Sunday, October 9, 2011

In Defense Of Corporate Wine

Jimmy Traffecanty runs a wine shop on the corner of Ventura and Dixie Canyon in LA. The selection is heaviest on California, but broad and interesting. Late one night in the aftermath of a stomach-rubbing meal, he reaches over to pour another glass and groans, “This Mondavi is just fantastic”.

“Say, what?”

The disbelief is, of course, what he’s doing drinking such a commonly available wine when he has access to so many obscure, unique wines. I was definitely missing something. A lot, as it turns out. Not about Jimmy or Mondavi, specifically, but about wines made by large wine companies. Corporate wines.

There is a well-established and rapidly growing segment of wine drinkers for whom brand recognition is not only irrelevant, but a turn off. A consumer’s penchant for exclusivity is no doubt explained somewhere in the depths of behavioral science, but we all know it as the simple desire to discover and obtain what others have not. This adventurous pursuit unearths terrific discoveries, but often comes at the expense of overlooking what has become ubiquitous.

Corporate wineries’ branding programs have been so pervasive and successful that their brands have blended into the background for the wine cognoscenti, subconsciously dismissed as generic. Pallets of wine are overlooked every day because, well, there are pallets of them.

However, while these corporations are known more for predictable, pedestrian wines targeting the price-conscious, their reserve and appellation-specific programs are not only capable of putting out thrilling wines, but do so with alarming consistency.  The wise consumer will take note of the reliability and value offered by these programs, whose craft and caring is no less praiseworthy than that of the boutiques.

This shouldn’t be surprising, either. After all, it is people – individuals – with personalities, talents, and quirky brilliance who make this wine, not institutional protocols or assembly line recipes.

Evidence of this is on the shelves of every wine shop - and from nearly every region. Mondavi, Gallo, Beringer, and Kendall Jackson are just a few from northern California. And the list goes on: Chateau St. Michelle in the Pacific Northwest, Penfolds and Rosemount in Australia, Jadot and Drouhin in France, Banfi and Antinori in Italy, and Veramonte and Concha y Toro in Chile. And these are just a drop in the proverbial spit bucket.

Often dismissed as soulless, these behemoths prove vintage after vintage that they are as capable of distinction as any small family owned winery. Just because annual reports have replaced wine club cookouts doesn’t mean that they aren’t worthy of savvy buyers’ appraisal.  Jimmy Traffecanty has known this for a long time.  And now, so do you.  Happy shopping.

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