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Too many wines, too little time

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I was idly flipping through the pages of a recent issue of Bon Appetit, thinking I might find something useful or interesting, when all of a sudden it struck me: Braised short ribs! Fettucine with peas, asparagus and pancetta! Salmon salad sandwiches! Hadn’t I seen them before?

Of course I had, and so have you. Hundreds, thousands of recipes for the same things, or iterations of the same things, year in and year out, decade after decade. Maybe the salmon salad is on ciabatta this time, focaccia last time, or on toasted sourdough the time before that. But come on, how many different ways can you make and serve salmon salad?

It’s not just Bon Appetit, it’s all the other cooking magazines. And cookbooks–I must have 30 at least. And cooking shows on the Food Network and PBS. Did somebody mention online? Try Googling “recipes”. 162,000,000 results, containing (no doubt) billions of individual dishes.

Why do we need all these recipes?

I don’t know about you, but I’m not a particularly adventurous home cook. Oh, I can do some pretty fancy stuff, but really, when all is said and done, it’s all based around some fairly fundamental ingredients. Fish, usually salmon or shellfish, less occasionally halibut, snapper, sole or something else. Poultry, usually chicken but sometimes duck. Pork, lamb in one form or another. Beef, I’m not so big on, but every once in a while. Throw in your veggies (seasonal and root cellar) and fruits, some good pasta or grain (cous cous, quinoa, rice), and your basic larder items (butter, EVOO, hot sauce, good vinegars, ginger, soy sauce, fish sauce, spices, herbs), and bingo, you’re got pretty much everything I’ve cooked with over the last 20 years.

So why, I asked myself, do I even bother picking up Bon Appetit? I have a great and extensive collection of favorite, foolproof recipes. (My latest is gnocchi with rock shrimp in a butter, white wine and herb sauce, topped with grated Parmesan. Awesome with an oaky Chardonnay.) Everything in my collection is perfect. You wouldn’t want to change a thing; every recipe works, which is why it’s in my collection. So why would I cut out yet another recipe for carrot-ginger soup?

I mean, how much is too much? What is this restless obsession with finding new recipes, when the ones we already have are just fine?

I suppose partly it’s the old no risk, no reward philosophy, which seems to permeate our culture. (Related to it is the no pain, no gain attitude of amateur athletes.) Entrepreneurs will tell you that without a passionate drive so relentless it can border on mania–yet one that could easily fail–there will never be a Facebook, or the profits associated with success. But, let’s face it, another version of Thai green papaya salad isn’t exactly the same thing as inventing something that changes the world. What’s wrong with my old recipe for Thai green papaya salad?

I don’t claim to have the answer. Humans are said to be an imaginative species that enjoys novelty; maybe that’s it. There is, as you might expect on my blog, an alcoholic beverage tie-in. Most of us, I suspect, like trying new wines and, especially, new cocktails. It seems like mixologists are the new rock stars, young, hip, good looking and constantly coming up with crazy new mojitos. (I Googled “cocktails” and came up with 20,100,00 results, about one-eighth the number for “recipes.”) I’m sure there are people on the extremes that always drink the same thing–if you’re poor, a jug wine from the bottom shelf of the supermarket; if you’re rich, maybe it’s Burgundy. But most people like to switch around. They’re not likely to find a Pinot Gris that’s radically different from any other Pinot Gris they’ve ever had, but that’s not the point. The point is to try something new and be surprised and stunned. Those are among the best feelings we humans can have.

I should think this truth is a challenging one to wine marketers. If you’re responsible for selling “X” wine, how do you keep consumers enthusiastic about it? How, given human fickleness, do you keep them from getting bored with “X” and abandoning it for “Y”? That’s a toughie, and people who can successfully figure that stuff out get paid far better bucks than I do, working for the likes of Kendall-Jackson and Gallo.

They do, however, occasionally drop us clues. Consider this new K-J Chardonnay, Avant. Did K-J really need a new Chardonnay besides Vintner’s Reserve? I wouldn’t have thought so, if you’d asked me–and nobody did–but evidently somebody at K-J arrived at this conclusion, perhaps Jess Jackson himself. Avant isn’t all that different from V.R. It’s the new Thai green papaya salad versus the old one, which nothing was wrong with. I guess the K-J people understand that thing about humans liking novelty.

I’ve long wondered why there are more brands of wine than there are of anything else you can buy in America. In fact, there’s probably a hundred times more brands of wine than anything else (especially when you count SKUs). It’s insane, but maybe the reason is because winemakers implicitly understand the consumer’s craving for novelty. Despite the fact that the market seems dominated by a few dozen mega-brands, ultimately anybody can make it, in our free market system, which is why every year sees dozens of startups in California alone. The wine industry has that in common with Silicon Valley: people aren’t afraid to take risks, to jump in. Somebody has to be the next Mark Zuckerberg or Jess Jackson or (if you set your sights at the boutique level), Ehren Jordan. Why not me (whoever it is)? That spirit pervades the adventure of wine. It’s a beautiful thing.

  1. In my experience there have been some new brands that got in with an aggressive distributor/s with a plan in mind. The object is to get bought out or sell out.

    I knew a of a grower that sold most of their grapes and wine to wineries. They had a lot of both so they started their own label.

    As to your food magazines, I think that people who love well prepared food are interested in what other people of the same mind are doing.

    As to wine companies or other type of companies expanding or adding an item is supposed to add marketshare and eventually perhaps help in changing a wineries current leading items to what will be the future top sellers for them. It is also about seeing the companies brand names on the retailers shelves. It probably means taking shelf space from another company. (LOL)

    Even the most diehard creationist has to admit that there is evolution in the wine market. Evolution is part of the competiveness of the market and a reflection of our inventiveness and creativity.

    By the way next time you do Salmon try adding a little finely ground Lapsang Souchang tea to it, just a little. (good on trout as well) Then have it with a pink champagne or pink Ca Sparkler.

  2. I agree,Steve, that there might be good reasons for each individual producer to increase the number of wines they offer, but the total effect when everyone thinks this way can be counter-productive. I wrote about this on The Wine Economist — here’s a link
    http://wineeconomist.com/2010/12/27/the-paradox-of-wine-choice/
    Mike Veseth

  3. Steve,

    You’ve hit on part of it, I think, in this post. People want change — beer companies have known this for ages, and continually churn out new brands (which most would say are less distinguishable from one another than wines — at least at the “varietal” level…)

    However I think the other part you hit upon before with your post on blind tastings. Context is everything. If you had the best BBQ of your life one weekend, you could invite the same people the next weekend and, even though it’s still fun, that rush has worn off.

    Same with wines. Yes, you can have your favourites. But even they become predictable. New times call for new wines — and if you can get a new wine from an old stand-by, all the better…

    ~Graham

  4. Graham – If you are correct that your favorite wines become predictable then you are drinking the wrong wines. Now we’re talking fine wine here and not industrial scale. If a fine wine is the same year-in-year-out (i.e., predictable), chances are the winemaker is completely accomplishing that through techniques in the winery. For me that in itself disqualifies it as a fine wine. Fine wine is meant to provide insight to the vineyard site, the weather, and the person growing the grapes and making the wine. The vineyard site, meaning what the vines are rooted in, is fairly constant, but the weather and people are anything but constant.

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