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vineyard-3619525_960_720The form of the question suggests that wine is more than wine, more than an alcoholic beverage.  In thinking about the problem of slowing growth in the wine trade and questions about who is buying, who isn’t, and how wineries ought to respond to market conditions, it occurred to me that we can’t answer these questions unless we pay attention to the many things that wine is.

For many people, perhaps the majority of wine drinkers, wine is a commodity, an alcoholic beverage alongside other alcoholic beverages, that is affordable, pleasing to consume and will get you buzzed enough to relax. For others, the pleasant taste and alcohol is a stimulus to conviviality and good cheer, something you drink at parties to encourage a particular kind of social interaction. For these consumers, (call them “buzz babies”), much of what they are trying to accomplish can be achieved via other beverages. One might have a preference for wine over beer or vice versa but substitution is usually an option. And for this consumer price really matters. Alcohol is alcohol and as long as your threshold of drinkability is met, you’re not going to pay more.

But for others, wine is primarily an accompaniment for food. It enhances a meal and the meal feels incomplete without it. The effects of the alcohol matter as well but it’s the food enhancement that distinguishes a good experience from a mediocre one. This consumer (let’s call them “food freaks”) even when looking for an everyday, hassle free experience, will be more selective than the buzz babies. Particular meals will require particular wines. and not just any wine will do. And of course for some interested in food enhancement, choice of wine becomes a carefully managed puzzle to get the pairing just right. For food freaks, substitutability of one type of alcohol for another may not be possible. Although there are foods that go well with beer or spirits, and cocktails can sometimes be precisely calibrated to dishes, wine is widely acknowledged to be the superior food accompaniment. For food freaks, they may be willing to pay more for a bottle because they must be more selective, and a poor choice can have a negative impact on the food.

The next step up on the wine chain is the “casual connoisseur”. She enjoys the alcohol and food enhancement but also enjoys learning a bit about wine, will go to wineries regularly because she enjoys the winery experience, and may join a wine club. She is known to sip wine just to appreciate the flavors, aromas, and textures. There is no substitute for wine for the casual connoisseur, and although not into wine enough to spend big bucks she will splurge on occasion just to enjoy the experience.

The casual connoisseur however is also prone to suddenly falling head over heels for wine and transforming into the “compulsive connoisseur”. This person will study tomes devoted to obscure Italian wine regions, track down rare vintages for which she mortgages the house, and practices blind tasting with vials of synthesized aromas. Vacations are more accurately described as pilgrimages. (Most of you reading this blog will recognize the type). Price sensitivity is determined solely by the size of the bank account and the only substitute for a wine will be a better wine.

Then finally there is the status seeker who buys wine in order to display wealth or cultural capital. Price is not an obstacle but is the point of the purchase.

My point is that wine markets include a lot of diversity and on questions such as ability to raise prices, the profitability of direct-to-consumer sales, and strategies for increasing sales will depend on the category your customers occupy.

Yet operating behind the scenes for most of these wine consumers is a particular image of wine that subtly influences purchases. This image has at least three inter-related components.

1. Wine is a symbol of refinement. It is a beverage that aspires to elegance and requires the recognition of nuances in order to appreciate it. Wine is also typically consumed in contexts where there is an expectation of good behavior and respectful conduct.

2. Wine is  symbol of the sweet life of conviviality, good food, and good taste–a simple life of everyday pleasures where the benefits of community and romance are acknowledged and acted upon as a matter of routine.

3. Wine is an expression of place. Artisanal wines are rooted in the geography and culture of a particular people and are an expression of their sensibility.

When you sell wine you are selling the image of wine as well. Discussions of the future of the wine industry, prospects for growth, and strategies for overcoming obstacles have to take this image into consideration. Strategies that undermine this image are unlikely to be successful.

For more on the philosophy of wine visit my Monday Column archives at Three Quarks Daily