Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Does quality matter in the wine industry?

Hollywood and those who cover it don't think quality matters in film. Whenever you read stories about the movie business, like this one, they attribute rising or falling ticket sales to star power, the weather, franchises getting old, new technology, and basically anything other than whether or not the movies are good.

I'm not here to slam Hollywood; it drives me crazy when Congressmen do so. The entertainment industry is America's most important; not only do we make a fortune exporting films, TV shows and music; we also simultaneously export the desire for the products shown within.

In fact, rather than disagree with the fact that Hollywood executives don't think film quality has much to do with success, I'm going to take the obvious position: this is their job. They have a lot of money riding in the industry and they know more about it than I do. Most likely they're right.

And that thought leads me to the question in the headline: Does quality matter in the wine industry?



Let's stipulate that, as with film, a wine can't be technically inept. Movies have to be in focus; wines have to avoid bacteriological infections, unintentional oxidation or other obvious flaws that even a novice couldn't ignore. The wine industry has only mastered this in the last 15 or 20 years, but with the exception of severely corked wines or wines damaged in transit, almost every commercial wine today is at least drinkable.

Do they really need to be any better than that?

I would argue that they don't: that the wine industry and Hollywood have more in common than we like to admit.

Don't get all huffy with me about how you love your single-vineyard Washington Syrah, and you never buy that mass-market crap. Well, I haven't paid to see a mainstream Hollywood action film in years. What's the difference? You and I, we're in the niche market, whether it's for independent films or small-production wines. Collectively, we matter; both Hollywood and the larger wine industry have thousands of people devoted to making products to please us.

But we're not where the big money is. There's an expression in the wine industry about the stacks of cases you see in the center aisle of stores: "Stack 'em high and watch 'em fly." You and I, we shop from the shelves, where the good stuff is.

The rest of America grabs wine from the stacked cases with the on-sale signs, and goes to see Hollywood blockbusters, with little regard for what the critics think.

Just food for thought for a Tuesday. Wine lovers like to think we matter, but we're really just an easily definable niche market.

15 comments:

John M. Kelly said...

Spot-on post, Blake. But kind of obvious. McDonalds sells way more hamburgers than Boon Fly Cafe or Fremont Diner. Hyundai sells way more cars than Maserati. Etc. For most consumers and products it is a matter of cost, and "good enough" is just that.

But from a producer standpoint, turning out mass quantities of "good enough" requires a commitment to quality control far beyond that practiced by the maker of that single-vineyard Washington Syrah. So quality DOES matter. However you define it.

Patrick said...

I know lots of winemakers who would find these comments insulting, because they are always striving to make next year's wine even better. To say that quality does not matter in the wine industry is a gross generalization. Or maybe it's verbal bomb-throwing. I'm disappointed in this posting, it's one of your worst.

Anonymous said...

I think you have a good point. I have heard it said that a person does enough at his job to make sure it doesn't get them fired. I think, in some cases, that goes for wineries and winemakers also. For large producers why put out 90-point wines when a 83-point wine will do? Smaller cult wine producers might not be bringing out their best because the wine doesn't get drunk anyhow just put in storage and auctioned of at Christies years later and many consumers are just buying it for the fact that they can afford it. Sometimes you just can't reproduce what you did last year, so you do what you can to get by. I bet Lebron James doesn't put up 40 points every night because at some point he realizes that he doesn't have to.

W. Blake Gray said...

John: It's a good point. I have come to take technical competence for granted, but you're right, that is a type of quality.

Patrick: I'll take that as a compliment, because I think I've written a lot worse posts.

I'm not meaning to insult anyone. Surely the winemakers of whom you speak have noticed how hard it is sometimes to sell 500 cases of great Sangiovese while 100,000 cases of characterless Cabernet is flying off the shelves.

Greg Harrington said...

I think this is a very salient point. I use the music analogy. We want to be the Sonic Youth of the wine world - long history, few disappointments, loyal solid following and both critical and some mainstream appeal while remaining true to the original vision. Like Blake said, its a small niche market.

Nicolas Quillé said...

Blake,

I do believe that we have to make good wines to stay alive, small or big wineries. A wannabe boutique that does not get high reviews will not sell wine at the price it demands. Same for a larger up and coming wine companies trying to grow, a 83 won't do - believe me. Now, if you are a behemoth (AKA Gallo, The Wine Group, St Michelle...) you can trade scores for market muscles and great prices. Quality matters to newer entrants that need to find their market - for established players, you can let it slip a bit...

Anonymous said...

Art is subjective Hollywood can mass produce these fluff filled movies and still turn over big profits. How does this affect the bottom line? well its great to go see a bad movie in a huge 3D screen but will you buy the DVD most likely not. The wine industry does apply certain characteristics like hiring a well known winemaker to elevate consumer opinion of quality. Now on the question of quality who gets to make this golden standard and on what points should we judge them. I think everyone should have the liberty to create as he or she sees fit. Once the general consensus demands higher quality wines producers will have to follow according. There is no sale gimmick, no marketing tool to replace a good wine.

Jonathan David said...

