I Love the Smell of Commerce in the Morning

June 30, 2013

It’s officially summertime, so everyone is drinking some rosé. A lot of it will be from Domaine Tempier (it’s some kind of unwritten law). But the Peynaud family behind Domaine Tempier once almost gave up making it. As related by their importer Kermit Lynch in his seminal Adventures on the Wine Route, “I had to argue the case for the rosé of Domaine Tempier . . . with its own winemaker!” Bandol had the terroir for great reds, Jean-Marie Peynaud maintained, so the rosés should be left to the lesser coastal appellations. Lynch protested: “There is a place for a pretty wine like that, and, moreover, the rosé has something to do with the personality of the Domaine Tempier, the joie de vivre. When one arrives, one is greeted with a cool glass of rosé. That’s valuable.” Peynaud conceded the point, and said, “in fact it is in that spirit that I make it.”

Tempier never took out a glossy magazine ad depicting the scene, but had it done so, it would have been engaging in what the Madison Avenue types call “lifestyle marketing.” They’re not so much selling a pink wine as the joie de vivre, the spirit of Provence. You are probably not drinking your Tempier on a sun-drenched Provençal veranda while a Mediterranean breeze wafts the scents of the garrigue over your salt-flecked hair—you may, in fact, be sneaking sips while trying to tap out an email on your Blackberry and hoping Thomas the Tank Engine occupies your toddler long enough to let you finish your dinner—but the wine reminds you of some of the little things you can do to nudge yourself to a more civilized existence. Maybe when guests arrive, you end up greeting them with, “Hi! Have a seat, grab a glass of wine!” rather than, “Hi! How was the traffic? What route did you take?” And when there is wine on the table, you’re forced to slow down a little bit. Meals aren’t just about pausing to refuel before moving on to the next obligation. An evening with wine is different from an evening without it. By extension, life with wine is very different from life without it.

The same is not true about Coca Cola or beer. So it strikes me that people who are in the business of selling wine have a pretty good story to tell. They have a beverage that doesn’t merely satiate thirst or taste good, but promotes a civilized way of life in every culture where it is a fixture.

I was recently surprised, however, to see some disagreement about this among some people who are as appreciative of wine in all of its facets as anyone. It started when Eric Asimov responded to a post on Twitter by an Oregon winery lamenting that “[t]he industry has largely failed to communicate to consumers that wine is food.” Asimov quipped, “It hasn’t tried. Prefers ‘lifestyle.’” He added: “Promoting as aspirational commodifies as luxury good, intensifies anxiety.” Asimov’s argument is that we should want wine to be treated as a staple of the table, something as normal to see there as salt-and-pepper shakers. Bruce Schoenfeld then joined the discussion to make a similar point: “Lifestyle marketing is about making wine appear to be a piece of a desirable way of living. . . . Except promoting wine as a lifestyle adjunct comes at the expense of promoting it as a staple food.”

But I don’t see any tension between those two things myself. Promoting wine as a staple food is to promote it as a piece of a desirable way of living. To say that wine should be a staple of the table is essentially to say that we should promote the kind of culture and lifestyle where it is treated as such. Lifestyle marketing needn’t mean luxury marketing.

Asimov has a point, though, that the kind of lifestyle marketing that makes sense to me may be more theory than reality. If we see it at all, it is in missives from specialty retailers, not from wineries that actually do produce enough of the stuff that being perched on every dinner table is a realistic business objective. I was thus inspired to spend an afternoon browsing some of the glossy wine and food magazines I have lying around to see exactly how those brands promote themselves and what lifestyle message they are trying to convey.

Most of them, to be sure, don’t have much of one. More than half the ads consisted of a close-up shot of a bottle occupying most of the page pasted on top of a pretty vineyard scene with a generic slogan like “The Quality is in the Bottle.” (The guys at the ad agency probably go with this one when it’s 4:59 on a Friday and they have nothing else—”Oh, what the hell! Let’s just give ‘em the old bottle-and-vineyard pic special and call it a day.”) Some others were slightly more imaginative, though. Here are the results.

