If you type “wine education” into the Google search bar, you get 484 million results. Put those words into quotation marks and the results are pared down to a still unmanageable 1.2 million. Clearly, what this simple phrase suggests is anything but simple.
Wine education can mean many different things depending on whom you ask. There are formal and informal ways to learn about wine. What are some of the formal modes? For international beverage companies, mega-gigantic wineries, and industry-choking wholesalers and distributors, there are structured, well established programs for their employees, customers, and clients, conducted in the hope that the information passed along will trickle down to the retail level and thus increase sales. Any winery of any size that puts the least bit of energy into creating a hospitable tasting room claims to care about wine education, even though what most really care about is pushing day-to-day sales. They fill the front of the house with smiling faces perched above name tags that tell you, the visitor, that this person is a wine educator. Prepare to learn! And, if no real learning takes place, well, then prepare to buy. Finally, there are programs run in cities and towns across the country where the wine curious can pay professional educators of varying abilities for a peek behind the curtain that separates them from the world of wine.
On the informal side of the classroom, you have the steward at a favorite restaurant or the proprietor of a local wine shop, men and women who regularly nudge you to try something new, not because it means an extra sale for them necessarily, but because they can’t help but share their enthusiasm for all things wine. And don’t forget Aunt Edna and Uncle Walter, who never fail to foist on you the latest discoveries from their most recent trip to Winebekistan. Finally, there’s you, the fella who reads voraciously and tastes constantly, hoping to learn as much as possible without breaking the bank or the liver.
Informal education is important on a person-to-person basis but does little to drive the market. The restaurant or wine shop, for all their exertions, might sell a few more bottles or cases here and there. Your aunt and uncle will feed you whatever bits of news they come across, whether you like it or not. And, as much as you learn and yearn, you’re only one person with a limited wine budget. Your individual buying habits don’t move the decimal points for any winery anywhere.
Of course, what much of the industry refers to as wine education is nothing more than barely disguised marketing. And when you look at the bottom line, it becomes immediately clear that to the giant companies at the top of the wine world, authentic wine education isn’t even a consideration. Why? Well, for the simple reason that they have no need for it.
In 2011 Diageo Brands spent nearly $2.5 billion million on marketing, but 78% of those funds were lavished on “strategic brands,” a collection of 14 global product lines, all spirits and beer, no wine. The remainder of their marketing budget was shared by nine wine labels and 15 additional spirit and beer labels. Despite treating their wine portfolio like a bastard stepchild, Diageo still managed net sales on 15 million cases of $781.4 million. Nearly three-quarters of a billion dollars in wine-related revenue, with a net take, approximately, of $4.30 per bottle. The only education companies like Diageo need to do is to help customers find the stores where their products are sold. Whether the customer knows next-to-nothing about wine doesn’t make a difference to their bottom line.
These companies at the top of the wine market don’t need to care about an educated consumer, and the stores that carry and sell their products don’t either. But can wineries and retail outlets further down the food chain survive with a similar laissez-faire attitude? There are no small and medium size operators in the production or retail sectors with the kind of budget power, brand visibility, and shelf control enjoyed by Diageo, Constellation, Bev Mo, Costco, and other dominant players in the business. As the largest companies continue to absorb their smaller competitors and exert further control in retail spheres, any company that wishes to remain independent will need to find smarter, more efficient, and more enduring ways to build increasingly loyal and active customer bases. And that means education. Traditional mass marketing is no longer the answer for the less-than-gigantic wine producers and retailers.
Next, we’ll look at ways that small and midsized members of the wine industry can attract new customers and retain current ones through education that is focused, formal, and fun.