How Italy’s own wine consumption is out of step with the rest of the world’s
Earlier this month, Monica Larner of the Wine Enthusiast wrote a fascinating article entitled “The Golden Age of Italian Wine.” I have great respect for Monica, Wine Enthusiast Magazine’s Italian Editor and recent recipient of the prestigious Comitato Grandi Cru d’Italia, an association of 130 top Italian wine producers. Her article illustrated the great strides Italian wines have made on the global scene. She uses the phrase “il sorpasso,” meaning to overtake, as an illustrative term to highlight some of the Italian wine world’s achievements in the recent past. Monica notes, “This year—2013—marks il sorpasso of Italian wine over just about everyone else.”
Monica reports that Italy is both the world’s biggest producer of wine and “also the world’s largest exporter of wine, and the number one exporter to the United States, both in terms of volume and value. Its global exports rose 42.7% in volume and 52.7% in value from 2007 to 2011, according to data compiled by Vinexpo and International Wine & Spirit Research.” I was at the mid-January press conference at the Four Seasons Hotel here in New York City when Vinexpo’s Robert Beynat, Chief Executive and Xavier de Eizaguirre, Chairman of the The Supervisory Board gave the latest the latest International Wine & Spirit Record study (IWSR). The study concentrated on global current and future trends to 2016: consumption, production, distribution and international wine and spirits trade. The study and survey covered 28 wine producing countries and 118 consumer countries. It included an overview of the current market with figures from 2006-2012.
What was revealing was not only Italy’s dominance as an exporter in the world market, number one exporter to the U.S. in terms of volume and value, but the projections for the next five years that Italy is on track to be a runaway train, with no other country catching up. Add this to the fact that for the past three years, Italy has been the number one producer in the world. Notwithstanding, Italy surpassed its neighbor France once again with an overall production of 40.8 million hectoliters (1 hectoliter =100 liters) or approximately 5.44 billion 750ml bottles, compared to France’s 40.5 million hectoliters.
According to a Decanter Magazine article of a year ago, Italy has nearly a quarter of the global wine market. Italy’s most important wine fair show, Vinitaly, begins next week on April 7 in Verona. More than 4,200 producers are due to exhibit their wines to approximately 140 thousand visitors (they are expecting more than 48,000 international wine professionals from more than 110 countries). What is curious is young Italians are “drinking less wine than ever” says market research firm Unicab, which showed 69% of Italians over 65 drink wine every day, while only 13% of 16- to 35-year-olds do the same–or so a Decanter article reported in April of 2011. Giovanni Brunetti of Unicab said one of the main reasons for the decline was “social evolution.” He suggests in a Decanter piece that “Italian families have become more and more fragmented in the last 10 years. They’re not eating meals together and so wine is no longer a form of food. Wine no longer has a nutritional function.”
The same Decanter article suggested that research also found that 30% of Italians no longer consider wine to be a symbol of Italian gastronomy—a point in direct contrast to the global view outside Italy that links the perception of the Italian lifestyle, “ la dolce vita” with incredible cuisine and fabulous wines.
While there’s no doubt that top to bottom, Piemonte to Sicily, the Italians are making world-class wine, it seems as if Italians are less interested in it than the rest of the world. The Italians put a particular signature on passion, and this passion is clearly evident in the depth, breadth and scale of what the Italian wine-producing community is offering the wine-loving world.
L’Italia ha superato, but only the rest of the world seems to appreciate it.
How a love for Sutter Home is just a humble beginning, and not an end in itself
In Tuesday’s edition of Vinography Alder Yarrow wrote a post titled “Is the Wine Writing World Out of Touch?” and his writing asserts that, yes, it is. Mr. Yarrow reacts to a recent graphic posted by the University of Michigan that breaks down which companies produce the most wine sold in the United States. After looking over this graphic, I am frankly not surprised that this is the case.
