Thursday, April 20, 2006

Wine's Lesson Learned - Thanks Beer

Part Two of my wine labelling rant.

When I came of age in college (drinking age that is) it was during a revolution. I had a front row seat to history in the beer industry. It was the “age of microbrews”, and it seemed around every corner there was a new beer. Brewers had finally decided to challange the big three (Bud, Miller and Coors) for market share. Suddenly it seemed their was "choice" in the beer market. For my part, I (like many beer drinkers) enjoyed being introduced to all the new styles and flavors. Suddenly, there where tons of beer options with great sales to match. You could drink a different beer every night, and I often did. Marketing became so competative that a stranger once approached me in Safeway offering me five bucks to buy Black Star and share it with me freind. (I bet you can guess what beer we drank that evening.) The only real problem with so many drinking options is remembering which beers you like, especially the more you drink. And thus my loyalties, at least to the marketer, seemed driven on price alone.

In a price war however, volume and distribution create an advantage. We all know who wins that battle. The statistic I remember from the time was one in every five beers consumed in the US was a Bud. Not a combination of Bud labels, no just a regular red, white and blue labelled Bud. (That's a nice piece of market share). Quickly it was obvious to brewers that price along couldn’t win market loyalty. Ideas to combat Bud came and went as did beers. Each brewer slipped quietly back into their niche. A few however have had a lasting appeal, and they are remembered for the image they impressed upon us.

That my friends, is what we are seeing today in the wine industry. No its not a battle against a single wine empire, it a battle against wine's history and tradition. American once thought of wine as the beverage of the rich and stuffy, ie people who travel to France. In the 90’s however a couple things changed. One, thanks to the beer revolution we created a generation of drinkers who are willing to try new things and experience different tastes. Two, farmers in California, Washington and Oregon all started planting wine making grapes because it was a crop they could make money on. Quietly a glut of quality grapes entered the market. In the early 2000's these two factors reshaped the wine market thanks to old (notice I did not say good) “Two Buck Chuck”. The seeds of revolution finally matured and agian it was a battle started with price.

With so many wine making grapes available the company that owned Charles Shaw name made a crazy move. They decided to make a wine, that by industry standards of the day, was priced to be given away. But the funny thing is the world was surprised that Americans were willing to drink it. A new day suddenly dawned, wine drinker in the US.

Suddenly, the same revolution that once graced beer, exploded into the wine market, tons of choices and competative pricing. Beverage mongers that survived the beer revolution remember how to capitalize on this trend now that it moved into wine, price alone can’t sustain the consumer. Those sellers moved to mirror the Beers that made it big. Leave a lasting impression based on image, not necessarily substance. Welcome to the rise of the iconic, sexy, catchy wine label.

With such busy lives and so little time, it seems Americans only have time (or perhaps the attention span) for simple entertainment. Rather than savoring a wine and passing that knowledge on to a friend, we chose wine based on the label and how it fits our price range. The bigger the impression left in our mind by the label, the more likely we are to remember and talk fondly of that wine. Let’s be honest, most of us are not wine connoisseurs, nor do we aspire to be one. Rather, we simply want wine to enhance an experience, whatever that experience maybe. Often times a label can do that. (I know I’ve given wine as a gift because the recipants name was the same as the name on the label, and it made their day.)

On the surface this all seems harmless; some wine, an interesting label, and a few laughs. But then what?... life is to short for mediocre wine. The one thing I’ve learned is good wine takes time, not marketing. So treat yourself, take some time and find that good wine. Just remember, write the name down, because I willing to bet once you find that wine, it won’t have a memorable label.

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