Product: Penfolds Grange
Copy: The headline “100/100,” with a blurb promising that “it will only get finer with time” and explaining that “[t]he 2008 Grange has been awarded a perfect score by Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate, a respected publication.”
Graphics: A two-page spread of a faux-candlelit dungeonesque wine cellar, of the sort a vampire might have built in his castle if he had exceptionally tacky taste in both wine and wine-cellar architecture. A bottle of Penfolds Grange and four empty glasses sit on a table in the foreground. (There is no food, but that is probably okay if you vant to drink some blood.) In the background, behind a bricked archway, is the cavernous cellar space featuring what appears to be some kind of objet d’art on the wall (abstract and geometric except for its incorporation of vine-twigs) and enough racking to hold several dozen bottles of wine. The photograph is captioned, “Private cellar, New York, USA.”
Message: If you’re the kind of person who doesn’t find this wine cellar tacky, why don’t you try our top-of-the-line shiraz? You probably won’t find that tacky, either.

Product: San Pedro GatoNegro
Copy: “Why are 3 bottles of GatoNegro opened every 2 seconds somewhere in the world? GREAT WINE + EXCELLENT PRICE.” [ed. note: Can this really be true? By my calculations, which started with getting a song from Rent stuck in my head and multiplying 525,600 minutes by 60 by 1.5 bottles per second, that's over 47 million bottles.]
Graphics: A bottle of San Pedro GatoNegro Cabernet Sauvignon from the Central Valley of Chile looming large in the foreground a la the 4:59 special, but pasted on a background photo of a rooftop party at dusk populated by just the sort of clean-cut—but not too preppy—attractive, diverse 20- or 30-somethings who have just graduated to the kind of parties where you don’t have to yell over the music and beverages are served in actual glasses.
Message: Maybe you’re not the kind of person who wants to drink the same thing that other people are opening every two thirds of a second. Maybe you’re the kind of person who stays home alone reading the Internet every Saturday night because he has no friends. Wouldn’t you rather buy a bottle of GatoNegro Cabernet Sauvignon and get invited to rooftop parties where young, attractive people mingle and have a much more fulfilling, mature time than all those ruffians down below drinking beer and watching sports? And did we mention it’s cheap?

Product: Marchesi Antinori
Copy: “Behind every Antinori label is a 600-year pursuit of excellence.”
Graphics: A bottle of Villa Antinori IGT Toscana occupying the full height of the page, next to a montage of vintage paintings and photographs of Antinori family patriarchs (including Renaissance-style oil portraiture, a sepia-toned photograph of a gentleman with a handlebar mustache, etc.) along with vineyard and winery imagery (barrel room, Tuscan hilltop vista).
Message: Buy our $10 sangiovese and you, too, can be an Old World aristocrat. Oh, wait, no you can’t. Why don’t you buy our $10 sangiovese anyway and give our noble bloodline the respect we deserve, you filthy plebeian?

Product: Rodney Strong Cabernet Sauvignon
Copy: “Place Matters. Sonoma County”
Graphics: A typical example of the bottle-and-vineyard pic genre: a point-blank shot of Rodney Strong cabernet occupying most of the page, perched on rustic wood slats (one imagines it might be a picnic table) pasted on top of a monochrome scene of an expansive wine-country vista, vines in the foreground, a lush, forested hillside in the background. A gratuitous color illustration of a grapevine twig with a few leaves is wrapped around the bottle like a laurel.
Message: Gosh, that vineyard is pretty. Surely the wine inside must be too!

