Price, value, and the California wine business
Dear California wine business:
I honestly don’t like writing nasty things about you. You make some of the best wine in the world, and I’d much prefer to write about that. But you drive me crazy, because you continue to do things that make it that much more difficult for me to be nice.
The most recent example came last month, when two of your wineries – two of my favorites, who know what I want to review — sent me samples. Did the samples include any of the great cheap wine they make? Nope. They were the usual overpriced big reds, including a 15 percent zinfandel, the kind of wine that I regularly rail against. These wines aren’t made because people want to drink them, but because you think you should make them. God only knows why, though I suspect the Winestream Media has something to do with it.
The wine business changed for our lifetimes five years ago, when the recession forced consumers to trade down and consumers discovered that they liked the cheap wine they found. In 2008, Americans drank more wine than they did in 2007, but spent less to do so. This is one of the most important moments in the history of the modern wine business, and I’m not the only one who has noticed it.
In addition, it parallels what’s going on with the rest of the U.S. economy. We’re not spending money just to spend money or buying stuff just to buy stuff; rather, we’re thinking about what we buy, and we want value as well as low prices.
I am reminded of this every time I buy wine. The most recent example came in September when I was in Kerrville, an affluent Texas resort town, and the two older Anglo men in line ahead of me were buying Franzia boxed wine and a big bottle of Rex Goliath. They could, from what I saw, afford to buy anything they wanted, and they bought cheap wine. Americans shop on price, no matter how much you wish they didn’t. All you have to do is look at the sales numbers. No one buys those 15 percent zindandels with the big scores; they buy cheap pinot noir.
Some of you have figured this out, which is why wines like Barefoot and Cupcake have done so well over the past five years. These wines, as simple as they are, are cheap and offer some kind of value. But you can do better than that, and I don’t understand why so many of you don’t want to try. Or, having tried, given up. What’s so awful about making honest, quality cheap wine? Why do so many have to suffer through so much overpriced, overdone wine when you have the skill to make fabulous wine that is neither overpriced nor overdone?
This is not to say there isn’t a place for wine that costs more than $10 (and I’m getting a little tired of being accused of hating expensive wine just because it’s expensive). Ridge has earned popular and critical acclaim, and its least expensive bottle is $25. But that’s because it offers value at those prices, something that is sadly lacking at so many other producers.
Your customers understand this in a way that you don’t. You’re still making and marketing wine as if it was 1995 or 2005, when a higher price meant better wine (or, if not better, more desirable), and value didn’t matter. The world doesn’t work that way anymore. Understand that, and everyone will be better off, including me. I can then drink your wine and not have to write you a letter like this.
The Wine Curmudgeon
For more on wine, prices, and value:
• The Treasury debacle
• Retailers and wine prices
• Wine of the week: Little James Basket Press NV
• Five things the wine business can do to help consumers figure out wine