Tuesday, January 4, 2011
Why all wine lovers just don't get along
We think that when we love a wine, other aficionados will too.
We also think there are other people buying wine who are complete idiots because they disagree with us.
The problem is this: It's not just that individual tastes differ. It's that among wine lovers, there are two incompatible worldviews.
This is a subset of Constellation Brands' groundbreaking work from several years ago on the 6 types of wine consumers. They are:
Overwhelmed, 23%, buy wine but don't know anything about it
Satisfied sippers, 14%, buy the same brand
Savvy shoppers, 15%, look for discounts
Traditionalists, 16%, like old wineries and are brand-loyal
That leaves two categories: Image seekers (20%), and Enthusiasts (12%). The former spend the most money on wine; the latter expend the most verbiage on it. These are the only two who care enough about wine to read articles or blog posts about it.
And like a marriage entered into after one date, they are stuck together even though they're incompatible, with verbal sparks flying all the time.
I find the term "image seekers" pejorative, so I'm going to change it to "Quality Seekers" for the rest of this essay, because I think it better illustrates the psychological divide.
"Quality Seekers" want the best wines available. They might drink across several categories, but they're swayed by high ratings so they tend to drink mostly varieties that receive them; i.e., Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay. If they saw a print article about, say, Lake County wines with five wine reviews, they would seek out the highest-rated one.
It's a reasonable position; why not try the best wine? Yet it is constantly attacked by the other category, "Enthusiasts." These are the idealists who demand natural yeasts, unusual varietals and interesting experiments.
Because Enthusiasts don't like numerical ratings, many have developed a better vocabulary to describe wines than Quality Seekers. In fact, many are beautifully literate, and their attacks on the 100-point scale, corporate wines, Chardonnay grown in non-traditional areas, and various other perceived offenses should be convincing.
What they won't accept is that Quality Seekers don't care about any of that. You can lecture a Quality Seeker about unique Jura wines until you're blue in the face, but when the wine list comes, the Quality Seeker is going to spend his money on a wine that some known critic has tested and approved. It might be a Chardonnay, it might be a Rhone blend Robert Parker likes, but it's not going to be some weird wine recommended by some weirdo who thinks it's interesting to make wine under a cover of fungus.
Both sides have advocates. The leading Quality Seeker is, of course, Robert Parker. Wine Spectator is in this category, as is Wine Enthusiast and every other US wine magazine with the possible exception of Wine & Spirits. This crowd is as professional, talented and knowledgeable as anyone in the business, and loves wine as much as anyone. If you want somebody to taste 50 Merlots and find the best 5, they're your men (and they are, without exception, men.)
The leading Enthusiast is Jancis Robinson, the best writer in the world at explaining the lure of unknown wines without sounding condescending. Eric Asimov of the New York Times is probably the leading US Enthusiast, though he is hampered by a Quality Seeker tasting format.
The great majority of well-known wine bloggers are Enthusiasts. There are exceptions: Alder Yarrow of Vinography is more of a Quality Seeker. Steve Heimoff recently wrote "Snore" on his blog in response to the idea of natural wines; he's a Quality Seeker. But I'm hard-pressed to name another major wine blogger who isn't more of an Enthusiast.
Yet if you look at social media like Cellar Tracker and Wine Berzerkers, those attract more Quality Seekers than Enthusiasts. Both get mixed crowds, but if Constellation's numbers were right, there are 5 Quality Seekers for every 3 Enthusiasts, and the ratio seems higher on those bulletin boards, perhaps because the Enthusiasts are busy writing their own blogs.
The classic Enthusiast arguments are: Native grapes, minimal intervention, let the wine reflect its terroir. The classic Quality Seeker argument is: I don't care what you did to make it as long as it tastes great. Enthusiasts scream their arguments at Quality Seekers, who simply don't care.
Here it is in a single word.
Quality Seekers want "great."
Enthusiasts want "interesting."
Now, why is Napa Valley still the center of the American wine world? (I can hear the sharp intake of breath from the Enthusiasts as I type that.)
It's simple: Quality Seekers spend more. Napa wineries understand that. And since they're running businesses, why shouldn't they pursue the greatest profits?
Enthusiasts know how many interesting wines are available for $25, so they're reluctant to spend much more than that. Why should they? You can always tell an Enthusiast from this kind of comment: "Sure, that Napa Cab might be good, but why spend $100 on it when there are so many great wines from the Languedoc for so much less?"
Quality Seekers would spend four times as much to get a wine that's 10% better. Maybe not every day, but that's the way they look at life. They want the best and they're willing to pay for it.
Both sides like new discoveries, but the type of discovery is different. Enthusiasts want new frontiers: wine from Moldova or Uruguay. Quality Seekers never tire of finding a new producer making an established wine: a great new Napa Cab, a mailing-list-only Russian River Chardonnay.
I have the opportunity, or curse, to write for multiple outlets. It's not always as good as a weekly paycheck with benefits, but it gives me the chance to try to see the wine world from both sides of this divide. Some publications want articles for Quality Seekers; others are strictly for Enthusiasts, and with others it might depend on the individual editor.
What strikes me is how deaf both sides are to the other. The 100-point scale debate, for example: I'm always astounded that Enthusiasts want to take information away from Quality Seekers, and don't even try to understand why they would want it.
Meanwhile, on the Quality Seekers side, they look at Enthusiasts the way people with jobs looked at tie-dyed student protesters. Yeah, yeah, you love the sound of your own voices. The louder you yell, the less I'm going to listen.
It really is an incompatible marriage.
But for 2011, here's a suggestion. You want to get people on the other side to pay attention to you? You have to speak their language.
If you're an Enthusiast and you really want Quality Seekers to drink more California Barbera, you need to couch it in their terms. It's the red variety best suited to California. It's really the best wine with dinner. The top winemakers are making it. Here are the top-rated ones.
Quality Seekers don't generally seem to care much what Enthusiasts think. But if you're a Quality Seeker and you find yourself in a restaurant with a sommelier who won't shut up about terroir, just explain "I care mostly about quality. I love wine as much as you do, but I'd rather drink a great wine I know."
Next up: I try to get Nancy Pelosi and Haley Barbour to hold hands.
Posted by W. Blake Gray at 5:58 AM