I grew up in southeastern Ohio, surrounded by beer drinkers whose idea of “fine wine” was Sutter Home White Zinfandel, which not coincidentally is the number four most purchased wine in this country. A restaurant wine list in Ohio leaves a lot to be desired for someone like me, but no one has ever believed I’m from Ohio anyway. (To be fair to my fellow Buckeyes, Ohio has some top wine collectors in the major urban areas of Cleveland, Cincinnati, Columbus, Akron and Toledo.) I, as Mr. Yarrow suggests, am not most of America, and my tastes are not the norm. I love drinking grape varieties that most of my friends and family have never heard of, from regions they didn’t even know existed, and pay money for the privilege. While I’m not the norm, I do have the benefit of growing up around said norm and I am able to understand why the people who drink Blackstone Merlot drink what they do, and maybe, just maybe I might able to write for them too.
Some of my colleagues don’t have this luxury (or curse, it depends on how you look at it). And we write for the crème de la crème of connoisseurs–those of us who live in an area where we can acquire the wines described by Eric Asimov in the New York Times, or easily procure the new Jancis Robinson tome on wine grapes. But we aren’t the rest of the country.
Let’s face it: a taste for Sutter Home can be a starting place. All it takes is guidance and exposure for a palate to change. For example, here at IWM, we focus on education. We have tastings each Saturday, focusing on a specific theme, and at times have “grand” tastings where guests can sip wines that were never on their radars. In this way, we’re able to expose someone who has never ordered anything other than Pinot Noir when out to dinner to Rioja or Valpolicela—and we can explain why it tastes the way it does and who is skilled at making it. From there, we can explain why the customer likes Pinot Noir so much and what other wines may fit their chosen flavor profile just as well, if not better.
To my thinking, the most striking point Mr. Yarrow makes in this article is this: “for every bottle sold of your favorite small production, biodynamic, cool climate Pinot Noir made by two hipsters in a garage, there are 50,000 bottles of Cranberry Twist White Merlot consumed with pleasure in this country.” His argument is that as wine writers, perhaps we’re doing Americans a disservice by concentrating on the small, lesser known wines we love. However, I don’t think the insiders of the wine world are out of touch here; we know that the preference for Cranberry Twist White is typical. I just think we are just astounded to see the math. The numbers are telling. I understand what Mr. Yarrow is saying, but I disagree with his idea that we are “out of touch.”
We know most of the world of wine drinkers aren’t comfortable paying more than $20 for a bottle and that Pinot Noir is popular because of the movie Sideways. There’s no arguing that we don’t write for them, but we aren’t out of touch with them. We just choose not to write about Arbor Mist, or Santa Margherita. We choose to write about Bordeaux and Burgundy, carbonic masceration, and fermenting in concrete eggs. We choose to write about esoteric facets because they are fun and we enjoy them. There is bound to be someone out there who enjoys reading about it too. They just may decide not to spend the money, or the time, to find and drink the wine beyond Barefoot Cellars.
That intrepid wine-lover wouldn’t be the first.
How social media might be the key to breaking the Millennial market
I’m 24, and I believe that wine is an art form that deserves the utmost respect and admiration. That’s the best way I know how to explain my experience working with wine–but it’s not the view that most millennials share, at least not according to wine marketers. My eyes, though young, are open to what vintage, terroir, region, and geography can do to a wine, and how these factors can bring it to its fullest potential. As one of the youngest members of the IWM team, I’ve been fortunate enough to view wine in a mature, holistic way, which sets me apart from other young 20-somethings who might enjoy wine but may not have the insight into this industry. I believe that one of the biggest challenges facing the wine industry today is to reach my peers, the Millennials, to help them partake in wine and understand their way around it: what they enjoy, why they enjoy it and what they learn from the experience.
I think the biggest issue is not so much the fact that we Millennials are financially restrained, as some writers have suggested, but in the way in which wine is marketed. This last point is best explained in an article I recently read written by Academic Wino. She described how wine-marketing strategies aimed at Millennials affects the way millennial view wine. She writes:
Millennials are also very important in terms of their purchasing power. They have their own money, and studies have also shown that they play an important role in their family’s decision making. In regards to brands, it has been shown that Millennials look for brands that provide quality at a fair price. They also prefer that advertisers tell the truth in their ads, and are less swayed by celebrities endorsing a product. Finally, Millennials are more environmentally aware than their older counterparts, and are more environmentally and socially responsible.
