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What Prosecco tells us about the future of wine

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Prosecco, as you know, has been on a roll lately, but when you read headlines like this:

“PROSECCO OVERTAKING CHAMPAGNE AS SPARKLING WINE OF CHOICE”, you know that something far more important than the ephemeral popularity of a particular wine is happening. Why is Prosecco so hot?

Two things:

  1. Millennials coming of age
  2. The Great Recession

Concerning Millennials, they “aren’t earning as much money as their parents did when they were young,” a situation that’s even worse for Millennial women. Saddled with student debt, they’re unable to afford homes, and in general are feeling financial pressures in a way their parents (my generation) never did (at least, until the Great Recession struck). So when it comes to discretionary spending, Millennials are spending downward.

Speaking of that Great Recession, it impacted all of us. Trillions of dollars went down the drain. “The wealth of most Americans down 55% since recession,” CBS MoneyWatch headlined in 2013. We’ve made some of that back since then, but Americans of all ages still are feeling the pinch, which is why U.S. economic growth has been so sluggish.

Under the circumstance, you have to consider two things concerning sparkling wine: quality and price. Simply put, Champagne is expensive, Prosecco isn’t. The average price of a bottle of French Champagne on a restaurant wine list is $117. I couldn’t find anything online concerning the average price of Prosecco, but on Snooth, they list many Proseccos, mostly below $20 a bottle, so even if you double that for a restaurant wine list, it’s only about $40.

And qualitatively, as we all know, a good Prosecco is as satisfying as Champagne. So why would anyone choose to buy Champagne, except for image and perceptions?

For me, the issue here isn’t about Prosecco per se, it’s about the average American looking for less expensive wines than perhaps her parents used to. I was up in Napa Valley yesterday, and we were chatting about expensive wine, and how and if these pricy bottles of Napa Cab will continue to exist into the future. Someone asked me my opinion, and I replied that I’ve been wrong in my prognostications so many times in the past that I’ve basically given up on the prediction game. But still, a part of me just can’t see folks who are, say, in their twenties today spending $50 or $60 per bottle retail as they hit middle age, or spending $100-plus for a bottle in a restaurant. I just think some things in America have fundamentally changed: the Great Recession, as I said, but something else: We’ve become a more frugal country, less apt to consume conspicuously. The outrages of the super-rich have changed our sense of right and wrong; our moral compass has swung back to what it was at this country’s beginnings: living simply.

At the height of the Great Recession, there was much talk of “The New Frugality,” as for instance here and here; everyone agreed it was a reality, and the only question was whether it would continue once the Great Recession lifted. Well, the Great Recession now has lifted (the country actually hasn’t been in recession for years), but, as Forbes noted just last year, an enduring ‘New Frugality’…has Americans of prime working age, mainly 25 to 55, spending less, working less, and buying cheaper.” That, it seems to me, is likely to mark this nation for many years to come. It’s why people are preferring Prosecco to Champagne, and why we’re likely to see a similar switch in other wine types, if it hasn’t already happened.


Bloggers: stop the insults, now.

39 comments

 

There used to be sexism in the wine business. I know, because I know some wonderful women winemakers who began their careers in the 1970s and told me their stories. Even though they had winemaking degrees, they couldn’t get hired anyplace but the laboratory, because the white men who owned the wineries thought they’d be incompetent as winemakers.

Well, we don’t have sexism anymore, thank goodness. But we have another form of prejudice that’s just as pernicious: ageism.

Read, for example, this piece, from Snooth, that refers to “old white guys.” The author of the Snooth piece, James Duren, is quoting Jeff Siegel, the proprietor of a wine blog called winecurmudgeon.com. In the Snooth piece, Duren is writing about the demise of the point-scoring system (yes, again…yawn), and apparently came across something Siegel had written on his blog (I tried to find it but couldn’t, so I will trust that Duren is quoting Siegel accurately). Siegel was going on about how social media is changing wine is such fundamental ways that the entire sales and distribution chain is being upset, which, he claimed, is “something the old white guys can’t even begin to understand.”

Okay, let’s break this down.

