Uncomfortable Truths: The Wine Edition

TruthsSome truths are uncomfortable.

The Experts Are the Best Sources of Wine Info and Recommendations
The tendancy to disparage "wine experts" or "wine elite" grows as the role of social media and peer reviews grow. Yet the fact remains that the experts are the best and most reliable source of information on wine. Folks like Eric Asimov, Robert Parker, Jim Laube, Jancis Robinson, Steve Heimoff, Charles Olken, Dan Berger, Lettie Teague, Jon Bonne and other well known experts are the one's with the experience to best understand wine and best provide well-founded recommendations and critiques. There is no way around the fact that experience = expertise. It doesn't matter if you are talkinb about archeology, Rock n Roll, cheese, interior decorating or wine.

Expensive Wine Is Almost Always Better
While I realize that, like beauty, taste is in the palate of the beholder, it is a fact that a more expensive wine is likely to be a higher quality wine. The price of wine is generally dependant upon three things: the cost of production, the supply and the demand. More expensive wines almost always cost more to make because the they use better ingredients (grapes, barrels, winemakers, etc), because the demand for the wines are higher, and the supply is generally limited. I've argued in the past that pronouncements of quality are entirely subjective. But within the world of consensus understandings, we will almost always understand that more expensive wines are appreciated in greater degree than less expensive wines.

Few People Know What They are Talking About When It Comes to Terroir
We talk a lot about "terroir" and the taste of the soil in this business and industry. We all submit that translating the terroir into the bottle is paramount to the process. Yet the fact is, 99.9% of folks who talk about this sort of thing could not pick a Russian River Valley Pinot out of a line up that also included a Santa Barbara, New Zealand, and Carneros Pinot. And let's not even talk about trying to identify a Pinot from one vineyard and a Pinot from another vineyard a mile down the road. The implications of this uncomfortable truth are many, not the least of which is the role that faith plays in the area of wine appreciation.

Natural Wine Isn't Natural
Lots of talk of "natural" wine these days. More producers, retailers, wine bars and events are dedicated to the stuff. But "natural" is to wine as California Sparkling wine is to Champagne. It isn't that. "Natural" wine is processed grape juice and the processing and manipulation begins in the vineyard and ends with the marketing.

Ratings Sell LOTS of Wine
Despite the constant din of criticism of ratings and the 100 Point rating system in particular, ratings sell big time. And the 100 Point rating system is a huge driver of sales. If you don't think so, talk to the winemaker that just got their first 95 point rating from Robert Parker's Wine Advocate or the Wine Spectator. Then ask them, would you rather have a string of tweets about your great wine or a 95 point rating from Robert Parker.

Driving the California Wine Routes Can Be Dangerous To Your Health
Driving along Highway 29 in Napa Valley, Highway 12 in Sonoma Valley or Westside Road in the Russian River Valley around 5pm on a Saturday can be very dangerous to your health. The problem is that so many folks who have just consumed way too much wine are on the roads. They may have been sipping, but in many cases it has been an all day sipping affair that is in reality and all-day drinking affair. This uncomfortable truth has yet to affect the local hospitality industry in substantial ways, but it just could in coming years when the next terrible tradjedy happens.

Too Much Wine Marketing Relies On The Idea That "You Can Be Better Than Them"
If you drink this wine, if you consume wines from this area, if you visit this wine region, you'll be a better, more sophisticated person than your neighbor. That, in a nutshell, is the basis of a great deal of wine-related marketing: being a "wine person" makes you a "better person". It is not an unusual marketing message. In fact, it is a message common to most luxury good products. But it is a little distasteful.


19 Responses

  1. RyanO - May 15, 2012

    Wine marketing, in general, has been one copied effort after another. No one seems to do anything original. They simply look to what their aspirational winery/business is doing and copy them with the rationale of “they must know what they’re doing, they have money to spend on things like this”. When the reality is that even the large wineries don’t have a clue, nor are measuring their campaigns to see what marketing messages are resonating where.
    Add on top of this your point about marketing the image that “I could be a better person” and you’ve successfully alienated an entire generation of potential customers.

  2. Tom Wark - May 15, 2012

    Let’s face it, the marketing efforts in many industries besides wine is often one copied effort after another. This doesn’t make wine unique.
    However, I do think wineries, large and small, do have clues as to marketing. While the “You can be better than them” approach is tacky in my mind, I never said it didn’t work. It clearly does in many cases.

  3. SUAMW - May 15, 2012

    Tom, Sorry, but I have to call bullshit:
    “Expensive Wine Is Almost Always Better” – No. It is expensive either because of limited supply and hype-driven demand or because it follows the “more is gooder” formula: more ripeness, more RS, more oak, heavier glass, etc etc etc…
    And, really, Lettie Teague?!?!?!?!?!….

  4. Thomas Pellechia - May 15, 2012

    I also disagree with number 2.
    Unless you are specifically talking about the US and ruling out other countries, even though you threw in the qualifier “almost,” it is not so simple as Expensive Wine Is Almost Always Better.

