Learning the Techniques of Wine Marketing

The transparent truism about the marketing of wine is that we are all victims of a scheme that predetermines who will buy a certain wine based as much on its price as any other factor.

All of this must be adjusted, of course, to factors that are changing all the time — as will be seen in a few brief paragraphs.

Basic truisms that we all know will make this argument a bit clearer.

1. Wines selling for $5 a bottle (and as high as $8 a bottle) are aimed at a segment of the society that will drink the wine not for any illusory or transcendent qualities. It is, mainly, for washing down a Tuesday night, likely microwaved dinner that lasts a half hour, if that.

It is a wine that offers no pretense of specialness, and in that regard the wine need not have any sort of special appellation. Such a thing would be completely lost on the potential buyer.

Wine MarketingTake, for examples, a Merlot from Chile with Casablanca Valley as its appellation or an Australian Riesling that says Clare Valley. About 99% of all potential under-$10 buyers for such wines would have zero awareness of the quality statement such appellations would be making.

Indeed, not only would such an appellation be meaningless to almost all buyers, but the reverse is also true: no buyer who is aware of the quality meaning on such a bottle would even consider such a wine—and for two reasons.

First, as a more knowledgeable wine buyer peruses the shelves, he or she would not even consider a wine priced $5 to $8 (“I don’t drink cheap wine”), and thus would not even notice the Casablanca or Clare name.

And even if such a buyer did see the designation, the wine would be dismissed as “some closeout,” or be seen as a mistake (“No wine with that designation could be any good; the price is too low.”)

2. Most wines with a recognizable brand name can’t afford to price a wine too low for fear that consumers might assume the wine to be of poor quality. Even if it is.

A decade ago, a Sonoma Valley producer with a reputation for quality Merlot put out a truly wretched wine. I tasted it three times to verify how bad the wine was. And the wine maker even admitted to me, in a kind of off-the-record aside, that that year the company that owned the winery told him to make a lot more Merlot than he had ever made.

And he said the quality of his fruit wasn’t very good. Yet the wine remained at its old price (more than $20!), and what was amazing to me was the number of people at a wine symposium who said they thought the wine was excellent!

So dropping the price probably would have resulted in lower sales.

So now back to the transparent truism: Many wines that sell for more than $20 a bottle are targeted to wine buyers who think they know something about wine, but in reality most know very little. Wine companies know this and feed the beast with what I call chain-puller wines.

These are wines made to hit a price point and deliver an intensity even though the wines actually are rather hollow and vapid. One such wine is a popular Viognier from the Central Coast. It sells for a lot of money, but its alcohol is a clue to what you are getting.

At well over 15%, the wine is sweet on the palate and may well also have actual residual sugar. Yet the wine sells to people who think they know wine.

And there are many actually sweet, raisiny, port-like Zinfandels that sell for $25 and above. I can’t imagine that they would sell to the $12 buyer, who doesn’t want a statement, but a balanced wine.

And if such a wine were priced that low, no buyer of it at $25 to $35 would risk buying it; the price is too low.

This is what fuels much of the demand for “hot” Cabernets in California. People assume that they are getting a reliable and dramatic wine when they pay $100 to $300 a bottle for such wines. The price is a sort of guarantee of a reliable, consistent red wine, an insurance policy against anything that differs from what they bought last year.

Yet I recall fondly the marvelous line from Irish dramatist and wit Oscar Wilde, who once said, “Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative.”

I estimate that about 10% of the wines in this world are priced at about what they ought to sell for, neither too high nor too low. About 80%, by my seat-of-the-pants reckoning, are overpriced.

That leaves only about 10% of all wine that is under-priced, relative to their real-world quality. Of these, almost all are made from grape varieties that rarely rise to the level of iconic. Rieslings, cool-climate reds, and most dry rosés top the list of underpriced wines. So do wines from South Africa, the Loire Valley, and even many from New Zealand.

The overpriced list is so large it’s almost impossible to say what’s on it, but suffice it to say that any wines without the proper balance to go with food are highest on my list of “too expensive.”

This is a topic worth pursuing with a lot of examples.

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