The Losh Cause - Questioning the consumer; commercial suicide?

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As the power of brands grows, two approaches by smaller wine producers has left Chris Losh somewhat puzzled. Has he missed something, or could it really be that the consumer isn't always right?

It's not quite a job for life, but people do tend to hang around in the drinks industry. This has both its advantages and its disadvantages. Sure, the continuity can be a good thing, but it's all too easy, in this insular clique where everyone knows everyone else, to lose track of what the public think is important.

Or, put another way, if all you do is speak to like-minded people, it's easy to assume that your shared viewpoints are the norm.

Take the last month. A survey in just-drinks recently revealed that less than half of consumers think that region is important when buying a wine. By contrast, 77% of them see promotional activity as highly relevant.

Conclusion: customers are moving away from the fiddly and complex towards the simple and (preferably) cheap. Brands (whether genuine, or de facto - such as regions or grape varieties) are, in the mind of the punter, 'A Good Thing'.

So, if you were launching a wine at the moment, you'd probably want to swim with this current where you could, wouldn't you? Make life easy for yourself and garner listings and sales quickly.

Apparently not. I've got two examples from the last month or so that show just what insularity can do to business logic.

Firstly, at the launch of Slovenian wine Verus last month, I was staggered to see that the producers had elected to label their best white Pinot Gris rather than Pinot Grigio.

In other words, they'd actively chosen to avoid the hottest varietal 'brand name' at the moment in favour of one no-one has heard of. It's like getting Brad Pitt to agree to star in your tiny art-house film, but choosing not to put his name on the promotional poster.

Why was this? Because, it was airily explained to me, a) they were worried that the Grigio 'brand name' might eventually become devalued or unpopular with the consumer "like Chardonnay", and b) they were "shooting at Alsace not northern Italy".

Talk about hubris! A tiny winery from a country no-one could find on a map ought to be delighted to be as 'unpopular' as the world's number one white grape variety. And as for 'aiming at Alsace' - it's so niched and confusing that I'm astonished that anyone would hold it up as a model of anything other than 'how not to do things'.

Nonetheless, the assembled hacks round the table, for the most part, engaged in an earnest discussion as to whether the wine was 'more Gris or Grigio' in style, conveniently overlooking the fact that, if you can't sell the stuff, it's as emptily hypothetical as arguing over whether you'd rather date Scarlett Johansson or Beyoncé.

The same sort of navel-gazing madness is currently being acted out in, funnily enough, Alsace, where the appellation is considering legislation that would, as I understand it, see grape varieties removed from the labels in favour of vineyard sites.

This proposal is being pushed forward by the president of the Alsace Viticultural Association, Jean-Michel Deiss, a spiky, passionate, quixotic defender of site over varietal, who doesn't put grape names on his bottles.

This is so wrong it's hard to know where to begin.

For starters, Alsace (a bit like the Slovenian wine) has plenty stacked against it in the first place: Germanic bottle shape, long, Germanic names, myriad grape varietals, wines that range from bone dry to super sweet.

In its favour is the fact that it's about the only French appellation where it's officially permissible to put varietals on the bottle, which makes it doubly perplexing why anyone should think their removal would be anything other than a bad thing.

The trade don't like it either. The more pragmatic Alsace negociants point to a survey from earlier this year that revealed that 83% of retailers 'could not imagine selling grand cru Alsace without mentioning the varietal on the label'.

As one American importer put it on the website Wine Business International: "I'm not going to spend my time memorising 51 Grand Crus."  Amen to that.

It is part of the perversity of wine that anything that smacks of making the product easy to understand must automatically be seen as grubbily commercial and, therefore, undesirable. Odd. It's not, so far as i know, something that's ever bothered the people at Porsche or Mont Blanc pens who make products that are significantly more expensive than a bottle of Alsace Gewurztraminer.

The new proposals are a kind of fundamentalist terroirism that will render wine inaccessible to all but hard-line soil munchers. It's the kind of thoroughly misguided ideology that comes about when one's life is utterly consumed by one thing, whether religious texts or small patches of dirt.

As a personal belief, Deiss's 'land over grape' Taleban ethos (Talevin?) is obscure but harmless. As a set of rules for the wider appellation it is nothing short of a commercial suicide bomb.

Sectors: Wine

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