Sunday, May 10, 2009

Vonnegut, St. Margherita and Parker

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.


Sapore said...

OMG, I love this post. So many things that run through my mind, as I set out to identify myself, and what I want. One should be shameless in the pursuit of oneself, and isn't purity always mocked anyways?

David Waddington said...

Santa Margherita is such a conundrum. Whenever I taste it, it is always good and well made. Are there better wines for better prices?
Absolutely! As a wine guy, do I resent it as a marketing rather than agricultural commodity? Absolutely! BUT as a retailer, do I LOVE the way it flies off the shelf at its price point? Absolutely! Conflicted? Absolutely. And so it goes.

Passi said...

got to agree with dave

Santa Margherita is an old favourite of mine!

Do Bianchi said...

so important to remember, as well, the many doors that SM opened for Italian wine in the 1980s. The genius marketing (the now much-imitated label and the clear-glass bottle) and the leap of faith by Tony Terlato to bring this brand to the US forever changed the way people thought about Italian wine (the same could be said of Mariani and Banfi, too, another favorite target).

and let's be honest, and this applies to every wine snob among us (myself included): when you're stuck in the middle of nowhere at some corporate chain restaurant while on the road for whatever job you do and there is NOTHING on the list you can drink, you're sure happy to find a clean, crisp Pinot Grigio that pairs well with food... the SM label has be a sight for sore eyes for all of us...

Player Piano and Slaughter House 5 are my favorite Vonnegut novels, in case you're interested... great post...

BK said...

As Kilgore used to say: "Diddley-Squat" to anyone who doesn't think this a great post.

I'll leave you with this, as the lyrics reflect the same thoughts as here -- So It Goes.And so it goes and so it goes,
And so it goes and so it goes,
But where it's goin' no one knows

Brooklynguy said...

Well said, well said indeed.

Anonymous said...

I think Vonnegut might say: "I want to scream. I am screaming! But nobody hears me. I yell Santa Margherita is just wine. I'm glad you like it. But there is more. More. Just open your mouth and your mind. But they won't listen to me.

"But this guy Parker they listen to. He isn't even screaming. He tells them to buy this stuff and they buy and drink. And it must be good because it costs so much. And Parker says it's good. Why should they make up their own minds?

"Yet somehow, I don't mind. The war is over and I'm sitting at a cafe in Bolzano. Everyone here is now elated they only used to be part of Germany. The bottle of Santa Margherita Gewurtztraminer was deliciously spicy. I know I will never see it when they ship me back to the States. Why send the really good wine when Americans will buy Pinot Grigio? Besides, who in Amwerica would buy a German wine from Italy? And soon they'll bring the duck and a fabulous Santa Margherita Lagrein and it will be a deliciously lovely, hazy afternoon."

He might of written that, but I don't think he liked wine. I don't think they made much back in Indiana.

Alec Chalmers said...

lol, anyone who's actually read breakfast of champions wouldn't be able to look at the back of this womans neck and not laugh. At first glance the doodle looks like a star but it's actually meant to be something else.

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