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It’s got to play in Peoria


It was Groucho Marx who popularized the line, “Will it play in Peoria?” during the Vaudeville era of the 1920s. What he meant was, if an act could succeed in Peoria, Illinois — America’s Main Street, as it were — it would succeed anywhere.

(Which is the counterpoint to “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere, It’s up to you, New York, New York.” I can still hear Liza, and later on Ol’ Blue Eyes, singing those words. I guess the ideal world is one in which you make it in both Peoria and New York.)

Wineries, too, have to “play in Peoria.” Maybe not Harlan or Latour. But any winery with a greater supply of product than demand will deplete has got to figure out how to appeal to the great mainstream of American consumers.

In order to do so, wineries test their markets to discover what the masses want. They do focus groups and conduct product placement studies, they tinker with the color of the label and even the wording. Does “Reserve” sell better than “Private Reserve” or vice versa? More to the point of what I want to talk about, they finagle with the actual flavors of the wine, in order to maximize its attractiveness. In case you ever wondered how marketing managers earn a living, this is the stuff of their daily lives.

I recently tasted through some wines with a winemaker. It was a real eye-opener. (I’m going to mask some of the details so you won’t know the brand, but the specifics aren’t important. What’s important is the point they illustrate.) The brand had recently changed ownership. We tasted 4 Chardonnays: one from the winery’s previous regime, one that the previous winemaker had vinified but the new winemaker had finished and bottled, and two 2007s, a regular and a reserve, that the new winemaker made entirely alone.

I had long reviewed that winery’s Chardonnays, both the regular and the reserve, and always liked them. They scored in the mid- to high Eighties, polished, friendly wines that didn’t cost too much. When I got to the regular 2007 — remember, this was the first vintage the new winemaker made — it was clear that a new height had been reached, not just in terms of power but of finesse and pedigree. The wine was riper and oakier than those that came immediately before, in a wonderful way; and, as many of you know, I am a fan of ripe, oaky California Chardonnays.

Then I tasted the 2007 Reserve, and it was so heavy in oak, it brought to mind that old saying, “drinking toothpicks.” Since I had been encouraged to be blunt in my appraisal, I told the winemaker, “I see what your thinking is. If the regular 2007 could be made better than the 2006 by making it riper and oakier and more malolactic, then the reserve 2007 can be even better by making it even riper and oakier and more malolactic.”

The winemaker agreed that the reserve was a little ponderous, and suggested that it was a barrel sample that would brighten up and improve by early next year. S/he asked me how I review barrel samples, and I replied I usually don’t. It’s like predicting what a fetus will grow up to be from a sonogram. Then I explained how the man I consider my mentor, the late, great Harry Waugh, would describe a barrel sample, or one newly bottled, that was not showing particularly well. “It seems like it will make a good bottle,” old Harry would say, in his polite, understated British way, meaning: I’m not really going to tell you, because I don’t know.

So what does this have to do with Peoria? Winery marketing wizards have concluded that Americans like buttered popcorn-style, fruity Chardonnay. That’s why Chardonnay continues to march down that new-oaky, malolactic fermentation-high alcohol path. (The unoaked Chardonnay phenomenon is not pertinent to Chardonnay’s future.) But, as I have written and argued for my entire wine writing career, in wine, as in life, it’s all about balance. It’s patently not true that, if 20% new oak and partial malolactic fermentation make a Chardonnay captivating, then 80% new oak and total malo will make it 4 times more captivating. At some point, you by-pass balance and wander into excess. And excess has always been what California wines need to avoid.

(I’m reminded of the remark an old friend, a Frenchman, once made about California wines. “They are like Tammy Faye Bakker,” he said. He meant, as opposed to the discrete way in which a French mademoiselle wears makeup.)


Tammy Faye Baker, R.I.P.

I’ll concede this to the marketing people, though: They have a tough job. Like Groucho, they have to figure out if it will play in Peoria. And in this ever-shifting and fickle market, that ain’t easy.


