Better portfolio design through social anthropology

Constructing a well-designed book means adding products and suppliers that "fit" rather than "fill"

An importer’s or distributor’s portfolio—a finite collection—will always be missing something. The desire to capture a potential sale by taking on a product or producer that “fills” some space leads to poor portfolio design. The emphasis on rounding out a selection based on limited criteria is a kind of FOMO, a mindset that rarely leads to sound decision-making.

There is a better way forward. Its inspiration comes from a 1966 book by anthropologist Mary Douglas.

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In Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo, Douglas posed a misleadingly simple question, “What is dirt?” Anyone who might hastily think “soil” after looking at a dirty carpet would have failed to consider that soil is quite natural and belonging on a farm or forest floor.

What definition of dirt accounts for context?

Douglas proposed that dirt is “matter out of place.”

This incredibly elegant solution reconciles the removal of soil from a carpet—an act of restoring order—with why it is unnecessary to sweep one’s campground. Things that are “out of place” make us uncomfortable.1 Simply, when something is dirty it’s disagreeable.

Wine and spirit importers and distributors stand to benefit substantially when they apply Douglas’ definition to their own portfolio design. Here’s why and how.

Most companies view the addition of a product or producer to their offerings as a net positive. The idea is that when a new product fills a white space, more equals more. This elementary understanding of portfolio construction ignores the following:

  • The finite attention of salespeople and customers. Unless specifically asked for, the addition is an unwanted intrusion, “matter out of place.”

  • The harmony of the preexisting portfolio. The quality or reputation or potential sales of a new product or producer shouldn’t distract from the principles that defined the selection of those that came before. The growth that comes from compromising values via “matter out of place” is disruptive.2

  • Market share is not dispersed arithmetically. If your company possesses X% market share of a category and takes on a new producer that accounts for Y%, do not expect your new market share to be X + Y%. The new producer is “matter out of place” and with a different sales team (and customer base), it will perform differently.3

Potential new products and suppliers should never be graded and selected on an absolute level. There is a surfeit of quality out there. Saying a wine or spirit is great after merely tasting it is akin to calling soil dirty. Both declarations lack context. The same is true for price and packaging. They all are only part of the sales puzzle. By emphasizing one of these traits, you prioritize “fill” over “fit” when it should be the other way around.

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New wines and spirits need to be appraised within their sales ecosystem. This requires weighing several criteria to ensure that a product or producer belongs. Here is a simple set of questions to help determine whether or not something is “matter out of place” in your portfolio:

  • Do the products and producers in your portfolio abide by a certain set of principles? It will be impossible to gauge whether or not something belongs if there isn’t a clearly delineated set of standards that define the portfolio’s reasoning.4

  • Does the new product or producer “fit” these standards? This is a simple yes or no.

  • Will the new product or producer disproportionately cannibalize other sales, attention, or resources? You don’t have a crystal ball, but you’ll likely intuit whether or not the addition will be an uphill push. Don’t fight the tide.

  • Does the new product or producer “make sense” to those who will be selling it? Salespeople sell those products and producers that are cohesive with their pre-existing view of the portfolio. Ask them.


This discomfort isn’t strictly negative. It is the basis for the humor of shows like Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm. When it comes to food and drink, this discomfort—experienced as personal disgust or a cultural taboo—goes a long way in explaining why we don’t eat or drink certain things.


Suppliers, importers, and distributors can and should introduce new categories to grow their offerings. However, they must be mindful of how they establish a beachhead.


This does not necessarily mean that market share will decline. It might grow.


I don’t believe that one person’s taste is enough. The era of curatorial wine and spirit professionals as auteurs is ending, if not already over.