You’d think some White-Claw-Drinking “influencer” had just come out with a Hitler-themed wine brand with the amount of hate pieces that cropped up after Cameron Diaz & Katherine Power launched their new “clean” wine brand, Avaline. I don’t think I’ve seen this level of vitriol since the Court of Master Sommeliers scandal.
From Vinography’s “Clean Wine is a Commercial Scam” to The Guardian’s “The Goopification of wine: why ‘clean wine’ is a scam,” and the widespread supportive sharing of these pieces among the wine industry’s own set of A-listers, it’s clear that people are ANGRY.
Vinography points out that, “Avaline wines are actually just commercially produced organic wines that have several more additives than many small-production winemakers would consider using.” While this may be true, then why aren’t these small production winemakers banging the gong about their wines? Why are we mad at the ones who saw the marketing opportunity and ran with it, instead of ourselves for not perceiving the potential threat and preempting it, like any good business would?
Should we not be asking why the wine industry itself isn’t taking every opportunity possible to fight back against other competitors in the beverage space, and capture the hearts and minds of new wine drinkers, by educating the public about why and how wine in general is the ultimate natural beverage? But then this is the very thing wrong with the wine industry. We would rather dig in on our traditions and pride than actually get out of our comfort zone and innovate.
Should we not be asking why the wine industry itself isn’t taking every opportunity possible to fight back against other competitors in the beverage space, and capture the hearts and minds of new wine drinkers, by educating the public about why and how wine in general is the ultimate natural beverage?
Clean wines are derided as nothing more than marketing gimmicks aimed at the “wellness obsessed,” at least so says a well-known wine journalist whom I respect and admire. But I find myself asking, so what? What do you think slapping an augmented reality label on the bottle and partnering with Snoop Dogg is? What do you think Jean-Charles Boisset’s ambassador program is? Is anyone outraged by House Wine partnering with Cheez-Its for the ultimate wine/snack duo? Actually, don’t answer that.
I count myself as someone who is wellness…focused. I work out between five and seven days per week. I try my best to eat well, opting for whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and lean protein where possible, but also not shying away from fried chicken, bacon, chocolate, and the occasional fast food indulgence. And I have also dedicated the last 15 years of my life to the study of wine. I take some offense to being dismissed as someone who can’t possibly be serious about wine if I am also serious about taking care of my physical and mental health. I have been very outspoken about the culture of over-consumption and risky behaviors that pervade the wine industry, regularly questioning if we drink too much in this drinks business. To see any brand – whether they’ve earned their stripes or not – bringing to market a product that at least starts to address themes of wellness and transparency is encouraging.
Let’s also not forget that the wine industry created this problem to begin with. By not requiring wines to have ingredients labels on them – regardless of which side of the aisle you’re on when it comes to that battle – our very industry set up a status quo that practically rolled out the red carpet for enterprising winemakers and marketers to fill a need on behalf of consumers asking these questions.
And, by not making the effort to educate consumers on why ingredients labeling on wine may or may not be necessary, we have added fuel to this fire. Imagine if the wine industry had actually come together for once to create an entertaining and inclusive large-scale educational campaign to explain, in layman’s terms, things like how many of the additives allowed in wine are often precipitated out and thus no longer really “in” the wine as an ingredient. What if we had taken real steps to show fearful consumers that “Mega Purple” – which may sound horrifying and possibly chemical to the likes of Power and Diaz – is simply super concentrated, high sugar grape juice, even if you as a winemaker choose not to use it? We have missed a huge opportunity here to engage the consumer, and, in the meantime, other entrepreneurs got there first, and actually met inquiring and aspiring wine drinkers where they are.
The way I see it, if brands like Avaline, FitVine, Dry Farm Wines, or Scout & Cellar get Chad from the gym who benches 350 lbs, carries around one of those plastic gallon jugs of water wherever he goes, and usually only drinks Michelob Ultra with his other bro-y dudes to check out the wine space, everyone wins. If it gets hipster Sienna who prefers hard Kombucha, single-origin pour-over coffee, and CBD to give the wines a taste, everyone wins. Isn’t the goal to expand the wine market, not shrink it out of exclusivity?
