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Five things the wine business can do to help consumers figure out wine

Five things the wine business can do to help consumers figure out wineWine is still too confusing, though some effort has been made over the past several years to make it easier for wine drinkers – new and experienced – to understand what’s going on. Check out this newspaper article from 1977, and you’ll see what I mean:

The result of all this is that any but the most experienced wine aficionado often will (1) buy a very expensive wine, equating high price with quality; (2) buy a very cheap but unpleasant wine and then throw it all away; (3) buy the same wine all the time; (4) not buy wine at all.

Sound familiar?

Depressing, too, given so little of that has changed in almost 40 years. But there are five things that can be done to make wine less confusing. The list, after the jump:

These suggestions are aimed at the everyday wine that most of us drink, and not the exceptions that the Winestream Media wants us to have with dinner three or four nights a week. Two-buck Chuck, for instance, has used cheaper bottles for years, and it’s one reason why the wine has remained so inexpensive.

So, before the nasty comments and emails, please read the piece all the way through and understand that I’m not writing about Bordeaux first growths or Burgundian grand crus.

Stop worrying about vintage. One of the few things that every wine drinker knows is that vintage matters, even though that’s becoming less and less true. Vintage – the year the grapes were harvested – matters for an increasingly small percentage of wine; most of the stuff we drink every day is made to taste the same regardless of the vintage. In fact, Barefoot, one of the most popular wine brands in the U.S., is non-vintage (its grapes come from different harvests). It’s actually possible to make better quality wine this way, mixing and matching the best quality grapes from various vintages. One example: the $10 Little James Basket Press wines.

Use less expensive bottles: It’s one thing to use a heavy, costly, imposing bottle for a $150 cult Napa cabernet sauvignon. But producers who don’t use the best made and least expensive bottle for a $10 wine are raising the price of the product without adding quality or value. For example, why do most wine bottles still have punts – the dimple on the bottom of the bottle – when it’s cheaper and just as effective to make a bottle without one?

Stop obsessing over oak. High-end wines that need thousands and thousands of dollars worth of oak to pull their various parts into a coherent whole should spend time and effort describing the oak process and how it works. But the rest of the wine we drink – 90 percent? – either doesn’t need oak or uses a substitute, like staves or chips. And these wines are often perfectly fine. Sometimes, they even make the $10 Hall of Fame.

Appellation isn’t the be all and end all. Appellation – where the grapes were grown – matters almost not at all for most of the wine we drink, and consumers (especially younger ones) are paying less and less attention to it. They want malbec or moscato, and they don’t really care where it’s from. And, truthfully, given modern winemaking techniques, the goal is (as with vintage) to make the malbec taste like malbec, not like it came from California or Argentina. This is another opportunity to make less expensive, quality wine by mixing grapes from different appellations, and not worrying whether the bottle says California or Argentina.

Write back labels in English: One wine that costs around $10 promises things that are all but impossible for a wine at that price: “chocolate and hints of licorice.” Or, to go to the other extreme, the wine drinker who buys another wine “prizes the simple things in life: spending good times with close friends.” Both do the consumer a disservice. They’ll assume they’re wine idiots because they couldn’t taste chocolate and licorice, and be totally confused by what the second wine is supposed to be. One solution, as advocated by W. Blake Gray: simple terms that we all understand, like rich, robust and fruit.

  • Les Hubbard

    Jeff,
    Your five suggestions are right on. Unfortunately, we at retail don’t control the back label, but I’d like to see a lot more similar to Flip Flop’s simple rear label – consumer friendly. As to encouraging wine purchasers to forget vintage,etc., it’s a tough sell to long-term consumers, mainly Boomers who buy in the price point range you target. I understand this if they are buying a great Bordeaux or Burgundy, but otherwise it’s difficult to convince them that the globalization of wine in the $7 to $20 price range typically means uniform quality year to year regardless of region of production.
    I’d love to meet you and Dave at DLW on April 13th but will likely have to work that day.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/jeffsiegel Jeff Siegel

    Thanks for the kind words, Les. These are so common sense, yet as you note, almost impossible to do.

  • Flower Mahoney

    Possibly the worst article written for people trying to get a better understanding of wine. This actually did nothing to help people who don’t understand or who are unsure.
    1. Vintage does matter. Wine is grown, not produced like soda. When vintage 20xx is a good growing year, the resulting wines are better. When vintage 20xy is off, the resulting wines are not as good. Barefoot, a Gallo brand is a giant company vacuuming grapes and juice anywhere they can regardless of quality for the sub $10 wines. This is not a quality choice, it is financial.
    2. Bottle shape, size, and weight have no bearing on helping consumers understand wine.
    3. Oak matters when it is there. There is a taste difference between real oak barrel ageing and everything else.
    4. Appellation still, and always will matter. Malbec from France, Argentina, CA, NZ all taste different. The term terrior might be a familiar one here for you. If Appellation doesn’t matter then we should grow Riesling EVERYWHERE in the world, and start planting Cabernet in Cuba.
    5. What language do you see back labels written in? Well, it would probably depend on export or import, and by whom for whom and where you are in the world. As far as text, talk to the TTB.

