will carry its fair share of the legal intoxicant market come rain or come shine. Alcohol is a constant across all social strata. It’s possible fine (as in expensive) wine could come to be held in disrepute as a form of conspicuous consumption, but excess wine can always be turned into brandy.
    On a more philosophic, or economic level, we are finally reaping the fruit foreseen in part by Jimmy Carter’s sense of malaise. We’re treading water and the water’s rising.
    I believe most peoples’ idea of the American promise was that our children, given reasonable effort, had a reasonable chance of a better (economic) life than we did. If, at the same time, some people became as rich as Croesus, buying Harlan and Lafite by the car load, it was okay. As long as most progressed, that some failed or fell by the wayside was simply a matter of laziness or bad luck.
    But when too many feel as if they’re sliding backward, you have the makings of rebellion. I just doubt the wine industry will become a target, even as it faces more than the normal market struggles in challenging times. And I think it’s enough of an everyman’s product that an industry feel-good campaign might look silly (“I’m a Morman” for instance).
    Of course, political operatives have already tried, note what happened after Paul Ryan, R-Cheesehead, ordered the most expensive bottle at Bistro Bis in DC, (a nice place to eat with a well thought out wine list, by the way): http://www.humanevents.com/article.php?id=44779; http://tpmdc.talkingpointsmemo.com/2011/07/rep-paul-ryans-pricey-pinot-noir.php;
    So, I could be wrong.

  10. Roger - January 23, 2012

    I think this concern is definitely a “red herring”. Wine is and has been the drink of intelligent, educated consumers and the bulk of these come from and are in the middle class. No one that I know who drinks and appreciates good or fine wine belongs to the 1% and I know a lot of them. I think the comment that if it came out that a candidate drank nothing but lets say first growth Bordeaux or only Screaming Eagle etc it might hurt them but not the wine industry as a whole.

  11. Jennifer - January 23, 2012

    Thanks for bringing up an interesting topic. I’m an OWS supporter myself and love wine, expensive and inexpensive. I think it’s going to do just fine. The movement isn’t about abolishing luxury items, or using them as symbols of greed. It’s about making our economic system more fair for everyone. So more consumers could afford to buy themselves a nice bottle of wine every now and then. I think food and wine pairing has had a unique spotlight in the media lately, where it’s more about making the qualities of each shine, as opposed to a wow factor about price. Also, more people are educating themselves and realize price isn’t always indicative of quality. I think wine is more accessible now than ever. Maybe older generations immediately associated wine with wealth. I think now with the availability of information, and the curiosity of people about wine life, much of the dazzle and mystique has given way to appreciation and regard as a science, business and art form.

  12. Fredric Koeppel - January 23, 2012

    One of the good points about the CBS series “Blue Bloods” is that every time the family gathers for dinner, which they do about three times per episode, there are wine bottles and filled glasses on the table and all the grown-ups are sipping wine. No big deal is made about it; wine is just a part of their lives together. I can’t think of another show on television that makes drinking wine seem so normal and all-American.

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