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Field Notes from a Wine Life – Valentine’s Day Edition

On Being a Contrarian

When I was a cub professional, I was somewhat in awe of a senior leader who always seemed to ask the exact question that nobody else thought of.  It was an amazing talent – you would have 99 out of 100 things taken care of and he would ask the one question that was not accounted for.  Sharp guy, he was.

I asked him one day, “How do you always know the one thing to ask that hasn’t been addressed?”

In simple terms, he gave me a lesson on looking at things in the exact opposite way of the current point of view.  If everybody is analyzing a situation thinking “yes,” then a leader’s responsibility is to look at it from the exact opposite perspective in order to find the weakness or the hole.  Now, his job was not to squash all ideas, it was merely to make sure that everything had been thought through thoroughly.  His role was to be the contrarian before moving to middle ground to be the voice of reason.

It was a lesson that made a sharp impression on me.  A lot of life is swimming upstream when everybody is heading downstream.  Opportunities exist for everybody if we pause to take a breath and look at things differently.

I was reminded of this point yesterday when I saw reports on the Harris poll and wine consumption – three things jumped out at me in a contrarian kind of way:

1)  6 in 10 Americans buy wine

More people buy wine than do not buy wine.  Simple enough.  Fundamentally, this means that the wine industry and those that publish wine books and content need to start talking to the wine inclined and enthusiasts differently.

Enough of the “wine 101” – a topic that is very overplayed and, frankly, boring – boring to the extent that it was never interesting.  It is time to look at new ways of engaging people with content and subject matter that is more upperclassmen then freshman in school.

We have been reading for several years that wine has a groundswell of growth organically, yet this has not manifested itself in popular culture as a “trend.”  Think about pomegranates as a trend.  Five years ago, who chewed pomegranate gum, and had pomegranate ice cream?  Wine has yet to catch the cultural zeitgeist, but it could if somebody knew how to capture that lightening into a bottle.   

If somebody starts looking at wine lovers in a fresh way, as an affinity group, with a different tact than schmaltzy wine clichés and lifestyle boorishness, they will find a whole group of people ready to respond in kind.

2)  Consumption of imports on the rise

Wines from Australia, Chile, Argentina, South Africa are all high on the U.S.-based consumption list with New Zealand and Portugal trailing as countries somebody would consider buying wine from.

The alarming statistic is that 12% of wine shoppers buy New Zealand wine while 33% would consider it.

This is an unbelievable and shocking statistic to me considering that NZ wine is largely good, largely affordable and largely accessible in terms of labeling and varieties.  If I am the New Zealand wine association and I see this stat and I realize I’m getting whipped by South Africa, I’m doubling down my marketing efforts.

The probable current argument is that New Zealand wine is growing incrementally, but the contrarian says that New Zealand should be nipping at the heels of the Aussies while leap-frogging Chile, Argentina, South Africa, France, and Italy.

There is no reason that New Zealand should be in also-ran wine producer in this country with Pinot Noir as a primary varietal along with Sauvignon Blanc and Alsatian whites.

New Zealand wines had a tasting at the Wine Bloggers Conference in October.  If I am not mistaken, I think, largely, their marketing strategy is venue-based tastings.  Time to rethink that strategy and engage consumers directly instead of the trade because clearly the message is not breaking through.

3)  Wine buying by cost breakdown on those polled and their last purchase

27% spent less than $10
30% spent between $10 and $14
23% spent between $15 - $19
20% spent over $20

I think we have long known this price breakdown to be true, maybe the numbers are skewed a little bit based on the current economic climate, but generally, I would say this breakdown is a good, average rule of thumb for where people buy wine, including me.

If I’m a small to medium size winery on the West Coast interested in growing my business via distribution in other markets, why is it a good business strategy for me to forsake 80% of the wine buying public by being priced in the $20’s?

How many small to medium size wineries have a wine line-up that is predominantly priced over $20?  Yes, a lot.  Most. 

I am not saying, I am just saying … there is a disconnect in between the small to medium size winery and the people that buy wine in their local neighborhood.

If there are 10 people in a wine shop buying wine, I would much rather have eight people considering my bottle of vino then two people.  That’s not even economics, it’s simple math.

Small to medium size wineries can isolate the fact that distribution and the three-tier system holds them back, but the simple truth is that the market for expensive wine is infinitely smaller then the market for less expensive wine, which is why guys that can figure out production and volume with a smidgen of quality mixed in seem to win out in distributor books. 


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