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Things I Hate #152: Wine

Well, maybe “hate”‘s a strong word. I’ve just never had a wine that I’d prefer over a good beer. I’ll keep trying though. You know, for science.

What I do hate is the wine industry. Bunch of namby-pamby grape gropers whose bottles collect dust and who spit instead of swallow. Which is why my interest was piqued by a blog post (What the Wine Industry Can Learn from Craft Beer) suggesting that craft beer-style innovation would be a boon to the wine industry. It’s a good read; check it out.

What the article fails to address is the fundamental difference between beer and wine consumers. Beer drinkers fall into two fairly distinct categories: craft beer drinkers and non-craft beer drinkers. Wine drinkers also fall into two categories: expensive wine drinkers and inexpensive wine drinkers. The difference is that cheap wine drinkers want the same products as the expensive wine drinkers, just lower-cost versions. Economies of scale dictate that the craft wineries charge higher prices, whether their product is substantially different or not. This would be especially true for any winery bold enough to test-market a small batch of something truly innovative.

Besides, what does innovation look like in the wine industry? Fermenting Pinot with a Chardonnay yeast? Scandalous. The problem isn’t that genuine innovation is impossible, but that it’s undesirable. Of course a vintner could make a Passionfruit Pinot Grigio. It just isn’t clear that anyone would want it.

Craft brewers are innovators for the simple reason that craft beer drinkers don’t feel beholden to tradition, whereas wine – at least wine as we know it – is nothing but tradition. Demand drives supply, and the consumers who are amassing five-figure cellars full of craft wines value tradition. Seriously unconventional wines aren’t impossible, but the market is certainly unproven. The shoe is on the other foot. If craft wineries do succeed in creating this new market, it will be by emulating the brewers they’ve spent the past few centuries turning up their noses at. And that’s a thought that any beer drinker should love.

Then again, what do I know? I hate wine.

4 comments to Things I Hate #152: Wine

  • Sean O'Rear

    Don’t forget that there is at least one thing that the craft beer industry should learn from wine. It is an excepted part of wine to vary seasonally. Year to year crops contain different tannin levels, different sugars, may have poor yields, etc. A 2008 Ranch Zabaco is not necessarily “identical” to 2009 of the same wine.

    Budweiser, and other big breweries, have long cultivated the mentality that every single Bud from every single brewery every single year MUST taste identical. It is the one great lesson we need to learn from wineries. Batch brewing produces slight differences! Celebrate it!

    • Good point, Sean. Brewers do have one big advantage in that we have maltsters helping us to even out those seasonal variations. Roughly comparable to the truly huge wineries that source grapes from dozens of vineyards. The big breweries can do similar things with their hops, by buying up a substantial portion of the annual production of their chosen varieties.

      If you’re a small brewery making an IPA, all bets are off. Those seasonal variations in hop crops are going to make themselves known in a way that just doesn’t happen to the macro lager breweries. I still think that consistency is a worthwhile goal, and that’s where regular tastings come in.

      Sean

  • Thanks for the feedback but I have to disagree with you on a couple of points.

    I honestly don’t believe there is a fundamental difference between wine and beer drinkers – as a wine professional I can attest to the fact there is a big difference in the types and styles of wines drunk at the bottom, mid and top range. Those who drink ‘cheap’ wine tend to drink simple, easy to understand and enjoy styles and grape varieties, while a proportion of mid-range drinkers drink these wines it is small – they pay for and expect more depth and complexity in the wines they drink and gravitate to wines that can offer this like Riesling, Pinot Noir and Syrah. Expensive wine drinkers go even further often drinking styles of wine that are even more so, often to the point (as in the case for the wines of Bordeaux) that are difficult to enjoy as a novice. This is exactly the same for beer drinkers – compare drinkers of beers like bud (cheap/simple), Sierra Nevada Pale Ale (mid range with some complexity) and then those who love more out-there styles such as Belgian Quadruples, Sour Beers, Imperial Beers…

    Well made wine is going to cost more than crap – but there wines that are grown and made with integrity that are only a fraction more expensive than industrial swill (the same can be said of the difference between industrial and craft lager).

    Truly, I entirely sure what innovation today would be in the wine industry but there are many examples of innovation in the wine industry that have worked such as California’s Rhone Rangers or initiatives around alternative closures.

    Finally, I think the comment about how the wine industry has snubbed the beer industry is dishonest – most winemakers I know are craft beer drinkers and most have been for a very long time, much before craft became mainstream – why are so many craft breweries located near to wine growing regions – particularly in the USA (California and Oregon), Australia and New Zealand. Likewise the sommelier community was also vital for bringing craft into the mainstream and for showing the establishment that it is an important beverage and can be as serious as wine.

  • it’s not all about the quality versus quantity argument. Even if InBev can make a genuinely delicious beer, it’s their marketing and business practices which leave a bad taste in my mouth. Scaling a quality product up to competitive quantities without having to employ slippery business practices, now that’s a craft. Once in the 70′s a friend brought over some new beer, it was Killian’s Irish red. My friend told me Coors was looking at investing in the company. The beer I tasted was actually brought over from Ireland, and it was really fabulous. I tried it again after it became a product of Coors, and it simply wasn’t the same. it was generic-ized. I suspect this example has been repeated a thousand times since then. While ideally size shouldn’t matter, most of the time it does. There are too many subtleties in brewing. The land and climate under which a certain variety of grain is grown can make a huge impact on the end-product and copying the recipe and scaling it up to volume isn’t possible. Large Breweries shoot themselves in the foot when they acquire and then try to scale up a product to volume, ignoring the small details. Those small details are the magic in a micro brew or a craft beer. The variety from batch to batch is important, and when the breweries try to force consistency on a product like that, they ruin it more often than not. It becomes generic. Perhaps this is a lesson the large breweries could take from the Wine Industry. Great wine is expensive because it can’t be made in any higher quantity. It varies a little bit from year to year because weather affects the ingredients. Forming a committee and legislating on it only serves bureaucrats, not the consumer.

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