Whenever a bottle of wine is purchased, the consumer is looking for a certain level of satisfaction. This satisfaction can often be from the contents of the bottle, but rarely is it exclusively from the contents. Instead, the consumer, consciously or subconsciously, is looking for overall reassurance that the bottle they just purchased, is worth every penny. As a result of most consumers' lack of confidence in their own palates, they look to marketing for reassurance. I know, this sounds cynical and resonates a lack of faith in consumers.
Think I'm wrong? What about the crazy success of 2-buck chuck? The success of this wine is least dependent on it's quality. There are scores of people that say that there is "nothing wrong with it", but most people, again subconsciously, are satisfied buying this wine as a result of marketing. For $2, you get a wine in a bottle with a label and a cork. This is a novelty, and the package over delivers the perception of price point.
Take the other end; I know many collectors that buy simply on perceived reputation of name (Jordan, Silver Oak) without really being able to identify what they like about the wine. They are reassured buying these wines because of their name perception in the marketplace. Their packaging looks more expensive, and certainly did, 15-20 years ago when many collectors where learning about wine. Every retail shop will tell you that simply selling a wine from a wood box will double the velocity on higher end wines. Heavier bottles, wax tops, and tissue paper all add to consumer reassurance of quality. When laid out, it seems almost stupid that this can influence a wine brands' sales. I'll tell you what's stupid: newer brands that have access to this sort of information that ignore it. How many hubris driven names and labels are out there? It's a shame when consumers buy bad wine becasue of great packaging and marketing, but the worse crime is making a world-class wine that languishes because of poor marketing. Wineries don't need to pull out all of the stops, but they need to consider whether the consumer will be reassured trying a new wine, packaging and name go a long way to consumers taking a risk and trying something new.
I touched on this issue about a year ago, but I'd like to revisit based on a recent article in the Sf Chronicle. According to the Chronicle, there are hundreds of voices out there, but their actual impact on the world of wine is difficult to gauge. This is not completely inaccurate. How do you measure the impact of wine blogs? If you are looking for direct influence of wine case sales, that will probably never happen. How do you take the collective voices of hundreds of "wine writers" and determine the tidal shifts? Also impossible. Should all wine bloggers be measured by the narcissism and bad writing that exists at the lowest levels? No. None of these are the actual issue.
The editorial spin could have been: "What influence do wine bloggers have on the young demographics, and how are their wine sensibilities shaped by the bloggers?" I speak with young wine drinkers weekly. The vast majority of them read wine blogs. They are on Facebook, Twitter and they follow wineries and wine writers in each of these arenas. Facebook and Twitter have become intertwined with blogs and have a ton of cross pollination. This generation has become very resourceful, and they realize the insincerity of the glossy publications. They're much more interested in winemaking theories than your typical collectors that read the print rags. Blogging, while often frustrating and amateurish, represent the truly passionate wine lovers. Their collective voices help inform those that are ramping up their love in the entry ranks from Wine Library, which yes, is a blog. All the way up to Alder Yarrow and Alice Feiring.
Further, these collective voices accelerate theory and give a forum for a very sophisticated discourse on all things wine. Even if the only people reading wine blogs are bloggers, wouldn't Darwinism help propel the upper echelon of wine theory by sheer numbers alone? Creating a think tank for wine? That is exactly what the wine blogoshpere has become. a "think tank for wine". This also could have been an interesting take on the subject. Their take that wine bloggers don't go after themselves is inaccurate, Parker is obviously a bigger target, but he has been the most successful individual wine writer/ influence.
Very few products exist in our lives that have such a diverse impact as wine. It's international and spans language barriers. It holds culturally influenced methodology. It is impacted heavily by the environment as well as geo-politcial situations. It can be produced today and live for 100 years. It is a leading indicator of business and economic health, and involves complex sales strategies. It is intertwined with food, which has become a wealth of creativity and personality unto itself. And most importantly, wine is awesome. The aggregation of all of these factors make for a very vibrant and colorful discussion that may be only partially about wine, or can be about wine as a microcosm of other more globally significant events.
The final impact that wine blogging has had on our wine culture is this-It has helped to sharpen the collective wine profession's reliance on creating their own opinions. This can't be overstated. As a collective, we have been able to distance ourselves from conventional wisdom very quickly. Robert Parker can exist in this universe, but his opinion has no more weight than the typical blogger in this world. Wine blogging has turned into the great society.
As we blog, the sincerity that creeps into the wine world cannot be measured easily. We see this everyday on the streets when 22 year-old novices say things like "Sancerre is how Sauvignon Blanc is supposed to taste". We didn't hear that 10 years ago, and Wine Spectator certainly didn't teach anyone that. It teaches people that wine is about your opinion, and having your own constantly evolving opinion is one of the amazing things about wine.
For those of us whose task it is to sell wine, we have come to rely on a series of "buzz words". We use these words every day. They help us to paint a romanticized picture of a fairly technical process. We assume that members of the trade automatically understand the implications of time on lees, batonnage, french oak, <1 ton/ acre, etc. This is further complicated by the sales "tools" that rattle off this information without paying attention to how closely the buyer is following you. It's almost like sales people just memorize a bunch of facts, blurt them off to sound credible, but are ultimately unable to connect the novice to why these terms are significant. The only way I got anywhere in this industry was by asking reps to stop and explain every term they just repeated. I either learned something new, or exposed them (unintentionally) for the tools that they were. Whenever I do a sales presentation, I make sure to gauge the buyers understanding, and give them a chance to ask questions. If they can't connect the dots, they're less likely to understand the efforts that have gone into making the wine so special. Remember, you're not selling anything, you're teaching the buyers about your wine. Otherwise, you may as well be throwing in the under-body coating for free.
