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The Summer of Wine's Discontent (or "What Wine Can Learn From Beer")

The wine world probably won't miss the Summer of `08.

That's because the Summer of `08 seems like wine's Season of Discontent.

Personally, I've never been so happy to see the Autumn (even taking into account that the Fall is my favorite time of year... colorful leaves... dark beers... heavier wines... and football... sweet, sweet football...).

Anyway, it was last week, with Autumn and football in full swing, when I realized that the wine biz has a lot to learn from its "little" cousin, beer. You know, the one that wine likes to look down on and winsomely tolerate from time to time at family reunions, all the while not seeming to realize that its cousin lives in a bigger house, makes more money, and has more friends. Yes, that cousin. Wine - I'm talking to YOU.

Last week, I had the pleasure of hosting fellow blogger The Beer Wench, touring nearby beer stalwart Victory Brewing Company with her. Dude loves beer (in fact, I used to brew it), and he is tight with Victory: it's my favorite beer location, Mrs. Dudette and I are friends with Victory's events coordinator, and Dude's band is playing Victory's outdoor Fall Fest celebration this year. So we were able to score a private tour of the beer-making magic for The Beer Wench.

About halfway through said tour (when I was rolling hops in my fingers, forever imprinting it's aromatic fingerprint into my brain), I realized something very important (to me, anyway): I've yet to meet anyone involved in beer - whether it be media, distribution, crafting, or enjoying - who was snobbish to the point of being exclusionary. Nobody. Zippo. Nada. It just doesn't happen. All seem to be welcome in the land of beer. Sure, they have their favorites, and the occasional "low on taste high on commercial budget" examples that they love to hate (Bud Light, anyone?). But you're never, ever turned away at the door of fine beer. Never.

The mantra of the beer lovers?

Everyone else is also a potential beer lover - they just don't know it yet!

I wish that I could say the same held true for the world of fine wine...

The sad truth is that there is snobbery in the wine world, and some parts of the industry might actually bank on that snobbery to make their take-home pay.

Too many budding wine aficionados are scared off by "experts" or turned away by the snobbish who view fine wine as some sort of elitist entitlement, to whom holding wine at arm's length from newbies is some sort of perverse badge of wine honor. By actively deterring new potential wine lovers, the only thing that the 'elite' are doing for fine wine is driving its future of appreciation into the dirt. I'm NOT talking about the Robert Parkers of the world. I'm talking about those who think they're Robert Parkers, but lack the experience, renown, know-how, clout, and funding, yet somehow feel as though wine 'belongs' to them.

This has nothing to do with print wine media. It has to do with individuals (no matter if they're in the wine industry or not) who are perpetuating a myth that you need to earn your place to love wine. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Wine loves you already. it wants you to be its friend. Wine doesn't like the snobs, either!

In my view, it would help the wine world if most of those in it took a long, hard look at the world of beer and instead of turning their noses at it, embrace its sense of helpfulness and down to earth charm.

Hey! Wine world! You need to help yourself to a glass of "Get Over Yourself" Ale. Vintage: Now. Region: You.

In general (not just for wine), people are looking more and more to social networking and customized recommendations. Some wine distributors, wine mags, wineries, and a whole lotta bloggers "get" this, and are doing their best to help those consumers, newbies, and enthusiastic learners. And they're probably enjoying a cold brewski while they're doing it (and if not, they should, because whether hey realize it or not, they're taking a cue from the beer industry).

Arguably, there are now more helpful resources to help the wine neophyte than there have at any other time in history. The tide is changing. And it's coming for the wine world, whether it's ready or not.

(images: old-photos.blogspot.com, 1WineDude.com)


Andrew said...

are you confusing snobbery with knowledge? Wine is a much more complicated subject to understand and certianly when compard to beer - no talk of terroir for example and just how many ways can a wine maker tinker during the manufacture compared to beer makers?

Yes of course there is snobbery but my point is that wine is much more complicated story...

Joe Roberts said...

thanks, Andrew. I know some beer aficionados who might challenge you on the viewpoint that beer is not as complex as wine.

Some craft brewers would also argue that beer does have a sense of terroir, in terms of local water, yeasts, barley, how / where the hops are harvested, etc.

Large-scale beer production lacks this complexity and aspect of place, but one could argue that so do large-scale appellations like SE Australia, etc.


The Beer Babe said...

I think this is very well written and well thought out. I love how inclusive the beer world can be, which is maybe why we've seen such rapid growth.

Chris Gillis said...

Great post Joe. Andrew - I would disagree with you on many levels, but just to pick one - saying that there is not Terroir in beer is just ignorance. Take the beer in Belgium called Poperings Hommel Bier - the hops are grown right in the region, malt is locally sourced, the water is from their own well, generational yeast - if that is not Terroir than I don't know what is?

