The wine business is on the move. There has been a fundamental shift. Depending on who one talks to, it is either so small as to be barely noticeable, or so huge that the walls have come tumbling down and we are in shock and no longer recognize the landscape we have found ourselves in.
Kurt Vonnegut was familiar with cataclysm and change. And along the way he became a major brand, Kurt Vonnegut. For impressionable youth who had 95 cents for a paperback, Vonnegut challenged our pre-existing ideas about where we were going. And for many of us, he was a huge wave that took us on the long ride out of the doldrums of the 1950’s. He became huge, enormously popular and recognizable to millions. An icon. But somewhere along the line I believe he stayed true to his mission, his “brand”. His books are still enormously popular, though he has long since departed these shores. And while he was attaining, fame, wealth and freedom, he didn’t let it fundamentally change what his message was or who he was. Stardom didn’t alter his course. So it goes.
Santa Margherita, known the world over for light, fruity, Pinot Grigio. Reviled by connoisseurs, envied by the competition and made the butt or the target of so many salespeople and wine journalists who have scoped it in their sights for their own aggrandizement. And all along the way, 30 years and counting, SMPG just keeps knocking them out of the ring. It is a brand and it hasn’t tried to be anything other than what it is: light, fruity, white wine for people who are looking for that kind of thing. Say what you want about it, and I’m sure the navel gazers of the wine world are rolling their eyes right about now. If they read these words. Which they don’t. So we’re “safe.” Santa Margherita isn’t looking to tempt the hairy armpit crowd. All along this brand has really only been successful at this: making a lot of money selling Pinot Grigio for a high price. And making a lot of people happy. Always pretty much the same message, lightly dry and fruity. End of story. But what a success story the “brand” of Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio has been. So it goes.
And now we have Robert M. Parker. The wine critic people love to hate. Or fear. Or copy. Or target. And what has his transgression been? Depending on who you ask and what period of time, he has been accused of liking overly alcoholic wines, overly fruity wines, Bordeaux and not Burgundy, Barolo but not Chianti, oak, malolactic acid, micro-oxygenation, New world wines and Old World wines in New World clothes. People have criticized him for his palate, even though, the whole time, what has he been doing? He has been tasting wine and saying what it is he likes. And in return, many, many winemakers have either agreed with him or wanted their wines to be liked by him, because he was a force of nature and because HE SOLD WINE. Was that his intent? Or did he have a sinister plan to inexorably change the way wine was made?
Parker is the “brand”. Not Squires, not Galloni, not Rovani. Parker. And yes, now he can extend his influence, enlarge his scope by opening up his world to other voices, other palates. Line extensions. But like Santa Margherita, people flock to Parker for Parker, or are threatened by Parker because of Parker. And what has he done all this time? He has stayed true to his vision of what he appreciates in a wine, pure and simple. You don’t have to agree with him. But the man, the brand, became the influencer he has because he built his castle brick by brick. So it goes.
The challenge for a brand will be for it to stay relevant as the future crashes all around us. Parker the man is set for life. Parker the brand is being challenged, by the Vaynerchucks and the bloggers and the many new young wine drinkers whom he might not ever be able to catch up with in communicating in the ways they have set. And while I’m in no way advising him (or anyone) to blog or to set up a Twitter or Facebook account, the ways in which the future is arriving will make his newsletter (and this blog) seem quaint and dated and over. Unless he (and we) adapt.
Or wait for fins, and chrome and broad white walls to come back in vogue.
Don’t hold your breath.