It used to be, following the Repeal of Prohibition, that Americans favored inexpensive sweet wine by a large margin (further proof that Prohibition had an aberrational effect on the county’s wine drinking habits). In my Wines & Vines 1943-1944 Yearbook of the Wine Industry are endless ads for stuff like Roma California Sauternes, Petri California Sauterne [without the “s”], Guasti Pale Dry Sherry (I bet it wasn’t dry), Gianni’s California Port and an array of Vermouths and brandies.
It wasn’t until sometime in the 1970s, I believe (maybe someone will fact check this for me) that a taste for dry wines overtook that for sweet ones among consumers. This was generally hailed as a turning point in the history of California wine: at last, producers could get serious about European-style table wines, since the market apparently would reward their efforts. That’s exactly what happened. We saw the explosion of the “boutique winery” movement in the Sixties and Seventies, the Judgment of Paris, and the glorious birth of our modern wine indsutry.
“Good riddance,” said most educated people to the inexpensive sweet wines, which by the 1980s were seen as an embarrassment–fit for Skid Row bums and, perhaps, for college rowdies who, it was hoped, would soon outgrow their fondness (one could hardly call it “love”) for sweet booze.
So what are we to make of this report, which suggests that two of the five fastest growing wine brands in the U.S. are sweet?
(The other three hot brands are Cupcake, which offers good varietal wines at affordable prices, La Marca, a sparkling Prosecco, and William Hill, from right here in the Napa Valley.)
The article doesn’t say exactly who’s buying these sweet wines, but my guess would be younger people, women and those newly arrived to our shores–not necessarily in that order.
Incidentally, three of the five fastest selling brands belong to E&J Gallo, proving once again that, when it comes to marketing, this venerable wine company wrote the book. (I’m especially impressed by William Hill’s success. Those wines are not cheap, and face mountains of competition from other California brands.) The Gallos have forgotten more about selling wine than most everybody else put together knows. Other wine companies, even big ones, come and go, get bought and sold, see their stock prices rise and fall, report huge losses or modest profits, and face generally cloudy futures. Gallo goes on and on, a survivor, riding the waves of the economy like the man on the flying trapeze, seeming to do it all with the greatest of ease. If this sounds like a paeon of praise, it is.
The subject of wines whose marketing campaigns seek to target them to women has been much in the news lately. In this piece, nicely written by Bloomberg’s Elin McCoy, she hits the nail on the head with the requisite amount of barely concealed outrage appropriate for a 21st century woman with a healthy amount of self-respect and a keen eye to penetrating the cynicism that midwifed the birth of these brands.
In this column by the Wall Street Journal’s resident guru, Lettie Teague takes a more restrained approach, as to be expected given the constraint’s of her paper’s editorial style. She doesn’t exactly come out and say she finds the whole womanist thing contemptible, instead crafting her piece in terms of the comparative merits of mens’ and womens’ palates. But various phrases she uses, including calling such wines “a veritable ocean of plonk…produced with the sole purpose of appealing to the supposedly superior female palate,” gives us a glimpse into the answer to the question, What does Ms. Teague really think?
Ms. Teague and Ms. McCoy are, as mentioned, both women. But how does a male view the wine-to-women targeting? In The New York Times, correspondant Austin Considine, in this Grey Lady-esque piece of stylebook journalism (which means finding people on both sides of the fence to quote), calls the wines in question “cheap, cheery wines appealing to conventional notions of contemporary women, à la Carrie Bradshaw,” although he does concede that women’s wines are “enjoying something of a pop culture moment” given, especially, Cupcake’s success.
Six years ago or so, the venerable Wine Institute, headquartered in San Francisco, first took note of the phenomenon, noting that “A greater marketing awareness toward women consumers is emerging as a trend in the 21st century.” However, this was before the onslaught of silly and often patronizing names that has hit store shelves lately. The Wine Institute welcomed the trend, calling it only rational given that women “purchase 57 percent of the wine consumed in the United States.” Wine Institute also pointed out that “women are less influenced by wine ratings…Although the wine quality is important to women, so are the label design, the bottle shape and the philosophy of the winery.” That put things on a lofty intellectual plane. I particularly like “the philosophy of the winery” as being an integral part of a woman’s decision to buy a bottle of wine. That assumes that the woman in question would be able to infer that philosophy (if indeed one existed) through visual cues picked up from the label. And perhaps many women did select wines that purported to donate a portion of their profits to charity, or were eco-friendly.
