Every once in a while someone utters a phrase so pithy, poignant and potent that it becomes a veritable font of ideas. Recently, Ken Payton made such a statement in the conversation titled: “What is Terroir?” on the OWC:
“The wine industry here [California] profits by maintaining consumer ignorance.” [full comment]
This statement echoes the sentiment embodied in the Steve Heimoff quote recently featured as a previous Great Quotes post. There are good arguments for how dispelling wine consumer ignorance through education efforts could constitute the industry shooting itself in the foot.
Let’s assume that educating the public involves getting them to understand and accept that balance is superior to power and that, generally speaking, less is more (as far as ripeness, extraction, alcohol levels, oak, residual sugar and degree of malolactic fermentation go) and that wines are better aged.
Let’s also assume that educating the public includes getting them to understand how the interplay of climate, soil, growing and harvesting practices and vinification methods affect those above-mentioned characteristics as well as varietal character and typicity. The final assumptions are that the general wine buying public would be receptive to all this information and that it would accept and adapt these views wholesale.
In such a scenario, the industry would certainly hit itself with a triple whammy:
- It would expose the integral inferiority of some wines. If finesse, balance, complexity and varietal fidelity were the widely accepted standard of wine quality, a good number of wines would not make the grade. Some might still be considered acceptable, but would the asking price have to be reduced.
- This intellectual revolution in our country’s wine culture would also undermine the brand equity of many AVAs. It would be an inevitable conclusion that not all varieties make exceptional wines in every growing region. Would some regions fall out of favor and would wineries in those regions adjust by changing what they grow and bottle – effectively re-branding the AVA – or would they go out of business?
- The re-education of the broader American wine culture would either offend the sensibilities of some consumers who prefer the “lesser” style of wine (currently enjoying commercial success). Sure, a portion of wine consumers might be expected to shift their preferences – or alter their buying and drinking patterns to stay in vogue. My gut sense tells me that the first option would constitute a majority of the responses among American consumers.
Each of these scenarios would adversely affect revenue. There is much talk these days about how the current economic turmoil is affecting the wine and spirits industry. In such a climate, it goes without saying that the best way to get ahead (and make money) in this world is by validating people’s beliefs and misconceptions and not by challenging them.
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