John Atkinson: Wine is Based on Traditions and Will Remain So

wine traditionsAs usual, Master of Wine John Atkinson has an insightful post about the past and future of wine making and marketing. Apparently, he is responding to a Twitter dustup among wine professionals about communication with customers. John’s  main point is that wine making does not lend itself to the frantic fashion consciousness on which modern marketing depends.

His argument is complex and takes many twists and turns. And so with apologies to John if I get something wrong, here is my summary of his argument, which I attempt primarily for my own edification in trying to understand it. The original article is well worth reading. This is just a summary. I will comment when I’ve had time to digest it.

1. The wine map specifying what is grown, where, and how wine is made has been rapidly changing in recent decades.

2. Despite enormous, rapid growth, New World wine regions have not realized comparable growth in profit, and Old World regions, while employing new technologies, are still faced with the same economic troubles.

3. All this change has largely taken place within a set of relatively fixed assumptions about what wine should taste like, modeled on the French approach to varietals and methods.

4. This stability in our image of wine is in contrast to the distant past when radically new approaches to wine making such as Sherry, Madeira, and Champagne emerged.

5. Thus, wine expertise and creativity have reached a plateau where all change is channeled into a fixed framework for defining wine quality, a framework that revolves around small differences between vineyards or regions.

6. People concerned with marketing wine lament this stability, arguing that the wine trade must expand its consumer base to sustain growth. They attribute slower growth to wine experts who use technical language, obscure place names, and insider jargon that is inaccessible to the larger public.

A Shift in topic here as he describes the nature of modern marketing in General:

7. Growth in modern, consumerist economies is built on demand creation. We continuously buy when encouraged to desire new fashions and reject what’s out of fashion, not when products wear out.

8. In order to give consumers what they desire, consumers must be able to compare goods and services. This comparability is achieved by establishing money and sales as the measure of value.

9. Thus brands that can establish themselves as aspirational and successful become the catalyst for desire. In essence, brands create the desires they purport to satisfy.

10. Although the ideology of consumerism portrays itself as virtuously “listening to the consumer”, its capacity to grow is really dependent on gaining efficiency through reduced competition, low wages, poor working conditions, waste, and the outsourcing of social and environmental costs. These costs are hidden from the public.

And here, he turns to the question of wine communications and marketing in particular:

11. Although expert communities must develop their own ways of communicating, wine experts ultimately depend on the consumer and must develop ways of communicating to them, although this can often be managed if winemakers minimize talk about the production process.

12. However, modern marketing is faced with a fundamental contradiction. Profits are often incompatible with giving people what they want, e.g. the loss of independent booksellers.

13. Wine insiders, while acknowledging the problems in communicating with customers, don’t trust the marketing pitch of “listening to the consumers” because they suspect it’s just a band aid for what wine brands really care about—efficiency and profit.

14. Yet, all of us depend on brands and respond to marketing in our economic lives and it’s reasonable to expect wine to be the same.

15. But wine’s resistance to marketing is not just a matter of language. Wine is defined by the amount of time it takes to produce wine, realize a profit, and gain expertise, the latter of which in some cases has taken centuries.

16. Thus, inertia in the wine industry is structural, not a matter of choice. Marketers who scream about this inertia simply miss this point.

17. Given the aforementioned stability in wine production, we are unlikely to see radical changes in the future. Reducing S02 or extracting tannins for white wines are minor changes, not on a par with the development of sherry or Champagne.

18. The current mode of differentiation in wine, which emphasizes the co-evolution of a place and the culture that makes wine there, is sufficiently enriching to consumers to function as a message for marketing and branding.

19. In any case, the potential for making gobs of cash is limited both for New World and Old World regions. It’s likely the fate of bulk wine is to remain a marginal commodity regardless of marketing, and emerging wine regions aspiring to produce quality will have to struggle to gain attention and reputation  in the face of more established regions.


The inertia of wine is in the production process, not in the communication process or our inability to innovate.

There is a lot to think about here, especially the prospects for significant change in wine styles that would mark a departure from our current image of wine.

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