Product: Liberty School Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon
Copy: “American Classics Are Never Left Behind.” In the corner, a notation that the wine rated 90 points and a #3 Best Buy from Wine Enthusiast’s Top 100 Best Buys 2012.
Graphics: A whimsical photograph of an attractive young couple boarding a private Gulfstream jet and reaching down from the staircase to grab a bottle of Liberty School Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon from a silver tray held aloft by a white-gloved stewardess in a naughty vintage Pan Am–style uniform just barely managing to contain her ample bosom, standing alongside a red carpet while a grounds crewman loads six cases of Liberty School Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon (prominently branded “Made in America”) into the back of the plane and the pilot stands by, impatiently staring at his wristwatch.
Message: The imagery is so exaggeratedly tongue-in-cheek that the private-jet lifestyle is more of an ironic joke than an aspirational lifestyle promise. Thus, the aspirational lifestyle promise is that this is a wine for people who don’t take themselves too seriously, and get ironic jokes. My favorite of these ads!

Product: Butternut, The Rule, Volunteer, and Bandwagon brands from BNA Wine Group
Copy: “Special Occasion Taste You Can Enjoy Every Day,” followed by a signed quotation from winemaker Tony Leonardi: “Napa Valley’s in my blood, and I blend that heritage with expertise from our Nashville headquarters to create wines rich in taste and value.” A QR code promises “a chance to win a FREE trip to Nashville,” including “airfare, hotel, entertainment, a private tasting, wine and a VISA gift card.”
Graphics: Full-page bottle shots of Butternut California Chardonnay and The Rule Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, pasted on a photograph (with a filter applied to give it that washed-out, 1970s family-album look) of Tony Leonardini in blue jeans and plaid shirt walking a dirt road surrounded, it appears, not by a carefully manicured vineyard, but by wild brush.
Message: We ain’t fancy-pants wine conn-oy-sooers over here. Look at me, I’m from Nashville, I wear plaid, and I probably even drive a beat-up truck, but I can still drink cabernet instead of Coors and not feel like any less of a man.

Product: “Austrian Wine”
Copy: “Taste culture. Come and visit some of the world’s most picturesque wine landscapes along the Austrian Danube. Taste crisp, delicious wines with regional food specialties in fine restaurants and cozy wine taverns.”
Graphics: A glass of a crisp, delicious white wine in the foreground against a background of a picturesque wine landscape along the Austrian Danube, with a town nestled among the vines which probably contains some fine restaurants and cozy wine taverns.
Message: No subliminal messaging here! Did we mention the crisp, delicious wines, the fine restaurants and cozy wine taverns, and the picturesque landscapes?

Product: Bonterra
Copy: The headline, “Bonterra / Pure Harmony” with a paragraph explaining: “At Bonterra, we grow wine organically and sustainably, treating the land with deep respect. We build birdhouses in our vineyards for the bluebirds and finches, who thank us by snapping up insects that would otherwise harm our crops. They get a tasty dinner, and you get pure, flavorful wine made from our organically gown grapes. That’s what we call being in tune with nature.”
Graphics: A bottle of Bonterra something-or-other (variety and region cropped out of the picture, but it’s red) with a bird perched on top, against a plain gray background.
Message: You already drive a Prius, spend twenty minutes a day sorting your recyclables, and Facebook-defriended everyone you know who isn’t convinced of global warming, including your mom. You’d probably be really into the natural-wine scene if you’d ever heard of it, but you’re reading a glossy national magazine so we bet you haven’t. Have some Bonterra instead.

Product: Fontanafredda Barolo
Copy: The headline, “Fontanafredda / Let Your Barolo Journey Begin,” with a short historical precis informing us that “Barolo is often referred to as the King of Wines, and Fontanafredda is among the most noble of them all. Established in 1878 by the first King of Italy, Fontanafredda now blends time-honored winemaking techniques of the past with today’s most advanced technology. Perhaps that’s why every wine we produce becomes a modern classic. Start your Barolo journey with a truly regal wine—Fontanafredda—and you’ll never look back.”
Graphics: Yet another full-page, close-up shot of the bottle—a 2007 Serralunga d’Alba Barolo—whose label’s alternating dark and light gray stripes appear inspired by a prison uniform. There is no imagery in the background besides a continuation of the stripe pattern from the label.
Message: You can drink like the King of Italy and dress like an escaped convict.

