Time to Embrace the Elitist Character of the Wine Drinker

“Our aim is to democratize wine. The mission is to remove the elitist, stuffy image from wine and bring it to the people.”

The odds are 2-1 that any new consumer-facing wine service, app, editorial venture or website will make this above claim about what it is they are attempting to accomplish. More often than not, this “mission” is driven either 1) by the fact that the wines being sold or promoted through the new service are under $30 per bottle or 2) the belief that those who do not engage with wine beyond squirting some out of the box they’ve had in their refrigerator for the past 4 weeks is due to the fact that wine is too complicated for anything other than squirting from a box.

MAYBE THE COMMON MAN DOESN’T DRINK WINE
I understand that it is tempting to position oneself as the champion of the common man. To begin with, there are more common men than uncommon men. So that’s attractive. But moreover, there is a certain moral advantage to championing the common man (and demonizing the elitists) that feels very nice.

I want to suggest that attempting to “democratize” for the majority of folks that don’t prefer or don’t drink wine won’t do anything to increase wine’s appeal, nor enhance the prospects of wine-related services that trade on the notion that “wine is too stuffy, too elitist and too snobby”.

Ask anyone who has an interest in wine beyond the efficiency and speed by which it flows out of a box into a glass, what it is that attracts them to wine. Odds are good that their response will have some connection to some sort of intellectual characteristic inherent in wine. Perhaps it is wine’s connection to a specific place. It might be that the ever-widening diversity of wine is what attracts them to the beverage. It may be the connection to the history and culture of a place that has long produced wine. Many others will find their motivation to embrace wine in the technical and scientific nature behind its production.

None of these or any other reasons for appreciating wine have anything to do with the rate at which wine flows from a box. None of these reasons have anything to do with “fun” and “games”. Wine is not beer. It’s not kombucha. It’s not seltzer. Wine is the most complex and culturally relevant drink in the history of man and trying to “democratize” it with happy talk, by demeaning this unique characteristic or by accusing drinkers of being stuffy or snobby only removes from the beverage its most compelling features and attributes.

TIME TO GIVE UP ON “DEMOCRATIZING” WINE?
It just might be that wine is a beverage that will only attract frequent drinkers who for one reason or another are willing to think more about what they drink than most folks. It might be that the wine industry may need to settle for having a market share less than beer and spirits. If this is so, then the marketers in the wine industry should perhaps be thinking more about how to speak to and communicate with this kind of drinker, rather than trying to convince those that appear not to care about wine that their lifestyle really can accommodate it. Maybe it can’t.

For the 30 years I’ve worked in the wine industry as a publicist, marketer, advocate and writer I’ve listened to worried peers explain that wine must become more accessible and less stuffy if it is not going to be overtaken by its beer and spirits competitors. The most obvious way to accomplish this task is to gather the support of the industry for a comprehensive generic marketing/advertising campaign. Of course, this never happens due to the fact that the vast majority of wineries in America do not appeal to the sort of consumer that would be motivated by such a campaign—the casual drinker more likely to keep a box in the fridge than a bottle in a rack. I see no reason to believe that these impediments to a generic wine marketing effort will be overcome.

So, if we do resign ourselves to the notion that wine is the “thinkers drink”, I’d suggest that there exist a number of paths open to exploiting this unique position wine has held and likely will hold for years to come. The winery or regional wine group or consumer wine service or app or retailer that appeals to the drinker willing to think is likely to succeed.

Finally, it’s worth reiterating that those who characterize wine as “snobby” or “elitist” are in fact the enemies of both wine and wine consumers. They are self-serving charlatans that don’t understand wine or wine consumers. These folks should be run out of the business.


21 Responses

  1. Alan Goldfarb - April 8, 2021

    Tom: What you’re proposing is not unlike what the Democrats have been saying for years: We must speak to those that are being underserved, ignored, uneducated, and dismissed. Noble notions those, but the Dems never do it. It’s not unlike liberals, who have wonderful intentions; but that’s all they are, intentions; and little or no action is ever taken.

    The same for the good folks in the wine industry, we talk a good game (“Let’s demystify wine”), but at the same time, we love to mystify it.

  2. Tom Wark - April 8, 2021

    Alan!! But, wine is mystifying just up until the moment you ask a question or open a book. This is what makes wine unique…well, among the things that make it unique and special. I say embrace the seeming complexity.

