Home Wine Business Editorial Expert Editorial Op Ed: Wine Consumer Preferences Are a Reflection of the Industry

Op Ed: Wine Consumer Preferences Are a Reflection of the Industry

1237
3
Advertisement

Consumers are not stupid. There, that’s the crux of this entire op-ed.

Although I do have something to add: If consumers are stupid, it’s only because

  1. We assume that about them.
  2. We treat them that way by giving them crap.

The wine industry—not just wine producers, but also distributors, retailers, restaurants, media, and anyone else who has anything to do with pushing wine on consumers—has a history of selling crap to consumers. All for the sake of the almighty dollar.

Take, as just one example, White Zinfandel. I’m still mad about that. Why? Because back in the mid-1970s, when I first started as a sommelier, White Zinfandel used to be an innovative wine. I loved its weirdness, the idea that a perfectly good white-ish, pink-toned wine could be made from a black-skinned grape. I used to serve it in my restaurants, introduced it as cutting-edge, fantastic with things like roasted salmon.

Then, as story goes, one winery accidentally produced a medium-sweet expression of White Zinfandel, which seemed to bring out the naturally lush quality of the varietal. I didn’t mind that development. In fact, another winemaker, named Scott Harvey, was already producing a medium-sweet, German style White Zinfandel in Amador County, which I often sold as an alternative to the dryer styles. But what I did mind is the fact that the entire damned industry had to do the exact same thing. Suddenly, “White Zinfandel” as a category meant something sweet and fruity—a “gateway” wine for the new (or “less educated”) consumer.

1979 Sutter Home White Zinfandel and 1976 Sutter Home Zinfandel — A snapshot of the fifth vintage of this winery's medium sweet style of White Zinfandel, by then defining the parameters of this emerging varietal category, plus a ‘70s vintage of their Amador County-sourced red Zinfandel which was far less popular
1979 Sutter Home White Zinfandel and 1976 Sutter Home Zinfandel — A snapshot of the fifth vintage of this winery’s medium sweet style of White Zinfandel, by then defining the parameters of this emerging varietal category, plus a ‘70s vintage of their Amador County-sourced red Zinfandel which was far less popular

What’s sad is the fact that Zinfandel still produces perfectly wonderful rosés when crafted as bone a dry wine. Turley Wine Cellars makes one and often sell out because, well, they’re Turley. There is a local winery down the street from me that produces a fantastic, bone-dry, pink Zinfandel. But they can’t call it “White Zinfandel” like in the old days. They have to sell it as “rosé,” never revealing the varietal content, because, of course, rosés are cool and hip. (Wonder why I’m still mad?)

This is what I mean by crap: Whenever the industry detects a trend consumers will fall for, we shove it down their throats without mercy, no longer interested in bringing out what could be great about the grape or the place.

Believe it or not, we did that long ago with Chenin Blanc, a fantastic grape that’s been grown in the Loire Valley, like, forever. Sometime in the early 1980s, the California wine industry collectively decided that the best way to package Chenin Blanc was by selling it as “Dry Chenin Blanc.” The problem was, none of these Dry Chenin Blanc products were actually dry. They were all closer to 1 or 2 percent residual sugar. So, by the time Chardonnay became popular around 1985, Dry Chenin Blanc, or any kind of wine made from Chenin blanc, was dead in the water. Just one more example of a varietal category that has never recovered from the American wine industry’s brilliant machinations.

1980 Kenwood Chenin Blanc — A near-perfect example of the “Dry Chenin Blanc” varietal category that was once extremely popular, before being wiped out by the sudden, mid-1980s onslaught of moderately priced Chardonnays — picked at just 20.8° Brix and finished at an off-dry .66% residual sugar and exceptionally light and refreshing 11.2% ABV.
1980 Kenwood Chenin Blanc — An example of the “Dry Chenin Blanc” varietal category that was once extremely popular before being wiped out by the sudden, mid-1980s onslaught of moderately priced Chardonnays. Picked at just 20.8° Brix, the finish is off-dry with 0.66% residual sugar and an exceptionally light, refreshing 11.2% ABV.

You might even recall when Chardonnay became suddenly popular as a wine almost as soft and fruity as most so-called Dry Chenin Blancs. Here’s the funny thing: In the mid- to late-1970s, when I was working as a sommelier, we couldn’t give Chardonnay away in restaurants. During the post-Judgement of Paris years, I’d put brands like Chateau Montelena and Freemark Abbey on the wine list. I’d tell my guests what a prestigious wine Chateau Montelena Chardonnay is, and they’d say, “That’s nice, but I’d rather have a Blue Nun or Mateus.” No joke.

