Can Good Wine Become a Populist Beverage?

decanting wineThe conversation W. Blake Gray had with Bonny Doon’s head winemaker Randall Grahm was depressing:

“Nobody knows anything about what sells wine,” Grahm says. “I don’t know. I feel like a dinosaur. Everybody older in the wine business feels like a dinosaur.”

Grahm recently sold Bonny Doon to a wine marketing company after revamping the wine lineup to sell more high production, less expensive wines. He remains as winemaker while he develops his new, experimental vineyard, Popelouchum.  As Gray writes:

Randall Grahm is a genius wine marketer.

All of us in wine media thought so. He could drum up publicity with amusing stunts and follow up with brilliant quotes, not to mention interesting wines. And he was rewarded by magazine covers and as much press coverage as any winemaker in the US. But it turns out that maybe Grahm was a genius at marketing to wine media, and not so much to the general public. His sale earlier this month of a downsized Bonny Doon has made me question myself. It’s not my job to sell wine, but if Bonny Doon, with all the publicity it got, couldn’t sell wine, maybe wine media doesn’t matter.

I’ve had a similar conversation with Randall as well other stellar winemakers who have energy and a knack for publicity. The story is the same. Selling good wine is really hard as well as mysterious. And Gray is right. Wine media is for the most part directed at other people in the wine business. Maybe scores move wine but articles, features, and profiles probably not so much.

The problem is that while the market for wine is huge, the market for interesting, pricey wines is comparatively tiny. Most of the public is content with $10 wine from the supermarket with maybe an occasional splurge on a special occasion. Only wine geeks will spend $50 for Mourvèdre from Santa Cruz. Most wine consumers don’t know it exists and don’t care.

There are of course a lot of wine geeks out there. Wine attracts dedicated wine lovers and their numbers have been growing over the past 40 years. But it looks like that growth is slowing, even as the number of wineries in the U.S. and elsewhere is exploding. When you look at wine sales statistics, the disparity is stunning. There are over 10,000 wineries in the U.S. Yet about 50 brands get 90% of those sales mostly at big box stores and supermarkets.

The rest of the 9000+ wineries are forced to hunt down wine geeks and persuade them, not just to try their wines, but to drink them again and again. The problem is wine geeks like to try something new much of the time. They have little brand loyalty because it’s variation that lights up their world and of course most are just as interested in imported wine as in domestic.

Unless the wine business finds a way to boost demand for the good stuff, selling it is going to be a dicey proposition. And so there are constantly conversations about how to make wine more appealing and accessible. In my view that battle probably can’t be won.

Wine is inherently difficult. Its charms are subtle and difficult to discern. It takes practice and cash. And gaining a working knowledge of wines’ variations takes time and dedication. Money and time are in short supply, and for the vast majority of potential consumers, wine just isn’t worth it. Sure you can jazz up the label, and tell stories about how much you love your vineyard and care for the earth. But that won’t cancel out the basic deficits—time, money, and good taste.

We would all like to live in a world where fine wine is everyone’s beverage of choice. I don’t think that is this world.

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