  3. Constantine Stergides - April 8, 2021

    I cannot agree with you more and I have been arguing the same point myself for years. Wine’s complexity IS its comparative advantage vis a vis all other drinks and one has only to observe the shameless ways many other beverages try to imitate wine (esp whiskey!), in advancing arguments relative to provenance, varietals, production etc etc, to understand this. People who argue for the so-called “demystification” of wine are usually people from outside the industry who do not understand wine and its complexity. Wine is a world unto itself and the fact that one can spend their entire life delving into its intricacies is its strength and uniqueness among all other beverages and, indeed, foods. Serious wine drinking is a hobby, a passion a life mission for some. There are thousands of wines for those who are only looking to quench their thirst, good for them, but why would someone want to demolish the whole wine structure built over more than 20 centuries?

  4. Jim Ruxin - April 8, 2021

    Let’s face it, you can love wine without being snobby about it. I agree that an emphasis on de-mystifying wine will not convert many people. Consider that wine goes great with food and the food revolution is on fire with new people getting excited about different cuisines. Non-elite, whatever that means, people will happily chase after a great wine pairing and there is nothing intellectual about it unless you are molecular gastronomy.

    Don’t underestimate the average Joe or Jane. They know what tastes good. Give them more of it, and make it affordable and the numbers of wine devotees will swell. And some of them will buy more upscale as their resources grow with their maturity.

    The rest is just smoke and mirrors by marketing consultants who rarely earn their keep. And speaking of serving the people, has Alan Goldfarb ever thought about what the Republicans have done for the average guy? 500,000+ dead from Covid-19 neglect by that party of scoundrels. Voter suppression. Fake news, The Big Lie about the election. Pollution like coal sludge into rivers. Supporting fossil fuels too much instead of stimulating renewables more, drilling in sensitive areas, and on and on.

    As hapless as Dems have been, at least they didn’t lie, cheat and deceive people, betraying the trust of their vote in 2016 and long before that.

  5. Alan Goldfarb - April 8, 2021

    I ain’t no Republican, no conservative, and no supremacist. We’re on the same side Jim, but let’s get real, and let’s be intellectually honest — low priced wines don’t excite or entice anyone.

  6. Jim Ruxin - April 8, 2021

    Sorry, Alan. Your complaint sounded very Republican because there was no mention of the more egregious of those scoundrels.

    Low prices excite consumers, the object of our concern.

    Here’s how to achieve lower prices: Eliminate the three tier system and remove or decrease the local distributors share of the pie to zero if possible. States can still assess their sales taxes which is fair. Give conceumer s choice on their sources and the prices they pay. The 35% markup the liquor lobby extracts from the consumer costs does no one any good.

    Ask any producer, especially the smaller, boutique producers, not just the cult wine producers, that no distributor has ever worked very hard to promote a brand without special treatment from the producer. The laws restricting changes in distribution should also be changed,

    Consumers are getting screwed and small and artisanal producers are being squeezed. Why do you think cult wines don;t need distributors…they have mailing lists with people beggin for an allocation.

  7. Bob Henry - April 8, 2021

    Allow me to proffer consumption statistics (circa 2010) on the demographics of U.S. wine drinkers.

    (Valid then. Valid now.)

    It is a fool’s errand to think marketers can induce infrequent drinkers and non-drinkers to take up wine as a beverage of pleasure. Take up wine as a pairing beverage at the dinner table.

    History — underscored by voluminous market research data on consumption trends — proves otherwise . . .

    (Consumers don’t drink — much, or at all — based on (1) modest income levels, (2) health conditions, or (3) religious observances. Marketing can do nothing to change those circumstances.)

    Focus your marketing efforts on the 16 percent of the adult population who drink 96% of the wine volume. That’s were your profits are made.

    Excerpt from WineBusiness.com
    (May 12, 2010):

    “The Market for Fine Wine in the United States”

    [Fine Wine 2010 Conference in Ribera del Duero (Spain)]

    URL: http://www.winebusiness.com/news/?go=getArticle&dataid=73903

    By Graham Holter
    Associate Director – Publishing
    Wine Intelligence market research firm (United Kingdom)

    “According to the data presented by [David] Francke [managing director of California’s Folio Fine Wine Partners], US wine drinking is compressed into a small segment of the population.

