Style & Substance: A Dubious Harmony, Part 1

The following is part 1 of a 2-part series analyzing some of the nuances of the various decisions made by wine producers when branding, marketing, and selling their product. Consider this a pseudo-guide equipping consumers with some perspective to consider when buying their next bottle.

Despite the best efforts of an entire industry of wine professionals looking to bring objectivity to that moment of convergence between liquid & lips, wine does not exist in a vacuum. Sales & marketing inevitably touch each and every bottle of wine ever produced, since we haven't yet developed the technology for wine to simply be teleported onto one's palate via immaculate consumption.

Pondering the ways that sales & marketing touch a bottle is the single activity that signals a turn from casual wine consumer to critical wine appreciator. For it is this pondering and subsequent seeking that allows the imbiber to make a reasonable determination about the contents of the bottle in relation to the presentation of the bottle. In other words, style vs. substance.

So, let's ponder. Let's break down the major steps of the controllable processes that wine producers go through to get a case of wine into the market, where you & I can put our money on the table and drive it off the lot, to quote Boz Scaggs in Lowdown. Along the way, we'll analyze what the decisions made at each step of the process say about the producer's ethos and what they might mean for us at the end stage of cracking the bottle and pouring a few generous glasses out for our pals. We'll talk about where decisions based on style get in the way of substance and vice-versa, as well as what the ramifications might be.

It's all part of that dubious harmony that we must learn to question if we want to improve our standing as consumers who know how to spot wine whose raison d'être is truly about the contents of the bottle rather than the bottle itself. Assuming you like flavour and quality in the glass, that is.

Let's get after it.

Grapes. Dirt. Four Walls.

The first and arguably most important part of the overall process are the actual grapevines themselves. After all, the wine has to come from somewhere. Not all wines you see in the store come from vines owned by those who own the brand or even the winery itself. I hate to break it to you, but those few vineyards in front of the entrance to Mission Hill or Robert Mondavi is not where they grow grapes for Oculus & To Kalon, if they make wine from them at all. But bless their little hearts, because vineyards are lovely and it's nice to be around them at all. Depending where you are in the world, wineries will be allowed to label their wines with some degree of specificity, and should generally be inclined to be as specific as they possibly can. If a wine producer can claim a single site from which a wine is sourced, whether it is considered to be special or not, it's generally in their interest to say so on their label and up the perception of detail, care, and scarcity that typically drive up value perception, or price, in lay terms. It's important to remember that the "winery" business is not inherently the "winegrower" business. The less a bottle can say about where its contents come from, well, it's a statement about their priorities. It doesn't mean it's bad or it's good, but it's something to be aware of, because including or omitting information related to the sourcing of grapes is a decision.

Building on this further, it's important to consider the financial factors that may influence a winery's production schedule. Do they own vineyards or property that they might have taken out significant loans on? Were larger loans required to build a fancy tasting room & visitor centre in addition to a wine production facility? What is the financial situation of the owners outside of their involvement in the wine business? Naturally, the costs of such things may and will impact the strategies of wine production. Are the wines held back for extra bottle maturation? Are they permitted extra time in barrel or barrique before bottling? Essentially, is the winery able to take their time and go the low and slow route, carefully crafting wines that are deserving of praise and enter the market at a humble price that overdelivers on taste, or are financial stressors causing production, bottling, and shipment to be rushed, with a price tag that might not reflect well once the bottle is opened?

The consumer is a fickle beast. A vast tasting room with a view and a passable restaurant (a whole other can of worms) can do a lot to create the impression that the wines are worth more than the sum of their parts. It makes a person wonder how a consumer might feel if the showroom and terrace were stripped away and the bottles were unlabeled in simple, inexpensive vessels, and a plain, roadside, industrial winemaking facility was the focal point. If the wines themselves were exactly the same, would the perception also be? Would the price? One wonders.

A winery is a winery and a tasting room is a tasting room, and a vineyard is a vineyard. The three are often conflated as the same thing. They are not. It's important to recognize the distinction between them with the understanding that, technically, only two are essential for you to have the privilege of a bottle of wine at your disposal. Wine can be sold into an existing retailer or restaurant over the phone, over email, or in person at the establishment who wishes to procure it and pass it along to the consumer. It can be sold directly to the consumer online. International distributors and agents launch multi-million case brands around the world on the regular with nothing more than a cute new label. The tasting room, though often profitable and helpful in generating visibility, is not really necessary for many. Perhaps, its importance is weighted more heavily for those who reside in emerging OR established wine regions with a significant tourism draw and the potential for foot traffic, such as the Okanagan Valley or Sonoma County.

