The tipping point

Column - Robert Joseph 

Robert Joseph
Robert Joseph

I don’t know what we called a tipping point before the Canadian writer ­Malcolm ­Gladwell popularised the term, but it looks as though the wine world may just have ­encountered rather a big one. According to ­recent figures, the US is now consuming more wine than France, making it the biggest ­market in the world. The reason this is a major tipping point is that the two markets are moving in diametrically opposite directions and there isn’t even a remote chance that the land of the croissant and croque-monsieur will ever regain a lead over the home of the Big Mac. Last year, France drank 7% less than in 2012 while the US knocked back 0.5% more. The reason the gap will grow is that, of the under two thirds of French adults who now drink wine - 38% are officially classified as non-consumers - a ­substantial proportion are ­heading rapidly towards their graves. According to an official 2010 report by Agrimer, 48% of France’s over-65-year-olds are regular wine drinkers, while the figure for under-35-year-olds is just 10%. In the US, it is the ‘Millennials’ (or Generation Y) who represent the most exciting market sector.

This is more than simple statistics. As any French producer who has crossed the Atlantic will have noticed, despite the fact that the Americans drink a lot of European wine, they don’t approach wine in the same way as the Old World.

Food and wine matching is less of a concern, if only because a lot more wine is consumed without a meal. Some consumers demand authenticity and a ‘story’; others - a majority - want a reliable beverage with a catchy name like Barefoot, Cupcake or Apothic. They like memorable, attention-grabbing packaging, and they like ‘new’. 

The European model of buying the same wine directly from the same vineyard for decades does not apply in the US where the average lifespan of a winery wine club member is ­under two years. If you aren’t coming up with new vineyards, reserve bottlings or styles, your ­customers move on.

Expressions used in the US that are almost unthinkable in Europe. Ryan Harms of Union Wine Co, the entrepreneurial producer about to release 200,000 cans of Underwood Pinot Noir, openly admits to supporting the ‘beeri­fication’ of wine, and the breaking down of old barriers. In France, the wine industry’s ­strategy for young people is to dumb down the product, by adding fruit juice or even Cola, but the packaging of these ‘wine cocktails’ tends to conform to old models. At present, the Old World’s conservative tendencies are bolstered by the preference of novice Chinese consumers for traditional packaging, complete with natural corks. But I’d no more bet on that surviving over even the medium term than I would on red Bordeaux still being the default style. Whether they will want a local ­adaptation of Barefoot or something developed­ in China remains to be seen, but as they ­become more confident, China’s wine drinkers - especially the women - will vote with their wallets, just as their counterparts in the US have done. And there’s no reason to believe they’ll be buying boringly-labeled bottles from obscure appellations, however fine the contents.

There is a parallel with the motor industry. Drivers in mainland Europe like hatchbacks with diesel engines and manual gearshifts. As Maxime Picat, CEO of Peugeot, recently admitted, most of the rest of the world prefers automatic sedans that run on petrol. Which is why the French company was recently bailed out by a Chinese state-owned truck maker. Peugeot would have been wiser to follow its German competitor Volkswagen-Porsche, which bent to the will of its export markets. VW ­sedans lead the market in China while Porsche now produces more US-focused SUVs than two-seater sports cars. If French wine producers want another example of a company that has adapted to local tastes, they should head to their local McDonalds. Finding one shouldn’t be hard. France is now the chain’s second ­biggest market after the US. Part of the reason for that success lies in the ­McCamemberts, ­salads, pastries, Heineken and coffee that is better than many Gallic cafes. Quite how ­ready the French – and other Europeans - will be to moulding their ways to the markets ­remains to be seen, but if I’m right, they’ve got to start thinking about it seriously.

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