Read more here http://www.beerhunter.com/documents/19133-000195.html

I have vast knowledge of beer, but only because I have been studying the beverage for 12 or so years and have the library to prove it. I also happened to be interested in wine, but I never would say that one is more complicated than the other. You probably just haven't read into the other beverage as much as you have with wine....beer has countries, regions, way more ingredients (take yeast for example), Terroir, Grand Cru, Purity laws (germany), glasswear, generations of producers....I can go on and on.

Take a look at the Beer Hunter Website...read a touch and let me know what you think.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post - and thank you so much for plugging my blog!

I myself chose beer blogging over wine blogging for the very reasons stated in your blog. The beer community is much less pretentious than the wine world. Beer, unlike wine, is not used as a status symbol. We respect and appreciate everyone who respects and appreciates beer, regardless of their "palate," knowledge, expertise etc.

I know nothing about beer in comparison to most homebrewers, beer connoisseurs and experts. Not once have I ever recieved criticism, though, for my lack of knowledge. INSTEAD, all I do is get encouragement and respect from these people. They support what I am doing with my blog and want to help me grow as an aspiring connoisseur.

I constantly observe the opposite phenomenon in the wine community. So many people are focused on competing with and out-doing others - publicly proving that they are smarter, wiser, more experienced, and have more professional palates than others. Instead of privately giving their fellow wine enthusiasts advice and constructive criticism, I have witnessed many wine people insult and belittle each other.

In my eyes, the wine world is too political. Too much drama. Don't get me wrong, I love the stuff - just as much if not more than beer. But the people in the industry can really turn me off with all the slander and disrespect I have witnessed.

Now, having said this - there are MANY MANY people in the wine industry who are very respectful towards each other. These people are so refreshing and I love interacting with them on a daily basis.

Once again, thanks for the VIP tour of Victory. YOU ROCK!

Anonymous said...

I've been listening to this line that the wine industry should become more like the beer industry for nearly four decades. This is not a new idea, but it is still wrong. The fact is, that the beer industry has profited and will continue to profit from becoming more like the wine industry, not vice versa.

You have to be completely blind not to have seen what has happened with the whole craft beer movement. This was all spawned by boutique wineries. It has even affected the big guys. Without the wine industry as a model you would never see a Budwizer or Sam Adams commercial talking about hop quality and "the subtle aromas of citrus". It would still be wet tee shirts and talking dogs.

As a home brewer specializing in pilsner I have spent a lot of time with the craft brewers and beer aficionados. You want to meet a bunch of snobs, go to a brew fest and listen to them wax on about about their over hopped, double dry hopped, amber "Urquell" clone. They even have a stupid 100 point scoring "system" used by their critics.

The only difference between a beer snob and a wine snob is the wardrobe.

Joe Roberts said...

Thanks, Morton.

Good points you have there on the similarities, most notably the scoring systems.

I'm not sure I'd agree with the craft beer movement being a direct influence of boutique wineries - you could consider some of the Belgian trappiste monk brewers to be craft outfits, and I'd think that they would undoubtedly predate the boutique winery movement.

Anonymous said...

I was speaking of the American craft beer movement. Thirty years ago a "craft beer" in the U,S. was Pabst Blue Ribbon. Fritz Maytag was influential in helping change that sorry state of brewing with his Anchor. It is no coincidence that predating Anchor in the 60's and continuing today were grapes being sold by Fritz from his York Creek Vineyard to Ridge.

A few years ago I attended a $1500 a plate homage to Robert Parker in SFO. Sitting at my table was a fellow Carlos Alvarez who had paid for two tickets and was accompanied by his wife. It turned out our interests coincided because he had just begun brewing a german bohemian pilsner clone at Trumer Pils in Berkeley. We had a long talk about what had transpired since he brought Corona to the U.S. market. There was no doubt in his mind the importance of the wine revolution in the U.S. opening up opportunity for the craft brewer. Look at Gambrinus' holdings or just Carlos being present at a key wine event.

A few days after our dinner I got nice package delivered to my house. Six bottles of Trumer pils in an elegant gift box with two beautiful crystal Pils glasses with a tiny tasteful logo, and a letter from the brewmaster Lars Larson inviting me for a tour and tasting. This is straight from the pages of any winery in the Napa Valley. They are learning from us.

Joe Roberts said...

Well Morton, that's pretty convincing to me! Especially the bit about Fritz Maytag (I'd actually known that and it completely slipped my mind when I was constructing this post).

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I know, it didn't occur to me either until I started to try to defend my comment and then the light went off. I don't mean to pile it on, but the real kicker is that a few years ago a distributor gave me 18 different Belgian beers to try. The distributor had just agreed to take them on because the Belgian brewing consortium thought this particular distributor would be best equipped to sell them. It was the Henry Wine Group.

