Is the wine industry failing to engage with the broader wine consumer?

Is the wine industry failing to engage with the broader wine consumer?

As long-standing a wine commentator as Chris Losh has seen trends come and go. But, how successful has the wine category been at following - or even setting - these trends?

In the 1730s, the British artist, William Hogarth produced a series of eight canvases called The Rake's Progress. Heavily satirical, they charted the demise of a young man, who inherits a fortune, squanders it on loose living and ends up in first gaol, then the madhouse.

I'm reminded of this whenever anyone talks to me about the supposedly inevitable journey that novice wine consumers will make from sweet to dry; arriving in the category with white Zinfandel, before progressing serenely through Pinot Grigio, Chilean Merlot and Australian Shiraz to emerge, 20 years later, on the sunlit uplands of claret, Barolo and white Burgundy. A kind of Rake's Progress in reverse.

Increasingly, however, this glib interpretation – trotted out on a regular basis – is looking as much a part of history as Hogarth's series of canvases: an oil-painted theory in an i-Phone world.

For starters, drinks-curious 20-somethings are probably at least as likely nowadays to enter the category through craft beer or cider as they are through blush wines. Secondly, I'm not sure that the drift away from sugar and towards 'proper' wine is quite as inexorable as we would like to think. A couple of weeks ago an older friend of mine and his wife were rhapsodising about a new red wine they'd found in their local supermarket. It turned out to be Apothic, the sweetish (16g/litre) red wine shrewdly put together by E&J Gallo.

Now, these friends are neither young, nor newcomers to wine - they've been drinking it for over 30 years – but they still (clearly) like wines with a bit of sugary generosity to them. In our Wine Lover's Progress series, far from approaching canvas number eight, they are still around picture two or three.

This, admittedly, is anecdotal evidence. But, it's backed up by the explosion of Prosecco – a fizz that most of its devotees would choose over Champagne, even if the two drinks were the same price – and by some market research that appeared at the tail-end of last year. In the survey of over 1,000 American wine drinkers (across all ages, ethnicities, states and demographics) at least half of the respondents described their favourite wine styles as being 'fruity', 'smooth', 'sweet' or 'semi-sweet'. Significantly, only a quarter said they liked wines that were 'dry', 'savoury' or 'tannic'.

I was reminded of these findings last month, when I attended a briefing in London by Concha y Toro. The Chilean wine giant, I would suggest, is in the Penfolds/Brancott Estate school of wine brands: big, powerful and loved by the public, but also respected by the trade in general for "Doing A Good Job." So when they talk, it's worth listening.

For an interview with Concha y Toro's CEO for Asia, Cristian Lopez, click here

At the briefing, Concha's category & insights controller, James Leacy, took two sacred cows of the wine trade and turned them into hamburgers. "Wine lends itself to a variety of occasions," he said. "We need to make it obvious that it is about more than just food." Despite this being accepted wisdom, I find it hard to argue with. Most consumers don't really 'get' wine and food matching, and find it unnecessarily complicated; an extra layer of specialism to a product that's already hard to understand.

But, Leacy's second point was even more radical. "We need to make it easy for the shopper, without making it feel like they are being over-educated," he said.

Given that the wine trade has spent most of the last 20 years talking about the need to 'educate' consumers, surely the more education the better? In fact, Concha is tacitly admitting that what the wine trade typically deems 'useful and interesting' and what consumers actually want are not the same thing at all.

Fries with that, anyone?

If you accept that we've spent several decades essentially giving the public worthy but dull information when what they want is fun stuff that makes the whole drinking experience pleasurable, it's perhaps not surprising that there's a general lack of engagement amongst consumers. From press to POS to wine lists, the wine industry has largely failed to find either a coherent message or a nurturing voice. It has consistently denigrated wines that people like and, in the process, a chasm has appeared between the industry and its audience.

Indeed, you could argue that the majority of this audience aren't even being contacted at all.

As the eminently-sensible blogger Ryan Opaz puts it: "We tend to talk to one profile – the wine-curious person – way too often. We need to make sure that those who don't want to geek out still get a seat at the table."

I'd suggest that the problem is, in reality, even more acute than that. The trade doesn't just spend too much time talking to wine-engaged consumers; it spends way too much time talking to itself. Just look at the colossal number of trade-tastings, compared to consumer ones.

Too often, to me, these trade-tastings seem to be little more than talking shops for re-affirming existing beliefs and prejudices; arenas where "commercial" is a dirty word and "challenging" is a compliment; where social media is alive with positive feedback about how good the wines over $30 were, or how interesting the natural wines were on table X. 

Metaphorically, the trade spends its time discussing Russian literature or minimalist jazz, when most punters just want a book to read on the train or a bit of background music.

Many key wine markets are in decline and have been for a while. The trade's response, however, of doing what it always has done and hoping for a different result, is, as Albert Einstein pointed out, the definition of insanity.

Perhaps the trade should stop blaming the public for dwindling sales, and ask whether 'improving' people's tastes so they're like its own really is the best strategy, or whether it might just be better all round to give the public more of what they want and let them feel relaxed about liking it. Taste, after all, is visceral not intellectual. So if, as current evidence seems to suggest, the move to dryness is neither constant nor inevitable, then any strategy based thereon is clearly doomed to failure.

Put simply: it's just not possible to educate someone's brain into liking something if their taste buds aren't playing ball. The time has come to accept this, and to switch the narrative. Otherwise, like Hogarth's young man, it is the wine trade who will end up on the scrapheap.