What I took away from this article that labeling and connectivity to the Internet, more specifically social media sources, plays a huge role in how we Millennials buy wine.
Academic Wino points out that the millennial generation prefers more creative labels, something that piques their interest and will therefore affect the way they experience wine. Tasting notes and food pairings are all helpful when it comes to strategic marketing wine as well. However, I feel that when we focus on the expressive side of the wine industry, the story behind the label, then all of us, Millennial or otherwise, will be given the chance to come to our own conclusion about a particular wine. Advice is what we all seek from the wine industry, but in the end, we all enjoy wine for what we think it is. I work with IWM’s clients to help them base their decisions not on what someone else thinks but on their own experiences, ideas and tastes. When you choose your wine according to someone else’s doctrine, you might lose focus on what’s most important: your enjoyment.
This is where social media like Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr and Pinterest, has the potential to make an enormous impact on wine and its relationship with any Millennial. Social media brings together the creative imagery, the relaxed discussion and a platform for exchange of ideas. This loose exchange helps to demystify wine and give us of the Internet jockey generational a better relationship with it. Pay attention to people on social media, and we’ll get past the phase of drinking nothing but the same thing over and over again. We’ll get our heads around the incredible array of selection that has gone largely untouched by my generation.
The fact is this: we Millennials need to remember the subjective basis of wine and not get bogged down by wondering the correct way to enjoy wine. I say, as do so many others, there really is not right or wrong way to drink wine. Drink what you like and don’t worry about the rest, but by all means, explore. There’s a lot of beautiful life beyond wines with bright labels and easily pronounceable names.
Marketing wine to everyone is hard, but does it need to be?
Wine, you have a public relations problem. It’s not you, wine, it’s us, the public. We get it, and we’re confused. You’re old and you’re new. You’re European and you’re American (and you’re also South African, Australian, New Zealand, Greek, Chinese, Lebanese and more). You’re a complex, intellectual enterprise with thousands of years of history and myriad potential evocations from thousands of different grapes grown in an infinite number of microclimates. You’re a simple drink made and bottled by a Real Housewife.
You’re the toast of emperors and the choice of art openings. You’re Boones Farm and you’re Pétrus. You’re white, you’re red, you’re pink and you’re orange. You are, quite frankly, hard to sell, even as more and more Americans are buying you.
As a person who has made the marketing of wine her bread and butter for the past few years, I see the complex bundle of issues present in selling wine. I’m lucky. IWM’s clients are a savvy group. They’re interested, engaged, fearless, and sophisticated. It makes my job easier. However, I when I look around at the kinds of marketing aimed at customers who lack this level of wine savviness, I despair.
Today’s issue of Businessweek features a piece by Elin McCoy, “Wines Targeting Women are Long on Legs, Short on Flavor.” The header essentially says it all, and in the article McCoy takes a look at several wines bottled and sold to women. McCoy asserts that in an effort to engage the sixty percent of US wine-buyers, winemakers are appealing to women consumers in pretty much the same way that makers of cosmetics, shoes, cars, yogurt or snack cakes do: by appealing to female aspirational vanity. She says, “According to the new ‘girly-wine’ brand marketers, we want to be skinny, to toss our hair playfully like ponies as we pick our bottles to match moods, not foods. We also crave an easy-sipping flavor profile with a naughty edge of sweetness.”
The brand that’s kind of the flagship of this style of marketing is reality TV star Bethenny Frankel’s Skinnygirl line, recently bought by the Fortune Brands for a reported 120 million dollars. That’s a lot of 100-calorie glasses of…whatever (though McCoy rates it highest of all the girly brands she tries). Skinnygirl is, as Mary Orlin pointed out in a Huffington Post piece earlier this spring, problematic. While a reduced-calorie Margarita makes some diet sense, a reduced-calorie glass of wine shaves a slender ten calories off, and as Orlin suggests, that reduction is as much a craven grab at female attention as it is insulting to women. “I’m a wine drinker, not a “female” wine drinker.” Orlin says, continuing, “Would anyone make a Skinnyboy wine?”
