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Tag Archives: wine trends

Terroir as a brand, and not as something that makes wine taste good

winetrends

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.

Big Wine and crowdsourcing

winerant

Big wine crowdsourcingColumbia Crest is owned by Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, part of a one-half billion dollar company. La Crema is part of Jackson Family Wines, also a one-half billion dollar company. So why is each using a form of crowdsourcing, letting its customers make key winemaking decisions for one of its wines?

Because it’s not enough to make piles of money in the wine business anymore. You also have to be seen as local and accessible, and these multi-nationals (the eighth- and ninth-biggest producers in the U.S.) see crowdsourcing as the way to make them cuddly and artisan-like. Ask your customers for their advice about making wine, and how can they — and the rest of the wine world — not love you?

The Wine Curmudgeon can’t decide if this is incredible marketing or one of the most cynical things I’ve ever seen in the wine business, where cynical things are a dime a dozen. On the one hand, it’s a clever use for social media, which big companies have a hard time doing well. There aren’t too many opportunities for cute pet pictures on a multi-national Facebook page. And the crowdsourcing is certainly no scam — the companies have been honest and upfront about what’s going on.

On the other hand, it could be malarkey to make P.T. Barnum proud. Columbia Crest is making 1,000 cases of high-end cabernet sauvignon from its effort, not much when you consider its annual production is almost 2 million cases and it normally does 5,000 of this particular wine. La Crema churns out almost 1 million cases a year; it hasn’t announced how much the project will produce. First its crowd has to decide between chardonnay and pinot noir.

Plus, given the odds that each crowd could decide to make really crappy wine even with the best of intentions, how much input will it really have? Yes, each company says its winemaker will do exactly as instructed, but given how little most of us know about winemaking and how complicated it is, what are the chances of that happening? Because Columbia Crest and La Crema could turn into the wine industry’s version of New Coke if the wine turns out to be undrinkable, and one doesn’t get to be one of the 10 biggest producers in the U.S. by doing a New Coke.

There is one thing I am thankful for, crowdsoucing veteran that I am. At least the companies didn’t ask for cash to help pay for production, which is the most typical use for crowdsourcing — Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and the like. That would have been too much to deal with, even for the Wine Curmudgeon.

Why grocery stores love wine

winetrends

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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