The Loss of Loyalty
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.