Seeing the Need, Part I
Despite the endless roll out of over-generalizations and trend revelations in the media, there is no “typical” North American wine consumer. As an industry, we disrespect their diversity at our own peril.
October 28, 2008
We start by asking the most basic question...
Consumers: Who drinks wine…and why?Forty years ago the North American wine consumer could pretty well have been categorized according to two utilities to be found in the beverage. In the intervening decades, a couple more broad and important utilities have emerged as drivers of consumer interest in wine.
The Wine-as-Food consumer, like his traditional European counterpart, is not knowledgeable or particularly interested in wine, anymore than he gives much thought to bread, vegetables or whatever else hits his plate for sustenance. Wine is just food; a regular part of his diet – in short, a reliable beverage of habit, often derived from ethnic heritage.
Chances are the Wine-as-Food consumer is brand loyal, often purchasing in jugs or boxes for the sheer volume, as well as to achieve better value. Producers targeting the Wine-as-Food consumer know that the quality bar need only be set at “satisfactory”, and this is an important factor because this consumer is also the most price sensitive and competing for his trade requires a sharp pencil on the supply side. He may be brand loyal, but he is wholly without prejudice about where his wine comes from.
The Wine-as-Food niche was a relatively important segment of the table wine market back in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. America’s biggest wine empire was built on understanding and fulfilling the needs of this profile. Still, the Wine-as-Food consumer has never represented a large percentage of the North American population; hence the oft repeated truism that “Americans are not wine drinkers”.
The Wine-as-Status buyer finds utility in wine, notably expensive wine, as a symbol of personal rank and superiority. He may or may not know much about wine, any more than he is necessarily an authority on the expensive cars he drives or the fashionable artwork he hangs on his walls. For that matter he may not even be a daily consumer of wine…having it, not consuming it, is the core utility.
We used to call the Wine-as-Status individuals Wine Snobs. That term has faded in recent years, perhaps in recognition and respect of the important role the Wine-as-Status buyer has played in saving and transforming the North American wine industry in the critical period of the 1980s and 90s. Compared with consumers finding other utilities in wine, the Wine-as-Status niche is not large in demographic terms. However, with cult wines opening up the $100+ product niche, the Wine-as-Status buyers have pulled the price elasticity bar for North American wine up dramatically, creating broad acceptability for the $20-$60 mid-range of wines, which, ironically, are probably too “cheap” to serve the particular needs of the Wine-as-Status buyer, himself. Nonetheless, to the extent that “mid-range” pricing underwrites the solvency of the vast majority of the 5,000+ North American wineries, we owe much to the influence of they who have legitimized North American wine as a luxury commodity, on a par with the Great Growths of France.
That begs the question: who DOES buy those $20-$60 wines that underwrite the health of so much of the North American wine industry? What utility do they find in wine?
The Wine-as-Interest consumer (aka: Wine Geek or Wine Enthusiast) finds intellectual and recreational utility in wine. Part of the intellectual satiation comes from continuously building personal knowledge about the more or less technical side of wine, and, not surprisingly, many Wine-as-Interest folks get into the wine business or dream of having their own vineyard. They think about wine, read about wine, talk about it, and socialize with wine as the focal point.
It might be said that the Wine-as-Interest consumer is a vicarious corkscrew tourist…ever in search of new places as expressed through diverse wine. Where the Wine-as-Status individual is likely to buy a case of wine made up of 12 bottles of a particular prestige label; the Wine-as-Interest buyer will want 12 different taste experiences in the case. Even for a wine he truly likes, he has very little brand loyalty; one simply can’t discover new wines by refilling one’s glass with those previously tasted…unless, of course it’s a different vintage. To be sure, the ubiquity of vintage dating wines in the mid-price range, and even most cheap plonk, is a measure of our industry’s subtle respect for this consumer profile.
The Wine-as-Interest consumer tastes wine everyday, and is not adverse to good value if the wine has identifiable character to go with the savings. Depending on his financial means, the Wine-as-Interest individual will take that same character/value equation up through the mid-price range, but he is more likely to experience the $100 bottle on a Wine-as-Status friend’s tab, rather than buy it himself.
Since the 1970s, the Wine-as-Interest “enthusiasts” have set the exciting tone of the North American wine culture and underwritten the solvency of a dynamically expanding industry, operating under a glass ceiling of prohibition which has constrained the development of the Wine-as-Food sector.
The good news is that there are signs of stress and cracks in that prohibitionist glass ceiling; signs that America may still have a chance of becoming a nation of wine drinkers, with wine earning a regular place at the table of a significant percent of the population. In the last decade or so, wine has found a new utility value in the North American discovery of food as a cultural metaphor…that is, food as a core lifestyle engagement for the middle class.
The Wine-as-Lifestyler is typically a “newbie” to wine. The utilities he (and, more importantly, SHE!) finds in wine are really not well defined, and may touch in varying degrees on the value that can be found in wine as food, status symbol and interest/hobby.
The Wine-as-Lifestyle niche has largely been created by the belated arrival of wine in supermarkets, notably s