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Drinking Out Loud

The Loss of Loyalty

Are we seeing an erosion of emotion and loyalty among modern wine lovers?

Matt Kramer
Posted: February 4, 2014

It was a confluence of two very different events, one in sunny San Francisco and the other in frigid Calgary, Alberta.

The first event, organized by the Bordeaux trade group Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux, was the annual unveiling of the new release vintage, in this case the 2011. The San Francisco edition of the multicity event was only for consumers, who paid $85 each to attend the walk-around tasting. (A sibling event in Los Angeles was pitched to the trade.)

The other event was a biannual charity shindig in Calgary that showcased Italian wines. Sponsored by a local wine importer, it brought into town 17 shivering Italian winegrowers who were in turn stunned by the zero-degree weather and warmed by the enthusiastic reception of Calgary wine lovers who raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for charity.

The common denominator for both events, at least through one observer's eyes, was the sense that the old ways of wine producers connecting with the emotions of their audience are increasingly less potent.

As I looked around the large, elegant room where the big Bordeaux bash was held, I was struck by a palpable lack of excitement and enthusiasm. The Bordelais stood stiffly behind their respective tables, the men almost uniformly clad in suits and ties. It looked like a wedding reception where most of the family, who necessarily had to be there, would much rather have been somewhere else.

Such an event, say, 30 years ago (and I attended such tastings) felt very different. Bordeaux was the center of the wine world. Château owners were incessantly written about, often fawningly so. Tasters anatomized Bordeaux's many vintages, like sports fans comparing and arguing the performance stats of their favorite teams.

Based upon conversations I was able to eavesdrop on, all that has gone. Was it because the vintage on offer was ho-hum? I don't think so. Many of the 2011s I tasted seemed quite lovely to me, as well as classically structured for the long lives that the best Bordeaux reds can call their birthright.

Unlike 30 years ago, everyone in the room is now surfeited with Cabernet and Merlot blends from seemingly everywhere in the world, many of them qualitatively equal or superior to those from Bordeaux. A sense of Bordeaux's singular uniqueness is forever gone, at least in international markets where the world's offerings crowd the retail shelves.

The Italians, ironically (for so long, centuries even, Italian wine producers longed to share the market prestige enjoyed by the French) are in a better position. After all, nobody can create anything remotely comparable to their Sangiovese from Tuscany, Nebbiolo from Piedmont, or Nerello Mascalese from Sicily.

Even so, the Italian producers who spoke about their wines at the Calgary event relied upon the same tired tropes of theirs being a family winery, of how close to the land they are, and so forth.

Like so many European producers, who live in a provincial wine world where their local audience is unfailingly loyal (and can't buy any other wines anyway), the Italians did not appear to understand that what they imagine makes them unique is, in fact, anything but. All Italian producers are seemingly family operations; they all seemingly have been rooted to their places for centuries. And for our part, we've all heard this so often that it's like throwing a pebble at an elephant: You're not going to get its attention.

Our consumer wine world is now both less emotional and less loyal than ever before. Where once the Bordelais could rely on a potency of emotion to help sell their wines, that's now become deeply eroded. The same can be said for many other parts of France. Only Burgundy, it appears—and really only the Côte d'Or—retains a meaningful grip on the emotions and fervent passion of a worldwide audience, elevating it from a mere article of commerce.

For its part, Italy enjoys the advantage of a seemingly inexhaustible supply of Italian restaurants from Tokyo to Tuscaloosa. Such restaurants are hardly likely to serve Spanish, Greek or Portuguese wines. Even so, the sheer plenitude of Italian wines, with new names appearing almost daily, means that established producers that once seemed singularly fine no longer do.

This is not confined to Europe. Do you think Napa Valley's success is forever? Think again. An erosion of emotion and consequent loss of loyalty can as easily overtake Napa Valley and its producers. Some say it's already happening and will increase as the vast Baby Boom audience tiptoes into decrepitude and is not replaced by the equally vast Millennial cohort which, so far, has no apparent emotion or loyalty to the likes of Napa Valley.

