The Magic Bullet

by Jeff Miller of Artisan Family of Wines (Seven Artisans, Sly Dog Cellars, Red Côte)

jeff-smSteve Heimoff penned a post last week that certainly bears reading: “The Central Valley’s silver bullet doesn’t exist” (can be found at ).

Sadly, I must agree with much of what Heimoff has to say. Perhaps tragically is a better adverb. At any rate, the gist of Heimoff’s point of view is that it really doesn’t make much of difference whether some varieties that the average consumer has never heard of make better wine. Basically because the average consumer doesn’t care. As Randall Graham has said, most people would rather buy a mediocre wine made from a recognized grape than a good wine made from an unknown one.

I love wine, and consider it one of the things that makes life worth living. But when it comes to understanding what sells in the wine world, you’re better off looking to toothpaste or mouthwash. If someone likes Crest, they’re going to keep buying Crest. If a new toothpaste comes on the market, chances are the Crest user will simply keep using Crest. He won’t even try the new toothpaste. Pretty much the same is true of wine, at least when it comes to varieties.

I remember hearing once of a blind tasting between Coke and Pepsi. Somewhat surprisingly, most Pepsi drinkers preferred the Coke, and vice versa. Yet neither group indicated that they were likely to change their buying habits. It just goes to show that there’s a lot besides what’s in the bottle that drives the choices consumers make. And if the end result can only be characterized as dreary, repetitive, and boring, that’s simply a fact of life we need to live with. That’s not to say that nothing new ever succeeds. But it does mean that something new is going to have a hard time of it, no matter how intrinsically good it is.

When we throw a party, and put out a number of wines, my rule of thumb is that the preferred wines are those that get drunk the most. An empty bottle was enjoyed more than a half empty one. But there’s a major exception to this rule. The totally full bottle. How can you say people did or didn’t like that bottle, when no one bothered to taste it all? That’s the problem of the “magic bullet”. However, magic it might be, it’s beside the point if no one will taste it.

The truth of the matter is that finding varieties that make better wines in the Central Valley isn’t a quest after the Holy Grail. We know that some varieties that the average consumer has never heard of in fact make better wines there. Different regions of the world that experience hotter climates than Bordeaux and Burgundy have been making wine for centuries, if not millennia, and have pretty much selected varieties that perform well in their environments. If you posit that a grape from Sicily is more likely to do well in a hot climate than one from Burgundy, you won’t go far wrong. Viticulturally, planting Pinot Noir or Merlot in the Central Valley is the idea of an idiot. Marketing-wise, it’s probably the opposite. God knows, there’s way more Merlot grown in the Central Valley than any of the hot-weather varieties that we all know are better suited there.

For anyone needing more direction, try Montepulciano or Aglianico. I assume Negroamaro, Touriga Nacional, and Tinta Amarello are also good bets, though I haven’t had quite the success with them as with Montepulciano and Aglianico.

That’s not to say that there isn’t room for experimentation, and that some varieties might do better than others, even though they both hail from hotter climes. But it does mean that finding “better” varieties isn’t primarily a matter of viticultural challenge. The challenge is the consumer, and marketing these new varieties to them.

I’m not a marketing person, so I don’t knew the solution to this problem. I would guess that some alternative variety will attract a small following, and, maybe if the planets line up, will eventually turn mainstream. One can only hope.

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4 Responses to “The Magic Bullet”

  1. Weepin' Johnny says:

    As the owner of a small winery that markets almsot exclulsively obscure varietal wines, I would agree that mass markets will never endorse the wines we can entice our customers to buy. But how bad is that? I’d rather have a market niche where I can benefit from customer education and not have Southern Wines & Spirits selling all the same wines I make.

  2. El Jefe says:

    It’s true that folks get set in their ways. Fortunately there are many non-average consumers out there who will try the unfamiliar, and lead their average friends to try as well. If we spend a moment thinking we can find past examples. I’m old enough to remember when everyone drank Cab - and if you drank Zin you were in a cult.

  3. Mark Norman says:

    Jeff…you often express a lot of good ideas or thoughts that I agree with you completely…but not this time.

    I’m not standing there with you when you serve those wines so I can’t argue that point but I do know that among my many wine friends that #1 - they love to discover new kinds of wines and #2 - they love to share this information.

    So what is the problem? I do agree that there is no magic bullet…and we definitely need to focus on specific wine drinkers…if we are throwing everyone into the mix it would be much harder…I would say that the focus needs to be those wine drinkers would drink at least once a week (there are 46 million Americans that fit that bill). These are people who I think care about what they drink (at least many of them).

    So why aren’t they buying more of those different varietal wines? Lack of education, fear, and the lack of association. They don’t know enough about those varietals…it safer to choose a hum drum varietal that they know then one that they don’t and the fear comes in that they will make the wrong choice and have that wine with the wrong food and not enjoy it.

    The lack of association that I speak of is that marketing people try to “promote” brand and or a specific wine…what most of them don’t get is that no one remembers exactly what a wine tastes like a week after they had a bottle…they’ll remember that they liked it (or didn’t) but if they bought it from you they will remember you probably clear as a bell! People want to connect with people and they will remember a person that they liked and what that person liked and said (especially if they respected you).

    There is a huge change underfoot…dress up in a disguise and visit tasting rooms across the state and ask if consumers have changed over the last 5 years…I have (but I didn’t need a disguise)…it might surprise you what you hear and why.

    People are changing yet the style of marketing hasn’t…perhaps the magic bullet (once found) should be used on all those marketers who refuse to change their style and approach.

  4. Mark Norman says:

    Sorry…one more thing!

    People who are passionate about wine love to share that passion…they can easily influence other wine passionate people about the latest buzz (new discovery)…if the people who are obsessed with “sell wine” would just stop and instead tap into that passion there would be a whole lot of new focus on what wines are being drunk!

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