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01.08.2013

Is the Wine Writing World Out of Touch?

So where have all these wine bloggers and writers been living for the past 10 years? Under a rock?

Last week, a professor at Michigan State University named Philip Howard made the news by publishing an article with a semi-nifty interactive graphic, entitled Concentration in the U.S. Wine Industry.

The article has been tweeted, its graphics stolen and republished (usually with proper credit given to the professor), and dozens of articles have been written by bloggers and mainstream journalists about the "news" that about 50%marketshare.gif of the wine sold in America has been produced by just three large companies: E&J Gallo, Constellation, and The Wine Group. These articles range in tone from scandalized to awestruck, which prompts the question, if you write about wine and you didn't know this already, what do you imagine most of the people in America actually drink?

I've been frankly nonplussed at the reaction to this information, and somewhat dismayed at what seems to be its clear implication: namely that a lot of people writing about wine are quiet out of touch with the average wine drinker in America.

Of course, most people writing about wine aren't writing for the average wine drinker. You know, the one that buys most of their wines at the grocery store, or at chain restaurants where they eat out for dinner on occasion? These aren't the folks reading wine blogs, wine magazines, or even wine columns in newspapers.

But they are the people who keep the U.S. wine industry afloat, by buying the Arbor_Mist_Cranberry_Twist_White_Merlot_L.JPGvast majority of the wine sold in this country. The relatively more expensive stuff with hard to pronounce names that people like me drink represents only a tiny fraction of the wine consumed in this country.

Whenever I see it come across the news wires, I've been republishing the list of the top wines and wine brands consumed in restaurants around the country by volume. It's a sobering list, especially for someone who's used to paying more than $15 for a bottle of wine.

But that's what most of America is drinking, and it's all coming from these three massive conglomerates. And that should most definitely not be a surprise to anyone whose job or self-appointed role involves communicating about wine.

The failure to truly understand the nature of the U.S. wine industry for what it is: a massively industrial wine beverage market, is certainly understandable, but it is not excusable. No more so than for a politician who fails to recognize that the health care benefits and retirement plan that comes with his job in Washington bears no resemblance to what the average American can afford.

Now perhaps my fellow pundits were just taken by the neat zoomable graphics and nice diagrams that so succinctly captured this information. Perhaps the publishing of this article was just a good reminder of what people already knew, and so they felt the need to share it with their readers. But if this information really did come as a surprise, then I'd say my fellow writers need to spend a little more time in the wine aisle at the biggest supermarket they can find near them, or at the local liquor mart.

Stroll down to the section where you can find bottles of Arbor Mist, and take a bottle home for your pleasure tonight. And while you're spitting out that first mouthful into the sink, followed by the rest of the bottle, remember that 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.

Keep writing about the good stuff for the people who care to read about it, but don't forget the big picture, folks.

Comments (29)

Sediment wrote:
01.09.13 at 4:41 AM

But there's surely a difference between being "scandalized" by the situation, "awestruck" by the volumes involved, or just plain disappointed by what it says about public taste - and actually being ignorant of the situation, as you suggest?

jason p wrote:
01.09.13 at 7:09 AM

Well said! As a salesperson at a large wine store chain, we see what a large majority of the public consumes, and with pleasure....

Tom Wark wrote:
01.09.13 at 7:26 AM

Alder,

Regarding the point of this article: Yes!

And just as important, don't knock Arbor Mist! You take that stuff, pour it over ice, get it real cold, drink in on a hot day in July while floating in a pool and you'll start to understand it's appeal.

Plus, it's a nice gateway wine for the diet Pepsi crowd.

01.09.13 at 8:20 AM

Alder - the "Wine Writing World," or at least the blogging component, is too busy writing about itself or savaging Natalie MacLean to notice what the rest of us are drinking.

Alder wrote:
01.09.13 at 8:47 AM

Sediment, I'd still say all three of those sentiments would imply a lack of understanding. We're not surprised or awestruck by things which which we are quite familiar.

Tom, Arbor Mist is what my grandparents drank in their retirement in Arizona. I've had my fair share, and forgive me if I don't share your enthusiasm. But then again, I don't really like soda either.

Dave..... sigh. We're a gossipy species.

Bruce Schoenfeld wrote:
01.09.13 at 8:51 AM

Totally agree that any self-respecting wine journalist should already know this. But at the same time, knowing it and devoting coverage to those brands are two different things.

It depends on the aims of your publication. A newspaper wine columnist had better understand that the vast majority of his readers have never spent more than $20 on a bottle. But anyone writing about the NARRATIVE of wine -- where it comes from and who makes it -- as a means to entertain, educate and engage readers, should be seeking out wines that tell stories, whether or not most consumers typically drink those wines (or even have easy access to them.)