  5. Tom Wark - May 15, 2012

    Yep, Lettie Teague.
    Also, demand is not always “hype driven”, if by that you mean merely unjustified marketing spin. Often times, demand is created by the reflection of many consumers that the wine is very good. Further, not all wines that are expensive are full of RS or overripe or have heavy glass. And you know this is true.

  6. Tom Wark - May 15, 2012

    Indeed all these issues include complexities and nuance. However, in general, I would argue that more expensive wine is better than less expensive wine. You and I may take issue with what amounts to “better” and that’s a legitimate point. But my point is, I think I’m right. How’s that for circularity.

  7. Donn - May 15, 2012

    Regarding the last point about marketing, and point scores. Proctor and Gamble probably uses the wine industry as a teaching tool on how NOT TO DO ANYTHING RIGHT with marketing to the public. And while 95 points will drive sales, it does not correlate to long term success. I think the dustbin of our industry is full of one-time wonders. On the other hand, our industry offers about the lowest barrier to entry for someone who can work hard and wants to try their own hand being in business. No govt. aid needed. No 99 weeks of unemployment.

  8. Jan Wells - May 15, 2012

    Dear Tom: interesting and useful discussion. Regarding point scores, you might have said that while they may influence some consumers, especially the more wine-aware, their biggest impact is on distributors and distributor salesmen (our necessary gatekeepers to retailers)who cannot evaluate the wines themselves because they handle so many – hundreds in the case of the larger distributors. “What did it get in the Spectator?” is a question that chills the blood of a winery salesman or proprietor as he presents to a buyer. Best regards, Jan Wells

  9. David Vergari - May 15, 2012

    “You Can Be Better Than Them”
    This brings to mind the saying…Just because you visited a cool place or live near one does mean that you’re cool.

  10. doug wilder - May 15, 2012

    True, expensive wines are almost always better, and that is the general expectation. When they are not, it is even more of a letdown. The strongest point you make is the roads. I often think that it will be an Avis Mustang Convertible either slamming on the brakes or making a u turn in front of me on Silverado Trail because they missed Rombauer’s driveway that will keep me from reaching old age.

  11. SUAMW - May 15, 2012

    That is spoken like someone who drank the Kool Aid.

  12. Tone Kelly - May 15, 2012

    While it might be true that there is a positive correlation between price and “goodness” I suspect that there is a lot of scatter in the data and the R square coefficient is less than 1. The trick is to find the underpriced quality wine and avoid the overpriced BS. Of course the human condition comes in here and what you like and I like are two different things. It is often hard to find the “real” truth.

  13. Allen Dale Olson - May 15, 2012

    A word about terroir and its importance … At Drouhin a couple of years ago I was told that every new employee is made to go taste the soil of each of their vineyards or of those providing grapes to the firm. That’s how they learned that grapes north of the Alps vary from those grown south of the Alps. Have you noticed how often the producers of Barolo and Barbaresco compare thir production with that of Burgundy?

  14. Mike Duffy - May 15, 2012

    A question for you, Tom.
    While agree that a higher price allows for higher quality ingredients (grapes, winemaker, processing facilities, pruning protocols, etc.), is there a point of diminishing returns. In other words, above $X, the price of the wine no longer reflects just “quality” but also marketing and scarcity, and the additional price is just more margin for the winery?

  15. mauss - May 16, 2012

    As usual in this kind of article, it is easy to find exceptions. Many wines (too many) are considered as “better” simply because you accept to pay for the label reputation and marketing. In a blind tasting, you may come with funny results far away from the label reputation.
    But yes, in general, a higher price is for a higher wine (in quality and rarity), though, again, simply because we accept to pay a lot for satisfying our ego with big and costly names.

  16. Tom Wark - May 16, 2012

    Without question there is such a point of diminishing return, at least at the higher prices.

  17. Donn - May 16, 2012

    Well, that is interesting. I often recall being a Boy Scout, and merely just being a boy, the smell and tastes of different earth and trees etc. when out camping. If you only live in the city and never taste the dirt outside, your exper. is limited vs. tasting diff. dirts. I am a bit shocked but pleasantly so, that Drouhin literally = eat dirt. I like to say on the sales floor, that boys have an advantage over girls, cuz when we are little we will put anything into our mouths. Girls stop doing that maybe age 5 or 6, boys, well, uh, never.

  18. Donn - May 16, 2012

    Uh, my reply was about Allan Dale Olsen, not Tone Kelly, . . .

  19. LindsayLigature - May 16, 2012

    Lots of interesting observations here. While I agree that wine marketing a la “better than them” is a bit tasteless/unoriginal, it seems a bit odd to see that next to comments where many contend that wine marketing equates with higher wine prices (as opposed to better wine = higher wine prices). That sounds to me like it either means tasteless/unoriginal marketing is selling wine at high margins, or that marketing isn’t so bad. Or something like that.
    One thing I was once told was that wine hasn’t been sold on “itself” enough. Beer is sold on lines like “the best hops, ice cold spring water,” etc. Wine is almost always sold ‘experientially’, where it’s about a feeling you get while drinking it — nothing wrong with that, except some people like feeling better than other people.
    Looking forward to watching the comments on this one. Enjoying everyone’s two cents.

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