Thursday, April 2, 2015

California wine's greatest strength: California consumers

Rarely do wine critics write appreciatively about the most important sector of the wine industry: people who buy and drink wine.

When wine writers broach the subject, it's usually with some resentment. "Why don't these stupid Chardonnay drinkers buy more Trousseau Gris?" or "People pay too much for Napa Cabernet."

In fact, California consumers are the reason the California wine industry is so strong.

California wines are popular all over the U.S., and if wine drinkers in Texas or Illinois were to suddenly buy half as much California wine, it would hurt. But it wouldn't be devastating, because California wineries are fortunate to have a local audience that is both appreciative and demanding. England has recently rediscovered California wine, and that's nice, but Londoners are fickle: when they decide Slovakian wines are the next trend, California's wine industry won't even notice.

California consumers follow the three rules for people who want to improve an industry's product: we seek, demand and reward quality.

If people will only pay $10 for wines, $10 wines is what they get. California consumers are willing to spend $25 for daily drinking wines, $50 for dinner party wines, $150 for special occasion wines. The overall high quality of California wines is our reward.

You can nitpick and argue about which wineries and which wines are rewarded. Yes, Napa Cabs are expensive. Sure, you can find nice wines from Europe for lower prices. It doesn't matter. The point is that for California wineries, the rewards are there as an incentive to improve.

This is more unusual than it sounds. Ask wineries in southern France, which has undergone a quality revolution in the last 20 years, how hard it is to convince their neighbors of the value of paying 10 euros more for a better wine from an humble appellation. Hunter Valley, Australia makes the best Semillons in the world. A sommelier in Brisbane last year told me nobody in Australia buys them but sommeliers and wine critics.

East coast critics sometimes complain that California wines are overpriced. But those high prices keep the whole merry-go-round of quality going: more vineyards planted in cooler, more difficult-to-farm locations; more investment in education, research and equipment; lower yields; the list could go on and on.

As Virginia and Washington D.C. consumers become more willing to spend more money on Virginia wines, the quality of Virginia wine improves. This is true in Texas and New York and would be true anywhere. There's no point in spending $30 to make a wine if you can't sell it for $75. While there's not a direct relationship for each individual wine between quality and cost of production, for the industry as a whole, there certainly is.

I thought of all this while sitting on a panel in Edmonton on Saturday about the future of Canadian wine. As much as Canadian wineries, that future is in the hands of Canadian consumers. Nobody should ask them to overpay for crappy wines because they're local; in fact, that would undermine progress. But when a winery asks for twice as much money for a single-vineyard Riesling or reserve Chardonnay, and the wine is good, the best thing people can do is buy it.

This is the true strength of the California wine industry: California consumers are willing to seek, demand and reward quality.

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