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There are at least two different “wine communities”–and they don’t talk to each other

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We often speak of a “wine culture” or “the wine consumer” but of course these phrases are wildly inaccurate. They imply that all American wine drinkers are part of one big, happy, thirsty family, when in fact just the opposite is true. There are at least two wine communities–and they couldn’t be more different from each other.

On the one hand, we have the Occupy movement’s version of the one percent: Extremely wealthy people who keep the Colgins, Harlans and Screaming Eagles in business. This community largely lives among, and associates with, its own kind. The own their own homes, usually large, well-appointed ones, golf at country clubs, spend their vacations on tropical isles and live lives of opulence. Price means little or nothing to them: if they want something badly enough, they go out and get it.

On the other hand, we have the 99% of consumers who have to think of their budget every time they buy something. To them, there’s a big difference between a $15 bottle of wine and a $12 one. That differential would be meaningless to the 1%, assuming, of course, that the 1% would even deign to buy a $15 bottle of wine. But to the 99% consumer, saving $3 on a bottle of wine mounts up; if she buys 100 bottles of wine a year–not an unreasonable quantity–that’s $300 she saves, or doesn’t. These are the sort of financial calculations that drive the 99%, and they’ve become more profound since the onset of the Great Recession, in 2008.

As a wine writer/critic/journalist, I have to take cognizance of these two communities. I need to understand both of them, which involves different sorts of analysis and empathy. In this, I feel that I, and Wine Enthusiast, have taken an independent approach, one that not all wine publications have chosen.

For example, some critics cater to the 1%; I’d put, say, Antonio Galloni and James Suckling in that category. Nothing wrong with that. It’s perfectly honorable. But it’s important for readers to understand that their approach is necessarily geared toward the desires and motives of the 1%. By that I mean that they are dealing almost exclusively with luxury products, and they bring a certain attitudinal exclusivity to their reviews that by and large discounts any appreciation of everyday wines. By way of an extended metaphor, it’s analogous to those art critics whose esthetic is concerned only with “museum-quality” art. To them, street art–graffiti–isn’t true art, it’s vandalism. This is not a viewpoint that is shared, however, by street artists themselves, who take their pursuit  very seriously, and for whom its freely distributed, populist nature is precisely the point: for them, it is art of and for “the people,” not the uber-wealthy.

The appreciation exclusively of expensive wine has never been my thing. I’ve never drawn any severe distinctions between cult wines and very good ones that are “merely” affordable. For example, a $625 Yao Ming is clearly a very great Cabernet Sauvignon–but so is a $50 Sequum, and for that matter a $45 Terra Valentine might beat them both in a blind tasting on any given day. By the same token, it pleases me to no end to be able to review, say, a Benziger 2010 Cab, or a Katherine Goldschmidt 2011, both of which retail for $20, and give them high scores. What could be better than that?

Producers have to figure out which end of the great divide they wish to appeal to. Some larger wine companies, like Kendall-Jackson and to some extent Gallo, can span the gamut, with something for everyone. But for the most part, wineries can’t do that. The ones who cater exclusively to the 1% or the 99% seem to be doing well; they’ve defined their markets. But some other wineries fall into the squishy center. They’re not expensive enough for the 1%, and they’re too expensive for the 99%. This is where sales tactics and strategies enter the picture, but that’s another story.

By the way, before you start telling me that social media is the key to these tactics I’m referring to, read this blog post from Tablas Creek, which appeared yesterday. In it, Jason Haas discusses the new Facebook policy “would be reducing the organic reach of pages and requiring those pages that wanted to reach a significant percentage of their fans to advertise to do so.” By way of illustration, he writes, “an average [winery] post to a page with 5000 fans will be seen in the news feeds of just 600-700 of those fans,” unless the winery pays for a more extensive reach.

I did not know that, but this trend doesn’t bode well for the continued [free] use of social media. It seem to me that the ability of wineries to use social media will increasingly by threatened, or neutered, as these social media companies increasingly force everybody to pay up; and the less you pay, the less of a reach you’ll have. In other words, the social media companies–having gotten us hooked on the use of their products–will now jack up the price, which, in accordance with the free market theory of capitalism, will send users away, in search of cheaper competitors. Am I reading this wrong? I’m sure my social media-savvy friends will be happy to explain to me my utter misinterpretation of reality.

  1. Steve, on what is your assessment of the purchasing based? I ask because there’s little public data on this stuff, and the public data suggest that cult wine Burt’s are well off but not wealthy, I.e., not millionaires.

