In the New York Times last week, Eric Asimov wrote an article about how little consumers pay attention to what ingredients are actually in wine. This article sparked a 6-page long (and still going) thread on the Wineberskers online forum about ingredient listings on labels and was the catalyst for a multi-day Twitter discussion between Bruce Schoenfeld, Keith Levenberg and myself (there were a few others in there, but those were the principals) about marketing wine as a food. Asimov pointed in his article out that Americans "weigh the nutritional, environmental, humanitarian, aesthetic and even political consequences of what they cook and consume," but do not do the same for wine. He concluded that perhaps if we were to start considering wine as a food that "standards for quality and authenticity" may start playing a part in wine consumers' purchasing decisions. I figured that this post would be much more conducive to laying out my argument than the restrictive nature of Twitter.
I actually disagree with Asimov on two points. First, many, many Americans don't give two seconds worth of thought about any consequences of what they eat. More than one in three Americans is obese; and that number is rising every year. Cheap and easy is easily more important to more people than any nutritional, environmental, humanitarian, aesthetic and even political consequence of food (or food-like product). Why would people care what is in their wine when products like sodas, hot dogs and chips are considered a traditional American meal. How many people look at the ingredient lists of those foods? Those three "foods" aren't even food. Now don't get me wrong, I've consumed all three in the last week, so I definitely live in a glass house. But wine is already confusing enough to the average consumer that they don't want to think about what's in their bottle of chardonnay.
On top of that, and as Asimov started his article, wine is still considered to be "natural" product. I don't have the numbers to back me up, but I'd be willing to bet that most people think only grapes are used to make wine. Just as when you buy an apple or orange juice, you probably assume that's all you're getting. I think people actually consider wine a food. People might like chardonnay more than merlot just like they like Golden Delicious more than MacIntosh. Perhaps wine is not thought as a natural accompaniment to the nightly dinner table (well, Europeans might, but not most Americans), but neither are apples. Consumers also think of wine as a glamorous lifestyle choice. But can wine be both?
When I saw Bruce Schoenfeld (who I often agree with, but love to argue with) tweet, "promoting wine as a lifestyle adjunct comes at the expense of promoting it as a staple food ... Not saying one or the other is better, but they're kind of mutually exclusive," I had to jump into the discussion. Bruce (for some reason I just can refer to him as Schoenfeld) was hitting on the point in Asimov's article that treating wine as a food would cause more consumers to care about the ingredients that go into making a bottle of wine (not all remain in the finished wine). Asimov and Bruce both are correct in there assessment that in America wine is most often marketed as an aspirational product and not generic food. "Drink my wine because it'll make you fun or make you more alluring," is the premise of most wine ads. There is the occasional, "drinking my wine will make you feel like you're at this beautiful, pastoral place when you're just on your couch." But by and large there is no "Got Wine?" campaign in the United States. There is no push to make a place for wine on your dinner table.
That's not to say there couldn't be. And that happens to be my main point in my argument with Bruce. He can think what he wants, and I'd love to shake the hand of a person that has actually changed Bruce's mind. Commodity and luxury are not mutually or intrinsically exclusive of each other. Why do people buy those asinine 2002 Chevrolet Earnhardt Signature Monte Carlos? The car itself serves the same purpose of a regular Monte Carlo, but offers the aspiration to be like a NASCAR driver (yay, I know how to make left turns...). Same could be said about designer jeans or lots of other products. Even foods like bison, heirloom tomatoes and farm-fresh eggs could be considered luxury staple foods. Marketing wine as a generic foodstuff and a glamorous aspirational good can and does happen.
Does it happen often in the U.S.? Nope. But travel to Europe. In Spain, ask for a glass of tinto at a bar and you'll be brought a glass of red wine and a tapa. The bartender most likely will not tell you anything about the wine. The wine's brand is a mystery, yet the brand exists. And I'm sure the winery that made that wine has several other wines that they market as a premium wine. Wine is both a staple food and an aspirational good in Europe. I've only spent an evening in France (and I ate pizza...) and never been to Italy, but I've heard anecdotes about house wine there too being just a generic wine.
Some restaurants in the U.S. also have brand-less house wines, but wine is definitely on fewer tables. My in-laws drink lots of house wine. They don't care what brand it is, they just order a glass of white wine at a restaurant. The fact that many fewer tables are graced by wine is not from wine being inherently incompatible as a lifestyle good and a staple food, but more from America's puritanical history. European history is steeped in wine. American history is not. In fact, it was outlawed for more than 13 years less than a century ago. Nudity and sex are also taboo in the U.S. (though slowly becoming less so) whereas in Europe or Asia the naked body or a sexual act is not something mutually exclusive from decency. Our culture is the reason wine is not usually considered a nightly dinner accompaniment. Marketers in the U.S. know this and have used the wine as a lifestyle campaign to their advantage. But that's not to say wine couldn't be marketed as a food. Wineries would just be barking up a tall tree if they were to attempt that approach.
Though someday the wine as a food campaign may not be so difficult in America. Take the Drink Local Wine movement. All 50 states now have wineries. Today, America wine isn't as much as a special product from the mystical land of California, but something that is much more approachable. Much of the argument for local wine supporters is that wine can be every bit as local as local cheese or local vegetables. Local wine should be considered (considered, not mandatory) when thinking about eating locally. The locapour crowd is much more wine as a food oriented than people that only want to drink top Napa or Bordeaux wineries. Yet, the locavore movement is also about aspiring to a certain lifestyle. And so the circle continues...