There have been similar rants on these pages in the past about the current trend toward ‘branding’. But it seems that every time a situation arises that demonstrates exactly what we object to, we feel the need to speak out. Maybe no one is listening. We do realize that a lot of fermented grape juice of marginal quality is sold out in the world and we are but a microscopic (if vocal) speck on the landscape. Maybe our rants are some sort of therapeutic exercise we need to go through, but we are becoming somewhat concerned about things that are happening in the wine industry that we feel are completely counter to what we find to be in its best long term interest.
Yes we are very passionate about what we do here and get excited to come to work and see what the day will bring. Sadly there are burgeoning trends we feel are encroaching on the true beauty of the business. One supposes it would be a good time to state what that ideal is. Well, for us, it is about the diversity and personality of wine. As importer Eric Solomon so eloquently stated on his philosophy of selecting wines, ‘place over process’. We want Bordeaux to taste like Bordeaux, Napa Cab to taste like Napa Cab, Rhones to taste like their place of origin and so on and so on. To us the joy of wine is in the diversity of expression that aspect is an inherent part of quality.
We still believe vintage matters because in each year the variables of weather have an impact on the finished wine, for better or worse. That is the essence of what the wine experience is all about. If you want something to taste the same every time, drink whiskey or one of those canned cocktails. Wine has never been about that to us. But now there are large forces in the world that are trying to make it that way.
We first noticed It with the distribution companies and wholesalers. We would order a particular wine and, if the distributor was out of it, he would just ship the next vintage as if that was perfectly OK. Same label, right? Doesn’t vintage kind of matter with wine? We, in our archaic mind sets, still think it does.
More recently we have noticed a couple of disturbing trends. First is the homogenization of wine. More and more we have noticed a certain artificial twang and overt primary grapeyness in a number of red wines. We have very specific ideas about who perpetrated this attempt to mediate ‘vintage’ with excessive manipulation in the cellar. For a number of reasons we will not name names. But these successful market brands, even though they don’t necessarily taste like their stated varietal because of additions of various winemaking ‘ingredients’, have spawned a whole series of imitators. Pretty soon everything will be made to formula and will all taste the same, or at least that is the fear
If, say, a 2011, 2012, and 2013 version of a Napa Cabernet, from vintages that are about as different from one another as it gets in California, are virtually indistinguishable from each other, what does that tell you? It tells you that there is ‘winemaking’ happening, and we don’t mean that in a nice way. Sadly, instead of being spurned by the marketplace, some of these companies are selling for ungodly sums of money because of ‘branding’. Big conglomerates don’t seem to care about quality at all, only having a name that has a certain public appeal so they can ramp up production even more. Is it good business? There are those that think so. Is it still wine? Technically and chemically, we suppose it is. But such beverages do not inspire a lot of passion in us.
We have been pretty vocal about ‘natural’ wines, too. We are all for organic farming and minimal handling in the cellar as long as it provides exciting juice. But we aren’t interested in buying something based on how it is made, only how good it is. If there is a compelling story about the wines process, great, but only if we like it in the first place. Sadly, the term ‘natural wine’ has become an excuse for shoddy winemaking as well as a philosophy. If something is oxidized, tawny, lifeless or full of mercaptans, that is perfectly fine if it is ‘natural wine’ and we must not ‘understand it’. To us it is simply flawed wine. Natural doesn’t mean ‘bad’ per se, but it has become an explanation for a lot of flaws when the process isn’t executed perfectly.
The other day really got us going on the branding thing again. Some new purveyors who were pretty full of themselves because they had been a part of another grocery store brand, were in to present their newest project. They proceeded to lay out a few wines that were essentially brand new labels and we tasted through. Frankly only one of them was even noteworthy and it had the strangest name and label from the standpoint of marketing a ‘food product’.
The rest were unremarkable in every way but that didn’t seem to matter. These guys were intent on making them part of the ‘Nielson 300’ (the list of top selling commercial wines that is the bible for grocery stores). Based on what was not so clear. Here you were marketing a name and, presumably, some sort of story that might cause people to pick up a bottle. Clearly these folks had a pretty low opinion of the people who they were marketing to in terms of sophistication.
They continued to represent these wines as competitive in the marketplace (not sure it was our marketplace, nor what kind of stuff these guys were used to drinking), even going so far as to say their Oregon rose was ‘the best in America’. Huh? Based on what?
Not sure what kind of conversations these people have with grocery store buyers but clearly they weren’t used to people like us that asked them about sourcing and how the wines were put together and had certain expectations about a wine’s viability based on how it tasted. Essentially these wines, we found out, were predominantly blended to achieve specific market flavor profiles, or as we like to call them ‘control group cuvee’. Is this the kind of thing people are drinking these days?
What we came away with was that there wasn’t any particular thought to giving people tasty, character-filled alternatives to the current spate of innocuous mass marketed wine, just the same old stuff in a different package. We’d venture to say little thought was given to the wine at all. This was a classic case of the ‘branding’ being the central issue. The concept of ‘branding’ is fine for Pepsi, Green Giant Nibletts, and Tide laundry soap, all of which can be manufactured to be the same every time. The concept plays a little differently in a product that can vary in quality and expression based on vintage.
Step one, dumb down character. Step two, sell the ‘brand’ because that is the key to success. Sadly more and more folks in this industry are acting as if the label and image are more important than what is inside the bottle. Maybe that is the real world. For us, wine doesn’t work that way…at least it didn’t used to.