  • Suzanne

    I understand that wine is confusing and daunting, particularly to new consumers, and that we in the industry have a duty towards educating at the very least. And I can get behind several of your suggestions including clearer back labels and cheaper bottles. However, to suggest that appellation doesn’t matter – and to imply that it shouldn’t – is appalling to me. I don’t want just a standard grape variety and I suspect that anyone who is beyond their first steps of a wine journey would agree. What about the importance of terroir and of a wine that is truly expressive of not only it’s varietal(s) but also of its place? These are the wines that maintain my love affair with the grape and I’m not talking about the grand crus either. Very interesting article though. Would love to hear your thoughts.

  • Chris Scanlan

    It’s one thing to be a curmudgeon. Entirely different to carry an informed, worthwhile opinion.
    You speak of Meridian, Barefoot etc as though they are different than Two Buck (up)Chuck. These vintage deficient wines are also certainly appellation deficient and hardly deserve to be called ‘wine’ with exception they are made from amassed grapes and fermented with all types of additives. No doubt Velcorin is used in those wines which makes them more like coca-cola. And oak?! They are using stavins and chips as flavoring agents. If you need to artificially flavor your wine, or strip flavors out chemically, then yes, by all means the points you made have total merit. But as far as wine is concerned, that ‘product’ made from toiling in the vineyards without chemical sprays for mass production, that fruit that comes in once a year and is coaxed by weathered hands and discerning senses to become something worthy of aging, worthy of sharing with friend or foe, pairing with food, contemplating its origin, or simply enjoying without a thought, that has nothing to do with your ridiculous and off-base opinion on how to understand wine better.
    Oh, and punts in wine bottles make for a stronger base, especially for wines under pressure from CO2. But even a still bottle of wine in a flat bottomed bottle (vs a punt) when dropped 2 feet on it’s base will shatter almost every time whereas the punted bottle will be less likely to break. But certainly plenty of crappy wine is filled into overly expensive bottles.

  • Donn Rutkoff

    I agree with Mr. Curm. Most bottles consumed in the US are $10 or less. Any wine less than $100 should be in a basic lo price bottle. Back labels on $10 wine that talk about “we” and “our family” and then don’t tell you who “we” is, are an insult, a waste of potential captive marketing space. Vintage does not matter on 90% of $10 wines, maybe on 98%. Appellation matters a little, but for most consumers, at $10, does not matter unless is not Calif. or Wash.
    Spend a few hours in a grocery, Beverages & More, or neighborhood store and see for yourself how most bottles are bought, and consumed within 1-3 days.

  • http://www.unfussywine.com Chris O’Shea

    Anyone who enjoys wine enough to do more tasting and research beyond shelf tags knows that vintage, place, and wine making techniques make a difference to the quality of wine. We also see through the marketing and understand what is on the shelves in supermarkets. Trouble is, us smarty pants folks make up about 25% of the wine drinking public. For the other 75%, the only things that make a difference are the price, their friends’ opinions, and if the label looks cool (and maybe if the back label tells them a story). Wine people should quit looking down their noses at the less informed consumer. Yeah Malbec from Argentina tastes different than it does from Cahors vintage over vintage, but to the vast majority of consumers they could give a rat’s ass. One wine is $8 and one $18…suddenly Argentina wins. If you care about terrior and vintage then that makes a difference in your buying decision and tasting experience. If you don’t then it doesn’t; plain and simple. Wine people need to take a step back and realize that for most folks if the bottle looks halfway decent or unique then the wine is sold. If it tastes good to them they will buy more. The goal should be for them to enjoy the product enough to want to learn more and move from Argentina to Cahors on their own. We as wine people need to help them get there by informing and encouraging them to try new things and not make them feel stupid for picking the $8 Bulk Malbec Reserva.

  • JF Lebeau

    I agree with most of what you’re saying. It is true that most consumers don’t really care about where it’s from or how it was made. For them all that really matters is if the wine is good and how it’s going to taste with their meal (and even then that is stretching it sometimes).
    You say the appellation isn’t the be all end all. I would agree up to a certain extent. True that a $10 wine is probably going to taste the same anywhere it’s made but what about style? In a way, the style of a wine is related to it’s appellation. What if i prefer a Chablis over a Californian Chardonnay? Sure it’s hard to differentiate between a Saint-Julien and St Estephe but most serious wine drinkers have trouble with it anyways.
    I think we have to be careful to avoid putting everything in the same basket. Globalization has done lots of wonderful things for us but let’s encourage the winemakers to maintain the distinct identity of their wine. There is nothing wrong for someone to buy Chris O’Shea $8 Bulk Malbec Reserva. There is also nothing wrong for me to go buy a single vineyard Argentine Malbec if that’s what I want.
    Let’s not ostracize the passionate wine drinker because 75% of the population couldn’t care less about terroir and/or the appellations.

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