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The craft wine dilemma

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craft wine dilemma

Which is craft wine and which isn’t?

How do you describe a wine that isn’t made by a multi-national and that doesn’t sell millions of cases? Is craft wine the proper description? And, if it is, how do you prevent the multi-national from describing its product the same way?

That’s the craft wine dilemma, as producers try to find terms to separate their wine from mass-produced grocery store plonk — even if their wine isn’t all that different.

There is no legal definition of craft wine, and borrowing the term from beer doesn’t help. Craft beer, which is assumed to be made by small, independent producers, is driving what little growth there is in the beer business, but craft beer includes Shiner and its 6 million cases and Boston Beer’s Sam Adams and its $2.9 billion in sales. Both belong to the Brewers Association craft beer trade group, demonstrating how empty the term is. Consider (and allowing for a 24-can case of beer vs. a 12-bottle case of wine) that Shiner would be tied for 12th on Wine Business Monthly’s top 30 U.S. producers list, just ahead of Bogle, and Boston Beer would be among the top three or four biggest wine companies in the country by sales.

The Brewers Association trade group guidelines don’t help much either, offering lots of PR speak (“Craft brewers tend to be very involved in their communities through philanthropy”) and little else. Also complicating matters: The rash of lawsuits over the past year from disgruntled consumers suing craft brewers and distillers because their craft products don’t seem to be that much different from the products made by multi-nationals, save for higher prices. No wonder there was such a spirited discussion on Tom Wark’s Fermentation blog this summer about the subject, looking for the best way to describe what Wark calls wine made by a “small, hands-on, privately owned, high-quality oriented winery.”

The craft wine dilemma reminds me of Justice Potter Stewart’s famous definition of pornography: “I know it when I see it.” If an 8 million case producer like Delicato Family Winery uses the term hand-crafted for some of its wine, does hand-crafted have any meaning? On the other hand, can a producer that mostly fits Wark’s definition be called a craft winery if its idea of quality is to make an overoaked fruit bomb designed to get 98 points and cost $100?

Establishing legal (or even trade group-agreed) definitions for craft and similar terms is the obvious solution, but most of the wine business will burn down the blog and carry me off with pitchforks for suggesting it. Still, given that some plaintiffs have won their craft definition lawsuits, maybe that idea is worth considering. Otherwise, it will be a long time before anyone solves the craft wine dilemma.

 

Adding new wine terms to the dictionary

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new wine termsWine is famous for using terms that no one can understand, so why not invent even more? Because the last thing we want to do is to help ordinary wine drinkers understand what’s going on, right? Hence, these new wine terms. (And I swear I made all of them up. Honest.)

The ukelele: Someone who proclaims each new wine as the greatest ever — until the next trend comes along. Always forwarding articles from the Internet about Greek and Georgian wine, as well as gruner veltliner.

• “Let’s reboot this brand:” Favorite phrase of wise guy wine marketers who think changing the label and charging $4 more for ordinary grocery store wine will fool consumers and convince industry that premiumization is the next big thing.

The wanker: Wine drinker, usually a man, who can find a flaw in every wine he has ever tasted. Also prone to proclaiming that the previous vintage of a wine was much better than the current vintage, even though he said the same thing when the previous vintage was the current vintage.

The whiffet: Someone who always apologizes for the wine they drink, regardless of quality, and is constantly saying things like, “I’m sorry, I don’t know anything about wine.”

• “Running up the score:” Used to describe ratings-obsessed wine drinker who always adds points to whatever he bought (also usually a man), as in “Yeah, that Parker 97 was awesome, and I got such a deal on it” when it was actually a 92, the points were given by a clerk at his local retailer, and it cost $13.

Scrooge McWine: Wine drinker (and again usually a man) who says loudly and often that all wine is overpriced, regardless of whether it costs $100 or $5. Sometimes, but not always, a wanker.

Image courtesy of Wine Ponder, using a Creative Commons license

The revolution in wine terms

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wine termsWho knew wine terms had become more than they were? Certainly not the Wine Curmudgeon, who has been using words like sweet and dry and fruity for more than 20 years. But, apparently, I am not au courant, as a post at VinePair, describing “20 wine words most drinkers don’t know” reminded me.

My first question? Why, if these terms are so important and wine drinkers need to know them, how is it that most don’t? That would be like most food eaters not knowing what hot and cold means. “Hmmm, this soup is hurting my mouth. Is there a term to describe that?”

Second, one of the terms was hedonistic: “Robert Parker‘s favorite word. Wines that just blow you away. Parker likes hedonistic, but you can just say the wine is damn amazing.” Note to Adam Teeter at VinePair, who wrote the post and, save for an occasional lapse into cuteness, seems to know his business. Most wine drinkers don’t know who Robert Parker is and don’t care, so why do they need to know his favorite wine term? Plus, in 30-some years as a professional writer, wine and otherwise, I have never used hedonistic to describe anything. And I have had a fairly successful career.

Third, wine terms should be objective, like sweet and dry and fruity, and hedonistic (as well as ponderous, also on the list) isn’t. Parker may think those wines are damn amazing, but many of us don’t. We find them overblown and unenjoyable. What’s the point of using a term that tells someone they’re supposed to like something that they may not like?

Again, this is not to criticize Teeter, who is probably trying to help, but to point out yet again how most post-modern wine writing has little to do with the average consumer. It’s as if they’re writing a movie review that discusses camera angles and editing techniques instead of the plot, and then getting angry when someone asks them what the movie is about.

And what’s worse is that they call those of us — who want to write intelligently and clearly, who want to educate wine drinkers and not preach to them — a variety of not very nice names. I’m not going to link to them, because it’s not worth the aggravation and the Internet sniping that will ensue. But two prominent California wine writers have recently questioned whether people like me are competent to write about wine. Our sin? That we try to make it less intimidating and confusing, when real wine writers know wine is supposed to be intimidating and confusing. Otherwise, one of them wrote, what’s the point of learning about it?

How wonderfully self-absorbed and insensitive to the world around them they must be. Does this mean that we can’t enjoy wine unless we enjoy it exactly as they want us to? Nuts to that, and pass me some of that $10 Gascon white I like so much — the one that’s fruity.

Image courtesy of Westword.com, using a Creative Commons license

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