The wine industry must adapt or become an anachronism



Imagine you ran into your best friend and asked how he was doing. What if instead of saying “fine” or “great” or “not too hot” your friend launched into a monologue: “My mood is dark, with notes of melancholia and weltschmerz and a hint of unctuous remorse.” Chances are, after a few moments of head-scratching, you’d resolve to find a new best friend.

And yet, if you’re even remotely interested in wine, you have to put up with just that kind of obfuscating language and intolerable attitude. That’s because despite being a $ 34.6 billion industry catering to 78 million Americans eager to learn more about which bottles to buy, Big Wine is missing a vast opportunity, acting as if the Internet didn’t exist and electing to speak to the same 12 percent of the wine-buying population it has traditionally targeted — namely sommeliers and other people with fancy titles and robust budgets.

Normally, this is where smart investors come in and introduce the whole fusty scene to new ideas and new clients. But too many wine start-ups and the people who fund them have fallen into the same jargon-laden bog of missed opportunities and exclusionary talk. If we’d like the industry to open up like a nice bottle of California Cab, we need to help rid it of three sins.

The first is winespeak, a snobbish, intimidating and often alienating dialect. Here’s an actual example from a leading wine site: “The nose offers up a bountiful bouquet of dark red plum, cassis, rose petal and a touch of minty herbs. The palate is soft and plush, with notes of tobacco, cedar and cigar box. Medium, drying tannins leave you thirsting for more.”

I’ve spent the last decade of my life educating myself about wine, and I assure you that the thought of drying tannins never made me thirst for anything.

Wine, like any other food or beverage, is about individual taste, habits, desires, and memories. Rather than insist on you learning its lingo, the wine industry should learn yours. The Internet makes this two-way communication easier than ever before; it would be a shame not to make use of this opportunity.

The industry’s inherent snobbism doesn’t end with language. It is evident in the people it chooses to target, too. Even as it made the transition from oak-paneled, high-end stores to the web, the industry continues to behave as if the $ 50 and $ 60 bottles are its paragon, with too many sites existing solely to offer deep discounts on signature, expensive bottles.

If I’m 25 or 26, though, I don’t care that a very precious bottle is now available for a slightly less shocking price tag. The help I need is more profound than that. Unless I’m one of the few who learned to speak Winese, chances are I’m feeling anxious and unsure. I need someone to walk me through the process, tell me what each different wine might taste like, maybe offer some good wines at prices that I might actually be able to afford.

The industry, however, rarely bothers with us younger drinkers, which is why, on a recent gathering of wine grandees I attended, a preeminent French wine maven lamented that while the industry had the 70- and 80-year olds in its pocket, the younger generation was uncommitted. It’s no wonder.

Which brings me to my last cardinal sin, and that involves story, or a failure to tell one. In the past decade or so, the food industry mushroomed, with new websites, television shows, apps, and magazines popping up to help people learn more about the kind of cuisine they might enjoy. These endeavors have been successful because they told a diverse set of compelling stories.

You could follow the platinum blond diner enthusiast if you were into burgers and fries, or sink your teeth into sous vide cooking if you were a frustrated scientist. Rather than just try to sell you a product, the food industry realized that something so emotional, evocative, and subjective must appeal to the mind as much as to the palate. It adapted and became an industry adept at storytelling. And yet, go to any large wine site and you’ll find nothing but a few short graphs, sometimes followed by an inane illustration.

That’s a shame. If this industry is to live up to its true potential, all of us — drinkers, winemakers, entrepreneurs, and investors — need to recapture that simple, primordial pleasure that brought us into wine to begin with, that thrill when the right flavors hit the tongue and unleash a thousand pleasant sensations and memories. If wine doesn’t, someone else will: bourbon, craft beer, and other alcoholic beverages are thriving, in part because of their ability to engage younger consumers, tell better stories, and understand that different drinkers have different needs that should be engaged.

We in the wine industry must catch up. If we do, we’ll not only have fun but make money, too. If we don’t, the whole industry could wake up one day very soon and discover that it’s mood is dark, with notes of melancholia and weltschmerz and a hint of unctuous remorse.