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Labels That Exploit Grandpa's Traditions

January 2011
 
by Thomas Pellechia
 
 
Osgood is my alter ego. He comes with me wherever I go just in case one of us has a bright idea that needs debating.

Recently, while Osgood and I were shopping for a couple of mixed cases of wine for the house, one of us, I can’t remember which, became interested in the many wines, stacked high, that sold for less than $15, especially the wines with truly venerable California names.

As I picked up each wine (Osgood has no hands) to read the back label, I felt my heartstrings being tugged. From one back label to the next, someone’s grandfather called to me—you know, the very old, long gone man who developed calluses from planting those ancient vines and scrubbing those redwood tanks to build that venerable brand name. It seems that each of these granddads had the same commitment to bring Old World wine culture to our uncultured New World (although the back label only implies the part about lacking culture, or maybe Osgood inferred it).

I felt Osgood stirring and then he asked, “Do you think these back labels are good marketing?”

Since I am the only one who can hear my alter ego, it was incumbent on me to answer him.

“Well, Osgood,” I said in a hushed whisper, “I don’t know.”

Osgood is opinionated, so I also figured I might as well ask, “What do you think?”

“It’s clear that these back labels are meant to impart a feeling of tradition and a connection to our European roots,” he said. “So, for under $15 we are expected to believe that domestic wines are as European as the under-$15 wines on the market that actually are from Europe. But there’s something wrong with the message.”

“What do you mean, Osgood?”

“First, it’s a staid, tired message for today’s consumer; does anyone know where the ‘little ole winemaker’ from Italian Swiss Colony now resides? Does anyone care?

“Second, besides being outdated, the message carries the extra burden of not being exactly forthright. Read the labels again.”

I went back to the labels to find that, almost without exception, the wines under $15 were not “Produced and Bottled By” the venerable wineries; they were either “Vinted and Bottled By” or “Cellared and Bottled By” them.

“You see what I mean?” chided Osgood. “We don’t know who made the wines.”

Osgood began to shout inside my head. “Get real. Would grandfather have sent his precious grapes that he worked so hard to nurture to a large volume plant to ‘process’ them for him?”

An Osgood tirade is difficult to stop. If he had physical features, I am sure that my alter ego’s veins would have been near to bursting. To indicate that the conversation was over, however, I quickly dumped bottles into my cart and proceeded to the checkout counter. But Osgood screamed in my head all the way to the cash register.

“You see what I mean? Some of these wineries aren’t even in the family anymore. Oh yes, I know there’s a lot of wine to move out of inventory, but what about credibility? How can you capture today’s youthful, Internet-savvy market with references to something that is no more? I know that it’s an attempt to compete with lower priced European imports, but people buy the European wines for their price not for their faux history.”

“Osgood! Puh-leeze beee quiet.”

“I’ll shut up, but only if you promise to do something for me.

“Sure,” I proceeded intrepidly. “What is it that you want me to do?”

“You are in the wine business. You write in trade magazines. You have access to wine producers. Do me a big favor: Ask them if they really believe that tying their grandfathers’ tradition to wines that they don’t even ferment themselves is good marketing.”

“Osgood,” I pleaded, “don’t make me do that. Wine producers will skewer me for bringing it up.”

“You promised,” Osgood shot back. “Ask that nice editor Jim Gordon to let you pose a question in the magazine.

Well, I asked. And Jim said yes.

From wineries that continue to invoke traditional methods when the wines are no longer produced that way, and even after maybe Brown Forman, Gallo or Constellation has taken over the venerable family brand, Osgood wants to know: If you haven’t anything to say on the label that is relevant to today’s market, then maybe you should do what his grandfather might have advised: Why not let the wine speak for itself?

Thomas Pellechia is a 26-year wine industry veteran who produced wine in the Finger Lakes (1985-93) and owned a wine retail shop in Manhattan. He has written about wine and food for 20 years and is the author of three books.

 
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