Closing the Gap between Consumer and Producer
I'll start with the most obvious and seemingly insurmountable problem. Much has been written on the subject of the three tier distribution system. Will that distribution structure be changed anytime soon; or ever? Highly unlikely. However, many of us can help the industry by encouraging consumers to reach out to the original source. My first words of encouragement came from Robert Parker, who urged readers to get on the mailing list of wineries that impressed him. That advise dramatically improved my wine drinking life.
Varietal Discrimination in Wine Scoring
This has been a sore subject for me for years. Someone has yet to cogently explain to me why certain varietals perennially get higher scores than others. This lopsided scoring system is clearly slanted in favor of certain chosen varieties. This is particularly discouraging for growers and producers who, for instance, work just as hard at growing Sauvignon Blanc as Cabernet. So far, no major critic has yet had the chutzpah to go against the criteria that they themselves created. However, this could all change if writers, growers, vintners and retailers took it upon themselves to judge each variety on its own merit and communicate that concept to consumers.
Outdated Old World Reverence
Somewhere the memo that older is better got lost in the mail for me. Old is old, not automatically good. Granted, viticultural history that is generational, allowing a son/daughter to learn from father/grandfather is an unquantifiable value-added legacy. However, a three hundred year history does not automatically spell on-going success. Being tethered to a plot of land with no chance of expansion or diversification; along with familial issues and government overregulation are no friends of progress.
New World wineries had to learn by leaps and bounds in a relatively short amount of time. Unquestionably, they did a great job. The viticultural progress made in a mere thirty years by growers in the US, New Zealand, Australia, Chile, Argentina, etc. is staggering. Yes, it is still a learning process, but it always will be. The quality of wine produced in these areas speaks for itself. The New World wine industry need not feel like the an unwanted stepchild and certainly doesn't need to emulate its French, Spanish or Italian forefathers.
The Need for Better Branding Skills
Consumers respond to creative marketing and appreciate unique products. Wineries that are highly skilled at viticulture and the black art of wine making, often fail to execute on the most important step in their business: creating an emotional bond between their brand and the consumer.
There are exceptions; take Sine Qua Non, for instance. Many domestic Syrah producers complain bitterly about consumers' perception of the variety and its position in the market. The influx of inexpensive, warm climate, fruit-forward Aussie Shiraz has, in many ways, defined the market for Syrah. In this environment, for many producers, cool-climate Syrah has failed to find its niche. However, this hasn't been true for Manfred Krankl. His break-out Syrahs attracts high-end consumers with creative, hand painted labels. Mind boggling after-market pricing and a decade long waiting list followed. Conclusion: great product + unique and creative branding = winner.
A Paucity of Proactive Social Media Marketing
I'm amazed by how many smaller producers fail to use social media to engage consumers with their brands. Many cite a lack of resources; but really, how much effort does it take to compose a 140 character Tweet? It is entirely understandable that smaller wineries, with just a few staff members, face greater challenges than large brands with access to extensive marketing funds and expensive PR agencies. However, an argument could be made that smaller vintners would most benefit from a marketing push. The most obvious answer is the consistent use of social media resources, most of which are free, and quite effective. The use of social media is especially important in targeting millennials, who according to many market studies, are taking a serious interest in wine.
The laid-back reliance on "word of mouth" or "whoever walks into my tasting room" is not a pathway to growth and prosperity.
Educating Sophisticated Consumers Without Delving into "Inside Baseball"
Many dedicated wine lovers seek to educate themselves on the fundamentals growing grapes and making wine. As an industry, we're not very good at explaining the wine production process without going waist deep into biology, arcane terminology, and complex organic chemistry. The process of bud-to-bottle production is fascinating. However, having sat through hundreds of consumer wine seminars, I'm disappointed by the lack of dynamic, concise, and engaging presentations. Many vintners get so far "into the weeds," that even highly sophisticated, eager to learn consumers zone-out. For every Ehren Jordan, who ignites the audience with clearly presented insights, accentuated with a sardonic sense of humor, there are dozens who put the audience to sleep in the first four minutes. The result: a wasted opportunity to engage the wine world's most dedicated consumers. We need articulate industry ambassadors that can educate and energize our most valued customers.
Media Propagation of Industry Dogmas
Once in a while it's good to turn a critical eye on one's own profession. My biggest frustration with my colleagues is the blind parroting of meaningless, dogmatic trends, typically propagated by those who know the least, but prophesize the most. For instance, the low-alcohol oracles promote a style of wine that is fundamentally out of harmony. The idea of low-alcohol wine is appropriate when motivated by picking at lower Brix to preserve acidity. However, balanced wines come from a balanced approach to winemaking, not a single-minded focus on one characteristic.
We in the wine world have been blessed to work in a glamorous, hedonistic and fascinating industry. I thank God every day for it. With great blessings, however, come even greater responsibility. I hope we all play our part in improving this wonderful world that we inhabit, with every sip.
Ilona Thompson is a wine industry consultant and Editor-in-Chief of