Wine marketing

Self serving wine critics, magazines and the gulf between everyday drinkers

I love wine and of course I read magazines like Wine Spectator and Decanter. But the more I taste wine, speak to winemakers and read these publications I realise the huge gulf between what regular "non-expert" wine drinkers want and what critics are recommending. 

Decanter is a good publication but many of its regionl or country specific articles recommending certain wines by Masters of Wine are seriously premium priced or not even readily available . Don't get me wrong I am happy to spend good money on fine wines from Burgundy, Bordeaux, Italy, New Zealand, Australia and elsewhere. However, my recent wine tasting visits to Piedmont, Valpolicella, Thermenregion Austria and lately Baden in Germany makes me realise that many famous "brands" are seriously over priced. The worst culprits are California, Burgundy and Bordeaux as high value individuals bid the price of land and bottles up to crazy levels. With Asian buyers now heavily into wine auctions and even buying vineyards, its becoming tougher and tougher to buy "cult wines" for the man or woman in the street.

In the last couple of weeks I was fortunate to have a bottle of Ridge Monte Bello 2012 (£75 for 375ml half bottle - Hedonism Wines, London) from California's Santa Cruz Mountains and Vega Sicilia Valbuena 5° 2011 from Spain's Ribera Del Duero region. Even better to drink the Valbuena in Plaça Reial off the La Rambla in Barcelona thanks to a friendly waiter who opened it for me and sampled it (I bought at the local and excellent Torres wine store on Carrer Nou de la Rambla, 25. Price 99 euros). 

The Ridge 2012 was a 50th anniversary bottling and it has been described by the winemaker as a "super vintage". It was rich, velvety smooth with blackberry, cassis and blackcurrant. Nice balance of acidity, tannin and fruit (apparently the most acidic vintage since 1992).  Lovely long finish.

The Valbuena was a big rich red like the Ridge. Definitely more alcoholic 14.5% in the warm and dry 2011 Ribera Del Duero versus 13.5% for cooler climate Ridge. It certainly had plenty of black fruit on the nose and palate and was actually a little spicy like a shiraz. Nicely balanced soft tannins and a long complex finish.

But was Ridge worth the equivalent of £150 ($200) a bottle and Vega Sicilia 99 euors ($117)? They were both great wines and a real treat to have tried them, but I have drunk many wines at the $20-30 range which were just as pleasant, if less iconic than these two wineries. 

Many critics score wines with high tannin and acidity with top marks and they are great after years to soften these tannins in the cellar. Some wine critics like Robert Parker or their counterparts love the big, rich Cabernet Sauvignons of the USA. So winemakers try to produce wines that appeal to this group to achieve high scores and high sales. With so much competition, a low Decanter/Parker/Wine Spectator score can be a deadly blow for a winery.

Unfortunately most wine drinkers want to drink the wines we buy fairly quickly. 10 years in a cellar is really not practical, especially as many don't even have a suitable storage area and certainly not a cellar. Keeping wine under stairs or in the garage or god forbid in a kitchen means temperature fluctuations and the best wines whilst made to be stored will be ruined. There's no point laying down a top Margaux Grand Cru or Gevrey Chambertin Premier Cru when the location is 20 degrees centigrade and in the sunshine half the day!

During a recent visit to Baden in Germany, I tasted very tannic wines which are basically undrinkable now. Yet they command high prices. I have noted that the premium wines I have sampled e.g. Ridge and Opus One have great complexity and a long finish but you pay heavily for the famous brand. Lots and lots of wine makers around the world are producing similarly complex wines for much less, especially in unfashionable regions. For example I tasted amazing Austrian Pinot Noir and St. Laurent for less than 20 euros a bottle!

Most wine drinkers spend $5-10 a bottle which is too low given excise duty and other taxes. But expecting punters to buy $30-50 bottles is a "bridge too far". I wish the critics and magazines realised that many wine drinkers have a moderate budget at best and want to drink wines in the near term so stop encouraging wine makers to focus on the cellaring market. Great for their profits when you give them 95 points, but us mortals want to avoid a mortgage to buy them!

