Confusing mirrors for windows
It takes work to overcome the narcissism that clouds our view of the market
Humans tend to hold themselves in high regard. Though our tribalism and biases likely served some evolutionary purpose, they often fail us in the context of modern business.1 Take geocentrism; we tend to over-extrapolate about the world based on our own experiences within a certain geography.2 For example, Europeans are flummoxed that gin, as a category, isn’t as popular per capita in the USA as it is back home. Inversely, Americans have trouble believing that Tequila can possess such a minuscule market share in the EU compared with the US. In finance and investing, this pesky heuristic is called home country bias. In the wine and spirits business, shoulders are shrugged and the refrain “there’s no accounting for taste” is cited as an excuse for flawed thinking.
Wine and spirits professionals’ often-distorted view of the market comes not from any maliciousness or ill-will, but rather from a combination of hard-earned expertise and the very human tendency toward self-centeredness. When we buy and drink things we enjoy, it’s hard not to believe that what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.3
Collectively, we've convinced ourselves that we are somehow representative of the wine- and spirit-drinking public at large, when, in fact, our tastes, preferences, values, and budgets for alcohol are anything but.
We might try to disavow ourselves of these prejudices but must recognize their now systemic nature. Our social media feeds reinforce them.4 Our predilection for resulting finds us misinterpreting noisy sales data as meaningful trends. We mustn’t confuse mirrors for windows.
We are not our customers and they are not us; that’s alright so long as we embrace their tastes as valid as our own. It’s no easy feat given the pervasive gatekeeping and smarmy prescriptivism of the alcohol business. It’s been nearly a decade since Wine Spectator columnist Matt Kramer penned a piece wherein he pointed out:
The issue here is not an obligation to love everything or be fatuously uncritical. Rather, the issue is a new kind of “diss-thinking” that has replaced the old snobbery with a raw Clockwork Orange derision.
The ability to respectfully distinguish between our own tastes and those of others serves the greater good more than thinking we know best. Drinks elitism is just another form of culinary imperialism.
This is not just “kum ba yah idealism.” It’s better business. When we prove ourselves both able and willing to celebrate different tastes, preferences, values, and budgets, we diversify our offerings, better address customer service, and open ourselves up to selling products that serve needs beyond our own.
We must strive to see the world as it is—much more than a reflection of ourselves. To paraphrase John Horgan, it takes courage, imagination, painstaking observation, and rational analysis to escape our own self-centeredness. For anyone who believes that our industry should be more diverse and more accepting, it’s a fair bargain.
For more on how human cognitive bias aided in self-preservation and the survival of the species, read “The Evolution of Cognitive Bias” by Martie G. Haselton, Daniel Nettle, and Damian R. Murray.
I’m repurposing the word “geocentrism.” Its more classical meaning is that it is the belief that “the Earth is fixed in space, unmoving and unmovable, and the Universe literally revolves around it.” The point is the same: the universe no more revolves around the world than the world revolves around us.
Fittingly, an early form of this phrase—dating back to the 1500s—was “as deep drinketh the goose as the gander.”
Beverage alcohol professionals’ Instagram feeds reflect skewed wine, beer, and spirit preferences if only because they are connected to their colleagues, who, in turn, provide a disproportionate number of bottle shots and dining pics. Sure, we’re also connected to friends and family, but they’re busy posting photos of vacations and cute animals, not twenty-year-old Mosel Riesling.