In Honor of Salvy, a True Wine Warrior
Some of us in the wine world tend to look at branded wine with disdain. As a general rule, we don’t approve of focus-groups, big-dollar ad campaigns, laboratory shenanigans or distribution monopolies that crowd out the little guy. We don’t like that brands tend to exploit the romance of wine, devalue its traditions and decouple it from its most valuable asset: its sense of place. We concede that brands do offer affordable consistency and comfort to the disinterested consumer, but to the few who are knowledgeable or curious many brands feel sleazy and exploitative.
On the other hand, some among us credit brands with the democratization of wine and the marginalization of experts. They argue that brands provide the casual consumer with an undemanding product at a compelling price—expertise is not required. And thanks to the three-tier muscle and product leverage of the big distributors one is assured that a favorite tipple is always close at hand. Grocery chains from coast-to-coast are awash in the stuff, even if they sell most of it for pennies above cost. But just as the average consumer is hopelessly lost in a specialty shop, the enthusiast is equally terrified in a grocery store where he must begrudgingly submit to the best worst option. He can only hope to get it right.
Some will argue that commodity wine is the mother’s milk of the wine drinking middle-class, or the best place for beginners to start, or the best choice for those who just want a drink without a lecture. We are promised that our professional forbearance will result in a trickle-up effect, that casual consumers will come to fine wine through cheap wine. Yet I am unaware of any data to support this claim. What I do know: such consumers rarely move beyond their price category. That is what they are taught to do, after all, because there is nothing discernibly different to be had by moving up; when what you already drink makes you happy.
Imagine running a business where your precious data indicates your customers don’t care about quality. That they are uncritical. That they just want their wine at a particular price. Sounds like a businessman’s dream. In such a scenario there is no incentive to improve, or even maintain quality. License is given to the manufacturer to implement whatever strategies are necessary to fix a price. Simple physics tells us that a six-dollar bottle of wine can not stay a six-dollar bottle forever. Something has to give. And since there will always be a six-dollar bottle of wine, what almost always gives is quality. Wine geeks have co-opted the term “Race to the Bottom” from the economic sphere to describe this physical truth.
Constellation Brands appears to be the first to act on this truth by off-loading its stagnating, margin-draining portfolio of cheap brands in favor of greener pastures: legalized pot and its derivative products, as well as beer and a new generation of expensive, aspirational wine brands. They know that margins are thin and getting thinner and the retailer is increasingly pinched. Vineyard-less commodity wines such as Meomi and The Prisoner are seeming winners because they appeal to a more wealthy, yet equally indifferent consumer. The upshot: Big Wine trades up and leaves the little guy behind.
Then there are the brands that “borrow” provenance from others—Elouan, for example—which are designed to cheat the system. A system based on integrity and transparency that others have created and worked hard to uphold. These brands are the perfect new vehicles for a risk-less capitalism where contracts with growers are ruthlessly negotiated and then breached with impunity. Critical supply and demand metrics can be controlled OPEC-style with an eye towards controlling markets and protecting margins.
But what about innovation, you ask. Surely Big Wine is best equipped to give us innovation. Sadly, most of Big Wine’s innovation is thanks to genius accountants. They look upon those bourbon barrels in Kentucky and the shake from marijuana operations as the repurposing of depreciating assets and value-added from useless garbage. These are consumer products developed before there is even a consumer. Focus groups will tell them how to tweak each flavor to suit their average palates. Imagine, aspirational products developed in tandem with average palates. Genius.
The irony is that as Big Wine moves on from its cheap wine promise and finally abandons the market they just may give the little guy from France, Italy and Spain a spot on the bottom shelves of the wine aisle. The beleaguered consumer may just learn a little about wine despite themselves.
I’m afraid by championing commodity wines and by extension the consumer who buys them we are doing Big Wine’s work for them. Our “give the consumer what he wants” mantra emboldens Big Wine and gives the little guy false comfort that his unquestioning, undemanding stance is really what’s best for him. Heaven forbid he should be told what is in his wine or how it is made. Heaven forbid he should know there are so many other options in his price range.
Instead we should be challenging Big Wine to make cheap wine in a sustainable way, ethically and with respect to the traditions preserved over 8000 years. It is so obvious in today’s world that there are so many willing to be led astray. I don’t see the wine world any differently. As professionals, we have a long and hard road to educate consumers about the product we love.
That is my bottom line.