Thursday, May 20, 2010

Are you drinking a wine, or a brand?

Rosenblum Cellars turned from winery into a brand this week, as its owner Diageo announced that it's closing the Rosenblum winery in Alameda.

The move was inevitable after Kent Rosenblum sold the winery to Diageo in 2008. The reason a big company like Diageo buys a winery in the first place is not to make small lots of single-vineyard Zinfandel -- Rosenblum has already cut back on those. No, it's to sell a million cases of Rosenblum Vintners Cuvee Zinfandel in grocery stores around the country.

There's nothing wrong with that; it's the model for success in the U.S. wine business, and I'm never going to tell a company to not make money. And Diageo makes better mass-market wine than some companies: its Provenance brand is particularly good.

But as a wine lover, I don't want to drink a wine made by buying cheap grapes in the Central Valley, adding Mega Purple for color and reducing the alcohol to cut the tax bill.

Yet that's what sells, and not just because it's cheap. You can buy a good, honest red wine from Spain or Portugal or Argentina for the same price as one of these generic "brands."

Why do U.S. consumers want "brand" wines?

There's an analogy to food. Wines like Turning Leaf are like Taco Bell, while Rosenblum is turning into Applebee's. People like the assurance of a familiar name. In many parts of the country, Taco Bell and Applebee's will drive Mary's Local Diner out of business.

I'm a bad American; I have never eaten at Applebee's. I like comfort food, but I want to know that it's made in the kitchen from local ingredients, not prepared in a factory somewhere, freeze dried and microwaved in the back. I'm willing to accept variability in my food in pursuit of that locally cooked experience.

If you feel the same way, you have to think about whether you want to buy mass-produced factory wine brands, or try something less uniform, even if you're not sure exactly how it's going to taste.


B8wine said...

This news make me sad. I really had a good time at their tasting room in Healdsburg a few years ago.

Anonymous said...

I liked Provenance about 10yrs ago but I'm not a fan now. I'm a layman when it comes to wines/owners, may be there should be a sign some were that says who really owns the winery or a web site. You sure can't tell by reading the label.

Anonymous said...


King Krak, I Drink the Wine said...

"I have never eaten at Applebee's... I'm willing to accept variability in my food..."

You are living life on the Edge! I doubt that 3 out of 5 Americans are willing to eat at a non-chain restaurant when traveling.

Larry the Wine Guy said...

Many people want familiarity, not to mention blandness. It's why there's an Olive Garden in New York City despite many great Italian restaurants there.

While one can mourn the loss of an iconic Zinfandel producer, there are others to take its place. Those of us who want individuality and authenticity in wine can still get it even if we have to look harder for it. At least people are drinking wine instead of sodas.

I do like the idea of notating on the label "Made by a real winemaker" or "Made in a giant vat by robots."

Anonymous said...

Don't be too sad it sold for $105 Million!!!! And there are another 4,999 wineries in CA.

Paula Sugarman said...

Well written. Americans go to Taco Bell and Applebee's because it's inexpensive and they know what to expect. In exchange they get bland. Other industries are suffering as well, stock photography, the local hardware store, and even politics. But there are still Americans who value direct connection with the people who make their food and drink. I have faith in wine. There will always be people that are passionate about the artistry of their product. And the internet is a wonderful way for them to become known.

Anonymous said...

I have a theory about the contemporary American personality.

Fat, dumb, complacent people giving up on themselves by succumbing to mediocrity in their lives… Whether it being the commercial, corporate fast food they stuff in their oversized mouths and then blame their “fat genes” on why they haven’t seen their gentiles in so long… Or maybe they, like most republicans in this country, are scared of things unfamiliar to them, including unknown wines. Thanks to Fox News for scarring people, bringing ignorance back to their platforms’ main stage and creating general hate mongering and awfulness to our world.

Larry the Wine Guy said...

Wow, hostility is no more pleasant than industrial wine or food. But even Yellow Tail has some sweetness in it.

BTW, even rants should be proofread.

Unknown said...

It's okay. I've never eaten at Applebee's, either. So will the Rosenblum tasting room in Healdsburg be gone too?

W. Blake Gray said...

That Healdsburg space is in a prime location, and I would be surprised if Diageo gives it up, as most of the rest of the square is controlled now by Jackson Family Wines. It's possible that the room will sell other wines than just Rosenblum. Diageo is laying off some tasting room people, though, so maybe it will be closed.

Anonymous said...

I've seen some gentiles recently. Lovely people.

Larry the Wine Guy said...

It's obvious you are not fat, dumb or complacent then.

Bob Rossi said...

Oh well, at least Kent Rosenbloom cashed in (I assume). I long ago gave up on his Vintners Cuvee, just as I gave up on Ravenswood's many years before that. And others in a similar vein. The problem often is knowing when a producer gets gobbled up by a giant.

Larry the Wine Guy said...

