* I'm defining "premium wine" as anything $15 and above. Wineries able to compete in the $10 supermarket scrum don't need or want advice from bloggers.
Let's call it the Prestige/Intrigue divide.
Prestige drinkers want the best wines. Intrigue drinkers want the most interesting wines. There is some overlap -- Burgundy is an intersection -- but the core philosophy is very different.
Just as with the red state/blue state divide, most wine drinkers live in a one-sided media bubble. Prestige drinkers read Wine Spectator and the Wine Advocate, if they read wine publications at all. Most major wine bloggers are Intrigue drinkers.
The reason some wine debates (natural wine; wine ratings) are so shrill and repetitive is that they neatly divide the two sides.
You can't expect Prestige and Intrigue drinkers to find common ground on the efficacy of the 100-point scale any more than you can expect red state and blue state voters to agree on the need to regulate gun sales. It's a core issue: if you want the best wines, you need some way to define what they are. If you want the most interesting wines, you think precise statistical rankings of quality are unnecessary, ridiculous, misleading and even harmful.
Both sides matter. Both sides buy a lot of wine. Naturally the approach to these groups is different, both in winemaking and marketing.
The Prestige market, derided by most bloggers, is more desirable, if you can reach it. This is how fortunes are made. Prestige drinkers decide Hundred Acre or Chateau Le Pin is one of the best wines in the world, and they pay hundreds of times the cost of production for it. It goes beyond wine: Sakes priced at $1000 a bottle, or Scotch at several times that, are all hoping to become the bottle that Prestige drinkers fight over like indulgent parents phoning dozens of toy stores before Christmas.
What makes Prestige drinkers value a wine? Basically three avenues: 1) A long track record of excellence, like Vega Sicilia or Romanée-Conti. 2) Buzz among the wealthy as a lifestyle accessory. I'm not sure how Scarecrow Cabernet became a favorite of baseball players, but ballplayers have money and talk to each other, so it's a good market. 3) An extremely high rating, over 95 points, from Wine Spectator or the Wine Advocate.
You can't manufacture the track record; wineries that have it, have it. The buzz can be manufactured, but it's not a science, and there are thousands of failures for every Screaming Eagle. Besides, Screaming Eagle got the 100-point rating before it got the lifestyle accessory buzz.
About those ratings: for Prestige drinkers, 90 points is second-class. You can sell a lot of $12 wine with a 90-point rating, especially from Spectator, which is more stingy with very high scores. But 90 points is not special today for a $25 wine.
I see wineries around the world trying to reach the Prestige market in the US by making what they think it wants: Cabernet Sauvignon and other international varieties. Full-bodied, oaky wines. There have been hits from doing this, like some super Tuscans. But start adding up the number of wineries that have been successful with this strategy and you'll find it's really not very common. A lot of $75 Spanish and Argentine and Chilean wines made in the New World style languish in warehouses, not even able to get in front of consumers. There are just too many bold 93-point Cabernets and oaky Chardonnays on the market. Without some gatekeeper to love them and try to spread that love, they go unnoticed.
Gatekeepers who fall in love -- sommeliers, and some small retailers -- are almost all Intrigue drinkers. The mindset of Intrigue drinkers is entirely different.
Think of Prestige drinkers, as a group, like a Republican caucus: largely unified on the main points. Intrigue drinkers, inconveniently, are like a Democratic caucus: passionate, fractious, unable to agree with each other, and sometimes frustrating to deal with.
Natural wine fans are all Intrigue drinkers, but there are even more Intrigue drinkers who think natural wine is poppycock. You can say the same about organic wine fans, no-sulfite fans, vegan wine fans, fans of orange wine, or any other non-mainstream wine movement. If some individual is a Prestige drinker, it's easy to predict a wine they'd like to buy. If he or she is an Intrigue drinker, it's impossible.
That said, the Intrigue market is much, much easier to enter, precisely because it is so divided. You don't need a unified group to collectively decide that Sherry or dry Furmint or Torrontes is cool; you only need to reach a few sommeliers and key retailers who will put their heart into selling it.
So what does the Intrigue market want? By definition, something intriguing.
Perhaps it's easiest to define that in a Zen way, by what it is not. Wines that are not intriguing: International varieties from new places, like Italian Chardonnay or Greek Syrah. Wines with just a brand name and no grape variety or region. Wines made in the ripe, heavy oak style. I'm not saying these wines can't be well-made or delicious. But they're not the sort of wines that get even a small subset of the Intrigue drinker crowd excited.
I'm writing this post from Turkey, from the European Wine Bloggers' Conference. I've already visited four Turkish wineries and am looking forward to meeting several others. Implicit in all of their questions for me and their other American guests is this: How can we get our wine more noticed by the world's largest wine market, the USA? I get this question every time I travel, whether to an established region like Portugal, a market giant like Chile or an emerging region like Brazil.
This is my answer: Pursue the Intrigue market. It's fickle: Gruner Veltliner and Albariño were trendy once; now it's Assyrtiko. That said, Gruner Veltliner and Albariño are still here, and some producers have well-established relationships.
It's not as wealthy as the Prestige market: people might pay $30 a bottle for Dornfelder, but they won't pay $150 no matter how great it is. And it's not at all unified: you might get 10 Sherries by the glass on several restaurants in Manhattan, but not crack the wine lists of Los Angeles or Chicago or San Francisco at all.
But the advantage of the Intrigue market is that it's open. If your wine is good and honest and unique to your region, somebody somewhere in the US might fall in love with it and make it her mission to popularize it. Wines do take off this way; look at the interest in Torrontes, which might be the next Assyrtiko.
Wineries don't have to pursue only one market. Some wineries in Rioja are making very ripe Viños Expresivos, trying for those high ratings and Prestige drinkers, while also making more traditional Riservas. I've had fine traditional Sangioveses from Tuscan wineries that also make ripe Super Tuscans. But it's important not to combine and confuse the two; Intrigue drinkers don't want very ripe Riojas or Italian Cabernets.
And to answer the question specifically for my hosts in Turkey (and by extension wineries in Georgia and Bulgaria and Hungary and Uruguay and ... and ...), you have to ask yourself this. Can you really compete in the Prestige market with Vega Sicilia and Romanée-Conti and Screaming Eagle and Scarecrow? Or should you make your local grape varieties as well as possible, not covering up their character with oak or excessive ripeness, and see if you can find someone in the US who will love them as much as you do?
Bring on the Öküzgözü.