Depends on your perception of the role of a wine writer (again: as opposed to a wine CRITIC. I feel like I keep whipping the same wheezing horse ...)

01.09.13 at 9:17 AM

Alder, I could not agree with you more. It is a mildly interesting graphic of one of the most tedious subjects in the wine world. PS: I have never given a second glance at Arbor Mist but I guess it's the same concept as enjoying ice cold white wine on a hot day. I learned something new today, Tom.

01.09.13 at 10:30 AM

No one should be surprised at this. A few years back, I came across a factoid that puts it in perspective. Here in Michigan, which claims a robust regional wine industry, Gallo on its own sells more wine than the five largest state-based wineries combined.

Of course we're out of touch -- that's why we're wine geeks. In my other passion, audio, for every idiot playing studio-master files (or, even worse, vinyl LP's) on a $20,000 home audio system, 1000 folks are download tinny 99-cent MP3's to screech through their $5 earphones.

Guess whose equipment the audio writers want to review.

Rebecca wrote:
01.09.13 at 10:37 AM

Hi Alder, as a wine communicator who has been employed by the biggest and now representing some of the smallest, I have seen these stats over the last decade and find this a great tool to keep myself in check. While it’s an honor to pull the cork on a bottle of limited production, scarce bottle of Italy, Spain or California’s finest, one must never forget the reality of the biz and what keeps many of us employed. Plus! it makes great trivia questions for those “smarty pants” Industry types, when the prize is a great glass of fizz…

Mel Knox wrote:
01.09.13 at 11:41 AM

Alder, any recs on a Cranberry Twist White Merlot with Ginseng?
So hard to find a good one.

01.09.13 at 12:00 PM

Fresh data freshly presented is always welcome. And to Bruce Schoenfeld's point, the exploitation by big corporations of the "underdog" narrative, literally and figuratively, is worthy of remark not because it's a wine-industry phenomenon, but because it's a cultural phenomenon.

01.09.13 at 12:03 PM

How many of us "wine geeks" tend to save the "good stuff" i.e over $20 a bottle for "company" or "special occasions" and are content to pour something less costly for our everyday drinking. Hence the domination of the largest wineries. That's not always bad. For us, perhaps consuminig less of the better wine would be preferable to more of the ordinary stuff. At least it could be more educational and, possibly, more fulfilling.

Rebecca wrote:
01.09.13 at 12:07 PM

Mel Knox, I've seen the research reports, and it's not that far off the mark...

Mel Knox wrote:
01.09.13 at 2:48 PM

Alder, no need for your recommendation for a Cranberry Twist White Merlot. Abe Schoener's Scrotum Project (sp) is offering one for $50 per 500 ml. He ages it in old Sherry bbls that he leaves outside and untoppped for two years.

I woulod like to know if the Arbor Mist obscures the Mystic Cliffs.

Most of my friends in England who write for newspapers say their editors want them to write about wines costing under 7 or 8 pounds per bottle with wide distribution. Here it seems the Chronicle puts no such restraints on our pal Jon Bonne. Indeed he has spilled about a barrel of ink each on Abe and on a small plot of ribolla gialla. Of course the first three letters of the word 'news' are N-E-W.

Think about it: do you want to read a review of a Camry or of a Ferrari??

The whole point of blogs etc is that they allow hobbyists of the esoteric-- be it $10,000 turntables or old wine -- to gather on line and discuss matters of weighty importance.

Anybody who has been to a family reunion (unless your name is Mondavi) know what 'real' people buy and drink.

Greg wrote:
01.09.13 at 3:25 PM

The wine world is a very seductive fantasy, you shouldn't be surprised that so many people get sucked in. Wine professionals have to face the harsh realities of the market, but there are many people of independent means who can live in the fantasy world.
You are helping to sell the fantasy, you should be glad. We all want to forget about those oceans of cheap wine sloshing around, you shouldn't be such a realist.

Donn Rutkoff wrote:
01.09.13 at 6:55 PM

Hi, not too big a surprise to me, I've been working retail for 12 years, in Calif. and not in specialty hi-end. Another factoid, re: the hot & bothered arguments about hi alcohol vs. lo alcohol. It seems that about 92% of total gallonage produced or sold in USA is taxed at the lower tax, lower alcohol, rate. So all the hot keystrokes and indignant rhetoric is about a pretty small segment. Yes, too much wine writing is for people inside the same room.

Sasha wrote:
01.10.13 at 6:44 AM

Is the Pope Catholic, do bears do you-know-what in the woods, etc. The answer is, obviously, a very big Yes. As for all the hand-wringing re: what Americans really drink, I think it's a little short-sighted. The quality and range of wine available in the U.S. has undoubtedly improved over the past few decades, and people now have more access to more varied wine than ever before. Let's be thankful for that, and respect that not everyone cares to (or can afford to) consume the kind of wines we swoon over. Remember that each of us likely indulges in the "Arbor Mist" of other goods, be it Ikea furniture or The Bachelor.

