People in the wine industry devote a lot of attention to finding messages that resonate with consumers, especially consumers in the millennial generation who, it is to be hoped, can replace boomers who are ageing out of the wine market.
Here’s an idea: Try being honest with your customers. I see far too many industrial brands calling themselves “artisanal”, “family-owned” or claiming their wines are “hand-crafted” when they are anything but. As a result, small wineries that are in fact artisanal can’t differentiate themselves and they lose one of the only competitive advantages available to them. But, more importantly, this practice contributes to the impression that wine marketing is fundamentally deceptive.
Wine marketing depends on the emotional charge we get from the romantic idea that wine is made by dedicated craftspeople lovingly cultivating small vineyards and carefully tending each barrel until the wine has reached its peak flavor expression. In fact that describes most wineries in the U.S. But it doesn’t describe most wines that you find on the shelves of large retailers and supermarkets.
There are about 8000 wineries in the U.S (depending on who is counting. Some claim the number is closer to 10000). Only about 280 produce more than 50,000 cases per year. Yet those 280 producers account for most of what you find in large retail shops and supermarkets. The top 50 wine companies sell about 90% of the wine made in the U.S. None of that wine is artisanal, boutique, or hand crafted. You simply cannot make that much wine without an industrial process. That doesn’t make their wines bad. But it does mean they can’t focus personal attention on each vineyard lot or barrel as an artisan producer might.
The terms “artisanal” , “boutique” or “hand-crafted” are not legally regulated and in fact there is no precise definition of these terms. Large wineries will sometimes have small-lot production programs. Some mid-sized wineries have the resources and sensibility to give their wines the kind of attention more typical of small wineries. And some small wineries are simply not very good at what they do or lack the resources to make good wine.
But the issue isn’t whether there is an exact cut off point for what counts as artisanal. What is obvious is that wineries with annual case production levels over 50,000—enough to supply large retail stores—are unlikely to use artisanal methods. To claim they do is just false advertising.