Wine Needs Curmudgeons Now More Than Ever
Jeff Siegel (aka “The Wine Curmudgeon“) is celebrating his 8th year writing about wine at his blog. Jeff’s is a great blog and despite not agreeing with him on occasion, I’ve enjoyed reading “The Wine Curmudgeon for all eight of the years he has been toiling away attempting to expose the world to low-priced wines (his reviews are almost always of those wines that are $20 and under).
But Jeff is in a mood. Recently, he bemoaned with a heavy literary sigh that “Big Wine” is taking over, shoving out the good, high value, lower priced wine he has loved to drink and to recommend and replacing them with fewer brands selling “fruity red wine with soft tannins and chocolately oak” that he just can’t stand.
It’s all a product of mergers and acquisitions, Jeff explains, that will result in a two tier wine marketplace:
“There will be two markets for wine…In the first, called the mass market, Big Wine will make as many as four out of every five bottles sold in the U.S — competent though often overpriced grocery store plonk with little varietal character and designed to appeal to specific demographics, the way laundry detergent and yogurt are. In other words, “smooth” wine. In the second, called the luxury market, what’s left of the traditional wine business, both producer and distributor, will sell wine costing more than $20 to people who can afford to buy it, and whose spending will keep the dwindling number of traditional retailers and small distributors in business.
It’s easy to understand why Jeff wonders whether it’s even worth continuing to try to publish a blog about “value wines”.
First, there has always been a two tier market where the vast majority of wine bought and consumed is sweet and syrupy and purchased in grocery stores and drug stores and a tiny number of wine drinkers choose to spend much more on much more interesting wines that tell real stories of real places and don’t rely on sugar for structure and taste. The vast majority of Americans drink wine to taste something sweet and alcoholic while they take on a comforting buzz. That’s the demand the grocery and drug store wines meet and always have met.
Second, Jeff can still find very good value wines, but he is going to have look at the $25 level. You certainly can find very good imported wines at this price, but you can also find excellent California, New York, and Washington wines at this price. However, you are going to have to be willing to go to the winery or go to good retailers or have the wine shipped to you from a really good retailer—of which there are many who will ship wine to you.
Third, while there has as Jeff explains been consistent consolidation among the big wine brands, it is still true that the vast majority of individual wines produced in the United States are made by small and smaller family owned wineries located in California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Illinois, Missouri, Arizona, Texas, New York, New Jersey, etc, etc, etc.
Worrying about consolidation among the big wine brands makes no sense. And if you are a discerning wine drinker, you could care less. There are more wines and wine brands and wineries on the market today than ever before in the history of the world.
If you want to worry about consolidation, worry about wholesaler consolidation and the state mandated three-tier system. After the recent merger of Southern Wine & Spirits and Glazers and the merger of Wirtz Beverage and Charmer-Sunbelt, we can observe that only four wholesalers control 60% of the wine distribution business—A disaster for the small and medium-sized winery (meaning 99% of all wineries in the United States).
We need the Wine Curmudgeon today more than ever because today there are $25 wines available to consumer than ever before. However, Jeff’s work needs to center not only on identifying these wines, but also in teaching his readers how to obtain them, how to have these wines economically shipped to them from out-of-state wine stores and wineries, rather than assuming readers will find these wines at their local stores.
On the occasion of the 8th anniversary of the Wine Curmudgeon blog, Siegel warns we are witnessing “The End of the Wine Business As We Know It.” It’s not true. What we are witnessing is the logical conclusion of the wine business as it was originally designed in the 1930s at the end of Prohibition. It was predicted then that members of the industry would use their influence to game the system to their advantage. This has happened.
But at the same time there has been a reaction to the distribution monopoly using their state-granted weight to pummel the wine drinker into submission, reduce the number of SKUs they hand and increase their power to control both producers and retailers. That reaction is direct shipping from wineries and from retailers. And that’s the channel toward which wine drinkers looking for good, great and interesting $20-$25 wines must be guided by our dedicated Wine Curmudgeons.