Sunday, September 23, 2018

Things I’ve learned about wine and life on the road in America

Taking a break from my latest series on native & indigenous Italian grapes.

They've all come to look for America
What can be a finer fast-track to peek into the present state of the wine trade than going door-to-door, store-to-store and restaurant-to-restaurant, talking to wine buyers? During the last 100 days, I’ve traveled around America - to New York, San Francisco, St. Louis, San Antonio, Atlanta, Portland, Kansas City, Seattle, Austin, Chicago, Denver, Washington DC, Dallas, and into the urban jungles and suburban communities in states like Connecticut, Northern California (Silicon Valley), New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, Colorado and Texas. These are a few of the things I’ve learned. Call it a refresher course on the state of the wine trade in America.

Scores - It’s a toss-up. Buyers will look at a good score (90+) but unless it is a 95+ and priced affordably within its competitive set, there isn’t a lot of energy beyond that to motivate or encourage a sale. Short and not-so-sweet.

Awards – There used to be a time when a gold medal was a big deal. That ship has sailed. Even a Double-Gold, Best of Show, or President’s Cup merits not even a meh. What I see is this: The older buyers have seen it all and they tell me that there are too many competitions awarding medals to wines. Having been been through enough economic cycles, they don’t think a gold medal is a magic bullet in an economically unsettled time (which is what they tell me they are in). Unless there is a shelf talker on the rack, the consumer rarely comes in on their own with a list of must-have wines from a contest. A younger buyer is totally nonplussed by this effort to influence their decision. And the new generation of wine store merchants who have come from other cultures (India, Korea, etc.) are more interested in getting their store to be profitable than to think about something that, to them, is peripheral to the main objective of getting people in the store and selling merchandise on a regular basis. The thrill is gone.

Price – Seems to be one of the biggest factors. It’s the economy, stupid. The wine trade has often been a race to the bottom, and these days, there is a significant concern for revenue and profit. Even in affluent communities like Fairfield County, Connecticut, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties in California (Silicon Valley), Fairfax County, Virginia (near DC), Cook County, Illinois, and so on, there is some degree of angst in regards to the media (or White House) promoted idea of robust health in the American economy. Inotherwords, there is still a high anxiety over a buying decision. They’re still waiting for the “economic miracle” to appear on their doorstep. As well, inventories on the floor are looking leaner. And even though a BMW SUV or a Tesla pulls up to these stores on a regular basis, and the clientele are wealthier than the average American, the buyers are rarely in the same economic stratum. There is a lot of trepidation. If I could use one word it would be: Fear.

Branding – there is plenty of anecdotal information about the “end of the brand” in the wine trade. Millennials are “brand averse.” Well, the influencers, the “30 under 30” crowd might be. But from what I’ve witnessed, the idea of a rip-roaring brand that sells itself is a dream that is alive and well in the hopes and wishes of the front-line retailers in America. Look at rosé wine, canned wine, Bourbon, Tequila, hell, look at Tito’s Vodka. People want brand names, don’t kid yourself. They want something to be recognized. Not everyone is a trailblazer. This was probably one of the most mind-blowing realities I encountered everywhere, even in New York City. And Portland, Oregon! Yes, you read it right.

Distribution – I’m half a year out from the jaws of wholesale distribution. What a relief, to not be there in this moment. Hey, I served my sentence in that channel. And there are scads of young folks aching to get a job in the wholesale arena. It’s safe, it’s still sexy, and it’s a paycheck (with healthcare and 401K).

The reality is, the world around the wholesale distribution channel is changing, with attitudes about buying (thank you Amazon, eBay and Uber) evolving in different steps. It’s as if one were trying to force a waltz dance to hip hop.

Another reality is that many small wine shops and restaurants are dependent (or acclimated to depend) on the waltz model of distribution. I buy wine now from traditional 3-tier supply chains, from wineries direct, from collectors and friends (sometimes we just swap stuff) and any number of ways – not just the long-established conduits. And I’m not a young’un. So, imagine the millennial generation, or the generation coming up right behind them, and how they might imagine the future? If I were a wholesaler… well I’m not. And I’m not going to volunteer my observations or advice for free, for we all know how much weight a free opinion carries these days. It is sufficient to say the wine trade is in extreme flux with regards to how a product ultimately gets to the dinner table, and we will see as much change in the next five years as we have witnessed in the last 30.

Guru fatigue – With a barrage of instant influence (and influencers) in the Age of Disruption, my experience has been that having certified expertise in a field has lost some of its blinding sheen out there in the universe of the door-to-door business of the wine trade. These buyers could care less if I am WSET, CSW, MS, MW or PHD. In fact, in our populist wave, it is seen as another “us vs. them” wedge. I don’t tell anyone if I have postnominals. I don’t even tell them I’ve been blogging regularly since 2005. They don’t want an expert telling them what they should do, think or drink (or sell). What they want is a story.

[A note to young people looking to increase their “cred” in the wine trade. With the recent minting of 24 new master sommeliers and 10 new masters of wine, you might consider distinguishing yourself in another way. If I were 30, I’d head to Navaho country and find a Spider Grandmother to teach me how to tell a story.]

Look, all the folks who achieved certified mastery did it because they were really, really good at it. But folks like Rudi Wiest, Kermit Lynch, Neal Rosenthal and Luigi Veronelli were also very, very good at what they do (or did). There is no one-path. And today, the buyers relate to connection, to eye contact, to pictures, to stories. Weave a dream in front of them and they will give you their hearts.

The good news? People still love to drink wine. Wine offers a path to conviviality, to community, and has been, for ages, a way to a greater connection with our fellow humans. The vintner in a stained sweater, pulling wine from a barrel with a small hose, dropping the newly born precious liquid in a smudged glass, standing in a puddle in an arctic cold cave, and offering it to you. Sounds like hell, but it’s a doorway into Paradise. I still love it, and I admire all the folks in all their different channels, propelling the magic liquid ever so slowly, from the barrels to the dining room tables of America. That’s my ongoing dream. And it’s a good one.

wine blog +  Italian wine blog + Italy W


Marco Scopello said...

Talk about distillation, it's all there as you lay it out, amico and people pay $50k+ a year for an MBA.

Bill Eyer said...

The points you make about purchased 'expertise' are valid but is the wine guru really an endangered species? Having not been too far removed from running a multi-million dollar wine biz, a couple of years ago now, I had a few credentials, but not one I wore. It was passion, as you point out, which drove customers to trust me.

Alfonso Cevola said...

Right you are, Bill.
I believe the notion that certified credentials will give one carte blanche (and a guaranteed high income) is no longer a safe assumption. I also believe that one can apply their passion, their dedication and their love for something and make it to the top of the mountain.

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