See additional blog article:

More about Vega Sicilia and Valbuena 5°

Vega Sicilia Valbuena 2011

Bodegas Vega Sicilia is a winery located in the Ribera del Duero Denominacion de Origen in Valladolid, Castilla y León in the North of Spain. It was founded in 1864 by Don Eloy Lecanda y Chaves, who planted various grapes from the Bordeaux wine region of France, including Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Vega Sicilia is particularly well known for its super premium Único wine.

The winery describes Valbuena as follows:  

"is the purest expression of the Tinto Fino (Tempranillo) in Vega Sicilia. Tinto Fino is clearly the predominant wine in the assemblage of the varieties that make up this magnificent wine. The other variety used is Merlot, which is added to a greater or lesser extent depending on the vintage.

The Valbuena Tempranillo is obtained from plots located on gentle concave slopes that descend from the wasteland. Those soils are made up of material that was eroded and accumulated as colluvial on the lower slopes, developing a high profile soil, with a specific important evolution with the formation of a deep calcic horizon.

Fermentation at a controlled temperature with native yeast in stainless steel tanks. Malolactic fermentation also takes place in stainless steel.

After fermentation, it is aged for five years, between wood and in the bottle, which is why it is called Valbuena 5º. French and American wood, new and used 225-litre barrels, 20,000 litre vats, a long and complex process for a great wine."

2011 was a very warm and ripe vintage in the Ribera Del Duero area, and the challenge for the winemaker was to keep the freshness of wine and avoid over ripeness and too much alcohol (it was still 14.5%).

More about Ridge and Monte Bello

Ridge Monte 2012.JPG

Ridge Vineyards is a California winery specialising in top of the range Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, and Chardonnay wines and it produces wine at two winery locations in northern California. The original winery facilities are located at an elevation of 2,300 feet (700 m) on Monte Bello Ridge in unincorporated Santa Clara County in the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA, south of Los Altos, California and west of Cupertino, California. The other Ridge winery facilities are at Lytton Springs in the Dry Creek Valley AVA of Sonoma County. Ridge Vineyard's 1971 Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon achieved international fame for its fifth-place finish in the 1976 "Judgement of Paris" wine tasting.

In 1886, high in the Santa Cruz Mountains, the initial plantings of the Monte Bello estate vineyard were set out, and winery construction begun. A first vintage from the young vines followed in 1892. During Prohibition (1920-1933), the vineyard was not fully maintained; some vines survived into the late 30’s, but by the 1940s they were effectively abandoned. Eight acres of cabernet sauvignon were replanted in 1949. These were the source of the first Ridge Monte Bello (1962). Since then, the historic vineyards on the ridge have gradually been replanted.

The 2012 Monte Bello has 64% Cabernet Sauvignon, 22% Merlot, 8% Cabernet Franc, 4% Petit Verdot. 2012 was a very dry year and a bit tricky for the wine maker which meant less Cabernet Sauvignon than normal in the blend. Tannins were easy to extract, less maturation and came out of fermenter in 5-6 days rather than usual 7-10 days. 16 months in 100% new oak barrels. 

Some great points about exaggerated claims in wine marketing courtesy of Simon Taylor at Stone, Vine & Sun

I so agree with Simon Taylor at Winchester's Stone, Vine & Sun shop and online store on the ridiculous claims that big box wine sellers like Laithwaites are making about "boutique" wineries and "cutting out the middleman". At the end of the day, a retailer like Laithwaites would struggle to deal with a true Boutique winery because of the is a mass market wine brand selling mass market brands! (Simon, great choice of wines by the way! - The Aquitania Sol de Sol Chardonnay from Chile is on my hit list)


Laithwaite’s – Boutique Wines at everyday prices ?

