Friday, March 12, 2010

After reading this, I got to thinking..That's never good!

Brevity aside, I read this article by Eric Asmiov today which made me wonder about a few things. I'm not sure if Mr. Asmiov meant to bring up such questions but in any event I wanted to write a little about what often confuses me in this wonderful world (of wine). His article discusses the importance that consumers place upon the color of a red wine, going on to say that darker wines are perceived as being better, of higher quality. Within the article, he refutes this notion with some examples of red wines that may not have darker colors but still have high amounts of flavor and intensity.

What got me thinking was the notion that winemakers admit to making their wines darker in response to consumer preferences. I'll stop short of calling them sellouts, because they aren't doing anything egregious. The practical or economic side of the business says that you need to sell the wines you make so that you can afford to make more wines. Therefore if the consumer wants unnaturally dark reds, they'll get them. Sure I was bummed to read about that, even if Mr. Asmiov first talked to winemakers about this five years ago, but I try to understand from their point of view what's going on.

More to the point, how did the perception of darker = better quality/more flavor arise and is there anything that can be done to get the word out that this isn't the case? How do you change the inertia of such a large group of consumers? The first thing that popped into my head was that it would truly require a concerted effort by a majority of wine people. Something coordinated across the various industry areas that would inform and assist consumers in moving past the erroneous notion. Delving into that a bit deeper, I feel it would also have to be an effort with a positive message, not one that would alienate wine drinkers by making them feel like they were being lectured to.

There's already too much pontification in the wine industry, from holier-than-thou critics to arrogant winemakers and I really sense consumers are starting to feel that more and more. Perhaps that explains, at least partly, the trends towards wine drinkers getting their information from new, non-traditional sources. Ones that might be construed as less biased and less committed to the old ways.  Stepping down off my soapbox, such an effort could work, I firmly believe it. I suspect it's just such a massive undertaking in organizing everyone and ensuring the message was the right one that no one's willing to give it a shot.

From here, as you'll see, I started thinking beyond one particular issue and my brain felt like it was kicking into a higher gear. Let me apologize and inform you that I did not intend to write such a long blog about this but once the ideas and questions (well mainly questions) started coming out, I couldn't stop them. As you'll see, I think the broader reach of my thoughts still resonates within the wine business specifically. Ok, time to get back on topic.

But why stop there, what can be done about other erroneous consumer ideas? I mean let's face it, sometimes the customer is wrong. Americans have such a weird idea of customer service, all in the name to separate people from their dollars, but it is what it is and fundamentally will not change. How the message or education is modulated therefore must be precise. Maybe that's why top advertising and marketing executives make so much money, they know how to be that precise. Speculation gets me nowhere though, it sure doesn't pay the bills!

I'm trying to distill my main point into something somewhat clear and concise. I think it expands on what Mr. Asimov first brought up though, the notion that consumers, who do drive the market, can be wrong or at least misinformed. Basically it boils down to this: What, if anything, can be done to dispel misperceptions that exist in wine buyers? Further, if something can be done, will it actually be done and will it work? Are we limited to a glacial rate of change and if yes, how does that impact the dynamics of the industry? I told you it was a bad idea when I got to thinking!

Beau Carufel


  1. Beau,

    A glacial rate of change? Yes, that's usually how matters of taste change, in the consumers mind, one person at a time. I'm reading Tolstoy's War and Peace at the moment and he puts forward the view that on an individual level we all have the freedom to act and choose as we each think. But that taken en masse humanity must be viewed like the weather or the tides, the ebb and flow of events are truly beyond the the control of the individual. Napoleon and the Tsar have as little freedom in this tide of the affairs as the lowest serf or private in the army. Thus intelligent people hold the erroneous views of the many for historical reasons. Individuals may overcome these views, but it requires time for a sufficient mass of people to change their mind for that correct view to become "common knowledge".

    Having said that, every once and a while, along comes a phenomenon that grabs the public eye and effects a change overnight. I would point to the success of The Prisoner in altering the general negative view of blended red wines. Since the end of Prohibition, California wines were marketed on a basis that promoted a single named varietal as a guaranty that the wine was untainted by inferior grapes.

    Today, nobody is cutting good wines with alicante bouchet, but the single varietal bias has been very firmly in place here for several generations, tough to overcome. For the last twenty-five years I have been explaining this to customers, one person at a time! Along comes Orin Swift, The Prisoner gets 92 to 94 points from the Spectator four years in a row, suddenly everyone is interested in zin-based red blends! Hoorah!

    So, good luck with that dark/light flavor thing. I've been trying to tell that story for the last twenty-five as well. You would think more people would take a good look at the color of that pinot noir they are smaking their lips over (one of the non-syrah blended ones, that is), and have the realization that darkness is not always the sign of top quality.

    So keep up the good work, fight the good fight and hope for a lucky break. Every once in a while, you get one.

  2. If it makes you feel any better, I can't remember that preference ever being explicitly expressed. I've heard praise for "good, rich, color", but I haven't heard it directly associated with quality. I'd be willing to bet that being in pinot country contributes a bit to that fact.

    I think the big misconception, that captures many others, is that it's always a mistake to give someone absolute authority to tell you what is good and what isn't. And like you mentioned, more diverse sources of information provide different opinions, and hopefully encourage people to figure out for themselves what makes them happy.