Wine for the masses?
© by Linwood Slayton

We are witnessing a "movement" in the wine business, or so we are led to believe. There has been a plethora of articles and news stories about the emergence of "cheap wines" in today's marketplace. I recently read a story in The Atlanta Constitution that said that Walmart would soon be expanding its wine business with an array of cheap wines priced from as low as $2 per bottle. The intended markets for these wines are the "blue collar" consumer and "younger" drinkers.

At first blush (pun intended) this makes a lot of business sense. There remains a significant market for those who like White Zinfandel and especially that which sells for less than $8 or $9. The shelves of the wine stores in my are full of big jugs which sell for very low prices even now. These are good "party" wines and work well in paper and plastic cups when entertaining crowds of 20 or more.

Whenever I entertain a large number of folks in my home, I ask folks to bring a bottle of wine to share with others. Invariably, when the evening is over and the empty bottles of Pinot Noir, Merlot, Chardonnay and Shiraz are discarded, there remain a few of those big bottles of non vintage Merlot or some other varietal. I typically save them for the next party.

Most of us cut our wine teeth on "cheap" wines. I know that I used to drink my fill of Thunderbird, Catawba Pink, Ripple, Boone's Farm and Yago Sant'gria back in my leaner and meaner days while a student at Howard University. We even used to make our own "Purple Passion" wine which was a blend of grain alcohol, any sweet wine or grape Kool-Aid, sugar, ice and complimentary Excedrin on the side. The common denominator for most of these wines was that they were sweet but potent - high in sugar and alcohol content.

Make no mistake about it, our goal was to get blitzed. We did not have a sense of palate at that time. No one was concerned about color, clarity or bouquet. There was no way to see "legs" on the side of a paper cup.

So, my question is whether the expected consumers of the new "cheap" wines will have the same or similar goals when buying and drinking the new stuff soon to hit the marketplace? I suspect not. If we are to believe the critical assessments of some of the emerging $2-6 per bottle wines, they may surprise us with their complexity and finish. Of course, there will be some that will taste like wet cardboard too. There will be those who do simply want to get their "buzz" on and for them taste will be far less important than the final effect.

Perhaps the more difficult question is whether those of us who have grown accustomed to a standard of quality will be able to transition downwards so to speak. I doubt it. Have you ever sat in 50 yard line seats at a football game and had to sit in the upper end zones the next game you attended? It's hard to enjoy the second game after having had the experience of the first.

Yet I applaud the wine vendors for trying to branch out and reach a new market niche. I understand that there is a glut of wine and if it means that prices have to be lowered to sell it, so be it. I have no doubt that the market research folks have done their homework and the marketing gurus will find creative ways to hype the new stuff. That's what makes living so enjoyable- everyone ought to have choices.

As for me, I can not envision that I will join this bandwagon. I will continue to look for value which I define as quality wine at a lower price than one would expect. I prefer wines in the $12-25 range but appreciate a wine that sells for more so long as there is a noticeable spike in the taste and quality given the higher price.

Who knows? Maybe this is the first step in the master plan to "hook" new wine drinkers and get them to embark on their own personal journey of discovery. Once you get a taste of the good stuff, it's very hard to go back to the cheap seats. I doubt that we will ever see wine replacing beer as the drink of choice for the masses but you never know ... maybe we'll see some really good TV commercials featuring wine, women and song or even some new icons. Instead of the Budweiser frogs or Clydesdales maybe we'll see the Gallo gazelle or the Kenwood kangaroo or the Beringer bear. I can see it now ... the phone rings and a young man in baggy shorts and a baseball cap cocked askew, answers "whassup?" as he sips on a glass of merlot while listening to the rhythmic pulsating beat of Usher or Beyonce ... ya' never know.

In the meantime, the jury is still out on the subject of "cheap wines". So long as we continue to have a range of choices and can find a good bottle of wine that meets our personal taste and price standards, life is good. I will continue on my personal wine journey even if I opt not to take this new path.


Sept. 27, 2004

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