Why is wine still so confusing?

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The world of wine can be confusing and overwhelming. | Sarah Lawrence for Vox

There are thousands and thousands of wines on the market. No wonder it’s so hard to know what to buy.

If you’ve ever surveyed the walls upon walls of options in a wine store and simply grabbed the nearest $15 bottle of rosé, you’re not alone. Many people still find wine cryptic and intimidating. Humans have been fermenting grapes for thousands of years, but it hasn’t gotten any easier to understand. While some startups have tried to disrupt the industry and make wine more accessible, no one company has broken through.

Shouldn’t wine be easier to understand by now? Why haven’t we hacked this into something easier so that consumers don’t feel daunted by wine lists and sommeliers at restaurants or overwhelmed when walking into a cavernous wine shop?

According to wine experts, there are a number of factors at work. Thanks to the wealth of options, shoppers experience a kind of consumer paralysis. Government regulations on wine complicate things further, due to a lack of consistency from country to country in how wines are named and classified. Plus, importing and distribution impact what types of wines you see in your local wine store and your favorite restaurants — and explain why you don’t often see the same wine brands from store to store. And wine labels? They’re not for you — they’re written purely to satisfy government requirements and don’t include details that would help consumers decide on a wine at all.

Here’s why wine still remains so complicated and hard to understand, and why it’s not your fault you don’t “get” wine.

There are thousands of wines — it’s an overwhelming amount of choice

“Wine as an industry is one of the most fragmented industries in the world,” says Caleb Ganzer, managing partner at La Compagnie des Vins Surnaturel, a wine bar in New York. “Wine is probably the most fragmented consumer product that exists.”

In 2019, the US drank about 370 million cases of wine; at 12 bottles a case, that’s about 4.4 billion bottles of wine in a year. Studies estimate that about half of the US wine market is dominated by three conglomerates, each with an extensive portfolio of brands you may have heard of: E&J Gallo (the maker of Barefoot, among others), Constellation Brands (which includes brands like Woodbridge, Robert Mondavi, and Arbor Mist), and the Wine Group (which includes brands like Franzia). These types of big corporations can afford to produce, ship, and distribute thousands of bottles of wine each year across the world and across the US so you can find, say, Robert Mondavi or Barefoot in nearly every store you go to.

“There are certain stores and restaurants that carry big brand names that will be available everywhere. But those are wines that are made basically by almost factory farms. They’re produced the way Coca-Cola is produced, to taste the same year after year and to be available in huge, huge quantities,” says Jenny Lefcourt, founder of Jenny & François Selections, a wine importer that specializes in natural wines.

The other half of the wine market — arguably the more interesting half — is made up of thousands of tiny to medium producers. And their wines are very different from mass-produced wines from the big corporations, explains Lefcourt: “It’s the difference between agribusiness farming and farmers market produce. If you buy a tomato from a farmers market it’s going to smell and taste absolutely incredible, whereas if you buy a tomato that’s made by a huge enormous company and shipped across the country, it might look pretty but it doesn’t taste so good.”

Why are there so many thousands of producers? There always have been a lot of winemakers, Ganzer says, but there’s been a rise in consumer interest in wine drinking in recent years. “Consumption and interest is at an all-time high; the demand is insatiable,” Ganzer says. “It’s actually the best time to be a drinker because farming’s only gotten better and production’s only gotten better, so there’s more good wine on the market than there’s ever been.” According to recent numbers reported by the Wall Street Journal, US wine consumption has been steadily rising every year since 1994, though it dipped slightly in 2019 (due in part to the rise of low-alcohol beverages like hard seltzer).

For consumers, it can be easy to gravitate toward brand names you recognize and have seen before — but if you can navigate the hundreds of other choices of smaller producers available to you, you’re likely to find wines that are more interesting, more complex, and ultimately a better drinking experience.