Simon Taylor - Stone, Vine & Sun 

It’s a quiet Saturday in August, the sun is shining, few will come to the shop, so there’s time for a meditative review of one of the UK’s largest wine businesses, Laithwaites (and for those who don’t know already, Laithwaite’s also owns Avery’s and runs just about every wine club you might have heard of, e.g. Sunday Times, British Airways, National Trust, etc. etc.). Laithwaite’s tale of growth - from Tony Laithwaite bringing back a van load of wine from France in 1969 to a huge wine business operating in several countries today - is amazing.  One should be proud of this great British success story….

….BUT (there’s often a large BUT in an SVS blog) this blog was prompted solely by the appearance through my letter box at home of their latest offer trumpeting “Boutique Wines at everyday prices” (and everything in quotation marks below comes from this brochure or their website). I was piqued. Leaving aside the actual desirability of “boutique” wines – as so many tend to be over-made, over-priced wines owing more to the pretensions of some rich owner than the land on which the vines are grown - this is an absurd claim.   “Boutique” has no legal status in the world of wine but it does imply small-scale and precious. In Australia the rules of the Association of Boutique Winemakers are clear: “A Boutique wine company is one which crushes and bottles 250 ton or less annually under its own label and is owned independently, i.e., not owned by a larger wine company”.  Well, as to the precious idea, ignoring the discount in the Laithwaite’s brochure, the average bottle price of the wines featured, is, in theory (for more of the “in theory” part, please see below) over £9.00 a bottle, not really boutique territory when it comes to wine.  

Anyway, investigation followed, and as I researched more, I got tetchier…

First, the selling pitch is based on claims that “boutique” wineries are “queuing” to work “so closely with wine drinkers”, with, wait for it, “no middlemen, no money wasted on expensive marketing”.  Umm, what exactly is Laithwaite’s but a middle man? And whilst it’s good news of course, that these humble peasants are spared all this marketing effort, it’s bit rich to imply this cost has vanished given that Laithwaite’s spends squillions every year on marketing in advertising and sponsorship!  Incidentally the idea that the Laithwaite’s customers are “helping…wineries to keep costs down by ordering together” is a shameless rip-off of the more innovative Naked Wines philosophy (and it does seem a bit unfair to steal Naked’s clothes!).

So who exactly are these “talented winemakers struggling along selling a few cases at a time to restaurants and private clients”, these guys who are making “handcrafted wines at remarkable prices”, pathetically grateful to Laithwaites for so graciously taking “the lot in one go”, thus enabling them to have “more time to make great wine”? The briefest perusal of the brochure comes up with these: Vina Tarapaca in Chile, part of the VSPT wine group, Chile’s second largest wine exporter; Franschhoek Cellars, a former co-operative and now part of DGB (which was Douglas Green Bellingham) in the Cape, producing a very unboutique 8,000 tons, equal to 560,000 cases a year; Martinez Bujanda in Rioja, with over 200 hectares of vineyards; Mcpherson wine with 225 hectares in Australia; and Luis Felipe Edwards, the largest family owned winery in Chile, who somehow make ends meet by picking every last grape on their 1850 hectares and exporting to 70 countries.  (Just to put this in perspective, many of the growers we buy from in France and Italy make wine from less than 10 hectares of vines, and Frank Balthazar in Cornas has just 2.25!). Doesn’t one’s heart bleed for these impoverished, time-poor souls, and applaud Laithwaite’s philanthropy in saving them. Laithwaite’s say they are selling wines “made in quantities too small for the supermarkets”, but when you claim to have 100,000 thirsty customers and a turnover of £300m it’s quite hard to supply them without going to the big boys of the wine world.