First of all, Siegel isn’t exactly some cool young dude. Here’s a picture of him from his website

SiegelPhoto credit: winecurmudgeon.com

that makes it clear his younger self is fast disappearing in the rear view mirror. So words of wisdom, Mr. Siegel: Be careful whom you disparage. What goes around, comes around, in this world of karma.

But even worse than Siegel’s uncalled-for rudeness is its absolute incorrectness. I’ve worked with plenty of “old white guys” in the wine industry who are a lot smarter and more successful than Mr. Siegel will ever be. In fact, the winery owners and executives I know understand precisely how social media, online buying and all that is rocking their world. They’re trying to deal with it the best they can, the same as everyone else: the problem, as I’ve pointed out for years, is that there are no easy solutions.

Look: When you’re a little blogger, it’s easy to pontificate. That’s what some bloggers do: From the ivory tower of their desktops they type the most vapid absurdities into their computers, then hit the “Publish” button and think they come across like Einstein declaring the Theory of Relativity.

But not a single one of these bloggers actually runs a wine business! (If I’m wrong, let me know. But I don’t think I am.) They’ve never sold a damn bottle of wine, never had to hit gridlocked roads visiting with on-premise or off-premise accounts, never had to come up with a marketing campaign, never had to develop a winery website, never sent a wine sample off to a critic, never lived with the fallout of a bad review, never hosted a winemaker dinner, never had to meet a payroll for field workers and secretaries, never had to fix a tractor on a cold rainy morning, never stayed up for three days and nights doing a harvest. None of that, nada, zero, zilch. And yet they think that being a blogger puts them in a position to criticize older winery owners and tell them how to run their business.

Chutzpah!

What is this fear and loathing these not-so-young bloggers have for “old white guys” anyway? Their psychological hangup obviously is connected to their hatred of point scores, and of wine reviewing in general, which they claim is elitist. But then these same bloggers turn around and review wines (from free samples, of course), just like older critics do—and yet without the experience, without the chops, without the context.

Perhaps they’re just acting out subconscious frustrations they feel towards their own parents. Whatever the cause, their anger, rudeness and vitriol is not only ugly, but will hurt them in the long run, because one thing that doesn’t change about the wine industry is that it’s a small town where everyone knows everyone else, and people value respectfulness and kindness. You want to succeed in this business for the long run? Do your homework, learn your stuff, play nice in the sandbox, and wait your turn. You don’t have to tear others down to boost yourself up.

And as for social media completely disrupting the traditional sales model and replacing it with a bunch of “friends recommending to friends,” if you believe that, I’ve got a bridge to sell you. Ain’t gonna happen anytime soon. Social media has become a useful tool in the overall tool kit with which to market and sell wine, but it’s just that: a tool, and not even a very good one, if we’re going to be brutally honest. We’ve been having this conversation now for eight years and social media still hasn’t displaced traditional marketing and sales approaches. If it worked as well as people like Mr. Siegel claim, don’t you think proprietors would have dismantled their sales and marketing departments—thereby saving tons of money—and simply depended on social media? Of course they would have. But they know something that Mr. Siegel doesn’t: Social media doesn’t work as advertised by its adherents. Are these proprietors simply “old white guys who can’t even begin to understand” how the real world works? Or are they savvy businessmen who require proof, not simple, self-serving assertions, that something works? The latter, methinks. No, meknow.


The changing role of the somm

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Predictions of the demise of almost anything are usually exaggerated, as Mark Twain had occasion to note. He was very much alive when it was reported that he had died. Along the same lines, neither are sommeliers about to go the way of the dodo bird, as suggested in this piece, called “Are sommeliers becoming obsolete?”, that appeared in the Chicago edition of Crain’s Business. (You may not be able to read the entire piece if you’re not a subscriber or a particularly adroit Googler.)

The author, Maggie Hennessy, suggests that today’s somms are becoming obsolete due to the phenomenon of “sommelier 2.0”– somms moving more and more into the business, management and financial sides of their restaurants. This not only takes them steadily away from wine, it forces them to concentrate on beer and spirits—beverages they may have only a passing knowledge of and interest in, but that are increasingly important to a restaurant’s bottom line.

