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The Answerman on the Big 3-0

Monday, March 24, 2014

Q: How are things different in the wine biz relative to 30 years ago?
AM: Actually in a lot of ways it is the same. Wine is still a business of passion at its core. People get in it because they want to and there are many angles from the hedonist to the technocrat, from sales to production, there are many ways to play.  In fact the biggest problem in the wine industry is how it fights to stay the same in a changing world.
Q: What do you mean?
AM: The age of information has been a two edged sword for the wine world.  In the ‘old days’ brands were built slowly by consistency and word of mouth.  Critics were more localized and information was disseminated through books that had long shelf life because info was pretty simplified and ‘ratings’ were usually a little stale by the time they came out.  That pace suited the wine industry.  Now wines and brands can rise and fall at the speed of a blog or a review. People can see reviews of wines before they are even available.  That didn’t used to happen.  Now everyone can be an instant expert by getting the new review faster than everyone else.
Q: Is that a bad thing?
AM: It comes from outside of a person’s passion and spirit of discovery and becomes more of a game.  This has been the negative edge of the rise of the critic, which started in the mid-80s in earnest and accelerated from there.  Now, with the internet, the process can start and be over in a matter of a couple of hours.  The cycle was somewhat predictable for a while. But it is getting a lot more erratic.  The volume of information is staggering and access instantaneous.  So a wine can, literally, come out, get a hot review, and disappear from the market for good in an hour.
Q: Is that a bad thing?
AM: Not if you’re the one that got the goods.
Everyone else is complaining they got left out.  It was different if you were a month late to the party, but now folks miss things by 5 minutes because the whole dance was over in an hour and they don’t understand or believe it.  So they complain and the system over-compensates and makes it impossible for everyone next time.  The current wine game is very demanding and kind of misses the simple joys that wine is supposed to be about, finding fun new things to try, enjoying a good bottle just for the sake of enjoying it. It is a lot easier for the next-gen of potential wine drinkers to just order a cocktail or have a beer.
Q: What are the key differences in the wine world today?
AM: You mean besides the economy? There are too many to discuss at length.  Quickly, the homogenization of the wine world by corporate America.  Who cares what a wine tastes like as long as it has a cool package and story? Critic inflation.  The old critics try to tone it down and the ones trying to gain market share are giving out big scores so people will quote them.  Still others ‘will score for food’ (or cash). This was an issue in the newspaper days 20 years ago, but has come up again recently.  Natural-organic-sustainable wine?  Holy lemongrass, when did the process become more important than the end result?  And the wine industry is in a ‘death match’ with  We could do a Letterman list of all of the really unbalanced stuff going on.  But the wine business has always had its quirks and seems to seek a more difficult way to do everything. On the flip side, there is little bad wine anymore and a greater and more varied selection available in the marketplace than ever before.  The consumer is more informed and more open minded.  Given those two things, there are always possibilities.

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