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EV: Nowadays, marketing has become such an essential component. I think, as winemakers, the dream for us would be that people would just drink our juice and be like, "This is the best thing I've ever had in my life; I can't live without it." Well, it's not that simple. Again, if 30 guys are making Cabernet from that same vineyard, it then becomes about 'who's got the coolest story?'
RM: With so many brands out there, one of the negatives is that you have pack mentalities that are created. Once upon a time, there was only a handful of wineries in the valley. Everyone did their own thing, they each had their own audience, and they did what they were passionate about. And there was real variation between appellations and between wineries, very strong differences. Now there's a lot of people in the same area making the same type of wine. But what's worse is that, with the fierce competition for consumer attention and critical acclaim, when someone catches onto something, the rest of the pack wants to do exactly what that person does because they want the same recognition and the same sales — rather than doing their own thing. There's so much background noise from ten thousand different brands out there, all of whom are claiming that they're different and unique, but most of the time they just aren't. And so, when something comes along that is unique and is original and is varietal or from an appellation, then it often gets drowned out in the all the noise!
MR: It does become difficult to identify yourself, particularly in a situation where there is that pack mentality. When someone (a consumer) knows that I make a particular wine, they might ask, "Well, what's it like?", wanting me to compare it to another producer's that they like, so that they can figure out if they'll like my wine. But if my wine really is like that other producer's wine, then where's the real difference? How do you differentiate between them? The whole point is that you should try it, to see what the difference is yourself. But then you get into this whole thing where comparisons are still being made.
Observations on American Consumers and Trends in Wine Consumption
NM: It sounds like there's a disconnection between wine producers and consumers. Is that from a limitation in consumers' understanding of wine, or rather a limitation on the part of producers in understanding their consumers? And what aspects of this issue are unique to the production and consumption of quality-driven wines in this region?
MR: Well, it's not the consumers' fault, but we do have a wine-buying public in the States that historically is not a wine consuming culture. They're still learning the ropes, to some degree. It's not a fault, per se, but rather a learning curve. They've come to realize that they can go a store and get a very inexpensive bottle of wine off the supermarket shelf that might taste alright. The problem is, that wine doesn't really say anything about the place it's from, nor does it quite mesh with a meal in the way that a really nice wine might. But I think, as a culture, we're moving towards a more nuanced attitude about wine.
EV: Consumers are still figuring out how they're going to decide what to buy. The more complex it gets and the more sources of information there are, the more room there will be for all these brands. And changes in shipping laws should really facilitate things as well. But in the end, consumer confidence is always my goal as a winemaker. I want to convince people that they can decide what they like, and that they need to taste wines and need to be open to different things.
SJ: As consumers are exploring more and becoming so open to wine and learning more about it, one thing I wonder about is our comfortable position here in Napa, where we're making these phenomenal and expensive wines that have gotten to be very similar and easily identifiable, with their ripe fruit, high alcohol, and supple texture. I think the more that people begin to explore other regions and find other wines that have their own distinct personalities, the less that Napa will be this gold standard for American wines. I really wonder how our position will be affected as people learn more about wines and broaden their palates. With the internet, there's certainly so much more access to wines from all over the world, along with wine information and tasting notes — a consumer doesn't have to go just off a producer's ratings or reputation, or the buzz about some hot new brand.