Well, maybe not. But they might make “wine for normal people,” if last night’s Mad Men is any indication. Grapefriend offers a recap of the episode, “Dark Shadows,” that includes a tangent where ad exec Roger Sterling attempts to recoup some of his mojo by acquiring kosher winemaker Manischewitz who, as Sterling so pithily expresses, wants to make “wine for normal people,” code in this episode for gentiles. While on the shiny surface the issue is marketing a niche wine to a larger public—and one that copywriter Michael Ginsberg cleverly solves with a bus-side advertisement depicting a case of Manischewitz beneath every bus seat—the larger issue to my mind is exactly how do you market wine to normal people?
Wine, I think, became intimidating when it gained validity. It was an effect of the very creation of wine discourse; the very thing that gave us a language of wine made wine impenetrable. And in many ways, the stuffiness and the inflated rhetoric that circulates around wine is not merely a vestige of a time when wine wasn’t something one did or talked about; it’s also the thing that keeps wine from being for normal people.
Normal people don’t need cute animals on bottles, cunning puns or model’s legs to “get” wine. Normal people need to grow up drinking wine, recognizing that some of it they like, other bottles they don’t, and either way it’s ok. As marketers, it’s our job to guide the innocent and rattle the sophisticated. It’s our job to make the sensual act of drinking something come alive in our words and our images. No mean feat, but something that we who love wine owe to it.
Thoughtful marketing for caring consumers makes for headache-free days
I get it. “Natural” is a slippery term. Even the lyrics to the Carol King-penned, Aretha Franklin-sung standard “You Make Me Feel (Like a Natural Woman)” suggest exactly how fraught the idea of “natural” is (to wit: if you’re a natural woman, do you need someone else to make you feel like one?). Add the idea of naturalness to marketing and you’ve immediately got an incredibly slippery slope, one that “pure,” a kissing cousin to “natural” can easily illustrate. After all, Ivory may be 99% pure, but doesn’t that 1% of impurity cast a doubt on the whole purity enterprise?
In short, it’s hard to define “natural.” And perhaps it’s this very slipperiness as applied to natural wine that Tom Wark of the Fermentation blog has taken to task so repeatedly and so vehemently. Most recently, Wark said this about natural wine:
I fear this one is with us for a long time to come, yet a gimmick it is with no real meaning and, worse, an ideology underscoring it that demands all other wines be denigrated in order for this niche to gain real, honest credibility. We are talking about a marketing term here and very little else. Everything claimed to be spectacular and miraculous and lovely about “natural” wine is very old hat, techniques mastered by many a winemaker over the past 20 years on every continent. Yet, gimmick it is.
I’m someone who grew up in the ‘70s, and thus I have seen “natural” coopted by corporate giants. Nature Valley Granola Bars are hardly no more natural than Herbal Essence shampoo, and yet both products—along with scores of others—were marketed for being natural. I can understand Wark’s incredulity at the concept of a natural wine, especially as he contends that many natural winemakers add sulfites to their wines (many do) and that many indulge in negative marketing of non-natural wines (also true). That said, as a writer who markets wines to wine-lovers, and as a wine-lover myself, I get why natural wines are legitimate, important and different.
Wines, as everyone knows, embody two very specific sites: the vineyard and the cellar. Thus, these two sites play into the naturalness or the artificiality of a wine. I’m going to begin where the wine begins, the vineyard.
Most of the food I eat is organic. I choose organic food because I’d prefer that my body didn’t absorb pesticides, GMOs, and unnatural fertilizers; I also prefer to live on a planet not covered with them. That said, I do buy conventional produce when the produce in question doesn’t absorb as much of the chemicals. I use this list of “the dirty dozen” in choosing my produce (money is a factor); grapes are one of the dozen. Why would I choose my wine any differently? In addition to grapes absorbing pretty much everything that’s sprayed on or around them, grapes aren’t washed before they turn into wine. Maybe it’s merely a mental thing, but I’d like my wine made from grapes that haven’t been sprayed with a host of chemicals that coat the skins and imbue the fruit.
