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Making Sense of Wine…or Not

June 29, 2011

It’s been awhile since my last blog post due to the workload of posts I’ve been writing for other sites and my own newsletter (which isn’t yet linked into the blog). But the post below is also cross-post at Women for WineSense. I just thought for those not reading about wine, this would make a nice diversion. Although not about design (except for my squeezing that question mark into the wine glass below), it does discuss some major changes in marketing coming down the pike. Enjoy. — MM

Wine in Glass with Question MarkIn the past week and a half, a number of wine events occurred in my life that got my gray cells working overtime. First, I attended a lovely dinner of wine bloggers, wine writers, wine critics and wine makers. I am none of these, but I am an avid reader of wine publications. And this is due to my desire to learn as much as possible about the business, its marketing and sales, and what makes great wine.

There were reportedly upwards of nineteen bottles on the table, a few of which I did not, sadly, get to sample. Conversation was quite lively as various parties chimed in with their opinions on specific wines, geographic characteristics for growing and farming techniques, alcohol levels, and much more. My goal was pretty much to soak up the knowledge floating across the table and try not to embarrass myself too much as the least knowledgeable one at the table. Overall, I don’t think I did too badly.

The second event was a small blind tasting. I have historically been horrible at these, and the trend continued that night. It should be noted that the majority of wines poured were French, an area of wine knowledge for which I have far less understanding than I do for the wines of the U.S. (But I usually completely bollix domestic blind tastings as well.)

After the blind tasting I felt suitably humbled with a rather permanent sensibility it will always be three step forwards and a minimum of two steps back for me in wine knowledge, from my lips to my brain. Somewhere along the way the synaptic connections just don’t get made as the libation slips past my olfactory senses, over the taste buds, and down my gullet.

My wine education of domestic production has always been more along the lines of knowing where the edge pieces of the puzzle are located–even if the pieces in the middle are missing or heavily jumbled. I can make sense of what I’m drinking, where it came from, and the general characteristics of the terroir. The wines of France, on the other hand, seem something akin to Mr. Spock’s 3D chess games – way too far beyond my ken to even grasp the outer edges of the game.

Since the French use an entirely different system of identifying their wines (by geographic location and not by varietal), I can’t compare puzzle to puzzle or the sizes and shapes of the pieces of French wines to U.S. wines. France’s wines are a whole separate game, and I’ve yet to get a handle on the rulebook.

Sure, there are regions from which I love the wines the French produce. There are wineries whose product I love. But it’s continually frustrating because I can never compare wines from the U.S. with wines from France. It’s an apples-to-oranges exercise in futility. (And it’s not that I’m trying to determine if one wine is better than another in comparison.)

We humans seem to have a ongoing desire to compare things. It’s one way we learn, evaluating one similar item against another. Our brains are just wired this way.

They even managed to compare wines in the famous Judgment of Paris in 1976, when the real experts were able to compare U.S. wines side-by-side with some of the finest French wines. (Why can’t I makes sense out how to line them up side-by-side?)

It would seem I am not the only American with this frustration. As I lamented my lack of French wine understanding (for which I frequently turn to the blog stylings of Samantha Sans Dosage to up my educational level), lo and behold a number of articles landed in my inbox on this topic.

The first grabbed my attention as a marketer: “French wine industry ponders shift in marketing strategy.” That’s a pretty substantial move for an entire industry. What could possibly spur an entire industry – one long steeped in history and tradition – to shift its thinking and strategy so dramatically? The answer dropped in my box but a few days later: “French wine consumption drops by three billion bottles.” Ouch!

The message (to the French) appears to be coming through loud and clear: Adapt or perish! The latter is unlikely and undesirable to happen. But given the sorry state of wine consumption in France alone (the intake per capita has dropped precipitously in one generation), they know some dramatic changes are in order. But what should they be?

The French method of organizing and categorizing wine is vastly different than here in the States. (And remember, I have a hard time myself understanding how it all works. So this explanation will be quite bare bones!) Given French wines have been around for thousands of years and the formal system of ranking and categorizing their wine has been around for hundreds of years, it was originally based upon the most common logic of its time: geography.

Rule #1: Sell your wine to everyone close by. Transportation costs are then lowest. They’ll remember your wine if you describe it as being ‘over two hills in that direction.’ This system has worked for hundreds of years.

