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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.

Winebits 289: Terroir, three-tier, Wine.com

Another view of terroir? Terroir, a French term that has no exact meaning in English, is something wine geeks love to argue about – does it exist or not? Those of us who believe in terroir believe it lends a sense of place to the best wine, regardless of price. Anti-terroir advocates (yes, just like matter and anti-matter) say we’re a bunch of old farts and that wine should be made to taste the best it can, regardless of terroir. The eminent Paul Lukacs offers a third view – that, despite some truth, it’s mostly a myth perpetuated by French marketers in the first third of the 20th century. That should give us something to discuss the next time Paul and I judge together.

Another victory for the distributors: It’s depressing, but someone has to keep track of this stuff. The Illinois legislature, no doubt acting at the behest of some of its biggest campaign contributors, has passed a law that strengthens the state’s three-tier system. Three-tier are the alcohol regulations left over from Prohibition that prohibit consumers from buying wine almost anywhere but traditional retailers. The legislature passed the law because Anheuser-Busch bought a stake in its biggest Chicago-area distributor. The beer giant will now have to sell its share of the distributor. How silly is this? Like Ford being told by the Michigan legislature that it can’t own one of its parts suppliers.

For sale or not? The cyber-ether has been buzzing the past week or so with rumors that Wine.com, the largest Internet wine retailer and a friend of the blog, is for sale. Wine.com’s boss has denied the rumors, saying the reports exaggerate the company’s financial woes. Supposedly, Wine.com’s private equity backer was unhappy with its performance and wanted out. Regular visitors here know the uphill battle legal Internet retailers face, thanks to three-tier, and Wine.com is no exception. It has to become a local retailer in many states in which it does business to comply with state laws, a costly and time-consuming effort. If its financial backers are unhappy, the question is not that they are, but why they expected anything else given the regulatory environment.

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