Sunday, August 12, 2007

Are You Being Conned?

Each time you buy wine there's a strong possibility you've been conned. It's like buying a used car - if you haven't taken it for a test drive you're taking a chance. And I've heard odds such as one in ten to one in twenty for selecting a 'good' one off the shelf without a recommendation. You can't believe the salesman. You can't believe the label. Nor does price mean anything. For the best odds, follow a wine critic - just keep in mind they have their own tastes not yours. The business is full of talking heads, kilted comics, street buskers, mood matchers, blogging authors and self proclaimed oenologists. There's more than a few wine country encyclopedists to exile your tastes into varietal and terroir mumbo jumbo, Niagara evangelists and hucksters doing tricks with glasses. I'm not criticizing any... most are entertaining. They're just trying to earn a buck from the noble grape in an ever burgeoning field. BUT the sooner you know you're on your own the more you'll enjoy the wine you drink!

I'm just a consumer that's made many trips to the LCBO and read innumerable wine columns, in print and on the internet. I'd like to pass along some observations and, hopefully, some helpful tips. Fortunately, you can start turning the odds in your favour with your very next vino purchase.

Now, if you want to skip most of this diatribe just skip to the underlined section below:

First my observations: Argentina and Chile are being touted as countries that offer 'value' wines, wines in the $12 to $18 range and rated 88 - 92. Most of the wines I've tasted from these countries have been exemplary in both their varietal traits and the winemaker's skill to select fruit and blend for excellent results. Generally speaking I've very much enjoyed their wines and after many tastings have found some consistent values. This doesn't mean there hasn't been exceptions - nor that there aren't excellent values from other countries. It just takes me fewer tastings to isolate the values from Argentina and Chile. There's a reason for this...

Most countries (not excluding Argentina and Chile) are introducing what I will coin 'Low Cost Beverages', ie. dumbed down products at a lower price point, $8 to $12. LCBs take advantage of high volume production methods and rely on higher tonnage crops and the harvest from whole regions in the respective country. I haven't read any favourable reviews and, it would appear, LCBs are being ignored by most critics.

I'll mention Tetra Pak products at this point. A Tetra Pak is simply a carton or a packaging option which facilitates high volume production and lowers shipping costs. A Tetra Pak could actually contain a quality wine although those I've tasted so far are drink-nows, ie. not for cellaring. Critics review them occasionally but, as in the case for LCBs, I can't recall any that have been favourable. Unfortunately LCBs sometimes are packaged as Tetra Paks giving the latter a bad rap.

Then there are entry level wines or elws. In contrast to LCBs, elws have been around for quite awhile and are an entirely different category. Wine levels or 'tiers', in which the first level is the lowest priced label for a vintner's product range, are primarily based on the winemaker's view of the vintage year and grape selection. It's when a profit motive replaces this natural selection with nondescript grapes and/or chemical recipes that entry level wines turn into LCBs.

The conclusion I draw is that a subculture of the wine industry, often part of large conglomerates, has decided there is considerable money to be made from a lower cost beverage. In some cases the low cost of grapes, either excess from name wineries or from coop vineyards, allows extremely high margins. The fruit need not be varietals but anything resembling a grape and additives can be used to compensate for missing varietal traits. There's no requirement to tell you what's in the bottle. A whole marketing facade is built around publicizing, pushing, and propagandizing to attain and expand consumer acceptance of these new labels. LCBs present a real downside to consumers. I don't see any regulatory body ready to step up to the challenge of controlling what can be done in the name of 'wine' and critics tend to go with the flow - it's not investigative journalism. It's left up to you.

But simply producing LCBs doesn't guarantee they'll sell. The question becomes 'How do you get people to buy inferior wines?' I submit there are two ways to do this:

1. Marketing campaigns - expand the customer base to those that are new to or are unfamiliar with real wines
  • Glamorize the product often enough and some of it will stick.
  • Use Brand names associated with popular events or are colourful, catchy, sexy and sometimes, shocking.
  • Advertise concern for the environment, for wildlife preservation - whatever a regional interest might be.
  • Use traditional terms and names inferring they still apply - the products appear as 'wine'.
2. Pricing
  • Replace lower tier wines with LCBs at the same price point.
  • Raise prices for each tier product thereby widening the price gap and encouraging the purchase of LCBs.
  • Expand 'tier' branding to differentiate product levels and further segment the market.
Now to 'start turning the odds in your favour'. Choose to be a discriminating consumer.
  • Read the label... ignore the motherhood, the marketing BS and the packaging. Does it tell you anything about the contents: aroma, flavour, vintage or vineyards? If it doesn't, It's a con, move on. If it does, go to the next step.
  • Read again as you taste the product. Did the label fairly represent your experience? If it doesn't, you've been conned. But you may still like it.
  • Regardless of the labeling, would you get it in when guests are coming? If not... jot the name down indelibly in your 'don't buy' column. Jot down the name of the Company producing your plonk as well. If it conned you once it'll con you again with another label.
Negative or positive.... do something with what you've discovered. Tell your friends, publish a blog, and never hesitate to take a wine back. You'll help keep someone else from being conned!
Good luck, Ww

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