  2. William Stephenson says:

    Steve, what about the middle?
    There are quite a few of us with modest collections (100 – 400 bottles), and mid-range taste that would balk at any bottle over $150 and view with suspicion any bottle under $15.
    As you know there are gems to be found at the lower price points but at the high end there are expectations only occasionally met.
    The middle, which I would describe as between $25 and $75 dollars per bottle is where most of my wine drinking friends live and the type of wineries we love to visit, even become members of.
    Williams-Selyem is a good example of this. A Sonoma Coast Pinot from them runs about $50. Far superior to a supermarket pinot yet doesn’t break the bank like a Marcassin or Sin Qua Non.
    For a relatively modest fee, and free in some cases, we have been treated extremely well in wineries such as Rombauer, Brown, Ballentine/Three Clicks, and Williams-Selyem. Yet my wife and I are far from being in the 1%.
    As with most things economic, I think the middle is where the money is

  3. No. The landscape is considerably richer than that. It’s a dialectic that adds zero value to the knowledge and pleasure of the wine drinking public. It’s just as useless as the split that many in the “somm” cliques have. That is: either it’s on Jon Bonné’s approved list or it’s a 17% abv pinot noir picked in early December and dealcohilized sole for the approval of Parker and Laube
    Contention and debate is vital in politics, legislation, governance, etc.
    it, too, has some place in wine. However, the constant, artificial and non-functional polarization has just become absurd

    I get enoughj of thisu reading about budgets, proposed, useless, invasive procedures, etc. Do I now have to expect it when reading about an interest that exists primarily for pleasure?

  4. Jake Bilbro says:

    I remember Antonio Galloni saying the 4 Mile Creek red blend made by Siduri was one of the very best values in American wine at $14. He may predominantly review higher end wines but he at least occasionally “ventures out.” In fairness, I couldn’t say how often. Kudos to Siduri regardless for producing a great wine at a great price.

  5. Here’s my perspective, from many years on the sales side of the wine world (both retail and wholesale). About 85% of the wine consumers are looking for a decent, non-complicated bottle to have with dinner (that night or soon). Not much complication goes into the selection process and they will look for an assist from a knowledgeable source (sales person, shelf talker, some other consumer in the department who seems to have a clue). She;s typically a harried mom in the store shopping for dinner and needs a good bottle to go with — “Can you help me find a bottle to go with lasagna? And if it’s not too expensive, that would be awesome!” A decent fruit-forward red under $10 will fill her needs and she’s on her way.

    The other 15% are the enthusiast side of the market and they are looking for something special — not the everyday wines so much as great QPR, something out of the ordinary (“I’m looking for Priorat, what might you have?”), a special occasion bottle to impress, etc. Price is sometimes a consideration but they are looking primarily for the experience of the bottle — so a little more money isn’t as great a consideration as what they are going to receive (we hope).

    The analogy I use is the car buyer — most of them are looking for good basic transportation in the price range they can afford and most folks will look no further than the sedans from a major manufacturer in the $25K range (that’s the equivalent of our 85% “mass-market” wine buyer).

    The category that drives (pun intended) all the market research, the car shows, the car magazines, the super cars and the new C7 Corvette is that other 15% — the enthusiast segment. They buy disproportionately — a smaller segment that, buyer for buyer, buys a larger percentage than the mass-market consumer. A smaller cohort with more buying power that is drawn to the sexy side of the product.

    There’s plenty of room in the marketplace for all these consumers — but we must remember that the marketplace is a harsh mistress.

  6. Thanks, Steve, for posting the link to my blog piece. I would tend to agree with the commenters above that there’s a bigger middle class than you suggest… though what you describe seems to me to be the case in a place like the UK, where even our mid-priced wines (say, in the $20′s) would be considered very much high end. I also think that most of the wine lovers I know, even if they’re willing to at times splurge on a great and expensive bottle, love to find wines that overdeliver value at a more modest price.

    Regarding the role of social media in all this, I think it’s important to point out that there already is a haves-and-have-nots aspect to wine marketing. No boutique winery is going to be taking out mass media or wine glossy advertising, though many larger wineries do. The costs of using a tool like Facebook effectively, even with the new landscape in place, are pretty modest by comparison, and likely within reach for even a small winery. It may not be welcome, but wineries who find value in that sort of outreach I think will find that they additional expenditures can be justified by the return.

  7. This is a thoughtful pairing (sorry-not-really-sorry for the wine pun) with Jason Haas’ recent, linked, piece… but I feel that it’s a little strange that people seem to be assuming that the only way to gain engagement is to pay out the nose, especially when Haas himself says, “Facebook’s message is clear: make your content compelling if you want it seen organically. Otherwise, expect to pay.”

    To me, that seems entirely fair, and for context I’m a person who is contracted for PR and social media management by what you deem a “middle class” wineries. It’s definitely true that Facebook has retracted their Business Page organic reach (this is easily viewable by going back over past posts… one year ago viewer percentages were higher), but that doesn’t bother me because I know that online it’s always been compelling content that makes things spin. I admit, that does mean additional investment by wineries on either one level or another — they can pay for direct advertising to FB, or they can pay in time/effort/cold hard cash for content.

    Luckily, much of winery content is considered compelling by consumers. As the popularity of Jason Haas’ own blog proves, a vocal subset of consumers loves to hear about the inside of the wine industry. And that’s not even touching the “easier” aspects of the wine industry online (pretty vineyard photos, anyone?).

    In the end, good social media — which really, is just plain old good content marketing closely coupled with public relations — has always hinged on compelling content. Now FB is just reflecting that more accurately in their algorithm.

  8. Donn Rutkoff says:

    Re: the advertising on social, it looks to me like “social media” advertisng is coming to be dominated by the same large corporates who advertise on old fashioned media, such as TV. I don’t see how wineries smaller than BV or Robert Mondavi will do much to mix in among the expensively produced slick ads.

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