Navigating through the glut of options, however, is still tough for most buyers. And that’s part of why an entire occupation exists to help consumers choose a bottle: the sommelier. In restaurants, the sommelier’s job is “having the wine discussions with tables and taking care of the wine service,” says longtime somm Ganzer. Many restaurants with serious wine programs have extensive bottle lists, often in the form of a fat binder. These lists can be daunting for consumers to parse, so the sommelier’s job is to be an expert on every wine they serve and to be able to supply guests with recommendations that suit their tastes and budget.

Different countries name wines differently because there’s no internationally agreed-upon standard

One element that perhaps contributes most to why wine is confusing: Every country regulates wine differently — and names its wines differently — so there’s very little consistency across the world.

Most people who drink wine probably think of wines in terms of the grape varietals, such as malbec, chardonnay, pinot noir, pinot grigio, merlot. But 51 percent of the world’s wines are produced by three countries: France, Italy, and Spain. And in European countries — which are known as the “Old World” in wine, because they have been producing wine the longest — they don’t name wines after grapes, they name them after regions: A burgundy and a chianti are from their namesake regions in France and Italy, respectively. So your average American wine consumer, if they want to make more informed choices at the store, has to learn about grape varietals and has to understand the wine-producing regions in France, Italy, and Spain, all three of which have so many different regions and appellations that mere mortals could not possibly keep track of them.

“When Europe started making wine, we didn’t know as much about grape varieties. We knew they had white grapes and red grapes and they would grow in, say, Bordeaux, and we put these red grapes together and call the wine bordeaux,” explains Madeline Puckette, the co-founder of the wine education website Wine Folly. “Now with science over the last 200 years, we figured out that we have all these different grape varieties. But the label regulations haven’t really changed that much, and bordeaux is still called bordeaux, even though it’s a blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, malbec, and petit bordeaux.

“So we have a label disagreement of whether we call it by the grape variety or the place. Is it orange juice? Is it strawberry juice? What am I drinking? Or do we call it Florida orange juice?”

In fact, until just a few decades ago, naming was actually even more complicated: New World wine countries — those not in Europe, so places like the US, Australia, and New Zealand — often named their bottles after wines they resembled from Europe, even though they weren’t from that region. This meant that a red wine from California could be called a burgundy even though Burgundy is a region in France.

In the mid-1900s, two US-based wine importers, Frank Schoonmaker and Alexis Lichine, began convincing California winemakers to start labeling wines after the grape varietals instead of regions. The California wineries began to label their wines after the grapes, such as zinfandels and chardonnays, and eventually, this became the standard practice among New World wine countries.

Still, Puckette notes that European winemakers hold on to their regional names — these days, it’s a marketing tool. “If Bordeaux is trying to sell their wines to the world, they realize that where they are from is what makes it unique,” says Puckette. “So they name it after the one you can’t take away from them, and that’s where they’re from.”

This lack of international consistency also creates confusion: Do I prefer sancerre or sauvignon blanc? (It’s a trick question: Sancerre is a region in France, and the grapes grown there are sauvignon blanc grapes.) Syrah and shiraz are the same grape varietal — it’s just called syrah in France and shiraz in Australia. It becomes an additional thing for consumers to learn: What type of grapes are actually in a bordeaux or a burgundy? Winemakers don’t always make it easy to discern the differences among these choices.

The reason you don’t see the same wines very often: Importing and distribution

Every time you walk into a wine store, you’re presented with entire walls’ worth of bottles of wine, most from producers you’ve never heard of before. And maybe you find something you like one time, but will you ever find that producer again in the next wine store or restaurant you go to? Probably not! The reason for that is tied up in how wine distribution works.

“You could sit down at one restaurant and be confronted by seven by-the-glass wines from one part of the world, and sit down at another restaurant and have seven completely different by-the-glass wines from different grapes and different parts of the world,” says Bianca Bosker, a journalist and author of Cork Dork, a book about her quest to understand the wine world.

“When it comes to distributing wines … the wines that you can find in New York are not necessarily the wines you can find in Houston and are not necessarily the wines you can find in San Francisco,” Bosker says. “This is an agricultural product … especially the more artisanal winemakers, they don’t have endless amounts to supply wine to restaurants all over the world, so as a result you can’t find the same thing everywhere you go; it’s not like finding salmon on the menu.”