Well, what would be the philosophy of a wine called “Cupcake”? Or for that matter of wines called “Girl’s Night Out,” “Middle Sister,” “MommyJuice,” “Flirt,” “Skinnygirl” or the inimitable “Bitch”?
I think we have to realize that a lot has changed in the last six years. Wines that might have targeted women buyers as smart and progressive now seem to be appealing to what the marketers see as every woman’s inner Barbie Doll. Maybe I, as a man, simply can’t understand. But I suspect there are millions more women who wouldn’t touch these wines, under any circumstances, than who would. They know when they’re being pandered to, and they don’t like it.
I blogged the other day about that new census data showing that more minority babies than white babies are being born in the U.S. for the first time in our history.
I said that IMHO the wine industry needs to take this very seriously, especially family wineries that hope to be around for generations as well as large corporate wine companies with responsibilities to investors. “They need to stop being complacent. And let there be no doubt, there is a lot of complacency in California,” is what I wrote.
Well, that post got a lot of comments, and many of them were highly critical of my statement. People wrote in and said I should get out of Oakland more often and up to wine country to see the diversity of humankind that comes through tasting rooms. I thought this criticism was a little severe, given that (1) Oakland is the most diverse city in America and (2) I’m in wine country plenty, believe me, including tasting rooms. Now, I’m not in tasting rooms as much as tasting room employees, but I can tell you that whenever I’m in a tasting room–be it Santa Ynez Valley, Monterey County, Napa Valley, Russian River Valley, or wherever–most of the people I see are white.
Anyway, I’m not writing to rehash that whole thing. Instead I want to cite this article, from the Wharton School of Business at U. Penn, that strengthens my argument. Although it doesn’t specifically address the U.S. wine industry, it does make very strong and, I think, irrefutable points, which are direct quotes:
- this demographic trend creates a need [for businesses] to recast their products and strategies to reach non-whites.
- [wineries should] design products for different ethnicities and produc[e] marketing materials in the languages and media channels [that different demographic groups] favor
- [the changes] could mean new product opportunities for companies, and require them to adopt different segmentation strategies.
- the most effective advertising messages and media channels could be very different for minorities and companies have to tailor their marketing strategies accordingly, from marketing campaigns to probably the product itself.
Several people who commented on my blog noted that they believe the industry is rising to these challenges, and they cited Moscato as the example. My reaction to that was, it’s fine, as far as it goes; but that’s a pretty weak premise to build a strategy on. Yes, Moscato arose out of the hip-hop community, which was great in that it was truly a bottom-up (as opposed to a top-down) phenomenon, fueled by music and social media. But I have two questions: Does anyone believe that Moscato will stay on fire for even five years? I don’t. I suspect most of it will end up in blends when the trend dies. And number two, the Moscato craze doesn’t prove that minorities are embracing wine. Far from it. All it proves is that a phenomenon like that is not replicable. Tomorrow’s hip-hop song could be about peach wine, and then that would be the new thing.
The most startling finding in the Wharton article is that “The percentage of Americans who are Caucasian continues to fall steadily, especially among the youngest generation.” What is the industry doing to promote wine to younger Asians, Blacks and Latinos? I see targeted ads for them, both in print, billboards and online, for beer and liquor, but aside from the Moscato thing, I don’t see young people embracing wine. The reason? Beer and liquor have simple messages. You get stoned–you have fun. Wine’s message is not, and never has been, that simple. I think that some wine companies, like Gallo, “get it” when it comes to selling wine to the street; but the very fact that so many people still, mistakenly, see Gallo as pandering means that the lesson hasn’t been learned by everyone.
Habits developed during youth, including preference of alcoholic beverage, persist into adulthood. The only thing that changes is that, when the person is older, she has more money and can drink up in quality. That’s why it’s important to get these younger minority folks interested in wine. The wine industry is going to have to do a lot more than it now does for that to happen.
A fellow named Jeremy Ball, whom I met at last March’s World of Pinot Noir (his company, Bottle Branding, was the official videographer), sent me this YouTube, in which Yours Truly makes a brief appearance.
I watched it, and then later, as I was walking Gus, I found myself thinking of something Francis Ford Coppola told me a few weeks ago, that in his humble opinion a winery can be considered great and important only if it’s been around for at least 50 years, and been making great wine all that time. (Of course, he was talking about his resurrection of the Inglenook brand.)
