Can European Wine Producers Access the Mainstream U.S. Market?
I have two acquaintances from Europe on a work visa here in the States. It is always interesting to hear their perspective on wine. They view wine very differently than the majority of my U.S. friends. When I am looking for someone to explore and appreciate the complexities of Northern Rhone, or Burgundy with me… it is rarely my U.S. friends. Decades of high Robert Parker scores have been driving demand for high alcohol, big oak and rich mouth-feel and have skewed the high-dollar U.S. Cabernet market towards palates that have been trained to demand it. I know, because that was mine back in the day. It’s all good though. I have come to enjoy both the big & bold and lighter complex styles. Although I must say, the wines that fill that special place for me are often the more balanced lighter wines of Italian origin. With such major differences in style preference between here and there, can a wine executive from Europe having grown up with a different wine sensibility… truly understand the American consumer?
Many Europeans Experience Wine as an Accompaniment to Food
Until 2010, I primarily drank wine before, or after a meal, but rarely with. Based on my friends, acquaintances and wine education events, this is the primary wine experience for the majority of Americans. It wasn’t until my Sommelier training that I was introduced to the idea of wine as an accompaniment to food. Too many U.S. consumers evaluate wines and make buy decisions based on tasting without paired food. I don’t believe this is well understood by wine industry executives in Europe. The popularity of the big fruit-forward taste profile in the U.S. is a good barometer for this discussion.
Is There an Assumption of Basic Wine Knowledge?
There are a few points to make on this topic. Wine is a common fixture on most French, Italian and Spanish dinner tables, consequently children are exposed to wine at a very early age. This leads to basic wine knowledge being assumed by many Europeans. In addition, branding regional food and wine by city, or area name is well understood there. In the U.S., this is a confusing and foreign concept. Until another approach to marketing is developed, the under $50/btl. retail wine market here will continue to be an elusive target for European producers.
Many Europeans might cringe at the idea that the most popular food dish in America is probably boxed mac & cheese. The foodie movement is a relatively new trend here. Working with consumers in the U.S. means starting with people from the ground up and building demand with little steps.
Are European Producers Targeting Only U.S. Collectors and Connoisseurs?
Importing marketing, or sales professionals from Europe is a thoroughly misguided idea… unless you are trying to target the 5% of the total market (by volume) that are the collectors and connoisseurs. I have had only a few experiences with Europeans in a sales role for wineries in the U.S. They have all been French and were the singular worst experiences I have had during all my wine trips to California over the years.
Changing the American Wine Paradigm
The challenge in the American market is convincing the average consumer that wine is not just for special occasions and holidays… or… is not just a glass on tap (yes, most winebars are now serving on tap) with friends before, or after dinner.
The more I talk to people in wine marketing in the U.S., the more I realize how misguided many are… and how absolutely correct the winemakers usually are… winemakers and vineyard managers are just farmers at heart. It is this wine for the “regular Joe” story that resonates with the average American Consumer. If wine is to gain greater market share here, it should be experienced as relaxed and fun, with no rules. Put together an effective explanation of why focusing on wine can make life richer… and there you have a marketing campaign that will have an impact in the U.S.