I know a sommelier or two—or fifty—and I’ve seen definite changes in how they do their jobs. It used to be that the sommelier was driven more by the discovery of interesting wines and the personal passion she held for them. Of course, he or she had to contribute to the restaurant’s profits, but in the larger scheme of things, the somm was seen as adding a certain esthetic to the operation. It fell to the kitchen to be the profit center; one had the feeling that restaurant ownership felt the sommelier brought added value, in the form of a clear commitment on management’s part to a fine-wine program, which was something diners seemed to appreciate and expect.

Esthetics, unfortunately, don’t pay rent or employee salaries and benefits. The squeeze has been building on fine-dining establishments for years, and was vastly accentuated by the Great Recession, which forced many of them out of business, and compelled others to take a more draconian approach to the bottom line. This is when somms really began feeling the heat: Management said, in effect, “Show us how your monetary results in a return on the investment we’ve made in you, or else we’ll show you the door.”

This is understandable, but it also created a crisis for sommeliers, who suddenly found themselves in an existential dilemma. Were they first and foremost wine lovers whose primary task was to discover gems the public might not know about? Were they simply curators of bloated wine lists stuffed with First Growths and cult Cabs they, themselves, neither could afford nor particularly liked? Or were they mere tools of the CFO, part of a sales staff whose sole responsibility was making money by pretending to be independent arbiters?

Obviously, all somms participate to some extent in all three of these areas. It’s a matter of emphasis. But the point of the Chicago Crain’s article, with which I agree, seems to be that the emphasis has been shifting over the last seven or eight years. We see this, not only anecdotally, but in terms of the sheer numbers of sommelier accreditation programs out there, which is greatly increasing the applicant pool. There are more somms available for employment than there are jobs, frankly, and so management is able to select—not simply the most educated somm, but the one who is thought best able to make money. That requires sound business and management skills, not simply an extraordinary knowledge of wine.

So where does the somm go from here? Is he an endangered species—“becoming obsolete,” as suggested by in the Chicago-Crain’s headline? No. The fact that we’re talking about “sommeliers,” and in fact that so many people are talking about somms, means that we—in the industry, and those advanced consumers—have some weird kind of fascination with the cult of the somm. The sommelier has seized hold of the American wine-drinking imagination in a way few would have thought possible.

But the sommelier’s role is changing, radically, and we do need to recognize it. Less driven by passion than profits, today’s somm needs to be understood by diners in a different way: Not so much a pure messenger of extraordinary wines, or an objective educator, but a representative of the restaurant’s management. That, I should think, would shift our perception of the sommelier in dramatic and significant ways.


Parker vs. “trendy reds” is a fake choice

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Here, you see, is the false dichotomy that infects so many of our wine conversations today: that there are “two different kinds” of wine and that we, as consumers and writers, “must pick one or the other,” as if we were in a vinous civil war where no one is permitted to be neutral and like both sides equally.

That is once again the premise of this think piece in San Francisco Magazine, whose very headline starkly presents the choice said to be confronting us: Should You Be Drinking Parker Bombs or Trendy Reds?” The article lists six red wines from California that all received “a perfect score from the Wine Advocate” and then contrasts them with six other red California wines “which probably aren’t going to net any 100-point scores…”.

Civil wars are dreadful things. Most people caught up in them, I suspect, would prefer to be left alone to live their lives in peace, but the fact of a civil war makes that practically impossible. We saw this in our own American Civil War (particularly in the border States) and we see it again, horribly, in places like Syria and Iraq, where common people—husbands and wives, children and old people, farmers and merchants and mechanics and teachers—get sucked against their wills into the crosshairs of the most disastrous arguments. Sometimes—often—it seems like these are arguments between maniacs, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” as Macbeth described Life, “a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more.”