01.10.13 at 9:37 AM

What are the most popular posts on my blog? Reviews, reports, discussions of boxed and supermarket wines (and red wines for white wine drinkers!) So I write about those wines, some of them samples, and I write about the garagiste wines too and whatever else I can find time for (as a grad student and college teacher) and that inspires me.

While I knew that a few dominated the many, most people I know look at the supermarket shelf and they think those wines are all made by different wineries. And in a sense, they are. They are shocked, however, to find that they are owned, marketed, and distributed by just a few companies.

That's why I will one day get around to writing about Howard's infographic and why I think in the future I will try to educate my readers about who actually is making the wines.

I'll take a pass on the Arbor Mist, but I'll take a glass of Black Box chardonnay at the hair salon!

Alder wrote:
01.10.13 at 9:40 AM

Emma Criswell, of the Italian Wine Merchant has a response to this column here.

http://www.insideiwm.com/2013/01/10/wine-writers-arent-out-of-touch-were-aspirational/

And in response, I say:

Emma,

Thanks for taking up the subject. I'd like to clarify something that a lot of people seem to be assuming about my thoughts on this subject. I actually don't think that wine writers are doing a disservice to consumers by writing about more expensive, smaller production wines. I also don't think they SHOULD spend much time, if any, writing about the wines that are on grocery store shelves in the Midwest. Why? Because the people who buy those wines aren't the people who read what wine writers churn out.

My point, which I apparently didn't make as well as I wanted to given so many people are interpreting my screed as you have, is this: it's fine to write about the wines that are interesting to you and your readers, as long as you know and remember that the wine world is not the rarified realm that you occupy and drink in. It's the world of Gallo Hearty Burgundy and Turning Leaf Chardonnay. 99% of Americans never drink, and never will, the wines that we love to write about. As writers we don't have to change what we're doing as a result of that reality, but we damn well better remember it, lest we start imagining, as politicians often do, that the rest of the world lives like us.

Shea wrote:
01.10.13 at 1:00 PM

Alder,

I don't think your original point was unclear if you read the entire article. You made no statements or even implications that wine writers should not write about small-production esoteric wines. Maybe the misinterpretations reflect a "mirror mirror on the wall" syndrome, which was, perhaps, the original impetus for your article.

01.10.13 at 1:08 PM

Yep, wine writers are living in a bubble. So are many food writers. But those micro-markets have the most interesting people, wines, and food. When I want something cheap I might go to Costco. But interesting? Then I seek out micro-markets, not Gallo. Great piece - thanks for the context.

Lee Schneider

Emily H wrote:
01.10.13 at 7:01 PM

I echo some of the other sentiments here. I have lamented that some of the more visible outlets of wine media rarely cover the retail side, which is where most of the wine consumption goes on in this country. Magazines cover restaurants all day, but the majority of consumers do not get their daily wine from a Grand Awards winner. Retailers are a little more in-touch with the average consumer, and are a little better equipped to introduce the public to more exotic (and still affordable) alternatives from smaller producers and emerging regions. Kudos for bringing this disconnect to light!

Matt Mauldin wrote:
01.14.13 at 8:00 PM

I've worked for distributors so the 50% figure is not at all surprising. Some realities of the broad market just do not apply to the smaller world of finer wines. For example if you follow wine message boards, blogs, and critics, it's tough to see how hard of a sell domestic Syrah is at the distributor level. But go through any of the major wine distributor's book and and see how many domestic Syrahs they have compared to a varietal such as Merlot.

01.15.13 at 8:44 PM

On one side, the zoomable infographics is simply cool to play with ( at least it was fascinating for me).
Now as far as "being surprised" goes, I hope not too many people are actually surprised (may be they are just trying to get attention) - if we think of 80/20 rule, which in most of the cases is really a 90/10, the fact that few of the companies own majority of the wine market in US shouldn't be surprising at all. At the same time, there are two caveats worth mentioning:
1. Not all the wineries owned by major brands make plonk - a lot of them make excellent wines.
2. Ten years ago, US was mostly a beer drinking country. As of last year or two, wine consumption in this country surpassed beer consumption and actually US became Number one wine consuming country in the world (from being about #18 ten years ago or so) - if anything, we are going in the right direction...

Amy wrote:
01.18.13 at 2:22 PM

Well, we know the wine market is monopolized by group giants that market well their wines. It is fair then, winebloggers write about "the other wines", more interesting ones that are not seen everywhere or not consumed by everybody for different reasons.
I'd like to note that are excellent wines at the same price of those "popular" wines coming from abroad. You get a good imported wine at a fraction of an american wine of the same quality. In that segment is where wine bloggers can help with wine education.

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