And then there's the Asian market. What continuing loyalty or emotion could Asian consumers possibly have? Fine wine is new to the vast majority of Asian wine-buyers. No longstanding loyalties could possibly have been formed. Already, we're hearing reports that the great names of Bordeaux are sliding in esteem among China's fickle, big-money spenders.

So is there no emotion or loyalty left in wine? Not quite. As wine has become both international and commonplace in American life, it is obvious to even the most casual buyer that wine, both basic and fine, is nothing special anymore. Its very abundance speaks volumes.

Consequently, much emotion has been drained from what might be called the "choosing experience." The great exception now rests with local wines. Here, emotion runs very strong.

You see it in California, which, like some spiral galaxy is rapidly spinning off separate worlds of local consumer emotion which is lavished only upon Santa Barbara County wines, or Russian River Valley wines, or, yes, Napa Valley wines.

You see this and feel it even more strongly in Oregon, where passion throbs for the local Pinot Noir. The same is found in Washington, where the likes of Walla Walla enjoys an equally passionate loyalty for its local Cabernet. Almost everywhere, when you see emotion, it's mostly bestowed on local wines.

Another segment also sees emotion: Wines made with practices that are typically called "natural" or, more specifically, biodynamic. This is a small audience, to be sure, but a highly emotional one all the same. Many otherwise undistinguished producers enjoy a loyalty simply because of how their wines are made.

Of course, there's always been—and always will be—groups that root for specific grape varieties. Pinot Noir is easily the largest such "emotion cohort." Syrah has its followers as, of course, do Riesling and Barbera. But even here, the intensity of emotion erodes in direct proportion to availability and abundance.

What this means is simple enough. What wine producers once took for granted, they no longer can. Loyalty and fidelity are largely gone.

We now live in a more coolly calculated wine world, with only a few emotional hot-spots here and there. The smart producers will contrive new means of reaching our emotions—and thus our wallets. The dinosaurs will fossilize into unprofitable oblivion. It's already happening.

Howard Davis
New Zealand —  February 4, 2014 3:36pm ET
Matt, interesting column thanks. I hadn't thought about it like that before.

As you do, I would definitely draw a distinction between Bordeaux and Burgundy. The former is now just another international luxury brand, produced in large volumes, attracting little of the previous emotion. Burgundy is much more niche, heavily dependent on domaine, climat, vintage etc, (still) attracting wine geeks with real loyalty and passion.

Cheers, Howard
Elliot Gluskin
Allentown, PA, USA —  February 4, 2014 4:26pm ET
Matt,
I think the wine world has evolved into one where the quality of its offerings are consistently good if not excellent and the winery brand name has become secondary to the varietal. The differences in the wine have become ones of nuance and personal choice. Brands continue to influence certain choices due to the historical consistency of their wines and there is some consumer comfort and resulting loyalty in that consistency. But I do agree that loyalty as a singular factor has diminished among wine consumers because there is so much to choose from in today's marketplace.

With wine quality being consistent I can understand why you experienced what you did in San Francisco. Consumers have come to expect a level of quality across all varietals so the brand becomes secondary in their minds. Perhaps the Bordelais were expecting hugs and kisses?

Lately, I've been focusing on a country's specific grape and how it is developed by the wineries in that country. One such example is Chile and its Carmenere. Another is Italy and its Chianti which I've grown to admire. Now, please add Greece to the mix - I purchased two bottles of GWC Assyrtiko Santorini 2012 because one consumer and a retailer both told me I'd really enjoy it.