Before wrapping up this section and transitioning into the presentation of a wine in terms of packaging and design, let's summarize the net results of this section for consumers. What is it exactly that you, yes you, want to pay for when you purchase a wine? Are you wanting a fat construction loan and a heavy mortgage that the winery is trying to cover tacked onto the price of the bottle? And hey, setting matters. Tasting wine in a nice room with nice glassware can elevate the experience and the perception of value. Conversely, even though you wouldn't expect a high-end restaurant to serve food on paper plates, there's romance in the spartan, straight-from-a-humble source experience that certain authenticity-focused consumers love. A $35 pork chop with a rich demi-glace is great, but so is a hunk of swine sliced off the spit and eaten by hand for $5. Corporate sponsorships are part of the cost of a can of Budweiser, if you think about it. The romance, to me, in the great search for great wine, comes in finding that producer who directs as much of their viable resources into the wine and does their best to pass those savings onto the consumer. That's how true value is created.

It Was The Suit That Got Me The Gig.

At the winery itself, one could taste the wine, revel in its pleasures, and more than likely, be happy to walk away with the nectar in unlabeled bottles, feeling more authentic than a Portland hipster. But take yourself for a spin in the wild west wine market made up of liquor stores, supermarkets, private retailers, and bodegas? Those poor wines gotsta speak a little louder.

I often say that the biggest problem with wine is that somebody has to drink it. And the factors that lead up to that consumption are smack-dab in the middle of that conundrum. The shape and weight and colour of the bottle. When's the last time you bought Pinot Noir from a high-shouldered bottle? When's the last time you bought rosé in a dark bottle? When's the last time you drank Cabernet Sauvignon from a sloped-shouldered bottle? There's the closure: natural cork, DIAM™ cork, synthetic cork, glass stopper, swing-top, bottle cap, or my personal favourite: screwcap. The colour of the foil, if there is foil at all. Wax dipped bottles- but what colour and what kind of wax?

And we haven't even got to the label yet. The front label, at least. I've always gotten a kick out of the saying, which I can trace back to the late British Columbia wine mogul, Harry McWatters, that a producer can put anything they want on the back label: even the truth.

Accolades. Those silly point scores and gold and silver and bronze medals that producers like to stick on their bottles, the consumer none the wiser and believing that these accolades aren't purchased. To me, these accolades remind me of the sales trophies in every car dealership office. I respect sales people and their hustle. Wines, unassisted by people, cannot have hustle. Though that's a cheeky tasting note I'll probably use on my next podcast.

The price. This one is funny, because people often don't realize that it's a choice. And it's a big marketing choice. I think it's perceived as an honest presentation of cost versus profit. People assume, sometimes to their detriment, that they aren't being ripped off, that every winery is simple marking up their cost by 10% and that's that. They must be rich! LOL! Many times, a higher price alone is the exact kind of marketing that a wine needs to improve its perception on the shelf. It's the status of spending a certain amount on a bottle, and many consumers wouldn't be able to taste accurately enough to determine that a bottle's contents might actually be worth more or less. A winery's bottle of $25 wine generally doesn't cost much less to produce than their $100 bottle. At least, it certainly doesn't cost 4 times less to produce. It might simply be 4 times more scarce, but there are cases of the top wine of an estate being produced in greater quantity than their value offering. People will spend more money on a bottle of wine as a gift for the simple fact that they want their gift to be perceived as more expensive, EVEN IF technically better wine could have been procured and gifted for less money. This is important to consider.

And finally, the label. This one is such a mess of factors: perceptions, personal preferences and tastes, ideas, head is already spinning and my vocabulary is dwindling. Maybe it would help to think of labels as a form of dress. Some wines wear ball gowns and tuxes. Some dress more professorially. Some are in beachwear, some in jeans and t-shirts. Some dress for Sunday barbecues, some for board meetings. Some like to wear tie-dye and dreadlocks. Some put it all out there. Like people, wines are dressed to make a personal statement which in some way, if not reflecting the juice in the bottle, reflects the approach and ethos of the producers themselves, in an albeit haphazard way. And we're just talking about design. Once you mix in the various laws of labelling, appellation, and varietal in each region around the world, we've got a whole other bag of factors to consider.

And how is the consumer to decide or evaluate these factors? The Prisoner started out as a 250 case brand and is now closer to a 250,000 case brand. And I know of boutique, independent producers who use the exact same formula on the label to bottle their 40 case small lot Syrah. How is anyone who isn't a serious student of wine supposed to compute all this into their decision in a matter of seconds?

