Friday, August 14, 2009

Wine Industry Arrogance Alienates the Masses

A few months ago, I stumbled across a web posting by a woman who was apparently acquainted with people working in the wine industry. Her main complaint was that “wine business people think they are better than everyone else”. I started thinking about this by inventorying the various segments of the wine trade, and had to admit there was some truth in her statement.

We are certainly privileged to work in a lifestyles industry as well as living in or around “wine country”. However, that sense of exclusivity doesn’t justify a single over-inflated ego.

My second observation was that people with the greatest wine knowledge — those in wine production — are the least arrogant. Whether they are winemakers, vineyard managers or cellar rats, most of the people getting their hands dirty have the attitude of a worker bee. There must be something humbling about processing tons of sticky grapes or silos of fermenting juice.

I’ve also noticed how certain groups within the industry think they are part of the chosen few who know all there is to know about wine, as in: “I’m a hotshot distributor salesperson from Manhattan, and I have the inside track on the wine biz because I tasted DRC at a staff meeting.” But I digress.

Two of the most pompous segments include wine media and those annoying tasting room know-it-alls that rear their ugly heads at the least opportune times. Such ill-mannered behavior is especially harmful because most consumers have little contact with the industry beyond wine publications and tasting rooms. (I’ve also encountered a handful of sommeliers that need to get their nose out of their … gl-ass.)

While I know plenty of warm and fuzzy wine writers, others have an inflated sense of self-importance for sure. It’s evident in their writing, and they wear it on their public shoulder. Puh-uh-lees. Wine publication is not neurosurgery — it does not save lives or souls. However, it can single-handedly drive a product like no other, so therein lies the power and delusion.

Over the years, I’ve witnessed the good, the bad and the ugly in tasting rooms. Most tasting room workers are genuinely kind and approachable, but I’ve encountered far too many with a chip on their shoulder.

Recently, I visited a pious Kenwood winery with some out-of-towners. Within seconds of our arrival, an attendant sternly confronted a friend with the words “define dry” after she politely said she didn’t like dry wine. Hmmm. So let’s bully the tourists visiting wine country — the antithesis of where we should be. (I immediately steered our quartet out the door, and email the marketing office the next day because I thought someone might care, but no one ever responded. See any pattern?)

Wine business arrogance only exacerbates the perpetual challenge of trying to sell a beverage that already demands special understanding, special vernacular and special stemware. The industry will never command a larger share of the adult drinks market with contemptuous treatment of the masses, and it would be better served if the “front of the house” carried itself a little closer to the ground.

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