When I watched the video I saw lots of producers who make great wine–Paul Lato, for example–but their careers have been relatively brief in California. Then Brian Talley showed up, and I remembered that it was a younger Brian, blonde, handsome and sun-tanned, who picked me up at the San Luis Obispo airport 22 or 23 years ago for one of my first forays outside the Bay Area as a newbie wine writer. I was visiting his Talley Vineyards, already acquiring a high reputation at that point as the premier Pinot Noir producer along that stretch of the Central Coast.
It occurs to me that, by any reasonable definition, you’d have to call Talley an important winery, even though it doesn’t meet Mr. Coppola’s 50-year standard. Well, few wineries in California do, and even those that are that old might fail to meet the standard of importance for other reasons.
So here’s what I think a winery needs to be considered important. I’ll stick to Pinot Noir producers for now.
1. It should be “old” by the relative standards of both California in general and its region. Thus, for example, it’s impossible for (say) a Santa Lucia Highlands winery to be anywhere near as old as a Napa Valley winery. But it can be a S.L.H. veteran by local standards. Pisoni Vineyards, whose launch was only in 1998 but whose plantation, by Gary Pisoni, dates to 1982, meets that condition.
2. All during its existence it has to have been producing wines universally acknowledged as great. By this parameter, there are several important Pinot Noir producers in California: Rochioli, Williams Selyem, Joseph Swan, among a few others.
3. It should have led, and continue to lead, in terms of individuality of style and consistent expression of its terroir. Here, one thinks automatically of a winery like Calera, which has had its reputational ups and downs over the decades, but always has hewed tightly to its style–a balanced, earthy Pinot that’s now returning to fashion.
4. The wines should be ageworthy, although this of course is relative. All of the above wines are easily capable of more than a decade in a good cellar, providing the wine was sound to begin with.
Importance, or greatness, of reputation isn’t easy to achieve, nor should it be. Nowadays, there are wineries that attempt to buy reputational importance through a variety of manipulations: a significant investment of money upfront, association with famous names, pricing based on hubris, the buzz of the media. But no such winery should be called important by any self-respecting writer with any sense of history. Importance, greatness, call it what you will, can only be achieved the old-fashioned way: through the four parameters I outlined above.
At dinner the other night a senior executive for a major wine company told me that labels are becoming one of the most important reasons why people make a spontaneous purchase of wine.
I’d always known that labels are important, but this executive stressed their importance even beyond what I’d thought. It’s difficult for me to put myself in the shoes of an uneducated shopper as she browses the wine aisle looking for something special to drink with the pesto pasta and fresh garden peas she’s making tonight. I would already have an idea in my head of what type of wine to drink with it–maybe a sprightly white wine, with good acidity and some sweetness; Gewurztraminer? From there, it would be a matter of selecting a trusted producer, at the right price. I might also be influenced by geographic origin. Alsace? Sure.
But our shopper doesn’t know anything about any of that. Instead, she has to rely on one of our oldest, most primitive forms of human sensibility: vision. What we see is immediate and powerful: it can do only one of three things: repel us, attract us, or leave us indifferent. Label designers know this, and design accordingly.
But this isn’t a posting about labels, it’s about buying wine based on “more visceral responses [of which] aesthetics is key.” Those are the words of a gentleman named Phil Hurst, who is board chairman of a newish company, H.D.D., which is described in this press release as “one of California’s newest and fastest growing wine companies,” with brands including Healdsburg Ranches, Stonegate, VML and Bradford Mountain. (I’ve reviewed all these wines in recent years. The results have been mixed.) What interests me about H.D.D. is their practice of what one of their angel investors, a San Franciscan named Daniel A. Carroll, calls “a truly disruptive wine business model.” Come again? “A Disruptive Business Model focuses on improving products and services in ways that the industry does not expect while designing for an evolving set of consumers in a new market environment,” explains the press release.
That’s a mouthful that I didn’t quite get, so I asked my friend, Mr. Google, about it. Here’s one definition: “The word ‘disruptive’ is bandied about when referring to surprising new entrants into an industry, new players with new technology, and sudden competition coming from unlikely sources.” Here’s another: “A disruptive innovation is an innovation that helps create a new market and value network, and eventually goes on to disrupt an existing market and value network (over a few years or decades), displacing an earlier technology.” And a third: “Disruptive business models focus on creating, disintermediating, refining, reengineering or optimizing a product/service, role/function/practice, category, market, sector, or industry. The most successful companies incorporate disruptive thinking into all of their business and management practices to gain distinctive competitive value propositions.”
