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Deconstructing Wine Myths

April 2012
 
by Roger C. Bohmrich
 
 
Wine is a subject obscured by myths, and in “Myths Challenge Industry Growth” (Wines & Vines February 2012 issue), Paul Franson provides a very useful service by highlighting several egregious examples. The suggestion that “the wine business” is the guilty party is itself a myth—or, at the very least, an oversimplification of a far more complex phenomenon. The origins of the myths Mr. Franson rightly decries are far more nuanced, and many involve perceptions and actions of trade and consumer alike. Journalists as well should plead mea culpa for endorsing certain myths.

The story of single varietals vs. blends is a perfect example of the intersection of historical influences, commercial motives and consumer responses. Bordeaux has been a potent influence in the New World—most prominently by spawning widespread plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. In large measure, the allure of these grapes originated with the reputation of Bordeaux as a paradigm to be emulated. California wineries did play a key role in promoting varietal wines. However, their success is explained less by production-driven motives than the response of consumers, who find wines named after grapes easier to understand than those bearing mysterious, often unpronounceable geographical designations or branded proprietary names. As it turns out, California’s emphasis on varietal nomenclature is a clever strategy since it serves to diminish competition from Bordeaux! To counter the New World’s marketing advantage, new EU legislation now permits classic appellations to add grape names to their wine labels.

The idea that dry wines are superior is similarly complicated, and the history of Riesling shows how challenging it is to analyze such myths. Fine German Riesling with varying degrees of sweetness has long been considered by sophisticated observers to be among the world’s greatest wine. Up until now, most American consumers have resisted the message of both critics and makers of off-dry Riesling. Nielsen data show the varietal is far behind Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Grigio and is advancing at a slower pace. Yet changing consumer preferences are as common as they are unpredictable, and such changes often seem to occur independently of industry actions. Wineries often seem to be one step behind fast-moving tastes and find they are chasing surging categories.

The honest if frustrating answer is that serendipity may be the best explanation for many new trends and brands. One constant is that Americans have always had a sweet tooth. Smart marketers have consistently attempted to anticipate the next hot product to satisfy this enormous market segment. Notable successes over the years include Cold Duck, Blue Nun, Riunite Lambrusco, wine coolers and White Zin. The current explosion of Moscato represents another sweet phenomenon that few, if any, experts could have predicted. Major players are jumping on the Moscato express, concerned only by limits in supply. Now, Yellow Tail has launched “Sweet Red Roo,” further proof that the trade is not held back by prejudice against sweet wines—or, for that matter, past resistance to blends.

In reality, wine critics have focused attention on dry wines. Often in denial about mainstream tastes, journalists have the power to promote growth if they give their blessing to popularly priced, sweet branded labels as the entry point for many new wine drinkers. To be fair, many of us who appreciate the finest wines—critics, winemakers, sommeliers and enthusiasts—tend to look down our noses at mass-market offerings. There are millions of consumers—current and potential—who just want an easy, fruity beverage, and there is ample evidence that the industry is ready and able to meet that demand.

Fashion niches such as unfiltered, hand-picked, low-yield or so-called “natural” wines are driven by what might be better understood as a tacit alliance of consumers seeking healthful, artisanal wines, winemakers pursuing philosophical ideals and wine writers expressing their own value judgments.

Finally, with regard to climate change, common sense and perceptions are, unfortunately, still far apart. The industry and planet would benefit if society treats the threats as real, not mythical; we are all stakeholders in this fundamental challenge.

So, it would appear that the forces behind common misconceptions have tangled origins. It is tempting to look for a villain, but in truth myths typically result from a “conspiracy” of causes rather than the wine industry acting against its self-interest.

Roger C. Bohmrich has enjoyed a long career in the wine trade, and he is currently an educator, speaker and consultant. Most recently, he set up and managed a retail entity affiliated with a Bordeaux-based merchant. Previously, he was a senior executive of a well-known importer. Bohmrich is one of the first Americans to earn the Master of Wine qualification.

 
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