Is wine advertising limiting American wine culture?

November 18th, 2009

Pretty esoteric stuff.

Pretty esoteric stuff.

The other night, I saw a Samuel Adams Beer commercial in which the brewery’s founder, Jim Koch, talks about the color of the glass used for his beer bottles. If that is not esoteric enough, he then goes on to say clear bottles can allow light to spoil beer and make it “skunky”. Wine buffs know he’s talking about the beer being “lightstruck”, but how many mainstream wine ads get down to this kind of nitty-gritty?

Why is it that Samuel Adams can take this kind of message to prime time audiences and a wine commercial will not dare delve into this kind of stuff?

Traditionally, beer has been a no-frills, everyman’s beverage and its advertising has focused on fun and enjoyability but not this kind of fixation on detail and terminology you’d only expect from wine “snobs” or “geeks”.

Other Sam Adams commercials play up the organoleptics of beer. In one, Koch is seen traveling to Bavaria to select hops for his beers and talking about the sensory nuances of the hops and resulting beers.

These are all the things you want to do in a commercial for a consumable good : describe what the stuff is like, how it smells and tastes.

Wine advertising, on the other hand, tends to be aspirational. It tends to be vaguely evocative of lifestyle or ambiance. Nothing about the essence of the stuff, just story and image.

Watching the Sam Adams commercials I am struck by how passionate the crew is about their product. They are unafraid to be articulate in describing their beer. There is nobody ever talking about the sensory pleasures of the wine to this detail in a commercial.

No wine commercial says:

Our soils allow for balanced vine growth resulting in the best quality Syrah fruit in California. Our cooler climate brings out the spice and pepper in our fruit. Our winemaking team pays close attention to all steps of the process and selects only the best barrels to add complexity to the finished wine.

Wine commercials feature the that same trite pose of people holding a glass of wine as though it was meant to be an accessory, or a couple gazing into one another’s eyes, essentially oblivious of the glasses of wine on the table. What’s being sold is status, romance and mystique, not wine.

Largely, this is a voluntary compliance with the National Association of Broadcasters guidelines for advertising of alcohol which say that you can’t show someone taking a sip of wine, beer or spirits on TV. There may also be more stringent, supervening state regulations on this kind of advertising.

Guidelines and regulations aside, this tired, cookie-cutter approach seen in wine advertising, however, doesn’t make me want to go out and buy the advertised wine. The folks at Sam Adams get that. That is why their ads are different.

Perhaps most wine producers are afraid that their wine will not live up to the hype, measure up to a standard? Then, there is the whole “subjectivity of wine” construct – where we are all supposed to be so unique that no two people can appreciate the same things in a glass of the same wine. By that logic, aspirin should not work, blood banks are a scam and there is nothing to be gained from reading Stereophile.

I’m sure that, with this very erroneous view of human sensation entrenched as dogma in the nation’s consciousness, some attorney suggested that telling people what the wine is like would expose the brand to false advertising liabilities. They must not work for Jim Koch, because Sam Adams commercials talk about “spice”, “citrus” and “floral” aromas and flavors.

Whatever the reason, wine advertising sucks. It barely passes for a product awareness campaign, not advertising (much less information or education).

All of this leads me to conclude that, while the business of wine has grown tremendously in this country over the last few decades, the culture of wine, or rather, the collective wine intelligence of this country, is rather poorly defined if not outright stunted. Yes, consumption is up. Yes, Vayniacs dare to explore. Yes, Gen Y, Millenials and whatever other “it” target demographic defined by marketing analysts are curious and like to live the good life. But the fact that no national wine ad campaign delivers the same kind of direct, nuts and bolts description of the product is testimony to the “bread-and-circuses”, patronizing approach to wine advertising in this country.

The best way to get ahead in life is by validating people’s beliefs, not by challenging them. In pursuit of the American ideal of independence of thought and opinion (or, more honestly, of the mounds of cash contingent on not challenging that belief), the wine business in this country has fallen into the anti-intellectualism groove. Keeping things vague and dumbed-down has kept the American wine culture stunted in its development while the cash flows in. With tough times upon us (and, presumably, with us for the next couple of years), a wine glut is being dealt with by slashing prices. When that is not enough to move inventory, will someone finally wake up and follow (however far behind) in Jim Koch’s footsteps?


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3 Responses to “Is wine advertising limiting American wine culture?”

  1. Thomas Pellechia Says:


    Are you old enough to know who Leigh Knowles was?

    As pres. of Beaulieu some years ago, he did terrific radio ads that talked about wine the way you cite Sam Adams does.

    I did some work for him in the visitor’s center at Beaulieu, where we created an audio visual piece that covered the same kind of material in the same consumer-oriented attitude.

    He was ahead of his time–in wine communication.

    Knowles came out of Jazz-trumpet–and then worked at Gallo, Taylor, and Beaulieu.

  2. Steven Mirassou Says:


    Interesting post. I’m always reluctant to give too much detail regarding how one of my wines tastes, smells, feels…in part because, I want people to come to it with as few preconceived notions as possible.

    The question I have more difficulty with is “when should I drink this wine?” and “how long should I lay this down?”

    Apart from my own ambivalence about the value of aged wines, I think that there is no answer to this question that satisfies all people. Your mention of the “myth” of the subjectivity of wine in regards its tasting falls to the side here, I think. Wines obviously do change over time. At what rate, to what degree, to what effect? is where the notion of subjectivity is inherent. There can never be a standard created that will unerringly dictate that Cabernet must X years old before being drunk, or that it must be stored at 55.3 degrees to bring out it best.

    I am digesting the possibility and practicality of a standard for Cabernet from X place. But there are plenty of areas where subjectivity ought not be and can’t be banished.

  3. Dylan Says:

    I think the aspirational focus apparent in wine messaging is a matter of justifying its higher price point. I can buy a six pack of Sam Adam’s for $8–as you said, it’s the “every man’s product” which happens to sit at the every man’s price. Most wine messaging has focused on lifestyle in order to appeal to those who can afford it regularly. I think you’ll see the Sam Adam’s kind of advertising for wine when there’s a wine that focuses on a similar price-point and similar quality for its category.