I submit that this false dichotomy is just such “sound and fury,” that it signifies absolutely nothing, except the unfortunate tendency of the media to fasten on anything that smells of controversy. Those proffering the argument that there are two kinds of wines, and that we must choose, frankly are almost exclusively from the “trendy reds” side of the spectrum. You never hear people who like Harlan or Verité or Saxum say that lighter red wines, such as Domaine de la Cote or Frog’s Leap Cabernet, are undrinkable. No sane or fair wine writer would take that position; if she were to do so, her credibility would be instantly undermined.

And yet the opposite is not the case; that is, writers and somms who like a lighter style of red wine (whatever that means) are able to charge, with impunity, that bigger red wines (whatever that means) are somehow marred or tainted or suspect.

How did we ever arrive at this impasse? More importantly, why do we suffer it to exist, in the exchanges that pass for our national wine conversation, which is supposed to be polite and reasoned, not polemical? This is why I have referred to the purveyors of the “lighter” side of the argument as the Taliban. (See here and here, for instance.)

An extremist, whether religious or cultural or stylistic, who insists that his interpretation of scripture is the only correct one is, by definition, a radical. And haven’t we seen that radicals of all stripes are the last things we need in this world?

So I return again to my old argument: When it comes to “lighter” or “more powerful” red wines, we don’t have to choose. We don’t have to feel as though we must choose, just because some authority (a sommelier, a newspaper columnist) tells us we must. People are so uncertain and insecure about wine; they look for whatever slender reed they can find, to grasp onto lest they be sucked into the quicksand of utter confusion. And this is why those purveyors of false choices do such a disservice to American wine drinkers. By creating the pretense that there is a true canon, as opposed to a false religion, they add to the confusion and, in the process, sow dissention where there ought to be nothing but respectful analysis and personal choice. It’s not and never has been “either-or.” It’s both. I wish that this phony argument, which now has enjoyed more than its expected fifteen minutes of strutting on the stage, would, like Macbeth’s walking shadow, go away and be heard no more.


Gay-friendly: Progress in the wine industry, but a long way to go

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Years ago—it has to be at least ten—I wrote an article for Wine Enthusiast about the emerging gay market for wine, and how important it was proving to be. I was seeing more wine advertisements aimed at gay people, and a handful of wineries was reaching out to them, albeit quietly.

At the time, I knew quite a number of gay people in the wine industry, among them winemakers and P.R. folks, but they were mainly in the closet. The wine industry is generally a pretty open place, but there are pockets of conservatism, and many gay people did not feel comfortable enough to come out.

My oh my, how that has changed. As American attitudes towards gay people (and we’ve now expanded that to the acronym GLBTQ) have softened, the presence of gays in wine, always there but largely invisible, has become clearer. It is due to a generalized spirit of welcoming that inspired the wine community, but it’s also recognition that the gay community has a lot of disposable income—and gay people like to drink wine (according to The Daily Beast, Gay people drink 16 percent more than straight people”).

I’ve never been one to lump Americans, though, into separate-but-equal identity groups. It seems to me that, since we’re all in this together, we ought to find ways of association that transcend things like gender, race, religion, age, ethnicity and sexual orientation—even political persuasion, which sometimes can be the most difficult difference to bridge. But that’s idealistic, I’m sure; the truth is that we do tend to feel binding ties with people who are like us, and I suppose that’s good, as long as it doesn’t make us so chauvinistic that we forget that we’re actually tied to everyone.

I don’t think, even when I was younger (when such an event would have been unthinkable), that I would have gone to Out in the Vineyard’s recent Gay Wine Weekend, held in Sonoma County. And now, when I’m old enough to be most of the attendees’ father, I’m not sure I would have been comfortable had I gone. But I sure am glad Out in the Vineyard exists, and I’m super-glad that Jackson Family Wines, exemplified by La Crema, supports it. This company is strongly pro-GLBTQ, a progressive stance I wish more California wineries shared.

