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Knowing what consumers want: the competitive need to unlearn
Possessing lots of wine and spirit knowledge puts us out of touch with most drinkers
Knowing about wines and spirits is a slippery slope. Spend years learning about Burgundy and molecular mixology and you’re likely to lose touch with the kinds of drinks most consumers enjoy. While we—the professionals—might care about Grower Champagne, most folks are content to drink Veuve Yellow Label or Cava or Prosecco. We might love amaro, but more people are happier with White Claw.1 Simply, knowing more about wines and spirits leaves you less able to identify with the tastes of the broader public.2
Before you congratulate yourself for taking the red pill and having reached such levels of discernment, understand that your knowledge is also a bias. Failing to see ourselves as the consumers we still very much are is, at best, a frustration to friends and family, and, at worst, a source of systemic gatekeeping that stifles progress.
The paradox: knowing more about alcohol helps you communicate with an ever-shrinking coterie of people who also know a lot about alcohol.
Some will claim that the solution is to grow the circle by teaching more consumers more stuff about wine and spirits (assuming that’s what they even want). However, much like better education won’t fix economic inequality, the expectation that “more informed” consumers will share the tastes of professional cognoscenti is, at once, ego-centric and ill-conceived.
It would be far more effective for the few to learn to speak the language of the many. Put yet another way: wine and spirit professionals need to spend some time unlearning what they think they know and relearning how to communicate.
As John Allen Paulos writes in his book Innumeracy:
It is almost always possible to present an intellectually honest and engaging account of any field, using a minimum of technical apparatus. This is seldom done, however, since most priesthoods (mathematicians included) are inclined to hide behind a wall of mystery and to commune only with their fellow priests.
The priesthood of taste and discernment is stale in its exclusivity. Here are ten ways to (at least, temporarily) cast off the yoke of power and privilege by experiencing alcohol as most people do:
Buy a $10 bottle of wine at Costco or Total Wine & More.3 Or buy one of the leading wine brands by value in the US: Barefoot, Sutter Home, Franzia, Woodbridge, or Josh Cellars.
Familiarize yourself with James Sligh’s “Unhelpful Concepts for Wine Drinkers.” Understand that these concepts are endemic and that consumers are likely to view them as quite useful.
Read an article in Wine Spectator.
Make a cocktail using vodka and only ingredients found in your parents’ refrigerator.
Order a glass of wine or a cocktail at a casual chain restaurant.
Attend an in-store wine or spirit tasting incognito. Take note of how the person pouring talks to you.
Put some ice in your wine.
Trade your Zaltos for Solos. Drink your wine from a plastic cup.
Read the latest edition of an introductory wine or spirit book like Wine for Dummies.
Hand a friend or family member a $20 bill and ask them to buy a bottle for you to share. Ask them why they chose the bottle they did.
In case you missed the recent news, RTD volume is already greater than spirits volume in the US. And that’s just the beginning. An IWSR Drinks Market Analysis predicts that RTD volume will outpace wine volume by the end of this year!
I’m happy to report that a reader of this newsletter who had never been to a Total Wine before visited at the suggestion of this post. They spent two hours bewildered and wandering the aisles. I was told it was a transformative experience.