I'm extremely excited to be part of the cork'd family. Today, for the first time, you can read my original content on this exciting site. Cork'd content is an amazing wine community with original content provided daily by writers such as myself.
Today you can join the discussion about: California: Forgoing Terroir for Style? This is a touchy subject, and one I hope illustrates the need for demand and accountability from wine consumers. California could do it, we just don't want them to. Or at least they think we don't want them to. Terroir will always result in superior expression of the land and the grape, we really should start identifying and promoting the wineries that give us the terroir.
The wine education system in the country is broken, and it never worked in the first place.
Now that I've been in the Wine industry for 13 years, I feel like I've learned a few things. Can I recite all of the Grand Crus of Burgundy off the top of my head? No. Have I ever needed this skill? No. But I do know the style differences of Meursault and Puligny-Montrachet. I didn't learn that from reading about it either, I learned it from tasting and discussing. Memorization is learning for 2nd graders. Blind tasting? It's a parlor trick. It's training for the day when some one's 10,000 bottle cellar somehow loses all of it's labels, but the wine remains in tact. Then, if you have this skill, you will be airlifted in. Otherwise, it's as useful as the 6 Degrees of Kevin Bacon game (which, incidentally, I'm really good at). Sure, you can argue that blind tasting really just exercises your tasting muscles and is one of the only quantifiable ways to determine some one's understanding of wine. I suppose that's a fair argument, I just completely disagree with trying to test it.
There are plenty of organizations that host testing, and most people throw around the term "Sommelier" without any regard for what this means. First, it translates to "wine mule". Think about the glamor of that little nugget. Second, a Sommelier works in a restaurant. Period. I worked in a restaurant, and I passed the first level Court of Master Sommeliers in 2000. I held the title of "Sommelier" at a great restaurant that utilized the position. MS Madeline Triffon, has been know to say, you can can call yourself a Sommelier, when you are a Sommelier. Today, I am reluctant to use that term, mostly because it's flat out confusing for consumers,and they are immediately intimidated. This is problematic when trying to open people up to new ideas and discussing their tasting experiences. The only other title available is "Master Sommelier". There are plenty of other of organizations that offer similar titles such as "Wine and Spirits Professional", etc. Here is my big knock on these organizations: They are really good at holding tests, but very few offer genuine education. Further, the testing is suspect from a practical standpoint. Most of what you learn to take these tests is memorization (theme alert), which my 8 year old could do. Very few of these courses offer real world, practical experience. Last I checked, very few Universities offer much in the way of majoring in wine education either (obviously aside from the usual suspects).
Don't get me wrong, if you are a Master Sommelier, I have tremendous respect for the work you have done to get there, I could never do it. For the rest of us, what is the point in chasing all of these letters, if they don't really mean much? These letters sort of create more problems by their sheer existence. Wouldn't it be worthwhile to actually sponsor textbooks, courses and seminars absent of any testing. I remember when I took my exam, the 2 days of classes were more about trying to figure out what questions they were going to ask, rather than comprehending the material. Again, memorization.
What we need is an industry-wide, real world, practical education curriculum. Most of the people in the wine industry are lousy educators. We should enlist actual educators to help us develop courses that are engaging and promote a true understanding of wine. Right now, the testing organizations feel exclusive, if not outright, simply by the sheer existence of the silly letters. They should be resources and feel inclusive to the novices. Testing should be saved for the end of each course only used to gain access to the next level. There is no reason for someone to hold 5 different accreditation that all basically teach and test the same thing. It's like saying "I passed English-101, five different times". Right now, it's easy to find a tester, but next to impossible to find a teacher.
I'm Proud to announce that in the coming week, I will begin contributing original content to the cork'd website. Cork'd content is a section of cork'd that showcases original writing by many of the top wine bloggers. You will find links here for my writing that appears on that site. If you aren't familiar with cork'd, it is a website that allows you to track your wine tasting notes, compare with others, and interact directly with wineries. Their catch phrase is " a playground for wine lovers" . Thanks for following!
Yesterday, while sampling an array of great wines, a woman was brought to tears. I wouldn't believe it myself if I hadn't seen it. She was perfectly happy, and conversational, but there it was, she tasted it and cried tears of joy. I was somewhat humbled by the outpouring of emotion. As the day progressed, and I relayed this woman's reaction to the wine, I received quite a bit of cynicism. And I guess this shouldn't be too surprising, I would have probably reacted the same way (with cynicism, not tears). The question is: Why not? The wine that did this was stunning, and if anything could bring a person to tears, this may be it. Wine can bring a rush of memories, and associations, some long dormant. Why couldn't this happen? If we are spending $50+ of great bottles of wine, why can't these evoke emotional responses? Have you ever seen anyone brought to tears from wine, or food for that matter? Incidentally, the wine that did this was the 2006 Drew Fog-Eater Pinot Noir from Anderson Valley.