Art is subjective Hollywood can mass produce these fluff filled movies and still turn over big profits. How does this affect the bottom line? well its great to go see a bad movie in a huge 3D screen but will you buy the DVD most likely not. The wine industry does apply certain characteristics like hiring a well known winemaker to elevate consumer opinion of quality. Now on the question of quality who gets to make this golden standard and on what points should we judge them. I think everyone should have the liberty to create as he or she sees fit. Once the genera

Anonymous said...

Blake, I agree with your observation that quality doesn’t matter in wine (as long as it’s not really flawed), however I disagree with how you frame the argument. The statement “You and I, we're in the niche market, whether it's for independent films or small-production wines” arrogantly suggests that you, me and the people that read this blog “get it” while everyone else is a moron.

The idea that quality doesn’t matter is actually more pervasive in the “niche” markets than the mass markets – people that spend $7 on a bottle of wine from Chile don’t even think about any of the high-brow, esoteric aspects of wine, they just know they like drinking it. It is what it is.

Conversely, people that spend $70 on a bottle of WA Syrah usually are buying less for how good a wine is and more for the perception of luxury and exclusivity that comes with ownership of certain bottles. If taste was all that mattered, why spend over $1,200 on a bottle of Lefite when Pichon Comtesse de Lalande will get you within 98% of the quality for less than 1/6th of the price? Why spend $250 on a bottle of Quilceda Creek Cab, when there are about 100 other WA cabs out there in the $30 - $40 range that are 95% as good, maybe even better?

The problem that is trying to balance itself on the Quality fulcrum is the artificial, non-value-added, perceptions of luxury and exclusivity. They are completely fake concepts (like promoting sustainability and then shipping your wine in the 1 kilogram bottles that you had imported from France) and they are almost entirely promulgated by the wine media.

The wine media is instrumental in helping people THINK there is something special about spending that extra money or about owning something that a handful of other people want but can’t have. This is a common manifestation of many root-causes… whether people want something because they think they can’t have it (like the hot girl at a frat party) or because they are sheep and are obedient to “journalists” like Jay Miller or that idiot Paul Gregutt (I swear, my dog demonstrates more intellectual curiosity than he does).

As the owner/winemaker of a truly small business, I can unequivocally say: No, unfortunately quality doesn’t mean shit. How much money you have to impress people (namely members of the wine media) does.

W. Blake Gray said...

Anon: I completely agree with you that it's hard to correlate how much people spend on wine with how much they know and care about it.

However, I think readers of wine blogs in general, and my wine blog in particular, are much more knowledgeable about wine than the average wine drinker.

Look at the people who comment on this blog, and what they say. This is not an indifferent crowd. We may not agree on much, but I almost never get the kind of "No wine is worth more than $10 comments" I used to get at the Chronicle. People who think that way just don't read wine blogs.

W. Blake Gray said...

I should add, I WISH I controlled the media for people who buy $150 bottles every night, but I don't. Robert Parker owns that market, James Suckling and his former employer go after it, but those people don't read wine blogs in general or this blog in particular either. They follow The Master.

Dave Oshinsky said...

Lots of thoughts about this but can't seem to organize them just yet. Will work on that; how about this for now - an analogy from the bike industry (and probably from the automotive industry) too:

Can we point to any sort of "trickle down" effect, where practices first pioneered at niche wineries have been adopted by mass-market producers? I don't know the technical details well enough, but can certainly speculate that between vineyard management, fermentation and aging, there must be some widely adopted practices that can trace their roots back to some eccentric farmer/winemaker at some hoity toity label. Much like I've seen front (and now full) suspension and disc brakes make their way from $5,000 bikes down to the under $1,000 set.

In other words, maybe the mass producers owe some debt of quality to the higher end of the market? Just a thought.

My other thought, which will still need to crystallize, is that movies all cost the same - there's no up-sell there, and probably dubious status to be had by being a consumer of only art house movies. In contrast, the more drinkers we move from beer or spirits to wine, the more of an audience we potentially have for our beloved single vineyard WA syrahs. And so better the chances for those beloved wines to endure.

The success of Batman 5 does nothing to aid in the possible future production of Mike Leigh movies. The success of a mass-marketed Tempranillo just might end up putting more cash in the pocket of higher end Rioja bodegas.

Or is the theory that the lower-end drinkers are forever to remain at that lower end?

- dave

Anonymous said...

Blake,

The existence and prominent talk about the "higher end" stuff that you and I and others of our ilk drink is critical to supporting demand for the floor stacks. The average wine drinker is generally aspirational, despite the fact that they rarely ever move off the floor stacks. Having a clear view of the really good stuff is critical in supporting the sales of the floor stacks.

Tom Wark

Paul said...

During our WSET Diploma the course coordinator cautioned the high-end loving class never to sneer at the mass market brands that none of us would ever dream of ordering, as these wines are ultimately what support the more cerebral parts of the industry.

Anonymous said...

From someone who sells wine in a tasting room I can say that your point is true. Most people are looking for a bargain and will buy a case of $4 bottle of white that a critic would surely slam. Most people are looking for something comfortable and consistent.