Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The beauty of, and problem with, the wine industry today...

Last week, I attended the first-ever portfolio tasting for Synergy Fine Wines. 350 different wines, beers, spirits and sakes were hopefully poured for Denver's restaurant and retail buyers to taste and buy. It was nice to see the guys from Ruby Trust Cellars pouring their 2011 wines. With only a handful of Colorado wineries represented by distributors, it's a big deal to see one at an event like this. I was only at the tasting for about an hour and I spent most of that time walking around and randomly trying wines; a few Burgundies, some Californian wines, a couple from Italy  and of course a handful of Spanish wines. I wasn't surprised to see that the lone Slovenia ribolla gialla was thoroughly ravaged by the flock of sommeliers at the venue (what do you call a group of sommeliers?).

At the Spanish table, something, or I should say someone, struck me about the current state of the wine industry. A wine shop owner and I struck up a brief conversation. He pointed to a bottle of Viña Borgia 2012 Garnacha and said that the label was good. He said he could sell a lot of it just on the label. I just bit my tongue. He then asked me if I had tried anything good at the table. I pointed to the Avanthia Godello, from Valdeorras, that could easily masquerade as a top chardonnay twice its price. The $24 retail price scared him away from thinking about buying it, but he still tried it. I moved a few steps over to a bottle of Bodegas Ramírez de la Piscina 2009 Crianza that quickly grabbed my attention.

Now, the sad reality of that interaction was that the wine store owner (I have my doubts about it being a "fine wine" shop) didn't really care about the wine inside the bottle. He wanted a cheap bottle of wine that he could easily sell. Sadly, that is how most American wine consumers think. They (we) just want something inoffensive that doesn't break the bank. Oh, and a pretty label helps. The effort, the thoughts and the love that go into many premium wines are an afterthought to the majority of American wine drinkers. While you and I want the experience and the emotion that comes with exploring the world of wine, most people just want something to drink.

And that leads me to the beauty of the wine industry today. American wine drinkers consume more wine than any other nation. That means a lot of people are drinking wine. With the average bottle price being in the $5-$6 range, that means a whole hell of a lot of cheap wine is drunk from coast to coast. Ribolla gialla and trousseau gris are no where on most people's wine radar. They don't care what I, or Joe Roberts or let alone Robert Parker have to say about wine. They might care what their friends or their neighbors drink, but they just want wine. It's a four-letter word and can be complicated (if you let it be so), but it is not brain surgery. You don't have to be an expert to enjoy it, nor do you have to listen to one. You just need a wine shop owner that knows you want a pretty label with something purple and tasty inside.


  1. One day. maybe even in our lifetimes, the wine business will treat cheap wine drinkers the way it treats expensive wine drinkers. The world is heading in that direction, and I remain optimistic.

  2. First disclosure: I am in the minority, with 4,000 bottles in cellar and a clear preference for what's in the bottle instead of on it. Given the state of the economy over the past 4 years and the condition of many family budgets, is it any wonder that people are buying cheap wine? Of course I can't recall any time in history when there was so much drinkable wine at low prices, so folks are not really aware of the difference between the inexpensive bottle and the really fine, expensive one that has some good aging. And yes, we consumer are certainly heavily swayed by the visual appeal of almost everything we buy. But one only needs to look at the buying patterns of beer-buyers to see that they match pretty consistently with wine buyers: kegs and cases of cheap beer are sold, while small batch special brews somehow survive, despite being a product where the price difference is much less pronounced between the swill and the very good product.

  3. In addition, the state of wine shops is appalling. One reason shelf talkers work is that they take away the human interaction. Sometimes a great shop with a great proprietor is wonderful. Often it's a place with indifferent staff or even worse, some kid who's been "into" wine for three or four years and maybe took a wine class or course and then decided he/she knows more than Robert Parker ever could and you should drink this kind of wine instead of that kind of wine and you walk in and get treated to a supercilious twit disparaging your choice as plonk.

    In the minority of shops, the owners and workers are great folks who love wine. In many shops, the customer is at a loss unless he knows what he wants. So to help make the decision, a catchy bottle matters.

    And at the high-end it's pretty much the same. People who drop hundreds on a bottle like to think they're pretty sophisticated oenophiles. Most aren't. They buy Burgundy because that's "supposed" to be the epitome of refinement or because some critic scored the wine highly or because their friends buy that wine, but most of them haven't ever tried a 25 year old wine from anywhere else, much less somewhere like Chianti.

    I've frequently seen people rhaphsodizing over first and second growth Bordeaux or old Barolo and the wine was corked. They just couldn't tell the difference.

    1. Excellent points, Anonymous. I'd add to that the habit of many people - including wine buyers - to poo poo anything that WS or WA don't rate highly. I agree there is a place for ratings, but it should have a place alongside other parameters for choosing wine.

      It's unfortunate that labels, glossy pages in wine magazines and pop culture drive so many sales, but that's the reality. It's all about branding today.

      Sad to say a lot of delicious, beautifully made wine from small to medium producers isn't on shelves in CO because of difficulties in finding reputable wholesalers who will take on new labels, particularly small ones.

    2. Suzi, scores work for some wineries, but are to the detriment of many more producers of quality wine, especially the small regional wineries not in CA, OR or WA. Look at all the producers from CO, VA, MI and MD with scores on their shelftalkers.... oh, wait.... ;)

  4. Jeff, yes, treating all consumers respectfully is important.

    Unknown, I am in the minority as well. Beer drinkers and wine drinkers aren't all that different are many times one in the same.

    Anon, yes, unfortunately retailers bare much of the responsibility for consumers' fears and intimidation toward wine.

  5. I'm not sure that I ever mattered, bro! :)

  6. Joe, you probably matter to some people, just as RMP still matters to a different audience. But as you discussed on the Punchdown episode 7 (you can paypal me my fee...), finding the audience that isn't listening to you is who you want to be trying to talk to. How do wannabe influencers (isn't every influencers still a wannabe?) reach the pretty label buyers (who differ from the snooty label buyers)?

  7. Oh, this is pretty much a scary picture…
    Of course my experience is very limited, and I am sure my importer only brings me to the nicest wine shops owned or managed by the nicest people. But I can swear to God that Denver has a lot of independent stores where customers are helped, closely followed in their wine shopping and patiently led to the discovering of weird unknown varieties, which they would eventually like.

    Being a small (very small) Sicilian winemaker, I was quite surprised to find so many passionate wine professionals in the Denver Area the first time I visited – about 8 years ago – and every time I come back this feeling is always confirmed.

    I understand this may not be the majority, but it feels comfortable from my side of the world to know that you have a handful of places where wine lovers (or just wine curious) can find nice selections at reasonable prices, and where my wines feel at home :)


  8. Marilena, legally all the stores in CO are independent (only one license per owner...). Denver does have a great wine scene with lots of knowledgeable retailers. But just as with wine, it only takes one bad bottle to put a bad taste in one's mouth.


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