    “SIXTEEN PERCENT OF CORE WINE DRINKERS consume wine once a week or more frequently, which ACCOUNTS FOR AROUND 96 PERCENT OF CONSUMPTION. Thirty-five million adults drink virtually all of the wine sold in America, Francke said.”

    [CAPITALIZATION used for emphasis. ~~ Bob]

    Bob’s aside: Corresponds with the “80-20 Rule of Marketing” — 80% of your sales revenue comes from 20% of your customer base.

    For those interested in exploring further this observed phenomenon, Google these keywords: “Pareto principle” and “Joseph Juran.”

    ~~ Bob Henry
    wine marketer
    Los Angeles

  8. Bob Henry - April 8, 2021

    Let me correct a typo:

    “Focus your marketing efforts on the 16 percent of the adult population who drink 96% of the wine volume. That’s WHERE your profits are made.”

    Mea culpa.

    ~~ Bob

  9. Kellie Anderson - April 8, 2021

    I live for a 7.99 Lake County Sauvignon Blanc! Livening in Napa County for 30 years and working in the vineyards, the puffery of the dreamer, wannabe, millennial, winery dog, floppy hat, skipping through the vines, meet the winemaker drivel at $160 a bottle is vomit worthy. Yea there are vintners in the end I really respect Randy Dunn, Volker Eisele Family, Toffanelli, you know low key no Bullshit real farmers! But the new winery approved every week, rip down the forest, tell some lame ass story about traveling around Europe and working crush on your daddy’s dollar CRAP 💩 is a huge turn off. BTW really sad about Cain.

  10. Dwight Furrow - April 8, 2021

    Hi Tom,

    I absolutely agree. It’s when people figure out that wine is mysterious that they become interested.

  11. Kevin Chambers - April 9, 2021

    I agree. But I also think wine marketers have allowed a powerful wine consumption motivator to slip from their grasp. As Louis Pasteur so famously said, “Wine is the most healthful and most hygenic of beverages.” Wine consumption was significantly increased after the 1991 60 Minutes piece titled, “The French Paradox.” Wine is the only alcoholic beverage that is 100% fruit juice. Fruit juice (particularly if skins are included) is loaded with antioxidants, flavanols and nutrients. Products of malt fermentation are far less nutritious. And distillation removes virtually all such compounds. So, wine stands alone among alcoholic beverages in this regard. We would do ourselves well to move back to making the important claim.

  12. Tom Wark - April 9, 2021

    Kevin,

    Your point about the health benefits of wine are important. One thing to take note of, however, is that it is currently illegal for wineries to make any health claims about wine. Now this doens’t mean the that message can’t be sent. Certainly various efforts could be undertaken and structured in such a way so as not to put wineries in jeapardy.

  13. Sam - April 9, 2021

    While inexpensive wines may not “excite” the consumer, it is these wines and these producers that drive the market, and they rely upon the three-tier system, grocery stores, and consumers for whom wine is not an intellectual pursuit. Can we let go of the idea that the industry is all about high-minded, artisanal producers of hillside wines bathed in enough French oak to build a small city? Those of us drinking vintage Champagne, Estate-Bottled Napa Cabernet, and Willamette Valley Gruner Veltliner are the outliers folks.

  14. Paul Wagner - April 9, 2021

    Seems to me that this is not an either/or conversation. The wine industry frequently DOES intimidate and make wine more complicated and less lovable–open any winery fact sheet to read what they want to tell us and think we should know: soil types, brix at harvest, pH, etc. If you think that inexpensive wines are not exciting, what do you think of those fact sheets?

    Instead, we should be communicating the enthusiasm and joy that wine brings–the sense of celebrating both time and place, the communal sharing of a remarkable beverage and an expression of both personal and regional culture. That WOULD democratize wine. But we don’t do it. We still want our consumers to open books to learn about it, to take class to become more knowledgeable, and to look down on those who drink less expensive wines.

    We are still selling that same old story to the British upper class, and complaining that common people only drink beer, because they just don’t care. Dear God.

  15. Jim Ruxin - April 9, 2021

    Sam–

    The three tier does handle a lot of wine, but it is still part of the problem. Allowing interstate shipping would decrease the cost of these wines as well, and might even increase their quality.

    It would also increase the number of wine drinkers at the entry level. A large number of them will consume wine as they mature. There is no reason to save the three-tier system. Importers and distributors will always be needed. Let their numbers and bite of the pie diminish so that all wine drinkers, “elitist” or not can enjoy more wine, Everyone wins, even the distributors if they adjust to a smaller footprint. They are a behemoth in the marketplace who don’t care about the consumer or the producer who engages them.