I just browsed through a fascinating twitter thread kicked off by VinePair’s Erica Duecy, who asked her network “What is the biggest threat facing the wine industry right now?” So many sharp minds in the biz weighed in, listing things like “Baby Boomer attrition” and “Lack of speed/interest to adapt,” and ”Apathy…on the part of producers who believe (and are encouraged to believe by some media) that they have the right to exist w/o changing”. Jacqueline Coleman’s observations were particularly spot on. She cites “An inability to accept curious consumers who aren’t ‘experts’” as one of the biggest threats right now, noting that, “The industry in general is still very stuck in its ways, & losing potential newbies fast by being judgmental & cranky about every new thing.” PREACH, sister.
So WHY are we still seeing hate pieces about every new brand that comes out with something offbeat or, dare I say it, gimmicky? I saw at least one of Erica’s respondents share one of the anti-clean wine stories. It’s belittling to consumers who may be branching out into wine for the first time, as well as to long-time wine lovers who want to try something different, lapel pin or not. Don’t bite the hand that feeds you, I say.
Wunderkind sommelier Victoria James made some brilliant points in her piece for Esquire, “Celebrities Could be Making Good Wine. Instead, They’re Making Bad Wine for Good Money.” Her articulate push for celebrities to use their influence for more meaningful pursuits in climate change, social and racial justice, and politics, when creating their wine brand made me openly swoon.
She also observed that wine, “Can express a taste of terroir, a somewhat mystical term that describes a sense of a place. The simplicity of this notion is what makes it so sacred.” Perhaps this is where she and I diverge. While I agree with her wholeheartedly on the beauty of the history, traditions, climate, and agriculture that make up a spectacular wine, I believe wine’s sacredness as a whole lies in so many other things: namely, that it is a product of pleasure that has the power to bring people together, and provide a social lubricant that enables conversation, intimacy, and moments of joy.
She goes on to note that the wines that celebrities lend their names to, “Seem to avoid exploring this idea of terroir [Don’t tell Alecia Moore/AKA Pink!], and instead fall prey to marketing teams who favor the lifestyle categories of wellness and luxury, as viticulture and vinification methods take a back seat.”
I suppose I would ask… but what is wrong with this? Does being a celebrity who wants to create a wine brand necessitate speaking of terroir in order to appeal to the consumer? I have personally watched people glaze over during wine events I have hosted for everyday consumers when I start waxing poetic about this exposition or that soil type. Some of the biggest wine brands out there, regardless of how you feel about them, wouldn’t know terroir if it goosed them at a party. And that’s not a bad thing. Can we not have the Chateau Margauxs and Screaming Eagles and Quintarellis – and celebrate everything extraordinary about those wines – but also have the other stuff too? The stuff for those who just want a glass of something that aligns with their needs, wants and aspirations, whatever, whenever, and why-ever those might be? Context is everything in life and in wine.
Let the terroirists have their dirt and drink it too. But let everyone else who just wants to drink some wine with some friends do so without feeling like they are getting it wrong, even if it’s a bottle of Skinnygirl Pinot Grigio. If this industry is ever going to survive, we are all going to need to be able to play in the same sandbox (sandy loam box?). Who knows, we may even learn a thing about sharing – or terroir – while we’re at it.
I just got back from this year's Unified Wine & Grape Symposium, North America's largest industry expo and trade show. I have been going for a few years now, and I always come home feeling energized and excited about the industry I have been a part of for nearly twenty years.
However, this year, I left feeling a little bit, well, sad.
It may have been the fact that the temporary relocation of the event to Cal Expo -- presumably an amazing place during the California State Fair, for which the venue is intended, but not ideal for this particular event -- made this year's Symposium feel disjointed and cold (literally and figuratively). Sessions were sparsely attended and, at least for me, the magical sense of community I normally feel at this event just wasn't there. This was perhaps a result of the sheer magnitude of Cal Expo -- walking between sessions felt like trekking across a massive college campus to your next class. But I'm worried it was also because of something else... something that I'm hoping to put into words here...
I left last year's Symposium worried for our industry, but also excited about the opportunities ahead. I reported on my key learning (singular) last year with a simple warning: Adapt or die.
There felt like the beginnings of some momentum. Many nodded their virtual heads in agreement. The mirror was held up to us during the many 2019 breakout sessions and keynote addresses. We observed, took note, welcomed advice. We had our marching orders and were sent away to execute.
And yet we didn't.
