Thursday, November 18, 2010

A Challenge to the Wine Industry

There are many positive factors that have parlayed wine into the adult beverage most associated with good taste, sophistication and style. Wine quality, at all price levels, has improved dramatically. The range of wine types and styles available today is complete enough to satisfy every possible consumer preference and pocketbook. Indeed one of the challenges consumers face is how to confidently drill into the overwhelming number of choices and find wines they will love.

An equally dizzying number of choices exists with wine classes, educational initiatives and the availability of wine evaluations and information. The birth and expansion of social media, blogs and on line wine communities ranging from eRobert Parker, Jancis Robinson and Snooth have provided and explosion of connectivity and the ability to share points of view. To top it all off there are new generations of wine heroes and evangelists like Gary Vaynerchuk, Joe Roberts, Jeff Lefevere, Alder Yarrow and many, many others that millions of consumers and professionals alike tune into every day. Yep, there is plenty of wine information and interaction available.

This being said I am struck by how often the same issues and obstacles to expanding wine consumption seem to arise over and over again. So let’s take a look at the progress that has been made over the past 10 years. The following quote appeared in Brand Week a decade ago and at the center of discussion in many wine industry circles as a call to action:
“The fragmented, historically insular (wine) industry generally seems resigned to accepting the wine consumer pool as is rather than aggressively pursuing new markets... the next decade could easily be referred to by future wine historians as the "years of missed opportunity.” Brand Week, May 1, 2000

10 Years After
So what does the wine landscape look like 10 years after Brand Week’s prediction that “the next decade could easily be referred to as the ‘years of missed 0pportunity’”?

“The wine industry is guilty of going out of its way to confuse the consumer, and must urgently come up with 'a new big idea', according to a British advertising heavyweight…'The wine industry is the most fragmented market I've seen. Fragmented, confusing, impenetrable.'” Sir John Hegarty, June 28, 2010, Masters of Wine International Symposium, Bordeaux, France

Hmmm. Sounds pretty familiar. What is it that keeps us stuck in this deeply etched rut carved into the path of wine enjoyment and appreciation? I am convinced that it is a combination of complacency, misinformation and stubbornness in the wine industry. It is an unwillingness to adapt and change that is preventing us from having a larger consumer base and compromising our long-term fiscal stability and health. Despite ample evidence that the wine industry would be well served by becoming more consumer-focused, simplifying our messages and improving OUR ability to communicate our mantra remains the same, “we must better educate consumers, move them up to better wine.”

This is nothing new about the wine industry mission to educate consumers and there is also nothing wrong with the idea. Ditto for the idea of moving them up to better wine. Perhaps what we really need is another strategy to run concurrently. We seem to be keeping something in place that is not working for a really large portion of the market and then we wonder why we are not making more sustainable progress in removing the overwhelm and intimidation as evidenced in every wine consumer study ever conducted.

This quote about the Project Genome consumer study taken from Wines & Vines in 2008, “With the highest percentage of consumers falling into the "Overwhelmed" category, Leslie Joseph, Constellation's vice president of consumer research affairs, commented: ‘We need to do a better job as an industry of helping these people understand what a wine's going to taste like.”

And the following is from the UK site WINEOPTIONS.COM illustrating this phenomenon is present on a global scale. “WineOption.org feels the wine trade has traditionally placed its focus on connoisseurs and wine snobs rather than the much greater number of unpretentious people who enjoy wine. Many producers, retailers and wine writers have traditionally taken much of the potential enjoyment out of wine drinking by shrouding the subject with myth, snobbery, and arcane or pretentious language. This facade has been, and in some quarters remains, a convenient means of confusing or even intimidating wine shoppers into making purchase decisions much less helpfully informed than is the case with most other foods and beverages. In fact, it is perfectly possible to provide in relatively simple day to day language the basic information which most wine drinkers need and want to select any given wine.”

I think that it is high time we look in the mirror and ask ourselves, “What are we missing that keeps a vast majority of consumers (and many of us professionals who are able to admit it) confused, mystified and intimidated?” The answer as I see it is to turn the tables and start newly educating ourselves and cleaning up a lot of the tired clich├ęs and misinformation that is disseminated under the pretense of “wine education”. I am not implying that we stop wine education per se, just that we enforce a greater rigor in the information we dispense and come up with alternative solutions for the huge market segment that is further disenfranchised by our narrow, product-based and self-serving approach. The call to action is not to change anything about the many things we are doing right as an industry, it is a call to action so we can collectively discover what we may be missing that would add immeasurably to our continued growth and success.

I love this quote: “To effectively communicate, we must realize that we are all different in the way we perceive the world and use this understanding as a guide to our communication with others.” Tony Robbins

What would it look like if the wine industry and wine communities to on the mission to understand, embrace and cultivate ALL wine consumers, not just the over-saturated segment we narrowly define as ‘worthy’? What if our next educational initiative were internal and focused on learning more about consumers and discovering more about who likes what and why? I would love to hear your thoughts on the matter!


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