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FRIDAY GETAWAY DAY
01/18/2013
Friday Fishwrap
The Real Inconvenient Truth--"Big Wine" Is Not All Bad

By Stephen Eliot

A week or so back, there was a collective gasp as a Michigan State University study revealed that a good 50% of all wines consumed in America were made by three large corporate concerns, and that somehow this revelation was profoundly germane to the wine writer’s world.

I really doubt that many genuine wine professionals, from writers to retailers to restaurateurs, were at all surprised at the findings, and any who really knew their business have long been aware of the Big Wine presence. It is nothing new.

As a result of the study’s unsurprising conclusion, there have been claims that wine writers, for widely disparate reasons, were irresponsible and dangerously out of touch with some significant reality or that they have been silent accomplices in Big Wine deceit. One side makes populist accusations that wine writers are elitist and unconcerned about the stuff that Everyman really drinks. Others opine that they have abdicated their responsibility to connect the dots between widely distributed labels and their corporate masters and have been, as one writer puts it “appallingly complicit in avoiding this inconvenient truth.”

I confess that I am still trying to plumb the meaning of the latter and wonder if it is meant to imply that all Big Wine is crap and that it is time for Big Wine producers and distributors to reform their greedy ways and to embrace true winemaking “art.” I suppose that Big is so obviously bad that explanation need not follow. Pardon me, however, if I do not agree with either “principled” stance.

I might in my own way admire the unbridled populism of the internet, but professional writing by definition needs an audience if it is to survive. While I would never look down on those whose find pleasure in the inexpensive, industrial wines that fail to interest me, I have yet to hear any plausible argument that those consumers might value or, for that matter, remotely desire commentary, evaluation or opinion from paid professional scribes; no more, I suspect, than local loyal patrons of Burger King, Jack-in-the-Box and McDonalds are up in arms because they are ignored by the food critics of the San Francisco Chronicle.

Conversely, I do not sense some gnawing frustration in the masses and a rising indignation that they are being misled by Big Wine, and that they are waiting for an articulate champion to free them from their chains. Moreover the implied supposition that Big Wine is somehow the enemy is disconcerting. Is the fact that Louis Martini, MacMurray or William Hill are owned by Gallo or that Ravenswood is a small part of the Constellation conglomerate mean that the wines are inherently dishonest and not worth drinking? Is there a conspiracy at work whereby Big Wine is intent at squeezing out every small winery and winemaker? The number of new independent wineries making their appearance in recent years would suggest otherwise, and there is a growing following for the “little guys”.

Wine means many things to many people, and, as with most any commodity where a wide spectrum of perceived quality exists, there will be those who strive for the best while others will be quite content with the rest. The free market governs sources of information as surely it does wine itself. Those who find their pleasures in connoisseurship will seek guidance as fits their needs. Others will comfortably find their ways by themselves, and, in the end, the happiness that each finds will be the same. We here at CGCW happen to write for those for whom fine wine has become something of a passion. Consumer Reports aims at a different and much larger group, and bloggers abound who cannot wait to tell you what wonderful bargains they have found. There is not nor can there be a source of information that is all things to all people, and I am guessing that if there was, it would prove to be unsatisfactory to all.

Is there an inconvenient truth about Big Wine? Maybe. But, it is hardly a new story. Big wine has always dominated wine distribution. The problem here is one of bias about producers rather than bias for good wine. The big distributors own many good and semi-independent labels like Etude and Ravenswood and MacMurray Ranch. Any prejudgment about their wines is so loaded with bias as to call into question the fairness of any reviewer who holds that their wines are a priori “crap”. That is the real inconvenient truth in this story.


 

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