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Wine Bloggers and Beer Bloggers

UPDATE: This is the rewrite I promised of the post from last week. I would have just made it a new post but since Van Cruysen was nice enough to comment on the last one I decided to just include it here as an “update.” This version is double the length of the last one, but I really felt like the bulk f my argument was left on the editing room floor and I wanted to be clear where I was coming from. I hope that in revealing more, I don’t leave the impression I’m changing my argument.  I also recognize that I could be completely wrong about my impressions of the craft wine industry. I have done some marketing work for one of the bigger winemakers who have one of those nonchalant/irreverent things going ion n their own marketing campaign. but even they aim their flavor profiles into the pre-established style ranges.

One of the frequent naval gazing exercises within craft beer is “How much does blogging matter?” There is a general consensus that at the very least the amount of blogging shows a unique passion within craft beer consumers which may help drive up sales. I suppose we could subject that hypothesis to some social science but it would be hard to find causation in addition to correlation. It’s certainly true that as beer bloggers have grown, so has the craft beer industry. But who’s leading whom here? Does the arrival of more and better beers inspire more people to start blogs? Or do all those blogs better inform the public and inspire them to take a risk on unknown products? I suspect the arrow moves both ways.

Jules Van Cruysen seems to agree. In a recent post at Palate Press he posits that the craft beer industry has done an excellent job inspiring craft beer fans to be the marketing workhorses of the industry, and the passion of craft beer drinkers has been a significant factor in the continuous growth of craft beer marketshare, even as the larger beer market continues to contract. He hopes to encourage the creation of a similar virtuous cycle in the craft wine industry and to do so he points to three broad attitudes that craft vintners can adopt which might inspire their drinkers.

I think to the extent that his advice can be followed, it’s good advice, but I fear that the two industries are different enough that success cross-pollinating the marketing success from one into the other is going to be limited.

Be Risky

I think it’s hard to parse the difference between being innovative and being risky, so to do so I will rely primarily on the specific example of “risk” that Van Cruysen uses. According to him, the biggest risk the craft brewers took was choosing “to collectively define themselves against the status quo of mainstream industrial brewers’ “fizzy yellow beer”” I can see why winemakers would see this as risk. Their big guys come in two varieties:

  • large industrial producers like Gallo who turn out an inoffensive but still serviceable product
  • major grand cru producers who produce small runs but are nevertheless famous for their quality.

No one is going to run a marketing campaign of being against the latter, but you could see running against the former in the same way that early craft brewers tried to distinguish themselves from the macros. And they probably should…and they basically are. My impression of early Napa/Sonoma is they specifically aimed at being the latter kind of vintner as opposed to the big houses that survived Prohibition making a genuinely inferior product who were able to use their positions in the immediate post-Repeal era to dominate the market. Their problem was that the big shops created such an impression of “American wines” that small vintners were unable to convince consumers to spend the higher prices craft wineries needed to survive.

Early craft brewers had the same problem, but the price difference between a bottle of macro and a bottle of craft beer, is smaller in both absolute and relative terms, so this problem was easier to solve. Michael Jackson was able to state unequivocally at the dawn of the second craft beer wave of the early 90s that Americans were making the best beers in the widest styles. That was 20 years after homebrewing became legal. It took American wines forty years to first dent the armor of the old world. American wines are still further behind than American beers in the class culture war.

Conformity as Goal

This leads to the second difficulty I see. I’m not a winemaker and I’m not sure what experimentation in wine would look like. It seems to me that the best you can do is to make the best wine that your grape or grape blend can make. Experimentation in beer looks very different.

For one thing, beer has always added other ingredients to whatever grain bill the sugars are extracted from. Beer just isn’t as rigidly defined as wine. Even the grain bill is up for grabs: barley, wheat, rye, oat, sorghum, corn, and rice in varying degrees have all been used. And for bittering hops are not the only option although they are the standard. A contest between Flying Dog and Scottich brewers BrewDog eschews the use of hops altogether. But even if we limit the bittering option to hops they come in a variety of types significantly altering flavor, bitterness, and aroma.

There’s probably room for vintners to experiment with yeasts and fermenting temperatures and aging vessels, but these (with the exception of ZOMG! Oak barrels) are the most esoteric and least interest-piquing aspects of beer making, so I doubt they would do much to inspire evangelism among craft wine drinkers. And I suspect that, unlike beer where such experiments are conducted to find new drinking experiences, in wine they would largely be undertaken to perfect the experience of the pre-established wine styles. (But what do I know?) Experimentation in wine has different goals.