Let's take a wine like "Bitch", pictured here. Based on the label, you'd have no idea where it comes from. The sell is not one of substance (read: inside the bottle), but style (read: inside the bottle). It takes the consumer at least turning the bottle around to see A.) The region and/or grape varietal from which the wine is made and B.) MAYBE even what the style of the wine might be, if any indication is in fact given. Ironically, my suspicion is that most consumers who purchase this bottle are doing so without inspecting the back label or engaging in any form of research at all, because the label has a certain entertainment value all on its own. You just gotta grab one and go! If the wine is good or decent or even drinkable at all, it's almost seen as a bonus, because the fun is mainly in picking up the playful bottle. The assumption that I make is that the wine could literally come from any source that was minimally suitable, with little regard for telling a story of sourcing, because the style of the product is the priority: we gotta make a wine called "Bitch" that looks like this!

Let's take a classic European label. Simple, subtly stylized. Yes, decisions have been made regarding the design, but they stay inside the box (even if they literally cut the corners off of it) and deliver information that relates to the wine of their region, sufficiently describing the contents to a minimal agreed upon standard. Rioja is the region the wine comes from, and that piece of information alone gives consumers, who might HAVE to do a little research or trial in this case to discover the meaning of this information, an idea of what the wine will generally be like. This one piece of information (Rioja) tells them what the dominant grape varietals will be, where the grapes come from, the minimum amount of time the wine has been rested post-fermentation and bottling, if barrel was used, how long barrel may have been used for and what types of barrels they might have been. The original idea and benefit of the various denomination of origin laws across Europe were to help the consumer understand what was inside the bottle that they were about to purchase, put simply. It was collective marketing. Sure, no system is perfect. Some producers over-deliver on their quality. Some ride the coattails of their region's reputation and try to maximize their profits by skimping on quality. It's simple a system, and it works for many consumers and producers alike.

'The Prisoner' Photo credit:

Let's take a look what I call a hybrid category of labeling with an aforementioned example, The Prisoner, perhaps a style/substance proposition that has the most pregnant potential to befuddle the consumer, and indeed has done so. On the surface, we've got a similar approach to Bitch, only I'd argue that the humour and impulse isn't really there to the same degree. Nobody is going to show up with this bottle of wine as a way to get a laugh, so the targeted consumer and their subsequent set of values is arguably very different. This type of label is flexible. On one hand, it's successful because of its style: the label doesn't suggest any specific type of wine that might be inside the bottle. It appeals solely to aesthetic sensibilities, as opposed to olfactory sensibilities. No information about the wine itself is given on the front of the label. The label, however, is attractive to enough people to make this brand one of the most successful wines sold in a "premium" category ($40+ for our purposes), producing and selling something in the range of 250,000 cases per year around the world. What's interesting, is that now, as a corporately structured, mass-produced brand, The Prisoner is very different from what it was when it started, even though the label is exactly the same. The Prisoner began as a fledgling, virtual brand made up of a smattering of red grape varietals by a winemaker named Dave Phinney. "50 percent of people who pick up a wine buy it because of the label," he's been quoted as saying. And his philosophy has been rewarded over time. The wine was first produced as a hyper-boutique, 250~ or so case brand. How would the average consumer know about its subsequent 1000x increases in production and its multiple ownership transfers between the giant wine companies of the world in multi, multi-million dollar transactions? They wouldn't.

This category of label is fascinating to me because the consumer is left to rely completely on their own research to understand the nature of the substance inside of the bottle. Even the back label of The Prisoner provides little information outside of broad regional denomination. This wine might be produced in shimmering fashion from vineyard to bottle, by viticultural and oenological experts with killer taste, or it might be exactly what The Prisoner is now: homogenized, smoothed over, perfectly manipulated, and mediocre for the price. We, the consumers, have no way of knowing this by looking at it, though. This is exciting on one hand, and potentially manipulating on the other. I do love the lack of tradition that comes with this free-form labelling style. It slashes through pretension with vigour and invites the other cultural senses into the experience. Unfortunately, these labels also have the ability to shroud the production process in a cloak of invisibility for the consumer. This is generally not as important to wineries who utilize this style, often times, because the consumer usually isn't that interested.

Ironically, the same concept of labelling is also used by many natural and low-intervention wine producers. It's possible that because their practices occasionally do not fit into the rules that might qualify them to include their appellation on their label, they opt for a stylish and playful look. My head is spinning at an even more rapid rate now, because these producers generally are extremely small in scale and actually want to pass on products that consumers can identify as coming from a specific place and are produced in a specific, feel-good manner.

It's a lot to consider, and there's so much more to say. In Part 2, we're going to discuss the way that wineries talk about themselves. We'll discuss the word "iconic" and look to comparative adjectives utilized by namely North American wine producers who look to equate their wines with those of Bordeaux, Burgundy and other notable regions. Then we'll summarize everything with a few thoughts of our own on the subject and see if we can't nail down an approach to surfing the wine section that might help consumers walk that tightrope between style and substance in their own shopping experiences.

Stay tuned.