One reason, Lefcourt explains, is that small winemakers can only produce limited quantities, which means they can’t be everywhere: “It’s hard to necessarily find those wines all year or all across the US because they are available in limited production.”

Additionally, small wine producers don’t have the infrastructure to ship and distribute their wines around the world, so they rely on a network of importers and distributors to get their wines from their farms and vineyards in France and Australia onto shelves and wine lists around the world. Importers like Lefcourt work with the winery to get their wines to other countries; then the importers either become licensed to sell the wine directly to stores and restaurants or they outsource that task to distributors. That complicated is by the fact that every country has different laws and regulations. Within the US, it’s further complicated because every state can have different regulations on alcohol, so distributors — or importer-distributors — often work with just a few states.

“Distribution is still very much tied to relationships,” Ganzer says. “Importers are almost more important than sommeliers. Importers are the ones finding the new people, putting them on ships, bringing them over; they’re driving the market, at least in the US.”

Tess Bryant, a California-based wine importer who specializes in organic and biodynamic wines from Australia and France, agrees. Bryant started by selling the wines she imported to California in New York, because they were her home markets. But when she wants to bring her wines to a new state, that requires her to identify and build a personal relationship with a distributor in that market — a slow process that requires putting effort into relationship-building, one state at a time.

She also emphasizes that she doesn’t want to just hand her wines to any random distributor — she wants to get to know them first, understand their tastes, and make sure they love the wines as much as she does and thus will be good salespeople whom she can trust to represent her wines well.

Wine labels aren’t designed to help consumers make decisions

When you consider an item or packaged good at the grocery store, you probably look at the packaging to learn more about what that item tastes like. Wine labels are no help on this front.

“Moscato is typically a sweet wine, and nowhere on the bottle does it say it’s sweet,” Puckette says, as an example. There’s little consistency across wine labels to help you make a decision on what to buy.

Wine label regulations are controlled by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, not the Food and Drug Administration. In order to be approved to import and sell a wine in the US, the label must include the mandatory information required by the TTB, which includes things like a health warning and alcohol content — but it doesn’t require nutritional information like calories, carbohydrates, or sugar, which customers would arguably appreciate, and it doesn’t require any information on taste.

“The wine label doesn’t speak to the consumer,” Puckette explains. “Every country does it differently, and countries do it for tax purposes, not for the consumer’s benefit.”

Winemakers are not even required to list all the types of grapes in a wine if they don’t hit certain minimum thresholds. “In America, if a wine says cabernet sauvignon, it can have up to 25 percent of other grapes in it — who knows what. In many other countries they have an 85 percent minimum rule; we’re a little slow here in the US,” she adds.

On the other end of the spectrum, many fine wine labels, such as champagne, burgundy, and bordeaux, now include more granular details on their labels than ever before — like the vineyard a wine comes from, the subsoils the grapes grew in, the harvest date and disgorgement date, or total acidity and pH. These extra layers of technical details can often be appealing to wine nerds who want to understand exactly where, when, and how their wine was made, but they’re often not helpful for the average drinker. If anything, they’re more confusing.

Ganzer mentions champagne as an example: “On the back of a lot of champagne bottles, they’ll give you the harvest date, types of grape blend, vineyard subsoils, disgorgement dates, all these little things — so that’s an extra line item of something you have to explain to somebody about what this wine is.” Bigger brands, like Veuve Clicquot or Moët, don’t bother. “They don’t want you to think about anything else besides this label and this wine that you’re enjoying. They want to make it as easy as possible; they don’t want to talk about the little details because that drives people away to a certain extent.”

Ganzer chalks up the information overload trend to the heightened desire in the industry for more transparency around the winemaking process. “As the market has grown, people just ask more and more questions. So as the buyers become more educated, you know, 30 years ago no one would have been talking about, oh, how are you farming? How much SO2 are you using?” This transparency can be exciting for industry professionals and the most serious wine collectors, but this hasn’t squared with the things that might explain the experience of drinking a bottle to the average, unobsessed consumer.

