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Terroir as a brand, and not as something that makes wine taste good

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terroir as a brandDoes terroir — the idea that the place where a wine is from makes it taste a certain way and helps determine its quality — exist? This question has generated reams of cyber-ink over the past five or six years, pitting those of us who think terroir matters against those who think we’re bunch of old farts and that technology has made terroir obsolete (if it ever mattered at all).

Now, the second group has an unlikely ally, a French academic who claims terroir is a myth, and that what the wine tastes like doesn’t matter to its success in the marketplace. Rather, says Valéry Michaux, director of research at NEOMA Business School in Rouen, the “best” wines have more to do with their brand and how well producers in the same area work together to market that brand.

In one respect, this is not new. Paul Lukacs, one of the smartest people I know, has argued that terroir is a French marketing ploy dating to the 1920s. What’s different about Michaux’s approach is that it claims that a wine’s brand is more important than terroir, which is about as 21st century, post-modern, and American business an approach as possible. Especially for the French.

Michaux’s theory says that the soil and climate in Bordeaux doesn’t make Bordeaux wine great; rather, it’s the producers in Bordeaux agreeing on what the wine should taste like and presenting a common front to the world. She cites the cluster effect, seen in both sociology and economics, where disparate parts of a whole come together for a common purpose. “The presence of a strategic alliance between professionals contributes significantly to the development of a single territorial umbrella brand and thus its influence,” she writes. “A strong local self-governance is also essential for a territorial brand to exist.”

It’s like saying no one reads what I write here because it’s well-written, offers quality content, or is even especially true. Instead, they like the idea of the Wine Curmudgeon, be it my hat, my attitude, or my writing style, and I should promote the latter to be successful

Michaux’s analysis is both correct and completely off the mark, because she misses the point of terroir. Of course, terroir can be a brand. Look at what Big Wine has done with $10 pinot noir, which doesn’t often taste like pinot noir but is successfully marketed as such, or the idea of grocery store California merlot, made to be smooth and fruity and not particularly merlot-like. But the difference between cheap wine and cheap wine I recommend, the quality that makes the best cheap wine interesting, is often terroir, the traditional idea of the sense of place where the wine is from.

But to argue that Bordeaux or Burgundy or Napa makes great wine because the producers agreed to make a certain style of wine and to market it with a common approach is silly. For one thing, my dogs know more about marketing than most wineries do. But what matters more is quality, because the best wines from Bordeaux are incredible in a way that has nothing to do with a strategic alliance but with where the grapes are grown, how the grapes are turned into wine, and the region’s history and tradition. Why does cabernet sauvignon from Napa not taste like cabernet from Bordeaux? Terroir is a much better explanation than a cluster effect.

Wine of the week: J Winery Pinot Gris 2013

wineofweek

 J Winery Pinot Gris 2013The Wine Curmudgeon has almost run out of nice things to say about the J Winery pinot gris. You can look here. Or here. Or even here. But given that the 2013 vintage may be J’s best yet ($15, sample, 13.8%), I’ll try to find a couple more:

• Round, soft white fruit — peach, perhaps — but not flabby or overdone so that the fruit is the only thing you taste. 

• Fresh and crisp without any bitterness in the back, something else that is not common in this style of wine.

• Honest winemaking, in which the goal was to make a quality wine and not to hit a price point or please a focus group. Those are things that also happen too often with this style of wine.

This California white wine is highly recommended, as always, whether to finish out the summer on the porch or with grilled chicken or even fried catfish.

Winebits 350: Three-tier, wine prices, wine marketing

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three-tier systemNo love for three-tier: The Wine Curmudgeon has much respect for the Wine Folly website, which does great work educating wine drinkers. Its recent post on the dreaded three-tier system was no exception, detailing what it was and how it worked with quality graphics and clear writing. I don’t know that it gave enough credit to Prohibition in three-tier’s formation, but it did discuss its beginnings in the late 19th century, which I didn’t know. And it did impressive work tying the cost of wine to the inefficiencies of the system. My only complaint: That it forecast the coming demise of three-tier, based on direct shipping, the Internet, and flash sites. It’s not that I don’t want three-tier to go away, but it overlooks three things — three-tier’s constitutional protections, which the Wine Curmudgeon has lamented many times, the system’s immense clout through campaign cash, and that direct to consumer sales account for less than five percent of wine sales in the U.S. That’s hardly eroding the system.

“A giant sinkhole”: W. Blake Gray writes about the media’s immense joy in forecasting rising wine prices, which seems to happen every six months or so whether it’s true or not. The most recent example came after the Napa earthquake, even though the region produces just a tiny fraction of the world’s wine. Gray writes: “People just don’t have a sense of how enormous and international the wine business is — that if Napa Valley or Mendoza, Argentina or Barossa Valley, Australia fell into a giant sinkhole tomorrow, we would all be the poorer for it, but overall world wine prices would still not be much affected.” He also notes that many media types figure only rich people drink wine, and so deserve higher prices. I’m not so sure about the second; many of the media types who still get paychecks in this post-print world aren’t exactly paupers. My hunch is that it’s mostly crummy reporting. When a Washington Post writer proclaims that wine prices are skyrocketing when they’re not, and the Post is supposed to be one of the world’s best newspapers, it’s no surprise that everyone else misses the point, too.

It’s not about the marketing: Producers in the French wine region of Bordeaux are running around in a panic because sales are down, and this report discusses how it will try to solve the problem through better marketing – some €3m worth (about US$3.8). The Wine Curmudgeon, out of his great respect and admiration for Bordeaux wine, has a cheaper and simpler solution: Stop overcharging for your wine. It’s one thing to sell the best wines for hundreds and thousands of dollars a bottle, but when the everyday stuff costs $15 or $20 — and isn’t any better than $10 wine from California, Spain, or Italy — you’re not going to sell it, no matter how much you spend on marketing. One retailer, when I asked him why this was happening, attributed it to Bordelais greed. “If they can get it from the Chinese, they figure they can get it from the rest of us,” he said. Obviously, that isn’t the case any more.

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