An unexpected rant on the four culprits of conformity in the wine world
Two weeks ago, I wrote a brief email talking about Vermentino as one of this summer’s potential breakthrough wines. I heard back from a few of you, enthusiastic in regards to the wine, though doubtful about its prospects. Such is the state of wine. Distribution makes wide-scale adoption a challenge at times, and the general stranglehold the retail/critic wine mafia has on the marketplace can make it it particularly resistant to change.
I’ve mentioned it before, and it’s worth mentioning again, that as far as I can tell there is a vicious cycle at play in the world of wine. Retailers, often through no fault of their own, rely heavily on critics’ scores, both to buy and sell wine (though ultimately it’s all based on sales, of course). They know that shelf talkers, and the general awareness of scores in the marketplace, drive sales. Critics, on the one hand, recognize that bigger scores tend to be displayed more prominently, an incentive to boost one’s scores if there ever was one. After all, critics live and die by name recognition, and there is no better branding than millions of shelf talkers throughout the country.
I don’t want to get sidetracked, but there is this system in place that tends to favor the status quo. Retailers don’t want to have to change over their inventory each year, so life is much easier for them if their 91 point 2011 Chateau X Chardonnay can be replaced by the 90 point or 92 point 2012 vintage. There’s a built-in demand for the wine, making it a much easier sale than, say, a 92 point Vermentino. The lack of diversity in the marketplace is a result of laziness and complacency on the parts of consumers, retailers, and media alike. The question is what, if anything can be done to alter this landscape?
The media, myself included, will continue to write about less well known wines, but they will also continue to get emails lamenting the fact that the wine we’ve described sounds great but is virtually unavailable except in limited markets on the East and West Coasts, dragging in yet another protagonist, our antiquated three-tier system.
(Wow. When I started writing this, I was planning on talking about grilling and asking you all for your favorite wines for grilled dishes, but before we get there, I guess we’ll have to take this brief detour...)
So now we have all four players on trial here. The question remains the same: what can we do? How can we best convey to the wine drinking public that a 92 point Chardonnay is not interchangeable with a 92 point Sauvignon Blanc, or a 92 point Vermentino? Do they even care? Is there a fear of being disappointed by the unfamiliar that lays at the core of this issue, or are we all just very boring people by nature?
In all honesty, it makes me sad to see how narrow the choices, or selections, made by consumers tend to be when it comes to wine. I also write about food to a certain extent and it seems that the world of food is celebrated for its diversity, while the world of wine celebrates something more akin to conformity. Conformity, driven by point scores. Which brings us back to the wine mafia conferring high praise on some styles of wine, which in turn tends to push more people to produce wines in those styles. One need look no further than what passes for a 95 point Cabernet these days (these days being since 1997) to see this in action.
I don't know why consumers settle for this narrow selection of wines. There are enough choices to go around, after all. Why do they voraciously explore all the cuisines of the world, only to pair them all with the same old wines? That was the germ of thought that spawned this bit of ranting, no doubt driven in equal parts by frustration and disappointment. For relief I can continue to turn to food, not necessarily eating it but rather writing about it. As I mentioned, this was supposed to be about grilling, and the wines that are best suited to accompany grilled foods. I would love to hear your thoughts on the matter. What are your go-to grilling wines? What should be the next big wine that makes a perfect partner for your favorite grilled recipes?
Me? I’m thinking that Zweigelt should be given more attention, though my go to wine remains Petite Sirah. And I am really looking forward to trying more Fiano di Avellino this summer with grilled fish. Ah, this industry—rants and all, I love this industry.