“In a way, it’s more complicated now because there’s more transparency,” says Ganzer. “Before, you didn’t have to know that much about wine to be into wine; you could say, ‘Oh, I love a good chablis’ — things were definitely less complicated back in the day.”

Wines also taste different every year

The taste of a wine is easily affected by many factors: The weather, the climate, and the harvest can vary so much year to year. Once you find a bottle you like, if you buy it next year, it may taste different from what you remember.

“When I first got into wine, I had a bottle of a 2005 côtes du rhône, and I loved it. It smelled like olives, and it was the first wine that was really savory in my life. I bought more and the vintage changed; it smelled like something else and it wasn’t the same delicious olive wine,” Puckette recalls.

Puckette acknowledges that this is complicated — even difficult — but also says it’s part of the beauty of wine. “Wine is one of the only things out there that we put in our bodies that we allow to be expressive of the time in which it was grown. It forces us to accept that things change,” she says. “I think when people start getting into wine, that’s the magic that they discover. The thing that makes wine so hard is ultimately the thing that makes wine so good.”

So … what can you do about it?

A handful of companies have tried to find ways to make understanding and exploring wines easier. There are apps, like Delectable and Vivino, that let you take a photo of a wine label and then pull up reviews of the wine from other app users. There are wine subscription clubs, like Winc and Bright Cellars, that ask you questions about your taste and preferences and then send you a personalized selection of wines every month. The apps are helpful for tracking and rating wines you tried or finding reviews of a specific bottle in front of you at a store, while the subscription wine clubs can be helpful for discovering a few new bottles you might enjoy. But neither of these types of tools can solve the bigger problem that consumers face: how to filter through the myriad options in a wine store or a restaurant and make an informed decision.

“Wine is really analogous to life in that it’s complicated, and there are lots of different ways to look at things, and that’s the beauty of it — it’s a reflection of life,” says Ganzer.

The best way to better understand wine, ultimately, is to drink a lot of wine. Being able to taste the differences among wines may seem like a tall order, but it comes with time and practice. Bosker, who spent years studying wine and getting trained as a sommelier before writing Cork Dork, suggests having a wine club with friends and working your way through tasting the “noble grapes” — chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, cabernet sauvignon, and so forth — and then start noting what you like.

“When you go out to drink wine, take a picture of it and note where it’s from, even if it’s just the country, and what grape it’s made with,” she says. “Make a little note to yourself. Did you like it? Did you not like it? That’s going to start to provide some structure to what you know.”

Bosker and the other experts I talked to all emphasized that the most important thing is understanding your own tastes and preferences and what types of wines you enjoy drinking, rather than attempting to memorize names of grapes and producers. There’s no right or wrong way to appreciate wine — so much of it is about personal taste, rather than some objective standard of what’s “best.”

Lefcourt also encourages drinkers not to worry about having the right vocabulary to describe the wines they like. “It shouldn’t be intimidating — it’s like describing anything else, like what a meal tastes like. We don’t all have the great language to describe what the beef stew tastes like, but we can try to put words on it,” she says. “You don’t have to have the language. You can just remember or take a picture of the wine that you do enjoy and then share that with your local retailer, and it’s their job to understand what your taste is and help you out. That’s what they’re there for and what they enjoy doing.”

And Bosker encourages consumers to lean on the shops and sommeliers to guide you to something new: “You really only need two pieces of information to drink well, whether you’re at a restaurant or buying wine at a shop. … One is: What is your budget? Everyone has one, it’s fine, just say it however feels most graceful to you. And secondly: What flavors do you want? That can be as specific as saying, ‘I like wines that taste like violet,’ or it can be something like saying, ‘I love nero d’avolas from Sicily, what do you have that’s like that?’ And with those two pieces of information, people can really guide you to a new and hopefully great experience with a bottle of wine,” Bosker says.

So in the end, maybe the simple answer to how to understand wine is: don’t. Just drink it.

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Author: Nisha Chittal

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