I recognize that certifying organic is a tricky business, especially in other countries. Here in the US, we have not only organic, but California organic, suggesting the play in the lines of regulation. Italy, to take the example I’m most familiar with, has really stringent regulations. You can’t get certified organic (or “bio”) unless everyone whose lands abutting your own also grow organic, and you all go at once to apply for an organic license. On the one hand, this is great because if it’s organic, it’s organic—no water table contamination there. But it’s tough logistically. For example, Il Palazzone grows their grapes organically, but not all of the seven other growers do, so they can’t get certified. It’s easy for Cupano, who is out in the middle of nowhere, but hard for folks whose lands are in the middle of everything.
Fortunately, it’s not so difficult to find out how the wine you’re interested in—or already love—grows their grapes. Most vineyards have websites, and those who grow organically proudly tell you. Like them, when I write marketing copy for IWM, I always specify whether the vineyard grows using organic, biodynamic or non-interventionist protocol. I recognize that there are others like me who consciously choose organic celery, apples, berries, kale and, yes, grapes when they shop.
As squidgy a site as the vineyard is, the cellar is yet more fraught with natural nightmares. For one thing, winemakers often cloak their making in a shroud of mystery. For another, as Alice Feiring, who literally wrote the book on natural wine, has pointed out, there is a plenitude of ways that winemakers can alter, manipulate, add to, or otherwise mess with wine. Take a gander at this list and wonder.
I don’t know about you, but I have a quick, visceral reaction to wines that have been unduly messed with. It’s a searing headache, often accompanied by serious sinus pressure. I’m not certain which of the many chemicals that winemakers add to their wines gives me this somatic fun, but it does make me shy away from wines I haven’t researched. I am, in fact, the woman who will whip out her iPhone and Google an unknown wine before I accept a glass. I dislike headaches, but I also dislike the “purple” taste that often accompanies seriously manipulated wine. It’s a thing, and maybe it’s pretentious, but all things being equal, I like a wine that’s made with minimal crap added to it.
I have—much to my dismay—drunk an unholy amount of Gravner and been totally fine the next day. Gravner does make wine in the most ancient of ways, wine that is natural and vital and unusual and lovely. I have drunk serious amounts of Movia, ridiculous amounts of Paolo Bea, and altogether too much Bodega Chacra. None of them made me hurt, and that means something to me. Wine shouldn’t make you hurt. And that’s one reason why I gravitate toward producers who do employ non-interventionist methods in the cellar.
But as I pointed out gently, and Wark has pointed out more strenuously, the cellar is a place of mystery and intrigue, and it can be hard to really know what goes on in the dark. This is why, again, I try to pick my producers from those who work within ViniVeri guidelines, or those who are pretty explicit about their methods, philosophy and zeitgeist. It’s an imprecise science—more like a guideline than a code—but it works.
As a wine marketing professional, I work to tell our clients how winemakers make their wine. I visit producers. I email them. I ask them questions. And then I relay that information on our website, e-letters and blog posts so that people can make informed choices. At IWM, it’s not that difficult. Sergio holds big love for wines that smack of the places they were born, and those wines tend to be wines that people make in a hands-off kind of way. Our clients want to know where, who, and how, and we like to educate them.
For all of these reasons—personal, professional, and ethical—I don’t see natural wines as a marketing gimmick. Sure, it can happen. But mostly it’s about an informed choice about what we put in our bodies, whom we want to support with our money, and what happens on the earth around us. I know how I make my choices, and when I can, I opt for wine made by people who understand the fragile beauty of nature and who honor it.
UPDATE: Tom Wark has written a lovely response post to this one on his blog. He and I may disagree, but I respect this writer’s thinking and attention, and I do love a healthy, respectful debate.