The avoid-brands wine strategy

By Felix Salmon
March 26, 2012

The best bit about wine is drinking it; the worst bit about wine is buying it. You walk into a wine store, or a supermarket, and you see hundreds of different bottles, most of which you’ve never heard of. And you’re then expected to somehow pick exactly the right one, in the knowledge that if you get it wrong, both your meal and your wallet are likely to suffer the consequences. So it’s hardly surprising that most people go with what they know, and end up buying something adorned with a well-known brand.

My taste in wine has evolved enormously since I started buying it regularly when I was at university. What I like now I wouldn’t have liked then, and what I liked then I wouldn’t like now. But one thing has stayed constant: I’ve always had a gut-level prejudice against big wine brands. Once I see a wine advertised anywhere, I’m pretty much guaranteed never to buy it. The only brands I ever respect or seek out are importers — especially when it comes to French wine from outside Bordeaux, you can save yourself a lot of trouble by getting a feel for which importers are generally trustworthy and reliable when it comes to picking great wines.

My intuition about such things was always that if I bought a wine with a nationally-known brand, I was essentially paying for the branding campaign at least as much as I was paying for the wine. On top of that, I felt that a wine made in such volume could never really be the unique and wonderful living thing that I’m always looking for in a wine: that its character would have to be ironed out in the service of homogeneity and predictability.

Besides, the whole world of wine-branding is just incredibly distasteful.

And so, when I found myself having to buy a bottle of wine in a supermarket in Chesterfield, Missouri, I spent a long time walking up and down the vast selection of California wines, and much tinier selection of everything else, looking for anything which didn’t come from some huge and faceless international conglomerate. Let’s just say that the store’s (or the chain’s) wine buyer wasn’t buying with me in mind. Just like big brands like to be able to deal with as few media outlets as possible when they buy media for their advertising campaigns, so do supermarkets (with a few notable exceptions) like to deal with as few vendors as possible when they buy wine for their stores. And given the number of Americans who buy their wine wholly or solely in supermarkets, the result is that a large chunk of the country essentially lives in a world where wine is branded juice from some huge company.

At the same time, however, most of us do still have a choice as to what we buy. So long as we’re not in a supermarket or chain restaurant, there’s bound to be a little bit of character in the choices available to us. And going off-piste, as it were, is fun, even as it does carry obvious risks. As a basic rule of thumb, simply avoiding big brands works surprisingly well.

Importantly, this is true at every price point, not just at the supermarket level. A few days ago, the NYT ran an article headlined “Bulgari Family Tries to Become a Name in Wine”:

A new wine venture by two members of the Bulgari watch and jewelry dynasty, Paolo and Giovanni Bulgari, will release its first three wines this weekend…

“My father taught me how to handle stones, to hold them in my hands without looking at them to get a sense of their temperature, and then to observe how light plays off them,” he said. Wine also called for an intuitive perspective: “how it reacts to light, how the color moves in a glass.”

And as if that wasn’t gruesome enough, today brings even more egregiousness from Vinitaly:

“As soon as you say ‘Prada and brunello’, ‘Ferrari or Maserati and brunello’, it makes a very vital association, especially for consumers around the world that might not know the differences in the wine,” said Cristina Mariani-May, co-CEO of Banfi, makers of the full-body brunello red.

Happy to promote Italy’s image as a source of all types of quality goods, members of Italy’s luxury industry body Altagamma have agreed to accompany their shows and other high-profile events with Italian wines.

Banfi do indeed make brunello; they also make Riunite.

The fact is that high-end branded wine, from Tignanello to Opus One to Chateau Lafite, is generally about as good value for money as anything from Prada or Bulgari. If you’re the kind of person who would rather spend half as much money on a perfectly-fitting bespoke suit from a no-name tailor than buy something off the peg from Prada, you’re definitely the kind of person who should avoid expensive branded wines.

But, there are exceptions to this rule, or at least there’s one big exception: Iberia. In Spain, at least in my experience, I often find that the bigger the company and the brand, the more delicious and characterful the wine — and the cheaper it is, to boot. If you want a great Rioja, for instance, you can never go wrong with one of the grandest brands of them all, Lopez de Heredia, which often costs much less than Parkerized cult wines from Spanish garagistes. Similarly, there’s no good reason not to go with the big names in sherry, or port, or madeira. The big old brands know what they’re doing, know how to take their time, and are continuing to do what they’ve always done, rather than trying to follow international taste. (The same is true of Chateau Musar, in Lebanon.)

As a general rule, however, mass-produced wine will always taste mass-produced, and if you’re looking at an expensive branded wine, you’ll nearly always find something better at the same price from a lesser-known vigneron. Which doesn’t, of course, alter the fact that the branded wine will still probably be the safer choice.

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