Marketing of wine may not be considered a science, but those who specialize in this unique activity often use sophisticated Madison Avenue concepts, image-enhancing strategies, brand building, and many other kinds of sleight-of-hand manipulations to sell us wine.
The first inkling I had of this came about 40 years ago. I was walking through a parking lot in the San Fernando Valley and a well-dressed young man approached and asked me if I consumed wine. I said ‘yes’, so he asked if I wanted to try some wine and give him an opinion.
He had no idea I was a wine columnist; he probably saw me merely as a young father and likely yuppie.
We went into a rented room in the mall, where he poured three wines and asked which I liked.
One was noticeably sweeter than the other two, but none of them was particularly interesting. It was clear he wanted me to say nice things about the sweeter wine.
This was a sort of “focus group” survey in which people are asked leading questions, maybe to validate some marketing department’s idea about the kind of wines “average Americans” might be willing to buy.
I have always had my doubts about such research, but over the years certain methods have proven successful in selling certain products.
I once read that wine bottles with labels that had rounded corners appealed more to women; I read that women preferred slightly sweeter wines than did men; I read that older Americans were more likely to buy wines with a recognizable brand name and that younger buyers ignored such brands.
Yet over the years, friends who worked in fine wine shops often said that wine generalizations work to sell wine in supermarkets, but have no meaning in fine wine stores.
As wine retailers grow larger and larger these days, and smaller shops struggle, some of the mass marketing concepts (think supermarkets) I once read about have come back into play. But with fine wine, they can never replace the human touch.
Talking with a wine expert in the aisle of a specialty wine store is always the best way to determine if you should spend a little extra and get something a lot more special. But the real benefit is finding bargains.
I was shopping for rosé wines the other day at a local bottle shop, and picked up a $17 pink wine that looked promising. The manager handed me one that was $11.99, told me why it was being closed out, and said it was just as good as the more expensive bottle.
I bought one of each and tried them. He was right. The cheaper bottle was actually much better.
This is unlikely to have occurred in a grocery store.
These days, specialists are in short supply as wine shop owners, attempting to keep costs down, are firing specialists and replacing them with minimum-wage shelf re-stockers.
It is usually false savings.
Instead of having experts on staff, many shops now paper their shelves with what are called ‘shelf talkers’ — small tags underneath bottles to draw our eyes to various wines.
Table tents are folded cards that sit on restaurant tables to tout the glories of the most recent by-the-glass pour that the restaurant just added to its list.
These gimmicks are supposed to replace wine experts who were fired. Many of these folks could’ve told engaging stories about why certain wines are great discoveries.
“This wine got 88 points!” says one shelf talker in a store.
“What is the style of that wine?” asks a consumer.
The clerk has no idea. Indeed, he may not be old enough to drink.
Popular wines found in supermarkets can be perfectly fine beverages. But many such wines are ordinary.
To many marketing people, sameness is considered perfectly acceptable. No explanations are needed — or desired.
If focus group surveys have any validity, it is in discovering the common denominator in which inoffensiveness is not only fine, but trumps exotic, interesting, idiosyncratic characteristics.
There is nothing wrong with most popular wines. They can be fine for everyday drinking.
But for wines that intrigue and offer unique aromatics and tastes, the best place to shop is where a passionate individual can provide personality, history, romance, and enthusiasm.
No focus group conclusions, shelf talkers, or neon signs can replace that.
Wine of the Week: 2015 Graf von Schonbrun Riesling, Rheingau, Trocken ($19) – The amazing thing about this wine is that it is so dry even though the very first sip clearly shows a slight bit of sugar. The aroma is slightly fruity, a bit like peaches and nectar, but since it is from the Rheingau, it also has a trace of minerality and petrol. Superb when served with Thai food, delicate seafood, or mild cheeses. Imported by Rudi Wiest, Cellars International.