The Trouble with Wine Porn

Not for everyone.

Sometimes I have doubts.  Here at The Wine Economist we seem to be interested in what you might call everyday wines. Not that you necessarily drink them every day, but they are generally available and you can buy them if you can afford them. It’s a matter of choice. Everyman wines might be a better term if it didn’t sound just a little bit sexist.

Wine Porn

But much of the wine world seems preoccupied with impossibly expensive or incredibly rare trophy wines. A lot of attention is given to stories, ratings, tasting notes and images of wines that only a lucky few of us will ever have an opportunity to taste.

I’m tempted to call this wine pornography,  mirroring the well-documented phenomenon of food porn. Stare if you like, drool if you must, but never, never  touch!  (I didn’t coin the term; I found it in Jancis Robinson’s “Wine Porn of the Highest Order.“) The whole Bordeaux en primeur phenomenon strikes me as borderline wine porn, if only the soft-core kind.

Wine porn may be a harmless vicarious thrill for the most part, but like pornography generally it can be a problem when people become compulsively attracted to it. I’m worried that all the fuss that trophy wines receive really does divert us from the excellent Everyman wines on offer and the problems and delights of everyday wine life.

Broadbent to the Rescue

Well, thank goodness for Michael Broadbent. I realize that this is an unlikely thing for me to say at this point because it would be easy to make the case that Broadbent is one of the inventors of wine porn. As the director of the wine department at Christie’s auction house in London, he certainly helped create the winner-take-all economic environment that fuels the wine porn industry now.

And then there’s his writing. Gosh! Broadbent’s tasting notes are extraordinary. Some, dare I say,  are voluptuous! My glasses steam up when I read them. But it turns out that he shares many of my distinctly non-pornographic concerns about wine.

Broadbent recently published his 400th consecutive monthly column for Decanter magazine and he used the occasion to talk about the state of the wine world, very much focusing on Everyman and her wines. “My feeling is that consumers have never had so much choice but they have never been so confused,” he said. ‘”The whole world is making a good standard of wine today and they need some guidance.”

The Perfect Disguise Below

This embarrassment of riches sounds like good news, but Broadbent is concerned that the democratization of wine has created a power vacuum that big players will rush to fill. “Big business seems to be taking over and I don’t like the way things are going,'” he says. He’s concerned about the fate of small producers.

Head-spinning number of choices

Well, I certainly agree with Broadbent’s premise. Globalization has spread wine and wine expertise around the world. The discipline of global markets is slowly driving technically flawed wines from the market place (some still hang on, justifying their existence on the basis of low price or disguising their flaws as terroir).   More wines, from more places, with a higher overall quality standard: good news for Everyman.

But globalization really has created problems. More choice is good, but only up to a point. Some times too much is too much, especially as wine draws in new consumers.  The Constellation Brands study of American wine buyers found that 23% of potential buyers were “overwhelmed” by the choice and frequently walked away empty handed. Broadbent’s right about the confusion factor.

Globalization has changed the problem from making good wine to distributing and marketing it. Here (especially in distribution) large firms really do have an advantage, but this is not a new thing. Power in the wine world shifted to those who could manage distribution long ago — with the introduction of the railroad system in France in the 19th Century.

Beyond Wine Porn

Broadbent is concerned that the corporations will destroy wine as they try to simplify it for the mass market. This is contrary to their own business interests, of course, since people pay more for distinctive products. Building a wine portfolio ladder that starts buyers in Two Buck Chuck territory and leads them up to a higher (or at least more expensive) shelf only works if wine’s diversity is preserved.

Dumbing down to create a simple flat wine world is economic suicide as much as it would be an aesthetic tragedy of the commons. But these are desperate times for some large wine businesses and desperate CEOs do desperate things, so I do not rule this out absolutely.

I guess I am more optimistic about the future than Broadbent, even if I share his concerns. I think there is a pretty large middle ground between the bland corporate wine that worries him and the spicy wine porn that troubles me. This probably suggests that the state of wine today is quite good!

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Congratulations to Michael Broadbent on his 400th Decanter column and his extraordinary life in wine.

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6 responses

  1. What’s the deal with attaching porn to what should be the best of food and wine? What’s next? Architectural Porn for buildings designed by I.M. Pei? Nothing like attaching a word that is connected to degrading women with something as positive and life affirming as food & wine.

  2. one of the perquisites of the wine business is that we get to try all these trophy wines and i have and i am glad that i did. but not because i was taken up in the raptures of a $600 wine, au contraire, and i will tell you all that what you imagine you are missing is just that, imagined. oh sure, these icons are indeed better than your daily quaff, but at what price? nothing unfolds that you haven’t experienced in a lesser wine, but maybe not all at once. and even if wines were priced uniformly by the bottle, i would still use the everyday rhones and little bordeauxs and burgundies that accompany everyday life. i will try to plan for that mag of romanee-conti the night before i die. that’s an occasion wine best paid for by my heirs.

  3. As former wine retailers, we constantly saw our customers baffled by a sea of bottles with no context. This is exactly why we started the Wine Guild of Charlottesville. Now, we taste through about 100 wines a week and pick the best one or two. Our members then get an email telling them in great detail why the wine is so special. Plus, they can go back and read the email or see the review on our site when they pop the bottle. It really increases the enjoyment to have that story fresh in your mind as you sniff and sip. Thanks for a great post. Looking forward to your new book.

  4. Constellation Brands did a study about wine consumers being overwhelmed and yet it continues to suck up as many brands as it can! Hilarious!

  5. This has happened in the drinks industry before. The big beer companies largely eliminated all the small producers by the early 1970’s. They thought they had won. However, shortly after that the microbrew industry started and now we have more choices than ever.

  6. For me, wine is about the magic, not the price. The magic that comes from understanding the grape, the place and the people that merge every year to continue a tradition. It is fair to say that the first growths receive more than enough attention and not enough is being done to publicise the small producers, however I have no interest in sitting down to write or read about commercial brands designed to move volume. With this in mind I would rather media attention focus on the world’s great wines than try to give credibility to mass produced and uninspiring wine. As with most things, the answer lies between the two.

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