Too many labels, too few brands

One of the things that never fails to get my goat is when I hear people in the wine trade use the word “brand” when really all they’re talking about is a label. The two are not interchangeable.

A brand is the invisible layer of meaning that surrounds a wine. A label is merely the most visible manifestation of it.

The distinction is worth making. But first, two important points:

As of 2021, there are over 11,000 wineries in the US, with over 4,700 in California alone. Total production is some 320 million cases. A lot of people are making a lot of wine.

118,048 American-made wines can be found in the ratings database with 31,670 having a score of 90 points or higher. A lot of the wine made in America is truly excellent.

If you’re a producer looking to make money and not just wine, these numbers should be all the motivation you need to actively engage in building your brand.

That’s because, no matter how much time and money you spend improving your wine, there will still be hundreds of wines better than yours. And that’s if you succeed in making really awesome wine. If you don’t, then you’ve placed the success of your business in the hands of critics. I can’t imagine any entrepreneur would want that.

Creating differences between your wine and everyone else’s in the consumer’s mind is what building a brand is all about. And while this doesn’t happen independent of your product, neither is it just about what’s inside the bottle.

One of the best definitions of a brand comes from a fellow named Marty Neumeier:

“A brand is a person’s gut feeling about a product, service, or company… Each person creates his or her own version of it. While companies can’t control this process, they can influence it by communicating the qualities that make this product different than that product. When enough individuals arrive at the same gut feeling, a company can be said to have a brand.”

As consumers, we know this to be true. A moment’s reflection on any of our favorite brands proves it. My feelings about the Audi I drive are a function of a) the car itself, my experience of its design and performance, b) my values and how the car expresses them, c) what my friends think d) what “tribe” owning an Audi puts me in e) Audi marketing, f) car magazines, and so forth.

The point is, businesses that get branding discourse in differences. Business that don’t, preach platitudes. So what’s different about your brand?

To be sold is to be liked

I came across an article in Food & Wine in which Lettie Teague follows three different distributors on their sales calls. One line in particular caught my eye, spoken as it was by the most accomplished salesperson:

“I’m in the business of selling personalities.
I represent winemakers, not just their wines.
If I don’t like someone, I can’t sell their wines.”

Parsing this nugget, three things are clear to me: 1) Winemakers are expected to provide their wines with personality. That is, it’s not just what’s in the glass, as winemakers are fond of saying. 2) Not every winemaker has a winning personality. Hell, most don’t even have a compelling story. 3) No personality = no sale.

If what I just said is something that every winemaker already knows, then why do I always get funny looks when I tell them they need spend more time articulating their brand? Why when it’s the exact same thing?

Maybe if they understood how — without a compelling story, without a brand — it’s nearly impossible for all the other folks who sell their wine (brokers, distributors, retailers and waiters) to do their job. With no symbolic attributes — that is, whatever ideas you can attach to a wine — there is no point of differentiation, no meaning, no feeling.

Very few wines have value propositions that they can reliably sell on. A high score. A low price. A desirable provenance. A celebrated winemaker. Since most wine marketers can’t think beyond these attributes, they cling to them, saying things that are either untrue or unimportant. And in either case, saying things that are undifferentiated.

This is no way to sell.

A word about numbers

In nearly all of the criticisms of wine scores that I’ve encountered over the years, I find that people try to read more meaning into them than perhaps they deserve.

Some wonder, Are scores adjusted for price? Generally speaking, no. Others ask if the producer’s reputation is considered. Again, no. Still others speculate why they’ve never seen a 100-point Beaujolais. Are scores varietal-biased? Nope, some varietals, enjoyable though they may be, simply don’t offer the complexity of, say, a Grand Cru Burgundy.

Underlying all these concerns is the belief that apples-to-apples comparisons can never — and should never — be made. As if, somehow, wines were above that. What then is the purpose of wine competitions if wines cannot be compared?

Rather than put too fine a point on the business of scores – and it is a business – a more serviceable approach may be this:


In other words, you can make all kinds of arguments for what a score means / implies / accounts for, but in the end it’s simply a number that accompanies the wine. Much like its price, which theoretically is a reflection of quality. <eye-roll>

Let’s put scores back into context for a moment. The reason why critics put scores in their reviews is because they believe readers need them.

While it is true that numbers without commentary are arbitrary and of little real value to consumers, it is also true that most people, when presented with a paragraph of tasting notes AND a score, are going to look at the score first and then decide if the review is worth reading. Would you bother reading a review of a wine with a dreadful score? Didn’t think so.

Conversely, a high score on an unfamiliar label / varietal / appellation might intrigue a reader enough to spend time with the actual review. In this instance, (high) scores have the effect of broadening a drinker’s horizons, instead of narrowing them as the naysayers fear.

In the end, we need scores, we need critics, we need to make comparisons between wines because there is an overwhelming amount of choice. And with almost no meaningful advertising coming from producers as to what distinguishes their wines, there is simply nowhere else to turn. (Please, don’t get me started on the recommendations of retailers. Their interests are as conflicted as the publisher who reviews the wines of its advertisers.)

As for wine producers taking control of their message and having their brand stand for something, well, that’s what I do for a living. Operators are standing by . . .