The King of marketing ploys
Do you know what the greatest marketing scheme in the modern history of wine has been?
a. the French Paradox
b. Beaujolais nouveau
c. the 1976 Paris tasting
e. the cult Cabernet phenomenon
All the above were brilliant, impacting the perception and sale of wine, but the greatest of them all was (b), Beaujolais nouveau. For those of you who live in a cave and don’t know what that is, it’s the first wine of the new vintage, released worldwide on the third Thursday in November amidst great furor and publicity. I almost wrote “traditionally released” because that’s how most writers refer to it, but there’s nothing “traditional” about the November release. According to some published reports, it wasn’t until 1985 that the “commercial phenomenon” of Beaujolais nouveau was invented. By the early 1990s, it was certainly set into place in California. I remember going to Kermit Lynch’s annual Beaujolais nouveau festival, in the parking lot outside his Berkeley store, where in additional to huge quantities of frothy, purple wine they’d serve grilled sausages and baguettes from Acme Bakery, next door.
Beaujolais, the wine, was nothing special prior to Beaujolais nouveau day. In my many older wine books, dating back to pre-Prohibition times, it’s scarcely mentioned. It wasn’t until the late, great Alexis Lichine’s 1979 book, Guide to the Wines and Vineyards of France, that Beaujolais nouveau found its way into a wine book in any great detail, although Lichine preferred to call it Beaujolais primeur. He colorfully describes how, on the night of Nov. 15, “hundreds and hundreds of trucks and trailers [gathered] in the Beaujolais to pick up the wine,” likening the traffic headed into the big cities as “an army convoy.” But he did not write about the worldwide phenomenon of Beaujolais nouveau, because it did not then exist.
Wikipedia suggests that Georges Duboeuf “saw the potential for marketing Beaujolais Nouveau” and says that by the late 1970s its release in France “had become a national event,” spreading to other European countries and the U.S. in the 1980s and to Asia in the 1990s. Whatever its precise origins, Beaujolais nouveau day has elevated a rather humble wine to an excitement meriting what amounts to a holiday in the world of wine. From Beijing to Lyons and San Francisco, Beaujolais nouveau makes a lot of producers a lot of money.
Can the phenomenon be replicated with other wines? Probably not. But that should never stop clever producers and their marketing agents from trying. You never know, before-hand, what’s going to work with P.R. Nobody could have predicted Pinot Noir’s resurgence prior to Sideways, or the launch of California’s reputation before the Paris tasting. And Sixty Minutes’ episode of the French Paradox was totally unexpected, in its massive impact on consumer attitudes toward [mainly red] wine.
Anyway, this year I’m going to pick up a few bottles of Beaujolais nouveau and bring them to our family’s Thanksgiving dinner. It’s the perfect bridge wine, a little sweet, chilled like a white, fizzy and fruity. And now, I’m off to Monterey, for tomorrow’s Best of the Blue event. I’ll be taking questions on Saturday afternoon; if you want, send in yours at the Monterey Vintners’ Facebook page, and we’ll tweet back my replies!