I have a modest proposal that the term ‘commercial wine’ be removed from the lexicon. I have deep reservations about the imprecise definition of ’fine wine’ but at least these words fit nicely together, whereas ‘commercial wine’ means— what? Wine that’s good enough to be bought and sold. On that basis, La Tache is as much of a commercial wine as Barefoot. Whereas, an un-commercial wine is presumably one that’s piled high in a warehouse waiting in vain for a buyer.
In a recent online conversation on this subject, Austin Beeman, formerly of Bonny Doon and now vice president of marketing for Cutting Edge Selections in the US, offered an alternative trio of categories that I’d love to adopt.
Beeman’s equivalent of ‘commercial’ is ‘market-driven’ and covers any wine that is specifically tailored to suit the customer. Ernest Gallo is reported to have described this concept very clearly when he said “I realized that for a winery to be really successful, it had to make the kind of wine that people wanted to drink, not the high-style, expensive stuff.” John Casella made the same point many decades later when he explained the thinking behind Yellow Tail.
But ‘market driven’ wines are not restricted to the kinds of high-volume brands with which companies like Gallo and Casella are associated. Grande Marque Champagnes and many other sparkling wines are blended to please consumers, while many super-premium, low-volume wines have been tailored to meet the criteria of high-scoring US critics who, in their turn, need to satisfy their readers.
I have a friend with a small estate in Languedoc Roussillon who makes two red wines. The ‘basic’ weighs in at 13% and has very little oak influence; the reserve is made from riper grapes, tastes of top quality new oak barrels, comes with a high price tag, gets high scores and sells out as soon as it’s released. She may not have made the first vintage of the reserve with an eye to the market but, like a chef who’s witnessed the success of a new dish, she’d be crazy not to think about the audience response when planning the succeeding harvests. Privately, she admits to preferring the cheaper wine, but she sees no reason to deny her customers the chance to pay her more money for the one they would rather drink.
Beeman’s second category is the one on which most wine purists focus, and the one in which my Southern French friend’s basic wine fits: ‘terroir-driven’. These are wines that uncompromisingly reflect the character of the soil, climate and tradition, in the same way as a dish produced using a dog-eared copy of the classic Repertoire of French cuisine. If the ingredients include lard and a cockerel, you don’t use a chicken and butter or any other kind of fat. If your customers don’t love the classic wine or food you are producing, you either have to find ones who do, or ‘educate them’ until they acquire the taste.
Finally, there is ‘producer-driven’, which covers brilliant blends like Jermann’s W… Dreams, and Penfolds Grange, a wine that reflected the 1950s ambitions of Australian Max Schubert. Like a movie director whose first cut is rejected by the studio, Schubert famously struggled to be allowed to make his first vintages of what has, of course, become an icon of the wine world.
Like all attempts at categorisation, Beeman’s isn’t perfect because wines may fall into more than one pigeonhole. For some people, Prosecco, Provence Rosé, and Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc may now all fit the description of ‘market driven’ crowd-pleasers. Many producers of those wines would, however, respond that they’re simply producing what their grapes deliver in their regions.
Makers of unsulphured, wild-fermented unfined and unfiltered natural wines will, on the other hand, claim to be producing terroir-driven wines, to which others may respond that the choices made in their production – especially in the case of orange wines – mean that they are emphatically producer-driven. On the other hand, the natural orange wine Philip Cox of Cramele Recas is making in some volume in Romania is certainly driven by some kind of market – otherwise his supermarket customers wouldn’t be buying it.
I don’t really mind about these blurred lines, any more than I mind whether I should treat a Coen Brothers movie as art or entertainment, or a John le Carre novel as a thriller or as serious literature. What matters to me is that all three of Beeman’s categories are equally valid. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to please as many people as possible by moulding a product to their tastes, any more than with striving to express a particular terroir or one’s own personality. Or maybe even doing all of these.
Jean Charles Boisset remains one of my heroes: a vinous version of a versatile saxophonist like Branford Marsalis who’s as ready to accompany Sting or Phil Collins on a pop recording as to give award winning performances of classical music or jazz.
Boisset makes biodynamic Grand Cru Burgundy in Vougeot, an idiosyncratic Zinfandel-Merlot Syrah blend called the Founder and a Russian River Trousseau Gris at Buena Vista in California and an outrageously populist glitzy French fizz called Haute Couture – amid a long list of other wines from both sides of the Atlantic.
Musicians need audiences – in small bars or huge arenas – and wine producers need people who buy bottles. Some will love some of Boisset’s wines that others will hate, and vice versa. But all of the Boisset wines sell well to their target audiences. If/when they don’t, Boisset doesn’t go on making them. All of his wines, from the $8 'Fortant de France' Terroir Littoral Cabernet Sauvignon, IGP Pays d'Oc, to the $200 Domaine de la Vougeraie Clos Vougeot, are undeniably commercial. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
The legendary adman David Ogilvy famously said:
"In the modern world of business, it is useless to be a creative original thinker unless you can also sell what you create."
Nothing wrong with making a so-called "commercial" wine if it pays the bills to be more creative.