I mention the Greek wine purchase because that is an example of the impact that fellow shoppers and retailers have on consumer wine choices. It's negative impact is that I've added another country/wine minimizing any loyalty I may have to something else. It's positive impact is that it will maximize my loyalty - but to another country, not a specific winery brand. So, I don't think loyalty has gone down but rather it has shifted to a broader playing field of wine.
Gary Cohn
California —  February 4, 2014 6:00pm ET
Matt,
I have attended the Bordeaux tasting twice in the last few years in the Los Angeles Area. I did not find any lack of enthusiasm among the attendees. After all these are people who were there specifically to taste Bordeaux. The first one I attended was tasting the 2005 and 2006 vintages and the crowd was ecstatic with the wines and the people representing the Bordelais, the second tasting was of the 2009 vintage, and again the enthusiasm was high. However what I think has dampened the enthusiasm and love for these wines is their ever increasing price point. In 2005, the wines were expensive, but there were incredible wines that could be bought for fairly reasonable prices, by the 2009 vintage there were very few reasonably priced wines. For those of us that love Bordeaux, I believe that the cost of these wines has lowered their esteem among their fans. There are many Bordeaux blends throughout the world, but from my point of view, they are very different from what you can get from Bordeaux. If there was a lack of emotion among the people in San Francisco, perhaps it is attributable to the wines no longer being affordable to an average consumer.
S Vaughn White
Park City, Utah, U.S. —  February 4, 2014 6:16pm ET
Matt, I have to disagree somewhat. I feel that a good number of wine drinkers still have their loyalties; I have mine. New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs, Oregon Pinots, Washington Reds and Argentina's Malbecs. I find that my loyalties have shifted from Bordeaux and California to regions that provide better value. I use to collect Bordeaux back when I could buy Chateau Meyney, Grand Puy Lacoste, La Louviere, Pontet Canet or Lynch Bages for under $30. Now I can't touch these. The same goes for some of the California cabs that I used to enjoy. So maybe some regions have driven their loyal customers away by pricing them out of the market.
Eric Campos
Canada —  February 5, 2014 8:28am ET
Great article.

I think a lot consumer trust in specific bottlings/wineries/regions is misconstrued as loyalty. Sure, there are people loyal or with a strong preference for Barossa shiraz, but the market shows that many of these consumers from 15 years ago simply wanted a red with certain characteristics, and that they now trust a number of regions to deliver such an experience. Still, with so many options of a not-easy-to-grasp product, establishing trust is a pretty big accomplishment. Personally, I don't trust Chianti or Rioja as regions for less-than-fully-informed purchases, as their ranges of styles are way too variable (some of which I don't care for), but I do trust Clare Valley, Bandol, the Mosel and other regions to provide certain types of experiences while allowing for individual producer styles.

And yes, someone going on about being tied to the land for x number of generations can be terribly dull unless the narrative shows that the current principal has achieved more than being born into a family of landowners (and no, "balancing tradition with modernity", introducing sanitation standards and stainless steel fermentation tanks don't count.) I also suspect that the North American equivalent, about the wealthy businessman who threw money at prime land, facilities and technical expertise, doesn't generate emotional bonds with the typical consumer. Maybe the narrative around 'natural' wines resonates because following such principles can reinforce the image of these winegrowers as people of conviction who follow challenging practices, often despite limited means. Who doesn't like a good underdog story?
Peter Vangsness
East Longmeadow, MA —  February 5, 2014 10:47am ET
Matt,
Younger folks, generally, do not easily offer loyalty in most things they do - work, recreation, etc. They change jobs frequently, marry much later, and tend not to frequent the same recreational venues regularly. They like the "newness" factor, especially if it is accompanied by the "exclusivity" factor. Perhaps the French and Italian wine worlds are considered the worlds of their parents!
Additionally, the pricing of both better French and Italian wines would cool off any event designed to earn new consumers. The "buzz" of the new wine drinkers is either superb value or easy availability (so they can get it whenever they want it). Ever since overall wine quality around the world has improved, this condition has existed and will continue to exist.
Anthony W Beck
Los Angeles, Ca. —  February 5, 2014 12:32pm ET
Matt:

A very thought provoking article.

In addition to what has been offered by the other writers, I think two factors may be largely responsible: education and access.

Consumers have available a greater library of information to assist them in their purchases. Years ago, there was less information and more reliance on word of mouth, a chance recommendation from a store owner or a visit to a winery. We now have a multiplicity of writers that rate wine and discuss the wine in a way that consumers can choose a wine based on the varietal, the region or the taste profile. The Internet has exploded with information that allows consumers to virtually sample wines without spending the money. I should add that even the Wine Spectator's articles and wine reviews have become more informational as the magazine's subscribers(electronic and print) have grown.

