when average is no longer good enough

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

In his New York Times column today, entitled "Average Is Over", Thomas L. Friedman writes that "In the past, workers with average skills, doing an average job, could earn an average lifestyle. But, today, average is officially over. Being average just won’t earn you what it used to. Everyone needs to find their extra – their unique value contribution that makes them stand out in whatever is their field of employment. Average is over."

Friedman is talking about the greater economy, of course, but the idea applies equally well to the wine business. At yesterday's Unified Wine & Grape Symposium, new statistics on winery growth in this hemisphere were unveiled.

Wines & Vines reports that there are now officially 7834 wineries in North America. California leads, of course, with 3519 - not quite half, but an all-time high. Washington is second (over 800) and Oregon third (over 400). These numbers are almost always touted as positive signs. Growth is good, right? But even if you grant that, yes, on balance, growth is good, it says nothing about the growth of quality. It's simply an indication of quantity.

Friedman's point, if I may presume, is that in today's world quality has to ramp up significantly as well. That is a hard thing to gauge, especially with wine. How on earth can wine quality be objectively measured? It is not that difficult to find flawed or poorly made wines. But absolute quality is highly subjective.

To cite one example, the wines of Christophe Baron come to mind. I am a great admirer of his Cayuse wines. He is a hard-nosed, biodynamic producer, who crafts wines of enormous power and distinction. Yet they have been attacked by some critics as being horribly flawed (for high pH), and in blind tastings with more standard syrahs, the Cayuse wines are frequently called out for being funky, dirty, earthy or worse.

The 100 point system theoretically applies a grading system to all wines, and therefore the highest scores would seem to indicate the overall best quality. But it's all too easy to shoot holes in that theory. Assigning points is subjective, personal, and prone to wide variations in timing, stemware, and tasting environments. Wine judgings may point to more and more entries winning medals, but is that because wines are getting better, or because judges are instructed to meet certain award quotas as the total number of entries continues to rise?

The more important question remains. If average is over, as Friedman suggests, and quality – not quantity – is what is required to succeed in the wine business, how are we doing? Is quality on the rise? Or have we simply buried the bad wines in the ever-growing number of total SKUs? More wineries equal more total wines. More total wines mean more will be better than before. It could also mean that more will be worse.

My own subjective feeling is that there are ongoing improvements in some young wine regions, as the learning curve kicks in and the beginner mistakes are corrected. But after a few decades, it gets harder and harder to prove real improvement, rather than just changes that result from stylistic trends, or the introduction of flashy new winemaking tricks and technologies. Does designer yeast make better wine, or simply different wine? Is bubblegum flavored vodka better, or just new? The majority of North American wineries and wine regions are still trying to get better, I have no doubt. Are they succeeding? Is bigger really better, or just bigger?


Anonymous said...

In most cases bigger in NOT better - it's just more of the same, which is BORING. I think wineries need to make much more of an effort to set themselves apart, even if it means crafting a wine that would be considered "flawed" by some folk's standards. I'd much rather drink a wine with an overt character or personality than another cookie-cutter, by-the-book effort. IMHO, there are more than a few glorified high-scoring (and expensive) Washington wines that are perfectly made, and perfectly BORING.

Anonymous said...

Anon1: Wait a minute... high scores and boring? Noooooo... That $65ish mid 90 point cab blend from WA that is a major snoozer? Never happens. Anon2.

Anonymous said...

Nobody wants to be boring, but as a producer going out on a limb is an expensive choice. We once had a wine that was the hands down favorite for our wine club and in our tasting room and got a 92 from WE - but it was definitely not to the Spectator's liking, 87 points. It was a style that we really liked for that particular varietal. But just try to get a distributor to sell a wine with that score in its history. Boring would have been safer.

Anonymous said...

Anon 3: Really interesting point. As a wine maker I can certainly see the risk. Did you sell out on the wine? Also consider only showing the WE review! Furthermore allow me to present an alternative viewpoint/risk. If your wine club loves it, sell it to your wine club! Dont you make a garbageload more money selling directly without going through the middle man? I can guarantee that the winery that makes $65.00 boring blends has really pi$$ed me off after buying multiple bottles of their wines and I will not be buying any more of their wines irrespective of WHATEVER wine spectator etc say. Fool me once... Anon2

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