By Dan Berger
Wineries around the world have long sought an answer to the major dilemma: How do you convert all those non-wine drinkers out there into wine drinkers?
It’s estimated that some 90 million adult Americans consume no wine at all, and never have. And another 25-45 million consume about one glass of wine per year — which makes them, for all intents and purposes, non-consumers.
Some people can’t consume any alcohol for medical or religious reasons, but some folks are what I term extremely infrequent consumers.
All sorts of techniques have been used in the past to convert some of these folks on the cusp, including the use of humorous radio or TV ads (such as the Stiller and Meara commercials decades ago for Blue Nun), the homey approach (the yuppie couple discussing the merits of Beringer White Zinfandel on radio), and many more.
One key point is that the wine being promoted has to appeal to the intended audience. A campaign directed at 21- to 25-year-olds would fail miserably if the wine being promoted was a $100 Barolo.
Additionally, when targeting an audience of non-consumers, the marketing folks have to remember a number of key facts:
1. The first wine people try and like usually is slightly if not very sweet.
2. It’s far easier to sell a generic than it is a daunting varietal, with all its built-in pretension and demand for knowledge (“how is this Cabernet different from that Merlot?”).
3. The wine has to be cheap enough to compete with soda.
(One of the most successful wine brands in the United States these days is Barefoot, a $6.99 line of non-vintage wines that offers good fruit and reliability at a very fair price.)
In fact, it’s not bad if entry-level wines actually taste like soda. After all, wine spritzers, Riunite, wine coolers, and White Zinfandel, not to mention fruit-flavored wines have all been introduced in part to appeal to non-wine consumers.
And although some White Zin is relatively dry and not at all as sickly sweet as most coolers, some of it is that sweet and falls into the category of “soda alternatives.”
Focusing on the product is, however, only one way to look at this issue of bringing in new consumers. Another is to look at the consumer, and remove some of the mystery from wine, to make it more approachable.
My suspicion is that the majority of people who don’t now drink wine in restaurants or buy it in wine shops have become non-consumers because they fear putting themselves on public display and risking embarrassment.
We all do things in private that we wouldn’t think to do in public, and ordering wine, whether in a restaurant or a wine shop, is an act that encourages observation, notably in the former than in the latter. And that is a fearful thought to some people.
Just imagine the person who likes White Zinfandel and actually buys it now and then. He or she might like it for sipping as an aperitif or even glugging down with a hamburger at home. But once in the restaurant, this person simply wouldn’t dare risk ordering a glass for fear it would be seen as declassé.
Fear of derision is one of the most powerful but often over-looked forces in civilized society. And for wine companies to break through that fear is a tricky thing.
For example, anyone who is selling Chardonnay with the terms “Reserve” anywhere on the label (even though that wine sells for less than $10) wants the product to look upscale, elegant, a grand choice for an elegant dinner party.
Yet aiming this same product to an audience that doesn’t know if Chardonnay is even a grape, the word Reserve is classic turn-off. Is this wine really high-quality? If it is, why is it only $8?
Over the years, various methods have been used to address the non-wine drinker. One of them was a clever bit of reverse snobbism, wines marketed as “Cheap Red Wine” and “Cheap White Wine.”
However, few wines are aimed at consumers who know little about it and don’t care to know much if anything about it except that it tastes good, it’s not too expensive, and buying it won’t have the store clerk guffawing.
Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon has been the only American vintner with a wit strong and persistent enough to constantly push the envelope with a near-endless string of outrageous labels.
Sort of the Weird Al Yankovich of the wine set, Grahm has produced wines that carry humor and parody to a new level. Alas, most of his wines are so excellent in quality that they must be sold for a bit more than a new or marginal consumer is likely to pay.
With the glut of wine in California and elsewhere, bringing more people to the table is vital for the health of the wine industry.