This year, more than once, I found myself swearing I had seen that exact same presentation slide last year. The one about millennials being important, and the wine industry needing to figure out how to communicate with and to them. The one about alcoholic beverages moving into new occasions and how we need to meet consumers where they are -- movie theaters, axe throwing, the beach... The one about new packaging. The one about how important experiences are. The one about the next creeping competitor -- last year it was cannabis; this year it was White Claw. We heard again this year about transparency and authenticity and labeling. About how critical it is that we figure out how to deliver better, faster and more engaging direct-to-consumer capabilities. It's not that we aren't doing any of it. It's that this should all by now be automatic to us as an industry keeping up, not revelations worth re-reporting.
While I was delighted that a few speakers dug deeper on themes of health and wellness, and urged our industry to take wine back as the original natural beverage -- a brilliant take on and response to the unnerving sober curious movement -- and an emphasis on using the data that is already there for us to do better, smarter, more consumer-focused business, there was little else that felt new. Perhaps I was being naive, but I truly believed after last year's wake-up call that we would have all been spending this Symposium celebrating the incredible moves we had made in 2019. How we had started to take some steps to move back into a leadership position in the world of alcoholic beverages. Created our own White Claw juggernaut.
Instead, it always feels like we are playing catch-up. Defense. Reacting to the industry and competitive sectors, but no longer setting the standard ourselves. Since we grabbed onto the French Paradox all those years ago and ran with it, we have languished. And that paradox can no longer carry us alone.
I don't blame any of the speakers or panelists. The sessions I sat in on were polished, well-presented and engaging, and I left with plenty of ideas and inspiration. I blame us collectively -- myself included -- for going home last year and falling back into the predictability of business as usual, and for maybe being tempted to do so again this year. There are some out there setting the pace and pushing the boundaries of what this industry is capable of. But there are too many of us waiting for others to take the lead, hoping we can get on the bandwagon when the time feels safer to do so.
As a PR professional, a marketer, and a writer in this industry, I pitch and engage with hundreds of stakeholders at various levels all year. I had the immense joy of creating a few "transformational" proposals for new business to potential clients this past year -- clients who were specifically looking for something out of the box -- all of which were, sadly, turned down. "We're just not ready... maybe in 2021," I heard. Perhaps I'm not the one to execute on these wild concepts. But it seems like no one else is either. Instead, the majority of us stay where we are comfortable -- with our vineyard shots, and our yawn-inducing tasting notes, and our walk-around wine events. Again, we are talking to one another, instead of the world of consumers out there that we need to either win over, or keep in our corner.
And so I am putting this out there to all of you wine misfits and visionaries: If you want to do something different, let's talk. This isn't a business pitch; it's a plea to collectively think outside the box. Get uncomfortable. Take some risks. Solve some problems. No one individual or brand can do it alone, but I suspect a few of us can make a dent. Let's sit with a glass of wine and figure out how we can spend next year's Symposium celebrating the great comeback story of the wine industry.
I drink every day. Almost without exception.
It is part of my daily ritual... in some ways part of my identity. And it brings me great pleasure.
At the end of the day, when I close my laptop, I love to open a bottle of something white and crisp. I turn on music, cook dinner, watch my kids play (or fight), and take in the life I have built. Sometimes these reflections are joyful. Sometimes they are frustrated and tired. Either way, I view this moment in my day as a great one.
When I serve dinner, I tend to pour myself and my husband something red. I often sip this throughout the night, sometimes even taking the last few mouthfuls to bed with me as I watch a favorite show or finish up work or mindlessly scroll through my phone, enjoying those few moments to myself.
A lunch or dinner among friends without wine seems like a missed opportunity to me. Not to catch a buzz, but to go back in time, connect with the land, and experience multi-sensory pleasure. Wine is a fantastic accompaniment to food, a wonderful social lubricant, and a small mechanism for making an ordinary moment feel extraordinary. Is it the only way? Of course not. But it's a nice way, an age-old way, and that way is currently taking a beating.
And, for the first time, writing this down suddenly feels like a guilty confession. I am actually bracing for an onslaught of negative commentary after hitting "publish" on this one.
As the ubiquitous and well-intended "Dry January" -- something in which I have never participated -- comes to a close, and I take stock of all the pro/con articles about it out there, as well as the informal documentation on social media from those on the wagon for the past near 31 days, I find myself feeling protective of my beloved drink. My wine. My industry.
I find myself asking... when did this happen? When did everything change? When did behaviors on the extreme ends of consumption start to determine the go-forward plan for everyone?
Devin Parr writes about wine -- drinking it, making it, life with it, traveling for it and the business of it. She also dabbles a bit in careers and parenting.