When you damage a varietal category’s perception, unfortunately, you also damage consumer taste. The problem with Chardonnay’s mid-1980s surge was that it took, in my estimation, another 20 years before guests were willing to enjoy Chardonnays that weren’t fruity, overly oaked, or as low as possible in acidity. Of course, we’re still living with those consequences—including consumers who now say “I don’t like Chardonnay,” as if the products saturating the market are even faint attempts at fulfilling the grape’s potential.

Having to sell commercialized brands of Chardonnay during most of the 1990s and early 2000s also made it extremely difficult to sell other fabulous white wines stubbornly crafted to be truer to their grape and origin. You know, dryer style whites made from Chenin Blanc, such as Savennières, Vouvray sec or Montlouis. Chardonnay-based whites such as Meursault and Chablis crus, and even Mâcon and Pouilly-Fuissé became difficult to sell. We’d tell our guests these wines are made from Chardonnay and pour them a sip; and they’d say, “It doesn’t taste like Chardonnay.” It’s still hard to sell classic German Rieslings, whether dry or off-dry, even from all-time great growths such as Steinberger, Würzgarten, Saarburger Rausch or Forster Ungeheuer.

1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay — The Chardonnay that “conquered” the world at the 1976 Judgement of Paris; but less fortunately, helped set the California wine industry on a course that determined that all California Chardonnays should henceforth be opulently fruited, sweetly oaked, and bigger and bigger, a formula that even moderately priced brands such as Kendall-Jackson and Glen Ellen followed.
1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay — The Chardonnay that “conquered” the world at the 1976 Judgement of Paris; but less fortunately, set the California wine industry on a course that determined all California Chardonnays should henceforth be opulently fruited and sweetly oaked, a formula that even moderately priced brands such as Kendall-Jackson and Glen Ellen followed.

The damage done by our own marketing genius, of course, extends far beyond Chardonnay or Chenin Blanc. For years, it was hard to sell Pinot Noir, any Pinot Noir, simply because it didn’t have the body or color of Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot. It’s almost stupid that it took a movie (Sideways) to make Pinot Noir popular. Nowadays it’s hard to sell Gamay or Beaujolais crus because, well, they’re not Pinot Noir or Cabernet Sauvignon.

My point is, when you treat consumers like idiots and devote 100 percent of your time and energy producing or selling wines that taste like “products” rather than expressions of a grape’s potential in a given region, appellation, or vineyard, then takes a heck of a long time before consumers are able to recover from that, and discover what they’ve been missing. Every year spent shoving stuff down their throats is another year depriving them of chances to experience many of the genuinely great wines of the world. Not just classic European wines, but also many of the under-appreciated wines growing in our own backyard—Sierra Foothills, Lake County, Livermore Valley, Applegate Valley, Walla Walla Valley, Okanagan Valley, and on and on.

When we treat consumers like crap, they continue to drink crap. What’s even more ironic is that many of us in the industry actually complain about consumers having lousy taste. We wish they would drink finer, and presumably more profitable, wines. A lot of us, of course, prefer to think of consumers as being extremely smart, and we’ll still try to convince them that French Chablis is more like “real Chardonnay.” But it’s hard to assume the best in consumers when most of the industry continues to do their damnest to keep them as dumb as possible, focused only on lowest common denominator wines.

At some point we have got to realize that we’re really our own worst enemies.

_______________________________________________________________________

Expert Editorial

Randy Caparoso
Randy Caparoso

Randy Caparoso is a full-time wine journalist/photographer living in Lodi, California. In a prior incarnation, he was a multi-award winning restaurateur, starting as a sommelier in Honolulu (1978 through 1988), and then as Founding Partner/VP/Corporate Wine Director of the James Beard Award winning Roy’s family of restaurants (1988-2001), opening 28 locations from Hawaii to New York. While with Roy’s, he was named Santé’s first Wine & Spirits Professional of the Year (1998) and Restaurant Wine’s Wine Marketer of the Year (1992 and 1998). Between 2001 and 2006, he operated his own Caparoso Wines label as a wine producer. For over 20 years, he also bylined a biweekly wine column for his hometown newspaper, The Honolulu Advertiser (1981-2002). He currently puts bread (and wine) on the table as Editor-at-Large and the Bottom Line columnist for The SOMM Journal (founded in 2007 as Sommelier Journal), and freelance blogger and social media director for Lodi Winegrape Commission (lodiwine.com). You may contact him at [email protected]

 

Advertisement
Previous articleUSDA Climate Director to Address How Extreme Weather Affects Ag and Wine Production at the 2022 Unified Symposium’s Keynote Luncheon
Next articleThe Napa Valley Vine Trail Appoints Shawn Casey-White as Executive Director

3 COMMENTS

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.