And to the extent that different goals could be established (Let’s make a new wine style! Extreme wines! etc) such end products would not sit well with the mean “aspirational” wine consumer. As the drink of the middle and lower classes there’s always been a tendency for beer to poke fun at bourgesois. This tendency was amplified in America where we’ve always had an anti-elitist mentality. Even aspirational beers (Heineken in the 60s, for example) have had an air of “They tell you to drink wine, but you do it your way, don’t you?” about them. This obviously ties into the ease with which craft brewers could define themselves contra-udweiser et al. But it also limits experimentation in an industry where conformity is not just a habit, but a goal.

Collaboration is Key

Finally there’s his recommendation that winemaker work more collaboratively. I’ll keep my comments short here, because I agree more here than the rest. On the one hand I think Van Cruysen has a great point, winemaking already has a fine history of winemakers beings supportive of each other and seeing individual victories working as victories for the collective. I suspect that within the wine world, a world I am less familiar with than either beer or bourbon, that there are “rockstar” vintners whose name recognition makes bottles more valuable.

The only problem I see with that is the one Van Cruysen mentions himself, turnaround. As with the International Arms Race contest mentioned earlier between Flying Dog and BrewDog, breweries can make announcements in one month and release the beer before consumers have forgotten reading the notice. They can amplify the earned media by timing the release with festivals, concerts, fundraisers, anything they want. There’s a communications cycle problem for winemakers, but not an insurmountable one. The length of time required to make and store wine could be used to increase anticipation. There’s also no reason to require that the original announcement be made at the start of the project. Nevertheless, this is a manageable problem and probably one well worth the effort of risking.

All in all, I think Van Cruysen’s advice is good, just difficult to follow. If I were to rewrite his essay it would narrow down to two factors: How to take risks in the wine industry and making sure that the risks one takes resonate with the personalities behind the wine.

Addendum

Because the Blogosphere is weird about editing, what follows it the original as-written story.
Jules van Cruysen at Palate Press notes that craft beer sales continue to rise even as overall beer consumption is down and posits what he thinks might explain this paradox:

 

The answer is simple – [craft brewers] have mobilized their consumers around a set of shared principles to advocate on their behalf – not only to drink craft beer, but to demand it at restaurants, bars and liquor stores and to force it into the hands of family and friends.

And then he concludes, “If only wine lovers were that passionate and driven!” and suggests that craft wine producers need to be innovative, collaborative, and riskier in order to inspire similar passion in their fans.

I have no problem saying that these are excellent attributes of craft beer that craft beer drinkers seem attracted to. However, I submit that wine lovers are that passionate and driven. And I also submit that his advice, while probably not impossible to follow, faces significant institutional constraints.

Here are some of the differences between the two industries I think will make van Cruysen’s advice hard to follow.

  • Cultural heritage: When the craft brew industry restarted in the 1970s it largely did so through homebrewers recreating traditional styles that had vanished during Prohibition and the rise of the macro lagers.
  • What is “beer”? A lot of the “innovation” of the craft beer industry is really nothing more than a natural growth from the loose definition of the drink itself. Wine is fermented grapes. Beer is…well, it’s fermented. You could even do what I do and say it’s fermented grain sugars, then you’d capture wheat “beers” and sorghum “beers,” but you’d also have to accept sake. And what of lambics? Point is that a lot early “extreme” brewing was really just playing around with old recipes that never solidified into classic styles of beer.
  • Not “Fizzy Yellow Beer” It was very easy for early craft brewers to do what van Cruysen thinks was the industry’s biggest risk, to define itself against the macros. But the early craft brewers were homebrewers and most of them were not making…or even trying to make the fizzy yellow stuff.

Wine, on the other hand, doesn’t have an enemy like Budweiser. The big famous grand crus are the ideal. Some of that is because the big famous names are creating a recognizably superior product. Some of it is because even the big names that are producing an industrial product don’t dominate the market the way the Big Three came to dominate beer. Even if I’m understating the dominance of a Sutter Home, Mondavi, or Kendall Jackson in terms of volume, bear in mind that these major manufacturers are still making passable examples of several styles/varieties of wine. By the late 70s beer drinkers had the choice of three major producers each making a pilsner style beer and a lighter pilsner style beer. It’s hard to understand the level of vitriol that can inspire.

 

Again, it’s not that it would be impossible to follow van Cruysen’s advice. But simply stating, “be innovative” or “take risks” to inspire passion doesn’t offer a lot of direction, especially when the defining feature of wine culture is its attachment to heritage and tradition and without a Big Bad to rebel against.

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Posted in The Drinking Class.