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Category Archives: Wine trends

What the media didn’t tell you about the CDC alcohol death study

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CDC binge drinkingThis is not a critique of the science in the Centers for Disease Control study that equated drinking wine with dinner as binge drinking. I’m not a doctor or researcher. I’m also not questioning the health, emotional, and social costs of alcoholism; I’ve attended too many funerals.

Rather, this is a critique (based on a story I wrote for the Wine Business International trade magazine) of the shoddy and slipshod reporting done by most of the media, wine and otherwise, when the study was released. That is something I am qualified to do after 35 years as a journalist.

Journalism, something that I love and have spent my professional life trying to do well, is in a sorry state. How the study was covered demonstrates this all too well. Too many news organizations, regardless of size or reputation, are lazy, sloppy, and willing to accept what someone says — be it the CDC, the government, or big business — without asking questions. And journalism is about asking questions. These days, though, it’s cheaper and easier and less offensive to advertisers if you re-write a news release, throw some hyperlinks in it, and call it reporting. Or rewrite what another news organization has already rewritten.

My reason for being, even in wine, is to try not to do that. Here are the questions the media didn’t ask when the CDC study was released:

• Where did the excessive drinking standard come from? Why is the standard eight drinks a week for women and 15 for men? In fact, these come from a 2006 study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, and are based on the U.S. government’s dietary guidelines: “drink alcoholic beverages… in moderation, which is defined as no more than 1 drink per day for women and no more than 2 drinks per day for men.” Which is not exactly the same thing as excessive drinking.

• Why does this study contradict what one eminent cardiologist told me “is a reasonable certainty, based on hundreds of studies over the past decade, that moderate drinking as part of the Mediterranean diet that includes fruits and vegetables, olive oil, and wine, will benefit cardiac health. It’s the difference between partying and wine with a meal.”

• Why now? Why is alcohol suddenly in the spotlight? Note that the CDC study came in the wake of the proposal by the National Transportation Safety Board to lower the blood alcohol limit for drunken driving by one-third.

• Why these solutions — higher taxes, fewer liquor licenses for stores and restaurants, and an end to wet-dry elections and state deregulation? Will these prevent alcoholism, or will they penalize responsible drinkers?

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.

Why grocery stores love wine

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grocery store wine salesBecause they sell so much of it — and a lot more than most of us realize. Hence the reason for the Great Wall of Wine.

Wine was the seventh biggest category by dollar amount for supermarkets in the 52 weeks ending June 15, recording $6.9 billion in sales. That’s up 3.7 percent from the same period a year ago, and works out to an average of $9.27 a bottle. The figures come from a study by the IRI marketing consultancy and published in the Supermarket News trade magazine.

How impressive are those numbers?

• They don’t include wine sales in New York or Pennsylvania, two huge markets that don’t allow supermarkets to sell wine. Yet, even without those two states, grocers account for about 20 percent of U.S. wine sales.

• They don’t include wine sales at Target, Walmart, and Costco. Throw those in, and that 20 percent total should increase by more than a few points.

• Wine was bigger than a host of established items, including cereal, coffee, bottled water, cookies, and soup. Some of that was because wine is more expensive; we bought three times more cans of soup than bottles of wine. Even so, it’s an impressive total, given the restrictions on wine sales. In Texas, for example, we can buy soup as long as the store is open, but we can’t buy wine on Sunday until noon.

• Wine’s growth was bigger than soft drinks, which lost 3.9 percent, as well as cereal (down 4.3 percent), ice cream (down 0.3 percent), frozen pizza (unchanged), and toilet paper (-0.2 percent). I can’t even pretend to make sense of that. Since when did we need wine more than toilet paper?

These numbers, more than anything else, explain why there is so much opposition to supermarket wine sales in the 19 states where it’s still prohibited. We’re not buying jug wine at the grocery store. That $9 average price means we’re buying many of the same wines we’d buy at wine shops and liquor stores, and small retailers don’t want the competition.

The irony is that, as has been noted on the blog, small retailers may prosper competing with grocers, since they offer something supermarkets can’t — someone to answer questions. The Great Wall of Wine has nothing to do with service.

Photo courtesy of Houston Press food blog, using a Creative Commons license

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