Thursday, November 8, 2012

The two Americas of premium wine drinkers: the Prestige/Intrigue divide

People outside the US always want to know how to get their wine noticed in the US market. The key is to understand that there are two very different markets for premium wine drinkers*, not unlike the red state/blue state breakdown in US politics.

* 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.

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Anonymous said...


You say that your advice is to pursue the Intrigue Market but then also mention that it is fickle and bring up Gruner and Albarino and how they were trendy just a few years ago, for a short period of time, but are not so any more.

That would scare me if I were starting a winery now. A winery is a longer term prospect generally....due to only having one harvest a year and for all of the other reasons you know. And a winery has tremendous start up cost. To base that type of business on a market as fickle and apparently transitory as you describe seems like a model for failure.

Am I missing something?

Adam Lee
Siduri Wines

rapopoda said...

The "intrigue drinkers" that you write of, are no more open than the "prestige" drinkers. They drink more on trend than quality and will turn their nose up at anything that they think is passé.
Believe it or not, there are those of us who focus on quality; who know that there are well regarded (by critics) wines that are great, as well great wines made by small producers, in little focused on countries.
I would argue it is WE that these producers should focus on

Anonymous said...


Good points.

So if you were a winery....especially a Turkish would you focus on any of these customers (you are the other types of drinkers Blake mentions). Seems almost like a Herculean task...with no real guidance.

Adam Lee
Siduri Wines

W. Blake Gray said...

Adam: Thanks for the editing note; I added a sentence that answers your question. When blogging, readers become your editors.

Rapo: All Prestige and most Intrigue drinkers would describe themselves as focused on quality. They define it differently. The subset of the Intrigue crowd that turns its nose up at wines it considers passe is not the majority.

How do you define quality? Your answer defines you.

Cabfrancophile said...

I would advise wineries not to focus solely on Intrigue drinkers. I am one of them, and will tell you that I rarely buy more than a handful of bottles from any producer in any vintage. Why? I like variety and I have finite resources. The Prestige drinker is more focused on over-consumption, and will buy cases of wine when it is hyped even if it's not rational or necessary.

It's the same way with houses, cars, all necessary items that can be upsold as a luxury. If you are a builder, the money is in selling houses that are far larger than the customer could ever need. If you make cars, SUVs and luxury sedans are where the margins are.

This is partly due to the gross economic disparity that has developed. It's a winner take all system. But I don't think a winery can effect social change; it needs to stay in business.

Anonymous said...

There was an article awhile back about the Muscadet region in France. I love the wines from that area, and think they are some of the best values in the world --- something that "intrigue drinkers" might find interesting. And yet the region is suffering horribly:

I am afraid, Cabfracophile, that kind of echoes what you were saying about the potential pitfalls of focusing on Intrigue Drinkers.

Adam Lee
Siduri Wines

rapopoda said...

I don't think my answer defines me. I will say, that I look for wines which drive excitement (for me) and which, if I didn't have self control, I would happily drink through a bottle of. They need to fit my budget too.
That said, I have no issues getting excited over a Napa cab, and have been more and more lately than the previous years, as well a "ramato"
I would argue that the "intriguers", for the most part, would write off a napa cab, just because it's a napa cab.
Like the political spectrum in this country, I think the "pick a side" attitude on all issues is deleterious

rapopoda said...

It's not up to me to give guidance - I'm not qualified as I exist only on the consumer end of the spectrum; I'm not remotely "ITB"
I would say that what the Austrian Wine folks have been doing in the US is at least partially a good start. They are reaching out the public; unfortunately, at least in the events I've been to, they try to distinguish themselves - to some extent -via the derision of "new world", particularly CA, wine.
If regions do roadshows and distinguish themselves POSITIVELY, rather then through slagging off other regions, I expect they will win more consumers.
That said, caveat emptor: I have no marketing experience in any industry, so I'm likely quite wrong

W. Blake Gray said...

Rapo: All "two types of people" characterizations are generalizations and leave out some folks in the middle. That doesn't mean they're not useful. Think of extroverts and introverts: some people are both or neither, but it helps to understand the dichotomy.

I'll guess that it's easier for a winery to introduce itself to you via Intrigue -- even a Napa Cab. Am I right? If not, how would you choose a new Napa Cab?

Adam: I agree with you on Muscadet: good wines, great values. But Muscadet is hardly an emerging region; the wines have been around. Personally I think Muscadet could use an EU-financed campaign like a lot of other wine regions have had. But it's not my tax money. I do know this: Muscadet wineries aren't going to get anywhere broadcasting their Spectator/Advocate scores.

rapopoda said...

Honestly, at this point in my life through forced discovery, some of which might be driving through intrigue and some through my trying to be more intellectually honest these days about my criticisms.
I raise napa cab, mostly, because for years I was very critical of them, with virtually no empirical data behind my criticism. I just jumped on the bandwagon of those who I thought I shared a similar taste.
When I was honest with myself, I was embarrassed; so I set out (living in the bay area) to try to taste as many as I could.
I found many wines that i hated; I also found many that I thought were outstanding -even if too expensive; found very few in the middle, however.
I suppose you could see that as a form of intrigue; more reflexive, however.
Otherwise, its a mood thing. I'll go through periods where I want to try everything that I come across, with which I have little familiarity; sometimes, I'm more focused on trying to get a better understanding of the wines I *think* I know well.
I *like* to think that I strive to be an honest drinker; I often get the sense that many these days fall to their prejudices and become jaded. Just a guess though, as I really don't know what's going on in their heads

W. Blake Gray said...

Rapo: You and I should hit a restaurant with good wines by the glass sometime.

rapopoda said...

Sure, ping me an email

Joyveritas said...

Love the article, Blake!

Being from one of The Old World countries that is coming back to the wine scene (Serbia) and living in the best place on earth (San Francisco) when it comes to wine, I'm a way too familiar with this story and couldn't agree more with you.
I will print it and have it with me, so the next time I'm asked to try this "phenomenal Chardonnay, Cabernet blend, Pinot Noir"... from my hometown, I'll just handle the article instead of trying to politely explain my opinion on it.
I hope that this will reach many winemakers, retailers, etc. from the up-and-coming wine countries all over the world and help them in making a decision on what's the best wine to make.


Gordana Josovic