The food revolution in the U.S. continues apace. It has arrived in the cheese aisle and beer shelves of some supermarkets at least up to a point; you can sometimes find something interesting there. U.S. restaurants are among the best in the world, specialty food shops are proliferating, and we have farmer’s markets in every town large enough to feature a traffic light.
But wander down the wine aisle of most supermarkets and you find nothing but the same old same old differing only in the flash of the marketing or the cuteness of the name on the label. It’s really depressing. Hundreds of Chardonnays and Cabs all tasting alike but nary a Austrian Gruner Veltliner or Blaufrankisch.
There are exceptions. Whole Foods is sometimes OK. Trader Joe’s is better than most. But only marginally so.
Why is wine falling behind?
Wine can be intimidating. There is a lot to learn about wine regions, geography, production methods, and varietals. To really know what is in that bottle you’re about to buy requires a lot of study. And the kind of expertise that receives attention in the media–the ability to smell a wine and identify it out of the hundreds of thousands that are produced every year–seems so far out of reach that most people just want to grab something familiar and easy to drink.
The logic behind mediocre wine is impeccable: If you just want a good glass of wine to relax with after work why should you go through the hassle of learning all that stuff? Grocery stores don’t stock interesting wines because most of their customers just won’t go the trouble of learning about them.
One solution to this would be for the wine industry to promote wine education. Supermarkets, with the support of their distributors, could feature unfamiliar wines, provide information about them, and sell them for an attractive, introductory price. But they won’t.
The top 30 companies make about 90% of the domestic wine sold in the U.S and most of this wine is distributed by 3 mega distribution companies. They are perfectly happy to offer hundreds of identical wines and let their marketing departments and label designers sell the wine. They don’t care about lesser known varietals or regions.
It is no wonder that growth in wine consumption is slowing. Craft beer and spirits are far less complicated.
Ultimately this indifference toward quality and differentiation will kill the wine industry. There are over 9000 wineries in the U.S. fighting over the scraps that big wine hasn’t gobbled up. You don’t need that many wineries selling the same product. Thankfully wine tourism and direct-to-consumer sales are keeping things afloat for now.
But unless consumers get over their allergy toward education and as long as the industry refuses to recognize that education is the key to their success I expect to see further declines.
The only solution is a direct appeal to consumers—Drink Better Wine!