Monday, October 2, 2017

Wine divide: ordinary people and enophiles are experiencing different products

Quick, don't think about it, just answer:

When you hear the word "Wine", what type of wine do you imagine?

For me, the answer is something fresh and vibrant. I just gave myself the above test and the first wine that popped into my head was a single-vineyard Sauvignon Blanc I had recently that had great balance and a minerally core. This was recency bias: I might have thought of cool-climate Syrah or Cabernet Franc. I might have thought of a first-growth Bordeaux I once drank on a train.

I did not think of Kendall-Jackson Vintner's Reserve Chardonnay. Or Cupcake Cabernet. Or Apothic Red. But I guarantee you, if I asked this question of 1000 wine consumers, those are the answers most people would come up with.

I was struck by this last month after reading an outstanding article by Dave McIntyre in the Washington Post. Dave is not going to win any awards for this article because enophiles are not interested in it (though some foodies might be). But "29 of America's Favorite Cheap Wines, Ranked," is outstanding service journalism for readers of a newspaper.

McIntyre takes the time to seriously taste wines that nobody in wine journalism ever writes about, but that sell millions and millions of cases. Woodbridge. Barefoot. Yellow Tail. The only time you see these wines mentioned in most wine columns is to disparage them by comparison.

Yet to most Americans, that is what "wine" means. "Wine" doesn't mean a bottle made from grapes grown on calcareous soil with native yeast fermentation in concrete tanks. "Wine" means a widely available product they can pick up at the grocery store with a predictable flavor. Most people don't want to hear about vintage variation. They want a shelf stable fruity beverage of about 13.5% alcohol that they can quaff without thinking about it.

It is a different world. Imagine yourself wandering into a Star Wars convention and being asked which of the musicians in the bar scene where Luke meets Han is your favorite. That is, I imagine, what talking about wine with an enophile is like for the ordinary person.

Yet my imagination is limited, honestly. The first time I tasted Manischewitz Concord, I thought, "How could anyone ever drink this?" Yet Manischewitz defines "wine" for many people.

I have the following conversation on United Airlines all the time. Flight attendant: "Would you like red or white wine?" Me: "What kind of wines are they?" Annoyed flight attendant: "I think one is a Cabernet and the other is a Chardonnay." To her, what else is there to know? It's wine, is what it is. Do I want it or not?

Part of what I admire about McIntyre's story is that he gives serious tasting notes of the good and bad wines. He can't get past being an enophile, though. One wine he says "Smells of sewer gas and is simply unpleasant." That wine probably sells a million cases and people think it's what wine tastes like. About another, "You know the smell when a tire pile catches fire?" Again, there are people for whom that aroma defines wine.

In an era where we're all electronically in touch all the time, communication has in some ways become more difficult than ever. We're all in silos now, mostly politically, but I believe that enophiles live in our own unfortunately small wine silo. If someone who thinks Cupcake Chardonnay is "wine" asks me what kind of wine I like, I don't know how to answer, because if their beverage isn't really "wine" to me, I doubt that cool-climate single-vineyard feral-tasting Syrah is "wine" to them. It's a homonym: the word may look the same but the meaning is entirely different.

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  1. Tre' perceptive, Gray. 10% of wine drinkers provide 95% of commentary and market for wine introspection. But 90% of sales are, as you share, plonk. Same is true in the UK (perhaps even worse). This isn't a problem looking for an answer, it is market reality...and the big shops knew this years ago. Humbling it is...

  2. Oh so true. Thanks for this post.

  3. As on oenophile, I chuckle when someone says they have to stop at the grocery store to pick up a bottle of wine for dinner. But then research showed that 96% of wine purchases were consumed within 48 hours or purchase. I am not a collector or a hoarder. But having defined and refined our palates over the past couple of decades, we know what we like and just like to have a nice 'wine list' to choose from at home at any given time.

  4. I'm pretty sure Jeff Siegel ( has written about most of those wines....

  5. I posted a comment last week on a recent Yellow Tail experience...shockingly not horrible (the Shiraz and Chardonnay-- different vintage than tasted in the WP review and definitely not as described; neither were great but they certainly were not bad). Its funny, at least at Raleys in Sacramento; if "supermarket" wine drinkers were willing to spends a few more $$ per bottle, they could get something a whole lot better (the La Crema Sonoma Coast chard and the Hahn GSM come to mind off the top of my head....3 bottles each create a cost of about $11 per bottle). I wonder how you get the average wine drinker to "step up".

  6. For those who have short memories about "outstanding service journalism," I jog your memory with this blog:

    "Grocery store Chardonnay reviewed in the year's best wine blog post"


    And the top "good value" < $10 priced tout?

    Ravenswood Vintners Blend.