The same may be said of access. In years past, many wine stores focused on a few regions that were representative of the New World and Old World. Since the turn of the century, new regions have been making better wines that are distributed worldwide. Even more establsihed regions are expanding their variety, as exemplified by all the new AVA's in California. People are more interested in trying new wines from new regions, so what may be viewed as a lack of loyalty may be more reflective of a newly acquired sense of adventure.

Many of us used to buy wine from one producer, knowing that if there were one or two so-so vintages, there was going to be a great vintage around the corner. This was especially true with Bordeaux. With prices that have escalated absurdly, consumers would rather spend their money exploring other venues and lesser known producers.

I suspect that what you have termed "lack of loyalty" was bound to happen as wine consumers became better educated and wine became more accessible. Rather than lamenting the loss of loyalty, we should celebrate the sense of adventure.

Don Rauba
Schaumburg, IL —  February 6, 2014 6:01pm ET
I like many (if not all) of the previous responses here, and find their points better made and more insightful than the article. How silly to lament "wine, both basic and fine, is nothing special anymore" based on an "industry event"! Oh, how sad life must be... for nothing could be further from the truth.

And to try to make the point that it is consumers who owe loyalty to Chateaus, who gouge consumers in "classic" vintages and only charge reasonable prices during mediocre ones (when they can't move product), is laughable. Why would consumers owe the Bordelais loyalty in such a free-market context? Do investors owe individual stocks or funds loyalty? Hardly.

There are wines to which I feel loyalty, but I assure you they're not Bordeaux. They're from Washington, California, Australia, Germany, and Spain, for starters...
Tom Blair
Little Silver, NJ —  February 6, 2014 6:06pm ET
I tend to agree with Gary that price point is a primary motivating factor. Why show loyalty to a brand when the brand merely sees you as a wallet to be sucked dry? If wineries (really anyhere in the world) are only trying to charge as much as they can, I'll leave them cold and look for a new source of good wine.
I used to buy the Columbia Crest reserve Cab when I could get it for $25-30, now it's $45-50 and no longer on my shopping list; and this increase is nothing compared to the extra hundreds (or thousands)the Boredlais charge when the newest "vintage of the millenium" rolls around.

There is too much good wine to be stuck on a name or a region.
Don Rauba
Schaumburg, IL —  February 7, 2014 9:29am ET
... and Portugal.
Sharon Eblen
Brookings, OR USA —  February 15, 2014 8:58pm ET
I agree with what Gary said. When I first got interested in wine, I was willing to spend a bit more money to try different wines from different wineries and regions. Now, as a baby boomer transitioning into retirement, I'm more interested in the bang for the buck. I want wines that are inexpensive enough to drink a couple bottles per week and share with my friends. Caveat: I have always been a bit cheap and have never attended a large tasting.
Raymond Archacki Jr
Wethersfield, CT USA —  February 18, 2014 3:51pm ET
I still think there is a lot of emotion with respect to wine collectors. I see it with my 30 year old daughter and her "millennial" friends as they all are so amazingly interested in the wines in my cellar that I share with them in informal tastings. However, I would never steer them towards Bordeaux or Napa Cabs as anything in their price range will be a disappointment and they would think I am crazy to recommend a $180 2010 3rd or 4th growth. Instead I point them to the wines of Spain, Syrah from Washington or California and my favorite region Italy.
As another writer mentions I am also put off by the huge price jumps for Bordeaux and Napa. I recall getting 1999 Phelps for $99 and now it has doubled. I recall hoping to get a single 1st growth when they ran about $200 and now the $1000 price tag is ridiculous. I now remain loyal to fewer and fewer "brands" as they just kept escalating their price of admission. Loyalty should be a two-way street.
Wendy Day
Napa, California, USA —  February 20, 2014 6:16pm ET
My pool of millenials is small, but I pour wine for young professionals on occasion and I look at it as grooming the next generation. They are still developing their palates and making sense of quality vs. pricing--they are independent thinkers.

It's great that they aren't loyal to a region (or a brand) just because it's the only name on a shelf that they recognize. This levels the field, right?

Quality wines at a fair market price will continue to do well.

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