Some wineries feel that being too closely identified with GLBTQ issues—which remains contentious among some unkind people in America—will hurt their bottom line. The wine industry, like most industries, constantly keeps tabs on how it’s perceived. Wineries don’t want to be thrust into the position of being on the backlash end of a homophobic boycott, as Wells Fargo recently was when the celebrity-preacher, Franklin Graham, exhibited narrow-minded and hateful behavior in criticizing Wells for having the temerity to put on a gay-friendly T.V. commercial. Graham, who seems not to understand the direction of history, or perhaps just doesn’t care, no doubt instilled fear among some winery proprietors who, personally, have no problem with the GLBTQ movement, and might even privately support it; but who fear the wrath of a popular religious leader whose admonitions are obeyed by millions.

One can hardly blame wineries for being afraid of such pressure; I cast not the first stone. But it does make me even prouder of gay-friendly wineries, not only Jackson Family but also J, Windsor Oaks, Sebastiani, DeLoach, Francis Ford Coppola, Ravenswood, Gary Farrell, Iron Horse, Lynmar, Korbel, E&J Gallo and many, many others. That’s the good news. The not-so-good news is that wineries (like most U.S. corporations) still tread exceedingly carefully using obviously gay people in their marketing and, especially, their advertising. Rev. Graham, and people like him, unfortunately have succeeded in getting their threatening message across: The stifling of free speech.


“The 100-point system is irrelevant”? Umm, sorry, no it’s not

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Haha, people have been saying the 100-point system is irrelevant for at least 100 years. Well, maybe the last 10 years. And now comes this blog from the Napa Valley Wine Academy that makes it official.

Well, who or what is the Napa Valley Wine Academy? They call themselves (on their website) “America’s premier wine school” and say they are an “approved program provider” for the WSET. So they must know what they’re talking about, right?

Here are their reasons why the 100-point system is “irrelevant”, according to the author, Jonathan Cristaldi:

  • “Parker’s influence continues to wain” [sic; he meant “wane,” but what’s a little spelling error now and then?)
  • no other critic’s influence is as important as Parker’s [true, dat]
  • people “don’t just buy when a wine garners big points” [well, nobody ever said points were the only criterion by which people make buying decisions]
  • and besides, WSET seekers “will have the power to raise a collective voice that is louder than any one critic.”

I need to break this last point down. Do you suppose that there ever will be a “collective voice” of sommeliers? I don’t. Put ten somms in a room and you’ll have more smackdowns than a mixed martial arts bout. These people seldom agree on anything, unless it’s that Burgundy is the best red wine and Riesling is the best white wine. So how, exactly, will this “collective voice” operate?

  • “the future of wine ratings is a future of recommendations, not points or scores…”

Proof? There is none. “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride,” the old nursery rhyme tells us. Merely wishing that individual critics will fade away, in favor of crowd-sourced opinions spread via social media, is the biggest wish-fantasy around. When Cristaldi tells us that “Friends and confidants will replace the lone wine critic,” he has absolutely no proof; no evidence supports it, except anecdotally; and even if the Baby Boomer critics, like Parker, are retiring or dying off, there is no reason to think that their places will not be taken by Millennials who just might be the future Parkers and Tanzers and Gallonis and Laubes and Wongs and, yes, Heimoffs. (Certainly, you know as well as I do that there are ambitious bloggers who ardently wish that were the case!)

So do I think the 100-point system will still be around in the future? Yes. It will, because schools still grade test scores on the 100-point system and Americans “get it” and know in their bones the difference between 87 points and 90 points. Will there be other graphic systems around (puffs, stars, and the like)? Sure. Will there be long-form wine writing that relies on the informative impact of words, rather than graphic signifiers? Yes. All of the above will make for a robust wine-reviewing scene.

Honestly, I continue to fail to understand why some people get so worked up over the 100-point system. It’s like a mania, the wine-reviewing equivalent of Obama birtherism. People: calm down. There are so many more important things to get upset about.

Where I will end this post is to re-quote Cristaldi’s quote from Jon Bonné, the former wine critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. Jon said (according to Cristaldi), “The 100-point system is flawed.” Well, breaking news! Thank you, Jon, for pointing that out.

Of course the 100-point system is not perfect. What system is? But the 100-point system has educated more people, sold more wine and benefited more wineries than anything else ever invented. That’s pretty cool, and like the old saying goes, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.


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