The Problem of Wine’s Diminishing “Aspiration Gap”

Wine selling venues shuttered due to COVID.

Neo-Prohibitionism on the rise.

A continuing invasion of new and high-quality imports.

Dietary guidelines recommending 1 drink a day instead of 2 for men.

Tariffs on EU Wines.

New and different drinks like cider and hard seltzer competing for palates.

It’s not as though wine doesn’t face enough headwinds. So, of course, I’m here to note one more breeze that wine faces—and has faced for some time, despite it not being discussed much:

The narrowing aspiration gap between wine and other alcoholic beverages.

There was a time when if a person wanted to “aspire” to a higher cultural level or simply demonstrate that they had “arrived”, they would add wine to their repertoire. Wine served as a status symbol. Not individual wines, but simply the choice to drink wine.

Ordering or serving wine could send a message. You had the money or intellect or that something and you knew it and others knew it because it was wine you were ordering or serving.

This may sound crass and a little cringy, but its something that humans have done forever: use symbols to communicate their status. Cars, perfume, clothes, homes. Maybe it was a larger cave. Maybe it was a stronger club. Maybe it was a harem. We did it then and we do it now. And for a long time, wine was the beverage that signaled status.

That “aspiration gap” between wine and other beverages still exists to a degree, but not nearly like it did at one time.

Today, it’s just as easy to demonstrate one’s attainment of something by ordering the right beer or the right spirit. This is due primarily to the added knowledge and experience one can now devote to beers and spirits. And you can do it with beer and spirits today without spending and arm and a leg. A huge swath of beers and spirits, mostly of craft origin, have come to market that demand we pay attention to differences and their unique qualities, something for which wine used to have a near-monopoly.

See, the time it takes to learn about the subtle differences between wine (and now beer and spirits) indicates the possession of a degree of leisure time. Leisure time equals disposable time. Disposable time equals disposable income and wealth. Wealth and income equal status. That’s the way it has been and that’s the way it is today.

The question, then, is not does this aspiration gap impact wine sales, but rather to what extent has it impacted wine sales? I don’t know the answer to this question. One might track the historical sales of high-end craft beer and spirits as well as their proliferation in the marketplace and correlate this with wine sales. But I’ve not done this. However, I do know, anecdotally, that the rise of craft beer and spirits has attracted a number of wine drinkers and they certainly must have attracted would-be aspirational wine drinkers.

I think it’s clear that wine still has an aspirational advantage over beer and spirits. Wine still possesses an aura. It still, when wielded carefully and not snobbily, delivers a message of attainment by the person behind the glass that I don’t think pouring the most interesting or coveted beers and spirits can match. But not by much.

Now, some will say that the diminishment of the “aura” surrounding wine is a good thing as it will attract more people to the drink who may have once been intimidated by it. This may be true, but honestly, I’ve never been able to understand the person who was “intimidated” by wine. I’ve never figured out why it’s so hard to say, “no, I’m not expert I just like the taste.” But apparently, this affliction has impacted some folks. And Lord knows I’ve had to listen to analysts and commentators repeatedly tell me over the years that the wine industry must “do away with its snobby attitude.” This isn’t and never has been true. Wine needs to do away with its snobs, not any industry attitude. A high brow discussion of wine and its attributes and its history and its origins is nothing to be ashamed of, nor even stop…particularly if that kind of discussion and communication supports a brand and supports it well.

It shouldn’t be forgotten that both beer and spirits have largely risen to narrow the aspiration gap with wine by adopting wine’s often serious approach.

Nevertheless, the diminished aspiration gap between wine on the one hand and beer and spirits on the other continues to narrow and is impacting sales of wine. It’s one more headwind the wine industry faces. Moreover, and unlike the issues of tariffs, neo-Prohibitionism, COVID-19 and dietary guidelines, it is an issue that might not be addressable.


6 Responses

  1. Tom Natan - August 13, 2020

    I’ve never understood why people are happy to learn esoteric jargon about things like sports, but then think it’s snobby to learn a few words to describe wine. Some people also feel threatened when asked to describe what they like about a particular wine (so that I can recommend something similar for them), yet they don’t feel threatened at all when asked to describe what they like about nearly anything else. But your point is a good one: you don’t need the jargon to enjoy wine (or sports for that matter).

  2. Gene Tuey - August 13, 2020

    Much of the problem is so called “ premiumization”. Change the label yet put out the same average wine at a higher price. Many of the large wineries put out lousy wines at high prices or ruin labels they buy up saving money at economy of scale. Take a nice Sonoma wine and make it California appellation because nobody will notice or care, people do care. Quit the marketing gimmicks and put out good wine at a fair price. I could name several wine companies doing just that and their sales are up with loyal customer base.

  3. Joel Goldberg - August 13, 2020

    In reply to Tom Natan: maybe it’s because “run-pass option” or “suicide squeeze” just sounds less snobby than “reductive with notes of sulfur”.

  4. Steve Lay - August 13, 2020

    Obviously, after 9 or 10 thousand years, wine will not go away. The aura and awe and glazed over eyes at the sight of vineyards and wineries is diminishing for now. As the wine buyer for Costco said in 2012- Alvarez-Peters: “… But at the end of the day, it’s (wine) just a beverage.” Stephen Bendell opined- “And, I almost prefer a person with little bias and experience choosing the wines over someone who is self-important and believes they know it all.”
    Is the wine industry going to have to rethink their image and approach to the market or stay the course as they have done for many decades.

  5. Greg T - August 13, 2020

    Tom – why are people “intimidated” by wine?

    Several reasons.

    Start with the idea that every blogger or book or nerd provides “instructions” on how to taste wine!

    “I need instructions?” the poor schmuck asks. Swirl, sniff, taste, blah blah blah.

    Nobody ever told anyone how to taste chocolate cake. And the idea that anyone needs to be told how to enjoy wine is similarly idiotic, but somehow accepted. The idea that one needs to learn how to taste something because people are too thick to figure it out on their own sure helps makes wine intimidating.

    Then there is the glass thing. People who can barely tell Chardonnay from Pinot Noir insist on specific glasses for their wines. Some even claim that they can’t drink from a glass with a rolled lip.

    And finally there are the reviews. One critic finds notes of cast iron pan (!) in a wine, another finds white flowers (not red or yellow) in a wine, and another says the wine is vertical and exists in all dimensions, whatever that can possibly mean.

    When you start by telling people that there’s some mystic ritual to follow that requires special equipment and knowledge that will only then allow them to discern some otherwise hidden characteristics that can only be described by nonsensical and frankly, meaningless terminology, you know what people say?

    “Gimme a beer!”

  6. George - August 13, 2020

    An interesting craft beer – $10 at a restaurant
    A new cocktail with some new craft spirit – probably the same
    A boring wine by the glass – $10-$15….
    It’s not the snobbery – it’s people realizing that they don’t have to pay as much to get something interesting – they just have to buy something besides wine…

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