© Pure Wow
| The dangers of too much information.
Wine labels have a habit of being dense and over-complicated.
To obfuscate, or not to obfuscate, that is the question; whether ’tis nobler to bombard consumers with information, or to keep the marketing messages as simple, and streamlined as possible?
That was the main takeaway from a recent debate with José Urtasun, co-owner of Rioja winery Remirez de Ganuza. A group of journalists and buyers had assembled in London to discuss the region’s future and the validity of the single-vineyard classification framework, with the usual observations about the difficulties of selling higher-priced Rioja repeated ad nauseam.
“I have observed that in the UK market in particular, selling high-priced Rioja is more of a challenge, and that consumers seem wary of Rioja over a certain price-point,” noted Urtasun, adding that Spain clearly wasn’t alone in this regard. Indeed, Champagne, Burgundy, Bordeaux, Piedmont and Napa eat your heart out, the rest of the world – know your place.
It’s an axiom that is as integral to the wine trade as free lunches – there is virtually zilch brand loyalty (outside of the fine wine sphere) in this game, I’m repeatedly told, and consumer perceptions/price-ceilings are almost impossible to overcome. And if there is any loyalty, it is to generic categories such as Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc rather than to specific brands.
So it is of little surprise that Europe’s vignerons, who may lack contemporary prestige, are developing a powerful neurosis about differentiating their wines from the mass market.
Their weapon of choice typically looks to Bordeaux and Burgundy for inspiration – consumers are increasingly given heightened levels of information via vineyard classifications and the like.
Cava has its Paraje Calificado, Rioja has Vinedos Singulares and Germany sings from the Grosse Lage/Erste Lage hymn sheet.
The proponents of such ventures are convinced that they create added value in the eyes of consumers and help artisan growers differentiate themselves from the volume-led producers, who, they believe, reinforce low price ceilings. The end commercial goal being, of course, to justify premium price tags.
They want the equivalent of a Premier Grand Cru Classe A, and they want it now.
OK, slight exaggeration. But equally, if you point out that Bordeaux and Burgundy have had far longer to work on their act, the response is usually a snort of indifference – terroir is too valuable a marketing hook to let this opportunity pass us by, winemakers chorus.
However, to single out Europe in this regard would be unfair – a growing number of New World producers are pushing for greater regulation and references to terroir.
Back in 2012, John Forrest, owner of Forrest Wines told me he was campaigning to encourage local producers to introduce a “self-enforced appellation system”.
His goal, and legacy to the wine industry, was to establish a quality-conscious syndicate of producers, with strict controls over yield and quality.
“New world wine labels ironically are becoming more European,” agrees wine buyer Christine Parkinson.
“There are more single vineyards, and named terroirs, and these are increasingly added to the label.”
Yet the average marketeer would suggest that this is foolhardy, and often counter-productive.
| Some countries are choosing to simplify theirs labels while others are only adding to the confusion.
I came across two proponents of this rhetoric in a Harvard Business Review editorial – the authors underlined the point that today’s web-savvy, mobile-enabled consumer will pounce on whichever brand or store offers the best deal. Brand loyalty across the board, they insisted, is vanishing.
“In response, companies have ramped up their messaging, expecting that the more interaction and information they provide, the better the chances of holding on to these increasingly distracted and disloyal customers,” explained Patrick Spenner, strategic initiatives leader at CEB.
“But for many consumers, the rising volume of marketing messages isn’t empowering – it’s overwhelming. Rather than pulling customers into the fold, marketers are pushing them away with relentless and ill-conceived efforts to engage.”
The debate over individual brand strength versus overarching classifications is of course a fierce one, not to mention longstanding.
It is self-evident that lousy growers in Pomerol cynically benefit from the appellation’s good name, and that top-end producers in less-prestigious regions often struggle to create added value – in the eyes of most consumers, Gramona’s most expensive bottles offer no more pleasure than supermarket plonk. Any initiative that attempts to address this conundrum and engage consumers in the category is surely to be applauded.
Nevertheless, the more I discuss this subject with buyers and sommeliers, the more I’m convinced that this rush to play terroir classification catch up is indeed quite counter-productive.
I refer you to the following:
“I understand and sympathize with the reasons for doing this, however for virtually all consumers, it is at best an unnecessary complication and potentially a turn off. We have encountered customer resistance to paying a premium for these single-vineyard wines from people who happily buy into the Burgundian system,” argues wine buyer Peter Mitchel MW.
“These new classification systems amount to appeasing winemaker vanity and spending generic body monies. Consumers don’t really understand the differences between Joven, Tempranillo, Crianza and Reserva. The Rioja region would do better, in my opinion, spending 80 percent of their marketing pots on taking a leaf out of Champagne’s book, in the specific regard, by aggressively suing/stamping out the Rioja rip offs, such as Carto Rioja Tempranillo, Crianza and Reserva,” adds wine buyer Neil Bruce.
And so it continues. I could dedicate pages and pages to the comments bulging in my inbox that lean towards the unimpressed, but you’ve got better things to do. The ultimate proof is perhaps the response from winemakers in Rioja – home to Europe’s newest classification initiative – which has been decidedly lukewarm at best.
Particularly from growers who already market single-vineyard Riojas.
“I don’t think we will use the new category for the time being. Our single-vineyard wines such as Viña del Olivo are doing very well with wine enthusiasts in the UK. We don’t want to confuse them – or worse, attach our name to something that is untested. Really, I think this is for new or unknown houses who feel they have little or nothing to lose,” says CVNE chief executive Victor Urrutia.
“For the moment we don’t plan to adopt the new classification, as we are uncertain of its inherent value,” adds Ursatun.
Meanwhile, savvy brands continue to simplify their labelling. German producers have probably done more than most others to simplify labels and give their wines a broader, and more instant appeal.
“It’s true that in Europe, there is often too much information on the label. Part of the problem is that there are so many appellations, but most consumers only know the major ones,” says Parkinson.
She continues: “Champagne is probably the easiest European wine for a consumer to buy, as it is always labelled just as Champagne. Regions like the Rhône tend to have village names as well as the region, producer, and possibly cuvée. That’s a lot of label information.”
However, that is not to suggest that over-simplification is the sole route to commercial nirvana either. The typical South Africa wine label is hardly complex, a fact that seems to have made little difference to the market’s willingness to pay more.
“If we do not get the necessary price increases then we might as well just shut up shop. It is time for the leading players in the industry to realize that South Africa must not be seen as the number one destination for cheap and cheerful wine,” says Greg Guy, international director at DGB.
He adds: “We mustn’t be scared to ask for higher prices as our wines are good enough to demand these prices. When France tells the markets that it ‘needs’ an increase of 15 percent due to short supply, the market accepts it yet when South Africa tries we get pushback from buyers. We need to change this mind set and admittedly it is not easy as ultimately the consumer will decide but if we don’t start now we will never get there.”
So what’s the solution? Indeed, is there a viable solution, or will the status quo remain long after I’ve fallen off my perch.
Charles de Gaulle once famously proclaimed that governing a country with 246 varieties of cheese was a tall order. There are more than a million different wine brands competing for consumer attention, which makes the job of a wine marketeer seem almost impossible.
But I’m fairly confident that fetishizing terroir, and then expecting the average consumer to give a damn, will do more harm than good.