Rule #2: Once you’ve sold to everyone nearby, expand your market further geographically. Now the folks farther away need more information in order to remember if your wine is better than the guy’s ‘three hills in that direction.’ Along comes a ranking system to designate if the wine ‘two hills over’ is of better quality (for a variety of reasons) than the one grown ‘three hills away.’

Are you confused yet? Well, this system worked just dandy for a few hundred years when folks with but a single horse and buggy didn’t travel far (nor did the wine), so it was easier to keep straight in their heads what wine came from which location.

Fast forward a century or two and several major changes have taken place which have resulted in this long-standing system not working nearly as well as the French would like. Aye! There’s the rub!

The biggest monkey wrench is that the U.S. doesn’t categorize, organize or prioritize its wine production by geography. (Napa Valley wineries and producers will vociferously argue this point – and they’re right to a certain degree – but that’s getting ahead of the story.)

Much to the French’s endless frustration, American wines (above and below the 49th Parallel) are identified primarily by varietal before geographic origination. The French probably gave little thought to this deviation from their own system when it was established long ago–before the U.S. producers made wine that amounted to a hill of beans.

But now this is a problem, the U.S. is gaining market share and France is losing market share – even in their own backyard. Furthermore, Italy’s wine exports continue to kick *ss in the U.S. (And they do actually list the varietal on their labels!)

So what should we all do about this conundrum? How should we make sense of it all? I, for one, do not wish the French to change how they make their wine one iota. I aspire to understand it and identify it better (and to drink a lot more of it!) I do believe the time has come for the French to squeeze varietal names onto their labels (however small they wish to make it in size). This option was granted to them in 2004, but it is difficult to change an industry’s practices so entrenched in tradition and history. But a second challenge remains: the French are far more accepting and understanding of blended wine, of which a great deal of production includes several varietals. They won’t all fit on the label! (We don’t squeeze them all on our labels here either.)

Americans have less understanding of and greater resistance to making blended wine purchases. Some are suspicious that a blend must represent a great vat of unknown leftover wine that’s been dumped together (which is hardly the case). Others simply view blends as a great gamble to purchase than something that’s identified as “California Chardonnay” – another misconception.

As a consumer, I see my wine education much as Lewis and Clark must have seen America: “What? Another mountain to climb on the other side?!” I’ll continue to lumber off to blind tastings in hopes that my abilities improve the longer I’m at it. I’ll continue to try new (to me) French wines, seeking out mnemonic devices so that I get one step closer to identifying them correctly in a blind test.

As a marketer, I hope French wine producers evaluate their options from the point of view of what will best help the consumer better understand their product(s) faster and easier. (Speed and simplicity improve the ‘likability’ factor of a product much more, spurring purchases.) A little sensibility in marketing goes a long way in increasing sales.

For another perspective on wine education, check out The Return on Investment of Wine Education.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 1, 2011 6:37 am

    Was lovely to finally meet you Marcia. So glad you were able to make our blogger dinner for Thomas. There were 19 wines and I think I did try them all, sadly I didn’t have pen and paper so I can’t really write about them!

    One of the challenges I see with French wine marketing is the American consumers absolute need to know what is in the bottle. I know it’s the way we know and market wine here in the US but telling someone that the Cote Rotie they are about to drink is Syrah or the Chablis is Chardonnay is only going to lead to comparisons to those grapes from this country and that should never happen. When I do my intro to French Wine classes the first thing I do is pour a domestic Chard and a Chablis side by side and ask the guests to guess what the two have in common, other than white they can’t tell me. That’s when I tell them they need to, when thinking and approaching French wines, to think not of grape, (because the point of reference does no good here) but of place. Very difficult thing to teach I can assure you. And labeling French wines with the variety is going to often do a disservice, as is often the case if someone is looking for Chardonnay and gets a bottle of stony, seashell, almost salty Chablis. Just my two cents!

  2. July 1, 2011 8:10 pm

    Ya know, it’s really insulting when you’re own blog trashes one of your own comments to the ether and you’ve gotta rewrite the whole thing! (Sigh.)

    A-I do have a list of most of the wines from dinner, if you’d like them, Samantha.

    B-I wholly agree with you about the consumer learning what’s in French wines. It’s just too bad (but perfectly normal) that HOW we’ve learned about domestic and French wines is taught to us completely differently. We’ve got our work cut out to learn the nuances of France’s geography!

    I will be pouring over my atlas!

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