Coca-Cola, Budweiser, Wheaties, Oreos. These are all brands that evoke a response, and each and every American knows what they taste like. The powers that be at each of these companies have gone to great pains to ensure homogeneity for each of these products. Consistency is so important that “new” Coke is a cautionary tale about how if “it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. There are executives in the wine industry that believe that Americans also want homogeneity in wine. A few weeks ago, I was sitting in one of my accounts, chatting with a manager for a competitor that represents large brands (notice the term brands instead of winery, I’ll get into that in a second), and he boldly proclaimed that in these difficult times, Americans will stop buying interesting boutique wines, and go back to the brands they know and trust. This prognostication has been rattling around in my head ever since. I was so taken aback at his ignorant assertion that I didn’t immediately know how to respond, but here is my retort (I hope he’s reading this).
Brands are marketing. Wine brands are created in marketing offices in concrete jungles, created by middle management in cubicles. They are never created in a vineyard or in a winery. The name is created, the label is designed and then the wine is ordered to fit a price point, and a style. Trucks drive up to a facility looking eerily like the human farms in the matrix. The same spigot unfurls maybe a dozen different wines, all to fill different holes in the demographics. They do not represent free standing, brick and mortar wineries, but vast, non-descript vineyards in the central valley of California that no one ever visits for pleasure. They purchase juice on an open market for the best price. They strive for that homogeneity of the aforementioned brands. This was all brought to the forefront with the Blackstone label. Consistent, inoffensive merlot that hits the right price point but looks like it could be a more expensive wine symbolizing a bargain. Blackstone isn’t bad, but it, and hundreds of labels just like it, represents a miscalculation of stuffed shirts everywhere.
Yes, they sell tons of wine. They sell it by opposing what makes people progress from drinking wine to loving wine. The simple profound rule that applies to all great wine and that makes the quest for the next bottle a romantic and undying quest. Every bottle, should be, and is, a different wine every day of it’s existence. Every bottle within a case is different from each other. Wine is by design, surprising. In the hands of the great vineyards and great winemakers, the resulting product is dependable only in it’s quality, never the same wine twice. I’m being a little overly dramatic. The differences in each bottles may be so slight, it is imperceptible. Nonetheless, this is one of the qualities of wine that is unique. No recipes followed. The vineyard gives you what it gives you. To deny that variation is like making every musician play the same instrument and the same song.
These middle management types have tried very hard to make each of us believe that soylent green is good. Even the great historic names have in the last 20 years sold much more wine in the name of cheap consistent wine that betrays what they used to be about. In the coming years, you will see more cute labels with critters, double entendres and racy graphics. You will see ads in all of the publications. Never trust a winery that advertises. Take a second to look at the back label to see where the wine was produced and bottled. Look for wines from a place, a winery, made by hand by people. Ask your retailer or restaurant about the winery. In these tough economic times, can you really afford to give 20% of your wine dollar to middle management that doesn’t have your best wine drinking experience and evolution in mind?