Overrated/Underrated: sabering Champagne, wine MBAs, and more
An assessment of the good, the bad, and the idiotic in the wine and spirit industry
Last month The Anthropocene Reviewed by John Green was published. The book is a series of essays, each which reviews something—from Halley’s Comet to Super Mario Kart to the act of Googling strangers—and rates it from one to five stars.1 The notion that such wildly disparate things could be graded using some such scale is fun, if not absurd.2 Perhaps, we should strive to compare apples and oranges more often?
The spirit of Green’s book reminded me of economist and author Tyler Cowen’s game Overrated/Underrated, where, you guessed it, a player offers up their appraisal as to whether something is overrated or underrated (or sometimes appropriately rated).3
The game is incredibly fun and resonant; even Gary Vaynerchuk knocked off Cowen.4 Now it’s time for Ah So Insights to get in on the action. Welcome to the inaugural edition of Overrated/Underrated. Like TL;DR, this will be a semi-regular feature (unless you all tell me it’s rubbish). Let’s get started:
Sabering Champagne: Overrated
“Thankfully, nobody was hurt…” is not the end to any story a sommelier or beverage professional should be telling. There are dozens of less stupid ways to celebrate and/or show off. Stop sabering Champagne; start drinking it.
While working at Microsoft, Eric LeVine created this wine review and cellar management tool in 2003. Its pay-what-you-want model makes this simple software accessible and its userbase large which, in turn, makes it powerful. Tap into the collective mind of drinkers to find out when is best to open a bottle, read tasting notes by humans (as opposed to critics), and track wine values. With only four full-time employees—but over hundreds of thousands of users tracking more than 125 million bottles—CellarTracker is an awesomely powerful tool that every wine professional should be using.
Wine MBAs: Overrated
Want to change industries and know absolutely nothing about the wine business? Great, then a Wine MBA might be just the ticket. Work in the business of booze already? Save yourself the money. Sure, you can go to Sonoma State University for an Executive Wine MBA that costs $49,500 or earn an MSc in Wine & Spirit Management from the Kedge Business School in Bordeaux for more than $35,000.5 Real-world experience will serve you better and is less expensive than a specialized wine MBA. Honestly, all MBAs are overrated.6
Frank Schoonmaker: Underrated
Along with Julia Child and James Beard, Frank Schoonmaker was part of the triumvirate of food and drink luminaries that propelled American tastes into the 21st Century. Before Karen MacNeil, he wrote Frank Schoonmaker's Encyclopedia of Wine. Before Kermit Lynch, he eschewed negotiant juice and instead imported small-scale vignerons.7 And for better or worse, Schoonmaker was largely responsible for the varietal labeling of wines produced outside of Europe. Happy not to purchase “California Chablis” (which likely wasn’t made from Chardonnay anyway)? You have Schoonmaker to thank.
Selling Alcohol Online: Underrated
It’s time the wine and spirit business played catch up to consumer demand. According to BigCommerce, 96% of Americans shop online and spend 35% of their shopping budget online. Online sales of alcohol lag these numbers in a rather sad and pathetic way.
Buying Alcohol Online: Overrated
The convenience of shopping online is truly great. Is the dehumanizing experience of finding what you need through search queries and recommendation algorithms worth it though? Maybe. The capacity to “discover” a new wine or spirit because your eye was drawn to a neighboring bottle on the shelf is missing. Online wine and spirit shopping lacks the joy of uncovering a hitherto unknown bottle because the browsing experience sucks. With online shopping, you’ll almost always find what you’re looking for; the problem is that online shopping is less likely to help you discover that which you didn’t know you wanted.
Tech Sheets: Overrated
“Facts don’t sell wine and spirits, humans do.” Read more here.
The Pandemic’s Effects on Business: Underrated
The wine and spirit industry should feel a lot more different than it does, given the cataclysmic events of the last fifteen or so months and the 600,000 Americans dead. Sure, we’re a resilient bunch and the human spirit is indomitable and all that crap, but the failure to wholly reimagine our business is maddening. Crisis, when confronted by creative and fearless minds, breeds innovation and opportunity. If our only concerns are that there is more or less money in our pockets then we’ve missed the bus. From the civic adoption of expanded outdoor dining and to-go cocktail laws to the abolition of the 4+ hour general sales meeting and the recognition of the precarious nature of restaurant work, it’s time to wake up to the realities of the “new.” Normal is a thing of the past.
National [blank] Day: Overrated
No one cares that June 12th is World Gin Day or that July 11th is Mojito Day except maybe the person in charge of your company’s social media. And even they hate that they must pretend to care.
The book began as a podcast series that launched in January of 2018. Green doesn’t review any wines, spirits, or cocktails. However, he did pen an essay on “Our Capacity for Wonder” (four stars).
I’m told wine critics have tried their hand at this practice.
I first became aware of Cowen’s game by listening to NPR’s Planet Money. That show’s spin-off podcast The Indicator has featured Cowen and several other guests playing Overrated/Underrated. Both Planet Money and The Indicator have done some excellent reporting on wine and spirits, including episodes on Mezcal, wine ratings, and New Jersey wine.
Six months of your time at Kedge will be spent in an internship.
Full disclosure: this opinion on Wine MBAs was written by someone who never bothered to (pay and) earn one.
In the middle of the 20th Century, Schoonmaker imported such iconic producers as Domaine Ponsot and Marquis d'Angerville.