Actually, one thing we both agree on for different reasons. We have to watch out for these beer guys!

Chris Gillis said...

Morton - not to open a can of worms, but the exact snobbery that Joe has talked about in this article is coming off your posts right now with the whole US Craft movement wouldn't be anywhere without Boutique Wine Labels?

The US Craft Movement wouldn't be anywhere without the countries that it took its inspiration from...I'm talking Belgium, England, Germany. You will hard pressed to find a craft beer in the US right now that does not have the influence of one of those countries in said beer.

Belgium for instance has always been about the small producer, in fact right now there are over 1000 different beers being brewed in that tiny country...some date back centuries.

The US Craft Movement has really only brought about 4 or 5 new styles to the world market - creme ale, american pale ale, american brown, american lager, steam beer - which are all based off the for-mentioned countries.

Fritz has always based his beers off German/English styles which date way back before the boutique wine market.

So I really don't see the connection - it you want to talk marketing brands...than maybe if you look at Russian river (ex wine guy Vinnie) and small production/limited runs (that's a whole nother story).

If you want to talk growth - look no where other than the internet - sites like Beer Advocate, Rate Beer, the Blogs and the Beer Festivals they are putting on has opened a whole new outlet for brewers to release, talk about, test, taste, etc and take their brews to the market.

....now if wine takes a page from that book...they will be somewhere.

Anonymous said...

Uh, the Beer Advocate? So that's where Parker got his idea. Thanks for enlightening me. I think that might prove my point, so maybe it isn't necessary I point out how Michael Jackson co-opted Parker's 100 point scoring. The beer snobs ate up his "original" scoring system, didn't they.

Yeah I know beer is old in Europe. You might not be aware that wine is old in Europe as well. But that has nothing to do with anything... particularly what went on here in the U.S. as the local craft beer developed.

I have watched the beer biz closely since I took brewing classes from Mike Lewis in 1970, the beer industry has trailed the wine industry by almost two decades and has copied it in just about every measure of its business model. Maybe it has been a big coincidence. But it would have to be a BIG coincidence.

The sad thing is the brewers are now copying our high alcohol wine style as they compete for points.

Chris Gillis said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Joe Roberts said...

Thanks for the interesting comments and civil debate! You all RAWK!

A point of clarification on the core idea behind my post:

I'm not saying that wine is better than beer or vice-versa. I'm also not saying that beer hasn't ever taken any cue from the world of fine wine marketing, etc.

What I was attempting to point out was that, in my experience, the # of douche-bag wine snobs > the # of douche-bag beer snobs, and that this higher # of douche-bag wine snobs are actively deterring budding wine enthusiasts. And that sucks donkey bong, bug time.

Anonymous said...

Joe, Joe, Joe - I have to put in my $.02 as a wine snob. Your article seems well intentioned, but it misses one key point: wine is A LOT more expensive than beer, and because of this, the two are different games. It isn't that one is a more complicated beverage than another. The economic difference within the world of wine drives wine's elitism. Beer's price ceiling is the same as an ordinary bottle of California Cabernbet; 750ml bottles of absolute top-tier Belgian beers go for $30. If the wine world were equally priced, there would be a smaller range of snobbery, say, just the "I'm-smarter-than-you types" (and I submit the beer world has those, too). Who wouldn't share a $30 bottle of anything, wine or beer, with a neophyte friend? Every wine snob I know is more than happy to share (or use as a teaching tool for neophytes) a $12 bottle of Aussie plonk, or a $10 Muscadet. It is the dangerous economic level, those $75-$150 bottles (and up...way up) that form the snob circle, because it is a much different game. Nickel slots are over there, beer folks, this is the $100 Baccarat table! I put a lot of money into my wine education and my wine collection, and that does make me elitist. There are many economic considerations that go through a 'wine snobs' head at every twist in the road, starting with 'is this bottle worth the money' to 'who will I drink this with?".
What's the worst that's going to happen in the beer world? I'm going to pay $8.99 for a bottle of Dogfishead 120 Minute IPA and not like it? So what? I'll try a different beer next time. Pay $125 for a bottle of Burgundy that smells like Band-aids, and that might just knock you out of the game for good... The wine snobs are never going to embrace neophytes, because the education (formal or informal) is much more expensive. The 'Intro to Wine" world has it's arms wide open, and just as willing to accept newbies as is the world of beer. The world of expensive wines and the beer world simply don't intersect, and that's why I had trouble with the premise of your article. But, keep up the good work.