Next, the pricing: I examined one case of the twelve on offer in the brochure, no. 9, Pinot Grigio and Friends. This cases includes two bottles of each of four Pinot Grigios - from Romania, Hungary, Australia and Italy - plus a Chenin Blanc (from the Franschhoek Cellars mentioned above) and an Italian blend. The headline printed price is £105.49. (I accept the brochure is three weeks old, but when I totted up the bottle prices of the wines on their website in the case I came to £101.88). But the idea that these particular bottles are worth an average of £8.79 is ludicrous. C’mon guys…. eastern European Pinot Grigio, making up a third of the case, is just NOT boutique wine in either style or price!

Then there’s the exclusivity claim - your chance to taste “wines not otherwise seen in the UK!”.  Wow, lucky you. The reason these wines are not otherwise seen in the UK is that they are specially made, in some cases in Laithwaite’s own winemaking facilities in France and Australia, and labelled solely for Laithwaite’s (and their numerous affiliate clubs). This is very bad for two reasons: the obvious downside is that they can control pricing and make sure price comparison is impossible. (When you do find a wine on their website which is available elsewhere Laithwaite’s look expensive. For example Guigal’s white Cotes de Rhone is £13.99 on their site, but available from the Wine Society at £9.95 or widely available from independents at £11.95).  But, far more serious, if Laithwaite’s are controlling what goes in the bottle, you aren’t necessarily getting a wine with authenticity and local character (god forbid it should be unfiltered and have sediment in it, as that might lead to complaints and refunds): you will be getting a safe, boring bottle for MOR taste.

Then there are the names and brands. I am all for making wine names accessible and demystifying wine, but is it helpful to have Romanian wines branded Paris Street? Surely someone casually looking at the bottle might just think it was from France - or is that the idea, duh?  Or Spanish wines sold under Lime Leaf, Silver Route and Cherry Orchard?  When it comes to Italy the highly paid branding team at Laithwaite’s must have been giggling as they dreamed up catchy names. Basically they like to add an O to the end of english words - so Laithwaite’s purvey wines called Massivo, Il Bruto and Visionario.  Can anyone take this seriously? Somehow I just can’t see someone with boutique wine aspirations naming their wine Massivo.  Why stop there – may I propose Diluto for a light dry white, and Ruffo for a rustic red?  

Then there’s the hyperbole. Do their copywriters really believe that the 2013 Orange Grove Chardonnay from Spain at £5.99 is “world class Chardonnay”? Do they get out much?  Do they actually drink wine at all?

Then there are the introductory discounts - £50 in the case of the brochure I received.  This would enable me to buy a case of wine with free delivery at £4.39 a bottle, with two free glasses thrown in. It’s a great deal by any standards, but if I send that siren coupon in there are consequences. I will get another case 12 weeks later, if I forget to cancel, without that great discount; and I will be subject to warm-calling if I don’t order more, by a huge team of client advisers trained to push particular wines; and if I still don’t order my name will be transferred to another branch of their organisation who will also send me their lists. Finally, if you do give them the feedback they request, then, google-like, their algorithms will ensure you are pushed more and more of the same. Returning that coupon is like signing your palate away to the vinous devil.

Laithwaite’s is a great business, with thousands of happy customers. I have tasted lots of perfectly good (if often unexciting) wines from them, and they work with plenty of excellent partners – Luis Felipe Edwards in Chile being a good example. But if the gap between the claims made in the “Boutique wines at everyday prices” brochure and the reality of their business can’t be investigated under the Trade Descriptions Act, at least it can be challenged by someone who genuinely does work with small growers.  Just as they have cynically adapted their marketing spiel to make Laithwaite’s look more like Naked Wines, their fast growing challenger - “Together it’s easy” it says on the front of their brochure - so they shamelessly continue to pretend that they are supplying small production wines from artisanal growers. When we started SVS over a decade ago, one customer was kind enough to describe us as the “the new Adnam's”. I took that a compliment, given Simon Loftus’s great ability to seek out interesting wines. I am glad to say no-one has ever called us the new Laithwaite’s. But then I could just be jealous of that £300m turnover…