Sometimes you just don't know who owns the winery. But it may not matter if your only criterion is how the wine tastes. Small wineries can make bad wine just as large multi-brand corporations can now and then make something good.

tahoevinman said...

In the case of Ravenswood, they still have Zin guru Joel Peterson making the wines and still have the same bricks and mortar they always had. Yes he is making Vintner's Blend for the masses but his County Series and Vineyard Designated wines are as stunning as ever. Sometimes when a corporate entity takes over they are wise enough to provide needed capital and let the artists continue to create their works of art.
Diageo obviously just wanted to buy a label they could crank out for the masses. Farewell to the former artists at Rosenblum, hello mass-produced Zinfanswill.

Howell Mtn Guy said...

Very much enjoyed this article on drinking brands as opposed to actual wines. I myself have seen instance after instance where privately-owned wineries are acquired by large corporate entities, and the results are rarely good for the wine consumers who may have been loyal to those brands. The bean counters control corporate winemaking, wine is just a commodity to them, and there is no respect for the history of the brands. Every effort is made to cut costs out of each wine in the lineup—the winemaker’s oak barrel budget is slashed, quality vineyard sources for higher end wines are eliminated wherever possible, and grapes begin to be acquired from lower-priced vineyards that farm for tonnage. Gradually, overall wine quality begins to deteriorate. The price on the shelf may drop, but you get what you pay for—wines that used to taste pretty good but are now just ‘average’ and nothing special.

The recent corporatization of the U.S. wine industry has generally had a negative impact on wine quality and has sucked the ‘soul’ out of countless small- to medium-sized brands over the years. I do not know anyone familiar with the wine business who would argue with this. I, for one, have sworn off buying any wines from brands that I know to be giant-corporation owned, both domestic and imported, and have switched to the wines of smaller private or family owned companies, even if they cost me a bit more. And I wish the large corporations would get out of the wine business and go back to what they do best—selling mass-produced vodka, gin and tequila, or tobacco products. They will eventually, because the low and slow return on investment in the wine biz does not work for publicly-traded corporations that have to account to shareholders.

And when I’m traveling with the family, I go out of my way to find the hole-in-the-wall family taqueria or little Thai restaurant, rather than patronize a big chain or fast-food drive-through. (The iPhone has been a God-send for doing this!). Oh, almost forgot… yeah, you can kiss the Rosenblum Healdsburg tasting room good-bye.

Larry the Wine Guy said...

When Gary Farrell sold off his winery he stayed on as winemaker but quit soon after, saying he was tired of middle management that thought they knew what they were doing.

And Ken Brown sold his Byron winery to Mondavi but also quit later as winemaker. He said they left him alone, but he didn't like their vineyard practices.

It's unfortunate but I guess inevitable. Glad to hear that Joel Peterson is still able to make good wine, but generally once a small family winery sells to a large corporation it's time for the winemaker and their customers to move on.

W. Blake Gray said...

I have to agree with Tahoevinman, Joel Peterson is still doing great work with his single-vineyard Zinfandels at Ravenswood. But I think he's the exception.

Kent Rosenblum is now in the same situation as Dick Arrowood; it's not just his winery he sold, but his name. Still, if you offered me $100 million, you could write bland corporate blog posts under my byline for the rest of time.

NapaWineGuy said...

Sorry to jump in so late on this.

As the Big wine groups flood the market, they also drive quality down.

I just prey they also raise the integrity of making Quality driven wines.


As the demand for Profit drives our wine industry. The great winemakers turn to the art of making wines with intreging flavors and structure.

It is much like the Art market now, no artist wants to re-produce anothers style or image. Every wine should have it's own Identity.

What would you do if you had 1.3 million cases of wine to sell?

Larry the Wine Guy said...

1.3 million cases? I'd say our small lots of handcrafted wines are made in the vineyard (pay no attention to that factory behind the curtain). And I'd create a dozen or so different labels with the identical wine, create several blogs where I tout the virtues of each one, rate them all in the upper 90s, and cross-quote from myself. And my websites would all have Flash and soft piano music.

W. Blake Gray said...

If I had 100 million cases to sell, I would pay the largest distribution companies to sell my wines to the exclusion of others. I would give all-expense paid vacations to sales people for these distributors who sold the most cases of my wine. I would pressure those distributors to stop selling competing products.

If I had 1.3 million cases to sell, I would look at the big companies that are actually doing what I mention above and see what kind of deal I could strike to help get me into stores.

Don R said...

Did the post from anon. really blame republicans and Fox news? Hate mongering? Give it a break there, big fella. If you love your govt. that is nice. If you love your country, that is nicer. I think that too much under-$10 wine is all the same. But I also think that a lot of Calif. over-$10 wines are bottled from the same giant tank. Learn to read the label this way, it is a start: "Produced" means that the named entity is the one that turned grapes into wine. "Vinted" and "cellared" mean nothing. (I still wonder why some people have such a bug about Fox news.)