Chris Gillis said...

jason - now those are some valid points you bring. To be honest it has always been something that has drawn me to beer...that one of the most expensive Belgian Beer is $35 a beer called DeuS (Brut Des Flandres) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/DeuS

Beer has been a working class beverage throughout time (from farm workers in Wallonia to English Working class), but beer fans revel in that. If you were to call a certain Australian Chard a "working class" wine, I guarantee that wine would tank.

Good post Jason.

Joe Roberts said...

Be careful, folks... you can't trust this Jason guy further than you could comfortably spit a rodent...

Just kidding... who loves ya, baby! Good points, as always.

I will say that it's my opinion that the price of the product is probably one contributing factor, but anti-snobbishness does not equate to having to share your expensive bottle of `82 Ch. Margaux with a neophyte. It *does* have to do with being willing to share your knowledge about wine with that neophyte - and I'd still argue that the world of beer has more experts willing to do this than does the world of wine.

For now, anyway...

Anonymous said...

Joe - This post came about as a result of you taking a warm and fuzzy tour of Victory Brewing Co., right? Very, very good beer, GREAT people, and it got you thinking that wine folks should be more like THAT, right? I say, the wine folks already are like that, at least to most people.

At the [winery, or brewery]'tour' level, for the neophyte, the worlds aren't different at all. Johnny Everyman, taking a tour of Victory Brewing or Chaddsford Winery, has JUST AS GOOD OF A TIME AT BOTH PLACES.

WHAT JOE KNOWS: Because you are a wine 'insider,' you see the wine world as more snobby. You have insider knowledge, so you know that not everyone who takes the Chaddsford tour (or the Opus Tour, or the Weinbach tour) gets to taste the 'good stuff;' that if you are the 'right person' or ask the 'right question,' you might get to taste the barrel samples of the 2007's, or the back vintages, and because of that, you think the wine world is 'holding back' something from the 'newbies.' Well, they ARE holding back something from the newbies, because the market narrows to a point that 'newbies' aren't necessary. The 'fine wine' world doesn't need any new buyers.

Did I mention I love beer? Love and respect it and drink it almost every day. The difference between beer & wine is the disparity at the high end. Beer doesn't get auctioned at Sotheby's. Sometimes, wine doesn't care if Joe Roberts approves of how it behaves, because it all gets sold anyway (DRC, Cht Petrus). Wines are more finite than beer. There are only 12 barrels of 2007 Miller Estate Pinor Noir, and there will never be anymore quite like it. Conversely, Victory can crank out as much Storm King as it chooses to produce. Again, as an insider, you know that Chaddsford (or Opus)has already sold all their delicious, special, 2007's, so they don't care if anyone else finds out about them, and thus, they are elitist. So what? If you want into THAT world of wine, you'll work for it.

Someone asked the owner of Chateau d'Yquem why their wine was priced so high. His answer: Because it isn't for everybody. Beer IS for everybody. Joe, in your post, you said 'no one has ever been turned away from the world of fine beer.' Maybe no one has, just like no one gets shooed out of costume jewelry stores. Actual diamonds are for the elite few. The world of fine wine rides the same margin, and it simply doesn't depend on the masses to survive.

Now back to my beer.

Joe Roberts said...

Thanks, Jason - of *course* you love beer, I'd call you insane if you didn't, and I'm always looking forward to our next glass of wine OR beer together.

The only thing I'd counter from your comment is the idea that because wine can be more exclusive/expensive than beer, that justifies some wine people acting like a__-holes. That's sort of like saying that we should be allowed to murder really dumb people because we're smarter - we just shouldn't tolerate some things like murder, acting like an a__-hole, etc.

The Chateau d'Yquem example is a great one, but it can go both ways: Lur Saluces, who headed up Yquem, was an A-list snob, nearly ran Yquem into the ground, and was more-or-less ousted from his position. He had kept so many bottles of Yquem for 'reference' that if they'd hit the market at one time it would've halved the bottle price. So it could be taken as an example of snobbery utimately being bad for business.

Douglas Trapasso said...

You know, That Dude From New Jersey says this at the end of every WebBlog he produces:

"You - With a little bit of me. We're changing the wine world."

All of us who love wine (even if they are not fans of Gary V.) need to ask ourselves, "What exactly would that mean?"

The challenge for all of us who love wine and/or work in the wine field is to figure out new, original ways to bring more friends and occasional ememies, to try new wines and express their thoughts on same, without any fear of teasing or retribution.

Knowledge and passion always has to be balanced with grace and patience. Let's say your passion is Joni Mitchell. Do you start a newbie with that weirdo jazz stuff she was doing in the late 70s? No, you start with Blue and Court and Sparks aka the basics, and then work your way from there.

Joe Roberts said...

Great point, CP. And it's not that Joni's stuff isn't complex (hell, Jaco Pasorious played on some of those accessible albums!), so I think as you ease in, you do subconsciously start to key into the more "advanced" aspects of appreciation...

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