I am going to attempt something different, and if I dare say so, rather audacious: offer a new definition of wine as it appears in 2013. In simple terms, I believe that wine is rapidly being split into three distinct categories. If you imagine a set of slightly overlapping circles, wine as we know it – the stuff of terroir, vignerons and vintage variations – stands in the centre of the picture. On the left, there’s a larger and fast-growing circle which I’ve called GRApe-BAsed Beverage Alcohol, or GRABABA. This is the vinous equivalent of a beer, a drink bought to refresh and – at least moderately – inebriate. GRABABA comes in a wide range of styles, from basic Spanish red to Moscato and the German Riesling on sale in Aldi for under €2.00 a bottle. Cava is usually a GRABABA. And so, most definitively, are ‘critter’ brands like Fat Bastard and Yellow Tail and their successors, Skinny Girl and Cupcake. What they all have in common is that they are bought without much thought. Noone bothers about whether they are getting a good vintage of Pinot Grigio or where the grapes for their Cupcake Red Velvet were grown, or on what kind of soil. France’s increasingly popular fruit-flavoured wines are of course quintessential GRABABAs. Most GRABABA is, almost by definition, cheap and in general distribution, either on supermarket shelves or by the glass in restaurants and bars. Some of it is recognisably branded and packaged – JP Chenet and Barefoot are good examples – some is not. Reliability and consistency are a prerequisite for the category.
Now let’s skip to the circle on the right. This one goes by the uglier name of LILUGO - LIquid LUxury GOod - and includes most of the wines whose price has moved beyond the barriers of rationality. Precisely where these barriers lie vary between countries and individuals, but Lafite and Penfolds Grange are obviously LILUGOs, as is Armand De Brignac ’Ace of Spades’ Champagne (€236), Harlan Estate (€564), and Screaming Eagle (€1,900). The common thread that links the LILUGOs is that, like the GRABABAs, they’re more often than not bought by people with little or no interest in precisely where they came from and how they were made. The quality and rarity of the raw materials is obviously crucially important, just as it is for a $10,000 Hermès handbag, but buyers are rarely interested in the name of the person who made it. How many Lafite buyers could accurately locate the chateau on a map? How many Dom Pérignon drinkers know what grapes it is made from? Acknowledgement from the critics is important at this level, but not essential. Garrus does not come with a high Robert Parker or Wine Spectator score.
Obviously, nothing is cut-and-dried. Many of the people buying La Tâche (average price: €2,117) are Burgundy lovers who just happen to earn Wall Street salaries and can afford a bottle as readily as the rest of us can afford a Starbucks Cappuccino. Gallo’s $8.00, “friendly, jammy, sticky-luscious, California fruit bomb” - in the words of one critic - is an obvious GRABABA, but its sumptuous packaging may allow a buyer of more basic Californian wine to treat it as a luxury.
If you accept my logic, the next stage is to decide where you think every wine you have anything to do with commercially fits in the three circles. And then to ask whether the people who actually buy and consume it share your opinion.
Today, for the first time, social media monitoring enables you to listen in to online conversations about your brand. Are people talking about the vintage, or about drinking it in a nightclub? Next, and this is the commercially interesting part, it’s time to take a long hard look at the wine, its packaging, its pricing and most crucially, its marketing, to see whether they’re consistent with the category. Does a GRABABA back label or website focus on soil and vineyards? Does your LILUGO come in a gift box? Is your GRABABA as consistent as it ought to be? Does it need a vintage? Are you using the appropriate closure? (It’s a rare LILUGO that doesn’t come with a natural cork). Finally, are you using the most appropriate channels of communication? (GRABABA and LILUGO buyers are not voracious readers of wine columns). I’m not saying that my redefinition of wine is totally reliable, only that there’s something illogical about treating a $5.00 wine in the same way that we treat a $50.00 one.