How can we end the dumbing down of wine conversations?
By Randy Caparoso
Before you go jumping to conclusions about the nature of my incendiary question, let me be clear about who I’m targeting.
Not a bad influence
I’m not talking about the proliferation of wine influencers.
Over the past two years, I’ve met and spent quite a bit of time with a good number of these social media creatures. Virtually every one of them has struck me as being among the smartest, savviest people in the industry when it comes to pure wine knowledge. What’s made them dangerous, of course, is their mastery of means by which wine — and every other product, for that matter — is now sold. They command huge swaths of the consumer base that’s long eluded the wine production, marketing and advertising industries.
Just for the way they’re teaching the rest of the wine industry how to reach customers — and, better yet, at nominal cost and effort — we should all be thankful for wine influencers. Even conventional wine media is now copying their methodology. If you’re not learning from them, you’re probably having a hard time staying in business.
Sharing their opinions
I’m also not talking about wine bloggers.
What’s it been: nearly 20 years since this medium burst upon the web like the Big Bang? The number of bloggers has dramatically shrunk in recent years (as, undoubtedly, the number of significant wine influencers eventually will). The monetization pie can only be divided so much.
The wonderful thing about wine blogging was that it leveled the playing field. Consumers no longer needed to depend on information put out strictly by mainstream print magazines, sales and media outlets, or the extremely narrow number of wine book authors the publishing industry has traditionally been willing to print. In the blogosphere, information came from seemingly everywhere.
The horrible thing about wine blogging was that so much of the information was either bad or banal. The more wine bloggers there were, the less original the content. It got to the point that almost every wine blogger was writing about pretty much the same subjects — the same wines and established wineries, or the same “cool” winemakers, ad nauseum. That’s because very few of them were actually visiting wine regions, walking through vineyards, talking to growers or winemakers, discovering wine for themselves. The dearth of primary sourcing was bound to be the death of wine blogging. Perhaps, this has come to pass.
It started long ago
You can’t blame wine bloggers or influencers for the current state of wine reporting. The dumbing down came a lot earlier, probably somewhere in the 1970s and 1980s, when wine media began adopting the standard wine industry attitude that wine consumers, in general, are of low intelligence. Consumers “think dry and drink sweet,” it was always said. Also: they are incapable of understanding, much less appreciating, more than three, four, maybe five different “varietals” at a time. And if you lavish wines with oak qualities, whether through barrel aging or profligate oak amendments, consumers will love it.
So much of what the wine industry thinks consumers want is cynical.
Older wine professionals and consumers can still recall the 1960s and early ’70s, when it was the odd wine that was generously oaked. Back then, California wineries typically produced at least a dozen different varieties or blends (though usually much more than that). Somewhere along the line, wineries began reducing their SKUs by half or more.
Despite the fact that there are hundreds of grape varieties grown around the world making wonderful wines (such as Riesling, Gamay, Green Hungarian, Charbono and Chenin Blanc), in the United States, our domestic wine world shrank to Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc. Occasionally Pinot Grigio and Zinfandel, but not much more than that.
Worse yet, the prevalent thought became that U.S. consumers needed to be presented with a numerical system of wine rating. Consumers couldn’t be expected to possibly understand wines if we went too deep into origins or history, much less differentiating descriptions of vineyards and sensory attributes. No wonder most wine reviews sound alike, more like laundry lists consisting of the same descriptors, simply rearranged. It’s like we’re doing our best to bore consumers to death.
It’s also self-defeating to force consumers to think of wines only in terms of “varietal character” (as if all varieties need to meet some kind of universal standard) and the predictability of brands, rather than as an expression of where wines are grown. It seems the industry prefers that consumers think of wine as manufactured, or as something that emerges like magic, rather than as the laborious agricultural product that it is.
It’s even been asserted, very recently, that terroir — the basis upon which the European appellation systems are built — no longer exists in the commercial wine world. That the concept is more of a myth, perpetuated by elements in the industry with a sinister agenda. Heaven forbid, we confuse consumers with the concept that the character of wines might be connected to what happens in vineyards.
A self-perpetuating myth
This “treat-consumers-as-if-they’re-stupid” approach has only slowed down the evolution of awareness and appreciation of wines. And the entire industry — grape growing, production, distribution, trade and especially the media — has been complicit. I’d say we’ve wasted a good 20 years or more with this approach. Consumers would be a lot more sophisticated today if we had given them more credit from the very beginning, acknowledged them as being capable of absorbing information and understanding all the wonderful complexities and nuances that make wine appreciation so compelling.
This approach has been a peculiarity of the wine industry. The food and restaurant industries, by way of contrast, are extremely diverse. There doesn’t seem to be an end to the culinary products consumers are able to learn about, absorb and appreciate. The same, of course, goes for literature, music, film, art or any modern technology (from phones to cars). The average consumer doesn’t need to be treated like a fool who can’t grasp sophisticated ideas. They don’t need 100-point scores to guide their purchases. They have an endless capacity to grasp new products and information. Why do we think they can’t possibly do the same when it comes to wine?
We can do better
If wine reporting has been dumbed down, it’s because the industry has done that to itself — not everyone, of course, but the industry as a whole. I would also posit that it’s the segments of the wine industry that assume their customers are intelligent that end up being leaders of the pack. In fact, at long last, the tastes and intelligence of American consumers have dramatically expanded over the past few years, despite the best efforts of most of the industry to narrow them down.
Now more than ever, independent American wineries are offering more types of wines, especially those that are varied, innovative and terroir driven, the way all the world’s finest wines have been appreciated for centuries. It’s what wine lovers have craved all along.
If you persist in assuming most people are stupid, then stupid is what you get. It’s your smarter competitors who are ending up with all the smart customers.
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]