Product: Chateaux Canon-la-Gaffeliere, Gazin, Smith Haut Lafitte, and Branaire-Ducru
Copy: “Les 5 / born under a lucky star”
Graphics: Proprietors S. von Niepperg, N. de Baillencourt, F. & D. Cathiard, and P. Maroteaux standing beside or leaning against their respective wines as though the bottles were ten feet tall, all dressed in dark, bespoke suits accessorized with the requisite master-of-the-universe cuff links and pocket squares.
Message: There is a wine for every occasion. These are the wines for occasions when you’re wearing a pocket square.

Product: Zonin Prosecco
Copy: “Enjoy the simple moments of life. [signed] Francesco Zonin.”
Graphics: A bottle of Prosecco and a gentleman with long, flowing dark hair, in a black suit jacket and a white dress shirt, top two buttons undone—presumably Francesco Zonin, but a dead ringer for a soap-opera star, a romance-novel cover model, or the sort of man who likes approaching discontented married women with a line like, “Your eyes have a—how you say—sparkle. Come back to my villa and I will make love to you for hours”—holding aloft a glass of bubbly Prosecco.
Message: Cougars, start your engines.

Product: Brunello di Montalcino
Copy: “Brunello di Montalcino”
Graphics: A silhouette of a bottle on a black background, no label or other identifying marks visible. In the corner, the logo of the Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino.
Message: Did you know there’s such a thing as Brunello di Montalcino? It comes in bottles!

Product: Cantina di Soave Re Midas Soave and Corvina Rosso
Copy: “You Won’t Go Wrong with the Right Italian.” In smaller text, a paragraph telling us the Soave is “elegant, bursting with crisp citrus, melon and pear,” adding as a postscript, “Also, you’ll love Re Midas Corvina for its red berry, currant and cherry flavors!” and in between extolling their “accolades from the top wine publications” and ability to “partner[] flawlessly with an exceptional range of cuisines.” Concluding text: “So, if you enjoy Pinot Grigio, delight in Re Midas Soave—the right Italian.” On the bottom, movie-poster style quotes of “Extreme Value”—Wine & Spirits, “Best Value”—Wine Spectator, “Best Buy”—Wine Enthusiast, etc.
Graphics: A bottle each of the red and white with a left-hand column depicting dishes from the aforementioned “exceptional range of cuisines”—a lobster, Greek salad, tortellini, peppers, grilled chicken, salmon and tuna sushi, spaghetti with fresh tomatoes, and wedges of cheese.
Message: You want a staple of the table? We got your staple of the table right here. If you enjoy pinot grigio.

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One Response to “I Love the Smell of Commerce in the Morning”

  1. bags said

    There’s absolutely nothing new here, except, consistent with your theme, it was just linked to a financial website:
    http://priceonomics.com/is-wine-bullshit/

    Its stupid point is that for most people all wine tastes pretty much the same and therefore everyone smart ought to drink Two Buck Chuck. But, with that perception, what you show above is how Mad Men try to create distinctions and potential value in their product when there is fear that consumers believe that, indeed, all wine is really the same.

    As always, I like and admire your column, but I take this opportunity to point to something more troubling. As Tempier rosé itself moves ever closer to $50, it is shocking how much the price of wine has increased recently, given the subdued economies in France and Italy. Who’s making all the money: Lynch, Rosenthal, etc.? With blogs and CellarTracker, does everything geeky suddenly become instant cult and, having broken free from the tyranny of the professional wine critic, are we now Parkerizing ourselves? And/or has the insane pricing of Grand Crus and First Growths changed what is acceptable for vin de table?

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