Okay, I’m beginning to get it. The opposite of a disruptive business is a me-too business, one that uses stale, non-performing old models instead of revolutionary innovations.
Back to H.D.D. What are their disruptive models? One is direct to consumer. The other is that “visceral response” thing. “Decisions are made at point of purchase based on mood or occasion,” the press release says. That’s our pasta-cooking shopper. Perhaps she’ll buy H.D.D.’s Dearly Beloved Forever Red wine because the label’s so cool (especially if she’s a Deadhead).
Well, all right, this all sounds good, until you begin to think about it. What is really new about “a purchase based on mood or occasion”? Gallo understood that 60 years ago. Retailers have been trying to influence the shopper’s mood forever. So I’m not seeing what’s so disruptive about H.D.D., and it was even more surprising to see no mention at all of social media in the press release. I did an (admittedly quick) Google search to see if I could find any mention of H.D.D.’s online practices, and I couldn’t. I would think that a disruptive business hoping to upset apple carts would have social media as part of its practices. However, H.D.D.’s founding partners include Bill Hambrecht (he’s the H.) and Paul Dolan (he’s one of the D.s). Smart guys, industry vets. I’d put my money of them, if I had any.
If, as some are saying, Ascentia’s demise is close, it will come as no surprise. Rumors of trouble at the company have been circulating for two years, ever since the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat reported, in May, 2010, that Ascentia “is insolvent and on the brink of financial collapse.”
Ascentia was created in 2008 as a startup company to pick up the pieces of Constellation’s decision to sell, for a reputed $209 million, a number of wineries from its West Coast portfolio: Atlas Peak , Buena Vista, Gary Farrell, Geyser Peak Winery, XYZin, Columbia Winery, Covey Run and Ste. Chapelle. (Gary Farrell and Bunea Vista were sold once again by Ascentia last year.)
Those poor wineries! Like pitiful orphans, they’d been through more changes than most wineries go through in a lifetime. Each originally had been created as a standalone premium boutique winery; each has now been traded, swapped, retooled, abandoned and repurchased so many times, it’s hard–and sad–to know what’s really going on with them.
According to the newest report, which was published yesterday in Lewis Purdue’s Wine Industry Insight newsfetch, Ascentia’s latest disintegration will come “piecemeal,” with the remaining individual properties being sold to the highest bidder/s, starting with Geyser Peak. The same publication reported last year that Ascentia was subjecting Geyser Peak to “deep discounting,” with 5 cases of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio wholesaling for $90, or $7.50 a bottle. [In an earlier version of this post, I incorrectly did the math, which was never my strong suit! Thanks to reader PAWineGuy for the correction.]
Geyser Peak used to be a respected brand, back in the Daryl Groom days. When I began reviewing wine, I always looked forward to their Reserve Alexandre Meritage, one of the best. Their Cabernet Sauvignon defined Alexander Valley and helped boost that appellation’s reputation for Bordeaux varieties.
Wine lovers tend to see the industry through a romantic prism of the small family winery, lovingly tended by dad, mom and kids, enjoying the bucolic country life. Sometimes it’s just that, but the greater reality is that behind the pastoral image is a roiling landscape of big business and corporate deals. When I first reported on Ascentia, I wrote that “not much is known” about it (which was obvious, since it had just started). I had hopes it would come to the rescue of these struggling wineries, many of which were dear to me; but Ascentia had the extreme bad fortune to spring into existence just as the Great Recession began. We shouldn’t judge their performance too harshly.
It was fortunate that Gary Farrell and Buena Vista were ejected from the crashing Ascentia bus last year, both acquired by individuals I know well, and who are eminently capable of guiding them to full recovery. Gary Farrell was bought by Vincraft, led by a great wine businessman, Walter Klenz, who used to run Beringer (Vincraft also owns Kosta Browne and part of Kistler.). Buena Vista was acquired by Jean-Charles Boisset, whose American company, Boisset Family Estates, owns De Loach, Raymond and others. Jean-Charles seems very serious about Buena Vista. I tasted a quartet of their wines earlier this year, and gave them higher scores than I’d given Buena Vista wines in some time; but then, those wines all were made before Boisset took control, so perhaps a renaissance already was underway.
Whatever happens to the Ascentia wineries, we can only wish them luck. It’s never pleasant to see respected old brands turn into commodities, tossed around like so many beanbags. Atlas Peak in particular deserves a chance to rest and grow. What a great property, in a spectacular location; but it’s known nothing but tsouris since Piero Antinori started it, a quarter-century ago.