  16. Tom Wark - April 9, 2021

    Paul,

    To be fair, the “fact sheet” as it has been traditionally used has been created by folks like you and me to be rread by media and other members of the trade. I don’t think I’ve ever let that kind of fact shee be presented to customers in the tasting room or in shipments if I ever had a say n the matter.

    I think we need to recognize that the vast majority of people who drink are most concerned that the product be wet and that it contain alcohol. Will we convince these folks to trade up if we just convince them and show them joy of communal sharing? Maybe. But what is the venue for doing that? This task has always fallen on the big producers that instill the message in their adds and other forms of marketing. I’m not saying your perspective would not work. But I think it would only work if there were a generic marketing campaign that committed millions to the effort and where all segments of the industry bought in and contributed. What are the odds of that?

    Finally, I might take issue with this: “We still want our consumers to open books to learn about it, to take class to become more knowledgeable, and to look down on those who drink less expensive wines.” We ask this of those who have clearly demonstrated a desire to incorporate wine into their lives in a more substantial way and I don’t think we are wrong to suggest this coures of action because the only way to do that is to increase your knowledge and that takes effort,

  17. Blake Gray - April 9, 2021

    I have written for both the general non-enophile audience, and an audience of wine drinkers.

    Both are important. It’s good to reach out to non-wine drinkers. It’s important for the wine industry, plus I like explaining things.

    But it’s a lot easier and more fun to write for wine drinkers. I don’t have to hedge or justify calling a $25 wine a bargain.

  18. Sam - April 9, 2021

    Jim – I am familiar with that position but it’s completely unrealistic for the large producers that drive the wine business. I know of no major producer that is prepared to make DTC , or even direct to trade out of state work on a grand scale. Don’t think you can apply niche issues to the trade as a whole.

  19. Jim Ruxin - April 9, 2021

    Sam–

    Sure, million case producers need large scale distribution systems, that are more efficient than DTC, although 35% is pretty high price to pay for outsourcing ways of reaching the consumer.

    On the other hand, DTC might cost the large producers 10-15% anyway. But shouldn’t the margin go to thje consumer. This is ignoring the greenhouse effect of lots of little shipments instead of container loads to local centers. Of course consumer travel to a retail store for pickup also contributes pollution

    I don’t expect distributors to go away, but the free market should determine if they can survive without the antique regulations of post-prohibition. Outlawing DTC gives an unfair business advantage to distributors.

    They may be better able to serve the large producers, but it is at the expense of small producers and their unique voices and tastes in the marketplace.

    Want top reach more and new consumers? Lower prices and direct access. Those who only want cheap alcohol are pay be an anchor to the wine trade and ay the rent, but not the growth that is possible across all demographics, especially maturing Millenials and the next younger cohort.

  20. Paul+Vandenberg - April 9, 2021

    We do better than most, but our wine is not 100% fruit juice. Nobody can say that. 99.999%? I’ll accept that.
    Wine, like other special foods, is not something for everyone. Even a Big Mac isn’t.(thankfully) wine is of interest primarily to folks who care about what they eat. Wine is food.

  21. Robert P Behlendorf - April 10, 2021

    And on and on and on the dialogue, nay, verbal diarrhea, continues. With a glass in hand, ready to taste, should we really care whether the vines were rooted in extra calcareous soil, or whether the winemaker’s mother in law taught him/her everything he/she knows, etc., etc., ad nauseam. The only thing that really matters is whether or not that wine in your hand is good for you. Do you like what your nose and taste mechanisms are telling you? Is it positive or negative for your individual body chemistry? As a former winery owner/winemaker, having poured my best at literally thousands of tastings, I would address my tastees with the notion that “You and I are tasting the same wine. I like it and you don’t. We are both right for our individual body chemistry.” Also, if you don’t like a wine, then the back story is meaningless. The real good news is that there are wines for every taste and every pocketbook. There is absolutely nothing wrong with bulk or box wines. If it gets you interested in wine as a beverage of choice, so much the better. Your curiosity should at least help you to consider exploring above entry level. If not, who cares. All that really matters is what is the wine for you. What it is for everyone else is sort of pomp and circumstance and an elitist dance that should have little relevance to your enjoyment. Thank you for listening.


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