Walmartization of Wine

As a wine educator and consultant, the most satisfying thing is to teach people to have more trust in their own palates rather than a wine critic or some massive marketing campaign. Marketing and wine critics’ scores move wines and effect prices, but taste is subjective and very diverse.

The cost of a wine is affected by many variables. Some are paramount to producing a fine wine, while others are important for marketing. The base costs involved in producing wine are necessary, but then there are extra costs—hiring a superstar winemaker, using fancy and expensive bottles and spending massive amounts on marketing.

As a wine snob, I don’t mind paying for the region the wine comes from or the labor to make the wine, but I do mind paying for the superstar winemaker and all the slick marketing. Aggressive marketing is what made wine critics so important to the wine industry a few decades ago, but now it has gone so far that critics’ scores are the standard for wine marketing. Get a high score from one of the right critics and not only will the wine sell out, but the price will also be affected. So it’s time for Americans to learn what type of wines they like and where those wines are made. Then they can get the best wine for the money regardless of marketing dollars spent or critical acclaim. There is plenty of research that shows how fickle the palate is, so the best solution is to trust your own palate.

Learning to analyze wine in a systematic way is the best way to learn what you like and what you don’t. This can be learned through formal education or just reading, listening and experimenting. But even that is not enough. Due to science, technology and plenty of research, big wine companies have found ways to manipulate the consumers’ perception of their products. The consumer is moved to buy wines due to the heft of the bottle, the type of closure (screw-cap, cork), the design of the label and even the design of the wine. Yep, mass-marketed wines are designed to get critical acclaim and repeat purchases, plus many mass-marketed wines create an image of a small boutique winery, producing hand-crafted, natural wines. Natural wine is the new mantra in wine. Is it natural to pay a consulting company to analyze your wine and tell you how to manipulate it to get higher ratings from the most influential wine critics? The consulting company I am referring to charges $20,000 a vintage to do such.

Taste is very complicated. Some people drink coffee with cream and sugar, some like it black. These two examples point to a difference in a threshold for sweetness. With wine, there are many different thresholds that affect how we like a certain wine. These change with weather, mood and temperature of the wine. Through the years as a Sommelier, I have become very good at listening to what people like in wine and helping them determine what other wines they would enjoy. My dream is to take that one-on-one interaction and make it virtual. Till I can make that dream come true, I will go on a tangent about wine producers that are making what I call noble wines. To me a noble wine is one that is produced to showcase the place it comes from and the person making it. Those producers get their recognition in an organic manner, rather than a manipulated manner with a marketing department. Working on getting recognition in that manner is slow, but lasts longer. Just ask these noble winemakers: Charles and Kareem Massoud at Paumanok, Ric Forman and Cathy Corison in Napa, Vittorio Fiore of Poggio Scalette in Chianti Classico or Etienne de Montille of Domaine de Montille in Burgundy.