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How much info is too much info for consumers?

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A sparkling wine house recently sent me a bunch of their new non-vintage sparkling wines for review, but they didn’t include the varietal composition or case production numbers, so I emailed back their P.R. manager to inquire.

I like to have this information so I can share it with readers, if I think it’s appropriate. For example, a reader might like to know if a wine should be easy to find (with a case production of, say, 10,000), or whether it might be very hard. Readers might also enjoy understanding what’s in a blend, aside and apart from the actual score and review.

The P.R. person (who gave me permission to use her name and that of the winery, even though I subsequently decided not to) quickly sent me the information I asked for. But she also emailed: “We do not normally give varietal percentages for sparkling wines as these are non-vintage products which include a percentage of reserve wines for consistency and complexity. I find that people looking for this information don’t readily understand that concept; they think of these percentages as they would for still wine blends.”

This puzzled me. On the one hand, I agreed that most people probably don’t understand the concept of how a non-vintage wine can be as good as a vintage wine, since all their lives they’ve been told by “experts” that “vintage” is the highest thing a wine can aspire to.

And I also understand that most people probably don’t know that a good non-vintage sparkling wine will have a certain percentage of expensive older “reserve” wines blended in, for richness and complexity.

However, I didn’t get the connection between that, and why the P.R. person didn’t like to reveal varietal percentages. So I emailed her again to ask.

This time, she called back, and we had a good conversation. She said, “With sparkling wine, what I believe is that the percentages aren’t as important as how much aged wine goes into the blend, and how much lees, and that, as a non-vintage product, it’s blended for consistency.” (She means “consistency of taste,” not consistency of varietal composition.)

I agreed with that, too. But as I thought about it, I replied, “What you say is true. But I think people want more information these days, not less, in the name of transparency. Of course, with all that extra information, that gives them a greater responsibility to understand it appropriately and in context. Which in turn gives us educators more responsibility to explain these things to people.”

The P.R. person explained that she was telling her sales people the same thing she told me: she discourages them from revealing the varietal composition in their sparkling wines, because she doesn’t want them leaning on such crutch phrases as “This wine has 40% Pinot Noir and 40% Chardonnay.” I can see how a harried sales person might fall back on an easy sell like that. After all, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are prestigious names that practically sell themselves. And next year, if the wine contains only 35% Pinot Noir, the buyer might think it wasn’t as good.

Beyond that, few people have heard of Pinot Meunier, which goes into several of the winery’s bubblies. That might cause some buyers to wonder why a grape they never heard of, and which they might easily think is inferior, is going into a high-end sparkling wine. Of course, Pinot Meunier is widely used in the greatest French Champagnes, but most people don’t know that, and even if you tell them, they might not believe it. As they say in politics, as soon as you have to explain yourself, you’ve lost the argument.

I do completely understand the P.R. person’s point of view. Selling wine is very different from writing about it. When you’re a writer, you want as much information as you can get, in order to have the fullest palate (as in the artist’s palate) to paint your word-picture. It’s all about freedom of information, and the more, the merrier.

When you’re a sales person, you want to say the things that will persuade your customer to buy your wine. Sometimes, success depends on, not what you say, but what you don’t say.

Still, when all’s said and done, I’m on the side of complete  information (although I’m not sure if I favor listing all wine’s ingredients on the label). If we — critics and wineries alike — don’t collaborate on educating consumers, who will? We can’t bemoan their ignorance, and then do nothing to correct it. I’ve made the same observation when it comes to wineries not putting the name of smaller appellations on their labels. This happens from Santa Ynez Valley to Arroyo Grande to Atlas Peak. “Nobody’s ever heard of Santa Ynez Valley,” people will tell me. “But everyone’s heard of Santa Barbara County.”

I ask them back, “How do you expect them to hear about Santa Ynez Valley when you won’t tell them about it?”

“That’s not our job, it’s yours,” they frequently reply.

Well, yes, it is my job, as a wine writer and educator, to let people know where a wine really comes from. But it’s also the producer’s job, isn’t it?

All I’m saying is that we’re in a new age. People want to know the facts. I think they can be trusted with the facts. They don’t want information selectively spoon fed to them in tiny amounts because somebody thinks they can’t handle the truth. And besides, a smarter wine consumer is more likely to spend more money than an ill-informed one. I don’t have any studies that prove that, but I’ll bet you anything it’s true.


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