P.S. Check out this column Jancis Robinson wrote last week on the ethics of tasting. It’s a superb piece of writing and reflects my views and experiences 100%.

  1. More is gooder….

  2. Forgive my lack of understanding if you have covered this in the past. Am new to your blog. Why has unoaked -been dismissed from being a part of the future of chard?

  3. The brand against which all other under $40 Chardonnays should measure themselves continues to be Rombauer (and especially the 2007). Richness without being overblown. Plays very well in Peoria. So the cognescenti look down their refined noses at it.

  4. You hear Liza and Frank – I hear Johnny Rotten. (And Liza and Frank – you and I are of an age I think – but still: Johnny Rotten.)

    Steve, I just love this statement: “The unoaked Chardonnay phenomenon is not pertinent to Chardonnay’s future.” So confident! So authoritative! So oracular! Never mind that you are probably right. But when we see each other let me buy you a glass of your oaky white cocktail du jour and I will have a glass of Dauvissat Chablis thank you. It really is too bad that unoaked Chardonnay has no future. 🙂

    You are also right about “playing in Peoria” – mass-produced wines, especially ones manufactured to hit a price point, have to appeal to a mass audience. As Arthur says, “More is gooder…” Suddenly I’m reminded of a tagline from the movie Idiocracy: “I LIKE money…” I don’t envy those marketers, or winemakers.

  5. When discussing wines with consumers I’ll often use soup or stew or chili as an analogy – some of this, a little of that, you get the right balance of ingredients, and let the flavors meld together – soup always being better after some time in the fridge.

    By that analogy, if a little pepper gives your soup a nice zing, 4 times more pepper should be even better. Right.

  6. John, I didn’t mean Chablis! Just California…the unoaked market will never be more than a tiny percentage.

  7. Steve: I’m just being objective. I can’t see unoaked California Chardonnay ever accounting for anything more than a tiny minority of all Chardonnay produced in the state. Not saying unoaked is bad — not dismissing it — in fact I’ve given some outstanding scores to unoaked California Chard. But producers are not migrating to it in droves because the public prefers oaky Chardonnay. Earlier this year, I wrote in Wine Enthusiast (concerning Ehren Jordan’s decision not to make an unoaked Chardonnay at Failla): “Jordan’s decision not to take the unoaked plunge at this point is shared by many of his winemaker colleagues in California, and is based, at least in part, on market realities. The feeling seems to be that consumers won’t pay a decent price for a Chardonnay they know hasn’t been fermented and aged in new French oak barrels.”

  8. John M Kelly:

    Idiocracy was fantastic! Sort of prophetic of so many aspects of our society….

  9. steve boyer says:

    Responses seem to indicate how correct you are. Oddly enough, most seem to agree that this situation is unfortunate. I wonder if this is because there is very little movement towards un-oaked ( or even lightly oaked) chard in the under $15 category from California.

    As the title of the post indicates, playing in Peoria is the aim of most wineries out there. I do wonder if the “mass market” will be unable to change until the old guard palates, business models and wine marketers decide it is time for that change. Perhaps when un-oaked California chard is referred to without using a perjorative (from marketing sense) term such as fad or phenomenon, then main street will have the motivation to try something outside of the standard glass of buttered popcorn and oak.

    Concerning consumer willingness to pay a decent price for un-oaked chard; Let’s consider that just removing the price of the barrel (assuming french oak) can save the winery no less than $3/ 750ml bottle and potentially more depending on the barrel market at the time. this doesn’t take into account barrel aging lengthening time to market and the angel’s share reducing bottling yields, or amount of racking and handling such a wine requires ( particularly if this is handled through paid employees). Perhaps many wineries idea of decent pricing doesn’t take into consideration these factors, or even that many consumers are aware of these factors (even on main street). Particularly when said consumer can purchase decent un-oaked chard from overseas
    without having to shell out more than $12 to $15/ bottle.

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